"The oil is sold in bottles bearing the signature of the inventor, to prevent counterfeits. Price, THREE FRANCS. A. POPINOT, Rue des Cinq-Diamants, quartier des Lombards, Paris.
"It is requested that all letters be prepaid.
"N.B. The house of A. Popinot supplies all oils and essences appertaining to druggists: lavender, oil of almonds, sweet and bitter, orange oil, cocoa-nut oil, castor oil, and others."
"My dear friend," said the illustrious Gaudissart to Finot, "it is admirably written. Thunder and lightning! we are in the upper regions of science. We shirk nothing; we go straight to the point. That's useful literature; I congratulate you."
"A noble prospectus!" cried Popinot, enthusiastically.
"A prospectus which slays Macassar at the first word," continued Gaudissart, rising with a magisterial air to deliver the following speech, which he divided by gestures and pauses in his most parliamentary manner.
"No—hair—can be made—to grow! Hair cannot be dyed without—danger! Ha! ha! success is there. Modern science is in union with the customs of the ancients. We can deal with young and old alike. We can say to the old man, 'Ha, monsieur! the ancients, the Greeks and Romans, knew a thing or two, and were not so stupid as some would have us believe'; and we can say to the young man, 'My dear boy, here's another discovery due to progress and the lights of science. We advance; what may we not obtain from steam and telegraphy, and other things! This oil is based on the scientific treatise of Monsieur Vauquelin!' Suppose we print an extract from Monsieur Vauquelin's report to the Academy of Sciences, confirming our statement, hein? Famous! Come, Finot, sit down; attack the viands! Soak up the champagne! let us drink to the success of my young friend, here present!"
"I felt," said the author modestly, "that the epoch of flimsy and frivolous prospectuses had gone by; we are entering upon an era of science; we need an academical tone,—a tone of authority, which imposes upon the public."
"We'll boil that oil; my feet itch, and my tongue too. I've got commissions from all the rival hair people; none of them give more than thirty per cent discount; we must manage forty on every hundred remitted, and I'll answer for a hundred thousand bottles in six months. I'll attack apothecaries, grocers, perfumers! Give 'em forty per cent, and they'll bamboozle the public."
The three young fellows devoured their dinner like lions, and drank like lords to the future success of Cephalic Oil.
"The oil is getting into my head," said Finot.
Gaudissart poured out a series of jokes and puns upon hats and heads, and hair and hair-oil, etc. In the midst of Homeric laughter a knock resounded, and was heard, in spite of an uproar of toasts and reciprocal congratulations.
"It is my uncle!" cried Popinot. "He has actually come to see me."
"An uncle!" said Finot, "and we haven't got a glass!"
"The uncle of my friend Popinot is a judge," said Gaudissart to Finot, "and he is not to be hoaxed; he saved my life. Ha! when one gets to the pass where I was, under the scaffold—Qou-ick, and good-by to your hair,"—imitating the fatal knife with voice and gesture. "One recollects gratefully the virtuous magistrate who saved the gutter where the champagne flows down. Recollect?—I'd recollect him dead-drunk! You don't know what it is, Finot, unless you have stood in need of Monsieur Popinot. Huzza! we ought to fire a salute—from six pounders, too!"
The virtuous magistrate was now asking for his nephew at the door. Recognizing his voice, Anselme went down, candlestick in hand, to light him up.
"I wish you good evening, gentlemen," said the judge.
The illustrious Gaudissart bowed profoundly. Finot examined the magistrate with a tipsy eye, and thought him a bit of a blockhead.
"You have not much luxury here," said the judge, gravely, looking round the room. "Well, my son, if we wish to be something great, we must begin by being nothing."
"What profound wisdom!" said Gaudissart to Finot.
"Text for an article," said the journalist.
"Ah! you here, monsieur?" said the judge, recognizing the commercial traveller; "and what are you doing now?"
"Monsieur, I am contributing to the best of my small ability to the success of your dear nephew. We have just been studying a prospectus for his oil; you see before you the author of that prospectus, which seems to us the finest essay in the literature of wigs." The judge looked at Finot. "Monsieur," said Gaudissart, "is Monsieur Andoche Finot, a young man distinguished in literature, who does high-class politics and the little theatres in the government newspapers,—I may say a statesman on the high-road to becoming an author."
Finot pulled Gaudissart by the coat-tails.
"Well, well, my sons," said the judge, to whom these words explained the aspect of the table, where there stilled remained the tokens of a very excusable feast. "Anselme," said the old gentleman to his nephew, "dress yourself, and come with me to Monsieur Birotteau's, where I have a visit to pay. You shall sign the deed of partnership, which I have carefully examined. As you mean to have the manufactory for your oil on the grounds in the Faubourg du Temple, I think you had better take a formal lease of them. Monsieur Birotteau might have others in partnership with him, and it is better to settle everything legally at once; then there can be no discussion. These walls seem to me very damp, my dear boy; take up the straw matting near your bed."
"Permit me, monsieur," said Gaudissart, with an ingratiating air, "to explain to you that we have just pasted up the paper ourselves, and that's the—reason why—the walls—are not—dry."
"Economy? quite right," said the judge.
"Look here," said Gaudissart in Finot's ear, "my friend Popinot is a virtuous young man; he is going with his uncle; let's you and I go and finish the evening with our cousins."
The journalist showed the empty lining of his pockets. Popinot saw the gesture, and slipped his twenty-franc piece into the palm of the author of the prospectus.
The judge had a coach at the end of the street, in which he carried off his nephew to the Birotteaus.
Pillerault, Monsieur and Madame Ragon, and Monsieur Roguin were playing at boston, and Cesarine was embroidering a handkerchief, when the judge and Anselme arrived. Roguin, placed opposite to Madame Ragon, near whom Cesarine was sitting, noticed the pleasure of the young girl when she saw Anselme enter, and he made Crottat a sign to observe that she turned as rosy as a pomegranate.
"This is to be a day of deeds, then?" said the perfumer, when the greetings were over and the judge told him the purpose of the visit.
Cesar, Anselme, and the judge went up to the perfumer's temporary bedroom on the second floor to discuss the lease and the deed of partnership drawn up by the magistrate. A lease of eighteen years was agreed upon, so that it might run the same length of time as the lease of the shop in the Rue des Cinq-Diamants,—an insignificant circumstance apparently, but one which did Birotteau good service in after days. When Cesar and the judge returned to the entresol, the latter, surprised at the general upset of the household, and the presence of workmen on a Sunday in the house of a man so religious as Birotteau, asked the meaning of it,—a question which Cesar had been eagerly expecting.
"Though you care very little for the world, monsieur," he said, "you will see no harm in celebrating the deliverance of our territory. That, however, is not all. We are about to assemble a few friends to commemorate my promotion to the order of the Legion of honor."
"Ah!" exclaimed the judge, who was not decorated.
"Possibly I showed myself worthy of that signal and royal favor by my services on the Bench—oh! of commerce,—and by fighting for the Bourbons on the steps—"
"True," said the judge.
"—of Saint-Roch on the 13th Vendemiaire, where I was wounded by Napoleon. May I not hope that you and Madame Popinot will do us the honor of being present?"
"Willingly," said the judge. "If my wife is well enough I will bring her."
"Xandrot," said Roguin to his clerk, as they left the house, "give up all thoughts of marrying Cesarine; six weeks hence you will thank me for that advice."
"Why?" asked Crottat.
"My dear fellow, Birotteau is going to spend a hundred thousand francs on his ball, and he is involving his whole fortune, against my advice, in that speculation in lands. Six weeks hence he and his family won't have bread to eat. Marry Mademoiselle Lourdois, the daughter of the house-painter. She has three hundred thousand francs dot. I threw out that anchor to windward for you. If you will pay me a hundred thousand francs down for my practice, you may have it to-morrow."
The splendors of the approaching ball were announced by the newspapers to all Europe, and were also made known to the world of commerce by rumors to which the preparations, carried on night and day, had given rise. Some said that Cesar had hired three houses, and that he was gilding his salons; others that the supper would furnish dishes invented for the occasion. On one hand it was reported that no merchants would be invited, the fete being given to the members of the government; on the other hand, Cesar was severely blamed for his ambition, and laughed at for his political pretensions: some people even went so far as to deny his wound. The ball gave rise to more than one intrigue in the second arrondissement. The friends of the family were easy in their minds, but the demands of mere acquaintances were enormous. Honors bring sycophants; and there was a goodly number of people whose invitations cost them more than one application. The Birotteaus were fairly frightened at the number of friends whom they did not know they had. These eager attentions alarmed Madame Birotteau, and day by day her face grew sadder as the great solemnity drew near.
In the first place, as she owned to Cesar, she should never learn the right demeanor; next, she was terrified by the innumerable details of such a fete: where should she find the plate, the glass-ware, the refreshments, the china, the servants? Who would superintend it all? She entreated Birotteau to stand at the door of the appartement and let no one enter but invited guests; she had heard strange stories of people who came to bourgeois balls, claiming friends whose names they did not know. When, a week before the fateful day, Braschon, Grindot, Lourdois, and Chaffaroux, the builder, assured Cesar positively that the rooms would be ready for the famous Sunday of December the 17th, an amusing conference took place, in the evening after dinner, between Cesar, his wife, and his daughter, for the purpose of making out the list of guests and addressing the invitations,—which a stationer had sent home that morning, printed on pink paper, in flowing English writing, and in the formula of commonplace and puerile civility.
"Now we mustn't forget any body," said Birotteau.
"If we forget any one," said Constance, "they won't forget it. Madame Derville, who never called before, sailed down upon me in all her glory yesterday."
"She is very pretty," said Cesarine. "I liked her."
"And yet before her marriage she was even less than I was," said Constance. "She did plain sewing in the Rue Montmartre; she made shirts for your father."
"Well, now let us begin the list," said Birotteau, "with the upper-crust people. Cesarine, write down Monsieur le Duc and Madame la Duchesse de Lenoncourt—"
"Good heavens, Cesar!" said Constance, "don't send a single invitation to people whom you only know as customers. Are you going to invite the Princesse de Blamont-Chavry, who is more nearly related to your godmother, the late Marquise d'Uxelles, than the Duc de Lenoncourt? You surely don't mean to invite the two Messieurs de Vandenesse, Monsieur de Marsay, Monsieur de Ronquerolles, Monsieur d'Aiglemont, in short, all your customers? You are mad; your honors have turned your head!"
"Well, but there's Monsieur le Comte de Fontaine and his family, hein?—the one that always went by the name of GRAND-JACQUES,—and the YOUNG SCAMP, who was the Marquis de Montauran, and Monsieur de la Billardiere, who was called the NANTAIS at 'The Queen of Roses' before the 13th Vendemiaire. In those days it was all hand-shaking, and 'Birotteau, take courage; let yourself be killed, like us, for the good cause.' Why, we are all comrades in conspiracy."
"Very good, put them down," said Constance. "If Monsieur de la Billardiere comes he will want somebody to speak to."
"Cesarine, write," said Birotteau. "Primo, Monsieur the prefect of the Seine; he'll come or he won't come, but any way he commands the municipality,—honor to whom honor is due. Monsieur de la Billardiere and his son, the mayor. Put the number of the guests after their names. My colleague, Monsieur Granet, deputy-mayor, and his wife. She is very ugly, but never mind, we can't dispense with her. Monsieur Curel, the jeweller, colonel of the National Guard, his wife, and two daughters. Those are what I call the authorities. Now come the big wigs,—Monsieur le Comte and Madame la Comtesse de Fontaine, and their daughter, Mademoiselle Emilie de Fontaine."
"An insolent girl, who makes me leave the shop and speak to her at the door of the carriage, no matter what the weather is," said Madame Cesar. "If she comes, it will only be to ridicule me."
"Then she'll be sure to come," said Cesar, bent on getting everybody. "Go on, Cesarine. Monsieur le Comte and Madame la Comtesse de Grandville, my landlord,—the longest head at the royal court, so Derville says. Ah ca! Monsieur de la Billardiere is to present me as a chevalier to-morrow to Monsieur le Comte de Lacepede himself, high chancellor of the Legion of honor. It is only proper that I should send him an invitation for the ball, and also to the dinner. Monsieur Vauquelin; put him down for ball and dinner both, Cesarine. And (so as not to forget them) put down all the Chiffrevilles and the Protez; Monsieur and Madame Popinot, judge of the Lower Court of the Seine; Monsieur and Madame Thirion, gentleman-usher of the bedchamber to the king, friends of Ragon, and their daughter, who, they tell me, is to marry the son of Monsieur Camusot by his first wife."
"Cesar, don't forget that little Horace Bianchon, the nephew of Monsieur Popinot, and cousin of Anselme," said Constance.
"Whew! Cesarine has written a four after the name of Popinot. Monsieur and Madame Rabourdin, one of the under-secretaries in Monsieur de la Billardiere's division; Monsieur Cochin, same division, his wife and son, sleeping-partners of Matifat, and Monsieur, Madame, and Mademoiselle Matifat themselves."
"The Matifats," said Cesarine, "are fishing for invitations for Monsieur and Madame Colleville, and Monsieur and Madame Thuillier, friends of theirs."
"We will see about that," said Cesar. "Put down my broker, Monsieur and Madame Jules Desmarets."
"She will be the loveliest woman in the room," said Cesarine. "I like her—oh! better than any one else."
"Derville and his wife."
"Put down Monsieur and Madame Coquelin, the successors to my uncle Pillerault," said Constance. "They are so sure of an invitation that the poor little woman has ordered my dressmaker to make her a superb ball-dress, a skirt of white satin, and a tulle robe with succory flowers embroidered all over it. A little more and she would have ordered a court-dress of gold brocade. If you leave them out we shall make bitter enemies."
"Put them down, Cesarine; all honor to commerce, for we belong to it! Monsieur and Madame Roguin."
"Mamma, Madame Roguin will wear her diamond fillet and all her other diamonds, and her dress trimmed with Mechlin."
"Monsieur and Madame Lebas," said Cesar; "also Monsieur le president of the Court of Commerce,—I forgot him among the authorities,—his wife, and two daughters; Monsieur and Madame Lourdois and their daughter; Monsieur Claparon, banker; Monsieur du Tillet; Monsieur Grindot; Monsieur Molineux; Pillerault and his landlord; Monsieur and Madame Camusot, the rich silk-merchants, and all their children, the one at the Ecole Polytechnique, and the lawyer; he is to be made a judge because of his marriage to Mademoiselle Thirion."
"A provincial judge," remarked Constance.
"Monsieur Cardot, father-in-law of Camusot, and all the Cardot children. Bless me, and the Guillaumes, Rue du Colombier, the father-in-law of Lebas—old people, but they'll sit in a corner; Alexandre Crottat; Celestin—"
"Papa, don't forget Monsieur Andoche Finot and Monsieur Gaudissart, two young men who are very useful to Monsieur Anselme."
"Gaudissart? he was once in the hands of justice. But never mind, he is going to travel for our oil and starts in a few days; put him down. As to the Sieur Andoche Finot, what is he to us?"
"Monsieur Anselme says he will be a great man; he has a mind like Voltaire."
"An author? all atheists."
"Let's put him down, papa; we want more dancers. Besides, he wrote the beautiful prospectus for the oil."
"He believes in my oil?" said Cesar, "then put him down, dear child."
"I have put down all my proteges," said Cesarine.
"Put Monsieur Mitral, my bailiff; Monsieur Haudry, our doctor, as a matter of form,—he won't come."
"Yes, he will, for his game of cards."
"Now, Cesar, I do hope you mean to invite the Abbe Loraux to the dinner," said Constance.
"I have already written to him," said Cesar.
"Oh! and don't forget the sister-in-law of Monsieur Lebas, Madame Augustine Sommervieux," said Cesarine. "Poor little woman, she is so delicate; she is dying of grief, so Monsieur Lebas says."
"That's what it is to marry artists!" cried her father. "Look! there's your mother asleep," he whispered. "La! la! a very good night to you, Madame Cesar—Now, then," he added, "about your mother's ball-dress?"
"Yes, papa, it will be all ready. Mamma thinks she will wear her china-crape like mine. The dressmaker is sure there is no need of trying it on."
"How many people have you got down," said Cesar aloud, seeing that Constance opened her eyes.
"One hundred and nine, with the clerks."
"Where shall we ever put them all?" said Madame Birotteau. "But, anyhow, after that Sunday," she added naively, "there will come a Monday."
* * * * *
Nothing can be done simply and naturally by people who are stepping from one social level to another. Not a soul—not Madame Birotteau, nor Cesar himself—was allowed to put foot into the new appartement on the first floor. Cesar had promised Raguet, the shop-boy, a new suit of clothes for the day of the ball, if he mounted guard faithfully and let no one enter. Birotteau, like the Emperor Napoleon at Compiegne, when the chateau was re-decorated for his marriage with Maria Louisa of Austria, was determined to see nothing piecemeal; he wished to enjoy the surprise of seeing it as a whole. Thus the two antagonists met once more, all unknown to themselves, not on the field of battle, but on the peaceful ground of bourgeois vanity. It was arranged that Monsieur Grindot was to take Cesar by the hand and show him the appartement when finished,—just as a guide shows a gallery to a sight-seer. Every member of the family had provided his, or her, private "surprise." Cesarine, dear child, had spent all her little hoard, a hundred louis, on buying books for her father. Monsieur Grindot confided to her one morning that there were two book-cases in Cesar's room, which enclosed an alcove,—an architectural surprise to her father. Cesarine flung all her girlish savings upon the counter of a bookseller's shop, and obtained in return, Bossuet, Racine, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, Moliere, Buffon, Fenelon, Delille, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, La Fontaine, Corneille, Pascal, La Harpe,—in short, the whole array of matter-of-course libraries to be found everywhere and which assuredly her father would never read. A terrible bill for binding was in the background. The celebrated and dilatory binder, Thouvenin, had promised to deliver the volumes at twelve o'clock in the morning of the 16th. Cesarine confided her anxiety to her uncle Pillerault, and he had promised to pay the bill. The "surprise" of Cesar to his wife was the gown of cherry-colored velvet, trimmed with lace, of which he spoke to his accomplice, Cesarine. The "surprise" of Madame Birotteau to the new chevalier was a pair of gold shoe-buckles, and a diamond pin. For the whole family there was the surprise of the new appartement, and, a fortnight later, the still greater surprise of the bills when they came in.
Cesar carefully weighed the question as to which invitations should be given in person, and which should be sent by Raguet. He ordered a coach and took his wife—much disfigured by a bonnet with feathers, and his last gift, a shawl which she had coveted for fifteen years—on a round of civilities. In their best array, these worthy people paid twenty-two visits in the course of one morning.
Cesar excused his wife from the labor and difficulty of preparing at home the various viands demanded by the splendor of the entertainment. A diplomatic treaty was arranged between the famous Chevet and the perfumer. Chevet furnished superb silver plate (which brought him an income equal to that of land); he supplied the dinner, the wines, and the waiters, under the orders of a major-domo of dignified aspect, who was responsible for the proper management of everything. Chevet exacted that the kitchen, and the dining-room on the entresol, should be given up to him as headquarters; a dinner for twenty people was to be served at six o'clock, a superb supper at one in the morning. Birotteau arranged with the cafe Foy for ices in the shape of fruits, to be served in pretty saucers, with gilt spoons, on silver trays. Tanrade, another illustrious purveyor, furnished the refreshments.
"Don't be worried," said Cesar to his wife, observing her uneasiness on the day before the great event, "Chevet, Tanrade, and the cafe Foy will occupy the entresol, Virginie will take charge of the second floor, the shop will be closed; all we shall have to do is to enshrine ourselves on the first floor."
At two o'clock, on the 16th, the mayor, Monsieur de la Billardiere, came to take Cesar to the Chancellerie of the Legion of honor, where he was to be received by Monsieur le Comte de Lacepede, and about a dozen chevaliers of the order. Tears were in his eyes when he met the mayor; Constance had just given him the "surprise" of the gold buckles and diamond pin.
"It is very sweet to be so loved," he said, getting into the coach in presence of the assembled clerks, and Cesarine, and Constance. They, one and all, gazed at Cesar, attired in black silk knee-breeches, silk stockings, and the new bottle-blue coat, on which was about to gleam the ribbon that, according to Molineux, was dyed in blood. When Cesar came home to dinner, he was pale with joy; he looked at his cross in all the mirrors, for in the first moments of exultation he was not satisfied with the ribbon,—he wore the cross, and was glorious without false shame.
"My wife," he said, "Monsieur the high chancellor is a charming man. On a hint from La Billardiere he accepted my invitation. He is coming with Monsieur Vauquelin. Monsieur de Lacepede is a great man,—yes, as great as Monsieur Vauquelin; he has continued the work of Buffon in forty volumes; he is an author, peer of France! Don't forget to address him as, Your Excellence, or, Monsieur le comte."
"Do eat something," said his wife. "Your father is worse than a child," added Constance to Cesarine.
"How well it looks in your button-hole," said Cesarine. "When we walk out together, won't they present arms?"
"Yes, wherever there are sentries they will present arms."
Just at this moment Grindot was coming downstairs with Braschon. It had been arranged that after dinner, monsieur, madame, and mademoiselle were to enjoy a first sight of the new appartement; Braschon's foreman was now nailing up the last brackets, and three men were lighting the rooms.
"It takes a hundred and twenty wax-candles," said Braschon.
"A bill of two hundred francs at Trudon's," said Madame Cesar, whose murmurs were checked by a glance from the chevalier Birotteau.
"Your ball will be magnificent, Monsieur le chevalier," said Braschon.
Birotteau whispered to himself, "Flatterers already! The Abbe Loraux urged me not to fall into that net, but to keep myself humble. I shall try to remember my origin."
Cesar did not perceive the meaning of the rich upholsterer's speech. Braschon made a dozen useless attempts to get invitations for himself, his wife, daughter, mother-in-law, and aunt. He called the perfumer Monsieur le chevalier to the door-way, and then he departed his enemy.
The rehearsal began. Cesar, his wife, and Cesarine went out by the shop-door and re-entered the house from the street. The entrance had been remodelled in the grand style, with double doors, divided into square panels, in the centre of which were architectural ornaments in cast-iron, painted. This style of door, since become common in Paris, was then a novelty. At the further end of the vestibule the staircase went up in two straight flights, and between them was the space which had given Cesar some uneasiness, and which was now converted into a species of box, where it was possible to seat an old woman. The vestibule, paved in black and white marble, with its walls painted to resemble marble, was lighted by an antique lamp with four jets. The architect had combined richness with simplicity. A narrow red carpet relieved the whiteness of the stairs, which were polished with pumice-stone. The first landing gave an entrance to the entresol; the doors to each appartement were of the same character as the street-door, but of finer work by a cabinet-maker.
The family reached the first floor and entered an ante-chamber in excellent taste, spacious, parquetted, and simply decorated. Next came a salon, with three windows on the street, in white and red, with cornices of an elegant design which had nothing gaudy about them. On a chimney-piece of white marble supported by columns were a number of mantel ornaments chosen with taste; they suggested nothing to ridicule, and were in keeping with the other details. A soft harmony prevailed throughout the room, a harmony which artists alone know how to attain by carrying uniformity of decoration into the minutest particulars,—an art of which the bourgeois mind is ignorant, though it is much taken with its results. A glass chandelier, with twenty-four wax-candles, brought out the color of the red silk draperies; the polished floor had an enticing look, which tempted Cesarine to dance.
"How charming!" she said; "and yet there is nothing to seize the eye."
"Exactly, mademoiselle," said the architect; "the charm comes from the harmony which reigns between the wainscots, walls, cornices, and the decorations; I have gilded nothing, the colors are sober, and not extravagant in tone."
"It is a science," said Cesarine.
A boudoir in green and white led into Cesar's study.
"Here I have put a bed," said Grindot, opening the doors of an alcove cleverly hidden between the two bookcases. "If you or madame should chance to be ill, each can have your own room."
"But this bookcase full of books, all bound! Oh! my wife, my wife!" cried Cesar.
"No; that is Cesarine's surprise."
"Pardon the feelings of a father," said Cesar to the architect, as he kissed his daughter.
"Oh! of course, of course, monsieur," said Grindot; "you are in your own home."
Brown was the prevailing color in the study, relieved here and there with green, for a thread of harmony led through all the rooms and allied them with one another. Thus the color which was the leading tone of one room became the relieving tint of another. The engraving of Hero and Leander shone on one of the panels of Cesar's study.
"Ah! thou wilt pay for all this," said Birotteau, looking gaily at it.
"That beautiful engraving is given to you by Monsieur Anselme," said Cesarine.
(Anselme, too, had allowed himself a "surprise.")
"Poor boy! he has done just as I did for Monsieur Vauquelin."
The bedroom of Madame Birotteau came next. The architect had there displayed a magnificence well calculated to please the worthy people whom he was anxious to snare; he had really kept his word and studied this decoration. The room was hung in blue silk, with white ornaments; the furniture was in white cassimere touched with blue. On the chimney-piece, of white marble, stood a clock representing Venus crouching, on a fine block of marble; a moquette carpet, of Turkish design, harmonized this room with that of Cesarine, which opened out of it, and was coquettishly hung with Persian chintz. A piano, a pretty wardrobe with a mirror door, a chaste little bed with simple curtains, and all the little trifles that young girls like, completed the arrangements of the room. The dining-room was behind the bedroom of Cesar and his wife, and was entered from the staircase; it was treated in the style called Louis XIV., with a clock in buhl, buffets of the same, inlaid with brass and tortoise-shell; the walls were hung with purple stuff, fastened down by gilt nails. The happiness of these three persons is not to be described, more especially when, re-entering her room, Madame Birotteau found upon her bed (where Virginie had just carried it, on tiptoe) the robe of cherry-colored velvet, with lace trimmings, which was her husband's "surprise."
"Monsieur, this appartement will win you great distinction," said Constance to Grindot. "We shall receive a hundred and more persons to-morrow evening, and you will win praises from everybody."
"I shall recommend you," said Cesar. "You will meet the very heads of commerce, and you will be better known through that one evening than if you had built a hundred houses."
Constance, much moved, thought no longer of costs, nor of blaming her husband; and for the following reason: That morning, when he brought the engraving of Hero and Leander, Anselme Popinot, whom Constance credited with much intelligence and practical ability, had assured her of the inevitable success of Cephalic Oil, for which he was working night and day with a fury that was almost unprecedented. The lover promised that no matter what was the round sum of Birotteau's extravagance, it should be covered in six months by Cesar's share in the profits of the oil. After fearing and trembling for nineteen years it was so sweet to give herself up to one day of unalloyed happiness, that Constance promised her daughter not to poison her husband's pleasure by any doubts or disapproval, but to share his happiness heartily. When therefore, about eleven o'clock, Grindot left them, she threw herself into her husband's arms and said to him with tears of joy, "Cesar! ah, I am beside myself! You have made me very happy!"
"Provided it lasts, you mean?" said Cesar, smiling.
"It will last; I have no more fears," said Madame Birotteau.
"That's right," said the perfumer; "you appreciate me at last."
People who are sufficiently large-minded to perceive their own innate weakness will admit that an orphan girl who eighteen years earlier was saleswoman at the Petit-Matelot, Ile Saint-Louis, and a poor peasant lad coming from Touraine to Paris with hob-nailed shoes and a cudgel in his hand, might well be flattered and happy in giving such a fete for such praiseworthy reasons.
"Bless my heart!" cried Cesar. "I'd give a hundred francs if someone would only come in now and pay us a visit."
"Here is Monsieur l'Abbe Loraux," said Virginie.
The abbe entered. He was at that time vicar of Saint-Sulpice. The power of the soul was never better manifested than in this saintly priest, whose intercourse with others left upon the minds of all an indelible impression. His grim face, so plain as to check confidence, had grown sublime through the exercise of Catholic virtues; upon it shone, as it were by anticipation, the celestial glories. Sincerity and candor, infused into his very blood, gave harmony to his unsightly features, and the fires of charity blended the discordant lines by a phenomenon, the exact counterpart of that which in Claparon had debased and brutalized the human being. Faith, Hope, and Charity, the three noblest virtues of humanity, shed their charm among the abbe's wrinkles; his speech was gentle, slow, and penetrating. His dress was that of the priests of Paris, and he allowed himself to wear a brown frock-coat. No ambition had ever crept into that pure heart, which the angels would some day carry to God in all its pristine innocence. It required the gentle firmness of the daughter of Louis XVI. to induce him to accept a benefice in Paris, humble as it was. As he now entered the room he glanced with an uneasy eye at the magnificence before him, smiled at the three delighted people, and shook his gray head.
"My children," he said, "my part in life is not to share in gaieties, but to visit the afflicted. I came to thank Monsieur Cesar for his invitation, and to congratulate you. I shall come to only one fete here,—the marriage of this dear child."
After the short visit the abbe went away without seeing the various apartments, which the perfumer and his wife dared not show him. This solemn apparition threw a few drops of cold water into the boiling delight of Cesar's heart. Each of the party slept amid their new luxury, taking possession of the good things and the pretty things they had severally wished for. Cesarine undressed her mother before a toilet-table of white marble with a long mirror. Cesar had given himself a few superfluities, and longed to make use of them at once: and they all went to sleep thinking of the joys of the morrow.
On that morrow Cesarine and her mother, having been to Mass, and having read their vespers, dressed about four o'clock in the afternoon, after resigning the entresol to the secular arm of Chevet and his people. No attire ever suited Madame Cesar better than this cherry-colored velvet dress with lace trimmings, and short sleeves made with jockeys: her beautiful arms, still fresh and youthful, her bosom, sparklingly white, her throat and shoulders of a lovely shape, were all heightened in effect by the rich material and the resplendent color. The naive delight which every woman feels when she sees herself in the plenitude of her power gave an inexpressible sweetness to the Grecian profile of this charming woman, whose beauty had all the delicacy of a cameo. Cesarine, dressed in white crape, wore a wreath of white roses, a rose at her waist, and a scarf chastely covering her shoulders and bust: Popinot was beside himself.
"These people crush us," said Madame Roguin to her husband as they went through the appartement.
The notary's wife was furious at appearing less beautiful than Madame Cesar; for every woman knows how to judge the superiority or the inferiority of a rival.
"Bah!" whispered Roguin to his wife, "it won't last long; you will soon bespatter her when you meet her a-foot in the streets, ruined."
Vauquelin showed perfect tact; he came with Monsieur de Lacepede, his colleague of the Institute, who had called to fetch him in a carriage. On beholding the resplendent mistress of the fete they both launched into scientific compliments.
"Ah, madame, you possess a secret of which science is ignorant," said the chemist, "the recipe for remaining young and beautiful."
"You are, as I may say, partly at home here, Monsieur l'academicien," said Birotteau. "Yes, Monsieur le comte," he added, turning to the high chancellor of the Legion of honor, "I owe my fortune to Monsieur Vauquelin. I have the honor to present to your lordship Monsieur le president of the Court of Commerce. This is Monsieur le Comte de Lacepede, peer of France," he said to Joseph Lebas, who accompanied the president.
The guests were punctual. The dinner, like all commercial dinners, was extremely gay, full of good humor, and enlivened by the rough jests which always raise a laugh. The excellence of the dishes and the goodness of the wines were fully appreciated. It was half-past nine o'clock when the company returned to the salons to take their coffee. A few hackney-coaches had already brought the first impatient dancers. An hour later the rooms were full, and the ball took the character of a rout. Monsieur de Lacepede and Monsieur Vauquelin went away, much to the grief of Cesar, who followed them to the staircase, vainly entreating them to remain. He succeeded, however, in keeping Monsieur Popinot the judge, and Monsieur de la Billardiere. With the exception of three women who severally represented the aristocracy, finance, and government circles,—namely, Mademoiselle de Fontaine, Madame Jules, and Madame Rabourdin, whose beauty, dress, and manners were sharply defined in this assemblage,—all the other women wore heavy, over-loaded dresses, and offered to the eye that anomalous air of richness which gives to the bourgeois masses their vulgar aspect, made cruelly apparent on this occasion by the airy graces of the three other women.
The bourgeoisie of the Rue Saint-Denis displayed itself majestically in the plenitude of its native powers of jocose silliness. It was a fair specimen of that middle class which dresses its children like lancers or national guards, buys the "Victoires et Conquetes," the "Soldat-laboureur," admires the "Convoi du Pauvre," delights in mounting guard, goes on Sunday to its own country-house, is anxious to acquire the distinguished air, and dreams of municipal honors,—that middle class which is jealous of all and of every one, and yet is good, obliging, devoted, feeling, compassionate, ready to subscribe for the children of General Foy, or for the Greeks, whose piracies it knows nothing about, or the Exiles until none remained; duped through its virtues and scouted for its defects by a social class that is not worthy of it, for it has a heart precisely because it is ignorant of social conventions,—that virtuous middle-class which brings up ingenuous daughters to an honorable toil, giving them sterling qualities which diminish as soon as they are brought in contact with the superior world of social life; girls without mind, among whom the worthy Chrysale would have chosen his wife,—in short, a middle-class admirably represented by the Matifats, druggists in the Rue des Lombards, whose firm had supplied "The Queen of Roses" for more than sixty years.
Madame Matifat, wishing to give herself a dignified air, danced in a turban and a heavy robe of scarlet shot with gold threads,—a toilet which harmonized well with a self-important manner, a Roman nose, and the splendors of a crimson complexion. Monsieur Matifat, superb at a review of the National Guard, where his protuberant paunch could be distinguished at fifty paces, and upon which glittered a gold chain and a bunch of trinkets, was under the yoke of this Catherine II. of commerce. Short and fat, harnessed with spectacles and a shirt-collar worn above his ears, he was chiefly distinguished for his bass voice and the richness of his vocabulary. He never said Corneille, but "the sublime Corneille"; Racine was "the gentle Racine"; Voltaire, "Oh! Voltaire, second in everything, with more wit than genius, but nevertheless a man of genius"; Rousseau, "a gloomy mind, a man full of pride, who hanged himself." He related in his prosy way vulgar anecdotes of Piron, a poet who passes for a prodigy among the bourgeoisie. Matifat, a passionate lover of the stage, had a slight leaning to obscenity. It was even said that, in imitation of Cadot and the rich Camusot, he kept a mistress. Sometimes Madame Matifat, seeing him about to relate some questionable anecdote, would hasten to interrupt him by screaming out: "Take care what you are saying, old man!" She called him habitually her "old man." This voluminous queen of drugs caused Mademoiselle de Fontaine to lose her aristocratic countenance, for the impertinent girl could not help laughing as she overheard her saying to her husband: "Don't fling yourself upon the ices, old man, it is bad style."
It is more difficult to explain the nature of the difference between the great world and the bourgeoisie than it is for the bourgeoisie to obliterate it. These women, embarrassed by their fine clothes and very conscious of them, displayed a naive pleasure which proved that a ball was a rarity in their busy lives; while the three women, who each represented a sphere in the great world, were then exactly what they would be on the morrow. They had no appearance of having dressed purposely for the ball, they paid no heed to the splendor of their jewels, nor to the effect which they themselves produced; all had been arranged when they stood before their mirrors and put the last touches on their toilets. Their faces showed no excitement or excessive interest, and they danced with the grace and ease which unknown genius has given to certain statues of antiquity.
The others, on the contrary, stamped with the mark of toil, retained their vulgar attitudes, and amused themselves too heartily; their eyes were full of inconsiderate curiosity; their voices ranged above the low murmur which gives inimitable piquancy to the conversations of a ball-room; above all, they had none of that composed impertinence which contains the germs of epigram, nor the tranquil attitude which characterizes those who are accustomed to maintain empire over themselves. Thus Madame Rabourdin, Madame Jules, and Mademoiselle de Fontaine, who had expected much amusement from the ball of their perfumer, were detached from the background of the bourgeoisie about them by their soft and easy grace, by the exquisite taste of their dress and bearing,—just as three leading singers at an opera stand out in relief from the stolid array of their supernumeraries. They were watched with jealous, wondering eyes. Madame Roguin, Constance, and Cesarine formed, as it were, a link which united the three types of feminine aristocracy to the commercial figures about them.
There came, as there does at all balls, a moment when the animation of the scene, the torrents of light, the gaiety, the music, the excitement of dancing brought on a species of intoxication which puts out of sight these gradations in the crescendo of the tutti. The ball was beginning to be noisy, and Mademoiselle de Fontaine made a movement to retire; but when she looked about for the arm of her venerable Vendeen, Birotteau, his wife, and daughter made haste to prevent such a desertion of the aristocracy.
"There is a perfume of good taste about this appartement which really amazes me," remarked that impertinent young woman to the perfumer. "I congratulate you."
Birotteau was so intoxicated by compliments that he did not comprehend her meaning; but his wife colored, and was at a loss how to reply.
"This is a national fete which does you honor," said Camusot.
"I have seldom seen such a ball," said Monsieur de la Billardiere, to whom an official falsehood was of no consequence.
Birotteau took all these compliments seriously.
"What an enchanting scene! What a fine orchestra! Will you often give us a ball?" said Madame Lebas.
"What a charming appartement! Is this your own taste?" said Madame Desmarets.
Birotteau ventured on a fib, and allowed her to suppose that he had designed it.
Cesarine, who was asked, of course, for all the dances, understood very well Anselme's delicacy in that matter.
"If I thought only of my own wishes," he had whispered as they left the dinner-table, "I should beg you to grant me the favor of a quadrille; but my happiness would be too costly to our mutual self-love."
Cesarine, who thought all men walked ungracefully if they stood straight on their legs, was resolved to open the ball with Popinot. Popinot, emboldened by his aunt, who told him to dare all, ventured to tell his love to the charming girl, during the pauses of the quadrille, using, however, the roundabout terms of a timid lover.
"My fortune depends on you, mademoiselle."
"There is but one hope that can enable me to make it."
"Do you know what you have said to me in those two words?" murmured Popinot.
"Hope for fortune," said Cesarine, with an arch smile.
"Gaudissart! Gaudissart!" exclaimed Anselme, when the quadrille was over, pressing the arm of his friend with Herculean force. "Succeed, or I'll blow my brains out! Success, and I shall marry Cesarine! she has told me so: see how lovely she is!"
"Yes, she is prettily tricked out," said Gaudissart, "and rich. We'll fry her in oil."
The good understanding between Mademoiselle Lourdois and Alexandre Crottat, the promised successor to Roguin, was noticed by Madame Birotteau, who could not give up without a pang the hope of seeing her daughter the wife of a notary of Paris.
Uncle Pillerault, who had exchanged bows with little Molineux, seated himself in an armchair near the bookshelves. He looked at the card-players, listened to the conversations, and went to the doorway every now and then to watch the oscillating bouquet of flowers formed by the circling heads of the dancers in the moulinet. The expression of his face was that of a true philosopher. The men were dreadful,—all, that is, except du Tillet, who had acquired the manners of the great world, little La Billardiere, a budding fashionable, Monsieur Desmarets, and the official personages. But among all the faces, more or less comical, from which the assemblage took its character, there was one that was particularly washed-out, like a five-franc piece of the Republic, and whose owner's apparel rendered him a curiosity. We guess at once the little tyrant of the Cour Batave, arrayed with linen yellowed by lying by in a cupboard, and exhibiting to the eye a shirt-frill of lace that had been an heirloom, fastened with a bluish cameo set as a pin; he wore short black-silk breeches which revealed the skinny legs on which he boldly stood. Cesar showed him, triumphantly, the four rooms constructed by the architect out of the first floors of the two houses.
"Hey! hey! Well, it is your affair, Monsieur Birotteau," said Molineux. "My first floor thus improved will be worth more than three thousand francs to me."
Birotteau answered with a jest; but he was pricked as if with a pin at the tone in which the little old man had pronounced the words.
"I shall soon have my first floor back again; the man will ruin himself." Such was the real meaning of the speech which Molineux delivered like the scratch of a claw.
The sallow face and vindictive eye of the old man struck du Tillet, whose attention had first been attracted by a watch-chain from which hung a pound of jingling gew-gaws, and by a green coat with a collar whimsically cocked up, which gave the old man the semblance of a rattlesnake. The banker approached the usurer to find out how and why he had thus bedizened himself.
"There, monsieur," said Molineux, planting one foot in the boudoir, "I stand upon the property of Monsieur le Comte de Grandville; but here," he added, showing the other, "I stand upon my own. I am the owner of this house."
Molineux was so ready to lend himself to any one who would listen to him, and so delighted by du Tillet's attentive manner, that he gave a sketch of his life, related his habits and customs, told the improper conduct of the Sieur Gendrin, and, finally, explained all his arrangements with the perfumer, without which, he said, the ball could not have been given.
"Ah! Monsieur Cesar let you settle the lease?" said du Tillet. "It is contrary to his habits."
"Oh! I asked it of him. I am good to my tenants."
"If Pere Birotteau fails," thought du Tillet, "this little imp would make an excellent assignee. His sharpness is invaluable; when he is alone he must amuse himself by catching flies, like Domitian."
Du Tillet went to the card-table, where Claparon was already stationed, under orders; Ferdinand thought that under shelter of a game of bouillotte his counterfeit banker might escape notice. Their demeanor to each other was that of two strangers, and the most suspicious man could have detected nothing that betrayed an understanding between them. Gaudissart, who knew the career of Claparon, dared not approach him after receiving a solemnly frigid glance from the promoted commercial traveller which warned him that the upstart banker was not to be recognized by any former comrade. The ball, like a brilliant rocket, was extinguished by five o'clock in the morning. At that hour only some forty hackney-coaches remained, out of the hundred or more which had crowded the Rue Saint-Honore. Within, they were dancing the boulangere, which has since been dethroned by the cotillon and the English galop. Du Tillet, Roguin, Cardot junior, the Comte de Grandville, and Jules Desmarets were playing at bouillotte. Du Tillet won three thousand francs. The day began to dawn, the wax lights paled, the players joined the dancers for a last quadrille. In such houses the final scenes of a ball never pass off without some impropriety. The dignified personages have departed; the intoxication of dancing, the heat of the atmosphere, the spirits concealed in the most innocent drinks, have mellowed the angularities of the old women, who good-naturedly join in the last quadrille and lend themselves to the excitement of the moment; the men are heated, their hair, lately curled, straggles down their faces, and gives them a grotesque expression which excites laughter; the young women grow volatile, and a few flowers drop from their garlands. The bourgeois Momus appears, followed by his revellers. Laughs ring loudly; all present surrender to the amusement of the moment, knowing that on the morrow toil will resume its sway. Matifat danced with a woman's bonnet on his head; Celestin called the figures of the interminable country dance, and some of the women beat their hands together excitedly at the words of command.
"How they do amuse themselves!" cried the happy Birotteau.
"I hope they won't break anything," said Constance to her uncle.
"You have given the most magnificent ball I have ever seen, and I have seen many," said du Tillet, bowing to his old master.
Among the eight symphonies of Beethoven there is a theme, glorious as a poem, which dominates the finale of the symphony in C minor. When, after slow preparations by the sublime magician, so well understood by Habeneck, the enthusiastic leader of an orchestra raises the rich veil with a motion of his hand and calls forth the transcendent theme towards which the powers of music have all converged, poets whose hearts have throbbed at those sounds will understand how the ball of Cesar Birotteau produced upon his simple being the same effect that this fecund harmony wrought in theirs,—an effect to which the symphony in C minor owes its supremacy over its glorious sisters. A radiant fairy springs forward, lifting high her wand. We hear the rustle of the violet silken curtains which the angels raise. Sculptured golden doors, like those of the baptistery at Florence, turn on their diamond hinges. The eye is lost in splendid vistas: it sees a long perspective of rare palaces where beings of a loftier nature glide. The incense of all prosperities sends up its smoke, the altar of all joy flames, the perfumed air circulates! Beings with divine smiles, robed in white tunics bordered with blue, flit lightly before the eyes and show us visions of supernatural beauty, shapes of an incomparable delicacy. The Loves hover in the air and waft the flames of their torches! We feel ourselves beloved; we are happy as we breathe a joy we understand not, as we bathe in the waves of a harmony that flows for all, and pours out to all the ambrosia that each desires. We are held in the grasp of our secret hopes which are realized, for an instant, as we listen. When he has led us through the skies, the great magician, with a deep mysterious transition of the basses, flings us back into the marshes of cold reality, only to draw us forth once more when, thirsting for his divine melodies, our souls cry out, "Again! Again!" The psychical history of that rare moment in the glorious finale of the C minor symphony is also that of the emotions excited by this fete in the souls of Cesar and of Constance. The flute of Collinet sounded the last notes of their commercial symphony.
Weary, but happy, the Birotteaus fell asleep in the early morning amid echoes of the fete,—which for building, repairs, furnishing, suppers, toilets, and the library (repaid to Cesarine), cost not less, though Cesar was little aware of it, than sixty thousand francs. Such was the price of the fatal red ribbon fastened by the king to the buttonhole of an honest perfumer. If misfortunes were to overtake Cesar Birotteau, this mad extravagance would be sufficient to arraign him before the criminal courts. A merchant is amenable to the laws if, in the event of bankruptcy, he is shown to have been guilty of "excessive expenditure." It is perhaps more dreadful to go before the lesser courts charged with folly or blundering mistakes, than before the Court of Assizes for an enormous fraud. In the eyes of some people, it is better to be criminal than a fool.
PART II. CESAR GRAPPLING WITH MISFORTUNE
Eight days after his ball, the last dying flash of a prosperity of eighteen years now about to be extinguished, Cesar Birotteau watched the passers-by from the windows of his shop, thinking over the expansion of his affairs, and beginning to find them burdensome. Until then all had been simple in his life; he manufactured and sold, or bought to sell again. To-day the land speculation, his share in the house of A. Popinot and Company, the repayment of the hundred and sixty thousand francs thrown upon the market, which necessitated either a traffic in promissory notes (of which his wife would disapprove), or else some unheard-of success in Cephalic Oil, all fretted the poor man by the multiplicity of ideas which they involved; he felt he had more irons in the fire than he could lay hold of. How would Anselme guide the helm? Birotteau treated Popinot as a professor of rhetoric treats a pupil,—he distrusted his methods, and regretted that he was not at his elbow. The kick he had given Popinot to make him hold his tongue at Vauquelin's explains the uneasiness which the young merchant inspired in his mind.
Birotteau took care that neither his wife nor his daughter nor the clerks should suspect his anxiety; but he was in truth like a humble boatman on the Seine whom the government has suddenly put in command of a frigate. Troubled thoughts filled his mind, never very capable of reflection, as if with a fog; he stood still, as it were, and peered about to see his way. At this moment a figure appeared in the street for which he felt a violent antipathy; it was that of his new landlord, little Molineux. Every one has dreamed dreams filled with the events of a lifetime, in which there appears and reappears some wayward being, commissioned to play the mischief and be the villain of the piece. To Birotteau's fancy Molineux seemed delegated by chance to fill some part in his life. His weird face had grinned diabolically at the ball, and he had looked at its magnificence with an evil eye. Catching sight of him again at this moment, Cesar was all the more reminded of the impression the little skin-flint (a word of his vocabulary) had made upon him, because Molineux excited fresh repugnance by reappearing in the midst of his anxious reverie.
"Monsieur," said the little man, in his atrociously hypocritical voice, "we settled our business so hastily that you forgot to guarantee the signatures on the little private deed."
Birotteau took the lease to repair the mistake. The architect came in at this moment, and bowed to the perfumer, looking about him with a diplomatic air.
"Monsieur," he whispered to Cesar presently, "you can easily understand that the first steps in a profession are difficult; you said you were satisfied with me, and it would oblige me very much if you would pay me my commission."
Birotteau, who had stripped himself of ready money when he put his current cash into Roguin's hands two weeks earlier, called to Celestin to make out an order for two thousand francs at ninety days' sight, and to write the form of a receipt.
"I am very glad you took part of your neighbor's rental on yourself," said Molineux in a sly, half-sneering tone. "My porter came to tell me just now that the sheriff has affixed the seals to the Sieur Cayron's appartement; he has disappeared."
"I hope I'm not juggled out of five thousand francs," thought Birotteau.
"Cayron always seemed to do a good business," said Lourdois, who just then came in to bring his bill.
"A merchant is never safe from commercial reverses until he has retired from business," said little Molineux, folding up his document with fussy precision.
The architect watched the queer old man with the enjoyment all artists find in getting hold of a caricature which confirms their theories about the bourgeoisie.
"When we have got our head under an umbrella we generally think it is protected from the rain," he said.
Molineux noticed the mustachios and the little chin-tuft of the artist much more than he did his face, and he despised that individual folly as much as Grindot despised him. He waited to give him a parting scratch as he went out. By dint of living so long with his cats Molineux had acquired, in his manners as well as in his eyes, something unmistakably feline.
Just at this moment Ragon and Pillerault came in.
"We have been talking of the land affair with the judge," said Ragon in Cesar's ear; "he says that in a speculation of that kind we must have a warranty from the sellers, and record the deeds, and pay in cash, before we are really owners and co-partners."
"Ah! you are talking of the lands about the Madeleine," said Lourdois; "there is a good deal said about them: there will be some houses to build."
The painter who had come intending to have his bill settled, suddenly thought it more to his interest not to press Birotteau.
"I brought my bill because it was the end of the year," he whispered to Cesar; "but there's no hurry."
"What is the matter, Cesar?" said Pillerault, noticing the amazement of his nephew, who, having glanced at the bill, made no reply to either Ragon or Lourdois.
"Oh, a trifle. I took notes to the amount of five thousand francs from my neighbor, a dealer in umbrellas, and he has failed. If he has given me bad securities I shall be caught, like a fool."
"And yet I have warned you many times," cried Ragon; "a drowning man will catch at his father's leg to save himself, and drown him too. I have seen so many failures! People are not exactly scoundrels when the disaster begins, but they soon come to be, out of sheer necessity."
"That's true," said Pillerault.
"If I ever get into the Chamber of Deputies, and ever have any influence in the government," said Birotteau, rising on his toes and dropping back on his heels,—
"What would you do?" said Lourdois, "for you've a long head."
Molineux, interested in any discussion about law, lingered in the shop; and as the attention of a few persons is apt to make others attentive, Pillerault and Ragon listened as gravely as the three strangers, though they perfectly well knew Cesar's opinions.
"I would have," said the perfumer, "a court of irremovable judges, with a magistracy to attend to the application and execution of the laws. After the examination of a case, during which the judge should fulfil the functions of agent, assignee, and commissioner, the merchant should be declared insolvent with rights of reinstatement, or else bankrupt. If the former, he should be required to pay in full; he should be left in control of his own property and that of his wife; all his belongings and his inherited property should belong to his creditors, and he should administer his affairs in their interests under supervision; he should still carry on his business, signing always 'So-and-so, insolvent,' until the whole debt is paid off. If bankrupt, he should be condemned, as formerly, to the pillory on the Place de la Bourse, and exposed for two hours, wearing a green cap. His property and that of his wife, and all his rights of every kind should be handed over to his creditors, and he himself banished from the kingdom."
"Business would be more secure," said Lourdois; "people would think twice before launching into speculations."
"The existing laws are not enforced," cried Cesar, lashing himself up. "Out of every hundred merchants there are more than fifty who never realize seventy-five per cent of the whole value of their business, or who sell their merchandise at twenty-five per cent below the invoice price; and that is the destruction of commerce."
"Monsieur is very right," said Molineux; "the law leaves a great deal too much latitude. There should either be total relinquishment of everything, or infamy."
"Damn it!" said Cesar, "at the rate things are going now, a merchant will soon be a licensed thief. With his mere signature he can dip into anybody's money-drawer."
"You have no mercy, Monsieur Birotteau," said Lourdois.
"He is quite right," said old Ragon.
"All insolvents are suspicious characters," said Cesar, exasperated by his little loss, which sounded in his ears like the first cry of the view-halloo in the ears of the game.
At this moment the late major-domo brought in Chevet's account, followed by a clerk sent by Felix, a waiter from the cafe Foy, and Collinet's clarionet, each with a bill.
"Rabelais' quarter of an hour," said Ragon, smiling.
"It was a fine ball," said Lourdois.
"I am busy," said Cesar to the messengers; who all left the bills and went away.
"Monsieur Grindot," said Lourdois, observing that the architect was folding up Birotteau's cheque, "will you certify my account? You need only to add it up; the prices were all agreed to by you on Monsieur Birotteau's behalf."
Pillerault looked at Lourdois and Grindot.
"Prices agreed upon between the architect and contractor?" he said in a low voice to his nephew,—"they have robbed you."
Grindot left the shop, and Molineux followed him with a mysterious air.
"Monsieur," he said, "you listened to me, but you did not understand me,—I wish you the protection of an umbrella."
The architect was frightened. The more illegal a man's gains the more he clings to them: the human heart is so made. Grindot had really studied the appartement lovingly; he had put all his art and all his time into it; he had given ten thousand francs worth of labor, and he felt that in so doing he had been the dupe of his vanity: the contractors therefore had little trouble in seducing him. The irresistible argument and threat, fully understood, of injuring him professionally by calumniating his work were, however, less powerful than a remark made by Lourdois about the lands near the Madeleine. Birotteau did not expect to hold a single house upon them; he was speculating only on the value of the land; but architects and contractors are to each other very much what authors and actors are,—mutually dependent. Grindot, ordered by Birotteau to stipulate the costs, went for the interests of the builders against the bourgeoisie; and the result was that three large contractors—Lourdois, Chaffaroux, and Thorein the carpenter—proclaimed him "one of those good fellows it is a pleasure to work for." Grindot guessed that the contractor's bills, out of which he was to have a share, would be paid, like his commission, in notes; and little Molineux had just filled his mind with doubts as to their payment. The architect was about to become pitiless,—after the manner of artists, who are most intolerant of men in their dealings with the middle classes.
By the end of December bills to the amount of sixty thousand francs had been sent in. Felix, the cafe Foy, Tanrade, and all the little creditors who ought to be paid in ready money, had asked for payment three times. Failure to pay such trifles as these do more harm in business than a real misfortune,—they foretell it: known losses are definite, but a panic defies all reckoning. Birotteau saw his coffers empty, and terror seized him: such a thing had never happened throughout his whole commercial life. Like all persons who have never struggled long with poverty, and who are by nature feeble, this circumstance, so common among the greater number of the petty Parisian tradesmen, disturbed for a moment Cesar's brain. He ordered Celestin to send round the bills of his customers and ask for payment. Before doing so, the head clerk made him repeat the unheard-of order. The clients,—a fine term applied by retail shopkeepers to their customers, and used by Cesar in spite of his wife, who however ended by saying, "Call them what you like, provided they pay!"—his clients, then, were rich people, through whom he had never lost money, who paid when they pleased, and among whom Cesar often had a floating amount of fifty or sixty thousand francs due to him. The second clerk went through the books and copied off the largest sums. Cesar dreaded his wife: that she might not see his depression under this simoom of misfortune, he prepared to go out.
"Good morning, monsieur," said Grindot, entering with the lively manner artists put on when they speak of business, and wish to pretend they know nothing about it; "I cannot get your paper cashed, and I am obliged to ask you to give me the amount in ready money. I am truly unhappy in making this request, but I don't wish to go to the usurers. I have not hawked your signature about; I know enough of business to feel sure it would injure you. It is really in your own interest that I—"
"Monsieur," said Birotteau, horrified, "speak lower if you please; you surprise me strangely."
"Lourdois," said Birotteau, smiling, "would you believe—"
The poor man stopped short; he was about to ask the painter to take the note given to Grindot, ridiculing the architect with the good nature of a merchant sure of his own standing; but he saw a cloud upon Lourdois' brow, and he shuddered at his own imprudence. The innocent jest would have been the death of his suspected credit. In such a case a prosperous merchant takes back his note, and does not offer it elsewhere. Birotteau felt his head swim, as though he had looked down the sides of a precipice into a measureless abyss.
"My dear Monsieur Birotteau," said Lourdois, drawing him to the back of the shop, "my account has been examined, audited, and certified; I must ask you to have the money ready for me to-morrow. I marry my daughter to little Crottat; he wants money, for notaries will not take paper; besides, I never give promissory notes."
"Send to me on the day after to-morrow," said Birotteau proudly, counting on the payment of his own bills. "And you too, Monsieur," he said to the architect.
"Why not pay at once?" said Grindot.
"I have my workmen in the faubourg to pay," said Birotteau, who knew not how to lie.
He took his hat once more intending to follow them out, but the mason, Thorein, and Chaffaroux stopped him as he was closing the door.
"Monsieur," said Chaffaroux, "we are in great need of money."
"Well, I have not the mines of Peru," said Cesar, walking quickly away from them. "There is something beneath all this," he said to himself. "That cursed ball! All the world thinks I am worth millions. Yet Lourdois had a look that was not natural; there's a snake in the grass somewhere."
He walked along the Rue Saint-Honore, in no special direction, and feeling much discomposed. At the corner of a street he ran against Alexandre Crottat, just as a ram, or a mathematician absorbed in the solution of a problem, might have knocked against another of his kind.
"Ah, monsieur," said the future notary, "one word! Has Roguin given your four hundred thousand francs to Monsieur Claparon?"
"The business was settled in your presence. Monsieur Claparon gave me no receipt; my acceptances were to be—negotiated. Roguin was to give him—my two hundred and forty thousand francs. He was told that he was to pay for the property definitely. Monsieur Popinot the judge said—The receipt!—but—why do you ask the question?"
"Why ask the question? To know if your two hundred and forty thousand francs are still with Roguin. Roguin was so long connected with you, that perhaps out of decent feeling he may have paid them over to Claparon, and you will escape! But, no! what a fool I am! He has carried off Claparon's money as well! Happily, Claparon had only paid over, to my care, one hundred thousand francs. I gave them to Roguin just as I would give you my purse, and I have no receipt for them. The owners of the land have not received one penny; they have just been talking to me. The money you thought you raised upon your property in the Faubourg du Temple had no existence for you, or the borrower; Roguin has squandered it, together with your hundred thousand francs, which he used up long ago,—and your last hundred thousand as well, for I just remember drawing them from the bank."
The pupils of Cesar's eyes dilated so enormously that he saw only red flames.
"Your hundred thousand francs in his hands, my hundred thousand for his practice, a hundred thousand from Claparon,—there's three hundred thousand francs purloined, not to speak of other thefts which will be discovered," exclaimed the young notary. "Madame Roguin is not to be counted on. Du Tillet has had a narrow escape. Roguin tormented him for a month to get into that land speculation, but happily all his funds were tied up in an affair with Nucingen. Roguin has written an atrocious letter to his wife; I have read it. He has been making free with his clients' money for years; and why? for a mistress,—la belle Hollandaise. He left her two weeks ago. The squandering hussy hasn't a farthing left; they sold her furniture,—she had signed promissory notes. To escape arrest, she took refuge in a house in the Palais-Royal, where she was assassinated last night by a captain in the army. God has quickly punished her; she has wasted Roguin's whole fortune and much more. There are some women to whom nothing is sacred: think of squandering the trust moneys of a notary! Madame Roguin won't have a penny, except by claiming her rights of dower; the scoundrel's whole property is encumbered to its full value. I bought the practice for three hundred thousand francs,—I, who thought I was getting a good thing!—and paid a hundred thousand down. I have no receipt; the creditors will think I am an accomplice if I say a word about that hundred thousand francs, and when a man is starting in life he must be careful of his reputation. There will hardly be thirty per cent saved for the creditors. At my age, to get such a set-back! A man fifty-nine years of age to keep a mistress! the old villain! It is only two weeks since he told me not to marry Cesarine; he said you would soon be without bread,—the monster!"
Alexandre might have talked on indefinitely, for Birotteau stood still, petrified. Every phrase was a calamity, like the blows of a bludgeon. He heard the death-bells tolling in his ears,—just as his eyes had seen, at the first word, the flames of his fortune. Alexandre Crottat, who thought the worthy perfumer a strong and able man, was alarmed at his paleness and rigidity. He was not aware that Roguin had carried off Cesar's whole property. The thought of immediate suicide passed through the brain of the victim, deeply religious as he was. In such a case suicide is only a way to escape a thousand deaths; it seems logical to take it. Alexandre Crottat gave him his arm, and tried to make him walk on, but it was impossible: his legs gave way under him as if he were drunk.
"What is the matter?" said Crottat. "Dear Monsieur Cesar, take courage! it is not the death of a man. Besides, you will get back your forty thousand francs. The lender hadn't the money ready, you never received it,—that is sufficient to set aside the agreement."
"My ball—my cross—two hundred thousand francs in paper on the market,—no money in hand! The Ragons, Pillerault,—and my wife, who saw true—"
A rain of confused words, revealing a weight of crushing thoughts and unutterable suffering, poured from his lips, like hail lashing the flowers in the garden of "The Queen of Roses."
"I wish they would cut off my head," he said at last; "its weight troubles me, it is good for nothing."
"Poor Pere Birotteau," said Alexandre, "are you in danger?"
"Well, take courage; make an effort."
"Du Tillet was your clerk; he has a good head; he will help you."
"Come, try to walk."
"My God! I cannot go home as I am," said Birotteau. "You who are my friend, if there are friends,—you in whom I took an interest, who have dined at my house,—take me somewhere in a carriage, for my wife's sake. Xandrot, go with me!"
The young notary compassionately put the inert mechanism which bore the name of Cesar into a street coach, not without great difficulty.
"Xandrot," said the perfumer, in a voice choked with tears,—for the tears were now falling from his eyes, and loosening the iron band which bound his brow,—"stop at my shop; go in and speak to Celestin for me. My friend, tell him it is a matter of life or death, that on no consideration must he or any one talk about Roguin's flight. Tell Cesarine to come down to me, and beg her not to say a word to her mother. We must beware of our best friends, of Pillerault, Ragon, everybody."
The change in Birotteau's voice startled Crottat, who began to understand the importance of the warning; he fulfilled the instructions of the poor man, whom Celestin and Cesarine were horrified to find pale and half insensible in a corner of the carriage.
"Keep the secret," he said.
"Ah!" said Xandrot to himself, "he is coming to. I thought him lost."
From thence they went, at Cesar's request, to a judge of the commercial courts. The conference between Crottat and the magistrate lasted long, and the president of the chamber of notaries was summoned. Cesar was carried about from place to place, like a bale of goods; he never moved, and said nothing. Towards seven in the evening Alexandre Crottat took him home. The thought of appearing before Constance braced his nerves. The young notary had the charity to go before, and warn Madame Birotteau that her husband had had a rush of blood to the head.
"His ideas are rather cloudy," he said, with a gesture implying disturbance of the brain. "Perhaps he should be bled, or leeches applied."
"No wonder," said Constance, far from dreaming of a disaster; "he did not take his precautionary medicine at the beginning of the winter, and for the last two months he has been working like a galley slave,—just as if his fortune were not made."
The wife and daughter entreated Cesar to go to bed, and they sent for his old friend Monsieur Haudry. The old man was a physician of the school of Moliere, a great practitioner and in favor of the old-fashioned formulas, who dosed his patients neither more nor less than a quack, consulting physician though he was. He came, studied the expression of Cesar's face, and observing symptoms of cerebral congestion, ordered an immediate application of mustard plasters to the soles of his feet.
"What can have caused it?" asked Constance.
"The damp weather," said the doctor, to whom Cesarine had given a hint.
It often becomes a physician's duty to utter deliberately some silly falsehood, to save honor or life, to those who are about a sick-bed. The old doctor had seen much in his day, and he caught the meaning of half a word. Cesarine followed him to the staircase, and asked for directions in managing the case.
"Quiet and silence; when the head is clear we will try tonics."
Madame Cesar passed two days at the bedside of her husband, who seemed to her at times delirious. He lay in her beautiful blue room, and as he looked at the curtains, the furniture, and all the costly magnificence about him, he said things that were wholly incomprehensible to her.
"He must be out of his mind," she whispered to Cesarine, as Cesar rose up in bed and recited clauses of the commercial Code in a solemn voice.
"'If the expenditure is judged excessive!' Away with those curtains!"
At the end of three terrible days, during which his reason was in danger, the strong constitution of the Tourangian peasant triumphed; his head grew clear. Monsieur Haudry ordered stimulants and generous diet, and before long, after an occasional cup of coffee, Cesar was on his feet again. Constance, wearied out, took her husband's place in bed.
"Poor woman!" said Cesar, looking at her as she slept.
"Come, papa, take courage! you are so superior a man that you will triumph in the end. This trouble won't last; Monsieur Anselme will help you."
Cesarine said these vague words in the tender tones which give courage to a stricken heart, just as the songs of a mother soothe the weary child tormented with pain as its cuts its teeth.
"Yes, my child, I shall struggle on; but say not a word to any one,—not to Popinot who loves us, nor to your uncle Pillerault. I shall first write to my brother; he is canon and vicar of the cathedral. He spends nothing, and I have no doubt he has means. If he saves only three thousand francs a year, that would give him at the end of twenty years one hundred thousand francs. In the provinces the priests lay up money."
Cesarine hastened to bring her father a little table with writing-things upon it,—among them the surplus of invitations printed on pink paper.
"Burn all that!" cried her father. "The devil alone could have prompted me to give that ball. If I fail, I shall seem to have been a swindler. Stop!" he added, "words are of no avail." And he wrote the following letter:—
My dear Brother,—I find myself in so severe a commercial crisis that I must ask you to send me all the money you can dispose of, even if you have to borrow some for the purpose.
Ever yours, Cesar.
Your niece, Cesarine, who is watching me as I write, while my poor wife sleeps, sends you her tender remembrances.
This postscript was added at Cesarine's urgent request; she then took the letter and gave it to Raguet.
"Father," she said, returning, "here is Monsieur Lebas, who wants to speak to you."
"Monsieur Lebas!" cried Cesar, frightened, as though his disaster had made him a criminal,—"a judge!"
"My dear Monsieur Birotteau, I take too great an interest in you," said the stout draper, entering the room, "we have known each other too long,—for we were both elected judges at the same time,—not to tell you that a man named Bidault, called Gigonnet, a usurer, has notes of yours turned over to his order, and marked 'not guaranteed,' by the house of Claparon. Those words are not only an affront, but they are the death of your credit."
"Monsieur Claparon wishes to speak to you," said Celestin, entering; "may I tell him to come up?"
"Now we shall learn the meaning of this insult," said Lebas.
"Monsieur," said Cesar to Claparon, as he entered, "this is Monsieur Lebas, a judge of the commercial courts, and my friend—"
"Ah! monsieur is Monsieur Lebas?" interrupted Claparon. "Delighted with the opportunity, Monsieur Lebas of the commercial courts; there are so many Lebas, you know, of one kind or another—"
"He has seen," said Birotteau, cutting the gabbler short, "the notes which I gave you, and which I understood from you would not be put into circulation. He has seen them bearing the words 'not guaranteed.'"
"Well," said Claparon, "they are not in general circulation; they are in the hands of a man with whom I do a great deal of business,—Pere Bidault. That is why I affixed the words 'not guaranteed.' If the notes were intended for circulation you would have made them payable to his order. Monsieur Lebas will understand my position. What do these notes represent? The price of landed property. Paid by whom? By Birotteau. Why should I guarantee Birotteau by my signature? We are to pay, each on his own account, our half of the price of the said land. Now, it is enough to be jointly and separately liable to the sellers. I hold inflexibly to one commercial rule: I never give my guarantee uselessly, any more than I give my receipt for moneys not yet paid. He who signs, pays. I don't wish to be liable to pay three times."
"Three times!" said Cesar.
"Yes, monsieur," said Claparon, "I have already guaranteed Birotteau to the sellers, why should I guarantee him again to the bankers? The circumstances in which we are placed are very hard. Roguin has carried off a hundred thousand francs of mine; therefore, my half of the property costs me five hundred thousand francs instead of four hundred thousand. Roguin has also carried off two hundred and forty thousand francs of Birotteau's. What would you do in my place, Monsieur Lebas? Stand in my skin for a moment and view the case. Give me your attention. Say that we are engaged in a transaction on equal shares; you provide the money for your share, I give bills for mine; I offer them to you, and you undertake, purely out of kindness, to convert them into money. You learn that I, Claparon,—banker, rich, respected (I accept all the virtues under the sun),—that the virtuous Claparon is on the verge of failure, with six million of liabilities to meet: would you, at such a moment, give your signature to guarantee mine? Of course not; you would be mad to do it. Well, Monsieur Lebas, Birotteau is in the position which I have supposed for Claparon. Don't you see that if I endorse for him I am liable not only for my own share of the purchase, but I shall also be compelled to reimburse to the full amount of Birotteau's paper, and without—"
"To whom?" asked Birotteau, interrupting him.
"—without gaining his half of the property?" said Claparon, paying no attention to the interruption. "For I should have no rights in it; I should have to buy it over again; consequently, I repeat, I should have to pay for it three times."
"Reimburse whom?" persisted Birotteau.
"Why, the holder of the notes, if I were to endorse, and you were to fail."
"I shall not fail, monsieur," said Birotteau.
"Very good," said Claparon. "But you have been a judge, and you are a clever merchant; you know very well that we should look ahead and foresee everything; you can't be surprised that I should attend to my business properly."
"Monsieur Claparon is right," said Joseph Lebas.
"I am right," said Claparon,—"right commercially. But this is an affair of landed property. Now, what must I have? Money, to pay the sellers. We won't speak now of the two hundred and forty thousand francs,—which I am sure Monsieur Birotteau will be able to raise soon," said Claparon, looking at Lebas. "I have come now to ask for a trifle, merely twenty-five thousand francs," he added, turning to Birotteau.
"Twenty-five thousand francs!" cried Cesar, feeling ice in his veins instead of blood. "What claim have you, monsieur?"
"What claim? Hey! we have to make a payment and execute the deeds before a notary. Among ourselves, of course, we could come to an understanding about the payment, but when we have to do with a financial public functionary it is quite another thing! He won't palaver; he'll trust you no farther than he can see. We have got to come down with forty thousand francs, to secure the registration, this week. I did not expect reproaches in coming here, for, thinking this twenty-five thousand francs might be inconvenient to you just now, I meant to tell you that, by a mere chance, I have saved you—"
"What?" said Birotteau, with that rending cry of anguish which no man ever mistakes.
"A trifle! The notes amounting to twenty-five thousand francs on divers securities which Roguin gave me to negotiate I have credited to you, for the registration payment and the fees, of which I will send you an account; there will be a small amount to deduct, and you will then owe me about six or seven thousand francs."
"All that seems to me perfectly proper," said Lebas. "In your place, monsieur, I should do the same towards a stranger."
"Monsieur Birotteau won't die of it," said Claparon; "it takes more than one shot to kill an old wolf. I have seen wolves with a ball in their head run, by God, like—wolves!"
"Who could have foreseen such villany as Roguin's?" said Lebas, as much alarmed by Cesar's silence as by the discovery of such enormous speculations outside of his friend's legitimate business of perfumery.
"I came very near giving Monsieur Birotteau a receipt for his four hundred thousand francs," said Claparon. "I should have blown up if I had, for I had given Roguin a hundred thousand myself the day before. Our mutual confidence is all that saved me. Whether the money were in a lawyer's hands or in mine until the day came to pay for the land, seemed to us all a matter of no importance."
"It would have been better," said Lebas, "to have kept the money in the Bank of France until the time came to make the payments."
"Roguin was the bank to me," said Cesar. "But he is in the speculation," he added, looking at Claparon.
"Yes, for one-fourth, by verbal agreement only. After being such a fool as to let him run off with my money, I sha'n't be such a fool as to throw any more after it. If he sends me my hundred thousand francs, and two hundred thousand more for his half of our share, I shall then see about it. But he will take good care not to send them for an affair which needs five years' pot-boiling before you get any broth. If he has only carried off, as they say, three hundred thousand francs, he will want the income of all of that to live suitably in foreign countries."
"Eh! the devil take him! It was a woman who got him where he is," said Claparon. "Where's the old man who can answer for himself that he won't be the slave of his last fancy? None of us, who think ourselves so virtuous, know how we shall end. A last passion,—eh! it is the most violent of all! Look at Cardot, Camusot, Matifat; they all have their mistresses! If we have been gobbled up to satisfy Roguin's, isn't it our own fault? Why didn't we distrust a notary who meddles with speculations? Every notary, every broker, every trustee who speculates is an object of suspicion. Failure for them is fraudulent bankruptcy; they are sure to go before the criminal courts, and therefore they prefer to run out of the country. I sha'n't commit such a stupid blunder again. Well, well! we are too shaky ourselves in the matter not to let judgment go by default against the men we have dined with, who have given us fine balls,—men of the world, in short. Nobody complains; we are all to blame."
"Very much to blame," said Birotteau. "The laws about failures and insolvency should be looked into."
"If you have any need of me," said Lebas to Cesar, "I am at your service."
"Monsieur does not need any one," said the irrepressible chatterbox, whose floodgates du Tillet had set wide open when he turned on the water,—for Claparon was now repeating a lesson du Tillet had cleverly taught him. "His course is quite clear. Roguin's assets will give fifty per cent to the creditors, so little Crottat tells me. Besides this, Monsieur Birotteau gets back the forty thousand on his note to Roguin's client, which the lender never paid over; then, of course, he can borrow on that property. We have four months ahead before we are obliged to make a payment of two hundred thousand francs to the sellers. Between now and then, Monsieur Birotteau can pay off his notes; though of course he can't count on what Roguin has carried off to meet them. Even if Monsieur Birotteau should be rather pinched, with a little manipulation he will come out all right."
The poor man took courage, as he heard Claparon analyzing the affair and summing it up with advice as to his future conduct. His countenance grew firm and decided; and he began to think highly of the late commercial traveller's capacity. Du Tillet had thought best to let Claparon believe himself really the victim of Roguin. He had given Claparon a hundred thousand francs to pay over to Roguin the day before the latter's flight, and Roguin had returned the money to du Tillet. Claparon, therefore, to that extent was playing a genuine part; and he told whoever would listen to him that Roguin had cost him a hundred thousand francs. Du Tillet thought Claparon was not bold enough, and fancied he had still too much honor and decency to make it safe to trust him with the full extent of his plans; and he knew him to be mentally incapable of conjecturing them.
"If our first friend is not our first dupe, we shall never find a second," he made answer to Claparon, on the day when his catchpenny banker reproached him for the trick; and he flung him away like a wornout instrument.
Monsieur Lebas and Claparon went out together.
"I shall pull through," said Birotteau to himself. "My liabilities amount to two hundred and thirty-five thousand francs; that is, sixty-five thousand in bills for the cost of the ball, and a hundred and seventy-five thousand given in notes for the lands. To meet these, I have my share of Roguin's assets, say perhaps one hundred thousand francs; and I can cancel the loan on my property in the Faubourg du Temple, as the mortgage never paid the money,—in all, one hundred and forty thousand. All depends on making a hundred thousand francs out of Cephalic Oil, and waiting patiently, with the help of a few notes, or a credit at a banker's, until I repair my losses or the lands about the Madeleine reach their full value."
When a man crushed by misfortune is once able to make the fiction of a hope for himself by a series of arguments, more or less reasonable, with which he bolsters himself up to rest his head, it often happens that he is really saved. Many a man has derived energy from the confidence born of illusions. Possibly, hope is the better half of courage; indeed, the Catholic religion makes it a virtue. Hope! has it not sustained the weak, and given the fainting heart time and patience to await the chances and changes of life? Cesar resolved to confide his situation to his wife's uncle before seeking for succor elsewhere. But as he walked down the Rue Saint-Honore towards the Rue des Bourdonnais, he endured an inward anguish and distress which shook him so violently that he fancied his health was giving way. His bowels seemed on fire. It is an established fact that persons who feel through their diaphragms suffer in those parts when overtaken by misfortune, just as others whose perceptions are in their heads suffer from cerebral pains and affections. In great crises, the physical powers are attacked at the point where the individual temperament has placed the vital spark. Feeble beings have the colic. Napoleon slept. Before assailing the confidence of a life-long friendship, and breaking down all the barriers of pride and self-assurance, an honorable man must needs feel in his heart—and feel it more than once—the spur of that cruel rider, necessity. Thus it happened that Birotteau had been goaded for two days before he could bring himself to seek his uncle; it was, indeed, only family reasons which finally decided him to do so. In any state of the case, it was his duty to explain his position to the severe old ironmonger, his wife's uncle. Nevertheless, as he reached the house he felt that inward faintness which a child feels when taken to a dentist's; but this shrinking of the heart involved the whole of his life, past, present, and to come,—it was not the fugitive pain of a moment. He went slowly up the stairs.
The old man was reading the "Constitutionnel" in his chimney-corner, before a little round table on which stood his frugal breakfast,—a roll, some butter, a plate of Brie cheese, and a cup of coffee.
"Here is true wisdom," thought Birotteau, envying his uncle's life.
"Well!" said Pillerault, taking off his spectacles, "I heard at the cafe David last night about Roguin's affair, and the assassination of his mistress, la belle Hollandaise. I hope, as we desire to be actual owners of the property, that you obtained Claparon's receipt for the money."
"Alas! uncle, no. The trouble is just there,—you have put your finger upon the sore."
"Good God! you are ruined!" cried Pillerault, letting fall his newspaper, which Birotteau picked up, though it was the "Constitutionnel."
Pillerault was so violently roused by his reflections that his face—like the image on a medal and of the same stern character—took a deep bronze tone, such as the metal itself takes under the oscillating tool of a coiner; he remained motionless, gazing through the window-panes at the opposite wall, but seeing nothing,—listening, however, to Birotteau. Evidently he heard and judged, and weighed the pros and cons with the inflexibility of a Minos who had crossed the Styx of commerce when he quitted the Quai des Morfondus for his little third storey.
"Well, uncle?" said Birotteau, who waited for an answer, after closing what he had to say with an entreaty that Pillerault would sell sixty thousand francs out of the Funds.
"Well, my poor nephew, I cannot do it; you are too heavily involved. The Ragons and I each lose our fifty thousand francs. Those worthy people have, by my advice, sold their shares in the mines of Wortschin: I feel obliged, in case of loss, not to return the capital of course, but to succor them, and to succor my niece and Cesarine. You may all want bread, and you shall find it with me."
"Want bread, uncle?"
"Yes, bread. See things as they are, Cesar. You cannot extricate yourself. With five thousand six hundred francs income, I could set aside four thousand francs for you and the Ragons. If misfortune overtakes you,—I know Constance, she will work herself to the bone, she will deny herself everything; and so will you, Cesar."
"All is not hopeless, uncle."
"I cannot see it as you do."
"I will prove that you are mistaken."
"Nothing would give me greater happiness."
Birotteau left Pillerault without another word. He had come to seek courage and consolation, and he received a blow less severe, perhaps, than the first; but instead of striking his head it struck his heart, and his heart was the whole of life to the poor man. After going down a few stairs he returned.
"Monsieur," he said, in a cold voice, "Constance knows nothing. Keep my secret at any rate; beg the Ragons to say nothing, and not to take from my home the peace I need so much in my struggle against misfortune."
Pillerault made a gesture of assent.
"Courage, Cesar!" he said. "I see you are angry with me; but later, when you think of your wife and daughter, you will do me justice."
Discouraged by his uncle's opinion, and recognizing its clear-sightedness, Cesar tumbled from the heights of hope into the miry marshes of doubt and uncertainty. In such horrible commercial straits a man, unless his soul is tempered like that of Pillerault, becomes the plaything of events; he follows the ideas of others, or his own, as a traveller pursues a will-o'-the-wisp. He lets the gust whirl him along, instead of lying flat and not looking up as it passes; or else gathering himself together to follow the direction of the storm till he can escape from the edges of it. In the midst of his pain Birotteau bethought him of the steps he ought to take about the mortgage on his property. He turned towards the Rue Vivienne to find Derville, his solicitor, and institute proceedings at once, in case the lawyer should see any chance of annulling the agreement. He found Derville sitting by the fire, wrapped in a white woollen dressing-gown, calm and composed in manner, like all lawyers long used to receiving terrible confidences. Birotteau noticed for the first time in his life this necessary coldness, which struck a chill to the soul of a man grasped by the fever of imperilled interests,—passionate, wounded, and cruelly gashed in his life, his honor, his wife, his child, as Cesar showed himself to be while he related his misfortunes.
"If it can be proved," said Derville, after listening to him, "that the lender no longer had in Roguin's hands the sum which Roguin pretended to borrow for you upon your property, then, as there has been no delivery of the money, there is ground for annulling the contract; the lender may seek redress through the warranty, as you will for your hundred thousand francs. I will answer for the case, however, as much as one can ever answer. No case is won till it is tried."