Your old professor and friend,
Chevalier of the Legion of honor.
P.S.—Do you think you could obtain from your respectable mother a little flask of that old and excellent cognac you once gave me? Not a drop remains, and yesterday I was forced to drink some stuff only fit to bathe horses' feet, as I did not hesitate to say to the beautiful Hebe who served it to me.
"Of course he shall have some," said Madame Phellion; "not a flask, but a gallon."
"And I," said Minard, "who pique myself on mine, which didn't come from Brigitte's grocer either, I'll send him several bottles; but don't tell him who sent them, Monsieur le chevalier, for you never can tell how that singular being will take things."
"Wife," said Phellion, suddenly, "get me my black coat and a white cravat."
"Where are you going?" asked Madame Phellion. "To the minister, to thank him?"
"Bring me, I say, those articles of habiliment. I have an important visit to make; and Monsieur le maire will, I know, excuse me."
"I myself must be off," said Minard. "I, too, have important business, though it isn't about a star."
Questioned in vain by Felix and his wife, Phellion completed his attire with a pair of white gloves, sent for a carriage, and, at the end of half an hour, entered the presence of Brigitte, whom he found presiding over the careful putting away of the china, glass, and silver which had performed their several functions the night before. Leaving these housekeeping details, she received her visitor.
"Well, papa Phellion," she said, when they were both seated in the salon, "you broke your word yesterday; you were luckier than the rest. Do you know what a trick that notary played us?"
"I know all," said Phellion; "and it is the check thus unexpectedly given to the execution of your plans that I shall take for the text of an important conversation which I desire to have with you. Sometimes Providence would seem to take pleasure in counteracting our best-laid schemes; sometimes, also, by means of the obstacles it raises in our path, it seems to intend to indicate that we are bearing too far to the right or to the left, and should pause to reflect upon our way."
"Providence!" said Brigitte the strong-minded,—"Providence has something else to do than to look after us."
"That is one opinion," said Phellion; "but I myself am accustomed to see its decrees in the little as well as the great things of life; and certainly, if it had allowed the fulfilment of your engagements with Monsieur de la Peyrade to be even partially begun yesterday, you would not have seen me here to-day."
"Then," said Brigitte, "do you think that by default of a notary the marriage will not take place? They do say that for want of a monk the abbey won't come to a standstill."
"Dear lady," said the great citizen, "you will do me the justice to feel that neither I, nor my wife, have ever attempted to influence your decision; we have allowed our young people to love each other without much consideration as to where that attachment would lead—"
"It led to upsetting their minds," said Brigitte; "that's what love is, and that's why I deprived myself of it."
"What you say is, indeed, true of my unfortunate son," resumed Phellion; "for, notwithstanding the noble distractions he has endeavored to give to his sorrow, he is to-day so miserably overcome by it that this morning, in spite of the glorious success he has just obtained, he was speaking to me of undertaking a voyage of circumnavigation around the globe,—a rash enterprise which would detain him from his native land at least three years, if, indeed, he escaped the dangers of so prolonged a journey."
"Well," said Brigitte, "it isn't a bad idea; he'll return consoled, having discovered three or four more new stars."
"His present discovery suffices," said Phellion, with double his ordinary gravity, "and it is under the auspices of that triumph, which has placed his name at so great a height in the scientific world, that I have the assurance to say to you, point-blank: Mademoiselle, I have come to ask you, on behalf of my son, who loves as he is beloved, for the hand in marriage of Mademoiselle Celeste Colleville."
"But, my dear man," replied Brigitte, "it is too late; remember that we are diametrically engaged to la Peyrade."
"It is never, they say, too late to do well, and yesterday it would have been in my judgment too early. My son, having to offer an equivalent for a fortune, could not say to you until to-day: 'Though Celeste, by your generosity has a "dot" which mine is far from equalling, yet I have the honor to be a member of the Royal order of the Legion of honor, and shortly, according to appearance, I shall be a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences, one of the five branches of the Institute.'"
"Certainly," said Brigitte; "Felix is getting to be a very pretty match, but we have passed our word to la Peyrade; the banns are published at the mayor's office, and unless something extraordinary happens the contract will be signed. La Peyrade is very busy about Thuillier's election, which he has now got into good shape; we have capital engaged with him in the affair of this newspaper; and it would be impossible to go back on our promise, even if we wished to do so."
"So," said Phellion, "in one of the rare occasions of life when reason and inclination blend together, you think you must be guided solely by the question of material interests. Celeste, as we know, has no inclination for Monsieur de la Peyrade. Brought up with Felix—"
"Brought up with Felix!" interrupted Brigitte. "She was given a period of time to choose between Monsieur de la Peyrade and your son,—that's how we coerce her, if you please,—and she would not take Monsieur Felix, whose atheism is too well known."
"You are mistaken, mademoiselle, my son is not an atheist; for Voltaire himself doubted if there could be atheists; and no later than yesterday, in this house, an ecclesiastic, as admirable for his talents as for his virtues, after making a magnificent eulogy of my son, expressed the desire to know him."
"Parbleu! yes, to convert him," said Brigitte. "But as for this marriage, I am sorry to tell you that the mustard is made too late for the dinner; Thuillier will never renounce his la Peyrade."
"Mademoiselle," said Phellion, rising, "I feel no humiliation for the useless step I have this day taken; I do not even ask you to keep it secret, for I shall myself mention it to our friends and acquaintances."
"Tell it to whom you like, my good man," replied Brigitte, acrimoniously. "Because your son has discovered a star,—if, indeed, he did discover it, and not that old fool the government decorated—do you expect him to marry a daughter of the King of the French?"
"Enough," said Phellion, "we will say no more. I might answer that, without depreciating the Thuilliers, the Orleans family seems to me more distinguished; but I do not like to introduce acerbity into the conversation, and therefore, begging you to receive the assurance of my humble respects, I retire."
So saying, he made his exit majestically, and left Brigitte with the arrow of his comparison, discharged after the manner of the Parthian "in extremis," sticking in her mind, and she herself in a temper all the more savage because already, the evening before, Madame Thuillier, after the guests were gone, had the incredible audacity to say something in favor of Felix. Needless to relate that the poor helot was roughly put down and told to mind her own business. But this attempt at a will of her own in her sister-in-law had already put the old maid in a vile humor, and Phellion, coming to reopen the subject, exasperated her. Josephine, the cook, and the "male domestic," received the after-clap of the scene which had just taken place. Brigitte found that in her absence everything had been done wrong, and putting her own hand to the work, she hoisted herself on a chair, at the risk of her neck, to reach the upper shelves of the closet, where her choicest china, for gala days, was carefully kept under lock and key.
This day, which for Brigitte began so ill, was, beyond all gainsaying, one of the stormiest and most portentous of this narrative.
CHAPTER XIV. A STORMY DAY
As an exact historian, we must go back and begin the day at six in the morning, when we can see Madame Thuillier going to the Madeleine to hear the mass that the Abbe Gondrin was in the habit of saying at that hour, and afterwards approaching the holy table,—a viaticum which pious souls never fail to give themselves when it is in their minds to accomplish some great resolution.
About mid-day the abbe received a visit in his own home from Madame Thuillier and Celeste. The poor child wanted a little development of the words by which the priest had given security, the evening before, in Brigitte's salon, for the eternal welfare of Felix Phellion. It seemed strange to the mind of this girl-theologian that, without practising religion, a soul could be received into grace by the divine justice; for surely the anathema is clear: Out of the Church there is no salvation.
"My dear child," said the Abbe Gondrin, "learn to understand that saying which seems to you so inexplicable. It is more a saying of thanksgiving for those who have the happiness to live within the pale of our holy mother the Church than a malediction upon those who have the misfortune to live apart from her. God sees to the depths of all hearts; He knows His elect; and so great is the treasure of His goodness that to none is it given to limit its riches and its munificence. Who shall dare to say to God: Thou wilt be generous and munificent so far and no farther. Jesus Christ forgave the woman in adultery, and on the cross He promised heaven to a thief, in order to prove to us that He deals with men, not according to human sentiments, but according to his wisdom and his mercy. He who thinks himself a Christian may be in the eyes of God an idolator; and another who is thought a pagan may, by his feelings and his actions be, without his own knowledge, a Christian. Our holy religion has this that is divine about it; all grandeur, all heroism are but the practice of its precepts. I was saying yesterday to Monsieur de la Peyrade that pure souls must be, in course of time, its inevitable conquest. It is all-important to give them their just credit; that is a confidence which returns great dividends; and, besides, charity commands it."
"Ah! my God!" cried Celeste, "to learn that too late! I, who could have chosen between Felix and Monsieur de la Peyrade, and did not dare to follow the ideas of my heart! Oh! Monsieur l'abbe, couldn't you speak to my mother? Your advice is always listened to."
"Impossible, my dear child," replied the vicar. "If I had the direction of Madame Colleville's conscience I might perhaps say a word, but we are so often accused of meddling imprudently in family matters! Be sure that my intervention here, without authority or right, would do you more harm than good. It is for you and for those who love you," he added, giving a look to Madame Thuillier, "to see if these arrangements, already so far advanced, could be changed in the direction of your wishes."
It was written that the poor child was to drink to the dregs the cup she had herself prepared by her intolerance. As the abbe finished speaking, his housekeeper came in to ask if he would receive Monsieur Felix Phellion. Thus, like the Charter of 1830, Madame de Godollo's officious falsehood was turned into truth.
"Go this way," he said hastily, showing his two penitents out by a private corridor.
Life has such strange encounters that it does sometimes happen that the same form of proceeding must be used by courtesans and by the men of God.
"Monsieur l'abbe," said Felix to the young vicar as soon as they met, "I have heard of the kind manner in which you were so very good as to speak of me in Monsieur Thuillier's salon last night, and I should have hastened to express my gratitude if another interest had not drawn me to you."
The Abbe Gondrin passed hastily over the compliments, eager to know in what way he could be useful to his fellow-man.
"With an intention that I wish to think kindly," replied Felix, "you were spoken to yesterday about the state of my soul. Those who read it so fluently know more than I do about my inner being, for, during the last few days I have felt strange, inexplicable feelings within me. Never have I doubted God, but, in contact with that infinitude where he has permitted my thought to follow the traces of his work I seem to have gathered a sense of him less vague, more immediate; and this has led me to ask myself whether an honest and upright life is the only homage which his omnipotence expects of me. Nevertheless, there are numberless objections rising in my mind against the worship of which you are the minister; while sensible of the beauty of its external form in many of its precepts and practices, I find myself deterred by my reason. I shall have paid dearly, perhaps by the happiness of my whole life, for the slowness and want of vigor which I have shown in seeking the solution of my doubts. I have now decided to search to the bottom of them. No one so well as you, Monsieur l'abbe, can help me to solve them. I have come with confidence to lay them before you, to ask you to listen to me, to answer me, and to tell me by what studies I can pursue the search for light. It is a cruelly afflicted soul that appeals to you. Is not that a good ground for the seed of your word?"
The Abbe Gondrin eagerly protested the joy with which, notwithstanding his own insufficiency, he would undertake to reply to the scruples of conscience in the young savant. After asking him for a place in his friendship, and telling him to come at certain hours for conversation, he asked him to read, as a first step, the "Thoughts" of Pascal. A natural affinity, on the side of science, would, he believed, be established between the spirit of Pascal and that of the young mathematician.
While this scene was passing, a scene to which the greatness of the interests in question and the moral and intellectual elevation of the personages concerned in it gave a character of grandeur which, like all reposeful, tranquil aspects, is easier far to comprehend than to reproduce, another scene, of sharp and bitter discord, that chronic malady of bourgeois households, where the pettiness of minds and passions gives open way to it, was taking place in the Thuillier home.
Mounted upon her chair, her hair in disorder and her face and fingers dirty, Brigitte, duster in hand, was cleaning the shelves of the closet, where she was replacing her library of plates, dishes, and sauce-boats, when Flavie came in and accosted her.
"Brigitte," she said, "when you have finished what you are about you had better come down to our apartment, or else I'll send Celeste to you; she seems to me to be inclined to make trouble."
"In what way?" asked Brigitte, continuing to dust.
"I think she and Madame Thuillier went to see the Abbe Gondrin this morning, and she has been attacking me about Felix Phellion, and talks of him as if he were a god; from that to refusing to marry la Peyrade is but a step."
"Those cursed skull-caps!" said Brigitte; "they meddle in everything! I didn't want to invite him, but you would insist."
"Yes," said Flavie, "it was proper."
"Proper! I despise proprieties!" cried the old maid. "He's a maker of speeches; he said nothing last night that wasn't objectionable. Send Celeste to me; I'll settle her."
At this instant a servant announced to Brigitte the arrival of a clerk from the office of the new notary chosen, in default of Dupuis, to draw up the contract. Without considering her disorderly appearance, Brigitte ordered him to be shown in, but she made him the condescension of descending from her perch instead of talking from the height of it.
"Monsieur Thuillier," said the clerk, "came to our office this morning to explain to the master the clauses of the contract he has been so good as to entrust to us. But before writing down the stipulations, we are in the habit of obtaining from the lips of each donor a direct expression of his or her intentions. In accordance with this rule, Monsieur Thuillier told us that he gives to the bride the reversion, at his death, of the house he inhabits, which I presume to be this one?"
"Yes," said Brigitte, "that is the understanding. As for me, I give three hundred thousand francs a year in the Three-per-cents, capital and interest; but the bride is married under the dotal system."
"That is so," said the clerk, consulting his notes. "Mademoiselle Brigitte, three thousand francs a year. Now, there is Madame Celeste Thuillier, wife of Louis-Jerome Thuillier, who gives six thousand in the Three-per-cents, capital and interest, and six thousand more at her death."
"All that is just as if the notary had written it down," said Brigitte; "but if it is your custom you can see my sister-in-law; they will show you the way."
So saying, the old maid ordered the "male domestic" to take the clerk to Madame Thuillier.
A moment later the clerk returned, saying there was certainly some misunderstanding, and that Madame Thuillier declared she had no intention of making any agreement in favor of the marriage.
"That's a pretty thing!" cried Brigitte. "Come with me, monsieur."
Then, like a hurricane, she rushed into Madame Thuillier's chamber; the latter was pale and trembling.
"What's this you have told monsieur?—that you give nothing to Celeste's 'dot'?"
"Yes," said the slave, declaring insurrection, although in a shaking voice; "my intention is to do nothing."
"Your intention," said Brigitte, scarlet with anger, "is something new."
"That is my intention," was all the rebel replied.
"At least you will give your reasons?"
"The marriage does not please me."
"Ha! and since when?"
"It is not necessary that monsieur should listen to our discussion," said Madame Thuillier; "it will not appear in the contract."
"No wonder you are ashamed of it," said Brigitte; "the appearance you are making is not very flattering to you—Monsieur," she continued, addressing the clerk, "it is easier, is it not, to mark out passages in a contract than to add them?"
The clerk made an affirmative sign.
"Then put in what you were told to write; later, if madame persists, the clause can be stricken out."
The clerk bowed and left the room.
When the two sisters-in-law were alone together, Brigitte began.
"Ah ca!" she cried, "have you lost your head? What is this crotchet you've taken into it?"
"It is not a crotchet; it is a fixed idea."
"Which you got from the Abbe Gondrin; you dare not deny that you went to see him with Celeste."
"It is true that Celeste and I saw our director this morning, but I did not open my lips to him about what I intended to do."
"So, then, it is in your own empty head that this notion sprouted?"
"Yes. As I told you yesterday, I think Celeste can be more suitably married, and my intention is not to rob myself for a marriage of which I disapprove."
"You disapprove! Upon my word! are we all to take madame's advice?"
"I know well," replied Madame Thuillier, "that I count for nothing in this house. So far as I am concerned, I have long accepted my position; but, when the matter concerns the happiness of a child I regard as my own—"
"Parbleu!" cried Brigitte, "you never knew how to have one; for, certainly, Thuillier—"
"Sister," said Madame Thuillier, with dignity, "I took the sacrament this morning, and there are some things I cannot listen to."
"There's a canting hypocrite for you!" cried Brigitte; "playing the saint, and bringing trouble into families! And you think to succeed, do you? Wait till Thuillier comes home, and he'll shake this out of you."
By calling in the marital authority in support of her own, Brigitte showed weakness before the unexpected resistance thus made to her inveterate tyranny. Madame Thuillier's calm words, which became every moment more resolute, baffled her completely, and she found no resource but insolence.
"A drone!" she cried; "a helpless good-for-nothing! who can't even pick up her own handkerchief! that thing wants to be mistress of this house!"
"I wish so little to be its mistress," said Madame Thuillier, "that last night I allowed you to silence me after the first words I said in behalf of Celeste. But I am mistress of my own property, and as I believe that Celeste will be wretched in this marriage, I keep it to use as may seem best to me."
"Your property, indeed!" said Brigitte, with a sneer.
"Yes, that which I received from my father and my mother, and which I brought as my 'dot' to Monsieur Thuillier."
"And pray who invested it, this property, and made it give you twelve thousand francs a year?"
"I have never asked you for any account of it," said Madame Thuillier, gently. "If it had been lost in the uses you made of it, you would never have heard a single word from me; but it has prospered, and it is just that I should have the benefit. It is not for myself that I reserve it."
"Perhaps not; if this is the course you take, it is not at all sure that you and I will go out of the same door long."
"Do you mean that Monsieur Thuillier will send me away? He must have reasons for doing that, and, thank God! I have been a wife above reproach."
"Viper! hypocrite! heartless creature!" cried Brigitte, coming to an end of her arguments.
"Sister," said Madame Thuillier, "you are in my apartment—"
"Am I, you imbecile?" cried the old maid, in a paroxysm of anger. "If I didn't restrain myself—"
And she made a gesture both insulting and threatening.
Madame Thuillier rose to leave the room.
"No! you shall not go out," cried Brigitte, pushing her down into her chair; "and till Thuillier comes home and decides what he will do with you you'll stay locked up here."
Just as Brigitte, her face on fire, returned to the room where she had left Madame Colleville, her brother came in. He was radiant.
"My dear," he said to the Megaera, not observing her fury, "everything is going on finely; the conspiracy of silence is broken; two papers, the 'National' and a Carlist journal, have copied articles from us, and there's a little attack in a ministerial paper."
"Well, all is not going on finely here," said Brigitte, "and if it continues, I shall leave the barrack."
"Whom are you angry with now?" asked Thuillier.
"With your insolent wife, who has made me a scene; I am trembling all over."
"Celeste make you a scene!" said Thuillier; "then it is the very first time in her life."
"There's a beginning to everything, and if you don't bring her to order—"
"But what was it about—this scene?"
"About madame's not choosing that la Peyrade should marry her goddaughter; and out of spite, to prevent the marriage, she refused to give anything in the contract."
"Come, be calm," said Thuillier, not disturbed himself, the admission of the "Echo" into the polemic making another Pangloss of him. "I'll settle all that."
"You, Flavie," said Brigitte, when Thuillier had departed to his wife, "you will do me the pleasure to go down to your own apartment, and tell Mademoiselle Celeste that I don't choose to see her now, because if she made me any irritating answer I might box her ears. You'll tell her that I don't like conspiracies; that she was left at liberty to choose Monsieur Phellion junior if she wanted him, and she did not want him; that the matter is now all arranged, and that if she does not wish to see her 'dot' reduced to what you are able to give her, which isn't as much as a bank-messenger could carry in his waistcoat pocket—"
"But, my dear Brigitte," interrupted Flavie, turning upon her at this impertinence, "you may dispense with reminding us in this harsh way of our poverty; for, after all, we have never asked you for anything, and we pay our rent punctually; and as for the 'dot,' Monsieur Felix Phellion is quite ready to take Celeste with no more than a bank-messenger could carry in his bag."
And she emphasized the last word by her way of pronouncing it.
"Ha! so you too are going to meddle in this, are you?" cried Brigitte. "Very good; go and fetch him, your Felix. I know, my little woman, that this marriage has never suited you; it IS disagreeable to be nothing more than a mother to your son-in-law."
Flavie had recovered the coolness she had lost for an instant, and without replying to this speech she merely shrugged her shoulders.
At this moment Thuillier returned; his air of beatitude had deserted him.
"My dear Brigitte," he said to his sister, "you have a most excellent heart, but at times you are so violent—"
"Ho!" said the old maid, "am I to be arraigned on this side too?"
"I certainly do not blame you for the cause of the trouble, and I have just rebuked Celeste for her assumption; but there are proper forms that must be kept."
"Forms! what are you talking about? What forms have I neglected?"
"But, my dear friend, to raise your hand against your sister!"
"I, raise my hand against that imbecile? What nonsense you talk!"
"And besides," continued Thuillier, "a woman of Celeste's age can't be kept in prison."
"Your wife!—have I put her in prison?"
"You can't deny it, for I found the door of her room double-locked."
"Parbleu! all this because in my anger at the infamous things she was spitting at me I may have turned the key of the door without intending it."
"Come, come," said Thuillier, "these are not proper actions for people of our class."
"Oh! so it is I who am to blame, is it? Well, my lad, some day you'll remember this, and we shall see how your household will get along when I have stopped taking care of it."
"You'll always take care of it," said Thuillier. "Housekeeping is your very life; you will be the first to get over this affair."
"We'll see about that," said Brigitte; "after twenty years of devotion, to be treated like the lowest of the low!"
And rushing to the door, which she slammed after her with violence, she went away.
Thuillier was not disturbed by this exit.
"Were you there, Flavie," he asked, "when the scene took place?"
"No, it happened in Celeste's room. What did she do to her?"
"What I said,—raised her hand to her and locked her in like a child. Celeste may certainly be rather dull-minded, but there are limits that must not be passed."
"She is not always pleasant, that good Brigitte," said Flavie; "she and I have just had a little set-to."
"Oh, well," said Thuillier, "it will all pass off. I want to tell you, my dear Flavie, what fine success we have had this morning. The 'National' quotes two whole paragraphs of an article in which there were several sentences of mine."
Thuillier was again interrupted in the tale of his great political and literary success,—this time by the entrance of Josephine the cook.
"Can monsieur tell me where to find the key of the great trunk?" she said.
"What do you want with it?" asked Thuillier.
"Mademoiselle told me to take it to her room."
"Mademoiselle must be going to make a journey. She is getting her linen out of the drawers, and her gowns are on the bed."
"Another piece of nonsense!" said Thuillier. "Flavie, go and see what she has in her head."
"Not I," said Madame Colleville; "go yourself. In her present state of exasperation she might beat me."
"And my stupid wife, who must needs raise a fuss about the contract!" cried Thuillier. "She really must have said something pretty sharp to turn Brigitte off her hinges like this."
"Monsieur has not told me where to find the key," persisted Josephine.
"I don't know anything about it," said Thuillier, crossly; "go and look for it, or else tell her it is lost."
"Oh, yes!" said Josephine, "it is likely I'd dare to go and tell her that."
Just then the outer door-bell rang.
"No doubt that's la Peyrade," said Thuillier, in a tone of satisfaction.
The Provencal appeared a moment later.
"Faith, my dear friend," cried Thuillier, "it is high time you came; the house is in revolution, all about you, and it needs your silvery tongue to bring it back to peace and quietness."
Then he related to his assistant editor the circumstances of the civil war which had broken out.
La Peyrade turned to Madame Colleville.
"I think," he said, "that under the circumstances in which we now stand there is no impropriety in my asking for an interview of a few moments with Mademoiselle Colleville."
In this the Provencal showed his usual shrewd ability; he saw that in the mission of pacification thus given to him Celeste Colleville was the key of the situation.
"I will send for her, and we will leave you alone together," said Flavie.
"My dear Thuillier," said la Peyrade, "you must, without any violence, let Mademoiselle Celeste know that her consent must be given without further delay; make her think that this was the purpose for which you have sent for her; then leave us; I will do the rest."
The man-servant was sent down to the entresol with orders to tell Celeste that her godfather wished to speak to her. As soon as she appeared, Thuillier said, to carry out the programme which had been dictated to him:—
"My dear, your mother has told us things that astonish us. Can it be true that with your contract almost signed, you have not yet decided to accept the marriage we have arranged for you?"
"Godfather," said Celeste, rather surprised at this abrupt summons, "I think I did not say that to mamma."
"Did you not just now," said Flavie, "praise Monsieur Felix Phellion to me in the most extravagant manner?"
"I spoke of Monsieur Phellion as all the world is speaking of him."
"Come, come," said Thuillier, with authority, "let us have no equivocation; do you refuse, yes or no, to marry Monsieur de la Peyrade?"
"Dear, good friend," said la Peyrade, intervening, "your way of putting the question is rather too abrupt, and, in my presence, especially, it seems to me out of place. In my position as the most interested person, will you allow me to have an interview with mademoiselle, which, indeed, has now become necessary? This favor I am sure will not be refused by Madame Colleville. Under present circumstances, there can surely be nothing in my request to alarm her maternal prudence."
"I would certainly yield to it," said Flavie, "if I did not fear that these discussions might seem to open a question which is irrevocably decided."
"But, my dear madame, I have the strongest desire that Mademoiselle Celeste shall remain, until the very last moment, the mistress of her own choice. I beg you, therefore, to grant my request."
"So be it!" said Madame Colleville; "you think yourself very clever, but if you let that girl twist you round her finger, so much the worse for you. Come, Thuillier, since we are 'de trop' here."
As soon as the pair were alone together, la Peyrade drew up a chair for Celeste, and took one himself, saying:—
"You will, I venture to believe, do me the justice to say that until to-day I have never annoyed you with the expression of my sentiments. I was aware of the inclinations of your heart, and also of the warnings of your conscience. I hoped, after a time, to make myself acceptable as a refuge from those two currents of feeling; but, at the point which we have now reached, I think it is not either indiscreet or impatient to ask you to let me know plainly what course you have decided upon."
"Monsieur," replied Celeste, "as you speak to me so kindly and frankly, I will tell you, what indeed you know already, that, brought up as I was with Monsieur Felix Phellion, knowing him far longer than I have known you, the idea of marrying alarmed me less in regard to him than it would in regard to others."
"At one time, I believe," remarked la Peyrade, "you were permitted to choose him if you wished."
"Yes, but at that time difficulties grew up between us on religious ideas."
"And to-day those difficulties have disappeared?"
"Nearly," replied Celeste. "I am accustomed to submit to the judgment of those who are wiser than myself, monsieur, and you heard yesterday the manner in which the Abbe Gondrin spoke of Monsieur Phellion."
"God forbid," said la Peyrade, "that I should seek to invalidate the judgment of so excellent a man; but I venture to say to you, mademoiselle, that there are great differences among the clergy; some are thought too stern, some far too indulgent; moreover, the Abbe Gondrin is more of a preacher than a casuist."
"But, Monsieur Felix," said Celeste, eagerly, "seems to wish to fulfil Monsieur l'abbe's hopes of him, for I know that he went to see him this morning."
"Ah!" said la Peyrade, with a touch of irony, "so he really decided to go to Pere Anselme! But, admitting that on the religious side Monsieur Phellion may now become all that you expect of him, have you reflected, mademoiselle, on the great event which has just taken place in his life?"
"Undoubtedly; and that is not a reason to think less of him."
"No, but it is a reason why he should think more of himself. For the modesty which was once the chief charm of his nature, he is likely to substitute great assumption, and you must remember, mademoiselle, that he who has discovered one world will want to discover two; you will have the whole firmament for rival; in short, could you ever be happy with a man so entirely devoted to science?"
"You plead your cause with such adroitness," said Celeste, smiling, "that I think you might be as a lawyer more disquieting than an astronomer."
"Mademoiselle," said la Peyrade, "let us speak seriously; there is another and far more serious aspect to the situation. Do you know that, at this moment, in this house, and without, I am sure, desiring it, you are the cause of most distressing and regrettable scenes?"
"I, monsieur!" said Celeste, in a tone of surprise that was mingled with fear.
"Yes, concerning your godmother. Through the extreme affection that she has for you she seems to have become another woman; for the first time in her life she has shown a mind of her own. With an energy of will which comes at times to those who have never expended any, she declares that she will not make her proposed liberal gift to you in the contract; and I need not tell you who is the person aimed at in this unexpected refusal."
"But, monsieur, I entreat you to believe that I knew nothing of this idea of my godmother."
"I know that," said la Peyrade, "and the matter itself would be of small importance if Mademoiselle Brigitte had not taken this attitude of your godmother, whom she has always found supple to her will, as a personal insult to herself. Very painful explanations, approaching at last to violence, have taken place. Thuillier, placed between the hammer and the anvil, has been unable to stop the affair; on the contrary, he has, without intending it, made matters worse, till they have now arrived at such a point that Mademoiselle Brigitte is packing her trunks to leave the house."
"Monsieur! what are you telling me?" cried Celeste, horrified.
"The truth; and the servants will confirm it to you—for I feel that my revelations are scarcely believable."
"But it is impossible! impossible!" said the poor child, whose agitation increased with every word of the adroit Provencal. "I cannot be the cause of such dreadful harm."
"That is, you did not intend to be, for the harm is done; and I pray Heaven it may not be irremediable."
"But what am I to do, good God!" cried Celeste, wringing her hands.
"I should answer, without hesitation, sacrifice yourself, mademoiselle, if it were not that I should then be forced to play the painful part of victimizer."
"Monsieur," said Celeste, "you interpret ill the resistance that I have made, though, in fact, I have scarcely expressed it. I have certainly had a preference, but I have never considered myself in the light of a victim; and whatever it is necessary to do to restore peace in this house to which I have brought trouble, I shall do it without repugnance, and even willingly."
"That would be for me," said la Peyrade, humbly, "more than I could dare ask for myself; but, for the result which we both seek, I must tell you frankly that something more is needed. Madame Thuillier has not changed her nature to instantly change back again on the mere assurance by others of your compliance. It is necessary that she should hear from your own lips that you accede to my suit, and that you do so with eagerness,—assumed, indeed, but sufficiently well assumed to induce her to believe in it."
"So be it," said Celeste. "I shall know how to seem smiling and happy. My godmother, monsieur, has been a mother to me; and for such a mother, what is there that I would not endure?"
The position was such, and Celeste betrayed so artlessly the depth and, at the same time, the absolute determination of her sacrifice, that with any heart at all la Peyrade would have loathed the part he was playing; but Celeste, to him, was a means of ascent, and provided the ladder can hold you and hoist you, who would ever ask if it cared to or not? It was therefore decided that Celeste should go to her godmother and convince her of the mistake she had made in supposing an objection to la Peyrade which Celeste had never intended to make. Madame Thuillier's opposition overcome, all was once more easy. La Peyrade took upon himself the duty of making peace between the two sisters-in-law, and we can well imagine that he was not at a loss for fine phrases with which to assure the artless girl of the devotion and love which would take from her all regret for the moral compulsion she had now undergone.
When Celeste went to her godmother she found her by no means as difficult to convince as she had expected. To go to the point of rebellion which Madame Thuillier had actually reached, the poor woman, who was acting against her instincts and against her nature, had needed a tension of will that, in her, was almost superhuman. No sooner had she received the false confidences of her goddaughter than the reaction set in; the strength failed her to continue in the path she had taken. She was therefore easily the dupe of the comedy which Celeste's tender heart was made to play for la Peyrade's benefit.
The tempest calmed on this side, the barrister found no difficulty in making Brigitte understand that in quelling the rebellion against her authority she had gone a little farther than was proper. This authority being no longer in danger, Brigitte ceased to be incensed with the sister-in-law she had been on the point of beating, and the quarrel was settled with a few kind words and a kiss, poor Celeste paying the costs of war.
After dinner, which was only a family meal, the notary, to whose office they were to go on the following day to sign the contract (it being impossible to give a second edition of the abortive party), made his appearance. He came, he said, to submit the contract to the parties interested before engrossing it. This attention was not surprising in a man who was just entering into business relations with so important a person as the municipal councillor, whom it was his interest to firmly secure for a client.
La Peyrade was far too shrewd to make any objections to the terms of the contract, which was now read. A few changes requested by Brigitte, which gave the new notary a high idea of the old maid's business capacity, showed la Peyrade plainly that more precautions were being taken against him than were altogether becoming; but he was anxious not to raise difficulties, and he knew that the meshes of a contract are never so close that a determined and clever man cannot get through them. The appointment was then made for the signing of the contract the next day, at two o'clock, in the notary's office, the family only being present.
During the rest of the evening, taking advantage of Celeste's pledge to seem smiling and happy, la Peyrade played, as it were, upon the poor child, forced her, by a specious exhibition of gratitude and love, to respond to him on a key that was far, indeed, from the true state of a heart now wholly filled by Felix. Flavie, seeing the manner in which la Peyrade put forth his seductions, was reminded of the pains he had formerly taken to fascinate herself. "The monster!" she said, beneath her breath. But she was forced to bear the torture with a good grace; la Peyrade was evidently approved by all, and in the course of the evening a circumstance came to light, showing a past service done by him to the house of Thuillier, which brought his influence and his credit to the highest point.
Minard was announced.
"My dear friends," he said, "I have come to make a little revelation which will greatly surprise you, and will, I think, prove a lesson to all of us when a question arises as to receiving foreigners in our homes."
"What is it?" cried Brigitte, with curiosity.
"That Hungarian woman you were so delighted with, that Madame Torna, Comtesse de Godollo—"
"Well?" exclaimed the old maid.
"Well," continued Minard, "she was no better than she should be; you were petting in your house for two months the most impudent of kept women."
"Who told you that tale?" asked Brigitte, not willing to admit that she had fallen into such a snare.
"Oh, it isn't a tale," said the mayor, eagerly. "I know the thing myself, 'de visu.'"
"Dear me! do you frequent such women?" said Brigitte, resuming the offensive. "That's a pretty thing! what would Zelie say if she knew it?"
"In the discharge of my duties," said Minard, stiffly, provoked at this reception of his news, "I have seen your friend, Madame de Godollo, in company with others of her class."
"How do you know it was she if you only saw her?" demanded Brigitte.
The wily Provencal was not the man to lose an occasion that fell to him ready-made.
"Monsieur le maire is not mistaken," he said, with decision.
"Tiens! so you know her, too," said Brigitte; "and you let us consort with such vermin?"
"No," said la Peyrade, "on the contrary. Without scandal, without saying a word to any one, I removed her from your house. You remember how suddenly the woman left it? It was I who compelled her to do so; having discovered what she was, I gave her two days to leave the premises; threatening her, in case she hesitated, to tell you all."
"My dear Theodose," said Thuillier, pressing his hand, "you acted with as much prudence as decision. This is one more obligation that we owe to you."
"You see, mademoiselle," said la Peyrade, addressing Celeste, "the strange protectress whom a friend of yours selected."
"Thank God," said Madame Thuillier. "Felix Phellion is above such vile things."
"Ah ca! papa Minard, we'll keep quiet about all this; silence is the word. Will you take a cup of tea?"
"Willingly," replied Minard.
"Celeste," said the old maid, "ring for Henri, and tell him to put the large kettle on the fire."
Though the visit to the notary was not to be made till two in the afternoon, Brigitte began early in the morning of the next day what Thuillier called her rampage, a popular term which expresses that turbulent, nagging, irritating activity which La Fontaine has described so well in his fable of "The Old Woman and her Servants." Brigitte declared that if you didn't take time by the forelock no one would be ready. She prevented Thuillier from going to his office, insisting that if he once got off she never should see him again; she plagued Josephine, the cook, about hurrying the breakfast, and in spite of what had happened the day before she scarcely restrained herself from nagging at Madame Thuillier, who did not enter, as she thought she should have done, into her favorite maxim, "Better be early than late."
Presently down she went to the Collevilles' to make the same disturbance; and there she put her veto on the costume, far too elegant, which Flavie meditated wearing, and told Celeste the hat and gown she wished her to appear in. As for Colleville, who could not, he declared, stay away all the morning from his official duties, she compelled him to put on his dress-suit before he went out, made him set his watch by hers, and warned him that if he was late no one would wait for him.
The amusing part of it was that Brigitte herself, after driving every one at the point of the bayonet, came very near being late herself. Under pretext of aiding others, independently of minding her own business, which, for worlds, she would never have spared herself, she had put her fingers and eyes into so many things that they ended by overwhelming her. However, she ascribed the delay in which she was almost caught to the hairdresser, whom she had sent for to make, on this extraordinary occasion, what she called her "part." That artist having, unadvisedly, dressed her hair in the fashion, he was compelled, after she had looked at herself in the glass, to do his work over again, and conform to the usual style of his client, which consisted chiefly in never being "done" at all, a method that gave her head a general air of what is vulgarly called "a cross cat."
About half-past one o'clock la Peyrade, Thuillier, Colleville, Madame Thuillier, and Celeste were assembled in the salon. Flavie joined them soon after, fastening her bracelets as she came along to avoid a rebuff, and having the satisfaction of knowing that she was ready before Brigitte. As for the latter, already furious at finding herself late, she had another cause for exasperation. The event of the day seemed to require a corset, a refinement which she usually discarded. The unfortunate maid, whose duty it was to lace her and to discover the exact point to which she was willing to be drawn in, alone knew the terrors and storms of a corset day.
"I'd rather," said the girl, "lace the obelisk; I know it would lend itself to being laced better than she does; and, anyhow, it couldn't be bad-tongued."
While the party in the salon were amusing themselves, under their breaths, at the "flagrante delicto" of unpunctuality in which Queen Elizabeth was caught, the porter entered, and gave to Thuillier a sealed package, addressed to "Monsieur Thuillier, director of the 'Echo de la Bievre.' In haste."
Thuillier opened the envelope, and found within a copy of a ministerial journal which had hitherto shown itself discourteous to the new paper by refusing the exchange which all periodicals usually make very willingly with one another.
Puzzled by the fact of this missive being sent to his own house and not to the office of the "Echo," Thuillier hastily opened the sheet, and read, with what emotion the reader may conceive, the following article, commended to his notice by a circle in red ink:—
An obscure organ was about to expire in its native shade when an ambitious person of recent date bethought himself of galvanizing it. His object was to make it a foothold by which to climb from municipal functions to the coveted position of deputy. Happily this object, having come to the surface, will end in failure. Electors will certainly not be inveigled by so wily a manner of advancing self-interests; and when the proper time arrives, if ridicule has not already done justice on this absurd candidacy, we shall ourselves prove to the pretender that to aspire to the distinguished honor of representing the nation something more is required than the money to buy a paper and pay an underling to put into good French the horrible diction of his articles and pamphlets. We confine ourselves to-day to this limited notice, but our readers may be sure that we shall keep them informed about this electoral comedy, if indeed the parties concerned have the melancholy courage to go on with it.
Thuillier read twice over this sudden declaration of war, which was far from leaving him calm and impassible; then, taking la Peyrade aside, he said to him:—
"Read that; it is serious."
"Well?" said la Peyrade, after reading the article.
"Well? how well?" exclaimed Thuillier.
"I mean, what do you find so serious in that?"
"What do I find so serious?" repeated Thuillier. "I don't think anything could be more insulting to me."
"You can't doubt," said la Peyrade, "that the virtuous Cerizet is at the bottom of it; he has thrown this firecracker between your legs by way of revenge."
"Cerizet, or anybody else who wrote that diatribe is an insolent fellow," cried Thuillier, getting angry, "and the matter shall not rest there."
"For my part," said la Peyrade, "I advise you to make no reply. You are not named; though, of course, the attack is aimed at you. But you ought to let our adversary commit himself farther; when the right moment comes, we'll rap him over the knuckles."
"No!" said Thuillier, "I won't stay quiet one minute under such an insult."
"The devil!" said the barrister; "what a sensitive epidermis! Do reflect, my dear fellow, that you have made yourself a candidate and a journalist, and therefore you really must harden yourself better than that."
"My good friend, it is a principle of mine not to let anybody step on my toes. Besides, they say themselves they are going on with this thing. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary to cut short such impertinence."
"But do consider," said la Peyrade. "Certainly in journalism, as in candidacy, a hot temper has its uses; a man makes himself respected, and stops attacks—"
"Just so," said Thuillier, "'principiis obsta.' Not to-day, because we haven't the time, but to-morrow I shall carry that paper into court."
"Into court!" echoed la Peyrade; "you surely wouldn't go to law in such a matter as this? In the first place, there is nothing to proceed upon; you are not named nor the paper either, and, besides, it is a pitiable business, going to law; you'll look like a boy who has been fighting, and got the worst of it, and runs to complain to his mamma. Now if you had said that you meant to make Fleury intervene in the matter, I could understand that—though the affair is rather personal to you, and it might be difficult to make it seem—"
"Ah ca!" said Thuillier, "do you suppose I am going to commit myself with a Cerizet or any other newspaper bully? I pique myself, my dear fellow, on possessing civic courage, which does not give in to prejudices, and which, instead of taking justice into its own hands, has recourse to the means of defence that are provided by law. Besides, with the legal authority the Court of Cassation now has over duelling, I have no desire to put myself in the way of being expatriated, or spending two or three years in prison."
"Well," said la Peyrade, "we'll talk it over later; here's your sister, and she would think everything lost if this little matter reached her ears."
When Brigitte appeared Colleville shouted "Full!" and proceeded to sing the chorus of "La Parisienne."
"Heavens! Colleville, how vulgar you are!" cried the tardy one, hastening to cast a stone in the other's garden to avoid the throwing of one into hers. "Well, are you all ready?" she added, arranging her mantle before a mirror. "What o'clock is it? it won't do to get there before the time, like provincials."
"Ten minutes to two," said Colleville; "I go by the Tuileries."
"Well, then we are just right," said Brigitte; "it will take about that time to get to the rue Caumartin. Josephine," she cried, going to the door of the salon, "we'll dine at six, therefore be sure you put the turkey to roast at the right time, and mind you don't burn it, as you did the other day. Bless me! who's that?" and with a hasty motion she shut the door, which she had been holding open. "What a nuisance! I hope Henri will have the sense to tell him we are out."
Not at all; Henri came in to say that an old gentleman, with a very genteel air, had asked to be received on urgent business.
"Why didn't you say we were all out?"
"That's what I should have done if mademoiselle had not opened the door of the salon so that the gentleman could see the whole family assembled."
"Oh, yes!" said Brigitte, "you are never in the wrong, are you?"
"What am I to say to him?" asked the man.
"Say," replied Thuillier, "that I am very sorry not to be able to receive him, but I am expected at a notary's office about a marriage contract; but that if he could return two hours hence—"
"I have told him all that," said Henri, "and he answered that that contract was precisely what he had come about, and that his business concerned you more than himself."
"You had better go and see him, Thuillier, and get rid of him in double-quick," said Brigitte; "that's shorter than talking to Henri, who is always an orator."
If la Peyrade had been consulted he might not have joined in that advice, for he had had more than one specimen of the spokes some occult influence was putting into the wheels of his marriage, and the present visit seemed to him ominous.
"Show him into my study," said Thuillier, following his sister's advice; and, opening the door which led from the salon to the study, he went to receive his importunate visitor.
Brigitte immediately applied her eye to the keyhole.
"Goodness!" she exclaimed, "there's my imbecile of a Thuillier offering him a chair! and away in a corner, too, where I can't hear a word they say!"
La Peyrade was walking about the room with an inward agitation covered by an appearance of great indifference. He even went up to the three women, and made a few lover-like speeches to Celeste, who received them with a smiling, happy air in keeping with the role she was playing. As for Colleville, he was killing the time by composing an anagram on the six words of "le journal 'l'Echo de la Bievre,'" for which he had found the following version, little reassuring (as far as it went) for the prospects of that newspaper: "O d'Echo, jarni! la bevue reell"—but as the final "e" was lacking to complete the last word, the work was not altogether as satisfactory as it should have been.
"He's taking snuff!" said Brigitte, her eye still glued to the keyhole; "his gold snuff-box beats Minard's—though, perhaps, it is only silver-gilt," she added, reflectively. "He's doing the talking, and Thuillier is sitting there listening to him like a buzzard. I shall go in and tell them they can't keep ladies waiting that way."
But just as she put her hand on the lock she heard Thuillier's visitor raise his voice, and that made her look through the keyhole again.
"He is standing up; he's going," she said with satisfaction.
But a moment later she saw she had made a mistake; the little old man had only left his chair to walk up and down the room and continue the conversation with greater freedom.
"My gracious! I shall certainly go in," she said, "and tell Thuillier we are going without him, and he can follow us."
So saying, the old maid gave two little sharp and very imperious raps on the door, after which she resolutely entered the study.
La Peyrade, goaded by anxiety, had the bad taste to look through the keyhole himself at what was happening. Instantly he thought he recognized the small old man he had seen under the name of "the commander" on that memorable morning when he had waited for Madame de Godollo. Then he saw Thuillier addressing his sister with impatience and with gestures of authority altogether out of his usual habits of deference and submission.
"It seems," said Brigitte, re-entering the salon, "that Thuillier finds some great interest in that creature's talk, for he ordered me bluntly to leave them, though the little old fellow did say, rather civilly, that they would soon be through. But Jerome added: 'Mind, you are to wait for me.' Really, since he has taken to making newspapers I don't know him; he has set up an air as if he were leading the world with his wand."
"I am very much afraid he is being entangled by some adventurer," said la Peyrade. "I am pretty sure I saw that old man at Madame de Godollo's the day I went to warn her off the premises; he must be of the same stripe."
"Why didn't you tell me?" cried Brigitte. "I'd have asked him for news of the countess, and let him see we knew what we knew of his Hungarian."
Just then the sound of moving chairs was heard, and Brigitte darted back to the keyhole.
"Yes," she said, "he is really going, and Thuillier is bowing him out respectfully!"
As Thuillier did not immediately return, Colleville had time to go to the window and exclaim at seeing the little old gentleman driving away in an elegant coupe, of which the reader has already heard.
"The deuce!" cried Colleville; "what an ornate livery! If he is an adventurer he is a number one."
At last Thuillier re-entered the room, his face full of care, his manner extremely grave.
"My dear la Peyrade," he said, "you did not tell us that another proposal of marriage had been seriously considered by you."
"Yes, I did; I told you that a very rich heiress had been offered to me, but that my inclinations were here, and that I had not given any encouragement to the affair; consequently, of course, there was no serious engagement."
"Well, I think you do wrong to treat that proposal so lightly."
"What! do you mean to say, in presence of these ladies, that you blame me for remaining faithful to my first desires and our old engagement?"
"My friend, the conversation that I have just had has been a most instructive one to me; and when you know what I know, with other details personal to yourself, which will be confided to you, I think that you will enter into my ideas. One thing is certain; we shall not go to the notary to-day; and as for you, the best thing that you can do is to go, without delay, to Monsieur du Portail."
"That name again! it pursues me like a remorse," exclaimed la Peyrade.
"Yes; go at once; he is awaiting you. It is an indispensable preliminary before we can go any farther. When you have seen that excellent man and heard what he has to say to you—well, then if you persist in claiming Celeste's hand, we might perhaps carry out our plans. Until then we shall take no steps in the matter."
"But, my poor Thuillier," said Brigitte, "you have let yourself be gammoned by a rascal; that man belongs to the Godollo set."
"Madame de Godollo," replied Thuillier, "is not at all what you suppose her to be, and the best thing this house can do is never to say one word about her, either good or evil. As for la Peyrade, as this is not the first time he has been requested to go and see Monsieur du Portail, I am surprised that he hesitates to do so."
"Ah ca!" said Brigitte, "that little old man has completely befooled you."
"I tell you that that little old man is all that he appears to be. He wears seven crosses, he drives in a splendid equipage, and he has told me things that have overwhelmed me with astonishment."
"Well, perhaps he's a fortune-teller like Madame Fontaine, who managed once upon a time to upset me when Madame Minard and I, just to amuse ourselves, went to consult her."
"Well, if he is not a sorcerer he certainly has a very long arm," said Thuillier, "and I think a man would suffer for it if he didn't respect his advice. As for you, Brigitte, he saw you only for a minute, but he told me your whole character; he said you were a masterful woman, born to command."
"The fact is," said Brigitte, licking her chops at this compliment, like a cat drinking cream, "he has a very well-bred air, that little old fellow. You take my advice, my dear," she said, turning to la Peyrade; "if such a very big-wig as that wants you to do so, go and see this du Portail, whoever he is. That, it seems to me, won't bind you to anything."
"You are right, Brigitte," said Colleville; "as for me, I'd follow up all the Portails, or Porters, or Portents for the matter of that, if they asked me to."
The scene was beginning to resemble that in the "Barber of Seville," where everybody tells Basil to go to bed, for he certainly has a fever. La Peyrade, thus prodded, picked up his hat in some ill-humor, and went where his destiny called him,—"quo sua fata vocabant."
CHAPTER XV. AT DU PORTAIL'S
On reaching the rue Honore-Chevalier la Peyrade felt a doubt; the dilapidated appearance of the house to which he was summoned made him think he had mistaken the number. It seemed to him that a person of Monsieur du Portail's evident importance could not inhabit such a place. It was therefore with some hesitation that he accosted Sieur Perrache, the porter. But no sooner had he entered the antechamber of the apartment pointed out to him than the excellent deportment of Bruneau, the old valet, and the extremely comfortable appearance of the furniture and other appointments made him see that he was probably in the right place. Introduced at once, as soon as he had given his name, into the study of the master of the house, his surprise was great when he found himself in presence of the commander, so called, the friend of Madame de Godollo, and the little old man he had seen half an hour earlier with Thuillier.
"At last!" said du Portail, rising, and offering la Peyrade a chair, "at last we meet, my refractory friend; it has taken a good deal to bring you here."
"May I know, monsieur," said la Peyrade, haughtily, not taking the chair which was offered to him, "what interest you have in meddling with my affairs? I do not know you, and I may add that the place where I once saw you did not create an unconquerable desire in me to make your acquaintance."
"Where have you seen me?" asked du Portail.
"In the apartment of a strumpet who called herself Madame de Godollo."
"Where monsieur, consequently, went himself," said the little old man, "and for a purpose much less disinterested than mine."
"I have not come here," said la Peyrade, "to bandy words with any one. I have the right, monsieur, to a full explanation as to the meaning of your proceedings towards me. I therefore request you not to delay them by a facetiousness to which, I assure you, I am not in the humor to listen."
"Then, my dear fellow," said du Portail, "sit down, for I am not in the humor to twist my neck by talking up at you."
The words were reasonable, and they were said in a tone that showed the old gentleman was not likely to be frightened by grand airs. La Peyrade therefore deferred to the wishes of his host, but he took care to do so with the worst grace possible.
"Monsieur Cerizet," said du Portail, "a man of excellent standing in the world, and who has the honor to be one of your friends—"
"I have nothing to do with that man now," said la Peyrade, sharply, understanding the malicious meaning of the old man's speech.
"Well, the time has been," said du Portail, "when you saw him, at least, occasionally: for instance, when you paid for his dinner at the Rocher de Cancale. As I was saying, I charged the virtuous Monsieur Cerizet to sound you as to a marriage—"
"Which I refused," interrupted la Peyrade, "and which I now refuse again, more vehemently than ever."
"That's the question," said the old man. "I think, on the contrary, that you will accept it; and it is to talk over this affair with you that I have so long desired a meeting."
"But this crazy girl that you are flinging at my head," said la Peyrade, "what is she to you? She can't be your daughter, or you would put more decency into your hunt for a husband."
"This young girl," replied du Portail, "is the daughter of one of my friends who died about ten years ago; at his death I took her to live with me, and have given her all the care her sad condition needed. Her fortune, which I have greatly increased, added to my own, which I intend to leave to her, will make her a very rich heiress. I know that you are no enemy to handsome 'dots,' for you have sought them in various places,—Thuillier's house, for instance, or, to use your own expression, that of a strumpet whom you scarcely knew. I have therefore supposed you would accept at my hands a very rich young woman, especially as her infirmity is declared by the best physicians to be curable; whereas you can never cure Monsieur and Mademoiselle Thuillier, the one of being a fool, the other of being a fury, any more than you could cure Madame Komorn of being a woman of very medium virtue and extremely giddy."
"It may suit me," replied la Peyrade, "to marry the daughter of a fool and a fury if I choose her, or I might become the husband of a clever coquette, if passion seized me, but the Queen of Sheba herself, if imposed upon me, neither you, monsieur, nor the ablest and most powerful man living could force me to accept."
"Precisely; therefore it is to your own good sense and intelligence that I now address myself; but we have to come face to face with people in order to speak to them, you know. Now, then, let us look into your present situation, and don't get angry if, like a surgeon who wants to cure his patient, I lay my hand mercilessly on wounds which have long tormented and harassed you. The first point to state is that the Celeste Colleville affair is at an end for you."
"Why so?" demanded la Peyrade.
"Because I have just seen Thuillier and terrified him with the history of the misfortunes he has incurred, and those he will incur if he persists in the idea of giving you his goddaughter in marriage. He knows now that it was I who paralyzed Madame du Bruel's kind offices in the matter of the cross; that I had his pamphlet seized; that I sent that Hungarian woman into his house to handle you all, as she did; and that my hand is opening fire in the ministerial journals, which will only increase from bad to worse,—not to speak of other machinations which will be directed against his candidacy. Therefore you see, my good friend, that not only have you no longer the credit in Thuillier's eyes of being his great helper to that election, but that you actually block the way to his ambition. That is enough to prove to you that the side by which you have imposed yourself on that family—who have never sincerely liked or desired you—is now completely battered down and dismantled."
"But to have done all that which you claim with such pretension, who are you?" demanded la Peyrade.
"I shall not say that you are very inquisitive, for I intend to answer your question later; but for the present let us continue, if you please, the autopsy of your existence, dead to-day, but which I propose to resuscitate gloriously. You are twenty-eight years old, and you have begun a career in which I shall not allow you to make another step. A few days hence the Council of the order of barristers will assemble and will censure, more or less severely, your conduct in the matter of the property you placed with such candor in Thuillier's hands. Do not deceive yourself; censure from that quarter (and I mention only your least danger) is as fatal to a barrister as being actually disbarred."
"And it is to your kind offices, no doubt," said la Peyrade, "that I shall owe that precious result?"
"Yes, I may boast of it," replied du Portail, "for, in order to tow you into port it has been necessary to strip you of your rigging; unless that were done, you would always have tried to navigate under your own sails the bourgeois shoals that you are now among."
Seeing that he, undoubtedly, had to do with a strong hand, la Peyrade thought best to modify his tone; and so, with a more circumspect air, he said:—
"You will allow me, monsieur, to reserve my acknowledgments until I receive some fuller explanation."
"Here you are, then," continued du Portail, "at twenty-eight years of age, without a penny, virtually without a profession; with antecedents that are very—middling; with associates like Monsieur Dutocq and the courageous Cerizet; owing to Mademoiselle Thuillier ten thousand francs, and to Madame Lambert twenty-five thousand, which you are no doubt extremely desirous to return to her; and finally, this marriage, your last hope, your sheet-anchor, has just become an utter impossibility. Between ourselves, if I have something reasonable to propose to you, do you not think that you had much better place yourself at my disposal?"
"I have time enough to prove that your opinion is mistaken," returned la Peyrade; "and I shall not form any resolutions so long as the designs you choose to have upon me are not more fully explained."
"You were spoken to, at my instigation, about a marriage," resumed du Portail. "This marriage, as I think, is closely connected with a past existence from which a certain hereditary or family duty has devolved upon you. Do you know what that uncle of yours, to whom you applied in 1829, was doing in Paris? In your family he was thought to be a millionaire; and, dying suddenly, you remember, before you got to him, he did not leave enough for his burial; a pauper's grave was all that remained to him."
"Did you know him?" asked la Peyrade.
"He was my oldest and dearest friend," replied du Portail.
"If that is so," said la Peyrade, hastily, "a sum of two thousand francs, which I received on my arrival in Paris from some unknown source—"
"Came from me," replied du Portail. "Unfortunately, engaged at the time in a rush of important affairs, which you shall hear of later, I could not immediately follow up the benevolent interest I felt in you for your uncle's sake; this explains why I left you in the straw of a garret, where you came, like a medlar, to that maturity of ruin which brought you under the hand of a Dutocq and a Cerizet."
"I am none the less grateful to you, monsieur," said la Peyrade; "and if I had known you were that generous protector, whom I was never able to discover, I should have been the first to seek occasion to meet you and to thank you."
"A truce to compliments," said du Portail; "and, to come at once to the serious side of our present conference, what should you say if I told you that this uncle, whose protection and assistance you came to Paris to obtain, was an agent of that occult power which has always been the theme of feeble ridicule and the object of silly prejudice?"
"I do not seize your meaning," said la Peyrade, with uneasy curiosity; "may I ask you to be more precise?"
"For example, I will suppose," continued du Portail, "that your uncle, if still living, were to say to you to-day: 'You are seeking fortune and influence, my good nephew; you want to rise above the crowd and to play your part in all the great events of your time; you want employment for a keen, active mind, full of resources, and slightly inclined to intrigue; in short, you long to exert in some upper and elegant sphere that force of will and subtlety which at present you are wasting in the silly and useless manipulation of the most barren and tough-skinned animal on earth, to wit: a bourgeois. Well, then, lower your head, my fine nephew; enter with me through the little door which I will open to you; it gives admittance to a great house, often maligned, but better far than its reputation. That threshold once crossed, you can rise to the height of your natural genius, whatever its spark may be. Statesmen, kings even, will admit you to their most secret thoughts; you will be their occult collaborator, and none of the joys which money and the highest powers can bestow upon a man will be lacking to you."
"But, monsieur," objected la Peyrade, "without venturing to understand you, I must remark that my uncle died so poor, you tell me, that public charity buried him."
"Your uncle," replied du Portail, "was a man of rare talent, but he had a certain weak side in his nature which compromised his career. He was eager for pleasure, a spendthrift, thoughtless for the future; he wanted also to taste those joys that are meant for the common run of men, but which for great, exceptional vocations are the worst of snares and impediments: I mean the joys of family. He had a daughter whom he madly loved, and it was through her that his terrible enemies opened a breach in his life, and prepared the horrible catastrophe that ended it."
"Is that an encouragement to enter this shady path, where, you say, he might have asked me to follow him?"
"But if I myself," said du Portail, "should offer to guide you in it, what then?"
"You, monsieur!" said la Peyrade, in stupefaction.
"Yes, I—I who was your uncle's pupil at first, and later his protector and providence; I, whose influence the last half-century has daily increased; I, who am wealthy; I, to whom all governments, as they fall one on top of the others like houses of cards, come to ask for safety and for the power to rebuild their future; I, who am the manager of a great theatre of puppets (where I have Columbines in the style of Madame de Godollo); I, who to-morrow, if it were necessary to the success of one of my vaudevilles or one of my dramas, might present myself to your eyes as the wearer of the grand cordon of the Legion of honor, of the Order of the Black Eagle, or that of the Golden Fleece. Do you wish to know why neither you nor I will die a violent death like your uncle, and also why, more fortunate than contemporaneous kings, I can transmit my sceptre to the successor whom I myself may choose? Because, like you, my young friend, in spite of your Southern appearance, I was cold, profoundly calculating, never tempted to lose my time on trifles at the outskirts; because heat, when I was led by force of circumstances to employ it, never went below the surface. It is more than probable that you have heard of me; well, for you I will open a window in my cloud; look at me, observe me well; have I a cloven hoof, or a tail at the end of my spine? On the contrary, am I not a model of the most inoffensive of householders in the Saint-Sulpice quarter? In that quarter, where I have enjoyed, I may say it, universal esteem for the last twenty-five years, I am called du Portail; but to you, if you will allow me, I shall now name myself Corentin."
"Corentin!" cried la Peyrade, with terrified astonishment.
"Yes, monsieur; and you see that in telling you that secret I lay my hand upon you, and enlist you. Corentin! 'the greatest man of the police in modern times,' as the author of an article in the 'Biographies of Living Men' has said of me—as to whom I ought in justice to remark that he doesn't know a thing about my life."
"Monsieur," said la Peyrade, "I can assure you that I shall keep that secret; but the place which you offer me near you—in your employ—"
"That frightens you, or, at least, it makes you uneasy," said Corentin, quickly. "Before you have even considered the thing the word scares you, does it? The police! Police! you are afraid to encounter the terrible prejudice that brands it on the brow."
"Certainly," said la Peyrade, "it is a necessary institution; but I do not think that it is always calumniated. If the business of those who manage it is honorable why do they conceal themselves so carefully?"
"Because all that threatens society, which it is the mission of the police to repress," replied Corentin, "is plotted and prepared in hiding. Do thieves and conspirators put upon their hats, 'I am Guillot, the shepherd of this flock'? And when we are after them must we ring a bell to let them know we are coming?"
"Monsieur," said la Peyrade, "when a sentiment is universal it ceases to be a prejudice, it becomes an opinion; and this opinion ought to be a law to every man who desires to keep his own esteem and that of others."
"And when you robbed that notary to enrich the Thuilliers for your own advantage," said Corentin, "did you keep your own esteem and that of the Council of barristers? And who knows, monsieur, if in your life there are not still blacker actions than that? I am a more honorable man than you, because, outside of my functions, I have not one doubtful act upon my conscience; and when the opportunity for good has been presented to me I have done it—always and everywhere. Do you think that the guardianship of that poor insane girl in my home has been all roses? But she was the daughter of my old friend, your uncle, and when, feeling the years creep on me, I propose to you, between sacks of money, to fit yourself to take my place—"
"What!" cried la Peyrade, "is that girl my uncle's daughter?"
"Yes; the girl I wish you to marry is the daughter of your uncle Peyrade,—for he democratized his name,—or, if you like it better, she was the daughter of Pere Canquoelle, a name he took from the little estate on which your father lived and starved with eleven children. You see, in spite of the secrecy your uncle always kept about his family, that I know all about it. Do you suppose that before selecting you as your cousin's husband I had not obtained every possible information about you? And what I have learned need not make you quite so supercilious to the police. Besides, as the vulgar saying is, the best of your nose is made of it. Your uncle belonged to the police, and, thanks to that, he became the confidant, I might almost say the friend, of Louis XVIII., who took the greatest pleasure in his companionship. And you, by nature and by mind, also by the foolish position into which you have got yourself, in short, by your whole being, have gravitated steadily to the conclusion I propose to you, namely, that of succeeding me,—of succeeding Corentin. That is the question between us, Monsieur. Do you really believe now that I have not a grasp or a 'seizin,' as you call it, upon you, and that you can manage to escape me for any foolish considerations of bourgeois vanity?"
La Peyrade could not have been at heart so violently opposed to this proposal as he seemed, for the vigorous language of the great master of the police and the species of appropriation which he made of his person brought a smile to the young man's lips.
Corentin had risen, and was walking up and down the room, speaking, apparently, to himself.
"The police!" he cried; "one may say of it, as Basile said of calumny to Batholo, 'The police, monsieur! you don't know what you despise!' And, after all," he continued, after a pause, "who are they who despise it? Imbeciles, who don't know any better than to insult their protectors. Suppress the police, and you destroy civilization. Do the police ask for the respect of such people? No, they want to inspire them with one sentiment only: fear, that great lever with which to govern mankind,—an impure race whose odious instincts God, hell, the executioner, and the gendarmes can scarcely restrain!"
Stopping short before la Peyrade, and looking at him with a disdainful smile, he continued:—
"So you are one of those ninnies who see in the police nothing more than a horde of spies and informers? Have you never suspected the statesmen, the diplomats, the Richelieus it produces? Mercury, monsieur,—Mercury, the cleverest of the gods of paganism,—what was he but the police incarnate? It is true that he was also the god of thieves. We are better than he, for we don't allow that junction of forces."
"And yet," said la Peyrade, "Vautrin, or, I should say, Jacques Collin, the famous chief of the detective police—"
"Yes, yes! but that's in the lower ranks," replied Corentin, resuming his walk; "there's always a muddy place somewhere. Still, don't be mistaken even in that. Vautrin is a man of genius, but his passions, like those of your uncle, dragged him down. But go up higher (for there lies the whole question, namely, the rung of the ladder on which a man has wits enough to perch). Take the prefect, for instance, that honored minister, flattered and respected, is he a spy? Well, I, monsieur, am the prefect of the secret police of diplomacy—of the highest statesmanship. And you hesitate to mount that throne!—to seem small and do great things; to live in a cave comfortably arranged like this, and command the light; to have at your orders an invisible army, always ready, always devoted, always submissive; to know the other side of everything; to be duped by no intrigue because you hold the threads of all within your fingers; to see through all partitions; to penetrate all secrets, search all hearts, all consciences,—these are the things you fear! And yet you were not afraid to go and wallow in a Thuillier bog; you, a thoroughbred, allowed yourself to be harnessed to a hackney-coach, to the ignoble business of electing that parvenu bourgeois."
"A man does what he can," said la Peyrade.
"Here's a very remarkable thing," pursued Corentin, replying to his own thought; "the French language, more just than public opinion, has given us our right place, for it has made the word police the synonym of civilization and the antipodes of savage life, when it said and wrote: 'l'Etat police,' from the Greek words state and city. So, I can assure you, we care little for the prejudice that tries to brand us; none know men as we do; and to know them brings contempt for their contempt as well as for their esteem."
"There is certainly much truth in what you say with such warmth," said la Peyrade, finally.
"Much truth!" exclaimed Corentin, going back to his chair, "say, rather, that it is all true, and nothing but the truth; yet it is not the whole truth. But enough for to-day, monsieur. To succeed me in my functions, and to marry your cousin with a 'dot' that will not be less than five hundred thousand francs, that is my offer. I do not ask you for an answer now. I should have no confidence in a determination not seriously reflected upon. To-morrow, I shall be at home all the morning. I trust that my conviction may then have formed yours."
Dismissing his visitor with a curt little bow, he added: "I do not bid you adieu, but au revoir, Monsieur de la Peyrade."
Whereupon Corentin went to a side-table, where he found all that he needed to prepare a glass of "eau sucree," which he had certainly earned, and, without looking at la Peyrade, who left the room rather stunned, he seemed to have no other interest on his mind than that prosaic preparation.
Was it, indeed, necessary that the morning after this meeting with Corentin a visit from Madame Lambert, now become an exacting and importunate creditor, should come to bear its weight on la Peyrade's determination? As the great chief had pointed out to him the night before, was there not in his nature, in his mind, in his aspirations, in the mistakes and imprudences of his past life, a sort of irresistible incline which drew him down toward the strange solution of existence thus suddenly offered to him?
Fatality, if we may so call it, was lavish of the inducements to which he was destined to succumb. This day was the 31st of October; the vacation of the Palais was just over. The 2nd of November was the day on which the courts reopened, and as Madame Lambert left his room he received a summons to appear on that day before the Council of his order.
To Madame Lambert, who pressed him sharply to repay her, under pretence that she was about to leave Monsieur Picot and return to her native place, he replied: "Come here the day after to-morrow, at the same hour, and your money will be ready for you."
To the summons to give account of his actions to his peers he replied that he did not recognize the right of the Council to question him on the facts of his private life. That was an answer of one sort, certainly. Inevitably it would result in his being stricken from the roll of the barristers of the Royal courts; but, at least, it had an air of dignity and protestation which saved, in a measure, his self-love.
Finally, he wrote a letter to Thuillier, in which he said that his visit to du Portail had resulted in his being obliged to accept another marriage. He therefore returned to Thuillier his promise, and took back his own. All this was curtly said, without the slightest expression of regret for the marriage he renounced. In a postscript he added: "We shall be obliged to discuss my position on the newspaper,"—indicating that it might enter into his plans not to retain it.
He was careful to make a copy of this letter, and an hour later, when, in Corentin's study, he was questioned as to the result of his night's reflections, he gave that great general, for all answer, the matrimonial resignation he had just despatched.