"So," cried Madame Phellion, "all that magnificence displayed before our eyes last night was a magnificent economical bargain?"
"Just so," replied Minard; "and the thing that decided Mademoiselle Brigitte to take that splendid chance was not so much the desire to renew her shabby furniture as the idea of doing an excellent stroke of business. In that old maid there's always something of Madame la Ressource in Moliere's 'Miser.'"
"I think, Monsieur le maire, that you are mistaken," said Phellion. "Madame la Ressource is a character in 'Turcaret,' a very immoral play by the late Le Sage."
"Do you think so?" said Minard. "Well, very likely. But what is certain is that, though the barrister ingratiated himself with Brigitte in helping her to buy the house, it was by this clever jockeying about the furniture that the foreign countess got upon the footing with Brigitte that you now see. You may have remarked, perhaps, that a struggle is going on between those two influences; which we may designate as the house, and its furniture."
"Yes, certainly," said Madame Phellion, with a beaming expression that bore witness to the interest she took in the conversation, "it did seem to me that the great lady allowed herself to contradict the barrister, and did it, too, with a certain sharpness."
"Very marked sharpness," resumed Minard, "and that intriguing fellow perceives it. It strikes me that the lady's hostility makes him uneasy. The Thuilliers he got cheaply; for, between ourselves you know, there's not much in Thuillier himself; but he feels now that he has met a tough adversary, and he is looking anxiously for a weak spot on which to attack her."
"Well, that's justice," said Madame Phellion. "For some time past that man, who used to make himself so small and humble, has been taking airs of authority in the house which are quite intolerable; he behaves openly as the son-in-law; and you know very well, in that affair of Thuillier's election he jockeyed us all, and made us the stepping-stone for his matrimonial ambition."
"Yes; but I can assure you," said Minard, "that at the present time his influence is waning. In the first place, he won't find every day for his dear, good friend, as he calls him, a fine property worth a million to be bought for a bit of bread."
"Then they did get that house very cheap?" said Madame Phellion, interrogatively.
"They got it for nothing, as the result of a dirty intrigue which the lawyer Desroches related to me the other day. If it ever became known to the council of the bar, that little barrister would be badly compromised. The next thing is the coming election to the Chamber. Eating gives appetite, as they say, and our good Thuillier is hungry; but he begins to perceive that Monsieur de la Peyrade, when it becomes a question of getting him that mouthful, hasn't his former opportunity to make dupes of us. That is why the family is turning more and more to Madame de Godollo, who seems to have some very high acquaintances in the political world. Besides all this, in fact, without dwelling on the election business, which is still a distant matter, this Hungarian countess is becoming, every day, more and more a necessity to Brigitte; for it must be owned that without the help of the great lady, the poor soul would look in the midst of her gilded salon like a ragged gown in a bride's trousseau."
"Oh, Monsieur le maire, you are cruel," said Madame Phellion, affecting compunction.
"No, but say," returned Minard, "with your hand on your conscience, whether Brigitte, whether Madame Thuillier could preside in such a salon? No, it is the Hungarian countess who does it all. She furnished the rooms; she selected the male domestic, whose excellent training and intelligence you must have observed; it was she who arranged the menu of that dinner; in short, she is the providence of the parvenu colony, which, without her intervention, would have made the whole quarter laugh at it. And—now this is a very noticeable thing—instead of being a parasite like la Peyrade, this Hungarian lady, who seems to have a fortune of her own, proves to be not only disinterested, but generous. The two gowns that you saw Brigitte and Madame Thuillier wear last night were a present from her, and it was because she came herself to superintend the toilet of our two 'amphitryonesses' that you were so surprised last night not to find them rigged in their usual dowdy fashion."
"But what can be the motive," asked Madame Phellion, "of this maternal and devoted guardianship?"
"My dear wife," said Phellion, solemnly, "the motives of human actions are not always, thank God! selfishness and the consideration of vile interests. There are hearts in this world that find pleasure in doing good for its own sake. This lady may have seen in our good friends a set of people about to enter blindly into a sphere they knew nothing about, and having encouraged their first steps by the purchase of this furniture, she may, like a nurse attached to her nursling, find pleasure in giving them the milk of her social knowledge and her counsels."
"He seems to keep aloof from our strictures, the dear husband!" cried Minard; "but just see how he goes beyond them!"
"I!" said Phellion; "it is neither my intention nor my habit to do so."
"All the same it would be difficult to say more neatly that the Thuilliers are geese, and that Madame de Godollo is bringing them up by hand."
"I do not accept for these friends of ours," said Phellion, "a characterization so derogatory to their repute. I meant to say that they were lacking, perhaps, in that form of experience, and that this noble lady has placed at their service her knowledge of the world and its usages. I protest against any interpretation of my language which goes beyond my thought thus limited."
"Well, anyhow, you will agree, my dear commander, that in the idea of giving Celeste to this la Peyrade, there is something more than want of experience; there is, it must be said, blundering folly and immorality; for really the goings on of that barrister with Madame Colleville—"
"Monsieur le maire," interrupted Phellion, with redoubled solemnity, "Solon, the law-giver, decreed no punishment for parricide, declaring it to be an impossible crime. I think the same thing may be said of the offence to which you seem to make allusion. Madame Colleville granting favors to Monsieur de la Peyrade, and all the while intending to give him her daughter? No, monsieur, no! that passes imagination. Questioned on this subject, like Marie Antoinette, by a human tribunal, Madame Colleville would answer with the queen, 'I appeal to all mothers.'"
"Nevertheless, my friend," said Madame Phellion, "allow me to remind you that Madame Colleville is excessively light-minded, and has given, as we al know, pretty good proofs of it."
"Enough, my dear," said Phellion. "The dinner hour summons us; I think that, little by little, we have allowed this conversation to drift toward the miry slough of backbiting."
"You are full of illusions, my dear commander," said Minard, taking Phellion by the hand and shaking it; "but they are honorable illusions, and I envy them. Madame, I have the honor—" added the mayor, with a respectful bow to Madame Phellion.
And each party took its way.
CHAPTER II. THE PROVENCAL'S PRESENT POSITION
The information acquired by the mayor of the 11th arrondissement was by no means incorrect. In the Thuillier salon, since the emigration to the Madeleine quarter, might be seen daily, between the tart Brigitte and the plaintive Madame Thuillier, the graceful and attractive figure of a woman who conveyed to this salon an appearance of the most unexpected elegance. It was quite true that through the good offices of this lady, who had become her tenant in the new house, Brigitte had made a speculation in furniture not less advantageous in its way, but more avowable, than the very shady purchase of the house itself. For six thousand francs in ready money she had obtained furniture lately from workshops representing a value of at least thirty thousand.
It was still further true that in consequence of a service which went deep into her heart, Brigitte was showing to the beautiful foreign countess the respectful deference which the bourgeoisie, in spite of its sulky jealousy, is much less indisposed to give to titles of nobility and high positions in the social hierarchy than people think. As this Hungarian countess was a woman of great tact and accomplished training, in taking the direction which she had thought it wise to assume over the affairs of her proteges, she had been careful to guard her influence from all appearance of meddlesome and imperious dictation. On the contrary, she flattered Brigitte's claim to be a model housekeeper; in her own household expenses she affected to ask the spinster's advice; so that by reserving to herself the department of luxurious expenses, she had more the air of giving information than of exercising supervision.
La Peyrade could not disguise from himself that a change was taking place. His influence was evidently waning before that of this stranger; but the antagonism of the countess was not confined to a simple struggle for influence. She made no secret of being opposed to his suit for Celeste; she gave her unequivocal approval to the love of Felix Phellion, the professor. Minard, by whom this fact was not unobserved, took very good care, in the midst of his other information, not to mention it to those whom it most concerned.
La Peyrade was all the more anxious at being thus undermined by a hostility the cause of which was inexplicable to him, because he knew he had himself to blame for bringing this disquieting adversary into the very heart of his citadel. His first mistake was in yielding to the barren pleasure of disappointing Cerizet in the lease of the house. If Brigitte by his advice and urging had not taken the administration of the property into her own hands there was every probability that she would never have made the acquaintance of Madame de Godollo. Another imprudence had been to urge the Thuilliers to leave their old home in the Latin quarter.
At this period, when his power and credit had reached their apogee, Theodose considered his marriage a settled thing; and he now felt an almost childish haste to spring into the sphere of elegance which seemed henceforth to be his future. He had therefore furthered the inducements of the countess, feeling that he thus sent the Thuilliers before him to make his bed in the splendid apartment he intended to share with them. By thus removing them from their old home he saw another advantage,—that of withdrawing Celeste from daily intercourse with a rival who seemed to him dangerous. Deprived of the advantage of propinquity, Felix would be forced to make his visits farther apart; and therefore there would be greater facilities to ruin him in the girl's heart, where he was installed on condition of giving religious satisfaction,—a requirement to which he showed himself refractory.
But in all these plans and schemes various drawbacks confronted him. To enlarge the horizon of the Thuilliers was for la Peyrade to run the chance of creating competition for the confidence and admiration of which he had been till then the exclusive object. In the sort of provincial life they had hitherto lived, Brigitte and his dear, good friend placed him, for want of comparison, at a height from which the juxtaposition of other superiorities and elegances must bring him down. So, then, apart from the blows covertly dealt him by Madame de Godollo, the idea of the transpontine emigration had proved to be, on the whole, a bad one.
The Collevilles had followed their friends the Thuilliers, to the new house near the Madeleine, where an entresol at the back had been conceded to them at a price conformable to their budget. But Colleville declared it lacked light and air, and being obliged to go daily from the boulevard of the Madeleine to the faubourg Saint-Jacques, where his office was, he fumed against the arrangement of which he was the victim, and felt at times that la Peyrade was a tyrant. Madame Colleville, on the other hand, had flung herself into an alarming orgy of bonnets, mantles, and new gowns, requiring the presentation of a mass of bills, which led not infrequently to scenes in the household which were more or less stormy. As for Celeste, she had undoubtedly fewer opportunities to see young Phellion, but she had also fewer chances to rush into religious controversy; and absence, which is dangerous to none but inferior attachments, made her think more tenderly and less theologically of the man of her dreams.
But all these false calculations of Theodose were as nothing in the balance with another cause for his diminishing influence which was now to weigh heavily on his situation.
He had assured Thuillier that, after a short delay and the payment of ten thousand francs, to which his dear, good friend submitted with tolerable grace, the cross of the Legion of honor would arrive to realize the secret desire of all his life. Two months had now passed without a sign of that glorious rattle; and the former sub-director, who would have felt such joy in parading his red ribbon on the boulevard of the Madeleine, of which he was now one of the most assiduous promenaders, had nothing to adorn his buttonhole but the flowers of the earth, the privilege of everybody,—of which he was far less proud than Beranger.
La Peyrade had, to be sure, mentioned an unforeseen and inexplicable difficulty by which all the efforts of the Comtesse du Bruel had been paralyzed; but Thuillier did not take comfort in the explanation; and on certain days, when the disappointment became acute, he was very near saying with Chicaneau in Les Plaideurs, "Return my money."
However, no outbreak happened, for la Peyrade held him in leash by the famous pamphlet on "Taxation and the Sliding-Scale"; the conclusion of which had been suspended during the excitement of the moving; for during that agitating period Thuillier had been unable to give proper care to the correction of proofs, about which, we may remember, he had reserved the right of punctilious examination. La Peyrade had now reached a point when he was forced to see that, in order to restore his influence, which was daily evaporating, he must strike some grand blow; and it was precisely this nagging and vexatious fancy about the proofs that the barrister decided to take as the starting-point of a scheme, both deep and adventurous, which came into his mind.
One day, when the pair were engaged on the sheets of the pamphlet, a discussion arose upon the word "nepotism," which Thuillier wished to eliminate from one of la Peyrade's sentences, declaring that never had he met with it anywhere; it was pure neologism—which, to the literary notions of the bourgeoisie, is equivalent to the idea of 1793 and the Terror.
Generally la Peyrade took the ridiculous remarks of his dear, good friend pretty patiently; but on this occasion he made himself exceedingly excited, and signified to Thuillier that he might terminate himself a work to which he applied such luminous and intelligent criticism; after which remark he departed and was not seen again for several days.
At first Thuillier supposed this outbreak to be a mere passing effect of ill-humor; but when la Peyrade's absence grew prolonged he felt the necessity of taking some conciliatory step, and accordingly he went to see the barrister, intending to make honorable amends and so put an end to his sulkiness. Wishing, however, to give this advance an air which allowed an honest issue to his own self-love, he entered la Peyrade's room with an easy manner, and said, cheerfully:—
"Well, my dear fellow, it turns out that we were both right: 'nepotism' means the authority that the nephews of popes take in public affairs. I have searched the dictionary and it gives no other explanation; but, from what Phellion tells me, I find that in the political vocabulary the meaning of the word has been extended to cover the influence which corrupt ministers permit certain persons to exercise illegally. I think, therefore, that we may retain the expression, though it is certainly not taken in that sense by Napoleon Landais."
La Peyrade, who, in receiving his visitor, had affected to be extremely busy in sorting his papers, contented himself by shrugging his shoulders and saying nothing.
"Well," said Thuillier, "have you got the last proofs? We ought to be getting on."
"If you have sent nothing to the printing-office," replied la Peyrade, "of course there are no proofs. I myself haven't touched the manuscript."
"But, my dear Theodose," said Thuillier, "it isn't possible that for such a trifle you are affronted. I don't pretend to be a writer, only as my name is on the book I have, I think, the right to my opinion about a word."
"But 'Mossie' Phellion," replied Theodose, "is a writer; and inasmuch as you have consulted him, I don't see why you can't engage him to finish the work in which, for my part, I have resolved not to co-operate any longer."
"Heavens! what temper!" cried Thuillier; "here you are furious just because I seemed to question a word and then consulted some one. You know very well that I have read passages to Phellion, Colleville, Minard, and Barniol as if the work were mine, in order to see the effect it would produce upon the public; but that's no reason why I should be willing to give my name to the things they are capable of writing. Do you wish me to give you a proof of the confidence I have in you? Madame la Comtesse de Godollo, to whom I read a few pages last night, told me that the pamphlet was likely to get me into trouble with the authorities; but I wouldn't allow what she said to have any influence upon me."
"Well," said la Peyrade, "I think that the oracle of the family sees the matter clearly; and I've no desire to bring your head to the scaffold."
"All that is nonsense," said Thuillier. "Have you, or have you not, an intention to leave me in the lurch?"
"Literary questions make more quarrels among friends than political questions," replied Theodose. "I wish to put an end to these discussions between us."
"But, my dear Theodose, never have I assumed to be a literary man. I think I have sound common-sense, and I say out my ideas; you can't be angry at that; and if you play me this trick, and refuse to collaborate any longer, it is because you have some other grudge against me that I know nothing about."
"I don't see why you call it a trick. There's nothing easier for you than not to write a pamphlet; you'll simply be Jerome Thuillier, as before."
"And yet it was you yourself who declared that this publication would help my election; besides, I repeat, I have read passages to all our friends, I have announced the matter in the municipal council, and if the work were not to appear I should be dishonored; people would be sure to say the government had bought me up."
"You have only to say that you are the friend of Phellion, the incorruptible; that will clear you. You might even give Celeste to his booby of a son; that alliance would certainly protect you from all suspicion."
"Theodose," said Thuillier, "there is something in your mind that you don't tell me. It is not natural that for a simple quarrel about a word you should wish to lose a friend like me."
"Well, yes, there is," replied la Peyrade, with the air of a man who makes up his mind to speak out. "I don't like ingratitude."
"Nor I either; I don't like it," said Thuillier, hotly; "and if you accuse me of so base an action, I summon you to explain yourself. We must get out of these hints and innuendoes. What do you complain of? What have you against a man whom only a few days ago you called your friend?"
"Nothing and everything," replied la Peyrade. "You and your sister are much too clever to break openly with a man who, at the risk of his reputation, has put a million in your hands. But I am not so simple that I don't know how to detect changes. There are people about you who have set themselves, in an underhand way, to destroy me; and Brigitte has only one thought, and that is, how to find a decent way of not keeping her promises. Men like me don't wait till their claims are openly protested, and I certainly do not intend to impose myself on any family; still, I was far, I acknowledge, from expecting such treatment."
"Come, come," said Thuillier, kindly, seeing in the barrister's eye the glint of a tear of which he was completely the dupe, "I don't know what Brigitte may have been doing to you, but one thing is very certain: I have never ceased to be your most devoted friend."
"No," said la Peyrade, "since that mishap about the cross I am only good, as the saying is, to throw to the dogs. How could I have struggled against secret influences? Possibly it is that pamphlet, about which you have talked a great deal too much, that has hindered your appointment. The ministers are so stupid! They would rather wait and have their hand forced by the fame of the publication than do the thing with a good grace as the reward of your services. But these are political mysteries which would never enter your sister's mind."
"The devil!" cried Thuillier. "I think I've got a pretty observing eye, and yet I can't see the slightest change in Brigitte toward you."
"Oh, yes!" said la Peyrade, "your eyesight is so good that you have never seen perpetually beside her that Madame de Godollo, whom she now thinks she can't live without."
"Ha, ha!" said Thuillier, slyly, "so it is a little jealousy, is it, in our mind?"
"Jealousy!" retorted la Peyrade. "I don't know if that's the right word, but certainly your sister—whose mind is nothing above the ordinary, and to whom I am surprised that a man of your intellectual superiority allows a supremacy in your household which she uses and abuses—"
"How can I help it, my dear fellow," interrupted Thuillier, sucking in the compliment; "she is so absolutely devoted to me."
"I admit the weakness, but, I repeat, your sister doesn't fit into your groove. Well, I say that when a man of the value which you are good enough to recognize in me, does her the honor to consult her and devote himself to her as I have done, it can hardly be agreeable to him to find himself supplanted by a woman who comes from nobody knows where—and all because of a few trumpery chairs and tables she has helped her to buy!"
"With women, as you know very well," replied Thuillier, "household affairs have the first place."
"And Brigitte, who wants a finger in everything, also assumes to carry matters with a high hand in affairs of the heart. As you are so extraordinarily clear-sighted you ought to have seen that in Brigitte's mind nothing is less certain than my marriage with Mademoiselle Colleville; and yet my love has been solemnly authorized by you."
"Good gracious!" cried Thuillier, "I'd like to see any one attempt to meddle with my arrangements!"
"Well, without speaking of Brigitte, I can tell you of another person," said Theodose, "who is doing that very thing; and that person is Mademoiselle Celeste herself. In spite of their quarrels about religion, her mind is none the less full of that little Phellion."
"But why don't you tell Flavie to put a stop to it?"
"No one knows Flavie, my dear Thuillier, better than you. She is a woman rather than a mother. I have found it necessary to do a little bit of courting to her myself, and, you understand, while she is willing for this marriage she doesn't desire it very much."
"Well," said Thuillier, "I'll undertake to speak to Celeste myself. It shall never be said that a slip of a girl lays down the law to me."
"That's exactly what I don't want you to do," cried la Peyrade. "Don't meddle in all this. Outside of your relations to your sister you have an iron will, and I will never have it said that you exerted your authority to put Celeste in my arms; on the contrary, I desire that the child may have complete control over her own heart. The only thing I request is that she shall decide positively between Felix Phellion and myself; because I do not choose to remain any longer in this doubtful position. It is true we agreed that the marriage should only take place after you became a deputy; but I feel now that it is impossible to allow the greatest event of my life to remain at the mercy of doubtful circumstances. And, besides, such an arrangement, though at first agreed upon, seems to me now to have a flavor of a bargain which is unbecoming to both of us. I think I had better make you a confidence, to which I am led by the unpleasant state of things now between us. Dutocq may have told you, before you left the apartment in the rue Saint-Dominique, that an heiress had been offered to me whose immediate fortune is larger than that which Mademoiselle Colleville will eventually inherit. I refused, because I have had the folly to let my heart be won, and because an alliance with a family as honorable as yours seemed to me more desirable; but, after all, it is as well to let Brigitte know that if Celeste refuses me, I am not absolutely turned out into the cold."
"I can easily believe that," said Thuillier; "but as for putting the whole decision into the hands of that little girl, especially if she has, as you tell me, a fancy for Felix—"
"I can't help it," said the barrister. "I must, at any price, get out of this position; it is no longer tenable. You talk about your pamphlet; I am not in a fit condition to finish it. You, who have been a man of gallantry, you must know the dominion that women, fatal creatures! exercise over our whole being."
"Bah!" said Thuillier, conceitedly, "they cared for me, but I did not often care for them; I took them, and left them, you know."
"Yes, but I, with my Southern nature, love passionately; and Celeste has other attractions besides fortune. Brought up in your household, under your own eye, you have made her adorable. Only, I must say, you have shown great weakness in letting that young fellow, who does not suit her in any respect, get such hold upon her fancy."
"You are quite right; but the thing began in a childish friendship; she and Felix played together. You came much later; and it is a proof of the great esteem in which we hold you, that when you made your offer we renounced our earlier projects."
"You did, yes," said la Peyrade, "and with some literary manias—which, after all, are frequently full of sense and wit—you have a heart of gold; with you friendship is a sure thing, and you know what you mean. But Brigitte is another matter; you'll see, when you propose to her to hasten the marriage, what a resistance she will make."
"I don't agree with you. I think that Brigitte has always wanted you and still wants you for son-in-law—if I may so express myself. But whether she does or not, I beg you to believe that in all important matters I know how to have my will obeyed. Only, let us come now to a distinct understanding of what you wish; then we can start with the right foot foremost, and you'll see that all will go well."
"I wish," replied la Peyrade, "to put the last touches to your pamphlet; for, above all things, I think of you."
"Certainly," said Thuillier, "we ought not to sink in port."
"Well, in consequence of the feeling that I am oppressed, stultified by the prospect of a marriage still so doubtful, I am certain that not a page of manuscript could be got out of me in any form, until the question is settled."
"Very good," said Thuillier; "then how do you present that question?"
"Naturally, if Celeste's decision be against me, I should wish an immediate solution. If I am condemned to make a marriage of convenience I ought to lose no time in taking the opportunity I mentioned to you."
"So be it; but what time do you intend to allow us?"
"I should think that in fifteen days a girl might be able to make up her mind."
"Undoubtedly," replied Thuillier; "but it is very repugnant to me to let Celeste decide without appeal."
"For my part, I will take that risk; in any case, I shall be rid of uncertainty; and that is really my first object. Between ourselves, I am not risking as much as you think. It will take more than fifteen days for a son of Phellion, in other words, obstinacy incarnate in silliness, to have done with philosophical hesitations; and it is very certain that Celeste will not accept him for a husband unless he gives her some proofs of conversion."
"That's probable. But suppose Celeste tries to dawdle; suppose she refuses to accept the alternative?"
"That's your affair," said the Provencal. "I don't know how you regard the family in Paris; I only know that in my part of the country it is an unheard-of thing that a girl should have such liberty. If you, your sister (supposing she plays fair in the matter), and the father and mother can't succeed in making a girl whom you dower agree to so simple a thing as to make a perfectly free choice between two suitors, then good-bye to you! You'll have to write upon your gate-post that Celeste is queen and sovereign of the house."
"Well, we haven't got to that point yet," said Thuillier, with a capable air.
"As for you, my old fellow," resumed la Peyrade, "I must postpone our business until after Celeste's decision. Be that in my favor or not, I will then go to work, and in three days the pamphlet can be finished."
"Now," said Thuillier, "I know what you have had on your mind. I'll talk about it with Brigitte."
"That's a sad conclusion," said la Peyrade; "but, unhappily, so it is."
"What do you mean by that?"
"I would rather, as you can easily imagine, hear you say of yourself that the thing shall be done; but old habits can't be broken up."
"Ah ca! do you think I'm a man without any will, any initiative of my own?"
"No! but I'd like to be hidden in a corner and hear how you will open the subject with your sister."
"Parbleu! I shall open it frankly. I WILL, very firmly said, shall meet every one of her objections."
"Ah, my poor fellow!" said la Peyrade, clapping him on the shoulder, "from Chrysale down how often have we seen brave warriors lowering their penants before the wills of women accustomed to master them!"
"We'll see about that," replied Thuillier, making a theatrical exit.
The eager desire to publish his pamphlet, and the clever doubt thrown upon the strength of his will had made him furious,—an actual tiger; and he went away resolved, in case of opposition, to reduce his household, as the saying is, by fire and sword.
When he reached home Thuillier instantly laid the question before Brigitte. She, with her crude good sense and egotism, pointed out to him that by thus hastening the period formerly agreed upon for the marriage, they committed the blunder of disarming themselves; they could not be sure that when the election took place la Peyrade would put the same zeal into preparing for it. "It might be," said the old maid, "just as it has been about the cross."
"There's this difference," said Thuillier; "the cross doesn't depend directly upon la Peyrade, whereas the influence he exerts in the 12th arrondissement he can employ as he will."
"And suppose he willed, after we have feathered his nest," said Brigitte, "to work his influence for his own election? He is very ambitious, you know."
This danger did not fail to strike the mind of the future legislator, who thought, however, that he might feel some security in the honor and morality of la Peyrade.
"A man's honor can't be very delicate," returned Brigitte, "when he tries to get out of a bargain; and this fashion of dangling a bit of sugar before us about getting your pamphlet finished, doesn't please me at all. Can't you get Phellion to help you, and do without Theodose? Or, I dare say, Madame de Godollo, who knows everybody in politics, could find you a journalist—they say there are plenty of them out at elbows; a couple of hundred francs would do the thing."
"But the secret would get into the papers," said Thuillier. "No, I must absolutely have Theodose; he knows that, and he makes these conditions. After all, we did promise him Celeste, and it is only fulfilling the promise a year earlier—what am I saying?—a few months, a few weeks, possibly; for the king may dissolve the Chamber before any one expects it."
"But suppose Celeste won't have him?" objected Brigitte.
"Celeste! Celeste, indeed!" ejaculated Thuillier; "she must have whomsoever we choose. We ought to have thought of that when we made the engagement with la Peyrade; our word is passed now, you know. Besides, if the child is allowed to choose between la Peyrade and Phellion—"
"So you really think," said the sceptical old maid, "that if Celeste decides for Phellion you can still count on la Peyrade's devotion?"
"What else can I do? Those are his conditions. Besides, the fellow has calculated the whole thing; he knows very well that Felix will never bring himself in two weeks to please Celeste by going to confession, and unless he does, that little monkey will never accept him for a husband. La Peyrade's game is very clever."
"Too clever," said Brigitte. "Well, settle the matter as you choose; I shall not meddle; all this manoeuvring is not to my taste."
Thuillier went to see Madame Colleville, and intimated to her that she must inform Celeste of the designs upon her.
Celeste had never been officially authorized to indulge her sentiment for Felix Phellion. Flavie, on the contrary, had once expressly forbidden her to encourage the hopes of the young professor; but as, on the part of Madame Thuillier, her godmother and her confidant, she knew she was sustained in her inclination, she had let herself gently follow it without thinking very seriously of the obstacles her choice might encounter. When, therefore, she was ordered to choose at once between Felix and la Peyrade, the simple-hearted girl was at first only struck by the advantages of one half of the alternative, and she fancied she did herself a great service by agreeing to an arrangement which made her the mistress of her own choice and allowed her to bestow it as her heart desired.
But la Peyrade was not mistaken in his calculation when he reckoned that the religious intolerance of the young girl on one side, and the philosophical inflexibility of Phellion's son on the other, would create an invincible obstacle to their coming together.
CHAPTER III. GOOD BLOOD CANNOT LIE
The evening of the day on which Flavie had communicated to Celeste the sovereign orders of Thuillier, the Phellions called to spend the evening with Brigitte, and a very sharp engagement took place between the two young people. Mademoiselle Colleville did not need to be told by her mother that it would be extremely unbecoming if she allowed Felix to know of the conditional approval that was granted to their sentiments. Celeste had too much delicacy, and too much real religious feeling to wish to obtain the conversion of the man she loved on any other ground than that of his conviction. Their evening was therefore passed in theological debate; but love is so strange a Proteus, and takes so many and such various forms, that though it appeared on this occasion in a black gown and a mob cap, it was not at all as ungraceful and displeasing as might have been imagined. But Phellion junior was in this encounter, the solemnity of which he little knew, unlucky and blundering to the last degree. Not only did he concede nothing, but he took a tone of airy and ironical discussion, and ended by putting poor Celeste so beside herself that she finally declared an open rupture and forbade him to appear in her presence again.
It was just the case for a lover more experienced than the young savant to reappear the very next day, for young hearts are never so near to understanding each other as when they have just declared the necessity of eternal separation. But this law is not one of logarithms, and Felix Phellion, being incapable of guessing it, thought himself positively and finally banished; so much so, that during the fifteen days granted to the poor girl to deliberate (as says the Code in the matter of beneficiary bequests), although he was expected day by day, and from minute to minute by Celeste, who gave no more thought to la Peyrade than if he had nothing to do with the question, the deplorably stupid youth did not have the most distant idea of breaking his ban.
Luckily for this hopeless lover, a beneficent fairy was watching over him, and the evening before the day on which the young girl was to make her decision the following affair took place.
It was Sunday, the day on which the Thuilliers still kept up their weekly receptions.
Madame Phellion, convinced that the housekeeping leakage, vulgarly called "the basket dance," was the ruin of the best-regulated households, was in the habit of going in person to her tradespeople. From time immemorial in the Phellion establishment, Sunday was the day of the "pot-au-feu," and the wife of the great citizen, in that intentionally dowdy costume in which good housekeepers bundle themselves when they go to market, was prosaically returning from a visit to the butcher, followed by her cook and the basket, in which lay a magnificent cut of the loin of beef. Twice had she rung her own doorbell, and terrible was the storm gathering on the head of the foot-boy, who by his slowness in opening the door was putting his mistress in a situation less tolerable than that of Louis XIV., who had only almost waited. In her feverish impatience Madame Phellion had just given the bell a third and ferocious reverberation, when, judge of her confusion, a little coupe drew up with much clatter at the door of her house, and a lady descended, whom she recognized, at this untimely hour, as the elegant Comtesse Torna de Godollo!
Turning a purplish scarlet, the unfortunate bourgeoise lost her head, and, floundering in excuses, she was about to complicate the position by some signal piece of awkwardness, when, happily for her, Phellion, attracted by the noise of the bell, and attired in a dressing-gown and Greek cap, came out of his study to inquire what was the matter. After a speech, the pompous charm of which did much to compensate for his dishabille, the great citizen, with the serenity that never abandoned him, offered his hand very gallantly to the lady, and having installed her in the salon, said:—
"May I, without indiscretion, ask Madame la comtesse what has procured for us the unhoped-for advantage of this visit?"
"I have come," said the lady, "to talk with Madame Phellion on a matter which must deeply interest her. I have no other way of meeting her without witnesses; and therefore, though I am hardly known to Madame Phellion, I have taken the liberty to call upon her here."
"Madame, your visit is a great honor to this poor dwelling. But where is Madame Phellion?" added the worthy man, impatiently, going towards the door.
"No, I beg of you, don't disturb her," said the countess; "I have heedlessly come at a moment when she is busy with household cares. Brigitte has been my educator in such matters, and I know the respect we ought to pay to good housekeepers. Besides, I have the pleasure of your presence, which I scarcely expected."
Before Phellion could reply to these obliging words, Madame Phellion appeared. A cap with ribbons had taken the place of the market bonnet, and a large shawl covered the other insufficiencies of the morning toilet. When his wife arrived, the great citizen made as though he would discreetly retire.
"Monsieur Phellion," said the countess, "you are not one too many in the conference I desire with madame; on the contrary, your excellent judgment will be most useful in throwing light upon a matter as interesting to you as to your wife. I allude to the marriage of your son."
"The marriage of my son!" cried Madame Phellion, with a look of astonishment; "but I am not aware that anything of the kind is at present in prospect."
"The marriage of Monsieur Felix with Mademoiselle Celeste is, I think, one of your strongest desires—"
"But we have never," said Phellion, "taken any overt steps for that object."
"I know that only too well," replied the countess; "on the contrary, every one in your family seems to study how to defeat my efforts in that direction. However, one thing is clear in spite of the reserve, and, you must allow me to say so, the clumsiness in which the affair has been managed, and that is that the young people love each other, and they will both be unhappy if they do not marry. Now, to prevent this catastrophe is the object with which I have come here this morning."
"We cannot, madame, be otherwise than deeply sensible of the interest you are so good as to show in the happiness of our son," said Phellion; "but, in truth, this interest—"
"Is something so inexplicable," interrupted the countess, "that you feel a distrust of it?"
"Oh! madame!" said Phellion, bowing with an air of respectful dissent.
"But," continued the lady, "the explanation of my proceeding is very simple. I have studied Celeste, and in that dear and artless child I find a moral weight and value which would make me grieve to see her sacrificed."
"You are right, madame," said Madame Phellion. "Celeste is, indeed, an angel of sweetness."
"As for monsieur Felix, I venture to interest myself because, in the first place, he is the son of so virtuous a father—"
"Oh, madame! I entreat—" said Phellion, bowing again.
"—and he also attracts me by the awkwardness of true love, which appears in all his actions and all his words. We mature women find an inexpressible charm in seeing the tender passion under a form which threatens us with no deceptions and no misunderstandings."
"My son is certainly not brilliant," said Madame Phellion, with a faint tone of sharpness; "he is not a fashionable young man."
"But he has the qualities that are most essential," replied the countess, "and a merit which ignores itself,—a thing of the utmost consequence in all intellectual superiority—"
"Really, madame," said Phellion, "you force us to hear things that—"
"That are not beyond the truth," interrupted the countess. "Another reason which leads me to take a deep interest in the happiness of these young people is that I am not so desirous for that of Monsieur Theodose de la Peyrade, who is false and grasping. On the ruin of their hopes that man is counting to carry out his swindling purposes."
"It is quite certain," said Phellion, "that there are dark depths in Monsieur de la Peyrade where light does not penetrate."
"And as I myself had the misfortune to marry a man of his description, the thought of the wretchedness to which Celeste would be condemned by so fatal a connection, impels me, in the hope of saving her, to the charitable effort which now, I trust, has ceased to surprise you."
"Madame," said Phellion, "we do not need the conclusive explanations by which you illumine your conduct; but as to the faults on our part, which have thwarted your generous efforts, I must declare that in order to avoid committing them in future, it seems to me not a little desirable that you should plainly indicate them."
"How long is it," asked the countess, "since any of your family have paid a visit to the Thuilliers'?"
"If my memory serves me," said Phellion, "I think we were all there the Sunday after the dinner for the house-warming."
"Fifteen whole days of absence!" exclaimed the countess; "and you think that nothing of importance could happen in fifteen days?"
"No, indeed! did not three glorious days in July, 1830, cast down a perjured dynasty and found the noble order of things under which we now live?"
"You see it yourself!" said the countess. "Now, tell me, during that evening, fifteen days ago, did nothing serious take place between your son and Celeste?"
"Something did occur," replied Phellion,—"a very disagreeable conversation on the subject of my son's religious opinions; it must be owned that our good Celeste, who in all other respects has a charming nature, is a trifle fanatic in the matter of piety."
"I agree to that," said the countess; "but she was brought up by the mother whom you know; she was never shown the face of true piety; she saw only the mimicry of it. Repentant Magdalens of the Madame Colleville species always assume an air of wishing to retire to a desert with their death's-head and crossed bones. They think they can't get salvation at a cheaper rate. But after all, what did Celeste ask of Monsieur Felix? Merely that he would read 'The Imitation of Christ.'"
"He has read it, madame," said Phellion, "and he thinks it a book extremely well written; but his convictions—and that is a misfortune—have not been affected by the perusal."
"And do you think he shows much cleverness in not assuring his mistress of some little change in his inflexible convictions?"
"My son, madame, has never received from me the slightest lesson in cleverness; loyalty, uprightness, those are the principles I have endeavored to inculcate in him."
"It seems to me, monsieur, that there is no want of loyalty when, in dealing with a troubled mind, we endeavor to avoid wounding it. But let us agree that Monsieur Felix owed it to himself to be that iron door against which poor Celeste's applications beat in vain; was that a reason for keeping away from her and sulking in his tent for fifteen whole days? Above all, ought he to have capped these sulks by a proceeding which I can't forgive, and which—only just made known to us—has struck the girl's heart with despair, and also with a feeling of extreme irritation?"
"My son capable of any such act! it is quite impossible, madame!" cried Phellion. "I know nothing of this proceeding; but I do not hesitate to affirm that you have been ill-informed."
"And yet, nothing is more certain. Young Colleville, who came home to-day for his half-holiday, has just told us that Monsieur Felix, who had previously gone with the utmost punctuality to hear him recite has ceased entirely to have anything to do with him. Unless your son is ill, I do not hesitate to say that this neglect is the greatest of blunders, in the situation in which he now stands with the sister he ought not to have chosen this moment to put an end to these lessons."
The Phellions looked at each other as if consulting how to reply.
"My son," said Madame Phellion, "is not exactly ill; but since you mention a fact which is, I acknowledge, very strange and quite out of keeping with his nature and habits, I think it right to tell you that from the day when Celeste seemed to signify that all was at an end between them, a very extraordinary change has come over Felix, which is causing Monsieur Phellion and myself the deepest anxiety."
"Yes, madame," said Phellion, "the young man is certainly not in his normal condition."
"But what is the matter with him?" asked the countess, anxiously.
"The night of that scene with Celeste," replied Phellion, "after his return home, he wept a flood of hot tears on his mother's bosom, and gave us to understand that the happiness of his whole life was at an end."
"And yet," said Madame de Godollo, "nothing very serious happened; but lovers always make the worst of things."
"No doubt," said Madame Phellion; "but since that night Felix has not made the slightest allusion to his misfortune, and the next day he went back to his work with a sort of frenzy. Does that seem natural to you?"
"It is capable of explanation; work is said to be a great consoler."
"That is most true," said Phellion; "but in Felix's whole personality there is something excited, and yet repressed, which is difficult to describe. You speak to him, and he hardly seems to hear you; he sits down to table and forgets to eat, or takes his food with an absent-mindedness which the medical faculty consider most injurious to the process of digestion; his duties, his regular occupations, we have to remind him of—him, so extremely regular, so punctual! The other day, when he was at the Observatory, where he now spends all his evenings, only coming home in the small hours, I took it upon myself to enter his room and examine his papers. I was terrified, madame, at finding a paper covered with algebraic calculations which, by their vast extent appeared to me to go beyond the limits of the human intellect."
"Perhaps," said the countess, "he is on the road to some great discovery."
"Or to madness," said Madame Phellion, in a low voice, and with a heavy sigh.
"That is not probable," said Madame de Godollo; "with an organization so calm and a mind so well balanced, he runs but little danger of that misfortune. I know myself of another danger that threatens him to-morrow, and unless we can take some steps this evening to avert it, Celeste is positively lost to him."
"How so?" said the husband and wife together.
"Perhaps you are not aware," replied the countess, "that Thuillier and his sister have made certain promises to Monsieur de la Peyrade about Celeste?"
"We suspected as much," replied Madame Phellion.
"The fulfilment of these pledges was postponed to a rather distant period, and subordinated to certain conditions. Monsieur de la Peyrade, after enabling them to buy the house near the Madeleine, pledged himself not only to obtain the cross for Monsieur Thuillier, but to write in his name a political pamphlet, and assist him in his election to the Chamber of Deputies. It sounds like the romances of chivalry, in which the hero, before obtaining the hand of the princess, is compelled to exterminate a dragon."
"Madame is very witty," said Madame Phellion, looking at her husband, who made her a sign not to interrupt.
"I have no time now," said the countess; "in fact it would be useless to tell you the manoeuvres by which Monsieur de la Peyrade has contrived to hasten the period of this marriage; but it concerns you to know that, thanks to his duplicity, Celeste is being forced to choose between him and Monsieur Felix; fifteen days were given her in which to make her choice; the time expires to-morrow, and, thanks to the unfortunate state of feeling into which your son's attitude has thrown her, there is very serious danger of seeing her sacrifice to her wounded feelings the better sentiments of her love and her instincts."
"But what can be done to prevent it?" asked Phellion.
"Fight, monsieur; come this evening in force to the Thuilliers'; induce Monsieur Felix to accompany you; lecture him until he promises to be a little more flexible in his philosophical opinions. Paris, said Henri IV., is surely worth a mass. But let him avoid all such questions; he can certainly find in his heart the words and tones to move a woman who loves him; it requires so little to satisfy her! I shall be there myself, and I will help him to my utmost ability; perhaps, under the inspiration of the moment, I may think of some way to do effectually. One thing is very certain: we have to fight a great battle to-night, and if we do not ALL do our duty valorously, la Peyrade may win it."
"My son is not here, madame," said Phellion, "and I regret it, for perhaps your generous devotion and urgent words would succeed in shaking off his torpor; but, at any rate, I will lay before him the gravity of the situation, and, beyond all doubt, he will accompany us to-night to the Thuilliers'."
"It is needless to say," added the countess, rising, "that we must carefully avoid the very slightest appearance of collusion; we must not converse together; in fact, unless it can be done in some casual way, it would be better not to speak."
"I beg you to rely, madame, upon my prudence," replied Phellion, "and kindly accept the assurance—"
"Of your most distinguished sentiments," interrupted the countess, laughing.
"No, madame," replied Phellion, gravely, "I reserve that formula for the conclusion of my letters; I beg you to accept the assurance of my warmest and most unalterable gratitude."
"We will talk of that when we are out of danger," said Madame de Godollo, moving towards the door; "and if Madame Phellion, the tenderest and most virtuous of mothers, will grant me a little place in her esteem, I shall count myself more than repaid for my trouble."
Madame Phellion plunged headlong into a responsive compliment; and the countess, in her carriage, was at some distance from the house before Phellion had ceased to offer her his most respectful salutations.
As the Latin-quarter element in Brigitte's salon became more rare and less assiduous, a livelier Paris began to infiltrate it. Among his colleagues in the municipal council and among the upper employees of the prefecture of the Seine, the new councillor had made several very important recruits. The mayor, and the deputy mayors of the arrondissement, on whom, after his removal to the Madeleine quarter, Thuillier had called, hastened to return the civility; and the same thing happened with the superior officers of the first legion. The house itself had produced a contingent; and several of the new tenants contributed, by their presence, to change the aspect of the dominical meetings. Among the number we must mention Rabourdin [see "Bureaucracy"], the former head of Thuillier's office at the ministry of finance. Having had the misfortune to lose his wife, whose salon, at an earlier period, checkmated that of Madame Colleville, Rabourdin occupied as a bachelor the third floor, above the apartment let to Cardot, the notary. As the result of an odious slight to his just claims, Rabourdin had voluntarily resigned his public functions. At this time, when he again met Thuillier, he was director of one of those numerous projected railways, the construction of which is always delayed by either parliamentary rivalry or parliamentary indecision. Let us say, in passing, that the meeting with this able administrator, now become an important personage in the financial world, was an occasion to the worthy and honest Phellion to display once more his noble character. At the time of the resignation to which Rabourdin had felt himself driven, Phellion alone, of all the clerks in the office, had stood by him in his misfortunes. Being now in a position to bestow a great number of places, Rabourdin, on meeting once more his faithful subordinate, hastened to offer him a position both easy and lucrative.
"Mossieu," said Phellion, "your benevolence touches me and honors me, but my frankness owes you an avowal, which I beg you not to take in ill part: I do not believe in 'railways,' as the English call them."
"That's an opinion to which you have every right," said Rabourdin, smiling; "but, meanwhile, until the contrary is proved, we pay the employees in our office well, and I should be glad to have you with me in that capacity. I know by experience that you are a man on whom I can count."
"Mossieu," returned the great citizen, "I did my duty at that time, and nothing more. As for the offer you have been so good as to make to me, I cannot accept it; satisfied with my humble fortunes, I feel neither the need nor the desire to re-enter an administrative career; and, in common with the Latin poet, I may say, 'Claudite jam rivos, pueri, sat prata biberunt.'"
Thus elevated in the character of its habitues, the salon Thuillier still needed a new element of life. Thanks to the help of Madame de Godollo, a born organizer, who successfully put to profit the former connection of Colleville with the musical world, a few artists came to make diversion from bouillotte and boston. Old-fashioned and venerable, those two games were forced to beat a retreat before whist, the only manner, said the Hungarian countess, in which respectable people can kill time.
Like Louis XVI., who began by putting his own hand to reforms which subsequently engulfed his throne, Brigitte had encouraged, at first, this domestic revolution; the need of sustaining her position suitably in the new quarter to which she had emigrated had made her docile to all suggestions of comfort and elegance. But the day on which occurred the scene we are about to witness, an apparently trivial detail had revealed to her the danger of the declivity on which she stood. The greater number of the new guests, recently imported by Thuillier, knew nothing of his sister's supremacy in his home. On arrival, therefore, they all asked Thuillier to present them to Madame, and, naturally, Thuillier could not say to them that his wife was a figure-head who groaned under the iron hand of a Richelieu, to whom the whole household bent the knee. It was therefore not until the first homage rendered to the sovereign "de jure" was paid, that the new-comers were led up to Brigitte, and by reason of the stiffness which displeasure at this misplacement of power gave to her greeting they were scarcely encouraged to pay her any further attentions. Quick to perceive this species of overthrow, Queen Elizabeth said to herself, with that profound instinct of domination which was her ruling passion:—
"If I don't take care I shall soon be nobody in this house."
Burrowing into that idea, she came to think that if the project of making a common household with la Peyrade, then Celeste's husband, were carried out, the situation which was beginning to alarm her would become even worse. From that moment, and by sudden intuition, Felix Phellion, that good young man, with his head too full of mathematics ever to become a formidable rival to her sovereignty, seemed to her a far better match than the enterprising lawyer, and she was the first, on seeing the Phellion father and mother arrive without the son, to express regret at his absence. Brigitte, however, was not the only one to feel the injury that the luckless professor was doing to his prospects in thus keeping away from her reception. Madame Thuillier, with simple candor, and Celeste with feigned reserve, both made manifest their displeasure. As for Madame de Godollo, who, in spite of a very remarkable voice, usually required much pressing before she would sing (the piano having been opened since her reign began), she now went up to Madame Phellion and asked her to accompany her, and between two verses of a song she said in her ear:—
"Why isn't your son here?"
"He is coming," said Madame Phellion. "His father talked to him very decidedly; but to-night there happens to be a conjunction of I don't know what planets; it is a great night at the Observatory, and he did not feel willing to dispense with—"
"It is inconceivable that a man should be so foolish!" exclaimed Madame de Godollo; "wasn't theology bad enough, that he must needs bring in astronomy too?"
And her vexation gave to her voice so vibrating a tone that her song ended in the midst of what the English call a thunder of applause. La Peyrade, who feared her extremely, was not one of the last, when she returned to her place, to approach her, and express his admiration; but she received his compliments with a coldness so near to incivility that their mutual hostility was greatly increased. La Peyrade turned away to console himself with Madame Colleville, who had still too many pretensions to beauty not to be the enemy of a woman made to intercept all homage.
"So you also, you think that woman sings well?" she said, contemptuously, to Theodose.
"At any rate, I have been to tell her so," replied la Peyrade, "because without her, in regard to Brigitte, there's no security. But do just look at your Celeste; her eyes never leave that door, and every time a tray is brought in, though it is an hour at least since the last guest came, her face expresses disappointment."
We must remark, in passing, that since the reign of Madame de Godollo trays were passed round on the Sunday reception days, and that without scrimping; on the contrary, they were laden with ices, cakes, and syrups, from Taurade's, then the best confectioner.
"Don't harass me!" cried Flavie. "I know very well what that foolish girl has in her mind; and your marriage will take place only too soon."
"But you know it is not for myself I make it," said la Peyrade; "it is a necessity for the future of all of us. Come, come, there are tears in your eyes! I shall leave you; you are not reasonable. The devil! as that Prudhomme of a Phellion says, 'Whoso wants the end wants the means.'"
And he went toward the group composed of Celeste, Madame Thuillier, Madame de Godollo, Colleville, and Phellion. Madame Colleville followed him; and, under the influence of the feeling of jealousy she had just shown, she became a savage mother.
"Celeste," she said, "why don't you sing? These gentlemen wish to hear you."
"Oh, mamma!" cried the girl, "how can I sing after Madame de Godollo, with my poor thread of a voice? Besides, you know I have a cold."
"That is to say that, as usual, you make yourself pretentious and disagreeable; people sing as they can sing; all voices have their own merits."
"My dear," said Colleville, who, having just lost twenty francs at the card-tables, found courage in his ill-humor to oppose his wife, "that saying, 'People sing as they can sing' is a bourgeois maxim. People sing with a voice, if they have one; but they don't sing after hearing such a magnificent opera voice as that of Madame la comtesse. For my part, I readily excuse Celeste for not warbling to us one of her sentimental little ditties."
"Then it is well worth while," said Flavie, leaving the group, "to spend so much money on expensive masters who are good for nothing."
"So," said Colleville, resuming the conversation which the invasion of Flavie had interrupted, "Felix no longer inhabits this earth; he lives among the stars?"
"My dear and former colleague," said Phellion, "I am, as you are, annoyed with my son for neglecting, as he does, the oldest friends of his family; and though the contemplation of those great luminous bodies suspended in space by the hand of the Creator presents, in my opinion, higher interest than it appears to have to your more eager brain, I think that Felix, by not coming here to-night, as he promised me he would, shows a want of propriety, about which, I can assure you I shall speak my mind."
"Science," said la Peyrade, "is a fine thing, but it has, unfortunately, the attribute of making bears and monomaniacs."
"Not to mention," said Celeste, "that it destroys all religious sentiments."
"You are mistaken there, my dear child," said Madame de Godollo. "Pascal, who was himself a great example of the falseness of your point of view, says, if I am not mistaken, that a little science draws us from religion, but a great deal draws us back to it."
"And yet, madame," said Celeste, "every one admits that Monsieur Felix is really very learned; when he helped my brother with his studies nothing could be, so Francois told me, clearer or more comprehensible than his explanations; and you see, yourself, he is not the more religious for that."
"I tell you, my dear child, that Monsieur Felix is not irreligious, and with a little gentleness and patience nothing would be easier than to bring him back."
"Bring back a savant to the duties of religion!" exclaimed la Peyrade. "Really, madame, that seems to me very difficult. These gentlemen put the object of their studies before everything else. Tell a geometrician or a geologist, for example, that the Church demands, imperatively, the sanctification of the Sabbath by the suspension of all species of work, and they will shrug their shoulders, though God Himself did not disdain to rest from His labors."
"So that in not coming here this evening," said Celeste, naively, "Monsieur Felix commits not only a fault against good manners, but a sin."
"But, my dearest," said Madame de Godollo, "do you think that our meeting here this evening to sing ballads and eat ices and say evil of our neighbor—which is the customary habit of salons—is more pleasing to God than to see a man of science in his observatory busied in studying the magnificent secrets of His creation?"
"There's a time for all things," said Celeste; "and, as Monsieur de la Peyrade says, God Himself did not disdain to rest."
"But, my love," said Madame de Godollo, "God has time to do so; He is eternal."
"That," said la Peyrade, "is one of the wittiest impieties ever uttered; those are the reasons that the world's people put forth. They interpret and explain away the commands of God, even those that are most explicit and imperative; they take them, leave them, or choose among them; the free-thinker subjects them to his lordly revision, and from free-thinking the distance is short to free actions."
During this harangue of the barrister Madame de Godollo had looked at the clock; it then said half-past eleven. The salon began to empty. Only one card-table was still going on, Minard, Thuillier, and two of the new acquaintances being the players. Phellion had just quitted the group with which he had so far been sitting, to join his wife, who was talking with Brigitte in a corner; by the vehemence of his pantomimic action it was easy to see that he was filled with some virtuous indignation. Everything seemed to show that all hope of seeing the arrival of the tardy lover was decidedly over.
"Monsieur," said the countess to la Peyrade, "do you consider the gentlemen attached to Saint-Jacques du Haut Pas in the rue des Postes good Catholics?"
"Undoubtedly," replied the barrister, "religion has no more loyal supporters."
"This morning," continued the countess, "I had the happiness to be received by Pere Anselme. He is thought the model of all Christian virtues, and yet the good father is a very learned mathematician."
"I have not said, madame, that the two qualities were absolutely incompatible."
"But you did say that a true Christian could not attend to any species of work on Sunday. If so, Pere Anselme must be an unbeliever; for when I was admitted to his room I found him standing before a blackboard with a bit of chalk in his hand, busy with a problem which was, no doubt, knotty, for the board was three-parts covered with algebraic signs; and I must add that he did not seem to care for the scandal this ought to cause, for he had with him an individual whom I am not allowed to name, a younger man of science, of great promise, who was sharing his profane occupation."
Celeste and Madame Thuillier looked at each other, and both saw a gleam of hope in the other's eyes.
"Why can't you tell us the name of that young man of science?" Madame Thuillier ventured to say, for she never put any diplomacy into the expression of her thoughts.
"Because he has not, like Pere Anselme, the saintliness which would absolve him in the eyes of monsieur here for this flagrant violation of the Sabbath. Besides," added Madame de Godollo, in a significant manner, "he asked me not to mention that I had met him there."
"Then you know a good many scientific young men?" said Celeste, interrogatively; "this one and Monsieur Felix—that makes two."
"My dear love," said the countess, "you are an inquisitive little girl, and you will not make me say what I do not choose to say, especially after a confidence that Pere Anselme made to me; for if I did, your imagination would at once set off at a gallop."
The gallop had already started, and every word the countess said only added to the anxious eagerness of the young girl.
"As for me," said la Peyrade, sarcastically, "I shouldn't be at all surprised if Pere Anselme's young collaborator was that very Felix Phellion. Voltaire always kept very close relations with the Jesuits who brought him up; but he never talked religion with them."
"Well, my young savant does talk of it to his venerable brother in science; he submits his doubts to him; in fact, that was the beginning of their scientific intimacy."
"And does Pere Anselme," asked Celeste, "hope to convert him?"
"He is sure of it," replied the countess. "His young collaborator, apart from a religious education which he certainly never had, has been brought up to the highest principles; he knows, moreover, that his conversion to religion would make the happiness of a charming girl whom he loves, and who loves him. Now, my dear, you will not get another word out of me, and you may think what you like."
"Oh! godmother!" whispered Celeste, yielding to the freshness of her feelings, "suppose it were he!"
And the tears filled her eyes as she pressed Madame Thuillier's hand.
At this moment the servant threw open the door of the salon, and, singular complication! announced Monsieur Felix Phellion.
The young professor entered the room, bathed in perspiration, his cravat in disorder, and himself out of breath.
"A pretty hour," said Phellion, sternly, "to present yourself."
"Father," said Felix, moving to the side of the room where Madame Thuillier and Celeste were seated, "I could not leave before the end of the phenomenon; and then I couldn't find a carriage, and I have run the whole way."
"Your ears ought to have burned as you came," said la Peyrade, "for you have been for the last half-hour in the minds of these ladies, and a great problem has been started about you."
Felix did not answer. He saw Brigitte entering the salon from the dining-room where she had gone to tell the man-servant not to bring in more trays, and he hurried to greet her.
After listening to a few reproaches for the rarity of his visits and receiving forgiveness in a very cordial "Better late than never," he turned towards his pole, and was much astonished to hear himself addressed by Madame de Godollo as follows:—
"Monsieur," she said, "I hope you will pardon the indiscretion I have, in the heat of conversation, committed about you. I have told these ladies where I met you this morning."
"Met me?" said Felix; "if I had the honor to meet you, madame, I did not see you."
An almost imperceptible smile flickered on la Peyrade's lips.
"You saw me well enough to ask me to keep silence as to where I had met you; but, at any rate, I did not go beyond a simple statement; I said you saw Pere Anselme sometimes, and had certain scientific relations with him; also that you defended your religious doubts to him as you do to Celeste."
"Pere Anselme!" said Felix, stupidly.
"Yes, Pere Anselme," said la Peyrade, "a great mathematician who does not despair of converting you. Mademoiselle Celeste wept for joy."
Felix looked around him with a bewildered air. Madame de Godollo fixed upon him a pair of eyes the language of which a poodle could have understood.
"I wish," he said finally, "I could have given that joy to Mademoiselle Celeste, but I think, madame, you are mistaken."
"Ah! monsieur, then I must be more precise," said the countess, "and if your modesty still induces you to hide a step that can only honor you, you can contradict me; I will bear the mortification of having divulged a secret which, I acknowledge, you trusted implicitly to my discretion."
Madame Thuillier and Celeste were truly a whole drama to behold; never were doubt and eager expectation more plainly depicted on the human face. Measuring her words deliberately, Madame de Godollo thus continued:—
"I said to these ladies, because I know how deep an interest they take in your salvation, and because you are accused of boldly defying the commandments of God by working on Sundays, that I had met you this morning at the house of Pere Anselme, a mathematician like yourself, with whom you were busy in solving a problem; I said that your scientific intercourse with that saintly and enlightened man had led to other explanations between you; that you had submitted to him your religious doubts, and he did not despair of removing them. In the confirmation you can give of my words there is nothing, I am sure, to wound your self-esteem. The matter was simply a surprise you intended for Celeste, and I have had the stupidity to divulge it. But when she hears you admit the truth of my words you will have given her such happiness that I shall hope to be forgiven."
"Come, monsieur," said la Peyrade, "there's nothing absurd or mortifying in having sought for light; you, so honorable and so truly an enemy to falsehood, you cannot deny what madame affirms with such decision."
"Well," said Felix, after a moment's hesitation, "will you, Mademoiselle Celeste, allow me to say a few words to you in private, without witnesses?"
Celeste rose, after receiving an approving sign from Madame Thuillier. Felix took her hand and led her to the recess of the nearest window.
"Celeste," he said, "I entreat you: wait! See," he added, pointing to the constellation of Ursa Minor, "beyond those visible stars a future lies before us; I will place you there. As for Pere Anselme, I cannot admit what has been said, for it is not true. It is an invented tale. But be patient with me; you shall soon know all."
"He is mad!" said the young girl, in tones of despair, as she resumed her place beside Madame Thuillier.
Felix confirmed this judgment by rushing frantically from the salon, without perceiving the emotion in which his father and his mother started after him. After this sudden departure, which stupefied everybody, la Peyrade approached Madame de Godollo very respectfully, and said to her:—
"You must admit, madame, that it is difficult to drag a man from the water when he persists in being drowned."
"I had no idea until this moment of such utter simplicity," replied the countess; "it is too silly. I pass over to the enemy; and with that enemy I am ready and desirous to have, whenever he pleases, a frank and honest explanation."
CHAPTER IV. HUNGARY VERSUS PROVENCE
The next day Theodose felt himself possessed by two curiosities: How would Celeste behave as to the option she had accepted? and this Comtesse Torna de Godollo, what did she mean by what she had said; and what did she want with him?
The first of these questions seemed, undoubtedly, to have the right of way, and yet, by some secret instinct, la Peyrade felt more keenly drawn toward the conclusion of the second problem. He decided, therefore, to take his first step in that direction, fully understanding that he could not too carefully arm himself for the interview to which the countess had invited him.
The morning had been rainy, and this great calculator was, of course, not ignorant how much a spot of mud, tarnishing the brilliancy of varnished boots, could lower a man in the opinion of some. He therefore sent his porter for a cabriolet, and about three o'clock in the afternoon he drove from the rue Saint-Dominique d'Enfer toward the elegant latitudes of the Madeleine. It may well be believed that certain cares had been bestowed upon his toilet, which ought to present a happy medium between the negligent ease of a morning costume and the ceremonious character of an evening suit. Condemned by his profession to a white cravat, which he rarely laid aside, and not venturing to present himself in anything but a dress-coat, he felt himself being drawn, of necessity, to one of the extremes he desired to avoid. However by buttoning up his coat and wearing tan instead of straw-colored gloves, he managed to unsolemnize himself, and to avoid that provincial air which a man in full dress walking the streets of Paris while the sun is above the horizon never fails to convey.
The wary diplomatist was careful not to drive to the house where he was going. He was unwilling to be seen from the countess' entresol issuing from a hired cab, and from the first floor he feared to be discovered stopping short on his way up at the lower floor,—a proceeding which could not fail to give rise to countless conjectures.
He therefore ordered the driver to pull up at the corner of the rue Royale, whence, along a pavement that was now nearly dry, he picked his way on tiptoe to the house. It so chanced that he was not seen by either the porter or his wife; the former being beadle of the church of the Madeleine, was absent at a service, and the wife had just gone up to show a vacant apartment to a lodger. Theodose was therefore able to glide unobserved to the door of the sanctuary he desired to penetrate. A soft touch of his hand to the silken bell-rope caused a sound which echoed from the interior of the apartment. A few seconds elapsed, and then another and more imperious bell of less volume seemed to him a notification to the maid that her delay in opening the door was displeasing to her mistress. A moment later, a waiting-woman, of middle age, and too well trained to dress like a "soubrette" of comedy, opened the door to him.
The lawyer gave his name, and the woman ushered him into a dining-room, severely luxurious, where she asked him to wait. A moment later, however, she returned, and admitted him into the most coquettish and splendid salon it was possible to insert beneath the low ceilings of an entresol. The divinity of the place was seated before a writing-table covered with a Venetian cloth, in which gold glittered in little spots among the dazzling colors of the tapestry.
"Will you allow me, monsieur, to finish a letter of some importance?" she said.
The barrister bowed in sign of assent. The handsome Hungarian then concluded a note on blue English paper, which she placed in an envelope; after sealing it carefully, she rang the bell. The maid appeared immediately and lighted a little spirit lamp; above the lamp was suspended a sort of tiny crucible, in which was a drop of sealing-wax; as soon as this had melted, the maid poured it on the envelope, presenting to her mistress a seal with armorial bearings. This the countess imprinted on the wax with her own beautiful hands, and then said:—
"Take the letter at once to that address."
The woman made a movement to take the letter, but, either from haste or inadvertence, the paper fell from her hand close to la Peyrade's feet. He stooped hastily to pick it up, and read the direction involuntarily. It bore the words, "His Excellency the Minister of Foreign Affairs"; the significant words, "For him only," written higher up, seemed to give this missive a character of intimacy.
"Pardon, monsieur," said the countess, receiving the paper, which he had the good taste to return to her own hands in order to show his eagerness to serve her. "Be so good, mademoiselle, as to carry that in a way not to lose it," she added in a dry tone to the unlucky maid. The countess then left her writing-table and took her seat on a sofa covered with pearl-gray satin.
During these proceedings la Peyrade had the satisfaction of making an inventory of all the choice things by which he was surrounded. Paintings by good masters detached themselves from walls of even tone; on a pier-table stood a very tall Japanese vase; before the windows the jardinieres were filled with lilium rubrum, showing its handsome reversely curling petals surmounted by white and red camellias and a dwarf magnolia from China, with flowers of sulphur white with scarlet edges. In a corner was a stand of arms, of curious shapes and rich construction, explained, perhaps, by the lady's Hungarian nationality—always that of the hussar. A few bronzes and statuettes of exquisite selection, chairs rolling softly on Persian carpets, and a perfect anarchy of stuffs of all kinds completed the arrangement of this salon, which the lawyer had once before visited with Brigitte and Thuillier before the countess moved into it. It was so transformed that it seemed to him unrecognizable. With a little more knowledge of the world la Peyrade would have been less surprised at the marvellous care given by the countess to the decoration of the room. A woman's salon is her kingdom, and her absolute domain; there, in the fullest sense of the word, she reigns, she governs; there she offers battle, and nearly always comes off victorious.
Coquettishly lying back in a corner of the sofa, her head carelessly supported by an arm the form and whiteness of which could be seen nearly to the elbow through the wide, open sleeve of a black velvet dressing-gown, her Cinderella foot in its dainty slipper of Russia leather resting on a cushion of orange satin, the handsome Hungarian had the look of a portrait by Laurence or Winterhalter, plus the naivete of the pose.
"Monsieur," she said, with the slightly foreign accent which lent an added charm to her words, "I cannot help thinking it rather droll that a man of your mind and rare penetration should have thought you had an enemy in me."
"But, Madame la comtesse," replied la Peyrade, allowing her to read in his eyes an astonishment mingled with distrust, "all the appearances, you must admit, were of that nature. A suitor interposes to break off a marriage which has been offered to me with every inducement; this rival does me the service of showing himself so miraculously stupid and awkward that I could easily have set him aside, when suddenly a most unlooked-for and able auxiliary devotes herself to protecting him on the very ground where he shows himself most vulnerable."
"You must admit," said the countess, laughing, "that the protege showed himself a most intelligent man, and that he seconded my efforts valiantly."
"His clumsiness could not have been, I think, very unexpected to you," replied la Peyrade; "therefore the protection you have deigned to give him is the more cruel to me."
"What a misfortune it would be," said the countess, with charmingly affected satire, "if your marriage with Mademoiselle Celeste were prevented! Do you really care so much, monsieur, for that little school-girl?"
In that last word, especially the intonation with which it was uttered, there was more than contempt, there was hatred. This expression did not escape an observer of la Peyrade's strength, but not being a man to advance very far on a single remark he merely replied:—
"Madame, the vulgar expression, to 'settle down,' explains this situation, in which a man, after many struggles and being at an end of his efforts and his illusions, makes a compromise with the future. When this compromise takes the form of a young girl with, I admit, more virtue than beauty, but one who brings to a husband the fortune which is indispensable to the comfort of married life, what is there so astonishing in the fact that his heart yields to gratitude and that he welcomes the prospect of a placid happiness?"
"I have always thought," replied the countess, "that the power of a man's intellect ought to be the measure of his ambition; and I imagined that one so wise as to make himself, at first, the poor man's lawyer, would have in his heart less humble and less pastoral aspirations."
"Ah! madame," returned la Peyrade, "the iron hand of necessity compels us to strange resignations. The question of daily bread is one of those before which all things bend the knee. Apollo was forced to 'get a living,' as the shepherd of Admetus."
"The sheepfold of Admetus," said Madame de Godollo, "was at least a royal fold; I don't think Apollo would have resigned himself to be the shepherd of a—bourgeois."
The hesitation that preceded that last word seemed to convey in place of it a proper name; and la Peyrade understood that Madame de Godollo, out of pure clemency, had suppressed that of Thuillier, had turned her remark upon the species and not the individual.
"I agree, madame, that your distinction is a just one," he replied, "but in this case Apollo has no choice."
"I don't like persons who charge too much," said the countess, "but still less do I like those who sell their merchandise below the market price; I always suspect such persons of trying to dupe me by some clever and complicated trick. You know very well, monsieur, your own value, and your hypocritical humility displeases me immensely. It proves to me that my kindly overtures have not produced even a beginning of confidence between us."
"I assure you, madame, that up to the present time life has never justified the belief in any dazzling superiority in me."
"Well, really," said the Hungarian, "perhaps I ought to believe in the humility of a man who is willing to accept the pitiable finale of his life which I threw myself into the breach to prevent."
"Just as I, perhaps," said la Peyrade, with a touch of sarcasm, "ought to believe in the reality of a kindness which, in order to save me, has handled me so roughly."
The countess cast a reproachful look upon her visitor; her fingers crumpled the ribbons of her gown; she lowered her eyes, and gave a sigh, so nearly imperceptible, so slight, that it might have passed for an accident in the most regular breathing.
"You are rancorous," she said, "and you judge people by one aspect only. After all," she added, as if on reflection, "you are perhaps right in reminding me that I have taken the longest way round by meddling, rather ridiculously, in interests that do not concern me. Go on, my dear monsieur, in the path of this glorious marriage which offers you so many combined inducements; only, let me hope that you may not repent a course with which I shall no longer interfere."