Chapter 6 - The Worms At Work
Rabourdin's bureau was during his absence a prey to the keenest excitement; for the relation between the head officials and the clerks in a government office is so regulated that, when a minister's messenger summons the head of a bureau to his Excellency's presence (above all at the latter's breakfast hour), there is no end to the comments that are made. The fact that the present unusual summons followed so closely on the death of Monsieur de la Billardiere seemed to give special importance to the circumstance, which was made known to Monsieur Saillard, who came at once to confer with Baudoyer. Bixiou, who happened at the moment to be at work with the latter, left him to converse with his father-in-law and betook himself to the bureau Rabourdin, where the usual routine was of course interrupted.
Bixiou [entering]. "I thought I should find you at a white heat! Don't you know what's going on down below? The virtuous woman is done for! yes, done for, crushed! Terrible scene at the ministry!"
Dutocq [looking fixedly at him]. "Are you telling the truth?"
Bixiou. "Pray, who would regret it? Not you, certainly, for you will be made under-head-clerk and du Bruel head of the bureau. Monsieur Baudoyer gets the division."
Fleury. "I'll bet a hundred francs that Baudoyer will never be head of the division."
Vimeux. "I'll join in the bet; will you, Monsieur Poiret?"
Poiret. "I retire in January."
Bixiou. "Is it possible? are we to lose the sight of those shoe-ties? What will the ministry be without you? Will nobody take up the bet on my side?"
Dutocq. "I can't, for I know the facts. Monsieur Rabourdin is appointed. Monsieur de la Billardiere requested it of the two ministers on his death-bed, blaming himself for having taken the emoluments of an office of which Rabourdin did all the work; he felt remorse of conscience, and the ministers, to quiet him, promised to appoint Rabourdin unless higher powers intervened."
Bixiou. "Gentlemen, are you all against me? seven to one,--for I know which side you'll take, Monsieur Phellion. Well, I'll bet a dinner costing five hundred francs at the Rocher de Cancale that Rabourdin does not get La Billardiere's place. That will cost you only a hundred francs each, and I'm risking five hundred,--five to one against me! Do you take it up?" [Shouting into the next room.] "Du Bruel, what say you?"
Phellion [laying down his pen]. "Monsieur, may I ask on what you base that contingent proposal?--for contingent it is. But stay, I am wrong to call it a proposal; I should say contract. A wager constitutes a contract."
Fleury. "No, no; you can only apply the word 'contract' to agreements that are recognized in the Code. Now the Code allows of no action for the recovery of a bet."
Dutocq. "Proscribe a thing and you recognize it."
Bixiou. "Good! my little man."
Poiret. "Dear me!"
Fleury. "True! when one refuses to pay one's debts, that's recognizing them."
Thuillier. "You would make famous lawyers."
Poiret. "I am as curious as Monsieur Phellion to know what grounds Monsieur Bixiou has for--"
Bixiou [shouting across the office]. "Du Bruel! Will you bet?"
Du Bruel [appearing at the door]. "Heavens and earth, gentlemen, I'm very busy; I have something very difficult to do; I've got to write an obituary notice of Monsieur de la Billardiere. I do beg you to be quiet; you can laugh and bet afterwards."
Bixiou. "That's true, du Bruel; the praise of an honest man is a very difficult thing to write. I'd rather any day draw a caricature of him."
Du Bruel. "Do come and help me, Bixiou."
Bixiou [following him]. "I'm willing; though I can do such things much better when eating."
Du Bruel. "Well, we will go and dine together afterwards. But listen, this is what I have written" [reads] "'The Church and the Monarchy are daily losing many of those who fought for them in Revolutionary times.'"
Bixiou. "Bad, very bad; why don't you say, 'Death carries on its ravages amongst the few surviving defenders of the monarchy and the old and faithful servants of the King, whose heart bleeds under these reiterated blows?'" [Du Bruel writes rapidly.] "'Monsieur le Baron Flamet de la Billardiere died this morning of dropsy, caused by heart disease.' You see, it is just as well to show there are hearts in government offices; and you ought to slip in a little flummery about the emotions of the Royalists during the Terror,--might be useful, hey! But stay,--no! the petty papers would be sure to say the emotions came more from the stomach than the heart. Better leave that out. What are you writing now?"
Du Bruel [reading]. "'Issuing from an old parliamentary stock in which devotion to the throne was hereditary, as was also attachment to the faith of our fathers, Monsieur de la Billardiere--'"
Bixiou. "Better say Monsieur le Baron de la Billardiere."
Du Bruel. "But he wasn't baron in 1793."
Bixiou. "No matter. Don't you remember that under the Empire Fouche was telling an anecdote about the Convention, in which he had to quote Robespierre, and he said, 'Robespierre called out to me, "Duc d'Otrante, go to the Hotel de Ville."' There's a precedent for you!"
Du Bruel. "Let me just write that down; I can use it in a vaudeville. --But to go back to what we were saying. I don't want to put 'Monsieur le baron,' because I am reserving his honors till the last, when they rained upon him."
Bixiou. "Oh! very good; that's theatrical,--the finale of the article."
Du Bruel [continuing]. "'In appointing Monsieur de la Billardiere gentleman-in-ordinary--'"
Bixiou. "Very ordinary!"
Du Bruel. "'--of the Bedchamber, the King rewarded not only the services rendered by the Provost, who knew how to harmonize the severity of his functions with the customary urbanity of the Bourbons, but the bravery of the Vendean hero, who never bent the knee to the imperial idol. He leaves a son, who inherits his loyalty and his talents.'"
Bixiou. "Don't you think all that is a little too florid? I should tone down the poetry. 'Imperial idol!' 'bent the knee!' damn it, my dear fellow, writing vaudevilles has ruined your style; you can't come down to pedestrial prose. I should say, 'He belonged to the small number of those who.' Simplify, simplify! the man himself was a simpleton."
Du Bruel. "That's vaudeville, if you like! You would make your fortune at the theatre, Bixiou."
Bixiou. "What have you said about Quiberon?" [Reads over du Bruel's shoulder.] "Oh, that won't do! Here, this is what you must say: 'He took upon himself, in a book recently published, the responsibility for all the blunders of the expedition to Quiberon,--thus proving the nature of his loyalty, which did not shrink from any sacrifice.' That's clever and witty, and exalts La Billardiere."
Du Bruel. "At whose expense?"
Bixiou [solemn as a priest in a pulpit]. "Why, Hoche and Tallien, of course; don't you read history?"
Du Bruel. "No. I subscribed to the Baudouin series, but I've never had time to open a volume; one can't find matter for vaudevilles there."
Phellion [at the door]. "We all want to know, Monsieur Bixiou, what made you think that the worthy and honorable Monsieur Rabourdin, who has so long done the work of this division for Monsieur de la Billardiere,--he, who is the senior head of all the bureaus, and whom, moreover, the minister summoned as soon as he heard of the departure of the late Monsieur de la Billardiere,--will not be appointed head of the division."
Bixiou. "Papa Phellion, you know geography?"
Phellion [bridling up]. "I should say so!"
Bixiou. "And history?"
Phellion [affecting modesty]. "Possibly."
Bixiou [looking fixedly at him]. "Your diamond pin is loose, it is coming out. Well, you may know all that, but you don't know the human heart; you have gone no further in the geography and history of that organ than you have in the environs of the city of Paris."
Poiret [to Vimeux]. "Environs of Paris? I thought they were talking of Monsieur Rabourdin."
Bixiou. "About that bet? Does the entire bureau Rabourdin bet against me?"
Bixiou. "Du Bruel, do you count in?"
Du Bruel. "Of course I do. We want Rabourdin to go up a step and make room for others."
Bixiou. "Well, I accept the bet,--for this reason; you can hardly understand it, but I'll tell it to you all the same. It would be right and just to appoint Monsieur Rabourdin" [looking full at Dutocq], "because, in that case, long and faithful service, honor, and talent would be recognized, appreciated, and properly rewarded. Such an appointment is in the best interests of the administration." [Phellion, Poiret, and Thuillier listen stupidly, with the look of those who try to peer before them in the darkness.] "Well, it is just because the promotion would be so fitting, and because the man has such merit, and because the measure is so eminently wise and equitable that I bet Rabourdin will not be appointed. Yes, you'll see, that appointment will slip up, just like the invasion from Boulogne, and the march to Russia, for the success of which a great genius has gathered together all the chances. It will fail as all good and just things do fail in this low world. I am only backing the devil's game."
Du Bruel. "Who do you think will be appointed?"
Bixiou. "The more I think about Baudoyer, the more sure I feel that he unites all the opposite qualities; therefore I think he will be the next head of this division."
Dutocq. "But Monsieur des Lupeaulx, who sent for me to borrow my Charlet, told me positively that Monsieur Rabourdin was appointed, and that the little La Billardiere would be made Clerk of the Seals."
Bixiou. "Appointed, indeed! The appointment can't be made and signed under ten days. It will certainly not be known before New-Year's day. There he goes now across the courtyard; look at him, and say if the virtuous Rabourdin looks like a man in the sunshine of favor. I should say he knows he's dismissed." [Fleury rushes to the window.] "Gentlemen, adieu; I'll go and tell Monsieur Baudoyer that I hear from you that Rabourdin is appointed; it will make him furious, the pious creature! Then I'll tell him of our wager, to cool him down,--a process we call at the theatre turning the Wheel of Fortune, don't we, du Bruel? Why do I care who gets the place? simply because if Baudoyer does he will make me under-head-clerk" [goes out].
Poiret. "Everybody says that man is clever, but as for me, I can never understand a word he says" [goes on copying]. "I listen and listen; I hear words, but I never get at any meaning; he talks about the environs of Paris when he discusses the human heart and" [lays down his pen and goes to the stove] "declares he backs the devil's game when it is a question of Russia and Boulogne; now what is there so clever in that, I'd like to know? We must first admit that the devil plays any game at all, and then find out what game; possibly dominoes" [blows his nose].
Fleury [interrupting]. "Pere Poiret is blowing his nose; it must be eleven o'clock."
Du Bruel. "So it is! Goodness! I'm off to the secretary; he wants to read the obituary."
Poiret. "What was I saying?"
Thuillier. "Dominoes,--perhaps the devil plays dominoes." [Sebastien enters to gather up the different papers and circulars for signature.]
Vimeux. "Ah! there you are, my fine young man. Your days of hardship are nearly over; you'll get a post. Monsieur Rabourdin will be appointed. Weren't you at Madame Rabourdin's last night? Lucky fellow! they say that really superb women go there."
Sebastien. "Do they? I didn't know."
Fleury. "Are you blind?"
Sebastien. "I don't like to look at what I ought not to see."
Phellion [delighted]. "Well said, young man!"
Vimeux. "The devil! well, you looked at Madame Rabourdin enough, any how; a charming woman."
Fleury. "Pooh! thin as a rail. I saw her in the Tuileries, and I much prefer Percilliee, the ballet-mistress, Castaing's victim."
Phellion. "What has an actress to do with the wife of a government official?"
Dutocq. "They both play comedy."
Fleury [looking askance at Dutocq]. "The physical has nothing to do with the moral, and if you mean--"
Dutocq. "I mean nothing."
Fleury. "Do you all want to know which of us will really be made head of this bureau?"
All. "Yes, tell us."
Fleury. "Because Madame Colleville has taken the shortest way to it-- through the sacristy."
Thuillier. "I am too much Colleville's friend not to beg you, Monsieur Fleury, to speak respectfully of his wife."
Phellion. "A defenceless woman should never be made the subject of conversation here--"
Vimeux. "All the more because the charming Madame Colleville won't invite Fleury to her house. He backbites her in revenge."
Fleury. "She may not receive me on the same footing that she does Thuillier, but I go there--"
Thuillier. "When? how?--under her windows?"
Though Fleury was dreaded as a bully in all the offices, he received Thuillier's speech in silence. This meekness, which surprised the other clerks, was owing to a certain note for two hundred francs, of doubtful value, which Thuillier agreed to pass over to his sister. After this skirmish dead silence prevailed. They all wrote steadily from one to three o'clock. Du Bruel did not return.
About half-past three the usual preparations for departure, the brushing of hats, the changing of coats, went on in all the ministerial offices. That precious thirty minutes thus employed served to shorten by just so much the day's labor. At this hour the over- heated rooms cool off; the peculiar odor that hangs about the bureaus evaporates; silence is restored. By four o'clock none but a few clerks who do their duty conscientiously remain. A minister may know who are the real workers under him if he will take the trouble to walk through the divisions after four o'clock,--a species of prying, however, that no one of his dignity would condescend to.
The various heads of divisions and bureaus usually encountered each other in the courtyards at this hour and exchanged opinions on the events of the day. On this occasion they departed by twos and threes, most of them agreeing in favor of Rabourdin; while the old stagers, like Monsieur Clergeot, shook their heads and said, "Habent sua sidera lites." Saillard and Baudoyer were politely avoided, for nobody knew what to say to them about La Billardiere's death, it being fully understood that Baudoyer wanted the place, though it was certainly not due to him.
When Saillard and his son-in-law had gone a certain distance from the ministry the former broke silence and said: "Things look badly for you, my poor Baudoyer."
"I can't understand," replied the other, "what Elisabeth was dreaming of when she sent Godard in such a hurry to get a passport for Falleix; Godard tells me she hired a post-chaise by the advice of my uncle Mitral, and that Falleix has already started for his own part of the country."
"Some matter connected with our business," suggested Saillard.
"Our most pressing business just now is to look after Monsieur La Billardiere's place," returned Baudoyer, crossly.
They were just then near the entrance of the Palais-Royal on the rue Saint-Honore. Dutocq came up, bowing, and joined them.
"Monsieur," he said to Baudoyer, "if I can be useful to you in any way under the circumstances in which you find yourself, pray command me, for I am not less devoted to your interests than Monsieur Godard."
"Such an assurance is at least consoling," replied Baudoyer; "it makes me aware that I have the confidence of honest men."
"If you would kindly employ your influence to get me placed in your division, taking Bixiou as head of the bureau and me as under-head- clerk, you will secure the future of two men who are ready to do anything for your advancement."
"Are you making fun of us, monsieur?" asked Saillard, staring at him stupidly.
"Far be it from me to do that," said Dutocq. "I have just come from the printing-office of the ministerial journal (where I carried from the general-secretary an obituary notice of Monsieur de la Billardiere), and I there read an article which will appear to-night about you, which has given me the highest opinion of your character and talents. If it is necessary to crush Rabourdin, I'm in a position to give him the final blow; please to remember that."
"May I be shot if I understand a single word of it," said Saillard, looking at Baudoyer, whose little eyes were expressive of stupid bewilderment. "I must buy the newspaper to-night."
When the two reached home and entered the salon on the ground-floor, they found a large fire lighted, and Madame Saillard, Elisabeth, Monsieur Gaudron and the curate of Saint-Paul's sitting by it. The curate turned at once to Monsieur Baudoyer, to whom Elisabeth made a sign which he failed to understand.
"Monsieur," said the curate, "I have lost no time in coming in person to thank you for the magnificent gift with which you have adorned my poor church. I dared not run in debt to buy that beautiful monstrance, worthy of a cathedral. You, who are one of our most pious and faithful parishioners, must have keenly felt the bareness of the high altar. I am on my way to see Monseigneur the coadjutor, and he will, I am sure, send you his own thanks later."
"I have done nothing as yet--" began Baudoyer.
"Monsieur le cure," interposed his wife, cutting him short. "I see I am forced to betray the whole secret. Monsieur Baudoyer hopes to complete the gift by sending you a dais for the coming Fete-Dieu. But the purchase must depend on the state of our finances, and our finances depend on my husband's promotion."
"God will reward those who honor him," said Monsieur Gaudron, preparing, with the curate, to take leave.
"But will you not," said Saillard to the two ecclesiastics, "do us the honor to take pot luck with us?"
"You can stay, my dear vicar," said the curate to Gaudron; "you know I am engaged to dine with the curate of Saint-Roch, who, by the bye, is to bury Monsieur de la Billardiere to-morrow."
"Monsieur le cure de Saint-Roch might say a word for us," began Baudoyer. His wife pulled the skirt of his coat violently.
"Do hold your tongue, Baudoyer," she said, leading him aside and whispering in his ear. "You have given a monstrance to the church, that cost five thousand francs. I'll explain it all later."
The miserly Baudoyer make a sulky grimace, and continued gloomy and cross for the rest of the day.
"What did you busy yourself about Falleix's passport for? Why do you meddle in other people's affairs?" he presently asked her.
"I must say, I think Falleix's affairs are as much ours as his," returned Elisabeth, dryly, glancing at her husband to make him notice Monsieur Gaudron, before whom he ought to be silent.
"Certainly, certainly," said old Saillard, thinking of his co- partnership.
"I hope you reached the newspaper office in time?" remarked Elisabeth to Monsieur Gaudron, as she helped him to soup.
"Yes, my dear lady," answered the vicar; "when the editor read the little article I gave him, written by the secretary of the Grand Almoner, he made no difficulty. He took pains to insert it in a conspicuous place. I should never have thought of that; but this young journalist has a wide-awake mind. The defenders of religion can enter the lists against impiety without disadvantage at the present moment, for there is a great deal of talent in the royalist press. I have every reason to believe that success will crown your hopes. But you must remember, my dear Baudoyer, to promote Monsieur Colleville; he is an object of great interest to his Eminence; in fact, I am desired to mention him to you."
"If I am head of the division, I will make him head of one of my bureaus, if you want me to," said Baudoyer.
The matter thus referred to was explained after dinner, when the ministerial organ (bought and sent up by the porter) proved to contain among its Paris news the following articles, called items:--
"Monsieur le Baron de la Billardiere died this morning, after a long and painful illness. The king loses a devoted servant, the Church a most pious son. Monsieur de la Billardiere's end has fitly crowned a noble life, consecrated in dark and troublesome times to perilous missions, and of late years to arduous civic duties. Monsieur de la Billardiere was provost of a department, where his force of character triumphed over all the obstacles that rebellion arrayed against him. He subsequently accepted the difficult post of director of a division (in which his great acquirements were not less useful than the truly French affability of his manners) for the express purpose of conciliating the serious interests that arise under its administration. No rewards have ever been more truly deserved than those by which the King, Louis XVIII., and his present Majesty took pleasure in crowning a loyalty which never faltered under the usurper. This old family still survives in the person of a single heir to the excellent man whose death now afflicts so many warm friends. His Majesty has already graciously made known that Monsieur Benjamin de la Billardiere will be included among the gentlemen-in-ordinary of the Bedchamber.
"The numerous friends who have not already received their notification of this sad event are hereby informed that the funeral will take place to-morrow at four o'clock, in the church of Saint-Roch. The memorial address will be delivered by Monsieur l'Abbe Fontanon."
"Monsieur Isidore-Charles-Thomas Baudoyer, representing one of the oldest bourgeois families of Paris, and head of a bureau in the late Monsieur de la Billardiere's division, has lately recalled the old traditions of piety and devotion which formerly distinguished these great families, so jealous for the honor and glory of religion, and so faithful in preserving its monuments. The church of Saint-Paul has long needed a monstrance in keeping with the magnificence of that basilica, itself due to the Company of Jesus. Neither the vestry nor the curate were rich enough to decorate the altar. Monsieur Baudoyer has bestowed upon the parish a monstrance that many persons have seen and admired at Monsieur Gohier's, the king's jeweller. Thanks to the piety of this gentleman, who did not shrink from the immensity of the price, the church of Saint-Paul possesses to-day a masterpiece of the jeweller's art designed by Monsieur de Sommervieux. It gives us pleasure to make known this fact, which proves how powerless the declamations of liberals have been on the mind of the Parisian bourgeoisie. The upper ranks of that body have at all times been royalist and they prove it when occasion offers."
"The price was five thousand francs," said the Abbe Gaudron; "but as the payment was in cash, the court jeweller reduced the amount."
"Representing one of the oldest bourgeois families in Paris!" Saillard was saying to himself; "there it is printed,--in the official paper, too!"
"Dear Monsieur Gaudron," said Madame Baudoyer, "please help my father to compose a little speech that he could slip into the countess's ear when he takes her the monthly stipend,--a single sentence that would cover all! I must leave you. I am obliged to go out with my uncle Mitral. Would you believe it? I was unable to find my uncle Bidault at home this afternoon. Oh, what a dog-kennel he lives in! But Monsieur Mitral, who knows his ways, says he does all his business between eight o'clock in the morning and midday, and that after that hour he can be found only at a certain cafe called the Cafe Themis,--a singular name."
"Is justice done there?" said the abbe, laughing.
"Do you ask why he goes to a cafe at the corner of the rue Dauphine and the quai des Augustins? They say he plays dominoes there every night with his friend Monsieur Gobseck. I don't wish to go to such a place alone; my uncle Mitral will take me there and bring me back."
At this instant Mitral showed his yellow face, surmounted by a wig which looked as though it might be made of hay, and made a sign to his niece to come at once, and not keep a carriage waiting at two francs an hour. Madame Baudoyer rose and went away without giving any explanation to her husband or father.
"Heaven has given you in that woman," said Monsieur Gaudron to Baudoyer when Elisabeth had disappeared, "a perfect treasure of prudence and virtue, a model of wisdom, a Christian who gives sure signs of possessing the Divine spirit. Religion alone is able to form such perfect characters. To-morrow I shall say a mass for the success of your good cause. It is all-important, for the sake of the monarchy and of religion itself that you should receive this appointment. Monsieur Rabourdin is a liberal; he subscribes to the 'Journal des Debats,' a dangerous newspaper, which made war on Monsieur le Comte de Villele to please the wounded vanity of Monsieur de Chateaubriand. His Eminence will read the newspaper to-night, if only to see what is said of his poor friend Monsieur de la Billardiere; and Monseigneur the coadjutor will speak of you to the King. When I think of what you have now done for his dear church, I feel sure he will not forget you in his prayers; more than that, he is dining at this moment with the coadjutor at the house of the curate of Saint-Roch."
These words made Saillard and Baudoyer begin to perceive that Elisabeth had not been idle ever since Godard had informed her of Monsieur de la Billardiere's decease.
"Isn't she clever, that Elisabeth of mine?" cried Saillard, comprehending more clearly than Monsieur l'abbe the rapid undermining, like the path of a mole, which his daughter had undertaken.
"She sent Godard to Rabourdin's door to find out what newspaper he takes," said Gaudron; "and I mentioned the name to the secretary of his Eminence,--for we live at a crisis when the Church and Throne must keep themselves informed as to who are their friends and who their enemies."
"For the last five days I have been trying to find the right thing to say to his Excellency's wife," said Saillard.
"All Paris will read that," cried Baudoyer, whose eyes were still riveted on the paper.
"Your eulogy costs us four thousand eight hundred francs, son-in-law!" exclaimed Madame Saillard.
"You have adorned the house of God," said the Abbe Gaudron.
"We might have got salvation without doing that," she returned. "But if Baudoyer gets the place, which is worth eight thousand more, the sacrifice is not so great. If he doesn't get it! hey, papa," she added, looking at her husband, "how we shall have bled!--"
"Well, never mind," said Saillard, enthusiastically, "we can always make it up through Falleix, who is going to extend his business and use his brother, whom he has made a stockbroker on purpose. Elisabeth might have told us, I think, why Falleix went off in such a hurry. But let's invent my little speech. This is what I thought of: 'Madame, if you would say a word to his Excellency--'"
"'If you would deign,'" said Gaudron; "add the word 'deign,' it is more respectful. But you ought to know, first of all, whether Madame la Dauphine will grant you her protection, and then you could suggest to Madame la comtesse the idea of co-operating with the wishes of her Royal Highness."
"You ought to designate the vacant post," said Baudoyer.
"'Madame la comtesse,'" began Saillard, rising, and bowing to his wife, with an agreeable smile.
"Goodness! Saillard; how ridiculous you look. Take care, my man, you'll make the woman laugh."
"'Madame la comtesse,'" resumed Saillard. "Is that better, wife?"
"Yes, my duck."
"'The place of the worthy Monsieur de la Billardiere is vacant; my son-in-law, Monsieur Baudoyer--'"
"'Man of talent and extreme piety,'" prompted Gaudron.
"Write it down, Baudoyer," cried old Saillard, "write that sentence down."
Baudoyer proceeded to take a pen and wrote, without a blush, his own praises, precisely as Nathan or Canalis might have reviewed one of their own books.
"'Madame la comtesse'-- Don't you see, mother?" said Saillard to his wife; "I am supposing you to be the minister's wife."
"Do you take me for a fool?" she answered sharply. "I know that."
"'The place of the late worthy de la Billardiere is vacant; my son-in- law, Monsieur Baudoyer, a man of consummate talent and extreme piety--'" After looking at Monsieur Gaudron, who was reflecting, he added, "'will be very glad if he gets it.' That's not bad; it's brief and it says the whole thing."
"But do wait, Saillard; don't you see that Monsieur l'abbe is turning it over in his mind?" said Madame Saillard; "don't disturb him."
"'Will be very thankful if you would deign to interest yourself in his behalf,'" resumed Gaudron. "'And in saying a word to his Excellency you will particularly please Madame la Dauphine, by whom he has the honor and the happiness to be protected.'"
"Ah! Monsieur Gaudron, that sentence is worth more than the monstrance; I don't regret the four thousand eight hundred-- Besides, Baudoyer, my lad, you'll pay them, won't you? Have you written it all down?"
"I shall make you repeat it, father, morning and evening," said Madame Saillard. "Yes, that's a good speech. How lucky you are, Monsieur Gaudron, to know so much. That's what it is to be brought up in a seminary; they learn there how to speak to God and his saints."
"He is as good as he is learned," said Baudoyer, pressing the priest's hand. "Did you write that article?" he added, pointing to the newspaper.
"No, it was written by the secretary of his Eminence, a young abbe who is under obligations to me, and who takes an interest in Monsieur Colleville; he was educated at my expense."
"A good deed is always rewarded," said Baudoyer.
While these four personages were sitting down to their game of boston, Elisabeth and her uncle Mitral reached the cafe Themis, with much discourse as they drove along about a matter which Elisabeth's keen perceptions told her was the most powerful lever that could be used to force the minister's hand in the affair of her husband's appointment. Uncle Mitral, a former sheriff's officer, crafty, clever at sharp practice, and full of expedients and judicial precautions, believed the honor of his family to be involved in the appointment of his nephew. His avarice had long led him to estimate the contents of old Gigonnet's strong-box, for he knew very well they would go in the end to benefit his nephew Baudoyer; and it was therefore important that the latter should obtain a position which would be in keeping with the combined fortunes of the Saillards and the old Gigonnet, which would finally devolve on the Baudoyer's little daughter; and what an heiress she would be with an income of a hundred thousand francs! to what social position might she not aspire with that fortune? He adopted all the ideas of his niece Elisabeth and thoroughly understood them. He had helped in sending off Falleix expeditiously, explaining to him the advantage of taking post horses. After which, while eating his dinner, he reflected that it be as well to give a twist of his own to the clever plan invented by Elisabeth.
When they reached the Cafe Themis he told his niece that he alone could manage Gigonnet in the matter they both had in view, and he made her wait in the hackney-coach and bide her time to come forward at the right moment. Elisabeth saw through the window-panes the two faces of Gobseck and Gigonnet (her uncle Bidault), which stood out in relief against the yellow wood-work of the old cafe, like two cameo heads, cold and impassible, in the rigid attitude that their gravity gave them. The two Parisian misers were surrounded by a number of other old faces, on which "thirty per cent discount" was written in circular wrinkles that started from the nose and turned round the glacial cheek-bones. These remarkable physiognomies brightened up on seeing Mitral, and their eyes gleamed with tigerish curiosity.
"Hey, hey! it is papa Mitral!" cried one of them, named Chaboisseau, a little old man who discounted for a publisher.
"Bless me, so it is!" said another, a broker named Metivier, "ha, that's an old monkey well up in his tricks."
"And you," retorted Mitral, "you are an old crow who knows all about carcasses."
"True," said the stern Gobseck.
"What are you here for? Have you come to seize friend Metivier?" asked Gigonnet, pointing to the broker, who had the bluff face of a porter.
"Your great-niece Elisabeth is out there, papa Gigonnet," whispered Mitral.
"What! some misfortune?" said Bidault. The old man drew his eyebrows together and assumed a tender look like that of an executioner when about to go to work officially. In spite of his Roman virtue he must have been touched, for his red nose lost somewhat of its color.
"Well, suppose it is misfortune, won't you help Saillard's daughter?-- a girl who has knitted your stockings for the last thirty years!" cried Mitral.
"If there's good security I don't say I won't," replied Gigonnet. "Falleix is in with them. Falleix has just set up his brother as a broker, and he is doing as much business as the Brezacs; and what with? his mind, perhaps! Saillard is no simpleton."
"He knows the value of money," put in Chaboisseau.
That remark, uttered among those old men, would have made an artist and thinker shudder as they all nodded their heads.
"But it is none of my business," resumed Bidault-Gigonnet. "I'm not bound to care for my neighbors' misfortunes. My principle is never to be off my guard with friends or relatives; you can't perish except through weakness. Apply to Gobseck; he is softer."
The usurers all applauded these doctrines with a shake of their metallic heads. An onlooker would have fancied he heard the creaking of ill-oiled machinery.
"Come, Gigonnet, show a little feeling," said Chaboisseau, "they've knit your stockings for thirty years."
"That counts for something," remarked Gobseck.
"Are you all alone? Is it safe to speak?" said Mitral, looking carefully about him. "I come about a good piece of business."
"If it is good, why do you come to us?" said Gigonnet, sharply, interrupting Mitral.
"A fellow who was a gentleman of the Bedchamber," went on Mitral, "a former 'chouan,'--what's his name?--La Billardiere is dead."
"True," said Gobseck.
"And our nephew is giving monstrances to the church," snarled Gigonnet.
"He is not such a fool as to give them, he sells them, old man," said Mitral, proudly. "He wants La Billardiere's place, and in order to get it, we must seize--"
"Seize! You'll never be anything but a sheriff's officer," put in Metivier, striking Mitral amicably on the shoulder; "I like that, I do!"
"Seize Monsieur Clement des Lupeaulx in our clutches," continued Mitral; "Elisabeth has discovered how to do it, and he is--"
"Elisabeth"; cried Gigonnet, interrupting again; "dear little creature! she takes after her grandfather, my poor brother! he never had his equal! Ah, you should have seen him buying up old furniture; what tact! what shrewdness! What does Elisabeth want?"
"Hey! hey!" cried Mitral, "you've got back your bowels of compassion, papa Gigonnet! That phenomenon has a cause."
"Always a child," said Gobseck to Gigonnet, "you are too quick on the trigger."
"Come, Gobseck and Gigonnet, listen to me; you want to keep well with des Lupeaulx, don't you? You've not forgotten how you plucked him in that affair about the king's debts, and you are afraid he'll ask you to return some of his feathers," said Mitral.
"Shall we tell him the whole thing?" asked Gobseck, whispering to Gigonnet.
"Mitral is one of us; he wouldn't play a shabby trick on his former customers," replied Gigonnet. "You see, Mitral," he went on, speaking to the ex-sheriff in a low voice, "we three have just bought up all those debts, the payment of which depends on the decision of the liquidation committee."
"How much will you lose?" asked Mitral.
"Nothing," said Gobseck.
"Nobody knows we are in it," added Gigonnet; "Samanon screens us."
"Come, listen to me, Gigonnet; it is cold, and your niece is waiting outside. You'll understand what I want in two words. You must at once, between you, send two hundred and fifty thousand francs (without interest) into the country after Falleix, who has gone post-haste, with a courier in advance of him."
"Is it possible!" said Gobseck.
"What for?" cried Gigonnet, "and where to?"
"To des Lupeaulx's magnificent country-seat," replied Mitral. "Falleix knows the country, for he was born there; and he is going to buy up land all round the secretary's miserable hovel, with the two hundred and fifty thousand francs I speak of,--good land, well worth the price. There are only nine days before us for drawing up and recording the notarial deeds (bear that in mind). With the addition of this land, des Lupeaulx's present miserable property would pay taxes to the amount of one thousand francs, the sum necessary to make a man eligible to the Chamber. Ergo, with it des Lupeaulx goes into the electoral college, becomes eligible, count, and whatever he pleases. You know the deputy who has slipped out and left a vacancy, don't you?"
The two misers nodded.
"Des Lupeaulx would cut off a leg to get elected in his place," continued Mitral; "but he must have the title-deeds of the property in his own name, and then mortgage them back to us for the amount of the purchase-money. Ah! now you begin to see what I am after! First of all, we must make sure of Baudoyer's appointment, and des Lupeaulx will get it for us on these terms; after that is settled we will hand him back to you. Falleix is now canvassing the electoral vote. Don't you perceive that you have Lupeaulx completely in your power until after the election?--for Falleix's friends are a large majority. Now do you see what I mean, papa Gigonnet?"
"It's a clever game," said Metivier.
"We'll do it," said Gigonnet; "you agree, don't you, Gobseck? Falleix can give us security and put mortgages on the property in my name; we'll go and see des Lupeaulx when all is ready."
"We're robbed," said Gobseck.
"Ha, ha!" laughed Mitral, "I'd like to know the robber!"
"Nobody can rob us but ourselves," answered Gigonnet. "I told you we were doing a good thing in buying up all des Lupeaulx's paper from his creditors at sixty per cent discount."
"Take this mortgage on his estate and you'll hold him tighter still through the interest," answered Mitral.
"Possibly," said Gobseck.
After exchanging a shrewd look with Gobseck, Gigonnet went to the door of the cafe.
"Elisabeth! follow it up, my dear," he said to his niece. "We hold your man securely; but don't neglect accessories. You have begun well, clever woman! go on as you began and you'll have your uncle's esteem," and he grasped her hand, gayly.
"But," said Mitral, "Metivier and Chaboisseau heard it all, and they may play us a trick and tell the matter to some opposition journal which would catch the ball on its way and counteract the effect of the ministerial article. You must go alone, my dear; I dare not let those two cormorants out of my sight." So saying he re-entered the cafe.
The next day the numerous subscribers to a certain liberal journal read, among the Paris items, the following article, inserted authoritatively by Chaboisseau and Metivier, share-holders in the said journal, brokers for publishers, printers, and paper-makers, whose behests no editor dared refuse:--
"Yesterday a ministerial journal plainly indicated as the probable successor of Monsieur le Baron de la Billardiere, Monsieur Baudoyer, one of the worthiest citizens of a populous quarter, where his benevolence is scarcely less known than the piety on which the ministerial organ laid so much stress. Why was that sheet silent as to his talents? Did it reflect that in boasting of the bourgeoise nobility of Monsieur Baudoyer--which, certainly, is a nobility as good as any other--it was pointing out a reason for the exclusion of the candidate? A gratuitous piece of perfidy! an attempt to kill with a caress! To appoint Monsieur Baudoyer is to do honor to the virtues, the talents of the middle classes, of whom we shall ever be the supporters, though their cause seems at times a lost one. This appointment, we repeat, will be an act of justice and good policy; consequently we may be sure it will not be made."
On the morrow, Friday, the usual day for the dinner given by Madame Rabourdin, whom des Lupeaulx had left at midnight, radiant in beauty, on the staircase of the Bouffons, arm in arm with Madame de Camps (Madame Firmiani had lately married), the old roue awoke with his thoughts of vengeance calmed, or rather refreshed, and his mind full of a last glance exchanged with Celestine.
"I'll make sure of Rabourdin's support by forgiving him now,--I'll get even with him later. If he hasn't this place for the time being I should have to give up a woman who is capable of becoming a most precious instrument in the pursuit of high political fortune. She understands everything; shrinks from nothing, from no idea whatever!-- and besides, I can't know before his Excellency what new scheme of administration Rabourdin has invented. No, my dear des Lupeaulx, the thing in hand is to win all now for your Celestine. You may make as many faces as you please, Madame la comtesse, but you will invite Madame Rabourdin to your next select party."
Des Lupeaulx was one of those men who to satisfy a passion are quite able to put away revenge in some dark corner of their minds. His course was taken; he was resolved to get Rabourdin appointed.
"I will prove to you, my dear fellow, that I deserve a good place in your galley," thought he as he seated himself in his study and began to unfold a newspaper.
He knew so well what the ministerial organ would contain that he rarely took the trouble to read it, but on this occasion he did open it to look at the article on La Billardiere, recollecting with amusement the dilemma in which du Bruel had put him by bringing him the night before Bixiou's amendments to the obituary. He was laughing to himself as he reread the biography of the late Comte da Fontaine, dead a few months earlier, which he had hastily substituted for that of La Billardiere, when his eyes were dazzled by the name of Baudoyer. He read with fury the article which pledged the minister, and then he rang violently for Dutocq, to send him at once to the editor. But what was his astonishment on reading the reply of the opposition paper! The situation was evidently serious. He knew the game, and he saw that the man who was shuffling his cards for him was a Greek of the first order. To dictate in this way through two opposing newspapers in one evening, and to begin the fight by forestalling the intentions of the minister was a daring game! He recognized the pen of a liberal editor, and resolved to question him that night at the opera. Dutocq appeared.
"Read that," said des Lupeaulx, handing him over the two journals, and continuing to run his eye over others to see if Baudoyer had pulled any further wires. "Go to the office and ask who has dared to thus compromise the minister."
"It was not Monsieur Baudoyer himself," answered Dutocq, "for he never left the ministry yesterday. I need not go and inquire; for when I took your article to the newspaper office I met a young abbe who brought in a letter from the Grand Almoner, before which you yourself would have had to bow."
"Dutocq, you have a grudge against Monsieur Rabourdin, and it isn't right; for he has twice saved you from being turned out. However, we are not masters of our own feelings; we sometimes hate our benefactors. Only, remember this; if you show the slightest treachery to Rabourdin, without my permission, it will be your ruin. As to that newspaper, let the Grand Almoner subscribe as largely as we do, if he wants its services. Here we are at the end of the year; the matter of subscriptions will come up for discussion, and I shall have something to say on that head. As to La Billardiere's place, there is only one way to settle the matter; and that is to appoint Rabourdin this very day."
"Gentlemen," said Dutocq, returning to the clerks' office and addressing his colleagues. "I don't know if Bixiou has the art of looking into futurity, but if you have not read the ministerial journal I advise you to study the article about Baudoyer; then, as Monsieur Fleury takes the opposition sheet, you can see the reply. Monsieur Rabourdin certainly has talent, but a man who in these days gives a six-thousand-franc monstrance to the Church has a devilish deal more talent than he."
Bixiou [entering]. "What say you, gentlemen, to the First Epistle to the Corinthians in our pious ministerial journal, and the reply Epistle to the Ministers in the opposition sheet? How does Monsieur Rabourdin feel now, du Bruel?"
Du Bruel [rushing in]. "I don't know." [He drags Bixiou back into his cabinet, and says in a low voice] "My good fellow, your way of helping people is like that of the hangman who jumps upon a victim's shoulders to break his neck. You got me into a scrape with des Lupeaulx, which my folly in ever trusting you richly deserved. A fine thing indeed, that article on La Billardiere. I sha'n't forget the trick! Why, the very first sentence was as good as telling the King he was superannuated and it was time for him to die. And as to that Quiberon bit, it said plainly that the King was a-- What a fool I was!"
Bixiou [laughing]. "Bless my heart! are you getting angry? Can't a fellow joke any more?"
Du Bruel. "Joke! joke indeed. When you want to be made head-clerk somebody shall joke with you, my dear fellow."
Bixiou [in a bullying tone]. "Angry, are we?"
Du Bruel. "Yes!"
Bixiou [dryly]. "So much the worse for you."
Du Bruel [uneasy]. "You wouldn't pardon such a thing yourself, I know."
Bixiou [in a wheedling tone]. "To a friend? indeed I would." [They hear Fleury's voice.] "There's Fleury cursing Baudoyer. Hey, how well the thing has been managed! Baudoyer will get the appointment." [Confidentially] "After all, so much the better. Du Bruel, just keep your eye on the consequences. Rabourdin would be a mean-spirited creature to stay under Baudoyer; he will send in his registration, and that will give us two places. You can be head of the bureau and take me for under-head-clerk. We will make vaudevilles together, and I'll fag at your work in the office."
Du Bruel [smiling]. "Dear me, I never thought of that. Poor Rabourdin! I shall be sorry for him, though."
Bixiou. "That shows how much you love him!" [Changing his tone] "Ah, well, I don't pity him any longer. He's rich; his wife gives parties and doesn't ask me,--me, who go everywhere! Well, good-bye, my dear fellow, good-bye, and don't owe me a grudge!" [He goes out through the clerks' office.] "Adieu, gentlemen; didn't I tell you yesterday that a man who has nothing but virtues and talents will always be poor, even though he has a pretty wife?"
Henry. "You are so rich, you!"
Bixiou. "Not bad, my Cincinnatus! But you'll give me that dinner at the Rocher de Cancale."
Poiret. "It is absolutely impossible for me to understand Monsieur Bixiou."
Phellion [with an elegaic air]. "Monsieur Rabourdin so seldom reads the newspapers that it might perhaps be serviceable to deprive ourselves momentarily by taking them in to him." [Fleury hands over his paper, Vimeux the office sheet, and Phellion departs with them.]
At that moment des Lupeaulx, coming leisurely downstairs to breakfast with the minister, was asking himself whether, before playing a trump card for the husband, it might not be prudent to probe the wife's heart and make sure of a reward for his devotion. He was feeling about for the small amount of heart that he possessed, when, at a turn of the staircase, he encountered his lawyer, who said to him, smiling, "Just a word, Monseigneur," in the tone of familiarity assumed by men who know they are indispensable.
"What is it, my dear Desroches?" exclaimed the politician. "Has anything happened?"
"I have come to tell you that all your notes and debts have been brought up by Gobseck and Gigonnet, under the name of a certain Samanon."
"Men whom I helped to make their millions!"
"Listen," whispered the lawyer. "Gigonnet (really named Bidault) is the uncle of Saillard, your cashier; and Saillard is father-in-law to a certain Baudoyer, who thinks he has a right to the vacant place in your ministry. Don't you think I have done right to come and tell you?"
"Thank you," said des Lupeaulx, nodding to the lawyer with a shrewd look.
"One stroke of your pen will buy them off," said Desroches, leaving him.
"What an immense sacrifice!" muttered des Lupeaulx. "It would be impossible to explain it to a woman," thought he. "Is Celestine worth more than the clearing off of my debts?--that is the question. I'll go and see her this morning."
So the beautiful Madame Rabourdin was to be, within an hour, the arbiter of her husband's fate, and no power on earth could warn her of the importance of her replies, or give her the least hint to guard her conduct and compose her voice. Moreover, in addition to her mischances, she believed herself certain of success, never dreaming that Rabourdin was undermined in all directions by the secret sapping of the mollusks.
"Well, Monseigneur," said des Lupeaulx, entering the little salon where they breakfasted, "have you seen the articles on Baudoyer?"
"For God's sake, my dear friend," replied the minister, "don't talk of those appointments just now; let me have an hour's peace! They cracked my ears last night with that monstrance. The only way to save Rabourdin is to bring his appointment before the Council, unless I submit to having my hand forced. It is enough to disgust a man with the public service. I must purchase the right to keep that excellent Rabourdin by promoting a certain Colleville!"
"Why not make over the management of this pretty little comedy to me, and rid yourself of the worry of it? I'll amuse you every morning with an account of the game of chess I should play with the Grand Almoner," said des Lupeaulx.
"Very good," said the minister, "settle it with the head examiner. But you know perfectly well that nothing is more likely to strike the king's mind than just those reasons the opposition journal has chosen to put forth. Good heavens! fancy managing a ministry with such men as Baudoyer under me!"
"An imbecile bigot," said des Lupeaulx, "and as utterly incapable as--"
"--as La Billardiere," added the minister.
"But La Billardiere had the manners of a gentleman-in-ordinary," replied des Lupeaulx. "Madame," he continued, addressing the countess, "it is now an absolute necessity to invite Madame Rabourdin to your next private party. I must assure you she is the intimate friend of Madame de Camps; they were at the Opera together last night. I first met her at the hotel Firmiani. Besides, you will see that she is not of a kind to compromise a salon."
"Invite Madame Rabourdin, my dear," said the minister, "and pray let us talk of something else."