Cousin Pons/Section 12

At six o'clock the next morning Mme. Cibot stood in the Rue de la Perle; she was making a survey of the abode of her future adviser, Lawyer Fraisier. The house was one of the old-fashioned kind formerly inhabited by small tradespeople and citizens with small means. A cabinetmaker's shop occupied almost the whole of the ground floor, as well as the little yard behind, which was covered with his workshops and warehouses; the small remaining space being taken up by the porter's lodge and the passage entry in the middle. The staircase walls were half rotten with damp and covered with saltpetre to such a degree that the house seemed to be stricken with leprosy.

Mme. Cibot went straight to the porter's lodge, and there encountered one of the fraternity, a shoemaker, his wife, and two small children, all housed in a room ten feet square, lighted from the yard at the back. La Cibot mentioned her profession, named herself, and spoke of her house in the Rue de Normandie, and the two women were on cordial terms at once. After a quarter of an hour spent in gossip while the shoemaker's wife made breakfast ready for her husband and the children, Mme. Cibot turned the conversation to the subject of the lodgers, and spoke of the lawyer.

"I have come to see him on business," she said. "One of his friends, Dr. Poulain, recommended me to him. Do you know Dr. Poulain?"

"I should think I do," said the lady of the Rue de la Perle. "He saved my little girl's life when she had the croup."

"He saved my life, too, madame. What sort of a man is this M. Fraisier?"

"He is the sort of man, my dear lady, out of whom it is very difficult to get the postage-money at the end of the month."

To a person of La Cibot's intelligence this was enough.

"One may be poor and honest," observed she.

"I am sure I hope so," returned Fraisier's portress. "We are not rolling in coppers, let alone gold or silver; but we have not a farthing belonging to anybody else."

This sort of talk sounded familiar to La Cibot.

"In short, one can trust him, child, eh?"

"Lord! when M. Fraisier means well by any one, there is not his like, so I have heard Mme. Florimond say."

"And why didn't she marry him when she owed her fortune to him?" La Cibot asked quickly. "It is something for a little haberdasher, kept by an old man, to be a barrister's wife—"

"Why?—" asked the portress, bringing Mme. Cibot out into the passage. "Why?—You are going to see him, are you not, madame?—Very well, when you are in his office you will know why."

From the state of the staircase, lighted by sash-windows on the side of the yard, it was pretty evident that the inmates of the house, with the exception of the landlord and M. Fraisier himself, were all workmen. There were traces of various crafts in the deposit of mud upon the steps—brass-filings, broken buttons, scraps of gauze, and esparto grass lay scattered about. The walls of the upper stories were covered with apprentices' ribald scrawls and caricatures. The portress' last remark had roused La Cibot's curiosity; she decided, not unnaturally, that she would consult Dr. Poulain's friend; but as for employing him, that must depend upon her impressions.

"I sometimes wonder how Mme. Sauvage can stop in his service," said the portress, by way of comment; she was following in Mme. Cibot's wake. "I will come up with you, madame" she added; "I am taking the milk and the newspaper up to my landlord."

Arrived on the second floor above the entresol, La Cibot beheld a door of the most villainous description. The doubtful red paint was coated for seven or eight inches round the keyhole with a filthy glaze, a grimy deposit from which the modern house-decorator endeavors to protect the doors of more elegant apartments by glass "finger-plates." A grating, almost stopped up with some compound similar to the deposit with which a restaurant-keeper gives an air of cellar-bound antiquity to a merely middle-aged bottle, only served to heighten the general resemblance to a prison door; a resemblance further heightened by the trefoil-shaped iron-work, the formidable hinges, the clumsy nail-heads. A miser, or a pamphleteer at strife with the world at large, must surely have invented these fortifications. A leaden sink, which received the waste water of the household, contributed its quota to the fetid atmosphere of the staircase, and the ceiling was covered with fantastic arabesques traced by candle-smoke—such arabesques! On pulling a greasy acorn tassel attached to the bell-rope, a little bell jangled feebly somewhere within, complaining of the fissure in its metal sides.

Every detail was in keeping with the general dismal effect. La Cibot heard a heavy footstep, and the asthmatic wheezing of a virago within, and Mme. Sauvage presently showed herself. Adrien Brauwer might have painted just such a hag for his picture of Witches starting for the Sabbath; a stout, unwholesome slattern, five feet six inches in height, with a grenadier countenance and a beard which far surpassed La Cibot's own; she wore a cheap, hideously ugly cotton gown, a bandana handkerchief knotted over hair which she still continued to put in curl papers (using for that purpose the printed circulars which her master received), and a huge pair of gold earrings like cart-wheels in her ears. This female Cerberus carried a battered skillet in one hand, and opening the door, set free an imprisoned odor of scorched milk—a nauseous and penetrating smell, that lost itself at once, however, among the fumes outside.

"What can I do for you, missus?" demanded Mme. Sauvage, and with a truculent air she looked La Cibot over; evidently she was of the opinion that the visitor was too well dressed, and her eyes looked the more murderous because they were naturally bloodshot.

"I have come to see M. Fraisier; his friend, Dr. Poulain, sent me."

"Oh! come in, missus," said La Sauvage, grown very amiable of a sudden, which proves that she was prepared for this morning visit.

With a sweeping courtesy, the stalwart woman flung open the door of a private office, which looked upon the street, and discovered the ex-attorney of Mantes.

The room was a complete picture of a third-rate solicitor's office; with the stained wooden cases, the letter-files so old that they had grown beards (in ecclesiastical language), the red tape dangling limp and dejected, the pasteboard boxes covered with traces of the gambols of mice, the dirty floor, the ceiling tawny with smoke. A frugal allowance of wood was smouldering on a couple of fire-dogs on the hearth. And on the chimney-piece above stood a foggy mirror and a modern clock with an inlaid wooden case; Fraisier had picked it up at an execution sale, together with the tawdry imitation rococo candlesticks, with the zinc beneath showing through the lacquer in several places.

M. Fraisier was small, thin, and unwholesome looking; his red face, covered with an eruption, told of tainted blood; and he had, moreover, a trick of continually scratching his right arm. A wig pushed to the back of his head displayed a brick-colored cranium of ominous conformation. This person rose from a cane-seated armchair, in which he sat on a green leather cushion, assumed an agreeable expression, and brought forward a chair.

"Mme. Cibot, I believe?" queried he, in dulcet tones.

"Yes, sir," answered the portress. She had lost her habitual assurance.

Something in the tones of a voice which strongly resembled the sounds of the little door-bell, something in a glance even sharper than the sharp green eyes of her future legal adviser, scared Mme. Cibot. Fraisier's presence so pervaded the room, that any one might have thought there was pestilence in the air; and in a flash Mme. Cibot understood why Mme. Florimond had not become Mme. Fraisier.

"Poulain told me about you, my dear madame," said the lawyer, in the unnatural fashion commonly described by the words "mincing tones"; tones sharp, thin, and grating as verjuice, in spite of all his efforts.

Arrived at this point, he tried to draw the skirts of his dressing-gown over a pair of angular knees encased in threadbare felt. The robe was an ancient printed cotton garment, lined with wadding which took the liberty of protruding itself through various slits in it here and there; the weight of this lining had pulled the skirts aside, disclosing a dingy-hued flannel waistcoat beneath. With something of a coxcomb's manner, Fraisier fastened this refractory article of dress, tightening the girdle to define his reedy figure; then with a blow of the tongs, he effected a reconciliation between two burning brands that had long avoided one another, like brothers after a family quarrel. A sudden bright idea struck him, and he rose from his chair.

"Mme. Sauvage!" called he.

"Well?"

"I am not at home to anybody!"

"Eh! bless your life, there's no need to say that!"

"She is my old nurse," the lawyer said in some confusion.

"And she has not recovered her figure yet," remarked the heroine of the Halles.

Fraisier laughed, and drew the bolt lest his housekeeper should interrupt Mme. Cibot's confidences.

"Well, madame, explain your business," said he, making another effort to drape himself in the dressing-gown. "Any one recommended to me by the only friend I have in the world may count upon me—I may say—absolutely."

For half an hour Mme. Cibot talked, and the man of law made no interruption of any sort; his face wore the expression of curious interest with which a young soldier listens to a pensioner of "The Old Guard." Fraisier's silence and acquiescence, the rapt attention with which he appeared to listen to a torrent of gossip similar to the samples previously given, dispelled some of the prejudices inspired in La Cibot's mind by his squalid surroundings. The little lawyer with the black-speckled green eyes was in reality making a study of his client. When at length she came to a stand and looked to him to speak, he was seized with a fit of the complaint known as a "churchyard cough," and had recourse to an earthenware basin half full of herb tea, which he drained.

"But for Poulain, my dear madame, I should have been dead before this," said Fraisier, by way of answer to the portress' look of motherly compassion; "but he will bring me round, he says—"

As all the client's confidences appeared to have slipped from the memory of her legal adviser, she began to cast about for a way of taking leave of a man so apparently near death.

"In an affair of this kind, madame," continued the attorney from Mantes, suddenly returning to business, "there are two things which it is most important to know. In the first place, whether the property is sufficient to be worth troubling about; and in the second, who the next-of-kin may be; for if the property is the booty, the next-of-kin is the enemy."

La Cibot immediately began to talk of Remonencq and Elie Magus, and said that the shrewd couple valued the pictures at six hundred thousand francs.

"Would they take them themselves at that price?" inquired the lawyer. "You see, madame, that men of business are shy of pictures. A picture may mean a piece of canvas worth a couple of francs or a painting worth two hundred thousand. Now, paintings worth two hundred thousand francs are usually well known; and what errors in judgment people make in estimating even the most famous pictures of all! There was once a great capitalist whose collection was admired, visited, and engraved—actually engraved! He was supposed to have spent millions of francs on it. He died, as men must, and—well, his genuine pictures did not fetch more than two hundred thousand francs! You must let me see these gentlemen.—Now for the next-of-kin," and Fraisier again relapsed into his attitude of listener.

When President Camusot's name came up, he nodded with a grimace which riveted Mme. Cibot's attention. She tried to read the forehead and the villainous face, and found what is called in business a "wooden head."

"Yes, my dear sir," repeated La Cibot. "Yes, my M. Pons is own cousin to President Camusot de Marville; he tells me that ten times a day. M. Camusot the silk mercer was married twice—"

"He that has just been nominated for a peer of France?—"

"And his first wife was a Mlle. Pons, M. Pons' first cousin."

"Then they are first cousins once removed—"

"They are 'not cousins.' They have quarreled."

It may be remembered that before M. Camusot de Marville came to Paris, he was President of the Tribunal of Mantes for five years; and not only was his name still remembered there, but he had kept up a correspondence with Mantes. Camusot's immediate successor, the judge with whom he had been most intimate during his term of office, was still President of the Tribunal, and consequently knew all about Fraisier.

"Do you know, madame," Fraisier said, when at last the red sluices of La Cibot's torrent tongue were closed, "do you know that your principal enemy will be a man who can send you to the scaffold?"

The portress started on her chair, making a sudden spring like a jack-in-the-box.

"Calm yourself, dear madame," continued Fraisier. "You may not have known the name of the President of the Chamber of Indictments at the Court of Appeal in Paris; but you ought to have known that M. Pons must have an heir-at-law. M. le President de Marville is your invalid's sole heir; but as he is a collateral in the third degree, M. Pons is entitled by law to leave his fortune as he pleases. You are not aware either that, six weeks ago at least, M. le President's daughter married the eldest son of M. le Comte Popinot, peer of France, once Minister of Agriculture, and President of the Board of Trade, one of the most influential politicians of the day. President de Marville is even more formidable through this marriage than in his own quality of head of the Court of Assize."

At that word La Cibot shuddered.

"Yes, and it is he who sends you there," continued Fraisier. "Ah! my dear madame, you little know what a red robe means! It is bad enough to have a plain black gown against you! You see me here, ruined, bald, broken in health—all because, unwittingly, I crossed a mere attorney for the crown in the provinces. I was forced to sell my connection at a loss, and very lucky I was to come off with the loss of my money. If I had tried to stand out, my professional position would have gone as well.

"One thing more you do not know," he continued, "and this it is. If you had only to do with President Camusot himself, it would be nothing; but he has a wife, mind you!—and if you ever find yourself face to face with that wife, you will shake in your shoes as if you were on the first step of the scaffold, your hair will stand on end. The Presidente is so vindictive that she would spend ten years over setting a trap to kill you. She sets that husband of hers spinning like a top. Through her a charming young fellow committed suicide at the Conciergerie. A count was accused of forgery—she made his character as white as snow. She all but drove a person of the highest quality from the Court of Charles X. Finally, she displaced the Attorney-General, M. de Granville—"

"That lived in the Rue Vieille-du-Temple, at the corner of the Rue Saint-Francois?"

"The very same. They say that she means to make her husband Home Secretary, and I do not know that she will not gain her end.—If she were to take it into her head to send us both to the Criminal Court first and the hulks afterwards—I should apply for a passport and set sail for America, though I am as innocent as a new-born babe. So well I know what justice means. Now, see here, my dear Mme. Cibot; to marry her only daughter to young Vicomte Popinot (heir to M. Pillerault, your landlord, it is said)—to make that match, she stripped herself of her whole fortune, so much so that the President and his wife have nothing at this moment except his official salary. Can you suppose, my dear madame, that under the circumstances Mme. la Presidente will let M. Pons' property go out of the family without a word?—Why, I would sooner face guns loaded with grape-shot than have such a woman for my enemy—"

"But they have quarreled," put in La Cibot.

"What has that got to do with it?" asked Fraisier. "It is one reason the more for fearing her. To kill a relative of whom you are tired, is something; but to inherit his property afterwards—that is a real pleasure!"

"But the old gentleman has a horror of his relatives. He says over and over again that these people—M. Cardot, M. Berthier, and the rest of them (I can't remember their names)—have crushed him as a tumbril cart crushes an egg—"

"Have you a mind to be crushed too?"

"Oh dear! oh dear!" cried La Cibot. "Ah! Ma'am Fontaine was right when she said that I should meet with difficulties: still, she said that I should succeed—"

"Listen, my dear Mme. Cibot.—As for making some thirty thousand francs out of this business—that is possible; but for the whole of the property, it is useless to think of it. We talked over your case yesterday evening, Dr. Poulain and I—"

La Cibot started again.

"Well, what is the matter?"

"But if you knew about the affair, why did you let me chatter away like a magpie?"

"Mme. Cibot, I knew all about your business, but I knew nothing of Mme. Cibot. So many clients, so many characters—"

Mme. Cibot gave her legal adviser a queer look at this; all her suspicions gleamed in her eyes. Fraisier saw this.

"I resume," he continued. "So, our friend Poulain was once called in by you to attend old M. Pillerault, the Countess Popinot's great-uncle; that is one of your claims to my devotion. Poulain goes to see your landlord (mark this!) once a fortnight; he learned all these particulars from him. M. Pillerault was present at his grand-nephew's wedding—for he is an uncle with money to leave; he has an income of fifteen thousand francs, though he has lived like a hermit for the last five-and-twenty years, and scarcely spends a thousand crowns—well, he told Poulain all about this marriage. It seems that your old musician was precisely the cause of the row; he tried to disgrace his own family by way of revenge.—If you only hear one bell, you only hear one sound.—Your invalid says that he meant no harm, but everybody thinks him a monster of—"

"And it would not astonish me if he was!" cried La Cibot. "Just imagine it!—For these ten years past I have been money out of pocket for him, spending my savings on him, and he knows it, and yet he will not let me lie down to sleep on a legacy!—No, sir! he will not. He is obstinate, a regular mule he is.—I have talked to him these ten days, and the cross-grained cur won't stir no more than a sign-post. He shuts his teeth and looks at me like—The most that he would say was that he would recommend me to M. Schmucke."

"Then he means to make his will in favor of this Schmucke?"

"Everything will go to him—"

"Listen, my dear Mme. Cibot, if I am to arrive at any definite conclusions and think of a plan, I must know M. Schmucke. I must see the property and have some talk with this Jew of whom you speak; and then, let me direct you—"

"We shall see, M. Fraisier."

"What is this? 'We shall see?'" repeated Fraisier, speaking in the voice natural to him, as he gave La Cibot a viperous glance. "Am I your legal adviser or am I not, I say? Let us know exactly where we stand."

La Cibot felt that he read her thoughts. A cold chill ran down her back.

"I have told you all I know," she said. She saw that she was at the tiger's mercy.

"We attorneys are accustomed to treachery. Just think carefully over your position; it is superb.—If you follow my advice point by point, you will have thirty or forty thousand francs. But there is a reverse side to this beautiful medal. How if the Presidente comes to hear that M. Pons' property is worth a million of francs, and that you mean to have a bit out of it?—for there is always somebody ready to take that kind of errand—" he added parenthetically.

This remark, and the little pause that came before and after it, sent another shudder through La Cibot. She thought at once that Fraisier himself would probably undertake that office.

"And then, my dear client, in ten minutes old Pillerault is asked to dismiss you, and then on a couple of hours' notice—"

"What does that matter to me?" said La Cibot, rising to her feet like a Bellona; "I shall stay with the gentlemen as their housekeeper."

"And then, a trap will be set for you, and some fine morning you and your husband will wake up in a prison cell, to be tried for your lives—"

"I?" cried La Cibot, "I that have not a farthing that doesn't belong to me? . . . I! . . . I!"

For five minutes she held forth, and Fraisier watched the great artist before him as she executed a concerto of self-praise. He was quite untouched, and even amused by the performance. His keen glances pricked La Cibot like stilettos; he chuckled inwardly, till his shrunken wig was shaking with laughter. He was a Robespierre at an age when the Sylla of France was make couplets.

"And how? and why? And on what pretext?" demanded she, when she had come to an end.

"You wish to know how you may come to the guillotine?"

La Cibot turned pale as death at the words; the words fell like a knife upon her neck. She stared wildly at Fraisier.

"Listen to me, my dear child," began Fraisier, suppressing his inward satisfaction at his client's discomfiture.

"I would sooner leave things as they are—" murmured La Cibot, and she rose to go.

"Stay," Fraisier said imperiously. "You ought to know the risks that you are running; I am bound to give you the benefit of my lights.—You are dismissed by M. Pillerault, we will say; there is no doubt about that, is there? You enter the service of these two gentlemen. Very good! That is a declaration of war against the Presidente. You mean to do everything you can to gain possession of the property, and to get a slice of it at any rate—

"Oh, I am not blaming you," Fraisier continued, in answer to a gesture from his client. "It is not my place to do so. This is a battle, and you will be led on further than you think for. One grows full of one's ideas, one hits hard—"

Another gesture of denial. This time La Cibot tossed her head.

"There, there, old lady," said Fraisier, with odious familiarity, "you will go a very long way!—"

"You take me for a thief, I suppose?"

"Come, now, mamma, you hold a receipt in M. Schmucke's hand which did not cost you much.—Ah! you are in the confessional, my lady! Don't deceive your confessor, especially when the confessor has the power of reading your thoughts."

La Cibot was dismayed by the man's perspicacity; now she knew why he had listened to her so intently.

"Very good," continued he, "you can admit at once that the Presidente will not allow you to pass her in the race for the property.—You will be watched and spied upon.—You get your name into M. Pons' will; nothing could be better. But some fine day the law steps in, arsenic is found in a glass, and you and your husband are arrested, tried, and condemned for attempting the life of the Sieur Pons, so as to come by your legacy. I once defended a poor woman at Versailles; she was in reality as innocent as you would be in such a case. Things were as I have told you, and all that I could do was to save her life. The unhappy creature was sentenced to twenty years' penal servitude. She is working out her time now at St. Lazare."

Mme. Cibot's terror grew to the highest pitch. She grew paler and paler, staring at the little, thin man with the green eyes, as some wretched Moor, accused of adhering to her own religion, might gaze at the inquisitor who doomed her to the stake.

"Then, do you tell me, that if I leave you to act, and put my interests in your hands, I shall get something without fear?"

"I guarantee you thirty thousand francs," said Fraisier, speaking like a man sure of the fact.

"After all, you know how fond I am of dear Dr. Poulain," she began again in her most coaxing tones; "he told me to come to you, worthy man, and he did not send me here to be told that I shall be guillotined for poisoning some one."

The thought of the guillotine so moved her that she burst into tears, her nerves were shaken, terror clutched at her heart, she lost her head. Fraisier gloated over his triumph. When he saw his client hesitate, he thought that he had lost his chance; he had set himself to frighten and quell La Cibot till she was completely in his power, bound hand and foot. She had walked into his study as a fly walks into a spider's web; there she was doomed to remain, entangled in the toils of the little lawyer who meant to feed upon her. Out of this bit of business, indeed, Fraisier meant to gain the living of old days; comfort, competence, and consideration. He and his friend Dr. Poulain had spent the whole previous evening in a microscopic examination of the case; they had made mature deliberations. The doctor described Schmucke for his friend's benefit, and the alert pair had plumbed all hypotheses and scrutinized all risks and resources, till Fraisier, exultant, cried aloud, "Both our fortunes lie in this!" He had gone so far as to promise Poulain a hospital, and as for himself, he meant to be justice of the peace of an arrondissement.

To be a justice of the peace! For this man with his abundant capacity, for this doctor of law without a pair of socks to his name, the dream was a hippogriff so restive, that he thought of it as a deputy-advocate thinks of the silk gown, as an Italian priest thinks of the tiara. It was indeed a wild dream!