Cousin Pons/Section 13

M. Vitel, the justice of the peace before whom Fraisier pleaded, was a man of sixty-nine, in failing health; he talked of retiring on a pension; and Fraisier used to talk with Poulain of succeeding him, much as Poulain talked of saving the life of some rich heiress and marrying her afterwards. No one knows how greedily every post in the gift of authority is sought after in Paris. Every one wants to live in Paris. If a stamp or tobacco license falls in, a hundred women rise up as one and stir all their friends to obtain it. Any vacancy in the ranks of the twenty-four collectors of taxes sends a flood of ambitious folk surging in upon the Chamber of Deputies. Decisions are made in committee, all appointments are made by the Government. Now the salary of a justice of the peace, the lowest stipendiary magistrate in Paris, is about six thousand francs. The post of registrar to the court is worth a hundred thousand francs. Few places are more coveted in the administration. Fraisier, as a justice of the peace, with the head physician of a hospital for his friend, would make a rich marriage himself and a good match for Dr. Poulain. Each would lend a hand to each.

Night set its leaden seal upon the plans made by the sometime attorney of Mantes, and a formidable scheme sprouted up, a flourishing scheme, fertile in harvests of gain and intrigue. La Cibot was the hinge upon which the whole matter turned; and for this reason, any rebellion on the part of the instrument must be at once put down; such action on her part was quite unexpected; but Fraisier had put forth all the strength of his rancorous nature, and the audacious portress lay trampled under his feet.

"Come, reassure yourself, my dear madame," he remarked, holding out his hand. The touch of the cold, serpent-like skin made a terrible impression upon the portress. It brought about something like a physical reaction, which checked her emotion; Mme. Fontaine's toad, Astaroth, seemed to her to be less deadly than this poison-sac that wore a sandy wig and spoke in tones like the creaking of a hinge.

"Do not imagine that I am frightening you to no purpose," Fraisier continued. (La Cibot's feeling of repulsion had not escaped him.) "The affairs which made Mme. la Presidente's dreadful reputation are so well known at the law-courts, that you can make inquiries there if you like. The great person who was all but sent into a lunatic asylum was the Marquis d'Espard. The Marquis d'Esgrignon was saved from the hulks. The handsome young man with wealth and a great future before him, who was to have married a daughter of one of the first families of France, and hanged himself in a cell of the Conciergerie, was the celebrated Lucien de Rubempre; the affair made a great deal of noise in Paris at the time. That was a question of a will. His mistress, the notorious Esther, died and left him several millions, and they accused the young fellow of poisoning her. He was not even in Paris at the time of her death, nor did he so much as know the woman had left the money to him!—One cannot well be more innocent than that! Well, after M. Camusot examined him, he hanged himself in his cell. Law, like medicine, has its victims. In the first case, one man suffers for the many, and in the second, he dies for science," he added, and an ugly smile stole over his lips. "Well, I know the risks myself, you see; poor and obscure little attorney as I am, the law has been the ruin of me. My experience was dearly bought—it is all at your service."

"Thank you, no," said La Cibot; "I will have nothing to do with it, upon my word! . . . I shall have nourished ingratitude, that is all! I want nothing but my due; I have thirty years of honesty behind me, sir. M. Pons says that he will recommend me to his friend Schmucke; well and good, I shall end my days in peace with the German, good man."

Fraisier had overshot his mark. He had discouraged La Cibot. Now he was obliged to remove these unpleasant impressions.

"Do not let us give up," he said; "just go away quietly home. Come, now, we will steer the affair to a good end."

"But what about my rentes, what am I to do to get them, and—"

"And feel no remorse?" he interrupted quickly. "Eh! it is precisely for that that men of business were invented; unless you keep within the law, you get nothing. You know nothing of law; I know a good deal. I will see that you keep on the right side of it, and you can hold your own in all men's sight. As for your conscience, that is your own affair."

"Very well, tell me how to do it," returned La Cibot, curious and delighted.

"I do not know how yet. I have not looked at the strong points of the case yet; I have been busy with the obstacles. But the first thing to be done is to urge him to make a will; you cannot go wrong over that; and find out, first of all, how Pons means to leave his fortune; for if you were his heir—"

"No, no; he does not like me. Ah! if I had but known the value of his gimcracks, and if I had known what I know now about his amours, I should be easy in my mind this day—"

"Keep on, in fact," broke in Fraisier. "Dying folk have queer fancies, my dear madame; they disappoint hopes many a time. Let him make his will, and then we shall see. And of all things, the property must be valued. So I must see this Remonencq and the Jew; they will be very useful to us. Put entire confidence in me, I am at your disposal. When a client is a friend to me, I am his friend through thick and thin. Friend or enemy, that is my character."

"Very well," said La Cibot, "I am yours entirely; and as for fees, M. Poulain—"

"Let us say nothing about that," said Fraisier. "Think how you can keep Poulain at the bedside; he is one of the most upright and conscientious men I know; and, you see, we want some one there whom we can trust. Poulain would do better than I; I have lost my character."

"You look as if you had," said La Cibot; "but, for my own part, I should trust you."

"And you would do well. Come to see me whenever anything happens, and—there!—you are an intelligent woman; all will go well."

"Good-day, M. Fraisier. I hope you will recover your health. Your servant, sir."

Fraisier went to the door with his client. But this time it was he, and not La Cibot, who was struck with an idea on the threshold.

"If you could persuade M. Pons to call me in, it would be a great step."

"I will try," said La Cibot.

Fraisier drew her back into his sanctum. "Look here, old lady, I know M. Trognon, the notary of the quarter, very well. If M. Pons has not a notary, mention M. Trognon to him. Make him take M. Trognon—"

"Right," returned La Cibot.

And as she came out again she heard the rustle of a dress and the sound of a stealthy, heavy footstep.

Out in the street and by herself, Mme. Cibot to some extent recovered her liberty of mind as she walked. Though the influence of the conversation was still upon her, and she had always stood in dread of scaffolds, justice, and judges, she took a very natural resolution which was to bring about a conflict of strategy between her and her formidable legal adviser.

"What do I want with other folk?" said she to herself. "Let us make a round sum, and afterwards I will take all that they offer me to push their interests;" and this thought, as will shortly be seen, hastened the poor old musician's end.

"Well, dear M. Schmucke, and how is our dear, adored patient?" asked La Cibot, as she came into the room.

"Fery pad; Bons haf peen vandering all der night."

"Then, what did he say?"

"Chust nonsense. He vould dot I haf all his fortune, on kondition dot I sell nodings.—Den he cried! Boor mann! It made me ver' sad."

"Never mind, honey," returned the portress. "I have kept you waiting for your breakfast; it is nine o'clock and past; but don't scold me. I have business on hand, you see, business of yours. Here are we without any money, and I have been out to get some."

"Vere?" asked Schmucke.

"Of my uncle."

"Onkel?"

"Up the spout."

"Shpout?"

"Oh! the dear man! how simple he is? No, you are a saint, a love, an archbishop of innocence, a man that ought to be stuffed, as the old actor said. What! you have lived in Paris for twenty-nine years; you saw the Revolution of July, you did, and you have never so much as heard tell of a pawnbroker—a man that lends you money on your things?—I have been pawning our silver spoons and forks, eight of them, thread pattern. Pooh, Cibot can eat his victuals with German silver; it is quite the fashion now, they say. It is not worth while to say anything to our angel there; it would upset him and make him yellower than before, and he is quite cross enough as it is. Let us get him round again first, and afterwards we shall see. What must be must; and we must take things as we find them, eh?"

"Goot voman! nople heart!" cried poor Schmucke, with a great tenderness in his face. He took La Cibot's hand and clasped it to his breast. When he looked up, there were tears in his eyes.

"There, that will do, Papa Schmucke; how funny you are! This is too bad. I am an old daughter of the people—my heart is in my hand. I have something here, you see, like you have, hearts of gold that you are," she added, slapping her chest.

"Baba Schmucke!" continued the musician. "No. To know de tepths of sorrow, to cry mit tears of blood, to mount up in der hefn—dat is mein lot! I shall not lif after Bons—"

"Gracious! I am sure you won't, you are killing yourself.—Listen, pet!"

"Bet?"

"Very well, my sonny—"

"Zonny?"

"My lamb, then, if you like it better."

"It is not more clear."

"Oh, well, let me take care of you and tell you what to do; for if you go on like this, I shall have both of you laid up on my hands, you see. To my little way of thinking, we must do the work between us. You cannot go about Paris to give lessons for it tires you, and then you are not fit to do anything afterwards, and somebody must sit up of a night with M. Pons, now that he is getting worse and worse. I will run round to-day to all your pupils and tell them that you are ill; is it not so? And then you can spend the nights with our lamb, and sleep of a morning from five o'clock till, let us say, two in the afternoon. I myself will take the day, the most tiring part, for there is your breakfast and dinner to get ready, and the bed to make, and the things to change, and the doses of medicine to give. I could not hold out for another ten days at this rate. What would become of you if I were to fall ill? And you yourself, it makes one shudder to see you; just look at yourself, after sitting up with him last night!"

She drew Schmucke to the glass, and Schmucke thought that there was a great change.

"So, if you are of my mind, I'll have your breakfast ready in a jiffy. Then you will look after our poor dear again till two o'clock. Let me have a list of your people, and I will soon arrange it. You will be free for a fortnight. You can go to bed when I come in, and sleep till night."

So prudent did the proposition seem, that Schmucke then and there agreed to it.

"Not a word to M. Pons; he would think it was all over with him, you know, if we were to tell him in this way that his engagement at the theatre and his lessons are put off. He would be thinking that he should not find his pupils again, poor gentleman—stuff and nonsense! M. Poulain says that we shall save our Benjamin if we keep him as quiet as possible."

"Ach! fery goot! Pring up der preakfast; I shall make der bett, and gif you die attresses!—You are right; it vould pe too much for me."

An hour later La Cibot, in her Sunday clothes, departed in great state, to the no small astonishment of the Remonencqs; she promised herself that she would support the character of confidential servant of the pair of nutcrackers, in the boarding-schools and private families in which they gave music-lessons.

It is needless to repeat all the gossip in which La Cibot indulged on her round. The members of every family, the head-mistress of every boarding-school, were treated to a variation upon the theme of Pons' illness. A single scene, which took place in the Illustrious Gaudissart's private room, will give a sufficient idea of the rest. La Cibot met with unheard-of difficulties, but she succeeded in penetrating at last to the presence. Kings and cabinet ministers are less difficult of access than the manager of a theatre in Paris; nor is it hard to understand why such prodigious barriers are raised between them and ordinary mortals: a king has only to defend himself from ambition; the manager of a theatre has reason to dread the wounded vanity of actors and authors.

La Cibot, however, struck up an acquaintance with the portress, and traversed all distances in a brief space. There is a sort of freemasonry among the porter tribe, and, indeed, among the members of every profession; for each calling has its shibboleth, as well as its insulting epithet and the mark with which it brands its followers.

"Ah! madame, you are the portress here," began La Cibot. "I myself am a portress, in a small way, in a house in the Rue de Normandie. M. Pons, your conductor, lodges with us. Oh, how glad I should be to have your place, and see the actors and dancers and authors go past. It is the marshal's baton in our profession, as the old actor said."

"And how is M. Pons going on, good man?" inquired the portress.

"He is not going on at all; he has not left his bed these two months. He will only leave the house feet foremost, that is certain."

"He will be missed."

"Yes. I have come with a message to the manager from him. Just try to get me a word with him, dear."

"A lady from M. Pons to see you, sir!" After this fashion did the youth attached to the service of the manager's office announce La Cibot, whom the portress below had particularly recommended to his care.

Gaudissart had just come in for a rehearsal. Chance so ordered it that no one wished to speak with him; actors and authors were alike late. Delighted to have news of his conductor, he made a Napoleonic gesture, and La Cibot was admitted.

The sometime commercial traveler, now the head of a popular theatre, regarded his sleeping partners in the light of a legitimate wife; they were not informed of all his doings. The flourishing state of his finances had reacted upon his person. Grown big and stout and high-colored with good cheer and prosperity, Gaudissart made no disguise of his transformation into a Mondor.

"We are turning into a city-father," he once said, trying to be the first to laugh.

"You are only in the Turcaret stage yet, though," retorted Bixiou, who often replaced Gaudissart in the company of the leading lady of the ballet, the celebrated Heloise Brisetout.

The former Illustrious Gaudissart, in fact, was exploiting the theatre simply and solely for his own particular benefit, and with brutal disregard of other interests. He first insinuated himself as a collaborator in various ballets, plays, and vaudevilles; then he waited till the author wanted money and bought up the other half of the copyright. These after-pieces and vaudevilles, always added to successful plays, brought him in a daily harvest of gold coins. He trafficked by proxy in tickets, allotting a certain number to himself, as the manager's share, till he took in this way a tithe of the receipts. And Gaudissart had other methods of making money besides these official contributions. He sold boxes, he took presents from indifferent actresses burning to go upon the stage to fill small speaking parts, or simply to appear as queens, or pages, and the like; he swelled his nominal third share of the profits to such purpose that the sleeping partners scarcely received one-tenth instead of the remaining two-thirds of the net receipts. Even so, however, the tenth paid them a dividend of fifteen per cent on their capital. On the strength of that fifteen per cent Gaudissart talked of his intelligence, honesty, and zeal, and the good fortune of his partners. When Count Popinot, showing an interest in the concern, asked Matifat, or General Gouraud (Matifat's son-in-law), or Crevel, whether they were satisfied with Gaudissart, Gouraud, now a peer of France, answered, "They say he robs us; but he is such a clever, good-natured fellow, that we are quite satisfied."

"This is like La Fontaine's fable," smiled the ex-cabinet minister.

Gaudissart found investments for his capital in other ventures. He thought well of Schwab, Brunner, and the Graffs; that firm was promoting railways, he became a shareholder in the lines. His shrewdness was carefully hidden beneath the frank carelessness of a man of pleasure; he seemed to be interested in nothing but amusements and dress, yet he thought everything over, and his wide experience of business gained as a commercial traveler stood him in good stead.

A self-made man, he did not take himself seriously. He gave suppers and banquets to celebrities in rooms sumptuously furnished by the house decorator. Showy by nature, with a taste for doing things handsomely, he affected an easy-going air, and seemed so much the less formidable because he had kept the slang of "the road" (to use his own expression), with a few green-room phrases superadded. Now, artists in the theatrical profession are wont to express themselves with some vigor; Gaudissart borrowed sufficient racy green-room talk to blend with his commercial traveler's lively jocularity, and passed for a wit. He was thinking at that moment of selling his license and "going into another line," as he said. He thought of being chairman of a railway company, of becoming a responsible person and an administrator, and finally of marrying Mlle. Minard, daughter of the richest mayor in Paris. He might hope to get into the Chamber through "his line," and, with Popinot's influence, to take office under the Government.

"Whom have I the honor of addressing?" inquired Gaudissart, looking magisterially at La Cibot.

"I am M. Pons' confidential servant, sir."

"Well, and how is the dear fellow?"

"Ill, sir—very ill."

"The devil he is! I am sorry to hear it—I must come and see him; he is such a man as you don't often find."

"Ah yes! sir, he is a cherub, he is. I have always wondered how he came to be in a theatre."

"Why, madame, the theatre is a house of correction for morals," said Gaudissart. "Poor Pons!—Upon my word, one ought to cultivate the species to keep up the stock. 'Tis a pattern man, and has talent too. When will he be able to take his orchestra again, do you think? A theatre, unfortunately, is like a stage coach: empty or full, it starts at the same time. Here at six o'clock every evening, up goes the curtain; and if we are never sorry for ourselves, it won't make good music. Let us see now—how is he?"

La Cibot pulled out her pocket-handkerchief and held it to her eyes.

"It is a terrible thing to say, my dear sir," said she; "but I am afraid we shall lose him, though we are as careful of him as of the apple of our eyes. And, at the same time, I came to say that you must not count on M. Schmucke, worthy man, for he is going to sit up with him at night. One cannot help doing as if there was hope still left, and trying one's best to snatch the dear, good soul from death. But the doctor has given him up——"

"What is the matter with him?"

"He is dying of grief, jaundice, and liver complaint, with a lot of family affairs to complicate matters."

"And a doctor as well," said Gaudissart. "He ought to have had Lebrun, our doctor; it would have cost him nothing."

"M. Pons' doctor is a Providence on earth. But what can a doctor do, no matter how clever he is, with such complications?"

"I wanted the good pair of nutcrackers badly for the accompaniment of my new fairy piece."

"Is there anything that I can do for them?" asked La Cibot, and her expression would have done credit to a Jocrisse.

Gaudissart burst out laughing.

"I am their housekeeper, sir, and do many things for my gentlemen—" She did not finish her speech, for in the middle of Gaudissart's roar of laughter a woman's voice exclaimed, "If you are laughing, old man, one may come in," and the leading lady of the ballet rushed into the room and flung herself upon the only sofa. The newcomer was Heloise Brisetout, with a splendid algerienne, such as scarves used to be called, about her shoulders.

"Who is amusing you? Is it this lady? What post does she want?" asked this nymph, giving the manager such a glance as artist gives artist, a glance that would make a subject for a picture.

Heloise, a young woman of exceedingly literary tastes, was on intimate terms with great and famous artists in Bohemia. Elegant, accomplished, and graceful, she was more intelligent than dancers usually are. As she put her question, she sniffed at a scent-bottle full of some aromatic perfume.

"One fine woman is as good as another, madame; and if I don't sniff the pestilence out of a scent-bottle, nor daub brickdust on my cheeks—"

"That would be a sinful waste, child, when Nature put it on for you to begin with," said Heloise, with a side glance at her manager.

"I am an honest woman—"

"So much the worse for you. It is not every one by a long chalk that can find some one to keep them, and kept I am, and in slap-up style, madame."

"So much the worse! What do you mean? Oh, you may toss your head and go about in scarves, you will never have as many declarations as I have had, missus. You will never match the Belle Ecaillere of the Cadran Bleu."

Heloise Brisetout rose at once to her feet, stood at attention, and made a military salute, like a soldier who meets his general.

"What?" asked Gaudissart, "are you really La Belle Ecaillere of whom my father used to talk?"

"In that case the cachucha and the polka were after your time; and madame has passed her fiftieth year," remarked Heloise, and striking an attitude, she declaimed, "'Cinna, let us be friends.'"

"Come, Heloise, the lady is not up to this; let her alone."

"Madame is perhaps the New Heloise," suggested La Cibot, with sly innocence.

"Not bad, old lady!" cried Gaudissart.

"It is a venerable joke," said the dancer, "a grizzled pun; find us another old lady—or take a cigarette."

"I beg your pardon, madame, I feel too unhappy to answer you; my two gentlemen are very ill; and to buy nourishment for them and to spare them trouble, I have pawned everything down to my husband's clothes that I pledged this morning. Here is the ticket!"

"Oh! here, the affair is becoming tragic," cried the fair Heloise. "What is it all about?"

"Madame drops down upon us like—"

"Like a dancer," said Heloise; "let me prompt you,—missus!"

"Come, I am busy," said Gaudissart. "The joke has gone far enough. Heloise, this is M. Pons' confidential servant; she had come to tell me that I must not count upon him; our poor conductor is not expected to live. I don't know what to do."

"Oh! poor man; why, he must have a benefit."

"It would ruin him," said Gaudissart. "He might find next day that he owed five hundred francs to charitable institutions, and they refuse to admit that there are any sufferers in Paris except their own. No, look here, my good woman, since you are going in for the Montyon prize——"

He broke off, rang the bell, and the youth before mentioned suddenly appeared.

"Tell the cashier to send me up a thousand-franc note.—Sit down, madame."

"Ah! poor woman, look, she is crying!" exclaimed Heloise. "How stupid! There, there, mother, we will go to see him; don't cry.—I say, now," she continued, taking the manager into a corner, "you want to make me take the leading part in the ballet in Ariane, you Turk. You are going to be married, and you know how I can make you miserable—"

"Heloise, my heart is copper-bottomed like a man-of-war."

"I shall bring your children on the scene! I will borrow some somewhere."

"I have owned up about the attachment."

"Do be nice, and give Pons' post to Garangeot; he has talent, poor fellow, and he has not a penny; and I promise peace."

"But wait till Pons is dead, in case the good man may come back again."

"Oh, as to that, no, sir," said La Cibot. "He began to wander in his mind last night, and now he is delirious. It will soon be over, unfortunately."

"At any rate, take Garangeot as a stop-gap!" pleaded Heloise. "He has the whole press on his side—"

Just at that moment the cashier came in with a note for a thousand francs in his hand.

"Give it to madame here," said Gaudissart. "Good-day, my good woman; take good care of the dear man, and tell him that I am coming to see him to-morrow, or sometime—as soon as I can, in short."

"A drowning man," said Heloise.

"Ah, sir, hearts like yours are only found in a theatre. May God bless you!"

"To what account shall I post this item?" asked the cashier.

"I will countersign the order. Post it to the bonus account."

Before La Cibot went out, she made Mlle. Brisetout a fine courtesy, and heard Gaudissart remark to his mistress:

"Can Garangeot do the dance-music for the Mohicans in twelve days? If he helps me out of my predicament, he shall have Pons' place."

La Cibot had cut off the incomes of the two friends, she had left them without means of subsistence if Pons should chance to recover, and was better rewarded for all this mischief than for any good that she had done. In a few days' time her treacherous trick would bring about the desired result—Elie Magus would have his coveted pictures. But if this first spoliation was to be effected, La Cibot must throw dust in Fraisier's eyes, and lull the suspicions of that terrible fellow-conspirator of her own seeking; and Elie Magus and Remonencq must be bound over to secrecy.

As for Remonencq, he had gradually come to feel such a passion as uneducated people can conceive when they come to Paris from the depths of the country, bringing with them all the fixed ideas bred of the solitary country life; all the ignorance of a primitive nature, all the brute appetites that become so many fixed ideas. Mme. Cibot's masculine beauty, her vivacity, her market-woman's wit, had all been remarked by the marine store-dealer. He thought at first of taking La Cibot from her husband, bigamy among the lower classes in Paris being much more common than is generally supposed; but greed was like a slip-knot drawn more and more tightly about his heart, till reason at length was stifled. When Remonencq computed that the commission paid by himself and Elie Magus amounted to about forty thousand francs, he determined to have La Cibot for his legitimate spouse, and his thoughts turned from a misdemeanor to a crime. A romantic purely speculative dream, persistently followed through a tobacco-smoker's long musings as he lounged in the doorway, had brought him to the point of wishing that the little tailor were dead. At a stroke he beheld his capital trebled; and then he thought of La Cibot. What a good saleswoman she would be! What a handsome figure she would make in a magnificent shop on the boulevards! The twofold covetousness turned Remonencq's head. In fancy he took a shop that he knew of on the Boulevard de la Madeleine, he stocked it with Pons' treasures, and then—after dreaming his dream in sheets of gold, after seeing millions in the blue spiral wreaths that rose from his pipe, he awoke to find himself face to face with the little tailor. Cibot was sweeping the yard, the doorstep, and the pavement just as his neighbor was taking down the shutters and displaying his wares; for since Pons fell ill, La Cibot's work had fallen to her husband.