Cousin Pons/Section 14

The Auvergnat began to look upon the little, swarthy, stunted, copper-colored tailor as the one obstacle in his way, and pondered how to be rid of him. Meanwhile this growing passion made La Cibot very proud, for she had reached an age when a woman begins to understand that she may grow old.

So early one morning, she meditatively watched Remonencq as he arranged his odds and ends for sale. She wondered how far his love could go. He came across to her.

"Well," he said, "are things going as you wish?"

"It is you who makes me uneasy," said La Cibot. "I shall be talked about; the neighbors will see you making sheep's eyes at me."

She left the doorway and dived into the Auvergnat's back shop.

"What a notion!" said Remonencq.

"Come here, I have something to say to you," said La Cibot. "M. Pons' heirs are about to make a stir; they are capable of giving us a lot of trouble. God knows what might come of it if they send the lawyers here to poke their noses into the affair like hunting-dogs. I cannot get M. Schmucke to sell a few pictures unless you like me well enough to keep the secret—such a secret!—With your head on the block, you must not say where the pictures come from, nor who it was that sold them. When M. Pons is once dead and buried, you understand, nobody will know how many pictures there ought to be; if there are fifty-three pictures instead of sixty-seven, nobody will be any the wiser. Besides, if M. Pons sold them himself while he was alive, nobody can find fault."

"No," agreed Remonencq, "it is all one to me, but M. Elie Magus will want receipts in due form."

"And you shall have your receipt too, bless your life! Do you suppose that I should write them?—No, M. Schmucke will do that. But tell your Jew that he must keep the secret as closely as you do," she continued.

"We will be as mute as fishes. That is our business. I myself can read, but I cannot write, and that is why I want a capable wife that has had education like you. I have thought of nothing but earning my bread all my days, and now I wish I had some little Remonencqs. Do leave that Cibot of yours."

"Why, here comes your Jew," said the portress; "we can arrange the whole business."

Elie Magus came every third day very early in the morning to know when he could buy his pictures. "Well, my dear lady," said he, "how are we getting on?"

"Has nobody been to speak to you about M. Pons and his gimcracks?" asked La Cibot.

"I received a letter from a lawyer," said Elie Magus, "a rascal that seems to me to be trying to work for himself; I don't like people of that sort, so I took no notice of his letter. Three days afterwards he came to see me, and left his card. I told my porter that I am never at home when he calls."

"You are a love of a Jew," said La Cibot. Little did she know Elie Magus' prudence. "Well, sonnies, in a few days' time I will bring M. Schmucke to the point of selling you seven or eight pictures, ten at most. But on two conditions.—Absolute secrecy in the first place. M. Schmucke will send for you, sir, is not that so? And M. Remonencq suggested that you might be a purchaser, eh?—And, come what may, I will not meddle in it for nothing. You are giving forty-six thousand francs for four pictures, are you not?"

"So be it," groaned the Jew.

"Very good. This is the second condition. You will give me forty-three thousand francs, and pay three thousand only to M. Schmucke; Remonencq will buy four for two thousand francs, and hand over the surplus to me.—But at the same time, you see my dear M. Magus, I am going to help you and Remonencq to a splendid bit of business—on condition that the profits are shared among the three of us. I will introduce you to that lawyer, as he, no doubt, will come here. You shall make a valuation of M. Pons' things at the prices which you can give for them, so that M. Fraisier may know how much the property is worth. But—not until after our sale, you understand!"

"I understand," said the Jew, "but it takes time to look at the things and value them."

"You shall have half a day. But, there, that is my affair. Talk it over between yourselves, my boys, and for that matter the business will be settled by the day after to-morrow. I will go round to speak to this Fraisier; for Dr. Poulain tells him everything that goes on in the house, and it is a great bother to keep that scarecrow quiet."

La Cibot met Fraisier halfway between the Rue de la Perle and the Rue de Normandie; so impatient was he to know the "elements of the case" (to use his own expression), that he was coming to see her.

"I say! I was going to you," said she.

Fraisier grumbled because Elie Magus had refused to see him. But La Cibot extinguished the spark of distrust that gleamed in the lawyer's eyes by informing him that Elie Magus had returned from a journey, and that she would arrange for an interview in Pons' rooms and for the valuation of the property; for the day after to-morrow at latest.

"Deal frankly with me," returned Fraisier. "It is more than probable that I shall act for M. Pons' next-of-kin. In that case, I shall be even better able to serve you."

The words were spoken so drily that La Cibot quaked. This starving limb of the law was sure to manoeuvre on his side as she herself was doing. She resolved forthwith to hurry on the sale of the pictures.

La Cibot was right. The doctor and lawyer had clubbed together to buy a new suit of clothes in which Fraisier could decently present himself before Mme. la Presidente Camusot de Marville. Indeed, if the clothes had been ready, the interview would have taken place sooner, for the fate of the couple hung upon its issues. Fraisier left Mme. Cibot, and went to try on his new clothes. He found them waiting for him, went home, adjusted his new wig, and towards ten o'clock that morning set out in a carriage from a livery stable for the Rue de Hanovre, hoping for an audience. In his white tie, yellow gloves, and new wig, redolent of eau de Portugal, he looked something like a poisonous essence kept in a cut-glass bottle, seeming but the more deadly because everything about it is daintily neat, from the stopper covered with white kid to the label and the thread. His peremptory manner, the eruption on his blotched countenance, the green eyes, and a malignant something about him,—all these things struck the beholder with the same sense of surprise as storm-clouds in a blue sky. If in his private office, as he showed himself to La Cibot, he was the common knife that a murderer catches up for his crime,—now, at the Presidente's door, he was the daintily-wrought dagger which a woman sets among the ornaments on her what-not.

A great change had taken place in the Rue de Hanovre. The Count and Countess Popinot and the young people would not allow the President and his wife to leave the house that they had settled upon their daughter to pay rent elsewhere. M. and Mme. la Presidente, therefore, were installed on the second floor, now left at liberty, for the elderly lady had made up her mind to end her days in the country.

Mme. Camusot took Madeleine Vivet, with her cook and her man-servant, to the second floor, and would have been as much pinched for money as in the early days, if the house had not been rent free, and the President's salary increased to ten thousand francs. This aurea mediocritas was but little satisfactory to Mme. de Marville. Even now she wished for means more in accordance with her ambitions; for when she handed over their fortune to their daughter, she spoiled her husband's prospects. Now Amelie had set her heart upon seeing her husband in the Chamber of Deputies; she was not one of those women who find it easy to give up their way; and she by no means despaired of returning her husband for the arrondissement in which Marville is situated. So for the past two months she had teased her father-in-law, M. le Baron Camusot (for the new peer of France had been advanced to that rank), and done her utmost to extort an advance of a hundred thousand francs of the inheritance which one day would be theirs. She wanted, she said, to buy a small estate worth about two thousand francs per annum set like a wedge within the Marville lands. There she and her husband would be near their children and in their own house, while the addition would round out the Marville property. With that the Presidente laid stress upon the recent sacrifices which she and her husband had been compelled to make in order to marry Cecile to Viscount Popinot, and asked the old man how he could bar his eldest son's way to the highest honors of the magistracy, when such honors were only to be had by those who made themselves a strong position in parliament. Her husband would know how to take up such a position, he would make himself feared by those in office, and so on and so on.

"They do nothing for you unless you tighten a halter round their necks to loosen their tongues," said she. "They are ungrateful. What do they not owe to Camusot! Camusot brought the House of Orleans to the throne by enforcing the ordinances of July."

M. Camusot senior answered that he had gone out of his depth in railway speculations. He quite admitted that it was necessary to come to the rescue, but put off the day until shares should rise, as they were expected to do.

This half-promise, extracted some few days before Fraisier's visit, had plunged the Presidente into depths of affliction. It was doubtful whether the ex-proprietor of Marville was eligible for re-election without the land qualification.

Fraisier found no difficulty in obtaining speech of Madeleine Vivet; such viper natures own their kinship at once.

"I should like to see Mme. la Presidente for a few moments, mademoiselle," Fraisier said in bland accents; "I have come on a matter of business which touches her fortune; it is a question of a legacy, be sure to mention that. I have not the honor of being known to Mme. la Presidente, so my name is of no consequence. I am not in the habit of leaving my chambers, but I know the respect that is due to a President's wife, and I took the trouble of coming myself to save all possible delay."

The matter thus broached, when repeated and amplified by the waiting-maid, naturally brought a favorable answer. It was a decisive moment for the double ambition hidden in Fraisier's mind. Bold as a petty provincial attorney, sharp, rough-spoken, and curt as he was, he felt as captains feel before the decisive battle of a campaign. As he went into the little drawing-room where Amelie was waiting for him, he felt a slight perspiration breaking out upon his forehead and down his back. Every sudorific hitherto employed had failed to produce this result upon a skin which horrible diseases had left impervious. "Even if I fail to make my fortune," said he to himself, "I shall recover. Poulain said that if I could only perspire I should recover."

The Presidente came forward in her morning gown.

"Madame—" said Fraisier, stopping short to bow with the humility by which officials recognize the superior rank of the person whom they address.

"Take a seat, monsieur," said the Presidente. She saw at a glance that this was a man of law.

"Mme. la Presidente, if I take the liberty of calling your attention to a matter which concerns M. le President, it is because I am sure that M. de Marville, occupying, as he does, a high position, would leave matters to take their natural course, and so lose seven or eight hundred thousand francs, a sum which ladies (who, in my opinion, have a far better understanding of private business than the best of magistrates)—a sum which ladies, I repeat, would by no means despise—"

"You spoke of a legacy," interrupted the lady, dazzled by the wealth, and anxious to hide her surprise. Amelie de Marville, like an impatient novel-reader, wanted the end of the story.

"Yes, madame, a legacy that you are like to lose; yes, to lose altogether; but I can, that is, I could, recover it for you, if—"

"Speak out, monsieur." Mme. de Marville spoke frigidly, scanning Fraisier as she spoke with a sagacious eye.

"Madame, your eminent capacity is known to me; I was once at Mantes. M. Leboeuf, President of the Tribunal, is acquainted with M. de Marville, and can answer inquiries about me—"

The Presidente's shrug was so ruthlessly significant, that Fraisier was compelled to make short work of his parenthetic discourse.

"So distinguished a woman will at once understand why I speak of myself in the first place. It is the shortest way to the property."

To this acute observation the lady replied by a gesture. Fraisier took the sign for a permission to continue.

"I was an attorney, madame, at Mantes. My connection was all the fortune that I was likely to have. I took over M. Levroux's practice. You knew him, no doubt?"

The Presidente inclined her head.

"With borrowed capital and some ten thousand francs of my own, I went to Mantes. I had been with Desroches, one of the cleverest attorneys in Paris, I had been his head-clerk for six years. I was so unlucky as to make an enemy of the attorney for the crown at Mantes, Monsieur—"

"Olivier Vinet."

"Son of the Attorney-General, yes, madame. He was paying his court to a little person—"

"Whom?"

"Mme. Vatinelle."

"Oh! Mme. Vatinelle. She was very pretty and very—er—when I was there—"

"She was not unkind to me: inde iroe," Fraisier continued. "I was industrious; I wanted to repay my friends and to marry; I wanted work; I went in search of it; and before long I had more on my hands than anybody else. Bah! I had every soul in Mantes against me—attorneys, notaries, and even the bailiffs. They tried to fasten a quarrel on me. In our ruthless profession, as you know, madame, if you wish to ruin a man, it is soon done. I was concerned for both parties in a case, and they found it out. It was a trifle irregular; but it is sometimes done in Paris, attorneys in certain cases hand the rhubarb and take the senna. They do things differently at Mantes. I had done M. Bouyonnet this little service before; but, egged on by his colleagues and the attorney for the crown, he betrayed me.—I am keeping back nothing, you see.—There was a great hue and cry about it. I was a scoundrel; they made me out blacker than Marat; forced me to sell out; ruined me. And I am in Paris now. I have tried to get together a practice; but my health is so bad, that I have only two quiet hours out of the twenty-four.

"At this moment I have but one ambition, and a very small one. Some day," he continued, "you will be the wife of the Keeper of the Seals, or of the Home Secretary, it may be; but I, poor and sickly as I am, desire nothing but a post in which I can live in peace for the rest of my life, a place without any opening in which to vegetate. I should like to be a justice of the peace in Paris. It would be a mere trifle for you and M. le President to gain the appointment for me; for the present Keeper of the Seals must be anxious to keep on good terms with you . . .

"And that is not all, madame," added Fraisier. Seeing that Mme. de Marville was about to speak, he cut her short with a gesture. "I have a friend, the doctor in attendance on the old man who ought to leave his property to M. le President. (We are coming to the point, you see.) The doctor's co-operation is indispensable, and the doctor is precisely in my position: he has abilities, he is unlucky. I learned through him how far your interests were imperiled; for even as I speak, all may be over, and the will disinheriting M. le President may have been made. This doctor wishes to be head-surgeon of a hospital or of a Government school. He must have a position in Paris equal to mine. . . . Pardon me if I have enlarged on a matter so delicate; but we must have no misunderstandings in this business. The doctor is, besides, much respected and learned; he saved the life of the Comtesse Popinot's great-uncle, M. Pillerault.

"Now, if you are so good as to promise these two posts—the appointment of justice of the peace and the sinecure for my friend—I will undertake to bring you the property, almost intact.—Almost intact, I say, for the co-operation of the legatee and several other persons is absolutely indispensable, and some obligations will be incurred. You will not redeem your promises until I have fulfilled mine."

The Presidente had folded her arms, and for the last minute or two sat like a person compelled to listen to a sermon. Now she unfolded her arms, and looked at Fraisier as she said, "Monsieur, all that you say concerning your interests has the merit of clearness; but my own interests in the matter are by no means so clear—"

"A word or two will explain everything, madame. M. le President is M. Pons' first cousin once removed, and his sole heir. M. Pons is very ill; he is about to make his will, if it is not already made, in favor of a German, a friend of his named Schmucke; and he has more than seven hundred thousand francs to leave. I hope to have an accurate valuation made in two or three days—"

"If this is so," said the Presidente, "I made a great mistake in quarreling with him and throwing the blame——" she thought aloud, amazed by the possibility of such a sum.

"No, madame. If there had been no rupture, he would be as blithe as a lark at this moment, and might outlive you and M. le President and me. . . . The ways of Providence are mysterious, let us not seek to fathom them," he added to palliate to some extent the hideous idea. "It cannot be helped. We men of business look at the practical aspects of things. Now you see clearly, madame, that M. de Marville in his public position would do nothing, and could do nothing, as things are. He has broken off all relations with his cousin. You see nothing now of Pons; you have forbidden him the house; you had excellent reasons, no doubt, for doing as you did, but the old man is ill, and he is leaving his property to the only friend left to him. A President of the Court of Appeal in Paris could say nothing under such circumstances if the will was made out in due form. But between ourselves, madame, when one has a right to expect seven or eight hundred thousand francs—or a million, it may be (how should I know?)—it is very unpleasant to have it slip through one's fingers, especially if one happens to be the heir-at-law. . . . But, on the other hand, to prevent this, one is obliged to stoop to dirty work; work so difficult, so ticklish, bringing you cheek by jowl with such low people, servants and subordinates; and into such close contact with them too, that no barrister, no attorney in Paris could take up such a case.

"What you want is a briefless barrister like me," said he, "a man who should have real and solid ability, who has learned to be devoted, and yet, being in a precarious position, is brought temporarily to a level with such people. In my arrondissement I undertake business for small tradespeople and working folk. Yes, madame, you see the straits to which I have been brought by the enmity of an attorney for the crown, now a deputy-public prosecutor in Paris, who could not forgive me my superiority.—I know you, madame, I know that your influence means a solid certainty; and in such a service rendered to you, I saw the end of my troubles and success for my friend Dr. Poulain."

The lady sat pensive during a moment of unspeakable torture for Fraisier. Vinet, an orator of the Centre, attorney-general (procureur-general) for the past sixteen years, nominated half-a-score of times for the chancellorship, the father, moreover, of the attorney for the crown at Mantes who had been appointed to a post in Paris within the last year—Vinet was an enemy and a rival for the malignant Presidente. The haughty attorney-general did not hide his contempt for President Camusot. This fact Fraisier did not know, and could not know.

"Have you nothing on your conscience but the fact that you were concerned for both parties?" asked she, looking steadily at Fraisier.

"Mme. la Presidente can see M. Leboeuf; M. Leboeuf was favorable to me."

"Do you feel sure that M. Leboeuf will give M. de Marville and M. le Comte Popinot a good account of you?"

"I will answer for it, especially now that M. Olivier Vinet has left Mantes; for between ourselves, good M. Leboeuf was afraid of that crabbed little official. If you will permit me, Madame La Presidente, I will go to Mantes and see M. Leboeuf. No time will be lost, for I cannot be certain of the precise value of the property for two or three days. I do not wish that you should know all the ins and outs of this affair; you ought not to know them, Mme. la Presidente, but is not the reward that I expect for my complete devotion a pledge of my success?"

"Very well. If M. Leboeuf will speak in your favor, and if the property is worth as much as you think (I doubt it myself), you shall have both appointments, if you succeed, mind you—"

"I will answer for it, madame. Only, you must be so good as to have your notary and your attorney here when I shall need them; you must give me a power of attorney to act for M. le President, and tell those gentlemen to follow my instructions, and to do nothing on their own responsibility."

"The responsibility rests with you," the Presidente answered solemnly, "so you ought to have full powers.—But is M. Pons very ill?" she asked, smiling.

"Upon my word, madame, he might pull through, especially with so conscientious a doctor as Poulain in attendance; for this friend of mine, madame, is simply an unconscious spy directed by me in your interests. Left to himself, he would save the old man's life; but there is some one else by the sickbed, a portress, who would push him into the grave for thirty thousand francs. Not that she would kill him outright; she will not give him arsenic, she is not so merciful; she will do worse, she will kill him by inches; she will worry him to death day by day. If the poor old man were kept quiet and left in peace; if he were taken into the country and cared for and made much of by friends, he would get well again; but he is harassed by a sort of Mme. Evrard. When the woman was young she was one of thirty Belles Ecailleres, famous in Paris, she is a rough, greedy, gossiping woman; she torments him to make a will and to leave her something handsome, and the end of it will be induration of the liver, calculi are possibly forming at this moment, and he has not enough strength to bear an operation. The doctor, noble soul, is in a horrible predicament. He really ought to send the woman away—"

"Why, then, this vixen is a monster!" cried the lady in thin flute-like tones.

Fraisier smiled inwardly at the likeness between himself and the terrible Presidente; he knew all about those suave modulations of a naturally sharp voice. He thought of another president, the hero of an anecdote related by Louis XI., stamped by that monarch's final praise. Blessed with a wife after the pattern of Socrates' spouse, and ungifted with the sage's philosophy, he mingled salt with the corn in the mangers and forbad the grooms to give water to the horses. As his wife rode along the Seine towards their country-house, the animals bolted into the river with the lady, and the magistrate returned thanks to Providence for ridding him of his wife "in so natural a manner." At this present moment Mme. de Marville thanked Heaven for placing at Pons' bedside a woman so likely to get him "decently" out of the way.

Aloud she said, "I would not take a million at the price of a single scruple.—Your friend ought to speak to M. Pons and have the woman sent away."

"In the first place, madame, Messrs. Schmucke and Pons think the woman an angel; they would send my friend away. And secondly, the doctor lies under an obligation to this horrid oyster-woman; she called him in to attend M. Pillerault. When he tells her to be as gentle as possible with the patient, he simply shows the creature how to make matters worse."

"What does your friend think of my cousin's condition?"

This man's clear, business-like way of putting the facts of the case frightened Mme. de Marville; she felt that his keen gaze read the thoughts of a heart as greedy as La Cibot's own.

"In six weeks the property will change hands."

The Presidente dropped her eyes.

"Poor man!" she sighed, vainly striving after a dolorous expression.

"Have you any message, madame, for M. Leboeuf? I am taking the train to Mantes."

"Yes. Wait a moment, and I will write to ask him to dine with us to-morrow. I want to see him, so that he may act in concert to repair the injustice to which you have fallen a victim."