Cousin Pons/Section 20
It is often said that "death is the end of a journey," but the aptness of the simile is realized most fully in Paris. Any arrival, especially of a person of condition, upon the "dark brink," is hailed in much the same way as the traveler recently landed is hailed by hotel touts and pestered with their recommendations. With the exception of a few philosophically-minded persons, or here and there a family secure of handing down a name to posterity, nobody thinks beforehand of the practical aspects of death. Death always comes before he is expected; and, from a sentiment easy to understand, the heirs usually act as if the event were impossible. For which reason, almost every one that loses father or mother, wife or child, is immediately beset by scouts that profit by the confusion caused by grief to snare others. In former days, agents for monuments used to live round about the famous cemetery of Pere-Lachaise, and were gathered together in a single thoroughfare, which should by rights have been called the Street of Tombs; issuing thence, they fell upon the relatives of the dead as they came from the cemetery, or even at the grave-side. But competition and the spirit of speculation induced them to spread themselves further and further afield, till descending into Paris itself they reached the very precincts of the mayor's office. Indeed, the stone-mason's agent has often been known to invade the house of mourning with a design for the sepulchre in his hand.
"I am in treaty with this gentleman," said the representative of the firm of Sonet to another agent who came up.
"Pons deceased! . . ." called the clerk at this moment. "Where are the witnesses?"
"This way, sir," said the stone-mason's agent, this time addressing Remonencq.
Schmucke stayed where he had been placed on the bench, an inert mass. Remonencq begged the agent to help him, and together they pulled Schmucke towards the balustrade, behind which the registrar shelters himself from the mourning public. Remonencq, Schmucke's Providence, was assisted by Dr. Poulain, who filled in the necessary information as to Pons' age and birthplace; the German knew but one thing—that Pons was his friend. So soon as the signatures were affixed, Remonencq and the doctor (followed by the stone-mason's man), put Schmucke into a cab, the desperate agent whisking in afterwards, bent upon taking a definite order.
La Sauvage, on the lookout in the gateway, half-carried Schmucke's almost unconscious form upstairs. Remonencq and the agent went up with her.
"He will be ill!" exclaimed the agent, anxious to make an end of the piece of business which, according to him, was in progress.
"I should think he will!" returned Mme. Sauvage. "He has been crying for twenty-four hours on end, and he would not take anything. There is nothing like grief for giving one a sinking in the stomach."
"My dear client," urged the representative of the firm of Sonet, "do take some broth. You have so much to do; some one must go to the Hotel de Ville to buy the ground in the cemetery on which you mean to erect a monument to perpetuate the memory of the friend of the arts, and bear record to your gratitude."
"Why, there is no sense in this!" added Mme. Cantinet, coming in with broth and bread.
"If you are as weak as this, you ought to think of finding some one to act for you," added Remonencq, "for you have a good deal on your hands, my dear sir. There is the funeral to order. You would not have your friend buried like a pauper!"
"Come, come, my dear sir," put in La Sauvage, seizing a moment when Schmucke laid his head back in the great chair to pour a spoonful of soup into his mouth. She fed him as if he had been a child, and almost in spite of himself.
"Now, if you were wise, sir, since you are inclined to give yourself up quietly to grief, you would find some one to act for you—"
"As you are thinking of raising a magnificent monument to the memory of your friend, sir, you have only to leave it all to me; I will undertake—"
"What is all this? What is all this?" asked La Sauvage. "Has M. Schmucke ordered something? Who may you be?"
"I represent the firm of Sonet, my dear madame, the biggest monumental stone-masons in Paris," said the person in black, handing a business-card to the stalwart Sauvage.
"Very well, that will do. Some one will go with you when the time comes; but you must not take advantage of the gentleman's condition now. You can quite see that he is not himself——"
The agent led her out upon the landing.
"If you will undertake to get the order for us," he said confidentially, "I am empowered to offer you forty francs."
Mme. Sauvage grew placable. "Very well, let me have your address," said she.
Schmucke meantime being left to himself, and feeling the stronger for the soup and bread that he had been forced to swallow, returned at once to Pons' rooms, and to his prayers. He had lost himself in the fathomless depths of sorrow, when a voice sounding in his ears drew him back from the abyss of grief, and a young man in a suit of black returned for the eleventh time to the charge, pulling the poor, tortured victim's coatsleeve until he listened.
"Sir!" said he.
"Vat ees it now?"
"Sir! we owe a supreme discovery to Dr. Gannal; we do not dispute his fame; he has worked miracles of Egypt afresh; but there have been improvements made upon his system. We have obtained surprising results. So, if you would like to see your friend again, as he was when he was alive—"
"See him again!" cried Schmucke. "Shall he speak to me?"
"Not exactly. Speech is the only thing wanting," continued the embalmer's agent. "But he will remain as he is after embalming for all eternity. The operation is over in a few seconds. Just an incision in the carotid artery and an injection.—But it is high time; if you wait one single quarter of an hour, sir, you will not have the sweet satisfaction of preserving the body. . . ."
"Go to der teufel! . . . Bons is ein spirit—und dat spirit is in hefn."
"That man has no gratitude in his composition," remarked the youthful agent of one of the famous Gannal's rivals; "he will not embalm his friend."
The words were spoken under the archway, and addressed to La Cibot, who had just submitted her beloved to the process.
"What would you have, sir!" she said. "He is the heir, the universal legatee. As soon as they get what they want, the dead are nothing to them."
An hour later, Schmucke saw Mme. Sauvage come into the room, followed by another man in a suit of black, a workman, to all appearance.
"Cantinet has been so obliging as to send this gentleman, sir," she said; "he is coffin-maker to the parish."
The coffin-maker made his bow with a sympathetic and compassionate air, but none the less he had a business-like look, and seemed to know that he was indispensable. He turned an expert's eye upon the dead.
"How does the gentleman wish 'it' to be made? Deal, plain oak, or oak lead-lined? Oak with a lead lining is the best style. The body is a stock size,"—he felt for the feet, and proceeded to take the measure—"one metre seventy!" he added. "You will be thinking of ordering the funeral service at the church, sir, no doubt?"
Schmucke looked at him as a dangerous madman might look before striking a blow. La Sauvage put in a word.
"You ought to find somebody to look after all these things," she said.
"Yes——" the victim murmured at length.
"Shall I fetch M. Tabareau?—for you will have a good deal on your hands before long. M. Tabareau is the most honest man in the quarter, you see."
"Yes. Mennesir Dapareau! Somepody vas speaking of him chust now—" said Schmucke, completely beaten.
"Very well. You can be quiet, sir, and give yourself up to grief, when you have seen your deputy."
It was nearly two o'clock when M. Tabareau's head-clerk, a young man who aimed at a bailiff's career, modestly presented himself. Youth has wonderful privileges; no one is alarmed by youth. This young man Villemot by name, sat down by Schmucke's side and waited his opportunity to speak. His diffidence touched Schmucke very much.
"I am M. Tabareau's head-clerk, sir," he said; "he sent me here to take charge of your interests, and to superintend the funeral arrangements. Is this your wish?"
"You cannot safe my life, I haf not long to lif; but you vill leaf me in beace!"
"Oh! you shall not be disturbed," said Villemot.
"Ver' goot. Vat must I do for dat?"
"Sign this paper appointing M. Tabareau to act for you in all matters relating to the settlement of the affairs of the deceased."
"Goot! gif it to me," said Schmucke, anxious only to sign it at once.
"No, I must read it over to you first."
"Read it ofer."
Schmucke paid not the slightest attention to the reading of the power of attorney, but he set his name to it. The young clerk took Schmucke's orders for the funeral, the interment, and the burial service; undertaking that he should not be troubled again in any way, nor asked for money.
"I vould gif all dat I haf to be left in beace," said the unhappy man. And once more he knelt beside the dead body of his friend.
Fraisier had triumphed. Villemot and La Sauvage completed the circle which he had traced about Pons' heir.
There is no sorrow that sleep cannot overcome. Towards the end of the day La Sauvage, coming in, found Schmucke stretched asleep at the bed-foot. She carried him off, put him to bed, tucked him in maternally, and till the morning Schmucke slept.
When he awoke, or rather when the truce was over and he again became conscious of his sorrows, Pons' coffin lay under the gateway in such a state as a third-class funeral may claim, and Schmucke, seeking vainly for his friend, wandered from room to room, across vast spaces, as it seemed to him, empty of everything save hideous memories. La Sauvage took him in hand, much as a nurse manages a child; she made him take his breakfast before starting for the church; and while the poor sufferer forced himself to eat, she discovered, with lamentations worthy of Jeremiah, that he had not a black coat in his possession. La Cibot took entire charge of his wardrobe; since Pons fell ill, his apparel, like his dinner, had been reduced to the lowest terms—to a couple of coats and two pairs of trousers.
"And you are going just as you are to M. Pons' funeral? It is an unheard-of thing; the whole quarter will cry shame upon us!"
"Und how vill you dat I go?"
"Why, in mourning—"
"It is the proper thing."
"Der bropper ding! . . . Confound all dis stupid nonsense!" cried poor Schmucke, driven to the last degree of exasperation which a childlike soul can reach under stress of sorrow.
"Why, the man is a monster of ingratitude!" said La Sauvage, turning to a personage who just then appeared. At the sight of this functionary Schmucke shuddered. The newcomer wore a splendid suit of black, black knee-breeches, black silk stockings, a pair of white cuffs, an extremely correct white muslin tie, and white gloves. A silver chain with a coin attached ornamented his person. A typical official, stamped with the official expression of decorous gloom, an ebony wand in his hand by way of insignia of office, he stood waiting with a three-cornered hat adorned with the tricolor cockade under his arm.
"I am the master of the ceremonies," this person remarked in a subdued voice.
Accustomed daily to superintend funerals, to move among families plunged in one and the same kind of tribulation, real or feigned, this man, like the rest of his fraternity, spoke in hushed and soothing tones; he was decorous, polished, and formal, like an allegorical stone figure of Death.
Schmucke quivered through every nerve as if he were confronting his executioner.
"Is this gentleman the son, brother, or father of the deceased?" inquired the official.
"I am all dat and more pesides—I am his friend," said Schmucke through a torrent of weeping.
"Are you his heir?"
"Heir? . . ." repeated Schmucke. "Noding matters to me more in dis vorld," returning to his attitude of hopeless sorrow.
"Where are the relatives, the friends?" asked the master of the ceremonies.
"All here!" exclaimed the German, indicating the pictures and rarities. "Not von of dem haf efer gifn bain to mein boor Bons. . . . Here ees everydings dot he lofed, after me."
Schmucke had taken his seat again, and looked as vacant as before; he dried his eyes mechanically. Villemot came up at that moment; he had ordered the funeral, and the master of the ceremonies, recognizing him, made an appeal to the newcomer.
"Well, sir, it is time to start. The hearse is here; but I have not often seen such a funeral as this. Where are the relatives and friends?"
"We have been pressed for time," replied Villemot. "This gentleman was in such deep grief that he could think of nothing. And there is only one relative."
The master of the ceremonies looked compassionately at Schmucke; this expert in sorrow knew real grief when he saw it. He went across to him.
"Come, take heart, my dear sir. Think of paying honor to your friend's memory."
"We forgot to send out cards; but I took care to send a special message to M. le Presidente de Marville, the one relative that I mentioned to you.—There are no friends.—M. Pons was conductor of an orchestra at a theatre, but I do not think that any one will come.—This gentleman is the universal legatee, I believe."
"Then he ought to be chief mourner," said the master of the ceremonies.—"Have you a black coat?" he continued, noticing Schmucke's costume.
"I am all in plack insite!" poor Schmucke replied in heartrending tones; "so plack it is dot I feel death in me. . . . Gott in hefn is going to haf pity upon me; He vill send me to mein friend in der grafe, und I dank Him for it—"
He clasped his hands.
"I have told our management before now that we ought to have a wardrobe department and lend the proper mourning costumes on hire," said the master of the ceremonies, addressing Villemot; "it is a want that is more and more felt every day, and we have even now introduced improvements. But as this gentleman is chief mourner, he ought to wear a cloak, and this one that I have brought with me will cover him from head to foot; no one need know that he is not in proper mourning costume.—Will you be so kind as to rise?"
Schmucke rose, but he tottered on his feet.
"Support him," said the master of the ceremonies, turning to Villemot; "you are his legal representative."
Villemot held Schmucke's arm while the master of the ceremonies invested Schmucke with the ample, dismal-looking garment worn by heirs-at-law in the procession to and from the house and the church. He tied the black silken cords under the chin, and Schmucke as heir was in "full dress."
"And now comes a great difficulty," continued the master of the ceremonies; "we want four bearers for the pall. . . . If nobody comes to the funeral, who is to fill the corners? It is half-past ten already," he added, looking at his watch; "they are waiting for us at the church."
"Oh! here comes Fraisier!" Villemot exclaimed, very imprudently; but there was no one to hear the tacit confession of complicity.
"Who is this gentleman?" inquired the master of the ceremonies.
"Oh! he comes on behalf of the family."
"The disinherited family. He is M. Camusot de Marville's representative."
"Good," said the master of the ceremonies, with a satisfied air. "We shall have two pall-bearers at any rate—you and he."
And, happy to find two of the places filled up, he took out some wonderful white buckskin gloves, and politely presented Fraisier and Villemot with a pair apiece.
"If you gentlemen will be so good as to act as pall-bearers—" said he.
Fraisier, in black from head to foot, pretentiously dressed, with his white tie and official air, was a sight to shudder at; he embodied a hundred briefs.
"Willingly, sir," said he.
"If only two more persons will come, the four corners will be filled up," said the master of the ceremonies.
At that very moment the indefatigable representative of the firm of Sonet came up, and, closely following him, the man who remembered Pons and thought of paying him a last tribute of respect. This was a supernumerary at the theatre, the man who put out the scores on the music-stands for the orchestra. Pons had been wont to give him a five-franc piece once a month, knowing that he had a wife and family.
"Oh, Dobinard (Topinard)!" Schmucke cried out at the sight of him, "you love Bons!"
"Why, I have come to ask news of M. Pons every morning, sir."
"Efery morning! boor Dobinard!" and Schmucke squeezed the man's hand.
"But they took me for a relation, no doubt, and did not like my visits at all. I told them that I belonged to the theatre and came to inquire after M. Pons; but it was no good. They saw through that dodge, they said. I asked to see the poor dear man, but they never would let me come upstairs."
"Dat apominable Zipod!" said Schmucke, squeezing Topinard's horny hand to his heart.
"He was the best of men, that good M. Pons. Every month he use to give me five francs. . . . He knew that I had three children and a wife. My wife has gone to the church."
"I shall difide mein pread mit you," cried Schmucke, in his joy at finding at his side some one who loved Pons.
"If this gentleman will take a corner of the pall, we shall have all four filled up," said the master of the ceremonies.
There had been no difficulty over persuading the agent for monuments. He took a corner the more readily when he was shown the handsome pair of gloves which, according to custom, was to be his property.
"A quarter to eleven! We absolutely must go down. They are waiting for us at the church."
The six persons thus assembled went down the staircase.
The cold-blooded lawyer remained a moment to speak to the two women on the landing. "Stop here, and let nobody come in," he said, "especially if you wish to remain in charge, Mme. Cantinet. Aha! two francs a day, you know!"
By a coincidence in nowise extraordinary in Paris, two hearses were waiting at the door, and two coffins standing under the archway; Cibot's funeral and the solitary state in which Pons was lying was made even more striking in the street. Schmucke was the only mourner that followed Pons' coffin; Schmucke, supported by one of the undertaker's men, for he tottered at every step. From the Rue de Normandie to the Rue d'Orleans and the Church of Saint-Francois the two funerals went between a double row of curious onlookers for everything (as was said before) makes a sensation in the quarter. Every one remarked the splendor of the white funeral car, with a big embroidered P suspended on a hatchment, and the one solitary mourner behind it; while the cheap bier that came after it was followed by an immense crowd. Happily, Schmucke was so bewildered by the throng of idlers and the rows of heads in the windows, that he heard no remarks and only saw the faces through a mist of tears.
"Oh, it is the nutcracker!" said one, "the musician, you know—"
"Who can the pall-bearers be?"
"I say, just look at poor old Cibot's funeral. There is one worker the less. What a man! he could never get enough of work!"
"He never went out."
"He never kept Saint Monday."
"How fond he was of his wife!"
"Ah! There is an unhappy woman!"
Remonencq walked behind his victim's coffin. People condoled with him on the loss of his neighbor.
The two funerals reached the church. Cantinet and the doorkeeper saw that no beggars troubled Schmucke. Villemot had given his word that Pons' heir should be left in peace; he watched over his client, and gave the requisite sums; and Cibot's humble bier, escorted by sixty or eighty persons, drew all the crowd after it to the cemetery. At the church door Pons' funeral possession mustered four mourning-coaches, one for the priest and three for the relations; but one only was required, for the representative of the firm of Sonet departed during mass to give notice to his principal that the funeral was on the way, so that the design for the monument might be ready for the survivor at the gates of the cemetery. A single coach sufficed for Fraisier, Villemot, Schmucke, and Topinard; but the remaining two, instead of returning to the undertaker, followed in the procession to Pere-Lachaise—a useless procession, not unfrequently seen; there are always too many coaches when the dead are unknown beyond their own circle and there is no crowd at the funeral. Dear, indeed, the dead must have been in their lifetime if relative or friend will go with them so far as the cemetery in this Paris, where every one would fain have twenty-five hours in the day. But with the coachmen it is different; they lose their tips if they do not make the journey; so, empty or full, the mourning coaches go to the church and cemetery and return to the house for gratuities. A death is a sort of drinking-fountain for an unimagined crowd of thirsty mortals. The attendants at the church, the poor, the undertaker's men, the drivers and sextons, are creatures like sponges that dip into a hearse and come out again saturated.
From the church door, where he was beset with a swarm of beggars (promptly dispersed by the beadle), to Pere-Lachaise, poor Schmucke went as criminals went in old times from the Palais de Justice to the Place de Greve. It was his own funeral that he followed, clinging to Topinard's hand, to the one living creature besides himself who felt a pang of real regret for Pons' death.
As for Topinard, greatly touched by the honor of the request to act as pall-bearer, content to drive in a carriage, the possessor of a new pair of gloves,—it began to dawn upon him that this was to be one of the great days of his life. Schmucke was driven passively along the road, as some unlucky calf is driven in a butcher's cart to the slaughter-house. Fraisier and Villemot sat with their backs to the horses. Now, as those know whose sad fortune it has been to accompany many of their friends to their last resting-place, all hypocrisy breaks down in the coach during the journey (often a very long one) from the church to the eastern cemetery, to that one of the burying-grounds of Paris in which all vanities, all kinds of display, are met, so rich is it in sumptuous monuments. On these occasions those who feel least begin to talk soonest, and in the end the saddest listen, and their thoughts are diverted.
"M. le President had already started for the Court." Fraisier told Villemot, "and I did not think it necessary to tear him away from business; he would have come too late, in any case. He is the next-of-kin; but as he has been disinherited, and M. Schmucke gets everything, I thought that if his legal representative were present it would be enough."
Topinard lent an ear to this.
"Who was the queer customer that took the fourth corner?" continued Fraisier.
"He is an agent for a firm of monumental stone-masons. He would like an order for a tomb, on which he proposes to put three sculptured marble figures—Music, Painting, and Sculpture shedding tears over the deceased."
"It is an idea," said Fraisier; "the old gentleman certainly deserved that much; but the monument would cost seven or eight hundred francs."
"Oh! quite that!"
"If M. Schmucke gives the order, it cannot affect the estate. You might eat up a whole property with such expenses."
"There would be a lawsuit, but you would gain it—"
"Very well," said Fraisier, "then it will be his affair.—It would be a nice practical joke to play upon the monument-makers," Fraisier added in Villemot's ear; "for if the will is upset (and I can answer for that), or if there is no will at all, who would pay them?"
Villemot grinned like a monkey, and the pair began to talk confidentially, lowering their voices; but the man from the theatre, with his wits and senses sharpened in the world behind the scenes, could guess at the nature of their discourse; in spite of the rumbling of the carriage and other hindrances, he began to understand that these representatives of justice were scheming to plunge poor Schmucke into difficulties; and when at last he heard the ominous word "Clichy," the honest and loyal servitor of the stage made up his mind to watch over Pons' friend.
At the cemetery, where three square yards of ground had been purchased through the good offices of the firm of Sonet (Villemot having announced Schmucke's intention of erecting a magnificent monument), the master of ceremonies led Schmucke through a curious crowd to the grave into which Pons' coffin was about to be lowered; but here, at the sight of the square hole, the four men waiting with ropes to lower the bier, and the clergy saying the last prayer for the dead at the grave-side, something clutched tightly at the German's heart. He fainted away.
Sonet's agent and M. Sonet himself came to help Topinard to carry poor Schmucke into the marble-works hard by, where Mme. Sonet and Mme. Vitelot (Sonet's partner's wife) were eagerly prodigal of efforts to revive him. Topinard stayed. He had seen Fraisier in conversation with Sonet's agent, and Fraisier, in his opinion, had gallows-bird written on his face.
An hour later, towards half-past two o'clock, the poor, innocent German came to himself. Schmucke thought that he had been dreaming for the past two days; if he could only wake, he should find Pons still alive. So many wet towels had been laid on his forehead, he had been made to inhale salts and vinegar to such an extent, that he opened his eyes at last. Mme. Sonet make him take some meat-soup, for they had put the pot on the fire at the marble-works.
"Our clients do not often take things to heart like this; still, it happens once in a year or two—"
At last Schmucke talked of returning to the Rue de Normandie, and at this Sonet began at once.
"Here is the design, sir," he said; "Vitelot drew it expressly for you, and sat up last night to do it. . . . And he has been happily inspired, it will look fine—"
"One of the finest in Pere-Lachaise!" said the little Mme. Sonet. "But you really ought to honor the memory of a friend who left you all his fortune."
The design, supposed to have been drawn on purpose, had, as a matter of fact, been prepared for de Marsay, the famous cabinet minister. His widow, however, had given the commission to Stidmann; people were disgusted with the tawdriness of the project, and it was refused. The three figures at that period represented the three days of July which brought the eminent minister to power. Subsequently, Sonet and Vitelot had turned the Three Glorious Days—"les trois glorieuses"—into the Army, Finance, and the Family, and sent in the design for the sepulchre of the late lamented Charles Keller; and here again Stidmann took the commission. In the eleven years that followed, the sketch had been modified to suit all kinds of requirements, and now in Vitelot's fresh tracing they reappeared as Music, Sculpture, and Painting.
"It is a mere trifle when you think of the details and cost of setting it up; for it will take six months," said Vitelot. "Here is the estimate and the order-form—seven thousand francs, sketch in plaster not included."
"If M. Schmucke would like marble," put in Sonet (marble being his special department), "it would cost twelve thousand francs, and monsieur would immortalize himself as well as his friend."
Topinard turned to Vitelot.
"I have just heard that they are going to dispute the will," he whispered, "and the relatives are likely to come by their property. Go and speak to M. Camusot, for this poor, harmless creature has not a farthing."
"This is the kind of customer that you always bring us," said Mme. Vitelot, beginning a quarrel with the agent.
Topinard led Schmucke away, and they returned home on foot to the Rue de Normandie, for the mourning-coaches had been sent back.
"Do not leaf me," Schmucke said, when Topinard had seen him safe into Mme. Sauvage's hands, and wanted to go.
"It is four o'clock, dear M. Schmucke. I must go home to dinner. My wife is a box-opener—she will not know what has become of me. The theatre opens at a quarter to six, you know."
"Yes, I know . . . but remember dat I am alone in die earth, dat I haf no friend. You dat haf shed a tear for Bons enliden me; I am in teep tarkness, und Bons said dat I vas in der midst of shcoundrels."
"I have seen that plainly already; I have just prevented them from sending you to Clichy."
"Gligy!" repeated Schmucke; "I do not understand."
"Poor man! Well, never mind, I will come to you. Good-bye."
"Goot-bye; komm again soon," said Schmucke, dropping half-dead with weariness.
"Good-bye, mosieu," said Mme. Sauvage, and there was something in her tone that struck Topinard.
"Oh, come, what is the matter now?" he asked, banteringly. "You are attitudinizing like a traitor in a melodrama."
"Traitor yourself! Why have you come meddling here? Do you want to have a hand in the master's affairs, and swindle him, eh?"
"Swindle him! . . . Your very humble servant!" Topinard answered with superb disdain. "I am only a poor super at a theatre, but I am something of an artist, and you may as well know that I never asked anything of anybody yet! Who asked anything of you? Who owes you anything? eh, old lady!"
"You are employed at a theatre, and your name is—?"
"Topinard, at your service."
"Kind regards to all at home," said La Sauvage, "and my compliments to your missus, if you are married, mister. . . . That was all I wanted to know."
"Why, what is the matter, dear?" asked Mme. Cantinet, coming out.
"This, child—stop here and look after the dinner while I run round to speak to monsieur."
"He is down below, talking with poor Mme. Cibot, that is crying her eyes out," said Mme. Cantinet.
La Sauvage dashed down in such headlong haste that the stairs trembled beneath her tread.
"Monsieur!" she called, and drew him aside a few paces to point out Topinard.
Topinard was just going away, proud at heart to have made some return already to the man who had done him so many kindnesses. He had saved Pons' friend from a trap, by a stratagem from that world behind the scenes in which every one has more or less ready wit. And within himself he vowed to protect a musician in his orchestra from future snares set for his simple sincerity.
"Do you see that little wretch?" said La Sauvage. "He is a kind of honest man that has a mind to poke his nose into M. Schmucke's affairs."
"Who is he?" asked Fraisier.
"Oh! he is a nobody."
"In business there is no such thing as a nobody."
"Oh, he is employed at the theatre," said she; "his name is Topinard."
"Good, Mme. Sauvage! Go on like this, and you shall have your tobacconist's shop."
And Fraisier resumed his conversation with Mme. Cibot.
"So I say, my dear client, that you have not played openly and above-board with me, and that one is not bound in any way to a partner who cheats."
"And how have I cheated you?" asked La Cibot, hands on hips. "Do you think that you will frighten me with your sour looks and your frosty airs? You look about for bad reasons for breaking your promises, and you call yourself an honest man! Do you know what you are? You are a blackguard! Yes! yes! scratch your arm; but just pocket that—"
"No words, and keep your temper, dearie. Listen to me. You have been feathering your nest. . . . I found this catalogue this morning while we were getting ready for the funeral; it is all in M. Pons' handwriting, and made out in duplicate. And as it chanced, my eyes fell on this—"
And opening the catalogue, he read:
"No. 7. Magnificent portrait painted on marble, by Sebastian del
Piombo, in 1546. Sold by a family who had it removed from Terni
Cathedral. The picture, which represents a Knight-Templar kneeling
in prayer, used to hang above a tomb of the Rossi family with a
companion portrait of a Bishop, afterwards purchased by an
Englishman. The portrait might be attributed to Raphael, but for
the date. This example is, to my mind, superior to the portrait of
Baccio Bandinelli in the Musee; the latter is a little hard, while
the Templar, being painted upon 'lavagna,' or slate, has preserved
its freshness of coloring."
"When I come to look for No. 7," continued Fraisier, "I find a portrait of a lady, signed 'Chardin,' without a number on it! I went through the pictures with the catalogue while the master of ceremonies was making up the number of pall-bearers, and found that eight of those indicated as works of capital importance by M. Pons had disappeared, and eight paintings of no special merit, and without numbers, were there instead. . . . And finally, one was missing altogether, a little panel-painting by Metzu, described in the catalogue as a masterpiece."
"And was I in charge of the pictures?" demanded La Cibot.
"No; but you were in a position of trust. You were M. Pons' housekeeper, you looked after his affairs, and he has been robbed—"
"Robbed! Let me tell you this, sir: M. Schmucke sold the pictures, by M. Pons' orders, to meet expenses."
"And to whom?"
"To Messrs. Elie Magus and Remonencq."
"For how much?"
"I am sure I do not remember."
"Look here, my dear madame; you have been feathering your nest, and very snugly. I shall keep an eye upon you; I have you safe. Help me, I will say nothing! In any case, you know that since you deemed it expedient to plunder M. le President Camusot, you ought not to expect anything from him."
"I was sure that this would all end in smoke, for me," said La Cibot, mollified by the words "I will say nothing."
Remonencq chimed in at this point.
"Here are you finding fault with Mme. Cibot; that is not right!" he said. "The pictures were sold by private treaty between M. Pons, M. Magus, and me. We waited for three days before we came to terms with the deceased; he slept on his pictures. We took receipts in proper form; and if we gave Madame Cibot a few forty-franc pieces, it is the custom of the trade—we always do so in private houses when we conclude a bargain. Ah! my dear sir, if you think to cheat a defenceless woman, you will not make a good bargain! Do you understand, master lawyer?—M. Magus rules the market, and if you do not come down off the high horse, if you do not keep your word to Mme. Cibot, I shall wait till the collection is sold, and you shall see what you will lose if you have M. Magus and me against you; we can get the dealers in a ring. Instead of realizing seven or eight hundred thousand francs, you will not so much as make two hundred thousand."
"Good, good, we shall see. We are not going to sell; or if we do, it will be in London."
"We know London," said Remonencq. "M. Magus is as powerful there as at Paris."
"Good-day, madame; I shall sift these matters to the bottom," said Fraisier—"unless you continue to do as I tell you" he added.
"You little pickpocket!—"
"Take care! I shall be a justice of the peace before long." And with threats understood to the full upon either side, they separated.
"Thank you, Remonencq!" said La Cibot; "it is very pleasant to a poor widow to find a champion."