Cousin Pons/Section 22
Mme. Camusot de Marville was consumed by the liveliest apprehensions. At a council held with Fraisier, Berthier, and Godeschal, the two last-named authorities gave it as their opinion that it was hopeless to dispute a will drawn up by two notaries in the presence of two witnesses, so precisely was the instrument worded by Leopold Hannequin. Honest Godeschal said that even if Schmucke's own legal adviser should succeed in deceiving him, he would find out the truth at last, if it were only from some officious barrister, the gentlemen of the robe being wont to perform such acts of generosity and disinterestedness by way of self-advertisement. And the two officials took their leave of the Presidente with a parting caution against Fraisier, concerning whom they had naturally made inquiries.
At that very moment Fraisier, straight from the affixing of the seals in the Rue de Normandie, was waiting for an interview with Mme. de Marville. Berthier and Godeschal had suggested that he should be shown into the study; the whole affair was too dirty for the President to look into (to use their own expression), and they wished to give Mme. de Marville their opinion in Fraisier's absence.
"Well, madame, where are these gentlemen?" asked Fraisier, admitted to audience.
"They are gone. They advise me to give up," said Mme. de Marville.
"Give up!" repeated Fraisier, suppressed fury in his voice. "Give up! . . . Listen to this, madame:—
"'At the request of' . . . and so forth (I will omit the
formalities) . . . 'Whereas there has been deposited in the hands
of M. le President of the Court of First Instance, a will drawn up
by Maitres Leopold Hannequin and Alexandre Crottat, notaries of
Paris, and in the presence of two witnesses, the Sieurs Brunner
and Schwab, aliens domiciled at Paris, and by the said will the
Sieur Pons, deceased, has bequeathed his property to one Sieur
Schmucke, a German, to the prejudice of his natural heirs:
"'Whereas the applicant undertakes to prove that the said will
was obtained under undue influence and by unlawful means; and
persons of credit are prepared to show that it was the testator's
intention to leave his fortune to Mlle. Cecile, daughter of the
aforesaid Sieur de Marville, and the applicant can show that the
said will was extorted from the testator's weakness, he being
unaccountable for his actions at the time:
"'Whereas as the Sieur Schmucke, to obtain a will in his favor,
sequestrated the testator, and prevented the family from
approaching the deceased during his last illness; and his
subsequent notorious ingratitude was of a nature to scandalize the
house and residents in the quarter who chanced to witness it when
attending the funeral of the porter at the testator's place of
"'Whereas as still more serious charges, of which applicant is
collecting proofs, will be formally made before their worships the
"'I, the undersigned Registrar of the Court, etc., etc., on
behalf of the aforesaid, etc., have summoned the Sieur Schmucke,
pleading, etc., to appear before their worships the judges of the
first chamber of the Tribunal, and to be present when application
is made that the will received by Maitres Hannequin and Crottat,
being evidently obtained by undue influence, shall be regarded as
null and void in law; and I, the undersigned, on behalf of the
aforesaid, etc., have likewise given notice of protest, should the
Sieur Schmucke as universal legatee make application for an order
to be put into possession of the estate, seeing that the applicant
opposes such order, and makes objection by his application bearing
date of to-day, of which a copy has been duly deposited with the
Sieur Schmucke, costs being charged to . . . etc., etc.'
"I know the man, Mme. le Presidente. He will come to terms as soon as he reads this little love-letter. He will take our terms. Are you going to give the thousand crowns per annum?"
"Certainly. I only wish I were paying the first installment now."
"It will be done in three days. The summons will come down upon him while he is stupefied with grief, for the poor soul regrets Pons and is taking the death to heart."
"Can the application be withdrawn?" inquired the lady.
"Certainly, madame. You can withdraw it at any time."
"Very well, monsieur, let it be so . . . go on! Yes, the purchase of land that you have arranged for me is worth the trouble; and, besides, I have managed Vitel's business—he is to retire, and you must pay Vitel's sixty thousand francs out of Pons' property. So, you see, you must succeed."
"Have you Vitel's resignation?"
"Yes, monsieur. M. Vitel has put himself in M. de Marville's hands."
"Very good, madame. I have already saved you sixty thousand francs which I expected to give to that vile creature Mme. Cibot. But I still require the tobacconist's license for the woman Sauvage, and an appointment to the vacant place of head-physician at the Quinze-Vingts for my friend Poulain."
"Agreed—it is all arranged."
"Very well. There is no more to be said. Every one is for you in this business, even Gaudissart, the manager of the theatre. I went to look him up yesterday, and he undertook to crush the workman who seemed likely to give us trouble."
"Oh, I know M. Gaudissart is devoted to the Popinots."
Fraisier went out. Unluckily, he missed Gaudissart, and the fatal summons was served forthwith.
If all covetous minds will sympathize with the Presidente, all honest folk will turn in abhorrence from her joy when Gaudissart came twenty minutes later to report his conversation with poor Schmucke. She gave her full approval; she was obliged beyond all expression for the thoughtful way in which the manager relieved her of any remaining scruples by observations which seemed to her to be very sensible and just.
"I thought as I came, Mme. la Presidente, that the poor devil would not know what to do with the money. 'Tis a patriarchally simple nature. He is a child, he is a German, he ought to be stuffed and put in a glass case like a waxen image. Which is to say that, in my opinion, he is quite puzzled enough already with his income of two thousand five hundred francs, and here you are provoking him into extravagance—"
"It is very generous of him to wish to enrich the poor fellow who regrets the loss of our cousin," pronounced the Presidente. "For my own part, I am sorry for the little squabble that estranged M. Pons and me. If he had come back again, all would have been forgiven. If you only knew how my husband misses him! M. de Marville received no notice of the death, and was in despair; family claims are sacred for him, he would have gone to the service and the interment, and I myself would have been at the mass—"
"Very well, fair lady," said Gaudissart. "Be so good as to have the documents drawn up, and at four o'clock I will bring this German to you. Please remember me to your charming daughter the Vicomtesse, and ask her to tell my illustrious friend the great statesman, her good and excellent father-in-law, how deeply I am devoted to him and his, and ask him to continue his valued favors. I owe my life to his uncle the judge, and my success in life to him; and I should wish to be bound to both you and your daughter by the high esteem which links us with persons of rank and influence. I wish to leave the theatre and become a serious person."
"As you are already, monsieur!" said the Presidente.
"Adorable!" returned Gaudissart, kissing the lady's shriveled fingers.
At four o'clock that afternoon several people were gathered together at Berthier's office; Fraisier, arch-concocter of the whole scheme, Tabareau, appearing on behalf of Schmucke, and Schmucke himself. Gaudissart had come with him. Fraisier had been careful to spread out the money on Berthier's desk, and so dazzled was Schmucke by the sight of the six thousand-franc bank-notes for which he had asked, and six hundred francs for the first quarter's allowance, that he paid no heed whatsoever to the reading of the document. Poor man, he was scarcely in full possession of his faculties, shaken as they had already been by so many shocks. Gaudissart had snatched him up on his return from the cemetery, where he had been talking with Pons, promising to join him soon—very soon. So Schmucke did not listen to the preamble in which it was set forth that Maitre Tabareau, bailiff, was acting as his proxy, and that the Presidente, in the interests of her daughter, was taking legal proceedings against him. Altogether, in that preamble the German played a sorry part, but he put his name to the document, and thereby admitted the truth of Fraisier's abominable allegations; and so joyous was he over receiving the money for the Topinards, so glad to bestow wealth according to his little ideas upon the one creature who loved Pons, that he heard not a word of lawsuit nor compromise.
But in the middle of the reading a clerk came into the private office to speak to his employer. "There is a man here, sir, who wishes to speak to M. Schmucke," said he.
The notary looked at Fraisier, and, taking his cue from him, shrugged his shoulders.
"Never disturb us when we are signing documents. Just ask his name—is it a man or a gentleman? Is he a creditor?"
The clerk went and returned. "He insists that he must speak to M. Schmucke."
"His name is Topinard, he says."
"I will go out to him. Sign without disturbing yourself," said Gaudissart, addressing Schmucke. "Make an end of it; I will find out what he wants with us."
Gaudissart understood Fraisier; both scented danger.
"Why are you here?" Gaudissart began. "So you have no mind to be cashier at the theatre? Discretion is a cashier's first recommendation."
"Just mind your own business; you will never be anything if you meddle in other people's affairs."
"Sir, I cannot eat bread if every mouthful of it is to stick in my throat. . . . Monsieur Schmucke!—M. Schmucke!" he shouted aloud.
Schmucke came out at the sound of Topinard's voice. He had just signed. He held the money in his hand.
"Thees ees for die liddle German maiden und for you," he said.
"Oh! my dear M. Schmucke, you have given away your wealth to inhuman wretches, to people who are trying to take away your good name. I took this paper to a good man, an attorney who knows this Fraisier, and he says that you ought to punish such wickedness; you ought to let them summon you and leave them to get out of it.—Read this," and Schmucke's imprudent friend held out the summons delivered in the Cite Bordin.
Standing in the notary's gateway, Schmucke read the document, saw the imputations made against him, and, all ignorant as he was of the amenities of the law, the blow was deadly. The little grain of sand stopped his heart's beating. Topinard caught him in his arms, hailed a passing cab, and put the poor German into it. He was suffering from congestion of the brain; his eyes were dim, his head was throbbing, but he had enough strength left to put the money into Topinard's hands.
Schmucke rallied from the first attack, but he never recovered consciousness, and refused to eat. Ten days afterwards he died without a complaint; to the last he had not spoken a word. Mme. Topinard nursed him, and Topinard laid him by Pons' side. It was an obscure funeral; Topinard was the only mourner who followed the son of Germany to his last resting-place.
Fraisier, now a justice of the peace, is very intimate with the President's family, and much valued by the Presidente. She could not think of allowing him to marry "that girl of Tabareau's," and promised infinitely better things for the clever man to whom she considers she owes not merely the pasture-land and the English cottage at Marville, but also the President's seat in the Chamber of Deputies, for M. le President was returned at the general election in 1846.
Every one, no doubt, wishes to know what became of the heroine of a story only too veracious in its details; a chronicle which, taken with its twin sister the preceding volume, La Cousine Bette, proves that Character is a great social force. You, O amateurs, connoisseurs, and dealers, will guess at once that Pons' collection is now in question. Wherefore it will suffice if we are present during a conversation that took place only a few days ago in Count Popinot's house. He was showing his splendid collection to some visitors.
"M. le Comte, you possess treasures indeed," remarked a distinguished foreigner.
"Oh! as to pictures, nobody can hope to rival an obscure collector, one Elie Magus, a Jew, an old monomaniac, the prince of picture-lovers," the Count replied modestly. "And when I say nobody, I do not speak of Paris only, but of all Europe. When the old Croesus dies, France ought to spare seven or eight millions of francs to buy the gallery. For curiosities, my collection is good enough to be talked about—"
"But how, busy as you are, and with a fortune so honestly earned in the first instance in business—"
"In the drug business," broke in Popinot; "you ask how I can continue to interest myself in things that are a drug in the market—"
"No," returned the foreign visitor, "no, but how do you find time to collect? The curiosities do not come to find you."
"My father-in-law owned the nucleus of the collection," said the young Vicomtess; "he loved the arts and beautiful work, but most of his treasures came to him through me."
"Through you, madame?—So young! and yet have you such vices as this?" asked a Russian prince.
Russians are by nature imitative; imitative indeed to such an extent that the diseases of civilization break out among them in epidemics. The bric-a-brac mania had appeared in an acute form in St. Petersburg, and the Russians caused such a rise of prices in the "art line," as Remonencq would say, that collection became impossible. The prince who spoke had come to Paris solely to buy bric-a-brac.
"The treasures came to me, prince, on the death of a cousin. He was very fond of me," added the Vicomtesse Popinot, "and he had spent some forty odd years since 1805 in picking up these masterpieces everywhere, but more especially in Italy—"
"And what was his name?" inquired the English lord.
"Pons," said President Camusot.
"A charming man he was," piped the Presidente in her thin, flute tones, "very clever, very eccentric, and yet very good-hearted. This fan that you admire once belonged to Mme. de Pompadour; he gave it to me one morning with a pretty speech which you must permit me not to repeat," and she glanced at her daughter.
"Mme. la Vicomtesse, tell us the pretty speech," begged the Russian prince.
"The speech was as pretty as the fan," returned the Vicomtesse, who brought out the stereotyped remark on all occasions. "He told my mother that it was quite time that it should pass from the hands of vice into those of virtue."
The English lord looked at Mme. Camusot de Marville with an air of doubt not a little gratifying to so withered a woman.
"He used to dine at our house two or three times a week," she said; "he was so fond of us! We could appreciate him, and artists like the society of those who relish their wit. My husband was, besides, his one surviving relative. So when, quite unexpectedly, M. de Marville came into the property, M. le Comte preferred to take over the whole collection to save it from a sale by auction; and we ourselves much preferred to dispose of it in that way, for it would have been so painful to us to see the beautiful things, in which our dear cousin was so much interested, all scattered abroad. Elie Magus valued them, and in that way I became possessed of the cottage that your uncle built, and I hope you will do us the honor of coming to see us there."
Gaudissart's theatre passed into other hands a year ago, but M. Topinard is still the cashier. M. Topinard, however, has grown gloomy and misanthropic; he says little. People think that he has something on his conscience. Wags at the theatre suggest that his gloom dates from his marriage with Lolotte. Honest Topinard starts whenever he hears Fraisier's name mentioned. Some people may think it strange that the one nature worthy of Pons and Schmucke should be found on the third floor beneath the stage of a boulevard theatre.
Mme. Remonencq, much impressed with Mme. Fontaine's prediction, declines to retire to the country. She is still living in her splendid shop on the Boulevard de la Madeleine, but she is a widow now for the second time. Remonencq, in fact, by the terms of the marriage contract, settled the property upon the survivor, and left a little glass of vitriol about for his wife to drink by mistake; but his wife, with the very best intentions, put the glass elsewhere, and Remonencq swallowed the draught himself. The rascal's appropriate end vindicates Providence, as well as the chronicler of manners, who is sometimes accused of neglect on this head, perhaps because Providence has been so overworked by playwrights of late.
Pardon the transcriber's errors.