Cousin Pons/Section 3

Pons had dined at the house every week for twenty years, and Camusot de Marville was the only cousin he had in the world; but he had yet to hear the first word spoken as to his own affairs—nobody cared to know how he lived. Here and elsewhere the poor cousin was a kind of sink down which his relatives poured domestic confidences. His discretion was well known; indeed, was he not bound over to silence when a single imprudent word would have shut the door of ten houses upon him? And he must combine his role of listener with a second part; he must applaud continually, smile on every one, accuse nobody, defend nobody; from his point of view, every one must be in the right. And so, in the house of his kinsman, Pons no longer counted as a man; he was a digestive apparatus.

In the course of a long tirade, Mme. Camusot de Marville avowed with due circumspection that she was prepared to take almost any son-in-law with her eyes shut. She was even disposed to think that at eight-and-forty or so a man with twenty thousand francs a year was a good match.

"Cecile is in her twenty-third year. If it should fall out so unfortunately that she is not married before she is five or six-and-twenty, it will be extremely hard to marry her at all. When a girl reaches that age, people want to know why she has been so long on hand. We are a good deal talked about in our set. We have come to the end of all the ordinary excuses—'She is so young.—She is so fond of her father and mother that she doesn't like to leave them.—She is so happy at home.—She is hard to please, she would like a good name—' We are beginning to look silly; I feel that distinctly. And besides, Cecile is tired of waiting, poor child, she suffers—"

"In what way?" Pons was noodle enough to ask.

"Why, because it is humiliating to her to see all her girl friends married before her," replied the mother, with a duenna's air.

"But, cousin, has anything happened since the last time that I had the pleasure of dining here? Why do you think of men of eight-and-forty?" Pons inquired humbly.

"This has happened," returned the Presidente. "We were to have had an interview with a Court Councillor; his son is thirty years old and very well-to-do, and M. de Marville would have obtained a post in the audit-office for him and paid the money. The young man is a supernumerary there at present. And now they tell us that he has taken it into his head to rush off to Italy in the train of a duchess from the Bal Mabille. . . . It is nothing but a refusal in disguise. The fact is, the young man's mother is dead; he has an income of thirty thousand francs, and more to come at his father's death, and they don't care about the match for him. You have just come in in the middle of all this, dear cousin, so you must excuse our bad temper."

While Pons was casting about for the complimentary answer which invariably occurred to him too late when he was afraid of his host, Madeleine came in, handed a folded note to the Presidente, and waited for an answer. The note ran as follows:

  "DEAR MAMMA,—If we pretend that this note comes to you from papa
  at the Palais, and that he wants us both to dine with his friend
  because proposals have been renewed—then the cousin will go, and
  we can carry out our plan of going to the Popinots."

"Who brought the master's note?" the Presidente asked quickly.

"A lad from the Salle du Palais," the withered waiting woman unblushingly answered, and her mistress knew at once that Madeleine had woven the plot with Cecile, now at the end of her patience.

"Tell him that we will both be there at half-past five."

Madeleine had no sooner left the room than the Presidente turned to Cousin Pons with that insincere friendliness which is about as grateful to a sensitive soul as a mixture of milk and vinegar to the palate of an epicure.

"Dinner is ordered, dear cousin; you must dine without us; my husband has just sent word from the court that the question of the marriage has been reopened, and we are to dine with the Councillor. We need not stand on ceremony at all. Do just as if you were at home. I have no secrets from you; I am perfectly open with you, as you see. I am sure you would not wish to break off the little darling's marriage."

"I, cousin? On the contrary, I should like to find some one for her; but in my circle—"

"Oh, that is not at all likely," said the Presidente, cutting him short insolently. "Then you will stay, will you not? Cecile will keep you company while I dress.

"Oh! I can dine somewhere else, cousin."

Cruelly hurt though he was by her way of casting up his poverty to him, the prospect of being left alone with the servants was even more alarming.

"But why should you? Dinner is ready; you may just as well have it; if you do not, the servants will eat it."

At that atrocious speech Pons started up as if he had received a shock from a galvanic battery, bowed stiffly to the lady, and went to find his spencer. Now, it so happened that the door of Cecile's bedroom, beyond the little drawing-room, stood open, and looking into the mirror, he caught sight of the girl shaking with laughter as she gesticulated and made signs to her mother. The old artist understood beyond a doubt that he had been the victim of some cowardly hoax. Pons went slowly down the stairs; he could not keep back the tears. He understood that he had been turned out of the house, but why and wherefore he did not know.

"I am growing too old," he told himself. "The world has a horror of old age and poverty—two ugly things. After this I will not go anywhere unless I am asked."

Heroic resolve!

Downstairs the great gate was shut, as it usually is in houses occupied by the proprietor; the kitchen stood exactly opposite the porter's lodge, and the door was open. Pons was obliged to listen while Madeleine told the servants the whole story amid the laughter of the servants. She had not expected him to leave so soon. The footman loudly applauded a joke at the expense of a visitor who was always coming to the house and never gave you more than three francs at the year's end.

"Yes," put in the cook; "but if he cuts up rough and does not come back, there will be three francs the less for some of us on New Year's day."

"Eh! How is he to know?" retorted the footman.

"Pooh!" said Madeleine, "a little sooner or a little later—what difference does it make? The people at the other houses where he dines are so tired of him that they are going to turn him out."

"The gate, if you please!"

Madeleine had scarcely uttered the words when they heard the old musician's call to the porter. It sounded like a cry of pain. There was a sudden silence in the kitchen.

"He heard!" the footman said.

"Well, and if he did, so much the worser, or rather so much the better," retorted Madeleine. "He is an arrant skinflint."

Poor Pons had lost none of the talk in the kitchen; he heard it all, even to the last word. He made his way home along the boulevards, in the same state, physical and mental, as an old woman after a desperate struggle with burglars. As he went he talked to himself in quick spasmodic jerks; his honor had been wounded, and the pain of it drove him on as a gust of wind whirls away a straw. He found himself at last in the Boulevard du Temple; how he had come thither he could not tell. It was five o'clock, and, strange to say, he had completely lost his appetite.

But if the reader is to understand the revolution which Pons' unexpected return at that hour was to work in the Rue de Normandie, the promised biography of Mme. Cibot must be given in this place.

Any one passing along the Rue de Normandie might be pardoned for thinking that he was in some small provincial town. Grass runs to seed in the street, everybody knows everybody else, and the sight of a stranger is an event. The houses date back to the reign of Henry IV., when there was a scheme afoot for a quarter in which every street was to be named after a French province, and all should converge in a handsome square to which La France should stand godmother. The Quartier de l'Europe was a revival of the same idea; history repeats itself everywhere in the world, and even in the world of speculation.

The house in which the two musicians used to live is an old mansion with a courtyard in front and a garden at the back; but the front part of the house which gives upon the street is comparatively modern, built during the eighteenth century when the Marais was a fashionable quarter. The friends lived at the back, on the second floor of the old part of the house. The whole building belongs to M. Pillerault, an old man of eighty, who left matters very much in the hands of M. and Mme. Cibot, his porters for the past twenty-six years.

Now, as a porter cannot live by his lodge alone, the aforesaid Cibot had other means of gaining a livelihood; and supplemented his five per cent on the rental and his faggot from every cartload of wood by his own earnings as a tailor. In time Cibot ceased to work for the master tailors; he made a connection among the little trades-people of the quarter, and enjoyed a monopoly of the repairs, renovations, and fine drawing of all the coats and trousers in three adjacent streets. The lodge was spacious and wholesome, and boasted a second room; wherefore the Cibot couple were looked upon as among the luckiest porters in the arrondissement.

Cibot, small and stunted, with a complexion almost olive-colored by reason of sitting day in day out in Turk-fashion on a table level with the barred window, made about twelve or fourteen francs a week. He worked still, though he was fifty-eight years old, but fifty-eight is the porter's golden age; he is used to his lodge, he and his room fit each other like the shell and the oyster, and "he is known in the neighborhood."

Mme. Cibot, sometime opener of oysters at the Cadran Bleu, after all the adventures which come unsought to the belle of an oyster-bar, left her post for love of Cibot at the age of twenty-eight. The beauty of a woman of the people is short-lived, especially if she is planted espalier fashion at a restaurant door. Her features are hardened by puffs of hot air from the kitchen; the color of the heeltaps of customers' bottles, finished in the company of the waiters, gradually filters into her complexion—no beauty is full blown so soon as the beauty of an oyster-opener. Luckily for Mme. Cibot, lawful wedlock and a portress' life were offered to her just in time; while she still preserved a comeliness of a masculine order slandered by rivals of the Rue de Normandie, who called her "a great blowsy thing," Mme. Cibot might have sat as a model to Rubens. Those flesh tints reminded you of the appetizing sheen on a pat of Isigny butter; but plump as she was, no woman went about her work with more agility. Mme. Cibot had attained the time of life when women of her stamp are obliged to shave—which is as much as to say that she had reached the age of forty-eight. A porter's wife with a moustache is one of the best possible guarantees of respectability and security that a landlord can have. If Delacroix could have seen Mme. Cibot leaning proudly on her broom handle, he would assuredly have painted her as Bellona.

Strange as it may seem, the circumstances of the Cibots, man and wife (in the style of an indictment), were one day to affect the lives of the two friends; wherefore the chronicler, as in duty bound, must give some particulars as to the Cibots' lodge.

The house brought in about eight thousand francs for there were three complete sets of apartments—back and front, on the side nearest the Rue de Normandie, as well as the three floors in the older mansion between the courtyard and the garden, and a shop kept by a marine store-dealer named Remonencq, which fronted on the street. During the past few months this Remonencq had begun to deal in old curiosities, and knew the value of Pons' collection so well that he took off his hat whenever the musician came in or went out.

A sou in the livre on eight thousand francs therefore brought in about four hundred francs to the Cibots. They had no rent to pay and no expenses for firing; Cibot's earnings amounted on an average to seven or eight hundred francs, add tips at New Year, and the pair had altogether in income of sixteen hundred francs, every penny of which they spent, for the Cibots lived and fared better than working people usually do. "One can only live once," La Cibot used to say. She was born during the Revolution, you see, and had never learned her Catechism.

The husband of this portress with the unblenching tawny eyes was an object of envy to the whole fraternity, for La Cibot had not forgotten the knowledge of cookery picked up at the Cadran Bleu. So it had come to pass that the Cibots had passed the prime of life, and saw themselves on the threshold of old age without a hundred francs put by for the future. Well clad and well fed, they enjoyed among the neighbors, it is true, the respect due to twenty-six years of strict honesty; for if they had nothing of their own, they "hadn't nothing belonging to nobody else," according to La Cibot, who was a prodigal of negatives. "There wasn't never such a love of a man," she would say to her husband. Do you ask why? You might as well ask the reason of her indifference in matters of religion.

Both of them were proud of a life lived in open day, of the esteem in which they were held for six or seven streets round about, and of the autocratic rule permitted to them by the proprietor ("perprietor," they called him); but in private they groaned because they had no money lying at interest. Cibot complained of pains in his hands and legs, and his wife would lament that her poor, dear Cibot should be forced to work at his age; and, indeed, the day is not far distant when a porter after thirty years of such a life will cry shame upon the injustice of the Government and clamor for the ribbon of the Legion of Honor. Every time that the gossip of the quarter brought news of such and such a servant-maid, left an annuity of three or four hundred francs after eight or ten years of service, the porters' lodges would resound with complaints, which may give some idea of the consuming jealousies in the lowest walks of life in Paris.

"Oh, indeed! It will never happen to the like of us to have our names mentioned in a will! We have no luck, but we do more than servants, for all that. We fill a place of trust; we give receipts, we are on the lookout for squalls, and yet we are treated like dogs, neither more nor less, and that's the truth!"

"Some find fortune and some miss fortune," said Cibot, coming in with a coat.

"If I had left Cibot here in his lodge and taken a place as cook, we should have our thirty thousand francs out at interest," cried Mme. Cibot, standing chatting with a neighbor, her hands on her prominent hips. "But I didn't understand how to get on in life; housed inside of a snug lodge and firing found and want for nothing, but that is all."

In 1836, when the friends took up their abode on the second floor, they brought about a sort of revolution in the Cibot household. It befell on this wise. Schmucke, like his friend Pons, usually arranged that the porter or the porter's wife should undertake the cares of housekeeping; and being both of one mind on this point when they came to live in the Rue de Normandie, Mme. Cibot became their housekeeper at the rate of twenty-five francs per month—twelve francs fifty centimes for each of them. Before the year was out, the emeritus portress reigned in the establishment of the two old bachelors, as she reigned everywhere in the house belonging to M. Pillerault, great uncle of Mme. le Comtesse Popinot. Their business was her business; she called them "my gentlemen." And at last, finding the pair of nutcrackers as mild as lambs, easy to live with, and by no means suspicious—perfect children, in fact—her heart, the heart of a woman of the people, prompted her to protect, adore, and serve them with such thorough devotion, that she read them a lecture now and again, and saved them from the impositions which swell the cost of living in Paris. For twenty-five francs a month, the two old bachelors inadvertently acquired a mother.

As they became aware of Mme. Cibot's full value, they gave her outspoken praises, and thanks, and little presents which strengthened the bonds of the domestic alliance. Mme. Cibot a thousand times preferred appreciation to money payments; it is a well-known fact that the sense that one is appreciated makes up for a deficiency in wages. And Cibot did all that he could for his wife's two gentlemen, and ran errands and did repairs at half-price for them.

The second year brought a new element into the friendship between the lodge and the second floor, and Schmucke concluded a bargain which satisfied his indolence and desire for a life without cares. For thirty sous per day, or forty-five francs per month, Mme. Cibot undertook to provide Schmucke with breakfast and dinner; and Pons, finding his friend's breakfast very much to his mind, concluded a separate treaty for that meal only at the rate of eighteen francs. This arrangement, which added nearly ninety francs every month to the takings of the porter and his wife, made two inviolable beings of the lodgers; they became angels, cherubs, divinities. It is very doubtful whether the King of the French, who is supposed to understand economy, is as well served as the pair of nutcrackers used to be in those days.

For them the milk issued pure from the can; they enjoyed a free perusal of all the morning papers taken by other lodgers, later risers, who were told, if need be, that the newspapers had not come yet. Mme. Cibot, moreover, kept their clothes, their rooms, and the landing as clean as a Flemish interior. As for Schmucke, he enjoyed unhoped-for happiness; Mme. Cibot had made life easy for him; he paid her about six francs a month, and she took charge of his linen, washing, and mending. Altogether, his expenses amounted to sixty-six francs per month (for he spent fifteen francs on tobacco), and sixty-six francs multiplied by twelve produces the sum total of seven hundred and ninety-two francs. Add two hundred and twenty francs for rent, rates, and taxes, and you have a thousand and twelve francs. Cibot was Schmucke's tailor; his clothes cost him on average a hundred and fifty francs, which further swells the total to the sum of twelve hundred. On twelve hundred francs per annum this profound philosopher lived. How many people in Europe, whose one thought it is to come to Paris and live there, will be agreeably surprised to learn that you may exist in comfort upon an income of twelve hundred francs in the Rue de Normandie in the Marais, under the wing of a Mme. Cibot.

Mme. Cibot, to resume the story, was amazed beyond expression to see Pons, good man, return at five o'clock in the evening. Such a thing had never happened before; and not only so, but "her gentleman" had given her no greeting—had not so much as seen her!

"Well, well, Cibot," said she to her spouse, "M. Pons has come in for a million, or gone out of his mind!"

"That is how it looks to me," said Cibot, dropping the coat-sleeve in which he was making a "dart," in tailor's language.

The savory odor of a stew pervaded the whole courtyard, as Pons returned mechanically home. Mme. Cibot was dishing up Schmucke's dinner, which consisted of scraps of boiled beef from a little cook-shop not above doing a little trade of this kind. These morsels were fricasseed in brown butter, with thin slices of onion, until the meat and vegetables had absorbed the gravy and this true porter's dish was browned to the right degree. With that fricassee, prepared with loving care for Cibot and Schmucke, and accompanied by a bottle of beer and a piece of cheese, the old German music-master was quite content. Not King Solomon in all his glory, be sure, could dine better than Schmucke. A dish of boiled beef fricasseed with onions, scraps of saute chicken, or beef and parsley, or venison, or fish served with a sauce of La Cibot's own invention (a sauce with which a mother might unsuspectingly eat her child),—such was Schmucke's ordinary, varying with the quantity and quality of the remnants of food supplied by boulevard restaurants to the cook-shop in the Rue Boucherat. Schmucke took everything that "goot Montame Zipod" gave him, and was content, and so from day to day "goot Montame Zipod" cut down the cost of his dinner, until it could be served for twenty sous.

"It won't be long afore I find out what is the matter with him, poor dear," said Mme. Cibot to her husband, "for here is M. Schmucke's dinner all ready for him."

As she spoke she covered the deep earthenware dish with a plate; and, notwithstanding her age, she climbed the stair and reached the door before Schmucke opened it to Pons.

"Vat is de matter mit you, mein goot friend?" asked the German, scared by the expression of Pons' face.

"I will tell you all about it; but I have come home to have dinner with you—"

"Tinner! tinner!" cried Schmucke in ecstasy; "but it is impossible!" the old German added, as he thought of his friend's gastronomical tastes; and at that very moment he caught sight of Mme. Cibot listening to the conversation, as she had a right to do as his lawful housewife. Struck with one of those happy inspirations which only enlighten a friend's heart, he marched up to the portress and drew her out to the stairhead.

"Montame Zipod," he said, "der goot Pons is fond of goot dings; shoost go rount to der Catran Pleu und order a dainty liddle tinner, mit anjovies und maggaroni. Ein tinner for Lugullus, in vact."

"What is that?" inquired La Cibot.

"Oh! ah!" returned Schmucke, "it is veal a la pourcheoise" (bourgeoise, he meant), "a nice fisch, ein pottle off Porteaux, und nice dings, der fery best dey haf, like groquettes of rice und shmoked pacon! Bay for it, und say nodings; I vill gif you back de monny to-morrow morning."

Back went Schmucke, radiant and rubbing his hands; but his expression slowly changed to a look of bewildered astonishment as he heard Pons' story of the troubles that had but just now overwhelmed him in a moment. He tried to comfort Pons by giving him a sketch of the world from his own point of view. Paris, in his opinion, was a perpetual hurly-burly, the men and women in it were whirled away by a tempestuous waltz; it was no use expecting anything of the world, which only looked at the outsides of things, "und not at der inderior." For the hundredth time he related how that the only three pupils for whom he had really cared, for whom he was ready to die, the three who had been fond of him, and even allowed him a little pension of nine hundred francs, each contributing three hundred to the amount—his favorite pupils had quite forgotten to come to see him; and so swift was the current of Parisian life which swept them away, that if he called at their houses, he had not succeeded in seeing them once in three years—(it is a fact, however, that Schmucke had always thought fit to call on these great ladies at ten o'clock in the morning!)—still, his pension was paid quarterly through the medium of solicitors.

"Und yet, dey are hearts of gold," he concluded. "Dey are my liddle Saint Cecilias, sharming vimmen, Montame de Bordentuere, Montame de Fantenesse, und Montame du Dilet. Gif I see dem at all, it is at die Jambs Elusees, und dey do not see me . . . yet dey are ver' fond of me, und I might go to dine mit dem, und dey vould be ver' bleased to see me; und I might go to deir country-houses, but I vould much rader be mit mine friend Bons, because I kann see him venefer I like, und efery tay."

Pons took Schmucke's hand and grasped it between his own. All that was passing in his inmost soul was communicated in that tight pressure. And so for awhile the friends sat like two lovers, meeting at last after a long absence.

"Tine here, efery tay!" broke out Schmucke, inwardly blessing Mme. de Marville for her hardness of heart. "Look here! Ve shall go a prick-a-pracking togeders, und der teufel shall nefer show his tail here."

"Ve shall go prick-a-pracking togeders!" for the full comprehension of those truly heroic words, it must be confessed that Schmucke's ignorance of bric-a-brac was something of the densest. It required all the strength of his friendship to keep him from doing heedless damage in the sitting-room and study which did duty as a museum for Pons. Schmucke, wholly absorbed in music, a composer for love of his art, took about as much interest in his friend's little trifles as a fish might take in a flower-show at the Luxembourg, supposing that it had received a ticket of admission. A certain awe which he certainly felt for the marvels was simply a reflection of the respect which Pons showed his treasures when he dusted them. To Pons' exclamations of admiration, he was wont to reply with a "Yes, it is ver' bretty," as a mother answers baby-gestures with meaningless baby-talk. Seven times since the friends had lived together, Pons had exchanged a good clock for a better one, till at last he possessed a timepiece in Boule's first and best manner, for Boule had two manners, as Raphael had three. In the first he combined ebony and copper; in the second—contrary to his convictions—he sacrificed to tortoise-shell inlaid work. In spite of Pons' learned dissertations, Schmucke never could see the slightest difference between the magnificent clock in Boule's first manner and its six predecessors; but, for Pons' sake, Schmucke was even more careful among the "chimcracks" than Pons himself. So it should not be surprising that Schmucke's sublime words comforted Pons in his despair; for "Ve shall go prick-a-pracking togeders," meant, being interpreted, "I will put money into bric-a-brac, if you will only dine here."

"Dinner is ready," Mme. Cibot announced, with astonishing self-possession.

It is not difficult to imagine Pons' surprise when he saw and relished the dinner due to Schmucke's friendship. Sensations of this kind, that came so rarely in a lifetime, are never the outcome of the constant, close relationship by which friend daily says to friend, "You are a second self to me"; for this, too, becomes a matter of use and wont. It is only by contact with the barbarism of the world without that the happiness of that intimate life is revealed to us as a sudden glad surprise. It is the outer world which renews the bond between friend and friend, lover and lover, all their lives long, wherever two great souls are knit together by friendship or by love.

Pons brushed away two big tears, Schmucke himself wiped his eyes; and though nothing was said, the two were closer friends than before. Little friendly nods and glances exchanged across the table were like balm to Pons, soothing the pain caused by the sand dropped in his heart by the President's wife. As for Schmucke, he rubbed his hands till they were sore; for a new idea had occurred to him, one of those great discoveries which cause a German no surprise, unless they sprout up suddenly in a Teuton brain frost-bound by the awe and reverence due to sovereign princes.

"Mine goot Bons?" began Schmucke.

"I can guess what you mean; you would like us both to dine together here, every day—"

"Gif only I vas rich enof to lif like dis efery tay—" began the good German in a melancholy voice. But here Mme. Cibot appeared upon the scene. Pons had given her an order for the theatre from time to time, and stood in consequence almost as high in her esteem and affection as her boarder Schmucke.

"Lord love you," said she, "for three francs and wine extra I can give you both such a dinner every day that you will be ready to lick the plates as clean as if they were washed."

"It is a fact," Schmucke remarked, "dat die dinners dat Montame Zipod cooks for me are better as de messes dey eat at der royal dable!" In his eagerness, Schmucke, usually so full of respect for the powers that be, so far forgot himself as to imitate the irreverent newspapers which scoffed at the "fixed-price" dinners of Royalty.

"Really?" said Pons. "Very well, I will try to-morrow."

And at that promise Schmucke sprang from one end of the table to the other, sweeping off tablecloth, bottles, and dishes as he went, and hugged Pons to his heart. So might gas rush to combine with gas.

"Vat happiness!" cried he.

Mme. Cibot was quite touched. "Monsieur is going to dine here every day!" she cried proudly.

That excellent woman departed downstairs again in ignorance of the event which had brought about this result, entered her room like Josepha in William Tell, set down the plates and dishes on the table with a bang, and called aloud to her husband:

"Cibot! run to the Cafe Turc for two small cups of coffee, and tell the man at the stove that it is for me."

Then she sat down and rested her hands on her massive knees, and gazed out of the window at the opposite wall.

"I will go to-night and see what Ma'am Fontaine says," she thought. (Madame Fontaine told fortunes on the cards for all the servants in the quarter of the Marais.) "Since these two gentlemen came here, we have put two thousand francs in the savings bank. Two thousand francs in eight years! What luck! Would it be better to make no profit out of M. Pons' dinner and keep him here at home? Ma'am Fontaine's hen will tell me that."