Cousin Pons/Section 4

Three years ago Mme. Cibot had begun to cherish a hope that her name might be mentioned in "her gentlemen's" wills; she had redoubled her zeal since that covetous thought tardily sprouted up in the midst of that so honest moustache. Pons hitherto had dined abroad, eluding her desire to have both of "her gentlemen" entirely under her management; his "troubadour" collector's life had scared away certain vague ideas which hovered in La Cibot's brain; but now her shadowy projects assumed the formidable shape of a definite plan, dating from that memorable dinner. Fifteen minutes later she reappeared in the dining-room with two cups of excellent coffee, flanked by a couple of tiny glasses of kirschwasser.

"Long lif Montame Zipod!" cried Schmucke; "she haf guessed right!"

The diner-out bemoaned himself a little, while Schmucke met his lamentations with coaxing fondness, like a home pigeon welcoming back a wandering bird. Then the pair set out for the theatre.

Schmucke could not leave his friend in the condition to which he had been brought by the Camusots—mistresses and servants. He knew Pons so well; he feared lest some cruel, sad thought should seize on him at his conductor's desk, and undo all the good done by his welcome home to the nest.

And Schmucke brought his friend back on his arm through the streets at midnight. A lover could not be more careful of his lady. He pointed out the edges of the curbstones, he was on the lookout whenever they stepped on or off the pavement, ready with a warning if there was a gutter to cross. Schmucke could have wished that the streets were paved with cotton-down; he would have had a blue sky overhead, and Pons should hear the music which all the angels in heaven were making for him. He had won the lost province in his friend's heart!

For nearly three months Pons and Schmucke dined together every day. Pons was obliged to retrench at once; for dinner at forty-five francs a month and wine at thirty-five meant precisely eighty francs less to spend on bric-a-brac. And very soon, in spite of all that Schmucke could do, in spite of his little German jokes, Pons fell to regretting the delicate dishes, the liqueurs, the good coffee, the table talk, the insincere politeness, the guests, and the gossip, and the houses where he used to dine. On the wrong side of sixty a man cannot break himself of a habit of thirty-six years' growth. Wine at a hundred and thirty francs per hogshead is scarcely a generous liquid in a gourmet's glass; every time that Pons raised it to his lips he thought, with infinite regret, of the exquisite wines in his entertainers' cellars.

In short, at the end of three months, the cruel pangs which had gone near to break Pons' sensitive heart had died away; he forgot everything but the charms of society; and languished for them like some elderly slave of a petticoat compelled to leave the mistress who too repeatedly deceives him. In vain he tried to hide his profound and consuming melancholy; it was too plain that he was suffering from one of the mysterious complaints which the mind brings upon the body.

A single symptom will throw light upon this case of nostalgia (as it were) produced by breaking away from an old habit; in itself it is trifling, one of the myriad nothings which are as rings in a coat of chain-mail enveloping the soul in a network of iron. One of the keenest pleasures of Pons' old life, one of the joys of the dinner-table parasite at all times, was the "surprise," the thrill produced by the extra dainty dish added triumphantly to the bill of fare by the mistress of a bourgeois house, to give a festal air to the dinner. Pons' stomach hankered after that gastronomical satisfaction. Mme. Cibot, in the pride of her heart, enumerated every dish beforehand; a salt and savor once periodically recurrent, had vanished utterly from daily life. Dinner proceeded without le plat couvert, as our grandsires called it. This lay beyond the bounds of Schmucke's powers of comprehension.

Pons had too much delicacy to grumble; but if the case of unappreciated genius is hard, it goes harder still with the stomach whose claims are ignored. Slighted affection, a subject of which too much has been made, is founded upon an illusory longing; for if the creature fails, love can turn to the Creator who has treasures to bestow. But the stomach! . . . Nothing can be compared to its sufferings; for, in the first place, one must live.

Pons thought wistfully of certain creams—surely the poetry of cookery!—of certain white sauces, masterpieces of the art; of truffled chickens, fit to melt your heart; and above these, and more than all these, of the famous Rhine carp, only known at Paris, served with what condiments! There were days when Pons, thinking upon Count Popinot's cook, would sigh aloud, "Ah, Sophie!" Any passer-by hearing the exclamation might have thought that the old man referred to a lost mistress; but his fancy dwelt upon something rarer, on a fat Rhine carp with a sauce, thin in the sauce-boat, creamy upon the palate, a sauce that deserved the Montyon prize! The conductor of the orchestra, living on memories of past dinners, grew visibly leaner; he was pining away, a victim to gastric nostalgia.

By the beginning of the fourth month (towards the end of January, 1845), Pons' condition attracted attention at the theatre. The flute, a young man named Wilhelm, like almost all Germans; and Schwab, to distinguish him from all other Wilhelms, if not from all other Schwabs, judged it expedient to open Schmucke's eyes to his friend's state of health. It was a first performance of a piece in which Schmucke's instruments were all required.

"The old gentleman is failing," said the flute; "there is something wrong somewhere; his eyes are heavy, and he doesn't beat time as he used to do," added Wilhelm Schwab, indicating Pons as he gloomily took his place.

"Dat is alvays de vay, gif a man is sixty years old," answered Schmucke.

The Highland widow, in The Chronicles of the Canongate, sent her son to his death to have him beside her for twenty-four hours; and Schmucke could have sacrificed Pons for the sake of seeing his face every day across the dinner-table.

"Everybody in the theatre is anxious about him," continued the flute; "and, as the premiere danseuse, Mlle. Brisetout, says, 'he makes hardly any noise now when he blows his nose.'"

And, indeed, a peal like a blast of a horn used to resound through the old musician's bandana handkerchief whenever he raised it to that lengthy and cavernous feature. The President's wife had more frequently found fault with him on that score than on any other.

"I vould gif a goot teal to amuse him," said Schmucke, "he gets so dull."

"M. Pons always seems so much above the like of us poor devils, that, upon my word, I didn't dare to ask him to my wedding," said Wilhelm Schwab. "I am going to be married—"

"How?" demanded Schmucke.

"Oh! quite properly," returned Wilhelm Schwab, taking Schmucke's quaint inquiry for a gibe, of which that perfect Christian was quite incapable.

"Come, gentlemen, take your places!" called Pons, looking round at his little army, as the stage manager's bell rang for the overture.

The piece was a dramatized fairy tale, a pantomime called The Devil's Betrothed, which ran for two hundred nights. In the interval, after the first act, Wilhelm Schwab and Schmucke were left alone in the orchestra, with a house at a temperature of thirty-two degrees Reaumur.

"Tell me your hishdory," said Schmucke.

"Look there! Do you see that young man in the box yonder? . . . Do you recognize him?"

"Nefer a pit—"

"Ah! That is because he is wearing yellow gloves and shines with all the radiance of riches, but that is my friend Fritz Brunner out of Frankfort-on-the-Main."

"Dat used to komm to see du blav und sit peside you in der orghestra?"

"The same. You would not believe he could look so different, would you?"

The hero of the promised story was a German of that particular type in which the sombre irony of Goethe's Mephistopheles is blended with a homely cheerfulness found in the romances of August Lafontaine of pacific memory; but the predominating element in the compound of artlessness and guile, of shopkeeper's shrewdness, and the studied carelessness of a member of the Jockey Club, was that form of disgust which set a pistol in the hands of a young Werther, bored to death less by Charlotte than by German princes. It was a thoroughly German face, full of cunning, full of simplicity, stupidity, and courage; the knowledge which brings weariness, the worldly wisdom which the veriest child's trick leaves at fault, the abuse of beer and tobacco,—all these were there to be seen in it, and to heighten the contrast of opposed qualities, there was a wild diabolical gleam in the fine blue eyes with the jaded expression.

Dressed with all the elegance of a city man, Fritz Brunner sat in full view of the house displaying a bald crown of the tint beloved by Titian, and a few stray fiery red hairs on either side of it; a remnant spared by debauchery and want, that the prodigal might have a right to spend money with the hairdresser when he should come into his fortune. A face, once fair and fresh as the traditional portrait of Jesus Christ, had grown harder since the advent of a red moustache; a tawny beard lent it an almost sinister look. The bright blue eyes had lost something of their clearness in the struggle with distress. The countless courses by which a man sells himself and his honor in Paris had left their traces upon his eyelids and carved lines about the eyes, into which a mother once looked with a mother's rapture to find a copy of her own fashioned by God's hand.

This precocious philosopher, this wizened youth was the work of a stepmother.

Herewith begins the curious history of a prodigal son of Frankfort-on-the-Main—the most extraordinary and astounding portent ever beheld by that well-conducted, if central, city.

Gideon Brunner, father of the aforesaid Fritz, was one of the famous innkeepers of Frankfort, a tribe who make law-authorized incisions in travelers' purses with the connivance of the local bankers. An innkeeper and an honest Calvinist to boot, he had married a converted Jewess and laid the foundations of his prosperity with the money she brought him.

When the Jewess died, leaving a son Fritz, twelve years of age, under the joint guardianship of his father and maternal uncle, a furrier at Leipsic, head of the firm of Virlaz and Company, Brunner senior was compelled by his brother-in-law (who was by no means as soft as his peltry) to invest little Fritz's money, a goodly quantity of current coin of the realm, with the house of Al-Sartchild. Not a penny of it was he allowed to touch. So, by way of revenge for the Israelite's pertinacity, Brunner senior married again. It was impossible, he said, to keep his huge hotel single-handed; it needed a woman's eye and hand. Gideon Brunner's second wife was an innkeeper's daughter, a very pearl, as he thought; but he had had no experience of only daughters spoiled by father and mother.

The second Mme. Brunner behaved as German girls may be expected to behave when they are frivolous and wayward. She squandered her fortune, she avenged the first Mme. Brunner by making her husband as miserable a man as you could find in the compass of the free city of Frankfort-on-the-Main, where the millionaires, it is said, are about to pass a law compelling womankind to cherish and obey them alone. She was partial to all the varieties of vinegar commonly called Rhine wine in Germany; she was fond of articles Paris, of horses and dress; indeed, the one expensive taste which she had not was a liking for women. She took a dislike to little Fritz, and would perhaps have driven him mad if that young offspring of Calvinism and Judaism had not had Frankfort for his cradle and the firm of Virlaz at Leipsic for his guardian. Uncle Virlaz, however, deep in his furs, confined his guardianship to the safe-keeping of Fritz's silver marks, and left the boy to the tender mercies of this stepmother.

That hyena in woman's form was the more exasperated against the pretty child, the lovely Jewess' son, because she herself could have no children in spite of efforts worthy of a locomotive engine. A diabolical impulse prompted her to plunge her young stepson, at twenty-one years of age, into dissipations contrary to all German habits. The wicked German hoped that English horses, Rhine vinegar, and Goethe's Marguerites would ruin the Jewess' child and shorten his days; for when Fritz came of age, Uncle Virlaz had handed over a very pretty fortune to his nephew. But while roulette at Baden and elsewhere, and boon companions (Wilhelm Schwab among them) devoured the substance accumulated by Uncle Virlaz, the prodigal son himself remained by the will of Providence to point a moral to younger brothers in the free city of Frankfort; parents held him up as a warning and an awful example to their offspring to scare them into steady attendance in their cast-iron counting houses, lined with silver marks.

But so far from perishing in the flower of his age, Fritz Brunner had the pleasure of laying his stepmother in one of those charming little German cemeteries, in which the Teuton indulges his unbridled passion for horticulture under the specious pretext of honoring his dead. And as the second Mme. Brunner expired while the authors of her being were yet alive, Brunner senior was obliged to bear the loss of the sums of which his wife had drained his coffers, to say nothing of other ills, which had told upon a Herculean constitution, till at the age of sixty-seven the innkeeper had wizened and shrunk as if the famous Borgia's poison had undermined his system. For ten whole years he had supported his wife, and now he inherited nothing! The innkeeper was a second ruin of Heidelberg, repaired continually, it is true, by travelers' hotel bills, much as the remains of the castle of Heidelberg itself are repaired to sustain the enthusiasm of the tourists who flock to see so fine and well-preserved a relic of antiquity.

At Frankfort the disappointment caused as much talk as a failure. People pointed out Brunner, saying, "See what a man may come to with a bad wife that leaves him nothing and a son brought up in the French fashion."

In Italy and Germany the French nation is the root of all evil, the target for all bullets. "But the god pursuing his way——" (For the rest, see Lefranc de Pompignan's Ode.)

The wrath of the proprietor of the Grand Hotel de Hollande fell on others besides the travelers, whose bills were swelled with his resentment. When his son was utterly ruined, Gideon, regarding him as the indirect cause of all his misfortunes, refused him bread and salt, fire, lodging, and tobacco—the force of the paternal malediction in a German and an innkeeper could no farther go. Whereupon the local authorities, making no allowance for the father's misdeeds, regarded him as one of the most ill-used persons in Frankfort-on-the-Main, came to his assistance, fastened a quarrel on Fritz (une querelle d'Allemand), and expelled him from the territory of the free city. Justice in Frankfort is no whit wiser nor more humane than elsewhere, albeit the city is the seat of the German Diet. It is not often that a magistrate traces back the stream of wrongdoing and misfortune to the holder of the urn from which the first beginnings trickled forth. If Brunner forgot his son, his son's friends speedily followed the old innkeeper's example.

Ah! if the journalists, the dandies, and some few fair Parisians among the audience wondered how that German with the tragical countenance had cropped up on a first night to occupy a side box all to himself when fashionable Paris filled the house,—if these could have seen the history played out upon the stage before the prompter's box, they would have found it far more interesting than the transformation scenes of The Devil's Betrothed, though indeed it was the two hundred thousandth representation of a sublime allegory performed aforetime in Mesopotamia three thousand years before Christ was born.

Fritz betook himself on foot to Strasbourg, and there found what the prodigal son of the Bible failed to find—to wit, a friend. And herein is revealed the superiority of Alsace, where so many generous hearts beat to show Germany the beauty of a combination of Gallic wit and Teutonic solidity. Wilhelm Schwab, but lately left in possession of a hundred thousand francs by the death of both parents, opened his arms, his heart, his house, his purse to Fritz. As for describing Fritz's feelings, when dusty, down on his luck, and almost like a leper, he crossed the Rhine and found a real twenty-franc piece held out by the hand of a real friend,—that moment transcends the powers of the prose writer; Pindar alone could give it forth to humanity in Greek that should rekindle the dying warmth of friendship in the world.

Put the names of Fritz and Wilheim beside those of Damon and Pythias, Castor and Pollux, Orestes and Pylades, Dubreuil and Pmejah, Schmucke and Pons, and all the names that we imagine for the two friends of Monomotapa, for La Fontaine (man of genius though he was) has made of them two disembodied spirits—they lack reality. The two new names may join the illustrious company, and with so much the more reason, since that Wilhelm who had helped to drink Fritz's inheritance now proceeded, with Fritz's assistance, to devour his own substance; smoking, needless to say, every known variety of tobacco.

The pair, strange to relate, squandered the property in the dullest, stupidest, most commonplace fashion, in Strasbourg brasseries, in the company of ballet-girls of the Strasbourg theatres, and little Alsaciennes who had not a rag of a tattered reputation left.

Every morning they would say, "We really must stop this, and make up our minds and do something or other with the money that is left."

"Pooh!" Fritz would retort, "just one more day, and to-morrow" . . . ah! to-morrow.

In the lives of Prodigal Sons, To-day is a prodigious coxcomb, but To-morrow is a very poltroon, taking fright at the big words of his predecessor. To-day is the truculent captain of old world comedy, To-morrow the clown of modern pantomime.

When the two friends had reached their last thousand-franc note, they took places in the mail-coach, styled Royal, and departed for Paris, where they installed themselves in the attics of the Hotel du Rhin, in the Rue du Mail, the property of one Graff, formerly Gideon Brunner's head-waiter. Fritz found a situation as clerk in the Kellers' bank (on Graff's recommendation), with a salary of six hundred francs. And a place as book-keeper was likewise found for Wilhelm, in the business of Graff the fashionable tailor, brother of Graff of the Hotel du Rhin, who found the scantily-paid employment for the pair of prodigals, for the sake of old times, and his apprenticeship at the Hotel de Hollande. These two incidents—the recognition of a ruined man by a well-to-do friend, and a German innkeeper interesting himself in two penniless fellow-countrymen—give, no doubt, an air of improbability to the story, but truth is so much the more like fiction, since modern writers of fiction have been at such untold pains to imitate truth.

It was not long before Fritz, a clerk with six hundred francs, and Wilhelm, a book-keeper with precisely the same salary, discovered the difficulties of existence in a city so full of temptations. In 1837, the second year of their abode, Wilhelm, who possessed a pretty talent for the flute, entered Pons' orchestra, to earn a little occasional butter to put on his dry bread. As to Fritz, his only way to an increase of income lay through the display of the capacity for business inherited by a descendant of the Virlaz family. Yet, in spite of his assiduity, in spite of abilities which possibly may have stood in his way, his salary only reached the sum of two thousand francs in 1843. Penury, that divine stepmother, did for the two men all that their mothers had not been able to do for them; Poverty taught them thrift and worldly wisdom; Poverty gave them her grand rough education, the lessons which she drives with hard knocks into the heads of great men, who seldom know a happy childhood. Fritz and Wilhelm, being but ordinary men, learned as little as they possibly could in her school; they dodged the blows, shrank from her hard breast and bony arms, and never discovered the good fairy lurking within, ready to yield to the caresses of genius. One thing, however, they learned thoroughly—they discovered the value of money, and vowed to clip the wings of riches if ever a second fortune should come to their door.

This was the history which Wilhelm Schwab related in German, at much greater length, to his friend the pianist, ending with;

"Well, Papa Schmucke, the rest is soon explained. Old Brunner is dead. He left four millions! He made an immense amount of money out of Baden railways, though neither his son nor M. Graff, with whom we lodge, had any idea that the old man was one of the original shareholders. I am playing the flute here for the last time this evening; I would have left some days ago, but this was a first performance, and I did not want to spoil my part."

"Goot, mine friend," said Schmucke. "But who is die prite?"

"She is Mlle. Graff, the daughter of our host, the landlord of the Hotel du Rhin. I have loved Mlle. Emilie these seven years; she has read so many immoral novels, that she refused all offers for me, without knowing what might come of it. She will be a very wealthy young lady; her uncles, the tailors in the Rue de Richelieu, will leave her all their money. Fritz is giving me the money we squandered at Strasbourg five times over! He is putting a million francs in a banking house, M. Graff the tailor is adding another five hundred thousand francs, and Mlle. Emilie's father not only allows me to incorporate her portion—two hundred and fifty thousand francs—with the capital, but he himself will be a shareholder with as much again. So the firm of Brunner, Schwab and Company will start with two millions five hundred thousand francs. Fritz has just bought fifteen hundred thousand francs' worth of shares in the Bank of France to guarantee our account with them. That is not all Fritz's fortune. He has his father's house property, supposed to be worth another million, and he has let the Grand Hotel de Hollande already to a cousin of the Graffs."

"You look sad ven you look at your friend," remarked Schmucke, who had listened with great interest. "Kann you pe chealous of him?"

"I am jealous for Fritz's happiness," said Wilhelm. "Does that face look as if it belonged to a happy man? I am afraid of Paris; I should like to see him do as I am doing. The old tempter may awake again. Of our two heads, his carries the less ballast. His dress, and the opera-glass and the rest of it make me anxious. He keeps looking at the lorettes in the house. Oh! if you only knew how hard it is to marry Fritz. He has a horror of 'going a-courting,' as you say; you would have to give him a drop into a family, just as in England they give a man a drop into the next world."

During the uproar that usually marks the end of a first night, the flute delivered his invitation to the conductor. Pons accepted gleefully; and, for the first time in three months, Schmucke saw a smile on his friend's face. They went back to the Rue de Normandie in perfect silence; that sudden flash of joy had thrown a light on the extent of the disease which was consuming Pons. Oh, that a man so truly noble, so disinterested, so great in feeling, should have such a weakness! . . . This was the thought that struck the stoic Schmucke dumb with amazement. He grew woefully sad, for he began to see that there was no help for it; he must even renounce the pleasure of seeing "his goot Bons" opposite him at the dinner-table, for the sake of Pons' welfare; and he did not know whether he could give him up; the mere thought of it drove him distracted.

Meantime, Pons' proud silence and withdrawal to the Mons Aventinus of the Rue de Normandie had, as might be expected, impressed the Presidente, not that she troubled herself much about her parasite, now that she was freed from him. She thought, with her charming daughter, that Cousin Pons had seen through her little "Lili's" joke. But it was otherwise with her husband the President.

Camusot de Marville, a short and stout man, grown solemn since his promotion at the Court, admired Cicero, preferred the Opera-Comique to the Italiens, compared the actors one with another, and followed the multitude step by step. He used to recite all the articles in the Ministerialist journals, as if he were saying something original, and in giving his opinion at the Council Board he paraphrased the remarks of the previous speaker. His leading characteristics were sufficiently well known; his position compelled him to take everything seriously; and he was particularly tenacious of family ties.

Like most men who are ruled by their wives, the President asserted his independence in trifles, in which his wife was very careful not to thwart him. For a month he was satisfied with the Presidente's commonplace explanations of Pons' disappearance; but at last it struck him as singular that the old musician, a friend of forty years' standing, should first make them so valuable a present as a fan that belonged to Mme. de Pompadour, and then immediately discontinue his visits. Count Popinot had pronounced the trinket a masterpiece; when its owner went to Court, the fan had been passed from hand to hand, and her vanity was not a little gratified by the compliments it received; others had dwelt on the beauties of the ten ivory sticks, each one covered with delicate carving, the like of which had never been seen. A Russian lady (Russian ladies are apt to forget that they are not in Russia) had offered her six thousand francs for the marvel one day at Count Popinot's house, and smiled to see it in such hands. Truth to tell, it was a fan for a Duchess.

"It cannot be denied that poor Cousin Pons understands rubbish of that sort—" said Cecile, the day after the bid.

"Rubbish!" cried her parent. "Why, Government is just about to buy the late M. le Conseiller Dusommerard's collection for three hundred thousand francs; and the State and the Municipality of Paris between them are spending nearly a million francs over the purchase and repair of the Hotel de Cluny to house the 'rubbish,' as you call it.—Such 'rubbish,' dear child," he resumed, "is frequently all that remains of vanished civilizations. An Etruscan jar, and a necklace, which sometimes fetch forty and fifty thousand francs, is 'rubbish' which reveals the perfection of art at the time of the siege of Troy, proving that the Etruscans were Trojan refugees in Italy."

This was the President's cumbrous way of joking; the short, fat man was heavily ironical with his wife and daughter.

"The combination of various kinds of knowledge required to understand such 'rubbish,' Cecile," he resumed, "is a science in itself, called archaeology. Archaeology comprehends architecture, sculpture, painting, goldsmiths' work, ceramics, cabinetmaking (a purely modern art), lace, tapestry—in short, human handiwork of every sort and description."

"Then Cousin Pons is learned?" said Cecile.

"Ah! by the by, why is he never to be seen nowadays?" asked the President. He spoke with the air of a man in whom thousands of forgotten and dormant impressions have suddenly begun to stir, and shaping themselves into one idea, reach consciousness with a ricochet, as sportsmen say.

"He must have taken offence at nothing at all," answered his wife. "I dare say I was not as fully sensible as I might have been of the value of the fan that he gave me. I am ignorant enough, as you know, of—"

"You! One of Servin's best pupils, and you don't know Watteau?" cried the President.

"I know Gerard and David and Gros and Griodet, and M. de Forbin and M. Turpin de Crisse—"

"You ought—"

"Ought what, sir?" demanded the lady, gazing at her husband with the air of a Queen of Sheba.

"To know a Watteau when you see it, my dear. Watteau is very much in fashion," answered the President with meekness, that told plainly how much he owed to his wife.