Cousin Pons/Section 7
About a month after the perfidious Werther's withdrawal, poor Pons left his bed for the first time after an attack of nervous fever, and walked along the sunny side of the street leaning on Schmucke's arm. Nobody in the Boulevard du Temple laughed at the "pair of nutcrackers," for one of the old men looked so shattered, and the other so touchingly careful of his invalid friend. By the time that they reached the Boulevard Poissonniere, a little color came back to Pons' face; he was breathing the air of the boulevards, he felt the vitalizing power of the atmosphere of the crowded street, the life-giving property of the air that is noticeable in quarters where human life abounds; in the filthy Roman Ghetto, for instance, with its swarming Jewish population, where malaria is unknown. Perhaps, too, the sight of the streets, the great spectacle of Paris, the daily pleasure of his life, did the invalid good. They walked on side by side, though Pons now and again left his friend to look at the shop windows. Opposite the Theatre des Varietes he saw Count Popinot, and went up to him very respectfully, for of all men Pons esteemed and venerated the ex-Minister.
The peer of France answered him severely:
"I am at a loss to understand, sir, how you can have no more tact than to speak to a near connection of a family whom you tried to brand with shame and ridicule by a trick which no one but an artist could devise. Understand this, sir, that from to-day we must be complete strangers to each other. Mme. la Comtesse Popinot, like every one else, feels indignant at your behavior to the Marvilles."
And Count Popinot passed on, leaving Pons thunderstruck. Passion, justice, policy, and great social forces never take into account the condition of the human creature whom they strike down. The statesman, driven by family considerations to crush Pons, did not so much as see the physical weakness of his redoubtable enemy.
"Vat is it, mine boor friend?" exclaimed Schmucke, seeing how white Pons had grown.
"It is a fresh stab in the heart," Pons replied, leaning heavily on Schmucke's arm. "I think that no one, save God in heaven, can have any right to do good, and that is why all those who meddle in His work are so cruelly punished."
The old artist's sarcasm was uttered with a supreme effort; he was trying, excellent creature, to quiet the dismay visible in Schmucke's face.
"So I dink," Schmucke replied simply.
Pons could not understand it. Neither the Camusots nor the Popinots had sent him notice of Cecile's wedding.
On the Boulevard des Italiens Pons saw M. Cardot coming towards them. Warned by Count Popinot's allocution, Pons was very careful not to accost the old acquaintance with whom he had dined once a fortnight for the last year; he lifted his hat, but the other, mayor and deputy of Paris, threw him an indignant glance and went by. Pons turned to Schmucke.
"Do go and ask him what it is that they all have against me," he said to the friend who knew all the details of the catastrophe that Pons could tell him.
"Mennseir," Schmucke began diplomatically, "mine friend Bons is chust recofering from an illness; you haf no doubt fail to rekognize him?"
"Not in the least."
"But mit vat kann you rebroach him?"
"You have a monster of ingratitude for a friend, sir; if he is still alive, it is because nothing kills ill weeds. People do well to mistrust artists; they are as mischievous and spiteful as monkeys. This friend of yours tried to dishonor his own family, and to blight a young girl's character, in revenge for a harmless joke. I wish to have nothing to do with him; I shall do my best to forget that I have known him, or that such a man exists. All the members of his family and my own share the wish, sir, so do all the persons who once did the said Pons the honor of receiving him."
"Boot, mennseir, you are a reasonaple mann; gif you vill bermit me, I shall exblain die affair—"
"You are quite at liberty to remain his friend, sir, if you are minded that way," returned Cardot, "but you need go no further; for I must give you warning that in my opinion those who try to excuse or defend his conduct are just as much to blame."
"To chustify it?"
"Yes, for his conduct can neither be justified nor qualified." And with that word, the deputy for the Seine went his way; he would not hear another syllable.
"I have two powers in the State against me," smiled poor Pons, when Schmucke had repeated these savage speeches.
"Eferpody is against us," Schmucke answered dolorously. "Let us go avay pefore we shall meed oder fools."
Never before in the course of a truly ovine life had Schmucke uttered such words as these. Never before had his almost divine meekness been ruffled. He had smiled childlike on all the mischances that befell him, but he could not look and see his sublime Pons maltreated; his Pons, his unknown Aristides, the genius resigned to his lot, the nature that knew no bitterness, the treasury of kindness, the heart of gold! . . . Alceste's indignation filled Schmucke's soul—he was moved to call Pons' amphitryons "fools." For his pacific nature that impulse equaled the wrath of Roland.
With wise foresight, Schmucke turned to go home by the way of the Boulevard du Temple, Pons passively submitting like a fallen fighter, heedless of blows; but chance ordered that he should know that all his world was against him. The House of Peers, the Chamber of Deputies, strangers and the family, the strong, the weak, and the innocent, all combined to send down the avalanche.
In the Boulevard Poissonniere, Pons caught sight of that very M. Cardot's daughter, who, young as she was, had learned to be charitable to others through trouble of her own. Her husband knew a secret by which he kept her in bondage. She was the only one among Pons' hostesses whom he called by her Christian name; he addressed Mme. Berthier as "Felicie," and he thought that she understood him. The gentle creature seemed to be distressed by the sight of Cousin Pons, as he was called (though he was in no way related to the family of the second wife of a cousin by marriage). There was no help for it, however; Felicie Berthier stopped to speak to the invalid.
"I did not think you were cruel, cousin," she said; "but if even a quarter of all that I hear of you is true, you are very false. . . . Oh! do not justify yourself," she added quickly, seeing Pons' significant gesture, "it is useless, for two reasons. In the first place, I have no right to accuse or judge or condemn anybody, for I myself know so well how much may be said for those who seem to be most guilty; secondly, your explanation would do no good. M. Berthier drew up the marriage contract for Mlle. de Marville and the Vicomte Popinot; he is so exasperated, that if he knew that I had so much as spoken one word to you, one word for the last time, he would scold me. Everybody is against you."
"So it seems indeed, madame," Pons said, his voice shaking as he lifted his hat respectfully.
Painfully he made his way back to the Rue de Normandie. The old German knew from the heavy weight on his arm that his friend was struggling bravely against failing physical strength. That third encounter was like the verdict of the Lamb at the foot of the throne of God; and the anger of the Angel of the Poor, the symbol of the Peoples, is the last word of Heaven. They reached home without another word.
There are moments in our lives when the sense that our friend is near is all that we can bear. Our wounds smart under the consoling words that only reveal the depths of pain. The old pianist, you see, possessed a genius for friendship, the tact of those who, having suffered much, knew the customs of suffering.
Pons was never to take a walk again. From one illness he fell into another. He was of a sanguine-bilious temperament, the bile passed into his blood, and a violent liver attack was the result. He had never known a day's illness in his life till a month ago; he had never consulted a doctor; so La Cibot, with almost motherly care and intentions at first of the very best, called in "the doctor of the quarter."
In every quarter of Paris there is a doctor whose name and address are only known to the working classes, to the little tradespeople and the porters, and in consequence he is called "the doctor of the quarter." He undertakes confinement cases, he lets blood, he is in the medical profession pretty much what the "general servant" of the advertising column is in the scale of domestic service. He must perforce be kind to the poor, and tolerably expert by reason of much practice, and he is generally popular. Dr. Poulain, called in by Mme. Cibot, gave an inattentive ear to the old musician's complainings. Pons groaned out that his skin itched; he had scratched himself all night long, till he could scarcely feel. The look of his eyes, with the yellow circles about them, corroborated the symptoms.
"Had you some violent shock a couple of days ago?" the doctor asked the patient.
"You have the same complaint that this gentleman was threatened with," said Dr. Poulain, looking at Schmucke as he spoke; "it is an attack of jaundice, but you will soon get over it," he added, as he wrote a prescription.
But in spite of that comfortable phrase, the doctor's eyes had told another tale as he looked professionally at the patient; and the death-sentence, though hidden under stereotyped compassion, can always be read by those who wish to know the truth. Mme. Cibot gave a spy's glance at the doctor, and read his thought; his bedside manner did not deceive her; she followed him out of the room.
"Do you think he will get over it?" asked Mme. Cibot, at the stairhead.
"My dear Mme. Cibot, your lodger is a dead man; not because of the bile in the system, but because his vitality is low. Still, with great care, your patient may pull through. Somebody ought to take him away for a change—"
"How is he to go?" asked Mme. Cibot. "He has nothing to live upon but his salary; his friend has just a little money from some great ladies, very charitable ladies, in return for his services, it seems. They are two children. I have looked after them for nine years."
"I spend my life watching people die, not of their disease, but of another bad and incurable complaint—the want of money," said the doctor. "How often it happens that so far from taking a fee, I am obliged to leave a five-franc piece on the mantel-shelf when I go—"
"Poor, dear M. Poulain!" cried Mme. Cibot. "Ah, if you hadn't only the hundred thousand livres a year, what some stingy folks has in the quarter (regular devils from hell they are), you would be like Providence on earth."
Dr. Poulain had made the little practice, by which he made a bare subsistence, chiefly by winning the esteem of the porters' lodges in his district. So he raised his eyes to heaven and thanked Mme. Cibot with a solemn face worthy of Tartuffe.
"Then you think that with careful nursing our dear patient will get better, my dear M. Poulain?"
"Yes, if this shock has not been too much for him."
"Poor man! who can have vexed him? There isn't nobody like him on earth except his friend M. Schmucke. I will find out what is the matter, and I will undertake to give them that upset my gentleman a hauling over the coals—"
"Look here, my dear Mme. Cibot," said the doctor as they stood in the gateway, "one of the principal symptoms of his complaint is great irritability; and as it is hardly to be supposed that he can afford a nurse, the task of nursing him will fall to you. So—"
"Are you talking of Mouchieu Ponsh?" asked the marine store-dealer. He was sitting smoking on the curb-post in the gateway, and now he rose to join in the conversation.
"Yes, Daddy Remonencq."
"All right," said Remonencq, "ash to moneysh, he ish better off than Mouchieu Monishtrol and the big men in the curioshity line. I know enough in the art line to tell you thish—the dear man has treasursh!" he spoke with a broad Auvergne dialect.
"Look here, I thought you were laughing at me the other day when my gentlemen were out and I showed you the old rubbish upstairs," said Mme. Cibot.
In Paris, where walls have ears, where doors have tongues, and window bars have eyes, there are few things more dangerous than the practice of standing to chat in a gateway. Partings are like postscripts to a letter—indiscreet utterances that do as much mischief to the speaker as to those who overhear them. A single instance will be sufficient as a parallel to an event in this history.
In the time of the Empire, when men paid considerable attention to their hair, one of the first coiffeurs of the day came out of a house where he had just been dressing a pretty woman's head. This artist in question enjoyed the custom of all the lower floor inmates of the house; and among these, there flourished an elderly bachelor guarded by a housekeeper who detested her master's next-of-kin. The ci-devant young man, falling seriously ill, the most famous of doctors of the day (they were not as yet styled the "princes of science") had been called in to consult upon his case; and it so chanced that the learned gentlemen were taking leave of one another in the gateway just as the hairdresser came out. They were talking as doctors usually talk among themselves when the farce of a consultation is over. "He is a dead man," quoth Dr. Haudry.—"He had not a month to live," added Desplein, "unless a miracle takes place."—These were the words overheard by the hairdresser.
Like all hairdressers, he kept up a good understanding with his customers' servants. Prodigious greed sent the man upstairs again; he mounted to the ci-devant young man's apartment, and promised the servant-mistress a tolerably handsome commission to persuade her master to sink a large portion of his money in an annuity. The dying bachelor, fifty-six by count of years, and twice as old as his age by reason of amorous campaigns, owned, among other property, a splendid house in the Rue de Richelieu, worth at that time about two hundred and fifty thousand francs. It was this house that the hairdresser coveted; and on agreement to pay an annuity of thirty thousand francs so long as the bachelor lived, it passed into his hands. This happened in 1806. And in this year 1846 the hairdresser is still paying that annuity. He has retired from business, he is seventy years old; the ci-devant young man is in his dotage; and as he has married his Mme. Evrard, he may last for a long while yet. As the hairdresser gave the woman thirty thousand francs, his bit of real estate has cost him, first and last, more than a million, and the house at this day is worth eight or nine hundred thousand francs.
Like the hairdresser, Remonencq the Auvergnat had overheard Brunner's parting remark in the gateway on the day of Cecile's first interview with that phoenix of eligible men. Remonencq at once longed to gain a sight of Pons' museum; and as he lived on good terms with his neighbors the Cibots, it was not very long before the opportunity came one day when the friends were out. The sight of such treasures dazzled him; he saw a "good haul," in dealers' phrase, which being interpreted means a chance to steal a fortune. He had been meditating this for five or six days.
"I am sho far from joking," he said, in reply to Mme. Cibot's remark, "that we will talk the thing over; and if the good shentleman will take an annuity, of fifty thousand francsh, I will shtand a hamper of wine, if—"
"Fifty thousand francs!" interrupted the doctor; "what are you thinking about? Why, if the good man is so well off as that, with me in attendance, and Mme. Cibot to nurse him, he may get better—for liver complaint is a disease that attacks strong constitutions."
"Fifty, did I shay? Why, a shentleman here, on your very doorshtep, offered him sheven hundred thoushand francsh, shimply for the pictursh, fouchtra!"
While Remonencq made this announcement, Mme. Cibot was looking at Dr. Poulain. There was a strange expression in her eyes; the devil might have kindled that sinister glitter in their tawny depths.
"Oh, come! we must not pay any attention to such idle tales," said the doctor, well pleased, however, to find that his patient could afford to pay for his visits.
"If my dear Mme. Cibot, here, would let me come and bring an ekshpert (shinsh the shentleman upshtairs ish in bed), I will shertainly find the money in a couple of hoursh, even if sheven hundred thousand francsh ish in queshtion—"
"All right, my friend," said the doctor. "Now, Mme. Cibot, be careful never to contradict the invalid. You must be prepared to be very patient with him, for he will find everything irritating and wearisome, even your services; nothing will please him; you must expect grumbling—"
"He will be uncommonly hard to please," said La Cibot.
"Look here, mind what I tell you," the doctor said in a tone of authority, "M. Pons' life is in the hands of those that nurse him; I shall come perhaps twice a day. I shall take him first on my round."
The doctor's profound indifference to the fate of a poor patient had suddenly given place to a most tender solicitude when he saw that the speculator was serious, and that there was a possible fortune in question.
"He will be nursed like a king," said Madame Cibot, forcing up enthusiasm. She waited till the doctor turned the corner into the Rue Charlot; then she fell to talking again with the dealer in old iron. Remonencq had finished smoking his pipe, and stood in the doorway of his shop, leaning against the frame; he had purposely taken this position; he meant the portress to come to him.
The shop had once been a cafe. Nothing had been changed there since the Auvergnat discovered it and took over the lease; you could still read "Cafe de Normandie" on the strip left above the windows in all modern shops. Remonencq had found somebody, probably a housepainter's apprentice, who did the work for nothing, to paint another inscription in the remaining space below—"REMONENCQ," it ran, "DEALER IN MARINE STORES, FURNITURE BOUGHT"—painted in small black letters. All the mirrors, tables, seats, shelves, and fittings of the Cafe de Normandie had been sold, as might have been expected, before Remonencq took possession of the shop as it stood, paying a yearly rent of six hundred francs for the place, with a back shop, a kitchen, and a single room above, where the head-waiter used to sleep, for the house belonging to the Cafe de Normandie was let separately. Of the former splendor of the cafe, nothing now remained save the plain light green paper on the walls, and the strong iron bolts and bars of the shop-front.
When Remonencq came hither in 1831, after the Revolution of July, he began by displaying a selection of broken doorbells, cracked plates, old iron, and the obsolete scales and weights abolished by a Government which alone fails to carry out its own regulations, for pence and half pence of the time of Louis XVI. are still in circulation. After a time this Auvergnat, a match for five ordinary Auvergnats, bought up old saucepans and kettles, old picture-frames, old copper, and chipped china. Gradually, as the shop was emptied and filled, the quality of the stock-in-trade improved, like Nicolet's farces. Remonencq persisted in an unfailing and prodigiously profitable martingale, a "system" which any philosophical idler may study as he watches the increasing value of the stock kept by this intelligent class of trader. Picture-frames and copper succeed to tin-ware, argand lamps, and damaged crockery; china marks the next transition; and after no long tarriance in the "omnium gatherum" stage, the shop becomes a museum. Some day or other the dusty windows are cleaned, the interior is restored, the Auvergnat relinquishes velveteen and jackets for a great-coat, and there he sits like a dragon guarding his treasure, surrounded by masterpieces! He is a cunning connoisseur by this time; he has increased his capital tenfold; he is not to be cheated; he knows the tricks of the trade. The monster among his treasures looks like some old hag among a score of young girls that she offers to the public. Beauty and miracles of art are alike indifferent to him; subtle and dense as he is, he has a keen eye to profits, he talks roughly to those who know less than he does; he has learned to act a part, he pretends to love his pictures, or again he lets you know the price he himself gave for the things, he offers to let you see the memoranda of the sale. He is a Proteus; in one hour he can be Jocrisse, Janot, Queue-rouge, Mondor, Hapagon, or Nicodeme.
The third year found armor, and old pictures, and some tolerably fine clocks in Remonencq's shop. He sent for his sister, and La Remonencq came on foot all the way from Auvergne to take charge of the shop while her brother was away. A big and very ugly woman, dressed like a Japanese idol, a half-idiotic creature with a vague, staring gaze she would not bate a centime of the prices fixed by her brother. In the intervals of business she did the work of the house, and solved the apparently insoluble problem—how to live on "the mists of the Seine." The Remonencqs' diet consisted of bread and herrings, with the outside leaves of lettuce or vegetable refuse selected from the heaps deposited in the kennel before the doors of eating-houses. The two between them did not spend more than fivepence a day on food (bread included), and La Remonencq earned the money by sewing or spinning.
Remonencq came to Paris in the first instance to work as an errand-boy. Between the years 1825 and 1831 he ran errands for dealers in curiosities in the Boulevard Beaumarchais or coppersmiths in the Rue de Lappe. It is the usual start in life in his line of business. Jews, Normans, Auvergnats, and Savoyards, those four different races of men all have the same instincts, and make their fortunes in the same way; they spend nothing, make small profits, and let them accumulate at compound interest. Such is their trading charter, and that charter is no delusion.
Remonencq at this moment had made it up with his old master Monistrol; he did business with wholesale dealers, he was a chineur (the technical word), plying his trade in the banlieue, which, as everybody knows, extends for some forty leagues round Paris.
After fourteen years of business, he had sixty thousand francs in hand and a well-stocked shop. He lived in the Rue de Normandie because the rent was low, but casual customers were scarce, most of his goods were sold to other dealers, and he was content with moderate gains. All his business transactions were carried on in the Auvergue dialect or charabia, as people call it.
Remonencq cherished a dream! He wished to establish himself on a boulevard, to be a rich dealer in curiosities, and do a direct trade with amateurs some day. And, indeed, within him there was a formidable man of business. His countenance was the more inscrutable because it was glazed over by a deposit of dust and particles of metal glued together by the sweat of his brow; for he did everything himself, and the use and wont of bodily labor had given him something of the stoical impassibility of the old soldiers of 1799.
In personal appearance Remonencq was short and thin; his little eyes were set in his head in porcine fashion; a Jew's slyness and concentrated greed looked out of those dull blue circles, though in his case the false humility that masks the Hebrew's unfathomed contempt for the Gentile was lacking.
The relations between the Cibots and the Remonencqs were those of benefactors and recipients. Mme. Cibot, convinced that the Auvergnats were wretchedly poor, used to let them have the remainder of "her gentlemen's" dinners at ridiculous prices. The Remonencqs would buy a pound of broken bread, crusts and crumbs, for a farthing, a porringer-full of cold potatoes for something less, and other scraps in proportion. Remonencq shrewdly allowed them to believe that he was not in business on his own account, he worked for Monistrol, the rich shopkeepers preyed upon him, he said, and the Cibots felt sincerely sorry for Remonencq. The velveteen jacket, waistcoat, and trousers, particularly affected by Auvergnats, were covered with patches of Cibot's making, and not a penny had the little tailor charged for repairs which kept the three garments together after eleven years of wear.
Thus we see that all Jews are not in Israel.
"You are not laughing at me, Remonencq, are you?" asked the portress. "Is it possible that M. Pons has such a fortune, living as he does? There is not a hundred francs in the place—"
"Amateursh are all like that," Remonencq remarked sententiously.
"Then do you think that my gentleman has worth of seven hundred thousand francs, eh?—"
"In pictures alone," continued Remonencq (it is needless, for the sake of clearness in the story, to give any further specimens of his frightful dialect). "If he would take fifty thousand francs for one up there that I know of, I would find the money if I had to hang myself. Do you remember those little frames full of enameled copper on crimson velvet, hanging among the portraits? . . . Well, those are Petitot's enamels; and there is a cabinet minister as used to be a druggist that will give three thousand francs apiece for them."
La Cibot's eyes opened wide. "There are thirty of them in the pair of frames!" she said.
"Very well, you can judge for yourself how much he is worth."
Mme. Cibot's head was swimming; she wheeled round. In a moment came the thought that she would have a legacy, she would sleep sound on old Pons' will, like the other servant-mistresses whose annuities had aroused such envy in the Marais. Her thoughts flew to some commune in the neighborhood of Paris; she saw herself strutting proudly about her house in the country, looking after her garden and poultry yard, ending her days, served like a queen, along with her poor dear Cibot, who deserved such good fortune, like all angelic creatures whom nobody knows nor appreciates.
Her abrupt, unthinking movement told Remonencq that success was sure. In the chineur's way of business—the chineur, be it explained, goes about the country picking up bargains at the expense of the ignorant—in the chineur's way of business, the one real difficulty is the problem of gaining an entrance to a house. No one can imagine the Scapin's roguery, the tricks of a Sganarelle, the wiles of a Dorine by which the chineur contrives to make a footing for himself. These comedies are as good as a play, and founded indeed on the old stock theme of the dishonesty of servants. For thirty francs in money or goods, servants, and especially country servants, will sometimes conclude a bargain on which the chineur makes a profit of a thousand or two thousand francs. If we could but know the history of such and such a service of Sevres porcelain, pate tendre, we should find that all the intellect, all the diplomatic subtlety displayed at Munster, Nimeguen, Utrecht, Ryswick, and Vienna was surpassed by the chineur. His is the more frank comedy; his methods of action fathom depths of personal interest quite as profound as any that plenipotentiaries can explore in their difficult search for any means of breaking up the best cemented alliances.
"I have set La Cibot nicely on fire," Remonencq told his sister, when she came to take up her position again on the ramshackle chair. "And now," he continued, "I shall go to consult the only man that knows, our Jew, a good sort of Jew that did not ask more than fifteen per cent of us for his money."
Remonencq had read La Cibot's heart. To will is to act with women of her stamp. Let them see the end in view; they will stick at nothing to gain it, and pass from scrupulous honesty to the last degree of scoundrelism in the twinkling of an eye. Honesty, like most dispositions of mind, is divided into two classes—negative and positive. La Cibot's honesty was of the negative order; she and her like are honest until they see their way clear to gain money belonging to somebody else. Positive honesty, the honesty of the bank collector, can wade knee-deep through temptations.
A torrent of evil thoughts invaded La Cibot's heart and brain so soon as Remonencq's diabolical suggestion opened the flood-gates of self-interest. La Cibot climbed, or, to be more accurate, fled up the stairs, opened the door on the landing, and showed a face disguised in false solicitude in the doorway of the room where Pons and Schmucke were bemoaning themselves. As soon as she came in, Schmucke made her a warning sign; for, true friend and sublime German that he was, he too had read the doctor's eyes, and he was afraid that Mme. Cibot might repeat the verdict. Mme. Cibot answered by a shake of the head indicative of deep woe.
"Well, my dear monsieur," asked she, "how are you feeling?" She sat down on the foot of the bed, hands on hips, and fixed her eyes lovingly upon the patient; but what a glitter of metal there was in them, a terrible, tiger-like gleam if any one had watched her.
"I feel very ill," answered poor Pons. "I have not the slightest appetite left.—Oh! the world, the world!" he groaned, squeezing Schmucke's hand. Schmucke was sitting by his bedside, and doubtless the sick man was talking of the causes of his illness.—"I should have done far better to follow your advice, my good Schmucke, and dined here every day, and given up going into this society, that has fallen on me with all its weight, like a tumbril cart crushing an egg! And why?"
"Come, come, don't complain, M. Pons," said La Cibot; "the doctor told me just how it is—"
Schmucke tugged at her gown.—"And you will pull through," she continued, "only we must take great care of you. Be easy, you have a good friend beside you, and without boasting, a woman as will nurse you like a mother nurses her first child. I nursed Cibot round once when Dr. Poulain had given him over; he had the shroud up to his eyes, as the saying is, and they gave him up for dead. Well, well, you have not come to that yet, God be thanked, ill though you may be. Count on me; I would pull you through all by myself, I would! Keep still, don't you fidget like that."
She pulled the coverlet over the patient's hands as she spoke.
"There, sonny! M. Schmucke and I will sit up with you of nights. A prince won't be no better nursed . . . and besides, you needn't refuse yourself nothing that's necessary, you can afford it.—I have just been talking things over with Cibot, for what would he do without me, poor dear?—Well, and I talked him round; we are both so fond of you, that he will let me stop up with you of a night. And that is a good deal to ask of a man like him, for he is as fond of me as ever he was the day we were married. I don't know how it is. It is the lodge, you see; we are always there together! Don't you throw off the things like that!" she cried, making a dash for the bedhead to draw the coverlet over Pons' chest. "If you are not good, and don't do just as Dr. Poulain says—and Dr. Poulain is the image of Providence on earth—I will have no more to do with you. You must do as I tell you—"
"Yes, Montame Zipod, he vill do vat you dell him," put in Schmucke; "he vants to lif for his boor friend Schmucke's sake, I'll pe pound."
"And of all things, don't fidget yourself," continued La Cibot, "for your illness makes you quite bad enough without your making it worse for want of patience. God sends us our troubles, my dear good gentlemen; He punishes us for our sins. Haven't you nothing to reproach yourself with? some poor little bit of a fault or other?"
The invalid shook his head.
"Oh! go on! You were young once, you had your fling, there is some love-child of yours somewhere—cold, and starving, and homeless. . . . What monsters men are! Their love doesn't last only for a day, and then in a jiffy they forget, they don't so much as think of the child at the breast for months. . . . Poor women!"
"But no one has ever loved me except Schmucke and my mother," poor Pons broke in sadly.
"Oh! come, you aren't no saint! You were young in your time, and a fine-looking young fellow you must have been at twenty. I should have fallen in love with you myself, so nice as you are—"
"I always was as ugly as a toad," Pons put in desperately.
"You say that because you are modest; nobody can't say that you aren't modest."
"My dear Mme. Cibot, no, I tell you. I always was ugly, and I never was loved in my life."
"You, indeed!" cried the portress. "You want to make me believe at this time of day that you are as innocent as a young maid at your time of life. Tell that to your granny! A musician at a theatre too! Why, if a woman told me that, I wouldn't believe her."
"Montame Zipod, you irritate him!" cried Schmucke, seeing that Pons was writhing under the bedclothes.
"You hold your tongue too! You are a pair of old libertines. If you were ugly, it don't make no difference; there was never so ugly a saucepan-lid but it found a pot to match, as the saying is. There is Cibot, he got one of the handsomest oyster-women in Paris to fall in love with him, and you are infinitely better looking than him! You are a nice pair, you are! Come, now, you have sown your wild oats, and God will punish you for deserting your children, like Abraham—"
Exhausted though he was, the invalid gathered up all his strength to make a vehement gesture of denial.
"Do lie quiet; if you have, it won't prevent you from living as long as Methuselah."
"Then, pray let me be quiet!" groaned Pons. "I have never known what it is to be loved. I have had no child; I am alone in the world."
"Really, eh?" returned the portress. "You are so kind, and that is what women like, you see—it draws them—and it looked to me impossible that when you were in your prime—"
"Take her away," Pons whispered to Schmucke; "she sets my nerves on edge."
"Then there's M. Schmucke, he has children. You old bachelors are not all like that—"
"I!" cried Schmucke, springing to his feet, "vy!—"
"Come, then, you have none to come after you either, eh? You both sprung up out of the earth like mushrooms—"
"Look here, komm mit me," said Schmucke. The good German manfully took Mme. Cibot by the waist and carried her off into the next room, in spite of her exclamations.
"At your age, you would not take advantage of a defenceless woman!" cried La Cibot, struggling in his arms.
"Don't make a noise!"
"You too, the better one of the two!" returned La Cibot. "Ah! it is my fault for talking about love to two old men who have never had nothing to do with women. I have roused your passions," cried she, as Schmucke's eyes glittered with wrath. "Help! help! police!"
"You are a stoopid!" said the German. "Look here, vat tid de toctor say?"
"You are a ruffian to treat me so," wept La Cibot, now released,—"me that would go through fire and water for you both! Ah! well, well, they say that that is the way with men—and true it is! There is my poor Cibot, he would not be rough with me like this. . . . And I treated you like my children, for I have none of my own; and yesterday, yes, only yesterday I said to Cibot, 'God knew well what He was doing, dear,' I said, 'when He refused us children, for I have two children there upstairs.' By the holy crucifix and the soul of my mother, that was what I said to him—"
"Eh! but vat did der doctor say?" Schmucke demanded furiously, stamping on the floor for the first time in his life.
"Well," said Mme. Cibot, drawing Schmucke into the dining-room, "he just said this—that our dear, darling love lying ill there would die if he wasn't carefully nursed; but I am here, in spite of all your brutality, for brutal you were, you that I thought so gentle. And you are one of that sort! Ah! now, you would not abuse a woman at your age, great blackguard—"
"Placard? I? Vill you not oonderstand that I lof nopody but Bons?"
"Well and good, you will let me alone, won't you?" said she, smiling at Schmucke. "You had better; for if Cibot knew that anybody had attempted his honor, he would break every bone in his skin."
"Take crate care of him, dear Montame Zipod," answered Schmucke, and he tried to take the portress' hand.
"Oh! look here now, again."
"Chust listen to me. You shall haf all dot I haf, gif ve safe him."
"Very well; I will go round to the chemist's to get the things that are wanted; this illness is going to cost a lot, you see, sir, and what will you do?"
"I shall vork; Bons shall be nursed like ein brince."
"So he shall, M. Schmucke; and look here, don't you trouble about nothing. Cibot and I, between us, have saved a couple of thousand francs; they are yours; I have been spending money on you this long time, I have."
"Goot voman!" cried Schmucke, brushing the tears from his eyes. "Vat ein heart!"
"Wipe your tears; they do me honor; this is my reward," said La Cibot, melodramatically. "There isn't no more disinterested creature on earth than me; but don't you go into the room with tears in your eyes, or M. Pons will be thinking himself worse than he is."
Schmucke was touched by this delicate feeling. He took La Cibot's hand and gave it a final squeeze.
"Spare me!" cried the ex-oysterseller, leering at Schmucke.
"Bons," the good German said when he returned "Montame Zipod is an anchel; 'tis an anchel dat brattles, but an anchel all der same."
"Do you think so? I have grown suspicious in the past month," said the invalid, shaking his head. "After all I have been through, one comes to believe in nothing but God and my friend—"
"Get bedder, and ve vill lif like kings, all tree of us," exclaimed Schmucke.