The Middle Classes/Part I/Chapter X
The day after this conference at the "Cheval Rouge," la Peyrade went to dine with the Thuilliers, and on the commonplace pretext of a visit to pay, Thuillier carried off his wife, leaving Theodose alone with Brigitte. Neither Thuillier, nor his sister, nor Theodose, were the dupes of this comedy; but the old beau of the Empire considered the manoeuvre a piece of diplomacy.
"Young man, do not take advantage of my sister's innocence; respect it," said Thuillier solemnly, as he departed.
"Mademoiselle," said Theodose, drawing his chair closer to the sofa where Brigitte sat knitting, "have you thought of inducing the business men of the arrondissement to support Thuillier's interests?"
"How can I?" she asked.
"Why! you are in close relations with Barbet and Metivier."
"Ah! you are right! Faith! you are no blunderer!" she said after a pause.
"When we love our friends, we serve them," he replied, sententiously.
To capture Brigitte would be like carrying the redoubt of the Moskowa, the culminating strategic point. But it was necessary to possess that old maid as the devil was supposed in the middle ages to possess men, and in a way to make any awakening impossible for her. For the last three days la Peyrade had been measuring himself for the task; he had carefully reconnoitred the ground to see all difficulty. Flattery, that almost infallible means in able hands, would certainly miscarry with a woman who for years had known she had no beauty. But a man of strong will finds nothing impregnable; the Lamarques could never have failed to take Capri. Therefore, nothing must be omitted from the memorable scene which was now to take place; all things about it had their own importance,—inflections of the voice, pauses, glances, lowered eyes.
"But," rejoined Brigitte, "you have already proved to us your affection."
"Your brother has told you—?"
"No, he merely told me that you had something to tell me."
"Yes, mademoiselle, I have; for you are the man of the family. In reflecting on this matter, I find many dangers for myself, such as a man only risks for his nearest and dearest. It involves a fortune; thirty to forty thousand francs a year, and not the slightest speculation—a piece of landed property. The hope of helping Thuillier to win such a fortune enticed me from the first. 'It fascinates me,' I said to him—for, unless a man is an absolute fool, he can't help asking himself: 'Why should he care to do us all this good?' So I told him frankly that in working for his interests, I flattered myself I was working for my own, as I'll explain to you later. If he wishes to be deputy, two things are absolutely necessary: to comply with the law as to property, and to win for his name some sort of public celebrity. If I myself push my devotion to the point of helping him to write a book on public financiering—or anything else, no matter what—which would give him that celebrity, I ought also to think of the other matter, his property—it would be absurd to expect you to give him this house—"
"For my brother? Why, I'd put it in his name to-morrow," cried Brigitte. "You don't know me."
"I don't know you thoroughly," said la Peyrade, "but I do know things about you which now make me regret that I did not tell you the whole affair from its origin; I mean from the moment when I conceived the plan to which Thuillier will owe his nomination. He will be hunted down by envy and jealousy, and the task of upholding him will be a hard one; we must, however, get the better of his rivals and take the wind out of their sails."
"But this affair," said Brigitte, "what are the difficulties?"
"Mademoiselle, the difficulties lie within my own conscience. Assuredly, I could not serve you in this matter without first consulting my confessor. From a worldly point of view—oh! the affair is perfectly legal, and I am—you'll understand me?—a barrister inscribed on the panel, that is, member of a bar controlled by the strictest rules. I am therefore incapable of proposing an enterprise which might give occasion for blame. In the first place, I myself don't make a penny by it."
Brigitte was on thorns; her face was flaming; she broke her wool, mended it, broke it again, and did not know which way to look.
"One can't get," she said, "in these days, forty thousand francs a year from landed property unless it is worth one million eight hundred thousand."
"Well, I will undertake that you shall see a piece of property and estimate yourself its probable revenue, which I can make Thuillier the owner of for fifty thousand francs down."
"Oh! if you can make us obtain that!" cried Brigitte, worked up to the highest excitement by the spur of her natural cupidity. "Go on, my dear Monsieur Theodose, and—"
She stopped short.
"You will, perhaps, have done yourself a service."
"Ah! if Thuillier has told you my secret, I must leave this house."
Brigitte looked up.
"Did he tell you that I love Celeste?"
"No, on my word of honor!" cried Brigitte, "but I myself was just about to speak of her."
"And offer her to me? Oh! may God forgive us! I can only win her of herself, her parents, by a free choice—No, no, all I ask of you is your good-will, your protection. Promise me, as Thuillier has, in return for my services your influence, your friendship; tell me that you will treat me as a son. If you will do that, I will abide by your decision in this matter; I can trust it; I need not speak to my confessor. For the last two years, ever since I have seen much of this family, to whom I would fain give my powers and devote my utmost energy—for, I shall succeed! surely I shall!—I have observed that your integrity, your honor is that of the olden time, your judgment righteous and inflexible. Also, you have a knowledge of business; and these qualities combined are precious helps to a man. With a mother-in-law, as I may say, of your powers, I should find my home life relieved of a crowd of cares and details as to property, which hinder a man's advance in a political career if he is forced to attend to them. I admired you deeply on Sunday evening. Ah! you were fine! How you did manage matters! In ten minutes that dining-room was cleared! And, without going outside of your own apartment, you had everything at hand for the refreshments, for the supper! 'There,' I said to myself, as I watched you, 'is a true "maitresse-femme"—a masterly woman!'"
Brigitte's nostrils dilated; she breathed in the words of the young lawyer. He gave her a side-long glance to enjoy his triumph; he had touched the right chord in her breast.
At this moment he was standing, but he now resumed his seat beside her, and said:—
"Now here is our affair, dear aunt—for you will be a sort of aunt—"
"Hush! you naughty fellow!" said Brigitte, "and go on."
"I'll tell you the matter roughly—and remark, if you please, that I compromise myself in telling it to you; for these secrets are entrusted to me as a lawyer. Therefore understand that you and I are both committing a crime, so to speak, of leze-confidence! A notary of Paris was in partnership with an architect; they bought land and built upon it; at the present moment, property has come down with a rush; they find themselves embarrassed—but all that doesn't concern us. Among the houses built by this illegal partnership—for notaries, you know, are sworn to have nothing to do with enterprises—is a very good one which, not being finished, must be sold at a great sacrifice; so great that they now ask only one hundred thousand francs for it, although the cost of the land and the building was at least four hundred thousand. As the whole interior is still unfinished, the value of what is still to do is easily appraised; it will probably not be more than fifty thousand francs. Now, owing to its excellent position, this house, when finished, will certainly bring in a rental, over and above the taxes, of forty thousand francs a year. It is built of freestone, the corners and copings of cut granite; the facade is covered with handsome carvings, on which they spent more than twenty thousand francs; the windows are plate glass with a new style of fastening called 'cremona.'"
"Well, where is the difficulty?"
"Just here: the notary wants to reserve to himself this bit of the cake he is forced to surrender; he is, under the name of a friend, the creditor who requests the sale of the property by the assignee of the bankruptcy. The case has not been brought into court; for legal proceedings cost so much money. The sale is to be made by voluntary agreement. Now, this notary has applied to one of my clients to lend him his name for this purchase. My client, a poor devil, says to me: 'There's a fortune to made out of that house by fooling the notary.'"
"And they do that sort of thing in business!" said Brigitte, quickly.
"If that were the only difficulty," continued Theodose, "it would be, as a friend of mine said to his pupil, who was complaining of the length of time it took to produce masterpieces in painting: 'My dear young fellow, if it were not so, our valets would be painting pictures.' But, mademoiselle, if we now get the better of this notary, who certainly deserves it, for he has compromised a number of private fortunes, yet, as he is a very shrewd man (though a notary), it might perhaps be very difficult to do it a second time, and here's the rub: When a piece of landed property is bought at a forced sale, if those who have lent money on that property see that is likely to be sold so low as not to cover the sum loaned upon it, they have the right, until the expiration of a certain time, to bid it in; that is, to offer more and keep the property in their own hands. If this trickster can't be hoodwinked as to the sale being a bona fide one until the time when his right to buy it expires, some other scheme must be resorted to. Now, is this business strictly legal? Am I justified in doing it for the benefit of a family I seek to enter? That is the question I have been revolving in my mind for the last three days."
Brigitte, we must acknowledge, hesitated, and Theodose then brought forward his last card:—
"Take the night to think of it," he said, "to-morrow we will talk it over."
"My young friend," said Brigitte, looking at the lawyer with an almost loving air, "the first thing to be done is to see the house. Where is it?"
"Near the Madeleine. That will be the heart of Paris in ten years. All that property has been desirable since 1819; the banker Du Tillet's fortune was derived from property about there. The famous failure of Maitre Roquin, which carried terror to all Paris, and did such harm to the confidence given to the notariat, was also caused by it; they went into heavy speculations on that land too soon; they should have waited until now."
"I remember about that," said Brigitte.
"The house might be finished by the end of the year," continued Theodose, "and the rentals could begin next spring."
"Could we go there to-morrow?"
"Dear aunt, I am at your orders."
"Ah ca!" she cried, "don't call me that before people. As to this affair," she continued, "I can't have any opinion until I have seen the house."
"It has six storeys; nine windows on the front; a fine courtyard, four shops, and it stands on a corner. Ah! that notary knows what he is about in wishing to hold on to such pieces of property! But let political events interfere, and down go the Funds! If I were you, I should sell out all that you and Madame Thuillier have on the Grand Livre and buy this fine piece of real estate for Thuillier, and I'd recover the fortune of that poor, pious creature by savings from its proceeds. Can the Funds go higher than they are to-day? One hundred and twenty-two! it is fabulous; I should make haste to sell."
Brigitte licked her lips; she perceived the means of keeping her own property intact, and of enriching her brother by this use of Madame Thuillier's fortune.
"My brother is right," she said to Theodose; "you certainly are a rare man; you'll get on in the world."
"And he'll walk before me," responded Theodose with a naivete that touched the old maid.
"You will live in the family," she said.
"There may be obstacles to that," he remarked. "Madame Thuillier is very queer at times; she doesn't like me."
"Ha! I'll settle that," cried Brigitte. "Do you attend to that affair and carry it through if it is feasible, and leave your interests in my hands."
"Thuillier, member of the municipal council, owner of an estate with a rental of forty thousand francs a year, with the cross of the Legion of honor and the author of a political work, grave, serious, important, will be deputy at the forthcoming general election. But, between ourselves, little aunt, one couldn't devote one's self so utterly except for a father-in-law."
"You are right."
"Though I have no fortune I shall have doubled yours; and if this affair goes through discreetly, others will turn up."
"Until I have seen the house," said Mademoiselle Thuillier again, "I can decide on nothing."
"Well then, send for a carriage to-morrow and let us go there. I will get a ticket early in the morning to view the premises."
"To-morrow, then, about mid-day," responded Brigitte, holding out her hand to Theodose that he might shake it, but instead of that he laid upon it the most respectful and the most tender kiss that Brigitte had ever in her life received.
"Adieu, my child," she said, as he reached the door.
She rang the bell hurriedly and when the servant came:—
"Josephine," she cried, "go at once to Madame Colleville, and ask her to come over and speak to me."
Fifteen minutes later Flavie entered the salon, where Brigitte was walking up and down, in a state of extreme agitation.
"My dear," she cried on seeing Flavie, "you can do me a great service, which concerns our dear Celeste. You know Tullia, don't you?—a danseuse at the opera; my brother was always dinning her into my ears at one time."
"Yes, I know her; but she is no longer a danseuse; she is Madame la Comtesse du Bruel. Her husband is peer of France!"
"Does she still like you?"
"We never see each other now."
"Well, I know that Chaffaroux, the rich contractor, is her uncle," said Brigitte. "He is old and wealthy. Go and see your former friend, and get her to give you a line of introduction to him, saying he would do her an eminent favor if he would give a piece of friendly advice to the bearer of the note, and then you and I will take it to him to-morrow about one o'clock. But tell Tullia she must request her uncle to keep secret about it. Go, my dear. Celeste, our dear child, will be a millionaire! I can't say more; but she'll have, from me, a husband who will put her on a pinnacle."
"Do you want me to tell you the first letters of his name?"
"T. P.,—Theodose de la Peyrade. You are right. That's a man who may, if supported by a woman like you, become a minister."
"It is God himself who has placed him in our house!" cried the old maid.
At this moment Monsieur and Madame Thuillier returned home.
Five days later, in the month of April, the ordinance which convoked the electors to appoint a member of the municipal council on the 20th of the same month was inserted in the "Moniteur," and placarded about Paris. For several weeks the ministry, called that of March 1st, had been in power. Brigitte was in a charming humor. She had been convinced of the truth of all la Peyrade's assertions. The house, visited from garret to cellar by old Chaffaroux, was admitted by him to be an admirable construction; poor Grindot, the architect, who was interested with the notary and Claparon in the affair, thought the old man was employed in the interests of the contractor; the old fellow himself thought he was acting in the interests of his niece, and he gave it as his opinion that thirty thousand francs would finish the house. Thus, in the course of one week la Peyrade became Brigitte's god; and she proved to him by the most naively nefarious arguments that fortune should be seized when it offered itself.
"Well, if there is any sin in the business," she said to him in the middle of the garden, "you can confess it."
"The devil!" cried Thuillier, "a man owes himself to his relatives, and you are one of us now."
"Then I decide to do it," replied la Peyrade, in a voice of emotion; "but on conditions that I must now distinctly state. I will not, in marrying Celeste, be accused of greed and mercenary motives. If you lay remorse upon me, at least you must consent that I shall remain as I am for the present. Do not settle upon Celeste, my old Thuillier, the future possession of the property I am about to obtain for you—"
"You are right."
"Don't rob yourself; and let my dear little aunt here act in the same way in relation to the marriage contract. Put the remainder of the capital in Madame Thuillier's name, on the Grand Livre, and she can do what she likes with it. We shall all live together as one family, and I'll undertake to make my own fortune, now that I am free from anxiety about the future."
"That suits me," said Thuillier; "that's the talk of an honest man."
"Let me kiss you on the forehead, my son," said the old maid; "but, inasmuch as Celeste cannot be allowed to go without a 'dot,' we shall give her sixty thousand francs."
"For her dress," said la Peyrade.
"We are all three persons of honor," cried Thuillier. "It is now settled, isn't it? You are to manage the purchase of the house; we are to write together, you and I, my political work; and you'll bestir yourself to get me the decoration?"
"You will have that as soon as you are made a municipal councillor on the 1st of May. Only, my good friend, I must beg you, and you, too, dear aunt, to keep the most profound secrecy about me in this affair; and do not listen to the calumnies which all the men I am about to trick will spread about me. I shall become, you'll see, a vagabond, a swindler, a dangerous man, a Jesuit, an ambitious fortune-hunter. Can you hear those accusations against me with composure?"
"Fear nothing," replied Brigitte.