The Middle Classes/Part II/Chapter X
While this regeneration was going on, Cerizet went one morning to see du Portail, with whom la Peyrade was now more than ever determined to hold no communication.
"Well," said the little old man to the poor man's banker, "what effect did the news we gave to the president of the bar produce on our man? Did the affair get wind at the Palais?"
"Phew!" said Cerizet, whose intercourse, no doubt pretty frequent, with du Portail had put him on a footing of some familiarity with the old man, "there's no question of that now. The eel has wriggled out of our hands; neither softness nor violence has any effect upon that devil of a man. He has quarrelled with the bar, and is in better odor than ever with Thuillier. 'Necessity,' says Figaro, 'obliterates distance.' Thuillier needs him to push his candidacy in the quartier Saint-Jacques, so they kissed and made up."
"And no doubt," said du Portail, without much appearance of feeling, "the marriage is fixed for an early day?"
"Yes," replied Cerizet, "but there's another piece of work on hand. That crazy fellow has persuaded Thuillier to buy a newspaper, and he'll make him sink forty thousand francs in it. Thuillier, once involved, will want to get his money back, and in my opinion they are bound together for the rest of their days."
"What paper is it?"
"Oh, a cabbage-leaf that calls itself the 'Echo de la Bievre'!" replied Cerizet with great scorn; "a paper which an old hack of a journalist on his last legs managed to set up in the Mouffetard quarter by the help of a lot of tanners—that, you know, is the industry of the quarter. From a political and literary point of view the affair is nothing at all, but Thuillier has been made to think it a masterly stroke."
"Well, for local service to the election the instrument isn't so bad," remarked du Portail. "La Peyrade has talent, activity, and much resource of mind; he may make something out of that 'Echo.' Under what political banner will Thuillier present himself?"
"Thuillier," replied the beggars' banker, "is an oyster; he hasn't any opinions. Until the publication of his pamphlet he was, like all those bourgeois, a rabid conservative; but since the seizure he has gone over to the Opposition. His first stage will probably be the Left-centre; but if the election wind should blow from another quarter, he'll go straight before it to the extreme left. Self-interest, for those bourgeois, that's the measure of their convictions."
"Dear, dear!" said du Portail, "this new combination of la Peyrade's may assume the importance of a political danger from the point of view of my opinions, which are extremely conservative and governmental." Then, after a moment's reflection, he added, "I think you did newspaper work once upon a time; I remember 'the courageous Cerizet.'"
"Yes," replied the usurer, "I even managed one with la Peyrade,—an evening paper; and a pretty piece of work we did, for which we were finely recompensed."
"Well," said du Portail, "why don't you do it again,—journalism, I mean,—with la Peyrade."
Cerizet looked at du Portail in amazement.
"Ah ca!" he cried, "are you the devil, monsieur? Can nothing ever be hidden from you?"
"Yes," said du Portail, "I know a good many things. But what has been settled between you and la Peyrade?"
"Well, remembering my experience in the business, and not knowing whom else to get, he offered to make me manager of the paper."
"I did not know that," said du Portail, "but it was quite probable. Did you accept?"
"Conditionally; I asked time for reflection. I wanted to know what you thought of the offer."
"Parbleu! I think that out of an evil that can't be remedied we should get, as the proverb says, wing or foot. I had rather see you inside than outside of that enterprise."
"Very good; but in order to get into it there's a difficulty. La Peyrade knows I have debts, and he won't help me with the thirty-three-thousand francs' security which must be paid down in my name. I haven't got them, and if I had, I wouldn't show them and expose myself to the insults of creditors."
"You must have a good deal left of that twenty-five thousand francs la Peyrade paid you not more than two months ago," remarked du Portail.
"Only two thousand two hundred francs and fifty centimes," replied Cerizet. "I was adding it up last night; the rest has all gone to pay off pressing debts."
"But if you have paid your debts you haven't any creditors."
"Yes, those I've paid, but those I haven't paid I still owe."
"Do you mean to tell me that your liabilities were more than twenty-five thousand francs?" said du Portail, in a tone of incredulity.
"Does a man go into bankruptcy for less?" replied Cerizet, as though he were enunciating a maxim.
"Well, I see I am expected to pay that sum myself," said du Portail, crossly; "but the question is whether the utility of your presence in this enterprise is worth to me the interest on one hundred and thirty-three thousand, three hundred and thirty-three francs, thirty-three centimes."
"Hang it!" said Cerizet, "if I were once installed near Thuillier, I shouldn't despair of soon putting him and la Peyrade at loggerheads. In the management of a newspaper there are lots of inevitable disagreements, and by always taking the side of the fool against the clever man, I can increase the conceit of one and wound the conceit of the other until life together becomes impossible. Besides, you spoke just now of political danger; now the manager of a newspaper, as you ought to know, when he has the intellect to be something better than a man of straw, can quietly give his sheet a push in the direction wanted.
"There's a good deal of truth in that," said du Portail, "but defeat to la Peyrade, that's what I am thinking about."
"Well," said Cerizet, "I think I have another nice little insidious means of demolishing him with Thuillier."
"Say what it is, then!" exclaimed du Portail, impatiently; "you go round and round the pot as if I were a man it would do you some good to finesse with."
"You remember," said Cerizet, coming out with it, "that some time ago Dutocq and I were much puzzled to know how la Peyrade was, all of a sudden, able to make that payment of twenty-five thousand francs?"
"Ha!" said the old man quickly, "have you discovered the origin of that very improbable sum in our friend's hands; and is that origin shady?"
"You shall judge," said Cerizet.
And he related in all its details the affair of Madame Lambert,—adding, however, that on questioning the woman closely at the office of the justice-of-peace, after the meeting with la Peyrade, he had been unable to extract from her any confession, although by her whole bearing she had amply confirmed the suspicions of Dutocq and himself.
"Madame Lambert, rue du Val-de-Grace, No. 9; at the house of Monsieur Picot, professor of mathematics," said du Portail, as he made a note of the information. "Very good," he added; "come back and see me to-morrow, my dear Monsieur Cerizet."
"But please remark," said the usurer, "that I must give an answer to la Peyrade in the course of to-day. He is in a great hurry to start the business."
"Very well; you must accept, asking a delay of twenty-four hours to obtain your security. If, after making certain inquiries I see it is more to my interests not to meddle in the affair, you can get out of it by merely breaking your word; you can't be sent to the court of assizes for that."
Independently of a sort of inexplicable fascination which du Portail exercised over his agent, he never lost an opportunity to remind him of the very questionable point of departure of their intercourse.
The next day Cerizet returned.
"You guessed right," said du Portail. "That woman Lambert, being obliged to conceal the existence of her booty, and wanting to draw interest on her stolen property, must have taken it into her head to consult la Peyrade; his devout exterior may have recommended him to her. She probably gave him that money without taking a receipt. In what kind of money was Dutocq paid?"
"In nineteen thousand-franc notes, and twelve of five-hundred francs."
"That's precisely it," said du Portail. "There can't be the slightest doubt left. Now, what use do you expect to make of this information bearing upon Thuillier."
"I expect to put it into his head that la Peyrade, to whom he is going to give his goddaughter and heiress, is over head and ears in debt; that he makes enormous secret loans; and that in order to get out of his difficulties he means to gnaw the newspaper to the bone; and I shall insinuate that the position of a man so much in debt must be known to the public before long, and become a fatal blow to the candidate whose right hand he is."
"That's not bad," said du Portail; "but there's another and even more conclusive use to be made of the discovery."
"Tell me, master; I'm listening," said Cerizet.
"Thuillier has not yet been able, has he, to explain to himself the reason of the seizure of the pamphlet?"
"Yes, he has," replied Cerizet. "La Peyrade was telling me only yesterday, by way of explaining Thuillier's idiotic simplicity, that he had believed a most ridiculous bit of humbug. The 'honest bourgeois' is persuaded that the seizure was instigated by Monsieur Olivier Vinet, substitute to the procureur-general. The young man aspired for a moment to the hand of Mademoiselle Colleville, and the worthy Thuillier has been made to imagine that the seizure of his pamphlet was a revenge for the refusal."
"Good!" said du Portail; "to-morrow, as a preparation for the other version of which you are to be the organ, Thuillier shall receive from Monsieur Vinet a very sharp and decided denial of the abuse of power he foolishly gave ear to."
"Will he?" said Cerizet, with curiosity.
"But another explanation must take its place," continued du Portail; "you must assure Thuillier that he is the victim of police machinations. That is all the police is good for, you know,—machinations."
"I know that very well; I've made that affirmation scores of times when I was working for the republican newspapers and—"
"When you were 'the courageous Cerizet,'" interrupted du Portail. "Well, the present machination, here it is. The government was much displeased at seeing Thuillier elected without its influence to the Council-general of the Seine; it was angry with an independent and patriotic citizen who showed by his candidacy that he could do without it; and it learned, moreover, that this excellent citizen was preparing a pamphlet on the subject, always a delicate one, of the finances, as to which this dangerous adversary had great experience. So, what did this essentially corrupt government do? It suborned a man in whom, as it learned, Thuillier placed confidence, and for a sum of twenty-five thousand francs (a mere trifle to the police), this treacherous friend agreed to insert into the pamphlet three or four phrases which exposed it to seizure and caused its author to be summoned before the court of assizes. Now the way to make the explanation clinch the doubt in Thuillier's mind is to let him know that the next day la Peyrade, who, as Thuillier knew, hadn't a sou, paid Dutocq precisely that very sum of twenty-five thousand francs."
"The devil!" cried Cerizet, "it isn't a bad trick. Fellows of the Thuillier species will believe anything against the police."
"We shall see, then," continued du Portail, "whether Thuillier will want to keep such a collaborator beside him, and above all, whether he will be so eager to give him his goddaughter."
"You are a strong man, monsieur," said Cerizet, again expressing his approbation; "but I must own that I feel some scruples at the part assigned me. La Peyrade came and offered me the management of the paper, and, you see, I should be working to evict him."
"And that lease he knocked you out of in spite of his promises, have you forgotten that?" asked the little old man. "Besides, are we not aiming for his happiness, though the obstinate fellow persists in thwarting our benevolent intentions?"
"It is true," said Cerizet, "that the result will absolve me. Yes, I'll go resolutely along the ingenious path you've traced out for me. But there's one thing more: I can't fling my revelation at Thuillier's head at the very first; I must have time to prepare the way for it, but that security will have to be paid in immediately."
"Listen to me, Monsieur Cerizet," said du Portail, in a tone of authority; "if the marriage of la Peyrade to my ward takes place it is my intention to reward your services, and the sum of thirty thousand francs will be your perquisite. Now, thirty thousand from one side and twenty-five thousand from the other makes precisely fifty-five thousand francs that the matrimonial vicissitudes of your friend la Peyrade will have put into your pocket. But, as country people do at the shows of a fair, I shall not pay till I come out. If you take that money out of your own hoard I shall feel no anxiety; you will know how to keep it from the clutches of your creditors. If, on the contrary, my money is at stake, you will have neither the same eagerness nor the same intelligence in keeping it out of danger. Therefore arrange your affairs so that you can pay down your own thirty-three thousand; in case of success, that sum will bring you in pretty nearly a hundred per cent. That's my last word, and I shall not listen to any objections."
Cerizet had no time to make any, for at that moment the door of du Portail's study opened abruptly, and a fair, slender woman, whose face expressed angelic sweetness, entered the room eagerly. On her arm, wrapped in handsome long clothes, lay what seemed to be the form of an infant.
"There!" she said, "that naughty Katte insisted that the doctor was not here. I knew perfectly well that I had seen him enter. Well, doctor," she continued, addressing Cerizet, "I am not satisfied with the condition of my little one, not satisfied at all; she is very pallid, and has grown so thin. I think she must be teething."
Du Portail made Cerizet a sign to accept the role so abruptly thrust upon him.
"Yes, evidently," he said, "it is the teeth; children always turn pale at that crisis; but there's nothing in that, my dear lady, that need make you anxious."
"Do you really think so, doctor," said the poor crazed girl, whom our readers have recognized as du Portail's ward, Lydie de la Peyrade; "but see her dear little arms, how thin they are getting."
Then taking out the pins that fastened the swathings, she exhibited to Cerizet a bundle of linen which to her poor distracted mind represented a baby.
"Why, no, no," said Cerizet, "she is a trifle thin, it is true, but the flesh is firm and her color excellent."
"Poor darling!" said Lydie, kissing her dream lovingly. "I do think she is better since morning. What had I better give her, doctor? Broth disgusts her, and she won't take soup."
"Well," said Cerizet, "try panada. Does she like sweet things?"
"Oh, yes!" cried the poor girl, her face brightening, "she adores them. Would chocolate be good for her?"
"Certainly," replied Cerizet, "but without vanilla; vanilla is very heating."
"Then I'll get what they call health-chocolate," said Lydie, with all the intonations of a mother, listening to the doctor as to a god who reassured her. "Uncle," she added, "please ring for Bruneau, and tell him to go to Marquis at once and get some pounds of that chocolate."
"Bruneau has just gone out," said her guardian; "but there's no hurry, he shall go in the course of the day."
"There, she is going to sleep," said Cerizet, anxious to put an end to the scene, which, in spite of his hardened nature, he felt to be painful.
"True," said the girl, replacing the bandages and rising; "I'll put her to bed. Adieu, doctor; it is very kind of you to come sometimes without being sent for. If you knew how anxious we poor mothers are, and how, with a word or two, you can do us such good. Ah, there she is crying!"
"She is so sleepy," said Cerizet; "she'll be much better in her cradle."
"Yes, and I'll play her that sonata of Beethoven that dear papa was so fond of; it is wonderful how calming it is. Adieu, doctor," she said again, pausing on the threshold of the door. "Adieu, kind doctor!" And she sent him a kiss.
Cerizet was quite overcome.
"You see," said du Portail, "that she is an angel,—never the least ill-humor, never a sharp word; sad sometimes, but always caused by a feeling of motherly solicitude. That is what first gave the doctors the idea that if reality could take the place of her constant hallucination she might recover her reason. Well, this is the girl that fool of a Peyrade refuses, with the accompaniment of a magnificent 'dot.' But he must come to it, or I'll forswear my name. Listen," he added as the sound of a piano came to them; "hear! what talent! Thousands of sane women can't compare with her; they are not as reasonable as she is, except on the surface."
When Beethoven's sonata, played from the soul with a perfection of shades and tones that filled her hardened hearer with admiration, had ceased to sound, Cerizet said:—
"I agree with you, monsieur; la Peyrade refuses an angel, a treasure, a pearl, and if I were in his place—But we shall bring him round to your purpose. Now I shall serve you not only with zeal, but with enthusiasm, I may say fanaticism."
As Cerizet was concluding this oath of fidelity at the door of the study, he heard a woman's voice which was not that of Lydie.
"Is he in his study, the dear commander?" said that voice, with a slightly foreign accent.
"Yes, madame, but please come into the salon. Monsieur is not alone; I will tell him you are here."
This was the voice of Katte, the old Dutch maid.
"Stop, go this way," said du Portail quickly to Cerizet.
And he opened a hidden door which led through a dark corridor directly to the staircase, whence Cerizet betook himself to the office of the "Echo de la Bievre," where a heated discussion was going on.
The article by which the new editors of every newspaper lay before the public their "profession of faith," as the technical saying is, always produces a laborious and difficult parturition. In this particular case it was necessary, if not openly to declare Thuillier's candidacy, to at least make it felt and foreseen. The terms of the manifesto, after la Peyrade had made a rough draft of it, were discussed at great length. This discussion took place in Cerizet's presence, who, acting on du Portail's advice, accepted the management, but postponed the payment of the security till the next day, through the latitude allowed in all administrations for the accomplishment of that formality.
Cleverly egged on by this master-knave, who, from the start, made himself Thuillier's flatterer, the discussion became stormy, and presently bitter; but as, by the deed of partnership the deciding word was left to la Peyrade in all matters concerning the editorship, he finally closed it by sending the manifesto, precisely as he had written it, to the printing office.
Thuillier was incensed at what he called an abuse of power, and finding himself alone with Cerizet later in the day, he hastened to pour his griefs and resentments into the bosom of his faithful manager, thus affording the latter a ready-made and natural opportunity to insinuate the calumnious revelation agreed upon with du Portail. Leaving the knife in the wound, Cerizet went out to make certain arrangements to obtain the money necessary for his bond.
Tortured by the terrible revelation, Thuillier could not keep it to himself; he felt the need of confiding it, and of talking over the course he would be compelled to take by this infernal discovery. Sending for a carriage he drove home, and half an hour later he had told the whole story to his Egeria.
Brigitte had from the first very vehemently declared against all the determinations made by Thuillier during the last few days. For no purpose whatever, not even for the sake of her brother's election, would she agree to a renewal of the relation to la Peyrade. In the first place, she had treated him badly, and that was a strong reason for disliking him; then, in case that adventurer, as she now called him, married Celeste, the fear of her authority being lessened gave her a species of second-sight; she had ended by having an intuitive sense of the dark profundities of the man's nature, and now declared that under no circumstances and for no possible price would she make one household with him.
"Ruin yourself if you choose," she said, "you are the master of that, and you can do as you like; a fool and his money are soon parted."
When, therefore, she listened to her brother's confidences it was not with reproaches, but, on the contrary, with a crow of triumph, celebrating the probable return of her power, that she welcomed them.
"So much the better!" she cried; "it is well to know at last that the man is a spy. I always thought so, the canting bigot! Turn him out of doors without an explanation. WE don't want him to work that newspaper. This Monsieur Cerizet seems, from what you tell me, the right sort of man, and we can get another manager. Besides, when Madame de Godollo went away she promised to write to me; and she can easily put us in the way of finding some one. Poor, dear Celeste! what a fate we were going to give her!"
"How you run on!" said Thuillier. "La Peyrade, my dear, is so far only accused. He must be heard in his defence. And besides, there's a deed that binds us."
"Ah, very good!" said Brigitte; "I see how it will be; you'll let that man twist you round his finger again. A deed with a spy! As if there could be deeds with such fellows."
"Come, come, be calm, my good Brigitte," returned Thuillier. "We mustn't do anything hastily. Certainly, if la Peyrade cannot furnish a justification, clear, categorical, and convincing, I shall decide to break with him, and I'll prove to you that I am no milksop. But Cerizet himself is not certain; these are mere inductions, and I only came to consult you as to whether I ought, or ought not, to demand an explanation outright."
"Not a doubt about it," replied Brigitte. "You ought to demand an explanation and go to the bottom of this thing; if you don't, I cast you off as my brother."
"That suffices," said Thuillier, leaving the room with solemnity; "you shall see that we will come to an understanding."