In the month of May, 1821, this family, ever grappling with adversity, received a first reward for its efforts at a little fete which Pillerault, the arbiter of its destinies, prepared for it. The last Sunday of that month was the anniversary of the day on which Constance had consented to marry Cesar. Pillerault, in concert with the Ragons, hired a little country-house at Sceaux, and the worthy old ironmonger silently prepared a joyous house-warming.
"Cesar," said Pillerault, on the Saturday evening, "to-morrow we are all going into the country, and you must come."
Cesar, who wrote a superb hand, spent his evenings in copying for Derville and other lawyers. On Sundays, justified by ecclesiastical permission, he worked like a Negro.
"No," he said, "Monsieur Derville is waiting for a guardianship account."
"Your wife and daughter ought to have some reward. You will meet none but our particular friends,—the Abbe Loraux, the Ragons, Popinot, and his uncle. Besides, I wish it."
Cesar and his wife, carried along by the whirlwind of business, had never revisited Sceaux, though from time to time each longed to see once more the tree under which the head-clerk of "The Queen of Roses" had fainted with joy. During the trip, which Cesar made in a hackney-coach with his wife and daughter, and Popinot who escorted them, Constance cast many meaning glances at her husband without bringing to his lips a single smile. She whispered a few words in his ear; for all answer he shook his head. The soft signs of her tenderness, ever-present yet at the moment forced, instead of brightening Cesar's face made it more sombre, and brought the long-repressed tears into his eyes. Poor man! he had gone over this road twenty years before, young, prosperous, full of hope, the lover of a girl as beautiful as their own Cesarine; he was dreaming then of happiness. To-day, in the coach before him, sat his noble child pale and worn by vigils, and his brave wife, whose only beauty now was that of cities through whose streets have flowed the lava waves of a volcano. Love alone remained to him! Cesar's sadness smothered the joy that welled up in the hearts of Cesarine and Anselme, who embodied to his eyes the charming scene of other days.
"Be happy, my children! you have earned the right," said the poor father in heart-rending tones. "You may love without one bitter thought."
As he said these words he took his wife's hands and kissed them with a sacred and admiring effect which touched Constance more than the brightest gaiety. When they reached the house where Pillerault, the Ragons, the Abbe Loraux, and Popinot the judge were waiting for them, these five choice people assumed an air and manner and speech which put Cesar at his ease; for all were deeply moved to see him still on the morrow of his great disaster.
"Go and take a walk in the Aulnay woods," said Pillerault, putting Cesar's hand into that of Constance; "go with Anselme and Cesarine! but come back by four o'clock."
"Poor souls, we should be a restraint upon them," said Madame Ragon, touched by the deep grief of her debtor. "He will be very happy presently."
"It is repentance without sin," said the Abbe Loraux.
"He could rise to greatness only through adversity," said the judge.
To forget is the great secret of strong, creative natures,—to forget, in the way of Nature herself, who knows no past, who begins afresh, at every hour, the mysteries of her untiring travail.
Feeble existences, like that of Birotteau, live sunk in sorrows, instead of transmuting them into doctrines of experience: they let them saturate their being, and are worn-out, finally, by falling more and more under the weight of past misfortunes.
When the two couples reached the path which leads to the woods of Aulnay, placed like a crown upon the prettiest hillside in the neighborhood of Paris, and from which the Vallee-aux-Loups is seen in all its coquetry, the beauty of the day, the charm of the landscape, the first spring verdure, the delicious memory of the happiest day of all his youth, loosened the tight chords in Cesar's soul; he pressed the arm of his wife against his beating heart; his eye was no longer glassy, for the light of pleasure once more brightened in it.
"At last," said Constance to her husband, "I see you again, my poor Cesar. I think we have all behaved well enough to allow ourselves a little pleasure now and then."
"Ought I?" said the poor man. "Ah! Constance, thy affection is all that remains to me. Yes, I have lost even my old self-confidence; I have no strength left; my only desire is that I may live to die discharged of debt on earth. Thou, dear wife, thou who art my wisdom and my prudence, thou whose eyes saw clear, thou who art irreproachable, thou canst have pleasure. I alone—of us three—am guilty. Eighteen months ago, in the midst of that fatal ball, I saw my Constance, the only woman I have ever loved, more beautiful than the young girl I followed along this path twenty years ago—like our children yonder! In eighteen months I have blasted that beauty,—my pride, my legitimate and sanctioned pride. I love thee better since I know thee well. Oh, dear!" he said, giving to the word a tone which reached to the inmost heart of his wife, "I would rather have thee scold me, than see thee so tender to my pain."
"I did not think," she said, "that after twenty years of married life the love of a wife for her husband could deepen."
These words drove from Cesar's mind, for one brief moment, all his sorrows; his heart was so true that they were to him a fortune. He walked forward almost joyously to their tree, which by chance had not been felled. Husband and wife sat down beneath it, watching Anselme and Cesarine, who were sauntering across the grassy slope without perceiving them, thinking probably that they were still following.
"Mademoiselle," Anselme was saying, "do not think me so base and grasping as to profit by your father's share which I have acquired in the Cephalic Oil. I am keeping his share for him; I nurse it with careful love. I invest the profits; if there is any loss I put it to my own account. We can only belong to one another on the day when your father is restored to his position, free of debt. I work for that day with all the strength that love has given me."
"Will it come soon?" she said.
"Soon," said Popinot. The word was uttered in a tone so full of meaning, that the chaste and pure young girl inclined her head to her dear Anselme, who laid an eager and respectful kiss upon her brow,—so noble was her gesture and action.
"Papa, all is well," she said to Cesar with a little air of confidence. "Be good and sweet; talk to us, put away that sad look."
When this family, so tenderly bound together, re-entered the house, even Cesar, little observing as he was, saw a change in the manner of the Ragons which seemed to denote some remarkable event. The greeting of Madame Ragon was particularly impressive; her look and accent seemed to say to Cesar, "We are paid."
At the dessert, the notary of Sceaux appeared. Pillerault made him sit down, and then looked at Cesar, who began to suspect a surprise, though he was far indeed from imagining the extent of it.
"My nephew, the savings of your wife, your daughter, and yourself, for the last eighteen months, amounted to twenty thousand francs. I have received thirty thousand by the dividend on my claim. We have therefore fifty thousand francs to divide among your creditors. Monsieur Ragon has received thirty thousand francs for his dividend, and you have now paid him the balance of his claim in full, interest included, for which monsieur here, the notary of Sceaux, has brought you a receipt. The rest of the money is with Crottat, ready for Lourdois, Madame Madou, the mason, carpenter, and the other most pressing creditors. Next year, we may do as well. With time and patience we can go far."
Birotteau's joy is not to be described; he threw himself into his uncle's arms, weeping.
"May he not wear his cross?" said Ragon to the Abbe Loraux.
The confessor fastened the red ribbon to Cesar's buttonhole. The poor clerk looked at himself again and again during the evening in the mirrors of the salon, manifesting a joy at which people thinking themselves superior might have laughed, but which these good bourgeois thought quite natural.
The next day Birotteau went to find Madame Madou.
"Ah, there you are, good soul!" she cried. "I didn't recognize you, you have turned so gray. Yet you don't really drudge, you people; you've got good places. As for me, I work like a turnspit that deserves baptism."
"Never mind, I don't mean it as a reproach," she said. "You have got my receipt."
"I came to tell you that I shall pay you to-morrow, at Monsieur Crottat's, the rest of your claim in full, with interest."
"Is that true?"
"Be there at eleven o'clock."
"Hey! there's honor for you! good measure and running over!" she cried with naive admiration. "Look here, my good monsieur, I am doing a fine trade with your little red-head. He's a nice young fellow; he lets me earn a fair penny without haggling over it, so that I may get an equivalent for that loss. Well, I'll get you a receipt in full, anyhow; you keep the money, my poor old man! La Madou may get in a fury, and she does scold; but she has got something here—" she cried, thumping the most voluminous mounds of flesh ever yet seen in the markets.
"No," said Birotteau, "the law is plain. I wish to pay you in full."
"Then I won't deny you the pleasure," she said; "and to-morrow I'll trumpet your conduct through the markets. Ha! it's rare, rare!"
The worthy man had much the same scene, with variations, at Lourdois the house painter's, father-in-law of Crottat. It was raining; Cesar left his umbrella at the corner of the door. The prosperous painter, seeing the water trickling into the room where he was breakfasting with his wife, was not tender.
"Come, what do you want, my poor Pere Birotteau?" he said, in the hard tone which some people take to importunate beggars.
"Monsieur, has not your son-in-law told you—"
"What?" cried Lourdois, expecting some appeal.
"To be at his office this morning at half past eleven, and give me a receipt for the payment of your claims in full, with interest?"
"Ah, that's another thing! Sit down, Monsieur Birotteau, and eat a mouthful with us."
"Do us the pleasure to share our breakfast," said Madame Lourdois.
"You are doing well, then?" asked the fat Lourdois.
"No, monsieur, I have lived from hand to mouth, that I might scrape up this money; but I hope, in time, to repair the wrongs I have done to my neighbor."
"Ah!" said the painter, swallowing a mouthful of pate de foie gras, "you are truly a man of honor."
"What is Madame Birotteau doing?" asked Madame Lourdois.
"She is keeping the books of Monsieur Anselme Popinot."
"Poor people!" said Madame Lourdois, in a low voice to her husband.
"If you ever need me, my dear Monsieur Birotteau, come and see me," said Lourdois. "I might help—"
"I do need you—at eleven o'clock to-day, monsieur," said Birotteau, retiring.
This first result gave courage to the poor bankrupt, but not peace of mind. On the contrary, the thought of regaining his honor agitated his life inordinately; he completely lost the natural color of his cheeks, his eyes grew sunken and dim, and his face hollow. When old acquaintances met him, in the morning at eight o'clock or in the evening at four, as he went to and from the Rue de l'Oratoire, wearing the surtout coat he wore at the time of his fall, and which he husbanded as a poor sub-lieutenant husbands his uniform,—his hair entirely white, his face pale, his manner timid,—some few would stop him in spite of himself; for his eye was alert to avoid those he knew as he crept along beside the walls, like a thief.
"Your conduct is known, my friend," said one; "everybody regrets the sternness with which you treat yourself, also your wife and daughter."
"Take a little more time," said others; "the wounds of money do not kill."
"No, but the wounds of the soul do," the poor worn Cesar answered one day to his friend Matifat.
At the beginning of the year 1822, the Canal Saint-Martin was begun. Land in the Faubourg du Temple increased enormously in value. The canal would cut through the property which du Tillet had bought of Cesar Birotteau. The company who obtained the right of building it agreed to pay the banker an exorbitant sum, provided they could take possession within a given time. The lease Cesar had granted to Popinot, which went with the sale to du Tillet, now hindered the transfer to the canal company. The banker came to the Rue des Cinq-Diamants to see the druggist. If du Tillet was indifferent to Popinot, it is very certain that the lover of Cesarine felt an instinctive hatred for du Tillet. He knew nothing of the theft and the infamous scheme of the prosperous banker, but an inward voice cried to him, "The man is an unpunished rascal." Popinot would never have transacted the smallest business with him; du Tillet's very presence was odious to his feelings. Under the present circumstances it was doubly so, for the banker was now enriched through the forced spoliation of his former master; the lands about the Madeleine, as well as those in the Faubourg du Temple, were beginning to rise in price, and to foreshadow the enormous value they were to reach in 1827. So that after du Tillet had explained the object of his visit, Popinot looked at him with concentrated wrath.
"I shall not refuse to give up my lease; but I demand sixty thousand francs for it, and I shall not take one farthing less."
"Sixty thousand francs!" exclaimed du Tillet, making a movement to leave the shop.
"I have fifteen years' lease still to run; it will, moreover, cost me three thousand francs a year to get other buildings. Therefore, sixty thousand francs, or say no more about it," said Popinot, going to the back of the shop, where du Tillet followed him.
The discussion grew warm, Birotteau's name was mentioned; Madame Cesar heard it and came down, and saw du Tillet for the first time since the famous ball. The banker was unable to restrain a gesture of surprise at the change which had come over the beautiful woman; he lowered his eyes, shocked at the result of his own work.
"Monsieur," said Popinot to Madame Cesar, "is going to make three hundred thousand francs out of your land, and he refuses us sixty thousand francs' indemnity for our lease."
"That is three thousand francs a year," said du Tillet.
"Three—thousand—francs!" said Madame Cesar, slowly, in a clear, penetrating voice.
Du Tillet turned pale. Popinot looked at Madame Birotteau. There was a moment of profound silence, which made the scene still more inexplicable to Anselme.
"Sign your relinquishment of the lease, which I have made Crottat draw up," said du Tillet, drawing a stamped paper from a side-pocket. "I will give you a cheque on the Bank of France for sixty thousand francs."
Popinot looked at Madame Cesar without concealing his astonishment; he thought he was dreaming. While du Tillet was writing his cheque at a high desk, Madame Cesar disappeared and went upstairs. The druggist and the banker exchanged papers. Du Tillet bowed coldly to Popinot, and went away.
"At last, in a few months," thought Popinot, as he watched du Tillet going towards the Rue des Lombards, where his cabriolet was waiting, "thanks to this extraordinary affair, I shall have my Cesarine. My poor little wife shall not wear herself out any longer. A look from Madame Cesar was enough! What secret is there between her and that brigand? The whole thing is extraordinary."
Popinot sent the cheque at once to the Bank, and went up to speak to Madame Birotteau; she was not in the counting-room, and had doubtless gone to her chamber. Anselme and Constance lived like mother-in-law and son-in-law when people in that relation suit each other; he therefore rushed up to Madame Cesar's appartement with the natural eagerness of a lover on the threshold of his happiness. The young man was prodigiously surprised to find her, as he sprang like a cat into the room, reading a letter from du Tillet, whose handwriting he recognized at a glance. A lighted candle, and the black and quivering phantoms of burned letters lying on the floor made him shudder, for his quick eyes caught the following words in the letter which Constance held in her hand:—
"I adore you! You know it well, angel of my life, and—"
"What power have you over du Tillet that could force him to agree to such terms?" he said with a convulsive laugh that came from repressed suspicion.
"Do not let us speak of that," she said, showing great distress.
"No," said Popinot, bewildered; "let us rather talk of the end of all your troubles." Anselme turned on his heel towards the window, and drummed with his fingers on the panes as he gazed into the court. "Well," he said to himself, "even if she did love du Tillet, is that any reason why I should not behave like an honorable man?"
"What is the matter, my child?" said the poor woman.
"The total of the net profits of Cephalic Oil mount up to two hundred and forty-two thousand francs; half of that is one hundred and twenty-one thousand," said Popinot, brusquely. "If I withdraw from that amount the forty-eight thousand francs which I paid to Monsieur Birotteau, there remains seventy-three thousand, which, joined to these sixty thousand paid for the relinquishment of the lease, gives you one hundred and thirty-three thousand francs."
Madame Cesar listened with fluctuations of joy which made her tremble so violently that Popinot could hear the beating of her heart.
"Well, I have always considered Monsieur Birotteau as my partner," he went on; "we can use this sum to pay his creditors in full. Add the twenty-eight thousand you have saved and placed in our uncle Pillerault's hands, and we have one hundred and sixty-one thousand francs. Our uncle will not refuse his receipt for his own claim of twenty-five thousand. No human power can deprive me of the right of lending to my father-in-law, by anticipating our profits of next year, the necessary sum to make up the total amount due to his creditor, and—he—will—be—reinstated—restored—"
"Restored!" cried Madame Cesar, falling on her knees beside a chair. She joined her hands and said a prayer; as she did so, the letter slid from her fingers. "Dear Anselme," she said, crossing herself, "dear son!" She took his head in her hands, kissed him on the forehead, pressed him to her heart, and seemed for a moment beside herself. "Cesarine is thine! My daughter will be happy at last. She can leave that shop where she is killing herself—"
"For love?" said Popinot.
"Yes," answered the mother, smiling.
"Listen to a little secret," said Popinot, glancing at the fatal letter from a corner of his eye. "I helped Celestin to buy your business; but I did it on one condition,—your appartement was to be kept exactly as you left it. I had an idea in my head, though I never thought that chance would favor it so much. Celestin is bound to sub-let to you your old appartement, where he has never set foot, and where all the furniture will be yours. I have kept the second story, where I shall live with Cesarine, who shall never leave you. After our marriage I shall come and pass the days from eight in the morning till six in the evening here. I will buy out Monsieur Cesar's share in this business for a hundred thousand francs, and that will give you an income to live on. Shall you not be happy?"
"Tell me no more, Anselme, or I shall go out of my mind."
The angelic attitude of Madame Cesar, the purity of her eyes, the innocence of her candid brow, contradicted so gloriously the thoughts which surged in the lover's brain that he resolved to make an end of their monstrosities forever. Sin was incompatible with the life and sentiments of such a woman.
"My dear, adored mother," said Anselme, "in spite of myself, a horrible suspicion has entered my soul. If you wish to see me happy, you will put an end to it at once."
Popinot stretched out his hand and picked up the letter.
"Without intending it," he resumed, alarmed at the terror painted on Constance's face, "I read the first words of this letter of du Tillet. The words coincide in a singular manner with the power you have just shown in forcing that man to accept my absurd exactions; any man would explain it as the devil explains it to me, in spite of myself. Your look—three words suffice—"
"Stop!" said Madame Cesar, taking the letter and burning it. "My son, I am severely punished for a trifling error. You shall know all, Anselme. I shall not allow a suspicion inspired by her mother to injure my daughter; and besides, I can speak without blushing. What I now tell you, I could tell my husband. Du Tillet wished to seduce me; I informed my husband of it, and du Tillet was to have been dismissed. On the very day my husband was about to send him away, he robbed us of three thousand francs."
"I was sure of it!" said Popinot, expressing his hatred by the tones of his voice.
"Anselme, your future, your happiness, demand this confidence; but you must let it die in your heart, just as it is dead in mine and in Cesar's. Do you not remember how my husband scolded us for an error in the accounts? Monsieur Birotteau, to avoid a police-court which might have destroyed the man for life, no doubt placed in the desk three thousand francs,—the price of that cashmere shawl which I did not receive till three years later. All this explains the scene. Alas! my dear child, I must admit my foolishness; du Tillet wrote me three love-letters, which pictured him so well that I kept them," she said, lowering her eyes and sighing, "as a curiosity. I have not re-read them more than once; still, it was imprudent to keep them. When I saw du Tillet just now I was reminded of them, and I came upstairs to burn them; I was looking over the last as you came in. That's the whole story, my friend."
Anselme knelt for a moment beside her and kissed her hand with an unspeakable emotion, which brought tears into the eyes of both; Madame Cesar raised him, stretched out her arms and pressed him to her heart.
This day was destined to be a day of joy to Cesar. The private secretary of the king, Monsieur de Vandenesse, called at the Sinking-Fund Office to find him. They walked out together into the little courtyard.
"Monsieur Birotteau," said the Vicomte de Vandenesse, "your efforts to pay your creditors in full have accidentally become known to the king. His Majesty, touched by such rare conduct, and hearing that through humility you no longer wear the cross of the Legion of honor, has sent me to command you to put it on again. Moreover, wishing to help you in meeting your obligations, he has charged me to give you this sum from his privy purse, regretting that he is unable to make it larger. Let this be a profound secret. His Majesty thinks it derogatory to the royal dignity to have his good deeds divulged," said the private secretary, putting six thousand francs into the hand of the poor clerk, who listened to this speech with unutterable emotion. The words that came to his lips were disconnected and stammering. Vandenesse waved his hand to him, smiling, and went away.
The principle which actuated poor Cesar is so rare in Paris that his conduct by degrees attracted admiration. Joseph Lebas, Popinot the judge, Camusot, the Abbe Loraux, Ragon, the head of the important house where Cesarine was employed, Lourdois, Monsieur de la Billardiere, and others, talked of it. Public opinion, undergoing a change, now lauded him to the skies.
"He is indeed a man of honor!" The phrase even sounded in Cesar's ears as he passed along the streets, and caused him the emotion an author feels when he hears the muttered words: "That is he!" This noble recovery of credit enraged du Tillet. Cesar's first thought on receiving the bank-notes sent by the king was to use them in paying the debt still due to his former clerk. The worthy man went to the Rue de la Chaussee d'Antin just as the banker was returning from the Bourse; they met upon the stairway.
"Well, my poor Birotteau!" said du Tillet, with a stealthy glance.
"Poor!" exclaimed the debtor proudly, "I am very rich. I shall lay my head this night upon my pillow with the happiness of knowing that I have paid you in full."
This speech, ringing with integrity, sent a sharp pang through du Tillet. In spite of the esteem he publicly enjoyed, he did not esteem himself; an inextinguishable voice cried aloud within his soul, "The man is sublime!"
"Pay me?" he said; "why, what business are you doing?"
Feeling sure that du Tillet would not repeat what he told him, Birotteau answered: "I shall never go back to business, monsieur. No human power could have foreseen what has happened to me there. Who knows that I might not be the victim of another Roguin? But my conduct has been placed under the eyes of the king; his heart has deigned to sympathize with my efforts; he has encouraged them by sending me a sum of money large enough to—"
"Do you want a receipt?" said du Tillet, interrupting him; "are you going to pay—"
"In full, with interest. I must ask you to come with me now to Monsieur Crottat, only two steps from here."
"Before a notary?"
"Monsieur; I am not forbidden to aim at my complete reinstatement; to obtain it, all deeds and receipts must be legal and undeniable."
"Come, then," said du Tillet, going out with Birotteau; "it is only a step. But where did you take all that money from?"
"I have not taken it," said Cesar; "I have earned it by the sweat of my brow."
"You owe an enormous sum to Claparon."
"Alas! yes; that is my largest debt. I think sometimes I shall die before I pay it."
"You never can pay it," said du Tillet harshly.
"He is right," thought Birotteau.
As he went home the poor man passed, inadvertently, along the Rue Saint-Honore; for he was in the habit of making a circuit to avoid seeing his shop and the windows of his former home. For the first time since his fall he saw the house where eighteen years of happiness had been effaced by the anguish of three months.
"I hoped to end my days there," he thought; and he hastened his steps, for he caught sight of the new sign,—
"Am I dazzled, am I going blind? Was that Cesarine?" he cried, recollecting a blond head he had seen at the window.
He had actually seen his daughter, his wife, and Popinot. The lovers knew that Birotteau never passed before the windows of his old home, and they had come to the house to make arrangements for a fete which they intended to give him. This amazing apparition so astonished Birotteau that he stood stock-still, unable to move.
"There is Monsieur Birotteau looking at his old house," said Monsieur Molineux to the owner of a shop opposite to "The Queen of Roses."
"Poor man!" said the perfumer's former neighbor; "he gave a fine ball—two hundred carriages in the street."
"I was there; and he failed in three months," said Molineux. "I was the assignee."
Birotteau fled, trembling in every limb, and hastened back to Pillerault.
Pillerault, who had just been informed of what had happened in the Rue des Cinq-Diamants, feared that his nephew was scarcely fit to bear the shock of joy which the sudden knowledge of his restoration would cause him; for Pillerault was a daily witness of the moral struggles of the poor man, whose mind stood always face to face with his inflexible doctrines against bankruptcy, and whose vital forces were used and spent at every hour. Honor was to Cesar a corpse, for which an Easter morning might yet dawn. This hope kept his sorrow incessantly active. Pillerault took upon himself the duty of preparing his nephew to receive the good news; and when Birotteau came in he was thinking over the best means of accomplishing his purpose. Cesar's joy as he related the proof of interest which the king had bestowed upon him seemed of good augury, and the astonishment he expressed at seeing Cesarine at "The Queen of Roses" afforded, Pillerault thought, an excellent opening.
"Well, Cesar," said the old man, "do you know what is at the bottom of it?—the hurry Popinot is in to marry Cesarine. He cannot wait any longer; and you ought not, for the sake of your exaggerated ideas of honor, to make him pass his youth eating dry bread with the fumes of a good dinner under his nose. Popinot wishes to lend you the amount necessary to pay your creditors in full."
"Then he would buy his wife," said Birotteau.
"Is it not honorable to reinstate his father-in-law?"
"There would be ground for contention; besides—"
"Besides," exclaimed Pillerault, pretending anger, "you may have the right to immolate yourself if you choose, but you have no right to immolate your daughter."
A vehement discussion ensued, which Pillerault designedly excited.
"Hey! if Popinot lent you nothing," cried Pillerault, "if he had called you his partner, if he had considered the price which he paid to the creditors for your share in the Oil as an advance upon the profits, so as not to strip you of everything—"
"I should have seemed to rob my creditors in collusion with him."
Pillerault feigned to be defeated by this argument. He knew the human heart well enough to be certain that during the night Cesar would go over the question in his own mind, and the mental discussion would accustom him to the idea of his complete vindication.
"But how came my wife and daughter to be in our old appartement?" asked Birotteau, while they were dining.
"Anselme wants to hire it, and live there with Cesarine. Your wife is on his side. They have had the banns published without saying anything about it, so as to force you to consent. Popinot says there will be much less merit in marrying Cesarine after you are reinstated. You take six thousand francs from the king, and you won't accept anything from your relations! I can well afford to give you a receipt in full for all that is owing to me; do you mean to refuse it?"
"No," said Cesar; "but that won't keep me from saving up everything to pay you."
"Irrational folly!" cried Pillerault. "In matters of honor I ought to be believed. What nonsense were you saying just now? How have you robbed your creditors when you have paid them all in full?"
Cesar looked earnestly at Pillerault, and Pillerault was touched to see, for the first time in three years, a genuine smile on the face of his poor nephew.
"It is true," he said, "they would be paid; but it would be selling my daughter."
"And I wish to be bought!" cried Cesarine, entering with Popinot.
The lovers had heard Birotteau's last words as they came on tiptoe through the antechamber of their uncle's little appartement, Madame Birotteau following. All three had driven round to the creditors who were still unpaid, requesting them to meet at Alexandre Crottat's that evening to receive their money. The all-powerful logic of the enamored Popinot triumphed in the end over Cesar's scruples, though he persisted for some time in calling himself a debtor, and in declaring that he was circumventing the law by a substitution. But the refinements of his conscience gave way when Popinot cried out: "Do you want to kill your daughter?"
"Kill my daughter!" said Cesar, thunderstruck.
"Well, then," said Popinot, "I have the right to convey to you the sum which I conscientiously believe to be your share in my profits. Do you refuse it?"
"No," said Cesar.
"Very good; then let us go at once to Crottat and settle the matter, so that there may be no backing out of it. We will arrange about our marriage contract at the same time."
A petition for reinstatement with corroborative documents was at once deposited by Derville at the office of the procureur-general of the Cour Royale.
During the month required for the legal formalities and for the publication of the banns of marriage between Cesarine and Anselme, Birotteau was a prey to feverish agitation. He was restless. He feared he should not live till the great day when the decree for his vindication would be rendered. His heart throbbed, he said, without cause. He complained of dull pains in that organ, worn out as it was by emotions of sorrow, and now wearied with the rush of excessive joy. Decrees of rehabilitation are so rare in the bankrupt court of Paris that seldom more than one is granted in ten years.
To those persons who take society in its serious aspects, the paraphernalia of justice has a grand and solemn character difficult perhaps to define. Institutions depend altogether on the feelings with which men view them and the degree of grandeur which men's thoughts attach to them. When there is no longer, we will not say religion, but belief among the people, whenever early education has loosened all conservative bonds by accustoming youth to the practice of pitiless analysis, a nation will be found in process of dissolution; for it will then be held together only by the base solder of material interests, and by the formulas of a creed created by intelligent egotism.
Bred in religious ideas, Birotteau held justice to be what it ought to be in the eyes of men,—a representation of society itself, an august utterance of the will of all, apart from the particular form by which it is expressed. The older, feebler, grayer the magistrate, the more solemn seemed the exercise of his function,—a function which demands profound study of men and things, which subdues the heart and hardens it against the influence of eager interests. It is a rare thing nowadays to find men who mount the stairway of the old Palais de Justice in the grasp of keen emotions. Cesar Birotteau was one of those men.
Few persons have noticed the majestic solemnity of that stairway, admirably placed as it is to produce a solemn effect. It rises, beyond the outer peristyle which adorns the courtyard of the Palais, from the centre of a gallery leading, at one end, to the vast hall of the Pas Perdus, and at the other to the Sainte-Chapelle,—two architectural monuments which make all buildings in their neighborhood seem paltry. The church of Saint-Louis is among the most imposing edifices in Paris, and the approach to it through this long gallery is at once sombre and romantic. The great hall of the Pas Perdus, on the contrary, presents at the other end of the gallery a broad space of light; it is impossible to forget that the history of France is linked to those walls. The stairway should therefore be imposing in character; and, in point of act, it is neither dwarfed nor crushed by the architectural splendors on either side of it. Possibly the mind is sobered by a glimpse, caught through the rich gratings, of the Place du Palais-de-Justice, where so many sentences have been executed. The staircase opens above into an enormous space, or antechamber, leading to the hall where the Court holds its public sittings.
Imagine the emotions with which the bankrupt, susceptible by nature to the awe of such accessories, went up that stairway to the hall of judgment, surrounded by his nearest friends,—Lebas, president of the Court of Commerce, Camusot his former judge, Ragon, and Monsieur l'Abbe Loraux his confessor. The pious priest made the splendors of human justice stand forth in strong relief by reflections which gave them still greater solemnity in Cesar's eyes. Pillerault, the practical philosopher, fearing the danger of unexpected events on the worn mind of his nephew, had schemed to prepare him by degrees for the joys of this festal day. Just as Cesar finished dressing, a number of his faithful friends arrived, all eager for the honor of accompanying him to the bar of the Court. The presence of this retinue roused the honest man to an elation which gave him strength to meet the imposing spectacle in the halls of justice. Birotteau found more friends awaiting him in the solemn audience chamber, where about a dozen members of the council were in session.
After the cases were called over, Birotteau's attorney made his demand for reinstatement in the usual terms. On a sign from the presiding judge, the procureur-general rose. In the name of his office this public prosecutor, the representative of public vindictiveness, asked that honor might be restored to the merchant who had never really lost it,—a solitary instance of such an appeal; for a condemned man can only be pardoned. Men of honor alone can imagine the emotions of Cesar Birotteau as he heard Monsieur de Grandville pronounce a speech, of which the following is an abridgement:—
"Gentlemen," said that celebrated official, "on the 16th of January, 1820, Birotteau was declared a bankrupt by the commercial tribunal of the Seine. His failure was not caused by imprudence, nor by rash speculations, nor by any act that stained his honor. We desire to say publicly that this failure was the result of a disaster which has again and again occurred, to the detriment of justice and the great injury of the city of Paris. It has been reserved for our generation, in which the bitter leaven of republican principles and manners will long be felt, to behold the notariat of Paris abandoning the glorious traditions of preceding centuries, and producing in a few years as many failures as two centuries of the old monarchy had produced. The thirst for gold rapidly acquired has beset even these officers of trust, these guardians of the public wealth, these mediators between the law and the people!"
On this text followed an allocution, in which the Comte de Grandville, obedient to the necessities of his role, contrived to incriminate the Liberals, the Bonapartists, and all other enemies of the throne. Subsequent events have proved that he had reason for his apprehension.
"The flight of a notary of Paris who carried off the funds which Birotteau had deposited in his hands, caused the fall of your petitioner," he resumed. "The Court rendered in that matter a decree which showed to what extent the confidence of Roguin's clients had been betrayed. A concordat was held. For the honor of your petitioner, we call attention to the fact that his proceedings were remarkable for a purity not found in any of the scandalous failures which daily degrade the commerce of Paris. The creditors of Birotteau received the whole property, down to the smallest articles that the unfortunate man possessed. They received, gentlemen, his clothes, his jewels, things of purely personal use,—and not only his, but those of his wife, who abandoned all her rights to swell the total of his assets. Under these circumstances Birotteau showed himself worthy of the respect which his municipal functions had already acquired for him; for he was at the time a deputy-mayor of the second arrondissement and had just received the decoration of the Legion of honor, granted as much for his devotion to the royal cause in Vendemiaire, on the steps of the Saint-Roch, which were stained with his blood, as for his conciliating spirit, his estimable qualities as a magistrate, and the modesty with which he declined the honors of the mayoralty, pointing out one more worthy of them, the Baron de la Billardiere, one of those noble Vendeens whom he had learned to value in the dark days."
"That phrase is better than mine," whispered Cesar to Pillerault.
"At that time the creditors, who received sixty per cent of their claims through the aforesaid relinquishment on the part of this loyal merchant, his wife, and his daughter of all that they possessed, recorded their respect for their debtor in the certificate of bankruptcy granted at the concordat which then took place, giving him at the same time a release from the remainder of their claims. This testimonial is couched in terms which are worthy of the attention of the Court."
Here the procureur-general read the passage from the certificate of bankruptcy.
"After receiving such expressions of good-will, gentlemen, most merchants would have considered themselves released from obligation and free to return boldly into the vortex of business. Far from so doing, Birotteau, without allowing himself to be cast down, resolved within his conscience to toil for the glorious day which has at length dawned for him here. Nothing disheartened him. Our beloved sovereign granted to the man who shed his blood on the steps of Saint-Roch an office where he might earn his bread. The salary of that office the bankrupt laid by for his creditors, taking nothing for his own wants; for family devotion has supported him."
Birotteau pressed his uncle's hand, weeping.
"His wife and his daughter poured their earnings into the common fund, for they too espoused the noble hope of Birotteau. Each came down from the position she had held and took an inferior one. These sacrifices, gentlemen, should be held in honor, for they are harder than all others to bear. I will now show you what sort of task it was that Birotteau imposed upon himself."
Here the procureur-general read a summing-up of the schedule, giving the amounts which had remained unpaid and the names of the creditors.
"Each of these sums, with the interest thereon, has been paid, gentlemen; and the payment is not shown by receipts under private seal, which might be questioned: they are payments made before a notary, properly authenticated; and according to the inflexible requirements of this Court they have been examined and verified by the proper authority. We now ask you to restore Birotteau, not to honor, but to all the rights of which he was deprived. In doing this you are doing justice. Such exhibitions of character are so rare in this Court that we cannot refrain from testifying to the petitioner how heartily we applaud his conduct, which an august approval has already privately encouraged."
The prosecuting officer closed by reading his charge in the customary formal terms.
The Court deliberated without retiring, and the president rose to pronounce judgement.
"The Court," he said, in closing, "desires me to express to Birotteau the satisfaction with which it renders such a judgment. Clerk, call the next case."
Birotteau, clothed with the caftan of honor which the speech of the illustrious procureur-general had cast about him, stood dumb with joy as he listened to the solemn words of the president, which betrayed the quiverings of a heart beneath the impassibility of human justice. He was unable to stir from his place before the bar, and seemed for a moment nailed there, gazing at the judges with a wondering air, as though they were angels opening to him the gates of social life. His uncle took him by the arm and led him from the hall. Cesar had not as yet obeyed the command of Louis XVIII., but he now mechanically fastened the ribbon of the Legion of honor to his button-hole. In a moment he was surrounded by his friends and borne in triumph down the great stairway to his coach.
"Where are you taking me, my friends?" he said to Joseph Lebas, Pillerault, and Ragon.
"To your own home."
"No; it is only three o'clock. I wish to go to the Bourse, and use my rights."
"To the Bourse!" said Pillerault to the coachman, making an expressive sign to Joseph Lebas, for he saw symptoms in Cesar which led him to fear he might lose his mind.
The late perfumer re-entered the Bourse leaning on the arms of the two honored merchants, his uncle and Joseph Lebas. The news of his rehabilitation had preceded him. The first person who saw them enter, followed by Ragon, was du Tillet.
"Ah! my dear master," he cried, "I am delighted that you have pulled through. I have perhaps contributed to this happy ending of your troubles by letting that little Popinot drag a feather from my wing. I am as glad of your happiness as if it were my own."
"You could not be otherwise," said Pillerault. "Such a thing can never happen to you."
"What do you mean by that?" said du Tillet.
"Oh! all in good part," said Lebas, smiling at the malicious meaning of Pillerault, who, without knowing the real truth, considered the man a scoundrel.
Matifat caught sight of Cesar, and immediately the most noted merchants surrounded him and gave him an ovation boursiere. He was overwhelmed with flattering compliments and grasped by the hand, which roused some jealousy and caused some remorse; for out of every hundred persons walking about that hall fifty at least had "liquidated" their affairs. Gigonnet and Gobseck, who were talking together in a corner, looked at the man of commercial honor very much as a naturalist must have looked at the first electric-eel that was ever brought to him,—a fish armed with the power of a Leyden jar, which is the greatest curiosity of the animal kingdom. After inhaling the incense of his triumph, Cesar got into the coach to go to his own home, where the marriage contract of his dear Cesarine and the devoted Popinot was ready for signature. His nervous laugh disturbed the minds of the three old friends.
It is a fault of youth to think the whole world vigorous with its own vigor,—a fault derived from its virtues. Youth sees neither men nor things through spectacles; it colors all with the reflex glory of its ardent fires, and casts the superabundance of its own life upon the aged. Like Cesar and like Constance, Popinot held in his memory a glowing recollection of the famous ball. Constance and Cesar through their years of trial had often, though they never spoke of it to each other, heard the strains of Collinet's orchestra, often beheld that festive company, and tasted the joys so swiftly and so cruelly chastised,—as Adam and Eve must have tasted in after times the forbidden fruit which gave both death and life to all posterity; for it appears that the generation of angels is a mystery of the skies.
Popinot, however, could dream of the fete without remorse, nay, with ecstasy. Had not Cesarine in all her glory then promised herself to him—to him, poor? During that evening had he not won the assurance that he was loved for himself alone? So when he bought the appartement restored by Grindot, from Celestin, when he stipulated that all should be kept intact, when he religiously preserved the smallest things that once belonged to Cesar and to Constance, he was dreaming of another ball,—his ball, his wedding-ball! He made loving preparation for it, imitating his old master in necessary expenses, but eschewing all follies,—follies that were now past and done with. So the dinner was to be served by Chevet; the guests were to be mostly the same: the Abbe Loraux replaced the chancellor of the Legion of honor; the president of the Court of Commerce, Monsieur Lebas, had promised to be there; Popinot invited Monsieur Camusot in acknowledgment of the kindness he had bestowed upon Birotteau; Monsieur de Vandenesse and Monsieur de Fontaine took the place of Roguin and his wife. Cesarine and Popinot distributed their invitations with much discretion. Both dreaded the publicity of a wedding, and they escaped the jar such scenes must cause to pure and tender hearts by giving the ball on the evening of the day appointed for signing the marriage-contract.
Constance found in her room the gown of cherry velvet in which she had shone for a single night with fleeting splendor. Cesarine cherished a dream of appearing before Popinot in the identical ball-dress about which, time and time again, he had talked to her. The appartement was made ready to present to Cesar's eyes the same enchanting scene he had once enjoyed for a single evening. Neither Constance, nor Cesarine, nor Popinot perceived the danger to Cesar in this sudden and overwhelming surprise, and they awaited his arrival at four o'clock with a delight that was almost childish.
Following close upon the unspeakable emotion his re-entrance at the Bourse had caused him, the hero of commercial honor was now to meet the sudden shock of felicity that awaited him in his old home. He entered the house, and saw at the foot of the staircase (still new as he had left it) his wife in her velvet robe, Cesarine, the Comte de Fontaine, the Vicomte de Vandenesse, the Baron de la Billardiere, the illustrious Vauquelin. A light film dimmed his eyes, and his uncle Pillerault, who held his arm, felt him shudder inwardly.
"It is too much," said the philosopher to the happy lover; "he can never carry all the wine you are pouring out to him."
Joy was so vivid in their hearts that each attributed Cesar's emotion and his stumbling step to the natural intoxication of his feelings,—natural, but sometimes mortal. When he found himself once more in his own home, when he saw his salon, his guests, the women in their ball-dresses, suddenly the heroic measure in the finale of the great symphony rang forth in his head and heart. Beethoven's ideal music echoed, vibrated, in many tones, sounding its clarions through the membranes of the weary brain, of which it was indeed the grand finale.
Oppressed with this inward harmony, Cesar took the arm of his wife and whispered, in a voice suffocated by a rush of blood that was still repressed: "I am not well."
Constance, alarmed, led him to her bedroom; he reached it with difficulty, and fell into a chair, saying: "Monsieur Haudry, Monsieur Loraux."
The Abbe Loraux came, followed by the guests and the women in their ball-dresses, who stopped short, a frightened group. In presence of that shining company Cesar pressed the hand of his confessor and laid his head upon the bosom of his kneeling wife. A vessel had broken in his heart, and the rush of blood strangled his last sigh.
"Behold the death of the righteous!" said the Abbe Loraux solemnly, pointing to Cesar with the divine gesture which Rembrandt gave to Christ in his picture of the Raising of Lazarus.
Jesus commanded the earth to give up its prey; the priest called heaven to behold a martyr of commercial honor worthy to receive the everlasting palm.