Birotteau's neighbor was a small dealer in umbrellas, parasols, and canes, named Cayron,—a man from Languedoc, doing a poor business, whom Cesar had several times befriended. Cayron wished nothing better than to confine himself to the ground-floor and let the rich perfumer take the floor above it, thus diminishing his rent.
"Well, neighbor," said Birotteau familiarly, as he entered the man's shop, "my wife consents to the enlargement of our premises. If you like, we will go and see Monsieur Molineux at eleven o'clock."
"My dear Monsieur Birotteau," said the umbrella-man, "I have not asked you any compensation for this cession; but you are aware that a good merchant ought to make money out of everything."
"What the devil!" cried Birotteau. "I'm not made of money. I don't know that my architect can do the thing at all. He told me that before concluding my arrangements I must know whether the floors were on the same level. Then, supposing Monsieur Molineux does allow me to cut a door in the wall, is it a party-wall? Moreover, I have to turn my staircase, and make a new landing, so as to get a passage-way on the same floor. All that costs money, and I don't want to ruin myself."
"Oh, monsieur," said the southerner. "Before you are ruined, the sun will have married the earth and they'll have had children."
Birotteau stroked his chin, rose on the points of his toes, and fell back upon his heels.
"Besides," resumed Cayron, "all I ask you to do is to cash these securities for me—"
And he held out sixteen notes amounting in all to five thousand francs.
"Ah!" said the perfumer turning them over. "Small fry, two months, three months—"
"Take them as low as six per cent," said the umbrella-man humbly.
"Am I a usurer?" asked the perfumer reproachfully.
"What can I do, monsieur? I went to your old clerk, du Tillet, and he would not take them at any price. No doubt he wanted to find out how much I'd be willing to lose on them."
"I don't know those signatures," said the perfumer.
"We have such queer names in canes and umbrellas; they belong to the peddlers."
"Well, I won't say that I will take all; but I'll manage the short ones."
"For the want of a thousand francs—sure to be repaid in four months—don't throw me into the hands of the blood-suckers who get the best of our profits; do take all, monsieur! I do so little in the way of discount that I have no credit; that is what kills us little retailers."
"Well, I'll cash your notes; Celestin will make out the account. Be ready at eleven, will you? There's my architect, Monsieur Grindot," said the perfumer, catching sight of the young man, with whom he had made an appointment at Monsieur de la Billardiere's the night before.
"Contrary to the custom of men of talent you are punctual, monsieur," said Cesar, displaying his finest commercial graces. "If punctuality, in the words of our king,—a man of wit as well as a statesman,—is the politeness of princes, it is also the wealth of merchants. Time, time is gold, especially to you artists. I permit myself to say to you that architecture is the union of all the arts. We will not enter through the shop," he added, opening the private door of his house.
Four years earlier Monsieur Grindot had carried off the grand prix in architecture, and had lately returned from Rome where he had spent three years at the cost of the State. In Italy the young man had dreamed of art; in Paris he thought of fortune. Government alone can pay the needful millions to raise an architect to glory; it is therefore natural that every ambitious youth of that calling, returning from Rome and thinking himself a Fontaine or a Percier, should bow before the administration. The liberal student became a royalist, and sought to win the favor of influential persons. When a grand prix man behaves thus, his comrades call him a trimmer. The young architect in question had two ways open to him,—either to serve the perfumer well, or put him under contribution. Birotteau the deputy-mayor, Birotteau the future possessor of half the lands about the Madeleine, where he would sooner or later build up a fine neighborhood, was a man to keep on good terms with. Grindot accordingly resolved to sacrifice his immediate gains to his future interests. He listened patiently to the plans, the repetitions, and the ideas of this worthy specimen of the bourgeois class, the constant butt of the witty shafts and ridicule of artists, and the object of their everlasting contempt, nodding his head as if to show the perfumer that he caught his ideas. When Cesar had thoroughly explained everything, the young man proceeded to sum up for him his own plan.
"You have now three front windows on the first floor, besides the window on the staircase which lights the landing; to these four windows you mean to add two on the same level in the next house, by turning the staircase, so as to open a way from one house to the other on the street side."
"You have understood me perfectly," said the perfumer, surprised.
"To carry out your plan, you must light the new staircase from above, and manage to get a porter's lodge beneath it."
"Yes, the space over which it rests—"
"I understand, monsieur."
"As for your own appartement, give me carte-blanche to arrange and decorate it. I wish to make it worthy—"
"Worthy! You have said the word, monsieur."
"How much time do you give me to complete the work?"
"What sum do you mean to put in the workmen's pockets?" asked Grindot.
"How much do you think it will cost?"
"An architect can estimate on a new building almost to a farthing," answered the young man; "but as I don't know how to deal with a bourgeois—ah! excuse me, monsieur, the word slipped out—I must warn you that it is impossible to calculate the costs of tearing down and rebuilding. It will take at least eight days before I can give even an approximate idea of them. Trust yourself to me: you shall have a charming staircase, lighted from above, with a pretty vestibule opening from the street, and in the space under the stairway—"
"Must that be used?"
"Don't be worried—I will find room for a little porter's lodge. Your house shall be studied and remodelled con amore. Yes, monsieur, I look to art and not to fortune. Above all things I do not want fame before I have earned it. To my mind, the best means of winning credit is not to play into the hands of contractors, but to get at good effects cheaply."
"With such ideas, young man," said Birotteau in a patronizing tone, "you will succeed."
"Therefore," resumed Grindot, "employ the masons, painters, locksmiths, carpenters, and upholsterers yourself. I will simply look over their accounts. Pay me only two thousand francs commission. It will be money well laid out. Give me the premises to-morrow at twelve o'clock, and have your workmen on the spot."
"How much it will cost, at a rough guess?" said Birotteau.
"From ten to twelve thousand francs," said Grindot. "That does not count the furniture; of course you will renew that. Give me the address of your cabinet-maker; I shall have to arrange with him about the choice of colors, so as to have everything in keeping."
"Monsieur Braschon, Rue Saint-Antoine, takes my orders," said Birotteau, assuming a ducal air.
The architect wrote down the address in one of those pretty note-books which invariably come from women.
"Well," said Birotteau, "I trust to you, monsieur; only you must wait till the lease of the adjoining house is made over to me, and I will get permission to cut through the wall."
"Send me a note this evening," said the architect; "it will take me all night to draw the plans—we would rather work for a bourgeois than for the King of Prussia, that is to say for ourselves. I will now take the dimensions, the pitch, the size of the widows, the pictures—"
"It must be finished on the appointed day," said Birotteau. "If not, no pay."
"It shall be done," said the architect. "The workmen must do without sleep; we will use drying oil in the paint. But don't let yourself be taken in by the contractors; always ask their price in advance, and have a written agreement."
"Paris is the only place in the world where you can wave a magic wand like that," said Birotteau, with an Asiatic gesture worthy of the Arabian Nights. "You will do me the honor to come to my ball, monsieur? Men of talent are not all disdainful of commerce; and you will meet a scientific man of the first order, Monsieur Vauquelin of the Institute; also Monsieur de la Billardiere, Monsieur le comte de Fontaine, Monsieur Lebas, judge and president of the Court of commerce, various magistrates, Monsieur le comte de Grandville of the royal suite, Monsieur Camusot of the Court of commerce, and Monsieur Cardot, his father-in-law, and, perhaps, Monsieur le duc de Lenoncourt, first gentleman of the bed-chamber to the king. I assemble my friends as much—to celebrate the emancipation of our territory—as to commemorate my—promotion to the order of the Legion of honor,"—here Grindot made a curious gesture. "Possibly I showed myself worthy of that—signal—and royal—favor, by my services on the bench, and by fighting for the Bourbons upon the steps of Saint-Roch on the 13th Vendemiaire, where I was wounded by Napoleon. These claims—"
Constance, in a morning gown, here came out of her daughter's bedroom, where she had been dressing; her first glance cut short Cesar's eloquence just as he was about to formulate in flowing phrase, though modestly, the tale of his merits.
"Tiens, Mimi, this is Monsieur de Grindot, a young man distinguished in his own sphere of life, and the possessor of a great talent. Monsieur is the architect recommended to us by Monsieur de la Billardiere to superintend our little alteration."
The perfumer slipped behind his wife and made a sign to the architect to take notice of the word little, putting his finger on his lips. Grindot took the cue.
"Will it be very expensive?" said Constance to the architect.
"Oh, no, madame; six thousand francs at a rough guess."
"A rough guess!" exclaimed Madame Birotteau. "Monsieur, I entreat you, begin nothing without an estimate and the specifications signed. I know the ways of contractors: six thousand francs means twenty thousand. We are not in a position to commit such extravagance. I beg you, monsieur,—though of course my husband is master in his own house,—give him time to reflect."
"Madame, monsieur the deputy-mayor has ordered me to deliver the premises, all finished, in twenty days. If we delay, you will be likely to incur the expense without obtaining the looked-for result."
"There are expenses and expenses," said the handsome mistress of "The Queen of Roses."
"Ah! madame, do you think an architect who seeks to put up public buildings finds it glorious to decorate a mere appartement? I have come down to such details merely to oblige Monsieur de la Billardiere; and if you fear—"
Here he made a movement to retreat.
"Well, well, monsieur," said Constance re-entering her daughter's room, where she threw her head on Cesarine's shoulder.
"Ah, my daughter!" she cried, "your father will ruin himself! He has engaged an architect with mustachios, who talks about public buildings! He is going to pitch the house out of windows and build us a Louvre. Cesar is never idle about his follies; he only spoke to me about it in the night, and he begins it in the morning!"
"Never mind, mamma; let papa do as he likes. The good God has always taken care of him," said Cesarine, kissing her mother and sitting down to the piano, to let the architect know that the perfumer's daughter was not ignorant of the fine arts.
When Grindot came in to measure the bedroom he was surprised and taken aback at the beauty of Cesarine. Just out of her dressing-room and wearing a pretty morning-gown, fresh and rosy as a young girl is fresh and rosy at eighteen, blond and slender, with blue eyes, Cesarine seemed to the young artist a picture of the elasticity, so rare in Paris, that fills and rounds the delicate cheek, and tints with the color adored of painters, the tracery of blue veins throbbing beneath the whiteness of her clear skin. Though she lived in the lymphatic atmosphere of a Parisian shop, where the air stagnates and the sun seldom shines, her habits gave her the same advantages which the open-air life of Rome gives to the Transteverine peasant-woman. Her hair,—which was abundant, and grew, like that of her father, in points upon her forehead,—was caught up in a twist which showed the lines of a well-set neck, and then rippled downward in curls that were scrupulously cared for, after the fashion of young shop-women, whose desire to attract attention inspires the truly English minutiae of their toilet. The beauty of this young girl was not the beauty of an English lady, nor of a French duchess, but the round and glowing beauty of a Flemish Rubens. Cesarine had the turned-up nose of her father, but it was piquant through the delicacy of its modelling,—like those noses, essentially French, which have been so well reproduced by Largilliere. Her skin, of a firm full texture, bespoke the vitality of a virgin; she had the fine brow of her mother, but it was clear with the serenity of a young girl who knows no care. Her liquid blue eyes, bathed in rich fluid, expressed the tender grace of a glowing happiness. If that happiness took from her head the poetry which painters insist on giving to their pictures my making them a shade too pensive, the vague physical languor of a young girl who has never left her mother's side made up for it, and gave her a species of ideality. Notwithstanding the graceful lines of her figure, she was strongly built. Her feet betrayed the peasant origin of her father and her own defects of race, as did the redness of her hands, the sign of the thoroughly bourgeois life. Sooner or later she would grow stout. She had caught the sentiment of dress from the elegant young women who came to the shop, and had learned from them certain movements of the head, certain ways of speaking and of moving; and she could play the well-bred woman in a way that turned the heads of all the young men, especially the clerks, in whose eyes she appeared truly distinguished. Popinot swore that he would have no other wife than Cesarine. The liquid brightness of that eye, which a look, or a tone of reproach, might cause to overflow in tears, was all that kept him to a sense of masculine superiority. The charming girl inspired love without leaving time to ask whether she had mind enough to make it durable. But of what value is the thing they call in Paris mind to a class whose principal element of happiness is virtue and good sense?
In her moral qualities Cesarine was like her mother, somewhat bettered by the superfluities of education; she loved music, drew the Madonna della Sedia in chalk, and read the works of Mmes. Cottin and Riccoboni, of Bernadin de Saint-Pierre, Fenelon, and Racine. She was never seen behind the counter with her mother except for a few moments before sitting down to dinner, or on some special occasion when she replaced her. Her father and mother, like all persons who have risen from small beginnings, and who cultivate the ingratitude of their children by putting them above themselves, delighted in deifying Cesarine, who happily had the virtues of her class, and took no advantage of their weakness.
Madame Birotteau followed the architect with an anxious and appealing eye, watching with terror, and pointing out to her daughter, the fantastic movements of the four-foot rule, that wand of architects and builders, with which Grindot was measuring. She saw in those mysterious weavings a conjuring spirit that augured evil; she wished the walls were less high, the rooms less large, and dared not question the young man on the effects of his sorcery.
"Do not be afraid, madame, I shall carry nothing off," said the artist, smiling.
Cesarine could not help smiling.
"Monsieur," said Constance, in a supplicating voice, not even noticing the tit-for-tat of the young man, "consider economy, and later we may be able to serve you—"
Before starting to see Monsieur Molineux, the owner of the adjoining house, Cesar wished to get from Roguin the private deed about the transference of the lease which Alexandre Crottat had been ordered to draw up. As he left the notary's house, he saw du Tillet at the window of Roguin's study. Although the liaison of his former clerk with the lawyer's wife made it not unlikely that he should see du Tillet there at this hour when the negotiations about the Madeleine were going on, Birotteau, in spite of his extreme confidence, felt uneasy. The excited manner of du Tillet seemed the sign of a discussion. "Can he be in it?" thought Cesar, with a flash of commercial prudence. The suspicion passed like lightning through his mind. He looked again and saw Madame Roguin, and the presence of du Tillet was no longer suspicious. "Still, suppose Constance were right?" he said to himself. "What a fool I am to listen to women's notions! I'll speak of it to my uncle Pillerault this morning; it is only a step from the Cour Batave, where Monsieur Molineux lives, to the Rue des Bourdonnais."
A cautious observer, or a merchant who had met with swindlers in his business career, would have been saved by this sight; but the antecedents of Birotteau, the incapacity of his mind, which had little power to follow up the chain of inductions by which a superior man reaches a conclusion, all conspired to blind him. He found the umbrella-man in full dress, and they were about to start, when Virginie, the cook, caught him by the arm:—
"Monsieur, madame does not wish you to go out—"
"Pshaw!" said Birotteau, "more women's notions!"
"—without your coffee, which is ready."
"That's true. My neighbor," he said to Cayron, "I have so many things in my head that I can't think of my stomach. Do me the kindness to go forward; we will meet at Monsieur Molineux' door, unless you are willing to go up and explain matters to him, which would save time."
Monsieur Molineux was a grotesque little man, living on his rents,—a species of being that exists nowhere but in Paris, like a certain lichen which grows only in Iceland. This comparison is all the more apt because he belonged to a mixed nature, to an animal-vegetable kingdom which some modern Mercier might build up of cryptograms that push up upon, and flower, and die in or under the plastered walls of the strange unhealthy houses where they prefer to cluster. The first aspect of this human plant—umbelliferous, judging by the fluted blue cap which crowned it, with a stalk encased in greenish trousers, and bulbous roots swathed in list shoes—offered to the eye a flat and faded countenance, which certainly betrayed nothing poisonous. In this queer product might be recognized the typical stockholder, who believes every report which the daily press baptizes with ink, and is content, for all response, to say, "Read what the papers say,"—the bourgeois, essentially the friend of order, always revolting in his moral being against power, though always obeying it; a creature feeble in the mass but fierce in isolated circumstances, hard as a constable when his own rights are in question, yet giving fresh chickweed to his bird and fish-bones to his cat, interrupting the signing of a lease to whistle to a canary, suspicious as a jailer, but apt to put his money into a bad business and then endeavor to get it back by niggardly avarice. The evil savor of this hybrid flower was only revealed by use; its nauseous bitterness needed the stewing of some business in which his interests were mingled with those of other men, to bring it fully out. Like all Parisians, Molineux had the lust of dominating; he craved the share of sovereignty which is exercised more or less by every one, even a porter, over a greater or lesser number of victims,—over wife, children, tenants, clerks, horses, dogs, monkeys, to whom they send, on the rebound, the mortifications they have endured in the higher spheres to which they aspired.
This annoying old man had neither wife, child, nephew, or niece. He bullied his servant-of-all-work too much to make her a victim; for she escaped all contact with her master by doing her work and keeping out of his way. His appetite for tyranny was thus balked; and to satisfy it in some way he patiently studied the laws relating to rentals and party-walls; he fathomed the jurisprudence which regulates the dwellings of Paris in an infinite number of petty questions as to tenants, abutters, liabilities, taxes, repairs, sweepings, decorations for the Fete-Dieu, waste-pipes, lighting, projections over the public way, and the neighborhood of unhealthy buildings. His means, his strength, in fact his whole mind was spent in keeping his proprietary rights on a complete war-footing. He had made it an amusement, and the amusement had become a monomania. He was fond of protecting citizens against the encroachment of illegal proceedings; but finding such subjects of complaint rare, he had finally turned upon his own tenants. A tenant became his enemy, his inferior, his subject, his vassal; he laid claim to his subservience, and looked upon any man as a brute who passed him on the stairway without speaking. He wrote out his bills for rent himself, and sent them on the morning of the day they fell due. The debtor who was behindhand in his payment received a legal notice to quit at an appointed time. Then followed seizures, law-suits, costs, and the whole judicial array set in motion with the rapidity of what the head's-man calls the "mechanism." Molineux granted neither grace nor time; his heart was a callus in the direction of a lease.
"I will lend you the money if you want it," he would say to a man he thought solvent, "but pay my rent; all delays carry with them a loss of interest for which the law does not indemnify us."
After long study of the caprices and capers of tenants who persisted, after the fashion of dynasties, in upsetting the arrangements of their predecessors, he had drawn up a charter of his own and followed it religiously. In accordance therewith, the old fellow made no repairs: no chimney ever smoked, the stairs were clean, the ceilings white, the cornices irreproachable, the floors firm on their joists, the paint satisfactory; the locks were never more than three years old, not a pane of glass was missing, there were no cracks, and he saw no broken tiles until a tenant vacated the premises. When he met the tenants on their first arrival he was accompanied by a locksmith and a painter and glazier,—very convenient folks, as he remarked. The lessee was at liberty to make improvements; but if the unhappy man did so, little Molineux thought night and day of how he could dislodge him and relet the improved appartement on better terms. He watched and waited and spun the web of his mischievous legal proceedings. He knew all the tricks of Parisian legislation in the matter of leases. Factious and fond of scribbling, he wrote polite and specious letters to his tenants; but at the bottom of all his civil sentences could be seen, as in his faded and cozening face, the soul of a Shylock. He always demanded six months' rent in advance, to be deducted from the last quarter of the lease under an array of prickly conditions which he invented. If new tenants offered themselves, he got information about them from the police; for he would not have people of certain callings,—he was afraid, for instance, of hammers. When the lease was to be signed, he kept the deed and spelled it over for a week, fearing what he called the et caetera of lawyers.
Outside of his notions as a proprietor, Jean-Baptiste Molineux seemed good and obliging. He played at boston without complaining of the players; he laughed at the things which make a bourgeois laugh; talked of what others of his kind talked about,—the arbitrary powers of bakers who nefariously sell false weights, of the police, of the heroic seventeen deputies of the Left. He read the "Good Sense" of the Cure Meslier, and went to Mass; not that he had any choice between deism and Christianity, but he took the wafer when offered to him, and argued that he was therefore safe from the interfering claims of the clergy. The indefatigable litigant wrote letters on this subject to the newspapers, which the newspapers did not insert and never answered. He was in other respects one of those estimable bourgeois who solemnly put Christmas logs on their fire, draw kings at play, invent April-fools, stroll on the boulevards when the weather is fine, go to see the skating, and are always to be found on the terrace of the Place Louis XV. at two o'clock on the days of the fireworks, with a roll in their pockets so that they may get and keep a front place.
The Cour Batave, where the little old man lived, is the product of one of those fantastic speculations of which no man can explain the meaning after they are once completed. This cloistral structure, with arcades and interior galleries built of free-stone, with a fountain at one end,—a parched fountain, which opens its lion's mouth less to give water than to ask it from the passers-by,—was doubtless invented to endow the Saint-Denis quarter with a species of Palais-Royal. The place, unhealthy and buried on all four sides by the high walls of its houses, has no life or movement except in the daytime; it is a central spot where dark passages meet, and connect the quarter of the markets with the Saint-Martin quarter by means of the famous Rue Quincampoix,—damp ways in which hurried foot-passengers contract rheumatism. But at night no spot in Paris is more deserted; it might be called the catacombs of commerce. In it there are various industrial cloaca, very few Dutchmen, but a great many grocers. The apartments in this merchant-place have, naturally, no other outlook than that of the common court on which all the windows give, so that rents are at a minimum.
Monsieur Molineux lived in one of the angles, on the sixth floor for sanitary reasons, the air not being pure at a less height than seventy feet above the ground. At this altitude the worthy proprietor enjoyed an enchanting view of the windmills of Montmartre as he walked among the gutters on the roof, where he cultivated flowers, in spite of police regulations against the hanging gardens of our modern Babylon. His appartement was made up of four rooms, without counting the precious anglaises on the floor above him of which he had the key; they belonged to him, he had made them, and he felt he was legally entitled to them. On entering his appartement, a repulsive barrenness plainly showed the avarice of the owner: in the antechamber were six straw chairs and a porcelain stove; on the walls, which were covered with a bottle-green paper, were four engravings bought at auction. In the dining-room were two sideboards, two cages full of birds, a table covered with oil-cloth, a barometer, a window-door which opened on the hanging gardens, and chairs of dark mahogany covered with horse-hair. The salon had little curtains of some old green-silk stuff, and furniture of painted white-wood covered with green worsted velvet. As to the chamber of the old celibate it was furnished with Louis XV. articles, so dirty and disfigured through long usage that a woman dressed in white would have been afraid of soiling herself by contact with them. The chimney-piece was adorned by a clock with two columns, between which was a dial-case that served as a pedestal to Pallas brandishing her lance: a myth. The floor was covered with plates full of scraps intended for the cats, on which there was much danger of stepping. Above a chest of drawers in rosewood hung a portrait done in pastel,—Molineux in his youth. There were also books, tables covered with shabby green bandboxes, on a bracket a number of his deceased canaries stuffed; and, finally, a chilly bed that might formerly have belonged to a Carmelite.
Cesar Birotteau was delighted with the extreme politeness of Molineux, whom he found wrapped in a gray woollen dressing-gown, watching his milk in a little metal heater on the edge of his fireplace, while his coffee-grounds were boiling in a little brown earthenware jug from which, every now and then, he poured a few drops into his coffee-pot. The umbrella-man, anxious not to disturb his landlord, had gone to the door to admit Birotteau. Molineux held the mayors and deputies of the city of Paris in much esteem; he called them "my municipal officers." At sight of the magistrate he rose, and remained standing, cap in hand, until the great Birotteau was seated.
"No, monsieur; yes, monsieur; ah, monsieur, if I had known I should have had the honor of receiving in the bosom of my humble penates a member of the municipality of Paris, believe me I should have made it my duty to call upon you, although I am your landlord—or, on the point of becoming so."
Birotteau made him a sign to put on his cap.
"No, I shall not; not until you are seated, and have replaced yours, if you feel the cold. My room is chilly, the smallness of my means not permitting—God grant your wishes!" he added, as Birotteau sneezed while he felt in his pockets for the deeds. In presenting them to Molineux Cesar remarked, to avoid all unnecessary delay, that Monsieur Roguin had drawn them up.
"I do not dispute the legal talents of Monsieur Roguin, an old name well-known in the notariat of Paris; but I have my own little customs, I do my own business (an excusable hobby), and my notary is—"
"But this matter is very simple," said the perfumer, who was used to the quick business methods of merchants.
"Simple!" cried Molineux. "Nothing is simple in such matters. Ah! you are not a landlord, monsieur, and you may think yourself happy. If you knew to what lengths of ingratitude tenants can go, and to what precautions we are driven! Why, monsieur, I once had a tenant—"
And for a quarter an hour he recounted how a Monsieur Gendrin, designer, had deceived the vigilance of his porter, Rue Saint-Honore. Monsieur Gendrin had committed infamies worthy of Marat,—obscene drawings at which the police winked. This Gendrin, a profoundly immoral artist, had brought in women of bad lives, and made the staircase intolerable,—conduct worthy of a man who made caricatures of the government. And why such conduct? Because his rent had been asked for on the 15th! Gendrin and Molineux were about to have a lawsuit, for, though he did not pay, Gendrin insisted on holding the empty appartement. Molineux received anonymous letters, no doubt from Gendrin, which threatened him with assassination some night in the passages about the Cour Batave.
"It has got to such a pass, monsieur," he said, winding up the tale, "that monsieur the prefect of police, to whom I confided my trouble (I profited by the occasion to drop him a few words on the modifications which should be introduced into the laws to meet the case), has authorized me to carry pistols for my personal safety."
The little old man got up and fetched the pistols.
"There they are!" he cried.
"But, monsieur, you have nothing to fear from me," said Birotteau, looking at Cayron, and giving him a glance and a smile intended to express pity for such a man.
Molineux detected it; he was mortified at such a look from an officer of the municipality, whose duty it was to protect all persons under his administration. In any one else he might have pardoned it, but in Birotteau the deputy-mayor, never!
"Monsieur," he said in a dry tone, "an esteemed commercial judge, a deputy-mayor, and an honorable merchant would not descend to such petty meannesses,—for they are meannesses. But in your case there is an opening through the wall which must be agreed to by your landlord, Monsieur le comte de Grandville; there are stipulations to be made and agreed upon about replacing the wall at the end of your lease. Besides which, rents have hitherto been low, but they are rising; the Place Vendome is looking up, the Rue Castiglione is to be built upon. I am binding myself—binding myself down!"
"Let us come to a settlement," said Birotteau, amazed. "How much do you want? I know business well enough to be certain that all your reasons can be silenced by the superior consideration of money. Well, how much is it?"
"That's only fair, monsieur the deputy. How much longer does your own lease run?"
"Seven years," answered Birotteau.
"Think what my first floor will be worth in seven years!" said Molineux. "Why, what would two furnished rooms let for in that quarter?—more than two hundred francs a month perhaps! I am binding myself—binding myself by a lease. The rent ought to be fifteen hundred francs. At that price I will consent to the transfer of the two rooms by Monsieur Cayron, here present," he said, with a sly wink at the umbrella-man; "and I will give you a lease of them for seven consecutive years. The costs of piercing the wall are to belong to you; and you must procure the consent of Monsieur le comte de Grandville and the cession of all his rights in the matter. You are responsible for all damage done in making this opening. You will not be expected to replace the wall yourself, that will be my business; but you will at once pay me five hundred francs as an indemnity towards it. We never know who may live or die, and I can't run after anybody to get the wall rebuilt."
"Those conditions seem to me pretty fair," said Birotteau.
"Next," said Molineux. "You must pay me seven hundred and fifty francs, hic et hinc, to be deducted from the last six months of your lease; this will be acknowledged in the lease itself. Oh, I will accept small bills for the value of the rent at any date you please! I am prompt and square in business. We will agree that you are to close up the door on my staircase (where you are to have no right of entry), at your own cost, in masonry. Don't fear,—I shall ask you no indemnity for that at the end of your lease; I consider it included in the five hundred francs. Monsieur, you will find me just."
"We merchants are not so sharp," said the perfumer. "It would not be possible to do business if we made so many stipulations."
"Oh, in business, that is very different, especially in perfumery, where everything fits like a glove," said the old fellow with a sour smile; "but when you come to letting houses in Paris, nothing is unimportant. Why, I have a tenant in the Rue Montorgeuil who—"
"Monsieur," said Birotteau, "I am sorry to detain you from your breakfast: here are the deeds, correct them. I agree to all that you propose, we will sign them to-morrow; but to-day let us come to an agreement by word of mouth, for my architect wants to take possession of the premises in the morning."
"Monsieur," resumed Molineux with a glance at the umbrella-merchant, "part of a quarter has expired; Monsieur Cayron would not wish to pay it; we will add it to the rest, so that your lease may run from January to January. It will be more in order."
"Very good," said Birotteau.
"And the five per cent for the porter—"
"But," said Birotteau, "if you deprive me of the right of entrance, that is not fair."
"Oh, you are a tenant," said little Molineux, peremptorily, up in arms for the principle. "You must pay the tax on doors and windows and your share in all the other charges. If everything is clearly understood there will be no difficulty. You must be doing well, monsieur; your affairs are prospering?"
"Yes," said Birotteau. "But my motive is, I may say, something different. I assemble my friends as much to celebrate the emancipation of our territory as to commemorate my promotion to the order of the Legion of honor—"
"Ah! ah!" said Molineux, "a recompense well-deserved!"
"Yes," said Birotteau, "possibly I showed myself worthy of that signal and royal favor by my services on the Bench of commerce, and by fighting for the Bourbons upon the steps of Saint-Roch on the 13th Vendemiaire. These claims—"
"Are equal to those of our brave soldiers of the old army. The ribbon is red, for it is dyed with their blood."
At these words, taken from the "Constitutionnel," Birotteau could not keep from inviting little Molineux to the ball, who thanked him profusely and felt like forgiving the disdainful look. The old man conducted his new tenant as far as the landing, and overwhelmed him with politeness. When Birotteau reached the middle of the Cour Batave he gave Cayron a merry look.
"I did not think there could exist such—weak beings!" he said, with difficulty keeping back the word fools.
"Ah, monsieur," said Cayron, "it is not everybody that has your talents."
Birotteau might easily believe himself a superior being in the presence of Monsieur Molineux; the answer of the umbrella-man made him smile agreeably, and he bowed to him with a truly royal air as they parted.
"I am close by the Markets," thought Cesar; "I'll attend to the matter of the nuts."
After an hour's search, Birotteau, who was sent by the market-women to the Rue de Lombards where nuts for sugarplums were to be found, heard from his friend Matifat that the fruit in bulk was only to be had of a certain Madame Angelique Madou, living in the Rue Perrin-Gasselin, the sole establishment which kept the true filbert of Provence, and the veritable white hazel-nut of the Alps.
The Rue Perrin-Gasselin is one of the narrow thoroughfares in a square labyrinth enclosed by the quay, the Rue Saint-Denis, the Rue de la Ferronnerie, and the Rue de la Monnaie; it is, as it were, one of the entrails of the city. There swarm an infinite number of heterogeneous and mixed articles of merchandise, evil-smelling and jaunty, herrings and muslin, silks and honey, butter and gauze, and above all a number of petty trades, of which Paris knows as little as a man knows of what is going on in his pancreas, and which, at the present moment, had a blood-sucker named Bidault, otherwise called Gigonnet, a money-lender, who lived in the Rue Grenetat. In this quarter old stables were filled with oil-casks, and the carriage-houses were packed with bales of cotton. Here were stored in bulk the articles that were sold at retail in the markets.
Madame Madou, formerly a fish-woman, but thrown, some ten years since, into the dried-fruit trade by a liaison with the former proprietor of her present business (an affair which had long fed the gossip of the markets), had originally a vigorous and enticing beauty, now lost however in a vast embonpoint. She lived on the lower floor of a yellow house, which was falling to ruins, and was held together at each story by iron cross-bars. The deceased proprietor had succeeded in getting rid of all competitors, and had made his business a monopoly. In spite of a few slight defects of education, his heiress was able to carry it along, and take care of her stores, which were in coachhouses, stables, and old workshops, where she fought the vermin with eminent success. Not troubled with desk or ledgers, for she could neither read nor write, she answered a letter with a blow of her fist, considering it an insult. In the main she was a good woman, with a high-colored face, and a foulard tied over her cap, who mastered with bugle voice the wagoners when they brought the merchandise; such squabbles usually ending in a bottle of the "right sort." She had no disputes with the agriculturists who consigned her the fruit, for they corresponded in ready money,—the only possible method of communication, to receive which Mere Madou paid them a visit in the fine season of the year.
Birotteau found this shrewish trader among sacks of filberts, nuts, and chestnuts.
"Good-morning, my dear lady," said Birotteau with a jaunty air.
"Your dear!" she said. "Hey! my son, what's there agreeable between us? Did we ever mount guard over kings and queens together?"
"I am a perfumer, and what is more I am deputy-mayor of the second arrondissement; thus, as magistrate and as customer, I request you to take another tone with me."
"I marry when I please," said the virago. "I don't trouble the mayor, or bother his deputies. As for my customers, they adore me, and I talk to 'em as I choose. If they don't like it, they can snake off elsewhere."
"This is the result of monopoly," thought Birotteau.
"Popole!—that's my godson,—he must have got into mischief. Have you come about him, my worthy magistrate?" she said, softening her voice.
"No; I had the honor to tell you that I came as a customer."
"Well, well! and what's your name, my lad? Haven't seen you about before, have I?"
"If you take that tone, you ought to sell your nuts cheap," said Birotteau, who proceeded to give his name and all his distinctions.
"Ha! you're the Birotteau that's got the handsome wife. And how many of the sweet little nuts may you want, my love?"
"Six thousand weight."
"That's all I have," said the seller, in a voice like a hoarse flute. "My dear monsieur, you are not one of the sluggards who waste their time on girls and perfumes. God bless you, you've got something to do! Excuse me a bit. You'll be a jolly customer, dear to the heart of the woman I love best in the world."
"Who is that?"
"Hey! the dear Madame Madou."
"What's the price of your nuts?"
"For you, old fellow, twenty-five francs a hundred, if you take them all."
"Twenty-five francs!" cried Birotteau. "Fifteen hundred francs! I shall want perhaps a hundred thousand a year."
"But just look how fine they are; fresh as a daisy," she said, plunging her red arm into a sack of filberts. "Plump, no empty ones, my dear man. Just think! grocers sell their beggarly trash at twenty-four sous a pound, and in every four pounds they put a pound of hollows. Must I lose my profits to oblige you? You're nice enough, but you don't please me all that! If you want so many, we might make a bargain at twenty francs. I don't want to send away a deputy-mayor,—bad luck to the brides, you know! Now, just handle those nuts; heavy, aren't they? Less than fifty to the pound; no worms there, I can tell you."
"Well, then, send six thousand weight, for two thousand francs at ninety days' sight, to my manufactory, Rue du Faubourg-du-Temple, to-morrow morning early."
"You're in as great a hurry as a bride! Well, adieu, monsieur the mayor; don't bear me a grudge. But if it is all the same to you," she added, following Birotteau through the yard, "I would like your note at forty days, because I have let you have them too cheap, and I don't want to lose the discount. Pere Gigonnet may have a tender heart, but he sucks the soul out of us as a spider sucks a fly."
"Well, then, fifty days. But they are to be weighed by the hundred pounds, so that there may be no hollow ones. Without that, no bargain."
"Ah, the dog! he knows what he's about," said Madame Madou; "can't make a fool of him! It is those rascals in the Rue des Lombards who have put him up to that! Those big wolves are all in a pack to eat up the innocent lambs."
This lamb was five feet high and three feet round, and she looked like a mile-post, dressed in striped calico, without a belt.
The perfumer, lost in thought, was ruminating as he went along the Rue Saint-Honore about his duel with Macassar Oil. He was meditating on the labels and the shape of the bottles, discussing the quality of the corks, the color of the placards. And yet people say there is no poetry in commerce! Newton did not make more calculations for his famous binomial than Birotteau made for his Comagene Essence,—for by this time the Oil had subsided into an Essence, and he went from one description to the other without observing any difference. His head spun with his computations, and he took the lively activity of its emptiness for the substantial work of real talent. He was so preoccupied that he passed the turn leading to his uncle's house in the Rue des Bourdonnais, and had to return upon his steps.