Pillerault, Monsieur and Madame Ragon, and Monsieur Roguin were playing at boston, and Cesarine was embroidering a handkerchief, when the judge and Anselme arrived. Roguin, placed opposite to Madame Ragon, near whom Cesarine was sitting, noticed the pleasure of the young girl when she saw Anselme enter, and he made Crottat a sign to observe that she turned as rosy as a pomegranate.
"This is to be a day of deeds, then?" said the perfumer, when the greetings were over and the judge told him the purpose of the visit.
Cesar, Anselme, and the judge went up to the perfumer's temporary bedroom on the second floor to discuss the lease and the deed of partnership drawn up by the magistrate. A lease of eighteen years was agreed upon, so that it might run the same length of time as the lease of the shop in the Rue des Cinq-Diamants,—an insignificant circumstance apparently, but one which did Birotteau good service in after days. When Cesar and the judge returned to the entresol, the latter, surprised at the general upset of the household, and the presence of workmen on a Sunday in the house of a man so religious as Birotteau, asked the meaning of it,—a question which Cesar had been eagerly expecting.
"Though you care very little for the world, monsieur," he said, "you will see no harm in celebrating the deliverance of our territory. That, however, is not all. We are about to assemble a few friends to commemorate my promotion to the order of the Legion of honor."
"Ah!" exclaimed the judge, who was not decorated.
"Possibly I showed myself worthy of that signal and royal favor by my services on the Bench—oh! of commerce,—and by fighting for the Bourbons on the steps—"
"True," said the judge.
"—of Saint-Roch on the 13th Vendemiaire, where I was wounded by Napoleon. May I not hope that you and Madame Popinot will do us the honor of being present?"
"Willingly," said the judge. "If my wife is well enough I will bring her."
"Xandrot," said Roguin to his clerk, as they left the house, "give up all thoughts of marrying Cesarine; six weeks hence you will thank me for that advice."
"Why?" asked Crottat.
"My dear fellow, Birotteau is going to spend a hundred thousand francs on his ball, and he is involving his whole fortune, against my advice, in that speculation in lands. Six weeks hence he and his family won't have bread to eat. Marry Mademoiselle Lourdois, the daughter of the house-painter. She has three hundred thousand francs dot. I threw out that anchor to windward for you. If you will pay me a hundred thousand francs down for my practice, you may have it to-morrow."
The splendors of the approaching ball were announced by the newspapers to all Europe, and were also made known to the world of commerce by rumors to which the preparations, carried on night and day, had given rise. Some said that Cesar had hired three houses, and that he was gilding his salons; others that the supper would furnish dishes invented for the occasion. On one hand it was reported that no merchants would be invited, the fete being given to the members of the government; on the other hand, Cesar was severely blamed for his ambition, and laughed at for his political pretensions: some people even went so far as to deny his wound. The ball gave rise to more than one intrigue in the second arrondissement. The friends of the family were easy in their minds, but the demands of mere acquaintances were enormous. Honors bring sycophants; and there was a goodly number of people whose invitations cost them more than one application. The Birotteaus were fairly frightened at the number of friends whom they did not know they had. These eager attentions alarmed Madame Birotteau, and day by day her face grew sadder as the great solemnity drew near.
In the first place, as she owned to Cesar, she should never learn the right demeanor; next, she was terrified by the innumerable details of such a fete: where should she find the plate, the glass-ware, the refreshments, the china, the servants? Who would superintend it all? She entreated Birotteau to stand at the door of the appartement and let no one enter but invited guests; she had heard strange stories of people who came to bourgeois balls, claiming friends whose names they did not know. When, a week before the fateful day, Braschon, Grindot, Lourdois, and Chaffaroux, the builder, assured Cesar positively that the rooms would be ready for the famous Sunday of December the 17th, an amusing conference took place, in the evening after dinner, between Cesar, his wife, and his daughter, for the purpose of making out the list of guests and addressing the invitations,—which a stationer had sent home that morning, printed on pink paper, in flowing English writing, and in the formula of commonplace and puerile civility.
"Now we mustn't forget any body," said Birotteau.
"If we forget any one," said Constance, "they won't forget it. Madame Derville, who never called before, sailed down upon me in all her glory yesterday."
"She is very pretty," said Cesarine. "I liked her."
"And yet before her marriage she was even less than I was," said Constance. "She did plain sewing in the Rue Montmartre; she made shirts for your father."
"Well, now let us begin the list," said Birotteau, "with the upper-crust people. Cesarine, write down Monsieur le Duc and Madame la Duchesse de Lenoncourt—"
"Good heavens, Cesar!" said Constance, "don't send a single invitation to people whom you only know as customers. Are you going to invite the Princesse de Blamont-Chavry, who is more nearly related to your godmother, the late Marquise d'Uxelles, than the Duc de Lenoncourt? You surely don't mean to invite the two Messieurs de Vandenesse, Monsieur de Marsay, Monsieur de Ronquerolles, Monsieur d'Aiglemont, in short, all your customers? You are mad; your honors have turned your head!"
"Well, but there's Monsieur le Comte de Fontaine and his family, hein?—the one that always went by the name of GRAND-JACQUES,—and the YOUNG SCAMP, who was the Marquis de Montauran, and Monsieur de la Billardiere, who was called the NANTAIS at 'The Queen of Roses' before the 13th Vendemiaire. In those days it was all hand-shaking, and 'Birotteau, take courage; let yourself be killed, like us, for the good cause.' Why, we are all comrades in conspiracy."
"Very good, put them down," said Constance. "If Monsieur de la Billardiere comes he will want somebody to speak to."
"Cesarine, write," said Birotteau. "Primo, Monsieur the prefect of the Seine; he'll come or he won't come, but any way he commands the municipality,—honor to whom honor is due. Monsieur de la Billardiere and his son, the mayor. Put the number of the guests after their names. My colleague, Monsieur Granet, deputy-mayor, and his wife. She is very ugly, but never mind, we can't dispense with her. Monsieur Curel, the jeweller, colonel of the National Guard, his wife, and two daughters. Those are what I call the authorities. Now come the big wigs,—Monsieur le Comte and Madame la Comtesse de Fontaine, and their daughter, Mademoiselle Emilie de Fontaine."
"An insolent girl, who makes me leave the shop and speak to her at the door of the carriage, no matter what the weather is," said Madame Cesar. "If she comes, it will only be to ridicule me."
"Then she'll be sure to come," said Cesar, bent on getting everybody. "Go on, Cesarine. Monsieur le Comte and Madame la Comtesse de Grandville, my landlord,—the longest head at the royal court, so Derville says. Ah ca! Monsieur de la Billardiere is to present me as a chevalier to-morrow to Monsieur le Comte de Lacepede himself, high chancellor of the Legion of honor. It is only proper that I should send him an invitation for the ball, and also to the dinner. Monsieur Vauquelin; put him down for ball and dinner both, Cesarine. And (so as not to forget them) put down all the Chiffrevilles and the Protez; Monsieur and Madame Popinot, judge of the Lower Court of the Seine; Monsieur and Madame Thirion, gentleman-usher of the bedchamber to the king, friends of Ragon, and their daughter, who, they tell me, is to marry the son of Monsieur Camusot by his first wife."
"Cesar, don't forget that little Horace Bianchon, the nephew of Monsieur Popinot, and cousin of Anselme," said Constance.
"Whew! Cesarine has written a four after the name of Popinot. Monsieur and Madame Rabourdin, one of the under-secretaries in Monsieur de la Billardiere's division; Monsieur Cochin, same division, his wife and son, sleeping-partners of Matifat, and Monsieur, Madame, and Mademoiselle Matifat themselves."
"The Matifats," said Cesarine, "are fishing for invitations for Monsieur and Madame Colleville, and Monsieur and Madame Thuillier, friends of theirs."
"We will see about that," said Cesar. "Put down my broker, Monsieur and Madame Jules Desmarets."
"She will be the loveliest woman in the room," said Cesarine. "I like her—oh! better than any one else."
"Derville and his wife."
"Put down Monsieur and Madame Coquelin, the successors to my uncle Pillerault," said Constance. "They are so sure of an invitation that the poor little woman has ordered my dressmaker to make her a superb ball-dress, a skirt of white satin, and a tulle robe with succory flowers embroidered all over it. A little more and she would have ordered a court-dress of gold brocade. If you leave them out we shall make bitter enemies."
"Put them down, Cesarine; all honor to commerce, for we belong to it! Monsieur and Madame Roguin."
"Mamma, Madame Roguin will wear her diamond fillet and all her other diamonds, and her dress trimmed with Mechlin."
"Monsieur and Madame Lebas," said Cesar; "also Monsieur le president of the Court of Commerce,—I forgot him among the authorities,—his wife, and two daughters; Monsieur and Madame Lourdois and their daughter; Monsieur Claparon, banker; Monsieur du Tillet; Monsieur Grindot; Monsieur Molineux; Pillerault and his landlord; Monsieur and Madame Camusot, the rich silk-merchants, and all their children, the one at the Ecole Polytechnique, and the lawyer; he is to be made a judge because of his marriage to Mademoiselle Thirion."
"A provincial judge," remarked Constance.
"Monsieur Cardot, father-in-law of Camusot, and all the Cardot children. Bless me, and the Guillaumes, Rue du Colombier, the father-in-law of Lebas—old people, but they'll sit in a corner; Alexandre Crottat; Celestin—"
"Papa, don't forget Monsieur Andoche Finot and Monsieur Gaudissart, two young men who are very useful to Monsieur Anselme."
"Gaudissart? he was once in the hands of justice. But never mind, he is going to travel for our oil and starts in a few days; put him down. As to the Sieur Andoche Finot, what is he to us?"
"Monsieur Anselme says he will be a great man; he has a mind like Voltaire."
"An author? all atheists."
"Let's put him down, papa; we want more dancers. Besides, he wrote the beautiful prospectus for the oil."
"He believes in my oil?" said Cesar, "then put him down, dear child."
"I have put down all my proteges," said Cesarine.
"Put Monsieur Mitral, my bailiff; Monsieur Haudry, our doctor, as a matter of form,—he won't come."
"Yes, he will, for his game of cards."
"Now, Cesar, I do hope you mean to invite the Abbe Loraux to the dinner," said Constance.
"I have already written to him," said Cesar.
"Oh! and don't forget the sister-in-law of Monsieur Lebas, Madame Augustine Sommervieux," said Cesarine. "Poor little woman, she is so delicate; she is dying of grief, so Monsieur Lebas says."
"That's what it is to marry artists!" cried her father. "Look! there's your mother asleep," he whispered. "La! la! a very good night to you, Madame Cesar—Now, then," he added, "about your mother's ball-dress?"
"Yes, papa, it will be all ready. Mamma thinks she will wear her china-crape like mine. The dressmaker is sure there is no need of trying it on."
"How many people have you got down," said Cesar aloud, seeing that Constance opened her eyes.
"One hundred and nine, with the clerks."
"Where shall we ever put them all?" said Madame Birotteau. "But, anyhow, after that Sunday," she added naively, "there will come a Monday."
Nothing can be done simply and naturally by people who are stepping from one social level to another. Not a soul—not Madame Birotteau, nor Cesar himself—was allowed to put foot into the new appartement on the first floor. Cesar had promised Raguet, the shop-boy, a new suit of clothes for the day of the ball, if he mounted guard faithfully and let no one enter. Birotteau, like the Emperor Napoleon at Compiegne, when the chateau was re-decorated for his marriage with Maria Louisa of Austria, was determined to see nothing piecemeal; he wished to enjoy the surprise of seeing it as a whole. Thus the two antagonists met once more, all unknown to themselves, not on the field of battle, but on the peaceful ground of bourgeois vanity. It was arranged that Monsieur Grindot was to take Cesar by the hand and show him the appartement when finished,—just as a guide shows a gallery to a sight-seer. Every member of the family had provided his, or her, private "surprise." Cesarine, dear child, had spent all her little hoard, a hundred louis, on buying books for her father. Monsieur Grindot confided to her one morning that there were two book-cases in Cesar's room, which enclosed an alcove,—an architectural surprise to her father. Cesarine flung all her girlish savings upon the counter of a bookseller's shop, and obtained in return, Bossuet, Racine, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, Moliere, Buffon, Fenelon, Delille, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, La Fontaine, Corneille, Pascal, La Harpe,—in short, the whole array of matter-of-course libraries to be found everywhere and which assuredly her father would never read. A terrible bill for binding was in the background. The celebrated and dilatory binder, Thouvenin, had promised to deliver the volumes at twelve o'clock in the morning of the 16th. Cesarine confided her anxiety to her uncle Pillerault, and he had promised to pay the bill. The "surprise" of Cesar to his wife was the gown of cherry-colored velvet, trimmed with lace, of which he spoke to his accomplice, Cesarine. The "surprise" of Madame Birotteau to the new chevalier was a pair of gold shoe-buckles, and a diamond pin. For the whole family there was the surprise of the new appartement, and, a fortnight later, the still greater surprise of the bills when they came in.
Cesar carefully weighed the question as to which invitations should be given in person, and which should be sent by Raguet. He ordered a coach and took his wife—much disfigured by a bonnet with feathers, and his last gift, a shawl which she had coveted for fifteen years—on a round of civilities. In their best array, these worthy people paid twenty-two visits in the course of one morning.
Cesar excused his wife from the labor and difficulty of preparing at home the various viands demanded by the splendor of the entertainment. A diplomatic treaty was arranged between the famous Chevet and the perfumer. Chevet furnished superb silver plate (which brought him an income equal to that of land); he supplied the dinner, the wines, and the waiters, under the orders of a major-domo of dignified aspect, who was responsible for the proper management of everything. Chevet exacted that the kitchen, and the dining-room on the entresol, should be given up to him as headquarters; a dinner for twenty people was to be served at six o'clock, a superb supper at one in the morning. Birotteau arranged with the cafe Foy for ices in the shape of fruits, to be served in pretty saucers, with gilt spoons, on silver trays. Tanrade, another illustrious purveyor, furnished the refreshments.
"Don't be worried," said Cesar to his wife, observing her uneasiness on the day before the great event, "Chevet, Tanrade, and the cafe Foy will occupy the entresol, Virginie will take charge of the second floor, the shop will be closed; all we shall have to do is to enshrine ourselves on the first floor."
At two o'clock, on the 16th, the mayor, Monsieur de la Billardiere, came to take Cesar to the Chancellerie of the Legion of honor, where he was to be received by Monsieur le Comte de Lacepede, and about a dozen chevaliers of the order. Tears were in his eyes when he met the mayor; Constance had just given him the "surprise" of the gold buckles and diamond pin.
"It is very sweet to be so loved," he said, getting into the coach in presence of the assembled clerks, and Cesarine, and Constance. They, one and all, gazed at Cesar, attired in black silk knee-breeches, silk stockings, and the new bottle-blue coat, on which was about to gleam the ribbon that, according to Molineux, was dyed in blood. When Cesar came home to dinner, he was pale with joy; he looked at his cross in all the mirrors, for in the first moments of exultation he was not satisfied with the ribbon,—he wore the cross, and was glorious without false shame.
"My wife," he said, "Monsieur the high chancellor is a charming man. On a hint from La Billardiere he accepted my invitation. He is coming with Monsieur Vauquelin. Monsieur de Lacepede is a great man,—yes, as great as Monsieur Vauquelin; he has continued the work of Buffon in forty volumes; he is an author, peer of France! Don't forget to address him as, Your Excellence, or, Monsieur le comte."
"Do eat something," said his wife. "Your father is worse than a child," added Constance to Cesarine.
"How well it looks in your button-hole," said Cesarine. "When we walk out together, won't they present arms?"
"Yes, wherever there are sentries they will present arms."
Just at this moment Grindot was coming downstairs with Braschon. It had been arranged that after dinner, monsieur, madame, and mademoiselle were to enjoy a first sight of the new appartement; Braschon's foreman was now nailing up the last brackets, and three men were lighting the rooms.
"It takes a hundred and twenty wax-candles," said Braschon.
"A bill of two hundred francs at Trudon's," said Madame Cesar, whose murmurs were checked by a glance from the chevalier Birotteau.
"Your ball will be magnificent, Monsieur le chevalier," said Braschon.
Birotteau whispered to himself, "Flatterers already! The Abbe Loraux urged me not to fall into that net, but to keep myself humble. I shall try to remember my origin."
Cesar did not perceive the meaning of the rich upholsterer's speech. Braschon made a dozen useless attempts to get invitations for himself, his wife, daughter, mother-in-law, and aunt. He called the perfumer Monsieur le chevalier to the door-way, and then he departed his enemy.
The rehearsal began. Cesar, his wife, and Cesarine went out by the shop-door and re-entered the house from the street. The entrance had been remodelled in the grand style, with double doors, divided into square panels, in the centre of which were architectural ornaments in cast-iron, painted. This style of door, since become common in Paris, was then a novelty. At the further end of the vestibule the staircase went up in two straight flights, and between them was the space which had given Cesar some uneasiness, and which was now converted into a species of box, where it was possible to seat an old woman. The vestibule, paved in black and white marble, with its walls painted to resemble marble, was lighted by an antique lamp with four jets. The architect had combined richness with simplicity. A narrow red carpet relieved the whiteness of the stairs, which were polished with pumice-stone. The first landing gave an entrance to the entresol; the doors to each appartement were of the same character as the street-door, but of finer work by a cabinet-maker.
The family reached the first floor and entered an ante-chamber in excellent taste, spacious, parquetted, and simply decorated. Next came a salon, with three windows on the street, in white and red, with cornices of an elegant design which had nothing gaudy about them. On a chimney-piece of white marble supported by columns were a number of mantel ornaments chosen with taste; they suggested nothing to ridicule, and were in keeping with the other details. A soft harmony prevailed throughout the room, a harmony which artists alone know how to attain by carrying uniformity of decoration into the minutest particulars,—an art of which the bourgeois mind is ignorant, though it is much taken with its results. A glass chandelier, with twenty-four wax-candles, brought out the color of the red silk draperies; the polished floor had an enticing look, which tempted Cesarine to dance.
"How charming!" she said; "and yet there is nothing to seize the eye."
"Exactly, mademoiselle," said the architect; "the charm comes from the harmony which reigns between the wainscots, walls, cornices, and the decorations; I have gilded nothing, the colors are sober, and not extravagant in tone."
"It is a science," said Cesarine.
A boudoir in green and white led into Cesar's study.
"Here I have put a bed," said Grindot, opening the doors of an alcove cleverly hidden between the two bookcases. "If you or madame should chance to be ill, each can have your own room."
"But this bookcase full of books, all bound! Oh! my wife, my wife!" cried Cesar.
"No; that is Cesarine's surprise."
"Pardon the feelings of a father," said Cesar to the architect, as he kissed his daughter.
"Oh! of course, of course, monsieur," said Grindot; "you are in your own home."
Brown was the prevailing color in the study, relieved here and there with green, for a thread of harmony led through all the rooms and allied them with one another. Thus the color which was the leading tone of one room became the relieving tint of another. The engraving of Hero and Leander shone on one of the panels of Cesar's study.
"Ah! thou wilt pay for all this," said Birotteau, looking gaily at it.
"That beautiful engraving is given to you by Monsieur Anselme," said Cesarine.
(Anselme, too, had allowed himself a "surprise.")
"Poor boy! he has done just as I did for Monsieur Vauquelin."
The bedroom of Madame Birotteau came next. The architect had there displayed a magnificence well calculated to please the worthy people whom he was anxious to snare; he had really kept his word and studied this decoration. The room was hung in blue silk, with white ornaments; the furniture was in white cassimere touched with blue. On the chimney-piece, of white marble, stood a clock representing Venus crouching, on a fine block of marble; a moquette carpet, of Turkish design, harmonized this room with that of Cesarine, which opened out of it, and was coquettishly hung with Persian chintz. A piano, a pretty wardrobe with a mirror door, a chaste little bed with simple curtains, and all the little trifles that young girls like, completed the arrangements of the room. The dining-room was behind the bedroom of Cesar and his wife, and was entered from the staircase; it was treated in the style called Louis XIV., with a clock in buhl, buffets of the same, inlaid with brass and tortoise-shell; the walls were hung with purple stuff, fastened down by gilt nails. The happiness of these three persons is not to be described, more especially when, re-entering her room, Madame Birotteau found upon her bed (where Virginie had just carried it, on tiptoe) the robe of cherry-colored velvet, with lace trimmings, which was her husband's "surprise."
"Monsieur, this appartement will win you great distinction," said Constance to Grindot. "We shall receive a hundred and more persons to-morrow evening, and you will win praises from everybody."
"I shall recommend you," said Cesar. "You will meet the very heads of commerce, and you will be better known through that one evening than if you had built a hundred houses."
Constance, much moved, thought no longer of costs, nor of blaming her husband; and for the following reason: That morning, when he brought the engraving of Hero and Leander, Anselme Popinot, whom Constance credited with much intelligence and practical ability, had assured her of the inevitable success of Cephalic Oil, for which he was working night and day with a fury that was almost unprecedented. The lover promised that no matter what was the round sum of Birotteau's extravagance, it should be covered in six months by Cesar's share in the profits of the oil. After fearing and trembling for nineteen years it was so sweet to give herself up to one day of unalloyed happiness, that Constance promised her daughter not to poison her husband's pleasure by any doubts or disapproval, but to share his happiness heartily. When therefore, about eleven o'clock, Grindot left them, she threw herself into her husband's arms and said to him with tears of joy, "Cesar! ah, I am beside myself! You have made me very happy!"
"Provided it lasts, you mean?" said Cesar, smiling.
"It will last; I have no more fears," said Madame Birotteau.
"That's right," said the perfumer; "you appreciate me at last."
People who are sufficiently large-minded to perceive their own innate weakness will admit that an orphan girl who eighteen years earlier was saleswoman at the Petit-Matelot, Ile Saint-Louis, and a poor peasant lad coming from Touraine to Paris with hob-nailed shoes and a cudgel in his hand, might well be flattered and happy in giving such a fete for such praiseworthy reasons.
"Bless my heart!" cried Cesar. "I'd give a hundred francs if someone would only come in now and pay us a visit."
"Here is Monsieur l'Abbe Loraux," said Virginie.
The abbe entered. He was at that time vicar of Saint-Sulpice. The power of the soul was never better manifested than in this saintly priest, whose intercourse with others left upon the minds of all an indelible impression. His grim face, so plain as to check confidence, had grown sublime through the exercise of Catholic virtues; upon it shone, as it were by anticipation, the celestial glories. Sincerity and candor, infused into his very blood, gave harmony to his unsightly features, and the fires of charity blended the discordant lines by a phenomenon, the exact counterpart of that which in Claparon had debased and brutalized the human being. Faith, Hope, and Charity, the three noblest virtues of humanity, shed their charm among the abbe's wrinkles; his speech was gentle, slow, and penetrating. His dress was that of the priests of Paris, and he allowed himself to wear a brown frock-coat. No ambition had ever crept into that pure heart, which the angels would some day carry to God in all its pristine innocence. It required the gentle firmness of the daughter of Louis XVI. to induce him to accept a benefice in Paris, humble as it was. As he now entered the room he glanced with an uneasy eye at the magnificence before him, smiled at the three delighted people, and shook his gray head.
"My children," he said, "my part in life is not to share in gaieties, but to visit the afflicted. I came to thank Monsieur Cesar for his invitation, and to congratulate you. I shall come to only one fete here,—the marriage of this dear child."
After the short visit the abbe went away without seeing the various apartments, which the perfumer and his wife dared not show him. This solemn apparition threw a few drops of cold water into the boiling delight of Cesar's heart. Each of the party slept amid their new luxury, taking possession of the good things and the pretty things they had severally wished for. Cesarine undressed her mother before a toilet-table of white marble with a long mirror. Cesar had given himself a few superfluities, and longed to make use of them at once: and they all went to sleep thinking of the joys of the morrow.
On that morrow Cesarine and her mother, having been to Mass, and having read their vespers, dressed about four o'clock in the afternoon, after resigning the entresol to the secular arm of Chevet and his people. No attire ever suited Madame Cesar better than this cherry-colored velvet dress with lace trimmings, and short sleeves made with jockeys: her beautiful arms, still fresh and youthful, her bosom, sparklingly white, her throat and shoulders of a lovely shape, were all heightened in effect by the rich material and the resplendent color. The naive delight which every woman feels when she sees herself in the plenitude of her power gave an inexpressible sweetness to the Grecian profile of this charming woman, whose beauty had all the delicacy of a cameo. Cesarine, dressed in white crape, wore a wreath of white roses, a rose at her waist, and a scarf chastely covering her shoulders and bust: Popinot was beside himself.
"These people crush us," said Madame Roguin to her husband as they went through the appartement.
The notary's wife was furious at appearing less beautiful than Madame Cesar; for every woman knows how to judge the superiority or the inferiority of a rival.
"Bah!" whispered Roguin to his wife, "it won't last long; you will soon bespatter her when you meet her a-foot in the streets, ruined."
Vauquelin showed perfect tact; he came with Monsieur de Lacepede, his colleague of the Institute, who had called to fetch him in a carriage. On beholding the resplendent mistress of the fete they both launched into scientific compliments.
"Ah, madame, you possess a secret of which science is ignorant," said the chemist, "the recipe for remaining young and beautiful."
"You are, as I may say, partly at home here, Monsieur l'academicien," said Birotteau. "Yes, Monsieur le comte," he added, turning to the high chancellor of the Legion of honor, "I owe my fortune to Monsieur Vauquelin. I have the honor to present to your lordship Monsieur le president of the Court of Commerce. This is Monsieur le Comte de Lacepede, peer of France," he said to Joseph Lebas, who accompanied the president.
The guests were punctual. The dinner, like all commercial dinners, was extremely gay, full of good humor, and enlivened by the rough jests which always raise a laugh. The excellence of the dishes and the goodness of the wines were fully appreciated. It was half-past nine o'clock when the company returned to the salons to take their coffee. A few hackney-coaches had already brought the first impatient dancers. An hour later the rooms were full, and the ball took the character of a rout. Monsieur de Lacepede and Monsieur Vauquelin went away, much to the grief of Cesar, who followed them to the staircase, vainly entreating them to remain. He succeeded, however, in keeping Monsieur Popinot the judge, and Monsieur de la Billardiere. With the exception of three women who severally represented the aristocracy, finance, and government circles,—namely, Mademoiselle de Fontaine, Madame Jules, and Madame Rabourdin, whose beauty, dress, and manners were sharply defined in this assemblage,—all the other women wore heavy, over-loaded dresses, and offered to the eye that anomalous air of richness which gives to the bourgeois masses their vulgar aspect, made cruelly apparent on this occasion by the airy graces of the three other women.
The bourgeoisie of the Rue Saint-Denis displayed itself majestically in the plenitude of its native powers of jocose silliness. It was a fair specimen of that middle class which dresses its children like lancers or national guards, buys the "Victoires et Conquetes," the "Soldat-laboureur," admires the "Convoi du Pauvre," delights in mounting guard, goes on Sunday to its own country-house, is anxious to acquire the distinguished air, and dreams of municipal honors,—that middle class which is jealous of all and of every one, and yet is good, obliging, devoted, feeling, compassionate, ready to subscribe for the children of General Foy, or for the Greeks, whose piracies it knows nothing about, or the Exiles until none remained; duped through its virtues and scouted for its defects by a social class that is not worthy of it, for it has a heart precisely because it is ignorant of social conventions,—that virtuous middle-class which brings up ingenuous daughters to an honorable toil, giving them sterling qualities which diminish as soon as they are brought in contact with the superior world of social life; girls without mind, among whom the worthy Chrysale would have chosen his wife,—in short, a middle-class admirably represented by the Matifats, druggists in the Rue des Lombards, whose firm had supplied "The Queen of Roses" for more than sixty years.
Madame Matifat, wishing to give herself a dignified air, danced in a turban and a heavy robe of scarlet shot with gold threads,—a toilet which harmonized well with a self-important manner, a Roman nose, and the splendors of a crimson complexion. Monsieur Matifat, superb at a review of the National Guard, where his protuberant paunch could be distinguished at fifty paces, and upon which glittered a gold chain and a bunch of trinkets, was under the yoke of this Catherine II. of commerce. Short and fat, harnessed with spectacles and a shirt-collar worn above his ears, he was chiefly distinguished for his bass voice and the richness of his vocabulary. He never said Corneille, but "the sublime Corneille"; Racine was "the gentle Racine"; Voltaire, "Oh! Voltaire, second in everything, with more wit than genius, but nevertheless a man of genius"; Rousseau, "a gloomy mind, a man full of pride, who hanged himself." He related in his prosy way vulgar anecdotes of Piron, a poet who passes for a prodigy among the bourgeoisie. Matifat, a passionate lover of the stage, had a slight leaning to obscenity. It was even said that, in imitation of Cadot and the rich Camusot, he kept a mistress. Sometimes Madame Matifat, seeing him about to relate some questionable anecdote, would hasten to interrupt him by screaming out: "Take care what you are saying, old man!" She called him habitually her "old man." This voluminous queen of drugs caused Mademoiselle de Fontaine to lose her aristocratic countenance, for the impertinent girl could not help laughing as she overheard her saying to her husband: "Don't fling yourself upon the ices, old man, it is bad style."
It is more difficult to explain the nature of the difference between the great world and the bourgeoisie than it is for the bourgeoisie to obliterate it. These women, embarrassed by their fine clothes and very conscious of them, displayed a naive pleasure which proved that a ball was a rarity in their busy lives; while the three women, who each represented a sphere in the great world, were then exactly what they would be on the morrow. They had no appearance of having dressed purposely for the ball, they paid no heed to the splendor of their jewels, nor to the effect which they themselves produced; all had been arranged when they stood before their mirrors and put the last touches on their toilets. Their faces showed no excitement or excessive interest, and they danced with the grace and ease which unknown genius has given to certain statues of antiquity.
The others, on the contrary, stamped with the mark of toil, retained their vulgar attitudes, and amused themselves too heartily; their eyes were full of inconsiderate curiosity; their voices ranged above the low murmur which gives inimitable piquancy to the conversations of a ball-room; above all, they had none of that composed impertinence which contains the germs of epigram, nor the tranquil attitude which characterizes those who are accustomed to maintain empire over themselves. Thus Madame Rabourdin, Madame Jules, and Mademoiselle de Fontaine, who had expected much amusement from the ball of their perfumer, were detached from the background of the bourgeoisie about them by their soft and easy grace, by the exquisite taste of their dress and bearing,—just as three leading singers at an opera stand out in relief from the stolid array of their supernumeraries. They were watched with jealous, wondering eyes. Madame Roguin, Constance, and Cesarine formed, as it were, a link which united the three types of feminine aristocracy to the commercial figures about them.
There came, as there does at all balls, a moment when the animation of the scene, the torrents of light, the gaiety, the music, the excitement of dancing brought on a species of intoxication which puts out of sight these gradations in the crescendo of the tutti. The ball was beginning to be noisy, and Mademoiselle de Fontaine made a movement to retire; but when she looked about for the arm of her venerable Vendeen, Birotteau, his wife, and daughter made haste to prevent such a desertion of the aristocracy.
"There is a perfume of good taste about this appartement which really amazes me," remarked that impertinent young woman to the perfumer. "I congratulate you."
Birotteau was so intoxicated by compliments that he did not comprehend her meaning; but his wife colored, and was at a loss how to reply.
"This is a national fete which does you honor," said Camusot.
"I have seldom seen such a ball," said Monsieur de la Billardiere, to whom an official falsehood was of no consequence.
Birotteau took all these compliments seriously.
"What an enchanting scene! What a fine orchestra! Will you often give us a ball?" said Madame Lebas.
"What a charming appartement! Is this your own taste?" said Madame Desmarets.
Birotteau ventured on a fib, and allowed her to suppose that he had designed it.
Cesarine, who was asked, of course, for all the dances, understood very well Anselme's delicacy in that matter.
"If I thought only of my own wishes," he had whispered as they left the dinner-table, "I should beg you to grant me the favor of a quadrille; but my happiness would be too costly to our mutual self-love."
Cesarine, who thought all men walked ungracefully if they stood straight on their legs, was resolved to open the ball with Popinot. Popinot, emboldened by his aunt, who told him to dare all, ventured to tell his love to the charming girl, during the pauses of the quadrille, using, however, the roundabout terms of a timid lover.
"My fortune depends on you, mademoiselle."
"There is but one hope that can enable me to make it."
"Do you know what you have said to me in those two words?" murmured Popinot.
"Hope for fortune," said Cesarine, with an arch smile.
"Gaudissart! Gaudissart!" exclaimed Anselme, when the quadrille was over, pressing the arm of his friend with Herculean force. "Succeed, or I'll blow my brains out! Success, and I shall marry Cesarine! she has told me so: see how lovely she is!"
"Yes, she is prettily tricked out," said Gaudissart, "and rich. We'll fry her in oil."
The good understanding between Mademoiselle Lourdois and Alexandre Crottat, the promised successor to Roguin, was noticed by Madame Birotteau, who could not give up without a pang the hope of seeing her daughter the wife of a notary of Paris.
Uncle Pillerault, who had exchanged bows with little Molineux, seated himself in an armchair near the bookshelves. He looked at the card-players, listened to the conversations, and went to the doorway every now and then to watch the oscillating bouquet of flowers formed by the circling heads of the dancers in the moulinet. The expression of his face was that of a true philosopher. The men were dreadful,—all, that is, except du Tillet, who had acquired the manners of the great world, little La Billardiere, a budding fashionable, Monsieur Desmarets, and the official personages. But among all the faces, more or less comical, from which the assemblage took its character, there was one that was particularly washed-out, like a five-franc piece of the Republic, and whose owner's apparel rendered him a curiosity. We guess at once the little tyrant of the Cour Batave, arrayed with linen yellowed by lying by in a cupboard, and exhibiting to the eye a shirt-frill of lace that had been an heirloom, fastened with a bluish cameo set as a pin; he wore short black-silk breeches which revealed the skinny legs on which he boldly stood. Cesar showed him, triumphantly, the four rooms constructed by the architect out of the first floors of the two houses.
"Hey! hey! Well, it is your affair, Monsieur Birotteau," said Molineux. "My first floor thus improved will be worth more than three thousand francs to me."
Birotteau answered with a jest; but he was pricked as if with a pin at the tone in which the little old man had pronounced the words.
"I shall soon have my first floor back again; the man will ruin himself." Such was the real meaning of the speech which Molineux delivered like the scratch of a claw.
The sallow face and vindictive eye of the old man struck du Tillet, whose attention had first been attracted by a watch-chain from which hung a pound of jingling gew-gaws, and by a green coat with a collar whimsically cocked up, which gave the old man the semblance of a rattlesnake. The banker approached the usurer to find out how and why he had thus bedizened himself.
"There, monsieur," said Molineux, planting one foot in the boudoir, "I stand upon the property of Monsieur le Comte de Grandville; but here," he added, showing the other, "I stand upon my own. I am the owner of this house."
Molineux was so ready to lend himself to any one who would listen to him, and so delighted by du Tillet's attentive manner, that he gave a sketch of his life, related his habits and customs, told the improper conduct of the Sieur Gendrin, and, finally, explained all his arrangements with the perfumer, without which, he said, the ball could not have been given.
"Ah! Monsieur Cesar let you settle the lease?" said du Tillet. "It is contrary to his habits."
"Oh! I asked it of him. I am good to my tenants."
"If Pere Birotteau fails," thought du Tillet, "this little imp would make an excellent assignee. His sharpness is invaluable; when he is alone he must amuse himself by catching flies, like Domitian."
Du Tillet went to the card-table, where Claparon was already stationed, under orders; Ferdinand thought that under shelter of a game of bouillotte his counterfeit banker might escape notice. Their demeanor to each other was that of two strangers, and the most suspicious man could have detected nothing that betrayed an understanding between them. Gaudissart, who knew the career of Claparon, dared not approach him after receiving a solemnly frigid glance from the promoted commercial traveller which warned him that the upstart banker was not to be recognized by any former comrade. The ball, like a brilliant rocket, was extinguished by five o'clock in the morning. At that hour only some forty hackney-coaches remained, out of the hundred or more which had crowded the Rue Saint-Honore. Within, they were dancing the boulangere, which has since been dethroned by the cotillon and the English galop. Du Tillet, Roguin, Cardot junior, the Comte de Grandville, and Jules Desmarets were playing at bouillotte. Du Tillet won three thousand francs. The day began to dawn, the wax lights paled, the players joined the dancers for a last quadrille. In such houses the final scenes of a ball never pass off without some impropriety. The dignified personages have departed; the intoxication of dancing, the heat of the atmosphere, the spirits concealed in the most innocent drinks, have mellowed the angularities of the old women, who good-naturedly join in the last quadrille and lend themselves to the excitement of the moment; the men are heated, their hair, lately curled, straggles down their faces, and gives them a grotesque expression which excites laughter; the young women grow volatile, and a few flowers drop from their garlands. The bourgeois Momus appears, followed by his revellers. Laughs ring loudly; all present surrender to the amusement of the moment, knowing that on the morrow toil will resume its sway. Matifat danced with a woman's bonnet on his head; Celestin called the figures of the interminable country dance, and some of the women beat their hands together excitedly at the words of command.
"How they do amuse themselves!" cried the happy Birotteau.
"I hope they won't break anything," said Constance to her uncle.
"You have given the most magnificent ball I have ever seen, and I have seen many," said du Tillet, bowing to his old master.
Among the eight symphonies of Beethoven there is a theme, glorious as a poem, which dominates the finale of the symphony in C minor. When, after slow preparations by the sublime magician, so well understood by Habeneck, the enthusiastic leader of an orchestra raises the rich veil with a motion of his hand and calls forth the transcendent theme towards which the powers of music have all converged, poets whose hearts have throbbed at those sounds will understand how the ball of Cesar Birotteau produced upon his simple being the same effect that this fecund harmony wrought in theirs,—an effect to which the symphony in C minor owes its supremacy over its glorious sisters. A radiant fairy springs forward, lifting high her wand. We hear the rustle of the violet silken curtains which the angels raise. Sculptured golden doors, like those of the baptistery at Florence, turn on their diamond hinges. The eye is lost in splendid vistas: it sees a long perspective of rare palaces where beings of a loftier nature glide. The incense of all prosperities sends up its smoke, the altar of all joy flames, the perfumed air circulates! Beings with divine smiles, robed in white tunics bordered with blue, flit lightly before the eyes and show us visions of supernatural beauty, shapes of an incomparable delicacy. The Loves hover in the air and waft the flames of their torches! We feel ourselves beloved; we are happy as we breathe a joy we understand not, as we bathe in the waves of a harmony that flows for all, and pours out to all the ambrosia that each desires. We are held in the grasp of our secret hopes which are realized, for an instant, as we listen. When he has led us through the skies, the great magician, with a deep mysterious transition of the basses, flings us back into the marshes of cold reality, only to draw us forth once more when, thirsting for his divine melodies, our souls cry out, "Again! Again!" The psychical history of that rare moment in the glorious finale of the C minor symphony is also that of the emotions excited by this fete in the souls of Cesar and of Constance. The flute of Collinet sounded the last notes of their commercial symphony.
Weary, but happy, the Birotteaus fell asleep in the early morning amid echoes of the fete,—which for building, repairs, furnishing, suppers, toilets, and the library (repaid to Cesarine), cost not less, though Cesar was little aware of it, than sixty thousand francs. Such was the price of the fatal red ribbon fastened by the king to the buttonhole of an honest perfumer. If misfortunes were to overtake Cesar Birotteau, this mad extravagance would be sufficient to arraign him before the criminal courts. A merchant is amenable to the laws if, in the event of bankruptcy, he is shown to have been guilty of "excessive expenditure." It is perhaps more dreadful to go before the lesser courts charged with folly or blundering mistakes, than before the Court of Assizes for an enormous fraud. In the eyes of some people, it is better to be criminal than a fool.