The old man was reading the "Constitutionnel" in his chimney-corner, before a little round table on which stood his frugal breakfast,—a roll, some butter, a plate of Brie cheese, and a cup of coffee.
"Here is true wisdom," thought Birotteau, envying his uncle's life.
"Well!" said Pillerault, taking off his spectacles, "I heard at the cafe David last night about Roguin's affair, and the assassination of his mistress, la belle Hollandaise. I hope, as we desire to be actual owners of the property, that you obtained Claparon's receipt for the money."
"Alas! uncle, no. The trouble is just there,—you have put your finger upon the sore."
"Good God! you are ruined!" cried Pillerault, letting fall his newspaper, which Birotteau picked up, though it was the "Constitutionnel."
Pillerault was so violently roused by his reflections that his face—like the image on a medal and of the same stern character—took a deep bronze tone, such as the metal itself takes under the oscillating tool of a coiner; he remained motionless, gazing through the window-panes at the opposite wall, but seeing nothing,—listening, however, to Birotteau. Evidently he heard and judged, and weighed the pros and cons with the inflexibility of a Minos who had crossed the Styx of commerce when he quitted the Quai des Morfondus for his little third storey.
"Well, uncle?" said Birotteau, who waited for an answer, after closing what he had to say with an entreaty that Pillerault would sell sixty thousand francs out of the Funds.
"Well, my poor nephew, I cannot do it; you are too heavily involved. The Ragons and I each lose our fifty thousand francs. Those worthy people have, by my advice, sold their shares in the mines of Wortschin: I feel obliged, in case of loss, not to return the capital of course, but to succor them, and to succor my niece and Cesarine. You may all want bread, and you shall find it with me."
"Want bread, uncle?"
"Yes, bread. See things as they are, Cesar. You cannot extricate yourself. With five thousand six hundred francs income, I could set aside four thousand francs for you and the Ragons. If misfortune overtakes you,—I know Constance, she will work herself to the bone, she will deny herself everything; and so will you, Cesar."
"All is not hopeless, uncle."
"I cannot see it as you do."
"I will prove that you are mistaken."
"Nothing would give me greater happiness."
Birotteau left Pillerault without another word. He had come to seek courage and consolation, and he received a blow less severe, perhaps, than the first; but instead of striking his head it struck his heart, and his heart was the whole of life to the poor man. After going down a few stairs he returned.
"Monsieur," he said, in a cold voice, "Constance knows nothing. Keep my secret at any rate; beg the Ragons to say nothing, and not to take from my home the peace I need so much in my struggle against misfortune."
Pillerault made a gesture of assent.
"Courage, Cesar!" he said. "I see you are angry with me; but later, when you think of your wife and daughter, you will do me justice."
Discouraged by his uncle's opinion, and recognizing its clear-sightedness, Cesar tumbled from the heights of hope into the miry marshes of doubt and uncertainty. In such horrible commercial straits a man, unless his soul is tempered like that of Pillerault, becomes the plaything of events; he follows the ideas of others, or his own, as a traveller pursues a will-o'-the-wisp. He lets the gust whirl him along, instead of lying flat and not looking up as it passes; or else gathering himself together to follow the direction of the storm till he can escape from the edges of it. In the midst of his pain Birotteau bethought him of the steps he ought to take about the mortgage on his property. He turned towards the Rue Vivienne to find Derville, his solicitor, and institute proceedings at once, in case the lawyer should see any chance of annulling the agreement. He found Derville sitting by the fire, wrapped in a white woollen dressing-gown, calm and composed in manner, like all lawyers long used to receiving terrible confidences. Birotteau noticed for the first time in his life this necessary coldness, which struck a chill to the soul of a man grasped by the fever of imperilled interests,—passionate, wounded, and cruelly gashed in his life, his honor, his wife, his child, as Cesar showed himself to be while he related his misfortunes.
"If it can be proved," said Derville, after listening to him, "that the lender no longer had in Roguin's hands the sum which Roguin pretended to borrow for you upon your property, then, as there has been no delivery of the money, there is ground for annulling the contract; the lender may seek redress through the warranty, as you will for your hundred thousand francs. I will answer for the case, however, as much as one can ever answer. No case is won till it is tried."
The opinion of so able a lawyer restored Cesar's courage a little, and he begged Derville to obtain a judgment within a fortnight. The solicitor replied that it might take three months to get such a judgment as would annul the agreement.
"Three months!" cried Birotteau, who needed immediate resources.
"Though we may get the case at once on the docket, we cannot make your adversary keep pace with us. He will employ all the law's delays, and the barristers are seldom ready. Perhaps your opponents will let the case go by default. We can't always get on as we wish," said Derville, smiling.
"In the commercial courts—" began Birotteau.
"Oh!" said the lawyer, "the judges of the commercial courts and the judges of the civil courts are different sorts of judges. You dash through things. At the Palais de Justice we have stricter forms. Forms are the bulwarks of law. How would you like slap-dash judgments, which can't be appealed, and which would make you lose forty thousand francs? Well, your adversary, who sees that sum involved, will defend himself. Delays may be called judicial fortifications."
"You are right," said Birotteau, bidding Derville good-by, and going hurriedly away, with death in his heart.
"They are all right. Money! money! I must have money!" he cried as he went along the streets, talking to himself like other busy men in the turbulent and seething city, which a modern poet has called a vat. When he entered his shop, the clerk who had carried round the bills informed him that the customers had returned the receipts and kept the accounts, as it was so near the first of January.
"Then there is no money to be had anywhere," said the perfumer, aloud.
He bit his lips, for the clerks all raised their heads and looked at him.
Five days went by; five days during which Braschon, Lourdois, Thorein, Grindot, Chaffaroux, and all the other creditors with unpaid bills passed through the chameleon phases that are customary to uneasy creditors before they take the sanguinary colors of the commercial Bellona, and reach a state of peaceful confidence. In Paris the astringent stage of suspicion and mistrust is as quick to declare itself as the expansive flow of confidence is slow in gathering way. The creditor who has once turned into the narrow path of commercial fears and precautions speedily takes a course of malignant meanness which puts him below the level of his debtor. He passes from specious civility to impatient rage, to the surly clamor of importunity, to bursts of disappointment, to the livid coldness of a mind made up to vengeance, and the scowling insolence of a summons before the courts. Braschon, the rich upholsterer of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, who was not invited to the ball, and was therefore stabbed in his self-love, sounded the charge; he insisted on being paid within twenty-four hours. He demanded security; not an attachment on the furniture, but a second mortgage on the property in the Faubourg du Temple.
In spite of such attacks and the violence of these recriminations, a few peaceful intervals occurred, when Birotteau breathed once more; but instead of resolutely facing and vanquishing the first skirmishings of adverse fortune, Cesar employed his whole mind in the effort to keep his wife, the only person able to advise him, from knowing anything about them. He guarded the very threshold of his door, and set a watch on all around him. He took Celestin into confidence so far as to admit a momentary embarrassment, and Celestin examined him with an amazed and inquisitive look. In his eyes Cesar lessened, as men lessen in presence of disasters when accustomed only to success, and when their whole mental strength consists of knowledge which commonplace minds acquire through routine.
Menaced as he was on so many sides at once, and without the energy or capacity to defend himself, Cesar nevertheless had the courage to look his position in the face. To meet the payments on his house and on his loans, and to pay his rents and his current expenses, he required, between the end of December and the fifteenth of January, a sum of sixty thousand francs, half of which must be obtained before the thirtieth of December. All his resources put together gave him a scant twenty thousand; he lacked ten thousand francs for the first payments. To his mind the position did not seem desperate; for like an adventurer who lives from day to day, he saw only the present moment. He resolved to attempt, before the news of his embarrassments was made public, what seemed to him a great stroke, and seek out the famous Francois Keller, banker, orator, and philanthropist, celebrated for his benevolence and for his desire to serve the interests of Parisian commerce,—with the view, we may add, of being always returned to the Chamber as a deputy of Paris.
The banker was Liberal, Birotteau was Royalist; but the perfumer judged by his own heart, and believed that the difference in their political opinions would only be one reason the more for obtaining the credit he intended to ask. In case actual securities were required he felt no doubt of Popinot's devotion, from whom he expected to obtain some thirty thousand francs, which would enable him to await the result of his law-suit by satisfying the demands of the most exacting of the creditors. The demonstrative perfumer, who told his dear Constance, with his head on her pillow, the smallest thoughts and feelings of his whole life, looking for the lights of her contradiction, and gathering courage as he did so, was now prevented from speaking of his situation to his head-clerk, his uncle, or his wife. His thoughts were therefore doubly heavy,—and yet the generous martyr preferred to suffer, rather than fling the fiery brand into the soul of his wife. He meant to tell her of the danger when it was over. The awe with which she inspired him gave him courage. He went every morning to hear Mass at Saint-Roch, and took God for his confidant.
"If I do not meet a soldier coming home from Saint-Roch, my request will be granted. That will be God's answer," he said to himself, after praying that God would help him.
And he was overjoyed when it happened that he did not meet a soldier. Still, his heart was so heavy that he needed another heart on which to lean and moan. Cesarine, to whom from the first he confided the fatal truth, knew all his secrets. Many stolen glances passed between them, glances of despair or smothered hope,—interpellations of the eye darted with mutual eagerness, inquiries and replies full of sympathy, rays passing from soul to soul. Birotteau compelled himself to seem gay, even jovial, with his wife. If Constance asked a question—bah! everything was going well; Popinot (about whom Cesar knew nothing) was succeeding; the oil was looking up; the notes with Claparon would be paid; there was nothing to fear. His mock joy was terrible to witness. When his wife had fallen asleep in the sumptuous bed, Birotteau would rise to a sitting position and think over his troubles. Cesarine would sometimes creep in with her bare feet, in her chemise, and a shawl over her white shoulders.
"Papa, I hear you,—you are crying," she would say, crying herself.
Birotteau sank into such a torpor, after writing the letter which asked for an interview with the great Francois Keller, that his daughter took him out for a walk through the streets of Paris. For the first time he was roused to notice enormous scarlet placards on all the walls, and his eyes encountered the words "Cephalic Oil."
While catastrophes thus threatened "The Queen of Roses" to westward, the house of A. Popinot was rising, radiant in the eastern splendors of success. By the advice of Gaudissart and Finot, Anselme launched his oil heroically. Two thousand placards were pasted in three days on the most conspicuous spots in all Paris. No one could avoid coming face to face with Cephalic Oil, and reading a pithy sentence, constructed by Finot, which announced the impossibility of forcing the hair to grow and the dangers of dyeing it, and was judiciously accompanied by a quotation from Vauquelin's report to the Academy of Sciences,—in short, a regular certificate of life for dead hair, offered to all those who used Cephalic Oil. Every hair-dresser in Paris, and all the perfumers, ornamented their doorways with gilt frames containing a fine impression of the prospectus on vellum, at the top of which shone the engraving of Hero and Leander, reduced in size, with the following assertion as an epigraph: "The peoples of antiquity preserved their hair by the use of Cephalic Oil."
"He has devised frames, permanent frames, perpetual placards," said Birotteau to himself, quite dumbfounded as he stood before the shop-front of the Cloche d'Argent.
"Then you have not seen," said his daughter, "the frame which Monsieur Anselme has brought with his own hands, sending Celestin three hundred bottles of oil?"
"No," he said.
"Celestin has already sold fifty to passers-by, and sixty to regular customers."
"Ah!" exclaimed Cesar.
The poor man, bewildered by the clash of bells which misery jangles in the ears of its victims, lived and moved in a dazed condition. The night before, Popinot had waited more than an hour to see him, and went away after talking with Constance and Cesarine, who told him that Cesar was absorbed in his great enterprise.
"Ah, true! the lands about the Madeleine."
Happily, Popinot—who for a month had never left the Rue des Cinq-Diamants, sitting up all night, and working all Sunday at the manufactory—had seen neither the Ragons, nor Pillerault, nor his uncle the judge. He allowed himself but two hours' sleep, poor lad! he had only two clerks, but at the rate things were now going, he would soon need four. In business, opportunity is everything. He who does not spring upon the back of success and clutch it by the mane, lets fortune escape. Popinot felt that his suit would prosper if six months hence he could say to his uncle and aunt, "I am secure; my fortune is made," and carry to Birotteau thirty or forty thousand francs as his share of the profits. He was ignorant of Roguin's flight, of the disasters and embarrassments which were closing down on Cesar, and he therefore could say nothing indiscreet to Madame Birotteau.
Popinot had promised Finot five hundred francs for every puff in a first-class newspaper, and already there were ten of them; three hundred francs for every second-rate paper, and there were ten of those,—in all of them Cephalic Oil was mentioned three times a month! Finot saw three thousand francs for himself out of these eight thousand—his first stake on the vast green table of speculation! He therefore sprang like a lion on his friends and acquaintances; he haunted the editorial rooms; he wormed himself to the very bedsides of editors in the morning, and prowled about the lobby of the theatres at night. "Think of my oil, dear friend; I have no interest in it—bit of good fellowship, you know!" "Gaudissart, jolly dog!" Such was the first and the last phrase of all his allocutions. He begged for the bottom lines of the final columns of the newspapers, and inserted articles for which he asked no pay from the editors. Wily as a supernumerary who wants to be an actor, wide-awake as an errand-boy who earns sixty francs a month, he wrote wheedling letters, flattered the self-love of editors-in-chief, and did them base services to get his articles inserted. Money, dinners, platitudes, all served the purpose of his eager activity. With tickets for the theatre, he bribed the printers who about midnight are finishing up the columns of a newspaper with little facts and ready-made items kept on hand. At that hour Finot hovered around printing-presses, busy, apparently, with proofs to be corrected. Keeping friends with everybody, he brought Cephalic Oil to a triumphant success over Pate de Regnauld, and Brazilian Mixture, and all the other inventions which had the genius to comprehend journalistic influence and the suction power that reiterated newspaper articles have upon the public mind. In these early days of their innocence many journalists were like cattle; they were unaware of their inborn power; their heads were full of actresses,—Florine, Tullia, Mariette, etc. They laid down the law to everybody, but they picked up nothing for themselves. As Finot's schemes did not concern actresses who wanted applause, nor plays to be puffed, nor vaudevilles to be accepted, nor articles which had to be paid for,—on the contrary, he paid money on occasion, and gave timely breakfasts,—there was soon not a newspaper in Paris which did not mention Cephalic Oil, and call attention to its remarkable concurrence with the principles of Vauquelin's analysis; ridiculing all those who thought hair could be made to grow, and proclaiming the danger of dyeing it.
These articles rejoiced the soul of Gaudissart, who used them as ammunition to destroy prejudices, bringing to bear upon the provinces what his successors have since named, in honor of him, "the charge of the tongue-battery." In those days Parisian newspapers ruled the departments, which were still (unhappy regions!) without local organs. The papers were therefore soberly studied, from the title to the name of the printer,—a last line which may have hidden the ironies of persecuted opinion. Gaudissart, thus backed up by the press, met with startling success from the very first town which he favored with his tongue. Every shopkeeper in the provinces wanted the gilt frames, and the prospectuses with Hero and Leander at the top of them.
In Paris, Finot fired at Macassar Oil that delightful joke which made people so merry at the Funambules, when Pierrot, taking an old hair-broom, anointed it with Macassar Oil, and the broom incontinently became a mop. This ironical scene excited universal laughter. Finot gaily related in after days that without the thousand crowns he earned through Cephalic Oil he should have died of misery and despair. To him a thousand crowns was fortune. It was in this campaign that he guessed—let him have the honor of being the first to do so—the illimitable power of advertisement, of which he made so great and so judicious a use. Three months later he became editor-in-chief of a little journal which he finally bought, and which laid the foundation of his ultimate success. Just as the tongue-battery of the illustrious Gaudissart, that Murat of travellers, when brought to bear upon the provinces and the frontiers, made the house of A. Popinot and Company a triumphant mercantile success in the country regions, so likewise did Cephalic Oil triumph in Parisian opinion, thanks to Finot's famishing assault upon the newspapers, which gave it as much publicity as that obtained by Brazilian Mixture and the Pate de Regnauld. From the start, public opinion, thus carried by storm, begot three successes, three fortunes, and proved the advance guard of that invasion of ambitious schemes which since have poured their crowded battalions into the arena of journalism, for which they have created—oh, mighty revolution!—the paid advertisement. The name of A. Popinot and Company now flaunted on all the walls and all the shop-fronts. Incapable of perceiving the full bearing of such publicity, Birotteau merely said to his daughter,—
"Little Popinot is following in my steps."
He did not understand the difference of the times, nor appreciate the power of the novel methods of execution, whose rapidity and extent took in, far more promptly than ever before, the whole commercial universe. Birotteau had not set foot in his manufactory since the ball; he knew nothing therefore of the energy and enterprise displayed by Popinot. Anselme had engaged all Cesar's workmen, and often slept himself on the premises. His fancy pictured Cesarine sitting on the cases, and hovering over the shipments; her name seemed printed on the bills; and as he worked with his coat off, and his shirt-sleeves rolled up, courageously nailing up the cases himself, in default of the necessary clerks, he said in his heart, "She shall be mine!"
The following day Cesar went to Francois Keller's house in Rue du Houssaye, having spent the night turning over in his mind what he ought to say, or ought not to say, to a leading man in banking circles. Horrible palpitations of the heart assailed him as he approached the house of the Liberal banker, who belonged to a party accused, with good reason, of seeking the overthrow of the restored Bourbons. The perfumer, like all the lesser tradesmen of Paris, was ignorant of the habits and customs of the upper banking circles. Between the higher walks of finance and ordinary commerce, there is in Paris a class of secondary houses, useful intermediaries for banking interests, which find in them an additional security. Constance and Birotteau, who had never gone beyond their means, whose purse had never run dry, and who kept their moneys in their own possession, had so far never needed the services of these intermediary houses; they were therefore unknown in the higher regions of a bank. Perhaps it is a mistake not to take out credits, even if we do not need them. Opinions vary on this point. However that may be, Birotteau now deeply regretted that his signature was unknown. Still, as deputy-mayor, and therefore known in politics, he thought he had only to present his name and be admitted: he was quite ignorant of the ceremonial, half regal, which attended an audience with Francois Keller. He was shown into a salon which adjoined the study of the celebrated banker,—celebrated in various ways. Birotteau found himself among a numerous company of deputies, writers, journalists, stock-brokers, merchants of the upper grades, agents, engineers, and above all satellites, or henchmen, who passed from group to group, and knocked in a peculiar manner at the door of the study, which they were, as it seemed, privileged to enter.
"What am I in the midst of all this?" thought Birotteau, quite bewildered by the stir of this intellectual kiln, where the daily bread of the opposition was kneaded and baked, and the scenes of the grand tragi-comedy played by the Left were rehearsed. On one side he heard them discussing the question of loans to complete the net-work of canals proposed by the department on highways; and the discussion involved millions! On the other, journalists, pandering to the banker's self-love, were talking about the session of the day before, and the impromptu speech of the great man. In the course of two long hours Birotteau saw the banker three times, as he accompanied certain persons of importance three steps from the door of his study. But Francois Keller went to the door of the antechamber with the last, who was General Foy.
"There is no hope for me!" thought Birotteau with a shrinking heart.
When the banker returned to his study, the troop of courtiers, friends, and self-seekers pressed round him like dogs pursuing a bitch. A few bold curs slipped, in spite of him, into the sanctum. The conferences lasted five, ten, or fifteen minutes. Some went away chap-fallen; others affected satisfaction, and took on airs of importance. Time passed; Birotteau looked anxiously at the clock. No one paid the least attention to the hidden grief which moaned silently in the gilded armchair in the chimney corner, near the door of the cabinet where dwelt the universal panacea—credit! Cesar remembered sadly that for a brief moment he too had been a king among his own people, as this man was a king daily; and he measured the depth of the abyss down which he had fallen. Ah, bitter thought! how many tears were driven back during those waiting hours! how many times did he not pray to God that this man might be favorable to him! for he saw, through the coarse varnish of popular good humor, a tone of insolence, a choleric tyranny, a brutal desire to rule, which terrified his gentle spirit. At last, when only ten or twelve persons were left in the room, Birotteau resolved that the next time the outer door of the study turned on its hinges he would rise and face the great orator, and say to him, "I am Birotteau!" The grenadier who sprang first into the redoubt at Moscow displayed no greater courage than Cesar now summoned up to perform this act.
"After all, I am his mayor," he said to himself as he rose to proclaim his name.
The countenance of Francois Keller at once became affable; he evidently desired to be cordial. He glanced at Cesar's red ribbon, and stepping back, opened the door of his study and motioned him to enter, remaining himself for some time to speak with two men, who rushed in from the staircase with the violence of a waterspout.
"Decazes wants to speak to you," said one of them.
"It is a question of defeating the Pavillon Marsan!" cried the other. "The King's eyes are opened. He is coming round to us."
"We will go together to the Chamber," said the banker, striking the attitude of the frog who imitates an ox.
"How can he find time to think of business?" thought Birotteau, much disturbed.
The sun of successful superiority dazzled the perfumer, as light blinds those insects who seek the falling day or the half-shadows of a starlit night. On a table of immense size lay the budget, piles of the Chamber records, open volumes of the "Moniteur," with passages carefully marked, to throw at the head of a Minister his forgotten words and force him to recant them, under the jeering plaudits of a foolish crowd incapable of perceiving how circumstances alter cases. On another table were heaped portfolios, minutes, projects, specifications, and all the thousand memoranda brought to bear upon a man into whose funds so many nascent industries sought to dip. The royal luxury of this cabinet, filled with pictures, statues, and works of art; the encumbered chimney-piece; the accumulation of many interests, national and foreign, heaped together like bales,—all struck Birotteau's mind, dwarfed his powers, heightened his terror, and froze his blood. On Francois Keller's desk lay bundles of notes and checks, letters of credit, and commercial circulars. Keller sat down and began to sign rapidly such letters as needed no examination.
"Monsieur, to what do I owe the honor of this visit?"
At these words, uttered for him alone by a voice which influenced all Europe, while the eager hand was running over the paper, the poor perfumer felt something that was like a hot iron in his stomach. He assumed the ingratiating manner which for ten years past the banker had seen all men put on when they wanted to get the better of him for their own purposes, and which gave him at once the advantage over them. Francois Keller accordingly darted at Cesar a look which shot through his head,—a Napoleonic look. This imitation of Napoleon's glance was a silly satire, then popular with certain parvenus who had never seen so much as the base coin of their emperor. This glance fell upon Birotteau, a devotee of the Right, a partisan of the government,—himself an element of monarchical election,—like the stamp of a custom-house officer affixed to a bale of merchandise.
"Monsieur, I will not waste your time; I will be brief. I come on commercial business only,—to ask if I can obtain a credit. I was formerly a judge of the commercial courts, and known to the Bank of France. You will easily understand that if I had plenty of ready money I need only apply there, where you are yourself a director. I had the honor of sitting on the Bench of commerce with Monsieur le baron Thibon, chairman of the committee on discounts; and he, most assuredly, would not refuse me. But up to this time I have never made use of my credit or my signature; my signature is virgin,—and you know what difficulties that puts in the way of negotiation."
Keller moved his head, and Birotteau took the movement for one of impatience.
"Monsieur, these are the facts," he resumed. "I am engaged in an affair of landed property, outside of my business—"
Francois Keller, who continued to sign and read his documents, without seeming to listen to Birotteau, here turned round and made him a little sign of attention, which encouraged the poor man. He thought the matter was taking a favorable turn, and breathed again.
"Go on; I hear you," said Keller good-naturedly.
"I have purchased, at half its value, certain land about the Madeleine—"
"Yes; I heard Nucingen speak of that immense affair,—undertaken, I believe, by Claparon and Company."
"Well," continued Cesar, "a credit of a hundred thousand francs, secured on my share of the purchase, will suffice to carry me along until I can reap certain profits from a discovery of mine in perfumery. Should it be necessary, I will cover your risk by notes on a new establishment,—the firm of A. Popinot—"
Keller seemed to care very little about the firm of Popinot; and Birotteau, perceiving that he had made a false move, stopped short; then, alarmed by the silence, he resumed, "As for the interest, we—"
"Yes, yes," said the banker, "the matter can be arranged; don't doubt my desire to be of service to you. Busy as I am,—for I have the finances of Europe on my shoulders, and the Chamber takes all my time,—you will not be surprised to hear that I leave the vast bulk of our affairs to the examination of others. Go and see my brother Adolphe, downstairs; explain to him the nature of your securities; if he approves of the operation, come back here with him to-morrow or the day after, at five in the morning,—the hour at which I examine into certain business matters. We shall be proud and happy to obtain your confidence. You are one of those consistent royalists with whom, of course, we are political enemies, but whose good-will is always flattering—"
"Monsieur," said Cesar, elated by this specimen of tribune eloquence, "I trust I am as worthy of the honor you do me as I was of the signal and royal favor which I earned by my services on the Bench of commerce, and by fighting—"
"Yes, yes," interrupted the banker, "your reputation is a passport, Monsieur Birotteau. You will, of course, propose nothing that is not feasible, and you can depend on our co-operation."
A lady, Madame Keller, one of the two daughters of the Comte de Gondreville, here opened a door which Birotteau had not observed.
"I hope to see you before you go the Chamber," she said.
"It is two o'clock," exclaimed the banker; "the battle has begun. Excuse me, monsieur, it is a question of upsetting the ministry. See my brother—"
He conducted the perfumer to the door of the salon, and said to one of the servants, "Show monsieur the way to Monsieur Adolphe."
As Cesar traversed a labyrinth of staircases, under the guidance of a man in livery, towards an office far less sumptuous but more useful than that of the head of the house, feeling himself astride the gentle steed of hope, he stroked his chin, and augured well from the flatteries of the great man. He regretted that an enemy of the Bourbons should be so gracious, so able, so fine an orator.
Full of these illusions he entered a cold bare room, furnished with two desks on rollers, some shabby armchairs, a threadbare carpet, and curtains that were much neglected. This cabinet was to that of the elder brother like a kitchen to a dining-room, or a work-room to a shop. Here were turned inside out all matters touching the bank and commerce; here all enterprises were sifted, and the first tithes levied, on behalf of the bank, upon the profits of industries judged worthy of being upheld. Here were devised those bold strokes by which short-lived monopolies were called into being and rapidly sucked dry. Here defects of legislation were chronicled; and bargains driven, without shame, for what the Bourse terms "pickings to be gobbled up," commissions exacted for the smallest services, such as lending their name to an enterprise, and allowing it credit. Here were hatched the specious, legal plots by which silent partnerships were taken in doubtful enterprises, that the bank might lie in wait for the moment of success, and then crush them and seize the property by demanding a return of the capital at a critical moment,—an infamous trick, which involves and ruins many small shareholders.
The two brothers had each selected his appropriate part. Upstairs, Francois, the brilliant man of the world and of politics, assumed a regal air, bestowed courtesies and promises, and made himself agreeable to all. His manners were easy and complying; he looked at business from a lofty standpoint; he intoxicated new recruits and fledgling speculators with the wine of his favor and his fervid speech, as he made plain to them their own ideas. Downstairs, Adolphe unsaid his brother's words, excused him on the ground of political preoccupation, and cleverly slipped the rake along the cloth. He played the part of the responsible partner, the careful business man. Two words, two speeches, two interviews, were required before an understanding could be reached with this perfidious house. Often the gracious "yes" of the sumptuous upper floor became a dry "no" in Adolphe's region. This obstructive manoeuvre gave time for reflection, and often served to fool unskilful applicants. As Cesar entered, the banker's brother was conversing with the famous Palma, intimate adviser of the house of Keller, who retired on the appearance of the perfumer. When Birotteau had explained his errand, Adolphe—much the cleverest of the two brothers, a thorough lynx, with a keen eye, thin lips, and a dry skin—cast at Birotteau, lowering his head to look over his spectacles as he did so, a look which we must call the banker-look,—a cross between that of a vulture and that of an attorney; eager yet indifferent, clear yet vague, glittering though sombre.
"Have the goodness to send me the deeds relating to the affair of the Madeleine," he said; "our security in making you this credit lies there: we must examine them before we consent to make it, or discuss the terms. If the affair is sound, we shall be willing, so as not to embarrass you, to take a share of the profits in place of receiving a discount."
"Well," thought Birotteau, as he walked away, "I see what it means. Like the hunted beaver, I am to give up a part of my skin. After all, it is better to be shorn than killed."
He went home smiling gaily, and his gaiety was genuine.
"I am saved," he said to Cesarine. "I am to have a credit with the Kellers."