At the time when Madame Bridau returned to Issoudun to save — as Maitre Desroches expressed it — an inheritance that was seriously threatened, Jean–Jacques Rouget had reached by degrees a condition that was semi-vegetative. In the first place, after Max’s instalment, Flore put the table on an episcopal footing. Rouget, thrown in the way of good living, ate more and still more, enticed by the Vedie’s excellent dishes. He grew no fatter, however, in spite of this abundant and luxurious nourishment. From day to day he weakened like a worn-out man — fatigued, perhaps, with the effort of digestion — and his eyes had dark circles around them. Still, when his friends and neighbors met him in his walks and questioned him about his health, he always answered that he was never better in his life. As he had always been thought extremely deficient in mind, people did not notice the constant lowering of his faculties. His love for Flore was the one thing that kept him alive; in fact, he existed only for her, and his weakness in her presence was unbounded; he obeyed the creature’s mere look, and watched her movements as a dog watches every gesture of his master. In short, as Madame Hochon remarked, at fifty-seven years of age he seemed older than Monsieur Hochon, an octogenarian.
Every one will suppose, and with reason, that Max’s appartement was worthy of so charming a fellow. In fact, in the course of six years our captain had by degrees perfected the comfort of his abode and adorned every detail of it, as much for his own pleasure as for Flore’s. But it was, after all, only the comfort and luxury of Issoudun — colored tiles, rather elegant wallpapers, mahogany furniture, mirrors in gilt frames, muslin curtains with red borders, a bed with a canopy, and draperies arranged as the provincial upholsterers arrange them for a rich bride; which in the eyes of Issoudun seemed the height of luxury, but are so common in vulgar fashion-plates that even the petty shopkeepers in Paris have discarded them at their weddings. One very unusual thing appeared, which caused much talk in Issoudun, namely, a rush-matting on the stairs, no doubt to muffle the sound of feet. In fact, though Max was in the habit of coming in at daybreak, he never woke any one, and Rouget was far from suspecting that his guest was an accomplice in the nocturnal performances of the Knights of Idleness.
About eight o’clock the next morning, Flore, wearing a dressing-gown of some pretty cotton stuff with narrow pink stripes, a lace cap on her head, and her feet in furred slippers, softly opened the door of Max’s chamber; seeing that he slept, she remained standing beside the bed.
“He came in so late!” she said to herself. “It was half-past three. He must have a good constitution to stand such amusements. Isn’t he strong, the dear love! I wonder what they did last night.”
“Oh, there you are, my little Flore!” said Max, waking like a soldier trained by the necessities of war to have his wits and his self-possession about him the instant that he waked, however suddenly it might happen.
“You are sleepy; I’ll go away.”
“No, stay; there’s something serious going on.”
“Were you up to some mischief last night?”
“Ah, bah! It concerns you and me and that old fool. You never told me he had a family! Well, his family are coming — coming here — no doubt to turn us out, neck and crop.”
“Ah! I’ll shake him well,” said Flore.
“Mademoiselle Brazier,” said Max gravely, “things are too serious for giddiness. Send me my coffee; I’ll take it in bed, where I’ll think over what we had better do. Come back at nine o’clock, and we’ll talk about it. Meanwhile, behave as if you had heard nothing.”
Frightened at the news, Flore left Max and went to make his coffee; but a quarter of an hour later, Baruch burst into Max’s bedroom, crying out to the grand master —
“Fario is hunting for his barrow!”
In five minutes Max was dressed and in the street, and though he sauntered along with apparent indifference, he soon reached the foot of the tower embankment, where he found quite a collection of people.
“What is it?” asked Max, making his way through the crowd and reaching the Spaniard.
Fario was a withered little man, as ugly as though he were a blue-blooded grandee. His fiery eyes, placed very close to his nose and piercing as a gimlet, would have won him the name of a sorcerer in Naples. He seemed gentle because he was calm, quiet, and slow in his movements; and for this reason people commonly called him “goodman Fario.” But his skin — the color of gingerbread — and his softness of manner only hid from stupid eyes, and disclosed to observing ones, the half-Moorish nature of a peasant of Granada, which nothing had as yet roused from its phlegmatic indolence.
“Are you sure,” Max said to him, after listening to his grievance, “that you brought your cart to this place? for, thank God, there are no thieves in Issoudun.”
“I left it just there —”
“If the horse was harnessed to it, hasn’t he drawn it somewhere.”
“Here’s the horse,” said Fario, pointing to the animal, which stood harnessed thirty feet away.
Max went gravely up to the place where the horse stood, because from there the bottom of the tower at the top of the embankment could be seen — the crowd being at the foot of the mound. Everybody followed Max, and that was what the scoundrel wanted.
“Has anybody thoughtlessly put a cart in his pocket?” cried Francois.
“Turn out your pockets, all of you!” said Baruch.
Shouts of laughter resounded on all sides. Fario swore. Oaths, with a Spaniard, denote the highest pitch of anger.
“Was your cart light?” asked Max.
“Light!” cried Fario. “If those who laugh at me had it on their feet, their corns would never hurt them again.”
“Well, it must be devilishly light,” answered Max, “for look there!” pointing to the foot of the tower; “it has flown up the embankment.”
At these words all eyes were lifted to the spot, and for a moment there was a perfect uproar in the market-place. Each man pointed at the barrow bewitched, and all their tongues wagged.
“The devil makes common cause with the inn-keepers,” said Goddet to the astonished Spaniard. “He means to teach you not to leave your cart about in the streets, but to put it in the tavern stables.”
At this speech the crowd hooted, for Fario was thought to be a miser.
“Come, my good fellow,” said Max, “don’t lose heart. We’ll go up to the tower and see how your barrow got there. Thunder and cannon! we’ll lend you a hand! Come along, Baruch.”
“As for you,” he whispered to Francois, “get the people to stand back, and make sure there is nobody at the foot of the embankment when you see us at the top.”
Fario, Max, Baruch, and three other knights climbed to the foot of the tower. During the rather perilous ascent Max and Fario noticed that no damage to the embankment, nor even trace of the passage of the barrow, could be seen. Fario began to imagine witchcraft, and lost his head. When they reached the top and examined into the matter, it really seemed a thing impossible that the cart had got there.
“How shall I ever get it down?” said the Spaniard, whose little eyes began for the first time to show fear; while his swarthy yellow face, which seemed as it if could never change color, whitened.
“How?” said Max. “Why, that’s not difficult.”
And taking advantage of the Spaniard’s stupefaction, he raised the barrow by the shafts with his robust arms and prepared to fling it down, calling in thundering tones as it left his grasp, “Look out there, below!”
No accident happened, for the crowd, persuaded by Francois and eaten up with curiosity, had retired to a distance from which they could see more clearly what went on at the top of the embankment. The cart was dashed to an infinite number of pieces in a very picturesque manner.
“There! you have got it down,” said Baruch.
“Ah, brigands! ah, scoundrels!” cried Fario; “perhaps it was you who brought it up here!”
Max, Baruch, and their three comrades began to laugh at the Spaniard’s rage.
“I wanted to do you a service,” said Max coolly, “and in handling the damned thing I came very near flinging myself after it; and this is how you thank me, is it? What country do you come from?”
“I come from a country where they never forgive,” replied Fario, trembling with rage. “My cart will be the cab in which you shall drive to the devil! — unless,” he said, suddenly becoming as meek as a lamb, “you will give me a new one.”
“We will talk about that,” said Max, beginning to descend.
When they reached the bottom and met the first hilarious group, Max took Fario by the button of his jacket and said to him —
“Yes, my good Fario, I’ll give you a magnificent cart, if you will give me two hundred and fifty francs; but I won’t warrant it to go, like this one, up a tower.”
At this last jest Fario became as cool as though he were making a bargain.
“Damn it!” he said, “give me the wherewithal to replace my barrow, and it will be the best use you ever made of old Rouget’s money.”
Max turned livid; he raised his formidable fist to strike Fario; but Baruch, who knew that the blow would descend on others besides the Spaniard, plucked the latter away like a feather and whispered to Max —
“Don’t commit such a folly!”
The grand master, thus called to order, began to laugh and said to Fario —
“If I, by accident, broke your barrow, and you in return try to slander me, we are quits.”
“Not yet,” muttered Fario. “But I am glad to know what my barrow was worth.”
“Ah, Max, you’ve found your match!” said a spectator of the scene, who did not belong to the Order of Idleness.
“Adieu, Monsieur Gilet. I haven’t thanked you yet for lending me a hand,” cried the Spaniard, as he kicked the sides of his horse and disappeared amid loud hurrahs.
“We will keep the tires of the wheels for you,” shouted a wheelwright, who had come to inspect the damage done to the cart.
One of the shafts was sticking upright in the ground, as straight as a tree. Max stood by, pale and thoughtful, and deeply annoyed by Fario’s speech. For five days after this, nothing was talked of in Issoudun but the tale of the Spaniard’s barrow; it was even fated to travel abroad, as Goddet remarked — for it went the round of Berry, where the speeches of Fario and Max were repeated, and at the end of a week the affair, greatly to the Spaniard’s satisfaction, was still the talk of the three departments and the subject of endless gossip. In consequence of the vindictive Spaniard’s terrible speech, Max and the Rabouilleuse became the object of certain comments which were merely whispered in Issoudun, though they were spoken aloud in Bourges, Vatan, Vierzon, and Chateauroux. Maxence Gilet knew enough of that region of the country to guess how envenomed such comments would become.
“We can’t stop their tongues,” he said at last. “Ah! I did a foolish thing!”
“Max!” said Francois, taking his arm. “They are coming to-night.”
“The Bridaus. My grandmother has just had a letter from her goddaughter.”
“Listen, my boy,” said Max in a low voice. “I have been thinking deeply of this matter. Neither Flore nor I ought to seem opposed to the Bridaus. If these heirs are to be got rid of, it is for you Hochons to drive them out of Issoudun. Find out what sort of people they are. To-morrow at Mere Cognette’s, after I’ve taken their measure, we can decide what is to be done, and how we can set your grandfather against them.”
“The Spaniard found the flaw in Max’s armor,” said Baruch to his cousin Francois, as they turned into Monsieur Hochon’s house and watched their comrade entering his own door.
While Max was thus employed, Flore, in spite of her friend’s advice, was unable to restrain her wrath; and without knowing whether she would help or hinder Max’s plans, she burst forth upon the poor bachelor. When Jean–Jacques incurred the anger of his mistress, the little attentions and vulgar fondlings which were all his joy were suddenly suppressed. Flore sent her master, as the children say, into disgrace. No more tender glances, no more of the caressing little words in various tones with which she decked her conversation — “my kitten,” “my old darling,” “my bibi,” “my rat,” etc. A “you,” cold and sharp and ironically respectful, cut like the blade of a knife through the heart of the miserable old bachelor. The “you” was a declaration of war. Instead of helping the poor man with his toilet, handing him what he wanted, forestalling his wishes, looking at him with the sort of admiration which all women know how to express, and which, in some cases, the coarser it is the better it pleases — saying, for instance, “You look as fresh as a rose!” or, “What health you have!” “How handsome you are, my old Jean!”— in short, instead of entertaining him with the lively chatter and broad jokes in which he delighted, Flore left him to dress alone. If he called her, she answered from the foot of the staircase, “I can’t do everything at once; how can I look after your breakfast and wait upon you up there? Are not you big enough to dress your own self?”
“Oh, dear! what have I done to displease her?” the old man asked himself that morning, as he got one of these rebuffs after calling for his shaving-water.
“Vedie, take up the hot water,” cried Flore.
“Vedie!” exclaimed the poor man, stupefied with fear of the anger that was crushing him. “Vedie, what is the matter with Madame this morning?”
Flore Brazier required her master and Vedie and Kouski and Max to call her Madame.
“She seems to have heard something about you which isn’t to your credit,” answered Vedie, assuming an air of deep concern. “You are doing wrong, monsieur. I’m only a poor servant-woman, and you may say I have no right to poke my nose into your affairs; but I do say you may search through all the women in the world, like that king in holy Scripture, and you won’t find the equal of Madame. You ought to kiss the ground she steps on. Goodness! if you make her unhappy, you’ll only spoil your own life. There she is, poor thing, with her eyes full of tears.”
Vedie left the poor man utterly cast down; he dropped into an armchair and gazed into vacancy like the melancholy imbecile that he was, and forgot to shave. These alternations of tenderness and severity worked upon this feeble creature whose only life was through his amorous fibre, the same morbid effect which great changes from tropical heat to arctic cold produce upon the human body. It was a moral pleurisy, which wore him out like a physical disease. Flore alone could thus affect him; for to her, and to her alone, he was as good as he was foolish.
“Well, haven’t you shaved yet?” she said, appearing at his door.
Her sudden presence made the old man start violently; and from being pale and cast down he grew red for an instant, without, however, daring to complain of her treatment.
“Your breakfast is waiting,” she added. “You can come down as you are, in dressing-gown and slippers; for you’ll breakfast alone, I can tell you.”
Without waiting for an answer, she disappeared. To make him breakfast alone was the punishment he dreaded most; he loved to talk to her as he ate his meals. When he got to the foot of the staircase he was taken with a fit of coughing; for emotion excited his catarrh.
“Cough away!” said Flore in the kitchen, without caring whether he heard her or not. “Confound the old wretch! he is able enough to get over it without bothering others. If he coughs up his soul, it will only be after —”
Such were the amenities the Rabouilleuse addressed to Rouget when she was angry. The poor man sat down in deep distress at a corner of the table in the middle of the room, and looked at his old furniture and the old pictures with a disconsolate air.
“You might at least have put on a cravat,” said Flore. “Do you think it is pleasant for people to see such a neck as yours, which is redder and more wrinkled than a turkey’s?”
“But what have I done?” he asked, lifting his big light-green eyes, full of tears, to his tormentor, and trying to face her hard countenance.
“What have you done?” she exclaimed. “As if you didn’t know? Oh, what a hypocrite! Your sister Agathe — who is as much your sister as I am sister of the tower of Issoudun, if one’s to believe your father, and who has no claim at all upon you — is coming here from Paris with her son, a miserable two-penny painter, to see you.”
“My sister and my nephews coming to Issoudun!” he said, bewildered.
“Oh, yes! play the surprised, do; try to make me believe you didn’t send for them! sewing your lies with white bread, indeed! Don’t fash yourself; we won’t trouble your Parisians — before they set their feet in this house, we shall have shaken the dust of it off ours. Max and I will be gone, never to return. As for your will, I’ll tear it in quarters under your nose, and to your very beard — do you hear? Leave your property to your family, if you don’t think we are your family; and then see if you’ll be loved for yourself by a lot of people who have not seen you for thirty years — who in fact have never seen you! Is it that sort of sister who can take my place? A pinchbeck saint!”
“If that’s all, my little Flore,” said the old man, “I won’t receive my sister, or my nephews. I swear to you this is the first word I have heard of their coming. It is all got up by that Madame Hochon — a sanctimonious old —”
Max, who had overheard old Rouget’s words, entered suddenly, and said in a masterful tone —
“What’s all this?”
“My good Max,” said the old man, glad to get the protection of the soldier who, by agreement with Flore, always took his side in a dispute, “I swear by all that is most sacred, that I now hear this news for the first time. I have never written to my sister; my father made me promise not to leave her any of my property; to leave it to the Church sooner than to her. Well, I won’t receive my sister Agathe to this house, or her sons —”
“Your father was wrong, my dear Jean–Jacques, and Madame Brazier is still more wrong,” answered Max. “Your father no doubt had his reasons, but he is dead, and his hatred should die with him. Your sister is your sister, and your nephews are your nephews. You owe it to yourself to welcome them, and you owe it to us as well. What would people say in Issoudun? Thunder! I’ve got enough upon my shoulders as it is, without hearing people say that we shut you up and don’t allow you a will of your own, or that we influence you against your relations and are trying to get hold of your property. The devil take me if I don’t pull up stakes and be off, if that sort of calumny is to be flung at me! the other is bad enough! Let’s eat our breakfast.”
Flore, who was now as mild as a weasel, helped Vedie to set the table. Old Rouget, full of admiration for Max, took him by both hands and led him into the recess of a window, saying in a low voice:—
“Ah! Max, if I had a son, I couldn’t love him better than I love you. Flore is right: you two are my real family. You are a man of honor, Max, and what you have just said is true.”
“You ought to receive and entertain your sister and her son, but not change the arrangements you have made about your property,” said Max. “In that way you will do what is right in the eyes of the world, and yet keep your promise to your father.”
“Well! my dear loves!” cried Flore, gayly, “the salmi is getting cold. Come, my old rat, here’s a wing for you,” she said, smiling on Jean–Jacques.
At the words, the long-drawn face of the poor creature lost its cadaverous tints, the smile of a Theriaki flickered on his pendent lips; but he was seized with another fit of coughing; for the joy of being taken back to favor excited as violent an emotion as the punishment itself. Flore rose, pulled a little cashmere shawl from her own shoulders, and tied it round the old man’s throat, exclaiming: “How silly to put yourself in such a way about nothing. There, you old goose, that will do you good; it has been next my heart —”
“What a good creature!” said Rouget to Max, while Flore went to fetch a black velvet cap to cover the nearly bald head of the old bachelor.
“As good as she is beautiful”; answered Max, “but she is quick-tempered, like all people who carry their hearts in their hands.”
The baldness of this sketch may displease some, who will think the flashes of Flore’s character belong to the sort of realism which a painter ought to leave in shadow. Well! this scene, played again and again with shocking variations, is, in its coarse way and its horrible veracity, the type of such scenes played by women on whatever rung of the social ladder they are perched, when any interest, no matter what, draws them from their own line of obedience and induces them to grasp at power. In their eyes, as in those of politicians, all means to an end are justifiable. Between Flore Brazier and a duchess, between a duchess and the richest bourgeoise, between a bourgeoise and the most luxuriously kept mistress, there are no differences except those of the education they have received, and the surroundings in which they live. The pouting of a fine lady is the same thing as the violence of a Rabouilleuse. At all levels, bitter sayings, ironical jests, cold contempt, hypocritical complaints, false quarrels, win as much success as the low outbursts of this Madame Everard of Issoudun.
Max began to relate, with much humor, the tale of Fario and his barrow, which made the old man laugh. Vedie and Kouski, who came to listen, exploded in the kitchen, and as to Flore, she laughed convulsively. After breakfast, while Jean–Jacques read the newspapers (for they subscribed to the “Constitutionel” and the “Pandore”), Max carried Flore to his own quarters.
“Are you quite sure he has not made any other will since the one in which he left the property to you?”
“He hasn’t anything to write with,” she answered.
“He might have dictated it to some notary,” said Max; “we must look out for that. Therefore it is well to be cordial to the Bridaus, and at the same time endeavor to turn those mortgages into money. The notaries will be only too glad to make the transfers; it is grist to their mill. The Funds are going up; we shall conquer Spain, and deliver Ferdinand VII. and the Cortez, and then they will be above par. You and I could make a good thing out of it by putting the old fellow’s seven hundred and fifty thousand francs into the Funds at eighty-nine. Only you must try to get it done in your name; it will be so much secured anyhow.”
“A capital idea!” said Flore.
“And as there will be an income of fifty thousand francs from eight hundred and ninety thousand, we must make him borrow one hundred and forty thousand francs for two years, to be paid back in two instalments. In two years, we shall get one hundred thousand francs in Paris, and ninety thousand here, and risk nothing.”
“If it were not for you, my handsome Max, what would become of me now?” she said.
“Oh! tomorrow night at Mere Cognette’s, after I have seen the Parisians, I shall find a way to make the Hochons themselves get rid of them.”
“Ah! what a head you’ve got, my angel! You are a love of a man.”
The place Saint–Jean is at the centre of a long street called at the upper end the rue Grand Narette, and at the lower the rue Petite Narette. The word “Narette” is used in Berry to express the same lay of the land as the Genoese word “salita” indicates — that is to say, a steep street. The Grand Narette rises rapidly from the place Saint–Jean to the port Vilatte. The house of old Monsieur Hochon is exactly opposite that of Jean–Jacques Rouget. From the windows of the room where Madame Hochon usually sat, it was easy to see what went on at the Rouget household, and vice versa, when the curtains were drawn back or the doors were left open. The Hochon house was like the Rouget house, and the two were doubtless built by the same architect. Monsieur Hochon, formerly tax-collector at Selles in Berry, born, however, at Issoudun, had returned to his native place and married the sister of the sub-delegate, the gay Lousteau, exchanging his office at Selles for another of the same kind at Issoudun. Having retired before 1787, he escaped the dangers of the Revolution, to whose principles, however, he firmly adhered, like all other “honest men” who howl with the winners. Monsieur Hochon came honestly by the reputation of miser. but it would be mere repetition to sketch him here. A single specimen of the avarice which made him famous will suffice to make you see Monsieur Hochon as he was.
At the wedding of his daughter, now dead, who married a Borniche, it was necessary to give a dinner to the Borniche family. The bridegroom, who was heir to a large fortune, had suffered great mortification from having mismanaged his property, and still more because his father and mother refused to help him out. The old people, who were living at the time of the marriage, were delighted to see Monsieur Hochon step in as guardian — for the purpose, of course, of making his daughter’s dowry secure. On the day of the dinner, which was given to celebrate the signing of the marriage contract, the chief relations of the two families were assembled in the salon, the Hochons on one side, the Borniches on the other — all in their best clothes. While the contract was being solemnly read aloud by young Heron, the notary, the cook came into the room and asked Monsieur Hochon for some twine to truss up the turkey — an essential feature of the repast. The old man dove into the pocket of his surtout, pulled out an end of string which had evidently already served to tie up a parcel, and gave it to her; but before she could leave the room he called out, “Gritte, mind you give it back to me!” (Gritte is the abbreviation used in Berry for Marguerite.)
From year to year old Hochon grew more petty in his meanness, and more penurious; and at this time he was eighty-five years old. He belonged to the class of men who stop short in the street, in the middle of a lively dialogue, and stoop to pick up a pin, remarking, as they stick it in the sleeve of their coat, “There’s the wife’s stipend.” He complained bitterly of the poor quality of the cloth manufactured now-a-days, and called attention to the fact that his coat had lasted only ten years. Tall, gaunt, thin, and sallow; saying little, reading little, and doing nothing to fatigue himself; as observant of forms as an oriental — he enforced in his own house a discipline of strict abstemiousness, weighing and measuring out the food and drink of the family, which, indeed, was rather numerous, and consisted of his wife, nee Lousteau, his grandson Borniche with a sister Adolphine, the heirs of old Borniche, and lastly, his other grandson, Francois Hochon.
Hochon’s eldest son was taken by the draft of 1813, which drew in the sons of well-to-do families who had escaped the regular conscription, and were now formed into a corps styled the “guards of honor.” This heir-presumptive, who was killed at Hanau, had married early in life a rich woman, intending thereby to escape all conscriptions; but after he was enrolled, he wasted his substance, under a presentiment of his end. His wife, who followed the army at a distance, died at Strasburg in 1814, leaving debts which her father-inlaw Hochon refused to pay, — answering the creditors with an axiom of ancient law, “Women are minors.”
The house, though large, was scantily furnished; on the second floor, however, there were two rooms suitable for Madame Bridau and Joseph. Old Hochon now repented that he had kept them furnished with two beds, each bed accompanied by an old armchair of natural wood covered with needlework, and a walnut table, on which figured a water-pitcher of the wide-mouthed kind called “gueulard,” standing in a basin with a blue border. The old man kept his winter store of apples and pears, medlars and quinces on heaps of straw in these rooms, where the rats and mice ran riot, so that they exhaled a mingled odor of fruit and vermin. Madame Hochon now directed that everything should be cleaned; the wall-paper, which had peeled off in places, was fastened up again with wafers; and she decorated the windows with little curtains which she pieced together from old hoards of her own. Her husband having refused to let her buy a strip of drugget, she laid down her own bedside carpet for her little Agathe — “Poor little thing!” as she called the mother, who was now over forty-seven years old. Madame Hochon borrowed two night-tables from a neighbor, and boldly hired two chests of drawers with brass handles from a dealer in second-hand furniture who lived next to Mere Cognette. She herself had preserved two pairs of candlesticks, carved in choice woods by her own father, who had the “turning” mania. From 1770 to 1780 it was the fashion among rich people to learn a trade, and Monsieur Lousteau, the father, was a turner, just as Louis XVI. was a locksmith. These candlesticks were ornamented with circlets made of the roots of rose, peach, and apricot trees. Madame Hochon actually risked the use of her precious relics! These preparations and this sacrifice increased old Hochon’s anxiety; up to this time he had not believed in the arrival of the Bridaus.
The morning of the day that was celebrated by the trick on Fario, Madame Hochon said to her husband after breakfast:—
“I hope, Hochon, that you will receive my goddaughter, Madame Bridau, properly.” Then, after making sure that her grandchildren were out of hearing, she added: “I am mistress of my own property; don’t oblige me to make up to Agathe in my will for any incivility on your part.”
“Do you think, madame,” answered Hochon, in a mild voice, “that, at my age, I don’t know the forms of decent civility?”
“You know very well what I mean, you crafty old thing! Be friendly to our guests, and remember that I love Agathe.”
“And you love Maxence Gilet also, who is getting the property away from your dear Agathe! Ah! you’ve warmed a viper in your bosom there; but after all, the Rouget money is bound to go to a Lousteau.”
After making this allusion to the supposed parentage and both Max and Agathe, Hochon turned to leave the room; but old Madame Hochon, a woman still erect and spare, wearing a round cap with ribbon knots and her hair powdered, a taffet petticoat of changeable colors like a pigeon’s breast, tight sleeves, and her feet in high-heeled slippers, deposited her snuff-box on a little table, and said:—
“Really, Monsieur Hochon, how can a man of your sense repeat absurdities which, unhappily, cost my poor friend her peace of mind, and Agathe the property which she ought to have had from her father. Max Gilet is not the son of my brother, whom I often advised to save the money he paid for him. You know as well as I do that Madame Rouget was virtue itself —”
“And the daughter takes after her; for she strikes me as uncommonly stupid. After losing all her fortune, she brings her sons up so well that here is one in prison and likely to be brought up on a criminal indictment before the Court of Peers for a conspiracy worthy of Berton. As for the other, he is worse off; he’s a painter. If your proteges are to stay here till they have extricated that fool of a Rouget from the claws of Gilet and the Rabouilleuse, we shall eat a good deal more than half a measure of salt with them.”
“That’s enough, Monsieur Hochon; you had better wish they may not have two strings to their bow.”
Monsieur Hochon took his hat, and his cane with an ivory knob, and went away petrified by that terrible speech; for he had no idea that his wife could show such resolution. Madame Hochon took her prayer-book to read the service, for her advanced age prevented her from going daily to church; it was only with difficulty that she got there on Sundays and holidays. Since receiving her goddaughter’s letter she had added a petition to her usual prayers, supplicating God to open the eyes of Jean–Jacques Rouget, and to bless Agathe and prosper the expedition into which she herself had drawn her. Concealing the fact from her grandchildren, whom she accused of being “parpaillots,” she had asked the curate to say a mass for Agathe’s success during a neuvaine which was being held by her granddaughter, Adolphine Borniche, who thus made her prayers in church by proxy.
Adolphine, then eighteen — who for the last seven years had sewed at the side of her grandmother in that cold household of monotonous and methodical customs — had undertaken her neuvaine all the more willingly because she hoped to inspire some feeling in Joseph Bridau, in whom she took the deepest interest because of the monstrosities which her grandfather attributed in her hearing to the young Parisian.
All the old people and sensible people of the town, and the fathers of families approved of Madame Hochon’s conduct in receiving her goddaughter; and their good wishes for the latter’s success were in proportion to the secret contempt with which the conduct of Maxence Gilet had long inspired them. Thus the news of the arrival of Rouget’s sister and nephew raised two parties in Issoudun — that of the higher and older bourgeoisie, who contented themselves with offering good wishes and in watching events without assisting them, and that of the Knights of Idleness and the partisans of Max, who, unfortunately, were capable of committing many high-handed outrages against the Parisians.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:47