The house in which old Planus lived at Montrouge adjoined the one which the Chebes had occupied for some time. There was the same ground floor with three windows, and a single floor above, the same garden with its latticework fence, the same borders of green box. There the old cashier lived with his sister. He took the first omnibus that left the office in the morning, returned at dinner-time, and on Sundays remained at home, tending his flowers and his poultry. The old maid was his housekeeper and did all the cooking and sewing. A happier couple never lived.
Celibates both, they were bound together by an equal hatred of marriage. The sister abhorred all men, the brother looked upon all women with suspicion; but they adored each other, each considering the other an exception to the general perversity of the sex.
In speaking of him she always said: “Monsieur Planus, my brother!"— and he, with the same affectionate solemnity, interspersed all his sentences with “Mademoiselle Planus, my sister!” To those two retiring and innocent creatures, Paris, of which they knew nothing, although they visited it every day, was a den of monsters of two varieties, bent upon doing one another the utmost possible injury; and whenever, amid the gossip of the quarter, a conjugal drama came to their ears, each of them, beset by his or her own idea, blamed a different culprit.
“It is the husband’s fault,” would be the verdict of “Mademoiselle Planus, my sister.”
“It is the wife’s fault,” “Monsieur Planus, my brother,” would reply.
“Oh! the men —”
“Oh! the women —”
That was their one never-failing subject of discussion in those rare hours of idleness which old Sigismond set aside in his busy day, which was as carefully ruled off as his account-books. For some time past the discussions between the brother and sister had been marked by extraordinary animation. They were deeply interested in what was taking place at the factory. The sister was full of pity for Madame Fromont and considered her husband’s conduct altogether outrageous; as for Sigismond, he could find no words bitter enough for the unknown trollop who sent bills for six-thousand-franc shawls to be paid from his cashbox. In his eyes, the honor and fair fame of the old house he had served since his youth were at stake.
“What will become of us?” he repeated again and again. “Oh! these women —”
One day Mademoiselle Planus sat by the fire with her knitting, waiting for her brother.
The table had been laid for half an hour, and the old lady was beginning to be worried by such unheard-of tardiness, when Sigismond entered with a most distressed face, and without a word, which was contrary to all his habits.
He waited until the door was shut tight, then said in a low voice, in response to his sister’s disturbed and questioning expression:
“I have some news. I know who the woman is who is doing her best to ruin us.”
Lowering his voice still more, after glancing about at the silent walls of their little dining-room, he uttered a name so unexpected that Mademoiselle Planus made him repeat it.
“Is it possible?”
“It is the truth.”
And, despite his grief, he had almost a triumphant air.
His old sister could not believe it. Such a refined, polite person, who had received her with so much cordiality! — How could any one imagine such a thing?
“I have proofs,” said Sigismond Planus.
Thereupon he told her how Pere Achille had met Sidonie and Georges one night at eleven o’clock, just as they entered a small furnished lodging-house in the Montmartre quarter; and he was a man who never lied. They had known him for a long while. Besides, others had met them. Nothing else was talked about at the factory. Risler alone suspected nothing.
“But it is your duty to tell him,” declared Mademoiselle Planus.
The cashier’s face assumed a grave expression.
“It is a very delicate matter. In the first place, who knows whether he would believe me? There are blind men so blind that — And then, by interfering between the two partners, I risk the loss of my place. Oh! the women — the women! When I think how happy Risler might have been. When I sent for him to come to Paris with his brother, he hadn’t a sou; and to-day he is at the head of one of the first houses in Paris. Do you suppose that he would be content with that? Oh! no, of course not! Monsieur must marry. As if any one needed to marry! And, worse yet, he marries a Parisian woman, one of those frowsy-haired chits that are the ruin of an honest house, when he had at his hand a fine girl, of almost his own age, a countrywoman, used to work, and well put together, as you might say!”
“Mademoiselle Planus, my sister,” to whose physical structure he alluded, had a magnificent opportunity to exclaim, “Oh! the men, the men!” but she was silent. It was a very delicate question, and perhaps, if Risler had chosen in time, he might have been the only one.
Old Sigismond continued:
“And this is what we have come to. For three months the leading wall-paper factory in Paris has been tied to the petticoats of that good-for-nothing. You should see how the money flies. All day long I do nothing but open my wicket to meet Monsieur Georges’s calls. He always applies to me, because at his banker’s too much notice would be taken of it, whereas in our office money comes and goes, comes in and goes out. But look out for the inventory! We shall have some pretty figures to show at the end of the year. The worst part of the whole business is that Risler won’t listen to anything. I have warned him several times: ‘Look out, Monsieur Georges is making a fool of himself for some woman.’ He either turns away with a shrug, or else he tells me that it is none of his business and that Fromont Jeune is the master. Upon my word, one would almost think — one would almost think —”
The cashier did not finish his sentence; but his silence was pregnant with unspoken thoughts.
The old maid was appalled; but, like most women under such circumstances, instead of seeking a remedy for the evil, she wandered off into a maze of regrets, conjectures, and retrospective lamentations. What a misfortune that they had not known it sooner when they had the Chebes for neighbors. Madame Chebe was such an honorable woman. They might have put the matter before her so that she would keep an eye on Sidonie and talk seriously to her.
“Indeed, that’s a good idea,” Sigismond interrupted. “You must go to the Rue du Mail and tell her parents. I thought at first of writing to little Frantz. He always had a great deal of influence over his brother, and he’s the only person on earth who could say certain things to him. But Frantz is so far away. And then it would be such a terrible thing to do. I can’t help pitying that unlucky Risler, though. No! the best way is to tell Madame Chebe. Will you undertake to do it, sister?”
It was a dangerous commission. Mademoiselle Planus made some objections, but she never had been able to resist her brother’s wishes, and the desire to be of service to their old friend Risler assisted materially in persuading her.
Thanks to his son-in-law’s kindness, M. Chebe had succeeded in gratifying his latest whim. For three months past he had been living at his famous warehouse on the Rue du Mail, and a great sensation was created in the quarter by that shop without merchandise, the shutters of which were taken down in the morning and put up again at night, as in wholesale houses. Shelves had been placed all around the walls, there was a new counter, a safe, a huge pair of scales. In a word, M. Chebe possessed all the requisites of a business of some sort, but did not know as yet just what business he would choose.
He pondered the subject all day as he walked to and fro across the shop, encumbered with several large pieces of bedroom furniture which they had been unable to get into the back room; he pondered it, too, as he stood on his doorstep, with his pen behind his ear, and feasted his eyes delightedly on the hurly-burly of Parisian commerce. The clerks who passed with their packages of samples under their arms, the vans of the express companies, the omnibuses, the porters, the wheelbarrows, the great bales of merchandise at the neighboring doors, the packages of rich stuffs and trimmings which were dragged in the mud before being consigned to those underground regions, those dark holes stuffed with treasures, where the fortune of business lies in embryo — all these things delighted M. Chebe.
He amused himself guessing at the contents of the bales and was first at the fray when some passer-by received a heavy package upon his feet, or the horses attached to a dray, spirited and restive, made the long vehicle standing across the street an obstacle to circulation. He had, moreover, the thousand-and-one distractions of the petty tradesman without customers, the heavy showers, the accidents, the thefts, the disputes.
At the end of the day M. Chebe, dazed, bewildered, worn out by the labor of other people, would stretch himself out in his easy-chair and say to his wife, as he wiped his forehead:
“That’s the kind of life I need — an active life.”
Madame Chebe would smile softly without replying. Accustomed as she was to all her husband’s whims, she had made herself as comfortable as possible in a back room with an outlook upon a dark yard, consoling herself with reflections on the former prosperity of her parents and her daughter’s wealth; and, being always neatly dressed, she had succeeded already in acquiring the respect of neighbors and tradesmen.
She asked nothing more than not to be confounded with the wives of workingmen, often less poor than herself, and to be allowed to retain, in spite of everything, a petty bourgeois superiority. That was her constant thought; and so the back room in which she lived, and where it was dark at three in the afternoon, was resplendent with order and cleanliness. During the day the bed became a couch, an old shawl did duty as a tablecloth, the fireplace, hidden by a screen, served as a pantry, and the meals were cooked in modest retirement on a stove no larger than a foot-warmer. A tranquil life — that was the dream of the poor woman, who was continually tormented by the whims of an uncongenial companion.
In the early days of his tenancy, M. Chebe had caused these words to be inscribed in letters a foot long on the fresh paint of his shop-front:
No specifications. His neighbors sold tulle, broadcloth, linen; he was inclined to sell everything, but could not make up his mind just what. With what arguments did his indecision lead him to favor Madame Chebe as they sat together in the evening!
“I don’t know anything about linen; but when you come to broadcloth, I understand that. Only, if I go into broadcloths I must have a man to travel; for the best kinds come from Sedan and Elbeuf. I say nothing about calicoes; summer is the time for them. As for tulle, that’s out of the question; the season is too far advanced.”
He usually brought his discourse to a close with the words:
“The night will bring counsel — let us go to bed.”
And to bed he would go, to his wife’s great relief.
After three or four months of this life, M. Chebe began to tire of it. The pains in the head, the dizzy fits gradually returned. The quarter was noisy and unhealthy: besides, business was at a standstill. Nothing was to be done in any line, broadcloths, tissues, or anything else.
It was just at the period of this new crisis that “Mademoiselle Planus, my sister,” called to speak about Sidonie.
The old maid had said to herself on the way, “I must break it gently.” But, like all shy people, she relieved herself of her burden in the first words she spoke after entering the house.
It was a stunning blow. When she heard the accusation made against her daughter, Madame Chebe rose in indignation. No one could ever make her believe such a thing. Her poor Sidonie was the victim of an infamous slander.
M. Chebe, for his part, adopted a very lofty tone, with significant phrases and motions of the head, taking everything to himself as was his custom. How could any one suppose that his child, a Chebe, the daughter of an honorable business man known for thirty years on the street, was capable of Nonsense!
Mademoiselle Planus insisted. It was a painful thing to her to be considered a gossip, a hawker of unsavory stories. But they had incontestable proofs. It was no longer a secret to anybody.
“And even suppose it were true,” cried M. Chebe, furious at her persistence. “Is it for us to worry about it? Our daughter is married. She lives a long way from her parents. It is for her husband, who is much older than she, to advise and guide her. Does he so much as think of doing it?”
Upon that the little man began to inveigh against his son-in-law, that cold-blooded Swiss, who passed his life in his office devising machines, refused to accompany his wife into society, and preferred his old-bachelor habits, his pipe and his brewery, to everything else.
You should have seen the air of aristocratic disdain with which M. Chebe pronounced the word “brewery!” And yet almost every evening he went there to meet Risler, and overwhelmed him with reproaches if he once failed to appear at the rendezvous.
Behind all this verbiage the merchant of the Rue du Mail —“Commission-Exportation”— had a very definite idea. He wished to give up his shop, to retire from business, and for some time he had been thinking of going to see Sidonie, in order to interest her in his new schemes. That was not the time, therefore, to make disagreeable scenes, to prate about paternal authority and conjugal honor. As for Madame Chebe, being somewhat less confident than before of her daughter’s virtue, she took refuge in the most profound silence. The poor woman wished that she were deaf and blind — that she never had known Mademoiselle Planus.
Like all persons who have been very unhappy, she loved a benumbed existence with a semblance of tranquillity, and ignorance seemed to her preferable to everything. As if life were not sad enough, good heavens! And then, after all, Sidonie had always been a good girl; why should she not be a good woman?
Night was falling. M. Chebe rose gravely to close the shutters of the shop and light a gas-jet which illumined the bare walls, the empty, polished shelves, and the whole extraordinary place, which reminded one strongly of the day following a failure. With his lips closed disdainfully, in his determination to remain silent, he seemed to say to the old lady, “Night has come — it is time for you to go home.” And all the while they could hear Madame Chebe sobbing in the back room, as she went to and fro preparing supper.
Mademoiselle Planus got no further satisfaction from her visit.
“Well?” queried old Sigismond, who was impatiently awaiting her return.
“They wouldn’t believe me, and politely showed me the door.”
She had tears in her eyes at the thought of her humiliation.
The old man’s face flushed, and he said in a grave voice, taking his sister’s hand:
“Mademoiselle Planus, my sister, I ask your pardon for having made you take this step; but the honor of the house of Fromont was at stake.”
From that moment Sigismond became more and more depressed. His cash-box no longer seemed to him safe or secure. Even when Fromont Jeune did not ask him for money, he was afraid, and he summed up all his apprehensions in four words which came continually to his lips when talking with his sister:
“I ha no gonfidence,” he would say, in his hoarse Swiss patois.
Thinking always of his cash-box, he dreamed sometimes that it had broken apart at all the joints, and insisted on remaining open, no matter how much he turned the key; or else that a high wind had scattered all the papers, notes, cheques, and bills, and that he ran after them all over the factory, tiring himself out in the attempt to pick them up.
In the daytime, as he sat behind his grating in the silence of his office, he imagined that a little white mouse had eaten its way through the bottom of the box and was gnawing and destroying all its contents, growing plumper and prettier as the work of destruction went on.
So that, when Sidonie appeared on the steps about the middle of the afternoon, in her pretty Parisian plumage, old Sigismond shuddered with rage. In his eyes it was the ruin of the house that stood there, ruin in a magnificent costume, with its little coupe at the door, and the placid bearing of a happy coquette.
Madame Risler had no suspicion that, at that window on the ground floor, sat an untiring foe who watched her slightest movements, the most trivial details of her life, the going and coming of her music-teacher, the arrival of the fashionable dressmaker in the morning, all the boxes that were brought to the house, and the laced cap of the employe of the Magasin du Louvre, whose heavy wagon stopped at the gate with a jingling of bells, like a diligence drawn by stout horses which were dragging the house of Fromont to bankruptcy at break-neck speed.
Sigismond counted the packages, weighed them with his eye as they passed, and gazed inquisitively into Risler’s apartments through the open windows. The carpets that were shaken with a great noise, the jardinieres that were brought into the sunlight filled with fragile, unseasonable flowers, rare and expensive, the gorgeous hangings — none of these things escaped his notice.
The new acquisitions of the household stared him in the face, reminding him of some request for a large amount.
But the one thing that he studied more carefully than all else was Risler’s countenance.
In his view that woman was in a fair way to change his friend, the best, the most upright of men, into a shameless villain. There was no possibility of doubt that Risler knew of his dishonor, and submitted to it. He was paid to keep quiet.
Certainly there was something monstrous in such a supposition. But it is the tendency of innocent natures, when they are made acquainted with evil for the first time, to go at once too far, beyond reason. When he was once convinced of the treachery of Georges and Sidonie, Risler’s degradation seemed to the cashier less impossible of comprehension. On what other theory could his indifference, in the face of his partner’s heavy expenditures, be explained?
The excellent Sigismond, in his narrow, stereotyped honesty, could not understand the delicacy of Risler’s heart. At the same time, the methodical bookkeeper’s habit of thought and his clear-sightedness in business were a thousand leagues from that absent-minded, flighty character, half-artist, half-inventor. He judged him by himself, having no conception of the condition of a man with the disease of invention, absorbed by a fixed idea. Such men are somnambulists. They look, but do not see, their eyes being turned within.
It was Sigismond’s belief that Risler did see. That belief made the old cashier very unhappy. He began by staring at his friend whenever he entered the counting-room; then, discouraged by his immovable indifference, which he believed to be wilful and premeditated, covering his face like a mask, he adopted the plan of turning away and fumbling among his papers to avoid those false glances, and keeping his eyes fixed on the garden paths or the interlaced wires of the grating when he spoke to him. Even his words were confused and distorted, like his glances. No one could say positively to whom he was talking.
No more friendly smiles, no more reminiscences as they turned over the leaves of the cash-book together.
“This was the year you came to the factory. Your first increase of pay. Do you remember? We dined at Douix’s that day. And then the Cafe des Aveugles in the evening, eh? What a debauch!”
At last Risler noticed the strange coolness that had sprung up between Sigismond and himself. He mentioned it to his wife.
For some time past she had felt that antipathy prowling about her. Sometimes, as she crossed the courtyard, she was oppressed, as it were, by malevolent glances which caused her to turn nervously toward the old cashier’s corner. This estrangement between the friends alarmed her, and she very quickly determined to put her husband on his guard against Planus’s unpleasant remarks.
“Don’t you see that he is jealous of you, of your position? A man who was once his equal, now his superior, he can’t stand that. But why bother one’s head about all these spiteful creatures? Why, I am surrounded by them here.”
Risler looked at her with wide-open eyes:—“You?”
“Why, yes, it is easy enough to see that all these people detest me. They bear little Chebe a grudge because she has become Madame Risler Aine. Heaven only knows all the outrageous things that are said about me! And your cashier doesn’t keep his tongue in his pocket, I assure you. What a spiteful fellow he is!”
These few words had their effect. Risler, indignant, but too proud to complain, met coldness with coldness. Those two honest men, each intensely distrustful of the other, could no longer meet without a painful sensation, so that, after a while, Risler ceased to go to the counting-room at all. It was not difficult for him, as Fromont Jeune had charge of all financial matters. His month’s allowance was carried to him on the thirtieth of each month. This arrangement afforded Sidonie and Georges additional facilities, and opportunity for all sorts of underhand dealing.
She thereupon turned her attention to the completion of her programme of a life of luxury. She lacked a country house. In her heart she detested the trees, the fields, the country roads that cover you with dust. “The most dismal things on earth,” she used to say. But Claire Fromont passed the summer at Savigny. As soon as the first fine days arrived, the trunks were packed and the curtains taken down on the floor below; and a great furniture van, with the little girl’s blue bassinet rocking on top, set off for the grandfather’s chateau. Then, one morning, the mother, grandmother, child, and nurse, a medley of white gowns and light veils, would drive away behind two fast horses toward the sunny lawns and the pleasant shade of the avenues.
At that season Paris was ugly, depopulated; and although Sidonie loved it even in the summer, which heats it like a furnace, it troubled her to think that all the fashion and wealth of Paris were driving by the seashore under their light umbrellas, and would make their outing an excuse for a thousand new inventions, for original styles of the most risque sort, which would permit one to show that one has a pretty ankle and long, curly chestnut hair of one’s own.
The seashore bathing resorts! She could not think of them; Risler could not leave Paris.
How about buying a country house? They had not the means. To be sure, there was the lover, who would have asked nothing better than to gratify this latest whim; but a country house cannot be concealed like a bracelet or a shawl. The husband must be induced to accept it. That was not an easy matter; however, they might venture to try it with Risler.
To pave the way, she talked to him incessantly about a little nook in the country, not too expensive, very near Paris. Risler listened with a smile. He thought of the high grass, of the orchard filled with fine fruit-trees, being already tormented by the longing to possess which comes with wealth; but, as he was prudent, he said:
“We will see, we will see. Let us wait till the end of the year.”
The end of the year, that is to say, the striking of the balance-sheet.
The balance-sheet! That is the magic word. All through the year we go on and on in the eddying whirl of business. Money comes and goes, circulates, attracts other money, vanishes; and the fortune of the firm, like a slippery, gleaming snake, always in motion, expands, contracts, diminishes, or increases, and it is impossible to know our condition until there comes a moment of rest. Not until the inventory shall we know the truth, and whether the year, which seems to have been prosperous, has really been so.
The account of stock is usually taken late in December, between Christmas and New Year’s Day. As it requires much extra labor to prepare it, everybody works far into the night. The whole establishment is alert. The lamps remain lighted in the offices long after the doors are closed, and seem to share in the festal atmosphere peculiar to that last week of the year, when so many windows are illuminated for family gatherings. Every one, even to the least important ‘employe’ of the firm, is interested in the results of the inventory. The increases of salary, the New Year’s presents, depend upon those blessed figures. And so, while the vast interests of a wealthy house are trembling in the balance, the wives and children and aged parents of the clerks, in their fifth-floor tenements or poor apartments in the suburbs, talk of nothing but the inventory, the results of which will make themselves felt either by a greatly increased need of economy or by some purchase, long postponed, which the New Year’s gift will make possible at last.
On the premises of Fromont Jeune and Risler Aine, Sigismond Planus is the god of the establishment at that season, and his little office a sanctuary where all the clerks perform their devotions. In the silence of the sleeping factory, the heavy pages of the great books rustle as they are turned, and names called aloud cause search to be made in other books. Pens scratch. The old cashier, surrounded by his lieutenants, has a businesslike, awe-inspiring air. From time to time Fromont Jeune, on the point of going out in his carriage, looks in for a moment, with a cigar in his mouth, neatly gloved and ready for the street. He walks slowly, on tiptoe, puts his face to the grating:
“Well! — are you getting on all right?”
Sigismond gives a grunt, and the young master takes his leave, afraid to ask any further questions. He knows from the cashier’s expression that the showing will be a bad one.
In truth, since the days of the Revolution, when there was fighting in the very courtyard of the factory, so pitiable an inventory never had been seen in the Fromont establishment. Receipts and expenditures balanced each other. The general expense account had eaten up everything, and, furthermore, Fromont Jeune was indebted to the firm in a large sum. You should have seen old Planus’s air of consternation when, on the 31st of December, he went up to Georges’s office to make report of his labors.
Georges took a very cheerful view of the matter. Everything would go better next year. And to restore the cashier’s good humor he gave him an extraordinary bonus of a thousand francs, instead of the five hundred his uncle used always to give. Everybody felt the effects of that generous impulse, and, in the universal satisfaction, the deplorable results of the yearly accounting were very soon forgotten. As for Risler, Georges chose to take it upon himself to inform him as to the situation.
When he entered his partner’s little closet, which was lighted from above by a window in the ceiling, so that the light fell directly upon the subject of the inventor’s meditations, Fromont hesitated a moment, filled with shame and remorse for what he was about to do.
The other, when he heard the door, turned joyfully toward his partner.
“Chorche, Chorche, my dear fellow — I have got it, our press. There are still a few little things to think out. But no matter! I am sure now of my invention: you will see — you will see! Ah! the Prochassons can experiment all they choose. With the Risler Press we will crush all rivalry.”
“Bravo, my comrade!” replied Fromont Jeune. “So much for the future; but you don’t seem to think about the present. What about this inventory?”
“Ah, yes! to be sure. I had forgotten all about it. It isn’t very satisfactory, is it?”
He said that because of the somewhat disturbed and embarrassed expression on Georges’s face.
“Why, yes, on the contrary, it is very satisfactory indeed,” was the reply. “We have every reason to be satisfied, especially as this is our first year together. We have forty thousand francs each for our share of the profits; and as I thought you might need a little money to give your wife a New Year’s present —”
Ashamed to meet the eyes of the honest man whose confidence he was betraying, Fromont jeune placed a bundle of cheques and notes on the table.
Risler was deeply moved for a moment. So much money at one time for him! His mind dwelt upon the generosity of these Fromonts, who had made him what he was; then he thought of his little Sidonie, of the longing which she had so often expressed and which he would now be able to gratify.
With tears in his eyes and a happy smile on his lips, he held out both hands to his partner.
“I am very happy! I am very happy!”
That was his favorite phrase on great occasions. Then he pointed to the bundles of bank notes spread out before him in the narrow bands which are used to confine those fugitive documents, always ready to fly away.
“Do you know what that is?” he said to Georges, with an air of triumph. “That is Sidonie’s house in the country!”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:49