Copyright
Émile Zola.

The Three Cities Trilogy: Paris, Volume 1 online

. (page 6 of 10)
Online LibraryÉmile ZolaThe Three Cities Trilogy: Paris, Volume 1 → online text (page 6 of 10)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


well-to-do, an advocate by profession, then a Republican journalist under
the Empire, he had reached office with Gambetta, showing himself at once
honest and romantic, loud of speech, and somewhat stupid, but at the same
time very brave and very upright, and still clinging with ardent faith to
the principles of the great Revolution. However, his Jacobinism was
getting out of fashion, he was becoming an "ancestor," as it were, one of
the last props of the middle-class Republic, and the new comers, the
young politicians with long teeth, were beginning to smile at him.
Moreover, beneath the ostentation of his demeanour, and the pomp of his
eloquence, there was a man of hesitating, sentimental nature, a good
fellow who shed tears when re-perusing the verses of Lamartine.

However, Monferrand, the minister for the Home Department, passed by and
drew Barroux aside to whisper a few words in his ear. He, Monferrand, was
fifty, short and fat, with a smiling, fatherly air; nevertheless a look
of keen intelligence appeared at times on his round and somewhat common
face fringed by a beard which was still dark. In him one divined a man of
government, with hands which were fitted for difficult tasks, and which
never released a prey. Formerly mayor of the town of Tulle, he came from
La Correze, where he owned a large estate. He was certainly a force in
motion, one whose constant rise was anxiously watched by keen observers.
He spoke in a simple quiet way, but with extraordinary power of
conviction. Having apparently no ambition, affecting indeed the greatest
disinterestedness, he nevertheless harboured the most ferocious
appetites. Sagnier had written that he was a thief and a murderer, having
strangled two of his aunts in order to inherit their property. But even
if he were a murderer, he was certainly not a vulgar one.

Then, too, came another personage of the drama which was about to be
performed - deputy Vignon, whose arrival agitated the various groups. The
two ministers looked at him, whilst he, at once surrounded by his
friends, smiled at them from a distance. He was not yet thirty-six. Slim,
and of average height, very fair, with a fine blond beard of which he
took great care, a Parisian by birth, having rapidly made his way in the
government service, at one time Prefect at Bordeaux, he now represented
youth and the future in the Chamber. He had realised that new men were
needed in the direction of affairs in order to accomplish the more
urgent, indispensable reforms; and very ambitious and intelligent as he
was, knowing many things, he already had a programme, the application of
which he was quite capable of attempting, in part at any rate. However,
he evinced no haste, but was full of prudence and shrewdness, convinced
that his day would dawn, strong in the fact that he was as yet
compromised in nothing, but had all space before him. At bottom he was
merely a first-class administrator, clear and precise in speech, and his
programme only differed from Barroux's by the rejuvenation of its
formulas, although the advent of a Vignon ministry in place of a Barroux
ministry appeared an event of importance. And it was of Vignon that
Sagnier had written that he aimed at the Presidency of the Republic, even
should he have to march through blood to reach the Elysee Palace.

"_Mon Dieu_!" Massot was explaining, "it's quite possible that Sagnier
isn't lying this time, and that he has really found a list of names in
some pocket-book of Hunter's that has fallen into his hands. I myself
have long known that Hunter was Duvillard's vote-recruiter in the affair
of the African Railways. But to understand matters one must first realise
what his mode of proceeding was, the skill and the kind of amiable
delicacy which he showed, which were far from the brutal corruption and
dirty trafficking that people imagine. One must be such a man as Sagnier
to picture a parliament as an open market, where every conscience is for
sale and is impudently knocked down to the highest bidder. Oh! things
happened in a very different way indeed; and they are explainable, and at
times even excusable. Thus the article is levelled in particular against
Barroux and Monferrand, who are designated in the clearest possible
manner although they are not named. You are no doubt aware that at the
time of the vote Barroux was at the Home Department and Monferrand at
that of Public Works, and so now they are accused of having betrayed
their trusts, the blackest of all social crimes. I don't know into what
political combinations Barroux may have entered, but I am ready to swear
that he put nothing in his pocket, for he is the most honest of men. As
for Monferrand, that's another matter; he's a man to carve himself his
share, only I should be much surprised if he had put himself in a bad
position. He's incapable of a blunder, particularly of a stupid blunder,
like that of taking money and leaving a receipt for it lying about."

Massot paused, and with a jerk of his head called Pierre's attention to
Duthil, who, feverish, but nevertheless smiling, stood in a group which
had just collected around the two ministers. "There! do you see that
young man yonder, that dark handsome fellow whose beard looks so
triumphant?"

"I know him," said Pierre.

"Oh! you know Duthil. Well, he's one who most certainly took money. But
he's a mere bird. He came to us from Angouleme to lead the pleasantest of
lives here, and he has no more conscience, no more scruples, than the
pretty finches of his native part, who are ever love-making. Ah! for
Duthil, Hunter's money was like manna due to him, and he never even
paused to think that he was dirtying his fingers. You may be quite sure
he feels astonished that people should attach the slightest importance to
the matter."

Then Massot designated another deputy in the same group, a man of fifty
or thereabouts, of slovenly aspect and lachrymose mien, lanky, too, like
a maypole, and somewhat bent by the weight of his head, which was long
and suggestive of a horse's. His scanty, straight, yellowish hair, his
drooping moustaches, in fact the whole of his distracted countenance,
expressed everlasting distress.

"And Chaigneux, do you know him?" continued Massot, referring to the
deputy in question. "No? Well, look at him and ask yourself if it isn't
quite as natural that he, too, should have taken money. He came from
Arras. He was a solicitor there. When his division elected him he let
politics intoxicate him, and sold his practice to make his fortune in
Paris, where he installed himself with his wife and his three daughters.
And you can picture his bewilderment amidst those four women, terrible
women ever busy with finery, receiving and paying visits, and running
after marriageable men who flee away. It's ill-luck with a vengeance, the
daily defeat of a poor devil of mediocre attainments, who imagined that
his position as a deputy would facilitate money-making, and who is
drowning himself in it all. And so how can Chaigneux have done otherwise
than take money, he who is always hard up for a five-hundred-franc note!
I admit that originally he wasn't a dishonest man. But he's become one,
that's all."

Massot was now fairly launched, and went on with his portraits, the
series which he had, at one moment, dreamt of writing under the title of
"Deputies for Sale." There were the simpletons who fell into the furnace,
the men whom ambition goaded to exasperation, the low minds that yielded
to the temptation of an open drawer, the company-promoters who grew
intoxicated and lost ground by dint of dealing with big figures. At the
same time, however, Massot admitted that these men were relatively few in
number, and that black sheep were to be found in every parliament of the
world. Then Sagnier's name cropped up again, and Massot remarked that
only Sagnier could regard the French Chambers as mere dens of thieves.

Pierre, meantime, felt most interested in the tempest which the threat of
a ministerial crisis was stirring up before him. Not only the men like
Duthil and Chaigneux, pale at feeling the ground tremble beneath them,
and wondering whether they would not sleep at the Mazas prison that
night, were gathered round Barroux and Monferrand; all the latters'
clients were there, all who enjoyed influence or office through them, and
who would collapse and disappear should they happen to fall. And it was
something to see the anxious glances and the pale dread amidst all the
whispered chatter, the bits of information and tittle-tattle which were
carried hither and thither. Then, in a neighbouring group formed round
Vignon, who looked very calm and smiled, were the other clients, those
who awaited the moment to climb to the assault of power, in order that
they, in their turn, might at last possess influence or office. Eyes
glittered with covetousness, hopeful delight could be read in them,
pleasant surprise at the sudden opportunity now offered. Vignon avoided
replying to the over-direct questions of his friends, and simply
announced that he did not intend to intervene. Evidently enough his plan
was to let Mege interpellate and overthrow the ministry, for he did not
fear him, and in his own estimation would afterwards simply have to stoop
to pick up the fallen portfolios.

"Ah! Monferrand now," little Massot was saying, "there's a rascal who
trims his sails! I knew him as an anti-clerical, a devourer of priests,
Monsieur l'Abbe, if you will allow me so to express myself; however, I
don't say this to be agreeable to you, but I think I may tell you for
certain that he has become reconciled to religion. At least, I have been
told that Monseigneur Martha, who is a great converter, now seldom leaves
him. This is calculated to please one in these new times, when science
has become bankrupt, and religion blooms afresh with delicious mysticism
on all sides, whether in art, literature, or society itself."

Massot was jesting, according to his wont; but he spoke so amiably that
the priest could not do otherwise than bow. However, a great stir had set
in before them; it was announced that Mege was about to ascend the
tribune, and thereupon all the deputies hastened into the assembly hall,
leaving only the inquisitive visitors and a few journalists in the Salle
des Pas Perdus.

"It's astonishing that Fonsegue hasn't yet arrived," resumed Massot;
"he's interested in what's going on. However, he's so cunning, that when
he doesn't behave as others do, one may be sure that he has his reasons
for it. Do you know him?" And as Pierre gave a negative answer, Massot
went on: "Oh! he's a man of brains and real power - I speak with all
freedom, you know, for I don't possess the bump of veneration; and, as
for my editors, well, they're the very puppets that I know the best and
pick to pieces with the most enjoyment. Fonsegue, also, is clearly
designated in Sagnier's article. Moreover, he's one of Duvillard's usual
clients. There can be no doubt that he took money, for he takes money in
everything. Only he always protects himself, and takes it for reasons
which may be acknowledged - as payment or commission on account of
advertising, and so forth. And if I left him just now, looking, as it
seemed to me, rather disturbed, and if he delays his arrival here to
establish, as it were, a moral alibi, the truth must be that he has
committed the first imprudent action in his life."

Then Massot rattled on, telling all there was to tell about Fonsegue. He,
too, came from the department of La Correze, and had quarrelled for life
with Monferrand after some unknown underhand affairs. Formerly an
advocate at Tulle, his ambition had been to conquer Paris; and he had
really conquered it, thanks to his big morning newspaper, "Le Globe," of
which he was both founder and director. He now resided in a luxurious
mansion in the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne, and no enterprise was launched
but he carved himself a princely share in it. He had a genius for
"business," and employed his newspaper as a weapon to enable him to reign
over the market. But how very carefully he had behaved, what long and
skilful patience he had shown, before attaining to the reputation of a
really serious man, who guided authoritatively the most virtuous and
respected of the organs of the press! Though in reality he believed
neither in God nor in Devil, he had made this newspaper the supporter of
order, property, and family ties; and though he had become a Conservative
Republican, since it was to his interest to be such, he had remained
outwardly religious, affecting a Spiritualism which reassured the
_bourgeoisie_. And amidst all his accepted power, to which others bowed,
he nevertheless had one hand deep in every available money-bag.

"Ah! Monsieur l'Abbe," said Massot, "see to what journalism may lead a
man. There you have Sagnier and Fonsegue: just compare them a bit. In
reality they are birds of the same feather: each has a quill and uses it.
But how different the systems and the results. Sagnier's print is really
a sewer which rolls him along and carries him to the cesspool; while the
other's paper is certainly an example of the best journalism one can
have, most carefully written, with a real literary flavour, a treat for
readers of delicate minds, and an honour to the man who directs it. But
at the bottom, good heavens! in both cases the farce is precisely the
same!"

Massot burst out laughing, well pleased with this final thrust. Then all
at once: "Ah! here's Fonsegue at last!" said he.

Quite at his ease, and still laughing, he forthwith introduced the
priest. "This is Monsieur l'Abbe Froment, my dear _patron_, who has been
waiting more than twenty minutes for you - I'm just going to see what is
happening inside. You know that Mege is interpellating the government."

The new comer started slightly: "An interpellation!" said he. "All right,
all right, I'll go to it."

Pierre was looking at him. He was about fifty years of age, short of
stature, thin and active, still looking young without a grey hair in his
black beard. He had sparkling eyes, too, but his mouth, said to be a
terrible one, was hidden by his moustaches. And withal he looked a
pleasant companion, full of wit to the tip of his little pointed nose,
the nose of a sporting dog that is ever scenting game. "What can I do for
you, Monsieur l'Abbe?" he inquired.

Then Pierre briefly presented his request, recounting his visit to
Laveuve that morning, giving every heart-rending particular, and asking
for the poor wretch's immediate admittance to the Asylum.

"Laveuve!" said the other, "but hasn't his affair been examined? Why,
Duthil drew up a report on it, and things appeared to us of such a nature
that we could not vote for the man's admittance."

But the priest insisted: "I assure you, monsieur, that your heart would
have burst with compassion had you been with me this morning. It is
revolting that an old man should be left in such frightful abandonment
even for another hour. He must sleep at the Asylum to-night."

Fonsegue began to protest. "To-night! But it's impossible, altogether
impossible! There are all sorts of indispensable formalities to be
observed. And besides I alone cannot take such responsibility. I haven't
the power. I am only the manager; all that I do is to execute the orders
of the committee of lady patronesses."

"But it was precisely Baroness Duvillard who sent me to you, monsieur,
telling me that you alone had the necessary authority to grant immediate
admittance in an exceptional case."

"Oh! it was the Baroness who sent you? Ah! that is just like her,
incapable of coming to any decision herself, and far too desirous of her
own quietude to accept any responsibility. Why is it that she wants me to
have the worries? No, no, Monsieur l'Abbe, I certainly won't go against
all our regulations; I won't give an order which would perhaps embroil me
with all those ladies. You don't know them, but they become positively
terrible directly they attend our meetings."

He was growing lively, defending himself with a jocular air, whilst in
secret he was fully determined to do nothing. However, just then Duthil
abruptly reappeared, darting along bareheaded, hastening from lobby to
lobby to recruit absent members, particularly those who were interested
in the grave debate at that moment beginning. "What, Fonsegue!" he cried,
"are you still here? Go, go to your seat at once, it's serious!" And
thereupon he disappeared.

His colleague evinced no haste, however. It was as if the suspicious
affair which was impassioning the Chamber had no concern for him. And he
still smiled, although a slight feverish quiver made him blink. "Excuse
me, Monsieur l'Abbe," he said at last. "You see that my friends have need
of me. I repeat to you that I can do absolutely nothing for your
_protege_."

But Pierre would not accept this reply as a final one. "No, no,
monsieur," he rejoined, "go to your affairs, I will wait for you here.
Don't come to a decision without full reflection. You are wanted, and I
feel that your mind is not sufficiently at liberty for you to listen to
me properly. By-and-by, when you come back and give me your full
attention, I am sure that you will grant me what I ask."

And, although Fonsegue, as he went off, repeated that he could not alter
his decision, the priest stubbornly resolved to make him do so, and sat
down on the bench again, prepared, if needful, to stay there till the
evening. The Salle des Pas Perdus was now almost quite empty, and looked
yet more frigid and mournful with its Laocoon and its Minerva, its bare
commonplace walls like those of a railway-station waiting-room, between
which all the scramble of the century passed, though apparently without
even warming the lofty ceiling. Never had paler and more callous light
entered by the large glazed doors, behind which one espied the little
slumberous garden with its meagre, wintry lawns. And not an echo of the
tempest of the sitting near at hand reached the spot; from the whole
heavy pile there fell but death-like silence, and a covert quiver of
distress that had come from far away, perhaps from the entire country.

It was that which now haunted Pierre's reverie. The whole ancient,
envenomed sore spread out before his mind's eye, with its poison and
virulence. Parliamentary rottenness had slowly increased till it had
begun to attack society itself. Above all the low intrigues and the rush
of personal ambition there certainly remained the loftier struggle of the
contending principles, with history on the march, clearing the past away
and seeking to bring more truth, justice, and happiness in the future.
But in practice, if one only considered the horrid daily cuisine of the
sphere, what an unbridling of egotistical appetite one beheld, what an
absorbing passion to strangle one's neighbour and triumph oneself alone!
Among the various groups one found but an incessant battle for power and
the satisfactions that it gives. "Left," "Right," "Catholics,"
"Republicans," "Socialists," the names given to the parties of twenty
different shades, were simply labels classifying forms of the one burning
thirst to rule and dominate. All questions could be reduced to a single
one, that of knowing whether this man, that man, or that other man should
hold France in his grasp, to enjoy it, and distribute its favours among
his creatures. And the worst was that the outcome of the great
parliamentary battles, the days and the weeks lost in setting this man in
the place of that man, and that other man in the place of this man, was
simply stagnation, for not one of the three men was better than his
fellows, and there were but vague points of difference between them; in
such wise that the new master bungled the very same work as the previous
one had bungled, forgetful, perforce, of programmes and promises as soon
as ever he began to reign.

However, Pierre's thoughts invincibly reverted to Laveuve, whom he had
momentarily forgotten, but who now seized hold of him again with a quiver
as of anger and death. Ah! what could it matter to that poor old wretch,
dying of hunger on his bed of rags, whether Mege should overthrow
Barroux's ministry, and whether a Vignon ministry should ascend to power
or not! At that rate, a century, two centuries, would be needed before
there would be bread in the garrets where groan the lamed sons of labour,
the old, broken-down beasts of burden. And behind Laveuve there appeared
the whole army of misery, the whole multitude of the disinherited and the
poor, who agonised and asked for justice whilst the Chamber, sitting in
all pomp, grew furiously impassioned over the question as to whom the
nation should belong to, as to who should devour it. Mire was flowing on
in a broad stream, the hideous, bleeding, devouring sore displayed itself
in all impudence, like some cancer which preys upon an organ and spreads
to the heart. And what disgust, what nausea must such a spectacle
inspire; and what a longing for the vengeful knife that would bring
health and joy!

Pierre could not have told for how long he had been plunged in this
reverie, when uproar again filled the hall. People were coming back,
gesticulating and gathering in groups. And suddenly he heard little
Massot exclaim near him: "Well, if it isn't down it's not much better
off. I wouldn't give four sous for its chance of surviving."

He referred to the ministry, and began to recount the sitting to a fellow
journalist who had just arrived. Mege had spoken very eloquently, with
extraordinary fury of indignation against the rotten _bourgeoisie_, which
rotted everything it touched; but, as usual, he had gone much too far,
alarming the Chamber by his very violence. And so, when Barroux had
ascended the tribune to ask for a month's adjournment of the
interpellation, he had merely had occasion to wax indignant, in all
sincerity be it said, full of lofty anger that such infamous campaigns
should be carried on by a certain portion of the press. Were the shameful
Panama scandals about to be renewed? Were the national representatives
going to let themselves be intimidated by fresh threats of denunciation?
It was the Republic itself which its adversaries were seeking to submerge
beneath a flood of abominations. No, no, the hour had come for one to
collect one's thoughts, and work in quietude without allowing those who
hungered for scandal to disturb the public peace. And the Chamber,
impressed by these words, fearing, too, lest the electorate should at
last grow utterly weary of the continuous overflow of filth, had
adjourned the interpellation to that day month. However, although Vignon
had not personally intervened in the debate, the whole of his group had
voted against the ministry, with the result that the latter had merely
secured a majority of two votes - a mockery.

"But in that case they will resign," said somebody to Massot.

"Yes, so it's rumoured. But Barroux is very tenacious. At all events if
they show any obstinacy they will be down before a week is over,
particularly as Sagnier, who is quite furious, declares that he will
publish the list of names to-morrow."

Just then, indeed, Barroux and Monferrand were seen to pass, hastening
along with thoughtful, busy mien, and followed by their anxious clients.
It was said that the whole Cabinet was about to assemble to consider the
position and come to a decision. And then Vignon, in his turn, reappeared
amidst a stream of friends. He, for his part, was radiant, with a joy
which he sought to conceal, calming his friends in his desire not to cry
victory too soon. However, the eyes of the band glittered, like those of
a pack of hounds when the moment draws near for the offal of the quarry
to be distributed. And even Mege also looked triumphant. He had all but
overthrown the ministry. That made another one that was worn out, and
by-and-by he would wear out Vignon's, and at last govern in his turn.

"The devil!" muttered little Massot, "Chaigneux and Duthil look like
whipped dogs. And see, there's nobody who is worth the governor. Just
look at him, how superb he is, that Fonsegue! But good-by, I must now be
off!"

Then he shook hands with his brother journalist unwilling as he was to
remain any longer, although the sitting still continued, some bill of
public importance again being debated before the rows of empty seats.

Chaigneux, with his desolate mien, had gone to lean against the pedestal
of the high figure of Minerva; and never before had he been more bowed
down by his needy distress, the everlasting anguish of his ill-luck. On
the other hand, Duthil, in spite of everything, was perorating in the


1 2 3 4 6 8 9 10

Online LibraryÉmile ZolaThe Three Cities Trilogy: Paris, Volume 1 → online text (page 6 of 10)