Charles Monselet: Cursed Money (part two)
The Quai des Augustins
“Do you believe so?” He spoke with sublime astonishment. “But then you must go with me to the moneychanger, for aside from this banknote, it happens I have not a single louis.”
“It’s not possible for me to leave.”
“Or rather… Here, I’ll call back my servant, as truly I can’t know what you may take on yourself to suppose…”
He had already flung to the door.
“No, monsieur, don’t call him back,” she said.
“No. Because, anyway, it’s too far.”
“True, but how to arrange this business? You see I’m in difficulties.”
“Well, let me…”
“My address! That’s it!” he interrupted. The girl, the worry had begun to gain on him, would insist on some other item of value as pledge…
But her attention was detoured, and wholly taken, by the arrival of a young man. From the half-exclamation that escaped her, and the flush that covered her face, he was easily divined the one she’d waited for.
The man in the blue hat saw, in this circumstance, profit. “Rue de Musée, number 12,” he said, leaning across the counter.
She scribbled in haste. “Good, monsieur. My father will visit you tomorrow morning.”
“That is best. My offices are open from ten to four o’clock. Mademoiselle, I am sensible of the trust with which you honor me.” His blue hat sketched a semicircle, comprising salutations to both young persons, and out he went.
And though she at once regretted her imprudence, she firmly dismissed all claims on her notice but the new visitor’s.
He had taken a modest seat, after his greeting, in a corner of the boutique. He cast his eyes over a shelved display, unspeaking, and reached for a book he seemed disposed to read from beginning to end. He was evidently one of those hobbyists, the fervent lover of books who daily haunts the shops that sell them. His age might have been twenty-five. His face was distinguished, his manners genteel. But on his brow the joys of youth did not announce themselves.
If he spoke with the seller, it was always of rare manuscripts, never a word of the personal, never a detail on his profession, his fortune or his native place. M. Jorry (this was the bookseller, to whom we introduce the reader) had once sold him a great number of works. Then for a while the young man’s purchases diminished. Now they were ended altogether…but despite this, there was no end of his visits to M. Jorry. He passed long hours paging through favorite authors, indifferent to the noise of conversations, forgetful of all the world and believing himself forgotten, observing no one and believing himself unobserved.
Jorry had scented without difficulty the ruin underlying this performance, but keeping his comments to himself, he welcomed his old customer—both from recognition of purchases past, and a hidden, cunning calculation. This bookseller, it should be said, was avarice embodied. He also was a publisher of catalogues, the editing of which required real erudition. He had the young man in the palm of his hand, and was assured of getting from him all the desired touches.
The young man, emboldened by these services rendered, had acquired a habit of arriving in the way of a clerk, from ten in the morning until four in the afternoon. A few months of this, and the daughter allowed herself to see in such assiduity another thing than the love of books. Hortense was young; she had not yet loved. Her beauty was undeniable, though a little deprived of the graces (her mother, dead too soon, being unable to supervise her education). In the joyless milieu where her father’s severity condemned her to live, Hortense had attached herself in secret to this melancholy reader, the youngest of customers who frequented the shop.
However, outside of what politeness required, he seemed not to interest himself in her, and she concluded that he was shy. As well, he flushed easily, a quality she attributed to deep sensitivities…while it was only the rebellion of a poorly constrained ego.
He was known to bookseller and daughter by only the name of M. René. But one evening Hortense had picked up an envelope used to wipe his pen. She learned that his name was René de Verdières, and that he lived at the Cour d’Aligre. The mystery, or rather the discretion, that surrounded this young man no doubt inspired the love of Hortense. But her nascent passion was soon crossed by her father’s schemes.
These were the circumstances:
His permission to sit and read, authorized by the bookseller and favoring René alone, made an affront to several other hobbyists. Among the most enterprising, who dared already to sit for an hour or two, was a lively old man called, for his fussy habit of dress, Dr. Spruce. He often had talks with René, and seemed quite fond of him. A third habitué behaved alike, and by degrees the haven of commerce had changed to a free reading room.
From day to day the sessions grew longer. Sometimes they carried on until nightfall, encouraged by mutual audacity. Such a state of affairs was intolerable, and Jorry had resolved to put an end to it.
His first attempt had been to greet them coldly. They took no notice. He removed chairs, and slipped in a few that were broken. The readers stood. He affected to have sold the works lent the day before; the readers resorted to others. His anger burned unexpressed. Notwithstanding that he longed to say to them, “Get out!”, Jorry’s mind bent only towards profit. Yet he believed he had found the way to reconcile this interest with the regard he owed some few clients.
To his daughter that evening—that on which our story begins—he broached it.
Returned from an estate sale, Jorry had been exasperated to find a dozen readers installed in his shop. At their head sat, enthroned with the serenity of inherent right, René de Verdières and Dr. Spruce.
“Hortense,” the bookseller said, after they were gone. “It’s time to rid our shop of these encroachments. Since they’ve been reading my books, no one is buying them. From now on, those who read will pay me fifty centimes.”
“I don’t see,” said Hortense, disquieted, “how a plan like that helps the shop.”
“Oh, I have thought it through. I will allow to this new venture part of one room, the one that gets daylight off the rue Git-le-Coeur. A brick partition will suit. You understand. I won’t be a victim any longer, of my own practices.”
“Fifty centimes… Isn’t that high?”
“High! To turn the pages of what can be found only with me! To open Alde, to contemplate and hold in one’s hands the bindings of Derome! You find that high, fifty centimes?”
“But, for the ones who don’t have it?”
“They have only to stop setting foot in my shop. It is chiefly for them I’ve created this plan.”
“You are harsh, Father.”
(1863, Charles Monselet, 2022, translation, Stephanie Foster)
Art for these posts, John La Farge, 1861, public domain