Arnoux was preparing, with the assistance of his clerks, some huge placards for an exhibition of pictures.
"Halloa! what brings you back again?"
This question, simple though it was, embarrassed Frederick, and, at a loss for an answer, he asked whether they had happened to find a notebook of his – a little notebook with a blue leather cover.
"The one that you put your letters to women in?" said Arnoux.
Frederick, blushing like a young girl, protested against such an assumption.
"Your verses, then?" returned the picture-dealer.
He handled the pictorial specimens that were to be exhibited, discovering their form, colouring, and frames; and Frederick felt more and more irritated by his air of abstraction, and particularly by the appearance of his hands – large hands, rather soft, with flat nails. At length, M. Arnoux arose, and saying, "That's disposed of!" he chucked the young man familiarly under the chin. Frederick was offended at this liberty, and recoiled a pace or two; then he made a dash for the shop-door, and passed out through it, as he imagined, for the last time in his life. Madame Arnoux herself had been lowered by the vulgarity of her husband.
During the same week he got a letter from Deslauriers, informing him that the clerk would be in Paris on the following Thursday. Then he flung himself back violently on this affection as one of a more solid and lofty character. A man of this sort was worth all the women in the world. He would no longer have any need of Regimbart, of Pellerin, of Hussonnet, of anyone! In order to provide his friend with as comfortable lodgings as possible, he bought an iron bedstead and a second armchair, and stripped off some of his own bed-covering to garnish this one properly. On Thursday morning he was dressing himself to go to meet Deslauriers when there was a ring at the door.
"Just one word. Yesterday I got a lovely trout from Geneva. We expect you by-and-by – at seven o'clock sharp. The address is the Rue de Choiseul 24 bis. Don't forget!"
Frederick was obliged to sit down; his knees were tottering under him. He repeated to himself, "At last! at last!" Then he wrote to his tailor, to his hatter, and to his bootmaker; and he despatched these three notes by three different messengers.
The key turned in the lock, and the door-keeper appeared with a trunk on his shoulder.
Frederick, on seeing Deslauriers, began to tremble like an adulteress under the glance of her husband.
"What has happened to you?" said Deslauriers. "Surely you got my letter?"
Frederick had not enough energy left to lie. He opened his arms, and flung himself on his friend's breast.
Then the clerk told his story. His father thought to avoid giving an account of the expense of tutelage, fancying that the period limited for rendering such accounts was ten years; but, well up in legal procedure, Deslauriers had managed to get the share coming to him from his mother into his clutches – seven thousand francs clear – which he had there with him in an old pocket-book.
"'Tis a reserve fund, in case of misfortune. I must think over the best way of investing it, and find quarters for myself to-morrow morning. To-day I'm perfectly free, and am entirely at your service, my old friend."
"Oh! don't put yourself about," said Frederick. "If you had anything of importance to do this evening – "
"Come, now! I would be a selfish wretch – "
This epithet, flung out at random, touched Frederick to the quick, like a reproachful hint.
The door-keeper had placed on the table close to the fire some chops, cold meat, a large lobster, some sweets for dessert, and two bottles of Bordeaux.
Deslauriers was touched by these excellent preparations to welcome his arrival.
"Upon my word, you are treating me like a king!"
They talked about their past and about the future; and, from time to time, they grasped each other's hands across the table, gazing at each other tenderly for a moment.
But a messenger came with a new hat. Deslauriers, in a loud tone, remarked that this head-gear was very showy. Next came the tailor himself to fit on the coat, to which he had given a touch with the smoothing-iron.
"One would imagine you were going to be married," said Deslauriers.
An hour later, a third individual appeared on the scene, and drew forth from a big black bag a pair of shining patent leather boots. While Frederick was trying them on, the bootmaker slyly drew attention to the shoes of the young man from the country.
"Does Monsieur require anything?"
"Thanks," replied the clerk, pulling behind his chair his old shoes fastened with strings.
This humiliating incident annoyed Frederick. At length he exclaimed, as if an idea had suddenly taken possession of him:
"Ha! deuce take it! I was forgetting."
"What is it, pray?"
"I have to dine in the city this evening."
"At the Dambreuses'? Why did you never say anything to me about them in your letters?"
"It is not at the Dambreuses', but at the Arnoux's."
"You should have let me know beforehand," said Deslauriers. "I would have come a day later."
"Impossible," returned Frederick, abruptly. "I only got the invitation this morning, a little while ago."
And to redeem his error and distract his friend's mind from the occurrence, he proceeded to unfasten the tangled cords round the trunk, and to arrange all his belongings in the chest of drawers, expressed his willingness to give him his own bed, and offered to sleep himself in the dressing-room bedstead. Then, as soon as it was four o'clock, he began the preparations for his toilet.
"You have plenty of time," said the other.
At last he was dressed and off he went.
"That's the way with the rich," thought Deslauriers.
And he went to dine in the Rue Saint-Jacques, at a little restaurant kept by a man he knew.
Frederick stopped several times while going up the stairs, so violently did his heart beat. One of his gloves, which was too tight, burst, and, while he was fastening back the torn part under his shirt-cuff, Arnoux, who was mounting the stairs behind him, took his arm and led him in.
The anteroom, decorated in the Chinese fashion, had a painted lantern hanging from the ceiling, and bamboos in the corners. As he was passing into the drawing-room, Frederick stumbled against a tiger's skin. The place had not yet been lighted up, but two lamps were burning in the boudoir in the far corner.
Mademoiselle Marthe came to announce that her mamma was dressing. Arnoux raised her as high as his mouth in order to kiss her; then, as he wished to go to the cellar himself to select certain bottles of wine, he left Frederick with the little girl.
She had grown much larger since the trip in the steamboat. Her dark hair descended in long ringlets, which curled over her bare arms. Her dress, more puffed out than the petticoat of a danseuse, allowed her rosy calves to be seen, and her pretty childlike form had all the fresh odour of a bunch of flowers. She received the young gentleman's compliments with a coquettish air, fixed on him her large, dreamy eyes, then slipping on the carpet amid the furniture, disappeared like a cat.
After this he no longer felt ill at ease. The globes of the lamps, covered with a paper lace-work, sent forth a white light, softening the colour of the walls, hung with mauve satin. Through the fender-bars, as through the slits in a big fan, the coal could be seen in the fireplace, and close beside the clock there was a little chest with silver clasps. Here and there things lay about which gave the place a look of home – a doll in the middle of the sofa, a fichu against the back of a chair, and on the work-table a knitted woollen vest, from which two ivory needles were hanging with their points downwards. It was altogether a peaceful spot, suggesting the idea of propriety and innocent family life.
Arnoux returned, and Madame Arnoux appeared at the other doorway. As she was enveloped in shadow, the young man could at first distinguish only her head. She wore a black velvet gown, and in her hair she had fastened a long Algerian cap, in a red silk net, which coiling round her comb, fell over her left shoulder.
Arnoux introduced Frederick.
"Oh! I remember Monsieur perfectly well," she responded.