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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Nabob - Chapter 3. Memoirs Of An Office Porter A Mere Glance At The Territorial Bank
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The Nabob - Chapter 3. Memoirs Of An Office Porter A Mere Glance At The Territorial Bank Post by :linksavage Category :Long Stories Author :Alphonse Daudet Date :May 2012 Read :805

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The Nabob - Chapter 3. Memoirs Of An Office Porter A Mere Glance At The Territorial Bank

CHAPTER III. MEMOIRS OF AN OFFICE PORTER A MERE GLANCE AT THE TERRITORIAL BANK

I had just finished my frugal morning repast and, as my habit was, placed the remains of my modest provisions in the board-room safe with a secret lock, which has served me as a store-cupboard during four years, almost, that I have been at the Territorial. Suddenly the governor walks into the offices, with his face all red and eyes inflamed, as though after a night's feasting, draws in his breath noisily, and in rude terms says to me, with his Italian accent:

"But this place stinks, _Moussiou Passajon."

The place did not stink, if you like the word. Only--shall I say it?--I had ordered a few onions to garnish a knuckle of veal which Mme. Seraphine had sent down to me, she being the cook on the second floor, whose accounts I write out for her every evening. I tried to explain the matter to the governor, but he had flown into a temper, saying that to his mind there was no sense in poisoning the atmosphere of an office in that way, and that it was not worth while to maintain premises at a rent of twelve thousand francs, with eight windows fronting full on the Boulevard Malesherbes, in order to roast onions in them. I don't know what he did not say to me in his passion. For my own part, naturally I got angry at hearing myself addressed in that insolent manner. It is surely the least a man can do to be polite with people in his service whom he does not pay. What the deuce! So I answered him that it was annoying, in truth, but that if the Territorial Bank paid me what it owed me, namely, four years' arrears of salary, _plus seven thousand francs personal advances made by me to the governor for expenses of cabs, newspapers, cigars, and American grogs on board days, I would go and eat decently at the nearest cookshop, and should not be reduced to cooking, in the room where our board was accustomed to sit, a wretched stew, for which I had to thank the public compassion of female cooks. Take that!

In speaking thus I had yielded to an impulse of indignation very excusable in the eyes of any person whatever acquainted with my position here. Even so, I had said nothing improper and had confined myself within the limits of language conformable to my age and education. (I must have mentioned somewhere in the course of these memoirs that of the sixty-five years I have lived I passed more than thirty as beadle to the Faculty of Letters in Dijon. Hence my taste for reports and memoirs, and those ideas of academical style of which traces will be found in many passages of this lucubration.) I had, then, expressed myself in the governor's presence with the most complete reserve, without employing any one of those terms of abuse to which he is treated by everybody here, from our two censors--M. de Monpavon, who, every time he comes, calls him laughingly "Fleur-de-Mazas," and M. de Bois l'Hery, of the Trumpet Club, coarse as a groom, who, for adieu, always greets him with, "To your bedstead, bug!"--to our cashier, whom I have heard repeat a hundred times, tapping on his big book, "That he has in there enough to send him to the galleys when he pleases." Ah, well! All the same, my simple observation produced an extraordinary effect upon him. The circles round his eyes became quite yellow, and, trembling with rage, one of those evil rages of his country, he uttered these words: "Passajon, you are a blackguard. One word more, and I discharge you!" Stupor nailed me to the floor when I heard them. Discharge me--_me! and my four years' arrears, and my seven thousand francs of money lent!

As though he could read my thought before it was put into words, the governor replied that all accounts were going to be settled, mine included. "And as to that," he added, "summon these gentlemen to my private room. I have important news to announce to them."

Upon that, he went into his office, banging the doors.

That devil of a man! In vain you may know him to the core--know him a liar, a comedian--he manages always to get the better of you with his stories. My account, mine!--mine! I was so affected by the thought that my legs seemed to give way beneath me as I went to inform the staff.

According to the regulations, there are twelve of us employed at the Territorial Bank, including the governor and the handsome Moessard, manager of _Financial Truth_; but more than half of that number were wanting. To begin with, since _Truth ceased to be issued--it is two years since its last appearance--M. Moessard has not once set foot in the place. It seems he moves amid honours and riches, has a queen for his mistress--a real queen--who gives him all the money he desires. Oh, what a Babylon, this Paris! The others come from time to time to learn whether by chance anything new has happened at the bank; and, as nothing ever has, we remain weeks without seeing them. Four or five faithful ones, all poor old men like myself, persist in putting in an appearance regularly every morning at the same hour, from habit, from want of occupation, not knowing what else to do. Every one, however, busies himself about things quite foreign to the work of the office. A man must live, you know. And then, too, one cannot pass the day dragging one's self from easy chair to easy chair, from window to window, to look out of doors (eight windows fronting on the Boulevard). So one tries to do some work as best one can. I myself, as I have said, keep the accounts of Mme. Seraphine, and of another cook in the building. Also, I write my memoirs, which, again, takes a good deal of my time. Our receipt clerk--one who has not very hard work with us--makes line for a firm that deals in fishing requisites. Of our two copying-clerks, one, who writes a good hand, copies plays for a dramatic agency; the other invents little halfpenny toys which the hawkers sell at street corners about the time of the New Year, and manages by this means to keep himself from dying of hunger during all the rest of the year. Our cashier is the only one who does no outside work. He would believe his honour lost if he did. He is a very proud man, who never utters a complaint, and whose one dread is to have the appearance of being in want of linen. Locked in his office, he is occupied from morning till evening in the manufacture of shirt-fronts, collars, and cuffs of paper. In this, he has attained very great skill, and his ever-dazzling linen would deceive, if it were not that at the least movement, when he walks, when he sits down, the stuff crackles upon him as though he had a cardboard box under his waistcoat. Unfortunately all this paper does not feed him; and he is so thin, has such a mien, that you ask yourself on what he lives. Between ourselves, I suspect him of paying a visit sometimes to my store-cupboard. He can do so with ease; for, as cashier, he has the "word" which opens the safe with the secret lock, and I fancy that when my back is turned he forages a little among my provisions.

These are certainly very extraordinary, very incredible internal arrangements for a banking house. It is, however, the mere truth that I am telling, and Paris is full of financial institutions after the pattern of ours. Oh, if ever I publish my memoirs! But to take up the interrupted thread of my story.

When he saw us all collected in his private room, the manager said to us with solemnity:

"Gentlemen and dear comrades, the time of trials is ended. The Territorial Bank inaugurates a new phase."

Upon this he commenced to speak to us of a superb _combinazione_--it is his favourite word and he pronounces it in such an insinuating manner--a _combinazione into which there was entering this famous Nabob, of whom all the newspapers are talking. The Territorial Bank was therefore about to find itself in a position which would enable it to acquit itself of its obligations to its faithful servants, recognise acts of devotion, rid itself of useless parasites. This for me, I imagine. And in conclusion: "Prepare your statements. All accounts will be settled not later than to-morrow." Unhappily he has so often soothed us with lying words, that the effect of his speech was lost. Formerly these fine promises were always swallowed. At the announcement of a new _combinazione_, there used to be dancing, weeping for joy in the offices, and men would embrace each other like shipwrecked sailors discovering a sail.

Each one would prepare his account for the morrow, as he had said. But on the morrow, no manager. The day following, still nobody. He had left town on a little journey.

At length, one day when all would be there, exasperated, putting out our tongues, maddened by the water which he had brought to our mouths, the governor would arrive, let himself drop into an easy chair, his head in his hands, and before one could speak to him: "Kill me," he would say, "kill me. I am a wretched impostor. The _combinazione has failed. It has failed, _Pechero! the _combinazione_." And he would cry, sob, throw himself on his knees, pluck out his hair by handfuls, roll on the carpet. He would call us by our Christian names, implore us to put an end to his existence, speak of his wife and children whose ruin he had consummated. And none of us would have the courage to protest in face of a despair so formidable. What do I say? One always ended by sympathizing with him. No, since theatres have existed, never has there been a comedian of his ability. But to-day, that is all over, confidence is gone. When he had left, every one shrugged his shoulders. I must admit, however, that for a moment I had been shaken. That assurance about the settling of my account, and then the name of the Nabob, that man so rich----

"You actually believe it, you?" the cashier said to me. "You will be always innocent, then, my poor Passajon. Don't disturb yourself. It will be the same with the Nabob as it was with Moessard's Queen." And he returned to the manufacture of his shirt-fronts.

What he had just said referred to the time when Moessard was making love to his Queen, and had promised the governor that in case of success he would induce her Majesty to put capital into our undertaking. At the office, we were all aware of this new adventure, and very anxious, as you may imagine, that it should succeed quickly, since our money depended upon it. For two months this story held all of us breathless. We felt some disquiet, we kept a watch on Moessard's face, considered that the lady was inclined to insist upon a great deal of ceremony; and our old cashier, with his dignified and serious air, when he was questioned on the matter, would answer gravely, behind his wire screen: "Nothing fresh," or "The thing is in a good way." Whereupon everybody was contented. One would say to another, "It is making progress," as though merely an ordinary enterprise was in question. No, in good truth, there is only one Paris, where one can see such things. Positively it makes your head turn sometimes. In a word, Moessard, one fine morning, ceased coming to the office. He had succeeded, it appears, but the Territorial Bank had not seemed to him a sufficiently advantageous investment for the money of his mistress. Now, I ask you, was that honest?

For that matter, the notion of honesty is lost so easily as hardly to be believed. When I reflect that I, Passajon, with my white hair, my venerable appearance, my so blameless past--thirty years of academical services--am grown accustomed to living like a fish in the water, in the midst of these infamies, this swindling! One might well ask what I am doing here, why I remain, how I am come to this.

How I am come to it? Oh, _mon Dieu! very simply. Four years ago, my wife being dead, my children married, I had just retired from my post as hall-porter at the college, when an advertisement in the newspaper chanced to meet my eye: "Wanted, an office-porter, middle-aged, at the Territorial Bank, 56, Boulevard Malesherbes. Good references." Let me confess it at the outset. The modern Babylon had always attracted me. Then, too, I felt myself still a young man. I saw before me ten good years during which I might earn a little money, a great deal, perhaps, by means of investing my savings in the banking-house which I should enter. So I wrote, inclosing my photograph, the one taken at Crespon's, in the Market Place, which represents me with chin closely shaven, a keen eye beneath my thick white eyebrows, my steel chain about my neck, my ribbon as an academy official, "the air of a conscript father upon his curule-chair," as M. Chalmette, our dean used to say. (He insisted also that I much resembled the late King Louis XVIII; less strongly, however.) I supplied, further, the best of references; the most flattering recommendations from the gentlemen of the college. By return of post, the governor replied that my appearance pleased him--I believe it, _parbleu! an antechamber in the charge of a person with a striking face like mine is a bait for the shareholder--and that I might come when I liked. I ought, you may say to me, myself also to have made my inquiries. Eh! no doubt. But I had to give so much information about myself that it never occurred to me to ask for any about them. Besides, how could a man be suspicious, seeing this admirable installation, these lofty ceilings, these great safes, as big as cupboards, and these mirrors, in which you can see yourself from head to knee? And then those sonorous prospectuses, those millions that I seemed to hear flying through the air, those colossal enterprises with their fabulous profits. I was dazzled, fascinated. It must be mentioned, too, that at the time the house did not bear quite the aspect which it has to-day. Certainly, business was already going badly--our business always has gone badly--the paper appeared only at irregular intervals. But a little _combinazione of the governor's enabled him to save appearances.

He had conceived the idea, just imagine, of opening a patriotic subscription for the purpose of erecting a statue to General Paolo Paoli, or some such name; in any case, to a great countryman of his own. Money flowed accordingly into the Territorial. Unfortunately, that state of things did not last. By the end of a couple of months the statue was eaten up before it had been made, and the series of protests and writs recommenced. Nowadays I am accustomed to them. But in the days when I had just come from the country, the Auvergnats at the door, caused me a painful impression. In the house, nobody paid attention to such things any longer. It was known that at the last moment there would always arrive a Monpavon, a Bois l'Hery, to pacify the bailiffs; for all those gentlemen, being deeply implicated in the concern, have an interest in avoiding a bankruptcy. That is the very circumstance which saves him, our wily governor. The others run after their money--we know the meaning which that expression has in gaming--and they would not like all the stock on their hands to become worthless save to sell for waste paper.

Small and great, that is the case of all of us who are connected with the firm. From the landlord, to whom two years' rent is owing and who, for fear of losing it all, allows us to stay for nothing, to us poor employees, even to me, who am involved to the extent of my seven thousand francs of savings and my four years of arrears, we are running after our money. That is the reason why I remain obstinately here.

Doubtless, in spite of my advanced age, thanks to my good appearance, to my education, to the care which I have always taken of my clothes, I might have obtained some post under other management. There is one person of excellent repute known to me, M. Joyeuse, a bookkeeper in the firm of Hemerlingue & Son, the great bankers of the Rue Saint-Honore, who, every time he meets me, never fails to remark:

"Passajon, my friend, don't stop in that den of brigands. You are wrong to persist in remaining. You will never get a halfpenny out of them. So come to Hemerlingue's. I undertake to find some little corner for you there. You will earn less, but you will be paid much more."

I feel that he is quite right, that worthy fellow. But the thing is stronger than I. I cannot make up my mind to leave. And yet it is by no means gay, the life I lead here in these great, cold rooms, where no one ever comes, where each man stows himself away in a corner without speaking. What will you have? Each knows the other too well. Everything has been said already.

Again, until last year, we used to have sittings of the board of inspection, meetings of shareholders, stormy and noisy assemblies, veritable battles of savages, from which the cries could be heard to the Madeleine. Several times a week also there would call subscribers indignant at no longer ever receiving any news of their money. It was on such occasions that our governor shone. I have seen these people, monsieur, go into his office furious as wolves thirsting for blood, and, after a quarter of an hour, come out milder than sheep, satisfied, reassured, and their pockets relieved of a few bank-notes. For, there lay the acme of his cleverness; in the extraction of money from the unlucky people who came to demand it. Nowadays the shareholders of the Territorial Bank no longer give any sign of existence. I think they are all dead or else resigned to the situation. The board never meets. The sittings only take place on paper; it is I who am charged with the preparation of a so-called report--always the same--which I copy out afresh each quarter. We should never see a living soul, if, at long intervals, there did not rise from the depths of Corsica some subscribers to the statue of Paoli, curious to know how the monument is progressing; or, it may be, some worthy reader of _Financial Truth_, which died over two years ago, who calls to renew his subscription with a timid air, and begs a little more regularity, if possible, in the forwarding of the paper. There is a faith that nothing shakes. So, when one of these innocents falls among our hungry band, it is something terrible. He is surrounded, hemmed in, an attempt is made to secure his name for one of our lists, and, in case of resistance, if he wishes to subscribe neither to the Paoli monument nor to Corsican railways, these gentlemen deal him what they call--my pen blushes to write it--what they call, I say, "the drayman thrust."

Here is what it is: We always keep at the office a parcel prepared in advance, a well-corded case which arrives nominally from the railway station while the visitor is present. "There are twenty francs carriage to pay," says the one among us who brings the thing in. (Twenty francs, sometimes thirty, according to the appearance of the patient.) Every one then begins to ransack his pockets: "Twenty francs carriage! but I haven't got it." "Nor I either. What a nuisance!" Some one runs to the cash-till. Closed. The cashier is summoned. He is out. And the gruff voice of the drayman, growing impatient in the antechamber: "Come, come, make haste." (It is generally I who play the drayman, because of the strength of my vocal organs.) What is to be done now? Return the parcel? That will vex the governor. "Gentlemen, I beg, will you permit me," ventures the innocent victim, opening his purse. "Ah, monsieur, indeed--" He hands over his twenty francs, he is ushered to the door, and, as soon as his heel is turned, we all divide the fruit of the crime, laughing like highway robbers.

Fie! M. Passajon. At your age, such a trade! Eh! _mon Dieu! I well know it. I know that I should do myself more honour in quitting this evil place. But what! You would have me then renounce the hope of getting back anything of all I have put in here. No, it is not possible. There is urgent need on the contrary that I should remain, that I should be on the watch, always at hand, ready to profit by any windfall, if one should come. Oh, for example, I swear it upon my ribbon, upon my thirty years of academical service, if ever an affair like this of the Nabob allow me to recover my disbursements, I shall not wait another single minute. I shall quickly be off to look after my pretty vineyard down yonder, near Monbars, cured forever of my thoughts of speculation. But, alas! that is a very chimerical hope. Exhausted, used up, known as we are upon the Paris market, with our stocks which are no longer quoted on the Bourse, our bonds which are near being waste paper, so many lies, so many debts, and the hole that grows ever deeper and deeper. (We owe at this moment three million five hundred thousand francs. It is not, however, those three millions that worry us. On the contrary, it is they that keep us going; but we have with the _concierge a little bill of a hundred and twenty-five francs for postage-stamps, a month's gas bill, and other little things. That is the really terrible part of it.) and we are expected to believe that a man, a great financier like this Nabob, even though he were just arrived from the Congo, or dropped from the moon the same day, would be fool enough to put his money into a concern like this. Come! Is the thing possible? You may tell that story to the marines, my dear governor.

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