The master of the establishment paid the tax which was levied upon all public conveyances on his coucou only, which was rated to carry six persons; and he took out a special permit each time that he drove the four-wheeler. This may seem extraordinary in these days, but when the tax on vehicles was first imposed, it was done very timidly, and such deceptions were easily practised by the coach proprietors, always pleased to “faire la queue” (cheat of their dues) the government officials, to use the argot of their vocabulary. Gradually the greedy Treasury became severe; it forced all public conveyances not to roll unless they carried two certificates—one showing that they had been weighed, the other that their taxes were duly paid. All things have their salad days, even the Treasury; and in 1822 those days still lasted. Often in summer, the “four-wheel-coach,” and the coucou journeyed together, carrying between them thirty-two passengers, though Pierrotin was only paying a tax on six. On these specially lucky days the convoy started from the faubourg Saint-Denis at half-past four o’clock in the afternoon, and arrived gallantly at Isle-Adam by ten at night. Proud of this service, which necessitated the hire of an extra horse, Pierrotin was wont to say:—
“We went at a fine pace!”
But in order to do the twenty-seven miles in five hours with his caravan, he was forced to omit certain stoppages along the road—at Saint-Brice, Moisselles, and La Cave.
The hotel du Lion d’Argent occupies a piece of land which is very deep for its width. Though its frontage has only three or four windows on the faubourg Saint-Denis, the building extends back through a long court-yard, at the end of which are the stables, forming a large house standing close against the division wall of the adjoining property. The entrance is through a sort of passage-way beneath the floor of the second story, in which two or three coaches had room to stand. In 1822 the offices of all the lines of coaches which started from the Lion d’Argent were kept by the wife of the inn-keeper, who had as many books as there were lines. She received the fares, booked the passengers, and stowed away, good-naturedly, in her vast kitchen the various packages and parcels to be transported. Travellers were satisfied with this easy-going, patriarchal system. If they arrived too soon, they seated themselves beneath the hood of the huge kitchen chimney, or stood within the passage-way, or crossed to the Cafe de l’Echiquier, which forms the corner of the street so named.
In the early days of the autumn of 1822, on a Saturday morning, Pierrotin was standing, with his hands thrust into his pockets through the apertures of his blouse, beneath the porte-cochere of the Lion d’Argent, whence he could see, diagonally, the kitchen of the inn, and through the long court-yard to the stables, which were defined in black at the end of it. Daumartin’s diligence had just started, plunging heavily after those of the Touchards. It was past eight o’clock. Under the enormous porch or passage, above which could be read on a long sign, “Hotel du Lion d’Argent,” stood the stablemen and porters of the coaching-lines watching the lively start of the vehicles which deceives so many travellers, making them believe that the horses will be kept to that vigorous gait.
“Shall I harness up, master?” asked Pierrotin’s hostler, when there was nothing more to be seen along the road.
“It is a quarter-past eight, and I don’t see any travellers,” replied Pierrotin. “Where have they poked themselves? Yes, harness up all the same. And there are no parcels either! Twenty good Gods! a fine day like this, and I’ve only four booked! A pretty state of things for a Saturday! It is always the same when you want money! A dog’s life, and a dog’s business!”
“If you had more, where would you put them? There’s nothing left but the cabriolet,” said the hostler, intending to soothe Pierrotin.
“You forget the new coach!” cried Pierrotin.
“Have you really got it?” asked the man, laughing, and showing a set of teeth as white and broad as almonds.
“You old good-for-nothing! It starts to-morrow, I tell you; and I want at least eighteen passengers for it.”
“Ha, ha! a fine affair; it’ll warm up the road,” said the hostler.
“A coach like that which runs to Beaumont, hey? Flaming! painted red and gold to make Touchard burst with envy! It takes three horses! I have bought a mate for Rougeot, and Bichette will go finely in unicorn. Come, harness up!” added Pierrotin, glancing out towards the street, and stuffing the tobacco into his clay pipe. “I see a lady and lad over there with packages under their arms; they are coming to the Lion d’Argent, for they’ve turned a deaf ear to the coucous. Tiens, tiens! seems to me I know that lady for an old customer.”
“You’ve often started empty, and arrived full,” said his porter, still by way of consolation.
“But no parcels! Twenty good Gods! What a fate!”
And Pierrotin sat down on one of the huge stone posts which protected the walls of the building from the wheels of the coaches; but he did so with an anxious, reflective air that was not habitual with him.
This conversation, apparently insignificant, had stirred up cruel anxieties which were slumbering in his breast. What could there be to trouble the heart of Pierrotin in a fine new coach? To shine upon “the road,” to rival the Touchards, to magnify his own line, to carry passengers who would compliment him on the conveniences due to the progress of coach-building, instead of having to listen to perpetual complaints of his “sabots” (tires of enormous width)—such was Pierrotin’s laudable ambition; but, carried away with the desire to outstrip his comrade on the line, hoping that the latter might some day retire and leave to him alone the transportation to Isle-Adam, he had gone too far. The coach was indeed ordered from Barry, Breilmann, and Company, coach-builders, who had just substituted square English springs for those called “swan-necks,” and other old-fashioned French contrivances. But these hard and distrustful manufacturers would only deliver over the diligence in return for coin. Not particularly pleased to build a vehicle which would be difficult to sell if it remained upon their hands, these long-headed dealers declined to undertake it at all until Pierrotin had made a preliminary payment of two thousand francs. To satisfy this precautionary demand, Pierrotin had exhausted all his resources and all his credit. His wife, his father-in-law, and his friends had bled. This superb diligence he had been to see the evening before at the painter’s; all it needed now was to be set a-rolling, but to make it roll, payment in full must, alas! be made.
Now, a thousand francs were lacking to Pierrotin, and where to get them he did not know. He was in debt to the master of the Lion d’Argent; he was in danger of his losing his two thousand francs already paid to the coach-builder, not counting five hundred for the mate to Rougeot, and three hundred for new harnesses, on which he had a three-months’ credit. Driven by the fury of despair and the madness of vanity, he had just openly declared that the new coach was to start on the morrow. By offering fifteen hundred francs, instead of the two thousand five hundred still due, he was in hopes that the softened carriage-builders would give him his coach. But after a few moments’ meditation, his feelings led him to cry out aloud:—
“No! they’re dogs! harpies! Suppose I appeal to Monsieur Moreau, the steward at Presles? he is such a kind man,” thought Pierrotin, struck with a new idea. “Perhaps he would take my note for six months.”
At this moment a footman in livery, carrying a leather portmanteau and coming from the Touchard establishment, where he had gone too late to secure places as far as Chambly, came up and said:—
“Are you Pierrotin?”
“Say on,” replied Pierrotin.
“If you would wait a quarter of an hour, you could take my master. If not, I’ll carry back the portmanteau and try to find some other conveyance.”
“I’ll wait two, three quarters, and throw a little in besides, my lad,” said Pierrotin, eyeing the pretty leather trunk, well buckled, and bearing a brass plate with a coat of arms.