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Maxime, who was slowly walking up and down, turned round with a start, and planted himself in front of his father. 'Oh no, indeed! Do you take me to be a fool?' he asked.

Saccard made an angry gesture, for he found the answer sadly disrespectful and witty. He was on the point of shouting that the affair was really a superb one, and that he, Maxime, credited him with little common sense if he imagined him to be a mere thief like others; but as he looked at the young fellow, a feeling of pity came over him for this poor boy of his, who at five and twenty was already exhausted, worn-out, settled down, and even avaricious—so aged by vice, so anxious as to his health that he no longer ventured on any expenditure or enjoyment without carefully calculating the profits that might accrue to him. And thereupon, thoroughly consoled, quite proud of the passionate imprudence which he himself displayed at the age of fifty, he once more began laughing, and tapped his son on the shoulder: 'Come, let's go to breakfast, my poor youngster, and mind you are careful of your rheumatism.'

Two days later, October 5, Saccard, accompanied by Hamelin and Daigremont, repaired to the offices of Ma?tre Lelorrain, notary, in the Rue Sainte-Anne, and there executed the deed which established the joint stock company of the Universal Bank, with a capital of five and twenty millions of francs, divided into fifty thousand shares of five hundred francs each, a fourth part of the amount alone having[Pg 135] to be paid on allotment. The offices of the company were fixed at the Orviedo mansion in the Rue St. Lazare, and a copy of the bye-laws, drawn up in accordance with the deed, was deposited at Ma?tre Lelorrain's office. Then, on leaving the notary's, as it happened to be a very bright, sunny autumn day, the three gentlemen lighted cigars, and slowly sauntered homeward by way of the boulevard and the Rue de la Chaussée d'Antin, feeling well pleased with life, and as merry as boys escaped from school.

The initial general meeting was not held until the following week, in a hall in the Rue Blanche which had formerly been used for public balls, and in which a scheming individual was now endeavouring to start a fine art exhibition. The members of the syndicate had already disposed of those shares which they had taken, but did not wish to keep for themselves; and there came to the meeting one hundred and twenty-two shareholders, representing nearly forty thousand shares, which should have given a total of two thousand votes, since twenty shares were necessary to entitle one to sit and vote. However, as no one shareholder was allowed more than ten votes, whatever might be the amount of stock held by him, the exact total number of votes proved to be sixteen hundred and forty-three.

Saccard positively insisted upon Hamelin presiding. He himself had voluntarily disappeared among the crowd. He had put down the engineer's name and his own for five hundred shares apiece, which were to be paid for, temporarily at all events, by a manipulation of accounts. All the members of the syndicate were present: Daigremont, Huret, Sédille, Kolb, and the Marquis de Bohain, each with the group of shareholders marching under his orders. Sabatani, one of the largest subscribers, was also noticed there, together with Jantrou, accompanied by several of the higher officials of the bank, who had entered upon their duties a couple of days previously. And all the decisions which had to be arrived at had been so well foreseen and settled beforehand, that never was there a shareholders' meeting at which more splendid calmness, simplicity, and harmony were displayed. The sincerity[Pg 136] of the declaration that the entire capital had been subscribed, and that one hundred and twenty-five francs per share had been paid on allotment, was endorsed by an unanimous vote; and then with all solemnity the company was declared to be established. Immediately afterwards came the appointment of the board of directors, which was to consist of twenty members, who, in addition to attendance fees, calculated at an annual total of fifty thousand francs, were, according to the bye-laws, to receive ten per cent. upon the net profits.

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This was not to be despised, so each member of the syndicate had insisted upon having a seat on the board; and naturally, at the head of the list of those who were elected, came Daigremont, Huret, Sédille, Kolb, the Marquis de Bohain, and Hamelin, whom his colleagues wished to appoint chairman, followed by fourteen others of minor importance, selected from among the most subservient and ornamental of the shareholders. At last Saccard, who so far had remained in the background, came forward on Hamelin proposing him for the post of general manager. A murmur of sympathy greeted the mention of his name, and he also obtained a unanimous vote.

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It then only remained for them to elect the two auditors, whose duty it would be to examine and report on the balance sheets and in this way check the accounts supplied by the management—functions, at once delicate and useless, for which Saccard had designated a certain Sieur Rousseau and a Sieur Lavignière, the first completely under the influence of the second, who was a tall, fair-haired fellow with very polite manners and a disposition to approve of everything, being consumed with a desire to become a member of the board when the latter, later on, should express satisfaction with his services. Rousseau and Lavignière having been appointed, the meeting was about to end, when the chairman thought it his duty to refer to the premium of ten per cent. granted to the members of the syndicate, in all four hundred thousand francs, which, at his suggestion, the meeting charged to the preliminary expenses account. It was a trifle; it was necessary to make an allowance to the promoters; and, this point being settled,[Pg 137] whilst the crowd of petty shareholders hurried away like a flock of sheep, the larger subscribers lingered behind, shaking hands with one another on the footway with smiling faces.

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On the very next day the directors met at the Orviedo mansion, in Saccard's former salon, now transformed into a board room. A huge table, covered with a green velvet cloth and encompassed by twenty arm-chairs upholstered in the same material, occupied the centre of the apartment, where there was also a couple of bookcases, the glass doors of which were provided with silk curtains, also green. Deep red hangings darkened the room, whose three windows overlooked the garden of the Beauvilliers mansion, whence came a kind of twilight, the peacefulness as it were of some old cloister, sleeping in the greeny shade of its trees. Altogether the apartment had a severe, aristocratic appearance, conveying an impression of antique honesty.

The board had met to select its officers, and when four o'clock struck almost all the members were present. With his lofty stature and little pale aristocratic head, the Marquis de Bohain was quite typical of 'old France;' whilst Daigremont, with his affability, personified the lofty fortune of the Empire in all the splendour of its success. Sédille, less worried than usual, began talking to Kolb of an unexpected turn which business was taking on the Vienna market; and around them the other directors, the band, stood listening, trying to glean some information, or else chatting together about their own affairs, being there merely to make up the requisite number, to pick up their share of the spoils on the days when there might be booty to divide. As usual, it was Huret who came late, out of breath, after escaping at the last moment from some committee of the Chamber on which he served. He apologised, and then they all seated themselves in the arm-chairs ranged round the table.

The eldest of the directors, the Marquis de Bohain, had taken his seat in the presidential arm-chair, which was higher and more lavishly gilded than the others. Saccard, as general manager, had placed himself at the other end of the[Pg 138] table in front of him; and upon the Marquis announcing that they were first about to select a chairman, Hamelin at once rose up to decline nomination. He had reason to believe, said he, that several gentlemen present had thought of him for the chairmanship, but he wished to call their attention to the fact that he must start for the East immediately, that he was altogether without experience in banking, Bourse, and book-keeping matters, and that the chairmanship altogether carried with it a weighty responsibility which he was unable to accept. Saccard listened to him in great surprise, for only the day before the matter had been quite decided between them; and he at once divined that Madame Caroline had brought her influence to bear upon her brother. They had, he knew, had a long conversation together that morning. And so, as he was unwilling to have any other director as chairman—any independent individual who might embarrass him—he ventured to intervene, explaining that the office was mainly one of honour, and that it sufficed for the chairman to put in an appearance at the general meetings, and there support the proposals of the board and deliver the customary speeches. Moreover, said he, they were going to elect a vice-chairman, who would be empowered to sign for the board. As for the rest, the purely technical parts of their business, the account-keeping, the Bourse, the thousand and one details connected with the inner management of a great financial establishment, would not he, Saccard, be there, he the manager, expressly appointed to attend to the matters in question? According to the bye-laws he had to direct all the office work, see that money was collected and paid, attend to current affairs, carry out the decisions of the board—in a word, act as the company's executive officer. All this seemed sensible enough. Nevertheless, Hamelin resisted for a considerable time longer, and it became necessary for Daigremont and Huret to insist in the most pressing fashion, whilst the majestic Marquis de Bohain affected to take no interest in the matter.

At last the engineer yielded and was named chairman; and then the vice-chairmanship was bestowed on an obscure[Pg 139] agriculturist, the Viscount de Robin-Chagot, formerly a Counsellor of State and a gentle niggardly fellow, who would prove a first-rate signing machine. As for the secretary, it was proposed that he should be selected not from among the board members but from among the bank staff, and thereupon the head of the issue department was chosen. Then, as dusk was falling in the spacious, severe-looking room, a greeny dusk of infinite sadness, the work accomplished was judged good and sufficient, and they separated after fixing their meetings at two a month—the petty board on the 15th, and the full board on the 30th.

Saccard and Hamelin went up together to the workroom, where Madame Caroline was awaiting them. By her brother's embarrassment she clearly realised that he had once more yielded through weakness; and for a moment she was quite angry with him.

'But come now, this isn't reasonable!' exclaimed Saccard. 'Remember that the chairman receives thirty thousand francs a year—which amount will be doubled when our business shall have extended. You are not rich enough to despise such an advantage. And besides, what is it that you fear, tell me?'

'Why, I fear everything,' answered Madame Caroline. 'My brother won't be here and I myself understand nothing about money matters. And about those five hundred shares which you have put him down for, without his paying for them at once, isn't that irregular? Would he not find himself in trouble if the enterprise should come to grief?'

Saccard had begun laughing. 'A fine affair!' said he. 'Five hundred shares, a first call of sixty-two thousand five hundred francs! Why, if he won't be able to pay that out of his first profits before six months are over our heads, we might just as well, all of us, throw ourselves into the Seine at once, rather than take the trouble to launch anything at all. No, you can be easy, speculation only devours fools.'

She retained her severity of demeanour in the growing darkness which was filling the room. However, a couple of lamps were brought, and a broad light then illumined the walls, the large plans, the bright water-colours, which so often made[Pg 140] her dream of the countries over yonder. The plains were still barren, the mountains still barred the horizon, and once more she conjured up a vision of the distressful wretchedness of that old world asleep on its treasures, but which science was going to reawaken in its filth and its ignorance. What great and beautiful and good things there were to be accomplished! Little by little, her vision showed her the generations of the future, a stronger and happier humanity springing from the ancient soil which progress would once more plough.

'Speculation, speculation!' she mechanically repeated, struggling with her doubts. 'Ah! the idea of it fills my heart with disturbing anguish.'

Saccard, who was well acquainted with her usual train of thought, had watched that hope in the future dawning on her face. 'Yes,' said he, 'speculation. Why does the word frighten you? Speculation—why, it is the one inducement that we have to live; it is the eternal desire that compels us to live and struggle. Without speculation, my dear friend, there would be no business of any kind. Why on earth would you have me loosen my purse strings and risk my fortune, if you do not promise me some extraordinary enjoyment, some sudden happiness which will open heaven to me? With the mere legitimate, moderate remuneration of labour, the mere living wage—with nothing but well-balanced equilibrium in all transactions, life becomes a desert of dreary flatness, a marsh in which all forces slumber and stagnate. But, all at once, just make some dream flare up on the horizon, promise men that with one sou they shall gain a hundred, propose to all these sleepers that they shall join you in the chase after the impossible, and gain millions in a couple of hours, amidst the most fearful hazards—why then the race at once begins, all energies are increased tenfold, and amidst the scramble of people toiling and sweating for their own gratification, birth is given to great and beautiful living things. It is the same as in love. In love as in speculation there is much filth; in love also, people think only of their own gratification; yet without love there would be no life, and the world would come to an end.'