Guy de Maupassant: How and why wars are plotted
Guy de Maupassant
From Bel Ami (1885)
Translated by Ernest Boyd
He hoped, indeed, to succeed in getting hold of the portfolio of foreign affairs, which he had had in view for a long time.
He was one of those many-faced politicians, without strong convictions, without great abilities, without boldness, and without any depth of knowledge, a provincial barrister, a local dandy, preserving a cunning balance between all parties, a species of Republican Jesuit and Liberal Mushroom of uncertain character, such as spring up by hundreds on the popular dunghill of universal suffrage. His village machiavelism caused him to be reckoned able among his colleagues, among all the adventurers and abortions who are made deputies. He was sufficiently well-dressed, correct, familiar, and amiable to succeed. He had his successes in society, in the mixed, perturbed, and somewhat rough society of the high functionaries of the day. It was said everywhere of him: “Laroche will be a minister,” and he believed more firmly than anyone else that he would be. He was one of the chief shareholders in old Walter’s paper, and his colleague and partner in many financial schemes.
Although it was only the beginning of October, the Chambers were about to resume their sittings, for matters in Morocco were becoming more threatening. No one at the bottom believed in an expedition against Tangiers, although on the day of the prorogation of the Chamber, a deputy of the Right, Comte de Lambert-Sarrazin, in a witty speech applauded even by the Center, had offered to stake his moustache, after the example of a celebrated Viceroy of India, against the whiskers of the President of the Council, that the new Cabinet could not help imitating the old one, and sending an army to Tangiers, as a pendant to that of Tunis, out of love of symmetry, as one puts two vases on a fireplace.
He had added: “Africa is, indeed, a fireplace for France, gentlemen – a fireplace which consumes out best wood; a fireplace with a strong draught, which is lit with bank notes. You have had the artistic whim to ornament the left-hand corner with a Tunisian knickknack which has cost you dear. You will see that Monsieur Marrot will want to imitate his predecessor, and ornament the right-hand corner with one from Morocco.”
This speech, which became famous, served as a peg for Du Roy for half a score of articles upon the Algerian colony – indeed, for the entire series broken off shortly after his debut on the paper. He had energetically supported the notion of a military expedition, although convinced that it would not take place. He had struck the chord of patriotism, and bombarded Spain with the entire arsenal of contemptuous arguments which we make use of against nations whose interests are contrary to our own. The “Vie Française” had gained considerable importance through its own connection with the party in office. It published political intelligence in advance of the most important papers, and hinted discreetly the intentions of its friends the Ministry, so that all the papers of Paris and the provinces took their news from it. It was quoted and feared, and people began to respect it. It was no longer the suspicious organ of a knot of political jugglers, but the acknowledged one of the Cabinet. Laroche-Mathieu was the soul of the paper, and Du Roy his mouthpiece. Old Walter, a silent member and a crafty manager, knowing when to keep in the background, was busying himself on the quiet, it is said, with an extensive transaction with some copper mines in Morocco.
Monsieur Laroche-Mathieu was awaiting him [Du Roy], for he was lunching at ten o’clock that morning, the Council having to meet at noon, before the opening of Parliament. As soon as they were seated at table alone with the minister’s private secretary…Du Roy spoke of his article, sketched out the line he proposed to take, consulting notes scribbled on visiting cards, and when he had finished, said: “Is there anything you think should be modified, my dear minister?”
“Very little, my dear fellow. You are perhaps a trifle too strongly affirmative as regards the Morocco business. Speak of the expedition as if it were going to take place; but, at the same time, letting it be understood that it will not take place, and that you do not believe in it in the least in the world. Write in such a way that the public can easily read between the lines that we are not going to poke our noses into that adventure.”
“Quite so. I understand, and I will make myself thoroughly understood. My wife commissioned me to ask you, on this point, whether General Belloncle will be sent to Oran. After what you have said, I conclude he will not.”
The statesman answered, “No.”
“I caught, by chance, yesterday evening, some words between my husband and Laroche-Mathieu. They do not…trouble themselves to hide much from me. But Walter recommended the Minister not to let you into the secret, as you would reveal everything.”
Du Roy had put his hat down on a chair, and was waiting very attentively.
“What is up, then?” said he.
“They are going to take possession of Morocco.”
“Nonsense! I lunched with Laroche-Mathieu, who almost dictated to me the intention of the Cabinet.”
“No, darling, they are humbugging you, because they were afraid lest their plan should be known.”
…And she began to explain to him how she had guessed for some time past that something was being hatched unknown to him; that they were making use of him, while dreading his co-operation…
It was a business transaction, a thumping affair, worked out on the quiet. She smiled now, happy in her dexterity, speaking like a financier’s wife accustomed to see the market rigged, used to rises and falls that ruin, in two hours of speculation, thousands of little folk who have placed their savings in undertakings guaranteed by the names of men honoured in the world of politics of finance.
She repeated, “Oh, it is very smart what they have been up to! It was Walter who did it all, though, and he knows all about such things. Really, it is a first-class job.”
He grew impatient at these preliminaries, and exclaimed, “Come, tell me what it is at once.”
“Well, then, this is what it is. The Tangiers expedition was decided upon between them on the day that Laroche-Mathieu took the ministry of foreign affairs, and little by little they have bought up the whole of the Morocco loan, which had fallen to sixty-four or sixty-five francs. They bought it up very cleverly by means of shady brokers, who did not awaken any mistrust. They have even sold the Rothschilds, who grew astonished to find Morocco stock always asked for, and who were astonished by having agents pointed out to them – all lame ducks. That quieted the big financiers. And now the expedition is to take place, and as soon as we are there the French Government will guarantee the debt. Our friends will gain fifty or sixty millions. You understand the matter? You understand, too, how afraid they have been of everyone, of the slightest indiscretion?”
…”You are quite certain?” he asked.
“I should think so,” she replied, with confidence.
“It is very smart, indeed. As to that swine of a Laroche-Mathieu, just see if I don’t pay him out one of these days. Oh, the scoundrel, just let him look out for himself! We shall skin him of his ministerial hide.” Then he began to reflect, and went on, “We ought, though, to profit by all this.”
For two months the conquest of Morocco had been accomplished. France, mistress of Tangiers, held the whole of the African shore of the Mediterranean as far as Tripoli, and had guaranteed the debt of the newly annexed territory. It was said that two ministers had gained a score of millions over the business, and Laroche-Mathieu was almost openly named. As to Walter, no one in Paris was ignorant of the fact that he brought down two birds with one stone, and made thirty or forty millions out of the loan and eight or ten millions out of the copper and iron mines, as well as out of a large stretch of territory bought for almost nothing prior to the conquest, and sold after the French occupation to companies formed to promote colonization. He had become in a few days one of the lords of creation, one of those omnipotent financiers more powerful than monarchs who cause heads to bow, mouths to stammer, and all that is base, cowardly, and envious to well up from the depths of the human heart. He was no longer the Jew Walter, head of a shady bank, manager of a fishy newspaper, deputy suspected of illicit jobbery. He was Monsieur Walter, the wealthy Israelite.