In 1833 Mademoiselle Fischer, who sometimes worked into the night when business was good, at about one o'clock one morning perceived a strong smell of carbonic acid gas, and heard the groans of a dying man. The fumes and the gasping came from a garret over the two rooms forming her dwelling, and she supposed that a young man who had but lately come to lodge in this attic—which had been vacant for three years—was committing suicide. She ran upstairs, broke in the door by a push with her peasant strength, and found the lodger writhing on a camp-bed in the convulsions of death. She extinguished the brazier; the door was open, the air rushed in, and the exile was saved. Then, when Lisbeth had put him to bed like a patient, and he was asleep, she could detect the motives of his suicide in the destitution of the rooms, where there was nothing whatever but a wretched table, the camp-bed, and two chairs.
On the table lay a document, which she read:
"I am Count Wenceslas Steinbock, born at Prelia, in Livonia.
"No one is to be accused of my death; my reasons for killing
myself are, in the words of Kosciusko, Finis Polonioe!
"The grand-nephew of a valiant General under Charles XII. could
not beg. My weakly constitution forbids my taking military
service, and I yesterday saw the last of the hundred thalers which
I had brought with me from Dresden to Paris. I have left
twenty-five francs in the drawer of this table to pay the rent I owe
to the landlord.
"My parents being dead, my death will affect nobody. I desire that
my countrymen will not blame the French Government. I have never
registered myself as a refugee, and I have asked for nothing; I
have met none of my fellow-exiles; no one in Paris knows of my
"I am dying in Christian beliefs. May God forgive the last of the
Mademoiselle Fischer, deeply touched by the dying man's honesty, opened the drawer and found the five five-franc pieces to pay his rent.
"Poor young man!" cried she. "And with no one in the world to care about him!"
She went downstairs to fetch her work, and sat stitching in the garret, watching over the Livonian gentleman.
When he awoke his astonishment may be imagined on finding a woman sitting by his bed; it was like the prolongation of a dream. As she sat there, covering aiguillettes with gold thread, the old maid had resolved to take charge of the poor youth whom she admired as he lay sleeping.
As soon as the young Count was fully awake, Lisbeth talked to give him courage, and questioned him to find out how he might make a living. Wenceslas, after telling his story, added that he owed his position to his acknowledged talent for the fine arts. He had always had a preference for sculpture; the necessary time for study had, however, seemed to him too long for a man without money; and at this moment he was far too weak to do any hard manual labor or undertake an important work in sculpture. All this was Greek to Lisbeth Fischer. She replied to the unhappy man that Paris offered so many openings that any man with will and courage might find a living there. A man of spirit need never perish if he had a certain stock of endurance.
"I am but a poor girl myself, a peasant, and I have managed to make myself independent," said she in conclusion. "If you will work in earnest, I have saved a little money, and I will lend you, month by month, enough to live upon; but to live frugally, and not to play ducks and drakes with or squander in the streets. You can dine in Paris for twenty-five sous a day, and I will get you your breakfast with mine every day. I will furnish your rooms and pay for such teaching as you may think necessary. You shall give me formal acknowledgment for the money I may lay out for you, and when you are rich you shall repay me all. But if you do not work, I shall not regard myself as in any way pledged to you, and I shall leave you to your fate."
"Ah!" cried the poor fellow, still smarting from the bitterness of his first struggle with death, "exiles from every land may well stretch out their hands to France, as the souls in Purgatory do to Paradise. In what other country is such help to be found, and generous hearts even in such a garret as this? You will be everything to me, my beloved benefactress; I am your slave! Be my sweetheart," he added, with one of the caressing gestures familiar to the Poles, for which they are unjustly accused of servility.
"Oh, no; I am too jealous, I should make you unhappy; but I will gladly be a sort of comrade," replied Lisbeth.
"Ah, if only you knew how I longed for some fellow-creature, even a tyrant, who would have something to say to me when I was struggling in the vast solitude of Paris!" exclaimed Wenceslas. "I regretted Siberia, whither I should be sent by the Emperor if I went home.—Be my Providence!—I will work; I will be a better man than I am, though I am not such a bad fellow!"
"Will you do whatever I bid you?" she asked.
"Well, then, I will adopt you as my child," said she lightly. "Here I am with a son risen from the grave. Come! we will begin at once. I will go out and get what I want; you can dress, and come down to breakfast with me when I knock on the ceiling with the broomstick."
That day, Mademoiselle Fischer made some inquiries, at the houses to which she carried her work home, as to the business of a sculptor. By dint of many questions she ended by hearing of the studio kept by Florent and Chanor, a house that made a special business of casting and finishing decorative bronzes and handsome silver plate. Thither she went with Steinbock, recommending him as an apprentice in sculpture, an idea that was regarded as too eccentric. Their business was to copy the works of the greatest artists, but they did not teach the craft. The old maid's persistent obstinacy so far succeeded that Steinbock was taken on to design ornament. He very soon learned to model ornament, and invented novelties; he had a gift for it.
Five months after he was out of his apprenticeship as a finisher, he made acquaintance with Stidmann, the famous head of Florent's studios. Within twenty months Wenceslas was ahead of his master; but in thirty months the old maid's savings of sixteen years had melted entirely. Two thousand five hundred francs in gold!—a sum with which she had intended to purchase an annuity; and what was there to show for it? A Pole's receipt! And at this moment Lisbeth was working as hard as in her young days to supply the needs of her Livonian.
When she found herself the possessor of a piece of paper instead of her gold louis, she lost her head, and went to consult Monsieur Rivet, who for fifteen years had been his clever head-worker's friend and counselor. On hearing her story, Monsieur and Madame Rivet scolded Lisbeth, told her she was crazy, abused all refugees whose plots for reconstructing their nation compromised the prosperity of the country and the maintenance of peace; and they urged Lisbeth to find what in trade is called security.
"The only hold you have over this fellow is on his liberty," observed Monsieur Rivet.
Monsieur Achille Rivet was assessor at the Tribunal of Commerce.
"Imprisonment is no joke for a foreigner," said he. "A Frenchman remains five years in prison and comes out, free of his debts to be sure, for he is thenceforth bound only by his conscience, and that never troubles him; but a foreigner never comes out.—Give me your promissory note; my bookkeeper will take it up; he will get it protested; you will both be prosecuted and both be condemned to imprisonment in default of payment; then, when everything is in due form, you must sign a declaration. By doing this your interest will be accumulating, and you will have a pistol always primed to fire at your Pole!"
The old maid allowed these legal steps to be taken, telling her protege not to be uneasy, as the proceedings were merely to afford a guarantee to a money-lender who agreed to advance them certain sums. This subterfuge was due to the inventive genius of Monsieur Rivet. The guileless artist, blindly trusting to his benefactress, lighted his pipe with the stamped paper, for he smoked as all men do who have sorrows or energies that need soothing.
One fine day Monsieur Rivet showed Mademoiselle Fischer a schedule, and said to her:
"Here you have Wenceslas Steinbock bound hand and foot, and so effectually, that within twenty-four hours you can have him snug in Clichy for the rest of his days."
This worthy and honest judge at the Chamber of Commerce experienced that day the satisfaction that must come of having done a malignant good action. Beneficence has so many aspects in Paris that this contradictory expression really represents one of them. The Livonian being fairly entangled in the toils of commercial procedure, the point was to obtain payment; for the illustrious tradesman looked on Wenceslas as a swindler. Feeling, sincerity, poetry, were in his eyes mere folly in business matters.
So Rivet went off to see, in behalf of that poor Mademoiselle Fischer, who, as he said, had been "done" by the Pole, the rich manufacturers for whom Steinbock had worked. It happened that Stidmann—who, with the help of these distinguished masters of the goldsmiths' art, was raising French work to the perfection it has now reached, allowing it to hold its own against Florence and the Renaissance—Stidmann was in Chanor's private room when the army lace manufacturer called to make inquiries as to "One Steinbock, a Polish refugee."
"Whom do you call 'One Steinbock'? Do you mean a young Livonian who was a pupil of mine?" cried Stidmann ironically. "I may tell you, monsieur, that he is a very great artist. It is said of me that I believe myself to be the Devil. Well, that poor fellow does not know that he is capable of becoming a god."
"Indeed," said Rivet, well pleased. And then he added, "Though you take a rather cavalier tone with a man who has the honor to be an Assessor on the Tribunal of Commerce of the Department of the Seine."
"Your pardon, Consul!" said Stidmann, with a military salute.
"I am delighted," the Assessor went on, "to hear what you say. The man may make money then?"
"Certainly," said Chanor; "but he must work. He would have a tidy sum by now if he had stayed with us. What is to be done? Artists have a horror of not being free."
"They have a proper sense of their value and dignity," replied Stidmann. "I do not blame Wenceslas for walking alone, trying to make a name, and to become a great man; he had a right to do so! But he was a great loss to me when he left."
"That, you see," exclaimed Rivet, "is what all young students aim at as soon as they are hatched out of the school-egg. Begin by saving money, I say, and seek glory afterwards."
"It spoils your touch to be picking up coin," said Stidmann. "It is Glory's business to bring us wealth."
"And, after all," said Chanor to Rivet, "you cannot tether them."
"They would eat the halter," replied Stidmann.
"All these gentlemen have as much caprice as talent," said Chanor, looking at Stidmann. "They spend no end of money; they keep their girls, they throw coin out of window, and then they have no time to work. They neglect their orders; we have to employ workmen who are very inferior, but who grow rich; and then they complain of the hard times, while, if they were but steady, they might have piles of gold."
"You old Lumignon," said Stidmann, "you remind me of the publisher before the Revolution who said—'If only I could keep Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau very poor in my backshed, and lock up their breeches in a cupboard, what a lot of nice little books they would write to make my fortune.'—If works of art could be hammered out like nails, workmen would make them.—Give me a thousand francs, and don't talk nonsense."
Worthy Monsieur Rivet went home, delighted for poor Mademoiselle Fischer, who dined with him every Monday, and whom he found waiting for him.
"If you can only make him work," said he, "you will have more luck than wisdom; you will be repaid, interest, capital, and costs. This Pole has talent, he can make a living; but lock up his trousers and his shoes, do not let him go to the Chaumiere or the parish of Notre-Dame de Lorette, keep him in leading-strings. If you do not take such precautions, your artist will take to loafing, and if you only knew what these artists mean by loafing! Shocking! Why, I have just heard that they will spend a thousand-franc note in a day!"
This episode had a fatal influence on the home-life of Wenceslas and Lisbeth. The benefactress flavored the exile's bread with the wormwood of reproof, now that she saw her money in danger, and often believed it to be lost. From a kind mother she became a stepmother; she took the poor boy to task, she nagged him, scolded him for working too slowly, and blamed him for having chosen so difficult a profession. She could not believe that those models in red wax—little figures and sketches for ornamental work—could be of any value. Before long, vexed with herself for her severity, she would try to efface the tears by her care and attention.
Then the poor young man, after groaning to think that he was dependent on this shrew and under the thumb of a peasant of the Vosges, was bewitched by her coaxing ways and by a maternal affection that attached itself solely to the physical and material side of life. He was like a woman who forgives a week of ill-usage for the sake of a kiss and a brief reconciliation.
Thus Mademoiselle Fischer obtained complete power over his mind. The love of dominion that lay as a germ in the old maid's heart developed rapidly. She could now satisfy her pride and her craving for action; had she not a creature belonging to her, to be schooled, scolded, flattered, and made happy, without any fear of a rival? Thus the good and bad sides of her nature alike found play. If she sometimes victimized the poor artist, she had, on the other hand, delicate impulses like the grace of wild flowers; it was a joy to her to provide for all his wants; she would have given her life for him, and Wenceslas knew it. Like every noble soul, the poor fellow forgot the bad points, the defects of the woman who had told him the story of her life as an excuse for her rough ways, and he remembered only the benefits she had done him.
One day, exasperated with Wenceslas for having gone out walking instead of sitting at work, she made a great scene.
"You belong to me," said she. "If you were an honest man, you would try to repay me the money you owe as soon as possible."
The gentleman, in whose veins the blood of the Steinbocks was fired, turned pale.
"Bless me," she went on, "we soon shall have nothing to live on but the thirty sous I earn—a poor work-woman!"
The two penniless creatures, worked up by their own war of words, grew vehement; and for the first time the unhappy artist reproached his benefactress for having rescued him from death only to make him lead the life of a galley slave, worse than the bottomless void, where at least, said he, he would have found rest. And he talked of flight.
"Flight!" cried Lisbeth. "Ah, Monsieur Rivet was right."
And she clearly explained to the Pole that within twenty-four hours he might be clapped into prison for the rest of his days. It was a crushing blow. Steinbock sank into deep melancholy and total silence.
In the course of the following night, Lisbeth hearing overhead some preparations for suicide, went up to her pensioner's room, and gave him the schedule and a formal release.
"Here, dear child, forgive me," she said with tears in her eyes. "Be happy; leave me! I am too cruel to you; only tell me that you will sometimes remember the poor girl who has enabled you to make a living.—What can I say? You are the cause of my ill-humor. I might die; where would you be without me? That is the reason of my being impatient to see you do some salable work. I do not want my money back for myself, I assure you! I am only frightened at your idleness, which you call meditation; at your ideas, which take up so many hours when you sit gazing at the sky; I want you to get into habits of industry."
All this was said with an emphasis, a look, and tears that moved the high-minded artist; he clasped his benefactress to his heart and kissed her forehead.
"Keep these pieces," said he with a sort of cheerfulness. "Why should you send me to Clichy? Am I not a prisoner here out of gratitude?"
This episode of their secret domestic life had occurred six months previously, and had led to Steinbock's producing three finished works: the seal in Hortense's possession, the group he had placed with the curiosity dealer, and a beautiful clock to which he was putting the last touches, screwing in the last rivets.
This clock represented the twelve Hours, charmingly personified by twelve female figures whirling round in so mad and swift a dance that three little Loves perched on a pile of fruit and flowers could not stop one of them; only the torn skirts of Midnight remained in the hand of the most daring cherub. The group stood on an admirably treated base, ornamented with grotesque beasts. The hours were told by a monstrous mouth that opened to yawn, and each Hour bore some ingeniously appropriate symbol characteristic of the various occupations of the day.
It is now easy to understand the extraordinary attachment of Mademoiselle Fischer for her Livonian; she wanted him to be happy, and she saw him pining, fading away in his attic. The causes of this wretched state of affairs may be easily imagined. The peasant woman watched this son of the North with the affection of a mother, with the jealousy of a wife, and the spirit of a dragon; hence she managed to put every kind of folly or dissipation out of his power by leaving him destitute of money. She longed to keep her victim and companion for herself alone, well conducted perforce, and she had no conception of the cruelty of this senseless wish, since she, for her own part, was accustomed to every privation. She loved Steinbock well enough not to marry him, and too much to give him up to any other woman; she could not resign herself to be no more than a mother to him, though she saw that she was mad to think of playing the other part.
These contradictions, this ferocious jealousy, and the joy of having a man to herself, all agitated her old maid's heart beyond measure. Really in love as she had been for four years, she cherished the foolish hope of prolonging this impossible and aimless way of life in which her persistence would only be the ruin of the man she thought of as her child. This contest between her instincts and her reason made her unjust and tyrannical. She wreaked on the young man her vengeance for her own lot in being neither young, rich, nor handsome; then, after each fit of rage, recognizing herself wrong, she stooped to unlimited humility, infinite tenderness. She never could sacrifice to her idol till she had asserted her power by blows of the axe. In fact, it was the converse of Shakespeare's Tempest—Caliban ruling Ariel and Prospero.
As to the poor youth himself, high-minded, meditative, and inclined to be lazy, the desert that his protectress made in his soul might be seen in his eyes, as in those of a caged lion. The penal servitude forced on him by Lisbeth did not fulfil the cravings of his heart. His weariness became a physical malady, and he was dying without daring to ask, or knowing where to procure, the price of some little necessary dissipation. On some days of special energy, when a feeling of utter ill-luck added to his exasperation, he would look at Lisbeth as a thirsty traveler on a sandy shore must look at the bitter sea-water.
These harsh fruits of indigence, and this isolation in the midst of Paris, Lisbeth relished with delight. And besides, she foresaw that the first passion would rob her of her slave. Sometimes she even blamed herself because her own tyranny and reproaches had compelled the poetic youth to become so great an artist of delicate work, and she had thus given him the means of casting her off.
On the day after, these three lives, so differently but so utterly wretched—that of a mother in despair, that of the Marneffe household, and that of the unhappy exile—were all to be influenced by Hortense's guileless passion, and by the strange outcome of the Baron's luckless passion for Josepha.
Just as Hulot was going into the opera-house, he was stopped by the darkened appearance of the building and of the Rue le Peletier, where there were no gendarmes, no lights, no theatre-servants, no barrier to regulate the crowd. He looked up at the announcement-board, and beheld a strip of white paper, on which was printed the solemn notice:
"CLOSED ON ACCOUNT OF ILLNESS."
He rushed off to Josepha's lodgings in the Rue Chauchat; for, like all the singers, she lived close at hand.
"Whom do you want, sir?" asked the porter, to the Baron's great astonishment.
"Have you forgotten me?" said Hulot, much puzzled.
"On the contrary, sir, it is because I have the honor to remember you that I ask you, Where are you going?"
A mortal chill fell upon the Baron.
"What has happened?" he asked.
"If you go up to Mademoiselle Mirah's rooms, Monsieur le Baron, you will find Mademoiselle Heloise Brisetout there—and Monsieur Bixiou, Monsieur Leon de Lora, Monsieur Lousteau, Monsieur de Vernisset, Monsieur Stidmann; and ladies smelling of patchouli—holding a housewarming."
"Then, where—where is——?"
"Mademoiselle Mirah?—I don't know that I ought to tell you."
The Baron slipped two five-franc pieces into the porter's hand.
"Well, she is now in the Rue de la Ville l'Eveque, in a fine house, given to her, they say, by the Duc d'Herouville," replied the man in a whisper.
Having ascertained the number of the house, Monsieur Hulot called a milord and drove to one of those pretty modern houses with double doors, where everything, from the gaslight at the entrance, proclaims luxury.
The Baron, in his blue cloth coat, white neckcloth, nankeen trousers, patent leather boots, and stiffly starched shirt-frill, was supposed to be a guest, though a late arrival, by the janitor of this new Eden. His alacrity of manner and quick step justified this opinion.
The porter rang a bell, and a footman appeared in the hall. This man, as new as the house, admitted the visitor, who said to him in an imperious tone, and with a lordly gesture:
"Take in this card to Mademoiselle Josepha."
The victim mechanically looked round the room in which he found himself—an anteroom full of choice flowers and of furniture that must have cost twenty thousand francs. The servant, on his return, begged monsieur to wait in the drawing-room till the company came to their coffee.
Though the Baron had been familiar with Imperial luxury, which was undoubtedly prodigious, while its productions, though not durable in kind, had nevertheless cost enormous sums, he stood dazzled, dumfounded, in this drawing-room with three windows looking out on a garden like fairyland, one of those gardens that are created in a month with a made soil and transplanted shrubs, while the grass seems as if it must be made to grow by some chemical process. He admired not only the decoration, the gilding, the carving, in the most expensive Pompadour style, as it is called, and the magnificent brocades, all of which any enriched tradesman could have procured for money; but he also noted such treasures as only princes can select and find, can pay for and give away; two pictures by Greuze, two by Watteau, two heads by Vandyck, two landscapes by Ruysdael, and two by le Guaspre, a Rembrandt, a Holbein, a Murillo, and a Titian, two paintings, by Teniers, and a pair by Metzu, a Van Huysum, and an Abraham Mignon—in short, two hundred thousand francs' worth of pictures superbly framed. The gilding was worth almost as much as the paintings.
"Ah, ha! Now you understand, my good man?" said Josepha.
She had stolen in on tiptoe through a noiseless door, over Persian carpets, and came upon her adorer, standing lost in amazement—in the stupid amazement when a man's ears tingle so loudly that he hears nothing but that fatal knell.
The words "my good man," spoken to an official of such high importance, so perfectly exemplified the audacity with which these creatures pour contempt on the loftiest, that the Baron was nailed to the spot. Josepha, in white and yellow, was so beautifully dressed for the banquet, that amid all this lavish magnificence she still shone like a rare jewel.
"Isn't this really fine?" said she. "The Duke has spent all the money on it that he got out of floating a company, of which the shares all sold at a premium. He is no fool, is my little Duke. There is nothing like a man who has been a grandee in his time for turning coals into gold. Just before dinner the notary brought me the title-deeds to sign and the bills receipted!—They are all a first-class set in there—d'Esgrignon, Rastignac, Maxime, Lenoncourt, Verneuil, Laginski, Rochefide, la Palferine, and from among the bankers Nucingen and du Tillet, with Antonia, Malaga, Carabine, and la Schontz; and they all feel for you deeply.—Yes, old boy, and they hope you will join them, but on condition that you forthwith drink up to two bottles full of Hungarian wine, Champagne, or Cape, just to bring you up to their mark.—My dear fellow, we are all so much on here, that it was necessary to close the Opera. The manager is as drunk as a cornet-a-piston; he is hiccuping already."
"Oh, Josepha!——" cried the Baron.
"Now, can anything be more absurd than explanations?" she broke in with a smile. "Look here; can you stand six hundred thousand francs which this house and furniture cost? Can you give me a bond to the tune of thirty thousand francs a year, which is what the Duke has just given me in a packet of common sugared almonds from the grocer's?—a pretty notion that——"
"What an atrocity!" cried Hulot, who in his fury would have given his wife's diamonds to stand in the Duc d'Herouville's shoes for twenty-four hours.
"Atrocity is my trade," said she. "So that is how you take it? Well, why don't you float a company? Goodness me! my poor dyed Tom, you ought to be grateful to me; I have thrown you over just when you would have spent on me your widow's fortune, your daughter's portion.—What, tears! The Empire is a thing of the past—I hail the coming Empire!"
She struck a tragic attitude, and exclaimed:
"They call you Hulot! Nay, I know you not—"
And she went into the other room.
Through the door, left ajar, there came, like a lightning-flash, a streak of light with an accompaniment of the crescendo of the orgy and the fragrance of a banquet of the choicest description.
The singer peeped through the partly open door, and seeing Hulot transfixed as if he had been a bronze image, she came one step forward into the room.
"Monsieur," said she, "I have handed over the rubbish in the Rue Chauchat to Bixiou's little Heloise Brisetout. If you wish to claim your cotton nightcap, your bootjack, your belt, and your wax dye, I have stipulated for their return."
This insolent banter made the Baron leave the room as precipitately as Lot departed from Gomorrah, but he did not look back like Mrs. Lot.
Hulot went home, striding along in a fury, and talking to himself; he found his family still playing the game of whist at two sous a point, at which he left them. On seeing her husband return, poor Adeline imagined something dreadful, some dishonor; she gave her cards to Hortense, and led Hector away into the very room where, only five hours since, Crevel had foretold her the utmost disgrace of poverty.
"What is the matter?" she said, terrified.
"Oh, forgive me—but let me tell you all these horrors." And for ten minutes he poured out his wrath.
"But, my dear," said the unhappy woman, with heroic courage, "these creatures do not know what love means—such pure and devoted love as you deserve. How could you, so clear-sighted as you are, dream of competing with millions?"
"Dearest Adeline!" cried the Baron, clasping her to his heart.
The Baroness' words had shed balm on the bleeding wounds to his vanity.
"To be sure, take away the Duc d'Herouville's fortune, and she could not hesitate between us!" said the Baron.
"My dear," said Adeline with a final effort, "if you positively must have mistresses, why do you not seek them, like Crevel, among women who are less extravagant, and of a class that can for a time be content with little? We should all gain by that arrangement.—I understand your need—but I do not understand that vanity——"
"Oh, what a kind and perfect wife you are!" cried he. "I am an old lunatic, I do not deserve to have such a wife!"
"I am simply the Josephine of my Napoleon," she replied, with a touch of melancholy.
"Josephine was not to compare with you!" said he. "Come; I will play a game of whist with my brother and the children. I must try my hand at the business of a family man; I must get Hortense a husband, and bury the libertine."
His frankness so greatly touched poor Adeline, that she said:
"The creature has no taste to prefer any man in the world to my Hector. Oh, I would not give you up for all the gold on earth. How can any woman throw you over who is so happy as to be loved by you?"
The look with which the Baron rewarded his wife's fanaticism confirmed her in her opinion that gentleness and docility were a woman's strongest weapons.
But in this she was mistaken. The noblest sentiments, carried to an excess, can produce mischief as great as do the worst vices. Bonaparte was made Emperor for having fired on the people, at a stone's throw from the spot where Louis XVI. lost his throne and his head because he would not allow a certain Monsieur Sauce to be hurt.
On the following morning, Hortense, who had slept with the seal under her pillow, so as to have it close to her all night, dressed very early, and sent to beg her father to join her in the garden as soon as he should be down.
By about half-past nine, the father, acceding to his daughter's petition, gave her his arm for a walk, and they went along the quays by the Pont Royal to the Place du Carrousel.
"Let us look into the shop windows, papa," said Hortense, as they went through the little gate to cross the wide square.
"What—here?" said her father, laughing at her.
"We are supposed to have come to see the pictures, and over there"—and she pointed to the stalls in front of the houses at a right angle to the Rue du Doyenne—"look! there are dealers in curiosities and pictures——"
"Your cousin lives there."
"I know it, but she must not see us."
"And what do you want to do?" said the Baron, who, finding himself within thirty yards of Madame Marneffe's windows, suddenly remembered her.
Hortense had dragged her father in front of one of the shops forming the angle of a block of houses built along the front of the Old Louvre, and facing the Hotel de Nantes. She went into this shop; her father stood outside, absorbed in gazing at the windows of the pretty little lady, who, the evening before, had left her image stamped on the old beau's heart, as if to alleviate the wound he was so soon to receive; and he could not help putting his wife's sage advice into practice.
"I will fall back on a simple little citizen's wife," said he to himself, recalling Madame Marneffe's adorable graces. "Such a woman as that will soon make me forget that grasping Josepha."
Now, this was what was happening at the same moment outside and inside the curiosity shop.
As he fixed his eyes on the windows of his new belle, the Baron saw the husband, who, while brushing his coat with his own hands, was apparently on the lookout, expecting to see some one on the square. Fearing lest he should be seen, and subsequently recognized, the amorous Baron turned his back on the Rue du Doyenne, or rather stood at three-quarters' face, as it were, so as to be able to glance round from time to time. This manoeuvre brought him face to face with Madame Marneffe, who, coming up from the quay, was doubling the promontory of houses to go home.
Valerie was evidently startled as she met the Baron's astonished eye, and she responded with a prudish dropping of her eyelids.
"A pretty woman," exclaimed he, "for whom a man would do many foolish things."
"Indeed, monsieur?" said she, turning suddenly, like a woman who has just come to some vehement decision, "you are Monsieur le Baron Hulot, I believe?"
The Baron, more and more bewildered, bowed assent.
"Then, as chance has twice made our eyes meet, and I am so fortunate as to have interested or puzzled you, I may tell you that, instead of doing anything foolish, you ought to do justice.—My husband's fate rests with you."
"And how may that be?" asked the gallant Baron.
"He is employed in your department in the War Office, under Monsieur Lebrun, in Monsieur Coquet's room," said she with a smile.
"I am quite disposed, Madame—Madame——?"
"Dear little Madame Marneffe, to do injustice for your sake.—I have a cousin living in your house; I will go to see her one day soon—as soon as possible; bring your petition to me in her rooms."
"Pardon my boldness, Monsieur le Baron; you must understand that if I dare to address you thus, it is because I have no friend to protect me——"
"Monsieur, you misunderstand me," said she, lowering her eyelids.
Hulot felt as if the sun had disappeared.
"I am at my wits' end, but I am an honest woman!" she went on. "About six months ago my only protector died, Marshal Montcornet—"
"Ah! You are his daughter?"
"Yes, monsieur; but he never acknowledged me."
"That was that he might leave you part of his fortune."
"He left me nothing; he made no will."
"Indeed! Poor little woman! The Marshal died suddenly of apoplexy. But, come, madame, hope for the best. The State must do something for the daughter of one of the Chevalier Bayards of the Empire."
Madame Marneffe bowed gracefully and went off, as proud of her success as the Baron was of his.
"Where the devil has she been so early?" thought he watching the flow of her skirts, to which she contrived to impart a somewhat exaggerated grace. "She looks too tired to have just come from a bath, and her husband is waiting for her. It is strange, and puzzles me altogether."
Madame Marneffe having vanished within, the Baron wondered what his daughter was doing in the shop. As he went in, still staring at Madame Marneffe's windows, he ran against a young man with a pale brow and sparkling gray eyes, wearing a summer coat of black merino, coarse drill trousers, and tan shoes, with gaiters, rushing away headlong; he saw him run to the house in the Rue du Doyenne, into which he went.
Hortense, on going into the shop, had at once recognized the famous group, conspicuously placed on a table in the middle and in front of the door. Even without the circumstances to which she owed her knowledge of this masterpiece, it would probably have struck her by the peculiar power which we must call the brio—the go—of great works; and the girl herself might in Italy have been taken as a model for the personification of Brio.
Not every work by a man of genius has in the same degree that brilliancy, that glory which is at once patent even to the most ignoble beholder. Thus, certain pictures by Raphael, such as the famous Transfiguration, the Madonna di Foligno, and the frescoes of the Stanze in the Vatican, do not at first captivate our admiration, as do the Violin-player in the Sciarra Palace, the portraits of the Doria family, and the Vision of Ezekiel in the Pitti Gallery, the Christ bearing His Cross in the Borghese collection, and the Marriage of the Virgin in the Brera at Milan. The Saint John the Baptist of the Tribuna, and Saint Luke painting the Virgin's portrait in the Accademia at Rome, have not the charm of the Portrait of Leo X., and of the Virgin at Dresden.
And yet they are all of equal merit. Nay, more. The Stanze, the Transfiguration, the panels, and the three easel pictures in the Vatican are in the highest degree perfect and sublime. But they demand a stress of attention, even from the most accomplished beholder, and serious study, to be fully understood; while the Violin-player, the Marriage of the Virgin, and the Vision of Ezekiel go straight to the heart through the portal of sight, and make their home there. It is a pleasure to receive them thus without an effort; if it is not the highest phase of art, it is the happiest. This fact proves that, in the begetting of works of art, there is as much chance in the character of the offspring as there is in a family of children; that some will be happily graced, born beautiful, and costing their mothers little suffering, creatures on whom everything smiles, and with whom everything succeeds; in short, genius, like love, has its fairer blossoms.
This brio, an Italian word which the French have begun to use, is characteristic of youthful work. It is the fruit of an impetus and fire of early talent—an impetus which is met with again later in some happy hours; but this particular brio no longer comes from the artist's heart; instead of his flinging it into his work as a volcano flings up its fires, it comes to him from outside, inspired by circumstances, by love, or rivalry, often by hatred, and more often still by the imperious need of glory to be lived up to.
This group by Wenceslas was to his later works what the Marriage of the Virgin is to the great mass of Raphael's, the first step of a gifted artist taken with the inimitable grace, the eagerness, and delightful overflowingness of a child, whose strength is concealed under the pink-and-white flesh full of dimples which seem to echo to a mother's laughter. Prince Eugene is said to have paid four hundred thousand francs for this picture, which would be worth a million to any nation that owned no picture by Raphael, but no one would give that sum for the finest of the frescoes, though their value is far greater as works of art.
Hortense restrained her admiration, for she reflected on the amount of her girlish savings; she assumed an air of indifference, and said to the dealer:
"What is the price of that?"
"Fifteen hundred francs," replied the man, sending a glance of intelligence to a young man seated on a stool in the corner.
The young man himself gazed in a stupefaction at Monsieur Hulot's living masterpiece. Hortense, forewarned, at once identified him as the artist, from the color that flushed a face pale with endurance; she saw the spark lighted up in his gray eyes by her question; she looked on the thin, drawn features, like those of a monk consumed by asceticism; she loved the red, well-formed mouth, the delicate chin, and the Pole's silky chestnut hair.
"If it were twelve hundred," said she, "I would beg you to send it to me."
"It is antique, mademoiselle," the dealer remarked, thinking, like all his fraternity, that, having uttered this ne plus ultra of bric-a-brac, there was no more to be said.
"Excuse me, monsieur," she replied very quietly, "it was made this year; I came expressly to beg you, if my price is accepted, to send the artist to see us, as it might be possible to procure him some important commissions."
"And if he is to have the twelve hundred francs, what am I to get? I am the dealer," said the man, with candid good-humor.
"To be sure!" replied the girl, with a slight curl of disdain.
"Oh! mademoiselle, take it; I will make terms with the dealer," cried the Livonian, beside himself.
Fascinated by Hortense's wonderful beauty and the love of art she displayed, he added:
"I am the sculptor of the group, and for ten days I have come here three times a day to see if anybody would recognize its merit and bargain for it. You are my first admirer—take it!"
"Come, then, monsieur, with the dealer, an hour hence.—Here is my father's card," replied Hortense.
Then, seeing the shopkeeper go into a back room to wrap the group in a piece of linen rag, she added in a low voice, to the great astonishment of the artist, who thought he must be dreaming:
"For the benefit of your future prospects, Monsieur Wenceslas, do not mention the name of the purchaser to Mademoiselle Fischer, for she is our cousin."
The word cousin dazzled the artist's mind; he had a glimpse of Paradise whence this daughter of Eve had come to him. He had dreamed of the beautiful girl of whom Lisbeth had told him, as Hortense had dreamed of her cousin's lover; and, as she had entered the shop—
"Ah!" thought he, "if she could but be like this!"
The look that passed between the lovers may be imagined; it was a flame, for virtuous lovers have no hypocrisies.
"Well, what the deuce are you doing here?" her father asked her.
"I have been spending twelve hundred francs that I had saved. Come." And she took her father's arm.
"Twelve hundred francs?" he repeated.
"To be exact, thirteen hundred; you will lend me the odd hundred?"
"And on what, in such a place, could you spend so much?"
"Ah! that is the question!" replied the happy girl. "If I have got a husband, he is not dear at the money."
"A husband! In that shop, my child?"
"Listen, dear little father; would you forbid my marrying a great artist?"
"No, my dear. A great artist in these days is a prince without a title—he has glory and fortune, the two chief social advantages—next to virtue," he added, in a smug tone.
"Oh, of course!" said Hortense. "And what do you think of sculpture?"
"It is very poor business," replied Hulot, shaking his head. "It needs high patronage as well as great talent, for Government is the only purchaser. It is an art with no demand nowadays, where there are no princely houses, no great fortunes, no entailed mansions, no hereditary estates. Only small pictures and small figures can find a place; the arts are endangered by this need of small things."
"But if a great artist could find a demand?" said Hortense.
"That indeed would solve the problem."
"Or had some one to back him?"
"That would be even better."
"If he were of noble birth?"
"And a sculptor?"
"He has no money."
"And so he counts on that of Mademoiselle Hortense Hulot?" said the Baron ironically, with an inquisitorial look into his daughter's eyes.
"This great artist, a Count and a sculptor, has just seen your daughter for the first time in his life, and for the space of five minutes, Monsieur le Baron," Hortense calmly replied. "Yesterday, you must know, dear little father, while you were at the Chamber, mamma had a fainting fit. This, which she ascribed to a nervous attack, was the result of some worry that had to do with the failure of my marriage, for she told me that to get rid of me—-"
"She is too fond of you to have used an expression——"
"So unparliamentary!" Hortense put in with a laugh. "No, she did not use those words; but I know that a girl old enough to marry and who does not find a husband is a heavy cross for respectable parents to bear.—Well, she thinks that if a man of energy and talent could be found, who would be satisfied with thirty thousand francs for my marriage portion, we might all be happy. In fact, she thought it advisable to prepare me for the modesty of my future lot, and to hinder me from indulging in too fervid dreams.—Which evidently meant an end to the intended marriage, and no settlements for me!"
"Your mother is a very good woman, noble, admirable!" replied the father, deeply humiliated, though not sorry to hear this confession.
"She told me yesterday that she had your permission to sell her diamonds so as to give me something to marry on; but I should like her to keep her jewels, and to find a husband myself. I think I have found the man, the possible husband, answering to mamma's prospectus——"
"There?—in the Place du Carrousel?—and in one morning?"
"Oh, papa, the mischief lies deeper!" said she archly.
"Well, come, my child, tell the whole story to your good old father," said he persuasively, and concealing his uneasiness.
Under promise of absolute secrecy, Hortense repeated the upshot of her various conversations with her Cousin Betty. Then, when they got home, she showed the much-talked-of-seal to her father in evidence of the sagacity of her views. The father, in the depth of his heart, wondered at the skill and acumen of girls who act on instinct, discerning the simplicity of the scheme which her idealized love had suggested in the course of a single night to his guileless daughter.
"You will see the masterpiece I have just bought; it is to be brought home, and that dear Wenceslas is to come with the dealer.—The man who made that group ought to make a fortune; only use your influence to get him an order for a statue, and rooms at the Institut——"
"How you run on!" cried her father. "Why, if you had your own way, you would be man and wife within the legal period—in eleven days——"
"Must we wait so long?" said she, laughing. "But I fell in love with him in five minutes, as you fell in love with mamma at first sight. And he loves me as if we had known each other for two years. Yes," she said in reply to her father's look, "I read ten volumes of love in his eyes. And will not you and mamma accept him as my husband when you see that he is a man of genius? Sculpture is the greatest of the Arts," she cried, clapping her hands and jumping. "I will tell you everything——"
"What, is there more to come?" asked her father, smiling.
The child's complete and effervescent innocence had restored her father's peace of mind.
"A confession of the first importance," said she. "I loved him without knowing him; and, for the last hour, since seeing him, I am crazy about him."
"A little too crazy!" said the Baron, who was enjoying the sight of this guileless passion.
"Do not punish me for confiding in you," replied she. "It is so delightful to say to my father's heart, 'I love him! I am so happy in loving him!'—You will see my Wenceslas! His brow is so sad. The sun of genius shines in his gray eyes—and what an air he has! What do you think of Livonia? Is it a fine country?—The idea of Cousin Betty's marrying that young fellow! She might be his mother. It would be murder! I am quite jealous of all she has ever done for him. But I don't think my marriage will please her."
"See, my darling, we must hide nothing from your mother."
"I should have to show her the seal, and I promised not to betray Cousin Lisbeth, who is afraid, she says, of mamma's laughing at her," said Hortense.
"You have scruples about the seal, and none about robbing your cousin of her lover."
"I promised about the seal—I made no promise about the sculptor."
This adventure, patriarchal in its simplicity, came admirably a propos to the unconfessed poverty of the family; the Baron, while praising his daughter for her candor, explained to her that she must now leave matters to the discretion of her parents.
"You understand, my child, that it is not your part to ascertain whether your cousin's lover is a Count, if he has all his papers properly certified, and if his conduct is a guarantee for his respectability.—As for your cousin, she refused five offers when she was twenty years younger; that will prove no obstacle, I undertake to say."
"Listen to me, papa; if you really wish to see me married, never say a word to Lisbeth about it till just before the contract is signed. I have been catechizing her about this business for the last six months! Well, there is something about her quite inexplicable——"
"What?" said her father, puzzled.
"Well, she looks evil when I say too much, even in joke, about her lover. Make inquiries, but leave me to row my own boat. My confidence ought to reassure you."
"The Lord said, 'Suffer little children to come unto Me.' You are one of those who have come back again," replied the Baron with a touch of irony.
After breakfast the dealer was announced, and the artist with his group. The sudden flush that reddened her daughter's face at once made the Baroness suspicious and then watchful, and the girl's confusion and the light in her eyes soon betrayed the mystery so badly guarded in her simple heart.
Count Steinbock, dressed in black, struck the Baron as a very gentlemanly young man.
"Would you undertake a bronze statue?" he asked, as he held up the group.
After admiring it on trust, he passed it on to his wife, who knew nothing about sculpture.
"It is beautiful, isn't it, mamma?" said Hortense in her mother' ear.
"A statue! Monsieur, it is less difficult to execute a statue than to make a clock like this, which my friend here has been kind enough to bring," said the artist in reply.
The dealer was placing on the dining-room sideboard the wax model of the twelve Hours that the Loves were trying to delay.
"Leave the clock with me," said the Baron, astounded at the beauty of the sketch. "I should like to show it to the Ministers of the Interior and of Commerce."
"Who is the young man in whom you take so much interest?" the Baroness asked her daughter.
"An artist who could afford to execute this model could get a hundred thousand francs for it," said the curiosity-dealer, putting on a knowing and mysterious look as he saw that the artist and the girl were interchanging glances. "He would only need to sell twenty copies at eight thousand francs each—for the materials would cost about a thousand crowns for each example. But if each copy were numbered and the mould destroyed, it would certainly be possible to meet with twenty amateurs only too glad to possess a replica of such a work."
"A hundred thousand francs!" cried Steinbock, looking from the dealer to Hortense, the Baron, and the Baroness.
"Yes, a hundred thousand francs," repeated the dealer. "If I were rich enough, I would buy it of you myself for twenty thousand francs; for by destroying the mould it would become a valuable property. But one of the princes ought to pay thirty or forty thousand francs for such a work to ornament his drawing-room. No man has ever succeeded in making a clock satisfactory alike to the vulgar and to the connoisseur, and this one, sir, solves the difficulty."
"This is for yourself, monsieur," said Hortense, giving six gold pieces to the dealer.
"Never breath a word of this visit to any one living," said the artist to his friend, at the door. "If you should be asked where we sold the group, mention the Duc d'Herouville, the famous collector in the Rue de Varenne."
The dealer nodded assent.
"And your name?" said Hulot to the artist when he came back.
"Have you the papers that prove your identity?"
"Yes, Monsieur le Baron. They are in Russian and in German, but not legalized."
"Do you feel equal to undertaking a statue nine feet high?"
"Well, then, if the persons whom I shall consult are satisfied with your work, I can secure you the commission for the statue of Marshal Montcornet, which is to be erected on his monument at Pere-Lachaise. The Minister of War and the old officers of the Imperial Guard have subscribed a sum large enough to enable us to select our artist."
"Oh, monsieur, it will make my fortune!" exclaimed Steinbock, overpowered by so much happiness at once.
"Be easy," replied the Baron graciously. "If the two ministers to whom I propose to show your group and this sketch in wax are delighted with these two pieces, your prospects of a fortune are good."
Hortense hugged her father's arm so tightly as to hurt him.
"Bring me your papers, and say nothing of your hopes to anybody, not even to our old Cousin Betty."
"Lisbeth?" said Madame Hulot, at last understanding the end of all this, though unable to guess the means.
"I could give proof of my skill by making a bust of the Baroness," added Wenceslas.
The artist, struck by Madame Hulot's beauty, was comparing the mother and daughter.
"Indeed, monsieur, life may smile upon you," said the Baron, quite charmed by Count Steinbock's refined and elegant manner. "You will find out that in Paris no man is clever for nothing, and that persevering toil always finds its reward here."
Hortense, with a blush, held out to the young man a pretty Algerine purse containing sixty gold pieces. The artist, with something still of a gentleman's pride, responded with a mounting color easy enough to interpret.
"This, perhaps, is the first money your works have brought you?" said Adeline.
"Yes, madame—my works of art. It is not the first-fruits of my labor, for I have been a workman."
"Well, we must hope my daughter's money will bring you good luck," said she.
"And take it without scruple," added the Baron, seeing that Wenceslas held the purse in his hand instead of pocketing it. "The sum will be repaid by some rich man, a prince perhaps, who will offer it with interest to possess so fine a work."
"Oh, I want it too much myself, papa, to give it up to anybody in the world, even a royal prince!"
"I can make a far prettier thing than that for you, mademoiselle."
"But it would not be this one," replied she; and then, as if ashamed of having said too much, she ran out into the garden.
"Then I shall break the mould and the model as soon as I go home," said Steinbock.
"Fetch me your papers, and you will hear of me before long, if you are equal to what I expect of you, monsieur."
The artist on this could but take leave. After bowing to Madame Hulot and Hortense, who came in from the garden on purpose, he went off to walk in the Tuileries, not bearing—not daring—to return to his attic, where his tyrant would pelt him with questions and wring his secret from him.
Hortense's adorer conceived of groups and statues by the hundred; he felt strong enough to hew the marble himself, like Canova, who was also a feeble man, and nearly died of it. He was transfigured by Hortense, who was to him inspiration made visible.
"Now then," said the Baroness to her daughter, "what does all this mean?"
"Well, dear mamma, you have just seen Cousin Lisbeth's lover, who now, I hope, is mine. But shut your eyes, know nothing. Good Heavens! I was to keep it all from you, and I cannot help telling you everything——"
"Good-bye, children!" said the Baron, kissing his wife and daughter; "I shall perhaps go to call on the Nanny, and from her I shall hear a great deal about our young man."
"Papa, be cautious!" said Hortense.
"Oh! little girl!" cried the Baroness when Hortense had poured out her poem, of which the morning's adventure was the last canto, "dear little girl, Artlessness will always be the artfulest puss on earth!"
Genuine passions have an unerring instinct. Set a greedy man before a dish of fruit and he will make no mistake, but take the choicest even without seeing it. In the same way, if you allow a girl who is well brought up to choose a husband for herself, if she is in a position to meet the man of her heart, rarely will she blunder. The act of nature in such cases is known as love at first sight; and in love, first sight is practically second sight.
The Baroness' satisfaction, though disguised under maternal dignity, was as great as her daughter's; for, of the three ways of marrying Hortense of which Crevel had spoken, the best, as she opined, was about to be realized. And she regarded this little drama as an answer by Providence to her fervent prayers.
Mademoiselle Fischer's galley slave, obliged at last to go home, thought he might hide his joy as a lover under his glee as an artist rejoicing over his first success.
"Victory! my group is sold to the Duc d'Herouville, who is going to give me some commissions," cried he, throwing the twelve hundred francs in gold on the table before the old maid.
He had, as may be supposed concealed Hortense's purse; it lay next to his heart.
"And a very good thing too," said Lisbeth. "I was working myself to death. You see, child, money comes in slowly in the business you have taken up, for this is the first you have earned, and you have been grinding at it for near on five years now. That money barely repays me for what you have cost me since I took your promissory note; that is all I have got by my savings. But be sure of one thing," she said, after counting the gold, "this money will all be spent on you. There is enough there to keep us going for a year. In a year you may now be able to pay your debt and have a snug little sum of your own, if you go on in the same way."
Wenceslas, finding his trick successful, expatiated on the Duc d'Herouville.
"I will fit you out in a black suit, and get you some new linen," said Lisbeth, "for you must appear presentably before your patrons; and then you must have a larger and better apartment than your horrible garret, and furnish it property.—You look so bright, you are not like the same creature," she added, gazing at Wenceslas.
"But my work is pronounced a masterpiece."
"Well, so much the better! Do some more," said the arid creature, who was nothing but practical, and incapable of understanding the joy of triumph or of beauty in Art. "Trouble your head no further about what you have sold; make something else to sell. You have spent two hundred francs in money, to say nothing of your time and your labor, on that devil of a Samson. Your clock will cost you more than two thousand francs to execute. I tell you what, if you will listen to me, you will finish the two little boys crowning the little girl with cornflowers; that would just suit the Parisians.—I will go round to Monsieur Graff the tailor before going to Monsieur Crevel.—Go up now and leave me to dress."
Next day the Baron, perfectly crazy about Madame Marneffe, went to see Cousin Betty, who was considerably amazed on opening the door to see who her visitor was, for he had never called on her before. She at once said to herself, "Can it be that Hortense wants my lover?"—for she had heard the evening before, at Monsieur Crevel's, that the marriage with the Councillor of the Supreme Court was broken off.
"What, Cousin! you here? This is the first time you have ever been to see me, and it is certainly not for love of my fine eyes that you have come now."
"Fine eyes is the truth," said the Baron; "you have as fine eyes as I have ever seen——"
"Come, what are you here for? I really am ashamed to receive you in such a kennel."
The outer room of the two inhabited by Lisbeth served her as sitting-room, dining-room, kitchen, and workroom. The furniture was such as beseemed a well-to-do artisan—walnut-wood chairs with straw seats, a small walnut-wood dining table, a work table, some colored prints in black wooden frames, short muslin curtains to the windows, the floor well polished and shining with cleanliness, not a speck of dust anywhere, but all cold and dingy, like a picture by Terburg in every particular, even to the gray tone given by a wall paper once blue and now faded to gray. As to the bedroom, no human being had ever penetrated its secrets.
The Baron took it all in at a glance, saw the sign-manual of commonness on every detail, from the cast-iron stove to the household utensils, and his gorge rose as he said to himself, "And this is virtue!—What am I here for?" said he aloud. "You are far too cunning not to guess, and I had better tell you plainly," cried he, sitting down and looking out across the courtyard through an opening he made in the puckered curtain. "There is a very pretty woman in the house——"
"Madame Marneffe! Now I understand!" she exclaimed, seeing it all. "But Josepha?"
"Alas, Cousin, Josepha is no more. I was turned out of doors like a discarded footman."
"And you would like...?" said Lisbeth, looking at the Baron with the dignity of a prude on her guard a quarter of an hour too soon.
"As Madame Marneffe is very much the lady, and the wife of an employe, you can meet her without compromising yourself," the Baron went on, "and I should like to see you neighborly. Oh! you need not be alarmed; she will have the greatest consideration for the cousin of her husband's chief."
At this moment the rustle of a gown was heard on the stairs and the footstep of a woman wearing the thinnest boots. The sound ceased on the landing. There was a tap at the door, and Madame Marneffe came in.
"Pray excuse me, mademoiselle, for thus intruding upon you, but I failed to find you yesterday when I came to call; we are near neighbors; and if I had known that you were related to Monsieur le Baron, I should long since have craved your kind interest with him. I saw him come in, so I took the liberty of coming across; for my husband, Monsieur le Baron, spoke to me of a report on the office clerks which is to be laid before the minister to-morrow."
She seemed quite agitated and nervous—but she had only run upstairs.
"You have no need to play the petitioner, fair lady," replied the Baron. "It is I who should ask the favor of seeing you."
"Very well, if mademoiselle allows it, pray come!" said Madame Marneffe.
"Yes—go, Cousin, I will join you," said Lisbeth judiciously.
The Parisienne had so confidently counted on the chief's visit and intelligence, that not only had she dressed herself for so important an interview—she had dressed her room. Early in the day it had been furnished with flowers purchased on credit. Marneffe had helped his wife to polish the furniture, down to the smallest objects, washing, brushing, and dusting everything. Valerie wished to be found in an atmosphere of sweetness, to attract the chief and to please him enough to have a right to be cruel; to tantalize him as a child would, with all the tricks of fashionable tactics. She had gauged Hulot. Give a Paris woman at bay four-and-twenty hours, and she will overthrow a ministry.
The man of the Empire, accustomed to the ways to the Empire, was no doubt quite ignorant of the ways of modern love-making, of the scruples in vogue and the various styles of conversation invented since 1830, which led to the poor weak woman being regarded as the victim of her lover's desires—a Sister of Charity salving a wound, an angel sacrificing herself.
This modern art of love uses a vast amount of evangelical phrases in the service of the Devil. Passion is martyrdom. Both parties aspire to the Ideal, to the Infinite; love is to make them so much better. All these fine words are but a pretext for putting increased ardor into the practical side of it, more frenzy into a fall than of old. This hypocrisy, a characteristic of the times, is a gangrene in gallantry. The lovers are both angels, and they behave, if they can, like two devils.
Love had no time for such subtle analysis between two campaigns, and in 1809 its successes were as rapid as those of the Empire. So, under the Restoration, the handsome Baron, a lady's man once more, had begun by consoling some old friends now fallen from the political firmament, like extinguished stars, and then, as he grew old, was captured by Jenny Cadine and Josepha.
Madame Marneffe had placed her batteries after due study of the Baron's past life, which her husband had narrated in much detail, after picking up some information in the offices. The comedy of modern sentiment might have the charm of novelty to the Baron; Valerie had made up her mind as to her scheme; and we may say the trial of her power that she made this morning answered her highest expectations. Thanks to her manoeuvres, sentimental, high-flown, and romantic, Valerie, without committing herself to any promises, obtained for her husband the appointment as deputy head of the office and the Cross of the Legion of Honor.
The campaign was not carried out without little dinners at the Rocher de Cancale, parties to the play, and gifts in the form of lace, scarves, gowns, and jewelry. The apartment in the Rue du Doyenne was not satisfactory; the Baron proposed to furnish another magnificently in a charming new house in the Rue Vanneau.
Monsieur Marneffe got a fortnight's leave, to be taken a month hence for urgent private affairs in the country, and a present in money; he promised himself that he would spend both in a little town in Switzerland, studying the fair sex.
While Monsieur Hulot thus devoted himself to the lady he was "protecting," he did not forget the young artist. Comte Popinot, Minister of Commerce, was a patron of Art; he paid two thousand francs for a copy of the Samson on condition that the mould should be broken, and that there should be no Samson but his and Mademoiselle Hulot's. The group was admired by a Prince, to whom the model sketch for the clock was also shown, and who ordered it; but that again was to be unique, and he offered thirty thousand francs for it.
Artists who were consulted, and among them Stidmann, were of opinion that the man who had sketched those two models was capable of achieving a statue. The Marshal Prince de Wissembourg, Minister of War, and President of the Committee for the subscriptions to the monument of Marshal Montcornet, called a meeting, at which it was decided that the execution of the work should be placed in Steinbock's hands. The Comte de Rastignac, at that time Under-secretary of State, wished to possess a work by the artist, whose glory was waxing amid the acclamations of his rivals. Steinbock sold to him the charming group of two little boys crowning a little girl, and he promised to secure for the sculptor a studio attached to the Government marble-quarries, situated, as all the world knows, at Le Gros-Caillou.
This was a success, such success as is won in Paris, that is to say, stupendous success, that crushes those whose shoulders and loins are not strong enough to bear it—as, be it said, not unfrequently is the case. Count Wenceslas Steinbock was written about in all the newspapers and reviews without his having the least suspicion of it, any more than had Mademoiselle Fischer. Every day, as soon as Lisbeth had gone out to dinner, Wenceslas went to the Baroness' and spent an hour or two there, excepting on the evenings when Lisbeth dined with the Hulots.
This state of things lasted for several days.
The Baron, assured of Count Steinbock's titles and position; the Baroness, pleased with his character and habits; Hortense, proud of her permitted love and of her suitor's fame, none of them hesitated to speak of the marriage; in short, the artist was in the seventh heaven, when an indiscretion on Madame Marneffe's part spoilt all.
And this was how.
Lisbeth, whom the Baron wished to see intimate with Madame Marneffe, that she might keep an eye on the couple, had already dined with Valerie; and she, on her part, anxious to have an ear in the Hulot house, made much of the old maid. It occurred to Valerie to invite Mademoiselle Fischer to a house-warming in the new apartments she was about to move into. Lisbeth, glad to have found another house to dine in, and bewitched by Madame Marneffe, had taken a great fancy to Valerie. Of all the persons she had made acquaintance with, no one had taken so much pains to please her. In fact, Madame Marneffe, full of attentions for Mademoiselle Fischer, found herself in the position towards Lisbeth that Lisbeth held towards the Baroness, Monsieur Rivet, Crevel, and the others who invited her to dinner.
The Marneffes had excited Lisbeth's compassion by allowing her to see the extreme poverty of the house, while varnishing it as usual with the fairest colors; their friends were under obligations to them and ungrateful; they had had much illness; Madame Fortin, her mother, had never known of their distress, and had died believing herself wealthy to the end, thanks to their superhuman efforts—and so forth.
"Poor people!" said she to her Cousin Hulot, "you are right to do what you can for them; they are so brave and so kind! They can hardly live on the thousand crowns he gets as deputy-head of the office, for they have got into debt since Marshal Montcornet's death. It is barbarity on the part of the Government to suppose that a clerk with a wife and family can live in Paris on two thousand four hundred francs a year."
And so, within a very short time, a young woman who affected regard for her, who told her everything, and consulted her, who flattered her, and seemed ready to yield to her guidance, had become dearer to the eccentric Cousin Lisbeth than all her relations.
The Baron, on his part, admiring in Madame Marneffe such propriety, education, and breeding as neither Jenny Cadine nor Josepha, nor any friend of theirs had to show, had fallen in love with her in a month, developing a senile passion, a senseless passion, which had an appearance of reason. In fact, he found here neither the banter, nor the orgies, nor the reckless expenditure, nor the depravity, nor the scorn of social decencies, nor the insolent independence which had brought him to grief alike with the actress and the singer. He was spared, too, the rapacity of the courtesan, like unto the thirst of dry sand.
Madame Marneffe, of whom he had made a friend and confidante, made the greatest difficulties over accepting any gift from him.
"Appointments, official presents, anything you can extract from the Government; but do not begin by insulting a woman whom you profess to love," said Valerie. "If you do, I shall cease to believe you—and I like to believe you," she added, with a glance like Saint Theresa leering at heaven.
Every time he made her a present there was a fortress to be stormed, a conscience to be over-persuaded. The hapless Baron laid deep stratagems to offer her some trifle—costly, nevertheless—proud of having at last met with virtue and the realization of his dreams. In this primitive household, as he assured himself, he was the god as much as in his own. And Monsieur Marneffe seemed at a thousand leagues from suspecting that the Jupiter of his office intended to descend on his wife in a shower of gold; he was his august chief's humblest slave.
Madame Marneffe, twenty-three years of age, a pure and bashful middle-class wife, a blossom hidden in the Rue du Doyenne, could know nothing of the depravity and demoralizing harlotry which the Baron could no longer think of without disgust, for he had never known the charm of recalcitrant virtue, and the coy Valerie made him enjoy it to the utmost—all along the line, as the saying goes.
The question having come to this point between Hector and Valerie, it is not astonishing that Valerie should have heard from Hector the secret of the intended marriage between the great sculptor Steinbock and Hortense Hulot. Between a lover on his promotion and a lady who hesitates long before becoming his mistress, there are contests, uttered or unexpressed, in which a word often betrays a thought; as, in fencing, the foils fly as briskly as the swords in duel. Then a prudent man follows the example of Monsieur de Turenne. Thus the Baron had hinted at the greater freedom his daughter's marriage would allow him, in reply to the tender Valerie, who more than once had exclaimed:
"I cannot imagine how a woman can go wrong for a man who is not wholly hers."
And a thousand times already the Baron had declared that for five-and-twenty years all had been at an end between Madame Hulot and himself.
"And they say she is so handsome!" replied Madame Marneffe. "I want proof."
"You shall have it," said the Baron, made happy by this demand, by which his Valerie committed herself.
Hector had then been compelled to reveal his plans, already being carried into effect in the Rue Vanneau, to prove to Valerie that he intended to devote to her that half of his life which belonged to his lawful wife, supposing that day and night equally divide the existence of civilized humanity. He spoke of decently deserting his wife, leaving her to herself as soon as Hortense should be married. The Baroness would then spend all her time with Hortense or the young Hulot couple; he was sure of her submission.
"And then, my angel, my true life, my real home will be in the Rue Vanneau."
"Bless me, how you dispose of me!" said Madame Marneffe. "And my husband——"
"To be sure, as compared with you so he is!" said she with a laugh.
Madame Marneffe, having heard Steinbock's history, was frantically eager to see the young Count; perhaps she wished to have some trifle of his work while they still lived under the same roof. This curiosity so seriously annoyed the Baron that Valerie swore to him that she would never even look at Wenceslas. But though she obtained, as the reward of her surrender of this wish, a little tea-service of old Sevres pate tendre, she kept her wish at the bottom of her heart, as if written on tablets.
So one day when she had begged "my Cousin Betty" to come to take coffee with her in her room, she opened on the subject of her lover, to know how she might see him without risk.
"My dear child," said she, for they called each my dear, "why have you never introduced your lover to me? Do you know that within a short time he has become famous?"
"He is the one subject of conversation."
"Pooh!" cried Lisbeth.
"He is going to execute the statue of my father, and I could be of great use to him and help him to succeed in the work; for Madame Montcornet cannot lend him, as I can, a miniature by Sain, a beautiful thing done in 1809, before the Wagram Campaign, and given to my poor mother—Montcornet when he was young and handsome."
Sain and Augustin between them held the sceptre of miniature painting under the Empire.
"He is going to make a statue, my dear, did you say?"
"Nine feet high—by the orders of the Minister of War. Why, where have you dropped from that I should tell you the news? Why, the Government is going to give Count Steinbock rooms and a studio at Le Gros-Caillou, the depot for marble; your Pole will be made the Director, I should not wonder, with two thousand francs a year and a ring on his finger."
"How do you know all this when I have heard nothing about it?" said Lisbeth at last, shaking off her amazement.
"Now, my dear little Cousin Betty," said Madame Marneffe, in an insinuating voice, "are you capable of devoted friendship, put to any test? Shall we henceforth be sisters? Will you swear to me never to have a secret from me any more than I from you—to act as my spy, as I will be yours?—Above all, will you pledge yourself never to betray me either to my husband or to Monsieur Hulot, and never reveal that it was I who told you——?"
Madame Marneffe broke off in this spurring harangue; Lisbeth frightened her. The peasant-woman's face was terrible; her piercing black eyes had the glare of the tiger's; her face was like that we ascribe to a pythoness; she set her teeth to keep them from chattering, and her whole frame quivered convulsively. She had pushed her clenched fingers under her cap to clutch her hair and support her head, which felt too heavy; she was on fire. The smoke of the flame that scorched her seemed to emanate from her wrinkles as from the crevasses rent by a volcanic eruption. It was a startling spectacle.
"Well, why do you stop?" she asked in a hollow voice. "I will be all to you that I have been to him.—Oh, I would have given him my life-blood!"
"You loved him then?"
"Like a child of my own!"
"Well, then," said Madame Marneffe, with a breath of relief, "if you only love him in that way, you will be very happy—for you wish him to be happy?"
Lisbeth replied by a nod as hasty as a madwoman's.
"He is to marry your Cousin Hortense in a month's time."
"Hortense!" shrieked the old maid, striking her forehead, and starting to her feet.
"Well, but then you were really in love with this young man?" asked Valerie.
"My dear, we are bound for life and death, you and I," said Mademoiselle Fischer. "Yes, if you have any love affairs, to me they are sacred. Your vices will be virtues in my eyes.—For I shall need your vices!"
"Then did you live with him?" asked Valerie.
"No; I meant to be a mother to him."
"I give it up. I cannot understand," said Valerie. "In that case you are neither betrayed nor cheated, and you ought to be very happy to see him so well married; he is now fairly afloat. And, at any rate, your day is over. Our artist goes to Madame Hulot's every evening as soon as you go out to dinner."
"Adeline!" muttered Lisbeth. "Oh, Adeline, you shall pay for this! I will make you uglier than I am."
"You are as pale as death!" exclaimed Valerie. "There is something wrong?—Oh, what a fool I am! The mother and daughter must have suspected that you would raise some obstacles in the way of this affair since they have kept it from you," said Madame Marneffe. "But if you did not live with the young man, my dear, all this is a greater puzzle to me than my husband's feelings——"
"Ah, you don't know," said Lisbeth; "you have no idea of all their tricks. It is the last blow that kills. And how many such blows have I had to bruise my soul! You don't know that from the time when I could first feel, I have been victimized for Adeline. I was beaten, and she was petted; I was dressed like a scullion, and she had clothes like a lady's; I dug in the garden and cleaned the vegetables, and she—she never lifted a finger for anything but to make up some finery!—She married the Baron, she came to shine at the Emperor's Court, while I stayed in our village till 1809, waiting for four years for a suitable match; they brought me away, to be sure, but only to make me a work-woman, and to offer me clerks or captains like coalheavers for a husband! I have had their leavings for twenty-six years!—And now like the story in the Old Testament, the poor relation has one ewe-lamb which is all her joy, and the rich man who has flocks covets the ewe-lamb and steals it—without warning, without asking. Adeline has meanly robbed me of my happiness!—Adeline! Adeline! I will see you in the mire, and sunk lower than myself!—And Hortense—I loved her, and she has cheated me. The Baron.—No, it is impossible. Tell me again what is really true of all this."
"Be calm, my dear child."
"Valerie, my darling, I will be calm," said the strange creature, sitting down again. "One thing only can restore me to reason; give me proofs."
"Your Cousin Hortense has the Samson group—here is a lithograph from it published in a review. She paid for it out of her pocket-money, and it is the Baron who, to benefit his future son-in-law, is pushing him, getting everything for him."
"Water!—water!" said Lisbeth, after glancing at the print, below which she read, "A group belonging to Mademoiselle Hulot d'Ervy." "Water! my head is burning, I am going mad!"
Madame Marneffe fetched some water. Lisbeth took off her cap, unfastened her black hair, and plunged her head into the basin her new friend held for her. She dipped her forehead into it several times, and checked the incipient inflammation. After this douche she completely recovered her self-command.
"Not a word," said she to Madame Marneffe as she wiped her face—"not a word of all this.—You see, I am quite calm; everything is forgotten. I am thinking of something very different."
"She will be in Charenton to-morrow, that is very certain," thought Madame Marneffe, looking at the old maid.
"What is to be done?" Lisbeth went on. "You see, my angel, there is nothing for it but to hold my tongue, bow my head, and drift to the grave, as all water runs to the river. What could I try to do? I should like to grind them all—Adeline, her daughter, and the Baron—all to dust! But what can a poor relation do against a rich family? It would be the story of the earthen pot and the iron pot."
"Yes; you are right," said Valerie. "You can only pull as much hay as you can to your side of the manger. That is all the upshot of life in Paris."
"Besides," said Lisbeth, "I shall soon die, I can tell you, if I lose that boy to whom I fancied I could always be a mother, and with whom I counted on living all my days——"
There were tears in her eyes, and she paused. Such emotion in this woman made of sulphur and flame, made Valerie shudder.
"Well, at any rate, I have found you," said Lisbeth, taking Valerie's hand, "that is some consolation in this dreadful trouble.—We shall be true friends; and why should we ever part? I shall never cross your track. No one will ever be in love with me!—Those who would have married me, would only have done it to secure my Cousin Hulot's interest. With energy enough to scale Paradise, to have to devote it to procuring bread and water, a few rags, and a garret!—That is martyrdom, my dear, and I have withered under it."
She broke off suddenly, and shot a black flash into Madame Marneffe's blue eyes, a glance that pierced the pretty woman's soul, as the point of a dagger might have pierced her heart.
"And what is the use of talking?" she exclaimed in reproof to herself. "I never said so much before, believe me! The tables will be turned yet!" she added after a pause. "As you so wisely say, let us sharpen our teeth, and pull down all the hay we can get."
"You are very wise," said Madame Marneffe, who had been frightened by this scene, and had no remembrance of having uttered this maxim. "I am sure you are right, my dear child. Life is not so long after all, and we must make the best of it, and make use of others to contribute to our enjoyment. Even I have learned that, young as I am. I was brought up a spoilt child, my father married ambitiously, and almost forgot me, after making me his idol and bringing me up like a queen's daughter! My poor mother, who filled my head with splendid visions, died of grief at seeing me married to an office clerk with twelve hundred francs a year, at nine-and-thirty an aged and hardened libertine, as corrupt as the hulks, looking on me, as others looked on you, as a means of fortune!—Well, in that wretched man, I have found the best of husbands. He prefers the squalid sluts he picks up at the street corners, and leaves me free. Though he keeps all his salary to himself, he never asks me where I get money to live on——"
And she in her turn stopped short, as a woman does who feels herself carried away by the torrent of her confessions; struck, too, by Lisbeth's eager attention, she thought well to make sure of Lisbeth before revealing her last secrets.
"You see, dear child, how entire is my confidence in you!" she presently added, to which Lisbeth replied by a most comforting nod.
An oath may be taken by a look and a nod more solemnly than in a court of justice.
"I keep up every appearance of respectability," Valerie went on, laying her hand on Lisbeth's as if to accept her pledge. "I am a married woman, and my own mistress, to such a degree, that in the morning, when Marneffe sets out for the office, if he takes it into his head to say good-bye and finds my door locked, he goes off without a word. He cares less for his boy than I care for one of the marble children that play at the feet of one of the river-gods in the Tuileries. If I do not come home to dinner, he dines quite contentedly with the maid, for the maid is devoted to monsieur; and he goes out every evening after dinner, and does not come in till twelve or one o'clock. Unfortunately, for a year past, I have had no ladies' maid, which is as much as to say that I am a widow!
"I have had one passion, once have been happy—a rich Brazilian—who went away a year ago—my only lapse!—He went away to sell his estates, to realize his land, and come back to live in France. What will he find left of his Valerie? A dunghill. Well! it is his fault and not mine; why does he delay coming so long? Perhaps he has been wrecked—like my virtue."
"Good-bye, my dear," said Lisbeth abruptly; "we are friends for ever. I love you, I esteem you, I am wholly yours! My cousin is tormenting me to go and live in the house you are moving to, in the Rue Vanneau; but I would not go, for I saw at once the reasons for this fresh piece of kindness——"
"Yes; you would have kept an eye on me, I know!" said Madame Marneffe.
"That was, no doubt, the motive of his generosity," replied Lisbeth. "In Paris, most beneficence is a speculation, as most acts of ingratitude are revenge! To a poor relation you behave as you do to rats to whom you offer a bit of bacon. Now, I will accept the Baron's offer, for this house has grown intolerable to me. You and I have wit enough to hold our tongues about everything that would damage us, and tell all that needs telling. So, no blabbing—and we are friends."
"Through thick and thin!" cried Madame Marneffe, delighted to have a sheep-dog, a confidante, a sort of respectable aunt. "Listen to me; the Baron is doing a great deal in the Rue Vanneau——"
"I believe you!" interrupted Lisbeth. "He has spent thirty thousand francs! Where he got the money, I am sure I don't know, for Josepha the singer bled him dry.—Oh! you are in luck," she went on. "The Baron would steal for a woman who held his heart in two little white satin hands like yours!"
"Well, then," said Madame Marneffe, with the liberality of such creatures, which is mere recklessness, "look here, my dear child; take away from here everything that may serve your turn in your new quarters—that chest of drawers, that wardrobe and mirror, the carpet, the curtains——"
Lisbeth's eyes dilated with excessive joy; she was incredulous of such a gift.
"You are doing more for me in a breath than my rich relations have done in thirty years!" she exclaimed. "They have never even asked themselves whether I had any furniture at all. On his first visit, a few weeks ago, the Baron made a rich man's face on seeing how poor I was.—Thank you, my dear; and I will give you your money's worth, you will see how by and by."
Valerie went out on the landing with her Cousin Betty, and the two women embraced.
"Pouh! How she stinks of hard work!" said the pretty little woman to herself when she was alone. "I shall not embrace you often, my dear cousin! At the same time, I must look sharp. She must be skilfully managed, for she can be of use, and help me to make my fortune."