Like the true Creole of Paris, Madame Marneffe abhorred trouble; she had the calm indifference of a cat, which never jumps or runs but when urged by necessity. To her, life must be all pleasure; and the pleasure without difficulties. She loved flowers, provided they were brought to her. She could not imagine going to the play but to a good box, at her own command, and in a carriage to take her there. Valerie inherited these courtesan tastes from her mother, on whom General Montcornet had lavished luxury when he was in Paris, and who for twenty years had seen all the world at her feet; who had been wasteful and prodigal, squandering her all in the luxurious living of which the programme has been lost since the fall of Napoleon.
The grandees of the Empire were a match in their follies for the great nobles of the last century. Under the Restoration the nobility cannot forget that it has been beaten and robbed, and so, with two or three exceptions, it has become thrifty, prudent, and stay-at-home, in short, bourgeois and penurious. Since then, 1830 has crowned the work of 1793. In France, henceforth, there will be great names, but no great houses, unless there should be political changes which we can hardly foresee. Everything takes the stamp of individuality. The wisest invest in annuities. Family pride is destroyed.
The bitter pressure of poverty which had stung Valerie to the quick on the day when, to use Marneffe's expression, she had "caught on" with Hulot, had brought the young woman to the conclusion that she would make a fortune by means of her good looks. So, for some days, she had been feeling the need of having a friend about her to take the place of a mother—a devoted friend, to whom such things may be told as must be hidden from a waiting-maid, and who could act, come and go, and think for her, a beast of burden resigned to an unequal share of life. Now, she, quite as keenly as Lisbeth, had understood the Baron's motives for fostering the intimacy between his cousin and herself.
Prompted by the formidable perspicacity of the Parisian half-breed, who spends her days stretched on a sofa, turning the lantern of her detective spirit on the obscurest depths of souls, sentiments, and intrigues, she had decided on making an ally of the spy. This supremely rash step was, perhaps premeditated; she had discerned the true nature of this ardent creature, burning with wasted passion, and meant to attach her to herself. Thus, their conversation was like the stone a traveler casts into an abyss to demonstrate its depth. And Madame Marneffe had been terrified to find this old maid a combination of Iago and Richard III., so feeble as she seemed, so humble, and so little to be feared.
For that instant, Lisbeth Fischer had been her real self; that Corsican and savage temperament, bursting the slender bonds that held it under, had sprung up to its terrible height, as the branch of a tree flies up from the hand of a child that has bent it down to gather the green fruit.
To those who study the social world, it must always be a matter of astonishment to see the fulness, the perfection, and the rapidity with which an idea develops in a virgin nature.
Virginity, like every other monstrosity, has its special richness, its absorbing greatness. Life, whose forces are always economized, assumes in the virgin creature an incalculable power of resistance and endurance. The brain is reinforced in the sum-total of its reserved energy. When really chaste natures need to call on the resources of body or soul, and are required to act or to think, they have muscles of steel, or intuitive knowledge in their intelligence—diabolical strength, or the black magic of the Will.
From this point of view the Virgin Mary, even if we regard her only as a symbol, is supremely great above every other type, whether Hindoo, Egyptian, or Greek. Virginity, the mother of great things, magna parens rerum, holds in her fair white hands the keys of the upper worlds. In short, that grand and terrible exception deserves all the honors decreed to her by the Catholic Church.
Thus, in one moment, Lisbeth Fischer had become the Mohican whose snares none can escape, whose dissimulation is inscrutable, whose swift decisiveness is the outcome of the incredible perfection of every organ of sense. She was Hatred and Revenge, as implacable as they are in Italy, Spain, and the East. These two feelings, the obverse of friendship and love carried to the utmost, are known only in lands scorched by the sun. But Lisbeth was also a daughter of Lorraine, bent on deceit.
She accepted this detail of her part against her will; she began by making a curious attempt, due to her ignorance. She fancied, as children do, that being imprisoned meant the same thing as solitary confinement. But this is the superlative degree of imprisonment, and that superlative is the privilege of the Criminal Bench.
As soon as she left Madame Marneffe, Lisbeth hurried off to Monsieur Rivet, and found him in his office.
"Well, my dear Monsieur Rivet," she began, when she had bolted the door of the room. "You were quite right. Those Poles! They are low villains—all alike, men who know neither law nor fidelity."
"And who want to set Europe on fire," said the peaceable Rivet, "to ruin every trade and every trader for the sake of a country that is all bog-land, they say, and full of horrible Jews, to say nothing of the Cossacks and the peasants—a sort of wild beasts classed by mistake with human beings. Your Poles do not understand the times we live in; we are no longer barbarians. War is coming to an end, my dear mademoiselle; it went out with the Monarchy. This is the age of triumph for commerce, and industry, and middle-class prudence, such as were the making of Holland.
"Yes," he went on with animation, "we live in a period when nations must obtain all they need by the legal extension of their liberties and by the pacific action of Constitutional Institutions; that is what the Poles do not see, and I hope——
"You were saying, my dear?—" he added, interrupting himself when he saw from his work-woman's face that high politics were beyond her comprehension.
"Here is the schedule," said Lisbeth. "If I don't want to lose my three thousand two hundred and ten francs, I must clap this rogue into prison."
"Didn't I tell you so?" cried the oracle of the Saint-Denis quarter.
The Rivets, successor to Pons Brothers, had kept their shop still in the Rue des Mauvaises-Paroles, in the ancient Hotel Langeais, built by that illustrious family at the time when the nobility still gathered round the Louvre.
"Yes, and I blessed you on my way here," replied Lisbeth.
"If he suspects nothing, he can be safe in prison by eight o'clock in the morning," said Rivet, consulting the almanac to ascertain the hour of sunrise; "but not till the day after to-morrow, for he cannot be imprisoned till he has had notice that he is to be arrested by writ, with the option of payment or imprisonment. And so——"
"What an idiotic law!" exclaimed Lisbeth. "Of course the debtor escapes."
"He has every right to do so," said the Assessor, smiling. "So this is the way——"
"As to that," said Lisbeth, interrupting him, "I will take the paper and hand it to him, saying that I have been obliged to raise the money, and that the lender insists on this formality. I know my gentleman. He will not even look at the paper; he will light his pipe with it."
"Not a bad idea, not bad, Mademoiselle Fischer! Well, make your mind easy; the job shall be done.—But stop a minute; to put your man in prison is not the only point to be considered; you only want to indulge in that legal luxury in order to get your money. Who is to pay you?"
"Those who give him money."
"To be sure; I forgot that the Minister of War had commissioned him to erect a monument to one of our late customers. Ah! the house has supplied many an uniform to General Montcornet; he soon blackened them with the smoke of cannon. A brave man, he was! and he paid on the nail."
A marshal of France may have saved the Emperor or his country; "He paid on the nail" will always be the highest praise he can have from a tradesman.
"Very well. And on Saturday, Monsieur Rivet, you shall have the flat tassels.—By the way, I am moving from the Rue du Doyenne; I am going to live in the Rue Vanneau."
"You are very right. I could not bear to see you in that hole which, in spite of my aversion to the Opposition, I must say is a disgrace; I repeat it, yes! is a disgrace to the Louvre and the Place du Carrousel. I am devoted to Louis-Philippe, he is my idol; he is the august and exact representative of the class on whom he founded his dynasty, and I can never forget what he did for the trimming-makers by restoring the National Guard——"
"When I hear you speak so, Monsieur Rivet, I cannot help wondering why you are not made a deputy."
"They are afraid of my attachment to the dynasty," replied Rivet. "My political enemies are the King's. He has a noble character! They are a fine family; in short," said he, returning to the charge, "he is our ideal: morality, economy, everything. But the completion of the Louvre is one of the conditions on which we gave him the crown, and the civil list, which, I admit, had no limits set to it, leaves the heart of Paris in a most melancholy state.—It is because I am so strongly in favor of the middle course that I should like to see the middle of Paris in a better condition. Your part of the town is positively terrifying. You would have been murdered there one fine day.—And so your Monsieur Crevel has been made Major of his division! He will come to us, I hope, for his big epaulette."
"I am dining with him to-night, and will send him to you."
Lisbeth believed that she had secured her Livonian to herself by cutting him off from all communication with the outer world. If he could no longer work, the artist would be forgotten as completely as a man buried in a cellar, where she alone would go to see him. Thus she had two happy days, for she hoped to deal a mortal blow at the Baroness and her daughter.
To go to Crevel's house, in the Rue des Saussayes, she crossed the Pont du Carrousel, went along the Quai Voltaire, the Quai d'Orsay, the Rue Bellechasse, Rue de l'Universite, the Pont de la Concorde, and the Avenue de Marigny. This illogical route was traced by the logic of passion, always the foe of the legs.
Cousin Betty, as long as she followed the line of the quays, kept watch on the opposite shore of the Seine, walking very slowly. She had guessed rightly. She had left Wenceslas dressing; she at once understood that, as soon as he should be rid of her, the lover would go off to the Baroness' by the shortest road. And, in fact, as she wandered along by the parapet of the Quai Voltaire, in fancy suppressing the river and walking along the opposite bank, she recognized the artist as he came out of the Tuileries to cross the Pont Royal. She there came up with the faithless one, and could follow him unseen, for lovers rarely look behind them. She escorted him as far as Madame Hulot's house, where he went in like an accustomed visitor.
This crowning proof, confirming Madame Marneffe's revelations, put Lisbeth quite beside herself.
She arrived at the newly promoted Major's door in the state of mental irritation which prompts men to commit murder, and found Monsieur Crevel senior in his drawing-room awaiting his children, Monsieur and Madame Hulot junior.
But Celestin Crevel was so unconscious and so perfect a type of the Parisian parvenu, that we can scarcely venture so unceremoniously into the presence of Cesar Birotteau's successor. Celestin Crevel was a world in himself; and he, even more than Rivet, deserves the honors of the palette by reason of his importance in this domestic drama.
Have you ever observed how in childhood, or at the early stages of social life, we create a model for our own imitation, with our own hands as it were, and often without knowing it? The banker's clerk, for instance, as he enters his master's drawing-room, dreams of possessing such another. If he makes a fortune, it will not be the luxury of the day, twenty years later, that you will find in his house, but the old-fashioned splendor that fascinated him of yore. It is impossible to tell how many absurdities are due to this retrospective jealousy; and in the same way we know nothing of the follies due to the covert rivalry that urges men to copy the type they have set themselves, and exhaust their powers in shining with a reflected light, like the moon.
Crevel was deputy mayor because his predecessor had been; he was Major because he coveted Cesar Birotteau's epaulettes. In the same way, struck by the marvels wrought by Grindot the architect, at the time when Fortune had carried his master to the top of the wheel, Crevel had "never looked at both sides of a crown-piece," to use his own language, when he wanted to "do up" his rooms; he had gone with his purse open and his eyes shut to Grindot, who by this time was quite forgotten. It is impossible to guess how long an extinct reputation may survive, supported by such stale admiration.
So Grindot, for the thousandth time had displayed his white-and-gold drawing-room paneled with crimson damask. The furniture, of rosewood, clumsily carved, as such work is done for the trade, had in the country been the source of just pride in Paris workmanship on the occasion of an industrial exhibition. The candelabra, the fire-dogs, the fender, the chandelier, the clock, were all in the most unmeaning style of scroll-work; the round table, a fixture in the middle of the room, was a mosaic of fragments of Italian and antique marbles, brought from Rome, where these dissected maps are made of mineralogical specimens—for all the world like tailors' patterns—an object of perennial admiration to Crevel's citizen friends. The portraits of the late lamented Madame Crevel, of Crevel himself, of his daughter and his son-in-law, hung on the walls, two and two; they were the work of Pierre Grassou, the favored painter of the bourgeoisie, to whom Crevel owed his ridiculous Byronic attitude. The frames, costing a thousand francs each, were quite in harmony with this coffee-house magnificence, which would have made any true artist shrug his shoulders.
Money never yet missed the smallest opportunity of being stupid. We should have in Paris ten Venices if our retired merchants had had the instinct for fine things characteristic of the Italians. Even in our own day a Milanese merchant could leave five hundred thousand francs to the Duomo, to regild the colossal statue of the Virgin that crowns the edifice. Canova, in his will, desired his brother to build a church costing four million francs, and that brother adds something on his own account. Would a citizen of Paris—and they all, like Rivet, love their Paris in their heart—ever dream of building the spires that are lacking to the towers of Notre-Dame? And only think of the sums that revert to the State in property for which no heirs are found.
All the improvements of Paris might have been completed with the money spent on stucco castings, gilt mouldings, and sham sculpture during the last fifteen years by individuals of the Crevel stamp.
Beyond this drawing-room was a splendid boudoir furnished with tables and cabinets in imitation of Boulle.
The bedroom, smart with chintz, also opened out of the drawing-room. Mahogany in all its glory infested the dining-room, and Swiss views, gorgeously framed, graced the panels. Crevel, who hoped to travel in Switzerland, had set his heart on possessing the scenery in painting till the time should come when he might see it in reality.
So, as will have been seen, Crevel, the Mayor's deputy, of the Legion of Honor and of the National Guard, had faithfully reproduced all the magnificence, even as to furniture, of his luckless predecessor. Under the Restoration, where one had sunk, this other, quite overlooked, had come to the top—not by any strange stroke of fortune, but by the force of circumstance. In revolutions, as in storms at sea, solid treasure goes to the bottom, and light trifles are floated to the surface. Cesar Birotteau, a Royalist, in favor and envied, had been made the mark of bourgeois hostility, while bourgeoisie triumphant found its incarnation in Crevel.
This apartment, at a rent of a thousand crowns, crammed with all the vulgar magnificence that money can buy, occupied the first floor of a fine old house between a courtyard and a garden. Everything was as spick-and-span as the beetles in an entomological case, for Crevel lived very little at home.
This gorgeous residence was the ambitious citizen's legal domicile. His establishment consisted of a woman-cook and a valet; he hired two extra men, and had a dinner sent in by Chevet, whenever he gave a banquet to his political friends, to men he wanted to dazzle or to a family party.
The seat of Crevel's real domesticity, formerly in the Rue Notre-Dame de Lorette, with Mademoiselle Heloise Brisetout, had lately been transferred, as we have seen, to the Rue Chauchat. Every morning the retired merchant—every ex-tradesman is a retired merchant—spent two hours in the Rue des Saussayes to attend to business, and gave the rest of his time to Mademoiselle Zaire, which annoyed Zaire very much. Orosmanes-Crevel had a fixed bargain with Mademoiselle Heloise; she owed him five hundred francs worth of enjoyment every month, and no "bills delivered." He paid separately for his dinner and all extras. This agreement, with certain bonuses, for he made her a good many presents, seemed cheap to the ex-attache of the great singer; and he would say to widowers who were fond of their daughters, that it paid better to job your horses than to have a stable of your own. At the same time, if the reader remembers the speech made to the Baron by the porter at the Rue Chauchat, Crevel did not escape the coachman and the groom.
Crevel, as may be seen, had turned his passionate affection for his daughter to the advantage of his self-indulgence. The immoral aspect of the situation was justified by the highest morality. And then the ex-perfumer derived from this style of living—it was the inevitable, a free-and-easy life, Regence, Pompadour, Marechal de Richelieu, what not—a certain veneer of superiority. Crevel set up for being a man of broad views, a fine gentleman with an air and grace, a liberal man with nothing narrow in his ideas—and all for the small sum of about twelve to fifteen hundred francs a month. This was the result not of hypocritical policy, but of middle-class vanity, though it came to the same in the end.
On the Bourse Crevel was regarded as a man superior to his time, and especially as a man of pleasure, a bon vivant. In this particular Crevel flattered himself that he had overtopped his worthy friend Birotteau by a hundred cubits.
"And is it you?" cried Crevel, flying into a rage as he saw Lisbeth enter the room, "who have plotted this marriage between Mademoiselle Hulot and your young Count, whom you have been bringing up by hand for her?"
"You don't seem best pleased at it?" said Lisbeth, fixing a piercing eye on Crevel. "What interest can you have in hindering my cousin's marriage? For it was you, I am told, who hindered her marrying Monsieur Lebas' son."
"You are a good soul and to be trusted," said Crevel. "Well, then, do you suppose that I will ever forgive Monsieur Hulot for the crime of having robbed me of Josepha—especially when he turned a decent girl, whom I should have married in my old age, into a good-for-nothing slut, a mountebank, an opera singer!—No, no. Never!"
"He is a very good fellow, too, is Monsieur Hulot," said Cousin Betty.
"Amiable, very amiable—too amiable," replied Crevel. "I wish him no harm; but I do wish to have my revenge, and I will have it. It is my one idea."
"And is that desire the reason why you no longer visit Madame Hulot?"
"Ah, ha! then you were courting my fair cousin?" said Lisbeth, with a smile. "I thought as much."
"And she treated me like a dog!—worse, like a footman; nay, I might say like a political prisoner.—But I will succeed yet," said he, striking his brow with his clenched fist.
"Poor man! It would be dreadful to catch his wife deceiving him after being packed off by his mistress."
"Josepha?" cried Crevel. "Has Josepha thrown him over, packed him off, turned him out neck and crop? Bravo, Josepha, you have avenged me! I will send you a pair of pearls to hang in your ears, my ex-sweetheart!—I knew nothing of it; for after I had seen you, on the day after that when the fair Adeline had shown me the door, I went back to visit the Lebas, at Corbeil, and have but just come back. Heloise played the very devil to get me into the country, and I have found out the purpose of her game; she wanted me out of the way while she gave a house-warming in the Rue Chauchat, with some artists, and players, and writers.—She took me in! But I can forgive her, for Heloise amuses me. She is a Dejazet under a bushel. What a character the hussy is! There is the note I found last evening:
"'DEAR OLD CHAP,—I have pitched my tent in the Rue Chauchat. I
have taken the precaution of getting a few friends to clean up the
paint. All is well. Come when you please, monsieur; Hagar awaits
"Heloise will have some news for me, for she has her bohemia at her fingers' end."
"But Monsieur Hulot took the disaster very calmly," said Lisbeth.
"Impossible!" cried Crevel, stopping in a parade as regular as the swing of a pendulum.
"Monsieur Hulot is not as young as he was," Lisbeth remarked significantly.
"I know that," said Crevel, "but in one point we are alike: Hulot cannot do without an attachment. He is capable of going back to his wife. It would be a novelty for him, but an end to my vengeance. You smile, Mademoiselle Fischer—ah! perhaps you know something?"
"I am smiling at your notions," replied Lisbeth. "Yes, my cousin is still handsome enough to inspire a passion. I should certainly fall in love with her if I were a man."
"Cut and come again!" exclaimed Crevel. "You are laughing at me.—The Baron has already found consolation?"
Lisbeth bowed affirmatively.
"He is a lucky man if he can find a second Josepha within twenty-four hours!" said Crevel. "But I am not altogether surprised, for he told me one evening at supper that when he was a young man he always had three mistresses on hand that he might not be left high and dry—the one he was giving over, the one in possession, and the one he was courting for a future emergency. He had some smart little work-woman in reserve, no doubt—in his fish-pond—his Parc-aux-cerfs! He is very Louis XV., is my gentleman. He is in luck to be so handsome!—However, he is ageing; his face shows it.—He has taken up with some little milliner?"
"Dear me, no," replied Lisbeth.
"Oh!" cried Crevel, "what would I not do to hinder him from hanging up his hat! I could not win back Josepha; women of that kind never come back to their first love.—Besides, it is truly said, such a return is not love.—But, Cousin Betty, I would pay down fifty thousand francs—that is to say, I would spend it—to rob that great good-looking fellow of his mistress, and to show him that a Major with a portly stomach and a brain made to become Mayor of Paris, though he is a grandfather, is not to have his mistress tickled away by a poacher without turning the tables."
"My position," said Lisbeth, "compels me to hear everything and know nothing. You may talk to me without fear; I never repeat a word of what any one may choose to tell me. How can you suppose I should ever break that rule of conduct? No one would ever trust me again."
"I know," said Crevel; "you are the very jewel of old maids. Still, come, there are exceptions. Look here, the family have never settled an allowance on you?"
"But I have my pride," said Lisbeth. "I do not choose to be an expense to anybody."
"If you will but help me to my revenge," the tradesman went on, "I will sink ten thousand francs in an annuity for you. Tell me, my fair cousin, tell me who has stepped into Josepha's shoes, and you will have money to pay your rent, your little breakfast in the morning, the good coffee you love so well—you might allow yourself pure Mocha, heh! And a very good thing is pure Mocha!"
"I do not care so much for the ten thousand francs in an annuity, which would bring me nearly five hundred francs a year, as for absolute secrecy," said Lisbeth. "For, you see, my dear Monsieur Crevel, the Baron is very good to me; he is to pay my rent——"
"Oh yes, long may that last! I advise you to trust him," cried Crevel. "Where will he find the money?"
"Ah, that I don't know. At the same time, he is spending more than thirty thousand francs on the rooms he is furnishing for this little lady."
"A lady! What, a woman in society; the rascal, what luck he has! He is the only favorite!"
"A married woman, and quite the lady," Lisbeth affirmed.
"Really and truly?" cried Crevel, opening wide eyes flashing with envy, quite as much as at the magic words quite the lady.
"Yes, really," said Lisbeth. "Clever, a musician, three-and-twenty, a pretty, innocent face, a dazzling white skin, teeth like a puppy's, eyes like stars, a beautiful forehead—and tiny feet, I never saw the like, they are not wider than her stay-busk."
"And ears?" asked Crevel, keenly alive to this catalogue of charms.
"Ears for a model," she replied.
"And small hands?"
"I tell you, in few words, a gem of a woman—and high-minded, and modest, and refined! A beautiful soul, an angel—and with every distinction, for her father was a Marshal of France——"
"A Marshal of France!" shrieked Crevel, positively bounding with excitement. "Good Heavens! by the Holy Piper! By all the joys in Paradise!—The rascal!—I beg your pardon, Cousin, I am going crazy!—I think I would give a hundred thousand francs——"
"I dare say you would, and, I tell you, she is a respectable woman—a woman of virtue. The Baron has forked out handsomely."
"He has not a sou, I tell you."
"There is a husband he has pushed——"
"Where did he push him?" asked Crevel, with a bitter laugh.
"He is promoted to be second in his office—this husband who will oblige, no doubt;—and his name is down for the Cross of the Legion of Honor."
"The Government ought to be judicious and respect those who have the Cross by not flinging it broadcast," said Crevel, with the look of an aggrieved politician. "But what is there about the man—that old bulldog of a Baron?" he went on. "It seems to me that I am quite a match for him," and he struck an attitude as he looked at himself in the glass. "Heloise has told me many a time, at moments when a woman speaks the truth, that I was wonderful."
"Oh," said Lisbeth, "women like big men; they are almost always good-natured; and if I had to decide between you and the Baron, I should choose you. Monsieur Hulot is amusing, handsome, and has a figure; but you, you are substantial, and then—you see—you look an even greater scamp than he does."
"It is incredible how all women, even pious women, take to men who have that about them!" exclaimed Crevel, putting his arm round Lisbeth's waist, he was so jubilant.
"The difficulty does not lie there," said Betty. "You must see that a woman who is getting so many advantages will not be unfaithful to her patron for nothing; and it would cost you more than a hundred odd thousand francs, for our little friend can look forward to seeing her husband at the head of his office within two years' time.—It is poverty that is dragging the poor little angel into that pit."
Crevel was striding up and down the drawing-room in a state of frenzy.
"He must be uncommonly fond of the woman?" he inquired after a pause, while his desires, thus goaded by Lisbeth, rose to a sort of madness.
"You may judge for yourself," replied Lisbeth. "I don't believe he has had that of her," said she, snapping her thumbnail against one of her enormous white teeth, "and he has given her ten thousand francs' worth of presents already."
"What a good joke it would be!" cried Crevel, "if I got to the winning post first!"
"Good heavens! It is too bad of me to be telling you all this tittle-tattle," said Lisbeth, with an air of compunction.
"No.—I mean to put your relations to the blush. To-morrow I shall invest in your name such a sum in five-per-cents as will give you six hundred francs a year; but then you must tell me everything—his Dulcinea's name and residence. To you I will make a clean breast of it.—I never have had a real lady for a mistress, and it is the height of my ambition. Mahomet's houris are nothing in comparison with what I fancy a woman of fashion must be. In short, it is my dream, my mania, and to such a point, that I declare to you the Baroness Hulot to me will never be fifty," said he, unconsciously plagiarizing one of the greatest wits of the last century. "I assure you, my good Lisbeth, I am prepared to sacrifice a hundred, two hundred—Hush! Here are the young people, I see them crossing the courtyard. I shall never have learned anything through you, I give you my word of honor; for I do not want you to lose the Baron's confidence, quite the contrary. He must be amazingly fond of this woman—that old boy."
"He is crazy about her," said Lisbeth. "He could not find forty thousand francs to marry his daughter off, but he has got them somehow for his new passion."
"And do you think that she loves him?"
"At his age!" said the old maid.
"Oh, what an owl I am!" cried Crevel, "when I myself allowed Heloise to keep her artist exactly as Henri IX. allowed Gabrielle her Bellegrade. Alas! old age, old age!—Good-morning, Celestine. How do, my jewel!—And the brat? Ah! here he comes; on my honor, he is beginning to be like me!—Good-day, Hulot—quite well? We shall soon be having another wedding in the family."
Celestine and her husband, as a hint to their father, glanced at the old maid, who audaciously asked, in reply to Crevel:
Crevel put on an air of reserve which was meant to convey that he would make up for her indiscretions.
"That of Hortense," he replied; "but it is not yet quite settled. I have just come from the Lebas', and they were talking of Mademoiselle Popinot as a suitable match for their son, the young councillor, for he would like to get the presidency of a provincial court.—Now, come to dinner."
By seven o'clock Lisbeth had returned home in an omnibus, for she was eager to see Wenceslas, whose dupe she had been for three weeks, and to whom she was carrying a basket filled with fruit by the hands of Crevel himself, whose attentions were doubled towards his Cousin Betty.
She flew up to the attic at a pace that took her breath away, and found the artist finishing the ornamentation of a box to be presented to the adored Hortense. The framework of the lid represented hydrangeas—in French called Hortensias—among which little Loves were playing. The poor lover, to enable him to pay for the materials of the box, of which the panels were of malachite, had designed two candlesticks for Florent and Chanor, and sold them the copyright—two admirable pieces of work.
"You have been working too hard these last few days, my dear fellow," said Lisbeth, wiping the perspiration from his brow, and giving him a kiss. "Such laborious diligence is really dangerous in the month of August. Seriously, you may injure your health. Look, here are some peaches and plums from Monsieur Crevel.—Now, do not worry yourself so much; I have borrowed two thousand francs, and, short of some disaster, we can repay them when you sell your clock. At the same time, the lender seems to me suspicious, for he has just sent in this document."
She laid the writ under the model sketch of the statue of General Montcornet.
"For whom are you making this pretty thing?" said she, taking up the model sprays of hydrangea in red wax which Wenceslas had laid down while eating the fruit.
"For a jeweler."
"For what jeweler?"
"I do not know. Stidmann asked me to make something out of them, as he is very busy."
"But these," she said in a deep voice, "are Hortensias. How is it that you have never made anything in wax for me? Is it so difficult to design a pin, a little box—what not, as a keepsake?" and she shot a fearful glance at the artist, whose eyes were happily lowered. "And yet you say you love me?"
"Can you doubt it, mademoiselle?"
"That is indeed an ardent mademoiselle!—Why, you have been my only thought since I found you dying—just there. When I saved you, you vowed you were mine, I mean to hold you to that pledge; but I made a vow to myself! I said to myself, 'Since the boy says he is mine, I mean to make him rich and happy!' Well, and I can make your fortune."
"How?" said the hapless artist, at the height of joy, and too artless to dream of a snare.
"Why, thus," said she.
Lisbeth could not deprive herself of the savage pleasure of gazing at Wenceslas, who looked up at her with filial affection, the expression really of his love for Hortense, which deluded the old maid. Seeing in a man's eyes, for the first time in her life, the blazing torch of passion, she fancied it was for her that it was lighted.
"Monsieur Crevel will back us to the extent of a hundred thousand francs to start in business, if, as he says, you will marry me. He has queer ideas, has the worthy man.—Well, what do you say to it?" she added.
The artist, as pale as the dead, looked at his benefactress with a lustreless eye, which plainly spoke his thoughts. He stood stupefied and open-mouthed.
"I never before was so distinctly told that I am hideous," said she, with a bitter laugh.
"Mademoiselle," said Steinbock, "my benefactress can never be ugly in my eyes; I have the greatest affection for you. But I am not yet thirty, and——"
"I am forty-three," said Lisbeth. "My cousin Adeline is forty-eight, and men are still madly in love with her; but then she is handsome—she is!"
"Fifteen years between us, mademoiselle! How could we get on together! For both our sakes I think we should be wise to think it over. My gratitude shall be fully equal to your great kindness.—And your money shall be repaid in a few days."
"My money!" cried she. "You treat me as if I were nothing but an unfeeling usurer."
"Forgive me," said Wenceslas, "but you remind me of it so often.—Well, it is you who have made me; do not crush me."
"You mean to be rid of me, I can see," said she, shaking her head. "Who has endowed you with this strength of ingratitude—you who are a man of papier-mache? Have you ceased to trust me—your good genius?—me, when I have spent so many nights working for you—when I have given you every franc I have saved in my lifetime—when for four years I have shared my bread with you, the bread of a hard-worked woman, and given you all I had, to my very courage."
"Mademoiselle—no more, no more!" he cried, kneeling before her with uplifted hands. "Say not another word! In three days I will tell you, you shall know all.—Let me, let me be happy," and he kissed her hands. "I love—and I am loved."
"Well, well, my child, be happy," she said, lifting him up. And she kissed his forehead and hair with the eagerness that a man condemned to death must feel as he lives through the last morning.
"Ah! you are of all creatures the noblest and best! You are a match for the woman I love," said the poor artist.
"I love you well enough to tremble for your future fate," said she gloomily. "Judas hanged himself—the ungrateful always come to a bad end! You are deserting me, and you will never again do any good work. Consider whether, without being married—for I know I am an old maid, and I do not want to smother the blossom of your youth, your poetry, as you call it, in my arms, that are like vine-stocks—but whether, without being married, we could not get on together? Listen; I have the commercial spirit; I could save you a fortune in the course of ten years' work, for Economy is my name!—while, with a young wife, who would be sheer Expenditure, you would squander everything; you would work only to indulge her. But happiness creates nothing but memories. Even I, when I am thinking of you, sit for hours with my hands in my lap——
"Come, Wenceslas, stay with me.—Look here, I understand all about it; you shall have your mistresses; pretty ones too, like that little Marneffe woman who wants to see you, and who will give you happiness you could never find with me. Then, when I have saved you thirty thousand francs a year in the funds——"
"Mademoiselle, you are an angel, and I shall never forget this hour," said Wenceslas, wiping away his tears.
"That is how I like to see you, my child," said she, gazing at him with rapture.
Vanity is so strong a power in us all that Lisbeth believed in her triumph. She had conceded so much when offering him Madame Marneffe. It was the crowning emotion of her life; for the first time she felt the full tide of joy rising in her heart. To go through such an experience again she would have sold her soul to the Devil.
"I am engaged to be married," Steinbock replied, "and I love a woman with whom no other can compete or compare.—But you are, and always will be, to me the mother I have lost."
The words fell like an avalanche of snow on a burning crater. Lisbeth sat down. She gazed with despondent eyes on the youth before her, on his aristocratic beauty—the artist's brow, the splendid hair, everything that appealed to her suppressed feminine instincts, and tiny tears moistened her eyes for an instant and immediately dried up. She looked like one of those meagre statues which the sculptors of the Middle Ages carved on monuments.
"I cannot curse you," said she, suddenly rising. "You—you are but a boy. God preserve you!"
She went downstairs and shut herself into her own room.
"She is in love with me, poor creature!" said Wenceslas to himself. "And how fervently eloquent! She is crazy."
This last effort on the part of an arid and narrow nature to keep hold on an embodiment of beauty and poetry was, in truth, so violent that it can only be compared to the frenzied vehemence of a shipwrecked creature making the last struggle to reach shore.
On the next day but one, at half-past four in the morning, when Count Steinbock was sunk in the deepest sleep, he heard a knock at the door of his attic; he rose to open it, and saw two men in shabby clothing, and a third, whose dress proclaimed him a bailiff down on his luck.
"You are Monsieur Wenceslas, Count Steinbock?" said this man.
"My name is Grasset, sir, successor to Louchard, sheriff's officer——"
"You are under arrest, sir. You must come with us to prison—to Clichy.—Please to get dressed.—We have done the civil, as you see; I have brought no police, and there is a hackney cab below."
"You are safely nabbed, you see," said one of the bailiffs; "and we look to you to be liberal."
Steinbock dressed and went downstairs, a man holding each arm; when he was in the cab, the driver started without orders, as knowing where he was to go, and within half an hour the unhappy foreigner found himself safely under bolt and bar without even a remonstrance, so utterly amazed was he.
At ten o'clock he was sent for to the prison-office, where he found Lisbeth, who, in tears, gave him some money to feed himself adequately and to pay for a room large enough to work in.
"My dear boy," said she, "never say a word of your arrest to anybody, do not write to a living soul; it would ruin you for life; we must hide this blot on your character. I will soon have you out. I will collect the money—be quite easy. Write down what you want for your work. You shall soon be free, or I will die for it."
"Oh, I shall owe you my life a second time!" cried he, "for I should lose more than my life if I were thought a bad fellow."
Lisbeth went off in great glee; she hoped, by keeping her artist under lock and key, to put a stop to his marriage by announcing that he was a married man, pardoned by the efforts of his wife, and gone off to Russia.
To carry out this plan, at about three o'clock she went to the Baroness, though it was not the day when she was due to dine with her; but she wished to enjoy the anguish which Hortense must endure at the hour when Wenceslas was in the habit of making his appearance.
"Have you come to dinner?" asked the Baroness, concealing her disappointment.
"That's well," replied Hortense. "I will go and tell them to be punctual, for you do not like to be kept waiting."
Hortense nodded reassuringly to her mother, for she intended to tell the man-servant to send away Monsieur Steinbock if he should call; the man, however, happened to be out, so Hortense was obliged to give her orders to the maid, and the girl went upstairs to fetch her needlework and sit in the ante-room.
"And about my lover?" said Cousin Betty to Hortense, when the girl came back. "You never ask about him now?"
"To be sure, what is he doing?" said Hortense. "He has become famous. You ought to be very happy," she added in an undertone to Lisbeth. "Everybody is talking of Monsieur Wenceslas Steinbock."
"A great deal too much," replied she in her clear tones. "Monsieur is departing.—If it were only a matter of charming him so far as to defy the attractions of Paris, I know my power; but they say that in order to secure the services of such an artist, the Emperor Nichols has pardoned him——"
"Nonsense!" said the Baroness.
"When did you hear that?" asked Hortense, who felt as if her heart had the cramp.
"Well," said the villainous Lisbeth, "a person to whom he is bound by the most sacred ties—his wife—wrote yesterday to tell him so. He wants to be off. Oh, he will be a great fool to give up France to go to Russia!—"
Hortense looked at her mother, but her head sank on one side; the Baroness was only just in time to support her daughter, who dropped fainting, and as white as her lace kerchief.
"Lisbeth! you have killed my child!" cried the Baroness. "You were born to be our curse!"
"Bless me! what fault of mine is this, Adeline?" replied Lisbeth, as she rose with a menacing aspect, of which the Baroness, in her alarm, took no notice.
"I was wrong," said Adeline, supporting the girl. "Ring."
At this instant the door opened, the women both looked round, and saw Wenceslas Steinbock, who had been admitted by the cook in the maid's absence.
"Hortense!" cried the artist, with one spring to the group of women. And he kissed his betrothed before her mother's eyes, on the forehead, and so reverently, that the Baroness could not be angry. It was a better restorative than any smelling salts. Hortense opened her eyes, saw Wenceslas, and her color came back. In a few minutes she had quite recovered.
"So this was your secret?" said Lisbeth, smiling at Wenceslas, and affecting to guess the facts from her two cousins' confusion.
"But how did you steal away my lover?" said she, leading Hortense into the garden.
Hortense artlessly told the romance of her love. Her father and mother, she said, being convinced that Lisbeth would never marry, had authorized the Count's visits. Only Hortense, like a full-blown Agnes, attributed to chance her purchase of the group and the introduction of the artist, who, by her account, had insisted on knowing the name of his first purchaser.
Presently Steinbock came out to join the cousins, and thanked the old maid effusively for his prompt release. Lisbeth replied Jesuitically that the creditor having given very vague promises, she had not hoped to be able to get him out before the morrow, and that the person who had lent her the money, ashamed, perhaps, of such mean conduct, had been beforehand with her. The old maid appeared to be perfectly content, and congratulated Wenceslas on his happiness.
"You bad boy!" said she, before Hortense and her mother, "if you had only told me the evening before last that you loved my cousin Hortense, and that she loved you, you would have spared me many tears. I thought that you were deserting your old friend, your governess; while, on the contrary, you are to become my cousin; henceforth, you will be connected with me, remotely, it is true, but by ties that amply justify the feelings I have for you." And she kissed Wenceslas on the forehead.
Hortense threw herself into Lisbeth's arms and melted into tears.
"I owe my happiness to you," said she, "and I will never forget it."
"Cousin Betty," said the Baroness, embracing Lisbeth in her excitement at seeing matters so happily settled, "the Baron and I owe you a debt of gratitude, and we will pay it. Come and talk things over with me," she added, leading her away.
So Lisbeth, to all appearances, was playing the part of a good angel to the whole family; she was adored by Crevel and Hulot, by Adeline and Hortense.
"We wish you to give up working," said the Baroness. "If you earn forty sous a day, Sundays excepted, that makes six hundred francs a year. Well, then, how much have you saved?"
"Four thousand five hundred francs."
"Poor Betty!" said her cousin.
She raised her eyes to heaven, so deeply was she moved at the thought of all the labor and privation such a sum must represent accumulated during thirty years.
Lisbeth, misunderstanding the meaning of the exclamation, took it as the ironical pity of the successful woman, and her hatred was strengthened by a large infusion of venom at the very moment when her cousin had cast off her last shred of distrust of the tyrant of her childhood.
"We will add ten thousand five hundred francs to that sum," said Adeline, "and put it in trust so that you shall draw the interest for life with reversion to Hortense. Thus, you will have six hundred francs a year."
Lisbeth feigned the utmost satisfaction. When she went in, her handkerchief to her eyes, wiping away tears of joy, Hortense told her of all the favors being showered on Wenceslas, beloved of the family.
So when the Baron came home, he found his family all present; for the Baroness had formally accepted Wenceslas by the title of Son, and the wedding was fixed, if her husband should approve, for a day a fortnight hence. The moment he came into the drawing-room, Hulot was rushed at by his wife and daughter, who ran to meet him, Adeline to speak to him privately, and Hortense to kiss him.
"You have gone too far in pledging me to this, madame," said the Baron sternly. "You are not married yet," he added with a look at Steinbock, who turned pale.
"He has heard of my imprisonment," said the luckless artist to himself.
"Come, children," said he, leading his daughter and the young man into the garden; they all sat down on the moss-eaten seat in the summer-house.
"Monsieur le Comte, do you love my daughter as well as I loved her mother?" he asked.
"More, monsieur," said the sculptor.
"Her mother was a peasant's daughter, and had not a farthing of her own."
"Only give me Mademoiselle Hortense just as she is, without a trousseau even——"
"So I should think!" said the Baron, smiling. "Hortense is the daughter of the Baron Hulot d'Ervy, Councillor of State, high up in the War Office, Grand Commander of the Legion of Honor, and the brother to Count Hulot, whose glory is immortal, and who will ere long be Marshal of France! And—she has a marriage portion.
"It is true," said the impassioned artist. "I must seem very ambitious. But if my dear Hortense were a laborer's daughter, I would marry her——"
"That is just what I wanted to know," replied the Baron. "Run away, Hortense, and leave me to talk business with Monsieur le Comte.—He really loves you, you see!"
"Oh, papa, I was sure you were only in jest," said the happy girl.
"My dear Steinbock," said the Baron, with elaborate grace of diction and the most perfect manners, as soon as he and the artist were alone, "I promised my son a fortune of two hundred thousand francs, of which the poor boy has never had a sou; and he never will get any of it. My daughter's fortune will also be two hundred thousand francs, for which you will give a receipt——"
"Yes, Monsieur le Baron."
"You go too fast," said Hulot. "Have the goodness to hear me out. I cannot expect from a son-in-law such devotion as I look for from my son. My son knew exactly all I could and would do for his future promotion: he will be a Minister, and will easily make good his two hundred thousand francs. But with you, young man, matters are different. I shall give you a bond for sixty thousand francs in State funds at five per cent, in your wife's name. This income will be diminished by a small charge in the form of an annuity to Lisbeth; but she will not live long; she is consumptive, I know. Tell no one; it is a secret; let the poor soul die in peace.—My daughter will have a trousseau worth twenty thousand francs; her mother will give her six thousand francs worth of diamonds.
"Monsieur, you overpower me!" said Steinbock, quite bewildered.
"As to the remaining hundred and twenty thousand francs——"
"Say no more, monsieur," said Wenceslas. "I ask only for my beloved Hortense——"
"Will you listen to me, effervescent youth!—As to the remaining hundred and twenty thousand francs, I have not got them; but you will have them—"
"You will get them from the Government, in payment for commissions which I will secure for you, I pledge you my word of honor. You are to have a studio, you see, at the Government depot. Exhibit a few fine statues, and I will get you received at the Institute. The highest personages have a regard for my brother and for me, and I hope to succeed in securing for you a commission for sculpture at Versailles up to a quarter of the whole sum. You will have orders from the City of Paris and from the Chamber of Peers; in short, my dear fellow, you will have so many that you will be obliged to get assistants. In that way I shall pay off my debt to you. You must say whether this way of giving a portion will suit you; whether you are equal to it."
"I am equal to making a fortune for my wife single-handed if all else failed!" cried the artist-nobleman.
"That is what I admire!" cried the Baron. "High-minded youth that fears nothing. Come," he added, clasping hands with the young sculptor to conclude the bargain, "you have my consent. We will sign the contract on Sunday next, and the wedding shall be on the following Saturday, my wife's fete-day."
"It is all right," said the Baroness to her daughter, who stood glued to the window. "Your suitor and your father are embracing each other."
On going home in the evening, Wenceslas found the solution of the mystery of his release. The porter handed him a thick sealed packet, containing the schedule of his debts, with a signed receipt affixed at the bottom of the writ, and accompanied by this letter:—
"MY DEAR WENCESLAS,—I went to fetch you at ten o'clock this
morning to introduce you to a Royal Highness who wishes to see
you. There I learned that the duns had had you conveyed to a
certain little domain—chief town, Clichy Castle.
"So off I went to Leon de Lora, and told him, for a joke, that you
could not leave your country quarters for lack of four thousand
francs, and that you would spoil your future prospects if you did
not make your bow to your royal patron. Happily, Bridau was there
—a man of genius, who has known what it is to be poor, and has
heard your story. My boy, between them they have found the money,
and I went off to pay the Turk who committed treason against
genius by putting you in quod. As I had to be at the Tuileries at
noon, I could not wait to see you sniffing the outer air. I know
you to be a gentleman, and I answered for you to my two friends
—but look them up to-morrow.
"Leon and Bridau do not want your cash; they will ask you to do
them each a group—and they are right. At least, so thinks the man
who wishes he could sign himself your rival, but is only your
"P. S.—I told the Prince you were away, and would not return till
to-morrow, so he said, 'Very good—to-morrow.'"
Count Wenceslas went to bed in sheets of purple, without a rose-leaf to wrinkle them, that Favor can make for us—Favor, the halting divinity who moves more slowly for men of genius than either Justice or Fortune, because Jove has not chosen to bandage her eyes. Hence, lightly deceived by the display of impostors, and attracted by their frippery and trumpets, she spends the time in seeing them and the money in paying them which she ought to devote to seeking out men of merit in the nooks where they hide.
It will now be necessary to explain how Monsieur le Baron Hulot had contrived to count up his expenditure on Hortense's wedding portion, and at the same time to defray the frightful cost of the charming rooms where Madame Marneffe was to make her home. His financial scheme bore that stamp of talent which leads prodigals and men in love into the quagmires where so many disasters await them. Nothing can demonstrate more completely the strange capacity communicated by vice, to which we owe the strokes of skill which ambitious or voluptuous men can occasionally achieve—or, in short, any of the Devil's pupils.
On the day before, old Johann Fischer, unable to pay thirty thousand francs drawn for on him by his nephew, had found himself under the necessity of stopping payment unless the Baron could remit the sum.
This ancient worthy, with the white hairs of seventy years, had such blind confidence in Hulot—who, to the old Bonapartist, was an emanation from the Napoleonic sun—that he was calmly pacing his anteroom with the bank clerk, in the little ground-floor apartment that he rented for eight hundred francs a year as the headquarters of his extensive dealings in corn and forage.
"Marguerite is gone to fetch the money from close by," said he.
The official, in his gray uniform braided with silver, was so convinced of the old Alsatian's honesty, that he was prepared to leave the thirty thousand francs' worth of bills in his hands; but the old man would not let him go, observing that the clock had not yet struck eight. A cab drew up, the old man rushed into the street, and held out his hand to the Baron with sublime confidence—Hulot handed him out thirty thousand-franc notes.
"Go on three doors further, and I will tell you why," said Fischer.
"Here, young man," he said, returning to count out the money to the bank emissary, whom he then saw to the door.
When the clerk was out of sight, Fischer called back the cab containing his august nephew, Napoleon's right hand, and said, as he led him into the house:
"You do not want them to know at the Bank of France that you paid me the thirty thousand francs, after endorsing the bills?—It was bad enough to see them signed by such a man as you!—"
"Come to the bottom of your little garden, Father Fischer," said the important man. "You are hearty?" he went on, sitting down under a vine arbor and scanning the old man from head to foot, as a dealer in human flesh scans a substitute for the conscription.
"Ay, hearty enough for a tontine," said the lean little old man; his sinews were wiry, and his eye bright.
"Does heat disagree with you?"
"Quite the contrary."
"What do you say to Africa?"
"A very nice country!—The French went there with the little Corporal" (Napoleon).
"To get us all out of the present scrape, you must go to Algiers," said the Baron.
"And how about my business?"
"An official in the War Office, who has to retire, and has not enough to live on with his pension, will buy your business."
"And what am I to do in Algiers?"
"Supply the Commissariat with victuals, corn, and forage; I have your commission ready filled in and signed. You can collect supplies in the country at seventy per cent below the prices at which you can credit us."
"How shall we get them?"
"Oh, by raids, by taxes in kind, and the Khaliphat.—The country is little known, though we settled there eight years ago; Algeria produces vast quantities of corn and forage. When this produce belongs to Arabs, we take it from them under various pretences; when it belongs to us, the Arabs try to get it back again. There is a great deal of fighting over the corn, and no one ever knows exactly how much each party has stolen from the other. There is not time in the open field to measure the corn as we do in the Paris market, or the hay as it is sold in the Rue d'Enfer. The Arab chiefs, like our Spahis, prefer hard cash, and sell the plunder at a very low price. The Commissariat needs a fixed quantity and must have it. It winks at exorbitant prices calculated on the difficulty of procuring food, and the dangers to which every form of transport is exposed. That is Algiers from the army contractor's point of view.
"It is a muddle tempered by the ink-bottle, like every incipient government. We shall not see our way through it for another ten years—we who have to do the governing; but private enterprise has sharp eyes.—So I am sending you there to make a fortune; I give you the job, as Napoleon put an impoverished Marshal at the head of a kingdom where smuggling might be secretly encouraged.
"I am ruined, my dear Fischer; I must have a hundred thousand francs within a year."
"I see no harm in getting it out of the Bedouins," said the Alsatian calmly. "It was always done under the Empire——"
"The man who wants to buy your business will be here this morning, and pay you ten thousand francs down," the Baron went on. "That will be enough, I suppose, to take you to Africa?"
The old man nodded assent.
"As to capital out there, be quite easy. I will draw the remainder of the money due if I find it necessary."
"All I have is yours—my very blood," said old Fischer.
"Oh, do not be uneasy," said Hulot, fancying that his uncle saw more clearly than was the fact. "As to our excise dealings, your character will not be impugned. Everything depends on the authority at your back; now I myself appointed the authorities out there; I am sure of them. This, Uncle Fischer, is a dead secret between us. I know you well, and I have spoken out without concealment or circumlocution."
"It shall be done," said the old man. "And it will go on——?"
"For two years, You will have made a hundred thousand francs of your own to live happy on in the Vosges."
"I will do as you wish; my honor is yours," said the little old man quietly.
"That is the sort of man I like.—However, you must not go till you have seen your grand-niece happily married. She is to be a Countess."
But even taxes and raids and the money paid by the War Office clerk for Fischer's business could not forthwith provide sixty thousand francs to give Hortense, to say nothing of her trousseau, which was to cost about five thousand, and the forty thousand spent—or to be spent—on Madame Marneffe.
Where, then had the Baron found the thirty thousand francs he had just produced? This was the history.
A few days previously Hulot had insured his life for the sum of a hundred and fifty thousand francs, for three years, in two separate companies. Armed with the policies, of which he paid the premium, he had spoken as follows to the Baron de Nucingen, a peer of the Chamber, in whose carriage he found himself after a sitting, driving home, in fact, to dine with him:—
"Baron, I want seventy thousand francs, and I apply to you. You must find some one to lend his name, to whom I will make over the right to draw my pay for three years; it amounts to twenty-five thousand francs a year—that is, seventy-five thousand francs.—You will say, 'But you may die'"—the banker signified his assent—"Here, then, is a policy of insurance for a hundred and fifty thousand francs, which I will deposit with you till you have drawn up the eighty thousand francs," said Hulot, producing the document form his pocket.
"But if you should lose your place?" said the millionaire Baron, laughing.
The other Baron—not a millionaire—looked grave.
"Be quite easy; I only raised the question to show you that I was not devoid of merit in handing you the sum. Are you so short of cash? for the Bank will take your signature."
"My daughter is to be married," said Baron Hulot, "and I have no fortune—like every one else who remains in office in these thankless times, when five hundred ordinary men seated on benches will never reward the men who devote themselves to the service as handsomely as the Emperor did."
"Well, well; but you had Josepha on your hands!" replied Nucingen, "and that accounts for everything. Between ourselves, the Duc d'Herouville has done you a very good turn by removing that leech from sucking your purse dry. 'I have known what that is, and can pity your case,'" he quoted. "Take a friend's advice: Shut up shop, or you will be done for."
This dirty business was carried out in the name of one Vauvinet, a small money-lender; one of those jobbers who stand forward to screen great banking houses, like the little fish that is said to attend the shark. This stock-jobber's apprentice was so anxious to gain the patronage of Monsieur le Baron Hulot, that he promised the great man to negotiate bills of exchange for thirty thousand francs at eighty days, and pledged himself to renew them four times, and never pass them out of his hands.
Fischer's successor was to pay forty thousand francs for the house and the business, with the promise that he should supply forage to a department close to Paris.
This was the desperate maze of affairs into which a man who had hitherto been absolutely honest was led by his passions—one of the best administrative officials under Napoleon—peculation to pay the money-lenders, and borrowing of the money-lenders to gratify his passions and provide for his daughter. All the efforts of this elaborate prodigality were directed at making a display before Madame Marneffe, and to playing Jupiter to this middle-class Danae. A man could not expend more activity, intelligence, and presence of mind in the honest acquisition of a fortune than the Baron displayed in shoving his head into a wasp's nest: He did all the business of his department, he hurried on the upholsterers, he talked to the workmen, he kept a sharp lookout on the smallest details of the house in the Rue Vanneau. Wholly devoted to Madame Marneffe, he nevertheless attended the sittings of the Chambers; he was everywhere at once, and neither his family nor anybody else discovered where his thoughts were.
Adeline, quite amazed to hear that her uncle was rescued, and to see a handsome sum figure in the marriage-contract, was not altogether easy, in spite of her joy at seeing her daughter married under such creditable circumstances. But, on the day before the wedding, fixed by the Baron to coincide with Madame Marneffe's removal to her new apartment, Hector allayed his wife's astonishment by this ministerial communication:—
"Now, Adeline, our girl is married; all our anxieties on the subject are at an end. The time is come for us to retire from the world: I shall not remain in office more than three years longer—only the time necessary to secure my pension. Why, henceforth, should we be at any unnecessary expense? Our apartment costs us six thousand francs a year in rent, we have four servants, we eat thirty thousand francs' worth of food in a year. If you want me to pay off my bills—for I have pledged my salary for the sums I needed to give Hortense her little money, and pay off your uncle——"
"You did very right!" said she, interrupting her husband, and kissing his hands.
This explanation relieved Adeline of all her fears.
"I shall have to ask some little sacrifices of you," he went on, disengaging his hands and kissing his wife's brow. "I have found in the Rue Plumet a very good flat on the first floor, handsome, splendidly paneled, at only fifteen hundred francs a year, where you would only need one woman to wait on you, and I could be quite content with a boy."
"Yes, my dear."
"If we keep house in a quiet way, keeping up a proper appearance of course, we should not spend more than six thousand francs a year, excepting my private account, which I will provide for."
The generous-hearted woman threw her arms round her husband's neck in her joy.
"How happy I shall be, beginning again to show you how truly I love you!" she exclaimed. "And what a capital manager you are!"
"We will have the children to dine with us once a week. I, as you know, rarely dine at home. You can very well dine twice a week with Victorin and twice a week with Hortense. And, as I believe, I may succeed in making matters up completely between Crevel and us; we can dine once a week with him. These five dinners and our own at home will fill up the week all but one day, supposing that we may occasionally be invited to dine elsewhere."
"I shall save a great deal for you," said Adeline.
"Oh!" he cried, "you are the pearl of women!"
"My kind, divine Hector, I shall bless you with my latest breath," said she, "for you have done well for my dear Hortense."
This was the beginning of the end of the beautiful Madame Hulot's home; and, it may be added, of her being totally neglected, as Hulot had solemnly promised Madame Marneffe.
Crevel, the important and burly, being invited as a matter of course to the party given for the signing of the marriage-contract, behaved as though the scene with which this drama opened had never taken place, as though he had no grievance against the Baron. Celestin Crevel was quite amiable; he was perhaps rather too much the ex-perfumer, but as a Major he was beginning to acquire majestic dignity. He talked of dancing at the wedding.
"Fair lady," said he politely to the Baroness, "people like us know how to forget. Do not banish me from your home; honor me, pray, by gracing my house with your presence now and then to meet your children. Be quite easy; I will never say anything of what lies buried at the bottom of my heart. I behaved, indeed, like an idiot, for I should lose too much by cutting myself off from seeing you."
"Monsieur, an honest woman has no ears for such speeches as those you refer to. If you keep your word, you need not doubt that it will give me pleasure to see the end of a coolness which must always be painful in a family."
"Well, you sulky old fellow," said Hulot, dragging Crevel out into the garden, "you avoid me everywhere, even in my own house. Are two admirers of the fair sex to quarrel for ever over a petticoat? Come; this is really too plebeian!"
"I, monsieur, am not such a fine man as you are, and my small attractions hinder me from repairing my losses so easily as you can——"
"Sarcastic!" said the Baron.
"Irony is allowable from the vanquished to the conquerer."
The conversation, begun in this strain, ended in a complete reconciliation; still Crevel maintained his right to take his revenge.
Madame Marneffe particularly wished to be invited to Mademoiselle Hulot's wedding. To enable him to receive his future mistress in his drawing-room, the great official was obliged to invite all the clerks of his division down to the deputy head-clerks inclusive. Thus a grand ball was a necessity. The Baroness, as a prudent housewife, calculated that an evening party would cost less than a dinner, and allow of a larger number of invitations; so Hortense's wedding was much talked about.
Marshal Prince Wissembourg and the Baron de Nucingen signed in behalf of the bride, the Comtes de Rastignac and Popinot in behalf of Steinbock. Then, as the highest nobility among the Polish emigrants had been civil to Count Steinbock since he had become famous, the artist thought himself bound to invite them. The State Council, and the War Office to which the Baron belonged, and the army, anxious to do honor to the Comte de Forzheim, were all represented by their magnates. There were nearly two hundred indispensable invitations. How natural, then, that little Madame Marneffe was bent on figuring in all her glory amid such an assembly. The Baroness had, a month since, sold her diamonds to set up her daughter's house, while keeping the finest for the trousseau. The sale realized fifteen thousand francs, of which five thousand were sunk in Hortense's clothes. And what was ten thousand francs for the furniture of the young folks' apartment, considering the demands of modern luxury? However, young Monsieur and Madame Hulot, old Crevel, and the Comte de Forzheim made very handsome presents, for the old soldier had set aside a sum for the purchase of plate. Thanks to these contributions, even an exacting Parisian would have been pleased with the rooms the young couple had taken in the Rue Saint-Dominique, near the Invalides. Everything seemed in harmony with their love, pure, honest, and sincere.
At last the great day dawned—for it was to be a great day not only for Wenceslas and Hortense, but for old Hulot too. Madame Marneffe was to give a house-warming in her new apartment the day after becoming Hulot's mistress en titre, and after the marriage of the lovers.
Who but has once in his life been a guest at a wedding-ball? Every reader can refer to his reminiscences, and will probably smile as he calls up the images of all that company in their Sunday-best faces as well as their finest frippery.
If any social event can prove the influence of environment, is it not this? In fact, the Sunday-best mood of some reacts so effectually on the rest that the men who are most accustomed to wearing full dress look just like those to whom the party is a high festival, unique in their life. And think too of the serious old men to whom such things are so completely a matter of indifference, that they are wearing their everyday black coats; the long-married men, whose faces betray their sad experience of the life the young pair are but just entering on; and the lighter elements, present as carbonic-acid gas is in champagne; and the envious girls, the women absorbed in wondering if their dress is a success, the poor relations whose parsimonious "get-up" contrasts with that of the officials in uniform; and the greedy ones, thinking only of the supper; and the gamblers, thinking only of cards.
There are some of every sort, rich and poor, envious and envied, philosophers and dreamers, all grouped like the plants in a flower-bed round the rare, choice blossom, the bride. A wedding-ball is an epitome of the world.
At the liveliest moment of the evening Crevel led the Baron aside, and said in a whisper, with the most natural manner possible:
"By Jove! that's a pretty woman—the little lady in pink who has opened a racking fire on you from her eyes."
"The wife of that clerk you are promoting, heaven knows how!—Madame Marneffe."
"What do you know about it?"
"Listen, Hulot; I will try to forgive you the ill you have done me if only you will introduce me to her—I will take you to Heloise. Everybody is asking who is that charming creature. Are you sure that it will strike no one how and why her husband's appointment got itself signed?—You happy rascal, she is worth a whole office.—I would serve in her office only too gladly.—Come, cinna, let us be friends."
"Better friends than ever," said the Baron to the perfumer, "and I promise you I will be a good fellow. Within a month you shall dine with that little angel.—For it is an angel this time, old boy. And I advise you, like me, to have done with the devils."
Cousin Betty, who had moved to the Rue Vanneau, into a nice little apartment on the third floor, left the ball at ten o'clock, but came back to see with her own eyes the two bonds bearing twelve hundred francs interest; one of them was the property of the Countess Steinbock, the other was in the name of Madame Hulot.
It is thus intelligible that Monsieur Crevel should have spoken to Hulot about Madame Marneffe, as knowing what was a secret to the rest of the world; for, as Monsieur Marneffe was away, no one but Lisbeth Fischer, besides the Baron and Valerie, was initiated into the mystery.
The Baron had made a blunder in giving Madame Marneffe a dress far too magnificent for the wife of a subordinate official; other women were jealous alike of her beauty and of her gown. There was much whispering behind fans, for the poverty of the Marneffes was known to every one in the office; the husband had been petitioning for help at the very moment when the Baron had been so smitten with madame. Also, Hector could not conceal his exultation at seeing Valerie's success; and she, severely proper, very lady-like, and greatly envied, was the object of that strict examination which women so greatly fear when they appear for the first time in a new circle of society.
After seeing his wife into a carriage with his daughter and his son-in-law, Hulot managed to escape unperceived, leaving his son and Celestine to do the honors of the house. He got into Madame Marneffe's carriage to see her home, but he found her silent and pensive, almost melancholy.
"My happiness makes you very sad, Valerie," said he, putting his arm round her and drawing her to him.
"Can you wonder, my dear," said she, "that a hapless woman should be a little depressed at the thought of her first fall from virtue, even when her husband's atrocities have set her free? Do you suppose that I have no soul, no beliefs, no religion? Your glee this evening has been really too barefaced; you have paraded me odiously. Really, a schoolboy would have been less of a coxcomb. And the ladies have dissected me with their side-glances and their satirical remarks. Every woman has some care for her reputation, and you have wrecked mine.
"Oh, I am yours and no mistake! And I have not an excuse left but that of being faithful to you.—Monster that you are!" she added, laughing, and allowing him to kiss her, "you knew very well what you were doing! Madame Coquet, our chief clerk's wife, came to sit down by me, and admired my lace. 'English point!' said she. 'Was it very expensive, madame?'—'I do not know. This lace was my mother's. I am not rich enough to buy the like,' said I."
Madame Marneffe, in short, had so bewitched the old beau, that he really believed she was sinning for the first time for his sake, and that he had inspired such a passion as had led her to this breach of duty. She told him that the wretch Marneffe had neglected her after they had been three days married, and for the most odious reasons. Since then she had lived as innocently as a girl; marriage had seemed to her so horrible. This was the cause of her present melancholy.
"If love should prove to be like marriage——" said she in tears.
These insinuating lies, with which almost every woman in Valerie's predicament is ready, gave the Baron distant visions of the roses of the seventh heaven. And so Valerie coquetted with her lover, while the artist and Hortense were impatiently awaiting the moment when the Baroness should have given the girl her last kiss and blessing.
At seven in the morning the Baron, perfectly happy—for his Valerie was at once the most guileless of girls and the most consummate of demons—went back to release his son and Celestine from their duties. All the dancers, for the most part strangers, had taken possession of the territory, as they do at every wedding-ball, and were keeping up the endless figures of the cotillions, while the gamblers were still crowding round the bouillotte tables, and old Crevel had won six thousand francs.
The morning papers, carried round the town, contained this paragraph in the Paris article:—
"The marriage was celebrated this morning, at the Church of
Saint-Thomas d'Aquin, between Monsieur le Comte Steinbock and
Mademoiselle Hortense Hulot, daughter of Baron Hulot d'Ervy,
Councillor of State, and a Director at the War Office; niece of
the famous General Comte de Forzheim. The ceremony attracted a
large gathering. There were present some of the most distinguished
artists of the day: Leon de Lora, Joseph Bridau, Stidmann, and
Bixiou; the magnates of the War Office, of the Council of State,
and many members of the two Chambers; also the most distinguished
of the Polish exiles living in Paris: Counts Paz, Laginski, and
"Monsieur le Comte Wenceslas Steinbock is grandnephew to the
famous general who served under Charles XII., King of Sweden. The
young Count, having taken part in the Polish rebellion, found a
refuge in France, where his well-earned fame as a sculptor has
procured him a patent of naturalization."
And so, in spite of the Baron's cruel lack of money, nothing was lacking that public opinion could require, not even the trumpeting of the newspapers over his daughter's marriage, which was solemnized in the same way, in every particular, as his son's had been to Mademoiselle Crevel. This display moderated the reports current as to the Baron's financial position, while the fortune assigned to his daughter explained the need for having borrowed money.
Here ends what is, in a way, the introduction to this story. It is to the drama that follows that the premise is to a syllogism, what the prologue is to a classical tragedy.
In Paris, when a woman determines to make a business, a trade, of her beauty, it does not follow that she will make a fortune. Lovely creatures may be found there, and full of wit, who are in wretched circumstances, ending in misery a life begun in pleasure. And this is why. It is not enough merely to accept the shameful life of a courtesan with a view to earning its profits, and at the same time to bear the simple garb of a respectable middle-class wife. Vice does not triumph so easily; it resembles genius in so far that they both need a concurrence of favorable conditions to develop the coalition of fortune and gifts. Eliminate the strange prologue of the Revolution, and the Emperor would never have existed; he would have been no more than a second edition of Fabert. Venal beauty, if it finds no amateurs, no celebrity, no cross of dishonor earned by squandering men's fortunes, is Correggio in a hay-loft, is genius starving in a garret. Lais, in Paris, must first and foremost find a rich man mad enough to pay her price. She must keep up a very elegant style, for this is her shop-sign; she must be sufficiently well bred to flatter the vanity of her lovers; she must have the brilliant wit of a Sophie Arnould, which diverts the apathy of rich men; finally, she must arouse the passions of libertines by appearing to be mistress to one man only who is envied by the rest.
These conditions, which a woman of that class calls being in luck, are difficult to combine in Paris, although it is a city of millionaires, of idlers, of used-up and capricious men.
Providence has, no doubt, vouchsafed protection to clerks and middle-class citizens, for whom obstacles of this kind are at least double in the sphere in which they move. At the same time, there are enough Madame Marneffes in Paris to allow of our taking Valerie to figure as a type in this picture of manners. Some of these women yield to the double pressure of a genuine passion and of hard necessity, like Madame Colleville, who was for long attached to one of the famous orators of the left, Keller the banker. Others are spurred by vanity, like Madame de la Baudraye, who remained almost respectable in spite of her elopement with Lousteau. Some, again, are led astray by the love of fine clothes, and some by the impossibility of keeping a house going on obviously too narrow means. The stinginess of the State—or of Parliament—leads to many disasters and to much corruption.
At the present moment the laboring classes are the fashionable object of compassion; they are being murdered—it is said—by the manufacturing capitalist; but the Government is a hundred times harder than the meanest tradesman, it carries its economy in the article of salaries to absolute folly. If you work harder, the merchant will pay you more in proportion; but what does the State do for its crowd of obscure and devoted toilers?
In a married woman it is an inexcusable crime when she wanders from the path of honor; still, there are degrees even in such a case. Some women, far from being depraved, conceal their fall and remain to all appearances quite respectable, like those two just referred to, while others add to their fault the disgrace of speculation. Thus Madame Marneffe is, as it were, the type of those ambitious married courtesans who from the first accept depravity with all its consequences, and determine to make a fortune while taking their pleasure, perfectly unscrupulous as to the means. But almost always a woman like Madame Marneffe has a husband who is her confederate and accomplice. These Machiavellis in petticoats are the most dangerous of the sisterhood; of every evil class of Parisian woman, they are the worst.
A mere courtesan—a Josepha, a Malaga, a Madame Schontz, a Jenny Cadine—carries in her frank dishonor a warning signal as conspicuous as the red lamp of a house of ill-fame or the flaring lights of a gambling hell. A man knows that they light him to his ruin.
But mealy-mouthed propriety, the semblance of virtue, the hypocritical ways of a married woman who never allows anything to be seen but the vulgar needs of the household, and affects to refuse every kind of extravagance, leads to silent ruin, dumb disaster, which is all the more startling because, though condoned, it remains unaccounted for. It is the ignoble bill of daily expenses and not gay dissipation that devours the largest fortune. The father of a family ruins himself ingloriously, and the great consolation of gratified vanity is wanting in his misery.
This little sermon will go like a javelin to the heart of many a home. Madame Marneffes are to be seen in every sphere of social life, even at Court; for Valerie is a melancholy fact, modeled from the life in the smallest details. And, alas! the portrait will not cure any man of the folly of loving these sweetly-smiling angels, with pensive looks and candid faces, whose heart is a cash-box.
About three years after Hortense's marriage, in 1841, Baron Hulot d'Ervy was supposed to have sown his wild oats, to have "put up his horses," to quote the expression used by Louis XV.'s head surgeon, and yet Madame Marneffe was costing him twice as much as Josepha had ever cost him. Still, Valerie, though always nicely dressed, affected the simplicity of a subordinate official's wife; she kept her luxury for her dressing-gowns, her home wear. She thus sacrificed her Parisian vanity to her dear Hector. At the theatre, however, she always appeared in a pretty bonnet and a dress of extreme elegance; and the Baron took her in a carriage to a private box.
Her rooms, the whole of the second floor of a modern house in the Rue Vanneau, between a fore-court and a garden, was redolent of respectability. All its luxury was in good chintz hangings and handsome convenient furniture.
Her bedroom, indeed, was the exception, and rich with such profusion as Jenny Cadine or Madame Schontz might have displayed. There were lace curtains, cashmere hangings, brocade portieres, a set of chimney ornaments modeled by Stidmann, a glass cabinet filled with dainty nicknacks. Hulot could not bear to see his Valerie in a bower of inferior magnificence to the dunghill of gold and pearls owned by a Josepha. The drawing-room was furnished with red damask, and the dining-room had carved oak panels. But the Baron, carried away by his wish to have everything in keeping, had at the end of six months, added solid luxury to mere fashion, and had given her handsome portable property, as, for instance, a service of plate that was to cost more than twenty-four thousand francs.
Madame Marneffe's house had in a couple of years achieved a reputation for being a very pleasant one. Gambling went on there. Valerie herself was soon spoken of as an agreeable and witty woman. To account for her change of style, a rumor was set going of an immense legacy bequeathed to her by her "natural father," Marshal Montcornet, and left in trust.
With an eye to the future, Valerie had added religious to social hypocrisy. Punctual at the Sunday services, she enjoyed all the honors due to the pious. She carried the bag for the offertory, she was a member of a charitable association, presented bread for the sacrament, and did some good among the poor, all at Hector's expense. Thus everything about the house was extremely seemly. And a great many persons maintained that her friendship with the Baron was entirely innocent, supporting the view by the gentleman's mature age, and ascribing to him a Platonic liking for Madame Marneffe's pleasant wit, charming manners, and conversation—such a liking as that of the late lamented Louis XVIII. for a well-turned note.
The Baron always withdrew with the other company at about midnight, and came back a quarter of an hour later.
The secret of this secrecy was as follows. The lodge-keepers of the house were a Monsieur and Madame Olivier, who, under the Baron's patronage, had been promoted from their humble and not very lucrative post in the Rue du Doyenne to the highly-paid and handsome one in the Rue Vanneau. Now, Madame Olivier, formerly a needlewoman in the household of Charles X., who had fallen in the world with the legitimate branch, had three children. The eldest, an under-clerk in a notary's office, was object of his parents' adoration. This Benjamin, for six years in danger of being drawn for the army, was on the point of being interrupted in his legal career, when Madame Marneffe contrived to have him declared exempt for one of those little malformations which the Examining Board can always discern when requested in a whisper by some power in the ministry. So Olivier, formerly a huntsman to the King, and his wife would have crucified the Lord again for the Baron or for Madame Marneffe.
What could the world have to say? It knew nothing of the former episode of the Brazilian, Monsieur Montes de Montejanos—it could say nothing. Besides, the world is very indulgent to the mistress of a house where amusement is to be found.
And then to all her charms Valerie added the highly-prized advantage of being an occult power. Claude Vignon, now secretary to Marshal the Prince de Wissembourg, and dreaming of promotion to the Council of State as a Master of Appeals, was constantly seen in her rooms, to which came also some Deputies—good fellows and gamblers. Madame Marneffe had got her circle together with prudent deliberation; only men whose opinions and habits agreed foregathered there, men whose interest it was to hold together and to proclaim the many merits of the lady of the house. Scandal is the true Holy Alliance in Paris. Take that as an axiom. Interests invariably fall asunder in the end; vicious natures can always agree.
Within three months of settling in the Rue Vanneau, Madame Marneffe had entertained Monsieur Crevel, who by that time was Mayor of his arrondissement and Officer of the Legion of Honor. Crevel had hesitated; he would have to give up the famous uniform of the National Guard in which he strutted at the Tuileries, believing himself quite as much a soldier as the Emperor himself; but ambition, urged by Madame Marneffe, had proved stronger than vanity. Then Monsieur le Maire had considered his connection with Mademoiselle Heloise Brisetout as quite incompatible with his political position.
Indeed, long before his accession to the civic chair of the Mayoralty, his gallant intimacies had been wrapped in the deepest mystery. But, as the reader may have guessed, Crevel had soon purchased the right of taking his revenge, as often as circumstances allowed, for having been bereft of Josepha, at the cost of a bond bearing six thousand francs of interest in the name of Valerie Fortin, wife of Sieur Marneffe, for her sole and separate use. Valerie, inheriting perhaps from her mother the special acumen of the kept woman, read the character of her grotesque adorer at a glance. The phrase "I never had a lady for a mistress," spoken by Crevel to Lisbeth, and repeated by Lisbeth to her dear Valerie, had been handsomely discounted in the bargain by which she got her six thousand francs a year in five per cents. And since then she had never allowed her prestige to grow less in the eyes of Cesar Birotteau's erewhile bagman.
Crevel himself had married for money the daughter of a miller of la Brie, an only child indeed, whose inheritance constituted three-quarters of his fortune; for when retail-dealers grow rich, it is generally not so much by trade as through some alliance between the shop and rural thrift. A large proportion of the farmers, corn-factors, dairy-keepers, and market-gardeners in the neighborhood of Paris, dream of the glories of the desk for their daughters, and look upon a shopkeeper, a jeweler, or a money-changer as a son-in-law after their own heart, in preference to a notary or an attorney, whose superior social position is a ground of suspicion; they are afraid of being scorned in the future by these citizen bigwigs.
Madame Crevel, ugly, vulgar, and silly, had given her husband no pleasures but those of paternity; she died young. Her libertine husband, fettered at the beginning of his commercial career by the necessity for working, and held in thrall by want of money, had led the life of Tantalus. Thrown in—as he phrased it—with the most elegant women in Paris, he let them out of the shop with servile homage, while admiring their grace, their way of wearing the fashions, and all the nameless charms of what is called breeding. To rise to the level of one of these fairies of the drawing-room was a desire formed in his youth, but buried in the depths of his heart. Thus to win the favors of Madame Marneffe was to him not merely the realization of his chimera, but, as has been shown, a point of pride, of vanity, of self-satisfaction. His ambition grew with success; his brain was turned with elation; and when the mind is captivated, the heart feels more keenly, every gratification is doubled.
Also, it must be said that Madame Marneffe offered to Crevel a refinement of pleasure of which he had no idea; neither Josepha nor Heloise had loved him; and Madame Marneffe thought it necessary to deceive him thoroughly, for this man, she saw, would prove an inexhaustible till. The deceptions of a venal passion are more delightful than the real thing. True love is mixed up with birdlike squabbles, in which the disputants wound each other to the quick; but a quarrel without animus is, on the contrary, a piece of flattery to the dupe's conceit.
The rare interviews granted to Crevel kept his passion at white heat. He was constantly blocked by Valerie's virtuous severity; she acted remorse, and wondered what her father must be thinking of her in the paradise of the brave. Again and again he had to contend with a sort of coldness, which the cunning slut made him believe he had overcome by seeming to surrender to the man's crazy passion; and then, as if ashamed, she entrenched herself once more in her pride of respectability and airs of virtue, just like an Englishwoman, neither more nor less; and she always crushed her Crevel under the weight of her dignity—for Crevel had, in the first instance, swallowed her pretensions to virtue.
In short, Valerie had special veins of affections which made her equally indispensable to Crevel and to the Baron. Before the world she displayed the attractive combination of modest and pensive innocence, of irreproachable propriety, with a bright humor enhanced by the suppleness, the grace and softness of the Creole; but in a tete-a-tete she would outdo any courtesan; she was audacious, amusing, and full of original inventiveness. Such a contrast is irresistible to a man of the Crevel type; he is flattered by believing himself sole author of the comedy, thinking it is performed for his benefit alone, and he laughs at the exquisite hypocrisy while admiring the hypocrite.
Valerie had taken entire possession of Baron Hulot; she had persuaded him to grow old by one of those subtle touches of flattery which reveal the diabolical wit of women like her. In all evergreen constitutions a moment arrives when the truth suddenly comes out, as in a besieged town which puts a good face on affairs as long as possible. Valerie, foreseeing the approaching collapse of the old beau of the Empire, determined to forestall it.
"Why give yourself so much bother, my dear old veteran?" said she one day, six months after their doubly adulterous union. "Do you want to be flirting? To be unfaithful to me? I assure you, I should like you better without your make-up. Oblige me by giving up all your artificial charms. Do you suppose that it is for two sous' worth of polish on your boots that I love you? For your india-rubber belt, your strait-waistcoat, and your false hair? And then, the older you look, the less need I fear seeing my Hulot carried off by a rival."
And Hulot, trusting to Madame Marneffe's heavenly friendship as much as to her love, intending, too, to end his days with her, had taken this confidential hint, and ceased to dye his whiskers and hair. After this touching declaration from his Valerie, handsome Hector made his appearance one morning perfectly white. Madame Marneffe could assure him that she had a hundred times detected the white line of the growth of the hair.
"And white hair suits your face to perfection," said she; "it softens it. You look a thousand times better, quite charming."
The Baron, once started on this path of reform, gave up his leather waistcoat and stays; he threw off all his bracing. His stomach fell and increased in size. The oak became a tower, and the heaviness of his movements was all the more alarming because the Baron grew immensely older by playing the part of Louis XII. His eyebrows were still black, and left a ghostly reminiscence of Handsome Hulot, as sometimes on the wall of some feudal building a faint trace of sculpture remains to show what the castle was in the days of its glory. This discordant detail made his eyes, still bright and youthful, all the more remarkable in his tanned face, because it had so long been ruddy with the florid hues of a Rubens; and now a certain discoloration and the deep tension of the wrinkles betrayed the efforts of a passion at odds with natural decay. Hulot was now one of those stalwart ruins in which virile force asserts itself by tufts of hair in the ears and nostrils and on the fingers, as moss grows on the almost eternal monuments of the Roman Empire.
How had Valerie contrived to keep Crevel and Hulot side by side, each tied to an apron-string, when the vindictive Mayor only longed to triumph openly over Hulot? Without immediately giving an answer to this question, which the course of the story will supply, it may be said that Lisbeth and Valerie had contrived a powerful piece of machinery which tended to this result. Marneffe, as he saw his wife improved in beauty by the setting in which she was enthroned, like the sun at the centre of the sidereal system, appeared, in the eyes of the world, to have fallen in love with her again himself; he was quite crazy about her. Now, though his jealousy made him somewhat of a marplot, it gave enhanced value to Valerie's favors. Marneffe meanwhile showed a blind confidence in his chief, which degenerated into ridiculous complaisance. The only person whom he really would not stand was Crevel.
Marneffe, wrecked by the debauchery of great cities, described by Roman authors, though modern decency has no name for it, was as hideous as an anatomical figure in wax. But this disease on feet, clothed in good broadcloth, encased his lathlike legs in elegant trousers. The hollow chest was scented with fine linen, and musk disguised the odors of rotten humanity. This hideous specimen of decaying vice, trotting in red heels—for Valerie dressed the man as beseemed his income, his cross, and his appointment—horrified Crevel, who could not meet the colorless eyes of the Government clerk. Marneffe was an incubus to the Mayor. And the mean rascal, aware of the strange power conferred on him by Lisbeth and his wife, was amused by it; he played on it as on an instrument; and cards being the last resource of a mind as completely played out as the body, he plucked Crevel again and again, the Mayor thinking himself bound to subserviency to the worthy official whom he was cheating.
Seeing Crevel a mere child in the hands of that hideous and atrocious mummy, of whose utter vileness the Mayor knew nothing; and seeing him, yet more, an object of deep contempt to Valerie, who made game of Crevel as of some mountebank, the Baron apparently thought him so impossible as a rival that he constantly invited him to dinner.
Valerie, protected by two lovers on guard, and by a jealous husband, attracted every eye, and excited every desire in the circle she shone upon. And thus, while keeping up appearances, she had, in the course of three years, achieved the most difficult conditions of the success a courtesan most cares for and most rarely attains, even with the help of audacity and the glitter of an existence in the light of the sun. Valerie's beauty, formerly buried in the mud of the Rue du Doyenne, now, like a well-cut diamond exquisitely set by Chanor, was worth more than its real value—it could break hearts. Claude Vignon adored Valerie in secret.
This retrospective explanation, quite necessary after the lapse of three years, shows Valerie's balance-sheet. Now for that of her partner, Lisbeth.
Lisbeth Fischer filled the place in the Marneffe household of a relation who combines the functions of a lady companion and a housekeeper; but she suffered from none of the humiliations which, for the most part, weigh upon the women who are so unhappy as to be obliged to fill these ambiguous situations. Lisbeth and Valerie offered the touching spectacle of one of those friendships between women, so cordial and so improbable, that men, always too keen-tongued in Paris, forthwith slander them. The contrast between Lisbeth's dry masculine nature and Valerie's creole prettiness encouraged calumny. And Madame Marneffe had unconsciously given weight to the scandal by the care she took of her friend, with matrimonial views, which were, as will be seen, to complete Lisbeth's revenge.
An immense change had taken place in Cousin Betty; and Valerie, who wanted to smarten her, had turned it to the best account. The strange woman had submitted to stays, and laced tightly, she used bandoline to keep her hair smooth, wore her gowns as the dressmaker sent them home, neat little boots, and gray silk stockings, all of which were included in Valerie's bills, and paid for by the gentleman in possession. Thus furbished up, and wearing the yellow cashmere shawl, Lisbeth would have been unrecognizable by any one who had not seen her for three years.
This other diamond—a black diamond, the rarest of all—cut by a skilled hand, and set as best became her, was appreciated at her full value by certain ambitious clerks. Any one seeing her for the first time might have shuddered involuntarily at the look of poetic wildness which the clever Valerie had succeeded in bringing out by the arts of dress in this Bleeding Nun, framing the ascetic olive face in thick bands of hair as black as the fiery eyes, and making the most of the rigid, slim figure. Lisbeth, like a Virgin by Cranach or Van Eyck, or a Byzantine Madonna stepped out of its frame, had all the stiffness, the precision of those mysterious figures, the more modern cousins of Isis and her sister goddesses sheathed in marble folds by Egyptian sculptors. It was granite, basalt, porphyry, with life and movement.
Saved from want for the rest of her life, Lisbeth was most amiable; wherever she dined she brought merriment. And the Baron paid the rent of her little apartment, furnished, as we know, with the leavings of her friend Valerie's former boudoir and bedroom.
"I began," she would say, "as a hungry nanny goat, and I am ending as a lionne."
She still worked for Monsieur Rivet at the more elaborate kinds of gold-trimming, merely, as she said, not to lose her time. At the same time, she was, as we shall see, very full of business; but it is inherent in the nature of country-folks never to give up bread-winning; in this they are like the Jews.
Every morning, very early, Cousin Betty went off to market with the cook. It was part of Lisbeth's scheme that the house-book, which was ruining Baron Hulot, was to enrich her dear Valerie—as it did indeed.
Is there a housewife who, since 1838, has not suffered from the evil effects of Socialist doctrines diffused among the lower classes by incendiary writers? In every household the plague of servants is nowadays the worst of financial afflictions. With very few exceptions, who ought to be rewarded with the Montyon prize, the cook, male or female, is a domestic robber, a thief taking wages, and perfectly barefaced, with the Government for a fence, developing the tendency to dishonesty, which is almost authorized in the cook by the time-honored jest as to the "handle of the basket." The women who formerly picked up their forty sous to buy a lottery ticket now take fifty francs to put into the savings bank. And the smug Puritans who amuse themselves in France with philanthropic experiments fancy that they are making the common people moral!
Between the market and the master's table the servants have their secret toll, and the municipality of Paris is less sharp in collecting the city-dues than the servants are in taking theirs on every single thing. To say nothing of fifty per cent charged on every form of food, they demand large New Year's premiums from the tradesmen. The best class of dealers tremble before this occult power, and subsidize it without a word—coachmakers, jewelers, tailors, and all. If any attempt is made to interfere with them, the servants reply with impudent retorts, or revenge themselves by the costly blunders of assumed clumsiness; and in these days they inquire into their master's character as, formerly, the master inquired into theirs. This mischief is now really at its height, and the law-courts are beginning to take cognizance of it; but in vain, for it cannot be remedied but by a law which shall compel domestic servants, like laborers, to have a pass-book as a guarantee of conduct. Then the evil will vanish as if by magic. If every servant were obliged to show his pass-book, and if masters were required to state in it the cause of his dismissal, this would certainly prove a powerful check to the evil.
The men who are giving their attentions to the politics of the day know not to what lengths the depravity of the lower classes has gone. Statistics are silent as to the startling number of working men of twenty who marry cooks of between forty and fifty enriched by robbery. We shudder to think of the result of such unions from the three points of view of increasing crime, degeneracy of the race, and miserable households.
As to the mere financial mischief that results from domestic peculation, that too is immense from a political point of view. Life being made to cost double, any superfluity becomes impossible in most households. Now superfluity means half the trade of the world, as it is half the elegance of life. Books and flowers are to many persons as necessary as bread.
Lisbeth, well aware of this dreadful scourge of Parisian households, determined to manage Valerie's, promising her every assistance in the terrible scene when the two women had sworn to be like sisters. So she had brought from the depths of the Vosges a humble relation on her mother's side, a very pious and honest soul, who had been cook to the Bishop of Nancy. Fearing, however, her inexperience of Paris ways, and yet more the evil counsel which wrecks such fragile virtue, at first Lisbeth always went to market with Mathurine, and tried to teach her what to buy. To know the real prices of things and command the salesman's respect; to purchase unnecessary delicacies, such as fish, only when they were cheap; to be well informed as to the price current of groceries and provisions, so as to buy when prices are low in anticipation of a rise,—all this housekeeping skill is in Paris essential to domestic economy. As Mathurine got good wages and many presents, she liked the house well enough to be glad to drive good bargains. And by this time Lisbeth had made her quite a match for herself, sufficiently experienced and trustworthy to be sent to market alone, unless Valerie was giving a dinner—which, in fact, was not unfrequently the case. And this was how it came about.
The Baron had at first observed the strictest decorum; but his passion for Madame Marneffe had ere long become so vehement, so greedy, that he would never quit her if he could help it. At first he dined there four times a week; then he thought it delightful to dine with her every day. Six months after his daughter's marriage he was paying her two thousand francs a month for his board. Madame Marneffe invited any one her dear Baron wished to entertain. The dinner was always arranged for six; he could bring in three unexpected guests. Lisbeth's economy enabled her to solve the extraordinary problem of keeping up the table in the best style for a thousand francs a month, giving the other thousand to Madame Marneffe. Valerie's dress being chiefly paid for by Crevel and the Baron, the two women saved another thousand francs a month on this.
And so this pure and innocent being had already accumulated a hundred and fifty thousand francs in savings. She had capitalized her income and monthly bonus, and swelled the amount by enormous interest, due to Crevel's liberality in allowing his "little Duchess" to invest her money in partnership with him in his financial operations. Crevel had taught Valerie the slang and the procedure of the money market, and, like every Parisian woman, she had soon outstripped her master. Lisbeth, who never spent a sou of her twelve hundred francs, whose rent and dress were given to her, and who never put her hand in her pocket, had likewise a small capital of five or six thousand francs, of which Crevel took fatherly care.
At the same time, two such lovers were a heavy burthen on Valerie. On the day when this drama reopens, Valerie, spurred by one of those incidents which have the effect in life that the ringing of a bell has in inducing a swarm of bees to settle, went up to Lisbeth's rooms to give vent to one of those comforting lamentations—a sort of cigarette blown off from the tongue—by which women alleviate the minor miseries of life.
"Oh, Lisbeth, my love, two hours of Crevel this morning! It is crushing! How I wish I could send you in my place!"
"That, unluckily, is impossible," said Lisbeth, smiling. "I shall die a maid."
"Two old men lovers! Really, I am ashamed sometimes! If my poor mother could see me."
"You are mistaking me for Crevel!" said Lisbeth.
"Tell me, my little Betty, do you not despise me?"
"Oh! if I had but been pretty, what adventures I would have had!" cried Lisbeth. "That is your justification."
"But you would have acted only at the dictates of your heart," said Madame Marneffe, with a sigh.
"Pooh! Marneffe is a dead man they have forgotten to bury," replied Lisbeth. "The Baron is as good as your husband; Crevel is your adorer; it seems to me that you are quite in order—like every other married woman."
"No, it is not that, dear, adorable thing; that is not where the shoe pinches; you do not choose to understand."
"Yes, I do," said Lisbeth. "The unexpressed factor is part of my revenge; what can I do? I am working it out."
"I love Wenceslas so that I am positively growing thin, and I can never see him," said Valerie, throwing up her arms. "Hulot asks him to dinner, and my artist declines. He does not know that I idolize him, the wretch! What is his wife after all? Fine flesh! Yes, she is handsome, but I—I know myself—I am worse!"
"Be quite easy, my child, he will come," said Lisbeth, in the tone of a nurse to an impatient child. "He shall."
"This week perhaps."
"Give me a kiss."
As may be seen, these two women were but one. Everything Valerie did, even her most reckless actions, her pleasures, her little sulks, were decided on after serious deliberation between them.
Lisbeth, strangely excited by this harlot existence, advised Valerie on every step, and pursued her course of revenge with pitiless logic. She really adored Valerie; she had taken her to be her child, her friend, her love; she found her docile, as Creoles are, yielding from voluptuous indolence; she chattered with her morning after morning with more pleasure than with Wenceslas; they could laugh together over the mischief they plotted, and over the folly of men, and count up the swelling interest on their respective savings.
Indeed, in this new enterprise and new affection, Lisbeth had found food for her activity that was far more satisfying than her insane passion for Wenceslas. The joys of gratified hatred are the fiercest and strongest the heart can know. Love is the gold, hatred the iron of the mine of feeling that lies buried in us. And then, Valerie was, to Lisbeth, Beauty in all its glory—the beauty she worshiped, as we worship what we have not, beauty far more plastic to her hand than that of Wenceslas, who had always been cold to her and distant.
At the end of nearly three years, Lisbeth was beginning to perceive the progress of the underground mine on which she was expending her life and concentrating her mind. Lisbeth planned, Madame Marneffe acted. Madame Marneffe was the axe, Lisbeth was the hand the wielded it, and that hand was rapidly demolishing the family which was every day more odious to her; for we can hate more and more, just as, when we love, we love better every day.
Love and hatred are feelings that feed on themselves; but of the two, hatred has the longer vitality. Love is restricted within limits of power; it derives its energies from life and from lavishness. Hatred is like death, like avarice; it is, so to speak, an active abstraction, above beings and things.
Lisbeth, embarked on the existence that was natural to her, expended in it all her faculties; governing, like the Jesuits, by occult influences. The regeneration of her person was equally complete; her face was radiant. Lisbeth dreamed of becoming Madame la Marechale Hulot.
This little scene, in which the two friends had bluntly uttered their ideas without any circumlocution in expressing them, took place immediately on Lisbeth's return from market, whither she had been to procure the materials for an elegant dinner. Marneffe, who hoped to get Coquet's place, was to entertain him and the virtuous Madame Coquet, and Valerie hoped to persuade Hulot, that very evening, to consider the head-clerk's resignation.
Lisbeth dressed to go to the Baroness, with whom she was to dine.
"You will come back in time to make tea for us, my Betty?" said Valerie.
"I hope so."
"You hope so—why? Have you come to sleeping with Adeline to drink her tears while she is asleep?"
"If only I could!" said Lisbeth, laughing. "I would not refuse. She is expiating her happiness—and I am glad, for I remember our young days. It is my turn now. She will be in the mire, and I shall be Comtesse de Forzheim!"
Lisbeth set out for the Rue Plumet, where she now went as to the theatre—to indulge her emotions.
The residence Hulot had found for his wife consisted of a large, bare entrance-room, a drawing-room, and a bed and dressing-room. The dining-room was next the drawing-room on one side. Two servants' rooms and a kitchen on the third floor completed the accommodation, which was not unworthy of a Councillor of State, high up in the War Office. The house, the court-yard, and the stairs were extremely handsome.
The Baroness, who had to furnish her drawing-room, bed-room, and dining-room with the relics of her splendor, had brought away the best of the remains from the house in the Rue de l'Universite. Indeed, the poor woman was attached to these mute witnesses of her happier life; to her they had an almost consoling eloquence. In memory she saw her flowers, as in the carpets she could trace patterns hardly visible now to other eyes.
On going into the spacious anteroom, where twelve chairs, a barometer, a large stove, and long, white cotton curtains, bordered with red, suggested the dreadful waiting-room of a Government office, the visitor felt oppressed, conscious at once of the isolation in which the mistress lived. Grief, like pleasure, infects the atmosphere. A first glance into any home is enough to tell you whether love or despair reigns there.
Adeline would be found sitting in an immense bedroom with beautiful furniture by Jacob Desmalters, of mahogany finished in the Empire style with ormolu, which looks even less inviting than the brass-work of Louis XVI.! It gave one a shiver to see this lonely woman sitting on a Roman chair, a work-table with sphinxes before her, colorless, affecting false cheerfulness, but preserving her imperial air, as she had preserved the blue velvet gown she always wore in the house. Her proud spirit sustained her strength and preserved her beauty.
The Baroness, by the end of her first year of banishment to this apartment, had gauged every depth of misfortune.
"Still, even here my Hector has made my life much handsomer than it should be for a mere peasant," said she to herself. "He chooses that it should be so; his will be done! I am Baroness Hulot, the sister-in-law of a Marshal of France. I have done nothing wrong; my two children are settled in life; I can wait for death, wrapped in the spotless veil of an immaculate wife and the crape of departed happiness."
A portrait of Hulot, in the uniform of a Commissary General of the Imperial Guard, painted in 1810 by Robert Lefebvre, hung above the work-table, and when visitors were announced, Adeline threw into a drawer an Imitation of Jesus Christ, her habitual study. This blameless Magdalen thus heard the Voice of the Spirit in her desert.
"Mariette, my child," said Lisbeth to the woman who opened the door, "how is my dear Adeline to-day?"
"Oh, she looks pretty well, mademoiselle; but between you and me, if she goes on in this way, she will kill herself," said Mariette in a whisper. "You really ought to persuade her to live better. Now, yesterday madame told me to give her two sous' worth of milk and a roll for one sou; to get her a herring for dinner and a bit of cold veal; she had a pound cooked to last her the week—of course, for the days when she dines at home and alone. She will not spend more than ten sous a day for her food. It is unreasonable. If I were to say anything about it to Monsieur le Marechal, he might quarrel with Monsieur le Baron and leave him nothing, whereas you, who are so kind and clever, can manage things——"
"But why do you not apply to my cousin the Baron?" said Lisbeth.
"Oh, dear mademoiselle, he has not been here for three weeks or more; in fact, not since we last had the pleasure of seeing you! Besides, madame has forbidden me, under threat of dismissal, ever to ask the master for money. But as for grief!—oh, poor lady, she has been very unhappy. It is the first time that monsieur has neglected her for so long. Every time the bell rang she rushed to the window—but for the last five days she has sat still in her chair. She reads. Whenever she goes out to see Madame la Comtesse, she says, 'Mariette, if monsieur comes in,' says she, 'tell him I am at home, and send the porter to fetch me; he shall be well paid for his trouble.'"
"Poor soul!" said Lisbeth; "it goes to my heart. I speak of her to the Baron every day. What can I do? 'Yes,' says he, 'Betty, you are right; I am a wretch. My wife is an angel, and I am a monster! I will go to-morrow——' And he stays with Madame Marneffe. That woman is ruining him, and he worships her; he lives only in her sight.—I do what I can; if I were not there, and if I had not Mathurine to depend upon, he would spend twice as much as he does; and as he has hardly any money in the world, he would have blown his brains out by this time. And, I tell you, Mariette, Adeline would die of her husband's death, I am perfectly certain. At any rate, I pull to make both ends meet, and prevent my cousin from throwing too much money into the fire."
"Yes, that is what madame says, poor soul! She knows how much she owes you," replied Mariette. "She said she had judged you unjustly for many years——"
"Indeed!" said Lisbeth. "And did she say anything else?"
"No, mademoiselle. If you wish to please her, talk to her about Monsieur le Baron; she envies you your happiness in seeing him every day."
"Is she alone?"
"I beg pardon, no; the Marshal is with her. He comes every day, and she always tells him she saw monsieur in the morning, but that he comes in very late at night."
"And is there a good dinner to-day?"
Mariette hesitated; she could not meet Lisbeth's eye. The drawing-room door opened, and Marshal Hulot rushed out in such haste that he bowed to Lisbeth without looking at her, and dropped a paper. Lisbeth picked it up and ran after him downstairs, for it was vain to hail a deaf man; but she managed not to overtake the Marshal, and as she came up again she furtively read the following lines written in pencil:—
"MY DEAR BROTHER,—My husband has given me the money for my
quarter's expenses; but my daughter Hortense was in such need of
it, that I lent her the whole sum, which was scarcely enough to
set her straight. Could you lend me a few hundred francs? For I
cannot ask Hector for more; if he were to blame me, I could not
"My word!" thought Lisbeth, "she must be in extremities to bend her pride to such a degree!"
Lisbeth went in. She saw tears in Adeline's eyes, and threw her arms round her neck.
"Adeline, my dearest, I know all," cried Cousin Betty. "Here, the Marshal dropped this paper—he was in such a state of mind, and running like a greyhound.—Has that dreadful Hector given you no money since——?"
"He gives it me quite regularly," replied the Baroness, "but Hortense needed it, and—"
"And you had not enough to pay for dinner to-night," said Lisbeth, interrupting her. "Now I understand why Mariette looked so confused when I said something about the soup. You really are childish, Adeline; come, take my savings."
"Thank you, my kind cousin," said Adeline, wiping away a tear. "This little difficulty is only temporary, and I have provided for the future. My expenses henceforth will be no more than two thousand four hundred francs a year, rent inclusive, and I shall have the money.—Above all, Betty, not a word to Hector. Is he well?"
"As strong as the Pont Neuf, and as gay as a lark; he thinks of nothing but his charmer Valerie."
Madame Hulot looked out at a tall silver-fir in front of the window, and Lisbeth could not see her cousin's eyes to read their expression.
"Did you mention that it was the day when we all dine together here?"
"Yes. But, dear me! Madame Marneffe is giving a grand dinner; she hopes to get Monsieur Coquet to resign, and that is of the first importance.—Now, Adeline, listen to me. You know that I am fiercely proud as to my independence. Your husband, my dear, will certainly bring you to ruin. I fancied I could be of use to you all by living near this woman, but she is a creature of unfathomable depravity, and she will make your husband promise things which will bring you all to disgrace." Adeline writhed like a person stabbed to the heart. "My dear Adeline, I am sure of what I say. I feel it is my duty to enlighten you.—Well, let us think of the future. The Marshal is an old man, but he will last a long time yet—he draws good pay; when he dies his widow would have a pension of six thousand francs. On such an income I would undertake to maintain you all. Use your influence over the good man to get him to marry me. It is not for the sake of being Madame la Marechale; I value such nonsense at no more than I value Madame Marneffe's conscience; but you will all have bread. I see that Hortense must be wanting it, since you give her yours."
The Marshal now came in; he had made such haste, that he was mopping his forehead with his bandana.
"I have given Mariette two thousand francs," he whispered to his sister-in-law.
Adeline colored to the roots of her hair. Two tears hung on the fringes of the still long lashes, and she silently pressed the old man's hand; his beaming face expressed the glee of a favored lover.
"I intended to spend the money in a present for you, Adeline," said he. "Instead of repaying me, you must choose for yourself the thing you would like best."
He took Lisbeth's hand, which she held out to him, and so bewildered was he by his satisfaction, that he kissed it.
"That looks promising," said Adeline to Lisbeth, smiling so far as she was able to smile.
The younger Hulot and his wife now came in.
"Is my brother coming to dinner?" asked the Marshal sharply.
Adeline took up a pencil and wrote these words on a scrap of paper:
"I expect him; he promised this morning that he would be here; but if he should not come, it would be because the Marshal kept him. He is overwhelmed with business."
And she handed him the paper. She had invented this way of conversing with Marshal Hulot, and kept a little collection of paper scraps and a pencil at hand on the work-table.
"I know," said the Marshal, "he is worked very hard over the business in Algiers."
At this moment, Hortense and Wenceslas arrived, and the Baroness, as she saw all her family about her, gave the Marshal a significant glance understood by none but Lisbeth.
Happiness had greatly improved the artist, who was adored by his wife and flattered by the world. His face had become almost round, and his graceful figure did justice to the advantages which blood gives to men of birth. His early fame, his important position, the delusive eulogies that the world sheds on artists as lightly as we say, "How d'ye do?" or discuss the weather, gave him that high sense of merit which degenerates into sheer fatuity when talent wanes. The Cross of the Legion of Honor was the crowning stamp of the great man he believed himself to be.
After three years of married life, Hortense was to her husband what a dog is to its master; she watched his every movement with a look that seemed a constant inquiry, her eyes were always on him, like those of a miser on his treasure; her admiring abnegation was quite pathetic. In her might be seen her mother's spirit and teaching. Her beauty, as great as ever, was poetically touched by the gentle shadow of concealed melancholy.
On seeing Hortense come in, it struck Lisbeth that some long-suppressed complaint was about to break through the thin veil of reticence. Lisbeth, from the first days of the honeymoon, had been sure that this couple had too small an income for so great a passion.
Hortense, as she embraced her mother, exchanged with her a few whispered phrases, heart to heart, of which the mystery was betrayed to Lisbeth by certain shakes of the head.
"Adeline, like me, must work for her living," thought Cousin Betty. "She shall be made to tell me what she will do! Those pretty fingers will know at last, like mine, what it is to work because they must."
At six o'clock the family party went in to dinner. A place was laid for Hector.
"Leave it so," said the Baroness to Mariette, "monsieur sometimes comes in late."
"Oh, my father will certainly come," said Victorin to his mother. "He promised me he would when we parted at the Chamber."
Lisbeth, like a spider in the middle of its net, gloated over all these countenances. Having known Victorin and Hortense from their birth, their faces were to her like panes of glass, through which she could read their young souls. Now, from certain stolen looks directed by Victorin on his mother, she saw that some disaster was hanging over Adeline which Victorin hesitated to reveal. The famous young lawyer had some covert anxiety. His deep reverence for his mother was evident in the regret with which he gazed at her.
Hortense was evidently absorbed in her own woes; for a fortnight past, as Lisbeth knew, she had been suffering the first uneasiness which want of money brings to honest souls, and to young wives on whom life has hitherto smiled, and who conceal their alarms. Also Lisbeth had immediately guessed that her mother had given her no money. Adeline's delicacy had brought her so low as to use the fallacious excuses that necessity suggests to borrowers.
Hortense's absence of mind, with her brother's and the Baroness' deep dejection, made the dinner a melancholy meal, especially with the added chill of the Marshal's utter deafness. Three persons gave a little life to the scene: Lisbeth, Celestine, and Wenceslas. Hortense's affection had developed the artist's natural liveliness as a Pole, the somewhat swaggering vivacity and noisy high spirits that characterize these Frenchmen of the North. His frame of mind and the expression of his face showed plainly that he believed in himself, and that poor Hortense, faithful to her mother's training, kept all domestic difficulties to herself.
"You must be content, at any rate," said Lisbeth to her young cousin, as they rose from table, "since your mother has helped you with her money."
"Mamma!" replied Hortense in astonishment. "Oh, poor mamma! It is for me that she would like to make money. You do not know, Lisbeth, but I have a horrible suspicion that she works for it in secret."
They were crossing the large, dark drawing-room where there were no candles, all following Mariette, who was carrying the lamp into Adeline's bedroom. At this instant Victorin just touched Lisbeth and Hortense on the arm. The two women, understanding the hint, left Wenceslas, Celestine, the Marshal, and the Baroness to go on together, and remained standing in a window-bay.
"What is it, Victorin?" said Lisbeth. "Some disaster caused by your father, I dare wager."
"Yes, alas!" replied Victorin. "A money-lender named Vauvinet has bills of my father's to the amount of sixty thousand francs, and wants to prosecute. I tried to speak of the matter to my father at the Chamber, but he would not understand me; he almost avoided me. Had we better tell my mother?"
"No, no," said Lisbeth, "she has too many troubles; it would be a death-blow; you must spare her. You have no idea how low she has fallen. But for your uncle, you would have found no dinner here this evening."
"Dear Heaven! Victorin, what wretches we are!" said Hortense to her brother. "We ought to have guessed what Lisbeth has told us. My dinner is choking me!"
Hortense could say no more; she covered her mouth with her handkerchief to smother a sob, and melted into tears.
"I told the fellow Vauvinet to call on me to-morrow," replied Victorin, "but will he be satisfied by my guarantee on a mortgage? I doubt it. Those men insist on ready money to sweat others on usurious terms."
"Let us sell out of the funds!" said Lisbeth to Hortense.
"What good would that do?" replied Victorin. "It would bring fifteen or sixteen thousand francs, and we want sixty thousand."
"Dear cousin!" cried Hortense, embracing Lisbeth with the enthusiasm of guilelessness.
"No, Lisbeth, keep your little fortune," said Victorin, pressing the old maid's hand. "I shall see to-morrow what this man would be up to. With my wife's consent, I can at least hinder or postpone the prosecution—for it would really be frightful to see my father's honor impugned. What would the War Minister say? My father's salary, which he pledged for three years, will not be released before the month of December, so we cannot offer that as a guarantee. This Vauvinet has renewed the bills eleven times; so you may imagine what my father must pay in interest. We must close this pit."
"If only Madame Marneffe would throw him over!" said Hortense bitterly.
"Heaven forbid!" exclaimed Victorin. "He would take up some one else; and with her, at any rate, the worst outlay is over."
What a change in children formerly so respectful, and kept so long by their mother in blind worship of their father! They knew him now for what he was.
"But for me," said Lisbeth, "your father's ruin would be more complete than it is."
"Come in to mamma," said Hortense; "she is very sharp, and will suspect something; as our kind Lisbeth says, let us keep everything from her—let us be cheerful."
"Victorin," said Lisbeth, "you have no notion of what your father will be brought to by his passion for women. Try to secure some future resource by getting the Marshal to marry me. Say something about it this evening; I will leave early on purpose."
Victorin went into the bedroom.
"And you, poor little thing!" said Lisbeth in an undertone to Hortense, "what can you do?"
"Come to dinner with us to-morrow, and we will talk it over," answered Hortense. "I do not know which way to turn; you know how hard life is, and you will advise me."
While the whole family with one consent tried to persuade the Marshal to marry, and while Lisbeth was making her way home to the Rue Vanneau, one of those incidents occurred which, in such women as Madame Marneffe, are a stimulus to vice by compelling them to exert their energy and every resource of depravity. One fact, at any rate, must however be acknowledged: life in Paris is too full for vicious persons to do wrong instinctively and unprovoked; vice is only a weapon of defence against aggressors—that is all.
Madame Marneffe's drawing-room was full of her faithful admirers, and she had just started the whist-tables, when the footman, a pensioned soldier recruited by the Baron, announced:
"Monsieur le Baron Montes de Montejanos."
Valerie's heart jumped, but she hurried to the door, exclaiming:
"My cousin!" and as she met the Brazilian, she whispered:
"You are my relation—or all is at an end between us!—And so you were not wrecked, Henri?" she went on audibly, as she led him to the fire. "I heard you were lost, and have mourned for you these three years."
"How are you, my good fellow?" said Marneffe, offering his hand to the stranger, whose get-up was indeed that of a Brazilian and a millionaire.
Monsieur le Baron Henri Montes de Montejanos, to whom the climate of the equator had given the color and stature we expect to see in Othello on the stage, had an alarming look of gloom, but it was a merely pictorial illusion; for, sweet and affectionate by nature, he was predestined to be the victim that a strong man often is to a weak woman. The scorn expressed in his countenance, the muscular strength of his stalwart frame, all his physical powers were shown only to his fellow-men; a form of flattery which women appreciate, nay, which so intoxicates them, that every man with his mistress on his arm assumes a matador swagger that provokes a smile. Very well set up, in a closely fitting blue coat with solid gold buttons, in black trousers, spotless patent evening boots, and gloves of a fashionable hue, the only Brazilian touch in the Baron's costume was a large diamond, worth about a hundred thousand francs, which blazed like a star on a handsome blue silk cravat, tucked into a white waistcoat in such a way as to show corners of a fabulously fine shirt front.
His brow, bossy like that of a satyr, a sign of tenacity in his passions, was crowned by thick jet-black hair like a virgin forest, and under it flashed a pair of hazel eyes, so wild looking as to suggest that before his birth his mother must have been scared by a jaguar.
This fine specimen of the Portuguese race in Brazil took his stand with his back to the fire, in an attitude that showed familiarity with Paris manners; holding his hat in one hand, his elbow resting on the velvet-covered shelf, he bent over Madame Marneffe, talking to her in an undertone, and troubling himself very little about the dreadful people who, in his opinion, were so very much in the way.
This fashion of taking the stage, with the Brazilian's attitude and expression, gave, alike to Crevel and to the baron, an identical shock of curiosity and anxiety. Both were struck by the same impression and the same surmise. And the manoeuvre suggested in each by their very genuine passion was so comical in its simultaneous results, that it made everybody smile who was sharp enough to read its meaning. Crevel, a tradesman and shopkeeper to the backbone, though a mayor of Paris, unluckily, was a little slower to move than his rival partner, and this enabled the Baron to read at a glance Crevel's involuntary self-betrayal. This was a fresh arrow to rankle in the very amorous old man's heart, and he resolved to have an explanation from Valerie.
"This evening," said Crevel to himself too, as he sorted his hand, "I must know where I stand."
"You have a heart!" cried Marneffe. "You have just revoked."
"I beg your pardon," said Crevel, trying to withdraw his card.—"This Baron seems to me very much in the way," he went on, thinking to himself. "If Valerie carries on with my Baron, well and good—it is a means to my revenge, and I can get rid of him if I choose; but as for this cousin!—He is one Baron too many; I do not mean to be made a fool of. I will know how they are related."
That evening, by one of those strokes of luck which come to pretty women, Valerie was charmingly dressed. Her white bosom gleamed under a lace tucker of rusty white, which showed off the satin texture of her beautiful shoulders—for Parisian women, Heaven knows how, have some way of preserving their fine flesh and remaining slender. She wore a black velvet gown that looked as if it might at any moment slip off her shoulders, and her hair was dressed with lace and drooping flowers. Her arms, not fat but dimpled, were graced by deep ruffles to her sleeves. She was like a luscious fruit coquettishly served in a handsome dish, and making the knife-blade long to be cutting it.
"Valerie," the Brazilian was saying in her ear, "I have come back faithful to you. My uncle is dead; I am twice as rich as I was when I went away. I mean to live and die in Paris, for you and with you."
"Lower, Henri, I implore you——"
"Pooh! I mean to speak to you this evening, even if I should have to pitch all these creatures out of window, especially as I have lost two days in looking for you. I shall stay till the last.—I can, I suppose?"
Valerie smiled at her adopted cousin, and said:
"Remember that you are the son of my mother's sister, who married your father during Junot's campaign in Portugal."
"What, I, Montes de Montejanos, great grandson of a conquerer of Brazil! Tell a lie?"
"Hush, lower, or we shall never meet again."
"Marneffe, like all dying wretches, who always take up some last whim, has a revived passion for me——"
"That cur?" said the Brazilian, who knew his Marneffe; "I will settle him!"
"And where did you get all this splendor?" the Brazilian went on, just struck by the magnificence of the apartment.
She began to laugh.
"Henri! what bad taste!" said she.
She had felt two burning flashes of jealousy which had moved her so far as to make her look at the two souls in purgatory. Crevel, playing against Baron Hulot and Monsieur Coquet, had Marneffe for his partner. The game was even, because Crevel and the Baron were equally absent-minded, and made blunder after blunder. Thus, in one instant, the old men both confessed the passion which Valerie had persuaded them to keep secret for the past three years; but she too had failed to hide the joy in her eyes at seeing the man who had first taught her heart to beat, the object of her first love. The rights of such happy mortals survive as long as the woman lives over whom they have acquired them.
With these three passions at her side—one supported by the insolence of wealth, the second by the claims of possession, and the third by youth, strength, fortune, and priority—Madame Marneffe preserved her coolness and presence of mind, like General Bonaparte when, at the siege of Mantua, he had to fight two armies, and at the same time maintain the blockade.