This sketch will enable guileless souls to understand what various mischief Madame Marneffes may do in a family, and the means by which they reach poor virtuous wives apparently so far out of their ken. And then, if we only transfer, in fancy, such doings to the upper class of society about a throne, and if we consider what kings' mistresses must have cost them, we may estimate the debt owed by a nation to a sovereign who sets the example of a decent and domestic life.
In Paris each ministry is a little town by itself, whence women are banished; but there is just as much detraction and scandal as though the feminine population were admitted there. At the end of three years, Monsieur Marneffe's position was perfectly clear and open to the day, and in every room one and another asked, "Is Marneffe to be, or not to be, Coquet's successor?" Exactly as the question might have been put to the Chamber, "Will the estimates pass or not pass?" The smallest initiative on the part of the board of Management was commented on; everything in Baron Hulot's department was carefully noted. The astute State Councillor had enlisted on his side the victim of Marneffe's promotion, a hard-working clerk, telling him that if he could fill Marneffe's place, he would certainly succeed to it; he had told him that the man was dying. So this clerk was scheming for Marneffe's advancement.
When Hulot went through his anteroom, full of visitors, he saw Marneffe's colorless face in a corner, and sent for him before any one else.
"What do you want of me, my dear fellow?" said the Baron, disguising his anxiety.
"Monsieur le Directeur, I am the laughing-stock of the office, for it has become known that the chief of the clerks has left this morning for a holiday, on the ground of his health. He is to be away a month. Now, we all know what waiting for a month means. You deliver me over to the mockery of my enemies, and it is bad enough to be drummed upon one side; drumming on both at once, monsieur, is apt to burst the drum."
"My dear Marneffe, it takes long patience to gain an end. You cannot be made head-clerk in less than two months, if ever. Just when I must, as far as possible, secure my own position, is not the time to be applying for your promotion, which would raise a scandal."
"If you are broke, I shall never get it," said Marneffe coolly. "And if you get me the place, it will make no difference in the end."
"Then I am to sacrifice myself for you?" said the Baron.
"If you do not, I shall be much mistaken in you."
"You are too exclusively Marneffe, Monsieur Marneffe," said Hulot, rising and showing the clerk the door.
"I have the honor to wish you good-morning, Monsieur le Baron," said Marneffe humbly.
"What an infamous rascal!" thought the Baron. "This is uncommonly like a summons to pay within twenty-four hours on pain of distraint."
Two hours later, just when the Baron had been instructing Claude Vignon, whom he was sending to the Ministry of Justice to obtain information as to the judicial authorities under whose jurisdiction Johann Fischer might fall, Reine opened the door of his private room and gave him a note, saying she would wait for the answer.
"Valerie is mad!" said the Baron to himself. "To send Reine! It is enough to compromise us all, and it certainly compromises that dreadful Marneffe's chances of promotion!"
But he dismissed the minister's private secretary, and read as follows:—
"Oh, my dear friend, what a scene I have had to endure! Though you
have made me happy for three years, I have paid dearly for it! He
came in from the office in a rage that made me quake. I knew he
was ugly; I have seen him a monster! His four real teeth
chattered, and he threatened me with his odious presence without
respite if I should continue to receive you. My poor, dear old
boy, our door is closed against you henceforth. You see my tears;
they are dropping on the paper and soaking it; can you read what I
write, dear Hector? Oh, to think of never seeing you, of giving
you up when I bear in me some of your life, as I flatter myself I
have your heart—it is enough to kill me. Think of our little
"Do not forsake me, but do not disgrace yourself for Marneffe's
sake; do not yield to his threats.
"I love you as I have never loved! I remember all the sacrifices
you have made for your Valerie; she is not, and never will be,
ungrateful; you are, and will ever be, my only husband. Think no
more of the twelve hundred francs a year I asked you to settle on
the dear little Hector who is to come some months hence; I will
not cost you anything more. And besides, my money will always be
"Oh, if you only loved me as I love you, my Hector, you would
retire on your pension; we should both take leave of our family,
our worries, our surroundings, so full of hatred, and we should go
to live with Lisbeth in some pretty country place—in Brittany, or
wherever you like. There we should see nobody, and we should be
happy away from the world. Your pension and the little property I
can call my own would be enough for us. You say you are jealous;
well, you would then have your Valerie entirely devoted to her
Hector, and you would never have to talk in a loud voice, as you
did the other day. I shall have but one child—ours—you may be
sure, my dearly loved old veteran.
"You cannot conceive of my fury, for you cannot know how he
treated me, and the foul words he vomited on your Valerie. Such
words would disgrace my paper; a woman such as I am—Montcornet's
daughter—ought never to have heard one of them in her life. I
only wish you had been there, that I might have punished him with
the sight of the mad passion I felt for you. My father would have
killed the wretch; I can only do as women do—love you devotedly!
Indeed, my love, in the state of exasperation in which I am, I
cannot possibly give up seeing you. I must positively see you, in
secret, every day! That is what we are, we women. Your resentment
is mine. If you love me, I implore you, do not let him be
promoted; leave him to die a second-class clerk.
"At this moment I have lost my head; I still seem to hear him
abusing me. Betty, who had meant to leave me, has pity on me, and
will stay for a few days.
"My dear kind love, I do not know yet what is to be done. I see
nothing for it but flight. I always delight in the country
—Brittany, Languedoc, what you will, so long as I am free to love
you. Poor dear, how I pity you! Forced now to go back to your old
Adeline, to that lachrymal urn—for, as he no doubt told you, the
monster means to watch me night and day; he spoke of a detective!
Do not come here, he is capable of anything I know, since he could
make use of me for the basest purposes of speculation. I only wish
I could return you all the things I have received from your
"Ah! my kind Hector, I may have flirted, and have seemed to you to
be fickle, but you did not know your Valerie; she liked to tease
you, but she loves you better than any one in the world.
"He cannot prevent your coming to see your cousin; I will arrange
with her that we have speech with each other. My dear old boy,
write me just a line, pray, to comfort me in the absence of your
dear self. (Oh, I would give one of my hands to have you by me on
our sofa!) A letter will work like a charm; write me something
full of your noble soul; I will return your note to you, for I
must be cautious; I should not know where to hide it, he pokes his
nose in everywhere. In short, comfort your Valerie, your little
wife, the mother of your child.—To think of my having to write to
you, when I used to see you every day. As I say to Lisbeth, 'I did
not know how happy I was.' A thousand kisses, dear boy. Be true to
"And tears!" said Hulot to himself as he finished this letter, "tears which have blotted out her name.—How is she?" said he to Reine.
"Madame is in bed; she has dreadful spasms," replied Reine. "She had a fit of hysterics that twisted her like a withy round a faggot. It came on after writing. It comes of crying so much. She heard monsieur's voice on the stairs."
The Baron in his distress wrote the following note on office paper with a printed heading:—
"Be quite easy, my angel, he will die a second-class clerk!—Your
idea is admirable; we will go and live far from Paris, where we
shall be happy with our little Hector; I will retire on my
pension, and I shall be sure to find some good appointment on a
"Ah, my sweet friend, I feel so much the younger for your letter!
I shall begin life again and make a fortune, you will see, for our
dear little one. As I read your letter, a thousand times more
ardent than those of the Nouvelle Heloise, it worked a miracle!
I had not believed it possible that I could love you more. This
evening, at Lisbeth's you will see
"YOUR HECTOR, FOR LIFE."
Reine carried off this reply, the first letter the Baron had written to his "sweet friend." Such emotions to some extent counterbalanced the disasters growling in the distance; but the Baron, at this moment believing he could certainly avert the blows aimed at his uncle, Johann Fischer, thought only of the deficit.
One of the characteristics of the Bonapartist temperament is a firm belief in the power of the sword, and confidence in the superiority of the military over civilians. Hulot laughed to scorn the Public Prosecutor in Algiers, where the War Office is supreme. Man is always what he has once been. How can the officers of the Imperial Guard forget that time was when the mayors of the largest towns in the Empire and the Emperor's prefects, Emperors themselves on a minute scale, would come out to meet the Imperial Guard, to pay their respects on the borders of the Departments through which it passed, and to do it, in short, the homage due to sovereigns?
At half-past four the baron went straight to Madame Marneffe's; his heart beat as high as a young man's as he went upstairs, for he was asking himself this question, "Shall I see her? or shall I not?"
How was he now to remember the scene of the morning when his weeping children had knelt at his feet? Valerie's note, enshrined for ever in a thin pocket-book over his heart, proved to him that she loved him more than the most charming of young men.
Having rung, the unhappy visitor heard within the shuffling slippers and vexatious scraping cough of the detestable master. Marneffe opened the door, but only to put himself into an attitude and point to the stairs, exactly as Hulot had shown him the door of his private room.
"You are too exclusively Hulot, Monsieur Hulot!" said he.
The Baron tried to pass him, Marneffe took a pistol out of his pocket and cocked it.
"Monsieur le Baron," said he, "when a man is as vile as I am—for you think me very vile, don't you?—he would be the meanest galley-slave if he did not get the full benefit of his betrayed honor.—You are for war; it will be hot work and no quarter. Come here no more, and do not attempt to get past me. I have given the police notice of my position with regard to you."
And taking advantage of Hulot's amazement, he pushed him out and shut the door.
"What a low scoundrel!" said Hulot to himself, as he went upstairs to Lisbeth. "I understand her letter now. Valerie and I will go away from Paris. Valerie is wholly mine for the remainder of my days; she will close my eyes."
Lisbeth was out. Madame Olivier told the Baron that she had gone to his wife's house, thinking that she would find him there.
"Poor thing! I should never have expected her to be so sharp as she was this morning," thought Hulot, recalling Lisbeth's behavior as he made his way from the Rue Vanneau to the Rue Plumet.
As he turned the corner of the Rue Vanneau and the Rue de Babylone, he looked back at the Eden whence Hymen had expelled him with the sword of the law. Valerie, at her window, was watching his departure; as he glanced up, she waved her handkerchief, but the rascally Marneffe hit his wife's cap and dragged her violently away from the window. A tear rose to the great official's eye.
"Oh! to be so well loved! To see a woman so ill used, and to be so nearly seventy years old!" thought he.
Lisbeth had come to give the family the good news. Adeline and Hortense had already heard that the Baron, not choosing to compromise himself in the eyes of the whole office by appointing Marneffe to the first class, would be turned from the door by the Hulot-hating husband. Adeline, very happy, had ordered a dinner that her Hector was to like better than any of Valerie's; and Lisbeth, in her devotion, was helping Mariette to achieve this difficult result. Cousin Betty was the idol of the hour. Mother and daughter kissed her hands, and had told her with touching delight that the Marshal consented to have her as his housekeeper.
"And from that, my dear, there is but one step to becoming his wife!" said Adeline.
"In fact, he did not say no when Victorin mentioned it," added the Countess.
The Baron was welcomed home with such charming proofs of affection, so pathetically overflowing with love, that he was fain to conceal his troubles.
Marshal Hulot came to dinner. After dinner, Hector did not go out. Victorin and his wife joined them, and they made up a rubber.
"It is a long time, Hector," said the Marshal gravely, "since you gave us the treat of such an evening."
This speech from the old soldier, who spoiled his brother though he thus implicitly blamed him, made a deep impression. It showed how wide and deep were the wounds in a heart where all the woes he had divined had found an echo. At eight o'clock the Baron insisted on seeing Lisbeth home, promising to return.
"Do you know, Lisbeth, he ill-treats her!" said he in the street. "Oh, I never loved her so well!"
"I never imagined that Valerie loved you so well," replied Lisbeth. "She is frivolous and a coquette, she loves to have attentions paid her, and to have the comedy of love-making performed for her, as she says; but you are her only real attachment."
"What message did she send me?"
"Why, this," said Lisbeth. "She has, as you know, been on intimate terms with Crevel. You must owe her no grudge, for that, in fact, is what has raised her above utter poverty for the rest of her life; but she detests him, and matters are nearly at an end.—Well, she has kept the key of some rooms—"
"Rue du Dauphin!" cried the thrice-blest Baron. "If it were for that alone, I would overlook Crevel.—I have been there; I know."
"Here, then, is the key," said Lisbeth. "Have another made from it in the course of to-morrow—two if you can."
"And then," said Hulot eagerly.
"Well, I will dine at your house again to-morrow; you must give me back Valerie's key, for old Crevel might ask her to return it to him, and you can meet her there the day after; then you can decide what your facts are to be. You will be quite safe, as there are two ways out. If by chance Crevel, who is Regence in his habits, as he is fond of saying, should come in by the side street, you could go out through the shop, or vice versa.
"You owe all this to me, you old villain; now what will you do for me?"
"Whatever you want."
"Then you will not oppose my marrying your brother?"
"You! the Marechale Hulot, the Comtesse de Frozheim?" cried Hector, startled.
"Well, Adeline is a Baroness!" retorted Betty in a vicious and formidable tone. "Listen to me, you old libertine. You know how matters stand; your family may find itself starving in the gutter—"
"That is what I dread," said Hulot in dismay.
"And if your brother were to die, who would maintain your wife and daughter? The widow of a Marshal gets at least six thousand francs pension, doesn't she? Well, then, I wish to marry to secure bread for your wife and daughter—old dotard!"
"I had not seen it in that light!" said the Baron. "I will talk to my brother—for we are sure of you.—Tell my angel that my life is hers."
And the Baron, having seen Lisbeth go into the house in the Rue Vanneau, went back to his whist and stayed at home. The Baroness was at the height of happiness; her husband seemed to be returning to domestic habits; for about a fortnight he went to his office at nine every morning, he came in to dinner at six, and spent the evening with his family. He twice took Adeline and Hortense to the play. The mother and daughter paid for three thanksgiving masses, and prayed to God to suffer them to keep the husband and father He had restored to them.
One evening Victorin Hulot, seeing his father retire for the night, said to his mother:
"Well, we are at any rate so far happy that my father has come back to us. My wife and I shall never regret our capital if only this lasts—"
"Your father is nearly seventy," said the Baroness. "He still thinks of Madame Marneffe, that I can see; but he will forget her in time. A passion for women is not like gambling, or speculation, or avarice; there is an end to it."
But Adeline, still beautiful in spite of her fifty years and her sorrows, in this was mistaken. Profligates, men whom Nature has gifted with the precious power of loving beyond the limits ordinarily set to love, rarely are as old as their age.
During this relapse into virtue Baron Hulot had been three times to the Rue du Dauphin, and had certainly not been the man of seventy. His rekindled passion made him young again, and he would have sacrificed his honor to Valerie, his family, his all, without a regret. But Valerie, now completely altered, never mentioned money, not even the twelve hundred francs a year to be settled on their son; on the contrary, she offered him money, she loved Hulot as a woman of six-and-thirty loves a handsome law-student—a poor, poetical, ardent boy. And the hapless wife fancied she had reconquered her dear Hector!
The fourth meeting between this couple had been agreed upon at the end of the third, exactly as formerly in Italian theatres the play was announced for the next night. The hour fixed was nine in the morning. On the next day when the happiness was due for which the amorous old man had resigned himself to domestic rules, at about eight in the morning, Reine came and asked to see the Baron. Hulot, fearing some catastrophe, went out to speak with Reine, who would not come into the anteroom. The faithful waiting-maid gave him the following note:—
"DEAR OLD MAN,—Do not go to the Rue du Dauphin. Our incubus is
ill, and I must nurse him; but be there this evening at nine.
Crevel is at Corbeil with Monsieur Lebas; so I am sure he will
bring no princess to his little palace. I have made arrangements
here to be free for the night and get back before Marneffe is
awake. Answer me as to all this, for perhaps your long elegy of a
wife no longer allows you your liberty as she did. I am told she
is still so handsome that you might play me false, you are such a
gay dog! Burn this note; I am suspicious of every one."
Hulot wrote this scrap in reply:
"MY LOVE,—As I have told you, my wife has not for five-and-twenty
years interfered with my pleasures. For you I would give up a
hundred Adelines.—I will be in the Crevel sanctum at nine this
evening awaiting my divinity. Oh that your clerk might soon die!
We should part no more. And this is the dearest wish of
That evening the Baron told his wife that he had business with the Minister at Saint-Cloud, that he would come home at about four or five in the morning; and he went to the Rue du Dauphin. It was towards the end of the month of June.
Few men have in the course of their life known really the dreadful sensation of going to their death; those who have returned from the foot of the scaffold may be easily counted. But some have had a vivid experience of it in dreams; they have gone through it all, to the sensation of the knife at their throat, at the moment when waking and daylight come to release them.—Well, the sensation to which the Councillor of State was a victim at five in the morning in Crevel's handsome and elegant bed, was immeasurably worse than that of feeling himself bound to the fatal block in the presence of ten thousand spectators looking at you with twenty thousand sparks of fire.
Valerie was asleep in a graceful attitude. She was lovely, as a woman is who is lovely enough to look so even in sleep. It is art invading nature; in short, a living picture.
In his horizontal position the Baron's eyes were but three feet above the floor. His gaze, wandering idly, as that of a man who is just awake and collecting his ideas, fell on a door painted with flowers by Jan, an artist disdainful of fame. The Baron did not indeed see twenty thousand flaming eyes, like the man condemned to death; he saw but one, of which the shaft was really more piercing than the thousands on the Public Square.
Now this sensation, far rarer in the midst of enjoyment even than that of a man condemned to death, was one for which many a splenetic Englishman would certainly pay a high price. The Baron lay there, horizontal still, and literally bathed in cold sweat. He tried to doubt the fact; but this murderous eye had a voice. A sound of whispering was heard through the door.
"So long as it is nobody but Crevel playing a trick on me!" said the Baron to himself, only too certain of an intruder in the temple.
The door was opened. The Majesty of the French Law, which in all documents follows next to the King, became visible in the person of a worthy little police-officer supported by a tall Justice of the Peace, both shown in by Monsieur Marneffe. The police functionary, rooted in shoes of which the straps were tied together with flapping bows, ended at top in a yellow skull almost bare of hair, and a face betraying him as a wide-awake, cheerful, and cunning dog, from whom Paris life had no secrets. His eyes, though garnished with spectacles, pierced the glasses with a keen mocking glance. The Justice of the Peace, a retired attorney, and an old admirer of the fair sex, envied the delinquent.
"Pray excuse the strong measures required by our office, Monsieur le Baron!" said the constable; "we are acting for the plaintiff. The Justice of the Peace is here to authorize the visitation of the premises.—I know who you are, and who the lady is who is accused."
Valerie opened her astonished eyes, gave such a shriek as actresses use to depict madness on the stage, writhed in convulsions on the bed, like a witch of the Middle Ages in her sulphur-colored frock on a bed of faggots.
"Death, and I am ready! my dear Hector—but a police court?—Oh! never."
With one bound she passed the three spectators and crouched under the little writing-table, hiding her face in her hands.
"Ruin! Death!" she cried.
"Monsieur," said Marneffe to Hulot, "if Madame Marneffe goes mad, you are worse than a profligate; you will be a murderer."
What can a man do, what can he say, when he is discovered in a bed which is not his, even on the score of hiring, with a woman who is no more his than the bed is?—Well, this:
"Monsieur the Justice of the Peace, Monsieur the Police Officer," said the Baron with some dignity, "be good enough to take proper care of that unhappy woman, whose reason seems to me to be in danger.—You can harangue me afterwards. The doors are locked, no doubt; you need not fear that she will get away, or I either, seeing the costume we wear."
The two functionaries bowed to the magnate's injunctions.
"You, come here, miserable cur!" said Hulot in a low voice to Marneffe, taking him by the arm and drawing him closer. "It is not I, but you, who will be the murderer! You want to be head-clerk of your room and officer of the Legion of Honor?"
"That in the first place, Chief!" replied Marneffe, with a bow.
"You shall be all that, only soothe your wife and dismiss these fellows."
"Nay, nay!" said Marneffe knowingly. "These gentlemen must draw up their report as eyewitnesses to the fact; without that, the chief evidence in my case, where should I be? The higher official ranks are chokeful of rascalities. You have done me out of my wife, and you have not promoted me, Monsieur le Baron; I give you only two days to get out of the scrape. Here are some letters—"
"Some letters!" interrupted Hulot.
"Yes; letters which prove that you are the father of the child my wife expects to give birth to.—You understand? And you ought to settle on my son a sum equal to what he will lose through this bastard. But I will be reasonable; this does not distress me, I have no mania for paternity myself. A hundred louis a year will satisfy me. By to-morrow I must be Monsieur Coquet's successor and see my name on the list for promotion in the Legion of Honor at the July fetes, or else—the documentary evidence and my charge against you will be laid before the Bench. I am not so hard to deal with after all, you see."
"Bless me, and such a pretty woman!" said the Justice of the Peace to the police constable. "What a loss to the world if she should go mad!"
"She is not mad," said the constable sententiously. The police is always the incarnation of scepticism.—"Monsieur le Baron Hulot has been caught by a trick," he added, loud enough for Valerie to hear him.
Valerie shot a flash from her eye which would have killed him on the spot if looks could effect the vengeance they express. The police-officer smiled; he had laid a snare, and the woman had fallen into it. Marneffe desired his wife to go into the other room and clothe herself decently, for he and the Baron had come to an agreement on all points, and Hulot fetched his dressing-gown and came out again.
"Gentlemen," said he to the two officials, "I need not impress on you to be secret."
The functionaries bowed.
The police-officer rapped twice on the door; his clerk came in, sat down at the "bonheur-du-jour," and wrote what the constable dictated to him in an undertone. Valerie still wept vehemently. When she was dressed, Hulot went into the other room and put on his clothes. Meanwhile the report was written.
Marneffe then wanted to take his wife home; but Hulot, believing that he saw her for the last time, begged the favor of being allowed to speak with her.
"Monsieur, your wife has cost me dear enough for me to be allowed to say good-bye to her—in the presence of you all, of course."
Valerie went up to Hulot, and he whispered in her ear:
"There is nothing left for us but to fly, but how can we correspond? We have been betrayed—"
"Through Reine," she answered. "But my dear friend, after this scandal we can never meet again. I am disgraced. Besides, you will hear dreadful things about me—you will believe them—"
The Baron made a gesture of denial.
"You will believe them, and I can thank God for that, for then perhaps you will not regret me."
"He will not die a second-class clerk!" said Marneffe to Hulot, as he led his wife away, saying roughly, "Come, madame; if I am foolish to you, I do not choose to be a fool to others."
Valerie left the house, Crevel's Eden, with a last glance at the Baron, so cunning that he thought she adored him. The Justice of the Peace gave Madame Marneffe his arm to the hackney coach with a flourish of gallantry. The Baron, who was required to witness the report, remained quite bewildered, alone with the police-officer. When the Baron had signed, the officer looked at him keenly, over his glasses.
"You are very sweet on the little lady, Monsieur le Baron?"
"To my sorrow, as you see."
"Suppose that she does not care for you?" the man went on, "that she is deceiving you?"
"I have long known that, monsieur—here, in this very spot, Monsieur Crevel and I told each other——"
"Oh! Then you knew that you were in Monsieur le Maire's private snuggery?"
The constable lightly touched his hat with a respectful gesture.
"You are very much in love," said he. "I say no more. I respect an inveterate passion, as a doctor respects an inveterate complaint.—I saw Monsieur de Nucingen, the banker, attacked in the same way—"
"He is a friend of mine," said the Baron. "Many a time have I supped with his handsome Esther. She was worth the two million francs she cost him."
"And more," said the officer. "That caprice of the old Baron's cost four persons their lives. Oh! such passions as these are like the cholera!"
"What had you to say to me?" asked the Baron, who took this indirect warning very ill.
"Oh! why should I deprive you of your illusions?" replied the officer. "Men rarely have any left at your age!"
"Rid me of them!" cried the Councillor.
"You will curse the physician later," replied the officer, smiling.
"I beg of you, monsieur."
"Well, then, that woman was in collusion with her husband."
"Yes, sir, and so it is in two cases out of every ten. Oh! we know it well."
"What proof have you of such a conspiracy?"
"In the first place, the husband!" said the other, with the calm acumen of a surgeon practised in unbinding wounds. "Mean speculation is stamped in every line of that villainous face. But you, no doubt, set great store by a certain letter written by that woman with regard to the child?"
"So much so, that I always have it about me," replied Hulot, feeling in his breast-pocket for the little pocketbook which he always kept there.
"Leave your pocketbook where it is," said the man, as crushing as a thunder-clap. "Here is the letter.—I now know all I want to know. Madame Marneffe, of course, was aware of what that pocketbook contained?"
"She alone in the world."
"So I supposed.—Now for the proof you asked for of her collusion with her husband."
"Let us hear!" said the Baron, still incredulous.
"When we came in here, Monsieur le Baron, that wretched creature Marneffe led the way, and he took up this letter, which his wife, no doubt, had placed on this writing-table," and he pointed to the bonheur-du-jour. "That evidently was the spot agreed upon by the couple, in case she should succeed in stealing the letter while you were asleep; for this letter, as written to you by the lady, is, combined with those you wrote to her, decisive evidence in a police-court."
He showed Hulot the note that Reine had delivered to him in his private room at the office.
"It is one of the documents in the case," said the police-agent; "return it to me, monsieur."
"Well, monsieur," replied Hulot with bitter expression, "that woman is profligacy itself in fixed ratios. I am certain at this moment that she has three lovers."
"That is perfectly evident," said the officer. "Oh, they are not all on the streets! When a woman follows that trade in a carriage and a drawing-room, and her own house, it is not a case for francs and centimes, Monsieur le Baron. Mademoiselle Esther, of whom you spoke, and who poisoned herself, made away with millions.—If you will take my advice, you will get out of it, monsieur. This last little game will have cost you dear. That scoundrel of a husband has the law on his side. And indeed, but for me, that little woman would have caught you again!"
"Thank you, monsieur," said the Baron, trying to maintain his dignity.
"Now we will lock up; the farce is played out, and you can send your key to Monsieur the Mayor."
Hulot went home in a state of dejection bordering on helplessness, and sunk in the gloomiest thoughts. He woke his noble and saintly wife, and poured into her heart the history of the past three years, sobbing like a child deprived of a toy. This confession from an old man young in feeling, this frightful and heart-rending narrative, while it filled Adeline with pity, also gave her the greatest joy; she thanked Heaven for this last catastrophe, for in fancy she saw the husband settled at last in the bosom of his family.
"Lisbeth was right," said Madame Hulot gently and without any useless recrimination, "she told us how it would be."
"Yes. If only I had listened to her, instead of flying into a rage, that day when I wanted poor Hortense to go home rather than compromise the reputation of that—Oh! my dear Adeline, we must save Wenceslas. He is up to his chin in that mire!"
"My poor old man, the respectable middle-classes have turned out no better than the actresses," said Adeline, with a smile.
The Baroness was alarmed at the change in her Hector; when she saw him so unhappy, ailing, crushed under his weight of woes, she was all heart, all pity, all love; she would have shed her blood to make Hulot happy.
"Stay with us, my dear Hector. Tell me what is it that such women do to attract you so powerfully. I too will try. Why have you not taught me to be what you want? Am I deficient in intelligence? Men still think me handsome enough to court my favor."
Many a married woman, attached to her duty and to her husband, may here pause to ask herself why strong and affectionate men, so tender-hearted to the Madame Marneffes, do not take their wives for the object of their fancies and passions, especially wives like the Baronne Adeline Hulot.
This is, indeed, one of the most recondite mysteries of human nature. Love, which is debauch of reason, the strong and austere joy of a lofty soul, and pleasure, the vulgar counterfeit sold in the market-place, are two aspects of the same thing. The woman who can satisfy both these devouring appetites is as rare in her sex as a great general, a great writer, a great artist, a great inventor in a nation. A man of superior intellect or an idiot—a Hulot or a Crevel—equally crave for the ideal and for enjoyment; all alike go in search of the mysterious compound, so rare that at last it is usually found to be a work in two volumes. This craving is a depraved impulse due to society.
Marriage, no doubt, must be accepted as a tie; it is life, with its duties and its stern sacrifices on both parts equally. Libertines, who seek for hidden treasure, are as guilty as other evil-doers who are more hardly dealt with than they. These reflections are not a mere veneer of moralizing; they show the reason of many unexplained misfortunes. But, indeed, this drama points its own moral—or morals, for they are of many kinds.
The Baron presently went to call on the Marshal Prince de Wissembourg, whose powerful patronage was now his only chance. Having dwelt under his protection for five-and-thirty years, he was a visitor at all hours, and would be admitted to his rooms as soon as he was up.
"Ah! How are you, my dear Hector?" said the great and worthy leader. "What is the matter? You look anxious. And yet the session is ended. One more over! I speak of that now as I used to speak of a campaign. And indeed I believe the newspapers nowadays speak of the sessions as parliamentary campaigns."
"We have been in difficulties, I must confess, Marshal; but the times are hard!" said Hulot. "It cannot be helped; the world was made so. Every phase has its own drawbacks. The worst misfortunes in the year 1841 is that neither the King nor the ministers are free to act as Napoleon was."
The Marshal gave Hulot one of those eagle flashes which in its pride, clearness, and perspicacity showed that, in spite of years, that lofty soul was still upright and vigorous.
"You want me to so something for you?" said he, in a hearty tone.
"I find myself under the necessity of applying to you for the promotion of one of my second clerks to the head of a room—as a personal favor to myself—and his advancement to be officer of the Legion of Honor."
"What is his name?" said the Marshal, with a look like a lightning flash.
"He has a pretty wife; I saw her on the occasion of your daughter's marriage.—If Roger—but Roger is away!—Hector, my boy, this is concerned with your pleasures. What, you still indulge—? Well, you are a credit to the old Guard. That is what comes of having been in the Commissariat; you have reserves!—But have nothing to do with this little job, my dear boy; it is too strong of the petticoat to be good business."
"No, Marshal; it is bad business, for the police courts have a finger in it. Would you like to see me go there?"
"The devil!" said the Prince uneasily. "Go on!"
"Well, I am in the predicament of a trapped fox. You have always been so kind to me, that you will, I am sure, condescend to help me out of the shameful position in which I am placed."
Hulot related his misadventures, as wittily and as lightly as he could.
"And you, Prince, will you allow my brother to die of grief, a man you love so well; or leave one of your staff in the War Office, a Councillor of State, to live in disgrace. This Marneffe is a wretched creature; he can be shelved in two or three years."
"How you talk of two or three years, my dear fellow!" said the Marshal.
"But, Prince, the Imperial Guard is immortal."
"I am the last of the first batch of Marshals," said the Prince. "Listen, Hector. You do not know the extent of my attachment to you; you shall see. On the day when I retire from office, we will go together. But you are not a Deputy, my friend. Many men want your place; but for me, you would be out of it by this time. Yes, I have fought many a pitched battle to keep you in it.—Well, I grant you your two requests; it would be too bad to see you riding the bar at your age and in the position you hold. But you stretch your credit a little too far. If this appointment gives rise to discussion, we shall not be held blameless. I can laugh at such things; but you will find it a thorn under your feet. And the next session will see your dismissal. Your place is held out as a bait to five or six influential men, and you have been enabled to keep it solely by the force of my arguments. I tell you, on the day when you retire, there will be five malcontents to one happy man; whereas, by keeping you hanging on by a thread for two or three years, we shall secure all six votes. There was a great laugh at the Council meeting; the Veteran of the Old Guard, as they say, was becoming desperately wide awake in parliamentary tactics! I am frank with you.—And you are growing gray; you are a happy man to be able to get into such difficulties as these! How long is it since I—Lieutenant Cottin—had a mistress?"
He rang the bell.
"That police report must be destroyed," he added.
"Monseigneur, you are as a father to me! I dared not mention my anxiety on that point."
"I still wish I had Roger here," cried the Prince, as Mitouflet, his groom of the chambers, came in. "I was just going to send for him!—You may go, Mitouflet.—Go you, my dear old fellow, go and have the nomination made out; I will sign it. At the same time, that low schemer will not long enjoy the fruit of his crimes. He will be sharply watched, and drummed out of the regiment for the smallest fault.—You are saved this time, my dear Hector; take care for the future. Do not exhaust your friends' patience. You shall have the nomination this morning, and your man shall get his promotion in the Legion of Honor.—How old are you now?"
"Within three months of seventy."
"What a scapegrace!" said the Prince, laughing. "It is you who deserve a promotion, but, by thunder! we are not under Louis XV.!"
Such is the sense of comradeship that binds the glorious survivors of the Napoleonic phalanx, that they always feel as if they were in camp together, and bound to stand together through thick and thin.
"One more favor such as this," Hulot reflected as he crossed the courtyard, "and I am done for!"
The luckless official went to Baron de Nucingen, to whom he now owed a mere trifle, and succeeded in borrowing forty thousand francs, on his salary pledged for two years more; the banker stipulated that in the event of Hulot's retirement on his pension, the whole of it should be devoted to the repayment of the sum borrowed till the capital and interest were all cleared off.
This new bargain, like the first, was made in the name of Vauvinet, to whom the Baron signed notes of hand to the amount of twelve thousand francs.
On the following day, the fateful police report, the husband's charge, the letters—all the papers—were destroyed. The scandalous promotion of Monsieur Marneffe, hardly heeded in the midst of the July fetes, was not commented on in any newspaper.
Lisbeth, to all appearance at war with Madame Marneffe, had taken up her abode with Marshal Hulot. Ten days after these events, the banns of marriage were published between the old maid and the distinguished old officer, to whom, to win his consent, Adeline had related the financial disaster that had befallen her Hector, begging him never to mention it to the Baron, who was, as she said, much saddened, quite depressed and crushed.
"Alas! he is as old as his years," she added.
So Lisbeth had triumphed. She was achieving the object of her ambition, she would see the success of her scheme, and her hatred gratified. She delighted in the anticipated joy of reigning supreme over the family who had so long looked down upon her. Yes, she would patronize her patrons, she would be the rescuing angel who would dole out a livelihood to the ruined family; she addressed herself as "Madame la Comtesse" and "Madame la Marechale," courtesying in front of a glass. Adeline and Hortense should end their days in struggling with poverty, while she, a visitor at the Tuileries, would lord it in the fashionable world.
A terrible disaster overthrew the old maid from the social heights where she so proudly enthroned herself.
On the very day when the banns were first published, the Baron received a second message from Africa. Another Alsatian arrived, handed him a letter, after assuring himself that he spoke to Baron Hulot, and after giving the Baron the address of his lodgings, bowed himself out, leaving the great man stricken by the opening lines of this letter:—
"DEAR NEPHEW,—You will receive this letter, by my calculations,
on the 7th of August. Supposing it takes you three days to send us
the help we need, and that it is a fortnight on the way here, that
brings us to the 1st of September.
"If you can act decisively within that time, you will have saved
the honor and the life of yours sincerely, Johann Fischer.
"This is what I am required to demand by the clerk you have made
my accomplice; for I am amenable, it would seem, to the law, at
the Assizes, or before a council of war. Of course, you understand
that Johann Fischer will never be brought to the bar of any
tribunal; he will go of his own act to appear at that of God.
"Your clerk seems to me a bad lot, quite capable of getting you
into hot water; but he is as clever as any rogue. He says the line
for you to take is to call out louder than any one, and to send
out an inspector, a special commissioner, to discover who is
really guilty, rake up abuses, and make a fuss, in short; but if
we stir up the struggle, who will stand between us and the law?
"If your commissioner arrives here by the 1st of September, and
you have given him your orders, sending by him two hundred
thousand francs to place in our storehouses the supplies we
profess to have secured in remote country places, we shall be
absolutely solvent and regarded as blameless. You can trust the
soldier who is the bearer of this letter with a draft in my name
on a house in Algiers. He is a trustworthy fellow, a relation of
mine, incapable of trying to find out what he is the bearer of. I
have taken measures to guarantee the fellow's safe return. If you
can do nothing, I am ready and willing to die for the man to whom
we owe our Adeline's happiness!"
The anguish and raptures of passion and the catastrophe which had checked his career of profligacy had prevented Baron Hulot's ever thinking of poor Johann Fischer, though his first letter had given warning of the danger now become so pressing. The Baron went out of the dining-room in such agitation that he literally dropped on to a sofa in the drawing-room. He was stunned, sunk in the dull numbness of a heavy fall. He stared at a flower on the carpet, quite unconscious that he still held in his hand Johann's fatal letter.
Adeline, in her room, heard her husband throw himself on the sofa, like a lifeless mass; the noise was so peculiar that she fancied he had an apoplectic attack. She looked through the door at the mirror, in such dread as stops the breath and hinders motion, and she saw her Hector in the attitude of a man crushed. The Baroness stole in on tiptoe; Hector heard nothing; she went close up to him, saw the letter, took it, read it, trembling in every limb. She went through one of those violent nervous shocks that leave their traces for ever on the sufferer. Within a few days she became subject to a constant trembling, for after the first instant the need for action gave her such strength as can only be drawn from the very wellspring of the vital powers.
"Hector, come into my room," said she, in a voice that was no more than a breath. "Do not let your daughter see you in this state! Come, my dear, come!"
"Two hundred thousand francs? Where can I find them? I can get Claude Vignon sent out there as commissioner. He is a clever, intelligent fellow.—That is a matter of a couple of days.—But two hundred thousand francs! My son has not so much; his house is loaded with mortgages for three hundred thousand. My brother has saved thirty thousand francs at most. Nucingen would simply laugh at me!—Vauvinet?—he was not very ready to lend me the ten thousand francs I wanted to make up the sum for that villain Marneffe's boy. No, it is all up with me; I must throw myself at the Prince's feet, confess how matters stand, hear myself told that I am a low scoundrel, and take his broadside so as to go decently to the bottom."
"But, Hector, this is not merely ruin, it is disgrace," said Adeline. "My poor uncle will kill himself. Only kill us—yourself and me; you have a right to do that, but do not be a murderer! Come, take courage; there must be some way out of it."
"Not one," said Hulot. "No one in the Government could find two hundred thousand francs, not if it were to save an Administration!—Oh, Napoleon! where art thou?"
"My uncle! poor man! Hector, he must not be allowed to kill himself in disgrace."
"There is one more chance," said he, "but a very remote one.—Yes, Crevel is at daggers drawn with his daughter.—He has plenty of money, he alone could—"
"Listen, Hector it will be better for your wife to perish than to leave our uncle to perish—and your brother—the honor of the family!" cried the Baroness, struck by a flash of light. "Yes, I can save you all.—Good God! what a degrading thought! How could it have occurred to me?"
She clasped her hands, dropped on her knees, and put up a prayer. On rising, she saw such a crazy expression of joy on her husband's face, that the diabolical suggestion returned, and then Adeline sank into a sort of idiotic melancholy.
"Go, my dear, at once to the War Office," said she, rousing herself from this torpor; "try to send out a commission; it must be done. Get round the Marshal. And on your return, at five o'clock, you will find—perhaps—yes! you shall find two hundred thousand francs. Your family, your honor as a man, as a State official, a Councillor of State, your honesty—your son—all shall be saved;—but your Adeline will be lost, and you will see her no more. Hector, my dear," said she, kneeling before him, clasping and kissing his hand, "give me your blessing! Say farewell."
It was so heart-rending that Hulot put his arms round his wife, raised her and kissed her, saying:
"I do not understand."
"If you did," said she, "I should die of shame, or I should not have the strength to carry out this last sacrifice."
"Breakfast is served," said Mariette.
Hortense came in to wish her parents good-morning. They had to go to breakfast and assume a false face.
"Begin without me; I will join you," said the Baroness.
She sat down to her desk and wrote as follows:
"MY DEAR MONSIEUR CREVEL,—I have to ask a service of you; I shall
expect you this morning, and I count on your gallantry, which is
well known to me, to save me from having too long to wait for you.
—Your faithful servant,
"Louise," said she to her daughter's maid, who waited on her, "take this note down to the porter and desire him to carry it at once to this address and wait for an answer."
The Baron, who was reading the news, held out a Republican paper to his wife, pointing to an article, and saying:
"Is there time?"
This was the paragraph, one of the terrible "notes" with which the papers spice their political bread and butter:—
"A correspondent in Algiers writes that such abuses have been
discovered in the commissariate transactions of the province of
Oran, that the Law is making inquiries. The peculation is
self-evident, and the guilty persons are known. If severe measures
are not taken, we shall continue to lose more men through the
extortion that limits their rations than by Arab steel or the
fierce heat of the climate. We await further information before
enlarging on this deplorable business. We need no longer wonder at
the terror caused by the establishment of the Press in Africa, as
was contemplated by the Charter of 1830."
"I will dress and go to the Minister," said the Baron, as they rose from table. "Time is precious; a man's life hangs on every minute."
"Oh, mamma, there is no hope for me!" cried Hortense. And unable to check her tears, she handed to her mother a number of the Revue des Beaux Arts.
Madame Hulot's eye fell on a print of the group of "Delilah" by Count Steinbock, under which were the words, "The property of Madame Marneffe."
The very first lines of the article, signed V., showed the talent and friendliness of Claude Vignon.
"Poor child!" said the Baroness.
Alarmed by her mother's tone of indifference, Hortense looked up, saw the expression of a sorrow before which her own paled, and rose to kiss her mother, saying:
"What is the matter, mamma? What is happening? Can we be more wretched than we are already?"
"My child, it seems to me that in what I am going through to-day my past dreadful sorrows are as nothing. When shall I have ceased to suffer?"
"In heaven, mother," said Hortense solemnly.
"Come, my angel, help me to dress.—No, no; I will not have you help me in this! Send me Louise."
Adeline, in her room, went to study herself in the glass. She looked at herself closely and sadly, wondering to herself:
"Am I still handsome? Can I still be desirable? Am I not wrinkled?"
She lifted up her fine golden hair, uncovering her temples; they were as fresh as a girl's. She went further; she uncovered her shoulders, and was satisfied; nay, she had a little feeling of pride. The beauty of really handsome shoulders is one of the last charms a woman loses, especially if she has lived chastely.
Adeline chose her dress carefully, but the pious and blameless woman is decent to the end, in spite of her little coquettish graces. Of what use were brand-new gray silk stockings and high heeled satin shoes when she was absolutely ignorant of the art of displaying a pretty foot at a critical moment, by obtruding it an inch or two beyond a half-lifted skirt, opening horizons to desire? She put on, indeed, her prettiest flowered muslin dress, with a low body and short sleeves; but horrified at so much bareness, she covered her fine arms with clear gauze sleeves and hid her shoulders under an embroidered cape. Her curls, a l'Anglaise, struck her as too fly-away; she subdued their airy lightness by putting on a very pretty cap; but, with or without the cap, would she have known how to twist the golden ringlets so as to show off her taper fingers to admiration?
As to rouge—the consciousness of guilt, the preparations for a deliberate fall, threw this saintly woman into a state of high fever, which, for the time, revived the brilliant coloring of youth. Her eyes were bright, her cheeks glowed. Instead of assuming a seductive air, she saw in herself a look of barefaced audacity which shocked her.
Lisbeth, at Adeline's request, had told her all the circumstances of Wenceslas' infidelity; and the Baroness had learned to her utter amazement, that in one evening in one moment, Madame Marneffe had made herself the mistress of the bewitched artist.
"How do these women do it?" the Baroness had asked Lisbeth.
There is no curiosity so great as that of virtuous women on such subjects; they would like to know the arts of vice and remain immaculate.
"Why, they are seductive; it is their business," said Cousin Betty. "Valerie that evening, my dear, was, I declare, enough to bring an angel to perdition."
"But tell me how she set to work."
"There is no principle, only practice in that walk of life," said Lisbeth ironically.
The Baroness, recalling this conversation, would have liked to consult Cousin Betty; but there was no time for that. Poor Adeline, incapable of imagining a patch, of pinning a rosebud in the very middle of her bosom, of devising the tricks of the toilet intended to resuscitate the ardors of exhausted nature, was merely well dressed. A woman is not a courtesan for the wishing!
"Woman is soup for man," as Moliere says by the mouth of the judicious Gros-Rene. This comparison suggests a sort of culinary art in love. Then the virtuous wife would be a Homeric meal, flesh laid on hot cinders. The courtesan, on the contrary, is a dish by Careme, with its condiments, spices, and elegant arrangement. The Baroness could not—did not know how to serve up her fair bosom in a lordly dish of lace, after the manner of Madame Marneffe. She knew nothing of the secrets of certain attitudes. This high-souled woman might have turned round and round a hundred times, and she would have betrayed nothing to the keen glance of a profligate.
To be a good woman and a prude to all the world, and a courtesan to her husband, is the gift of a woman of genius, and they are few. This is the secret of long fidelity, inexplicable to the women who are not blessed with the double and splendid faculty. Imagine Madame Marneffe virtuous, and you have the Marchesa di Pescara. But such lofty and illustrious women, beautiful as Diane de Poitiers, but virtuous, may be easily counted.
So the scene with which this serious and terrible drama of Paris manners opened was about to be repeated, with this singular difference—that the calamities prophesied then by the captain of the municipal Militia had reversed the parts. Madame Hulot was awaiting Crevel with the same intentions as had brought him to her, smiling down at the Paris crowd from his milord, three years ago. And, strangest thing of all, the Baroness was true to herself and to her love, while preparing to yield to the grossest infidelity, such as the storm of passion even does not justify in the eyes of some judges.
"What can I do to become a Madame Marneffe?" she asked herself as she heard the door-bell.
She restrained her tears, fever gave brilliancy to her face, and she meant to be quite the courtesan, poor, noble soul.
"What the devil can that worthy Baronne Hulot want of me?" Crevel wondered as he mounted the stairs. "She is going to discuss my quarrel with Celestine and Victorin, no doubt; but I will not give way!"
As he went into the drawing-room, shown in by Louise, he said to himself as he noted the bareness of the place (Crevel's word):
"Poor woman! She lives here like some fine picture stowed in a loft by a man who knows nothing of painting."
Crevel, seeing Comte Popinot, the Minister of Commerce, buy pictures and statues, wanted also to figure as a Maecenas of Paris, whose love of Art consists in making good investments.
Adeline smiled graciously at Crevel, pointing to a chair facing her.
"Here I am, fair lady, at your command," said Crevel.
Monsieur the Mayor, a political personage, now wore black broadcloth. His face, at the top of this solemn suit, shone like a full moon rising above a mass of dark clouds. His shirt, buttoned with three large pearls worth five hundred francs apiece, gave a great idea of his thoracic capacity, and he was apt to say, "In me you see the coming athlete of the tribune!" His enormous vulgar hands were encased in yellow gloves even in the morning; his patent leather boots spoke of the chocolate-colored coupe with one horse in which he drove.
In the course of three years ambition had altered Crevel's pretensions. Like all great artists, he had come to his second manner. In the great world, when he went to the Prince de Wissembourg's, to the Prefecture, to Comte Popinot's, and the like, he held his hat in his hand in an airy manner taught him by Valerie, and he inserted the thumb of the other hand in the armhole of his waistcoat with a knowing air, and a simpering face and expression. This new grace of attitude was due to the satirical inventiveness of Valerie, who, under pretence of rejuvenating her mayor, had given him an added touch of the ridiculous.
"I begged you to come, my dear kind Monsieur Crevel," said the Baroness in a husky voice, "on a matter of the greatest importance—"
"I can guess what it is, madame," said Crevel, with a knowing air, "but what you would ask is impossible.—Oh, I am not a brutal father, a man—to use Napoleon's words—set hard and fast on sheer avarice. Listen to me, fair lady. If my children were ruining themselves for their own benefit, I would help them out of the scrape; but as for backing your husband, madame? It is like trying to fill the vat of the Danaides! Their house is mortgaged for three hundred thousand francs for an incorrigible father! Why, they have nothing left, poor wretches! And they have no fun for their money. All they have to live upon is what Victorin may make in Court. He must wag his tongue more, must monsieur your son! And he was to have been a Minister, that learned youth! Our hope and pride. A pretty pilot, who runs aground like a land-lubber; for if he had borrowed to enable him to get on, if he had run into debt for feasting Deputies, winning votes, and increasing his influence, I should be the first to say, 'Here is my purse—dip your hand in, my friend!' But when it comes of paying for papa's folly—folly I warned you of!—Ah! his father has deprived him of every chance of power.—It is I who shall be Minister!"
"Alas, my dear Crevel, it has nothing to do with the children, poor devoted souls!—If your heart is closed to Victorin and Celestine, I shall love them so much that perhaps I may soften the bitterness of their souls caused by your anger. You are punishing your children for a good action!"
"Yes, for a good action badly done! That is half a crime," said Crevel, much pleased with his epigram.
"Doing good, my dear Crevel, does not mean sparing money out of a purse that is bursting with it; it means enduring privations to be generous, suffering for liberality! It is being prepared for ingratitude! Heaven does not see the charity that costs us nothing—"
"Saints, madame, may if they please go to the workhouse; they know that it is for them the door of heaven. For my part, I am worldly-minded; I fear God, but yet more I fear the hell of poverty. To be destitute is the last depth of misfortune in society as now constituted. I am a man of my time; I respect money."
"And you are right," said Adeline, "from the worldly point of view."
She was a thousand miles from her point, and she felt herself on a gridiron, like Saint Laurence, as she thought of her uncle, for she could see him blowing his brains out.
She looked down; then she raised her eyes to gaze at Crevel with angelic sweetness—not with the inviting suggestiveness which was part of Valerie's wit. Three years ago she could have bewitched Crevel by that beautiful look.
"I have known the time," said she, "when you were more generous—you used to talk of three hundred thousand francs like a grand gentleman—"
Crevel looked at Madame Hulot; he beheld her like a lily in the last of its bloom, vague sensations rose within him, but he felt such respect for this saintly creature that he spurned all suspicions and buried them in the most profligate corner of his heart.
"I, madame, am still the same; but a retired merchant, if he is a grand gentleman, plays, and must play, the part with method and economy; he carries his ideas of order into everything. He opens an account for his little amusements, and devotes certain profits to that head of expenditure; but as to touching his capital! it would be folly. My children will have their fortune intact, mine and my wife's; but I do not suppose that they wish their father to be dull, a monk and a mummy! My life is a very jolly one; I float gaily down the stream. I fulfil all the duties imposed on me by law, by my affections, and by family ties, just as I always used to be punctual in paying my bills when they fell due. If only my children conduct themselves in their domestic life as I do, I shall be satisfied; and for the present, so long as my follies—for I have committed follies—are no loss to any one but the gulls—excuse me, you do not perhaps understand the slang word—they will have nothing to blame me for, and will find a tidy little sum still left when I die. Your children cannot say as much of their father, who is ruining his son and my daughter by his pranks—"
The Baroness was getting further from her object as he went on.
"You are very unkind about my husband, my dear Crevel—and yet, if you had found his wife obliging, you would have been his best friend——"
She shot a burning glance at Crevel; but, like Dubois, who gave the Regent three kicks, she affected too much, and the rakish perfumer's thoughts jumped at such profligate suggestions, that he said to himself, "Does she want to turn the tables on Hulot?—Does she think me more attractive as a Mayor than as a National Guardsman? Women are strange creatures!"
And he assumed the position of his second manner, looking at the Baroness with his Regency leer.
"I could almost fancy," she went on, "that you want to visit on him your resentment against the virtue that resisted you—in a woman whom you loved well enough—to—to buy her," she added in a low voice.
"In a divine woman," Crevel replied, with a meaning smile at the Baroness, who looked down while tears rose to her eyes. "For you have swallowed not a few bitter pills!—in these three years—hey, my beauty?"
"Do not talk of my troubles, dear Crevel; they are too much for the endurance of a mere human being. Ah! if you still love me, you may drag me out of the pit in which I lie. Yes, I am in hell torment! The regicides who were racked and nipped and torn into quarters by four horses were on roses compared with me, for their bodies only were dismembered, and my heart is torn in quarters——"
Crevel's thumb moved from his armhole, he placed his hand on the work-table, he abandoned his attitude, he smiled! The smile was so vacuous that it misled the Baroness; she took it for an expression of kindness.
"You see a woman, not indeed in despair, but with her honor at the point of death, and prepared for everything, my dear friend, to hinder a crime."
Fearing that Hortense might come in, she bolted the door; then with equal impetuosity she fell at Crevel's feet, took his hand and kissed it.
"Be my deliverer!" she cried.
She thought there was some generous fibre in this mercantile soul, and full of sudden hope that she might get the two hundred thousand francs without degrading herself:
"Buy a soul—you were once ready to buy virtue!" she went on, with a frenzied gaze. "Trust to my honesty as a woman, to my honor, of which you know the worth! Be my friend! Save a whole family from ruin, shame, despair; keep it from falling into a bog where the quicksands are mingled with blood! Oh! ask for no explanations," she exclaimed, at a movement on Crevel's part, who was about to speak. "Above all, do not say to me, 'I told you so!' like a friend who is glad at a misfortune. Come now, yield to her whom you used to love, to the woman whose humiliation at your feet is perhaps the crowning moment of her glory; ask nothing of her, expect what you will from her gratitude!—No, no. Give me nothing, but lend—lend to me whom you used to call Adeline——"
At this point her tears flowed so fast, Adeline was sobbing so passionately, that Crevel's gloves were wet. The words, "I need two hundred thousand francs," were scarcely articulate in the torrent of weeping, as stones, however large, are invisible in Alpine cataracts swollen by the melting of the snows.
This is the inexperience of virtue. Vice asks for nothing, as we have seen in Madame Marneffe; it gets everything offered to it. Women of that stamp are never exacting till they have made themselves indispensable, or when a man has to be worked as a quarry is worked where the lime is rather scarce—going to ruin, as the quarry-men say.
On hearing these words, "Two hundred thousand francs," Crevel understood all. He cheerfully raised the Baroness, saying insolently:
"Come, come, bear up, mother," which Adeline, in her distraction, failed to hear. The scene was changing its character. Crevel was becoming "master of the situation," to use his own words. The vastness of the sum startled Crevel so greatly that his emotion at seeing this handsome woman in tears at his feet was forgotten. Besides, however angelical and saintly a woman may be, when she is crying bitterly her beauty disappears. A Madame Marneffe, as has been seen, whimpers now and then, a tear trickles down her cheek; but as to melting into tears and making her eyes and nose red!—never would she commit such a blunder.
"Come, child, compose yourself.—Deuce take it!" Crevel went on, taking Madame Hulot's hands in his own and patting them. "Why do you apply to me for two hundred thousand francs? What do you want with them? Whom are they for?"
"Do not," said she, "insist on any explanations. Give me the money!—You will save three lives and the honor of our children."
"And do you suppose, my good mother, that in all Paris you will find a man who at a word from a half-crazy woman will go off hic et nunc, and bring out of some drawer, Heaven knows where, two hundred thousand francs that have been lying simmering there till she is pleased to scoop them up? Is that all you know of life and of business, my beauty? Your folks are in a bad way; you may send them the last sacraments; for no one in Paris but her Divine Highness Madame la Banque, or the great Nucingen, or some miserable miser who is in love with gold as we other folks are with a woman, could produce such a miracle! The civil list, civil as it may be, would beg you to call again tomorrow. Every one invests his money, and turns it over to the best of his powers.
"You are quite mistaken, my angel, if you suppose that King Louis-Philippe rules us; he himself knows better than that. He knows as well as we do that supreme above the Charter reigns the holy, venerated, substantial, delightful, obliging, beautiful, noble, ever-youthful, and all-powerful five-franc piece! But money, my beauty, insists on interest, and is always engaged in seeking it! 'God of the Jews, thou art supreme!' says Racine. The perennial parable of the golden calf, you see!—In the days of Moses there was stock-jobbing in the desert!
"We have reverted to Biblical traditions; the Golden Calf was the first State ledger," he went on. "You, my Adeline, have not gone beyond the Rue Plumet. The Egyptians had lent enormous sums to the Hebrews, and what they ran after was not God's people, but their capital."
He looked at the Baroness with an expression which said, "How clever I am!"
"You know nothing of the devotion of every city man to his sacred hoard!" he went on, after a pause. "Excuse me. Listen to me. Get this well into your head.—You want two hundred thousand francs? No one can produce the sum without selling some security. Now consider! To have two hundred thousand francs in hard cash it would be needful to sell about seven hundred thousand francs' worth of stock at three per cent. Well; and then you would only get the money on the third day. That is the quickest way. To persuade a man to part with a fortune—for two hundred thousand francs is the whole fortune of many a man—he ought at least to know where it is all going to, and for what purpose—"
"It is going, my dear kind Crevel, to save the lives of two men, one of whom will die of grief and the other will kill himself! And to save me too from going mad! Am I not a little mad already?"
"Not so mad!" said he, taking Madame Hulot round the knees; "old Crevel has his price, since you thought of applying to him, my angel."
"They submit to have a man's arms round their knees, it would seem!" thought the saintly woman, covering her face with her hands.
"Once you offered me a fortune!" said she, turning red.
"Ay, mother! but that was three years ago!" replied Crevel. "Well, you are handsomer now than ever I saw you!" he went on, taking the Baroness' arm and pressing it to his heart. "You have a good memory, my dear, by Jove!—And now you see how wrong you were to be so prudish, for those three hundred thousand francs that you refused so magnanimously are in another woman's pocket. I loved you then, I love you still; but just look back these three years.
"When I said to you, 'You shall be mine,' what object had I in view? I meant to be revenged on that rascal Hulot. But your husband, my beauty, found himself a mistress—a jewel of a woman, a pearl, a cunning hussy then aged three-and-twenty, for she is six-and-twenty now. It struck me as more amusing, more complete, more Louis XV., more Marechal de Richelieu, more first-class altogether, to filch away that charmer, who, in point of fact, never cared for Hulot, and who for these three years has been madly in love with your humble servant."
As he spoke, Crevel, from whose hands the Baroness had released her own, had resumed his favorite attitude; both thumbs were stuck into his armholes, and he was patting his ribs with his fingers, like two flapping wings, fancying that he was thus making himself very attractive and charming. It was as much as to say, "And this is the man you would have nothing to say to!"
"There you are my dear; I had my revenge, and your husband knows it. I proved to him clearly that he was basketed—just where he was before, as we say. Madame Marneffe is my mistress, and when her precious Marneffe kicks the bucket, she will be my wife."
Madame Hulot stared at Crevel with a fixed and almost dazed look.
"Hector knew it?" she said.
"And went back to her," replied Crevel. "And I allowed it, because Valerie wished to be the wife of a head-clerk; but she promised me that she would manage things so that our Baron should be so effectually bowled over that he can never interfere any more. And my little duchess—for that woman is a born duchess, on my soul!—kept her word. She restores you your Hector, madame, virtuous in perpetuity, as she says—she is so witty! He has had a good lesson, I can tell you! The Baron has had some hard knocks; he will help no more actresses or fine ladies; he is radically cured; cleaned out like a beer-glass.
"If you had listened to Crevel in the first instance, instead of scorning him and turning him out of the house, you might have had four hundred thousand francs, for my revenge has cost me all of that.—But I shall get my change back, I hope, when Marneffe dies—I have invested in a wife, you see; that is the secret of my extravagance. I have solved the problem of playing the lord on easy terms."
"Would you give your daughter such a mother-in-law? cried Madame Hulot.
"You do not know Valerie, madame," replied Crevel gravely, striking the attitude of his first manner. "She is a woman with good blood in her veins, a lady, and a woman who enjoys the highest consideration. Why, only yesterday the vicar of the parish was dining with her. She is pious, and we have presented a splendid monstrance to the church.
"Oh! she is clever, she is witty, she is delightful, well informed—she has everything in her favor. For my part, my dear Adeline, I owe everything to that charming woman; she has opened my mind, polished my speech, as you may have noticed; she corrects my impetuosity, and gives me words and ideas. I never say anything now that I ought not. I have greatly improved; you must have noticed it. And then she has encouraged my ambition. I shall be a Deputy; and I shall make no blunders, for I shall consult my Egeria. Every great politician, from Numa to our present Prime Minister, has had his Sibyl of the fountain. A score of deputies visit Valerie; she is acquiring considerable influence; and now that she is about to be established in a charming house, with a carriage, she will be one of the occult rulers of Paris.
"A fine locomotive! That is what such a woman is. Oh, I have blessed you many a time for your stern virtue."
"It is enough to make one doubt the goodness of God!" cried Adeline, whose indignation had dried her tears. "But, no! Divine justice must be hanging over her head."
"You know nothing of the world, my beauty," said the great politician, deeply offended. "The world, my Adeline, loves success! Say, now, has it come to seek out your sublime virtue, priced at two hundred thousand francs?"
The words made Madame Hulot shudder; the nervous trembling attacked her once more. She saw that the ex-perfumer was taking a mean revenge on her as he had on Hulot; she felt sick with disgust, and a spasm rose to her throat, hindering speech.
"Money!" she said at last. "Always money!"
"You touched me deeply," said Crevel, reminded by these words of the woman's humiliation, "when I beheld you there, weeping at my feet!—You perhaps will not believe me, but if I had my pocket-book about me, it would have been yours.—Come, do you really want such a sum?"
As she heard this question, big with two hundred thousand francs, Adeline forgot the odious insults heaped on her by this cheap-jack fine gentleman, before the tempting picture of success described by Machiavelli-Crevel, who only wanted to find out her secrets and laugh over them with Valerie.
"Oh! I will do anything, everything," cried the unhappy woman. "Monsieur, I will sell myself—I will be a Valerie, if I must."
"You will find that difficult," replied Crevel. "Valerie is a masterpiece in her way. My good mother, twenty-five years of virtue are always repellent, like a badly treated disease. And your virtue has grown very mouldy, my dear child. But you shall see how much I love you. I will manage to get you your two hundred thousand francs."
Adeline, incapable of uttering a word, seized his hand and laid it on her heart; a tear of joy trembled in her eyes.
"Oh! don't be in a hurry; there will be some hard pulling. I am a jolly good fellow, a good soul with no prejudices, and I will put things plainly to you. You want to do as Valerie does—very good. But that is not all; you must have a gull, a stockholder, a Hulot.—Well, I know a retired tradesman—in fact, a hosier. He is heavy, dull, has not an idea, I am licking him into shape, but I don't know when he will do me credit. My man is a deputy, stupid and conceited; the tyranny of a turbaned wife, in the depths of the country, has preserved him in a state of utter virginity as to the luxury and pleasures of Paris life. But Beauvisage—his name is Beauvisage—is a millionaire, and, like me, my dear, three years ago, he will give a hundred thousand crowns to be the lover of a real lady.—Yes, you see," he went on, misunderstanding a gesture on Adeline's part, "he is jealous of me, you understand; jealous of my happiness with Madame Marneffe, and he is a fellow quite capable of selling an estate to purchase a—"
"Enough, Monsieur Crevel!" said Madame Hulot, no longer controlling her disgust, and showing all her shame in her face. "I am punished beyond my deserts. My conscience, so sternly repressed by the iron hand of necessity, tells me, at this final insult, that such sacrifices are impossible.—My pride is gone; I do not say now, as I did the first time, 'Go!' after receiving this mortal thrust. I have lost the right to do so. I have flung myself before you like a prostitute.
"Yes," she went on, in reply to a negative on Crevel's part, "I have fouled my life, till now so pure, by a degrading thought; and I am inexcusable!—I know it!—I deserve every insult you can offer me! God's will be done! If, indeed, He desires the death of two creatures worthy to appear before Him, they must die! I shall mourn them, and pray for them! If it is His will that my family should be humbled to the dust, we must bow to His avenging sword, nay, and kiss it, since we are Christians.—I know how to expiate this disgrace, which will be the torment of all my remaining days.
"I who speak to you, monsieur, am not Madame Hulot, but a wretched, humble sinner, a Christian whose heart henceforth will know but one feeling, and that is repentance, all my time given up to prayer and charity. With such a sin on my soul, I am the last of women, the first only of penitents.—You have been the means of bringing me to a right mind; I can hear the Voice of God speaking within me, and I can thank you!"
She was shaking with the nervous trembling which from that hour never left her. Her low, sweet tones were quite unlike the fevered accents of the woman who was ready for dishonor to save her family. The blood faded from her cheeks, her face was colorless, and her eyes were dry.
"And I played my part very badly, did I not?" she went on, looking at Crevel with the sweetness that martyrs must have shown in their eyes as they looked up at the Proconsul. "True love, the sacred love of a devoted woman, gives other pleasures, no doubt, than those that are bought in the open market!—But why so many words?" said she, suddenly bethinking herself, and advancing a step further in the way to perfection. "They sound like irony, but I am not ironical! Forgive me. Besides, monsieur, I did not want to hurt any one but myself—"
The dignity of virtue and its holy flame had expelled the transient impurity of the woman who, splendid in her own peculiar beauty, looked taller in Crevel's eyes. Adeline had, at this moment, the majesty of the figures of Religion clinging to the Cross, as painted by the old Venetians; but she expressed, too, the immensity of her love and the grandeur of the Catholic Church, to which she flew like a wounded dove.
Crevel was dazzled, astounded.
"Madame, I am your slave, without conditions," said he, in an inspiration of generosity. "We will look into this matter—and—whatever you want—the impossible even—I will do. I will pledge my securities at the Bank, and in two hours you shall have the money."
"Good God! a miracle!" said poor Adeline, falling on her knees.
She prayed to Heaven with such fervor as touched Crevel deeply; Madame Hulot saw that he had tears in his eyes when, having ended her prayer, she rose to her feet.
"Be a friend to me, monsieur," said she. "Your heart is better than your words and conduct. God gave you your soul; your passions and the world have given you your ideas. Oh, I will love you truly," she exclaimed, with an angelic tenderness in strange contrast with her attempts at coquettish trickery.
"But cease to tremble so," said Crevel.
"Am I trembling?" said the Baroness, unconscious of the infirmity that had so suddenly come upon her.
"Yes; why, look," said Crevel, taking Adeline by the arm and showing her that she was shaking with nervousness. "Come, madame," he added respectfully, "compose yourself; I am going to the Bank at once."
"And come back quickly! Remember," she added, betraying all her secrets, "that the first point is to prevent the suicide of our poor Uncle Fischer involved by my husband—for I trust you now, and I am telling you everything. Oh, if we should not be on time, I know my brother-in-law, the Marshal, and he has such a delicate soul, that he would die of it in a few days."
"I am off, then," said Crevel, kissing the Baroness' hand. "But what has that unhappy Hulot done?"
"He has swindled the Government."
"Good Heavens! I fly, madame; I understand, I admire you!"
Crevel bent one knee, kissed Madame Hulot's skirt, and vanished, saying, "You will see me soon."
Unluckily, on his way from the Rue Plumet to his own house, to fetch the securities, Crevel went along the Rue Vanneau, and he could not resist going in to see his little Duchess. His face still bore an agitated expression.
He went straight into Valerie's room, who was having her hair dressed. She looked at Crevel in her glass, and, like every woman of that sort, was annoyed, before she knew anything about it, to see that he was moved by some strong feeling of which she was not the cause.
"What is the matter, my dear?" said she. "Is that a face to bring in to your little Duchess? I will not be your Duchess any more, monsieur, no more than I will be your 'little duck,' you old monster."
Crevel replied by a melancholy smile and a glance at the maid.
"Reine, child, that will do for to-day; I can finish my hair myself. Give me my Chinese wrapper; my gentleman seems to me out of sorts."
Reine, whose face was pitted like a colander, and who seemed to have been made on purpose to wait on Valerie, smiled meaningly in reply, and brought the dressing-gown. Valerie took off her combing-wrapper; she was in her shift, and she wriggled into the dressing-gown like a snake into a clump of grass.
"Madame is not at home?"
"What a question!" said Valerie.—"Come, tell me, my big puss, have Rives Gauches gone down?"
"They have raised the price of the house?"
"You fancy that you are not the father of our little Crevel?"
"What nonsense!" replied he, sure of his paternity.
"On my honor, I give it up!" said Madame Marneffe. "If I am expected to extract my friend's woes as you pull the cork out of a bottle of Bordeaux, I let it alone.—Go away, you bore me."
"It is nothing," said Crevel. "I must find two hundred thousand francs in two hours."
"Oh, you can easily get them.—I have not spent the fifty thousand francs we got out of Hulot for that report, and I can ask Henri for fifty thousand—"
"Henri—it is always Henri!" exclaimed Crevel.
"And do you suppose, you great baby of a Machiavelli, that I will cast off Henri? Would France disarm her fleet?—Henri! why, he is a dagger in a sheath hanging on a nail. That boy serves as a weather-glass to show me if you love me—and you don't love me this morning."
"I don't love you, Valerie?" cried Crevel. "I love you as much as a million."
"That is not nearly enough!" cried she, jumping on to Crevel's knee, and throwing both arms round his neck as if it were a peg to hang on by. "I want to be loved as much as ten millions, as much as all the gold in the world, and more to that. Henri would never wait a minute before telling me all he had on his mind. What is it, my great pet? Have it out. Make a clean breast of it to your own little duck!"
And she swept her hair over Crevel's face, while she jestingly pulled his nose.
"Can a man with a nose like that," she went on, "have any secrets from his Vava—lele—ririe?"
And at the Vava she tweaked his nose to the right; at lele it went to the left; at ririe she nipped it straight again.
"Well, I have just seen—" Crevel stopped and looked at Madame Marneffe.
"Valerie, my treasure, promise me on your honor—ours, you know?—not to repeat a single word of what I tell you."
"Of course, Mayor, we know all about that. One hand up—so—and one foot—so!" And she put herself in an attitude which, to use Rabelais' phrase, stripped Crevel bare from his brain to his heels, so quaint and delicious was the nudity revealed through the light film of lawn.
"I have just seen virtue in despair."
"Can despair possess virtue?" said she, nodding gravely and crossing her arms like Napoleon.
"It is poor Madame Hulot. She wants two hundred thousand francs, or else Marshal Hulot and old Johann Fischer will blow their brains out; and as you, my little Duchess, are partly at the bottom of the mischief, I am going to patch matters up. She is a saintly creature, I know her well; she will repay you every penny."
At the name of Hulot, at the words two hundred thousand francs, a gleam from Valerie's eyes flashed from between her long eyelids like the flame of a cannon through the smoke.
"What did the old thing do to move you to compassion? Did she show you—what?—her—her religion?"
"Do not make game of her, sweetheart; she is a very saintly, a very noble and pious woman, worthy of all respect."
"Am I not worthy of respect then, heh?" answered Valerie, with a threatening gaze at Crevel.
"I never said so," replied he, understanding that the praise of virtue might not be gratifying to Madame Marneffe.
"I am pious too," Valerie went on, taking her seat in an armchair; "but I do not make a trade of my religion. I go to church in secret."
She sat in silence, and paid no further heed to Crevel. He, extremely ill at ease, came to stand in front of the chair into which Valerie had thrown herself, and saw her lost in the reflections he had been so foolish as to suggest.
"Valerie, my little Angel!"
Utter silence. A highly problematical tear was furtively dashed away.
"One word, my little duck?"
"What are you thinking of, my darling?"
"Oh, Monsieur Crevel, I was thinking of the day of my first communion! How pretty I was! How pure, how saintly!—immaculate!—Oh! if any one had come to my mother and said, 'Your daughter will be a hussy, and unfaithful to her husband; one day a police-officer will find her in a disreputable house; she will sell herself to a Crevel to cheat a Hulot—two horrible old men—' Poof! horrible—she would have died before the end of the sentence, she was so fond of me, poor dear!—"
"Nay, be calm."
"You cannot think how well a woman must love a man before she can silence the remorse that gnaws at the heart of an adulterous wife. I am quite sorry that Reine is not here; she would have told you that she found me this morning praying with tears in my eyes. I, Monsieur Crevel, for my part, do not make a mockery of religion. Have you ever heard me say a word I ought not on such a subject?"
Crevel shook his head in negation.
"I will never allow it to be mentioned in my presence. I can make fun of anything under the sun: Kings, politics, finance, everything that is sacred in the eyes of the world—judges, matrimony, and love—old men and maidens. But the Church and God!—There I draw the line.—I know I am wicked; I am sacrificing my future life to you. And you have no conception of the immensity of my love."
Crevel clasped his hands.
"No, unless you could see into my heart, and fathom the depth of my conviction so as to know the extent of my sacrifice! I feel in me the making of a Magdalen.—And see how respectfully I treat the priests; think of the gifts I make to the Church! My mother brought me up in the Catholic Faith, and I know what is meant by God! It is to sinners like us that His voice is most awful."
Valerie wiped away two tears that trickled down her cheeks. Crevel was in dismay. Madame Marneffe stood up in her excitement.
"Be calm, my darling—you alarm me!"
Madame Marneffe fell on her knees.
"Dear Heaven! I am not bad all through!" she cried, clasping her hands. "Vouchsafe to rescue Thy wandering lamb, strike her, crush her, snatch her from foul and adulterous hands, and how gladly she will nestle on Thy shoulder! How willingly she will return to the fold!"
She got up and looked at Crevel; her colorless eyes frightened him.
"Yes, Crevel, and, do you know? I, too, am frightened sometimes. The justice of God is exerted in this nether world as well as in the next. What mercy can I expect at God's hands? His vengeance overtakes the guilty in many ways; it assumes every aspect of disaster. That is what my mother told me on her death-bed, speaking of her own old age.—But if I should lose you," she added, hugging Crevel with a sort of savage frenzy—"oh! I should die!"
Madame Marneffe released Crevel, knelt down again at the armchair, folded her hands—and in what a bewitching attitude!—and with incredible fervor poured out the following prayer:—
"And thou, Saint Valerie, my patron saint, why dost thou so rarely visit the pillow of her who was intrusted to thy care? Oh, come this evening, as thou didst this morning, to inspire me with holy thoughts, and I will quit the path of sin; like the Magdalen, I will give up deluding joys and the false glitter of the world, even the man I love so well—"
"My precious duck!"
"No more of the 'precious duck,' monsieur!" said she, turning round like a virtuous wife, her eyes full of tears, but dignified, cold, and indifferent.
"Leave me," she went on, pushing him from her. "What is my duty? To belong wholly to my husband.—He is a dying man, and what am I doing? Deceiving him on the edge of the grave. He believes your child to be his. I will tell him the truth, and begin by securing his pardon before I ask for God's.—We must part. Good-bye, Monsieur Crevel," and she stood up to offer him an icy cold hand. "Good-bye, my friend; we shall meet no more till we meet in a better world.—You have to thank me for some enjoyment, criminal indeed; now I want—oh yes, I shall have your esteem."
Crevel was weeping bitter tears.
"You great pumpkin!" she exclaimed, with an infernal peal of laughter. "That is how your pious women go about it to drag from you a plum of two hundred thousand francs. And you, who talk of the Marechal de Richelieu, the prototype of Lovelace, you could be taken in by such a stale trick as that! I could get hundreds of thousands of francs out of you any day, if I chose, you old ninny!—Keep your money! If you have more than you know what to do with, it is mine. If you give two sous to that 'respectable' woman, who is pious forsooth, because she is fifty-six years of age, we shall never meet again, and you may take her for your mistress! You could come back to me next day bruised all over from her bony caresses and sodden with her tears, and sick of her little barmaid's caps and her whimpering, which must turn her favors into showers—"
"In point of fact," said Crevel, "two hundred thousand francs is a round sum of money."
"They have fine appetites, have the goody sort! By the poker! they sell their sermons dearer than we sell the rarest and realest thing on earth—pleasure.—And they can spin a yarn! There, I know them. I have seen plenty in my mother's house. They think everything is allowable for the Church and for—Really, my dear love, you ought to be ashamed of yourself—for you are not so open-handed! You have not given me two hundred thousand francs all told!"
"Oh yes," said Crevel, "your little house will cost as much as that."
"Then you have four hundred thousand francs?" said she thoughtfully.
"Then, sir, you meant to lend that old horror the two hundred thousand francs due for my hotel? What a crime, what high treason!"
"Only listen to me."
"If you were giving the money to some idiotic philanthropic scheme, you would be regarded as a coming man," she went on, with increasing eagerness, "and I should be the first to advise it; for you are too simple to write a big political book that might make you famous; as for style, you have not enough to butter a pamphlet; but you might do as other men do who are in your predicament, and who get a halo of glory about their name by putting it at the top of some social, or moral, or general, or national enterprise. Benevolence is out of date, quite vulgar. Providing for old offenders, and making them more comfortable than the poor devils who are honest, is played out. What I should like to see is some invention of your own with an endowment of two hundred thousand francs—something difficult and really useful. Then you would be talked about as a man of mark, a Montyon, and I should be very proud of you!
"But as to throwing two hundred thousand francs into a holy-water shell, or lending them to a bigot—cast off by her husband, and who knows why? there is always some reason: does any one cast me off, I ask you?—is a piece of idiocy which in our days could only come into the head of a retired perfumer. It reeks of the counter. You would not dare look at yourself in the glass two days after.
"Go and pay the money in where it will be safe—run, fly; I will not admit you again without the receipt in your hand. Go, as fast and soon as you can!"
She pushed Crevel out of the room by the shoulders, seeing avarice blossoming in his face once more. When she heard the outer door shut, she exclaimed:
"Then Lisbeth is revenged over and over again! What a pity that she is at her old Marshal's now! We would have had a good laugh! So that old woman wants to take the bread out of my mouth. I will startle her a little!"
Marshal Hulot, being obliged to live in a style suited to the highest military rank, had taken a handsome house in the Rue du Mont-Parnasse, where there are three or four princely residences. Though he rented the whole house, he inhabited only the ground floor. When Lisbeth went to keep house for him, she at once wished to let the first floor, which, as she said, would pay the whole rent, so that the Count would live almost rent-free; but the old soldier would not hear of it.
For some months past the Marshal had had many sad thoughts. He had guessed how miserably poor his sister-in-law was, and suspected her griefs without understanding their cause. The old man, so cheerful in his deafness, became taciturn; he could not help thinking that his house would one day be a refuge for the Baroness and her daughter; and it was for them that he kept the first floor. The smallness of his fortune was so well known at headquarters, that the War Minister, the Prince de Wissembourg, begged his old comrade to accept a sum of money for his household expenses. This sum the Marshal spent in furnishing the ground floor, which was in every way suitable; for, as he said, he would not accept the Marshal's baton to walk the streets with.
The house had belonged to a senator under the Empire, and the ground floor drawing-rooms had been very magnificently fitted with carved wood, white-and-gold, still in very good preservation. The Marshal had found some good old furniture in the same style; in the coach-house he had a carriage with two batons in saltire on the panels; and when he was expected to appear in full fig, at the Minister's, at the Tuileries, for some ceremony or high festival, he hired horses for the job.
His servant for more than thirty years was an old soldier of sixty, whose sister was the cook, so he had saved ten thousand francs, adding it by degrees to a little hoard he intended for Hortense. Every day the old man walked along the boulevard, from the Rue du Mont-Parnasse to the Rue Plumet; and every pensioner as he passed stood at attention, without fail, to salute him: then the Marshal rewarded the veteran with a smile.
"Who is the man you always stand at attention to salute?" said a young workman one day to an old captain and pensioner.
"I will tell you, boy," replied the officer.
The "boy" stood resigned, as a man does to listen to an old gossip.
"In 1809," said the captain, "we were covering the flank of the main army, marching on Vienna under the Emperor's command. We came to a bridge defended by three batteries of cannon, one above another, on a sort of cliff; three redoubts like three shelves, and commanding the bridge. We were under Marshal Massena. That man whom you see there was Colonel of the Grenadier Guards, and I was one of them. Our columns held one bank of the river, the batteries were on the other. Three times they tried for the bridge, and three times they were driven back. 'Go and find Hulot!' said the Marshal; 'nobody but he and his men can bolt that morsel.' So we came. The General, who was just retiring from the bridge, stopped Hulot under fire, to tell him how to do it, and he was in the way. 'I don't want advice, but room to pass,' said our General coolly, marching across at the head of his men. And then, rattle, thirty guns raking us at once."
"By Heaven!" cried the workman, "that accounts for some of these crutches!"
"And if you, like me, my boy, had heard those words so quietly spoken, you would bow before that man down to the ground! It is not so famous as Arcole, but perhaps it was finer. We followed Hulot at the double, right up to those batteries. All honor to those we left there!" and the old man lifted his hat. "The Austrians were amazed at the dash of it.—The Emperor made the man you saw a Count; he honored us all by honoring our leader; and the King of to-day was very right to make him a Marshal."
"Hurrah for the Marshal!" cried the workman.
"Oh, you may shout—shout away! The Marshal is as deaf as a post from the roar of cannon."
This anecdote may give some idea of the respect with which the Invalides regarded Marshal Hulot, whose Republican proclivities secured him the popular sympathy of the whole quarter of the town.
Sorrow taking hold on a spirit so calm and strict and noble, was a heart-breaking spectacle. The Baroness could only tell lies, with a woman's ingenuity, to conceal the whole dreadful truth from her brother-in-law.
In the course of this miserable morning, the Marshal, who, like all old men, slept but little, had extracted from Lisbeth full particulars as to his brother's situation, promising to marry her as the reward of her revelations. Any one can imagine with what glee the old maid allowed the secrets to be dragged from her which she had been dying to tell ever since she had come into the house; for by this means she made her marriage more certain.
"Your brother is incorrigible!" Lisbeth shouted into the Marshal's best ear.
Her strong, clear tones enabled her to talk to him, but she wore out her lungs, so anxious was she to prove to her future husband that to her he would never be deaf.
"He has had three mistresses," said the old man, "and his wife was an Adeline! Poor Adeline!"
"If you will take my advice," shrieked Lisbeth, "you will use your influence with the Prince de Wissembourg to secure her some suitable appointment. She will need it, for the Baron's pay is pledged for three years."
"I will go to the War Office," said he, "and see the Prince, to find out what he thinks of my brother, and ask for his interest to help my sister. Think of some place that is fit for her."
"The charitable ladies of Paris, in concert with the Archbishop, have formed various beneficent associations; they employ superintendents, very decently paid, whose business it is to seek out cases of real want. Such an occupation would exactly suit dear Adeline; it would be work after her own heart."
"Send to order the horses," said the Marshal. "I will go and dress. I will drive to Neuilly if necessary."
"How fond he is of her! She will always cross my path wherever I turn!" said Lisbeth to herself.
Lisbeth was already supreme in the house, but not with the Marshal's cognizance. She had struck terror into the three servants—for she had allowed herself a housemaid, and she exerted her old-maidish energy in taking stock of everything, examining everything, and arranging in every respect for the comfort of her dear Marshal. Lisbeth, quite as Republican as he could be, pleased him by her democratic opinions, and she flattered him with amazing dexterity; for the last fortnight the old man, whose house was better kept, and who was cared for as a child by its mother, had begun to regard Lisbeth as a part of what he had dreamed of.
"My dear Marshal," she shouted, following him out on to the steps, "pull up the windows, do not sit in a draught, to oblige me!"
The Marshal, who had never been so cosseted in his life, went off smiling at Lisbeth, though his heart was aching.
At the same hour Baron Hulot was quitting the War Office to call on his chief, Marshal the Prince de Wissembourg, who had sent for him. Though there was nothing extraordinary in one of the Generals on the Board being sent for, Hulot's conscience was so uneasy that he fancied he saw a cold and sinister expression in Mitouflet's face.
"Mitouflet, how is the Prince?" he asked, locking the door of his private room and following the messenger who led the way.
"He must have a crow to pluck with you, Monsieur le Baron," replied the man, "for his face is set at stormy."
Hulot turned pale, and said no more; he crossed the anteroom and reception rooms, and, with a violently beating heart, found himself at the door of the Prince's private study.
The chief, at this time seventy years old, with perfectly white hair, and the tanned complexion of a soldier of that age, commanded attention by a brow so vast that imagination saw in it a field of battle. Under this dome, crowned with snow, sparkled a pair of eyes, of the Napoleon blue, usually sad-looking and full of bitter thoughts and regrets, their fire overshadowed by the penthouse of the strongly projecting brow. This man, Bernadotte's rival, had hoped to find his seat on a throne. But those eyes could flash formidable lightnings when they expressed strong feelings.
Then, his voice, always somewhat hollow, rang with strident tones. When he was angry, the Prince was a soldier once more; he spoke the language of Lieutenant Cottin; he spared nothing—nobody. Hulot d'Ervy found the old lion, his hair shaggy like a mane, standing by the fireplace, his brows knit, his back against the mantel-shelf, and his eyes apparently fixed on vacancy.
"Here! At your orders, Prince!" said Hulot, affecting a graceful ease of manner.
The Marshal looked hard at the Baron, without saying a word, during the time it took him to come from the door to within a few steps of where the chief stood. This leaden stare was like the eye of God; Hulot could not meet it; he looked down in confusion.
"He knows everything!" said he to himself.
"Does your conscience tell you nothing?" asked the Marshal, in his deep, hollow tones.
"It tells me, sir, that I have been wrong, no doubt, in ordering razzias in Algeria without referring the matter to you. At my age, and with my tastes, after forty-five years of service, I have no fortune.—You know the principles of the four hundred elect representatives of France. Those gentlemen are envious of every distinction; they have pared down even the Ministers' pay—that says everything! Ask them for money for an old servant!—What can you expect of men who pay a whole class so badly as they pay the Government legal officials?—who give thirty sous a day to the laborers on the works at Toulon, when it is a physical impossibility to live there and keep a family on less than forty sous?—who never think of the atrocity of giving salaries of six hundred francs, up to a thousand or twelve hundred perhaps, to clerks living in Paris; and who want to secure our places for themselves as soon as the pay rises to forty thousand?—who, finally, refuse to restore to the Crown a piece of Crown property confiscated from the Crown in 1830—property acquired, too, by Louis XVI. out of his privy purse!—If you had no private fortune, Prince, you would be left high and dry, like my brother, with your pay and not another sou, and no thought of your having saved the army, and me with it, in the boggy plains of Poland."
"You have robbed the State! You have made yourself liable to be brought before the bench at Assizes," said the Marshal, "like that clerk of the Treasury! And you take this, monsieur, with such levity."
"But there is a great difference, monseigneur!" cried the baron. "Have I dipped my hands into a cash box intrusted to my care?"
"When a man of your rank commits such an infamous crime," said the Marshal, "he is doubly guilty if he does it clumsily. You have compromised the honor of our official administration, which hitherto has been the purest in Europe!—And all for two hundred thousand francs and a hussy!" said the Marshal, in a terrible voice. "You are a Councillor of State—and a private soldier who sells anything belonging to his regiment is punished with death! Here is a story told to me one day by Colonel Pourin of the Second Lancers. At Saverne, one of his men fell in love with a little Alsatian girl who had a fancy for a shawl. The jade teased this poor devil of a lancer so effectually, that though he could show twenty years' service, and was about to be promoted to be quartermaster—the pride of the regiment—to buy this shawl he sold some of his company's kit.—Do you know what this lancer did, Baron d'Ervy? He swallowed some window-glass after pounding it down, and died in eleven hours, of an illness, in hospital.—Try, if you please, to die of apoplexy, that we may not see you dishonored."
Hulot looked with haggard eyes at the old warrior; and the Prince, reading the look which betrayed the coward, felt a flush rise to his cheeks; his eyes flamed.
"Will you, sir, abandon me?" Hulot stammered.
Marshal Hulot, hearing that only his brother was with the Minister, ventured at this juncture to come in, and, like all deaf people, went straight up to the Prince.
"Oh," cried the hero of Poland, "I know what you are here for, my old friend! But we can do nothing."
"Do nothing!" echoed Marshal Hulot, who had heard only the last word.
"Nothing; you have come to intercede for your brother. But do you know what your brother is?"
"My brother?" asked the deaf man.
"Yes, he is a damned infernal blackguard, and unworthy of you."
The Marshal in his rage shot from his eyes those fulminating fires which, like Napoleon's, broke a man's will and judgment.
"You lie, Cottin!" said Marshal Hulot, turning white. "Throw down your baton as I throw mine! I am ready."
The Prince went up to his old comrade, looked him in the face, and shouted in his ear as he grasped his hand:
"Are you a man?"
"You will see that I am."
"Well, then, pull yourself together! You must face the worst misfortune that can befall you."
The Prince turned round, took some papers from the table, and placed them in the Marshal's hands, saying, "Read that."
The Comte de Forzheim read the following letter, which lay uppermost:—
"To his Excellency the President of the Council.
"Private and Confidential.
"MY DEAR PRINCE,—We have a very ugly business on our hands, as
you will see by the accompanying documents.
"The story, briefly told, is this: Baron Hulot d'Ervy sent out to
the province of Oran an uncle of his as a broker in grain and
forage, and gave him an accomplice in the person of a storekeeper.
This storekeeper, to curry favor, has made a confession, and
finally made his escape. The Public Prosecutor took the matter up
very thoroughly, seeing, as he supposed, that only two inferior
agents were implicated; but Johann Fischer, uncle to your Chief of
the Commissariat Department, finding that he was to be brought up
at the Assizes, stabbed himself in prison with a nail.
"That would have been the end of the matter if this worthy and
honest man, deceived, it would seem, by his agent and by his
nephew, had not thought proper to write to Baron Hulot. This
letter, seized as a document, so greatly surprised the Public
Prosecutor, that he came to see me. Now, the arrest and public
trial of a Councillor of State would be such a terrible thing—of
a man high in office too, who has a good record for loyal service
—for after the Beresina, it was he who saved us all by
reorganizing the administration—that I desired to have all the
papers sent to me.
"Is the matter to take its course? Now that the principal agent is
dead, will it not be better to smother up the affair and sentence
the storekeeper in default?
"The Public Prosecutor has consented to my forwarding the
documents for your perusal; the Baron Hulot d'Ervy, being resident
in Paris, the proceedings will lie with your Supreme Court. We
have hit on this rather shabby way of ridding ourselves of the
difficulty for the moment.
"Only, my dear Marshal, decide quickly. This miserable business is
too much talked about already, and it will do as much harm to us
as to you all if the name of the principal culprit—known at
present only to the Public Prosecutor, the examining judge, and
myself—should happen to leak out."
At this point the letter fell from Marshal Hulot's hands; he looked at his brother; he saw that there was no need to examine the evidence. But he looked for Johann Fischer's letter, and after reading it at a glance, held it out to Hector:—
"FROM THE PRISON AT ORAN.
"DEAR NEPHEW,—When you read this letter, I shall have ceased to
"Be quite easy, no proof can be found to incriminate you. When I
am dead and your Jesuit of a Chardin fled, the trial must
collapse. The face of our Adeline, made so happy by you, makes
death easy to me. Now you need not send the two hundred thousand
"This letter will be delivered by a prisoner for a short term whom
I can trust, I believe.
"I beg your pardon," said Marshal Hulot to the Prince de Wissembourg with pathetic pride.
"Come, come, say tu, not the formal vous," replied the Minister, clasping his old friend's hand. "The poor lancer killed no one but himself," he added, with a thunderous look at Hulot d'Ervy.
"How much have you had?" said the Comte de Forzheim to his brother.
"Two hundred thousand francs."
"My dear friend," said the Count, addressing the Minister, "you shall have the two hundred thousand francs within forty-eight hours. It shall never be said that a man bearing the name of Hulot has wronged the public treasury of a single sou."
"What nonsense!" said the Prince. "I know where the money is, and I can get it back.—Send in your resignation and ask for your pension!" he went on, sending a double sheet of foolscap flying across to where the Councillor of State had sat down by the table, for his legs gave way under him. "To bring you to trial would disgrace us all. I have already obtained from the superior Board their sanction to this line of action. Since you can accept life with dishonor—in my opinion the last degradation—you will get the pension you have earned. Only take care to be forgotten."
The Minister rang.
"Is Marneffe, the head-clerk, out there?"
"Show him in!"
"You," said the Minister as Marneffe came in, "you and your wife have wittingly and intentionally ruined the Baron d'Ervy whom you see."
"Monsieur le Ministre, I beg your pardon. We are very poor. I have nothing to live on but my pay, and I have two children, and the one that is coming will have been brought into the family by Monsieur le Baron."
"What a villain he looks!" said the Prince, pointing to Marneffe and addressing Marshal Hulot.—"No more of Sganarelle speeches," he went on; "you will disgorge two hundred thousand francs, or be packed off to Algiers."
"But, Monsieur le Ministre, you do not know my wife. She has spent it all. Monsieur le Baron asked six persons to dinner every evening.—Fifty thousand francs a year are spent in my house."
"Leave the room!" said the Minister, in the formidable tones that had given the word to charge in battle. "You will have notice of your transfer within two hours. Go!"
"I prefer to send in my resignation," said Marneffe insolently. "For it is too much to be what I am already, and thrashed into the bargain. That would not satisfy me at all."
And he left the room.
"What an impudent scoundrel!" said the Prince.
Marshal Hulot, who had stood up throughout this scene, as pale as a corpse, studying his brother out of the corner of his eye, went up to the Prince, and took his hand, repeating:
"In forty-eight hours the pecuniary mischief shall be repaired; but honor!—Good-bye, Marshal. It is the last shot that kills. Yes, I shall die of it!" he said in his ear.
"What the devil brought you here this morning?" said the Prince, much moved.
"I came to see what can be done for his wife," replied the Count, pointing to his brother. "She is wanting bread—especially now!"
"He has his pension."
"It is pledged!"
"The Devil must possess such a man," said the Prince, with a shrug. "What philtre do those baggages give you to rob you of your wits?" he went on to Hulot d'Ervy. "How could you—you, who know the precise details with which in French offices everything is written down at full length, consuming reams of paper to certify to the receipt or outlay of a few centimes—you, who have so often complained that a hundred signatures are needed for a mere trifle, to discharge a soldier, to buy a curry-comb—how could you hope to conceal a theft for any length of time? To say nothing of the newspapers, and the envious, and the people who would like to steal!—those women must rob you of your common-sense! Do they cover your eyes with walnut-shells? or are you yourself made of different stuff from us?—You ought to have left the office as soon as you found that you were no longer a man, but a temperament. If you have complicated your crime with such gross folly, you will end—I will not say where——"
"Promise me, Cottin, that you will do what you can for her," said the Marshal, who heard nothing, and was still thinking of his sister-in-law.
"Depend on me!" said the Minister.
"Thank you, and good-bye then!—Come, monsieur," he said to his brother.
The Prince looked with apparent calmness at the two brothers, so different in their demeanor, conduct, and character—the brave man and the coward, the ascetic and the profligate, the honest man and the peculator—and he said to himself:
"That mean creature will not have courage to die! And my poor Hulot, such an honest fellow! has death in his knapsack, I know!"
He sat down again in his big chair and went on reading the despatches from Africa with a look characteristic at once of the coolness of a leader and of the pity roused by the sight of a battle-field! For in reality no one is so humane as a soldier, stern as he may seem in the icy determination acquired by the habit of fighting, and so absolutely essential in the battle-field.
Next morning some of the newspapers contained, under various headings, the following paragraphs:—
"Monsieur le Baron Hulot d'Ervy has applied for his retiring
pension. The unsatisfactory state of the Algerian exchequer, which
has come out in consequence of the death and disappearance of two
employes, has had some share in this distinguished official's
decision. On hearing of the delinquencies of the agents whom he
had unfortunately trusted, Monsieur le Baron Hulot had a paralytic
stroke in the War Minister's private room.
"Monsieur Hulot d'Ervy, brother to the Marshal Comte de Forzheim,
has been forty-five years in the service. His determination has
been vainly opposed, and is greatly regretted by all who know
Monsieur Hulot, whose private virtues are as conspicuous as his
administrative capacity. No one can have forgotten the devoted
conduct of the Commissary General of the Imperial Guard at Warsaw,
or the marvelous promptitude with which he organized supplies for
the various sections of the army so suddenly required by Napoleon
"One more of the heroes of the Empire is retiring from the stage.
Monsieur le Baron Hulot has never ceased, since 1830, to be one of
the guiding lights of the State Council and of the War Office."
"ALGIERS.—The case known as the forage supply case, to which some
of our contemporaries have given absurd prominence, has been
closed by the death of the chief culprit. Johann Wisch has
committed suicide in his cell; his accomplice, who had absconded,
will be sentenced in default.
"Wisch, formerly an army contractor, was an honest man and highly
respected, who could not survive the idea of having been the dupe
of Chardin, the storekeeper who has disappeared."
And in the Paris News the following paragraph appeared:
"Monsieur le Marechal the Minister of War, to prevent the
recurrence of such scandals for the future, has arranged for a
regular Commissariat office in Africa. A head-clerk in the War
Office, Monsieur Marneffe, is spoken of as likely to be appointed
to the post of director."
"The office vacated by Baron Hulot is the object of much ambition.
The appointment is promised, it is said, to Monsieur le Comte
Martial de la Roche-Hugon, Deputy, brother-in-law to Monsieur le
Comte de Rastignac. Monsieur Massol, Master of Appeals, will fill
his seat on the Council of State, and Monsieur Claude Vignon
becomes Master of Appeals."
Of all kinds of false gossip, the most dangerous for the Opposition newspapers is the official bogus paragraph. However keen journalists may be, they are sometimes the voluntary or involuntary dupes of the cleverness of those who have risen from the ranks of the Press, like Claude Vignon, to the higher realms of power. The newspaper can only be circumvented by the journalist. It may be said, as a parody on a line by Voltaire:
"The Paris news is never what the foolish folk believe."
Marshal Hulot drove home with his brother, who took the front seat, respectfully leaving the whole of the back of the carriage to his senior. The two men spoke not a word. Hector was helpless. The Marshal was lost in thought, like a man who is collecting all his strength, and bracing himself to bear a crushing weight. On arriving at his own house, still without speaking, but by an imperious gesture, he beckoned his brother into his study. The Count had received from the Emperor Napoleon a splendid pair of pistols from the Versailles factory; he took the box, with its inscription. "Given by the Emperor Napoleon to General Hulot," out of his desk, and placing it on the top, he showed it to his brother, saying, "There is your remedy."
Lisbeth, peeping through the chink of the door, flew down to the carriage and ordered the coachman to go as fast as he could gallop to the Rue Plumet. Within about twenty minutes she had brought back Adeline, whom she had told of the Marshal's threat to his brother.
The Marshal, without looking at Hector, rang the bell for his factotum, the old soldier who had served him for thirty years.
"Beau-Pied," said he, "fetch my notary, and Count Steinbock, and my niece Hortense, and the stockbroker to the Treasury. It is now half-past ten; they must all be here by twelve. Take hackney cabs—and go faster than that!" he added, a republican allusion which in past days had been often on his lips. And he put on the scowl that had brought his soldiers to attention when he was beating the broom on the heaths of Brittany in 1799. (See Les Chouans.)
"You shall be obeyed, Marechal," said Beau-Pied, with a military salute.
Still paying no heed to his brother, the old man came back into his study, took a key out of his desk, and opened a little malachite box mounted in steel, the gift of the Emperor Alexander.
By Napoleon's orders he had gone to restore to the Russian Emperor the private property seized at the battle of Dresden, in exchange for which Napoleon hoped to get back Vandamme. The Czar rewarded General Hulot very handsomely, giving him this casket, and saying that he hoped one day to show the same courtesy to the Emperor of the French; but he kept Vandamme. The Imperial arms of Russia were displayed in gold on the lid of the box, which was inlaid with gold.
The Marshal counted the bank-notes it contained; he had a hundred and fifty-two thousand francs. He saw this with satisfaction. At the same moment Madame Hulot came into the room in a state to touch the heart of the sternest judge. She flew into Hector's arms, looking alternately with a crazy eye at the Marshal and at the case of pistols.
"What have you to say against your brother? What has my husband done to you?" said she, in such a voice that the Marshal heard her.
"He has disgraced us all!" replied the Republican veteran, who spoke with a vehemence that reopened one of his old wounds. "He has robbed the Government! He has cast odium on my name, he makes me wish I were dead—he has killed me!—I have only strength enough left to make restitution!
"I have been abased before the Conde of the Republic, the man I esteem above all others, and to whom I unjustifiably gave the lie—the Prince of Wissembourg!—Is that nothing? That is the score his country has against him!"
He wiped away a tear.
"Now, as to his family," he went on. "He is robbing you of the bread I had saved for you, the fruit of thirty years' economy, of the privations of an old soldier! Here is what was intended for you," and he held up the bank-notes. "He has killed his Uncle Fischer, a noble and worthy son of Alsace who could not—as he can—endure the thought of a stain on his peasant's honor.
"To crown all, God, in His adorable clemency, had allowed him to choose an angel among women; he has had the unspeakable happiness of having an Adeline for his wife! And he has deceived her, he has soaked her in sorrows, he has neglected her for prostitutes, for street-hussies, for ballet-girls, actresses—Cadine, Josepha, Marneffe!—And that is the brother I treated as a son and made my pride!
"Go, wretched man; if you can accept the life of degradation you have made for yourself, leave my house! I have not the heart to curse a brother I have loved so well—I am as foolish about him as you are, Adeline—but never let me see him again. I forbid his attending my funeral or following me to the grave. Let him show the decency of a criminal if he can feel no remorse."
The Marshal, as pale as death, fell back on the settee, exhausted by his solemn speech. And, for the first time in his life perhaps, tears gathered in his eyes and rolled down his cheeks.
"My poor uncle!" cried Lisbeth, putting a handkerchief to her eyes.
"Brother!" said Adeline, kneeling down by the Marshal, "live for my sake. Help me in the task of reconciling Hector to the world and making him redeem the past."
"He!" cried the Marshal. "If he lives, he is not at the end of his crimes. A man who has misprized an Adeline, who has smothered in his own soul the feelings of a true Republican which I tried to instill into him, the love of his country, of his family, and of the poor—that man is a monster, a swine!—Take him away if you still care for him, for a voice within me cries to me to load my pistols and blow his brains out. By killing him I should save you all, and I should save him too from himself."
The old man started to his feet with such a terrifying gesture that poor Adeline exclaimed:
She seized her husband's arm, dragged him away, and out of the house; but the Baron was so broken down, that she was obliged to call a coach to take him to the Rue Plumet, where he went to bed. The man remained there for several days in a sort of half-dissolution, refusing all nourishment without a word. By floods of tears, Adeline persuaded him to swallow a little broth; she nursed him, sitting by his bed, and feeling only, of all the emotions that once had filled her heart, the deepest pity for him.
At half-past twelve, Lisbeth showed into her dear Marshal's room—for she would not leave him, so much was she alarmed at the evident change in him—Count Steinbock and the notary.
"Monsieur le Comte," said the Marshal, "I would beg you to be so good as to put your signature to a document authorizing my niece, your wife, to sell a bond for certain funds of which she at present holds only the reversion.—You, Mademoiselle Fischer, will agree to this sale, thus losing your life interest in the securities."
"Yes, dear Count," said Lisbeth without hesitation.
"Good, my dear," said the old soldier. "I hope I may live to reward you. But I did not doubt you; you are a true Republican, a daughter of the people." He took the old maid's hand and kissed it.
"Monsieur Hannequin," he went on, speaking to the notary, "draw up the necessary document in the form of a power of attorney, and let me have it within two hours, so that I may sell the stock on the Bourse to-day. My niece, the Countess, holds the security; she will be here to sign the power of attorney when you bring it, and so will mademoiselle. Monsieur le Comte will be good enough to go with you and sign it at your office."
The artist, at a nod from Lisbeth, bowed respectfully to the Marshal and went away.
Next morning, at ten o'clock, the Comte de Forzheim sent in to announce himself to the Prince, and was at once admitted.
"Well, my dear Hulot," said the Prince, holding out the newspapers to his old friend, "we have saved appearances, you see.—Read."
Marshal Hulot laid the papers on his comrade's table, and held out to him the two hundred thousand francs.
"Here is the money of which my brother robbed the State," said he.
"What madness!" cried the Minister. "It is impossible," he said into the speaking-trumpet handed to him by the Marshal, "to manage this restitution. We should be obliged to declare your brother's dishonest dealings, and we have done everything to hide them."
"Do what you like with the money; but the family shall not owe one sou of its fortune to a robbery on the funds of the State," said the Count.
"I will take the King's commands in the matter. We will discuss it no further," replied the Prince, perceiving that it would be impossible to conquer the old man's sublime obstinacy on the point.
"Good-bye, Cottin," said the old soldier, taking the Prince's hand. "I feel as if my soul were frozen—"
Then, after going a step towards the door, he turned round, looked at the Prince, and seeing that he was deeply moved, he opened his arms to clasp him in them; the two old soldiers embraced each other.
"I feel as if I were taking leave of the whole of the old army in you," said the Count.
"Good-bye, my good old comrade!" said the Minister.
"Yes, it is good-bye; for I am going where all our brave men are for whom we have mourned—"
Just then Claude Vignon was shown in. The two relics of the Napoleonic phalanx bowed gravely to each other, effacing every trace of emotion.
"You have, I hope, been satisfied by the papers," said the Master of Appeals-elect. "I contrived to let the Opposition papers believe that they were letting out our secrets."
"Unfortunately, it is all in vain," replied the Minister, watching Hulot as he left the room. "I have just gone through a leave-taking that has been a great grief to me. For, indeed, Marshal Hulot has not three days to live; I saw that plainly enough yesterday. That man, one of those honest souls that are above proof, a soldier respected by the bullets in spite of his valor, received his death-blow—there, in that armchair—and dealt by my hand, in a letter!—Ring and order my carriage. I must go to Neuilly," said he, putting the two hundred thousand francs into his official portfolio.
Notwithstanding Lisbeth's nursing, Marshal Hulot three days later was a dead man. Such men are the glory of the party they support. To Republicans, the Marshal was the ideal of patriotism; and they all attended his funeral, which was followed by an immense crowd. The army, the State officials, the Court, and the populace all came to do homage to this lofty virtue, this spotless honesty, this immaculate glory. Such a last tribute of the people is not a thing to be had for the asking.
This funeral was distinguished by one of those tributes of delicate feeling, of good taste, and sincere respect which from time to time remind us of the virtues and dignity of the old French nobility. Following the Marshal's bier came the old Marquis de Montauran, the brother of him who, in the great rising of the Chouans in 1799, had been the foe, the luckless foe, of Hulot. That Marquis, killed by the balls of the "Blues," had confided the interests of his young brother to the Republican soldier. (See Les Chouans.) Hulot had so faithfully acted on the noble Royalist's verbal will, that he succeeded in saving the young man's estates, though he himself was at the time an emigre. And so the homage of the old French nobility was not wanting to the leader who, nine years since, had conquered MADAME.
This death, happening just four days before the banns were cried for the last time, came upon Lisbeth like the thunderbolt that burns the garnered harvest with the barn. The peasant of Lorraine, as often happens, had succeeded too well. The Marshal had died of the blows dealt to the family by herself and Madame Marneffe.
The old maid's vindictiveness, which success seemed to have somewhat mollified, was aggravated by this disappointment of her hopes. Lisbeth went, crying with rage, to Madame Marneffe; for she was homeless, the Marshal having agreed that his lease was at any time to terminate with his life. Crevel, to console Valerie's friend, took charge of her savings, added to them considerably, and invested the capital in five per cents, giving her the life interest, and putting the securities into Celestine's name. Thanks to this stroke of business, Lisbeth had an income of about two thousand francs.
When the Marshal's property was examined and valued, a note was found, addressed to his sister-in-law, to his niece Hortense, and to his nephew Victorin, desiring that they would pay among them an annuity of twelve hundred francs to Mademoiselle Lisbeth Fischer, who was to have been his wife.
Adeline, seeing her husband between life and death, succeeded for some days in hiding from him the fact of his brother's death; but Lisbeth came, in mourning, and the terrible truth was told him eleven days after the funeral.
The crushing blow revived the sick man's energies. He got up, found his family collected in the drawing-room, all in black, and suddenly silent as he came in. In a fortnight, Hulot, as lean as a spectre, looked to his family the mere shadow of himself.
"I must decide on something," said he in a husky voice, as he seated himself in an easy-chair, and looked round at the party, of whom Crevel and Steinbock were absent.
"We cannot stay here, the rent is too high," Hortense was saying just as her father came in.
"As to a home," said Victorin, breaking the painful silence, "I can offer my mother——"
As he heard these words, which excluded him, the Baron raised his head, which was sunk on his breast as though he were studying the pattern of the carpet, though he did not even see it, and he gave the young lawyer an appealing look. The rights of a father are so indefeasibly sacred, even when he is a villain and devoid of honor, that Victorin paused.
"To your mother," the Baron repeated. "You are right, my son."
"The rooms over ours in our wing," said Celestine, finishing her husband's sentence.
"I am in your way, my dears?" said the Baron, with the mildness of a man who has judged himself. "But do not be uneasy as to the future; you will have no further cause for complaint of your father; you will not see him till the time when you need no longer blush for him."
He went up to Hortense and kissed her brow. He opened his arms to his son, who rushed into his embrace, guessing his father's purpose. The Baron signed to Lisbeth, who came to him, and he kissed her forehead. Then he went to his room, whither Adeline followed him in an agony of dread.
"My brother was quite right, Adeline," he said, holding her hand. "I am unworthy of my home life. I dared not bless my children, who have behaved so nobly, but in my heart; tell them that I could only venture to kiss them; for the blessing of a bad man, a father who has been an assassin and the scourge of his family instead of its protector and its glory, might bring evil on them; but assure them that I shall bless them every day.—As to you, God alone, for He is Almighty, can ever reward you according to your merits!—I can only ask your forgiveness!" and he knelt at her feet, taking her hands and wetting them with his tears.
"Hector, Hector! Your sins have been great, but Divine Mercy is infinite, and you may repair all by staying with me.—Rise up in Christian charity, my dear—I am your wife, and not your judge. I am your possession; do what you will with me; take me wherever you go, I feel strong enough comfort you, to make life endurable to you, by the strength of my love, my care, and respect.—Our children are settled in life; they need me no more. Let me try to be an amusement to you, an occupation. Let me share the pain of your banishment and of your poverty, and help to mitigate it. I could always be of some use, if it were only to save the expense of a servant."
"Can you forgive, my dearly-beloved Adeline?"
"Yes, only get up, my dear!"
"Well, with that forgiveness I can live," said he, rising to his feet. "I came back into this room that my children should not see their father's humiliation. Oh! the sight constantly before their eyes of a father so guilty as I am is a terrible thing; it must undermine parental influence and break every family tie. So I cannot remain among you, and I must go to spare you the odious spectacle of a father bereft of dignity. Do not oppose my departure Adeline. It would only be to load with your own hand the pistol to blow my brains out. Above all, do not seek me in my hiding-place; you would deprive me of the only strong motive remaining in me, that of remorse."
Hector's decisiveness silenced his dejected wife. Adeline, lofty in the midst of all this ruin, had derived her courage from her perfect union with her husband; for she had dreamed of having him for her own, of the beautiful task of comforting him, of leading him back to family life, and reconciling him to himself.
"But, Hector, would you leave me to die of despair, anxiety, and alarms!" said she, seeing herself bereft of the mainspring of her strength.
"I will come back to you, dear angel—sent from Heaven expressly for me, I believe. I will come back, if not rich, at least with enough to live in ease.—Listen, my sweet Adeline, I cannot stay here for many reasons. In the first place, my pension of six thousand francs is pledged for four years, so I have nothing. That is not all. I shall be committed to prison within a few days in consequence of the bills held by Vauvinet. So I must keep out of the way until my son, to whom I will give full instructions, shall have bought in the bills. My disappearance will facilitate that. As soon as my pension is my own, and Vauvinet is paid off, I will return to you.—You would be sure to let out the secret of my hiding-place. Be calm; do not cry, Adeline—it is only for a month—"
"Where will you go? What will you do? What will become of you? Who will take care of you now that you are no longer young? Let me go with you—we will go abroad—" said she.
"Well, well, we will see," he replied.
The Baron rang and ordered Mariette to collect all his things and pack them quickly and secretly. Then, after embracing his wife with a warmth of affection to which she was unaccustomed, he begged her to leave him alone for a few minutes while he wrote his instructions for Victorin, promising that he would not leave the house till dark, or without her.
As soon as the Baroness was in the drawing-room, the cunning old man stole out through the dressing-closet to the anteroom, and went away, giving Mariette a slip of paper, on which was written, "Address my trunks to go by railway to Corbeil—to Monsieur Hector, cloak-room, Corbeil."
The Baron jumped into a hackney coach, and was rushing across Paris by the time Mariette came to give the Baroness this note, and say that her master had gone out. Adeline flew back into her room, trembling more violently than ever; her children followed on hearing her give a piercing cry. They found her in a dead faint; and they put her to bed, for she was seized by a nervous fever which held her for a month between life and death.
"Where is he?" was the only thing she would say.
Victorin sought for him in vain.
And this is why. The Baron had driven to the Place du Palais Royal. There this man, who had recovered all his wits to work out a scheme which he had premeditated during the days he had spent crushed with pain and grief, crossed the Palais Royal on foot, and took a handsome carriage from a livery-stable in the Rue Joquelet. In obedience to his orders, the coachman went to the Rue de la Ville l'Eveque, and into the courtyard of Josepha's mansion, the gates opening at once at the call of the driver of such a splendid vehicle. Josepha came out, prompted by curiosity, for her man-servant had told her that a helpless old gentleman, unable to get out of his carriage, begged her to come to him for a moment.
"Josepha!—it is I——"
The singer recognized her Hulot only by his voice.
"What? you, poor old man?—On my honor, you look like a twenty-franc piece that the Jews have sweated and the money-changers refuse."
"Alas, yes," replied Hulot; "I am snatched from the jaws of death! But you are as lovely as ever. Will you be kind?"
"That depends," said she; "everything is relative."
"Listen," said Hulot; "can you put me up for a few days in a servant's room under the roof? I have nothing—not a farthing, not a hope; no food, no pension, no wife, no children, no roof over my head; without honor, without courage, without a friend; and worse than all that, liable to imprisonment for not meeting a bill."
"Poor old fellow! you are without most things.—Are you also sans culotte?"
"You laugh at me! I am done for," cried the Baron. "And I counted on you as Gourville did on Ninon."
"And it was a 'real lady,' I am told who brought you to this," said Josepha. "Those precious sluts know how to pluck a goose even better than we do!—Why, you are like a corpse that the crows have done with—I can see daylight through!"
"Time is short, Josepha!"
"Come in, old boy, I am alone, as it happens, and my people don't know you. Send away your trap. Is it paid for?"
"Yes," said the Baron, getting out with the help of Josepha's arm.
"You may call yourself my father if you like," said the singer, moved to pity.
She made Hulot sit down in the splendid drawing-room where he had last seen her.
"And is it the fact, old man," she went on, "that you have killed your brother and your uncle, ruined your family, mortgaged your children's house over and over again, and robbed the Government till in Africa, all for your princess?"
Hulot sadly bent his head.
"Well, I admire that!" cried Josepha, starting up in her enthusiasm. "It is a general flare-up! It is Sardanapalus! Splendid, thoroughly complete! I may be a hussy, but I have a soul! I tell you, I like a spendthrift, like you, crazy over a woman, a thousand times better than those torpid, heartless bankers, who are supposed to be so good, and who ruin no end of families with their rails—gold for them, and iron for their gulls! You have only ruined those who belong to you, you have sold no one but yourself; and then you have excuses, physical and moral."
She struck a tragic attitude, and spouted:
"'Tis Venus whose grasp never parts from her prey.
And there you are!" and she pirouetted on her toe.
Vice, Hulot found, could forgive him; vice smiled on him from the midst of unbridled luxury. Here, as before a jury, the magnitude of a crime was an extenuating circumstance. "And is your lady pretty at any rate?" asked Josepha, trying as a preliminary act of charity, to divert Hulot's thoughts, for his depression grieved her.
"On my word, almost as pretty as you are," said the Baron artfully.
"And monstrously droll? So I have been told. What does she do, I say? Is she better fun than I am?"
"I don't want to talk about her," said Hulot.
"And I hear she has come round my Crevel, and little Steinbock, and a gorgeous Brazilian?"
"And that she has got a house as good as this, that Crevel has given her. The baggage! She is my provost-marshal, and finishes off those I have spoiled. I tell you why I am so curious to know what she is like, old boy; I just caught sight of her in the Bois, in an open carriage—but a long way off. She is a most accomplished harpy, Carabine says. She is trying to eat up Crevel, but he only lets her nibble. Crevel is a knowing hand, good-natured but hard-headed, who will always say Yes, and then go his own way. He is vain and passionate; but his cash is cold. You can never get anything out of such fellows beyond a thousand to three thousand francs a month; they jib at any serious outlay, as a donkey does at a running stream.
"Not like you, old boy. You are a man of passions; you would sell your country for a woman. And, look here, I am ready to do anything for you! You are my father; you started me in life; it is a sacred duty. What do you want? Do you want a hundred thousand francs? I will wear myself to a rag to gain them. As to giving you bed and board—that is nothing. A place will be laid for you here every day; you can have a good room on the second floor, and a hundred crowns a month for pocket-money."
The Baron, deeply touched by such a welcome, had a last qualm of honor.
"No, my dear child, no; I did not come here for you to keep me," said he.
"At your age it is something to be proud of," said she.
"This is what I wish, my child. Your Duc d'Herouville has immense estates in Normandy, and I want to be his steward, under the name of Thoul. I have the capacity, and I am honest. A man may borrow of the Government, and yet not steal from a cash-box——"
"H'm, h'm," said Josepha. "Once drunk, drinks again."
"In short, I only want to live out of sight for three years—"
"Well, it is soon done," said Josepha. "This evening, after dinner, I have only to speak. The Duke would marry me if I wished it, but I have his fortune, and I want something better—his esteem. He is a Duke of the first water. He is high-minded, as noble and great as Louis XIV. and Napoleon rolled into one, though he is a dwarf. Besides, I have done for him what la Schontz did for Rochefide; by taking my advice he has made two millions.
"Now, listen to me, old popgun. I know you; you are always after the women, and you would be dancing attendance on the Normandy girls, who are splendid creatures, and getting your ribs cracked by their lovers and fathers, and the Duke would have to get you out of the scrape. Why, can't I see by the way you look at me that the young man is not dead in you—as Fenelon put it.—No, this stewardship is not the thing for you. A man cannot be off with his Paris and with us, old boy, for the saying! You would die of weariness at Herouville."
"What is to become of me?" said the Baron, "for I will only stay here till I see my way."
"Well, shall I find a pigeon-hole for you? Listen, you old pirate. Women are what you want. They are consolation in all circumstances. Attend now.—At the end of the Alley, Rue Saint-Maur-du-Temple, there is a poor family I know of where there is a jewel of a little girl, prettier than I was at sixteen.—Ah! there is a twinkle in your eye already!—The child works sixteen hours a day at embroidering costly pieces for the silk merchants, and earns sixteen sous a day—one sou an hour!—and feeds like the Irish, on potatoes fried in rats' dripping, with bread five times a week—and drinks canal water out of the town pipes, because the Seine water costs too much; and she cannot set up on her own account for lack of six or seven thousand francs. Your wife and children bore you to death, don't they?—Besides, one cannot submit to be nobody where one has been a little Almighty. A father who has neither money nor honor can only be stuffed and kept in a glass case."
The Baron could not help smiling at these abominable jests.
"Well, now, Bijou is to come to-morrow morning to bring me an embroidered wrapper, a gem! It has taken six months to make; no one else will have any stuff like it! Bijou is very fond of me; I give her tidbits and my old gowns. And I send orders for bread and meat and wood to the family, who would break the shin-bones of the first comer if I bid them.—I try to do a little good. Ah! I know what I endured from hunger myself!—Bijou has confided to me all her little sorrows. There is the making of a super at the Ambigu-Comique in that child. Her dream is to wear fine dresses like mine; above all, to ride in a carriage. I shall say to her, 'Look here, little one, would you like to have a friend of—' How old are you?" she asked, interrupting herself. "Seventy-two?"
"I have given up counting."
"'Would you like an old gentleman of seventy-two?' I shall say. 'Very clean and neat, and who does not take snuff, who is as sound as a bell, and as good as a young man? He will marry you (in the Thirteenth Arrondissement) and be very kind to you; he will place seven thousand francs in your account, and furnish you a room all in mahogany, and if you are good, he will sometimes take you to the play. He will give you a hundred francs a month for pocket-money, and fifty francs for housekeeping.'—I know Bijou; she is myself at fourteen. I jumped for joy when that horrible Crevel made me his atrocious offers. Well, and you, old man, will be disposed of for three years. She is a good child, well behaved; for three or four years she will have her illusions—not for longer."
Hulot did not hesitate; he had made up his mind to refuse; but to seem grateful to the kind-hearted singer, who was benevolent after her lights, he affected to hesitate between vice and virtue.
"Why, you are as cold as a paving-stone in winter!" she exclaimed in amazement. "Come, now. You will make a whole family happy—a grandfather who runs all the errands, a mother who is being worn out with work, and two sisters—one of them very plain—who make thirty-two sous a day while putting their eyes out. It will make up for the misery you have caused at home, and you will expiate your sin while you are having as much fun as a minx at Mabille."
Hulot, to put an end to this temptation, moved his fingers as if he were counting out money.
"Oh! be quite easy as to ways and means," replied Josepha. "My Duke will lend you ten thousand francs; seven thousand to start an embroidery shop in Bijou's name, and three thousand for furnishing; and every three months you will find a cheque here for six hundred and fifty francs. When you get your pension paid you, you can repay the seventeen thousand francs. Meanwhile you will be as happy as a cow in clover, and hidden in a hole where the police will never find you. You must wear a loose serge coat, and you will look like a comfortable householder. Call yourself Thoul, if that is your fancy. I will tell Bijou that you are an uncle of mine come from Germany, having failed in business, and you will be cosseted like a divinity.—There now, Daddy!—And who knows! you may have no regrets. In case you should be bored, keep one Sunday rig-out, and you can come and ask me for a dinner and spend the evening here."
"I!—and I meant to settle down and behave myself!—Look here, borrow twenty thousand francs for me, and I will set out to make my fortune in America, like my friend d'Aiglemont when Nucingen cleaned him out."
"You!" cried Josepha. "Nay, leave morals to work-a-day folks, to raw recruits, to the worrrthy citizens who have nothing to boast of but their virtue. You! You were born to be something better than a nincompoop; you are as a man what I am as a woman—a spendthrift of genius."
"We will sleep on it and discuss it all to-morrow morning."
"You will dine with the Duke. My d'Herouville will receive you as civilly as if you were the saviour of the State; and to-morrow you can decide. Come, be jolly, old boy! Life is a garment; when it is dirty, we must brush it; when it is ragged, it must be patched; but we keep it on as long as we can."
This philosophy of life, and her high spirits, postponed Hulot's keenest pangs.
At noon next day, after a capital breakfast, Hulot saw the arrival of one of those living masterpieces which Paris alone of all the cities in the world can produce, by means of the constant concubinage of luxury and poverty, of vice and decent honesty, of suppressed desire and renewed temptation, which makes the French capital the daughter of Ninevah, of Babylon, and of Imperial Rome.
Mademoiselle Olympe Bijou, a child of sixteen, had the exquisite face which Raphael drew for his Virgins; eyes of pathetic innocence, weary with overwork—black eyes, with long lashes, their moisture parched with the heat of laborious nights, and darkened with fatigue; a complexion like porcelain, almost too delicate; a mouth like a partly opened pomegranate; a heaving bosom, a full figure, pretty hands, the whitest teeth, and a mass of black hair; and the whole meagrely set off by a cotton frock at seventy-five centimes the metre, leather shoes without heels, and the cheapest gloves. The girl, all unconscious of her charms, had put on her best frock to wait on the fine lady.
The Baron, gripped again by the clutch of profligacy, felt all his life concentrated in his eyes. He forgot everything on beholding this delightful creature. He was like a sportsman in sight of the game; if an emperor were present, he must take aim!
"And warranted sound," said Josepha in his ear. "An honest child, and wanting bread. This is Paris—I have been there!"
"It is a bargain," replied the old man, getting up and rubbing his hands.
When Olympe Bijou was gone, Josepha looked mischievously at the Baron.
"If you want things to keep straight, Daddy," said she, "be as firm as the Public Prosecutor on the bench. Keep a tight hand on her, be a Bartholo! Ware Auguste, Hippolyte, Nestor, Victor—or, that is gold, in every form. When once the child is fed and dressed, if she gets the upper hand, she will drive you like a serf.—I will see to settling you comfortably. The Duke does the handsome; he will lend—that is, give—you ten thousand francs; and he deposits eight thousand with his notary, who will pay you six hundred francs every quarter, for I cannot trust you.—Now, am I nice?"
Ten days after deserting his family, when they were gathered round Adeline, who seemed to be dying, as she said again and again, in a weak voice, "Where is he?" Hector, under the name of Thoul, was established in the Rue Saint-Maur, at the head of a business as embroiderer, under the name of Thoul and Bijou.
Victorin Hulot, under the overwhelming disasters of his family, had received the finishing touch which makes or mars the man. He was perfection. In the great storms of life we act like the captain of a ship who, under the stress of a hurricane, lightens the ship of its heaviest cargo. The young lawyer lost his self-conscious pride, his too evident assertiveness, his arrogance as an orator and his political pretensions. He was as a man what his wife was as a woman. He made up his mind to make the best of his Celestine—who certainly did not realize his dreams—and was wise enough to estimate life at its true value by contenting himself in all things with the second best. He vowed to fulfil his duties, so much had he been shocked by his father's example.
These feelings were confirmed as he stood by his mother's bed on the day when she was out of danger. Nor did this happiness come single. Claude Vignon, who called every day from the Prince de Wissembourg to inquire as to Madame Hulot's progress, desired the re-elected deputy to go with him to see the Minister.
"His Excellency," said he, "wants to talk over your family affairs with you."
The Prince had long known Victorin Hulot, and received him with a friendliness that promised well.
"My dear fellow," said the old soldier, "I promised your uncle, in this room, that I would take care of your mother. That saintly woman, I am told, is getting well again; now is the time to pour oil into your wounds. I have for you here two hundred thousand francs; I will give them to you——"
The lawyer's gesture was worthy of his uncle the Marshal.
"Be quite easy," said the Prince, smiling; "it is money in trust. My days are numbered; I shall not always be here; so take this sum, and fill my place towards your family. You may use this money to pay off the mortgage on your house. These two hundred thousand francs are the property of your mother and your sister. If I gave the money to Madame Hulot, I fear that, in her devotion to her husband, she would be tempted to waste it. And the intention of those who restore it to you is, that it should produce bread for Madame Hulot and her daughter, the Countess Steinbock. You are a steady man, the worthy son of your noble mother, the true nephew of my friend the Marshal; you are appreciated here, you see—and elsewhere. So be the guardian angel of your family, and take this as a legacy from your uncle and me."
"Monseigneur," said Hulot, taking the Minister's hand and pressing it, "such men as you know that thanks in words mean nothing; gratitude must be proven."
"Prove yours—" said the old man.
"In what way?"
"By accepting what I have to offer you," said the Minister. "We propose to appoint you to be attorney to the War Office, which just now is involved in litigations in consequence of the plan for fortifying Paris; consulting clerk also to the Prefecture of Police; and a member of the Board of the Civil List. These three appointments will secure you salaries amounting to eighteen thousand francs, and will leave you politically free. You can vote in the Chamber in obedience to your opinions and your conscience. Act in perfect freedom on that score. It would be a bad thing for us if there were no national opposition!
"Also, a few lines from your uncle, written a day or two before he breathed his last, suggested what I could do for your mother, whom he loved very truly.—Mesdames Popinot, de Rastignac, de Navarreins, d'Espard, de Grandlieu, de Carigliano, de Lenoncourt, and de la Batie have made a place for your mother as a Lady Superintendent of their charities. These ladies, presidents of various branches of benevolent work, cannot do everything themselves; they need a lady of character who can act for them by going to see the objects of their beneficence, ascertaining that charity is not imposed upon, and whether the help given really reaches those who applied for it, finding out that the poor who are ashamed to beg, and so forth. Your mother will fulfil an angelic function; she will be thrown in with none but priests and these charitable ladies; she will be paid six thousand francs and the cost of her hackney coaches.
"You see, young man, that a pure and nobly virtuous man can still assist his family, even from the grave. Such a name as your uncle's is, and ought to be, a buckler against misfortune in a well-organized scheme of society. Follow in his path; you have started in it, I know; continue in it."
"Such delicate kindness cannot surprise me in my mother's friend," said Victorin. "I will try to come up to all your hopes."
"Go at once, and take comfort to your family.—By the way," added the Prince, as he shook hands with Victorin, "your father has disappeared?"
"So much the better. That unhappy man has shown his wit, in which, indeed, he is not lacking."
"There are bills of his to be met."
"Well, you shall have six months' pay of your three appointments in advance. This pre-payment will help you, perhaps, to get the notes out of the hands of the money-lender. And I will see Nucingen, and perhaps may succeed in releasing your father's pension, pledged to him, without its costing you or our office a sou. The peer has not killed the banker in Nucingen; he is insatiable; he wants some concession.—I know not what——"
So on his return to the Rue Plumet, Victorin could carry out his plan of lodging his mother and sister under his roof.
The young lawyer, already famous, had, for his sole fortune, one of the handsomest houses in Paris, purchased in 1834 in preparation for his marriage, situated on the boulevard between the Rue de la Paix and the Rue Louis-le-Grand. A speculator had built two houses between the boulevard and the street; and between these, with the gardens and courtyards to the front and back, there remained still standing a splendid wing, the remains of the magnificent mansion of the Verneuils. The younger Hulot had purchased this fine property, on the strength of Mademoiselle Crevel's marriage-portion, for one million francs, when it was put up to auction, paying five hundred thousand down. He lived on the ground floor, expecting to pay the remainder out of letting the rest; but though it is safe to speculate in house-property in Paris, such investments are capricious or hang fire, depending on unforeseen circumstances.
As the Parisian lounger may have observed, the boulevard between the Rue de la Paix and the Rue Louis-le-Grand prospered but slowly; it took so long to furbish and beautify itself, that trade did not set up its display there till 1840—the gold of the money-changers, the fairy-work of fashion, and the luxurious splendor of shop-fronts.
In spite of two hundred thousand francs given by Crevel to his daughter at the time when his vanity was flattered by this marriage, before the Baron had robbed him of Josepha; in spite of the two hundred thousand francs paid off by Victorin in the course of seven years, the property was still burdened with a debt of five hundred thousand francs, in consequence of Victorin's devotion to his father. Happily, a rise in rents and the advantages of the situation had at this time improved the value of the houses. The speculation was justifying itself after eight years' patience, during which the lawyer had strained every nerve to pay the interest and some trifling amounts of the capital borrowed.
The tradespeople were ready to offer good rents for the shops, on condition of being granted leases for eighteen years. The dwelling apartments rose in value by the shifting of the centre in Paris life—henceforth transferred to the region between the Bourse and the Madeleine, now the seat of the political power and financial authority in Paris. The money paid to him by the Minister, added to a year's rent in advance and the premiums paid by his tenants, would finally reduce the outstanding debt to two hundred thousand francs. The two houses, if entirely let, would bring in a hundred thousand francs a year. Within two years more, during which the Hulots could live on his salaries, added to by the Marshal's investments, Victorin would be in a splendid position.
This was manna from heaven. Victorin could give up the first floor of his own house to his mother, and the second to Hortense, excepting two rooms reserved for Lisbeth. With Cousin Betty as the housekeeper, this compound household could bear all these charges, and yet keep up a good appearance, as beseemed a pleader of note. The great stars of the law-courts were rapidly disappearing; and Victorin Hulot, gifted with a shrewd tongue and strict honesty, was listened to by the Bench and Councillors; he studied his cases thoroughly, and advanced nothing that he could not prove. He would not hold every brief that offered; in fact, he was a credit to the bar.
The Baroness' home in the Rue Plumet had become so odious to her, that she allowed herself to be taken to the Rue Louis-le-Grand. Thus, by her son's care, Adeline occupied a fine apartment; she was spared all the daily worries of life; for Lisbeth consented to begin again, working wonders of domestic economy, such as she had achieved for Madame Marneffe, seeing here a way of exerting her silent vengeance on those three noble lives, the object, each, of her hatred, which was kept growing by the overthrow of all her hopes.
Once a month she went to see Valerie, sent, indeed, by Hortense, who wanted news of Wenceslas, and by Celestine, who was seriously uneasy at the acknowledged and well-known connection between her father and a woman to whom her mother-in-law and sister-in-law owed their ruin and their sorrows. As may be supposed, Lisbeth took advantage of this to see Valerie as often as possible.
Thus, about twenty months passed by, during which the Baroness recovered her health, though her palsied trembling never left her. She made herself familiar with her duties, which afforded her a noble distraction from her sorrow and constant food for the divine goodness of her heart. She also regarded it as an opportunity for finding her husband in the course of one of those expeditions which took her into every part of Paris.
During this time, Vauvinet had been paid, and the pension of six thousand francs was almost redeemed. Victorin could maintain his mother as well as Hortense out of the ten thousand francs interest on the money left by Marshal Hulot in trust for them. Adeline's salary amounted to six thousand francs a year; and this, added to the Baron's pension when it was freed, would presently secure an income of twelve thousand francs a year to the mother and daughter.
Thus, the poor woman would have been almost happy but for her perpetual anxieties as to the Baron's fate; for she longed to have him with her to share the improved fortunes that smiled on the family; and but for the constant sight of her forsaken daughter; and but for the terrible thrusts constantly and unconsciously dealt her by Lisbeth, whose diabolical character had free course.