A scene which took place at the beginning of the month of March 1843 will show the results of Lisbeth's latent and persistent hatred, still seconded, as she always was, by Madame Marneffe.
Two great events had occurred in the Marneffe household. In the first place, Valerie had given birth to a still-born child, whose little coffin had cost her two thousand francs a year. And then, as to Marneffe himself, eleven months since, this is the report given by Lisbeth to the Hulot family one day on her return from a visit of discovery at the hotel Marneffe.
"This morning," said she, "that dreadful Valerie sent for Doctor Bianchon to ask whether the medical men who had condemned her husband yesterday had made no mistake. Bianchon pronounced that to-night at the latest that horrible creature will depart to the torments that await him. Old Crevel and Madame Marneffe saw the doctor out; and your father, my dear Celestine, gave him five gold pieces for his good news.
"When he came back into the drawing-room, Crevel cut capers like a dancer; he embraced that woman, exclaiming, 'Then, at last, you will be Madame Crevel!'—And to me, when she had gone back to her husband's bedside, for he was at his last gasp, your noble father said to me, 'With Valerie as my wife, I can become a peer of France! I shall buy an estate I have my eye on—Presles, which Madame de Serizy wants to sell. I shall be Crevel de Presles, member of the Common Council of Seine-et-Oise, and Deputy. I shall have a son! I shall be everything I have ever wished to be.'—'Heh!' said I, 'and what about your daughter?'—'Bah!' says he, 'she is only a woman! And she is quite too much of a Hulot. Valerie has a horror of them all.—My son-in-law has never chosen to come to this house; why has he given himself such airs as a Mentor, a Spartan, a Puritan, a philanthropist? Besides, I have squared accounts with my daughter; she has had all her mother's fortune, and two hundred thousand francs to that. So I am free to act as I please.—I shall judge of my son-in-law and Celestine by their conduct on my marriage; as they behave, so shall I. If they are nice to their stepmother, I will receive them. I am a man, after all!'—In short, all this rhodomontade! And an attitude like Napoleon on the column."
The ten months' widowhood insisted on by the law had now elapsed some few days since. The estate of Presles was purchased. Victorin and Celestine had that very morning sent Lisbeth to make inquiries as to the marriage of the fascinating widow to the Mayor of Paris, now a member of the Common Council of the Department of Seine-et-Oise.
Celestine and Hortense, in whom the ties of affection had been drawn closer since they had lived under the same roof, were almost inseparable. The Baroness, carried away by a sense of honesty which led her to exaggerate the duties of her place, devoted herself to the work of charity of which she was the agent; she was out almost every day from eleven till five. The sisters-in-law, united in their cares for the children whom they kept together, sat at home and worked. They had arrived at the intimacy which thinks aloud, and were a touching picture of two sisters, one cheerful and the other sad. The less happy of the two, handsome, lively, high-spirited, and clever, seemed by her manner to defy her painful situation; while the melancholy Celestine, sweet and calm, and as equable as reason itself, might have been supposed to have some secret grief. It was this contradiction, perhaps, that added to their warm friendship. Each supplied the other with what she lacked.
Seated in a little summer-house in the garden, which the speculator's trowel had spared by some fancy of the builder's, who believed that he was preserving these hundred feet square of earth for his own pleasure, they were admiring the first green shoots of the lilac-trees, a spring festival which can only be fully appreciated in Paris when the inhabitants have lived for six months oblivious of what vegetation means, among the cliffs of stone where the ocean of humanity tosses to and fro.
"Celestine," said Hortense to her sister-in-law, who had complained that in such fine weather her husband should be kept at the Chamber, "I think you do not fully appreciate your happiness. Victorin is a perfect angel, and you sometimes torment him."
"My dear, men like to be tormented! Certain ways of teasing are a proof of affection. If your poor mother had only been—I will not say exacting, but always prepared to be exacting, you would not have had so much to grieve over."
"Lisbeth is not come back. I shall have to sing the song of Malbrouck," said Hortense. "I do long for some news of Wenceslas!—What does he live on? He has not done a thing these two years."
"Victorin saw him, he told me, with that horrible woman not long ago; and he fancied that she maintains him in idleness.—If you only would, dear soul, you might bring your husband back to you yet."
Hortense shook her head.
"Believe me," Celestine went on, "the position will ere long be intolerable. In the first instance, rage, despair, indignation, gave you strength. The awful disasters that have come upon us since—two deaths, ruin, and the disappearance of Baron Hulot—have occupied your mind and heart; but now you live in peace and silence, you will find it hard to bear the void in your life; and as you cannot, and will never leave the path of virtue, you will have to be reconciled to Wenceslas. Victorin, who loves you so much, is of that opinion. There is something stronger than one's feelings even, and that is Nature!"
"But such a mean creature!" cried the proud Hortense. "He cares for that woman because she feeds him.—And has she paid his debts, do you suppose?—Good Heaven! I think of that man's position day and night! He is the father of my child, and he is degrading himself."
"But look at your mother, my dear," said Celestine.
Celestine was one of those women who, when you have given them reasons enough to convince a Breton peasant, still go back for the hundredth time to their original argument. The character of her face, somewhat flat, dull, and common, her light-brown hair in stiff, neat bands, her very complexion spoke of a sensible woman, devoid of charm, but also devoid of weakness.
"The Baroness would willingly go to join her husband in his disgrace, to comfort him and hide him in her heart from every eye," Celestine went on. "Why, she has a room made ready upstairs for Monsieur Hulot, as if she expected to find him and bring him home from one day to the next."
"Oh yes, my mother is sublime!" replied Hortense. "She has been so every minute of every day for six-and-twenty years; but I am not like her, it is not my nature.—How can I help it? I am angry with myself sometimes; but you do not know, Celestine, what it would be to make terms with infamy."
"There is my father!" said Celestine placidly. "He has certainly started on the road that ruined yours. He is ten years younger than the Baron, to be sure, and was only a tradesman; but how can it end? This Madame Marneffe has made a slave of my father; he is her dog; she is mistress of his fortune and his opinions, and nothing can open his eyes. I tremble when I remember that their banns of marriage are already published!—My husband means to make a last attempt; he thinks it a duty to try to avenge society and the family, and bring that woman to account for all her crimes. Alas! my dear Hortense, such lofty souls as Victorin and hearts like ours come too late to a comprehension of the world and its ways!—This is a secret, dear, and I have told you because you are interested in it, but never by a word or a look betray it to Lisbeth, or your mother, or anybody, for—"
"Here is Lisbeth!" said Hortense. "Well, cousin, and how is the Inferno of the Rue Barbet going on?"
"Badly for you, my children.—Your husband, my dear Hortense, is more crazy about that woman than ever, and she, I must own, is madly in love with him.—Your father, dear Celestine, is gloriously blind. That, to be sure, is nothing; I have had occasion to see it once a fortnight; really, I am lucky never to have had anything to do with men, they are besotted creatures.—Five days hence you, dear child, and Victorin will have lost your father's fortune."
"Then the banns are cried?" said Celestine.
"Yes," said Lisbeth, "and I have just been arguing your case. I pointed out to that monster, who is going the way of the other, that if he would only get you out of the difficulties you are in by paying off the mortgage on the house, you would show your gratitude and receive your stepmother—"
Hortense started in horror.
"Victorin will see about that," said Celestine coldly.
"But do you know what Monsieur le Maire's answer was?" said Lisbeth. "'I mean to leave them where they are. Horses can only be broken in by lack of food, sleep, and sugar.'—Why, Baron Hulot was not so bad as Monsieur Crevel.
"So, my poor dears, you may say good-bye to the money. And such a fine fortune! Your father paid three million francs for the Presles estate, and he has thirty thousand francs a year in stocks! Oh!—he has no secrets from me. He talks of buying the Hotel de Navarreins, in the Rue du Bac. Madame Marneffe herself has forty thousand francs a year.—Ah!—here is our guardian angel, here comes your mother!" she exclaimed, hearing the rumble of wheels.
And presently the Baroness came down the garden steps and joined the party. At fifty-five, though crushed by so many troubles, and constantly trembling as if shivering with ague, Adeline, whose face was indeed pale and wrinkled, still had a fine figure, a noble outline, and natural dignity. Those who saw her said, "She must have been beautiful!" Worn with the grief of not knowing her husband's fate, of being unable to share with him this oasis in the heart of Paris, this peace and seclusion and the better fortune that was dawning on the family, her beauty was the beauty of a ruin. As each gleam of hope died out, each day of search proved vain, Adeline sank into fits of deep melancholy that drove her children to despair.
The Baroness had gone out that morning with fresh hopes, and was anxiously expected. An official, who was under obligations to Hulot, to whom he owed his position and advancement, declared that he had seen the Baron in a box at the Ambigu-Comique theatre with a woman of extraordinary beauty. So Adeline had gone to call on the Baron Verneuil. This important personage, while asserting that he had positively seen his old patron, and that his behaviour to the woman indicated an illicit establishment, told Madame Hulot that to avoid meeting him the Baron had left long before the end of the play.
"He looked like a man at home with the damsel, but his dress betrayed some lack of means," said he in conclusion.
"Well?" said the three women as the Baroness came towards them.
"Well, Monsieur Hulot is in Paris; and to me," said Adeline, "it is a gleam of happiness only to know that he is within reach of us."
"But he does not seem to have mended his ways," Lisbeth remarked when Adeline had finished her report of her visit to Baron Verneuil. "He has taken up some little work-girl. But where can he get the money from? I could bet that he begs of his former mistresses—Mademoiselle Jenny Cadine or Josepha."
The Baroness trembled more severely than ever; every nerve quivered; she wiped away the tears that rose to her eyes and looked mournfully up to heaven.
"I cannot think that a Grand Commander of the Legion of Honor will have fallen so low," said she.
"For his pleasure what would he not do?" said Lisbeth. "He robbed the State, he will rob private persons, commit murder—who knows?"
"Oh, Lisbeth!" cried the Baroness, "keep such thoughts to yourself."
At this moment Louise came up to the family group, now increased by the arrival of the two Hulot children and little Wenceslas to see if their grandmother's pockets did not contain some sweetmeats.
"What is it, Louise?" asked one and another.
"A man who wants to see Mademoiselle Fischer."
"Who is the man?" asked Lisbeth.
"He is in rags, mademoiselle, and covered with flue like a mattress-picker; his nose is red, and he smells of brandy.—He is one of those men who work half of the week at most."
This uninviting picture had the effect of making Lisbeth hurry into the courtyard of the house in the Rue Louis-le-Grand, where she found a man smoking a pipe colored in a style that showed him an artist in tobacco.
"Why have you come here, Pere Chardin?" she asked. "It is understood that you go, on the first Saturday in every month, to the gate of the Hotel Marneffe, Rue Barbet-de-Jouy. I have just come back after waiting there for five hours, and you did not come."
"I did go there, good and charitable lady!" replied the mattress-picker. "But there was a game at pool going on at the Cafe des Savants, Rue du Cerf-Volant, and every man has his fancy. Now, mine is billiards. If it wasn't for billiards, I might be eating off silver plate. For, I tell you this," and he fumbled for a scrap of paper in his ragged trousers pocket, "it is billiards that leads on to a dram and plum-brandy.—It is ruinous, like all fine things, in the things it leads to. I know your orders, but the old 'un is in such a quandary that I came on to forbidden grounds.—If the hair was all hair, we might sleep sound on it; but it is mixed. God is not for all, as the saying goes. He has His favorites—well, He has the right. Now, here is the writing of your estimable relative and my very good friend—his political opinion."
Chardin attempted to trace some zigzag lines in the air with the forefinger of his right hand.
Lisbeth, not listening to him, read these few words:
"DEAR COUSIN,—Be my Providence; give me three hundred francs this
"What does he want so much money for?"
"The lan'lord!" said Chardin, still trying to sketch arabesques. "And then my son, you see, has come back from Algiers through Spain and Bayonee, and, and—he has found nothing—against his rule, for a sharp cove is my son, saving your presence. How can he help it, he is in want of food; but he will repay all we lend him, for he is going to get up a company. He has ideas, he has, that will carry him—"
"To the police court," Lisbeth put in. "He murdered my uncle; I shall not forget that."
"He—why, he could not bleed a chicken, honorable lady."
"Here are the three hundred francs," said Lisbeth, taking fifteen gold pieces out of her purse. "Now, go, and never come here again."
She saw the father of the Oran storekeeper off the premises, and pointed out the drunken old creature to the porter.
"At any time when that man comes here, if by chance he should come again, do not let him in. If he should ask whether Monsieur Hulot junior or Madame la Baronne Hulot lives here, tell him you know of no such persons."
"Very good, mademoiselle."
"Your place depends on it if you make any mistake, even without intending it," said Lisbeth, in the woman's ear.—"Cousin," she went on to Victorin, who just now came in, "a great misfortune is hanging over your head."
"What is that?" said Victorin.
"Within a few days Madame Marneffe will be your wife's stepmother."
"That remains to be seen," replied Victorin.
For six months past Lisbeth had very regularly paid a little allowance to Baron Hulot, her former protector, whom she now protected; she knew the secret of his dwelling-place, and relished Adeline's tears, saying to her, as we have seen, when she saw her cheerful and hopeful, "You may expect to find my poor cousin's name in the papers some day under the heading 'Police Report.'"
But in this, as on a former occasion, she let her vengeance carry her too far. She had aroused the prudent suspicions of Victorin. He had resolved to be rid of this Damocles' sword so constantly flourished over them by Lisbeth, and of the female demon to whom his mother and the family owed so many woes. The Prince de Wissembourg, knowing all about Madame Marneffe's conduct, approved of the young lawyer's secret project; he had promised him, as a President of the Council can promise, the secret assistance of the police, to enlighten Crevel and rescue a fine fortune from the clutches of the diabolical courtesan, whom he could not forgive either for causing the death of Marshal Hulot or for the Baron's utter ruin.
The words spoken by Lisbeth, "He begs of his former mistresses," haunted the Baroness all night. Like sick men given over by the physicians, who have recourse to quacks, like men who have fallen into the lowest Dantesque circle of despair, or drowning creatures who mistake a floating stick for a hawser, she ended by believing in the baseness of which the mere idea had horrified her; and it occurred to her that she might apply for help to one of those terrible women.
Next morning, without consulting her children or saying a word to anybody, she went to see Mademoiselle Josepha Mirah, prima donna of the Royal Academy of Music, to find or to lose the hope that had gleamed before her like a will-o'-the-wisp. At midday, the great singer's waiting-maid brought her in the card of the Baronne Hulot, saying that this person was waiting at the door, having asked whether Mademoiselle could receive her.
"Are the rooms done?"
"And the flowers fresh?"
"Just tell Jean to look round and see that everything is as it should be before showing the lady in, and treat her with the greatest respect. Go, and come back to dress me—I must look my very best."
She went to study herself in the long glass.
"Now, to put our best foot foremost!" said she to herself. "Vice under arms to meet virtue!—Poor woman, what can she want of me? I cannot bear to see.
"The noble victim of outrageous fortune!"
And she sang through the famous aria as the maid came in again.
"Madame," said the girl, "the lady has a nervous trembling—"
"Offer her some orange-water, some rum, some broth—"
"I did, mademoiselle; but she declines everything, and says it is an infirmity, a nervous complaint—"
"Where is she?"
"In the big drawing-room."
"Well, make haste, child. Give me my smartest slippers, the dressing-gown embroidered by Bijou, and no end of lace frills. Do my hair in a way to astonish a woman.—This woman plays a part against mine; and tell the lady—for she is a real, great lady, my girl, nay, more, she is what you will never be, a woman whose prayers can rescue souls from your purgatory—tell her I was in bed, as I was playing last night, and that I am just getting up."
The Baroness, shown into Josepha's handsome drawing-room, did not note how long she was kept waiting there, though it was a long half hour. This room, entirely redecorated even since Josepha had had the house, was hung with silk in purple and gold color. The luxury which fine gentlemen were wont to lavish on their petites maisons, the scenes of their profligacy, of which the remains still bear witness to the follies from which they were so aptly named, was displayed to perfection, thanks to modern inventiveness, in the four rooms opening into each other, where the warm temperature was maintained by a system of hot-air pipes with invisible openings.
The Baroness, quite bewildered, examined each work of art with the greatest amazement. Here she found fortunes accounted for that melt in the crucible under which pleasure and vanity feed the devouring flames. This woman, who for twenty-six years had lived among the dead relics of imperial magnificence, whose eyes were accustomed to carpets patterned with faded flowers, rubbed gilding, silks as forlorn as her heart, half understood the powerful fascinations of vice as she studied its results. It was impossible not to wish to possess these beautiful things, these admirable works of art, the creation of the unknown talent which abounds in Paris in our day and produces treasures for all Europe. Each thing had the novel charm of unique perfection. The models being destroyed, every vase, every figure, every piece of sculpture was the original. This is the crowning grace of modern luxury. To own the thing which is not vulgarized by the two thousand wealthy citizens whose notion of luxury is the lavish display of the splendors that shops can supply, is the stamp of true luxury—the luxury of the fine gentlemen of the day, the shooting stars of the Paris firmament.
As she examined the flower-stands, filled with the choicest exotic plants, mounted in chased brass and inlaid in the style of Boulle, the Baroness was scared by the idea of the wealth in this apartment. And this impression naturally shed a glamour over the person round whom all this profusion was heaped. Adeline imagined that Josepha Mirah—whose portrait by Joseph Bridau was the glory of the adjoining boudoir—must be a singer of genius, a Malibran, and she expected to see a real star. She was sorry she had come. But she had been prompted by a strong and so natural a feeling, by such purely disinterested devotion, that she collected all her courage for the interview. Besides, she was about to satisfy her urgent curiosity, to see for herself what was the charm of this kind of women, that they could extract so much gold from the miserly ore of Paris mud.
The Baroness looked at herself to see if she were not a blot on all this splendor; but she was well dressed in her velvet gown, with a little cape trimmed with beautiful lace, and her velvet bonnet of the same shade was becoming. Seeing herself still as imposing as any queen, always a queen even in her fall, she reflected that the dignity of sorrow was a match for the dignity of talent.
At last, after much opening and shutting of doors, she saw Josepha. The singer bore a strong resemblance to Allori's Judith, which dwells in the memory of all who have ever seen it in the Pitti palace, near the door of one of the great rooms. She had the same haughty mien, the same fine features, black hair simply knotted, and a yellow wrapper with little embroidered flowers, exactly like the brocade worn by the immortal homicide conceived of by Bronzino's nephew.
"Madame la Baronne, I am quite overwhelmed by the honor you do me in coming here," said the singer, resolved to play her part as a great lady with a grace.
She pushed forward an easy-chair for the Baroness and seated herself on a stool. She discerned the faded beauty of the woman before her, and was filled with pity as she saw her shaken by the nervous palsy that, on the least excitement, became convulsive. She could read at a glance the saintly life described to her of old by Hulot and Crevel; and she not only ceased to think of a contest with her, she humiliated herself before a superiority she appreciated. The great artist could admire what the courtesan laughed to scorn.
"Mademoiselle, despair brought me here. It reduces us to any means—"
A look in Josepha's face made the Baroness feel that she had wounded the woman from whom she hoped for so much, and she looked at her. Her beseeching eyes extinguished the flash in Josepha's; the singer smiled. It was a wordless dialogue of pathetic eloquence.
"It is now two years and a half since Monsieur Hulot left his family, and I do not know where to find him, though I know that he lives in Paris," said the Baroness with emotion. "A dream suggested to me the idea—an absurd one perhaps—that you may have interested yourself in Monsieur Hulot. If you could enable me to see him—oh! mademoiselle, I would pray Heaven for you every day as long as I live in this world—"
Two large tears in the singer's eyes told what her reply would be.
"Madame," said she, "I have done you an injury without knowing you; but, now that I have the happiness of seeing in you the most perfect virtue on earth, believe me I am sensible of the extent of my fault; I repent sincerely, and believe me, I will do all in my power to remedy it!"
She took Madame Hulot's hand and before the lady could do anything to hinder her, she kissed it respectfully, even humbling herself to bend one knee. Then she rose, as proud as when she stood on the stage in the part of Mathilde, and rang the bell.
"Go on horseback," said she to the man-servant, "and kill the horse if you must, to find little Bijou, Rue Saint-Maur-du-Temple, and bring her here. Put her into a coach and pay the coachman to come at a gallop. Do not lose a moment—or you lose your place.
"Madame," she went on, coming back to the Baroness, and speaking to her in respectful tones, "you must forgive me. As soon as the Duc d'Herouville became my protector, I dismissed the Baron, having heard that he was ruining his family for me. What more could I do? In an actress' career a protector is indispensable from the first day of her appearance on the boards. Our salaries do not pay half our expenses; we must have a temporary husband. I did not value Monsieur Hulot, who took me away from a rich man, a conceited idiot. Old Crevel would undoubtedly have married me—"
"So he told me," said the Baroness, interrupting her.
"Well, then, you see, madame, I might at this day have been an honest woman, with only one legitimate husband!"
"You have many excuses, mademoiselle," said Adeline, "and God will take them into account. But, for my part, far from reproaching you, I came, on the contrary, to make myself your debtor in gratitude—"
"Madame, for nearly three years I have provided for Monsieur le Baron's necessities—"
"You?" interrupted the Baroness, with tears in her eyes. "Oh, what can I do for you? I can only pray—"
"I and Monsieur le Duc d'Herouville," the singer said, "a noble soul, a true gentleman—" and Josepha related the settling and marriage of Monsieur Thoul.
"And so, thanks to you, mademoiselle, the Baron has wanted nothing?"
"We have done our best to that end, madame."
"And where is he now?"
"About six months ago, Monsieur le Duc told me that the Baron, known to the notary by the name of Thoul, had drawn all the eight thousand francs that were to have been paid to him in fixed sums once a quarter," replied Josepha. "We have heard no more of the Baron, neither I nor Monsieur d'Herouville. Our lives are so full, we artists are so busy, that I really have not time to run after old Thoul. As it happens, for the last six months, Bijou, who works for me—his—what shall I say—?"
"His mistress," said Madame Hulot.
"His mistress," repeated Josepha, "has not been here. Mademoiselle Olympe Bijou is perhaps divorced. Divorce is common in the thirteenth arrondissement."
Josepha rose, and foraging among the rare plants in her stands, made a charming bouquet for Madame Hulot, whose expectations, it may be said, were by no means fulfilled. Like those worthy fold, who take men of genius to be a sort of monsters, eating, drinking, walking, and speaking unlike other people, the Baroness had hoped to see Josepha the opera singer, the witch, the amorous and amusing courtesan; she saw a calm and well-mannered woman, with the dignity of talent, the simplicity of an actress who knows herself to be at night a queen, and also, better than all, a woman of the town whose eyes, attitude, and demeanor paid full and ungrudging homage to the virtuous wife, the Mater dolorosa of the sacred hymn, and who was crowning her sorrows with flowers, as the Madonna is crowned in Italy.
"Madame," said the man-servant, reappearing at the end of half an hour, "Madame Bijou is on her way, but you are not to expect little Olympe. Your needle-woman, madame, is settled in life; she is married—"
"More or less?" said Josepha.
"No, madame, really married. She is at the head of a very fine business; she has married the owner of a large and fashionable shop, on which they have spent millions of francs, on the Boulevard des Italiens; and she has left the embroidery business to her sister and mother. She is Madame Grenouville. The fat tradesman—"
"Yes, madame," said the man. "Well, he has settled thirty thousand francs a year on Mademoiselle Bijou by the marriage articles. And her elder sister, they say, is going to be married to a rich butcher."
"Your business looks rather hopeless, I am afraid," said Josepha to the Baroness. "Monsieur le Baron is no longer where I lodged him."
Ten minutes later Madame Bijou was announced. Josepha very prudently placed the Baroness in the boudoir, and drew the curtain over the door.
"You would scare her," said she to Madame Hulot. "She would let nothing out if she suspected that you were interested in the information. Leave me to catechise her. Hide there, and you will hear everything. It is a scene that is played quite as often in real life as on the stage—"
"Well, Mother Bijou," she said to an old woman dressed in tartan stuff, and who looked like a porter's wife in her Sunday best, "so you are all very happy? Your daughter is in luck."
"Oh, happy? As for that!—My daughter gives us a hundred francs a month, while she rides in a carriage and eats off silver plate—she is a millionary, is my daughter! Olympe might have lifted me above labor. To have to work at my age? Is that being good to me?"
"She ought not to be ungrateful, for she owes her beauty to you," replied Josepha; "but why did she not come to see me? It was I who placed her in ease by settling her with my uncle."
"Yes, madame, with old Monsieur Thoul, but he is very old and broken—"
"But what have you done with him? Is he with you? She was very foolish to leave him; he is worth millions now."
"Heaven above us!" cried the mother. "What did I tell her when she behaved so badly to him, and he as mild as milk, poor old fellow? Oh! didn't she just give it him hot?—Olympe was perverted, madame?"
"She got to know a claqueur, madame, saving your presence, a man paid to clap, you know, the grand nephew of an old mattress-picker of the Faubourg Saint-Marceau. This good-for-naught, as all your good-looking fellows are, paid to make a piece go, is the cock of the walk out on the Boulevard du Temple, where he works up the new plays, and takes care that the actresses get a reception, as he calls it. First, he has a good breakfast in the morning; then, before the play, he dines, to be 'up to the mark,' as he says; in short, he is a born lover of billiards and drams. 'But that is not following a trade,' as I said to Olympe."
"It is a trade men follow, unfortunately," said Josepha.
"Well, the rascal turned Olympe's head, and he, madame, did not keep good company—when I tell you he was very near being nabbed by the police in a tavern where thieves meet. 'Wever, Monsieur Braulard, the leader of the claque, got him out of that. He wears gold earrings, and he lives by doing nothing, hanging on to women, who are fools about these good-looking scamps. He spent all the money Monsieur Thoul used to give the child.
"Then the business was going to grief; what embroidery brought in went out across the billiard table. 'Wever, the young fellow had a pretty sister, madame, who, like her brother, lived by hook and by crook, and no better than she should be neither, over in the students' quarter."
"One of the sluts at the Chaumiere," said Josepha.
"So, madame," said the old woman. "So Idamore, his name is Idamore, leastways that is what he calls himself, for his real name is Chardin—Idamore fancied that your uncle had a deal more money than he owned to, and he managed to send his sister Elodie—and that was a stage name he gave her—to send her to be a workwoman at our place, without my daughter's knowing who she was; and, gracious goodness! but that girl turned the whole place topsy-turvy; she got all those poor girls into mischief—impossible to whitewash them, saving your presence——
"And she was so sharp, she won over poor old Thoul, and took him away, and we don't know where, and left us in a pretty fix, with a lot of bills coming in. To this day as ever is we have not been able to settle up; but my daughter, who knows all about such things, keeps an eye on them as they fall due.—Then, when Idamore saw he had got hold of the old man, through his sister, you understand, he threw over my daughter, and now he has got hold of a little actress at the Funambules.—And that was how my daughter came to get married, as you will see—"
"But you must know where the mattress-picker lives?" said Josepha.
"What! old Chardin? As if he lived anywhere at all!—He is drunk by six in the morning; he makes a mattress once a month; he hangs about the wineshops all day; he plays at pools—"
"He plays at pools?" said Josepha.
"You do not understand, madame, pools of billiards, I mean, and he wins three or four a day, and then he drinks."
"Water out of the pools, I suppose?" said Josepha. "But if Idamore haunts the Boulevard, by inquiring through my friend Vraulard, we could find him."
"I don't know, madame; all this was six months ago. Idamore was one of the sort who are bound to find their way into the police courts, and from that to Melun—and the—who knows—?"
"To the prison yard!" said Josepha.
"Well, madame, you know everything," said the old woman, smiling. "Well, if my girl had never known that scamp, she would now be—Still, she was in luck, all the same, you will say, for Monsieur Grenouville fell so much in love with her that he married her—"
"And what brought that about?"
"Olympe was desperate, madame. When she found herself left in the lurch for that little actress—and she took a rod out of pickle for her, I can tell you; my word, but she gave her a dressing!—and when she had lost poor old Thoul, who worshiped her, she would have nothing more to say to the men. 'Wever, Monsieur Grenouville, who had been dealing largely with us—to the tune of two hundred embroidered China-crape shawls every quarter—he wanted to console her; but whether or no, she would not listen to anything without the mayor and the priest. 'I mean to be respectable,' said she, 'or perish!' and she stuck to it. Monsieur Grenouville consented to marry her, on condition of her giving us all up, and we agreed—"
"For a handsome consideration?" said Josepha, with her usual perspicacity.
"Yes, madame, ten thousand francs, and an allowance to my father, who is past work."
"I begged your daughter to make old Thoul happy, and she has thrown me over. That is not fair. I will take no interest in any one for the future! That is what comes of trying to do good! Benevolence certainly does not answer as a speculation!—Olympe ought, at least, to have given me notice of this jobbing. Now, if you find the old man Thoul within a fortnight, I will give you a thousand francs."
"It will be a hard task, my good lady; still, there are a good many five-franc pieces in a thousand francs, and I will try to earn your money."
"Good-morning, then, Madame Bijou."
On going into the boudoir, the singer found that Madame Hulot had fainted; but in spite of having lost consciousness, her nervous trembling kept her still perpetually shaking, as the pieces of a snake that has been cut up still wriggle and move. Strong salts, cold water, and all the ordinary remedies were applied to recall the Baroness to her senses, or rather, to the apprehension of her sorrows.
"Ah! mademoiselle, how far has he fallen!" cried she, recognizing Josepha, and finding that she was alone with her.
"Take heart, madame," replied the actress, who had seated herself on a cushion at Adeline's feet, and was kissing her hands. "We shall find him; and if he is in the mire, well, he must wash himself. Believe me, with people of good breeding it is a matter of clothes.—Allow me to make up for you the harm I have done you, for I see how much you are attached to your husband, in spite of his misconduct—or you should not have come here.—Well, you see, the poor man is so fond of women. If you had had a little of our dash, you would have kept him from running about the world; for you would have been what we can never be—all the women man wants.
"The State ought to subsidize a school of manners for honest women! But governments are so prudish! Still, they are guided by men, whom we privately guide. My word, I pity nations!
"But the matter in question is how you can be helped, and not to laugh at the world.—Well, madame, be easy, go home again, and do not worry. I will bring your Hector back to you as he was as a man of thirty."
"Ah, mademoiselle, let us go to see that Madame Grenouville," said the Baroness. "She surely knows something! Perhaps I may see the Baron this very day, and be able to snatch him at once from poverty and disgrace."
"Madame, I will show you the deep gratitude I feel towards you by not displaying the stage-singer Josepha, the Duc d'Herouville's mistress, in the company of the noblest, saintliest image of virtue. I respect you too much to be seen by your side. This is not acted humility; it is sincere homage. You make me sorry, madame, that I cannot tread in your footsteps, in spite of the thorns that tear your feet and hands.—But it cannot be helped! I am one with art, as you are one with virtue."
"Poor child!" said the Baroness, moved amid her own sorrows by a strange sense of compassionate sympathy; "I will pray to God for you; for you are the victim of society, which must have theatres. When you are old, repent—you will be heard if God vouchsafes to hear the prayers of a—"
"Of a martyr, madame," Josepha put in, and she respectfully kissed the Baroness' skirt.
But Adeline took the actress' hand, and drawing her towards her, kissed her on the forehead. Coloring with pleasure Josepha saw the Baroness into the hackney coach with the humblest politeness.
"It must be some visiting Lady of Charity," said the man-servant to the maid, "for she does not do so much for any one, not even for her dear friend Madame Jenny Cadine."
"Wait a few days," said she, "and you will see him, madame, or I renounce the God of my fathers—and that from a Jewess, you know, is a promise of success."
At the very time when Madame Hulot was calling on Josepha, Victorin, in his study, was receiving an old woman of about seventy-five, who, to gain admission to the lawyer, had used the terrible name of the head of the detective force. The man in waiting announced:
"Madame de Saint-Esteve."
"I have assumed one of my business names," said she, taking a seat.
Victorin felt a sort of internal chill at the sight of this dreadful old woman. Though handsomely dressed, she was terrible to look upon, for her flat, colorless, strongly-marked face, furrowed with wrinkles, expressed a sort of cold malignity. Marat, as a woman of that age, might have been like this creature, a living embodiment of the Reign of Terror.
This sinister old woman's small, pale eyes twinkled with a tiger's bloodthirsty greed. Her broad, flat nose, with nostrils expanded into oval cavities, breathed the fires of hell, and resembled the beak of some evil bird of prey. The spirit of intrigue lurked behind her low, cruel brow. Long hairs had grown from her wrinkled chin, betraying the masculine character of her schemes. Any one seeing that woman's face would have said that artists had failed in their conceptions of Mephistopheles.
"My dear sir," she began, with a patronizing air, "I have long since given up active business of any kind. What I have come to you to do, I have undertaken, for the sake of my dear nephew, whom I love more than I could love a son of my own.—Now, the Head of the Police—to whom the President of the Council said a few words in his ear as regards yourself, in talking to Monsieur Chapuzot—thinks as the police ought not to appear in a matter of this description, you understand. They gave my nephew a free hand, but my nephew will have nothing to say to it, except as before the Council; he will not be seen in it."
"Then your nephew is—"
"You have hit it, and I am rather proud of him," said she, interrupting the lawyer, "for he is my pupil, and he soon could teach his teacher.—We have considered this case, and have come to our own conclusions. Will you hand over thirty thousand francs to have the whole thing taken off your hands? I will make a clean sweep of all, and you need not pay till the job is done."
"Do you know the persons concerned?"
"No, my dear sir; I look for information from you. What we are told is, that a certain old idiot has fallen into the clutches of a widow. This widow, of nine-and-twenty, has played her cards so well, that she has forty thousand francs a year, of which she has robbed two fathers of families. She is now about to swallow down eighty thousand francs a year by marrying an old boy of sixty-one. She will thus ruin a respectable family, and hand over this vast fortune to the child of some lover by getting rid at once of the old husband.—That is the case as stated."
"Quite correct," said Victorin. "My father-in-law, Monsieur Crevel—"
"Formerly a perfumer, a mayor—yes, I live in his district under the name of Ma'ame Nourrisson," said the woman.
"The other person is Madame Marneffe."
"I do not know," said Madame de Saint-Esteve. "But within three days I will be in a position to count her shifts."
"Can you hinder the marriage?" asked Victorin.
"How far have they got?"
"To the second time of asking."
"We must carry off the woman.—To-day is Sunday—there are but three days, for they will be married on Wednesday, no doubt; it is impossible.—But she may be killed—"
Victorin Hulot started with an honest man's horror at hearing these five words uttered in cold blood.
"Murder?" said he. "And how could you do it?"
"For forty years, now, monsieur, we have played the part of fate," replied she, with terrible pride, "and do just what we will in Paris. More than one family—even in the Faubourg Saint-Germain—has told me all its secrets, I can tell you. I have made and spoiled many a match, I have destroyed many a will and saved many a man's honor. I have in there," and she tapped her forehead, "a store of secrets which are worth thirty-six thousand francs a year to me; and you—you will be one of my lambs, hoh! Could such a woman as I am be what I am if she revealed her ways and means? I act.
"Whatever I may do, sir, will be the result of an accident; you need feel no remorse. You will be like a man cured by a clairvoyant; by the end of a month, it seems all the work of Nature."
Victorin broke out in a cold sweat. The sight of an executioner would have shocked him less than this prolix and pretentious Sister of the Hulks. As he looked at her purple-red gown, she seemed to him dyed in blood.
"Madame, I do not accept the help of your experience and skill if success is to cost anybody's life, or the least criminal act is to come of it."
"You are a great baby, monsieur," replied the woman; "you wish to remain blameless in your own eyes, while you want your enemy to be overthrown."
Victorin shook his head in denial.
"Yes," she went on, "you want this Madame Marneffe to drop the prey she has between her teeth. But how do you expect to make a tiger drop his piece of beef? Can you do it by patting his back and saying, 'Poor Puss'? You are illogical. You want a battle fought, but you object to blows.—Well, I grant you the innocence you are so careful over. I have always found that there was material for hypocrisy in honesty! One day, three months hence, a poor priest will come to beg of you forty thousand francs for a pious work—a convent to be rebuilt in the Levant—in the desert.—If you are satisfied with your lot, give the good man the money. You will pay more than that into the treasury. It will be a mere trifle in comparison with what you will get, I can tell you."
She rose, standing on the broad feet that seemed to overflow her satin shoes; she smiled, bowed, and vanished.
"The Devil has a sister," said Victorin, rising.
He saw the hideous stranger to the door, a creature called up from the dens of the police, as on the stage a monster comes up from the third cellar at the touch of a fairy's wand in a ballet-extravaganza.
After finishing what he had to do at the Courts, Victorin went to call on Monsieur Chapuzot, the head of one of the most important branches of the Central Police, to make some inquiries about the stranger. Finding Monsieur Chapuzot alone in his office, Victorin thanked him for his help.
"You sent me an old woman who might stand for the incarnation of the criminal side of Paris."
Monsieur Chapuzot laid his spectacles on his papers and looked at the lawyer with astonishment.
"I should not have taken the liberty of sending anybody to see you without giving you notice beforehand, or a line of introduction," said he.
"Then it was Monsieur le Prefet—?"
"I think not," said Chapuzot. "The last time that the Prince de Wissembourg dined with the Minister of the Interior, he spoke to the Prefet of the position in which you find yourself—a deplorable position—and asked him if you could be helped in any friendly way. The Prefet, who was interested by the regrets his Excellency expressed as to this family affair, did me the honor to consult me about it.
"Ever since the present Prefet has held the reins of this department—so useful and so vilified—he has made it a rule that family matters are never to be interfered in. He is right in principle and in morality; but in practice he is wrong. In the forty-five years that I have served in the police, it did, from 1799 till 1815, great services in family concerns. Since 1820 a constitutional government and the press have completely altered the conditions of existence. So my advice, indeed, was not to intervene in such a case, and the Prefet did me the honor to agree with my remarks. The Head of the detective branch has orders, in my presence, to take no steps; so if you have had any one sent to you by him, he will be reprimanded. It might cost him his place. 'The Police will do this or that,' is easily said; the Police, the Police! But, my dear sir, the Marshal and the Ministerial Council do not know what the Police is. The Police alone knows the Police; but as for ours, only Fouche, Monsieur Lenoir, and Monsieur de Sartines have had any notion of it.—Everything is changed now; we are reduced and disarmed! I have seen many private disasters develop, which I could have checked with five grains of despotic power.—We shall be regretted by the very men who have crippled us when they, like you, stand face to face with some moral monstrosities, which ought to be swept away as we sweep away mud! In public affairs the Police is expected to foresee everything, or when the safety of the public is involved—but the family?—It is sacred! I would do my utmost to discover and hinder a plot against the King's life, I would see through the walls of a house; but as to laying a finger on a household, or peeping into private interests—never, so long as I sit in this office. I should be afraid."
"Of the Press, Monsieur le Depute, of the left centre."
"What, then, can I do?" said Hulot, after a pause.
"Well, you are the Family," said the official. "That settles it; you can do what you please. But as to helping you, as to using the Police as an instrument of private feelings, and interests, how is it possible? There lies, you see, the secret of the persecution, necessary, but pronounced illegal, by the Bench, which was brought to bear against the predecessor of our present chief detective. Bibi-Lupin undertook investigations for the benefit of private persons. This might have led to great social dangers. With the means at his command, the man would have been formidable, an underlying fate—"
"But in my place?" said Hulot.
"Why, you ask my advice? You who sell it!" replied Monsieur Chapuzot. "Come, come, my dear sir, you are making fun of me."
Hulot bowed to the functionary, and went away without seeing that gentleman's almost imperceptible shrug as he rose to open the door.
"And he wants to be a statesman!" said Chapuzot to himself as he returned to his reports.
Victorin went home, still full of perplexities which he could confide to no one.
At dinner the Baroness joyfully announced to her children that within a month their father might be sharing their comforts, and end his days in peace among his family.
"Oh, I would gladly give my three thousand six hundred francs a year to see the Baron here!" cried Lisbeth. "But, my dear Adeline, do not dream beforehand of such happiness, I entreat you!"
"Lisbeth is right," said Celestine. "My dear mother, wait till the end."
The Baroness, all feeling and all hope, related her visit to Josepha, expressed her sense of the misery of such women in the midst of good fortune, and mentioned Chardin the mattress-picker, the father of the Oran storekeeper, thus showing that her hopes were not groundless.
By seven next morning Lisbeth had driven in a hackney coach to the Quai de la Tournelle, and stopped the vehicle at the corner of the Rue de Poissy.
"Go to the Rue des Bernardins," said she to the driver, "No. 7, a house with an entry and no porter. Go up to the fourth floor, ring at the door to the left, on which you will see 'Mademoiselle Chardin—Lace and shawls mended.' She will answer the door. Ask for the Chevalier. She will say he is out. Say in reply, 'Yes, I know, but find him, for his bonne is out on the quay in a coach, and wants to see him.'"
Twenty minutes later, an old man, who looked about eighty, with perfectly white hair, and a nose reddened by the cold, and a pale, wrinkled face like an old woman's, came shuffling slowly along in list slippers, a shiny alpaca overcoat hanging on his stooping shoulders, no ribbon at his buttonhole, the sleeves of an under-vest showing below his coat-cuffs, and his shirt-front unpleasantly dingy. He approached timidly, looked at the coach, recognized Lisbeth, and came to the window.
"Why, my dear cousin, what a state you are in!"
"Elodie keeps everything for herself," said Baron Hulot. "Those Chardins are a blackguard crew."
"Will you come home to us?"
"Oh, no, no!" cried the old man. "I would rather go to America."
"Adeline is on the scent."
"Oh, if only some one would pay my debts!" said the Baron, with a suspicious look, "for Samanon is after me."
"We have not paid up the arrears yet; your son still owes a hundred thousand francs."
"And your pension will not be free before seven or eight months.—If you will wait a minute, I have two thousand francs here."
The Baron held out his hand with fearful avidity.
"Give it me, Lisbeth, and may God reward you! Give it me; I know where to go."
"But you will tell me, old wretch?"
"Yes, yes. Then I can wait eight months, for I have discovered a little angel, a good child, an innocent thing not old enough to be depraved."
"Do not forget the police-court," said Lisbeth, who flattered herself that she would some day see Hulot there.
"No.—It is in the Rue de Charonne," said the Baron, "a part of the town where no fuss is made about anything. No one will ever find me there. I am called Pere Thorec, Lisbeth, and I shall be taken for a retired cabinet-maker; the girl is fond of me, and I will not allow my back to be shorn any more."
"No, that has been done," said Lisbeth, looking at his coat. "Supposing I take you there."
Baron Hulot got into the coach, deserting Mademoiselle Elodie without taking leave of her, as he might have tossed aside a novel he had finished.
In half an hour, during which Baron Hulot talked to Lisbeth of nothing but little Atala Judici—for he had fallen by degrees to those base passions that ruin old men—she set him down with two thousand francs in his pocket, in the Rue de Charonne, Faubourg Saint-Antoine, at the door of a doubtful and sinister-looking house.
"Good-day, cousin; so now you are to be called Thorec, I suppose? Send none but commissionaires if you need me, and always take them from different parts."
"Trust me! Oh, I am really very lucky!" said the Baron, his face beaming with the prospect of new and future happiness.
"No one can find him there," said Lisbeth; and she paid the coach at the Boulevard Beaumarchais, and returned to the Rue Louis-le-Grand in the omnibus.
On the following day Crevel was announced at the hour when all the family were together in the drawing-room, just after breakfast. Celestine flew to throw her arms round her father's neck, and behaved as if she had seen him only the day before, though in fact he had not called there for more than two years.
"Good-morning, father," said Victorin, offering his hand.
"Good-morning, children," said the pompous Crevel. "Madame la Baronne, I throw myself at your feet! Good Heavens, how the children grow! they are pushing us off the perch—'Grand-pa,' they say, 'we want our turn in the sunshine.'—Madame la Comtesse, you are as lovely as ever," he went on, addressing Hortense.—"Ah, ha! and here is the best of good money: Cousin Betty, the Wise Virgin."
"Why, you are really very comfortable here," said he, after scattering these greetings with a cackle of loud laughter that hardly moved the rubicund muscles of his broad face.
He looked at his daughter with some contempt.
"My dear Celestine, I will make you a present of all my furniture out of the Rue des Saussayes; it will just do here. Your drawing-room wants furnishing up.—Ha! there is that little rogue Wenceslas. Well, and are we very good children, I wonder? You must have pretty manners, you know."
"To make up for those who have none," said Lisbeth.
"That sarcasm, my dear Lisbeth, has lost its sting. I am going, my dear children, to put an end to the false position in which I have so long been placed; I have come, like a good father, to announce my approaching marriage without any circumlocution."
"You have a perfect right to marry," said Victorin. "And for my part, I give you back the promise you made me when you gave me the hand of my dear Celestine—"
"What promise?" said Crevel.
"Not to marry," replied the lawyer. "You will do me the justice to allow that I did not ask you to pledge yourself, that you gave your word quite voluntarily and in spite of my desire, for I pointed out to you at the time that you were unwise to bind yourself."
"Yes, I do remember, my dear fellow," said Crevel, ashamed of himself. "But, on my honor, if you will but live with Madame Crevel, my children, you will find no reason to repent.—Your good feeling touches me, Victorin, and you will find that generosity to me is not unrewarded.—Come, by the Poker! welcome your stepmother and come to the wedding."
"But you have not told us the lady's name, papa," said Celestine.
"Why, it is an open secret," replied Crevel. "Do not let us play at guess who can! Lisbeth must have told you."
"My dear Monsieur Crevel," replied Lisbeth, "there are certain names we never utter here—"
"Well, then, it is Madame Marneffe."
"Monsieur Crevel," said the lawyer very sternly, "neither my wife nor I can be present at that marriage; not out of interest, for I spoke in all sincerity just now. Yes, I am most happy to think that you may find happiness in this union; but I act on considerations of honor and good feeling which you must understand, and which I cannot speak of here, as they reopen wounds still ready to bleed——"
The Baroness telegraphed a signal to Hortense, who tucked her little one under her arm, saying, "Come Wenceslas, and have your bath!—Good-bye, Monsieur Crevel."
The Baroness also bowed to Crevel without a word; and Crevel could not help smiling at the child's astonishment when threatened with this impromptu tubbing.
"You, monsieur," said Victorin, when he found himself alone with Lisbeth, his wife, and his father-in-law, "are about to marry a woman loaded with the spoils of my father; it was she who, in cold blood, brought him down to such depths; a woman who is the son-in-law's mistress after ruining the father-in-law; who is the cause of constant grief to my sister!—And you fancy that I shall seem to sanction your madness by my presence? I deeply pity you, dear Monsieur Crevel; you have no family feeling; you do not understand the unity of the honor which binds the members of it together. There is no arguing with passion—as I have too much reason to know. The slaves of their passions are as deaf as they are blind. Your daughter Celestine has too strong a sense of her duty to proffer a word of reproach."
"That would, indeed, be a pretty thing!" cried Crevel, trying to cut short this harangue.
"Celestine would not be my wife if she made the slightest remonstrance," the lawyer went on. "But I, at least, may try to stop you before you step over the precipice, especially after giving you ample proof of my disinterestedness. It is not your fortune, it is you that I care about. Nay, to make it quite plain to you, I may add, if it were only to set your mind at ease with regard to your marriage contract, that I am now in a position which leaves me with nothing to wish for—"
"Thanks to me!" exclaimed Crevel, whose face was purple.
"Thanks to Celestine's fortune," replied Victorin. "And if you regret having given to your daughter as a present from yourself, a sum which is not half what her mother left her, I can only say that we are prepared to give it back."
"And do you not know, my respected son-in-law," said Crevel, striking an attitude, "that under the shelter of my name Madame Marneffe is not called upon to answer for her conduct excepting as my wife—as Madame Crevel?"
"That is, no doubt, quite the correct thing," said the lawyer; "very generous so far as the affections are concerned and the vagaries of passion; but I know of no name, nor law, nor title that can shelter the theft of three hundred thousand francs so meanly wrung from my father!—I tell you plainly, my dear father-in-law, your future wife is unworthy of you, she is false to you, and is madly in love with my brother-in-law, Steinbock, whose debts she had paid."
"It is I who paid them!"
"Very good," said Hulot; "I am glad for Count Steinbock's sake; he may some day repay the money. But he is loved, much loved, and often—"
"Loved!" cried Crevel, whose face showed his utter bewilderment. "It is cowardly, and dirty, and mean, and cheap, to calumniate a woman!—When a man says such things, monsieur, he must bring proof."
"I will bring proof."
"I shall expect it."
"By the day after to-morrow, my dear Monsieur Crevel, I shall be able to tell you the day, the hour, the very minute when I can expose the horrible depravity of your future wife."
"Very well; I shall be delighted," said Crevel, who had recovered himself.
"Good-bye, my children, for the present; good-bye, Lisbeth."
"See him out, Lisbeth," said Celestine in an undertone.
"And is this the way you take yourself off?" cried Lisbeth to Crevel.
"Ah, ha!" said Crevel, "my son-in-law is too clever by half; he is getting on. The Courts and the Chamber, judicial trickery and political dodges, are making a man of him with a vengeance!—So he knows I am to be married on Wednesday, and on a Sunday my gentleman proposes to fix the hour, within three days, when he can prove that my wife is unworthy of me. That is a good story!—Well, I am going back to sign the contract. Come with me, Lisbeth—yes, come. They will never know. I meant to have left Celestine forty thousand francs a year; but Hulot has just behaved in a way to alienate my affection for ever."
"Give me ten minutes, Pere Crevel; wait for me in your carriage at the gate. I will make some excuse for going out."
"Very well—all right."
"My dears," said Lisbeth, who found all the family reassembled in the drawing-room, "I am going with Crevel: the marriage contract is to be signed this afternoon, and I shall hear what he has settled. It will probably be my last visit to that woman. Your father is furious; he will disinherit you—"
"His vanity will prevent that," said the son-in-law. "He was bent on owning the estate of Presles, and he will keep it; I know him. Even if he were to have children, Celestine would still have half of what he might leave; the law forbids his giving away all his fortune.—Still, these questions are nothing to me; I am only thinking of our honor.—Go then, cousin," and he pressed Lisbeth's hand, "and listen carefully to the contract."
Twenty minutes after, Lisbeth and Crevel reached the house in the Rue Barbet, where Madame Marneffe was awaiting, in mild impatience, the result of a step taken by her commands. Valerie had in the end fallen a prey to the absorbing love which, once in her life, masters a woman's heart. Wenceslas was its object, and, a failure as an artist, he became in Madame Marneffe's hands a lover so perfect that he was to her what she had been to Baron Hulot.
Valerie was holding a slipper in one hand, and Steinbock clasped the other, while her head rested on his shoulder. The rambling conversation in which they had been engaged ever since Crevel went out may be ticketed, like certain lengthy literary efforts of our day, "All rights reserved," for it cannot be reproduced. This masterpiece of personal poetry naturally brought a regret to the artist's lips, and he said, not without some bitterness:
"What a pity it is that I married; for if I had but waited, as Lisbeth told me, I might now have married you."
"Who but a Pole would wish to make a wife of a devoted mistress?" cried Valerie. "To change love into duty, and pleasure into a bore."
"I know you to be so fickle," replied Steinbock. "Did I not hear you talking to Lisbeth of that Brazilian, Baron Montes?"
"Do you want to rid me of him?"
"It would be the only way to hinder his seeing you," said the ex-sculptor.
"Let me tell you, my darling—for I tell you everything," said Valerie—"I was saving him up for a husband.—The promises I have made to that man!—Oh, long before I knew you," said she, in reply to a movement from Wenceslas. "And those promises, of which he avails himself to plague me, oblige me to get married almost secretly; for if he should hear that I am marrying Crevel, he is the sort of man that—that would kill me."
"Oh, as to that!" said Steinbock, with a scornful expression, which conveyed that such a danger was small indeed for a woman beloved by a Pole.
And in the matter of valor there is no brag or bravado in a Pole, so thoroughly and seriously brave are they all.
"And that idiot Crevel," she went on, "who wants to make a great display and indulge his taste for inexpensive magnificence in honor of the wedding, places me in difficulties from which I see no escape."
Could Valerie confess to this man, whom she adored, that since the discomfiture of Baron Hulot, this Baron Henri Montes had inherited the privilege of calling on her at all hours of the day or night; and that, notwithstanding her cleverness, she was still puzzled to find a cause of quarrel in which the Brazilian might seem to be solely in the wrong? She knew the Baron's almost savage temper—not unlike Lisbeth's—too well not to quake as she thought of this Othello of Rio de Janeiro.
As the carriage drove up, Steinbock released Valerie, for his arm was round her waist, and took up a newspaper, in which he was found absorbed. Valerie was stitching with elaborate care at the slippers she was working for Crevel.
"How they slander her!" whispered Lisbeth to Crevel, pointing to this picture as they opened the door. "Look at her hair—not in the least tumbled. To hear Victorin, you might have expected to find two turtle-doves in a nest."
"My dear Lisbeth," cried Crevel, in his favorite position, "you see that to turn Lucretia into Aspasia, you have only to inspire a passion!"
"And have I not always told you," said Lisbeth, "that women like a burly profligate like you?"
"And she would be most ungrateful, too," said Crevel; "for as to the money I have spent here, Grindot and I alone can tell!"
And he waved a hand at the staircase.
In decorating this house, which Crevel regarded as his own, Grindot had tried to compete with Cleretti, in whose hands the Duc d'Herouville had placed Josepha's villa. But Crevel, incapable of understanding art, had, like all sordid souls, wanted to spend a certain sum fixed beforehand. Grindot, fettered by a contract, had found it impossible to embody his architectural dream.
The difference between Josepha's house and that in the Rue Barbet was just that between the individual stamp on things and commonness. The objects you admired at Crevel's were to be bought in any shop. These two types of luxury are divided by the river Million. A mirror, if unique, is worth six thousand francs; a mirror designed by a manufacturer who turns them out by the dozen costs five hundred. A genuine lustre by Boulle will sell at a public auction for three thousand francs; the same thing reproduced by casting may be made for a thousand or twelve hundred; one is archaeologically what a picture by Raphael is in painting, the other is a copy. At what would you value a copy of a Raphael? Thus Crevel's mansion was a splendid example of the luxury of idiots, while Josepha's was a perfect model of an artist's home.
"War is declared," said Crevel, going up to Madame Marneffe.
She rang the bell.
"Go and find Monsieur Berthier," said she to the man-servant, "and do not return without him. If you had succeeded," said she, embracing Crevel, "we would have postponed our happiness, my dear Daddy, and have given a really splendid entertainment; but when a whole family is set against a match, my dear, decency requires that the wedding shall be a quiet one, especially when the lady is a widow."
"On the contrary, I intend to make a display of magnificence a la Louis XIV.," said Crevel, who of late had held the eighteenth century rather cheap. "I have ordered new carriages; there is one for monsieur and one for madame, two neat coupes; and a chaise, a handsome traveling carriage with a splendid hammercloth, on springs that tremble like Madame Hulot."
"Oh, ho! You intend?—Then you have ceased to be my lamb?—No, no, my friend, you will do what I intend. We will sign the contract quietly—just ourselves—this afternoon. Then, on Wednesday, we will be regularly married, really married, in mufti, as my poor mother would have said. We will walk to church, plainly dressed, and have only a low mass. Our witnesses are Stidmann, Steinbock, Vignon, and Massol, all wide-awake men, who will be at the mairie by chance, and who will so far sacrifice themselves as to attend mass.
"Your colleague will perform the civil marriage, for once in a way, as early as half-past nine. Mass is at ten; we shall be at home to breakfast by half-past eleven.
"I have promised our guests that we will sit at table till the evening. There will be Bixiou, your old official chum du Tillet, Lousteau, Vernisset, Leon de Lora, Vernou, all the wittiest men in Paris, who will not know that we are married. We will play them a little trick, we will get just a little tipsy, and Lisbeth must join us. I want her to study matrimony; Bixiou shall make love to her, and—and enlighten her darkness."
For two hours Madame Marneffe went on talking nonsense, and Crevel made this judicious reflection:
"How can so light-hearted a creature be utterly depraved? Feather-brained, yes! but wicked? Nonsense!"
"Well, and what did the young people say about me?" said Valerie to Crevel at a moment when he sat down by her on the sofa. "All sorts of horrors?"
"They will have it that you have a criminal passion for Wenceslas—you, who are virtue itself."
"I love him!—I should think so, my little Wenceslas!" cried Valerie, calling the artist to her, taking his face in her hands, and kissing his forehead. "A poor boy with no fortune, and no one to depend on! Cast off by a carrotty giraffe! What do you expect, Crevel? Wenceslas is my poet, and I love him as if he were my own child, and make no secret of it. Bah! your virtuous women see evil everywhere and in everything. Bless me, could they not sit by a man without doing wrong? I am a spoilt child who has had all it ever wanted, and bonbons no longer excite me.—Poor things! I am sorry for them!
"And who slandered me so?"
"Victorin," said Crevel.
"Then why did you not stop his mouth, the odious legal macaw! with the story of the two hundred thousand francs and his mamma?"
"Oh, the Baroness had fled," said Lisbeth.
"They had better take care, Lisbeth," said Madame Marneffe, with a frown. "Either they will receive me and do it handsomely, and come to their stepmother's house—all the party!—or I will see them in lower depths than the Baron has reached, and you may tell them I said so!—At last I shall turn nasty. On my honor, I believe that evil is the scythe with which to cut down the good."
At three o'clock Monsieur Berthier, Cardot's successor, read the marriage-contract, after a short conference with Crevel, for some of the articles were made conditional on the action taken by Monsieur and Madame Victorin Hulot.
Crevel settled on his wife a fortune consisting, in the first place, of forty thousand francs in dividends on specified securities; secondly, of the house and all its contents; and thirdly, of three million francs not invested. He also assigned to his wife every benefit allowed by law; he left all the property free of duty; and in the event of their dying without issue, each devised to the survivor the whole of their property and real estate.
By this arrangement the fortune left to Celestine and her husband was reduced to two millions of francs in capital. If Crevel and his second wife should have children, Celestine's share was limited to five hundred thousand francs, as the life-interest in the rest was to accrue to Valerie. This would be about the ninth part of his whole real and personal estate.
Lisbeth returned to dine in the Rue Louis-le-Grand, despair written on her face. She explained and bewailed the terms of the marriage-contract, but found Celestine and her husband insensible to the disastrous news.
"You have provoked your father, my children. Madame Marneffe swears that you shall receive Monsieur Crevel's wife and go to her house," said she.
"Never!" said Victorin.
"Never!" said Celestine.
"Never!" said Hortense.
Lisbeth was possessed by the wish to crush the haughty attitude assumed by all the Hulots.
"She seems to have arms that she can turn against you," she replied. "I do not know all about it, but I shall find out. She spoke vaguely of some history of two hundred thousand francs in which Adeline is implicated."
The Baroness fell gently backward on the sofa she was sitting on in a fit of hysterical sobbing.
"Go there, go, my children!" she cried. "Receive the woman! Monsieur Crevel is an infamous wretch. He deserves the worst punishment imaginable.—Do as the woman desires you! She is a monster—she knows all!"
After gasping out these words with tears and sobs, Madame Hulot collected her strength to go to her room, leaning on her daughter and Celestine.
"What is the meaning of all this?" cried Lisbeth, left alone with Victorin.
The lawyer stood rigid, in very natural dismay, and did not hear her.
"What is the matter, my dear Victorin?"
"I am horrified!" said he, and his face scowled darkly. "Woe to anybody who hurts my mother! I have no scruples then. I would crush that woman like a viper if I could!—What, does she attack my mother's life, my mother's honor?"
"She said, but do not repeat it, my dear Victorin—she said you should all fall lower even than your father. And she scolded Crevel roundly for not having shut your mouths with this secret that seems to be such a terror to Adeline."
A doctor was sent for, for the Baroness was evidently worse. He gave her a draught containing a large dose of opium, and Adeline, having swallowed it, fell into a deep sleep; but the whole family were greatly alarmed.
Early next morning Victorin went out, and on his way to the Courts called at the Prefecture of the Police, where he begged Vautrin, the head of the detective department, to send him Madame de Saint-Esteve.
"We are forbidden, monsieur, to meddle in your affairs; but Madame de Saint-Esteve is in business, and will attend to your orders," replied this famous police officer.
On his return home, the unhappy lawyer was told that his mother's reason was in danger. Doctor Bianchon, Doctor Larabit, and Professor Angard had met in consultation, and were prepared to apply heroic remedies to hinder the rush of blood to the head. At the moment when Victorin was listening to Doctor Bianchon, who was giving him, at some length, his reasons for hoping that the crisis might be got over, the man-servant announced that a client, Madame de Saint-Esteve, was waiting to see him. Victorin left Bianchon in the middle of a sentence and flew downstairs like a madman.
"Is there any hereditary lunacy in the family?" said Bianchon, addressing Larabit.
The doctors departed, leaving a hospital attendant, instructed by them, to watch Madame Hulot.
"A whole life of virtue!——" was the only sentence the sufferer had spoken since the attack.
Lisbeth never left Adeline's bedside; she sat up all night, and was much admired by the two younger women.
"Well, my dear Madame de Saint-Esteve," said Victorin, showing the dreadful old woman into his study and carefully shutting the doors, "how are we getting on?"
"Ah, ha! my dear friend," said she, looking at Victorin with cold irony. "So you have thought things over?"
"Have you done anything?"
"Will you pay fifty thousand francs?"
"Yes," replied Victorin, "for we must get on. Do you know that by one single phrase that woman has endangered my mother's life and reason? So, I say, get on."
"We have got on!" replied the old woman.
"Well?" cried Victorin, with a gulp.
"Well, you do not cry off the expenses?"
"On the contrary."
"They run up to twenty-three thousand francs already."
Victorin looked helplessly at the woman.
"Well, could we hoodwink you, you, one of the shining lights of the law?" said she. "For that sum we have secured a maid's conscience and a picture by Raphael.—It is not dear."
Hulot, still bewildered, sat with wide open eyes.
"Well, then," his visitor went on, "we have purchased the honesty of Mademoiselle Reine Tousard, a damsel from whom Madame Marneffe has no secrets—"
"But if you shy, say so."
"I will play blindfold," he replied. "My mother has told me that that couple deserve the worst torments—"
"The rack is out of date," said the old woman.
"You answer for the result?"
"Leave it all to me," said the woman; "your vengeance is simmering."
She looked at the clock; it was six.
"Your avenger is dressing; the fires are lighted at the Rocher de Cancale; the horses are pawing the ground; my irons are getting hot.—Oh, I know your Madame Marneffe by heart!—Everything is ready. And there are some boluses in the rat-trap; I will tell you to-morrow morning if the mouse is poisoned. I believe she will be; good evening, my son."
"Do you know English?"
"Well, my son, thou shalt be King. That is to say, you shall come into your inheritance," said the dreadful old witch, foreseen by Shakespeare, and who seemed to know her Shakespeare.
She left Hulot amazed at the door of his study.
"The consultation is for to-morrow!" said she, with the gracious air of a regular client.
She saw two persons coming, and wished to pass in their eyes a pinchbeck countess.
"What impudence!" thought Hulot, bowing to his pretended client.
Baron Montes de Montejanos was a lion, but a lion not accounted for. Fashionable Paris, Paris of the turf and of the town, admired the ineffable waistcoats of this foreign gentleman, his spotless patent-leather boots, his incomparable sticks, his much-coveted horses, and the negro servants who rode the horses and who were entirely slaves and most consumedly thrashed.
His fortune was well known; he had a credit account up to seven hundred thousand francs in the great banking house of du Tillet; but he was always seen alone. When he went to "first nights," he was in a stall. He frequented no drawing-rooms. He had never given his arm to a girl on the streets. His name would not be coupled with that of any pretty woman of the world. To pass his time he played whist at the Jockey-Club. The world was reduced to calumny, or, which it thought funnier, to laughing at his peculiarities; he went by the name of Combabus.
Bixiou, Leon de Lora, Lousteau, Florine, Mademoiselle Heloise Brisetout, and Nathan, supping one evening with the notorious Carabine, with a large party of lions and lionesses, had invented this name with an excessively burlesque explanation. Massol, as being on the Council of State, and Claude Vignon, erewhile Professor of Greek, had related to the ignorant damsels the famous anecdote, preserved in Rollin's Ancient History, concerning Combabus, that voluntary Abelard who was placed in charge of the wife of a King of Assyria, Persia, Bactria, Mesopotamia, and other geographical divisions peculiar to old Professor du Bocage, who continued the work of d'Anville, the creator of the East of antiquity. This nickname, which gave Carabine's guests laughter for a quarter of an hour, gave rise to a series of over-free jests, to which the Academy could not award the Montyon prize; but among which the name was taken up, to rest thenceforth on the curly mane of the handsome Baron, called by Josepha the splendid Brazilian—as one might say a splendid Catoxantha.
Carabine, the loveliest of her tribe, whose delicate beauty and amusing wit had snatched the sceptre of the Thirteenth Arrondissement from the hands of Mademoiselle Turquet, better known by the name of Malaga—Mademoiselle Seraphine Sinet (this was her real name) was to du Tillet the banker what Josepha Mirah was to the Duc d'Herouville.
Now, on the morning of the very day when Madame de Saint-Esteve had prophesied success to Victorin, Carabine had said to du Tillet at about seven o'clock:
"If you want to be very nice, you will give me a dinner at the Rocher de Cancale and bring Combabus. We want to know, once for all, whether he has a mistress.—I bet that he has, and I should like to win."
"He is still at the Hotel des Princes; I will call," replied du Tillet. "We will have some fun. Ask all the youngsters—the youngster Bixiou, the youngster Lora, in short, all the clan."
At half-past seven that evening, in the handsomest room of the restaurant where all Europe has dined, a splendid silver service was spread, made on purpose for entertainments where vanity pays the bill in bank-notes. A flood of light fell in ripples on the chased rims; waiters, whom a provincial might have taken for diplomatists but for their age, stood solemnly, as knowing themselves to be overpaid.
Five guests had arrived, and were waiting for nine more. These were first and foremost Bixiou, still flourishing in 1843, the salt of every intellectual dish, always supplied with fresh wit—a phenomenon as rare in Paris as virtue is; Leon de Lora, the greatest living painter of landscape and the sea who has this great advantage over all his rivals, that he has never fallen below his first successes. The courtesans could never dispense with these two kings of ready wit. No supper, no dinner, was possible without them.
Seraphine Sinet, dite Carabine, as the mistress en titre of the Amphitryon, was one of the first to arrive; and the brilliant lighting showed off her shoulders, unrivaled in Paris, her throat, as round as if turned in a lathe, without a crease, her saucy face, and dress of satin brocade in two shades of blue, trimmed with Honiton lace enough to have fed a whole village for a month.
Pretty Jenny Cadine, not acting that evening, came in a dress of incredible splendor; her portrait is too well known to need any description. A party is always a Longchamps of evening dress for these ladies, each anxious to win the prize for her millionaire by thus announcing to her rivals:
"This is the price I am worth!"
A third woman, evidently at the initial stage of her career, gazed, almost shamefaced, at the luxury of her two established and wealthy companions. Simply dressed in white cashmere trimmed with blue, her head had been dressed with real flowers by a coiffeur of the old-fashioned school, whose awkward hands had unconsciously given the charm of ineptitude to her fair hair. Still unaccustomed to any finery, she showed the timidity—to use a hackneyed phrase—inseparable from a first appearance. She had come from Valognes to find in Paris some use for her distracting youthfulness, her innocence that might have stirred the senses of a dying man, and her beauty, worthy to hold its own with any that Normandy has ever supplied to the theatres of the capital. The lines of that unblemished face were the ideal of angelic purity. Her milk-white skin reflected the light like a mirror. The delicate pink in her cheeks might have been laid on with a brush. She was called Cydalise, and, as will be seen, she was an important pawn in the game played by Ma'ame Nourrisson to defeat Madame Marneffe.
"Your arm is not a match for your name, my child," said Jenny Cadine, to whom Carabine had introduced this masterpiece of sixteen, having brought her with her.
And, in fact, Cydalise displayed to public admiration a fine pair of arms, smooth and satiny, but red with healthy young blood.
"What do you want for her?" said Jenny Cadine, in an undertone to Carabine.
"What are you going to do with her?"
"And what are you to get for such a job?"
"A service of plate?"
"I have three."
"I am selling them."
"A green monkey?"
"No. A picture by Raphael."
"What maggot is that in your brain?"
"Josepha makes me sick with her pictures," said Carabine. "I want some better than hers."
Du Tillet came with the Brazilian, the hero of the feast; the Duc d'Herouville followed with Josepha. The singer wore a plain velvet gown, but she had on a necklace worth a hundred and twenty thousand francs, pearls hardly distinguishable from her skin like white camellia petals. She had stuck one scarlet camellia in her black hair—a patch—the effect was dazzling, and she had amused herself by putting eleven rows of pearls on each arm. As she shook hands with Jenny Cadine, the actress said, "Lend me your mittens!"
Josepha unclasped them one by one and handed them to her friend on a plate.
"There's style!" said Carabine. "Quite the Duchess! You have robbed the ocean to dress the nymph, Monsieur le Duc," she added turning to the little Duc d'Herouville.
The actress took two of the bracelets; she clasped the other twenty on the singer's beautiful arms, which she kissed.
Lousteau, the literary cadger, la Palferine and Malaga, Massol, Vauvinet, and Theodore Gaillard, a proprietor of one of the most important political newspapers, completed the party. The Duc d'Herouville, polite to everybody, as a fine gentleman knows how to be, greeted the Comte de la Palferine with the particular nod which, while it does not imply either esteem or intimacy, conveys to all the world, "We are of the same race, the same blood—equals!"—And this greeting, the shibboleth of the aristocracy, was invented to be the despair of the upper citizen class.
Carabine placed Combabus on her left, and the Duc d'Herouville on her right. Cydalise was next to the Brazilian, and beyond her was Bixiou. Malaga sat by the Duke.
Oysters appeared at seven o'clock; at eight they were drinking iced punch. Every one is familiar with the bill of fare of such a banquet. By nine o'clock they were talking as people talk after forty-two bottles of various wines, drunk by fourteen persons. Dessert was on the table, the odious dessert of the month of April. Of all the party, the only one affected by the heady atmosphere was Cydalise, who was humming a tune. None of the party, with the exception of the poor country girl, had lost their reason; the drinkers and the women were the experienced elite of the society that sups. Their wits were bright, their eyes glistened, but with no loss of intelligence, though the talk drifted into satire, anecdote, and gossip. Conversation, hitherto confined to the inevitable circle of racing, horses, hammerings on the Bourse, the different occupations of the lions themselves, and the scandals of the town, showed a tendency to break up into intimate tete-a-tete, the dialogues of two hearts.
And at this stage, at a signal from Carabine to Leon de Lora, Bixiou, la Palferine, and du Tillet, love came under discussion.
"A doctor in good society never talks of medicine, true nobles never speak of their ancestors, men of genius do not discuss their works," said Josepha; "why should we talk business? If I got the opera put off in order to dine here, it was assuredly not to work.—So let us change the subject, dear children."
"But we are speaking of real love, my beauty," said Malaga, "of the love that makes a man fling all to the dogs—father, mother, wife, children—and retire to Clichy."
"Talk away, then, 'don't know yer,'" said the singer.
The slang words, borrowed from the Street Arab, and spoken by these women, may be a poem on their lips, helped by the expression of the eyes and face.
"What, do not I love you, Josepha?" said the Duke in a low voice.
"You, perhaps, may love me truly," said she in his ear, and she smiled. "But I do not love you in the way they describe, with such love as makes the world dark in the absence of the man beloved. You are delightful to me, useful—but not indispensable; and if you were to throw me over to-morrow, I could have three dukes for one."
"Is true love to be found in Paris?" asked Leon de Lora. "Men have not even time to make a fortune; how can they give themselves over to true love, which swamps a man as water melts sugar? A man must be enormously rich to indulge in it, for love annihilates him—for instance, like our Brazilian friend over there. As I said long ago, 'Extremes defeat—themselves.' A true lover is like an eunuch; women have ceased to exist for him. He is mystical; he is like the true Christian, an anchorite of the desert!—See our noble Brazilian."
Every one at table looked at Henri Montes de Montejanos, who was shy at finding every eye centred on him.
"He has been feeding there for an hour without discovering, any more than an ox at pasture, that he is sitting next to—I will not say, in such company, the loveliest—but the freshest woman in all Paris."
"Everything is fresh here, even the fish; it is what the house is famous for," said Carabine.
Baron Montes looked good-naturedly at the painter, and said:
"Very good! I drink to your very good health," and bowing to Leon de Lora, he lifted his glass of port wine and drank it with much dignity.
"Are you then truly in love?" asked Malaga of her neighbor, thus interpreting his toast.
The Brazilian refilled his glass, bowed to Carabine, and drank again.
"To the lady's health then!" said the courtesan, in such a droll tone that Lora, du Tillet, and Bixiou burst out laughing.
The Brazilian sat like a bronze statue. This impassibility provoked Carabine. She knew perfectly well that Montes was devoted to Madame Marneffe, but she had not expected this dogged fidelity, this obstinate silence of conviction.
A woman is as often gauged by the attitude of her lover as a man is judged from the tone of his mistress. The Baron was proud of his attachment to Valerie, and of hers to him; his smile had, to these experienced connoisseurs, a touch of irony; he was really grand to look upon; wine had not flushed him; and his eyes, with their peculiar lustre as of tarnished gold, kept the secrets of his soul. Even Carabine said to herself:
"What a woman she must be! How she has sealed up that heart!"
"He is a rock!" said Bixiou in an undertone, imagining that the whole thing was a practical joke, and never suspecting the importance to Carabine of reducing this fortress.
While this conversation, apparently so frivolous, was going on at Carabine's right, the discussion of love was continued on her left between the Duc d'Herouville, Lousteau, Josepha, Jenny Cadine, and Massol. They were wondering whether such rare phenomena were the result of passion, obstinacy, or affection. Josepha, bored to death by it all, tried to change the subject.
"You are talking of what you know nothing about. Is there a man among you who ever loved a woman—a woman beneath him—enough to squander his fortune and his children's, to sacrifice his future and blight his past, to risk going to the hulks for robbing the Government, to kill an uncle and a brother, to let his eye be so effectually blinded that he did not even perceive that it was done to hinder his seeing the abyss into which, as a crowning jest, he was being driven? Du Tillet has a cash-box under his left breast; Leon de Lora has his wit; Bixiou would laugh at himself for a fool if he loved any one but himself; Massol has a minister's portfolio in the place of a heart; Lousteau can have nothing but viscera, since he could endure to be thrown over by Madame de Baudraye; Monsieur le Duc is too rich to prove his love by his ruin; Vauvinet is not in it—I do not regard a bill-broker as one of the human race; and you have never loved, nor I, nor Jenny Cadine, nor Malaga. For my part, I never but once even saw the phenomenon I have described. It was," and she turned to Jenny Cadine, "that poor Baron Hulot, whom I am going to advertise for like a lost dog, for I want to find him."
"Oh, ho!" said Carabine to herself, and looking keenly at Josepha, "then Madame Nourrisson has two pictures by Raphael, since Josepha is playing my hand!"
"Poor fellow," said Vauvinet, "he was a great man! Magnificent! And what a figure, what a style, the air of Francis I.! What a volcano! and how full of ingenious ways of getting money! He must be looking for it now, wherever he is, and I make no doubt he extracts it even from the walls built of bones that you may see in the suburbs of Paris near the city gates—"
"And all that," said Bixiou, "for that little Madame Marneffe! There is a precious hussy for you!"
"She is just going to marry my friend Crevel," said du Tillet.
"And she is madly in love with my friend Steinbock," Leon de Lora put in.
These three phrases were like so many pistol-shots fired point-blank at Montes. He turned white, and the shock was so painful that he rose with difficulty.
"You are a set of blackguards!" cried he. "You have no right to speak the name of an honest woman in the same breath with those fallen creatures—above all, not to make it a mark for your slander!"
He was interrupted by unanimous bravos and applause. Bixiou, Leon de Lora, Vauvinet, du Tillet, and Massol set the example, and there was a chorus.
"Hurrah for the Emperor!" said Bixiou.
"Crown him! crown him!" cried Vauvinet.
"Three groans for such a good dog! Hurrah for Brazil!" cried Lousteau.
"So, my copper-colored Baron, it is our Valerie that you love; and you are not disgusted?" said Leon de Lora.
"His remark is not parliamentary, but it is grand!" observed Massol.
"But, my most delightful customer," said du Tillet, "you were recommended to me; I am your banker; your innocence reflects on my credit."
"Yes, tell me, you are a reasonable creature——" said the Brazilian to the banker.
"Thanks on behalf of the company," said Bixiou with a bow.
"Tell me the real facts," Montes went on, heedless of Bixiou's interjection.
"Well, then," replied du Tillet, "I have the honor to tell you that I am asked to the Crevel wedding."
"Ah, ha! Combabus holds a brief for Madame Marneffe!" said Josepha, rising solemnly.
She went round to Montes with a tragic look, patted him kindly on the head, looked at him for a moment with comical admiration, and nodded sagely.
"Hulot was the first instance of love through fire and water," said she; "this is the second. But it ought not to count, as it comes from the Tropics."
Montes had dropped into his chair again, when Josepha gently touched his forehead, and looked at du Tillet as he said:
"If I am the victim of a Paris jest, if you only wanted to get at my secret——" and he sent a flashing look round the table, embracing all the guests in a flaming glance that blazed with the sun of Brazil,—"I beg of you as a favor to tell me so," he went on, in a tone of almost childlike entreaty; "but do not vilify the woman I love."
"Nay, indeed," said Carabine in a low voice; "but if, on the contrary, you are shamefully betrayed, cheated, tricked by Valerie, if I should give you the proof in an hour, in my own house, what then?"
"I cannot tell you before all these Iagos," said the Brazilian.
Carabine understood him to say magots (baboons).
"Well, well, say no more!" she replied, smiling. "Do not make yourself a laughing-stock for all the wittiest men in Paris; come to my house, we will talk it over."
Montes was crushed. "Proofs," he stammered, "consider—"
"Only too many," replied Carabine; "and if the mere suspicion hits you so hard, I fear for your reason."
"Is this creature obstinate, I ask you? He is worse than the late lamented King of Holland!—I say, Lousteau, Bixiou, Massol, all the crew of you, are you not invited to breakfast with Madame Marneffe the day after to-morrow?" said Leon de Lora.
"Ya," said du Tillet; "I have the honor of assuring you, Baron, that if you had by any chance thought of marrying Madame Marneffe, you are thrown out like a bill in Parliament, beaten by a blackball called Crevel. My friend, my old comrade Crevel, has eighty thousand francs a year; and you, I suppose, did not show such a good hand, for if you had, you, I imagine, would have been preferred."
Montes listened with a half-absent, half-smiling expression, which struck them all with terror.
At this moment the head-waiter came to whisper to Carabine that a lady, a relation of hers, was in the drawing-room and wished to speak to her.
Carabine rose and went out to find Madame Nourrisson, decently veiled with black lace.
"Well, child, am I to go to your house? Has he taken the hook?"
"Yes, mother; and the pistol is so fully loaded, that my only fear is that it will burst," said Carabine.
About an hour later, Montes, Cydalise, and Carabine, returning from the Rocher de Cancale, entered Carabine's little sitting-room in the Rue Saint-Georges. Madame Nourrisson was sitting in an armchair by the fire.
"Here is my worthy old aunt," said Carabine.
"Yes, child, I came in person to fetch my little allowance. You would have forgotten me, though you are kind-hearted, and I have some bills to pay to-morrow. Buying and selling clothes, I am always short of cash. Who is this at your heels? The gentleman looks very much put out about something."
The dreadful Madame Nourrisson, at this moment so completely disguised as to look like a respectable old body, rose to embrace Carabine, one of the hundred and odd courtesans she had launched on their horrible career of vice.
"He is an Othello who is not to be taken in, whom I have the honor of introducing to you—Monsieur le Baron Montes de Montejanos."
"Oh! I have heard him talked about, and know his name.—You are nicknamed Combabus, because you love but one woman, and in Paris, that is the same as loving no one at all. And is it by chance the object of your affections who is fretting you? Madame Marneffe, Crevel's woman? I tell you what, my dear sir, you may bless your stars instead of cursing them. She is a good-for-nothing baggage, is that little woman. I know her tricks!"
"Get along," said Carabine, into whose hand Madame Nourrisson had slipped a note while embracing her, "you do not know your Brazilians. They are wrong-headed creatures that insist on being impaled through the heart. The more jealous they are, the more jealous they want to be. Monsieur talks of dealing death all round, but he will kill nobody because he is in love.—However, I have brought him here to give him the proofs of his discomfiture, which I have got from that little Steinbock."
Montes was drunk; he listened as if the women were talking about somebody else.
Carabine went to take off her velvet wrap, and read a facsimile of a note, as follows:—
"DEAR PUSS.—He dines with Popinot this evening, and will come
to fetch me from the Opera at eleven. I shall go out at about
half-past five and count on finding you at our paradise. Order
dinner to be sent in from the Maison d'or. Dress, so as to be
able to take me to the Opera. We shall have four hours to ourselves.
Return this note to me; not that your Valerie doubts you—I would
give you my life, my fortune, and my honor, but I am afraid of the
tricks of chance."
"Here, Baron, this is the note sent to Count Steinbock this morning; read the address. The original document is burnt."
Montes turned the note over and over, recognized the writing, and was struck by a rational idea, which is sufficient evidence of the disorder of his brain.
"And, pray," said he, looking at Carabine, "what object have you in torturing my heart, for you must have paid very dear for the privilege of having the note in your possession long enough to get it lithographed?"
"Foolish man!" said Carabine, at a nod from Madame Nourrisson, "don't you see that poor child Cydalise—a girl of sixteen, who has been pining for you these three months, till she has lost her appetite for food or drink, and who is heart-broken because you have never even glanced at her?"
Cydalise put her handkerchief to her eyes with an appearance of emotion—"She is furious," Carabine went on, "though she looks as if butter would not melt in her mouth, furious to see the man she adores duped by a villainous hussy; she would kill Valerie—"
"Oh, as for that," said the Brazilian, "that is my business!"
"What, killing?" said old Nourrisson. "No, my son, we don't do that here nowadays."
"Oh!" said Montes, "I am not a native of this country. I live in a parish where I can laugh at your laws; and if you give me proof—"
"Well, that note. Is that nothing?"
"No," said the Brazilian. "I do not believe in the writing. I must see for myself."
"See!" cried Carabine, taking the hint at once from a gesture of her supposed aunt. "You shall see, my dear Tiger, all you wish to see—on one condition."
"And that is?"
"Look at Cydalise."
At a wink from Madame Nourrisson, Cydalise cast a tender look at the Baron.
"Will you be good to her? Will you make her a home?" asked Carabine. "A girl of such beauty is well worth a house and a carriage! It would be a monstrous shame to leave her to walk the streets. And besides—she is in debt.—How much do you owe?" asked Carabine, nipping Cydalise's arm.
"She is worth all she can get," said the old woman. "The point is that she can find a buyer."
"Listen!" cried Montes, fully aware at last of this masterpiece of womankind "you will show me Valerie—"
"And Count Steinbock.—Certainly!" said Madame Nourrisson.
For the past ten minutes the old woman had been watching the Brazilian; she saw that he was an instrument tuned up to the murderous pitch she needed; and, above all, so effectually blinded, that he would never heed who had led him on to it, and she spoke:—
"Cydalise, my Brazilian jewel, is my niece, so her concerns are partly mine. All this catastrophe will be the work of a few minutes, for a friend of mine lets the furnished room to Count Steinbock where Valerie is at this moment taking coffee—a queer sort of coffee, but she calls it her coffee. So let us understand each other, Brazil!—I like Brazil, it is a hot country.—What is to become of my niece?"
"You old ostrich," said Montes, the plumes in the woman's bonnet catching his eye, "you interrupted me.—If you show me—if I see Valerie and that artist together—"
"As you would wish to be—" said Carabine; "that is understood."
"Then I will take this girl and carry her away—"
"Where?" asked Carabine.
"To Brazil," replied the Baron. "I will make her my wife. My uncle left me ten leagues square of entailed estate; that is how I still have that house and home. I have a hundred negroes—nothing but negroes and negresses and negro brats, all bought by my uncle—"
"Nephew to a nigger-driver," said Carabine, with a grimace. "That needs some consideration.—Cydalise, child, are you fond of the blacks?"
"Pooh! Carabine, no nonsense," said the old woman. "The deuce is in it! Monsieur and I are doing business."
"If I take up another Frenchwoman, I mean to have her to myself," the Brazilian went on. "I warn you, mademoiselle, I am king there, and not a constitutional king. I am Czar; my subjects are mine by purchase, and no one can escape from my kingdom, which is a hundred leagues from any human settlement, hemmed in by savages on the interior, and divided from the sea by a wilderness as wide as France."
"I should prefer a garret here."
"So thought I," said Montes, "since I sold all my land and possessions at Rio to come back to Madame Marneffe."
"A man does not make such a voyage for nothing," remarked Madame Nourrisson. "You have a right to look for love for your own sake, particularly being so good-looking.—Oh, he is very handsome!" said she to Carabine.
"Very handsome, handsomer than the Postillon de Longjumeau," replied the courtesan.
Cydalise took the Brazilian's hand, but he released it as politely as he could.
"I came back for Madame Marneffe," the man went on where he had left off, "but you do not know why I was three years thinking about it."
"No, savage!" said Carabine.
"Well, she had so repeatedly told me that she longed to live with me alone in a desert—"
"Oh, ho! he is not a savage after all," cried Carabine, with a shout of laughter. "He is of the highly-civilized tribe of Flats!"
"She had told me this so often," Montes went on, regardless of the courtesan's mockery, "that I had a lovely house fitted up in the heart of that vast estate. I came back to France to fetch Valerie, and the first evening I saw her—"
"Saw her is very proper!" said Carabine. "I will remember it."
"She told me to wait till that wretched Marneffe was dead; and I agreed, and forgave her for having admitted the attentions of Hulot. Whether the devil had her in hand I don't know, but from that instant that woman has humored my every whim, complied with all my demands—never for one moment has she given me cause to suspect her!—"
"That is supremely clever!" said Carabine to Madame Nourrisson, who nodded in sign of assent.
"My faith in that woman," said Montes, and he shed a tear, "was a match for my love. Just now, I was ready to fight everybody at table—"
"So I saw," said Carabine.
"And if I am cheated, if she is going to be married, if she is at this moment in Steinbock's arms, she deserves a thousand deaths! I will kill her as I would smash a fly—"
"And how about the gendarmes, my son?" said Madame Nourrisson, with a smile that made your flesh creep.
"And the police agents, and the judges, and the assizes, and all the set-out?" added Carabine.
"You are bragging, my dear fellow," said the old woman, who wanted to know all the Brazilian's schemes of vengeance.
"I will kill her," he calmly repeated. "You called me a savage.—Do you imagine that I am fool enough to go, like a Frenchman, and buy poison at the chemist's shop?—During the time while we were driving her, I thought out my means of revenge, if you should prove to be right as concerns Valerie. One of my negroes has the most deadly of animal poisons, and incurable anywhere but in Brazil. I will administer it to Cydalise, who will give it to me; then by the time when death is a certainty to Crevel and his wife, I shall be beyond the Azores with your cousin, who will be cured, and I will marry her. We have our own little tricks, we savages!—Cydalise," said he, looking at the country girl, "is the animal I need.—How much does she owe?"
"A hundred thousand francs," said Cydalise.
"She says little—but to the purpose," said Carabine, in a low tone to Madame Nourrisson.
"I am going mad!" cried the Brazilian, in a husky voice, dropping on to a sofa. "I shall die of this! But I must see, for it is impossible!—A lithographed note! What is to assure me that it is not a forgery?—Baron Hulot was in love with Valerie?" said he, recalling Josepha's harangue. "Nay; the proof that he did not love is that she is still alive—I will not leave her living for anybody else, if she is not wholly mine."
Montes was terrible to behold. He bellowed, he stormed; he broke everything he touched; rosewood was as brittle as glass.
"How he destroys things!" said Carabine, looking at the old woman. "My good boy," said she, giving the Brazilian a little slap, "Roland the Furious is very fine in a poem; but in a drawing-room he is prosaic and expensive."
"My son," said old Nourrisson, rising to stand in front of the crestfallen Baron, "I am of your way of thinking. When you love in that way, and are joined 'till death does you part,' life must answer for love. The one who first goes, carries everything away; it is a general wreck. You command my esteem, my admiration, my consent, especially for your inoculation, which will make me a Friend of the Negro.—But you love her! You will hark back?"
"I?—If she is so infamous, I—"
"Well, come now, you are talking too much, it strikes me. A man who means to be avenged, and who says he has the ways and means of a savage, doesn't do that.—If you want to see your 'object' in her paradise, you must take Cydalise and walk straight in with her on your arm, as if the servant had made a mistake. But no scandal! If you mean to be revenged, you must eat the leek, seem to be in despair, and allow her to bully you.—Do you see?" said Madame Nourrisson, finding the Brazilian quite amazed by so subtle a scheme.
"All right, old ostrich," he replied. "Come along: I understand."
"Good-bye, little one!" said the old woman to Carabine.
She signed to Cydalise to go on with Montes, and remained a minute with Carabine.
"Now, child, I have but one fear, and that is that he will strangle her! I should be in a very tight place; we must do everything gently. I believe you have won your picture by Raphael; but they tell me it is only a Mignard. Never mind, it is much prettier; all the Raphaels are gone black, I am told, whereas this one is as bright as a Girodet."
"All I want is to crow over Josepha; and it is all the same to me whether I have a Mignard or a Raphael!—That thief had on such pearls this evening!—you would sell your soul for them."
Cydalise, Montes, and Madame Nourrisson got into a hackney coach that was waiting at the door. Madame Nourrisson whispered to the driver the address of a house in the same block as the Italian Opera House, which they could have reached in five or six minutes from the Rue Saint-Georges; but Madame Nourrisson desired the man to drive along the Rue le Peletier, and to go very slowly, so as to be able to examine the carriages in waiting.
"Brazilian," said the old woman, "look out for your angel's carriage and servants."
The Baron pointed out Valerie's carriage as they passed it.
"She has told them to come for her at ten o'clock, and she is gone in a cab to the house where she visits Count Steinbock. She has dined there, and will come to the Opera in half an hour.—It is well contrived!" said Madame Nourrisson. "Thus you see how she has kept you so long in the dark."
The Brazilian made no reply. He had become the tiger, and had recovered the imperturbable cool ferocity that had been so striking at dinner. He was as calm as a bankrupt the day after he has stopped payment.
At the door of the house stood a hackney coach with two horses, of the kind known as a Compagnie Generale, from the Company that runs them.
"Stay here in the box," said the old woman to Montes. "This is not an open house like a tavern. I will send for you."
The paradise of Madame Marneffe and Wenceslas was not at all like that of Crevel—who, finding it useless now, had just sold his to the Comte Maxime de Trailles. This paradise, the paradise of all comers, consisted of a room on the fourth floor opening to the landing, in a house close to the Italian Opera. On each floor of this house there was a room which had originally served as the kitchen to the apartments on that floor. But the house having become a sort of inn, let out for clandestine love affairs at an exorbitant price, the owner, the real Madame Nourrisson, an old-clothes buyer in the Rue Nueve Saint-Marc, had wisely appreciated the great value of these kitchens, and had turned them into a sort of dining-rooms. Each of these rooms, built between thick party-walls and with windows to the street, was entirely shut in by very thick double doors on the landing. Thus the most important secrets could be discussed over a dinner, with no risk of being overheard. For greater security, the windows had shutters inside and out. These rooms, in consequence of this peculiarity, were let for twelve hundred francs a month. The whole house, full of such paradises and mysteries was rented by Madame Nourrisson the First for twenty-eight thousand francs of clear profit, after paying her housekeeper, Madame Nourrisson the Second, for she did not manage it herself.
The paradise let to Count Steinbock had been hung with chintz; the cold, hard floor, of common tiles reddened with encaustic, was not felt through a soft thick carpet. The furniture consisted of two pretty chairs and a bed in an alcove, just now half hidden by a table loaded with the remains of an elegant dinner, while two bottles with long necks and an empty champagne-bottle in ice strewed the field of bacchus cultivated by Venus.
There were also—the property, no doubt, of Valerie—a low easy-chair and a man's smoking-chair, and a pretty toilet chest of drawers in rosewood, the mirror handsomely framed a la Pompadour. A lamp hanging from the ceiling gave a subdued light, increased by wax candles on the table and on the chimney-shelf.
This sketch will suffice to give an idea, urbi et orbi, of clandestine passion in the squalid style stamped on it in Paris in 1840. How far, alas! from the adulterous love, symbolized by Vulcan's nets, three thousand years ago.
When Montes and Cydalise came upstairs, Valerie, standing before the fire, where a log was blazing, was allowing Wenceslas to lace her stays.
This is a moment when a woman who is neither too fat nor too thin, but like Valerie, elegant and slender, displays divine beauty. The rosy skin, mostly soft, invites the sleepiest eye. The lines of her figure, so little hidden, are so charmingly outlined by the white pleats of the shift and the support of the stays, that she is irresistible—like everything that must be parted from.
With a happy face smiling at the glass, a foot impatiently marking time, a hand put up to restore order among the tumbled curls, and eyes expressive of gratitude; with the glow of satisfaction which, like a sunset, warms the least details of the countenance—everything makes such a moment a mine of memories.
Any man who dares look back on the early errors of his life may, perhaps, recall some such reminiscences, and understand, though not excuse, the follies of Hulot and Crevel. Women are so well aware of their power at such a moment, that they find in it what may be called the aftermath of the meeting.
"Come, come; after two years' practice, you do not yet know how to lace a woman's stays! You are too much a Pole!—There, it is ten o'clock, my Wenceslas!" said Valerie, laughing at him.
At this very moment, a mischievous waiting-woman, by inserting a knife, pushed up the hook of the double doors that formed the whole security of Adam and Eve. She hastily pulled the door open—for the servants of these dens have little time to waste—and discovered one of the bewitching tableaux de genre which Gavarni has so often shown at the Salon.
"In here, madame," said the girl; and Cydalise went in, followed by Montes.
"But there is some one here.—Excuse me, madame," said the country girl, in alarm.
"What?—Why! it is Valerie!" cried Montes, violently slamming the door.
Madame Marneffe, too genuinely agitated to dissemble her feelings, dropped on to the chair by the fireplace. Two tears rose to her eyes, and at once dried away. She looked at Montes, saw the girl, and burst into a cackle of forced laughter. The dignity of the insulted woman redeemed the scantiness of her attire; she walked close up to the Brazilian, and looked at him so defiantly that her eyes glittered like knives.
"So that," said she, standing face to face with the Baron, and pointing to Cydalise—"that is the other side of your fidelity? You, who have made me promises that might convert a disbeliever in love! You, for whom I have done so much—have even committed crimes!—You are right, monsieur, I am not to compare with a child of her age and of such beauty!
"I know what you are going to say," she went on, looking at Wenceslas, whose undress was proof too clear to be denied. "This is my concern. If I could love you after such gross treachery—for you have spied upon me, you have paid for every step up these stairs, paid the mistress of the house, and the servant, perhaps even Reine—a noble deed!—If I had any remnant of affection for such a mean wretch, I could give him reasons that would renew his passion!—But I leave you, monsieur, to your doubts, which will become remorse.—Wenceslas, my gown!"
She took her dress and put it on, looked at herself in the glass, and finished dressing without heeding the Baron, as calmly as if she had been alone in the room.
"Wenceslas, are you ready?—Go first."
She had been watching Montes in the glass and out of the corner of her eye, and fancied she could see in his pallor an indication of the weakness which delivers a strong man over to a woman's fascinations; she now took his hand, going so close to him that he could not help inhaling the terrible perfumes which men love, and by which they intoxicate themselves; then, feeling his pulses beat high, she looked at him reproachfully.
"You have my full permission to go and tell your history to Monsieur Crevel; he will never believe you. I have a perfect right to marry him, and he becomes my husband the day after to-morrow.—I shall make him very happy.—Good-bye; try to forget me."
"Oh! Valerie," cried Henri Montes, clasping her in his arms, "that is impossible!—Come to Brazil!"
Valerie looked in his face, and saw him her slave.
"Well, if you still love me, Henri, two years hence I will be your wife; but your expression at this moment strikes me as very suspicious."
"I swear to you that they made me drink, that false friends threw this girl on my hands, and that the whole thing is the outcome of chance!" said Montes.
"Then I am to forgive you?" she asked, with a smile.
"But you will marry, all the same?" asked the Baron, in an agony of jealousy.
"Eighty thousand francs a year!" said she, with almost comical enthusiasm. "And Crevel loves me so much that he will die of it!"
"Ah! I understand," said Montes.
"Well, then, in a few days we will come to an understanding," said she.
And she departed triumphant.
"I have no scruples," thought the Baron, standing transfixed for a few minutes. "What! That woman believes she can make use of his passion to be quit of that dolt, as she counted on Marneffe's decease!—I shall be the instrument of divine wrath."
Two days later those of du Tillet's guests who had demolished Madame Marneffe tooth and nail, were seated round her table an hour after she has shed her skin and changed her name for the illustrious name of a Paris mayor. This verbal treason is one of the commonest forms of Parisian levity.
Valerie had had the satisfaction of seeing the Brazilian in the church; for Crevel, now so entirely the husband, had invited him out of bravado. And the Baron's presence at the breakfast astonished no one. All these men of wit and of the world were familiar with the meanness of passion, the compromises of pleasure.
Steinbock's deep melancholy—for he was beginning to despise the woman whom he had adored as an angel—was considered to be in excellent taste. The Pole thus seemed to convey that all was at an end between Valerie and himself. Lisbeth came to embrace her dear Madame Crevel, and to excuse herself for not staying to the breakfast on the score of Adeline's sad state of health.
"Be quite easy," said she to Valerie, "they will call on you, and you will call on them. Simply hearing the words two hundred thousand francs has brought the Baroness to death's door. Oh, you have them all hard and fast by that tale!—But you must tell it to me."
Within a month of her marriage, Valerie was at her tenth quarrel with Steinbock; he insisted on explanations as to Henri Montes, reminding her of the words spoken in their paradise; and, not content with speaking to her in terms of scorn, he watched her so closely that she never had a moment of liberty, so much was she fettered by his jealousy on one side and Crevel's devotion on the other.
Bereft now of Lisbeth, whose advice had always been so valuable she flew into such a rage as to reproach Wenceslas for the money she had lent him. This so effectually roused Steinbock's pride, that he came no more to the Crevels' house. So Valerie had gained her point, which was to be rid of him for a time, and enjoy some freedom. She waited till Crevel should make a little journey into the country to see Comte Popinot, with a view to arranging for her introduction to the Countess, and was then able to make an appointment to meet the Baron, whom she wanted to have at her command for a whole day to give him those "reasons" which were to make him love her more than ever.
On the morning of that day, Reine, who estimated the magnitude of her crime by that of the bribe she received, tried to warn her mistress, in whom she naturally took more interest than in strangers. Still, as she had been threatened with madness, and ending her days in the Salpetriere in case of indiscretion, she was cautious.
"Madame, you are so well off now," said she. "Why take on again with that Brazilian?—I do not trust him at all."
"You are very right, Reine, and I mean to be rid of him."
"Oh, madame, I am glad to hear it; he frightens me, does that big Moor! I believe him to be capable of anything."
"Silly child! you have more reason to be afraid for him when he is with me."
At this moment Lisbeth came in.
"My dear little pet Nanny, what an age since we met!" cried Valerie. "I am so unhappy! Crevel bores me to death; and Wenceslas is gone—we quarreled."
"I know," said Lisbeth, "and that is what brings me here. Victorin met him at about five in the afternoon going into an eating-house at five-and-twenty sous, and he brought him home, hungry, by working on his feelings, to the Rue Louis-le-Grand.—Hortense, seeing Wenceslas lean and ill and badly dressed, held out her hand. This is how you throw me over—"
"Monsieur Henri, madame," the man-servant announced in a low voice to Valerie.
"Leave me now, Lisbeth; I will explain it all to-morrow." But, as will be seen, Valerie was ere long not in a state to explain anything to anybody.
Towards the end of May, Baron Hulot's pension was released by Victorin's regular payment to Baron Nucingen. As everybody knows, pensions are paid half-yearly, and only on the presentation of a certificate that the recipient is alive: and as Hulot's residence was unknown, the arrears unpaid on Vauvinet's demand remained to his credit in the Treasury. Vauvinet now signed his renunciation of any further claims, and it was still indispensable to find the pensioner before the arrears could be drawn.
Thanks to Bianchon's care, the Baroness had recovered her health; and to this Josepha's good heart had contributed by a letter, of which the orthography betrayed the collaboration of the Duc d'Herouville. This was what the singer wrote to the Baroness, after twenty days of anxious search:—
"MADAME LA BARONNE,—Monsieur Hulot was living, two months since,
in the Rue des Bernardins, with Elodie Chardin, a lace-mender, for
whom he had left Mademoiselle Bijou; but he went away without a
word, leaving everything behind him, and no one knows where he
went. I am not without hope, however, and I have put a man on this
track who believes he has already seen him in the Boulevard
"The poor Jewess means to keep the promise she made to the
Christian. Will the angel pray for the devil? That must sometimes
happen in heaven.—I remain, with the deepest respect, always your
The lawyer, Maitre Hulot d'Ervy, hearing no more of the dreadful Madame Nourrisson, seeing his father-in-law married, having brought back his brother-in-law to the family fold, suffering from no importunity on the part of his new stepmother, and seeing his mother's health improve daily, gave himself up to his political and judicial duties, swept along by the tide of Paris life, in which the hours count for days.
One night, towards the end of the session, having occasion to write up a report to the Chamber of Deputies, he was obliged to sit at work till late at night. He had gone into his study at nine o'clock, and, while waiting till the man-servant should bring in the candles with green shades, his thoughts turned to his father. He was blaming himself for leaving the inquiry so much to the singer, and had resolved to see Monsieur Chapuzot himself on the morrow, when he saw in the twilight, outside the window, a handsome old head, bald and yellow, with a fringe of white hair.
"Would you please to give orders, sir, that a poor hermit is to be admitted, just come from the Desert, and who is instructed to beg for contributions towards rebuilding a holy house."
This apparition, which suddenly reminded the lawyer of a prophecy uttered by the terrible Nourrisson, gave him a shock.
"Let in that old man," said he to the servant.
"He will poison the place, sir," replied the man. "He has on a brown gown which he has never changed since he left Syria, and he has no shirt—"
"Show him in," repeated the master.
The old man came in. Victorin's keen eye examined this so-called pilgrim hermit, and he saw a fine specimen of the Neapolitan friars, whose frocks are akin to the rags of the lazzaroni, whose sandals are tatters of leather, as the friars are tatters of humanity. The get-up was so perfect that the lawyer, though still on his guard, was vexed with himself for having believed it to be one of Madame Nourrisson's tricks.
"How much to you want of me?"
"Whatever you feel that you ought to give me."
Victorin took a five-franc piece from a little pile on his table, and handed it to the stranger.
"That is not much on account of fifty thousand francs," said the pilgrim of the desert.
This speech removed all Victorin's doubts.
"And has Heaven kept its word?" he said, with a frown.
"The question is an offence, my son," said the hermit. "If you do not choose to pay till after the funeral, you are in your rights. I will return in a week's time."
"The funeral!" cried the lawyer, starting up.
"The world moves on," said the old man, as he withdrew, "and the dead move quickly in Paris!"
When Hulot, who stood looking down, was about to reply, the stalwart old man had vanished.
"I don't understand one word of all this," said Victorin to himself. "But at the end of the week I will ask him again about my father, if we have not yet found him. Where does Madame Nourrisson—yes, that was her name—pick up such actors?"
On the following day, Doctor Bianchon allowed the Baroness to go down into the garden, after examining Lisbeth, who had been obliged to keep to her room for a month by a slight bronchial attack. The learned doctor, who dared not pronounce a definite opinion on Lisbeth's case till he had seen some decisive symptoms, went into the garden with Adeline to observe the effect of the fresh air on her nervous trembling after two months of seclusion. He was interested and allured by the hope of curing this nervous complaint. On seeing the great physician sitting with them and sparing them a few minutes, the Baroness and her family conversed with him on general subjects.
"You life is a very full and a very sad one," said Madame Hulot. "I know what it is to spend one's days in seeing poverty and physical suffering."
"I know, madame," replied the doctor, "all the scenes of which charity compels you to be a spectator; but you will get used to it in time, as we all do. It is the law of existence. The confessor, the magistrate, the lawyer would find life unendurable if the spirit of the State did not assert itself above the feelings of the individual. Could we live at all but for that? Is not the soldier in time of war brought face to face with spectacles even more dreadful than those we see? And every soldier that has been under fire is kind-hearted. We medical men have the pleasure now and again of a successful cure, as you have that of saving a family from the horrors of hunger, depravity, or misery, and of restoring it to social respectability. But what comfort can the magistrate find, the police agent, or the attorney, who spend their lives in investigating the basest schemes of self-interest, the social monster whose only regret is when it fails, but on whom repentance never dawns?
"One-half of society spends its life in watching the other half. A very old friend of mine is an attorney, now retired, who told me that for fifteen years past notaries and lawyers have distrusted their clients quite as much as their adversaries. Your son is a pleader; has he never found himself compromised by the client for whom he held a brief?"
"Very often," said Victorin, with a smile.
"And what is the cause of this deep-seated evil?" asked the Baroness.
"The decay of religion," said Bianchon, "and the pre-eminence of finance, which is simply solidified selfishness. Money used not to be everything; there were some kinds of superiority that ranked above it—nobility, genius, service done to the State. But nowadays the law takes wealth as the universal standard, and regards it as the measure of public capacity. Certain magistrates are ineligible to the Chamber; Jean-Jacques Rousseau would be ineligible! The perpetual subdivision of estate compels every man to take care of himself from the age of twenty.
"Well, then, between the necessity for making a fortune and the depravity of speculation there is no check or hindrance; for the religious sense is wholly lacking in France, in spite of the laudable endeavors of those who are working for a Catholic revival. And this is the opinion of every man who, like me, studies society at the core."
"And you have few pleasures?" said Hortense.
"The true physician, madame, is in love with his science," replied the doctor. "He is sustained by that passion as much as by the sense of his usefulness to society.
"At this very time you see in me a sort of scientific rapture, and many superficial judges would regard me as a man devoid of feeling. I have to announce a discovery to-morrow to the College of Medicine, for I am studying a disease that had disappeared—a mortal disease for which no cure is known in temperate climates, though it is curable in the West Indies—a malady known here in the Middle Ages. A noble fight is that of the physician against such a disease. For the last ten days I have thought of nothing but these cases—for there are two, a husband and wife.—Are they not connections of yours? For you, madame, are surely Monsieur Crevel's daughter?" said he, addressing Celestine.
"What, is my father your patient?" asked Celestine. "Living in the Rue Barbet-de-Jouy?"
"Precisely so," said Bianchon.
"And the disease is inevitably fatal?" said Victorin in dismay.
"I will go to see him," said Celestine, rising.
"I positively forbid it, madame," Bianchon quietly said. "The disease is contagious."
"But you go there, monsieur," replied the young woman. "Do you think that a daughter's duty is less binding than a doctor's?"
"Madame, a physician knows how to protect himself against infection, and the rashness of your devotion proves to me that you would probably be less prudent than I."
Celestine, however, got up and went to her room, where she dressed to go out.
"Monsieur," said Victorin to Bianchon, "have you any hope of saving Monsieur and Madame Crevel?"
"I hope, but I do not believe that I may," said Bianchon. "The case is to me quite inexplicable. The disease is peculiar to negroes and the American tribes, whose skin is differently constituted to that of the white races. Now I can trace no connection with the copper-colored tribes, with negroes or half-castes, in Monsieur or Madame Crevel.
"And though it is a very interesting disease to us, it is a terrible thing for the sufferers. The poor woman, who is said to have been very pretty, is punished for her sins, for she is now squalidly hideous if she is still anything at all. She is losing her hair and teeth, her skin is like a leper's, she is a horror to herself; her hands are horrible, covered with greenish pustules, her nails are loose, and the flesh is eaten away by the poisoned humors."
"And the cause of such a disease?" asked the lawyer.
"Oh!" said the doctor, "the cause lies in a form of rapid blood-poisoning; it degenerates with terrific rapidity. I hope to act on the blood; I am having it analyzed; and I am now going home to ascertain the result of the labors of my friend Professor Duval, the famous chemist, with a view to trying one of those desperate measures by which we sometimes attempt to defeat death."
"The hand of God is there!" said Adeline, in a voice husky with emotion. "Though that woman has brought sorrows on me which have led me in moments of madness to invoke the vengeance of Heaven, I hope—God knows I hope—you may succeed, doctor."
Victorin felt dizzy. He looked at his mother, his sister, and the physician by turns, quaking lest they should read his thoughts. He felt himself a murderer.
Hortense, for her part, thought God was just.
Celestine came back to beg her husband to accompany her.
"If you insist on going, madame, and you too, monsieur, keep at least a foot between you and the bed of the sufferer, that is the chief precaution. Neither you nor your wife must dream of kissing the dying man. And, indeed, you ought to go with your wife, Monsieur Hulot, to hinder her from disobeying my injunctions."
Adeline and Hortense, when they were left alone, went to sit with Lisbeth. Hortense had such a virulent hatred of Valerie that she could not contain the expression of it.
"Cousin Lisbeth," she exclaimed, "my mother and I are avenged! that venomous snake is herself bitten—she is rotting in her bed!"
"Hortense, at this moment you are not a Christian. You ought to pray to God to vouchsafe repentance to this wretched woman."
"What are you talking about?" said Betty, rising from her couch. "Are you speaking of Valerie?"
"Yes," replied Adeline; "she is past hope—dying of some horrible disease of which the mere description makes one shudder——"
Lisbeth's teeth chattered, a cold sweat broke out all over her; the violence of the shock showed how passionate her attachment to Valerie had been.
"I must go there," said she.
"But the doctor forbids your going out."
"I do not care—I must go!—Poor Crevel! what a state he must be in; for he loves that woman."
"He is dying too," replied Countess Steinbock. "Ah! all our enemies are in the devil's clutches—"
"In God's hands, my child—"
Lisbeth dressed in the famous yellow Indian shawl and her black velvet bonnet, and put on her boots; in spite of her relations' remonstrances, she set out as if driven by some irresistible power.
She arrived in the Rue Barbet a few minutes after Monsieur and Madame Hulot, and found seven physicians there, brought by Bianchon to study this unique case; he had just joined them. The physicians, assembled in the drawing-room, were discussing the disease; now one and now another went into Valerie's room or Crevel's to take a note, and returned with an opinion based on this rapid study.
These princes of science were divided in their opinions. One, who stood alone in his views, considered it a case of poisoning, of private revenge, and denied its identity with the disease known in the Middle Ages. Three others regarded it as a specific deterioration of the blood and the humors. The rest, agreeing with Bianchon, maintained that the blood was poisoned by some hitherto unknown morbid infection. Bianchon produced Professor Duval's analysis of the blood. The remedies to be applied, though absolutely empirical and without hope, depended on the verdict in this medical dilemma.
Lisbeth stood as if petrified three yards away from the bed where Valerie lay dying, as she saw a priest from Saint-Thomas d'Aquin standing by her friend's pillow, and a sister of charity in attendance. Religion could find a soul to save in a mass of rottenness which, of the five senses of man, had now only that of sight. The sister of charity who alone had been found to nurse Valerie stood apart. Thus the Catholic religion, that divine institution, always actuated by the spirit of self-sacrifice, under its twofold aspect of the Spirit and the Flesh, was tending this horrible and atrocious creature, soothing her death-bed by its infinite benevolence and inexhaustible stores of mercy.
The servants, in horror, refused to go into the room of either their master or mistress; they thought only of themselves, and judged their betters as righteously stricken. The smell was so foul that in spite of open windows and strong perfumes, no one could remain long in Valerie's room. Religion alone kept guard there.
How could a woman so clever as Valerie fail to ask herself to what end these two representatives of the Church remained with her? The dying woman had listened to the words of the priest. Repentance had risen on her darkened soul as the devouring malady had consumed her beauty. The fragile Valerie had been less able to resist the inroads of the disease than Crevel; she would be the first to succumb, and, indeed, had been the first attacked.
"If I had not been ill myself, I would have come to nurse you," said Lisbeth at last, after a glance at her friend's sunken eyes. "I have kept my room this fortnight or three weeks; but when I heard of your state from the doctor, I came at once."
"Poor Lisbeth, you at least love me still, I see!" said Valerie. "Listen. I have only a day or two left to think, for I cannot say to live. You see, there is nothing left of me—I am a heap of mud! They will not let me see myself in a glass.—Well, it is no more than I deserve. Oh, if I might only win mercy, I would gladly undo all the mischief I have done."
"Oh!" said Lisbeth, "if you can talk like that, you are indeed a dead woman."
"Do not hinder this woman's repentance, leave her in her Christian mind," said the priest.
"There is nothing left!" said Lisbeth in consternation. "I cannot recognize her eyes or her mouth! Not a feature of her is there! And her wit has deserted her! Oh, it is awful!"
"You don't know," said Valerie, "what death is; what it is to be obliged to think of the morrow of your last day on earth, and of what is to be found in the grave.—Worms for the body—and for the soul, what?—Lisbeth, I know there is another life! And I am given over to terrors which prevent my feeling the pangs of my decomposing body.—I, who could laugh at a saint, and say to Crevel that the vengeance of God took every form of disaster.—Well, I was a true prophet.—Do not trifle with sacred things, Lisbeth; if you love me, repent as I do."
"I!" said Lisbeth. "I see vengeance wherever I turn in nature; insects even die to satisfy the craving for revenge when they are attacked. And do not these gentlemen tell us"—and she looked at the priest—"that God is revenged, and that His vengeance lasts through all eternity?"
The priest looked mildly at Lisbeth and said:
"You, madame, are an atheist!"
"But look what I have come to," said Valerie.
"And where did you get this gangrene?" asked the old maid, unmoved from her peasant incredulity.
"I had a letter from Henri which leaves me in no doubt as to my fate. He has murdered me. And—just when I meant to live honestly—to die an object of disgust!
"Lisbeth, give up all notions of revenge. Be kind to that family to whom I have left by my will everything I can dispose of. Go, child, though you are the only creature who, at this hour, does not avoid me with horror—go, I beseech you, and leave me.—I have only time to make my peace with God!"
"She is wandering in her wits," said Lisbeth to herself, as she left the room.
The strongest affection known, that of a woman for a woman, had not such heroic constancy as the Church. Lisbeth, stifled by the miasma, went away. She found the physicians still in consultation. But Bianchon's opinion carried the day, and the only question now was how to try the remedies.
"At any rate, we shall have a splendid post-mortem," said one of his opponents, "and there will be two cases to enable us to make comparisons."
Lisbeth went in again with Bianchon, who went up to the sick woman without seeming aware of the malodorous atmosphere.
"Madame," said he, "we intend to try a powerful remedy which may save you—"
"And if you save my life," said she, "shall I be as good-looking as ever?"
"Possibly," said the judicious physician.
"I know your possibly," said Valerie. "I shall look like a woman who has fallen into the fire! No, leave me to the Church. I can please no one now but God. I will try to be reconciled to Him, and that will be my last flirtation; yes, I must try to come round God!"
"That is my poor Valerie's last jest; that is all herself!" said Lisbeth in tears.
Lisbeth thought it her duty to go into Crevel's room, where she found Victorin and his wife sitting about a yard away from the stricken man's bed.
"Lisbeth," said he, "they will not tell me what state my wife is in; you have just seen her—how is she?"
"She is better; she says she is saved," replied Lisbeth, allowing herself this play on the word to soothe Crevel's mind.
"That is well," said the Mayor. "I feared lest I had been the cause of her illness. A man is not a traveler in perfumery for nothing; I had blamed myself.—If I should lose her, what would become of me? On my honor, my children, I worship that woman."
He sat up in bed and tried to assume his favorite position.
"Oh, Papa!" cried Celestine, "if only you could be well again, I would make friends with my stepmother—I make a vow!"
"Poor little Celestine!" said Crevel, "come and kiss me."
Victorin held back his wife, who was rushing forward.
"You do not know, perhaps," said the lawyer gently, "that your disease is contagious, monsieur."
"To be sure," replied Crevel. "And the doctors are quite proud of having rediscovered in me some long lost plague of the Middle Ages, which the Faculty has had cried like lost property—it is very funny!"
"Papa," said Celestine, "be brave, and you will get the better of this disease."
"Be quite easy, my children; Death thinks twice of it before carrying off a Mayor of Paris," said he, with monstrous composure. "And if, after all, my district is so unfortunate as to lose a man it has twice honored with its suffrages—you see, what a flow of words I have!—Well, I shall know how to pack up and go. I have been a commercial traveler; I am experienced in such matters. Ah! my children, I am a man of strong mind."
"Papa, promise me to admit the Church—"
"Never," replied Crevel. "What is to be said? I drank the milk of Revolution; I have not Baron Holbach's wit, but I have his strength of mind. I am more Regence than ever, more Musketeer, Abbe Dubois, and Marechal de Richelieu! By the Holy Poker!—My wife, who is wandering in her head, has just sent me a man in a gown—to me! the admirer of Beranger, the friend of Lisette, the son of Voltaire and Rousseau.—The doctor, to feel my pulse, as it were, and see if sickness had subdued me—'You saw Monsieur l'Abbe?' said he.—Well, I imitated the great Montesquieu. Yes, I looked at the doctor—see, like this," and he turned to show three-quarters face, like his portrait, and extended his hand authoritatively—"and I said:
"The slave was here,
He showed his order, but he nothing gained.
"His order is a pretty jest, showing that even in death Monsieur le President de Montesquieu preserved his elegant wit, for they had sent him a Jesuit. I admire that passage—I cannot say of his life, but of his death—the passage—another joke!—The passage from life to death—the Passage Montesquieu!"
Victorin gazed sadly at his father-in-law, wondering whether folly and vanity were not forces on a par with true greatness of soul. The causes that act on the springs of the soul seem to be quite independent of the results. Can it be that the fortitude which upholds a great criminal is the same as that which a Champcenetz so proudly walks to the scaffold?
By the end of the week Madame Crevel was buried, after dreadful sufferings; and Crevel followed her within two days. Thus the marriage-contract was annulled. Crevel was heir to Valerie.
On the very day after the funeral, the friar called again on the lawyer, who received him in perfect silence. The monk held out his hand without a word, and without a word Victorin Hulot gave him eighty thousand-franc notes, taken from a sum of money found in Crevel's desk.
Young Madame Hulot inherited the estate of Presles and thirty thousand francs a year.
Madame Crevel had bequeathed a sum of three hundred thousand francs to Baron Hulot. Her scrofulous boy Stanislas was to inherit, at his majority, the Hotel Crevel and eighty thousand francs a year.
Among the many noble associations founded in Paris by Catholic charity, there is one, originated by Madame de la Chanterie, for promoting civil and religious marriages between persons who have formed a voluntary but illicit union. Legislators, who draw large revenues from the registration fees, and the Bourgeois dynasty, which benefits by the notary's profits, affect to overlook the fact that three-fourths of the poorer class cannot afford fifteen francs for the marriage-contract. The pleaders, a sufficiently vilified body, gratuitously defend the cases of the indigent, while the notaries have not as yet agreed to charge nothing for the marriage-contract of the poor. As to the revenue collectors, the whole machinery of Government would have to be dislocated to induce the authorities to relax their demands. The registrar's office is deaf and dumb.
Then the Church, too, receives a duty on marriages. In France the Church depends largely on such revenues; even in the House of God it traffics in chairs and kneeling stools in a way that offends foreigners; though it cannot have forgotten the anger of the Saviour who drove the money-changers out of the Temple. If the Church is so loath to relinquish its dues, it must be supposed that these dues, known as Vestry dues, are one of its sources of maintenance, and then the fault of the Church is the fault of the State.
The co-operation of these conditions, at a time when charity is too greatly concerned with the negroes and the petty offenders discharged from prison to trouble itself about honest folks in difficulties, results in the existence of a number of decent couples who have never been legally married for lack of thirty francs, the lowest figure for which the Notary, the Registrar, the Mayor and the Church will unite two citizens of Paris. Madame de la Chanterie's fund, founded to restore poor households to their religious and legal status, hunts up such couples, and with all the more success because it helps them in their poverty before attacking their unlawful union.
As soon as Madame Hulot had recovered, she returned to her occupations. And then it was that the admirable Madame de la Chanterie came to beg that Adeline would add the legalization of these voluntary unions to the other good works of which she was the instrument.
One of the Baroness' first efforts in this cause was made in the ominous-looking district, formerly known as la Petite Pologne—Little Poland—bounded by the Rue du Rocher, Rue de la Pepiniere, and Rue de Miromenil. There exists there a sort of offshoot of the Faubourg Saint-Marceau. To give an idea of this part of the town, it is enough to say that the landlords of some of the houses tenanted by working men without work, by dangerous characters, and by the very poor employed in unhealthy toil, dare not demand their rents, and can find no bailiffs bold enough to evict insolvent lodgers. At the present time speculating builders, who are fast changing the aspect of this corner of Paris, and covering the waste ground lying between the Rue d'Amsterdam and the Rue Faubourg-du-Roule, will no doubt alter the character of the inhabitants; for the trowel is a more civilizing agent than is generally supposed. By erecting substantial and handsome houses, with porters at the doors, by bordering the streets with footwalks and shops, speculation, while raising the rents, disperses the squalid class, families bereft of furniture, and lodgers that cannot pay. And so these districts are cleared of such objectionable residents, and the dens vanish into which the police never venture but under the sanction of the law.
In June 1844, the purlieus of the Place de Laborde were still far from inviting. The genteel pedestrian, who by chance should turn out of the Rue de la Pepiniere into one of those dreadful side-streets, would have been dismayed to see how vile a bohemia dwelt cheek by jowl with the aristocracy. In such places as these, haunted by ignorant poverty and misery driven to bay, flourish the last public letter-writers who are to be found in Paris. Wherever you see the two words "Ecrivain Public" written in a fine copy hand on a sheet of letter-paper stuck to the window pane of some low entresol or mud-splashed ground-floor room, you may safely conclude that the neighborhood is the lurking place of many unlettered folks, and of much vice and crime, the outcome of misery; for ignorance is the mother of all sorts of crime. A crime is, in the first instance, a defect of reasoning powers.
While the Baroness had been ill, this quarter, to which she was a minor Providence, had seen the advent of a public writer who settled in the Passage du Soleil—Sun Alley—a spot of which the name is one of the antitheses dear to the Parisian, for the passage is especially dark. This writer, supposed to be a German, was named Vyder, and he lived on matrimonial terms with a young creature of whom he was so jealous that he never allowed her to go anywhere excepting to some honest stove and flue-fitters, in the Rue Saint-Lazare, Italians, as such fitters always are, but long since established in Paris. These people had been saved from a bankruptcy, which would have reduced them to misery, by the Baroness, acting in behalf of Madame de la Chanterie. In a few months comfort had taken the place of poverty, and Religion had found a home in hearts which once had cursed Heaven with the energy peculiar to Italian stove-fitters. So one of Madame Hulot's first visits was to this family.
She was pleased at the scene that presented itself to her eyes at the back of the house where these worthy folks lived in the Rue Saint-Lazare, not far from the Rue du Rocher. High above the stores and workshops, now well filled, where toiled a swarm of apprentices and workmen—all Italians from the valley of Domo d'Ossola—the master's family occupied a set of rooms, which hard work had blessed with abundance. The Baroness was hailed like the Virgin Mary in person.
After a quarter of an hour's questioning, Adeline, having to wait for the father to inquire how his business was prospering, pursued her saintly calling as a spy by asking whether they knew of any families needing help.
"Ah, dear lady, you who could save the damned from hell!" said the Italian wife, "there is a girl quite near here to be saved from perdition."
"A girl well known to you?" asked the Baroness.
"She is the granddaughter of a master my husband formerly worked for, who came to France in 1798, after the Revolution, by name Judici. Old Judici, in Napoleon's time, was one of the principal stove-fitters in Paris; he died in 1819, leaving his son a fine fortune. But the younger Judici wasted all his money on bad women; till, at last, he married one who was sharper than the rest, and she had this poor little girl, who is just turned fifteen."
"And what is wrong with her?" asked Adeline, struck by the resemblance between this Judici and her husband.
"Well, madame, this child, named Atala, ran away from her father, and came to live close by here with an old German of eighty at least, named Vyder, who does odd jobs for people who cannot read and write. Now, if this old sinner, who bought the child of her mother, they say for fifteen hundred francs, would but marry her, as he certainly has not long to live, and as he is said to have some few thousand of francs a year—well, the poor thing, who is a sweet little angel, would be out of mischief, and above want, which must be the ruin of her."
"Thank you very much for the information. I may do some good, but I must act with caution.—Who is the old man?"
"Oh! madame, he is a good old fellow; he makes the child very happy, and he has some sense too, for he left the part of town where the Judicis live, as I believe, to snatch the child from her mother's clutches. The mother was jealous of her, and I dare say she thought she could make money out of her beauty and make a mademoiselle of the girl.
"Atala remembered us, and advised her gentleman to settle near us; and as the good man sees how decent we are, he allows her to come here. But get them married, madame, and you will do an action worthy of you. Once married, the child will be independent and free from her mother, who keeps an eye on her, and who, if she could make money by her, would like to see her on the stage, or successful in the wicked life she meant her to lead."
"Why doesn't the old man marry her?"
"There was no necessity for it, you see," said the Italian. "And though old Vyder is not a bad old fellow, I fancy he is sharp enough to wish to remain the master, while if he once got married—why, the poor man is afraid of the stone that hangs round every old man's neck."
"Could you send for the girl to come here?" said Madame Hulot. "I should see her quietly, and find out what could be done—"
The stove-fitter's wife signed to her eldest girl, who ran off. Ten minutes later she returned, leading by the hand a child of fifteen and a half, a beauty of the Italian type. Mademoiselle Judici inherited from her father that ivory skin which, rather yellow by day, is by artificial light of lily-whiteness; eyes of Oriental beauty, form, and brilliancy, close curling lashes like black feathers, hair of ebony hue, and that native dignity of the Lombard race which makes the foreigner, as he walks through Milan on a Sunday, fancy that every porter's daughter is a princess.
Atala, told by the stove-fitter's daughter that she was to meet the great lady of whom she had heard so much, had hastily dressed in a black silk gown, a smart little cape, and neat boots. A cap with a cherry-colored bow added to the brilliant effect of her coloring. The child stood in an attitude of artless curiosity, studying the Baroness out of the corner of her eye, for her palsied trembling puzzled her greatly.
Adeline sighed deeply as she saw this jewel of womanhood in the mire of prostitution, and determined to rescue her to virtue.
"What is your name, my dear?"
"And can you read and write?"
"No, madame; but that does not matter, as monsieur can."
"Did your parents ever take you to church? Have you been to your first Communion? Do you know your Catechism?"
"Madame, papa wanted to make me do something of the kind you speak of, but mamma would not have it—"
"Your mother?" exclaimed the Baroness. "Is she bad to you, then?"
"She was always beating me. I don't know why, but I was always being quarreled over by my father and mother—"
"Did you ever hear of God?" cried the Baroness.
The girl looked up wide-eyed.
"Oh, yes, papa and mamma often said 'Good God,' and 'In God's name,' and 'God's thunder,'" said she, with perfect simplicity.
"Then you never saw a church? Did you never think of going into one?"
"A church?—Notre-Dame, the Pantheon?—I have seen them from a distance, when papa took me into town; but that was not very often. There are no churches like those in the Faubourg."
"Which Faubourg did you live in?"
"In the Faubourg."
"Yes, but which?"
"In the Rue de Charonne, madame."
The inhabitants of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine never call that notorious district other than the Faubourg. To them it is the one and only Faubourg; and manufacturers generally understand the words as meaning the Faubourg Saint-Antoine.
"Did no one ever tell you what was right or wrong?"
"Mamma used to beat me when I did not do what pleased her."
"But did you not know that it was very wicked to run away from your father and mother to go to live with an old man?"
Atala Judici gazed at the Baroness with a haughty stare, but made no reply.
"She is a perfect little savage," murmured Adeline.
"There are a great many like her in the Faubourg, madame," said the stove-fitter's wife.
"But she knows nothing—not even what is wrong. Good Heavens!—Why do you not answer me?" said Madame Hulot, putting out her hand to take Atala's.
Atala indignantly withdrew a step.
"You are an old fool!" said she. "Why, my father and mother had had nothing to eat for a week. My mother wanted me to do much worse than that, I think, for my father thrashed her and called her a thief! However, Monsieur Vyder paid all their debts, and gave them some money—oh, a bagful! And he brought me away, and poor papa was crying. But we had to part!—Was it wicked?" she asked.
"And are you very fond of Monsieur Vyder?"
"Fond of him?" said she. "I should think so! He tells me beautiful stories, madame, every evening; and he has given me nice gowns, and linen, and a shawl. Why, I am figged out like a princess, and I never wear sabots now. And then, I have not known what it is to be hungry these two months past. And I don't live on potatoes now. He brings me bonbons and burnt almonds, and chocolate almonds.—Aren't they good?—I do anything he pleases for a bag of chocolate.—Then my old Daddy is very kind; he takes such care of me, and is so nice; I know now what my mother ought to have been.—He is going to get an old woman to help me, for he doesn't like me to dirty my hands with cooking. For the past month, too, he has been making a little money, and he gives me three francs every evening that I put into a money-box. Only he will never let me out except to come here—and he calls me his little kitten! Mamma never called me anything but bad names—and thief, and vermin!"
"Well, then, my child, why should not Daddy Vyder be your husband?"
"But he is, madame," said the girl, looking at Adeline with calm pride, without a blush, her brow smooth, her eyes steady. "He told me that I was his little wife; but it is a horrid bore to be a man's wife—if it were not for the burnt almonds!"
"Good Heaven!" said the Baroness to herself, "what monster can have had the heart to betray such perfect, such holy innocence? To restore this child to the ways of virtue would surely atone for many sins.—I knew what I was doing." thought she, remembering the scene with Crevel. "But she—she knows nothing."
"Do you know Monsieur Samanon?" asked Atala, with an insinuating look.
"No, my child; but why do you ask?"
"Really and truly?" said the artless girl.
"You have nothing to fear from this lady," said the Italian woman. "She is an angel."
"It is because my good old boy is afraid of being caught by Samanon. He is hiding, and I wish he could be free—"
"On! then he would take me to Bobino, perhaps to the Ambigu."
"What a delightful creature!" said the Baroness, kissing the girl.
"Are you rich?" asked Atala, who was fingering the Baroness' lace ruffles.
"Yes, and No," replied Madame Hulot. "I am rich for dear little girls like you when they are willing to be taught their duties as Christians by a priest, and to walk in the right way."
"What way is that?" said Atala; "I walk on my two feet."
"The way of virtue."
Atala looked at the Baroness with a crafty smile.
"Look at madame," said the Baroness, pointing to the stove-fitter's wife, "she has been quite happy because she was received into the bosom of the Church. You married like the beasts that perish."
"I?" said Atala. "Why, if you will give me as much as Daddy Vyder gives me, I shall be quite happy unmarried again. It is a grind.—Do you know what it is to—?"
"But when once you are united to a man as you are," the Baroness put in, "virtue requires you to remain faithful to him."
"Till he dies," said Atala, with a knowing flash. "I shall not have to wait long. If you only knew how Daddy Vyder coughs and blows.—Poof, poof," and she imitated the old man.
"Virtue and morality require that the Church, representing God, and the Mayor, representing the law, should consecrate your marriage," Madame Hulot went on. "Look at madame; she is legally married—"
"Will it make it more amusing?" asked the girl.
"You will be happier," said the Baroness, "for no one could then blame you. You would satisfy God! Ask her if she was married without the sacrament of marriage!"
Atala looked at the Italian.
"How is she any better than I am?" she asked. "I am prettier than she is."
"Yes, but I am an honest woman," said the wife, "and you may be called by a bad name."
"How can you expect God to protect you if you trample every law, human and divine, under foot?" said the Baroness. "Don't you know that God has Paradise in store for those who obey the injunctions of His Church?"
"What is there in Paradise? Are there playhouses?"
"Paradise!" said Adeline, "is every joy you can conceive of. It is full of angels with white wings. You see God in all His glory, you share His power, you are happy for every minute of eternity!"
Atala listened to the lady as she might have listened to music; but Adeline, seeing that she was incapable of understanding her, thought she had better take another line of action and speak to the old man.
"Go home, then, my child, and I will go to see Monsieur Vyder. Is he a Frenchman?"
"He is an Alsatian, madame. But he will be quite rich soon. If you would pay what he owes to that vile Samanon, he would give you back your money, for in a few months he will be getting six thousand francs a year, he says, and we are to go to live in the country a long way off, in the Vosges."
At the word Vosges the Baroness sat lost in reverie. It called up the vision of her native village. She was roused from her melancholy meditation by the entrance of the stove-fitter, who came to assure her of his prosperity.
"In a year's time, madame, I can repay the money you lent us, for it is God's money, the money of the poor and wretched. If ever I make a fortune, come to me for what you want, and I will render through you the help to others which you first brought us."
"Just now," said Madame Hulot, "I do not need your money, but I ask your assistance in a good work. I have just seen that little Judici, who is living with an old man, and I mean to see them regularly and legally married."
"Ah! old Vyder; he is a very worthy old fellow, with plenty of good sense. The poor old man has already made friends in the neighborhood, though he has been here but two months. He keeps my accounts for me. He is, I believe, a brave Colonel who served the Emperor well. And how he adores Napoleon!—He has some orders, but he never wears them. He is waiting till he is straight again, for he is in debt, poor old boy! In fact, I believe he is hiding, threatened by the law—"
"Tell him that I will pay his debts if he will marry the child."
"Oh, that will soon be settled.—Suppose you were to see him, madame; it is not two steps away, in the Passage du Soleil."
So the lady and the stove-fitter went out.
"This way, madame," said the man, turning down the Rue de la Pepiniere.
The alley runs, in fact, from the bottom of this street through to the Rue du Rocher. Halfway down this passage, recently opened through, where the shops let at a very low rent, the Baroness saw on a window, screened up to a height with a green, gauze curtain, which excluded the prying eyes of the passer-by, the words:
"ECRIVAIN PUBLIC"; and on the door the announcement:
Petitions Drawn Up, Accounts Audited, Etc.
With Secrecy and Dispatch.
The shop was like one of those little offices where travelers by omnibus wait the vehicles to take them on to their destination. A private staircase led up, no doubt, to the living-rooms on the entresol which were let with the shop. Madame Hulot saw a dirty writing-table of some light wood, some letter-boxes, and a wretched second-hand chair. A cap with a peak and a greasy green shade for the eyes suggested either precautions for disguise, or weak eyes, which was not unlikely in an old man.
"He is upstairs," said the stove-fitter. "I will go up and tell him to come down."
Adeline lowered her veil and took a seat. A heavy step made the narrow stairs creak, and Adeline could not restrain a piercing cry when she saw her husband, Baron Hulot, in a gray knitted jersey, old gray flannel trousers, and slippers.
"What is your business, madame?" said Hulot, with a flourish.
She rose, seized Hulot by the arm, and said in a voice hoarse with emotion:
"At last—I have found you!"
"Adeline!" exclaimed the Baron in bewilderment, and he locked the shop door. "Joseph, go out the back way," he added to the stove-fitter.
"My dear!" she said, forgetting everything in her excessive joy, "you can come home to us all; we are rich. Your son draws a hundred and sixty thousand francs a year! Your pension is released; there are fifteen thousand francs of arrears you can get on showing that you are alive. Valerie is dead, and left you three hundred thousand francs.
"Your name is quite forgotten by this time; you may reappear in the world, and you will find a fortune awaiting you at your son's house. Come; our happiness will be complete. For nearly three years I have been seeking you, and I felt so sure of finding you that a room is ready waiting for you. Oh! come away from this, come away from the dreadful state I see you in!"
"I am very willing," said the bewildered Baron, "but can I take the girl?"
"Hector, give her up! Do that much for your Adeline, who has never before asked you to make the smallest sacrifice. I promise you I will give the child a marriage portion; I will see that she marries well, and has some education. Let it be said of one of the women who have given you happiness that she too is happy; and do not relapse into vice, into the mire."
"So it was you," said the Baron, with a smile, "who wanted to see me married?—Wait a few minutes," he added; "I will go upstairs and dress; I have some decent clothes in a trunk."
Adeline, left alone, and looking round the squalid shop, melted into tears.
"He has been living here, and we rolling in wealth!" said she to herself. "Poor man, he has indeed been punished—he who was elegance itself."
The stove-fitter returned to make his bow to his benefactress, and she desired him to fetch a coach. When he came back, she begged him to give little Atala Judici a home, and to take her away at once.
"And tell her that if she will place herself under the guidance of Monsieur the Cure of the Madeleine, on the day when she attends her first Communion I will give her thirty thousand francs and find her a good husband, some worthy young man."
"My eldest son, then madame! He is two-and-twenty, and he worships the child."
The Baron now came down; there were tears in his eyes.
"You are forcing me to desert the only creature who had ever begun to love me at all as you do!" said he in a whisper to his wife. "She is crying bitterly, and I cannot abandon her so—"
"Be quite easy, Hector. She will find a home with honest people, and I will answer for her conduct."
"Well, then, I can go with you," said the Baron, escorting his wife to the cab.
Hector, the Baron d'Ervy once more, had put on a blue coat and trousers, a white waistcoat, a black stock, and gloves. When the Baroness had taken her seat in the vehicle, Atala slipped in like an eel.
"Oh, madame," she said, "let me go with you. I will be so good, so obedient; I will do whatever you wish; but do not part me from my Daddy Vyder, my kind Daddy who gives me such nice things. I shall be beaten—"
"Come, come, Atala," said the Baron, "this lady is my wife—we must part—"
"She! As old as that! and shaking like a leaf!" said the child. "Look at her head!" and she laughingly mimicked the Baroness' palsy.
The stove-fitter, who had run after the girl, came to the carriage door.
"Take her away!" said Adeline. The man put his arms round Atala and fairly carried her off.
"Thanks for such a sacrifice, my dearest," said Adeline, taking the Baron's hand and clutching it with delirious joy. "How much you are altered! you must have suffered so much! What a surprise for Hortense and for your son!"
Adeline talked as lovers talk who meet after a long absence, of a hundred things at once.
In ten minutes the Baron and his wife reached the Rue Louis-le-Grand, and there Adeline found this note awaiting her:—
"MADAME LA BARONNE,—
"Monsieur le Baron Hulot d'Ervy lived for one month in the Rue de
Charonne under the name of Thorec, an anagram of Hector. He is now
in the Passage du Soleil by the name of Vyder. He says he is an
Alsatian, and does writing, and he lives with a girl named Atala
Judici. Be very cautious, madame, for search is on foot; the Baron
is wanted, on what score I know not.
"The actress has kept her word, and remains, as ever,
"Madame la Baronne, your humble servant,
The Baron's return was hailed with such joy as reconciled him to domestic life. He forgot little Atala Judici, for excesses of profligacy had reduced him to the volatility of feeling that is characteristic of childhood. But the happiness of the family was dashed by the change that had come over him. He had been still hale when he had gone away from his home; he had come back almost a hundred, broken, bent, and his expression even debased.
A splendid dinner, improvised by Celestine, reminded the old man of the singer's banquets; he was dazzled by the splendor of his home.
"A feast in honor of the return of the prodigal father?" said he in a murmur to Adeline.
"Hush!" said she, "all is forgotten."
"And Lisbeth?" he asked, not seeing the old maid.
"I am sorry to say that she is in bed," replied Hortense. "She can never get up, and we shall have the grief of losing her ere long. She hopes to see you after dinner."
At daybreak next morning Victorin Hulot was informed by the porter's wife that soldiers of the municipal guard were posted all round the premises; the police demanded Baron Hulot. The bailiff, who had followed the woman, laid a summons in due form before the lawyer, and asked him whether he meant to pay his father's debts. The claim was for ten thousand francs at the suit of an usurer named Samanon, who had probably lent the Baron two or three thousand at most. Victorin desired the bailiff to dismiss his men, and paid.
"But is it the last?" he anxiously wondered.
Lisbeth, miserable already at seeing the family so prosperous, could not survive this happy event. She grew so rapidly worse that Bianchon gave her but a week to live, conquered at last in the long struggle in which she had scored so many victories.
She kept the secret of her hatred even through a painful death from pulmonary consumption. And, indeed, she had the supreme satisfaction of seeing Adeline, Hortense, Hulot, Victorin, Steinbock, Celestine, and their children standing in tears round her bed and mourning for her as the angel of the family.
Baron Hulot, enjoying a course of solid food such as he had not known for nearly three years, recovered flesh and strength, and was almost himself again. This improvement was such a joy to Adeline that her nervous trembling perceptibly diminished.
"She will be happy after all," said Lisbeth to herself on the day before she died, as she saw the veneration with which the Baron regarded his wife, of whose sufferings he had heard from Hortense and Victorin.
And vindictiveness hastened Cousin Betty's end. The family followed her, weeping, to the grave.
The Baron and Baroness, having reached the age which looks for perfect rest, gave up the handsome rooms on the first floor to the Count and Countess Steinbock, and took those above. The Baron by his son's exertions found an official position in the management of a railroad, in 1845, with a salary of six thousand francs, which, added to the six thousand of his pension and the money left to him by Madame Crevel, secured him an income of twenty-four thousand francs. Hortense having enjoyed her independent income during the three years of separation from Wenceslas, Victorin now invested the two hundred thousand francs he had in trust, in his sister's name and he allowed her twelve thousand francs.
Wenceslas, as the husband of a rich woman, was not unfaithful, but he was an idler; he could not make up his mind to begin any work, however trifling. Once more he became the artist in partibus; he was popular in society, and consulted by amateurs; in short, he became a critic, like all the feeble folk who fall below their promise.
Thus each household, though living as one family, had its own fortune. The Baroness, taught by bitter experience, left the management of matters to her son, and the Baron was thus reduced to his salary, in hope that the smallness of his income would prevent his relapsing into mischief. And by some singular good fortune, on which neither the mother nor the son had reckoned, Hulot seemed to have foresworn the fair sex. His subdued behaviour, ascribed to the course of nature, so completely reassured the family, that they enjoyed to the full his recovered amiability and delightful qualities. He was unfailingly attentive to his wife and children, escorted them to the play, reappeared in society, and did the honors to his son's house with exquisite grace. In short, this reclaimed prodigal was the joy of his family.
He was a most agreeable old man, a ruin, but full of wit, having retained no more of his vice than made it an added social grace.
Of course, everybody was quite satisfied and easy. The young people and the Baroness lauded the model father to the skies, forgetting the death of the two uncles. Life cannot go on without much forgetting!
Madame Victorin, who managed this enormous household with great skill, due, no doubt, to Lisbeth's training, had found it necessary to have a man-cook. This again necessitated a kitchen-maid. Kitchen-maids are in these days ambitious creatures, eager to detect the chef's secrets, and to become cooks as soon as they have learnt to stir a sauce. Consequently, the kitchen-maid is liable to frequent change.
At the beginning of 1845 Celestine engaged as kitchen-maid a sturdy Normandy peasant come from Isigny—short-waisted, with strong red arms, a common face, as dull as an "occasional piece" at the play, and hardly to be persuaded out of wearing the classical linen cap peculiar to the women of Lower Normandy. This girl, as buxom as a wet-nurse, looked as if she would burst the blue cotton check in which she clothed her person. Her florid face might have been hewn out of stone, so hard were its tawny outlines.
Of course no attention was paid to the advent in the house of this girl, whose name was Agathe—an ordinary, wide-awake specimen, such as is daily imported from the provinces. Agathe had no attractions for the cook, her tongue was too rough, for she had served in a suburban inn, waiting on carters; and instead of making a conquest of her chief and winning from him the secrets of the high art of the kitchen, she was the object of his great contempt. The chef's attentions were, in fact, devoted to Louise, the Countess Steinbock's maid. The country girl, thinking herself ill-used, complained bitterly that she was always sent out of the way on some pretext when the chef was finishing a dish or putting the crowning touch to a sauce.
"I am out of luck," said she, "and I shall go to another place."
And yet she stayed though she had twice given notice to quit.
One night, Adeline, roused by some unusual noise, did not see Hector in the bed he occupied near hers; for they slept side by side in two beds, as beseemed an old couple. She lay awake an hour, but he did not return. Seized with a panic, fancying some tragic end had overtaken him—an apoplectic attack, perhaps—she went upstairs to the floor occupied by the servants, and then was attracted to the room where Agathe slept, partly by seeing a light below the door, and partly by the murmur of voices. She stood still in dismay on recognizing the voice of her husband, who, a victim to Agathe's charms, to vanquish this strapping wench's not disinterested resistance, went to the length of saying:
"My wife has not long to live, and if you like you may be a Baroness."
Adeline gave a cry, dropped her candlestick, and fled.
Three days later the Baroness, who had received the last sacraments, was dying, surrounded by her weeping family.
Just before she died, she took her husband's hand and pressed it, murmuring in his ear:
"My dear, I had nothing left to give up to you but my life. In a minute or two you will be free, and can make another Baronne Hulot."
And, rare sight, tears oozed from her dead eyes.
This desperateness of vice had vanquished the patience of the angel, who, on the brink of eternity, gave utterance to the only reproach she had ever spoken in her life.
The Baron left Paris three days after his wife's funeral. Eleven months after Victorin heard indirectly of his father's marriage to Mademoiselle Agathe Piquetard, solemnized at Isigny, on the 1st February 1846.
"Parents may hinder their children's marriage, but children cannot interfere with the insane acts of their parents in their second childhood," said Maitre Hulot to Maitre Popinot, the second son of the Minister of Commerce, who was discussing this marriage.