Jealousy, distorting Hulot's face, made him look as terrible as the late Marshal Montcornet leading a cavalry charge against a Russian square. Being such a handsome man, he had never known any ground for jealousy, any more than Murat knew what it was to be afraid. He had always felt sure that he should triumph. His rebuff by Josepha, the first he had ever met, he ascribed to her love of money; "he was conquered by millions, and not by a changeling," he would say when speaking of the Duc d'Herouville. And now, in one instant, the poison and delirium that the mad passion sheds in a flood had rushed to his heart. He kept turning from the whist-table towards the fireplace with an action a la Mirabeau; and as he laid down his cards to cast a challenging glance at the Brazilian and Valerie, the rest of the company felt the sort of alarm mingled with curiosity that is caused by evident violence ready to break out at any moment. The sham cousin stared at Hulot as he might have looked at some big China mandarin.
This state of things could not last; it was bound to end in some tremendous outbreak. Marneffe was as much afraid of Hulot as Crevel was of Marneffe, for he was anxious not to die a mere clerk. Men marked for death believe in life as galley-slaves believe in liberty; this man was bent on being a first-class clerk at any cost. Thoroughly frightened by the pantomime of the Baron and Crevel, he rose, said a few words in his wife's ear, and then, to the surprise of all, Valerie went into the adjoining bedroom with the Brazilian and her husband.
"Did Madame Marneffe ever speak to you of this cousin of hers?" said Crevel to Hulot.
"Never!" replied the Baron, getting up. "That is enough for this evening," said he. "I have lost two louis—there they are."
He threw the two gold pieces on the table, and seated himself on the sofa with a look which everybody else took as a hint to go. Monsieur and Madame Coquet, after exchanging a few words, left the room, and Claude Vignon, in despair, followed their example. These two departures were a hint to less intelligent persons, who now found that they were not wanted. The Baron and Crevel were left together, and spoke never a word. Hulot, at last, ignoring Crevel, went on tiptoe to listen at the bedroom door; but he bounded back with a prodigious jump, for Marneffe opened the door and appeared with a calm face, astonished to find only the two men.
"And the tea?" said he.
"Where is Valerie?" replied the Baron in a rage.
"My wife," said Marneffe. "She is gone upstairs to speak to mademoiselle your cousin. She will come down directly."
"And why has she deserted us for that stupid creature?"
"Well," said Marneffe, "Mademoiselle Lisbeth came back from dining with the Baroness with an attack of indigestion and Mathurine asked Valerie for some tea for her, so my wife went up to see what was the matter."
"And her cousin?"
"He is gone."
"Do you really believe that?" said the Baron.
"I have seen him to his carriage," replied Marneffe, with a hideous smirk.
The wheels of a departing carriage were audible in the street. The Baron, counting Marneffe for nothing, went upstairs to Lisbeth. An idea flashed through him such as the heart sends to the brain when it is on fire with jealousy. Marneffe's baseness was so well known to him, that he could imagine the most degrading connivance between husband and wife.
"What has become of all the ladies and gentlemen?" said Marneffe, finding himself alone with Crevel.
"When the sun goes to bed, the cocks and hens follow suit," said Crevel. "Madame Marneffe disappeared, and her adorers departed. Will you play a game of piquet?" added Crevel, who meant to remain.
He too believed that the Brazilian was in the house.
Monsieur Marneffe agreed. The Mayor was a match for the Baron. Simply by playing cards with the husband he could stay on indefinitely; and Marneffe, since the suppression of the public tables, was quite satisfied with the more limited opportunities of private play.
Baron Hulot went quickly up to Lisbeth's apartment, but the door was locked, and the usual inquiries through the door took up time enough to enable the two light-handed and cunning women to arrange the scene of an attack of indigestion with the accessories of tea. Lisbeth was in such pain that Valerie was very much alarmed, and consequently hardly paid any heed to the Baron's furious entrance. Indisposition is one of the screens most often placed by women to ward off a quarrel. Hulot peeped about, here and there, but could see no spot in Cousin Betty's room where a Brazilian might lie hidden.
"Your indigestion does honor to my wife's dinner, Lisbeth," said he, scrutinizing her, for Lisbeth was perfectly well, trying to imitate the hiccough of spasmodic indigestion as she drank her tea.
"How lucky it is that dear Betty should be living under my roof!" said Madame Marneffe. "But for me, the poor thing would have died."
"You look as if you only half believed it," added Lisbeth, turning to the Baron, "and that would be a shame——"
"Why?" asked the Baron. "Do you know the purpose of my visit?"
And he leered at the door of a dressing-closet from which the key had been withdrawn.
"Are you talking Greek?" said Madame Marneffe, with an appealing look of misprized tenderness and devotedness.
"But it is all through you, my dear cousin; yes, it is your doing that I am in such a state," said Lisbeth vehemently.
This speech diverted the Baron's attention; he looked at the old maid with the greatest astonishment.
"You know that I am devoted to you," said Lisbeth. "I am here, that says everything. I am wearing out the last shreds of my strength in watching over your interests, since they are one with our dear Valerie's. Her house costs one-tenth of what any other does that is kept on the same scale. But for me, Cousin, instead of two thousand francs a month, you would be obliged to spend three or four thousand."
"I know all that," replied the Baron out of patience; "you are our protectress in many ways," he added, turning to Madame Marneffe and putting his arm round her neck.—"Is not she, my pretty sweet?"
"On my honor," exclaimed Valerie, "I believe you are gone mad!"
"Well, you cannot doubt my attachment," said Lisbeth. "But I am also very fond of my cousin Adeline, and I found her in tears. She has not seen you for a month. Now that is really too bad; you leave my poor Adeline without a sou. Your daughter Hortense almost died of it when she was told that it is thanks to your brother that we had any dinner at all. There was not even bread in your house this day.
"Adeline is heroically resolved to keep her sufferings to herself. She said to me, 'I will do as you have done!' The speech went to my heart; and after dinner, as I thought of what my cousin had been in 1811, and of what she is in 1841—thirty years after—I had a violent indigestion.—I fancied I should get over it; but when I got home, I thought I was dying—"
"You see, Valerie, to what my adoration of you has brought me! To crime—domestic crime!"
"Oh! I was wise never to marry!" cried Lisbeth, with savage joy. "You are a kind, good man; Adeline is a perfect angel;—and this is the reward of her blind devotion."
"An elderly angel!" said Madame Marneffe softly, as she looked half tenderly, half mockingly, at her Hector, who was gazing at her as an examining judge gazes at the accused.
"My poor wife!" said Hulot. "For more than nine months I have given her no money, though I find it for you, Valerie; but at what a cost! No one else will ever love you so, and what torments you inflict on me in return!"
"Torments?" she echoed. "Then what do you call happiness?"
"I do not yet know on what terms you have been with this so-called cousin whom you never mentioned to me," said the Baron, paying no heed to Valerie's interjection. "But when he came in I felt as if a penknife had been stuck into my heart. Blinded I may be, but I am not blind. I could read his eyes, and yours. In short, from under that ape's eyelids there flashed sparks that he flung at you—and your eyes!—Oh! you have never looked at me so, never! As to this mystery, Valerie, it shall all be cleared up. You are the only woman who ever made me know the meaning of jealousy, so you need not be surprised by what I say.—But another mystery which has rent its cloud, and it seems to me infamous——"
"Go on, go on," said Valerie.
"It is that Crevel, that square lump of flesh and stupidity, is in love with you, and that you accept his attentions with so good a grace that the idiot flaunts his passion before everybody."
"Only three! Can you discover no more?" asked Madame Marneffe.
"There may be more!" retorted the Baron.
"If Monsieur Crevel is in love with me, he is in his rights as a man after all; if I favored his passion, that would indeed be the act of a coquette, or of a woman who would leave much to be desired on your part.—Well, love me as you find me, or let me alone. If you restore me to freedom, neither you nor Monsieur Crevel will ever enter my doors again. But I will take up with my cousin, just to keep my hand in, in those charming habits you suppose me to indulge.—Good-bye, Monsieur le Baron Hulot."
She rose, but the Baron took her by the arm and made her sit down again. The old man could not do without Valerie. She had become more imperatively indispensable to him than the necessaries of life; he preferred remaining in uncertainty to having any proof of Valerie's infidelity.
"My dearest Valerie," said he, "do you not see how miserable I am? I only ask you to justify yourself. Give me sufficient reasons—"
"Well, go downstairs and wait for me; for I suppose you do not wish to look on at the various ceremonies required by your cousin's state."
Hulot slowly turned away.
"You old profligate," cried Lisbeth, "you have not even asked me how your children are? What are you going to do for Adeline? I, at any rate, will take her my savings to-morrow."
"You owe your wife white bread to eat at least," said Madame Marneffe, smiling.
The Baron, without taking offence at Lisbeth's tone, as despotic as Josepha's, got out of the room, only too glad to escape so importunate a question.
The door bolted once more, the Brazilian came out of the dressing-closet, where he had been waiting, and he appeared with his eyes full of tears, in a really pitiable condition. Montes had heard everything.
"Henri, you must have ceased to love me, I know it!" said Madame Marneffe, hiding her face in her handkerchief and bursting into tears.
It was the outcry of real affection. The cry of a woman's despair is so convincing that it wins the forgiveness that lurks at the bottom of every lover's heart—when she is young and pretty, and wears a gown so low that she could slip out at the top and stand in the garb of Eve.
"But why, if you love me, do you not leave everything for my sake?" asked the Brazilian.
This South American born, being logical, as men are who have lived the life of nature, at once resumed the conversation at the point where it had been broken off, putting his arm round Valerie's waist.
"Why?" she repeated, gazing up at Henri, whom she subjugated at once by a look charged with passion, "why, my dear boy, I am married; we are in Paris, not in the savannah, the pampas, the backwoods of America.—My dear Henri, my first and only love, listen to me. That husband of mine, a second clerk in the War Office, is bent on being a head-clerk and officer of the Legion of Honor; can I help his being ambitious? Now for the very reason that made him leave us our liberty—nearly four years ago, do you remember, you bad boy?—he now abandons me to Monsieur Hulot. I cannot get rid of that dreadful official, who snorts like a grampus, who has fins in his nostrils, who is sixty-three years old, and who had grown ten years older by dint of trying to be young; who is so odious to me that the very day when Marneffe is promoted, and gets his Cross of the Legion of Honor——"
"How much more will your husband get then?"
"A thousand crowns."
"I will pay him as much in an annuity," said Baron Montes. "We will leave Paris and go——"
"Where?" said Valerie, with one of the pretty sneers by which a woman makes fun of a man she is sure of. "Paris is the only place where we can live happy. I care too much for your love to risk seeing it die out in a tete-a-tete in the wilderness. Listen, Henri, you are the only man I care for in the whole world. Write that down clearly in your tiger's brain."
For women, when they have made a sheep of a man, always tell him that he is a lion with a will of iron.
"Now, attend to me. Monsieur Marneffe has not five years to live; he is rotten to the marrow of his bones. He spends seven months of the twelve in swallowing drugs and decoctions; he lives wrapped in flannel; in short, as the doctor says, he lives under the scythe, and may be cut off at any moment. An illness that would not harm another man would be fatal to him; his blood is corrupt, his life undermined at the root. For five years I have never allowed him to kiss me—he is poisonous! Some day, and the day is not far off, I shall be a widow. Well, then, I—who have already had an offer from a man with sixty thousand francs a year, I who am as completely mistress of that man as I am of this lump of sugar—I swear to you that if you were as poor as Hulot and as foul as Marneffe, if you beat me even, still you are the only man I will have for a husband, the only man I love, or whose name I will ever bear. And I am ready to give any pledge of my love that you may require."
"Well, then, to-night——"
"But you, son of the South, my splendid jaguar, come expressly for me from the virgin forest of Brazil," said she, taking his hand and kissing and fondling it, "I have some consideration for the poor creature you mean to make your wife.—Shall I be your wife, Henri?"
"Yes," said the Brazilian, overpowered by this unbridled volubility of passion. And he knelt at her feet.
"Well, then, Henri," said Valerie, taking his two hands and looking straight into his eyes, "swear to me now, in the presence of Lisbeth, my best and only friend, my sister—that you will make me your wife at the end of my year's widowhood."
"I swear it."
"That is not enough. Swear by your mother's ashes and eternal salvation, swear by the Virgin Mary and by all your hopes as a Catholic!"
Valerie knew that the Brazilian would keep that oath even if she should have fallen into the foulest social slough.
The Baron solemnly swore it, his nose almost touching Valerie's white bosom, and his eyes spellbound. He was drunk, drunk as a man is when he sees the woman he loves once more, after a sea voyage of a hundred and twenty days.
"Good. Now be quite easy. And in Madame Marneffe respect the future Baroness de Montejanos. You are not to spend a sou upon me; I forbid it.—Stay here in the outer room; sleep on the sofa. I myself will come and tell you when you may move.—We will breakfast to-morrow morning, and you can be leaving at about one o'clock as if you had come to call at noon. There is nothing to fear; the gate-keepers love me as much as if they were my father and mother.—Now I must go down and make tea."
She beckoned to Lisbeth, who followed her out on to the landing. There Valerie whispered in the old maid's ear:
"My darkie has come back too soon. I shall die if I cannot avenge you on Hortense!"
"Make your mind easy, my pretty little devil!" said Lisbeth, kissing her forehead. "Love and Revenge on the same track will never lose the game. Hortense expects me to-morrow; she is in beggary. For a thousand francs you may have a thousand kisses from Wenceslas."
On leaving Valerie, Hulot had gone down to the porter's lodge and made a sudden invasion there.
On hearing the imperious tone of this address, and seeing the action by which the Baron emphasized it, Madame Olivier came out into the courtyard as far as the Baron led her.
"You know that if any one can help your son to a connection by and by, it is I; it is owing to me that he is already third clerk in a notary's office, and is finishing his studies."
"Yes, Monsieur le Baron; and indeed, sir, you may depend on our gratitude. Not a day passes that I do not pray to God for Monsieur le Baron's happiness."
"Not so many words, my good woman," said Hulot, "but deeds——"
"What can I do, sir?" asked Madame Olivier.
"A man came here to-night in a carriage. Do you know him?"
Madame Olivier had recognized Montes well enough. How could she have forgotten him? In the Rue du Doyenne the Brazilian had always slipped a five-franc piece into her hand as he went out in the morning, rather too early. If the Baron had applied to Monsieur Olivier, he would perhaps have learned all he wanted to know. But Olivier was in bed. In the lower orders the woman is not merely the superior of the man—she almost always has the upper hand. Madame Olivier had long since made up her mind as to which side to take in case of a collision between her two benefactors; she regarded Madame Marneffe as the stronger power.
"Do I know him?" she repeated. "No, indeed, no. I never saw him before!"
"What! Did Madame Marneffe's cousin never go to see her when she was living in the Rue du Doyenne?"
"Oh! Was it her cousin?" cried Madame Olivier. "I dare say he did come, but I did not know him again. Next time, sir, I will look at him——"
"He will be coming out," said Hulot, hastily interrupting Madame Olivier.
"He has left," said Madame Olivier, understanding the situation. "The carriage is gone."
"Did you see him go?"
"As plainly as I see you. He told his servant to drive to the Embassy."
This audacious statement wrung a sigh of relief from the Baron; he took Madame Olivier's hand and squeezed it.
"Thank you, my good Madame Olivier. But that is not all.—Monsieur Crevel?"
"Monsieur Crevel? What can you mean, sir? I do not understand," said Madame Olivier.
"Listen to me. He is Madame Marneffe's lover——"
"Impossible, Monsieur le Baron; impossible," said she, clasping her hands.
"He is Madame Marneffe's lover," the Baron repeated very positively. "How do they manage it? I don't know; but I mean to know, and you are to find out. If you can put me on the tracks of this intrigue, your son is a notary."
"Don't you fret yourself so, Monsieur le Baron," said Madame Olivier. "Madame cares for you, and for no one but you; her maid knows that for true, and we say, between her and me, that you are the luckiest man in this world—for you know what madame is.—Just perfection!
"She gets up at ten every morning; then she breakfasts. Well and good. After that she takes an hour or so to dress; that carries her on till two; then she goes for a walk in the Tuileries in the sight of all men, and she is always in by four to be ready for you. She lives like clockwork. She keeps no secrets from her maid, and Reine keeps nothing from me, you may be sure. Reine can't if she would—along of my son, for she is very sweet upon him. So, you see, if madame had any intimacy with Monsieur Crevel, we should be bound to know it."
The Baron went upstairs again with a beaming countenance, convinced that he was the only man in the world to that shameless slut, as treacherous, but as lovely and as engaging as a siren.
Crevel and Marneffe had begun a second rubber at piquet. Crevel was losing, as a man must who is not giving his thoughts to his game. Marneffe, who knew the cause of the Mayor's absence of mind, took unscrupulous advantage of it; he looked at the cards in reverse, and discarded accordingly; thus, knowing his adversary's hand, he played to beat him. The stake being a franc a point, he had already robbed the Mayor of thirty francs when Hulot came in.
"Hey day!" said he, amazed to find no company. "Are you alone? Where is everybody gone?"
"Your pleasant temper put them all to flight," said Crevel.
"No, it was my wife's cousin," replied Marneffe. "The ladies and gentlemen supposed that Valerie and Henri might have something to say to each other after three years' separation, and they very discreetly retired.—If I had been in the room, I would have kept them; but then, as it happens, it would have been a mistake, for Lisbeth, who always comes down to make tea at half-past ten, was taken ill, and that upset everything—"
"Then is Lisbeth really unwell?" asked Crevel in a fury.
"So I was told," replied Marneffe, with the heartless indifference of a man to whom women have ceased to exist.
The Mayor looked at the clock; and, calculating the time, the Baron seemed to have spent forty minutes in Lisbeth's rooms. Hector's jubilant expression seriously incriminated Valerie, Lisbeth, and himself.
"I have just seen her; she is in great pain, poor soul!" said the Baron.
"Then the sufferings of others must afford you much joy, my friend," retorted Crevel with acrimony, "for you have come down with a face that is positively beaming. Is Lisbeth likely to die? For your daughter, they say, is her heiress. You are not like the same man. You left this room looking like the Moor of Venice, and you come back with the air of Saint-Preux!—I wish I could see Madame Marneffe's face at this minute——"
"And pray, what do you mean by that?" said Marneffe to Crevel, packing his cards and laying them down in front of him.
A light kindled in the eyes of this man, decrepit at the age of forty-seven; a faint color flushed his flaccid cold cheeks, his ill-furnished mouth was half open, and on his blackened lips a sort of foam gathered, thick, and as white as chalk. This fury in such a helpless wretch, whose life hung on a thread, and who in a duel would risk nothing while Crevel had everything to lose, frightened the Mayor.
"I said," repeated Crevel, "that I should like to see Madame Marneffe's face. And with all the more reason since yours, at this moment, is most unpleasant. On my honor, you are horribly ugly, my dear Marneffe——"
"Do you know that you are very uncivil?"
"A man who has won thirty francs of me in forty-five minutes cannot look handsome in my eyes."
"Ah, if you had but seen me seventeen years ago!" replied the clerk.
"You were so good-looking?" asked Crevel.
"That was my ruin; now, if I had been like you—I might be a mayor and a peer."
"Yes," said Crevel, with a smile, "you have been too much in the wars; and of the two forms of metal that may be earned by worshiping the god of trade, you have taken the worse—the dross!" [This dialogue is garnished with puns for which it is difficult to find any English equivalent.] And Crevel roared with laughter. Though Marneffe could take offence if his honor were in peril, he always took these rough pleasantries in good part; they were the small coin of conversation between him and Crevel.
"The daughters of Eve cost me dear, no doubt; but, by the powers! 'Short and sweet' is my motto."
"'Long and happy' is more to my mind," returned Crevel.
Madame Marneffe now came in; she saw that her husband was at cards with Crevel, and only the Baron in the room besides; a mere glance at the municipal dignitary showed her the frame of mind he was in, and her line of conduct was at once decided on.
"Marneffe, my dear boy," said she, leaning on her husband's shoulder, and passing her pretty fingers through his dingy gray hair, but without succeeding in covering his bald head with it, "it is very late for you; you ought to be in bed. To-morrow, you know, you must dose yourself by the doctor's orders. Reine will give you your herb tea at seven. If you wish to live, give up your game."
"We will pay it out up to five points," said Marneffe to Crevel.
"Very good—I have scored two," replied the Mayor.
"How long will it take you?"
"Ten minutes," said Marneffe.
"It is eleven o'clock," replied Valerie. "Really, Monsieur Crevel, one might fancy you meant to kill my husband. Make haste, at any rate."
This double-barreled speech made Crevel and Hulot smile, and even Marneffe himself. Valerie sat down to talk to Hector.
"You must leave, my dearest," said she in Hulot's ear. "Walk up and down the Rue Vanneau, and come in again when you see Crevel go out."
"I would rather leave this room and go into your room through the dressing-room door. You could tell Reine to let me in."
"Reine is upstairs attending to Lisbeth."
"Well, suppose then I go up to Lisbeth's rooms?"
Danger hemmed in Valerie on every side; she foresaw a discussion with Crevel, and could not allow Hulot to be in her room, where he could hear all that went on.—And the Brazilian was upstairs with Lisbeth.
"Really, you men, when you have a notion in your head, you would burn a house down to get into it!" exclaimed she. "Lisbeth is not in a fit state to admit you.—Are you afraid of catching cold in the street? Be off there—or good-night."
"Good evening, gentlemen," said the Baron to the other two.
Hulot, when piqued in his old man's vanity, was bent on proving that he could play the young man by waiting for the happy hour in the open air, and he went away.
Marneffe bid his wife good-night, taking her hands with a semblance of devotion. Valerie pressed her husband's hand with a significant glance, conveying:
"Get rid of Crevel."
"Good-night, Crevel," said Marneffe. "I hope you will not stay long with Valerie. Yes! I am jealous—a little late in the day, but it has me hard and fast. I shall come back to see if you are gone."
"We have a little business to discuss, but I shall not stay long," said Crevel.
"Speak low.—What is it?" said Valerie, raising her voice, and looking at him with a mingled expression of haughtiness and scorn.
Crevel, as he met this arrogant stare, though he was doing Valerie important services, and had hoped to plume himself on the fact, was at once reduced to submission.
"That Brazilian——" he began, but, overpowered by Valerie's fixed look of contempt, he broke off.
"What of him?" said she.
"Is no cousin of mine," said she. "He is my cousin to the world and to Monsieur Marneffe. And if he were my lover, it would be no concern of yours. A tradesman who pays a woman to be revenged on another man, is, in my opinion, beneath the man who pays her for love of her. You did not care for me; all you saw in me was Monsieur Hulot's mistress. You bought me as a man buys a pistol to kill his adversary. I wanted bread—I accepted the bargain."
"But you have not carried it out," said Crevel, the tradesman once more.
"You want Baron Hulot to be told that you have robbed him of his mistress, to pay him out for having robbed you of Josepha? Nothing can more clearly prove your baseness. You say you love a woman, you treat her like a duchess, and then you want to degrade her? Well, my good fellow, and you are right. This woman is no match for Josepha. That young person has the courage of her disgrace, while I—I am a hypocrite, and deserve to be publicly whipped.—Alas! Josepha is protected by her cleverness and her wealth. I have nothing to shelter me but my reputation; I am still the worthy and blameless wife of a plain citizen; if you create a scandal, what is to become of me? If I were rich, then indeed; but my income is fifteen thousand francs a year at most, I suppose."
"Much more than that," said Crevel. "I have doubled your savings in these last two months by investing in Orleans."
"Well, a position in Paris begins with fifty thousand. And you certainly will not make up to me for the position I should surrender.—What was my aim? I want to see Marneffe a first-class clerk; he will then draw a salary of six thousand francs. He has been twenty-seven years in his office; within three years I shall have a right to a pension of fifteen hundred francs when he dies. You, to whom I have been entirely kind, to whom I have given your fill of happiness—you cannot wait!—And that is what men call love!" she exclaimed.
"Though I began with an ulterior purpose," said Crevel, "I have become your poodle. You trample on my heart, you crush me, you stultify me, and I love you as I have never loved in my life. Valerie, I love you as much as I love my Celestine. I am capable of anything for your sake.—Listen, instead of coming twice a week to the Rue du Dauphin, come three times."
"Is that all! You are quite young again, my dear boy!"
"Only let me pack off Hulot, humiliate him, rid you of him," said Crevel, not heeding her impertinence! "Have nothing to say to the Brazilian, be mine alone; you shall not repent of it. To begin with, I will give you eight thousand francs a year, secured by bond, but only as an annuity; I will not give you the capital till the end of five years' constancy—"
"Always a bargain! A tradesman can never learn to give. You want to stop for refreshments on the road of love—in the form of Government bonds! Bah! Shopman, pomatum seller! you put a price on everything!—Hector told me that the Duc d'Herouville gave Josepha a bond for thirty thousand francs a year in a packet of sugar almonds! And I am worth six of Josepha.
"Oh! to be loved!" she went on, twisting her ringlets round her fingers, and looking at herself in the glass. "Henri loves me. He would smash you like a fly if I winked at him! Hulot loves me; he leaves his wife in beggary! As for you, go my good man, be the worthy father of a family. You have three hundred thousand francs over and above your fortune, only to amuse yourself, a hoard, in fact, and you think of nothing but increasing it—"
"For you, Valerie, since I offer you half," said he, falling on his knees.
"What, still here!" cried Marneffe, hideous in his dressing-gown. "What are you about?"
"He is begging my pardon, my dear, for an insulting proposal he has dared to make me. Unable to obtain my consent, my gentleman proposed to pay me——"
Crevel only longed to vanish into the cellar, through a trap, as is done on the stage.
"Get up, Crevel," said Marneffe, laughing, "you are ridiculous. I can see by Valerie's manner that my honor is in no danger."
"Go to bed and sleep in peace," said Madame Marneffe.
"Isn't she clever?" thought Crevel. "She has saved me. She is adorable!"
As Marneffe disappeared, the Mayor took Valerie's hands and kissed them, leaving on them the traces of tears.
"It shall all stand in your name," he said.
"That is true love," she whispered in his ear. "Well, love for love. Hulot is below, in the street. The poor old thing is waiting to return when I place a candle in one of the windows of my bedroom. I give you leave to tell him that you are the man I love; he will refuse to believe you; take him to the Rue du Dauphin, give him every proof, crush him; I allow it—I order it! I am tired of that old seal; he bores me to death. Keep your man all night in the Rue du Dauphin, grill him over a slow fire, be revenged for the loss of Josepha. Hulot may die of it perhaps, but we shall save his wife and children from utter ruin. Madame Hulot is working for her bread—"
"Oh! poor woman! On my word, it is quite shocking!" exclaimed Crevel, his natural feeling coming to the top.
"If you love me, Celestin," said she in Crevel's ear, which she touched with her lips, "keep him there, or I am done for. Marneffe is suspicious. Hector has a key of the outer gate, and will certainly come back."
Crevel clasped Madame Marneffe to his heart, and went away in the seventh heaven of delight. Valerie fondly escorted him to the landing, and then followed him, like a woman magnetized, down the stairs to the very bottom.
"My Valerie, go back, do not compromise yourself before the porters.—Go back; my life, my treasure, all is yours.—Go in, my duchess!"
"Madame Olivier," Valerie called gently when the gate was closed.
"Why, madame! You here?" said the woman in bewilderment.
"Bolt the gates at top and bottom, and let no one in."
"Very good, madame."
Having barred the gate, Madame Olivier told of the bribe that the War Office chief had tried to offer her.
"You behaved like an angel, my dear Olivier; we shall talk of that to-morrow."
Valerie flew like an arrow to the third floor, tapped three times at Lisbeth's door, and then went down to her room, where she gave instructions to Mademoiselle Reine, for a woman must make the most of the opportunity when a Montes arrives from Brazil.
"By Heaven! only a woman of the world is capable of such love," said Crevel to himself. "How she came down those stairs, lighting them up with her eyes, following me! Never did Josepha—Josepha! she is cag-mag!" cried the ex-bagman. "What have I said? Cag-mag—why, I might have let the word slip out at the Tuileries! I can never do any good unless Valerie educates me—and I was so bent on being a gentleman.—What a woman she is! She upsets me like a fit of the colic when she looks at me coldly. What grace! What wit! Never did Josepha move me so. And what perfection when you come to know her!—Ha, there is my man!"
He perceived in the gloom of the Rue de Babylone the tall, somewhat stooping figure of Hulot, stealing along close to a boarding, and he went straight up to him.
"Good-morning, Baron, for it is past midnight, my dear fellow. What the devil are your doing here? You are airing yourself under a pleasant drizzle. That is not wholesome at our time of life. Will you let me give you a little piece of advice? Let each of us go home; for, between you and me, you will not see the candle in the window."
The last words made the Baron suddenly aware that he was sixty-three, and that his cloak was wet.
"Who on earth told you—?" he began.
"Valerie, of course, our Valerie, who means henceforth to be my Valerie. We are even now, Baron; we will play off the tie when you please. You have nothing to complain of; you know, I always stipulated for the right of taking my revenge; it took you three months to rob me of Josepha; I took Valerie from you in—We will say no more about that. Now I mean to have her all to myself. But we can be very good friends, all the same."
"Crevel, no jesting," said Hulot, in a voice choked by rage. "It is a matter of life and death."
"Bless me, is that how you take it!—Baron, do you not remember what you said to me the day of Hortense's marriage: 'Can two old gaffers like us quarrel over a petticoat? It is too low, too common. We are Regence, we agreed, Pompadour, eighteenth century, quite the Marechal Richelieu, Louis XV., nay, and I may say, Liaisons dangereuses!"
Crevel might have gone on with his string of literary allusions; the Baron heard him as a deaf man listens when he is but half deaf. But, seeing in the gaslight the ghastly pallor of his face, the triumphant Mayor stopped short. This was, indeed, a thunderbolt after Madame Olivier's asservations and Valerie's parting glance.
"Good God! And there are so many other women in Paris!" he said at last.
"That is what I said to you when you took Josepha," said Crevel.
"Look here, Crevel, it is impossible. Give me some proof.—Have you a key, as I have, to let yourself in?"
And having reached the house, the Baron put the key into the lock; but the gate was immovable; he tried in vain to open it.
"Do not make a noise in the streets at night," said Crevel coolly. "I tell you, Baron, I have far better proof than you can show."
"Proofs! give me proof!" cried the Baron, almost crazy with exasperation.
"Come, and you shall have them," said Crevel.
And in obedience to Valerie's instructions, he led the Baron away towards the quay, down the Rue Hillerin-Bertin. The unhappy Baron walked on, as a merchant walks on the day before he stops payment; he was lost in conjectures as to the reasons of the depravity buried in the depths of Valerie's heart, and still believed himself the victim of some practical joke. As they crossed the Pont Royal, life seemed to him so blank, so utterly a void, and so out of joint from his financial difficulties, that he was within an ace of yielding to the evil prompting that bid him fling Crevel into the river and throw himself in after.
On reaching the Rue du Dauphin, which had not yet been widened, Crevel stopped before a door in a wall. It opened into a long corridor paved with black-and-white marble, and serving as an entrance-hall, at the end of which there was a flight of stairs and a doorkeeper's lodge, lighted from an inner courtyard, as is often the case in Paris. This courtyard, which was shared with another house, was oddly divided into two unequal portions. Crevel's little house, for he owned it, had additional rooms with a glass skylight, built out on to the adjoining plot, under conditions that it should have no story added above the ground floor, so that the structure was entirely hidden by the lodge and the projecting mass of the staircase.
This back building had long served as a store-room, backshop, and kitchen to one of the shops facing the street. Crevel had cut off these three rooms from the rest of the ground floor, and Grindot had transformed them into an inexpensive private residence. There were two ways in—from the front, through the shop of a furniture-dealer, to whom Crevel let it at a low price, and only from month to month, so as to be able to get rid of him in case of his telling tales, and also through a door in the wall of the passage, so ingeniously hidden as to be almost invisible. The little apartment, comprising a dining-room, drawing-room, and bedroom, all lighted from above, and standing partly on Crevel's ground and partly on his neighbor's, was very difficult to find. With the exception of the second-hand furniture-dealer, the tenants knew nothing of the existence of this little paradise.
The doorkeeper, paid to keep Crevel's secrets, was a capital cook. So Monsieur le Maire could go in and out of his inexpensive retreat at any hour of the night without any fear of being spied upon. By day, a lady, dressed as Paris women dress to go shopping, and having a key, ran no risk in coming to Crevel's lodgings; she would stop to look at the cheapened goods, ask the price, go into the shop, and come out again, without exciting the smallest suspicion if any one should happen to meet her.
As soon as Crevel had lighted the candles in the sitting-room, the Baron was surprised at the elegance and refinement it displayed. The perfumer had given the architect a free hand, and Grindot had done himself credit by fittings in the Pompadour style, which had in fact cost sixty thousand francs.
"What I want," said Crevel to Grindot, "is that a duchess, if I brought one there, should be surprised at it."
He wanted to have a perfect Parisian Eden for his Eve, his "real lady," his Valerie, his duchess.
"There are two beds," said Crevel to Hulot, showing him a sofa that could be made wide enough by pulling out a drawer. "This is one, the other is in the bedroom. We can both spend the night here."
"Proof!" was all the Baron could say.
Crevel took a flat candlestick and led Hulot into the adjoining room, where he saw, on a sofa, a superb dressing-gown belonging to Valerie, which he had seen her wear in the Rue Vanneau, to display it before wearing it in Crevel's little apartment. The Mayor pressed the spring of a little writing-table of inlaid work, known as a bonheur-du-jour, and took out of it a letter that he handed to the Baron.
"Read that," said he.
The Councillor read these words written in pencil:
"I have waited in vain, you old wretch! A woman of my quality does
not expect to be kept waiting by a retired perfumer. There was no
dinner ordered—no cigarettes. I will make you pay for this!"
"Well, is that her writing?"
"Good God!" gasped Hulot, sitting down in dismay. "I see all the things she uses—her caps, her slippers. Why, how long since—?"
Crevel nodded that he understood, and took a packet of bills out of the little inlaid cabinet.
"You can see, old man. I paid the decorators in December, 1838. In October, two months before, this charming little place was first used."
Hulot bent his head.
"How the devil do you manage it? I know how she spends every hour of her day."
"How about her walk in the Tuileries?" said Crevel, rubbing his hands in triumph.
"What then?" said Hulot, mystified.
"Your lady love comes to the Tuileries, she is supposed to be airing herself from one till four. But, hop, skip, and jump, and she is here. You know your Moliere? Well, Baron, there is nothing imaginary in your title."
Hulot, left without a shred of doubt, sat sunk in ominous silence. Catastrophes lead intelligent and strong-minded men to be philosophical. The Baron, morally, was at this moment like a man trying to find his way by night through a forest. This gloomy taciturnity and the change in that dejected countenance made Crevel very uneasy, for he did not wish the death of his colleague.
"As I said, old fellow, we are now even; let us play for the odd. Will you play off the tie by hook and by crook? Come!"
"Why," said Hulot, talking to himself—"why is it that out of ten pretty women at least seven are false?"
But the Baron was too much upset to answer his own question. Beauty is the greatest of human gifts for power. Every power that has no counterpoise, no autocratic control, leads to abuses and folly. Despotism is the madness of power; in women the despot is caprice.
"You have nothing to complain of, my good friend; you have a beautiful wife, and she is virtuous."
"I deserve my fate," said Hulot. "I have undervalued my wife and made her miserable, and she is an angel! Oh, my poor Adeline! you are avenged! She suffers in solitude and silence, and she is worthy of my love; I ought—for she is still charming, fair and girlish even—But was there ever a woman known more base, more ignoble, more villainous than this Valerie?"
"She is a good-for-nothing slut," said Crevel, "a hussy that deserves whipping on the Place du Chatelet. But, my dear Canillac, though we are such blades, so Marechal de Richelieu, Louis XV., Pompadour, Madame du Barry, gay dogs, and everything that is most eighteenth century, there is no longer a lieutenant of police."
"How can we make them love us?" Hulot wondered to himself without heeding Crevel.
"It is sheer folly in us to expect to be loved, my dear fellow," said Crevel. "We can only be endured; for Madame Marneffe is a hundred times more profligate than Josepha."
"And avaricious! she costs me a hundred and ninety-two thousand francs a year!" cried Hulot.
"And how many centimes!" sneered Crevel, with the insolence of a financier who scorns so small a sum.
"You do not love her, that is very evident," said the Baron dolefully.
"I have had enough of her," replied Crevel, "for she has had more than three hundred thousand francs of mine!"
"Where is it? Where does it all go?" said the Baron, clasping his head in his hands.
"If we had come to an agreement, like the simple young men who combine to maintain a twopenny baggage, she would have cost us less."
"That is an idea"! replied the Baron. "But she would still be cheating us; for, my burly friend, what do you say to this Brazilian?"
"Ay, old sly fox, you are right, we are swindled like—like shareholders!" said Crevel. "All such women are an unlimited liability, and we the sleeping partners."
"Then it was she who told you about the candle in the window?"
"My good man," replied Crevel, striking an attitude, "she has fooled us both. Valerie is a—She told me to keep you here.—Now I see it all. She has got her Brazilian!—Oh, I have done with her, for if you hold her hands, she would find a way to cheat you with her feet! There! she is a minx, a jade!"
"She is lower than a prostitute," said the Baron. "Josepha and Jenny Cadine were in their rights when they were false to us; they make a trade of their charms."
"But she, who affects the saint—the prude!" said Crevel. "I tell you what, Hulot, do you go back to your wife; your money matters are not looking well; I have heard talk of certain notes of hand given to a low usurer whose special line of business is lending to these sluts, a man named Vauvinet. For my part, I am cured of your 'real ladies.' And, after all, at our time of life what do we want of these swindling hussies, who, to be honest, cannot help playing us false? You have white hair and false teeth; I am of the shape of Silenus. I shall go in for saving. Money never deceives one. Though the Treasury is indeed open to all the world twice a year, it pays you interest, and this woman swallows it. With you, my worthy friend, as Gubetta, as my partner in the concern, I might have resigned myself to a shady bargain—no, a philosophical calm. But with a Brazilian who has possibly smuggled in some doubtful colonial produce——"
"Woman is an inexplicable creature!" said Hulot.
"I can explain her," said Crevel. "We are old; the Brazilian is young and handsome."
"Yes; that, I own, is true," said Hulot; "we are older than we were. But, my dear fellow, how is one to do without these pretty creatures—seeing them undress, twist up their hair, smile cunningly through their fingers as they screw up their curl-papers, put on all their airs and graces, tell all their lies, declare that we don't love them when we are worried with business; and they cheer us in spite of everything."
"Yes, by the Power! It is the only pleasure in life!" cried Crevel. "When a saucy little mug smiles at you and says, 'My old dear, you don't know how nice you are! I am not like other women, I suppose, who go crazy over mere boys with goats' beards, smelling of smoke, and as coarse as serving-men! For in their youth they are so insolent!—They come in and they bid you good-morning, and out they go.—I, whom you think such a flirt, I prefer a man of fifty to these brats. A man who will stick by me, who is devoted, who knows a woman is not to be picked up every day, and appreciates us.—That is what I love you for, you old monster!'—and they fill up these avowals with little pettings and prettinesses and—Faugh! they are as false as the bills on the Hotel de Ville."
"A lie is sometimes better than the truth," said Hulot, remembering sundry bewitching scenes called up by Crevel, who mimicked Valerie. "They are obliged to act upon their lies, to sew spangles on their stage frocks—"
"And they are ours, after all, the lying jades!" said Crevel coarsely.
"Valerie is a witch," said the Baron. "She can turn an old man into a young one."
"Oh, yes!" said Crevel, "she is an eel that wriggles through your hands; but the prettiest eel, as white and sweet as sugar, as amusing as Arnal—and ingenious!"
"Yes, she is full of fun," said Hulot, who had now quite forgotten his wife.
The colleagues went to bed the best friends in the world, reminding each other of Valerie's perfections, the tones of her voice, her kittenish way, her movements, her fun, her sallies of wit, and of affections; for she was an artist in love, and had charming impulses, as tenors may sing a scena better one day than another. And they fell asleep, cradled in tempting and diabolical visions lighted by the fires of hell.
At nine o'clock next morning Hulot went off to the War Office, Crevel had business out of town; they left the house together, and Crevel held out his hand to the Baron, saying:
"To show that there is no ill-feeling. For we, neither of us, will have anything more to say to Madame Marneffe?"
"Oh, this is the end of everything," replied Hulot with a sort of horror.
By half-past ten Crevel was mounting the stairs, four at a time, up to Madame Marneffe's apartment. He found the infamous wretch, the adorable enchantress, in the most becoming morning wrapper, enjoying an elegant little breakfast in the society of the Baron Montes de Montejanos and Lisbeth. Though the sight of the Brazilian gave him a shock, Crevel begged Madame Marneffe to grant him two minutes' speech with her. Valerie led Crevel into the drawing-room.
"Valerie, my angel," said the amorous Mayor, "Monsieur Marneffe cannot have long to live. If you will be faithful to me, when he dies we will be married. Think it over. I have rid you of Hulot.—So just consider whether this Brazilian is to compare with a Mayor of Paris, a man who, for your sake, will make his way to the highest dignities, and who can already offer you eighty-odd thousand francs a year."
"I will think it over," said she. "You will see me in the Rue du Dauphin at two o'clock, and we can discuss the matter. But be a good boy—and do not forget the bond you promised to transfer to me."
She returned to the dining-room, followed by Crevel, who flattered himself that he had hit on a plan for keeping Valerie to himself; but there he found Baron Hulot, who, during this short colloquy, had also arrived with the same end in view. He, like Crevel, begged for a brief interview. Madame Marneffe again rose to go to the drawing-room, with a smile at the Brazilian that seemed to say, "What fools they are! Cannot they see you?"
"Valerie," said the official, "my child, that cousin of yours is an American cousin—"
"Oh, that is enough!" she cried, interrupting the Baron. "Marneffe never has been, and never will be, never can be my husband! The first, the only man I ever loved, has come back quite unexpectedly. It is no fault of mine! But look at Henri and look at yourself. Then ask yourself whether a woman, and a woman in love, can hesitate for a moment. My dear fellow, I am not a kept mistress. From this day forth I refuse to play the part of Susannah between the two Elders. If you really care for me, you and Crevel, you will be our friends; but all else is at an end, for I am six-and-twenty, and henceforth I mean to be a saint, an admirable and worthy wife—as yours is."
"Is that what you have to say?" answered Hulot. "Is this the way you receive me when I come like a Pope with my hands full of Indulgences?—Well, your husband will never be a first-class clerk, nor be promoted in the Legion of Honor."
"That remains to be seen," said Madame Marneffe, with a meaning look at Hulot.
"Well, well, no temper," said Hulot in despair. "I will call this evening, and we will come to an understanding."
"In Lisbeth's rooms then."
"Very good—at Lisbeth's," said the old dotard.
Hulot and Crevel went downstairs together without speaking a word till they were in the street; but outside on the sidewalk they looked at each other with a dreary laugh.
"We are a couple of old fools," said Crevel.
"I have got rid of them," said Madame Marneffe to Lisbeth, as she sat down once more. "I never loved and I never shall love any man but my Jaguar," she added, smiling at Henri Montes. "Lisbeth, my dear, you don't know. Henri has forgiven me the infamy to which I was reduced by poverty."
"It was my own fault," said the Brazilian. "I ought to have sent you a hundred thousand francs."
"Poor boy!" said Valerie; "I might have worked for my living, but my fingers were not made for that—ask Lisbeth."
The Brazilian went away the happiest man in Paris.
At noon Valerie and Lisbeth were chatting in the splendid bedroom where this dangerous woman was giving to her dress those finishing touches which a lady alone can give. The doors were bolted, the curtains drawn over them, and Valerie related in every detail all the events of the evening, the night, the morning.
"What do you think of it all, my darling?" she said to Lisbeth in conclusion. "Which shall I be when the time comes—Madame Crevel, or Madame Montes?"
"Crevel will not last more than ten years, such a profligate as he is," replied Lisbeth. "Montes is young. Crevel will leave you about thirty thousand francs a year. Let Montes wait; he will be happy enough as Benjamin. And so, by the time you are three-and-thirty, if you take care of your looks, you may marry your Brazilian and make a fine show with sixty thousand francs a year of your own—especially under the wing of a Marechale."
"Yes, but Montes is a Brazilian; he will never make his mark," observed Valerie.
"We live in the day of railways," said Lisbeth, "when foreigners rise to high positions in France."
"We shall see," replied Valerie, "when Marneffe is dead. He has not much longer to suffer."
"These attacks that return so often are a sort of physical remorse," said Lisbeth. "Well, I am off to see Hortense."
"Yes—go, my angel!" replied Valerie. "And bring me my artist.—Three years, and I have not gained an inch of ground! It is a disgrace to both of us!—Wenceslas and Henri—these are my two passions—one for love, the other for fancy."
"You are lovely this morning," said Lisbeth, putting her arm round Valerie's waist and kissing her forehead. "I enjoy all your pleasures, your good fortune, your dresses—I never really lived till the day when we became sisters."
"Wait a moment, my tiger-cat!" cried Valerie, laughing; "your shawl is crooked. You cannot put a shawl on yet in spite of my lessons for three years—and you want to be Madame la Marechale Hulot!"
Shod in prunella boots, over gray silk stockings, in a gown of handsome corded silk, her hair in smooth bands under a very pretty black velvet bonnet, lined with yellow satin, Lisbeth made her way to the Rue Saint-Dominique by the Boulevard des Invalides, wondering whether sheer dejection would at last break down Hortense's brave spirit, and whether Sarmatian instability, taken at a moment when, with such a character, everything is possible, would be too much for Steinbock's constancy.
Hortense and Wenceslas had the ground floor of a house situated at the corner of the Rue Saint-Dominique and the Esplanade des Invalides. These rooms, once in harmony with the honeymoon, now had that half-new, half-faded look that may be called the autumnal aspect of furniture. Newly married folks are as lavish and wasteful, without knowing it or intending it, of everything about them as they are of their affection. Thinking only of themselves, they reck little of the future, which, at a later time, weighs on the mother of a family.
Lisbeth found Hortense just as she had finished dressing a baby Wenceslas, who had been carried into the garden.
"Good-morning, Betty," said Hortense, opening the door herself to her cousin. The cook was gone out, and the house-servant, who was also the nurse, was doing some washing.
"Good-morning, dear child," replied Lisbeth, kissing her. "Is Wenceslas in the studio?" she added in a whisper.
"No; he is in the drawing-room talking to Stidmann and Chanor."
"Can we be alone?" asked Lisbeth.
"Come into my room."
In this room, the hangings of pink-flowered chintz with green leaves on a white ground, constantly exposed to the sun, were much faded, as was the carpet. The muslin curtains had not been washed for many a day. The smell of tobacco hung about the room; for Wenceslas, now an artist of repute, and born a fine gentleman, left his cigar-ash on the arms of the chairs and the prettiest pieces of furniture, as a man does to whom love allows everything—a man rich enough to scorn vulgar carefulness.
"Now, then, let us talk over your affairs," said Lisbeth, seeing her pretty cousin silent in the armchair into which she had dropped. "But what ails you? You look rather pale, my dear."
"Two articles have just come out in which my poor Wenceslas is pulled to pieces; I have read them, but I have hidden them from him, for they would completely depress him. The marble statue of Marshal Montcornet is pronounced utterly bad. The bas-reliefs are allowed to pass muster, simply to allow of the most perfidious praise of his talent as a decorative artist, and to give the greater emphasis to the statement that serious art is quite out of his reach! Stidmann, whom I besought to tell me the truth, broke my heart by confessing that his own opinion agreed with that of every other artist, of the critics, and the public. He said to me in the garden before breakfast, 'If Wenceslas cannot exhibit a masterpiece next season, he must give up heroic sculpture and be content to execute idyllic subjects, small figures, pieces of jewelry, and high-class goldsmiths' work!' This verdict is dreadful to me, for Wenceslas, I know, will never accept it; he feels he has so many fine ideas."
"Ideas will not pay the tradesman's bills," remarked Lisbeth. "I was always telling him so—nothing but money. Money is only to be had for work done—things that ordinary folks like well enough to buy them. When an artist has to live and keep a family, he had far better have a design for a candlestick on his counter, or for a fender or a table, than for groups or statues. Everybody must have such things, while he may wait months for the admirer of the group—and for his money—-"
"You are right, my good Lisbeth. Tell him all that; I have not the courage.—Besides, as he was saying to Stidmann, if he goes back to ornamental work and small sculpture, he must give up all hope of the Institute and grand works of art, and we should not get the three hundred thousand francs' worth of work promised at Versailles and by the City of Paris and the Ministers. That is what we are robbed of by those dreadful articles, written by rivals who want to step into our shoes."
"And that is not what you dreamed of, poor little puss!" said Lisbeth, kissing Hortense on the brow. "You expected to find a gentleman, a leader of Art, the chief of all living sculptors.—But that is poetry, you see, a dream requiring fifty thousand francs a year, and you have only two thousand four hundred—so long as I live. After my death three thousand."
A few tears rose to Hortense's eyes, and Lisbeth drank them with her eyes as a cat laps milk.
This is the story of their honeymoon—the tale will perhaps not be lost on some artists.
Intellectual work, labor in the upper regions of mental effort, is one of the grandest achievements of man. That which deserves real glory in Art—for by Art we must understand every creation of the mind—is courage above all things—a sort of courage of which the vulgar have no conception, and which has never perhaps been described till now.
Driven by the dreadful stress of poverty, goaded by Lisbeth, and kept by her in blinders, as a horse is, to hinder it from seeing to the right and left of its road, lashed on by that hard woman, the personification of Necessity, a sort of deputy Fate, Wenceslas, a born poet and dreamer, had gone on from conception to execution, and overleaped, without sounding it, the gulf that divides these two hemispheres of Art. To muse, to dream, to conceive of fine works, is a delightful occupation. It is like smoking a magic cigar or leading the life of a courtesan who follows her own fancy. The work then floats in all the grace of infancy, in the mad joy of conception, with the fragrant beauty of a flower, and the aromatic juices of a fruit enjoyed in anticipation.
The man who can sketch his purpose beforehand in words is regarded as a wonder, and every artist and writer possesses that faculty. But gestation, fruition, the laborious rearing of the offspring, putting it to bed every night full fed with milk, embracing it anew every morning with the inexhaustible affection of a mother's heart, licking it clean, dressing it a hundred times in the richest garb only to be instantly destroyed; then never to be cast down at the convulsions of this headlong life till the living masterpiece is perfected which in sculpture speaks to every eye, in literature to every intellect, in painting to every memory, in music to every heart!—This is the task of execution. The hand must be ready at every instant to come forward and obey the brain. But the brain has no more a creative power at command than love has a perennial spring.
The habit of creativeness, the indefatigable love of motherhood which makes a mother—that miracle of nature which Raphael so perfectly understood—the maternity of the brain, in short, which is so difficult to develop, is lost with prodigious ease. Inspiration is the opportunity of genius. She does not indeed dance on the razor's edge, she is in the air and flies away with the suspicious swiftness of a crow; she wears no scarf by which the poet can clutch her; her hair is a flame; she vanishes like the lovely rose and white flamingo, the sportsman's despair. And work, again, is a weariful struggle, alike dreaded and delighted in by these lofty and powerful natures who are often broken by it. A great poet of our day has said in speaking of this overwhelming labor, "I sit down to it in despair, but I leave it with regret." Be it known to all who are ignorant! If the artist does not throw himself into his work as Curtius sprang into the gulf, as a soldier leads a forlorn hope without a moment's thought, and if when he is in the crater he does not dig on as a miner does when the earth has fallen in on him; if he contemplates the difficulties before him instead of conquering them one by one, like the lovers in fairy tales, who to win their princesses overcome ever new enchantments, the work remains incomplete; it perishes in the studio where creativeness becomes impossible, and the artist looks on at the suicide of his own talent.
Rossini, a brother genius to Raphael, is a striking instance in his poverty-stricken youth, compared with his latter years of opulence. This is the reason why the same prize, the same triumph, the same bays are awarded to great poets and to great generals.
Wenceslas, by nature a dreamer, had expended so much energy in production, in study, and in work under Lisbeth's despotic rule, that love and happiness resulted in reaction. His real character reappeared, the weakness, recklessness, and indolence of the Sarmatian returned to nestle in the comfortable corners of his soul, whence the schoolmaster's rod had routed them.
For the first few months the artist adored his wife. Hortense and Wenceslas abandoned themselves to the happy childishness of a legitimate and unbounded passion. Hortense was the first to release her husband from his labors, proud to triumph over her rival, his Art. And, indeed, a woman's caresses scare away the Muse, and break down the sturdy, brutal resolution of the worker.
Six or seven months slipped by, and the artist's fingers had forgotten the use of the modeling tool. When the need for work began to be felt, when the Prince de Wissembourg, president of the committee of subscribers, asked to see the statue, Wenceslas spoke the inevitable byword of the idler, "I am just going to work on it," and he lulled his dear Hortense with fallacious promises and the magnificent schemes of the artist as he smokes. Hortense loved her poet more than ever; she dreamed of a sublime statue of Marshal Montcornet. Montcornet would be the embodied ideal of bravery, the type of the cavalry officer, of courage a la Murat. Yes, yes; at the mere sight of that statue all the Emperor's victories were to seem a foregone conclusion. And then such workmanship! The pencil was accommodating and answered to the word.
By way of a statue the result was a delightful little Wenceslas.
When the progress of affairs required that he should go to the studio at le Gros-Caillou to mould the clay and set up the life-size model, Steinbock found one day that the Prince's clock required his presence in the workshop of Florent and Chanor, where the figures were being finished; or, again, the light was gray and dull; to-day he had business to do, to-morrow they had a family dinner, to say nothing of indispositions of mind and body, and the days when he stayed at home to toy with his adored wife.
Marshal the Prince de Wissembourg was obliged to be angry to get the clay model finished; he declared that he must put the work into other hands. It was only by dint of endless complaints and much strong language that the committee of subscribers succeeded in seeing the plaster-cast. Day after day Steinbock came home, evidently tired, complaining of this "hodman's work" and his own physical weakness. During that first year the household felt no pinch; the Countess Steinbock, desperately in love with her husband cursed the War Minister. She went to see him; she told him that great works of art were not to be manufactured like cannon; and that the State—like Louis XIV., Francis I., and Leo X.—ought to be at the beck and call of genius. Poor Hortense, believing she held a Phidias in her embrace, had the sort of motherly cowardice for her Wenceslas that is in every wife who carries her love to the pitch of idolatry.
"Do not be hurried," said she to her husband, "our whole future life is bound up with that statue. Take your time and produce a masterpiece."
She would go to the studio, and then the enraptured Steinbock wasted five hours out of seven in describing the statue instead of working at it. He thus spent eighteen months in finishing the design, which to him was all-important.
When the plaster was cast and the model complete, poor Hortense, who had looked on at her husband's toil, seeing his health really suffer from the exertions which exhaust a sculptor's frame and arms and hands—Hortense thought the result admirable. Her father, who knew nothing of sculpture, and her mother, no less ignorant, lauded it as a triumph; the War Minister came with them to see it, and, overruled by them, expressed approval of the figure, standing as it did alone, in a favorable light, thrown up against a green baize background.
Alas! at the exhibition of 1841, the disapprobation of the public soon took the form of abuse and mockery in the mouths of those who were indignant with the idol too hastily set up for worship. Stidmann tried to advise his friend, but was accused of jealousy. Every article in a newspaper was to Hortense an outcry of envy. Stidmann, the best of good fellows, got articles written, in which adverse criticism was contravened, and it was pointed out that sculptors altered their works in translating the plaster into marble, and that the marble would be the test.
"In reproducing the plaster sketch in marble," wrote Claude Vignon, "a masterpiece may be ruined, or a bad design made beautiful. The plaster is the manuscript, the marble is the book."
So in two years and a half Wenceslas had produced a statue and a son. The child was a picture of beauty; the statue was execrable.
The clock for the Prince and the price of the statue paid off the young couple's debts. Steinbock had acquired fashionable habits; he went to the play, to the opera; he talked admirably about art; and in the eyes of the world he maintained his reputation as a great artist by his powers of conversation and criticism. There are many clever men in Paris who spend their lives in talking themselves out, and are content with a sort of drawing-room celebrity. Steinbock, emulating these emasculated but charming men, grew every day more averse to hard work. As soon as he began a thing, he was conscious of all its difficulties, and the discouragement that came over him enervated his will. Inspiration, the frenzy of intellectual procreation, flew swiftly away at the sight of this effete lover.
Sculpture—like dramatic art—is at once the most difficult and the easiest of all arts. You have but to copy a model, and the task is done; but to give it a soul, to make it typical by creating a man or a woman—this is the sin of Prometheus. Such triumphs in the annals of sculpture may be counted, as we may count the few poets among men. Michael Angelo, Michel Columb, Jean Goujon, Phidias, Praxiteles, Polycletes, Puget, Canova, Albert Durer, are the brothers of Milton, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Tasso, Homer, and Moliere. And such an achievement is so stupendous that a single statue is enough to make a man immortal, as Figaro, Lovelace, and Manon Lescaut have immortalized Beaumarchais, Richardson, and the Abbe Prevost.
Superficial thinkers—and there are many in the artist world—have asserted that sculpture lives only by the nude, that it died with the Greeks, and that modern vesture makes it impossible. But, in the first place, the Ancients have left sublime statues entirely clothed—the Polyhymnia, the Julia, and others, and we have not found one-tenth of all their works; and then, let any lover of art go to Florence and see Michael Angelo's Penseroso, or to the Cathedral of Mainz, and behold the Virgin by Albert Durer, who has created a living woman out of ebony, under her threefold drapery, with the most flowing, the softest hair that ever a waiting-maid combed through; let all the ignorant flock thither, and they will acknowledge that genius can give mind to drapery, to armor, to a robe, and fill it with a body, just as a man leaves the stamp of his individuality and habits of life on the clothes he wears.
Sculpture is the perpetual realization of the fact which once, and never again, was, in painting called Raphael!
The solution of this hard problem is to be found only in constant persevering toil; for, merely to overcome the material difficulties to such an extent, the hand must be so practised, so dexterous and obedient, that the sculptor may be free to struggle soul to soul with the elusive moral element that he has to transfigure as he embodies it. If Paganini, who uttered his soul through the strings of his violin, spent three days without practising, he lost what he called the stops of his instrument, meaning the sympathy between the wooden frame, the strings, the bow, and himself; if he had lost this alliance, he would have been no more than an ordinary player.
Perpetual work is the law of art, as it is the law of life, for art is idealized creation. Hence great artists and perfect poets wait neither for commission nor for purchasers. They are constantly creating—to-day, to-morrow, always. The result is the habit of work, the unfailing apprehension of the difficulties which keep them in close intercourse with the Muse and her productive forces. Canova lived in his studio, as Voltaire lived in his study; and so must Homer and Phidias have lived.
While Lisbeth kept Wenceslas Steinbock in thraldom in his garret, he was on the thorny road trodden by all these great men, which leads to the Alpine heights of glory. Then happiness, in the person of Hortense, had reduced the poet to idleness—the normal condition of all artists, since to them idleness is fully occupied. Their joy is such as that of the pasha of a seraglio; they revel with ideas, they get drunk at the founts of intellect. Great artists, such as Steinbock, wrapped in reverie, are rightly spoken of as dreamers. They, like opium-eaters, all sink into poverty, whereas if they had been kept up to the mark by the stern demands of life, they might have been great men.
At the same time, these half-artists are delightful; men like them and cram them with praise; they even seem superior to the true artists, who are taxed with conceit, unsociableness, contempt of the laws of society. This is why: Great men are the slaves of their work. Their indifference to outer things, their devotion to their work, make simpletons regard them as egotists, and they are expected to wear the same garb as the dandy who fulfils the trivial evolutions called social duties. These men want the lions of the Atlas to be combed and scented like a lady's poodle.
These artists, who are too rarely matched to meet their fellows, fall into habits of solitary exclusiveness; they are inexplicable to the majority, which, as we know, consists mostly of fools—of the envious, the ignorant, and the superficial.
Now you may imagine what part a wife should play in the life of these glorious and exceptional beings. She ought to be what, for five years, Lisbeth had been, but with the added offering of love, humble and patient love, always ready and always smiling.
Hortense, enlightened by her anxieties as a mother, and driven by dire necessity, had discovered too late the mistakes she had been involuntarily led into by her excessive love. Still, the worthy daughter of her mother, her heart ached at the thought of worrying Wenceslas; she loved her dear poet too much to become his torturer; and she could foresee the hour when beggary awaited her, her child, and her husband.
"Come, come, my child," said Lisbeth, seeing the tears in her cousin's lovely eyes, "you must not despair. A glassful of tears will not buy a plate of soup. How much do you want?"
"Well, five or six thousand francs."
"I have but three thousand at the most," said Lisbeth. "And what is Wenceslas doing now?"
"He has had an offer to work in partnership with Stidmann at a table service for the Duc d'Herouville for six thousand francs. Then Monsieur Chanor will advance four thousand to repay Monsieur de Lora and Bridau—a debt of honor."
"What, you have had the money for the statue and the bas-reliefs for Marshal Montcornet's monument, and you have not paid them yet?"
"For the last three years," said Hortense, "we have spent twelve thousand francs a year, and I have but a hundred louis a year of my own. The Marshal's monument, when all the expenses were paid, brought us no more than sixteen thousand francs. Really and truly, if Wenceslas gets no work, I do not know what is to become of us. Oh, if only I could learn to make statues, I would handle the clay!" she cried, holding up her fine arms.
The woman, it was plain, fulfilled the promise of the girl; there was a flash in her eye; impetuous blood, strong with iron, flowed in her veins; she felt that she was wasting her energy in carrying her infant.
"Ah, my poor little thing! a sensible girl should not marry an artist till his fortune is made—not while it is still to make."
At this moment they heard voices; Stidmann and Wenceslas were seeing Chanor to the door; then Wenceslas and Stidmann came in again.
Stidmann, an artist in vogue in the world of journalists, famous actresses, and courtesans of the better class, was a young man of fashion whom Valerie much wished to see in her rooms; indeed, he had already been introduced to her by Claude Vignon. Stidmann had lately broken off an intimacy with Madame Schontz, who had married some months since and gone to live in the country. Valerie and Lisbeth, hearing of this upheaval from Claude Vignon, thought it well to get Steinbock's friend to visit in the Rue Vanneau.
Stidmann, out of good feeling, went rarely to the Steinbocks'; and as it happened that Lisbeth was not present when he was introduced by Claude Vignon, she now saw him for the first time. As she watched this noted artist, she caught certain glances from his eyes at Hortense, which suggested to her the possibility of offering him to the Countess Steinbock as a consolation if Wenceslas should be false to her. In point of fact, Stidmann was reflecting that if Steinbock were not his friend, Hortense, the young and superbly beautiful countess, would be an adorable mistress; it was this very notion, controlled by honor, that kept him away from the house. Lisbeth was quick to mark the significant awkwardness that troubles a man in the presence of a woman with whom he will not allow himself to flirt.
"Very good-looking—that young man," said she in a whisper to Hortense.
"Oh, do you think so?" she replied. "I never noticed him."
"Stidmann, my good fellow," said Wenceslas, in an undertone to his friend, "we are on no ceremony, you and I—we have some business to settle with this old girl."
Stidmann bowed to the ladies and went away.
"It is settled," said Wenceslas, when he came in from taking leave of Stidmann. "But there are six months' work to be done, and we must live meanwhile."
"There are my diamonds," cried the young Countess, with the impetuous heroism of a loving woman.
A tear rose in Wenceslas' eye.
"Oh, I am going to work," said he, sitting down by his wife and drawing her on to his knee. "I will do odd jobs—a wedding chest, bronze groups——"
"But, my children," said Lisbeth; "for, as you know, you will be my heirs, and I shall leave you a very comfortable sum, believe me, especially if you help me to marry the Marshal; nay, if we succeed in that quickly, I will take you all to board with me—you and Adeline. We should live very happily together.—But for the moment, listen to the voice of my long experience. Do not fly to the Mont-de-Piete; it is the ruin of the borrower. I have always found that when the interest was due, those who had pledged their things had nothing wherewith to pay up, and then all is lost. I can get you a loan at five per cent on your note of hand."
"Oh, we are saved!" said Hortense.
"Well, then, child, Wenceslas had better come with me to see the lender, who will oblige him at my request. It is Madame Marneffe. If you flatter her a little—for she is as vain as a parvenue—she will get you out of the scrape in the most obliging way. Come yourself and see her, my dear Hortense."
Hortense looked at her husband with the expression a man condemned to death must wear on his way to the scaffold.
"Claude Vignon took Stidmann there," said Wenceslas. "He says it is a very pleasant house."
Hortense's head fell. What she felt can only be expressed in one word; it was not pain; it was illness.
"But, my dear Hortense, you must learn something of life!" exclaimed Lisbeth, understanding the eloquence of her cousin's looks. "Otherwise, like your mother, you will find yourself abandoned in a deserted room, where you will weep like Calypso on the departure of Ulysses, and at an age when there is no hope of Telemachus—" she added, repeating a jest of Madame Marneffe's. "We have to regard the people in the world as tools which we can make use of or let alone, according as they can serve our turn. Make use of Madame Marneffe now, my dears, and let her alone by and by. Are you afraid lest Wenceslas, who worships you, should fall in love with a woman four or five years older than himself, as yellow as a bundle of field peas, and——?"
"I would far rather pawn my diamonds," said Hortense. "Oh, never go there, Wenceslas!—It is hell!"
"Hortense is right," said Steinbock, kissing his wife.
"Thank you, my dearest," said Hortense, delighted. "My husband is an angel, you see, Lisbeth. He does not gamble, he goes nowhere without me; if he only could stick to work—oh, I should be too happy. Why take us on show to my father's mistress, a woman who is ruining him and is the cause of troubles that are killing my heroic mother?"
"My child, that is not where the cause of your father's ruin lies. It was his singer who ruined him, and then your marriage!" replied her cousin. "Bless me! why, Madame Marneffe is of the greatest use to him. However, I must tell no tales."
"You have a good word for everybody, dear Betty—"
Hortense was called into the garden by hearing the child cry; Lisbeth was left alone with Wenceslas.
"You have an angel for your wife, Wenceslas!" said she. "Love her as you ought; never give her cause for grief."
"Yes, indeed, I love her so well that I do not tell her all," replied Wenceslas; "but to you, Lisbeth, I may confess the truth.—If I took my wife's diamonds to the Monte-de-Piete, we should be no further forward."
"Then borrow of Madame Marneffe," said Lisbeth. "Persuade Hortense, Wenceslas, to let you go there, or else, bless me! go there without telling her."
"That is what I was thinking of," replied Wenceslas, "when I refused for fear of grieving Hortense."
"Listen to me; I care too much for you both not to warn you of your danger. If you go there, hold your heart tight in both hands, for the woman is a witch. All who see her adore her; she is so wicked, so inviting! She fascinates men like a masterpiece. Borrow her money, but do not leave your soul in pledge. I should never be happy again if you were false to Hortense—here she is! not another word! I will settle the matter."
"Kiss Lisbeth, my darling," said Wenceslas to his wife. "She will help us out of our difficulties by lending us her savings."
And he gave Lisbeth a look which she understood.
"Then, I hope you mean to work, my dear treasure," said Hortense.
"Yes, indeed," said the artist. "I will begin to-morrow."
"To-morrow is our ruin!" said his wife, with a smile.
"Now, my dear child! say yourself whether some hindrance has not come in the way every day; some obstacle or business?"
"Yes, very true, my love."
"Here!" cried Steinbock, striking his brow, "here I have swarms of ideas! I mean to astonish all my enemies. I am going to design a service in the German style of the sixteenth century; the romantic style: foliage twined with insects, sleeping children, newly invented monsters, chimeras—real chimeras, such as we dream of!—I see it all! It will be undercut, light, and yet crowded. Chanor was quite amazed.—And I wanted some encouragement, for the last article on Montcornet's monument had been crushing."
At a moment in the course of the day when Lisbeth and Wenceslas were left together, the artist agreed to go on the morrow to see Madame Marneffe—he either would win his wife's consent, or he would go without telling her.
Valerie, informed the same evening of this success, insisted that Hulot should go to invite Stidmann, Claude Vignon, and Steinbock to dinner; for she was beginning to tyrannize over him as women of that type tyrannize over old men, who trot round town, and go to make interest with every one who is necessary to the interests or the vanity of their task-mistress.
Next evening Valerie armed herself for conquest by making such a toilet as a Frenchwoman can devise when she wishes to make the most of herself. She studied her appearance in this great work as a man going out to fight a duel practises his feints and lunges. Not a speck, not a wrinkle was to be seen. Valerie was at her whitest, her softest, her sweetest. And certain little "patches" attracted the eye.
It is commonly supposed that the patch of the eighteenth century is out of date or out of fashion; that is a mistake. In these days women, more ingenious perhaps than of yore, invite a glance through the opera-glass by other audacious devices. One is the first to hit on a rosette in her hair with a diamond in the centre, and she attracts every eye for a whole evening; another revives the hair-net, or sticks a dagger through the twist to suggest a garter; this one wears velvet bands round her wrists, that one appears in lace lippets. These valiant efforts, an Austerlitz of vanity or of love, then set the fashion for lower spheres by the time the inventive creatress has originated something new. This evening, which Valerie meant to be a success for her, she had placed three patches. She had washed her hair with some lye, which changed its hue for a few days from a gold color to a duller shade. Madame Steinbock's was almost red, and she would be in every point unlike her. This new effect gave her a piquant and strange appearance, which puzzled her followers so much, that Montes asked her:
"What have you done to yourself this evening?"—Then she put on a rather wide black velvet neck-ribbon, which showed off the whiteness of her skin. One patch took the place of the assassine of our grandmothers. And Valerie pinned the sweetest rosebud into her bodice, just in the middle above the stay-busk, and in the daintiest little hollow! It was enough to make every man under thirty drop his eyelids.
"I am as sweet as a sugar-plum," said she to herself, going through her attitudes before the glass, exactly as a dancer practises her curtesies.
Lisbeth had been to market, and the dinner was to be one of those superfine meals which Mathurine had been wont to cook for her Bishop when he entertained the prelate of the adjoining diocese.
Stidmann, Claude Vignon, and Count Steinbock arrived almost together, just at six. An ordinary, or, if you will, a natural woman would have hastened at the announcement of a name so eagerly longed for; but Valerie, though ready since five o'clock, remained in her room, leaving her three guests together, certain that she was the subject of their conversation or of their secret thoughts. She herself had arranged the drawing-room, laying out the pretty trifles produced in Paris and nowhere else, which reveal the woman and announce her presence: albums bound in enamel or embroidered with beads, saucers full of pretty rings, marvels of Sevres or Dresden mounted exquisitely by Florent and Chanor, statues, books, all the frivolities which cost insane sums, and which passion orders of the makers in its first delirium—or to patch up its last quarrel.
Besides, Valerie was in the state of intoxication that comes of triumph. She had promised to marry Crevel if Marneffe should die; and the amorous Crevel had transferred to the name of Valerie Fortin bonds bearing ten thousand francs a year, the sum-total of what he had made in railway speculations during the past three years, the returns on the capital of a hundred thousand crowns which he had at first offered to the Baronne Hulot. So Valerie now had an income of thirty-two thousand francs.
Crevel had just committed himself to a promise of far greater magnitude than this gift of his surplus. In the paroxysm of rapture which his Duchess had given him from two to four—he gave this fine title to Madame de Marneffe to complete the illusion—for Valerie had surpassed herself in the Rue du Dauphin that afternoon, he had thought well to encourage her in her promised fidelity by giving her the prospect of a certain little mansion, built in the Rue Barbette by an imprudent contractor, who now wanted to sell it. Valerie could already see herself in this delightful residence, with a fore-court and a garden, and keeping a carriage!
"What respectable life can ever procure so much in so short a time, or so easily?" said she to Lisbeth as she finished dressing. Lisbeth was to dine with Valerie that evening, to tell Steinbock those things about the lady which nobody can say about herself.
Madame Marneffe, radiant with satisfaction, came into the drawing-room with modest grace, followed by Lisbeth dressed in black and yellow to set her off.
"Good-evening, Claude," said she, giving her hand to the famous old critic.
Claude Vignon, like many another, had become a political personage—a word describing an ambitious man at the first stage of his career. The political personage of 1840 represents, in some degree, the Abbe of the eighteenth century. No drawing-room circle is complete without one.
"My dear, this is my cousin, Count Steinbock," said Lisbeth, introducing Wenceslas, whom Valerie seemed to have overlooked.
"Oh yes, I recognized Monsieur le Comte," replied Valerie with a gracious bow to the artist. "I often saw you in the Rue du Doyenne, and I had the pleasure of being present at your wedding.—It would be difficult, my dear," said she to Lisbeth, "to forget your adopted son after once seeing him.—It is most kind of you, Monsieur Stidmann," she went on, "to have accepted my invitation at such short notice; but necessity knows no law. I knew you to be the friend of both these gentlemen. Nothing is more dreary, more sulky, than a dinner where all the guests are strangers, so it was for their sake that I hailed you in—but you will come another time for mine, I hope?—Say that you will."
And for a few minutes she moved about the room with Stidmann, wholly occupied with him.
Crevel and Hulot were announced separately, and then a deputy named Beauvisage.
This individual, a provincial Crevel, one of the men created to make up the crowd in the world, voted under the banner of Giraud, a State Councillor, and Victorin Hulot. These two politicians were trying to form a nucleus of progressives in the loose array of the Conservative Party. Giraud himself occasionally spent the evening at Madame Marneffe's, and she flattered herself that she should also capture Victorin Hulot; but the puritanical lawyer had hitherto found excuses for refusing to accompany his father and father-in-law. It seemed to him criminal to be seen in the house of the woman who cost his mother so many tears. Victorin Hulot was to the puritans of political life what a pious woman is among bigots.
Beauvisage, formerly a stocking manufacturer at Arcis, was anxious to pick up the Paris style. This man, one of the outer stones of the Chamber, was forming himself under the auspices of this delicious and fascinating Madame Marneffe. Introduced here by Crevel, he had accepted him, at her instigation, as his model and master. He consulted him on every point, took the address of his tailor, imitated him, and tried to strike the same attitudes. In short, Crevel was his Great Man.
Valerie, surrounded by these bigwigs and the three artists, and supported by Lisbeth, struck Wenceslas as a really superior woman, all the more so because Claude Vignon spoke of her like a man in love.
"She is Madame de Maintenon in Ninon's petticoats!" said the veteran critic. "You may please her in an evening if you have the wit; but as for making her love you—that would be a triumph to crown a man's ambition and fill up his life."
Valerie, while seeming cold and heedless of her former neighbor, piqued his vanity, quite unconsciously indeed, for she knew nothing of the Polish character. There is in the Slav a childish element, as there is in all these primitively wild nations which have overflowed into civilization rather than that they have become civilized. The race has spread like an inundation, and has covered a large portion of the globe. It inhabits deserts whose extent is so vast that it expands at its ease; there is no jostling there, as there is in Europe, and civilization is impossible without the constant friction of minds and interests. The Ukraine, Russia, the plains by the Danube, in short, the Slav nations, are a connecting link between Europe and Asia, between civilization and barbarism. Thus the Pole, the wealthiest member of the Slav family, has in his character all the childishness and inconsistency of a beardless race. He has courage, spirit, and strength; but, cursed with instability, that courage, strength, and energy have neither method nor guidance; for the Pole displays a variability resembling that of the winds which blow across that vast plain broken with swamps; and though he has the impetuosity of the snow squalls that wrench and sweep away buildings, like those aerial avalanches he is lost in the first pool and melts into water. Man always assimilates something from the surroundings in which he lives. Perpetually at strife with the Turk, the Pole has imbibed a taste for Oriental splendor; he often sacrifices what is needful for the sake of display. The men dress themselves out like women, yet the climate has given them the tough constitution of Arabs.
The Pole, sublime in suffering, has tired his oppressors' arms by sheer endurance of beating; and, in the nineteenth century, has reproduced the spectacle presented by the early Christians. Infuse only ten per cent of English cautiousness into the frank and open Polish nature, and the magnanimous white eagle would at this day be supreme wherever the two-headed eagle has sneaked in. A little Machiavelism would have hindered Poland from helping to save Austria, who has taken a share of it; from borrowing from Prussia, the usurer who had undermined it; and from breaking up as soon as a division was first made.
At the christening of Poland, no doubt, the Fairy Carabosse, overlooked by the genii who endowed that attractive people with the most brilliant gifts, came in to say:
"Keep all the gifts that my sisters have bestowed on you; but you shall never know what you wish for!"
If, in its heroic duel with Russia, Poland had won the day, the Poles would now be fighting among themselves, as they formerly fought in their Diets to hinder each other from being chosen King. When that nation, composed entirely of hot-headed dare-devils, has good sense enough to seek a Louis XI. among her own offspring, to accept his despotism and a dynasty, she will be saved.
What Poland has been politically, almost every Pole is in private life, especially under the stress of disaster. Thus Wenceslas Steinbock, after worshiping his wife for three years and knowing that he was a god to her, was so much nettled at finding himself barely noticed by Madame Marneffe, that he made it a point of honor to attract her attention. He compared Valerie with his wife and gave her the palm. Hortense was beautiful flesh, as Valerie had said to Lisbeth; but Madame Marneffe had spirit in her very shape, and the savor of vice.
Such devotion as Hortense's is a feeling which a husband takes as his due; the sense of the immense preciousness of such perfect love soon wears off, as a debtor, in the course of time, begins to fancy that the borrowed money is his own. This noble loyalty becomes the daily bread of the soul, and an infidelity is as tempting as a dainty. The woman who is scornful, and yet more the woman who is reputed dangerous, excites curiosity, as spices add flavor to good food. Indeed, the disdain so cleverly acted by Valerie was a novelty to Wenceslas, after three years of too easy enjoyment. Hortense was a wife; Valerie a mistress.
Many men desire to have two editions of the same work, though it is in fact a proof of inferiority when a man cannot make his mistress of his wife. Variety in this particular is a sign of weakness. Constancy will always be the real genius of love, the evidence of immense power—the power that makes the poet! A man ought to find every woman in his wife, as the squalid poets of the seventeenth century made their Manons figure as Iris and Chloe.
"Well," said Lisbeth to the Pole, as she beheld him fascinated, "what do you think of Valerie?"
"She is too charming," replied Wenceslas.
"You would not listen to me," said Betty. "Oh! my little Wenceslas, if you and I had never parted, you would have been that siren's lover; you might have married her when she was a widow, and you would have had her forty thousand francs a year——"
"Certainly," replied Lisbeth. "Now, take care of yourself; I warned you of the danger; do not singe your wings in the candle!—Come, give me your arm, dinner is served."
No language could be so thoroughly demoralizing as this; for if you show a Pole a precipice, he is bound to leap it. As a nation they have the very spirit of cavalry; they fancy they can ride down every obstacle and come out victorious. The spur applied by Lisbeth to Steinbock's vanity was intensified by the appearance of the dining-room, bright with handsome silver plate; the dinner was served with every refinement and extravagance of Parisian luxury.
"I should have done better to take Celimene," thought he to himself.
All through the dinner Hulot was charming; pleased to see his son-in-law at that table, and yet more happy in the prospect of a reconciliation with Valerie, whose fidelity he proposed to secure by the promise of Coquet's head-clerkship. Stidmann responded to the Baron's amiability by shafts of Parisian banter and an artist's high spirits. Steinbock would not allow himself to be eclipsed by his friend; he too was witty, said amusing things, made his mark, and was pleased with himself; Madame Marneffe smiled at him several times to show that she quite understood him.
The good meal and heady wines completed the work; Wenceslas was deep in what must be called the slough of dissipation. Excited by just a glass too much, he stretched himself on a settee after dinner, sunk in physical and mental ecstasy, which Madame Marneffe wrought to the highest pitch by coming to sit down by him—airy, scented, pretty enough to damn an angel. She bent over Wenceslas and almost touched his ear as she whispered to him:
"We cannot talk over business matters this evening, unless you will remain till the last. Between us—you, Lisbeth, and me—we can settle everything to suit you."
"Ah, Madame, you are an angel!" replied Wenceslas, also in a murmur. "I was a pretty fool not to listen to Lisbeth—"
"What did she say?"
"She declared, in the Rue du Doyenne, that you loved me!"
Madame Marneffe looked at him, seemed covered with confusion, and hastily left her seat. A young and pretty woman never rouses the hope of immediate success with impunity. This retreat, the impulse of a virtuous woman who is crushing a passion in the depths of her heart, was a thousand times more effective than the most reckless avowal. Desire was so thoroughly aroused in Wenceslas that he doubled his attentions to Valerie. A woman seen by all is a woman wished for. Hence the terrible power of actresses. Madame Marneffe, knowing that she was watched, behaved like an admired actress. She was quite charming, and her success was immense.
"I no longer wonder at my father-in-law's follies," said Steinbock to Lisbeth.
"If you say such things, Wenceslas, I shall to my dying day repent of having got you the loan of these ten thousand francs. Are you, like all these men," and she indicated the guests, "madly in love with that creature? Remember, you would be your father-in-law's rival. And think of the misery you would bring on Hortense."
"That is true," said Wenceslas. "Hortense is an angel; I should be a wretch."
"And one is enough in the family!" said Lisbeth.
"Artists ought never to marry!" exclaimed Steinbock.
"Ah! that is what I always told you in the Rue du Doyenne. Your groups, your statues, your great works, ought to be your children."
"What are you talking about?" Valerie asked, joining Lisbeth.—"Give us tea, Cousin."
Steinbock, with Polish vainglory, wanted to appear familiar with this drawing-room fairy. After defying Stidmann, Vignon, and Crevel with a look, he took Valerie's hand and forced her to sit down by him on the settee.
"You are rather too lordly, Count Steinbock," said she, resisting a little. But she laughed as she dropped on to the seat, not without arranging the rosebud pinned into her bodice.
"Alas! if I were really lordly," said he, "I should not be here to borrow money."
"Poor boy! I remember how you worked all night in the Rue du Doyenne. You really were rather a spooney; you married as a starving man snatches a loaf. You knew nothing of Paris, and you see where you are landed. But you turned a deaf ear to Lisbeth's devotion, as you did to the love of a woman who knows her Paris by heart."
"Say no more!" cried Steinbock; "I am done for!"
"You shall have your ten thousand francs, my dear Wenceslas; but on one condition," she went on, playing with his handsome curls.
"What is that?"
"I will take no interest——"
"Oh, you need not be indignant; you shall make it good by giving me a bronze group. You began the story of Samson; finish it.—Do a Delilah cutting off the Jewish Hercules' hair. And you, who, if you will listen to me, will be a great artist, must enter into the subject. What you have to show is the power of woman. Samson is a secondary consideration. He is the corpse of dead strength. It is Delilah—passion—that ruins everything. How far more beautiful is that replica—That is what you call it, I think—" She skilfully interpolated, as Claude Vignon and Stidmann came up to them on hearing her talk of sculpture—"how far more beautiful than the Greek myth is that replica of Hercules at Omphale's feet.—Did Greece copy Judaea, or did Judaea borrow the symbolism from Greece?"
"There, madame, you raise an important question—that of the date of the various writings in the Bible. The great and immortal Spinoza—most foolishly ranked as an atheist, whereas he gave mathematical proof of the existence of God—asserts that the Book of Genesis and all the political history of the Bible are of the time of Moses, and he demonstrates the interpolated passages by philological evidence. And he was thrice stabbed as he went into the synagogue."
"I had no idea I was so learned," said Valerie, annoyed at this interruption to her tete-a-tete.
"Women know everything by instinct," replied Claude Vignon.
"Well, then, you promise me?" she said to Steinbock, taking his hand with the timidity of a girl in love.
"You are indeed a happy man, my dear fellow," cried Stidmann, "if madame asks a favor of you!"
"What is it?" asked Claude Vignon.
"A small bronze group," replied Steinbock, "Delilah cutting off Samson's hair."
"It is difficult," remarked Vignon. "A bed——"
"On the contrary, it is exceedingly easy," replied Valerie, smiling.
"Ah ha! teach us sculpture!" said Stidmann.
"You should take madame for your subject," replied Vignon, with a keen glance at Valerie.
"Well," she went on, "this is my notion of the composition. Samson on waking finds he has no hair, like many a dandy with a false top-knot. The hero is sitting on the bed, so you need only show the foot of it, covered with hangings and drapery. There he is, like Marius among the ruins of Carthage, his arms folded, his head shaven—Napoleon at Saint-Helena—what you will! Delilah is on her knees, a good deal like Canova's Magdalen. When a hussy has ruined her man, she adores him. As I see it, the Jewess was afraid of Samson in his strength and terrors, but she must have loved him when she saw him a child again. So Delilah is bewailing her sin, she would like to give her lover his hair again. She hardly dares to look at him; but she does look, with a smile, for she reads forgiveness in Samson's weakness. Such a group as this, and one of the ferocious Judith, would epitomize woman. Virtue cuts off your head; vice only cuts off your hair. Take care of your wigs, gentlemen!"
And she left the artists quite overpowered, to sing her praises in concert with the critic.
"It is impossible to be more bewitching!" cried Stidmann.
"Oh! she is the most intelligent and desirable woman I have ever met," said Claude Vignon. "Such a combination of beauty and cleverness is so rare."
"And if you who had the honor of being intimate with Camille Maupin can pronounce such a verdict," replied Stidmann, "what are we to think?"
"If you will make your Delilah a portrait of Valerie, my dear Count," said Crevel, who had risen for a moment from the card-table, and who had heard what had been said, "I will give you a thousand crowns for an example—yes, by the Powers! I will shell out to the tune of a thousand crowns!"
"Shell out! What does that mean?" asked Beauvisage of Claude Vignon.
"Madame must do me the honor to sit for it then," said Steinbock to Crevel. "Ask her—"
At this moment Valerie herself brought Steinbock a cup of tea. This was more than a compliment, it was a favor. There is a complete language in the manner in which a woman does this little civility; but women are fully aware of the fact, and it is a curious thing to study their movements, their manner, their look, tone, and accent when they perform this apparently simple act of politeness.—From the question, "Do you take tea?"—"Will you have some tea?"—"A cup of tea?" coldly asked, and followed by instructions to the nymph of the urn to bring it, to the eloquent poem of the odalisque coming from the tea-table, cup in hand, towards the pasha of her heart, presenting it submissively, offering it in an insinuating voice, with a look full of intoxicating promises, a physiologist could deduce the whole scale of feminine emotion, from aversion or indifference to Phaedra's declaration to Hippolytus. Women can make it, at will, contemptuous to the verge of insult, or humble to the expression of Oriental servility.
And Valerie was more than woman; she was the serpent made woman; she crowned her diabolical work by going up to Steinbock, a cup of tea in her hand.
"I will drink as many cups of tea as you will give me," said the artist, murmuring in her ear as he rose, and touching her fingers with his, "to have them given to me thus!"
"What were you saying about sitting?" said she, without betraying that this declaration, so frantically desired, had gone straight to her heart.
"Old Crevel promises me a thousand crowns for a copy of your group."
"He! a thousand crowns for a bronze group?"
"Yes—if you will sit for Delilah," said Steinbock.
"He will not be there to see, I hope!" replied she. "The group would be worth more than all his fortune, for Delilah's costume is rather un-dressy."
Just as Crevel loved to strike an attitude, every woman has a victorious gesture, a studied movement, which she knows must win admiration. You may see in a drawing-room how one spends all her time looking down at her tucker or pulling up the shoulder-piece of her gown, how another makes play with the brightness of her eyes by glancing up at the cornice. Madame Marneffe's triumph, however, was not face to face like that of other women. She turned sharply round to return to Lisbeth at the tea-table. This ballet-dancer's pirouette, whisking her skirts, by which she had overthrown Hulot, now fascinated Steinbock.
"Your vengeance is secure," said Valerie to Lisbeth in a whisper. "Hortense will cry out all her tears, and curse the day when she robbed you of Wenceslas."
"Till I am Madame la Marechale I shall not think myself successful," replied the cousin; "but they are all beginning to wish for it.—This morning I went to Victorin's—I forgot to tell you.—The young Hulots have bought up their father's notes of hand given to Vauvinet, and to-morrow they will endorse a bill for seventy-two thousand francs at five per cent, payable in three years, and secured by a mortgage on their house. So the young people are in straits for three years; they can raise no more money on that property. Victorin is dreadfully distressed; he understands his father. And Crevel is capable of refusing to see them; he will be so angry at this piece of self-sacrifice."
"The Baron cannot have a sou now," said Valerie, and she smiled at Hulot.
"I don't see where he can get it. But he will draw his salary again in September."
"And he has his policy of insurance; he has renewed it. Come, it is high time he should get Marneffe promoted. I will drive it home this evening."
"My dear cousin," said Lisbeth to Wenceslas, "go home, I beg. You are quite ridiculous. Your eyes are fixed on Valerie in a way that is enough to compromise her, and her husband is insanely jealous. Do not tread in your father-in-law's footsteps. Go home; I am sure Hortense is sitting up for you."
"Madame Marneffe told me to stay till the last to settle my little business with you and her," replied Wenceslas.
"No, no," said Lisbeth; "I will bring you the ten thousand francs, for her husband has his eye on you. It would be rash to remain. To-morrow at eleven o'clock bring your note of hand; at that hour that mandarin Marneffe is at his office, Valerie is free.—Have you really asked her to sit for your group?—Come up to my rooms first.—Ah! I was sure of it," she added, as she caught the look which Steinbock flashed at Valerie, "I knew you were a profligate in the bud! Well, Valerie is lovely—but try not to bring trouble on Hortense."
Nothing annoys a married man so much as finding his wife perpetually interposing between himself and his wishes, however transient.
Wenceslas got home at about one in the morning; Hortense had expected him ever since half-past nine. From half-past nine till ten she had listened to the passing carriages, telling herself that never before had her husband come in so late from dining with Florent and Chanor. She sat sewing by the child's cot, for she had begun to save a needlewoman's pay for the day by doing the mending herself.—From ten till half-past, a suspicion crossed her mind; she sat wondering:
"Is he really gone to dinner, as he told me, with Chanor and Florent? He put on his best cravat and his handsomest pin when he dressed. He took as long over his toilet as a woman when she wants to make the best of herself.—I am crazy! He loves me!—And here he is!"
But instead of stopping, the cab she heard went past.
From eleven till midnight Hortense was a victim to terrible alarms; the quarter where they lived was now deserted.
"If he has set out on foot, some accident may have happened," thought she. "A man may be killed by tumbling over a curbstone or failing to see a gap. Artists are so heedless! Or if he should have been stopped by robbers!—It is the first time he has ever left me alone here for six hours and a half!—But why should I worry myself? He cares for no one but me."
Men ought to be faithful to the wives who love them, were it only on account of the perpetual miracles wrought by true love in the sublime regions of the spiritual world. The woman who loves is, in relation to the man she loves, in the position of a somnambulist to whom the magnetizer should give the painful power, when she ceases to be the mirror of the world, of being conscious as a woman of what she has seen as a somnambulist. Passion raises the nervous tension of a woman to the ecstatic pitch at which presentiment is as acute as the insight of a clairvoyant. A wife knows she is betrayed; she will not let herself say so, she doubts still—she loves so much! She gives the lie to the outcry of her own Pythian power. This paroxysm of love deserves a special form of worship.
In noble souls, admiration of this divine phenomenon will always be a safeguard to protect them from infidelity. How should a man not worship a beautiful and intellectual creature whose soul can soar to such manifestations?
By one in the morning Hortense was in a state of such intense anguish, that she flew to the door as she recognized her husband's ring at the bell, and clasped him in her arms like a mother.
"At last—here you are!" cried she, finding her voice again. "My dearest, henceforth where you go I go, for I cannot again endure the torture of such waiting.—I pictured you stumbling over a curbstone, with a fractured skull! Killed by thieves!—No, a second time I know I should go mad.—Have you enjoyed yourself so much?—And without me!—Bad boy!"
"What can I say, my darling? There was Bixiou, who drew fresh caricatures for us; Leon de Lora, as witty as ever; Claude Vignon, to whom I owe the only consolatory article that has come out about the Montcornet statue. There were—"
"Were there no ladies?" Hortense eagerly inquired.
"Worthy Madame Florent—"
"You said the Rocher de Cancale.—Were you at the Florents'?"
"Yes, at their house; I made a mistake."
"You did not take a coach to come home?"
"And you have walked from the Rue des Tournelles?"
"Stidmann and Bixiou came back with me along the boulevards as far as the Madeleine, talking all the way."
"It is dry then on the boulevards and the Place de la Concorde and the Rue de Bourgogne? You are not muddy at all!" said Hortense, looking at her husband's patent leather boots.
It had been raining, but between the Rue Vanneau and the Rue Saint-Dominique Wenceslas had not got his boots soiled.
"Here—here are five thousand francs Chanor has been so generous as to lend me," said Wenceslas, to cut short this lawyer-like examination.
He had made a division of the ten thousand-franc notes, half for Hortense and half for himself, for he had five thousand francs' worth of debts of which Hortense knew nothing. He owed money to his foreman and his workmen.
"Now your anxieties are relieved," said he, kissing his wife. "I am going to work to-morrow morning. So I am going to bed this minute to get up early, by your leave, my pet."
The suspicion that had dawned in Hortense's mind vanished; she was miles away from the truth. Madame Marneffe! She had never thought of her. Her fear for her Wenceslas was that he should fall in with street prostitutes. The names of Bixiou and Leon de Lora, two artists noted for their wild dissipations, had alarmed her.
Next morning she saw Wenceslas go out at nine o'clock, and was quite reassured.
"Now he is at work again," said she to herself, as she proceeded to dress her boy. "I see he is quite in the vein! Well, well, if we cannot have the glory of Michael Angelo, we may have that of Benvenuto Cellini!"
Lulled by her own hopes, Hortense believed in a happy future; and she was chattering to her son of twenty months in the language of onomatopoeia that amuses babes when, at about eleven o'clock, the cook, who had not seen Wenceslas go out, showed in Stidmann.
"I beg pardon, madame," said he. "Is Wenceslas gone out already?"
"He is at the studio."
"I came to talk over the work with him."
"I will send for him," said Hortense, offering Stidmann a chair.
Thanking Heaven for this piece of luck, Hortense was glad to detain Stidmann to ask some questions about the evening before. Stidmann bowed in acknowledgment of her kindness. The Countess Steinbock rang; the cook appeared, and was desired to go at once and fetch her master from the studio.
"You had an amusing dinner last night?" said Hortense. "Wenceslas did not come in till past one in the morning."
"Amusing? not exactly," replied the artist, who had intended to fascinate Madame Marneffe. "Society is not very amusing unless one is interested in it. That little Madame Marneffe is clever, but a great flirt."
"And what did Wenceslas think of her?" asked poor Hortense, trying to keep calm. "He said nothing about her to me."
"I will only say one thing," said Stidmann, "and that is, that I think her a very dangerous woman."
Hortense turned as pale as a woman after childbirth.
"So—it was at—at Madame Marneffe's that you dined—and not—not with Chanor?" said she, "yesterday—and Wenceslas—and he——"
Stidmann, without knowing what mischief he had done, saw that he had blundered.
The Countess did not finish her sentence; she simply fainted away. The artist rang, and the maid came in. When Louise tried to get her mistress into her bedroom, a serious nervous attack came on, with violent hysterics. Stidmann, like any man who by an involuntary indiscretion has overthrown the structure built on a husband's lie to his wife, could not conceive that his words should produce such an effect; he supposed that the Countess was in such delicate health that the slightest contradiction was mischievous.
The cook presently returned to say, unfortunately in loud tones, that her master was not in the studio. In the midst of her anguish, Hortense heard, and the hysterical fit came on again.
"Go and fetch madame's mother," said Louise to the cook. "Quick—run!"
"If I knew where to find Steinbock, I would go and fetch him!" exclaimed Stidmann in despair.
"He is with that woman!" cried the unhappy wife. "He was not dressed to go to his work!"
Stidmann hurried off to Madame Marneffe's, struck by the truth of this conclusion, due to the second-sight of passion.
At that moment Valerie was posed as Delilah. Stidmann, too sharp to ask for Madame Marneffe, walked straight in past the lodge, and ran quickly up to the second floor, arguing thus: "If I ask for Madame Marneffe, she will be out. If I inquire point-blank for Steinbock, I shall be laughed at to my face.—Take the bull by the horns!"
Reine appeared in answer to his ring.
"Tell Monsieur le Comte Steinbock to come at once, his wife is dying—"
Reine, quite a match for Stidmann, looked at him with blank surprise.
"But, sir—I don't know—did you suppose——"
"I tell you that my friend Monsieur Steinbock is here; his wife is very ill. It is quite serious enough for you to disturb your mistress." And Stidmann turned on his heel.
"He is there, sure enough!" said he to himself.
And in point of fact, after waiting a few minutes in the Rue Vanneau, he saw Wenceslas come out, and beckoned to him to come quickly. After telling him of the tragedy enacted in the Rue Saint-Dominique, Stidmann scolded Steinbock for not having warned him to keep the secret of yesterday's dinner.
"I am done for," said Wenceslas, "but you are forgiven. I had totally forgotten that you were to call this morning, and I blundered in not telling you that we were to have dined with Florent.—What can I say? That Valerie has turned my head; but, my dear fellow, for her glory is well lost, misfortune well won! She really is!—Good Heavens!—But I am in a dreadful fix. Advise me. What can I say? How can I excuse myself?"
"I! advise you! I don't know," replied Stidmann. "But your wife loves you, I imagine? Well, then, she will believe anything. Tell her that you were on your way to me when I was on my way to you; that, at any rate, will set this morning's business right. Good-bye."
Lisbeth, called down by Reine, ran after Wenceslas and caught him up at the corner of the Rue Hillerin-Bertin; she was afraid of his Polish artlessness. Not wishing to be involved in the matter, she said a few words to Wenceslas, who in his joy hugged her then and there. She had no doubt pushed out a plank to enable the artist to cross this awkward place in his conjugal affairs.
At the sight of her mother, who had flown to her aid, Hortense burst into floods of tears. This happily changed the character of the hysterical attack.
"Treachery, dear mamma!" cried she. "Wenceslas, after giving me his word of honor that he would not go near Madame Marneffe, dined with her last night, and did not come in till a quarter-past one in the morning.—If you only knew! The day before we had had a discussion, not a quarrel, and I had appealed to him so touchingly. I told him I was jealous, that I should die if he were unfaithful; that I was easily suspicious, but that he ought to have some consideration for my weaknesses, as they came of my love for him; that I had my father's blood in my veins as well as yours; that at the first moment of such discovery I should be mad, and capable of mad deeds—of avenging myself—of dishonoring us all, him, his child, and myself; that I might even kill him first and myself after—and so on.
"And yet he went there; he is there!—That woman is bent on breaking all our hearts! Only yesterday my brother and Celestine pledged their all to pay off seventy thousand francs on notes of hand signed for that good-for-nothing creature.—Yes, mamma, my father would have been arrested and put into prison. Cannot that dreadful woman be content with having my father, and with all your tears? Why take my Wenceslas?—I will go to see her and stab her!"
Madame Hulot, struck to the heart by the dreadful secrets Hortense was unwittingly letting out, controlled her grief by one of the heroic efforts which a magnanimous mother can make, and drew her daughter's head on to her bosom to cover it with kisses.
"Wait for Wenceslas, my child; all will be explained. The evil cannot be so great as you picture it!—I, too, have been deceived, my dear Hortense; you think me handsome, I have lived blameless; and yet I have been utterly forsaken for three-and-twenty years—for a Jenny Cadine, a Josepha, a Madame Marneffe!—Did you know that?"
"You, mamma, you! You have endured this for twenty——"
She broke off, staggered by her own thoughts.
"Do as I have done, my child," said her mother. "Be gentle and kind, and your conscience will be at peace. On his death-bed a man may say, 'My wife has never cost me a pang!' And God, who hears that dying breath, credits it to us. If I had abandoned myself to fury like you, what would have happened? Your father would have been embittered, perhaps he would have left me altogether, and he would not have been withheld by any fear of paining me. Our ruin, utter as it now is, would have been complete ten years sooner, and we should have shown the world the spectacle of a husband and wife living quite apart—a scandal of the most horrible, heart-breaking kind, for it is the destruction of the family. Neither your brother nor you could have married.
"I sacrificed myself, and that so bravely, that, till this last connection of your father's, the world has believed me happy. My serviceable and indeed courageous falsehood has, till now, screened Hector; he is still respected; but this old man's passion is taking him too far, that I see. His own folly, I fear, will break through the veil I have kept between the world and our home. However, I have held that curtain steady for twenty-three years, and have wept behind it—motherless, I, without a friend to trust, with no help but in religion—I have for twenty-three years secured the family honor——"
Hortense listened with a fixed gaze. The calm tone of resignation and of such crowning sorrow soothed the smart of her first wound; the tears rose again and flowed in torrents. In a frenzy of filial affection, overcome by her mother's noble heroism, she fell on her knees before Adeline, took up the hem of her dress and kissed it, as pious Catholics kiss the holy relics of a martyr.
"Nay, get up, Hortense," said the Baroness. "Such homage from my daughter wipes out many sad memories. Come to my heart, and weep for no sorrows but your own. It is the despair of my dear little girl, whose joy was my only joy, that broke the solemn seal which nothing ought to have removed from my lips. Indeed, I meant to have taken my woes to the tomb, as a shroud the more. It was to soothe your anguish that I spoke.—God will forgive me!
"Oh! if my life were to be your life, what would I not do? Men, the world, Fate, Nature, God Himself, I believe, make us pay for love with the most cruel grief. I must pay for ten years of happiness and twenty-four years of despair, of ceaseless sorrow, of bitterness—"
"But you had ten years, dear mamma, and I have had but three!" said the self-absorbed girl.
"Nothing is lost yet," said Adeline. "Only wait till Wenceslas comes."
"Mother," said she, "he lied, he deceived me. He said, 'I will not go,' and he went. And that over his child's cradle."
"For pleasure, my child, men will commit the most cowardly, the most infamous actions—even crimes; it lies in their nature, it would seem. We wives are set apart for sacrifice. I believed my troubles were ended, and they are beginning again, for I never thought to suffer doubly by suffering with my child. Courage—and silence!—My Hortense, swear that you will never discuss your griefs with anybody but me, never let them be suspected by any third person. Oh! be as proud as your mother has been."
Hortense started; she had heard her husband's step.
"So it would seem," said Wenceslas, as he came in, "that Stidmann has been here while I went to see him."
"Indeed!" said Hortense, with the angry irony of an offended woman who uses words to stab.
"Certainly," said Wenceslas, affecting surprise. "We have just met."
"Well, yesterday I deceived you, my darling love; and your mother shall judge between us."
This candor unlocked his wife's heart. All really lofty women like the truth better than lies. They cannot bear to see their idol smirched; they want to be proud of the despotism they bow to.
There is a strain of this feeling in the devotion of the Russians to their Czar.
"Now, listen, dear mother," Wenceslas went on. "I so truly love my sweet and kind Hortense, that I concealed from her the extent of our poverty. What could I do? She was still nursing the boy, and such troubles would have done her harm; you know what the risk is for a woman. Her beauty, youth, and health are imperiled. Did I do wrong?—She believes that we owe five thousand francs; but I owe five thousand more. The day before yesterday we were in the depths! No one on earth will lend to us artists. Our talents are not less untrustworthy than our whims. I knocked in vain at every door. Lisbeth, indeed, offered us her savings."
"Poor soul!" said Hortense.
"Poor soul!" said the Baroness.
"But what are Lisbeth's two thousand francs? Everything to her, nothing to us.—Then, as you know, Hortense, she spoke to us of Madame Marneffe, who, as she owes so much to the Baron, out of a sense of honor, will take no interest. Hortense wanted to send her diamonds to the Mont-de-Piete; they would have brought in a few thousand francs, but we needed ten thousand. Those ten thousand francs were to be had free of interest for a year!—I said to myself, 'Hortense will be none the wiser; I will go and get them.'
"Then the woman asked me to dinner through my father-in-law, giving me to understand that Lisbeth had spoken of the matter, and I should have the money. Between Hortense's despair on one hand, and the dinner on the other, I could not hesitate.—That is all.
"What! could Hortense, at four-and-twenty, lovely, pure, and virtuous, and all my pride and glory, imagine that, when I have never left her since we married, I could now prefer—what?—a tawny, painted, ruddled creature?" said he, using the vulgar exaggeration of the studio to convince his wife by the vehemence that women like.
"Oh! if only your father had ever spoken so——!" cried the Baroness.
Hortense threw her arms round her husband's neck.
"Yes, that is what I should have done," said her mother. "Wenceslas, my dear fellow, your wife was near dying of it," she went on very seriously. "You see how well she loves you. And, alas—she is yours!"
She sighed deeply.
"He may make a martyr of her, or a happy woman," thought she to herself, as every mother thinks when she sees her daughter married.—"It seems to me," she said aloud, "that I am miserable enough to hope to see my children happy."
"Be quite easy, dear mamma," said Wenceslas, only too glad to see this critical moment end happily. "In two months I shall have repaid that dreadful woman. How could I help it," he went on, repeating this essentially Polish excuse with a Pole's grace; "there are times when a man would borrow of the Devil.—And, after all, the money belongs to the family. When once she had invited me, should I have got the money at all if I had responded to her civility with a rude refusal?"
"Oh, mamma, what mischief papa is bringing on us!" cried Hortense.
The Baroness laid her finger on her daughter's lips, aggrieved by this complaint, the first blame she had ever uttered of a father so heroically screened by her mother's magnanimous silence.
"Now, good-bye, my children," said Madame Hulot. "The storm is over. But do not quarrel any more."
When Wenceslas and his wife returned to their room after letting out the Baroness, Hortense said to her husband:
"Tell me all about last evening."
And she watched his face all through the narrative, interrupting him by the questions that crowd on a wife's mind in such circumstances. The story made Hortense reflect; she had a glimpse of the infernal dissipation which an artist must find in such vicious company.
"Be honest, my Wenceslas; Stidmann was there, Claude Vignon, Vernisset.—Who else? In short, it was good fun?"
"I, I was thinking of nothing but our ten thousand francs, and I was saying to myself, 'My Hortense will be freed from anxiety.'"
This catechism bored the Livonian excessively; he seized a gayer moment to say:
"And you, my dearest, what would you have done if your artist had proved guilty?"
"I," said she, with an air of prompt decision, "I should have taken up Stidmann—not that I love him, of course!"
"Hortense!" cried Steinbock, starting to his feet with a sudden and theatrical emphasis. "You would not have had the chance—I would have killed you!"
Hortense threw herself into his arms, clasping him closely enough to stifle him, and covered him with kisses, saying:
"Ah, you do love me! I fear nothing!—But no more Marneffe. Never go plunging into such horrible bogs."
"I swear to you, my dear Hortense, that I will go there no more, excepting to redeem my note of hand."
She pouted at this, but only as a loving woman sulks to get something for it. Wenceslas, tired out with such a morning's work, went off to his studio to make a clay sketch of the Samson and Delilah, for which he had the drawings in his pocket.
Hortense, penitent for her little temper, and fancying that her husband was annoyed with her, went to the studio just as the sculptor had finished handling the clay with the impetuosity that spurs an artist when the mood is on him. On seeing his wife, Wenceslas hastily threw the wet wrapper over the group, and putting both arms round her, he said:
"We were not really angry, were we, my pretty puss?"
Hortense had caught sight of the group, had seen the linen thrown over it, and had said nothing; but as she was leaving, she took off the rag, looked at the model, and asked:
"What is that?"
"A group for which I had just had an idea."
"And why did you hide it?"
"I did not mean you to see it till it was finished."
"The woman is very pretty," said Hortense.
And a thousand suspicions cropped up in her mind, as, in India, tall, rank plants spring up in a night-time.
By the end of three weeks, Madame Marneffe was intensely irritated by Hortense. Women of that stamp have a pride of their own; they insist that men shall kiss the devil's hoof; they have no forgiveness for the virtue that does not quail before their dominion, or that even holds its own against them. Now, in all that time Wenceslas had not paid one visit in the Rue Vanneau, not even that which politeness required to a woman who had sat for Delilah.
Whenever Lisbeth called on the Steinbocks, there had been nobody at home. Monsieur and madame lived in the studio. Lisbeth, following the turtle doves to their nest at le Gros-Caillou, found Wenceslas hard at work, and was informed by the cook that madame never left monsieur's side. Wenceslas was a slave to the autocracy of love. So now Valerie, on her own account, took part with Lisbeth in her hatred of Hortense.
Women cling to a lover that another woman is fighting for, just as much as men do to women round whom many coxcombs are buzzing. Thus any reflections a propos to Madame Marneffe are equally applicable to any lady-killing rake; he is, in fact, a sort of male courtesan. Valerie's last fancy was a madness; above all, she was bent on getting her group; she was even thinking of going one morning to the studio to see Wenceslas, when a serious incident arose of the kind which, to a woman of that class, may be called the spoil of war.
This is how Valerie announced this wholly personal event.
She was breakfasting with Lisbeth and her husband.
"I say, Marneffe, what would you say to being a second time a father?"
"You don't mean it—a baby?—Oh, let me kiss you!"
He rose and went round the table; his wife held up her head so that he could just kiss her hair.
"If that is so," he went on, "I am head-clerk and officer of the Legion of Honor at once. But you must understand, my dear, Stanislas is not to be the sufferer, poor little man."
"Poor little man?" Lisbeth put in. "You have not set your eyes on him these seven months. I am supposed to be his mother at the school; I am the only person in the house who takes any trouble about him."
"A brat that costs us a hundred crowns a quarter!" said Valerie. "And he, at any rate, is your own child, Marneffe. You ought to pay for his schooling out of your salary.—The newcomer, far from reminding us of butcher's bills, will rescue us from want."
"Valerie," replied Marneffe, assuming an attitude like Crevel, "I hope that Monsieur le Baron Hulot will take proper charge of his son, and not lay the burden on a poor clerk. I intend to keep him well up to the mark. So take the necessary steps, madame! Get him to write you letters in which he alludes to his satisfaction, for he is rather backward in coming forward in regard to my appointment."
And Marneffe went away to the office, where his chief's precious leniency allowed him to come in at about eleven o'clock. And, indeed, he did little enough, for his incapacity was notorious, and he detested work.
No sooner were they alone than Lisbeth and Valerie looked at each other for a moment like Augurs, and both together burst into a loud fit of laughter.
"I say, Valerie—is it the fact?" said Lisbeth, "or merely a farce?"
"It is a physical fact!" replied Valerie. "Now, I am sick and tired of Hortense; and it occurred to me in the night that I might fire this infant, like a bomb, into the Steinbock household."
Valerie went back to her room, followed by Lisbeth, to whom she showed the following letter:—
"WENCESLAS MY DEAR,—I still believe in your love, though it is
nearly three weeks since I saw you. Is this scorn? Delilah can
scarcely believe that. Does it not rather result from the tyranny
of a woman whom, as you told me, you can no longer love?
Wenceslas, you are too great an artist to submit to such dominion.
Home is the grave of glory.—Consider now, are you the Wenceslas
of the Rue du Doyenne? You missed fire with my father's statue;
but in you the lover is greater than the artist, and you have had
better luck with his daughter. You are a father, my beloved
"If you do not come to me in the state I am in, your friends would
think very badly of you. But I love you so madly, that I feel I
should never have the strength to curse you. May I sign myself as
"What do you say to my scheme for sending this note to the studio at a time when our dear Hortense is there by herself?" asked Valerie. "Last evening I heard from Stidmann that Wenceslas is to pick him up at eleven this morning to go on business to Chanor's; so that gawk Hortense will be there alone."
"But after such a trick as that," replied Lisbeth, "I cannot continue to be your friend in the eyes of the world; I shall have to break with you, to be supposed never to visit you, or even to speak to you."
"Evidently," said Valerie; "but—"
"Oh! be quite easy," interrupted Lisbeth; "we shall often meet when I am Madame la Marechale. They are all set upon it now. Only the Baron is in ignorance of the plan, but you can talk him over."
"Well," said Valerie, "but it is quite likely that the Baron and I may be on distant terms before long."
"Madame Olivier is the only person who can make Hortense demand to see the letter," said Lisbeth. "And you must send her to the Rue Saint-Dominique before she goes on to the studio."
"Our beauty will be at home, no doubt," said Valerie, ringing for Reine to call up Madame Olivier.
Ten minutes after the despatch of this fateful letter, Baron Hulot arrived. Madame Marneffe threw her arms round the old man's neck with kittenish impetuosity.
"Hector, you are a father!" she said in his ear. "That is what comes of quarreling and making friends again——"
Perceiving a look of surprise, which the Baron did not at once conceal, Valerie assumed a reserve which brought the old man to despair. She made him wring the proofs from her one by one. When conviction, led on by vanity, had at last entered his mind, she enlarged on Monsieur Marneffe's wrath.
"My dear old veteran," said she, "you can hardly avoid getting your responsible editor, our representative partner if you like, appointed head-clerk and officer of the Legion of Honor, for you really have done for the poor man, he adores his Stanislas, the little monstrosity who is so like him, that to me he is insufferable. Unless you prefer to settle twelve hundred francs a year on Stanislas—the capital to be his, and the life-interest payable to me, of course—"
"But if I am to settle securities, I would rather it should be on my own son, and not on the monstrosity," said the Baron.
This rash speech, in which the words "my own son" came out as full as a river in flood, was, by the end of the hour, ratified as a formal promise to settle twelve hundred francs a year on the future boy. And this promise became, on Valerie's tongue and in her countenance, what a drum is in the hands of a child; for three weeks she played on it incessantly.
At the moment when Baron Hulot was leaving the Rue Vanneau, as happy as a man who after a year of married life still desires an heir, Madame Olivier had yielded to Hortense, and given up the note she was instructed to give only into the Count's own hands. The young wife paid twenty francs for that letter. The wretch who commits suicide must pay for the opium, the pistol, the charcoal.
Hortense read and re-read the note; she saw nothing but this sheet of white paper streaked with black lines; the universe held for her nothing but that paper; everything was dark around her. The glare of the conflagration that was consuming the edifice of her happiness lighted up the page, for blackest night enfolded her. The shouts of her little Wenceslas at play fell on her ear, as if he had been in the depths of a valley and she on a high mountain. Thus insulted at four-and-twenty, in all the splendor of her beauty, enhanced by pure and devoted love—it was not a stab, it was death. The first shock had been merely on the nerves, the physical frame had struggled in the grip of jealousy; but now certainty had seized her soul, her body was unconscious.
For about ten minutes Hortense sat under the incubus of this oppression. Then a vision of her mother appeared before her, and revulsion ensued; she was calm and cool, and mistress of her reason.
"Get Louise to help you, child," said she to the cook. "As quickly as you can, pack up everything that belongs to me and everything wanted for the little boy. I give you an hour. When all is ready, fetch a hackney coach from the stand, and call me.
"Make no remarks! I am leaving the house, and shall take Louise with me. You must stay here with monsieur; take good care of him——"
She went into her room, and wrote the following letter:—
"MONSIEUR LE COMTE,—
"The letter I enclose will sufficiently account for the
determination I have come to.
"When you read this, I shall have left your house and have found
refuge with my mother, taking our child with me.
"Do not imagine that I shall retrace my steps. Do not imagine that
I am acting with the rash haste of youth, without reflection, with
the anger of offended affection; you will be greatly mistaken.
"I have been thinking very deeply during the last fortnight of
life, of love, of our marriage, of our duties to each other. I
have known the perfect devotion of my mother; she has told me all
her sorrows! She has been heroical—every day for twenty-three
years. But I have not the strength to imitate her, not because I
love you less than she loves my father, but for reasons of spirit
and nature. Our home would be a hell; I might lose my head so far
as to disgrace you—disgrace myself and our child.
"I refuse to be a Madame Marneffe; once launched on such a course,
a woman of my temper might not, perhaps, be able to stop. I am,
unfortunately for myself, a Hulot, not a Fischer.
"Alone, and absent from the scene of your dissipations, I am sure
of myself, especially with my child to occupy me, and by the side
of a strong and noble mother, whose life cannot fail to influence
the vehement impetuousness of my feelings. There, I can be a good
mother, bring our boy up well, and live. Under your roof the wife
would oust the mother; and constant contention would sour my
"I can accept a death-blow, but I will not endure for
twenty-five years, like my mother. If, at the end of three years of
perfect, unwavering love, you can be unfaithful to me with your
father-in-law's mistress, what rivals may I expect to have in later
years? Indeed, monsieur, you have begun your career of profligacy
much earlier than my father did, the life of dissipation, which is
a disgrace to the father of a family, which undermines the respect
of his children, and which ends in shame and despair.
"I am not unforgiving. Unrelenting feelings do not beseem erring
creatures living under the eye of God. If you win fame and fortune
by sustained work, if you have nothing to do with courtesans and
ignoble, defiling ways, you will find me still a wife worthy of
"I believe you to be too much a gentleman, Monsieur le Comte, to
have recourse to the law. You will respect my wishes, and leave me
under my mother's roof. Above all, never let me see you there. I
have left all the money lent to you by that odious woman.—
This letter was written in anguish. Hortense abandoned herself to the tears, the outcries of murdered love. She laid down her pen and took it up again, to express as simply as possible all that passion commonly proclaims in this sort of testamentary letter. Her heart went forth in exclamations, wailing and weeping; but reason dictated the words.
Informed by Louise that all was ready, the young wife slowly went round the little garden, through the bedroom and drawing-room, looking at everything for the last time. Then she earnestly enjoined the cook to take the greatest care for her master's comfort, promising to reward her handsomely if she would be honest. At last she got into the hackney coach to drive to her mother's house, her heart quite broken, crying so much as to distress the maid, and covering little Wenceslas with kisses, which betrayed her still unfailing love for his father.
The Baroness knew already from Lisbeth that the father-in-law was largely to blame for the son-in-law's fault; nor was she surprised to see her daughter, whose conduct she approved, and she consented to give her shelter. Adeline, perceiving that her own gentleness and patience had never checked Hector, for whom her respect was indeed fast diminishing, thought her daughter very right to adopt another course.
In three weeks the poor mother had suffered two wounds of which the pain was greater than any ill-fortune she had hitherto endured. The Baron had placed Victorin and his wife in great difficulties; and then, by Lisbeth's account, he was the cause of his son-in-law's misconduct, and had corrupted Wenceslas. The dignity of the father of the family, so long upheld by her really foolish self-sacrifice, was now overthrown. Though they did not regret the money the young Hulots were full alike of doubts and uneasiness as regarded the Baron. This sentiment, which was evidence enough, distressed the Baroness; she foresaw a break-up of the family tie.
Hortense was accommodated in the dining-room, arranged as a bedroom with the help of the Marshal's money, and the anteroom became the dining-room, as it is in many apartments.
When Wenceslas returned home and had read the two letters, he felt a kind of gladness mingled with regret. Kept so constantly under his wife's eye, so to speak, he had inwardly rebelled against this fresh thraldom, a la Lisbeth. Full fed with love for three years past, he too had been reflecting during the last fortnight; and he found a family heavy on his hands. He had just been congratulated by Stidmann on the passion he had inspired in Valerie; for Stidmann, with an under-thought that was not unnatural, saw that he might flatter the husband's vanity in the hope of consoling the victim. And Wenceslas was glad to be able to return to Madame Marneffe.
Still, he remembered the pure and unsullied happiness he had known, the perfections of his wife, her judgment, her innocent and guileless affection,—and he regretted her acutely. He thought of going at once to his mother-in-law's to crave forgiveness; but, in fact, like Hulot and Crevel, he went to Madame Marneffe, to whom he carried his wife's letter to show her what a disaster she had caused, and to discount his misfortune, so to speak, by claiming in return the pleasures his mistress could give him.
He found Crevel with Valerie. The mayor, puffed up with pride, marched up and down the room, agitated by a storm of feelings. He put himself into position as if he were about to speak, but he dared not. His countenance was beaming, and he went now and again to the window, where he drummed on the pane with his fingers. He kept looking at Valerie with a glance of tender pathos. Happily for him, Lisbeth presently came in.
"Cousin Betty," he said in her ear, "have you heard the news? I am a father! It seems to me I love my poor Celestine the less.—Oh! what a thing it is to have a child by the woman one idolizes! It is the fatherhood of the heart added to that of the flesh! I say—tell Valerie that I will work for that child—it shall be rich. She tells me she has some reason for believing that it will be a boy! If it is a boy, I shall insist on his being called Crevel. I will consult my notary about it."
"I know how much she loves you," said Lisbeth. "But for her sake in the future, and for your own, control yourself. Do not rub your hands every five minutes."
While Lisbeth was speaking aside on this wise to Crevel, Valerie had asked Wenceslas to give her back her letter, and she was saying things that dispelled all his griefs.
"So now you are free, my dear," said she. "Ought any great artist to marry? You live only by fancy and freedom! There, I shall love you so much, beloved poet, that you shall never regret your wife. At the same time, if, like so many people, you want to keep up appearances, I undertake to bring Hortense back to you in a very short time."
"Oh, if only that were possible!"
"I am certain of it," said Valerie, nettled. "Your poor father-in-law is a man who is in every way utterly done for; who wants to appear as though he could be loved, out of conceit, and to make the world believe that he has a mistress; and he is so excessively vain on this point, that I can do what I please with him. The Baroness is still so devoted to her old Hector—I always feel as if I were talking of the Iliad—that these two old folks will contrive to patch up matters between you and Hortense. Only, if you want to avoid storms at home for the future, do not leave me for three weeks without coming to see your mistress—I was dying of it. My dear boy, some consideration is due from a gentleman to a woman he has so deeply compromised, especially when, as in my case, she has to be very careful of her reputation.
"Stay to dinner, my darling—and remember that I must treat you with all the more apparent coldness because you are guilty of this too obvious mishap."
Baron Montes was presently announced; Valerie rose and hurried forward to meet him; she spoke a few sentences in his ear, enjoining on him the same reserve as she had impressed on Wenceslas; the Brazilian assumed a diplomatic reticence suitable to the great news which filled him with delight, for he, at any rate was sure of his paternity.
Thanks to these tactics, based on the vanity of the man in the lover stage of his existence, Valerie sat down to table with four men, all pleased and eager to please, all charmed, and each believing himself adored; called by Marneffe, who included himself, in speaking to Lisbeth, the five Fathers of the Church.
Baron Hulot alone at first showed an anxious countenance, and this was why. Just as he was leaving the office, the head of the staff of clerks had come to his private room—a General with whom he had served for thirty years—and Hulot had spoken to him as to appointing Marneffe to Coquet's place, Coquet having consented to retire.
"My dear fellow," said he, "I would not ask this favor of the Prince without our having agreed on the matter, and knowing that you approved."
"My good friend," replied the other, "you must allow me to observe that, for your own sake, you should not insist on this nomination. I have already told you my opinion. There would be a scandal in the office, where there is a great deal too much talk already about you and Madame Marneffe. This, of course, is between ourselves. I have no wish to touch you on a sensitive spot, or disoblige you in any way, and I will prove it. If you are determined to get Monsieur Coquet's place, and he will really be a loss in the War Office, for he has been here since 1809, I will go into the country for a fortnight, so as to leave the field open between you and the Marshal, who loves you as a son. Then I shall take neither part, and shall have nothing on my conscience as an administrator."
"Thank you very much," said Hulot. "I will reflect on what you have said."
"In allowing myself to say so much, my dear friend, it is because your personal interest is far more deeply implicated than any concern or vanity of mine. In the first place, the matter lies entirely with the Marshal. And then, my good fellow, we are blamed for so many things, that one more or less! We are not at the maiden stage in our experience of fault-finding. Under the Restoration, men were put in simply to give them places, without any regard for the office.—We are old friends——"
"Yes," the Baron put in; "and it is in order not to impair our old and valued friendship that I—"
"Well, well," said the departmental manager, seeing Hulot's face clouded with embarrassment, "I will take myself off, old fellow.—But I warn you! you have enemies—that is to say, men who covet your splendid appointment, and you have but one anchor out. Now if, like me, you were a Deputy, you would have nothing to fear; so mind what you are about."
This speech, in the most friendly spirit, made a deep impression on the Councillor of State.
"But, after all, Roger, what is it that is wrong? Do not make any mysteries with me."
The individual addressed as Roger looked at Hulot, took his hand, and pressed it.
"We are such old friends, that I am bound to give you warning. If you want to keep your place, you must make a bed for yourself, and instead of asking the Marshal to give Coquet's place to Marneffe, in your place I would beg him to use his influence to reserve a seat for me on the General Council of State; there you may die in peace, and, like the beaver, abandon all else to the pursuers."
"What, do you think the Marshal would forget—"
"The Marshal has already taken your part so warmly at a General Meeting of the Ministers, that you will not now be turned out; but it was seriously discussed! So give them no excuse. I can say no more. At this moment you may make your own terms; you may sit on the Council of State and be made a Peer of the Chamber. If you delay too long, if you give any one a hold against you, I can answer for nothing.—Now, am I to go?"
"Wait a little. I will see the Marshal," replied Hulot, "and I will send my brother to see which way the wind blows at headquarters."
The humor in which the Baron came back to Madame Marneffe's may be imagined; he had almost forgotten his fatherhood, for Roger had taken the part of a true and kind friend in explaining the position. At the same time Valerie's influence was so great that, by the middle of dinner, the Baron was tuned up to the pitch, and was all the more cheerful for having unwonted anxieties to conceal; but the hapless man was not yet aware that in the course of that evening he would find himself in a cleft stick, between his happiness and the danger pointed out by his friend—compelled, in short, to choose between Madame Marneffe and his official position.
At eleven o'clock, when the evening was at its gayest, for the room was full of company, Valerie drew Hector into a corner of her sofa.
"My dear old boy," said she, "your daughter is so annoyed at knowing that Wenceslas comes here, that she has left him 'planted.' Hortense is wrong-headed. Ask Wenceslas to show you the letter the little fool has written to him.
"This division of two lovers, of which I am reputed to be the cause, may do me the greatest harm, for this is how virtuous women undermine each other. It is disgraceful to pose as a victim in order to cast the blame on a woman whose only crime is that she keeps a pleasant house. If you love me, you will clear my character by reconciling the sweet turtle-doves.
"I do not in the least care about your son-in-law's visits; you brought him here—take him away again! If you have any authority in your family, it seems to me that you may very well insist on your wife's patching up this squabble. Tell the worthy old lady from me, that if I am unjustly charged with having caused a young couple to quarrel, with upsetting the unity of a family, and annexing both the father and the son-in-law, I will deserve my reputation by annoying them in my own way! Why, here is Lisbeth talking of throwing me over! She prefers to stick to her family, and I cannot blame her for it. She will throw me over, says she, unless the young people make friends again. A pretty state of things! Our expenses here will be trebled!"
"Oh, as for that!" said the Baron, on hearing of his daughter's strong measures, "I will have no nonsense of that kind."
"Very well," said Valerie. "And now for the next thing.—What about Coquet's place?"
"That," said Hector, looking away, "is more difficult, not to say impossible."
"Impossible, my dear Hector?" said Madame Marneffe in the Baron's ear. "But you do not know to what lengths Marneffe will go. I am completely in his power; he is immoral for his own gratification, like most men, but he is excessively vindictive, like all weak and impotent natures. In the position to which you have reduced me, I am in his power. I am bound to be on terms with him for a few days, and he is quite capable of refusing to leave my room any more."
Hulot started with horror.
"He would leave me alone on condition of being head-clerk. It is abominable—but logical."
"Valerie, do you love me?"
"In the state in which I am, my dear, the question is the meanest insult."
"Well, then—if I were to attempt, merely to attempt, to ask the Prince for a place for Marneffe, I should be done for, and Marneffe would be turned out."
"I thought that you and the Prince were such intimate friends."
"We are, and he has amply proved it; but, my child, there is authority above the Marshal's—for instance, the whole Council of Ministers. With time and a little tacking, we shall get there. But, to succeed, I must wait till the moment when some service is required of me. Then I can say one good turn deserves another—"
"If I tell Marneffe this tale, my poor Hector, he will play us some mean trick. You must tell him yourself that he has to wait. I will not undertake to do so. Oh! I know what my fate would be. He knows how to punish me! He will henceforth share my room——
"Do not forget to settle the twelve hundred francs a year on the little one!"
Hulot, seeing his pleasures in danger, took Monsieur Marneffe aside, and for the first time derogated from the haughty tone he had always assumed towards him, so greatly was he horrified by the thought of that half-dead creature in his pretty young wife's bedroom.
"Marneffe, my dear fellow," said he, "I have been talking of you to-day. But you cannot be promoted to the first class just yet. We must have time."
"I will be, Monsieur le Baron," said Marneffe shortly.
"But, my dear fellow—"
"I will be, Monsieur le Baron," Marneffe coldly repeated, looking alternately at the Baron and at Valerie. "You have placed my wife in a position that necessitates her making up her differences with me, and I mean to keep her; for, my dear fellow, she is a charming creature," he added, with crushing irony. "I am master here—more than you are at the War Office."
The Baron felt one of those pangs of fury which have the effect, in the heart, of a fit of raging toothache, and he could hardly conceal the tears in his eyes.
During this little scene, Valerie had been explaining Marneffe's imaginary determination to Montes, and thus had rid herself of him for a time.
Of her four adherents, Crevel alone was exempted from the rule—Crevel, the master of the little "bijou" apartment; and he displayed on his countenance an air of really insolent beatitude, notwithstanding the wordless reproofs administered by Valerie in frowns and meaning grimaces. His triumphant paternity beamed in every feature.
When Valerie was whispering a word of correction in his ear, he snatched her hand, and put in:
"To-morrow, my Duchess, you shall have your own little house! The papers are to be signed to-morrow."
"And the furniture?" said she, with a smile.
"I have a thousand shares in the Versailles rive gauche railway. I bought them at twenty-five, and they will go up to three hundred in consequence of the amalgamation of the two lines, which is a secret told to me. You shall have furniture fit for a queen. But then you will be mine alone henceforth?"
"Yes, burly Maire," said this middle-class Madame de Merteuil. "But behave yourself; respect the future Madame Crevel."
"My dear cousin," Lisbeth was saying to the Baron, "I shall go to see Adeline early to-morrow; for, as you must see, I cannot, with any decency, remain here. I will go and keep house for your brother the Marshal."
"I am going home this evening," said Hulot.
"Very well, you will see me at breakfast to-morrow," said Lisbeth, smiling.
She understood that her presence would be necessary at the family scene that would take place on the morrow. And the very first thing in the morning she went to see Victorin and to tell him that Hortense and Wenceslas had parted.
When the Baron went home at half-past ten, Mariette and Louise, who had had a hard day, were locking up the apartment. Hulot had not to ring.
Very much put out at this compulsory virtue, the husband went straight to his wife's room, and through the half-open door he saw her kneeling before her Crucifix, absorbed in prayer, in one of those attitudes which make the fortune of the painter or the sculptor who is so happy to invent and then to express them. Adeline, carried away by her enthusiasm, was praying aloud:
"O God, have mercy and enlighten him!"
The Baroness was praying for her Hector.
At this sight, so unlike what he had just left, and on hearing this petition founded on the events of the day, the Baron heaved a sigh of deep emotion. Adeline looked round, her face drowned in tears. She was so convinced that her prayer had been heard, that, with one spring, she threw her arms round Hector with the impetuosity of happy affection. Adeline had given up all a wife's instincts; sorrow had effaced even the memory of them. No feeling survived in her but those of motherhood, of the family honor, and the pure attachment of a Christian wife for a husband who has gone astray—the saintly tenderness which survives all else in a woman's soul.
"Hector!" she said, "are you come back to us? Has God taken pity on our family?"
"Dear Adeline," replied the Baron, coming in and seating his wife by his side on a couch, "you are the saintliest creature I ever knew; I have long known myself to be unworthy of you."
"You would have very little to do, my dear," said she, holding Hulot's hand and trembling so violently that it was as though she had a palsy, "very little to set things in order—"
She dared not proceed; she felt that every word would be a reproof, and she did not wish to mar the happiness with which this meeting was inundating her soul.
"It is Hortense who has brought me here," said Hulot. "That child may do us far more harm by her hasty proceeding than my absurd passion for Valerie has ever done. But we will discuss all this to-morrow morning. Hortense is asleep, Mariette tells me; we will not disturb her."
"Yes," said Madame Hulot, suddenly plunged into the depths of grief.
She understood that the Baron's return was prompted not so much by the wish to see his family as by some ulterior interest.
"Leave her in peace till to-morrow," said the mother. "The poor child is in a deplorable condition; she has been crying all day."
At nine the next morning, the Baron, awaiting his daughter, whom he had sent for, was pacing the large, deserted drawing-room, trying to find arguments by which to conquer the most difficult form of obstinacy there is to deal with—that of a young wife, offended and implacable, as blameless youth ever is, in its ignorance of the disgraceful compromises of the world, of its passions and interests.
"Here I am, papa," said Hortense in a tremulous voice, and looking pale from her miseries.
Hulot, sitting down, took his daughter round the waist, and drew her down to sit on his knee.
"Well, my child," said he, kissing her forehead, "so there are troubles at home, and you have been hasty and headstrong? That is not like a well-bred child. My Hortense ought not to have taken such a decisive step as that of leaving her house and deserting her husband on her own account, and without consulting her parents. If my darling girl had come to see her kind and admirable mother, she would not have given me this cruel pain I feel!—You do not know the world; it is malignantly spiteful. People will perhaps say that your husband sent you back to your parents. Children brought up as you were, on your mother's lap, remain artless; maidenly passion like yours for Wenceslas, unfortunately, makes no allowances; it acts on every impulse. The little heart is moved, the head follows suit. You would burn down Paris to be revenged, with no thought of the courts of justice!
"When your old father tells you that you have outraged the proprieties, you may take his word for it.—I say nothing of the cruel pain you have given me. It is bitter, I assure you, for you throw all the blame on a woman of whose heart you know nothing, and whose hostility may become disastrous. And you, alas! so full of guileless innocence and purity, can have no suspicions; but you may be vilified and slandered.—Besides, my darling pet, you have taken a foolish jest too seriously. I can assure you, on my honor, that your husband is blameless. Madame Marneffe—"
So far the Baron, artistically diplomatic, had formulated his remonstrances very judiciously. He had, as may be observed, worked up to the mention of this name with superior skill; and yet Hortense, as she heard it, winced as if stung to the quick.
"Listen to me; I have had great experience, and I have seen much," he went on, stopping his daughter's attempt to speak. "That lady is very cold to your husband. Yes, you have been made the victim of a practical joke, and I will prove it to you. Yesterday Wenceslas was dining with her—"
"Dining with her!" cried the young wife, starting to her feet, and looking at her father with horror in every feature. "Yesterday! After having had my letter! Oh, great God!—Why did I not take the veil rather than marry? But now my life is not my own! I have the child!" and she sobbed.
Her weeping went to Madame Hulot's heart. She came out of her room and ran to her daughter, taking her in her arms, and asking her those questions, stupid with grief, which first rose to her lips.
"Now we have tears," said the Baron to himself, "and all was going so well! What is to be done with women who cry?"
"My child," said the Baroness, "listen to your father! He loves us all—come, come—"
"Come, Hortense, my dear little girl, cry no more, you make yourself too ugly!" said the Baron, "Now, be a little reasonable. Go sensibly home, and I promise you that Wenceslas shall never set foot in that woman's house. I ask you to make the sacrifice, if it is a sacrifice to forgive the husband you love so small a fault. I ask you—for the sake of my gray hairs, and of the love you owe your mother. You do not want to blight my later years with bitterness and regret?"
Hortense fell at her father's feet like a crazed thing, with the vehemence of despair; her hair, loosely pinned up, fell about her, and she held out her hands with an expression that painted her misery.
"Father," she said, "ask my life! Take it if you will, but at least take it pure and spotless, and I will yield it up gladly. Do not ask me to die in dishonor and crime. I am not at all like my husband; I cannot swallow an outrage. If I went back under my husband's roof, I should be capable of smothering him in a fit of jealousy—or of doing worse! Do no exact from me a thing that is beyond my powers. Do not have to mourn for me still living, for the least that can befall me is to go mad. I feel madness close upon me!
"Yesterday, yesterday, he could dine with that woman, after having read my letter?—Are other men made so? My life I give you, but do not let my death be ignominious!—His fault?—A small one! When he has a child by that woman!"
"A child!" cried Hulot, starting back a step or two. "Come. This is really some fooling."
At this juncture Victorin and Lisbeth arrived, and stood dumfounded at the scene. The daughter was prostrate at her father's feet. The Baroness, speechless between her maternal feelings and her conjugal duty, showed a harassed face bathed in tears.
"Lisbeth," said the Baron, seizing his cousin by the hand and pointing to Hortense, "you can help me here. My poor child's brain is turned; she believes that her Wenceslas is Madame Marneffe's lover, while all that Valerie wanted was to have a group by him."
"Delilah!" cried the young wife. "The only thing he has done since our marriage. The man would not work for me or for his son, and he has worked with frenzy for that good-for-nothing creature.—Oh, father, kill me outright, for every word stabs like a knife!"
Lisbeth turned to the Baroness and Victorin, pointing with a pitying shrug to the Baron, who could not see her.
"Listen to me," said she to him. "I had no idea—when you asked me to go to lodge over Madame Marneffe and keep house for her—I had no idea of what she was; but many things may be learned in three years. That creature is a prostitute, and one whose depravity can only be compared with that of her infamous and horrible husband. You are the dupe, my lord pot-boiler, of those people; you will be led further by them than you dream of! I speak plainly, for you are at the bottom of a pit."
The Baroness and her daughter, hearing Lisbeth speak in this style, cast adoring looks at her, such as the devout cast at a Madonna for having saved their life.
"That horrible woman was bent on destroying your son-in-law's home. To what end?—I know not. My brain is not equal to seeing clearly into these dark intrigues—perverse, ignoble, infamous! Your Madame Marneffe does not love your son-in-law, but she will have him at her feet out of revenge. I have just spoken to the wretched woman as she deserves. She is a shameless courtesan; I have told her that I am leaving her house, that I would not have my honor smirched in that muck-heap.—I owe myself to my family before all else.
"I knew that Hortense had left her husband, so here I am. Your Valerie, whom you believe to be a saint, is the cause of this miserable separation; can I remain with such a woman? Our poor little Hortense," said she, touching the Baron's arm, with peculiar meaning, "is perhaps the dupe of a wish of such women as these, who, to possess a toy, would sacrifice a family.
"I do not think Wenceslas guilty; but I think him weak, and I cannot promise that he will not yield to her refinements of temptation.—My mind is made up. The woman is fatal to you; she will bring you all to utter ruin. I will not even seem to be concerned in the destruction of my own family, after living there for three years solely to hinder it.
"You are cheated, Baron; say very positively that you will have nothing to say to the promotion of that dreadful Marneffe, and you will see then! There is a fine rod in pickle for you in that case."
Lisbeth lifted up Hortense and kissed her enthusiastically.
"My dear Hortense, stand firm," she whispered.
The Baroness embraced Lisbeth with the vehemence of a woman who sees herself avenged. The whole family stood in perfect silence round the father, who had wit enough to know what that silence implied. A storm of fury swept across his brow and face with evident signs; the veins swelled, his eyes were bloodshot, his flesh showed patches of color. Adeline fell on her knees before him and seized his hands.
"My dear, forgive, my dear!"
"You loathe me!" cried the Baron—the cry of his conscience.
For we all know the secret of our own wrong-doing. We almost always ascribe to our victims the hateful feelings which must fill them with the hope of revenge; and in spite of every effort of hypocrisy, our tongue or our face makes confession under the rack of some unexpected anguish, as the criminal of old confessed under the hands of the torturer.
"Our children," he went on, to retract the avowal, "turn at last to be our enemies—"
"Father!" Victorin began.
"You dare to interrupt your father!" said the Baron in a voice of thunder, glaring at his son.
"Father, listen to me," Victorin went on in a clear, firm voice, the voice of a puritanical deputy. "I know the respect I owe you too well ever to fail in it, and you will always find me the most respectful and submissive of sons."
Those who are in the habit of attending the sittings of the Chamber will recognize the tactics of parliamentary warfare in these fine-drawn phrases, used to calm the factions while gaining time.
"We are far from being your enemies," his son went on. "I have quarreled with my father-in-law, Monsieur Crevel, for having rescued your notes of hand for sixty thousand francs from Vauvinet, and that money is, beyond doubt, in Madame Marneffe's pocket.—I am not finding fault with you, father," said he, in reply to an impatient gesture of the Baron's; "I simply wish to add my protest to my cousin Lisbeth's, and to point out to you that though my devotion to you as a father is blind and unlimited, my dear father, our pecuniary resources, unfortunately, are very limited."
"Money!" cried the excitable old man, dropping on to a chair, quite crushed by this argument. "From my son!—You shall be repaid your money, sir," said he, rising, and he went to the door.
At this cry the Baron turned round, suddenly showing his wife a face bathed in tears; she threw her arms round him with the strength of despair.
"Do not leave us thus—do not go away in anger. I have not said a word—not I!"
At this heart-wrung speech the children fell at their father's feet.
"We all love you," said Hortense.
Lisbeth, as rigid as a statue, watched the group with a superior smile on her lips. Just then Marshal Hulot's voice was heard in the anteroom. The family all felt the importance of secrecy, and the scene suddenly changed. The young people rose, and every one tried to hide all traces of emotion.
A discussion was going on at the door between Mariette and a soldier, who was so persistent that the cook came in.
"Monsieur, a regimental quartermaster, who says he is just come from Algiers, insists on seeing you."
"Tell him to wait."
"Monsieur," said Mariette to her master in an undertone, "he told me to tell you privately that it has to do with your uncle there."
The Baron started; he believed that the funds had been sent at last which he had been asking for these two months, to pay up his bills; he left the family-party, and hurried out to the anteroom.
"You are Monsieur de Paron Hulot?"
"Your own self?"
"My own self."
The man, who had been fumbling meanwhile in the lining of his cap, drew out a letter, of which the Baron hastily broke the seal, and read as follows:—
"DEAR NEPHEW,—Far from being able to send you the hundred
thousand francs you ask of me, my present position is not tenable
unless you can take some decisive steps to save me. We are saddled
with a public prosecutor who talks goody, and rhodomontades
nonsense about the management. It is impossible to get the
black-chokered pump to hold his tongue. If the War Minister allows
civilians to feed out of his hand, I am done for. I can trust the
bearer; try to get him promoted; he has done us good service. Do
not abandon me to the crows!"
This letter was a thunderbolt; the Baron could read in it the intestine warfare between civil and military authorities, which to this day hampers the Government, and he was required to invent on the spot some palliative for the difficulty that stared him in the face. He desired the soldier to come back next day, dismissing him with splendid promises of promotion, and he returned to the drawing-room. "Good-day and good-bye, brother," said he to the Marshal.—"Good-bye, children.—Good-bye, my dear Adeline.—And what are you going to do, Lisbeth?" he asked.
"I?—I am going to keep house for the Marshal, for I must end my days doing what I can for one or another of you."
"Do not leave Valerie till I have seen you again," said Hulot in his cousin's ear.—"Good-bye, Hortense, refractory little puss; try to be reasonable. I have important business to be attended to at once; we will discuss your reconciliation another time. Now, think it over, my child," said he as he kissed her.
And he went away, so evidently uneasy, that his wife and children felt the gravest apprehensions.
"Lisbeth," said the Baroness, "I must find out what is wrong with Hector; I never saw him in such a state. Stay a day or two longer with that woman; he tells her everything, and we can then learn what has so suddenly upset him. Be quite easy; we will arrange your marriage to the Marshal, for it is really necessary."
"I shall never forget the courage you have shown this morning," said Hortense, embracing Lisbeth.
"You have avenged our poor mother," said Victorin.
The Marshal looked on with curiosity at all the display of affection lavished on Lisbeth, who went off to report the scene to Valerie.