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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesCousin Betty (la Cousine Bette) - Part 10
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Cousin Betty (la Cousine Bette) - Part 10 Post by :bulkmailer007 Category :Long Stories Author :Honore De Balzac Date :May 2012 Read :1978

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Cousin Betty (la Cousine Bette) - Part 10

Valerie opened her astonished eyes, gave such a shriek as actresses use to depict madness on the stage, writhed in convulsions on the bed, like a witch of the Middle Ages in her sulphur-colored frock on a bed of faggots.

"Death, and I am ready! my dear Hector--but a police court?--Oh! never."

With one bound she passed the three spectators and crouched under the little writing-table, hiding her face in her hands.

"Ruin! Death!" she cried.

"Monsieur," said Marneffe to Hulot, "if Madame Marneffe goes mad, you are worse than a profligate; you will be a murderer."

What can a man do, what can he say, when he is discovered in a bed which is not his, even on the score of hiring, with a woman who is no more his than the bed is?--Well, this:

"Monsieur the Justice of the Peace, Monsieur the Police Officer," said the Baron with some dignity, "be good enough to take proper care of that unhappy woman, whose reason seems to me to be in danger.--You can harangue me afterwards. The doors are locked, no doubt; you need not fear that she will get away, or I either, seeing the costume we wear."

The two functionaries bowed to the magnate's injunctions.

"You, come here, miserable cur!" said Hulot in a low voice to Marneffe, taking him by the arm and drawing him closer. "It is not I, but you, who will be the murderer! You want to be head-clerk of your room and officer of the Legion of Honor?"

"That in the first place, Chief!" replied Marneffe, with a bow.

"You shall be all that, only soothe your wife and dismiss these fellows."

"Nay, nay!" said Marneffe knowingly. "These gentlemen must draw up their report as eyewitnesses to the fact; without that, the chief evidence in my case, where should I be? The higher official ranks are chokeful of rascalities. You have done me out of my wife, and you have not promoted me, Monsieur le Baron; I give you only two days to get out of the scrape. Here are some letters--"

"Some letters!" interrupted Hulot.

"Yes; letters which prove that you are the father of the child my wife expects to give birth to.--You understand? And you ought to settle on my son a sum equal to what he will lose through this bastard. But I will be reasonable; this does not distress me, I have no mania for paternity myself. A hundred louis a year will satisfy me. By to-morrow I must be Monsieur Coquet's successor and see my name on the list for promotion in the Legion of Honor at the July fetes, or else--the documentary evidence and my charge against you will be laid before the Bench. I am not so hard to deal with after all, you see."

"Bless me, and such a pretty woman!" said the Justice of the Peace to the police constable. "What a loss to the world if she should go mad!"

"She is not mad," said the constable sententiously. The police is always the incarnation of scepticism.--"Monsieur le Baron Hulot has been caught by a trick," he added, loud enough for Valerie to hear him.

Valerie shot a flash from her eye which would have killed him on the spot if looks could effect the vengeance they express. The police-officer smiled; he had laid a snare, and the woman had fallen into it. Marneffe desired his wife to go into the other room and clothe herself decently, for he and the Baron had come to an agreement on all points, and Hulot fetched his dressing-gown and came out again.

"Gentlemen," said he to the two officials, "I need not impress on you to be secret."

The functionaries bowed.

The police-officer rapped twice on the door; his clerk came in, sat down at the "bonheur-du-jour," and wrote what the constable dictated to him in an undertone. Valerie still wept vehemently. When she was dressed, Hulot went into the other room and put on his clothes. Meanwhile the report was written.

Marneffe then wanted to take his wife home; but Hulot, believing that he saw her for the last time, begged the favor of being allowed to speak with her.

"Monsieur, your wife has cost me dear enough for me to be allowed to say good-bye to her--in the presence of you all, of course."

Valerie went up to Hulot, and he whispered in her ear:

"There is nothing left for us but to fly, but how can we correspond? We have been betrayed--"

"Through Reine," she answered. "But my dear friend, after this scandal we can never meet again. I am disgraced. Besides, you will hear dreadful things about me--you will believe them--"

The Baron made a gesture of denial.

"You will believe them, and I can thank God for that, for then perhaps you will not regret me."

"He will _not die a second-class clerk!" said Marneffe to Hulot, as he led his wife away, saying roughly, "Come, madame; if I am foolish to you, I do not choose to be a fool to others."

Valerie left the house, Crevel's Eden, with a last glance at the Baron, so cunning that he thought she adored him. The Justice of the Peace gave Madame Marneffe his arm to the hackney coach with a flourish of gallantry. The Baron, who was required to witness the report, remained quite bewildered, alone with the police-officer. When the Baron had signed, the officer looked at him keenly, over his glasses.

"You are very sweet on the little lady, Monsieur le Baron?"

"To my sorrow, as you see."

"Suppose that she does not care for you?" the man went on, "that she is deceiving you?"

"I have long known that, monsieur--here, in this very spot, Monsieur Crevel and I told each other----"

"Oh! Then you knew that you were in Monsieur le Maire's private snuggery?"


The constable lightly touched his hat with a respectful gesture.

"You are very much in love," said he. "I say no more. I respect an inveterate passion, as a doctor respects an inveterate complaint.--I saw Monsieur de Nucingen, the banker, attacked in the same way--"

"He is a friend of mine," said the Baron. "Many a time have I supped with his handsome Esther. She was worth the two million francs she cost him."

"And more," said the officer. "That caprice of the old Baron's cost four persons their lives. Oh! such passions as these are like the cholera!"

"What had you to say to me?" asked the Baron, who took this indirect warning very ill.

"Oh! why should I deprive you of your illusions?" replied the officer. "Men rarely have any left at your age!"

"Rid me of them!" cried the Councillor.

"You will curse the physician later," replied the officer, smiling.

"I beg of you, monsieur."

"Well, then, that woman was in collusion with her husband."


"Yes, sir, and so it is in two cases out of every ten. Oh! we know it well."

"What proof have you of such a conspiracy?"

"In the first place, the husband!" said the other, with the calm acumen of a surgeon practised in unbinding wounds. "Mean speculation is stamped in every line of that villainous face. But you, no doubt, set great store by a certain letter written by that woman with regard to the child?"

"So much so, that I always have it about me," replied Hulot, feeling in his breast-pocket for the little pocketbook which he always kept there.

"Leave your pocketbook where it is," said the man, as crushing as a thunder-clap. "Here is the letter.--I now know all I want to know. Madame Marneffe, of course, was aware of what that pocketbook contained?"

"She alone in the world."

"So I supposed.--Now for the proof you asked for of her collusion with her husband."

"Let us hear!" said the Baron, still incredulous.

"When we came in here, Monsieur le Baron, that wretched creature Marneffe led the way, and he took up this letter, which his wife, no doubt, had placed on this writing-table," and he pointed to the _bonheur-du-jour_. "That evidently was the spot agreed upon by the couple, in case she should succeed in stealing the letter while you were asleep; for this letter, as written to you by the lady, is, combined with those you wrote to her, decisive evidence in a police-court."

He showed Hulot the note that Reine had delivered to him in his private room at the office.

"It is one of the documents in the case," said the police-agent; "return it to me, monsieur."

"Well, monsieur," replied Hulot with bitter expression, "that woman is profligacy itself in fixed ratios. I am certain at this moment that she has three lovers."

"That is perfectly evident," said the officer. "Oh, they are not all on the streets! When a woman follows that trade in a carriage and a drawing-room, and her own house, it is not a case for francs and centimes, Monsieur le Baron. Mademoiselle Esther, of whom you spoke, and who poisoned herself, made away with millions.--If you will take my advice, you will get out of it, monsieur. This last little game will have cost you dear. That scoundrel of a husband has the law on his side. And indeed, but for me, that little woman would have caught you again!"

"Thank you, monsieur," said the Baron, trying to maintain his dignity.

"Now we will lock up; the farce is played out, and you can send your key to Monsieur the Mayor."

Hulot went home in a state of dejection bordering on helplessness, and sunk in the gloomiest thoughts. He woke his noble and saintly wife, and poured into her heart the history of the past three years, sobbing like a child deprived of a toy. This confession from an old man young in feeling, this frightful and heart-rending narrative, while it filled Adeline with pity, also gave her the greatest joy; she thanked Heaven for this last catastrophe, for in fancy she saw the husband settled at last in the bosom of his family.

"Lisbeth was right," said Madame Hulot gently and without any useless recrimination, "she told us how it would be."

"Yes. If only I had listened to her, instead of flying into a rage, that day when I wanted poor Hortense to go home rather than compromise the reputation of that--Oh! my dear Adeline, we must save Wenceslas. He is up to his chin in that mire!"

"My poor old man, the respectable middle-classes have turned out no better than the actresses," said Adeline, with a smile.

The Baroness was alarmed at the change in her Hector; when she saw him so unhappy, ailing, crushed under his weight of woes, she was all heart, all pity, all love; she would have shed her blood to make Hulot happy.

"Stay with us, my dear Hector. Tell me what is it that such women do to attract you so powerfully. I too will try. Why have you not taught me to be what you want? Am I deficient in intelligence? Men still think me handsome enough to court my favor."

Many a married woman, attached to her duty and to her husband, may here pause to ask herself why strong and affectionate men, so tender-hearted to the Madame Marneffes, do not take their wives for the object of their fancies and passions, especially wives like the Baronne Adeline Hulot.

This is, indeed, one of the most recondite mysteries of human nature. Love, which is debauch of reason, the strong and austere joy of a lofty soul, and pleasure, the vulgar counterfeit sold in the market-place, are two aspects of the same thing. The woman who can satisfy both these devouring appetites is as rare in her sex as a great general, a great writer, a great artist, a great inventor in a nation. A man of superior intellect or an idiot--a Hulot or a Crevel--equally crave for the ideal and for enjoyment; all alike go in search of the mysterious compound, so rare that at last it is usually found to be a work in two volumes. This craving is a depraved impulse due to society.

Marriage, no doubt, must be accepted as a tie; it is life, with its duties and its stern sacrifices on both parts equally. Libertines, who seek for hidden treasure, are as guilty as other evil-doers who are more hardly dealt with than they. These reflections are not a mere veneer of moralizing; they show the reason of many unexplained misfortunes. But, indeed, this drama points its own moral--or morals, for they are of many kinds.

The Baron presently went to call on the Marshal Prince de Wissembourg, whose powerful patronage was now his only chance. Having dwelt under his protection for five-and-thirty years, he was a visitor at all hours, and would be admitted to his rooms as soon as he was up.

"Ah! How are you, my dear Hector?" said the great and worthy leader. "What is the matter? You look anxious. And yet the session is ended. One more over! I speak of that now as I used to speak of a campaign. And indeed I believe the newspapers nowadays speak of the sessions as parliamentary campaigns."

"We have been in difficulties, I must confess, Marshal; but the times are hard!" said Hulot. "It cannot be helped; the world was made so. Every phase has its own drawbacks. The worst misfortunes in the year 1841 is that neither the King nor the ministers are free to act as Napoleon was."

The Marshal gave Hulot one of those eagle flashes which in its pride, clearness, and perspicacity showed that, in spite of years, that lofty soul was still upright and vigorous.

"You want me to so something for you?" said he, in a hearty tone.

"I find myself under the necessity of applying to you for the promotion of one of my second clerks to the head of a room--as a personal favor to myself--and his advancement to be officer of the Legion of Honor."

"What is his name?" said the Marshal, with a look like a lightning flash.


"He has a pretty wife; I saw her on the occasion of your daughter's marriage.--If Roger--but Roger is away!--Hector, my boy, this is concerned with your pleasures. What, you still indulge--? Well, you are a credit to the old Guard. That is what comes of having been in the Commissariat; you have reserves!--But have nothing to do with this little job, my dear boy; it is too strong of the petticoat to be good business."

"No, Marshal; it is bad business, for the police courts have a finger in it. Would you like to see me go there?"

"The devil!" said the Prince uneasily. "Go on!"

"Well, I am in the predicament of a trapped fox. You have always been so kind to me, that you will, I am sure, condescend to help me out of the shameful position in which I am placed."

Hulot related his misadventures, as wittily and as lightly as he could.

"And you, Prince, will you allow my brother to die of grief, a man you love so well; or leave one of your staff in the War Office, a Councillor of State, to live in disgrace. This Marneffe is a wretched creature; he can be shelved in two or three years."

"How you talk of two or three years, my dear fellow!" said the Marshal.

"But, Prince, the Imperial Guard is immortal."

"I am the last of the first batch of Marshals," said the Prince. "Listen, Hector. You do not know the extent of my attachment to you; you shall see. On the day when I retire from office, we will go together. But you are not a Deputy, my friend. Many men want your place; but for me, you would be out of it by this time. Yes, I have fought many a pitched battle to keep you in it.--Well, I grant you your two requests; it would be too bad to see you riding the bar at your age and in the position you hold. But you stretch your credit a little too far. If this appointment gives rise to discussion, we shall not be held blameless. I can laugh at such things; but you will find it a thorn under your feet. And the next session will see your dismissal. Your place is held out as a bait to five or six influential men, and you have been enabled to keep it solely by the force of my arguments. I tell you, on the day when you retire, there will be five malcontents to one happy man; whereas, by keeping you hanging on by a thread for two or three years, we shall secure all six votes. There was a great laugh at the Council meeting; the Veteran of the Old Guard, as they say, was becoming desperately wide awake in parliamentary tactics! I am frank with you.--And you are growing gray; you are a happy man to be able to get into such difficulties as these! How long is it since I--Lieutenant Cottin--had a mistress?"

He rang the bell.

"That police report must be destroyed," he added.

"Monseigneur, you are as a father to me! I dared not mention my anxiety on that point."

"I still wish I had Roger here," cried the Prince, as Mitouflet, his groom of the chambers, came in. "I was just going to send for him! --You may go, Mitouflet.--Go you, my dear old fellow, go and have the nomination made out; I will sign it. At the same time, that low schemer will not long enjoy the fruit of his crimes. He will be sharply watched, and drummed out of the regiment for the smallest fault.--You are saved this time, my dear Hector; take care for the future. Do not exhaust your friends' patience. You shall have the nomination this morning, and your man shall get his promotion in the Legion of Honor.--How old are you now?"

"Within three months of seventy."

"What a scapegrace!" said the Prince, laughing. "It is you who deserve a promotion, but, by thunder! we are not under Louis XV.!"

Such is the sense of comradeship that binds the glorious survivors of the Napoleonic phalanx, that they always feel as if they were in camp together, and bound to stand together through thick and thin.

"One more favor such as this," Hulot reflected as he crossed the courtyard, "and I am done for!"

The luckless official went to Baron de Nucingen, to whom he now owed a mere trifle, and succeeded in borrowing forty thousand francs, on his salary pledged for two years more; the banker stipulated that in the event of Hulot's retirement on his pension, the whole of it should be devoted to the repayment of the sum borrowed till the capital and interest were all cleared off.

This new bargain, like the first, was made in the name of Vauvinet, to whom the Baron signed notes of hand to the amount of twelve thousand francs.

On the following day, the fateful police report, the husband's charge, the letters--all the papers--were destroyed. The scandalous promotion of Monsieur Marneffe, hardly heeded in the midst of the July fetes, was not commented on in any newspaper.

Lisbeth, to all appearance at war with Madame Marneffe, had taken up her abode with Marshal Hulot. Ten days after these events, the banns of marriage were published between the old maid and the distinguished old officer, to whom, to win his consent, Adeline had related the financial disaster that had befallen her Hector, begging him never to mention it to the Baron, who was, as she said, much saddened, quite depressed and crushed.

"Alas! he is as old as his years," she added.

So Lisbeth had triumphed. She was achieving the object of her ambition, she would see the success of her scheme, and her hatred gratified. She delighted in the anticipated joy of reigning supreme over the family who had so long looked down upon her. Yes, she would patronize her patrons, she would be the rescuing angel who would dole out a livelihood to the ruined family; she addressed herself as "Madame la Comtesse" and "Madame la Marechale," courtesying in front of a glass. Adeline and Hortense should end their days in struggling with poverty, while she, a visitor at the Tuileries, would lord it in the fashionable world.

A terrible disaster overthrew the old maid from the social heights where she so proudly enthroned herself.

On the very day when the banns were first published, the Baron received a second message from Africa. Another Alsatian arrived, handed him a letter, after assuring himself that he spoke to Baron Hulot, and after giving the Baron the address of his lodgings, bowed himself out, leaving the great man stricken by the opening lines of this letter:--

"DEAR NEPHEW,--You will receive this letter, by my calculations, on the 7th of August. Supposing it takes you three days to send us the help we need, and that it is a fortnight on the way here, that brings us to the 1st of September.

"If you can act decisively within that time, you will have saved the honor and the life of yours sincerely, Johann Fischer.

"This is what I am required to demand by the clerk you have made my accomplice; for I am amenable, it would seem, to the law, at the Assizes, or before a council of war. Of course, you understand that Johann Fischer will never be brought to the bar of any tribunal; he will go of his own act to appear at that of God.

"Your clerk seems to me a bad lot, quite capable of getting you into hot water; but he is as clever as any rogue. He says the line for you to take is to call out louder than any one, and to send out an inspector, a special commissioner, to discover who is really guilty, rake up abuses, and make a fuss, in short; but if we stir up the struggle, who will stand between us and the law?

"If your commissioner arrives here by the 1st of September, and you have given him your orders, sending by him two hundred thousand francs to place in our storehouses the supplies we profess to have secured in remote country places, we shall be absolutely solvent and regarded as blameless. You can trust the soldier who is the bearer of this letter with a draft in my name on a house in Algiers. He is a trustworthy fellow, a relation of mine, incapable of trying to find out what he is the bearer of. I have taken measures to guarantee the fellow's safe return. If you can do nothing, I am ready and willing to die for the man to whom we owe our Adeline's happiness!"

The anguish and raptures of passion and the catastrophe which had checked his career of profligacy had prevented Baron Hulot's ever thinking of poor Johann Fischer, though his first letter had given warning of the danger now become so pressing. The Baron went out of the dining-room in such agitation that he literally dropped on to a sofa in the drawing-room. He was stunned, sunk in the dull numbness of a heavy fall. He stared at a flower on the carpet, quite unconscious that he still held in his hand Johann's fatal letter.

Adeline, in her room, heard her husband throw himself on the sofa, like a lifeless mass; the noise was so peculiar that she fancied he had an apoplectic attack. She looked through the door at the mirror, in such dread as stops the breath and hinders motion, and she saw her Hector in the attitude of a man crushed. The Baroness stole in on tiptoe; Hector heard nothing; she went close up to him, saw the letter, took it, read it, trembling in every limb. She went through one of those violent nervous shocks that leave their traces for ever on the sufferer. Within a few days she became subject to a constant trembling, for after the first instant the need for action gave her such strength as can only be drawn from the very wellspring of the vital powers.

"Hector, come into my room," said she, in a voice that was no more than a breath. "Do not let your daughter see you in this state! Come, my dear, come!"

"Two hundred thousand francs? Where can I find them? I can get Claude Vignon sent out there as commissioner. He is a clever, intelligent fellow.--That is a matter of a couple of days.--But two hundred thousand francs! My son has not so much; his house is loaded with mortgages for three hundred thousand. My brother has saved thirty thousand francs at most. Nucingen would simply laugh at me!--Vauvinet? --he was not very ready to lend me the ten thousand francs I wanted to make up the sum for that villain Marneffe's boy. No, it is all up with me; I must throw myself at the Prince's feet, confess how matters stand, hear myself told that I am a low scoundrel, and take his broadside so as to go decently to the bottom."

"But, Hector, this is not merely ruin, it is disgrace," said Adeline. "My poor uncle will kill himself. Only kill us--yourself and me; you have a right to do that, but do not be a murderer! Come, take courage; there must be some way out of it."

"Not one," said Hulot. "No one in the Government could find two hundred thousand francs, not if it were to save an Administration! --Oh, Napoleon! where art thou?"

"My uncle! poor man! Hector, he must not be allowed to kill himself in disgrace."

"There is one more chance," said he, "but a very remote one.--Yes, Crevel is at daggers drawn with his daughter.--He has plenty of money, he alone could--"

"Listen, Hector it will be better for your wife to perish than to leave our uncle to perish--and your brother--the honor of the family!" cried the Baroness, struck by a flash of light. "Yes, I can save you all.--Good God! what a degrading thought! How could it have occurred to me?"

She clasped her hands, dropped on her knees, and put up a prayer. On rising, she saw such a crazy expression of joy on her husband's face, that the diabolical suggestion returned, and then Adeline sank into a sort of idiotic melancholy.

"Go, my dear, at once to the War Office," said she, rousing herself from this torpor; "try to send out a commission; it must be done. Get round the Marshal. And on your return, at five o'clock, you will find --perhaps--yes! you shall find two hundred thousand francs. Your family, your honor as a man, as a State official, a Councillor of State, your honesty--your son--all shall be saved;--but your Adeline will be lost, and you will see her no more. Hector, my dear," said she, kneeling before him, clasping and kissing his hand, "give me your blessing! Say farewell."

It was so heart-rending that Hulot put his arms round his wife, raised her and kissed her, saying:

"I do not understand."

"If you did," said she, "I should die of shame, or I should not have the strength to carry out this last sacrifice."

"Breakfast is served," said Mariette.

Hortense came in to wish her parents good-morning. They had to go to breakfast and assume a false face.

"Begin without me; I will join you," said the Baroness.

She sat down to her desk and wrote as follows:

"MY DEAR MONSIEUR CREVEL,--I have to ask a service of you; I shall expect you this morning, and I count on your gallantry, which is well known to me, to save me from having too long to wait for you. --Your faithful servant,


"Louise," said she to her daughter's maid, who waited on her, "take this note down to the porter and desire him to carry it at once to this address and wait for an answer."

The Baron, who was reading the news, held out a Republican paper to his wife, pointing to an article, and saying:

"Is there time?"

This was the paragraph, one of the terrible "notes" with which the papers spice their political bread and butter:--

"A correspondent in Algiers writes that such abuses have been discovered in the commissariate transactions of the province of Oran, that the Law is making inquiries. The peculation is self-evident, and the guilty persons are known. If severe measures are not taken, we shall continue to lose more men through the extortion that limits their rations than by Arab steel or the fierce heat of the climate. We await further information before enlarging on this deplorable business. We need no longer wonder at the terror caused by the establishment of the Press in Africa, as was contemplated by the Charter of 1830."

"I will dress and go to the Minister," said the Baron, as they rose from table. "Time is precious; a man's life hangs on every minute."

"Oh, mamma, there is no hope for me!" cried Hortense. And unable to check her tears, she handed to her mother a number of the _Revue des Beaux Arts_.

Madame Hulot's eye fell on a print of the group of "Delilah" by Count Steinbock, under which were the words, "The property of Madame Marneffe."

The very first lines of the article, signed V., showed the talent and friendliness of Claude Vignon.

"Poor child!" said the Baroness.

Alarmed by her mother's tone of indifference, Hortense looked up, saw the expression of a sorrow before which her own paled, and rose to kiss her mother, saying:

"What is the matter, mamma? What is happening? Can we be more wretched than we are already?"

"My child, it seems to me that in what I am going through to-day my past dreadful sorrows are as nothing. When shall I have ceased to suffer?"

"In heaven, mother," said Hortense solemnly.

"Come, my angel, help me to dress.--No, no; I will not have you help me in this! Send me Louise."

Adeline, in her room, went to study herself in the glass. She looked at herself closely and sadly, wondering to herself:

"Am I still handsome? Can I still be desirable? Am I not wrinkled?"

She lifted up her fine golden hair, uncovering her temples; they were as fresh as a girl's. She went further; she uncovered her shoulders, and was satisfied; nay, she had a little feeling of pride. The beauty of really handsome shoulders is one of the last charms a woman loses, especially if she has lived chastely.

Adeline chose her dress carefully, but the pious and blameless woman is decent to the end, in spite of her little coquettish graces. Of what use were brand-new gray silk stockings and high heeled satin shoes when she was absolutely ignorant of the art of displaying a pretty foot at a critical moment, by obtruding it an inch or two beyond a half-lifted skirt, opening horizons to desire? She put on, indeed, her prettiest flowered muslin dress, with a low body and short sleeves; but horrified at so much bareness, she covered her fine arms with clear gauze sleeves and hid her shoulders under an embroidered cape. Her curls, _a l'Anglaise_, struck her as too fly-away; she subdued their airy lightness by putting on a very pretty cap; but, with or without the cap, would she have known how to twist the golden ringlets so as to show off her taper fingers to admiration?

As to rouge--the consciousness of guilt, the preparations for a deliberate fall, threw this saintly woman into a state of high fever, which, for the time, revived the brilliant coloring of youth. Her eyes were bright, her cheeks glowed. Instead of assuming a seductive air, she saw in herself a look of barefaced audacity which shocked her.

Lisbeth, at Adeline's request, had told her all the circumstances of Wenceslas' infidelity; and the Baroness had learned to her utter amazement, that in one evening in one moment, Madame Marneffe had made herself the mistress of the bewitched artist.

"How do these women do it?" the Baroness had asked Lisbeth.

There is no curiosity so great as that of virtuous women on such subjects; they would like to know the arts of vice and remain immaculate.

"Why, they are seductive; it is their business," said Cousin Betty. "Valerie that evening, my dear, was, I declare, enough to bring an angel to perdition."

"But tell me how she set to work."

"There is no principle, only practice in that walk of life," said Lisbeth ironically.

The Baroness, recalling this conversation, would have liked to consult Cousin Betty; but there was no time for that. Poor Adeline, incapable of imagining a patch, of pinning a rosebud in the very middle of her bosom, of devising the tricks of the toilet intended to resuscitate the ardors of exhausted nature, was merely well dressed. A woman is not a courtesan for the wishing!

"Woman is soup for man," as Moliere says by the mouth of the judicious Gros-Rene. This comparison suggests a sort of culinary art in love. Then the virtuous wife would be a Homeric meal, flesh laid on hot cinders. The courtesan, on the contrary, is a dish by Careme, with its condiments, spices, and elegant arrangement. The Baroness could not --did not know how to serve up her fair bosom in a lordly dish of lace, after the manner of Madame Marneffe. She knew nothing of the secrets of certain attitudes. This high-souled woman might have turned round and round a hundred times, and she would have betrayed nothing to the keen glance of a profligate.

To be a good woman and a prude to all the world, and a courtesan to her husband, is the gift of a woman of genius, and they are few. This is the secret of long fidelity, inexplicable to the women who are not blessed with the double and splendid faculty. Imagine Madame Marneffe virtuous, and you have the Marchesa di Pescara. But such lofty and illustrious women, beautiful as Diane de Poitiers, but virtuous, may be easily counted.

So the scene with which this serious and terrible drama of Paris manners opened was about to be repeated, with this singular difference --that the calamities prophesied then by the captain of the municipal Militia had reversed the parts. Madame Hulot was awaiting Crevel with the same intentions as had brought him to her, smiling down at the Paris crowd from his _milord_, three years ago. And, strangest thing of all, the Baroness was true to herself and to her love, while preparing to yield to the grossest infidelity, such as the storm of passion even does not justify in the eyes of some judges.

"What can I do to become a Madame Marneffe?" she asked herself as she heard the door-bell.

She restrained her tears, fever gave brilliancy to her face, and she meant to be quite the courtesan, poor, noble soul.

"What the devil can that worthy Baronne Hulot want of me?" Crevel wondered as he mounted the stairs. "She is going to discuss my quarrel with Celestine and Victorin, no doubt; but I will not give way!"

As he went into the drawing-room, shown in by Louise, he said to himself as he noted the bareness of the place (Crevel's word):

"Poor woman! She lives here like some fine picture stowed in a loft by a man who knows nothing of painting."

Crevel, seeing Comte Popinot, the Minister of Commerce, buy pictures and statues, wanted also to figure as a Maecenas of Paris, whose love of Art consists in making good investments.

Adeline smiled graciously at Crevel, pointing to a chair facing her.

"Here I am, fair lady, at your command," said Crevel.

Monsieur the Mayor, a political personage, now wore black broadcloth. His face, at the top of this solemn suit, shone like a full moon rising above a mass of dark clouds. His shirt, buttoned with three large pearls worth five hundred francs apiece, gave a great idea of his thoracic capacity, and he was apt to say, "In me you see the coming athlete of the tribune!" His enormous vulgar hands were encased in yellow gloves even in the morning; his patent leather boots spoke of the chocolate-colored coupe with one horse in which he drove.

In the course of three years ambition had altered Crevel's pretensions. Like all great artists, he had come to his second manner. In the great world, when he went to the Prince de Wissembourg's, to the Prefecture, to Comte Popinot's, and the like, he held his hat in his hand in an airy manner taught him by Valerie, and he inserted the thumb of the other hand in the armhole of his waistcoat with a knowing air, and a simpering face and expression. This new grace of attitude was due to the satirical inventiveness of Valerie, who, under pretence of rejuvenating her mayor, had given him an added touch of the ridiculous.

"I begged you to come, my dear kind Monsieur Crevel," said the Baroness in a husky voice, "on a matter of the greatest importance--"

"I can guess what it is, madame," said Crevel, with a knowing air, "but what you would ask is impossible.--Oh, I am not a brutal father, a man--to use Napoleon's words--set hard and fast on sheer avarice. Listen to me, fair lady. If my children were ruining themselves for their own benefit, I would help them out of the scrape; but as for backing your husband, madame? It is like trying to fill the vat of the Danaides! Their house is mortgaged for three hundred thousand francs for an incorrigible father! Why, they have nothing left, poor wretches! And they have no fun for their money. All they have to live upon is what Victorin may make in Court. He must wag his tongue more, must monsieur your son! And he was to have been a Minister, that learned youth! Our hope and pride. A pretty pilot, who runs aground like a land-lubber; for if he had borrowed to enable him to get on, if he had run into debt for feasting Deputies, winning votes, and increasing his influence, I should be the first to say, 'Here is my purse--dip your hand in, my friend!' But when it comes of paying for papa's folly--folly I warned you of!--Ah! his father has deprived him of every chance of power.--It is I who shall be Minister!"

"Alas, my dear Crevel, it has nothing to do with the children, poor devoted souls!--If your heart is closed to Victorin and Celestine, I shall love them so much that perhaps I may soften the bitterness of their souls caused by your anger. You are punishing your children for a good action!"

"Yes, for a good action badly done! That is half a crime," said Crevel, much pleased with his epigram.

"Doing good, my dear Crevel, does not mean sparing money out of a purse that is bursting with it; it means enduring privations to be generous, suffering for liberality! It is being prepared for ingratitude! Heaven does not see the charity that costs us nothing--"

"Saints, madame, may if they please go to the workhouse; they know that it is for them the door of heaven. For my part, I am worldly-minded; I fear God, but yet more I fear the hell of poverty. To be destitute is the last depth of misfortune in society as now constituted. I am a man of my time; I respect money."

"And you are right," said Adeline, "from the worldly point of view."

She was a thousand miles from her point, and she felt herself on a gridiron, like Saint Laurence, as she thought of her uncle, for she could see him blowing his brains out.

She looked down; then she raised her eyes to gaze at Crevel with angelic sweetness--not with the inviting suggestiveness which was part of Valerie's wit. Three years ago she could have bewitched Crevel by that beautiful look.

"I have known the time," said she, "when you were more generous--you used to talk of three hundred thousand francs like a grand gentleman--"

Crevel looked at Madame Hulot; he beheld her like a lily in the last of its bloom, vague sensations rose within him, but he felt such respect for this saintly creature that he spurned all suspicions and buried them in the most profligate corner of his heart.

"I, madame, am still the same; but a retired merchant, if he is a grand gentleman, plays, and must play, the part with method and economy; he carries his ideas of order into everything. He opens an account for his little amusements, and devotes certain profits to that head of expenditure; but as to touching his capital! it would be folly. My children will have their fortune intact, mine and my wife's; but I do not suppose that they wish their father to be dull, a monk and a mummy! My life is a very jolly one; I float gaily down the stream. I fulfil all the duties imposed on me by law, by my affections, and by family ties, just as I always used to be punctual in paying my bills when they fell due. If only my children conduct themselves in their domestic life as I do, I shall be satisfied; and for the present, so long as my follies--for I have committed follies --are no loss to any one but the gulls--excuse me, you do not perhaps understand the slang word--they will have nothing to blame me for, and will find a tidy little sum still left when I die. Your children cannot say as much of their father, who is ruining his son and my daughter by his pranks--"

The Baroness was getting further from her object as he went on.

"You are very unkind about my husband, my dear Crevel--and yet, if you had found his wife obliging, you would have been his best friend----"

She shot a burning glance at Crevel; but, like Dubois, who gave the Regent three kicks, she affected too much, and the rakish perfumer's thoughts jumped at such profligate suggestions, that he said to himself, "Does she want to turn the tables on Hulot?--Does she think me more attractive as a Mayor than as a National Guardsman? Women are strange creatures!"

And he assumed the position of his second manner, looking at the Baroness with his _Regency leer.

"I could almost fancy," she went on, "that you want to visit on him your resentment against the virtue that resisted you--in a woman whom you loved well enough--to--to buy her," she added in a low voice.

"In a divine woman," Crevel replied, with a meaning smile at the Baroness, who looked down while tears rose to her eyes. "For you have swallowed not a few bitter pills!--in these three years--hey, my beauty?"

"Do not talk of my troubles, dear Crevel; they are too much for the endurance of a mere human being. Ah! if you still love me, you may drag me out of the pit in which I lie. Yes, I am in hell torment! The regicides who were racked and nipped and torn into quarters by four horses were on roses compared with me, for their bodies only were dismembered, and my heart is torn in quarters----"

Crevel's thumb moved from his armhole, he placed his hand on the work-table, he abandoned his attitude, he smiled! The smile was so vacuous that it misled the Baroness; she took it for an expression of kindness.

"You see a woman, not indeed in despair, but with her honor at the point of death, and prepared for everything, my dear friend, to hinder a crime."

Fearing that Hortense might come in, she bolted the door; then with equal impetuosity she fell at Crevel's feet, took his hand and kissed it.

"Be my deliverer!" she cried.

She thought there was some generous fibre in this mercantile soul, and full of sudden hope that she might get the two hundred thousand francs without degrading herself:

"Buy a soul--you were once ready to buy virtue!" she went on, with a frenzied gaze. "Trust to my honesty as a woman, to my honor, of which you know the worth! Be my friend! Save a whole family from ruin, shame, despair; keep it from falling into a bog where the quicksands are mingled with blood! Oh! ask for no explanations," she exclaimed, at a movement on Crevel's part, who was about to speak. "Above all, do not say to me, 'I told you so!' like a friend who is glad at a misfortune. Come now, yield to her whom you used to love, to the woman whose humiliation at your feet is perhaps the crowning moment of her glory; ask nothing of her, expect what you will from her gratitude! --No, no. Give me nothing, but lend--lend to me whom you used to call Adeline----"

At this point her tears flowed so fast, Adeline was sobbing so passionately, that Crevel's gloves were wet. The words, "I need two hundred thousand francs," were scarcely articulate in the torrent of weeping, as stones, however large, are invisible in Alpine cataracts swollen by the melting of the snows.

This is the inexperience of virtue. Vice asks for nothing, as we have seen in Madame Marneffe; it gets everything offered to it. Women of that stamp are never exacting till they have made themselves indispensable, or when a man has to be worked as a quarry is worked where the lime is rather scarce--going to ruin, as the quarry-men say.

On hearing these words, "Two hundred thousand francs," Crevel understood all. He cheerfully raised the Baroness, saying insolently:

"Come, come, bear up, mother," which Adeline, in her distraction, failed to hear. The scene was changing its character. Crevel was becoming "master of the situation," to use his own words. The vastness of the sum startled Crevel so greatly that his emotion at seeing this handsome woman in tears at his feet was forgotten. Besides, however angelical and saintly a woman may be, when she is crying bitterly her beauty disappears. A Madame Marneffe, as has been seen, whimpers now and then, a tear trickles down her cheek; but as to melting into tears and making her eyes and nose red!--never would she commit such a blunder.

"Come, child, compose yourself.--Deuce take it!" Crevel went on, taking Madame Hulot's hands in his own and patting them. "Why do you apply to me for two hundred thousand francs? What do you want with them? Whom are they for?"

"Do not," said she, "insist on any explanations. Give me the money! --You will save three lives and the honor of our children."

"And do you suppose, my good mother, that in all Paris you will find a man who at a word from a half-crazy woman will go off _hic et nunc_, and bring out of some drawer, Heaven knows where, two hundred thousand francs that have been lying simmering there till she is pleased to scoop them up? Is that all you know of life and of business, my beauty? Your folks are in a bad way; you may send them the last sacraments; for no one in Paris but her Divine Highness Madame la Banque, or the great Nucingen, or some miserable miser who is in love with gold as we other folks are with a woman, could produce such a miracle! The civil list, civil as it may be, would beg you to call again tomorrow. Every one invests his money, and turns it over to the best of his powers.

"You are quite mistaken, my angel, if you suppose that King Louis-Philippe rules us; he himself knows better than that. He knows as well as we do that supreme above the Charter reigns the holy, venerated, substantial, delightful, obliging, beautiful, noble, ever-youthful, and all-powerful five-franc piece! But money, my beauty, insists on interest, and is always engaged in seeking it! 'God of the Jews, thou art supreme!' says Racine. The perennial parable of the golden calf, you see!--In the days of Moses there was stock-jobbing in the desert!

"We have reverted to Biblical traditions; the Golden Calf was the first State ledger," he went on. "You, my Adeline, have not gone beyond the Rue Plumet. The Egyptians had lent enormous sums to the Hebrews, and what they ran after was not God's people, but their capital."

He looked at the Baroness with an expression which said, "How clever I am!"

"You know nothing of the devotion of every city man to his sacred hoard!" he went on, after a pause. "Excuse me. Listen to me. Get this well into your head.--You want two hundred thousand francs? No one can produce the sum without selling some security. Now consider! To have two hundred thousand francs in hard cash it would be needful to sell about seven hundred thousand francs' worth of stock at three per cent. Well; and then you would only get the money on the third day. That is the quickest way. To persuade a man to part with a fortune--for two hundred thousand francs is the whole fortune of many a man--he ought at least to know where it is all going to, and for what purpose--"

"It is going, my dear kind Crevel, to save the lives of two men, one of whom will die of grief and the other will kill himself! And to save me too from going mad! Am I not a little mad already?"

"Not so mad!" said he, taking Madame Hulot round the knees; "old Crevel has his price, since you thought of applying to him, my angel."

"They submit to have a man's arms round their knees, it would seem!" thought the saintly woman, covering her face with her hands.

"Once you offered me a fortune!" said she, turning red.

"Ay, mother! but that was three years ago!" replied Crevel. "Well, you are handsomer now than ever I saw you!" he went on, taking the Baroness' arm and pressing it to his heart. "You have a good memory, my dear, by Jove!--And now you see how wrong you were to be so prudish, for those three hundred thousand francs that you refused so magnanimously are in another woman's pocket. I loved you then, I love you still; but just look back these three years.

"When I said to you, 'You shall be mine,' what object had I in view? I meant to be revenged on that rascal Hulot. But your husband, my beauty, found himself a mistress--a jewel of a woman, a pearl, a cunning hussy then aged three-and-twenty, for she is six-and-twenty now. It struck me as more amusing, more complete, more Louis XV., more Marechal de Richelieu, more first-class altogether, to filch away that charmer, who, in point of fact, never cared for Hulot, and who for these three years has been madly in love with your humble servant."

As he spoke, Crevel, from whose hands the Baroness had released her own, had resumed his favorite attitude; both thumbs were stuck into his armholes, and he was patting his ribs with his fingers, like two flapping wings, fancying that he was thus making himself very attractive and charming. It was as much as to say, "And this is the man you would have nothing to say to!"

"There you are my dear; I had my revenge, and your husband knows it. I proved to him clearly that he was basketed--just where he was before, as we say. Madame Marneffe is my mistress, and when her precious Marneffe kicks the bucket, she will be my wife."

Madame Hulot stared at Crevel with a fixed and almost dazed look.

"Hector knew it?" she said.

"And went back to her," replied Crevel. "And I allowed it, because Valerie wished to be the wife of a head-clerk; but she promised me that she would manage things so that our Baron should be so effectually bowled over that he can never interfere any more. And my little duchess--for that woman is a born duchess, on my soul!--kept her word. She restores you your Hector, madame, virtuous in perpetuity, as she says--she is so witty! He has had a good lesson, I can tell you! The Baron has had some hard knocks; he will help no more actresses or fine ladies; he is radically cured; cleaned out like a beer-glass.

"If you had listened to Crevel in the first instance, instead of scorning him and turning him out of the house, you might have had four hundred thousand francs, for my revenge has cost me all of that.--But I shall get my change back, I hope, when Marneffe dies--I have invested in a wife, you see; that is the secret of my extravagance. I have solved the problem of playing the lord on easy terms."

"Would you give your daughter such a mother-in-law? cried Madame Hulot.

"You do not know Valerie, madame," replied Crevel gravely, striking the attitude of his first manner. "She is a woman with good blood in her veins, a lady, and a woman who enjoys the highest consideration. Why, only yesterday the vicar of the parish was dining with her. She is pious, and we have presented a splendid monstrance to the church.

"Oh! she is clever, she is witty, she is delightful, well informed --she has everything in her favor. For my part, my dear Adeline, I owe everything to that charming woman; she has opened my mind, polished my speech, as you may have noticed; she corrects my impetuosity, and gives me words and ideas. I never say anything now that I ought not. I have greatly improved; you must have noticed it. And then she has encouraged my ambition. I shall be a Deputy; and I shall make no blunders, for I shall consult my Egeria. Every great politician, from Numa to our present Prime Minister, has had his Sibyl of the fountain. A score of deputies visit Valerie; she is acquiring considerable influence; and now that she is about to be established in a charming house, with a carriage, she will be one of the occult rulers of Paris.

"A fine locomotive! That is what such a woman is. Oh, I have blessed you many a time for your stern virtue."

"It is enough to make one doubt the goodness of God!" cried Adeline, whose indignation had dried her tears. "But, no! Divine justice must be hanging over her head."

"You know nothing of the world, my beauty," said the great politician, deeply offended. "The world, my Adeline, loves success! Say, now, has it come to seek out your sublime virtue, priced at two hundred thousand francs?"

The words made Madame Hulot shudder; the nervous trembling attacked her once more. She saw that the ex-perfumer was taking a mean revenge on her as he had on Hulot; she felt sick with disgust, and a spasm rose to her throat, hindering speech.

"Money!" she said at last. "Always money!"

"You touched me deeply," said Crevel, reminded by these words of the woman's humiliation, "when I beheld you there, weeping at my feet! --You perhaps will not believe me, but if I had my pocket-book about me, it would have been yours.--Come, do you really want such a sum?"

As she heard this question, big with two hundred thousand francs, Adeline forgot the odious insults heaped on her by this cheap-jack fine gentleman, before the tempting picture of success described by Machiavelli-Crevel, who only wanted to find out her secrets and laugh over them with Valerie.

"Oh! I will do anything, everything," cried the unhappy woman. "Monsieur, I will sell myself--I will be a Valerie, if I must."

"You will find that difficult," replied Crevel. "Valerie is a masterpiece in her way. My good mother, twenty-five years of virtue are always repellent, like a badly treated disease. And your virtue has grown very mouldy, my dear child. But you shall see how much I love you. I will manage to get you your two hundred thousand francs."

Adeline, incapable of uttering a word, seized his hand and laid it on her heart; a tear of joy trembled in her eyes.

"Oh! don't be in a hurry; there will be some hard pulling. I am a jolly good fellow, a good soul with no prejudices, and I will put things plainly to you. You want to do as Valerie does--very good. But that is not all; you must have a gull, a stockholder, a Hulot.--Well, I know a retired tradesman--in fact, a hosier. He is heavy, dull, has not an idea, I am licking him into shape, but I don't know when he will do me credit. My man is a deputy, stupid and conceited; the tyranny of a turbaned wife, in the depths of the country, has preserved him in a state of utter virginity as to the luxury and pleasures of Paris life. But Beauvisage--his name is Beauvisage--is a millionaire, and, like me, my dear, three years ago, he will give a hundred thousand crowns to be the lover of a real lady.--Yes, you see," he went on, misunderstanding a gesture on Adeline's part, "he is jealous of me, you understand; jealous of my happiness with Madame Marneffe, and he is a fellow quite capable of selling an estate to purchase a--"

"Enough, Monsieur Crevel!" said Madame Hulot, no longer controlling her disgust, and showing all her shame in her face. "I am punished beyond my deserts. My conscience, so sternly repressed by the iron hand of necessity, tells me, at this final insult, that such sacrifices are impossible.--My pride is gone; I do not say now, as I did the first time, 'Go!' after receiving this mortal thrust. I have lost the right to do so. I have flung myself before you like a prostitute.

"Yes," she went on, in reply to a negative on Crevel's part, "I have fouled my life, till now so pure, by a degrading thought; and I am inexcusable!--I know it!--I deserve every insult you can offer me! God's will be done! If, indeed, He desires the death of two creatures worthy to appear before Him, they must die! I shall mourn them, and pray for them! If it is His will that my family should be humbled to the dust, we must bow to His avenging sword, nay, and kiss it, since we are Christians.--I know how to expiate this disgrace, which will be the torment of all my remaining days.

"I who speak to you, monsieur, am not Madame Hulot, but a wretched, humble sinner, a Christian whose heart henceforth will know but one feeling, and that is repentance, all my time given up to prayer and charity. With such a sin on my soul, I am the last of women, the first only of penitents.--You have been the means of bringing me to a right mind; I can hear the Voice of God speaking within me, and I can thank you!"

She was shaking with the nervous trembling which from that hour never left her. Her low, sweet tones were quite unlike the fevered accents of the woman who was ready for dishonor to save her family. The blood faded from her cheeks, her face was colorless, and her eyes were dry.

"And I played my part very badly, did I not?" she went on, looking at Crevel with the sweetness that martyrs must have shown in their eyes as they looked up at the Proconsul. "True love, the sacred love of a devoted woman, gives other pleasures, no doubt, than those that are bought in the open market!--But why so many words?" said she, suddenly bethinking herself, and advancing a step further in the way to perfection. "They sound like irony, but I am not ironical! Forgive me. Besides, monsieur, I did not want to hurt any one but myself--"

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Cousin Betty (la Cousine Bette) - Part 11 Cousin Betty (la Cousine Bette) - Part 11

Cousin Betty (la Cousine Bette) - Part 11
The dignity of virtue and its holy flame had expelled the transient impurity of the woman who, splendid in her own peculiar beauty, looked taller in Crevel's eyes. Adeline had, at this moment, the majesty of the figures of Religion clinging to the Cross, as painted by the old Venetians; but she expressed, too, the immensity of her love and the grandeur of the Catholic Church, to which she flew like a wounded dove. Crevel was dazzled, astounded. "Madame, I am your slave, without conditions," said he, in an inspiration of generosity. "We will look into this matter--and --whatever you want--the

Cousin Betty (la Cousine Bette) - Part 6 Cousin Betty (la Cousine Bette) - Part 6

Cousin Betty (la Cousine Bette) - Part 6
Marneffe, wrecked by the debauchery of great cities, described by Roman authors, though modern decency has no name for it, was as hideous as an anatomical figure in wax. But this disease on feet, clothed in good broadcloth, encased his lathlike legs in elegant trousers. The hollow chest was scented with fine linen, and musk disguised the odors of rotten humanity. This hideous specimen of decaying vice, trotting in red heels--for Valerie dressed the man as beseemed his income, his cross, and his appointment--horrified Crevel, who could not meet the colorless eyes of the Government clerk. Marneffe was an incubus to