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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesCousin Betty (la Cousine Bette) - Part 6
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Cousin Betty (la Cousine Bette) - Part 6 Post by :bulkmailer007 Category :Long Stories Author :Honore De Balzac Date :May 2012 Read :1192

Click below to download : Cousin Betty (la Cousine Bette) - Part 6 (Format : PDF)

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 the Mayor. And the mean rascal, aware of the strange power conferred on him by Lisbeth and his wife, was amused by it; he played on it as on an instrument; and cards being the last resource of a mind as completely played out as the body, he plucked Crevel again and again, the Mayor thinking himself bound to subserviency to the worthy official whom _he was cheating_.

Seeing Crevel a mere child in the hands of that hideous and atrocious mummy, of whose utter vileness the Mayor knew nothing; and seeing him, yet more, an object of deep contempt to Valerie, who made game of Crevel as of some mountebank, the Baron apparently thought him so impossible as a rival that he constantly invited him to dinner.

Valerie, protected by two lovers on guard, and by a jealous husband, attracted every eye, and excited every desire in the circle she shone upon. And thus, while keeping up appearances, she had, in the course of three years, achieved the most difficult conditions of the success a courtesan most cares for and most rarely attains, even with the help of audacity and the glitter of an existence in the light of the sun. Valerie's beauty, formerly buried in the mud of the Rue du Doyenne, now, like a well-cut diamond exquisitely set by Chanor, was worth more than its real value--it could break hearts. Claude Vignon adored Valerie in secret.

This retrospective explanation, quite necessary after the lapse of three years, shows Valerie's balance-sheet. Now for that of her partner, Lisbeth.

Lisbeth Fischer filled the place in the Marneffe household of a relation who combines the functions of a lady companion and a housekeeper; but she suffered from none of the humiliations which, for the most part, weigh upon the women who are so unhappy as to be obliged to fill these ambiguous situations. Lisbeth and Valerie offered the touching spectacle of one of those friendships between women, so cordial and so improbable, that men, always too keen-tongued in Paris, forthwith slander them. The contrast between Lisbeth's dry masculine nature and Valerie's creole prettiness encouraged calumny. And Madame Marneffe had unconsciously given weight to the scandal by the care she took of her friend, with matrimonial views, which were, as will be seen, to complete Lisbeth's revenge.

An immense change had taken place in Cousin Betty; and Valerie, who wanted to smarten her, had turned it to the best account. The strange woman had submitted to stays, and laced tightly, she used bandoline to keep her hair smooth, wore her gowns as the dressmaker sent them home, neat little boots, and gray silk stockings, all of which were included in Valerie's bills, and paid for by the gentleman in possession. Thus furbished up, and wearing the yellow cashmere shawl, Lisbeth would have been unrecognizable by any one who had not seen her for three years.

This other diamond--a black diamond, the rarest of all--cut by a skilled hand, and set as best became her, was appreciated at her full value by certain ambitious clerks. Any one seeing her for the first time might have shuddered involuntarily at the look of poetic wildness which the clever Valerie had succeeded in bringing out by the arts of dress in this Bleeding Nun, framing the ascetic olive face in thick bands of hair as black as the fiery eyes, and making the most of the rigid, slim figure. Lisbeth, like a Virgin by Cranach or Van Eyck, or a Byzantine Madonna stepped out of its frame, had all the stiffness, the precision of those mysterious figures, the more modern cousins of Isis and her sister goddesses sheathed in marble folds by Egyptian sculptors. It was granite, basalt, porphyry, with life and movement.

Saved from want for the rest of her life, Lisbeth was most amiable; wherever she dined she brought merriment. And the Baron paid the rent of her little apartment, furnished, as we know, with the leavings of her friend Valerie's former boudoir and bedroom.

"I began," she would say, "as a hungry nanny goat, and I am ending as a _lionne_."

She still worked for Monsieur Rivet at the more elaborate kinds of gold-trimming, merely, as she said, not to lose her time. At the same time, she was, as we shall see, very full of business; but it is inherent in the nature of country-folks never to give up bread-winning; in this they are like the Jews.

Every morning, very early, Cousin Betty went off to market with the cook. It was part of Lisbeth's scheme that the house-book, which was ruining Baron Hulot, was to enrich her dear Valerie--as it did indeed.

Is there a housewife who, since 1838, has not suffered from the evil effects of Socialist doctrines diffused among the lower classes by incendiary writers? In every household the plague of servants is nowadays the worst of financial afflictions. With very few exceptions, who ought to be rewarded with the Montyon prize, the cook, male or female, is a domestic robber, a thief taking wages, and perfectly barefaced, with the Government for a fence, developing the tendency to dishonesty, which is almost authorized in the cook by the time-honored jest as to the "handle of the basket." The women who formerly picked up their forty sous to buy a lottery ticket now take fifty francs to put into the savings bank. And the smug Puritans who amuse themselves in France with philanthropic experiments fancy that they are making the common people moral!

Between the market and the master's table the servants have their secret toll, and the municipality of Paris is less sharp in collecting the city-dues than the servants are in taking theirs on every single thing. To say nothing of fifty per cent charged on every form of food, they demand large New Year's premiums from the tradesmen. The best class of dealers tremble before this occult power, and subsidize it without a word--coachmakers, jewelers, tailors, and all. If any attempt is made to interfere with them, the servants reply with impudent retorts, or revenge themselves by the costly blunders of assumed clumsiness; and in these days they inquire into their master's character as, formerly, the master inquired into theirs. This mischief is now really at its height, and the law-courts are beginning to take cognizance of it; but in vain, for it cannot be remedied but by a law which shall compel domestic servants, like laborers, to have a pass-book as a guarantee of conduct. Then the evil will vanish as if by magic. If every servant were obliged to show his pass-book, and if masters were required to state in it the cause of his dismissal, this would certainly prove a powerful check to the evil.

The men who are giving their attentions to the politics of the day know not to what lengths the depravity of the lower classes has gone. Statistics are silent as to the startling number of working men of twenty who marry cooks of between forty and fifty enriched by robbery. We shudder to think of the result of such unions from the three points of view of increasing crime, degeneracy of the race, and miserable households.

As to the mere financial mischief that results from domestic peculation, that too is immense from a political point of view. Life being made to cost double, any superfluity becomes impossible in most households. Now superfluity means half the trade of the world, as it is half the elegance of life. Books and flowers are to many persons as necessary as bread.

Lisbeth, well aware of this dreadful scourge of Parisian households, determined to manage Valerie's, promising her every assistance in the terrible scene when the two women had sworn to be like sisters. So she had brought from the depths of the Vosges a humble relation on her mother's side, a very pious and honest soul, who had been cook to the Bishop of Nancy. Fearing, however, her inexperience of Paris ways, and yet more the evil counsel which wrecks such fragile virtue, at first Lisbeth always went to market with Mathurine, and tried to teach her what to buy. To know the real prices of things and command the salesman's respect; to purchase unnecessary delicacies, such as fish, only when they were cheap; to be well informed as to the price current of groceries and provisions, so as to buy when prices are low in anticipation of a rise,--all this housekeeping skill is in Paris essential to domestic economy. As Mathurine got good wages and many presents, she liked the house well enough to be glad to drive good bargains. And by this time Lisbeth had made her quite a match for herself, sufficiently experienced and trustworthy to be sent to market alone, unless Valerie was giving a dinner--which, in fact, was not unfrequently the case. And this was how it came about.

The Baron had at first observed the strictest decorum; but his passion for Madame Marneffe had ere long become so vehement, so greedy, that he would never quit her if he could help it. At first he dined there four times a week; then he thought it delightful to dine with her every day. Six months after his daughter's marriage he was paying her two thousand francs a month for his board. Madame Marneffe invited any one her dear Baron wished to entertain. The dinner was always arranged for six; he could bring in three unexpected guests. Lisbeth's economy enabled her to solve the extraordinary problem of keeping up the table in the best style for a thousand francs a month, giving the other thousand to Madame Marneffe. Valerie's dress being chiefly paid for by Crevel and the Baron, the two women saved another thousand francs a month on this.

And so this pure and innocent being had already accumulated a hundred and fifty thousand francs in savings. She had capitalized her income and monthly bonus, and swelled the amount by enormous interest, due to Crevel's liberality in allowing his "little Duchess" to invest her money in partnership with him in his financial operations. Crevel had taught Valerie the slang and the procedure of the money market, and, like every Parisian woman, she had soon outstripped her master. Lisbeth, who never spent a sou of her twelve hundred francs, whose rent and dress were given to her, and who never put her hand in her pocket, had likewise a small capital of five or six thousand francs, of which Crevel took fatherly care.

At the same time, two such lovers were a heavy burthen on Valerie. On the day when this drama reopens, Valerie, spurred by one of those incidents which have the effect in life that the ringing of a bell has in inducing a swarm of bees to settle, went up to Lisbeth's rooms to give vent to one of those comforting lamentations--a sort of cigarette blown off from the tongue--by which women alleviate the minor miseries of life.

"Oh, Lisbeth, my love, two hours of Crevel this morning! It is crushing! How I wish I could send you in my place!"

"That, unluckily, is impossible," said Lisbeth, smiling. "I shall die a maid."

"Two old men lovers! Really, I am ashamed sometimes! If my poor mother could see me."

"You are mistaking me for Crevel!" said Lisbeth.

"Tell me, my little Betty, do you not despise me?"

"Oh! if I had but been pretty, what adventures I would have had!" cried Lisbeth. "That is your justification."

"But you would have acted only at the dictates of your heart," said Madame Marneffe, with a sigh.

"Pooh! Marneffe is a dead man they have forgotten to bury," replied Lisbeth. "The Baron is as good as your husband; Crevel is your adorer; it seems to me that you are quite in order--like every other married woman."

"No, it is not that, dear, adorable thing; that is not where the shoe pinches; you do not choose to understand."

"Yes, I do," said Lisbeth. "The unexpressed factor is part of my revenge; what can I do? I am working it out."

"I love Wenceslas so that I am positively growing thin, and I can never see him," said Valerie, throwing up her arms. "Hulot asks him to dinner, and my artist declines. He does not know that I idolize him, the wretch! What is his wife after all? Fine flesh! Yes, she is handsome, but I--I know myself--I am worse!"

"Be quite easy, my child, he will come," said Lisbeth, in the tone of a nurse to an impatient child. "He shall."

"But when?"

"This week perhaps."

"Give me a kiss."

As may be seen, these two women were but one. Everything Valerie did, even her most reckless actions, her pleasures, her little sulks, were decided on after serious deliberation between them.

Lisbeth, strangely excited by this harlot existence, advised Valerie on every step, and pursued her course of revenge with pitiless logic. She really adored Valerie; she had taken her to be her child, her friend, her love; she found her docile, as Creoles are, yielding from voluptuous indolence; she chattered with her morning after morning with more pleasure than with Wenceslas; they could laugh together over the mischief they plotted, and over the folly of men, and count up the swelling interest on their respective savings.

Indeed, in this new enterprise and new affection, Lisbeth had found food for her activity that was far more satisfying than her insane passion for Wenceslas. The joys of gratified hatred are the fiercest and strongest the heart can know. Love is the gold, hatred the iron of the mine of feeling that lies buried in us. And then, Valerie was, to Lisbeth, Beauty in all its glory--the beauty she worshiped, as we worship what we have not, beauty far more plastic to her hand than that of Wenceslas, who had always been cold to her and distant.

At the end of nearly three years, Lisbeth was beginning to perceive the progress of the underground mine on which she was expending her life and concentrating her mind. Lisbeth planned, Madame Marneffe acted. Madame Marneffe was the axe, Lisbeth was the hand the wielded it, and that hand was rapidly demolishing the family which was every day more odious to her; for we can hate more and more, just as, when we love, we love better every day.

Love and hatred are feelings that feed on themselves; but of the two, hatred has the longer vitality. Love is restricted within limits of power; it derives its energies from life and from lavishness. Hatred is like death, like avarice; it is, so to speak, an active abstraction, above beings and things.

Lisbeth, embarked on the existence that was natural to her, expended in it all her faculties; governing, like the Jesuits, by occult influences. The regeneration of her person was equally complete; her face was radiant. Lisbeth dreamed of becoming Madame la Marechale Hulot.

This little scene, in which the two friends had bluntly uttered their ideas without any circumlocution in expressing them, took place immediately on Lisbeth's return from market, whither she had been to procure the materials for an elegant dinner. Marneffe, who hoped to get Coquet's place, was to entertain him and the virtuous Madame Coquet, and Valerie hoped to persuade Hulot, that very evening, to consider the head-clerk's resignation.

Lisbeth dressed to go to the Baroness, with whom she was to dine.

"You will come back in time to make tea for us, my Betty?" said Valerie.

"I hope so."

"You hope so--why? Have you come to sleeping with Adeline to drink her tears while she is asleep?"

"If only I could!" said Lisbeth, laughing. "I would not refuse. She is expiating her happiness--and I am glad, for I remember our young days. It is my turn now. She will be in the mire, and I shall be Comtesse de Forzheim!"

Lisbeth set out for the Rue Plumet, where she now went as to the theatre--to indulge her emotions.

The residence Hulot had found for his wife consisted of a large, bare entrance-room, a drawing-room, and a bed and dressing-room. The dining-room was next the drawing-room on one side. Two servants' rooms and a kitchen on the third floor completed the accommodation, which was not unworthy of a Councillor of State, high up in the War Office. The house, the court-yard, and the stairs were extremely handsome.

The Baroness, who had to furnish her drawing-room, bed-room, and dining-room with the relics of her splendor, had brought away the best of the remains from the house in the Rue de l'Universite. Indeed, the poor woman was attached to these mute witnesses of her happier life; to her they had an almost consoling eloquence. In memory she saw her flowers, as in the carpets she could trace patterns hardly visible now to other eyes.

On going into the spacious anteroom, where twelve chairs, a barometer, a large stove, and long, white cotton curtains, bordered with red, suggested the dreadful waiting-room of a Government office, the visitor felt oppressed, conscious at once of the isolation in which the mistress lived. Grief, like pleasure, infects the atmosphere. A first glance into any home is enough to tell you whether love or despair reigns there.

Adeline would be found sitting in an immense bedroom with beautiful furniture by Jacob Desmalters, of mahogany finished in the Empire style with ormolu, which looks even less inviting than the brass-work of Louis XVI.! It gave one a shiver to see this lonely woman sitting on a Roman chair, a work-table with sphinxes before her, colorless, affecting false cheerfulness, but preserving her imperial air, as she had preserved the blue velvet gown she always wore in the house. Her proud spirit sustained her strength and preserved her beauty.

The Baroness, by the end of her first year of banishment to this apartment, had gauged every depth of misfortune.

"Still, even here my Hector has made my life much handsomer than it should be for a mere peasant," said she to herself. "He chooses that it should be so; his will be done! I am Baroness Hulot, the sister-in-law of a Marshal of France. I have done nothing wrong; my two children are settled in life; I can wait for death, wrapped in the spotless veil of an immaculate wife and the crape of departed happiness."

A portrait of Hulot, in the uniform of a Commissary General of the Imperial Guard, painted in 1810 by Robert Lefebvre, hung above the work-table, and when visitors were announced, Adeline threw into a drawer an _Imitation of Jesus Christ_, her habitual study. This blameless Magdalen thus heard the Voice of the Spirit in her desert.

"Mariette, my child," said Lisbeth to the woman who opened the door, "how is my dear Adeline to-day?"

"Oh, she looks pretty well, mademoiselle; but between you and me, if she goes on in this way, she will kill herself," said Mariette in a whisper. "You really ought to persuade her to live better. Now, yesterday madame told me to give her two sous' worth of milk and a roll for one sou; to get her a herring for dinner and a bit of cold veal; she had a pound cooked to last her the week--of course, for the days when she dines at home and alone. She will not spend more than ten sous a day for her food. It is unreasonable. If I were to say anything about it to Monsieur le Marechal, he might quarrel with Monsieur le Baron and leave him nothing, whereas you, who are so kind and clever, can manage things----"

"But why do you not apply to my cousin the Baron?" said Lisbeth.

"Oh, dear mademoiselle, he has not been here for three weeks or more; in fact, not since we last had the pleasure of seeing you! Besides, madame has forbidden me, under threat of dismissal, ever to ask the master for money. But as for grief!--oh, poor lady, she has been very unhappy. It is the first time that monsieur has neglected her for so long. Every time the bell rang she rushed to the window--but for the last five days she has sat still in her chair. She reads. Whenever she goes out to see Madame la Comtesse, she says, 'Mariette, if monsieur comes in,' says she, 'tell him I am at home, and send the porter to fetch me; he shall be well paid for his trouble.'"

"Poor soul!" said Lisbeth; "it goes to my heart. I speak of her to the Baron every day. What can I do? 'Yes,' says he, 'Betty, you are right; I am a wretch. My wife is an angel, and I am a monster! I will go to-morrow----' And he stays with Madame Marneffe. That woman is ruining him, and he worships her; he lives only in her sight.--I do what I can; if I were not there, and if I had not Mathurine to depend upon, he would spend twice as much as he does; and as he has hardly any money in the world, he would have blown his brains out by this time. And, I tell you, Mariette, Adeline would die of her husband's death, I am perfectly certain. At any rate, I pull to make both ends meet, and prevent my cousin from throwing too much money into the fire."

"Yes, that is what madame says, poor soul! She knows how much she owes you," replied Mariette. "She said she had judged you unjustly for many years----"

"Indeed!" said Lisbeth. "And did she say anything else?"

"No, mademoiselle. If you wish to please her, talk to her about Monsieur le Baron; she envies you your happiness in seeing him every day."

"Is she alone?"

"I beg pardon, no; the Marshal is with her. He comes every day, and she always tells him she saw monsieur in the morning, but that he comes in very late at night."

"And is there a good dinner to-day?"

Mariette hesitated; she could not meet Lisbeth's eye. The drawing-room door opened, and Marshal Hulot rushed out in such haste that he bowed to Lisbeth without looking at her, and dropped a paper. Lisbeth picked it up and ran after him downstairs, for it was vain to hail a deaf man; but she managed not to overtake the Marshal, and as she came up again she furtively read the following lines written in pencil:--

"MY DEAR BROTHER,--My husband has given me the money for my quarter's expenses; but my daughter Hortense was in such need of it, that I lent her the whole sum, which was scarcely enough to set her straight. Could you lend me a few hundred francs? For I cannot ask Hector for more; if he were to blame me, I could not bear it."

 

 

"My word!" thought Lisbeth, "she must be in extremities to bend her pride to such a degree!"

Lisbeth went in. She saw tears in Adeline's eyes, and threw her arms round her neck.

"Adeline, my dearest, I know all," cried Cousin Betty. "Here, the Marshal dropped this paper--he was in such a state of mind, and running like a greyhound.--Has that dreadful Hector given you no money since----?"

"He gives it me quite regularly," replied the Baroness, "but Hortense needed it, and--"

"And you had not enough to pay for dinner to-night," said Lisbeth, interrupting her. "Now I understand why Mariette looked so confused when I said something about the soup. You really are childish, Adeline; come, take my savings."

"Thank you, my kind cousin," said Adeline, wiping away a tear. "This little difficulty is only temporary, and I have provided for the future. My expenses henceforth will be no more than two thousand four hundred francs a year, rent inclusive, and I shall have the money. --Above all, Betty, not a word to Hector. Is he well?"

"As strong as the Pont Neuf, and as gay as a lark; he thinks of nothing but his charmer Valerie."

Madame Hulot looked out at a tall silver-fir in front of the window, and Lisbeth could not see her cousin's eyes to read their expression.

"Did you mention that it was the day when we all dine together here?"

"Yes. But, dear me! Madame Marneffe is giving a grand dinner; she hopes to get Monsieur Coquet to resign, and that is of the first importance.--Now, Adeline, listen to me. You know that I am fiercely proud as to my independence. Your husband, my dear, will certainly bring you to ruin. I fancied I could be of use to you all by living near this woman, but she is a creature of unfathomable depravity, and she will make your husband promise things which will bring you all to disgrace." Adeline writhed like a person stabbed to the heart. "My dear Adeline, I am sure of what I say. I feel it is my duty to enlighten you.--Well, let us think of the future. The Marshal is an old man, but he will last a long time yet--he draws good pay; when he dies his widow would have a pension of six thousand francs. On such an income I would undertake to maintain you all. Use your influence over the good man to get him to marry me. It is not for the sake of being Madame la Marechale; I value such nonsense at no more than I value Madame Marneffe's conscience; but you will all have bread. I see that Hortense must be wanting it, since you give her yours."

The Marshal now came in; he had made such haste, that he was mopping his forehead with his bandana.

"I have given Mariette two thousand francs," he whispered to his sister-in-law.

Adeline colored to the roots of her hair. Two tears hung on the fringes of the still long lashes, and she silently pressed the old man's hand; his beaming face expressed the glee of a favored lover.

"I intended to spend the money in a present for you, Adeline," said he. "Instead of repaying me, you must choose for yourself the thing you would like best."

He took Lisbeth's hand, which she held out to him, and so bewildered was he by his satisfaction, that he kissed it.

"That looks promising," said Adeline to Lisbeth, smiling so far as she was able to smile.

The younger Hulot and his wife now came in.

"Is my brother coming to dinner?" asked the Marshal sharply.

Adeline took up a pencil and wrote these words on a scrap of paper:

"I expect him; he promised this morning that he would be here; but if he should not come, it would be because the Marshal kept him. He is overwhelmed with business."

And she handed him the paper. She had invented this way of conversing with Marshal Hulot, and kept a little collection of paper scraps and a pencil at hand on the work-table.

"I know," said the Marshal, "he is worked very hard over the business in Algiers."

At this moment, Hortense and Wenceslas arrived, and the Baroness, as she saw all her family about her, gave the Marshal a significant glance understood by none but Lisbeth.

Happiness had greatly improved the artist, who was adored by his wife and flattered by the world. His face had become almost round, and his graceful figure did justice to the advantages which blood gives to men of birth. His early fame, his important position, the delusive eulogies that the world sheds on artists as lightly as we say, "How d'ye do?" or discuss the weather, gave him that high sense of merit which degenerates into sheer fatuity when talent wanes. The Cross of the Legion of Honor was the crowning stamp of the great man he believed himself to be.

After three years of married life, Hortense was to her husband what a dog is to its master; she watched his every movement with a look that seemed a constant inquiry, her eyes were always on him, like those of a miser on his treasure; her admiring abnegation was quite pathetic. In her might be seen her mother's spirit and teaching. Her beauty, as great as ever, was poetically touched by the gentle shadow of concealed melancholy.

On seeing Hortense come in, it struck Lisbeth that some long-suppressed complaint was about to break through the thin veil of reticence. Lisbeth, from the first days of the honeymoon, had been sure that this couple had too small an income for so great a passion.

Hortense, as she embraced her mother, exchanged with her a few whispered phrases, heart to heart, of which the mystery was betrayed to Lisbeth by certain shakes of the head.

"Adeline, like me, must work for her living," thought Cousin Betty. "She shall be made to tell me what she will do! Those pretty fingers will know at last, like mine, what it is to work because they must."

At six o'clock the family party went in to dinner. A place was laid for Hector.

"Leave it so," said the Baroness to Mariette, "monsieur sometimes comes in late."

"Oh, my father will certainly come," said Victorin to his mother. "He promised me he would when we parted at the Chamber."

Lisbeth, like a spider in the middle of its net, gloated over all these countenances. Having known Victorin and Hortense from their birth, their faces were to her like panes of glass, through which she could read their young souls. Now, from certain stolen looks directed by Victorin on his mother, she saw that some disaster was hanging over Adeline which Victorin hesitated to reveal. The famous young lawyer had some covert anxiety. His deep reverence for his mother was evident in the regret with which he gazed at her.

Hortense was evidently absorbed in her own woes; for a fortnight past, as Lisbeth knew, she had been suffering the first uneasiness which want of money brings to honest souls, and to young wives on whom life has hitherto smiled, and who conceal their alarms. Also Lisbeth had immediately guessed that her mother had given her no money. Adeline's delicacy had brought her so low as to use the fallacious excuses that necessity suggests to borrowers.

Hortense's absence of mind, with her brother's and the Baroness' deep dejection, made the dinner a melancholy meal, especially with the added chill of the Marshal's utter deafness. Three persons gave a little life to the scene: Lisbeth, Celestine, and Wenceslas. Hortense's affection had developed the artist's natural liveliness as a Pole, the somewhat swaggering vivacity and noisy high spirits that characterize these Frenchmen of the North. His frame of mind and the expression of his face showed plainly that he believed in himself, and that poor Hortense, faithful to her mother's training, kept all domestic difficulties to herself.

"You must be content, at any rate," said Lisbeth to her young cousin, as they rose from table, "since your mother has helped you with her money."

"Mamma!" replied Hortense in astonishment. "Oh, poor mamma! It is for me that she would like to make money. You do not know, Lisbeth, but I have a horrible suspicion that she works for it in secret."

They were crossing the large, dark drawing-room where there were no candles, all following Mariette, who was carrying the lamp into Adeline's bedroom. At this instant Victorin just touched Lisbeth and Hortense on the arm. The two women, understanding the hint, left Wenceslas, Celestine, the Marshal, and the Baroness to go on together, and remained standing in a window-bay.

"What is it, Victorin?" said Lisbeth. "Some disaster caused by your father, I dare wager."

"Yes, alas!" replied Victorin. "A money-lender named Vauvinet has bills of my father's to the amount of sixty thousand francs, and wants to prosecute. I tried to speak of the matter to my father at the Chamber, but he would not understand me; he almost avoided me. Had we better tell my mother?"

"No, no," said Lisbeth, "she has too many troubles; it would be a death-blow; you must spare her. You have no idea how low she has fallen. But for your uncle, you would have found no dinner here this evening."

"Dear Heaven! Victorin, what wretches we are!" said Hortense to her brother. "We ought to have guessed what Lisbeth has told us. My dinner is choking me!"

Hortense could say no more; she covered her mouth with her handkerchief to smother a sob, and melted into tears.

"I told the fellow Vauvinet to call on me to-morrow," replied Victorin, "but will he be satisfied by my guarantee on a mortgage? I doubt it. Those men insist on ready money to sweat others on usurious terms."

"Let us sell out of the funds!" said Lisbeth to Hortense.

"What good would that do?" replied Victorin. "It would bring fifteen or sixteen thousand francs, and we want sixty thousand."

"Dear cousin!" cried Hortense, embracing Lisbeth with the enthusiasm of guilelessness.

"No, Lisbeth, keep your little fortune," said Victorin, pressing the old maid's hand. "I shall see to-morrow what this man would be up to. With my wife's consent, I can at least hinder or postpone the prosecution--for it would really be frightful to see my father's honor impugned. What would the War Minister say? My father's salary, which he pledged for three years, will not be released before the month of December, so we cannot offer that as a guarantee. This Vauvinet has renewed the bills eleven times; so you may imagine what my father must pay in interest. We must close this pit."

"If only Madame Marneffe would throw him over!" said Hortense bitterly.

"Heaven forbid!" exclaimed Victorin. "He would take up some one else; and with her, at any rate, the worst outlay is over."

What a change in children formerly so respectful, and kept so long by their mother in blind worship of their father! They knew him now for what he was.

"But for me," said Lisbeth, "your father's ruin would be more complete than it is."

"Come in to mamma," said Hortense; "she is very sharp, and will suspect something; as our kind Lisbeth says, let us keep everything from her--let us be cheerful."

"Victorin," said Lisbeth, "you have no notion of what your father will be brought to by his passion for women. Try to secure some future resource by getting the Marshal to marry me. Say something about it this evening; I will leave early on purpose."

Victorin went into the bedroom.

"And you, poor little thing!" said Lisbeth in an undertone to Hortense, "what can you do?"

"Come to dinner with us to-morrow, and we will talk it over," answered Hortense. "I do not know which way to turn; you know how hard life is, and you will advise me."

While the whole family with one consent tried to persuade the Marshal to marry, and while Lisbeth was making her way home to the Rue Vanneau, one of those incidents occurred which, in such women as Madame Marneffe, are a stimulus to vice by compelling them to exert their energy and every resource of depravity. One fact, at any rate, must however be acknowledged: life in Paris is too full for vicious persons to do wrong instinctively and unprovoked; vice is only a weapon of defence against aggressors--that is all.

Madame Marneffe's drawing-room was full of her faithful admirers, and she had just started the whist-tables, when the footman, a pensioned soldier recruited by the Baron, announced:

"Monsieur le Baron Montes de Montejanos."

Valerie's heart jumped, but she hurried to the door, exclaiming:

"My cousin!" and as she met the Brazilian, she whispered:

"You are my relation--or all is at an end between us!--And so you were not wrecked, Henri?" she went on audibly, as she led him to the fire. "I heard you were lost, and have mourned for you these three years."

"How are you, my good fellow?" said Marneffe, offering his hand to the stranger, whose get-up was indeed that of a Brazilian and a millionaire.

Monsieur le Baron Henri Montes de Montejanos, to whom the climate of the equator had given the color and stature we expect to see in Othello on the stage, had an alarming look of gloom, but it was a merely pictorial illusion; for, sweet and affectionate by nature, he was predestined to be the victim that a strong man often is to a weak woman. The scorn expressed in his countenance, the muscular strength of his stalwart frame, all his physical powers were shown only to his fellow-men; a form of flattery which women appreciate, nay, which so intoxicates them, that every man with his mistress on his arm assumes a matador swagger that provokes a smile. Very well set up, in a closely fitting blue coat with solid gold buttons, in black trousers, spotless patent evening boots, and gloves of a fashionable hue, the only Brazilian touch in the Baron's costume was a large diamond, worth about a hundred thousand francs, which blazed like a star on a handsome blue silk cravat, tucked into a white waistcoat in such a way as to show corners of a fabulously fine shirt front.

His brow, bossy like that of a satyr, a sign of tenacity in his passions, was crowned by thick jet-black hair like a virgin forest, and under it flashed a pair of hazel eyes, so wild looking as to suggest that before his birth his mother must have been scared by a jaguar.

This fine specimen of the Portuguese race in Brazil took his stand with his back to the fire, in an attitude that showed familiarity with Paris manners; holding his hat in one hand, his elbow resting on the velvet-covered shelf, he bent over Madame Marneffe, talking to her in an undertone, and troubling himself very little about the dreadful people who, in his opinion, were so very much in the way.

This fashion of taking the stage, with the Brazilian's attitude and expression, gave, alike to Crevel and to the baron, an identical shock of curiosity and anxiety. Both were struck by the same impression and the same surmise. And the manoeuvre suggested in each by their very genuine passion was so comical in its simultaneous results, that it made everybody smile who was sharp enough to read its meaning. Crevel, a tradesman and shopkeeper to the backbone, though a mayor of Paris, unluckily, was a little slower to move than his rival partner, and this enabled the Baron to read at a glance Crevel's involuntary self-betrayal. This was a fresh arrow to rankle in the very amorous old man's heart, and he resolved to have an explanation from Valerie.

"This evening," said Crevel to himself too, as he sorted his hand, "I must know where I stand."

"You have a heart!" cried Marneffe. "You have just revoked."

"I beg your pardon," said Crevel, trying to withdraw his card.--"This Baron seems to me very much in the way," he went on, thinking to himself. "If Valerie carries on with my Baron, well and good--it is a means to my revenge, and I can get rid of him if I choose; but as for this cousin!--He is one Baron too many; I do not mean to be made a fool of. I will know how they are related."

That evening, by one of those strokes of luck which come to pretty women, Valerie was charmingly dressed. Her white bosom gleamed under a lace tucker of rusty white, which showed off the satin texture of her beautiful shoulders--for Parisian women, Heaven knows how, have some way of preserving their fine flesh and remaining slender. She wore a black velvet gown that looked as if it might at any moment slip off her shoulders, and her hair was dressed with lace and drooping flowers. Her arms, not fat but dimpled, were graced by deep ruffles to her sleeves. She was like a luscious fruit coquettishly served in a handsome dish, and making the knife-blade long to be cutting it.

"Valerie," the Brazilian was saying in her ear, "I have come back faithful to you. My uncle is dead; I am twice as rich as I was when I went away. I mean to live and die in Paris, for you and with you."

"Lower, Henri, I implore you----"

"Pooh! I mean to speak to you this evening, even if I should have to pitch all these creatures out of window, especially as I have lost two days in looking for you. I shall stay till the last.--I can, I suppose?"

Valerie smiled at her adopted cousin, and said:

"Remember that you are the son of my mother's sister, who married your father during Junot's campaign in Portugal."

"What, I, Montes de Montejanos, great grandson of a conquerer of Brazil! Tell a lie?"

"Hush, lower, or we shall never meet again."

"Pray, why?"

"Marneffe, like all dying wretches, who always take up some last whim, has a revived passion for me----"

"That cur?" said the Brazilian, who knew his Marneffe; "I will settle him!"

"What violence!"

"And where did you get all this splendor?" the Brazilian went on, just struck by the magnificence of the apartment.

She began to laugh.

"Henri! what bad taste!" said she.

She had felt two burning flashes of jealousy which had moved her so far as to make her look at the two souls in purgatory. Crevel, playing against Baron Hulot and Monsieur Coquet, had Marneffe for his partner. The game was even, because Crevel and the Baron were equally absent-minded, and made blunder after blunder. Thus, in one instant, the old men both confessed the passion which Valerie had persuaded them to keep secret for the past three years; but she too had failed to hide the joy in her eyes at seeing the man who had first taught her heart to beat, the object of her first love. The rights of such happy mortals survive as long as the woman lives over whom they have acquired them.

With these three passions at her side--one supported by the insolence of wealth, the second by the claims of possession, and the third by youth, strength, fortune, and priority--Madame Marneffe preserved her coolness and presence of mind, like General Bonaparte when, at the siege of Mantua, he had to fight two armies, and at the same time maintain the blockade.

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.

"Madame Olivier?"

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.

"That cousin--"

"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."

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