Cousin Betty/Section 10

On the following morning, Hortense, who had slept with the seal under her pillow, so as to have it close to her all night, dressed very early, and sent to beg her father to join her in the garden as soon as he should be down.

By about half-past nine, the father, acceding to his daughter's petition, gave her his arm for a walk, and they went along the quays by the Pont Royal to the Place du Carrousel.

"Let us look into the shop windows, papa," said Hortense, as they went through the little gate to cross the wide square.

"What—here?" said her father, laughing at her.

"We are supposed to have come to see the pictures, and over there"—and she pointed to the stalls in front of the houses at a right angle to the Rue du Doyenne—"look! there are dealers in curiosities and pictures——"

"Your cousin lives there."

"I know it, but she must not see us."

"And what do you want to do?" said the Baron, who, finding himself within thirty yards of Madame Marneffe's windows, suddenly remembered her.

Hortense had dragged her father in front of one of the shops forming the angle of a block of houses built along the front of the Old Louvre, and facing the Hotel de Nantes. She went into this shop; her father stood outside, absorbed in gazing at the windows of the pretty little lady, who, the evening before, had left her image stamped on the old beau's heart, as if to alleviate the wound he was so soon to receive; and he could not help putting his wife's sage advice into practice.

"I will fall back on a simple little citizen's wife," said he to himself, recalling Madame Marneffe's adorable graces. "Such a woman as that will soon make me forget that grasping Josepha."

Now, this was what was happening at the same moment outside and inside the curiosity shop.

As he fixed his eyes on the windows of his new belle, the Baron saw the husband, who, while brushing his coat with his own hands, was apparently on the lookout, expecting to see some one on the square. Fearing lest he should be seen, and subsequently recognized, the amorous Baron turned his back on the Rue du Doyenne, or rather stood at three-quarters' face, as it were, so as to be able to glance round from time to time. This manoeuvre brought him face to face with Madame Marneffe, who, coming up from the quay, was doubling the promontory of houses to go home.

Valerie was evidently startled as she met the Baron's astonished eye, and she responded with a prudish dropping of her eyelids.

"A pretty woman," exclaimed he, "for whom a man would do many foolish things."

"Indeed, monsieur?" said she, turning suddenly, like a woman who has just come to some vehement decision, "you are Monsieur le Baron Hulot, I believe?"

The Baron, more and more bewildered, bowed assent.

"Then, as chance has twice made our eyes meet, and I am so fortunate as to have interested or puzzled you, I may tell you that, instead of doing anything foolish, you ought to do justice.—My husband's fate rests with you."

"And how may that be?" asked the gallant Baron.

"He is employed in your department in the War Office, under Monsieur Lebrun, in Monsieur Coquet's room," said she with a smile.

"I am quite disposed, Madame—Madame——?"

"Madame Marneffe."

"Dear little Madame Marneffe, to do injustice for your sake.—I have a cousin living in your house; I will go to see her one day soon—as soon as possible; bring your petition to me in her rooms."

"Pardon my boldness, Monsieur le Baron; you must understand that if I dare to address you thus, it is because I have no friend to protect me——"

"Ah, ha!"

"Monsieur, you misunderstand me," said she, lowering her eyelids.

Hulot felt as if the sun had disappeared.

"I am at my wits' end, but I am an honest woman!" she went on. "About six months ago my only protector died, Marshal Montcornet—"

"Ah! You are his daughter?"

"Yes, monsieur; but he never acknowledged me."

"That was that he might leave you part of his fortune."

"He left me nothing; he made no will."

"Indeed! Poor little woman! The Marshal died suddenly of apoplexy. But, come, madame, hope for the best. The State must do something for the daughter of one of the Chevalier Bayards of the Empire."

Madame Marneffe bowed gracefully and went off, as proud of her success as the Baron was of his.

"Where the devil has she been so early?" thought he watching the flow of her skirts, to which she contrived to impart a somewhat exaggerated grace. "She looks too tired to have just come from a bath, and her husband is waiting for her. It is strange, and puzzles me altogether."

Madame Marneffe having vanished within, the Baron wondered what his daughter was doing in the shop. As he went in, still staring at Madame Marneffe's windows, he ran against a young man with a pale brow and sparkling gray eyes, wearing a summer coat of black merino, coarse drill trousers, and tan shoes, with gaiters, rushing away headlong; he saw him run to the house in the Rue du Doyenne, into which he went.

Hortense, on going into the shop, had at once recognized the famous group, conspicuously placed on a table in the middle and in front of the door. Even without the circumstances to which she owed her knowledge of this masterpiece, it would probably have struck her by the peculiar power which we must call the brio—the go—of great works; and the girl herself might in Italy have been taken as a model for the personification of Brio.

Not every work by a man of genius has in the same degree that brilliancy, that glory which is at once patent even to the most ignoble beholder. Thus, certain pictures by Raphael, such as the famous Transfiguration, the Madonna di Foligno, and the frescoes of the Stanze in the Vatican, do not at first captivate our admiration, as do the Violin-player in the Sciarra Palace, the portraits of the Doria family, and the Vision of Ezekiel in the Pitti Gallery, the Christ bearing His Cross in the Borghese collection, and the Marriage of the Virgin in the Brera at Milan. The Saint John the Baptist of the Tribuna, and Saint Luke painting the Virgin's portrait in the Accademia at Rome, have not the charm of the Portrait of Leo X., and of the Virgin at Dresden.

And yet they are all of equal merit. Nay, more. The Stanze, the Transfiguration, the panels, and the three easel pictures in the Vatican are in the highest degree perfect and sublime. But they demand a stress of attention, even from the most accomplished beholder, and serious study, to be fully understood; while the Violin-player, the Marriage of the Virgin, and the Vision of Ezekiel go straight to the heart through the portal of sight, and make their home there. It is a pleasure to receive them thus without an effort; if it is not the highest phase of art, it is the happiest. This fact proves that, in the begetting of works of art, there is as much chance in the character of the offspring as there is in a family of children; that some will be happily graced, born beautiful, and costing their mothers little suffering, creatures on whom everything smiles, and with whom everything succeeds; in short, genius, like love, has its fairer blossoms.

This brio, an Italian word which the French have begun to use, is characteristic of youthful work. It is the fruit of an impetus and fire of early talent—an impetus which is met with again later in some happy hours; but this particular brio no longer comes from the artist's heart; instead of his flinging it into his work as a volcano flings up its fires, it comes to him from outside, inspired by circumstances, by love, or rivalry, often by hatred, and more often still by the imperious need of glory to be lived up to.

This group by Wenceslas was to his later works what the Marriage of the Virgin is to the great mass of Raphael's, the first step of a gifted artist taken with the inimitable grace, the eagerness, and delightful overflowingness of a child, whose strength is concealed under the pink-and-white flesh full of dimples which seem to echo to a mother's laughter. Prince Eugene is said to have paid four hundred thousand francs for this picture, which would be worth a million to any nation that owned no picture by Raphael, but no one would give that sum for the finest of the frescoes, though their value is far greater as works of art.

Hortense restrained her admiration, for she reflected on the amount of her girlish savings; she assumed an air of indifference, and said to the dealer:

"What is the price of that?"

"Fifteen hundred francs," replied the man, sending a glance of intelligence to a young man seated on a stool in the corner.

The young man himself gazed in a stupefaction at Monsieur Hulot's living masterpiece. Hortense, forewarned, at once identified him as the artist, from the color that flushed a face pale with endurance; she saw the spark lighted up in his gray eyes by her question; she looked on the thin, drawn features, like those of a monk consumed by asceticism; she loved the red, well-formed mouth, the delicate chin, and the Pole's silky chestnut hair.

"If it were twelve hundred," said she, "I would beg you to send it to me."

"It is antique, mademoiselle," the dealer remarked, thinking, like all his fraternity, that, having uttered this ne plus ultra of bric-a-brac, there was no more to be said.

"Excuse me, monsieur," she replied very quietly, "it was made this year; I came expressly to beg you, if my price is accepted, to send the artist to see us, as it might be possible to procure him some important commissions."

"And if he is to have the twelve hundred francs, what am I to get? I am the dealer," said the man, with candid good-humor.

"To be sure!" replied the girl, with a slight curl of disdain.

"Oh! mademoiselle, take it; I will make terms with the dealer," cried the Livonian, beside himself.

Fascinated by Hortense's wonderful beauty and the love of art she displayed, he added:

"I am the sculptor of the group, and for ten days I have come here three times a day to see if anybody would recognize its merit and bargain for it. You are my first admirer—take it!"

"Come, then, monsieur, with the dealer, an hour hence.—Here is my father's card," replied Hortense.

Then, seeing the shopkeeper go into a back room to wrap the group in a piece of linen rag, she added in a low voice, to the great astonishment of the artist, who thought he must be dreaming:

"For the benefit of your future prospects, Monsieur Wenceslas, do not mention the name of the purchaser to Mademoiselle Fischer, for she is our cousin."

The word cousin dazzled the artist's mind; he had a glimpse of Paradise whence this daughter of Eve had come to him. He had dreamed of the beautiful girl of whom Lisbeth had told him, as Hortense had dreamed of her cousin's lover; and, as she had entered the shop—

"Ah!" thought he, "if she could but be like this!"

The look that passed between the lovers may be imagined; it was a flame, for virtuous lovers have no hypocrisies.

"Well, what the deuce are you doing here?" her father asked her.

"I have been spending twelve hundred francs that I had saved. Come." And she took her father's arm.

"Twelve hundred francs?" he repeated.

"To be exact, thirteen hundred; you will lend me the odd hundred?"

"And on what, in such a place, could you spend so much?"

"Ah! that is the question!" replied the happy girl. "If I have got a husband, he is not dear at the money."

"A husband! In that shop, my child?"

"Listen, dear little father; would you forbid my marrying a great artist?"

"No, my dear. A great artist in these days is a prince without a title—he has glory and fortune, the two chief social advantages—next to virtue," he added, in a smug tone.

"Oh, of course!" said Hortense. "And what do you think of sculpture?"

"It is very poor business," replied Hulot, shaking his head. "It needs high patronage as well as great talent, for Government is the only purchaser. It is an art with no demand nowadays, where there are no princely houses, no great fortunes, no entailed mansions, no hereditary estates. Only small pictures and small figures can find a place; the arts are endangered by this need of small things."

"But if a great artist could find a demand?" said Hortense.

"That indeed would solve the problem."

"Or had some one to back him?"

"That would be even better."

"If he were of noble birth?"

"Pooh!"

"A Count."

"And a sculptor?"

"He has no money."

"And so he counts on that of Mademoiselle Hortense Hulot?" said the Baron ironically, with an inquisitorial look into his daughter's eyes.

"This great artist, a Count and a sculptor, has just seen your daughter for the first time in his life, and for the space of five minutes, Monsieur le Baron," Hortense calmly replied. "Yesterday, you must know, dear little father, while you were at the Chamber, mamma had a fainting fit. This, which she ascribed to a nervous attack, was the result of some worry that had to do with the failure of my marriage, for she told me that to get rid of me—-"

"She is too fond of you to have used an expression——"

"So unparliamentary!" Hortense put in with a laugh. "No, she did not use those words; but I know that a girl old enough to marry and who does not find a husband is a heavy cross for respectable parents to bear.—Well, she thinks that if a man of energy and talent could be found, who would be satisfied with thirty thousand francs for my marriage portion, we might all be happy. In fact, she thought it advisable to prepare me for the modesty of my future lot, and to hinder me from indulging in too fervid dreams.—Which evidently meant an end to the intended marriage, and no settlements for me!"

"Your mother is a very good woman, noble, admirable!" replied the father, deeply humiliated, though not sorry to hear this confession.

"She told me yesterday that she had your permission to sell her diamonds so as to give me something to marry on; but I should like her to keep her jewels, and to find a husband myself. I think I have found the man, the possible husband, answering to mamma's prospectus——"

"There?—in the Place du Carrousel?—and in one morning?"

"Oh, papa, the mischief lies deeper!" said she archly.

"Well, come, my child, tell the whole story to your good old father," said he persuasively, and concealing his uneasiness.

Under promise of absolute secrecy, Hortense repeated the upshot of her various conversations with her Cousin Betty. Then, when they got home, she showed the much-talked-of-seal to her father in evidence of the sagacity of her views. The father, in the depth of his heart, wondered at the skill and acumen of girls who act on instinct, discerning the simplicity of the scheme which her idealized love had suggested in the course of a single night to his guileless daughter.

"You will see the masterpiece I have just bought; it is to be brought home, and that dear Wenceslas is to come with the dealer.—The man who made that group ought to make a fortune; only use your influence to get him an order for a statue, and rooms at the Institut——"

"How you run on!" cried her father. "Why, if you had your own way, you would be man and wife within the legal period—in eleven days——"

"Must we wait so long?" said she, laughing. "But I fell in love with him in five minutes, as you fell in love with mamma at first sight. And he loves me as if we had known each other for two years. Yes," she said in reply to her father's look, "I read ten volumes of love in his eyes. And will not you and mamma accept him as my husband when you see that he is a man of genius? Sculpture is the greatest of the Arts," she cried, clapping her hands and jumping. "I will tell you everything——"

"What, is there more to come?" asked her father, smiling.

The child's complete and effervescent innocence had restored her father's peace of mind.

"A confession of the first importance," said she. "I loved him without knowing him; and, for the last hour, since seeing him, I am crazy about him."

"A little too crazy!" said the Baron, who was enjoying the sight of this guileless passion.

"Do not punish me for confiding in you," replied she. "It is so delightful to say to my father's heart, 'I love him! I am so happy in loving him!'—You will see my Wenceslas! His brow is so sad. The sun of genius shines in his gray eyes—and what an air he has! What do you think of Livonia? Is it a fine country?—The idea of Cousin Betty's marrying that young fellow! She might be his mother. It would be murder! I am quite jealous of all she has ever done for him. But I don't think my marriage will please her."

"See, my darling, we must hide nothing from your mother."

"I should have to show her the seal, and I promised not to betray Cousin Lisbeth, who is afraid, she says, of mamma's laughing at her," said Hortense.

"You have scruples about the seal, and none about robbing your cousin of her lover."

"I promised about the seal—I made no promise about the sculptor."

This adventure, patriarchal in its simplicity, came admirably a propos to the unconfessed poverty of the family; the Baron, while praising his daughter for her candor, explained to her that she must now leave matters to the discretion of her parents.

"You understand, my child, that it is not your part to ascertain whether your cousin's lover is a Count, if he has all his papers properly certified, and if his conduct is a guarantee for his respectability.—As for your cousin, she refused five offers when she was twenty years younger; that will prove no obstacle, I undertake to say."

"Listen to me, papa; if you really wish to see me married, never say a word to Lisbeth about it till just before the contract is signed. I have been catechizing her about this business for the last six months! Well, there is something about her quite inexplicable——"

"What?" said her father, puzzled.

"Well, she looks evil when I say too much, even in joke, about her lover. Make inquiries, but leave me to row my own boat. My confidence ought to reassure you."

"The Lord said, 'Suffer little children to come unto Me.' You are one of those who have come back again," replied the Baron with a touch of irony.

After breakfast the dealer was announced, and the artist with his group. The sudden flush that reddened her daughter's face at once made the Baroness suspicious and then watchful, and the girl's confusion and the light in her eyes soon betrayed the mystery so badly guarded in her simple heart.

Count Steinbock, dressed in black, struck the Baron as a very gentlemanly young man.

"Would you undertake a bronze statue?" he asked, as he held up the group.

After admiring it on trust, he passed it on to his wife, who knew nothing about sculpture.

"It is beautiful, isn't it, mamma?" said Hortense in her mother' ear.

"A statue! Monsieur, it is less difficult to execute a statue than to make a clock like this, which my friend here has been kind enough to bring," said the artist in reply.

The dealer was placing on the dining-room sideboard the wax model of the twelve Hours that the Loves were trying to delay.

"Leave the clock with me," said the Baron, astounded at the beauty of the sketch. "I should like to show it to the Ministers of the Interior and of Commerce."

"Who is the young man in whom you take so much interest?" the Baroness asked her daughter.

"An artist who could afford to execute this model could get a hundred thousand francs for it," said the curiosity-dealer, putting on a knowing and mysterious look as he saw that the artist and the girl were interchanging glances. "He would only need to sell twenty copies at eight thousand francs each—for the materials would cost about a thousand crowns for each example. But if each copy were numbered and the mould destroyed, it would certainly be possible to meet with twenty amateurs only too glad to possess a replica of such a work."

"A hundred thousand francs!" cried Steinbock, looking from the dealer to Hortense, the Baron, and the Baroness.

"Yes, a hundred thousand francs," repeated the dealer. "If I were rich enough, I would buy it of you myself for twenty thousand francs; for by destroying the mould it would become a valuable property. But one of the princes ought to pay thirty or forty thousand francs for such a work to ornament his drawing-room. No man has ever succeeded in making a clock satisfactory alike to the vulgar and to the connoisseur, and this one, sir, solves the difficulty."

"This is for yourself, monsieur," said Hortense, giving six gold pieces to the dealer.

"Never breath a word of this visit to any one living," said the artist to his friend, at the door. "If you should be asked where we sold the group, mention the Duc d'Herouville, the famous collector in the Rue de Varenne."

The dealer nodded assent.

"And your name?" said Hulot to the artist when he came back.

"Count Steinbock."

"Have you the papers that prove your identity?"

"Yes, Monsieur le Baron. They are in Russian and in German, but not legalized."

"Do you feel equal to undertaking a statue nine feet high?"

"Yes, monsieur."

"Well, then, if the persons whom I shall consult are satisfied with your work, I can secure you the commission for the statue of Marshal Montcornet, which is to be erected on his monument at Pere-Lachaise. The Minister of War and the old officers of the Imperial Guard have subscribed a sum large enough to enable us to select our artist."

"Oh, monsieur, it will make my fortune!" exclaimed Steinbock, overpowered by so much happiness at once.

"Be easy," replied the Baron graciously. "If the two ministers to whom I propose to show your group and this sketch in wax are delighted with these two pieces, your prospects of a fortune are good."

Hortense hugged her father's arm so tightly as to hurt him.

"Bring me your papers, and say nothing of your hopes to anybody, not even to our old Cousin Betty."

"Lisbeth?" said Madame Hulot, at last understanding the end of all this, though unable to guess the means.

"I could give proof of my skill by making a bust of the Baroness," added Wenceslas.

The artist, struck by Madame Hulot's beauty, was comparing the mother and daughter.

"Indeed, monsieur, life may smile upon you," said the Baron, quite charmed by Count Steinbock's refined and elegant manner. "You will find out that in Paris no man is clever for nothing, and that persevering toil always finds its reward here."

Hortense, with a blush, held out to the young man a pretty Algerine purse containing sixty gold pieces. The artist, with something still of a gentleman's pride, responded with a mounting color easy enough to interpret.

"This, perhaps, is the first money your works have brought you?" said Adeline.

"Yes, madame—my works of art. It is not the first-fruits of my labor, for I have been a workman."

"Well, we must hope my daughter's money will bring you good luck," said she.

"And take it without scruple," added the Baron, seeing that Wenceslas held the purse in his hand instead of pocketing it. "The sum will be repaid by some rich man, a prince perhaps, who will offer it with interest to possess so fine a work."

"Oh, I want it too much myself, papa, to give it up to anybody in the world, even a royal prince!"

"I can make a far prettier thing than that for you, mademoiselle."

"But it would not be this one," replied she; and then, as if ashamed of having said too much, she ran out into the garden.

"Then I shall break the mould and the model as soon as I go home," said Steinbock.

"Fetch me your papers, and you will hear of me before long, if you are equal to what I expect of you, monsieur."

The artist on this could but take leave. After bowing to Madame Hulot and Hortense, who came in from the garden on purpose, he went off to walk in the Tuileries, not bearing—not daring—to return to his attic, where his tyrant would pelt him with questions and wring his secret from him.

Hortense's adorer conceived of groups and statues by the hundred; he felt strong enough to hew the marble himself, like Canova, who was also a feeble man, and nearly died of it. He was transfigured by Hortense, who was to him inspiration made visible.

"Now then," said the Baroness to her daughter, "what does all this mean?"

"Well, dear mamma, you have just seen Cousin Lisbeth's lover, who now, I hope, is mine. But shut your eyes, know nothing. Good Heavens! I was to keep it all from you, and I cannot help telling you everything——"

"Good-bye, children!" said the Baron, kissing his wife and daughter; "I shall perhaps go to call on the Nanny, and from her I shall hear a great deal about our young man."

"Papa, be cautious!" said Hortense.

"Oh! little girl!" cried the Baroness when Hortense had poured out her poem, of which the morning's adventure was the last canto, "dear little girl, Artlessness will always be the artfulest puss on earth!"

Genuine passions have an unerring instinct. Set a greedy man before a dish of fruit and he will make no mistake, but take the choicest even without seeing it. In the same way, if you allow a girl who is well brought up to choose a husband for herself, if she is in a position to meet the man of her heart, rarely will she blunder. The act of nature in such cases is known as love at first sight; and in love, first sight is practically second sight.

The Baroness' satisfaction, though disguised under maternal dignity, was as great as her daughter's; for, of the three ways of marrying Hortense of which Crevel had spoken, the best, as she opined, was about to be realized. And she regarded this little drama as an answer by Providence to her fervent prayers.