Cousin Betty/Section 2

From the first days of her married life to the present time the Baroness had loved her husband, as Josephine in the end had loved Napoleon, with an admiring, maternal, and cowardly devotion. Though ignorant of the details given her by Crevel, she knew that for twenty years past Baron Hulot been anything rather than a faithful husband; but she had sealed her eyes with lead, she had wept in silence, and no word of reproach had ever escaped her. In return for this angelic sweetness, she had won her husband's veneration and something approaching to worship from all who were about her.

A wife's affection for her husband and the respect she pays him are infectious in a family. Hortense believed her father to be a perfect model of conjugal affection; as to their son, brought up to admire the Baron, whom everybody regarded as one of the giants who so effectually backed Napoleon, he knew that he owed his advancement to his father's name, position, and credit; and besides, the impressions of childhood exert an enduring influence. He still was afraid of his father; and if he had suspected the misdeeds revealed by Crevel, as he was too much overawed by him to find fault, he would have found excuses in the view every man takes of such matters.

It now will be necessary to give the reasons for the extraordinary self-devotion of a good and beautiful woman; and this, in a few words, is her past history.

Three brothers, simple laboring men, named Fischer, and living in a village situated on the furthest frontier of Lorraine, were compelled by the Republican conscription to set out with the so-called army of the Rhine.

In 1799 the second brother, Andre, a widower, and Madame Hulot's father, left his daughter to the care of his elder brother, Pierre Fischer, disabled from service by a wound received in 1797, and made a small private venture in the military transport service, an opening he owed to the favor of Hulot d'Ervy, who was high in the commissariat. By a very obvious chance Hulot, coming to Strasbourg, saw the Fischer family. Adeline's father and his younger brother were at that time contractors for forage in the province of Alsace.

Adeline, then sixteen years of age, might be compared with the famous Madame du Barry, like her, a daughter of Lorraine. She was one of those perfect and striking beauties—a woman like Madame Tallien, finished with peculiar care by Nature, who bestows on them all her choicest gifts—distinction, dignity, grace, refinement, elegance, flesh of a superior texture, and a complexion mingled in the unknown laboratory where good luck presides. These beautiful creatures all have something in common: Bianca Capella, whose portrait is one of Bronzino's masterpieces; Jean Goujon's Venus, painted from the famous Diane de Poitiers; Signora Olympia, whose picture adorns the Doria gallery; Ninon, Madame du Barry, Madame Tallien, Mademoiselle Georges, Madame Recamier.—all these women who preserved their beauty in spite of years, of passion, and of their life of excess and pleasure, have in figure, frame, and in the character of their beauty certain striking resemblances, enough to make one believe that there is in the ocean of generations an Aphrodisian current whence every such Venus is born, all daughters of the same salt wave.

Adeline Fischer, one of the loveliest of this race of goddesses, had the splendid type, the flowing lines, the exquisite texture of a woman born a queen. The fair hair that our mother Eve received from the hand of God, the form of an Empress, an air of grandeur, and an august line of profile, with her rural modesty, made every man pause in delight as she passed, like amateurs in front of a Raphael; in short, having once seen her, the Commissariat officer made Mademoiselle Adeline Fischer his wife as quickly as the law would permit, to the great astonishment of the Fischers, who had all been brought up in the fear of their betters.

The eldest, a soldier of 1792, severely wounded in the attack on the lines at Wissembourg, adored the Emperor Napoleon and everything that had to do with the Grande Armee. Andre and Johann spoke with respect of Commissary Hulot, the Emperor's protege, to whom indeed they owed their prosperity; for Hulot d'Ervy, finding them intelligent and honest, had taken them from the army provision wagons to place them in charge of a government contract needing despatch. The brothers Fischer had done further service during the campaign of 1804. At the peace Hulot had secured for them the contract for forage from Alsace, not knowing that he would presently be sent to Strasbourg to prepare for the campaign of 1806.

This marriage was like an Assumption to the young peasant girl. The beautiful Adeline was translated at once from the mire of her village to the paradise of the Imperial Court; for the contractor, one of the most conscientious and hard-working of the Commissariat staff, was made a Baron, obtained a place near the Emperor, and was attached to the Imperial Guard. The handsome rustic bravely set to work to educate herself for love of her husband, for she was simply crazy about him; and, indeed, the Commissariat office was as a man a perfect match for Adeline as a woman. He was one of the picked corps of fine men. Tall, well-built, fair, with beautiful blue eyes full of irresistible fire and life, his elegant appearance made him remarkable by the side of d'Orsay, Forbin, Ouvrard; in short, in the battalion of fine men that surrounded the Emperor. A conquering "buck," and holding the ideas of the Directoire with regard to women, his career of gallantry was interrupted for some long time by his conjugal affection.

To Adeline the Baron was from the first a sort of god who could do no wrong. To him she owed everything: fortune—she had a carriage, a fine house, every luxury of the day; happiness—he was devoted to her in the face of the world; a title, for she was a Baroness; fame, for she was spoken of as the beautiful Madame Hulot—and in Paris! Finally, she had the honor of refusing the Emperor's advances, for Napoleon made her a present of a diamond necklace, and always remembered her, asking now and again, "And is the beautiful Madame Hulot still a model of virtue?" in the tone of a man who might have taken his revenge on one who should have triumphed where he had failed.

So it needs no great intuition to discern what were the motives in a simple, guileless, and noble soul for the fanaticism of Madame Hulot's love. Having fully persuaded herself that her husband could do her no wrong, she made herself in the depths of her heart the humble, abject, and blindfold slave of the man who had made her. It must be noted, too, that she was gifted with great good sense—the good sense of the people, which made her education sound. In society she spoke little, and never spoke evil of any one; she did not try to shine; she thought out many things, listened well, and formed herself on the model of the best-conducted women of good birth.

In 1815 Hulot followed the lead of the Prince de Wissembourg, his intimate friend, and became one of the officers who organized the improvised troops whose rout brought the Napoleonic cycle to a close at Waterloo. In 1816 the Baron was one of the men best hated by the Feltre administration, and was not reinstated in the Commissariat till 1823, when he was needed for the Spanish war. In 1830 he took office as the fourth wheel of the coach, at the time of the levies, a sort of conscription made by Louis Philippe on the old Napoleonic soldiery. From the time when the younger branch ascended the throne, having taken an active part in bringing that about, he was regarded as an indispensable authority at the War Office. He had already won his Marshal's baton, and the King could do no more for him unless by making him minister or a peer of France.

From 1818 till 1823, having no official occupation, Baron Hulot had gone on active service to womankind. Madame Hulot dated her Hector's first infidelities from the grand finale of the Empire. Thus, for twelve years the Baroness had filled the part in her household of prima donna assoluta, without a rival. She still could boast of the old-fashioned, inveterate affection which husbands feel for wives who are resigned to be gentle and virtuous helpmates; she knew that if she had a rival, that rival would not subsist for two hours under a word of reproof from herself; but she shut her eyes, she stopped her ears, she would know nothing of her husband's proceedings outside his home. In short, she treated her Hector as a mother treats a spoilt child.

Three years before the conversation reported above, Hortense, at the Theatre des Varietes, had recognized her father in a lower tier stage-box with Jenny Cadine, and had exclaimed:

"There is papa!"

"You are mistaken, my darling; he is at the Marshal's," the Baroness replied.

She too had seen Jenny Cadine; but instead of feeling a pang when she saw how pretty she was, she said to herself, "That rascal Hector must think himself very lucky."

She suffered nevertheless; she gave herself up in secret to rages of torment; but as soon as she saw Hector, she always remembered her twelve years of perfect happiness, and could not find it in her to utter a word of complaint. She would have been glad if the Baron would have taken her into his confidence; but she never dared to let him see that she knew of his kicking over the traces, out of respect for her husband. Such an excess of delicacy is never met with but in those grand creatures, daughters of the soil, whose instinct it is to take blows without ever returning them; the blood of the early martyrs still lives in their veins. Well-born women, their husbands' equals, feel the impulse to annoy them, to mark the points of their tolerance, like points at billiards, by some stinging word, partly in the spirit of diabolical malice, and to secure the upper hand or the right of turning the tables.

The Baroness had an ardent admirer in her brother-in-law, Lieutenant-General Hulot, the venerable Colonel of the Grenadiers of the Imperial Infantry Guard, who was to have a Marshal's baton in his old age. This veteran, after having served from 1830 to 1834 as Commandant of the military division, including the departments of Brittany, the scene of his exploits in 1799 and 1800, had come to settle in Paris near his brother, for whom he had a fatherly affection.

This old soldier's heart was in sympathy with his sister-in-law; he admired her as the noblest and saintliest of her sex. He had never married, because he hoped to find a second Adeline, though he had vainly sought for her through twenty campaigns in as many lands. To maintain her place in the esteem of this blameless and spotless old republican—of whom Napoleon had said, "That brave old Hulot is the most obstinate republican, but he will never be false to me"—Adeline would have endured griefs even greater than those that had just come upon her. But the old soldier, seventy-two years of age, battered by thirty campaigns, and wounded for the twenty-seventh time at Waterloo, was Adeline's admirer, and not a "protector." The poor old Count, among other infirmities, could only hear through a speaking trumpet.

So long as Baron Hulot d'Ervy was a fine man, his flirtations did not damage his fortune; but when a man is fifty, the Graces claim payment. At that age love becomes vice; insensate vanities come into play. Thus, at about that time, Adeline saw that her husband was incredibly particular about his dress; he dyed his hair and whiskers, and wore a belt and stays. He was determined to remain handsome at any cost. This care of his person, a weakness he had once mercilessly mocked at, was carried out in the minutest details.

At last Adeline perceived that the Pactolus poured out before the Baron's mistresses had its source in her pocket. In eight years he had dissipated a considerable amount of money; and so effectually, that, on his son's marriage two years previously, the Baron had been compelled to explain to his wife that his pay constituted their whole income.

"What shall we come to?" asked Adeline.

"Be quite easy," said the official, "I will leave the whole of my salary in your hands, and I will make a fortune for Hortense, and some savings for the future, in business."

The wife's deep belief in her husband's power and superior talents, in his capabilities and character, had, in fact, for the moment allayed her anxiety.

What the Baroness' reflections and tears were after Crevel's departure may now be clearly imagined. The poor woman had for two years past known that she was at the bottom of a pit, but she had fancied herself alone in it. How her son's marriage had been finally arranged she had not known; she had known nothing of Hector's connection with the grasping Jewess; and, above all, she hoped that no one in the world knew anything of her troubles. Now, if Crevel went about so ready to talk of the Baron's excesses, Hector's reputation would suffer. She could see, under the angry ex-perfumer's coarse harangue, the odious gossip behind the scenes which led to her son's marriage. Two reprobate hussies had been the priestesses of this union planned at some orgy amid the degrading familiarities of two tipsy old sinners.

"And has he forgotten Hortense!" she wondered.

"But he sees her every day; will he try to find her a husband among his good-for-nothing sluts?"

At this moment it was the mother that spoke rather than the wife, for she saw Hortense laughing with her Cousin Betty—the reckless laughter of heedless youth; and she knew that such hysterical laughter was quite as distressing a symptom as the tearful reverie of solitary walks in the garden.

Hortense was like her mother, with golden hair that waved naturally, and was amazingly long and thick. Her skin had the lustre of mother-of-pearl. She was visibly the offspring of a true marriage, of a pure and noble love in its prime. There was a passionate vitality in her countenance, a brilliancy of feature, a full fount of youth, a fresh vigor and abundance of health, which radiated from her with electric flashes. Hortense invited the eye.

When her eye, of deep ultramarine blue, liquid with the moisture of innocent youth, rested on a passer-by, he was involuntarily thrilled. Nor did a single freckle mar her skin, such as those with which many a white and golden maid pays toll for her milky whiteness. Tall, round without being fat, with a slender dignity as noble as her mother's, she really deserved the name of goddess, of which old authors were so lavish. In fact, those who saw Hortense in the street could hardly restrain the exclamation, "What a beautiful girl!"

She was so genuinely innocent, that she could say to her mother:

"What do they mean, mamma, by calling me a beautiful girl when I am with you? Are not you much handsomer than I am?"

And, in point of fact, at seven-and-forty the Baroness might have been preferred to her daughter by amateurs of sunset beauty; for she had not yet lost any of her charms, by one of those phenomena which are especially rare in Paris, where Ninon was regarded as scandalous, simply because she thus seemed to enjoy such an unfair advantage over the plainer women of the seventeenth century.

Thinking of her daughter brought her back to the father; she saw him sinking by degrees, day after day, down to the social mire, and even dismissed some day from his appointment. The idea of her idol's fall, with a vague vision of the disasters prophesied by Crevel, was such a terror to the poor woman, that she became rapt in the contemplation like an ecstatic.

Cousin Betty, from time to time, as she chatted with Hortense, looked round to see when they might return to the drawing-room; but her young cousin was pelting her with questions, and at the moment when the Baroness opened the glass door she did not happen to be looking.