Cousin Betty/Section 21

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.