Cousin Betty/Section 22

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."

Valerie flew like an arrow to the third floor, tapped three times at Lisbeth's door, and then went down to her room, where she gave instructions to Mademoiselle Reine, for a woman must make the most of the opportunity when a Montes arrives from Brazil.