Cousin Betty/Section 23

"By Heaven! only a woman of the world is capable of such love," said Crevel to himself. "How she came down those stairs, lighting them up with her eyes, following me! Never did Josepha—Josepha! she is cag-mag!" cried the ex-bagman. "What have I said? Cag-mag—why, I might have let the word slip out at the Tuileries! I can never do any good unless Valerie educates me—and I was so bent on being a gentleman.—What a woman she is! She upsets me like a fit of the colic when she looks at me coldly. What grace! What wit! Never did Josepha move me so. And what perfection when you come to know her!—Ha, there is my man!"

He perceived in the gloom of the Rue de Babylone the tall, somewhat stooping figure of Hulot, stealing along close to a boarding, and he went straight up to him.

"Good-morning, Baron, for it is past midnight, my dear fellow. What the devil are your doing here? You are airing yourself under a pleasant drizzle. That is not wholesome at our time of life. Will you let me give you a little piece of advice? Let each of us go home; for, between you and me, you will not see the candle in the window."

The last words made the Baron suddenly aware that he was sixty-three, and that his cloak was wet.

"Who on earth told you—?" he began.

"Valerie, of course, our Valerie, who means henceforth to be my Valerie. We are even now, Baron; we will play off the tie when you please. You have nothing to complain of; you know, I always stipulated for the right of taking my revenge; it took you three months to rob me of Josepha; I took Valerie from you in—We will say no more about that. Now I mean to have her all to myself. But we can be very good friends, all the same."

"Crevel, no jesting," said Hulot, in a voice choked by rage. "It is a matter of life and death."

"Bless me, is that how you take it!—Baron, do you not remember what you said to me the day of Hortense's marriage: 'Can two old gaffers like us quarrel over a petticoat? It is too low, too common. We are Regence, we agreed, Pompadour, eighteenth century, quite the Marechal Richelieu, Louis XV., nay, and I may say, Liaisons dangereuses!"

Crevel might have gone on with his string of literary allusions; the Baron heard him as a deaf man listens when he is but half deaf. But, seeing in the gaslight the ghastly pallor of his face, the triumphant Mayor stopped short. This was, indeed, a thunderbolt after Madame Olivier's asservations and Valerie's parting glance.

"Good God! And there are so many other women in Paris!" he said at last.

"That is what I said to you when you took Josepha," said Crevel.

"Look here, Crevel, it is impossible. Give me some proof.—Have you a key, as I have, to let yourself in?"

And having reached the house, the Baron put the key into the lock; but the gate was immovable; he tried in vain to open it.

"Do not make a noise in the streets at night," said Crevel coolly. "I tell you, Baron, I have far better proof than you can show."

"Proofs! give me proof!" cried the Baron, almost crazy with exasperation.

"Come, and you shall have them," said Crevel.

And in obedience to Valerie's instructions, he led the Baron away towards the quay, down the Rue Hillerin-Bertin. The unhappy Baron walked on, as a merchant walks on the day before he stops payment; he was lost in conjectures as to the reasons of the depravity buried in the depths of Valerie's heart, and still believed himself the victim of some practical joke. As they crossed the Pont Royal, life seemed to him so blank, so utterly a void, and so out of joint from his financial difficulties, that he was within an ace of yielding to the evil prompting that bid him fling Crevel into the river and throw himself in after.

On reaching the Rue du Dauphin, which had not yet been widened, Crevel stopped before a door in a wall. It opened into a long corridor paved with black-and-white marble, and serving as an entrance-hall, at the end of which there was a flight of stairs and a doorkeeper's lodge, lighted from an inner courtyard, as is often the case in Paris. This courtyard, which was shared with another house, was oddly divided into two unequal portions. Crevel's little house, for he owned it, had additional rooms with a glass skylight, built out on to the adjoining plot, under conditions that it should have no story added above the ground floor, so that the structure was entirely hidden by the lodge and the projecting mass of the staircase.

This back building had long served as a store-room, backshop, and kitchen to one of the shops facing the street. Crevel had cut off these three rooms from the rest of the ground floor, and Grindot had transformed them into an inexpensive private residence. There were two ways in—from the front, through the shop of a furniture-dealer, to whom Crevel let it at a low price, and only from month to month, so as to be able to get rid of him in case of his telling tales, and also through a door in the wall of the passage, so ingeniously hidden as to be almost invisible. The little apartment, comprising a dining-room, drawing-room, and bedroom, all lighted from above, and standing partly on Crevel's ground and partly on his neighbor's, was very difficult to find. With the exception of the second-hand furniture-dealer, the tenants knew nothing of the existence of this little paradise.

The doorkeeper, paid to keep Crevel's secrets, was a capital cook. So Monsieur le Maire could go in and out of his inexpensive retreat at any hour of the night without any fear of being spied upon. By day, a lady, dressed as Paris women dress to go shopping, and having a key, ran no risk in coming to Crevel's lodgings; she would stop to look at the cheapened goods, ask the price, go into the shop, and come out again, without exciting the smallest suspicion if any one should happen to meet her.

As soon as Crevel had lighted the candles in the sitting-room, the Baron was surprised at the elegance and refinement it displayed. The perfumer had given the architect a free hand, and Grindot had done himself credit by fittings in the Pompadour style, which had in fact cost sixty thousand francs.

"What I want," said Crevel to Grindot, "is that a duchess, if I brought one there, should be surprised at it."

He wanted to have a perfect Parisian Eden for his Eve, his "real lady," his Valerie, his duchess.

"There are two beds," said Crevel to Hulot, showing him a sofa that could be made wide enough by pulling out a drawer. "This is one, the other is in the bedroom. We can both spend the night here."

"Proof!" was all the Baron could say.

Crevel took a flat candlestick and led Hulot into the adjoining room, where he saw, on a sofa, a superb dressing-gown belonging to Valerie, which he had seen her wear in the Rue Vanneau, to display it before wearing it in Crevel's little apartment. The Mayor pressed the spring of a little writing-table of inlaid work, known as a bonheur-du-jour, and took out of it a letter that he handed to the Baron.

"Read that," said he.

The Councillor read these words written in pencil:

"I have waited in vain, you old wretch! A woman of my quality does not expect to be kept waiting by a retired perfumer. There was no dinner ordered—no cigarettes. I will make you pay for this!"

"Well, is that her writing?"

"Good God!" gasped Hulot, sitting down in dismay. "I see all the things she uses—her caps, her slippers. Why, how long since—?"

Crevel nodded that he understood, and took a packet of bills out of the little inlaid cabinet.

"You can see, old man. I paid the decorators in December, 1838. In October, two months before, this charming little place was first used."

Hulot bent his head.

"How the devil do you manage it? I know how she spends every hour of her day."

"How about her walk in the Tuileries?" said Crevel, rubbing his hands in triumph.

"What then?" said Hulot, mystified.

"Your lady love comes to the Tuileries, she is supposed to be airing herself from one till four. But, hop, skip, and jump, and she is here. You know your Moliere? Well, Baron, there is nothing imaginary in your title."

Hulot, left without a shred of doubt, sat sunk in ominous silence. Catastrophes lead intelligent and strong-minded men to be philosophical. The Baron, morally, was at this moment like a man trying to find his way by night through a forest. This gloomy taciturnity and the change in that dejected countenance made Crevel very uneasy, for he did not wish the death of his colleague.

"As I said, old fellow, we are now even; let us play for the odd. Will you play off the tie by hook and by crook? Come!"

"Why," said Hulot, talking to himself—"why is it that out of ten pretty women at least seven are false?"

But the Baron was too much upset to answer his own question. Beauty is the greatest of human gifts for power. Every power that has no counterpoise, no autocratic control, leads to abuses and folly. Despotism is the madness of power; in women the despot is caprice.

"You have nothing to complain of, my good friend; you have a beautiful wife, and she is virtuous."

"I deserve my fate," said Hulot. "I have undervalued my wife and made her miserable, and she is an angel! Oh, my poor Adeline! you are avenged! She suffers in solitude and silence, and she is worthy of my love; I ought—for she is still charming, fair and girlish even—But was there ever a woman known more base, more ignoble, more villainous than this Valerie?"

"She is a good-for-nothing slut," said Crevel, "a hussy that deserves whipping on the Place du Chatelet. But, my dear Canillac, though we are such blades, so Marechal de Richelieu, Louis XV., Pompadour, Madame du Barry, gay dogs, and everything that is most eighteenth century, there is no longer a lieutenant of police."

"How can we make them love us?" Hulot wondered to himself without heeding Crevel.

"It is sheer folly in us to expect to be loved, my dear fellow," said Crevel. "We can only be endured; for Madame Marneffe is a hundred times more profligate than Josepha."

"And avaricious! she costs me a hundred and ninety-two thousand francs a year!" cried Hulot.

"And how many centimes!" sneered Crevel, with the insolence of a financier who scorns so small a sum.

"You do not love her, that is very evident," said the Baron dolefully.

"I have had enough of her," replied Crevel, "for she has had more than three hundred thousand francs of mine!"

"Where is it? Where does it all go?" said the Baron, clasping his head in his hands.

"If we had come to an agreement, like the simple young men who combine to maintain a twopenny baggage, she would have cost us less."

"That is an idea"! replied the Baron. "But she would still be cheating us; for, my burly friend, what do you say to this Brazilian?"

"Ay, old sly fox, you are right, we are swindled like—like shareholders!" said Crevel. "All such women are an unlimited liability, and we the sleeping partners."

"Then it was she who told you about the candle in the window?"

"My good man," replied Crevel, striking an attitude, "she has fooled us both. Valerie is a—She told me to keep you here.—Now I see it all. She has got her Brazilian!—Oh, I have done with her, for if you hold her hands, she would find a way to cheat you with her feet! There! she is a minx, a jade!"

"She is lower than a prostitute," said the Baron. "Josepha and Jenny Cadine were in their rights when they were false to us; they make a trade of their charms."

"But she, who affects the saint—the prude!" said Crevel. "I tell you what, Hulot, do you go back to your wife; your money matters are not looking well; I have heard talk of certain notes of hand given to a low usurer whose special line of business is lending to these sluts, a man named Vauvinet. For my part, I am cured of your 'real ladies.' And, after all, at our time of life what do we want of these swindling hussies, who, to be honest, cannot help playing us false? You have white hair and false teeth; I am of the shape of Silenus. I shall go in for saving. Money never deceives one. Though the Treasury is indeed open to all the world twice a year, it pays you interest, and this woman swallows it. With you, my worthy friend, as Gubetta, as my partner in the concern, I might have resigned myself to a shady bargain—no, a philosophical calm. But with a Brazilian who has possibly smuggled in some doubtful colonial produce——"

"Woman is an inexplicable creature!" said Hulot.

"I can explain her," said Crevel. "We are old; the Brazilian is young and handsome."

"Yes; that, I own, is true," said Hulot; "we are older than we were. But, my dear fellow, how is one to do without these pretty creatures—seeing them undress, twist up their hair, smile cunningly through their fingers as they screw up their curl-papers, put on all their airs and graces, tell all their lies, declare that we don't love them when we are worried with business; and they cheer us in spite of everything."

"Yes, by the Power! It is the only pleasure in life!" cried Crevel. "When a saucy little mug smiles at you and says, 'My old dear, you don't know how nice you are! I am not like other women, I suppose, who go crazy over mere boys with goats' beards, smelling of smoke, and as coarse as serving-men! For in their youth they are so insolent!—They come in and they bid you good-morning, and out they go.—I, whom you think such a flirt, I prefer a man of fifty to these brats. A man who will stick by me, who is devoted, who knows a woman is not to be picked up every day, and appreciates us.—That is what I love you for, you old monster!'—and they fill up these avowals with little pettings and prettinesses and—Faugh! they are as false as the bills on the Hotel de Ville."

"A lie is sometimes better than the truth," said Hulot, remembering sundry bewitching scenes called up by Crevel, who mimicked Valerie. "They are obliged to act upon their lies, to sew spangles on their stage frocks—"

"And they are ours, after all, the lying jades!" said Crevel coarsely.

"Valerie is a witch," said the Baron. "She can turn an old man into a young one."

"Oh, yes!" said Crevel, "she is an eel that wriggles through your hands; but the prettiest eel, as white and sweet as sugar, as amusing as Arnal—and ingenious!"

"Yes, she is full of fun," said Hulot, who had now quite forgotten his wife.

The colleagues went to bed the best friends in the world, reminding each other of Valerie's perfections, the tones of her voice, her kittenish way, her movements, her fun, her sallies of wit, and of affections; for she was an artist in love, and had charming impulses, as tenors may sing a scena better one day than another. And they fell asleep, cradled in tempting and diabolical visions lighted by the fires of hell.

At nine o'clock next morning Hulot went off to the War Office, Crevel had business out of town; they left the house together, and Crevel held out his hand to the Baron, saying:

"To show that there is no ill-feeling. For we, neither of us, will have anything more to say to Madame Marneffe?"

"Oh, this is the end of everything," replied Hulot with a sort of horror.

By half-past ten Crevel was mounting the stairs, four at a time, up to Madame Marneffe's apartment. He found the infamous wretch, the adorable enchantress, in the most becoming morning wrapper, enjoying an elegant little breakfast in the society of the Baron Montes de Montejanos and Lisbeth. Though the sight of the Brazilian gave him a shock, Crevel begged Madame Marneffe to grant him two minutes' speech with her. Valerie led Crevel into the drawing-room.

"Valerie, my angel," said the amorous Mayor, "Monsieur Marneffe cannot have long to live. If you will be faithful to me, when he dies we will be married. Think it over. I have rid you of Hulot.—So just consider whether this Brazilian is to compare with a Mayor of Paris, a man who, for your sake, will make his way to the highest dignities, and who can already offer you eighty-odd thousand francs a year."

"I will think it over," said she. "You will see me in the Rue du Dauphin at two o'clock, and we can discuss the matter. But be a good boy—and do not forget the bond you promised to transfer to me."

She returned to the dining-room, followed by Crevel, who flattered himself that he had hit on a plan for keeping Valerie to himself; but there he found Baron Hulot, who, during this short colloquy, had also arrived with the same end in view. He, like Crevel, begged for a brief interview. Madame Marneffe again rose to go to the drawing-room, with a smile at the Brazilian that seemed to say, "What fools they are! Cannot they see you?"

"Valerie," said the official, "my child, that cousin of yours is an American cousin—"

"Oh, that is enough!" she cried, interrupting the Baron. "Marneffe never has been, and never will be, never can be my husband! The first, the only man I ever loved, has come back quite unexpectedly. It is no fault of mine! But look at Henri and look at yourself. Then ask yourself whether a woman, and a woman in love, can hesitate for a moment. My dear fellow, I am not a kept mistress. From this day forth I refuse to play the part of Susannah between the two Elders. If you really care for me, you and Crevel, you will be our friends; but all else is at an end, for I am six-and-twenty, and henceforth I mean to be a saint, an admirable and worthy wife—as yours is."

"Is that what you have to say?" answered Hulot. "Is this the way you receive me when I come like a Pope with my hands full of Indulgences?—Well, your husband will never be a first-class clerk, nor be promoted in the Legion of Honor."

"That remains to be seen," said Madame Marneffe, with a meaning look at Hulot.

"Well, well, no temper," said Hulot in despair. "I will call this evening, and we will come to an understanding."

"In Lisbeth's rooms then."

"Very good—at Lisbeth's," said the old dotard.

Hulot and Crevel went downstairs together without speaking a word till they were in the street; but outside on the sidewalk they looked at each other with a dreary laugh.

"We are a couple of old fools," said Crevel.

"I have got rid of them," said Madame Marneffe to Lisbeth, as she sat down once more. "I never loved and I never shall love any man but my Jaguar," she added, smiling at Henri Montes. "Lisbeth, my dear, you don't know. Henri has forgiven me the infamy to which I was reduced by poverty."

"It was my own fault," said the Brazilian. "I ought to have sent you a hundred thousand francs."

"Poor boy!" said Valerie; "I might have worked for my living, but my fingers were not made for that—ask Lisbeth."

The Brazilian went away the happiest man in Paris.

At noon Valerie and Lisbeth were chatting in the splendid bedroom where this dangerous woman was giving to her dress those finishing touches which a lady alone can give. The doors were bolted, the curtains drawn over them, and Valerie related in every detail all the events of the evening, the night, the morning.

"What do you think of it all, my darling?" she said to Lisbeth in conclusion. "Which shall I be when the time comes—Madame Crevel, or Madame Montes?"

"Crevel will not last more than ten years, such a profligate as he is," replied Lisbeth. "Montes is young. Crevel will leave you about thirty thousand francs a year. Let Montes wait; he will be happy enough as Benjamin. And so, by the time you are three-and-thirty, if you take care of your looks, you may marry your Brazilian and make a fine show with sixty thousand francs a year of your own—especially under the wing of a Marechale."

"Yes, but Montes is a Brazilian; he will never make his mark," observed Valerie.

"We live in the day of railways," said Lisbeth, "when foreigners rise to high positions in France."

"We shall see," replied Valerie, "when Marneffe is dead. He has not much longer to suffer."

"These attacks that return so often are a sort of physical remorse," said Lisbeth. "Well, I am off to see Hortense."

"Yes—go, my angel!" replied Valerie. "And bring me my artist.—Three years, and I have not gained an inch of ground! It is a disgrace to both of us!—Wenceslas and Henri—these are my two passions—one for love, the other for fancy."

"You are lovely this morning," said Lisbeth, putting her arm round Valerie's waist and kissing her forehead. "I enjoy all your pleasures, your good fortune, your dresses—I never really lived till the day when we became sisters."

"Wait a moment, my tiger-cat!" cried Valerie, laughing; "your shawl is crooked. You cannot put a shawl on yet in spite of my lessons for three years—and you want to be Madame la Marechale Hulot!"

Shod in prunella boots, over gray silk stockings, in a gown of handsome corded silk, her hair in smooth bands under a very pretty black velvet bonnet, lined with yellow satin, Lisbeth made her way to the Rue Saint-Dominique by the Boulevard des Invalides, wondering whether sheer dejection would at last break down Hortense's brave spirit, and whether Sarmatian instability, taken at a moment when, with such a character, everything is possible, would be too much for Steinbock's constancy.