Cousin Betty/Section 28

When Wenceslas returned home and had read the two letters, he felt a kind of gladness mingled with regret. Kept so constantly under his wife's eye, so to speak, he had inwardly rebelled against this fresh thraldom, a la Lisbeth. Full fed with love for three years past, he too had been reflecting during the last fortnight; and he found a family heavy on his hands. He had just been congratulated by Stidmann on the passion he had inspired in Valerie; for Stidmann, with an under-thought that was not unnatural, saw that he might flatter the husband's vanity in the hope of consoling the victim. And Wenceslas was glad to be able to return to Madame Marneffe.

Still, he remembered the pure and unsullied happiness he had known, the perfections of his wife, her judgment, her innocent and guileless affection,—and he regretted her acutely. He thought of going at once to his mother-in-law's to crave forgiveness; but, in fact, like Hulot and Crevel, he went to Madame Marneffe, to whom he carried his wife's letter to show her what a disaster she had caused, and to discount his misfortune, so to speak, by claiming in return the pleasures his mistress could give him.

He found Crevel with Valerie. The mayor, puffed up with pride, marched up and down the room, agitated by a storm of feelings. He put himself into position as if he were about to speak, but he dared not. His countenance was beaming, and he went now and again to the window, where he drummed on the pane with his fingers. He kept looking at Valerie with a glance of tender pathos. Happily for him, Lisbeth presently came in.

"Cousin Betty," he said in her ear, "have you heard the news? I am a father! It seems to me I love my poor Celestine the less.—Oh! what a thing it is to have a child by the woman one idolizes! It is the fatherhood of the heart added to that of the flesh! I say—tell Valerie that I will work for that child—it shall be rich. She tells me she has some reason for believing that it will be a boy! If it is a boy, I shall insist on his being called Crevel. I will consult my notary about it."

"I know how much she loves you," said Lisbeth. "But for her sake in the future, and for your own, control yourself. Do not rub your hands every five minutes."

While Lisbeth was speaking aside on this wise to Crevel, Valerie had asked Wenceslas to give her back her letter, and she was saying things that dispelled all his griefs.

"So now you are free, my dear," said she. "Ought any great artist to marry? You live only by fancy and freedom! There, I shall love you so much, beloved poet, that you shall never regret your wife. At the same time, if, like so many people, you want to keep up appearances, I undertake to bring Hortense back to you in a very short time."

"Oh, if only that were possible!"

"I am certain of it," said Valerie, nettled. "Your poor father-in-law is a man who is in every way utterly done for; who wants to appear as though he could be loved, out of conceit, and to make the world believe that he has a mistress; and he is so excessively vain on this point, that I can do what I please with him. The Baroness is still so devoted to her old Hector—I always feel as if I were talking of the Iliad—that these two old folks will contrive to patch up matters between you and Hortense. Only, if you want to avoid storms at home for the future, do not leave me for three weeks without coming to see your mistress—I was dying of it. My dear boy, some consideration is due from a gentleman to a woman he has so deeply compromised, especially when, as in my case, she has to be very careful of her reputation.

"Stay to dinner, my darling—and remember that I must treat you with all the more apparent coldness because you are guilty of this too obvious mishap."

Baron Montes was presently announced; Valerie rose and hurried forward to meet him; she spoke a few sentences in his ear, enjoining on him the same reserve as she had impressed on Wenceslas; the Brazilian assumed a diplomatic reticence suitable to the great news which filled him with delight, for he, at any rate was sure of his paternity.

Thanks to these tactics, based on the vanity of the man in the lover stage of his existence, Valerie sat down to table with four men, all pleased and eager to please, all charmed, and each believing himself adored; called by Marneffe, who included himself, in speaking to Lisbeth, the five Fathers of the Church.

Baron Hulot alone at first showed an anxious countenance, and this was why. Just as he was leaving the office, the head of the staff of clerks had come to his private room—a General with whom he had served for thirty years—and Hulot had spoken to him as to appointing Marneffe to Coquet's place, Coquet having consented to retire.

"My dear fellow," said he, "I would not ask this favor of the Prince without our having agreed on the matter, and knowing that you approved."

"My good friend," replied the other, "you must allow me to observe that, for your own sake, you should not insist on this nomination. I have already told you my opinion. There would be a scandal in the office, where there is a great deal too much talk already about you and Madame Marneffe. This, of course, is between ourselves. I have no wish to touch you on a sensitive spot, or disoblige you in any way, and I will prove it. If you are determined to get Monsieur Coquet's place, and he will really be a loss in the War Office, for he has been here since 1809, I will go into the country for a fortnight, so as to leave the field open between you and the Marshal, who loves you as a son. Then I shall take neither part, and shall have nothing on my conscience as an administrator."

"Thank you very much," said Hulot. "I will reflect on what you have said."

"In allowing myself to say so much, my dear friend, it is because your personal interest is far more deeply implicated than any concern or vanity of mine. In the first place, the matter lies entirely with the Marshal. And then, my good fellow, we are blamed for so many things, that one more or less! We are not at the maiden stage in our experience of fault-finding. Under the Restoration, men were put in simply to give them places, without any regard for the office.—We are old friends——"

"Yes," the Baron put in; "and it is in order not to impair our old and valued friendship that I—"

"Well, well," said the departmental manager, seeing Hulot's face clouded with embarrassment, "I will take myself off, old fellow.—But I warn you! you have enemies—that is to say, men who covet your splendid appointment, and you have but one anchor out. Now if, like me, you were a Deputy, you would have nothing to fear; so mind what you are about."

This speech, in the most friendly spirit, made a deep impression on the Councillor of State.

"But, after all, Roger, what is it that is wrong? Do not make any mysteries with me."

The individual addressed as Roger looked at Hulot, took his hand, and pressed it.

"We are such old friends, that I am bound to give you warning. If you want to keep your place, you must make a bed for yourself, and instead of asking the Marshal to give Coquet's place to Marneffe, in your place I would beg him to use his influence to reserve a seat for me on the General Council of State; there you may die in peace, and, like the beaver, abandon all else to the pursuers."

"What, do you think the Marshal would forget—"

"The Marshal has already taken your part so warmly at a General Meeting of the Ministers, that you will not now be turned out; but it was seriously discussed! So give them no excuse. I can say no more. At this moment you may make your own terms; you may sit on the Council of State and be made a Peer of the Chamber. If you delay too long, if you give any one a hold against you, I can answer for nothing.—Now, am I to go?"

"Wait a little. I will see the Marshal," replied Hulot, "and I will send my brother to see which way the wind blows at headquarters."

The humor in which the Baron came back to Madame Marneffe's may be imagined; he had almost forgotten his fatherhood, for Roger had taken the part of a true and kind friend in explaining the position. At the same time Valerie's influence was so great that, by the middle of dinner, the Baron was tuned up to the pitch, and was all the more cheerful for having unwonted anxieties to conceal; but the hapless man was not yet aware that in the course of that evening he would find himself in a cleft stick, between his happiness and the danger pointed out by his friend—compelled, in short, to choose between Madame Marneffe and his official position.

At eleven o'clock, when the evening was at its gayest, for the room was full of company, Valerie drew Hector into a corner of her sofa.

"My dear old boy," said she, "your daughter is so annoyed at knowing that Wenceslas comes here, that she has left him 'planted.' Hortense is wrong-headed. Ask Wenceslas to show you the letter the little fool has written to him.

"This division of two lovers, of which I am reputed to be the cause, may do me the greatest harm, for this is how virtuous women undermine each other. It is disgraceful to pose as a victim in order to cast the blame on a woman whose only crime is that she keeps a pleasant house. If you love me, you will clear my character by reconciling the sweet turtle-doves.

"I do not in the least care about your son-in-law's visits; you brought him here—take him away again! If you have any authority in your family, it seems to me that you may very well insist on your wife's patching up this squabble. Tell the worthy old lady from me, that if I am unjustly charged with having caused a young couple to quarrel, with upsetting the unity of a family, and annexing both the father and the son-in-law, I will deserve my reputation by annoying them in my own way! Why, here is Lisbeth talking of throwing me over! She prefers to stick to her family, and I cannot blame her for it. She will throw me over, says she, unless the young people make friends again. A pretty state of things! Our expenses here will be trebled!"

"Oh, as for that!" said the Baron, on hearing of his daughter's strong measures, "I will have no nonsense of that kind."

"Very well," said Valerie. "And now for the next thing.—What about Coquet's place?"

"That," said Hector, looking away, "is more difficult, not to say impossible."

"Impossible, my dear Hector?" said Madame Marneffe in the Baron's ear. "But you do not know to what lengths Marneffe will go. I am completely in his power; he is immoral for his own gratification, like most men, but he is excessively vindictive, like all weak and impotent natures. In the position to which you have reduced me, I am in his power. I am bound to be on terms with him for a few days, and he is quite capable of refusing to leave my room any more."

Hulot started with horror.

"He would leave me alone on condition of being head-clerk. It is abominable—but logical."

"Valerie, do you love me?"

"In the state in which I am, my dear, the question is the meanest insult."

"Well, then—if I were to attempt, merely to attempt, to ask the Prince for a place for Marneffe, I should be done for, and Marneffe would be turned out."

"I thought that you and the Prince were such intimate friends."

"We are, and he has amply proved it; but, my child, there is authority above the Marshal's—for instance, the whole Council of Ministers. With time and a little tacking, we shall get there. But, to succeed, I must wait till the moment when some service is required of me. Then I can say one good turn deserves another—"

"If I tell Marneffe this tale, my poor Hector, he will play us some mean trick. You must tell him yourself that he has to wait. I will not undertake to do so. Oh! I know what my fate would be. He knows how to punish me! He will henceforth share my room——

"Do not forget to settle the twelve hundred francs a year on the little one!"

Hulot, seeing his pleasures in danger, took Monsieur Marneffe aside, and for the first time derogated from the haughty tone he had always assumed towards him, so greatly was he horrified by the thought of that half-dead creature in his pretty young wife's bedroom.

"Marneffe, my dear fellow," said he, "I have been talking of you to-day. But you cannot be promoted to the first class just yet. We must have time."

"I will be, Monsieur le Baron," said Marneffe shortly.

"But, my dear fellow—"

"I will be, Monsieur le Baron," Marneffe coldly repeated, looking alternately at the Baron and at Valerie. "You have placed my wife in a position that necessitates her making up her differences with me, and I mean to keep her; for, my dear fellow, she is a charming creature," he added, with crushing irony. "I am master here—more than you are at the War Office."

The Baron felt one of those pangs of fury which have the effect, in the heart, of a fit of raging toothache, and he could hardly conceal the tears in his eyes.

During this little scene, Valerie had been explaining Marneffe's imaginary determination to Montes, and thus had rid herself of him for a time.

Of her four adherents, Crevel alone was exempted from the rule—Crevel, the master of the little "bijou" apartment; and he displayed on his countenance an air of really insolent beatitude, notwithstanding the wordless reproofs administered by Valerie in frowns and meaning grimaces. His triumphant paternity beamed in every feature.

When Valerie was whispering a word of correction in his ear, he snatched her hand, and put in:

"To-morrow, my Duchess, you shall have your own little house! The papers are to be signed to-morrow."

"And the furniture?" said she, with a smile.

"I have a thousand shares in the Versailles rive gauche railway. I bought them at twenty-five, and they will go up to three hundred in consequence of the amalgamation of the two lines, which is a secret told to me. You shall have furniture fit for a queen. But then you will be mine alone henceforth?"

"Yes, burly Maire," said this middle-class Madame de Merteuil. "But behave yourself; respect the future Madame Crevel."

"My dear cousin," Lisbeth was saying to the Baron, "I shall go to see Adeline early to-morrow; for, as you must see, I cannot, with any decency, remain here. I will go and keep house for your brother the Marshal."

"I am going home this evening," said Hulot.

"Very well, you will see me at breakfast to-morrow," said Lisbeth, smiling.

She understood that her presence would be necessary at the family scene that would take place on the morrow. And the very first thing in the morning she went to see Victorin and to tell him that Hortense and Wenceslas had parted.

When the Baron went home at half-past ten, Mariette and Louise, who had had a hard day, were locking up the apartment. Hulot had not to ring.

Very much put out at this compulsory virtue, the husband went straight to his wife's room, and through the half-open door he saw her kneeling before her Crucifix, absorbed in prayer, in one of those attitudes which make the fortune of the painter or the sculptor who is so happy to invent and then to express them. Adeline, carried away by her enthusiasm, was praying aloud:

"O God, have mercy and enlighten him!"

The Baroness was praying for her Hector.

At this sight, so unlike what he had just left, and on hearing this petition founded on the events of the day, the Baron heaved a sigh of deep emotion. Adeline looked round, her face drowned in tears. She was so convinced that her prayer had been heard, that, with one spring, she threw her arms round Hector with the impetuosity of happy affection. Adeline had given up all a wife's instincts; sorrow had effaced even the memory of them. No feeling survived in her but those of motherhood, of the family honor, and the pure attachment of a Christian wife for a husband who has gone astray—the saintly tenderness which survives all else in a woman's soul.

"Hector!" she said, "are you come back to us? Has God taken pity on our family?"

"Dear Adeline," replied the Baron, coming in and seating his wife by his side on a couch, "you are the saintliest creature I ever knew; I have long known myself to be unworthy of you."

"You would have very little to do, my dear," said she, holding Hulot's hand and trembling so violently that it was as though she had a palsy, "very little to set things in order—"

She dared not proceed; she felt that every word would be a reproof, and she did not wish to mar the happiness with which this meeting was inundating her soul.

"It is Hortense who has brought me here," said Hulot. "That child may do us far more harm by her hasty proceeding than my absurd passion for Valerie has ever done. But we will discuss all this to-morrow morning. Hortense is asleep, Mariette tells me; we will not disturb her."

"Yes," said Madame Hulot, suddenly plunged into the depths of grief.

She understood that the Baron's return was prompted not so much by the wish to see his family as by some ulterior interest.

"Leave her in peace till to-morrow," said the mother. "The poor child is in a deplorable condition; she has been crying all day."