Cousin Betty/Section 30

In Paris each ministry is a little town by itself, whence women are banished; but there is just as much detraction and scandal as though the feminine population were admitted there. At the end of three years, Monsieur Marneffe's position was perfectly clear and open to the day, and in every room one and another asked, "Is Marneffe to be, or not to be, Coquet's successor?" Exactly as the question might have been put to the Chamber, "Will the estimates pass or not pass?" The smallest initiative on the part of the board of Management was commented on; everything in Baron Hulot's department was carefully noted. The astute State Councillor had enlisted on his side the victim of Marneffe's promotion, a hard-working clerk, telling him that if he could fill Marneffe's place, he would certainly succeed to it; he had told him that the man was dying. So this clerk was scheming for Marneffe's advancement.

When Hulot went through his anteroom, full of visitors, he saw Marneffe's colorless face in a corner, and sent for him before any one else.

"What do you want of me, my dear fellow?" said the Baron, disguising his anxiety.

"Monsieur le Directeur, I am the laughing-stock of the office, for it has become known that the chief of the clerks has left this morning for a holiday, on the ground of his health. He is to be away a month. Now, we all know what waiting for a month means. You deliver me over to the mockery of my enemies, and it is bad enough to be drummed upon one side; drumming on both at once, monsieur, is apt to burst the drum."

"My dear Marneffe, it takes long patience to gain an end. You cannot be made head-clerk in less than two months, if ever. Just when I must, as far as possible, secure my own position, is not the time to be applying for your promotion, which would raise a scandal."

"If you are broke, I shall never get it," said Marneffe coolly. "And if you get me the place, it will make no difference in the end."

"Then I am to sacrifice myself for you?" said the Baron.

"If you do not, I shall be much mistaken in you."

"You are too exclusively Marneffe, Monsieur Marneffe," said Hulot, rising and showing the clerk the door.

"I have the honor to wish you good-morning, Monsieur le Baron," said Marneffe humbly.

"What an infamous rascal!" thought the Baron. "This is uncommonly like a summons to pay within twenty-four hours on pain of distraint."

Two hours later, just when the Baron had been instructing Claude Vignon, whom he was sending to the Ministry of Justice to obtain information as to the judicial authorities under whose jurisdiction Johann Fischer might fall, Reine opened the door of his private room and gave him a note, saying she would wait for the answer.

"Valerie is mad!" said the Baron to himself. "To send Reine! It is enough to compromise us all, and it certainly compromises that dreadful Marneffe's chances of promotion!"

But he dismissed the minister's private secretary, and read as follows:—

"Oh, my dear friend, what a scene I have had to endure! Though you have made me happy for three years, I have paid dearly for it! He came in from the office in a rage that made me quake. I knew he was ugly; I have seen him a monster! His four real teeth chattered, and he threatened me with his odious presence without respite if I should continue to receive you. My poor, dear old boy, our door is closed against you henceforth. You see my tears; they are dropping on the paper and soaking it; can you read what I write, dear Hector? Oh, to think of never seeing you, of giving you up when I bear in me some of your life, as I flatter myself I have your heart—it is enough to kill me. Think of our little Hector!
"Do not forsake me, but do not disgrace yourself for Marneffe's sake; do not yield to his threats.
"I love you as I have never loved! I remember all the sacrifices you have made for your Valerie; she is not, and never will be, ungrateful; you are, and will ever be, my only husband. Think no more of the twelve hundred francs a year I asked you to settle on the dear little Hector who is to come some months hence; I will not cost you anything more. And besides, my money will always be yours.
"Oh, if you only loved me as I love you, my Hector, you would retire on your pension; we should both take leave of our family, our worries, our surroundings, so full of hatred, and we should go to live with Lisbeth in some pretty country place—in Brittany, or wherever you like. There we should see nobody, and we should be happy away from the world. Your pension and the little property I can call my own would be enough for us. You say you are jealous; well, you would then have your Valerie entirely devoted to her Hector, and you would never have to talk in a loud voice, as you did the other day. I shall have but one child—ours—you may be sure, my dearly loved old veteran.
"You cannot conceive of my fury, for you cannot know how he treated me, and the foul words he vomited on your Valerie. Such words would disgrace my paper; a woman such as I am—Montcornet's daughter—ought never to have heard one of them in her life. I only wish you had been there, that I might have punished him with the sight of the mad passion I felt for you. My father would have killed the wretch; I can only do as women do—love you devotedly! Indeed, my love, in the state of exasperation in which I am, I cannot possibly give up seeing you. I must positively see you, in secret, every day! That is what we are, we women. Your resentment is mine. If you love me, I implore you, do not let him be promoted; leave him to die a second-class clerk.
"At this moment I have lost my head; I still seem to hear him abusing me. Betty, who had meant to leave me, has pity on me, and will stay for a few days.
"My dear kind love, I do not know yet what is to be done. I see nothing for it but flight. I always delight in the country—Brittany, Languedoc, what you will, so long as I am free to love you. Poor dear, how I pity you! Forced now to go back to your old Adeline, to that lachrymal urn—for, as he no doubt told you, the monster means to watch me night and day; he spoke of a detective! Do not come here, he is capable of anything I know, since he could make use of me for the basest purposes of speculation. I only wish I could return you all the things I have received from your generosity.
"Ah! my kind Hector, I may have flirted, and have seemed to you to be fickle, but you did not know your Valerie; she liked to tease you, but she loves you better than any one in the world.
"He cannot prevent your coming to see your cousin; I will arrange with her that we have speech with each other. My dear old boy, write me just a line, pray, to comfort me in the absence of your dear self. (Oh, I would give one of my hands to have you by me on our sofa!) A letter will work like a charm; write me something full of your noble soul; I will return your note to you, for I must be cautious; I should not know where to hide it, he pokes his nose in everywhere. In short, comfort your Valerie, your little wife, the mother of your child.—To think of my having to write to you, when I used to see you every day. As I say to Lisbeth, 'I did not know how happy I was.' A thousand kisses, dear boy. Be true to your

"VALERIE."

"And tears!" said Hulot to himself as he finished this letter, "tears which have blotted out her name.—How is she?" said he to Reine.

"Madame is in bed; she has dreadful spasms," replied Reine. "She had a fit of hysterics that twisted her like a withy round a faggot. It came on after writing. It comes of crying so much. She heard monsieur's voice on the stairs."

The Baron in his distress wrote the following note on office paper with a printed heading:—

"Be quite easy, my angel, he will die a second-class clerk!—Your idea is admirable; we will go and live far from Paris, where we shall be happy with our little Hector; I will retire on my pension, and I shall be sure to find some good appointment on a railway.
"Ah, my sweet friend, I feel so much the younger for your letter! I shall begin life again and make a fortune, you will see, for our dear little one. As I read your letter, a thousand times more ardent than those of the Nouvelle Heloise, it worked a miracle! I had not believed it possible that I could love you more. This evening, at Lisbeth's you will see

"YOUR HECTOR, FOR LIFE."

Reine carried off this reply, the first letter the Baron had written to his "sweet friend." Such emotions to some extent counterbalanced the disasters growling in the distance; but the Baron, at this moment believing he could certainly avert the blows aimed at his uncle, Johann Fischer, thought only of the deficit.

One of the characteristics of the Bonapartist temperament is a firm belief in the power of the sword, and confidence in the superiority of the military over civilians. Hulot laughed to scorn the Public Prosecutor in Algiers, where the War Office is supreme. Man is always what he has once been. How can the officers of the Imperial Guard forget that time was when the mayors of the largest towns in the Empire and the Emperor's prefects, Emperors themselves on a minute scale, would come out to meet the Imperial Guard, to pay their respects on the borders of the Departments through which it passed, and to do it, in short, the homage due to sovereigns?

At half-past four the baron went straight to Madame Marneffe's; his heart beat as high as a young man's as he went upstairs, for he was asking himself this question, "Shall I see her? or shall I not?"

How was he now to remember the scene of the morning when his weeping children had knelt at his feet? Valerie's note, enshrined for ever in a thin pocket-book over his heart, proved to him that she loved him more than the most charming of young men.

Having rung, the unhappy visitor heard within the shuffling slippers and vexatious scraping cough of the detestable master. Marneffe opened the door, but only to put himself into an attitude and point to the stairs, exactly as Hulot had shown him the door of his private room.

"You are too exclusively Hulot, Monsieur Hulot!" said he.

The Baron tried to pass him, Marneffe took a pistol out of his pocket and cocked it.

"Monsieur le Baron," said he, "when a man is as vile as I am—for you think me very vile, don't you?—he would be the meanest galley-slave if he did not get the full benefit of his betrayed honor.—You are for war; it will be hot work and no quarter. Come here no more, and do not attempt to get past me. I have given the police notice of my position with regard to you."

And taking advantage of Hulot's amazement, he pushed him out and shut the door.

"What a low scoundrel!" said Hulot to himself, as he went upstairs to Lisbeth. "I understand her letter now. Valerie and I will go away from Paris. Valerie is wholly mine for the remainder of my days; she will close my eyes."

Lisbeth was out. Madame Olivier told the Baron that she had gone to his wife's house, thinking that she would find him there.

"Poor thing! I should never have expected her to be so sharp as she was this morning," thought Hulot, recalling Lisbeth's behavior as he made his way from the Rue Vanneau to the Rue Plumet.

As he turned the corner of the Rue Vanneau and the Rue de Babylone, he looked back at the Eden whence Hymen had expelled him with the sword of the law. Valerie, at her window, was watching his departure; as he glanced up, she waved her handkerchief, but the rascally Marneffe hit his wife's cap and dragged her violently away from the window. A tear rose to the great official's eye.

"Oh! to be so well loved! To see a woman so ill used, and to be so nearly seventy years old!" thought he.

Lisbeth had come to give the family the good news. Adeline and Hortense had already heard that the Baron, not choosing to compromise himself in the eyes of the whole office by appointing Marneffe to the first class, would be turned from the door by the Hulot-hating husband. Adeline, very happy, had ordered a dinner that her Hector was to like better than any of Valerie's; and Lisbeth, in her devotion, was helping Mariette to achieve this difficult result. Cousin Betty was the idol of the hour. Mother and daughter kissed her hands, and had told her with touching delight that the Marshal consented to have her as his housekeeper.

"And from that, my dear, there is but one step to becoming his wife!" said Adeline.

"In fact, he did not say no when Victorin mentioned it," added the Countess.

The Baron was welcomed home with such charming proofs of affection, so pathetically overflowing with love, that he was fain to conceal his troubles.

Marshal Hulot came to dinner. After dinner, Hector did not go out. Victorin and his wife joined them, and they made up a rubber.

"It is a long time, Hector," said the Marshal gravely, "since you gave us the treat of such an evening."

This speech from the old soldier, who spoiled his brother though he thus implicitly blamed him, made a deep impression. It showed how wide and deep were the wounds in a heart where all the woes he had divined had found an echo. At eight o'clock the Baron insisted on seeing Lisbeth home, promising to return.

"Do you know, Lisbeth, he ill-treats her!" said he in the street. "Oh, I never loved her so well!"

"I never imagined that Valerie loved you so well," replied Lisbeth. "She is frivolous and a coquette, she loves to have attentions paid her, and to have the comedy of love-making performed for her, as she says; but you are her only real attachment."

"What message did she send me?"

"Why, this," said Lisbeth. "She has, as you know, been on intimate terms with Crevel. You must owe her no grudge, for that, in fact, is what has raised her above utter poverty for the rest of her life; but she detests him, and matters are nearly at an end.—Well, she has kept the key of some rooms—"

"Rue du Dauphin!" cried the thrice-blest Baron. "If it were for that alone, I would overlook Crevel.—I have been there; I know."

"Here, then, is the key," said Lisbeth. "Have another made from it in the course of to-morrow—two if you can."

"And then," said Hulot eagerly.

"Well, I will dine at your house again to-morrow; you must give me back Valerie's key, for old Crevel might ask her to return it to him, and you can meet her there the day after; then you can decide what your facts are to be. You will be quite safe, as there are two ways out. If by chance Crevel, who is Regence in his habits, as he is fond of saying, should come in by the side street, you could go out through the shop, or vice versa.

"You owe all this to me, you old villain; now what will you do for me?"

"Whatever you want."

"Then you will not oppose my marrying your brother?"

"You! the Marechale Hulot, the Comtesse de Frozheim?" cried Hector, startled.

"Well, Adeline is a Baroness!" retorted Betty in a vicious and formidable tone. "Listen to me, you old libertine. You know how matters stand; your family may find itself starving in the gutter—"

"That is what I dread," said Hulot in dismay.

"And if your brother were to die, who would maintain your wife and daughter? The widow of a Marshal gets at least six thousand francs pension, doesn't she? Well, then, I wish to marry to secure bread for your wife and daughter—old dotard!"

"I had not seen it in that light!" said the Baron. "I will talk to my brother—for we are sure of you.—Tell my angel that my life is hers."

And the Baron, having seen Lisbeth go into the house in the Rue Vanneau, went back to his whist and stayed at home. The Baroness was at the height of happiness; her husband seemed to be returning to domestic habits; for about a fortnight he went to his office at nine every morning, he came in to dinner at six, and spent the evening with his family. He twice took Adeline and Hortense to the play. The mother and daughter paid for three thanksgiving masses, and prayed to God to suffer them to keep the husband and father He had restored to them.

One evening Victorin Hulot, seeing his father retire for the night, said to his mother:

"Well, we are at any rate so far happy that my father has come back to us. My wife and I shall never regret our capital if only this lasts—"

"Your father is nearly seventy," said the Baroness. "He still thinks of Madame Marneffe, that I can see; but he will forget her in time. A passion for women is not like gambling, or speculation, or avarice; there is an end to it."

But Adeline, still beautiful in spite of her fifty years and her sorrows, in this was mistaken. Profligates, men whom Nature has gifted with the precious power of loving beyond the limits ordinarily set to love, rarely are as old as their age.