Cousin Betty/Section 31

During this relapse into virtue Baron Hulot had been three times to the Rue du Dauphin, and had certainly not been the man of seventy. His rekindled passion made him young again, and he would have sacrificed his honor to Valerie, his family, his all, without a regret. But Valerie, now completely altered, never mentioned money, not even the twelve hundred francs a year to be settled on their son; on the contrary, she offered him money, she loved Hulot as a woman of six-and-thirty loves a handsome law-student—a poor, poetical, ardent boy. And the hapless wife fancied she had reconquered her dear Hector!

The fourth meeting between this couple had been agreed upon at the end of the third, exactly as formerly in Italian theatres the play was announced for the next night. The hour fixed was nine in the morning. On the next day when the happiness was due for which the amorous old man had resigned himself to domestic rules, at about eight in the morning, Reine came and asked to see the Baron. Hulot, fearing some catastrophe, went out to speak with Reine, who would not come into the anteroom. The faithful waiting-maid gave him the following note:—

"DEAR OLD MAN,—Do not go to the Rue du Dauphin. Our incubus is ill, and I must nurse him; but be there this evening at nine. Crevel is at Corbeil with Monsieur Lebas; so I am sure he will bring no princess to his little palace. I have made arrangements here to be free for the night and get back before Marneffe is awake. Answer me as to all this, for perhaps your long elegy of a wife no longer allows you your liberty as she did. I am told she is still so handsome that you might play me false, you are such a gay dog! Burn this note; I am suspicious of every one."

Hulot wrote this scrap in reply:

"MY LOVE,—As I have told you, my wife has not for five-and-twenty years interfered with my pleasures. For you I would give up a hundred Adelines.—I will be in the Crevel sanctum at nine this evening awaiting my divinity. Oh that your clerk might soon die! We should part no more. And this is the dearest wish of

"YOUR HECTOR."

That evening the Baron told his wife that he had business with the Minister at Saint-Cloud, that he would come home at about four or five in the morning; and he went to the Rue du Dauphin. It was towards the end of the month of June.

Few men have in the course of their life known really the dreadful sensation of going to their death; those who have returned from the foot of the scaffold may be easily counted. But some have had a vivid experience of it in dreams; they have gone through it all, to the sensation of the knife at their throat, at the moment when waking and daylight come to release them.—Well, the sensation to which the Councillor of State was a victim at five in the morning in Crevel's handsome and elegant bed, was immeasurably worse than that of feeling himself bound to the fatal block in the presence of ten thousand spectators looking at you with twenty thousand sparks of fire.

Valerie was asleep in a graceful attitude. She was lovely, as a woman is who is lovely enough to look so even in sleep. It is art invading nature; in short, a living picture.

In his horizontal position the Baron's eyes were but three feet above the floor. His gaze, wandering idly, as that of a man who is just awake and collecting his ideas, fell on a door painted with flowers by Jan, an artist disdainful of fame. The Baron did not indeed see twenty thousand flaming eyes, like the man condemned to death; he saw but one, of which the shaft was really more piercing than the thousands on the Public Square.

Now this sensation, far rarer in the midst of enjoyment even than that of a man condemned to death, was one for which many a splenetic Englishman would certainly pay a high price. The Baron lay there, horizontal still, and literally bathed in cold sweat. He tried to doubt the fact; but this murderous eye had a voice. A sound of whispering was heard through the door.

"So long as it is nobody but Crevel playing a trick on me!" said the Baron to himself, only too certain of an intruder in the temple.

The door was opened. The Majesty of the French Law, which in all documents follows next to the King, became visible in the person of a worthy little police-officer supported by a tall Justice of the Peace, both shown in by Monsieur Marneffe. The police functionary, rooted in shoes of which the straps were tied together with flapping bows, ended at top in a yellow skull almost bare of hair, and a face betraying him as a wide-awake, cheerful, and cunning dog, from whom Paris life had no secrets. His eyes, though garnished with spectacles, pierced the glasses with a keen mocking glance. The Justice of the Peace, a retired attorney, and an old admirer of the fair sex, envied the delinquent.

"Pray excuse the strong measures required by our office, Monsieur le Baron!" said the constable; "we are acting for the plaintiff. The Justice of the Peace is here to authorize the visitation of the premises.—I know who you are, and who the lady is who is accused."

Valerie opened her astonished eyes, gave such a shriek as actresses use to depict madness on the stage, writhed in convulsions on the bed, like a witch of the Middle Ages in her sulphur-colored frock on a bed of faggots.

"Death, and I am ready! my dear Hector—but a police court?—Oh! never."

With one bound she passed the three spectators and crouched under the little writing-table, hiding her face in her hands.

"Ruin! Death!" she cried.

"Monsieur," said Marneffe to Hulot, "if Madame Marneffe goes mad, you are worse than a profligate; you will be a murderer."

What can a man do, what can he say, when he is discovered in a bed which is not his, even on the score of hiring, with a woman who is no more his than the bed is?—Well, this:

"Monsieur the Justice of the Peace, Monsieur the Police Officer," said the Baron with some dignity, "be good enough to take proper care of that unhappy woman, whose reason seems to me to be in danger.—You can harangue me afterwards. The doors are locked, no doubt; you need not fear that she will get away, or I either, seeing the costume we wear."

The two functionaries bowed to the magnate's injunctions.

"You, come here, miserable cur!" said Hulot in a low voice to Marneffe, taking him by the arm and drawing him closer. "It is not I, but you, who will be the murderer! You want to be head-clerk of your room and officer of the Legion of Honor?"

"That in the first place, Chief!" replied Marneffe, with a bow.

"You shall be all that, only soothe your wife and dismiss these fellows."

"Nay, nay!" said Marneffe knowingly. "These gentlemen must draw up their report as eyewitnesses to the fact; without that, the chief evidence in my case, where should I be? The higher official ranks are chokeful of rascalities. You have done me out of my wife, and you have not promoted me, Monsieur le Baron; I give you only two days to get out of the scrape. Here are some letters—"

"Some letters!" interrupted Hulot.

"Yes; letters which prove that you are the father of the child my wife expects to give birth to.—You understand? And you ought to settle on my son a sum equal to what he will lose through this bastard. But I will be reasonable; this does not distress me, I have no mania for paternity myself. A hundred louis a year will satisfy me. By to-morrow I must be Monsieur Coquet's successor and see my name on the list for promotion in the Legion of Honor at the July fetes, or else—the documentary evidence and my charge against you will be laid before the Bench. I am not so hard to deal with after all, you see."

"Bless me, and such a pretty woman!" said the Justice of the Peace to the police constable. "What a loss to the world if she should go mad!"

"She is not mad," said the constable sententiously. The police is always the incarnation of scepticism.—"Monsieur le Baron Hulot has been caught by a trick," he added, loud enough for Valerie to hear him.

Valerie shot a flash from her eye which would have killed him on the spot if looks could effect the vengeance they express. The police-officer smiled; he had laid a snare, and the woman had fallen into it. Marneffe desired his wife to go into the other room and clothe herself decently, for he and the Baron had come to an agreement on all points, and Hulot fetched his dressing-gown and came out again.

"Gentlemen," said he to the two officials, "I need not impress on you to be secret."

The functionaries bowed.

The police-officer rapped twice on the door; his clerk came in, sat down at the "bonheur-du-jour," and wrote what the constable dictated to him in an undertone. Valerie still wept vehemently. When she was dressed, Hulot went into the other room and put on his clothes. Meanwhile the report was written.

Marneffe then wanted to take his wife home; but Hulot, believing that he saw her for the last time, begged the favor of being allowed to speak with her.

"Monsieur, your wife has cost me dear enough for me to be allowed to say good-bye to her—in the presence of you all, of course."

Valerie went up to Hulot, and he whispered in her ear:

"There is nothing left for us but to fly, but how can we correspond? We have been betrayed—"

"Through Reine," she answered. "But my dear friend, after this scandal we can never meet again. I am disgraced. Besides, you will hear dreadful things about me—you will believe them—"

The Baron made a gesture of denial.

"You will believe them, and I can thank God for that, for then perhaps you will not regret me."

"He will not die a second-class clerk!" said Marneffe to Hulot, as he led his wife away, saying roughly, "Come, madame; if I am foolish to you, I do not choose to be a fool to others."

Valerie left the house, Crevel's Eden, with a last glance at the Baron, so cunning that he thought she adored him. The Justice of the Peace gave Madame Marneffe his arm to the hackney coach with a flourish of gallantry. The Baron, who was required to witness the report, remained quite bewildered, alone with the police-officer. When the Baron had signed, the officer looked at him keenly, over his glasses.

"You are very sweet on the little lady, Monsieur le Baron?"

"To my sorrow, as you see."

"Suppose that she does not care for you?" the man went on, "that she is deceiving you?"

"I have long known that, monsieur—here, in this very spot, Monsieur Crevel and I told each other——"

"Oh! Then you knew that you were in Monsieur le Maire's private snuggery?"

"Perfectly."

The constable lightly touched his hat with a respectful gesture.

"You are very much in love," said he. "I say no more. I respect an inveterate passion, as a doctor respects an inveterate complaint.—I saw Monsieur de Nucingen, the banker, attacked in the same way—"

"He is a friend of mine," said the Baron. "Many a time have I supped with his handsome Esther. She was worth the two million francs she cost him."

"And more," said the officer. "That caprice of the old Baron's cost four persons their lives. Oh! such passions as these are like the cholera!"

"What had you to say to me?" asked the Baron, who took this indirect warning very ill.

"Oh! why should I deprive you of your illusions?" replied the officer. "Men rarely have any left at your age!"

"Rid me of them!" cried the Councillor.

"You will curse the physician later," replied the officer, smiling.

"I beg of you, monsieur."

"Well, then, that woman was in collusion with her husband."

"Oh!——"

"Yes, sir, and so it is in two cases out of every ten. Oh! we know it well."

"What proof have you of such a conspiracy?"

"In the first place, the husband!" said the other, with the calm acumen of a surgeon practised in unbinding wounds. "Mean speculation is stamped in every line of that villainous face. But you, no doubt, set great store by a certain letter written by that woman with regard to the child?"

"So much so, that I always have it about me," replied Hulot, feeling in his breast-pocket for the little pocketbook which he always kept there.

"Leave your pocketbook where it is," said the man, as crushing as a thunder-clap. "Here is the letter.—I now know all I want to know. Madame Marneffe, of course, was aware of what that pocketbook contained?"

"She alone in the world."

"So I supposed.—Now for the proof you asked for of her collusion with her husband."

"Let us hear!" said the Baron, still incredulous.

"When we came in here, Monsieur le Baron, that wretched creature Marneffe led the way, and he took up this letter, which his wife, no doubt, had placed on this writing-table," and he pointed to the bonheur-du-jour. "That evidently was the spot agreed upon by the couple, in case she should succeed in stealing the letter while you were asleep; for this letter, as written to you by the lady, is, combined with those you wrote to her, decisive evidence in a police-court."

He showed Hulot the note that Reine had delivered to him in his private room at the office.

"It is one of the documents in the case," said the police-agent; "return it to me, monsieur."

"Well, monsieur," replied Hulot with bitter expression, "that woman is profligacy itself in fixed ratios. I am certain at this moment that she has three lovers."

"That is perfectly evident," said the officer. "Oh, they are not all on the streets! When a woman follows that trade in a carriage and a drawing-room, and her own house, it is not a case for francs and centimes, Monsieur le Baron. Mademoiselle Esther, of whom you spoke, and who poisoned herself, made away with millions.—If you will take my advice, you will get out of it, monsieur. This last little game will have cost you dear. That scoundrel of a husband has the law on his side. And indeed, but for me, that little woman would have caught you again!"

"Thank you, monsieur," said the Baron, trying to maintain his dignity.

"Now we will lock up; the farce is played out, and you can send your key to Monsieur the Mayor."

Hulot went home in a state of dejection bordering on helplessness, and sunk in the gloomiest thoughts. He woke his noble and saintly wife, and poured into her heart the history of the past three years, sobbing like a child deprived of a toy. This confession from an old man young in feeling, this frightful and heart-rending narrative, while it filled Adeline with pity, also gave her the greatest joy; she thanked Heaven for this last catastrophe, for in fancy she saw the husband settled at last in the bosom of his family.

"Lisbeth was right," said Madame Hulot gently and without any useless recrimination, "she told us how it would be."

"Yes. If only I had listened to her, instead of flying into a rage, that day when I wanted poor Hortense to go home rather than compromise the reputation of that—Oh! my dear Adeline, we must save Wenceslas. He is up to his chin in that mire!"

"My poor old man, the respectable middle-classes have turned out no better than the actresses," said Adeline, with a smile.

The Baroness was alarmed at the change in her Hector; when she saw him so unhappy, ailing, crushed under his weight of woes, she was all heart, all pity, all love; she would have shed her blood to make Hulot happy.

"Stay with us, my dear Hector. Tell me what is it that such women do to attract you so powerfully. I too will try. Why have you not taught me to be what you want? Am I deficient in intelligence? Men still think me handsome enough to court my favor."

Many a married woman, attached to her duty and to her husband, may here pause to ask herself why strong and affectionate men, so tender-hearted to the Madame Marneffes, do not take their wives for the object of their fancies and passions, especially wives like the Baronne Adeline Hulot.

This is, indeed, one of the most recondite mysteries of human nature. Love, which is debauch of reason, the strong and austere joy of a lofty soul, and pleasure, the vulgar counterfeit sold in the market-place, are two aspects of the same thing. The woman who can satisfy both these devouring appetites is as rare in her sex as a great general, a great writer, a great artist, a great inventor in a nation. A man of superior intellect or an idiot—a Hulot or a Crevel—equally crave for the ideal and for enjoyment; all alike go in search of the mysterious compound, so rare that at last it is usually found to be a work in two volumes. This craving is a depraved impulse due to society.

Marriage, no doubt, must be accepted as a tie; it is life, with its duties and its stern sacrifices on both parts equally. Libertines, who seek for hidden treasure, are as guilty as other evil-doers who are more hardly dealt with than they. These reflections are not a mere veneer of moralizing; they show the reason of many unexplained misfortunes. But, indeed, this drama points its own moral—or morals, for they are of many kinds.

The Baron presently went to call on the Marshal Prince de Wissembourg, whose powerful patronage was now his only chance. Having dwelt under his protection for five-and-thirty years, he was a visitor at all hours, and would be admitted to his rooms as soon as he was up.

"Ah! How are you, my dear Hector?" said the great and worthy leader. "What is the matter? You look anxious. And yet the session is ended. One more over! I speak of that now as I used to speak of a campaign. And indeed I believe the newspapers nowadays speak of the sessions as parliamentary campaigns."

"We have been in difficulties, I must confess, Marshal; but the times are hard!" said Hulot. "It cannot be helped; the world was made so. Every phase has its own drawbacks. The worst misfortunes in the year 1841 is that neither the King nor the ministers are free to act as Napoleon was."

The Marshal gave Hulot one of those eagle flashes which in its pride, clearness, and perspicacity showed that, in spite of years, that lofty soul was still upright and vigorous.

"You want me to so something for you?" said he, in a hearty tone.

"I find myself under the necessity of applying to you for the promotion of one of my second clerks to the head of a room—as a personal favor to myself—and his advancement to be officer of the Legion of Honor."

"What is his name?" said the Marshal, with a look like a lightning flash.

"Marneffe."

"He has a pretty wife; I saw her on the occasion of your daughter's marriage.—If Roger—but Roger is away!—Hector, my boy, this is concerned with your pleasures. What, you still indulge—? Well, you are a credit to the old Guard. That is what comes of having been in the Commissariat; you have reserves!—But have nothing to do with this little job, my dear boy; it is too strong of the petticoat to be good business."

"No, Marshal; it is bad business, for the police courts have a finger in it. Would you like to see me go there?"

"The devil!" said the Prince uneasily. "Go on!"

"Well, I am in the predicament of a trapped fox. You have always been so kind to me, that you will, I am sure, condescend to help me out of the shameful position in which I am placed."

Hulot related his misadventures, as wittily and as lightly as he could.

"And you, Prince, will you allow my brother to die of grief, a man you love so well; or leave one of your staff in the War Office, a Councillor of State, to live in disgrace. This Marneffe is a wretched creature; he can be shelved in two or three years."

"How you talk of two or three years, my dear fellow!" said the Marshal.

"But, Prince, the Imperial Guard is immortal."

"I am the last of the first batch of Marshals," said the Prince. "Listen, Hector. You do not know the extent of my attachment to you; you shall see. On the day when I retire from office, we will go together. But you are not a Deputy, my friend. Many men want your place; but for me, you would be out of it by this time. Yes, I have fought many a pitched battle to keep you in it.—Well, I grant you your two requests; it would be too bad to see you riding the bar at your age and in the position you hold. But you stretch your credit a little too far. If this appointment gives rise to discussion, we shall not be held blameless. I can laugh at such things; but you will find it a thorn under your feet. And the next session will see your dismissal. Your place is held out as a bait to five or six influential men, and you have been enabled to keep it solely by the force of my arguments. I tell you, on the day when you retire, there will be five malcontents to one happy man; whereas, by keeping you hanging on by a thread for two or three years, we shall secure all six votes. There was a great laugh at the Council meeting; the Veteran of the Old Guard, as they say, was becoming desperately wide awake in parliamentary tactics! I am frank with you.—And you are growing gray; you are a happy man to be able to get into such difficulties as these! How long is it since I—Lieutenant Cottin—had a mistress?"

He rang the bell.

"That police report must be destroyed," he added.

"Monseigneur, you are as a father to me! I dared not mention my anxiety on that point."

"I still wish I had Roger here," cried the Prince, as Mitouflet, his groom of the chambers, came in. "I was just going to send for him!—You may go, Mitouflet.—Go you, my dear old fellow, go and have the nomination made out; I will sign it. At the same time, that low schemer will not long enjoy the fruit of his crimes. He will be sharply watched, and drummed out of the regiment for the smallest fault.—You are saved this time, my dear Hector; take care for the future. Do not exhaust your friends' patience. You shall have the nomination this morning, and your man shall get his promotion in the Legion of Honor.—How old are you now?"

"Within three months of seventy."

"What a scapegrace!" said the Prince, laughing. "It is you who deserve a promotion, but, by thunder! we are not under Louis XV.!"

Such is the sense of comradeship that binds the glorious survivors of the Napoleonic phalanx, that they always feel as if they were in camp together, and bound to stand together through thick and thin.

"One more favor such as this," Hulot reflected as he crossed the courtyard, "and I am done for!"

The luckless official went to Baron de Nucingen, to whom he now owed a mere trifle, and succeeded in borrowing forty thousand francs, on his salary pledged for two years more; the banker stipulated that in the event of Hulot's retirement on his pension, the whole of it should be devoted to the repayment of the sum borrowed till the capital and interest were all cleared off.

This new bargain, like the first, was made in the name of Vauvinet, to whom the Baron signed notes of hand to the amount of twelve thousand francs.

On the following day, the fateful police report, the husband's charge, the letters—all the papers—were destroyed. The scandalous promotion of Monsieur Marneffe, hardly heeded in the midst of the July fetes, was not commented on in any newspaper.

Lisbeth, to all appearance at war with Madame Marneffe, had taken up her abode with Marshal Hulot. Ten days after these events, the banns of marriage were published between the old maid and the distinguished old officer, to whom, to win his consent, Adeline had related the financial disaster that had befallen her Hector, begging him never to mention it to the Baron, who was, as she said, much saddened, quite depressed and crushed.

"Alas! he is as old as his years," she added.

So Lisbeth had triumphed. She was achieving the object of her ambition, she would see the success of her scheme, and her hatred gratified. She delighted in the anticipated joy of reigning supreme over the family who had so long looked down upon her. Yes, she would patronize her patrons, she would be the rescuing angel who would dole out a livelihood to the ruined family; she addressed herself as "Madame la Comtesse" and "Madame la Marechale," courtesying in front of a glass. Adeline and Hortense should end their days in struggling with poverty, while she, a visitor at the Tuileries, would lord it in the fashionable world.