Cousin Betty/Section 32

A terrible disaster overthrew the old maid from the social heights where she so proudly enthroned herself.

On the very day when the banns were first published, the Baron received a second message from Africa. Another Alsatian arrived, handed him a letter, after assuring himself that he spoke to Baron Hulot, and after giving the Baron the address of his lodgings, bowed himself out, leaving the great man stricken by the opening lines of this letter:—

"DEAR NEPHEW,—You will receive this letter, by my calculations, on the 7th of August. Supposing it takes you three days to send us the help we need, and that it is a fortnight on the way here, that brings us to the 1st of September.
"If you can act decisively within that time, you will have saved the honor and the life of yours sincerely, Johann Fischer.
"This is what I am required to demand by the clerk you have made my accomplice; for I am amenable, it would seem, to the law, at the Assizes, or before a council of war. Of course, you understand that Johann Fischer will never be brought to the bar of any tribunal; he will go of his own act to appear at that of God.
"Your clerk seems to me a bad lot, quite capable of getting you into hot water; but he is as clever as any rogue. He says the line for you to take is to call out louder than any one, and to send out an inspector, a special commissioner, to discover who is really guilty, rake up abuses, and make a fuss, in short; but if we stir up the struggle, who will stand between us and the law?
"If your commissioner arrives here by the 1st of September, and you have given him your orders, sending by him two hundred thousand francs to place in our storehouses the supplies we profess to have secured in remote country places, we shall be absolutely solvent and regarded as blameless. You can trust the soldier who is the bearer of this letter with a draft in my name on a house in Algiers. He is a trustworthy fellow, a relation of mine, incapable of trying to find out what he is the bearer of. I have taken measures to guarantee the fellow's safe return. If you can do nothing, I am ready and willing to die for the man to whom we owe our Adeline's happiness!"

The anguish and raptures of passion and the catastrophe which had checked his career of profligacy had prevented Baron Hulot's ever thinking of poor Johann Fischer, though his first letter had given warning of the danger now become so pressing. The Baron went out of the dining-room in such agitation that he literally dropped on to a sofa in the drawing-room. He was stunned, sunk in the dull numbness of a heavy fall. He stared at a flower on the carpet, quite unconscious that he still held in his hand Johann's fatal letter.

Adeline, in her room, heard her husband throw himself on the sofa, like a lifeless mass; the noise was so peculiar that she fancied he had an apoplectic attack. She looked through the door at the mirror, in such dread as stops the breath and hinders motion, and she saw her Hector in the attitude of a man crushed. The Baroness stole in on tiptoe; Hector heard nothing; she went close up to him, saw the letter, took it, read it, trembling in every limb. She went through one of those violent nervous shocks that leave their traces for ever on the sufferer. Within a few days she became subject to a constant trembling, for after the first instant the need for action gave her such strength as can only be drawn from the very wellspring of the vital powers.

"Hector, come into my room," said she, in a voice that was no more than a breath. "Do not let your daughter see you in this state! Come, my dear, come!"

"Two hundred thousand francs? Where can I find them? I can get Claude Vignon sent out there as commissioner. He is a clever, intelligent fellow.—That is a matter of a couple of days.—But two hundred thousand francs! My son has not so much; his house is loaded with mortgages for three hundred thousand. My brother has saved thirty thousand francs at most. Nucingen would simply laugh at me!—Vauvinet?—he was not very ready to lend me the ten thousand francs I wanted to make up the sum for that villain Marneffe's boy. No, it is all up with me; I must throw myself at the Prince's feet, confess how matters stand, hear myself told that I am a low scoundrel, and take his broadside so as to go decently to the bottom."

"But, Hector, this is not merely ruin, it is disgrace," said Adeline. "My poor uncle will kill himself. Only kill us—yourself and me; you have a right to do that, but do not be a murderer! Come, take courage; there must be some way out of it."

"Not one," said Hulot. "No one in the Government could find two hundred thousand francs, not if it were to save an Administration!—Oh, Napoleon! where art thou?"

"My uncle! poor man! Hector, he must not be allowed to kill himself in disgrace."

"There is one more chance," said he, "but a very remote one.—Yes, Crevel is at daggers drawn with his daughter.—He has plenty of money, he alone could—"

"Listen, Hector it will be better for your wife to perish than to leave our uncle to perish—and your brother—the honor of the family!" cried the Baroness, struck by a flash of light. "Yes, I can save you all.—Good God! what a degrading thought! How could it have occurred to me?"

She clasped her hands, dropped on her knees, and put up a prayer. On rising, she saw such a crazy expression of joy on her husband's face, that the diabolical suggestion returned, and then Adeline sank into a sort of idiotic melancholy.

"Go, my dear, at once to the War Office," said she, rousing herself from this torpor; "try to send out a commission; it must be done. Get round the Marshal. And on your return, at five o'clock, you will find—perhaps—yes! you shall find two hundred thousand francs. Your family, your honor as a man, as a State official, a Councillor of State, your honesty—your son—all shall be saved;—but your Adeline will be lost, and you will see her no more. Hector, my dear," said she, kneeling before him, clasping and kissing his hand, "give me your blessing! Say farewell."

It was so heart-rending that Hulot put his arms round his wife, raised her and kissed her, saying:

"I do not understand."

"If you did," said she, "I should die of shame, or I should not have the strength to carry out this last sacrifice."

"Breakfast is served," said Mariette.

Hortense came in to wish her parents good-morning. They had to go to breakfast and assume a false face.

"Begin without me; I will join you," said the Baroness.

She sat down to her desk and wrote as follows:

"MY DEAR MONSIEUR CREVEL,—I have to ask a service of you; I shall expect you this morning, and I count on your gallantry, which is well known to me, to save me from having too long to wait for you.—Your faithful servant,

"ADELINE HULOT."

"Louise," said she to her daughter's maid, who waited on her, "take this note down to the porter and desire him to carry it at once to this address and wait for an answer."

The Baron, who was reading the news, held out a Republican paper to his wife, pointing to an article, and saying:

"Is there time?"

This was the paragraph, one of the terrible "notes" with which the papers spice their political bread and butter:—

"A correspondent in Algiers writes that such abuses have been discovered in the commissariate transactions of the province of Oran, that the Law is making inquiries. The peculation is self-evident, and the guilty persons are known. If severe measures are not taken, we shall continue to lose more men through the extortion that limits their rations than by Arab steel or the fierce heat of the climate. We await further information before enlarging on this deplorable business. We need no longer wonder at the terror caused by the establishment of the Press in Africa, as was contemplated by the Charter of 1830."

"I will dress and go to the Minister," said the Baron, as they rose from table. "Time is precious; a man's life hangs on every minute."

"Oh, mamma, there is no hope for me!" cried Hortense. And unable to check her tears, she handed to her mother a number of the Revue des Beaux Arts.

Madame Hulot's eye fell on a print of the group of "Delilah" by Count Steinbock, under which were the words, "The property of Madame Marneffe."

The very first lines of the article, signed V., showed the talent and friendliness of Claude Vignon.

"Poor child!" said the Baroness.

Alarmed by her mother's tone of indifference, Hortense looked up, saw the expression of a sorrow before which her own paled, and rose to kiss her mother, saying:

"What is the matter, mamma? What is happening? Can we be more wretched than we are already?"

"My child, it seems to me that in what I am going through to-day my past dreadful sorrows are as nothing. When shall I have ceased to suffer?"

"In heaven, mother," said Hortense solemnly.

"Come, my angel, help me to dress.—No, no; I will not have you help me in this! Send me Louise."

Adeline, in her room, went to study herself in the glass. She looked at herself closely and sadly, wondering to herself:

"Am I still handsome? Can I still be desirable? Am I not wrinkled?"

She lifted up her fine golden hair, uncovering her temples; they were as fresh as a girl's. She went further; she uncovered her shoulders, and was satisfied; nay, she had a little feeling of pride. The beauty of really handsome shoulders is one of the last charms a woman loses, especially if she has lived chastely.

Adeline chose her dress carefully, but the pious and blameless woman is decent to the end, in spite of her little coquettish graces. Of what use were brand-new gray silk stockings and high heeled satin shoes when she was absolutely ignorant of the art of displaying a pretty foot at a critical moment, by obtruding it an inch or two beyond a half-lifted skirt, opening horizons to desire? She put on, indeed, her prettiest flowered muslin dress, with a low body and short sleeves; but horrified at so much bareness, she covered her fine arms with clear gauze sleeves and hid her shoulders under an embroidered cape. Her curls, a l'Anglaise, struck her as too fly-away; she subdued their airy lightness by putting on a very pretty cap; but, with or without the cap, would she have known how to twist the golden ringlets so as to show off her taper fingers to admiration?

As to rouge—the consciousness of guilt, the preparations for a deliberate fall, threw this saintly woman into a state of high fever, which, for the time, revived the brilliant coloring of youth. Her eyes were bright, her cheeks glowed. Instead of assuming a seductive air, she saw in herself a look of barefaced audacity which shocked her.

Lisbeth, at Adeline's request, had told her all the circumstances of Wenceslas' infidelity; and the Baroness had learned to her utter amazement, that in one evening in one moment, Madame Marneffe had made herself the mistress of the bewitched artist.

"How do these women do it?" the Baroness had asked Lisbeth.

There is no curiosity so great as that of virtuous women on such subjects; they would like to know the arts of vice and remain immaculate.

"Why, they are seductive; it is their business," said Cousin Betty. "Valerie that evening, my dear, was, I declare, enough to bring an angel to perdition."

"But tell me how she set to work."

"There is no principle, only practice in that walk of life," said Lisbeth ironically.

The Baroness, recalling this conversation, would have liked to consult Cousin Betty; but there was no time for that. Poor Adeline, incapable of imagining a patch, of pinning a rosebud in the very middle of her bosom, of devising the tricks of the toilet intended to resuscitate the ardors of exhausted nature, was merely well dressed. A woman is not a courtesan for the wishing!

"Woman is soup for man," as Moliere says by the mouth of the judicious Gros-Rene. This comparison suggests a sort of culinary art in love. Then the virtuous wife would be a Homeric meal, flesh laid on hot cinders. The courtesan, on the contrary, is a dish by Careme, with its condiments, spices, and elegant arrangement. The Baroness could not—did not know how to serve up her fair bosom in a lordly dish of lace, after the manner of Madame Marneffe. She knew nothing of the secrets of certain attitudes. This high-souled woman might have turned round and round a hundred times, and she would have betrayed nothing to the keen glance of a profligate.

To be a good woman and a prude to all the world, and a courtesan to her husband, is the gift of a woman of genius, and they are few. This is the secret of long fidelity, inexplicable to the women who are not blessed with the double and splendid faculty. Imagine Madame Marneffe virtuous, and you have the Marchesa di Pescara. But such lofty and illustrious women, beautiful as Diane de Poitiers, but virtuous, may be easily counted.

So the scene with which this serious and terrible drama of Paris manners opened was about to be repeated, with this singular difference—that the calamities prophesied then by the captain of the municipal Militia had reversed the parts. Madame Hulot was awaiting Crevel with the same intentions as had brought him to her, smiling down at the Paris crowd from his milord, three years ago. And, strangest thing of all, the Baroness was true to herself and to her love, while preparing to yield to the grossest infidelity, such as the storm of passion even does not justify in the eyes of some judges.

"What can I do to become a Madame Marneffe?" she asked herself as she heard the door-bell.

She restrained her tears, fever gave brilliancy to her face, and she meant to be quite the courtesan, poor, noble soul.