Cousin Betty/Section 36
Victorin Hulot, under the overwhelming disasters of his family, had received the finishing touch which makes or mars the man. He was perfection. In the great storms of life we act like the captain of a ship who, under the stress of a hurricane, lightens the ship of its heaviest cargo. The young lawyer lost his self-conscious pride, his too evident assertiveness, his arrogance as an orator and his political pretensions. He was as a man what his wife was as a woman. He made up his mind to make the best of his Celestine—who certainly did not realize his dreams—and was wise enough to estimate life at its true value by contenting himself in all things with the second best. He vowed to fulfil his duties, so much had he been shocked by his father's example.
These feelings were confirmed as he stood by his mother's bed on the day when she was out of danger. Nor did this happiness come single. Claude Vignon, who called every day from the Prince de Wissembourg to inquire as to Madame Hulot's progress, desired the re-elected deputy to go with him to see the Minister.
"His Excellency," said he, "wants to talk over your family affairs with you."
The Prince had long known Victorin Hulot, and received him with a friendliness that promised well.
"My dear fellow," said the old soldier, "I promised your uncle, in this room, that I would take care of your mother. That saintly woman, I am told, is getting well again; now is the time to pour oil into your wounds. I have for you here two hundred thousand francs; I will give them to you——"
The lawyer's gesture was worthy of his uncle the Marshal.
"Be quite easy," said the Prince, smiling; "it is money in trust. My days are numbered; I shall not always be here; so take this sum, and fill my place towards your family. You may use this money to pay off the mortgage on your house. These two hundred thousand francs are the property of your mother and your sister. If I gave the money to Madame Hulot, I fear that, in her devotion to her husband, she would be tempted to waste it. And the intention of those who restore it to you is, that it should produce bread for Madame Hulot and her daughter, the Countess Steinbock. You are a steady man, the worthy son of your noble mother, the true nephew of my friend the Marshal; you are appreciated here, you see—and elsewhere. So be the guardian angel of your family, and take this as a legacy from your uncle and me."
"Monseigneur," said Hulot, taking the Minister's hand and pressing it, "such men as you know that thanks in words mean nothing; gratitude must be proven."
"Prove yours—" said the old man.
"In what way?"
"By accepting what I have to offer you," said the Minister. "We propose to appoint you to be attorney to the War Office, which just now is involved in litigations in consequence of the plan for fortifying Paris; consulting clerk also to the Prefecture of Police; and a member of the Board of the Civil List. These three appointments will secure you salaries amounting to eighteen thousand francs, and will leave you politically free. You can vote in the Chamber in obedience to your opinions and your conscience. Act in perfect freedom on that score. It would be a bad thing for us if there were no national opposition!
"Also, a few lines from your uncle, written a day or two before he breathed his last, suggested what I could do for your mother, whom he loved very truly.—Mesdames Popinot, de Rastignac, de Navarreins, d'Espard, de Grandlieu, de Carigliano, de Lenoncourt, and de la Batie have made a place for your mother as a Lady Superintendent of their charities. These ladies, presidents of various branches of benevolent work, cannot do everything themselves; they need a lady of character who can act for them by going to see the objects of their beneficence, ascertaining that charity is not imposed upon, and whether the help given really reaches those who applied for it, finding out that the poor who are ashamed to beg, and so forth. Your mother will fulfil an angelic function; she will be thrown in with none but priests and these charitable ladies; she will be paid six thousand francs and the cost of her hackney coaches.
"You see, young man, that a pure and nobly virtuous man can still assist his family, even from the grave. Such a name as your uncle's is, and ought to be, a buckler against misfortune in a well-organized scheme of society. Follow in his path; you have started in it, I know; continue in it."
"Such delicate kindness cannot surprise me in my mother's friend," said Victorin. "I will try to come up to all your hopes."
"Go at once, and take comfort to your family.—By the way," added the Prince, as he shook hands with Victorin, "your father has disappeared?"
"So much the better. That unhappy man has shown his wit, in which, indeed, he is not lacking."
"There are bills of his to be met."
"Well, you shall have six months' pay of your three appointments in advance. This pre-payment will help you, perhaps, to get the notes out of the hands of the money-lender. And I will see Nucingen, and perhaps may succeed in releasing your father's pension, pledged to him, without its costing you or our office a sou. The peer has not killed the banker in Nucingen; he is insatiable; he wants some concession.—I know not what——"
So on his return to the Rue Plumet, Victorin could carry out his plan of lodging his mother and sister under his roof.
The young lawyer, already famous, had, for his sole fortune, one of the handsomest houses in Paris, purchased in 1834 in preparation for his marriage, situated on the boulevard between the Rue de la Paix and the Rue Louis-le-Grand. A speculator had built two houses between the boulevard and the street; and between these, with the gardens and courtyards to the front and back, there remained still standing a splendid wing, the remains of the magnificent mansion of the Verneuils. The younger Hulot had purchased this fine property, on the strength of Mademoiselle Crevel's marriage-portion, for one million francs, when it was put up to auction, paying five hundred thousand down. He lived on the ground floor, expecting to pay the remainder out of letting the rest; but though it is safe to speculate in house-property in Paris, such investments are capricious or hang fire, depending on unforeseen circumstances.
As the Parisian lounger may have observed, the boulevard between the Rue de la Paix and the Rue Louis-le-Grand prospered but slowly; it took so long to furbish and beautify itself, that trade did not set up its display there till 1840—the gold of the money-changers, the fairy-work of fashion, and the luxurious splendor of shop-fronts.
In spite of two hundred thousand francs given by Crevel to his daughter at the time when his vanity was flattered by this marriage, before the Baron had robbed him of Josepha; in spite of the two hundred thousand francs paid off by Victorin in the course of seven years, the property was still burdened with a debt of five hundred thousand francs, in consequence of Victorin's devotion to his father. Happily, a rise in rents and the advantages of the situation had at this time improved the value of the houses. The speculation was justifying itself after eight years' patience, during which the lawyer had strained every nerve to pay the interest and some trifling amounts of the capital borrowed.
The tradespeople were ready to offer good rents for the shops, on condition of being granted leases for eighteen years. The dwelling apartments rose in value by the shifting of the centre in Paris life—henceforth transferred to the region between the Bourse and the Madeleine, now the seat of the political power and financial authority in Paris. The money paid to him by the Minister, added to a year's rent in advance and the premiums paid by his tenants, would finally reduce the outstanding debt to two hundred thousand francs. The two houses, if entirely let, would bring in a hundred thousand francs a year. Within two years more, during which the Hulots could live on his salaries, added to by the Marshal's investments, Victorin would be in a splendid position.
This was manna from heaven. Victorin could give up the first floor of his own house to his mother, and the second to Hortense, excepting two rooms reserved for Lisbeth. With Cousin Betty as the housekeeper, this compound household could bear all these charges, and yet keep up a good appearance, as beseemed a pleader of note. The great stars of the law-courts were rapidly disappearing; and Victorin Hulot, gifted with a shrewd tongue and strict honesty, was listened to by the Bench and Councillors; he studied his cases thoroughly, and advanced nothing that he could not prove. He would not hold every brief that offered; in fact, he was a credit to the bar.
The Baroness' home in the Rue Plumet had become so odious to her, that she allowed herself to be taken to the Rue Louis-le-Grand. Thus, by her son's care, Adeline occupied a fine apartment; she was spared all the daily worries of life; for Lisbeth consented to begin again, working wonders of domestic economy, such as she had achieved for Madame Marneffe, seeing here a way of exerting her silent vengeance on those three noble lives, the object, each, of her hatred, which was kept growing by the overthrow of all her hopes.
Once a month she went to see Valerie, sent, indeed, by Hortense, who wanted news of Wenceslas, and by Celestine, who was seriously uneasy at the acknowledged and well-known connection between her father and a woman to whom her mother-in-law and sister-in-law owed their ruin and their sorrows. As may be supposed, Lisbeth took advantage of this to see Valerie as often as possible.