Cousin Betty/Section 37

Thus, about twenty months passed by, during which the Baroness recovered her health, though her palsied trembling never left her. She made herself familiar with her duties, which afforded her a noble distraction from her sorrow and constant food for the divine goodness of her heart. She also regarded it as an opportunity for finding her husband in the course of one of those expeditions which took her into every part of Paris.

During this time, Vauvinet had been paid, and the pension of six thousand francs was almost redeemed. Victorin could maintain his mother as well as Hortense out of the ten thousand francs interest on the money left by Marshal Hulot in trust for them. Adeline's salary amounted to six thousand francs a year; and this, added to the Baron's pension when it was freed, would presently secure an income of twelve thousand francs a year to the mother and daughter.

Thus, the poor woman would have been almost happy but for her perpetual anxieties as to the Baron's fate; for she longed to have him with her to share the improved fortunes that smiled on the family; and but for the constant sight of her forsaken daughter; and but for the terrible thrusts constantly and unconsciously dealt her by Lisbeth, whose diabolical character had free course.

A scene which took place at the beginning of the month of March 1843 will show the results of Lisbeth's latent and persistent hatred, still seconded, as she always was, by Madame Marneffe.

Two great events had occurred in the Marneffe household. In the first place, Valerie had given birth to a still-born child, whose little coffin had cost her two thousand francs a year. And then, as to Marneffe himself, eleven months since, this is the report given by Lisbeth to the Hulot family one day on her return from a visit of discovery at the hotel Marneffe.

"This morning," said she, "that dreadful Valerie sent for Doctor Bianchon to ask whether the medical men who had condemned her husband yesterday had made no mistake. Bianchon pronounced that to-night at the latest that horrible creature will depart to the torments that await him. Old Crevel and Madame Marneffe saw the doctor out; and your father, my dear Celestine, gave him five gold pieces for his good news.

"When he came back into the drawing-room, Crevel cut capers like a dancer; he embraced that woman, exclaiming, 'Then, at last, you will be Madame Crevel!'—And to me, when she had gone back to her husband's bedside, for he was at his last gasp, your noble father said to me, 'With Valerie as my wife, I can become a peer of France! I shall buy an estate I have my eye on—Presles, which Madame de Serizy wants to sell. I shall be Crevel de Presles, member of the Common Council of Seine-et-Oise, and Deputy. I shall have a son! I shall be everything I have ever wished to be.'—'Heh!' said I, 'and what about your daughter?'—'Bah!' says he, 'she is only a woman! And she is quite too much of a Hulot. Valerie has a horror of them all.—My son-in-law has never chosen to come to this house; why has he given himself such airs as a Mentor, a Spartan, a Puritan, a philanthropist? Besides, I have squared accounts with my daughter; she has had all her mother's fortune, and two hundred thousand francs to that. So I am free to act as I please.—I shall judge of my son-in-law and Celestine by their conduct on my marriage; as they behave, so shall I. If they are nice to their stepmother, I will receive them. I am a man, after all!'—In short, all this rhodomontade! And an attitude like Napoleon on the column."

The ten months' widowhood insisted on by the law had now elapsed some few days since. The estate of Presles was purchased. Victorin and Celestine had that very morning sent Lisbeth to make inquiries as to the marriage of the fascinating widow to the Mayor of Paris, now a member of the Common Council of the Department of Seine-et-Oise.

Celestine and Hortense, in whom the ties of affection had been drawn closer since they had lived under the same roof, were almost inseparable. The Baroness, carried away by a sense of honesty which led her to exaggerate the duties of her place, devoted herself to the work of charity of which she was the agent; she was out almost every day from eleven till five. The sisters-in-law, united in their cares for the children whom they kept together, sat at home and worked. They had arrived at the intimacy which thinks aloud, and were a touching picture of two sisters, one cheerful and the other sad. The less happy of the two, handsome, lively, high-spirited, and clever, seemed by her manner to defy her painful situation; while the melancholy Celestine, sweet and calm, and as equable as reason itself, might have been supposed to have some secret grief. It was this contradiction, perhaps, that added to their warm friendship. Each supplied the other with what she lacked.

Seated in a little summer-house in the garden, which the speculator's trowel had spared by some fancy of the builder's, who believed that he was preserving these hundred feet square of earth for his own pleasure, they were admiring the first green shoots of the lilac-trees, a spring festival which can only be fully appreciated in Paris when the inhabitants have lived for six months oblivious of what vegetation means, among the cliffs of stone where the ocean of humanity tosses to and fro.

"Celestine," said Hortense to her sister-in-law, who had complained that in such fine weather her husband should be kept at the Chamber, "I think you do not fully appreciate your happiness. Victorin is a perfect angel, and you sometimes torment him."

"My dear, men like to be tormented! Certain ways of teasing are a proof of affection. If your poor mother had only been—I will not say exacting, but always prepared to be exacting, you would not have had so much to grieve over."

"Lisbeth is not come back. I shall have to sing the song of Malbrouck," said Hortense. "I do long for some news of Wenceslas!—What does he live on? He has not done a thing these two years."

"Victorin saw him, he told me, with that horrible woman not long ago; and he fancied that she maintains him in idleness.—If you only would, dear soul, you might bring your husband back to you yet."

Hortense shook her head.

"Believe me," Celestine went on, "the position will ere long be intolerable. In the first instance, rage, despair, indignation, gave you strength. The awful disasters that have come upon us since—two deaths, ruin, and the disappearance of Baron Hulot—have occupied your mind and heart; but now you live in peace and silence, you will find it hard to bear the void in your life; and as you cannot, and will never leave the path of virtue, you will have to be reconciled to Wenceslas. Victorin, who loves you so much, is of that opinion. There is something stronger than one's feelings even, and that is Nature!"

"But such a mean creature!" cried the proud Hortense. "He cares for that woman because she feeds him.—And has she paid his debts, do you suppose?—Good Heaven! I think of that man's position day and night! He is the father of my child, and he is degrading himself."

"But look at your mother, my dear," said Celestine.

Celestine was one of those women who, when you have given them reasons enough to convince a Breton peasant, still go back for the hundredth time to their original argument. The character of her face, somewhat flat, dull, and common, her light-brown hair in stiff, neat bands, her very complexion spoke of a sensible woman, devoid of charm, but also devoid of weakness.

"The Baroness would willingly go to join her husband in his disgrace, to comfort him and hide him in her heart from every eye," Celestine went on. "Why, she has a room made ready upstairs for Monsieur Hulot, as if she expected to find him and bring him home from one day to the next."

"Oh yes, my mother is sublime!" replied Hortense. "She has been so every minute of every day for six-and-twenty years; but I am not like her, it is not my nature.—How can I help it? I am angry with myself sometimes; but you do not know, Celestine, what it would be to make terms with infamy."

"There is my father!" said Celestine placidly. "He has certainly started on the road that ruined yours. He is ten years younger than the Baron, to be sure, and was only a tradesman; but how can it end? This Madame Marneffe has made a slave of my father; he is her dog; she is mistress of his fortune and his opinions, and nothing can open his eyes. I tremble when I remember that their banns of marriage are already published!—My husband means to make a last attempt; he thinks it a duty to try to avenge society and the family, and bring that woman to account for all her crimes. Alas! my dear Hortense, such lofty souls as Victorin and hearts like ours come too late to a comprehension of the world and its ways!—This is a secret, dear, and I have told you because you are interested in it, but never by a word or a look betray it to Lisbeth, or your mother, or anybody, for—"

"Here is Lisbeth!" said Hortense. "Well, cousin, and how is the Inferno of the Rue Barbet going on?"

"Badly for you, my children.—Your husband, my dear Hortense, is more crazy about that woman than ever, and she, I must own, is madly in love with him.—Your father, dear Celestine, is gloriously blind. That, to be sure, is nothing; I have had occasion to see it once a fortnight; really, I am lucky never to have had anything to do with men, they are besotted creatures.—Five days hence you, dear child, and Victorin will have lost your father's fortune."

"Then the banns are cried?" said Celestine.

"Yes," said Lisbeth, "and I have just been arguing your case. I pointed out to that monster, who is going the way of the other, that if he would only get you out of the difficulties you are in by paying off the mortgage on the house, you would show your gratitude and receive your stepmother—"

Hortense started in horror.

"Victorin will see about that," said Celestine coldly.

"But do you know what Monsieur le Maire's answer was?" said Lisbeth. "'I mean to leave them where they are. Horses can only be broken in by lack of food, sleep, and sugar.'—Why, Baron Hulot was not so bad as Monsieur Crevel.

"So, my poor dears, you may say good-bye to the money. And such a fine fortune! Your father paid three million francs for the Presles estate, and he has thirty thousand francs a year in stocks! Oh!—he has no secrets from me. He talks of buying the Hotel de Navarreins, in the Rue du Bac. Madame Marneffe herself has forty thousand francs a year.—Ah!—here is our guardian angel, here comes your mother!" she exclaimed, hearing the rumble of wheels.

And presently the Baroness came down the garden steps and joined the party. At fifty-five, though crushed by so many troubles, and constantly trembling as if shivering with ague, Adeline, whose face was indeed pale and wrinkled, still had a fine figure, a noble outline, and natural dignity. Those who saw her said, "She must have been beautiful!" Worn with the grief of not knowing her husband's fate, of being unable to share with him this oasis in the heart of Paris, this peace and seclusion and the better fortune that was dawning on the family, her beauty was the beauty of a ruin. As each gleam of hope died out, each day of search proved vain, Adeline sank into fits of deep melancholy that drove her children to despair.

The Baroness had gone out that morning with fresh hopes, and was anxiously expected. An official, who was under obligations to Hulot, to whom he owed his position and advancement, declared that he had seen the Baron in a box at the Ambigu-Comique theatre with a woman of extraordinary beauty. So Adeline had gone to call on the Baron Verneuil. This important personage, while asserting that he had positively seen his old patron, and that his behaviour to the woman indicated an illicit establishment, told Madame Hulot that to avoid meeting him the Baron had left long before the end of the play.

"He looked like a man at home with the damsel, but his dress betrayed some lack of means," said he in conclusion.

"Well?" said the three women as the Baroness came towards them.

"Well, Monsieur Hulot is in Paris; and to me," said Adeline, "it is a gleam of happiness only to know that he is within reach of us."

"But he does not seem to have mended his ways," Lisbeth remarked when Adeline had finished her report of her visit to Baron Verneuil. "He has taken up some little work-girl. But where can he get the money from? I could bet that he begs of his former mistresses—Mademoiselle Jenny Cadine or Josepha."

The Baroness trembled more severely than ever; every nerve quivered; she wiped away the tears that rose to her eyes and looked mournfully up to heaven.

"I cannot think that a Grand Commander of the Legion of Honor will have fallen so low," said she.

"For his pleasure what would he not do?" said Lisbeth. "He robbed the State, he will rob private persons, commit murder—who knows?"

"Oh, Lisbeth!" cried the Baroness, "keep such thoughts to yourself."

At this moment Louise came up to the family group, now increased by the arrival of the two Hulot children and little Wenceslas to see if their grandmother's pockets did not contain some sweetmeats.

"What is it, Louise?" asked one and another.

"A man who wants to see Mademoiselle Fischer."

"Who is the man?" asked Lisbeth.

"He is in rags, mademoiselle, and covered with flue like a mattress-picker; his nose is red, and he smells of brandy.—He is one of those men who work half of the week at most."

This uninviting picture had the effect of making Lisbeth hurry into the courtyard of the house in the Rue Louis-le-Grand, where she found a man smoking a pipe colored in a style that showed him an artist in tobacco.

"Why have you come here, Pere Chardin?" she asked. "It is understood that you go, on the first Saturday in every month, to the gate of the Hotel Marneffe, Rue Barbet-de-Jouy. I have just come back after waiting there for five hours, and you did not come."

"I did go there, good and charitable lady!" replied the mattress-picker. "But there was a game at pool going on at the Cafe des Savants, Rue du Cerf-Volant, and every man has his fancy. Now, mine is billiards. If it wasn't for billiards, I might be eating off silver plate. For, I tell you this," and he fumbled for a scrap of paper in his ragged trousers pocket, "it is billiards that leads on to a dram and plum-brandy.—It is ruinous, like all fine things, in the things it leads to. I know your orders, but the old 'un is in such a quandary that I came on to forbidden grounds.—If the hair was all hair, we might sleep sound on it; but it is mixed. God is not for all, as the saying goes. He has His favorites—well, He has the right. Now, here is the writing of your estimable relative and my very good friend—his political opinion."

Chardin attempted to trace some zigzag lines in the air with the forefinger of his right hand.

Lisbeth, not listening to him, read these few words:

"DEAR COUSIN,—Be my Providence; give me three hundred francs this day.

"HECTOR."

"What does he want so much money for?"

"The lan'lord!" said Chardin, still trying to sketch arabesques. "And then my son, you see, has come back from Algiers through Spain and Bayonee, and, and—he has found nothing—against his rule, for a sharp cove is my son, saving your presence. How can he help it, he is in want of food; but he will repay all we lend him, for he is going to get up a company. He has ideas, he has, that will carry him—"

"To the police court," Lisbeth put in. "He murdered my uncle; I shall not forget that."

"He—why, he could not bleed a chicken, honorable lady."

"Here are the three hundred francs," said Lisbeth, taking fifteen gold pieces out of her purse. "Now, go, and never come here again."

She saw the father of the Oran storekeeper off the premises, and pointed out the drunken old creature to the porter.

"At any time when that man comes here, if by chance he should come again, do not let him in. If he should ask whether Monsieur Hulot junior or Madame la Baronne Hulot lives here, tell him you know of no such persons."

"Very good, mademoiselle."

"Your place depends on it if you make any mistake, even without intending it," said Lisbeth, in the woman's ear.—"Cousin," she went on to Victorin, who just now came in, "a great misfortune is hanging over your head."

"What is that?" said Victorin.

"Within a few days Madame Marneffe will be your wife's stepmother."

"That remains to be seen," replied Victorin.

For six months past Lisbeth had very regularly paid a little allowance to Baron Hulot, her former protector, whom she now protected; she knew the secret of his dwelling-place, and relished Adeline's tears, saying to her, as we have seen, when she saw her cheerful and hopeful, "You may expect to find my poor cousin's name in the papers some day under the heading 'Police Report.'"

But in this, as on a former occasion, she let her vengeance carry her too far. She had aroused the prudent suspicions of Victorin. He had resolved to be rid of this Damocles' sword so constantly flourished over them by Lisbeth, and of the female demon to whom his mother and the family owed so many woes. The Prince de Wissembourg, knowing all about Madame Marneffe's conduct, approved of the young lawyer's secret project; he had promised him, as a President of the Council can promise, the secret assistance of the police, to enlighten Crevel and rescue a fine fortune from the clutches of the diabolical courtesan, whom he could not forgive either for causing the death of Marshal Hulot or for the Baron's utter ruin.