Cousin Betty/Section 38

The words spoken by Lisbeth, "He begs of his former mistresses," haunted the Baroness all night. Like sick men given over by the physicians, who have recourse to quacks, like men who have fallen into the lowest Dantesque circle of despair, or drowning creatures who mistake a floating stick for a hawser, she ended by believing in the baseness of which the mere idea had horrified her; and it occurred to her that she might apply for help to one of those terrible women.

Next morning, without consulting her children or saying a word to anybody, she went to see Mademoiselle Josepha Mirah, prima donna of the Royal Academy of Music, to find or to lose the hope that had gleamed before her like a will-o'-the-wisp. At midday, the great singer's waiting-maid brought her in the card of the Baronne Hulot, saying that this person was waiting at the door, having asked whether Mademoiselle could receive her.

"Are the rooms done?"

"Yes, mademoiselle."

"And the flowers fresh?"

"Yes, mademoiselle."

"Just tell Jean to look round and see that everything is as it should be before showing the lady in, and treat her with the greatest respect. Go, and come back to dress me—I must look my very best."

She went to study herself in the long glass.

"Now, to put our best foot foremost!" said she to herself. "Vice under arms to meet virtue!—Poor woman, what can she want of me? I cannot bear to see.

"The noble victim of outrageous fortune!

And she sang through the famous aria as the maid came in again.

"Madame," said the girl, "the lady has a nervous trembling—"

"Offer her some orange-water, some rum, some broth—"

"I did, mademoiselle; but she declines everything, and says it is an infirmity, a nervous complaint—"

"Where is she?"

"In the big drawing-room."

"Well, make haste, child. Give me my smartest slippers, the dressing-gown embroidered by Bijou, and no end of lace frills. Do my hair in a way to astonish a woman.—This woman plays a part against mine; and tell the lady—for she is a real, great lady, my girl, nay, more, she is what you will never be, a woman whose prayers can rescue souls from your purgatory—tell her I was in bed, as I was playing last night, and that I am just getting up."

The Baroness, shown into Josepha's handsome drawing-room, did not note how long she was kept waiting there, though it was a long half hour. This room, entirely redecorated even since Josepha had had the house, was hung with silk in purple and gold color. The luxury which fine gentlemen were wont to lavish on their petites maisons, the scenes of their profligacy, of which the remains still bear witness to the follies from which they were so aptly named, was displayed to perfection, thanks to modern inventiveness, in the four rooms opening into each other, where the warm temperature was maintained by a system of hot-air pipes with invisible openings.

The Baroness, quite bewildered, examined each work of art with the greatest amazement. Here she found fortunes accounted for that melt in the crucible under which pleasure and vanity feed the devouring flames. This woman, who for twenty-six years had lived among the dead relics of imperial magnificence, whose eyes were accustomed to carpets patterned with faded flowers, rubbed gilding, silks as forlorn as her heart, half understood the powerful fascinations of vice as she studied its results. It was impossible not to wish to possess these beautiful things, these admirable works of art, the creation of the unknown talent which abounds in Paris in our day and produces treasures for all Europe. Each thing had the novel charm of unique perfection. The models being destroyed, every vase, every figure, every piece of sculpture was the original. This is the crowning grace of modern luxury. To own the thing which is not vulgarized by the two thousand wealthy citizens whose notion of luxury is the lavish display of the splendors that shops can supply, is the stamp of true luxury—the luxury of the fine gentlemen of the day, the shooting stars of the Paris firmament.

As she examined the flower-stands, filled with the choicest exotic plants, mounted in chased brass and inlaid in the style of Boulle, the Baroness was scared by the idea of the wealth in this apartment. And this impression naturally shed a glamour over the person round whom all this profusion was heaped. Adeline imagined that Josepha Mirah—whose portrait by Joseph Bridau was the glory of the adjoining boudoir—must be a singer of genius, a Malibran, and she expected to see a real star. She was sorry she had come. But she had been prompted by a strong and so natural a feeling, by such purely disinterested devotion, that she collected all her courage for the interview. Besides, she was about to satisfy her urgent curiosity, to see for herself what was the charm of this kind of women, that they could extract so much gold from the miserly ore of Paris mud.

The Baroness looked at herself to see if she were not a blot on all this splendor; but she was well dressed in her velvet gown, with a little cape trimmed with beautiful lace, and her velvet bonnet of the same shade was becoming. Seeing herself still as imposing as any queen, always a queen even in her fall, she reflected that the dignity of sorrow was a match for the dignity of talent.

At last, after much opening and shutting of doors, she saw Josepha. The singer bore a strong resemblance to Allori's Judith, which dwells in the memory of all who have ever seen it in the Pitti palace, near the door of one of the great rooms. She had the same haughty mien, the same fine features, black hair simply knotted, and a yellow wrapper with little embroidered flowers, exactly like the brocade worn by the immortal homicide conceived of by Bronzino's nephew.

"Madame la Baronne, I am quite overwhelmed by the honor you do me in coming here," said the singer, resolved to play her part as a great lady with a grace.

She pushed forward an easy-chair for the Baroness and seated herself on a stool. She discerned the faded beauty of the woman before her, and was filled with pity as she saw her shaken by the nervous palsy that, on the least excitement, became convulsive. She could read at a glance the saintly life described to her of old by Hulot and Crevel; and she not only ceased to think of a contest with her, she humiliated herself before a superiority she appreciated. The great artist could admire what the courtesan laughed to scorn.

"Mademoiselle, despair brought me here. It reduces us to any means—"

A look in Josepha's face made the Baroness feel that she had wounded the woman from whom she hoped for so much, and she looked at her. Her beseeching eyes extinguished the flash in Josepha's; the singer smiled. It was a wordless dialogue of pathetic eloquence.

"It is now two years and a half since Monsieur Hulot left his family, and I do not know where to find him, though I know that he lives in Paris," said the Baroness with emotion. "A dream suggested to me the idea—an absurd one perhaps—that you may have interested yourself in Monsieur Hulot. If you could enable me to see him—oh! mademoiselle, I would pray Heaven for you every day as long as I live in this world—"

Two large tears in the singer's eyes told what her reply would be.

"Madame," said she, "I have done you an injury without knowing you; but, now that I have the happiness of seeing in you the most perfect virtue on earth, believe me I am sensible of the extent of my fault; I repent sincerely, and believe me, I will do all in my power to remedy it!"

She took Madame Hulot's hand and before the lady could do anything to hinder her, she kissed it respectfully, even humbling herself to bend one knee. Then she rose, as proud as when she stood on the stage in the part of Mathilde, and rang the bell.

"Go on horseback," said she to the man-servant, "and kill the horse if you must, to find little Bijou, Rue Saint-Maur-du-Temple, and bring her here. Put her into a coach and pay the coachman to come at a gallop. Do not lose a moment—or you lose your place.

"Madame," she went on, coming back to the Baroness, and speaking to her in respectful tones, "you must forgive me. As soon as the Duc d'Herouville became my protector, I dismissed the Baron, having heard that he was ruining his family for me. What more could I do? In an actress' career a protector is indispensable from the first day of her appearance on the boards. Our salaries do not pay half our expenses; we must have a temporary husband. I did not value Monsieur Hulot, who took me away from a rich man, a conceited idiot. Old Crevel would undoubtedly have married me—"

"So he told me," said the Baroness, interrupting her.

"Well, then, you see, madame, I might at this day have been an honest woman, with only one legitimate husband!"

"You have many excuses, mademoiselle," said Adeline, "and God will take them into account. But, for my part, far from reproaching you, I came, on the contrary, to make myself your debtor in gratitude—"

"Madame, for nearly three years I have provided for Monsieur le Baron's necessities—"

"You?" interrupted the Baroness, with tears in her eyes. "Oh, what can I do for you? I can only pray—"

"I and Monsieur le Duc d'Herouville," the singer said, "a noble soul, a true gentleman—" and Josepha related the settling and marriage of Monsieur Thoul.

"And so, thanks to you, mademoiselle, the Baron has wanted nothing?"

"We have done our best to that end, madame."

"And where is he now?"

"About six months ago, Monsieur le Duc told me that the Baron, known to the notary by the name of Thoul, had drawn all the eight thousand francs that were to have been paid to him in fixed sums once a quarter," replied Josepha. "We have heard no more of the Baron, neither I nor Monsieur d'Herouville. Our lives are so full, we artists are so busy, that I really have not time to run after old Thoul. As it happens, for the last six months, Bijou, who works for me—his—what shall I say—?"

"His mistress," said Madame Hulot.

"His mistress," repeated Josepha, "has not been here. Mademoiselle Olympe Bijou is perhaps divorced. Divorce is common in the thirteenth arrondissement."

Josepha rose, and foraging among the rare plants in her stands, made a charming bouquet for Madame Hulot, whose expectations, it may be said, were by no means fulfilled. Like those worthy fold, who take men of genius to be a sort of monsters, eating, drinking, walking, and speaking unlike other people, the Baroness had hoped to see Josepha the opera singer, the witch, the amorous and amusing courtesan; she saw a calm and well-mannered woman, with the dignity of talent, the simplicity of an actress who knows herself to be at night a queen, and also, better than all, a woman of the town whose eyes, attitude, and demeanor paid full and ungrudging homage to the virtuous wife, the Mater dolorosa of the sacred hymn, and who was crowning her sorrows with flowers, as the Madonna is crowned in Italy.

"Madame," said the man-servant, reappearing at the end of half an hour, "Madame Bijou is on her way, but you are not to expect little Olympe. Your needle-woman, madame, is settled in life; she is married—"

"More or less?" said Josepha.

"No, madame, really married. She is at the head of a very fine business; she has married the owner of a large and fashionable shop, on which they have spent millions of francs, on the Boulevard des Italiens; and she has left the embroidery business to her sister and mother. She is Madame Grenouville. The fat tradesman—"

"A Crevel?"

"Yes, madame," said the man. "Well, he has settled thirty thousand francs a year on Mademoiselle Bijou by the marriage articles. And her elder sister, they say, is going to be married to a rich butcher."

"Your business looks rather hopeless, I am afraid," said Josepha to the Baroness. "Monsieur le Baron is no longer where I lodged him."

Ten minutes later Madame Bijou was announced. Josepha very prudently placed the Baroness in the boudoir, and drew the curtain over the door.

"You would scare her," said she to Madame Hulot. "She would let nothing out if she suspected that you were interested in the information. Leave me to catechise her. Hide there, and you will hear everything. It is a scene that is played quite as often in real life as on the stage—"

"Well, Mother Bijou," she said to an old woman dressed in tartan stuff, and who looked like a porter's wife in her Sunday best, "so you are all very happy? Your daughter is in luck."

"Oh, happy? As for that!—My daughter gives us a hundred francs a month, while she rides in a carriage and eats off silver plate—she is a millionary, is my daughter! Olympe might have lifted me above labor. To have to work at my age? Is that being good to me?"

"She ought not to be ungrateful, for she owes her beauty to you," replied Josepha; "but why did she not come to see me? It was I who placed her in ease by settling her with my uncle."

"Yes, madame, with old Monsieur Thoul, but he is very old and broken—"

"But what have you done with him? Is he with you? She was very foolish to leave him; he is worth millions now."

"Heaven above us!" cried the mother. "What did I tell her when she behaved so badly to him, and he as mild as milk, poor old fellow? Oh! didn't she just give it him hot?—Olympe was perverted, madame?"

"But how?"

"She got to know a claqueur, madame, saving your presence, a man paid to clap, you know, the grand nephew of an old mattress-picker of the Faubourg Saint-Marceau. This good-for-naught, as all your good-looking fellows are, paid to make a piece go, is the cock of the walk out on the Boulevard du Temple, where he works up the new plays, and takes care that the actresses get a reception, as he calls it. First, he has a good breakfast in the morning; then, before the play, he dines, to be 'up to the mark,' as he says; in short, he is a born lover of billiards and drams. 'But that is not following a trade,' as I said to Olympe."

"It is a trade men follow, unfortunately," said Josepha.

"Well, the rascal turned Olympe's head, and he, madame, did not keep good company—when I tell you he was very near being nabbed by the police in a tavern where thieves meet. 'Wever, Monsieur Braulard, the leader of the claque, got him out of that. He wears gold earrings, and he lives by doing nothing, hanging on to women, who are fools about these good-looking scamps. He spent all the money Monsieur Thoul used to give the child.

"Then the business was going to grief; what embroidery brought in went out across the billiard table. 'Wever, the young fellow had a pretty sister, madame, who, like her brother, lived by hook and by crook, and no better than she should be neither, over in the students' quarter."

"One of the sluts at the Chaumiere," said Josepha.

"So, madame," said the old woman. "So Idamore, his name is Idamore, leastways that is what he calls himself, for his real name is Chardin—Idamore fancied that your uncle had a deal more money than he owned to, and he managed to send his sister Elodie—and that was a stage name he gave her—to send her to be a workwoman at our place, without my daughter's knowing who she was; and, gracious goodness! but that girl turned the whole place topsy-turvy; she got all those poor girls into mischief—impossible to whitewash them, saving your presence——

"And she was so sharp, she won over poor old Thoul, and took him away, and we don't know where, and left us in a pretty fix, with a lot of bills coming in. To this day as ever is we have not been able to settle up; but my daughter, who knows all about such things, keeps an eye on them as they fall due.—Then, when Idamore saw he had got hold of the old man, through his sister, you understand, he threw over my daughter, and now he has got hold of a little actress at the Funambules.—And that was how my daughter came to get married, as you will see—"

"But you must know where the mattress-picker lives?" said Josepha.

"What! old Chardin? As if he lived anywhere at all!—He is drunk by six in the morning; he makes a mattress once a month; he hangs about the wineshops all day; he plays at pools—"

"He plays at pools?" said Josepha.

"You do not understand, madame, pools of billiards, I mean, and he wins three or four a day, and then he drinks."

"Water out of the pools, I suppose?" said Josepha. "But if Idamore haunts the Boulevard, by inquiring through my friend Vraulard, we could find him."

"I don't know, madame; all this was six months ago. Idamore was one of the sort who are bound to find their way into the police courts, and from that to Melun—and the—who knows—?"

"To the prison yard!" said Josepha.

"Well, madame, you know everything," said the old woman, smiling. "Well, if my girl had never known that scamp, she would now be—Still, she was in luck, all the same, you will say, for Monsieur Grenouville fell so much in love with her that he married her—"

"And what brought that about?"

"Olympe was desperate, madame. When she found herself left in the lurch for that little actress—and she took a rod out of pickle for her, I can tell you; my word, but she gave her a dressing!—and when she had lost poor old Thoul, who worshiped her, she would have nothing more to say to the men. 'Wever, Monsieur Grenouville, who had been dealing largely with us—to the tune of two hundred embroidered China-crape shawls every quarter—he wanted to console her; but whether or no, she would not listen to anything without the mayor and the priest. 'I mean to be respectable,' said she, 'or perish!' and she stuck to it. Monsieur Grenouville consented to marry her, on condition of her giving us all up, and we agreed—"

"For a handsome consideration?" said Josepha, with her usual perspicacity.

"Yes, madame, ten thousand francs, and an allowance to my father, who is past work."

"I begged your daughter to make old Thoul happy, and she has thrown me over. That is not fair. I will take no interest in any one for the future! That is what comes of trying to do good! Benevolence certainly does not answer as a speculation!—Olympe ought, at least, to have given me notice of this jobbing. Now, if you find the old man Thoul within a fortnight, I will give you a thousand francs."

"It will be a hard task, my good lady; still, there are a good many five-franc pieces in a thousand francs, and I will try to earn your money."

"Good-morning, then, Madame Bijou."

On going into the boudoir, the singer found that Madame Hulot had fainted; but in spite of having lost consciousness, her nervous trembling kept her still perpetually shaking, as the pieces of a snake that has been cut up still wriggle and move. Strong salts, cold water, and all the ordinary remedies were applied to recall the Baroness to her senses, or rather, to the apprehension of her sorrows.

"Ah! mademoiselle, how far has he fallen!" cried she, recognizing Josepha, and finding that she was alone with her.

"Take heart, madame," replied the actress, who had seated herself on a cushion at Adeline's feet, and was kissing her hands. "We shall find him; and if he is in the mire, well, he must wash himself. Believe me, with people of good breeding it is a matter of clothes.—Allow me to make up for you the harm I have done you, for I see how much you are attached to your husband, in spite of his misconduct—or you should not have come here.—Well, you see, the poor man is so fond of women. If you had had a little of our dash, you would have kept him from running about the world; for you would have been what we can never be—all the women man wants.

"The State ought to subsidize a school of manners for honest women! But governments are so prudish! Still, they are guided by men, whom we privately guide. My word, I pity nations!

"But the matter in question is how you can be helped, and not to laugh at the world.—Well, madame, be easy, go home again, and do not worry. I will bring your Hector back to you as he was as a man of thirty."

"Ah, mademoiselle, let us go to see that Madame Grenouville," said the Baroness. "She surely knows something! Perhaps I may see the Baron this very day, and be able to snatch him at once from poverty and disgrace."

"Madame, I will show you the deep gratitude I feel towards you by not displaying the stage-singer Josepha, the Duc d'Herouville's mistress, in the company of the noblest, saintliest image of virtue. I respect you too much to be seen by your side. This is not acted humility; it is sincere homage. You make me sorry, madame, that I cannot tread in your footsteps, in spite of the thorns that tear your feet and hands.—But it cannot be helped! I am one with art, as you are one with virtue."

"Poor child!" said the Baroness, moved amid her own sorrows by a strange sense of compassionate sympathy; "I will pray to God for you; for you are the victim of society, which must have theatres. When you are old, repent—you will be heard if God vouchsafes to hear the prayers of a—"

"Of a martyr, madame," Josepha put in, and she respectfully kissed the Baroness' skirt.

But Adeline took the actress' hand, and drawing her towards her, kissed her on the forehead. Coloring with pleasure Josepha saw the Baroness into the hackney coach with the humblest politeness.

"It must be some visiting Lady of Charity," said the man-servant to the maid, "for she does not do so much for any one, not even for her dear friend Madame Jenny Cadine."

"Wait a few days," said she, "and you will see him, madame, or I renounce the God of my fathers—and that from a Jewess, you know, is a promise of success."