Cousin Betty/Section 43
Baron Montes de Montejanos was a lion, but a lion not accounted for. Fashionable Paris, Paris of the turf and of the town, admired the ineffable waistcoats of this foreign gentleman, his spotless patent-leather boots, his incomparable sticks, his much-coveted horses, and the negro servants who rode the horses and who were entirely slaves and most consumedly thrashed.
His fortune was well known; he had a credit account up to seven hundred thousand francs in the great banking house of du Tillet; but he was always seen alone. When he went to "first nights," he was in a stall. He frequented no drawing-rooms. He had never given his arm to a girl on the streets. His name would not be coupled with that of any pretty woman of the world. To pass his time he played whist at the Jockey-Club. The world was reduced to calumny, or, which it thought funnier, to laughing at his peculiarities; he went by the name of Combabus.
Bixiou, Leon de Lora, Lousteau, Florine, Mademoiselle Heloise Brisetout, and Nathan, supping one evening with the notorious Carabine, with a large party of lions and lionesses, had invented this name with an excessively burlesque explanation. Massol, as being on the Council of State, and Claude Vignon, erewhile Professor of Greek, had related to the ignorant damsels the famous anecdote, preserved in Rollin's Ancient History, concerning Combabus, that voluntary Abelard who was placed in charge of the wife of a King of Assyria, Persia, Bactria, Mesopotamia, and other geographical divisions peculiar to old Professor du Bocage, who continued the work of d'Anville, the creator of the East of antiquity. This nickname, which gave Carabine's guests laughter for a quarter of an hour, gave rise to a series of over-free jests, to which the Academy could not award the Montyon prize; but among which the name was taken up, to rest thenceforth on the curly mane of the handsome Baron, called by Josepha the splendid Brazilian—as one might say a splendid Catoxantha.
Carabine, the loveliest of her tribe, whose delicate beauty and amusing wit had snatched the sceptre of the Thirteenth Arrondissement from the hands of Mademoiselle Turquet, better known by the name of Malaga—Mademoiselle Seraphine Sinet (this was her real name) was to du Tillet the banker what Josepha Mirah was to the Duc d'Herouville.
Now, on the morning of the very day when Madame de Saint-Esteve had prophesied success to Victorin, Carabine had said to du Tillet at about seven o'clock:
"If you want to be very nice, you will give me a dinner at the Rocher de Cancale and bring Combabus. We want to know, once for all, whether he has a mistress.—I bet that he has, and I should like to win."
"He is still at the Hotel des Princes; I will call," replied du Tillet. "We will have some fun. Ask all the youngsters—the youngster Bixiou, the youngster Lora, in short, all the clan."
At half-past seven that evening, in the handsomest room of the restaurant where all Europe has dined, a splendid silver service was spread, made on purpose for entertainments where vanity pays the bill in bank-notes. A flood of light fell in ripples on the chased rims; waiters, whom a provincial might have taken for diplomatists but for their age, stood solemnly, as knowing themselves to be overpaid.
Five guests had arrived, and were waiting for nine more. These were first and foremost Bixiou, still flourishing in 1843, the salt of every intellectual dish, always supplied with fresh wit—a phenomenon as rare in Paris as virtue is; Leon de Lora, the greatest living painter of landscape and the sea who has this great advantage over all his rivals, that he has never fallen below his first successes. The courtesans could never dispense with these two kings of ready wit. No supper, no dinner, was possible without them.
Seraphine Sinet, dite Carabine, as the mistress en titre of the Amphitryon, was one of the first to arrive; and the brilliant lighting showed off her shoulders, unrivaled in Paris, her throat, as round as if turned in a lathe, without a crease, her saucy face, and dress of satin brocade in two shades of blue, trimmed with Honiton lace enough to have fed a whole village for a month.
Pretty Jenny Cadine, not acting that evening, came in a dress of incredible splendor; her portrait is too well known to need any description. A party is always a Longchamps of evening dress for these ladies, each anxious to win the prize for her millionaire by thus announcing to her rivals:
"This is the price I am worth!"
A third woman, evidently at the initial stage of her career, gazed, almost shamefaced, at the luxury of her two established and wealthy companions. Simply dressed in white cashmere trimmed with blue, her head had been dressed with real flowers by a coiffeur of the old-fashioned school, whose awkward hands had unconsciously given the charm of ineptitude to her fair hair. Still unaccustomed to any finery, she showed the timidity—to use a hackneyed phrase—inseparable from a first appearance. She had come from Valognes to find in Paris some use for her distracting youthfulness, her innocence that might have stirred the senses of a dying man, and her beauty, worthy to hold its own with any that Normandy has ever supplied to the theatres of the capital. The lines of that unblemished face were the ideal of angelic purity. Her milk-white skin reflected the light like a mirror. The delicate pink in her cheeks might have been laid on with a brush. She was called Cydalise, and, as will be seen, she was an important pawn in the game played by Ma'ame Nourrisson to defeat Madame Marneffe.
"Your arm is not a match for your name, my child," said Jenny Cadine, to whom Carabine had introduced this masterpiece of sixteen, having brought her with her.
And, in fact, Cydalise displayed to public admiration a fine pair of arms, smooth and satiny, but red with healthy young blood.
"What do you want for her?" said Jenny Cadine, in an undertone to Carabine.
"What are you going to do with her?"
"And what are you to get for such a job?"
"A service of plate?"
"I have three."
"I am selling them."
"A green monkey?"
"No. A picture by Raphael."
"What maggot is that in your brain?"
"Josepha makes me sick with her pictures," said Carabine. "I want some better than hers."
Du Tillet came with the Brazilian, the hero of the feast; the Duc d'Herouville followed with Josepha. The singer wore a plain velvet gown, but she had on a necklace worth a hundred and twenty thousand francs, pearls hardly distinguishable from her skin like white camellia petals. She had stuck one scarlet camellia in her black hair—a patch—the effect was dazzling, and she had amused herself by putting eleven rows of pearls on each arm. As she shook hands with Jenny Cadine, the actress said, "Lend me your mittens!"
Josepha unclasped them one by one and handed them to her friend on a plate.
"There's style!" said Carabine. "Quite the Duchess! You have robbed the ocean to dress the nymph, Monsieur le Duc," she added turning to the little Duc d'Herouville.
The actress took two of the bracelets; she clasped the other twenty on the singer's beautiful arms, which she kissed.
Lousteau, the literary cadger, la Palferine and Malaga, Massol, Vauvinet, and Theodore Gaillard, a proprietor of one of the most important political newspapers, completed the party. The Duc d'Herouville, polite to everybody, as a fine gentleman knows how to be, greeted the Comte de la Palferine with the particular nod which, while it does not imply either esteem or intimacy, conveys to all the world, "We are of the same race, the same blood—equals!"—And this greeting, the shibboleth of the aristocracy, was invented to be the despair of the upper citizen class.
Carabine placed Combabus on her left, and the Duc d'Herouville on her right. Cydalise was next to the Brazilian, and beyond her was Bixiou. Malaga sat by the Duke.
Oysters appeared at seven o'clock; at eight they were drinking iced punch. Every one is familiar with the bill of fare of such a banquet. By nine o'clock they were talking as people talk after forty-two bottles of various wines, drunk by fourteen persons. Dessert was on the table, the odious dessert of the month of April. Of all the party, the only one affected by the heady atmosphere was Cydalise, who was humming a tune. None of the party, with the exception of the poor country girl, had lost their reason; the drinkers and the women were the experienced elite of the society that sups. Their wits were bright, their eyes glistened, but with no loss of intelligence, though the talk drifted into satire, anecdote, and gossip. Conversation, hitherto confined to the inevitable circle of racing, horses, hammerings on the Bourse, the different occupations of the lions themselves, and the scandals of the town, showed a tendency to break up into intimate tete-a-tete, the dialogues of two hearts.
And at this stage, at a signal from Carabine to Leon de Lora, Bixiou, la Palferine, and du Tillet, love came under discussion.
"A doctor in good society never talks of medicine, true nobles never speak of their ancestors, men of genius do not discuss their works," said Josepha; "why should we talk business? If I got the opera put off in order to dine here, it was assuredly not to work.—So let us change the subject, dear children."
"But we are speaking of real love, my beauty," said Malaga, "of the love that makes a man fling all to the dogs—father, mother, wife, children—and retire to Clichy."
"Talk away, then, 'don't know yer,'" said the singer.
The slang words, borrowed from the Street Arab, and spoken by these women, may be a poem on their lips, helped by the expression of the eyes and face.
"What, do not I love you, Josepha?" said the Duke in a low voice.
"You, perhaps, may love me truly," said she in his ear, and she smiled. "But I do not love you in the way they describe, with such love as makes the world dark in the absence of the man beloved. You are delightful to me, useful—but not indispensable; and if you were to throw me over to-morrow, I could have three dukes for one."
"Is true love to be found in Paris?" asked Leon de Lora. "Men have not even time to make a fortune; how can they give themselves over to true love, which swamps a man as water melts sugar? A man must be enormously rich to indulge in it, for love annihilates him—for instance, like our Brazilian friend over there. As I said long ago, 'Extremes defeat—themselves.' A true lover is like an eunuch; women have ceased to exist for him. He is mystical; he is like the true Christian, an anchorite of the desert!—See our noble Brazilian."
Every one at table looked at Henri Montes de Montejanos, who was shy at finding every eye centred on him.
"He has been feeding there for an hour without discovering, any more than an ox at pasture, that he is sitting next to—I will not say, in such company, the loveliest—but the freshest woman in all Paris."
"Everything is fresh here, even the fish; it is what the house is famous for," said Carabine.
Baron Montes looked good-naturedly at the painter, and said:
"Very good! I drink to your very good health," and bowing to Leon de Lora, he lifted his glass of port wine and drank it with much dignity.
"Are you then truly in love?" asked Malaga of her neighbor, thus interpreting his toast.
The Brazilian refilled his glass, bowed to Carabine, and drank again.
"To the lady's health then!" said the courtesan, in such a droll tone that Lora, du Tillet, and Bixiou burst out laughing.
The Brazilian sat like a bronze statue. This impassibility provoked Carabine. She knew perfectly well that Montes was devoted to Madame Marneffe, but she had not expected this dogged fidelity, this obstinate silence of conviction.
A woman is as often gauged by the attitude of her lover as a man is judged from the tone of his mistress. The Baron was proud of his attachment to Valerie, and of hers to him; his smile had, to these experienced connoisseurs, a touch of irony; he was really grand to look upon; wine had not flushed him; and his eyes, with their peculiar lustre as of tarnished gold, kept the secrets of his soul. Even Carabine said to herself:
"What a woman she must be! How she has sealed up that heart!"
"He is a rock!" said Bixiou in an undertone, imagining that the whole thing was a practical joke, and never suspecting the importance to Carabine of reducing this fortress.
While this conversation, apparently so frivolous, was going on at Carabine's right, the discussion of love was continued on her left between the Duc d'Herouville, Lousteau, Josepha, Jenny Cadine, and Massol. They were wondering whether such rare phenomena were the result of passion, obstinacy, or affection. Josepha, bored to death by it all, tried to change the subject.
"You are talking of what you know nothing about. Is there a man among you who ever loved a woman—a woman beneath him—enough to squander his fortune and his children's, to sacrifice his future and blight his past, to risk going to the hulks for robbing the Government, to kill an uncle and a brother, to let his eye be so effectually blinded that he did not even perceive that it was done to hinder his seeing the abyss into which, as a crowning jest, he was being driven? Du Tillet has a cash-box under his left breast; Leon de Lora has his wit; Bixiou would laugh at himself for a fool if he loved any one but himself; Massol has a minister's portfolio in the place of a heart; Lousteau can have nothing but viscera, since he could endure to be thrown over by Madame de Baudraye; Monsieur le Duc is too rich to prove his love by his ruin; Vauvinet is not in it—I do not regard a bill-broker as one of the human race; and you have never loved, nor I, nor Jenny Cadine, nor Malaga. For my part, I never but once even saw the phenomenon I have described. It was," and she turned to Jenny Cadine, "that poor Baron Hulot, whom I am going to advertise for like a lost dog, for I want to find him."
"Oh, ho!" said Carabine to herself, and looking keenly at Josepha, "then Madame Nourrisson has two pictures by Raphael, since Josepha is playing my hand!"
"Poor fellow," said Vauvinet, "he was a great man! Magnificent! And what a figure, what a style, the air of Francis I.! What a volcano! and how full of ingenious ways of getting money! He must be looking for it now, wherever he is, and I make no doubt he extracts it even from the walls built of bones that you may see in the suburbs of Paris near the city gates—"
"And all that," said Bixiou, "for that little Madame Marneffe! There is a precious hussy for you!"
"She is just going to marry my friend Crevel," said du Tillet.
"And she is madly in love with my friend Steinbock," Leon de Lora put in.
These three phrases were like so many pistol-shots fired point-blank at Montes. He turned white, and the shock was so painful that he rose with difficulty.
"You are a set of blackguards!" cried he. "You have no right to speak the name of an honest woman in the same breath with those fallen creatures—above all, not to make it a mark for your slander!"
He was interrupted by unanimous bravos and applause. Bixiou, Leon de Lora, Vauvinet, du Tillet, and Massol set the example, and there was a chorus.
"Hurrah for the Emperor!" said Bixiou.
"Crown him! crown him!" cried Vauvinet.
"Three groans for such a good dog! Hurrah for Brazil!" cried Lousteau.
"So, my copper-colored Baron, it is our Valerie that you love; and you are not disgusted?" said Leon de Lora.
"His remark is not parliamentary, but it is grand!" observed Massol.
"But, my most delightful customer," said du Tillet, "you were recommended to me; I am your banker; your innocence reflects on my credit."
"Yes, tell me, you are a reasonable creature——" said the Brazilian to the banker.
"Thanks on behalf of the company," said Bixiou with a bow.
"Tell me the real facts," Montes went on, heedless of Bixiou's interjection.
"Well, then," replied du Tillet, "I have the honor to tell you that I am asked to the Crevel wedding."
"Ah, ha! Combabus holds a brief for Madame Marneffe!" said Josepha, rising solemnly.
She went round to Montes with a tragic look, patted him kindly on the head, looked at him for a moment with comical admiration, and nodded sagely.
"Hulot was the first instance of love through fire and water," said she; "this is the second. But it ought not to count, as it comes from the Tropics."
Montes had dropped into his chair again, when Josepha gently touched his forehead, and looked at du Tillet as he said:
"If I am the victim of a Paris jest, if you only wanted to get at my secret——" and he sent a flashing look round the table, embracing all the guests in a flaming glance that blazed with the sun of Brazil,—"I beg of you as a favor to tell me so," he went on, in a tone of almost childlike entreaty; "but do not vilify the woman I love."
"Nay, indeed," said Carabine in a low voice; "but if, on the contrary, you are shamefully betrayed, cheated, tricked by Valerie, if I should give you the proof in an hour, in my own house, what then?"
"I cannot tell you before all these Iagos," said the Brazilian.
Carabine understood him to say magots (baboons).
"Well, well, say no more!" she replied, smiling. "Do not make yourself a laughing-stock for all the wittiest men in Paris; come to my house, we will talk it over."
Montes was crushed. "Proofs," he stammered, "consider—"
"Only too many," replied Carabine; "and if the mere suspicion hits you so hard, I fear for your reason."
"Is this creature obstinate, I ask you? He is worse than the late lamented King of Holland!—I say, Lousteau, Bixiou, Massol, all the crew of you, are you not invited to breakfast with Madame Marneffe the day after to-morrow?" said Leon de Lora.
"Ya," said du Tillet; "I have the honor of assuring you, Baron, that if you had by any chance thought of marrying Madame Marneffe, you are thrown out like a bill in Parliament, beaten by a blackball called Crevel. My friend, my old comrade Crevel, has eighty thousand francs a year; and you, I suppose, did not show such a good hand, for if you had, you, I imagine, would have been preferred."
Montes listened with a half-absent, half-smiling expression, which struck them all with terror.
At this moment the head-waiter came to whisper to Carabine that a lady, a relation of hers, was in the drawing-room and wished to speak to her.
Carabine rose and went out to find Madame Nourrisson, decently veiled with black lace.
"Well, child, am I to go to your house? Has he taken the hook?"
"Yes, mother; and the pistol is so fully loaded, that my only fear is that it will burst," said Carabine.