Cousin Betty/Section 44

About an hour later, Montes, Cydalise, and Carabine, returning from the Rocher de Cancale, entered Carabine's little sitting-room in the Rue Saint-Georges. Madame Nourrisson was sitting in an armchair by the fire.

"Here is my worthy old aunt," said Carabine.

"Yes, child, I came in person to fetch my little allowance. You would have forgotten me, though you are kind-hearted, and I have some bills to pay to-morrow. Buying and selling clothes, I am always short of cash. Who is this at your heels? The gentleman looks very much put out about something."

The dreadful Madame Nourrisson, at this moment so completely disguised as to look like a respectable old body, rose to embrace Carabine, one of the hundred and odd courtesans she had launched on their horrible career of vice.

"He is an Othello who is not to be taken in, whom I have the honor of introducing to you—Monsieur le Baron Montes de Montejanos."

"Oh! I have heard him talked about, and know his name.—You are nicknamed Combabus, because you love but one woman, and in Paris, that is the same as loving no one at all. And is it by chance the object of your affections who is fretting you? Madame Marneffe, Crevel's woman? I tell you what, my dear sir, you may bless your stars instead of cursing them. She is a good-for-nothing baggage, is that little woman. I know her tricks!"

"Get along," said Carabine, into whose hand Madame Nourrisson had slipped a note while embracing her, "you do not know your Brazilians. They are wrong-headed creatures that insist on being impaled through the heart. The more jealous they are, the more jealous they want to be. Monsieur talks of dealing death all round, but he will kill nobody because he is in love.—However, I have brought him here to give him the proofs of his discomfiture, which I have got from that little Steinbock."

Montes was drunk; he listened as if the women were talking about somebody else.

Carabine went to take off her velvet wrap, and read a facsimile of a note, as follows:—

"DEAR PUSS.—He dines with Popinot this evening, and will come to fetch me from the Opera at eleven. I shall go out at about half-past five and count on finding you at our paradise. Order dinner to be sent in from the Maison d'or. Dress, so as to be able to take me to the Opera. We shall have four hours to ourselves. Return this note to me; not that your Valerie doubts you—I would give you my life, my fortune, and my honor, but I am afraid of the tricks of chance."

"Here, Baron, this is the note sent to Count Steinbock this morning; read the address. The original document is burnt."

Montes turned the note over and over, recognized the writing, and was struck by a rational idea, which is sufficient evidence of the disorder of his brain.

"And, pray," said he, looking at Carabine, "what object have you in torturing my heart, for you must have paid very dear for the privilege of having the note in your possession long enough to get it lithographed?"

"Foolish man!" said Carabine, at a nod from Madame Nourrisson, "don't you see that poor child Cydalise—a girl of sixteen, who has been pining for you these three months, till she has lost her appetite for food or drink, and who is heart-broken because you have never even glanced at her?"

Cydalise put her handkerchief to her eyes with an appearance of emotion—"She is furious," Carabine went on, "though she looks as if butter would not melt in her mouth, furious to see the man she adores duped by a villainous hussy; she would kill Valerie—"

"Oh, as for that," said the Brazilian, "that is my business!"

"What, killing?" said old Nourrisson. "No, my son, we don't do that here nowadays."

"Oh!" said Montes, "I am not a native of this country. I live in a parish where I can laugh at your laws; and if you give me proof—"

"Well, that note. Is that nothing?"

"No," said the Brazilian. "I do not believe in the writing. I must see for myself."

"See!" cried Carabine, taking the hint at once from a gesture of her supposed aunt. "You shall see, my dear Tiger, all you wish to see—on one condition."

"And that is?"

"Look at Cydalise."

At a wink from Madame Nourrisson, Cydalise cast a tender look at the Baron.

"Will you be good to her? Will you make her a home?" asked Carabine. "A girl of such beauty is well worth a house and a carriage! It would be a monstrous shame to leave her to walk the streets. And besides—she is in debt.—How much do you owe?" asked Carabine, nipping Cydalise's arm.

"She is worth all she can get," said the old woman. "The point is that she can find a buyer."

"Listen!" cried Montes, fully aware at last of this masterpiece of womankind "you will show me Valerie—"

"And Count Steinbock.—Certainly!" said Madame Nourrisson.

For the past ten minutes the old woman had been watching the Brazilian; she saw that he was an instrument tuned up to the murderous pitch she needed; and, above all, so effectually blinded, that he would never heed who had led him on to it, and she spoke:—

"Cydalise, my Brazilian jewel, is my niece, so her concerns are partly mine. All this catastrophe will be the work of a few minutes, for a friend of mine lets the furnished room to Count Steinbock where Valerie is at this moment taking coffee—a queer sort of coffee, but she calls it her coffee. So let us understand each other, Brazil!—I like Brazil, it is a hot country.—What is to become of my niece?"

"You old ostrich," said Montes, the plumes in the woman's bonnet catching his eye, "you interrupted me.—If you show me—if I see Valerie and that artist together—"

"As you would wish to be—" said Carabine; "that is understood."

"Then I will take this girl and carry her away—"

"Where?" asked Carabine.

"To Brazil," replied the Baron. "I will make her my wife. My uncle left me ten leagues square of entailed estate; that is how I still have that house and home. I have a hundred negroes—nothing but negroes and negresses and negro brats, all bought by my uncle—"

"Nephew to a nigger-driver," said Carabine, with a grimace. "That needs some consideration.—Cydalise, child, are you fond of the blacks?"

"Pooh! Carabine, no nonsense," said the old woman. "The deuce is in it! Monsieur and I are doing business."

"If I take up another Frenchwoman, I mean to have her to myself," the Brazilian went on. "I warn you, mademoiselle, I am king there, and not a constitutional king. I am Czar; my subjects are mine by purchase, and no one can escape from my kingdom, which is a hundred leagues from any human settlement, hemmed in by savages on the interior, and divided from the sea by a wilderness as wide as France."

"I should prefer a garret here."

"So thought I," said Montes, "since I sold all my land and possessions at Rio to come back to Madame Marneffe."

"A man does not make such a voyage for nothing," remarked Madame Nourrisson. "You have a right to look for love for your own sake, particularly being so good-looking.—Oh, he is very handsome!" said she to Carabine.

"Very handsome, handsomer than the Postillon de Longjumeau," replied the courtesan.

Cydalise took the Brazilian's hand, but he released it as politely as he could.

"I came back for Madame Marneffe," the man went on where he had left off, "but you do not know why I was three years thinking about it."

"No, savage!" said Carabine.

"Well, she had so repeatedly told me that she longed to live with me alone in a desert—"

"Oh, ho! he is not a savage after all," cried Carabine, with a shout of laughter. "He is of the highly-civilized tribe of Flats!"

"She had told me this so often," Montes went on, regardless of the courtesan's mockery, "that I had a lovely house fitted up in the heart of that vast estate. I came back to France to fetch Valerie, and the first evening I saw her—"

"Saw her is very proper!" said Carabine. "I will remember it."

"She told me to wait till that wretched Marneffe was dead; and I agreed, and forgave her for having admitted the attentions of Hulot. Whether the devil had her in hand I don't know, but from that instant that woman has humored my every whim, complied with all my demands—never for one moment has she given me cause to suspect her!—"

"That is supremely clever!" said Carabine to Madame Nourrisson, who nodded in sign of assent.

"My faith in that woman," said Montes, and he shed a tear, "was a match for my love. Just now, I was ready to fight everybody at table—"

"So I saw," said Carabine.

"And if I am cheated, if she is going to be married, if she is at this moment in Steinbock's arms, she deserves a thousand deaths! I will kill her as I would smash a fly—"

"And how about the gendarmes, my son?" said Madame Nourrisson, with a smile that made your flesh creep.

"And the police agents, and the judges, and the assizes, and all the set-out?" added Carabine.

"You are bragging, my dear fellow," said the old woman, who wanted to know all the Brazilian's schemes of vengeance.

"I will kill her," he calmly repeated. "You called me a savage.—Do you imagine that I am fool enough to go, like a Frenchman, and buy poison at the chemist's shop?—During the time while we were driving her, I thought out my means of revenge, if you should prove to be right as concerns Valerie. One of my negroes has the most deadly of animal poisons, and incurable anywhere but in Brazil. I will administer it to Cydalise, who will give it to me; then by the time when death is a certainty to Crevel and his wife, I shall be beyond the Azores with your cousin, who will be cured, and I will marry her. We have our own little tricks, we savages!—Cydalise," said he, looking at the country girl, "is the animal I need.—How much does she owe?"

"A hundred thousand francs," said Cydalise.

"She says little—but to the purpose," said Carabine, in a low tone to Madame Nourrisson.

"I am going mad!" cried the Brazilian, in a husky voice, dropping on to a sofa. "I shall die of this! But I must see, for it is impossible!—A lithographed note! What is to assure me that it is not a forgery?—Baron Hulot was in love with Valerie?" said he, recalling Josepha's harangue. "Nay; the proof that he did not love is that she is still alive—I will not leave her living for anybody else, if she is not wholly mine."

Montes was terrible to behold. He bellowed, he stormed; he broke everything he touched; rosewood was as brittle as glass.

"How he destroys things!" said Carabine, looking at the old woman. "My good boy," said she, giving the Brazilian a little slap, "Roland the Furious is very fine in a poem; but in a drawing-room he is prosaic and expensive."

"My son," said old Nourrisson, rising to stand in front of the crestfallen Baron, "I am of your way of thinking. When you love in that way, and are joined 'till death does you part,' life must answer for love. The one who first goes, carries everything away; it is a general wreck. You command my esteem, my admiration, my consent, especially for your inoculation, which will make me a Friend of the Negro.—But you love her! You will hark back?"

"I?—If she is so infamous, I—"

"Well, come now, you are talking too much, it strikes me. A man who means to be avenged, and who says he has the ways and means of a savage, doesn't do that.—If you want to see your 'object' in her paradise, you must take Cydalise and walk straight in with her on your arm, as if the servant had made a mistake. But no scandal! If you mean to be revenged, you must eat the leek, seem to be in despair, and allow her to bully you.—Do you see?" said Madame Nourrisson, finding the Brazilian quite amazed by so subtle a scheme.

"All right, old ostrich," he replied. "Come along: I understand."

"Good-bye, little one!" said the old woman to Carabine.

She signed to Cydalise to go on with Montes, and remained a minute with Carabine.

"Now, child, I have but one fear, and that is that he will strangle her! I should be in a very tight place; we must do everything gently. I believe you have won your picture by Raphael; but they tell me it is only a Mignard. Never mind, it is much prettier; all the Raphaels are gone black, I am told, whereas this one is as bright as a Girodet."

"All I want is to crow over Josepha; and it is all the same to me whether I have a Mignard or a Raphael!—That thief had on such pearls this evening!—you would sell your soul for them."

Cydalise, Montes, and Madame Nourrisson got into a hackney coach that was waiting at the door. Madame Nourrisson whispered to the driver the address of a house in the same block as the Italian Opera House, which they could have reached in five or six minutes from the Rue Saint-Georges; but Madame Nourrisson desired the man to drive along the Rue le Peletier, and to go very slowly, so as to be able to examine the carriages in waiting.

"Brazilian," said the old woman, "look out for your angel's carriage and servants."

The Baron pointed out Valerie's carriage as they passed it.

"She has told them to come for her at ten o'clock, and she is gone in a cab to the house where she visits Count Steinbock. She has dined there, and will come to the Opera in half an hour.—It is well contrived!" said Madame Nourrisson. "Thus you see how she has kept you so long in the dark."

The Brazilian made no reply. He had become the tiger, and had recovered the imperturbable cool ferocity that had been so striking at dinner. He was as calm as a bankrupt the day after he has stopped payment.

At the door of the house stood a hackney coach with two horses, of the kind known as a Compagnie Generale, from the Company that runs them.

"Stay here in the box," said the old woman to Montes. "This is not an open house like a tavern. I will send for you."

The paradise of Madame Marneffe and Wenceslas was not at all like that of Crevel—who, finding it useless now, had just sold his to the Comte Maxime de Trailles. This paradise, the paradise of all comers, consisted of a room on the fourth floor opening to the landing, in a house close to the Italian Opera. On each floor of this house there was a room which had originally served as the kitchen to the apartments on that floor. But the house having become a sort of inn, let out for clandestine love affairs at an exorbitant price, the owner, the real Madame Nourrisson, an old-clothes buyer in the Rue Nueve Saint-Marc, had wisely appreciated the great value of these kitchens, and had turned them into a sort of dining-rooms. Each of these rooms, built between thick party-walls and with windows to the street, was entirely shut in by very thick double doors on the landing. Thus the most important secrets could be discussed over a dinner, with no risk of being overheard. For greater security, the windows had shutters inside and out. These rooms, in consequence of this peculiarity, were let for twelve hundred francs a month. The whole house, full of such paradises and mysteries was rented by Madame Nourrisson the First for twenty-eight thousand francs of clear profit, after paying her housekeeper, Madame Nourrisson the Second, for she did not manage it herself.

The paradise let to Count Steinbock had been hung with chintz; the cold, hard floor, of common tiles reddened with encaustic, was not felt through a soft thick carpet. The furniture consisted of two pretty chairs and a bed in an alcove, just now half hidden by a table loaded with the remains of an elegant dinner, while two bottles with long necks and an empty champagne-bottle in ice strewed the field of bacchus cultivated by Venus.

There were also—the property, no doubt, of Valerie—a low easy-chair and a man's smoking-chair, and a pretty toilet chest of drawers in rosewood, the mirror handsomely framed a la Pompadour. A lamp hanging from the ceiling gave a subdued light, increased by wax candles on the table and on the chimney-shelf.

This sketch will suffice to give an idea, urbi et orbi, of clandestine passion in the squalid style stamped on it in Paris in 1840. How far, alas! from the adulterous love, symbolized by Vulcan's nets, three thousand years ago.

When Montes and Cydalise came upstairs, Valerie, standing before the fire, where a log was blazing, was allowing Wenceslas to lace her stays.

This is a moment when a woman who is neither too fat nor too thin, but like Valerie, elegant and slender, displays divine beauty. The rosy skin, mostly soft, invites the sleepiest eye. The lines of her figure, so little hidden, are so charmingly outlined by the white pleats of the shift and the support of the stays, that she is irresistible—like everything that must be parted from.

With a happy face smiling at the glass, a foot impatiently marking time, a hand put up to restore order among the tumbled curls, and eyes expressive of gratitude; with the glow of satisfaction which, like a sunset, warms the least details of the countenance—everything makes such a moment a mine of memories.

Any man who dares look back on the early errors of his life may, perhaps, recall some such reminiscences, and understand, though not excuse, the follies of Hulot and Crevel. Women are so well aware of their power at such a moment, that they find in it what may be called the aftermath of the meeting.

"Come, come; after two years' practice, you do not yet know how to lace a woman's stays! You are too much a Pole!—There, it is ten o'clock, my Wenceslas!" said Valerie, laughing at him.

At this very moment, a mischievous waiting-woman, by inserting a knife, pushed up the hook of the double doors that formed the whole security of Adam and Eve. She hastily pulled the door open—for the servants of these dens have little time to waste—and discovered one of the bewitching tableaux de genre which Gavarni has so often shown at the Salon.

"In here, madame," said the girl; and Cydalise went in, followed by Montes.

"But there is some one here.—Excuse me, madame," said the country girl, in alarm.

"What?—Why! it is Valerie!" cried Montes, violently slamming the door.

Madame Marneffe, too genuinely agitated to dissemble her feelings, dropped on to the chair by the fireplace. Two tears rose to her eyes, and at once dried away. She looked at Montes, saw the girl, and burst into a cackle of forced laughter. The dignity of the insulted woman redeemed the scantiness of her attire; she walked close up to the Brazilian, and looked at him so defiantly that her eyes glittered like knives.

"So that," said she, standing face to face with the Baron, and pointing to Cydalise—"that is the other side of your fidelity? You, who have made me promises that might convert a disbeliever in love! You, for whom I have done so much—have even committed crimes!—You are right, monsieur, I am not to compare with a child of her age and of such beauty!

"I know what you are going to say," she went on, looking at Wenceslas, whose undress was proof too clear to be denied. "This is my concern. If I could love you after such gross treachery—for you have spied upon me, you have paid for every step up these stairs, paid the mistress of the house, and the servant, perhaps even Reine—a noble deed!—If I had any remnant of affection for such a mean wretch, I could give him reasons that would renew his passion!—But I leave you, monsieur, to your doubts, which will become remorse.—Wenceslas, my gown!"

She took her dress and put it on, looked at herself in the glass, and finished dressing without heeding the Baron, as calmly as if she had been alone in the room.

"Wenceslas, are you ready?—Go first."

She had been watching Montes in the glass and out of the corner of her eye, and fancied she could see in his pallor an indication of the weakness which delivers a strong man over to a woman's fascinations; she now took his hand, going so close to him that he could not help inhaling the terrible perfumes which men love, and by which they intoxicate themselves; then, feeling his pulses beat high, she looked at him reproachfully.

"You have my full permission to go and tell your history to Monsieur Crevel; he will never believe you. I have a perfect right to marry him, and he becomes my husband the day after to-morrow.—I shall make him very happy.—Good-bye; try to forget me."

"Oh! Valerie," cried Henri Montes, clasping her in his arms, "that is impossible!—Come to Brazil!"

Valerie looked in his face, and saw him her slave.

"Well, if you still love me, Henri, two years hence I will be your wife; but your expression at this moment strikes me as very suspicious."

"I swear to you that they made me drink, that false friends threw this girl on my hands, and that the whole thing is the outcome of chance!" said Montes.

"Then I am to forgive you?" she asked, with a smile.

"But you will marry, all the same?" asked the Baron, in an agony of jealousy.

"Eighty thousand francs a year!" said she, with almost comical enthusiasm. "And Crevel loves me so much that he will die of it!"

"Ah! I understand," said Montes.

"Well, then, in a few days we will come to an understanding," said she.

And she departed triumphant.

"I have no scruples," thought the Baron, standing transfixed for a few minutes. "What! That woman believes she can make use of his passion to be quit of that dolt, as she counted on Marneffe's decease!—I shall be the instrument of divine wrath."

Two days later those of du Tillet's guests who had demolished Madame Marneffe tooth and nail, were seated round her table an hour after she has shed her skin and changed her name for the illustrious name of a Paris mayor. This verbal treason is one of the commonest forms of Parisian levity.

Valerie had had the satisfaction of seeing the Brazilian in the church; for Crevel, now so entirely the husband, had invited him out of bravado. And the Baron's presence at the breakfast astonished no one. All these men of wit and of the world were familiar with the meanness of passion, the compromises of pleasure.

Steinbock's deep melancholy—for he was beginning to despise the woman whom he had adored as an angel—was considered to be in excellent taste. The Pole thus seemed to convey that all was at an end between Valerie and himself. Lisbeth came to embrace her dear Madame Crevel, and to excuse herself for not staying to the breakfast on the score of Adeline's sad state of health.

"Be quite easy," said she to Valerie, "they will call on you, and you will call on them. Simply hearing the words two hundred thousand francs has brought the Baroness to death's door. Oh, you have them all hard and fast by that tale!—But you must tell it to me."

Within a month of her marriage, Valerie was at her tenth quarrel with Steinbock; he insisted on explanations as to Henri Montes, reminding her of the words spoken in their paradise; and, not content with speaking to her in terms of scorn, he watched her so closely that she never had a moment of liberty, so much was she fettered by his jealousy on one side and Crevel's devotion on the other.

Bereft now of Lisbeth, whose advice had always been so valuable she flew into such a rage as to reproach Wenceslas for the money she had lent him. This so effectually roused Steinbock's pride, that he came no more to the Crevels' house. So Valerie had gained her point, which was to be rid of him for a time, and enjoy some freedom. She waited till Crevel should make a little journey into the country to see Comte Popinot, with a view to arranging for her introduction to the Countess, and was then able to make an appointment to meet the Baron, whom she wanted to have at her command for a whole day to give him those "reasons" which were to make him love her more than ever.

On the morning of that day, Reine, who estimated the magnitude of her crime by that of the bribe she received, tried to warn her mistress, in whom she naturally took more interest than in strangers. Still, as she had been threatened with madness, and ending her days in the Salpetriere in case of indiscretion, she was cautious.

"Madame, you are so well off now," said she. "Why take on again with that Brazilian?—I do not trust him at all."

"You are very right, Reine, and I mean to be rid of him."

"Oh, madame, I am glad to hear it; he frightens me, does that big Moor! I believe him to be capable of anything."

"Silly child! you have more reason to be afraid for him when he is with me."

At this moment Lisbeth came in.

"My dear little pet Nanny, what an age since we met!" cried Valerie. "I am so unhappy! Crevel bores me to death; and Wenceslas is gone—we quarreled."

"I know," said Lisbeth, "and that is what brings me here. Victorin met him at about five in the afternoon going into an eating-house at five-and-twenty sous, and he brought him home, hungry, by working on his feelings, to the Rue Louis-le-Grand.—Hortense, seeing Wenceslas lean and ill and badly dressed, held out her hand. This is how you throw me over—"

"Monsieur Henri, madame," the man-servant announced in a low voice to Valerie.

"Leave me now, Lisbeth; I will explain it all to-morrow." But, as will be seen, Valerie was ere long not in a state to explain anything to anybody.