Cousin Betty/Section 9
On the day after, these three lives, so differently but so utterly wretched—that of a mother in despair, that of the Marneffe household, and that of the unhappy exile—were all to be influenced by Hortense's guileless passion, and by the strange outcome of the Baron's luckless passion for Josepha.
Just as Hulot was going into the opera-house, he was stopped by the darkened appearance of the building and of the Rue le Peletier, where there were no gendarmes, no lights, no theatre-servants, no barrier to regulate the crowd. He looked up at the announcement-board, and beheld a strip of white paper, on which was printed the solemn notice:
"CLOSED ON ACCOUNT OF ILLNESS."
He rushed off to Josepha's lodgings in the Rue Chauchat; for, like all the singers, she lived close at hand.
"Whom do you want, sir?" asked the porter, to the Baron's great astonishment.
"Have you forgotten me?" said Hulot, much puzzled.
"On the contrary, sir, it is because I have the honor to remember you that I ask you, Where are you going?"
A mortal chill fell upon the Baron.
"What has happened?" he asked.
"If you go up to Mademoiselle Mirah's rooms, Monsieur le Baron, you will find Mademoiselle Heloise Brisetout there—and Monsieur Bixiou, Monsieur Leon de Lora, Monsieur Lousteau, Monsieur de Vernisset, Monsieur Stidmann; and ladies smelling of patchouli—holding a housewarming."
"Then, where—where is——?"
"Mademoiselle Mirah?—I don't know that I ought to tell you."
The Baron slipped two five-franc pieces into the porter's hand.
"Well, she is now in the Rue de la Ville l'Eveque, in a fine house, given to her, they say, by the Duc d'Herouville," replied the man in a whisper.
Having ascertained the number of the house, Monsieur Hulot called a milord and drove to one of those pretty modern houses with double doors, where everything, from the gaslight at the entrance, proclaims luxury.
The Baron, in his blue cloth coat, white neckcloth, nankeen trousers, patent leather boots, and stiffly starched shirt-frill, was supposed to be a guest, though a late arrival, by the janitor of this new Eden. His alacrity of manner and quick step justified this opinion.
The porter rang a bell, and a footman appeared in the hall. This man, as new as the house, admitted the visitor, who said to him in an imperious tone, and with a lordly gesture:
"Take in this card to Mademoiselle Josepha."
The victim mechanically looked round the room in which he found himself—an anteroom full of choice flowers and of furniture that must have cost twenty thousand francs. The servant, on his return, begged monsieur to wait in the drawing-room till the company came to their coffee.
Though the Baron had been familiar with Imperial luxury, which was undoubtedly prodigious, while its productions, though not durable in kind, had nevertheless cost enormous sums, he stood dazzled, dumfounded, in this drawing-room with three windows looking out on a garden like fairyland, one of those gardens that are created in a month with a made soil and transplanted shrubs, while the grass seems as if it must be made to grow by some chemical process. He admired not only the decoration, the gilding, the carving, in the most expensive Pompadour style, as it is called, and the magnificent brocades, all of which any enriched tradesman could have procured for money; but he also noted such treasures as only princes can select and find, can pay for and give away; two pictures by Greuze, two by Watteau, two heads by Vandyck, two landscapes by Ruysdael, and two by le Guaspre, a Rembrandt, a Holbein, a Murillo, and a Titian, two paintings, by Teniers, and a pair by Metzu, a Van Huysum, and an Abraham Mignon—in short, two hundred thousand francs' worth of pictures superbly framed. The gilding was worth almost as much as the paintings.
"Ah, ha! Now you understand, my good man?" said Josepha.
She had stolen in on tiptoe through a noiseless door, over Persian carpets, and came upon her adorer, standing lost in amazement—in the stupid amazement when a man's ears tingle so loudly that he hears nothing but that fatal knell.
The words "my good man," spoken to an official of such high importance, so perfectly exemplified the audacity with which these creatures pour contempt on the loftiest, that the Baron was nailed to the spot. Josepha, in white and yellow, was so beautifully dressed for the banquet, that amid all this lavish magnificence she still shone like a rare jewel.
"Isn't this really fine?" said she. "The Duke has spent all the money on it that he got out of floating a company, of which the shares all sold at a premium. He is no fool, is my little Duke. There is nothing like a man who has been a grandee in his time for turning coals into gold. Just before dinner the notary brought me the title-deeds to sign and the bills receipted!—They are all a first-class set in there—d'Esgrignon, Rastignac, Maxime, Lenoncourt, Verneuil, Laginski, Rochefide, la Palferine, and from among the bankers Nucingen and du Tillet, with Antonia, Malaga, Carabine, and la Schontz; and they all feel for you deeply.—Yes, old boy, and they hope you will join them, but on condition that you forthwith drink up to two bottles full of Hungarian wine, Champagne, or Cape, just to bring you up to their mark.—My dear fellow, we are all so much on here, that it was necessary to close the Opera. The manager is as drunk as a cornet-a-piston; he is hiccuping already."
"Oh, Josepha!——" cried the Baron.
"Now, can anything be more absurd than explanations?" she broke in with a smile. "Look here; can you stand six hundred thousand francs which this house and furniture cost? Can you give me a bond to the tune of thirty thousand francs a year, which is what the Duke has just given me in a packet of common sugared almonds from the grocer's?—a pretty notion that——"
"What an atrocity!" cried Hulot, who in his fury would have given his wife's diamonds to stand in the Duc d'Herouville's shoes for twenty-four hours.
"Atrocity is my trade," said she. "So that is how you take it? Well, why don't you float a company? Goodness me! my poor dyed Tom, you ought to be grateful to me; I have thrown you over just when you would have spent on me your widow's fortune, your daughter's portion.—What, tears! The Empire is a thing of the past—I hail the coming Empire!"
She struck a tragic attitude, and exclaimed:
- "They call you Hulot! Nay, I know you not—"
And she went into the other room.
Through the door, left ajar, there came, like a lightning-flash, a streak of light with an accompaniment of the crescendo of the orgy and the fragrance of a banquet of the choicest description.
The singer peeped through the partly open door, and seeing Hulot transfixed as if he had been a bronze image, she came one step forward into the room.
"Monsieur," said she, "I have handed over the rubbish in the Rue Chauchat to Bixiou's little Heloise Brisetout. If you wish to claim your cotton nightcap, your bootjack, your belt, and your wax dye, I have stipulated for their return."
This insolent banter made the Baron leave the room as precipitately as Lot departed from Gomorrah, but he did not look back like Mrs. Lot.
Hulot went home, striding along in a fury, and talking to himself; he found his family still playing the game of whist at two sous a point, at which he left them. On seeing her husband return, poor Adeline imagined something dreadful, some dishonor; she gave her cards to Hortense, and led Hector away into the very room where, only five hours since, Crevel had foretold her the utmost disgrace of poverty.
"What is the matter?" she said, terrified.
"Oh, forgive me—but let me tell you all these horrors." And for ten minutes he poured out his wrath.
"But, my dear," said the unhappy woman, with heroic courage, "these creatures do not know what love means—such pure and devoted love as you deserve. How could you, so clear-sighted as you are, dream of competing with millions?"
"Dearest Adeline!" cried the Baron, clasping her to his heart.
The Baroness' words had shed balm on the bleeding wounds to his vanity.
"To be sure, take away the Duc d'Herouville's fortune, and she could not hesitate between us!" said the Baron.
"My dear," said Adeline with a final effort, "if you positively must have mistresses, why do you not seek them, like Crevel, among women who are less extravagant, and of a class that can for a time be content with little? We should all gain by that arrangement.—I understand your need—but I do not understand that vanity——"
"Oh, what a kind and perfect wife you are!" cried he. "I am an old lunatic, I do not deserve to have such a wife!"
"I am simply the Josephine of my Napoleon," she replied, with a touch of melancholy.
"Josephine was not to compare with you!" said he. "Come; I will play a game of whist with my brother and the children. I must try my hand at the business of a family man; I must get Hortense a husband, and bury the libertine."
His frankness so greatly touched poor Adeline, that she said:
"The creature has no taste to prefer any man in the world to my Hector. Oh, I would not give you up for all the gold on earth. How can any woman throw you over who is so happy as to be loved by you?"
The look with which the Baron rewarded his wife's fanaticism confirmed her in her opinion that gentleness and docility were a woman's strongest weapons.
But in this she was mistaken. The noblest sentiments, carried to an excess, can produce mischief as great as do the worst vices. Bonaparte was made Emperor for having fired on the people, at a stone's throw from the spot where Louis XVI. lost his throne and his head because he would not allow a certain Monsieur Sauce to be hurt.