Cousin Betty/Section 12

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Cousin Betty by Honoré de Balzac, translated by James Waring
Section 12

This state of things lasted for several days.

The Baron, assured of Count Steinbock's titles and position; the Baroness, pleased with his character and habits; Hortense, proud of her permitted love and of her suitor's fame, none of them hesitated to speak of the marriage; in short, the artist was in the seventh heaven, when an indiscretion on Madame Marneffe's part spoilt all.

And this was how.

Lisbeth, whom the Baron wished to see intimate with Madame Marneffe, that she might keep an eye on the couple, had already dined with Valerie; and she, on her part, anxious to have an ear in the Hulot house, made much of the old maid. It occurred to Valerie to invite Mademoiselle Fischer to a house-warming in the new apartments she was about to move into. Lisbeth, glad to have found another house to dine in, and bewitched by Madame Marneffe, had taken a great fancy to Valerie. Of all the persons she had made acquaintance with, no one had taken so much pains to please her. In fact, Madame Marneffe, full of attentions for Mademoiselle Fischer, found herself in the position towards Lisbeth that Lisbeth held towards the Baroness, Monsieur Rivet, Crevel, and the others who invited her to dinner.

The Marneffes had excited Lisbeth's compassion by allowing her to see the extreme poverty of the house, while varnishing it as usual with the fairest colors; their friends were under obligations to them and ungrateful; they had had much illness; Madame Fortin, her mother, had never known of their distress, and had died believing herself wealthy to the end, thanks to their superhuman efforts—and so forth.

"Poor people!" said she to her Cousin Hulot, "you are right to do what you can for them; they are so brave and so kind! They can hardly live on the thousand crowns he gets as deputy-head of the office, for they have got into debt since Marshal Montcornet's death. It is barbarity on the part of the Government to suppose that a clerk with a wife and family can live in Paris on two thousand four hundred francs a year."

And so, within a very short time, a young woman who affected regard for her, who told her everything, and consulted her, who flattered her, and seemed ready to yield to her guidance, had become dearer to the eccentric Cousin Lisbeth than all her relations.

The Baron, on his part, admiring in Madame Marneffe such propriety, education, and breeding as neither Jenny Cadine nor Josepha, nor any friend of theirs had to show, had fallen in love with her in a month, developing a senile passion, a senseless passion, which had an appearance of reason. In fact, he found here neither the banter, nor the orgies, nor the reckless expenditure, nor the depravity, nor the scorn of social decencies, nor the insolent independence which had brought him to grief alike with the actress and the singer. He was spared, too, the rapacity of the courtesan, like unto the thirst of dry sand.

Madame Marneffe, of whom he had made a friend and confidante, made the greatest difficulties over accepting any gift from him.

"Appointments, official presents, anything you can extract from the Government; but do not begin by insulting a woman whom you profess to love," said Valerie. "If you do, I shall cease to believe you—and I like to believe you," she added, with a glance like Saint Theresa leering at heaven.

Every time he made her a present there was a fortress to be stormed, a conscience to be over-persuaded. The hapless Baron laid deep stratagems to offer her some trifle—costly, nevertheless—proud of having at last met with virtue and the realization of his dreams. In this primitive household, as he assured himself, he was the god as much as in his own. And Monsieur Marneffe seemed at a thousand leagues from suspecting that the Jupiter of his office intended to descend on his wife in a shower of gold; he was his august chief's humblest slave.

Madame Marneffe, twenty-three years of age, a pure and bashful middle-class wife, a blossom hidden in the Rue du Doyenne, could know nothing of the depravity and demoralizing harlotry which the Baron could no longer think of without disgust, for he had never known the charm of recalcitrant virtue, and the coy Valerie made him enjoy it to the utmost—all along the line, as the saying goes.

The question having come to this point between Hector and Valerie, it is not astonishing that Valerie should have heard from Hector the secret of the intended marriage between the great sculptor Steinbock and Hortense Hulot. Between a lover on his promotion and a lady who hesitates long before becoming his mistress, there are contests, uttered or unexpressed, in which a word often betrays a thought; as, in fencing, the foils fly as briskly as the swords in duel. Then a prudent man follows the example of Monsieur de Turenne. Thus the Baron had hinted at the greater freedom his daughter's marriage would allow him, in reply to the tender Valerie, who more than once had exclaimed:

"I cannot imagine how a woman can go wrong for a man who is not wholly hers."

And a thousand times already the Baron had declared that for five-and-twenty years all had been at an end between Madame Hulot and himself.

"And they say she is so handsome!" replied Madame Marneffe. "I want proof."

"You shall have it," said the Baron, made happy by this demand, by which his Valerie committed herself.

Hector had then been compelled to reveal his plans, already being carried into effect in the Rue Vanneau, to prove to Valerie that he intended to devote to her that half of his life which belonged to his lawful wife, supposing that day and night equally divide the existence of civilized humanity. He spoke of decently deserting his wife, leaving her to herself as soon as Hortense should be married. The Baroness would then spend all her time with Hortense or the young Hulot couple; he was sure of her submission.

"And then, my angel, my true life, my real home will be in the Rue Vanneau."

"Bless me, how you dispose of me!" said Madame Marneffe. "And my husband——"

"That rag!"

"To be sure, as compared with you so he is!" said she with a laugh.

Madame Marneffe, having heard Steinbock's history, was frantically eager to see the young Count; perhaps she wished to have some trifle of his work while they still lived under the same roof. This curiosity so seriously annoyed the Baron that Valerie swore to him that she would never even look at Wenceslas. But though she obtained, as the reward of her surrender of this wish, a little tea-service of old Sevres pate tendre, she kept her wish at the bottom of her heart, as if written on tablets.

So one day when she had begged "my Cousin Betty" to come to take coffee with her in her room, she opened on the subject of her lover, to know how she might see him without risk.

"My dear child," said she, for they called each my dear, "why have you never introduced your lover to me? Do you know that within a short time he has become famous?"

"He famous?"

"He is the one subject of conversation."

"Pooh!" cried Lisbeth.

"He is going to execute the statue of my father, and I could be of great use to him and help him to succeed in the work; for Madame Montcornet cannot lend him, as I can, a miniature by Sain, a beautiful thing done in 1809, before the Wagram Campaign, and given to my poor mother—Montcornet when he was young and handsome."

Sain and Augustin between them held the sceptre of miniature painting under the Empire.

"He is going to make a statue, my dear, did you say?"

"Nine feet high—by the orders of the Minister of War. Why, where have you dropped from that I should tell you the news? Why, the Government is going to give Count Steinbock rooms and a studio at Le Gros-Caillou, the depot for marble; your Pole will be made the Director, I should not wonder, with two thousand francs a year and a ring on his finger."

"How do you know all this when I have heard nothing about it?" said Lisbeth at last, shaking off her amazement.

"Now, my dear little Cousin Betty," said Madame Marneffe, in an insinuating voice, "are you capable of devoted friendship, put to any test? Shall we henceforth be sisters? Will you swear to me never to have a secret from me any more than I from you—to act as my spy, as I will be yours?—Above all, will you pledge yourself never to betray me either to my husband or to Monsieur Hulot, and never reveal that it was I who told you——?"

Madame Marneffe broke off in this spurring harangue; Lisbeth frightened her. The peasant-woman's face was terrible; her piercing black eyes had the glare of the tiger's; her face was like that we ascribe to a pythoness; she set her teeth to keep them from chattering, and her whole frame quivered convulsively. She had pushed her clenched fingers under her cap to clutch her hair and support her head, which felt too heavy; she was on fire. The smoke of the flame that scorched her seemed to emanate from her wrinkles as from the crevasses rent by a volcanic eruption. It was a startling spectacle.

"Well, why do you stop?" she asked in a hollow voice. "I will be all to you that I have been to him.—Oh, I would have given him my life-blood!"

"You loved him then?"

"Like a child of my own!"

"Well, then," said Madame Marneffe, with a breath of relief, "if you only love him in that way, you will be very happy—for you wish him to be happy?"

Lisbeth replied by a nod as hasty as a madwoman's.

"He is to marry your Cousin Hortense in a month's time."

"Hortense!" shrieked the old maid, striking her forehead, and starting to her feet.

"Well, but then you were really in love with this young man?" asked Valerie.

"My dear, we are bound for life and death, you and I," said Mademoiselle Fischer. "Yes, if you have any love affairs, to me they are sacred. Your vices will be virtues in my eyes.—For I shall need your vices!"

"Then did you live with him?" asked Valerie.

"No; I meant to be a mother to him."

"I give it up. I cannot understand," said Valerie. "In that case you are neither betrayed nor cheated, and you ought to be very happy to see him so well married; he is now fairly afloat. And, at any rate, your day is over. Our artist goes to Madame Hulot's every evening as soon as you go out to dinner."

"Adeline!" muttered Lisbeth. "Oh, Adeline, you shall pay for this! I will make you uglier than I am."

"You are as pale as death!" exclaimed Valerie. "There is something wrong?—Oh, what a fool I am! The mother and daughter must have suspected that you would raise some obstacles in the way of this affair since they have kept it from you," said Madame Marneffe. "But if you did not live with the young man, my dear, all this is a greater puzzle to me than my husband's feelings——"

"Ah, you don't know," said Lisbeth; "you have no idea of all their tricks. It is the last blow that kills. And how many such blows have I had to bruise my soul! You don't know that from the time when I could first feel, I have been victimized for Adeline. I was beaten, and she was petted; I was dressed like a scullion, and she had clothes like a lady's; I dug in the garden and cleaned the vegetables, and she—she never lifted a finger for anything but to make up some finery!—She married the Baron, she came to shine at the Emperor's Court, while I stayed in our village till 1809, waiting for four years for a suitable match; they brought me away, to be sure, but only to make me a work-woman, and to offer me clerks or captains like coalheavers for a husband! I have had their leavings for twenty-six years!—And now like the story in the Old Testament, the poor relation has one ewe-lamb which is all her joy, and the rich man who has flocks covets the ewe-lamb and steals it—without warning, without asking. Adeline has meanly robbed me of my happiness!—Adeline! Adeline! I will see you in the mire, and sunk lower than myself!—And Hortense—I loved her, and she has cheated me. The Baron.—No, it is impossible. Tell me again what is really true of all this."

"Be calm, my dear child."

"Valerie, my darling, I will be calm," said the strange creature, sitting down again. "One thing only can restore me to reason; give me proofs."

"Your Cousin Hortense has the Samson group—here is a lithograph from it published in a review. She paid for it out of her pocket-money, and it is the Baron who, to benefit his future son-in-law, is pushing him, getting everything for him."

"Water!—water!" said Lisbeth, after glancing at the print, below which she read, "A group belonging to Mademoiselle Hulot d'Ervy." "Water! my head is burning, I am going mad!"

Madame Marneffe fetched some water. Lisbeth took off her cap, unfastened her black hair, and plunged her head into the basin her new friend held for her. She dipped her forehead into it several times, and checked the incipient inflammation. After this douche she completely recovered her self-command.

"Not a word," said she to Madame Marneffe as she wiped her face—"not a word of all this.—You see, I am quite calm; everything is forgotten. I am thinking of something very different."

"She will be in Charenton to-morrow, that is very certain," thought Madame Marneffe, looking at the old maid.

"What is to be done?" Lisbeth went on. "You see, my angel, there is nothing for it but to hold my tongue, bow my head, and drift to the grave, as all water runs to the river. What could I try to do? I should like to grind them all—Adeline, her daughter, and the Baron—all to dust! But what can a poor relation do against a rich family? It would be the story of the earthen pot and the iron pot."

"Yes; you are right," said Valerie. "You can only pull as much hay as you can to your side of the manger. That is all the upshot of life in Paris."

"Besides," said Lisbeth, "I shall soon die, I can tell you, if I lose that boy to whom I fancied I could always be a mother, and with whom I counted on living all my days——"

There were tears in her eyes, and she paused. Such emotion in this woman made of sulphur and flame, made Valerie shudder.

"Well, at any rate, I have found you," said Lisbeth, taking Valerie's hand, "that is some consolation in this dreadful trouble.—We shall be true friends; and why should we ever part? I shall never cross your track. No one will ever be in love with me!—Those who would have married me, would only have done it to secure my Cousin Hulot's interest. With energy enough to scale Paradise, to have to devote it to procuring bread and water, a few rags, and a garret!—That is martyrdom, my dear, and I have withered under it."

She broke off suddenly, and shot a black flash into Madame Marneffe's blue eyes, a glance that pierced the pretty woman's soul, as the point of a dagger might have pierced her heart.

"And what is the use of talking?" she exclaimed in reproof to herself. "I never said so much before, believe me! The tables will be turned yet!" she added after a pause. "As you so wisely say, let us sharpen our teeth, and pull down all the hay we can get."

"You are very wise," said Madame Marneffe, who had been frightened by this scene, and had no remembrance of having uttered this maxim. "I am sure you are right, my dear child. Life is not so long after all, and we must make the best of it, and make use of others to contribute to our enjoyment. Even I have learned that, young as I am. I was brought up a spoilt child, my father married ambitiously, and almost forgot me, after making me his idol and bringing me up like a queen's daughter! My poor mother, who filled my head with splendid visions, died of grief at seeing me married to an office clerk with twelve hundred francs a year, at nine-and-thirty an aged and hardened libertine, as corrupt as the hulks, looking on me, as others looked on you, as a means of fortune!—Well, in that wretched man, I have found the best of husbands. He prefers the squalid sluts he picks up at the street corners, and leaves me free. Though he keeps all his salary to himself, he never asks me where I get money to live on——"

And she in her turn stopped short, as a woman does who feels herself carried away by the torrent of her confessions; struck, too, by Lisbeth's eager attention, she thought well to make sure of Lisbeth before revealing her last secrets.

"You see, dear child, how entire is my confidence in you!" she presently added, to which Lisbeth replied by a most comforting nod.

An oath may be taken by a look and a nod more solemnly than in a court of justice.

"I keep up every appearance of respectability," Valerie went on, laying her hand on Lisbeth's as if to accept her pledge. "I am a married woman, and my own mistress, to such a degree, that in the morning, when Marneffe sets out for the office, if he takes it into his head to say good-bye and finds my door locked, he goes off without a word. He cares less for his boy than I care for one of the marble children that play at the feet of one of the river-gods in the Tuileries. If I do not come home to dinner, he dines quite contentedly with the maid, for the maid is devoted to monsieur; and he goes out every evening after dinner, and does not come in till twelve or one o'clock. Unfortunately, for a year past, I have had no ladies' maid, which is as much as to say that I am a widow!

"I have had one passion, once have been happy—a rich Brazilian—who went away a year ago—my only lapse!—He went away to sell his estates, to realize his land, and come back to live in France. What will he find left of his Valerie? A dunghill. Well! it is his fault and not mine; why does he delay coming so long? Perhaps he has been wrecked—like my virtue."

"Good-bye, my dear," said Lisbeth abruptly; "we are friends for ever. I love you, I esteem you, I am wholly yours! My cousin is tormenting me to go and live in the house you are moving to, in the Rue Vanneau; but I would not go, for I saw at once the reasons for this fresh piece of kindness——"

"Yes; you would have kept an eye on me, I know!" said Madame Marneffe.

"That was, no doubt, the motive of his generosity," replied Lisbeth. "In Paris, most beneficence is a speculation, as most acts of ingratitude are revenge! To a poor relation you behave as you do to rats to whom you offer a bit of bacon. Now, I will accept the Baron's offer, for this house has grown intolerable to me. You and I have wit enough to hold our tongues about everything that would damage us, and tell all that needs telling. So, no blabbing—and we are friends."

"Through thick and thin!" cried Madame Marneffe, delighted to have a sheep-dog, a confidante, a sort of respectable aunt. "Listen to me; the Baron is doing a great deal in the Rue Vanneau——"

"I believe you!" interrupted Lisbeth. "He has spent thirty thousand francs! Where he got the money, I am sure I don't know, for Josepha the singer bled him dry.—Oh! you are in luck," she went on. "The Baron would steal for a woman who held his heart in two little white satin hands like yours!"

"Well, then," said Madame Marneffe, with the liberality of such creatures, which is mere recklessness, "look here, my dear child; take away from here everything that may serve your turn in your new quarters—that chest of drawers, that wardrobe and mirror, the carpet, the curtains——"

Lisbeth's eyes dilated with excessive joy; she was incredulous of such a gift.

"You are doing more for me in a breath than my rich relations have done in thirty years!" she exclaimed. "They have never even asked themselves whether I had any furniture at all. On his first visit, a few weeks ago, the Baron made a rich man's face on seeing how poor I was.—Thank you, my dear; and I will give you your money's worth, you will see how by and by."

Valerie went out on the landing with her Cousin Betty, and the two women embraced.

"Pouh! How she stinks of hard work!" said the pretty little woman to herself when she was alone. "I shall not embrace you often, my dear cousin! At the same time, I must look sharp. She must be skilfully managed, for she can be of use, and help me to make my fortune."