Cousin Betty/Section 13

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Cousin Betty by Honoré de Balzac, translated by James Waring
Section 13

Like the true Creole of Paris, Madame Marneffe abhorred trouble; she had the calm indifference of a cat, which never jumps or runs but when urged by necessity. To her, life must be all pleasure; and the pleasure without difficulties. She loved flowers, provided they were brought to her. She could not imagine going to the play but to a good box, at her own command, and in a carriage to take her there. Valerie inherited these courtesan tastes from her mother, on whom General Montcornet had lavished luxury when he was in Paris, and who for twenty years had seen all the world at her feet; who had been wasteful and prodigal, squandering her all in the luxurious living of which the programme has been lost since the fall of Napoleon.

The grandees of the Empire were a match in their follies for the great nobles of the last century. Under the Restoration the nobility cannot forget that it has been beaten and robbed, and so, with two or three exceptions, it has become thrifty, prudent, and stay-at-home, in short, bourgeois and penurious. Since then, 1830 has crowned the work of 1793. In France, henceforth, there will be great names, but no great houses, unless there should be political changes which we can hardly foresee. Everything takes the stamp of individuality. The wisest invest in annuities. Family pride is destroyed.

The bitter pressure of poverty which had stung Valerie to the quick on the day when, to use Marneffe's expression, she had "caught on" with Hulot, had brought the young woman to the conclusion that she would make a fortune by means of her good looks. So, for some days, she had been feeling the need of having a friend about her to take the place of a mother—a devoted friend, to whom such things may be told as must be hidden from a waiting-maid, and who could act, come and go, and think for her, a beast of burden resigned to an unequal share of life. Now, she, quite as keenly as Lisbeth, had understood the Baron's motives for fostering the intimacy between his cousin and herself.

Prompted by the formidable perspicacity of the Parisian half-breed, who spends her days stretched on a sofa, turning the lantern of her detective spirit on the obscurest depths of souls, sentiments, and intrigues, she had decided on making an ally of the spy. This supremely rash step was, perhaps premeditated; she had discerned the true nature of this ardent creature, burning with wasted passion, and meant to attach her to herself. Thus, their conversation was like the stone a traveler casts into an abyss to demonstrate its depth. And Madame Marneffe had been terrified to find this old maid a combination of Iago and Richard III., so feeble as she seemed, so humble, and so little to be feared.

For that instant, Lisbeth Fischer had been her real self; that Corsican and savage temperament, bursting the slender bonds that held it under, had sprung up to its terrible height, as the branch of a tree flies up from the hand of a child that has bent it down to gather the green fruit.

To those who study the social world, it must always be a matter of astonishment to see the fulness, the perfection, and the rapidity with which an idea develops in a virgin nature.

Virginity, like every other monstrosity, has its special richness, its absorbing greatness. Life, whose forces are always economized, assumes in the virgin creature an incalculable power of resistance and endurance. The brain is reinforced in the sum-total of its reserved energy. When really chaste natures need to call on the resources of body or soul, and are required to act or to think, they have muscles of steel, or intuitive knowledge in their intelligence—diabolical strength, or the black magic of the Will.

From this point of view the Virgin Mary, even if we regard her only as a symbol, is supremely great above every other type, whether Hindoo, Egyptian, or Greek. Virginity, the mother of great things, magna parens rerum, holds in her fair white hands the keys of the upper worlds. In short, that grand and terrible exception deserves all the honors decreed to her by the Catholic Church.

Thus, in one moment, Lisbeth Fischer had become the Mohican whose snares none can escape, whose dissimulation is inscrutable, whose swift decisiveness is the outcome of the incredible perfection of every organ of sense. She was Hatred and Revenge, as implacable as they are in Italy, Spain, and the East. These two feelings, the obverse of friendship and love carried to the utmost, are known only in lands scorched by the sun. But Lisbeth was also a daughter of Lorraine, bent on deceit.

She accepted this detail of her part against her will; she began by making a curious attempt, due to her ignorance. She fancied, as children do, that being imprisoned meant the same thing as solitary confinement. But this is the superlative degree of imprisonment, and that superlative is the privilege of the Criminal Bench.

As soon as she left Madame Marneffe, Lisbeth hurried off to Monsieur Rivet, and found him in his office.

"Well, my dear Monsieur Rivet," she began, when she had bolted the door of the room. "You were quite right. Those Poles! They are low villains—all alike, men who know neither law nor fidelity."

"And who want to set Europe on fire," said the peaceable Rivet, "to ruin every trade and every trader for the sake of a country that is all bog-land, they say, and full of horrible Jews, to say nothing of the Cossacks and the peasants—a sort of wild beasts classed by mistake with human beings. Your Poles do not understand the times we live in; we are no longer barbarians. War is coming to an end, my dear mademoiselle; it went out with the Monarchy. This is the age of triumph for commerce, and industry, and middle-class prudence, such as were the making of Holland.

"Yes," he went on with animation, "we live in a period when nations must obtain all they need by the legal extension of their liberties and by the pacific action of Constitutional Institutions; that is what the Poles do not see, and I hope——

"You were saying, my dear?—" he added, interrupting himself when he saw from his work-woman's face that high politics were beyond her comprehension.

"Here is the schedule," said Lisbeth. "If I don't want to lose my three thousand two hundred and ten francs, I must clap this rogue into prison."

"Didn't I tell you so?" cried the oracle of the Saint-Denis quarter.

The Rivets, successor to Pons Brothers, had kept their shop still in the Rue des Mauvaises-Paroles, in the ancient Hotel Langeais, built by that illustrious family at the time when the nobility still gathered round the Louvre.

"Yes, and I blessed you on my way here," replied Lisbeth.

"If he suspects nothing, he can be safe in prison by eight o'clock in the morning," said Rivet, consulting the almanac to ascertain the hour of sunrise; "but not till the day after to-morrow, for he cannot be imprisoned till he has had notice that he is to be arrested by writ, with the option of payment or imprisonment. And so——"

"What an idiotic law!" exclaimed Lisbeth. "Of course the debtor escapes."

"He has every right to do so," said the Assessor, smiling. "So this is the way——"

"As to that," said Lisbeth, interrupting him, "I will take the paper and hand it to him, saying that I have been obliged to raise the money, and that the lender insists on this formality. I know my gentleman. He will not even look at the paper; he will light his pipe with it."

"Not a bad idea, not bad, Mademoiselle Fischer! Well, make your mind easy; the job shall be done.—But stop a minute; to put your man in prison is not the only point to be considered; you only want to indulge in that legal luxury in order to get your money. Who is to pay you?"

"Those who give him money."

"To be sure; I forgot that the Minister of War had commissioned him to erect a monument to one of our late customers. Ah! the house has supplied many an uniform to General Montcornet; he soon blackened them with the smoke of cannon. A brave man, he was! and he paid on the nail."

A marshal of France may have saved the Emperor or his country; "He paid on the nail" will always be the highest praise he can have from a tradesman.

"Very well. And on Saturday, Monsieur Rivet, you shall have the flat tassels.—By the way, I am moving from the Rue du Doyenne; I am going to live in the Rue Vanneau."

"You are very right. I could not bear to see you in that hole which, in spite of my aversion to the Opposition, I must say is a disgrace; I repeat it, yes! is a disgrace to the Louvre and the Place du Carrousel. I am devoted to Louis-Philippe, he is my idol; he is the august and exact representative of the class on whom he founded his dynasty, and I can never forget what he did for the trimming-makers by restoring the National Guard——"

"When I hear you speak so, Monsieur Rivet, I cannot help wondering why you are not made a deputy."

"They are afraid of my attachment to the dynasty," replied Rivet. "My political enemies are the King's. He has a noble character! They are a fine family; in short," said he, returning to the charge, "he is our ideal: morality, economy, everything. But the completion of the Louvre is one of the conditions on which we gave him the crown, and the civil list, which, I admit, had no limits set to it, leaves the heart of Paris in a most melancholy state.—It is because I am so strongly in favor of the middle course that I should like to see the middle of Paris in a better condition. Your part of the town is positively terrifying. You would have been murdered there one fine day.—And so your Monsieur Crevel has been made Major of his division! He will come to us, I hope, for his big epaulette."

"I am dining with him to-night, and will send him to you."

Lisbeth believed that she had secured her Livonian to herself by cutting him off from all communication with the outer world. If he could no longer work, the artist would be forgotten as completely as a man buried in a cellar, where she alone would go to see him. Thus she had two happy days, for she hoped to deal a mortal blow at the Baroness and her daughter.

To go to Crevel's house, in the Rue des Saussayes, she crossed the Pont du Carrousel, went along the Quai Voltaire, the Quai d'Orsay, the Rue Bellechasse, Rue de l'Universite, the Pont de la Concorde, and the Avenue de Marigny. This illogical route was traced by the logic of passion, always the foe of the legs.

Cousin Betty, as long as she followed the line of the quays, kept watch on the opposite shore of the Seine, walking very slowly. She had guessed rightly. She had left Wenceslas dressing; she at once understood that, as soon as he should be rid of her, the lover would go off to the Baroness' by the shortest road. And, in fact, as she wandered along by the parapet of the Quai Voltaire, in fancy suppressing the river and walking along the opposite bank, she recognized the artist as he came out of the Tuileries to cross the Pont Royal. She there came up with the faithless one, and could follow him unseen, for lovers rarely look behind them. She escorted him as far as Madame Hulot's house, where he went in like an accustomed visitor.

This crowning proof, confirming Madame Marneffe's revelations, put Lisbeth quite beside herself.

She arrived at the newly promoted Major's door in the state of mental irritation which prompts men to commit murder, and found Monsieur Crevel senior in his drawing-room awaiting his children, Monsieur and Madame Hulot junior.

But Celestin Crevel was so unconscious and so perfect a type of the Parisian parvenu, that we can scarcely venture so unceremoniously into the presence of Cesar Birotteau's successor. Celestin Crevel was a world in himself; and he, even more than Rivet, deserves the honors of the palette by reason of his importance in this domestic drama.