Cousin Betty/Section 19

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Cousin Betty by Honoré de Balzac, translated by James Waring
Section 19

This retrospective explanation, quite necessary after the lapse of three years, shows Valerie's balance-sheet. Now for that of her partner, Lisbeth.

Lisbeth Fischer filled the place in the Marneffe household of a relation who combines the functions of a lady companion and a housekeeper; but she suffered from none of the humiliations which, for the most part, weigh upon the women who are so unhappy as to be obliged to fill these ambiguous situations. Lisbeth and Valerie offered the touching spectacle of one of those friendships between women, so cordial and so improbable, that men, always too keen-tongued in Paris, forthwith slander them. The contrast between Lisbeth's dry masculine nature and Valerie's creole prettiness encouraged calumny. And Madame Marneffe had unconsciously given weight to the scandal by the care she took of her friend, with matrimonial views, which were, as will be seen, to complete Lisbeth's revenge.

An immense change had taken place in Cousin Betty; and Valerie, who wanted to smarten her, had turned it to the best account. The strange woman had submitted to stays, and laced tightly, she used bandoline to keep her hair smooth, wore her gowns as the dressmaker sent them home, neat little boots, and gray silk stockings, all of which were included in Valerie's bills, and paid for by the gentleman in possession. Thus furbished up, and wearing the yellow cashmere shawl, Lisbeth would have been unrecognizable by any one who had not seen her for three years.

This other diamond—a black diamond, the rarest of all—cut by a skilled hand, and set as best became her, was appreciated at her full value by certain ambitious clerks. Any one seeing her for the first time might have shuddered involuntarily at the look of poetic wildness which the clever Valerie had succeeded in bringing out by the arts of dress in this Bleeding Nun, framing the ascetic olive face in thick bands of hair as black as the fiery eyes, and making the most of the rigid, slim figure. Lisbeth, like a Virgin by Cranach or Van Eyck, or a Byzantine Madonna stepped out of its frame, had all the stiffness, the precision of those mysterious figures, the more modern cousins of Isis and her sister goddesses sheathed in marble folds by Egyptian sculptors. It was granite, basalt, porphyry, with life and movement.

Saved from want for the rest of her life, Lisbeth was most amiable; wherever she dined she brought merriment. And the Baron paid the rent of her little apartment, furnished, as we know, with the leavings of her friend Valerie's former boudoir and bedroom.

"I began," she would say, "as a hungry nanny goat, and I am ending as a lionne."

She still worked for Monsieur Rivet at the more elaborate kinds of gold-trimming, merely, as she said, not to lose her time. At the same time, she was, as we shall see, very full of business; but it is inherent in the nature of country-folks never to give up bread-winning; in this they are like the Jews.

Every morning, very early, Cousin Betty went off to market with the cook. It was part of Lisbeth's scheme that the house-book, which was ruining Baron Hulot, was to enrich her dear Valerie—as it did indeed.

Is there a housewife who, since 1838, has not suffered from the evil effects of Socialist doctrines diffused among the lower classes by incendiary writers? In every household the plague of servants is nowadays the worst of financial afflictions. With very few exceptions, who ought to be rewarded with the Montyon prize, the cook, male or female, is a domestic robber, a thief taking wages, and perfectly barefaced, with the Government for a fence, developing the tendency to dishonesty, which is almost authorized in the cook by the time-honored jest as to the "handle of the basket." The women who formerly picked up their forty sous to buy a lottery ticket now take fifty francs to put into the savings bank. And the smug Puritans who amuse themselves in France with philanthropic experiments fancy that they are making the common people moral!

Between the market and the master's table the servants have their secret toll, and the municipality of Paris is less sharp in collecting the city-dues than the servants are in taking theirs on every single thing. To say nothing of fifty per cent charged on every form of food, they demand large New Year's premiums from the tradesmen. The best class of dealers tremble before this occult power, and subsidize it without a word—coachmakers, jewelers, tailors, and all. If any attempt is made to interfere with them, the servants reply with impudent retorts, or revenge themselves by the costly blunders of assumed clumsiness; and in these days they inquire into their master's character as, formerly, the master inquired into theirs. This mischief is now really at its height, and the law-courts are beginning to take cognizance of it; but in vain, for it cannot be remedied but by a law which shall compel domestic servants, like laborers, to have a pass-book as a guarantee of conduct. Then the evil will vanish as if by magic. If every servant were obliged to show his pass-book, and if masters were required to state in it the cause of his dismissal, this would certainly prove a powerful check to the evil.

The men who are giving their attentions to the politics of the day know not to what lengths the depravity of the lower classes has gone. Statistics are silent as to the startling number of working men of twenty who marry cooks of between forty and fifty enriched by robbery. We shudder to think of the result of such unions from the three points of view of increasing crime, degeneracy of the race, and miserable households.

As to the mere financial mischief that results from domestic peculation, that too is immense from a political point of view. Life being made to cost double, any superfluity becomes impossible in most households. Now superfluity means half the trade of the world, as it is half the elegance of life. Books and flowers are to many persons as necessary as bread.

Lisbeth, well aware of this dreadful scourge of Parisian households, determined to manage Valerie's, promising her every assistance in the terrible scene when the two women had sworn to be like sisters. So she had brought from the depths of the Vosges a humble relation on her mother's side, a very pious and honest soul, who had been cook to the Bishop of Nancy. Fearing, however, her inexperience of Paris ways, and yet more the evil counsel which wrecks such fragile virtue, at first Lisbeth always went to market with Mathurine, and tried to teach her what to buy. To know the real prices of things and command the salesman's respect; to purchase unnecessary delicacies, such as fish, only when they were cheap; to be well informed as to the price current of groceries and provisions, so as to buy when prices are low in anticipation of a rise,—all this housekeeping skill is in Paris essential to domestic economy. As Mathurine got good wages and many presents, she liked the house well enough to be glad to drive good bargains. And by this time Lisbeth had made her quite a match for herself, sufficiently experienced and trustworthy to be sent to market alone, unless Valerie was giving a dinner—which, in fact, was not unfrequently the case. And this was how it came about.

The Baron had at first observed the strictest decorum; but his passion for Madame Marneffe had ere long become so vehement, so greedy, that he would never quit her if he could help it. At first he dined there four times a week; then he thought it delightful to dine with her every day. Six months after his daughter's marriage he was paying her two thousand francs a month for his board. Madame Marneffe invited any one her dear Baron wished to entertain. The dinner was always arranged for six; he could bring in three unexpected guests. Lisbeth's economy enabled her to solve the extraordinary problem of keeping up the table in the best style for a thousand francs a month, giving the other thousand to Madame Marneffe. Valerie's dress being chiefly paid for by Crevel and the Baron, the two women saved another thousand francs a month on this.

And so this pure and innocent being had already accumulated a hundred and fifty thousand francs in savings. She had capitalized her income and monthly bonus, and swelled the amount by enormous interest, due to Crevel's liberality in allowing his "little Duchess" to invest her money in partnership with him in his financial operations. Crevel had taught Valerie the slang and the procedure of the money market, and, like every Parisian woman, she had soon outstripped her master. Lisbeth, who never spent a sou of her twelve hundred francs, whose rent and dress were given to her, and who never put her hand in her pocket, had likewise a small capital of five or six thousand francs, of which Crevel took fatherly care.

At the same time, two such lovers were a heavy burthen on Valerie. On the day when this drama reopens, Valerie, spurred by one of those incidents which have the effect in life that the ringing of a bell has in inducing a swarm of bees to settle, went up to Lisbeth's rooms to give vent to one of those comforting lamentations—a sort of cigarette blown off from the tongue—by which women alleviate the minor miseries of life.

"Oh, Lisbeth, my love, two hours of Crevel this morning! It is crushing! How I wish I could send you in my place!"

"That, unluckily, is impossible," said Lisbeth, smiling. "I shall die a maid."

"Two old men lovers! Really, I am ashamed sometimes! If my poor mother could see me."

"You are mistaking me for Crevel!" said Lisbeth.

"Tell me, my little Betty, do you not despise me?"

"Oh! if I had but been pretty, what adventures I would have had!" cried Lisbeth. "That is your justification."

"But you would have acted only at the dictates of your heart," said Madame Marneffe, with a sigh.

"Pooh! Marneffe is a dead man they have forgotten to bury," replied Lisbeth. "The Baron is as good as your husband; Crevel is your adorer; it seems to me that you are quite in order—like every other married woman."

"No, it is not that, dear, adorable thing; that is not where the shoe pinches; you do not choose to understand."

"Yes, I do," said Lisbeth. "The unexpressed factor is part of my revenge; what can I do? I am working it out."

"I love Wenceslas so that I am positively growing thin, and I can never see him," said Valerie, throwing up her arms. "Hulot asks him to dinner, and my artist declines. He does not know that I idolize him, the wretch! What is his wife after all? Fine flesh! Yes, she is handsome, but I—I know myself—I am worse!"

"Be quite easy, my child, he will come," said Lisbeth, in the tone of a nurse to an impatient child. "He shall."

"But when?"

"This week perhaps."

"Give me a kiss."

As may be seen, these two women were but one. Everything Valerie did, even her most reckless actions, her pleasures, her little sulks, were decided on after serious deliberation between them.

Lisbeth, strangely excited by this harlot existence, advised Valerie on every step, and pursued her course of revenge with pitiless logic. She really adored Valerie; she had taken her to be her child, her friend, her love; she found her docile, as Creoles are, yielding from voluptuous indolence; she chattered with her morning after morning with more pleasure than with Wenceslas; they could laugh together over the mischief they plotted, and over the folly of men, and count up the swelling interest on their respective savings.

Indeed, in this new enterprise and new affection, Lisbeth had found food for her activity that was far more satisfying than her insane passion for Wenceslas. The joys of gratified hatred are the fiercest and strongest the heart can know. Love is the gold, hatred the iron of the mine of feeling that lies buried in us. And then, Valerie was, to Lisbeth, Beauty in all its glory—the beauty she worshiped, as we worship what we have not, beauty far more plastic to her hand than that of Wenceslas, who had always been cold to her and distant.

At the end of nearly three years, Lisbeth was beginning to perceive the progress of the underground mine on which she was expending her life and concentrating her mind. Lisbeth planned, Madame Marneffe acted. Madame Marneffe was the axe, Lisbeth was the hand the wielded it, and that hand was rapidly demolishing the family which was every day more odious to her; for we can hate more and more, just as, when we love, we love better every day.

Love and hatred are feelings that feed on themselves; but of the two, hatred has the longer vitality. Love is restricted within limits of power; it derives its energies from life and from lavishness. Hatred is like death, like avarice; it is, so to speak, an active abstraction, above beings and things.

Lisbeth, embarked on the existence that was natural to her, expended in it all her faculties; governing, like the Jesuits, by occult influences. The regeneration of her person was equally complete; her face was radiant. Lisbeth dreamed of becoming Madame la Marechale Hulot.

This little scene, in which the two friends had bluntly uttered their ideas without any circumlocution in expressing them, took place immediately on Lisbeth's return from market, whither she had been to procure the materials for an elegant dinner. Marneffe, who hoped to get Coquet's place, was to entertain him and the virtuous Madame Coquet, and Valerie hoped to persuade Hulot, that very evening, to consider the head-clerk's resignation.

Lisbeth dressed to go to the Baroness, with whom she was to dine.

"You will come back in time to make tea for us, my Betty?" said Valerie.

"I hope so."

"You hope so—why? Have you come to sleeping with Adeline to drink her tears while she is asleep?"

"If only I could!" said Lisbeth, laughing. "I would not refuse. She is expiating her happiness—and I am glad, for I remember our young days. It is my turn now. She will be in the mire, and I shall be Comtesse de Forzheim!"

Lisbeth set out for the Rue Plumet, where she now went as to the theatre—to indulge her emotions.