Cousin Betty/Section 4

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Cousin Betty by Honoré de Balzac, translated by James Waring
Section 4

At the time when this Drama opens, if Cousin Betty would have allowed herself to be dressed like other people; if, like the women of Paris, she had been accustomed to wear each fashion in its turn, she would have been presentable and acceptable, but she preserved the stiffness of a stick. Now a woman devoid of all the graces, in Paris simply does not exist. The fine but hard eyes, the severe features, the Calabrian fixity of complexion which made Lisbeth like a figure by Giotto, and of which a true Parisian would have taken advantage, above all, her strange way of dressing, gave her such an extraordinary appearance that she sometimes looked like one of those monkeys in petticoats taken about by little Savoyards. As she was well known in the houses connected by family which she frequented, and restricted her social efforts to that little circle, as she liked her own home, her singularities no longer astonished anybody; and out of doors they were lost in the immense stir of Paris street-life, where only pretty women are ever looked at.

Hortense's laughter was at this moment caused by a victory won over her Cousin Lisbeth's perversity; she had just wrung from her an avowal she had been hoping for these three years past. However secretive an old maid may be, there is one sentiment which will always avail to make her break her fast from words, and that is her vanity. For the last three years, Hortense, having become very inquisitive on such matters, had pestered her cousin with questions, which, however, bore the stamp of perfect innocence. She wanted to know why her cousin had never married. Hortense, who knew of the five offers that she had refused, had constructed her little romance; she supposed that Lisbeth had had a passionate attachment, and a war of banter was the result. Hortense would talk of "We young girls!" when speaking of herself and her cousin.

Cousin Betty had on several occasions answered in the same tone—"And who says I have not a lover?" So Cousin Betty's lover, real or fictitious, became a subject of mild jesting. At last, after two years of this petty warfare, the last time Lisbeth had come to the house Hortense's first question had been:

"And how is your lover?"

"Pretty well, thank you," was the answer. "He is rather ailing, poor young man."

"He has delicate health?" asked the Baroness, laughing.

"I should think so! He is fair. A sooty thing like me can love none but a fair man with a color like the moon."

"But who is he? What does he do?" asked Hortense. "Is he a prince?"

"A prince of artisans, as I am queen of the bobbin. Is a poor woman like me likely to find a lover in a man with a fine house and money in the funds, or in a duke of the realm, or some Prince Charming out of a fairy tale?"

"Oh, I should so much like to see him!" cried Hortense, smiling.

"To see what a man can be like who can love the Nanny Goat?" retorted Lisbeth.

"He must be some monster of an old clerk, with a goat's beard!" Hortense said to her mother.

"Well, then, you are quite mistaken, mademoiselle."

"Then you mean that you really have a lover?" Hortense exclaimed in triumph.

"As sure as you have not!" retorted Lisbeth, nettled.

"But if you have a lover, why don't you marry him, Lisbeth?" said the Baroness, shaking her head at her daughter. "We have been hearing rumors about him these three years. You have had time to study him; and if he has been faithful so long, you should not persist in a delay which must be hard upon him. After all, it is a matter of conscience; and if he is young, it is time to take a brevet of dignity."

Cousin Betty had fixed her gaze on Adeline, and seeing that she was jesting, she replied:

"It would be marrying hunger and thirst; he is a workman, I am a workwoman. If we had children, they would be workmen.—No, no; we love each other spiritually; it is less expensive."

"Why do you keep him in hiding?" Hortense asked.

"He wears a round jacket," replied the old maid, laughing.

"You truly love him?" the Baroness inquired.

"I believe you! I love him for his own sake, the dear cherub. For four years his home has been in my heart."

"Well, then, if you love him for himself," said the Baroness gravely, "and if he really exists, you are treating him criminally. You do not know how to love truly."

"We all know that from our birth," said Lisbeth.

"No, there are women who love and yet are selfish, and that is your case."

Cousin Betty's head fell, and her glance would have made any one shiver who had seen it; but her eyes were on her reel of thread.

"If you would introduce your so-called lover to us, Hector might find him employment, or put him in a position to make money."

"That is out of the question," said Cousin Betty.

"And why?"

"He is a sort of Pole—a refugee——"

"A conspirator?" cried Hortense. "What luck for you!—Has he had any adventures?"

"He has fought for Poland. He was a professor in the school where the students began the rebellion; and as he had been placed there by the Grand Duke Constantine, he has no hope of mercy——"

"A professor of what?"

"Of fine arts."

"And he came to Paris when the rebellion was quelled?"

"In 1833. He came through Germany on foot."

"Poor young man! And how old is he?"

"He was just four-and-twenty when the insurrection broke out—he is twenty-nine now."

"Fifteen years your junior," said the Baroness.

"And what does he live on?" asked Hortense.

"His talent."

"Oh, he gives lessons?"

"No," said Cousin Betty; "he gets them, and hard ones too!"

"And his Christian name—is it a pretty name?"

"Wenceslas."

"What a wonderful imagination you old maids have!" exclaimed the Baroness. "To hear you talk, Lisbeth, one might really believe you."

"You see, mamma, he is a Pole, and so accustomed to the knout that Lisbeth reminds him of the joys of his native land."

They all three laughed, and Hortense sang Wenceslas! idole de mon ame! instead of O Mathilde.

Then for a few minutes there was a truce.

"These children," said Cousin Betty, looking at Hortense as she went up to her, "fancy that no one but themselves can have lovers."

"Listen," Hortense replied, finding herself alone with her cousin, "if you prove to me that Wenceslas is not a pure invention, I will give you my yellow cashmere shawl."

"He is a Count."

"Every Pole is a Count!"

"But he is not a Pole; he comes from Liva—Litha——"

"Lithuania?"

"No."

"Livonia?"

"Yes, that's it!"

"But what is his name?"

"I wonder if you are capable of keeping a secret."

"Cousin Betty, I will be as mute!——"

"As a fish?"

"As a fish."

"By your life eternal?"

"By my life eternal!"

"No, by your happiness in this world?"

"Yes."

"Well, then, his name is Wenceslas Steinbock."

"One of Charles XII.'s Generals was named Steinbock."

"He was his grand-uncle. His own father settled in Livonia after the death of the King of Sweden; but he lost all his fortune during the campaign of 1812, and died, leaving the poor boy at the age of eight without a penny. The Grand Duke Constantine, for the honor of the name of Steinbock, took him under his protection and sent him to school."

"I will not break my word," Hortense replied; "prove his existence, and you shall have the yellow shawl. The color is most becoming to dark skins."

"And you will keep my secret?"

"And tell you mine."

"Well, then, the next time I come you shall have the proof."

"But the proof will be the lover," said Hortense.

Cousin Betty, who, since her first arrival in Paris, had been bitten by a mania for shawls, was bewitched by the idea of owning the yellow cashmere given to his wife by the Baron in 1808, and handed down from mother to daughter after the manner of some families in 1830. The shawl had been a good deal worn ten years ago; but the costly object, now always kept in its sandal-wood box, seemed to the old maid ever new, like the drawing-room furniture. So she brought in her handbag a present for the Baroness' birthday, by which she proposed to prove the existence of her romantic lover.

This present was a silver seal formed of three little figures back to back, wreathed with foliage, and supporting the Globe. They represented Faith, Hope, and Charity; their feet rested on monsters rending each other, among them the symbolical serpent. In 1846, now that such immense strides have been made in the art of which Benvenuto Cellini was the master, by Mademoiselle de Fauveau, Wagner, Jeanest, Froment-Meurice, and wood-carvers like Lienard, this little masterpiece would amaze nobody; but at that time a girl who understood the silversmith's art stood astonished as she held the seal which Lisbeth put into her hands, saying:

"There! what do you think of that?"

In design, attitude, and drapery the figures were of the school of Raphael; but the execution was in the style of the Florentine metal workers—the school created by Donatello, Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Benvenuto Cellini, John of Bologna, and others. The French masters of the Renaissance had never invented more strangely twining monsters than these that symbolized the evil passions. The palms, ferns, reeds, and foliage that wreathed the Virtues showed a style, a taste, a handling that might have driven a practised craftsman to despair; a scroll floated above the three figures; and on its surface, between the heads, were a W, a chamois, and the word fecit.

"Who carved this?" asked Hortense.

"Well, just my lover," replied Lisbeth. "There are ten months' work in it; I could earn more at making sword-knots.—He told me that Steinbock means a rock goat, a chamois, in German. And he intends to mark all his work in that way.—Ah, ha! I shall have the shawl."

"What for?"

"Do you suppose I could buy such a thing, or order it? Impossible! Well, then, it must have been given to me. And who would make me such a present? A lover!"

Hortense, with an artfulness that would have frightened Lisbeth Fischer if she had detected it, took care not to express all her admiration, though she was full of the delight which every soul that is open to a sense of beauty must feel on seeing a faultless piece of work—perfect and unexpected.

"On my word," said she, "it is very pretty."

"Yes, it is pretty," said her cousin; "but I like an orange-colored shawl better.—Well, child, my lover spends his time in doing such work as that. Since he came to Paris he has turned out three or four little trifles in that style, and that is the fruit of four years' study and toil. He has served as apprentice to founders, metal-casters, and goldsmiths.—There he has paid away thousands and hundreds of francs. And my gentleman tells me that in a few months now he will be famous and rich——"

"Then you often see him?"

"Bless me, do you think it is all a fable? I told you truth in jest."

"And he is in love with you?" asked Hortense eagerly.

"He adores me," replied Lisbeth very seriously. "You see, child, he had never seen any women but the washed out, pale things they all are in the north, and a slender, brown, youthful thing like me warmed his heart.—But, mum; you promised, you know!"

"And he will fare like the five others," said the girl ironically, as she looked at the seal.

"Six others, miss. I left one in Lorraine, who, to this day, would fetch the moon down for me."

"This one does better than that," said Hortense; "he has brought down the sun."

"Where can that be turned into money?" asked her cousin. "It takes wide lands to benefit by the sunshine."

These witticisms, fired in quick retort, and leading to the sort of giddy play that may be imagined, had given cause for the laughter which had added to the Baroness' troubles by making her compare her daughter's future lot with the present, when she was free to indulge the light-heartedness of youth.

"But to give you a gem which cost him six months of work, he must be under some great obligations to you?" said Hortense, in whom the silver seal had suggested very serious reflections.

"Oh, you want to know too much at once!" said her cousin. "But, listen, I will let you into a little plot."

"Is your lover in it too?"

"Oh, ho! you want so much to see him! But, as you may suppose, an old maid like Cousin Betty, who had managed to keep a lover for five years, keeps him well hidden.—Now, just let me alone. You see, I have neither cat nor canary, neither dog nor a parrot, and the old Nanny Goat wanted something to pet and tease—so I treated myself to a Polish Count."

"Has he a moustache?"

"As long as that," said Lisbeth, holding up her shuttle filled with gold thread. She always took her lace-work with her, and worked till dinner was served.

"If you ask too many questions, you will be told nothing," she went on. "You are but two-and-twenty, and you chatter more than I do though I am forty-two—not to say forty-three."

"I am listening; I am a wooden image," said Hortense.

"My lover has finished a bronze group ten inches high," Lisbeth went on. "It represents Samson slaying a lion, and he has kept it buried till it is so rusty that you might believe it to be as old as Samson himself. This fine piece is shown at the shop of one of the old curiosity sellers on the Place du Carrousel, near my lodgings. Now, your father knows Monsieur Popinot, the Minister of Commerce and Agriculture, and the Comte de Rastignac, and if he would mention the group to them as a fine antique he had seen by chance! It seems that such things take the fancy of your grand folks, who don't care so much about gold lace, and that my man's fortune would be made if one of them would buy or even look at the wretched piece of metal. The poor fellow is sure that it might be mistaken for old work, and that the rubbish is worth a great deal of money. And then, if one of the ministers should purchase the group, he would go to pay his respects, and prove that he was the maker, and be almost carried in triumph! Oh! he believes he has reached the pinnacle; poor young man, and he is as proud as two newly-made Counts."

"Michael Angelo over again; but, for a lover, he has kept his head on his shoulders!" said Hortense. "And how much does he want for it?"

"Fifteen hundred francs. The dealer will not let it go for less, since he must take his commission."

"Papa is in the King's household just now," said Hortense. "He sees those two ministers every day at the Chamber, and he will do the thing—I undertake that. You will be a rich woman, Madame la Comtesse de Steinbock."

"No, the boy is too lazy; for whole weeks he sits twiddling with bits of red wax, and nothing comes of it. Why, he spends all his days at the Louvre and the Library, looking at prints and sketching things. He is an idler!"

The cousins chatted and giggled; Hortense laughing a forced laugh, for she was invaded by a kind of love which every girl has gone through—the love of the unknown, love in its vaguest form, when every thought is accreted round some form which is suggested by a chance word, as the efflorescence of hoar-frost gathers about a straw that the wind has blown against the window-sill.

For the past ten months she had made a reality of her cousin's imaginary romance, believing, like her mother, that Lisbeth would never marry; and now, within a week, this visionary being had become Comte Wenceslas Steinbock, the dream had a certificate of birth, the wraith had solidified into a young man of thirty. The seal she held in her hand—a sort of Annunciation in which genius shone like an immanent light—had the powers of a talisman. Hortense felt such a surge of happiness, that she almost doubted whether the tale were true; there was a ferment in her blood, and she laughed wildly to deceive her cousin.

"But I think the drawing-room door is open," said Lisbeth; "let us go and see if Monsieur Crevel is gone."

"Mamma has been very much out of spirits these two days. I suppose the marriage under discussion has come to nothing!"

"Oh, it may come on again. He is—I may tell you so much—a Councillor of the Supreme Court. How would you like to be Madame la Presidente? If Monsieur Crevel has a finger in it, he will tell me about it if I ask him. I shall know by to-morrow if there is any hope."

"Leave the seal with me," said Hortense; "I will not show it—mamma's birthday is not for a month yet; I will give it to you that morning."

"No, no. Give it back to me; it must have a case."

"But I will let papa see it, that he may know what he is talking about to the ministers, for men in authority must be careful what they say," urged the girl.

"Well, do not show it to your mother—that is all I ask; for if she believed I had a lover, she would make game of me."

"I promise."

The cousins reached the drawing-room just as the Baroness turned faint. Her daughter's cry of alarm recalled her to herself. Lisbeth went off to fetch some salts. When she came back, she found the mother and daughter in each other's arms, the Baroness soothing her daughter's fears, and saying:

"It was nothing; a little nervous attack.—There is your father," she added, recognizing the Baron's way of ringing the bell. "Say not a word to him."

Adeline rose and went to meet her husband, intending to take him into the garden and talk to him till dinner should be served of the difficulties about the proposed match, getting him to come to some decision as to the future, and trying to hint at some warning advice.