Cousin Betty/Section 5
Baron Hector Hulot came in, in a dress at once lawyer-like and Napoleonic, for Imperial men—men who had been attached to the Emperor—were easily distinguishable by their military deportment, their blue coats with gilt buttons, buttoned to the chin, their black silk stock, and an authoritative demeanor acquired from a habit of command in circumstances requiring despotic rapidity. There was nothing of the old man in the Baron, it must be admitted; his sight was still so good, that he could read without spectacles; his handsome oval face, framed in whiskers that were indeed too black, showed a brilliant complexion, ruddy with the veins that characterize a sanguine temperament; and his stomach, kept in order by a belt, had not exceeded the limits of "the majestic," as Brillat-Savarin says. A fine aristocratic air and great affability served to conceal the libertine with whom Crevel had had such high times. He was one of those men whose eyes always light up at the sight of a pretty woman, even of such as merely pass by, never to be seen again.
"Have you been speaking, my dear?" asked Adeline, seeing him with an anxious brow.
"No," replied Hector, "but I am worn out with hearing others speak for two hours without coming to a vote. They carry on a war of words, in which their speeches are like a cavalry charge which has no effect on the enemy. Talk has taken the place of action, which goes very much against the grain with men who are accustomed to marching orders, as I said to the Marshal when I left him. However, I have enough of being bored on the ministers' bench; here I may play.—How do, la Chevre!—Good morning, little kid," and he took his daughter round the neck, kissed her, and made her sit on his knee, resting her head on his shoulder, that he might feel her soft golden hair against his cheek.
"He is tired and worried," said his wife to herself. "I shall only worry him more.—I will wait.—Are you going to be at home this evening?" she asked him.
"No, children. After dinner I must go out. If it had not been the day when Lisbeth and the children and my brother come to dinner, you would not have seen me at all."
The Baroness took up the newspaper, looked down the list of theatres, and laid it down again when she had seen that Robert le Diable was to be given at the Opera. Josepha, who had left the Italian Opera six months since for the French Opera, was to take the part of Alice.
This little pantomime did not escape the Baron, who looked hard at his wife. Adeline cast down her eyes and went out into the garden; her husband followed her.
"Come, what is it, Adeline?" said he, putting his arm round her waist and pressing her to his side. "Do not you know that I love you more than——"
"More than Jenny Cadine or Josepha!" said she, boldly interrupting him.
"Who put that into your head?" exclaimed the Baron, releasing his wife, and starting back a step or two.
"I got an anonymous letter, which I burnt at once, in which I was told, my dear, that the reason Hortense's marriage was broken off was the poverty of our circumstances. Your wife, my dear Hector, would never have said a word; she knew of your connection with Jenny Cadine, and did she ever complain?—But as the mother of Hortense, I am bound to speak the truth."
Hulot, after a short silence, which was terrible to his wife, whose heart beat loud enough to be heard, opened his arms, clasped her to his heart, kissed her forehead, and said with the vehemence of enthusiasm:
"Adeline, you are an angel, and I am a wretch——"
"No, no," cried the Baroness, hastily laying her hand upon his lips to hinder him from speaking evil of himself.
"Yes, for I have not at this moment a sou to give to Hortense, and I am most unhappy. But since you open your heart to me, I may pour into it the trouble that is crushing me.—Your Uncle Fischer is in difficulties, and it is I who dragged him there, for he has accepted bills for me to the amount of twenty-five thousand francs! And all for a woman who deceives me, who laughs at me behind my back, and calls me an old dyed Tom. It is frightful! A vice which costs me more than it would to maintain a family!—And I cannot resist!—I would promise you here and now never to see that abominable Jewess again; but if she wrote me two lines, I should go to her, as we marched into fire under the Emperor."
"Do not be so distressed," cried the poor woman in despair, but forgetting her daughter as she saw the tears in her husband's eyes. "There are my diamonds; whatever happens, save my uncle."
"Your diamonds are worth scarcely twenty thousand francs nowadays. That would not be enough for old Fischer, so keep them for Hortense; I will see the Marshal to-morrow."
"My poor dear!" said the Baroness, taking her Hector's hands and kissing them.
This was all the scolding he got. Adeline sacrificed her jewels, the father made them a present to Hortense, she regarded this as a sublime action, and she was helpless.
"He is the master; he could take everything, and he leaves me my diamonds; he is divine!"
This was the current of her thoughts; and indeed the wife had gained more by her sweetness than another perhaps could have achieved by a fit of angry jealousy.
The moralist cannot deny that, as a rule, well-bred though very wicked men are far more attractive and lovable than virtuous men; having crimes to atone for, they crave indulgence by anticipation, by being lenient to the shortcomings of those who judge them, and they are thought most kind. Though there are no doubt some charming people among the virtuous, Virtue considers itself fair enough, unadorned, to be at no pains to please; and then all really virtuous persons, for the hypocrites do not count, have some slight doubts as to their position; they believe that they are cheated in the bargain of life on the whole, and they indulge in acid comments after the fashion of those who think themselves unappreciated.
Hence the Baron, who accused himself of ruining his family, displayed all his charm of wit and his most seductive graces for the benefit of his wife, for his children, and his Cousin Lisbeth.
Then, when his son arrived with Celestine, Crevel's daughter, who was nursing the infant Hulot, he was delightful to his daughter-in-law, loading her with compliments—a treat to which Celestine's vanity was little accustomed for no moneyed bride more commonplace or more utterly insignificant was ever seen. The grandfather took the baby from her, kissed it, declared it was a beauty and a darling; he spoke to it in baby language, prophesied that it would grow to be taller than himself, insinuated compliments for his son's benefit, and restored the child to the Normandy nurse who had charge of it. Celestine, on her part, gave the Baroness a look, as much as to say, "What a delightful man!" and she naturally took her father-in-law's part against her father.
After thus playing the charming father-in-law and the indulgent grandpapa, the Baron took his son into the garden, and laid before him a variety of observations full of good sense as to the attitude to be taken up by the Chamber on a certain ticklish question which had that morning come under discussion. The young lawyer was struck with admiration for the depth of his father's insight, touched by his cordiality, and especially by the deferential tone which seemed to place the two men on a footing of equality.
Monsieur Hulot junior was in every respect the young Frenchman, as he has been moulded by the Revolution of 1830; his mind infatuated with politics, respectful of his own hopes, and concealing them under an affectation of gravity, very envious of successful men, making sententiousness do the duty of witty rejoinders—the gems of the French language—with a high sense of importance, and mistaking arrogance for dignity.
Such men are walking coffins, each containing a Frenchman of the past; now and again the Frenchman wakes up and kicks against his English-made casing; but ambition stifles him, and he submits to be smothered. The coffin is always covered with black cloth.
"Ah, here is my brother!" said Baron Hulot, going to meet the Count at the drawing-room door.
Having greeted the probable successor of the late Marshal Montcornet, he led him forward by the arm with every show of affection and respect.
The older man, a member of the Chamber of Peers, but excused from attendance on account of his deafness, had a handsome head, chilled by age, but with enough gray hair still to be marked in a circle by the pressure of his hat. He was short, square, and shrunken, but carried his hale old age with a free-and-easy air; and as he was full of excessive activity, which had now no purpose, he divided his time between reading and taking exercise. In a drawing-room he devoted his attention to waiting on the wishes of the ladies.
"You are very merry here," said he, seeing that the Baron shed a spirit of animation on the little family gathering. "And yet Hortense is not married," he added, noticing a trace of melancholy on his sister-in-law's countenance.
"That will come all in good time," Lisbeth shouted in his ear in a formidable voice.
"So there you are, you wretched seedling that could never blossom," said he, laughing.
The hero of Forzheim rather liked Cousin Betty, for there were certain points of resemblance between them. A man of the ranks, without any education, his courage had been the sole mainspring of his military promotion, and sound sense had taken the place of brilliancy. Of the highest honor and clean-handed, he was ending a noble life in full contentment in the centre of his family, which claimed all his affections, and without a suspicion of his brother's still undiscovered misconduct. No one enjoyed more than he the pleasing sight of this family party, where there never was the smallest disagreement, for the brothers and sisters were all equally attached, Celestine having been at once accepted as one of the family. But the worthy little Count wondered now and then why Monsieur Crevel never joined the party. "Papa is in the country," Celestine shouted, and it was explained to him that the ex-perfumer was away from home.
This perfect union of all her family made Madame Hulot say to herself, "This, after all, is the best kind of happiness, and who can deprive us of it?"
The General, on seeing his favorite Adeline the object of her husband's attentions, laughed so much about it that the Baron, fearing to seem ridiculous, transferred his gallantries to his daughter-in-law, who at these family dinners was always the object of his flattery and kind care, for he hoped to win Crevel back through her, and make him forego his resentment.
Any one seeing this domestic scene would have found it hard to believe that the father was at his wits' end, the mother in despair, the son anxious beyond words as to his father's future fate, and the daughter on the point of robbing her cousin of her lover.