Cousin Betty/Section 6

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
Cousin Betty by Honoré de Balzac, translated by James Waring
Section 6

At seven o'clock the Baron, seeing his brother, his son, the Baroness, and Hortense all engaged at whist, went off to applaud his mistress at the Opera, taking with him Lisbeth Fischer, who lived in the Rue du Doyenne, and who always made an excuse of the solitude of that deserted quarter to take herself off as soon as dinner was over. Parisians will all admit that the old maid's prudence was but rational.

The existence of the maze of houses under the wing of the old Louvre is one of those protests against obvious good sense which Frenchmen love, that Europe may reassure itself as to the quantum of brains they are known to have, and not be too much alarmed. Perhaps without knowing it, this reveals some profound political idea.

It will surely not be a work of supererogation to describe this part of Paris as it is even now, when we could hardly expect its survival; and our grandsons, who will no doubt see the Louvre finished, may refuse to believe that such a relic of barbarism should have survived for six-and-thirty years in the heart of Paris and in the face of the palace where three dynasties of kings have received, during those thirty-six years, the elite of France and of Europe.

Between the little gate leading to the Bridge of the Carrousel and the Rue du Musee, every one having come to Paris, were it but for a few days, must have seen a dozen of houses with a decayed frontage where the dejected owners have attempted no repairs, the remains of an old block of buildings of which the destruction was begun at the time when Napoleon determined to complete the Louvre. This street, and the blind alley known as the Impasse du Doyenne, are the only passages into this gloomy and forsaken block, inhabited perhaps by ghosts, for there never is anybody to be seen. The pavement is much below the footway of the Rue du Musee, on a level with that of the Rue Froidmanteau. Thus, half sunken by the raising of the soil, these houses are also wrapped in the perpetual shadow cast by the lofty buildings of the Louvre, darkened on that side by the northern blast. Darkness, silence, an icy chill, and the cavernous depth of the soil combine to make these houses a kind of crypt, tombs of the living. As we drive in a hackney cab past this dead-alive spot, and chance to look down the little Rue du Doyenne, a shudder freezes the soul, and we wonder who can lie there, and what things may be done there at night, at an hour when the alley is a cut-throat pit, and the vices of Paris run riot there under the cloak of night. This question, frightful in itself, becomes appalling when we note that these dwelling-houses are shut in on the side towards the Rue de Richelieu by marshy ground, by a sea of tumbled paving-stones between them and the Tuileries, by little garden-plots and suspicious-looking hovels on the side of the great galleries, and by a desert of building-stone and old rubbish on the side towards the old Louvre. Henri III. and his favorites in search of their trunk-hose, and Marguerite's lovers in search of their heads, must dance sarabands by moonlight in this wilderness overlooked by the roof of a chapel still standing there as if to prove that the Catholic religion—so deeply rooted in France—survives all else.

For forty years now has the Louvre been crying out by every gap in these damaged walls, by every yawning window, "Rid me of these warts upon my face!" This cutthroat lane has no doubt been regarded as useful, and has been thought necessary as symbolizing in the heart of Paris the intimate connection between poverty and the splendor that is characteristic of the queen of cities. And indeed these chill ruins, among which the Legitimist newspaper contracted the disease it is dying of—the abominable hovels of the Rue du Musee, and the hoarding appropriated by the shop stalls that flourish there—will perhaps live longer and more prosperously than three successive dynasties.

In 1823 the low rents in these already condemned houses had tempted Lisbeth Fischer to settle there, notwithstanding the necessity imposed upon her by the state of the neighborhood to get home before nightfall. This necessity, however, was in accordance with the country habits she retained, of rising and going to bed with the sun, an arrangement which saves country folk considerable sums in lights and fuel. She lived in one of the houses which, since the demolition of the famous Hotel Cambaceres, command a view of the square.

Just as Baron Hulot set his wife's cousin down at the door of this house, saying, "Good-night, Cousin," an elegant-looking woman, young, small, slender, pretty, beautifully dressed, and redolent of some delicate perfume, passed between the wall and the carriage to go in. This lady, without any premeditation, glanced up at the Baron merely to see the lodger's cousin, and the libertine at once felt the swift impression which all Parisians know on meeting a pretty woman, realizing, as entomologists have it, their desiderata; so he waited to put on one of his gloves with judicious deliberation before getting into the carriage again, to give himself an excuse for allowing his eye to follow the young woman, whose skirts were pleasingly set out by something else than these odious and delusive crinoline bustles.

"That," said he to himself, "is a nice little person whose happiness I should like to provide for, as she would certainly secure mine."

When the unknown fair had gone into the hall at the foot of the stairs going up to the front rooms, she glanced at the gate out of the corner of her eye without precisely looking round, and she could see the Baron riveted to the spot in admiration, consumed by curiosity and desire. This is to every Parisian woman a sort of flower which she smells at with delight, if she meets it on her way. Nay, certain women, though faithful to their duties, pretty, and virtuous, come home much put out if they have failed to cull such a posy in the course of their walk.

The lady ran upstairs, and in a moment a window on the second floor was thrown open, and she appeared at it, but accompanied by a man whose baldhead and somewhat scowling looks announced him as her husband.

"If they aren't sharp and ingenious, the cunning jades!" thought the Baron. "She does that to show me where she lives. But this is getting rather warm, especially for this part of Paris. We must mind what we are at."

As he got into the milord, he looked up, and the lady and the husband hastily vanished, as though the Baron's face had affected them like the mythological head of Medusa.

"It would seem that they know me," thought the Baron. "That would account for everything."

As the carriage went up the Rue du Musee, he leaned forward to see the lady again, and in fact she was again at the window. Ashamed of being caught gazing at the hood under which her admirer was sitting, the unknown started back at once.

"Nanny shall tell me who it is," said the Baron to himself.

The sight of the Government official had, as will be seen, made a deep impression on this couple.

"Why, it is Baron Hulot, the chief of the department to which my office belongs!" exclaimed the husband as he left the window.

"Well, Marneffe, the old maid on the third floor at the back of the courtyard, who lives with that young man, is his cousin. Is it not odd that we should never have known that till to-day, and now find it out by chance?"

"Mademoiselle Fischer living with a young man?" repeated the husband. "That is porter's gossip; do not speak so lightly of the cousin of a Councillor of State who can blow hot and cold in the office as he pleases. Now, come to dinner; I have been waiting for you since four o'clock."

Pretty—very pretty—Madame Marneffe, the natural daughter of Comte Montcornet, one of Napoleon's most famous officers, had, on the strength of a marriage portion of twenty thousand francs, found a husband in an inferior official at the War Office. Through the interest of the famous lieutenant-general—made marshal of France six months before his death—this quill-driver had risen to unhoped-for dignity as head-clerk of his office; but just as he was to be promoted to be deputy-chief, the marshal's death had cut off Marneffe's ambitions and his wife's at the root. The very small salary enjoyed by Sieur Marneffe had compelled the couple to economize in the matter of rent; for in his hands Mademoiselle Valerie Fortin's fortune had already melted away—partly in paying his debts, and partly in the purchase of necessaries for furnishing a house, but chiefly in gratifying the requirements of a pretty young wife, accustomed in her mother's house to luxuries she did not choose to dispense with. The situation of the Rue du Doyenne, within easy distance of the War Office, and the gay part of Paris, smiled on Monsieur and Madame Marneffe, and for the last four years they had dwelt under the same roof as Lisbeth Fischer.

Monsieur Jean-Paul-Stanislas Marneffe was one of the class of employes who escape sheer brutishness by the kind of power that comes of depravity. The small, lean creature, with thin hair and a starved beard, an unwholesome pasty face, worn rather than wrinkled, with red-lidded eyes harnessed with spectacles, shuffling in his gait, and yet meaner in his appearance, realized the type of man that any one would conceive of as likely to be placed in the dock for an offence against decency.

The rooms inhabited by this couple had the illusory appearance of sham luxury seen in many Paris homes, and typical of a certain class of household. In the drawing-room, the furniture covered with shabby cotton velvet, the plaster statuettes pretending to be Florentine bronze, the clumsy cast chandelier merely lacquered, with cheap glass saucers, the carpet, whose small cost was accounted for in advancing life by the quality of cotton used in the manufacture, now visible to the naked eye,—everything, down to the curtains, which plainly showed that worsted damask has not three years of prime, proclaimed poverty as loudly as a beggar in rags at a church door.

The dining-room, badly kept by a single servant, had the sickening aspect of a country inn; everything looked greasy and unclean.

Monsieur's room, very like a schoolboy's, furnished with the bed and fittings remaining from his bachelor days, as shabby and worn as he was, dusted perhaps once a week—that horrible room where everything was in a litter, with old socks hanging over the horsehair-seated chairs, the pattern outlined in dust, was that of a man to whom home is a matter of indifference, who lives out of doors, gambling in cafes or elsewhere.

Madame's room was an exception to the squalid slovenliness that disgraced the living rooms, where the curtains were yellow with smoke and dust, and where the child, evidently left to himself, littered every spot with his toys. Valerie's room and dressing-room were situated in the part of the house which, on one side of the courtyard, joined the front half, looking out on the street, to the wing forming the inner side of the court backing against the adjoining property. Handsomely hung with chintz, furnished with rosewood, and thickly carpeted, they proclaimed themselves as belonging to a pretty woman—and indeed suggested the kept mistress. A clock in the fashionable style stood on the velvet-covered mantelpiece. There was a nicely fitted cabinet, and the Chinese flower-stands were handsomely filled. The bed, the toilet-table, the wardrobe with its mirror, the little sofa, and all the lady's frippery bore the stamp of fashion or caprice. Though everything was quite third-rate as to elegance or quality, and nothing was absolutely newer than three years old, a dandy would have had no fault to find but that the taste of all this luxury was commonplace. Art, and the distinction that comes of the choice of things that taste assimilates, was entirely wanting. A doctor of social science would have detected a lover in two or three specimens of costly trumpery, which could only have come there through that demi-god—always absent, but always present if the lady is married.

The dinner, four hours behind time, to which the husband, wife, and child sat down, betrayed the financial straits in which the household found itself, for the table is the surest thermometer for gauging the income of a Parisian family. Vegetable soup made with the water haricot beans had been boiled in, a piece of stewed veal and potatoes sodden with water by way of gravy, a dish of haricot beans, and cheap cherries, served and eaten in cracked plates and dishes, with the dull-looking and dull-sounding forks of German silver—was this a banquet worthy of this pretty young woman? The Baron would have wept could he have seen it. The dingy decanters could not disguise the vile hue of wine bought by the pint at the nearest wineshop. The table-napkins had seen a week's use. In short, everything betrayed undignified penury, and the equal indifference of the husband and wife to the decencies of home. The most superficial observer on seeing them would have said that these two beings had come to the stage when the necessity of living had prepared them for any kind of dishonor that might bring luck to them. Valerie's first words to her husband will explain the delay that had postponed the dinner by the not disinterested devotion of the cook.

"Samanon will only take your bills at fifty per cent, and insists on a lien on your salary as security."

So poverty, still unconfessed in the house of the superior official, and hidden under a stipend of twenty-four thousand francs, irrespective of presents, had reached its lowest stage in that of the clerk.

"You have caught on with the chief," said the man, looking at his wife.

"I rather think so," replied she, understanding the full meaning of his slang expression.

"What is to become of us?" Marneffe went on. "The landlord will be down on us to-morrow. And to think of your father dying without making a will! On my honor, those men of the Empire all think themselves as immortal as their Emperor."

"Poor father!" said she. "I was his only child, and he was very fond of me. The Countess probably burned the will. How could he forget me when he used to give us as much as three or four thousand-franc notes at once, from time to time?"

"We owe four quarters' rent, fifteen hundred francs. Is the furniture worth so much? That is the question, as Shakespeare says."

"Now, good-bye, ducky!" said Valerie, who had only eaten a few mouthfuls of the veal, from which the maid had extracted all the gravy for a brave soldier just home from Algiers. "Great evils demand heroic remedies."

"Valerie, where are you off to?" cried Marneffe, standing between his wife and the door.

"I am going to see the landlord," she replied, arranging her ringlets under her smart bonnet. "You had better try to make friends with that old maid, if she really is your chief's cousin."