Cousin Betty/Section 7

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Cousin Betty by Honoré de Balzac, translated by James Waring
Section 7

The ignorance in which the dwellers under one roof can exist as to the social position of their fellow-lodgers is a permanent fact which, as much as any other, shows what the rush of Paris life is. Still, it is easily conceivable that a clerk who goes early every morning to his office, comes home only to dinner, and spends every evening out, and a woman swallowed up in a round of pleasures, should know nothing of an old maid living on the third floor beyond the courtyard of the house they dwell in, especially when she lives as Mademoiselle Fischer did.

Up in the morning before any one else, Lisbeth went out to buy her bread, milk, and live charcoal, never speaking to any one, and she went to bed with the sun; she never had a letter or a visitor, nor chatted with her neighbors. Here was one of those anonymous, entomological existences such as are to be met with in many large tenements where, at the end of four years, you unexpectedly learn that up on the fourth floor there is an old man lodging who knew Voltaire, Pilatre de Rozier, Beaujon, Marcel, Mole, Sophie Arnould, Franklin, and Robespierre. What Monsieur and Madame Marneffe had just said concerning Lisbeth Fischer they had come to know, in consequence, partly, of the loneliness of the neighborhood, and of the alliance, to which their necessities had led, between them and the doorkeepers, whose goodwill was too important to them not to have been carefully encouraged.

Now, the old maid's pride, silence, and reserve had engendered in the porter and his wife the exaggerated respect and cold civility which betray the unconfessed annoyance of an inferior. Also, the porter thought himself in all essentials the equal of any lodger whose rent was no more than two hundred and fifty francs. Cousin Betty's confidences to Hortense were true; and it is evident that the porter's wife might be very likely to slander Mademoiselle Fischer in her intimate gossip with the Marneffes, while only intending to tell tales.

When Lisbeth had taken her candle from the hands of worthy Madame Olivier the portress, she looked up to see whether the windows of the garret over her own rooms were lighted up. At that hour, even in July, it was so dark within the courtyard that the old maid could not get to bed without a light.

"Oh, you may be quite easy, Monsieur Steinbock is in his room. He has not been out even," said Madame Olivier, with meaning.

Lisbeth made no reply. She was still a peasant, in so far that she was indifferent to the gossip of persons unconnected with her. Just as a peasant sees nothing beyond his village, she cared for nobody's opinion outside the little circle in which she lived. So she boldly went up, not to her own room, but to the garret; and this is why. At dessert she had filled her bag with fruit and sweets for her lover, and she went to give them to him, exactly as an old lady brings home a biscuit for her dog.

She found the hero of Hortense's dreams working by the light of a small lamp, of which the light was intensified by the use of a bottle of water as a lens—a pale young man, seated at a workman's bench covered with a modeler's tools, wax, chisels, rough-hewn stone, and bronze castings; he wore a blouse, and had in his hand a little group in red wax, which he gazed at like a poet absorbed in his labors.

"Here, Wenceslas, see what I have brought you," said she, laying her handkerchief on a corner of the table; then she carefully took the sweetmeats and fruit out of her bag.

"You are very kind, mademoiselle," replied the exile in melancholy tones.

"It will do you good, poor boy. You get feverish by working so hard; you were not born to such a rough life."

Wenceslas Steinbock looked at her with a bewildered air.

"Eat—come, eat," said she sharply, "instead of looking at me as you do at one of your images when you are satisfied with it."

On being thus smacked with words, the young man seemed less puzzled, for this, indeed, was the female Mentor whose tender moods were always a surprise to him, so much more accustomed was he to be scolded.

Though Steinbock was nine-and-twenty, like many fair men, he looked five or six years younger; and seeing his youth, though its freshness had faded under the fatigue and stress of life in exile, by the side of that dry, hard face, it seemed as though Nature had blundered in the distribution of sex. He rose and threw himself into a deep chair of Louis XV. pattern, covered with yellow Utrecht velvet, as if to rest himself. The old maid took a greengage and offered it to him.

"Thank you," said he, taking the plum.

"Are you tired?" said she, giving him another.

"I am not tired with work, but tired of life," said he.

"What absurd notions you have!" she exclaimed with some annoyance. "Have you not had a good genius to keep an eye on you?" she said, offering him the sweetmeats, and watching him with pleasure as he ate them all. "You see, I thought of you when dining with my cousin."

"I know," said he, with a look at Lisbeth that was at once affectionate and plaintive, "but for you I should long since have ceased to live. But, my dear lady, artists require relaxation——"

"Ah! there we come to the point!" cried she, interrupting him, her hands on her hips, and her flashing eyes fixed on him. "You want to go wasting your health in the vile resorts of Paris, like so many artisans, who end by dying in the workhouse. No, no, make a fortune, and then, when you have money in the funds, you may amuse yourself, child; then you will have enough to pay for the doctor and for your pleasure, libertine that you are."

Wenceslas Steinbock, on receiving this broadside, with an accompaniment of looks that pierced him like a magnetic flame, bent his head. The most malignant slanderer on seeing this scene would at once have understood that the hints thrown out by the Oliviers were false. Everything in this couple, their tone, manner, and way of looking at each other, proved the purity of their private live. The old maid showed the affection of rough but very genuine maternal feeling; the young man submitted, as a respectful son yields to the tyranny of a mother. The strange alliance seemed to be the outcome of a strong will acting constantly on a weak character, on the fluid nature peculiar to the Slavs, which, while it does not hinder them from showing heroic courage in battle, gives them an amazing incoherency of conduct, a moral softness of which physiologists ought to try to detect the causes, since physiologists are to political life what entomologists are to agriculture.

"But if I die before I am rich?" said Wenceslas dolefully.

"Die!" cried she. "Oh, I will not let you die. I have life enough for both, and I would have my blood injected into your veins if necessary."

Tears rose to Steinbock's eyes as he heard her vehement and artless speech.

"Do not be unhappy, my little Wenceslas," said Lisbeth with feeling. "My cousin Hortense thought your seal quite pretty, I am sure; and I will manage to sell your bronze group, you will see; you will have paid me off, you will be able to do as you please, you will soon be free. Come, smile a little!"

"I can never repay you, mademoiselle," said the exile.

"And why not?" asked the peasant woman, taking the Livonian's part against herself.

"Because you not only fed me, lodged me, cared for me in my poverty, but you also gave me strength. You have made me what I am; you have often been stern, you have made me very unhappy——"

"I?" said the old maid. "Are you going to pour out all your nonsense once more about poetry and the arts, and to crack your fingers and stretch your arms while you spout about the ideal, and beauty, and all your northern madness?—Beauty is not to compare with solid pudding—and what am I!—You have ideas in your brain? What is the use of them? I too have ideas. What is the good of all the fine things you may have in your soul if you can make no use of them? Those who have ideas do not get so far as those who have none, if they don't know which way to go.

"Instead of thinking over your ideas you must work.—Now, what have you done while I was out?"

"What did your pretty cousin say?"

"Who told you she was pretty?" asked Lisbeth sharply, in a tone hollow with tiger-like jealousy.

"Why, you did."

"That was only to see your face. Do you want to go trotting after petticoats? You who are so fond of women, well, make them in bronze. Let us see a cast of your desires, for you will have to do without the ladies for some little time yet, and certainly without my cousin, my good fellow. She is not game for your bag; that young lady wants a man with sixty thousand francs a year—and has found him!

"Why, your bed is not made!" she exclaimed, looking into the adjoining room. "Poor dear boy, I quite forgot you!"

The sturdy woman pulled off her gloves, her cape and bonnet, and remade the artist's little camp bed as briskly as any housemaid. This mixture of abruptness, of roughness even, with real kindness, perhaps accounts for the ascendency Lisbeth had acquired over the man whom she regarded as her personal property. Is not our attachment to life based on its alternations of good and evil?

If the Livonian had happened to meet Madame Marneffe instead of Lisbeth Fischer, he would have found a protectress whose complaisance must have led him into some boggy or discreditable path, where he would have been lost. He would certainly never have worked, nor the artist have been hatched out. Thus, while he deplored the old maid's grasping avarice, his reason bid him prefer her iron hand to the life of idleness and peril led by many of his fellow-countrymen.