Cousin Betty/Section 8

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Cousin Betty by Honoré de Balzac, translated by James Waring
Section 8

This was the incident that had given rise to the coalition of female energy and masculine feebleness—a contrast in union said not to be uncommon in Poland.

In 1833 Mademoiselle Fischer, who sometimes worked into the night when business was good, at about one o'clock one morning perceived a strong smell of carbonic acid gas, and heard the groans of a dying man. The fumes and the gasping came from a garret over the two rooms forming her dwelling, and she supposed that a young man who had but lately come to lodge in this attic—which had been vacant for three years—was committing suicide. She ran upstairs, broke in the door by a push with her peasant strength, and found the lodger writhing on a camp-bed in the convulsions of death. She extinguished the brazier; the door was open, the air rushed in, and the exile was saved. Then, when Lisbeth had put him to bed like a patient, and he was asleep, she could detect the motives of his suicide in the destitution of the rooms, where there was nothing whatever but a wretched table, the camp-bed, and two chairs.

On the table lay a document, which she read:

"I am Count Wenceslas Steinbock, born at Prelia, in Livonia.
"No one is to be accused of my death; my reasons for killing myself are, in the words of Kosciusko, Finis Polonioe!
"The grand-nephew of a valiant General under Charles XII. could not beg. My weakly constitution forbids my taking military service, and I yesterday saw the last of the hundred thalers which I had brought with me from Dresden to Paris. I have left twenty-five francs in the drawer of this table to pay the rent I owe to the landlord.
"My parents being dead, my death will affect nobody. I desire that my countrymen will not blame the French Government. I have never registered myself as a refugee, and I have asked for nothing; I have met none of my fellow-exiles; no one in Paris knows of my existence.
"I am dying in Christian beliefs. May God forgive the last of the Steinbocks!

"WENCESLAS."

Mademoiselle Fischer, deeply touched by the dying man's honesty, opened the drawer and found the five five-franc pieces to pay his rent.

"Poor young man!" cried she. "And with no one in the world to care about him!"

She went downstairs to fetch her work, and sat stitching in the garret, watching over the Livonian gentleman.

When he awoke his astonishment may be imagined on finding a woman sitting by his bed; it was like the prolongation of a dream. As she sat there, covering aiguillettes with gold thread, the old maid had resolved to take charge of the poor youth whom she admired as he lay sleeping.

As soon as the young Count was fully awake, Lisbeth talked to give him courage, and questioned him to find out how he might make a living. Wenceslas, after telling his story, added that he owed his position to his acknowledged talent for the fine arts. He had always had a preference for sculpture; the necessary time for study had, however, seemed to him too long for a man without money; and at this moment he was far too weak to do any hard manual labor or undertake an important work in sculpture. All this was Greek to Lisbeth Fischer. She replied to the unhappy man that Paris offered so many openings that any man with will and courage might find a living there. A man of spirit need never perish if he had a certain stock of endurance.

"I am but a poor girl myself, a peasant, and I have managed to make myself independent," said she in conclusion. "If you will work in earnest, I have saved a little money, and I will lend you, month by month, enough to live upon; but to live frugally, and not to play ducks and drakes with or squander in the streets. You can dine in Paris for twenty-five sous a day, and I will get you your breakfast with mine every day. I will furnish your rooms and pay for such teaching as you may think necessary. You shall give me formal acknowledgment for the money I may lay out for you, and when you are rich you shall repay me all. But if you do not work, I shall not regard myself as in any way pledged to you, and I shall leave you to your fate."

"Ah!" cried the poor fellow, still smarting from the bitterness of his first struggle with death, "exiles from every land may well stretch out their hands to France, as the souls in Purgatory do to Paradise. In what other country is such help to be found, and generous hearts even in such a garret as this? You will be everything to me, my beloved benefactress; I am your slave! Be my sweetheart," he added, with one of the caressing gestures familiar to the Poles, for which they are unjustly accused of servility.

"Oh, no; I am too jealous, I should make you unhappy; but I will gladly be a sort of comrade," replied Lisbeth.

"Ah, if only you knew how I longed for some fellow-creature, even a tyrant, who would have something to say to me when I was struggling in the vast solitude of Paris!" exclaimed Wenceslas. "I regretted Siberia, whither I should be sent by the Emperor if I went home.—Be my Providence!—I will work; I will be a better man than I am, though I am not such a bad fellow!"

"Will you do whatever I bid you?" she asked.

"Yes."

"Well, then, I will adopt you as my child," said she lightly. "Here I am with a son risen from the grave. Come! we will begin at once. I will go out and get what I want; you can dress, and come down to breakfast with me when I knock on the ceiling with the broomstick."

That day, Mademoiselle Fischer made some inquiries, at the houses to which she carried her work home, as to the business of a sculptor. By dint of many questions she ended by hearing of the studio kept by Florent and Chanor, a house that made a special business of casting and finishing decorative bronzes and handsome silver plate. Thither she went with Steinbock, recommending him as an apprentice in sculpture, an idea that was regarded as too eccentric. Their business was to copy the works of the greatest artists, but they did not teach the craft. The old maid's persistent obstinacy so far succeeded that Steinbock was taken on to design ornament. He very soon learned to model ornament, and invented novelties; he had a gift for it.

Five months after he was out of his apprenticeship as a finisher, he made acquaintance with Stidmann, the famous head of Florent's studios. Within twenty months Wenceslas was ahead of his master; but in thirty months the old maid's savings of sixteen years had melted entirely. Two thousand five hundred francs in gold!—a sum with which she had intended to purchase an annuity; and what was there to show for it? A Pole's receipt! And at this moment Lisbeth was working as hard as in her young days to supply the needs of her Livonian.

When she found herself the possessor of a piece of paper instead of her gold louis, she lost her head, and went to consult Monsieur Rivet, who for fifteen years had been his clever head-worker's friend and counselor. On hearing her story, Monsieur and Madame Rivet scolded Lisbeth, told her she was crazy, abused all refugees whose plots for reconstructing their nation compromised the prosperity of the country and the maintenance of peace; and they urged Lisbeth to find what in trade is called security.

"The only hold you have over this fellow is on his liberty," observed Monsieur Rivet.

Monsieur Achille Rivet was assessor at the Tribunal of Commerce.

"Imprisonment is no joke for a foreigner," said he. "A Frenchman remains five years in prison and comes out, free of his debts to be sure, for he is thenceforth bound only by his conscience, and that never troubles him; but a foreigner never comes out.—Give me your promissory note; my bookkeeper will take it up; he will get it protested; you will both be prosecuted and both be condemned to imprisonment in default of payment; then, when everything is in due form, you must sign a declaration. By doing this your interest will be accumulating, and you will have a pistol always primed to fire at your Pole!"

The old maid allowed these legal steps to be taken, telling her protege not to be uneasy, as the proceedings were merely to afford a guarantee to a money-lender who agreed to advance them certain sums. This subterfuge was due to the inventive genius of Monsieur Rivet. The guileless artist, blindly trusting to his benefactress, lighted his pipe with the stamped paper, for he smoked as all men do who have sorrows or energies that need soothing.

One fine day Monsieur Rivet showed Mademoiselle Fischer a schedule, and said to her:

"Here you have Wenceslas Steinbock bound hand and foot, and so effectually, that within twenty-four hours you can have him snug in Clichy for the rest of his days."

This worthy and honest judge at the Chamber of Commerce experienced that day the satisfaction that must come of having done a malignant good action. Beneficence has so many aspects in Paris that this contradictory expression really represents one of them. The Livonian being fairly entangled in the toils of commercial procedure, the point was to obtain payment; for the illustrious tradesman looked on Wenceslas as a swindler. Feeling, sincerity, poetry, were in his eyes mere folly in business matters.

So Rivet went off to see, in behalf of that poor Mademoiselle Fischer, who, as he said, had been "done" by the Pole, the rich manufacturers for whom Steinbock had worked. It happened that Stidmann—who, with the help of these distinguished masters of the goldsmiths' art, was raising French work to the perfection it has now reached, allowing it to hold its own against Florence and the Renaissance—Stidmann was in Chanor's private room when the army lace manufacturer called to make inquiries as to "One Steinbock, a Polish refugee."

"Whom do you call 'One Steinbock'? Do you mean a young Livonian who was a pupil of mine?" cried Stidmann ironically. "I may tell you, monsieur, that he is a very great artist. It is said of me that I believe myself to be the Devil. Well, that poor fellow does not know that he is capable of becoming a god."

"Indeed," said Rivet, well pleased. And then he added, "Though you take a rather cavalier tone with a man who has the honor to be an Assessor on the Tribunal of Commerce of the Department of the Seine."

"Your pardon, Consul!" said Stidmann, with a military salute.

"I am delighted," the Assessor went on, "to hear what you say. The man may make money then?"

"Certainly," said Chanor; "but he must work. He would have a tidy sum by now if he had stayed with us. What is to be done? Artists have a horror of not being free."

"They have a proper sense of their value and dignity," replied Stidmann. "I do not blame Wenceslas for walking alone, trying to make a name, and to become a great man; he had a right to do so! But he was a great loss to me when he left."

"That, you see," exclaimed Rivet, "is what all young students aim at as soon as they are hatched out of the school-egg. Begin by saving money, I say, and seek glory afterwards."

"It spoils your touch to be picking up coin," said Stidmann. "It is Glory's business to bring us wealth."

"And, after all," said Chanor to Rivet, "you cannot tether them."

"They would eat the halter," replied Stidmann.

"All these gentlemen have as much caprice as talent," said Chanor, looking at Stidmann. "They spend no end of money; they keep their girls, they throw coin out of window, and then they have no time to work. They neglect their orders; we have to employ workmen who are very inferior, but who grow rich; and then they complain of the hard times, while, if they were but steady, they might have piles of gold."

"You old Lumignon," said Stidmann, "you remind me of the publisher before the Revolution who said—'If only I could keep Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau very poor in my backshed, and lock up their breeches in a cupboard, what a lot of nice little books they would write to make my fortune.'—If works of art could be hammered out like nails, workmen would make them.—Give me a thousand francs, and don't talk nonsense."

Worthy Monsieur Rivet went home, delighted for poor Mademoiselle Fischer, who dined with him every Monday, and whom he found waiting for him.

"If you can only make him work," said he, "you will have more luck than wisdom; you will be repaid, interest, capital, and costs. This Pole has talent, he can make a living; but lock up his trousers and his shoes, do not let him go to the Chaumiere or the parish of Notre-Dame de Lorette, keep him in leading-strings. If you do not take such precautions, your artist will take to loafing, and if you only knew what these artists mean by loafing! Shocking! Why, I have just heard that they will spend a thousand-franc note in a day!"

This episode had a fatal influence on the home-life of Wenceslas and Lisbeth. The benefactress flavored the exile's bread with the wormwood of reproof, now that she saw her money in danger, and often believed it to be lost. From a kind mother she became a stepmother; she took the poor boy to task, she nagged him, scolded him for working too slowly, and blamed him for having chosen so difficult a profession. She could not believe that those models in red wax—little figures and sketches for ornamental work—could be of any value. Before long, vexed with herself for her severity, she would try to efface the tears by her care and attention.

Then the poor young man, after groaning to think that he was dependent on this shrew and under the thumb of a peasant of the Vosges, was bewitched by her coaxing ways and by a maternal affection that attached itself solely to the physical and material side of life. He was like a woman who forgives a week of ill-usage for the sake of a kiss and a brief reconciliation.

Thus Mademoiselle Fischer obtained complete power over his mind. The love of dominion that lay as a germ in the old maid's heart developed rapidly. She could now satisfy her pride and her craving for action; had she not a creature belonging to her, to be schooled, scolded, flattered, and made happy, without any fear of a rival? Thus the good and bad sides of her nature alike found play. If she sometimes victimized the poor artist, she had, on the other hand, delicate impulses like the grace of wild flowers; it was a joy to her to provide for all his wants; she would have given her life for him, and Wenceslas knew it. Like every noble soul, the poor fellow forgot the bad points, the defects of the woman who had told him the story of her life as an excuse for her rough ways, and he remembered only the benefits she had done him.

One day, exasperated with Wenceslas for having gone out walking instead of sitting at work, she made a great scene.

"You belong to me," said she. "If you were an honest man, you would try to repay me the money you owe as soon as possible."

The gentleman, in whose veins the blood of the Steinbocks was fired, turned pale.

"Bless me," she went on, "we soon shall have nothing to live on but the thirty sous I earn—a poor work-woman!"

The two penniless creatures, worked up by their own war of words, grew vehement; and for the first time the unhappy artist reproached his benefactress for having rescued him from death only to make him lead the life of a galley slave, worse than the bottomless void, where at least, said he, he would have found rest. And he talked of flight.

"Flight!" cried Lisbeth. "Ah, Monsieur Rivet was right."

And she clearly explained to the Pole that within twenty-four hours he might be clapped into prison for the rest of his days. It was a crushing blow. Steinbock sank into deep melancholy and total silence.

In the course of the following night, Lisbeth hearing overhead some preparations for suicide, went up to her pensioner's room, and gave him the schedule and a formal release.

"Here, dear child, forgive me," she said with tears in her eyes. "Be happy; leave me! I am too cruel to you; only tell me that you will sometimes remember the poor girl who has enabled you to make a living.—What can I say? You are the cause of my ill-humor. I might die; where would you be without me? That is the reason of my being impatient to see you do some salable work. I do not want my money back for myself, I assure you! I am only frightened at your idleness, which you call meditation; at your ideas, which take up so many hours when you sit gazing at the sky; I want you to get into habits of industry."

All this was said with an emphasis, a look, and tears that moved the high-minded artist; he clasped his benefactress to his heart and kissed her forehead.

"Keep these pieces," said he with a sort of cheerfulness. "Why should you send me to Clichy? Am I not a prisoner here out of gratitude?"

This episode of their secret domestic life had occurred six months previously, and had led to Steinbock's producing three finished works: the seal in Hortense's possession, the group he had placed with the curiosity dealer, and a beautiful clock to which he was putting the last touches, screwing in the last rivets.

This clock represented the twelve Hours, charmingly personified by twelve female figures whirling round in so mad and swift a dance that three little Loves perched on a pile of fruit and flowers could not stop one of them; only the torn skirts of Midnight remained in the hand of the most daring cherub. The group stood on an admirably treated base, ornamented with grotesque beasts. The hours were told by a monstrous mouth that opened to yawn, and each Hour bore some ingeniously appropriate symbol characteristic of the various occupations of the day.

It is now easy to understand the extraordinary attachment of Mademoiselle Fischer for her Livonian; she wanted him to be happy, and she saw him pining, fading away in his attic. The causes of this wretched state of affairs may be easily imagined. The peasant woman watched this son of the North with the affection of a mother, with the jealousy of a wife, and the spirit of a dragon; hence she managed to put every kind of folly or dissipation out of his power by leaving him destitute of money. She longed to keep her victim and companion for herself alone, well conducted perforce, and she had no conception of the cruelty of this senseless wish, since she, for her own part, was accustomed to every privation. She loved Steinbock well enough not to marry him, and too much to give him up to any other woman; she could not resign herself to be no more than a mother to him, though she saw that she was mad to think of playing the other part.

These contradictions, this ferocious jealousy, and the joy of having a man to herself, all agitated her old maid's heart beyond measure. Really in love as she had been for four years, she cherished the foolish hope of prolonging this impossible and aimless way of life in which her persistence would only be the ruin of the man she thought of as her child. This contest between her instincts and her reason made her unjust and tyrannical. She wreaked on the young man her vengeance for her own lot in being neither young, rich, nor handsome; then, after each fit of rage, recognizing herself wrong, she stooped to unlimited humility, infinite tenderness. She never could sacrifice to her idol till she had asserted her power by blows of the axe. In fact, it was the converse of Shakespeare's Tempest—Caliban ruling Ariel and Prospero.

As to the poor youth himself, high-minded, meditative, and inclined to be lazy, the desert that his protectress made in his soul might be seen in his eyes, as in those of a caged lion. The penal servitude forced on him by Lisbeth did not fulfil the cravings of his heart. His weariness became a physical malady, and he was dying without daring to ask, or knowing where to procure, the price of some little necessary dissipation. On some days of special energy, when a feeling of utter ill-luck added to his exasperation, he would look at Lisbeth as a thirsty traveler on a sandy shore must look at the bitter sea-water.

These harsh fruits of indigence, and this isolation in the midst of Paris, Lisbeth relished with delight. And besides, she foresaw that the first passion would rob her of her slave. Sometimes she even blamed herself because her own tyranny and reproaches had compelled the poetic youth to become so great an artist of delicate work, and she had thus given him the means of casting her off.