Cousin Betty/Section 11

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Cousin Betty by Honoré de Balzac, translated by James Waring
Section 11

Mademoiselle Fischer's galley slave, obliged at last to go home, thought he might hide his joy as a lover under his glee as an artist rejoicing over his first success.

"Victory! my group is sold to the Duc d'Herouville, who is going to give me some commissions," cried he, throwing the twelve hundred francs in gold on the table before the old maid.

He had, as may be supposed concealed Hortense's purse; it lay next to his heart.

"And a very good thing too," said Lisbeth. "I was working myself to death. You see, child, money comes in slowly in the business you have taken up, for this is the first you have earned, and you have been grinding at it for near on five years now. That money barely repays me for what you have cost me since I took your promissory note; that is all I have got by my savings. But be sure of one thing," she said, after counting the gold, "this money will all be spent on you. There is enough there to keep us going for a year. In a year you may now be able to pay your debt and have a snug little sum of your own, if you go on in the same way."

Wenceslas, finding his trick successful, expatiated on the Duc d'Herouville.

"I will fit you out in a black suit, and get you some new linen," said Lisbeth, "for you must appear presentably before your patrons; and then you must have a larger and better apartment than your horrible garret, and furnish it property.—You look so bright, you are not like the same creature," she added, gazing at Wenceslas.

"But my work is pronounced a masterpiece."

"Well, so much the better! Do some more," said the arid creature, who was nothing but practical, and incapable of understanding the joy of triumph or of beauty in Art. "Trouble your head no further about what you have sold; make something else to sell. You have spent two hundred francs in money, to say nothing of your time and your labor, on that devil of a Samson. Your clock will cost you more than two thousand francs to execute. I tell you what, if you will listen to me, you will finish the two little boys crowning the little girl with cornflowers; that would just suit the Parisians.—I will go round to Monsieur Graff the tailor before going to Monsieur Crevel.—Go up now and leave me to dress."

Next day the Baron, perfectly crazy about Madame Marneffe, went to see Cousin Betty, who was considerably amazed on opening the door to see who her visitor was, for he had never called on her before. She at once said to herself, "Can it be that Hortense wants my lover?"—for she had heard the evening before, at Monsieur Crevel's, that the marriage with the Councillor of the Supreme Court was broken off.

"What, Cousin! you here? This is the first time you have ever been to see me, and it is certainly not for love of my fine eyes that you have come now."

"Fine eyes is the truth," said the Baron; "you have as fine eyes as I have ever seen——"

"Come, what are you here for? I really am ashamed to receive you in such a kennel."

The outer room of the two inhabited by Lisbeth served her as sitting-room, dining-room, kitchen, and workroom. The furniture was such as beseemed a well-to-do artisan—walnut-wood chairs with straw seats, a small walnut-wood dining table, a work table, some colored prints in black wooden frames, short muslin curtains to the windows, the floor well polished and shining with cleanliness, not a speck of dust anywhere, but all cold and dingy, like a picture by Terburg in every particular, even to the gray tone given by a wall paper once blue and now faded to gray. As to the bedroom, no human being had ever penetrated its secrets.

The Baron took it all in at a glance, saw the sign-manual of commonness on every detail, from the cast-iron stove to the household utensils, and his gorge rose as he said to himself, "And this is virtue!—What am I here for?" said he aloud. "You are far too cunning not to guess, and I had better tell you plainly," cried he, sitting down and looking out across the courtyard through an opening he made in the puckered curtain. "There is a very pretty woman in the house——"

"Madame Marneffe! Now I understand!" she exclaimed, seeing it all. "But Josepha?"

"Alas, Cousin, Josepha is no more. I was turned out of doors like a discarded footman."

"And you would like . . .?" said Lisbeth, looking at the Baron with the dignity of a prude on her guard a quarter of an hour too soon.

"As Madame Marneffe is very much the lady, and the wife of an employe, you can meet her without compromising yourself," the Baron went on, "and I should like to see you neighborly. Oh! you need not be alarmed; she will have the greatest consideration for the cousin of her husband's chief."

At this moment the rustle of a gown was heard on the stairs and the footstep of a woman wearing the thinnest boots. The sound ceased on the landing. There was a tap at the door, and Madame Marneffe came in.

"Pray excuse me, mademoiselle, for thus intruding upon you, but I failed to find you yesterday when I came to call; we are near neighbors; and if I had known that you were related to Monsieur le Baron, I should long since have craved your kind interest with him. I saw him come in, so I took the liberty of coming across; for my husband, Monsieur le Baron, spoke to me of a report on the office clerks which is to be laid before the minister to-morrow."

She seemed quite agitated and nervous—but she had only run upstairs.

"You have no need to play the petitioner, fair lady," replied the Baron. "It is I who should ask the favor of seeing you."

"Very well, if mademoiselle allows it, pray come!" said Madame Marneffe.

"Yes—go, Cousin, I will join you," said Lisbeth judiciously.

The Parisienne had so confidently counted on the chief's visit and intelligence, that not only had she dressed herself for so important an interview—she had dressed her room. Early in the day it had been furnished with flowers purchased on credit. Marneffe had helped his wife to polish the furniture, down to the smallest objects, washing, brushing, and dusting everything. Valerie wished to be found in an atmosphere of sweetness, to attract the chief and to please him enough to have a right to be cruel; to tantalize him as a child would, with all the tricks of fashionable tactics. She had gauged Hulot. Give a Paris woman at bay four-and-twenty hours, and she will overthrow a ministry.

The man of the Empire, accustomed to the ways to the Empire, was no doubt quite ignorant of the ways of modern love-making, of the scruples in vogue and the various styles of conversation invented since 1830, which led to the poor weak woman being regarded as the victim of her lover's desires—a Sister of Charity salving a wound, an angel sacrificing herself.

This modern art of love uses a vast amount of evangelical phrases in the service of the Devil. Passion is martyrdom. Both parties aspire to the Ideal, to the Infinite; love is to make them so much better. All these fine words are but a pretext for putting increased ardor into the practical side of it, more frenzy into a fall than of old. This hypocrisy, a characteristic of the times, is a gangrene in gallantry. The lovers are both angels, and they behave, if they can, like two devils.

Love had no time for such subtle analysis between two campaigns, and in 1809 its successes were as rapid as those of the Empire. So, under the Restoration, the handsome Baron, a lady's man once more, had begun by consoling some old friends now fallen from the political firmament, like extinguished stars, and then, as he grew old, was captured by Jenny Cadine and Josepha.

Madame Marneffe had placed her batteries after due study of the Baron's past life, which her husband had narrated in much detail, after picking up some information in the offices. The comedy of modern sentiment might have the charm of novelty to the Baron; Valerie had made up her mind as to her scheme; and we may say the trial of her power that she made this morning answered her highest expectations. Thanks to her manoeuvres, sentimental, high-flown, and romantic, Valerie, without committing herself to any promises, obtained for her husband the appointment as deputy head of the office and the Cross of the Legion of Honor.

The campaign was not carried out without little dinners at the Rocher de Cancale, parties to the play, and gifts in the form of lace, scarves, gowns, and jewelry. The apartment in the Rue du Doyenne was not satisfactory; the Baron proposed to furnish another magnificently in a charming new house in the Rue Vanneau.

Monsieur Marneffe got a fortnight's leave, to be taken a month hence for urgent private affairs in the country, and a present in money; he promised himself that he would spend both in a little town in Switzerland, studying the fair sex.

While Monsieur Hulot thus devoted himself to the lady he was "protecting," he did not forget the young artist. Comte Popinot, Minister of Commerce, was a patron of Art; he paid two thousand francs for a copy of the Samson on condition that the mould should be broken, and that there should be no Samson but his and Mademoiselle Hulot's. The group was admired by a Prince, to whom the model sketch for the clock was also shown, and who ordered it; but that again was to be unique, and he offered thirty thousand francs for it.

Artists who were consulted, and among them Stidmann, were of opinion that the man who had sketched those two models was capable of achieving a statue. The Marshal Prince de Wissembourg, Minister of War, and President of the Committee for the subscriptions to the monument of Marshal Montcornet, called a meeting, at which it was decided that the execution of the work should be placed in Steinbock's hands. The Comte de Rastignac, at that time Under-secretary of State, wished to possess a work by the artist, whose glory was waxing amid the acclamations of his rivals. Steinbock sold to him the charming group of two little boys crowning a little girl, and he promised to secure for the sculptor a studio attached to the Government marble-quarries, situated, as all the world knows, at Le Gros-Caillou.

This was a success, such success as is won in Paris, that is to say, stupendous success, that crushes those whose shoulders and loins are not strong enough to bear it—as, be it said, not unfrequently is the case. Count Wenceslas Steinbock was written about in all the newspapers and reviews without his having the least suspicion of it, any more than had Mademoiselle Fischer. Every day, as soon as Lisbeth had gone out to dinner, Wenceslas went to the Baroness' and spent an hour or two there, excepting on the evenings when Lisbeth dined with the Hulots.