Cousin Betty/Section 17

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Cousin Betty by Honoré de Balzac, translated by James Waring
Section 17

Madame Marneffe particularly wished to be invited to Mademoiselle Hulot's wedding. To enable him to receive his future mistress in his drawing-room, the great official was obliged to invite all the clerks of his division down to the deputy head-clerks inclusive. Thus a grand ball was a necessity. The Baroness, as a prudent housewife, calculated that an evening party would cost less than a dinner, and allow of a larger number of invitations; so Hortense's wedding was much talked about.

Marshal Prince Wissembourg and the Baron de Nucingen signed in behalf of the bride, the Comtes de Rastignac and Popinot in behalf of Steinbock. Then, as the highest nobility among the Polish emigrants had been civil to Count Steinbock since he had become famous, the artist thought himself bound to invite them. The State Council, and the War Office to which the Baron belonged, and the army, anxious to do honor to the Comte de Forzheim, were all represented by their magnates. There were nearly two hundred indispensable invitations. How natural, then, that little Madame Marneffe was bent on figuring in all her glory amid such an assembly. The Baroness had, a month since, sold her diamonds to set up her daughter's house, while keeping the finest for the trousseau. The sale realized fifteen thousand francs, of which five thousand were sunk in Hortense's clothes. And what was ten thousand francs for the furniture of the young folks' apartment, considering the demands of modern luxury? However, young Monsieur and Madame Hulot, old Crevel, and the Comte de Forzheim made very handsome presents, for the old soldier had set aside a sum for the purchase of plate. Thanks to these contributions, even an exacting Parisian would have been pleased with the rooms the young couple had taken in the Rue Saint-Dominique, near the Invalides. Everything seemed in harmony with their love, pure, honest, and sincere.

At last the great day dawned—for it was to be a great day not only for Wenceslas and Hortense, but for old Hulot too. Madame Marneffe was to give a house-warming in her new apartment the day after becoming Hulot's mistress en titre, and after the marriage of the lovers.

Who but has once in his life been a guest at a wedding-ball? Every reader can refer to his reminiscences, and will probably smile as he calls up the images of all that company in their Sunday-best faces as well as their finest frippery.

If any social event can prove the influence of environment, is it not this? In fact, the Sunday-best mood of some reacts so effectually on the rest that the men who are most accustomed to wearing full dress look just like those to whom the party is a high festival, unique in their life. And think too of the serious old men to whom such things are so completely a matter of indifference, that they are wearing their everyday black coats; the long-married men, whose faces betray their sad experience of the life the young pair are but just entering on; and the lighter elements, present as carbonic-acid gas is in champagne; and the envious girls, the women absorbed in wondering if their dress is a success, the poor relations whose parsimonious "get-up" contrasts with that of the officials in uniform; and the greedy ones, thinking only of the supper; and the gamblers, thinking only of cards.

There are some of every sort, rich and poor, envious and envied, philosophers and dreamers, all grouped like the plants in a flower-bed round the rare, choice blossom, the bride. A wedding-ball is an epitome of the world.

At the liveliest moment of the evening Crevel led the Baron aside, and said in a whisper, with the most natural manner possible:

"By Jove! that's a pretty woman—the little lady in pink who has opened a racking fire on you from her eyes."

"Which?"

"The wife of that clerk you are promoting, heaven knows how!—Madame Marneffe."

"What do you know about it?"

"Listen, Hulot; I will try to forgive you the ill you have done me if only you will introduce me to her—I will take you to Heloise. Everybody is asking who is that charming creature. Are you sure that it will strike no one how and why her husband's appointment got itself signed?—You happy rascal, she is worth a whole office.—I would serve in her office only too gladly.—Come, cinna, let us be friends."

"Better friends than ever," said the Baron to the perfumer, "and I promise you I will be a good fellow. Within a month you shall dine with that little angel.—For it is an angel this time, old boy. And I advise you, like me, to have done with the devils."

Cousin Betty, who had moved to the Rue Vanneau, into a nice little apartment on the third floor, left the ball at ten o'clock, but came back to see with her own eyes the two bonds bearing twelve hundred francs interest; one of them was the property of the Countess Steinbock, the other was in the name of Madame Hulot.

It is thus intelligible that Monsieur Crevel should have spoken to Hulot about Madame Marneffe, as knowing what was a secret to the rest of the world; for, as Monsieur Marneffe was away, no one but Lisbeth Fischer, besides the Baron and Valerie, was initiated into the mystery.

The Baron had made a blunder in giving Madame Marneffe a dress far too magnificent for the wife of a subordinate official; other women were jealous alike of her beauty and of her gown. There was much whispering behind fans, for the poverty of the Marneffes was known to every one in the office; the husband had been petitioning for help at the very moment when the Baron had been so smitten with madame. Also, Hector could not conceal his exultation at seeing Valerie's success; and she, severely proper, very lady-like, and greatly envied, was the object of that strict examination which women so greatly fear when they appear for the first time in a new circle of society.

After seeing his wife into a carriage with his daughter and his son-in-law, Hulot managed to escape unperceived, leaving his son and Celestine to do the honors of the house. He got into Madame Marneffe's carriage to see her home, but he found her silent and pensive, almost melancholy.

"My happiness makes you very sad, Valerie," said he, putting his arm round her and drawing her to him.

"Can you wonder, my dear," said she, "that a hapless woman should be a little depressed at the thought of her first fall from virtue, even when her husband's atrocities have set her free? Do you suppose that I have no soul, no beliefs, no religion? Your glee this evening has been really too barefaced; you have paraded me odiously. Really, a schoolboy would have been less of a coxcomb. And the ladies have dissected me with their side-glances and their satirical remarks. Every woman has some care for her reputation, and you have wrecked mine.

"Oh, I am yours and no mistake! And I have not an excuse left but that of being faithful to you.—Monster that you are!" she added, laughing, and allowing him to kiss her, "you knew very well what you were doing! Madame Coquet, our chief clerk's wife, came to sit down by me, and admired my lace. 'English point!' said she. 'Was it very expensive, madame?'—'I do not know. This lace was my mother's. I am not rich enough to buy the like,' said I."

Madame Marneffe, in short, had so bewitched the old beau, that he really believed she was sinning for the first time for his sake, and that he had inspired such a passion as had led her to this breach of duty. She told him that the wretch Marneffe had neglected her after they had been three days married, and for the most odious reasons. Since then she had lived as innocently as a girl; marriage had seemed to her so horrible. This was the cause of her present melancholy.

"If love should prove to be like marriage——" said she in tears.

These insinuating lies, with which almost every woman in Valerie's predicament is ready, gave the Baron distant visions of the roses of the seventh heaven. And so Valerie coquetted with her lover, while the artist and Hortense were impatiently awaiting the moment when the Baroness should have given the girl her last kiss and blessing.

At seven in the morning the Baron, perfectly happy—for his Valerie was at once the most guileless of girls and the most consummate of demons—went back to release his son and Celestine from their duties. All the dancers, for the most part strangers, had taken possession of the territory, as they do at every wedding-ball, and were keeping up the endless figures of the cotillions, while the gamblers were still crowding round the bouillotte tables, and old Crevel had won six thousand francs.

The morning papers, carried round the town, contained this paragraph in the Paris article:—

"The marriage was celebrated this morning, at the Church of Saint-Thomas d'Aquin, between Monsieur le Comte Steinbock and Mademoiselle Hortense Hulot, daughter of Baron Hulot d'Ervy, Councillor of State, and a Director at the War Office; niece of the famous General Comte de Forzheim. The ceremony attracted a large gathering. There were present some of the most distinguished artists of the day: Leon de Lora, Joseph Bridau, Stidmann, and Bixiou; the magnates of the War Office, of the Council of State, and many members of the two Chambers; also the most distinguished of the Polish exiles living in Paris: Counts Paz, Laginski, and others.
"Monsieur le Comte Wenceslas Steinbock is grandnephew to the famous general who served under Charles XII., King of Sweden. The young Count, having taken part in the Polish rebellion, found a refuge in France, where his well-earned fame as a sculptor has procured him a patent of naturalization."

And so, in spite of the Baron's cruel lack of money, nothing was lacking that public opinion could require, not even the trumpeting of the newspapers over his daughter's marriage, which was solemnized in the same way, in every particular, as his son's had been to Mademoiselle Crevel. This display moderated the reports current as to the Baron's financial position, while the fortune assigned to his daughter explained the need for having borrowed money.

Here ends what is, in a way, the introduction to this story. It is to the drama that follows that the premise is to a syllogism, what the prologue is to a classical tragedy.