Cousin Betty/Section 18

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In Paris, when a woman determines to make a business, a trade, of her beauty, it does not follow that she will make a fortune. Lovely creatures may be found there, and full of wit, who are in wretched circumstances, ending in misery a life begun in pleasure. And this is why. It is not enough merely to accept the shameful life of a courtesan with a view to earning its profits, and at the same time to bear the simple garb of a respectable middle-class wife. Vice does not triumph so easily; it resembles genius in so far that they both need a concurrence of favorable conditions to develop the coalition of fortune and gifts. Eliminate the strange prologue of the Revolution, and the Emperor would never have existed; he would have been no more than a second edition of Fabert. Venal beauty, if it finds no amateurs, no celebrity, no cross of dishonor earned by squandering men's fortunes, is Correggio in a hay-loft, is genius starving in a garret. Lais, in Paris, must first and foremost find a rich man mad enough to pay her price. She must keep up a very elegant style, for this is her shop-sign; she must be sufficiently well bred to flatter the vanity of her lovers; she must have the brilliant wit of a Sophie Arnould, which diverts the apathy of rich men; finally, she must arouse the passions of libertines by appearing to be mistress to one man only who is envied by the rest.

These conditions, which a woman of that class calls being in luck, are difficult to combine in Paris, although it is a city of millionaires, of idlers, of used-up and capricious men.

Providence has, no doubt, vouchsafed protection to clerks and middle-class citizens, for whom obstacles of this kind are at least double in the sphere in which they move. At the same time, there are enough Madame Marneffes in Paris to allow of our taking Valerie to figure as a type in this picture of manners. Some of these women yield to the double pressure of a genuine passion and of hard necessity, like Madame Colleville, who was for long attached to one of the famous orators of the left, Keller the banker. Others are spurred by vanity, like Madame de la Baudraye, who remained almost respectable in spite of her elopement with Lousteau. Some, again, are led astray by the love of fine clothes, and some by the impossibility of keeping a house going on obviously too narrow means. The stinginess of the State—or of Parliament—leads to many disasters and to much corruption.

At the present moment the laboring classes are the fashionable object of compassion; they are being murdered—it is said—by the manufacturing capitalist; but the Government is a hundred times harder than the meanest tradesman, it carries its economy in the article of salaries to absolute folly. If you work harder, the merchant will pay you more in proportion; but what does the State do for its crowd of obscure and devoted toilers?

In a married woman it is an inexcusable crime when she wanders from the path of honor; still, there are degrees even in such a case. Some women, far from being depraved, conceal their fall and remain to all appearances quite respectable, like those two just referred to, while others add to their fault the disgrace of speculation. Thus Madame Marneffe is, as it were, the type of those ambitious married courtesans who from the first accept depravity with all its consequences, and determine to make a fortune while taking their pleasure, perfectly unscrupulous as to the means. But almost always a woman like Madame Marneffe has a husband who is her confederate and accomplice. These Machiavellis in petticoats are the most dangerous of the sisterhood; of every evil class of Parisian woman, they are the worst.

A mere courtesan—a Josepha, a Malaga, a Madame Schontz, a Jenny Cadine—carries in her frank dishonor a warning signal as conspicuous as the red lamp of a house of ill-fame or the flaring lights of a gambling hell. A man knows that they light him to his ruin.

But mealy-mouthed propriety, the semblance of virtue, the hypocritical ways of a married woman who never allows anything to be seen but the vulgar needs of the household, and affects to refuse every kind of extravagance, leads to silent ruin, dumb disaster, which is all the more startling because, though condoned, it remains unaccounted for. It is the ignoble bill of daily expenses and not gay dissipation that devours the largest fortune. The father of a family ruins himself ingloriously, and the great consolation of gratified vanity is wanting in his misery.

This little sermon will go like a javelin to the heart of many a home. Madame Marneffes are to be seen in every sphere of social life, even at Court; for Valerie is a melancholy fact, modeled from the life in the smallest details. And, alas! the portrait will not cure any man of the folly of loving these sweetly-smiling angels, with pensive looks and candid faces, whose heart is a cash-box.

About three years after Hortense's marriage, in 1841, Baron Hulot d'Ervy was supposed to have sown his wild oats, to have "put up his horses," to quote the expression used by Louis XV.'s head surgeon, and yet Madame Marneffe was costing him twice as much as Josepha had ever cost him. Still, Valerie, though always nicely dressed, affected the simplicity of a subordinate official's wife; she kept her luxury for her dressing-gowns, her home wear. She thus sacrificed her Parisian vanity to her dear Hector. At the theatre, however, she always appeared in a pretty bonnet and a dress of extreme elegance; and the Baron took her in a carriage to a private box.

Her rooms, the whole of the second floor of a modern house in the Rue Vanneau, between a fore-court and a garden, was redolent of respectability. All its luxury was in good chintz hangings and handsome convenient furniture.

Her bedroom, indeed, was the exception, and rich with such profusion as Jenny Cadine or Madame Schontz might have displayed. There were lace curtains, cashmere hangings, brocade portieres, a set of chimney ornaments modeled by Stidmann, a glass cabinet filled with dainty nicknacks. Hulot could not bear to see his Valerie in a bower of inferior magnificence to the dunghill of gold and pearls owned by a Josepha. The drawing-room was furnished with red damask, and the dining-room had carved oak panels. But the Baron, carried away by his wish to have everything in keeping, had at the end of six months, added solid luxury to mere fashion, and had given her handsome portable property, as, for instance, a service of plate that was to cost more than twenty-four thousand francs.

Madame Marneffe's house had in a couple of years achieved a reputation for being a very pleasant one. Gambling went on there. Valerie herself was soon spoken of as an agreeable and witty woman. To account for her change of style, a rumor was set going of an immense legacy bequeathed to her by her "natural father," Marshal Montcornet, and left in trust.

With an eye to the future, Valerie had added religious to social hypocrisy. Punctual at the Sunday services, she enjoyed all the honors due to the pious. She carried the bag for the offertory, she was a member of a charitable association, presented bread for the sacrament, and did some good among the poor, all at Hector's expense. Thus everything about the house was extremely seemly. And a great many persons maintained that her friendship with the Baron was entirely innocent, supporting the view by the gentleman's mature age, and ascribing to him a Platonic liking for Madame Marneffe's pleasant wit, charming manners, and conversation—such a liking as that of the late lamented Louis XVIII. for a well-turned note.

The Baron always withdrew with the other company at about midnight, and came back a quarter of an hour later.

The secret of this secrecy was as follows. The lodge-keepers of the house were a Monsieur and Madame Olivier, who, under the Baron's patronage, had been promoted from their humble and not very lucrative post in the Rue du Doyenne to the highly-paid and handsome one in the Rue Vanneau. Now, Madame Olivier, formerly a needlewoman in the household of Charles X., who had fallen in the world with the legitimate branch, had three children. The eldest, an under-clerk in a notary's office, was object of his parents' adoration. This Benjamin, for six years in danger of being drawn for the army, was on the point of being interrupted in his legal career, when Madame Marneffe contrived to have him declared exempt for one of those little malformations which the Examining Board can always discern when requested in a whisper by some power in the ministry. So Olivier, formerly a huntsman to the King, and his wife would have crucified the Lord again for the Baron or for Madame Marneffe.

What could the world have to say? It knew nothing of the former episode of the Brazilian, Monsieur Montes de Montejanos—it could say nothing. Besides, the world is very indulgent to the mistress of a house where amusement is to be found.

And then to all her charms Valerie added the highly-prized advantage of being an occult power. Claude Vignon, now secretary to Marshal the Prince de Wissembourg, and dreaming of promotion to the Council of State as a Master of Appeals, was constantly seen in her rooms, to which came also some Deputies—good fellows and gamblers. Madame Marneffe had got her circle together with prudent deliberation; only men whose opinions and habits agreed foregathered there, men whose interest it was to hold together and to proclaim the many merits of the lady of the house. Scandal is the true Holy Alliance in Paris. Take that as an axiom. Interests invariably fall asunder in the end; vicious natures can always agree.

Within three months of settling in the Rue Vanneau, Madame Marneffe had entertained Monsieur Crevel, who by that time was Mayor of his arrondissement and Officer of the Legion of Honor. Crevel had hesitated; he would have to give up the famous uniform of the National Guard in which he strutted at the Tuileries, believing himself quite as much a soldier as the Emperor himself; but ambition, urged by Madame Marneffe, had proved stronger than vanity. Then Monsieur le Maire had considered his connection with Mademoiselle Heloise Brisetout as quite incompatible with his political position.

Indeed, long before his accession to the civic chair of the Mayoralty, his gallant intimacies had been wrapped in the deepest mystery. But, as the reader may have guessed, Crevel had soon purchased the right of taking his revenge, as often as circumstances allowed, for having been bereft of Josepha, at the cost of a bond bearing six thousand francs of interest in the name of Valerie Fortin, wife of Sieur Marneffe, for her sole and separate use. Valerie, inheriting perhaps from her mother the special acumen of the kept woman, read the character of her grotesque adorer at a glance. The phrase "I never had a lady for a mistress," spoken by Crevel to Lisbeth, and repeated by Lisbeth to her dear Valerie, had been handsomely discounted in the bargain by which she got her six thousand francs a year in five per cents. And since then she had never allowed her prestige to grow less in the eyes of Cesar Birotteau's erewhile bagman.

Crevel himself had married for money the daughter of a miller of la Brie, an only child indeed, whose inheritance constituted three-quarters of his fortune; for when retail-dealers grow rich, it is generally not so much by trade as through some alliance between the shop and rural thrift. A large proportion of the farmers, corn-factors, dairy-keepers, and market-gardeners in the neighborhood of Paris, dream of the glories of the desk for their daughters, and look upon a shopkeeper, a jeweler, or a money-changer as a son-in-law after their own heart, in preference to a notary or an attorney, whose superior social position is a ground of suspicion; they are afraid of being scorned in the future by these citizen bigwigs.

Madame Crevel, ugly, vulgar, and silly, had given her husband no pleasures but those of paternity; she died young. Her libertine husband, fettered at the beginning of his commercial career by the necessity for working, and held in thrall by want of money, had led the life of Tantalus. Thrown in—as he phrased it—with the most elegant women in Paris, he let them out of the shop with servile homage, while admiring their grace, their way of wearing the fashions, and all the nameless charms of what is called breeding. To rise to the level of one of these fairies of the drawing-room was a desire formed in his youth, but buried in the depths of his heart. Thus to win the favors of Madame Marneffe was to him not merely the realization of his chimera, but, as has been shown, a point of pride, of vanity, of self-satisfaction. His ambition grew with success; his brain was turned with elation; and when the mind is captivated, the heart feels more keenly, every gratification is doubled.

Also, it must be said that Madame Marneffe offered to Crevel a refinement of pleasure of which he had no idea; neither Josepha nor Heloise had loved him; and Madame Marneffe thought it necessary to deceive him thoroughly, for this man, she saw, would prove an inexhaustible till. The deceptions of a venal passion are more delightful than the real thing. True love is mixed up with birdlike squabbles, in which the disputants wound each other to the quick; but a quarrel without animus is, on the contrary, a piece of flattery to the dupe's conceit.

The rare interviews granted to Crevel kept his passion at white heat. He was constantly blocked by Valerie's virtuous severity; she acted remorse, and wondered what her father must be thinking of her in the paradise of the brave. Again and again he had to contend with a sort of coldness, which the cunning slut made him believe he had overcome by seeming to surrender to the man's crazy passion; and then, as if ashamed, she entrenched herself once more in her pride of respectability and airs of virtue, just like an Englishwoman, neither more nor less; and she always crushed her Crevel under the weight of her dignity—for Crevel had, in the first instance, swallowed her pretensions to virtue.

In short, Valerie had special veins of affections which made her equally indispensable to Crevel and to the Baron. Before the world she displayed the attractive combination of modest and pensive innocence, of irreproachable propriety, with a bright humor enhanced by the suppleness, the grace and softness of the Creole; but in a tete-a-tete she would outdo any courtesan; she was audacious, amusing, and full of original inventiveness. Such a contrast is irresistible to a man of the Crevel type; he is flattered by believing himself sole author of the comedy, thinking it is performed for his benefit alone, and he laughs at the exquisite hypocrisy while admiring the hypocrite.

Valerie had taken entire possession of Baron Hulot; she had persuaded him to grow old by one of those subtle touches of flattery which reveal the diabolical wit of women like her. In all evergreen constitutions a moment arrives when the truth suddenly comes out, as in a besieged town which puts a good face on affairs as long as possible. Valerie, foreseeing the approaching collapse of the old beau of the Empire, determined to forestall it.

"Why give yourself so much bother, my dear old veteran?" said she one day, six months after their doubly adulterous union. "Do you want to be flirting? To be unfaithful to me? I assure you, I should like you better without your make-up. Oblige me by giving up all your artificial charms. Do you suppose that it is for two sous' worth of polish on your boots that I love you? For your india-rubber belt, your strait-waistcoat, and your false hair? And then, the older you look, the less need I fear seeing my Hulot carried off by a rival."

And Hulot, trusting to Madame Marneffe's heavenly friendship as much as to her love, intending, too, to end his days with her, had taken this confidential hint, and ceased to dye his whiskers and hair. After this touching declaration from his Valerie, handsome Hector made his appearance one morning perfectly white. Madame Marneffe could assure him that she had a hundred times detected the white line of the growth of the hair.

"And white hair suits your face to perfection," said she; "it softens it. You look a thousand times better, quite charming."

The Baron, once started on this path of reform, gave up his leather waistcoat and stays; he threw off all his bracing. His stomach fell and increased in size. The oak became a tower, and the heaviness of his movements was all the more alarming because the Baron grew immensely older by playing the part of Louis XII. His eyebrows were still black, and left a ghostly reminiscence of Handsome Hulot, as sometimes on the wall of some feudal building a faint trace of sculpture remains to show what the castle was in the days of its glory. This discordant detail made his eyes, still bright and youthful, all the more remarkable in his tanned face, because it had so long been ruddy with the florid hues of a Rubens; and now a certain discoloration and the deep tension of the wrinkles betrayed the efforts of a passion at odds with natural decay. Hulot was now one of those stalwart ruins in which virile force asserts itself by tufts of hair in the ears and nostrils and on the fingers, as moss grows on the almost eternal monuments of the Roman Empire.

How had Valerie contrived to keep Crevel and Hulot side by side, each tied to an apron-string, when the vindictive Mayor only longed to triumph openly over Hulot? Without immediately giving an answer to this question, which the course of the story will supply, it may be said that Lisbeth and Valerie had contrived a powerful piece of machinery which tended to this result. Marneffe, as he saw his wife improved in beauty by the setting in which she was enthroned, like the sun at the centre of the sidereal system, appeared, in the eyes of the world, to have fallen in love with her again himself; he was quite crazy about her. Now, though his jealousy made him somewhat of a marplot, it gave enhanced value to Valerie's favors. Marneffe meanwhile showed a blind confidence in his chief, which degenerated into ridiculous complaisance. The only person whom he really would not stand was Crevel.

Marneffe, wrecked by the debauchery of great cities, described by Roman authors, though modern decency has no name for it, was as hideous as an anatomical figure in wax. But this disease on feet, clothed in good broadcloth, encased his lathlike legs in elegant trousers. The hollow chest was scented with fine linen, and musk disguised the odors of rotten humanity. This hideous specimen of decaying vice, trotting in red heels—for Valerie dressed the man as beseemed his income, his cross, and his appointment—horrified Crevel, who could not meet the colorless eyes of the Government clerk. Marneffe was an incubus to the Mayor. And the mean rascal, aware of the strange power conferred on him by Lisbeth and his wife, was amused by it; he played on it as on an instrument; and cards being the last resource of a mind as completely played out as the body, he plucked Crevel again and again, the Mayor thinking himself bound to subserviency to the worthy official whom he was cheating.

Seeing Crevel a mere child in the hands of that hideous and atrocious mummy, of whose utter vileness the Mayor knew nothing; and seeing him, yet more, an object of deep contempt to Valerie, who made game of Crevel as of some mountebank, the Baron apparently thought him so impossible as a rival that he constantly invited him to dinner.

Valerie, protected by two lovers on guard, and by a jealous husband, attracted every eye, and excited every desire in the circle she shone upon. And thus, while keeping up appearances, she had, in the course of three years, achieved the most difficult conditions of the success a courtesan most cares for and most rarely attains, even with the help of audacity and the glitter of an existence in the light of the sun. Valerie's beauty, formerly buried in the mud of the Rue du Doyenne, now, like a well-cut diamond exquisitely set by Chanor, was worth more than its real value—it could break hearts. Claude Vignon adored Valerie in secret.