Cousin Betty/Section 25

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Cousin Betty by Honoré de Balzac, translated by James Waring
Section 25

Valerie, informed the same evening of this success, insisted that Hulot should go to invite Stidmann, Claude Vignon, and Steinbock to dinner; for she was beginning to tyrannize over him as women of that type tyrannize over old men, who trot round town, and go to make interest with every one who is necessary to the interests or the vanity of their task-mistress.

Next evening Valerie armed herself for conquest by making such a toilet as a Frenchwoman can devise when she wishes to make the most of herself. She studied her appearance in this great work as a man going out to fight a duel practises his feints and lunges. Not a speck, not a wrinkle was to be seen. Valerie was at her whitest, her softest, her sweetest. And certain little "patches" attracted the eye.

It is commonly supposed that the patch of the eighteenth century is out of date or out of fashion; that is a mistake. In these days women, more ingenious perhaps than of yore, invite a glance through the opera-glass by other audacious devices. One is the first to hit on a rosette in her hair with a diamond in the centre, and she attracts every eye for a whole evening; another revives the hair-net, or sticks a dagger through the twist to suggest a garter; this one wears velvet bands round her wrists, that one appears in lace lippets. These valiant efforts, an Austerlitz of vanity or of love, then set the fashion for lower spheres by the time the inventive creatress has originated something new. This evening, which Valerie meant to be a success for her, she had placed three patches. She had washed her hair with some lye, which changed its hue for a few days from a gold color to a duller shade. Madame Steinbock's was almost red, and she would be in every point unlike her. This new effect gave her a piquant and strange appearance, which puzzled her followers so much, that Montes asked her:

"What have you done to yourself this evening?"—Then she put on a rather wide black velvet neck-ribbon, which showed off the whiteness of her skin. One patch took the place of the assassine of our grandmothers. And Valerie pinned the sweetest rosebud into her bodice, just in the middle above the stay-busk, and in the daintiest little hollow! It was enough to make every man under thirty drop his eyelids.

"I am as sweet as a sugar-plum," said she to herself, going through her attitudes before the glass, exactly as a dancer practises her curtesies.

Lisbeth had been to market, and the dinner was to be one of those superfine meals which Mathurine had been wont to cook for her Bishop when he entertained the prelate of the adjoining diocese.

Stidmann, Claude Vignon, and Count Steinbock arrived almost together, just at six. An ordinary, or, if you will, a natural woman would have hastened at the announcement of a name so eagerly longed for; but Valerie, though ready since five o'clock, remained in her room, leaving her three guests together, certain that she was the subject of their conversation or of their secret thoughts. She herself had arranged the drawing-room, laying out the pretty trifles produced in Paris and nowhere else, which reveal the woman and announce her presence: albums bound in enamel or embroidered with beads, saucers full of pretty rings, marvels of Sevres or Dresden mounted exquisitely by Florent and Chanor, statues, books, all the frivolities which cost insane sums, and which passion orders of the makers in its first delirium—or to patch up its last quarrel.

Besides, Valerie was in the state of intoxication that comes of triumph. She had promised to marry Crevel if Marneffe should die; and the amorous Crevel had transferred to the name of Valerie Fortin bonds bearing ten thousand francs a year, the sum-total of what he had made in railway speculations during the past three years, the returns on the capital of a hundred thousand crowns which he had at first offered to the Baronne Hulot. So Valerie now had an income of thirty-two thousand francs.

Crevel had just committed himself to a promise of far greater magnitude than this gift of his surplus. In the paroxysm of rapture which his Duchess had given him from two to four—he gave this fine title to Madame de Marneffe to complete the illusion—for Valerie had surpassed herself in the Rue du Dauphin that afternoon, he had thought well to encourage her in her promised fidelity by giving her the prospect of a certain little mansion, built in the Rue Barbette by an imprudent contractor, who now wanted to sell it. Valerie could already see herself in this delightful residence, with a fore-court and a garden, and keeping a carriage!

"What respectable life can ever procure so much in so short a time, or so easily?" said she to Lisbeth as she finished dressing. Lisbeth was to dine with Valerie that evening, to tell Steinbock those things about the lady which nobody can say about herself.

Madame Marneffe, radiant with satisfaction, came into the drawing-room with modest grace, followed by Lisbeth dressed in black and yellow to set her off.

"Good-evening, Claude," said she, giving her hand to the famous old critic.

Claude Vignon, like many another, had become a political personage—a word describing an ambitious man at the first stage of his career. The political personage of 1840 represents, in some degree, the Abbe of the eighteenth century. No drawing-room circle is complete without one.

"My dear, this is my cousin, Count Steinbock," said Lisbeth, introducing Wenceslas, whom Valerie seemed to have overlooked.

"Oh yes, I recognized Monsieur le Comte," replied Valerie with a gracious bow to the artist. "I often saw you in the Rue du Doyenne, and I had the pleasure of being present at your wedding.—It would be difficult, my dear," said she to Lisbeth, "to forget your adopted son after once seeing him.—It is most kind of you, Monsieur Stidmann," she went on, "to have accepted my invitation at such short notice; but necessity knows no law. I knew you to be the friend of both these gentlemen. Nothing is more dreary, more sulky, than a dinner where all the guests are strangers, so it was for their sake that I hailed you in—but you will come another time for mine, I hope?—Say that you will."

And for a few minutes she moved about the room with Stidmann, wholly occupied with him.

Crevel and Hulot were announced separately, and then a deputy named Beauvisage.

This individual, a provincial Crevel, one of the men created to make up the crowd in the world, voted under the banner of Giraud, a State Councillor, and Victorin Hulot. These two politicians were trying to form a nucleus of progressives in the loose array of the Conservative Party. Giraud himself occasionally spent the evening at Madame Marneffe's, and she flattered herself that she should also capture Victorin Hulot; but the puritanical lawyer had hitherto found excuses for refusing to accompany his father and father-in-law. It seemed to him criminal to be seen in the house of the woman who cost his mother so many tears. Victorin Hulot was to the puritans of political life what a pious woman is among bigots.

Beauvisage, formerly a stocking manufacturer at Arcis, was anxious to pick up the Paris style. This man, one of the outer stones of the Chamber, was forming himself under the auspices of this delicious and fascinating Madame Marneffe. Introduced here by Crevel, he had accepted him, at her instigation, as his model and master. He consulted him on every point, took the address of his tailor, imitated him, and tried to strike the same attitudes. In short, Crevel was his Great Man.

Valerie, surrounded by these bigwigs and the three artists, and supported by Lisbeth, struck Wenceslas as a really superior woman, all the more so because Claude Vignon spoke of her like a man in love.

"She is Madame de Maintenon in Ninon's petticoats!" said the veteran critic. "You may please her in an evening if you have the wit; but as for making her love you—that would be a triumph to crown a man's ambition and fill up his life."

Valerie, while seeming cold and heedless of her former neighbor, piqued his vanity, quite unconsciously indeed, for she knew nothing of the Polish character. There is in the Slav a childish element, as there is in all these primitively wild nations which have overflowed into civilization rather than that they have become civilized. The race has spread like an inundation, and has covered a large portion of the globe. It inhabits deserts whose extent is so vast that it expands at its ease; there is no jostling there, as there is in Europe, and civilization is impossible without the constant friction of minds and interests. The Ukraine, Russia, the plains by the Danube, in short, the Slav nations, are a connecting link between Europe and Asia, between civilization and barbarism. Thus the Pole, the wealthiest member of the Slav family, has in his character all the childishness and inconsistency of a beardless race. He has courage, spirit, and strength; but, cursed with instability, that courage, strength, and energy have neither method nor guidance; for the Pole displays a variability resembling that of the winds which blow across that vast plain broken with swamps; and though he has the impetuosity of the snow squalls that wrench and sweep away buildings, like those aerial avalanches he is lost in the first pool and melts into water. Man always assimilates something from the surroundings in which he lives. Perpetually at strife with the Turk, the Pole has imbibed a taste for Oriental splendor; he often sacrifices what is needful for the sake of display. The men dress themselves out like women, yet the climate has given them the tough constitution of Arabs.

The Pole, sublime in suffering, has tired his oppressors' arms by sheer endurance of beating; and, in the nineteenth century, has reproduced the spectacle presented by the early Christians. Infuse only ten per cent of English cautiousness into the frank and open Polish nature, and the magnanimous white eagle would at this day be supreme wherever the two-headed eagle has sneaked in. A little Machiavelism would have hindered Poland from helping to save Austria, who has taken a share of it; from borrowing from Prussia, the usurer who had undermined it; and from breaking up as soon as a division was first made.

At the christening of Poland, no doubt, the Fairy Carabosse, overlooked by the genii who endowed that attractive people with the most brilliant gifts, came in to say:

"Keep all the gifts that my sisters have bestowed on you; but you shall never know what you wish for!"

If, in its heroic duel with Russia, Poland had won the day, the Poles would now be fighting among themselves, as they formerly fought in their Diets to hinder each other from being chosen King. When that nation, composed entirely of hot-headed dare-devils, has good sense enough to seek a Louis XI. among her own offspring, to accept his despotism and a dynasty, she will be saved.

What Poland has been politically, almost every Pole is in private life, especially under the stress of disaster. Thus Wenceslas Steinbock, after worshiping his wife for three years and knowing that he was a god to her, was so much nettled at finding himself barely noticed by Madame Marneffe, that he made it a point of honor to attract her attention. He compared Valerie with his wife and gave her the palm. Hortense was beautiful flesh, as Valerie had said to Lisbeth; but Madame Marneffe had spirit in her very shape, and the savor of vice.

Such devotion as Hortense's is a feeling which a husband takes as his due; the sense of the immense preciousness of such perfect love soon wears off, as a debtor, in the course of time, begins to fancy that the borrowed money is his own. This noble loyalty becomes the daily bread of the soul, and an infidelity is as tempting as a dainty. The woman who is scornful, and yet more the woman who is reputed dangerous, excites curiosity, as spices add flavor to good food. Indeed, the disdain so cleverly acted by Valerie was a novelty to Wenceslas, after three years of too easy enjoyment. Hortense was a wife; Valerie a mistress.

Many men desire to have two editions of the same work, though it is in fact a proof of inferiority when a man cannot make his mistress of his wife. Variety in this particular is a sign of weakness. Constancy will always be the real genius of love, the evidence of immense power—the power that makes the poet! A man ought to find every woman in his wife, as the squalid poets of the seventeenth century made their Manons figure as Iris and Chloe.

"Well," said Lisbeth to the Pole, as she beheld him fascinated, "what do you think of Valerie?"

"She is too charming," replied Wenceslas.

"You would not listen to me," said Betty. "Oh! my little Wenceslas, if you and I had never parted, you would have been that siren's lover; you might have married her when she was a widow, and you would have had her forty thousand francs a year——"

"Really?"

"Certainly," replied Lisbeth. "Now, take care of yourself; I warned you of the danger; do not singe your wings in the candle!—Come, give me your arm, dinner is served."

No language could be so thoroughly demoralizing as this; for if you show a Pole a precipice, he is bound to leap it. As a nation they have the very spirit of cavalry; they fancy they can ride down every obstacle and come out victorious. The spur applied by Lisbeth to Steinbock's vanity was intensified by the appearance of the dining-room, bright with handsome silver plate; the dinner was served with every refinement and extravagance of Parisian luxury.

"I should have done better to take Celimene," thought he to himself.

All through the dinner Hulot was charming; pleased to see his son-in-law at that table, and yet more happy in the prospect of a reconciliation with Valerie, whose fidelity he proposed to secure by the promise of Coquet's head-clerkship. Stidmann responded to the Baron's amiability by shafts of Parisian banter and an artist's high spirits. Steinbock would not allow himself to be eclipsed by his friend; he too was witty, said amusing things, made his mark, and was pleased with himself; Madame Marneffe smiled at him several times to show that she quite understood him.

The good meal and heady wines completed the work; Wenceslas was deep in what must be called the slough of dissipation. Excited by just a glass too much, he stretched himself on a settee after dinner, sunk in physical and mental ecstasy, which Madame Marneffe wrought to the highest pitch by coming to sit down by him—airy, scented, pretty enough to damn an angel. She bent over Wenceslas and almost touched his ear as she whispered to him:

"We cannot talk over business matters this evening, unless you will remain till the last. Between us—you, Lisbeth, and me—we can settle everything to suit you."

"Ah, Madame, you are an angel!" replied Wenceslas, also in a murmur. "I was a pretty fool not to listen to Lisbeth—"

"What did she say?"

"She declared, in the Rue du Doyenne, that you loved me!"

Madame Marneffe looked at him, seemed covered with confusion, and hastily left her seat. A young and pretty woman never rouses the hope of immediate success with impunity. This retreat, the impulse of a virtuous woman who is crushing a passion in the depths of her heart, was a thousand times more effective than the most reckless avowal. Desire was so thoroughly aroused in Wenceslas that he doubled his attentions to Valerie. A woman seen by all is a woman wished for. Hence the terrible power of actresses. Madame Marneffe, knowing that she was watched, behaved like an admired actress. She was quite charming, and her success was immense.

"I no longer wonder at my father-in-law's follies," said Steinbock to Lisbeth.

"If you say such things, Wenceslas, I shall to my dying day repent of having got you the loan of these ten thousand francs. Are you, like all these men," and she indicated the guests, "madly in love with that creature? Remember, you would be your father-in-law's rival. And think of the misery you would bring on Hortense."

"That is true," said Wenceslas. "Hortense is an angel; I should be a wretch."

"And one is enough in the family!" said Lisbeth.

"Artists ought never to marry!" exclaimed Steinbock.

"Ah! that is what I always told you in the Rue du Doyenne. Your groups, your statues, your great works, ought to be your children."

"What are you talking about?" Valerie asked, joining Lisbeth.—"Give us tea, Cousin."

Steinbock, with Polish vainglory, wanted to appear familiar with this drawing-room fairy. After defying Stidmann, Vignon, and Crevel with a look, he took Valerie's hand and forced her to sit down by him on the settee.

"You are rather too lordly, Count Steinbock," said she, resisting a little. But she laughed as she dropped on to the seat, not without arranging the rosebud pinned into her bodice.

"Alas! if I were really lordly," said he, "I should not be here to borrow money."

"Poor boy! I remember how you worked all night in the Rue du Doyenne. You really were rather a spooney; you married as a starving man snatches a loaf. You knew nothing of Paris, and you see where you are landed. But you turned a deaf ear to Lisbeth's devotion, as you did to the love of a woman who knows her Paris by heart."

"Say no more!" cried Steinbock; "I am done for!"

"You shall have your ten thousand francs, my dear Wenceslas; but on one condition," she went on, playing with his handsome curls.

"What is that?"

"I will take no interest——"

"Madame!"

"Oh, you need not be indignant; you shall make it good by giving me a bronze group. You began the story of Samson; finish it.—Do a Delilah cutting off the Jewish Hercules' hair. And you, who, if you will listen to me, will be a great artist, must enter into the subject. What you have to show is the power of woman. Samson is a secondary consideration. He is the corpse of dead strength. It is Delilah—passion—that ruins everything. How far more beautiful is that replica—That is what you call it, I think—" She skilfully interpolated, as Claude Vignon and Stidmann came up to them on hearing her talk of sculpture—"how far more beautiful than the Greek myth is that replica of Hercules at Omphale's feet.—Did Greece copy Judaea, or did Judaea borrow the symbolism from Greece?"

"There, madame, you raise an important question—that of the date of the various writings in the Bible. The great and immortal Spinoza—most foolishly ranked as an atheist, whereas he gave mathematical proof of the existence of God—asserts that the Book of Genesis and all the political history of the Bible are of the time of Moses, and he demonstrates the interpolated passages by philological evidence. And he was thrice stabbed as he went into the synagogue."

"I had no idea I was so learned," said Valerie, annoyed at this interruption to her tete-a-tete.

"Women know everything by instinct," replied Claude Vignon.

"Well, then, you promise me?" she said to Steinbock, taking his hand with the timidity of a girl in love.

"You are indeed a happy man, my dear fellow," cried Stidmann, "if madame asks a favor of you!"

"What is it?" asked Claude Vignon.

"A small bronze group," replied Steinbock, "Delilah cutting off Samson's hair."

"It is difficult," remarked Vignon. "A bed——"

"On the contrary, it is exceedingly easy," replied Valerie, smiling.

"Ah ha! teach us sculpture!" said Stidmann.

"You should take madame for your subject," replied Vignon, with a keen glance at Valerie.

"Well," she went on, "this is my notion of the composition. Samson on waking finds he has no hair, like many a dandy with a false top-knot. The hero is sitting on the bed, so you need only show the foot of it, covered with hangings and drapery. There he is, like Marius among the ruins of Carthage, his arms folded, his head shaven—Napoleon at Saint-Helena—what you will! Delilah is on her knees, a good deal like Canova's Magdalen. When a hussy has ruined her man, she adores him. As I see it, the Jewess was afraid of Samson in his strength and terrors, but she must have loved him when she saw him a child again. So Delilah is bewailing her sin, she would like to give her lover his hair again. She hardly dares to look at him; but she does look, with a smile, for she reads forgiveness in Samson's weakness. Such a group as this, and one of the ferocious Judith, would epitomize woman. Virtue cuts off your head; vice only cuts off your hair. Take care of your wigs, gentlemen!"

And she left the artists quite overpowered, to sing her praises in concert with the critic.

"It is impossible to be more bewitching!" cried Stidmann.

"Oh! she is the most intelligent and desirable woman I have ever met," said Claude Vignon. "Such a combination of beauty and cleverness is so rare."

"And if you who had the honor of being intimate with Camille Maupin can pronounce such a verdict," replied Stidmann, "what are we to think?"

"If you will make your Delilah a portrait of Valerie, my dear Count," said Crevel, who had risen for a moment from the card-table, and who had heard what had been said, "I will give you a thousand crowns for an example—yes, by the Powers! I will shell out to the tune of a thousand crowns!"

"Shell out! What does that mean?" asked Beauvisage of Claude Vignon.

"Madame must do me the honor to sit for it then," said Steinbock to Crevel. "Ask her—"

At this moment Valerie herself brought Steinbock a cup of tea. This was more than a compliment, it was a favor. There is a complete language in the manner in which a woman does this little civility; but women are fully aware of the fact, and it is a curious thing to study their movements, their manner, their look, tone, and accent when they perform this apparently simple act of politeness.—From the question, "Do you take tea?"—"Will you have some tea?"—"A cup of tea?" coldly asked, and followed by instructions to the nymph of the urn to bring it, to the eloquent poem of the odalisque coming from the tea-table, cup in hand, towards the pasha of her heart, presenting it submissively, offering it in an insinuating voice, with a look full of intoxicating promises, a physiologist could deduce the whole scale of feminine emotion, from aversion or indifference to Phaedra's declaration to Hippolytus. Women can make it, at will, contemptuous to the verge of insult, or humble to the expression of Oriental servility.

And Valerie was more than woman; she was the serpent made woman; she crowned her diabolical work by going up to Steinbock, a cup of tea in her hand.

"I will drink as many cups of tea as you will give me," said the artist, murmuring in her ear as he rose, and touching her fingers with his, "to have them given to me thus!"

"What were you saying about sitting?" said she, without betraying that this declaration, so frantically desired, had gone straight to her heart.

"Old Crevel promises me a thousand crowns for a copy of your group."

"He! a thousand crowns for a bronze group?"

"Yes—if you will sit for Delilah," said Steinbock.

"He will not be there to see, I hope!" replied she. "The group would be worth more than all his fortune, for Delilah's costume is rather un-dressy."

Just as Crevel loved to strike an attitude, every woman has a victorious gesture, a studied movement, which she knows must win admiration. You may see in a drawing-room how one spends all her time looking down at her tucker or pulling up the shoulder-piece of her gown, how another makes play with the brightness of her eyes by glancing up at the cornice. Madame Marneffe's triumph, however, was not face to face like that of other women. She turned sharply round to return to Lisbeth at the tea-table. This ballet-dancer's pirouette, whisking her skirts, by which she had overthrown Hulot, now fascinated Steinbock.

"Your vengeance is secure," said Valerie to Lisbeth in a whisper. "Hortense will cry out all her tears, and curse the day when she robbed you of Wenceslas."

"Till I am Madame la Marechale I shall not think myself successful," replied the cousin; "but they are all beginning to wish for it.—This morning I went to Victorin's—I forgot to tell you.—The young Hulots have bought up their father's notes of hand given to Vauvinet, and to-morrow they will endorse a bill for seventy-two thousand francs at five per cent, payable in three years, and secured by a mortgage on their house. So the young people are in straits for three years; they can raise no more money on that property. Victorin is dreadfully distressed; he understands his father. And Crevel is capable of refusing to see them; he will be so angry at this piece of self-sacrifice."

"The Baron cannot have a sou now," said Valerie, and she smiled at Hulot.

"I don't see where he can get it. But he will draw his salary again in September."

"And he has his policy of insurance; he has renewed it. Come, it is high time he should get Marneffe promoted. I will drive it home this evening."

"My dear cousin," said Lisbeth to Wenceslas, "go home, I beg. You are quite ridiculous. Your eyes are fixed on Valerie in a way that is enough to compromise her, and her husband is insanely jealous. Do not tread in your father-in-law's footsteps. Go home; I am sure Hortense is sitting up for you."

"Madame Marneffe told me to stay till the last to settle my little business with you and her," replied Wenceslas.

"No, no," said Lisbeth; "I will bring you the ten thousand francs, for her husband has his eye on you. It would be rash to remain. To-morrow at eleven o'clock bring your note of hand; at that hour that mandarin Marneffe is at his office, Valerie is free.—Have you really asked her to sit for your group?—Come up to my rooms first.—Ah! I was sure of it," she added, as she caught the look which Steinbock flashed at Valerie, "I knew you were a profligate in the bud! Well, Valerie is lovely—but try not to bring trouble on Hortense."