Cousin Betty/Section 3

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Cousin Betty by Honoré de Balzac, translated by James Waring
Section 3

Lisbeth Fischer, though the daughter of the eldest of the three brothers, was five years younger than Madame Hulot; she was far from being as handsome as her cousin, and had been desperately jealous of Adeline. Jealousy was the fundamental passion of this character, marked by eccentricities—a word invented by the English to describe the craziness not of the asylum, but of respectable households. A native of the Vosges, a peasant in the fullest sense of the word, lean, brown, with shining black hair and thick eyebrows joining in a tuft, with long, strong arms, thick feet, and some moles on her narrow simian face—such is a brief description of the elderly virgin.

The family, living all under one roof, had sacrificed the common-looking girl to the beauty, the bitter fruit to the splendid flower. Lisbeth worked in the fields, while her cousin was indulged; and one day, when they were alone together, she had tried to destroy Adeline's nose, a truly Greek nose, which the old mothers admired. Though she was beaten for this misdeed, she persisted nevertheless in tearing the favorite's gowns and crumpling her collars.

At the time of Adeline's wonderful marriage, Lisbeth had bowed to fate, as Napoleon's brothers and sisters bowed before the splendor of the throne and the force of authority.

Adeline, who was extremely sweet and kind, remembered Lisbeth when she found herself in Paris, and invited her there in 1809, intending to rescue her from poverty by finding her a husband. But seeing that it was impossible to marry the girl out of hand, with her black eyes and sooty brows, unable, too, to read or write, the Baron began by apprenticing her to a business; he placed her as a learner with the embroiderers to the Imperial Court, the well-known Pons Brothers.

Lisbeth, called Betty for short, having learned to embroider in gold and silver, and possessing all the energy of a mountain race, had determination enough to learn to read, write, and keep accounts; for her cousin the Baron had pointed out the necessity for these accomplishments if she hoped to set up in business as an embroiderer.

She was bent on making a fortune; in two years she was another creature. In 1811 the peasant woman had become a very presentable, skilled, and intelligent forewoman.

Her department, that of gold and silver lace-work, as it is called, included epaulettes, sword-knots, aiguillettes; in short, the immense mass of glittering ornaments that sparkled on the rich uniforms of the French army and civil officials. The Emperor, a true Italian in his love of dress, had overlaid the coats of all his servants with silver and gold, and the Empire included a hundred and thirty-three Departments. These ornaments, usually supplied to tailors who were solvent and wealthy paymasters, were a very secure branch of trade.

Just when Cousin Betty, the best hand in the house of Pons Brothers, where she was forewoman of the embroidery department, might have set up in business on her own account, the Empire collapsed. The olive-branch of peace held out by the Bourbons did not reassure Lisbeth; she feared a diminution of this branch of trade, since henceforth there were to be but eighty-six Departments to plunder, instead of a hundred and thirty-three, to say nothing of the immense reduction of the army. Utterly scared by the ups and downs of industry, she refused the Baron's offers of help, and he thought she must be mad. She confirmed this opinion by quarreling with Monsieur Rivet, who bought the business of Pons Brothers, and with whom the Baron wished to place her in partnership; she would be no more than a workwoman. Thus the Fischer family had relapsed into the precarious mediocrity from which Baron Hulot had raised it.

The three brothers Fischer, who had been ruined by the abdication at Fontainebleau, in despair joined the irregular troops in 1815. The eldest, Lisbeth's father, was killed. Adeline's father, sentenced to death by court-martial, fled to Germany, and died at Treves in 1820. Johann, the youngest, came to Paris, a petitioner to the queen of the family, who was said to dine off gold and silver plate, and never to be seen at a party but with diamonds in her hair as big as hazel-nuts, given to her by the Emperor.

Johann Fischer, then aged forty-three, obtained from Baron Hulot a capital of ten thousand francs with which to start a small business as forage-dealer at Versailles, under the patronage of the War Office, through the influence of the friends still in office, of the late Commissary-General.

These family catastrophes, Baron Hulot's dismissal, and the knowledge that he was a mere cipher in that immense stir of men and interests and things which makes Paris at once a paradise and a hell, quite quelled Lisbeth Fischer. She gave up all idea of rivalry and comparison with her cousin after feeling her great superiority; but envy still lurked in her heart, like a plague-germ that may hatch and devastate a city if the fatal bale of wool is opened in which it is concealed.

Now and again, indeed, she said to herself:

"Adeline and I are the same flesh and blood, our fathers were brothers—and she is in a mansion, while I am in a garret."

But every New Year Lisbeth had presents from the Baron and Baroness; the Baron, who was always good to her, paid for her firewood in the winter; old General Hulot had her to dinner once a week; and there was always a cover laid for her at her cousin's table. They laughed at her no doubt, but they never were ashamed to own her. In short, they had made her independent in Paris, where she lived as she pleased.

The old maid had, in fact, a terror of any kind of tie. Her cousin had offered her a room in her own house—Lisbeth suspected the halter of domestic servitude; several times the Baron had found a solution of the difficult problem of her marriage; but though tempted in the first instance, she would presently decline, fearing lest she should be scorned for her want of education, her general ignorance, and her poverty; finally, when the Baroness suggested that she should live with their uncle Johann, and keep house for him, instead of the upper servant, who must cost him dear, Lisbeth replied that that was the very last way she should think of marrying.

Lisbeth Fischer had the sort of strangeness in her ideas which is often noticeable in characters that have developed late, in savages, who think much and speak little. Her peasant's wit had acquired a good deal of Parisian asperity from hearing the talk of workshops and mixing with workmen and workwomen. She, whose character had a marked resemblance to that of the Corsicans, worked upon without fruition by the instincts of a strong nature, would have liked to be the protectress of a weak man; but, as a result of living in the capital, the capital had altered her superficially. Parisian polish became rust on this coarsely tempered soul. Gifted with a cunning which had become unfathomable, as it always does in those whose celibacy is genuine, with the originality and sharpness with which she clothed her ideas, in any other position she would have been formidable. Full of spite, she was capable of bringing discord into the most united family.

In early days, when she indulged in certain secret hopes which she confided to none, she took to wearing stays, and dressing in the fashion, and so shone in splendor for a short time, that the Baron thought her marriageable. Lisbeth at that stage was the piquante brunette of old-fashioned novels. Her piercing glance, her olive skin, her reed-like figure, might invite a half-pay major; but she was satisfied, she would say laughing, with her own admiration.

And, indeed, she found her life pleasant enough when she had freed it from practical anxieties, for she dined out every evening after working hard from sunrise. Thus she had only her rent and her midday meal to provide for; she had most of her clothes given her, and a variety of very acceptable stores, such as coffee, sugar, wine, and so forth.

In 1837, after living for twenty-seven years, half maintained by the Hulots and her Uncle Fischer, Cousin Betty, resigned to being nobody, allowed herself to be treated so. She herself refused to appear at any grand dinners, preferring the family party, where she held her own and was spared all slights to her pride.

Wherever she went—at General Hulot's, at Crevel's, at the house of the young Hulots, or at Rivet's (Pons' successor, with whom she made up her quarrel, and who made much of her), and at the Baroness' table—she was treated as one of the family; in fact, she managed to make friends of the servants by making them an occasional small present, and always gossiping with them for a few minutes before going into the drawing-room. This familiarity, by which she uncompromisingly put herself on their level, conciliated their servile good-nature, which is indispensable to a parasite. "She is a good, steady woman," was everybody's verdict.

Her willingness to oblige, which knew no bounds when it was not demanded of her, was indeed, like her assumed bluntness, a necessity of her position. She had at length understood what her life must be, seeing that she was at everybody's mercy; and needing to please everybody, she would laugh with young people, who liked her for a sort of wheedling flattery which always wins them; guessing and taking part with their fancies, she would make herself their spokeswoman, and they thought her a delightful confidante, since she had no right to find fault with them.

Her absolute secrecy also won her the confidence of their seniors; for, like Ninon, she had certain manly qualities. As a rule, our confidence is given to those below rather than above us. We employ our inferiors rather than our betters in secret transactions, and they thus become the recipients of our inmost thoughts, and look on at our meditations; Richelieu thought he had achieved success when he was admitted to the Council. This penniless woman was supposed to be so dependent on every one about her, that she seemed doomed to perfect silence. She herself called herself the Family Confessional.

The Baroness only, remembering her ill-usage in childhood by the cousin who, though younger, was stronger than herself, never wholly trusted her. Besides, out of sheer modesty, she would never have told her domestic sorrows to any one but God.

It may here be well to add that the Baron's house preserved all its magnificence in the eyes of Lisbeth Fischer, who was not struck, as the parvenu perfumer had been, with the penury stamped on the shabby chairs, the dirty hangings, and the ripped silk. The furniture we live with is in some sort like our own person; seeing ourselves every day, we end, like the Baron, by thinking ourselves but little altered, and still youthful, when others see that our head is covered with chinchilla, our forehead scarred with circumflex accents, our stomach assuming the rotundity of a pumpkin. So these rooms, always blazing in Betty's eyes with the Bengal fire of Imperial victory, were to her perennially splendid.

As time went on, Lisbeth had contracted some rather strange old-maidish habits. For instance, instead of following the fashions, she expected the fashion to accept her ways and yield to her always out-of-date notions. When the Baroness gave her a pretty new bonnet, or a gown in the fashion of the day, Betty remade it completely at home, and spoilt it by producing a dress of the style of the Empire or of her old Lorraine costume. A thirty-franc bonnet came out a rag, and the gown a disgrace. On this point, Lisbeth was as obstinate as a mule; she would please no one but herself and believed herself charming; whereas this assimilative process—harmonious, no doubt, in so far as that it stamped her for an old maid from head to foot—made her so ridiculous, that, with the best will in the world, no one could admit her on any smart occasion.

This refractory, capricious, and independent spirit, and the inexplicable wild shyness of the woman for whom the Baron had four times found a match—an employe in his office, a retired major, an army contractor, and a half-pay captain—while she had refused an army lacemaker, who had since made his fortune, had won her the name of the Nanny Goat, which the Baron gave her in jest. But this nickname only met the peculiarities that lay on the surface, the eccentricities which each of us displays to his neighbors in social life. This woman, who, if closely studied, would have shown the most savage traits of the peasant class, was still the girl who had clawed her cousin's nose, and who, if she had not been trained to reason, would perhaps have killed her in a fit of jealousy.

It was only her knowledge of the laws and of the world that enabled her to control the swift instinct with which country folk, like wild men, reduce impulse to action. In this alone, perhaps, lies the difference between natural and civilized man. The savage has only impulse; the civilized man has impulses and ideas. And in the savage the brain retains, as we may say, but few impressions, it is wholly at the mercy of the feeling that rushes in upon it; while in the civilized man, ideas sink into the heart and change it; he has a thousand interests and many feelings, where the savage has but one at a time. This is the cause of the transient ascendency of a child over its parents, which ceases as soon as it is satisfied; in the man who is still one with nature, this contrast is constant. Cousin Betty, a savage of Lorraine, somewhat treacherous too, was of this class of natures, which are commoner among the lower orders than is supposed, accounting for the conduct of the populace during revolutions.