Cousin Betty/Section 33
"What the devil can that worthy Baronne Hulot want of me?" Crevel wondered as he mounted the stairs. "She is going to discuss my quarrel with Celestine and Victorin, no doubt; but I will not give way!"
As he went into the drawing-room, shown in by Louise, he said to himself as he noted the bareness of the place (Crevel's word):
"Poor woman! She lives here like some fine picture stowed in a loft by a man who knows nothing of painting."
Crevel, seeing Comte Popinot, the Minister of Commerce, buy pictures and statues, wanted also to figure as a Maecenas of Paris, whose love of Art consists in making good investments.
Adeline smiled graciously at Crevel, pointing to a chair facing her.
"Here I am, fair lady, at your command," said Crevel.
Monsieur the Mayor, a political personage, now wore black broadcloth. His face, at the top of this solemn suit, shone like a full moon rising above a mass of dark clouds. His shirt, buttoned with three large pearls worth five hundred francs apiece, gave a great idea of his thoracic capacity, and he was apt to say, "In me you see the coming athlete of the tribune!" His enormous vulgar hands were encased in yellow gloves even in the morning; his patent leather boots spoke of the chocolate-colored coupe with one horse in which he drove.
In the course of three years ambition had altered Crevel's pretensions. Like all great artists, he had come to his second manner. In the great world, when he went to the Prince de Wissembourg's, to the Prefecture, to Comte Popinot's, and the like, he held his hat in his hand in an airy manner taught him by Valerie, and he inserted the thumb of the other hand in the armhole of his waistcoat with a knowing air, and a simpering face and expression. This new grace of attitude was due to the satirical inventiveness of Valerie, who, under pretence of rejuvenating her mayor, had given him an added touch of the ridiculous.
"I begged you to come, my dear kind Monsieur Crevel," said the Baroness in a husky voice, "on a matter of the greatest importance—"
"I can guess what it is, madame," said Crevel, with a knowing air, "but what you would ask is impossible.—Oh, I am not a brutal father, a man—to use Napoleon's words—set hard and fast on sheer avarice. Listen to me, fair lady. If my children were ruining themselves for their own benefit, I would help them out of the scrape; but as for backing your husband, madame? It is like trying to fill the vat of the Danaides! Their house is mortgaged for three hundred thousand francs for an incorrigible father! Why, they have nothing left, poor wretches! And they have no fun for their money. All they have to live upon is what Victorin may make in Court. He must wag his tongue more, must monsieur your son! And he was to have been a Minister, that learned youth! Our hope and pride. A pretty pilot, who runs aground like a land-lubber; for if he had borrowed to enable him to get on, if he had run into debt for feasting Deputies, winning votes, and increasing his influence, I should be the first to say, 'Here is my purse—dip your hand in, my friend!' But when it comes of paying for papa's folly—folly I warned you of!—Ah! his father has deprived him of every chance of power.—It is I who shall be Minister!"
"Alas, my dear Crevel, it has nothing to do with the children, poor devoted souls!—If your heart is closed to Victorin and Celestine, I shall love them so much that perhaps I may soften the bitterness of their souls caused by your anger. You are punishing your children for a good action!"
"Yes, for a good action badly done! That is half a crime," said Crevel, much pleased with his epigram.
"Doing good, my dear Crevel, does not mean sparing money out of a purse that is bursting with it; it means enduring privations to be generous, suffering for liberality! It is being prepared for ingratitude! Heaven does not see the charity that costs us nothing—"
"Saints, madame, may if they please go to the workhouse; they know that it is for them the door of heaven. For my part, I am worldly-minded; I fear God, but yet more I fear the hell of poverty. To be destitute is the last depth of misfortune in society as now constituted. I am a man of my time; I respect money."
"And you are right," said Adeline, "from the worldly point of view."
She was a thousand miles from her point, and she felt herself on a gridiron, like Saint Laurence, as she thought of her uncle, for she could see him blowing his brains out.
She looked down; then she raised her eyes to gaze at Crevel with angelic sweetness—not with the inviting suggestiveness which was part of Valerie's wit. Three years ago she could have bewitched Crevel by that beautiful look.
"I have known the time," said she, "when you were more generous—you used to talk of three hundred thousand francs like a grand gentleman—"
Crevel looked at Madame Hulot; he beheld her like a lily in the last of its bloom, vague sensations rose within him, but he felt such respect for this saintly creature that he spurned all suspicions and buried them in the most profligate corner of his heart.
"I, madame, am still the same; but a retired merchant, if he is a grand gentleman, plays, and must play, the part with method and economy; he carries his ideas of order into everything. He opens an account for his little amusements, and devotes certain profits to that head of expenditure; but as to touching his capital! it would be folly. My children will have their fortune intact, mine and my wife's; but I do not suppose that they wish their father to be dull, a monk and a mummy! My life is a very jolly one; I float gaily down the stream. I fulfil all the duties imposed on me by law, by my affections, and by family ties, just as I always used to be punctual in paying my bills when they fell due. If only my children conduct themselves in their domestic life as I do, I shall be satisfied; and for the present, so long as my follies—for I have committed follies—are no loss to any one but the gulls—excuse me, you do not perhaps understand the slang word—they will have nothing to blame me for, and will find a tidy little sum still left when I die. Your children cannot say as much of their father, who is ruining his son and my daughter by his pranks—"
The Baroness was getting further from her object as he went on.
"You are very unkind about my husband, my dear Crevel—and yet, if you had found his wife obliging, you would have been his best friend——"
She shot a burning glance at Crevel; but, like Dubois, who gave the Regent three kicks, she affected too much, and the rakish perfumer's thoughts jumped at such profligate suggestions, that he said to himself, "Does she want to turn the tables on Hulot?—Does she think me more attractive as a Mayor than as a National Guardsman? Women are strange creatures!"
And he assumed the position of his second manner, looking at the Baroness with his Regency leer.
"I could almost fancy," she went on, "that you want to visit on him your resentment against the virtue that resisted you—in a woman whom you loved well enough—to—to buy her," she added in a low voice.
"In a divine woman," Crevel replied, with a meaning smile at the Baroness, who looked down while tears rose to her eyes. "For you have swallowed not a few bitter pills!—in these three years—hey, my beauty?"
"Do not talk of my troubles, dear Crevel; they are too much for the endurance of a mere human being. Ah! if you still love me, you may drag me out of the pit in which I lie. Yes, I am in hell torment! The regicides who were racked and nipped and torn into quarters by four horses were on roses compared with me, for their bodies only were dismembered, and my heart is torn in quarters——"
Crevel's thumb moved from his armhole, he placed his hand on the work-table, he abandoned his attitude, he smiled! The smile was so vacuous that it misled the Baroness; she took it for an expression of kindness.
"You see a woman, not indeed in despair, but with her honor at the point of death, and prepared for everything, my dear friend, to hinder a crime."
Fearing that Hortense might come in, she bolted the door; then with equal impetuosity she fell at Crevel's feet, took his hand and kissed it.
"Be my deliverer!" she cried.
She thought there was some generous fibre in this mercantile soul, and full of sudden hope that she might get the two hundred thousand francs without degrading herself:
"Buy a soul—you were once ready to buy virtue!" she went on, with a frenzied gaze. "Trust to my honesty as a woman, to my honor, of which you know the worth! Be my friend! Save a whole family from ruin, shame, despair; keep it from falling into a bog where the quicksands are mingled with blood! Oh! ask for no explanations," she exclaimed, at a movement on Crevel's part, who was about to speak. "Above all, do not say to me, 'I told you so!' like a friend who is glad at a misfortune. Come now, yield to her whom you used to love, to the woman whose humiliation at your feet is perhaps the crowning moment of her glory; ask nothing of her, expect what you will from her gratitude!—No, no. Give me nothing, but lend—lend to me whom you used to call Adeline——"
At this point her tears flowed so fast, Adeline was sobbing so passionately, that Crevel's gloves were wet. The words, "I need two hundred thousand francs," were scarcely articulate in the torrent of weeping, as stones, however large, are invisible in Alpine cataracts swollen by the melting of the snows.
This is the inexperience of virtue. Vice asks for nothing, as we have seen in Madame Marneffe; it gets everything offered to it. Women of that stamp are never exacting till they have made themselves indispensable, or when a man has to be worked as a quarry is worked where the lime is rather scarce—going to ruin, as the quarry-men say.
On hearing these words, "Two hundred thousand francs," Crevel understood all. He cheerfully raised the Baroness, saying insolently:
"Come, come, bear up, mother," which Adeline, in her distraction, failed to hear. The scene was changing its character. Crevel was becoming "master of the situation," to use his own words. The vastness of the sum startled Crevel so greatly that his emotion at seeing this handsome woman in tears at his feet was forgotten. Besides, however angelical and saintly a woman may be, when she is crying bitterly her beauty disappears. A Madame Marneffe, as has been seen, whimpers now and then, a tear trickles down her cheek; but as to melting into tears and making her eyes and nose red!—never would she commit such a blunder.
"Come, child, compose yourself.—Deuce take it!" Crevel went on, taking Madame Hulot's hands in his own and patting them. "Why do you apply to me for two hundred thousand francs? What do you want with them? Whom are they for?"
"Do not," said she, "insist on any explanations. Give me the money!—You will save three lives and the honor of our children."
"And do you suppose, my good mother, that in all Paris you will find a man who at a word from a half-crazy woman will go off hic et nunc, and bring out of some drawer, Heaven knows where, two hundred thousand francs that have been lying simmering there till she is pleased to scoop them up? Is that all you know of life and of business, my beauty? Your folks are in a bad way; you may send them the last sacraments; for no one in Paris but her Divine Highness Madame la Banque, or the great Nucingen, or some miserable miser who is in love with gold as we other folks are with a woman, could produce such a miracle! The civil list, civil as it may be, would beg you to call again tomorrow. Every one invests his money, and turns it over to the best of his powers.
"You are quite mistaken, my angel, if you suppose that King Louis-Philippe rules us; he himself knows better than that. He knows as well as we do that supreme above the Charter reigns the holy, venerated, substantial, delightful, obliging, beautiful, noble, ever-youthful, and all-powerful five-franc piece! But money, my beauty, insists on interest, and is always engaged in seeking it! 'God of the Jews, thou art supreme!' says Racine. The perennial parable of the golden calf, you see!—In the days of Moses there was stock-jobbing in the desert!
"We have reverted to Biblical traditions; the Golden Calf was the first State ledger," he went on. "You, my Adeline, have not gone beyond the Rue Plumet. The Egyptians had lent enormous sums to the Hebrews, and what they ran after was not God's people, but their capital."
He looked at the Baroness with an expression which said, "How clever I am!"
"You know nothing of the devotion of every city man to his sacred hoard!" he went on, after a pause. "Excuse me. Listen to me. Get this well into your head.—You want two hundred thousand francs? No one can produce the sum without selling some security. Now consider! To have two hundred thousand francs in hard cash it would be needful to sell about seven hundred thousand francs' worth of stock at three per cent. Well; and then you would only get the money on the third day. That is the quickest way. To persuade a man to part with a fortune—for two hundred thousand francs is the whole fortune of many a man—he ought at least to know where it is all going to, and for what purpose—"
"It is going, my dear kind Crevel, to save the lives of two men, one of whom will die of grief and the other will kill himself! And to save me too from going mad! Am I not a little mad already?"
"Not so mad!" said he, taking Madame Hulot round the knees; "old Crevel has his price, since you thought of applying to him, my angel."
"They submit to have a man's arms round their knees, it would seem!" thought the saintly woman, covering her face with her hands.
"Once you offered me a fortune!" said she, turning red.
"Ay, mother! but that was three years ago!" replied Crevel. "Well, you are handsomer now than ever I saw you!" he went on, taking the Baroness' arm and pressing it to his heart. "You have a good memory, my dear, by Jove!—And now you see how wrong you were to be so prudish, for those three hundred thousand francs that you refused so magnanimously are in another woman's pocket. I loved you then, I love you still; but just look back these three years.
"When I said to you, 'You shall be mine,' what object had I in view? I meant to be revenged on that rascal Hulot. But your husband, my beauty, found himself a mistress—a jewel of a woman, a pearl, a cunning hussy then aged three-and-twenty, for she is six-and-twenty now. It struck me as more amusing, more complete, more Louis XV., more Marechal de Richelieu, more first-class altogether, to filch away that charmer, who, in point of fact, never cared for Hulot, and who for these three years has been madly in love with your humble servant."
As he spoke, Crevel, from whose hands the Baroness had released her own, had resumed his favorite attitude; both thumbs were stuck into his armholes, and he was patting his ribs with his fingers, like two flapping wings, fancying that he was thus making himself very attractive and charming. It was as much as to say, "And this is the man you would have nothing to say to!"
"There you are my dear; I had my revenge, and your husband knows it. I proved to him clearly that he was basketed—just where he was before, as we say. Madame Marneffe is my mistress, and when her precious Marneffe kicks the bucket, she will be my wife."
Madame Hulot stared at Crevel with a fixed and almost dazed look.
"Hector knew it?" she said.
"And went back to her," replied Crevel. "And I allowed it, because Valerie wished to be the wife of a head-clerk; but she promised me that she would manage things so that our Baron should be so effectually bowled over that he can never interfere any more. And my little duchess—for that woman is a born duchess, on my soul!—kept her word. She restores you your Hector, madame, virtuous in perpetuity, as she says—she is so witty! He has had a good lesson, I can tell you! The Baron has had some hard knocks; he will help no more actresses or fine ladies; he is radically cured; cleaned out like a beer-glass.
"If you had listened to Crevel in the first instance, instead of scorning him and turning him out of the house, you might have had four hundred thousand francs, for my revenge has cost me all of that.—But I shall get my change back, I hope, when Marneffe dies—I have invested in a wife, you see; that is the secret of my extravagance. I have solved the problem of playing the lord on easy terms."
"Would you give your daughter such a mother-in-law? cried Madame Hulot.
"You do not know Valerie, madame," replied Crevel gravely, striking the attitude of his first manner. "She is a woman with good blood in her veins, a lady, and a woman who enjoys the highest consideration. Why, only yesterday the vicar of the parish was dining with her. She is pious, and we have presented a splendid monstrance to the church.
"Oh! she is clever, she is witty, she is delightful, well informed—she has everything in her favor. For my part, my dear Adeline, I owe everything to that charming woman; she has opened my mind, polished my speech, as you may have noticed; she corrects my impetuosity, and gives me words and ideas. I never say anything now that I ought not. I have greatly improved; you must have noticed it. And then she has encouraged my ambition. I shall be a Deputy; and I shall make no blunders, for I shall consult my Egeria. Every great politician, from Numa to our present Prime Minister, has had his Sibyl of the fountain. A score of deputies visit Valerie; she is acquiring considerable influence; and now that she is about to be established in a charming house, with a carriage, she will be one of the occult rulers of Paris.
"A fine locomotive! That is what such a woman is. Oh, I have blessed you many a time for your stern virtue."
"It is enough to make one doubt the goodness of God!" cried Adeline, whose indignation had dried her tears. "But, no! Divine justice must be hanging over her head."
"You know nothing of the world, my beauty," said the great politician, deeply offended. "The world, my Adeline, loves success! Say, now, has it come to seek out your sublime virtue, priced at two hundred thousand francs?"
The words made Madame Hulot shudder; the nervous trembling attacked her once more. She saw that the ex-perfumer was taking a mean revenge on her as he had on Hulot; she felt sick with disgust, and a spasm rose to her throat, hindering speech.
"Money!" she said at last. "Always money!"
"You touched me deeply," said Crevel, reminded by these words of the woman's humiliation, "when I beheld you there, weeping at my feet!—You perhaps will not believe me, but if I had my pocket-book about me, it would have been yours.—Come, do you really want such a sum?"
As she heard this question, big with two hundred thousand francs, Adeline forgot the odious insults heaped on her by this cheap-jack fine gentleman, before the tempting picture of success described by Machiavelli-Crevel, who only wanted to find out her secrets and laugh over them with Valerie.
"Oh! I will do anything, everything," cried the unhappy woman. "Monsieur, I will sell myself—I will be a Valerie, if I must."
"You will find that difficult," replied Crevel. "Valerie is a masterpiece in her way. My good mother, twenty-five years of virtue are always repellent, like a badly treated disease. And your virtue has grown very mouldy, my dear child. But you shall see how much I love you. I will manage to get you your two hundred thousand francs."
Adeline, incapable of uttering a word, seized his hand and laid it on her heart; a tear of joy trembled in her eyes.
"Oh! don't be in a hurry; there will be some hard pulling. I am a jolly good fellow, a good soul with no prejudices, and I will put things plainly to you. You want to do as Valerie does—very good. But that is not all; you must have a gull, a stockholder, a Hulot.—Well, I know a retired tradesman—in fact, a hosier. He is heavy, dull, has not an idea, I am licking him into shape, but I don't know when he will do me credit. My man is a deputy, stupid and conceited; the tyranny of a turbaned wife, in the depths of the country, has preserved him in a state of utter virginity as to the luxury and pleasures of Paris life. But Beauvisage—his name is Beauvisage—is a millionaire, and, like me, my dear, three years ago, he will give a hundred thousand crowns to be the lover of a real lady.—Yes, you see," he went on, misunderstanding a gesture on Adeline's part, "he is jealous of me, you understand; jealous of my happiness with Madame Marneffe, and he is a fellow quite capable of selling an estate to purchase a—"
"Enough, Monsieur Crevel!" said Madame Hulot, no longer controlling her disgust, and showing all her shame in her face. "I am punished beyond my deserts. My conscience, so sternly repressed by the iron hand of necessity, tells me, at this final insult, that such sacrifices are impossible.—My pride is gone; I do not say now, as I did the first time, 'Go!' after receiving this mortal thrust. I have lost the right to do so. I have flung myself before you like a prostitute.
"Yes," she went on, in reply to a negative on Crevel's part, "I have fouled my life, till now so pure, by a degrading thought; and I am inexcusable!—I know it!—I deserve every insult you can offer me! God's will be done! If, indeed, He desires the death of two creatures worthy to appear before Him, they must die! I shall mourn them, and pray for them! If it is His will that my family should be humbled to the dust, we must bow to His avenging sword, nay, and kiss it, since we are Christians.—I know how to expiate this disgrace, which will be the torment of all my remaining days.
"I who speak to you, monsieur, am not Madame Hulot, but a wretched, humble sinner, a Christian whose heart henceforth will know but one feeling, and that is repentance, all my time given up to prayer and charity. With such a sin on my soul, I am the last of women, the first only of penitents.—You have been the means of bringing me to a right mind; I can hear the Voice of God speaking within me, and I can thank you!"
She was shaking with the nervous trembling which from that hour never left her. Her low, sweet tones were quite unlike the fevered accents of the woman who was ready for dishonor to save her family. The blood faded from her cheeks, her face was colorless, and her eyes were dry.
"And I played my part very badly, did I not?" she went on, looking at Crevel with the sweetness that martyrs must have shown in their eyes as they looked up at the Proconsul. "True love, the sacred love of a devoted woman, gives other pleasures, no doubt, than those that are bought in the open market!—But why so many words?" said she, suddenly bethinking herself, and advancing a step further in the way to perfection. "They sound like irony, but I am not ironical! Forgive me. Besides, monsieur, I did not want to hurt any one but myself—"
The dignity of virtue and its holy flame had expelled the transient impurity of the woman who, splendid in her own peculiar beauty, looked taller in Crevel's eyes. Adeline had, at this moment, the majesty of the figures of Religion clinging to the Cross, as painted by the old Venetians; but she expressed, too, the immensity of her love and the grandeur of the Catholic Church, to which she flew like a wounded dove.
Crevel was dazzled, astounded.
"Madame, I am your slave, without conditions," said he, in an inspiration of generosity. "We will look into this matter—and—whatever you want—the impossible even—I will do. I will pledge my securities at the Bank, and in two hours you shall have the money."
"Good God! a miracle!" said poor Adeline, falling on her knees.
She prayed to Heaven with such fervor as touched Crevel deeply; Madame Hulot saw that he had tears in his eyes when, having ended her prayer, she rose to her feet.
"Be a friend to me, monsieur," said she. "Your heart is better than your words and conduct. God gave you your soul; your passions and the world have given you your ideas. Oh, I will love you truly," she exclaimed, with an angelic tenderness in strange contrast with her attempts at coquettish trickery.
"But cease to tremble so," said Crevel.
"Am I trembling?" said the Baroness, unconscious of the infirmity that had so suddenly come upon her.
"Yes; why, look," said Crevel, taking Adeline by the arm and showing her that she was shaking with nervousness. "Come, madame," he added respectfully, "compose yourself; I am going to the Bank at once."
"And come back quickly! Remember," she added, betraying all her secrets, "that the first point is to prevent the suicide of our poor Uncle Fischer involved by my husband—for I trust you now, and I am telling you everything. Oh, if we should not be on time, I know my brother-in-law, the Marshal, and he has such a delicate soul, that he would die of it in a few days."
"I am off, then," said Crevel, kissing the Baroness' hand. "But what has that unhappy Hulot done?"
"He has swindled the Government."
"Good Heavens! I fly, madame; I understand, I admire you!"
Crevel bent one knee, kissed Madame Hulot's skirt, and vanished, saying, "You will see me soon."
Unluckily, on his way from the Rue Plumet to his own house, to fetch the securities, Crevel went along the Rue Vanneau, and he could not resist going in to see his little Duchess. His face still bore an agitated expression.
He went straight into Valerie's room, who was having her hair dressed. She looked at Crevel in her glass, and, like every woman of that sort, was annoyed, before she knew anything about it, to see that he was moved by some strong feeling of which she was not the cause.
"What is the matter, my dear?" said she. "Is that a face to bring in to your little Duchess? I will not be your Duchess any more, monsieur, no more than I will be your 'little duck,' you old monster."
Crevel replied by a melancholy smile and a glance at the maid.
"Reine, child, that will do for to-day; I can finish my hair myself. Give me my Chinese wrapper; my gentleman seems to me out of sorts."
Reine, whose face was pitted like a colander, and who seemed to have been made on purpose to wait on Valerie, smiled meaningly in reply, and brought the dressing-gown. Valerie took off her combing-wrapper; she was in her shift, and she wriggled into the dressing-gown like a snake into a clump of grass.
"Madame is not at home?"
"What a question!" said Valerie.—"Come, tell me, my big puss, have Rives Gauches gone down?"
"They have raised the price of the house?"
"You fancy that you are not the father of our little Crevel?"
"What nonsense!" replied he, sure of his paternity.
"On my honor, I give it up!" said Madame Marneffe. "If I am expected to extract my friend's woes as you pull the cork out of a bottle of Bordeaux, I let it alone.—Go away, you bore me."
"It is nothing," said Crevel. "I must find two hundred thousand francs in two hours."
"Oh, you can easily get them.—I have not spent the fifty thousand francs we got out of Hulot for that report, and I can ask Henri for fifty thousand—"
"Henri—it is always Henri!" exclaimed Crevel.
"And do you suppose, you great baby of a Machiavelli, that I will cast off Henri? Would France disarm her fleet?—Henri! why, he is a dagger in a sheath hanging on a nail. That boy serves as a weather-glass to show me if you love me—and you don't love me this morning."
"I don't love you, Valerie?" cried Crevel. "I love you as much as a million."
"That is not nearly enough!" cried she, jumping on to Crevel's knee, and throwing both arms round his neck as if it were a peg to hang on by. "I want to be loved as much as ten millions, as much as all the gold in the world, and more to that. Henri would never wait a minute before telling me all he had on his mind. What is it, my great pet? Have it out. Make a clean breast of it to your own little duck!"
And she swept her hair over Crevel's face, while she jestingly pulled his nose.
"Can a man with a nose like that," she went on, "have any secrets from his Vava—lele—ririe?"
And at the Vava she tweaked his nose to the right; at lele it went to the left; at ririe she nipped it straight again.
"Well, I have just seen—" Crevel stopped and looked at Madame Marneffe.
"Valerie, my treasure, promise me on your honor—ours, you know?—not to repeat a single word of what I tell you."
"Of course, Mayor, we know all about that. One hand up—so—and one foot—so!" And she put herself in an attitude which, to use Rabelais' phrase, stripped Crevel bare from his brain to his heels, so quaint and delicious was the nudity revealed through the light film of lawn.
"I have just seen virtue in despair."
"Can despair possess virtue?" said she, nodding gravely and crossing her arms like Napoleon.
"It is poor Madame Hulot. She wants two hundred thousand francs, or else Marshal Hulot and old Johann Fischer will blow their brains out; and as you, my little Duchess, are partly at the bottom of the mischief, I am going to patch matters up. She is a saintly creature, I know her well; she will repay you every penny."
At the name of Hulot, at the words two hundred thousand francs, a gleam from Valerie's eyes flashed from between her long eyelids like the flame of a cannon through the smoke.
"What did the old thing do to move you to compassion? Did she show you—what?—her—her religion?"
"Do not make game of her, sweetheart; she is a very saintly, a very noble and pious woman, worthy of all respect."
"Am I not worthy of respect then, heh?" answered Valerie, with a threatening gaze at Crevel.
"I never said so," replied he, understanding that the praise of virtue might not be gratifying to Madame Marneffe.
"I am pious too," Valerie went on, taking her seat in an armchair; "but I do not make a trade of my religion. I go to church in secret."
She sat in silence, and paid no further heed to Crevel. He, extremely ill at ease, came to stand in front of the chair into which Valerie had thrown herself, and saw her lost in the reflections he had been so foolish as to suggest.
"Valerie, my little Angel!"
Utter silence. A highly problematical tear was furtively dashed away.
"One word, my little duck?"
"What are you thinking of, my darling?"
"Oh, Monsieur Crevel, I was thinking of the day of my first communion! How pretty I was! How pure, how saintly!—immaculate!—Oh! if any one had come to my mother and said, 'Your daughter will be a hussy, and unfaithful to her husband; one day a police-officer will find her in a disreputable house; she will sell herself to a Crevel to cheat a Hulot—two horrible old men—' Poof! horrible—she would have died before the end of the sentence, she was so fond of me, poor dear!—"
"Nay, be calm."
"You cannot think how well a woman must love a man before she can silence the remorse that gnaws at the heart of an adulterous wife. I am quite sorry that Reine is not here; she would have told you that she found me this morning praying with tears in my eyes. I, Monsieur Crevel, for my part, do not make a mockery of religion. Have you ever heard me say a word I ought not on such a subject?"
Crevel shook his head in negation.
"I will never allow it to be mentioned in my presence. I can make fun of anything under the sun: Kings, politics, finance, everything that is sacred in the eyes of the world—judges, matrimony, and love—old men and maidens. But the Church and God!—There I draw the line.—I know I am wicked; I am sacrificing my future life to you. And you have no conception of the immensity of my love."
Crevel clasped his hands.
"No, unless you could see into my heart, and fathom the depth of my conviction so as to know the extent of my sacrifice! I feel in me the making of a Magdalen.—And see how respectfully I treat the priests; think of the gifts I make to the Church! My mother brought me up in the Catholic Faith, and I know what is meant by God! It is to sinners like us that His voice is most awful."
Valerie wiped away two tears that trickled down her cheeks. Crevel was in dismay. Madame Marneffe stood up in her excitement.
"Be calm, my darling—you alarm me!"
Madame Marneffe fell on her knees.
"Dear Heaven! I am not bad all through!" she cried, clasping her hands. "Vouchsafe to rescue Thy wandering lamb, strike her, crush her, snatch her from foul and adulterous hands, and how gladly she will nestle on Thy shoulder! How willingly she will return to the fold!"
She got up and looked at Crevel; her colorless eyes frightened him.
"Yes, Crevel, and, do you know? I, too, am frightened sometimes. The justice of God is exerted in this nether world as well as in the next. What mercy can I expect at God's hands? His vengeance overtakes the guilty in many ways; it assumes every aspect of disaster. That is what my mother told me on her death-bed, speaking of her own old age.—But if I should lose you," she added, hugging Crevel with a sort of savage frenzy—"oh! I should die!"
Madame Marneffe released Crevel, knelt down again at the armchair, folded her hands—and in what a bewitching attitude!—and with incredible fervor poured out the following prayer:—
"And thou, Saint Valerie, my patron saint, why dost thou so rarely visit the pillow of her who was intrusted to thy care? Oh, come this evening, as thou didst this morning, to inspire me with holy thoughts, and I will quit the path of sin; like the Magdalen, I will give up deluding joys and the false glitter of the world, even the man I love so well—"
"My precious duck!"
"No more of the 'precious duck,' monsieur!" said she, turning round like a virtuous wife, her eyes full of tears, but dignified, cold, and indifferent.
"Leave me," she went on, pushing him from her. "What is my duty? To belong wholly to my husband.—He is a dying man, and what am I doing? Deceiving him on the edge of the grave. He believes your child to be his. I will tell him the truth, and begin by securing his pardon before I ask for God's.—We must part. Good-bye, Monsieur Crevel," and she stood up to offer him an icy cold hand. "Good-bye, my friend; we shall meet no more till we meet in a better world.—You have to thank me for some enjoyment, criminal indeed; now I want—oh yes, I shall have your esteem."
Crevel was weeping bitter tears.
"You great pumpkin!" she exclaimed, with an infernal peal of laughter. "That is how your pious women go about it to drag from you a plum of two hundred thousand francs. And you, who talk of the Marechal de Richelieu, the prototype of Lovelace, you could be taken in by such a stale trick as that! I could get hundreds of thousands of francs out of you any day, if I chose, you old ninny!—Keep your money! If you have more than you know what to do with, it is mine. If you give two sous to that 'respectable' woman, who is pious forsooth, because she is fifty-six years of age, we shall never meet again, and you may take her for your mistress! You could come back to me next day bruised all over from her bony caresses and sodden with her tears, and sick of her little barmaid's caps and her whimpering, which must turn her favors into showers—"
"In point of fact," said Crevel, "two hundred thousand francs is a round sum of money."
"They have fine appetites, have the goody sort! By the poker! they sell their sermons dearer than we sell the rarest and realest thing on earth—pleasure.—And they can spin a yarn! There, I know them. I have seen plenty in my mother's house. They think everything is allowable for the Church and for—Really, my dear love, you ought to be ashamed of yourself—for you are not so open-handed! You have not given me two hundred thousand francs all told!"
"Oh yes," said Crevel, "your little house will cost as much as that."
"Then you have four hundred thousand francs?" said she thoughtfully.
"Then, sir, you meant to lend that old horror the two hundred thousand francs due for my hotel? What a crime, what high treason!"
"Only listen to me."
"If you were giving the money to some idiotic philanthropic scheme, you would be regarded as a coming man," she went on, with increasing eagerness, "and I should be the first to advise it; for you are too simple to write a big political book that might make you famous; as for style, you have not enough to butter a pamphlet; but you might do as other men do who are in your predicament, and who get a halo of glory about their name by putting it at the top of some social, or moral, or general, or national enterprise. Benevolence is out of date, quite vulgar. Providing for old offenders, and making them more comfortable than the poor devils who are honest, is played out. What I should like to see is some invention of your own with an endowment of two hundred thousand francs—something difficult and really useful. Then you would be talked about as a man of mark, a Montyon, and I should be very proud of you!
"But as to throwing two hundred thousand francs into a holy-water shell, or lending them to a bigot—cast off by her husband, and who knows why? there is always some reason: does any one cast me off, I ask you?—is a piece of idiocy which in our days could only come into the head of a retired perfumer. It reeks of the counter. You would not dare look at yourself in the glass two days after.
"Go and pay the money in where it will be safe—run, fly; I will not admit you again without the receipt in your hand. Go, as fast and soon as you can!"
She pushed Crevel out of the room by the shoulders, seeing avarice blossoming in his face once more. When she heard the outer door shut, she exclaimed:
"Then Lisbeth is revenged over and over again! What a pity that she is at her old Marshal's now! We would have had a good laugh! So that old woman wants to take the bread out of my mouth. I will startle her a little!"