Cousin Betty/Section 45
Towards the end of May, Baron Hulot's pension was released by Victorin's regular payment to Baron Nucingen. As everybody knows, pensions are paid half-yearly, and only on the presentation of a certificate that the recipient is alive: and as Hulot's residence was unknown, the arrears unpaid on Vauvinet's demand remained to his credit in the Treasury. Vauvinet now signed his renunciation of any further claims, and it was still indispensable to find the pensioner before the arrears could be drawn.
Thanks to Bianchon's care, the Baroness had recovered her health; and to this Josepha's good heart had contributed by a letter, of which the orthography betrayed the collaboration of the Duc d'Herouville. This was what the singer wrote to the Baroness, after twenty days of anxious search:—
- "MADAME LA BARONNE,—Monsieur Hulot was living, two months since, in the Rue des Bernardins, with Elodie Chardin, a lace-mender, for whom he had left Mademoiselle Bijou; but he went away without a word, leaving everything behind him, and no one knows where he went. I am not without hope, however, and I have put a man on this track who believes he has already seen him in the Boulevard Bourdon.
- "The poor Jewess means to keep the promise she made to the Christian. Will the angel pray for the devil? That must sometimes happen in heaven.—I remain, with the deepest respect, always your humble servant,
The lawyer, Maitre Hulot d'Ervy, hearing no more of the dreadful Madame Nourrisson, seeing his father-in-law married, having brought back his brother-in-law to the family fold, suffering from no importunity on the part of his new stepmother, and seeing his mother's health improve daily, gave himself up to his political and judicial duties, swept along by the tide of Paris life, in which the hours count for days.
One night, towards the end of the session, having occasion to write up a report to the Chamber of Deputies, he was obliged to sit at work till late at night. He had gone into his study at nine o'clock, and, while waiting till the man-servant should bring in the candles with green shades, his thoughts turned to his father. He was blaming himself for leaving the inquiry so much to the singer, and had resolved to see Monsieur Chapuzot himself on the morrow, when he saw in the twilight, outside the window, a handsome old head, bald and yellow, with a fringe of white hair.
"Would you please to give orders, sir, that a poor hermit is to be admitted, just come from the Desert, and who is instructed to beg for contributions towards rebuilding a holy house."
This apparition, which suddenly reminded the lawyer of a prophecy uttered by the terrible Nourrisson, gave him a shock.
"Let in that old man," said he to the servant.
"He will poison the place, sir," replied the man. "He has on a brown gown which he has never changed since he left Syria, and he has no shirt—"
"Show him in," repeated the master.
The old man came in. Victorin's keen eye examined this so-called pilgrim hermit, and he saw a fine specimen of the Neapolitan friars, whose frocks are akin to the rags of the lazzaroni, whose sandals are tatters of leather, as the friars are tatters of humanity. The get-up was so perfect that the lawyer, though still on his guard, was vexed with himself for having believed it to be one of Madame Nourrisson's tricks.
"How much to you want of me?"
"Whatever you feel that you ought to give me."
Victorin took a five-franc piece from a little pile on his table, and handed it to the stranger.
"That is not much on account of fifty thousand francs," said the pilgrim of the desert.
This speech removed all Victorin's doubts.
"And has Heaven kept its word?" he said, with a frown.
"The question is an offence, my son," said the hermit. "If you do not choose to pay till after the funeral, you are in your rights. I will return in a week's time."
"The funeral!" cried the lawyer, starting up.
"The world moves on," said the old man, as he withdrew, "and the dead move quickly in Paris!"
When Hulot, who stood looking down, was about to reply, the stalwart old man had vanished.
"I don't understand one word of all this," said Victorin to himself. "But at the end of the week I will ask him again about my father, if we have not yet found him. Where does Madame Nourrisson—yes, that was her name—pick up such actors?"
On the following day, Doctor Bianchon allowed the Baroness to go down into the garden, after examining Lisbeth, who had been obliged to keep to her room for a month by a slight bronchial attack. The learned doctor, who dared not pronounce a definite opinion on Lisbeth's case till he had seen some decisive symptoms, went into the garden with Adeline to observe the effect of the fresh air on her nervous trembling after two months of seclusion. He was interested and allured by the hope of curing this nervous complaint. On seeing the great physician sitting with them and sparing them a few minutes, the Baroness and her family conversed with him on general subjects.
"You life is a very full and a very sad one," said Madame Hulot. "I know what it is to spend one's days in seeing poverty and physical suffering."
"I know, madame," replied the doctor, "all the scenes of which charity compels you to be a spectator; but you will get used to it in time, as we all do. It is the law of existence. The confessor, the magistrate, the lawyer would find life unendurable if the spirit of the State did not assert itself above the feelings of the individual. Could we live at all but for that? Is not the soldier in time of war brought face to face with spectacles even more dreadful than those we see? And every soldier that has been under fire is kind-hearted. We medical men have the pleasure now and again of a successful cure, as you have that of saving a family from the horrors of hunger, depravity, or misery, and of restoring it to social respectability. But what comfort can the magistrate find, the police agent, or the attorney, who spend their lives in investigating the basest schemes of self-interest, the social monster whose only regret is when it fails, but on whom repentance never dawns?
"One-half of society spends its life in watching the other half. A very old friend of mine is an attorney, now retired, who told me that for fifteen years past notaries and lawyers have distrusted their clients quite as much as their adversaries. Your son is a pleader; has he never found himself compromised by the client for whom he held a brief?"
"Very often," said Victorin, with a smile.
"And what is the cause of this deep-seated evil?" asked the Baroness.
"The decay of religion," said Bianchon, "and the pre-eminence of finance, which is simply solidified selfishness. Money used not to be everything; there were some kinds of superiority that ranked above it—nobility, genius, service done to the State. But nowadays the law takes wealth as the universal standard, and regards it as the measure of public capacity. Certain magistrates are ineligible to the Chamber; Jean-Jacques Rousseau would be ineligible! The perpetual subdivision of estate compels every man to take care of himself from the age of twenty.
"Well, then, between the necessity for making a fortune and the depravity of speculation there is no check or hindrance; for the religious sense is wholly lacking in France, in spite of the laudable endeavors of those who are working for a Catholic revival. And this is the opinion of every man who, like me, studies society at the core."
"And you have few pleasures?" said Hortense.
"The true physician, madame, is in love with his science," replied the doctor. "He is sustained by that passion as much as by the sense of his usefulness to society.
"At this very time you see in me a sort of scientific rapture, and many superficial judges would regard me as a man devoid of feeling. I have to announce a discovery to-morrow to the College of Medicine, for I am studying a disease that had disappeared—a mortal disease for which no cure is known in temperate climates, though it is curable in the West Indies—a malady known here in the Middle Ages. A noble fight is that of the physician against such a disease. For the last ten days I have thought of nothing but these cases—for there are two, a husband and wife.—Are they not connections of yours? For you, madame, are surely Monsieur Crevel's daughter?" said he, addressing Celestine.
"What, is my father your patient?" asked Celestine. "Living in the Rue Barbet-de-Jouy?"
"Precisely so," said Bianchon.
"And the disease is inevitably fatal?" said Victorin in dismay.
"I will go to see him," said Celestine, rising.
"I positively forbid it, madame," Bianchon quietly said. "The disease is contagious."
"But you go there, monsieur," replied the young woman. "Do you think that a daughter's duty is less binding than a doctor's?"
"Madame, a physician knows how to protect himself against infection, and the rashness of your devotion proves to me that you would probably be less prudent than I."
Celestine, however, got up and went to her room, where she dressed to go out.
"Monsieur," said Victorin to Bianchon, "have you any hope of saving Monsieur and Madame Crevel?"
"I hope, but I do not believe that I may," said Bianchon. "The case is to me quite inexplicable. The disease is peculiar to negroes and the American tribes, whose skin is differently constituted to that of the white races. Now I can trace no connection with the copper-colored tribes, with negroes or half-castes, in Monsieur or Madame Crevel.
"And though it is a very interesting disease to us, it is a terrible thing for the sufferers. The poor woman, who is said to have been very pretty, is punished for her sins, for she is now squalidly hideous if she is still anything at all. She is losing her hair and teeth, her skin is like a leper's, she is a horror to herself; her hands are horrible, covered with greenish pustules, her nails are loose, and the flesh is eaten away by the poisoned humors."
"And the cause of such a disease?" asked the lawyer.
"Oh!" said the doctor, "the cause lies in a form of rapid blood-poisoning; it degenerates with terrific rapidity. I hope to act on the blood; I am having it analyzed; and I am now going home to ascertain the result of the labors of my friend Professor Duval, the famous chemist, with a view to trying one of those desperate measures by which we sometimes attempt to defeat death."
"The hand of God is there!" said Adeline, in a voice husky with emotion. "Though that woman has brought sorrows on me which have led me in moments of madness to invoke the vengeance of Heaven, I hope—God knows I hope—you may succeed, doctor."
Victorin felt dizzy. He looked at his mother, his sister, and the physician by turns, quaking lest they should read his thoughts. He felt himself a murderer.
Hortense, for her part, thought God was just.
Celestine came back to beg her husband to accompany her.
"If you insist on going, madame, and you too, monsieur, keep at least a foot between you and the bed of the sufferer, that is the chief precaution. Neither you nor your wife must dream of kissing the dying man. And, indeed, you ought to go with your wife, Monsieur Hulot, to hinder her from disobeying my injunctions."
Adeline and Hortense, when they were left alone, went to sit with Lisbeth. Hortense had such a virulent hatred of Valerie that she could not contain the expression of it.
"Cousin Lisbeth," she exclaimed, "my mother and I are avenged! that venomous snake is herself bitten—she is rotting in her bed!"
"Hortense, at this moment you are not a Christian. You ought to pray to God to vouchsafe repentance to this wretched woman."
"What are you talking about?" said Betty, rising from her couch. "Are you speaking of Valerie?"
"Yes," replied Adeline; "she is past hope—dying of some horrible disease of which the mere description makes one shudder——"
Lisbeth's teeth chattered, a cold sweat broke out all over her; the violence of the shock showed how passionate her attachment to Valerie had been.
"I must go there," said she.
"But the doctor forbids your going out."
"I do not care—I must go!—Poor Crevel! what a state he must be in; for he loves that woman."
"He is dying too," replied Countess Steinbock. "Ah! all our enemies are in the devil's clutches—"
"In God's hands, my child—"
Lisbeth dressed in the famous yellow Indian shawl and her black velvet bonnet, and put on her boots; in spite of her relations' remonstrances, she set out as if driven by some irresistible power.
She arrived in the Rue Barbet a few minutes after Monsieur and Madame Hulot, and found seven physicians there, brought by Bianchon to study this unique case; he had just joined them. The physicians, assembled in the drawing-room, were discussing the disease; now one and now another went into Valerie's room or Crevel's to take a note, and returned with an opinion based on this rapid study.
These princes of science were divided in their opinions. One, who stood alone in his views, considered it a case of poisoning, of private revenge, and denied its identity with the disease known in the Middle Ages. Three others regarded it as a specific deterioration of the blood and the humors. The rest, agreeing with Bianchon, maintained that the blood was poisoned by some hitherto unknown morbid infection. Bianchon produced Professor Duval's analysis of the blood. The remedies to be applied, though absolutely empirical and without hope, depended on the verdict in this medical dilemma.
Lisbeth stood as if petrified three yards away from the bed where Valerie lay dying, as she saw a priest from Saint-Thomas d'Aquin standing by her friend's pillow, and a sister of charity in attendance. Religion could find a soul to save in a mass of rottenness which, of the five senses of man, had now only that of sight. The sister of charity who alone had been found to nurse Valerie stood apart. Thus the Catholic religion, that divine institution, always actuated by the spirit of self-sacrifice, under its twofold aspect of the Spirit and the Flesh, was tending this horrible and atrocious creature, soothing her death-bed by its infinite benevolence and inexhaustible stores of mercy.
The servants, in horror, refused to go into the room of either their master or mistress; they thought only of themselves, and judged their betters as righteously stricken. The smell was so foul that in spite of open windows and strong perfumes, no one could remain long in Valerie's room. Religion alone kept guard there.
How could a woman so clever as Valerie fail to ask herself to what end these two representatives of the Church remained with her? The dying woman had listened to the words of the priest. Repentance had risen on her darkened soul as the devouring malady had consumed her beauty. The fragile Valerie had been less able to resist the inroads of the disease than Crevel; she would be the first to succumb, and, indeed, had been the first attacked.
"If I had not been ill myself, I would have come to nurse you," said Lisbeth at last, after a glance at her friend's sunken eyes. "I have kept my room this fortnight or three weeks; but when I heard of your state from the doctor, I came at once."
"Poor Lisbeth, you at least love me still, I see!" said Valerie. "Listen. I have only a day or two left to think, for I cannot say to live. You see, there is nothing left of me—I am a heap of mud! They will not let me see myself in a glass.—Well, it is no more than I deserve. Oh, if I might only win mercy, I would gladly undo all the mischief I have done."
"Oh!" said Lisbeth, "if you can talk like that, you are indeed a dead woman."
"Do not hinder this woman's repentance, leave her in her Christian mind," said the priest.
"There is nothing left!" said Lisbeth in consternation. "I cannot recognize her eyes or her mouth! Not a feature of her is there! And her wit has deserted her! Oh, it is awful!"
"You don't know," said Valerie, "what death is; what it is to be obliged to think of the morrow of your last day on earth, and of what is to be found in the grave.—Worms for the body—and for the soul, what?—Lisbeth, I know there is another life! And I am given over to terrors which prevent my feeling the pangs of my decomposing body.—I, who could laugh at a saint, and say to Crevel that the vengeance of God took every form of disaster.—Well, I was a true prophet.—Do not trifle with sacred things, Lisbeth; if you love me, repent as I do."
"I!" said Lisbeth. "I see vengeance wherever I turn in nature; insects even die to satisfy the craving for revenge when they are attacked. And do not these gentlemen tell us"—and she looked at the priest—"that God is revenged, and that His vengeance lasts through all eternity?"
The priest looked mildly at Lisbeth and said:
"You, madame, are an atheist!"
"But look what I have come to," said Valerie.
"And where did you get this gangrene?" asked the old maid, unmoved from her peasant incredulity.
"I had a letter from Henri which leaves me in no doubt as to my fate. He has murdered me. And—just when I meant to live honestly—to die an object of disgust!
"Lisbeth, give up all notions of revenge. Be kind to that family to whom I have left by my will everything I can dispose of. Go, child, though you are the only creature who, at this hour, does not avoid me with horror—go, I beseech you, and leave me.—I have only time to make my peace with God!"
"She is wandering in her wits," said Lisbeth to herself, as she left the room.
The strongest affection known, that of a woman for a woman, had not such heroic constancy as the Church. Lisbeth, stifled by the miasma, went away. She found the physicians still in consultation. But Bianchon's opinion carried the day, and the only question now was how to try the remedies.
"At any rate, we shall have a splendid post-mortem," said one of his opponents, "and there will be two cases to enable us to make comparisons."
Lisbeth went in again with Bianchon, who went up to the sick woman without seeming aware of the malodorous atmosphere.
"Madame," said he, "we intend to try a powerful remedy which may save you—"
"And if you save my life," said she, "shall I be as good-looking as ever?"
"Possibly," said the judicious physician.
"I know your possibly," said Valerie. "I shall look like a woman who has fallen into the fire! No, leave me to the Church. I can please no one now but God. I will try to be reconciled to Him, and that will be my last flirtation; yes, I must try to come round God!"
"That is my poor Valerie's last jest; that is all herself!" said Lisbeth in tears.
Lisbeth thought it her duty to go into Crevel's room, where she found Victorin and his wife sitting about a yard away from the stricken man's bed.
"Lisbeth," said he, "they will not tell me what state my wife is in; you have just seen her—how is she?"
"She is better; she says she is saved," replied Lisbeth, allowing herself this play on the word to soothe Crevel's mind.
"That is well," said the Mayor. "I feared lest I had been the cause of her illness. A man is not a traveler in perfumery for nothing; I had blamed myself.—If I should lose her, what would become of me? On my honor, my children, I worship that woman."
He sat up in bed and tried to assume his favorite position.
"Oh, Papa!" cried Celestine, "if only you could be well again, I would make friends with my stepmother—I make a vow!"
"Poor little Celestine!" said Crevel, "come and kiss me."
Victorin held back his wife, who was rushing forward.
"You do not know, perhaps," said the lawyer gently, "that your disease is contagious, monsieur."
"To be sure," replied Crevel. "And the doctors are quite proud of having rediscovered in me some long lost plague of the Middle Ages, which the Faculty has had cried like lost property—it is very funny!"
"Papa," said Celestine, "be brave, and you will get the better of this disease."
"Be quite easy, my children; Death thinks twice of it before carrying off a Mayor of Paris," said he, with monstrous composure. "And if, after all, my district is so unfortunate as to lose a man it has twice honored with its suffrages—you see, what a flow of words I have!—Well, I shall know how to pack up and go. I have been a commercial traveler; I am experienced in such matters. Ah! my children, I am a man of strong mind."
"Papa, promise me to admit the Church—"
"Never," replied Crevel. "What is to be said? I drank the milk of Revolution; I have not Baron Holbach's wit, but I have his strength of mind. I am more Regence than ever, more Musketeer, Abbe Dubois, and Marechal de Richelieu! By the Holy Poker!—My wife, who is wandering in her head, has just sent me a man in a gown—to me! the admirer of Beranger, the friend of Lisette, the son of Voltaire and Rousseau.—The doctor, to feel my pulse, as it were, and see if sickness had subdued me—'You saw Monsieur l'Abbe?' said he.—Well, I imitated the great Montesquieu. Yes, I looked at the doctor—see, like this," and he turned to show three-quarters face, like his portrait, and extended his hand authoritatively—"and I said:
"The slave was here, He showed his order, but he nothing gained.
"His order is a pretty jest, showing that even in death Monsieur le President de Montesquieu preserved his elegant wit, for they had sent him a Jesuit. I admire that passage—I cannot say of his life, but of his death—the passage—another joke!—The passage from life to death—the Passage Montesquieu!"
Victorin gazed sadly at his father-in-law, wondering whether folly and vanity were not forces on a par with true greatness of soul. The causes that act on the springs of the soul seem to be quite independent of the results. Can it be that the fortitude which upholds a great criminal is the same as that which a Champcenetz so proudly walks to the scaffold?
By the end of the week Madame Crevel was buried, after dreadful sufferings; and Crevel followed her within two days. Thus the marriage-contract was annulled. Crevel was heir to Valerie.
On the very day after the funeral, the friar called again on the lawyer, who received him in perfect silence. The monk held out his hand without a word, and without a word Victorin Hulot gave him eighty thousand-franc notes, taken from a sum of money found in Crevel's desk.
Young Madame Hulot inherited the estate of Presles and thirty thousand francs a year.
Madame Crevel had bequeathed a sum of three hundred thousand francs to Baron Hulot. Her scrofulous boy Stanislas was to inherit, at his majority, the Hotel Crevel and eighty thousand francs a year.