Cousin Betty/Section 47

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Cousin Betty by Honoré de Balzac, translated by James Waring
Section 47

The shop was like one of those little offices where travelers by omnibus wait the vehicles to take them on to their destination. A private staircase led up, no doubt, to the living-rooms on the entresol which were let with the shop. Madame Hulot saw a dirty writing-table of some light wood, some letter-boxes, and a wretched second-hand chair. A cap with a peak and a greasy green shade for the eyes suggested either precautions for disguise, or weak eyes, which was not unlikely in an old man.

"He is upstairs," said the stove-fitter. "I will go up and tell him to come down."

Adeline lowered her veil and took a seat. A heavy step made the narrow stairs creak, and Adeline could not restrain a piercing cry when she saw her husband, Baron Hulot, in a gray knitted jersey, old gray flannel trousers, and slippers.

"What is your business, madame?" said Hulot, with a flourish.

She rose, seized Hulot by the arm, and said in a voice hoarse with emotion:

"At last—I have found you!"

"Adeline!" exclaimed the Baron in bewilderment, and he locked the shop door. "Joseph, go out the back way," he added to the stove-fitter.

"My dear!" she said, forgetting everything in her excessive joy, "you can come home to us all; we are rich. Your son draws a hundred and sixty thousand francs a year! Your pension is released; there are fifteen thousand francs of arrears you can get on showing that you are alive. Valerie is dead, and left you three hundred thousand francs.

"Your name is quite forgotten by this time; you may reappear in the world, and you will find a fortune awaiting you at your son's house. Come; our happiness will be complete. For nearly three years I have been seeking you, and I felt so sure of finding you that a room is ready waiting for you. Oh! come away from this, come away from the dreadful state I see you in!"

"I am very willing," said the bewildered Baron, "but can I take the girl?"

"Hector, give her up! Do that much for your Adeline, who has never before asked you to make the smallest sacrifice. I promise you I will give the child a marriage portion; I will see that she marries well, and has some education. Let it be said of one of the women who have given you happiness that she too is happy; and do not relapse into vice, into the mire."

"So it was you," said the Baron, with a smile, "who wanted to see me married?—Wait a few minutes," he added; "I will go upstairs and dress; I have some decent clothes in a trunk."

Adeline, left alone, and looking round the squalid shop, melted into tears.

"He has been living here, and we rolling in wealth!" said she to herself. "Poor man, he has indeed been punished—he who was elegance itself."

The stove-fitter returned to make his bow to his benefactress, and she desired him to fetch a coach. When he came back, she begged him to give little Atala Judici a home, and to take her away at once.

"And tell her that if she will place herself under the guidance of Monsieur the Cure of the Madeleine, on the day when she attends her first Communion I will give her thirty thousand francs and find her a good husband, some worthy young man."

"My eldest son, then madame! He is two-and-twenty, and he worships the child."

The Baron now came down; there were tears in his eyes.

"You are forcing me to desert the only creature who had ever begun to love me at all as you do!" said he in a whisper to his wife. "She is crying bitterly, and I cannot abandon her so—"

"Be quite easy, Hector. She will find a home with honest people, and I will answer for her conduct."

"Well, then, I can go with you," said the Baron, escorting his wife to the cab.

Hector, the Baron d'Ervy once more, had put on a blue coat and trousers, a white waistcoat, a black stock, and gloves. When the Baroness had taken her seat in the vehicle, Atala slipped in like an eel.

"Oh, madame," she said, "let me go with you. I will be so good, so obedient; I will do whatever you wish; but do not part me from my Daddy Vyder, my kind Daddy who gives me such nice things. I shall be beaten—"

"Come, come, Atala," said the Baron, "this lady is my wife—we must part—"

"She! As old as that! and shaking like a leaf!" said the child. "Look at her head!" and she laughingly mimicked the Baroness' palsy.

The stove-fitter, who had run after the girl, came to the carriage door.

"Take her away!" said Adeline. The man put his arms round Atala and fairly carried her off.

"Thanks for such a sacrifice, my dearest," said Adeline, taking the Baron's hand and clutching it with delirious joy. "How much you are altered! you must have suffered so much! What a surprise for Hortense and for your son!"

Adeline talked as lovers talk who meet after a long absence, of a hundred things at once.

In ten minutes the Baron and his wife reached the Rue Louis-le-Grand, and there Adeline found this note awaiting her:—

"MADAME LA BARONNE,—
"Monsieur le Baron Hulot d'Ervy lived for one month in the Rue de Charonne under the name of Thorec, an anagram of Hector. He is now in the Passage du Soleil by the name of Vyder. He says he is an Alsatian, and does writing, and he lives with a girl named Atala Judici. Be very cautious, madame, for search is on foot; the Baron is wanted, on what score I know not.
"The actress has kept her word, and remains, as ever,

"Madame la Baronne, your humble servant, "J. M."

The Baron's return was hailed with such joy as reconciled him to domestic life. He forgot little Atala Judici, for excesses of profligacy had reduced him to the volatility of feeling that is characteristic of childhood. But the happiness of the family was dashed by the change that had come over him. He had been still hale when he had gone away from his home; he had come back almost a hundred, broken, bent, and his expression even debased.

A splendid dinner, improvised by Celestine, reminded the old man of the singer's banquets; he was dazzled by the splendor of his home.

"A feast in honor of the return of the prodigal father?" said he in a murmur to Adeline.

"Hush!" said she, "all is forgotten."

"And Lisbeth?" he asked, not seeing the old maid.

"I am sorry to say that she is in bed," replied Hortense. "She can never get up, and we shall have the grief of losing her ere long. She hopes to see you after dinner."

At daybreak next morning Victorin Hulot was informed by the porter's wife that soldiers of the municipal guard were posted all round the premises; the police demanded Baron Hulot. The bailiff, who had followed the woman, laid a summons in due form before the lawyer, and asked him whether he meant to pay his father's debts. The claim was for ten thousand francs at the suit of an usurer named Samanon, who had probably lent the Baron two or three thousand at most. Victorin desired the bailiff to dismiss his men, and paid.

"But is it the last?" he anxiously wondered.

Lisbeth, miserable already at seeing the family so prosperous, could not survive this happy event. She grew so rapidly worse that Bianchon gave her but a week to live, conquered at last in the long struggle in which she had scored so many victories.

She kept the secret of her hatred even through a painful death from pulmonary consumption. And, indeed, she had the supreme satisfaction of seeing Adeline, Hortense, Hulot, Victorin, Steinbock, Celestine, and their children standing in tears round her bed and mourning for her as the angel of the family.

Baron Hulot, enjoying a course of solid food such as he had not known for nearly three years, recovered flesh and strength, and was almost himself again. This improvement was such a joy to Adeline that her nervous trembling perceptibly diminished.

"She will be happy after all," said Lisbeth to herself on the day before she died, as she saw the veneration with which the Baron regarded his wife, of whose sufferings he had heard from Hortense and Victorin.

And vindictiveness hastened Cousin Betty's end. The family followed her, weeping, to the grave.

The Baron and Baroness, having reached the age which looks for perfect rest, gave up the handsome rooms on the first floor to the Count and Countess Steinbock, and took those above. The Baron by his son's exertions found an official position in the management of a railroad, in 1845, with a salary of six thousand francs, which, added to the six thousand of his pension and the money left to him by Madame Crevel, secured him an income of twenty-four thousand francs. Hortense having enjoyed her independent income during the three years of separation from Wenceslas, Victorin now invested the two hundred thousand francs he had in trust, in his sister's name and he allowed her twelve thousand francs.

Wenceslas, as the husband of a rich woman, was not unfaithful, but he was an idler; he could not make up his mind to begin any work, however trifling. Once more he became the artist in partibus; he was popular in society, and consulted by amateurs; in short, he became a critic, like all the feeble folk who fall below their promise.

Thus each household, though living as one family, had its own fortune. The Baroness, taught by bitter experience, left the management of matters to her son, and the Baron was thus reduced to his salary, in hope that the smallness of his income would prevent his relapsing into mischief. And by some singular good fortune, on which neither the mother nor the son had reckoned, Hulot seemed to have foresworn the fair sex. His subdued behaviour, ascribed to the course of nature, so completely reassured the family, that they enjoyed to the full his recovered amiability and delightful qualities. He was unfailingly attentive to his wife and children, escorted them to the play, reappeared in society, and did the honors to his son's house with exquisite grace. In short, this reclaimed prodigal was the joy of his family.

He was a most agreeable old man, a ruin, but full of wit, having retained no more of his vice than made it an added social grace.

Of course, everybody was quite satisfied and easy. The young people and the Baroness lauded the model father to the skies, forgetting the death of the two uncles. Life cannot go on without much forgetting!

Madame Victorin, who managed this enormous household with great skill, due, no doubt, to Lisbeth's training, had found it necessary to have a man-cook. This again necessitated a kitchen-maid. Kitchen-maids are in these days ambitious creatures, eager to detect the chef's secrets, and to become cooks as soon as they have learnt to stir a sauce. Consequently, the kitchen-maid is liable to frequent change.

At the beginning of 1845 Celestine engaged as kitchen-maid a sturdy Normandy peasant come from Isigny—short-waisted, with strong red arms, a common face, as dull as an "occasional piece" at the play, and hardly to be persuaded out of wearing the classical linen cap peculiar to the women of Lower Normandy. This girl, as buxom as a wet-nurse, looked as if she would burst the blue cotton check in which she clothed her person. Her florid face might have been hewn out of stone, so hard were its tawny outlines.

Of course no attention was paid to the advent in the house of this girl, whose name was Agathe—an ordinary, wide-awake specimen, such as is daily imported from the provinces. Agathe had no attractions for the cook, her tongue was too rough, for she had served in a suburban inn, waiting on carters; and instead of making a conquest of her chief and winning from him the secrets of the high art of the kitchen, she was the object of his great contempt. The chef's attentions were, in fact, devoted to Louise, the Countess Steinbock's maid. The country girl, thinking herself ill-used, complained bitterly that she was always sent out of the way on some pretext when the chef was finishing a dish or putting the crowning touch to a sauce.

"I am out of luck," said she, "and I shall go to another place."

And yet she stayed though she had twice given notice to quit.

One night, Adeline, roused by some unusual noise, did not see Hector in the bed he occupied near hers; for they slept side by side in two beds, as beseemed an old couple. She lay awake an hour, but he did not return. Seized with a panic, fancying some tragic end had overtaken him—an apoplectic attack, perhaps—she went upstairs to the floor occupied by the servants, and then was attracted to the room where Agathe slept, partly by seeing a light below the door, and partly by the murmur of voices. She stood still in dismay on recognizing the voice of her husband, who, a victim to Agathe's charms, to vanquish this strapping wench's not disinterested resistance, went to the length of saying:

"My wife has not long to live, and if you like you may be a Baroness."

Adeline gave a cry, dropped her candlestick, and fled.

Three days later the Baroness, who had received the last sacraments, was dying, surrounded by her weeping family.

Just before she died, she took her husband's hand and pressed it, murmuring in his ear:

"My dear, I had nothing left to give up to you but my life. In a minute or two you will be free, and can make another Baronne Hulot."

And, rare sight, tears oozed from her dead eyes.

This desperateness of vice had vanquished the patience of the angel, who, on the brink of eternity, gave utterance to the only reproach she had ever spoken in her life.

The Baron left Paris three days after his wife's funeral. Eleven months after Victorin heard indirectly of his father's marriage to Mademoiselle Agathe Piquetard, solemnized at Isigny, on the 1st February 1846.

"Parents may hinder their children's marriage, but children cannot interfere with the insane acts of their parents in their second childhood," said Maitre Hulot to Maitre Popinot, the second son of the Minister of Commerce, who was discussing this marriage.