One day, about the middle of July 1838, one of the carriages, then lately introduced to Paris cabstands, and known as Milords, was driving down the Rue de l’Universite, conveying a stout man of middle height in the uniform of a captain of the National Guard.
Among the Paris crowd, who are supposed to be so clever, there are some men who fancy themselves infinitely more attractive in uniform than in their ordinary clothes, and who attribute to women so depraved a taste that they believe they will be favorably impressed by the aspect of a busby and of military accoutrements.
The countenance of this Captain of the Second Company beamed with a self-satisfaction that added splendor to his ruddy and somewhat chubby face. The halo of glory that a fortune made in business gives to a retired tradesman sat on his brow, and stamped him as one of the elect of Paris—at least a retired deputy-mayor of his quarter of the town. And you may be sure that the ribbon of the Legion of Honor was not missing from his breast, gallantly padded a la Prussienne. Proudly seated in one corner of the milord, this splendid person let his gaze wander over the passers-by, who, in Paris, often thus meet an ingratiating smile meant for sweet eyes that are absent.
The vehicle stopped in the part of the street between the Rue de Bellechasse and the Rue de Bourgogne, at the door of a large, newly-build house, standing on part of the court-yard of an ancient mansion that had a garden. The old house remained in its original state, beyond the courtyard curtailed by half its extent.
Only from the way in which the officer accepted the assistance of the coachman to help him out, it was plain that he was past fifty. There are certain movements so undisguisedly heavy that they are as tell-tale as a register of birth. The captain put on his lemon-colored right-hand glove, and, without any question to the gatekeeper, went up the outer steps to the ground of the new house with a look that proclaimed, “She is mine!”
The concierges of Paris have sharp eyes; they do not stop visitors who wear an order, have a blue uniform, and walk ponderously; in short, they know a rich man when they see him.
This ground floor was entirely occupied by Monsieur le Baron Hulot d’Ervy, Commissary General under the Republic, retired army contractor, and at the present time at the head of one of the most important departments of the War Office, Councillor of State, officer of the Legion of Honor, and so forth.
This Baron Hulot had taken the name of d’Ervy—the place of his birth—to distinguish him from his brother, the famous General Hulot, Colonel of the Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard, created by the Emperor Comte de Forzheim after the campaign of 1809. The Count, the elder brother, being responsible for his junior, had, with paternal care, placed him in the commissariat, where, thanks to the services of the two brothers, the Baron deserved and won Napoleon’s good graces. After 1807, Baron Hulot was Commissary General for the army in Spain.
Having rung the bell, the citizen-captain made strenuous efforts to pull his coat into place, for it had rucked up as much at the back as in front, pushed out of shape by the working of a piriform stomach. Being admitted as soon as the servant in livery saw him, the important and imposing personage followed the man, who opened the door of the drawing-room, announcing:
On hearing the name, singularly appropriate to the figure of the man who bore it, a tall, fair woman, evidently young-looking for her age, rose as if she had received an electric shock.
“Hortense, my darling, go into the garden with your Cousin Betty,” she said hastily to her daughter, who was working at some embroidery at her mother’s side.
After curtseying prettily to the captain, Mademoiselle Hortense went out by a glass door, taking with her a withered-looking spinster, who looked older than the Baroness, though she was five years younger.
“They are settling your marriage,” said Cousin Betty in the girl’s ear, without seeming at all offended at the way in which the Baroness had dismissed them, counting her almost as zero.
The cousin’s dress might, at need, have explained this free-and-easy demeanor. The old maid wore a merino gown of a dark plum color, of which the cut and trimming dated from the year of the Restoration; a little worked collar, worth perhaps three francs; and a common straw hat with blue satin ribbons edged with straw plait, such as the old-clothes buyers wear at market. On looking down at her kid shoes, made, it was evident, by the veriest cobbler, a stranger would have hesitated to recognize Cousin Betty as a member of the family, for she looked exactly like a journeywoman sempstress. But she did not leave the room without bestowing a little friendly nod on Monsieur Crevel, to which that gentleman responded by a look of mutual understanding.
“You are coming to us to-morrow, I hope, Mademoiselle Fischer?” said he.
“You have no company?” asked Cousin Betty.
“My children and yourself, no one else,” replied the visitor.
“Very well,” replied she; “depend on me.”
“And here am I, madame, at your orders,” said the citizen-captain, bowing again to Madame Hulot.
He gave such a look at Madame Hulot as Tartuffe casts at Elmire—when a provincial actor plays the part and thinks it necessary to emphasize its meaning—at Poitiers, or at Coutances.
“If you will come into this room with me, we shall be more conveniently placed for talking business than we are in this room,” said Madame Hulot, going to an adjoining room, which, as the apartment was arranged, served as a cardroom.
It was divided by a slight partition from a boudoir looking out on the garden, and Madame Hulot left her visitor to himself for a minute, for she thought it wise to shut the window and the door of the boudoir, so that no one should get in and listen. She even took the precaution of shutting the glass door of the drawing-room, smiling on her daughter and her cousin, whom she saw seated in an old summer-house at the end of the garden. As she came back she left the cardroom door open, so as to hear if any one should open that of the drawing-room to come in.
As she came and went, the Baroness, seen by nobody, allowed her face to betray all her thoughts, and any one who could have seen her would have been shocked to see her agitation. But when she finally came back from the glass door of the drawing-room, as she entered the cardroom, her face was hidden behind the impenetrable reserve which every woman, even the most candid, seems to have at her command.
During all these preparations—odd, to say the least—the National Guardsman studied the furniture of the room in which he found himself. As he noted the silk curtains, once red, now faded to dull purple by the sunshine, and frayed in the pleats by long wear; the carpet, from which the hues had faded; the discolored gilding of the furniture; and the silk seats, discolored in patches, and wearing into strips—expressions of scorn, satisfaction, and hope dawned in succession without disguise on his stupid tradesman’s face. He looked at himself in the glass over an old clock of the Empire, and was contemplating the general effect, when the rustle of her silk skirt announced the Baroness. He at once struck at attitude.
After dropping on to a sofa, which had been a very handsome one in the year 1809, the Baroness, pointing to an armchair with the arms ending in bronze sphinxes’ heads, while the paint was peeling from the wood, which showed through in many places, signed to Crevel to be seated.
“All the precautions you are taking, madame, would seem full of promise to a——”
“To a lover,” said she, interrupting him.
“The word is too feeble,” said he, placing his right hand on his heart, and rolling his eyes in a way which almost always makes a woman laugh when she, in cold blood, sees such a look. “A lover! A lover? Say a man bewitched——”
“Listen, Monsieur Crevel,” said the Baroness, too anxious to be able to laugh, “you are fifty—ten years younger than Monsieur Hulot, I know; but at my age a woman’s follies ought to be justified by beauty, youth, fame, superior merit—some one of the splendid qualities which can dazzle us to the point of making us forget all else—even at our age. Though you may have fifty thousand francs a year, your age counterbalances your fortune; thus you have nothing whatever of what a woman looks for——”
“But love!” said the officer, rising and coming forward. “Such love as——”
“No, monsieur, such obstinacy!” said the Baroness, interrupting him to put an end to his absurdity.
“Yes, obstinacy,” said he, “and love; but something stronger still—a claim——”
“A claim!” cried Madame Hulot, rising sublime with scorn, defiance, and indignation. “But,” she went on, “this will bring us to no issues; I did not ask you to come here to discuss the matter which led to your banishment in spite of the connection between our families——”
“I had fancied so.”
“What! still?” cried she. “Do you not see, monsieur, by the entire ease and freedom with which I can speak of lovers and love, of everything least creditable to a woman, that I am perfectly secure in my own virtue? I fear nothing—not even to shut myself in alone with you. Is that the conduct of a weak woman? You know full well why I begged you to come.”
“No, madame,” replied Crevel, with an assumption of great coldness. He pursed up his lips, and again struck an attitude.
“Well, I will be brief, to shorten our common discomfort,” said the Baroness, looking at Crevel.
Crevel made an ironical bow, in which a man who knew the race would have recognized the graces of a bagman.
“Our son married your daughter——”
“And if it were to do again——” said Crevel.
“It would not be done at all, I suspect,” said the baroness hastily. “However, you have nothing to complain of. My son is not only one of the leading pleaders of Paris, but for the last year he has sat as Deputy, and his maiden speech was brilliant enough to lead us to suppose that ere long he will be in office. Victorin has twice been called upon to report on important measures; and he might even now, if he chose, be made Attorney-General in the Court of Appeal. So, if you mean to say that your son-in-law has no fortune——”
“Worse than that, madame, a son-in-law whom I am obliged to maintain,” replied Crevel. “Of the five hundred thousand francs that formed my daughter’s marriage portion, two hundred thousand have vanished—God knows how!—in paying the young gentleman’s debts, in furnishing his house splendaciously—a house costing five hundred thousand francs, and bringing in scarcely fifteen thousand, since he occupies the larger part of it, while he owes two hundred and sixty thousand francs of the purchase-money. The rent he gets barely pays the interest on the debt. I have had to give my daughter twenty thousand francs this year to help her to make both ends meet. And then my son-in-law, who was making thirty thousand francs a year at the Assizes, I am told, is going to throw that up for the Chamber——”
“This, again, Monsieur Crevel, is beside the mark; we are wandering from the point. Still, to dispose of it finally, it may be said that if my son gets into office, if he has you made an officer of the Legion of Honor and councillor of the municipality of Paris, you, as a retired perfumer, will not have much to complain of——”
“Ah! there we are again, madame! Yes, I am a tradesman, a shopkeeper, a retail dealer in almond-paste, eau-de-Portugal, and hair-oil, and was only too much honored when my only daughter was married to the son of Monsieur le Baron Hulot d’Ervy—my daughter will be a Baroness! This is Regency, Louis XV., (Eil-de-boeuf—quite tip-top!—very good.) I love Celestine as a man loves his only child—so well indeed, that, to preserve her from having either brother or sister, I resigned myself to all the privations of a widower—in Paris, and in the prime of life, madame. But you must understand that, in spite of this extravagant affection for my daughter, I do not intend to reduce my fortune for the sake of your son, whose expenses are not wholly accounted for—in my eyes, as an old man of business.”
“Monsieur, you may at this day see in the Ministry of Commerce Monsieur Popinot, formerly a druggist in the Rue des Lombards——”
“And a friend of mine, madame,” said the ex-perfumer. “For I, Celestin Crevel, foreman once to old Cesar Birotteau, brought up the said Cesar Birotteau’s stock; and he was Popinot’s father-in-law. Why, that very Popinot was no more than a shopman in the establishment, and he is the first to remind me of it; for he is not proud, to do him justice, to men in a good position with an income of sixty thousand francs in the funds.”
“Well then, monsieur, the notions you term ‘Regency’ are quite out of date at a time when a man is taken at his personal worth; and that is what you did when you married your daughter to my son.”
“But you do not know how the marriage was brought about!” cried Crevel. “Oh, that cursed bachelor life! But for my misconduct, my Celestine might at this day be Vicomtesse Popinot!”
“Once more have done with recriminations over accomplished facts,” said the Baroness anxiously. “Let us rather discuss the complaints I have found on your strange behavior. My daughter Hortense had a chance of marrying; the match depended entirely on you; I believed you felt some sentiments of generosity; I thought you would do justice to a woman who has never had a thought in her heart for any man but her husband, that you would have understood how necessary it is for her not to receive a man who may compromise her, and that for the honor of the family with which you are allied you would have been eager to promote Hortense’s settlement with Monsieur le Conseiller Lebas.—And it is you, monsieur, you have hindered the marriage.”
“Madame,” said the ex-perfumer, “I acted the part of an honest man. I was asked whether the two hundred thousand francs to be settled on Mademoiselle Hortense would be forthcoming. I replied exactly in these words: ‘I would not answer for it. My son-in-law, to whom the Hulots had promised the same sum, was in debt; and I believe that if Monsieur Hulot d’Ervy were to die to-morrow, his widow would have nothing to live on.’—There, fair lady.”
“And would you have said as much, monsieur,” asked Madame Hulot, looking Crevel steadily in the face, “if I had been false to my duty?”
“I should not be in a position to say it, dearest Adeline,” cried this singular adorer, interrupting the Baroness, “for you would have found the amount in my pocket-book.”
And adding action to word, the fat guardsman knelt down on one knee and kissed Madame Hulot’s hand, seeing that his speech had filled her with speechless horror, which he took for hesitancy.
“What, buy my daughter’s fortune at the cost of——? Rise, monsieur—or I ring the bell.”
Crevel rose with great difficulty. This fact made him so furious that he again struck his favorite attitude. Most men have some habitual position by which they fancy that they show to the best advantage the good points bestowed on them by nature. This attitude in Crevel consisted in crossing his arms like Napoleon, his head showing three-quarters face, and his eyes fixed on the horizon, as the painter has shown the Emperor in his portrait.
“To be faithful,” he began, with well-acted indignation, “so faithful to a liber——”
“To a husband who is worthy of such fidelity,” Madame Hulot put in, to hinder Crevel from saying a word she did not choose to hear.
“Come, madame; you wrote to bid me here, you ask the reasons for my conduct, you drive me to extremities with your imperial airs, your scorn, and your contempt! Any one might think I was a Negro. But I repeat it, and you may believe me, I have a right to—to make love to you, for—— But no; I love you well enough to hold my tongue.”
“You may speak, monsieur. In a few days I shall be eight-and-forty; I am no prude; I can hear whatever you can say.”
“Then will you give me your word of honor as an honest woman—for you are, alas for me! an honest woman—never to mention my name or to say that it was I who betrayed the secret?”
“If that is the condition on which you speak, I will swear never to tell any one from whom I heard the horrors you propose to tell me, not even my husband.”
“I should think not indeed, for only you and he are concerned.”
Madame Hulot turned pale.
“Oh, if you still really love Hulot, it will distress you. Shall I say no more?”
“Speak, monsieur; for by your account you wish to justify in my eyes the extraordinary declarations you have chosen to make me, and your persistency in tormenting a woman of my age, whose only wish is to see her daughter married, and then—to die in peace——”
“You see; you are unhappy.”
“Yes, beautiful, noble creature!” cried Crevel. “You have indeed been too wretched!”
“Monsieur, be silent and go—or speak to me as you ought.”
“Do you know, madame, how Master Hulot and I first made acquaintance?—At our mistresses’, madame.”
“Yes, madame, at our mistresses’,” Crevel repeated in a melodramatic tone, and leaving his position to wave his right hand.
“Well, and what then?” said the Baroness coolly, to Crevel’s great amazement.
Such mean seducers cannot understand a great soul.
“I, a widower five years since,” Crevel began, in the tone of a man who has a story to tell, “and not wishing to marry again for the sake of the daughter I adore, not choosing either to cultivate any such connection in my own establishment, though I had at the time a very pretty lady-accountant. I set up, ‘on her own account,’ as they say, a little sempstress of fifteen—really a miracle of beauty, with whom I fell desperately in love. And in fact, madame, I asked an aunt of my own, my mother’s sister, whom I sent for from the country, to live with the sweet creature and keep an eye on her, that she might behave as well as might be in this rather—what shall I say—shady?—no, delicate position.
“The child, whose talent for music was striking, had masters, she was educated—I had to give her something to do. Besides, I wished to be at once her father, her benefactor, and—well, out with it—her lover; to kill two birds with one stone, a good action and a sweetheart. For five years I was very happy. The girl had one of those voices that make the fortune of a theatre; I can only describe her by saying that she is a Duprez in petticoats. It cost me two thousand francs a year only to cultivate her talent as a singer. She made me music-mad; I took a box at the opera for her and for my daughter, and went there alternate evenings with Celestine or Josepha.”
“What, the famous singer?”
“Yes, madame,” said Crevel with pride, “the famous Josepha owes everything to me.—At last, in 1834, when the child was twenty, believing that I had attached her to me for ever, and being very weak where she was concerned, I thought I would give her a little amusement, and I introduced her to a pretty little actress, Jenny Cadine, whose life had been somewhat like her own. This actress also owed everything to a protector who had brought her up in leading-strings. That protector was Baron Hulot.”
“I know that,” said the Baroness, in a calm voice without the least agitation.
“Bless me!” cried Crevel, more and more astounded. “Well! But do you know that your monster of a husband took Jenny Cadine in hand at the age of thirteen?”
“What then?” said the Baroness.
“As Jenny Cadine and Josepha were both aged twenty when they first met,” the ex-tradesman went on, “the Baron had been playing the part of Louis XV. to Mademoiselle de Romans ever since 1826, and you were twelve years younger then——”
“I had my reasons, monsieur, for leaving Monsieur Hulot his liberty.”
“That falsehood, madame, will surely be enough to wipe out every sin you have ever committed, and to open to you the gates of Paradise,” replied Crevel, with a knowing air that brought the color to the Baroness’ cheeks. “Sublime and adored woman, tell that to those who will believe it, but not to old Crevel, who has, I may tell you, feasted too often as one of four with your rascally husband not to know what your high merits are! Many a time has he blamed himself when half tipsy as he has expatiated on your perfections. Oh, I know you well!—A libertine might hesitate between you and a girl of twenty. I do not hesitate——”
“Well, I say no more. But you must know, saintly and noble woman, that a husband under certain circumstances will tell things about his wife to his mistress that will mightily amuse her.”
Tears of shame hanging to Madame Hulot’s long lashes checked the National Guardsman. He stopped short, and forgot his attitude.
“To proceed,” said he. “We became intimate, the Baron and I, through the two hussies. The Baron, like all bad lots, is very pleasant, a thoroughly jolly good fellow. Yes, he took my fancy, the old rascal. He could be so funny!—Well, enough of those reminiscences. We got to be like brothers. The scoundrel—quite Regency in his notions—tried indeed to deprave me altogether, preached Saint-Simonism as to women, and all sorts of lordly ideas; but, you see, I was fond enough of my girl to have married her, only I was afraid of having children.
“Then between two old daddies, such friends as—as we were, what more natural than that we should think of our children marrying each other?—Three months after his son had married my Celestine, Hulot—I don’t know how I can utter the wretch’s name! he has cheated us both, madame—well, the villain did me out of my little Josepha. The scoundrel knew that he was supplanted in the heart of Jenny Cadine by a young lawyer and by an artist—only two of them!—for the girl had more and more of a howling success, and he stole my sweet little girl, a perfect darling—but you must have seen her at the opera; he got her an engagement there. Your husband is not so well behaved as I am. I am ruled as straight as a sheet of music-paper. He had dropped a good deal of money on Jenny Cadine, who must have cost him near on thirty thousand francs a year. Well, I can only tell you that he is ruining himself outright for Josepha.
“Josepha, madame, is a Jewess. Her name is Mirah, the anagram of Hiram, an Israelite mark that stamps her, for she was a foundling picked up in Germany, and the inquiries I have made prove that she is the illegitimate child of a rich Jew banker. The life of the theatre, and, above all, the teaching of Jenny Cadine, Madame Schontz, Malaga, and Carabine, as to the way to treat an old man, have developed, in the child whom I had kept in a respectable and not too expensive way of life, all the native Hebrew instinct for gold and jewels—for the golden calf.
“So this famous singer, hungering for plunder, now wants to be rich, very rich. She tried her ‘prentice hand on Baron Hulot, and soon plucked him bare—plucked him, ay, and singed him to the skin. The miserable man, after trying to vie with one of the Kellers and with the Marquis d’Esgrignon, both perfectly mad about Josepha, to say nothing of unknown worshipers, is about to see her carried off by that very rich Duke, who is such a patron of the arts. Oh, what is his name?—a dwarf.—Ah, the Duc d’Herouville. This fine gentleman insists on having Josepha for his very own, and all that set are talking about it; the Baron knows nothing of it as yet; for it is the same in the Thirteenth Arrondissement as in every other: the lover, like the husband, is last to get the news.
“Now, do you understand my claim? Your husband, dear lady, has robbed me of my joy in life, the only happiness I have known since I became a widower. Yes, if I had not been so unlucky as to come across that old rip, Josepha would still be mine; for I, you know, should never have placed her on the stage. She would have lived obscure, well conducted, and mine. Oh! if you could but have seen her eight years ago, slight and wiry, with the golden skin of an Andalusian, as they say, black hair as shiny as satin, an eye that flashed lightning under long brown lashes, the style of a duchess in every movement, the modesty of a dependent, decent grace, and the pretty ways of a wild fawn. And by that Hulot’s doing all this charm and purity has been degraded to a man-trap, a money-box for five-franc pieces! The girl is the Queen of Trollops; and nowadays she humbugs every one—she who knew nothing, not even that word.”
At this stage the retired perfumer wiped his eyes, which were full of tears. The sincerity of his grief touched Madame Hulot, and roused her from the meditation into which she had sunk.
“Tell me, madame, is a man of fifty-two likely to find such another jewel? At my age love costs thirty thousand francs a year. It is through your husband’s experience that I know the price, and I love Celestine too truly to be her ruin. When I saw you, at the first evening party you gave in our honor, I wondered how that scoundrel Hulot could keep a Jenny Cadine—you had the manner of an Empress. You do not look thirty,” he went on. “To me, madame, you look young, and you are beautiful. On my word of honor, that evening I was struck to the heart. I said to myself, ‘If I had not Josepha, since old Hulot neglects his wife, she would fit me like a glove.’ Forgive me—it is a reminiscence of my old business. The perfumer will crop up now and then, and that is what keeps me from standing to be elected deputy.
“And then, when I was so abominably deceived by the Baron, for really between old rips like us our friend’s mistress should be sacred, I swore I would have his wife. It is but justice. The Baron could say nothing; we are certain of impunity. You showed me the door like a mangy dog at the first words I uttered as to the state of my feelings; you only made my passion—my obstinacy, if you will—twice as strong, and you shall be mine.”
“I do not know; but it will come to pass. You see, madame, an idiot of a perfumer—retired from business—who has but one idea in his head, is stronger than a clever fellow who has a thousand. I am smitten with you, and you are the means of my revenge; it is like being in love twice over. I am speaking to you quite frankly, as a man who knows what he means. I speak coldly to you, just as you do to me, when you say, ‘I never will be yours,’ In fact, as they say, I play the game with the cards on the table. Yes, you shall be mine, sooner or later; if you were fifty, you should still be my mistress. And it will be; for I expect anything from your husband!”
Madame Hulot looked at this vulgar intriguer with such a fixed stare of terror, that he thought she had gone mad, and he stopped.
“You insisted on it, you heaped me with scorn, you defied me—and I have spoken,” said he, feeling that he must justify the ferocity of his last words.
“Oh, my daughter, my daughter,” moaned the Baroness in a voice like a dying woman’s.
“Oh! I have forgotten all else,” Crevel went on. “The day when I was robbed of Josepha I was like a tigress robbed of her cubs; in short, as you see me now.—Your daughter? Yes, I regard her as the means of winning you. Yes, I put a spoke in her marriage—and you will not get her married without my help! Handsome as Mademoiselle Hortense is, she needs a fortune——”
“Alas! yes,” said the Baroness, wiping her eyes.
“Well, just ask your husband for ten thousand francs,” said Crevel, striking his attitude once more. He waited a minute, like an actor who has made a point.
“If he had the money, he would give it to the woman who will take Josepha’s place,” he went on, emphasizing his tones. “Does a man ever pull up on the road he has taken? In the first place, he is too sweet on women. There is a happy medium in all things, as our King has told us. And then his vanity is implicated! He is a handsome man!—He would bring you all to ruin for his pleasure; in fact, you are already on the highroad to the workhouse. Why, look, never since I set foot in your house have you been able to do up your drawing-room furniture. ‘Hard up’ is the word shouted by every slit in the stuff. Where will you find a son-in-law who would not turn his back in horror of the ill-concealed evidence of the most cruel misery there is—that of people in decent society? I have kept shop, and I know. There is no eye so quick as that of the Paris tradesman to detect real wealth from its sham.—You have no money,” he said, in a lower voice. “It is written everywhere, even on your man-servant’s coat.
“Would you like me to disclose any more hideous mysteries that are kept from you?”
“Monsieur,” cried Madame Hulot, whose handkerchief was wet through with her tears, “enough, enough!”
“My son-in-law, I tell you, gives his father money, and this is what I particularly wanted to come to when I began by speaking of your son’s expenses. But I keep an eye on my daughter’s interests, be easy.”
“Oh, if I could but see my daughter married, and die!” cried the poor woman, quite losing her head.
“Well, then, this is the way,” said the ex-perfumer.
Madame Hulot looked at Crevel with a hopeful expression, which so completely changed her countenance, that this alone ought to have touched the man’s feelings and have led him to abandon his monstrous schemes.
“You will still be handsome ten years hence,” Crevel went on, with his arms folded; “be kind to me, and Mademoiselle Hulot will marry. Hulot has given me the right, as I have explained to you, to put the matter crudely, and he will not be angry. In three years I have saved the interest on my capital, for my dissipations have been restricted. I have three hundred thousand francs in the bank over and above my invested fortune—they are yours——”
“Go,” said Madame Hulot. “Go, monsieur, and never let me see you again. But for the necessity in which you placed me to learn the secret of your cowardly conduct with regard to the match I had planned for Hortense—yes, cowardly!” she repeated, in answer to a gesture from Crevel. “How can you load a poor girl, a pretty, innocent creature, with such a weight of enmity? But for the necessity that goaded me as a mother, you would never have spoken to me again, never again have come within my doors. Thirty-two years of an honorable and loyal life shall not be swept away by a blow from Monsieur Crevel——”
“The retired perfumer, successor to Cesar Birotteau at the Queen of the Roses, Rue Saint-Honore,” added Crevel, in mocking tones. “Deputy-mayor, captain in the National Guard, Chevalier of the Legion of Honor—exactly what my predecessor was!”
“Monsieur,” said the Baroness, “if, after twenty years of constancy, Monsieur Hulot is tired of his wife, that is nobody’s concern but mine. As you see, he has kept his infidelity a mystery, for I did not know that he had succeeded you in the affections of Mademoiselle Josepha——”
“Oh, it has cost him a pretty penny, madame. His singing-bird has cost him more than a hundred thousand francs in these two years. Ah, ha! you have not seen the end of it!”
“Have done with all this, Monsieur Crevel. I will not, for your sake, forego the happiness a mother knows who can embrace her children without a single pang of remorse in her heart, who sees herself respected and loved by her family; and I will give up my soul to God unspotted——”
“Amen!” exclaimed Crevel, with the diabolical rage that embitters the face of these pretenders when they fail for the second time in such an attempt. “You do not yet know the latter end of poverty—shame, disgrace.—I have tried to warn you; I would have saved you, you and your daughter. Well, you must study the modern parable of the Prodigal Father from A to Z. Your tears and your pride move me deeply,” said Crevel, seating himself, “for it is frightful to see the woman one loves weeping. All I can promise you, dear Adeline, is to do nothing against your interests or your husband’s. Only never send to me for information. That is all.”
“What is to be done?” cried Madame Hulot.
Up to now the Baroness had bravely faced the threefold torment which this explanation inflicted on her; for she was wounded as a woman, as a mother, and as a wife. In fact, so long as her son’s father-in-law was insolent and offensive, she had found the strength in her resistance to the aggressive tradesman; but the sort of good-nature he showed, in spite of his exasperation as a mortified adorer and as a humiliated National Guardsman, broke down her nerve, strung to the point of snapping. She wrung her hands, melted into tears, and was in a state of such helpless dejection, that she allowed Crevel to kneel at her feet, kissing her hands.
“Good God! what will become of us!” she went on, wiping away her tears. “Can a mother sit still and see her child pine away before her eyes? What is to be the fate of that splendid creature, as strong in her pure life under her mother’s care as she is by every gift of nature? There are days when she wanders round the garden, out of spirits without knowing why; I find her with tears in her eyes——”
“She is one-and-twenty,” said Crevel.
“Must I place her in a convent?” asked the Baroness. “But in such cases religion is impotent to subdue nature, and the most piously trained girls lose their head!—Get up, pray, monsieur; do you not understand that everything is final between us? that I look upon you with horror? that you have crushed a mother’s last hopes——”
“But if I were to restore them,” asked he.
Madame Hulot looked at Crevel with a frenzied expression that really touched him. But he drove pity back to the depths of his heart; she had said, “I look upon you with horror.”
Virtue is always a little too rigid; it overlooks the shades and instincts by help of which we are able to tack when in a false position.
“So handsome a girl as Mademoiselle Hortense does not find a husband nowadays if she is penniless,” Crevel remarked, resuming his starchiest manner. “Your daughter is one of those beauties who rather alarm intending husbands; like a thoroughbred horse, which is too expensive to keep up to find a ready purchaser. If you go out walking with such a woman on your arm, every one will turn to look at you, and follow and covet his neighbor’s wife. Such success is a source of much uneasiness to men who do not want to be killing lovers; for, after all, no man kills more than one. In the position in which you find yourself there are just three ways of getting your daughter married: Either by my help—and you will have none of it! That is one.—Or by finding some old man of sixty, very rich, childless, and anxious to have children; that is difficult, still such men are to be met with. Many old men take up with a Josepha, a Jenny Cadine, why should not one be found who is ready to make a fool of himself under legal formalities? If it were not for Celestine and our two grandchildren, I would marry Hortense myself. That is two.—The last way is the easiest——”
Madame Hulot raised her head, and looked uneasily at the ex-perfumer.
“Paris is a town whither every man of energy—and they sprout like saplings on French soil—comes to meet his kind; talent swarms here without hearth or home, and energy equal to anything, even to making a fortune. Well, these youngsters—your humble servant was such a one in his time, and how many he has known! What had du Tillet or Popinot twenty years since? They were both pottering round in Daddy Birotteau’s shop, with not a penny of capital but their determination to get on, which, in my opinion, is the best capital a man can have. Money may be eaten through, but you don’t eat through your determination. Why, what had I? The will to get on, and plenty of pluck. At this day du Tillet is a match for the greatest folks; little Popinot, the richest druggist of the Rue des Lombards, became a deputy, now he is in office.—Well, one of these free lances, as we say on the stock market, of the pen, or of the brush, is the only man in Paris who would marry a penniless beauty, for they have courage enough for anything. Monsieur Popinot married Mademoiselle Birotteau without asking for a farthing. Those men are madmen, to be sure! They trust in love as they trust in good luck and brains!—Find a man of energy who will fall in love with your daughter, and he will marry without a thought of money. You must confess that by way of an enemy I am not ungenerous, for this advice is against my own interests.”
“Oh, Monsieur Crevel, if you would indeed be my friend and give up your ridiculous notions——”
“Ridiculous? Madame, do not run yourself down. Look at yourself—I love you, and you will come to be mine. The day will come when I shall say to Hulot, ‘You took Josepha, I have taken your wife!’
“It is the old law of tit-for-tat! And I will persevere till I have attained my end, unless you should become extremely ugly.—I shall succeed; and I will tell you why,” he went on, resuming his attitude, and looking at Madame Hulot. “You will not meet with such an old man, or such a young lover,” he said after a pause, “because you love your daughter too well to hand her over to the manoeuvres of an old libertine, and because you—the Baronne Hulot, sister of the old Lieutenant-General who commanded the veteran Grenadiers of the Old Guard—will not condescend to take a man of spirit wherever you may find him; for he might be a mere craftsman, as many a millionaire of to-day was ten years ago, a working artisan, or the foreman of a factory.
“And then, when you see the girl, urged by her twenty years, capable of dishonoring you all, you will say to yourself, ‘It will be better that I should fall! If Monsieur Crevel will but keep my secret, I will earn my daughter’s portion—two hundred thousand francs for ten years’ attachment to that old gloveseller—old Crevel!’—I disgust you no doubt, and what I am saying is horribly immoral, you think? But if you happened to have been bitten by an overwhelming passion, you would find a thousand arguments in favor of yielding—as women do when they are in love.—Yes, and Hortense’s interests will suggest to your feelings such terms of surrendering your conscience——”
“Hortense has still an uncle.”
“What! Old Fischer? He is winding up his concerns, and that again is the Baron’s fault; his rake is dragged over every till within his reach.”
“Oh, madame, your husband has already made thin air of the old General’s savings. He spent them in furnishing his singer’s rooms.—Now, come; am I to go without a hope?”
“Good-bye, monsieur. A man easily gets over a passion for a woman of my age, and you will fall back on Christian principles. God takes care of the wretched——”
The Baroness rose to oblige the captain to retreat, and drove him back into the drawing-room.
“Ought the beautiful Madame Hulot to be living amid such squalor?” said he, and he pointed to an old lamp, a chandelier bereft of its gilding, the threadbare carpet, the very rags of wealth which made the large room, with its red, white, and gold, look like a corpse of Imperial festivities.
“Monsieur, virtue shines on it all. I have no wish to owe a handsome abode to having made of the beauty you are pleased to ascribe to me a man-trap and a money-box for five-franc pieces!”
The captain bit his lips as he recognized the words he had used to vilify Josepha’s avarice.
“And for whom are you so magnanimous?” said he. By this time the baroness had got her rejected admirer as far as the door.—”For a libertine!” said he, with a lofty grimace of virtue and superior wealth.
“If you are right, my constancy has some merit, monsieur. That is all.”
After bowing to the officer as a woman bows to dismiss an importune visitor, she turned away too quickly to see him once more fold his arms. She unlocked the doors she had closed, and did not see the threatening gesture which was Crevel’s parting greeting. She walked with a proud, defiant step, like a martyr to the Coliseum, but her strength was exhausted; she sank on the sofa in her blue room, as if she were ready to faint, and sat there with her eyes fixed on the tumble-down summer-house, where her daughter was gossiping with Cousin Betty.
From the first days of her married life to the present time the Baroness had loved her husband, as Josephine in the end had loved Napoleon, with an admiring, maternal, and cowardly devotion. Though ignorant of the details given her by Crevel, she knew that for twenty years past Baron Hulot been anything rather than a faithful husband; but she had sealed her eyes with lead, she had wept in silence, and no word of reproach had ever escaped her. In return for this angelic sweetness, she had won her husband’s veneration and something approaching to worship from all who were about her.
A wife’s affection for her husband and the respect she pays him are infectious in a family. Hortense believed her father to be a perfect model of conjugal affection; as to their son, brought up to admire the Baron, whom everybody regarded as one of the giants who so effectually backed Napoleon, he knew that he owed his advancement to his father’s name, position, and credit; and besides, the impressions of childhood exert an enduring influence. He still was afraid of his father; and if he had suspected the misdeeds revealed by Crevel, as he was too much overawed by him to find fault, he would have found excuses in the view every man takes of such matters.
It now will be necessary to give the reasons for the extraordinary self-devotion of a good and beautiful woman; and this, in a few words, is her past history.
Three brothers, simple laboring men, named Fischer, and living in a village situated on the furthest frontier of Lorraine, were compelled by the Republican conscription to set out with the so-called army of the Rhine.
In 1799 the second brother, Andre, a widower, and Madame Hulot’s father, left his daughter to the care of his elder brother, Pierre Fischer, disabled from service by a wound received in 1797, and made a small private venture in the military transport service, an opening he owed to the favor of Hulot d’Ervy, who was high in the commissariat. By a very obvious chance Hulot, coming to Strasbourg, saw the Fischer family. Adeline’s father and his younger brother were at that time contractors for forage in the province of Alsace.
Adeline, then sixteen years of age, might be compared with the famous Madame du Barry, like her, a daughter of Lorraine. She was one of those perfect and striking beauties—a woman like Madame Tallien, finished with peculiar care by Nature, who bestows on them all her choicest gifts—distinction, dignity, grace, refinement, elegance, flesh of a superior texture, and a complexion mingled in the unknown laboratory where good luck presides. These beautiful creatures all have something in common: Bianca Capella, whose portrait is one of Bronzino’s masterpieces; Jean Goujon’s Venus, painted from the famous Diane de Poitiers; Signora Olympia, whose picture adorns the Doria gallery; Ninon, Madame du Barry, Madame Tallien, Mademoiselle Georges, Madame Recamier.—all these women who preserved their beauty in spite of years, of passion, and of their life of excess and pleasure, have in figure, frame, and in the character of their beauty certain striking resemblances, enough to make one believe that there is in the ocean of generations an Aphrodisian current whence every such Venus is born, all daughters of the same salt wave.
Adeline Fischer, one of the loveliest of this race of goddesses, had the splendid type, the flowing lines, the exquisite texture of a woman born a queen. The fair hair that our mother Eve received from the hand of God, the form of an Empress, an air of grandeur, and an august line of profile, with her rural modesty, made every man pause in delight as she passed, like amateurs in front of a Raphael; in short, having once seen her, the Commissariat officer made Mademoiselle Adeline Fischer his wife as quickly as the law would permit, to the great astonishment of the Fischers, who had all been brought up in the fear of their betters.
The eldest, a soldier of 1792, severely wounded in the attack on the lines at Wissembourg, adored the Emperor Napoleon and everything that had to do with the Grande Armee. Andre and Johann spoke with respect of Commissary Hulot, the Emperor’s protege, to whom indeed they owed their prosperity; for Hulot d’Ervy, finding them intelligent and honest, had taken them from the army provision wagons to place them in charge of a government contract needing despatch. The brothers Fischer had done further service during the campaign of 1804. At the peace Hulot had secured for them the contract for forage from Alsace, not knowing that he would presently be sent to Strasbourg to prepare for the campaign of 1806.
This marriage was like an Assumption to the young peasant girl. The beautiful Adeline was translated at once from the mire of her village to the paradise of the Imperial Court; for the contractor, one of the most conscientious and hard-working of the Commissariat staff, was made a Baron, obtained a place near the Emperor, and was attached to the Imperial Guard. The handsome rustic bravely set to work to educate herself for love of her husband, for she was simply crazy about him; and, indeed, the Commissariat office was as a man a perfect match for Adeline as a woman. He was one of the picked corps of fine men. Tall, well-built, fair, with beautiful blue eyes full of irresistible fire and life, his elegant appearance made him remarkable by the side of d’Orsay, Forbin, Ouvrard; in short, in the battalion of fine men that surrounded the Emperor. A conquering “buck,” and holding the ideas of the Directoire with regard to women, his career of gallantry was interrupted for some long time by his conjugal affection.
To Adeline the Baron was from the first a sort of god who could do no wrong. To him she owed everything: fortune—she had a carriage, a fine house, every luxury of the day; happiness—he was devoted to her in the face of the world; a title, for she was a Baroness; fame, for she was spoken of as the beautiful Madame Hulot—and in Paris! Finally, she had the honor of refusing the Emperor’s advances, for Napoleon made her a present of a diamond necklace, and always remembered her, asking now and again, “And is the beautiful Madame Hulot still a model of virtue?” in the tone of a man who might have taken his revenge on one who should have triumphed where he had failed.
So it needs no great intuition to discern what were the motives in a simple, guileless, and noble soul for the fanaticism of Madame Hulot’s love. Having fully persuaded herself that her husband could do her no wrong, she made herself in the depths of her heart the humble, abject, and blindfold slave of the man who had made her. It must be noted, too, that she was gifted with great good sense—the good sense of the people, which made her education sound. In society she spoke little, and never spoke evil of any one; she did not try to shine; she thought out many things, listened well, and formed herself on the model of the best-conducted women of good birth.
In 1815 Hulot followed the lead of the Prince de Wissembourg, his intimate friend, and became one of the officers who organized the improvised troops whose rout brought the Napoleonic cycle to a close at Waterloo. In 1816 the Baron was one of the men best hated by the Feltre administration, and was not reinstated in the Commissariat till 1823, when he was needed for the Spanish war. In 1830 he took office as the fourth wheel of the coach, at the time of the levies, a sort of conscription made by Louis Philippe on the old Napoleonic soldiery. From the time when the younger branch ascended the throne, having taken an active part in bringing that about, he was regarded as an indispensable authority at the War Office. He had already won his Marshal’s baton, and the King could do no more for him unless by making him minister or a peer of France.
From 1818 till 1823, having no official occupation, Baron Hulot had gone on active service to womankind. Madame Hulot dated her Hector’s first infidelities from the grand finale of the Empire. Thus, for twelve years the Baroness had filled the part in her household of prima donna assoluta, without a rival. She still could boast of the old-fashioned, inveterate affection which husbands feel for wives who are resigned to be gentle and virtuous helpmates; she knew that if she had a rival, that rival would not subsist for two hours under a word of reproof from herself; but she shut her eyes, she stopped her ears, she would know nothing of her husband’s proceedings outside his home. In short, she treated her Hector as a mother treats a spoilt child.
Three years before the conversation reported above, Hortense, at the Theatre des Varietes, had recognized her father in a lower tier stage-box with Jenny Cadine, and had exclaimed:
“There is papa!”
“You are mistaken, my darling; he is at the Marshal’s,” the Baroness replied.
She too had seen Jenny Cadine; but instead of feeling a pang when she saw how pretty she was, she said to herself, “That rascal Hector must think himself very lucky.”
She suffered nevertheless; she gave herself up in secret to rages of torment; but as soon as she saw Hector, she always remembered her twelve years of perfect happiness, and could not find it in her to utter a word of complaint. She would have been glad if the Baron would have taken her into his confidence; but she never dared to let him see that she knew of his kicking over the traces, out of respect for her husband. Such an excess of delicacy is never met with but in those grand creatures, daughters of the soil, whose instinct it is to take blows without ever returning them; the blood of the early martyrs still lives in their veins. Well-born women, their husbands’ equals, feel the impulse to annoy them, to mark the points of their tolerance, like points at billiards, by some stinging word, partly in the spirit of diabolical malice, and to secure the upper hand or the right of turning the tables.
The Baroness had an ardent admirer in her brother-in-law, Lieutenant-General Hulot, the venerable Colonel of the Grenadiers of the Imperial Infantry Guard, who was to have a Marshal’s baton in his old age. This veteran, after having served from 1830 to 1834 as Commandant of the military division, including the departments of Brittany, the scene of his exploits in 1799 and 1800, had come to settle in Paris near his brother, for whom he had a fatherly affection.
This old soldier’s heart was in sympathy with his sister-in-law; he admired her as the noblest and saintliest of her sex. He had never married, because he hoped to find a second Adeline, though he had vainly sought for her through twenty campaigns in as many lands. To maintain her place in the esteem of this blameless and spotless old republican—of whom Napoleon had said, “That brave old Hulot is the most obstinate republican, but he will never be false to me”—Adeline would have endured griefs even greater than those that had just come upon her. But the old soldier, seventy-two years of age, battered by thirty campaigns, and wounded for the twenty-seventh time at Waterloo, was Adeline’s admirer, and not a “protector.” The poor old Count, among other infirmities, could only hear through a speaking trumpet.
So long as Baron Hulot d’Ervy was a fine man, his flirtations did not damage his fortune; but when a man is fifty, the Graces claim payment. At that age love becomes vice; insensate vanities come into play. Thus, at about that time, Adeline saw that her husband was incredibly particular about his dress; he dyed his hair and whiskers, and wore a belt and stays. He was determined to remain handsome at any cost. This care of his person, a weakness he had once mercilessly mocked at, was carried out in the minutest details.
At last Adeline perceived that the Pactolus poured out before the Baron’s mistresses had its source in her pocket. In eight years he had dissipated a considerable amount of money; and so effectually, that, on his son’s marriage two years previously, the Baron had been compelled to explain to his wife that his pay constituted their whole income.
“What shall we come to?” asked Adeline.
“Be quite easy,” said the official, “I will leave the whole of my salary in your hands, and I will make a fortune for Hortense, and some savings for the future, in business.”
The wife’s deep belief in her husband’s power and superior talents, in his capabilities and character, had, in fact, for the moment allayed her anxiety.
What the Baroness’ reflections and tears were after Crevel’s departure may now be clearly imagined. The poor woman had for two years past known that she was at the bottom of a pit, but she had fancied herself alone in it. How her son’s marriage had been finally arranged she had not known; she had known nothing of Hector’s connection with the grasping Jewess; and, above all, she hoped that no one in the world knew anything of her troubles. Now, if Crevel went about so ready to talk of the Baron’s excesses, Hector’s reputation would suffer. She could see, under the angry ex-perfumer’s coarse harangue, the odious gossip behind the scenes which led to her son’s marriage. Two reprobate hussies had been the priestesses of this union planned at some orgy amid the degrading familiarities of two tipsy old sinners.
“And has he forgotten Hortense!” she wondered.
“But he sees her every day; will he try to find her a husband among his good-for-nothing sluts?”
At this moment it was the mother that spoke rather than the wife, for she saw Hortense laughing with her Cousin Betty—the reckless laughter of heedless youth; and she knew that such hysterical laughter was quite as distressing a symptom as the tearful reverie of solitary walks in the garden.
Hortense was like her mother, with golden hair that waved naturally, and was amazingly long and thick. Her skin had the lustre of mother-of-pearl. She was visibly the offspring of a true marriage, of a pure and noble love in its prime. There was a passionate vitality in her countenance, a brilliancy of feature, a full fount of youth, a fresh vigor and abundance of health, which radiated from her with electric flashes. Hortense invited the eye.
When her eye, of deep ultramarine blue, liquid with the moisture of innocent youth, rested on a passer-by, he was involuntarily thrilled. Nor did a single freckle mar her skin, such as those with which many a white and golden maid pays toll for her milky whiteness. Tall, round without being fat, with a slender dignity as noble as her mother’s, she really deserved the name of goddess, of which old authors were so lavish. In fact, those who saw Hortense in the street could hardly restrain the exclamation, “What a beautiful girl!”
She was so genuinely innocent, that she could say to her mother:
“What do they mean, mamma, by calling me a beautiful girl when I am with you? Are not you much handsomer than I am?”
And, in point of fact, at seven-and-forty the Baroness might have been preferred to her daughter by amateurs of sunset beauty; for she had not yet lost any of her charms, by one of those phenomena which are especially rare in Paris, where Ninon was regarded as scandalous, simply because she thus seemed to enjoy such an unfair advantage over the plainer women of the seventeenth century.
Thinking of her daughter brought her back to the father; she saw him sinking by degrees, day after day, down to the social mire, and even dismissed some day from his appointment. The idea of her idol’s fall, with a vague vision of the disasters prophesied by Crevel, was such a terror to the poor woman, that she became rapt in the contemplation like an ecstatic.
Cousin Betty, from time to time, as she chatted with Hortense, looked round to see when they might return to the drawing-room; but her young cousin was pelting her with questions, and at the moment when the Baroness opened the glass door she did not happen to be looking.
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.
At the time when this Drama opens, if Cousin Betty would have allowed herself to be dressed like other people; if, like the women of Paris, she had been accustomed to wear each fashion in its turn, she would have been presentable and acceptable, but she preserved the stiffness of a stick. Now a woman devoid of all the graces, in Paris simply does not exist. The fine but hard eyes, the severe features, the Calabrian fixity of complexion which made Lisbeth like a figure by Giotto, and of which a true Parisian would have taken advantage, above all, her strange way of dressing, gave her such an extraordinary appearance that she sometimes looked like one of those monkeys in petticoats taken about by little Savoyards. As she was well known in the houses connected by family which she frequented, and restricted her social efforts to that little circle, as she liked her own home, her singularities no longer astonished anybody; and out of doors they were lost in the immense stir of Paris street-life, where only pretty women are ever looked at.
Hortense’s laughter was at this moment caused by a victory won over her Cousin Lisbeth’s perversity; she had just wrung from her an avowal she had been hoping for these three years past. However secretive an old maid may be, there is one sentiment which will always avail to make her break her fast from words, and that is her vanity. For the last three years, Hortense, having become very inquisitive on such matters, had pestered her cousin with questions, which, however, bore the stamp of perfect innocence. She wanted to know why her cousin had never married. Hortense, who knew of the five offers that she had refused, had constructed her little romance; she supposed that Lisbeth had had a passionate attachment, and a war of banter was the result. Hortense would talk of “We young girls!” when speaking of herself and her cousin.
Cousin Betty had on several occasions answered in the same tone—”And who says I have not a lover?” So Cousin Betty’s lover, real or fictitious, became a subject of mild jesting. At last, after two years of this petty warfare, the last time Lisbeth had come to the house Hortense’s first question had been:
“And how is your lover?”
“Pretty well, thank you,” was the answer. “He is rather ailing, poor young man.”
“He has delicate health?” asked the Baroness, laughing.
“I should think so! He is fair. A sooty thing like me can love none but a fair man with a color like the moon.”
“But who is he? What does he do?” asked Hortense. “Is he a prince?”
“A prince of artisans, as I am queen of the bobbin. Is a poor woman like me likely to find a lover in a man with a fine house and money in the funds, or in a duke of the realm, or some Prince Charming out of a fairy tale?”
“Oh, I should so much like to see him!” cried Hortense, smiling.
“To see what a man can be like who can love the Nanny Goat?” retorted Lisbeth.
“He must be some monster of an old clerk, with a goat’s beard!” Hortense said to her mother.
“Well, then, you are quite mistaken, mademoiselle.”
“Then you mean that you really have a lover?” Hortense exclaimed in triumph.
“As sure as you have not!” retorted Lisbeth, nettled.
“But if you have a lover, why don’t you marry him, Lisbeth?” said the Baroness, shaking her head at her daughter. “We have been hearing rumors about him these three years. You have had time to study him; and if he has been faithful so long, you should not persist in a delay which must be hard upon him. After all, it is a matter of conscience; and if he is young, it is time to take a brevet of dignity.”
Cousin Betty had fixed her gaze on Adeline, and seeing that she was jesting, she replied:
“It would be marrying hunger and thirst; he is a workman, I am a workwoman. If we had children, they would be workmen.—No, no; we love each other spiritually; it is less expensive.”
“Why do you keep him in hiding?” Hortense asked.
“He wears a round jacket,” replied the old maid, laughing.
“You truly love him?” the Baroness inquired.
“I believe you! I love him for his own sake, the dear cherub. For four years his home has been in my heart.”
“Well, then, if you love him for himself,” said the Baroness gravely, “and if he really exists, you are treating him criminally. You do not know how to love truly.”
“We all know that from our birth,” said Lisbeth.
“No, there are women who love and yet are selfish, and that is your case.”
Cousin Betty’s head fell, and her glance would have made any one shiver who had seen it; but her eyes were on her reel of thread.
“If you would introduce your so-called lover to us, Hector might find him employment, or put him in a position to make money.”
“That is out of the question,” said Cousin Betty.
“He is a sort of Pole—a refugee——”
“A conspirator?” cried Hortense. “What luck for you!—Has he had any adventures?”
“He has fought for Poland. He was a professor in the school where the students began the rebellion; and as he had been placed there by the Grand Duke Constantine, he has no hope of mercy——”
“A professor of what?”
“Of fine arts.”
“And he came to Paris when the rebellion was quelled?”
“In 1833. He came through Germany on foot.”
“Poor young man! And how old is he?”
“He was just four-and-twenty when the insurrection broke out—he is twenty-nine now.”
“Fifteen years your junior,” said the Baroness.
“And what does he live on?” asked Hortense.
“Oh, he gives lessons?”
“No,” said Cousin Betty; “he gets them, and hard ones too!”
“And his Christian name—is it a pretty name?”
“What a wonderful imagination you old maids have!” exclaimed the Baroness. “To hear you talk, Lisbeth, one might really believe you.”
“You see, mamma, he is a Pole, and so accustomed to the knout that Lisbeth reminds him of the joys of his native land.”
They all three laughed, and Hortense sang Wenceslas! idole de mon ame! instead of O Mathilde.
Then for a few minutes there was a truce.
“These children,” said Cousin Betty, looking at Hortense as she went up to her, “fancy that no one but themselves can have lovers.”
“Listen,” Hortense replied, finding herself alone with her cousin, “if you prove to me that Wenceslas is not a pure invention, I will give you my yellow cashmere shawl.”
“He is a Count.”
“Every Pole is a Count!”
“But he is not a Pole; he comes from Liva—Litha——”
“Yes, that’s it!”
“But what is his name?”
“I wonder if you are capable of keeping a secret.”
“Cousin Betty, I will be as mute!——”
“As a fish?”
“As a fish.”
“By your life eternal?”
“By my life eternal!”
“No, by your happiness in this world?”
“Well, then, his name is Wenceslas Steinbock.”
“One of Charles XII.’s Generals was named Steinbock.”
“He was his grand-uncle. His own father settled in Livonia after the death of the King of Sweden; but he lost all his fortune during the campaign of 1812, and died, leaving the poor boy at the age of eight without a penny. The Grand Duke Constantine, for the honor of the name of Steinbock, took him under his protection and sent him to school.”
“I will not break my word,” Hortense replied; “prove his existence, and you shall have the yellow shawl. The color is most becoming to dark skins.”
“And you will keep my secret?”
“And tell you mine.”
“Well, then, the next time I come you shall have the proof.”
“But the proof will be the lover,” said Hortense.
Cousin Betty, who, since her first arrival in Paris, had been bitten by a mania for shawls, was bewitched by the idea of owning the yellow cashmere given to his wife by the Baron in 1808, and handed down from mother to daughter after the manner of some families in 1830. The shawl had been a good deal worn ten years ago; but the costly object, now always kept in its sandal-wood box, seemed to the old maid ever new, like the drawing-room furniture. So she brought in her handbag a present for the Baroness’ birthday, by which she proposed to prove the existence of her romantic lover.
This present was a silver seal formed of three little figures back to back, wreathed with foliage, and supporting the Globe. They represented Faith, Hope, and Charity; their feet rested on monsters rending each other, among them the symbolical serpent. In 1846, now that such immense strides have been made in the art of which Benvenuto Cellini was the master, by Mademoiselle de Fauveau, Wagner, Jeanest, Froment-Meurice, and wood-carvers like Lienard, this little masterpiece would amaze nobody; but at that time a girl who understood the silversmith’s art stood astonished as she held the seal which Lisbeth put into her hands, saying:
“There! what do you think of that?”
In design, attitude, and drapery the figures were of the school of Raphael; but the execution was in the style of the Florentine metal workers—the school created by Donatello, Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Benvenuto Cellini, John of Bologna, and others. The French masters of the Renaissance had never invented more strangely twining monsters than these that symbolized the evil passions. The palms, ferns, reeds, and foliage that wreathed the Virtues showed a style, a taste, a handling that might have driven a practised craftsman to despair; a scroll floated above the three figures; and on its surface, between the heads, were a W, a chamois, and the word fecit.
“Who carved this?” asked Hortense.
“Well, just my lover,” replied Lisbeth. “There are ten months’ work in it; I could earn more at making sword-knots.—He told me that Steinbock means a rock goat, a chamois, in German. And he intends to mark all his work in that way.—Ah, ha! I shall have the shawl.”
“Do you suppose I could buy such a thing, or order it? Impossible! Well, then, it must have been given to me. And who would make me such a present? A lover!”
Hortense, with an artfulness that would have frightened Lisbeth Fischer if she had detected it, took care not to express all her admiration, though she was full of the delight which every soul that is open to a sense of beauty must feel on seeing a faultless piece of work—perfect and unexpected.
“On my word,” said she, “it is very pretty.”
“Yes, it is pretty,” said her cousin; “but I like an orange-colored shawl better.—Well, child, my lover spends his time in doing such work as that. Since he came to Paris he has turned out three or four little trifles in that style, and that is the fruit of four years’ study and toil. He has served as apprentice to founders, metal-casters, and goldsmiths.—There he has paid away thousands and hundreds of francs. And my gentleman tells me that in a few months now he will be famous and rich——”
“Then you often see him?”
“Bless me, do you think it is all a fable? I told you truth in jest.”
“And he is in love with you?” asked Hortense eagerly.
“He adores me,” replied Lisbeth very seriously. “You see, child, he had never seen any women but the washed out, pale things they all are in the north, and a slender, brown, youthful thing like me warmed his heart.—But, mum; you promised, you know!”
“And he will fare like the five others,” said the girl ironically, as she looked at the seal.
“Six others, miss. I left one in Lorraine, who, to this day, would fetch the moon down for me.”
“This one does better than that,” said Hortense; “he has brought down the sun.”
“Where can that be turned into money?” asked her cousin. “It takes wide lands to benefit by the sunshine.”
These witticisms, fired in quick retort, and leading to the sort of giddy play that may be imagined, had given cause for the laughter which had added to the Baroness’ troubles by making her compare her daughter’s future lot with the present, when she was free to indulge the light-heartedness of youth.
“But to give you a gem which cost him six months of work, he must be under some great obligations to you?” said Hortense, in whom the silver seal had suggested very serious reflections.
“Oh, you want to know too much at once!” said her cousin. “But, listen, I will let you into a little plot.”
“Is your lover in it too?”
“Oh, ho! you want so much to see him! But, as you may suppose, an old maid like Cousin Betty, who had managed to keep a lover for five years, keeps him well hidden.—Now, just let me alone. You see, I have neither cat nor canary, neither dog nor a parrot, and the old Nanny Goat wanted something to pet and tease—so I treated myself to a Polish Count.”
“Has he a moustache?”
“As long as that,” said Lisbeth, holding up her shuttle filled with gold thread. She always took her lace-work with her, and worked till dinner was served.
“If you ask too many questions, you will be told nothing,” she went on. “You are but two-and-twenty, and you chatter more than I do though I am forty-two—not to say forty-three.”
“I am listening; I am a wooden image,” said Hortense.
“My lover has finished a bronze group ten inches high,” Lisbeth went on. “It represents Samson slaying a lion, and he has kept it buried till it is so rusty that you might believe it to be as old as Samson himself. This fine piece is shown at the shop of one of the old curiosity sellers on the Place du Carrousel, near my lodgings. Now, your father knows Monsieur Popinot, the Minister of Commerce and Agriculture, and the Comte de Rastignac, and if he would mention the group to them as a fine antique he had seen by chance! It seems that such things take the fancy of your grand folks, who don’t care so much about gold lace, and that my man’s fortune would be made if one of them would buy or even look at the wretched piece of metal. The poor fellow is sure that it might be mistaken for old work, and that the rubbish is worth a great deal of money. And then, if one of the ministers should purchase the group, he would go to pay his respects, and prove that he was the maker, and be almost carried in triumph! Oh! he believes he has reached the pinnacle; poor young man, and he is as proud as two newly-made Counts.”
“Michael Angelo over again; but, for a lover, he has kept his head on his shoulders!” said Hortense. “And how much does he want for it?”
“Fifteen hundred francs. The dealer will not let it go for less, since he must take his commission.”
“Papa is in the King’s household just now,” said Hortense. “He sees those two ministers every day at the Chamber, and he will do the thing—I undertake that. You will be a rich woman, Madame la Comtesse de Steinbock.”
“No, the boy is too lazy; for whole weeks he sits twiddling with bits of red wax, and nothing comes of it. Why, he spends all his days at the Louvre and the Library, looking at prints and sketching things. He is an idler!”
The cousins chatted and giggled; Hortense laughing a forced laugh, for she was invaded by a kind of love which every girl has gone through—the love of the unknown, love in its vaguest form, when every thought is accreted round some form which is suggested by a chance word, as the efflorescence of hoar-frost gathers about a straw that the wind has blown against the window-sill.
For the past ten months she had made a reality of her cousin’s imaginary romance, believing, like her mother, that Lisbeth would never marry; and now, within a week, this visionary being had become Comte Wenceslas Steinbock, the dream had a certificate of birth, the wraith had solidified into a young man of thirty. The seal she held in her hand—a sort of Annunciation in which genius shone like an immanent light—had the powers of a talisman. Hortense felt such a surge of happiness, that she almost doubted whether the tale were true; there was a ferment in her blood, and she laughed wildly to deceive her cousin.
“But I think the drawing-room door is open,” said Lisbeth; “let us go and see if Monsieur Crevel is gone.”
“Mamma has been very much out of spirits these two days. I suppose the marriage under discussion has come to nothing!”
“Oh, it may come on again. He is—I may tell you so much—a Councillor of the Supreme Court. How would you like to be Madame la Presidente? If Monsieur Crevel has a finger in it, he will tell me about it if I ask him. I shall know by to-morrow if there is any hope.”
“Leave the seal with me,” said Hortense; “I will not show it—mamma’s birthday is not for a month yet; I will give it to you that morning.”
“No, no. Give it back to me; it must have a case.”
“But I will let papa see it, that he may know what he is talking about to the ministers, for men in authority must be careful what they say,” urged the girl.
“Well, do not show it to your mother—that is all I ask; for if she believed I had a lover, she would make game of me.”
The cousins reached the drawing-room just as the Baroness turned faint. Her daughter’s cry of alarm recalled her to herself. Lisbeth went off to fetch some salts. When she came back, she found the mother and daughter in each other’s arms, the Baroness soothing her daughter’s fears, and saying:
“It was nothing; a little nervous attack.—There is your father,” she added, recognizing the Baron’s way of ringing the bell. “Say not a word to him.”
Adeline rose and went to meet her husband, intending to take him into the garden and talk to him till dinner should be served of the difficulties about the proposed match, getting him to come to some decision as to the future, and trying to hint at some warning advice.
Baron Hector Hulot came in, in a dress at once lawyer-like and Napoleonic, for Imperial men—men who had been attached to the Emperor—were easily distinguishable by their military deportment, their blue coats with gilt buttons, buttoned to the chin, their black silk stock, and an authoritative demeanor acquired from a habit of command in circumstances requiring despotic rapidity. There was nothing of the old man in the Baron, it must be admitted; his sight was still so good, that he could read without spectacles; his handsome oval face, framed in whiskers that were indeed too black, showed a brilliant complexion, ruddy with the veins that characterize a sanguine temperament; and his stomach, kept in order by a belt, had not exceeded the limits of “the majestic,” as Brillat-Savarin says. A fine aristocratic air and great affability served to conceal the libertine with whom Crevel had had such high times. He was one of those men whose eyes always light up at the sight of a pretty woman, even of such as merely pass by, never to be seen again.
“Have you been speaking, my dear?” asked Adeline, seeing him with an anxious brow.
“No,” replied Hector, “but I am worn out with hearing others speak for two hours without coming to a vote. They carry on a war of words, in which their speeches are like a cavalry charge which has no effect on the enemy. Talk has taken the place of action, which goes very much against the grain with men who are accustomed to marching orders, as I said to the Marshal when I left him. However, I have enough of being bored on the ministers’ bench; here I may play.—How do, la Chevre!—Good morning, little kid,” and he took his daughter round the neck, kissed her, and made her sit on his knee, resting her head on his shoulder, that he might feel her soft golden hair against his cheek.
“He is tired and worried,” said his wife to herself. “I shall only worry him more.—I will wait.—Are you going to be at home this evening?” she asked him.
“No, children. After dinner I must go out. If it had not been the day when Lisbeth and the children and my brother come to dinner, you would not have seen me at all.”