Honoré de Balzac.

Scenes of Parisian life (Volume 3) online

. (page 23 of 23)
Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacScenes of Parisian life (Volume 3) → online text (page 23 of 23)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


take time."

"I will be, monsieur le baron," retorted Marneffe
bluntly.

"But, my dear"

"I will be, monsieur le baron, " repeated Marneffe
coldly, glancing from the baron to Valerie. "You
have made it necessary for me to be reconciled with



COUSIN BETTE 395

my wife, and I'll keep her; for, my dear friend, she
is fascinating," he added with terrible sarcasm.
"I am master here, rather more so than you are
at the department"

The baron was conscious of one of those eternal
pangs, which produce in the heart, the effect of
a raging tooth-ache and he was very near allowing
tears to be seen in his eyes. During the short
scene Valerie was whispering to Henri Montes the
fable concerning Marneffe's purpose, and thus
making sure that she would be rid of him for some
time.

Of the faithful four, Crevel alone, possessor of the
thrifty little house on Rue du Dauphin, was excepted
from this measure ; so that his countenance wore
an expression of the most insolent beatitude, not-
withstanding the tacit reproofs Valerie addressed to
him by frowns and significant gestures; but his
paternity beamed joyously in his every feature.
At a word of reproof Valerie whispered in his ear,
he seized her hand, and replied:

"To-morrow, my duchess, you shall have your
little house! to-morrow the sale will be definitely
concluded."

"And the furniture?" she replied with a smile.

"I have a thousand shares of Versailles, Left
Bank, which I bought at a hundred and twenty-five
francs, and they'll go to three hundred on account
of a fusion of the two roads, that I was let into the
secret of. You shall be furnished like a queen!
But you will be all mine after this, won't you? "



396 THE POOR RELATIONS

"Yes, my fat mayor," said this middle-class
Madame de Merteuil with a smile; "but my house-
keeping! respect the future Madame Crevel."

"My dear cousin," Lisbeth said to the baron, "I
shall be at Adeline's early to-morrow, for you un-
derstand that I can't decently remain here. I shall
go and keep house for your brother the marshal."

"I shall go home this evening," said the baron.

"Very good, and I'll come to lunch to-morrow,"
Lisbeth replied with a smile.

She realized how necessary her presence was at
the family party to take place the next day. And
so in the morning she went to Victorin's and told
him of the separation of Hortense and Wenceslas.



When the baron returned home, about half-past
ten at night, Mariette and Louise, after a hard
day's work, were just closing the outer door of the
suite, so that he was not obliged to ring. The hus-
band, sorely annoyed at the necessity of being vir-
tuous, went straight to his wife's bed-room; and
through the half-open door he saw her prostrated
before her crucifix, absorbed in prayer, in one of
those significant attitudes, which bring renown to
painters or sculptors who are fortunate enough to
produce them faithfully after they have seen
them. Adeline, in the fervor of her exaltation, was
saying aloud:

"O God, vouchsafe to give him light! "
She was praying for her Hector. At this sight,
so different from the one he had just left, and with
these words, called forth by the occurrence of the
day, in his ears, the baron was deeply moved, and a
deep sigh escaped him. Adeline turned, her face
covered with tears. She so thoroughly believed
that her prayer was granted, that she sprang to her
feet and seized her Hector with the strength born of
happy passion. She had cast aside all her own
interests as a wife, grief had blotted out everything
even to memory ; there was naught left but motherly
love, solicitude for the honor of the family, and a
Christian wife's pure affection for a husband who
(397)



398 THE POOR RELATIONS

has gone astray; the saint-like affection that sur-
vives all else in a woman's heart All this was
apparent at a glance.

"Hector!" she said at last, "have you come
back to us? Has God had pity on our fam-
ily?"

"Dear Adeline! " replied the baron, entering the
room and seating his wife by his side upon a couch,
"you are the most saintly creature I have ever
known, and for a long while I have felt that I am
not worthy of you."

"You would have but little to do, my dear," she
said, holding Hulot's hand and trembling so vio-
lently that she seemed on the verge of hysteria,
"very little to put things to rights "

She dared not go on, for she felt that every word
would be a reproach, and she did not choose to
banish the happiness that this interview was pour-
ing in torrents into her soul.

"Hortense brings me here," Hulot resumed.
"Our little girl may do us more harm by her pre-
cipitate step, than my absurd passion for Valerie
has done. But we will talk of this to-morrow
morning. Hortense is asleep, Mariette tells me,
and we will leave her in peace."

"Yes," said Madame Hulot, suddenly over-
whelmed by a feeling of profound melancholy. She
saw that the baron had been led to return to her, not
so much by the desire of seeing his family as by
some outside interest

"Let us leave her in peace to-morrow too, for the



COUSIN BETTE 399

poor child is in a deplorable condition ; she has been
weeping all day," said the baroness.

The next morning at nine o'clock, the baron was
walking up and down the vast, unused salon, await-
ing his daughter, to whom he had sent word to come
to him, and inventing arguments with which to
overcome the most difficult of all forms of obstinacy
to be overcome, that of a wounded, implacable
young wife, to whom the shameful shifts of society
are unknown, because she knows nothing of its
passions and interests.

"Here I am, papa!" said Hortense in a trembling
voice; her suffering had driven all the color from
her cheeks.

Hulot sat down on a chair, took his daughter by
the waist and forced her to sit upon his knees.

"Well, my child," said he, kissing her on the
forehead, "so there's a little trouble in the house-
hold, and we went off at a tangent? That's not the
way a well-bred young woman should act. My
Hortense ought not, on her own responsibility, to
take such a decisive step as leaving her house and
abandoning her husband without consulting her
parents. If my dear Hortense had come first to see
her dear, kind mother, she would not have caused
me the deep annoyance that I feel! You don't
know the world ; it's very cruel. People may say
that your husband sent you back to your parents.
Children brought up as you have been in their
mother's lap remain children longer than others,
and know nothing of life! An innocent, outspoken



400 THE POOR RELATIONS

passion, like yours for Wenceslas, unfortunately
takes no heed of consequences, but acts on the first im-
pulse. Our little heart starts off and the head follows.
We would burn Paris for revenge, without a thought
of the Assizes ! When your old father comes to you
and tells you that you haven't observed the proprie-
ties, you can safely believe him; I say nothing of
the profound grief I have felt, but it is very keen,
for you throw the blame upon a woman of whose
heart you know nothing, and whose enmity may be
a terrible thing. Alas! you are so sincere and
innocent and pure, that you suspect nothing; you
may be besmirched and slandered. Moreover, my
dear little angel, you are making a serious matter
of a mere jest, and I can answer to you for your hus-
band's innocence. Madame Marneffe "

Thus far the baron, like an artist in diplomacy,
had managed his remonstrances with great skill.
He had, as we see, with no ordinary cleverness,
led up to the introduction of that name ; but Hor-
tense, when she heard it, started as if she were cut
to the quick.

"Listen to me; I have experience and I have
watched everything that has been going on," con-
tinued the father, preventing his daughter from
speaking. "The lady in question treats her
husband very coldly. Yes, you have been made
the victim of a practical joke, and I'll prove it to
you. See, yesterday Wenceslas dined "

"He dined there ? " demanded the young woman,
springing to her feet and gazing at her father with



COUSIN BETTE 401

horror depicted on every feature. "Yesterday ! after
reading my letter ? O my God ! Why didn't I go
into a convent instead of marrying? My life is no
longer my own, I have a child! " she sobbed.

Her tears cut Madame Hulot to the heart; she
rushed out of her bed-room, ran to her daughter, took (
her in her arms, and plied her with such unmean-
ing questions as come first to the lips of a sor-
rowing mother.

"Tears ! " said the baron to himself, "and every-
thing was going so well ! What's to be done with a
parcel of weeping women?"

"My child," said the baroness to Hortense, "lis-
ten to your father! he loves us, you know "

"Come Hortense, my darling little girl, don't cry,
or you'll spoil your beauty, " said the baron. "Come,
listen to reason. Be wise and return to your house,
and I promise you that Wenceslas shall never set
foot in that other place. 1 ask this sacrifice of you,
if it is a sacrifice to forgive the most trifling of sins
to a husband who loves you! I ask it of you
by my white hairs, by your love for your mother.
You don't want to fill my declining years with bit-
terness and chagrin? "

Hortense threw herself like a madwoman at her
father's feet, with such desperate violence that her
loosely secured hair fell about her shoulders, and she
held out her hands to him with a gesture expressive
of her despair.

"Father, you ask me for my life!" said she;
"take it if you will, but take it at least pure and



402 THE POOR RELATIONS

undefiled; I will give it up to you with pleasure,
most assuredly. But do not ask me to die dishon-
ored, stained with crime ! I am not like my mother !
I will not swallow insults ! If I return to my hus-
band's roof, I may strangle him in a paroxysm of
, jealousy, or do something even worse than that
Do not require me to attempt a task beyond my
strength. Do not weep for me while I live! for the
least evil that can befall me is to go mad. I feel
that madness is not more than two steps away.
Yesterday! yesterday! he dined with that woman
after he had read my letter ! Are other men made
like that? I give you my life, but do not let me die
in ignominy! His sin? trifling! To have a child
by that woman ! "

"A child ?" exclaimed Hulot, recoiling. "Non-
sense! that is certainly a joke."

At that juncture Victorin and Cousin Bette ap-
peared, and stood aghast at the spectacle. The
daughter was crouching at her father's feet The
baroness, torn by the conflict between her maternal
and her conjugal affections, was looking on in si-
lence, her grief-stricken face wet with tears.

"Lisbeth," said the baron, seizing the old maid's
hand and pointing to Hortense; "you can assist me
here. My poor Hortense's head is turned ; she be-
lieves that Madame Marneffe loves her Wenceslas,
while Valerie simply desired to have him make a
group for her."

"Delilah!" cried the young woman; "the only
thing he has done quickly since we were married.



COUSIN BETTE 403

This gentleman couldn't work for me or for his son,
but he bestirred himself for that strumpet, with an
ardor Oh! make an end of me, father, for every
word you say is like the stroke of a dagger."

Lisbeth shrugged her shoulders, and with a com
passionate gesture called the attention of the bar-
oness and Victorin to the baron, who could not see
her.

"You may be sure, cousin," said she, "that I
had no idea what Madame Marneffe was when you
urged me to take up my quarters on the floor above
her and keep house for her; but in three years one
learns many things. That creature is a harlot! and
a harlot whose depravity can be compared only to
that of her despicable, hideous husband. You are
the dupe, the Milord Pot-au-feu of those people, and
they will carry you farther than you think ! I must
speak to you plainly, for you are at the bottom of a
gulf-" '

As Lisbeth uttered these words, the baroness and
her daughter cast upon her such glances as those
with which pious persons might return thanks to
the Madonna for having saved their lives.

"The horrible creature has determined to break
up your son-in-law's household ; for what motive ?
I have no idea, for my intellect is too limited for
me to see my way through such dark, wicked, in-
famous, disgraceful intriguing. Your Madame Mar-
neffe doesn't love your son-in-law, but she wants
him at her knees for revenge. 1 have just treated
the miserable creature as she deserves. She's a



404 THE POOR RELATIONS

shameless prostitute, and I told her that I should
leave her house, that I proposed to extricate my
honor from that sink of infamy. I belong to my
family before everything. I heard that my second-
cousin had left Wenceslas, and so I came here.
Your Valerie, whom you take for a saint, is the
cause of this cruel separation ; can I stay on with
such a woman? It may be that our dear little Hor-
tense," she said, touching the baron's arm signifi-
cantly, "is the dupe of a longing such as women of
her stamp feel women who would sacrifice a whole
family to obtain a jewel. I don't think Wenceslas
is guilty, but I do think he's weak, and I don't say
he won't yield at last to such refinement of coquetry.
My mind is made up. That woman is your evil
genius, she'll bring you to the gutter. I don't
choose to have the appearance of being concerned
in the ruin of my family, when I have been there
three years for the express purpose of preventing it
The wool is pulled over your eyes, cousin. Just
say firmly that you won't have anything to do with
the appointment of that contemptible Monsieur Mar-
neffe, and you'll see what will happen. There's a
famous rod in pickle for you in that event"

Lisbeth raised her second-cousin from the floor
and kissed her passionately.

"My dear Hortense, stand to your guns," she
whispered.

The baroness embraced Cousin Bette with the
enthusiasm of a woman who feels that she is
avenged. The whole family remained in profound



COUSIN BETTE 405

silence about this father, who was clever enough
to know what this silence meant That he was
in a towering rage, was evident from the cloud
that passed over his face; every vein was swollen,
his eyes were suffused with blood, and his face be-
came livid. Adeline impulsively threw herself on
her knees at his feet, and took his hands :

"My dear, my dear, in pity's name! "

"I am hateful to you!" said the baron, giving
utterance to the cry of his conscience.

We are all in the secret of our own wrong-doing.
We almost always credit our victims with the senti-
ment of hatred which thirst for vengeance might
well arouse in them ; and despite the struggles of
hypocrisy, our tongue or our face confesses under
the goad of unanticipated torture, as in old times
the criminal confessed when he was in the hands
of the executioner.

"Our children," he said, as if to retract his con-
fession, "are becoming our enemies."

"Father," said Victorin.

"You dare interrupt your father! " thundered
the baron, glaring at his son.

"Listen, father," said Victorin in a firm, distinct
voice, the voice of a Puritan deputy. "I am too
well aware of the respect I owe you, ever to fail in
it, and you will certainly always have in me a most
submissive and obedient son."

All who have been present at sittings of the
Chambers will recognize the peculiarities of parlia-
mentary strife in these long-drawn out phrases, to



406 THE POOR RELATIONS

which orators resort to allay irritation and gain
time.

"We are far from being your enemies," said
Victorin; "I have quarreled with my father-in-law,
Monsieur Crevel, because I took up the Vauvinet
notes for seventy-two thousand francs, and that
money is unquestionably in Madame Marneffe's
hands. Oh! I don't reproach you, father," he
added, at a gesture from the baron; "but I simply
wish to add my voice to Cousin Lisbeth's, and to
remind you that, although my devotion for you is
blind, father, and unlimited, unluckily my dear
father, our pecuniary resources are very limited."

"Money!" said the enraged old man, falling back
upon his chair, crushed by this reasoning. "And
this is my son ! Your money shall be repaid, mon-
sieur," he exclaimed, rising.

He strode toward the door.

"Hector!"

This cry made the baron turn about, and he sud-
denly exhibited to his wife a face inundated with
tears, and she threw her arms about him with the
strength of despair.

"Don't go away so don't leave us in anger. I
didn't say anything! "

At this sublime outcry the children threw them-
selves at their father's feet

"We all love you," said Hortense.

Lisbeth stood like a statue, watching the group,
with a superb smile upon her lips. At that moment
Marechal Hulot's voice was heard in the reception



COUSIN BETTE 407

room. The family realized the importance of se-
crecy, and the scene suddenly changed. The two
children rose, and they all struggled to conceal
their emotion.

Meanwhile a wrangle was in progress at the door
between Mariette and a soldier, who was so per-
sistent that the cook at last came to the salon.

"Monsieur, the quartermaster of a regiment just
returned from Algiers insists upon speaking to you."

"Let him wait"

"Monsieur," said Mariette in her master's ear,
"he told me to tell you quietly that it's on business
connected with monsieur your uncle."

The baron started; he thought of the remittance
he had secretly requested two months since to take
up his notes, so he left his family and hurried to
the reception-room. He saw there a man with the
features of an Alsatian.

"Is dis Mennesir la Paron Hilotte? "

Yes"

"Himself?"

"Himself."

The quartermaster, who was fumbling in the
lining of his kepi during this brief colloquy, took
therefrom a letter, which the baron hurriedly un-
sealed, and he read what follows :

"MY DEAR NEPHEW :

" Instead of being able to send you the hundred thousand
francs you request, I have to tell you that my position is not
tenable unless you take prompt measures to save me. We
have on our backs a king's attorney, who talks morality*



408 THE POOR RELATIONS

and indulges in idle chatter concerning the administration.
It's impossible to keep the pettifogger's mouth shut. If the
War Department allows these black-coats to eat from its
hand, 1 am dune for. The bearer is a sure man; try to give
him a lift, for he has done us good service. Don't leave me
to the crowsl "

This letter was like a thunderbolt; the baron saw
therein the beginning of the implacable internal
warfare between the civil and the military factions,
which is tearing at the vitals of the government of
Algiers to this day, and he felt the necessity of
immediately applying palliatives to this fresh sore.
He bade the soldier return on the following day, and,
having dismissed him, not without alluring promises
of promotion, he returned to the salon.

"Good-morning and good-bye, brother! " he said
to the marechal. "Farewell, my children; farewell,
dear Adeline. What's going to become of you,
Lisbeth ? ' ' said he.

"I am going to keep house for the marechal, for I
must round out my career by always making my-
self useful to one or another of you. ' '

"Don't leave Valerie until I have seen you,"
said Hulot in his cousin's ear. "Adieu, Hortense,
my little rebel; try to be more reasonable; I have
important business to attend to, we will discuss the
question of your reconciliation again. Think it
over, my good little pet," he said as he kissed her.

He took leave of his wife and his children, so
manifestly disturbed in mind, that they were the
prey of the liveliest apprehensions.



COUSIN BETTE 409

"Lisbeth, " said the baroness, "we must find out
what can be the matter with Hector, for 1 never
saw him in such a state ; stay two or three days
more with that woman; he tells her everything,
and in that way we shall learn what has changed
him so suddenly. Have no fear but that we will
bring about your marriage with the marechal, for
it's most essential that it should come off. "

"I shall never forget the courage you showed
this morning," said Hortense, embracing Lisbeth.

"You avenged our poor mother," said Victorin.

The marechal watched with interest the demon-
strations of affection showered upon Lisbeth, who
returned and described the scene to Valerie.

This little sketch will make clear to innocent-
minded readers the different varieties of family dis-
ruption caused by the Madame Marneffes, and by
what means they attack poor virtuous women,
apparently so far beyond their sphere. But, if we
take the trouble to imagine these same disorders as
existing in the higher social circles, about the
throne; if we consider what kings' mistresses must
have cost the nation, we can appreciate the mag-
nitude of the nation's obligation to its rulers, when
they set the example of good morals and happy
domestic life.



EGIONALLIBRARVFACIU^




000824956 7





1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 23

Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacScenes of Parisian life (Volume 3) → online text (page 23 of 23)