Honore de Balzac
Part 5 out of 16
"That Brazilian----" he began, but, overpowered by Valerie's fixed
look of contempt, he broke off.
"What of him?" said she.
"Is no cousin of mine," said she. "He is my cousin to the world and to
Monsieur Marneffe. And if he were my lover, it would be no concern of
yours. A tradesman who pays a woman to be revenged on another man, is,
in my opinion, beneath the man who pays her for love of her. You did
not care for me; all you saw in me was Monsieur Hulot's mistress. You
bought me as a man buys a pistol to kill his adversary. I wanted
bread--I accepted the bargain."
"But you have not carried it out," said Crevel, the tradesman once
"You want Baron Hulot to be told that you have robbed him of his
mistress, to pay him out for having robbed you of Josepha? Nothing can
more clearly prove your baseness. You say you love a woman, you treat
her like a duchess, and then you want to degrade her? Well, my good
fellow, and you are right. This woman is no match for Josepha. That
young person has the courage of her disgrace, while I--I am a
hypocrite, and deserve to be publicly whipped.--Alas! Josepha is
protected by her cleverness and her wealth. I have nothing to shelter
me but my reputation; I am still the worthy and blameless wife of a
plain citizen; if you create a scandal, what is to become of me? If I
were rich, then indeed; but my income is fifteen thousand francs a
year at most, I suppose."
"Much more than that," said Crevel. "I have doubled your savings in
these last two months by investing in /Orleans/."
"Well, a position in Paris begins with fifty thousand. And you
certainly will not make up to me for the position I should surrender.
--What was my aim? I want to see Marneffe a first-class clerk; he will
then draw a salary of six thousand francs. He has been twenty-seven
years in his office; within three years I shall have a right to a
pension of fifteen hundred francs when he dies. You, to whom I have
been entirely kind, to whom I have given your fill of happiness--you
cannot wait!--And that is what men call love!" she exclaimed.
"Though I began with an ulterior purpose," said Crevel, "I have become
your poodle. You trample on my heart, you crush me, you stultify me,
and I love you as I have never loved in my life. Valerie, I love you
as much as I love my Celestine. I am capable of anything for your
sake.--Listen, instead of coming twice a week to the Rue du Dauphin,
come three times."
"Is that all! You are quite young again, my dear boy!"
"Only let me pack off Hulot, humiliate him, rid you of him," said
Crevel, not heeding her impertinence! "Have nothing to say to the
Brazilian, be mine alone; you shall not repent of it. To begin with, I
will give you eight thousand francs a year, secured by bond, but only
as an annuity; I will not give you the capital till the end of five
"Always a bargain! A tradesman can never learn to give. You want to
stop for refreshments on the road of love--in the form of Government
bonds! Bah! Shopman, pomatum seller! you put a price on everything!
--Hector told me that the Duc d'Herouville gave Josepha a bond for
thirty thousand francs a year in a packet of sugar almonds! And I am
worth six of Josepha.
"Oh! to be loved!" she went on, twisting her ringlets round her
fingers, and looking at herself in the glass. "Henri loves me. He
would smash you like a fly if I winked at him! Hulot loves me; he
leaves his wife in beggary! As for you, go my good man, be the worthy
father of a family. You have three hundred thousand francs over and
above your fortune, only to amuse yourself, a hoard, in fact, and you
think of nothing but increasing it--"
"For you, Valerie, since I offer you half," said he, falling on his
"What, still here!" cried Marneffe, hideous in his dressing-gown.
"What are you about?"
"He is begging my pardon, my dear, for an insulting proposal he has
dared to make me. Unable to obtain my consent, my gentleman proposed
to pay me----"
Crevel only longed to vanish into the cellar, through a trap, as is
done on the stage.
"Get up, Crevel," said Marneffe, laughing, "you are ridiculous. I can
see by Valerie's manner that my honor is in no danger."
"Go to bed and sleep in peace," said Madame Marneffe.
"Isn't she clever?" thought Crevel. "She has saved me. She is
As Marneffe disappeared, the Mayor took Valerie's hands and kissed
them, leaving on them the traces of tears.
"It shall all stand in your name," he said.
"That is true love," she whispered in his ear. "Well, love for love.
Hulot is below, in the street. The poor old thing is waiting to return
when I place a candle in one of the windows of my bedroom. I give you
leave to tell him that you are the man I love; he will refuse to
believe you; take him to the Rue du Dauphin, give him every proof,
crush him; I allow it--I order it! I am tired of that old seal; he
bores me to death. Keep your man all night in the Rue du Dauphin,
grill him over a slow fire, be revenged for the loss of Josepha. Hulot
may die of it perhaps, but we shall save his wife and children from
utter ruin. Madame Hulot is working for her bread--"
"Oh! poor woman! On my word, it is quite shocking!" exclaimed Crevel,
his natural feeling coming to the top.
"If you love me, Celestin," said she in Crevel's ear, which she
touched with her lips, "keep him there, or I am done for. Marneffe is
suspicious. Hector has a key of the outer gate, and will certainly
Crevel clasped Madame Marneffe to his heart, and went away in the
seventh heaven of delight. Valerie fondly escorted him to the landing,
and then followed him, like a woman magnetized, down the stairs to the
"My Valerie, go back, do not compromise yourself before the porters.
--Go back; my life, my treasure, all is yours.--Go in, my duchess!"
"Madame Olivier," Valerie called gently when the gate was closed.
"Why, madame! You here?" said the woman in bewilderment.
"Bolt the gates at top and bottom, and let no one in."
"Very good, madame."
Having barred the gate, Madame Olivier told of the bribe that the War
Office chief had tried to offer her.
"You behaved like an angel, my dear Olivier; we shall talk of that
Valerie flew like an arrow to the third floor, tapped three times at
Lisbeth's door, and then went down to her room, where she gave
instructions to Mademoiselle Reine, for a woman must make the most of
the opportunity when a Montes arrives from Brazil.
"By Heaven! only a woman of the world is capable of such love," said
Crevel to himself. "How she came down those stairs, lighting them up
with her eyes, following me! Never did Josepha--Josepha! she is
cag-mag!" cried the ex-bagman. "What have I said? /Cag-mag/--why, I
might have let the word slip out at the Tuileries! I can never do any
good unless Valerie educates me--and I was so bent on being a
gentleman.--What a woman she is! She upsets me like a fit of the
colic when she looks at me coldly. What grace! What wit! Never did
Josepha move me so. And what perfection when you come to know her!
--Ha, there is my man!"
He perceived in the gloom of the Rue de Babylone the tall, somewhat
stooping figure of Hulot, stealing along close to a boarding, and he
went straight up to him.
"Good-morning, Baron, for it is past midnight, my dear fellow. What
the devil are your doing here? You are airing yourself under a
pleasant drizzle. That is not wholesome at our time of life. Will you
let me give you a little piece of advice? Let each of us go home; for,
between you and me, you will not see the candle in the window."
The last words made the Baron suddenly aware that he was sixty-three,
and that his cloak was wet.
"Who on earth told you--?" he began.
"Valerie, of course, /our/ Valerie, who means henceforth to be /my/
Valerie. We are even now, Baron; we will play off the tie when you
please. You have nothing to complain of; you know, I always stipulated
for the right of taking my revenge; it took you three months to rob me
of Josepha; I took Valerie from you in--We will say no more about
that. Now I mean to have her all to myself. But we can be very good
friends, all the same."
"Crevel, no jesting," said Hulot, in a voice choked by rage. "It is a
matter of life and death."
"Bless me, is that how you take it!--Baron, do you not remember what
you said to me the day of Hortense's marriage: 'Can two old gaffers
like us quarrel over a petticoat? It is too low, too common. We are
/Regence/, we agreed, Pompadour, eighteenth century, quite the
Marechal Richelieu, Louis XV., nay, and I may say, /Liaisons
Crevel might have gone on with his string of literary allusions; the
Baron heard him as a deaf man listens when he is but half deaf. But,
seeing in the gaslight the ghastly pallor of his face, the triumphant
Mayor stopped short. This was, indeed, a thunderbolt after Madame
Olivier's asservations and Valerie's parting glance.
"Good God! And there are so many other women in Paris!" he said at
"That is what I said to you when you took Josepha," said Crevel.
"Look here, Crevel, it is impossible. Give me some proof.--Have you a
key, as I have, to let yourself in?"
And having reached the house, the Baron put the key into the lock; but
the gate was immovable; he tried in vain to open it.
"Do not make a noise in the streets at night," said Crevel coolly. "I
tell you, Baron, I have far better proof than you can show."
"Proofs! give me proof!" cried the Baron, almost crazy with
"Come, and you shall have them," said Crevel.
And in obedience to Valerie's instructions, he led the Baron away
towards the quay, down the Rue Hillerin-Bertin. The unhappy Baron
walked on, as a merchant walks on the day before he stops payment; he
was lost in conjectures as to the reasons of the depravity buried in
the depths of Valerie's heart, and still believed himself the victim
of some practical joke. As they crossed the Pont Royal, life seemed to
him so blank, so utterly a void, and so out of joint from his
financial difficulties, that he was within an ace of yielding to the
evil prompting that bid him fling Crevel into the river and throw
himself in after.
On reaching the Rue du Dauphin, which had not yet been widened, Crevel
stopped before a door in a wall. It opened into a long corridor paved
with black-and-white marble, and serving as an entrance-hall, at the
end of which there was a flight of stairs and a doorkeeper's lodge,
lighted from an inner courtyard, as is often the case in Paris. This
courtyard, which was shared with another house, was oddly divided into
two unequal portions. Crevel's little house, for he owned it, had
additional rooms with a glass skylight, built out on to the adjoining
plot, under conditions that it should have no story added above the
ground floor, so that the structure was entirely hidden by the lodge
and the projecting mass of the staircase.
This back building had long served as a store-room, backshop, and
kitchen to one of the shops facing the street. Crevel had cut off
these three rooms from the rest of the ground floor, and Grindot had
transformed them into an inexpensive private residence. There were two
ways in--from the front, through the shop of a furniture-dealer, to
whom Crevel let it at a low price, and only from month to month, so as
to be able to get rid of him in case of his telling tales, and also
through a door in the wall of the passage, so ingeniously hidden as to
be almost invisible. The little apartment, comprising a dining-room,
drawing-room, and bedroom, all lighted from above, and standing partly
on Crevel's ground and partly on his neighbor's, was very difficult to
find. With the exception of the second-hand furniture-dealer, the
tenants knew nothing of the existence of this little paradise.
The doorkeeper, paid to keep Crevel's secrets, was a capital cook. So
Monsieur le Maire could go in and out of his inexpensive retreat at
any hour of the night without any fear of being spied upon. By day, a
lady, dressed as Paris women dress to go shopping, and having a key,
ran no risk in coming to Crevel's lodgings; she would stop to look at
the cheapened goods, ask the price, go into the shop, and come out
again, without exciting the smallest suspicion if any one should
happen to meet her.
As soon as Crevel had lighted the candles in the sitting-room, the
Baron was surprised at the elegance and refinement it displayed. The
perfumer had given the architect a free hand, and Grindot had done
himself credit by fittings in the Pompadour style, which had in fact
cost sixty thousand francs.
"What I want," said Crevel to Grindot, "is that a duchess, if I
brought one there, should be surprised at it."
He wanted to have a perfect Parisian Eden for his Eve, his "real
lady," his Valerie, his duchess.
"There are two beds," said Crevel to Hulot, showing him a sofa that
could be made wide enough by pulling out a drawer. "This is one, the
other is in the bedroom. We can both spend the night here."
"Proof!" was all the Baron could say.
Crevel took a flat candlestick and led Hulot into the adjoining room,
where he saw, on a sofa, a superb dressing-gown belonging to Valerie,
which he had seen her wear in the Rue Vanneau, to display it before
wearing it in Crevel's little apartment. The Mayor pressed the spring
of a little writing-table of inlaid work, known as a
/bonheur-du-jour/, and took out of it a letter that he handed to the
"Read that," said he.
The Councillor read these words written in pencil:
"I have waited in vain, you old wretch! A woman of my quality does
not expect to be kept waiting by a retired perfumer. There was no
dinner ordered--no cigarettes. I will make you pay for this!"
"Well, is that her writing?"
"Good God!" gasped Hulot, sitting down in dismay. "I see all the
things she uses--her caps, her slippers. Why, how long since--?"
Crevel nodded that he understood, and took a packet of bills out of
the little inlaid cabinet.
"You can see, old man. I paid the decorators in December, 1838. In
October, two months before, this charming little place was first
Hulot bent his head.
"How the devil do you manage it? I know how she spends every hour of
"How about her walk in the Tuileries?" said Crevel, rubbing his hands
"What then?" said Hulot, mystified.
"Your lady love comes to the Tuileries, she is supposed to be airing
herself from one till four. But, hop, skip, and jump, and she is here.
You know your Moliere? Well, Baron, there is nothing imaginary in your
Hulot, left without a shred of doubt, sat sunk in ominous silence.
Catastrophes lead intelligent and strong-minded men to be
philosophical. The Baron, morally, was at this moment like a man
trying to find his way by night through a forest. This gloomy
taciturnity and the change in that dejected countenance made Crevel
very uneasy, for he did not wish the death of his colleague.
"As I said, old fellow, we are now even; let us play for the odd. Will
you play off the tie by hook and by crook? Come!"
"Why," said Hulot, talking to himself--"why is it that out of ten
pretty women at least seven are false?"
But the Baron was too much upset to answer his own question. Beauty is
the greatest of human gifts for power. Every power that has no
counterpoise, no autocratic control, leads to abuses and folly.
Despotism is the madness of power; in women the despot is caprice.
"You have nothing to complain of, my good friend; you have a beautiful
wife, and she is virtuous."
"I deserve my fate," said Hulot. "I have undervalued my wife and made
her miserable, and she is an angel! Oh, my poor Adeline! you are
avenged! She suffers in solitude and silence, and she is worthy of my
love; I ought--for she is still charming, fair and girlish even--But
was there ever a woman known more base, more ignoble, more villainous
than this Valerie?"
"She is a good-for-nothing slut," said Crevel, "a hussy that deserves
whipping on the Place du Chatelet. But, my dear Canillac, though we
are such blades, so Marechal de Richelieu, Louis XV., Pompadour,
Madame du Barry, gay dogs, and everything that is most eighteenth
century, there is no longer a lieutenant of police."
"How can we make them love us?" Hulot wondered to himself without
"It is sheer folly in us to expect to be loved, my dear fellow," said
Crevel. "We can only be endured; for Madame Marneffe is a hundred
times more profligate than Josepha."
"And avaricious! she costs me a hundred and ninety-two thousand francs
a year!" cried Hulot.
"And how many centimes!" sneered Crevel, with the insolence of a
financier who scorns so small a sum.
"You do not love her, that is very evident," said the Baron dolefully.
"I have had enough of her," replied Crevel, "for she has had more than
three hundred thousand francs of mine!"
"Where is it? Where does it all go?" said the Baron, clasping his head
in his hands.
"If we had come to an agreement, like the simple young men who combine
to maintain a twopenny baggage, she would have cost us less."
"That is an idea"! replied the Baron. "But she would still be cheating
us; for, my burly friend, what do you say to this Brazilian?"
"Ay, old sly fox, you are right, we are swindled like--like
shareholders!" said Crevel. "All such women are an unlimited
liability, and we the sleeping partners."
"Then it was she who told you about the candle in the window?"
"My good man," replied Crevel, striking an attitude, "she has fooled
us both. Valerie is a--She told me to keep you here.--Now I see it
all. She has got her Brazilian!--Oh, I have done with her, for if you
hold her hands, she would find a way to cheat you with her feet!
There! she is a minx, a jade!"
"She is lower than a prostitute," said the Baron. "Josepha and Jenny
Cadine were in their rights when they were false to us; they make a
trade of their charms."
"But she, who affects the saint--the prude!" said Crevel. "I tell you
what, Hulot, do you go back to your wife; your money matters are not
looking well; I have heard talk of certain notes of hand given to a
low usurer whose special line of business is lending to these sluts, a
man named Vauvinet. For my part, I am cured of your 'real ladies.'
And, after all, at our time of life what do we want of these swindling
hussies, who, to be honest, cannot help playing us false? You have
white hair and false teeth; I am of the shape of Silenus. I shall go
in for saving. Money never deceives one. Though the Treasury is indeed
open to all the world twice a year, it pays you interest, and this
woman swallows it. With you, my worthy friend, as Gubetta, as my
partner in the concern, I might have resigned myself to a shady
bargain--no, a philosophical calm. But with a Brazilian who has
possibly smuggled in some doubtful colonial produce----"
"Woman is an inexplicable creature!" said Hulot.
"I can explain her," said Crevel. "We are old; the Brazilian is young
"Yes; that, I own, is true," said Hulot; "we are older than we were.
But, my dear fellow, how is one to do without these pretty creatures
--seeing them undress, twist up their hair, smile cunningly through
their fingers as they screw up their curl-papers, put on all their
airs and graces, tell all their lies, declare that we don't love them
when we are worried with business; and they cheer us in spite of
"Yes, by the Power! It is the only pleasure in life!" cried Crevel.
"When a saucy little mug smiles at you and says, 'My old dear, you
don't know how nice you are! I am not like other women, I suppose, who
go crazy over mere boys with goats' beards, smelling of smoke, and as
coarse as serving-men! For in their youth they are so insolent!--They
come in and they bid you good-morning, and out they go.--I, whom you
think such a flirt, I prefer a man of fifty to these brats. A man who
will stick by me, who is devoted, who knows a woman is not to be
picked up every day, and appreciates us.--That is what I love you for,
you old monster!'--and they fill up these avowals with little pettings
and prettinesses and--Faugh! they are as false as the bills on the
Hotel de Ville."
"A lie is sometimes better than the truth," said Hulot, remembering
sundry bewitching scenes called up by Crevel, who mimicked Valerie.
"They are obliged to act upon their lies, to sew spangles on their
"And they are ours, after all, the lying jades!" said Crevel coarsely.
"Valerie is a witch," said the Baron. "She can turn an old man into a
"Oh, yes!" said Crevel, "she is an eel that wriggles through your
hands; but the prettiest eel, as white and sweet as sugar, as amusing
as Arnal--and ingenious!"
"Yes, she is full of fun," said Hulot, who had now quite forgotten his
The colleagues went to bed the best friends in the world, reminding
each other of Valerie's perfections, the tones of her voice, her
kittenish way, her movements, her fun, her sallies of wit, and of
affections; for she was an artist in love, and had charming impulses,
as tenors may sing a scena better one day than another. And they fell
asleep, cradled in tempting and diabolical visions lighted by the
fires of hell.
At nine o'clock next morning Hulot went off to the War Office, Crevel
had business out of town; they left the house together, and Crevel
held out his hand to the Baron, saying:
"To show that there is no ill-feeling. For we, neither of us, will
have anything more to say to Madame Marneffe?"
"Oh, this is the end of everything," replied Hulot with a sort of
By half-past ten Crevel was mounting the stairs, four at a time, up to
Madame Marneffe's apartment. He found the infamous wretch, the
adorable enchantress, in the most becoming morning wrapper, enjoying
an elegant little breakfast in the society of the Baron Montes de
Montejanos and Lisbeth. Though the sight of the Brazilian gave him a
shock, Crevel begged Madame Marneffe to grant him two minutes' speech
with her. Valerie led Crevel into the drawing-room.
"Valerie, my angel," said the amorous Mayor, "Monsieur Marneffe cannot
have long to live. If you will be faithful to me, when he dies we will
be married. Think it over. I have rid you of Hulot.--So just consider
whether this Brazilian is to compare with a Mayor of Paris, a man who,
for your sake, will make his way to the highest dignities, and who can
already offer you eighty-odd thousand francs a year."
"I will think it over," said she. "You will see me in the Rue du
Dauphin at two o'clock, and we can discuss the matter. But be a good
boy--and do not forget the bond you promised to transfer to me."
She returned to the dining-room, followed by Crevel, who flattered
himself that he had hit on a plan for keeping Valerie to himself; but
there he found Baron Hulot, who, during this short colloquy, had also
arrived with the same end in view. He, like Crevel, begged for a brief
interview. Madame Marneffe again rose to go to the drawing-room, with
a smile at the Brazilian that seemed to say, "What fools they are!
Cannot they see you?"
"Valerie," said the official, "my child, that cousin of yours is an
"Oh, that is enough!" she cried, interrupting the Baron. "Marneffe
never has been, and never will be, never can be my husband! The first,
the only man I ever loved, has come back quite unexpectedly. It is no
fault of mine! But look at Henri and look at yourself. Then ask
yourself whether a woman, and a woman in love, can hesitate for a
moment. My dear fellow, I am not a kept mistress. From this day forth
I refuse to play the part of Susannah between the two Elders. If you
really care for me, you and Crevel, you will be our friends; but all
else is at an end, for I am six-and-twenty, and henceforth I mean to
be a saint, an admirable and worthy wife--as yours is."
"Is that what you have to say?" answered Hulot. "Is this the way you
receive me when I come like a Pope with my hands full of Indulgences?
--Well, your husband will never be a first-class clerk, nor be
promoted in the Legion of Honor."
"That remains to be seen," said Madame Marneffe, with a meaning look
"Well, well, no temper," said Hulot in despair. "I will call this
evening, and we will come to an understanding."
"In Lisbeth's rooms then."
"Very good--at Lisbeth's," said the old dotard.
Hulot and Crevel went downstairs together without speaking a word till
they were in the street; but outside on the sidewalk they looked at
each other with a dreary laugh.
"We are a couple of old fools," said Crevel.
"I have got rid of them," said Madame Marneffe to Lisbeth, as she sat
down once more. "I never loved and I never shall love any man but my
Jaguar," she added, smiling at Henri Montes. "Lisbeth, my dear, you
don't know. Henri has forgiven me the infamy to which I was reduced by
"It was my own fault," said the Brazilian. "I ought to have sent you a
hundred thousand francs."
"Poor boy!" said Valerie; "I might have worked for my living, but my
fingers were not made for that--ask Lisbeth."
The Brazilian went away the happiest man in Paris.
At noon Valerie and Lisbeth were chatting in the splendid bedroom
where this dangerous woman was giving to her dress those finishing
touches which a lady alone can give. The doors were bolted, the
curtains drawn over them, and Valerie related in every detail all the
events of the evening, the night, the morning.
"What do you think of it all, my darling?" she said to Lisbeth in
conclusion. "Which shall I be when the time comes--Madame Crevel, or
"Crevel will not last more than ten years, such a profligate as he
is," replied Lisbeth. "Montes is young. Crevel will leave you about
thirty thousand francs a year. Let Montes wait; he will be happy
enough as Benjamin. And so, by the time you are three-and-thirty, if
you take care of your looks, you may marry your Brazilian and make a
fine show with sixty thousand francs a year of your own--especially
under the wing of a Marechale."
"Yes, but Montes is a Brazilian; he will never make his mark,"
"We live in the day of railways," said Lisbeth, "when foreigners rise
to high positions in France."
"We shall see," replied Valerie, "when Marneffe is dead. He has not
much longer to suffer."
"These attacks that return so often are a sort of physical remorse,"
said Lisbeth. "Well, I am off to see Hortense."
"Yes--go, my angel!" replied Valerie. "And bring me my artist.--Three
years, and I have not gained an inch of ground! It is a disgrace to
both of us!--Wenceslas and Henri--these are my two passions--one for
love, the other for fancy."
"You are lovely this morning," said Lisbeth, putting her arm round
Valerie's waist and kissing her forehead. "I enjoy all your pleasures,
your good fortune, your dresses--I never really lived till the day
when we became sisters."
"Wait a moment, my tiger-cat!" cried Valerie, laughing; "your shawl is
crooked. You cannot put a shawl on yet in spite of my lessons for
three years--and you want to be Madame la Marechale Hulot!"
Shod in prunella boots, over gray silk stockings, in a gown of
handsome corded silk, her hair in smooth bands under a very pretty
black velvet bonnet, lined with yellow satin, Lisbeth made her way to
the Rue Saint-Dominique by the Boulevard des Invalides, wondering
whether sheer dejection would at last break down Hortense's brave
spirit, and whether Sarmatian instability, taken at a moment when,
with such a character, everything is possible, would be too much for
Hortense and Wenceslas had the ground floor of a house situated at the
corner of the Rue Saint-Dominique and the Esplanade des Invalides.
These rooms, once in harmony with the honeymoon, now had that
half-new, half-faded look that may be called the autumnal aspect of
furniture. Newly married folks are as lavish and wasteful, without
knowing it or intending it, of everything about them as they are of
their affection. Thinking only of themselves, they reck little of the
future, which, at a later time, weighs on the mother of a family.
Lisbeth found Hortense just as she had finished dressing a baby
Wenceslas, who had been carried into the garden.
"Good-morning, Betty," said Hortense, opening the door herself to her
cousin. The cook was gone out, and the house-servant, who was also the
nurse, was doing some washing.
"Good-morning, dear child," replied Lisbeth, kissing her. "Is
Wenceslas in the studio?" she added in a whisper.
"No; he is in the drawing-room talking to Stidmann and Chanor."
"Can we be alone?" asked Lisbeth.
"Come into my room."
In this room, the hangings of pink-flowered chintz with green leaves
on a white ground, constantly exposed to the sun, were much faded, as
was the carpet. The muslin curtains had not been washed for many a
day. The smell of tobacco hung about the room; for Wenceslas, now an
artist of repute, and born a fine gentleman, left his cigar-ash on the
arms of the chairs and the prettiest pieces of furniture, as a man
does to whom love allows everything--a man rich enough to scorn vulgar
"Now, then, let us talk over your affairs," said Lisbeth, seeing her
pretty cousin silent in the armchair into which she had dropped. "But
what ails you? You look rather pale, my dear."
"Two articles have just come out in which my poor Wenceslas is pulled
to pieces; I have read them, but I have hidden them from him, for they
would completely depress him. The marble statue of Marshal Montcornet
is pronounced utterly bad. The bas-reliefs are allowed to pass muster,
simply to allow of the most perfidious praise of his talent as a
decorative artist, and to give the greater emphasis to the statement
that serious art is quite out of his reach! Stidmann, whom I besought
to tell me the truth, broke my heart by confessing that his own
opinion agreed with that of every other artist, of the critics, and
the public. He said to me in the garden before breakfast, 'If
Wenceslas cannot exhibit a masterpiece next season, he must give up
heroic sculpture and be content to execute idyllic subjects, small
figures, pieces of jewelry, and high-class goldsmiths' work!' This
verdict is dreadful to me, for Wenceslas, I know, will never accept
it; he feels he has so many fine ideas."
"Ideas will not pay the tradesman's bills," remarked Lisbeth. "I was
always telling him so--nothing but money. Money is only to be had for
work done--things that ordinary folks like well enough to buy them.
When an artist has to live and keep a family, he had far better have a
design for a candlestick on his counter, or for a fender or a table,
than for groups or statues. Everybody must have such things, while he
may wait months for the admirer of the group--and for his money---"
"You are right, my good Lisbeth. Tell him all that; I have not the
courage.--Besides, as he was saying to Stidmann, if he goes back to
ornamental work and small sculpture, he must give up all hope of the
Institute and grand works of art, and we should not get the three
hundred thousand francs' worth of work promised at Versailles and by
the City of Paris and the Ministers. That is what we are robbed of by
those dreadful articles, written by rivals who want to step into our
"And that is not what you dreamed of, poor little puss!" said Lisbeth,
kissing Hortense on the brow. "You expected to find a gentleman, a
leader of Art, the chief of all living sculptors.--But that is poetry,
you see, a dream requiring fifty thousand francs a year, and you have
only two thousand four hundred--so long as I live. After my death
A few tears rose to Hortense's eyes, and Lisbeth drank them with her
eyes as a cat laps milk.
This is the story of their honeymoon--the tale will perhaps not be
lost on some artists.
Intellectual work, labor in the upper regions of mental effort, is one
of the grandest achievements of man. That which deserves real glory in
Art--for by Art we must understand every creation of the mind--is
courage above all things--a sort of courage of which the vulgar have
no conception, and which has never perhaps been described till now.
Driven by the dreadful stress of poverty, goaded by Lisbeth, and kept
by her in blinders, as a horse is, to hinder it from seeing to the
right and left of its road, lashed on by that hard woman, the
personification of Necessity, a sort of deputy Fate, Wenceslas, a born
poet and dreamer, had gone on from conception to execution, and
overleaped, without sounding it, the gulf that divides these two
hemispheres of Art. To muse, to dream, to conceive of fine works, is a
delightful occupation. It is like smoking a magic cigar or leading the
life of a courtesan who follows her own fancy. The work then floats in
all the grace of infancy, in the mad joy of conception, with the
fragrant beauty of a flower, and the aromatic juices of a fruit
enjoyed in anticipation.
The man who can sketch his purpose beforehand in words is regarded as
a wonder, and every artist and writer possesses that faculty. But
gestation, fruition, the laborious rearing of the offspring, putting
it to bed every night full fed with milk, embracing it anew every
morning with the inexhaustible affection of a mother's heart, licking
it clean, dressing it a hundred times in the richest garb only to be
instantly destroyed; then never to be cast down at the convulsions of
this headlong life till the living masterpiece is perfected which in
sculpture speaks to every eye, in literature to every intellect, in
painting to every memory, in music to every heart!--This is the task
of execution. The hand must be ready at every instant to come forward
and obey the brain. But the brain has no more a creative power at
command than love has a perennial spring.
The habit of creativeness, the indefatigable love of motherhood which
makes a mother--that miracle of nature which Raphael so perfectly
understood--the maternity of the brain, in short, which is so
difficult to develop, is lost with prodigious ease. Inspiration is the
opportunity of genius. She does not indeed dance on the razor's edge,
she is in the air and flies away with the suspicious swiftness of a
crow; she wears no scarf by which the poet can clutch her; her hair is
a flame; she vanishes like the lovely rose and white flamingo, the
sportsman's despair. And work, again, is a weariful struggle, alike
dreaded and delighted in by these lofty and powerful natures who are
often broken by it. A great poet of our day has said in speaking of
this overwhelming labor, "I sit down to it in despair, but I leave it
with regret." Be it known to all who are ignorant! If the artist does
not throw himself into his work as Curtius sprang into the gulf, as a
soldier leads a forlorn hope without a moment's thought, and if when
he is in the crater he does not dig on as a miner does when the earth
has fallen in on him; if he contemplates the difficulties before him
instead of conquering them one by one, like the lovers in fairy tales,
who to win their princesses overcome ever new enchantments, the work
remains incomplete; it perishes in the studio where creativeness
becomes impossible, and the artist looks on at the suicide of his own
Rossini, a brother genius to Raphael, is a striking instance in his
poverty-stricken youth, compared with his latter years of opulence.
This is the reason why the same prize, the same triumph, the same bays
are awarded to great poets and to great generals.
Wenceslas, by nature a dreamer, had expended so much energy in
production, in study, and in work under Lisbeth's despotic rule, that
love and happiness resulted in reaction. His real character
reappeared, the weakness, recklessness, and indolence of the Sarmatian
returned to nestle in the comfortable corners of his soul, whence the
schoolmaster's rod had routed them.
For the first few months the artist adored his wife. Hortense and
Wenceslas abandoned themselves to the happy childishness of a
legitimate and unbounded passion. Hortense was the first to release
her husband from his labors, proud to triumph over her rival, his Art.
And, indeed, a woman's caresses scare away the Muse, and break down
the sturdy, brutal resolution of the worker.
Six or seven months slipped by, and the artist's fingers had forgotten
the use of the modeling tool. When the need for work began to be felt,
when the Prince de Wissembourg, president of the committee of
subscribers, asked to see the statue, Wenceslas spoke the inevitable
byword of the idler, "I am just going to work on it," and he lulled
his dear Hortense with fallacious promises and the magnificent schemes
of the artist as he smokes. Hortense loved her poet more than ever;
she dreamed of a sublime statue of Marshal Montcornet. Montcornet
would be the embodied ideal of bravery, the type of the cavalry
officer, of courage /a la Murat/. Yes, yes; at the mere sight of that
statue all the Emperor's victories were to seem a foregone conclusion.
And then such workmanship! The pencil was accommodating and answered
to the word.
By way of a statue the result was a delightful little Wenceslas.
When the progress of affairs required that he should go to the studio
at le Gros-Caillou to mould the clay and set up the life-size model,
Steinbock found one day that the Prince's clock required his presence
in the workshop of Florent and Chanor, where the figures were being
finished; or, again, the light was gray and dull; to-day he had
business to do, to-morrow they had a family dinner, to say nothing of
indispositions of mind and body, and the days when he stayed at home
to toy with his adored wife.
Marshal the Prince de Wissembourg was obliged to be angry to get the
clay model finished; he declared that he must put the work into other
hands. It was only by dint of endless complaints and much strong
language that the committee of subscribers succeeded in seeing the
plaster-cast. Day after day Steinbock came home, evidently tired,
complaining of this "hodman's work" and his own physical weakness.
During that first year the household felt no pinch; the Countess
Steinbock, desperately in love with her husband cursed the War
Minister. She went to see him; she told him that great works of art
were not to be manufactured like cannon; and that the State--like
Louis XIV., Francis I., and Leo X.--ought to be at the beck and call
of genius. Poor Hortense, believing she held a Phidias in her embrace,
had the sort of motherly cowardice for her Wenceslas that is in every
wife who carries her love to the pitch of idolatry.
"Do not be hurried," said she to her husband, "our whole future life
is bound up with that statue. Take your time and produce a
She would go to the studio, and then the enraptured Steinbock wasted
five hours out of seven in describing the statue instead of working at
it. He thus spent eighteen months in finishing the design, which to
him was all-important.
When the plaster was cast and the model complete, poor Hortense, who
had looked on at her husband's toil, seeing his health really suffer
from the exertions which exhaust a sculptor's frame and arms and hands
--Hortense thought the result admirable. Her father, who knew nothing
of sculpture, and her mother, no less ignorant, lauded it as a
triumph; the War Minister came with them to see it, and, overruled by
them, expressed approval of the figure, standing as it did alone, in a
favorable light, thrown up against a green baize background.
Alas! at the exhibition of 1841, the disapprobation of the public soon
took the form of abuse and mockery in the mouths of those who were
indignant with the idol too hastily set up for worship. Stidmann tried
to advise his friend, but was accused of jealousy. Every article in a
newspaper was to Hortense an outcry of envy. Stidmann, the best of
good fellows, got articles written, in which adverse criticism was
contravened, and it was pointed out that sculptors altered their works
in translating the plaster into marble, and that the marble would be
"In reproducing the plaster sketch in marble," wrote Claude Vignon, "a
masterpiece may be ruined, or a bad design made beautiful. The plaster
is the manuscript, the marble is the book."
So in two years and a half Wenceslas had produced a statue and a son.
The child was a picture of beauty; the statue was execrable.
The clock for the Prince and the price of the statue paid off the
young couple's debts. Steinbock had acquired fashionable habits; he
went to the play, to the opera; he talked admirably about art; and in
the eyes of the world he maintained his reputation as a great artist
by his powers of conversation and criticism. There are many clever men
in Paris who spend their lives in talking themselves out, and are
content with a sort of drawing-room celebrity. Steinbock, emulating
these emasculated but charming men, grew every day more averse to hard
work. As soon as he began a thing, he was conscious of all its
difficulties, and the discouragement that came over him enervated his
will. Inspiration, the frenzy of intellectual procreation, flew
swiftly away at the sight of this effete lover.
Sculpture--like dramatic art--is at once the most difficult and the
easiest of all arts. You have but to copy a model, and the task is
done; but to give it a soul, to make it typical by creating a man or a
woman--this is the sin of Prometheus. Such triumphs in the annals of
sculpture may be counted, as we may count the few poets among men.
Michael Angelo, Michel Columb, Jean Goujon, Phidias, Praxiteles,
Polycletes, Puget, Canova, Albert Durer, are the brothers of Milton,
Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Tasso, Homer, and Moliere. And such an
achievement is so stupendous that a single statue is enough to make a
man immortal, as Figaro, Lovelace, and Manon Lescaut have immortalized
Beaumarchais, Richardson, and the Abbe Prevost.
Superficial thinkers--and there are many in the artist world--have
asserted that sculpture lives only by the nude, that it died with the
Greeks, and that modern vesture makes it impossible. But, in the first
place, the Ancients have left sublime statues entirely clothed--the
/Polyhymnia/, the /Julia/, and others, and we have not found one-tenth
of all their works; and then, let any lover of art go to Florence and
see Michael Angelo's /Penseroso/, or to the Cathedral of Mainz, and
behold the /Virgin/ by Albert Durer, who has created a living woman
out of ebony, under her threefold drapery, with the most flowing, the
softest hair that ever a waiting-maid combed through; let all the
ignorant flock thither, and they will acknowledge that genius can give
mind to drapery, to armor, to a robe, and fill it with a body, just as
a man leaves the stamp of his individuality and habits of life on the
clothes he wears.
Sculpture is the perpetual realization of the fact which once, and
never again, was, in painting called Raphael!
The solution of this hard problem is to be found only in constant
persevering toil; for, merely to overcome the material difficulties to
such an extent, the hand must be so practised, so dexterous and
obedient, that the sculptor may be free to struggle soul to soul with
the elusive moral element that he has to transfigure as he embodies
it. If Paganini, who uttered his soul through the strings of his
violin, spent three days without practising, he lost what he called
the /stops/ of his instrument, meaning the sympathy between the wooden
frame, the strings, the bow, and himself; if he had lost this
alliance, he would have been no more than an ordinary player.
Perpetual work is the law of art, as it is the law of life, for art is
idealized creation. Hence great artists and perfect poets wait neither
for commission nor for purchasers. They are constantly creating
--to-day, to-morrow, always. The result is the habit of work, the
unfailing apprehension of the difficulties which keep them in close
intercourse with the Muse and her productive forces. Canova lived in
his studio, as Voltaire lived in his study; and so must Homer and
Phidias have lived.
While Lisbeth kept Wenceslas Steinbock in thraldom in his garret, he
was on the thorny road trodden by all these great men, which leads to
the Alpine heights of glory. Then happiness, in the person of
Hortense, had reduced the poet to idleness--the normal condition of
all artists, since to them idleness is fully occupied. Their joy is
such as that of the pasha of a seraglio; they revel with ideas, they
get drunk at the founts of intellect. Great artists, such as
Steinbock, wrapped in reverie, are rightly spoken of as dreamers.
They, like opium-eaters, all sink into poverty, whereas if they had
been kept up to the mark by the stern demands of life, they might have
been great men.
At the same time, these half-artists are delightful; men like them and
cram them with praise; they even seem superior to the true artists,
who are taxed with conceit, unsociableness, contempt of the laws of
society. This is why: Great men are the slaves of their work. Their
indifference to outer things, their devotion to their work, make
simpletons regard them as egotists, and they are expected to wear the
same garb as the dandy who fulfils the trivial evolutions called
social duties. These men want the lions of the Atlas to be combed and
scented like a lady's poodle.
These artists, who are too rarely matched to meet their fellows, fall
into habits of solitary exclusiveness; they are inexplicable to the
majority, which, as we know, consists mostly of fools--of the envious,
the ignorant, and the superficial.
Now you may imagine what part a wife should play in the life of these
glorious and exceptional beings. She ought to be what, for five years,
Lisbeth had been, but with the added offering of love, humble and
patient love, always ready and always smiling.
Hortense, enlightened by her anxieties as a mother, and driven by dire
necessity, had discovered too late the mistakes she had been
involuntarily led into by her excessive love. Still, the worthy
daughter of her mother, her heart ached at the thought of worrying
Wenceslas; she loved her dear poet too much to become his torturer;
and she could foresee the hour when beggary awaited her, her child,
and her husband.
"Come, come, my child," said Lisbeth, seeing the tears in her cousin's
lovely eyes, "you must not despair. A glassful of tears will not buy a
plate of soup. How much do you want?"
"Well, five or six thousand francs."
"I have but three thousand at the most," said Lisbeth. "And what is
Wenceslas doing now?"
"He has had an offer to work in partnership with Stidmann at a table
service for the Duc d'Herouville for six thousand francs. Then
Monsieur Chanor will advance four thousand to repay Monsieur de Lora
and Bridau--a debt of honor."
"What, you have had the money for the statue and the bas-reliefs for
Marshal Montcornet's monument, and you have not paid them yet?"
"For the last three years," said Hortense, "we have spent twelve
thousand francs a year, and I have but a hundred louis a year of my
own. The Marshal's monument, when all the expenses were paid, brought
us no more than sixteen thousand francs. Really and truly, if
Wenceslas gets no work, I do not know what is to become of us. Oh, if
only I could learn to make statues, I would handle the clay!" she
cried, holding up her fine arms.
The woman, it was plain, fulfilled the promise of the girl; there was
a flash in her eye; impetuous blood, strong with iron, flowed in her
veins; she felt that she was wasting her energy in carrying her
"Ah, my poor little thing! a sensible girl should not marry an artist
till his fortune is made--not while it is still to make."
At this moment they heard voices; Stidmann and Wenceslas were seeing
Chanor to the door; then Wenceslas and Stidmann came in again.
Stidmann, an artist in vogue in the world of journalists, famous
actresses, and courtesans of the better class, was a young man of
fashion whom Valerie much wished to see in her rooms; indeed, he had
already been introduced to her by Claude Vignon. Stidmann had lately
broken off an intimacy with Madame Schontz, who had married some
months since and gone to live in the country. Valerie and Lisbeth,
hearing of this upheaval from Claude Vignon, thought it well to get
Steinbock's friend to visit in the Rue Vanneau.
Stidmann, out of good feeling, went rarely to the Steinbocks'; and as
it happened that Lisbeth was not present when he was introduced by
Claude Vignon, she now saw him for the first time. As she watched this
noted artist, she caught certain glances from his eyes at Hortense,
which suggested to her the possibility of offering him to the Countess
Steinbock as a consolation if Wenceslas should be false to her. In
point of fact, Stidmann was reflecting that if Steinbock were not his
friend, Hortense, the young and superbly beautiful countess, would be
an adorable mistress; it was this very notion, controlled by honor,
that kept him away from the house. Lisbeth was quick to mark the
significant awkwardness that troubles a man in the presence of a woman
with whom he will not allow himself to flirt.
"Very good-looking--that young man," said she in a whisper to
"Oh, do you think so?" she replied. "I never noticed him."
"Stidmann, my good fellow," said Wenceslas, in an undertone to his
friend, "we are on no ceremony, you and I--we have some business to
settle with this old girl."
Stidmann bowed to the ladies and went away.
"It is settled," said Wenceslas, when he came in from taking leave of
Stidmann. "But there are six months' work to be done, and we must live
"There are my diamonds," cried the young Countess, with the impetuous
heroism of a loving woman.
A tear rose in Wenceslas' eye.
"Oh, I am going to work," said he, sitting down by his wife and
drawing her on to his knee. "I will do odd jobs--a wedding chest,
"But, my children," said Lisbeth; "for, as you know, you will be my
heirs, and I shall leave you a very comfortable sum, believe me,
especially if you help me to marry the Marshal; nay, if we succeed in
that quickly, I will take you all to board with me--you and Adeline.
We should live very happily together.--But for the moment, listen to
the voice of my long experience. Do not fly to the Mont-de-Piete; it
is the ruin of the borrower. I have always found that when the
interest was due, those who had pledged their things had nothing
wherewith to pay up, and then all is lost. I can get you a loan at
five per cent on your note of hand."
"Oh, we are saved!" said Hortense.
"Well, then, child, Wenceslas had better come with me to see the
lender, who will oblige him at my request. It is Madame Marneffe. If
you flatter her a little--for she is as vain as a /parvenue/--she will
get you out of the scrape in the most obliging way. Come yourself and
see her, my dear Hortense."
Hortense looked at her husband with the expression a man condemned to
death must wear on his way to the scaffold.
"Claude Vignon took Stidmann there," said Wenceslas. "He says it is a
very pleasant house."
Hortense's head fell. What she felt can only be expressed in one word;
it was not pain; it was illness.
"But, my dear Hortense, you must learn something of life!" exclaimed
Lisbeth, understanding the eloquence of her cousin's looks.
"Otherwise, like your mother, you will find yourself abandoned in a
deserted room, where you will weep like Calypso on the departure of
Ulysses, and at an age when there is no hope of Telemachus--" she
added, repeating a jest of Madame Marneffe's. "We have to regard the
people in the world as tools which we can make use of or let alone,
according as they can serve our turn. Make use of Madame Marneffe now,
my dears, and let her alone by and by. Are you afraid lest Wenceslas,
who worships you, should fall in love with a woman four or five years
older than himself, as yellow as a bundle of field peas, and----?"
"I would far rather pawn my diamonds," said Hortense. "Oh, never go
there, Wenceslas!--It is hell!"
"Hortense is right," said Steinbock, kissing his wife.
"Thank you, my dearest," said Hortense, delighted. "My husband is an
angel, you see, Lisbeth. He does not gamble, he goes nowhere without
me; if he only could stick to work--oh, I should be too happy. Why
take us on show to my father's mistress, a woman who is ruining him
and is the cause of troubles that are killing my heroic mother?"
"My child, that is not where the cause of your father's ruin lies. It
was his singer who ruined him, and then your marriage!" replied her
cousin. "Bless me! why, Madame Marneffe is of the greatest use to him.
However, I must tell no tales."
"You have a good word for everybody, dear Betty--"
Hortense was called into the garden by hearing the child cry; Lisbeth
was left alone with Wenceslas.
"You have an angel for your wife, Wenceslas!" said she. "Love her as
you ought; never give her cause for grief."
"Yes, indeed, I love her so well that I do not tell her all," replied
Wenceslas; "but to you, Lisbeth, I may confess the truth.--If I took
my wife's diamonds to the Monte-de-Piete, we should be no further
"Then borrow of Madame Marneffe," said Lisbeth. "Persuade Hortense,
Wenceslas, to let you go there, or else, bless me! go there without
"That is what I was thinking of," replied Wenceslas, "when I refused
for fear of grieving Hortense."
"Listen to me; I care too much for you both not to warn you of your
danger. If you go there, hold your heart tight in both hands, for the
woman is a witch. All who see her adore her; she is so wicked, so
inviting! She fascinates men like a masterpiece. Borrow her money, but
do not leave your soul in pledge. I should never be happy again if you
were false to Hortense--here she is! not another word! I will settle
"Kiss Lisbeth, my darling," said Wenceslas to his wife. "She will help
us out of our difficulties by lending us her savings."
And he gave Lisbeth a look which she understood.
"Then, I hope you mean to work, my dear treasure," said Hortense.
"Yes, indeed," said the artist. "I will begin to-morrow."
"To-morrow is our ruin!" said his wife, with a smile.
"Now, my dear child! say yourself whether some hindrance has not come
in the way every day; some obstacle or business?"
"Yes, very true, my love."
"Here!" cried Steinbock, striking his brow, "here I have swarms of
ideas! I mean to astonish all my enemies. I am going to design a
service in the German style of the sixteenth century; the romantic
style: foliage twined with insects, sleeping children, newly invented
monsters, chimeras--real chimeras, such as we dream of!--I see it all!
It will be undercut, light, and yet crowded. Chanor was quite amazed.
--And I wanted some encouragement, for the last article on
Montcornet's monument had been crushing."
At a moment in the course of the day when Lisbeth and Wenceslas were
left together, the artist agreed to go on the morrow to see Madame
Marneffe--he either would win his wife's consent, or he would go
without telling her.
Valerie, informed the same evening of this success, insisted that
Hulot should go to invite Stidmann, Claude Vignon, and Steinbock to
dinner; for she was beginning to tyrannize over him as women of that
type tyrannize over old men, who trot round town, and go to make
interest with every one who is necessary to the interests or the
vanity of their task-mistress.
Next evening Valerie armed herself for conquest by making such a
toilet as a Frenchwoman can devise when she wishes to make the most of
herself. She studied her appearance in this great work as a man going
out to fight a duel practises his feints and lunges. Not a speck, not
a wrinkle was to be seen. Valerie was at her whitest, her softest, her
sweetest. And certain little "patches" attracted the eye.
It is commonly supposed that the patch of the eighteenth century is
out of date or out of fashion; that is a mistake. In these days women,
more ingenious perhaps than of yore, invite a glance through the
opera-glass by other audacious devices. One is the first to hit on a
rosette in her hair with a diamond in the centre, and she attracts
every eye for a whole evening; another revives the hair-net, or sticks
a dagger through the twist to suggest a garter; this one wears velvet
bands round her wrists, that one appears in lace lippets. These
valiant efforts, an Austerlitz of vanity or of love, then set the
fashion for lower spheres by the time the inventive creatress has
originated something new. This evening, which Valerie meant to be a
success for her, she had placed three patches. She had washed her hair
with some lye, which changed its hue for a few days from a gold color
to a duller shade. Madame Steinbock's was almost red, and she would be
in every point unlike her. This new effect gave her a piquant and
strange appearance, which puzzled her followers so much, that Montes
"What have you done to yourself this evening?"--Then she put on a
rather wide black velvet neck-ribbon, which showed off the whiteness
of her skin. One patch took the place of the /assassine/ of our
grandmothers. And Valerie pinned the sweetest rosebud into her bodice,
just in the middle above the stay-busk, and in the daintiest little
hollow! It was enough to make every man under thirty drop his eyelids.
"I am as sweet as a sugar-plum," said she to herself, going through
her attitudes before the glass, exactly as a dancer practises her
Lisbeth had been to market, and the dinner was to be one of those
superfine meals which Mathurine had been wont to cook for her Bishop
when he entertained the prelate of the adjoining diocese.
Stidmann, Claude Vignon, and Count Steinbock arrived almost together,
just at six. An ordinary, or, if you will, a natural woman would have
hastened at the announcement of a name so eagerly longed for; but
Valerie, though ready since five o'clock, remained in her room,
leaving her three guests together, certain that she was the subject of
their conversation or of their secret thoughts. She herself had
arranged the drawing-room, laying out the pretty trifles produced in
Paris and nowhere else, which reveal the woman and announce her
presence: albums bound in enamel or embroidered with beads, saucers
full of pretty rings, marvels of Sevres or Dresden mounted exquisitely
by Florent and Chanor, statues, books, all the frivolities which cost
insane sums, and which passion orders of the makers in its first
delirium--or to patch up its last quarrel.
Besides, Valerie was in the state of intoxication that comes of
triumph. She had promised to marry Crevel if Marneffe should die; and
the amorous Crevel had transferred to the name of Valerie Fortin bonds
bearing ten thousand francs a year, the sum-total of what he had made
in railway speculations during the past three years, the returns on
the capital of a hundred thousand crowns which he had at first offered
to the Baronne Hulot. So Valerie now had an income of thirty-two
Crevel had just committed himself to a promise of far greater
magnitude than this gift of his surplus. In the paroxysm of rapture
which /his Duchess/ had given him from two to four--he gave this fine
title to Madame /de/ Marneffe to complete the illusion--for Valerie
had surpassed herself in the Rue du Dauphin that afternoon, he had
thought well to encourage her in her promised fidelity by giving her
the prospect of a certain little mansion, built in the Rue Barbette by
an imprudent contractor, who now wanted to sell it. Valerie could
already see herself in this delightful residence, with a fore-court
and a garden, and keeping a carriage!
"What respectable life can ever procure so much in so short a time, or
so easily?" said she to Lisbeth as she finished dressing. Lisbeth was
to dine with Valerie that evening, to tell Steinbock those things
about the lady which nobody can say about herself.
Madame Marneffe, radiant with satisfaction, came into the drawing-room
with modest grace, followed by Lisbeth dressed in black and yellow to
set her off.
"Good-evening, Claude," said she, giving her hand to the famous old
Claude Vignon, like many another, had become a political personage--a
word describing an ambitious man at the first stage of his career. The
/political personage/ of 1840 represents, in some degree, the /Abbe/
of the eighteenth century. No drawing-room circle is complete without
"My dear, this is my cousin, Count Steinbock," said Lisbeth,
introducing Wenceslas, whom Valerie seemed to have overlooked.
"Oh yes, I recognized Monsieur le Comte," replied Valerie with a
gracious bow to the artist. "I often saw you in the Rue du Doyenne,
and I had the pleasure of being present at your wedding.--It would be
difficult, my dear," said she to Lisbeth, "to forget your adopted son
after once seeing him.--It is most kind of you, Monsieur Stidmann,"
she went on, "to have accepted my invitation at such short notice; but
necessity knows no law. I knew you to be the friend of both these
gentlemen. Nothing is more dreary, more sulky, than a dinner where all
the guests are strangers, so it was for their sake that I hailed you
in--but you will come another time for mine, I hope?--Say that you
And for a few minutes she moved about the room with Stidmann, wholly
occupied with him.
Crevel and Hulot were announced separately, and then a deputy named
This individual, a provincial Crevel, one of the men created to make
up the crowd in the world, voted under the banner of Giraud, a State
Councillor, and Victorin Hulot. These two politicians were trying to
form a nucleus of progressives in the loose array of the Conservative
Party. Giraud himself occasionally spent the evening at Madame
Marneffe's, and she flattered herself that she should also capture
Victorin Hulot; but the puritanical lawyer had hitherto found excuses
for refusing to accompany his father and father-in-law. It seemed to
him criminal to be seen in the house of the woman who cost his mother
so many tears. Victorin Hulot was to the puritans of political life
what a pious woman is among bigots.
Beauvisage, formerly a stocking manufacturer at Arcis, was anxious to
/pick up the Paris style/. This man, one of the outer stones of the
Chamber, was forming himself under the auspices of this delicious and
fascinating Madame Marneffe. Introduced here by Crevel, he had
accepted him, at her instigation, as his model and master. He
consulted him on every point, took the address of his tailor, imitated
him, and tried to strike the same attitudes. In short, Crevel was his
Valerie, surrounded by these bigwigs and the three artists, and
supported by Lisbeth, struck Wenceslas as a really superior woman, all
the more so because Claude Vignon spoke of her like a man in love.
"She is Madame de Maintenon in Ninon's petticoats!" said the veteran
critic. "You may please her in an evening if you have the wit; but as
for making her love you--that would be a triumph to crown a man's
ambition and fill up his life."
Valerie, while seeming cold and heedless of her former neighbor,
piqued his vanity, quite unconsciously indeed, for she knew nothing of
the Polish character. There is in the Slav a childish element, as
there is in all these primitively wild nations which have overflowed
into civilization rather than that they have become civilized. The
race has spread like an inundation, and has covered a large portion of
the globe. It inhabits deserts whose extent is so vast that it expands
at its ease; there is no jostling there, as there is in Europe, and
civilization is impossible without the constant friction of minds and
interests. The Ukraine, Russia, the plains by the Danube, in short,
the Slav nations, are a connecting link between Europe and Asia,
between civilization and barbarism. Thus the Pole, the wealthiest
member of the Slav family, has in his character all the childishness
and inconsistency of a beardless race. He has courage, spirit, and
strength; but, cursed with instability, that courage, strength, and
energy have neither method nor guidance; for the Pole displays a
variability resembling that of the winds which blow across that vast
plain broken with swamps; and though he has the impetuosity of the
snow squalls that wrench and sweep away buildings, like those aerial
avalanches he is lost in the first pool and melts into water. Man
always assimilates something from the surroundings in which he lives.
Perpetually at strife with the Turk, the Pole has imbibed a taste for
Oriental splendor; he often sacrifices what is needful for the sake of
display. The men dress themselves out like women, yet the climate has
given them the tough constitution of Arabs.
The Pole, sublime in suffering, has tired his oppressors' arms by
sheer endurance of beating; and, in the nineteenth century, has
reproduced the spectacle presented by the early Christians. Infuse
only ten per cent of English cautiousness into the frank and open
Polish nature, and the magnanimous white eagle would at this day be
supreme wherever the two-headed eagle has sneaked in. A little
Machiavelism would have hindered Poland from helping to save Austria,
who has taken a share of it; from borrowing from Prussia, the usurer
who had undermined it; and from breaking up as soon as a division was
At the christening of Poland, no doubt, the Fairy Carabosse,
overlooked by the genii who endowed that attractive people with the
most brilliant gifts, came in to say:
"Keep all the gifts that my sisters have bestowed on you; but you
shall never know what you wish for!"
If, in its heroic duel with Russia, Poland had won the day, the Poles
would now be fighting among themselves, as they formerly fought in
their Diets to hinder each other from being chosen King. When that
nation, composed entirely of hot-headed dare-devils, has good sense
enough to seek a Louis XI. among her own offspring, to accept his
despotism and a dynasty, she will be saved.
What Poland has been politically, almost every Pole is in private
life, especially under the stress of disaster. Thus Wenceslas
Steinbock, after worshiping his wife for three years and knowing that
he was a god to her, was so much nettled at finding himself barely
noticed by Madame Marneffe, that he made it a point of honor to
attract her attention. He compared Valerie with his wife and gave her
the palm. Hortense was beautiful flesh, as Valerie had said to
Lisbeth; but Madame Marneffe had spirit in her very shape, and the
savor of vice.
Such devotion as Hortense's is a feeling which a husband takes as his
due; the sense of the immense preciousness of such perfect love soon
wears off, as a debtor, in the course of time, begins to fancy that
the borrowed money is his own. This noble loyalty becomes the daily
bread of the soul, and an infidelity is as tempting as a dainty. The
woman who is scornful, and yet more the woman who is reputed
dangerous, excites curiosity, as spices add flavor to good food.
Indeed, the disdain so cleverly acted by Valerie was a novelty to
Wenceslas, after three years of too easy enjoyment. Hortense was a
wife; Valerie a mistress.
Many men desire to have two editions of the same work, though it is in
fact a proof of inferiority when a man cannot make his mistress of his
wife. Variety in this particular is a sign of weakness. Constancy will
always be the real genius of love, the evidence of immense power--the
power that makes the poet! A man ought to find every woman in his
wife, as the squalid poets of the seventeenth century made their
Manons figure as Iris and Chloe.
"Well," said Lisbeth to the Pole, as she beheld him fascinated, "what
do you think of Valerie?"
"She is too charming," replied Wenceslas.
"You would not listen to me," said Betty. "Oh! my little Wenceslas, if
you and I had never parted, you would have been that siren's lover;
you might have married her when she was a widow, and you would have
had her forty thousand francs a year----"
"Certainly," replied Lisbeth. "Now, take care of yourself; I warned
you of the danger; do not singe your wings in the candle!--Come, give
me your arm, dinner is served."
No language could be so thoroughly demoralizing as this; for if you
show a Pole a precipice, he is bound to leap it. As a nation they have
the very spirit of cavalry; they fancy they can ride down every
obstacle and come out victorious. The spur applied by Lisbeth to
Steinbock's vanity was intensified by the appearance of the
dining-room, bright with handsome silver plate; the dinner was served
with every refinement and extravagance of Parisian luxury.
"I should have done better to take Celimene," thought he to himself.
All through the dinner Hulot was charming; pleased to see his
son-in-law at that table, and yet more happy in the prospect of a
reconciliation with Valerie, whose fidelity he proposed to secure by
the promise of Coquet's head-clerkship. Stidmann responded to the
Baron's amiability by shafts of Parisian banter and an artist's high
spirits. Steinbock would not allow himself to be eclipsed by his
friend; he too was witty, said amusing things, made his mark, and was
pleased with himself; Madame Marneffe smiled at him several times to
show that she quite understood him.
The good meal and heady wines completed the work; Wenceslas was deep
in what must be called the slough of dissipation. Excited by just a
glass too much, he stretched himself on a settee after dinner, sunk in
physical and mental ecstasy, which Madame Marneffe wrought to the
highest pitch by coming to sit down by him--airy, scented, pretty
enough to damn an angel. She bent over Wenceslas and almost touched
his ear as she whispered to him:
"We cannot talk over business matters this evening, unless you will
remain till the last. Between us--you, Lisbeth, and me--we can settle
everything to suit you."
"Ah, Madame, you are an angel!" replied Wenceslas, also in a murmur.
"I was a pretty fool not to listen to Lisbeth--"
"What did she say?"
"She declared, in the Rue du Doyenne, that you loved me!"
Madame Marneffe looked at him, seemed covered with confusion, and
hastily left her seat. A young and pretty woman never rouses the hope
of immediate success with impunity. This retreat, the impulse of a
virtuous woman who is crushing a passion in the depths of her heart,
was a thousand times more effective than the most reckless avowal.
Desire was so thoroughly aroused in Wenceslas that he doubled his
attentions to Valerie. A woman seen by all is a woman wished for.
Hence the terrible power of actresses. Madame Marneffe, knowing that
she was watched, behaved like an admired actress. She was quite
charming, and her success was immense.
"I no longer wonder at my father-in-law's follies," said Steinbock to
"If you say such things, Wenceslas, I shall to my dying day repent of
having got you the loan of these ten thousand francs. Are you, like
all these men," and she indicated the guests, "madly in love with that
creature? Remember, you would be your father-in-law's rival. And think
of the misery you would bring on Hortense."
"That is true," said Wenceslas. "Hortense is an angel; I should be a
"And one is enough in the family!" said Lisbeth.
"Artists ought never to marry!" exclaimed Steinbock.
"Ah! that is what I always told you in the Rue du Doyenne. Your
groups, your statues, your great works, ought to be your children."
"What are you talking about?" Valerie asked, joining Lisbeth.--"Give
us tea, Cousin."
Steinbock, with Polish vainglory, wanted to appear familiar with this
drawing-room fairy. After defying Stidmann, Vignon, and Crevel with a
look, he took Valerie's hand and forced her to sit down by him on the
"You are rather too lordly, Count Steinbock," said she, resisting a
little. But she laughed as she dropped on to the seat, not without
arranging the rosebud pinned into her bodice.
"Alas! if I were really lordly," said he, "I should not be here to
"Poor boy! I remember how you worked all night in the Rue du Doyenne.
You really were rather a spooney; you married as a starving man
snatches a loaf. You knew nothing of Paris, and you see where you are
landed. But you turned a deaf ear to Lisbeth's devotion, as you did to
the love of a woman who knows her Paris by heart."
"Say no more!" cried Steinbock; "I am done for!"
"You shall have your ten thousand francs, my dear Wenceslas; but on
one condition," she went on, playing with his handsome curls.
"What is that?"
"I will take no interest----"
"Oh, you need not be indignant; you shall make it good by giving me a
bronze group. You began the story of Samson; finish it.--Do a Delilah
cutting off the Jewish Hercules' hair. And you, who, if you will
listen to me, will be a great artist, must enter into the subject.
What you have to show is the power of woman. Samson is a secondary
consideration. He is the corpse of dead strength. It is Delilah
--passion--that ruins everything. How far more beautiful is that
/replica/--That is what you call it, I think--" She skilfully
interpolated, as Claude Vignon and Stidmann came up to them on hearing
her talk of sculpture--"how far more beautiful than the Greek myth is
that /replica/ of Hercules at Omphale's feet.--Did Greece copy Judaea,
or did Judaea borrow the symbolism from Greece?"
"There, madame, you raise an important question--that of the date of
the various writings in the Bible. The great and immortal Spinoza
--most foolishly ranked as an atheist, whereas he gave mathematical
proof of the existence of God--asserts that the Book of Genesis and
all the political history of the Bible are of the time of Moses, and
he demonstrates the interpolated passages by philological evidence.
And he was thrice stabbed as he went into the synagogue."
"I had no idea I was so learned," said Valerie, annoyed at this
interruption to her /tete-a-tete/.
"Women know everything by instinct," replied Claude Vignon.
"Well, then, you promise me?" she said to Steinbock, taking his hand
with the timidity of a girl in love.
"You are indeed a happy man, my dear fellow," cried Stidmann, "if
madame asks a favor of you!"
"What is it?" asked Claude Vignon.
"A small bronze group," replied Steinbock, "Delilah cutting off
"It is difficult," remarked Vignon. "A bed----"
"On the contrary, it is exceedingly easy," replied Valerie, smiling.
"Ah ha! teach us sculpture!" said Stidmann.
"You should take madame for your subject," replied Vignon, with a keen
glance at Valerie.
"Well," she went on, "this is my notion of the composition. Samson on
waking finds he has no hair, like many a dandy with a false top-knot.
The hero is sitting on the bed, so you need only show the foot of it,
covered with hangings and drapery. There he is, like Marius among the
ruins of Carthage, his arms folded, his head shaven--Napoleon at
Saint-Helena--what you will! Delilah is on her knees, a good deal like
Canova's Magdalen. When a hussy has ruined her man, she adores him. As
I see it, the Jewess was afraid of Samson in his strength and terrors,
but she must have loved him when she saw him a child again. So Delilah
is bewailing her sin, she would like to give her lover his hair again.
She hardly dares to look at him; but she does look, with a smile, for
she reads forgiveness in Samson's weakness. Such a group as this, and
one of the ferocious Judith, would epitomize woman. Virtue cuts off
your head; vice only cuts off your hair. Take care of your wigs,
And she left the artists quite overpowered, to sing her praises in
concert with the critic.
"It is impossible to be more bewitching!" cried Stidmann.
"Oh! she is the most intelligent and desirable woman I have ever met,"
said Claude Vignon. "Such a combination of beauty and cleverness is so
"And if you who had the honor of being intimate with Camille Maupin
can pronounce such a verdict," replied Stidmann, "what are we to
"If you will make your Delilah a portrait of Valerie, my dear Count,"
said Crevel, who had risen for a moment from the card-table, and who
had heard what had been said, "I will give you a thousand crowns for
an example--yes, by the Powers! I will shell out to the tune of a
"Shell out! What does that mean?" asked Beauvisage of Claude Vignon.
"Madame must do me the honor to sit for it then," said Steinbock to
Crevel. "Ask her--"
At this moment Valerie herself brought Steinbock a cup of tea. This
was more than a compliment, it was a favor. There is a complete
language in the manner in which a woman does this little civility; but
women are fully aware of the fact, and it is a curious thing to study
their movements, their manner, their look, tone, and accent when they
perform this apparently simple act of politeness.--From the question,
"Do you take tea?"--"Will you have some tea?"--"A cup of tea?" coldly
asked, and followed by instructions to the nymph of the urn to bring
it, to the eloquent poem of the odalisque coming from the tea-table,
cup in hand, towards the pasha of her heart, presenting it
submissively, offering it in an insinuating voice, with a look full of
intoxicating promises, a physiologist could deduce the whole scale of
feminine emotion, from aversion or indifference to Phaedra's
declaration to Hippolytus. Women can make it, at will, contemptuous to
the verge of insult, or humble to the expression of Oriental
And Valerie was more than woman; she was the serpent made woman; she
crowned her diabolical work by going up to Steinbock, a cup of tea in
"I will drink as many cups of tea as you will give me," said the
artist, murmuring in her ear as he rose, and touching her fingers with
his, "to have them given to me thus!"
"What were you saying about sitting?" said she, without betraying that
this declaration, so frantically desired, had gone straight to her
"Old Crevel promises me a thousand crowns for a copy of your group."
"He! a thousand crowns for a bronze group?"
"Yes--if you will sit for Delilah," said Steinbock.
"He will not be there to see, I hope!" replied she. "The group would
be worth more than all his fortune, for Delilah's costume is rather
Just as Crevel loved to strike an attitude, every woman has a
victorious gesture, a studied movement, which she knows must win
admiration. You may see in a drawing-room how one spends all her time
looking down at her tucker or pulling up the shoulder-piece of her
gown, how another makes play with the brightness of her eyes by
glancing up at the cornice. Madame Marneffe's triumph, however, was
not face to face like that of other women. She turned sharply round to
return to Lisbeth at the tea-table. This ballet-dancer's pirouette,
whisking her skirts, by which she had overthrown Hulot, now fascinated
"Your vengeance is secure," said Valerie to Lisbeth in a whisper.
"Hortense will cry out all her tears, and curse the day when she
robbed you of Wenceslas."
"Till I am Madame la Marechale I shall not think myself successful,"
replied the cousin; "but they are all beginning to wish for it.--This
morning I went to Victorin's--I forgot to tell you.--The young Hulots
have bought up their father's notes of hand given to Vauvinet, and
to-morrow they will endorse a bill for seventy-two thousand francs at
five per cent, payable in three years, and secured by a mortgage on
their house. So the young people are in straits for three years; they
can raise no more money on that property. Victorin is dreadfully
distressed; he understands his father. And Crevel is capable of
refusing to see them; he will be so angry at this piece of
"The Baron cannot have a sou now," said Valerie, and she smiled at
"I don't see where he can get it. But he will draw his salary again in
"And he has his policy of insurance; he has renewed it. Come, it is
high time he should get Marneffe promoted. I will drive it home this
"My dear cousin," said Lisbeth to Wenceslas, "go home, I beg. You are
quite ridiculous. Your eyes are fixed on Valerie in a way that is
enough to compromise her, and her husband is insanely jealous. Do not
tread in your father-in-law's footsteps. Go home; I am sure Hortense
is sitting up for you."
"Madame Marneffe told me to stay till the last to settle my little
business with you and her," replied Wenceslas.
"No, no," said Lisbeth; "I will bring you the ten thousand francs, for
her husband has his eye on you. It would be rash to remain. To-morrow
at eleven o'clock bring your note of hand; at that hour that mandarin
Marneffe is at his office, Valerie is free.--Have you really asked her
to sit for your group?--Come up to my rooms first.--Ah! I was sure of
it," she added, as she caught the look which Steinbock flashed at
Valerie, "I knew you were a profligate in the bud! Well, Valerie is
lovely--but try not to bring trouble on Hortense."
Nothing annoys a married man so much as finding his wife perpetually
interposing between himself and his wishes, however transient.
Wenceslas got home at about one in the morning; Hortense had expected
him ever since half-past nine. From half-past nine till ten she had
listened to the passing carriages, telling herself that never before
had her husband come in so late from dining with Florent and Chanor.
She sat sewing by the child's cot, for she had begun to save a
needlewoman's pay for the day by doing the mending herself.--From ten
till half-past, a suspicion crossed her mind; she sat wondering:
"Is he really gone to dinner, as he told me, with Chanor and Florent?
He put on his best cravat and his handsomest pin when he dressed. He
took as long over his toilet as a woman when she wants to make the
best of herself.--I am crazy! He loves me!--And here he is!"
But instead of stopping, the cab she heard went past.
From eleven till midnight Hortense was a victim to terrible alarms;
the quarter where they lived was now deserted.
"If he has set out on foot, some accident may have happened," thought
she. "A man may be killed by tumbling over a curbstone or failing to
see a gap. Artists are so heedless! Or if he should have been stopped
by robbers!--It is the first time he has ever left me alone here for
six hours and a half!--But why should I worry myself? He cares for no
one but me."
Men ought to be faithful to the wives who love them, were it only on
account of the perpetual miracles wrought by true love in the sublime
regions of the spiritual world. The woman who loves is, in relation to
the man she loves, in the position of a somnambulist to whom the
magnetizer should give the painful power, when she ceases to be the
mirror of the world, of being conscious as a woman of what she has
seen as a somnambulist. Passion raises the nervous tension of a woman
to the ecstatic pitch at which presentiment is as acute as the insight
of a clairvoyant. A wife knows she is betrayed; she will not let
herself say so, she doubts still--she loves so much! She gives the lie
to the outcry of her own Pythian power. This paroxysm of love deserves
a special form of worship.
In noble souls, admiration of this divine phenomenon will always be a
safeguard to protect them from infidelity. How should a man not
worship a beautiful and intellectual creature whose soul can soar to
By one in the morning Hortense was in a state of such intense anguish,
that she flew to the door as she recognized her husband's ring at the
bell, and clasped him in her arms like a mother.
"At last--here you are!" cried she, finding her voice again. "My
dearest, henceforth where you go I go, for I cannot again endure the
torture of such waiting.--I pictured you stumbling over a curbstone,
with a fractured skull! Killed by thieves!--No, a second time I know I
should go mad.--Have you enjoyed yourself so much?--And without me!
"What can I say, my darling? There was Bixiou, who drew fresh
caricatures for us; Leon de Lora, as witty as ever; Claude Vignon, to
whom I owe the only consolatory article that has come out about the
Montcornet statue. There were--"
"Were there no ladies?" Hortense eagerly inquired.
"Worthy Madame Florent--"
"You said the Rocher de Cancale.--Were you at the Florents'?"
"Yes, at their house; I made a mistake."
"You did not take a coach to come home?"
"And you have walked from the Rue des Tournelles?"
"Stidmann and Bixiou came back with me along the boulevards as far as
the Madeleine, talking all the way."
"It is dry then on the boulevards and the Place de la Concorde and the
Rue de Bourgogne? You are not muddy at all!" said Hortense, looking at
her husband's patent leather boots.
It had been raining, but between the Rue Vanneau and the Rue
Saint-Dominique Wenceslas had not got his boots soiled.
"Here--here are five thousand francs Chanor has been so generous as to
lend me," said Wenceslas, to cut short this lawyer-like examination.
He had made a division of the ten thousand-franc notes, half for
Hortense and half for himself, for he had five thousand francs' worth
of debts of which Hortense knew nothing. He owed money to his foreman
and his workmen.
"Now your anxieties are relieved," said he, kissing his wife. "I am
going to work to-morrow morning. So I am going to bed this minute to
get up early, by your leave, my pet."
The suspicion that had dawned in Hortense's mind vanished; she was
miles away from the truth. Madame Marneffe! She had never thought of
her. Her fear for her Wenceslas was that he should fall in with street
prostitutes. The names of Bixiou and Leon de Lora, two artists noted
for their wild dissipations, had alarmed her.
Next morning she saw Wenceslas go out at nine o'clock, and was quite
"Now he is at work again," said she to herself, as she proceeded to
dress her boy. "I see he is quite in the vein! Well, well, if we
cannot have the glory of Michael Angelo, we may have that of Benvenuto
Lulled by her own hopes, Hortense believed in a happy future; and she
was chattering to her son of twenty months in the language of
onomatopoeia that amuses babes when, at about eleven o'clock, the
cook, who had not seen Wenceslas go out, showed in Stidmann.
"I beg pardon, madame," said he. "Is Wenceslas gone out already?"
"He is at the studio."
"I came to talk over the work with him."
"I will send for him," said Hortense, offering Stidmann a chair.
Thanking Heaven for this piece of luck, Hortense was glad to detain
Stidmann to ask some questions about the evening before. Stidmann
bowed in acknowledgment of her kindness. The Countess Steinbock rang;
the cook appeared, and was desired to go at once and fetch her master
from the studio.
"You had an amusing dinner last night?" said Hortense. "Wenceslas did
not come in till past one in the morning."
"Amusing? not exactly," replied the artist, who had intended to
fascinate Madame Marneffe. "Society is not very amusing unless one is
interested in it. That little Madame Marneffe is clever, but a great
"And what did Wenceslas think of her?" asked poor Hortense, trying to
keep calm. "He said nothing about her to me."
"I will only say one thing," said Stidmann, "and that is, that I think
her a very dangerous woman."
Hortense turned as pale as a woman after childbirth.
"So--it was at--at Madame Marneffe's that you dined--and not--not with
Chanor?" said she, "yesterday--and Wenceslas--and he----"
Stidmann, without knowing what mischief he had done, saw that he had
The Countess did not finish her sentence; she simply fainted away. The
artist rang, and the maid came in. When Louise tried to get her
mistress into her bedroom, a serious nervous attack came on, with
violent hysterics. Stidmann, like any man who by an involuntary
indiscretion has overthrown the structure built on a husband's lie to
his wife, could not conceive that his words should produce such an
effect; he supposed that the Countess was in such delicate health that
the slightest contradiction was mischievous.
The cook presently returned to say, unfortunately in loud tones, that
her master was not in the studio. In the midst of her anguish,
Hortense heard, and the hysterical fit came on again.
"Go and fetch madame's mother," said Louise to the cook. "Quick--run!"
"If I knew where to find Steinbock, I would go and fetch him!"
exclaimed Stidmann in despair.
"He is with that woman!" cried the unhappy wife. "He was not dressed
to go to his work!"
Stidmann hurried off to Madame Marneffe's, struck by the truth of this
conclusion, due to the second-sight of passion.
At that moment Valerie was posed as Delilah. Stidmann, too sharp to
ask for Madame Marneffe, walked straight in past the lodge, and ran
quickly up to the second floor, arguing thus: "If I ask for Madame
Marneffe, she will be out. If I inquire point-blank for Steinbock, I
shall be laughed at to my face.--Take the bull by the horns!"
Reine appeared in answer to his ring.
"Tell Monsieur le Comte Steinbock to come at once, his wife is
Reine, quite a match for Stidmann, looked at him with blank surprise.
"But, sir--I don't know--did you suppose----"
"I tell you that my friend Monsieur Steinbock is here; his wife is
very ill. It is quite serious enough for you to disturb your
mistress." And Stidmann turned on his heel.
"He is there, sure enough!" said he to himself.
And in point of fact, after waiting a few minutes in the Rue Vanneau,
he saw Wenceslas come out, and beckoned to him to come quickly. After
telling him of the tragedy enacted in the Rue Saint-Dominique,
Stidmann scolded Steinbock for not having warned him to keep the
secret of yesterday's dinner.
"I am done for," said Wenceslas, "but you are forgiven. I had totally
forgotten that you were to call this morning, and I blundered in not
telling you that we were to have dined with Florent.--What can I say?
That Valerie has turned my head; but, my dear fellow, for her glory is
well lost, misfortune well won! She really is!--Good Heavens!--But I
am in a dreadful fix. Advise me. What can I say? How can I excuse
"I! advise you! I don't know," replied Stidmann. "But your wife loves
you, I imagine? Well, then, she will believe anything. Tell her that
you were on your way to me when I was on my way to you; that, at any
rate, will set this morning's business right. Good-bye."
Lisbeth, called down by Reine, ran after Wenceslas and caught him up
at the corner of the Rue Hillerin-Bertin; she was afraid of his Polish
artlessness. Not wishing to be involved in the matter, she said a few
words to Wenceslas, who in his joy hugged her then and there. She had
no doubt pushed out a plank to enable the artist to cross this awkward
place in his conjugal affairs.
At the sight of her mother, who had flown to her aid, Hortense burst
into floods of tears. This happily changed the character of the
"Treachery, dear mamma!" cried she. "Wenceslas, after giving me his
word of honor that he would not go near Madame Marneffe, dined with
her last night, and did not come in till a quarter-past one in the
morning.--If you only knew! The day before we had had a discussion,
not a quarrel, and I had appealed to him so touchingly. I told him I
was jealous, that I should die if he were unfaithful; that I was
easily suspicious, but that he ought to have some consideration for my
weaknesses, as they came of my love for him; that I had my father's
blood in my veins as well as yours; that at the first moment of such
discovery I should be mad, and capable of mad deeds--of avenging
myself--of dishonoring us all, him, his child, and myself; that I
might even kill him first and myself after--and so on.
"And yet he went there; he is there!--That woman is bent on breaking
all our hearts! Only yesterday my brother and Celestine pledged their
all to pay off seventy thousand francs on notes of hand signed for
that good-for-nothing creature.--Yes, mamma, my father would have been
arrested and put into prison. Cannot that dreadful woman be content
with having my father, and with all your tears? Why take my Wenceslas?
--I will go to see her and stab her!"
Madame Hulot, struck to the heart by the dreadful secrets Hortense was
unwittingly letting out, controlled her grief by one of the heroic
efforts which a magnanimous mother can make, and drew her daughter's
head on to her bosom to cover it with kisses.
"Wait for Wenceslas, my child; all will be explained. The evil cannot
be so great as you picture it!--I, too, have been deceived, my dear
Hortense; you think me handsome, I have lived blameless; and yet I
have been utterly forsaken for three-and-twenty years--for a Jenny
Cadine, a Josepha, a Madame Marneffe!--Did you know that?"
"You, mamma, you! You have endured this for twenty----"
She broke off, staggered by her own thoughts.
"Do as I have done, my child," said her mother. "Be gentle and kind,
and your conscience will be at peace. On his death-bed a man may say,
'My wife has never cost me a pang!' And God, who hears that dying
breath, credits it to us. If I had abandoned myself to fury like you,
what would have happened? Your father would have been embittered,
perhaps he would have left me altogether, and he would not have been
withheld by any fear of paining me. Our ruin, utter as it now is,
would have been complete ten years sooner, and we should have shown
the world the spectacle of a husband and wife living quite apart--a
scandal of the most horrible, heart-breaking kind, for it is the
destruction of the family. Neither your brother nor you could have
"I sacrificed myself, and that so bravely, that, till this last
connection of your father's, the world has believed me happy. My
serviceable and indeed courageous falsehood has, till now, screened
Hector; he is still respected; but this old man's passion is taking
him too far, that I see. His own folly, I fear, will break through the
veil I have kept between the world and our home. However, I have held
that curtain steady for twenty-three years, and have wept behind it
--motherless, I, without a friend to trust, with no help but in
religion--I have for twenty-three years secured the family honor----"
Hortense listened with a fixed gaze. The calm tone of resignation and
of such crowning sorrow soothed the smart of her first wound; the
tears rose again and flowed in torrents. In a frenzy of filial
affection, overcome by her mother's noble heroism, she fell on her
knees before Adeline, took up the hem of her dress and kissed it, as
pious Catholics kiss the holy relics of a martyr.
"Nay, get up, Hortense," said the Baroness. "Such homage from my
daughter wipes out many sad memories. Come to my heart, and weep for
no sorrows but your own. It is the despair of my dear little girl,
whose joy was my only joy, that broke the solemn seal which nothing
ought to have removed from my lips. Indeed, I meant to have taken my
woes to the tomb, as a shroud the more. It was to soothe your anguish
that I spoke.--God will forgive me!
"Oh! if my life were to be your life, what would I not do? Men, the
world, Fate, Nature, God Himself, I believe, make us pay for love with
the most cruel grief. I must pay for ten years of happiness and
twenty-four years of despair, of ceaseless sorrow, of bitterness--"
"But you had ten years, dear mamma, and I have had but three!" said
the self-absorbed girl.
"Nothing is lost yet," said Adeline. "Only wait till Wenceslas comes."
"Mother," said she, "he lied, he deceived me. He said, 'I will not
go,' and he went. And that over his child's cradle."
"For pleasure, my child, men will commit the most cowardly, the most
infamous actions--even crimes; it lies in their nature, it would seem.
We wives are set apart for sacrifice. I believed my troubles were
ended, and they are beginning again, for I never thought to suffer
doubly by suffering with my child. Courage--and silence!--My Hortense,
swear that you will never discuss your griefs with anybody but me,
never let them be suspected by any third person. Oh! be as proud as
your mother has been."
Hortense started; she had heard her husband's step.
Back to Full Books