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Honore De Balzac - Cousin Bette (1846)

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Cousin Bette, written by Balzac toward the end of his career, was published in The Constitutionnel, in instalments, between October 8 and December 3, 1846, and was produced to get money to pay off his indebtedness. The strenuous labor it involved, coming after the severe literary strain of the preceding years, is thought to have broken even Balzac's gigantic strength. Cousin Bette and Cousin Pons (which followed it in The Constitutionnel, after a few months) are comprised under the title: The Poor Relations. Balzac dedicated this to the Prince of Teano, Michele Angelo Cajetani, through admiration for his commentaries on Dante, which, Balzac declared, had made the Divina Commedia intelligible to him. Brunetiere says that the Monarchy of July lives anew in Cousin Bette.

HECTOR HULOT D'ERVY, a young Frenchman in the commissary department of the army, chanced, through his official duties, to meet Adeline, daughter of a Lorraine peasant named Andrew Fischer. This girl of sixteen was so wondrously beautiful that Hulot married her as quickly as the law would permit. He was as strikingly handsome as his wife, and (in this her exact opposite) quite a gallant. For a long time this lovely woman commanded his entire devotion, while she, the peasant girl, raised to such social eminence and so adored by this superb man, held him as a god who could do no wrong.

Hulot rose to high dignities. He had a marshal's baton and was a great authority in the war-office. Now, after twelve years, Baron Hulot lived in a fine residence and was wealthy. His infidelities to Madame Hulot dated from the finale of the Empire, when, having no official occupation, he devoted himself to the ladies. His beautiful wife, although a saintly being, shut her eyes to all that her husband did outside his home.

Constantin Hulot, their son, had married the plain daughter of a rich retired perfumer, a bourgeois widower of fifty, named Celestin Crevel. This conceited man, who imitated Napoleon's poses, also imitated the Emperor in Napoleon's admiration for Adeline, but she had promptly repelled his amorous advances. A marriage had been arranged between Hortense Hulot, her daughter, and Counselor Lebas, which Crevel blocked by intimating to the lawyer that Hulot could not supply the marriage portion of his daughter. Hulot had stolen away Crevel's mistress, a beautiful young Jewess named Josepha, who was now a singer at the Opera. This was an added reason why Crevel desired to win Adeline. She summoned him to an interview to remonstrate with him, and asked him whether he would have ruined her daughter's marriage by his remark about the lack of money for her dot, if she, Adeline, had listened to his suit.

"I could not," he replied. "For then you would have had the sum, dearest Adeline—in my pocketbook!"

Adeline dismissed him, more troubled than ever. Hortense had reached twenty-three years of age and it was imperative that she should be married. Crevel had told Adeline that the most likely husband for Hortense, in their straitened circumstances, would be a clever young man who would take Hortense penniless. The girl often talked about a lover with Lisbeth Fischer, her mother's cousin, who was always called "Cousin Bette."

This old maid of forty-five was a lean, brown, peasant woman, with thick eyebrows, strong limbs, and a bitter, jealous, vindictive disposition. Adeline's success had made her resentment intense, but she did not betray her feelings. When Adeline was settled in Paris after her marriage, she had invited Cousin Bette there to try to find a husband for her. But the offers Lisbeth got did not suit her. She had learned a trade and supported herself. As her rent in an obscure part of Paris was very cheap, and she had her dinners at the Hulots' and with other connections of the family, she had even managed to lay by a little money.

Hortense often teased Cousin Bette about having a lover. One day, after the mortifying ruin of Hortense's projected marriage, the old maid met the mockery of the other by stating that she had as lover a fair young Polish count, who was a sculptor, named Wenceslas Steinbock. Later, as proof, she brought a little statuette of his making and showed it to Hortense and Adeline.

Hortense became so interested in this young man that she went to the art-shop where his work was exhibited. She ad-mired a piece very much, but declared, rather sadly, that the price was beyond her purse. Steinbock chanced to be in the shop, and hearing this, introduced himself and said she could have it at her own price. Hortense was at once captivated by his beauty and charm, to which Cousin Bette had not done justice. She coyly asked him to bring it to her father's house, and added: "Do not mention the purchase to Mademoiselle Fischer. She is our cousin."

He called promptly, and in a short time the Hulots felt that here was a solution to the problem of Hortense's marriage. This poor nobleman, whose talent enabled him to support a wife, would ask no dot. Hulot promised to secure for him the commission to make a statue which the State was to erect to Marshal Montcornet. There was no scruple on anybody's part about Cousin Bette's claim upon this youth. She was old enough to be his mother, and had admitted that he was to her a sort of pleasant plaything. She learned of the engagement from an unlooked-for source.

Hector Hulot, in escorting Cousin Bette home one evening, saw a very charming, daintily dressed young woman enter the Rue du Doyenne. A glance that passed was enough to fire him, and since Josepha had cast him off he felt the need of just such a woman "friend." She was Madame Valerie Marneffe, the natural child of the deceased Marshal Montcornet, and her worthless husband was a clerk in the war office, of which Hulot was the head. It was very easy for the two to meet, and after a little Valerie had seemed to be swept away by her affection for Hulot. It was not long before he had established the Marneff es in a house in the Rue Varennes. In three years Valerie was costing him more than Josepha had.

Valerie, through Hulot, learned of the engagement of Wenceslas Steinbock and Hortense and naturally spoke of it to Cousin Bette. Valerie had known and admired the young Pole herself and thought Bette's interest in him was only philanthropic. The storm of rage and diabolical hatred toward Madame Hulot to which Cousin Bette gave way when she learned that the Hulots had stolen the Pole from her was a revelation. But it led to the two women, each with decided designs on the Hulots, swearing a solid friendship for each other; and Cousin Bette went to live in the Marneffes' house in the Rue de Varennes. This helped Valerie to cloak her mercenary intrigues. There was a very "respectable" note about the household. A trust-fund of Marshal Montcornet for his daughter was invented to account for the Marneffes' changed style of living. Crevel was carried away by Valerie because she was a lady; and he soon imagined that he had supplanted Hulot in the beauty's favor, although the opinion cost him several thousand francs. Valerie was simply playing off one against the other.

The situation was complicated by the unexpected arrival at Valerie's one evening, when Hulot and Crevel were there, of a dashing Brazilian, Baron Montes Montejanos. He was the only man Valerie had ever really loved.

" Oh, my cousin!" cried Valerie, rising to greet the new-comer. The ardent South American drove Hulot and Crevel distracted by his marked attentions to her. Finally Marneffe whispered in Valerie's ear, and she withdrew with him and the Brazilian. After a few moments she returned and declared that the sound of carriage-wheels which was heard indicated the new arrival's departure. Then, while Crevel was playing cards with Marneffe, Valerie whispered to Hulot to go and to walk up and down outside until Crevel came out. Marneffe retired, and Crevel remonstrated sharply with Valerie. She treated him haughtily and soon had him at her feet again. Then she authorized him to tell Hulot, whom she said he would find in the street waiting for a signal to return, that she was tired of him and loved Crevel. "He will not believe you. Take him to the Rue du Dauphin and give him every proof. Crush him," she cried.

Crevel did as ordered, and Hulot was convinced of Valerie's infidelity to him. Both were discomfited at her trifling with them, but Valerie was now too engrossed with Baron Montes to care what they felt. She had one sincere regret. She had not yet avenged Cousin Bette on Hortense!

"Make your mind easy, my pretty little devil," said Lisbeth, kissing her forehead. "Hortense is in beggary. For a thousand francs you may have a thousand kisses from Wenceslas."

It was indeed true. Easy success had made Steinbock indolent and neglectful. He was severely criticized. Cousin Bette insinuated that Madame Marneffe would lend him money, but Hortense could not brook his appealing to her father's mistress to aid them. Then Lisbeth suggested to him that he could go without letting Hortense know. Steinbock went. Valerie had arranged everything—dinner, guests, and toilet, with a view to winning him. She loaned him ten thousand francs, refusing any interest, but suggesting that he should make a bronze statuette for her of Delilah cutting off Samson's hair.

"Such a group, and one of the ferocious Judith, epltomizes Woman," she cried gaily. "Virtue cuts off your head and Vice only cuts off your hair. Take care of your wigs, gentlemen!"

"Your vengeance is secure," she whispered to Lisbeth later. "Hortense will cry herself blind, and curse the day she robbed you of Wenceslas."

"I shall not think myself successful until I am Madame la Marechale Hulot," replied Lisbeth. "They are beginnlng to wish this,"

She had made Hulot's family feel that if Hector's elder brother—a glorious Marshal of Napoleon's and a superb old bachelor of flawless honor—would marry her, she would be able to help them when Hector's excesses had utterly stranded them. It was her dream of revenge to see them all, some day, eating out of her hand.

Hortense discovered Wenceslas's vlsits to Valerie and made such a scene that he did not go near Madame Marneffe for three weeks. This made Valerie hate Hortense as bitterly as Lisbeth did. At this juncture a serious incident arose, which she put to the greatest profit. One morning she announced to Marneffe that he was to become a father! Then she wrote a letter of reproach to Wenceslas, which she contrived to have Hortense receive. When that tender wife read this love-letter, which called him back with this appeal: "You missed fire with my father's statue, but in you the lover is greater than the artist, and you have had better luck with his daughter. You are a father, my beloved Wenceslas!" she clutched her infant son and fled to her mother's protection.

Ten minutes after writlng this letter Valerie had breathed into Hulot's ear that he was a father, and secretly conveyed the news of his paternity of the infant, a little later, to Crevel. The real father was the Brazilian, Baron Montes.

Matters were becoming desperate for Hulot. Just at thls time he received word from Johann Fischer, Adellne's uncle, whom he had sent to Algiers to thieve for him there, that the Government was investigating the expendltures in his department in Algiers, and that he could send him no more money. Marneffe was insolently pressing him for the promised chief-clerkship, and as it was impossible for Hulot to arrange that, he was shut out of the Marneffe household.

These trials and dangers actually made Hulot pass a fort-night in the bosom of his family, apparently a reclaimed man. But the active Cousin Bette brought hlm the key of the Rue du Dauphin, and he met Valerie there. The next mornlng Mar neffe and officers of the law broke in upon the guilty pair and discovered Hulot's letter from Valerie declaring hls paternity, which she had left on the table where they could not help seeing it.

The matter was hushed up through a high dignitary who had been Hulot's friend in Napoleon's days. But Marneffe got his clerkship. Llsbeth said she could not remain in Madame Marneffe's house, however, after such scandals became known! So she went to be Marshal Hulot's housekeeper, and ten days later the banns of marriage were publlshed for them. Her revenge seemed at hand, for she would be Adeline's superior. The whole family continued to regard her as their rescuing angel.

Another letter from Johann Fischer demanded two hundred thousand francs to prevent the peculatlons that he and Hulot had committed from being found out. He declared he would not live to be tried as a disgraced man. Hulot fell almost life-less at this blow. Adeline saw the letter, read it, and the dishonor which had been brought upon her honest peasant family was such a shock to her that for the rest of her life the poor woman never was free from a nervous trembling. In his despair, Hulot groaned aloud that Crevel was the only one who could help them.

A fearful, sublime possibility of rescue was suggested to the devoted wife by the mention of Crevel and of the two hundred thousand francs needed! This pure woman, faithful wife, and honored mother, sent for Crevel, prepared to sacrifice more than life for her uncle and her husband. The bitterest cup she ever had drained awaited her. Crevel came, heard her, and said, striking a pose:

"When I offered you that money, I was only seeking revenge on Hulot for stealing Josepha from me. I have since had a finer revenge. For his mistress—a lady!—has been mine for three years, and when Marneffe dies I am going to marry her. Valerie only endured Hulot until her husband got his chief-clerkship, and now, as she says—for she is awfully witty—she `restored you your Hector, virtuous in perpetuity.' "

The remorse and heart-breaking humility of Madame Hulot over such shame and failure actually moved Crevel to promise to aid her. But on his way to get the securities he called on Valerie, who found out his purpose and jeered at him so that he abandoned it.

Johann Fischer killed himself after being arrested. When Marshal Hulot learned what shame and dishonor Hector had brought on them all, he took him home with himself, neither of them uttering a word on the way. Then the grand old soldier, ushering his infamous brother into the library, took a box containing a pair of pistols, the inscription on the lid reading: "Given by the Emperor Napoleon to General Hulot," and showing it to Hector, curtly remarked : " There is your remedy."

Lisbeth, peeping through the door, saw this significant scene, rushed off, and returned with Madame Hulot. Adeline, the picture of despair, fell into Hector's arms, looking with a wild air at the pistols and then at the stern old soldier.

"What do you say against your brother? What has he done to you?" she cried, in terror and anguish.

"He has disgraced us all!" replied the Marshal, with harsh vehemence. "He has robbed the Government! He has cast odium on my name. He has killed me. I can only live long enough to make restitution. As for his family, he has robbed you of the bread I had saved for you by thirty years of privation and economy. He has killed your uncle, Johann Fischer, whom he inveigled into his thievery from his country, and who could not endure a stain upon his peasant honor.

"To crown all, God gave him you, an angel among women, for a wife. He has deceived you, neglected you, to waste him-self and the fortune due to his family upon courtesans, his Cadines, Josephas, and Marneffes, those grasping hussies! And that is the brother I treated as a son and as my pride.

"Go, wretched man!" he concluded, turning to Hector. "If you can accept the life of degradation you have made for your-self, leave my house! I have not the heart to curse you, but never let me see you again. I forbid his attending my funeral, or following me to my grave. Take him away, for I hear a voice that commands me to load my pistols and blow out the brains of this monster, this swine! In that way, I would save you all, and even save him from himself."

He had sprung up with such a terrifying gesture that Adeline seized her husband's arm, and crying, "Hector—come!" dragged him away, and, her heart having only the deepest pity for him, led the prostrated man home.

Marshal Hulot, although through influence the scandal had been hushed up, insisted on paying into the State treasury his entire fortune as restitution for the sums of which his brother had robbed it. Lisbeth had assented to this, when the Marshal asked her consent. In three days the noble old soldier was dead, despite Lisbeth's careful nursing. His death was a thunderbolt that destroyed all that she had built up. The Marshal had died of the blows dealt at the family by herself and her good friend, Valerie. Her former vindictiveness was trebled, as she returned, crying with rage, to Madame Marneffe.

Poor Adeline had felt that now she would have her shattered and humiliated husband to herself. She dreamed that she would rehabilitate him, lead him back to family life, and reconcile him with himself. Soon after his brother's funeral, he deserted her and rushed to his former mistress, Josepha, imploring her assistance. The excess of his extravagance, and the recklessness with which he had plunged into such depths for the Marneffe woman, actually appealed to that singular creature's heart. She set him up as proprietor of an embroidery shop, supplied him with a poor, innocent girl of six-teen, who was wonderfully beautiful, as a partner in the firm, and guaranteed him an income.

After a time, Victorin Hulot had been made into a man by the family ruin his father had precipitated, and was building the Hulot fortune up again. Adeline had been appointed the disburser of their charities by several wealthy and devout ladies of rank. Cousin Bette brought to this peaceful household, one morning, the news that Valerie was to marry Crevel, and kindly recounted the enormous sums he had already expended upon the wretched woman. Lisbeth had counseled Valerie, who wished to throw over everybody and marry Baron Montes, to marry Crevel, who would not last more than ten years, and then, after his death, to take Montejanos. In the mean time Valerie was quite interested in Wenceslas, which gratified Cousin Bette and gave herself the satisfaction of torturing Hortense.

Adeline had told the family that she had learned Hulot was in Paris. The pale, broken wife longed to have her wretched husband share the present peace of the family home. Cousin Bette had said, indignantly: "I would wager that he begs money of his former mistresses!"

This remark haunted Adeline, and, without a word to any-one, she went to Josepha, thinking she might find out some-thing about her husband's whereabouts. That singular woman, who in her fashion had been kind to Hulot, was deeply touched by the pathetic figure and exquisite wifely devotion of Adeline, who was so eager to find her husband, now seventy-four years old, who had deserted her two and a half years before. She promised her every aid she could give. "Wait a few days and you shall see him, or I renounce the God of my fathers—and that from a Jewess, you know, is a promise of success."

Baron Montes Montejanos frequented the gay society of Paris, but was not known to have any mistress. Carabine, a brilliant demi-mondaine, gave a dinner at the Rocher de Cancale to a number of her friends, including the wealthy Brazilian. They hoped to solve this mystery. A remark of Josepha, lauding Hulot as a lover who had ruined himself for his mistress, elicited in rapid succession the facts that he had done this for Madame Marneffe, who was to marry Crevel, and who was really in love with Steinbock.

Montes turned pale, and violently vituperated these calumniators. "If you wished to find out my secret," he concluded, with a flaming glance around the table, "at least, cease to vilify the woman I love."

"I can prove it in an hour," whispered Carabine in his ear, when they had left the restaurant. As Montes demanded absolute proof, she conducted him to an apartment near the Opera, where they surprised Valerie and Steinbock. He was lacing her stays for her. Montes had sworn to Carabine that if he found that Valerie was deceiving him he would kill her in his own way. Now, as he departed from this scene he muttered: "I shall be the instrument of Divine wrath!"

One morning, some time after this, Dr. Bianchon, who had called at Victorin's to see how Adeline was, spoke of a wonderful case to which he had been called recently : that of a man and his wife, both suffering from a hideous but almost unknown disease. "The disease is a rapid blood-poisoning, peculiar to negroes and the American tribes," he said. "It is not curable in Europe. The woman, once very pretty, is now a mass of putrefaction, and looks like a leper. The stench in the room is so intolerable that no servant will stay in it. They are a Monsieur and Madame Crevel."

Cousin Bette went to see her friend at once.

"If I had not been ill myself I would have come to nurse you," she said.

"Poor Lisbeth, you, at Ieast, love me still, I see!" said Valerie. "I have only a day or two left to think, for I cannot say. to live. Oh, if I might only win mercy ! I would gladly undo all the mischief I have done."

"Oh!" cried Lisbeth, "if you can talk like that, you are indeed a dead woman."

"Lisbeth, give up all notions of revenge. Be kind to that family, to whom I have left by will everything I can dispose of. Go, child, I beseech you, and leave me. I have only time to make my peace with God!"

"She is wandering in her wits," said Lisbeth to herself, as she left the room. She returned, however, with Bianchon, who had come to tell Valerie that they meant to apply a powerful remedy to her, which held much promise.

" If you save my life," she asked, " shall I be as good-looking as ever?"

"Possibly," said the physician, slowly.

"I know your `possibly,' " said Valerie. "I shall look like a woman who has fallen into the fire! No! Leave me to the Church. I can please no one now but God. I will try to be reconciled with Him. It will be my last flirtation! Yes, I must try to come around God!"

"That is my poor Valerie's last jest. That is all herself!" said Lisbeth, in tears.

By the end of the week Madame Crevel was dead, and two days later Crevel expired, impenitent. The order of their deaths made him his wife's heir, so that Celestine Hulot, his daughter, recovered the money he had lavished on his mercenary mistress.

Adeline's charitable work brought her one day to an old man, slouchily dressed in a gray flannel shirt and trousers, who was living with a girl of the slums. It was her once handsome Hector, who was perfectly willing to be taken back to his family. Cousin Bette, who was dying of consumption, had her last days embittered by the returned prodigal's almost veneration for his faithful wife. She kept her hatred a secret from them to the end, and had the satisfaction of seeing them all stand around her death-bed, mourning her as the angel of the family.

For nearly three years Baron Hulot continued to be a comfort to Adeline, whose health greatly improved. Then she discovered the old man trying to win a raw, buxom kitchen-wench by promising to make her a baroness when his wife should die! The shock killed her. On her death-bed, she whispered to him: "My dear, I have nothing left to give you except my life. In a minute or two you will be free, and can make another Baroness Hulot."

On the brink of eternity this angel gave utterance to the only reproach she had ever spoken in her life. Within a year the Baron, who had left Paris three days after Adeline's death, wedded Agathe Piquetard, the kitchen-maid.



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