Cousin Betty/Section 39
At the very time when Madame Hulot was calling on Josepha, Victorin, in his study, was receiving an old woman of about seventy-five, who, to gain admission to the lawyer, had used the terrible name of the head of the detective force. The man in waiting announced:
"Madame de Saint-Esteve."
"I have assumed one of my business names," said she, taking a seat.
Victorin felt a sort of internal chill at the sight of this dreadful old woman. Though handsomely dressed, she was terrible to look upon, for her flat, colorless, strongly-marked face, furrowed with wrinkles, expressed a sort of cold malignity. Marat, as a woman of that age, might have been like this creature, a living embodiment of the Reign of Terror.
This sinister old woman's small, pale eyes twinkled with a tiger's bloodthirsty greed. Her broad, flat nose, with nostrils expanded into oval cavities, breathed the fires of hell, and resembled the beak of some evil bird of prey. The spirit of intrigue lurked behind her low, cruel brow. Long hairs had grown from her wrinkled chin, betraying the masculine character of her schemes. Any one seeing that woman's face would have said that artists had failed in their conceptions of Mephistopheles.
"My dear sir," she began, with a patronizing air, "I have long since given up active business of any kind. What I have come to you to do, I have undertaken, for the sake of my dear nephew, whom I love more than I could love a son of my own.—Now, the Head of the Police—to whom the President of the Council said a few words in his ear as regards yourself, in talking to Monsieur Chapuzot—thinks as the police ought not to appear in a matter of this description, you understand. They gave my nephew a free hand, but my nephew will have nothing to say to it, except as before the Council; he will not be seen in it."
"Then your nephew is—"
"You have hit it, and I am rather proud of him," said she, interrupting the lawyer, "for he is my pupil, and he soon could teach his teacher.—We have considered this case, and have come to our own conclusions. Will you hand over thirty thousand francs to have the whole thing taken off your hands? I will make a clean sweep of all, and you need not pay till the job is done."
"Do you know the persons concerned?"
"No, my dear sir; I look for information from you. What we are told is, that a certain old idiot has fallen into the clutches of a widow. This widow, of nine-and-twenty, has played her cards so well, that she has forty thousand francs a year, of which she has robbed two fathers of families. She is now about to swallow down eighty thousand francs a year by marrying an old boy of sixty-one. She will thus ruin a respectable family, and hand over this vast fortune to the child of some lover by getting rid at once of the old husband.—That is the case as stated."
"Quite correct," said Victorin. "My father-in-law, Monsieur Crevel—"
"Formerly a perfumer, a mayor—yes, I live in his district under the name of Ma'ame Nourrisson," said the woman.
"The other person is Madame Marneffe."
"I do not know," said Madame de Saint-Esteve. "But within three days I will be in a position to count her shifts."
"Can you hinder the marriage?" asked Victorin.
"How far have they got?"
"To the second time of asking."
"We must carry off the woman.—To-day is Sunday—there are but three days, for they will be married on Wednesday, no doubt; it is impossible.—But she may be killed—"
Victorin Hulot started with an honest man's horror at hearing these five words uttered in cold blood.
"Murder?" said he. "And how could you do it?"
"For forty years, now, monsieur, we have played the part of fate," replied she, with terrible pride, "and do just what we will in Paris. More than one family—even in the Faubourg Saint-Germain—has told me all its secrets, I can tell you. I have made and spoiled many a match, I have destroyed many a will and saved many a man's honor. I have in there," and she tapped her forehead, "a store of secrets which are worth thirty-six thousand francs a year to me; and you—you will be one of my lambs, hoh! Could such a woman as I am be what I am if she revealed her ways and means? I act.
"Whatever I may do, sir, will be the result of an accident; you need feel no remorse. You will be like a man cured by a clairvoyant; by the end of a month, it seems all the work of Nature."
Victorin broke out in a cold sweat. The sight of an executioner would have shocked him less than this prolix and pretentious Sister of the Hulks. As he looked at her purple-red gown, she seemed to him dyed in blood.
"Madame, I do not accept the help of your experience and skill if success is to cost anybody's life, or the least criminal act is to come of it."
"You are a great baby, monsieur," replied the woman; "you wish to remain blameless in your own eyes, while you want your enemy to be overthrown."
Victorin shook his head in denial.
"Yes," she went on, "you want this Madame Marneffe to drop the prey she has between her teeth. But how do you expect to make a tiger drop his piece of beef? Can you do it by patting his back and saying, 'Poor Puss'? You are illogical. You want a battle fought, but you object to blows.—Well, I grant you the innocence you are so careful over. I have always found that there was material for hypocrisy in honesty! One day, three months hence, a poor priest will come to beg of you forty thousand francs for a pious work—a convent to be rebuilt in the Levant—in the desert.—If you are satisfied with your lot, give the good man the money. You will pay more than that into the treasury. It will be a mere trifle in comparison with what you will get, I can tell you."
She rose, standing on the broad feet that seemed to overflow her satin shoes; she smiled, bowed, and vanished.
"The Devil has a sister," said Victorin, rising.
He saw the hideous stranger to the door, a creature called up from the dens of the police, as on the stage a monster comes up from the third cellar at the touch of a fairy's wand in a ballet-extravaganza.
After finishing what he had to do at the Courts, Victorin went to call on Monsieur Chapuzot, the head of one of the most important branches of the Central Police, to make some inquiries about the stranger. Finding Monsieur Chapuzot alone in his office, Victorin thanked him for his help.
"You sent me an old woman who might stand for the incarnation of the criminal side of Paris."
Monsieur Chapuzot laid his spectacles on his papers and looked at the lawyer with astonishment.
"I should not have taken the liberty of sending anybody to see you without giving you notice beforehand, or a line of introduction," said he.
"Then it was Monsieur le Prefet—?"
"I think not," said Chapuzot. "The last time that the Prince de Wissembourg dined with the Minister of the Interior, he spoke to the Prefet of the position in which you find yourself—a deplorable position—and asked him if you could be helped in any friendly way. The Prefet, who was interested by the regrets his Excellency expressed as to this family affair, did me the honor to consult me about it.
"Ever since the present Prefet has held the reins of this department—so useful and so vilified—he has made it a rule that family matters are never to be interfered in. He is right in principle and in morality; but in practice he is wrong. In the forty-five years that I have served in the police, it did, from 1799 till 1815, great services in family concerns. Since 1820 a constitutional government and the press have completely altered the conditions of existence. So my advice, indeed, was not to intervene in such a case, and the Prefet did me the honor to agree with my remarks. The Head of the detective branch has orders, in my presence, to take no steps; so if you have had any one sent to you by him, he will be reprimanded. It might cost him his place. 'The Police will do this or that,' is easily said; the Police, the Police! But, my dear sir, the Marshal and the Ministerial Council do not know what the Police is. The Police alone knows the Police; but as for ours, only Fouche, Monsieur Lenoir, and Monsieur de Sartines have had any notion of it.—Everything is changed now; we are reduced and disarmed! I have seen many private disasters develop, which I could have checked with five grains of despotic power.—We shall be regretted by the very men who have crippled us when they, like you, stand face to face with some moral monstrosities, which ought to be swept away as we sweep away mud! In public affairs the Police is expected to foresee everything, or when the safety of the public is involved—but the family?—It is sacred! I would do my utmost to discover and hinder a plot against the King's life, I would see through the walls of a house; but as to laying a finger on a household, or peeping into private interests—never, so long as I sit in this office. I should be afraid."
"Of the Press, Monsieur le Depute, of the left centre."
"What, then, can I do?" said Hulot, after a pause.
"Well, you are the Family," said the official. "That settles it; you can do what you please. But as to helping you, as to using the Police as an instrument of private feelings, and interests, how is it possible? There lies, you see, the secret of the persecution, necessary, but pronounced illegal, by the Bench, which was brought to bear against the predecessor of our present chief detective. Bibi-Lupin undertook investigations for the benefit of private persons. This might have led to great social dangers. With the means at his command, the man would have been formidable, an underlying fate—"
"But in my place?" said Hulot.
"Why, you ask my advice? You who sell it!" replied Monsieur Chapuzot. "Come, come, my dear sir, you are making fun of me."
Hulot bowed to the functionary, and went away without seeing that gentleman's almost imperceptible shrug as he rose to open the door.
"And he wants to be a statesman!" said Chapuzot to himself as he returned to his reports.
Victorin went home, still full of perplexities which he could confide to no one.
At dinner the Baroness joyfully announced to her children that within a month their father might be sharing their comforts, and end his days in peace among his family.
"Oh, I would gladly give my three thousand six hundred francs a year to see the Baron here!" cried Lisbeth. "But, my dear Adeline, do not dream beforehand of such happiness, I entreat you!"
"Lisbeth is right," said Celestine. "My dear mother, wait till the end."
The Baroness, all feeling and all hope, related her visit to Josepha, expressed her sense of the misery of such women in the midst of good fortune, and mentioned Chardin the mattress-picker, the father of the Oran storekeeper, thus showing that her hopes were not groundless.