CELEBRATED CRIMES, COMPLETE
BY ALEXANDRE DUMAS, PERE
IN EIGHT VOLUMES
Before beginning our story, we must warn the reader that it will not be worth his while to make researches among contemporary or other records as to the personage whose name it bears. For in truth neither Marie Leroux, widow of Jacques Constantin, nor her accomplice, Claude Perregaud, was of sufficient importance to find a place on any list of great criminals, although it is certain that they were guilty of the crimes with which they were charged. It may seem strange that what follows is more a history of the retribution which overtook the criminals than a circumstantial description of the deeds for which they were punished; but the crimes were so revolting, and so unsuitable for discussion, that it was impossible for us to enter into any details on the subject, so that what we offer in these pages is, we confess quite openly, not a full, true, and particular account of a certain series of events leading up to a certain result; it is not even a picture wherein that result is depicted with artistic completeness, it is only an imperfect narrative imperfectly rounded off. We feel sure, however, that the healthy-minded reader will be grateful for our reticence and total disregard of proportion. In spite of the disadvantage which such a theme imposes on any writer with a deep sense of responsibility, we have resolved to let in some light on these obscure figures; for we can imagine no more effective way of throwing into high relief the low morals and deep corruption into which all classes of society had sunk at the termination of the factious dissensions of the Fronde, which formed such a fitting prelude to the licence of the reign of the grand roi.
After this explanation, we shall, without further preamble, introduce the reader to a little tavern in Paris, situated in the rue Saint-Andre-des-Arts, on an evening in November 1658.
It was about seven o'clock. Three gentlemen were seated at one of the tables in a low, smoky room. They had already emptied several bottles, and one of them seemed to have just suggested some madcap scheme to the others, the thought of which sent them off into shouts of laughter.
"Pardu!" said one of them, who was the first to recover his breath, "I must say it would be an excellent trick."
"Splendid!" said another; "and if you like, Commander de Jars, we can try it this very evening."
"All right, my worthy king's treasurer, provided my pretty nephew here won't be too much shocked," and as he spoke de Jars gave to the youngest of the three a caressing touch on the cheek with the back of his hand.
"That reminds me, de Jars!" said the treasurer, "that word you have just said piques my curiosity. For some months now this little fellow here, Chevalier de Moranges, follows you about everywhere like your shadow. You never told us you had a nephew. Where the devil did you get him?"
The commander touched the chevalier's knee under the table, and he, as if to avoid speaking, slowly filled and emptied his glass.
"Look here," said the treasurer, "do you want to hear a few plain words, such as I shall rap out when God takes me to task about the peccadilloes of my past life? I don't believe a word about the relationship. A nephew must be the son of either a brother or a sister. Now, your only sister is an abbess, and your late brother's marriage was childless. There is only one way of proving the relationship, and that is to confess that when your brother was young and wild he and Love met, or else Madame l'Abbesse——."
"Take care, Treasurer Jeannin! no slander against my sister!"
"Well, then, explain; you can't fool me! May I be hanged if I leave this place before I have dragged the secret out of you! Either we are friends or we are not. What you tell no one else you ought to tell me. What! would you make use of my purse and my sword on occasion and yet have secrets from me? It's too bad: speak, or our friendship is at an end! I give you fair warning that I shall find out everything and publish it abroad to court and city: when I strike a trail there's no turning me aside. It will be best for you to whisper your secret voluntarily into my ear, where it will be as safe as in the grave."
"How full of curiosity you are, my good friend!" said de Jars, leaning one elbow on the table, and twirling the points of his moustache with his hand; "but if I were to wrap my secret round the point of a dagger would you not be too much afraid of pricking your fingers to pull it off?"
"Not I," said the king's treasurer, beginning to twirl his moustache also: "the doctors have always told me that I am of too full a complexion and that it would do me all the good in the world to be bled now and then. But what would be an advantage to me would be dangerous to you. It's easy to see from your jaundiced phiz that for you blood-letting is no cure."
"And you would really go that length? You would risk a duel if I refused to let you get to the bottom of my mystery?"
"Yes, on my honour! Well, how is it to be?"
"My dear boy," said de Jars to the youth, "we are caught, and may as well yield gracefully. You don't know this big fellow as well as I do. He's obstinacy itself. You can make the most obstinate donkey go on by pulling its tail hard enough, but when Jeannin gets a notion into his pate, not all the legions of hell can get it out again. Besides that, he's a skilful fencer, so there's nothing for it but to trust him."
"Just as you like," said the young man; "you know all my circumstances and how important it is that my secret should be kept."
"Oh! among Jeannin's many vices there are a few virtues, and of these discretion is the greatest, so that his curiosity is harmless. A quarter of an hour hence he will let himself be killed rather than reveal what just now he is ready to risk his skin to find out, whether we will or no."
Jeannin nodded approvingly, refilled the glasses, and raising his to his lips, said in a tone of triumph—
"I am listening, commander."
"Well, if it must be, it must. First of all, learn that my nephew is not my nephew at all."
"That his name is not Moranges."
"And the next?"
"I am not going to reveal his real name to you."
"Because I don't know it myself, and no more does the chevalier."
"No nonsense at all, but the sober truth. A few months ago the chevalier came to Paris, bringing me a letter of introduction from a German whom I used to know years ago. This letter requested me to look after the bearer and help him in his investigations. As you said just now, Love and someone once met somewhere, and that was about all was known as to his origin. Naturally the young man wants to cut a figure in the world, and would like to discover the author of his existence, that he may have someone at hand to pay the debts he is going to incur. We have brought together every scrap of information we could collect as to this person, hoping to find therein a clue that we could follow up. To be quite open with you, and convince you at the same time how extremely prudent and discreet we must be, I must tell you that we think we have found one, and that it leads to no less a dignitary than a Prince of the Church. But if he should get wind of our researches too soon everything would be at an end, don't you see? So keep your tongue between your teeth."
"Never fear," said Jeannin.
"Now, that's what I call speaking out as a friend should. I wish you luck, my gallant Chevalier de Moranges, and until you unearth your father, if you want a little money, my purse is at your service. On my word, de Jars, you must have been born with a caul. There never was your equal for wonderful adventures. This one promises well-spicy intrigues, scandalous revelations, and you'll be in the thick of it all. You're a lucky fellow! It's only a few months since you had the most splendid piece of good fortune sent you straight from heaven. A fair lady falls in love with you and makes you carry her off from the convent of La Raquette. But why do you never let anyone catch a glimpse of her? Are you jealous? Or is it that she is no such beauty, after all, but old and wrinkled, like that knave of a Mazarin?"
"I know what I'm about," answered de Jars, smiling; "I have my very good reasons. The elopement caused a great deal of indignation, and it's not easy to get fanatics to listen to common sense. No, I am not in the least jealous; she is madly in love with me. Ask my nephew."
"Does he know her?"
"We have no secrets from each other; the confidence between us is without a flaw. The fair one, believe me, is good to look on, and is worth all the ogling, fan-flirting baggages put together that one sees at court or on the balconies of the Palais Roy: ah! I'll answer for that. Isn't she, Moranges?"
"I'm quite of your opinion," said the youth; exchanging with de jars a singularly significant look; "and you had better treat her well, uncle, or I shall play you some trick."
"Ah! ah!" cried Jeannin. "You poor fellow! I very much fear that you are warming a little serpent in your bosom. Have an eye to this dandy with the beardless chin! But joking apart, my boy, are you really on good terms with the fair lady?"
"Certainly I am."
"And you are not uneasy, commander?"
"Not the least little bit."
"He is quite right. I answer for her as for my self, you know; as long as he loves her she will love him; as long as he is faithful she will be faithful. Do you imagine that a woman who insists on her lover carrying her off can so easily turn away from the man of her choice? I know her well; I have had long talks with her, she and I alone: she is feather-brained, given to pleasure, entirely without prejudices and those stupid scruples which spoil the lives of other women; but a good sort on the whole; devoted to my uncle, with no deception about her; but at the same time extremely jealous, and has no notion of letting herself be sacrificed to a rival. If ever she finds herself deceived, good-bye to prudence and reserve, and then—"
A look and a touch of the commander's knee cut this panegyric short, to which the treasurer was listening with open-eyed astonishment.
"What enthusiasm!" he exclaimed. "Well, and then——"
"Why, then," went on the young man, with a laugh, "if my uncle behaves badly, I, his nephew, will try to make up for his wrong-doing: he can't blame me then. But until then he may be quite easy, as he well knows."
"Oh yes, and in proof of that I am going to take Moranges with me to-night. He is young and inexperienced, and it will be a good lesson for him to see how a gallant whose amorous intrigues did not begin yesterday sets about getting even with a coquette. He can turn it to account later on.
"On my word," said Jeannin, "my notion is that he is in no great need of a teacher; however, that's your business, not mine. Let us return to what we were talking about just now. Are we agreed; and shall we amuse ourselves by paying out the lady in, her own coin?"
"If you like."
"Which of us is to begin?"
De Jars struck the table with the handle of his dagger.
"More wine, gentlemen?" said the drawer, running up.
"No, dice; and be quick about it."
"Three casts each and the highest wins," said Jeannin. "You begin."
"I throw for myself and nephew." The dice rolled on the table.
"Ace and three."
"It's my turn now. Six and five."
"Pass it over. Five and two."
"We're equal. Four and two."
"Now let me. Ace and blank."
"You have won."
"And I'm off at once," said Jeannin, rising, and muffling himself in his mantle, "It's now half-past seven. We shall see each other again at eight, so I won't say good-bye."
"Good luck to you!"
Leaving the tavern and turning into the rue Pavee, he took the direction of the river.
In 1658, at the corner of the streets Git-le-Coeur and Le Hurepoix (the site of the latter being now occupied by the Quai des Augustins as far as Pont Saint-Michel), stood the great mansion which Francis I had bought and fitted up for the Duchesse d'Etampes. It was at this period if not in ruins at least beginning to show the ravages of time. Its rich interior decorations had lost their splendour and become antiquated. Fashion had taken up its abode in the Marais, near the Place Royale, and it was thither that profligate women and celebrated beauties now enticed the humming swarm of old rakes and young libertines. Not one of them all would have thought of residing in the mansion, or even in the quarter, wherein the king's mistress had once dwelt. It would have been a step downward in the social scale, and equivalent to a confession that their charms were falling in the public estimation. Still, the old palace was not empty; it had, on the contrary, several tenants. Like the provinces of Alexander's empire, its vast suites of rooms had been subdivided; and so neglected was it by the gay world that people of the commonest description strutted about with impunity where once the proudest nobles had been glad to gain admittance. There in semi-isolation and despoiled of her greatness lived Angelique-Louise de Guerchi, formerly companion to Mademoiselle de Pons and then maid of honour to Anne of Austria. Her love intrigues and the scandals they gave rise to had led to her dismissal from court. Not that she was a greater sinner than many who remained behind, only she was unlucky enough or stupid enough to be found out. Her admirers were so indiscreet that they had not left her a shred of reputation, and in a court where a cardinal is the lover of a queen, a hypocritical appearance of decorum is indispensable to success. So Angelique had to suffer for the faults she was not clever enough to hide. Unfortunately for her, her income went up and down with the number and wealth of her admirers, so when she left the court all her possessions consisted of a few articles she had gathered together out of the wreck of her former luxury, and these she was now selling one by one to procure the necessaries of life, while she looked back from afar with an envious eye at the brilliant world from which she had been exiled, and longed for better days. All hope was not at an end for her. By a strange law which does not speak well for human nature, vice finds success easier to attain than virtue. There is no courtesan, no matter how low she has fallen, who cannot find a dupe ready to defend against the world an honour of which no vestige remains. A man who doubts the virtue of the most virtuous woman, who shows himself inexorably severe when he discovers the lightest inclination to falter in one whose conduct has hitherto been above reproach, will stoop and pick up out of the gutter a blighted and tarnished reputation and protect and defend it against all slights, and devote his life to the attempt to restore lustre to the unclean thing dulled by the touch of many fingers. In her days of prosperity Commander de Jars and the king's treasurer had both fluttered round Mademoiselle de Guerchi, and neither had fluttered in vain. Short as was the period necessary to overcome her scruples, in as short a period it dawned on the two candidates for her favour that each had a successful rival in the other, and that however potent as a reason for surrender the doubloons of the treasurer had been, the personal appearance of the commander had proved equally cogent. As both had felt for her only a passing fancy and not a serious passion, their explanations with each other led to no quarrel between them; silently and simultaneously they withdrew from her circle, without even letting her know they had found her out, but quite determined to revenge, themselves on her should a chance ever offer. However, other affairs of a similar nature had intervened to prevent their carrying out this laudable intention; Jeannin had laid siege to a more inaccessible beauty, who had refused to listen to his sighs for less than 30 crowns, paid in advance, and de Jars had become quite absorbed by his adventure with the convent boarder at La Raquette, and the business of that young stranger whom he passed off as his nephew. Mademoiselle de Guerchi had never seen them again; and with her it was out of sight out of mind. At the moment when she comes into our story she was weaving her toils round a certain Duc de Vitry, whom she had seen at court, but whose acquaintance she had never made, and who had been absent when the scandalous occurrence which led to her disgrace came to light. He was a man of from twenty-five to twenty-six years of age, who idled his life away: his courage was undoubted, and being as credulous as an old libertine, he was ready to draw his sword at any moment to defend the lady whose cause he had espoused, should any insolent slanderer dare to hint there was a smirch on her virtue. Being deaf to all reports, he seemed one of those men expressly framed by heaven to be the consolation of fallen women; such a man as in our times a retired opera-dancer or a superannuated professional beauty would welcome with open arms. He had only one fault—he was married. It is true he neglected his wife, according to the custom of the time, and it is probably also true that his wife cared very little about his infidelities. But still she was an insurmountable obstacle to the fulfilment of Mademoiselle de Guerchi's hopes, who but for her might have looked forward to one day becoming a duchess.
For about three weeks, however, at the time we are speaking of, the duke had neither crossed her threshold nor written. He had told her he was going for a few days to Normandy, where he had large estates, but had remained absent so long after the date he had fixed for his return that she began to feel uneasy. What could be keeping him? Some new flame, perhaps. The anxiety of the lady was all the more keen, that until now nothing had passed between them but looks of languor and words of love. The duke had laid himself and all he possessed at the feet of Angelique, and Angelique had refused his offer. A too prompt surrender would have justified the reports so wickedly spread against her; and, made wise by experience, she was resolved not to compromise her future as she had compromised her past. But while playing at virtue she had also to play at disinterestedness, and her pecuniary resources were consequently almost exhausted. She had proportioned the length of her resistance to the length of her purse, and now the prolonged absence of her lover threatened to disturb the equilibrium which she had established between her virtue and her money. So it happened that the cause of the lovelorn Duc de Vitry was in great peril just at the moment when de Jars and Jeannin resolved to approach the fair one anew. She was sitting lost in thought, pondering in all good faith on the small profit it was to a woman to be virtuous, when she heard voices in the antechamber. Then her door opened, and the king's treasurer walked in.
As this interview and those which follow took place in the presence of witnesses, we are obliged to ask the reader to accompany us for a time to another part of the same house.
We have said there were several tenants: now the person who occupied the rooms next to those in which Mademoiselle de Guerchi lived was a shopkeeper's widow called Rapally, who was owner of one of the thirty-two houses which then occupied the bridge Saint-Michel. They had all been constructed at the owner's cost, in return for a lease for ever. The widow Rapally's avowed age was forty, but those who knew her longest added another ten years to that: so, to avoid error, let us say she was forty-five. She was a solid little body, rather stouter than was necessary for beauty; her hair was black, her complexion brown, her eyes prominent and always moving; lively, active, and if one once yielded to her whims, exacting beyond measure; but until then buxom and soft, and inclined to pet and spoil whoever, for the moment, had arrested her volatile fancy. Just as we make her acquaintance this happy individual was a certain Maitre Quennebert, a notary of Saint Denis, and the comedy played between him and the widow was an exact counterpart of the one going on in the rooms of Mademoiselle de Guerchi, except that the roles were inverted; for while the lady was as much in love as the Duc de Vitry, the answering devotion professed by the notary was as insincere as the disinterested attachment to her lover displayed by the whilom maid of honour.
Maitre Quennebert was still young and of attractive appearance, but his business affairs were in a bad way. For long he had been pretending not to understand the marked advances of the widow, and he treated her with a reserve and respect she would fain have dispensed with, and which sometimes made her doubt of his love. But it was impossible for her as a woman to complain, so she was forced to accept with resignation the persistent and unwelcome consideration with which he surrounded her. Maitre Quennebert was a man of common sense and much experience, and had formed a scheme which he was prevented from carrying out by an obstacle which he had no power to remove. He wanted, therefore, to gain time, for he knew that the day he gave the susceptible widow a legal right over him he would lose his independence. A lover to whose prayers the adored one remains deaf too long is apt to draw back in discouragement, but a woman whose part is restricted to awaiting those prayers, and answering with a yes or no, necessarily learns patience. Maitre Quennebert would therefore have felt no anxiety as to the effect of his dilatoriness on the widow, were it not for the existence of a distant cousin of the late Monsieur Rapally, who was also paying court to her, and that with a warmth much greater than had hitherto been displayed by himself. This fact, in view of the state of the notary's affairs, forced him at last to display more energy. To make up lost ground and to outdistance his rival once more, he now began to dazzle the widow with fine phrases and delight her with compliments; but to tell the truth all this trouble was superfluous; he was beloved, and with one fond look he might have won pardon for far greater neglect.
An hour before the treasurer's arrival there had been a knock at the door of the old house, and Maitre Quennebert, curled, pomaded, and prepared for conquest, had presented himself at the widow's. She received him with a more languishing air than usual, and shot such arrows at him froth her eyes that to escape a fatal wound he pretended to give way by degrees to deep sadness. The widow, becoming alarmed, asked with tenderness—
"What ails you this evening?"
He rose, feeling he had nothing to fear from his rival, and, being master of the field, might henceforth advance or recede as seemed best for his interests.
"What ails me?" he repeated, with a deep sigh. "I might deceive you, might give you a misleading answer, but to you I cannot lie. I am in great trouble, and how to get out of it I don't know."
"But tell me what it is," said the widow, standing up in her turn.
Maitre Quennebert took three long strides, which brought him to the far end of the room, and asked—
"Why do you want to know? You can't help me. My trouble is of a kind a man does not generally confide to women."
"What is it? An affair of honour?
"Good God! You are going to fight!" she exclaimed, trying to seize him by the arm. "You are going to fight!"
"Ah! if it were nothing worse than that!" said Quennebert, pacing up and down the room: "but you need not be alarmed; it is only a money trouble. I lent a large sum, a few months ago, to a friend, but the knave has run away and left me in the lurch. It was trust money, and must be replaced within three days. But where am I to get two thousand francs?"
"Yes, that is a large sum, and not easy to raise at such short notice."
"I shall be obliged to have recourse to some Jew, who will drain me dry. But I must save my good name at all costs."
Madame Rapally gazed at him in consternation. Maitre Quennebert, divining her thought, hastened to add—
"I have just one-third of what is needed."
"With great care, and by scraping together all I possess, I can make up eight hundred livres. But may I be damned in the next world, or punished as a swindler in this, and one's as bad as the other to me, if I can raise one farthing more."
"But suppose someone should lend you the twelve hundred francs, what then?"
"Pardieu! I should accept them," cried the notary as if he had not the least suspicion whom she could mean. "Do you happen to know anyone, my dear Madame Rapally?"
The widow nodded affirmatively, at the same time giving him a passionate glance.
"Tell me quick the name of this delightful person, and I shall go to him to-morrow morning. You don't know what a service you are rendering me. And I was so near not telling you of the fix I was in, lest you should torment yourself uselessly. Tell me his name."
"Can you not guess it?"
"How should I guess it?"
"Think well. Does no one occur to you?"
"No, no one," said Quennebert, with the utmost innocence.
"Have you no friends?"
"One or two."
"Would they not be glad to help you?"
"They might. But I have mentioned the matter to no one."
"To no one?"
"Well, Madame Rapally—I hope I don't understand you; it's not possible; you would not humiliate me. Come, come, it's a riddle, and I am too stupid to solve it. I give it up. Don't tantalise me any longer; tell me the name."
The widow, somewhat abashed by this exhibition of delicacy on the part of Maitre Quennebert, blushed, cast down her eyes, and did not venture to speak.
As the silence lasted some time, it occurred to the notary that he had been perhaps too hasty in his supposition, and he began to cast round for the best means of retrieving his blunder.
"You do not speak," he said; "I see it was all a joke."
"No," said the widow at last in a timid voice, "it was no joke; I was quite in earnest. But the way you take things is not very encouraging."
"What do you mean?"
"Pray, do you imagine that I can go on while you glare at me with that angry frown puckering your forehead, as if you had someone before you who had tried to insult you?"
A sweet smile chased the frown from the notary's brow. Encouraged by the suspension of hostilities, Madame Rapally with sudden boldness approached him, and, pressing one of his hands in both her own, whispered—
"It is I who am going to lend you the money."
He repulsed her gently, but with an air of great dignity, and said—
"Madame, I thank you, but I cannot accept."
"Why can't you?"
At this he began to walk round and round the room, while the widow, who stood in the middle, turned as upon a pivot, keeping him always in view. This circus-ring performance lasted some minutes before Quennebert stood still and said—
"I cannot be angry with you, Madame Rapally, I know your offer was made out of the kindness of your heart,—but I must repeat that it is impossible for me to accept it."
"There you go again! I don't understand you at all! Why can't you accept? What harm would it do?"
"If there were no other reason, because people might suspect that I confided my difficulties to you in the hope of help."
"And supposing you did, what then? People speak hoping to be understood. You wouldn't have minded asking anyone else."
"So you really think I did come in that hope?"
"Mon Dieu! I don't think anything at all that you don't want. It was I who dragged the confidence from you by my questions, I know that very well. But now that you have told me your secret, how can you hinder me from sympathising with you, from desiring to aid you? When I learned your difficulty, ought I to have been amused, and gone into fits of laughter? What! it's an insult to be in a position to render you a service! That's a strange kind of delicacy!"
"Are you astonished that I should feel so strongly about it?"
"Nonsense! Do you still think I meant to offend you? I look on you as the most honourable man in the world. If anyone were to tell me that he had seen you commit a base action, I should reply that it was a lie. Does that satisfy you?"
"But suppose they got hold of it in the city, suppose it were reported that Maitre Quennebert had taken money from Madame de Rapally, would it be the same as if they said Maitre Quennebert had borrowed twelve hundred livres from Monsieur Robert or some other business man?"
"I don't see what difference it could make."
"But I do."
"It's not easy to express, but——"
"But you exaggerate both the service and the gratitude you ought to feel. I think I know why you refuse. You're ashamed to take it as a gift, aren't you."
"Yes, I am."
"Well, I'm not going to make you a gift. Borrow twelve hundred livres from me. For how long do you want the money?"
"I really don't know how soon I can repay you."
"Let's say a year, and reckon the interest. Sit down there, you baby, and write out a promissory note."
Maitre Quennebert made some further show of resistance, but at last yielded to the widow's importunity. It is needless to say that the whole thing was a comedy on his part, except that he really needed the money. But he did not need it to replace a sum of which a faithless friend had robbed him, but to satisfy his own creditors, who, out of all patience with him, were threatening to sue him, and his only reason for seeking out Madame de Rapally was to take advantage of her generous disposition towards himself. His feigned delicacy was intended to induce her to insist so urgently, that in accepting he should not fall too much in her esteem, but should seem to yield to force. And his plan met with complete success, for at the end of the transaction he stood higher than ever in the opinion of his fair creditor, on account of the noble sentiments he had expressed. The note was written out in legal form and the money counted down on the spot.
"How glad I am!" said she then, while Quennebert still kept up some pretence of delicate embarrassment, although he could not resist casting a stolen look at the bag of crowns lying on the table beside his cloak. "Do you intend to go back to Saint Denis to-night?"
Even had such been his intention, the notary would have taken very good care not to say so; for he foresaw the accusations of imprudence that would follow, the enumeration of the dangers by the way; and it was quite on the cards even that, having thus aroused his fears, his fair hostess should in deference to them offer him hospitality for the night, and he did not feel inclined for an indefinitely prolonged tete-a-tete.
"No;" he said, "I am going to sleep at Maitre Terrasson's, rue des Poitevins; I have sent him word to expect me. But although his house is only a few yards distant, I must leave you earlier than I could have wished, on account of this money."
"Will you think of me?"
"How can you ask?" replied Quennebert, with a sentimental expression. "You have compelled me to accept the money, but—I shall not be happy till I have repaid you. Suppose this loan should make us fall out?"
"You may be quite sure that if you don't pay when the bill falls due, I shall have recourse to the law."
"Oh, I know that very well."
"I shall enforce all my rights as a creditor."
"I expect nothing else."
"I shall show no pity."
And the widow gave a saucy laugh and shook her finger at him.
"Madame Rapally," said the notary, who was most anxious to bring this conversation to an end, dreading every moment that it would take a languishing tone,-"Madame Rapally, will you add to your goodness by granting me one more favour?"
"What is it?"
"The gratitude that is simulated is not difficult to bear, but genuine, sincere gratitude, such as I feel, is a heavy burden, as I can assure you. It is much easier to give than to receive. Promise me, then, that from now till the year is up there shall be no more reference between us to this money, and that we shall go on being good friends as before. Leave it to me to make arrangements to acquit myself honourably of my obligations towards you. I need say no more; till a year's up, mum's the word."
"It shall be as you desire, Maitre Quennebert," answered Madame Rapally, her eyes shining with delight. "It was never my intention to lay you under embarrassing obligations, and I leave it all to you. Do you know that I am beginning to believe in presentiments?"
"You becoming superstitious! Why, may I ask?"
"I refused to do a nice little piece of ready-money business this morning."
"Yes, because I had a sort of feeling that made me resist all temptation to leave myself without cash. Imagine! I received a visit to-day from a great lady who lives in this house—in the suite of apartments next to mine."
"What is her name?"
"Mademoiselle de Guerchi."
"And what did she want with you?"
"She called in order to ask me to buy, for four hundred livres, some of her jewels which are well worth six hundred, for I understand such things; or should I prefer it to lend her that sum and keep the jewels as security? It appears that mademoiselle is in great straits. De Guerchi—do you know the name?"
"I think I have heard it."
"They say she has had a stormy past, and has been greatly talked of; but then half of what one hears is lies. Since she came to live here she has been very quiet. No visitors except one—a nobleman, a duke—wait a moment! What's his name? The Duc-Duc de Vitry; and for over three weeks even he hasn't been near her. I imagine from this absence that they have fallen out, and that she is beginning to feel the want of money."
"You seem to be intimately acquainted with this young woman's affairs."
"Indeed I am, and yet I never spoke to her till this morning."
"How did you get your information, then?"
"By chance. The room adjoining this and one of those she occupies were formerly one large room, which is now divided into two by a partition wall covered with tapestry; but in the two corners the plaster has crumbled away with time, and one can see into the room through slits in the tapestry without being seen oneself. Are you inquisitive?"
"Not more than you, Madame Rapally."
"Come with me. Someone knocked at the street door a few moments ago; there's no one else in the douse likely to have visitors at this hour. Perhaps her admirer has come back."
"If so, we are going to witness a scene of recrimination or reconciliation. How delightful!"
Although he was not leaving the widow's lodgings, Maitre Quennebert took up his hat and cloak and the blessed bag of crown pieces, and followed Madame Rapally on tiptoe, who on her side moved as slowly as a tortoise and as lightly as she could. They succeeded in turning the handle of the door into the next room without making much noise.
"'Sh!" breathed the widow softly; "listen, they are speaking."
She pointed to the place where he would find a peep-hole in one corner of the room, and crept herself towards the corresponding corner. Quennebert, who was by no means anxious to have her at his side, motioned to her to blow out the light. This being done, he felt secure, for he knew that in the intense darkness which now enveloped them she could not move from her place without knocking against the furniture between them, so he glued his face to the partition. An opening just large enough for one eye allowed him to see everything that was going on in the next room. Just as he began his observations, the treasurer at Mademoiselle de Guerchi's invitation was about to take a seat near her, but not too near for perfect respect. Both of them were silent, and appeared to labour under great embarrassment at finding themselves together, and explanations did not readily begin. The lady had not an idea of the motive of the visit, and her quondam lover feigned the emotion necessary to the success of his undertaking. Thus Maitre Quennebert had full time to examine both, and especially Angelique. The reader will doubtless desire to know what was the result of the notary's observation.
ANGELIQUE-LOUISE DE GUERCHI was a woman of about twenty-eight years of age, tall, dark, and well made. The loose life she had led had, it is true, somewhat staled her beauty, marred the delicacy of her complexion, and coarsened the naturally elegant curves of her figure; but it is such women who from time immemorial have had the strongest attraction for profligate men. It seems as if dissipation destroyed the power to perceive true beauty, and the man of pleasure must be aroused to admiration by a bold glance and a meaning smile, and will only seek satisfaction along the trail left by vice. Louise-Angelique was admirably adapted for her way of life; not that her features wore an expression of shameless effrontery, or that the words that passed her lips bore habitual testimony to the disorders of her existence, but that under a calm and sedate demeanour there lurked a secret and indefinable charm. Many other women possessed more regular features, but none of them had a greater power of seduction. We must add that she owed that power entirely to her physical perfections, for except in regard to the devices necessary to her calling, she showed no cleverness, being ignorant, dull and without inner resources of any kind. As her temperament led her to share the desires she excited, she was really incapable of resisting an attack conducted with skill and ardour, and if the Duc de Vitry had not been so madly in love, which is the same as saying that he was hopelessly blind, silly, and dense to everything around him, he might have found a score of opportunities to overcome her resistance. We have already seen that she was so straitened in money matters that she had been driven to try to sell her jewels that very, morning.
Jeannin was the first to 'break silence.
"You are astonished at my visit, I know, my charming Angelique. But you must excuse my thus appearing so unexpectedly before you. The truth is, I found it impossible to leave Paris without seeing you once more."
"Thank you for your kind remembrance," said she, "but I did not at all expect it."
"Come, come, you are offended with me."
She gave him a glance of mingled disdain and resentment; but he went on, in a timid, wistful tone—
"I know that my conduct must have seemed strange to you, and I acknowledge that nothing can justify a man for suddenly leaving the woman he loves—I do not dare to say the woman who loves him—without a word of explanation. But, dear Angelique, I was jealous."
"Jealous!" she repeated incredulously.
"I tried my best to overcome the feeling, and I hid my suspicions from you. Twenty times I came to see you bursting with anger and determined to overwhelm you with reproaches, but at the sight of your beauty I forgot everything but that I loved you. My suspicions dissolved before a smile; one word from your lips charmed me into happiness. But when I was again alone my terrors revived, I saw my rivals at your feet, and rage possessed me once more. Ah! you never knew how devotedly I loved you."
She let him speak without interruption; perhaps the same thought was in her mind as in Quennebert's, who, himself a past master in the art of lying; was thinking—
"The man does not believe a word of what he is saying."
But the treasurer went on—
"I can see that even now you doubt my sincerity."
"Does my lord desire that his handmaiden should be blunt? Well, I know that there is no truth in what you say."
"Oh! I can see that you imagine that among the distractions of the world I have kept no memory of you, and have found consolation in the love of less obdurate fair ones. I have not broken in on your retirement; I have not shadowed your steps; I have not kept watch on your actions; I have not surrounded you with spies who would perhaps have brought me the assurance, 'If she quitted the world which outraged her, she was not driven forth by an impulse of wounded pride or noble indignation; she did not even seek to punish those who misunderstood her by her absence; she buried herself where she was unknown, that she might indulge in stolen loves.' Such were the thoughts that came to me, and yet I respected your hiding-place; and to-day I am ready to believe you true, if you will merely say, 'I love no one else!'"
Jeannin, who was as fat as a stage financier, paused here to gasp; for the utterance of this string of banalities, this rigmarole of commonplaces, had left him breathless. He was very much dissatisfied with his performance; and ready to curse his barren imagination. He longed to hit upon swelling phrases and natural and touching gestures, but in vain. He could only look at Mademoiselle de Guerchi with a miserable, heart-broken air. She remained quietly seated, with the same expression of incredulity on her features.
So there was nothing for it but to go on once more.
"But this one assurance that I ask you will not give. So what I have—been told is true: you have given your love to him."
She could not check a startled movement.
"You see it is only when I speak of him that I can overcome in you the insensibility which is killing me. My suspicions were true after all: you deceived me for his sake. Oh! the instinctive feeling of jealousy was right which forced me to quarrel with that man, to reject the perfidious friendship which he tried to force upon me. He has returned to town, and we shall meet! But why do I say 'returned'? Perhaps he only pretended to go away, and safe in this retreat has flouted with impunity, my despair and braved my vengeance!"
Up to this the lady had played a waiting game, but now she grew quite confused, trying to discover the thread of the treasurer's thoughts. To whom did he refer? The Duc de Vitry? That had been her first impression. But the duke had only been acquainted with her for a few months—since she had—left Court. He could not therefore have excited the jealousy of her whilom lover; and if it were not he, to whom did the words about rejecting "perfidious friendship," and "returned to town," and so on, apply? Jeannin divined her embarrassment, and was not a little proud of the tactics which would, he was almost sure; force her to expose herself. For there are certain women who can be thrown into cruel perplexity by speaking to them of their love-passages without affixing a proper name label to each. They are placed as it were on the edge of an abyss, and forced to feel their way in darkness. To say "You have loved" almost obliges them to ask, "Whom?"
Nevertheless, this was not the word uttered by Mademoiselle de Guerchi while she ran through in her head a list of possibilities. Her answer was—
"Your language astonishes me; I don't understand what you mean."
The ice was broken, and the treasurer made a plunge. Seizing one of Angelique's hands, he asked—
"Have you never seen Commander de Jars since then?"
"Commander de Jars!" exclaimed Angelique.
"Can you swear to me, Angelique, that you love him not?"
"Mon Dieu! What put it into your head that I ever cared for him? It's over four months since I saw him last, and I hadn't an idea whether he was alive or dead. So he has been out of town? That's the first I heard of it."
"My fortune is yours, Angelique! Oh! assure me once again that you do not love him—that you never loved him!" he pleaded in a faltering voice, fixing a look of painful anxiety upon her.
He had no intention of putting her out of countenance by the course he took; he knew quite well that a woman like Angelique is never more at her ease than when she has a chance of telling an untruth of this nature. Besides, he had prefaced this appeal by the magic words, "My fortune' is yours!" and the hope thus aroused was well worth a perjury. So she answered boldly and in a steady voice, while she looked straight into his eyes—
"I believe you!" exclaimed Jeannin, going down on his knees and covering with his kisses the hand he still held. "I can taste happiness again. Listen, Angelique. I am leaving Paris; my mother is dead, and I am going back to Spain. Will you follow me thither?"
"I hesitated long before finding you out, so much did I fear a repulse. I set out to-morrow. Quit Paris, leave the world which has slandered you, and come with me. In a fortnight we shall be man and wife."
"You are not in earnest!"
"May I expire at your feet if I am not! Do you want me to sign the oath with my blood?"
"Rise," she said in a broken voice. "Have I at last found a man to love me and compensate me for all the abuse that has been showered on my head? A thousand times I thank you, not for what you are doing for me, but for the balm you pour on my wounded spirit. Even if you were to say to me now, 'After all, I am obliged to give you up' the pleasure of knowing you esteem me would make up for all the rest. It would be another happy memory to treasure along with my memory of our love, which was ineffaceable, although you so ungratefully suspected me of having deceived you."
The treasurer appeared fairly intoxicated with joy. He indulged in a thousand ridiculous extravagances and exaggerations, and declared himself the happiest of men. Mademoiselle de Guerchi, who was desirous of being prepared for every peril, asked him in a coaxing tone—
"Who can have put it into your head to be jealous of the commander? Has he been base enough to boast that I ever gave him my love?"
"No, he never said anything about you; but someway I was afraid."
She renewed her assurances. The conversation continued some time in a sentimental tone. A thousand oaths, a thousand protestations of love were, exchanged. Jeannin feared that the suddenness of their journey would inconvenience his mistress, and offered to put it off for some days; but to this she would not consent, and it was arranged that the next day at noon a carriage should call at the house and take Angelique out of town to an appointed place at which the treasurer was to join her.
Maitre Quennebert, eye and ear on the alert, had not lost a word of this conversation, and the last proposition of the treasurer changed his ideas.
"Pardieu!" he said to himself, "it looks as if this good man were really going to let himself be taken in and done for. It is singular how very clear-sighted we can be about things that don't touch us. This poor fly is going to let himself be caught by a very clever spider, or I'm much mistaken. Very likely my widow is quite of my opinion, and yet in what concerns herself she will remain stone-blind. Well, such is life! We have only two parts to choose between: we must be either knave or fool. What's Madame Rapally doing, I wonder?"
At this moment he heard a stifled whisper from the opposite corner of the room, but, protected by the distance and the darkness, he let the widow murmur on, and applied his eye once more to his peephole. What he saw confirmed his opinion. The damsel was springing up and down, laughing, gesticulating, and congratulating herself on her unexpected good fortune.
"Just imagine! He loves me like that!" she was saying to herself. "Poor Jeannin! When I remember how I used to hesitate. How fortunate that Commander de Jars, one of the most vain and indiscreet of men, never babbled about me! Yes, we must leave town to-morrow without fail. I must not give him time to be enlightened by a chance word. But the Duc de Vitry? I am really sorry for him. However, why did he go away, and send no word? And then, he's a married man. Ah! if I could only get back again to court some day!... Who would ever have expected such a thing? Good God! I must keep talking to myself, to be sure I'm not dreaming. Yes, he was there, just now, at my feet, saying to me, 'Angelique, you are going to become my wife.' One thing is sure, he may safely entrust his honour to my care. It would be infamous to betray a man who loves me as he does, who will give me his name. Never, no, never will I give him cause to reproach me! I would rather——"
A loud and confused noise on the stairs interrupted this soliloquy. At one moment bursts of laughter were heard, and the next angry voices. Then a loud exclamation, followed by a short silence. Being alarmed at this disturbance in a house which was usually so quiet, Mademoiselle de Guerchi approached the door of her room, intending either to call for protection or to lock herself in, when suddenly it was violently pushed open. She recoiled with fright, exclaiming—
"Commander de Jars!"
"On my word!" said Quennebert behind the arras, "'tis as amusing as a play! Is the commander also going to offer to make an honest woman of her? But what do I see?"
He had just caught sight of the young man on whom de Jars had bestowed the title and name of Chevalier de Moranges, and whose acquaintance the reader has already made at the tavern in the rue Saint-Andre-des-Arts. His appearance had as great an effect on the notary as a thunderbolt. He stood motionless, trembling, breathless; his knees ready to give way beneath him; everything black before his eyes. However, he soon pulled himself together, and succeeded in overcoming the effects of his surprise and terror. He looked once more through the hole in the partition, and became so absorbed that no one in the whole world could have got a word from him just then; the devil himself might have shrieked into his ears unheeded, and a naked sword suspended over his head would not have induced him to change his place.
Before Mademoiselle de Guerchi had recovered from her fright the commander spoke.
"As I am a gentleman, my beauty, if you were the Abbess of Montmartre, you could not be more difficult of access. I met a blackguard on the stairs who tried to stop me, and whom I was obliged to thrash soundly. Is what they told me on my return true? Are you really doing penance, and do you intend to take the veil?"
"Sir," answered Angelique, with great dignity, "whatever may be my plans, I have a right to be surprised at your violence and at your intrusion at such an hour."
"Before we go any farther," said de Jars, twirling round on his heels, "allow me to present to you my nephew, the Chevalier de Moranges."
"Chevalier de Moranges!" muttered Quennebert, on whose memory in that instant the name became indelibly engraven.
"A young man," continued the commander, "who has come back with me from abroad. Good style, as you see, charming appearance. Now, you young innocent, lift up your great black eyes and kiss madame's hand; I allow it."
"Monsieur le commandeur, leave my room; begone, or I shall call——"
"Whom, then? Your lackeys? But I have beaten the only one you keep, as I told you, and it will be some time before he'll be in a condition to light me downstairs: 'Begone,' indeed! Is that the way you receive an old friend? Pray be seated, chevalier."
He approached Mademoiselle de Guerchi, and, despite her resistance, seized hold of one of her hands, and forcing her to sit down, seated himself beside her.
"That's right, my girl," said he; "now let us talk sense. I understand that before a stranger you consider yourself obliged to appear astonished at my ways of going on. But he knows all about us, and nothing he may see or hear will surprise him. So a truce to prudery! I came back yesterday, but I could not make out your hiding-place till to-day. Now I'm not going to ask you to tell me how you have gone on in my absence. God and you alone know, and while He will tell me nothing, you would only tell me fibs, and I want to save you from that venial sin at least. But here I am, in as good spirits as ever, more in love than ever, and quite ready to resume my old habits."
Meantime the lady, quite subdued by his noisy entrance and ruffianly conduct, and seeing that an assumption of dignity would only draw down on her some fresh impertinence, appeared to resign herself to her position. All this time Quennebert never took his eyes from the chevalier, who sat with his face towards the partition. His elegantly cut costume accentuated his personal advantages. His jet black hair brought into relief the whiteness of his forehead; his large dark eyes with their veined lids and silky lashes had a penetrating and peculiar expression—a mixture of audacity and weakness; his thin and somewhat pale lips were apt to curl in an ironical smile; his hands were of perfect beauty, his feet of dainty smallness, and he showed with an affectation of complaisance a well-turned leg above his ample boots, the turned down tops of which, garnished with lace, fell in irregular folds aver his ankles in the latest fashion. He did not appear to be more than eighteen years of age, and nature had denied his charming face the distinctive sign of his sex for not the slightest down was visible on his chin, though a little delicate pencilling darkened his upper lip: His slightly effeminate style of beauty, the graceful curves of his figure, his expression, sometimes coaxing, sometimes saucy, reminding one of a page, gave him the appearance of a charming young scapegrace destined to inspire sudden passions and wayward fancies. While his pretended uncle was making himself at home most unceremoniously, Quennebert remarked that the chevalier at once began to lay siege to his fair hostess, bestowing tender and love-laden glances on her behind that uncle's back. This redoubled his curiosity.
"My dear girl," said the commander, "since I saw you last I have come into a fortune of one hundred thousand livres, neither more nor less. One of my dear aunts took it into her head to depart this life, and her temper being crotchety and spiteful she made me her sole heir, in order to enrage those of her relatives who had nursed her in her illness. One hundred thousand livres! It's a round sum—enough to cut a great figure with for two years. If you like, we shall squander it together, capital and interest. Why do you not speak? Has anyone else robbed me by any chance of your heart? If that were so, I should be in despair, upon my word-for the sake of the fortunate individual who had won your favour; for I will brook no rivals, I give you fair warning."
"Monsieur le commandeur," answered Angelique, "you forget, in speaking to me in that manner, I have never given you any right to control my actions."
"Have we severed our connection?"
At this singular question Angelique started, but de Jars continued—
"When last we parted we were on the best of terms, were we not? I know that some months have elapsed since then, but I have explained to you the reason of my absence. Before filling up the blank left by the departed we must give ourselves space to mourn. Well, was I right in my guess? Have you given me a successor?"
Mademoiselle de Guerchi had hitherto succeeded in controlling her indignation, and had tried to force herself to drink the bitter cup of humiliation to the dregs; but now she could bear it no longer. Having thrown a look expressive of her suffering at the young chevalier, who continued to ogle her with great pertinacity, she decided on bursting into tears, and in a voice broken by sobs she exclaimed that she was miserable at being treated in this manner, that she did not deserve it, and that Heaven was punishing her for her error in yielding to the entreaties of the commander. One would have sworn she was sincere and that the words came from her heart. If Maitre Quennebert had not witnessed the scene with Jeannin, if he had not known how frail was the virtue of the weeping damsel, he might have been affected by her touching plaint. The chevalier appeared to be deeply moved by Angelique's grief, and while his, uncle was striding up and down the room and swearing like a trooper, he gradually approached her and expressed by signs the compassion he felt.
Meantime the notary was in a strange state of mind. He had not yet made up his mind whether the whole thing was a joke arranged between de Jars and Jeannin or not, but of one thing he was quite convinced, the sympathy which Chevalier de Moranges was expressing by passionate sighs and glances was the merest hypocrisy. Had he been alone, nothing would have prevented his dashing head foremost into this imbroglio, in scorn of consequence, convinced that his appearance would be as terrible in its effect as the head of Medusa. But the presence of the widow restrained him. Why ruin his future and dry up the golden spring which had just begun to gush before his eyes, for the sake of taking part in a melodrama? Prudence and self-interest kept him in the side scenes.
The tears of the fair one and the glances of the chevalier awoke no repentance in the breast of the commander; on the contrary, he began to vent his anger in terms still more energetic. He strode up and down the oaken floor till it shook under his spurred heels; he stuck his plumed hat on the side of his head, and displayed the manners of a bully in a Spanish comedy. Suddenly he seemed to have come to a swift resolution: the expression of his face changed from rage to icy coldness, and walking up to Angelique, he said, with a composure more terrible than the wildest fury—
"My rival's name?"
"You shall never learn it from me!"
"Madame, his name?"
"Never! I have borne your insults too long. I am not responsible to you for my actions."
"Well, I shall learn it, in spite of you, and I know to whom to apply. Do you think you can play fast and loose with me and my love? No, no! I used to believe in you; I turned, a deaf ear to your traducers. My mad passion for you became known; I was the jest and the butt of the town. But you have opened my eyes, and at last I see clearly on whom my vengeance ought to fall. He was formerly my friend, and I would believe nothing against him; although I was often warned, I took no notice. But now I will seek him out, and say to him, 'You have stolen what was mine; you are a scoundrel! It must be your life, or mine!' And if, there is justice in heaven, I shall kill him! Well, madame, you don't ask me the name of this man! You well know whom I mean!"
This threat brought home to Mademoiselle de Guerchi how imminent was her danger. At first she had thought the commander's visit might be a snare laid to test her, but the coarseness of his expressions, the cynicism of his overtures in the presence of a third person, had convinced her she was wrong. No man could have imagined that the revolting method of seduction employed could meet with success, and if the commander had desired to convict her of perfidy he would have come alone and made use of more persuasive weapons. No, he believed he still had claims on her, but even if he had, by his manner of enforcing them he had rendered them void. However, the moment he threatened to seek out a rival whose identity he designated quite clearly, and reveal to him the secret it was so necessary to her interests to keep hidden, the poor girl lost her head. She looked at de Jars with a frightened expression, and said in a trembling voice—
"I don't know whom you mean."
"You don't know? Well, I shall commission the king's treasurer, Jeannin de Castille, to come here to-morrow and tell you, an hour before our duel."
"Oh no! no! Promise me you will not do that!" cried she, clasping her hands.
"Do not leave me thus! I cannot let you go till you give me your promise!"
She threw herself on her knees and clung with both her hands to de Jars' cloak, and appealing to Chevalier de Moranges, said—
"You are young, monsieur; I have never done you any harm; protect me, have pity on me, help me to soften him!"
"Uncle," said the chevalier in a pleading tone, "be generous, and don't drive this woman to despair."
"Prayers are useless!" answered the commander.
"What do you want me to do?" said Angelique. "Shall I go into a convent to atone? I am ready to go. Shall I promise never to see him again? For God's sake, give me a little time; put off your vengeance for one single day! To-morrow evening, I swear to you, you will have nothing more to fear from me. I thought myself forgotten by you and abandoned; and how should I think otherwise? You left me without a word of farewell, you stayed away and never sent me a line! And how do you know that I did not weep when you deserted me, leaving me to pass my days in monotonous solitude? How do you know that I did not make every effort to find out why you were so long absent from my side? You say you had left town but how was I to know that? Oh! promise me, if you love me, to give up this duel! Promise me not to seek that man out to-morrow!"
The poor creature hoped to work wonders with her eloquence, her tears, her pleading glances. On hearing her prayer for a reprieve of twenty-four hours, swearing that after that she would never see Jeannin again, the commander and the chevalier were obliged to bite their lips to keep from laughing outright. But the former soon regained his self-possession, and while Angelique, still on her knees before him, pressed his hands to her bosom, he forced her to raise her head, and looking straight into her eyes, said—
"To-morrow, madame, if not this evening, he shall know everything, and a meeting shall take place."
Then pushing her away, he strode towards the door.
"Oh! how unhappy I am!" exclaimed Angelique.
She tried to rise and rush after him, but whether she was really overcome by her feelings, or whether she felt the one chance of prevailing left her was to faint, she uttered a heartrending cry, and the chevalier had no choice but to support her sinking form.
De Jars, on seeing his nephew staggering under this burden, gave a loud laugh, and hurried away. Two minutes later he was once more at the tavern in the rue Saint-Andre-des-Arts.
"How's this? Alone?" said Jeannin.
"What have you done with the chevalier?"
"I left him with our charmer, who was unconscious, overcome with grief, exhausted Ha! ha! ha! She fell fainting into his arms! Ha! ha! ha!"
"It's quite possible that the young rogue, being left with her in such a condition, may cut me out."
"Do you think so?—Ha! ha! ha!"
And de Jars laughed so heartily and so infectiously that his worthy friend was obliged to join in, and laughed till he choked.
In the short silence which followed the departure of the commander, Maitre Quennebert could hear the widow still murmuring something, but he was less disposed than ever to attend to her.
"On my word," said he, "the scene now going on is more curious than all that went before. I don't think that a man has ever found himself in such a position as mine. Although my interests demand that I remain here and listen, yet my fingers are itching to box the ears of that Chevalier de Moranges. If there were only some way of getting at a proof of all this! Ah! now we shall hear something; the hussy is coming to herself."
And indeed Angelique had opened her eyes and was casting wild looks around her; she put her hand to her brow several times, as if trying to recall clearly what had happened.
"Is he gone?" she exclaimed at last. "Oh, why did you let him go? You should not have minded me, but kept him here."
"Be calm," answered the chevalier, "be calm, for heaven's sake. I shall speak to my uncle and prevent his ruining your prospects. Only don't weep any more, your tears break my heart. Ah, my God! how cruel it is to distress you so! I should never be able to withstand your tears; no matter what reason I had for anger, a look from you would make me forgive you everything."
"Noble young man!" said Angelique.
"Idiot!" muttered Maitre Quennebert; "swallow the honey of his words, do But how the deuce is it going to end? Not Satan himself ever invented such a situation."
"But then I could never believe you guilty without proof, irrefutable proof; and even then a word from you would fill my mind with doubt and uncertainty again. Yes, were the whole world to accuse you and swear to your guilt, I should still believe your simple word. I am young, madam, I have never known love as yet—until an instant ago I had no idea that more quickly than an image can excite the admiration of the eye, a thought can enter the heart and stir it to its depths, and features that one may never again behold leave a lifelong memory behind. But even if a woman of whom I knew absolutely nothing were to appeal to me, exclaiming, 'I implore your help, your protection!' I should, without stopping to consider, place my sword and my arm at her disposal, and devote myself to her service. How much more eagerly would I die for you, madam, whose beauty has ravished my heart! What do you demand of me? Tell me what you desire me to do."
"Prevent this duel; don't allow an interview to take place between your uncle and the man whom he mentioned. Tell me you will do this, and I shall be safe; for you have never learned to lie; I know."
"Of course he hasn't, you may be sure of that, you simpleton!" muttered Maitre Quennebert in his corner. "If you only knew what a mere novice you are at that game compared with the chevalier! If you only knew whom you had before you!"
"At your age," went on Angelique, "one cannot feign—the heart is not yet hardened, and is capable of compassion. But a dreadful idea occurs to me—a horrible suspicion! Is it all a devilish trick—a snare arranged in joke? Tell me that it is not all a pretence! A poor woman encounters so much perfidy. Men amuse themselves by troubling her heart and confusing her mind; they excite her vanity, they compass her round with homage, with flattery, with temptation, and when they grow tired of fooling her, they despise and insult her. Tell me, was this all a preconcerted plan? This love, this jealousy, were they only acted?"
"Oh, madame," broke in the chevalier, with an expression of the deepest indignation, "how can you for an instant imagine that a human heart could be so perverted? I am not acquainted with the man whom the commander accused you of loving, but whoever he may be I feel sure that he is worthy of your love, and that he would never have consented to such a dastardly joke. Neither would my uncle; his jealousy mastered him and drove him mad—
"But I am not dependent on him; I am my own master, and can do as I please. I will hinder this duel; I will not allow the illusion and ignorance of him who loves you and, alas that I must say it, whom you love, to be dispelled, for it is in them he finds his happiness. Be happy with him! As for me, I shall never see you again; but the recollection of this meeting, the joy of having served you, will be my consolation."
Angelique raised her beautiful eyes, and gave the chevalier a long look which expressed her gratitude more eloquently than words.
"May I be hanged!" thought Maitre Quennebert, "if the baggage isn't making eyes at him already! But one who is drowning clutches at a straw."
"Enough, madam," said the chevalier; "I understand all you would say. You thank me in his name, and ask me to leave you: I obey-yes, madame, I am going; at the risk of my life I will prevent this meeting, I will stifle this fatal revelation. But grant me one last prayer-permit me to look forward to seeing you once more before I leave this city, to which I wish I had never come. But I shall quit it in a day or two, to-morrow perhaps—as soon as I know that your happiness is assured. Oh! do not refuse my last request; let the light of your eyes shine on me for the last time; after that I shall depart—I shall fly far away for ever. But if perchance, in spite of every effort, I fail, if the commander's jealousy should make him impervious to my entreaties—to my tears, if he whom you love should come and overwhelm you with reproaches and then abandon you, would you drive me from your presence if I should then say, 'I love you'? Answer me, I beseech you."
"Go!" said she, "and prove worthy of my gratitude—or my love."
Seizing one of her hands, the chevalier covered it with passionate kisses.
"Such barefaced impudence surpasses everything I could have imagined!" murmured Quennebert: "fortunately, the play is over for to-night; if it had gone on any longer, I should have done something foolish. The lady hardly imagines what the end of the comedy will be."
Neither did Quennebert. It was an evening of adventures. It was written that in the space of two hours Angelique was to run the gamut of all the emotions, experience all the vicissitudes to which a life such as she led is exposed: hope, fear, happiness, mortification, falsehood, love that was no love, intrigue within intrigue, and, to crown all, a totally unexpected conclusion.
The chevalier was still holding Angelique's hand when a step resounded outside, and a voice was heard.
"Can it be that he has come back?" exclaimed the damsel, hastily freeing herself from the passionate embrace of the chevalier. "It's not possible! Mon Dieu! Mon Dieu! it's his voice!"
She grew pale to the lips, and stood staring at the door with outstretched arms, unable to advance or recede.
The chevalier listened, but felt sure the approaching voice belonged neither to the commander nor to the treasurer.
"'His voice'?" thought Quennebert to himself. "Can this be yet another aspirant to her favour?"
The sound came nearer.
"Hide yourself!" said Angelique, pointing to a door opposite to the partition behind which the widow and the notary were ensconced. "Hide yourself there!—there's a secret staircase—you can get out that way."
"I hide myself!" exclaimed Moranges, with a swaggering air. "What are you thinking of? I remain."
It would have been better for him to have followed her advice, as may very well have occurred to the youth two minutes later, as a tall, muscular young man entered in a state of intense excitement. Angelique rushed to meet him, crying—
"Ah! Monsieur le duc, is it you?"
"What is this I hear, Angelique?" said the Duc de Vitry. "I was told below that three men had visited you this evening; but only two have gone out—where is the third? Ha! I do not need long to find him," he added, as he caught sight of the chevalier, who stood his ground bravely enough.
"In Heaven's name!" cried Angelique,—"in Heaven's name, listen to me!"
"No, no, not a word. Just now I am not questioning you. Who are you, sir?"
The chevalier's teasing and bantering disposition made him even at that critical moment insensible to fear, so he retorted insolently—
"Whoever I please to be, sir; and on my word I find the tone in which you put your question delightfully amusing."
The duke sprang forward in a rage, laying his hand on his sword. Angelique tried in vain to restrain him.
"You want to screen him from my vengeance, you false one!" said he, retreating a few steps, so as to guard the door. "Defend your life, sir!"
"Do you defend yours!"
Both drew at the same moment.
Two shrieks followed, one in the room, the other behind the tapestry, for neither Angelique nor the widow had been able to restrain her alarm as the two swords flashed in air. In fact the latter had been so frightened that she fell heavily to the floor in a faint.
This incident probably saved the young man's life; his blood had already begun to run cold at the sight of his adversary foaming with rage and standing between him and the door, when the noise of the fall distracted the duke's attention.
"What was that?" he cried. "Are there other enemies concealed here too?" And forgetting that he was leaving a way of escape free, he rushed in the direction from which the sound came, and lunged at the tapestry-covered partition with his sword. Meantime the chevalier, dropping all his airs of bravado, sprang from one end of the room to the other like a cat pursued by a dog; but rapid as were his movements, the duke perceived his flight, and dashed after him at the risk of breaking both his own neck and the chevalier's by a chase through unfamiliar rooms and down stairs which were plunged in darkness.
All this took place in a few seconds, like a flash of lightning. Twice, with hardly any interval, the street door opened and shut noisily, and the two enemies were in the street, one pursued and the other pursuing.
"My God! Just to think of all that has happened is enough to make one die of fright!" said Mademoiselle de Guerchi. "What will come next, I should like to know? And what shall I say to the duke when he comes back?"
Just at this instant a loud cracking sound was heard in the room. Angelique stood still, once more struck with terror, and recollecting the cry she had heard. Her hair, which was already loosened, escaped entirely from its bonds, and she felt it rise on her head as the figures on the tapestry moved and bent towards her. Falling on her knees and closing her eyes, she began to invoke the aid of God and all the saints. But she soon felt herself raised by strong arms, and looking round, she found herself in the presence of an unknown man, who seemed to have issued from the ground or the walls, and who, seizing the only light left unextinguished in the scuffle, dragged her more dead than alive into the next room.
This man was, as the reader will have already guessed, Maitre Quennebert. As soon as the chevalier and the duke had disappeared, the notary had run towards the corner where the widow lay, and having made sure that she was really unconscious, and unable to see or hear anything, so that it would be quite safe to tell her any story he pleased next day, he returned to his former position, and applying his shoulder to the partition, easily succeeded in freeing the ends of the rotten laths from the nails which held there, and, pushing them before him, made an aperture large enough to allow of his passing through into the next apartment. He applied himself to this task with such vigour, and became so absorbed in its accomplishment, that he entirely forgot the bag of twelve hundred livres which the widow had given him.
"Who are you? What do you want with me?" cried Mademoiselle de Guerchi, struggling to free herself.
"Silence!" was Quennebert's answer.
"Don't kill me, for pity's sake!"
"Who wants to kill you? But be silent; I don't want your shrieks to call people here. I must be alone with you for a few moments. Once more I tell you to be quiet, unless you want me to use violence. If you do what I tell you, no harm shall happen to you."
"But who are you, monsieur?"
"I am neither a burglar nor a murderer; that's all you need to know; the rest is no concern of yours. Have you writing materials at hand?"
"Yes, monsieur; there they are, on that table."
"Very well. Now sit down at the table."
"Sit down, and answer my questions."
"The first man who visited you this evening was M. Jeannin, was he not?"
"Yes, M. Jeannin de Castille."
"The king's treasurer?"
"All right. The second was Commander de Jars, and the young man he brought with him was his nephew, the Chevalier de Moranges. The last comer was a duke; am I not right?"
"The Duc de Vitry."
"Now write from my dictation."
He spoke very slowly, and Mademoiselle de Guerchi, obeying his commands, took up her pen.
"'To-day,'" dictated Quennebert,—"'to-day, this twentieth day of the month of November, in the year of the Lord 1658, I—
"What is your full name?"
"Angelique-Louise de Guerchi."
"Go on! 'I, Angelique-Louise de Guerchi, was visited, in the rooms which—I occupy, in the mansion of the Duchesse d'Etampes, corner of the streets Git-le-Coeur and du Hurepoix, about half-past seven o'clock in the evening, in the first place, by Messire Jeannin de Castille, King's Treasurer; in the second place, by Commander de Jars, who was accompanied by a young man, his nephew, the Chevalier de Moranges; in the third place, after the departure of Commander de Jars, and while I was alone with the Chevalier de Moranges, by the Duc de Vitry, who drew his sword upon the said chevalier and forced him to take flight.'
"Now put in a line by itself, and use capitals 'DESCRIPTION OF THE CHEVALIER DE MORANGES'."
"But I only saw him for an instant," said Angelique, "and I can't recall——
"Write, and don't talk. I can recall everything, and that is all that is wanted."
"'Height about five feet.' The chevalier," said Quennebert, interrupting himself, "is four feet eleven inches three lines and a half, but I don't need absolute exactness." Angelique gazed at him in utter stupefaction.
"Do you know him, then?" she asked.
"I saw him this evening for the first time, but my eye is very accurate.
"'Height about five feet; hair black, eyes ditto, nose aquiline, mouth large, lips compressed, forehead high, face oval, complexion pale, no beard.'
"Now another line, and in capitals: "'SPECIAL MARKS.'
"'A small mole on the neck behind the right ear, a smaller mole on the left hand.'
"Have you written that? Now sign it with your full name."
"What use are you going to make of this paper?"
"I should have told you before, if I had desired you to know. Any questions are quite useless. I don't enjoin secrecy on you, however," added the notary, as he folded the paper and put it into his doublet pocket. "You are quite free to tell anyone you like that you have written the description of the Chevalier de Moranges at the dictation of an unknown man, who got into your room you don't know how, by the chimney or through the ceiling perhaps, but who was determined to leave it by a more convenient road. Is there not a secret staircase? Show me where it is. I don't want to meet anyone on my way out."
Angelique pointed out a door to him hidden by a damask curtain, and Quennebert saluting her, opened it and disappeared, leaving Angelique convinced that she had seen the devil in person. Not until the next day did the sight of the displaced partition explain the apparition, but even then so great was her fright, so deep was the terror which the recollection of the mysterious man inspired, that despite the permission to tell what had happened she mentioned her adventure to no one, and did not even complain to her neighbour, Madame Rapally, of the inquisitiveness which had led the widow to spy on her actions.
We left de Jars and Jeannin, roaring with laughter, in the tavern in the rue Saint Andre-des-Arts.
"What!" said the treasurer, "do you really think that Angelique thought I was in earnest in my offer?—that she believes in all good faith I intend to marry her?"
"You may take my word for it. If it were not so, do you imagine she would have been in such desperation? Would she have fainted at my threat to tell you that I had claims on her as well as you? To get married! Why, that is the goal of all such creatures, and there is not one of them who can understand why a man of honour should blush to give her his name. If you had only seen her terror, her tears! They would have either broken your heart or killed you with laughter."
"Well," said Jeannin, "it is getting late. Are we going to wait for the chevalier?"
"Let us call, for him."
"Very well. Perhaps he has made up his mind to stay. If so, we shall make a horrible scene, cry treachery and perjury, and trounce your nephew well. Let's settle our score and be off."
They left the wine-shop, both rather the worse for the wine they had so largely indulged in. They felt the need of the cool night air, so instead of going down the rue Pavee they resolved to follow the rue Saint-Andre-des-Arts as far as the Pont Saint-Michel, so as to reach the mansion by a longer route.
At the very moment the commander got up to leave the tavern the chevalier had run out of the mansion at the top of his speed. It was not that he had entirely lost his courage, for had he found it impossible to avoid his assailant it is probable that he would have regained the audacity which had led him to draw his sword. But he was a novice in the use of arms, had not reached full physical development, and felt that the chances were so much against him that he would only have faced the encounter if there were no possible way of escape. On leaving the house he had turned quickly into the rue Git-le-Coeur; but on hearing the door close behind his pursuer he disappeared down the narrow and crooked rue de l'Hirondelle, hoping to throw the Duc de Vitry off the scent. The duke, however, though for a moment in doubt, was guided by the sound of the flying footsteps. The chevalier, still trying to send him off on a false trail, turned to the right, and so regained the upper end of the rue Saint-Andre, and ran along it as far as the church, the site of which is occupied by the square of the same name to-day. Here he thought he would be safe, for, as the church was being restored and enlarged, heaps of stone stood all round the old pile. He glided in among these, and twice heard Vitry searching quite close to him, and each time stood on guard expecting an onslaught. This marching and counter-marching lasted for some minutes; the chevalier began to hope he had escaped the danger, and eagerly waited for the moment when the moon which had broken through the clouds should again withdraw behind them, in order to steal into some of the adjacent streets under cover of the darkness. Suddenly a shadow rose before him and a threatening voice cried—
"Have I caught you at last, you coward?"
The danger in which the chevalier stood awoke in him a flickering energy, a feverish courage, and he crossed blades with his assailant. A strange combat ensued, of which the result was quite uncertain, depending entirely on chance; for no science was of any avail on a ground so rough that the combatants stumbled at every step, or struck against immovable masses, which were one moment clearly lit up, and the next in shadow. Steel clashed on steel, the feet of the adversaries touched each other, several times the cloak of one was pierced by the sword of the other, more than once the words "Die then!" rang out. But each time the seemingly vanquished combatant sprang up unwounded, as agile and as lithe and as quick as ever, while he in his turn pressed the enemy home. There was neither truce nor pause, no clever feints nor fencer's tricks could be employed on either side; it was a mortal combat, but chance, not skill, would deal the death-blow. Sometimes a rapid pass encountered only empty air; sometimes blade crossed blade above the wielders' heads; sometimes the fencers lunged at each other's breast, and yet the blows glanced aside at the last moment and the blades met in air once more. At last, however, one of the two, making a pass to the right which left his breast unguarded, received a deep wound. Uttering a loud cry, he recoiled a step or two, but, exhausted by the effort, tripped and fell backward over a large stone, and lay there motionless, his arms extended in the form of a cross.