THE CLIQUE OF GOLD
THE CLIQUE OF GOLD
There is not in all Paris a house better kept or more inviting-looking than No. 23 in Grange Street. As soon as you enter, you are struck by a minute, extreme neatness, which reminds you of Holland, and almost sets you a-laughing. The neighbors might use the brass plate on the door as a mirror to shave in; the stone floor is polished till it shines; and the woodwork of the staircase is varnished to perfection.
In the entrance-hall a number of notices, written in the peculiar style which owners of houses affect, request the tenants to respect the property of others, without regard to the high price they pay for their share. "Clean your feet, if you please," they say to all who come in or go out. "No spitting allowed on the stairs." "Dogs are not allowed in the house."
Nevertheless, this admirably-kept house "enjoyed" but a sorry reputation in the neighborhood. Was it worse than other houses,—No. 21, for instance, or No. 25? Probably not; but there is a fate for houses as well as for men.
The first story was occupied by the families of two independent gentlemen, whose simplicity of mind was only equalled by that of their mode of life. A collector, who occasionally acted as broker, lived in the second story, and had his offices there. The third story was rented to a very rich man, a baron as people said, who only appeared there at long intervals, preferring, according to his own account, to live on his estates near Saintonge. The whole fourth story was occupied by a man familiarly known as Papa Ravinet, although he was barely fifty years old. He dealt in second-hand merchandise, furniture, curiosities, and toilet articles; and his rooms were filled to overflowing with a medley collection of things which he was in the habit of buying at auctions. The fifth story, finally, was cut up in numerous small rooms and closets, which were occupied by poor families or clerks, who, almost without exception, disappeared early in the morning, and returned only as late as possible at night.
An addition to the house in the rear had its own staircase, and was probably in the hands of still humbler tenants; but then it is so difficult to rent out small lodgings!
However this may have been, the house had a bad reputation; and the lodgers had to bear the consequences. Not one of them would have been trusted with a dollar's worth of goods in any of the neighboring shops. No one, however, stood, rightly or wrongly, in as bad repute as the doorkeeper, or concierge, who lived in a little hole near the great double entrance-door, and watched over the safety of the whole house. Master Chevassat and his wife were severely "cut" by their colleagues of adjoining houses; and the most atrocious stories were told of both husband and wife.
Master Chevassat was reputed to be well off; but the story went that he lent out money, and did not hesitate to charge a hundred per cent a month. He acted, besides, it was said, as agent for two of his tenants,—the broker, and the dealer in second-hand goods, and undertook the executions, when poor debtors were unable to pay. Mrs. Chevassat, however, had even graver charges to bear. People said she would do anything for money, and had aided and encouraged many a poor girl in the house in her evil career.
It was also asserted that the estimable couple had formerly lived in the fashionable Faubourg St. Honore, but had been compelled to leave there on account of several ugly occurrences. They were, finally, reported to have a son called Justin, a handsome fellow, thirty-five years old, who lived in the best society, and whom they nearly worshipped; while he was ashamed of them, and despised them, although he came often at night to ask them for money. No one, it must, however, be confessed, had ever seen this son; and no one knew him.
The two Chevassats shrugged their shoulders, and said it would be absurd if they should trouble themselves about public opinion, as long as their consciences were clear, and they owed nobody anything.
Towards the end of last December, however, on a Saturday afternoon, towards five o'clock, husband and wife were just sitting down to dinner, when the dealer in old clothes, Papa Ravinet, rushed like a tempest into their room.
He was a man of middle size, clean shaven, with small, bright, yellowish eyes, which shone with restless eagerness from under thick, bushy brows. Although he had lived for years in Paris, he was dressed like a man from the country, wearing a flowered silk vest, and a long frock-coat with an immense collar.
"Quick, Chevassat!" he cried, with a voice full of trouble. "Take your lamp, and follow me; an accident has happened upstairs."
He was so seriously disturbed, although generally very calm and cool, that the two Chevassats were thoroughly frightened.
"An accident!" exclaimed the woman; "that was all that was wanting. But pray, what has happened, dear M. Ravinet?"
"How do I know? This very moment, as I was just coming out of my room, I thought I heard the death-rattle of a dying person. It was in the fifth story. Of course I ran up a few steps, I listened. All was silent. I went down again, thinking I had been mistaken; and at once I heard again a sighing, a sobbing—I can't tell you exactly what; but it sounded exactly like the last sigh of a person in agony, and at the point of death."
"Then I ran down to tell you, and ask you to come up. I am not sure, you understand; but I think I could swear it was the voice of Miss Henrietta,—that pretty young girl who lives up there. Well, are you coming?"
But they did not stir.
"Miss Henrietta is not in her room," said Mrs. Chevassat coldly. "She went out just now, and told me she would not be back till nine o'clock. My dear M. Ravinet, you must have been mistaken; you had a ringing in your ears, or"—
"No, I am sure I was not mistaken! But never mind; we must see what it is."
During this conversation, the door of the room had been open; and several of the lodgers, hearing the voice of the merchant and the exclamations of the woman as they crossed the hall, had stopped and listened.
"Yes, we must see what it is," they repeated.
Master Chevassat dared no longer oppose the general desire so peremptorily expressed,—
"Let us go then, since you will have it so," he sighed.
And, taking up his lamp, he began to ascend the stairs, followed by the merchant, his wife, and five or six other persons.
The steps of all these people were heard all over the house; and from story to story the lodgers opened their doors to see what was going on. And, when they heard that something was likely to happen, they almost all left their rooms, and followed the others.
So that Master Chevassat had nearly a dozen curious persons behind him, when he stopped on the fifth floor to take breath.
The door to Miss Henrietta's room was the first on the left in the passage. He knocked at first gently, then harder, and at last with all his energy, till his heavy fists shook the thin partition-walls of all the rooms.
Between each blow he cried,—
"Miss Henrietta, Miss Henrietta, they want you!"
No reply came.
"Well!" he said triumphantly, "you see!"
But, whilst the man was knocking at the door, M. Ravinet had knelt down, and tried to open the door a little, putting now his eye, and now his ear, to the keyhole and to the slight opening between the door and the frame.
Suddenly he rose deadly pale.
"It is all over; we are too late!"
And, as the neighbors expressed some doubts, he cried furiously,—
"Have you no noses? Don't you smell that abominable charcoal?"
Everybody tried to perceive the odor; and soon all agreed that he was right. As the door had given way a little, the passage had gradually become filled with a sickening vapor.
The people shuddered; and a woman's voice exclaimed,—
"She has killed herself!"
As it happens strangely enough, but too frequently, in such cases, all hesitated.
"I am going for the police," said at last Master Chevassat.
"That's right!" replied the merchant. "Now there is, perhaps, a chance yet to save the poor girl; and, when you come back, it will of course be too late."
"What's to be done, then?"
"Break in the door."
"I dare not."
"Well, I will."
The kind-hearted man put his shoulder to the worm-eaten door, and in a moment the lock gave way. The bystanders shrank instinctively back; they were frightened. The door was wide open, and masses of vapors rolled out. Soon, however, curiosity triumphed over fear. No one doubted any longer that the poor girl was lying in there dead; and each one tried his best to see where she was.
In vain. The feeble light of the lamp had gone out in the foul air; and the darkness was frightful.
Nothing could be seen but the reddish glow of the charcoal, which was slowly going out under a little heap of white ashes in two small stoves. No one ventured to enter.
But Papa Ravinet had not gone so far to stop now, and remain in the passage.
"Where is the window?" he asked the concierge.
"On the right there."
"Very well; I'll open it."
And boldly the strange man plunged into the dark room; and almost instantly the noise of breaking glass was heard. A moment later, and the air in the room had become once more fit for breathing, and everybody rushed in.
Alas! it was the death-rattle which M. Ravinet had heard.
On the bed, on a thin mattress, without blankets or bedclothes, lay a young girl about twenty years old, dressed in a wretched black merino dress, stretched out at full-length, stiff, lifeless.
The women sobbed aloud.
"To die so young!" they said over and over again, "and to die thus."
In the meantime the merchant had gone up to the bed, and examined the poor girl.
"She is not dead yet!" he cried. "No, she cannot be dead! Come, ladies, come here and help the poor child, till the doctor comes."
And then, with strange self-possession, he told them what to do for the purpose of recalling her to life.
"Give her air," he said, "plenty of air; try to get some air into her lungs. Cut open her dress; pour some vinegar on her face; rub her with some woollen stuff."
He issued his orders, and they obeyed him readily, although they had no hope of success.
"Poor child!" said one of the women. "No doubt she was crossed in love."
"Or she was starving," whispered another.
There was no doubt that poverty, extreme poverty, had ruled in that miserable chamber: the traces were easily seen all around. The whole furniture consisted of a bed, a chest of drawers, and two chairs. There were no curtains at the window, no dresses in the trunk, not a ribbon in the drawers. Evidently everything that could be sold had been sold, piece by piece, little by little. The mattresses had followed the dresses,—first the wool, handful by handful, then the covering.
Too proud to complain, and cut off from society by bashfulness, the poor girl who was lying there had evidently gone through all the stages of suffering which the shipwrecked mariner endures, who floats, resting on a stray spar in the great ocean.
Papa Ravinet was thinking of all this, when a paper lying on the bureau attracted his eye. He took it up. It was the last will of the poor girl, and ran thus:—
"Let no one be accused; I die voluntarily. I beg Mrs. Chevassat will carry the two letters which I enclose to their addresses. She will be paid whatever I may owe her. Henrietta."
There were the two letters. On the first he read,—
Count Ville-Handry, Rue de Varennest 115. And, on the other,—
M. Maxime de Brevan, 62 Rue Laffitte.
A sudden light seemed to brighten up the small yellowish eye of the dealer in old clothes; a wicked smile played on his lips; and he uttered a very peculiar, "Ah!"
But all this passed away in a moment.
His brow grew as dark as ever; and he looked around anxiously and suspiciously to see if anybody had caught the impression produced upon him by the letters.
No, nobody had noticed him, nobody was thinking of him; for everybody was occupied with Miss Henrietta.
Thereupon he slipped the paper and the two letters into the vast pocket of his huge frock-coat with a dexterity and a rapidity which would have excited the envy of an accomplished pickpocket. It was high time; for the women who were bending over the bed of the young girl were exhibiting signs of intense excitement. One of them said she was sure the body had trembled under her hand, and the others insisted upon it that she was mistaken. The matter was soon to be decided, however.
After, perhaps, twenty seconds of unspeakable anguish, during which all held their breath, and solemn stillness reigned in the room, a cry of hope and joy broke forth suddenly.
"She has trembled, she has moved!"
This time there was no doubt, no denial possible. The unfortunate girl had certainly moved, very faintly and feebly; but still she had stirred.
A slight color returned to her pallid cheeks; her bosom rose painfully, and sank again; her teeth, closely shut, opened; and with parted lips she stretched forth her neck as if to draw in the fresh air instinctively.
"She is alive!" exclaimed the women, almost frightened, and as if they had seen a miracle performed,—"she is alive!"
In an instant, M. Ravinet was by her side.
One of the women, the wife of the gentleman in the first story, held the head of the girl on her arm, and the poor child looked around with that blank, unmeaning eye which we see in mad-houses. They spoke to her; but she did not answer; evidently she did not hear.
"Never mind!" said the merchant, "she is saved; and, when the doctor comes, he will have little else to do. But she must be attended to, the poor child, and we cannot leave her here alone."
The bystanders knew very well what that meant; and yet hardly any one ventured timidly to assent, and say, "Oh, of course!"
This reluctance did not deter the good man.
"We must put her to bed," he went on; "and, of course, she must have a mattress, bedclothes and blankets. We want wood also (for it is terribly cold here), and sugar for her tea, and a candle."
He did not mention all that was needed, but nearly so, and a great deal too much for the people who stood by. As a proof of this, the wife of the broker put grandly a five-franc piece on the mantlepiece, and quietly slipped out. Some of the others followed her example; but they left nothing. When Papa Ravinet had finished his little speech, there was nobody left but the two ladies who lived on the first floor, and the concierge and his wife. The two ladies, moreover, looked at each other in great embarrassment, as if they did not know what their curiosity might cost them. Had the shrewd man foreseen this noble abandonment of the poor girl? One would have fancied so; for he smiled bitterly, and said,—
Then, shrugging his shoulders, he added,—
"Luckily, I deal in all possible things. Wait a minute. I'll run down stairs, and I'll be back in a moment with all that is needed. After that, we shall see what can be done."
The face of the concierge's wife was a picture. Never in her life had she been so much astonished.
"They have changed Papa Ravinet, or I am mad."
The fact is, that the man was not exactly considered a benevolent and generous mortal. They told stories of him that would have made Harpagon envious, and touched the heart of a constable.
Nevertheless, he re-appeared soon after, almost succumbing under the weight of two excellent mattresses; and, when he came back a second time, he brought much more than he had mentioned.
Miss Henrietta was breathing more freely, but her face was still painfully rigid. Life had come back before the mind had recovered; and it was evident that she was utterly unconscious of her situation, and of what was going on around her. This troubled the two ladies not a little, although they felt very much relieved, and disposed to do everything, now that they were no longer expected to open their purses.
"Well, that is always the way," said Papa Ravinet boldly. "However, the doctor will bleed her, if there is any necessity."
And, turning to Master Chevassat, he added,—
"But we are in the way of these ladies; suppose we go down and take something? We can come back when the child is comfortably put to bed."
The good man lived, to tell the truth, in the same rooms in which the thousand and one things he was continually buying were piled up in vast heaps. There was no fixed place for his bed even. He slept where he could, or, rather, wherever an accidental sale had cleared a space for the time,—one night in a costly bed of the days of Louis XIV., and the next night on a lounge that he would have sold for a few francs. Just now he occupied a little closet not more than three-quarters full; and here he asked the concierge to enter.
He poured some brandy into two small wineglasses, put a teakettle on the fire, and sank into an arm-chair; then he said,—
"Well, M. Chevassat, what a terrible thing this is!"
His visitor had been well drilled by his wife, and said neither yes nor no; but the old merchant was a man of experience, and knew how to loosen his tongue.
"The most disagreeable thing about it," he said with an absent air, "is, that the doctor will report the matter to the police, and there will be an investigation."
Master Chevassat nearly dropped his glass.
"What? The police in the house? Well, good-by, then, to our lodgers; we are lost. Why did that stupid girl want to die, I wonder! But no doubt you are mistaken, my dear sir."
"No, I am not. But you go too fast. They will simply ask you who that girl is, how she supports herself, and where she lived before she came here."
"That is exactly what I cannot tell."
The dealer in old clothes seemed to be amazed; he frowned and said,—
"Halloo! that makes matters worse. How came it about that Miss Henrietta had rooms in your house?"
The concierge was evidently ill at ease; something was troubling him sorely.
"Oh! that is as clear as sunlight," he replied; "and, if you wish it, I'll tell you the story; you will see there is no harm done."
"Well, let us hear."
"Well, then, it was about a year ago this very day, when a gentleman came in, well dressed, an eyeglass stuck in his eye, impudent like a hangman's assistant, in fact a thoroughly fashionable young man. He said he had seen the notice that there was a room for rent up stairs, and wanted to see it. Of course I told him it was a wretched garret, unfit for people like him; but he insisted, and I took him up."
"To the room in which Miss Henrietta is now staying?"
"Exactly. I thought he would be disgusted; but no. He looked out of the window, tried the door if it would shut, examined the partition-wall, and at last he said, 'This suits me; I take the room.' And thereupon he hands me a twenty-franc piece to make it a bargain. I was amazed."
If M. Ravinet felt any interest in the story, he took pains not to show it; for his eyes wandered to and fro as if his thoughts were elsewhere, and he was heartily tired of the tedious account.
"And who is that fashionable young man?" he asked.
"Ah! that is more than I know, except that his name is Maxime."
That name made the old merchant jump as if a shower-bath had suddenly fallen upon his head. He changed color; and his small yellowish eyes had a strange look in them.
But he recovered promptly, so promptly, that his visitor saw nothing; and then he said in a tone of indifference,—
"The young man did not give you his family name?"
"But ought you not to have inquired?"
"Ah, there is the trouble! I did not do it."
Gradually, and by a great effort, Master Chevassat began to master his embarrassment. It looked as if he were preparing himself for the assault, and to get ready for the police-officer.
"I know it was wrong," he continued; "but you would not have acted differently in my place, my dear sir, I am sure. Just think! My room belonged to M. Maxime, for I had his money in my pocket. I asked him politely where he lived, and if there was any furniture to come. I caught it nicely. He laughed me in the face, and did not even let me finish my question. 'Do I look,' he said, 'like a man who lives in a place like this?' And when he saw I was puzzled, he went on to tell me that he took the room for a young person from the country, in whom he took an interest, and that the contract and the receipts for rent must all be made out in the name of Miss Henrietta. That was clear enough, wasn't it? Still it was my duty to know who Miss Henrietta was; so I asked him civilly. But he got angry, and told me that was none of my business, and that some furniture would be sent presently."
He stopped, waiting for his host to express his approbation by a word or a sign; but, as nothing came, he went on,—
"In fine, I did not dare to insist, and all was done as he wanted it done. That very day a dealer in second-hand furniture brought the pieces you have seen up stairs; and the day after, about eleven o'clock, Miss Henrietta herself appeared. She had not much baggage, I tell you; she brought every thing she owned in a little carpet-bag in her hand."
The old merchant was stooping over the fire as if his whole attention was given to the teakettle, in which the water was beginning to boil.
"It seems to me, my good friend," he said, "that you did not act very wisely. Still, if that is really all, I don't think they are likely to trouble you."
"What else could there be?"
"How do I know? But if that young damsel had been carried off by M. Maxime, if you were lending a hand in an elopement, I think you would be in a bad box. The law is pretty strict about it, in the case of a minor."
The concierge protested with a solemn air.
"I have told you the whole truth," he declared.
But Papa Ravinet did not by any means seem so sure of that.
"That is your lookout," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "Still, you may be sure they will ask you how it could happen that one of your tenants should fall into such a state of abject poverty without your giving notice to anybody."
"Why, in the first place, I do not wait upon my lodgers. They are free to do what they choose in their rooms."
"Quite right, Master Chevassat! quite right! So you did not know that M. Maxime no longer came to see Miss Henrietta?"
"He still came to see her."
In the most natural manner in the world, Papa Ravinet raised his arms to heaven, and exclaimed as if horror-struck,—
"What! is it possible? That handsome young man knew how the poor girl suffered? he knew that she was dying of hunger?"
Master Chevassat became more and more troubled. He began to see what the old merchant meant by his questions, and how unsatisfactory his answers were.
"Ah! you ask too many questions," he said at last. "It was not my duty to watch over M. Maxime. As for Miss Henrietta, as soon as she is able to move, the serpent! I tell you I'll send her off pretty quickly!"
The old merchant shook his head, and said in his softest voice,—
"My dear sir, you won't do that, because from today I'll pay the rent for her room. And, more than that, if you wish to oblige me, you will be very kind to the poor girl, you hear, and even respectful, if you please."
There was no misunderstanding the meaning of the word "oblige," from the manner in which he pronounced it; and yet he was about to enforce the recommendation, when a fretting voice exclaimed on the stairs,—
"Chevassat! where are you, Chevassat?"
"It's my wife," said the concierge.
And, delighted to get away, he said to Papa Ravinet—
"I understand; she shall be treated as politely as if she were the daughter of the owner of the house. But excuse me, I must attend to the door; they call me, and I must go down stairs."
He slipped out without waiting for an answer, and utterly unable to guess why the old merchant should take such a sudden interest in the lodger on the fifth floor.
"The rascal!" said Papa Ravinet to himself,—"the rascal!"
But he had found out what he wanted to know. He was alone, and he knew he had no time to lose.
Quickly he drew the teakettle from the fire; and, pulling out Miss Henrietta's two letters, he held the one that was addressed to M. Maxime de Brevan over the steam of the boiling water. In a moment the mucilage of the envelope was dissolved, and the letter could easily be opened without showing in any way that it had ever been broken open. And now the old man read the following words:—
"You are victorious, M. de Brevan. When you read this, I shall be no longer alive.
"You may raise your head again; you are relieved of all fears. Daniel can come back. I shall carry the secret of your infamy and your cowardice into the grave with me.
"And yet, no!
"I can pardon you, having but a few moments longer to live; but God will not pardon you. I—I shall be avenged. And, if it should require a miracle, that miracle will be done, so as to inform that honorable man who thought you were his friend, how and why the poor girl died whom he had intrusted to your honor. H."
The old man was furious.
"The honor of Maxime de Brevan!" he growled with a voice of intense hatred,—"the honor of Maxime de Brevan!"
But his terrible excitement did not keep him from manipulating the other letter, addressed to Count Ville-Handry, in the same manner. The operation was successful; and, without the slightest hesitation, he read:—
"Dear father,—Broken down with anxiety, and faint from exhaustion, I have waited till this morning for an answer to my humble letter, which I had written to you on my knees.
"You have never replied to it; you are inexorable. I see I must die. I shall die. Alas! I can hardly say I die willingly.
"I must appear very guilty in your eyes, father, that you should abandon me thus to the hatred of Sarah Brandon and her people. And yet—ah! I have suffered terribly. I have struggled hard before I could make up my mind to leave your house,—the house where my mother had died, where I had been so happy, and so tenderly beloved as a child by both of you. Ah, if you but knew!
"And yet it was so little I asked of you!—barely enough to bury my undeserved disgrace in a convent.
"Yes, undeserved, father; for I tell you at this hour, when no one utters a falsehood, if my reputation was lost, my honor was not lost."
Big tears rolled down the cheeks of the old man; and he said in a half-stifled voice,—
"Poor, poor child! And to think that for a whole year I have lived under the same roof with her, without knowing it. But I am here. I am still in time. Oh, what a friend chance can be when it chooses!"
Most assuredly not one of the inmates of the house would have recognized Papa Ravinet at this moment; he was literally transfigured. He was no longer the cunning dealer in second-hand articles, the old scamp with the sharp, vulgar face, so well known at all public sales, where he sat in the front rank, watching for good bargains, and keeping cool when all around him were in a state of fervent excitement.
The two letters he had just read had opened anew in his heart more than one badly-healed and badly-scarred wound. He was suffering intensely; and his pain, his wrath, and his hope of vengeance long delayed, gave to his features a strange expression of energy and nobility. With his elbows on the table, holding his head in his hands, and looking apparently into the far past, he seemed to call up the miseries of the past, and to trace out in the future the vague outlines of some great scheme. And as his thoughts began to overflow, so to say, he broke out in a strange, spasmodic monologue,—
"Yes," he murmured, "yes, I recognize you, Sarah Brandon! Poor child, poor child! Overcome by such horrible intrigues! And that Daniel, who intrusted her to the care of Maxime de Brevan—who is he? Why did she not write to him when she suffered thus? Ah, if she had trusted me! What a sad fate! And how can I ever hope to make her confide in me?"
An old clock struck seven, and the merchant was suddenly recalled to the present; he trembled in all his limbs.
"Nonsense!" he growled. "I was falling asleep; and that is what I cannot afford to do. I must go up stairs, and hear the child's confession."
Instantly, and with amazing dexterity, he replaced the letters in their envelopes, dried them, pasted them up again, and smoothed them down, till every trace of the steam had entirely disappeared. Then looking at his work with an air of satisfaction, he said,—
"That was not so badly done. An expert in the post-office would not suspect it. I may risk it."
And, thus re-assured, he rapidly mounted up to the fifth story; but there Mrs. Chevassat suddenly barred his way, coming down stairs in a manner which showed clearly that she had lain in wait for him.
"Well, my dear sir," she said with her sweetest manner: "so you have become Miss Henrietta's banker?"
"Yes; do you object to it?"
"Oh, not at all! It is none of my business, only"—
She stopped, smiling wickedly, and then added,—
"Only she is a prodigiously pretty girl; and I was just saying to myself, 'Upon my word, M. Ravinet's taste is not bad.'"
The merchant was on the point of giving her a pretty sharp, indignant reply; but he controlled himself, because he knew how important it was to mislead the woman; and, forcing himself to smile, he said,—
"You know I count upon your being discreet."
When he got up, he found that he ought, at least, to give credit to Mamma Chevassat and the two ladies from the first floor, for having employed their time well, and for having skilfully made use of the articles he had contributed. The room, a short time ago cold and bare, had an air of comfort about it now, which was delightful. On the bureau stood a lamp with a shade to prevent the light from hurting the patient's eyes; a bright fire blazed on the hearth; several old curtains had been hung before the window, one before the other, to replace for the time the missing panes; and on the table stood a teakettle, a china cup, and two small medicine-bottles.
Evidently the doctor had been here during Ravinet's absence. He had bled the poor girl, prescribed some medicines, and left again, with the assurance that nothing more was needed but perfect quiet.
In fact, there was no trace left of the sufferings and the terrible danger from which the patient had so marvellously escaped, except the deep pallor of her face. Stretched out at full-length on her comfortable bed with its thick mattresses and snow-white sheets, her head propped up high on a couple of pillows, she was breathing freely, as was easily seen by the steady, regular rising and falling of her bosom under the cover.
But life and consciousness had also brought back to her a sense of the horror of her position, and of her capacity for suffering.
Her brow resting on her arm, which was almost concealed by masses of golden hair, immovable, and her eyes fixed steadily upon infinite space, as if trying to pierce the darkness of the future, she would have looked like a statue of sorrow rather than of resignation, but for the big tears which were slowly dropping down her cheeks.
Her exquisite beauty looked almost ethereal under the circumstances; and Papa Ravinet, when he saw her, remained fixed by admiration, standing upon the threshold of the open door. But it occurred to him at once that he might be looked upon as a spy, and that his feelings would be sure to be misinterpreted. He coughed, therefore, to give warning, and then stepped in.
At the noise he made, Henrietta roused herself. When she saw the old merchant, she said in a faint, feeble voice,—
"Ah! it is you, sir. These kind ladies have told me all. You have saved my life." Then, shaking her head, she added,—
"You have rendered me a sad service, sir."
She uttered these words so simply, but in a tone of such harrowing grief, that Papa Ravinet was overcome.
"Unhappy child!" he exclaimed, "you do not think of trying it over again?"
She made no answer. It was as good as if she had said, Yes.
"Why, you must be mad!" said the old man, excited almost beyond control. "Only twenty years old, and give up life! That has never been done before. You are suffering now; but you can hardly imagine what compensation Providence may have in store for you hereafter"—
She interrupted him by a gesture, and said,—
"There was no future for me, sir, when I sought refuge in death."
"Oh, don't try to convince me, sir! What I did, I had to do. I felt how life was leaving me, and I only wished to shorten the agony. I had not eaten any thing for three days when I lit that charcoal. Even to get the charcoal, I had to risk a falsehood, and cheat the woman who let me have it in credit. And yet God knows I was not wanting in courage. I would have done the coarsest, hardest work cheerfully, joyously. But how did I know how to get work? I asked Mrs. Chevassat a hundred times to obtain employment for me; but she always laughed at me; and, when I begged hard, she said"—
She stopped; and her face became crimson with shame. She dared not repeat what the wife of the concierge had said. But she added in a voice trembling with womanly shame and deep indignation,—
"Ah, that woman is a wicked creature!"
The old merchant was probably fully aware of the character of Mrs. Chevassat. He guessed only too readily what kind of advice she had given this poor girl of twenty, who had turned to her for help in her great suffering. He uttered an oath which would have startled even that estimable woman, and then said warmly,—
"I understand, Miss Henrietta, I understand. Do you think I don't know what you must have suffered? I know poverty, as well as you. I can understand your purpose but too well. Who would not give up life itself when everybody abandons us? But I do not understand your despair, now that circumstances have changed."
"Alas, sir, how have they changed?"
"How? What do you mean? Don't you see me? Do you think I would leave you, after having been just in time to save your life? That would be nice! No, my dear child, compose yourself; poverty shall not come near you again, I'll see to that. You want somebody to advise you, to defend you; and here I am; if you have enemies, let them beware! Come, smile again, and think of the good times a-coming."
But she did not smile; she looked frightened, almost stupefied. Making a supreme effort, she looked fixedly at the old man to see if she could read in his face what were his real thoughts. He, on his part, was seriously troubled by his failure to inspire her with confidence.
"Do you doubt my promises?" he asked her.
She shook her head; and uttering her words one by one, as if to give them greater weight, she said,—
"I beg your pardon, sir. I do not doubt you. But I cannot understand why you should offer me your kind protection."
Papa Ravinet affected a greater surprise than he really felt, and said, raising his hands to heaven,—
"Great God! she mistrusts my good will."
"Pray what can you have to fear from me? I am an old man; you are almost a child. I come to help you. Is not that perfectly natural, and quite simple?"
She said nothing; and he remained a few moments buried in thought, as if trying to find out her motive for refusing his help. Suddenly he cried out, beating his forehead,—
"Ah, I have it. That woman Chevassat has talked to you about me, no doubt. Ah, the viper! I'll crush her one of these days! Come, let us be frank; what has she told you?"
He hoped she would say a word at least. He waited; but nothing came.
Then he broke forth, with a vehemence scarcely controlled, and in words very unexpected from a man like him,—
"Well, I will tell you what the old thief has told you. She told you Papa Ravinet was a dangerous, ill-reputed man, who carried on in the dark all kind of suspicious trades. She told you the old scamp was a usurer, who knew no law, and kept no promise; whose only principle was profit; who dealt in every thing with everybody, selling to-day old iron in junk-shops, and to-morrow cashmere shawls to fashionable ladies; and who lent money on imaginary securities—the talent of men and the beauty of women. In fine, she told you that it was a piece of good-fortune for a woman to be under my protection, and you knew it was a disgrace."
He stopped, as if to give the poor girl time to form her judgment, and then went on more calmly,—
"Let us suppose there is such a Papa Ravinet as she has described. But there is another one, whom but few people know, who has been sorely tried by misfortune; and he is the one who now offers his aid to you."
There is no surer way to make people believe in any virtue we have, or wish to appear to have, than to accuse ourselves of bad qualities, or even vices, which we do not have. But, if the old man had calculated upon this policy, he failed signally. Henrietta remained as icy as ever, and said,—
"Believe me, sir, I am exceedingly obliged to you for all you have done for me, and for your effort to convince me."
The poor man looked disappointed.
"In fact, you reject my offers, because I do not explain them to you by any of the usual motives. But what can I tell you? Suppose I should say to you that I have a daughter who has secretly left me, so that I do not know what has become of her, and that her memory makes me anxious to serve you. May I not have said to myself, that perhaps she is struggling, just as you have done, with poverty; that she also has been abandoned by her lover?"
The poor girl turned deadly pale as he spoke thus, and interrupted him eagerly, raising herself on her pillows,—
"You are mistaken, sir. My position here may justify such suspicions, I know; but I have no lover."
"I believe you; I swear I believe you. But, if that is so, how did you get here? and how were you reduced to such extreme suffering?"
At last Papa Ravinet had touched the right chord. The poor girl was deeply moved; and the tears started in her eyes. She said in a low voice,—
"There are secrets which cannot be revealed."
"Not even when life and honor depend on them?"
"Oh, pray do not insist!"
If Henrietta had known the old merchant, she would have read in his eyes the satisfaction which he felt. A moment before he had despaired of ever gaining her confidence; now he felt almost sure of success. The time seemed to him to have come to strike a decisive blow.
"I have tried my best to win your confidence, I confess; but it was solely in your own interest. If it had been otherwise, do you think I should have asked you these questions, instead of finding out every thing by simply tearing a piece of paper?"
The poor girl could not retain a cry of terror.
"You mean my letters?"
"I have both."
"Ah! That is why the ladies who nursed me looked for them everywhere in vain."
Instead of any other answer, he drew them from his pocket, and laid them on the bed with an air of injured innocence. To all appearances, the envelopes had not been touched. Henrietta glanced at them, and then, holding out her hand to the old man, she said,—
"I thank you, sir!"
He did not stir; but he felt that this false evidence of honesty had helped him more than all his eloquence. He hastily added,—
"After all, I could not resist the temptation to read the directions, and to draw my own conclusions. Who is Count Ville-Handry? I suppose he is your father. And M. Maxime de Brevan? No doubt he is the young man who called to see you so often. Ah, if you would but trust me! If you but knew how a little experience of the world often helps us to overcome the greatest difficulties!"
He was evidently deeply moved.
"However, wait till you are perfectly well again before you come to any decision. Consider the matter carefully. You need not tell me any thing else but what is absolutely necessary for me to know in order to advise you."
"Yes, indeed! In that way I may"—
"Well, I'll wait, why, as long as you want me to wait,—two days, ten days."
"Only, I pray you, promise me solemnly that you will give up all idea of suicide."
"I promise you solemnly I will."
Papa Ravinet's eyes shone with delight; and he exclaimed joyously,—
"Done! I'll come up again to-morrow; for, to tell the truth, I am tired to death, and must go and lie down."
But he told a fib; for he did not go back to his rooms. In spite of the wretched weather, he left the house; and, as soon as he was in the street, he hid himself in a dark corner, from which he could watch the front-door of the house. He remained there a long time, exposed to wind and rain, uttering now and then a low oath, and stamping with his feet to keep himself warm. At last, just as it struck eleven, a hack stopped at No. 23. A young man got out, rang the bell, and entered.
"He is Maxime de Brevan," murmured the old man. Then he added in a savage voice,—
"I knew he would come, the scoundrel! to see if the charcoal had done its work."
But the same moment the young man came out again, and jumped into the carriage, which quickly drove off.
"Aha!" laughed the merchant. "No chance for you, my fine fellow! You have lost your game, and you'll have to try your luck elsewhere; and this time I am on hand. I hold you fast; and, instead of one bill to pay, there will be two now."
Generally it is in novels only that unknown people suddenly take it into their heads to tell their whole private history, and to confide to their neighbors even their most important and most jealously-guarded secrets. In real life things do not go quite so fast.
Long after the old merchant had left Henrietta, she lay pondering, and undecided as to what she should do on the next day. In the first place, she asked herself who this odd man could be, who had spoken of himself as a dangerous and suspicious person. Was he really what he appeared to be? The girl almost doubted it. Although wholly inexperienced, she still had been struck by certain astounding changes in Papa Ravinet. Thus, whenever he became animated, his carriage, his gestures, and his manners, contrasted with his country-fashioned costume, as if he had for the moment forgotten his lesson. At the same time his language, usually careless and incorrect, and full of slang terms belonging to his trade, became pure and almost elegant.
What was his business? Had he been a dealer in second-hand articles before he became a tenant in No. 23 Grange Street, three years ago? One might very easily have imagined that Papa Ravinet (was that his real name?) had before that been in a very different position. And why not? Is not Paris the haven in which all shipwrecked sailors of society seek a refuge? Does not Paris alone offer to all wretched and guilty people a hiding-place, where they can begin a new life, lost and unknown in the vast multitude? What discoveries might be made there? How many persons, once brilliant lights in the great world, and then, of a sudden, sought for in vain by friend and foe, might be found there again, disguised in strange costumes, and earning a livelihood in most curious ways! Why should not the old merchant be one of this class?
But, even if this were so, it would not have satisfactorily explained to Henrietta the eagerness of Papa Ravinet to serve her, nor his perseverance in offering her his advice. Was it merely from charity that he did all this? Alas! Christian charity is not often so pressing.
Did he know who Henrietta was? Had he at any period of her life come in contact with her? or had his interests ever been mixed up with hers? Was he anxious to make a return for some kindness shown to him? or did he count upon some reward in the future? Who could tell?
"Would it not be the height of imprudence to put myself in the power of this man?" thought the poor girl.
If, on the other hand, she rejected his offers, she fell back into that state of forlorn wretchedness, from which she had only been able to save herself by suicide.
This view was all the more urgent, as the poor child, like all persons who have been rescued from death only after having exhausted their sufferings, now began to cling to life with an almost desperate affection. It seemed as if the contact with death had wiped out at once all the memory of the past, and all the threats of the future.
"O Daniel!" she said to herself, trembling all over,—"O Daniel! my only friend upon earth, what would you suffer if you knew that you lost me forever by the very means you chose to secure my safety!"
To refuse the assistance offered her by Papa Ravinet would have required an amount of energy which she did not possess. The voice of reflection continually said to her,—
"The old man is your only hope."
It never occurred to her to conceal the truth from Papa Ravinet, or to deceive him by a fictitious story. She only thought how she could tell him the truth without telling him all; how she could confess enough to enable him to serve her, and yet not to betray a secret which she held more dear than her happiness, her reputation, and life itself.
Unfortunately, she was the victim of one of those intrigues which are formed and carried out within the narrow circle of a family,—intrigues of the most abominable character, which people suspect, and often even know perfectly well, and which yet remain unpunished, because they cannot be reached by the law.
Henrietta's father, Count Ville-Handry, was in 1845 one of the wealthiest land-owners of the province of Anjou. The good people near Rosiers and Saint Mathurin were fond of pointing out to strangers the massive towers of Ville-Handry, a magnificent castle half hid among noble old woods on the beautiful slopes of the bluffs which line the Loire.
"There," they said, "lives a true gentleman, a little too proud, perhaps, but, nevertheless, a true gentleman."
For contrary to the usual state of things in the country, where envy is apt to engender hatred, the count was quite popular, in spite of his title and his large fortune. He was at that time about forty years old, quite tall and good-looking, solemn and courteous, obliging, although reserved, and very good-natured as long as no one spoke in his presence of the church or the reigning family, the nobility or the clergy, of his hounds or the wines of his vineyards, or of various other subjects on which he had what he chose to consider his "own opinions."
As he spoke but rarely, and said little at the time, he said fewer foolish things than most people, and thus obtained the reputation of being clever and well-informed, of which he was very proud and very careful. He lived freely, almost profusely, and thus put aside every year but little more than about half his income. He had all his clothes made in Paris, was proud of his foot, and always wore gloves.
His house was kept handsomely; and his gardens cost him a good deal of money. He kept a pack of hounds, and six hunters. Finally, he kept half a dozen lazy servants in the house, whose gorgeous liveries, with the family coat-of-arms, were a source of perpetual wonder at Saint Mathurin.
He would have been perfect, but for his passion for hunting.
As soon as the season opened, he was sure to be found, on foot or on horseback, crossing the stubblefields, jumping over hedges, or floundering in the swamps. This he carried so far, that the ladies of the neighborhood, who had daughters, blamed him to his face for his imprudence, and scolded him for risking his precious health so recklessly.
This nobleman, forty years old, and enjoying all that heart could desire, was unmarried. And yet he had not lacked opportunities to remedy the evil. There was not a good mother for twenty miles around who did not covet this prize for her daughter,—thirty thousand dollars a year, and a great man.
He had only to appear at a ball in the provincial towns, and he was the hero. Mothers and daughters kept their sweetest smiles for him; and kind welcomes were offered on all sides. But all these manoeuvres had been fruitless; he had escaped from all snares, and resisted the most cunning devices.
Why was he so much opposed to marriage? His friends found the explanation in a certain person, half housekeeper, half companion, who lived in the castle, and was very pretty and very designing. But there are malicious tongues everywhere.
The next year, however, an event occurred which was calculated to give some ground to these idle, gossiping tales. One fine morning in the month of July, 1847, the lady died suddenly of apoplexy. Six weeks later, a report began to spread that Count Ville-Handry was going to be married.
The report was well founded. The count did marry. The fact could not be doubted any longer, when the banns were read, and the announcement appeared in the official journal. And whom do you think he married? The daughter of a poor widow, the Baroness Rupert, who lived in great poverty at a place called Rosiers, having nothing but a small pension derived from her husband, who had been a colonel of artillery.
If she had, at least, been of good and ancient family; if she had been, at least, a native of the province!
But no. No one knew exactly who she was, or where she came from. Some people said the colonel had married her in Austria; others, in Sweden. Her husband, they added, had been made a baron after the fashion of others, who dubbed themselves such during the first empire, and had no right to call himself noble.
On the other hand, Pauline de Rupert, then twenty-three years old, was in the full bloom of youth, and marvellously beautiful. Moreover, she had, up to this time, been looked upon as a sensible, modest girl, very bright and very sweet withal; in fact, possessed of every quality and virtue that can make life happy, and add to the fame of a great house.
But now, not a cent, no dower, not even a trousseau!
Everybody was amazed; and a perfect storm of indignation arose in the neighborhood. Was it possible, was it natural, that a great nobleman like the count should end thus miserably, ridiculously? that he should marry a penniless girl, an adventuress,—he who had had the pick and choice of the richest and greatest ladies of the land?
Was Count Ville-Handry a fool? or was he only insane about Miss Rupert? Was she not perhaps, after all, a designing hypocrite, who had very quietly, in her retired home, woven the net in which the lion of Anjou was now held captive?
People would have been less astonished, if they had known, that, for years, a great intimacy had existed between the mother of the bride and the housekeeper at the castle. But, on the other hand, this fact might have led to very different surmises still.
However that might be, the count was not suffered long to remain in doubt as to the entire change of opinion in the neighborhood. He saw it as soon as he paid the usual visits in the town of Angers, and at the houses of the nobility near him. No more affectionate smiles, no tender welcomes, no little white hands stealthily seeking his. The doors that formerly seemed to fly open at his mere approach now turned but slowly on their hinges; some remained even closed, the owners being reported not at home, although the count knew perfectly well that they were in.
One very noble and very pious old lady, who gave the keynote to society, had said in the most decided manner,—
"For my part, I shall never receive at my house a damsel who used to give music-lessons to my nieces, even if she had caught and entrapped a Bourbon!"
The charge was true. Pauline, in order to provide her mother with some of the comforts which are almost indispensable to old people, had given lessons on the piano in the neighborhood. Her terms had been low enough; now they blamed her for the sacrifice. They would have blamed her for the noblest of virtues; for all the blame was laid upon her. When people met her, they looked away, so as not to have to bow to her. Even when she was leaning on the count's arm, there were persons who spoke very kindly to him, and did not say a word to his wife, as if they had not seen her, or she had not existed at all. This impertinence went so far, that at last Count Ville-Handry, one day, almost beside himself with anger, seized one of his neighbors by the collar of his coat, shook him violently, and shouted out to him,—
"Do you see the countess, my wife, sir? How shall I chastise you to cure you of your near-sightedness?"
Foreseeing a duel, the impertinent man made his excuses; and his experience put the rest of them on their guard. But their opinions remained unchanged; open war only changed into secret opposition, that was all.
Fate, however, always more kind than man, held a reward in store for Count Ville-Handry, which amply repaid him for his heroism in marrying a poor girl. An uncle of his wife's, a banker at Dresden, died, and left his "beloved niece Pauline" half a million dollars. This immensely wealthy man, who had never assisted his sister in her troubles, and who would have disinherited the daughter of a soldier of fortune, had been flattered by the idea of writing in his last will the name of his niece, the "high and mighty Countess Ville-Handry."
This unexpected piece of good-fortune ought to have delighted the young wife. She might now have had her vengeance on all her miserable slanderers, and enjoyed a boundless popularity. But far from it. She had never appeared more sad than on the day when the great news reached her.
For on that very day she for the first time cursed her marriage. A voice within her warned her that she ought never to have yielded to the entreaties and the orders of her mother. An excellent daughter, as she was to become the best of mothers, and the most faithful of wives, she had sacrificed herself. And now an accident made all her sacrifices useless, and punished her for having done her duty.
Ah, why had she not resisted, at least for the purpose of gaining time?
For when she was a girl she had dreamed of a very different future. Long before giving herself to the count, she had, of her own free will, given her heart to another. She had bestowed her first and warmest affections upon a young man who was only two or three years older than she,—Peter Champcey, the son of one of those marvellously rich farmers who live in the valley of the Loire.
He worshipped her. Unfortunately one obstacle had risen between them from the beginning,—Pauline's poverty. It could not be expected that those keen, thrifty peasants, Champcey's father and mother, would ever permit one of their sons—they had two—to commit the folly of making a love-match.
They had worked hard for their children. The oldest, Peter, was to be a lawyer; the other, Daniel, who wanted to become a sailor, was studying day and night to prepare for his examination. And the old couple were not a little proud of these "gentlemen," their sons. They told everybody who would listen, that, in return for the costly education they were giving them, they expected them to marry large fortunes.
Peter knew his parents so well, that he never mentioned Pauline to them.
"When I am of age," he said to himself, "it will be a different matter."
Alas! Why had not Pauline's mother waited at least till then?
Poor young girl! On the day on which she entered the castle of Ville- Handry, she had sworn she would bury this love of hers so deep in the innermost recesses of her heart, that it should never come up and trouble her thoughts. And she had kept her word.
But now it suddenly broke forth, more ardent, more powerful, than ever, till it well-nigh overcame her, and crushed her—sweetly and sadly, like the memory of lost days, and at the same time cruel and heart-rending, like bitter remorse.
What had become of him? When he had heard that she was going to marry the count, he had written to her a letter full of despair, in which he overwhelmed her with irony and contempt. Later, whether he had forgotten her or not, he also had married; and the two lovers who had once hoped to pursue their way through life leaning one upon the other now went each their own way.
For long hours the poor young wife struggled in the solitude of her chamber against these ghosts of the past which crowded around her. But, if ever a guilty thought called up a blush on her brow, she quickly triumphed over it. Like a brave, loyal woman, she renewed her oath, and swore to devote herself entirely to her husband. He had rescued her from abject poverty, and bestowed upon her his fortune and his name; and she owed it to him in return to make him happy.
She needed all her courage, all her energy, to fulfil her vows; for the count's character lay fully open before her now, after two years of married life. She knew precisely how narrow his mind was, how empty his thoughts, and how cold his heart. She had long since found out that the brilliant man of the world, whom everybody considered so clever, was in reality an absolute nullity, incapable of any thought that was not suggested to him by others, and at the same time full of overweening self-esteem, and absurdly obstinate.
The worst, however, was, that the count was very near hating his wife. He had heard so many people say that she was not his equal, that he finally believed it himself. Besides, he blamed her for the prestige which he had lost.
An ordinary woman would have shrunk from the difficult task which Pauline had assumed, and would have thought that nothing more could be expected of her than to keep sacred her marriage-vows. But the countess was not an ordinary woman. Full of resignation, she meant to do more than her duty.
Fortunately, a cradle standing by her bedside made the task somewhat easier. She had a daughter, her Henrietta; and upon that darling curly head she built a thousand castles in the air. From that moment she roused herself from the languor to which she had given way for nearly two years, and set to work to study the count with that amazing sagacity which a high stake is apt to give.
A remark accidentally made by her husband cast a new light upon her fate. One morning, when they had finished breakfast, he said,—
"Ah! Nancy was very fond of you. The day before she died, when she knew she was going, she made me promise her to marry you."
This Nancy was the count's former housekeeper.
After this awkward speech, the poor countess saw clearly enough what position that woman had really held at the castle. She understood how, modestly keeping in the background, and sheltering herself under the very humility of her position, she had been in truth the intellect, the energy, and the strong will, of her master. Her influence over him had, besides, been so powerful, that it had survived her, and that she had been obeyed even in the grave.
Although cruelly humiliated by this confession of her husband's, the countess had sufficient self-control not to blame him for his weakness. She said to herself,—
"Well, be it so. For his happiness and for our peace, I will stoop to play the part Nancy played."
This was more easily said than done; for the count was not the man to be led openly, nor was he willing to listen to good advice, simply because it was good. Irritable, jealous, and despotic, like all weak men, he dreaded nothing so much as what he called an insult to his authority. He meant to be master everywhere, in every thing, and forever. He was so sensitive on this point, that his wife had only to show the shadow of a purpose of her own, and he went instantly to work to oppose and prohibit it.
"I am not a weather-cock!" was one of his favorite sayings.
Poor fellow! He did not know that those who turn to the opposite side of the wind, nevertheless turn, as well as those who go with the wind. The countess knew it; and this knowledge made her strong. After working for many months patiently and cautiously, she thought she had learnt the secret of managing him, and that henceforth she would be able to control his will whenever she was in earnest.
The opportunity to make the experiment came very soon. Although the great people of the neighborhood had generally come round and treated her quite fairly now, especially since she had become an heiress, the countess found her position unpleasant, and was anxious to leave the country. It recalled to her, besides, too many painful memories. There were certain roads and lanes which she could never pass without a pang at her heart. On the other hand, it was well known that the count had sworn he would end his life in the province. He hated large cities; and the mere idea of leaving his castle, where every thing was arranged to suit his habits, made him seriously angry.
People would not believe it, therefore, when report first arose that he was going to leave Ville-Handry, that he had bought a town-house in Paris and that he would shortly go there to establish himself permanently in the capital.
"It was much against the will of the countess," he said, full of delight at her disappointment. "She would not agree to it at all; but I am not a weather-cock. I insisted on having my way, and she yielded at last."
So that in the latter part of October, in 1851, the Count and the Countess Ville-Handry moved into the magnificent house in Varennes Street, a princely mansion, which, however, did not cost them more than a third of its actual value, as they happened to buy at a time when real estate was very low.
But it had been comparatively child's play to bring the count to Paris; the real difficulty was to keep him there. Nothing was more likely than that, deprived of the active exercise and the fresh air he enjoyed in the country, he should miss his many occupations and duties, and either succumb to weariness, or seek refuge in dissipation. His wife foresaw this difficulty, and looked for an object that might give the count abundant employment and amusement.
Already before leaving home she had dropped in his mind the seed of that passion, which, in a man of fifty, can take the place of all others,—ambition. Thus he came to Paris with the secret desire and the hope of becoming a leader in politics, and making his mark in some great affair of state.
The countess however, aware of the dangers which beset a man who ventures upon such slippery ground, determined first to examine the condition of things so as to be able to warn him in time. Fortunately her fortune and her name were of great service to her in this enterprise. She managed to assemble at her house all the celebrities of the day. Her relations helped her; and soon her Wednesdays and Saturdays became famous in Paris. People exerted themselves to the utmost to obtain an invitation to her state dinners, or her smaller parties on Sundays. Her house in Varennes Street was looked upon as neutral ground, where political intrigues and party strife were alike tabooed. The countess spent a whole winter in making her observations.
The world, seeing her sit modestly by her fireside, thought she was wholly occupied with her pretty daughter, Henrietta, who was always playing or reading by her side. But she was all the time listening, and trying, with all her mental powers, to understand the great questions of the day. She studied characters; watched the passions of some, and discovered the cunning tricks of others, ever anxious to find out what enemies she would have to fear, and what allies to conciliate. Like one of those ill-taught professors who study in the morning what they mean to teach in the afternoon, she prepared herself for the lessons which she soon meant to give. Fortunately her apprenticeship was short, thanks to her superior intellect, her womanly cleverness, and rare talents which no one suspected.
She soon reaped the fruit of her labors.
The next winter the count, who had so far kept aloof from politics, came out with his opinions. He soon made his mark, aided by his fine appearance, his elegant manners, and imperturbable self-possession. He spoke in public, and made an impression by his good common-sense. He advised others, and they were struck by his sagacity. He had soon enthusiastic partisans, and, of course, as violent adversaries. His friends encouraged him to become the leader of his party; and he worked day and night to achieve that end.
"Unfortunately I have to pay for it at home," he said to his intimate friends; "for my wife is one of those timid women who cannot understand that men are made for the excitement of public life. I should be still in the province, if I had listened to her."
She enjoyed her work in quiet delight. The greater the success of her husband in the world, the prouder she became of her own usefulness to him. Her feelings were very much those of a dramatic poet who hears the applause given to the characters which he has created.
But there was this wonderful feature in her work,—that nobody suspected her; no one, not even her own child. She wanted Henrietta, as little as the world, to know what she was to her husband; and she taught her not only to love him as her father, but to respect and admire him as a man of eminence. Of course, the count was the very last man to suspect any thing. He might have been told all, and he would have believed nothing.
He fancied he had discovered himself the whole line of proceeding which his wife had so carefully traced out for him. In the full sincerity of his heart, he believed he had composed and written out the speeches which she drew up for him; and the articles for the newspapers, and the letters, which she dictated, appeared to him all to have sprung from his own fertile brains. He was even sometimes surprised at the want of good sense in his wife, and pointed out to her, quite ironically, that the steps from which she tried hardest to dissuade him were the most successful he took. But no irony could turn the countess from the path which she had traced out for herself; nor did she ever allow a word or even a smile to escape her, that might have betrayed her secret. When her husband became sarcastic, she bowed her head, and said nothing. But, the more he gloried in his utter nullity, the more she delighted in her work, and found ample compensation in the approval of her own conscience.
The count had been so exceedingly good as to take her when she was penniless; she owed him the historic name she bore and a large fortune; but, in return, she had given him, and without his being aware of it, a position of some eminence. She had made him happy in the only way in which a small and ordinary man could be made happy,—by gratifying his vanity.
Now she was no longer under obligations to him.
"Yes," she said to herself, "we are quits, fairly quits!"
Now also, she reproached herself no longer for the long hours during which her thoughts, escaping from the control of her will, had turned to the man of her early choice.
Poor fellow! She had been his evil star.
His life had been imbittered from the day on which he found himself forsaken by her whom he loved better than life itself. He had given up every thing.
His parents had "hunted up" an heiress, as they called it, and he had married her dutifully. But the good old people had been unlucky. The bride, chosen among a thousand, had brought their son a fortune of a hundred thousand dollars; but she was a bad woman. And after eight years of wretched, intolerable married life, Peter Champcey had shot himself, unable to bear any longer his domestic misfortunes, and the infidelity of his wife.
He had, however, avoided committing this crime at Angers, where he held a high official position. He had gone to Rosiers, the house formerly occupied by Pauline's mother; and there, in a narrow lane, his body was found by some peasants coming home from market. The ball had so fearfully disfigured his face, that at first no one recognized him; and the accident made a terrible sensation.
The countess heard of it first through her husband. He could not understand, he said, how a man in good position, with a bright future before him, and a large income to support him, could thus kill himself.
"And to choose such a strange place for his suicide!" he added. "It is evident the man was insane."
But the countess did not hear this. She had fainted. She understood but too well why Peter had wished to die in that lane overshadowed by old elm-trees.
"I killed him," she thought, "I killed him!"
The blow was so sudden and so severe, that she came near dying. Fortunately her mother died nearly at the same time; and this misfortune helped to explain her utter prostration and deep grief.
Her mother had been gradually fading away, after having had all she desired, and living in real luxury during her last years. Her selfishness was so intense, that she never became aware of the cruelty with which she had sacrificed her daughter.
Sacrificed, however, she really had been; for never did woman suffer what the countess endured from the day on which her lover's suicide added bitter remorse to all her former grief. What would have become of her, if her child had not bound her to life! But she resolved to live; she felt that she was bound to live for Henrietta's sake.
Thus she struggled on quite alone, for she had not a soul in whom she could confide, when one afternoon, as she was going down stairs, a servant came to tell her that there was a young man in naval uniform below, who desired to have the honor of waiting upon her.
The servant handed her his card; she took it, and read,—
It was Daniel, Peter's brother. Pale as death, the countess turned as if to escape.
"What must I say?" asked the servant, rather surprised at the emotion shown by his mistress.
The poor woman felt as if she was going to faint.
"Show him up," she replied in a scarcely audible voice,—"show him up."
When she looked up again, there stood before her a young man, twenty- three or twenty-four years old, with a frank and open face, and clear, bright eyes, beaming with intelligence and energy.
The countess pointed at a chair near her; for she could not have uttered a word to save her daughter's life.
He could not help noticing her embarrassment; but he did not guess the cause. Peter had never mentioned Pauline's name in his father's house.
So he sat down, and explained why he came, showing neither embarrassment nor forwardness.
As soon as he had graduated at the Naval Academy, he had been made a midshipman on board "The Formidable," and there he was still. A younger man had recently been wrongly promoted over him; and he had asked for leave of absence to appeal to the secretary of the navy. He felt quite sure of the justice of his claims; but he also knew that strong recommendations never spoil a good cause. In fact, he hoped that Count Ville-Handry, of whose kindness and great influence he had heard much, would consent to indorse his claims.
Gradually, and while listening to him, the countess recovered her calmness.
"My husband will be happy to serve a countryman of his," she replied; "and he will tell you so himself, if you will be kind enough to wait for him, and stay to dinner."
Daniel did stay. At table he was placed by the side of Henrietta, who was then fifteen years old; and the countess, seeing these two young and handsome people side by side, was suddenly struck with an idea which seemed to her nothing less than inspiration from on high. Why might she not intrust the future happiness of her daughter to the brother of the poor man who had loved her so dearly? Thus she might make some amends for her own conduct, and show some respect to his memory.
"Yes," she said to herself that night, before falling asleep, "it must be so. Daniel shall be Henrietta's husband."
Thus it came about, that, only a fortnight later, Count Ville-Handry said to one of his intimate friends, pointing out Daniel,—
"That young Champcey is a very remarkable young man; he has a great future before him. And one of these days, when he is a lieutenant, and a few years older, if it should so happen that he liked Henrietta, and asked me for my consent, I should not say no. The countess might think and say of it what she chooses, I am master."
After that time Daniel became, unfortunately, a constant visitor at the house in Varennes Street.
He had not only obtained ample satisfaction at headquarters, but, by the powerful influence of certain high personages, he had been temporarily assigned to duty in the bureau of the navy department, with the promise of a better position in active service hereafter.
Thus Daniel and Henrietta saw a great deal of each other, and, to all appearances, began to love each other.
"O God!" thought the countess, "why are they not a few years older?"
The poor lady had for some months been troubled by dismal presentiments. She felt as if she would not live long; and she trembled at the idea of leaving her child without any other protector but the count.
If Henrietta had at least known the truth, and, instead of admiring her father as a man of superior ability, learned to mistrust his judgment! A hundred times the countess was on the point of revealing her secret. Alas! her great delicacy always kept her from doing so.
One night, as she returned from a great ball, she suddenly was seized with vertigo. She did not think much of it, but sent for a cup of tea.
When it came, she was standing before the fireplace, undoing her hair; but, instead of taking it, she suddenly raised her hand to her throat, uttered a hoarse sound, and fell back.
They raised her up. In an instant the whole house was alive. They sent for the doctors. All was in vain.
The Countess Ville-Handry had died from disease of the heart.
Henrietta, roused by the noise all over the house, the voices in the passages, and the steps on the staircase, and suspecting that some accident had happened, had rushed at once into her mother's room.
There she had heard the doctors utter the fatal words,—
"All is over!"
There were five or six of them in the room; and one of them, his eyes swollen from sleeplessness, and overcome with fatigue, had drawn the count into a corner, and, pressing his hands, repeated over and over again,—
"Courage, my dear sir, courage!"
He, overcome, with downcast eye, and cold perspiration on his pallid brow, did not understand him; for he continued to stammer incessantly,—
"It is nothing, I hope. Did you not say it was nothing?"
There are misfortunes so terrible, so overwhelming in their suddenness, that the stunned mind refuses to believe them, and denies their genuineness in spite of their actual presence.
How could any one imagine or comprehend that the countess, who but a moment ago was standing there full of life, in perfect health, and the whole vigor of her years, apparently perfectly happy, smiling, and beloved by all,—how could one conceive that she had all at once ceased to exist?
They had laid her on her bed in her ball costume,—a blue satin dress trimmed with lace. The flowers were still in her hair; and the blow had come with such suddenness, that, even in death, she retained the appearance of life; she was still warm, her skin transparent, and her limbs supple. Even her eyes, still wide open, retained their expression, and betrayed the last sensation that had filled her heart,—terror. It looked as if she had had at that last moment a revelation of the future which her too great cautiousness had prepared for her daughter.
"My mother is not dead; oh, no! she cannot be dead!" exclaimed Henrietta. And she went from one doctor to the other, urging them, beseeching them, to find some means—
What were they doing there, looking so blank, instead of acting? Were they not going to restore her,—they whose business it was to cure people, and who surely had saved a number of people? They turned away from her, distressed by her terrible grief, expressing their inability to help by a gesture; and then the poor girl went back to the bed, and, bending over her mother, watched with a painfully bewildered air for her return to life. It seemed to her as if she felt that noble heart still beat under her hand, and as if those lips, sealed forever by death, must speak again to re-assure her.
They attempted to take her away from that heartrending sight; they begged her to go to her room; but she insisted upon staying. They tried to remove her by force; but she clung to the bed, and vowed that they should tear her to pieces sooner than make her leave her mother.
At last, however, the truth broke upon her. She sank down upon her knees by the side of the bed, hiding her face in the drapery, and repeating with fierce sobs,—
"My mother, my darling mother!"
It was nearly morning, and the pale dawn was stealing into the room, when at last some sisters of charity came, who had been sent for; and then a couple of priests; a little later (it was towards the end of January) one of the count's friends appeared, who undertook all those sickening preparations which our civilization demands in such cases. On the next day the funeral took place.
More than two hundred persons called to condole with the count, twenty-five or thirty ladies came and kissed Henrietta, calling her their poor dear child.
Then horses were heard in the court-yard, coachmen quarrelling; orders were given; and at last the hearse rolled away solemnly—and that was all.
Henrietta wept and prayed in her chamber.
Late in the day, the count and Henrietta sat down at table alone for the first time in their lives; but they did not eat a morsel. How could they do it, seeing before them the empty seat, once occupied by her who was the life of the whole house, and now never to be filled again?
And thus, for a long time, their meals were a steady reminder of their loss. During the day they were seen wandering about the house, without any apparent purpose, as if looking or hoping for something to happen.
But there was another true and warm heart, far from that house, which had been sorely wounded by the death of the countess. Daniel had loved her like a mother; and in his heart a mysterious voice warned him, that, in losing her, he had well-nigh lost Henrietta.
He had called several times at the house of mourning; but it was only a fortnight later that he was admitted. When Henrietta saw him, she felt sorry she had not let him come in before. He had apparently suffered as much as she; he looked pale; and his eyes were red.
They remained for some time seated opposite each other, without saying a word, but deeply moved, and feeling instinctively that their common grief bound them more firmly than ever to each other.
The count, in the meantime, walked up and down in the large room. He was so much changed, that one might have failed to recognize him. There was a strange want of steadiness in his movements; he looked almost like a paralytic, whose crutches had suddenly broken down. Was he conscious of the immense loss which he had suffered? His vanity was too great to render that very probable.
"I shall master my grief as soon as I go back to work," he said.
He ought not to have done it; but he resumed his duties as a politician at a time when they had become unusually difficult, and when great things were expected of him. Two or three absurd, ridiculous, in fact unpardonable blunders, ruined him forever. He lost his reputation as a statesman, and with it his influence.
As yet, however, his reputation remained uninjured. No one suspected the truth. They attributed the sudden failure of his faculties to the great sorrow that had befallen him in the death of his wife.
"Who would have thought that he had loved her so deeply?" they asked one another.
Henrietta was as much misled as the others, and perhaps even more. Her respect and her admiration, so far from being diminished, only increased day by day. She loved him all the more dearly as she watched the apparent effect of his incurable grief.
He was really deeply grieved, but only by his fall. How had it come about? He tortured his mind in vain; he could not find a plausible explanation, and said over and over again,—
"It is perfectly inexplicable."
He talked of regular plots, of a coalition of his enemies, of the black ingratitude of men, and their fickleness. At first he had thought of going back to the country. But gradually, as day followed day, and weeks grew into months, his wounded vanity began to heal; he forgot his misfortunes, and adopted new habits of life.
He was a great deal at his club now, rode much on horseback, went to the theatres, and dined with his friends. Henrietta was delighted; for she had at one time begun to be seriously concerned for her father's health. But she was not a little amazed when she saw him lay aside his mourning, and exchange his simple costumes, suitable to his age, for the eccentric fashions of the day, wearing brilliant waistcoats and fancy-colored trousers.
Some days later matters grew worse.
One morning Count Ville-Handry, who was quite gray, appeared at breakfast with jet black beard and hair. Henrietta could not restrain an expression of amazement. But he smiled, and said with considerable embarrassment,—
"My servant is making an experiment; he thinks this goes better with my complexion, and makes me look younger."
Evidently something strange had occurred in the count's life. But what was it?
Henrietta, although ignorant of the world, and at that time innocence personified, was, nevertheless, a woman, and hence had the keen instinct of her sex, which is better than all experience. She reflected, and she thought she could guess what had happened.
After hesitating for three days, the poor girl, saddened rather than frightened, confided her troubles to Daniel. But she had only spoken a few words when he interrupted her, and, blushing deeply, said,—
"Do not trouble yourself about that, Miss Henrietta; and, whatever your father may do, do not mind it."
That advice was more easily given than followed; for the count's ways became daily more extraordinary. He had gradually drifted away from his old friends and his wife's friends, and seemed to prefer to their high-bred society the company of very curious people of all kinds. A number of young men came in the forenoon on horseback, and in the most unceremonious costumes. They came in smoking their cigars, and asked at once for liquors and absinthe. In the afternoon, another set of men made their appearance,—vulgar and arrogant people, with huge whiskers and enormous watch-chains, who gesticulated vehemently, and were on most excellent terms with the servants. They were closeted with the count; and their discussions were so loud, they could be heard all over the house.
What were the grave discussions that made so much noise? The count undertook to enlighten his daughter. He told her, that, having been ill-treated in politics, he intended to devote himself henceforth to grand enterprises, and hoped confidently to realize an enormous fortune, while, at the same time, rendering great service to certain branches of industry.
A fortune? Why should he want money? What with his own estate, and what with his wife's fortune, he had already an income of a hundred thousand dollars. Was that not quite enough for a man of sixty-five and for a young girl who did not spend a thousand a year on her toilet?
Henrietta asked him timidly, for she was afraid of hurting her father's feelings, why he wanted more money.
He laughed heartily, tapped her cheek playfully, and said,—
"Ah, you would like to rule your papa, would you?"
Then he added more seriously,—
"Am I so old, my little lady, that I ought to go into retirement? Have you, also, gone over to my enemies?"
"Oh, dear papa!"
"Well, my child, then you ought to know that a man such as I am cannot condemn himself to inactivity, unless he wants to die. I do not want any more money; what I want is an outlet for my energy and my talents."
This was so sensible a reply, that both Henrietta and Daniel felt quite re-assured.
Both had been taught by the countess to look upon her husband as a man of genius; hence they felt sure that he had only to undertake a thing, and he was sure to succeed. Besides, Daniel hoped that such grave matters of business would keep the count from playing the fashionable young man.
But it seemed as if nothing could turn him from this folly; he became daily younger and faster. He wore the most eccentric hats on one ear. He ordered his coats to be made in the very last fashion; and never went out without a camellia or a rosebud in his buttonhole. He no longer contented himself with dyeing his hair, but actually began to rouge, and used such strong perfumes, that one might have followed his track through the streets by the odors he diffused around him.
At times he would sit for hours in an arm-chair, his eyes fixed on the ceiling, his brow knit, and his thoughts apparently bent upon some grave question. If he was spoken to, he started like a criminal caught in the act. He who formerly prided himself on his magnificent appetite (he saw in it a resemblance to Louis XIV.) now hardly ate any thing. On the other hand, he was forever complaining of oppression in the chest, and of palpitation of the heart.
His daughter repeatedly found him with tears in his eyes,—big tears, which passed through his dyed beard, and fell like drops of ink on his white shirt-front. Then, again, these attacks of melancholy would be followed by sudden outbursts of joy. He would rub his hands till they pained him; he would sing and almost dance with delight.
Now and then a commissionaire (it was always the same man) came and brought him a letter. The count tore it from his hands, threw him a gold-piece, and went to shut himself up in his study.
"Poor papa!" said Henrietta to Daniel. "There are moments when I tremble for his mind."
At last, one evening after dinner, when he had drunk more than usually, perhaps in order to gain courage, he drew his daughter on his knee, and said in his softest voice,—
"Confess, my dear child, that in your innermost heart you have more than once called me a very bad father. I dare say you blame me for leaving you so constantly alone here in this large house, where you must die from sheer weariness."