He followed her to the gate, which he opened and closed after her; then he hurried back to the house, while Madeleine's carriage drove rapidly away.
"Now, monsieur," said Prosper, "you must tell me what you saw. You promised me the truth no matter how bitter it might be. Speak; I can bear it, be it what it may!"
"You will only have joy to bear, my friend. Within a month you will bitterly regret your suspicions of to-night. You will blush to think that you ever imagined Mlle. Madeleine to be intimate with a man like Lagors."
"But, monsieur, appearances——"
"It is precisely against appearances that we must be on our guard. Always distrust them. A suspicion, false or just, is always based on something. But we must not stay here forever; and, as Raoul has fastened the gate, we shall have to climb back again."
"But there is the ladder."
"Let it stay where it is; as we cannot efface our footprints, he will think thieves have been trying to get into the house."
They scaled the wall, and had not walked fifty steps when they heard the noise of a gate being unlocked. The stood aside and waited; a man soon passed on his way to the station.
"That is Raoul," said M. Verduret, "and Joseph will report to us that he has gone to tell Clameran what has just taken place. If they are only kind enough to speak French!"
He walked along quietly for some time, trying to connect the broken chain of his deductions.
"How in the deuce," he abruptly asked, "did this Lagors, who is devoted to gay society, come to choose a lonely country house to live in?"
"I suppose it was because M. Fauvel's villa is only fifteen minutes' ride from here, on the Seine."
"That accounts for his staying here in the summer; but in winter?"
"Oh, in winter he has a room at the Hotel du Louvre, and all the year round keeps an apartment in Paris."
This did not enlighten M. Verduret much; he hurried his pace.
"I hope our driver has not gone. We cannot take the train which is about to start, because Raoul would see us at the station."
Although it was more than an hour since M. Verduret and Prosper left the hack at the branch road, they found it waiting for them in front of the tavern.
The driver could not resist the desire to change his five-franc piece; he had ordered dinner, and, finding his wine very good, was calling for more, when he looked up and saw his employers.
"Well, you are in a strange state!" he exclaimed.
Prosper replied that they had gone to see a friend, and, losing their way, had fallen into a pit; as if there were pits in Vesinet forest.
"Ah, that is the way you got covered with mud, is it?" exclaimed the driver, who, though apparently contented with this explanation, strongly suspected that his two customers had been engaged in some nefarious transaction.
This opinion seemed to be entertained by everyone present, for they looked at Prosper's muddy clothes and then at each other in a knowing way.
But M. Verduret stopped all comment by saying:
"All right, monsieur: get in while I settle my bill; I will be there in a minute."
The drive back was silent and seemed interminably long. Prosper at first tried to draw his strange companion into conversation, but, as he received nothing but monosyllables in reply, held his peace for the rest of the journey. He was again beginning to feel irritated at the absolute empire exercised over him by this man.
Physical discomfort was added to his other troubles. He was stiff and numb; every bone in him ached with the cold.
Although mental endurance may be unlimited, bodily strength must in the end give way. A violent effort is always followed by reaction.
Lying back in a corner of the carriage, with his feet upon the front seat, M. Verduret seemed to be enjoying a nap; yet he was never more wide awake.
He was in a perplexed state of mind. This expedition, which, he had been confident, would resolve all his doubts, had only added mystery to mystery. His chain of evidence, which he thought so strongly linked, was completely broken.
For him the facts remained the same, but circumstances had changed. He could not imagine what common motive, what moral or material complicity, what influences, could have existed to make the four actors in his drama, Mme. Fauvel, Madeleine, Raoul, and Clameran, seem to have the same object in view.
He was seeking in his fertile mind, that encyclopaedia of craft and subtlety, for some combination which would throw light on the problem before him.
The midnight bells were ringing when they reached the Archangel, and for the first time M. Verduret remembered that he had not dined.
Fortunately Mme. Alexandre was still up, and in the twinkling of an eye had improvised a tempting supper. It was more than attention, more than respect, that she showed her guest. Prosper observed that she gazed admiringly at M. Verduret all the while he was eating his supper.
"You will not see me to-morrow," said M. Verduret to Prosper, when he had risen to leave the room; "but I will be here about this time to-morrow night. Perhaps I shall discover what I am seeking at MM. Jandidier's ball."
Prosper was dumb with astonishment. What! would M. Verduret think of appearing at a ball given by the wealthiest and most fashionable bankers in Paris? This accounted for his sending to the costumer.
"Then you are invited to this ball?"
The expressive eyes of M. Verduret danced with amusement.
"Not yet," he said, "but I shall be."
Oh, the inconsistency of the human mind! Prosper was tormented by the most serious preoccupations. He looked sadly around his chamber, and, as he thought of M. Verduret's projected pleasure at the ball, exclaimed:
"Ah, how fortunate he is! To-morrow he will have the privilege of seeing Madeleine."
The Rue St. Lazare was adorned by the palatial residences of the Jandidier brothers, two celebrated financiers, who, if deprived of the prestige of immense wealth, would still be looked up to as remarkable men. Why cannot the same be said of all men?
These two mansions, which were thought marvels at the time they were built, were entirely distinct from each other, but so planned that they could be turned into one immense house when so desired.
When MM. Jandidier gave parties, they always had the movable partitions taken away, and thus obtained the most superb salon in Paris.
Princely magnificence, lavish hospitality, and an elegant, graceful manner of receiving their guests, made these entertainments eagerly sought after by the fashionable circles of the capital.
On Saturday, the Rue St. Lazare was blocked up by a file of carriages, whose fair occupants were impatiently awaiting their turn to drive up to the door, through which they could catch the tantalizing strains of a waltz.
It was a fancy ball; and nearly all of the costumes were superb, though some were more original than elegant.
Among the latter was a clown. Everything was in perfect keeping: the insolent eye, coarse lips, high cheek-bones, and a beard so red that it seemed to emit flames in the reflection of the dazzling lights.
He wore top-boots, a dilapidated hat on the back of his head, and a shirt-ruffle trimmed with torn lace.
He carried in his left hand a canvas banner, upon which were painted six or eight pictures, coarsely designed like those found in strolling fairs. In his right he waved a little switch, with which he would every now and then strike his banner, like a quack retailing his wares.
Quite a crowd surrounded this clown, hoping to hear some witty speeches and puns; but he kept near the door, and remained silent.
About half-past ten he quitted his post.
M. and Mme. Fauvel, followed by their niece Madeleine, had just entered.
A compact group immediately formed near the door.
During the last ten days, the affair of the Rue de Provence had been the universal topic of conversation; and friends and enemies were alike glad to seize this opportunity of approaching the banker, some to tender their sympathy, and others to offer equivocal condolence, which of all things is the most exasperating and insulting.
Belonging to the battalion of grave, elderly men, M. Fauvel had not assumed a fancy costume, but merely threw over his shoulders a short silk domino.
On his arm leaned Mme. Fauvel, nee Valentine de la Verberie, bowing and gracefully greeting her numerous friends.
She had once been remarkably beautiful; and to-night the effect of the soft wax-lights, and her very becoming dress, half restored her youthful freshness and comeliness. No one would have supposed her to be forty-eight years old.
She wore a dress of the later years of Louis the Fourteenth's reign, magnificent and severe, of embroidered satin and black velvet, without the adornment of a single jewel.
She looked so graceful and elegant in this court dress and powdered hair, that some ill-natured gossips said it was a pity to see a real La Verberie, so well fitted to adorn a queen's drawing-room, as all her ancestors had done before her, thrown away upon a man whom she had only married for his money.
But Madeleine was the object of universal admiration, so dazzlingly beautiful and queenlike did she appear in her costume of maid of honor, which seemed to have been especially invented to set forth her beautiful figure.
Her loveliness expanded in the perfumed atmosphere and soft light of the ball-room. Never had her hair looked so black, her complexion so exquisite, or her large eyes so brilliant.
Having greeted the hosts, Madeleine took her aunt's arm, while M. Fauvel wandered through the rooms in search of the card-table, the usual refuge of bored men, when they are enticed to the ball-room by their womankind.
The ball was now at its height.
Two orchestras, led by Strauss and one of his lieutenants, filled the two mansions with intoxicating music. The motley crowd whirled in the waltz until they presented a curious confusion of velvets, satins, laces, and diamonds. Almost every head and bosom sparkled with jewels; the palest cheeks were rosy; heavy eyes now shone like stars; and the glistening shoulders of fair women were like drifted snow in an April sun.
Forgotten by the crowd, the clown had taken refuge in the embrasure of a window, and seemed to be meditating upon the gay scene before him; at the same time, he kept his eye upon a couple not far off.
It was Madeleine, dancing with a splendidly dressed doge. The doge was the Marquis de Clameran.
He appeared to be radiant, rejuvenated, and well satisfied with the impression he was making upon his partner; at the end of a quadrille he leaned over her, and whispered compliments with the most unbounded admiration; and she seemed to listen, if not with pleasure, at least without repugnance. She now and then smiled, and coquettishly shrugged her shoulders.
"Evidently," muttered the clown, "this noble scoundrel is paying court to the banker's niece; so I was right yesterday. But how can Mlle. Madeleine resign herself to so graciously receive his insipid flattery? Fortunately, Prosper is not here now."
He was interrupted by an elderly man wrapped in a Venetian mantle, who said to him:
"You remember, M. Verduret,"—this name was uttered half seriously, half banteringly—"what you promised me?"
The clown bowed with great respect, but not the slightest shade of humility.
"I remember," he replied.
"But do not be imprudent, I beg you."
"M. the Count need not be uneasy; he has my promise."
"Very good. I know the value of it."
The count walked off; but during this short colloquy the quadrille had ended, and M. de Clameran and Madeleine were lost to sight.
"I shall find them near Mme. Fauvel," said the clown.
And he at once started in search of the banker's wife.
Incommoded by the stifling heat of the room, Mme. Fauvel had sought a little fresh air in the grand picture-gallery, which, thanks to the talisman called gold, was now transformed into a fairy-like garden, filled with orange-trees, japonicas, laurel, and many rare exotics.
The clown saw her seated near a grove, not far from the door of the card-room. Upon her right was Madeleine, and near her stood Raoul de Lagors, dressed in a costume of Henri III.
"I must confess," muttered the clown from his post of observation, "that the young scamp is a very handsome man."
Madeleine appeared very sad. She had plucked a japonica from a tree near by, and was mechanically pulling it to pieces as she sat with her eyes downcast.
Raoul and Mme. Fauvel were engaged in earnest conversation. Their faces were composed, but the gestures of one and the trembling of the other betrayed a serious discussion.
In the card-room sat the doge, M. de Clameran, so placed as to have full view of Mme. Fauvel and Madeleine, although himself concealed by an angle of the room.
"It is the continuation of yesterday's scene," thought the clown. "If I could only get behind the oleander-tree, I might hear what they are saying."
He pushed his way through the crowd, and, just as he had reached the desired spot, Madeleine arose, and, taking the arm of a bejewelled Persian, walked away.
At the same moment Raoul went into the card-room, and whispered a few words to De Clameran.
"There they go," muttered the clown. "The two scoundrels certainly hold these poor women in their power; and they are determined to make them suffer before releasing them. What can be the secret of their power?"
His attention was attracted by a commotion in the picture-gallery; it was caused by the announcement of a wonderful minuet to be danced in the ball-room; the arrival of the Countess de Commarin as Aurora; and the presence of the Princess Korasoff, with her superb emeralds, which were reported to be the finest in the world.
In an instant the gallery became almost deserted. Only a few forlorn-looking people remained; mostly sulky husbands, and some melancholy youths looking awkward and unhappy in their gay fancy dresses.
The clown thought it a favorable opportunity for carrying out his project.
He abruptly left his corner, flourishing his switch, and beating his banner, and, crossing the gallery, seated himself in a chair between Mme. Fauvel and the door. As soon as the people had collected in a circle around him, he commenced to cough in an affected manner, like a stump orator about to make a speech.
Then he struck a comical attitude, standing up with his body twisted sideways, and his hat on one ear, and with great buffoonery and volubility made the following remarks:
"Ladies and gentlemen, this very morning I obtained a license from the authorities of this town. And what for? Why gentlemen, for the purpose of exhibiting to you a spectacle which has already won the admiration of the four quarters of the globe, and several universities besides. Inside of this booth, ladies, is about to commence the representation of a most remarkable drama, acted for the first time at Pekin, and translated into several languages by our most celebrated authors. Gentlemen, you can take your seats; the lamps are lighted, and the actors are changing their dress."
Here he stopped speaking, and imitated to perfection the feats which mountebanks play upon horns and kettle-drums.
"Now, ladies and gentlemen," he resumed, "you wish to know what I am doing outside, if the piece is to be performed under the tent. The fact is, gentlemen, that I wish to give you a foretaste of the agitations, sensations, emotions, palpitations, and other entertainments which you may enjoy by paying the small sum of ten sous. You see this superb picture? It represents eight of the most thrilling scenes in the drama. Ah, I see you begin to shudder already; and yet this is nothing compared to the play itself. This splendid picture gives you no more idea of the acting than a drop of water gives an idea of the sea, or a spark of fire of the sun. My picture, gentlemen, is merely to give you a foretaste of what is in the tent; as the steam oozing from a restaurant gives you a taste, or rather a smell, of what is within."
"Do you know this clown?" asked an enormous Turk of a melancholy Punch.
"No, but he can imitate a trumpet splendidly."
"Oh, very well indeed! But what is he driving at?"
The clown was endeavoring to attract the attention of Mme. Fauvel, who, since Raoul and Madeleine had left her, sat by herself in a mournful revery.
He succeeded in his object.
The showman's shrill voice brought the banker's wife back to a sense of reality; she started, and looked quickly about her, as if suddenly awakened from a troubled dream.
"Now, ladies, we are in China. The first picture on my canvas, here, in the left corner"—here he touched the top daub—"represents the celebrated Mandarin Li-Fo, in the bosom of his family. This pretty woman leaning over him is his wife; and these children playing on the carpet are the bonds of love between this happy pair. Do you not inhale the odor of sanctity and happiness emanating from this speaking picture, gentlemen?
"Mme. Li-Fo is the most virtuous of women, adoring her husband and idolizing her children. Being virtuous she is happy; for the wise Confucius says, 'The ways of virtue are more pleasant than the ways of vice.'"
Mme. Fauvel had left her seat, and approached nearer to the clown.
"Do you see anything on the banner like what he is describing?" asked the melancholy Punch of his neighbor.
"No, not a thing. Do you?"
The fact is, that the daubs of paint on the canvas represented one thing as well as another, and the clown could call them whatever he pleased.
"Picture No. 2!" he cried, after a flourish of music. "This old lady, seated before a mirror tearing out her hair—especially the gray ones—you have seen before; do you recognize her? No, you do not. She is the fair mandarine of the first picture. I see the tears in your eyes, ladies and gentlemen. Ah! you have cause to weep; for she is no longer virtuous, and her happiness has departed with her virtue. Alas, it is a sad tale! One fatal day she met, on the streets of Pekin, a young ruffian, fiendish, but beautiful as an angel, and she loved him—the unfortunate woman loved him!"
The last words were uttered in the most tragic tone as he raised his clasped hands to heaven.
During this tirade he had whirled around, so that he found himself facing the banker's wife, whose countenance he closely watched while he was speaking.
"You are surprised, gentlemen," he continued; "I am not. The great Bilboquet has proved to us that the heart never grows old, and that the most vigorous wall-flowers flourish on old ruins. This unhappy woman is nearly fifty years old—fifty years old, and in love with a youth! Hence this heart-rending scene which should serve as a warning to us all."
"Really!" grumbled a cook dressed in white satin, who had passed the evening in carrying around bills of fare, which no one read, "I thought he was going to amuse us."
"But," continued the clown, "you must go inside of the booth to witness the effects of the mandarine's folly. At times a ray of reason penetrates her diseased brain, and then the sight of her anguish would soften a heart of stone. Enter, and for the small sum of ten sous you shall hear sobs such as the Odeon never echoed in its halcyon days. The unhappy woman has waked up to the absurdity and inanity of her blind passion; she confesses to herself that she is madly pursuing a phantom. She knows but too well that he, in the vigor and beauty of youth, cannot love a faded old woman like herself, who vainly makes pitiable efforts to retain the last remains of her once entrancing beauty. She feels that the sweet words he once whispered in her charmed ear were deceitful falsehoods. She knows that the day is near when she will be left alone, with nothing save his mantle in her hand."
As the clown addressed this voluble description to the crowd before him, he narrowly watched the countenance of the banker's wife.
But nothing he had said seemed to affect her. She leaned back in her arm-chair perfectly calm, and occasionally smiled at the tragic manner of the showman.
"Good heavens!" muttered the clown uneasily, "can I be on the wrong track?"
He saw that his circle of listeners was increased by the presence of the doge, M. de Clameran.
"The third picture," he said, after a roll of drums, "depicts the old mandarine after she has dismissed that most annoying of guests—remorse—from her bosom. She promises herself that interest shall supply the place of love in chaining the too seductive youth to her side. It is with this object that she invests him with false honors and dignity, and introduces him to the chief mandarins of the capital of the Celestial Empire; then, since so handsome a youth must cut a fine figure in society, and as a fine figure cannot be cut without money, the lady must needs to sacrifice all of her possessions for his sake. Necklaces, rings, bracelets, diamonds, and pearls, all are surrendered. The monster carries all these jewels to the pawnbrokers on Tien-Tsi Street, and then has the cruelty to refuse her the tickets, so that she may have a chance of redeeming her treasures."
The clown thought that at last he had hit the mark. Mme. Fauvel began to betray signs of agitation.
Once she made an attempt to rise from her chair; but it seemed as if her strength failed her, and she sank back, forced to listen to the end.
"Finally, ladies and gentlemen," continued the clown, "the richly stored jewel-cases became empty. The day came when the mandarine had nothing more to give. It was then that the young scoundrel conceived the project of carrying off the jasper button belonging to the Mandarin Li-Fo—a splendid jewel of incalculable value, which, being the badge of his dignity, was kept in a granite chest, and guarded by three soldiers night and day. Ah! the mandarine resisted a long time! She knew the innocent soldiers would be accused and crucified, as is the custom in Pekin; and this thought restrained her. But her lover besought her so tenderly, that she finally yielded to his entreaties; and—the jasper button was stolen. The fourth picture represents the guilty couple stealthily creeping down the private stairway: see their frightened look—see—"
He abruptly stopped. Three or four of his auditors rushed to the assistance of Mme. Fauvel, who seemed about to faint; and at the same time he felt his arm roughly seized by someone behind him.
He turned around and faced De Clameran and Lagors, both of whom were pale with anger.
"What do you want, gentlemen?" he inquired politely.
"To speak to you," they both answered.
"I am at your service."
And he followed them to the end of the picture-gallery, near a window opening on a balcony.
Here they were unobserved except by the man in the Venetian cloak, whom the clown had so respectfully addressed as "M. the Count."
The minuet having ended, the orchestras were resting, and the crowd began to rapidly fill the gallery.
The sudden faintness of Mme. Fauvel had passed off unnoticed save by a few, who attributed it to the heat of the room. M. Fauvel had been sent for; but when he came hurrying in, and found his wife composedly talking to Madeleine, his alarm was dissipated, and he returned to the card-tables.
Not having as much control over his temper as Raoul, M. de Clameran angrily said:
"In the first place, monsieur, I would like to know who you are."
The clown determined to answer as if he thought the question were a jest, replied in the bantering tone of a buffoon:
"You want my passport, do you, my lord doge? I left it in the hands of the city authorities; it contains my name, age, profession, domicile, and every detail—"
With an angry gesture, M. de Clameran interrupted him.
"You have just committed a gross insult!"
"I, my lord doge?"
"Yes, you! What do you mean by telling this abominable story in this house?"
"Abominable! You may call it abominable; but I, who composed it, have a different opinion of it."
"Enough, monsieur; you will at least have the courage to acknowledge that your performance was a vile insinuation against Mme. Fauvel?"
The clown stood with his head thrown back, and mouth wide open, as if astounded at what he heard.
But anyone who knew him would have seen his bright black eyes sparkling with malicious satisfaction.
"Bless my heart!" he cried, as if speaking to himself. "This is the strangest thing I ever heard of! How can my drama of the Mandarine Li-Fo have any reference to Mme. Fauvel, whom I don't know from Adam or Eve? I can't think how the resemblance——unless——but no, that is impossible."
"Do you pretend," said M. de Clameran, "to be ignorant of M. Fauvel's misfortune?"
The clown looked very innocent, and asked:
"The robbery of which M. Fauvel was the victim. It has been in everyone's mouth, and you must have heard of it."
"Ah, yes, yes; I remember. His cashier ran off with three hundred and fifty thousand francs. Pardieu! It is a thing that almost daily happens. But, as to discovering any connection between this robbery and my play, that is another matter."
M. de Clameran made no reply. A nudge from Lagors had calmed him as if by enchantment.
He looked quietly at the clown, and seemed to regret having uttered the significant words forced from him by angry excitement.
"Very well," he finally said in his usual haughty tone; "I must have been mistaken. I accept your explanation."
But the clown, hitherto so humble and silly-looking, seemed to take offence at the word, and, assuming a defiant attitude, said:
"I have not made, nor do I intend making, any explanation."
"Monsieur," began De Clameran.
"Allow me to finish, if you please. If, unintentionally, I have offended the wife of a man whom I highly esteem, it is his business to seek redress, and not yours. Perhaps you will tell me he is too old to demand satisfaction: if so, let him send one of his sons. I saw one of them in the ball-room to-night; let him come. You asked me who I am; in return I ask you who are you—you who undertake to act as Mme. Fauvel's champion? Are you her relative, friend, or ally? What right have you to insult her by pretending to discover an allusion to her in a play invented for amusement?"
There was nothing to be said in reply to this. M. de Clameran sought a means of escape.
"I am a friend of M. Fauvel," he said, "and this title gives me the right to be as jealous of his reputation as if it were my own. If this is not a sufficient reason for my interference, I must inform you that his family will shortly be mine: I regard myself as his nephew."
"Next week, monsieur, my marriage with Madeleine will be publicly announced."
This news was so unexpected, so startling that for a moment the clown was dumb; and now his surprise was genuine.
But he soon recovered himself, and, bowing with deference, said, with covert irony:
"Permit me to offer my congratulations, monsieur. Besides being the belle to-night, Mlle. Madeleine is worth, I hear, half a million."
Raoul de Lagors had anxiously been watching the people near them, to see if they overheard this conversation.
"We have had enough of this gossip," he said, in a disdainful tone; "I will only say one thing more, master clown, and that is, that your tongue is too long."
"Perhaps it is, my pretty youth, perhaps it is; but my arm is still longer."
De Clameran here interrupted them by saying:
"It is impossible for one to seek an explanation from a man who conceals his identity under the guise of a fool."
"You are at liberty, my lord doge, to ask the master of the house who I am—if you dare."
"You are," cried Clameran, "you are—"
A warning look from Raoul checked the forge-master from using an epithet which would have led to an affray, or at least a scandalous scene.
The clown stood by with a sardonic smile, and, after a moment's silence, stared M. de Clameran steadily in the face, and in measured tones said:
"I was the best friend, monsieur, that your brother Gaston ever had. I was his adviser, and the confidant of his last wishes."
These few words fell like a clap of thunder upon De Clameran.
He turned deadly pale, and stared back with his hands stretched out before him, as if shrinking from a phantom.
He tried to answer, to protest against this assertion, but the words froze on his lips. His fright was pitiable.
"Come, let us go," said Lagors, who was perfectly cool.
And he dragged Clameran away, half supporting him, for he staggered like a drunken man, and clung to every object he passed, to prevent falling.
"Oh," exclaimed the clown, in three different tones, "oh, oh!"
He himself was almost as much astonished as the forge-master, and remained rooted to the spot, watching the latter as he slowly left the room.
It was with no decided object in view that he had ventured to use the last mysteriously threatening words, but he had been inspired to do so by his wonderful instinct, which with him was like the scent of a blood-hound.
"What can this mean?" he murmured. "Why was he so frightened? What terrible memory have I awakened in his base soul? I need not boast of my penetration, or the subtlety of my plans. There is a great master, who, without any effort, in an instant destroys all my chimeras; he is called 'Chance.'"
His mind had wandered far from the present scene, when he was brought back to his situation by someone touching him on the shoulder. It was the man in the Venetian cloak.
"Are you very satisfied, M. Verduret?" he inquired.
"Yes, and no, M. the Count. No, because I have not completely achieved the object I had in view when I asked you for an invitation here to-night; yes, because these two rascals behaved in a manner which dispels all doubt."
"And yet you complain—"
"I do not complain, M. the Count: on the contrary, I bless chance, or rather Providence, which has just revealed to me the existence of a secret that I did not before even suspect."
Five or six people approached the count, and he went off with them after giving the clown a friendly nod.
The latter instantly threw aside his banner, and started in pursuit of Mme. Fauvel. He found her sitting on a sofa in the large salon, engaged in an animated conversation with Madeleine.
"Of course they are talking over the scene; but what has become of Lagors and De Clameran?"
He soon saw them wandering among the groups scattered about the room, and eagerly asking questions.
"I will bet my head these honorable gentlemen are trying to find out who I am. Keep it up, my friends, ask everybody in the room; I wish you success!"
They soon gave it up, but were so preoccupied, and anxious to be alone in order to reflect and deliberate, that, without waiting for supper, they took leave of Mme. Fauvel and her niece, saying they were going home.
The clown saw them go up to the dressing-room for their cloaks, and in a few minutes leave the house.
"I have nothing more to do here," he murmured; "I might as well go too."
He completely covered his dress with a domino, and started for home, thinking the cold frosty air would cool his confused brain.
He lit a cigar, and, walking up the Rue St. Lazare, crossed the Rue Notre Dame de Lorette, and struck into the Faubourg Montmartre.
A man suddenly started out from some place of concealment, and rushed upon him with a dagger.
Fortunately the clown had a cat-like instinct, which enabled him to protect himself against immediate danger, and detect any which threatened.
He saw, or rather divined, the man crouching in the dark shadow of a house, and had the presence of mind to strike an attitude which enabled him to ward off the assassin by spreading out his arms before him.
This movement certainly saved his life; for he received in his arm a furious stab, which would have instantly killed him had it penetrated his breast.
Anger, more than pain, made him cry out:
"Ah, you villain!"
And recoiling a few feet, he put himself on the defensive.
But the precaution was useless.
Seeing his blow miss, the assassin did not return to the attack, but made rapidly off.
"That was certainly Lagors," said the clown, "and Clameran must be somewhere near. While I walked around one side of the church, they must have gone the other and lain in wait for me."
His wound began to pain him; he stood under a gas-lamp to examine it.
It did not appear to be dangerous, but the arm was cut through to the bone.
He tore his handkerchief into four bands, and tied his arm up with the dexterity of a surgeon.
"I must be on the track of some great crime, since these fellows are resolved upon murder. When such cunning rogues are only in danger of the police court, they do not gratuitously risk the chance of being tried for murder."
He thought by enduring a great deal of pain he might still use his arm; so he started in pursuit of his enemy, taking care to keep in the middle of the road, and avoid all dark corners.
Although he saw no one, he was convinced that he was being pursued.
He was not mistaken. When he reached the Boulevard Montmartre, he crossed the street, and, as he did so, distinguished two shadows which he recognized. They crossed the same street a little higher up.
"I have to deal with desperate men," he muttered. "They do not even take pains to conceal their pursuit of me. They seem to be accustomed to this kind of adventure, and the carriage trick which fooled Fanferlot would never succeed with them. Besides, my light hat is a perfect beacon to lead them on in the night." He continued his way up the boulevard, and, without turning his head, was sure that his enemies were thirty feet behind him.
"I must get rid of them somehow," he said to himself. "I can neither return home nor to the Archangel with these devils at my heels. They are following me to find out where I live, and who I am. If they discover that the clown is M. Verduret, and that M. Verduret is M. Lecoq, my plans will be ruined. They will escape abroad with the money, and I shall be left to console myself with a wounded arm. A pleasant ending to all my exertions!"
The idea of Raoul and Clameran escaping him so exasperated him that for an instant he thought of having them arrested at once.
This was easy; for he had only to rush upon them, scream for help, and they would all three be arrested, carried to the watch-house, and consigned to the commissary of police.
The police often resort to this ingenious and simple means of arresting a malefactor for whom they are on the lookout, and whom they cannot seize without a warrant.
The next day there is a general explanation, and the parties, if innocent, are dismissed.
The clown had sufficient proof to sustain him in the arrest of Lagors. He could show the letter and the mutilated prayer-book, he could reveal the existence of the pawnbroker's tickets in the house at Vesinet, he could display his wounded arm. He could force Raoul to confess how and why he had assumed the name of Lagors, and what his motive was in passing himself off for a relative of M. Fauvel.
On the other hand, in acting thus hastily, he was insuring the safety of the principal plotter, De Clameran. What proofs had he against him? Not one. He had strong suspicions, but no well-grounded charge to produce against him.
On reflection the clown decided that he would act alone, as he had thus far done, and that alone and unaided he would discover the truth of all his suspicions.
Having reached this decision, the first step to be taken was to put his followers on the wrong scent.
He walked rapidly up the Rue Sebastopol, and, reaching the square of the Arts et Metiers, he abruptly stopped, and asked some insignificant questions of two constables who were standing talking together.
The manoeuvre had the result he expected; Raoul and Clameran stood perfectly still about twenty steps off, not daring to advance.
Twenty steps! That was as much start as the clown wanted. While talking with the constables, he had pulled the bell of the door before which they were standing, and its hollow sound apprised him that the door was open. He bowed, and entered the house.
A minute later the constables had passed on, and Lagors and Clameran in their turn rang the bell. When the concierge appeared, they asked who it was that had just gone in disguised as a clown.
They were told that no such person had entered, and that none of the lodgers had gone out disguised that night. "However," added the concierge, "I am not very sure, for this house has a back door which opens on the Rue St. Denis."
"We are tricked," interrupted Lagors, "and will never know who the clown is."
"Unless we learn it too soon for our own good," said Clameran musingly.
While Lagors and Clameran were anxiously trying to devise some means of discovering the clown's identity, Verduret hurried up the back street, and reached the Archangel as the clock struck three.
Prosper, who was watching from his window, saw him in the distance, and ran down to open the door for him.
"What have you learned?" he said; "what did you find out? Did you see Madeleine? Were Raoul and Clameran at the ball?"
But M. Verduret was not in the habit of discussing private affairs where he might be overheard.
"First of all, let us go into your room, and get some water to wash this cut, which burns like fire."
"Heavens! Are you wounded?"
"Yes, it is a little souvenir of your friend Raoul. Ah, I will soon teach him the danger of chopping up a man's arm!"
Prosper was surprised at the look of merciless rage on his friend's face, as he calmly washed and dressed his arm.
"Now, Prosper, we will talk as much as you please. Our enemies are on the alert, and we must crush them instantly, or not at all. I have made a mistake. I have been on the wrong track; it is an accident liable to happen to any man, no matter how intelligent he may be. I took the effect for the cause. The day I was convinced that culpable relations existed between Raoul and Mme. Fauvel, I thought I held the end of the thread that must lead us to the truth. I should have been more mistrustful; this solution was too simple, too natural."
"Do you suppose Mme. Fauvel to be innocent?"
"Certainly not. But her guilt is not such as I first supposed. I imagined that, infatuated with a seductive young adventurer, Mme. Fauvel had first bestowed upon him the name of one of her relatives, and then introduced him as her nephew. This was an adroit stratagem to gain him admission to her husband's house.
"She began by giving him all the money she could could dispose of; later she let him take her jewels to the pawnbrokers; when she had nothing more to give, she allowed him to steal the money from her husband's safe. That is what I first thought."
"And in this way everything was explained?"
"No, this did not explain everything, as I well knew at the time, and should, consequently, have studied my characters more thoroughly. How is Clameran's position to be accounted for, if my first idea was the correct one?"
"Clameran is Lagors's accomplice of course."
"Ah, there is the mistake! I for a long time believed Lagors to be the principal person, when, in fact, he is not. Yesterday, in a dispute between them, the forge-master said to his dear friend, 'And, above all things, my friend, I would advise you not to resist me, for if you do I will crush you to atoms.' That explains all. The elegant Lagors is not the lover of Mme. Fauvel, but the tool of Clameran. Besides, did our first suppositions account for the resigned obedience of Madeleine? It is Clameran, and not Lagors, whom Madeleine obeys."
Prosper began to remonstrate.
M. Verduret shrugged his shoulders. To convince Prosper he had only to utter one word: to tell him that three hours ago Clameran had announced his intended marriage with Madeleine; but he did not.
"Clameran," he continued, "Clameran alone has Mme. Fauvel in his power. Now, the question is, what is the secret of this terrible influence he has gained over her? I have positive proof that they have not met since their early youth until fifteen months ago; and, as Mme. Fauvel's reputation has always been above the reach of slander, we must seek in the past for the cause of her resigned obedience to his will."
"We can never discover it," said Prosper mournfully.
"We can discover it as soon as we know Clameran's past life. Ah, to-night he turned as white as a sheet when I mentioned his brother Gaston's name. And then I remembered that Gaston died suddenly, while his brother Louis was making a visit."
"Do you think he was murdered?"
"I think the men who tried to assassinate me would do anything. The robbery, my friend, has now become a secondary detail. It is quite easily explained, and, if that were all to be accounted for, I would say to you, My task is done, let us go ask the judge of instruction for a warrant of arrest."
Prosper started up with sparkling eyes.
"Ah, you know—is it possible?"
"Yes, I know who gave the key, and I know who told the secret word."
"The key might have been M. Fauvel's. But the word——"
"The word you were foolish enough to give. You have forgotten, I suppose. But fortunately Gypsy remembered. You know that, two days before the robbery, you took Lagors and two other friends to sup with Mme. Gypsy? Nina was sad, and reproached you for not being more devoted to her."
"Yes, I remember that."
"But do you remember what you replied to her?"
"No, I do not," said Prosper after thinking a moment.
"Well, I will tell you: 'Nina, you are unjust in reproaching me with not thinking constantly of you; for at this very moment your dear name guards M. Fauvel's safe.'"
The truth suddenly burst upon Prosper like a thunderclap. He wrung his hands despairingly, and cried:
"Yes, oh, yes! I remember now."
"Then you can easily understand the rest. One of the scoundrels went to Mme. Fauvel, and compelled her to give up her husband's key; then, at a venture, placed the movable buttons on the name of Gypsy, opened the safe, and took the three hundred and fifty thousand francs. And Mme. Fauvel must have been terribly frightened before she yielded. The day after the robbery the poor woman was near dying; and it was she who at the greatest risk sent you the ten thousand francs."
"But which was the thief, Raoul or Clameran? What enables them to thus tyrannize over Mme. Fauvel? And how does Madeleine come to be mixed up in the affair?"
"These questions, my dear Prosper, I cannot yet answer; therefore I postpone seeing the judge. I only ask you to wait ten days; and, if I cannot in that time discover the solution of this mystery, I will return and go with you to report to M. Patrigent all that we know."
"Are you going to leave the city?"
"In an hour I shall be on the road to Beaucaire. It was from that neighborhood that Clameran came, as well as Mme. Fauvel, who was a Mlle. de la Verberie before marriage."
"Yes, I knew both families."
"I must go there to study them. Neither Raoul nor Clameran can escape during my absence. The police are watching them. But you, Prosper, must be prudent. Promise me to remain a prisoner here during my trip."
All that M. Verduret asked, Prosper willingly promised. But he did not wish to be left in complete ignorance of his projects for the future, or of his motives in the past.
"Will you not tell me, monsieur, who you are, and what reasons you had for coming to my rescue?"
The extraordinary man smiled sadly, and said:
"I tell, in the presence of Nina, on the day before your marriage with Madeleine."
Once left to his own reflections, Prosper began to appreciate the powerful assistance rendered by his friend.
Recalling the field of investigation gone over by his mysterious protector, he was amazed at its extent.
How many facts had been discovered in a week, and with what precision, although he had pretended to be on the wrong track! Verduret had grouped his evidence, and reached a result which Prosper felt he never could have hoped to attain by his own exertions.
He was conscious that he possessed neither Verduret's penetration nor his subtlety. He did not possess this art of compelling obedience, of creating friends at every step, and the science of making men and circumstances unite in the attainment of a common result.
He began to regret the absence of his friend, who had risen up in the hour of adversity. He missed the sometimes rough but always kindly voice, which had encouraged and consoled him.
He felt wofully lost and helpless, not daring to act or think for himself, more timid than a child when deserted by his nurse.
He had the good sense to follow the recommendations of his mentor. He remained shut up in the Archangel, not even appearing at the windows.
Twice he had news of M. Verduret. The first time he received a letter in which this friend said he had seen his father, and had had a long talk with him. Afterward, Dubois, M. de Clameran's valet, came to tell him that his "patron" reported everything as progressing finely.
On the ninth day of his voluntary seclusion, Prosper began to feel restless, and at ten o'clock at night set forth to take a walk, thinking the fresh air would relieve the headache which had kept him awake the previous night.
Mme. Alexandre, who seemed to have some knowledge of M. Verduret's affairs, begged Prosper to remain at home.
"What can I risk by taking a walk at this time, in a quiet part of the city?" he asked. "I can certainly stroll as far as the Jardin des Plantes without meeting anyone."
Unfortunately he did not strictly follow this programme; for, having reached the Orleans railway station, he went into a cafe near by, and called for a glass of ale.
As he sat sipping his glass, he picked up a daily paper, The Sun, and under the head of "Fashionable Gossip," signed Jacques Durand, read the following:
"We understand that the niece of one of our most prominent bankers, M. Andre Fauvel, will shortly be married to M. le Marquis Louis de Clameran. The engagement has been announced."
This news, coming upon him so unexpectedly, proved to Prosper the justness of M. Verduret's calculations.
Alas! why did not this certainty inspire him with absolute faith? why did it not give him courage to wait, the strength of mind to refrain from acting on his own responsibility?
Frenzied by distress of mind, he already saw Madeleine indissolubly united to this villain, and, thinking that M. Verduret would perhaps arrive too late to be of use, determined at all risks to throw an obstacle in the way of the marriage.
He called for pen and paper, and forgetting that no situation can excuse the mean cowardice of an anonymous letter, wrote in a disguised hand the following lines to M. Fauvel:
"DEAR SIR—You consigned your cashier to prison; you acted prudently, since you were convinced of his dishonesty and faithlessness.
"But, even if he stole three hundred and fifty thousand francs from your safe, does it follow that he also stole Mme. Fauvel's diamonds, and pawned them at the Mont-de-Piete, where they now are?
"Warned as you are, if I were you, I would not be the subject of public scandal. I would watch my wife, and would be distrustful of handsome cousins.
"Moreover, I would, before signing the marriage contract of Mlle. Madeleine, inquire at the Prefecture of Police, and obtain some information concerning the noble Marquis de Clameran.
Prosper hastened off to post his letter. Fearing that it would not reach M. Fauvel in time, he walked up to the Rue Cardinal Lemoine, and put it in the main letter-box, so as to be certain of its speedy delivery.
Until now he had not doubted the propriety of his action.
But now when too late, when he heard the sound of his letter falling into the box, a thousand scruples filled his mind. Was it not wrong to act thus hurriedly? Would not this letter interfere with M. Verduret's plans? Upon reaching the hotel, his doubts were changed into bitter regrets.
Joseph Dubois was waiting for him; he had received a despatch from his patron, saying that his business was finished, and that he would return the next evening at nine o'clock.
Prosper was wretched. He would have given all he had to recover the anonymous letter.
And he had cause for regret.
At that very hour M. Verduret was taking his seat in the cars at Tarascon, meditating upon the most advantageous plan to be adopted in pursuance of his discoveries.
For he had discovered everything, and now must bring matters to a crisis.
Adding to what he already knew, the story of an old nurse of Mlle. de la Verberie, the affidavit of an old servant who had always lived in the Clameran family, and the depositions of the Vesinet husband and wife who attended M. Lagors at his country house, the latter having been sent to him by Dubois (Fanferlot), with a good deal of information obtained from the prefecture of police, he had worked up a complete case, and could now act upon a chain of evidence without a missing link.
As he had predicted, he had been compelled to search into the distant past for the first causes of the crime of which Prosper had been the victim.
The following is the drama, as he wrote it out for the benefit of the judge of instruction, knowing that it would contain grounds for an indictment against the malefactors.
About two leagues from Tarascon, on the left bank of the Rhone, not far from the wonderful gardens of M. Audibert, stood the chateau of Clameran, a weather-stained, neglected, but massive structure.
Here lived, in 1841, the old Marquis de Clameran and his two sons, Gaston and Louis.
The marquis was an eccentric old man. He belonged to the race of nobles, now almost extinct, whose watches stopped in 1789, and who kept time with the past century.
More attached to his illusions than to his life, the old marquis insisted upon considering all the stirring events which had happened since the first revolution as a series of deplorable practical jokes.
Emigrating with the Count d'Artois, he did not return to France until 1815, with the allies.
He should have been thankful to Heaven for the recovery of a portion of his immense family estates; a comparatively small portion, to be sure, but full enough to support him comfortably: he said, however, that he did not think the few paltry acres were worth thanking God for.
At first, he tried every means to obtain an appointment at court; but seeing all his efforts fail, he resolved to retire to his chateau, which he did, after cursing and pitying his king, whom he had worshipped.
He soon became accustomed to the free and indolent life of a country gentleman.
Possessing fifteen thousand francs a year, he spent twenty-five or thirty thousand, borrowing from every source, saying that a genuine restoration would soon take place, and that then he would regain possession of all his properties.
Following his example, his younger son lived extravagantly. Louis was always in pursuit of adventure, and idled away his time in drinking and gambling. The elder son, Gaston, anxious to participate in the stirring events of the time, prepared himself for action by quietly working, studying, and reading certain papers and pamphlets surreptitiously received, the very mention of which was considered a hanging matter by his father.
Altogether the old marquis was the happiest of mortals, living well, drinking high, hunting much, tolerated by the peasants, and execrated by the gentlemen of the neighborhood, who regarded him with contempt and raillery.
Time never hung heavy on his hands, except in mid-summer, when the valley of the Rhone was intensely hot; and even then he had infallible means of amusement, always new, though ever the same.
He detested, above all, his neighbor the Countess de la Verberie.
The Countess de la Verberie, the "bete noire" of the marquis, as he ungallantly termed her, was a tall, dry woman, angular in appearance and character, cold and arrogant toward her equals, and domineering over her inferiors.
Like her noble neighbor, she too had emigrated; and her husband was afterward killed at Lutzen, but unfortunately not in the French ranks.
In 1815, the countess came back to France. But while the Marquis de Clameran returned to comparative ease, she could obtain nothing from royal munificence, but the small estate and chateau of La Verberie.
It is true that the chateau of La Verberie would have contented most people; but the countess never ceased to complain of her unmerited poverty, as she called it.
The pretty chateau was more modest in appearance than the manor of the Clamerans; but it was equally comfortable, and much better regulated by its proud mistress.
It was built in the middle of a beautiful park, one of the wonders of that part of the country. It reached from the Beaucaire road to the river-bank, a marvel of beauty, with its superb old oaks, yoke-elms, and lovely groves, its meadow, and clear stream of water winding in among the trees.
The countess had but one child—a lovely girl of eighteen, named Valentine; fair, slender, and graceful, with large, soft eyes, beautiful enough to make the stone saints of the village church thrill in their niches, when she knelt piously at their feet.
The renown of her great beauty, carried on the rapid waters of the Rhone, was spread far and wide.
Often the bargemen and the robust wagoners, driving their powerful horses along the road, would stop to gaze with admiration upon Valentine seated under some grand old tree on the banks of the river, absorbed in her book.
At a distance her white dress and flowing tresses made her seem a mysterious spirit from another world, these honest people said; they thought it a good omen when they caught a glimpse of her as they passed up the river. All along between Arles and Valence she was spoken of as the "lovely fairy" of La Verberie.
If M. de Clameran detested the countess, Mme. de la Verberie execrated the marquis. If he nicknamed her "the witch," she never called him anything but "the old gander."
And yet they should have agreed, for at heart they cherished the same opinions, with different ways of viewing them.
He considered himself a philosopher, scoffed at everything, and had an excellent digestion. She nursed her rancor, and grew yellow and thin from rage and envy.
Nevertheless, they might have spent many pleasant evenings together, for, after all, they were neighbors. From Clameran could be seen Valentine's greyhound running about the park of La Verberie; from La Verberie glimpses were had of the lights in the dining-room windows of Clameran.
And, as regularly as these lights appeared, every evening, the countess would say, in a spiteful tone:
"Ah, now their orgies are about to commence!"
The two chateaux were only separated by the fast-flowing Rhone, which at this spot was rather narrow.
But between the two families existed a hatred deeper and more difficult to avert than the course of the Rhone.
What was the cause of this hatred?
The countess, no less than the marquis, would have found it difficult to tell.
It was said that under the reign of Henri IV. or Louis XIII. a La Verberie betrayed the affections of a fair daughter of the Clamerans.
This misdeed led to a duel and bloodshed.
This groundwork of facts had been highly embellished by fiction; handed down from generation to generation, it had now become a long tragic history of robbery, murder, and rapine, which precluded any intercourse between the two families.
The usual result followed, as it always does in real life, and often in romances, which, however exaggerated they may be, generally preserve a reflection of the truth which inspires them.
Gaston met Valentine at an entertainment; he fell in love with her at first sight.
Valentine saw Gaston, and from that moment his image filled her heart.
But so many obstacles separated them!
For over a year they both religiously guarded their secret, buried like a treasure in the inmost recesses of their hearts.
And this year of charming, dangerous reveries decided their fate. To the sweetness of the first impression succeeded a more tender sentiment; then came love, each having endowed the other with superhuman qualities and ideal perfections.
Deep, sincere passion can only expand in solitude; in the impure air of a city it fades and dies, like the hardy plants which lose their color and perfume when transplanted to hot-houses.
Gaston and Valentine had only seen each other once, but seeing was to love; and, as the time passed, their love grew stronger, until at last the fatality which had presided over their first meeting brought them once more together.
They both happened to be spending the day with the old Duchess d'Arlange, who had returned to the neighborhood to sell her property.
They spoke to each other, and like old friends, surprised to find that they both entertained the same thoughts and echoed the same memories.
Again they were separated for months. But soon, as if by accident, they happened to be at a certain hour on the banks of the Rhone, and would sit and gaze across at each other.
Finally, one mild May evening, when Mme. de la Verberie had gone to Beaucaire, Gaston ventured into the park, and appeared before Valentine.
She was not surprised or indignant. Genuine innocence displays none of the startled modesty assumed by conventional innocence. It never occurred to Valentine that she ought to bid Gaston to leave her.
She leaned upon his arm, and strolled up and down the grand old avenue of oaks. They did not say they loved each other, they felt it; but they did say that their love was hopeless. They well knew that the inveterate family feud could never be overcome, and that it would be folly to attempt it. They swore never, never to forget each other, and tearfully resolved never to meet again; never, not even once more!
Alas! Valentine was not without excuse. With a timid, loving heart, her expansive affection was repressed and chilled by a harsh mother. Never had there been one of those long private talks between the Countess de la Verberie and Valentine which enabled a good mother to read her daughter's heart like an open book.
Mme. de la Verberie saw nothing but her daughter's beauty. She was wont to rub her hands, and say:
"Next winter I will borrow enough money to take the child to Paris, and I am much mistaken if her beauty does not win her a rich husband who will release me from poverty."
She called this loving her daughter!
The second meeting was not the last. Gaston dared not trust to a boatman, so he was obliged to walk a league in order to cross the bridge. Then he thought it would be shorter to swim the river; but he could not swim well, and to cross the Rhone where it ran so rapidly was rash for the most skilful swimmers.
One evening, however, Valentine was startled by seeing him rise out of the water at her feet.
She made him promise never to attempt this exploit again. He repeated the feat and the promise the next evening and every successive evening.
As Valentine always imagined he was being drowned in the furious current, they agreed upon a signal. At the moment of starting, Gaston would put a light in his window at Clameran, and in fifteen minutes he would be at his idol's feet.
What were the projects and hopes of the lovers? Alas! they projected nothing, they hoped for nothing.
Blindly, thoughtlessly, almost fearlessly, they abandoned themselves to the dangerous happiness of a daily rendezvous; regardless of the storm that must erelong burst over their devoted heads, they revelled in their present bliss.
Is not every sincere passion thus? Passion subsists upon itself and in itself; and the very things which ought to extinguish it, absence and obstacles, only make it burn more fiercely. It is exclusive and undisturbed; reflects neither of the past nor of the future; excepting the present, it sees and cares for nothing.
Moreover, Valentine and Gaston believed everyone ignorant of their secret.
They had always been so cautious! they had kept such strict watch! They had flattered themselves that their conduct had been a masterpiece of dissimulation and prudence.
Valentine had fixed upon the hour when she was certain her mother would not miss her. Gaston had never confided to anyone, not even to his brother Louis. They never breathed each other's name. They denied themselves a last sweet word, a last kiss, when they felt it would be more safe.
Poor blind lovers! As if anything could be concealed from the idle curiosity of country gossips; from the slanderous and ever-watchful enemies who are incessantly on the lookout for some new bit of tittle-tattle, good or bad, which they improve upon, and eagerly spread far and near.
They believed their secret well kept, whereas it had long since been made public; the story of their love, the particulars of their rendezvous, were topics of conversation throughout the neighborhood.
Sometimes, at dusk, they would see a bark gliding along the water, near the shore, and would say to each other:
"It is a belated fisherman, returning home."
They were mistaken. The boat contained malicious spies, who delighted in having discovered them, and hastened to report, with a thousand false additions, the result of their expedition.
One dreary November evening, Gaston was awakened to the true state of affairs. The Rhone was so swollen by heavy rains that an inundation was daily expected. To attempt to swim across this impetuous torrent, would be tempting God. Therefore Gaston went to Tarascon, intending to cross the bridge there, and walk along the bank to the usual place of meeting at La Verberie. Valentine expected him at eleven o'clock.
Whenever Gaston went to Tarascon, he dined with a relative living there; but on this occasion a strange fatality led him to accompany a friend to the hotel of the "Three Emperors."
After dinner, they went not the Cafe Simon, their usual resort, but to the little cafe in the market-place, where the fairs were held.
The small dining-hall was filled with young men. Gaston and his friend called for a bottle of beer, and began to play billiards.
After they had been playing a short time, Gaston's attention was attracted by peals of laughter from a party at the other end of the room.
From this moment, preoccupied by this continued laughter, of which he was evidently the subject, he knocked the balls carelessly in every direction. His conduct surprised his friend, who said to him:
"What is the matter? You are missing the simplest shots."
"It is nothing."
The game went on a while longer, when Gaston suddenly turned as white as a sheet, and, throwing down his cue, strode toward the table which was occupied by five young men, playing dominoes and drinking wine.
He addressed the eldest of the group, a handsome man of twenty-six, with fierce-looking eyes, and a heavy black mustache, named Jules Lazet.
"Repeat, if you dare," he said, in a voice trembling with passion, "the remark you just now made!"
"I certainly will repeat it," said Lazet, calmly. "I said, and I say it again, that a nobleman's daughter is no better than a mechanic's daughter; that virtue does not always accompany a titled name."
"You mentioned a particular name!"
Lazet rose from his chair as if he knew his answer would exasperate Gaston, and that from words they would come to blows.
"I did," he said, with an insolent smile: "I mentioned the name of the pretty little fairy of La Verberie."
All the coffee-drinkers, and even two travelling agents who were dining in the cafe, rose and surrounded the two young men.
The provoking looks, the murmurs, or rather shouts, which welcomed him as he walked up to Lazet, proved to Gaston that he was surrounded by enemies.
The wickedness and evil tongue of the old marquis were bearing their fruit. Rancor ferments quickly and fiercely among the people of Provence.
Gaston de Clameran was not a man to yield, even if his foes were a hundred, instead of fifteen or twenty.
"No one but a coward," he said, in a clear, ringing voice, which the pervading silence rendered almost startling, "no one but a contemptible coward would be infamous enough to calumniate a young girl who has neither father nor brother to defend her honor."
"If she has no father or brother," sneered Lazet, "she has her lovers, and that suffices."
The insulting words, "her lovers," enraged Gaston beyond control; he slapped Lazet violently in the face.
Everyone in the cafe simultaneously uttered a cry of terror. Lazet's violence of character, his herculean strength and undaunted courage, were well known. He sprang across the table between them, and seized Gaston by the throat. Then arose a scene of excitement and confusion. Clameran's friend, attempting to assist him, was knocked down with billiard-cues, and kicked under a table.
Equally strong and agile, Gaston and Lazet struggled for some minutes without either gaining an advantage.
Lazet, as loyal as he was courageous, would not accept assistance from his friends. He continually called out:
"Keep away; let me fight it out alone!"
But the others were too excited to remain inactive spectators of the scene.
"A quilt!" cried one of them, "a quilt to make the marquis jump!"
Five or six young men now rushed upon Gaston, and separated him from Lazet. Some tried to throw him down, others to trip him up.
He defended himself with the energy of despair, exhibiting in his furious struggles a strength of which he himself had not been conscious. He struck right and left as he showered fierce epithets upon his adversaries for being twelve against one.
He was endeavoring to get around the billiard-table so as to be near the door, and had almost succeeded, when an exultant cry arose:
"Here is the quilt! the quilt!" they cried.
"Put him in the quilt, the pretty fairy's lover!"
Gaston heard these cries. He saw himself overcome, and suffering an ignoble outrage at the hands of these enraged men.
By a dexterous movement he extricated himself from the grasp of the three who were holding him, and felled a fourth to the ground.
His arms were free; but all his enemies returned to the charge.
Then he seemed to lose his head, and, seizing a knife which lay on the table where the travelling agents had been dining, he plunged it into the breast of the first man who rushed upon him.
This unfortunate man was Jules Lazet. He dropped to the ground.
There was a second of silent stupor.
Then four or five of the young men rushed forward to raise Lazet. The landlady ran about wringing her hands, and screaming with fright. Some of the assailants rushed into the street shouting, "Murder! Murder!"
The others once more turned upon Gaston with cries of "Vengeance! kill him!"
He saw that he was lost. His enemies had seized the first objects they could lay their hands upon, and he received several wounds. He jumped upon the billiard-table, and, making a rapid spring, dashed through the large glass window of the cafe. He was fearfully cut by the broken glass and splinters, but he was free.
Gaston had escaped, but he was not yet saved. Astonished and disconcerted at his desperate feat, the crowd for a moment were stupefied; but, recovering their presence of mind, they started in pursuit of him.
The weather was bad, the ground wet and muddy, and heavy black clouds were rolling westward; but the night was not dark.
Gaston ran on from tree to tree, making frequent turnings, every moment on the point of being seized and surrounded, and asking himself what course he should take.
Finally he determined, if possible, to regain Clameran.
With incredible rapidity he darted diagonally across the fair-ground, in the direction of the levee which protected the valley of Tarascon from inundations.
Unfortunately, upon reaching this levee, planted with magnificent trees which made it one of the most charming walks of Provence, Gaston forgot that the entrance was closed by a gate with three steps, such as are always placed before walks intended for foot-passengers, and rushed against it with such violence that he was thrown back and badly bruised.
He quickly sprang up; but his pursuers were upon him.
This time he could expect no mercy. The infuriated men at his heels yelled that fearful cry which in the evil days of lawless bloodshed had often echoed in that valley: "In the Rhone with him! In the Rhone with the marquis!"
His reason had abandoned him; he no longer knew what he did. His forehead was cut, and the blood trickled from the wound into his eyes, and blinded him.
He must escape, or die in the attempt.
He had tightly clasped the bloody knife with which he had stabbed Lazet. He struck his nearest foe; the man fell to the ground with a heavy groan.
A second blow gained him a moment's respite, which gave him time to open the gate and rush along the levee.
Two men were kneeling over their wounded companion, and five others resumed the pursuit.
But Gaston flew fast, for the horror of his situation tripled his energy; excitement deadened the pain of his wounds; with elbows held tight to his sides, and holding his breath, he went along at such a speed that he soon distanced his pursuers; the noise of their feet became gradually more indistinct, and finally ceased.
Gaston ran on for a mile, across fields and over hedges; fences and ditches were leaped without effort and when he knew he was safe from capture he sank down at the foot of a tree to rest.
This terrible scene had taken place with inconceivable rapidity. Only forty minutes had elapsed since Gaston and his friend entered the cafe.
But during this short time how much had happened! These forty minutes had given more cause for sorrow and remorse than the whole of his previous life put together.
Entering this tavern with head erect and a happy heart, enjoying present existence, and looking forward to a yet better future, he left it ruined; for he was a murderer! Henceforth he would be under a ban—an outcast!
He had killed a man, and still convulsively held the murderous instrument; he cast it from him with horror.
He tried to account for the dreadful circumstances which had just taken place; as if it were of any importance to a man lying at the bottom of an abyss to know which stone had slipped, and precipitated him from the summit.
Still, if he alone had been ruined! But Valentine was dragged down with him: she was disgraced yet more than himself; her reputation was gone. And it was his want of self-command which had cast to the winds this honor, confided to his keeping, and which he held far dearer than his own.
But he could not remain here bewailing his misfortune. The police must soon be on his track. They would certainly go to the chateau of Clameran to seek him; and before leaving home, perhaps forever, he wished to say good-by to his father, and once more press Valentine to his heart.
He started to walk, but with great pain, for the reaction had come, and his nerves and muscles, so violently strained, had now begun to relax; the intense heat caused by his struggling and fast running was replaced by a cold perspiration, aching limbs, and chattering teeth. His hip and shoulder pained him almost beyond endurance. The cut on his forehead had stopped bleeding, but the coagulated blood around his eyes blinded him.
After a painful walk he reached his door at ten o'clock.
The old valet who admitted him started back terrified.
"Good heavens, monsieur! what is the matter?"
"Silence!" said Gaston in the brief, compressed tone always inspired by imminent danger, "silence! where is my father?"
"M. the marquis is in his room with M. Louis. He has had a sudden attack of the gout, and cannot put his foot to the ground; but you, monsieur——"
Gaston did not stop to listen further. He hurried to his father's room.
The old marquis, who was playing backgammon with Louis, dropped his dice-box with a cry of horror, when he looked up and saw his eldest son standing before him covered with blood.
"What is the matter? what have you been doing, Gaston?"
"I have come to embrace you for the last time, father, and to ask for assistance to escape abroad."
"Do you wish to fly the country?"
"I must fly, father, and instantly; I am pursued, the police may be here at any moment. I have killed two men."
The marquis was so shocked that he forgot the gout, and attempted to rise; a violent twinge made him drop back in his chair.
"Where? When?" he gasped.
"At Tarascon, in a cafe, an hour ago; fifteen men attacked me, and I seized a knife to defend myself."
"The old tricks of '93," said the marquis. "Did they insult you, Gaston? What was the cause of the attack?"
"They insulted in my presence the name of a noble young girl."
"And you punished the rascals? Jarnibleu! You did well. Who ever heard of a gentleman allowing insolent puppies to speak disrespectfully of a lady of quality in his presence? But who was the lady you defended?"
"Mlle. Valentine de la Verberie."
"What!" cried the marquis, "what! the daughter of that old witch! Those accursed de la Verberies have always brought misfortune upon us."
He certainly abominated the countess; but his respect for her noble blood was greater than his resentment toward her individually, and he added:
"Nevertheless, Gaston, you did your duty."
Meanwhile, the curiosity of St. Jean, the marquis's old valet, made him venture to open the door, and ask:
"Did M. the marquis ring?"
"No, you rascal," answered M. de Clameran: "you know very well I did not. But, now you are here, be useful. Quickly bring some clothes for M. Gaston, some fresh linen, and some warm water: hasten and dress his wounds."
These orders were promptly executed, and Gaston found he was not so badly hurt as he had thought. With the exception of a deep stab in his left shoulder, his wounds were not serious.
After receiving all the attentions which his condition required, Gaston felt like a new man, ready to brave any peril. His eyes sparkled with renewed energy and excitement.
The marquis made a sign to the servants to leave the room.
"Do you still think you ought to leave France?" he asked Gaston.
"My brother ought not to hesitate," interposed Louis: "he will be arrested here, thrown into prison, vilified in court, and—who knows?"
"We all know well enough that he will be convicted," grumbled the old marquis. "These are the benefits of the immortal revolution, as it is called. Ah, in my day we three would have taken our swords, jumped on our horses, and, dashing into Tarascon, would soon have—. But those good old days are passed. To-day we have to run away."
"There is no time to lose," observed Louis.
"True," said the marquis, "but to fly, to go abroad, one must have money; and I have none by me to give him."
"No, I have none. Ah, what a prodigal old fool I have been! If I only had a hundred louis!"
Then he told Louis to open the secretary, and hand him the money-box.
The box contained only nine hundred and twenty francs in gold.
"Nine hundred and twenty francs," cried the marquis: "it will never do for the eldest son of our house to fly the country with this paltry sum."
He sat lost in reflection. Suddenly his brow cleared, and he told Louis to open a secret drawer in the secretary, and bring him a small casket.
Then the marquis took from his neck a black ribbon, to which was suspended the key of the casket.
His sons observed with what deep emotion he unlocked it, and slowly took out a necklace, a large cross, several rings, and other pieces of jewelry.
His countenance assumed a solemn expression.
"Gaston, my dear son," he said, "at a time like this your life may depend upon bought assistance; money is power."
"I am young, father, and have courage."
"Listen to me. The jewels belonged to the marquise, your sainted mother, a noble, holy woman, who is now in heaven watching over us. These jewels have never left me. During my days of misery and want, when I was compelled to earn a livelihood by teaching music in London, I piously treasured them. I never thought of selling them; and to mortgage them, in the hour of direst need, would have seemed to be a sacrilege. But now you must take them, my son, and sell them for twenty thousand livres."
"No, father no; I cannot take them!"
"You must, Gaston. If your mother were on earth, she would tell you to take them, as I do now. I command you to take and use them. The salvation, the honor, of the heir of the house of Clameran, must not be imperilled for want of a little gold."
With tearful eyes, Gaston sank on his knees, and, carrying his father's hand to his lips, said:
"Thanks, father, thanks! In my heedless, ungrateful presumption I have hitherto misjudged you. I did not know your noble character. Forgive me. I accept; yes, I accept these jewels worn by my dear mother; but I take them as a sacred deposit, confided to my honor, and for which I will some day account to you."
In their emotion, the marquis and Gaston forgot the threatened danger. But Louis was not touched by the affecting scene.
"Time presses," he said: "you had better hasten."
"He is right," cried the marquis: "go, Gaston, go, my son; and God protect the heir of the Clamerans!"
Gaston slowly got up and said, with an embarrassed air:
"Before leaving you, my father, I must fulfil a sacred duty. I have not told you everything. I love Valentine, the young girl whose honor I defended this evening."
"Oh!" cried the marquis, thunderstruck, "oh, oh!"
"And I entreat you, father, to ask Mme. de la Verberie for the hand of her daughter. Valentine will gladly join me abroad, and share my exile."
Gaston stopped, frightened at the effect of his words. The old marquis had become crimson, or rather purple, as if struck by apoplexy.
"Preposterous!" he gasped. "Impossible! Perfect folly!"
"I love her, father, and have promised her never to marry another."
"Then always remain a bachelor."
"I shall marry her!" cried Gaston, excitedly. "I shall marry her because I have sworn I would, and I will not be so base as to desert her."
"I tell you, Mlle. de la Verberie must and shall be my wife. It is too late for me to draw back. Even if I no longer loved her, I would still marry her, because she has given herself to me; because, can't you understand—what was said at the cafe to-night was true: I have but one way of repairing the wrong I have done Valentine—by marrying her."
Gaston's confession, forced from him by circumstances, produced a very different impression from that which he had expected. The enraged marquis instantly became cool, and his mind seemed relieved of an immense weight. A wicked joy sparkled in his eyes, as he replied:
"Ah, ha! she yielded to your entreaties, did she? Jarnibleu! I am delighted. I congratulate you, Gaston: they say she is a pretty little fool."
"Monsieur," interrupted Gaston, indignantly; "I have told you that I love her, and have promised to marry her. You seem to forget."
"Ta, ta ta!" cried the marquis, "your scruples are absurd. You know full well that her great-grandfather led our great-grandmother astray. Now we are quits! I am delighted at the retaliation, for the old witch's sake."
"I swear by the memory of my mother, that Valentine shall be my wife!"
"Do you dare assume that tone toward me?" cried the exasperated marquis. "Never, understand me clearly; never will I give my consent. You know how dear to me is the honor of our house. Well, I would rather see you tried for murder, and even chained to the galleys, than married to this worthless jade!"
This last word was too much for Gaston.
"Then your wish shall be gratified, monsieur. I will remain here, and be arrested. I care not what becomes of me! What is life to me without the hope of Valentine? Take back these jewels: they are useless now."
A terrible scene would have taken place between the father and son, had they not been interrupted by a domestic who rushed into the room, and excitedly cried:
"The gendarmes! here are the gendarmes!"
At this news the old marquis started up, and seemed to forget his gout, which had yielded to more violent emotions.
"Gendarmes!" he cried, "in my house at Clameran! They shall pay dear for their insolence! You will help me, will you not, my men?"
"Yes, yes," answered the servants. "Down with the gendarmes! down with them!"
Fortunately Louis, during all this excitement, preserved his presence of mind.
"To resist would be folly," he said. "Even if we repulsed the gendarmes to-night, they would return to-morrow with reinforcements."
"Louis is right," said the marquis, bitterly. "Might is right, as they said in '93. The gendarmes are all powerful. Do they not even have the impertinence to come up to me while I am hunting, and ask to see my shooting-license?—I, a Clameran, show a license!"
"Where are they?" asked Louis of the servants.
"At the outer gate," answered La Verdure, one of the grooms. "Does not monsieur hear the noise they are making with their sabres?"
"Then Gaston must escape over the garden wall."
"It is guarded, monsieur," said La Verdure, "and the little gate in the park besides. There seems to be a regiment of them. They are even stationed along the park walls."
This was only too true. The rumor of Lazet's death had spread like wildfire throughout the town of Tarascon, and everybody was in a state of excitement. Not only mounted gendarmes, but a platoon of hussars from the garrison, had been sent in pursuit of the murderer.
At least twenty young men of Tarascon were volunteer guides to the armed force.
"Then," said the marquis, "we are surrounded?"
"Not a single chance for escape," groaned St. Jean.
"We shall see about that, Jarnibleu!" cried the marquis. "Ah, we are not the strongest, but we can be the most adroit. Attention! Louis, my son, you and La Verdure go down to the stable, and mount the fastest horses; then as quietly as possible station yourselves, you, Louis, at the park gate, and you, La Verdure, at the outer gate. Upon the signal I shall give you by firing a pistol, let every door be instantly opened, while Louis and Verdure dash through the gates, and make the gendarmes pursue them."
"I will make them fly," said La Verdure.
"Listen. During this time, Gaston, aided by St. Jean, will scale the park wall, and hasten along the river to the cabin of Pilorel, the fisherman. He is an old sailor of the republic, and devoted to our house. He will take Gaston in his boat; and, when they are once on the Rhone, there is nothing to be feared save the wrath of God. Now go, all of you: fly!"
Left alone with his son, the old man slipped the jewelry into a silk purse, and, handing them once more to Gaston, said, as he stretched out his arms toward him:
"Come here, my son, and let me embrace you, and bestow my blessing."
"Come," insisted the old man in broken tones, "I must embrace you for the last time: I may never see you again. Save yourself, save your name, Gaston, and then—you know how I love you, my son: take back the jewels. Come."
For an instant the father and son clung to each other, overpowered by emotion.
But the continued noise at the gates now reaches their ears.
"We must part!" said M. de Clameran, "go!" And, taking from his desk a little pair of pistols, he handed them to his son, and added, with averted eyes, "You must not be captured alive, Gaston!"
Gaston did not immediately descend to the park.
He yearned to see Valentine, and give her one last kiss before leaving France, and determined to persuade Pilorel to stop the boat as they went by the park of La Verberie.
He hastened to his room, placed the signal in the window so that Valentine might know he was coming, and waited for an answering light.
"Come, M. Gaston," entreated old St. Jean, who could not understand the strange conduct. "For God's sake make haste! your life is at stake!"
At last he came running down the stairs, and had just reached the vestibule when a pistol-shot, the signal given by the marquis, was heard.
The loud swinging open of the large gate, the rattling of the sabres of the gendarmes, the furious galloping of many horses, and a chorus of loud shouts and angry oaths, were next heard.
Leaning against the window, his brow beaded with cold perspiration, the Marquis de Clameran breathlessly awaited the issue of this expedient, upon which depended the life of his eldest son.
His measures were excellent, and deserved success. As he had ordered, Louis and La Verdure dashed out through the gate, one to the right, the other to the left, each one pursued by a dozen mounted men. Their horses flew like arrows, and kept far ahead of the pursuers.
Gaston would have been saved, but for the interference of fate; but was it fate, or was it malice?
Suddenly Louis's horse stumbled, and fell to the ground with his rider. The gendarmes rode up, and at once recognized the second son of M. de Clameran.
"This is not the assassin!" they cried. "Let us hurry back, else he will escape!"
They returned just in time to see, by the uncertain light of the moon peeping from behind a cloud, Gaston climbing the garden wall.
"There is our man!" exclaimed the corporal. "Keep your eyes open, and gallop after him!"
They spurred their horses, and hastened to the spot where Gaston had jumped from the wall.
On a wooded piece of ground, even if it be hilly, an agile man, if he preserves his presence of mind, can escape a number of horsemen. The ground on this side of the park was favorable to Gaston. He found himself in an immense madder-field; and, as is well known, as this valuable root must remain in the ground three years, the furrows are necessarily ploughed very deep. Horses cannot even walk over its uneven surface; indeed, they can scarcely stand steadily upon it.
This circumstance brought the gendarmes to a dead halt.
Four rash hussars ventured in the field, but they and their beasts were soon rolling between hillocks.
Jumping from ridge to ridge, Gaston soon reached a large field, freshly ploughed, and planted with young chestnuts.
As his chances of escape increased, the excitement grew more intense. The pursuers urged each other on, and called out to head him off, every time they saw Gaston run from one clump of trees to another.
Being familiar with the country, young De Clameran was confident of eluding his pursuers. He knew that the next field was a thistle-field, and was separated from the chestnut by a long, deep ditch.
He resolved to jump into this ditch, run along the bottom, and climb out at the farther end, while they were looking for him among the trees.
But he had forgotten the swelling of the river. Upon reaching the ditch, he found it full of water.
Discouraged but not disconcerted, he was about to jump across, when three horsemen appeared on the opposite side.
They were gendarmes who had ridden around the madder-field and chestnut-trees, knowing they could easily catch him on the level ground of the thistle-field.
At the sight of these three men, Gaston stood perplexed.
He should certainly be captured if he attempted to run through the field, at the end of which he could see the cabin of Pilorel the ferryman.
To retrace his steps would be surrendering to the hussars.
At a little distance on his right was a forest, but he was separated from it by a road upon which he heard the sound of approaching horses. He would certainly be caught there.
Foes in front of him, foes behind him, foes on the right of him! What was on his left?
On his left was the surging, foaming river.
What hope was left? The circle of which he was the centre was fast narrowing.
Must he, then, fall back upon suicide? Here in an open field, tracked by police like a wild beast, must he blow his brains out? What a death for a De Clameran!
No! He would seize the one chance of salvation left him: a forlorn, desperate, perilous chance, but still a chance—the river.
Holding a pistol in either hand, he ran and leaped upon the edge of a little promontory, projecting three yards into the Rhone.
This cape of refuge was formed by the immense trunk of a fallen tree.
The tree swayed and cracked fearfully under Gaston's weight, as he stood on the extreme end, and looked around upon his pursuers; there were fifteen of them, some on the right, some on the left, all uttering cries of joy.
"Do you surrender?" called out the corporal.
Gaston did not answer; he was weighing his chances. He was above the park of La Verberie; would he be able to swim there, granting that he was not swept away and drowned the instant he plunged into the angry torrent before him?
He pictured Valentine, at this very moment, watching, waiting, and praying for him on the other shore.
"For the last time I command you to surrender!" cried the corporal.
The unfortunate man did not hear; he was deafened by the waters which were roaring and rushing around him.
In a supreme moment like this, with his foot upon the threshold of another world, a man sees his past life rise before him, and seldom does he find cause for self-approval.
Although death stared him in the face, Gaston calmly considered which would be the best spot to plunge into, and commended his soul to God.
"He will stand there until we go after him," said a gendarme: "so we might as well advance."
Gaston had finished his prayer.
He flung his pistols in the direction of the gendarmes: he was ready.
He made the sign of the cross, then, with outstretched arms, dashed head foremost into the Rhone.
The violence of his spring detached the few remaining roots of the old tree; it oscillated a moment, whirled over, and then drifted away.
The spectators uttered a cry of horror and pity; anger seemed to have deserted them in their turn.
"That is an end of him," muttered one of the gendarmes. "It is useless for one to fight against the Rhone; his body will be picked up at Arles to-morrow."
The hussars seemed really remorseful at the tragic fate of the brave, handsome young man, whom a moment before they had pursued with so much bitter zeal. They admired his spirited resistance, his courage, and especially his resignation, his resolution to die.
True French soldiers, their sympathies were now all upon the side of the vanquished, and every man of them would have done all in his power to assist in saving the drowning man, and aiding his escape.
"An ugly piece of work!" grumbled the old quartermaster who had command of the hussars.
"Bast!" exclaimed the philosophic corporal, "the Rhone is no worse than the court of assizes: the result would be the same. Right about, men; march! The thing that troubles me is the idea of that poor old man waiting to hear his son's fate. I would not be the one to tell him what has happened. March!"
Valentine knew, that fatal evening, that Gaston would have to walk to Tarascon, to cross the bridge over the Rhone which connected Tarascon with Beaucaire, and did not expect to see him until eleven o'clock, the hour which they had fixed upon the previous evening.
But, happening to look up at the windows of Clameran, she saw lights hurrying to and fro in an unusual manner, even in rooms that she knew to be unoccupied.
A presentiment of impending misfortune chilled her blood, and stopped the beatings of her heart.
A secret and imperious voice within told her that something extraordinary was going on at the chateau of Clameran.
What was it? She could not imagine; but she knew, she felt, that some dreadful misfortune had happened.
With her eyes fastened upon the dark mass of stone looming in the distance, she watched the going and coming of the lights, as if their movements would give her a clew to what was taking place within those walls.
She raised her window, and tried to listen, fancying she could hear an unusual sound, even at such a distance. Alas! she heard nothing but the rushing roar of the angry river.
Her anxiety grew more insufferable every moment; and she felt as if she would faint were this torturing suspense to last much longer, when the well-known, beloved signal appeared suddenly in Gaston's window, and told her that her lover was about to swim across the Rhone.
She could scarcely believe her eyes; she must be under the influence of a dream; her amazement prevented her answering the signal, until it had been repeated three times.
Then, more dead than alive, with trembling limbs she hastened along the park to the river-bank.
Never had she seen the Rhone so furious. Since Gaston was risking his life in order to see her, she could no longer doubt that something fearful had occurred at Clameran.
She fell on her knees, and with clasped hands, and her wild eyes fixed upon the dark waters, besought the pitiless waves to yield up her dear Gaston.
Every dark object which she could distinguish floating in the middle of the torrent assumed the shape of a human form.
At one time, she thought she heard, above the roaring of the water, the terrible, agonized cry of a drowning man.
She watched and prayed, but her lover came not.
Still she waited.
While the gendarmes and hussars slowly and silently returned to the chateau of Clameran, Gaston experienced one of those miracles which would seem incredible were they not confirmed by the most convincing proof.
When he first plunged into the river, he rolled over five or six times, and was then drawn toward the bottom. In a swollen river the current is unequal, being much stronger in some places than in others; hence the great danger.
Gaston knew it, and guarded against it. Instead of wasting his strength in vain struggles, he held his breath, and kept still. About twenty-five yards from the spot where he had plunged in, he made a violent spring which brought him to the surface.
Rapidly drifting by him was the old tree.
For an instant, he was entangled in the mass of weeds and debris which clung to its roots, and followed in its wake; an eddy set him free. The tree and its clinging weeds swept on. It was the last familiar friend, gone.
Gaston dared not attempt to reach the opposite shore. He would have to land where the waves dashed him.
With great presence of mind he put forth all his strength and dexterity to slowly take an oblique course, knowing well that there was no hope for him if the current took him crosswise.
This fearful current is as capricious as a woman, which accounts for the strange effects of inundations; sometimes it rushes to the right, sometimes to the left, sparing one shore and ravaging the other.
Gaston was familiar with every turn of the river; he knew that just below Clameran was an abrupt turning, and relied upon the eddy formed thereby, to sweep him in the direction of La Verberie.
His hopes were not deceived. An oblique current suddenly swept him toward the right shore, and, if he had not been on his guard, would have sunk him.
But the eddy did not reach as far as Gaston supposed, and he was still some distance from the shore, when, with the rapidity of lightning, he was swept by the park of La Verberie.
As he floated by, he caught a glimpse of a white shadow among the trees; Valentine still waited for him.
He was gradually approaching the bank, as he reached the end of La Verberie, and attempted to land.
Feeling a foothold, he stood up twice, and each time was thrown down by the violence of the waves. He escaped being swept away by seizing some willow branches, and, clinging to them, raised himself, and climbed up the steep bank.
He was safe at last.
Without taking time to breathe, he darted in the direction of the park.
He came just in time. Overcome by the intensity of her emotions, Valentine had fainted, and lay apparently lifeless on the damp river-bank.
Gaston's entreaties and kisses aroused her from her stupor.
"Gaston!" she cried, in a tone that revealed all the love she felt for him. "Is it indeed you? Then God heard my prayers, and had pity on us."
"No, Valentine," he murmured. "God has had no pity."
The sad tones of Gaston's voice convinced her that her presentiment of evil was true.
"What new misfortune strikes us now?" she cried. "Why have you thus risked your life—a life far dearer to me than my own? What has happened?"
"This is what has happened, Valentine: our love-affair is the jest of the country around; our secret is a secret no longer."