She shrank back, and, burying her face in her hands, moaned piteously.
"This," said Gaston, forgetting everything but his present misery, "this is the result of the blind enmity of our families. Our noble and pure love, which ought to be a glory in the eyes of God and man, has to be concealed, and, when discovered, becomes a reproach as though it were some evil deed."
"Then all is known—all is discovered!" murmured Valentine. "Oh, Gaston, Gaston!"
While struggling for his life against furious men and angry elements, Gaston had preserved his self-possession; but the heart-broken tone of his beloved Valentine overcame him. He swung his arms above his head, and exclaimed:
"Yes, they know it; and oh, why could I not crush the villains for daring to utter your adored name? Ah, why did I only kill two of the scoundrels!"
"Have you killed someone, Gaston?"
Valentine's tone of horror gave Gaston a ray of reason.
"Yes," he replied with bitterness, "I have killed two men. It was for that that I have crossed the Rhone. I could not have my father's name disgraced by being tried and convicted for murder. I have been tracked like a wild beast by mounted police. I have escaped them, and now I am flying my country."
Valentine struggled to preserve her composure under this last unexpected blow.
"Where do you hope to find an asylum?" she asked.
"I know not. Where I am to go, what will become of me, God only knows! I only know that I am going to some strange land, to assume a false name and a disguise. I shall seek some lawless country which offers a refuge to murderers."
Gaston waited for an answer to this speech. None came, and he resumed with vehemence:
"And before disappearing, Valentine, I wished to see you, because now, when I am abandoned by everyone else, I have relied upon you, and had faith in your love. A tie unites us, my darling, stronger and more indissoluble than all earthly ties—the tie of love. I love you more than life itself, my Valentine; before God you are my wife; I am yours and you are mine, for ever and ever! Would you let me fly alone, Valentine? To the pain and toil of exile, to the sharp regrets of a ruined life, would you, could you, add the torture of separation?"
"Gaston, I implore you—"
"Ah, I knew it," he interrupted, mistaking the sense of her exclamation; "I knew you would not let me go off alone. I knew your sympathetic heart would long to share the burden of my miseries. This moment effaces the wretched suffering I have endured. Let us go! Having our happiness to defend, having you to protect, I fear nothing; I can brave all, conquer all. Come, my Valentine, we will escape, or die together! This is the long-dreamed-of happiness! The glorious future of love and liberty open before us!"
He had worked himself into a state of delirious excitement. He seized Valentine around the waist, and tried to draw her toward the gate.
As Gaston's exaltation increased, Valentine became composed and almost stolid in her forced calmness.
Gently, but with a quiet firmness, she withdrew herself from his embrace, and said sadly, but resolutely:
"What you wish is impossible, Gaston!"
This cold, inexplicable resistance confounded her lover.
"Impossible? Why, Valentine——"
"You know me well enough, Gaston, to be convinced that sharing the greatest hardships with you would to me be the height of happiness. But above the tones of your voice to which I fain would yield, above the voice of my own heart which urges me to follow the one being upon whom all its affections are centred, there is another voice—a powerful, imperious voice—which bids me to stay: the voice of duty."
"What! Would you think of remaining here after the horrible affair of to-night, after the scandal that will be spread to-morrow?"
"What do you mean? That I am lost, dishonored? Am I any more so to-day than I was yesterday? Do you think that the jeers and scoffs of the world could make me suffer more than do the pangs of my guilty conscience? I have long since passed judgment upon myself, Gaston; and, although the sound of your voice and the touch of your hand would make me forget all save the bliss of your love, no sooner were you away than I would weep tears of shame and remorse."
Gaston listened immovable, stupefied. He seemed to see a new Valentine standing before him, an entirely different woman from the one whose tender soul he thought he knew so well.
"Your mother, what will she say?" he asked.
"It is my duty to her that keeps me here. Do you wish me to prove an unnatural daughter, and desert a poor, lonely, friendless old woman, who has nothing but me to cling to? Could I abandon her to follow a lover?"
"But our enemies will inform her of everything, Valentine, and think how she will make you suffer!"
"No matter. The dictates of conscience must be obeyed. Ah, why can I not, at the price of my life, spare her the agony of hearing that her only daughter, her Valentine, has disgraced her name? She may be hard, cruel, pitiless toward me; but have I not deserved it? Oh, my only friend, we have been revelling in a dream too beautiful to last! I have long dreaded this awakening. Like two weak, credulous fools we imagined that happiness could exist beyond the pale of duty. Sooner or later stolen joys must be dearly paid for. After the sweet comes the bitter; we must bow our heads, and drink the cup to the dregs."
This cold reasoning, this sad resignation, was more than the fiery nature of Gaston could bear.
"You shall not talk thus!" he cried. "Can you not feel that the bare idea of your suffering humiliation drives me mad?"
"Alas! I see nothing but disgrace, the most fearful disgrace, staring me in the face."
"What do you mean, Valentine?"
"I have not told you, Gaston, I am——"
Here she stopped, hesitated, and then added:
"Nothing! I am a fool."
Had Gaston been less excited, he would have suspected some new misfortune beneath this reticence of Valentine; but his mind was too full of one idea—that of possessing her.
"All hope is not lost," he continued. "My father is kind-hearted, and was touched by my love and despair. I am sure that my letters, added to the intercession of my brother Louis, will induce him to ask Mme. de la Verberie for your hand."
This proposition seemed to frighten Valentine.
"Heaven forbid that the marquis should take this rash step!"
"Because my mother would reject his offer; because, I must confess it now, she has sworn I shall marry none but a rich man; and your father is not rich, Gaston, so you will have very little."
"Good heavens!" cried Gaston, with disgust, "is it to such an unnatural mother that you sacrifice me?"
"She is my mother; that is sufficient. I have not the right to judge her. My duty is to remain with her, and remain I shall."
Valentine's manner showed such determined resolution, that Gaston saw that further prayers would be in vain.
"Alas!" he cried, as he wrung his hands with despair, "you do not love me; you have never loved me!"
"Gaston, Gaston! you do not think what you say! Have you no mercy?"
"If you loved me," he cried, "you could never, at this moment of separation, have the cruel courage to coldly reason and calculate. Ah, far different is my love for you. Without you the world is void; to lose you is to die. What have I to live for? Let the Rhone take back this worthless life, so miraculously saved; it is now a burden to me!"
And he rushed toward the river, determined to bury his sorrow beneath its waves; Valentine seized his arm, and held him back.
"Is this the way to show your love for me?" she asked.
Gaston was absolutely discouraged.
"What is the use of living?" he said, dejectedly. "What is left to me now?"
"God is left to us, Gaston; and in his hands lies our future."
As a shipwrecked man seizes a rotten plank in his desperation, so Gaston eagerly caught at the word "future," as a beacon in the gloomy darkness surrounding him.
"Your commands shall be obeyed," he cried with enthusiasm. "Away with weakness! Yes, I will live, and struggle, and triumph. Mme. de la Verberie wants gold; well, she shall have it; in three years I will be rich, or I shall be dead."
With clasped hands Valentine thanked Heaven for this sudden determination, which was more than she had dared hope for.
"But," said Gaston, "before going away I wish to confide to you a sacred deposit."
He drew from his pocket the purse of jewels, and, handing them to Valentine, added:
"These jewels belonged to my poor mother; you, my angel, are alone worthy of wearing them. I thought of you when I accepted them from my father. I felt that you, as my affianced wife, were the proper person to have them."
Valentine refused to accept them.
"Take them, my darling, as a pledge of my return. If I do not come back within three years, you may know that I am dead, and then you must keep them as a souvenir of him who so much loved you."
She burst into tears, and took the purse.
"And now," said Gaston, "I have a last request to make. Everybody believes me dead, but I cannot let my poor old father labor under this impression. Swear to me that you will go yourself to-morrow morning, and tell him that I am still alive."
"I will tell him, myself," she said.
Gaston felt that he must now tear himself away before his courage failed him; each moment he was more loath to leave the only being who bound him to this world; he enveloped Valentine in a last fond embrace, and started up.
"What is your plan of escape?" she asked.
"I shall go to Marseilles, and hide in a friend's house until I can procure a passage to America."
"You must have assistance; I will secure you a guide in whom I have unbounded confidence; old Menoul, the ferryman, who lives near us. He owns the boat which he plies on the Rhone."
The lovers passed through the little park gate, of which Gaston had the key, and soon reached the boatman's cabin.
He was asleep in an easy-chair by the fire. When Valentine stood before him with Gaston, the old man jumped up, and kept rubbing his eyes, thinking it must be a dream.
"Pere Menoul," said Valentine, "M. Gaston is compelled to fly the country; he wants to be rowed out to sea, so that he can secretly embark. Can you take him in your boat as far as the mouth of the Rhone?"
"It is impossible," said the old man, shaking his head; "I would not dare venture on the river in its present state."
"But, Pere Menoul, it would be of immense service to me; would you not venture for my sake?"
"For your sake? certainly I would, Mlle. Valentine: I will do anything to gratify you. I am ready to start."
He looked at Gaston, and, seeing his clothes wet and covered with mud, said to him:
"Allow me to offer you my dead son's clothes, monsieur; they will serve as a disguise: come this way."
In a few minutes Pere Menoul returned with Gaston, whom no one would have recognized in his sailor dress.
Valentine went with them to the place where the boat was moored. While the old man was unfastening it, the disconsolate lovers tearfully embraced each other for the last time.
"In three years, my own Valentine; promise to wait three years for me! If alive, I will then see you."
"Adieu, mademoiselle," interrupted the boatman; "and you, monsieur, hold fast, and keep steady."
Then with a vigorous stroke of the boat-hook he sent the bark into the middle of the stream.
Three days later, thanks to the assistance of Pere Menoul, Gaston was concealed on the three-masted American vessel, Tom Jones, which was to start the next day for Valparaiso.
Cold and white as a marble statue, Valentine stood on the bank of the river, watching the frail bark which was carrying her lover away. It flew along the Rhone like a bird in a tempest, and after a few seconds appeared like a black speck in the midst of the heavy fog which floated over the water, then was lost to view.
Now that Gaston was gone, Valentine had no motive for concealing her despair; she wrung her hands and sobbed as if her heart would break. All her forced calmness, her bravery and hopefulness, were gone. She felt crushed and lost, as if the sharp pain in her heart was the forerunner of the torture in store for her; as if that swiftly gliding bark had carried off the better part of herself.
While Gaston treasured in the bottom of his heart a ray of hope, she felt there was nothing to look forward to but shame and sorrow.
The horrible facts which stared her in the face convinced her that happiness in this life was over; the future was worse than blank. She wept and shuddered at the prospect.
She slowly retraced her footsteps through the friendly little gate which had so often admitted poor Gaston; and, as she closed it behind her, she seemed to be placing an impassable barrier between herself and happiness.
Before entering, Valentine walked around the chateau, and looked up at the windows of her mother's chamber.
They were brilliantly lighted, as usual at this hour, for Mme. de la Verberie passed half the night in reading, and slept till late in the day.
Enjoying the comforts of life, which are little costly in the country, the selfish countess disturbed herself very little about her daughter.
Fearing no danger in their isolation, she left her at perfect liberty; and day and night Valentine might go and come, take long walks, and sit under trees for hours at a time, without restriction.
But on this night Valentine feared being seen. She would be called upon to explain the torn, muddy condition of her dress, and what answer could she give?
Fortunately she could reach her room without meeting anyone.
She needed solitude in order to collect her thoughts, and to pray for strength to bear the heavy burden of her sorrows, and to withstand the angry storm about to burst over her head.
Seated before her little work-table, she emptied the purse of jewels, and mechanically examined them.
It would be a sweet, sad comfort to wear the simplest of the rings, she thought, as she slipped the sparkling gem on her finger; but her mother would ask her where it came from. What answer could she give? Alas, none.
She kissed the purse, in memory of Gaston, and then concealed the sacred deposit in her bureau.
When she thought of going to Clameran, to inform the old marquis of the miraculous preservation of his son's life, her heart sank.
Blinded by his passion, Gaston did not think, when he requested this service, of the obstacles and dangers to be braved in its performance.
But Valentine saw them only too clearly; yet it did not occur to her for an instant to break her promise by sending another, or by delaying to go herself.
At sunrise she dressed herself.
When the bell was ringing for early mass, she thought it a good time to start on her errand.
The servants were all up, and one of them named Mihonne, who always waited on Valentine, was scrubbing the vestibule.
"If mother asks for me," said Valentine to the girl, "tell her I have gone to early mass."
She often went to church at this hour, so there was nothing to be feared thus far; Mihonne looked at her sadly, but said nothing.
Valentine knew that she would have difficulty in returning to breakfast. She would have to walk a league before reaching the bridge, and it was another league thence to Clameran; in all she must walk four leagues.
She set forth at a rapid pace. The consciousness of performing an extraordinary action, the feverish anxiety of peril incurred, increased her haste. She forgot that she had worn herself out weeping all night; that this fictitious strength could not last.
In spite of her efforts, it was after eight o'clock when she reached the long avenue leading to the main entrance of the chateau of Clameran.
She had only proceeded a few steps, when she saw old St. Jean coming down the path.
She stopped and waited for him; he hastened his steps at sight of her, as if having something to tell her.
He was very much excited, and his eyes were swollen with weeping.
To Valentine's surprise, he did not take off his hat to bow, and when he came up to her, he said, rudely:
"Are you going up to the chateau, mademoiselle?"
"If you are going after M. Gaston," said the servant, with an insolent sneer, "you are taking useless trouble. M. the count is dead, mademoiselle; he sacrificed himself for the sake of a worthless woman."
Valentine turned white at this insult, but took no notice of it. St. Jean, who expected to see her overcome by the dreadful news, was bewildered at her composure.
"I am going to the chateau," she said, quietly, "to speak to the marquis."
St. Jean stifled a sob, and said:
"Then it is not worth while to go any farther."
"Because the Marquis of Clameran died at five o'clock this morning."
Valentine leaned against a tree to prevent herself from falling.
"Dead!" she gasped.
"Yes," said St. Jean, fiercely; "yes, dead!"
A faithful servant of the old regime, St. Jean shared all the passions, weaknesses, friendships, and enmities of his master. He had a horror of the La Verberies. And now he saw in Valentine the woman who had caused the death of the marquis whom he had served for forty years, and of Gaston whom he worshipped.
"I will tell you how he died," said the bitter old man. "Yesterday evening, when those hounds came and told the marquis that his eldest son was dead, he who was as hardy as an oak, and could face any danger, instantly gave way, and dropped as if struck by lightning. I was there. He wildly beat the air with his hands, and fell without opening his lips; not one word did he utter. We put him to bed, and M. Louis galloped into Tarascon for a doctor. But the blow had struck too deeply. When Dr. Raget arrived he said there was no hope.
"At daybreak, the marquis recovered consciousness enough to ask for M. Louis, with whom he remained alone for some minutes. The last words he uttered were, 'Father and son the same day; there will be rejoicing at La Verberie.'"
Valentine might have soothed the sorrow of the faithful servant, by telling him Gaston still lived; but she feared it would be indiscreet, and, unfortunately, said nothing.
"Can I see M. Louis?" she asked after a long silence.
This question seemed to arouse all the anger slumbering in the breast of poor St. Jean.
"You! You would dare take such a step, Mlle. de la Verberie? What! would you presume to appear before him after what has happened? I will never allow it! And you had best, moreover, take my advice, and return home at once. I will not answer for the tongues of the servants here, when they see you."
And, without waiting for an answer, he hurried away.
What could Valentine do? Humiliated and miserable, she could only wearily drag her aching limbs back the way she had so rapidly come early that morning. On the road, she met many people coming from the town, where they had heard of the events of the previous night; and the poor girl was obliged to keep her eyes fastened to the ground in order to escape the insulting looks and mocking salutations with which the gossips passed her.
When Valentine reached La Verberie, she found Mihonne waiting for her.
"Ah, mademoiselle," she said, "make haste, and go in the house. Madame had a visitor this morning, and ever since she left has been crying out for you. Hurry; and take care what you say to her, for she is in a violent passion."
Much has been said in favor of the patriarchal manners of our ancestors.
Their manners may have been patriarchal years and years ago; but our mothers and wives nowadays certainly have not such ready hands and quick tongues, and are sometimes, at least, elegant in manner, and choice in their language.
Mme. de La Verberie had preserved the manners of the good old times, when grand ladies swore like troopers, and impressed their remarks by slaps in the face.
When Valentine appeared, she was overwhelmed with coarse epithets and violent abuse.
The countess had been informed of everything, with many gross additions added by public scandal. An old dowager, her most intimate friend, had hurried over early in the morning, to offer her this poisoned dish of gossip, seasoned with her own pretended condolences.
In this sad affair, Mme. de la Verberie mourned less over her daughter's loss of reputation, than over the ruin of her own projects—projects of going to Paris, making a grand marriage for Valentine, and living in luxury the rest of her days.
A young girl so compromised would not find it easy to get a husband. It would now be necessary to keep her two years longer in the country, before introducing her into Parisian society. The world must have time to forget this scandal.
"You worthless wretch!" cried the countess with fury; "is it thus you respect the noble traditions of our family? Heretofore it has never been considered necessary to watch the La Verberies; they could take care of their honor: but you must take advantage of your liberty to cover our name with disgrace!"
With a sinking heart, Valentine had foreseen this tirade. She felt that it was only a just punishment for her conduct. Knowing that the indignation of her mother was just, she meekly hung her head like a repentant sinner at the bar of justice.
But this submissive silence only exasperated the angry countess.
"Why do you not answer me?" she screamed with flashing eyes and a threatening gesture. "Speak! you——"
"What can I say, mother?"
"Say, miserable girl? Say that they lied when they accused a La Verberie of disgracing her name! Speak: defend yourself!"
Valentine mournfully shook her head, but said nothing.
"It is true, then?" shrieked the countess, beside herself with rage; "what they said is true?"
"Forgive me, mother: have mercy! I am so miserable!" moaned the poor girl.
"Forgive! have mercy! Do you dare to tell me I have not been deceived by this gossip to-day? Do you have the insolence to stand there and glory in your shame? Whose blood flows in your veins? You seem to be ignorant that some faults should be persistently denied, no matter how glaring the evidence against them. And you are my daughter! Can you not understand that an ignominious confession like this should never be forced from a woman by any human power? But no, you have lovers, and unblushingly avow it. Why not run over the town and tell everybody? Boast of it, glory in it: it would be something new!"
"Alas! you are pitiless, mother!"
"Did you ever have any pity on me, my dutiful daughter? Did it ever occur to you that your disgrace would kill me? No: I suppose you and your lover have often laughed at my blind confidence; for I had confidence in you: I had perfect faith in you. I believed you to be as innocent as when you lay in your cradle. And it has come to this: drunken men make a jest of your name in a billiard-room, then fight about you, and kill each other. I intrusted to you the honor of our name, and what did you do with it? You handed it over to the first-comer!"
This was too much for Valentine. The words, "first-comer," wounded her pride more than all the other abuse heaped upon her. She tried to protest against this unmerited insult.
"Ah, I have made a mistake in supposing this to be the first one," said the countess. "Among your many lovers, you choose the heir of our worst enemy, the son of those detested Clamerans. Among all, you select a coward who publicly boasted of your favors; a wretch who tried to avenge himself for the heroism of our ancestors by ruining you and me—an old woman and a child!"
"No, mother, you do him wrong. He loved me, and hopes for your consent."
"Wants to marry you, does he? Never, never shall that come to pass! I would rather see you lower than you are, in the gutter, laid in your coffin, than see you the wife of that man!"
Thus the hatred of the countess was expressed very much in the terms which the old marquis had used to his son.
"Besides," she added, with a ferocity of which only a bad woman is capable, "your lover is drowned, and the old marquis is dead. God is just; we are avenged."
The words of St. Jean, "There will be rejoicing at La Verberie," rung in Valentine's ears, as she saw the countess's eyes sparkle with wicked joy.
This was too much for the unfortunate girl.
For half an hour she had been exerting all of her strength to bear this cruel violence from her mother; but her physical endurance was not equal to the task. She turned pale, and with half-closed eyes tried to seize a table, as she felt herself falling; but her head fell against a bracket, and with bleeding forehead she dropped at her mother's feet.
The cold-hearted countess felt no revival of maternal love, as she looked at her daughter's lifeless form. Her vanity was wounded, but no other emotion disturbed her. Hers was a heart so full of anger and hatred that there was no room for any nobler sentiment.
She rang the bell; and the affrighted servants, who were trembling in the passage at the loud and angry tones of that voice, of which they all stood in terror, came running in.
"Carry mademoiselle to her room," she ordered: "lock her up, and bring me the key."
The countess intended keeping Valentine a close prisoner for a long time.
She well knew the mischievous, gossiping propensities of country people, who, from mere idleness, indulge in limitless scandal. A poor fallen girl must either leave the country, or drink to the very dregs the chalice of premeditated humiliations, heaped up and offered her by her neighbors. Each clown delights in casting a stone at her.
The plans of the countess were destined to be disconcerted.
The servants came to tell her that Valentine was restored to consciousness, but seemed to be very ill.
She replied that she would not listen to such absurdities, that it was all affectation; but Mihonne insisted upon her going up and judging for herself. She unwillingly went to her daughter's room, and saw that her life was in danger.
The countess betrayed no apprehension, but sent to Tarascon for Dr. Raget, who was the oracle of the neighborhood; he was with the Marquis of Clameran when he died.
Dr. Raget was one of those men who leave a blessed memory, which lives long after they have left this world.
Intelligent, noble-hearted, and wealthy, he devoted his life to his art; going from the mansions of the rich to the hovels of the poor, without ever accepting remuneration for his services.
At all hours of the night and day, his gray horse and old buggy might be seen, with a basket of wine and soup under the seat, for his poorer patients.
He was a little, bald-headed man of fifty, with a quick, bright eye, and pleasant face.
The servant fortunately found him at home; and he was soon standing at Valentine's bed-side, with a grave, perplexed look upon his usually cheerful face.
Endowed with profound perspicacity, quickened by practice, he studied Valentine and her mother alternately; and the penetrating gaze which he fastened on the old countess so disconcerted her that she felt her wrinkled face turning very red.
"This child is very ill," he abruptly said.
Mme. de la Verberie made no reply.
"I desire," continued the doctor, "to remain alone with her for a few minutes."
The countess dared not resist the authority of a man of Dr. Raget's character, and retired to the next room, apparently calm, but in reality disturbed by the most gloomy forebodings.
At the end of half an hour—it seemed a century—the doctor entered the room where she was waiting. He, who had witnessed so much suffering and misery all his life, was agitated and nervous after talking with Valentine.
"Well," said the countess, "what is the matter?"
"Summon all your courage, madame," he answered sadly, "and be prepared to grant indulgence and pardon to your suffering child. Mlle. Valentine will soon become a mother."
"The worthless creature! I feared as much."
The doctor was shocked at this dreadful expression of the countess's eye. He laid his hand on her arm, and gave her a penetrating look, beneath which she instantly quailed.
The doctor's suspicions were correct.
A dreadful idea had flashed across Mme. de la Verberie's mind—the idea of destroying this child which would be a living proof of Valentine's sin.
Feeling that her evil intention was divined, the proud woman's eyes fell beneath the doctor's obstinate gaze.
"I do not understand you, Dr. Raget," she murmured.
"But I understand you, madame; and I simply tell you that a crime does not obliterate a fault."
"I merely say what I think, madame. If I am mistaken in my impression, so much the better for you. At present, the condition of your daughter is serious, but not dangerous. Excitement and distress of mind have unstrung her nerves, and she now has a high fever; but I hope by great care and good nursing that she will soon recover."
The countess saw that the good doctor's suspicions were not dissipated; so she thought she would try affectionate anxiety, and said:
"At least, doctor, you can assure me that the dear child's life is not in danger?"
"No, madame," answered Dr. Raget with cutting irony, "your maternal tenderness need not be alarmed. All the poor child needs is rest of mind, which you alone can give her. A few kind words from you will do her more good than all of my prescriptions. But remember, madame, that the least shock or nervous excitement will produce the most fatal consequences."
"I am aware of that," said the hypocritical countess, "and shall be very careful. I must confess that I was unable to control my anger upon first hearing your announcement."
"But now that the first shock is over, madame, being a mother and a Christian, you will do your duty. My duty is to save your daughter and her child. I will call to-morrow."
Mme. de la Verberie had no idea of having the doctor go off in this way. She called him back, and, without reflecting that she was betraying herself, cried out:
"Do you pretend to say, monsieur, that you will prevent my taking every means to conceal this terrible misfortune that has fallen upon me? Do you wish our shame to be made public, to make me the laughing-stock of the neighborhood?"
The doctor reflected without answering; the condition of affairs was grave.
"No, madame," he finally said; "I cannot prevent your leaving La Verberie: that would be overstepping my powers. But it is my duty to hold you to account for the child. You are at liberty to go where you please; but you must give me proof of the child's living, or at least that no attempts have been made against its life."
After uttering these threatening words he left the house, and it was in good time; for the countess was choking with suppressed rage.
"Insolent upstart!" she said, "to presume to dictate to a woman of my rank! Ah, if I were not completely at his mercy!"
But she was at his mercy, and she knew well enough that it would be safest to obey.
She stamped her foot with anger, as she thought that all her ambitious plans were dashed to the ground.
No more hopes of luxury, of a millionaire son-in-law, of splendid carriages, rich dresses, and charming card-parties where she could lose money all night without disturbing her mind.
She would have to die as she had lived, neglected and poor; and this future life of deprivation would be harder to bear than the past, because she no longer had bright prospects to look forward to. It was a cruel awakening from her golden dreams.
And it was Valentine who brought this misery upon her.
This reflection aroused all her inherent bitterness, and she felt toward her daughter one of those implacable hatreds which, instead of being quenched, are strengthened by time.
She wished she could see Valentine lying dead before her; above all would she like the accursed infant to come to grief.
But the doctor's threatening look was still before her, and she dared not attempt her wicked plans. She even forced herself to go and say a few forgiving words to Valentine, and then left her to the care of the faithful Mihonne.
Poor Valentine! she prayed that death might kindly end her sufferings. She had neither the moral nor physical courage to fight against her fate, but hopelessly sank beneath the first blow, and made no attempt to rally herself.
She was, however, getting better. She felt that dull, heavy sensation which always follows violent mental or physical suffering; she was still able to reflect, and thought:
"Well, it is over; my mother knows everything. I no longer have her anger to fear, and must trust to time for her forgiveness."
This was the secret which Valentine had refused to reveal to Gaston, because she feared that he would refuse to leave her if he knew it; and she wished him to escape at any price of suffering to herself. Even now she did not regret having followed the dictates of duty, and remained at home.
The only thought which distressed her was Gaston's danger. Had he succeeded in embarking? How would she find out? The doctor had allowed her to get up; but she was not well enough to go out, and she did not know when she should be able to walk as far as Pere Menoul's cabin.
Happily the devoted old boatman was intelligent enough to anticipate her wishes.
Hearing that the young lady at the chateau was very ill, he set about devising some means of informing her of her friend's safety. He went to La Verberie several times on pretended errands, and finally succeeded in seeing Valentine. One of the servants was present, so he could not speak to her; but he made her understand by a significant look that Gaston was out of danger.
This knowledge contributed more toward Valentine's recovery than all the medicines administered by the doctor, who, after visiting her daily for six weeks, now pronounced his patient sufficiently strong to bear the fatigues of a journey.
The countess had waited with the greatest impatience for this decision. In order to prevent any delay, she had already sold at a discount half of her incoming rents, supposing that the sum thus raised, twenty-five thousand francs, would suffice for all contingent expenses.
For a fortnight she had been calling on all of her neighbors to bid them farewell, saying that her daughter had entirely recovered her health, and that she was going to take her to England to visit a rich old uncle, who had repeatedly written for her.
Valentine looked forward to this journey with terror, and shuddered when, on the evening that the doctor gave her permission to set out, her mother came to her room, and said:
"We will start the day after to-morrow."
Only one day left! And Valentine had been unable to let Louis de Clameran know that his brother was still living.
In this extremity she was obliged to confide in Mihonne, and sent her with a letter to Louis.
But the faithful servant had a useless walk.
The chateau of Clameran was deserted; all the servants had been dismissed, and M. Louis, whom they now called the marquis, had gone abroad.
At last they started. Mme. de la Verberie, feeling that she could trust Mihonne, decided to take her along; but first made her sacredly promise eternal secrecy.
It was in a little village near London that the countess, under the assumed name of Mrs. Wilson, took up her abode with her daughter and maid-servant.
She selected England, because she had lived there a long time, and was well acquainted with the manners and habits of the people, and spoke their language as well as she did her own.
She had also kept up her acquaintanceship with some of the English nobility, and often dined and went to the theatre with her friends in London. On these occasions she always took the humiliating precaution of locking up Valentine until she should return.
It was in this sad, solitary house, in the month of May, that the son of Valentine de la Verberie was born. He was taken to the parish priest, and christened Valentin-Raoul Wilson. The countess had prepared everything, and engaged an honest farmer's wife to adopt the child, bring him up as her own, and, when old enough, have him taught a trade. For doing this the countess paid her five hundred pounds.
Little Raoul was given over to his adopted parent a few hours after his birth.
The good woman thought him the child of an English lady, and there seemed no probability that he would ever discover the secret of his birth.
Restored to consciousness, Valentine asked for her child. She yearned to clasp it to her bosom; she implored to be allowed to hold her babe in her arms for only one minute.
But the cruel countess was pitiless.
"Your child!" she cried, "you must be dreaming; you have no child. You have had brain fever, but no child."
And as Valentine persisted in saying that she knew the child was alive, and that she must see it, the countess was forced to change her tactics.
"Your child is alive, and shall want for nothing," she said sharply; "let that suffice; and be thankful that I have so well concealed your disgrace. You must forget what has happened, as you would forget a painful dream. The past must be ignored—wiped out forever. You know me well enough to understand that I will be obeyed."
The moment had come when Valentine should have asserted her maternal rights, and resisted the countess's tyranny.
She had the idea, but not the courage to do so.
If, on one side, she saw the dangers of an almost culpable resignation—for she, too, was a mother!—on the other she felt crushed by the consciousness of her guilt.
She sadly yielded; surrendered herself into the hands of a mother whose conduct she refrained from questioning, to escape the painful necessity of condemning it.
But she secretly pined, and inwardly rebelled against her sad disappointment; and thus her recovery was delayed for several months.
Toward the end of July, the countess took her back to La Verberie. This time the mischief-makers and gossips were skilfully deceived. The countess went everywhere, and instituted secret inquiries, but heard no suspicions of the object of her long trip to England. Everyone believed in the visit to the rich uncle.
Only one man, Dr. Raget, knew the truth; and, although Mme. de la Verberie hated him from the bottom of her heart, she did him the justice to feel sure that she had nothing to fear from his indiscretion.
Her first visit was paid to him.
When she entered the room, she abruptly threw on the table the official papers which she had procured especially for him.
"These will prove to you, monsieur, that the child is living, and well cared for at a cost that I can ill afford."
"These are perfectly right, madame," he replied, after an attentive examination of the papers, "and, if your conscience does not reproach you, of course I have nothing to say."
"My conscience reproaches me with nothing, monsieur."
The old doctor shook his head, and gazing searchingly into her eyes, said:
"Can you say that you have not been harsh, even to cruelty?"
She turned away her head, and, assuming her grand air, answered:
"I have acted as a woman of my rank should act; and I am surprised to find in you an advocate and abettor of misconduct."
"Ah, madame," said the doctor, "it is your place to show kindness to the poor girl; and if you feel none yourself, you have no right to complain of it in others. What indulgence do you expect from strangers toward your unhappy daughter, when you, her mother, are so pitiless?"
This plain-spoken truth offended the countess, and she rose to leave.
"Have you finished what you have to say, Dr. Raget?" she asked, haughtily.
"Yes, madame; I have done. My only object was to spare you eternal remorse. Good-day."
The good doctor was mistaken in his idea of Mme. de la Verberie's character. She was utterly incapable of feeling remorse; but she suffered cruelly when her selfish vanity was wounded, or her comfort disturbed.
She resumed her luxurious mode of living, but, having disposed of a part of her income, found it difficult to make both ends meet.
This furnished her with an inexhaustible text for complaint; and at every meal she reproached Valentine so unmercifully, that the poor girl shrank from coming to the table.
She seemed to forget her own command, that the past should be buried in oblivion, and constantly recurred to it for food for her anger; a day seldom passed, that she did not say to Valentine:
"Your conduct has ruined me."
One day her daughter could not refrain from replying:
"I suppose you would have pardoned the fault, had it enriched us."
But these revolts of Valentine were rare, although her life was a series of tortures inflicted with inquisitorial cruelty.
Even the memory of Gaston had become a suffering.
Perhaps, discovering the uselessness of her sacrifice, of her courage, and her devotion to what she had considered her duty, she regretted not having followed him. What had become of him? Might he not have contrived to send her a letter, a word to let her know that he was still alive? Perhaps he was not dead. Perhaps he had forgotten her. He had sworn to return a rich man before the lapse of three years. Would he ever return?
There was a risk in his returning under any circumstances. His disappearance had not ended the terrible affair of Tarascon. He was supposed to be dead; but as there was no positive proof of his death, and his body could not be found, the law was compelled to yield to the clamor of public opinion.
The case was brought before the assize court; and, in default of appearance, Gaston de Clameran was sentenced to several years of close confinement.
As to Louis de Clameran, no one knew positively what had become of him. Some people said he was leading a life of reckless extravagance in Paris.
Informed of these facts by her faithful Mihonne, Valentine became more gloomy and hopeless than ever. Vainly did she question the dreary future; no ray appeared upon the dark horizon of her life.
Her elasticity was gone; and she had finally reached that state of passive resignation peculiar to people who are oppressed and cowed at home.
In this miserable way, passed four years since the fatal evening when Gaston left her.
Mme. de la Verberie had spent these years in constant discomfort. Seeing that she could not live upon her income, and having too much pride to sell her land, which was so badly managed that it only brought her in two per cent, she mortgaged her estate in order to raise money only to be spent as soon as borrowed.
In such matters, it is the first step that costs; and, after having once commenced to live upon her capital, the countess made rapid strides in extravagance, saying to herself, "After me, the deluge!" Very much as her neighbor, the late Marquis of Clameran, had managed his affairs, she was now conducting hers, having but one object in view—her own comfort and pleasure.
She made frequent visits to the neighboring towns of Nimes and Avignon; she sent to Paris for the most elegant toilets, and entertained a great deal of company. All the luxury that she had hoped to obtain by the acquisition of a rich son-in-law, she determined to give herself, utterly regardless of the fact that she was reducing her child to beggary. Great sorrows require consolation!
The summer that she returned from London, she did not hesitate to indulge her fancy for a horse; it was rather old, to be sure, but, when harnessed to a second-hand carriage bought on credit at Beaucaire, made quite a good appearance.
She would quiet her conscience, which occasionally reproached her for this constant extravagance, by saying, "I am so unhappy!"
The unhappiness was that this luxury cost her dear, very dear.
After having sold the rest of her rents, the countess first mortgaged the estate of La Verberie, and then the chateau itself.
In less than four years she owed more than forty thousand francs, and was unable to pay the interest of her debt.
She was racking her mind to discover some means of escape from her difficulties, when chance came to her rescue.
For some time a young engineer, employed in surveys along the Rhone, had made the village of Beaucaire the centre of his operations.
Being handsome, agreeable, and of polished manners, he had been warmly welcomed by the neighboring society, and the countess frequently met him at the houses of her friends where she went to play cards in the evenings.
This young engineer was named Andre Fauvel.
The first time he met Valentine he was struck by her beauty, and after once looking into her large, melancholy eyes, his admiration deepened into love; a love so earnest and passionate, that he felt that he could never be happy without her.
Before being introduced to her, his heart had surrendered itself to her charms.
He was wealthy; a splendid career was open to him, he was free; and he swore that Valentine should be his.
He confided all his matrimonial plans to an old friend of Mme. de la Verberie, who was as noble as a Montmorency, and as poor as Job.
With the precision of a graduate of the polytechnic school, he had enumerated all his qualifications for being a model son-in-law.
For a long time the old lady listened to him without interruption; but, when he had finished, she did not hesitate to tell him that his pretensions were presumptuous.
What! he, a man of no pedigree, a Fauvel, a common surveyor, to aspire to the hand of a La Verberie!
After having enumerated all the superior advantages of that superior order of beings, the nobility, she condescended to take a common-sense view of the case, and said:
"However, you may succeed. The poor countess owes money in every direction; not a day passes without the bailiffs calling upon her; so that, you understand, if a rich suitor appeared, and agreed to her terms for settlements—well, well, there is no knowing what might happen."
Andre Fauvel was young and sentimental: the insinuations of the old lady seemed to him preposterous.
On reflection, however, when he had studied the character of the nobility in the neighborhood, who were rich in nothing but prejudices, he clearly saw that pecuniary considerations alone would be strong enough to decide the proud Countess de la Verberie to grant him her daughter's hand.
This certainly ended his hesitations, and he turned his whole attention to devising a plan for presenting his claim.
He did not find this an easy thing to accomplish. To go in quest of a wife with her purchase-money in his hand was repugnant to his feelings, and contrary to his ideas of delicacy. But he had no one to urge his suit for him on his own merits; so he was compelled to shut his eyes to the distasteful features of his task, and treat his passion as a matter of business.
The occasion so anxiously awaited, to explain his intentions, soon presented itself.
One day he entered a hotel at Beaucaire, and, as he sat down to dinner, he saw that Mme. de la Verberie was at the adjoining table. He blushed deeply, and asked permission to sit at her table, which was granted with a most encouraging smile.
Did the countess suspect the love of the young engineer? Had she been warned by her friend?
At any rate, without giving Andre time to gradually approach the subject weighing on his mind, she began to complain of the hard times, the scarcity of money, and the grasping meanness of the trades-people.
She had come to Beaucaire, indeed, to borrow money, and found every bank and cash-box closed against her; and her lawyer had advised her to sell her land for what it would bring. This made her very angry.
Temper, joined to that secret instinct of the situation of affairs which is the sixth sense of a woman, loosened her tongue, and made her more communicative to this comparative stranger than she had ever been to her bosom friends. She explained to him the horror of her situation, her present needs, her anxiety for the future, and, above all, her great distress at not being able to marry off her beloved daughter. If she only had a dowry for her child!
Andre listened to these complaints with becoming commiseration, but in reality he was delighted.
Without giving her time to finish her tale, he began to state what he called his view of the matter.
He said that, although he sympathized deeply with the countess, he could not account for her uneasiness about her daughter.
What? Could she be disturbed at having no dowry for her? Why, the rank and beauty of Mlle. Valentine were a fortune in themselves, of which any man might be proud.
He knew more than one man who would esteem himself only too happy if Mlle. Valentine would accept his name, and confer upon him the sweet duty of relieving her mother from all anxiety and care. Finally, he did not think the situation of the countess's affairs nearly so desperate as she imagined. How much money would be necessary to pay off the mortgages upon La Verberie? About forty thousand francs, perhaps? Indeed! That was but a mere trifle.
Besides, this sum need not be a gift from the son-in-law; if she chose, it might be a loan, because the estate would be his in the end, and in time the land would be double its present value; it would be a pity to sell now. A man, too, worthy of Valentine's love could never let his wife's mother want for the comforts and luxuries due to a lady of her age, rank, and misfortunes. He would be only too glad to offer her a sufficient income, not only to provide comfort, but even luxury.
As Andre spoke, in a tone too earnest to be assumed, it seemed to the countess that a celestial dew was dropping upon her pecuniary wounds. Her countenance was radiant with joy, her fierce little eyes beamed with the most encouraging tenderness, her thin lips were wreathed in the most friendly smiles.
One thought disturbed the young engineer.
"Does she understand me seriously?" he thought.
She certainly did, as her subsequent remarks proved. He saw that the would-be sentimental old lady had an eye to business.
"Alas!" she sighed, "La Verberie cannot be saved by forty thousand francs; the principal and interest of the debt amount to sixty thousand."
"Oh, either forty or sixty thousand is nothing worth speaking of."
"Four thousand francs is not enough to support a lady respectably," she said after a pause. "Everything is so dear in this section of the country! But with six thousand francs—yes, six thousand francs would make me happy!"
The young man thought that her demands were becoming excessive, but with the generosity of an ardent lover he said:
"The son-in-law of whom we are speaking cannot be very devoted to Mlle. Valentine, if the paltry sum of two thousand francs were objected to for an instant."
"You promise too much!" muttered the countess.
"The imaginary son-in-law," she finally added, "must be an honorable man who will fulfil his promises. I have my daughter's happiness too much at heart to give her to a man who did not produce—what do you call them?—securities, guarantees."
"Decidedly," thought Fauvel with mortification, "we are making a bargain and sale."
Then he said aloud:
"Of course, your son-in-law would bind himself in the marriage contract to—"
"Never! monsieur, never! Put such an agreement in the marriage contract! Think of the impropriety of the thing! What would the world say?"
"Permit me, madame, to suggest that your pension should be mentioned as the interest of a sum acknowledged to have been received from you."
"Well, that might do very well; that is very proper."
The countess insisted upon taking Andre home in her carriage. During the drive, no definite plan was agreed upon between them; but they understood each other so well, that, when the countess set the young engineer down at his own door, she invited him to dinner the next day, and held out her skinny hand which Andre kissed with devotion, as he thought of the rosy fingers of Valentine.
When Mme. de la Verberie returned home, the servants were dumb with astonishment at her good-humor: they had not seen her in this happy frame of mind for years.
And her day's work was of a nature to elevate her spirits: she had been unexpectedly raised from poverty to affluence. She, who boasted of such proud sentiments, never stopped to think of the infamy of the transaction in which she had been engaged: it seemed quite right in her selfish eyes.
"A pension of six thousand francs!" she thought, "and a thousand crowns from the estate, that makes nine thousand francs a year! My daughter will live in Paris after she is married, and I can spend the winters with my dear children without expense."
At this price, she would have sold, not only one, but three daughters, if she had possessed them.
But suddenly her blood ran cold at a sudden thought, which crossed her mind.
"Would Valentine consent?"
Her anxiety to set her mind at rest sent her straightway to her daughter's room. She found Valentine reading by the light of a flickering candle.
"My daughter," she said abruptly, "an estimable young man has demanded your hand in marriage, and I have promised it to him."
On this startling announcement, Valentine started up and clasped her hands.
"Impossible!" she murmured, "impossible!"
"Will you be good enough to explain why it is impossible?"
"Did you tell him, mother, who I am, what I am? Did you confess——"
"Your past fully? No, thank God, I am not fool enough for that, and I hope you will have the sense to imitate my example, and keep silent on the subject."
Although Valentine's spirit was completely crushed by her mother's tyranny, her sense of honor made her revolt against this demand.
"You certainly would not wish me to marry an honest man, mother, without confessing to him everything connected with the past? I could never practise a deception so base."
The countess felt very much like flying into a passion; but she knew that threats would be of no avail in this instance, where resistance would be a duty of conscience with her daughter. Instead of commanding, she entreated.
"Poor child," she said, "my poor, dear Valentine. If you only knew the dreadful state of our affairs, you would not talk in this heartless way. Your folly commenced our ruin; now it is at its last stage. Do you know that our creditors threaten to drive us away from La Verberie? Then what will become of us, my poor child? Must I in my old age go begging from door to door? We are on the verge of ruin, and this marriage is our only hope of salvation."
These tearful entreaties were followed by plausible arguments.
The fair-spoken countess made use of strange and subtle theories. What she formerly regarded as a monstrous crime, she now spoke of as a peccadillo.
She could understand, she said, her daughter's scruples if there were any danger of the past being brought to light; but she had taken such precautions that there was no fear of that.
Would it make her love her husband any the less? No. Would he be made any happier for hearing that she had loved before? No. Then why say anything about the past?
Shocked, bewildered, Valentine asked herself if this was really her mother? The haughty woman, who had always been such a worshipper of honor and duty, to contradict every word she had uttered during her life! Valentine could not understand the sudden change.
But she would have understood it, had she known to what base deeds a mind blunted by selfishness and vanity can lend itself.
The countess's subtle arguments and shameful sophistry neither moved nor convinced her; but she had not the courage to resist the tearful entreaties of her mother, who ended by falling on her knees, and with clasped hands imploring her child to save her from worse than death.
Violently agitated, distracted by a thousand conflicting emotions, daring neither to refuse nor to promise, fearing the consequences of a decision thus forced from her, the unhappy girl begged her mother for a few hours to reflect.
Mme. de la Verberie dared not refuse this request, and acquiesced.
"I will leave you, my daughter," she said, "and I trust your own heart will tell you how to decide between a useless confession and your mother's salvation."
With these words she left the room indignant but hopeful.
And she had grounds for hope. Placed between two obligations equally sacred, equally binding, but diametrically opposite, Valentine's troubled mind could no longer clearly discern the path of duty. Could she reduce her mother to want and misery? Could she basely deceive the confidence and love of an honorable man? However she decided, her future life would be one of suffering and remorse.
Alas! why had she not a wise and kind adviser to point out the right course to pursue, and assist her in struggling against evil influences? Why had she not that gentle, discreet friend who had inspired her with hope and courage in her first dark sorrow—Dr. Raget?
Formerly the memory of Gaston had been her guiding star: now this far-off memory was nothing but a faint mist—a sort of vanishing dream.
In romance we meet with heroines of lifelong constancy: real life produces no such miracles.
For a long time Valentine's mind had been filled with the image of Gaston. As the hero of her dreams she dwelt fondly on his memory; but the shadows of time had gradually dimmed the brilliancy of her idol, and now only preserved a cold relic, over which she sometimes wept.
When she arose the next morning, pale and weak from a sleepless, tearful night, she had almost resolved to confess everything to her suitor.
But when evening came, and she went down to see Andre Fauvel, the presence of her mother's threatening, supplicating eye destroyed her courage.
She said to herself, "I will tell him to-morrow." Then she said, "I will wait another day; one more day can make no difference."
The countess saw all these struggles, but was not made uneasy by them.
She knew by experience that, when a painful duty is put off, it is never performed.
There was some excuse for Valentine in the horror of her situation. Perhaps, unknown to herself, she felt a faint hope arise within her. Any marriage, even an unhappy one, offered the prospect of a change, of a new life, a relief from the insupportable suffering she was now enduring.
Sometimes, in her ignorance of human life, she imagined that time and close intimacy would take it easier for her to confess her terrible fault; that it would be the most natural thing in the world for Andre to pardon her, and insist upon marrying her, since he loved her so deeply.
That he sincerely loved her, she knew full well. It was not the impetuous passion of Gaston, with its excitements and terrors, but a calm, steady affection, more lasting than the intoxicating love of Gaston was ever likely to be. She felt a sort of blissful rest in its legitimacy and constancy.
Thus Valentine gradually became accustomed to Andre's soothing presence, and was surprised into feeling very happy at the constant delicate attentions and looks of affection that he lavished upon her. She did not feel any love for him yet; but a separation would have distressed her deeply.
During the courtship the countess's conduct was a masterpiece.
She suddenly ceased to importune her daughter, and with tearful resignation said she would not attempt to influence her decision, that her happy settlement in life was the only anxiety that weighed upon her mind.
But she went about the house sighing and groaning as if she were upon the eve of starving to death. She also made arrangements to be tormented by the bailiffs. Attachments and notices to quit poured in at La Verberie, which she would show to Valentine and, with tears in her eyes, say:
"God grant we may not be driven from the home of our ancestors before your marriage, my darling!"
Knowing that her presence was sufficient to freeze any confession on her daughter's lips, she never left her alone with Andre.
"Once married," she thought, "they can settle the matter to suit themselves. I shall not then be disturbed by it."
She was as impatient as Andre, and hastened the preparations for the wedding. She gave Valentine no opportunity for reflection. She kept her constantly busy, either in driving to town to purchase some article of dress, or in paying visits.
At last the eve of the wedding-day found her anxious and oppressed with fear lest something should prevent the consummation of her hopes and labors. She was like a gambler who had ventured his last stake.
On this night, for the first time, Valentine found herself alone with the man who was to become her husband.
She was sitting at twilight, in the parlor, miserable and trembling, anxious to unburden her mind, and yet frightened at the very thought of doing so, when Andre entered. Seeing that she was agitated, he pressed her hand, and gently begged her to tell him the cause of her sorrow.
"Am I not your best friend," he said, "and ought I not to be the confidant of your troubles, if you have any? Why these tears, my darling?"
Now was the time for her to confess, and throw herself upon his generosity. But her trembling lips refused to open when she thought of his pain and anguish, and the anger of her mother, which would be caused by the few words she would utter. She felt that it was too late; and, bursting into tears, she cried out, "I am afraid—What shall I do?"
Imagining that she was merely disturbed by the vague fears experienced by most young girls when about to marry, he tried, with tender, loving words, to console and reassure her, promising to shield her from every care and sorrow, if she would only trust to his devoted love. But what was his surprise to find that his affectionate words only increased her distress; she buried her face in her hands, and wept as if her heart would break.
While she was thus summoning her courage, and he was entreating her confidence, Mme. de la Verberie came hurrying into the room for them to sign the contract.
The opportunity was lost; Andre Fauvel was left in ignorance.
The next day, a lovely spring morning, Andre Fauvel and Valentine de la Verberie were married at the village church.
Early in the morning, the chateau was filled with the bride's friends, who came, according to custom, to assist at her wedding toilet.
Valentine forced herself to appear calm, even smiling; but her face was whiter than her veil; her heart was torn by remorse. She felt as though the sad truth were written upon her brow; and this pure white dress was a bitter irony, a galling humiliation.
She shuddered when her most intimate school-mate placed the wreath of orange-blossoms upon her head. These emblems of purity seemed to burn her like a band of red-hot iron. One of the wire stems of the flowers scratched her forehead, and a drop of blood fell upon her snowy robe.
What an evil omen! Valentine was near fainting when she thought of the past and the future connected by this bloody sign of woe.
But presages are deceitful, as it proved with Valentine; for she became a happy woman and a loving wife.
Yes, at the end of her first year of married life, she confessed to herself that her happiness would be complete if she could only forget the terrible past.
Andre adored her. He had been wonderfully successful in his business affairs; he wished to be immensely rich, not for himself, but for the sake of his beloved wife, whom he would surround with every luxury. He thought her the most beautiful woman in Paris, and determined that she should be the most superbly dressed.
Eighteen months after her marriage, Madame Fauvel presented her husband with a son. But neither this child, nor a second son born a year later, could make her forget the first one of all, the poor, forsaken babe who had been thrown upon strangers, mercenaries, who valued the money, but not the child for whom it was paid.
She would look at her two sons, surrounded by every luxury which money could give, and murmur to herself:
"Who knows if the abandoned one has bread to eat?"
If she only knew where he was: if she only dared inquire! But she was afraid.
Sometimes she would be uneasy about Gaston's jewels, constantly fearing that their hiding-place would be discovered. Then she would think, "I may as well be tranquil; misfortune has forgotten me."
Poor, deluded woman! Misfortune is a visitor who sometimes delays his visits, but always comes in the end.
Louis de Clameran, the second son of the marquis, was one of those self-controlled men who, beneath a cool, careless manner, conceal a fiery temperament, and ungovernable passions.
All sorts of extravagant ideas had begun to ferment in his disordered brain, long before the occurrence which decided the destiny of the Clameran family.
Apparently occupied in the pursuit of pleasure, this precocious hypocrite longed for a larger field in which to indulge his evil inclinations, secretly cursing the stern necessity which chained him down to this dreary country life, and the old chateau, which to him was more gloomy than a prison, and as lifeless as the grave.
This existence, dragged out in the country and the small neighboring towns, was too monotonous for his restless nature. The paternal authority, though so gently expressed, exasperated his rebellious temper. He thirsted for independence, riches, excitement, and all the unknown pleasures that pall upon the senses simultaneously with their attainment.
Louis did not love his father, and he hated his brother Gaston.
The old marquis, in his culpable thoughtlessness, had kindled this burning envy in the heart of his second son.
A strict observer of traditional rights, he had always declared that the eldest son of a noble house should inherit all the family possessions, and that he intended to leave Gaston his entire fortune.
This flagrant injustice and favoritism inspired Louis with envious hatred for his brother.
Gaston always said that he would never consent to profit by this paternal partiality, but would share equally with his brother. Judging others by himself, Louis placed no faith in this assertion, which he called an ostentatious affectation of generosity.
Although this hatred was unsuspected by the marquis and Gaston, it was betrayed by acts significant enough to attract the attention of the servants, who often commented upon it.
They were so fully aware of Louis's sentiments toward his brother that, when he was prevented from escaping because of the stumbling horse, they refused to believe it an accident; and, whenever Louis came near would mutter, "Fratricide!"
A deplorable scene took place between Louis and St. Jean, who was allowed, on account of his fifty years' faithful service, to take liberties which he sometimes abused by making rough speeches to his superiors.
"It is a great pity," said the old servant, "that a skilful rider like yourself should have fallen at the very moment when your brother's life depended upon your horsemanship."
At this broad insinuation, Louis turned pale, and threateningly cried out:
"You insolent dog, what do you mean?"
"You know well enough what I mean, monsieur," the old man said, significantly.
"I do not know! Explain your impertinence: speak, I tell you!"
The man only answered by a meaning look, which so incensed Louis that he rushed toward him with upraised whip, and would have beaten him unmercifully, had not the other servants interfered, and dragged St. Jean from the spot.
This altercation occurred while Gaston was in the madder-field trying to escape his pursuers.
After a while the gendarmes and hussars returned, with slow tread and sad faces, to say that Gaston de Clameran had plunged into the Rhone, and was instantly drowned.
This melancholy news was received with groans and tears by everyone save Louis, who remained calm and unmoved: not a single muscle of his face quivered.
But his eyes sparkled with triumph. A secret voice cried within him, "Now you are assured of the family fortune, and a marquis's coronet."
He was no longer the poverty-stricken younger son, but the sole heir of the Clamerans.
The corporal of the gendarmes had said:
"I would not be the one to tell the poor old man that his son is drowned."
Louis felt none of the tender-hearted scruples of the brave old soldier. He instantly went to his father's sick-room, and said, in a firm voice:
"My brother had to choose between disgrace and death; he is dead."
Like a sturdy oak stricken by lightning, the marquis tottered and fell when these fatal words sounded in his ears. The doctor soon arrived, but alas! only to say that science was of no avail.
Toward daybreak, Louis, without a tear, received his father's last sigh.
Louis was now the master.
All the unjust precautions taken by the marquis to elude the law, and insure beyond dispute the possession of his entire fortune to his eldest son, turned against him.
By means of a fraudulent deed of trust drawn by his dishonest lawyer, M. de Clameran had disposed everything so that, on the day of his death, every farthing he owned would be Gaston's.
Louis alone was benefited by this precaution. He came into possession without even being called upon for the certificate of his brother's death.
He was now Marquis of Clameran; he was free, he was comparatively rich. He who had never had twenty-five crowns in his pocket at once, now found himself the possessor of two hundred thousand francs.
This sudden, unexpected fortune so completely turned his head that he forgot his skilful dissimulation. His demeanor at the funeral of the marquis was much censured. He followed the coffin, with his head bowed and his face buried in a handkerchief; but this did not conceal the buoyancy of his spirit, and the joy which sparkled in his eyes.
The day after the funeral, Louis sold everything that he could dispose of, horses, carriages, and family plate.
The next day he discharged all the old servants, who had hoped to end their days beneath the hospitable roof of Clameran. Several, with tears in their eyes, took him aside, and entreated him to let them stay without wages. He roughly ordered them to be gone, and never appear before his eyes again.
He sent for his father's lawyer, and gave him a power of attorney to sell the estate, and received in return the sum of twenty thousand francs as the first payment in advance.
At the close of the week, he locked up the chateau, with a vow never to cross its sill again, and left the keys in the keeping of St. Jean, who owned a little house near Clameran, and would continue to live in the neighborhood.
Poor St. Jean! little did he think that, in preventing Valentine from seeing Louis, he had ruined the prospects of his beloved Gaston.
On receiving the keys he asked one question:
"Shall we not search for your brother's body, M. the marquis?" he inquired in broken-hearted tones. "And, if it is found, what must be done with it?"
"I shall leave instructions with my notary," replied Louis. And he hurried away from Clameran as if the ground burnt his feet. He went to Tarascon, where he had already forwarded his baggage, and took the stage-coach which travelled between Marseilles and Paris, the railroad not yet being finished.
At last he was off. The lumbering old stage rattled along, drawn by six horses; and the deep gullies made by the wheels seemed so many abysses between the past and the future.
Lying back in a corner of the stage, Louis de Clameran enjoyed in anticipation the fields of pleasure spread before his dazzled eyes. At the end of the journey, Paris rose up before him, radiant, brilliantly dazzling as the sun.
Yes, he was going to Paris, the promised land, the city of wonders, where every Aladdin finds a lamp. There all ambitions are crowned, all dreams realized, all passions, all desires, good and evil, can be satisfied.
There the fast-fleeting days are followed by nights of ever-varied pleasure and excitement. In twenty theatres tragedy weeps, or comedy laughs; whilst at the opera the most beautiful women in the world, sparkling with diamonds, are ready to die with ecstasy at the sound of divine music; everywhere noise, excitement, luxury, and pleasure.
What a dream! The heart of Louis de Clameran was swollen with desire, and he felt that he should go mad if the horses crawled with such torturing slowness: he would like to spring from the old stage, and fly to his haven of delight.
He never once thought of the past with a pang of regret. What mattered it to him how his father and brother had died? All his energies were devoted to penetrating the mysterious future that now awaited him.
Was not every chance in his favor? He was young, rich, handsome, and a marquis. He had a constitution of iron; he carried twenty thousand francs in his pocket, and would soon have ten times as many more.
He, who had always been poor, regarded this sum as an exhaustless treasure.
And at nightfall, when he jumped from the stage upon the brilliantly lighted street of Paris, he seemed to be taking possession of the grand city, and felt as though he could buy everything in it.
His illusions were those natural to all young men who suddenly come into possession of a patrimony after years of privation.
It is this ignorance of the real value of money that squanders fortunes, and fritters away accumulated patrimonies so laboriously earned and saved in the frugal provinces.
Imbued with his own importance, accustomed to the deference of the country people, the young marquis came to Paris with the expectation of being a lion, supposing that his name and fortune were sufficient to place him upon any pinnacle he might desire.
He was mortified to discover his error. To his great surprise he discovered that he possessed nothing which constituted a position in this immense city. He found that in the midst of this busy, indifferent crowd, he was lost, as unnoticed as a drop of water in a torrent.
But this unflattering reality could not discourage a man who was determined to gratify his passion at all costs. His ancestral name gained him but one privilege, disastrous for his future: it opened to him the doors of the Faubourg St. Germain.
There he became intimate with men of his own age and rank, whose incomes were larger than his principal.
Nearly all of them confessed that they only kept up their extravagant style of living by dint of skilful economy behind the scenes, and by regulating their vices and follies as judiciously as a hosier would manage his Sunday holidays.
This information astonished Louis, but did not open his eyes. He endeavored to imitate the dashing style of these economically wasteful young men, without pretending to conform to their prudential rules. He learned how to spend, but not how to settle his accounts as they did.
He was Marquis of Clameran, and, having given himself a reputation of great wealth, he was welcomed by the elite of society; if he made no friends, he had at least many acquaintances. Among the set into which he was received immediately upon his arrival, he found ten satellites who took pleasure in initiating him into the secrets of fashionable life, and correcting any little provincialisms betrayed in his manners and conversation.
He profited well and quickly by their lessons. At the end of three months he was fairly launched; his reputation as a skilful gambler and one of the fastest men in Paris was fully established.
He had rented handsome apartments, with a coach-house and stable for three horses.
Although he only furnished this bachelor's establishment with what was necessary and comfortable, he found that comforts were very costly in this instance.
So that the day he took possession of his apartments, and looked over his bills, he made the startling discovery that this short apprenticeship of Paris had cost him fifty-thousand francs, one-fourth of his fortune.
Still he clung to his brilliant friends, although in a state of inferiority which was mortifying to his vanity, like a poor squire straining every nerve to make his nag keep up with blooded horses in a race.
Fifty thousand francs! For a moment Louis had a faint idea of retreating from the scene of temptation. But what a fall! Besides, his vices bloomed and flourished in this charming centre. He had heretofore considered himself fast; but the past was a state of unsophisticated verdancy, compared with the thousand attractive sins in which he now indulged.
Then the sight of suddenly acquired fortunes, and the many examples of the successful results of hazardous ventures, inflamed his mind, and persuaded him to try his fortune in the game of speculation.
He thought that in this great, rich city, he certainly could succeed in seizing a share of the loaves and fishes.
But how? He had no idea, and he did not seek to find one. He imagined that his good fortune would some day come, and that all he had to do was to wait for it.
This is one of the errors which it is time to destroy.
Fortune is not to be wasted upon idle fools.
In this furious race of self-interest, it requires great skill to bestride the capricious mare called Opportunity, and make her lead to the end in view. Every winner must possess a strong will and a dexterous hand. But Louis did not devote much thought to the matter. Like the foolish man who wished to draw the prize without contributing to the raffle, he thought:
"Bast! opportunity, chance, a rich marriage will put me all right again!"
The rich bride failed to appear, and his last louis had gone the way of its predecessors.
To a pressing demand for money, his notary replied by a refusal.
"Your lands are all gone," he wrote; "you now possess nothing but the chateau. It is very valuable, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to find a purchaser of so large an amount of real estate, in its present condition. I will use every effort to make a good sale, and if successful, will inform you of the fact immediately." Louis was thunderstruck at this final catastrophe, as much surprised as if he could have expected any other result. But what could he do?
Ruined, with nothing to look forward to, the best course was to imitate the large number of poor fools who each year rise up, shine a moment, then suddenly disappear.
But Louis could not renounce this life of ease and pleasure which he had been leading for the last three years. After leaving his fortune on the battle-ground, he was willing to leave the shreds of his honor.
He first lived on the reputation of his dissipated fortune; on the credit remaining to a man who has spent much in a short space of time.
This resource was soon exhausted.
The day came when his creditors seized all they could lay their hands upon, the last remains of his opulence, his carriages, horses, and costly furniture.
He took refuge in a quiet hotel, but he could not keep away from the wealthy set whom he considered his friends.
He lived upon them as he had lived upon the tradesmen who furnished his supplies. Borrowing from one louis up to twenty-five, from anybody who would lend to him, he never pretended to pay them. Constantly betting, no one ever saw him pay a wager. He piloted all the raw young men who fell into his hands, and utilized, in rendering shameful services, an experience which had cost him two hundred thousand francs; he was half courtier, half adventurer.
He was not banished, but was made to cruelly expiate the favor of being tolerated. No one had the least regard for his feelings, or hesitated to tell him to his face what was thought of his unprincipled conduct.
Thus, when alone in his little den, he would give way to fits of violent rage. He had not yet reached a state of callousness to be able to endure these humiliations without the keenest torture to his false pride and vanity.
Envy and covetousness had long since stifled every sentiment of honor and self-respect in his base heart. For a few years of opulence he was ready to commit any crime.
And, though he did not commit a crime, he came very near it, and was the principal in a disgraceful affair of swindling and extortion, which raised such an outcry against him that he was obliged to leave Paris.
Count de Commarin, an old friend of his father, hushed up the matter, and furnished him with money to take him to England.
And how did he manage to live in London?
The detectives of the most corrupt capital in existence were the only people who knew his means of support.
Descending to the last stages of vice, the Marquis of Clameran finally found his level in a society composed of shameless women and gamblers.
Compelled to quit London, he travelled over Europe, with no other capital than his knavish audacity, deep depravity, and his skill at cards.
Finally, in 1865, he had a run of good luck at Homburg, and returned to Paris, where he imagined himself entirely forgotten.
Eighteen years had passed since he left Paris.
The first step which he took on his return, before even settling himself in Paris, was to make a visit to his old home.
Not that he had any relative or friend in that part of the country, from whom he could expect any assistance; but he remembered the old manor, which his notary had been unable to sell.
He thought that perhaps by this time a purchaser had appeared, and he determined to go himself and ascertain how much he should receive for this old chateau, which had cost one hundred thousand francs in the building.
On a beautiful October evening he reached Tarascon, and there learned that he was still the owner of the chateau of Clameran. The next morning, he set out on foot to visit the paternal home, which he had not seen for twenty-five years.
Everything was so changed that he scarcely recognized this country, where he had been born, and passed his youth.
Yet the impression was so strong, that this man, tried by such varied, strange adventures, for a moment felt like retracing his steps.
He only continued his road because a secret, hopeful voice cried in him, "Onward, onward!"—as if, at the end of the journey, was to be found a new life and the long-wished-for good fortune.
As Louis advanced, the changes appeared less striking; he began to be familiar with the ground.
Soon, through the trees, he distinguished the village steeple, then the village itself, built upon the gentle rising of a hill, crowned by a wood of olive-trees.
He recognized the first houses he saw: the farrier's shed covered with ivy, the old parsonage, and farther on the village tavern, where he and Gaston used to play billiards.
In spite of what he called his scorn of vulgar prejudices, he felt a thrill of strange emotion as he looked on these once familiar objects.
He could not overcome a feeling of sadness as scenes of the past rose up before him.
How many events had occurred since he last walked along this path, and received a friendly bow and smile from every villager.
Then life appeared to him like a fairy scene, in which his every wish was gratified. And now, he had returned, dishonored, worn out, disgusted with the realities of life, still tasting the bitter dregs of the cup of shame, stigmatized, poverty-stricken, and friendless, with nothing to lose, and nothing to look forward to.
The few villagers whom he met turned and stood gazing after this dust-covered stranger, and wondered who he could be.
Upon reaching St. Jean's house, he found the door open; he walked into the immense empty kitchen.
He rapped on the table, and was answered by a voice calling out:
"Who is there?"
The next moment a man of about forty years appeared in the doorway, and seemed much surprised at finding a stranger standing in his kitchen.
"What will you have, monsieur?" he inquired.
"Does not St. Jean, the old valet of the Marquis of Clameran, live here?"
"My father died five years ago, monsieur," replied the man in a sad tone.
This news affected Louis painfully, as if he had expected this old man to restore him some of his lost youth; the last link was gone. He sighed, and, after a silence, said:
"I am the Marquis of Clameran."
The farmer, at these words, uttered an exclamation of joy. He seized Louis's hand, and, pressing it with respectful attention, cried:
"You are the marquis! Alas!" he continued, "why is not my poor father alive to see you? he would be so happy! His last words were about his dear masters, and many a time did he sigh and mourn at not receiving any news of you. He is beneath the sod now, resting after a well-spent life; but I, Joseph, his son, am here to take his place, and devote my life to your service. What an honor it is to have you in my house! Ah, my wife will be happy to see you; she has all her life heard of the Clamerans."
Here he ran into the garden, and called: "Toinette! I say, Toinette! Come here quickly!"
This cordial welcome delighted Louis. So many years had gone by since he had been greeted with an expression of kindness, or felt the pressure of a friendly hand.
In a few moments a handsome, dark-eyed young woman entered the room, and stood blushing with confusion at sight of the stranger.
"This is my wife, monsieur," said Joseph, leading her toward Louis, "but I have not given her time to put on her finery. This is M. the marquis, Antoinette."
The farmer's wife bowed, and, having nothing to say, gracefully uplifted her brow upon which the marquis pressed a kiss.
"You will see the children in a few minutes, M. the marquis," said Joseph; "I have sent to the school for them."
The worthy couple overwhelmed the marquis with attentions.
After so long a walk he must be hungry, they said; he must take a glass of wine now, and breakfast would soon be ready; they would be so proud and happy if M. the marquis would partake of a country breakfast!
Louis willingly accepted their invitation; and Joseph went to the cellar after the wine, while Toinette ran to catch her fattest pullet.
In a short time, Louis sat down to a table laden with the best of everything on the farm, waited upon by Joseph and his wife, who watched him with respectful interest and awe.
The children came running in from school, smeared with the juice of berries. After Louis had embraced them they stood off in a corner, and gazed at him with eyes wide open, as if he were a rare curiosity.
The important news had spread, and a number of villagers and countrymen appeared at the open door, to speak to the Marquis of Clameran.
"I am such a one, M. the marquis; don't you remember me?" "Ah! I should have recognized you anywhere." "The late marquis was very good to me." Another would say, "Don't you remember the time when you lent me your gun to go hunting?"
Louis welcomed with secret delight all these protestations and proofs of devotion which had not chilled with time.
The kindly voices of these honest people recalled many pleasant moments of the past, and made him feel once more the fresh sensations of his youth.
Here, at least, no echoes of his stormy life had been heard; no suspicions of his shameful career were entertained by these humble villagers on the borders of the Rhone.
He, the adventurer, the bully, the base accomplice of London swindlers, delighted in these marks of respect and veneration, bestowed upon him as the representative of the house of Clameran; it seemed to make him once more feel a little self-respect, as if the future were not utterly hopeless.
Ah, had he possessed only a quarter of his squandered inheritance, how happy he would be to peacefully end his days in this his native village!
But this rest after so many vain excitements, this haven after so many storms and shipwrecks, was denied him. He was penniless; how could he live here when he had nothing to live upon?
This thought of his pressing want gave him courage to ask Joseph for the key of the chateau, that he might go and examine its condition.
"You won't need the key, except the one to the front door, M. the marquis," replied Joseph.
It was but too true. Time had done its work, and the lordly manor of Clameran was nothing but a ruin. The rain and sun had rotted the shutters so that they were crumbling and dilapidated.
Here and there were traces of the friendly hand of St. Jean, who had tried to retard the total ruin of the old chateau; but of what use were his efforts?
Within, the desolation was still greater. All of the furniture which Louis had not dared to sell stood in the position he left it, but in what a state! All of the tapestry hangings and coverings were moth-eaten and in tatters; nothing seemed left but the dust-covered woodwork of the chairs and sofas.
Louis was almost afraid to enter these grand, gloomy rooms, where every footfall echoed until the air seemed to be filled with sounds strange and ominous.
He almost expected to see the angry old marquis start from some dark corner, and heap curses on his head for having dishonored the name.
He turned pale with terror, when he suddenly recalled the scene of his fatal stumble and poor Gaston's death. The room was surely inhabited by the spirits of these two murdered men. His nerves could not bear it, and he hurried out into the open air and sunshine.
After a while, he recovered sufficiently to remember the object of his visit.
"Poor St. Jean was foolish to let the furniture in the chateau drop to pieces. Why did he not use it?"
"My father would not have dared to touch anything without receiving an order, M. the marquis."
"He was very unwise to wait for an order, when anything was going to destruction without benefiting anyone. As the chateau is fast approaching the condition of the furniture, and my fortune does not permit me to repair it, I will sell it before the walls crumble away."
Joseph could scarcely believe his ears. He regarded the selling of the chateau of Clameran as a sacrilege; but he was not bold of speech, like his father, so he dared not express an opinion.
"Would there be difficulty in selling this ruin?" continued Louis.
"That depends upon the price you ask, M. the marquis; I know a man who would purchase the property if he could get it cheap."
"Who is he?"
"M. Fougeroux, who lives on the other side of the river. He came from Beaucaire, and twelve years ago married a servant-maid of the late Countess de la Verberie. Perhaps M. the marquis remembers her—a plump, bright-eyed brunette, named Mihonne."
Louis did not remember Mihonne.
"When can we see this Fougeroux?" he inquired.
"To-day; I will engage a boat to take us over."
"Well, let us go now. I have no time to lose."
An entire generation has passed away since Louis had last crossed the Rhone in old Pilorel's boat.
The faithful ferryman had been buried many years, and his duties were now performed by his son, who, possessing great respect for traditional opinions, was delighted at the honor of rowing the Marquis of Clameran in his boat, and soon had it ready for Louis and Joseph to take their seats.