As soon as they were fairly started, Joseph began to warn the marquis against the wily Fougeroux.
"He is a cunning fox," said the farmer; "I have had a bad opinion of him ever since his marriage, which was a shameful affair altogether. Mihonne was over fifty years of age, and he was only twenty-four, when he married her; so you may know it was money, and not a wife, that he wanted. She, poor fool, believed that the young scamp really loved her, and gave herself and her money up to him. Women will be trusting fools to the end of time! And Fougeroux is not the man to let money lie idle. He speculated with Mihonne's gold, and is now very rich. But she, poor thing, does not profit by his wealth; one can easily understand his not feeling any love for her, when she looks like his grandmother; but he deprives her of the necessaries of life, and beats her cruelly."
"He would like to plant her six feet under ground," said the ferryman.
"Well, it won't be long before he has the satisfaction of burying her," said Joseph; "the poor old woman has been in almost a dying condition ever since Fougeroux brought a worthless jade to take charge of the house, and makes his wife wait upon her like a servant."
When they reached the opposite shore, Joseph asked young Pilorel to await their return.
Joseph knocked at the gate of the well-cultivated farm, and inquired for the master; the farm-boy said that "M. Fougeroux" was out in the field, but he would go and tell him.
He soon appeared. He was an ill-looking little man, with a red beard and small, restless eyes.
Although M. Fougeroux professed to despise the nobility and the clergy, the hope of driving a good bargain made him obsequious to Louis. He insisted upon ushering his visitor into "the parlor," with may bows and repetitions of "M. the marquis."
Upon entering the room, he roughly ordered an old woman, who was crouching over some dying embers, to make haste and bring some wine for M. the marquis of Clameran.
At this name, the old woman started as if she had received an electric shock. She opened her mouth to say something, but a look from her tyrant froze the words upon her lips. With a frightened air she hobbled out to obey his orders, and in a few minutes returned with a bottle of wine and three glasses.
Then she resumed her seat by the fire, and kept her eyes fastened upon the marquis.
Could this really be the merry, pretty Mihonne, who had been the confidant of the little fairy of Verberie?
Valentine herself would never have recognized this poor, shrivelled, emaciated old woman.
Only those who are familiar with country life know what hard work and worry can do to make a woman old.
The bargain, meanwhile, was being discussed between Joseph and Fougeroux, who offered a ridiculously small sum for the chateau, saying that he would only buy it to tear down, and sell the materials. Joseph enumerated the beams, joists, ashlars, and the iron-work, and volubly praised the old domain.
As for Mihonne, the presence of the marquis had a wonderful effect upon her.
If the faithful servant had hitherto never breathed the secret confided to her probity, it was none the less heavy for her to bear.
After marrying, and being so harshly treated that she daily prayed for death to come to her relief, she began to blame everybody but herself for her misfortunes.
Weakly superstitious, she traced back the origin of her sorrows to the day when she took the oath on the holy gospel during mass.
Her constant prayers that God would send her a child to soothe her wounded heart, being unanswered, she was convinced that she was cursed with barrenness for having assisted in the abandonment of an innocent, helpless babe.
She often thought, that by revealing everything, she could appease the wrath of Heaven, and once more enjoy a happy home. Nothing but her love for Valentine gave her strength to resist a constant temptation to confess everything.
But to-day the sight of Louis decided her to relieve her mind. She thought there could be no danger in confiding in Gaston's brother. Alas for woman's tongue!
The sale was finally concluded. It was agreed that Fougeroux should give five thousand two hundred and eighty francs in cash for the chateau, and land attached; and Joseph was to have the old furniture.
The marquis and the new owner of the chateau shook hands, and noisily called out the essential word:
Fougeroux went himself to get the "bargain bottle" of old wine.
The occasion was favorable to Mihonne; she walked quickly over to where the marquis stood, and said in a nervous whisper:
"M. the marquis, I must speak with you apart."
"What can you want to tell me, my good woman?"
"It is a secret of life and death. This evening, at dusk, meet me in the walnut wood, and I will tell you everything."
Hearing her husband's approaching step, she darted back to her corner by the fire.
Fougeroux filled the glasses, and drank to the health of Clameran.
As they returned to the boat, Louis tried to think what could be the object of this singular rendezvous.
"Joseph, what the deuce can that old witch want with me?" he said musingly.
"Who can tell? She used to be in the service of a lady who was very intimate with M. Gaston; so my father used to say. If I were in your place I would go and see what she wanted, monsieur. You can dine with me, and, after dinner, Pilorel will row you over."
Curiosity decided Louis to go, about seven o'clock, to the walnut wood, where he found Mihonne impatiently awaiting him.
"Ah, here you are, at last, M. the marquis," she said, in a tone of relief. "I was afraid you would disappoint me."
"Yes, here I am, my good woman, to listen to what you have to say."
"I have many things to say. But first tell me some news of your brother."
Louis regretted having come, supposing from this request that the old woman was childish, and might bother him for hours with her senseless gabble.
"You know well enough that my poor brother was drowned in the Rhone."
"Good heavens!" cried Mihonne, "are you ignorant, then, of his escape? Yes, he did what has never been done before; he swam across the swollen Rhone. The next day Mlle. Valentine went to Clameran to tell the news; but St. Jean prevented her from seeing you. Afterward I carried a letter from her, but you had left the country."
Louis could not believe this strange revelation.
"Are you not mixing up dreams with real events, my good woman?" he said banteringly.
"No," she replied, mournfully shaking her head. "If Pere Menoul were alive, he would tell you how he took charge of your brother until he embarked for Marseilles. But that is nothing compared to the rest. M. Gaston has a son."
"My brother had a son! You certainly have lost your mind, my poor woman."
"Alas, no. Unfortunately for my happiness in this world and in the world to come, I am only telling the truth; he had a child, and Mlle. Valentine was its mother. I took the poor babe, and carried it to a woman whom I paid to take charge of it."
Then Mihonne described the anger of the countess, the journey to London, and the abandonment of little Raoul.
With the accurate memory natural to people unable to read and write, she related the most minute particulars—the names of the village, the nurse, the child's Christian name, and the exact date of everything which had occurred.
Then she told of Valentine's wretched suffering, of the impending ruin of the countess, and finally how everything was happily settled by the poor girl's marriage with an immensely rich man, who was now one of the richest bankers in Paris, and was named Fauvel.
A harsh voice calling, "Mihonne! Mihonne!" here interrupted the old woman.
"Heavens!" she cried in a frightened tone, "that is my husband, looking for me."
And, as fast as her trembling limbs could carry her, she hurried to the farm-house.
For several minutes after her departure, Louis stood rooted to the spot.
Her recital had filled his wicked mind with an idea so infamous, so detestable, that even his vile nature shrank for a moment from its enormity.
He knew Fauvel by reputation, and was calculating the advantages he might gain by the strange information of which he was now possessed by means of the old Mihonne. It was a secret, which, if skilfully managed, would bring him in a handsome income.
The few faint scruples he felt were silenced by the thought of an old age spent in poverty. After the price of the chateau was spent, to what could he look forward? Beggary.
"But first of all," he thought, "I must ascertain the truth of the old woman's story; then I will decide upon a plan."
This was why, the next day, after receiving the five thousand two hundred and eighty francs from Fougeroux, Louis de Clameran set out for London.
During the twenty years of her married life, Valentine had experienced but one real sorrow; and this was one which, in the course of nature, must happen sooner or later.
In 1859 her mother caught a violent cold during one of her frequent journeys to Paris, and, in spite of every attention which money could procure, she became worse, and died.
The countess preserved her faculties to the last, and with her dying breath said to her daughter:
"Ah, well! was I not wise in prevailing upon you to bury the past? Your silence has made my old age peaceful and happy, and I now thank you for having done your duty to yourself and to me. You will be rewarded on earth and in heaven, my dear daughter."
Mme. Fauvel constantly said that, since the loss of her mother, she had never had cause to shed a tear.
And what more could she wish for? As years rolled on, Andre's love remained steadfast; he was as devoted a husband as the most exacting woman could wish. To his great love was added that sweet intimacy which results from long conformity of ideas and unbounded confidence.
Everything prospered with this happy couple. Andre was twice as wealthy as he had ever hoped to be even in his wildest visions; every wish of Valentine was anticipated by Andre; their two sons, Lucien and Abel, were handsome, intelligent young men, whose honorable characters and graceful bearing reflected credit upon their parents, who had so carefully watched over their education.
Nothing seemed wanting to insure Valentine's felicity. When her husband and sons were at their business, her solitude was cheered by the intelligent, affectionate companionship of a young girl whom she loved as her own daughter, and who in return filled the place of a devoted child.
Madeleine was M. Fauvel's niece, and when an infant had lost both parents, who were poor but very worthy people. Valentine begged to adopt the babe, thinking she could thus, in a measure, atone for the desertion of the poor little creature whom she had abandoned to strangers.
She hoped that this good work would bring down the blessings of God upon her.
The day of the little orphan's arrival, M. Fauvel invested for her ten thousand francs, which he presented to Madeleine as her dowry.
The banker amused himself by increasing this ten thousand francs in the most marvellous ways. He, who never ventured upon a rash speculation with his own money, always invested it in the most hazardous schemes, and was always so successful, that at the end of fifteen years the ten thousand francs had become half a million.
People were right when they said that the Fauvel family were to be envied.
Time had dulled the remorse and anxiety of Valentine. In the genial atmosphere of a happy home, she had found rest, and almost forgetfulness. She had suffered so much at being compelled to deceive Andre that she hoped she was now at quits with fate.
She began to look forward to the future, and her youth seemed buried in an impenetrable mist, and was, as it were, the memory of a painful dream.
Yes, she believed herself saved, and her very feeling of security made the impending danger more fearful in its shock.
One rainy November day, her husband had gone to Provence on business. She was sitting, gazing into the bright fire, and thankfully meditating upon her present happiness, when the servant brought her a letter, which had been left by a stranger, who refused to give his name.
Without the faintest presentiment of evil, she carelessly broke the seal, and in an instant was almost petrified by the words which met her terrified eye:
"MADAME—Would it be relying too much upon the memories of the past to hope for half an hour of your time?
"To-morrow, between two and three, I will do myself the honor of calling upon you.
"THE MARQUIS OF CLAMERAN."
Fortunately, Mme. Fauvel was alone.
Trembling like a leaf, she read the letter over and over again, as if to convince herself that she was not the victim of a horrible hallucination.
Half a dozen times, with a sort of terror, she whispered that name once so dear—Clameran! spelling it aloud as if it were a strange name which she could not pronounce. And the eight letters forming the name seemed to shine like the lightning which precedes a clap of thunder.
Ah! she had hoped and believed that the fatal past was atoned for, and buried in oblivion; and now it stood before her, pitiless and threatening.
Poor woman! As if all human will could prevent what was fated to be!
It was in this hour of security, when she imagined herself pardoned, that the storm was to burst upon the fragile edifice of her happiness, and destroy her every hope.
A long time passed before she could collect her scattered thoughts sufficiently to decide upon a course of conduct.
Then she began to think she was foolish to be so frightened. This letter was written by Gaston, of course; therefore she need feel no apprehension. Gaston had returned to France, and wished to see her. She could understand this desire, and she knew too well this man, upon whom she had lavished her young affection, to attribute any bad motives to his visit.
He would come; and finding her the wife of another, the mother of grown sons, they would exchange thoughts of the past, perhaps a few regrets; she would restore the jewels which she had faithfully kept for him; he would assure her of his lifelong friendship, and—that would be all.
But one distressing doubt beset her agitated mind. Should she conceal from Gaston the birth of his son?
To confess was to expose herself to many dangers. It was placing herself at the mercy of a man—a loyal, honorable man to be sure—confiding to him not only her own peace, honor, and happiness, but the honor and happiness of her family, of her noble husband and loving sons.
Still silence would be a crime. She had abandoned her child, denied him the cares and affection of a mother; and now should she add to her sin by depriving him of the name and fortune of his father?
She was still undecided when the servant announced dinner.
But she had not the courage to meet the glance of her sons. She sent word that she was not well, and would not be down to dinner. For the first time in her life she rejoiced at her husband's absence.
Madeleine came hurrying into her aunt's room to see what was the matter; but Valentine dismissed her, saying she would try to sleep off her indisposition.
She wished to be alone in her trouble, and see if she could decide upon some plan for warding off this impending ruin.
The dreaded morrow came.
She counted the hours until two o'clock. After that, she counted the minutes.
At half-past two the servant announced:
"M. the Marquis of Clameran."
Mme. Fauvel had promised herself to be calm, even cold. During a long, sleepless night, she had mentally arranged beforehand every detail of this painful meeting. She had even decided upon what she should say. She would reply this, and ask that; her words were all selected, and her speech ready.
But, at the dreaded moment, her strength gave way; she turned as cold as marble, and could not rise from her seat; she was speechless, and, with a frightened look, silently gazed upon the man who respectfully bowed, and stood in the middle of the room.
Her visitor was about fifty years of age, with iron-gray hair and mustache, and a cold, severe cast of countenance; his expression was one of haughty severity as he stood there in his full suit of black.
The agitated woman tried to discover in his face some traces of the man whom she had so madly loved, who had pressed her to his heart, and besought her to remain faithful until he should return from a foreign land, and lay his fortune at her feet—the father of her son.
She was surprised to discover no resemblance to the youth whose memory had haunted her life; no, never would she have recognized this stranger as Gaston.
As he continued to stand motionless before her, she faintly murmured:
He sadly shook his head, and replied:
"I am not Gaston, madame. My brother succumbed to the misery and suffering of exile: I am Louis de Clameran."
What! it was not Gaston, then, who had written to her; it was not Gaston who stood before her!
She trembled with terror; her head whirled, and her eyes grew dim.
It was not he! And she had committed herself, betrayed her secret by calling him "Gaston."
What could this man want?—this brother in whom Gaston had never confided? What did he know of the past?
A thousand probabilities, each one more terrible than the other, flashed across her brain.
Yet she succeeded in overcoming her weakness so that Louis scarcely perceived it.
The fearful strangeness of her situation, the very imminence of peril, inspired her with coolness and self-possession.
Haughtily pointing to a chair, she said to Louis with affected indifference:
"Will you be kind enough, monsieur, to explain the object of this unexpected visit?"
The marquis, seeming not to notice this sudden change of manner, took a seat without removing his eyes from Mme. Fauvel's face.
"First of all, madame," he began, "I must ask if we can be overheard by anyone?"
"Why this question? You can have nothing to say to me that my husband and children should not hear."
Louis shrugged his shoulders, and said:
"Be good enough to answer me, madame; not for my sake, but for your own."
"Speak, then, monsieur; you will not be heard."
In spite of this assurance, the marquis drew his chair close to the sofa where Mme. Fauvel sat, so as to speak in a very low tone, as if almost afraid to hear his own voice.
"As I told you, madame, Gaston is dead; and it was I who closed his eyes, and received his last wishes. Do you understand?"
The poor woman understood only too well, but was racking her brain to discover what could be the purpose of this fatal visit. Perhaps it was only to claim Gaston's jewels.
"It is unnecessary to recall," continued Louis, "the painful circumstances which blasted my brother's life. However happy your own lot has been, you must sometimes have thought of this friend of your youth, who unhesitatingly sacrificed himself in defence of your honor."
Not a muscle of Mme. Fauvel's face moved; she appeared to be trying to recall the circumstances to which Louis alluded.
"Have you forgotten, madame?" he asked with bitterness: "then I must explain more clearly. A long, long time ago you loved my unfortunate brother."
"Ah, it is useless to deny it, madame: I told you that Gaston confided everything to me—everything," he added significantly.
But Mme. Fauvel was not frightened by this information. This "everything" could not be of any importance, for Gaston had gone abroad in total ignorance of her secret.
She rose, and said with an apparent assurance she was far from feeling:
"You forget, monsieur, that you are speaking to a woman who is now advanced in life, who is married, and who has grown sons. If your brother loved me, it was his affair, and not yours. If, young and ignorant, I was led into imprudence, it is not your place to remind me of it. This past which you evoke I buried in oblivion twenty years ago."
"Thus you have forgotten all that happened?"
"Absolutely all; everything."
"Even your child, madame?"
This question, uttered in a sneer of triumph, fell upon Mme. Fauvel like a thunder-clap. She dropped tremblingly into her seat, murmuring:
"My God! How did he discover it?"
Had her own happiness alone been at stake, she would have instantly thrown herself upon a Clameran's mercy. But she had her family to defend, and the consciousness of this gave her strength to resist him.
"Do you wish to insult me, monsieur?" she asked.
"Do you pretend to say you have forgotten Valentin-Raoul?"
She saw that this man did indeed know all. How? It little mattered. He certainly knew; but she determined to deny everything, even the most positive proofs, if he should produce them.
For an instant she had an idea of ordering the Marquis of Clameran to leave the house; but prudence stayed her. She thought it best to discover how much he really knew.
"Well," she said with a forced laugh, "will you be kind enough to state what you wish with me?"
"Certainly, madame. Two years ago the vicissitudes of exile took my brother to London. There, at the house of a friend, he met a young man by the name of Raoul. Gaston was so struck by the youth's appearance and intelligence, that he inquired who he was, and discovered that beyond a doubt this boy was his son, and your son, madame."
"This is quite a romance you are relating."
"Yes, madame, a romance the denouement of which is in your hands. Your mother certainly used every precaution to conceal your secret; but the best-laid plans always have some weak point. After your marriage, one of your mother's London friends came to Tarascon, and spread the report of what had taken place at the English village. This lady also revealed your true name to the nurse who was bringing up the child. Thus everything was discovered by my brother, who had no difficulty in obtaining the most positive proofs of the boy's parentage."
Louis closely watched Mme. Fauvel's face to see the effect of his words.
To his astonishment she betrayed not the slightest agitation or alarm; she was smiling as if entertained by the recital of his romance.
"Well, what next?" she asked carelessly.
"Then, madame, Gaston acknowledged the child. But the Clamerans are poor; my brother died on a pallet in a lodging-house; and I have only an income of twelve hundred francs to live upon. What is to become of Raoul, alone with no relations or friends to assist him? My brother's last moments were embittered by anxiety for the welfare of his child."
"Allow me to finish," interrupted Louis. "In that supreme hour Gaston opened his heart to me. He told me to apply to you. 'Valentine,' said he, 'Valentine will remember the past, and will not let our son want for anything; she is wealthy, she is just and generous; I die with my mind at rest.'"
Mme. Fauvel rose from her seat, and stood, evidently waiting for her visitor to retire.
"You must confess, monsieur," she said, "that I have shown great patience."
This imperturbable assurance amazed Louis.
"I do not deny," she continued, "that I at one time possessed the confidence of M. Gaston de Clameran. I will prove it by restoring to you your mother's jewels, with which he intrusted me on his departure."
While speaking she took from beneath the sofa-cushion the purse of jewels, and handed it to Louis.
"These jewels would have been given to the owner the instant they were called for, monsieur, and I am surprised that your brother never reclaimed them."
Louis betrayed his astonishment at the sight of the jewels. He tried to cover his embarrassment by boldly saying:
"I was told not to mention this sacred trust."
Mme. Fauvel, without making any reply, laid her hand on the bell-rope and quietly said:
"You will allow me to end this interview, monsieur, which was only granted for the purpose of placing in your hands these precious jewels."
Thus dismissed, M. de Clameran was obliged to take his leave without attaining his object.
"As you will, madame," he said, "I leave you; but before doing so I must tell you the rest of my brother's dying injunctions: 'If Valentine disregards the past, and refuses to provide for our son, I enjoin it upon you to compel her to do her duty.' Meditate upon these words, madame, for what I have sworn to do, upon my honor, shall be done!"
At last Mme. Fauvel was alone. She could give vent to her despair.
Exhausted at her efforts at self-restraint during the presence of Clameran, she felt weary and crushed in body and spirit.
She had scarcely strength to drag herself up to her chamber, and lock the door.
Now there was no room for doubt; her fears had become realities. She could fathom the abyss into which she was about to be hurled, and knew that in her fall she would drag her family with her.
God alone, in this hour of danger, could help her, could save her from destruction. She prayed.
"Oh, my God!" she cried, "punish me for my great sin, and I will evermore adore thy chastising hand! I have been a bad daughter, an unworthy mother, and a perfidious wife. Smite me, oh, God, and only me! In thy just anger spare the innocent, have pity upon my husband and my children!"
What were her twenty years of happiness compared to this hour of misery? A bitter remorse; nothing more. Ah, why did she listen to her mother? Why had she committed moral suicide?
Hope had fled; despair had come.
This man who had left her presence with a threat upon his lips would return to torture her now. How could she escape him?
To-day she had succeeded in subduing her heart and conscience; would she again have the strength to master her feelings?
She well knew that her calmness and courage were entirely due to the inaptness of Clameran.
Why did he not use entreaties instead of threats?
When Louis spoke of Raoul, she could scarcely conceal her emotion; her maternal heart yearned toward the innocent child who was expiating his mother's faults.
A chill of horror passed over her at the idea of his enduring the pangs of hunger.
Her child wanting bread, when she, his mother, was rolling in wealth!
Ah, why could she not lay all her possessions at his feet? With what delight would she undergo the greatest privations for his sake! If she could but send him enough money to support him comfortably!
But no; she could not take this step without compromising herself and her family.
Prudence forbade her acceptance of the intervention of Louis de Clameran.
To confide in him, was placing herself, and all she held dear, at his mercy—at the mercy of a man who inspired her with instinctive terror.
Then she began to ask herself if he had spoken the truth, or had trumped up this story to frighten her?
In thinking over Louis's story, it seemed improbable and disconnected.
If Gaston had been living in Paris, in the poverty described by his brother, why had he not demanded of the married woman the deposit intrusted to the maiden?
Why, when anxious about the future of their child, had he not come to her, if he had such confidence in her generosity? If he intrusted her on his death-bed, why had he not shown this trust while living?
A thousand vague apprehensions beset her mind; she felt suspicion and distrust of everyone and everything.
She was aware that the time had come for her to take a decisive step, and upon this step depended her whole future peace and happiness. If she once yielded, what would not be exacted of her in the future? She would certainly be made to suffer if she refused to yield. If she had only some wise friend to advise her!
For a moment she thought of throwing herself at her husband's feet and confessing all.
Unfortunately, she thrust aside this means of salvation. She pictured to herself the mortification and sorrow that her noble-hearted husband would suffer upon discovering, after a lapse of twenty years, how shamefully he had been deceived, how his confidence and love had been betrayed.
Having been once deceived, would he ever trust her again? Would he believe in her fidelity as a wife, when he discovered that she had uttered her marriage vows to love and honor him, when her heart was already given to another?
She knew Andre was too magnanimous to ever allude to her horrible fault, and would use every means to conceal it. But his domestic happiness would be gone forever. His chair at the fireside would be left empty; his sons would shun her presence, and every family bond would be severed.
Then again, would peace be preserved by her silence? Would not Clameran end by betraying her to Andre?
She thought of ending her doubts by suicide; but her death would not silence her implacable enemy, who, not being able to disgrace her while alive, would dishonor her memory.
Fortunately, the banker was still absent; and, during the two days succeeding Louis's visit, Mme. Fauvel could keep her room under pretence of sickness.
But Madeleine, with her feminine instinct, saw that her aunt was troubled by something worse than nervous headache, for which the physician was prescribing all sorts of remedies, with no beneficial effect.
She remembered that this sudden illness dated from the visit of the melancholy looking stranger, who had been closeted for a long time with her aunt.
Madeleine supposed something was weighing upon the miserable woman's mind, and the second day of her sickness ventured to say:
"What makes you so sad, dear aunt? If you will not tell me, do let me bring our good cure to see you."
With a sharpness foreign to her nature, which was gentleness itself, Mme. Fauvel refused to assent to her niece's proposition.
What Louis calculated upon happened.
After long reflection, not seeing any issue to her deplorable situation, Mme. Fauvel determined to yield.
By consenting to everything demanded of her, she had a chance of saving her husband from suffering and disgrace.
She well knew that to act thus was to prepare a life of torture for herself; but she alone would be the victim, and, at any rate, she would be gaining time. Heaven might at last interpose, and save her from ruin.
In the meantime, M. Fauvel had returned home, and Valentine resumed her accustomed duties.
But she was no longer the happy mother and devoted wife, whose smiling presence was wont to fill the house with sunshine and comfort. She was melancholy, anxious, and at times irritable.
Hearing nothing of Clameran, she expected to see him appear at any moment; trembling at every knock, and turning pale when a strange step was heard to enter, she dared not leave the house, for fear he should come during her absence.
Her agony was like that of a condemned man, who, each day as he wakes from his uneasy slumber, asks himself, "Am I to die to-day?"
Clameran did not come; he wrote, or rather, as he was too prudent to furnish arms which could be used against him, he had a note written, which Mme. Fauvel alone might understand, in which he said that he was quite ill, and unable to call upon her; and hoped she would be so good as to come to his room the next day; she had only to ask for 317, Hotel du Louvre.
The letter was almost a relief for Mme. Fauvel. Anything was preferable to suspense. She was ready to consent to everything.
She burned the letter, and said, "I shall go."
The next day at the appointed hour, she dressed herself in a plain black silk, a large bonnet which concealed her face, and, putting a thick veil in her pocket to be used if she found it necessary, started forth.
After hurriedly walking several squares, she thought she might, without fear of being recognized, call a coach. In a few minutes she was set down at the Hotel du Louvre. Here her uneasiness increased. Her circle of acquaintances being large, she was in terror of being recognized. What would her friends think if they saw her at the Hotel du Louvre disguised in this old dress?
Anyone would naturally suspect an intrigue, a rendezvous; and her character would be ruined forever.
This was the first time since her marriage that she had had occasion for mystery; and her efforts to escape notice were in every way calculated to attract attention.
The porter said that the Marquis of Clameran's rooms were on the third floor.
She hurried up the stairs, glad to escape the scrutinizing glances of several men standing near; but, in spite of the minute directions given by the porter, she lost her way in one of the long corridors of the hotel.
Finally, after wandering about for some time, she found a door bearing the number sought—317.
She stood leaning against the wall with her hand pressed to her throbbing heart, which seemed bursting.
Now, at the moment of risking this decisive step, she felt paralyzed with fright. She would have given all she possessed to find herself safe in her own home.
The sight of a stranger entering the corridor ended her hesitation.
With a trembling hand she knocked at the door.
"Come in," said a voice from within.
She entered the room.
It was not the Marquis of Clameran who stood in the middle of the room, but a young man, almost a youth, who bowed to Mme. Fauvel with a singular expression on his handsome face.
Mme. Fauvel thought that she had mistaken the room.
"Excuse me, monsieur," she said, blushing deeply. "I thought that this was the Marquis of Clameran's room."
"It is his room, madame," replied the young man; then, seeing she was silent and about to leave, he added:
"I presume I have the honor of addressing Mme. Fauvel?"
She bowed affirmatively, shuddering at the sound of her own name, frightened at this proof of Clameran's betrayal of her secret to a stranger.
With visible anxiety she awaited an explanation.
"Reassure yourself, madame," said the young man: "you are as safe here as if you were in your own house. M. de Clameran desired me to make his excuses; he will not have the honor of seeing you to-day."
"But, monsieur, from an urgent letter sent by him yesterday, I was led to suppose—to infer—that he——"
"When he wrote to you, madame, he had projects in view which he has since renounced."
Mme. Fauvel was too agitated and troubled to think clearly. Beyond the present she could see nothing.
"Do you mean," she asked with distrust, "that he has changed his intentions?"
The young man's face was expressive of sad compassion, as if he shared the sufferings of the unhappy woman before him.
"The marquis has renounced," he said, in a melancholy tone, "what he wrongly considered a sacred duty. Believe me, he hesitated a long time before he could decide to apply to you on a subject painful to you both. When he began to explain his apparent intrusion upon your private affairs, you refused to hear him, and dismissed him with indignant contempt. He knew not what imperious reasons dictated your conduct. Blinded by unjust anger, he swore to obtain by threats what you refused to give voluntarily. Resolved to attack your domestic happiness, he had collected overwhelming proofs against you. Pardon him: an oath given to his dying brother bound him.
"These convincing proofs," he continued, as he tapped his finger on a bundle of papers which he had taken from the mantel, "this evidence that cannot be denied, I now hold in my hand. This is the certificate of the Rev. Dr. Sedley; this is the declaration of Mrs. Dobbin, the farmer's wife; and these others are the statements of the physician and of several persons of high social position who were acquainted with Mme. de la Verberie during her stay in London. Not a single link is missing. I had great difficulty in getting these papers away from M. de Clameran. Had he anticipated my intention of thus disposing of them, they would never have been surrendered to my keeping."
As he finished speaking, the young man threw the bundle of papers into the fire where they blazed up; and in a moment nothing remained of them but a little heap of ashes.
"All is now destroyed, madame," he said, with a satisfied air. "The past, if you desire it, is as completely annihilated as those papers. If anyone, thereafter, dares accuse you of having had a son before your marriage, treat him as a vile calumniator. No proof against you can be produced; none exists. You are free."
Mme. Fauvel began to understand the sense of this scene; the truth dawned upon her bewildered mind.
This noble youth, who protected her from the anger of De Clameran, who restored her peace of mind and the exercise of her own free will, by destroying all proofs of her past, was, must be, the child whom she had abandoned: Valentin-Raoul.
In an instant, all was forgotten save the present. Maternal tenderness, so long restrained, now welled up and overflowed as with intense emotion she murmured:
At this name, uttered in so thrilling a tone, the youth started and tottered, as if overcome by an unhoped-for happiness.
"Yes, Raoul," he cried, "Raoul, who would a thousand times rather die than cause his mother a moment's pain; Raoul, who would shed his life's blood to spare her one tear."
She made no attempt to struggle against nature's yearnings; her longing to clasp to her heart this long-pined-for first-born must be gratified at all costs.
She opened her arms, and Raoul sprang forward with a cry of joy:
"Mother! my blessed mother! Thanks be to God for this first kiss!"
Alas! this was the sad truth. The deserted child had never been blest by a mother's kiss. This dear son whom she had never seen before, had been taken from her, despite her prayers and tears, without a mother's blessing, a mother's embrace. After twenty years waiting, should it be denied him now?
But joy so great, following upon so many contending emotions, was more than the excited mother could bear; she sank back in her chair almost fainting, and with distended eyes gazed in a bewildered, eager way upon her long-lost son, who was now kneeling at her feet.
With tenderness she stroked the soft chestnut curls, and drank in the tenderness of his soft dark eyes, and expressive mouth, as he murmured words of filial affection in her craving ear.
"Oh, mother!" he said, "words cannot describe my feelings of pain and anguish upon hearing that my uncle had dared to threaten you. He threaten you! He repents already of his cruelty; he did not know you as I do. Yes, my mother, I have known you for a long, long time. Often have my father and I hovered around your happy home to catch a glimpse of you through the window. When you passed by in your carriage, he would say to me, 'There is your mother, Raoul!' To look upon you was our greatest joy. When we knew you were going to a ball, we would wait near the door to see you enter, in your satin and diamonds. How often have I followed your fast horses to see you descend from the carriage and enter wealthy doors, which I could never hope to penetrate! And how my noble father loved you always! When he told his brother to apply to you in my behalf, he was unconscious of what he said; his mind was wandering."
Tears, the sweetest tears she had ever shed, coursed down Mme. Fauvel's cheeks, as she listened to the musical tones of Raoul's voice.
This voice was so like Gaston's, that she seemed once more to be listening to the lover of her almost forgotten youth.
She was living over again those stolen meetings, those long hours of bliss, when Gaston was at her side, as they sat and watched the river rippling beneath the trees.
It seemed only yesterday that Gaston had pressed her to his faithful heart; she saw him still saying gently:
"In three years, Valentine! Wait for me!"
Andre, her two sons, Madeleine, all were forgotten in this new-found affection.
Raoul continued in tender tones:
"Only yesterday I discovered that my uncle had been to demand for me a few crumbs of your wealth. Why did he take such a step? I am poor, it is true, very poor; but I am too familiar with poverty to bemoan it. I have a clear brain and willing hands: that is fortune enough for a young man. You are very rich. What is that to me? Keep all your fortune, my beloved mother; but do not repel my affection; let me love you. Promise me that this first kiss shall not be the last. No one will ever know of my new-found happiness; not by word or deed will I do aught to let the world suspect that I possess this great joy."
And Mme. Fauvel had dreaded this son! Ah, how bitterly did she now reproach herself for not having flown to meet him the instant she heard that he was living!
She questioned him regarding the past; she wished to know how he had lived, what he had been doing.
He replied that he had nothing to conceal; his existence had been that of every poor boy, who had nothing to look forward to but a life of labor and privation.
The farmer's wife who had brought him up was a kind-hearted woman, and had always treated him with affection. She had even given him an education superior to his condition in life, because, as she always said, he would make himself a great name, and attain to wealth, if he were taught.
When about sixteen years of age, she procured him a situation in a banking-house; and he was getting a salary, which, though small, was enough to support him and supply a few luxuries for his adopted mother.
One day a stranger came to him and said:
"I am your father: come with me."
Since then nothing was wanting to his happiness, save a mother's tenderness. He had suffered but one great sorrow, and that was the day when Gaston de Clameran, his father, had died in his arms.
"But now," he said, "all is forgotten, that one sorrow is forgotten in my present happiness. Now that I see you and possess your love, I forget the past, and ask for nothing more."
Mme. Fauvel was oblivious of the lapse of time, and was startled when Raoul exclaimed:
"Why, it is seven o'clock!"
Seven o'clock! What would her family think of this long absence? Her husband must be even now awaiting dinner.
"Shall I see you again, mother?" asked Raoul in a beseeching tone, as they were about to separate.
"Oh, yes!" she replied, fondly, "yes, often; every day, to-morrow."
But now, for the first time since her marriage, Mme. Fauvel perceived that she was not mistress of her actions. Never before had she had occasion to wish for uncontrolled liberty.
She left her heart and soul behind her in the Hotel du Louvre, where she had just found her son. She was compelled to leave him, to undergo the intolerable agony of composing her face to conceal this great happiness, which had changed her whole life and being. She was angry with fate because she could not remain with her first-born son.
Having some difficulty in procuring a carriage, it was half-past seven before she reached the Rue de Provence, when she found the family waiting for her.
She thought her husband silly, and even vulgar, when he joked her upon letting her poor children starve to death, while she was promenading the boulevards.
So strange are the sudden effects of a new passion, that she regarded almost with contempt this unbounded confidence reposed in her.
She replied to his jest with a forced calmness, as if her mind were really as free and undisturbed as it had been before Clameran's visit.
So intoxicated had been her sensations while with Raoul, that in her joy she was incapable of desiring anything else, of dreaming of aught save the renewal of these delightful emotions.
No longer was she a devoted wife, an affectionate mother to this household which looked up to her as though she were a superior being. She took no interest in the two sons who were a short while since her chief pride and joy. They had always been petted and indulged in every way; they had a father, they were rich; whist the other, the other! oh, how much reparation was due to him!
She almost regarded her family as responsible for Raoul's sufferings, so blinded was she in her devotion to her martyr, as she called him.
Her folly was complete. No remorse for the past, no apprehensions for the future, disturbed the satisfied present. To her the future was to-morrow; eternity was the sixteen hours which must elapse before another interview.
She seemed to think that Gaston's death absolved the past, and changed the present.
Her sole regret was her marriage. Free, with no family ties, she could have consecrated herself exclusively to Raoul. How gladly would she have sacrificed her affluence to enjoy poverty with him!
She felt no fear that her husband and sons would suspect the thoughts which absorbed her mind; but she dreaded her niece.
She imagined that Madeleine looked at her strangely on her return from the Hotel du Louvre. She must suspect something; but did she suspect the truth?
For several days she asked embarrassing questions, as to where her aunt went, and with whom she had been during these long absences from home.
This disquietude and seeming curiosity changed the affection which Mme. Fauvel had hitherto felt for her adopted daughter into positive dislike.
She regretted having placed over herself a vigilant spy from whom she could not escape. She pondered what means she could take to avoid the penetrating watchfulness of a girl who was accustomed to read in her face every thought that crossed her mind.
With unspeakable satisfaction she solved the difficulty in a way which she thought would please all parties.
During the last two years the banker's cashier and protege, Prosper Bertomy, had been devoted in his attentions to Madeleine. Mme. Fauvel decided to do all in her power to hasten matters, so that, Madeleine once married and out of the house, there would be no one to criticise her own movements. She could then spend most of her time with Raoul without fear of detection.
That evening, with a duplicity of which she would have been incapable a few weeks before, she began to question Madeleine about her sentiments toward Prosper:
"Ah, ha, mademoiselle," she said, gayly, "I have discovered your secret. You are going on at a pretty rate! The idea of your choosing a husband without my permission!"
"Why, aunt! I thought you——"
"Yes, I know; you thought I had suspected the true state of affairs! That is precisely what I have done."
Then, in a serious tone, she said:
"Therefore nothing remains to be done except to obtain the consent of Master Prosper. Do you think he will grant it?"
"Oh, Aunt Valentine! he would be too happy."
"Ah, indeed! you seem to know all about it; perhaps you do not care for any assistance in carrying out your wishes?"
Madeleine, blushing and confused, hung her head, and said nothing. Mme. Fauvel drew her toward her, and continued affectionately:
"My dear child, do not be distressed: you have done nothing wrong, and need fear no opposition to your wishes. Is it possible that a person of your penetration supposed us to be in ignorance of your secret? Did you think that Prosper would have been so warmly welcomed by your uncle and myself, had we not approved of him in every respect?"
Madeleine threw her arms around her aunt's neck, and said:
"Oh, my dear aunt, you make me so happy! I am very grateful for your love and kindness. I am very glad that you are pleased with my choice."
Mme. Fauvel said to herself:
"I will make Andre speak to Prosper, and before two months are over the marriage must take place. Madeleine once married, I shall have nothing to fear."
Unfortunately, Mme. Fauvel was so engrossed by her new passion that she put off from day to day her project of hastening the marriage, until it was too late. Spending a portion of each day at the Hotel du Louvre with Raoul, and, when separated from him, devoting her thoughts to insuring him an independent fortune and a good position, she could think of nothing else.
She had not yet spoken to him of money or business.
She imagined that she had discovered in him his father's noble qualities; that the sensitiveness which is so easily wounded was expressed in his every word and action.
She anxiously wondered if he would ever accept the least assistance from her. The Marquis of Clameran quieted her doubts on this point.
She had frequently met him since the day on which he had so frightened her, and to her first aversion had succeeded a secret sympathy. She felt kindly toward him for the affection he lavished on her son.
If Raoul, with the heedlessness of youth, mocked at the future, Louis, the man of the world, looked upon it with different eyes. He was anxious for the welfare of his nephew, and constantly complained of the idle life he was now leading.
One day, after praising the attractive qualities of Raoul, he said:
"This pleasant life is very well, as long as it lasts; but people cannot live upon air, and, as my handsome nephew has no fortune, it would be only prudent for us to procure him some employment."
"Ah, my dear uncle, do let me enjoy my present happiness. What is the use of any change? What do I want?"
"You want for nothing at present, Raoul; but when your resources are exhausted, and mine, too—which will be in a short time—what will become of you?"
"Bast! I will enter the army. All the Clamerans are born soldiers; and if a war comes——"
Mme. Fauvel laid her hand upon his lips, and said in a tone of reproachful tenderness:
"Cruel boy, become a soldier? would you, then, deprive me of the joy of seeing you?"
"No, my mother; no."
"You must agree to whatever plans we make for your good," said Louis; "and not be talking of any wild schemes of your own."
"I am ready to obey; but not yet. One of these days I will go to work, and make a fortune."
"How, poor, foolish boy? What can you do?"
"Dame! I don't know now; but set your mind at rest, I will find a way."
Finding it impossible to make this self-sufficient youth listen to reason, Louis and Mme. Fauvel, after discussing the matter fully, decided that assistance must be forced upon him, and his path in life marked out for him.
It was difficult, however, to choose a profession; and Clameran thought it prudent to wait awhile, and study the bent of the young man's mind. In the meanwhile it was decided that Mme. Fauvel should place funds at Clameran's disposal for Raoul's support.
Regarding Gaston's brother in the light of a father to her child, Mme. Fauvel soon found him indispensable. She continually longed to see him, either to consult him concerning some step to be taken for Raoul's benefit, or to impress upon him some good advice to be given.
Thus she was well pleased, when one day he requested the honor of being allowed to call upon her at her own house.
Nothing was easier than to introduce the Marquis of Clameran to her husband as an old friend of her family; and, after once being admitted, he might come as often as he chose.
Mme. Fauvel congratulated herself upon this arrangement.
Afraid to go to Raoul every day, and in constant terror lest her letters to him should be discovered, and his replies fall into her husband's hands, she was delighted at the prospect of having news of him from Clameran.
For a month, things went on very smoothly, when one day the marquis confessed that Raoul was giving him a great deal of trouble. His hesitating, embarrassed manner frightened Mme. Fauvel. She thought something dreadful had happened, and that he was trying to break the bad news gently.
"What is the matter?" she said, turning pale.
"I am sorry to say," replied Clameran, "that this young man has inherited all the pride and passions of his ancestors. He is one of those natures who stop at nothing, who only find incitement in opposition; and I can think of no way of checking him in his mad career."
"Merciful Heaven! what has he been doing?"
"Nothing especially censurable; that is, nothing irreparable, thus far; but I am afraid of the future. He is unaware of the liberal allowance which you have placed in my hands for his benefit; and, although he thinks that I support him, there is not a single indulgence which he denies himself; he throws away money as if he were the son of a millionaire."
Like all mothers, Mme. Fauvel attempted to excuse her son.
"Perhaps you are a little severe," she said. "Poor child, he has suffered so much! He has undergone so many privations during his childhood, that this sudden happiness and wealth has turned his head; he seizes it as a starving man seizes a piece of bread. Is it surprising that he should refuse to listen to reason until hungry nature shall have been gratified? Ah, only have patience, and he will soon return to the path of sober duty. He has too noble a heart to do anything really wrong."
"He has suffered so much!" was Mme. Fauvel's constant excuse for Raoul. This was her invariable reply to M. de Clameran's complaints of his nephew's conduct.
And, having once commenced, he was now constant in his accusations against Raoul.
"Nothing restrains his extravagance and dissipation," Louis would say in a mournful voice; "the instant a piece of folly enters his head, it is carried out, no matter at what cost."
Mme. Fauvel saw no reason why her son should be thus harshly judged.
"You must remember," she said in an aggrieved tone, "that from infancy he has been left to his own unguided impulses. The unfortunate boy never had a mother to tend and counsel him. You must remember, too, that he has never known a father's guidance."
"There is some excuse for him, to be sure; but nevertheless he must change his present course. Could you not speak seriously to him, madame? You have more influence over him than I."
She promised, but forgot her good resolution when with Raoul. She had so little time to devote to him, that it seemed cruel to spend it in reprimands. Sometimes she would hurry from home for the purpose of following the marquis's advice; but, the instant she saw Raoul, her courage failed; a pleading look from his soft, dark eyes silenced the rebuke upon her lips; the sound of his voice banished every anxious thought, and lulled her mind to the present happiness.
But Clameran was not a man to lose sight of the main object, in what he considered a sentimental wasting of time. He would have no compromise of duty.
His brother had bequeathed to him, as a precious trust, his son Raoul; he regarded himself, he said, as his guardian, and would be held responsible in another world for his welfare.
He entreated Mme. Fauvel to use her influence, when he found himself powerless in trying to check the heedless youth in his headlong career. She ought, for the sake of her child, to see more of him, study his disposition, and daily admonish him in his duty to himself and to her.
"Alas," the poor woman replied, "that would be my heart's desire. But how can I do it? Have I the right to ruin myself? I have other children, for whom I must be careful of my reputation."
This answer appeared to astonish Clameran. A fortnight before, Mme. Fauvel would not have alluded to her other sons.
"I will think the matter over," said Louis, "And perhaps when I see you next I shall be able to submit to you a plan which will reconcile everything."
The reflections of a man of so much experience could not be fruitless. He had a relieved, satisfied look, when he called to see Mme. Fauvel on the following week.
"I think I have solved the problem," he said.
"The means of saving Raoul."
He explained himself by saying, that as Mme. Fauvel could not, without arousing her husband's suspicions, continue her daily visits to Raoul, she must receive him at her own house.
This proposition shocked Mme. Fauvel; for though she had been imprudent, even culpable, she was the soul of honor, and naturally shrank from the idea of introducing Raoul into the midst of her family, and seeing him welcomed by her husband, and perhaps become the friend of his sons. Her instinctive sense of justice made her declare that she would never consent to such an infamous step.
"Yes," said the marquis, thoughtfully, "there is some risk; but then, it is the only chance of saving your child."
She resisted with so much firmness and indignation that Louis was astonished, and for a time nonplussed; though he by no means let the subject drop, but seized every opportunity of impressing upon her tortured mind that Raoul's salvation depended entirely upon her.
"No," she would always reply, "no! Never will I be so base and perfidious to my husband!"
Unfortunate woman! little did she know of the pitfalls which stand ever ready to swallow up wanderers from the path of virtue.
Before a week had passed, she listened to this project, which at first had filled her with horror, with a willing ear, and even began to devise means for its speedy execution.
Yes, after a cruel struggle, she finally yielded to the pressure of Clameran's politely uttered threats and Raoul's wheedling entreaties.
"But how," she asked, "upon what pretext can I receive Raoul?"
"It would be the easiest thing in the world," replied Clameran, "to admit him as an ordinary acquaintance, and, indeed, to place him on the same footing which I myself occupy—that of an intimate friend and habitue of your drawing-rooms. But Raoul must have more than this; he needs your constant care."
After torturing Mme. Fauvel for a long time, he finally revealed his scheme.
"We have in our hands," he said, "the solution of this problem, which may be so easily reached that I regard it as an inspiration."
Mme. Fauvel eagerly scanned his face as she listened with the pitiable resignation of a martyr.
"Have you not a cousin, a widow lady, who had two daughters, living at St. Remy?" asked Louis.
"Yes, Mme. de Lagors."
"Precisely so. What fortune has she?"
"She is poor, monsieur, very poor."
"And, but for the assistance you render her secretly, she would be thrown upon the charity of the world."
Mme. Fauvel was bewildered at finding the marquis so well informed of her private affairs.
"How could you have discovered this?" she asked.
"Oh, I know all about this affair, and many others besides. I know, for example, that your husband has never met any of your relatives, and that he is not even aware of the existence of your cousin De Lagors. Do you begin to comprehend my plan?"
She not only understood it, but also knew that she would end by being a party to it.
"All will succeed if you follow my instructions," said Louis. "To-morrow or next day, you will receive a letter from your cousin at St. Remy, telling you that she has sent her son to Paris on a visit, and begs you to receive and watch over him. Naturally you show this letter to your husband; and a few days afterward he warmly welcomes your nephew, Raoul de Lagors, a handsome, rich, attractive young man, who does everything he can to please you both."
"Monsieur," replied Mme. Fauvel, "my cousin is a pious, honorable woman, and nothing would induce her to countenance so shameful a transaction."
The marquis smiled scornfully, and said:
"Who told you that I intended to confide in her?"
"But you would be obliged to do so! How else?"
"You are very simple, madame. The letter which you will receive, and show to your husband, will be dictated by me, and posted at St. Remy by a friend of mine. If I spoke of the obligations under which you have placed your cousin, it was merely to show you that, in case of accident, her own interest would make her serve you. Do you see any obstacle to this plan, madame?"
Mme. Fauvel's eyes flashed with indignation.
"Is my will of no account?" she exclaimed. "You seem to have made your arrangements without consulting me at all."
"Excuse me," said the marquis, with ironical politeness, "but I knew that you would take the same view of the matter as myself. Your good sense would convince you of the necessity of using every possible means of rescuing your child from destruction."
"But it is a crime, monsieur, that you propose—an abominable crime! My mind revolts at the very idea of it!"
This speech seemed to arouse all the bad passions slumbering in Clameran's bosom; and his pale face had a fiendish expression as he fiercely replied:
"We had better end this humbuggery, and come to a clear understanding at once. Before you begin to talk about crime, think over your past life. You were not so timid and scrupulous when you gave yourself up to your lover; neither did you hesitate to faithlessly refuse to share his exile, although for your sake he had just jeopardized his life by killing two men. You felt no scruples at abandoning your child in London; although rolling in wealth, you never even inquired if this poor waif had bread to eat. You felt no scruples about marrying M. Fauvel. Did you tell your confiding husband of the lines of shame concealed beneath that orange wreath? Did you hesitate to confirm and strengthen his happy delusion, that his lips had pressed the first kiss upon your brow? No! All these crimes you indulged in; and, when in Gaston's name I demand reparation, you indignantly refuse. But, mark my words, madame, it is too late! You ruined the father; but you shall save the son, or, by all the saints in heaven, I swear you shall no longer cheat the world of its esteem."
"I will obey you, monsieur," murmured the trembling, frightened woman.
The following week Raoul, now Raoul de Lagors, was seated at the banker's dinner-table, between Mme. Fauvel and Madeleine.
It was not without the most painful suffering and self-condemnation that Mme. Fauvel submitted to the will of the pitiless Marquis of Clameran.
She had used every argument and entreaty to soften him; but he merely looked upon her with a triumphant, sneering smile, when she knelt at his feet, implored him to be merciful and spare her the shame and remorse of committing another crime. Spare her this torture, and she would grant anything else he wished, give Raoul all she possessed while alive, and insure him a handsome competency after her death.
Alas! neither tears nor prayers moved him. Disappointed, and almost desperate, she sought the intercession of her son.
Raoul was in a state of furious indignation at the sight of his mother's distress, and hastened to demand an apology from Clameran.
But he had reckoned without his host. He soon returned with downcast eyes, and moodily angry at his own powerlessness, declaring that safety demanded a complete surrender to the tyrant.
Now only did the wretched woman fully fathom the abyss into which she was being dragged, and clearly see the labyrinth of crime of which she was becoming the victim.
And all this suffering was the consequence of a fault, an interview granted to Gaston. Ever since that fatal day she had been vainly struggling against the implacable logic of events. Her life had been spent in trying to overcome the past, and now it had risen to crush her.
The hardest thing of all to do, the act that most wrung her heart, was showing to her husband the forged letter from St. Remy, and saying that she expected to see her rich young nephew in a day or two. 'Tis hard to deceive those who trust and love us.
But words cannot paint the torture she endured on the evening that she introduced Raoul to her family, and saw the honest banker cordially shake hands with this nephew of whom he had never heard before, and affectionately say to him:
"I am not surprised that a rich young fellow like yourself should prefer Paris to St. Remy, and nothing will give me more pleasure than your visit; for I seldom have an opportunity of welcoming a relative of my dear wife, for whose sake I take an interest in everyone coming from St. Remy."
Raoul exerted his utmost to deserve this warm reception.
If his early education had been neglected, and he lacked those delicate refinements of manner and conversation which home influence imparts, his superior tact concealed these defects.
He possessed the happy faculty of reading characters, and adapting his conversation to the minds of his listeners.
Before a week had gone by, he was a favorite with M. Fauvel, intimate with Abel and Lucien, and inseparable from Prosper Bertomy, the cashier, who spent all his evenings with the banker's family.
Charmed at the favorable impression made by Raoul, Mme. Fauvel recovered comparative ease of mind, and at times almost congratulated herself upon having obeyed the marquis, as she saw all around her contented and happy. Once more she began to hope that peace had not deserted her, that God had forgiven her.
Alas! she rejoiced too soon.
Raoul's intimacy with his cousins threw him among a set of rich young men, whose extravagance he not only imitated, but surpassed. He daily grew more dissipated and reckless. Gambling, racing, expensive suppers, made money slip through his fingers like grains of sand.
This proud young man, whose sensitive delicacy not long since made him refuse to accept aught save affection from his mother, now never approached her without demanding large sums of money.
At first she gave with pleasure, not stopping to count the rolls of notes she would eagerly run to bring him. But as he each time increased his demands, until they finally reached a sum far larger than she could bestow, her eyes were opened to the ruinous effects of her lavish generosity.
This rich woman, whose magnificent diamonds, elegant toilets, and superb equipages were the admiration and envy of Paris, now suffered the keenest torture. She had no more money to give her son; and what so pains the female heart as being unable to gratify the wishes of a beloved being?
Her husband never thought of giving her a fixed sum for the year's expenses, or of asking how she disposed of her money. The day after the wedding he gave her a key to his secretary, and told her, that what was his was hers, to use as she thought best. And, ever since, she had been in the habit of freely taking all the money necessary for keeping up the hospitable, elegant house over which she so gracefully presided; for her own dress, and many charitable purposes that the world never knew of.
But the fact of her having always been so modest in her personal expenses that her husband used to jestingly say that he was afraid she would end by being a miser; and her judicious, well-regulated management of household expenditures, causing her to spend much the same amount each year—prevented her now being able to dispose of large sums, without giving rise to embarrassing questions.
M. Fauvel, the most generous of millionaires, delighted to see his wife indulge in any extravagance, no matter how foolish; but he would naturally expect to see traces of the money spent, something to show for it.
The banker might suddenly discover that double the usual amount of money was used in the house; and, if he should ask the cause of this astonishing outlay, what answer could she give?
In three months, Raoul had squandered a little fortune. In the first place, he was obliged to have bachelor's apartments, prettily furnished, and a handsome outfit from a fashionable tailor, besides the thousand little things indispensable to a society man; he must have a blooded horse and a coupe. His doting mother felt it her duty to give him these luxuries, when her other sons were enjoying everything of the sort, besides many other advantages of which her poor Raoul was deprived. But each day the extravagance of his fancies increased, and Mme. Fauvel began to be alarmed when his demands far exceeded her ability to gratify them.
When she would gently remonstrate, Raoul's beautiful eyes would fill with tears, and in a sad, humble tone he would say:
"Alas! you are right to refuse me this gratification. What claim have I? I must not forget that I am only the poor son of Valentine, not the rich banker's child!"
This touching repentance wrung her heart, so that she always ended by granting him more than he had asked for. The poor boy had suffered so much that it was her duty to console him, and atone for her past neglect.
She soon discovered that he was jealous and envious of his two brothers—for, after all, they were his brothers—Abel and Lucien.
"You never refuse them anything," he would resentfully say: "they were fortunate enough to enter life by the golden gate. Their every wish is gratified; they enjoy wealth, position, home affection, and have a splendid future awaiting them."
"But what is lacking to your happiness, my son? Have you not everything that money can give? and are you not first in my affections?" asked his distressed mother.
"What do I want? Apparently nothing, in reality everything. Do I possess anything legitimately? What right have I to your affection, to the comforts and luxuries you heap upon me, to the name I bear? Is not my life an extortion, my very birth a fraud?"
When Raoul talked in this strain, she would weep, and overwhelm him with caresses and gifts, until she imagined that every jealous thought was vanished from his mind.
As spring approached, she told Raoul she designed him to spend the summer in the country, near her villa at St. Germain. She wanted to have him with her all the time, and this was the only way of gratifying her wish. She was surprised to find her proposal readily acquiesced in. In a few days he told her he had rented a little house at Vesinet, and intended having his furniture moved into it.
"Then, just think, dear mother, what a happy summer we will spend together!" he said, with beaming eyes.
She was delighted for many reasons, one of which was that the expenses of the prodigal son would necessarily be lessened. Anxiety as to the exhausted state of her finances made her bold enough to chide him at the dinner-table one day for having lost two thousand francs at the races that morning.
"You are severe, my dear," said M. Fauvel with the carelessness of a rich man, who considered this sum a mere trifle. "Mamma Lagors won't object to footing his bills; mammas are created for the special purpose of paying bills."
And, not observing that his wife had turned pale at these jocular words, he turned to Raoul, and added:
"Don't disturb yourself about a small sum like this, my boy; when you want money, come to me."
What could Mme. Fauvel say? Had she not followed Clameran's orders, and told her husband that Raoul was wealthy? She could not go now and tell him that he would never recover any money which he lent to a penniless spendthrift.
Why had she been made to tell this unnecessary lie?
She suspected the snare laid for her; but now it was too late to escape it: struggles would only more deeply entangle her in its meshes.
The banker's offer was soon accepted. That same week Raoul went to his uncle's bank, and boldly borrowed ten thousand francs.
When Mme. Fauvel heard of this piece of audacity, she wrung her hands in despair.
"What can he want with so much money?" she moaned to herself: "what wicked extravagance is it for?" For some time Clameran had kept away from Mme. Fauvel's house. She decided to write and ask him to come and advise her as to what steps should be taken to check Raoul.
She hoped that this energetic, determined man, who was so fully awake to his duties as a guardian and an uncle, would make Raoul listen to reason, and instantly refund the borrowed money.
When Clameran heard what his graceless nephew had done, his surprise and anger were unbounded. He expressed so much indignation against Raoul, that Mme. Fauvel was frightened at the storm she had raised, and began to make excuses for her son.
While they were discussing the matter, Raoul came in, and a violent altercation ensued between him and Clameran.
But the suspicions of Mme. Fauvel were aroused; she watched them, and it seemed to her—could it be possible—that their anger was feigned; that, although they abused and even threatened each other in the bitterest language, their eyes twinkled with amusement.
She dared not breathe her doubts; but, like a subtle poison which disorganizes everything with which it comes in contact, this new suspicion filled her thoughts, and added to her already intolerable sufferings.
Yet she never once thought of blaming Raoul; nor for a moment did she feel displeased with her idolized son. She accused the marquis of taking advantage of the youthful weakness and inexperience of his nephew.
She knew that she would have to suffer insolence and extortion from this man who had her completely in his power; but she could not imagine what object he now had in view, for she plainly saw that he was aiming at something more than his nephew's success in life. He constantly concealed some plan to benefit himself at her expense; but assuredly her darling Raoul could not be an accomplice in any plot to harass her.
Clameran himself soon cleared her mind of all doubts.
One day, after complaining more bitterly than usual of Raoul, and proving to Mme. Fauvel that it was impossible for this state of affairs to continue much longer, and a catastrophe was inevitable, he would up by saying there was one means of salvation left.
This was that he, Clameran, must marry Madeleine!
Mme. Fauvel was prepared for almost any base proposal save this one. She knew that his cupidity and insolence stopped at nothing, but never did she imagine he would have the wild presumption to aspire to Madeleine's hand.
If she had renounced all hope of happiness for herself, if she consented to the sacrifice of her own peace of mind, it was because she thus hoped to insure the undisturbed felicity of her household, of her husband, whom she had sinned against.
This unexpected declaration shocked her, and for a moment she was speechless.
"Do you suppose for an instant, monsieur," she indignantly exclaimed, "that I will consent to any such disgraceful project? Sacrifice Madeleine, and to you!"
"I certainly do suppose so, madame; in fact, I am certain of it," he answered with cool insolence.
"What sort of a woman do you think I am, monsieur? Alas, I am to eternally suffer for a fault committed twenty years ago; have I not already been more than adequately punished? And does it become you to be constantly reproaching me with my long-past imprudence? You have no right to be thus harassing me, till I dare not say my life is my own! Your power is at an end, and God only knows how deeply I regret having been insane enough to yield to its base sway! So long as I alone was to be the tool, you found me weak and timid; but, now that you seek the ruin of those I love, I rebel against your usurped authority. I have still a little conscience left, and nothing under heaven will force me to sacrifice my gentle, pure-hearted Madeleine!"
"May I inquire, madame, why you regard Mlle. Madeleine's becoming the Marchioness of Clameran as a disgrace and a sacrifice?"
"My niece chose, of her own free will, a husband whom she will shortly marry. She loves M. Prosper Bertomy."
The marquis disdainfully shrugged his shoulders.
"A school-girl love-affair," said he; "she will forget all about it, if you wish her to do so."
"I do not wish it. I wish her to marry him."
"Listen to me," he replied, in the low, suppressed tone of a man trying to control himself: "let us not waste time in these idle discussions. Hitherto you have always commenced by protesting against my proposed plans, and in the end acknowledge the good sense and justness of my arguments; now, for once why not yield without going through with the customary preliminaries? I ask it as a favor."
"Never," said Mme. Fauvel, "never will I yield."
Clameran paid no attention to this interruption, but went on:
"I insist upon this marriage, mainly on your account, although it will enable me to re-establish my own affairs, as well as yours and Raoul's. Of course you see that the allowance you give your son is insufficient for his extravagant style of living. The time approaches when, having nothing more to give him, you will have to encroach upon your husband's money-drawer to such an extent that longer concealment will be impossible. When that day comes what is to be done? Perhaps you have some feasible plan of escape?"
Mme. Fauvel shuddered. The dreadful day of discovery could not be far off, and no earthly way was there to escape it.
The marquis went on:
"Assist me now, and, instead of having to make a shameful confession, you will thank me for having saved you. Mlle. Madeleine is rich: her dowry will enable me to supply the deficiency, and spare you all further anxiety about Raoul."
"I would rather be ruined than be saved by such means."
"But I will not permit you to ruin us all. Remember, madame, that we are associated in a common cause, the future welfare of Raoul; and, although you have a right to rush upon destruction yourself, you certainly shall not drag us with you."
"Cease your importunities," she said, looking him steadily in the eye. "I have made up my mind irrevocably."
"To do everything and anything to escape your shameful persecution. Oh! you need not smile. I shall throw myself at M. Fauvel's feet, and confess everything. He is noble-hearted and generous, and, knowing how I have suffered, will forgive me."
"Do you think so?" said Clameran derisively.
"You mean to say that he will be pitiless, and banish me from his roof. So be it; it will only be what I deserve. There is no torture that I cannot bear, after what I have suffered through you."
This inconceivable resistance so upset all the marquis's plans that he lost all constraint, and, dropping the mask of politeness, appeared in his true character.
"Indeed!" he said in a fierce, brutal tone, "so you have decided to confess to your loving, magnanimous husband! A famous idea! What a pity you did not think of it before; it is rather late to try it now. Confessing everything the first day I called on you, you might have been forgiven. Your husband might have pardoned a youthful fault atoned for by twenty years of irreproachable conduct; for none can deny that you have been a faithful wife and a good mother. But picture the indignation of your trusting husband when you tell him that this pretended nephew, whom you imposed upon his family circle, who sat at his table, who borrowed his money, is your illegitimate son! M. Fauvel is, no doubt, an excellent, kind-hearted man; but I scarcely think he will pardon a deception of this nature, which betrays such depravity, duplicity, and audacity."
All that the angry marquis said was horribly true; yet Mme. Fauvel listened unflinchingly, as if the coarse cruelty of his words strengthened her resolution to have nothing more to do with him, but to throw herself on her husband's mercy.
"Upon my soul," he went on, "you must be very much infatuated with this M. Bertomy! Between the honor of your husband's name, and pleasing this love-sick cashier, you refuse to hesitate. Well, I suppose he will console you. When M. Fauvel divorces you, and Abel and Lucien avert their faces at your approach, and blush at being your sons, you will be able to say, 'I have made Prosper happy!'"
"Happen what may, I shall do what is right," said Mme. Fauvel.
"You shall do what I say!" cried Clameran, threateningly. "Do you suppose that I will allow your sentimentality to blast all my hopes? I shall tolerate no such folly, madame, I can assure you. Your niece's fortune is indispensable to us, and, more than that—I love the fair Madeleine, and am determined to marry her."
The blow once struck, the marquis judged it prudent to await the result. With cool politeness, he continued:
"I will leave you now, madame, to think the matter over, and you cannot fail to view it in the same light as I do. You had better take my advice, and consent to this sacrifice of prejudice, as it will be the last required of you. Think of the honor of your family, and not of your niece's love-affair. I will return in three days for your answer."
"Your return is unnecessary, monsieur: I shall tell my husband everything to-night."
If Mme. Fauvel had not been so agitated herself, she would have detected an expression of alarm upon Clameran's face.
But this uneasiness was only momentary. With a shrug, which meant, "Just as you please," he said:
"I think you have sense enough to keep your secret."
He bowed ceremoniously, and left the room, but slammed the front door after him so violently as to prove that his restrained anger burst forth before leaving the house.
Clameran had cause for fear. Mme. Fauvel's determination was not feigned. She was firm in her resolve to confess.
"Yes," she cried, with the enthusiasm of a noble resolution, "yes, I will tell Andre everything!"
She believed herself to be alone, but turned around suddenly at the sound of footsteps, and found herself face to face with Madeleine, who was pale and swollen-eyed with weeping.
"You must obey this man, aunt," she quietly said.
Adjoining the parlor was a little card-room separated only by a heavy silk curtain, instead of a door.
Madeleine was sitting in this little room when the marquis arrived, and, as there was no egress save through the parlor, had remained, and thus overheard the conversation.
"Good Heaven!" cried Mme. Fauvel with terror, "do you know——"
"I know everything, aunt."
"And you wish me to sacrifice you to this fiend?"
"I implore you to let me save you from misery."
"You certainly despise and hate M. de Clameran; how can you think I would let you marry him?"
"I do despise him, aunt, and shall always regard him as the basest of men; nevertheless I will marry him."
Mme. Fauvel was overcome by the magnitude of this devotion.
"And what is to become of Prosper, my poor child—Prosper, whom you love?"
Madeleine stifled a sob, and said in a firm voice:
"To-morrow I will break off my engagement with M. Bertomy."
"I will never permit such a wrong," cried Mme. Fauvel. "I will not add to my sins by suffering an innocent girl to bear their penalty."
The noble girl sadly shook her head, and replied:
"Neither will I suffer dishonor to fall upon this house, which is my home, while I have power to prevent it. Am I not indebted to you for more than life? What would I now be had you not taken pity on me? A factory girl in my native village. You warmly welcomed the poor orphan, and became a mother to her. Is it not to your husband that I owe the fortune which excites the cupidity of this wicked Clameran? Are not Abel and Lucien brothers to me? And now, when the happiness of all who have been loving and generous to me is at stake, do you suppose I would hesitate? No. I will become the wife of Clameran."
Then began a struggle of self-sacrifice between Mme. Fauvel and her niece, as to which should be the victim; only the more sublime, because each offered her life to the other, not from any sudden impulse, but deliberately and willingly.
But Madeleine carried the day, fired as she was by that holy enthusiasm of sacrifice which is the sustaining element of martyrs.
"I am responsible to none but myself," said she, well knowing this to be the most vulnerable point she could attack; "whilst you, dear aunt, are accountable to your husband and children. Think of the pain and sorrow of M. Fauvel if he should learn the truth; it would kill him."
The generous girl was right. She knew her uncle's heart.
After having sacrificed her husband to her mother, Mme. Fauvel was about to immolate her husband and children for Raoul.
As a general thing, a first fault draws many others in its train. As an impalpable flake is the beginning of an avalanche, so an imprudence is often the prelude to a great crime.
To false situations there is but one safe issue: truth.
Mme. Fauvel's resistance grew weaker and more faint, as her niece pointed out the line for her to pursue: the path of wifely duty.
"But," she faintly argued, "I cannot accept your sacrifice. What sort of a life will you lead with this man?"
"We can hope for the best," replied Madeleine with a cheerfulness she was far from feeling; "he loves me, he says; perhaps he will be kind to me."
"Ah, if I only knew where to obtain money! It is money that the grasping man wants; money alone will satisfy him."
"Does he not want it for Raoul? Has not Raoul, by his extravagant follies, dug an abyss which must be bridged over by money? If I could only believe M. de Clameran!"
Mme. Fauvel looked at her niece with bewildered curiosity.
What! this inexperienced girl had weighed the matter in its different lights before deciding upon a surrender; whereas, she, a wife and a mother, had blindly yielded to the inspirations of her heart!
"What do you mean? Madeleine, what do you suspect?"
"I mean this, aunt: that I do not believe that Clameran has any thought of his nephew's welfare. Once in possession of my fortune, he may leave you and Raoul to your fates. And there is another dreadful suspicion that tortures my mind."
"Yes, and I would reveal it to you, if I dared; if I did not fear that you—"
"Speak!" insisted Mme. Fauvel. "Alas! misfortune has given me strength to bear all things. There is nothing worse than has already happened. I am ready to hear anything."
Madeleine hesitated; she wished to enlighten her credulous aunt, and yet hesitated to distress her.
"I would like to be certain," she said, "that some secret understanding between M. de Clameran and Raoul does not exist. Do you not think they are acting a part agreed upon for the purpose of extorting money?"
Love is blind and deaf. Mme. Fauvel would not remember the laughing eyes of the two men, upon the occasion of the pretended quarrel in her presence. Infatuation had drowned suspicion. She could not, she would not, believe in such hypocrisy. Raoul plot against the mother? Never!
"It is impossible," she said, "the marquis is really indignant and distressed at his nephew's mode of life, and he certainly would not countenance any disgraceful conduct. As to Raoul, he is vain, trifling, and extravagant; but he has a good heart. Prosperity has turned his head, but he loves me still. Ah, if you could see and hear him, when I reproach him for his faults, your suspicions would fly to the winds. When he tearfully promises to be more prudent, and never again give me trouble, he means to keep his word; but perfidious friends entice him away, and he commits some piece of folly without thinking of the consequences."
Mothers always blame themselves and everyone else for the sins of their sons. The innocent friends come in for the principal share of censure, each mother's son leading the other astray.
Madeleine had not the heart to undeceive her aunt.
"God grant that what you say may be true," she said; "if so, this marriage will not be useless. We will write to M. de Clameran to-night."
"Why to-night, Madeleine? We need not hurry so. Let us wait a little; something else might happen to save us."
These words, this confidence in chance, in a mere nothing, revealed Mme. Fauvel's true character, and accounted for her troubles. Timid, hesitating, easily swayed, she never could come to a firm decision, form a resolution, and abide by it, in spite of all arguments brought to bear against it. In the hour of peril she would always shut her eyes and trust to chance for a relief which never came. Never once did she think to ward off trouble by her own exertions.
Quite different was Madeleine's character. Beneath her gentle timidity lay a strong, self-reliant will. Once decided upon what was right and just, nothing could change her. If it was her duty to make a sacrifice, it was to be carried out to the letter; no hesitation and sighs for what might have been; she shut out all deceitful illusions, and walked straight forward without one look back.
"We had better end the matter at once, dear aunt," she said, in a gentle, but firm tone. "Believe me, the reality of misfortune is not as painful as its apprehension. You cannot bear the shocks of sorrow, and delusive hopes of happiness, much longer. Do you know what anxiety of mind has done to you? Have you looked in the mirror during the last four months?"
She led her aunt up to the glass, and said:
"Look at yourself."
Mme. Fauvel was indeed a mere shadow of her former self.
She had reached the perfidious age when a woman's beauty, like a full-blown rose, fades in a day.
Four months of trouble had made her an old woman. Sorrow had stamped its fatal seal upon her brow. Her fair, soft skin was wrinkled, her golden hair was streaked with silver, and her large, soft eyes had a painfully frightened look.
"Do you not agree with me," continued Madeleine, pityingly, "that peace of mind is necessary to you? Do you not see that you are a wreck of your former self? It is a miracle that M. Fauvel has not noticed this sad change in you!"
Mme. Fauvel, who flattered herself that she had displayed wonderful dissimulation, shook her head.
"Alas, my poor aunt! you think you concealed your secret from all: you may have blinded my uncle, but I suspected all along that something dreadful was breaking your heart."
"You suspected what, Madeleine? Not the truth?"
"No, I was afraid—Oh, pardon an unjust suspicion, my dear aunt, but I was wicked enough to suppose——"
She stopped, too distressed to finish her sentence; then, making a painful effort, she added, as her aunt signed to her to go on:
"I was afraid that perhaps you loved another man than my uncle; it was the only construction that I could put upon your strange conduct."
Mme. Fauvel buried her face, and groaned. Madeleine's suspicion was, no doubt, entertained by others.
"My reputation is gone," she moaned.
"No, dear aunt, no; do not be alarmed about that. No one has had occasion to observe you as I have; it was only a dreadful thought which penetrated my mind in spite of my endeavors to dispel it. Have courage: we two can fight the world and silence our enemies. You shall be saved, aunt: only trust in me."
The Marquis of Clameran was agreeably surprised that evening by receiving a letter from Mme. Fauvel, saying that she consented to everything, but must have a little time to carry out the plan.
Madeleine, she said, could not break off her engagement with M. Bertomy in a day. M. Fauvel would make objections, for he had an affection for Prosper, and had tacitly approved of the match. It would be wiser to leave to time the smoothing away of certain obstacles which a sudden attack might render insurmountable.
A line from Madeleine, at the bottom of the letter, assured him that she fully concurred with her aunt.
Poor girl! she did not spare herself. The next day she took Prosper aside, and forced from him the fatal promise to shun her in the future, and to take upon himself the responsibility of breaking their engagement.
He implored Madeleine to at least explain the reason of this banishment, which destroyed all of his hopes for happiness.
She quietly replied that her peace of mind and honor depended upon his blind obedience to her will.
He left her with death in his soul.
As he went out of the house, the marquis entered.
Yes, he had the audacity to come in person, to tell Mme. Fauvel that, now he had the promise of herself and Madeleine, he would consent to wait awhile.
He himself saw the necessity of patience, knowing that he was not liked by the banker.
Having the aunt and niece on his side, or rather in his power, he was certain of success. He said to himself that the moment would come when a deficit impossible to be paid would force them to hasten the wedding.
Raoul did all he could to bring matters to a crisis.
Mme. Fauvel went sooner than usual to her country seat, and Raoul at once moved into his house at Vesinet. But living in the country did not lessen his expenses.
Gradually he laid aside all hypocrisy, and now only came to see his mother when he wanted money; and his demands were frequent and more exorbitant each time.
As for the marquis, he prudently absented himself, awaiting the propitious moment.
At the end of three weeks he met the banker at a friend's, and was invited to dinner the next day.
Twenty people were seated at the table; and, as the dessert was being served, the banker suddenly turned to Clameran and said:
"I have a piece of news for you, monsieur. Have you any relatives of your name?"
"None that I know of, monsieur."
"I am surprised. About a week ago, I became acquainted with another Marquis of Clameran."
Although so hardened by crime, impudent enough to deny anything, Clameran was so taken aback that he sat with pale face and a blank look, silently staring at M. Fauvel.
But he soon recovered enough self-control to say hurriedly:
"Oh, indeed! That is strange. A Clameran may exist; but I cannot understand the title of marquis."
M. Fauvel was not sorry to have the opportunity of annoying a guest whose aristocratic pretensions had often piqued him.
"Marquis or not," he replied, "the Clameran in question seems to be able to do honor to the title."
"Is he rich?"
"I have reason to suppose that he is very wealthy. I have been notified to collect for him four hundred thousand francs."
Clameran had a wonderful faculty of self-control; he had so schooled himself that his face never betrayed what was passing in his mind. But this news was so startling, so strange, so pregnant of danger, that his usual assurance deserted him.
He detected a peculiar look of irony in the banker's eye.
The only persons who noticed this sudden change in the marquis's matter were Madeleine and her aunt. They saw him turn pale, and exchange a meaning look with Raoul.
"Then I suppose this new marquis is a merchant," said Clameran after a moment's pause.
"That I don't know. All that I know is, that four hundred thousand francs are to be deposited to his account by some ship-owners at Havre, after the sale of the cargo of a Brazilian ship."
"Then he comes from Brazil?"
"I do not know, but I can give you his Christian name."
"I would be obliged."
M. Fauvel arose from the table, and brought from the next room a memorandum-book, and began to read over the names written in it.
"Wait a moment," he said, "let me see—the 22nd, no, it was later than that. Ah, here it is: Clameran, Gaston. His name is Gaston, monsieur."
But this time Louis betrayed no emotion or alarm; he had had sufficient time to recover his self-possession, and nothing could not throw him off his guard.
"Gaston?" he queried, carelessly. "I know who he is now. He must be the son of my father's sister, whose husband lived at Havana. I suppose, upon his return to France, he must have taken his mother's name, which is more sonorous than his father's, that being, if I recollect aright, Moirot or Boirot."
The banker laid down his memorandum-book, and, resuming his seat, went on:
"Boirot or Clameran," said he, "I hope to have the pleasure of inviting you to dine with him before long. Of the four hundred thousand francs which I was ordered to collect for him, he only wishes to draw one hundred, and tells me to keep the rest on running account. I judge from this that he intends coming to Paris."
"I shall be delighted to make his acquaintance."
Clameran broached another topic, and seemed to have entirely forgotten the news told him by the banker.
Although apparently engrossed in the conversation of his neighbor at the table, he closely watched Mme. Fauvel and her niece.
He saw that they were unable to conceal their agitation, and stealthily exchanged significant looks.
Evidently the same terrible idea had crossed their minds.
Madeleine seemed more nervous and startled than her aunt. When M. Fauvel uttered Gaston's name, she saw Raoul begin to draw back in his chair and glance in a frightened manner toward the window, like a detected thief looking for means of escape.
Raoul, less experienced than his uncle, was thoroughly discountenanced. He, the original talker, the lion of a dinner-party, never at a loss for some witty speech, was now perfectly dumb; he sat anxiously watching Louis.
At last the dinner ended, and as the guests passed into the drawing-room, Clameran and Raoul managed to remain last in the dining-room.
When they were alone, they no longer attempted to conceal their anxiety.
"It is he!" said Raoul.
"I have no doubt of it."
"Then all is lost; we had better make our escape."
But a bold adventurer like Clameran had no idea of giving up the ship till forced to do so.
"Who knows what may happen?" he asked, thoughtfully. "There is hope yet. Why did not that muddle-headed banker tell us where this Clameran is to be found?"
Here he uttered a joyful exclamation. He saw M. Fauvel's memorandum-book lying on the table.
"Watch!" he said to Raoul.
Seizing the note-book, he hurriedly turned over the leaves, and, in an undertone, read:
"Gaston, Marquis of Clameran, Oloron, Lower Pyrenees."
"Well, does finding out his address assist us?" inquired Raoul, eagerly.
"It may save us: that is all. Let us return to the drawing-room; our absence might be observed. Exert yourself to appear unconcerned and gay. You almost betrayed us once by your agitation."
"The two women suspect something."
"Well, suppose they do?"
"The best thing that we can do is escape; the sooner we leave Paris, the better."
"Do you think we should do any better in London? Don't be so easily frightened. I am going to plant my batteries, and I warrant they will prove successful."
They joined the other guests. But, if their conversation had not been overheard their movements had been watched.
Madeleine looked through the half-open door, and saw Clameran consulting her uncle's note-book, and whispering to Raoul. But what benefit would she derive from this proof of the marquis's villany? She knew now that he was plotting to obtain her fortune, and she would be forced to yield it to him; that he had squandered his brother's fortune, and was now frightened at the prospect of having to account for it. Still this did not explain Raoul's conduct. Why did he show such fear?