No, she gave; and, to repair the gaps thus made in her treasure, she worked to the point of ruining her sight, with such eager zeal, that the worthy shop-keeper of the Rue St. Denis asked her if she did not employ working girls. In truth, the only help she received was from Gilberte, who, at the age of eight, already knew how to make herself useful.
And this is not all. For this son, in anticipation of growing expenses, she stooped to expedients which formerly would have seemed to her unworthy and disgraceful. She robbed the household, cheating on her own marketing. She went so far as to confide to her servant, and to make of the girl the accomplice of her operations. She applied all her ingenuity to serve to M. Favoral dinners in which the excellence of the dressing concealed the want of solid substance. And on Sunday, when she rendered her weekly accounts, it was without a blush that she increased by a few centimes the price of each object, rejoicing when she had thus scraped a dozen francs, and finding, to justify herself to her own eyes, those sophisms which passion never lacks.
At first Maxence was too young to wonder from what sources his mother drew the money she lavished upon his schoolboy fancies. She recommended him to hide from his father: he did so, and thought it perfectly natural.
As he grew older, he learned to discern.
The moment came when he opened his eyes upon the system under which the paternal household was managed. He noticed there that anxious economy which seems to betray want, and the acrimonious discussions which arose upon the inconsiderate use of a twenty-franc-piece. He saw his mother realize miracles of industry to conceal the shabbiness of her toilets, and resort to the most skillful diplomacy when she wished to purchase a dress for Gilberte.
And, despite all this, he had at his disposition as much money as those of his comrades whose parents had the reputation to be the most opulent and the most generous.
Anxious, he questioned his mother.
"Eh, what does it matter?" she answered, blushing and confused. "Is that any thing to worry you?"
And, as he insisted,
"Go ahead," she said: "we are rich enough." But he could hardly believe her, accustomed as he was to hear every one talk of poverty; and, as he fixed upon her his great astonished eyes,
"Yes," she resumed, with an imprudence which fatally was to bear its fruits, "we are rich; and, if we live as you see, it is because it suits your father, who wishes to amass a still greater fortune."
This was hardly an answer; and yet Maxence asked no further question. But he inquired here and there, with that patient shrewdness of young people possessed with a fixed idea.
Already, at this time, M. Favoral had in the neighborhood, and ever among his friends, the reputation to be worth at least a million. The Mutual Credit Society had considerably developed itself: he must, they thought, have benefitted largely by the circumstance; and the profits must have swelled rapidly in the hands of so able a man, and one so noted for his rigid economy.
Such is the substance of what Maxence heard; and people did not fail to add ironically, that he need not rely upon the paternal fortune to amuse himself.
M. Desormeaux himself, whom he had "pumped" rather cleverly, had told him, whilst patting him amicably on the shoulder,
"If you ever need money for your frolics, young man, try and earn it; for I'll be hanged if it's the old man who'll ever supply it."
Such answers complicated, instead of explaining, the problem which occupied Maxence.
He observed, he watched; and at last he acquired the certainty that the money he spent was the fruit of the joint labor of his mother and sister.
"Ah! why not have told me so?" he exclaimed, throwing his arms around his mother's neck. "Why have exposed me to the bitter regrets which I feel at this moment?"
By this sole word the poor woman found herself amply repaid. She admired the noblesse of her son's feelings and the kindness of his heart.
"Do you not understand," she told him, shedding tears of joy, "do you not see, that the labor which can promote her son's pleasure is a happiness for his mother?"
But he was dismayed at his discovery.
"No matter!" he said. "I swear that I shall no longer scatter to the winds, as I have been doing, the money that you give me."
For a few weeks, indeed, he was faithful to his pledge. But at fifteen resolutions are not very stanch. The impressions he had felt wore off. He became tired of the small privations which he had to impose upon himself.
He soon came to take to the letter what his mother had told him, and to prove to his own satisfaction that to deprive himself of a pleasure was to deprive her. He asked for ten francs one day, then ten francs another, and gradually resumed his old habits.
He was at this time about leaving school.
"The moment has come," said M. Favoral, "for him to select a career, and support himself."
To think of a profession, Maxence Favoral had not waited for the paternal warnings.
Modern schoolboys are precocious: they know the strong and the weak side of life; and, when they take their degree, they already have but few illusions left.
And how could it be otherwise? In the interior of the colleges is fatally found the echo of the thoughts, and the reflex of the manners, of the time. Neither walls nor keepers can avail. At the same time, as the city mud that stains their boots, the scholars bring back on their return from holidays their stock of observations and of facts.
And what have they seen during the day in their families, or among their friends?
Ardent cravings, insatiable appetites for luxuries, comforts, enjoyments, pleasures, contempt for patient labor, scorn for austere convictions, eager longing for money, the will to become rich at any cost, and the firm resolution to ravish fortune on the first favorable occasion.
To be sure, they have dissembled in their presence; but their perceptions are keen.
True, their father has told them in a grave tone, that there is nothing respectable in this world except labor and honesty; but they have caught that same father scarcely noticing a poor devil of an honest man, and bowing to the earth before some clever rascal bearing the stigma of three judgments, but worth six millions.
Conclusion? Oh! they know very well how to conclude; for there are none such as young people to be logical, and to deduce the utmost consequences of a fact.
They know, the most of them, that they will have to do something or other; but what? And it is then, that, during the recreations, their imagination strives to find that hitherto unknown profession which is to give them fortune without work, and freedom at the same time as a brilliant situation.
They discuss and criticise freely all the careers which are open to youthful ambition. And how they laugh, if some simple fellow ventures upon suggesting some of those modest situations where they earn one hundred and fifty francs a month at the start! One hundred and fifty francs!—why, it's hardly as much as many a boy spends for his cigars, and his cab-fares when he is late.
Maxence was neither better nor worse than the rest. Like the rest he strove to discover the ideal profession which makes a man rich, and amuses him at the same time.
Under the pretext that he drew nicely, he spoke of becoming a painter, calculating coolly what painting may yield, and reckoning, according to some newspaper, the earnings of Corot or Geroine, Ziem, Bouguereau, and some others, who are reaping at last the fruits of unceasing efforts and crushing labors.
But, in the way of pictures, M. Vincent Favoral appreciated only the blue vignettes of the Bank of France.
"I wish no artists in my family," he said, in a tone that admitted of no reply.
Maxence would willingly have become an engineer, for it's rather the style to be an engineer now-a-days; but the examinations for the Polytechnic School are rather steep. Or else a cavalry officer; but the two years at Saint Cyr are not very gay. Or chief clerk, like M. Desormeaux; but he would have to begin by being supernumerary.
Finally after hesitating for a long time between law and medicine, he made up his mind to become a lawyer, influenced above all, by the joyous legends of the Latin quarter.
That was not exactly M. Vincent Favoral's dream.
"That's going to cost money again," he growled.
The fact is, he had indulged in the fallacious hope that his son, as soon as he left college, would enter at once some business-house, where he would earn enough to take care of himself.
He yielded at last, however, to the persistent entreaties of his wife, and the solicitations of his friends.
"Be it so," he said to Maxence: "you will study law. Only, as it cannot suit me that you should waste your days lounging in the billiard-rooms of the left bank, you shall at the same time work in an attorney's office. Next Saturday I shall arrange with my friend Chapelain."
Maxence had not bargained for such an arrangement; and he came near backing out at the prospect of a discipline which he foresaw must be as exacting as that of the college.
Still, as he could think of nothing better, he persevered. And, vacations over, he was duly entered at the law-school, and settled at a desk in M. Chapelain's office, which was then in the Rue St. Antoine.
The first year every thing went on tolerably. He enjoyed as much freedom as he cared to. His father did not allow him one centime for his pocket-money; but the attorney, in his capacity of an old friend of the family, did for him what he had never done before for an amateur clerk, and allowed him twenty francs a month. Mme. Favoral adding to this a few five-franc pieces, Maxence declared himself entirely satisfied.
Unfortunately, with his lively imagination and his impetuous temper, no one was less fit than himself for that peaceful existence, that steady toil, the same each day, without the stimulus of difficulties to overcome, or the satisfaction of results obtained.
Before long he became tired of it.
He had found at the law-school a number of his old schoolmates whose parents resided in the provinces, and who, consequently, lived as they pleased in the Latin quarter, less assiduous to the lectures than to the Spring Brewery and the Closerie des Lilas.[*]
[ * A noted dancing-garden. ]
He envied them their joyous life, their freedom without control, their facile pleasures, their furnished rooms, and even the low eating-house where they took their meals. And, as much as possible, he lived with them and like them.
But it is not with M. Chapelain's twenty francs that it would have been possible for him to keep up with fellows, who, with superb recklessness, took on credit everything they could get, reserving the amount of their allowance for those amusements which had to be paid for in cash.
But was not Mme. Favoral here?
She had worked so much, the poor woman, especially since Mlle. Gilberte had become almost a young lady; she had so much saved, so much stinted, that her reserve, notwithstanding repeated drafts, amounted to a good round sum.
When Maxence wanted two or three napoleons, he had but a word to say; and he said it often. Thus, after a while, he became an excellent billiard-player; he kept his colored meerschaum in the rack of a popular brewery; he took absinthe before dinner, and spent his evenings in the laudable effort to ascertain how many mugs of beer he could "put away." Gaining in audacity, he danced at Bullier's, dined at Foyd's, and at last had a mistress.
So much so, that one afternoon, M. Favoral having to visit on business the other side of the water, found himself face to face with his son, who was coming along, a cigar in his mouth, and having on his arm a young lady, painted in superior style, and harnessed with a toilet calculated to make the cab-horses rear.
He returned to the Rue St. Gilles in a state of indescribable rage.
"A woman!" he exclaimed in a tone of offended modesty. "A woman! —he, my son!"
And when that son made his appearance, looking quite sheepish, his first impulse was to resort to his former mode of correction.
But Maxence was now over nineteen years of age.
At the sight of the uplifted cane, he became whiter than his shirt; and, wrenching it from his father's hands, he broke it across his knees, threw the pieces violently upon the floor, and sprang out of the house.
"He shall never again set his foot here!" screamed the cashier of the Mutual Credit, thrown beside himself by an act of resistance which seemed to him unheard of. "I banish him. Let his clothes be packed up, and taken to some hotel: I never want to see him again."
For a long time Mme. Favoral and Gilberte fairly dragged themselves at his feet, before he consented to recall his determination.
"He will disgrace us all!" he kept repeating, seeming unable to understand that it was himself who had, as it were, driven Maxence on to the fatal road which he was pursuing, forgetting that the absurd severities of the father prepared the way for the perilous indulgence of the mother, unwilling to own that the head of a family has other duties besides providing food and shelter for his wife and children, and that a father has but little right to complain who has not known how to make himself the friend and the adviser of his son.
At last, after the most violent recriminations, he forgave, in appearance at least.
But the scales had dropped from his eyes. He started in quest of information, and discovered startling enormities.
He heard from M. Chapelain that Maxence remained whole weeks at a time without appearing at the office. If he had not complained before, it was because he had yielded to the urgent entreaties of Mme. Favoral; and he was now glad, he added, of an opportunity to relieve his conscience by a full confession.
Thus the cashier discovered, one by one, all his son's tricks. He heard that he was almost unknown at the law-school, that he spent his days in the cafes, and that, in the evening, when he believed him in bed and asleep, he was in fact running out to theatres and to balls.
"Ah! that's the way, is it?" he thought. "Ah, my wife and children are in league against me,—me, the master. Very well, we'll see."
From that morning war was declared.
From that day commenced in the Rue St. Gilles one of those domestic dramas which are still awaiting their Moliere,—a drama of distressing vulgarity and sickening realism, but poignant, nevertheless; for it brought into action tears, blood, and a savage energy.
M. Favoral thought himself sure to win; for did he not have the key of the cash, and is not the key of the cash the most formidable weapon in an age where every thing begins and ends with money?
Nevertheless, he was filled with irritating anxieties.
He who had just discovered so many things which he did not even suspect a few days before, he could not discover the source whence his son drew the money which flowed like water from his prodigal hands.
He had made sure that Maxence had no debts; and yet it could not be with M. Chapelain's monthly twenty francs that he fed his frolics.
Mme. Favoral and Gilberte, subjected separately to a skillful interrogatory, had managed to keep inviolate the secret of their mercenary labor. The servant, shrewdly questioned, had said nothing that could in any way cause the truth to be suspected.
Here was, then, a mystery; and M. Favoral's constant anxiety could be read upon his knitted brows during his brief visits to the house; that is, during dinner.
From the manner in which he tasted his soup, it was easy to see that he was asking himself whether that was real soup, and whether he was not being imposed upon. From the expression of his eyes, it was easy to guess this question constantly present to his mind.
"They are robbing me evidently; but how do they do it?"
And he became distrustful, fussy, and suspicious, to an extent that he had never been before. It was with the most insulting precautions that he examined every Sunday his wife's accounts. He took a look at the grocer's, and settled it himself every month: he had the butcher's bills sent to him in duplicate. He would inquire the price of an apple as he peeled it over his plate, and never failed to stop at the fruiterer's and ascertain that he had not been deceived.
But it was all in vain.
And yet he knew that Maxence always had in his pocket two or three five-franc pieces.
"Where do you steal them?" he asked him one day.
"I save them out of my salary," boldly answered the young man.
Exasperated, M. Favoral wished to make the whole world take an interest in his investigations. And one Saturday evening, as he was talking with his friends, M. Chapelain, the worthy Desclavettes, and old man Desormeaux, pointing to his wife and daughter:
"Those d—-d women rob me," he said, "for the benefit of my son; and they do it so cleverly that I can't find out how. They have an understanding with the shop-keepers, who are but licensed thieves; and nothing is eaten here that they don't make me pay double its value."
M. Chapelain made an ill-concealed grimace; whilst M. Desclavettes sincerely admired a man who had courage enough to confess his meanness.
But M. Desormeaux never minced things.
"Do you know, friend Vincent," he said, "that it requires a strong stomach to take dinner with a man who spends his time calculating the cost of every mouthful that his guests swallow?"
M. Favoral turned red in the face.
"It is not the expense that I deplore," he replied, "but the duplicity. I am rich enough, thank Heaven! not to begrudge a few francs; and I would gladly give to my wife twice as much as she takes, if she would only ask it frankly."
But that was a lesson.
Hereafter he was careful to dissimulate, and seemed exclusively occupied in subjecting his son to a system of his invention, the excessive rigor of which would have upset a steadier one than he.
He demanded of him daily written attestations of his attendance both at the law-school and at the lawyer's office. He marked out the itinerary of his walks for him, and measured the time they required, within a few minutes. Immediately after dinner he shut him up in his room, under lock and key, and never failed, when he came home at ten o'clock to make sure of his presence.
He could not have taken steps better calculated to exalt still more Mme. Favoral's blind tenderness.
When she heard that Maxence had a mistress, she had been rudely shocked in her most cherished feelings. It is never without a secret jealousy that a mother discovers that a woman has robbed her of her son's heart. She had retained a certain amount of spite against him on account of disorders, which, in her candor, she had never suspected. She forgave him every thing when she saw of what treatment he was the object.
She took sides with him, believing him to be the victim of a most unjust persecution. In the evening, after her husband had gone out, Gilberte and herself would take their sewing, sit in the hall outside his room, and converse with him through the door. Never had they worked so hard for the shop-keeper in the Rue St. Denis. Some weeks they earned as much as twenty-five or thirty francs.
But Maxence's patience was exhausted; and one morning he declared resolutely that he would no longer attend the law-school, that he had been mistaken in his vocation, and that there was no human power capable to make him return to M. Chapelain's.
"And where will you go?" exclaimed his father. "Do you expect me eternally to supply your wants?"
He answered that it was precisely in order to support himself, and conquer his independence, that he had resolved to abandon a profession, which, after two years, yielded him twenty francs a month.
"I want some business where I have a chance to get rich," he replied. "I would like to enter a banking-house, or some great financial establishment."
Mme. Favoral jumped at the idea.
"That's a fact," she said to her husband. "Why couldn't you find a place for our son at the Mutual Credit? There he would be under your own eyes. Intelligent as he is, backed by M. de Thaller and yourself, he would soon earn a good salary."
M. Favoral knit his brows.
"That I shall never do," he uttered. "I have not sufficient confidence in my son. I cannot expose myself to have him compromise the consideration which I have acquired for myself."
And, revealing to a certain extent the secret of his conduct:
"A cashier," he added, "who like me handles immense sums cannot be too careful of his reputation. Confidence is a delicate thing in these times, when there are so many cashiers constantly on the road to Belgium. Who knows what would be thought of me, if I was known to have such a son as mine?"
Mme. Favoral was insisting, nevertheless, when he seemed to make up his mind suddenly.
"Enough," he said. "Maxence is free. I allow him two years to establish himself in some position. That delay over, good-by: he can find board and lodging where he please. That's all. I don't want to hear any thing more about it."
It was with a sort of frenzy that Maxence abused that freedom; and in less than two weeks he had dissipated three months' earnings of his mother and sister.
That time over, he succeeded, thanks to M. Chapelain, in finding a place with an architect.
This was not a very brilliant opening; and the chances were, that he might remain a clerk all his life. But the future did not trouble him much. For the present, he was delighted with this inferior position, which assured him each month one hundred and seventy-five francs.
One hundred and seventy-five francs! A fortune. And so he rushed into that life of questionable pleasures, where so many wretches have left not only the money which they had, which is nothing, but the money which they had not, which leads straight to the police-court.
He made friends with those shabby fellows who walk up and down in front of the Cafe Riche, with an empty stomach, and a tooth-pick between their teeth. He became a regular customer at those low cafes of the Boulevards, where plastered girls smile to the men. He frequented those suspicious table d'hotes where they play baccarat after dinner on a wine-stained table-cloth, and where the police make periodical raids. He ate suppers in those night restaurants where people throw the bottles at each other's heads after drinking their contents.
Often he remained twenty-four hours without coming to the Rue St. Gilles; and then Mme. Favoral spent the night in the most fearful anxiety. Then, suddenly, at some hour when he knew his father to be absent, he would appear, and, taking his mother to one side:
"I very much want a few louis," he would say in a sheepish tone.
She gave them to him; and she kept giving them so long as she had any, not, however, without observing timidly to him that Gilberte and herself could not earn very much.
Until finally one evening, and to a last demand:
"Alas!" she answered sorrowfully, "I have nothing left, and it is only on Monday that we are to take our work back. Couldn't you wait until then?"
He could not wait: he was expected for a game. Blind devotion begets ferocious egotism. He wanted his mother to go out and borrow the money from the grocer or the butcher. She was hesitating. He spoke louder.
Then Mlle. Gilberte appeared.
"Have you, then, really no heart?" she said. "It seems to me, that, if I were a man, I would not ask my mother and sister to work for me."
Gilberte Favoral had just completed her eighteenth year. Rather tall, slender, her every motion betrayed the admirable proportions of her figure, and had that grace which results from the harmonious blending of litheness and strength. She did not strike at first sight; but soon a penetrating and indefinable charm arose from her whole person; and one knew not which to admire most,—the exquisite perfections of her figure, the divine roundness of her neck, her aerial carriage, or the placid ingenuousness of her attitudes. She could not be called beautiful, inasmuch as her features lacked regularity; but the extreme mobility of her countenance, upon which could be read all the emotions of her soul, had an irresistible seduction. Her large eyes, of velvety blue, had untold depths and an incredible intensity of expression; the imperceptible quiver of her rosy nostrils revealed an untamable pride; and the smile that played upon her lips told her immense contempt for every thing mean and small. But her real beauty was her hair,—of a blonde so luminous that it seemed powdered with diamond-dust; so thick and so long, that to be able to twist and confine it, she had to cut off heavy locks of it to the very root.
Alone, in the house, she did not tremble at her father's voice. The studied despotism which had subdued Mme. Favoral had revolted her, and her energy had become tempered under the same system of oppression which had unnerved Maxence.
Whilst her mother and her brother lied with that quiet impudence of the slave, whose sole weapon is duplicity, Gilberte preserved a sullen silence. And if complicity was imposed upon her by circumstances, if she had to maintain a falsehood, each word cost her such a painful effort, that her features became visibly altered.
Never, when her own interests were alone at stake, had she stooped to an untruth. Fearlessly, and whatever might be the result,
"That is the fact," she would say.
Accordingly, M. Favoral could not help respecting her to a degree; and, when he was in fine humor, he called her the Empress Gilberte. For her alone he had some deference and some attentions. He moderated, when she looked at him, the brutality of his language. He brought her a few flowers every Saturday.
He had even allowed her a professor of music; though he was wont to declare that a woman needs but two accomplishments,—to cook and to sew. But she had insisted so much, that he had at last discovered for her, in an attic of the Rue du Pas-de-la-Mule, an old Italian master, the Signor Gismondo Pulei, a sort of unknown genius, for whom thirty francs a month were a fortune, and who conceived a sort of religious fanaticism for his pupil.
Though he had always refused to write a note, he consented, for her sake, to fix the melodies that buzzed in his cracked brain; and some of them proved to be admirable. He dreamed to compose for her an opera that would transmit to the most remote generations the name of Gismondo Pulei.
"The Signora Gilberte is the very goddess of music," he said to M. Favoral, with transports of enthusiasm, which intensified still his frightful accent.
The cashier of the Mutual Credit Society shrugged his shoulders, answering that there is no harmony for a man who spends his days listening to the exciting music of golden coins. In spite of which his vanity seemed highly gratified, when on Saturday evenings, after dinner, Mlle. Gilberte sat at the piano, and Mme. Desclavettes, suppressing a yawn, would exclaim,
"What remarkable talent the dear child has!"
The young girl had, then, a positive influence; and it was to her entreaties alone, and not to those of his wife, that he had several times forgiven Maxence. He would have done much more for her, had she wished it; but she would have been compelled to ask, to insist, to beg.
"And it's humiliating," she used to say.
Sometimes Mme. Favoral scolded her gently, saying that her father would certainly not refuse her one of those pretty toilets which are the ambition and the joy of young girls.
"It is much less mortification to me to wear these rags than to meet with a refusal," she replied. "I am satisfied with my dresses."
With such a character, surrounded, however, by a meek resignation, and an unalterable sang-froid, she inspired a certain respect to both her mother and her brother, who admired in her an energy of which they felt themselves incapable.
And when she appeared, and commenced reproaching him in an indignant tone of voice, with the baseness of his conduct, and his insatiate demands, Maxence was almost stunned.
"I did not know," he commenced, turning as red as fire.
She crushed him with a look of mingled contempt and pity; and, in an accent of haughty irony:
"Indeed," she said, "you do not know whence the money comes that you extort from our mother!"
And holding up her hand, still remarkably handsome, though slightly deformed by the constant handling of the needle; the fourth finger of the right hand bent by the thread, and the fore-finger of the left tattooed and lacerated by the needle:
"Indeed," she repeated, "you do not know that my mother and myself, we spend all our days, and the greater part of our nights, working?"
Hanging his head, he said nothing.
"If it were for myself alone," she continued, "I would not speak to you thus. But look at our mother! See her poor eyes, red and weak from her ceaseless labor! If I have said nothing until now, it is because I did not as yet despair of your heart; because I hoped that you would recover some feeling of decency. But no, nothing. With time, your last scruples seem to have vanished. Once you begged humbly; now you demand rudely. How soon will you resort to blows?"
"Gilberte!" stammered the poor fellow, "Gilberte!"
She interrupted him:
"Money!" she went on, "always, and without time, you must have money; no matter whence it comes, nor what it costs. If, at least, you had to justify your expenses, the excuse of some great passion, or of some object, were it absurd, ardently pursued! But I defy you to confess upon what degrading pleasures you lavish our humble economies. I defy you to tell us what you mean to do with the sum that you demand to-night,—that sum for which you would have our mother stoop to beg the assistance of a shop-keeper, to whom we would be compelled to reveal the secret of our shame."
Touched by the frightful humiliation of her son:
"He is so unhappy!" stammered Mme. Favoral.
"He unhappy!" she exclaimed. "What, then, shall we say of us? and, above all, what shall you say of yourself, mother? Unhappy!—he, a man, who has liberty and strength, who may undertake every thing, attempt any thing, dare any thing. Ah, I wish I were a man! I! I would be a man as there are some, as I know some; and I would have avenged you, O beloved mother! long, long ago, from father; and I would have begun to repay you all the good you have done me."
Mme. Favoral was sobbing.
"I beg of you," she murmured, "spare him."
"Be it so," said the young girl. "But you must allow me to tell him that it is not for his sake that I devote my youth to a mercenary labor. It is for you, adored mother, that you may have the joy to give him what he asks, since it is your only joy."
Maxence shuddered under the breath of that superb indignation. That frightful humiliation, he felt that he deserved it only too much. He understood the justice of these cruel reproaches. And, as his heart had not yet spoiled with the contact of his boon companions, as he was weak, rather than wicked, as the sentiments which are the honor and pride of a man were not dead within him.
"Ah! you are a brave sister, Gilberte," he exclaimed; "and what you have just done is well. You have been harsh, but not as much as I deserve. Thanks for your courage, which will give me back mine. Yes, it is a shame for me to have thus cowardly abused you both."
And, raising his mother's hand to his lips: "Forgive, mother," he continued, his eyes overflowing with tears; "forgive him who swears to you to redeem his past, and to become your support, instead of being a crushing burden—"
He was interrupted by the noise of steps on the stairs, and the shrill sound of a whistle.
"My husband!" exclaimed Mme. Favoral,—"your father, my children!"
"Well," said Mlle. Gilberte coldly.
"Don't you hear that he is whistling? and do you forget that it is a proof that he is furious? What new trial threatens us again?"
Mme. Favoral spoke from experience. She had learned, to her cost, that the whistle of her husband, more surely than the shriek of the stormy petrel, announces the storm.—And she had that evening more reasons than usual to fear. Breaking from all his habits, M. Favoral had not come home to dinner, and had sent one of the clerks of the Mutual Credit Society to say that they should not wait for him.
Soon his latch-key grated in the lock; the door swung open; he came in; and, seeing his son:
"Well, I am glad to find you here," he exclaimed with a giggle, which with him was the utmost expression of anger.
Mme. Favoral shuddered. Still under the impression of the scene which had just taken place, his heart heavy, and his eyes full of tears, Maxence did not answer.
"It is doubtless a wager," resumed the father, "and you wish to know how far my patience may go."
"I do not understand you," stammered the young man.
"The money that you used to get, I know not where, doubtless fails you now, or at least is no longer sufficient, and you go on making debts right and left—at the tailor's, the shirt maker's, the jeweler's. Of course, it's simple enough. We earn nothing; but we wish to dress in the latest style, to wear a gold chain across our vest, and then we make dupes."
"I have never made any dupes, father."
"Bah! And what, then, do you call all these people who came this very day to present me their bills? For they did dare to come to my office! They had agreed to come together, expecting thus to intimidate me more easily. I told them that you were of age, and that your business was none of mine. Hearing this, they became insolent, and commenced speaking so loud, that their voices could be heard in the adjoining rooms. At that very moment, the manager, M. de Thaller, happened to be passing through the hall. Hearing the noise of a discussion, he thought that I was having some difficulty with some of our stockholders, and he came in, as he had a right to. Then I was compelled to confess everything."
He became excited at the sound of his words, like a horse at the jingle of his bells. And, more and more beside himself:
"That is just what your creditors wished," he pursued. "They thought I would be afraid of a row, and that I would 'come down.' It is a system of blackmailing, like any other. An account is opened to some young rascal; and, when the amount is reasonably large, they take it to the family, saying, 'Money, or I make row.' Do you think it is to you, who are penniless, that they give credit? It's on my pocket that they were drawing,—on my pocket, because they believed me rich. They sold you at exorbitant prices every thing they wished; and they relied on me to pay for trousers at ninety francs, shirts at forty francs, and watches at six hundred francs."
Contrary to his habit, Maxence did not offer any denial.
"I expect to pay all I owe," he said.
"I give my word I will!"
"And with what, pray?"
"With my salary."
"You have a salary, then?"
"I have what I earn at my employer's."
"The architect in whose office M. Chapelain helped me to find a place."
With a threatening gesture, M. Favoral interrupted him.
"Spare me your lies," he uttered. "I am better posted than you suppose. I know, that, over a month ago, your employer, tired of your idleness, dismissed you in disgrace."
Disgrace was superfluous. The fact was, that Maxence, returning to work after an absence of five days, had found another in his place.
"I shall find another place," he said.
M. Favoral shrugged his shoulders with a movement of rage.
"And in the mean time," he said, "I shall have to pay. Do you know what your creditors threaten to do?—to commence a suit against me. They would lose it, of course, they know it; but they hope that I would yield before a scandal. And this is not all: they talk of entering a criminal complaint. They pretend that you have audaciously swindled them; that the articles you purchased of them were not at all for your own use, but that you sold them as fast as you got them, at any price you could obtain, to raise ready money. The jeweler has proofs, he says, that you went straight from his shop to the pawnbroker's, and pledged a watch and chain which he had just sold you. It is a police matter. They said all that in presence of my superior officer—in presence of M. de Thaller. I had to get the janitor to put them out. But, after they had left, M. de Thaller gave me to understand that he wished me very much to settle everything. And he is right. My consideration could not resist another such scene. What confidence can be placed in a cashier whose son behaves in this manner? How can a key of a safe containing millions be left with a man whose son would have been dragged into the police-courts? In a word, I am at your mercy. In a word, my honor, my position, my fortune, rest upon you. As often as it may please you to make debts, you can make them, and I shall be compelled to pay."
Gathering all his courage:
"You have been sometimes very harsh with me, father," commenced Maxence; "and yet I will not try to justify my conduct. I swear to you, that hereafter you shall have nothing to fear from me."
"I fear nothing," uttered M. Favoral with a sinister smile. "I know the means of placing myself beyond the reach of your follies —and I shall use them."
"I assure you, father, that I have taken a firm resolution."
"Oh! you may dispense with your periodical repentance."
Mlle. Gilberte stepped forward.
"I'll stand warrant," she said, "for Maxence's resolutions."
Her father did not permit her to proceed.
"Enough," he interrupted somewhat harshly. "Mind your own business, Gilberte! I have to speak to you too."
"To me, father?"
He walked up and down three or four times through the parlor, as if to calm his irritation. Then planting himself straight before his daughter, his arms folded across his breast:
"You are eighteen years of age," he said; "that is to say, it is time to think of your marriage. An excellent match offers itself."
She shuddered, stepped back, and, redder than a peony:
"A match!" she repeated in a tone of immense surprise.
"Yes, and which suits me."
"But I do not wish to marry, father."
"All young girls say the same thing; and, as soon as a pretender offers himself, they are delighted. Mine is a fellow of twenty-six, quite good looking, amiable, witty, and who has had the greatest success in society."
"Father, I assure you that I do not wish to leave mother."
"Of course not. He is an intelligent, hard-working man, destined, everybody says, to make an immense fortune. Although he is rich already, for he holds a controlling interest in a stock-broker's firm, he works as hard as any poor devil. I would not be surprised to hear that he makes half a million of francs a year. His wife will have her carriage, her box at the opera, diamonds, and dresses as handsome as Mlle. de Thaller's."
"Eh! What do I care for such things?"
"It's understood. I'll present him to you on Saturday."
But Mlle. Gilberte was not one of those young girls who allow themselves, through weakness or timidity, to become engaged, and so far engaged, that later, they can no longer withdraw. A discussion being unavoidable, she preferred to have it out at once.
"A presentation is absolutely useless, father," she declared resolutely.
"I have told you that I did not wish to marry."
"But if it is my will?"
"I am ready to obey you in every thing except that."
"In that as in every thing else," interrupted the cashier of the Mutual Credit in a thundering voice.
And, casting upon his wife and children a glance full of defiance and threats:
"In that, as in every thing else," he repeated, "because I am the master; and I shall prove it. Yes, I will prove it; for I am tired to see my family leagued against my authority."
And out he went, slamming the door so violently, that the partitions shook.
"You are wrong to resist your father thus," murmured the weak Mme. Favoral.
The fact is, that the poor woman could not understand why her daughter refused the only means at her command to break off with her miserable existence.
"Let him present you this young man," she said. "You might like him."
"I am sure I shall not like him."
She said this in such a tone, that the light suddenly flashed upon Mme. Favoral's mind.
"Heavens!" she murmured. "Gilberte, my darling child, have you then a secret which your mother does not know?"
Yes, Mlle. Gilberte had her secret—a very simple one, though, chaste, like herself, and one of those which, as the old women say, must cause the angels to rejoice.
The spring of that year having been unusually mild, Mme. Favoral and her daughter had taken the habit of going daily to breathe the fresh air in the Place Royale. They took their work with them, crotchet or knitting; so that this salutary exercise did not in any way diminish the earnings of the week. It was during these walks that Mlle. Gilberte had at last noticed a young man, unknown to her, whom she met every day at the same place.
Tall and robust, he had a grand look, notwithstanding his modest clothes, the exquisite neatness of which betrayed a sort of respectable poverty. He wore his full beard; and his proud and intelligent features were lighted up by a pair of large black eyes, of those eyes whose straight and clear look disconcerts hypocrites and knaves.
He never failed, as he passed by Mlle. Gilberte, to look down, or turn his head slightly away; and in spite of this, in spite of the expression of respect which she had detected upon his face, she could not help blushing.
"Which is absurd," she thought; "for after all, what on earth do I care for that young man?"
The infallible instinct, which is the experience of inexperienced young girls, told her that it was not chance alone that brought this stranger in her way. But she wished to make sure of it. She managed so well, that each day of the following week, the hour of their walk was changed. Sometimes they went out at noon, sometimes after four o'clock.
But, whatever the hour, Mlle. Gilberte, as she turned the corner of the Rue des Minimes, noticed her unknown admirer under the arcades, looking in some shop-window, and watching out of the corner of his eye. As soon as she appeared, he left his post, and hurried fast enough to meet her at the gate of the Place.
"It is a persecution," thought Mlle. Gilberte.
How, then, had she not spoken of it to her mother? Why had she not said any thing to her the day, when, happening, to look out of the window, she saw her "persecutor" passing before the house, or, evidently looking in her direction?
"Am I losing my mind?" she thought, seriously irritated against herself. "I will not think of him any more."
And yet she was thinking of him, when one afternoon, as her mother and herself were working, sitting upon a bench, she saw the stranger come and sit down not far from them. He was accompanied by an elderly man with long white mustaches, and wearing the rosette of the Legion of Honor.
"This is an insolence," thought the young girl, whilst seeking a pretext to ask her mother to change their seats.
But already had the young man and his elderly friend seated themselves, and so arranged their chairs, that Mlle. Gilberte could not miss a word of what they were about to say. It was the young man who spoke first.
"You know me as well as I know myself, my dear count," he commenced —"you who were my poor father's best friend, you who dandled me upon your knees when I was a child, and who has never lost sight of me."
"Which is to say, my boy, that I answer for you as for myself," put in the old man. "But go on."
"I am twenty-six years old. My name is Yves-Marius-Genost de Tregars. My family, which is one of the oldest of Brittany, is allied to all the great families."
"Perfectly exact," remarked the old gentleman.
"Unfortunately, my fortune is not on a par with my nobility. When my mother died, in 1856, my father, who worshiped her, could no longer bear, in the intensity of his grief, to remain at the Chateau de Tregars where he had spent his whole life. He came to Paris, which he could well afford, since we were rich then, but unfortunately, made acquaintances who soon inoculated him with the fever of the age. They proved to him that he was mad to keep lands which barely yielded him forty thousand francs a year, and which he could easily sell for two millions; which amount, invested merely at five per cent, would yield him an income of one hundred thousand francs. He therefore sold every thing, except our patrimonial homestead on the road from Quimper to Audierne, and rushed into speculations. He was rather lucky at first. But he was too honest and too loyal to be lucky long. An operation in which he became interested early in 1869 turned out badly. His associates became rich; but he, I know not how, was ruined, and came near being compromised. He died of grief a month later."
The old soldier was nodding his assent.
"Very well, my boy," he said. "But you are too modest; and there's a circumstance which you neglect. You had a right, when your father became involved in these troubles, to claim and retain your mother's fortune; that is, some thirty thousand francs a year. Not only you did not do so; but you gave up every thing to his creditors. You sold the domain of Tregars, except the old castle and its park, and paid over the proceeds to them; so that, if your father did die ruined, at least he did not owe a cent. And yet you knew, as well as myself, that your father had been deceived and swindled by a lot of scoundrels who drive their carriages now, and who, perhaps, if the courts were applied to, might still be made to disgorge their ill-gotten plunder."
Her head bent upon her tapestry, Mlle. Gilberte seemed to be working with incomparable zeal. The truth is, she knew not how to conceal the blushes on her cheeks, and the trembling of her hands. She had something like a cloud before her eyes; and she drove her needle at random. She scarcely preserved enough presence of mind to reply to Mme. Favoral, who, not noticing any thing, spoke to her from time to time.
Indeed, the meaning of this scene was too clear to escape her.
"They have had an understanding," she thought, "and it is for me alone that they are speaking."
Meantime, Marius de Tregars was going on:
"I should lie, my old friend, were I to say that I was indifferent to our ruin. Philosopher though one may be, it is not without some pangs that one passes from a sumptuous hotel to a gloomy garret. But what grieved me most of all was that I saw myself compelled to give up the labors which had been the joy of my life, and upon which I had founded the most magnificent hopes. A positive vocation, stimulated further by the accidents of my education, had led me to the study of physical sciences. For several years, I had applied all I have of intelligence and energy to certain investigations in electricity. To convert electricity into an incomparable motive-power which would supersede steam,—such was the object I pursued without pause. Already, as you know, although quite young, I had obtained results which had attracted some attention in the scientific world. I thought I could see the last of a problem, the solution of which would change the face of the globe. Ruin was the death of my hopes, the total loss of the fruits of my labors; for my experiments were costly, and it required money, much money, to purchase the products which were indispensable to me, and to construct the machines which I contrived.
"And I was about being compelled to earn my daily bread.
"I was on the verge of despair, when I met a man whom I had formerly seen at my father's, and who had seemed to take some interest in my researches, a speculator named Marcolet. But it is not at the bourse that he operates. Industry is the field of his labors. Ever on the lookout for those obstinate inventors who are starving to death in their garrets, he appears to them at the hour of supreme crisis: he pities them, encourages them, consoles them, helps them, and almost always succeeds in becoming the owner of their discovery. Sometimes he makes a mistake; and then all he has to do is to put a few thousand francs to the debit of profit or loss. But, if he has judged right, then he counts his profits by hundreds of thousands; and how many patents does he work thus! Of how many inventions does he reap the results which are a fortune, and the inventors of which have no shoes to wear! Every thing is good to him; and he defends with the same avidity a cough-sirup, the formula of which he has purchased of some poor devil of a druggist, and an improvement to the steam-engine, the patent for which has been sold to him by an engineer of genius. And yet Marcolet is not a bad man. Seeing my situation, he offered me a certain yearly sum to undertake some studies of industrial chemistry which he indicated to me. I accepted; and the very next day I hired a small basement in the Rue des Tournelles, where I set up my laboratory, and went to work at once. That was a year ago. Marcolet must be satisfied. I have already found for him a new shade for dyeing silk, the cost price of which is almost nothing. As to me, I have lived with the strictest economy, devoting all my surplus earnings to the prosecution of the problem, the solution of which would give me both glory and fortune."
Palpitating with inexpressible emotion, Mlle. Gilberte was listening to this young man, unknown to her a few moments since, and whose whole history she now knew as well as if she had always lived near him; for it never occurred to her to suspect his sincerity.
No voice had ever vibrated to her ear like this voice, whose grave sonorousness stirred within her strange sensations, and legions of thoughts which she had never suspected. She was surprised at the accent of simplicity with which he spoke of the illustriousness of his family, of his past opulence, of his obscure labors, and of his exalted hopes.
She admired the superb disregard for money which beamed forth in his every word. Here was then one man, at least, who despised that money before which she had hitherto seen all the people she knew prostrated in abject worship.
After a pause of a few moments, Marius de Tregars, still addressing himself apparently to his aged companion, went on:
"I repeat it, because it is the truth, my old friend, this life of labor and privation, so new to me, was not a burden. Calm, silence, the constant exercise of all the faculties of the intellect, have charms which the vulgar can never suspect. I was happy to think, that, if I was ruined, it was through an act of my own will. I found a positive pleasure in the fact that I, the Marquis de Tregars, who had had a hundred thousand a year—I must the next moment go out in person to the baker's and the green-grocer's to purchase my supplies for the day. I was proud to think that it was to my labor alone, to the work for which I was paid by Marcolet, that I owed the means of prosecuting my task. And, from the summits where I was carried on the wings of science, I took pity on your modern existence, on that ridiculous and tragical medley of passions, interests, and cravings; that struggle without truce or mercy, whose law is, woe to the weak, in which whosoever falls is trampled under feet.
"Sometimes, however, like a fire that has been smouldering under the ashes, the flame of youthful passions blazed up within me. I had hours of madness, of discouragement, of distress, during which solitude was loathsome to me. But I had the faith which raises mountains—faith in myself and my work. And soon, tranquilized, I would go to sleep in the purple of hope, beholding in the vista of the distant future the triumphal arches erected to my success.
"Such was my situation, when, one afternoon in the month of February last, after an experiment upon which I had founded great hopes, and which had just miserably failed, I came here to breathe a little fresh air.
"It was a beautiful spring day, warm and sunny. The sparrows were chirping on the branches, swelled with sap: bands of children were running along the alleys, filling the air with their joyous screams.
"I was sitting upon a bench, ruminating over the causes of my failure, when two ladies passed by me; one somewhat aged, the other quite young. They were walking so rapidly, that I hardly had time to see them.
"But the young lady's step, the noble simplicity of her carriage, had struck me so much, that I rose to follow her with the intention of passing her, and then walking back to have a good view of her face. I did so; and I was fairly dazzled. At the moment when my eyes met hers, a voice rose within me, crying that it was all over now, and that my destiny was fixed."
"I remember, my dear boy," remarked the old soldier in a tone of friendly raillery; "for you came to see me that night, and I had not seen you for months before."
Marius proceeded without heeding the remark.
"And yet you know that I am not the man to yield to first impression. I struggled: with determined energy I strove to drive off that radiant image which I carried within my soul, which left me no more, which haunted me in the midst of my studies.
"Vain efforts. My thoughts obeyed me no longer—my will escaped my control. It was indeed one of those passions that fill the whole being, overpower all, and which make of life an ineffable felicity or a nameless torture, according that they are reciprocated, or not. How many days I spent there, waiting and watching for her of whom I had thus had a glimpse, and who ignored my very existence! And what insane palpitations, when, after hours of consuming anxiety, I saw at the corner of the street the undulating folds of her dress! I saw her thus often, and always with the same elderly person, her mother. They had adopted in this square a particular bench, where they sat daily, working at their sewing with an assiduity and zeal which made me think that they lived upon the product of their labor."
Here he was suddenly interrupted by his companion. The old gentleman feared that Mme. Favoral's attention might at last be attracted by too direct allusions.
"Take care, boy!" he whispered, not so low, however, but what Gilberte overheard him.
But it would have required much more than this to draw Mme. Favoral from her sad thoughts. She had just finished her band of tapestry; and, grieving to lose a moment:
"It is perhaps time to go home," she said to her daughter. "I have nothing more to do."
Mlle. Gilberte drew from her basket a piece of canvas, and, handing it to her mother:
"Here is enough to go on with, mamma," she said in a troubled voice. "Let us stay a little while longer."
And, Mme. Favoral having resumed her work, Marius proceeded:
"The thought that she whom I loved was poor delighted me. Was not this similarity of positions a link between us? I felt a childish joy to think that I would work for her and for her mother, and that they would be indebted to me for their ease and comfort in life.
"But I am not one of those dreamers who confide their destiny to the wings of a chimera. Before undertaking any thing, I resolved to inform myself. Alas! at the first words that I heard, all my fine dreams took wings. I heard that she was rich, very rich. I was told that her father was one of those men whose rigid probity surrounds itself with austere and harsh forms. He owed his fortune, I was assured, to his sole labor, but also to prodigies of economy and the most severe privations. He professed a worship, they said, for that gold that had cost him so much; and he would never give the hand of his daughter to a man who had no money. This last comment was useless. Above my actions, my thoughts, my hopes, higher than all, soars my pride. Instantly I saw an abyss opening between me and her whom I love more than my life, but less than my dignity. When a man's name is Genost de Tregars, he must support his wife, were it by breaking stones. And the thought that I owed my fortune to the woman I married would make me execrate her.
"You must remember, my old friend, that I told you all this at the time. You thought, too, that it was singularly impertinent, on my part, thus to flare up in advance, because, certainly a millionaire does not give his daughter to a ruined nobleman in the pay of Marcolet, the patent-broker, to a poor devil of an inventor, who is building the castles of his future upon the solution of a problem which has been given up by the most brilliant minds.
"It was then that I determined upon an extreme resolution, a foolish one, no doubt, and yet to which you, the Count de Villegre, my father's old friend, you have consented to lend yourself.
"I thought that I would address myself to her, to her alone, and that she would at least know what great, what immense love she had inspired. I thought I would go to her and tell her, 'This is who I am, and what I am. For mercy's sake, grant me a respite of three years. To a love such as mine there is nothing impossible. In three years I shall be dead, or rich enough to ask your hand. From this day forth, I give up my task for work of more immediate profit. The arts of industry have treasures for successful inventors. If you could only read in my soul, you would not refuse me the delay I am asking. Forgive me! One word, for mercy's sake, only one! It is my sentence that I am awaiting.'"
Mlle. Gilberte's thoughts were in too great a state of confusion to permit her to think of being offended at this extraordinary proceeding. She rose, quivering, and addressing herself to Mme. Favoral:
"Come, mother," she said, "come: I feel that I have taken cold. I must go home and think. To-morrow, yes, to-morrow, we will come again."
Deep as Mme. Favoral was plunged in her meditations, and a thousand miles as she was from the actual situation, it was impossible that she should not notice the intense excitement under which her daughter labored, the alteration of her features, and the incoherence of her words.
"What is the matter?" she asked, somewhat alarmed. "What are you saying?"
"I feel unwell," answered her daughter in a scarcely audible voice, "quite unwell. Come, let us go home."
As soon as they reached home, Mlle. Gilberte took refuge in her own room. She was in haste to be alone, to recover her self-possession, to collect her thoughts, more scattered than dry leaves by a storm wind.
It was a momentous event which had just suddenly fallen in her life so monotonous and so calm—an inconceivable, startling event, the consequences of which were to weigh heavily upon her entire future.
Staggering still, she was asking herself if she was not the victim of an hallucination, and if really there was a man who had dared to conceive and execute the audacious project of coming thus under the eyes of her mother, of declaring his love, and of asking her in return a solemn engagement. But what stupefied her more still, what confused her, was that she had actually endured such an attempt.
Under what despotic influence had she, then, fallen? To what undefinable sentiments had she obeyed? And if she had only tolerated! But she had done more: she had actually encouraged. By detaining her mother when she wished to go home (and she had detained her), had she not said to this unknown?—"Go on, I allow it: I am listening."
And he had gone on. And she, at the moment of returning home, she had engaged herself formally to reflect, and to return the next day at a stated hour to give an answer. In a word, she had made an appointment with him.
It was enough to make her die of shame. And, as if she had needed the sound of her own words to convince herself of the reality of the fact, she kept repeating loud,
"I have made an appointment—I, Gilberte, with a man whom my parents do not know, and of whose name I was still ignorant yesterday."
And yet she could not take upon herself to be indignant at the imprudent boldness of her conduct. The bitterness of the reproaches which she was addressing to herself was not sincere. She felt it so well, that at last:
"Such hypocrisy is unworthy of me," she exclaimed, "since now, still, and without the excuse of being taken by surprise, I would not act otherwise."
The fact is, the more she pondered, the less she could succeed in discovering even the shadow of any offensive intention in all that Marius de Tregars had said. By the choice of his confidant, an old man, a friend of his family, a man of the highest respectability, he had done all in his power to make his step excusable. It was impossible to doubt his sincerity, to suspect the fairness of his intentions.
Mlle. Gilberte, better than almost any other young girl, could understand the extreme measure resorted to by M. de Tregars. By her own pride she could understand his. No more than he, in his place, would she have been willing to expose herself to a certain refusal. What was there, then, so extraordinary in the fact of his coming directly to her, in his exposing to her frankly and loyally his situation, his projects, and his hopes?
"Good heavens!" she thought, horrified at the sentiments which she discovered in the deep recesses of her soul, "good heavens! I hardly know myself any more. Here I am actually approving what he has done!"
Well, yes, she did approve him, attracted, fascinated, by the very strangeness of the situation. Nothing seemed to her more admirable than the conduct of Marius de Tregars sacrificing his fortune and his most legitimate aspirations to the honor of his name, and condemning himself to work for his living.
"That one," she thought, "is a man; and his wife will have just cause to be proud of him."
Involuntarily she compared him to the only men she knew: to M. Favoral, whose miserly parsimony had made his whole family wretched; to Maxence, who did not blush to feed his disorders with the fruits of his mother's and his sister's labor.
How different was Marius! If he was poor, it was of his own will. Had she not seen what confidence he had in himself. She shared it fully. She felt certain that, within the required delay, he would conquer that indispensable fortune. Then he might present himself boldly. He would take her, away from the miserable surroundings among which she seemed fated to live: she would become the Marchioness de Tregars.
"Why, then, not answer, Yes!" thought she, with the harrowing emotions of the gambler who is about to stake his all upon one card. And what a game for Mlle. Gilberte, and what a stake!
Suppose she had been mistaken. Suppose that Marius should be one of those villains who make of seduction a science. Would she still be her own mistress, after answering? Did she know to what hazards such an engagement would expose her? Was she not about rushing blindfolded towards those deceiving perils where a young girl leaves her reputation, even when she saves her honor?
She thought, for a moment, of consulting her mother. But she knew Mme. Favoral's shrinking timidity, and that she was as incapable of giving any advice as to make her will prevail. She would be frightened; she would approve all; and, at the first alarm, she would confess all.
"Am I, then, so weak and so foolish," she thought, "that I cannot take a determination which affects me personally?"
She could not close her eyes all night; but in the morning her resolution was settled.
And toward one o'clock:
"Are we not going out mother?" she said.
Mme. Favoral was hesitating.
"These early spring days are treacherous," she objected: "you caught cold yesterday."
"My dress was too thin. To-day I have taken my precautions."
They started, taking their work with them, and came to occupy their accustomed seats.
Before they had even passed the gates, Mlle. Gilberte had recognized Marius de Tregars and the Count de Villegre, walking in one of the side alleys. Soon, as on the day before, they took two chairs, and settled themselves within hearing.
Never had the young girl's heart beat with such violence. It is easy enough to take a resolution; but it is not always quite so easy to execute it, and she was asking herself if she would have strength enough to articulate a word. At last, gathering her whole courage:
"You don't believe in dreams, do you mother?" she asked.
Upon this subject, as well as upon many others, Mme. Favoral had no particular opinion.
"Why do you ask the question?" said she.
"Because I have had such a strange one."
"It seemed to me that suddenly a young man, whom I did not know, stood before me. He would have been most happy, said he to me, to ask my hand, but he dared not, being very poor. And he begged me to wait three years, during which he would make his fortune."
Mme. Favoral smiled.
"Why it's quite a romance," said she.
"But it wasn't a romance in my dream," interrupted Mlle. Gilberte. "This young man spoke in a tone of such profound conviction, that it was impossible for me, as it were, to doubt him. I thought to myself that he would be incapable of such an odious villainy as to abuse the confiding credulity of a poor girl."
"And what did you answer him?"
Moving her seat almost imperceptibly, Mlle. Gilberte could, from the corner of her eye, have a glimpse of M. de Tregars. Evidently he was not missing a single one of the words which she was addressing to her mother. He was whiter than a sheet; and his face betrayed the most intense anxiety.
This gave her the energy to curb the last revolts of her conscience.
"To answer was painful," she uttered; "and yet I—dared to answer him. I said to him, 'I believe you, and I have faith in you. Loyally and faithfully I shall await your success; but until then we must be strangers to one another. To resort to ruse, deceit, and falsehood would be unworthy of us. You surely would not expose to a suspicion her who is to be your wife.'"
"Very well," approved Mme. Favoral; "only I did not know you were so romantic."
She was laughing, the good lady, but not loud enough to prevent Gilberte from hearing M. de Tregars' answer.
"Count de Villegre," said he, "my old friend, receive the oath which I take to devote my life to her who has not doubted me. It is to-day the 4th of May, 1870—on the 4th of May, 1873, I shall have succeeded: I feel it, I will it, it must be!"
It was done: Gilberte Favoral had just irrevocably disposed of herself. Prosperous or wretched, her destiny henceforth was linked with another. She had set the wheel in motion; and she could no longer hope to control its direction, any more than the will can pretend to alter the course of the ivory ball upon the surface of the roulette-table. At the outset of this great storm of passion which had suddenly surrounded her, she felt an immense surprise, mingled with unexplained apprehensions and vague terrors.
Around her, apparently, nothing was changed. Father, mother, brother, friends, gravitated mechanically in their accustomed orbits. The same daily facts repeated themselves monotonous and regular as the tick-tack of the clock.
And yet an event had occurred more prodigious for her than the moving of a mountain.
Often during the weeks that followed, she would repeat to herself, "Is it true, is it possible even?"
Or else she would run to a mirror to make sure once more that nothing upon her face or in her eyes betrayed the secret that palpitated within her.
The singularity of the situation was, moreover, well calculated to trouble and confound her mind.
Mastered by circumstances, she had in utter disregard of all accepted ideas, and of the commonest propriety, listened to the passionate promises of a stranger, and pledged her life to him. And, the pact concluded and solemnly sworn, they had parted without knowing when propitious circumstances might bring them together again.
"Certainly," thought she, "before God, M. de Tregars is my betrothed husband; and yet we have never exchanged a word. Were we to meet in society, we should be compelled to meet as strangers: if he passes by me in the street, he has no right to bow to me. I know not where he is, what becomes of him, nor what he is doing."
And in fact she had not seen him again: he had given no sign of life, so faithfully did he conform to her expressed wish. And perhaps secretly, and without acknowledging it to herself, had she wished him less scrupulous. Perhaps she would not have been very angry to see him sometimes gliding along at her passage under the old Arcades of the Rue des Vosges.
But, whilst suffering from this separation, she conceived for the character of Marius the highest esteem; for she felt sure that he must suffer as much and more than she from the restraint which he imposed upon himself.
Thus he was ever present to her thoughts. She never tired of turning over in her mind all he had said of his past life: she tried to remember his words, and the very tone of his voice.
And by living constantly thus with the memory of Marius de Tregars, she made herself familiar with him, deceived to that extent, by the illusion of absence, that she actually persuaded herself that she knew him better and better every day.
Already nearly a month had elapsed, when one afternoon, as she arrived on the Place Royal; she recognized him, standing near that same bench where they had so strangely exchanged their pledges.
He saw her coming too: she knew it by his looks. But, when she had arrived within a few steps of him, he walked off rapidly, leaving on the bench a folded newspaper.
Mme. Favoral wished to call him back and return it; but Mlle. Gilberte persuaded her not to.
"Never mind, mother," said she, "it isn't worth while; and, besides, the gentleman is too far now."
But while getting out her embroidery, with that dexterity which never fails even the most naive girls, she slipped the newspaper in her work-basket.
Was she not certain that it had been left there for her?
As soon as she had returned home, she locked herself up in her own room, and, after searching for some time through the columns, she read at last:
"One of the richest and most intelligent manufacturers in Paris, M. Marcolet, has just purchased in Grenelle the vast grounds belonging to the Lacoche estate. He proposes to build upon them a manufacture of chemical products, the management of which is to be placed in the hands of M. de T—.
"Although still quite young, M. de T—— is already well known in connection with his remarkable studies on electricity. He was, perhaps, on the eve of solving the much controverted problem of electricity as a motive-power, when his father's ruin compelled him to suspend his labors. He now seeks to earn by his personal industry the means of prosecuting his costly experiments.
"He is not the first to tread this path. Is it not to the invention of the machine bearing his name, that the engineer Giffard owes the fortune which enables him to continue to seek the means of steering balloons? Why should not M. de T—, who has as much skill and energy, have as much luck?"
"Ah! he does not forget me," thought Mlle. Gilberte, moved to tears by this article, which, after all, was but a mere puff, written by Marcolet himself, without the knowledge of M. de Tregars.
She was still under that impression, thinking that Marius was already at work, when her father announced to her that he had discovered a husband, and enjoined her to find him to her liking, as he, the master, thought it proper that she should.
Hence the energy of her refusal.
But hence also, the imprudent vivacity which had enlightened Mme. Favoral, and which made her say:
"You hide something from me, Gilberte?"
Never had the young girl been so cruelly embarrassed as she was at this moment by this sudden and unforeseen perspicacity.
Would she confide to her mother?
She felt, indeed, no repugnance to do so, certain as she was, in advance, of the inexhaustible indulgence of the poor woman; and, besides, she would have been delighted to have some one at last with whom she could speak of Marius.
But she knew that her father was not the man to give up a project conceived by himself. She knew that he would return to the charge obstinately, without peace, and without truce. Now, as she was determined to resist with a no less implacable obstinacy, she foresaw terrible struggles, all sorts of violence and persecutions.
Informed of the truth, would Mme. Favoral have strength enough to resist these daily storms? Would not a time come, when, called upon by her husband to explain the refusals of her daughter, threatened, terrified, she would confess all?
At one glance Mlle. Gilberte estimated the danger; and, drawing from necessity an audacity which was very foreign to her nature:
"You are mistaken, dear mother," said she, "I have concealed nothing from you."
Not quite convinced, Mme. Favoral shook her head.
"Then," said she, "you will yield."
"Then there must be some reason you do not tell me."
"None, except that I do not wish to leave you. Have you ever thought what would be your existence if I were no longer here? Have you ever asked yourself what would become of you, between my father, whose despotism will grow heavier with age, and my brother?"
Always prompt to defend her son:
"Maxence is not bad," she interrupted: "he will know how to compensate me for the sorrows he has inflicted upon me."
The young girl made a gesture of doubt:
"I wish it, dear mother," said she, "with all my heart; but I dare not hope for it. His repentance to-night was great and sincere; but will he remember it to-morrow? Besides, don't you know that father has fully resolved to separate himself from Maxence? Think of yourself alone here with father."
Mme. Favoral shuddered at the mere idea.
"I would not suffer very long," she murmured. Mlle. Gilberte kissed her.
"It is because I wish you to live to be happy that I refuse to marry," she exclaimed. "Must you not have your share of happiness in this world? Let me manage. Who knows what compensations the future may have in store for you? Besides, this person whom father has selected for me does not suit me. A stock-jobber, who would think of nothing but money,—who would examine my house-accounts as papa does yours, or else who would load me with cashmeres and diamonds, like Mme. de Thaller, to make of me a sign for his shop? No, no! I want no such man. So, mother dear, be brave, take sides boldly with your daughter, and we shall soon be rid of this would-be husband."
"Your father will bring him to you: he said he would."
"Well, he is a man of courage, if he returns three times."
At this moment the parlor-door opened suddenly.
"What are you plotting here again?" cried the irritated voice of the master. "And you, Mme. Favoral, why don't you go to bed?"
The poor slave obeyed, without saying a word. And, whilst making her way to her room:
"There is trouble ahead," thought Mlle. Gilberte. "But bash! If I do have to suffer some, it won't be great harm, after all. Surely Marius does not complain, though he gives up for me his dearest hopes, becomes the salaried employe of M. Marcolet, and thinks of nothing but making money,—he so proud and so disinterested!"
Mlle. Gilberte's anticipations were but too soon realized. When M. Favoral made his appearance the next morning, he had the sombre brow and contracted lips of a man who has spent the night ruminating a plan from which he does not mean to swerve.
Instead of going to his office, as usual, without saying a word to any one, he called his wife and children to the parlor; and, after having carefully bolted all the doors, he turned to Maxence.
"I want you," he commenced, "to give me a list of your creditors. See that you forget none; and let it be ready as soon as possible."
But Maxence was no longer the same man. After the terrible and well-deserved reproaches of his sister, a salutary revolution had taken place in him. During the preceding night, he had reflected over his conduct for the past four years; and he had been dismayed and terrified. His impression was like that of the drunkard, who, having become sober, remembers the ridiculous or degrading acts which he has committed under the influence of alcohol, and, confused and humiliated, swears never more to drink.
Thus Maxence had sworn to himself to change his mode of life, promising that it would be no drunkard's oath, either. And his attitude and his looks showed the pride of great resolutions.
Instead of lowering his eyes before the irritated glance of M. Favoral, and stammering excuses and vague promises:
"It is useless, father," he replied, "to give you the list you ask for. I am old enough to bear the responsibility of my acts. I shall repair my follies: what I owe, I shall pay. This very day I shall see my creditors, and make arrangements with them."
"Very well, Maxence," exclaimed Mme. Favoral, delighted.
But there was no pacifying the cashier of the Mutual Credit.
"Those are fine-sounding words," he said with a sneer; "but I doubt if the tailors and the shirt-makers will take them in payment. That's why I want that list."
"It's I who shall pay. I do not mean to have another such scene as that of yesterday in my office. It must not be said that my son is a sharper and a cheat at the very moment when I find for my daughter a most unhoped-for match."
And, turning to Mlle. Gilberte:
"For I suppose you have got over your foolish ideas," he uttered.
The young girl shook her head.
"My ideas are the same as they were last night."
"And so, father, I beg of you, do not insist. Why wrangle and quarrel? You must know me well enough to know, that, whatever may happen, I shall never yield."
Indeed, M. Favoral was well aware of his daughter's firmness; for he had already been compelled on several occasions, as he expressed it himself, "to strike his flag" before her. But he could not believe that she would resist when he took certain means of enforcing his will.
"I have pledged my word," he said.
"But I have not pledged mine, father."
He was becoming excited: his cheeks were flushed; and his little eyes sparkled.
"And suppose I were to tell you," he resumed, doing at least to his daughter the honor of controlling his anger: "suppose I were to tell you that I would derive from this marriage immense, positive, and immediate advantages?"
"Oh!" she interrupted with a look of disgust, "oh, for mercy's sake!"
"Suppose I were to tell you that I have a powerful interest in it; that it is indispensable to the success of vast combinations?"
Mlle. Gilberte looked straight at him.
"I would answer you," she exclaimed, "that it does not suit me to be made use of as an earnest to your combinations. Ah! it's an operation, is it? an enterprise, a big speculation? and you throw in your daughter in the bargain as a bonus. Well, no! You can tell your partner that the thing has fallen through."
M. Favoral's anger was growing with each word.
"I'll see if I can't make you yield," he said.
"You may crush me, perhaps. Make me yield, never!"
"Well, we shall see. You will see—Maxence and you—whether there are no means by which a father can compel his rebellious children to submit to his authority."
And, feeling that he was no longer master of himself, he left, swearing loud enough to shake the plaster from the stair-walls.
Maxence shook with indignation.
"Never," he uttered, "never until now, had I understood the infamy of my conduct. With a father such as ours, Gilberte, I should be your protector. And now I am debarred even of the right to interfere. But never mind, I have the will; and all will soon be repaired."
Left alone, a few moments after, Mlle. Gilberte was congratulating herself upon her firmness.
"I am sure," she thought, "Marius would approve, if he knew."
She had not long to wait for her reward. The bell rang: it was her old professor, the Signor Gismondo Pulei, who came to give her his daily lesson.
The liveliest joy beamed upon his face, more shriveled than an apple at Easter; and the most magnificent anticipations sparkled in his eyes.
"I knew it, signora!" he exclaimed from the threshold: "I knew that angels bring good luck. As every thing succeeds to you, so must every thing succeed to those who come near you."
She could not help smiling at the appropriateness of the compliment.
"Something fortunate has happened to you, dear master?" she asked.
"That is to say, I am on the high-road to fortune and glory," he replied. "My fame is extending; pupils dispute the privilege of my lesson."
Mlle. Gilberte knew too well the thoroughly Italian exaggeration of the worthy maestro to be surprised.
"This morning," he went on, "visited by inspiration, I had risen early, and I was working with marvelous facility, when there was a knock at my door. I do not remember such an occurrence since the blessed day when your worthy father called for me. Surprised, I nevertheless said, 'Come in;' when there appeared a tall and robust young man, proud and intelligent-looking."
The young girl started.
"Marius!" cried a voice within her.
"This young man," continued the old Italian, "had heard me spoken of, and came to apply for lessons. I questioned him; and from the first words I discovered that his education had been frightfully neglected, that he was ignorant of the most vulgar notions of the divine art, and that he scarcely knew the difference between a sharp and a quaver. It was really the A, B, C, which he wished me to teach him. Laborious task, ungrateful labor! But he manifested so much shame at his ignorance, and so much desire to be instructed, that I felt moved in his favor. Then his countenance was most winning, his voice of a superior tone; and finally he offered me sixty francs a month. In short, he is now my pupil."
As well as she could, Mlle. Gilberte was hiding her blushes behind a music-book.
"We remained over two hours talking," said the good and simple maestro, "and I believe that he has excellent dispositions. Unfortunately, he can only take two lessons a week. Although a nobleman, he works; and, when he took off his glove to hand me a month in advance, I noticed that one of his hands was blackened, as if burnt by some acid. But never mind, signora, sixty francs, together with what your father gives me, it's a fortune. The end of my career will be spared the privations of its beginning. This young man will help making me known. The morning has been dark; but the sunset will be glorious."
The young girl could no longer have any doubts: M. de Tregars had found the means of hearing from her, and letting her hear from him.
The impression she felt contributed no little to give her the patience to endure the obstinate persecution of her father, who, twice a day, never failed to repeat to her:
"Get ready to properly receive my protege on Saturday. I have not invited him to dinner: he will only spend the evening with us."
And he mistook for a disposition to yield the cold tone in which she answered:
"I beg you to believe that this introduction is wholly unnecessary."
Thus, the famous day having come, he told his usual Saturday guests, M. and Mme. Desclavettes, M. Chapelain, and old man Desormeaux:
"Eh, eh! I guess you are going to see a future son-in-law!"
At nine o'clock, just as they had passed into the parlor, the sound of carriage-wheels startled the Rue St. Gilles.
"There he is!" exclaimed the cashier of the Mutual Credit.
And, throwing open a window:
"Come, Gilberte," he added, "come and see his carriage and horses."
She never stirred; but M. Desclavettes and M. Chapelain ran. It was night, unfortunately; and of the whole equipage nothing was visible but the two lanterns that shone like stars. Almost at the same time the parlor-door flew open; and the servant, who had been properly trained in advance, announced:
Leaning toward Mme. Favoral, who was seated by her side on the sofa,
"A nice-looking man, isn't he? a really nice-looking man," whispered Mme. Desclavettes.
And indeed he really thought so himself. Gesture, attitude, smile, every thing in M. Costeclar, betrayed the satisfaction of self, and the assurance of a man accustomed to success. His head, which was very small, had but little hair left; but it was artistically drawn towards the temples, parted in the middle, and cut short around the forehead. His leaden complexion, his pale lips, and his dull eye, did not certainly betray a very rich blood; he had a great long nose, sharp and curved like a sickle; and his beard, of undecided color, trimmed in the Victor Emmanuel style, did the greatest honor to the barber who cultivated it. Even when seen for the first time, one might fancy that he recognized him, so exactly was he like three or four hundred others who are seen daily in the neighborhood of the Cafe Riche, who are met everywhere where people run who pretend to amuse themselves,—at the bourse or in the bois; at the first representations, where they are just enough hidden to be perfectly well seen at the back of boxes filled with young ladies with astonishing chignons; at the races; in carriages, where they drink champagne to the health of the winner.
He had on this occasion hoisted his best looks, and the full dress de rigueur—dress-coat with wide sleeves, shirt cut low in the neck, and open vest, fastened below the waist by a single button.
"Quite the man of the world," again remarked Mme. Desclavettes.
M. Favoral rushed toward him; and the latter, hastening, met him half way, and, taking both his hands into his—"I cannot tell you, dear friend," he commenced, "how deeply I feel the honor you do me in receiving me in the midst of your charming family and your respectable friends."
And he bowed all around during this speech, which he delivered in the condescending tone of a lord visiting his inferiors.
"Let me introduce you to my wife," interrupted the cashier. And, leading him towards Mme. Favoral—"Monsieur Costeclar, my dear," said he: "the friend of whom we have spoken so often."
M. Costeclar bowed, rounding his shoulders, bending his lean form in a half-circle, and letting his arms hang forward.
"I am too much the friend of our dear Favoral, madame," he uttered, "not to have heard of you long since, nor to know your merits, and the fact that he owes to you that peaceful happiness which he enjoys, and which we all envy him."
Standing by the mantel-piece, the usual Saturday evening guests followed with the liveliest interest the evolutions of the pretender. Two of them, M. Chapelain and old Desormeaux, were perfectly able to appreciate him at his just value; but, in affirming that he made half a million a year, M. Favoral had, as it were, thrown over his shoulders that famous ducal cloak which concealed all deformities.
Without waiting for his wife's answer, M. Favoral brought his protege in front of Mlle. Gilberte.
"Dear daughter," said he, "Monsieur Costeclar, the friend of whom I have spoken."
M. Costeclar bowed still lower, and rounded off his shoulders again; but the young lady looked at him from head to foot with such a freezing glance, that his tongue remained as if paralyzed in his mouth, and he could only stammer out:
"Mademoiselle! the honor, the humblest of your admirers."
Fortunately Maxence was standing three steps off—he fell back in good order upon him, and seizing his hand, which he shook vigorously:
"I hope, my dear sir, that we shall soon be quite intimate friends. Your excellent father, whose special concern you are, has often spoken to me of you. Events, so he has confided to me, have not hitherto responded to your expectations. At your age, this is not a very grave matter. People, now-a-days, do not always find at the first attempt the road that leads to fortune. You will find yours. From this time forth I place at your command my influence and my experience; and, if you will consent to take me for your guide—"
Maxence had withdrawn his hand.
"I am very much obliged to you, sir," he answered coldly; "but I am content with my lot, and I believe myself old enough to walk alone."
Almost any one would have lost countenance. But M. Costeclar was so little put out, that it seemed as though he had expected just such a reception. He turned upon his heels, and advanced towards M. Favoral's friends with a smile so engaging as to make it evident that he was anxious to conquer their suffrages.
This was at the beginning of the month of June, 1870. No one as yet could foresee the frightful disasters which were to mark the end of that fatal year. And yet there was everywhere in France that indefinable anxiety which precedes great social convulsions. The plebiscitum had not succeeded in restoring confidence. Every day the most alarming rumors were put in circulation and it was with a sort of passion that people went in quest of news.
Now, M. Costeclar was a wonderfully well-posted man. He had, doubtless, on his way, stopped on the Boulevard des Italiens, that blessed ground where nightly the street-brokers labor for the financial prosperity of the country. He had gone through the Passage de l'Opera, which is, as is well known, the best market for the most correct and the most reliable news. Therefore he might safely be believed.
Placing his back to the chimney, he had taken the lead in the conversation; and he was talking, talking, talking. Being a "bull," he took a favorable view of every thing. He believed in the eternity of the second empire. He sang the praise of the new cabinet: he was ready to pour out his blood for Emile Ollivier. True, some people complained that business was dull and slow; but those people, he thought, were merely "bears." Business had never been so brilliant. At no time had prosperity been greater. Capital was abundant. The institutions of credit were flourishing. Securities were rising. Everybody's pockets were full to bursting. And the others listened in astonishment to this inexhaustible prattle, this "gab," more filled with gold spangles than Dantzig cordial, with which the commercial travelers of the bourse catch their customers.