"Here I am, and my vengeance will be terrible!"
Neither his joy nor his excitement, however, could make him forget the apprehensions of Papa Ravinet, although he thought they were eccentric, and very much exaggerated. That a spy should be waiting for him in the harbor, concealed in this busy, noisy crowd, to follow his track, and report his minutest actions,—this seemed to him, if not impossible, at least very improbable.
Nevertheless, he determined to ascertain the fact. Instead, therefore, of simply following the wharf, of going up Canebiere Street, and turning to the right on his way to the Hotel du Luxembourg, he went through several narrow streets, turning purposely every now and then. When he reached the hotel, he was compelled to acknowledge that the old dealer had acted wisely.
A big fellow, dark complexioned, and wicked looking, had followed the same route as he, always keeping some thirty yards behind him. The man who thus watched him, with his nose in the air and his hands in his pockets, hardly suspected the danger which he ran by practising his profession within reach of Lefloch. The idea of being tracked put the worthy sailor into a red-hot fury; and he proposed nothing less than to "run foul" of the spy, and make an end of him for good.
"I can do it in a second," he assured his master. "I just go up to him, without making him aware of my presence. I seize him by his cravat; I give him two turns, like that—and good-night. He won't track anybody again."
Daniel had to use all his authority to keep him back, and found it still harder to convince him of the necessity to let the scamp not know that he had been discovered.
"Besides," he added, "it is not proved yet that we are really watched; it may be merely a curious coincidence."
"That may be so," growled Lefloch.
But they could no longer doubt, when, just before dinner, as they looked out of the window, they saw the same man pass the hotel. At night they saw him again at the depot; and he took the same express train of 9.45 for Paris, in which they went. They recognized him in the refreshment-room at Lyons. And the first person they saw as they got out at Paris was the same man.
But Daniel did not mind the spy. He had long since forgotten him. He thought of nothing but the one fact that he was in the same town now with Henrietta. Too impatient to wait for his trunks, he left Lefloch in charge, and jumped into a cab, promising the driver two dollars if he would go as fast as he could to the Hotel du Louvre. For such pay, the lean horses of any cab become equal to English thoroughbreds; and in three-quarters of an hour Daniel was installed in his room at the hotel, and waited with anxiety the return of the waiter. Now that he was really here, a thousand doubts assailed him: "Had he understood Papa Ravinet correctly? Had the good old man given him the right directions? Might they not, excited as they both were, have easily made a mistake?"
"In less than a quarter of an hour after your arrival," Papa Ravinet had said to Daniel, "you shall have news."
Less than a quarter of an hour! It seemed to Daniel as if he had been an eternity in this room. Thinking that Henrietta might possibly occupy a room on the same floor with him, on the same side of the house, that he might even be separated from her only by a partition-wall, he felt like cursing Papa Ravinet, when there came a knock at the door.
"Come in!" he cried.
A waiter appeared, and handed him a visiting-card, on which was written, "Mrs. Bertolle, third story. No. 5."
As the waiter did not instantly disappear, Daniel said almost furiously,—
"Did I not tell you it was all right?"
He did not want the man to see his excitement, the most intense excitement he had ever experienced in all his life. His hands shook; he felt a burning sensation in his throat; his knees gave way under him. He looked at himself in the glass, and was startled; he looked deadly pale.
"Am I going to be ill?" he thought.
On the table stood a carafe with water. He filled a large glass, and drank it at one draught; this made him feel better, and he went out. But, once outside, he was so overcome, that he lost his way in the long passages and interminable staircases, in spite of the directions hung up at every turn, and had finally to ask a waiter, who pointed out a door which he had passed half a dozen times, and said,—
"That is No. 5."
He knocked gently, and the door opened instantly, as if somebody had been standing behind it, ready to open it promptly. As he entered, he tottered, and, almost in a mist, saw on his right side Papa Ravinet and an old lady, then, farther back, near the window, Henrietta.
He uttered a cry, and went forward. But as quickly she bounded to meet him, casting both arms around his neck, and leaning upon his bosom, sobbing and stammering,—
"Daniel, Daniel! At last!"
It was exactly two years since Daniel and Henrietta had been parted by the foulest treachery,—two years since that fatal evening when the stupidly ironical voice of Count Ville-Handry had suddenly made itself heard near them under the old trees of the garden of the palace.
What had not happened since then? What unheard-of, most improbable events; what trials, what tribulations, what sufferings! They had endured all that the human heart can endure. There was not a day, so to say, in these two years, that had not brought them its share of grief and sorrow. How often both of them had despaired of the future! How many times they had sighed for death!
And yet, after all these storms, here they were reunited once more, in unspeakable happiness, forgetting every thing,—their enemies and the whole world, the anxieties of the past, and the uncertainty of the future.
They remained thus for a long time, holding each other closely, overcome with happiness, unable, as yet, to believe in the reality for which they had sighed so long, unable to utter a word, laughing and weeping in one breath.
Now and then they would move apart a little, throwing back the head in order the better to look at each other; then swiftly they would fold each other again closely in their arms, as if they were afraid they might be separated anew.
"How they love each other!" whispered Mrs. Bertolle in her brother's ear,—"the poor young people!"
And big tears rolled down her cheeks, while the old dealer, not less touched, but showing his emotion differently, closed his hands fiercely, and said,—
"All right, all right! They will have to pay for everything."
Daniel, in the meantime, was recovering himself gradually; and reason once more got the better of his feelings. He led Henrietta to an arm- chair at the corner of the fireplace, and sitting down in front of her, after having taken her hands in his own, he asked her to give him a faithful account of the two terrible years that had just come to an end.
She had to tell him everything,—her humiliations in her father's house, the insults she had endured, the wicked slanders by which her honor had been tainted, the incomprehensible blindness of the count, the surly provocations of her step-mother, the horrible attentions of Sir Thorn; in fine, the whole abominable plot which had been formed, as she found out too late, for the purpose of driving her to seek safety in flight, and to give herself up to Maxime de Brevan.
Trembling with rage, livid, his eyes bloodshot, Daniel suddenly let go Henrietta's hands, and exclaimed in a half-smothered voice,—
"Ah, Henrietta! your father deserved—Wretched old man! to abandon his child to the mercy of such miserable wretches!"
And, when the poor girl looked at him imploringly, he replied,—
"Be it so! I will say nothing more of the count. He is your father, and that is enough."
Then he added coldly,—
"But that M. Thomas Elgin, I swear by God he shall die by my hand; and as to Sarah Brandon"—
He was interrupted by the old dealer, who tapped him lightly on the shoulder, and said with an indescribable smile,—
"You shall not do that honor to the Hon. M. Elgin, M. Champcey. People like him do not die by the sword of honest men."
In the meantime Henrietta had resumed her history, and spoke of her surprise and amazement when she reached that bare room in Water Street, with its scanty second-hand furniture.
"And yet, Henrietta," here broke in Daniel, "I had handed that man all my money to be placed at your disposal in case of any accident."
"What!" exclaimed the old dealer, "you had"—
He did not finish, but looked at the young officer with an utterly amazed air, as if he were an improbable phenomenon, never seen before.
Daniel shook his head sadly.
"Yes," he said, "I know it was an insane thing. But it was less insane than to intrust my betrothed to his care. I believed in the friendship of that man."
"And besides," remarked Mrs. Bertolle, "how could you suppose such atrocious treachery? There are crimes which honest hearts never even conceive."
Henrietta continued, describing her sensations when she found herself for the first time in her life harassed by want, destitution, hunger. But, when she came to the disgusting ill-treatment she received at the hands of the concierge's wife, Daniel cried out,—
And, fearfully excited, he asked her,—
"Did I hear right? Did you say the concierge of that house in Water Street, and his wife, were called Chevassat?"
"Because Maxime de Brevan's real name is Justin Chevassat."
Papa Ravinet started up as if he had been shot.
"What," he said, "you know that?"
"I learned it three months ago. I also know that my friend, the proud nobleman, Maxime de Brevan, who has been received in the most aristocratic salons of Paris, has been a galley-slave, condemned for forgery."
Henrietta had risen, filled with terror.
"Then," she stammered, "this wretched man was"—
"Chevassat's son; yes, madam," replied Mrs. Bertolle.
"Oh!" exclaimed the poor girl, "oh!"
And she fell heavily back into her chair, overcome by this discovery. The old dealer alone preserved his calm appearance.
"How did you learn that?" he asked Daniel.
"Through the man whom my friend Maxime had hired to murder me."
Positively this threatened to be too much for Henrietta's mind.
"Ah! I thought the mean coward would try to get you out of the way, Daniel. I wrote to you to be careful."
"And I received your letter, my darling, but too late. After having missed me twice, the assassin fired at me; and I was in my bed, a ball in my chest, dying."
"What has become of the murderer?" asked Papa Ravinet.
"He was arrested."
"Then he confessed?"
"Yes, thanks to the astonishing cleverness of the magistrate who carried on the investigation."
"What has become of him?"
"He has left Saigon by this time. They have sent him home to be tried here."
"I am surprised he has not yet been arrested. The papers in the case were sent to Paris by a vessel which left a fortnight before I left. To be sure, 'The Saint Louis' may have gotten ahead of her. At all events, I have in my keeping a letter to the court."
Papa Ravinet seemed to be almost delirious with joy. He gesticulated like a madman; he laughed nervously, and almost frightfully, till his sides shook; and at last he said,—
"I shall see Brevan on the scaffold! Yes, I shall!"
But from that moment there was an end of that logical order which the old gentleman had so far kept up. As it always happens with people who are under the influence of some passion, eager to learn what they do not know, and little disposed to tell what they do know, confusion prevailed soon. Questions crossed each other, and followed, without order or connection. Answers came at haphazard. Each wanted to be heard; and all were speaking at once. Thus the explanations, which, by a little management, might have been given in twenty minutes, took them more than two hours.
At last, after the lapse of this time, and by dint of great efforts, it became possible to ascertain the sum total of the information given by Papa Ravinet, Daniel, and Henrietta. The truth began to show itself in the midst of this chaos; and the plot of Sarah Brandon and her accomplices appeared in all its hideous outlines. A plan of striking simplicity, the success of which seemed to have hung upon a hair. If the old dealer, instead of going down by the backstairs, had taken the front staircase, he would never have heard Henrietta's agony, and the poor child would have been lost.
If Crochard's ball had been a few lines nearer the heart, Daniel would have been killed.
And still the old dealer was not quite satisfied. He hung his lip, and winked with his yellow eyes, as if he wished it to be understood that he was by no means fully convinced, and that there were certain points which required fuller explanation.
"Look here, M. Champcey," he began at last, "the more I think of it, the more I am convinced that Sarah Brandon had nothing to do with these attempts at assassination, which so nearly made an end of you. She is too strong in her perversity to stoop to such coarse means, which always leave traces behind, and finally lead to a court of justice. She always acts alone, when her mind is made up; and her accomplices aid her only unconsciously, so that they can never betray her."
Daniel had been thoughtful.
"What you tell me," he answered, "I was told before by M. de Brevan."
The old gentleman did not seem to hear him, so intensely did he apply all the faculties of his mind to the problem before him.
"Still," he continued, "there is no doubt about the manner in which Crochard, surnamed Bagnolet, was employed. Could Brevan have done so without Sarah's knowledge, and perhaps even contrary to her wishes?"
"That is quite possible; but then why should he have done so?"
"To secure to himself the fortune which M. Champcey had so imprudently intrusted to him," said Henrietta.
But Papa Ravinet shook his head, looking very wise, and said,—
"That is one explanation. I do not say no to it; but it is not the true one yet. Murder is so dangerous an expedient, that even the boldest criminals only resort to it in the last extremity, and generally very much against their inclination. Could not Brevan have possessed himself of M. Champcey's property without a murder? Of course, he could.
"Then we must look for another motive. You may say, it was fear which drove him to it. No; for at the time when he engaged Crochard, he could not foresee the atrocious outrages of which he would have become guilty during the succeeding year. Believe my experience; I discern in the whole affair a hurry and an awkwardness which betray a passion, a violent hatred, or, perhaps"—
He stopped suddenly, and seemed to reflect and deliberate, while he was mechanically stroking his chin. Then all of a sudden, looking strangely at Daniel, he asked him,—
"Could the Countess Sarah be in love with you, M. Champcey?"
Daniel's face turned crimson. He had not forgotten that fatal evening, when, in the house in Circus Street, he had held Sarah Brandon in his arms; and the intoxicating delirium of that moment had left in his heart a bitter and undying pang of remorse. He had never dared confess to Henrietta that Sarah had actually come to his rooms alone. And even to-night, while giving very fully all the details of his passage out, and his residence in Saigon, he had not said a word of the letters which had been addressed to him by the countess.
"Sarah Brandon in love with me?" he stammered. "What an idea!"
But he could not tell a falsehood; and Henrietta would not have been a woman, if she had not noticed his embarrassment.
"Why not?" she asked.
And, looking fixedly at Daniel, she went on,—
"That wretched woman impudently boasted to my face that she loved you; more than that, she swore that you, also, had loved her, and were still in love with her. She laughed at me contemptuously, telling me that she had it in her power to make you do anything she chose, and offering to show me your letters"—
She paused a moment, turned her head aside, and said with a visible effort,—
"Finally, M. Thomas Elgin assured me that Sarah Brandon had been your mistress, and that the marriage with my father took place only in consequence of a quarrel between you."
Daniel had listened to her, trembling with indignation. He now cried out,—
"And you could believe these false calumnies! Oh, no, no! tell me that there is no need for me to justify myself to"—
Then turning to Papa Ravinet, he said,—
"Suppose, we admit, for a moment, that she might have been in love, as you say, what would that prove?"
The cunning old dealer remained apparently unmoved for a time; but his small eyes were sparkling with malicious delight and satisfaction.
"Ah! you would not talk so, if you knew Sarah Brandon's antecedents as well as I do. Ask my sister about her and Maxime de Brevan, and she will tell you why I look upon that apparently trifling circumstance as so very important."
Mrs. Bertolle made a sign that she assented; and he, sure, henceforth, that his sagacity had not been at fault, continued,—
"Pardon me, M. Champcey, if I insist, and especially if I do so in Miss Henrietta's presence; but our interest, I might almost say our safety, requires it. Maxime de Brevan is caught, to be sure; but he is only a vulgar criminal; and we have, as yet, neither Thomas Elgin, nor Mrs. Brian, who are far more formidable, nor, above all, Sarah Brandon, who is a thousand times more wicked, and more guilty, than all the rest. You will tell me that we have ninety-nine chances out of a hundred on our side; maybe! Only a single, slight mistake may lead us altogether astray; and then there is an end to all our hopes, and these rascals triumph after all!"
He was but too right. Daniel felt it; and hence he said, without hesitating any longer, but looking stealthily at Henrietta's face,—
"Since that is so, I will not conceal from you that the Countess Sarah has written me a dozen letters of at least extraordinary nature."
"You have kept them, I hope?"
"Yes; they are all in one of my trunks."
Papa Ravinet was evidently much embarrassed; but at last he said,—
"Ah! if I might dare? But no; it would be asking too much, perhaps, to beg you to let me see them?"
He did not know how ready Daniel was to grant the request. Ready as he was, to tell Henrietta everything, he could not but wish that she should read these letters, as she would see from them, that, if the countess had written to him, he had never returned an answer.
"You can never ask too much, M. Ravinet," he replied. "Lefloch, my servant, must have come up by this time with the trunks; and, if you give me time to go down to my room, you shall have the letters at once."
He was on the point of leaving the room, when the old dealer held him back, and said,—
"Sir, you forget the man who has been following you all the way from Marseilles. Wait till my sister has made sure that there is nobody watching you."
Mrs. Bertolle at once went out; but she noticed nothing suspicious, and found all the passages silent and deserted. The spy had probably gone to make his report to his employers. Daniel went down promptly; and, when he came back, he held in his hand a bundle of faded and crumpled papers, which he handed to Papa Ravinet, with the words,—
"Here they are!"
Strange as it may seem, when the old gentleman touched these letters, impregnated with the peculiar perfume affected by Sarah Brandon, he trembled and turned pale. Immediately, however, perhaps in order to conceal his embarrassment, or to be the better able to reflect, he took a candlestick from the mantlepiece, and sat down aside, at one of the small tables. Mrs. Bertolle, Daniel, and Henrietta were silent; and nothing broke the stillness but the rustling of the paper, and the old gentleman's voice as he muttered,—
"This is fabulous,—Sarah writing such things! She did not even disguise her handwriting,—she who never committed an imprudence in her life; she ruins herself. And she signs her name!"
But he had seen enough. He folded up the letters, and, rising again, said to Champcey,—
"No doubt now! Sarah loves you madly, insanely. Ah! how she does love! Well, well, all heartless women love thus when a sudden passion conquers them, setting their brains and their senses on fire, and"—
Daniel noticed in Henrietta's face a sign of concern; and, quite distressed, he beckoned to the old gentleman to say nothing more. But he saw nothing, full as he was of his notion, and went on,—
"Now I understand. Sarah Brandon has not been able to keep her secret; and Brevan, seeing her love, and furious with jealousy, did not consider that to hire an assassin was to ruin himself."
The indignation he felt had restored the blood to his face; and, as he struck the packet of letters with the palm of his hand, he exclaimed,—
"Yes, all is clear now; and by this correspondence, Sarah Brandon, you are ours!"
What could be the plan of Papa Ravinet? Did he expect to use these letters as weapons against her? or did he propose to send them to Count Ville-Handry in order to open his eyes? Daniel trembled at the idea; for his loyalty rebelled against such a vengeance; he felt as if he would have become a traitor.
"You see, to use a woman's correspondence, however odious and contemptible she may be, would always be very repugnant to me."
"I had no idea of asking such a thing of you," replied the old dealer. "No; it is something very different I want you to do."
And, when Daniel still seemed to be embarrassed, he added,—
"You ought not to give way to such exaggerated delicacy, M. Champcey. All weapons are fair when we are called upon to defend our lives and our honor against rascals; and that is where we are. If we do not hasten to strike Sarah Brandon, she will anticipate us; and then"—
He had been leaning against the mantlepiece, close to Mrs. Bertolle, who sat there silent and immovable; and now he raised his head, and, looking attentively at Henrietta and Daniel by turns, he added,—
"Perhaps you are both not exactly conscious of the position in which you stand. Having been reunited to-night, after such terrible trials, and having, both of you, escaped, almost by a miracle, from death, you feel, no doubt, as if all trouble was at an end, and the future was yours. I must undeceive you. You are precisely where you were the day before M. Champcey left France. You cannot any more now than at that time marry without Count Ville-Handry's consent. Will he give it? You know very well that the Countess Sarah will not let him. Will you defy prejudices, and proudly avow your love? Ah, have a care! If you sin against social conventionalities, you risk your whole happiness of life. Will you hide yourself, on the other hand? However careful you may be, the world will find you out; and fools and hypocrites will overwhelm you with slander. And Miss Henrietta has been too much calumniated already."
To soar in the azure air, and suddenly to fall back into the mud on earth; to indulge in the sweetest of dreams, and all at once to be recalled to stern reality,—this is what Daniel and Henrietta endured at that moment. The calm, collected voice of the old dealer sounded cruel to them. Still he was but a sincere friend, who did his painful duty in awakening them from such deceptive illusions.
"Now," he went on, "mind that I take everything at the best; and even suppose the case, that Count Ville-Handry leaves his daughter free to choose: would that be enough? Evidently not; for the moment Sarah Brandon hears that Miss Henrietta has not committed suicide, but is, instead, at the Hotel du Louvre, within easy reach of M. Daniel Champcey, she will prevail on her husband to shut his daughter up in a convent. For another year, Miss Henrietta is yet under paternal control; that is, in this case, at the mercy of a revengeful step-mother, who looks upon her as a successful rival."
At this idea, that Henrietta might be once more taken from him, Daniel felt his blood chill off in his veins; and he exclaimed,—
"Ah, and I never dreamed of any of these things! I was mad! Joy had blinded my eyes completely."
But the old gentleman beckoned to him to say nothing, and with an almost imperious gesture went on,—
"Oh, wait! I have not yet shown you the most urgent danger: Count Ville-Handry, who, when you knew him, had, I know not how many millions, is completely ruined. Of all he once owned, of his lands, forests, castles, deeds, and bonds, there is nothing left. His last cent, his last rod of land, has been taken from him. You left him living like a prince in his forefathers' palace: you will find him vegetating in the fourth story of a lodging-house. You know, that, being poor, he is deemed guilty. The day is drawing near when Sarah Brandon will get rid of him, as she has gotten rid of Kergrist, of Malgat the poor cashier, and others. The means are at hand. Already the name of Count Ville-Handry is seriously compromised. The company which he has established is breaking to pieces; and the papers hold him up to public contempt. If he cannot pay to-day, he will be to-morrow accused of fraudulent bankruptcy. Now, I ask you, is the count a man who will survive such a disgrace?"
For some time Henrietta had been unable to suppress her sobs; under this terrible threat she broke out in loud weeping.
"Ah, sir!" she said, "you have misled me. You assured me that my father's life was in no danger."
"And I promise you still, it is not in danger. Would I be here, if I did not think that Sarah was not quite ready yet?"
Daniel, also, had suffered terribly during this discussion; and he now said passionately,—
"Would it not be a crime for us to think, to wait, and to calculate, when such great dangers are impending? Come, sir, let us go"—
"Ah, how do I know? Into court, to the count, to a lawyer who can advise us. There must be something that can be done."
The old dealer did not stir.
"Poor, honest young man!" he said with an accent of bitter irony. "And what could we tell the lawyer? That Sarah Brandon has made an old man, the Count Ville-Handry, fall madly in love with her? That is no crime. That she has made him marry her? That was her right. That the count has launched forth in speculations? She opposed it. That he understood nothing of business? She could not help that. That he has been duped, cheated, and finally ruined in two short years? Apparently she is as much ruined as he is. That, in order to delay the catastrophe, he has resorted to illegal means? She is sorry for it. That he will not survive the taint on his ancient name? What can she do? Sarah, who was able to clear herself the day after Malgat's disappearance, will not be at a loss now to establish her innocence."
"But the count, sir, the count! Can we not go to him?"
"Count Ville-Handry would say to you—But you shall hear to-morrow what he will tell you."
Daniel began to feel utterly dismayed.
"What can be done, then?" he asked.
"We must wait till we have sufficient evidence in hand to crush at one blow Sarah Brandon, Thorn, and Mrs. Brian."
"Well; but how shall we get such evidence?"
The old gentleman cast a look of intelligence at his sister, smiled, and said with a strange accent in his voice,—
"I have collected some. As to the rest"—
"Well, my dear M. Champcey, I am no longer troubled about getting more, since I have found out that the Countess Sarah is in love with you."
Now Daniel began to understand the part Papa Ravinet expected him to play. Still he did not object; he bowed his head under the clear eye of Henrietta, and said in a low voice,—
"I will do what you wish me to do, sir."
The old gentleman uttered a low cry of delight, as if he had been relieved of an overwhelming anxiety.
"Then," he said, "we will begin the campaign tomorrow morning. But we must know exactly who the enemies are whom we have to meet. Listen, therefore!"
It struck midnight; but the poor people in the little parlor in the Hotel du Louvre hardly thought of sleep. How could they have become aware of the flight of time, as long as all their faculties were bent upon the immense interests that were at stake? On the struggle which they were about to undertake depended Count Ville-Handry's life and honor, and the happiness and whole future life of Daniel and Henrietta.
And Papa Ravinet and his sister had said,—"As for us, even more than that depends upon it." The old dealer, therefore, drew up an easy- chair, sat down, and began in a somewhat husky voice,—
"The Countess Sarah is not Sarah Brandon, and is not an American. Her real name, by which she was known up to her sixteenth year, is Ernestine Bergot; and she was born in Paris, in the suburb of Saint Martin, just on the line of the corporation. To tell you in detail what the first years of Sarah were like would be difficult indeed. There are things of that kind which do not bear being mentioned. Her childhood might be her excuse, if she could be excused at all.
"Her mother was one of those unfortunate women of whom Paris devours every year several thousands; who come from the provinces in wooden shoes, and are seen, six months later, dressed in all the fashion; and who live a short, gay life, which invariably ends in the hospital.
"Her mother was neither better nor worse than the rest. When her daughter came, she had neither the sense to part with her, nor the courage—perhaps (who knows?) she had not the means—to mend her ways. Thus the little one grew up by God's mercy, but at the Devil's bidding, living by chance, now stuffed with sweet things, and now half-killed by blows, fed by the charity of neighbors, while her mother remained for weeks absent from her lodgings.
"Four years old, she wandered through the neighborhood dressed in fragments of silk or velvet, with a faded ribbon in her hair, but with bare feet in her torn shoes, hoarse, and shivering with severe colds,—very much after the fashion of lost dogs, who rove around open-air cooking-shops,—and looking in the gutters for cents with which to buy fried potatoes or spoilt fruit.
"At a later time she extended the circle of her excursions, and wandered all over Paris, in company of other children like herself, stopping on the boulevards, before the brilliant shops or performing jugglers, trying to learn how to steal from open stalls, and at night asking in a plaintive voice for alms in behalf of her poor sick father. When twelve years old she was as thin as a plank, and as green as a June apple, with sharp elbows and long red hands. But she had beautiful light hair, teeth like a young dog's, and large, impudent eyes. Merely upon seeing her go along, her head high with an air of saucy indifference, coquettish under her rags, and walking with elastic steps, you would have guessed in her the young Parisian girl, the sister of the poor 'gamin,' a thousand times more wicked than her brothers, and far more dangerous to society. She was as depraved as the worst of sinners, fearing neither God nor the Devil, nor man, nor anything.
"However, she did fear the police.
"For from them she derived the only notions of morality she ever possessed; otherwise, it would have been love's labor lost to talk to her of virtue or of duty. These words would have conveyed no meaning to her imagination; she knew no more about them than about the abstract ideas which they represent.
"One day, however, her mother, who had virtually made a servant of her, had a praiseworthy inspiration. Finding that she had some money, she dressed her anew from head to foot, bought her a kind of outfit, and bound her as an apprentice to a dressmaker.
"But it came too late.
"Every kind of restraint was naturally intolerable to such a vagabond nature. The order and the regularity of the house in which she lived were a horror to her. To sit still all day long, a needle in her hand, appeared to her harder than death itself. The very comforts around her embarrassed her, and she felt as a savage would feel in tight boots. At the end of the first week, therefore, she ran away from the dressmaker, stealing a hundred francs. As long as these lasted, she roved over Paris. When they were spent, and she was hungry, she came back to her mother.
"But her mother had moved away, and no one knew what had become of her. She was inquired after, but never found. Any other person would have been in despair. Not she. The same day she entered as waiter in a cheap coffee-house. Turned out there, she found employment in a low restaurant, where she had to wash up the dishes and plates. Sent away here, also, she became a servant in two or three other places of still lower character; then, at last, utterly disgusted, she determined to do nothing at all.
"She was sinking into the gutter, she was on the point of being lost before she had reached womanhood, like fruit which spoils before it is ripe, when a man turned up who was fated to arm her for life's Struggle, and to change the vulgar thief into the accomplished monster of perversity whom you know."
Here Papa Ravinet suddenly paused, and, looking at Daniel, said,—
"You must not believe, M. Champcey, that these details are imaginary. I have spent five years of my life in tracing out Sarah's early life,—five years, during which I have been going from door to door, ever in search of information. A dealer in second-hand goods enters everywhere without exciting suspicion. And then I have witnesses to prove everything I have told you so far,—witnesses whom I shall summon, and who will speak whenever the necessity arises to establish the identity of the Countess Sarah."
Daniel made no reply.
Like Henrietta, even like Mrs. Bertolle, at this moment he was completely fascinated by the old gentleman's manner and tone. The latter, after having rested for a few minutes, went on,—
"The man who picked up Sarah was an old German artist, painter and musician both, of rare genius, but a maniac, as they called him. At all events, he was a good, an excellent man.
"One winter morning, as he was at work in his studio, he was struck by the strange ring in a woman's voice, which recited in the court-yard below a popular song. He went to the window, and beckoned the singer to come up. It was Sarah; and she came. The good German used often to speak of the deep compassion which seized him as he saw this tall girl of fourteen come into his studio,—a child, stained by vice already, thin like hunger itself, and shivering in her thin calico dress. But he was at the same time almost dazzled by the rich promises of beauty in her face, the pure notes of her superb voice, which had withstood so far, and the surprising intelligence beaming in her features.
"He guessed what there was in her; he saw her, in his mind's eye, such as she was to be at twenty.
"Then he asked her how she had come to be reduced to such misery, who she was, where her parents lived, and what they did for a living. When she had told him that she stood quite alone, and was dependent on no one, he said to her,—
"'Well, if you will stay with me, I will adopt you; you shall be my daughter; and I will make you an eminent artist.'
"The studio was warm, and it was bitterly cold outside. Sarah had no roof over her head, and had eaten nothing for twenty-four hours. She accepted.
"She accepted, be it understood, not doubting, in her perversity, but that this kind old man had other intentions besides those he mentioned in offering her a home. She was mistaken. He recognized in her marvellous talents, and thought of nothing but of making of her a true marvel, which should astonish the world. He devoted himself heart and soul to his new favorite, with all the enthusiastic ardor of an artist, and all the jealous passion of an amateur.
"It was a hard task, however, which he had undertaken. Sarah could not even read. She knew nothing, except sin.
"How the old German went to work to keep this untamable vagabond at home, how he made her bend to his will, and submit to his lessons, no one will ever be able to tell. It was long a problem for me also. Some of the neighbors told me that he treated her harshly, beating her often brutally; but neither threats nor blows were apt to make an impression on Sarah Brandon. A friend of the old man's thought he had guessed the riddle: he thought the old artist had succeeded in arousing Sarah's pride. He had kindled in her a boundless ambition and the most passionate covetousness. He intoxicated her with fairylike hopes.
"'Follow my counsels,' he used to say to her, 'and at twenty you will be a queen,—a queen of beauty, of wit, and of genius. Study, and the day will come when you will travel through Europe, a renowned artist, welcomed in every capital, feted everywhere, honored, and glorified. Work, and wealth will come with fame,—immense, boundless wealth, surpassing all your dreams. You will have the finest carriages, the most magnificent diamonds; you will draw from inexhaustible purses; the whole world will be at your feet; and the women will turn pale with envy and jealousy when they see you. Among men there will be none so noble, none so great, none so rich, but he will beg for one of your looks; and they will fight for one of your smiles. Only work and study!'
"At all events, Sarah did work, and studied with a steady perseverance which spoke of her faith in the promises of her old master, and of the influence he had obtained over her through her vanity. At first she had been deterred by the extreme difficulties which beset so late a beginning; but her amazing natural gifts had soon begun to show themselves, and in a short time her progress was almost miraculous.
"It is true that her innate sagacity had made her soon find out how ignorant she was of the world. She saw that society did not exclusively consist, as she had heretofore imagined, of people like those she had known. She felt, for instance, what she had never suspected before, that her unfortunate mother, with all her friends and companions, were only the rare exceptions, laid under the ban by the immense majority.
"At last she actually learned to know the tree of good fruit, after having for so many years known only the tree of forbidden fruit. She listened with eager curiosity to all the old artist had to tell her. And he knew much; for the eccentric old man had travelled for a long time over the world, and observed man on every step of the social ladder. He had been a favorite artist at the court of Vienna; he had had several of his operas brought out in Italy; and he had been admitted to the best society in Paris. At night, therefore, while sipping his coffee, his feet on the andirons, and his long pipe in his mouth, he would soon forget himself amid the recollections of his youth. He described to her the splendor of courts, the beauty of women, the magnificence of their toilets, and the intrigues which he had seen going on around him. He spoke to her of the men whose portraits he had painted, of the manners and the jealousies behind the stage, and of the great singers who had sung in his operas.
"Thus it came about, that, two years later, no one would have recognized the lean, wretched-looking vagabond of the suburbs in this fresh, rosy girl, with the lustrous eyes and the modest mien, whom they called in the house the 'pretty artist in the fifth story.'
"And yet the change was only on the surface.
"Sarah was already too thoroughly corrupted, when the good German picked her up, to be capable of being entirely changed. He thought he had infused his own rough honesty into her veins: he had only taught her a new vice,—hypocrisy.
"The soul remained corrupt; and all the charms with which it was outwardly adorned became only so many base allurements, like those beautiful flowers which unfold their splendor on the surface of bottomless swamps, and thus lead those whom they attract to miserable death.
"At that time, however, Sarah did not yet possess that marvellous self-control which became one of her great charms hereafter; and at the end of two years she could endure this peaceful atmosphere no longer; she grew homesick after sin.
"As she was already a very fair musician, and her voice, trained by a great master, possessed amazing power, she urged her old teacher to procure her an engagement at one of the theatres. He refused in a manner which made it clear to her that he would never change his mind on that subject. He wanted to secure to his pupil one of those debuts which are an apotheosis; and he had decided, as he told her, that she should not appear in public till she had reached the full perfection of her voice and her talent,—certainly not before her nineteenth or twentieth year.
"That meant she should wait three or four years longer,—a century!
"In former days Sarah would not have hesitated a moment; she would have run away.
"But education had changed her ideas. She was quite able now to reflect and to calculate. She asked herself where she could go, alone, without money, without friends, and what she should do, and what would become of her.
"She knew what destitution meant, and she was afraid of it now.
"When she thought of the life her mother had led,—a long series of nights spent in orgies, and of days without bread; that life of distress and disgrace, when she depended on the whims of a good-for-nothing, or the suspicions of a police constable,—Sarah felt the cold perspiration break out on her temples.
"She wanted her liberty; but she did not want it without money. Vice attracted her irresistibly; but it was gorgeous vice, seated in a carriage, and bespattering with mud the poor, honest women who had to walk on foot, while it was envied by the crowd, and worshipped by the foolish. She remained, therefore, and studied hard.
"Perhaps, in spite of everything, in spite of herself and her execrable instincts, Sarah might have become a great artist, if the old German had not been taken from her by a terrible accident.
"One fine afternoon in April, in the beginning of spring, he was smoking his pipe at the window, when he heard a noise in the street, and leaned over to see.
"The bar broke,—he tried in vain to hold on to the window-frame,—and the next moment he fell from the fifth story to the ground, and was killed instantly.
"I have held in my own hands the police report of the accident. It states that the fall was unavoidable; and that, if no such calamity had occurred before, this was due to the simple fact, that, during the bad weather, nobody had thought of looking out of the window. The castings of the little railing in front were found to be broken in two places, and so long ago, that a thick layer of rust had filled up the cracks. The wooden part had become perfectly loose, as the mortar that originally had kept it in place had been apparently eaten away by the winter frosts."
Daniel and Henrietta had turned very pale. It was evident that the same terrible suspicion had flashed upon their mind.
"Ah! it was Sarah's work," they exclaimed simultaneously. "It was Sarah who had broken the bar, and loosened the wooden rods; she had, no doubt, been watching for months to see her benefactor fall and kill himself."
Papa Ravinet shook his head.
"I do not say that," he said; "and, at all events, it would be impossible to prove it at this time,—I mean, to prove it against her denial. It is certain that no one suspected Sarah. She seemed to be in despair; and everybody pitied her sincerely. Was she not ruined by this misfortune?
"The old artist had left no will. His relatives, of whom several lived in Paris, rushed to his rooms; and their first act was to dismiss Sarah, after having searched her trunks, and after giving her to understand that she ought to be very grateful if she was allowed to take away all she said she owed to the munificence of her late patron.
"Still the inheritance was by no means what the heirs had expected. Knowing that the deceased had had ample means, and how simply he had always lived, they expected to find in his bureau considerable savings. There was nothing. A single bond for less than two thousand dollars, and a small sum in cash, were all that was found.
"Ah! I have long endeavored to find out what had become of the various bonds and the ready money of the old artist; for everybody who had known him agreed that there must be some. Do you know what I discovered by dint of indefatigable investigations? I procured leave to examine the books of the savings-bank in which he invested his earnings for the year of his death; and I found there, that on the 17th of April, that is, five days before the poor German's fall, a certain Ernestine Bergot had deposited a sum of fifteen hundred francs."
"Ah, you see!" exclaimed Daniel. "Weary of the simple life with the old man, she murdered him in order to get hold of his money."
But the old gentleman continued, as if he had heard nothing,—
"What Sarah did during the three first months of her freedom, I cannot tell. If she went and rented furnished lodgings, she did it under a false name. A clerk in the mayor's office, who is a great lover of curiosities, and for whom I have procured many a good bargain, had all the lists of lodging-houses for the four months from April to July carefully examined; but no Ernestine Bergot could be found.
"I am quite sure, however, that she thought of the stage. One of the former secretaries of the Lyric Theatre told me he recollected distinctly a certain Ernestine, beautiful beyond description, who, came several times, and requested a trial. She was, however, refused, simply because her pretensions were almost ridiculous. And this was quite natural; for her head was still full of all the ambitious dreams of the old artist.
"The first positive trace I find of Sarah in that year appears towards the end of summer. She was then living in a fashionable street with a young painter full of talent, and very rich, called Planix. Did she really love him? The friends of the unfortunate young man were sure she did not. But he—he worshipped her; he loved her passionately, madly, and was so absurdly jealous, that he became desperate if she stayed out an hour longer than he expected. Hence she often complained of his love, which restrained her cherished liberty; and still she bore it patiently till fate threw in her way Maxime de Brevan."
At the name of the wretch who had been so bent upon ruining them both, and who had been so nearly successful, Henrietta and Daniel trembled, and looked at each other. But Papa Ravinet did not give them, time to ask any questions, and continued, as calmly as if he had been reading a report,—
"It was several years before this, that Justin Chevassat, released from the galleys, had made a nobleman of himself, and claimed before all the world to be Maxime de Brevan. We need not be surprised, in this age of ours, where impudence takes the place of everything else, that he should have promptly succeeded in making his way into high life, and in being admitted to many houses which were considered more or less exclusive. In a society which seems to have adopted for its motto the words 'Toleration and Discretion,' and where, consequently, anybody is admitted without question, Justin Chevassat very naturally had a great success. He had carefully prepared his way, like those adventurers who never appear abroad without having their passports in much better order than most honest travellers. He had learned prudence by experience; for his antecedents were stormy enough, though less so than Sarah's.
"Justin's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Chevassat, now concierges of No. 23 Water Street, were, some thirty-eight or forty years ago, living in the upper part of the suburb of Saint Honore. They had a very modest little shop, partly restaurant, partly bar: their customers were generally the servants of the neighborhood. They were people of easy principles and loose morals,—as there are so many in our day,—honest enough as long as there is nothing to be gained by being otherwise. As their trade prospered, they were not dishonest; and, when any of their customers forgot their portemonnaies at the shop, they always returned them. The husband was twenty-four, and the wife nineteen years old, when, to their great joy, a son was born. There was rejoicing in the shop; and the child was christened Justin, in honor of his godfather, who was no less a personage than the valet of the Marquis de Brevan.
"But to have a son is a small matter. To bring him up till he is seven or eight years old, is nothing. The difficulty is to give him an education which shall secure him a position in the world. This thought now began to occupy the minds of his parents incessantly. These stupid people, who had a business which supported them handsomely, and enabled them, in the course of time, to amass a small fortune, did not see that the best thing they could have done would have been to enlarge it, and to leave it to their son. But no. They vowed they would sacrifice all their savings, and deprive themselves even of the necessaries of life, in order that their Justin might become a 'gentleman.'
"And what a gentleman! The mother dreamed of him as a rich broker, or, at the very least, a notary's first clerk. The father preferred seeing him a government official, holding one of those much-coveted places, which give the owner, after twenty-five years' service, a title, and an income of some six or seven hundred dollars.
"The result of all these speculations was, that, at the age of nine, Master Justin was sent to a high school. He conducted himself there just badly enough to be perpetually on the brink of being sent away, without ever being really expelled. This made but little impression upon the two Chevassats. They had become so accustomed to look upon their son as a superior being, that it never entered their mind to think he was not the first, the best, and the most remarkable pupil of the establishment. If Justin's reports were bad,—and they were always bad,—they accused the teachers of partiality. If he gained no prize at the end of the year,—and he never got any,—they did not know what to do for him to console him for having been victimized by such cruel injustice.
"The consequences of such a system need hardly be stated.
"When Justin was fourteen years old, he despised his parents thoroughly, treated them like servants, and was so much ashamed of them, that he would not allow his mother to come and see him in the parlor of the college to which he had been admitted of late. When he was at home during vacations, he would have cut his right arm off rather than help his father, or pour out a glass of wine for a customer. He even stayed away from the house on the plea that he could not endure the odors from the kitchen.
"Thus he reached his seventeenth year. His course was not completed; but, as he was tired of college-life, he declared he would not return there, and he never did return. When his father asked him timidly what he proposed doing, he shrugged his shoulders as his sole reply. What did he do? Nothing. He idled about Paris.
"To dress in the height of fashion; to walk up and down before the most renowned restaurants, with a toothpick in his mouth; to hire a carriage, and drive it himself, having a hired groom in livery by his side,—this was the delight of those days. At night he gambled; and, when he lost, there was the till in his father's shop.
"His parents had rented for him, and comfortably furnished, a nice set of rooms in their house, and tried by all manner of servility to keep him at home, neglecting even their own business in order to be always ready for his orders. But this did not prevent him from being constantly away. He said he could not possibly receive his friends in a house where his name was to be seen on the signboard of such a low establishment.
"It was his despair to be the son of a restaurant-keeper, and to be called Chevassat.
"But greater grief was to come to him after two years' idle and expensive life such as has been described.
"One fine morning when he needed a couple of hundred dollars, his parents told him, with tears in their eyes, that they had not twenty dollars in the house; that they were at the end of their resources; that the day before a note of theirs had been protested; and that they were at that moment on the brink of bankruptcy. They did not reproach Justin with having spent all their savings; oh, no! On the contrary, they humbly asked his pardon, if they were no longer able to provide for his wants. And, with fear and trembling, they at last ventured to suggest, that perhaps it would be well if he should seek some kind of work.
"He told them coolly that he would think it over, but that he must have his two hundred dollars. And he got them. His father and mother had still a watch and some jewelry; they pawned everything and brought him the proceeds.
"Still he saw that the till he had considered inexhaustible was really empty, and that henceforth his pockets also would be empty, unless he could devise some means to fill them. He went, therefore, in search of some employment; and his godfather, the valet, found one for him at the house of a banker, who was in want of a reliable young man to be trained for his business, and hereafter to be intrusted with the management of his funds."
Papa Ravinet's voice changed so perceptibly as he uttered these last words, that Daniel and Henrietta, with one impulse, asked him,—
"Is anything the matter, sir?"
He did not make any reply; but his sister, Mrs. Bertolle, said,—
"No, there is nothing the matter with my brother;" and she looked at him with a nod of encouragement.
"I am all right," he said, like an echo. Then, making a great effort, he continued,—
"Justin Chevassat was at twenty precisely what you know him to be as Maxime de Brevan,—a profound dissembler, a fierce egotist devoured by vanity, in fine, a man of ardent passions, and capable of anything to satisfy his desires.
"The hope of getting rich at once by some great stroke was already so deeply rooted in his mind, that it gave him the strength to change his habits and manner of life from one day to another, and to keep up the deceit with a perseverance unheard of at his age. This lazy, profligate gambler rose with the day, worked ten hours a day, and became the model of all clerks. He had resolved to win the favor of his patron, and to be trusted. He succeeded in doing it by the most consummate hypocrisy. So that, only two years after he had first been admitted into the house, he had already been promoted to a place which conferred upon him the keeping of all the valuables of the firm.
"This occurred before those accidents which have, since that time, procured for the keepers of other people's money such a sad reputation. Nowadays it seems almost an ordinary event to hear of some cashier's running away with the funds intrusted to his keeping; and no one is astonished. To create a sensation by such an occurrence, the sum must be almost fabulous, say, two or three millions. And, even in that case, the loser is by no means the man in whom the world is most interested.
"At the time of which I am now speaking, defalcations were quite rare as yet. Financial companies and brokers did not contemplate being robbed by their own clerks as one of the ordinary risks. When they knew the keys of their safe to be in the hands of an honest man, whose family and mode of life were well known, they slept soundly. Justin Chevassat's patron was thus sleeping soundly for ten months, when one Sunday he was specially in need of certain bonds which Justin used to keep in one of the drawers of his desk. He did not like to have his clerk hunted up on such a day; so he simply sent for a locksmith to open the drawer.
"The first thing he saw was a draft signed by himself; and yet he had never put his name to such a paper. Still, most assuredly, it was his signature; he would have sworn to it in court. And yet he was as sure as he was standing there, that it was not he who had put his name, and the somewhat complicated ornament belonging to it, where he saw it written.
"His first amazement was succeeded by grievous apprehension. He had the other drawers opened likewise, searched them, and soon discovered all the details of a formidable and most ingenious plan, by which he was to be robbed at a single blow of more than a million.
"If he had slept soundly one month longer, he would have been ruined. His favorite clerk was a wretch, a forger of matchless skill. He instantly sent for a detective; and the next morning, when Justin Chevassat came as usual, he was arrested. It was then thought that his crime was confined to this abortive attempt. Not so. A minute and careful examination of all the papers soon revealed other misdeeds. Evidence was found, that, on the very next day after the day on which he had been appointed confidential clerk, he had stolen a thousand dollars, concealing his theft by a false entry. Since that time not a week had passed without his laying hands on a more or less considerable sum; and all these thefts had been most ingeniously covered by such skilful imitations of other people's signatures, that he had once been sick for a fortnight, and yet his substitute had never become aware of anything. In fine, it appeared that the sum total of his defalcations amounted to some eighty thousand dollars.
"What had he done with all that money? The magistrate before whom he was brought at once asked that question. He replied that he had not a cent left. His explanations and his excuses were the old story pleaded by all who put their hands into their neighbors' pockets.
"To hear him, no one could be more innocent than he was, however guilty he might appear at first sight. He was like one of those men who allow their little finger to be caught in a machine. His only fault was the desire to speculate on 'Change. Did not his employer speculate himself? Having lost some money, and fearing to lose his place if he did not pay, the fatal thought had occurred to him to borrow from the strong box. From that moment he had only cherished one thought,—to restore what he had taken. If he speculated anew, it was from extreme honesty, and because he constantly hoped to gain enough to make restitution. But most extraordinary ill luck had pursued him; so that, seeing the deficit growing larger and larger, and overcome with remorse and terror, he had almost gone mad, and ceased to put any restraint upon himself.
"He laid great stress upon the fact that his whole eighty thousand dollars had been lost on 'Change, and that he would have looked upon himself as the meanest of rascals, if he had spent any part of it on his personal enjoyments. Unfortunately the forged checks and drafts in his drawer destroyed the force of this plea. Convinced that the sums he had thus obtained were not lost, the investigating magistrate suspected the parents of the accused. He questioned them, and obtained sufficient evidence against them to justify their arrest. But they could not be convicted at the trial, and had to be released. Justin Chevassat, however, appeared at the assizes.
"Matters looked very serious for him; but he had the good luck of falling in with a young lawyer who initiated in his case a system of pleading which has since become very popular. He made no effort to exculpate his client: he boldly accused the banker. 'Was it the act of a sensible man,' he said, 'to trust so young a man with such important sums? Was it not tempting him beyond his powers of resistance, and almost provoking him to become dishonest? What, this banker never examined his books for so many months? What kind of a business was it, where a cashier could so easily take eighty thousand dollars, and remain undiscovered? And then, what immorality in a banker to speculate on 'Change, and thus to set so bad an example to his young, inexperienced clerks!'
"Justin Chevassat escaped with twenty years' penal servitude.
"What he was at the galleys, you may imagine from what you know of him. He played the 'repentant criminal,' overflowing with professions of sorrow for the past, and amendment in future, and cringing and crouching at the feet of the officials of the prison. He carried on this comedy so successfully, that, after three years and a half, he was pardoned. But he had not lost his time in prison. The contact with the vilest of criminals had sharpened his wits, and completed his education in rascality. He came out of prison an accomplished felon. And even while he still dragged the chain and ball along with him, he was already planning and maturing new plots for the future, which he afterwards executed with success. He conceived the idea of bursting forth in a new shape, under which no one would ever suspect his former identity.
"How he went about to do this, I am enabled to tell you accurately. Through his godfather, the valet, who had died before his trial, Justin Chevassat knew the history of the Brevan family in its minutest details. It was a very sad story. The old marquis had died insolvent, after having lost his five sons, who had gone abroad to make their fortunes. The noble family had thus become extinct; but Justin proposed to continue its lineage. He knew that the Brevans were originally from Maine; that they had formerly owned immense estates in the neighborhood of Mans; and that they had not been there for more than twenty years. Would they still be remembered in a land where they had once been all powerful? Most assuredly they would. Would people take the trouble to inquire minutely what had become of the marquis and his five sons? As assuredly not.
"Chevassat's plot was based upon these calculations.
"As soon as he was free once more, he devoted all his energies to the destruction of every trace of his identity; and, when he thought he had accomplished this, he went to Mans, assuming the name of one of the sons of the marquis, who had been nearly of his own age. No one doubted for a moment that he was Maxime de Brevan. Who could have doubted it, when he purchased the old family mansion for a considerable sum, although it only consisted of a ruinous castle, and a small farm adjoining the house? He paid cash, moreover, proving thus the correctness of the magistrate's suspicions as to his story about losses on 'Change, and as to the complicity of his parents. He even took the precaution of living on his little estate for four years, practising the life of a country-gentleman, received with open arms by the nobility of the neighborhood, forming friendships, gaining supporters, and becoming more and more identified with Maxime de Brevan.
"What was his aim at that time? I always thought he was looking out for a wealthy wife, so as to consolidate his position; and he came near realizing his hopes.
"He was on the point of marrying a young lady from Mans, who would have brought him half a million in money, and the banns had already been published, when, all of a sudden, the marriage was broken off, no one knew why.
"This only is certain: he was so bitterly disappointed by his failure, that he sold his property, and left the country. For the next three years, he lived in Paris, more completely Maxime de Brevan than ever; and then he met Sarah Brandon."
Papa Ravinet had been speaking now for nearly three hours, and he was beginning to feel exhausted. He showed his weariness in his face; and his voice very nearly gave out. Still it was in vain for Daniel, Henrietta, and Mrs. Bertolle herself to unite in begging him to go and lie down for a few moments.
"No," he replied, "I will go to the end. You do not know how important it is that M. Champcey should be in a position to act to-morrow, or rather to-day.
"It was at a fancy ball," he went on, "given by M. Planix, that Sarah Brandon, at that time still known as Ernestine Bergot, and Justin Chevassat, now Maxime de Brevan, met for the first time. He was completely overpowered by her marvellous beauty, and she—she was strangely impressed by the peculiar expression in Maxime's face. Perhaps they divined each other's character, perhaps they had an intuitive perception of who they were. At all events, they soon became acquainted, drawn as they were to each other by an instinctive and irresistible attraction. They danced several times together; they sat side by side; they talked long and intimately; and, when the ball came to an end, they were friends already.
"They met frequently; and, if it were not profanation, I would say they loved each other. They seemed to be made on purpose to understand, and, so to say, compliment, each other, equally corrupt as they were, devoured by the same sinful desires, and alike free from all the old-fashioned prejudices, as they called it, about justice, morals, and honor. They could hardly help coming soon to some understanding by which they agreed to associate their ambitions and their plans for the future.
"For in those early days, when their feelings were still undented, they had no secrets for each other. Love had torn the mask from their faces; and each one vied with the other in letting the foulness of their past days be seen clearly. This, no doubt, secured, first the constancy of their passion, and the continuation of their intimacy long after they had ceased loving each other.
"For now they hate each other; but they are also afraid of each other. Ten times they have tried to break off their intimacy; and as often they have been compelled to renew it, bound as they feel they are to each other by a chain far more oppressive and solid than the one Justin Chevassat wore at the galleys.
"At first, however, they had to conceal their intimacy; for they had no money. By joining what she had stolen from her benefactor, to what she had obtained from M. Planix, Sarah could not make up more than some forty thousand francs. 'That was not enough,' she said, 'to "set up" the most modest establishment.' As to M. de Brevan, however economical he had been, he had come to an end of the sums stolen from his employer. For eight or ten months now, he had been reduced to all kinds of dangerous expedients in order to live. He rode in his carriage; but he had been more than once very happy when he could extort a twenty-franc-piece from his parents. He visited them, of course only in secret; for they had in the meantime exchanged their shop, for the modest little box assigned to the concierge of No. 23 Water Street.
"Far, therefore, from being able to be useful to Sarah, he was perfectly delighted when she brought him one fine day ten thousand francs to alleviate his distress.
"'Ah!' she said to him on this occasion, and often thereafter, 'why can't we have that fool's money?' meaning her friend and lover, M. Planix.
"The next step was naturally an attempt at obtaining this much coveted treasure. To begin, Sarah induced him to make a last will, in which he made her his residuary legatee. One would be at a loss to guess how she could obtain this from a young, healthy man, full of life and happiness, if it were not that love will explain everything. When this success had been achieved, M. de Brevan undertook to introduce in the society frequented by Sarah and M. Planix one of his friends, who was considered, and who really was, the best swordsman in Paris, a good fellow otherwise, honor itself, and rather patient in temper than given to quarrelling.
"Without compromising herself, and with that abominable skill which is peculiarly her own, Sarah, coquetted just enough with this young man, M. de Font-Avar, to tempt him to pay her some attentions. But that very night she complained to M. Planix of his persecution, and knew so skilfully how to excite his jealousy, and to wound his vanity, that, three days later, he allowed himself to be carried away by passion, and struck M. de Font-Avar in the presence of a dozen friends.
"A duel became inevitable; and M. de Brevan, pretending to try and reconcile the two young men, secretly fanned the flame. The duel came off one Saturday morning, in the woods near Vincennes. They fought with small-swords; and, after little more than a minute, M. Planix received a stab in his breast, fell, and was dead in an instant. He was not yet twenty-seven years old.
"Sarah's joy was almost delirious. Accomplished actress as she was, she could hardly manage to shed a few tears for the benefit of the public, when the body, still warm, was brought to the house. And still she had once loved the man, whom she had now assassinated.
"Even as she knelt by the bedside, hiding her face in her handkerchief, she was thinking only of the testament, lying safe and snug, as she knew, in one of the drawers of that bureau, enclosed in a large official envelope with a huge red wax seal.
"It was opened and read the same day by the justice of the peace, who had been sent for to put the seals on the deceased man's property. And then Sarah began to cry in good earnest. Her tears were tears of rage. For seized by a kind of remorse, and at a moment when Sarah's absence had rendered him very angry, M. Planix had added two lines as a codicil.
"He still said, 'I appoint Miss Ernestine Bergot my residuary legatee'; but he had written underneath, 'on condition that she shall pay to each of my sisters the sum of a hundred and fifty thousand francs.' This was more than three-fourths of his whole fortune.
"When she arrived, therefore, that night, at Brevan's rooms, her first words were,—
"'We have been robbed! Planix was a wretch! We won't have a hundred thousand francs left.'
"Maxime, however, recovered his equanimity pretty soon; for the sum appeared to him quite large enough to pay for a crime in which they had run no risk, and he was quite as willing as before to marry Sarah; but she refused to listen to him, saying that a hundred thousand francs were barely enough for a year's income, and that they must wait. It was then that M. de Brevan became a gambler. The wretch actually believed in the cards; he believed that fortunes could be made by playing. He had systems of his own which could not fail, and which he was bent upon trying.
"He proposed to Sarah to risk the hundred thousand francs, promising to make a million out of them; and she yielded, tempted by the very boldness of his proposition.
"They resolved they would not stop playing till they had won a million, or lost everything. And so they went to Homburg. There they led a mad life for a whole month, spending ten hours every day at the gaming-table, feverish, breathless, fighting the bank with marvellous skill and almost incredible coolness. I have met an old croupier who recollects them even now. Twice they were on the point of staking their last thousand-franc-note; and one lucky day they won as much as four hundred thousand francs. That day, Maxime proposed they should leave Homburg. Sarah, who kept the money, refused, repeating her favorite motto, 'All, or nothing.'
"It was nothing. Victory remained, as usual, with, the 'big battalions;' and one evening the two partners returned to their lodgings, ruined, penniless, having not even a watch left, and owing the hotel-keeper a considerable sum of money.
"That evening Maxime spoke of blowing his brains out. Never, on the contrary, had Sarah been merrier.
"The next morning she dressed very early and went out, saying she had a plan in her head, and would soon be back.
"But she did not come back; and all that day M. de Brevan, devoured by anxiety, waited in vain for her return. At five o'clock, however, a messenger brought him a letter. He opened it; there were three thousand francs in it, and these words:—
"'When you receive these lines, I shall be far from Homburg. Do not wait for me. Enclosed is enough to enable you to return to Paris. You shall see me again when our fortune is made.
"Maxime was at first overcome with amazement. To be abandoned in this way! To be thus unceremoniously dismissed, and by Sarah! He could not recover from it. But anger soon roused him to fury; and at the same time he was filled with an intense desire to avenge himself. But, in order to avenge himself, he must first know how to find his faithless ally. What had become of her? Where had she gone?
"By dint of meditating, and recollecting all he could gather in his memory, M. de Brevan remembered having seen Sarah two or three times, since fortune had forsaken them, in close conversation with a tall, thin gentleman of about forty years, who was in the habit of wandering through the rooms, and attracted much attention by his huge whiskers, his stiff carriage, and his wearied expression. No doubt Sarah, being ruined, had fallen an easy prey to this gentleman, who looked as if he might be a millionaire.
"Where did he stay? At the Hotel of the Three Kings. Maxime went there at once. Unfortunately, he was too late. The gentleman had left that morning for Frankfort, by the 10.45 train, with an elderly lady, and a remarkably pretty girl.
"Sure of his game now, M. de Brevan left immediately for Frankfort, convinced that Sarah's brilliant beauty would guide him like a star. But he hunted in vain all over town, inquiring at the hotels, and bothering everybody with his questions. He found no trace of the fugitives.
"When he returned to his lodgings that night, he wept.
"Never in his life had he fancied himself half so unhappy. In losing Sarah, he thought he had lost everything. During the five months of their intimacy, she had gained such complete ascendency over him, that now, when he was left to his own strength, he felt like a lost child, having no thought and no resolution.
"What was to become of him, now that this woman was no longer there to sustain and inspire him,—that woman with the marvellous talent for intrigue, the matchless courage that shrank from nothing, and the energy which sufficed for everything? Sarah had, besides, filled his imagination with such magnificent hopes, and opened before his covetous eyes such a vast horizon of enjoyment, that he had come to look upon things as pitiful, which would formerly have satisfied his highest wishes. Should he, after having dreamed of those glorious achievements by which millions are won in a day, sink back again into the meanness of petty thefts? His heart turned from that prospect with unspeakable loathing; and yet what was he to do?
"He knew, that, if he returned to Paris, matters would not be very pleasant for him there. His creditors, made restless by his prolonged absence, would fall upon him instantly. How could he induce them to wait? Where could he get the money to pay them, at least, a percentage of his dues? How would he support himself? Were all of his dark works to be useless? Was he to be shipwrecked before ever seeing even the distant port?
"Nevertheless, he returned to Paris, faced the storm, passed through the crisis, and resumed his miserable life, associating with another adventurer like himself, and succeeding thus, by immensely hard work, in maintaining his existence and his assumed name. Ah! if our honest friends could but know what misery, what humiliations and anxieties are hid beneath that false splendor of high life, which they often envy, they would think themselves fully avenged.
"It is certain that Maxime de Brevan found times hard in those days, and actually more than once regretted that he had not remained a stupid, honest man. He thought that was so simple, and so clever.
"Thus it came about, that, two years later, he had not yet been reconciled to Sarah's absence. Often and often, in his hours of distress, he recalled her parting promise, 'You shall see me again when our fortune is made.' He knew she was quite capable of amassing millions; but, when she had them, would she still think of him? Where was she? What could have become of her?
"Sarah was at that time in America.
"That tall, light-haired gentleman, that eminently respectable lady, who had carried her off, were M. Thomas Elgin and Mrs. Brian. Who were these people? I have had no time to trace out their antecedents. All I know is, that they belonged to that class of adventurers whom one sees at all the watering-places and gambling-resorts,—at Nice, at Monaco, and during the winter in Italy; swindlers of the highest class, who unite consummate skill with excessive caution; who are occasionally suspected, but never found out; and who are frequently indebted to their art of making themselves agreeable, and even useful to others, to the carelessness of travellers, and their thorough knowledge of life, for the acquaintance, or even friendship, of people whom one is astonished to find in such company.
"Sir Thorn and Mrs. Brian were both English, and, so far, they had managed to live very pleasantly. But old age was approaching; and they began to be fearful about the future, when they fell in with Sarah. They divined her, as she had divined Maxime; and they saw in her an admirable means to secure a fortune. They did not hesitate, therefore, to offer her a compact by which she was to be a full partner, although they themselves had to risk all they possessed,—a capital of some twenty thousand dollars. You have seen what these respectable people proposed to make of her,—a snare and a pitfall. They knew very well that her matchless beauty would catch fools innumerable, and bring in a rich harvest of thousand-franc-notes.
"The idea was by no means new, M. Champcey, as you seem to think; nor is the case a rare one.
"In almost all the capitals of Europe, you will find even now some of these almost sublimely beautiful creatures, who are exhibited in the great world by cosmopolitan adventurers. They have six or seven years,—eighteen to twenty-five,—during which, their beauty and their tact may secure an immense fortune to themselves and their comrades; and according to chance, to their skill, or the whims or the folly of men, they end by marrying some great personage in high life, or by keeping a wretched gambling hell in the suburbs. They may fall upon the velvet cushions of a princely carriage, or sink, step by step, to the lowest depths of society.
"M. Elgin and Mrs. Brian had agreed that they would exhibit Sarah in Paris; that she was to marry a duke with any number of millions; and that they should be paid for their trouble by receiving an annual allowance of some ten thousand dollars. But, in order to undertake the adventure with a good chance of success, it was indispensable that Sarah should lose her nationality as a Parisian; that she should rise anew, as an unknown star; and, above all, that she should be trained and schooled for the profession she was to practise.
"Hence the trip to America, and her long residence there.
"Chance had helped the wretches. They had hardly landed, when they found that they could easily introduce the girl as the daughter of Gen. Brandon, just as Justin Chevassat had managed to become Maxime de Brevan. In this way, Ernestine Bergot appeared at once in the best society of Philadelphia as Sarah Brandon. Not less prudent than Maxime, M. Elgin also purchased, in spite of his limited means, for a thousand dollars, vast tracts of land in the western part of the State, where there was no trace of oil-wells, but where there might very well be a good many, and had them entered upon the name of his ward.
"Of all these measures, I have the evidence in hand, and can produce it at any moment."
For some time already, Daniel and Henrietta had looked at each other with utter amazement. They were almost dumfounded by the prodigious sagacity, the cunning, patience, and labor which the old dealer must have employed to collect this vast mass of information. But he continued, after a short pause,—
"Sir Thorn and Mrs. Brian found out in a few days how well they had been served by their instincts in taking hold of Sarah. In less than six months, this wonderful girl, whose education they had undertaken, spoke English as well as they did, and had become their master, controlling them by the very superiority of her wickedness. From the day on which Mrs. Brian explained to her the part she was expected to play, she had assumed it so naturally and so perfectly, that all traces of art disappeared at once. She had instinctively appreciated the immense advantage she would derive from personifying a young American girl, and the irresistible effect she might easily produce by her freedom of movement and her bold ingenuousness. Finally, at the end of eighteen months' residence in America, M. Elgin declared that the moment had come when Sarah might appear on the stage.
"It was, therefore, twenty-eight months after their parting in Homburg, that M. de Brevan received, one morning, the following note:—
"'Come to-night, at nine o'clock, to M. Thomas Elgin's house in Circus Street, and be prepared for a surprise.'
"He went there. A tall man opened the door of the sitting-room; and, at the sight of a young lady who sat before the fire, he could not help exclaiming, 'Ernestine, is that you?'
"But she interrupted him at once, saying, 'You are mistaken: Ernestine Bergot is dead, and buried by the side of Justin Chevassat, my dear M. de Brevan. Come, lay aside that amazed air, and kiss Miss Sarah Brandon's hand.'
"It was heaven opening for Maxime. She had at last come back to him,—this woman, who had come across his life like a tempest, and whose memory he had retained in his heart, as a dagger remains in the wound it has made. She had come back, more beautiful than ever, irresistible in her matchless charms; and he fancied it was love which had brought her back.
"His vanity led him astray. Sarah Brandon had long since ceased to admire him. Familiar as she was with the life of adventurers in high life, she had soon learned to appreciate M. de Brevan at his just value. She saw him now as he really was,—timid, overcautious, petty, incapable of conceiving bold combinations, scarcely good enough for the smallest of plots, ridiculous, in fine, as all needy scamps are.
"Nevertheless, Sarah wanted him, although she despised him. On the point of entering upon a most dangerous game, she felt the necessity of having one accomplice, at least, in whom she could trust blindly. She had, to be sure, Mrs. Brian and Sir Thorn, as he began to be called now; but she mistrusted them. They held her, and she had no hold on them. On the other hand, Maxime de Brevan was entirely hers, dependent on her pleasure, as the lump of clay in the hands of the sculptor.
"It is true that Maxime appeared almost distressed when he heard that that immense fortune which he coveted with all his might was still to be made, and that Sarah was no farther advanced now than she was on the day of their separation. She might even have said that she was less so; for the two years and more which had just elapsed had made a large inroad upon the savings of M. Elgin and Mrs. Brian. When they had paid for their establishment in Circus Street, when they had advanced the hire of a coupe, a landau, and two saddle-horses, they had hardly four thousand dollars left in all.
"They knew, therefore, that they must succeed or sink in the coming year. And, thus driven to bay, they were doubly to be feared. They were determined to fall furiously upon the first victim that should pass within reach, when chance brought to them the unlucky cashier of the Mutual Discount Society, Malgat."
For a few moments the fatigue of the old dealer seemed to have disappeared. He was sitting up straight, with tremulous lips, with flashing eyes, and continued in a strangely strident voice,—
"Fools alone attach no weight to trifling occurrences. And still it is those that appear most insignificant which we ought to fear most, because they alone determine our fate, precisely as an atom of sand dismembers the most powerful engine.
"It was on a fine afternoon in the month of October when Sarah Brandon appeared for the first time before the eyes of Malgat. He was at that time a man of forty, sprung from an old and respectable though modest family, content with his lot in life, and rather simple, as most men are who have always lived far from the intrigues of society. He had one passion, however,—he filled the five rooms of his lodgings with curiosities of every kind, happy for a week to come, if he had discovered a piece of old china, or a curious piece of furniture, which he could purchase cheap. He was not rich, his whole patrimony having been long since spent on his collections; but he had a place that brought him some three thousand dollars; and he was sure of an ample pension in his old age.
"He was honest in the highest sense of the word; his honesty being instinctive, so to say, never reasoning, never hesitating. For fifteen years now, he had been cashier; and hundreds of millions had passed through his hands without arousing in him a shadow of covetousness. He handled the gold in the bags, and the notes in the portfolios, with as much indifference as if they had been pebbles and dry leaves. His employers, besides, felt for him more than ordinary esteem: it was true and devoted friendship. Their confidence in him was so great, that they would have laughed in the face of any one who should have come and told them, 'Malgat is a thief!'
"Such he was, when, that morning, he was standing near his safe, and saw a gentleman come to his window who had just cashed a check drawn by the Central Bank of Philadelphia upon the Mutual Discount Bank. This gentleman, who was M. Elgin, spoke such imperfect French, that Malgat asked him, for convenience sake, to step inside the railing. He came in, and behind him Sarah Brandon.
"How can I describe to you the sensations of the poor cashier as he beheld this amazing beauty! He could hardly stammer out a few incoherent words; and the gentleman and the young lady had long since left, when he was still lost in a kind of idiotic delight. He had been overtaken by one of those overwhelming passions which sometimes felled to the ground the strongest and simplest of men at the age of forty.
"Alas! Sarah had but too keenly noticed the impression she had produced. To be sure, Malgat was very far from that ideal of a millionaire husband of whom these adventurers dreamed; but, after all, he held the keys of a safe in which lay millions. One might always get something out of him wherewith to wait for better things to come. Their plan was soon formed.
"The very next day M. Elgin presented himself alone at the office to ask for some information. He returned three days after with another draft. By the end of the week, he had furnished Malgat with an opportunity to render him some trifling service. Thus relations began to exist between them; and, at the end of a fortnight, Sir Thorn could, with all propriety, ask the cashier to dine with him in Circus Street. A voice from within—one of those presentiments to which we ought always to listen—warned Malgat not to accept the invitation; but he was already no longer his own master.
"He went to dinner in Circus Street, and he left it madly in love.
"He had felt as if Sarah Brandon's eyes had been all the time upon him,—those strange, sublimely beautiful eyes, which upset our very being within us, weakening the most powerful energy, troubling the senses, and leading reason astray—eyes which dazzle, enchant, and bewitch.
"The commonest politeness required that Malgat should call upon Mrs. Brian and M. Elgin. This call was followed by many others. A man less blinded by passion might have become suspicious at the eagerness with which these wretches, driven by necessity, carried on their intrigue. Six weeks after their first meeting, Malgat fancied that Sarah was wildly in love with him. It was absurd, most assuredly; it was foolish, insane. Nevertheless, he believed it. He thought those rapturous glances were genuine; he believed in the truthfulness of that intoxicating sweetness of her voice, and those enchanting blushes, which his coming never failed to call forth.
"Now began the second act of the hideous comedy. Mrs. Brian appeared one day, all of a sudden, to notice something, and promptly requested Malgat never to put foot again within that house. She accused him of an attempt to seduce Sarah Brandon. I dare say, you can imagine, the fool! how he protested, affirming the purity of his intentions, and swearing that he would be the happiest of mortals if they would condescend to grant him the hand of her niece. But Sir Thorn, in the haughtiest tone possible, asked him how he could dare think of such a thing, and presume that he could ever be a fit match for a young lady who had a dower of two hundred thousand dollars.
"Malgat left with tottering steps, despair in his heart, and resolved to kill himself. When he returned home, he actually went to look among his curiosities for an old flint-lock pistol, and began to load it.
"Ah! why did he not kill himself then? He would have carried his deceptive illusions and his unstained honor with him to the grave.
"He was just about to make his will when they brought him a letter from Sarah. She wrote thus:—
"'When a girl like myself loves, she loves for life, and she is his whom she loves, or she is nobody's. If your love is true, if dangers and difficulties terrify you no more than they terrify me, knock to-morrow night, at ten o'clock, at the gate of the court. I will open.'
"Mad with joy and hope, Malgat went to the fatal meeting. Do you know what happened? Sarah fell around his neck, and said,—
"'I love you. Let us run away.'
"Ah! if he had taken her at her word, and answered her, offering her his arm,—
"'Yes, let us flee,' the plot might have been defeated, and he might have been saved; for she would certainly not have gone with him.
"But with that clear perception which was a perfect marvel in her, and looked like the gift of second sight, she had taken the measure of the cashier, and exposed herself to the danger, well-knowing that he would shrink from doing what she asked.