"He did shrink, the idiot! he was afraid. He said to himself that it would be a mean thing to abuse the attachment of this pure and trustful girl, to separate her from her family, and to ruin her forever.
"He did have this wonderful power of self-denial to dissuade her from taking such a step, and to induce her to be patient, giving time an opportunity of coming to their assistance, while he would do all he could to overcome the obstacles in the way.
"For hours after he had left Sarah Brandon, Malgat had not recovered from the excitement; and he would have thought the whole a dream, but for the penetrating perfume which his clothes still retained where she had rested her beautiful head. But, when he at last began to examine his position, he came to the conclusion that he had indulged in childish illusions, and that he could never hope to satisfy the demands made by M. Elgin and Mrs. Brian. There was but one way, a single way, by which he could ever hope to obtain possession of this woman whom he worshipped; and that was the one she had herself proposed,—an abduction. To determine upon such a step, however, was for Malgat to end his peaceful life forever, to lose his place, to abandon the past, and to venture upon an unknown future. But how could he reason at a moment when his whole mind was filled with thoughts of the most amazing happiness that ever was enjoyed by mortal being?
"Whenever he thought of flight, there arose before him one obstacle which he could not overcome. He had no money. How could he expose this rich heiress, who left all for his sake, this beautiful girl, who was accustomed to every imaginable luxury, to want and humiliation? No; that he could never dare. And yet his whole available capital did not amount to three thousand dollars. His fortune was invested in those curiosities that were piled up all over his rooms,—beautiful objects to his eyes in former days, but now hateful, and annoying to behold. He knew they represented a large sum, quite a respectable fortune; but such collections cannot be sold overnight; and time was pressing.
"He had seen Sarah several times secretly; and each time she had appeared to him more mournful and dejected. She could bring him nothing but most distressing news. Mrs. Brian spoke of giving her in marriage to a friend of hers. M. Elgin proposed to take her abroad. And, with such troubles filling his head, the poor cashier had to attend to his daily duties, and from morning till night receive tens and hundreds of thousands; and never yet, I swear it, the thought occurred to him of taking a small fraction of these treasures.
"He had determined to sell all his collections as a whole, at any price he could get, when one day, a few moments before the office closed, a lady appeared, whose ample dress concealed her figure, while a thick veil completely shrouded her features.
"This lady raised her veil. It was she. It was Sarah Brandon.
"Malgat begged her to enter. He was overcome. What new misfortune had happened to induce her to take such a step? She told him in a few words.
"Sir Thorn had found out their secret meetings: he had told her to be ready to start for Philadelphia the next morning.
"The crisis had come. They must choose now between two things,—either to flee that very day, or be separated forever.
"Ah! never had Sarah been so beautiful as at this moment, when she seemed to be maddened by grief; never had her whole personal beauty exhaled such powerful, such irresistible charms. Her breath went and came, causing her almost to sob at every respiration; and big tears, like scattered beads from a chaplet of pearls, rolled down her pale cheeks.
"Malgat stood a moment before her, stunned by the blow; and the imminence of the danger extorted from him a confession of the reasons that had made him hesitate so long. He told her, cruelly humiliated by the avowal, that he had no money.
"But she rose when she heard it, as if she had been stung by an insult, and repeated with crushing irony,—
"'No money? No money?'
"And when Malgat, more heartily ashamed of his poverty than he could have been of a crime, blushed to the roots of his hair, she pointed at the immense safe, which overflowed with gold and bank-notes, and said,—
"'And what is all that?'
"Malgat jumped up, and stood before the safe, his arms far outstretched, as if to defend it, and said in an accent of ineffable terror,—
"'What are you thinking of? And my honor?'
"This was to be his last effort to preserve his honor. Sarah looked him straight in the face, and said slowly,—
"'And my honor! My honor is nothing to you? Do I not give myself? Do you mean to drive a bargain?'
"Great God! She said this with an accent and with a look which would have tempted an angel. Malgat fell helpless into a chair.
"Then she came close up to him, and, casting upon him those burning glances which blazed with superhuman audacity, she sighed,—
"'If you loved me really! Ah, if you really loved me!'
"And she bent over him, tremulous with passion, watching his features so closely, that their lips nearly touched.
"'If you loved me as I love you,' she whispered again.
"It was all over; Malgat was lost. He drew Sarah towards him, and said, kissing her,—
"'Very well then. Yes!'
"She immediately disengaged herself, and with eager hands seized one parcel of bank-notes after another, pushing them into a little morocco bag which she held in her hand. And, when the bag was full, she said,—
"'Now we are safe. To-night at ten o'clock, at the gate of the court- yard, with a carriage. To-morrow, at daybreak, we shall be out of France, and free. Now we are bound to each other forever,—and I love you!'
"And she went away. And he let her go away."
The old gentleman had become ghastly white, his few hairs seemed to stand on end, and large drops of perspiration inundated his face as he swallowed at a gulp a cup of tea, and then went on, laughing bitterly,—
"You suppose, no doubt, that, when Sarah had left him, Malgat came to himself? By no means. It seemed as if, with that kiss, with which she had paid him for his crime, the infamous creature had inspired him with the same genius for evil that was in her.
"Far from repenting, he rejoiced at what had been done; and when he learned, that, on the following day, the board of directors were to meet to examine the books, he laughed at the faces they would make; for I told you he was mad. With all the coolness of a hardened thief, he calculated the total amount of what had been abstracted: it was four hundred thousand francs. Immediately, in order to conceal the true state of things, he took his books, and, with almost diabolic skill, altered the figures, and changed the entries, so as to make it appear that the defalcation was of long date, and that various sums had been abstracted for several months. When he had finished his fearful task, he wrote to the board a hypocritical letter, in which he stated that he had robbed the safe in order to pay his differences on 'Change, and that now, when he could no longer conceal his crime, he was going to commit suicide. When this was done, he left his office, as if nothing had happened.
"The proof that he acted under the incomprehensible influence of a kind of hallucination is this, that he felt neither remorse nor fear. As he was resolved not to return to his house, nor to encumber himself with luggage, he dined at a restaurant, spent a few minutes at a theatre, and then posted his letter to the board of directors, so that it might reach them early in the morning.
"At ten o'clock he knocked at the gate of the house in Circus Street. A servant came and opened, saying in a mysterious manner,—
"'Please go up. The young lady is waiting.'
"A terrible presentiment seized him at that moment, and chilled him to the marrow in his bones. In the parlor Sarah was sitting on a sofa, and Maxime de Brevan by her side. They were laughing so loud, that he heard them in the anteroom. When Malgat entered, she raised her head with a dissatisfied air, and said rudely,—
"'Ah! It is you. What do you want now?'
"Surely, such a reception ought to have disabused the unfortunate man. But no! When he began to stammer some explanations, she interrupted him, saying,—
"'Let us speak frankly. You come to run away with me, don't you? Well, that is simply nonsense. Look at yourself, my good friend, and tell me if a girl such as I am can be in love with a man like you. As to that small loan, it does not pay me, I assure you, by half, for the sublime little comedy which I have had to play. Believe me, at all events, when I tell you that I have taken all my precautions so as not to be troubled by anything you may say or do. And now, sir, I wish you good-evening; or must I go?'
"Ah! she might have spoken a long time yet, and Malgat would not have thought of interrupting her. The fearful truth broke all of a sudden upon him; and he felt as if the whole world were going to pieces. He understood the enormity of the crime; he discerned the fatal consequences, and knew he was ruined. A thousand voices arose from his conscience, telling him, 'You are a thief! You are a forger! You are dishonored!'
"But, when he saw Sarah Brandon get up to leave the room, he was seized with an attack of furious rage, and threw himself upon her, crying,—
"'Yes, I am lost; but you shall die, Sarah Brandon!'
"Poor fool! who did not know that these wretches had, of course, foreseen his wrath, and prepared for the emergency. Supple, like one of those lost children of the gutter among whom she had lived once upon a time, Sarah Brandon escaped from Malgat's grasp, and by a clever trick threw him upon an arm-chair. Before he could rise again, he was held fast by Maxime de Brevan, and by M. Elgin, who had heard the noise, and rushed in from the adjoining room.
"The poor man did not attempt to resist. Why should he? Within him, moreover, a faint hope began to rise. It seemed to him impossible that such a monstrous wrong could be carried out, and that he would have only to proclaim the wickedness of these wretches to have them in his power.
"'Let me go!' he said. 'I must go!'
"But they did not allow him to go as yet. They guessed what was going on in his mind. Sir Thorn asked him coolly,—
"'Where do you think of going? Do you mean to denounce us? Have a care! You would only sacrifice yourself, without doing us any harm. If you think you can use Sarah's letter, in which she appoints a meeting, as a weapon against us, you are mistaken. She did not write that letter; and, moreover, she can prove an alibi. You see we have prepared everything for this business during the last three months; and nothing has been left to chance. Do not forget that I have commissioned you twenty times to buy or sell for me on 'Change, and that it was always done in your name, at my request. How can you say you did not speculate on 'Change?'
"The poor cashier's heart sank within him. Had he not himself, for fear lest a suspicion should fall upon Sarah Brandon, told the board of directors in his letter that he had been tempted by unlucky speculations? Had he not altered the entries in the books in order to prove this assertion? Would they believe him if he were to tell the truth? Whom could he ever hope to persuade that what was probable was false, and that the improbable was true? Sir Thorn continued with his horrid sneers,—
"'Have you forgotten the letters which you wrote me for the purpose of borrowing money from me, and in which you confess your defalcations? Here they are. You can read them.'
"These letters, M. Champcey, are those which Sarah showed you; and Malgat was frightened out of his senses. He had never written such letters; and yet there was his handwriting, imitated with such amazing perfection, that he began to doubt his own senses and his own reason. He only saw clearly that no one would look upon them as forgeries.
"Ah! Maxime de Brevan is an artist. His letter to the navy department has, no doubt, proved it to you.
"Seeing Malgat thus stupefied, Sarah took the word, and said,—
"'Look here, my dear; I'll give you some advice. Here are ten thousand francs: take them, and run for your life. It is time yet to take the train for Brussels.'
"But he rose, and said,—
"'No! There is nothing left for me but to die. May my blood come upon you!'
"And he rushed out, pursued by the insulting laugh of the wretches."
Amazed at the inconceivable boldness of this atrocious plot, Daniel and Henrietta were shuddering with horror. As to Mrs. Bertolle, she had sunk into a chair, trembling in all her limbs. The old gentleman, however, continued with evident haste,—
"Whether Malgat did, or did not, commit suicide, he was never heard of again. The trial came on, and he was condemned in contumaciam to ten years' penal servitude. Sarah, also, was examined by a magistrate; but she made it a success.
"And that was all. And this crime, one of the most atrocious ever conceived by human wickedness, went to swell the long list of unpunished outrages. The robbers triumphed impudently in broad daylight. They had four hundred thousand francs. They could retire from business.
"No, indeed! Twenty thousand francs a year was far too little for their immoderate desires! They accepted this fortune as an installment on account on the future, and used it to wait patiently for new victims to be stripped.
"Unfortunately, such victims would not show themselves. The house was mounted upon a most expensive footing. M. de Brevan had, of course, claimed his share; Sir Thorn was a gambler; Sarah loved diamonds; and grim Mrs. Brian had her own vices. In short, the hour came when danger was approaching; but, just at that moment, Sarah, looking around, met with the unlucky victim she needed.
"This one was a handsome young man, almost a child yet, kind, generous, and chivalrous. He was an orphan, and came up from his province, his heart full of illusions, and in his pockets his entire fortune,—a sum of five hundred thousand francs. His name was Charles de Kergrist.
"Maxime managed to bring him to the house in Circus Street. He saw Sarah, and was dazzled. He loved her, and was lost.
"Ah! The poor fellow did not last long. At the end of five months, his half million was in the hands of Sarah. And, when he had not a cent left, she well-nigh forced him to write her three forged drafts, swearing, that, on the day on which they became due, she would take them up herself. But when the day came, and he called in Circus Street, he was received as Malgat had been received. They told him that the forgery had been discovered: that suit had been brought; that he was ruined. They offered him, also, money to flee.
"Poor Kergrist! They had not miscalculated. Descended from a family in which a keen sense of honor had been hereditary for many generations, he did not hesitate. As soon as he left the house, he hanged himself on Sarah's window, thinking that he would thus hold up to public censure the infamous creature who had led him to commit a crime.
"Poor child! They had deceived him. He was not ruined. The forgery had never been discovered; the drafts had never been used at all. A careful investigation revealed nothing against Sarah Brandon; but the scandals of the suicide diminished her prestige. She felt it; and, giving up her dreams of greatness, she thought of marrying a fool who was immensely wealthy, M. Wilkie Gordon, when Sir Thorn spoke to her of Count Ville-Handry.
"In fortune, name, and age, the count was exactly what Sarah had dreamed of so often. She threw herself upon him.
"How the old gentleman was drawn to Circus Street; how he was surrounded, insnared, intoxicated, and finally made a husband—all that you know but too well, M. Champcey. But what you do not know is the fact that this marriage brought discord into the camp. M. de Brevan would not hear of it; and it was the hope he had of breaking it up, which made him speak to you so frankly of Sarah Brandon. When you went to ask his advice, he was on bad terms with her: she had turned him off, and refused to pay him any money. And he was so mortally offended, that he would have betrayed her to the courts even, if he had known how to do it without inculpating himself.
"You were the very person to reconcile them again, inasmuch as you gave Maxime an opportunity of rendering Sarah Brandon a great service.
"He did not then anticipate that she would ever fall in love with you, and that she, in her turn, would have to succumb to one of those desperate passions which she had so often kindled in others, and used for her own advantage. This discovery made him furious; and Sarah's love, and Maxime's rage, will explain to you the double plot by which you were victimized. Sarah, who loved you, wanted to get rid of Henrietta, who was your betrothed: Maxime, stung by jealousy, wanted you to die."
Visibly overcome by fatigue, Papa Ravinet fell back in his chair, and remained silent for more than five minutes. Then he seemed to make one more effort, and went on,—
"Now, let us sum up the whole. I know how Sarah, Sir Thorn, and Mrs. Brian have gone to work to rob Count Ville-Handry, and to ruin him. I know what they have done with the millions which they report were lost in speculations; and I have the evidence in my hand. Therefore, I can ruin them, without reference to their other crimes. Crochard's affidavit alone suffices to ruin M. de Brevan. The two Chevassats, husband and wife, have caught themselves by keeping the four thousand francs you sent to Miss Henrietta. We have them safe, the wretches! The hour of vengeance has come at last."
Henrietta did not let him conclude: she interrupted him, saying,—
"And my father, sir, my father?"
"M. Champcey will save him, madam."
Daniel had risen, deeply moved, and now asked,—
"What am I to do?"
"You must call on the Countess Sarah, and look as if you had forgotten all that has happened,—as far as she is concerned, Miss Henrietta."
The young officer blushed all over, and stammered painfully,—
"Ah, I cannot play that part! I would not be able."
But Henrietta stopped him. Laying her hand on his shoulder, and looking deep into the eyes of her betrothed, as if to search the very depths of his conscience, she said,—
"Have you reasons for hesitating?"
He hung his head, and said,—
"I shall go."
It struck two when Daniel jumped out of a carriage before No. 79 in Peletier Street, where the offices of the Pennsylvania Petroleum Company were now, and where Count Ville-Handry lived at present.
Never in his life had he felt so embarrassed, or so dissatisfied with himself. In vain had Papa Ravinet and Mrs. Bertolle brought up all possible arguments to convince him, that, with a woman like Sarah Brandon, all reprisals were fair; he would not be convinced.
Unfortunately, he could not refuse to go without risking the peace of his Henrietta, her confidence, and her whole happiness; so he went as bravely as he could.
A clerk whom he asked told him that the president was in his rooms,—in the third story on the left. He went up. The maid who came to open the door recognized him. It was the same Clarissa who had betrayed him. When he asked for the count she invited him in. She took him through an anteroom, dark, and fragrant with odors from the kitchen; and then, opening a door, she said;—
"Please walk in!"
Before an immense table, covered with papers, sat Count Ville-Handry. He had grown sadly old. His lower lip hung down, giving him a painful expression of weakness of mind; and his watery eyes looked almost senile. Still his efforts to look young had not been abandoned. He was rouged and dyed as carefully as ever. When he recognized Daniel, he pushed back his papers; and offering him his hand, as if they had parted the day before, he said,—
"Ah, here you are back again among us! Upon my word, I am very glad to see you! We know what you have been doing out there; for my wife sent me again and again to the navy department to see if there were any news of you. And you have become an officer of the Legion of Honor! You ought to be pleased."
"Fortune has favored, me, count."
"Alas! I am sorry I cannot say as much for myself," replied the latter with a sigh.
"You must be surprised," he continued, "to find me living in such a dog's kennel, I who formerly—But so it goes. 'The ups and downs of speculations,' says Sir Thorn. Look here, my dear Daniel, let me give you a piece of advice: never speculate in industrial enterprises! Nowadays it is mere gambling, furious gambling; and everybody cheats. If you stake a dollar, you are in for everything. That is my story, and I thought I would enrich my country by a new source of revenue. From the first day on which I emitted shares, speculators have gotten hold of them, and have crushed me, till my whole fortune has been spent in useless efforts to keep them up. And yet Sir Thorn says I have fought as bravely on this slippery ground as my ancestors did in the lists."
Every now and then the poor old man passed his hand over his face as if trying to drive away painful thoughts; and then he went on in a different tone of voice,—
"And yet I am far from complaining. My misfortunes have been the source of the purest and highest happiness for me. It is to them I owe the knowledge of the boundless devotion of a beloved wife; they have taught me how dearly Sarah loves me. I alone can tell what treasures are hid in that angelic heart, which they dared to calumniate. Ah! I think I can hear her now, when I told her one evening how embarrassed I had become in my finances.
"'To have concealed that from me!' she exclaimed,—'from me, your wife: that was wrong!' And the very next day she showed her sublime courage. She sold her diamonds to bring me the proceeds, and gave up to me her whole fortune. And, since we are living here, she goes out on foot, like a simple citizen's wife; and more than once I have caught her preparing our modest meals with her own hands."
Tears were flowing down the furrowed cheeks, leaving ghastly lines on the rouged and whitened surface.
"And I," he resumed in an accent of deepest despair,—"I could not reward her for such love and so many sacrifices. How did I compensate her for being my only consolation, my joy, my sole happiness in life! I ruined her; I impoverished her! If I were to die to-morrow, she would be penniless."
"Ah, count," he exclaimed, "don't speak of dying! People like you live a hundred years."
But the old man lowered his voice, and said,—
"You see, I have not told you all yet. But you are my friend; and I know I can open my heart to you. I did not have the—the—cleverness to overcome all the restrictions which hamper this kind of business. I was imprudent, in spite of all Sir Thorn's warnings. To-morrow there will be a meeting of the stockholders; and, if they do not grant me what I shall have to ask of them, I may be in trouble. And, when a man calls himself Count Ville-Handry, rather than appear in a police-court—you know what I mean!"
He was interrupted by one of the clerks, who brought him a letter. He read it, and said,—
"Tell them I am coming."
Then, turning again to Daniel, he added,—
"I must leave you; but the countess is at home, and she would never forgive me if I did not take you in to present your respects to her. Come! But be careful and don't say a word of my troubles. It would kill her."
And, before Daniel could recover from his bewilderment, the count had opened a door, and pushed him into the room, saying,—
"Sarah, M. Champcey."
Sarah started up as if she had received an electric shock. Her husband had left them; but, even if he had been still in the room, she would probably not have been any more able to control herself.
"You!" she cried, "Daniel, my Daniel!"
And turning to Mrs. Brian, who was sitting by the window, she said,—
"Your conduct is perfectly shocking, Sarah!" began the grim lady. But Sarah, as harshly as if she had been speaking to a servant, cut her short, saying,—
"You are in the way, and I beg you will leave the room."
Mrs. Brian did so without saying a word; and the countess sank into an arm-chair, as if overcome by a sudden good fortune which she was not able to endure, looking intensely at Daniel, who stood in the centre of the room like a statue.
She had on a simple black merino dress; she wore no jewelry; but her marvellous, fatal beauty seemed to be all the more dazzling. The years had passed over her without leaving any more traces on her than the spring breeze leaves on a half-opened rose. Her hair still shone with its golden flashes; her rosy lips smiled sweetly; and her velvet eyes caressed you still, till hot fire seemed to run in your veins.
Once before Daniel had been thus alone with her; and, as the sensations he then felt rose in his mind, he began to tremble violently. Then, thinking of his purpose in coming here, and the treacherous part he was about to act, he felt a desire to escape.
It was she who broke the charm. She began, saying,—
"You know, I presume, the misfortunes that have befallen us. Your betrothed, Henrietta? Has the count told you?"
Daniel had taken a chair. He replied,—
"The count has said nothing about his daughter."
"Well, then, my saddest presentiments have been fulfilled. Unhappy girl! I did what I could to keep her in the right way. But she fell, step by step, and finally so low, that one day, when a ray of sense fell upon her mind, she went and killed herself."
It was done. Sarah had overcome the last hesitation which Daniel still felt. Now he was in the right temper to meet cunning with cunning. He answered in an admirably-feigned tone of indifference,—
Then, encouraged by the joyous surprise he read in Sarah's face, he went on,—
"This expedition has cost me dear. Count Ville-Handry has just informed me that he has lost his whole fortune. I am in the same category."
"What! You are"—
"Ruined. Yes; that is to say, I have been robbed,—robbed of every cent I ever had. On the eve of my departure, I intrusted a hundred thousand dollars, all I ever possessed, to M. de Brevan, with orders to hold it at Miss Henrietta's disposal. He found it easier to appropriate the whole to himself. So, you see, I am reduced to my pittance of pay as a lieutenant. That is not much."
Sarah looked at Daniel with perfect amazement. In any other man, this prodigious confidence in a friend would have appeared to her the extreme of human folly; in Daniel, she thought it was sublime.
"Is that the reason why they have arrested M. de Brevan?" she asked.
Daniel had not heard of his arrest.
"What!" he said. "Maxime"—
"Was arrested last night, and is kept in close confinement."
However well prepared Daniel was by Papa Ravinet's account, he could never have hoped to manage the conversation as well as chance did. He replied,—
"It cannot be for having robbed me. M. de Brevan must have been arrested for having attempted to murder me."
The lioness who has just been robbed of her whelps does not rise with greater fury in her eyes than Sarah did when she heard these words.
"What!" she cried aloud. "He has dared touch you!"
"Not personally; oh, no! But he hired for the base purpose a wretched felon, who was caught, and has confessed everything. I see that the order to apprehend my friend Maxime must have reached here before me, although it left Saigon some time later than I did."
Might not M. de Brevan be as cowardly as Crochard when he saw that all was lost? This idea, one would think, would have made Sarah tremble. But it never occurred to her.
"Ah, the wretch!" she repeated. "The scoundrel, the rascal!"
And, sitting down by Daniel, she asked him to tell her all the details of these attempted assassinations, from which he had escaped only by a miracle.
The Countess Sarah, in fact, never doubted for a moment but that Daniel was as madly in love with her as Planix, as Malgat, and Kergrist, and all the others, had been, she had become so accustomed to find her beauty irresistible and all powerful. How could it ever have occurred to her, that this man, the very first whom she loved sincerely, should also be the first and the only one to escape from her snares? She was taken in, besides, by the double mirage of love and of absence.
During the last two years she had so often evoked the image of Daniel, she had so constantly lived with him in her thoughts, that she mistook the illusion of her desires for the reality, and was no longer able to distinguish between the phantom of her dreams and the real person.
In the meantime he entertained her by describing to her his actual position, lamenting over the treachery by which he had been ruined, and adding how hard he would find it at thirty to begin the world anew.
And she, generally, so clearsighted, was not surprised to find that this man, who had been disinterestedness itself, should all of a sudden deplore his losses so bitterly, and value money so highly.
"Why do you not marry a rich woman?" she suddenly asked him.
He replied with a perfection of affected candor which he would not have suspected to be in his power the day before,—
"What? Do you—you, Sarah—give me such advice?"
He said it so naturally, and with such an air of aggrieved surprise, that she was delighted and carried away by it, as if he had made her the most passionate avowal.
"You love me? Do you really, really love me?"
The sound of a key turning in the door interrupted them.
And in an undertone, speaking passionately, she said,—
"Go now! You shall know by to-morrow who she is whom I have chosen for you. Come and breakfast with us at eleven o'clock. Go now."
And, kissing him on his lips till they burnt with unholy fire, she pushed him out of the room.
The poor man staggered like a drunken man, as he went down the stairs.
"I am playing an abominable game," he said to himself. "She does love me! What a woman!"
It required nothing less to rouse him from his stupor than the sight of Papa Ravinet, who was waiting for him below, hid in a corner of his carriage.
"Is it you?" he said.
"Yes, myself. And it seems it was well I came. But for me, the count would have kept you; but I came to your rescue by sending him up a letter. Now, tell me all."
Daniel reported to him briefly, while they were driving along, his conversation with the count and with Sarah. When he had concluded, the old dealer exclaimed,—
"We have the whole matter in our hands now. But there is not a minute to lose. Do you go back to the hotel, and wait for me there. I must go to the court."
At the hotel Daniel found Henrietta dying with anxiety. Still she only asked after her father. Was it pride, or was it prudence? She did not mention Sarah's name. They had, however, not much time for conversation. Papa Ravinet came back sooner than they expected, all busy and excited. He drew Daniel aside to give him his last directions, and did not leave him till midnight, when he went away, saying,—
"The ground is burning under our feet; be punctual to-morrow."
At the precise hour Daniel presented himself in Peletier Street, where the count received him with a delighted air.
"Ah!" he exclaimed, "you come just in time. Brian is away; Sir Thorn is out on business; and I shall have to leave you directly after breakfast. You must keep the countess company. Come, Sarah, let us have breakfast."
It was an ill-omened breakfast.
Under the thick layers of rouge, the count showed his livid pallor; and every moment nervous tremblings shook him from head to foot. The countess affected childish happiness; but her sharp and sudden movements betrayed the storm that was raging in her heart. Daniel noticed that she incessantly filled the count's glass,—a strong wine it was too,—and that, in order to make him take more, she drank herself an unusual quantity.
It struck twelve, and Count Ville-Handry got up.
"Well," he said with the air and the voice of a man who braces himself to mount the scaffold, "it must be done; they are waiting for me."
And, after having kissed his wife with passionate tenderness, he shook hands with Daniel, and went out hurriedly.
Crimson and breathless, Sarah also had risen, and was listening attentively. And, when she was quite sure that the count had gone downstairs, she said,—
"Now, Daniel, look at me! Need I tell you who the woman is whom I have chosen for you? It is—the Countess Ville-Handry."
He shook and trembled; but he controlled himself by a supreme effort, and calmly smiling, in a half tender, half ironical tone, he replied,—
"Why, oh, why! do you speak to me of unattainable happiness? Are you not married?"
"I may be a widow."
These words from her lips had a fearful meaning. But Daniel was prepared for them, and said,—
"To be sure you may. But, unfortunately, you, also, are ruined. You are as poor as I am; and we are too clever to think of joining poverty to poverty."
She looked at him with a strange, sinister smile. She was evidently hesitating. A last ray of reason lighted up the abyss at her feet. But she was drunk with pride and passion; she had taken a good deal of wine; and her usually cool head was in a state of delirium.
"And if I were not ruined?" she said at last in a hoarse voice; "what would you say then?"
"I should say that you are the very woman of whom an ambitious man of thirty might dream in his most glorious visions."
She believed him. Yes, she was capable of believing that what he said was true; and, throwing aside all restraint, she went on,—
"Well, then, I will tell you. I am rich,—immensely rich. That entire fortune which once belonged to Count Ville-Handry, and which he thinks has been lost in unlucky speculations,—the whole of it is in my hands. Ah! I have suffered horribly, to have to play for two long years the loving wife to this decrepit old man. But I thought of you, my much beloved, my Daniel; and that thought sustained me. I knew you would come back; and I wanted to have royal treasures to give you. And I have them. These much coveted millions are mine, and you are here; and now I can say to you, 'Take them, they are yours; I give them to you as I give myself to you.'"
She had drawn herself up to her full height as she said this; and she looked splendid and fearful at the same time, in her matchless beauty, diffusing energy and immodesty around her, and shaking her head defiantly, till the waves of golden hair flowed over her shoulders.
The untamed vagabond of the gutter reappeared all of a sudden, breathless and trembling, hoarse, lusting.
Daniel felt as if his reason was giving way. Still he had the strength to say,—
"But unfortunately you are not a widow."
She drew close up to him, and said in a strident voice,—
"Not a widow? Do you know what Count Ville-Handry is doing at this moment? He is beseeching his stockholders to relieve him from the effects of his mismanagement. If they refuse him, he will be brought up in court, and tried as a defaulter. Well, I tell you! they will refuse him; for among the largest stockholders there are three who belong to me: I have bribed them to refuse. What do you think the count will do when he finds himself dishonored and disgraced? I will tell you again; for I have seen him write his will, and load his revolver."
But the door of the outer room was opened. She turned as pale as death itself, and, seizing Daniel's arm violently, she whispered,—
Heavy steps were heard in the adjoining room, then—nothing more!
"It is he!" she whispered again. "Our fate is hanging in the scales"—
A shot was heard, which made the window-panes rattle, and cut her short. She was seized with spasms from head to foot, but, making a great effort, she cried out,—
"Free at last, Daniel; we are free!"
And, rushing to the door, she opened it.
She opened it, but instantly shut it again violently, and uttered a terrible cry.
On the threshold stood Count Ville-Handry, his features terribly distorted, a smoking revolver in his hand.
"No," he said, "Sarah, no, you are not free!"
Livid, and with eyeballs starting from their sockets, the wretched woman had shrunk back to a door which opened from the dining-room directly into her chamber.
She was not despairing yet.
It was evident she was looking for one of those almost incredible excuses which are sometimes accepted by credulous old men when violent passions seize them in their dotage.
She abandoned the thought, however, when the count stepped forward, and thus allowed Papa Ravinet to be seen behind him.
"Malgat!" she cried,—"Malgat!"
She held out her hands before her as if to push aside a spectre that had suddenly risen from the grave, and was now opening its arms to seize her, and carry her off.
In the meantime Malgat came forward, with Henrietta leaning on Mrs. Bertolle's arm.
"She also," muttered Sarah,—"she too!"
The terrible truth broke at last upon her mind: she saw the snare in which she had been caught, and felt that she was lost. Then turning to Daniel, she said to him,—
"Poor man! Who has made you do this? It was not in your loyal heart to plan such treachery against a woman. Are you mad? And do you not see, that for the privilege of being loved by me as I love you, and were it but for a day, Malgat would again rob his employers, and the count would again give all his millions, and his honor itself?"
She said this; but at the same time she had slipped one of her hands behind her back, and was feeling for the knob of the door. She got hold of it, and instantly disappeared, before any one could have prevented her escape.
"Never mind!" said Malgat. "All the outer doors are guarded."
But she had not meant to escape. There she was again, pale and cold like marble. She looked defiantly all around her, and said in a mocking tone of voice,—
"I have loved; and now I can die. That is just. I have loved. Ah! Planix, Malgat, and Kergrist ought to have taught me what becomes of people who really love."
Then looking at Daniel, she went on,—
"And you—you will know what you have lost when I am no more. I may die; but the memory of my love will never die: it will rankle ever in you like a wound which opens daily afresh, and becomes constantly sorer. You triumph now, Henrietta; but remember, that between your lips and Daniel's there will forever rise the shadow of Sarah Brandon."
As she said the last words, she raised a small phial, which she held in her hand, with an indescribably swift movement to her lips: she drank the contents, and, sinking into a chair, said,—
"Now I defy you all!"
"Ah, she escapes after all!" exclaimed Malgat, "she escapes from justice!" He rushed forward to assist her; but Daniel stepped between, and said,—
"Let her die."
Already horrible convulsions began to seize her; and the penetrating smell of bitter almonds, which slowly filled the whole room, told but too plainly that the poison which she had taken was one of those from which there is no rescue.
She was carried to her bed; and in less than ten minutes she was dead: she had never uttered another word.
Henrietta and Mrs. Bertolle were kneeling by the side of the bed, and the count was sobbing in a corner of the room, when a police-sergeant entered.
"The woman Brian is not to be found," he said; "but M. Elgin has been arrested. Where is the Countess Ville-Handry?"
Daniel pointed at the body.
"Dead?" said the officer. "Then I have nothing more to do here."
He was going out, when Malgat stopped him.
"I beg your pardon, sir," he said. "I wish to state that I am not Ravinet, dealer in curiosities; but that my true name is Malgat, formerly cashier of the Mutual Discount Society, sentenced in contumaciam to ten years' penal servitude. I am ready to be tried, and place myself in your hands."
The magistrate from Saigon saw his hopes fulfilled, and, thanks to his promotion, was commissioned to continue the trial which he had so ably commenced. After the jury had brought in their verdict of guilty, he sentenced Justin Chevassat, alias Maxime de Brevan, to penal servitude for life.
Crochard, surnamed Bagnolet, got off with twenty years; and the two Chevassats escaped with ten years' solitary confinement.
The trial of Thomas Elgin, which came on during the same term, revealed a system of swindling which was so strikingly bold and daring, that it appeared at first sight almost incredible. It excited especial surprise when it was found out that he had issued false shares, which he made Count Ville-Handry buy in, so as to ruin, by the same process, the count as an individual, and the company over which he presided. He was sent for twenty years to the penitentiary.
These scandalous proceedings had one good result. They saved the poor count; but they revealed, at the same time, such prodigious unfitness for business, that people began to suspect how dependent he must have been on his first wife, Henrietta's mother. He remained, however, relatively poor. They had made Thomas Elgin refund, and had even obtained possession of Sarah Brandon's fortune; but the count was called upon to make amends for his want of business capacity. When he had satisfied all his creditors, and handed over to his daughter a part of her maternal inheritance, he had hardly more than six thousand dollars a year left.
Of the whole "band," Mrs. Brian alone escaped.
Malgat, having surrendered to justice with the prescribed limits of time to purge himself, was tried, and the whole process begun anew. But the trial was naturally a mere form. His own lawyer had very little to say. The state attorney himself made his defense. After having fully explained the circumstances which had led the poor cashier to permit a crime, rather than to commit it himself, the attorney said to the jury,—
"Now, gentlemen, that you have learned what was the wrong of which he is guilty, you ought also to know how he has expiated his crime.
"When he left the miserable woman who had ruined him, maddened by grief, and determined to end his life, Malgat went home. There he found his sister.
"She was one of those women who have religiously preserved the domestic virtues of our forefathers, and who know of no compromise in questions of honor.
"She had soon forced her brother to confess his fatal secret, and, overcoming the horror she naturally felt, she found words, inspired by her excellent heart, which moved him, and led him to reconsider his resolve. She told him that suicide was but an additional crime, and that he was in honor bound to live, so that he might make amends, and restore the money he had stolen."
"Hope began to rise once more in his heart, and filled him with unexpected energy. And yet what obstacles he had to encounter! How could he ever hope to return four hundred thousand francs. How should he go about to earn so much money? and where? How could he do anything, now that he was compelled to live in concealment?
"Do you know, gentlemen, what this sister did in her almost sublime devotion? She had a moderate income from state bonds; she sold them all, and carried the proceeds to the president of the Mutual Discount Society, begging him to be patient as to the remainder, and promising that he should be repaid, capital and interest alike. She asked for nothing but secrecy; and he pledged himself to secrecy.
"And from that day, gentlemen of the jury, the brother and the sister have lived like the poorest laborers, working incessantly, and denying themselves everything but what was indispensable for life itself.
"And this day, gentlemen, Malgat owes nothing to the society; he has paid everything. He fell once; but he has risen again. And this place in court, where he now sits as a prisoner, will become to him a place of honor, in which he will recover his position in society, and his honor."
Malgat was acquitted.
The marriage of Henrietta, Countess Ville-Handry, and Lieut. Daniel Champcey, was celebrated at the Church of St. Clothilda. Daniel's groomsmen were Malgat and the old chief surgeon of the frigate "Conquest." Several persons noticed that the bride wore, contrary to usage, a dress of embroidered muslin. It was the robe which Henrietta had so often covered with her tears, at the time when, having no bread for the morrow, she had tried to live by the work of her hands. Malgat had hunted it up, and bought it: the precious dress was his wedding- gift.