Such a charge would have been but too well founded. Henrietta was left more completely to herself than the daughter of a workman, whose business keeps him from home all day long. The workman, however, takes his child out, at least on Sundays.
"I am never weary, papa," replied Henrietta.
"Really? Why, how do you occupy yourself?"
"Oh! in the first place I attend to the housekeeping, and try my best to make home pleasant to you. Then I embroider, I sew, I study. In the afternoon my music-teacher comes, and my English master. At night I read."
The count smiled; but it was a forced smile.
"Never mind!" he broke in; "such a lonely life cannot go on. A girl of your age stands in need of some one to advise her, to pet her,—an affectionate and devoted friend. That is why I have been thinking of giving you another mother."
Henrietta drew back her arm, which she had wound round her father's neck; and, rising suddenly, she said,—
"You think of marrying again?"
He turned his head aside, hesitated moment, and then replied,—
At first the poor girl could not utter a word, so great were her stupor, her indignation, her bitter grief; then she made an effort, and said in a pained voice,—
"Do you really tell me so, papa? What! you would bring another wife to this house, which is still alive with the voice of her whom we have lost? You would make her sit down in the chair in which she used to sit, and let her rest her feet on the cushion which she embroidered? Perhaps you would even want me to call her mamma? Oh, dear papa! surely you do not think of such profanation!"
The count's trouble was pitiful to behold. And yet, if Henrietta had been less excited, she would have read in his eye that his mind was made up.
"What I mean to do is done in your behalf, my dear child," he stammered out at last. "I am old; I may die; we have no near relations; what would become of you without a friend?"
She blushed crimson; but she said timidly,—
"But, papa, there is M. Daniel Champcey."
The count's eyes shone with delight as he saw that she was falling into the pit he had dug for her. The poor girl went on,—
"I thought—I had hoped—poor mamma had told me—in fact, since you had allowed M. Daniel to come here"—
"You thought I intended to make him my son-in-law?"
She made no answer.
"That was in fact the idea your mother had. She had certainly very odd notions, against which I had to use the whole strength of my firm will. A sailor is a sorry kind of husband, my dear child; a word from his minister may part him for years from his wife."
Henrietta remained silent. She began to understand the nature of the bargain which her father proposed to her, and it made her indignant. He thought he had said enough for this time, and left her with these words,—
"Consider, my child; for my part, I will also think of it."
What should she do? There were a hundred ways; but which to choose? Finding herself alone, she took a pen, and for the first time in her life she wrote to Daniel:—
"I must speak to you instantly. Pray come.
She gave the letter to a servant, ordering him to carry it at once to its address; and then she waited in a state of feverish anxiety, counting the minutes.
Daniel Champcey had, in a house not far from the university, three rooms, the windows of which looked out upon the gardens of an adjoining mansion, where the flowers bloomed brilliantly, and the birds sang joyously. There he spent almost all the time which was not required by his official duties. A walk in company with his friend, Maxime de Brevan; a visit to the theatre, when a particularly fine piece was to be given; and two or three calls a week at Count Ville-Handry's house,—these were his sole and certainly very harmless amusements.
"A genuine old maid, that sailor is," said the concierge of the house.
The truth is, that, if Daniel's natural refinement had not kept him from contact with what Parisians call "pleasure," his ardent love for Henrietta would have prevented his falling into bad company. A pure, noble love, such as his, based upon perfect confidence in her to whom it is given, is quite sufficient to fill up a life; for it makes the present delightful, and paints the distant horizon of the future in all the bright colors of the rainbow.
But, the more he loved Henrietta, the more he felt bound to be worthy of her, and to deserve her affections. He was not ambitious. He had chosen a profession which he loved. He had a considerable fortune of his own, and was thus, by his private income and his pay as an officer, secured against want. What more could he desire? Nothing for himself.
But Henrietta belonged to a great house; she was the daughter of a man who had filled a high position; she was immensely rich; and, even if he had married her only with her own fortune, she would have brought him ten times as much as he had. Daniel did not want Henrietta, on the blessed day when she should become his own, to have any thing to wish for or to regret. Hence he worked incessantly, indefatigably, waking up every morning anew with the determination to make himself one of those names which weigh more than the oldest parchments, and to win one of those positions which make a wife as proud as she is fond of her husband. Fortunately, the times were favorable to his ambition. The French navy was in a state of transformation; but the marine was as yet unreformed, waiting, apparently, for the hand of a man of genius.
And why might not he be that man? Supported by his love, he saw nothing impossible in that thought, and fancied he could overcome all obstacles.
"Do you see that d—— little fellow, there, with his quiet ways?" said Admiral Penhoel to his young officers. "Well, look at him; he'll checkmate you all."
Daniel was busy in his study, finishing a paper for the minister, when the count's servant came and brought him Henrietta's letter. He knew that something extraordinary must have happened to induce Henrietta, with her usual reserve, to take such a step, and, above all, to write to him in such brief but urgent terms.
"Has any thing happened at the house?" he asked the servant.
"No, sir, not that I know."
"The count is not sick?"
"And Miss Henrietta?"
"My mistress is perfectly well."
Daniel breathed more freely.
"Tell Miss Henrietta I am coming at once; and make haste, or I shall be there before you."
As soon as the servant had left, Daniel dressed, and a moment later he was out of the house. As he walked rapidly up the street in which the count lived, he thought,—
"I have no doubt taken the alarm too soon; perhaps she has only some commission for me."
But he was beset with dark presentiments, and had to tell himself that that was not likely to be the case. He felt worse than ever, when, upon being shown into the drawing-room, he saw Henrietta sitting by the fire, deadly pale, with her eyes all red and inflamed from weeping.
"What is the matter with you?" he cried, without waiting for the door to be closed behind him. "What has happened?"
"Something terrible, M. Daniel."
"Tell me, pray, what. You frighten me."
"My father is going to marry again."
At first Daniel was amazed. Then, recalling at once the gradual transformation of the count, he said,—
"Oh, oh, oh! That explains every thing."
But Henrietta interrupted him; and, making a great effort, she repeated to him in a half-stifled voice almost literally her conversation with her father. When she had ended, Daniel said,—
"You have guessed right, Miss Henrietta. Your father evidently does propose to you a bargain."
"Ah! but that is horrible."
"He wanted you to understand, that, if you would consent to his marriage, he would consent"—
Shocked at what he was going to add, he stopped; but Henrietta said boldly,—
"To ours, you mean,—to ours? Yes, so I understood it; and that was my reason for sending for you to advise me."
Poor fellow! She was asking him to seal his fate.
"I think you ought to consent!" he stammered out.
She rose, trembling with indignation, and replied,—
Daniel was overcome by this sudden shock. Never. He saw all his hopes dashed in an instant, his life's happiness destroyed forever, Henrietta lost to him. But the very imminence of the danger restored to him his energy. He mastered his grief, and said in an almost calm voice,—
"I beseech you, let me explain to you why I advised you so. Believe me, your father does not want your consent at all. You cannot do without his consent; but he can marry without asking you for yours. There is no law which authorizes children to oppose the follies of their parents. What your father wants is your silent approval, the certainty that his new wife will be kindly received. If you refuse, he will go on, nevertheless, and not mind your objections."
"I am, unfortunately, but too sure of that. If he spoke to you of his plans, you may be sure he had made up his mind. Your resistance will lead only to our separation. He might possibly forgive you; but she—Don't you think she should avail herself to the utmost of her influence over him? Who can foresee to what extremities she might be led by her hatred against you? And she must be a dangerous woman, Henrietta, a woman who is capable of any thing."
He hesitated for a moment, not daring to speak out fully what he thought; and at last he said slowly, as if weighing his words,—
"Because, because this marriage cannot be any thing else but a barefaced speculation. Your father is immensely rich; she wants his fortune."
Daniel's reasoning was so sensible, and he pleaded his cause with such eagerness, that Henrietta's resolution was evidently shaken.
"You want me to yield?" she asked.
"I beseech you to do it."
She shook her head sadly, and said in a tone of utter dejection,—
"Very well. It shall be done as you wish it. I shall not object to this profanation. But you may be sure, my weakness will do us no good."
It struck ten. She rose, offered her hand to Daniel, and said,—
"I will see you to-morrow evening. By that time I shall know, and I will tell you, the name of the woman whom father is going to marry; for I shall ask him who she is."
She was spared that trouble. Next morning, the first words of the count were,—
"Well, have you thought it over?"
She looked at him till he felt compelled to turn his head away; and then she replied in a tone of resignation,—
"Father, you are master here. I should not tell you the truth, if I said I was not going to suffer cruelly at the idea of a stranger coming here to—But I shall receive her with all due respect."
Ah! The count was not prepared for such a speedy consent.
"Do not speak of respect," he said. "Tell me that you will be tender, affectionate, and kind. Ah, if you knew her, Henrietta! She is an angel."
"What is her age?"
The count read in his daughter's face that she thought his new wife much too young for him; and therefore he added, quickly,—
"Your mother was two years younger when I married her."
That was so; but he forgot that that was twenty years ago.
"However," he added, "you will see her; I shall ask her to let me present you to her. She is a foreigner, of excellent family, very rich, marvellously clever and beautiful; and her name is Sarah Brandon."
That evening, when Henrietta told Daniel the name of her future mother-in-law, he started with an air of utter despair, and said,—
"Great God! If Maxime de Brevan is not mistaken, that is worse than any thing we could possibly anticipate."
When Henrietta saw how the young officer was overcome by the mere mention of that name, Sarah Brandon, she felt the blood turn to ice in her veins. She knew perfectly well that a man like Daniel was not likely to be so utterly overwhelmed unless there was something fearful, unheard of, in the matter.
"Do you know the woman, Daniel?"
But he, regretting his want of self-possession, was already thinking how he could make amends for his imprudence.
"I swear to you," he began.
"Oh, don't swear! I see you know who she is."
"I know nothing about her."
"It is true I have heard people talk of her once, a long time ago."
"One of my friends, Maxime de Brevan, a fine, noble fellow."
"What sort of a woman is she?"
"Ah, me! that I cannot tell you. Maxime happened to mention her just in passing; and I never thought that one of these days I should—If I seemed to be so very much surprised just now, it was because I remembered, all of a sudden, a very ugly story in which Maxime said she had been involved, and then"—
He was ridiculous in his inability to tell a fib; so, when he found that he was talking nonsense, he turned his head away to avoid Henrietta's eyes. She interrupted him, and said reproachfully,—
"Do you really think I am not strong enough to hear the truth?"
At first he did not reply. Overcome by the strange position in which he found himself, he looked for a way to escape, and found none. At last he said,—
"Miss Henrietta, you must give me time before I tell you any more. I know nothing positive; and I dare say I am unnecessarily alarmed. I will tell you all as soon as I am better informed."
"When will that be?"
"To-night, if I can find Maxime de Brevan at home, as I hope I shall do; if I miss him, you must wait till to-morrow."
"And if your suspicions turn out to be well founded; if what you fear, and hide from me now, is really so,—what must I do then?"
Without a moment's hesitation, he rose and said in a solemn voice,—
"I am not going to tell you again how I love you, Henrietta; I am not going to tell you that to lose you would be death to me, and that in our family we do not value life very highly; you know that, don't you? But, in spite of all that, if my fears should be well founded, as I apprehend they are, I should not hesitate to say to you, whatever might be the consequences, Henrietta, and even if we should have to part forever, we must try our utmost, we must employ all possible means in our power, to prevent a marriage between Count Ville-Handry and Sarah Brandon."
In spite of all her sufferings, Henrietta felt her heart bounding with unspeakable happiness and joy. Ah! he deserved to be loved,—this man whom her heart had freely chosen among them all,—this man who gave her such an overwhelming proof of his love. She offered him her hand; and, with her eyes beaming with enthusiasm and tenderness, she said,—
"And I, I swear by the sacred memory of my mother, that whatever may happen, and whatever force they may choose to employ, I shall never belong to any one but to you."
Daniel had seized her hand, and held it for some time pressed to his lips. At last, when his rapture gave way to calmer thoughts, he said,—
"I must leave you at once, Henrietta, if I want to catch Maxime."
As he left, his head was in a whirl, his thoughts in a maze. His life and his happiness were at stake; and a single word would decide his fate in spite of all he could do.
A cab was passing; he hailed it, jumped in, and cried to the driver,—
"Go quick, I say! You shall have five francs! No. 61 Rue Laffitte!"
That was the house where Maxime de Brevan lived.
He was a man of thirty or thirty-five years, remarkably well made, light-haired, wearing a full beard, with a bright eye, and pleasing face. Mixing on intimate terms with the men who make up what is called high life, and with whom pleasure is the only occupation, he was very popular with them all. They said he was a man that could always be relied upon, at all times ready to render you a service when it was in his power, a pleasant companion, and an excellent second whenever a friend had to fight a duel.
In fine, neither slander nor calumny had ever attacked his reputation. And yet, far from following the advice of the philosopher, who tells us to keep our life from the eye of the public, Maxime de Brevan seemed to take pains to let everybody into his secrets. He was so anxious to tell everybody where he had been, and what he had been doing, that you might have imagined he was always preparing to prove an alibi.
Thus he told the whole world that the Brevans came originally from the province of Maine, and that he was the last, the sole representative, of that old family. Not that he prided himself particularly on his ancestors; he acknowledged frankly that there was very little left of their ancient splendor; in fact, nothing but a bare support. But he never said what this "support" amounted to; his most intimate friends could not tell whether he had one thousand or ten thousand a year. So much only was certain, that, to his great honor and glory, he had solved the great problem of preserving his independence and his dignity while associating, a comparatively poor man, with the richest young men of Paris.
His rooms were simple and unpretending; and he kept but a single servant—his carriage he hired by the month.
How had Maxime Brevan become Daniel's friend? In the simplest possible way. They had been introduced to each other at a great ball by a common friend of theirs, a lieutenant in the navy. About one o'clock in the morning they had gone home together; and as the moon was shining brightly, the weather was mild, and the walking excellent, they had loitered about the Place de la Concorde while smoking their cigars.
Had Maxime really felt such warm sympathy for his friend? Perhaps so. At all events, Daniel had been irresistibly attracted by the peculiar ways of Maxime, and especially by the cool stoicism with which he spoke of his genteel poverty. Then they had met again, and finally became intimate.
Brevan was just dressing for the opera when Daniel entered his room. He uttered a cry of delight when he saw him, as he always did.
"What!" he said, "the hermit student from the other side of the river in this worldly region, and at this hour? What good wind blows you over here?"
Then, suddenly noticing Daniel's terrified appearance, he added,—
"But what am I talking about? You look frightened out of your wits. What's the matter?"
"A great misfortune, I fear," replied Daniel.
"How so? What is it?"
"And I want you to help me."
"Don't you know that I am at your service?"
Daniel certainly thought so.
"I thank you in advance, my dear Maxime; but I do not wish to give you too much trouble. I have a long story to tell you, and you are just going out"—
But Brevan interrupted him, shaking his head kindly, and saying,—
"I was only going out for want of something better to do, upon my word! So sit down, and tell me all."
Daniel had been so overcome by terror, and the fear that he might possibly lose Henrietta, that he had run to his friend without considering what he was going to tell him. Now, when the moment came to speak, he was silent. The thought had just occurred to him, that Count Ville-Handry's secret was not his own, and that he was in duty bound not to betray it, if possible, even if he could have absolutely relied upon his friend's discretion.
He did not reply, therefore, but walked up and down the room, seeking in vain some plausible excuse, and suffering perfect agony. This continued so long, that Maxime, who had of late heard much of diseases of the brain, asked himself if Daniel could possibly have lost his mind.
No; for suddenly his friend stopped before him, and said in a short, sharp tone,—
"First of all, Maxime, swear that you will never, under any circumstances, say to any human being a word of what I am going to tell you."
Thoroughly mystified, Brevan raised his hand, and said,—
"I pledge my word of honor!"
This promise seemed to re-assure Daniel; and, when he thought he had recovered sufficient control over himself, he said,—
"Some months ago, my dear friend, I heard you telling somebody a horrible story concerning a certain Mrs. Sarah Brandon"—
"Miss, if you please, not Mrs."
"Well, it does not matter. You know her?"
"Certainly. Everybody knows her."
Daniel did not notice the extreme self-conceit with which these words were uttered.
"All right, then. Now, Maxime, I conjure you, by our friendship, tell me frankly what you think of her. What kind of a woman is this Miss Brandon?"
His features, as well as his voice, betrayed such extreme excitement, that Brevan was almost stunned. At last he said,—
"But, my dear fellow, you ask me that in a manner"—
"I must know the truth, I tell you. It is of the utmost importance to me."
Brevan, struck by a sudden thought, touched his forehead, and exclaimed,—
"Oh, I see! You are in love with Sarah!"
Daniel would never have thought of such a subterfuge in order to avoid mentioning the name of Count Ville-Handry; but, seeing it thus offered to him, he determined to profit by the opportunity.
"Well, yes, suppose it is so," he said with a sigh.
Maxime raised his hands to heaven, and said in a tone of painful conviction,—
"In that case you are right. You ought to inquire; for you may be close upon a terrible misfortune."
"Ah, is she really so formidable?"
Maxime shrugged his shoulders, as if he were impatient at being called upon to prove a well-known fact, and said,—
"I should think so."
There seemed to be no reason why Daniel should persist in his questions after that. Those words ought to have been explanation enough. Nevertheless he said in a subdued voice,—
"Pray explain, Maxime! Don't you know, that, as I lead a very quiet life, I know nothing?"
Brevan, looking more serious than he had ever done, rose and replied, leaning against the mantlepiece,—
"What would you have me tell you? It is only fools who call out to lovers to beware; and to warn a man who will not be warned, is useless. Are you really in love with Miss Sarah, or are you not? If you are, nothing that I could say would change your mind. Suppose I were to tell you that this Sarah is a wretched creature, an infamous forger, who has already the death of three poor devils on her conscience, who loved her as you do? Suppose I told you worse things than these, and could prove them? Do you know what would happen? You would press my hand with effusion. You would overwhelm me with thanks, tears in your eye. You would vow, in the candor of your heart, that you are forever cured, and, when you leave me"—
"You would rush to your beloved, tell her all I said, and beseech her to clear herself of all these charges."
"I beg your pardon; I am not one of those men who"—
But Brevan was getting more and more excited. He interrupted his friend, and said,—
"Nonsense! You are a man like all other men. Passion does not reason, does not calculate; and that is the secret of its strength. As long as we have a spark of commonsense left, we are not really in love. That is so, I tell you; and no will, no amount of energy, can do any thing with it. There are people who tell you soberly that they have been in love without losing their senses, and reproach you for not keeping cool. Bosh! Those people remind me of still champagne blaming sparkling champagne for popping off the cork. And now, my dear fellow, have the kindness to accept this cigar, and let us take a walk."
Was that really so as Brevan said? Was it true that real love destroys in us the faculty of reasoning, and of distinguishing truth from falsehood? Did he really not love Henrietta truly, because he was on the point of giving her up for the sake of doing his duty?
Oh, no, no! Brevan had been speaking of another kind of love,—a love neither pure nor chaste. He spoke of those passions which suddenly strike us down like lightning; which confound our senses, and mislead our judgment; which destroy every thing, as fire does, and leave nothing behind but disaster and disgrace and remorse.
But all the more painful became Daniel's thoughts as he remembered that Count Ville-Handry was overcome by one of these terrible passions for a worthless creature. He could not accept Maxime's offer.
"One word, I pray you," he said. "Suppose I lose my free will, and surrender absolutely; what will become of me?"
Brevan looked at him with an air of pity, and said,—
"Not much will happen to you; only"—
And then he added with almost sternness, mixed with bitter sarcasm,—
"You ask me for your horoscope? Be it so. Have you a large fortune?"
"About fifty thousand dollars."
"Well, in six months they will be gone; in a year you will be overwhelmed with debts, and at your wits' end; in less than a year and a half, you will have become a forger."
"Ah! You asked me to tell you the truth. Then, as to your social position. Now it is excellent; you have been promoted as rapidly as merit could claim, everybody says. You will be an admiral one of these days. But in six months you will be nothing at all; you will have resigned your commission, or you will have been dismissed."
"No. You are an honest man, the most honorable man I know; after six months' acquaintance with Sarah Brandon, you will have lost your self- respect so completely, that you will have become a drunkard. There is your picture. 'It's not flattered!' you will say. But you wanted to have it. And now let us go."
This time he was determined; and Daniel saw that he would not obtain another word from him, unless he changed his tactics. He held him back, therefore, a moment; and, as he opened the door, he said,—
"Maxime, you must pardon me a very innocent deception, which was suggested by your own words. It is not I who am in love with Miss Sarah Brandon."
Brevan was so much surprised, he could not stir.
"Who is it, then?" he asked.
"One of my friends."
"I wish you would render the service I ask of you doubly valuable by not asking me that question,—at least, not to-day."
Daniel spoke with such an accent of truth, that not a shadow of doubt remained on Maxime's mind. It was not Daniel who had fallen in love with Sarah Brandon. Brevan did not doubt that for a moment. But he could not conceal his trouble, and his disappointment even, as he exclaimed,—
"Well done, Daniel! Tell me that your ingenuous people cannot deceive anybody!"
However, he said nothing more about it; and, while Daniel was pouring out his excuses, he quietly went back to the fire, and sat down. After a moment's silence, he began again,—
"Let us assume, then, that it is one of your friends who is bewitched?"
"And the matter is—serious?"
"Alas! He talks of marrying that woman."
Maxime shrugged his shoulders contemptuously, and said,—
"As to that, console yourself. Sarah will never consent."
"So far from that, she herself has made the suggestion."
This time, Maxime raised his head suddenly, and looked stupefied.
"Then your friend must be very rich."
"He is immensely rich."
"He bears a great name, and holds a high position?"
"His name is one of the oldest and noblest in the province of Anjou."
"And he is a very old man?"
"He is sixty-five."
Brevan struck the marble slab of the mantlepiece with his fist so that it shook, and exclaimed,—
"Ah, she told me she would succeed!"
And then he added in a very low tone of voice, as if speaking to himself with an indescribable accent of mingled admiration and hatred,—
"What a woman! Oh, what a woman!"
Daniel, who was himself greatly excited, and far too busy with his own thoughts to observe what was going on, did not notice the excitement of his friend; he continued quietly,—
"Now you will understand my great curiosity. In order to prevent the scandal of such a marriage, my friend's family would do every thing in the world. But how can you attack a woman of whose antecedents and mode of life nothing is known?"
"Yes, I understand," said Brevan,—"I understand."
His features betrayed that he was making a great mental effort. He remained for some time absorbed in his thoughts; and at last he said, as if coming to a decision,—
"No, I do not see any way to prevent this marriage; none at all."
"Still, from what you told me"—
"About the cupidity of this woman."
"If she were offered a large sum, some eighty or a hundred thousand dollars?"
Maxime laughed out loud; but there was not the true ring in his laughter.
"You might offer her two hundred thousand, and she would laugh at you. Do you think she would be fool enough to content herself with a fraction of a fortune, if she can have the whole, with a great name and a high position into the bargain?"
Daniel opened his lips to present another suggestion; but Maxime, laying aside his usual half-dreamy, mocking manner, said, as if roused by a matter of great personal interest,—
"You do not understand me, my dear friend. Miss Brandon is not one of those vulgar hawks, who, in broad daylight, seize upon a poor pigeon, pluck it alive, and cast it aside, still living, and bleeding all over."
"Then, Maxime, she must be"—
"Well, I tell you you misapprehend her. Miss Brandon"—
He stopped suddenly, and looking at Daniel with a glance with which a judge examines the features of a criminal, he added in an almost threatening voice,—
"By telling you what little I know about her, Daniel, I give you the highest proof of confidence which one man can give to another. I love you too dearly to exact your promise to be discreet. If you ever mention my name in connection with this affair, if you ever let any one suspect that you learned what I am going to tell you from me, you will dishonor yourself."
Daniel, deeply moved, seized his friend's hand, and, pressing it most affectionately, said,—
"Ah, you know Daniel Champcey is to be relied upon."
Maxime knew it; for he continued,—
"Miss Sarah Brandon is one of those female cosmopolitan adventurers, whom steam brings nowadays to us from all the four quarters of the world. Like so many others, she, also, has come to Paris to spread her net, and catch her birds, But she is made of finer stuff than most of them, and more clever. Her ambition soars higher; and she possesses a real genius for intrigues. She means to have a fortune, and is willing to pay any price for it; but she is also desirous to be respected in the world.
"I should not be surprised if anybody told me Miss Sarah was born within ten miles of Paris; but she calls herself an American. The fact is, she speaks English like an Englishwoman, and knows a great deal more of America than you know of Paris. I have heard her tell the story of her family to a large and attentive audience; but I do not say that I believed it.
"According to her own account, M. Brandon, her father, a thoroughbred Yankee, was a man of great enterprise and energy, who was ten times rich, and as often wretchedly poor again in his life, but died leaving several millions. This Brandon, she says, was a banker and broker in New York when the civil war broke out. He entered the army, and in less than six months, thanks to his marvellous energy, he rose to be a general. When peace came, he was without occupation, and did not know what on earth to do with himself. Fortunately, his good star led him into a region where large tracts of land happened to be for sale. He bought them for a few thousand dollars, and soon after discovered on his purchase the most productive oil-wells in all America. He was just about to be another Peabody when a fearful accident suddenly ended his life; he was burnt in an enormous fire that destroyed one of his establishments.
"As to her mother, Miss Sarah says she lost her when she was quite young, in a most romantic, though horrible manner"—
"What!" broke in Daniel, "has nobody taken the trouble to ascertain if all these statements are true?"
"I am sure I do not know. This much is certain, that sometimes curious facts leak out. For instance, I have fallen in with Americans who have known a broker Brandon, a Gen. Brandon, a Petroleum Brandon."
"He may have borrowed the name."
"Certainly, especially when the original man is said to have died in America. However, Miss Brandon has been living now for five years in Paris. She came here accompanied by a Mrs. Brian, a relative of hers, who is the dryest, boniest person you can imagine, but at the same time the slyest woman I have ever seen. She also brought with her a kind of protector, a Mr. Thomas Elgin, also a relation of hers, a most extraordinary man, stiff like a poker, but evidently a dangerous man, who never opens his mouth except when he eats. He is a famous hand at small-swords, however, and snuffs his candle, nine times out of ten, at a distance of thirty yards. This Mr. Thomas Elgin, whom the world calls familiarly Sir Thorn, and Mrs. Brian, always stay with Miss Sarah.
"When she first arrived, Miss Sarah established herself in a house near the Champs Elysees, which she furnished most sumptuously. Sir Thorn, who is a jockey of the first water, had discovered a pair of gray horses for her which made a sensation at the Bois de Boulogne, and drew everybody's attention to their fair owner. Heaven knows how she had managed to get a number of letters of introduction. But certainly two or three of the most influential members of the American colony here received her at their houses. After that, all was made easy. Gradually she crept into society; and now she is welcome almost everywhere, and visits, not only at the best houses, but even in certain families which have a reputation of being quite exclusive.
"In fine, if she has enemies, she has also fanatic partisans. If some people say she is a wretch, others—and they are by no means the least clever—tell you that she is an angel, only wanting wings to fly away from this wicked world. They talk of her as of a poor little orphan- girl, whom people slander atrociously because they envy her youth, her beauty, her splendor."
"Ah, is she so rich?"
"Miss Brandon spends at least twenty thousand dollars a year."
"And no one inquires where they come from?"
"From her sainted father's petroleum-wells, my dear fellow. Petroleum explains everything."
Brevan seemed to feel a kind of savage delight in seeing Daniel's despair, and in explaining to him most minutely how solidly, and how skilfully Miss Sarah Brandon's position in the world had been established. Had he any expectation to prevent a struggle with her by exaggerating her strength? Or rather, knowing Daniel as he did,—far better, unfortunately, than he was known by him,—was he trying to irritate him more and more against this formidable adversary?
At all events, he continued in that icy tone which gives to sarcasm its greatest bitterness,—
"Besides, my dear Daniel, if you are ever introduced at Miss Brandon's,—and I pray you will believe me, people are not so easily introduced there,—you will be dumfounded at first by the tone that prevails in that house. The air is filled with a perfume of hypocrisy which would rejoice the stiffest of Quakers. Cant rules supreme there, putting a lock to the mouth, and a check to the eyes."
Daniel began evidently to be utterly bewildered.
"But how, how can you reconcile that," he said, "with the thoroughly worldly life of Miss Brandon?"
"Oh, very easily, my dear fellow! and there you see the sublime policy of the three rogues. To the outer world, Miss Brandon is all levity, indiscretion, coquettishness, and even worse. She drives herself, shortens her petticoats, and cuts down her dress-bodies atrociously. She says she has a right to do as she pleases, according to the code of laws which govern American young ladies. But at home she bows to the taste and the wishes of her relative, Mrs. Brian, who displays all the extreme prudishness of the austerest Puritan. Then she has that stiff, tall Sir Thorn ever at her side, who never jokes. Oh! they understand each other perfectly; the parts are carefully distributed, and"—
Daniel showed that he was utterly discouraged.
"There is no way, then, of getting hold of this woman?" he asked.
"I think not."
"But that adventure of which you spoke some time ago?"
"Which? That with poor Kergrist?"
"How do I know which? It was a fearful story; that is all I remember. What did I, at that time, care for Miss Brandon? Now, to be sure"—
Brevan shook his head, and said,—
"Now, you think that story might become a weapon in your hands? No, Daniel. Still it is not a very long one; and I can now tell it to you more in detail than I could before.
"About fifteen months ago, there arrived in Paris a nice young man called Charles de Kergrist. He had lost as yet none of his illusions, being barely twenty-five years old, and having something like a hundred thousand dollars of his own. He saw Miss Brandon, and instantly 'took fire.' He fell desperately in love with her. What his relations were with her, no one can tell positively,—I mean with sufficient evidence to carry conviction to others,—for the young man was a model of discretion. But what became only too well known was the fact, that, about eight months later, the people living near Miss Brandon's house saw one morning, when the shutters were opened, a corpse dangling at a distance of a few feet above the ground from the iron fastenings of the lady's window. Upon inspection, the dead man proved to be that unlucky Kergrist. In the pocket of his overcoat a letter was found, in which he declared that he committed suicide because an unreturned affection had made life unbearable to him. Now, this letter—mark the fact—was open; that is to say, it had been sealed, and the seal was broken."
"Let me finish. The accident, as you may imagine, made a tremendous noise. The family took it up. An inquest was held; and it was found that the hundred thousand dollars which Kergrist had brought with him had utterly disappeared."
"And Miss Brandon's reputation was not ruined?"
Maxime replied with a bitter, ironical smile,—
"You know very well that she was not. On the contrary, the hanging was turned by her partisans into an occasion for praising her marvellous virtuousness. 'If she had been weak,' they said, 'Kergrist would not have hanged himself. Besides,' they added, 'how can a girl, be she ever so pure and innocent, prevent her lovers from hanging themselves at her windows? As to the money,' they said, 'it had been lost at the gaming-table.' Kergrist was reported to have been seen at Baden-Baden and at Homburg; no doubt he played."
"And the world was content with such an explanation?"
"Yes; why not? To be sure, some sceptical persons told the whole story very differently. According, to their account, Miss Sarah had been the mistress of M. de Kergrist, and, seeing him utterly ruined, had sent him off one fine morning. They stated, that, the evening before the accident, he had come to the house at the usual hour, and, finding it closed, had begged, and even wept, and finally threatened to kill himself; that, thereupon, he had really killed himself; (poor fool that he was!) that Miss Brandon, concealed behind the blinds, had watched all his preparations for the fearful act; that she had seen him fasten the rope to the outside hinges of her window, put the noose around his neck, and then swing off into eternity; that she had watched him closely during his agony, and stood there till the last convulsions had passed away."
"Horrible!" whispered Daniel,—"too horrible!"
But Maxime seized him by the arm, and pressing it so as almost to hurt him, said in a low, hoarse voice,—
"That is not the worst yet. As soon as she saw that Kergrist was surely dead, she slipped down stairs like a cat, opened the house-door noiselessly, and, gliding stealthily along the wall till she reached the body, she actually searched the still quivering corpse to assure herself that there was nothing in the pockets that could possibly compromise her. Finding the last letter of Kergrist, she took it away with her, broke the seal, and read it; and, having found that her name was not mentioned in it, she had the amazing audacity to return to the body, and to put the letter back where she had found it. Then only she breathed freely. She had gotten rid of a man whom she feared. She went to bed, and slept soundly."
Daniel had become livid.
"That woman is a monster!" he exclaimed.
Brevan said nothing. His eyes shone with intense hatred; his lips were quivering with indignation. He no longer thought of discretion, of caution. He forgot himself, and gave himself up to his feelings.
"But I have not done yet, Daniel," he said, after a pause. "There is another crime on record, of older date. The first appearance of Miss Brandon in Paris society. You ought to know that also.
"One evening, about four years ago, the president of the Mutual Discount Society came into the cashier's room to tell him, that, on the following day, the board of directors would examine his books. The cashier, an unfortunate man by the name of Malgat, replied that every thing was ready; but, the moment the president had turned his back, he took a sheet of paper, and wrote something like this:—
"'Forgive me, I have been an honest man forty years long; now a fatal passion has made me mad. I have drawn money from the bank which was intrusted to my care; and, in order to screen my defalcations, I have forged several notes. I cannot conceal my crime any longer. The first defalcation is only six months old. The whole amount is about four hundred thousand francs. I cannot bear the disgrace which I have incurred; in an hour I shall have ceased to live.'
"Malgat put this letter in a prominent place on his desk, and then rushed out, without a cent in his pocket, to throw himself into the canal. But when he reached the bank, and saw the foul, black water, he was frightened. For hours and hours he walked up and down, asking God in his madness for courage. He never found that courage.
"But what was he to do? He could not flee, having no money; and where should he hide? He could not return to his bank; for there, by this time, his crime must have become known. In his despair he ran as far as the Champs Elysees, and late in the night he knocked at the door of Miss Brandon's house.
"They did not know yet what had happened, and he was admitted. Then, in his wild despair, he told them all, begging them to give him a couple of hundreds only of the four hundred thousand which he had stolen in order to give them to Miss Brandon,—a hundred only, to enable him to escape to Belgium.
"They refused. And when he begged and prayed, falling on his knees before Miss Sarah, Sir Thorn seized him by the shoulders, and turned him out of the house."
Maxime, overcome by his intense excitement, fell into an easy-chair, and remained there for a considerable time, his eyes fixed, his brow darkened, repenting himself, no doubt, of his candor, his wrath, and his forgetfulness of all he owed to himself and to others.
But, when he rose again, his rare strength of will enabled him to assume his usual phlegmatic manner; and he continued in a mocking tone,—
"I see in your face, Daniel, that you think the story is monstrous, improbable, almost impossible. Nevertheless, four years ago, it was believed all over Paris, and set off by a number of hideous details which I will spare you. If you care to look at the papers of that year, you will find it everywhere. But four years are four centuries in Paris. To say nothing of the many similar stories that have happened since."
Daniel said nothing, he only bowed his head sadly. He felt a kind of painful emotion, such as he had never before experienced in his life.
"It is not so much the story itself," he said at last, "that overcomes me so completely. What I cannot comprehend is, how this woman could refuse the man whose accomplice she had been the small pittance he required in order to evade justice, and to escape to Belgium."
"Nevertheless, that was so," repeated M. de Brevan; and then he added emphatically, "at least, they say so."
Daniel did not notice this attempt to become more cautious again. He continued pensively,—
"Is it not very improbable that Miss Brandon should not have been afraid to exasperate the unfortunate man, and to drive him to desperate measures? In his furious rage, he might have left the house, rushed to a police-officer, and confessed to him every thing, laying the evidence he had in his hands before a magistrate, and"—
"You say," replied Brevan, interrupting him with a dry, sardonic laugh, "precisely what all the advocates of the fair American said at that time. But I tell you, that her peculiarity is exactly the daring with which she ventures upon the most dangerous steps. She does not pretend to avoid difficulties; she crushes them. Her prudence consists in carrying imprudence to the farthest limits."
"You ought to credit her, besides, with sufficient astuteness and experience to know that she had taken the most careful precautions, having destroyed every evidence of her own complicity, and feeling quite safe in that direction. Moreover, she had studied Malgat's character, as she studied afterwards Kergrist's. She was quite sure that neither of them would accuse her, even at the moment of death. And yet, in the case of this Mutual Discount Society, her calculations did not prove absolutely correct."
"It became known that she had received Malgat two or three times secretly, for he did not openly enter her house; and the penny papers had it, that 'the fair stranger was no stranger to small peculations.' Public opinion was veering around, when it was reported that she had been summoned to appear before a magistrate. That, however, was fortunate for her; she came out from the trial whiter and purer than Alpine snow."
"And so perfectly cleared, that, when the whole matter was brought up in court, she was not even summoned as a witness."
Daniel started up, and exclaimed,—
"What! Malgat had the sublime self-abnegation to undergo the agonies of a trial, and the infamy of a condemnation, without allowing a word to escape?"
"No. For the simple reason that Malgat was sentenced in contumaciam to ten years in the penitentiary."
"And what has become of the poor wretch?"
"Who knows? They say he killed himself. Two months later, a half decomposed body was found in the forest of Saint Germain, which people declared to be Malgat. However"—
He had become livid, in his turn; but he continued in an almost inaudible voice, as if to meet Daniel's objections before they were expressed,—
"However, somebody who used to be intimate with Malgat has assured me that he met him one day in Dronot Street, before the great auction- mart. The man said he recognized him, although he seemed to be most artistically disguised. This is what has set me thinking more than once, that, if people were not mistaken, a day might, after all, yet come, when Miss Sarah would have a terrible bill to settle with her implacable creditor."
He passed his hand across his brow as if to drive away such uncomfortable thoughts, and then said with a forced laugh,—
"Now, my dear fellow, I have come to the end of my budget. The details were all given me by Miss Sarah's friends as well as by her enemies. Some you may read of in the papers; but most I know from my own long and patient observation. And, if you ask me what interest I could have in knowing such a woman, I will tell you frankly, that you see before you one of her victims; for my dear Daniel, I have to confess it, I also have been in love with her; and how! But I was too small a personage, and too poor a devil, to be worth a serious thought of Miss Brandon. As soon as she felt sure that her abominable tricks had set my head on fire, and that I had become an idiot, a madman, a stupid fool—on that very day she laughed in my face. Ah! I tell you, she played with me as if I had been a child, and then she sent me off as if I had been a lackey. And now I hate her mortally, as I loved her almost criminally. Therefore, if I can help you, in secret, without becoming known, you may count upon me."
Why should Daniel have doubted the truthfulness of his friend's statements? Had he not himself, and quite voluntarily, confessed his own folly, his own love, anticipating all questions, and making a clean breast of the whole matter?
Not a doubt, therefore, arose in Daniel's mind. On the contrary, he thanked God for having sent him such an ally, such a friend, who had lived long enough amid all these intrigues of Parisian high life to know all its secret springs, and to guide him safely. He took Maxime's hand in his own, and said with deep feeling,—
"Now, my friend, we are bound to each other for life."
Brevan seemed deeply touched; he raised his hand as if to wipe a tear from his eyes. But he was not a man to give way to tender feelings. He said,—
"But how about your friend? How can we prevent his marrying Miss Sarah? Does any way occur to you? No? Ah! you see, it will be hard work."
He seemed to meditate deeply for a few moments; then uttering his words slowly and emphatically, as if to lend them their full weight, and impress them forcibly on Daniel's mind, he resumed,—
"We must attack Miss Brandon herself, if we want to master the situation. If we could once know who she really is, all would be safe. Fortunately there is no difficulty in Paris in finding spies, if you have money enough."
As the clock on the mantlepiece struck half-past ten, he started and stopped. He jumped up as if suddenly inspired by a bright idea, and said hurriedly,—
"But now I think of it, Daniel, you do not know Miss Brandon; you have never even seen her!"
"Well, that's a pity. We must know our enemies; how else can we even smile at them? I want you to see Miss Sarah."
"But who will point her out to me? where? when?"
"I will do it to-night, at the opera. I bet she will be there!"
Daniel was in evening costume, having called upon Henrietta, and then he was all ready.
"Very well," he said, "I am willing."
Without losing a moment, they went out, and reached the theatre just as the curtain rose on the fourth act of Don Giovanni. They were, fortunately, able to secure two orchestra-chairs. The stage was gorgeous; but what did they care for the singer on the boards, or the divine music of Mozart? Brevan took his opera-glasses out, and rapidly surveying the house, he had soon found what he was looking for. He touched Daniel with his elbow, and, handing him the glasses, whispered in his ear,—
"Look there, in the third box from the stage; look, there she is!"
Daniel looked up. In the box which Maxime had pointed out to him he saw a girl of such rare and dazzling beauty, that he could hardly retain a cry of admiration. She was leaning forward, resting on the velvet cushion of her box, in order to hear better.
Her hair, perfectly overwhelming in its richness, was so carelessly arranged, that no one could doubt it was all her own; it was almost golden, but with such a bright sheen, that at every motion sparks seemed to start from its dark masses. Her large, soft eyes were overshadowed by long lashes; and as she now opened them wide, and now half closed them again, they changed from the darkest to the lightest blue.
Her lips smiled in all the freshness and innocence of merry youth, displaying now and then two rows of teeth, matchless in their beauty and regularity.
"Can that be," said Daniel to himself, "the wretched creature whose portrait Maxime has just given me?"
A little behind her, and half-hid in the shade of the box, appeared a large bony head, adorned with an absurd bunch of feathers. Her eyes flashed indignation; and her narrow lips seemed to say perpetually, "Shocking!" That was Mrs. Brian.
Still farther back, barely discernible after long examination, arose a tall, stiff figure, a bald, shining head, two dark, deep-sunk eyes, a hooked nose, and a pair of immense streaming whiskers. That was the Hon. Thomas Elgin, commonly known as Sir Thorn.
As Daniel was persistently examining the box, with the smiling girl, the stern old woman, and the placid old man in the background, he felt doubts of all kinds creeping into his mind.
Might not Maxime be mistaken? Did he not merely repeat the atrocious slanders of the envious world?
These thoughts troubled Daniel; and he would have mentioned his doubts to Maxime; but his neighbors were enthusiasts about music, and, as soon as he bent over to whisper into his friend's ear, they growled, and, if he ventured to utter a word, they forced him to be silent. At last the curtain fell. Many left the house; others simply rose to look around; but Maxime and Daniel remained in their seats. Their whole attention was concentrated upon Miss Brandon's box, when they saw the door open, and a gentleman enter, who, at the distance at which they sat, looked like a very young man. His complexion was brilliantly fair, his beard jet black, and his curly hair most carefully arranged. He had his opera-hat under his arm, a camellia in his button-hole; and his light-yellow kid gloves were so tight, that it looked as if they must inevitably burst the instant he used his hands.
"Count Ville-Handry!" said Daniel to himself.
Somebody touched his shoulder slightly; and, as he turned round, he found it was Maxime, who said with friendly irony,—
"Your old friend, is it not? The happy lover of Miss Brandon?"
"Yes, it is so. I have to confess it."
He was just in the act of explaining the reasons for his silence, when M. de Brevan interrupted him, saying,—
"Just look, Daniel; just look!"
The count had taken a seat in the front part of the box, by Miss Brandon's side, and was talking to her with studied affectation, bending over her, gesticulating violently, and laughing till he showed every one of the long yellow teeth which were left him. He was evidently on exhibition, and desired to be seen by everybody. Suddenly, however, after Miss Brandon had said a few words to him, he rose, and went out.
The bell behind the scenes was ringing, and the curtain was about to rise again.
"Let us go," said Daniel to M. de Brevan: "I am suffering."
He was really suffering, mortified by the ridiculous scene which Henrietta's father was playing. But he entertained no longer any doubts; he had clearly seen how the adventuress was spurring on the old man, and fanning his feeble flame.
"Ah! it will be hard work to rescue the count from the wiles of this witch," said Maxime.
Having left the house, they were just turning into the narrow street which leads to the boulevards, when they saw a tall man, wrapped up in a huge cloak, coming towards them, and behind him a servant with a whole armful of magnificent roses. It was Count Ville-Handry. Coming suddenly face to face upon Daniel, he seemed at first very much embarrassed; then, recovering himself, he said,—
"Why, is this you? Where on earth do you come from?"
"From the theatre."
"And you run away before the fifth act? That is a crime against the majesty of Mozart. Come, go back with me, and I promise you a pleasant surprise."
Brevan came up close to Daniel, and whispered to him,—
"Go; here is the opportunity I was wishing for."
Then he lifted his hat and went his way. Daniel, taken rather by surprise, accompanied the count till he saw him stop near a huge landau, open in spite of the cold weather, but guarded by three servants in gorgeous livery. When they saw the count, they all three uncovered respectfully; but he, without taking any notice of them, turned to the porter who had the flowers, and said,—
"Scatter all these roses in this carriage."
The man hesitated. He was the servant of a famous florist, and had often seen people pay forty or fifty dollars for such bouquets. He thought the joke was carried too far. However, the count insisted. The roses were piled up in the bottom of the carriage; and, when he had done, he received a handsome fee for his trouble.
Then the count returned to the opera-house, Daniel following him, filled with amazement. Evidently love had made the count young again, and now gave wings to his steps. He ran up the steps of the great porch of the opera-house, and in a few moments he was once more in Miss Brandon's box. At once he took Daniel by the hand; and, drawing him into the box close to the lady, he said to the young girl,—
"Permit me to present to you M. Daniel Champcey, one of our most distinguished naval officers."
Daniel bowed, first to her, and then solemnly to Mrs. Brian, and long, stiff Sir Thorn.
"I need not tell you, my dear count," said Miss Sarah, "that your friends are always welcome here."
Then, turning to Daniel, she added,—
"Besides, I have long since known you."
"Yes, sir. And I even know that you are one of the most frequent visitors at Count Ville-Handry's house."
She looked at Daniel with a kind of malicious simplicity, and then added,
"I do not mean to say that the count would not be wrong if he attributed your frequent visits exclusively to his own merits. I have heard something of a certain young lady"—
"Sarah," here broke in Mrs. Brian, "what you say there is highly improper." This reproof, so far from checking Miss Sarah's merriment, only seemed to increase it. Without losing sight of Daniel, she turned to her aunt, and said,—
"Since the count is not opposed to this gentleman's paying his attentions to his daughter, I think I may safely speak of them. It would be such an extraordinary thing, if any thing should happen to interfere with his hopes!"
Daniel, who had blushed all over, suddenly became deadly pale. After all that he had been told, these words sounded to him, in spite of the loud laugh that accompanied them, like a warning and a threat. But he was not allowed the time to reflect. The piece was coming to an end; Miss Brandon was drawing a fur cloak over her shoulders, and left on the count's arm; while he had to escort Mrs. Brian, being closely followed by tall, stiff Sir Thorn. The landau was at the door. The servants had let down the steps; and Miss Sarah was just getting in. Suddenly, as her foot touched the bottom of the carriage, she drew back, and cried out,—
"What is that? What is in there?"
The count came forward, looking visibly embarrassed.
"You are fond of roses," he said, "and I have ordered a few."
With these words he took up some of the leaves, and showed them to her. But immediately Miss Brandon's terror was changed into wrath.
"You certainly are bent upon making me angry," she said. "You want people to say everywhere that I make you commit all kinds of follies. What a glorious thing to waste fifty dollars on flowers, when one has I know not how many millions!"
Then, seeing by the light of the street-lamp that the count's face showed deep disappointment, she said in a tone to make him lose the little reason that was left him,—
"You would have been more welcome if you had brought me a cent's worth of violets."
In the mean time Mrs. Brian had taken her seat by Miss Brandon's side; Sir Thorn had gotten in; and it was now the count's turn. At the moment when the servant was closing the door, Miss Sarah bent forward toward Daniel, and said,—
"I hope I shall have the pleasure of soon seeing you again. Our dear count will give you my address, and tell you my reception-days. I must tell you that we American girls dote upon naval officers, and that I"—
The remainder was lost in the noise of the wheels. The carriage which took Miss Brandon and Count Ville-Handry away was already at some distance, before Daniel could recover from his amazement, his utter consternation.
All these strange events, coming upon him one by one, in the course of a few hours, and breaking suddenly in upon so calm and quiet a life, overwhelmed him to such a degree, that he was not quite sure whether he was dreaming or awake.
Alas! he was not dreaming. This Miss Sarah Brandon, who had just passed away from him like a glorious vision from on high, was only too real; and there, on the muddy pavement, a handful of rose-leaves bore witness of the power of her charms, and the folly of her aged lover.
"Ah, we are lost!" exclaimed Daniel, in so loud a voice, that some of the passers-by stopped, expecting one of those street-dramas which read so strikingly in the local columns of our papers. They were disappointed, however. Noticing that he attracted attention, Daniel shrugged his shoulders, and quickly walked off towards the boulevards.
He had promised Henrietta to be sure to tell her that very evening, if possible, what he had found out; but it was too late now; midnight was striking.
"I'll go to-morrow," he said to himself.
Whilst lounging leisurely down the boulevards, still brilliantly lighted up, and crowded with people, he strained all his faculties for the purpose of examining his situation coolly and calmly. At first he had imagined he should only have to do with one of those common intriguantes who want to secure themselves a quiet old age, and clumsily spread their nets to catch an old or a young man; and who can always easily be gotten rid of by paying them a more or less considerable sum of money, provided the police does not get hold of them. In such a case he would have had some hope.
But here he saw himself suddenly confronted by one of those formidable adventuresses in high life, who either save appearances altogether, or, at worst, are only compromised far enough to give additional zest and an air of mystery to their relations. How could he hope to compete with such a woman? and with what weapons could he attack her? How should he reach her? and how attack her?
Was it not pure folly to think even of making her give up the magnificent fortune which she seemed already to have in her hands, Heaven knows by what means? She evidently looked upon it as her own already, and enjoyed its charms in anticipation.
"Great God!" said Daniel, "send me some inspiration."
But no inspiration came; and in vain did he torture his mind; he was unable to think.
When he reached home, he went to bed as usual; but the consciousness of his misfortunes kept him awake. At nine o'clock in the morning, having never closed his eyes, and feeling utterly overcome by sleeplessness and fatigue, he was just about to get up, when some one knocked at his door. He rose hastily, put on his clothes, and went to open the door. It was M. de Brevan, who came to hear all about his new acquaintance of last night, and whose first word was,—
"Alas!" replied Daniel, "I think the wisest plan would be to give it up."
"Upon my word, you are in great haste to surrender."
"And what would you do in my place, eh? That woman has beauty enough to drive any one mad; and the count is a lost man."
And, before Maxime had time to reply, Daniel told him simply and frankly all about his love for Miss Ville-Handry, the hopes he had been encouraged to cherish, and the dangers that threatened his happiness in life.
"For I can no longer deceive myself, Maxime," he concluded with a tone of utter despair. "I foresee, I know, what is going to happen. Henrietta will obstinately, and at any risk, do every thing in the world to prevent her father's marriage with Miss Brandon; she will struggle to the bitter end. Ought I, or ought I not, to help her? Certainly. Can we succeed? No! But we shall have a mortal enemy in Miss Brandon; and, on the morning after her wedding, her first thought will be how to avenge herself, and how to separate Henrietta and myself forever."
Little as Brevan was generally given to show his feelings, he was evidently deeply touched by his friend's despair.
"In short, my dear fellow, you have reached the point at which we no longer know what to do. All the more reason, then, that you should listen to the calm advice of a friend. You must have yourself presented at Miss Brandon's house."
"She has invited me."
"Well, then, do not hesitate, but go there."
"Not for much. You will pay some compliments to Miss Sarah; you will be all attention to Mrs. Brian; and you will try to win over the Hon. Thomas Elgin. Finally, and above all, you will be all ears and all eyes."
"I am sorry to say I do not understand you yet."
"What? Don't you see that the position of these daring adventurers, however secure it may appear, may, after all, hang on a single thread? and that nothing is wanting in order to cut that thread but an opportunity? And when you may expect, at any moment, any thing and every thing, what is to be done but to wait and watch?"
Daniel did not seem to be convinced. He added,—
"Miss Sarah will talk to me about her marriage."
"Certainly she will."
"What can I say?"
"Nothing,—neither yes nor no,—but smile, or run away; at all events, you gain time."
He was interrupted by Daniel's servant, who came in, holding a card in his hand, and said,—
"Sir, there is a gentleman down stairs in a carriage, who wants to know if he would interrupt you if he came up to see you."
"What is the gentleman's name?"
"Count Ville-Handry. Here is his card."
"Be quick!" said Daniel, "run down and ask him, would he please come up."
M. de Brevan had started up, and was standing, with his hat on, near the door. As the servant left, he said,—
"I am running away."
"Because the count must not find me here. You would be compelled to introduce me to him; he might remember my name; and, if he were to tell Miss Sarah that I am your friend, all would be lost."
Thereupon he turned to go; but at the same moment the outer door was opened, and he said,—
"There is the count! I am caught."
But Daniel opened promptly the door to his bedroom, pushed him in, and shut the door. It was high time; the same moment the count entered.
The count must have risen early that day. Although it was not yet ten o'clock, he was already brilliant, rouged, dyed, and frizzed. Of course all these results had not been the work of an hour. As he entered, he drew a long breath, and said,—
"Ah! You live pretty high up, my dear Daniel."
Poor fellow! He forgot that he was playing the young man. But he recalled himself at once, and added, full of vivacity,—
"Not that I complain of it; oh, no! A few stories to climb—what is that to me?"
At the same time he stretched out his leg, and caressed his calf, as if to exhibit its vigor and its suppleness. In the meantime, Daniel, full of respect for his future father-in-law, had drawn forward his easiest arm-chair. The count took it, and in an airy manner, which contrasted ill with his evident embarrassment, he said,—
"I am sure, my dear Daniel, you must be very much surprised and puzzled to see me here; are you not?"
"I confess, sir, I am. If you wished to speak to me, you had only to drop me a line, and I should have waited upon you at once."
"I am sure you would! But that is not necessary. In fact, I have nothing to say to you. I should not have come to see you, if I had not missed an appointment. I was to meet one of my fellow members of the assembly, and he did not come to the place where we were to meet. On my return home, I happened to pass your house; and I said to myself, 'Why not go up and see my sailor friend? I might ask him what he thinks of a certain young lady to whom he had, last night, the honor of being presented.'"
Now or never was the favorable moment for following Maxime's advice; hence Daniel, instead of replying, simply smiled as pleasantly as he could.
But that did not satisfy the count; so he repeated the question more directly, and said,—
"Come, tell us frankly, what do you think of Miss Brandon?"
"She is one of the greatest beauties I have ever seen in my life."
Count Ville-Handry's eyes beamed with delight and with pride as he heard these words. He exclaimed,—
"Say she is the greatest beauty, the most marvellous and transcendent beauty, you ever saw. And that, M. Daniel Champcey, is her smallest attraction. When she opens her lips, the charms of her mind, beauty and her mind, and remember her admirable ingenuousness, her naive freshness, and all the treasures of her chaste and pure soul."
This excessive, almost idiotic admiration, this implicit, absurd faith in his beloved, gave the painted face of the count a strange, almost ecstatic expression. He said to himself, but loud enough to be heard,—
"And to think that chance alone has led me to meet this angel!"
A sudden start, involuntary on the part of Daniel, seemed to disturb him; for he resumed his speech, laying great stress upon his words,—
"Yes, chance alone; and I can prove it to you."
He settled down in his chair like a man who is going to speak for some length of time; and, in that emphatic manner which so well expressed the high opinion he had of himself, he continued,—
"You know, my friend, how deeply I was affected by the death of the Countess Ville-Handry. It is true she was not exactly the companion a statesman of my rank would have chosen. Her whole capacity rarely rose beyond the effort to distinguish a ball-dress from a dinner-dress. But she was a good woman, attentive, discreet, and devoted to me; an excellent manager, economical, and yet always sure to do honor to the high reputation of my house."
Thus, in all sincerity, the count spoke of her who had literally made him, and who, for sixteen long years, had galvanized his empty head.
"In short," he continued, "the loss of my wife so completely upset me, that I lost all taste for the occupations which had so far been dear to me; and I set about to find distractions elsewhere. Soon after I had gotten into the habit of going frequently to my club, I fell in with M. Thomas Elgin, and, although we never became intimate, we always exchanged a friendly greeting, and occasionally a cigar.
"Sir Thorn, as they call him, is an excellent horseman, you know, and used to ride out every morning at an early hour; and as the physicians had recommended to me horseback exercise, and as I like it, because I excel in riding, as in every thing else, we often met in the Bois de Boulogne. We wished each other good-day; and sometimes we galloped a little while side by side. I am rather reserved; but Sir Thorn is even more so, and thus it did not seem that our acquaintance was ever to ripen into any thing better, till an accident brought us together.
"One morning we were returning slowly from a long ride, when Sir Thorn's mare, a foolish brute, suddenly shied, and jumped so high, that he was thrown. I jumped down instantly to help him up again; but he could not rise. You know nothing ordinarily hurts these Americans. But it seems, as we found out afterwards, that he had sprained an ankle, and dislocated a knee. There was no one near the place; and I began to be seriously embarrassed, when fortunately two soldiers appeared. I called to them, and sent one on my horse to the nearest hack-stand to bring a carriage. As soon as it came, we raised the invalid, and put him in as well as we could; I got on the box to show the man the way to Sir Thorn's house. When we arrived there, I rang the bell, and told the servants to come down to their master. They got him, with some difficulty, out of the hack; and there they were, carrying him painfully up the stairs, and he groaning feebly, for he suffered terribly.
"I was going up before them; and, as I reached the second story, a door suddenly opened, and a young girl was standing right before me.
"She was evidently dressing, when the noise which we made startled her; and she came running out. She had only taken time to throw a loose wrapper around her shoulders; and her dishevelled hair streamed out from under a kind of coquettish morning-cap.
"When she saw her kinsman in the arms of the servants, she imagined he was dangerously wounded, perhaps even—She turned as pale as death, and, uttering a loud cry, she tottered.
"She would have fallen down the steps, head foremost, if I had not caught her in my arms. She had fainted. And there I held her, leaning on my shoulder, so close that I became aware of the warmth of her lovely body, and actually felt her heart beat against mine. Her cap had become unfastened; and her hair fell in golden floods all over me, and down to the floor. But all this lasted only a few seconds.
"When she recovered, and found herself in the arms of a man, she rose with an air of extreme distress, and, slipping away, disappeared in her room."
At the mere description of this scene, the count turned pale under his rouge; and his voice forsook him. Nor did he in any way attempt to conceal his emotion.
"I am a poor old fellow," he said; "and between you and me, my dear Daniel, I will tell you that the women—well—the women have not been—exactly cruel to me. In fact, I thought I had outlived all the emotions which they can possibly give us.
"Well, I was mistaken. Never in my life, I assure you, have I felt such a deep sensation as when Miss Brandon was lying in my arms."
While saying this, he had pulled out his handkerchief, saturated with a strong perfume, and was wiping his forehead, though very gently, and with infinite precautions, so as not to spoil the artistic work of his valet.
"You will know Miss Brandon," he went on, "I hope soon. Once having seen her, one wants to see her again. I was lucky enough to have a pretext for coming again; and the very next day I was at her door, inquiring after M. Thomas Elgin. They showed me into the room of that excellent gentleman, where I found him stretched out on an invalid's chair, with his legs all bandaged up. By his side sat a venerable lady, to whom he presented me, and who was no other than Mrs. Brian.
"They received me very kindly, although with some little reserve under all their politeness; but I staid and staid in vain beyond the proper time; Miss Sarah did not appear.
"Nor did I see her upon subsequent occasions, when I repeated my visits, until at last I came to the conclusion that she avoided me purposely.
"Upon my word, I believed it. But one day Sir Thorn, who was improving very rapidly, expressed a desire to walk out a few steps in the Champs Elysees. I offered him my arm; he accepted it; and, when we came back, he asked me if I would be kind enough to take pot-luck with him."
However important these communications were for Daniel, he was for some time already listening but very inattentively to the count's recital, for he had heard a strange, faint noise, which he could not by any means explain to himself. At last, looking all around, he discovered the cause.
The door to his bedroom, which he was sure he had closed himself, was now standing partly open. No doubt M. de Brevan, weary of his confinement and excited by curiosity, had chosen this way to see and to listen. Of all this, however, Count Ville-Handry saw nothing, and suspected nothing.
"Thus," he continued, "I was at last to see Miss Sarah again. Upon my word, I was less excited, I think, the day I made my first speech. But you know I have some power over myself; and I had recovered my calmness, when Sir Thorn confessed to me that he would have invited me long since, but for the fear of offending his young relative, who had declared she would never meet me again. I was grieved, and asked how I had offended her. And then Sir Thorn, with that marvellous composure which never leaves him, said, 'It is not you she blames, but herself, on account of that ridiculous scene the other day.'
"Do you hear, Daniel, he called that adorable scene which I have just described to you, ridiculous! It is only Americans who can commit such absurdities.
"I have since found out that they had almost to force Miss Brandon to receive me; but she had tact enough not to let me see it, when I was formally presented to her, just before going to dinner. It is true, she blushed deeply; but she took my hand with the utmost cordiality, and cut me short when I was trying to pay her some compliment, saying,—
"'You are Thorn's friend; I am sure we shall be friends also.'
"Ah, Daniel! you admired Miss Brandon at the theatre; but you ought to see her at her house. Abroad she sacrifices herself in order to pay proper regard to the world; but at home she can venture to be herself.
"We soon became friends, as she had foretold, so soon, in fact, that I was quite surprised when I found her addressing me like an old acquaintance. I soon discovered how that came about.
"Our young girls here in France, my dear Daniel, are charming, no doubt, but generally ill taught, frivolous, and caring for nothing but balls, novels, or dress. The Americans are very different. Their serious minds are occupied with the same subjects which fill their parents' minds,—with politics, industry, discussions in the assembly, discoveries in science, &c. A man like myself, known abroad and at home during a long political career of some distinction, could not be a stranger to Miss Brandon. My earnestness in defending those causes which I considered just had often filled her with enthusiasm. Deeply moved by my speeches, which she was in the habit of reading, she had often thought of the speaker. I think I can hear her now say with that beautiful voice of hers, which has the clear ring of pure crystal,—
"'Oh, yes! I knew you, count; I knew you long ago. And there was many a day when I wished I were a friend of yours, so that I might say to you, "Well done, sir! what you are doing is grand, is noble!"'
"And that was true; for she remembered a number of passages from my speeches, even from such as I had forgotten myself; and she always quoted them literally. At times, I was amazed at some peculiarly bold thoughts which she uttered; and, when I complimented her upon them, she broke out in loud laughter, and said,—
"'Why, count, these are your own ideas; I got them from you. You said so on such and such an occasion.'
"And when I looked at night, after my return, into my papers, to ascertain the fact, I found almost always that Miss Brandon had been right. Need I tell you after that, that I soon became an almost daily visitor at the house in Circus Street? Surely you take it for granted.
"But what I must tell you is, that I found there the most perfect happiness, and the purest that I have ever known upon earth. I was filled with respect and with admiration, when I looked at their rigid morality, united with the heartiest cheerfulness. There I enjoyed my happiest hours, between Mrs. Brian, the Puritan lady, so strict for herself, so indulgent for others; and Thomas Elgin, the noblest and best of men, who conceals under an appearance of icy coldness the warmest and kindest of hearts."
What was Count Ville-Handry aiming at? or had he no aim at all?
Had he come merely to confide to Daniel the amazing romance of his love? Or did he simply yield to the natural desire of all lovers, to pour out the exuberance of their feelings, and to talk of their love, even when they know that their indiscretion may be fatal to their success?
Daniel put these questions to himself; but the count did not leave him time to reflect, and to answer them.
After a short pause, he seemed to rouse himself, and said, suddenly changing his tone,—
"I guess what you think, my dear Daniel. You say to yourself, 'Count Ville-Handry was in love.' Well, I assure you you are mistaken."
Daniel started from his chair; and, overcome by amazement, he exclaimed,—
"Can it be possible?"
"Exactly so; I give you my word of honor. The feelings which attracted me toward Miss Brandon were the same that bound me to my daughter. But as I am a shrewd observer, and have some knowledge of the human heart, I could not help being struck by a change in Miss Brandon's face, and especially in her manner. After having treated me with the greatest freedom and familiarity, she had suddenly become reserved, and almost cold. It was evident to me that she was embarrassed in my presence. Our constant intercourse, so far from reassuring her, seemed to frighten her. You may guess how I interpreted this change, my dear Daniel.
"But, as I have never been a conceited man, I thought I might be mistaken. I devoted myself, therefore, to more careful observation; and I soon became aware, that, if I loved Miss Brandon only with the affection of a father, I had succeeded in inspiring her with a more tender sentiment."
In any other person, this senile self-conceit would have appeared intensely absurd to Daniel; in his Henrietta's father, it pained him deeply. The count actually noticed his downcast look, and, misinterpreting it, asked him,—
"Could you doubt what I say?"
"Oh, no, sir!"
"Very well, then. I can assure you, at all events, that this discovery troubled me not a little. I was so surprised by it, that for three days I could neither think of it coolly, nor decide on what I ought to do. Still it was necessary I should make up my mind. I did not for a moment think of abusing the confidence of this innocent child; and yet I knew, I felt it, she was absolutely in my power. But no! It would have been infamous in me to repay the hospitality of excellent Mrs. Brian, and the kindness of noble M. Elgin, with such ingratitude. On the other hand, must I necessarily deny myself my pleasant visits at the house in Circus Street, and break with friends who were so dear to me? I thought of that, also; but I had not the courage to do so."
He hesitated for a moment, trying to read in Daniel's eyes his real opinion. After a while, he said very gravely,—
"It was then only, that the idea of marrying her occurred to me."
Daniel had been expecting the fatal word; thus, however heavy the blow was, it found him prepared. He remained immovable.
This indifference seemed to surprise the count; for he uttered an expression of discontent, and curtly repeated,—
"Yes, I thought of marrying her. You will say, 'That was a serious matter.' I know that only too well; and therefore I did not decide the question in a hurry, but weighed the reasons for and against very carefully. I am not one of those weak men, you know, I am sure, who can easily be hoodwinked, and who fancy they alone possess the secret of perennial youth. No, no, I know myself, and am fully aware, better than anybody else, that I am approaching maturer years.
"This was, in fact, the first objection that arose in my mind. But then I answered it triumphantly by the fact that age is not a matter to be decided by the certificate of baptism, but that we are just as old as we appear to be. Now, thanks to an exceptionally sober and peaceful life, of which forty years were spent in the country, to an iron constitution, and to the extreme care I have always taken of my health, I possess a—what shall I say?—a vigor which many young men might envy, who can hardly drag one foot after the other."
He rose as he said this, threw out his chest, straightened his back, and stretched out his well-shaped leg. Then, when he thought Daniel had sufficiently admired him, he continued,—
"Now, what of Miss Brandon? You think, perhaps, she is still in her teens? Far from that! She is at least twenty-five, my dear friend; and, for a woman, twenty-five years are—ah, ah!"
He smiled ironically, as if to say that to him a woman of twenty-five appeared an old, a very old woman. Then he went on,—
"Besides, I know how serious her disposition is, and her eminent good sense. You may rely upon me, when I tell you I have studied her. A thousand trifles, of no weight in appearance, and unnoticed by herself in all probability, have told me that she abhors very young men. She has learnt to appreciate the value of young husbands of thirty, who are all fire and flame in the honeymoon, and who, six months later, wearied with pure and tranquil happiness, seek their delights elsewhere. It is not only of late that I have found out how truly she values what is, after all, most desirable in this world,—a great name worthily borne by a true man, and a reputation that would shed new radiance upon her. How often have I heard her say to Mrs. Brian, 'Above all, aunt, I want to be proud of my husband; I want to see everybody's eye sparkle with admiration and envy as soon as I mention his name, which will have become mine also; I want people to whisper around me, "Ah, how happy she is to be loved by such a man!"'"
He shook his head gravely, and said in a solemn tone,—
"I examined myself, Daniel, and found that I answered all of Miss Brandon's expectations; and the result of my meditations was, that I would be a madman to allow such happiness to escape me, and that I was bound to risk every thing. I made up my mind, therefore, firmly, and went to M. Elgin in order to make him aware of my intentions. I cannot describe to you the amazement of that worthy gentleman.
"'You are joking,' he said at first, 'and that pains me deeply.'
"But, when he saw that I had never in my life spoken more seriously, he, who is usually so phlegmatic, became perfectly furious. As if I would have come to him, if, by some impossible accident, I should have been unhappy in my choice! But I fell from the clouds when he told me outright that he meant to do all he could do to prevent such a match. Nor would he give up his purpose, say what I could; and I had to use all my skill to make him change his mind. At last, after more than two hours' discussion, all that I could obtain from him was the promise that he would remain neutral, and that he would leave to Mrs. Brian the responsibility of refusing or accepting my offer."
He laughed, this good Count Ville-Handry, he laughed heartily, no doubt recalling his discussion with Sir Thorn, and his triumphant skill.
"So," he resumed, "I went to Mrs. Brian. Ah! she did not mince matters. At the first word, she called me—God forgive her!—an old fool, and plainly told me that I must never show myself again in Circus Street.
"I insisted; but in vain. She would not even listen to me, the old Puritan; and, when I became pressing, she dropped me a solemn curtsey, and left me alone in the room, looking foolish enough, I am sure.
"For the time, I had nothing to do but to go away. I did so, hoping that her interview with her niece might induce her to change her mind. Not at all. The next morning, when I called at the house, the servants said Sir Thorn was out, and Mrs. Brian and Miss Brandon had just left for Fontainebleau. The day after, the same result; and for a whole week the doors remained closed.
"I was becoming restless, when a commissionaire, one morning, brought me a letter. It was Miss Brandon who wrote. She asked me to be that very day, at four o'clock, in the Bois de Boulogne, near the waterfalls; that she would ride out in the afternoon with Sir Thorn; that she would escape from him, and meet me.
"As a matter of course, I was punctual; and it was well I was so, for, a few minutes after I got there, I saw her—or rather I felt her—coming towards me, riding at full speed. When she reached me, she stopped suddenly, and, jumping from her horse, said to me,—
"'They watch me so jealously, that I could not write to you till to-day. I am deeply wounded by this want of confidence, and I do not think I can endure it any longer. Here I am, carry me off, let us go!'
"Never, O Daniel! never have I seen her look more marvellously beautiful than she looked at that moment. She was flushed with excitement and the rapid ride; her eyes shone with courage and passion; her lips trembled; and then she said again,—
"'I know I am ruining myself; and you yourself—you will probably despise me. But never mind! Let us be gone!'"
He paused, overcome with excitement; but, soon recovering, he continued,—
"To hear a beautiful woman tell you that! Ah, Daniel! that is an experience which alone is worth a man's whole life. And yet I had the courage, mad as I felt I was becoming, to speak to her words of calm reason. Yes, I had the sublime courage, and the almost fortuitous control over myself, to conjure her to retreat into her house.
"She began to weep, and accused me of indifference.
"But I had discovered a way out of the difficulty, and said to her,—
"'Sarah, go home. Write to me what you have just told me, and I am sure I shall compel your friends to grant me your hand.'
"This she did.
"And what I had foreseen came to pass. In the face of such evidence of what they called our madness, Sir Thorn and Mrs. Brian dared not oppose our plans any longer. After some little hesitations, and imposing certain honorable conditions, they said to Sarah and myself,—
"'You will have it so. Go, then, and get married.'"
This is what Count Ville-Handry called chance, a "blessed chance," as he said, utterly unmindful of the whole chain of circumstances which he himself related. From the accident that had befallen M. Elgin, and the fainting-fit of Miss Brandon, to the meeting in the Bois de Boulogne and the proposed runaway-match, all seemed to him perfectly natural and simple,—even the sudden enthusiasm of a young, frivolous woman for his political opinions, and the learning by heart of his speeches.
Daniel was amazed. That a man like the count should be so perfectly blind to the intrigue that was going on around him, seemed to him incomprehensible. The count, however, was not so blind, that he should not have at least suspected the nature of Daniel's feelings.
"What are you thinking of?" he asked. "Come, let us hear your opinion. Tell us frankly that you suspect Miss Brandon, and accuse her of trying to catch me in her snares, or, at least, of having selfish views."
"I do not say so," stammered Daniel.
"No, but you think so; and that is worse. Well, come; I think I can convince you of your mistake. What do you think Miss Brandon would gain by marrying me? A fortune, you say. I have only one word in reply; but that is sufficient; Miss Brandon is richer than I am."
How, and at what price, Miss Brandon had managed to possess herself of such a fortune, Daniel knew but too well from Maxime's account; hence he could not suppress a nervous shudder, which the count noticed, and which irritated him.
"Yes, richer than I am," he repeated. "The oil-wells which she has inherited from her father bring her in, bad years and good years, from thirty to forty thousand dollars a year, and that in spite of their being sadly mismanaged. If they were well managed, they would produce, three, four, or five times as much, or even more. Sir Thorn has proved to me that they are an almost inexhaustible mine of wealth. If petroleum was not fabulously profitable, how would you account for the oil-fever with which these cool, calculating Americans have suddenly been seized, and which has made more millionaires than the gold-fever in California and the Territories? Ah! there is something to be made there yet, and something grand, if one could dispose of a large capital."
He became excited, and forgot himself; but he soon checked himself. He had evidently been on the point of letting a secret leak out. After a few moments, he continued more calmly,—
"But enough of that. I trust your suspicions are removed. Next you may tell me that Miss Brandon takes me because she can do no better. Mistaken again, my friend. At this very moment she is called upon to choose between me and a much younger man than I am, whose fortune, moreover, is larger than mine,—Mr. Wilkie Gordon."
How did it come about that Count Ville-Handry seemed to appeal to Daniel, and to plead his cause before him? Daniel did not even think of asking himself that question; his mind was in a state of utter confusion. Still, as the count insisted on having his opinion, as he urged him, and repeatedly asked, "Well, do you see any other objection?" he forgot at last his friend's prudent warning, and said in a troubled voice,—
"No doubt, count, you know Miss Brandon's family?"
"Certainly! Do you think I would buy a cat in a bag? Her excellent father was a model of honesty."
"And—her previous life?"
The count started from his chair, and, casting a savage glance at Daniel, said,—
"Oh, oh! I see one of those rascally slanderers, who have tried to tarnish the honor of the noblest and chastest of all women, has already been at work here, anticipating my communication to you, and repeating those infamous calumnies. You must give me the name of the scoundrel."
Unconsciously, almost, Daniel turned towards the door, behind which M. de Brevan was listening. Perhaps he expected him to come forth; but Maxime did not stir.
"Sarah's previous life!" continued the count. "I know every hour of it; and I can answer for it as for my own. The darling! Before consenting to be mine, she insisted upon my knowing every thing, yes, every thing, without reserve or boastfulness; and I know what she has suffered. Did they not actually say she had been the accomplice of a wretched thief, a cashier of some bank, who had become a defaulter? Did they not say that she had driven a foolish young man, a gambler, to commit suicide; and that she had watched, unmoved, the tortures of his agony? Ah! you have only to look at Miss Brandon to know that these vile stories are wretched inventions of malicious enemies and rivals. And look here, Daniel; you may believe me; whenever you see people calumniate a man or a woman, you may rest assured that that man or woman has, somehow or other, wounded or humiliated some vulgar person, some mean, envious fool, who cannot endure his or her superiority in point of fortune, rank, or beauty and talent."
He had actually recovered his youthful energy in thus defending his beloved. His eye brightened up; his voice became strong, and his gestures animated.
"But no more of that painful topic," he said: "let us talk seriously."
He rose, and leaning on the mantelpiece, so as to face Daniel, he said,—
"I told you, my dear Daniel, that Sir Thorn and Mrs. Brian insisted upon certain conditions before they consented to our marriage. One is, that Miss Brandon is to be received by my relations as she deserves to be, not only respectfully, but affectionately, even tenderly. As to relations, there is not any. I have some remote cousins, who, having nothing to expect from me when I die, do not trouble themselves any more about me than I trouble myself about them. But I have a daughter; and there is the danger. I know she is distressed at the idea of my marrying again. She cannot bear the mere idea that another woman is to take the place of her mother, to bear her name, and to rule in my house."
Daniel began at last to know what he had to understand by that unsuccessful appointment which had procured him the pleasure of a visit from Count Ville-Handry.
"Now," continued the latter, "I know my daughter. She is her mother over again, weak, but obstinate beyond endurance. If she has taken it into her head to receive Miss Brandon uncivilly, she will do so, in spite of all she has promised me, and she will make a terrible scene of it. And if Miss Brandon consents, in spite of all, to go on, my house will become a hell to me, and my wife will suffer terribly. Now the question is, whether I have sufficient influence over Henrietta to bring her to reason. I think not. But this influence which I have not—a very nice young man may have it; and that man is you."
Daniel had turned red. It was for the first time that the count spoke so clearly. He went on,—
"I have never disapproved of my poor wife's plans; and the proof is, that I have allowed you to pay your attentions to my daughter. But now I make this condition: if my daughter is to Miss Brandon what she ought to be to her, a tender and devoted sister, then, six months after my wedding, there shall be another wedding at my house."
Daniel was about to speak; but he stopped him, saying,—
"No, not a word! I have shown you the wisdom of my decision, and you may act accordingly."
He had already put on his hat and opened the door, when he added,—
"Ah! one word more. Miss Brandon has asked me to present you to her to-night. She wants to speak to you. Come and dine with me; and after dinner we will go to Circus Street. Now, pray think of what I have told you, and good-by!"
Count Ville-Handry had hardly closed the door, when M. de Brevan rushed out of the bedroom in which he had been concealed.
"Was I right?" he exclaimed.
But Daniel did not hear him. He had forgotten his very presence. Overcome by the great effort he had made to conceal his emotions, he had sunk into a chair, hiding his face in his hands, and said to himself in a mournful voice, and as if trying to convince himself of an overwhelming fact,—
"The count has lost his mind altogether, and we are lost."
The grief of this excellent young man was so great and so bitter, that M. de Brevan seemed to be deeply moved. He looked at him for some time with an air of pity, and then suddenly, as if yielding to a good impulse, he touched his shoulder, and said,—