The unhappy man started like one who has suddenly been roused from deep slumber; and, as he recalled what had just happened, he said,—
"You have heard all, Maxime?"
"All! I have not lost a word nor a gesture. But do not blame me for my indiscretion. It enables me to give you some friendly advice. You know I have paid dear for my experience."
He hesitated, being at a loss how to express his ideas; then he continued in a short, sharp tone,—
"You love Miss Ville-Handry?"
"More than my life, don't you know?"
"Well, if that is so, abandon all thoughts of useless resistance; induce Miss Henrietta to do as her father wishes; and persuade Miss Brandon to let your wedding take place a month after her own. But ask for special pledges. Miss Ville-Handry may suffer somewhat during that month; but the day after your wedding you will carry her off to your own home, and leave the poor old man to his amorous folly."
Daniel showed in his face that this suggestion opened a new prospect before him.
"I had not thought of that," he said.
"It is all you can do."
"Yes, it is what prudence would advise me to do. But can I do so in honor?"
"Oh, honor, honor!"
"Would it not be wrong in me to abandon the poor old man to the mercy of Miss Brandon and her accomplices?"
"You will never be able to rescue him, my dear fellow."
"I ought at least to try. You thought so yesterday, and even this morning, not two hours ago."
Maxime could scarcely hide his impatience.
"I did not know then what I know now," he said.
Daniel had risen, and was walking up and down the small room, replying to his own objections, rather than to those raised by Brevan.
"If I were alone master," he said, "I might, perhaps, agree to a capitulation. But could Henrietta accept it? Never, never! Her father knows her well. She is as weak as a child; but at the proper moment she can develop a masculine energy and an iron will."
"Why should you tell her at all who Miss Brandon is?"
"I have pledged my word of honor to tell her every thing."
Brevan again shrugged his shoulders, and there was no mistaking what he meant by that gesture. He might just as well have said aloud, "Can one conceive such stupidity?"
"Then you had better give up your Henrietta, my poor fellow," he said.
But Daniel's despair had been overcome. He ground his teeth with anger, and said,—
"Not yet, my friend, not yet! An honest man who defends his honor and his life is pretty strong. I have no experience, that is true; but I have you, Maxime; and I know I can always count upon you."
Daniel did not seem to have noticed that M. de Brevan, at first all fire and energy, had rapidly cooled off, like a man, who, having ventured too far, thinks he has made a mistake, and tries to retrace his steps.
"Certainly you may count upon me," he replied; "but what can be done?"
"Well, what you said yourself. I shall call upon Miss Brandon, and watch her. I shall dissemble, and gain time. If necessary, I shall employ detectives, and find out her antecedents. I shall try to interest some high personage in my behalf,—my minister, for instance, who is very kind to me. Besides, I have an idea."
"That unlucky cashier, whose story you told me, and who, you think, is not dead—if we could find him. How did you call him? Oh, Malgat! An advertisement inserted in all the leading newspapers of Europe would, no doubt, reach him; and the hope of seeing himself avenged"—
M. de Brevan's cheeks began to redden perceptibly. He broke out with strange vehemence,—
Then he added, more collectedly,—
"You forget that Malgat has been sentenced to I know not how many years' penal servitude, and that he will see in your advertisement a trick of the police; so that he will only conceal himself more carefully than ever."
But Daniel was not so easily shaken. He said,—
"I will think it over. I will see. Perhaps something might be done with that young man whom the count mentioned, that M. Wilkie Gordon. If I thought he was really anxious for Miss Brandon's hand"—
"I have heard it said, and I am sure it is so, the young man is one of those idiots whom vanity renders insane, and who do not know what to do in order to make themselves notorious. Miss Brandon being very famous, he would marry her, just as he would pay a hundred thousand dollars for a famous racer."
"And how do you account for Miss Brandon's refusal?"
"By the character of the man, whom I know very well, and whom she knows as well. She is quite aware that, three months after the wedding, he would decamp, and in less than a year she would be divorced. Then there is another thing: Wilkie is only twenty-five years old; and you know a fellow at that age is likely to live a good deal longer than a lover who is beyond the sixties."
The way in which he said this lent to his words a terrible significance; and Daniel, turning pale, stammered out,—
"Great God! Do you think Miss Brandon could"—
"Could do anything, most assuredly,—except, perhaps, get into trouble with the police. I have heard her say that only fools employ poison or the dagger."
A strange smile passed over his lips; and he added in a tone of horrible irony,—
"It is true there are other means, less prompt, perhaps, but much safer, by which people may be removed when they become inconvenient.
"What means? The same, no doubt, which she had employed to get rid of poor Kergrist, and that unlucky Malgat, the cashier of the Mutual Discount Society. Purely moral means, based upon her thorough knowledge of the character of her victims, and her own infernal power over them."
But Daniel tried in vain to obtain more light from his friend. Brevan answered evasively; perhaps because he did not dare to speak out freely, and reveal his real thoughts; or because it lay in his plans to be content with having added this horrible fear to all the other apprehensions of his friend.
His embarrassment, just now unmistakable, had entirely disappeared, as if he had come to a final decision after long hesitation. He who had first advised all kinds of concessions now suggested the most energetic resistance, and seemed to be confident of success.
When he at last left Daniel, he had made him promise to keep him hour by hour informed of all that might happen, and, above all, to try every means in his power to unmask Miss Brandon.
"How he hates her!" said Daniel to himself when he was alone,—"how he hates her!"
But this very hatred, which had already troubled him the night before, now disturbed him more and more, and kept him from coming to any decision. The more he reflected, the more it seemed to him that Maxime had allowed himself to be carried away beyond what was probable, or even possible. The last accusation, especially, seemed to him perfectly monstrous.
A young and beautiful woman, consumed by ambition and covetousness, might possibly play a comedy of pure love while she was disgusted in her heart. She might catch by vile tricks a foolish old man, and make him marry her, openly and avowedly selling her beauty and her youth. Such things happen, and are excused by the morality of our day. The same wicked, heartless woman might speculate upon becoming speedily a widow, and thus regaining her liberty, together with a large fortune. This also happens, however horrible it may appear. But that she should marry a poor old fool, with the preconceived purpose of hastening his end by a deliberate crime, there was a depth in that wickedness which terrified Daniel's imagination.
Deeply ensconced in his chair, he was losing himself in conjectures, forgetting how time passed, and how his work was waiting for him, even the invitation to dinner which the count had given to him, and the prospect of being introduced that very evening to Miss Brandon. Night came; and then only his concierge, who came in to see what had become of him all day long, aroused him from his torpor.
"Ah, I am losing my senses!" he exclaimed, rising suddenly. "And Henrietta, who has been waiting for me—what must she think of me?"
Miss Ville-Handry, at that very moment, had reached that degree of anxiety which becomes well-nigh intolerable. After having waited for Daniel all the evening of the day before, and after having spent a sleepless night, she had surely expected him to-day, counting the seconds by the beating of her heart, and starting at the noise of every carriage in the street. In her despair, knowing hardly what she was doing, she was thinking of running herself to University Street, to Daniel's house, when the door opened.
In the same indifferent tone in which he announced friends and enemies, the servant said,—
"M. Daniel Champcey."
Henrietta was up in a moment. She was about to exclaim,—
"What has kept you? What has happened?" But the words died away on her lips.
It had been sufficient for her to look at Daniel's sad face to feel that a great misfortune had befallen her.
"Ah! you had been right in your fears," she said, sinking into a chair.
"Speak: let me know all."
"Your father has come to me, and offered me your hand, Henrietta, provided I can obtain your consent to his marriage with Miss Brandon. Now, listen to me; and then you can decide."
Faithful to his promise, he thereupon told her every thing he had learned from Maxime and the count, suppressing only those details which would have made the poor girl blush, and also that terrible charge which he was unwilling to believe.
When he had ended, Henrietta said warmly,—
"What! I should allow my father to marry such a creature? I should sit still and smile when such dishonor and such ruin are coming to a house over which my mother has presided! No; far be it from me ever to be so selfish! I shall oppose Miss Brandon's plans with all my strength and all my energy."
"She may triumph, after all."
"She shall not triumph over my resistance and my contempt. Never—do you hear me, Daniel?—never will I bow down before her. Never shall my hand touch hers. And, if my father persists, I shall ask him, the day before his wedding, to allow me to bury myself in a convent."
"He will not let you go."
"Then I shall shut myself up in my room, and never leave it again. I do not think they will drag me out by force."
There was no mistaking it; she spoke with an earnestness and a determination which nothing could shake or break. And yet the very saddest presentiments oppressed Daniel's heart. He said,—
"But Miss Brandon will certainly not come alone to this house."
"Whom will she bring with her?"
"Her relatives, M. Thomas Elgin and Mrs. Brian. Oh Henrietta, dearest Henrietta! to think that you should be exposed to the spite and the persecution of these wretches!"
She raised her head proudly, and replied,—
"I am not afraid of them." Then she added in a gentler tone,—
"Besides, won't you always be near me, to advise me, and to protect me in case of danger?"
"I? Don't you think they will try to part us soon enough?"
"No, Daniel, I know very well that the house will no longer be open to you."
The poor girl blushed up to the roots of her hair, and, turning her. eyes away from him to avoid his looks, she said,—
"Since they force us to do so, I must needs do a thing a girl, properly speaking, ought not to do. We will meet secretly. I shall have to stoop to win over one of my waiting-women, who may be discreet and obliging enough to aid me, and, through her, I will write to you, and receive your letters."
But this arrangement did not relieve Daniel from his terrible apprehensions. There was a question which constantly rose to his lips, and which still he did not dare to utter. At last, making a great effort, he asked,—
Henrietta understood perfectly what he meant. She answered,—
"I thought you would be able to wait until the day should come when the law would authorize me to make my own choice."
She offered him her hand, and said solemnly,—
"And on that day, Daniel, I promise you, if my father still withholds his consent, I will ask you openly for your arm; and then, in broad daylight, before all the world, I shall leave this house never to re-enter it again."
As quick as thought, Daniel had seized her hand, and, carrying it to his lips, he said,—"Thanks! A thousand thanks! You restore me to hope."
Still, before abandoning the effort, he thought he would try one more measure; and for that purpose it was necessary that Henrietta should be induced to conceal her intentions as long as possible. It was only with great difficulty that he succeeded in obtaining her consent.
"I will do what you desire; but believe me, all your efforts will be in vain."
She was interrupted by the arrival of Count Ville-Handry. He kissed his daughter, said a few words about rain and fine weather; and then, drawing Daniel into one of the windows, he asked—
"Have you spoken to her?"
"Miss Henrietta wants a few days to consider."
The count looked displeased, and said,—
"That is absurd. Nothing can be more ridiculous. But, after all, it is your business, my dear Daniel. And, if you want any additional motive, I will tell you that my daughter is very rich. She has a quarter of a million of her own."
"Sir!" exclaimed Daniel indignantly.
But Count Ville-Handry had already turned upon his heels; and the butler came to announce that dinner was on the table.
The meal, though excellent in itself, was necessarily very dull and sad. It was promptly despatched; for the count seemed to be sitting on needles, and every minute looked at his watch.
They had but just handed the coffee around, when he turned to Daniel, saying,—
"Let us make haste. Miss Brandon expects us."
Daniel was instantly ready. But the count did not even give him time to take leave of Henrietta; he carried him off to his carriage, pushed him in, jumped in after him, and called out to the servant,—"Circus Street! Miss Brandon! Drive fast!"
The servants knew very well what the count meant when he said, "Drive fast!" The coachman, on such occasions, made his horses literally go as fast as they could; and, but for his great skill, the foot-passengers would have been in considerable danger. Nevertheless, on this evening Count Ville-Handry twice lowered the window to call out,—
"Don't drive at a walk!"
The fact is, that, in spite of his efforts to assume the air of a grave statesman, he was as impatient, and as vain of his love, as a young collegian hurrying to his first rendezvous with his beloved. During dinner he had been sullen and silent; now he became talkative, and chatted away, without troubling himself about the silence of his companion.
To be sure, Daniel did not even listen. Half-buried in the corner of the well-padded carriage, he tried his best to control his emotions; for he was excited, more excited than ever in his life, by the thought that he was to see, face to face, this formidable adventuress, Miss Brandon. And like the wrestler, who, before making a decisive assault, gathers up all his strength, he summoned to his aid his composure and his energy. It took them not more than ten minutes to drive the whole distance to Circus Street.
"Here we are!" cried the count.
And, without waiting for the steps to be let down, he jumped on the sidewalk, and, running ahead of his servants, knocked at the door of Miss Brandon's house. It was by no means one of those modern structures which attract the eye of the passer-by by a ridiculous and conspicuous splendor. Looking at it from the street, you would have taken it for the modest house of a retired grocer, who was living in it upon his savings at the rate of two or three thousand a year. It is true, that from the street, you could see neither the garden, nor the stables and the carriage-houses.
In the meantime a servant had appeared, who took the count's and Daniel's coats, and showed them up stairs. When they reached the upper landing, the count stopped, as if his breath had been giving out of a sudden.
"There," he stammered, "there!"
"Where? What?" Daniel did not know what he meant. The count only wished to say that "there" was the place where he had held Miss Brandon in his arms the day she had fainted. But Daniel had no time to ask any questions. Another servant appeared, coming out of the rooms, and, bowing low before Count Ville-Handry, he said,—
"The ladies have but just risen from table, and are still dressing."
"If the gentlemen will please sit down in the parlor, I will tell M. Elgin."
"Very well," said the count, speaking in a tone which showed that he considered himself perfectly at home in Miss Brandon's house. He entered the parlor, followed by Daniel. It was a magnificent room; but every thing in it, from the carpet on the floor to the chandelier on the ceiling, betrayed the Puritanic taste of Mrs. Brian. It was splendid; but the splendor was cold, stiff, and mournful. The furniture had sharp angles, and suggested any thing but comfort. The bronze figures on the mantlepiece-clock were biblical personages; and the other bronzes were simply hideous. Except these, there was no ornament visible, not a painting, nor a statuette.
Yes, one. Opposite the fireplace, in the place of honor, there stared at you a painting in a most costly gilt frame,—a horrible daub, representing a man of about fifty years, who wore a fancy uniform with enormous epaulets, a huge sword, a plumed hat, and a blue sash, into which two revolvers were thrust.
"Gen. Brandon, Miss Sarah's father," said Count Ville-Handry, in a tone of deep respect, which unnerved Daniel. "As a work of art, this portrait leaves, no doubt, much to be wished for; but they say the likeness is excellent."
Certainly, though that might be so, there was no resemblance to be discovered between the tanned face of this American general and the blooming features of Miss Brandon. But there was something more. As Daniel examined this picture nearer by, and more closely, he thought he discovered a studied and intentional coarseness of execution. It looked to him like the work of an artist who had endeavored to imitate those wretched painters who live upon the vanity of weak men and little children. He thought he discovered by the side of gross inaccuracies unmistakable traces of a master's hand; and especially one of the ears, half hid behind the hair, seemed to him admirably done.
But, before he could draw his conclusions from this strange discovery, M. Thomas Elgin appeared in the room. He was in evening costume, looking taller and stiffer than ever in his white cravat; and, as he came forward, he halted a little on one foot, though leaning upon a big cane.
"What, my dear Sir Thorn!" exclaimed the count, "your leg still gives you trouble?"
"Oh, a great deal!" replied the honorable gentleman, with a very marked English accent,—"a great deal since this morning. The doctor thinks there must be something the matter with the bone."
At the same time, obeying the tendency which we all have to display our ailments, he slightly drew up his trousers, so that the bandages became visible which he wore around his leg. Count Ville-Handry looked at it with pity; then, forgetting that he had introduced Daniel already the night before at the opera, he presented him once more; and, when the ceremony was over, he said to Sir Thorn,—
"Upon my word, I am almost ashamed to appear so early; but I knew you expected company to-night."
"Oh, only a few persons!"
"And I desired to see you for a few moments alone."
A strange grimace represented the only smile of which the honorable gentleman was capable. He made it twice, and then said, caressing his primly-cut whiskers,—
"They have told Miss Sarah that you are here, my dear count; and I heard her tell Mrs. Brian that she was nearly ready. I cannot imagine how she can spend so much time at her toilet."
They were thus chatting away before the fireplace, Sir Thorn stretched out in an easy-chair, and the count leaning against the mantlepiece, while Daniel had withdrawn into the embrasure of a window which looked upon the court-yard and the garden behind the house. There, his brow pressed against the cool window-panes, he was meditating. He could not understand this wound of M. Elgin's.
"Is it possible that his fall was an intentional fall?" he thought, "or did he really break his leg? If he did so, that fainting-fit might have been natural, and not prearranged; but"—
He was just plunging into these doubts and speculations, when the noise of a carriage entering the court-yard, aroused him from his thoughts.
He looked out. A coupe had driven up to the back porch of the house. A lady stepped out; and he was on the point of uttering a cry of surprise, for he thought he recognized Miss Sarah in that woman. But could that be so? He was unwilling to believe it, when she suddenly raised her head in order to speak to the coachman, and the light from the lamps fell full upon her face.
There was no doubt now on his mind. It was Miss Brandon.
She flew up the steps, and entered the house. He heard distinctly the heavy door close behind her.
At the opera, the night before, a single word uttered by Miss Brandon had sufficed to enlighten Daniel. But now this was a very different matter. It was a potent fact, unmistakable and tangible, which came to him in support of his suspicions.
In order to increase the passionate impatience of the count, they had told him that Miss Brandon was still dressing, but that she was making all haste to come down to him. Not a word had been said of her being out, and of her return at that very moment. Where had she been? What new intrigues had compelled her to leave the house just then? It must have evidently been something of great importance to have kept her out till so late an hour, and when she knew, moreover, that the count was waiting for her.
This incident threw a flood of light on the cunning policy pursued in this house, and on the clever and active complicity of M. Thomas Elgin and Mrs. Brian. What their game really was, and how Count Ville-Handry had been caught in the trap, he now understood well enough; he would have been caught in it himself.
How clever these actors were! how perfect all the arrangements! and how scientifically the smallest details were prepared! How marvellously well even the parlor was arranged to serve the purposes of the owners! This simple elegance could not but banish all doubts; and this horrible portrait of the so-called Gen. Brandon—what a stroke of genius!
As to the lame leg of Sir Thorn, Daniel no longer believed in it.
"His leg is no more broken than mine," he thought.
But at the same time he marvelled at the self-denial of this gentleman, who, in order to prove a falsehood, consented to wear his leg bandaged up for months, as if it really had been severely injured.
"And to-night," said Daniel to himself, "the performance, no doubt, is to be specially artistic, as they expected me."
Still, like a duellist, who tries to regain all his strength after a sleepless night, Daniel was now fully prepared for the battle. He even returned to the fireplace, for fear that his standing alone, and his preoccupation, might betray his thoughts.
The conversation between Count Ville-Handry and M. Elgin had in the meantime become very familiar; and the count was just detailing all his arrangements for the approaching wedding. He would live, he said, with his wife in the second story of his palace. The first story was to be divided into two suites of apartments,—one for M. Thomas Elgin, and the other for Mrs. Brian; for he knew very well that his adored Sarah would never consent to part with her dear relatives, who had been father and mother to her.
The last words remained in his throat; he stood as if he were petrified, his eyes starting from their sockets, his mouth wide open.
Mrs. Brian had entered the room, followed by Miss Brandon. Daniel was even more struck by her strange beauty to-day than at the opera; it was literally dazzling. She wore on that night a dress of tea-color embroidered with tiny bouquets in Chinese silk, and trimmed below with an immense flounce of plaited muslin. In her hair, which looked even more carelessly put up than usually, she had nothing but a branch of fuschia, the crimson bells falling gracefully down upon her neck, where they mingled with her golden curls.
She came smilingly up to Count Ville-Handry, and, offering him her brow to kiss, she said,—
"Do I look well, dear count?"
He trembled from head to foot; and all he could do was to stretch out his lips, and to stammer in an almost ecstatic tone of voice,—
"Oh, beautiful! too beautiful!"
"It has taken you long enough, I am sure," said Sir Thorn severely,—"too long!"
He might have known that Miss Brandon had accomplished a miracle of expeditiousness; for it was not a quarter of an hour since she returned to the house.
"You are an impertinent villain, Thorn," she said, laughing in the fresh and hearty manner of a child; "and I am very happy that the presence of the count relieves me from your eternal sermons."
"Sarah!" exclaimed Mrs. Brian reprovingly.
But she had already turned round, with her hand outstretched towards Daniel,—
"I am so glad you have come, sir!" she said. "I am sure we shall understand each other admirably."
She told him this with the softest possible voice; but, if he had known her better, he would have read in the way in which she looked at him, that her disposition towards him had entirely changed since yesterday; then she wished him well; now she hated him savagely.
"Understand each other?" he repeated as he bowed; "in what?"
She made no answer.
The servant announced some of the usual visitors; and she went to receive them. Ten o'clock struck; and from that moment the invited guests did not cease to arrive. At eleven o'clock there were perhaps a hundred persons in the room; and in the two adjoining rooms card-tables had been arranged.
It appeared that the gentlemen who showed themselves there—old men mostly, amply decorated with foreign orders, and young men in extravagantly fashionable costumes—were not free from suspicion; but they all belonged to Paris high-life, to that society, which, under a dazzlingly brilliant outside, conceals hideous crimes, and allows now and then traces of real misery to be seen through the rents in the splendid livery worn by its members.
Some of these men stood, by the name they bore or the position they filled, high above the rest of the company; they were easily recognized by their haughty manner, and the intense deference with which their slightest remarks were received. And to this crowd Count Ville-Handry displayed his good-fortune. He assumed all the airs of the master of the house; as if he had been in his own house, gave orders to the servants, and then, with mock modesty, went from group to group, eagerly picking up all the compliments he could gather on Miss Brandon's beauty, and his own good luck.
Gracefully reclining in an easy-chair near the fireplace, Miss Sarah looked a young queen surrounded by her court. But in spite of the multitude of her admirers, and the number of compliments she received at every moment, she never for a moment lost sight of Daniel, watching him all the time stealthily, to read his thoughts in his features.
Once she even shocked the crowd of her worshippers by suddenly leaving her place in order to ask him why he held himself so aloof, and whether he felt indisposed. Then, seeing that he was a perfect stranger here, she was good enough to point out to him some of the most remarkable men in the crowd. In doing this, she was so anxious to make him aware of her distinguished friends, that Daniel began to think she must have divined his intentions, and thus indirectly defied him, as if she had said in so many words,—
"You see what friends I have, and how they would defend me if you should dare to attack me."
Nevertheless, he was not discouraged, being fully aware of all the difficulties of his undertaking, and having long since counted up all the obstacles in his way. While the conversation was going on around him, he arranged in his head a plan, which, he hoped, would enable him to find out the antecedents of this dangerous adventuress.
These thoughts preoccupied him to such a degree, that he did not become aware how the rooms became gradually empty. It was so, nevertheless; and there were finally only a few intimate friends left, and four players at a card-table.
Then Miss Brandon arose, and, coming up to Daniel, said to him,—
"Will you grant me ten minutes' conversation, sir?"
He prepared to follow her, when Mrs. Brian interposed, saying a few words in a tone of reproach to her niece. Daniel knew enough English to understand that she said,—
"What you are doing is highly improper, Sarah."
"Shocking!" added M. Thomas Elgin.
But she shrugged her shoulders slightly, and replied in English,—
"My dear count alone would have a right to judge my conduct; and he has authorized me to do what I am doing."
Then turning to Daniel, she said to him in French,—
"Come with me, sir."
Miss Sarah led Daniel to a small boudoir adjoining her own room. Nothing could be fresher and more coquettish than this little room, which looked almost like a greenhouse, so completely was it filled with rare and fragrant flowers, while the door and window-frames were overgrown with luxuriant creepers. In the windows stood large vases filled with flowers; and the light bamboo chairs were covered with the same bright silk with which the walls were hung. If the great reception-room reflected the character of Mrs. Brian, this charming boudoir represented Miss Brandon's own exquisite taste.
She sat down on a small sofa and began, after a short pause,—
"My aunt was right; it would have been more proper for me to convey to you through M. Elgin what I want to say. But I have the independence of all the girls of my country; and, when my interests are at stake, I trust no one but myself."
She was bewitching in her ingenuousness as she uttered these words with the air of a little child who looks cunning, and determined to undertake something that appears quite formidable.
"I am told that my dear count has been to see you this afternoon," she continued, "and you have heard that in less than a month I shall be the Countess Ville-Handry?"
Daniel was surprised. In less than a month! What could be done in so little time?
"Now, sir," continued Miss Brandon, "I wish to hear from your own lips whether you see—any—objections to this match."
She spoke so frankly, that it was evident she was utterly unconscious of that article in the code of social laws which prescribes that a French girl must never mention the word "marriage" without blushing to the roots of her hair. Daniel, on the contrary, was terribly embarrassed.
"I confess," he replied with much hesitation, "that I do not understand, that I cannot possibly explain to myself, why you do me the honor"—
"To consult you? Pardon me; I think you understand me perfectly well. Have they not promised you Miss Ville-Handry's hand?"
"The count has permitted me to hope"—
"He has pledged his word, sir, under certain conditions. My dear count has told me every thing. I speak, therefore, to Count Ville-Handry's son-in-law, and I repeat, Do you see any objections to this match?"
The question was too precisely put to allow of any prevarication. And still Daniel was bent upon gaining time, and avoiding any positive answer. For the first time in his life he said a falsehood; and, turning crimson all over, he stammered out,—
"I see no objection."
She shook her head, and then said very slowly,—
"If that is so, you will not refuse me a great favor. Carried away by her grief at seeing her father marry again, Miss Ville-Handry hates me. Will you promise me to use your influence in trying to persuade her to change her disposition towards me?"
Never had honest Daniel Champcey been tried so hard. He answered diplomatically,—
"I am afraid you overestimate my influence."
She looked at him suddenly with such a sharp and penetrating glance that he felt almost startled, and then said,—
"I do not ask of you to succeed, only promise me upon your honor that you will do your best, and I shall be very much obliged to you. Will you give me that promise?"
Could he do so? The situation was so exceptional, Daniel had at all cost to lull the enemy into security for a time, and for a moment he was inclined to pledge his honor. Nay, more than that, he made an effort to do it. But his lips refused to utter a false oath.
"You see," resumed Miss Brandon very coldly, "you see you were deceiving me."
And, turning away from him, she hid her face in her hands, apparently overcome by grief, and repeated in a tone of deep sorrow,—
"What a disgrace! Great God! What a humiliation!"
But suddenly she started up again, her face bright with a glow of hope, and cried out,—
"Well, be it so. I like it all the better so. A mean man would not have hesitated at an oath, however determined he might have been not to keep it. Whilst you—I can trust you; you are a man of honor, and all is not lost yet. Whence comes your aversion? Is it a question of money, the count's fortune?"
"No, it is not that, I see. I was quite sure of it. What, then, can it be? Tell me, sir, I beseech you! tell me something."
What could he tell her? Daniel remained silent.
"Very well," said Sarah, clinching her teeth convulsively. "I understand."
She made a supreme effort not to break out in sobs; and big tears, resembling diamonds of matchless beauty, rolled slowly down from between her long, trembling eyelashes.
"Yes," she said, "I understand. The atrocious calumnies which my enemies have invented have reached you; and you have believed them. They have, no doubt, told you that I am an adventuress, come from nowhere; that my father, the brave defender of the Union, exists only in the painting in my parlor; that no one knows where my income comes from; that Thorn, that noble soul, and Mrs. Brian, a saint upon earth, are vile accomplices of mine. Confess, you have been told all that, and you have believed it."
Grand in her wrath, her cheeks burning, her lips trembling, she rose, and added in a tone of bitter sarcasm,—
"Ah! When people are called upon to admire a noble deed, they refuse to believe, they insist upon inquiring before they admire, they examine carefully. But, if they are told something bad, they dispense with that ceremony; however monstrous the thing may appear, however improbable it may sound, they believe it instantly. They would not touch a child; but they do not hesitate to repeat a slander which dishonors a woman, and kills her as surely as a dagger. If I were a man, and had been told that Miss Brandon was an adventuress, I would have been bent upon ascertaining the matter. America is not so far off. I should have soon found the ten thousand men who had served under Gen. Brandon, and they would have told me what sort of a man their chief had been. I should have examined the oil-regions of Pennsylvania; and I would have learned there that the petroleum-wells belonging to M. Elgin, Mrs. Brian, and Miss Brandon produce more than many a principality."
Daniel was amazed at the candor and the boldness with which this young girl approached the terrible subject. To enable her to speak with such energy and in such a tone, she must either be possessed of unsurpassed impudence, or—he had to confess it—be innocent.
Overcome by the effort she had made, she had sunk back upon the sofa, and continued in a lower tone of voice, as if speaking to herself,—
"But have I a right to complain? I reap as I have sown. Alas! Thorn has told me so often enough, and I would not believe him. I was not twenty years old when I came to Paris, after my poor father's death. I had been brought up in America, where young girls know no other law but that of their own consciences. They tell us at home, all the time, that it is our first duty to be truthful. In France, young girls are taught that hypocrisy is their first duty. We are taught not to blush, except when we have done wrong; they are taught all the appearances of false prudishness. In France, they work hard to save appearances; with us, we aim at reality. In Philadelphia, I did every thing I chose to do, provided I did not think it was wrong. I thought I could do the same here. Poor me! I did not count upon the wickedness of the world. I went out alone, on horseback, in the morning. I went alone to church, to pray to God. If I wanted any thing for my toilet, I sent for the carriage, and drove out, alone, to buy it. When a man spoke to me, I did not feel bound to cast down my eyes; and, if he was amusing and witty, I laughed. If a new fashion pleased me, I adopted it. I committed all these crimes. I was young, rich, popular. These were as many more crimes. And after I had been here a year, they said that Malgat, that wretch"—
She jumped up as she said this, ran up to Daniel, and, seizing him by the hands, she said,—
"Malgat! Have they talked to you about Malgat?"
And, as he hesitated to answer, she added:—
"Ah, answer me! Don't you see that your hesitation is an insult?"
As if in utter despair, she raised her hands to heaven, calling God, as it were, to witness, and asking for inspiration from on high. Then she added suddenly,—
"But I have proofs, irrefutable proofs of Malgat's rascality."
And, without waiting for another word, she hurried into the adjoining room. Daniel, moved to the bottom of his heart, remained standing where he was, immovable, like a statue.
He was utterly confounded and overcome by the charm of that marvellous voice, which passed through the whole gamut of passion with such a sonorous ring, and yet with such sweet languor, that it seemed by turns to sob and to threaten, to sigh with sadness and to thunder with wrath.
"What a woman!" he said to himself, repeating thus unconsciously the words uttered by M. de Brevan.
"What a woman! And how well she defends herself."
But Miss Brandon was already back again, carrying in her arms a small box of costly wood inlaid with jewels. She resumed her seat on the sofa; and in that brief, sharp tone which betrays terrible passions restrained with a great effort, she said,—
"Before all, I must thank you, M. Champcey, for your frankness, since it enables me to defend myself. I knew that slander had attacked me; I felt it, so to say, in the air I was breathing; but I had never been able yet to take hold of it. Now, for the first time, I can face it; and I owe it to you that I am able to defy it. Listen, therefore; for I swear to you by all that is most sacred to me, by the memory of my sainted mother, I swear to you solemnly, that you shall hear the truth, and nothing but the truth."
She had opened the box, and was eagerly searching something among the papers inside. She then continued, in feverish haste,—
"M. Malgat was the cashier and confidential clerk of the Mutual Discount Society, a large and powerful company. M. Elgin had some business with him, a few weeks after our arrival here, for the purpose of drawing funds which he had in Philadelphia. He found him an exceedingly obliging man, and, to show his appreciation, invited him to dine here. Thus he became acquainted with Mrs. Brian and myself. He was a man of about forty, of medium height, ordinary looking, very polite, but not refined in his manners. The first time I looked at his light yellow eyes, I felt disgusted and frightened. I read in his face an expression of base vice. The impression was so strong, that I could not help telling M. Elgin how sure I was this man would turn out a bad man, and that he ought not to trust him in money-matters."
Daniel listened with breathless attention. This description of Malgat impressed his portrait so deeply on his mind, that he thought he saw him before his eyes, and would certainly recognize him if he should ever meet him.
"M. Elgin," continued Miss Brandon, "only laughed at my presentiments; and even Mrs. Brian, I remember distinctly, scolded me, saying it was very wrong to judge a man by his appearance, and that there were very honest men in the world who had yellow eyes. I must acknowledge, moreover, that M. Malgat behaved perfectly well whenever he was here. As M. Elgin did not know Paris, and had money to invest, he advised him what to do. When we had drafts upon the Mutual Discount Society, he always saved M. Elgin the trouble, and brought the money himself. After a while, when M. Elgin took it into his head to try some small speculations on 'change, M. Malgat offered him his assistance, although they never had any luck, in fact."
By this time Miss Brandon had found the papers she was looking for. She handed them to Daniel, saying,—
"And, if you do not believe what I say, look at this."
There were a dozen square bits of paper, on which Malgat had reported the result of his operations on 'change, which he carried on on account of, and with the money of, M. Elgin. All ended with these words:—
"We have lost considerably; but we may be more fortunate next time. There is a capital chance on such and such funds; send me all the money you can spare."
The words were always the same; the name of the funds alone varied in each.
"That is strange," said Daniel.
Miss Sarah shook her head.
"Strange? Yes, indeed!" she replied. "But it does not help me in any way. This letter, however, will tell you more. Read it, sir, and read it aloud."
Daniel took the letter, and read,—
"'Paris, Dec. 5, 1865.
"'M. Thomas Elgin. Dear Sir,—It is to you alone, the most honorable among men, that I can make the terrible confession that I have committed a crime.
"'I am wretched. Employed by you in your speculations, I have given way to temptation, and have speculated on my own account. One loss brought about another, I lost my head; I hoped to recover my money; and now, at this hour, I owe more than ten thousand dollars, which I have taken from the safe of the society.
"'Will you have pity on me? Will you be so generous as to lend me that sum? I may not be able to return it in less than six or seven years; but I will repay you, I swear it, with interest.
"'I await your answer, like a criminal, who waits for the verdict. It is a matter of life and death with me; and as you decide, so I may be saved, or disgraced forever. A. Malgat.'"
On the margin, methodical M. Elgin had written in his angular handwriting,—
"Answered immediately. Sent to M. M. ten thousand dollars, to be drawn from funds deposited with the Mutual Discount Society. No interest to be paid."
"And that," stammered Daniel, "that is the man"—
"Whom they charge me with having turned aside from the paths of honesty; yes, sir! Now you learn to know him. But wait. You see, he was saved. It was not long before he appeared here, his false face bathed in tears. I can find no words to convey to you the exaggerated expressions of his gratitude. He refused to shake hands with M. Elgin, he said, because he was no longer worthy of such honor. He spoke of nothing but of his devotion unto death. It is true M. Elgin carried his generosity to an extreme. He, a model of honesty, who would have starved to death rather than touch the gold intrusted to his care,—he consoled Malgat, finding all kinds of apology for him, telling him, that, after all, he was not so very much to blame, that there were temptations too strong to be resisted, and repeating even those paradoxical principles which have been specially invented as an apology for thieves. Malgat had still some money of his own; but M. Elgin did not ask him for it, for fear of hurting his feelings. He continued to invite him, and urged him to come and dine with us as heretofore."
She stopped, laughing in a nervous manner, which was painful to hear, and then continued, in a hoarse voice,—
"Do you know, M. Champcey, how Malgat repaid all this kindness? Read this note; it will restore me in your esteem, I trust."
It was another letter written by Malgat to M. Elgin, and ran thus,—
"M. Elgin,—I have deceived you. It was not ten thousand dollars I had taken, but sixty thousand five hundred dollars.
"Thanks to false entries, I have been able to conceal my defalcations until now; but I can do so no longer. The board of directors have begun to suspect me; and the president has just told me that tomorrow the books will be examined. I am lost.
"I ought to kill myself, I know; but I have not the courage to do so. I venture to ask you to furnish me the means of escaping from this country. I beseech you on my knees, in the name of all that is dear to you, for mercy's sake; for I am penniless, and cannot even pay the fare on the railway as far as the frontier. Nor can I return to my house; for I am watched.
"Once more, M. Elgin, have pity on a poor man, and leave the answer with the concierge. I will come by about nine o'clock. A. Malgat."
Not on the margin, as before, but across the lines, M. Elgin had written these laconic words:—
"Answered immediately. No! The scamp!"
Daniel could not have uttered a word to save his life; he was too fearfully excited. Miss Brandon continued,—
"We were dining alone that day; and M. Elgin was so indignant, that he forgot his usual reserve, and told us everything. Ah! I felt only pity for the poor man; and I besought him to give the wretch the means to escape. But he was inflexible. Seeing, however, how excited I was, he tried to reassure me by telling me that Malgat would certainly not come, that he would not dare to expect an answer to such a letter."
She pressed both her hands on her heart, as if to still its beating; and then continued, in a weak voice,—
"Nevertheless, he came, and, seeing his hopes disappointed, he insisted upon speaking to us. The servants let him go up, and he entered. Ah! if I lived a thousand years, I should never forget that fearful scene. Feeling that all was lost, this thief, this defaulter, had become enraged; he demanded money. At first he asked for it on his knees in humble words; but, when he found that this did not answer, he suddenly rose in a perfect fury, his mouth foaming, his eyes bloodshot, and overwhelmed us with the coarsest insults. At last M. Elgin's patience gave out, and he rang for the servants. They had to employ force to drag him out; and, as they pushed him down stairs, he threatened us with his fist, and swore that he would be avenged."
Miss Brandon shuddered till she appeared to be all in a quiver; and, for a moment, Daniel thought she was going to be ill. But she made an effort to overcome her weakness; and, in a more decided tone, she continued,—
"Forty-eight hours passed; and the impression of this horrible scene began to fade from our minds, till it appeared like a bad dream. If we mentioned Malgat at all, it was with pity and contempt; for what could he do to us? Nothing, you will say. Even if he should dare to accuse us of some great crime, we thought no one would listen to him, and we should never hear of it. How could we imagine that the world would set to work doubting our honor upon the mere word of a wretch like him?
"His crime had, in the meantime, become known; and all the papers were full of it, adding a number of more or less reliable stories. They exaggerated the sums he had stolen; and they said he had succeeded in escaping to England, and that the police had lost his traces in London.
"I, poor girl, had nearly forgotten the whole matter.
"He had really fled; but, before leaving Paris, he had succeeded in preparing everything for the vengeance which he had threatened. Where could he have found people mean enough to serve his purposes? and who were they? I do not know. Perhaps he did nothing more, as Mrs. Brian suggested, than to address two or three anonymous letters to some of our acquaintances, who he knew did not like us, or envied us.
"At all events, in less than a week after his disappearance, it was reported everywhere, that I, Sarah Brandon, had been an accomplice of this defaulter, and, worse than that, that the sums he had stolen might easily be found, if a certain bureau in my bedchamber could be searched.
"Yes, that is what they said, at first in a whisper and most cautiously, then louder, and finally openly, and before all the world.
"Soon the papers took it up. They repeated the facts, arranging them to suit their purpose, and alluding to me in a thousand infamous innuendoes. They said that Malgat's defalcation was after the American style, and that it was perfectly natural he should go to a foreign country, after having been associated with a certain foreign lady."
She had become crimson all over; her bosom rose; and shame, indignation, and resentment alternately appeared on her face, changing finally into an ardent desire of vengeance.
"We, in the meantime," she continued, "quiet and safe in our honesty, did not even suspect these infamous proceedings. It is true, I had been struck by some strange whisperings, by curious looks and singular smiles, when I passed some of my friends; but I had not noticed them specially.
"A paper which had been left at the house one afternoon, when we were out, showed us the true state of things. It was a summons. I was ordered to appear before a magistrate.
"It was a thunderbolt. Mad with wrath and grief, M. Elgin swore I should not go, that he would most assuredly find out the authors of this infamous libel, and that, in the meantime, he would challenge and kill every one who dared repeat it.
"In vain did Mrs. Brian and myself beseech him, on our knees, not to leave the house until he had grown cooler. He pushed us aside almost with brutality, and rushed out, taking with him the papers and letters written by Malgat.
"We were at the end of our endurance, having suffered all the tortures of anxiety, when, at last, near midnight, M. Elgin returned, pale, exhausted, and distressed. He had found no one willing even to listen to him; everybody telling him that he was much too good to give a thought to such infamous reports; that they were too absurd to be believed."
She nearly gave way, sobs intercepting her words; but she mastered her emotion, and continued,—
"The next day I went to the court-house; and, after being kept waiting for a long time in a dark passage, I was brought before the magistrate. He was an elderly man, with hard features and piercing eyes, who received me almost brutally, as if I had been a criminal. But, when I had shown him the letters which you have just read, his manner suddenly changed, pity got the better of him; and I thought I saw a tear in his eye. Ah! I shall be eternally grateful to him for the words he said when I left his office,—
"'Poor, poor young girl! Justice bows reverently before your innocence. Would to God that the world could be made to do the same!'"
She fixed her eyes, trembling with fear and hope, upon Daniel, and added, in a voice of supplication and touching humility,—
"The world has been more cruel than justice itself but you, sir, will you be harder than the magistrate?"
Alas! Daniel was sorely embarrassed what to answer. He felt as if all his senses were in an uproar and in utter confusion.
"Sir!" begged Miss Brandon again. "M. Champcey!"
She continued to fix her eyes upon him. He turned his head aside, feeling as if, under her obstinate gaze, his mind left him, his energy evaporated, and all the fibres of his strong will were breaking.
"Great God!" exclaimed Miss Brandon, with grieved surprise; "he still doubts me. Sir, I pray you, speak! Do you doubt the authenticity of these letters? Ah, if you do, take them; for I do not hesitate to confide them, the only proofs of my innocence, to your honor. Take them and show them to the other clerks who have been sitting for twenty years in the same office with Malgat; and they will tell you that it is his handwriting; that he has signed his own condemnation. And, if that is not enough for you, go to the magistrate who examined me; his name is Patrigent."
And she waited, waited, but not a word came forth.
Daniel had sunk, undone, into a chair; and his elbow resting on a small stand, his brow in his hands, he endeavored to think, to reason. Then Miss Brandon rose, came gently up to him, and taking his hand, said softly,—
"I beseech you!"
But as if suddenly electrified by the touch of this soft, warm hand, Daniel rose so hastily, that he upset the chair; and, trembling with mysterious terror, he cried out,—
It was as if a fearful insult had set Miss Brandon on fire. Her face turned crimson, and then, almost instantly, livid; and, stepping back a little, she darted at Daniel a look of burning hatred.
"Oh!" she murmured, "oh!" finding, apparently, no words to express all she felt.
Was she going away? It looked as if she thought of it, for she walked to the door; but, suddenly changing her mind, she came back to where she had stood, facing Daniel.
"This is the first time in my life," she said, trembling with rage, "that I condescend to justify myself against such infamous charges; and you abuse my patience by heaping insult after insult upon me. But never mind. I look upon you as upon Henrietta's husband; and, since I have commenced, I mean to finish."
Daniel tried to say a few words of apology; but she interrupted him,—
"Well, yes; one night a young man, Charles de Kergrist,—a profligate, a gambler, crowning his scandalous life with the vilest and meanest act,—did come and kill himself under my window. The next day a great outcry arose against me. Three days later the brother of that wretched madman, a M. Rene de Kergrist, came and held M. Elgin to account. But do you know what came of these explanations? Charles de Kergrist, it appears, killed himself after a supper, which he left in a state of drunkenness. He committed suicide because he had lost his fortune at Homburg and at Baden; because he had exhausted his last resources; because his family, ashamed at his disgrace, refused to acknowledge him any longer. And, if he chose my window for his self-murder, it was because he wanted to satisfy a petty grievance. Looking upon me as an heiress, whose fortune would enable him to continue his extravagant life, he had courted me, and been refused by M. Elgin. Finally, at the time when the catastrophe occurred, I was sixty miles away from here, in Tours, staying at the house of one of M. Elgin's friends, M. Palmer, who deposed"—
And, as Daniel looked at her with an air of utter bewilderment, she added,—
"Perhaps you will ask me for proofs of what I state. I have none to give you. But I know a man who can give you what you want, and that man is M. de Kergrist's brother; for, after those explanations, he has continued to be our friend, sir, one of our best friends. And he was here to-night, and you have seen him; for he came and spoke to me while you were standing by me. M. de Kergrist lives here in Paris; and M. Elgin will give you his address."
She looked at Daniel with a glance in which pity and contempt were strangely mixed, and then added, in her proudest tone,—
"And now, sir, since I have deigned to stand here like a criminal, do you sit in judgment on me. Question me, and I will answer. What else are you going to charge me with?"
A judge, however, ought to be calm; and Daniel was but too conscious of his deep excitement; he knew he could not even prevent his features from expressing his utter bewilderment. He gave up all discussion therefore, and simply said,—
"I believe you, Miss Brandon, I believe you."
Miss Brandon's beautiful eyes lighted up for a moment with joy; and in a tone of voice which sounded like the echo of her heart, she said,—
"Oh, thank you, sir! now I am sure you will grant me Miss Henrietta's friendship."
Why did she mention that name? It broke the charm which had overcome Daniel. He saw how weak he had been, and was ashamed of himself.
He said sternly, thus proving his anger at himself, and the failure of his judgment,—
"Permit me not to reply to that to-night. I should like to consider."
She looked at him half stupefied.
"What do you mean?" she said. "Have I, or have I not, removed your doubts, your insulting suspicions? Perhaps you wish to consult one of my enemies?"
She spoke in a tone of such profound disdain, that Daniel, stung to the quick, forgot the discretion which he had intended to observe, and said,—
"Since you insist upon it, Miss Brandon, I must confess that there is one doubt which you have not removed."
Daniel hesitated, regretting the words he had allowed to escape him. But he had gone too far now to retract. He replied,—
"I do not understand, Miss Brandon, how you can marry Count Ville- Handry."
"You are young. You are immensely rich, you say. The count is sixty-six years old."
She, who had been so daring that nothing seemed to be able to disconcert her, now lowered her head like a timid boarding-school girl who has been caught acting contrary to rules; and a flood of crimson spread over her face, and every part of her figure which was not concealed by her dress.
"You are cruel, sir!" she stammered; "the secret into which you pry is one of those which a girl hardly dares to confide to her mother."
He was triumphant, thinking he had caught her at last.
"Ah, indeed!" he said ironically.
But the proud young lady did not waver, and replied with bitter sadness,—
"You will have it so; be it so. For your sake, I will lay aside that veil of proud reserve which conceals the mysteries of a young girl's heart. I do not love Count Ville-Handry."
Daniel was startled. This confession seemed to him the height of imprudence.
"I do not love him,—at least not with real love; and I have never allowed him to hope for such a feeling. Still I shall be most happy to become his wife. Do not expect me to explain to you what is going on within me. I myself hardly understand it as yet. I can give no precise name to that feeling of sympathy which attracts me towards him. I have been captivated by his wit and his kindness; his words have an indescribable charm for me. That is all I can tell you."
Daniel could not believe his ears.
"And," she continued, "if you must have motives of more ordinary character, I will confess to you that I can no longer endure this life, harassed as I am by vile calumnies. The palace of Count Ville-Handry appears to me an asylum, where I shall bury my disappointments and my sorrows, and where I shall find peace and a position which commands respect. Ah! you need not be afraid for that great and noble name. I shall bear it worthily and nobly, and shrink from no sacrifice to enhance its splendor. You may say that I am a calculating woman. I dare say I am; but I see nothing mean or disgraceful in my hopes."
Daniel had thought he had confounded her, and it was she who crushed him by her bold frankness; for there was nothing to say, no reasonable objection to make. Fifty marriages out of every hundred are made upon less high ground. Miss Brandon, however, was not a woman to be easily overcome. She rose as she spoke, to her former haughtiness, and inspired herself with the sound of her voice.
"During the last two years," she said, "I have had twenty offers; and among them three or four that would have been acceptable to a duchess. I have refused them, in spite of M. Elgin and Mrs. Brian. Only yesterday, a man of twenty-five, a Gordon Chalusse, was here at my feet. I have sent him off like the others, preferring my dear count. And why?"
She remained a moment buried in thought, her eyes swimming in tears; and, answering apparently her own questions, rather than Daniel's, she went on,—
"Thanks to my beauty, as the world calls it, a fatal beauty, alas! I have been admired, courted, filled to satiety with compliments. They say I am in the most elegant and most polished society in Europe; and yet I have looked in vain for the man whose eye could for a moment even break the peace of my heart. I have seen everywhere only persons of like perfection, whose characters had no more wrinkles than the coat made by the first of tailors, all equally eager and gallant, playing well, talking well, dancing well, riding well."
She shook her head with a movement full of energy; and, beaming with enthusiasm, she exclaimed,—
"Ah! I had dreamed of better things to come. What I dreamed of was a man of noble heart, with an inflexible will, capable of attempting what others dared not,—what, I do not know, but something grand, perilous, impossible. I dreamed of one of those ambitious men with a pale brow, a longing look, whose eyes sparkle with genius,—one of those strong men who impose their will upon the multitude, and who remove mountains by the force of their will.
"Alas! to repay the love of such a man, I would have found treasures in my heart, which now remain useless, like all the wealth that is buried at the bottom of the sea. I would have drunk deep from the cup of my hopes; my pulse would have kept time with the fever of his excitement. For his sake, I would have made myself small, humble, useful; I would have watched in his looks for the shadow of a desire.
"But how proud I would have been, I, his wife, of his success and of his glories, of the reverence paid him by his admirers, and the hatred of his enemies!"
Her voice had vibrations in it that might have stirred up the heart of a stoic. The splendor of her exalted beauty illumined the room.
And gradually, one by one, Daniel's suspicions vanished, or fell to pieces like the ill-jointed pieces of an ancient armor. But Miss Brandon paused, ashamed of her vehemence, and continued more slowly,—
"Now, sir, you know me better than any other person in this world. You alone have read the innermost heart of Sarah Brandon. And yet I see you today for the first time in my life. And yet you are the first man who has ever dared to speak harshly to me, harsh unto insult. Will you make me repent of my frankness? Oh, no, no! surely you will not be so cruel. I know you to be a man of honor and of high principles; I know how, in order to save a name which you revere, you have risked your prospects in life, the girl you love, and an enormous fortune. Yes, Miss Ville-Handry has made no ordinary choice."
She looked as if she were utterly despondent, and added, in a tone of concentrated rage,—
"And I, I know my fate."
Then followed a pause, a terrible pause. They were standing face to face, pale, troubled, trembling with excitement, their teeth firmly set, their eyes eloquent with deep feeling.
Daniel, as he felt the hot breath of this terrible passion, became almost unconscious of the surroundings; his mind was shaken; a mysterious delirium took possession of his senses; the blood rushed to his head; and he felt as if the beating at his temples was ringing in the whole house.
"Yes," began at last Miss Brandon once more, "my fate is sealed. I must become the Countess of Ville-Handry, or I am lost. And once more, sir, I beseech you induce Miss Henrietta to receive me like an elder sister. Ah! if I were the woman you think I am, what would I care for Miss Henrietta and her enmity? You know very well that the count will go on at any hazard. And yet I beg,—I who am accustomed to command everywhere. What more can I do? Do you want to see me at your feet? Here I am."
And really, as she said this, she sank down so suddenly, that her knees struck the floor with a noise; and, seizing Daniel's hands, she pressed them upon her burning brow.
"Great God!" she sighed, "to be rejected, by him!"
Her hair had become partially loosened, and fell in masses on Daniel's hands. He trembled from head to foot; and, bending over Miss Brandon, he raised her, and held her, half lifeless, while her head rested on his shoulder.
"Miss Sarah," he said in a hoarse, low voice.
They were so near to each other, that their breaths mingled, and Daniel felt Miss Brandon's sobs on his heart, burning him like fiery flames. Then, half drunk with excitement, forgetting every thing, he pressed his lips upon the lips of this strange girl.
But she, starting up instantly, drew back, and cried,—
"Daniel! unhappy man!"
Then breaking out in sobs, she stammered,—
"Go! I pray you go! I ask for nothing now. If I must be lost, I must."
And he replied with terrible vehemence,—
"Your will shall be done, Sarah; I am yours. You may count upon me."
And he rushed out like a madman, down the staircase, taking three steps at once, and, finding the house-door open, out into the street.
It was a dark, freezing night; the sky was laden with clouds which hung so low, that they nearly touched the roofs of the houses; and a furious wind was shaking the black branches of the trees in the Champs Elysees, passing through the air like a fine dust of snow.
Daniel rushed in feverish haste, like an escaped convict, headlong on, without aim or purpose, solely bent upon escaping. But, when he had gone some distance, the motion, the cold night-air, and the keen wind playing in his hair, restored him to consciousness. Then he became aware that he was still in evening costume, bareheaded, and that he had left his hat and his overcoat in Miss Brandon's house. Then he remembered that Count Ville-Handry was waiting for him in the great reception-room, together with M. Elgin and Mrs. Brian. What would they say and think? Unhappy man, in what a sad predicament he found himself!
There might have been a way to escape from that hell; and he himself, in his madness, had closed it forever.
Like one of those dissipated men who awake from the heavy sleep after a debauch, with dry mouth and weary head, he felt as if he had just been aroused from a singular and terrible dream. Like the drunkard, who, when he is sobered, tries to recall the foolish things he may have done under the guidance of King Alcohol, Daniel conjured up one by one all his emotions during the hour which he had just spent by Miss Brandon's side,—an hour of madness which would weigh heavily upon his future fate, and which alone contained in its sixty minutes more experiences than his whole life so far.
At no time had he been so near despair.
What! He had been warned, put on his guard, made fully aware of all of Miss Brandon's tricks; they had told him of the weird charm of her eyes; he himself had caught her that very evening in the open act of deceiving others.
And in spite of all this, feeble and helpless as he was, he had let himself be caught by the fascinations of this strange girl. Her voice had made him forget every thing, every thing—even his dear and beloved Henrietta, his sole thought for so many years.
"Fool!" he said to himself, "what have I done?"
Unmindful of the blast of the tempest, and of the snow which had begun to fall, he had sat down on the steps of one of the grandest houses in Circus Street, and, with his elbows on his knees, he pressed his brow with his hands, as if hoping that he might thus cause it to suggest to him some plan of salvation. Conjuring up the whole energy of his will, he tried to retrace his interview with Miss Brandon in order to find out by what marvellous transformation it had begun as a terrible combat, and ended as a love-scene. And recalling thus to his memory all she had told him in her soft, sweet voice, he asked himself if she had not really been slandered; and, if there was actually something amiss in her past life, why should it not rather be laid at the door of those two equivocal personages who watched over her, M. Elgin and Mrs. Brian.
What boldness this strange girl had displayed in her defence! but also what lofty nobility! How well she had said that she did not love Count Ville-Handry with real love, and that, until now, no man had even succeeded in quickening her pulse! Was she of marble, and susceptible only of delight in foolish vanity?
Oh, no! a thousand times no! The most refined coquetry never achieved that passionate violence; the most accomplished artist never possessed that marvellous contagion which is the sublime gift of truth alone. And, whatever he could do, his head and heart remained still filled with Miss Brandon; and Daniel trembled as he remembered certain words in which, under almost transparent illusions, the secret of her heart had betrayed itself. Could she have told Daniel more pointedly than she had actually done, "He whom I could love is none other but you"? Certainly not! And as he thought of it his heart was filled with a sense of eager and unwholesome desires; for he was a man, no better, no worse, than other men; and there are but too many men nowadays, who would value a few hours of happiness with a woman like Miss Brandon more highly than a whole life of chaste love by the side of a pure and noble woman.
"But what is that to me?" he repeated. "Can I love her, I?"
Then he began again to revolve in his mind what might have happened after his flight from the house.
How had Miss Brandon explained his escape? How had she accounted for her own excitement?
And, drawn by an invincible power, Daniel had risen to return to the house; and there, half-hid under the shadow of the opposite side, in a deep doorway, he watched anxiously the windows, as if they could have told him any thing of what was going on inside. The reception-room was still brilliantly lighted, and people came and went, casting their shadows upon the white curtains. A man came and leaned his face against the window, then suddenly he drew back; and Daniel distinctly recognized Count Ville-Handry.
What did that mean? Did it not imply that Miss Brandon had been taken suddenly ill, and that people were anxious about her? These were Daniel's thoughts when he heard the noise of bolts withdrawn, and doors opened. It was the great entrance-gate of Miss Brandon's house, which was thrown open by some of the servants. A low coupe with a single horse left the house, and drove rapidly towards the Champs Elysees.
But, at the moment when the coupe turned, the light of the lamp fell full upon the inside, and Daniel thought he recognized, nay, he did recognize, Miss Brandon. He felt as if he had received a stunning blow on the head.
"She has deceived me!" he exclaimed, grinding his teeth in his rage; "she has treated me like an imbecile, like an idiot!"
Then, suddenly conceiving a strange plan, he added,—
"I must know where she is going at four o'clock in the morning. I will follow her."
Unfortunately, Miss Brandon's coachman had, no doubt, received special orders; for he drove down the avenue as fast as the horse could go, and the animal was a famous trotter, carefully chosen by Sir Thorn, who understood horse-flesh better than any one else in Paris. But Daniel was agile; and the hope of being able to avenge himself at once gave him unheard-of strength.
"If I could only catch a cab!" he thought.
But no carriage was to be seen. His elbows close to the body, managing his breath, and steadily measuring his steps, he succeeded in not only following the coupe, but in actually gaining ground. When Miss Brandon reached Concord Square, he was only a few yards behind the carriage. But there the coachman touched the horse, which suddenly increased its pace, crossed the square, and trotted down Royal Street.
Daniel felt his breath giving out, and a shooting pain, first trifling, but gradually increasing, in his side. He was on the point of giving up the pursuit, when he saw a cab coming down towards him from the Madeleine, the driver fast asleep on the box. He threw himself before the horses, and cried out as well as he could,—
"Driver, a hundred francs for you, if you follow that coupe down there!"
But the driver, suddenly aroused by a man who stood in the middle of the street, bareheaded, and in evening costume, and who offered him such an enormous sum, thought it was a practical joke attempted by a drunken man, and replied furiously,—
"Look out, rascal! Get out of the way, or I drive over you!"
And therewith he whipped his horses; and Daniel would have been driven over, if he had not promptly jumped aside. But all this had taken time; and, when he looked up, the coupe was far off, nearly at the boulevard. To attempt overtaking it now would have been folly indeed; and Daniel remained there, overwhelmed and defeated.
What could he do? It occurred to him that he might hasten to Maxime, and ask him for advice. But fate was against him; he gave up that idea. He went slowly back to his lodgings, and threw himself into an arm-chair, determined not to go to bed till he had found a way to extricate himself from the effects of his egregious folly.
But he had now been for two days agitated by the extremest alternatives, like a man out at sea, whom the waves buffet, and throw—now up to the shore, and now back again into open water. He had not closed an eye for forty-eight hours; and, if the heart seems to be able to suffer almost indefinitely, our physical strength is strictly limited. Thus he fell asleep, dreaming even in his sleep that he was hard at work, and just about to discover the means by which he could penetrate the mystery of Miss Brandon.
It was bright day when Daniel awoke, chilled and stiffened; for he had not changed his clothes when he came home, and his fire had gone out. His first impulse was one of wrath against himself. What! he succumbed so easily?—he, the sailor, who remembered very well having remained more than once for forty, and even once for sixty hours on deck, when his vessel was threatened by a hurricane? Had his peaceful and monotonous life in his office during the last two years weakened him to such a point, that all the springs of his system had lost their power?
Poor fellow! he knew not that the direst fatigue is trifling in comparison with that deep moral excitement which shakes the human system to its most mysterious depths. Nevertheless, while he hastened to kindle a large fire, in order to warm himself, he felt that the rest had done him good. The last evil effects of his excitement last night had passed away; the charm by which he had been fascinated was broken; and he felt once more master of all his faculties.
Now his folly appeared to him so utterly inexplicable, that, if he had but tasted a glass of lemonade at Miss Brandon's house, he should have been inclined to believe that they had given him one of those drugs which set the brains on fire, and produce a kind of delirium. But he had taken nothing, and, even if he had, was the foolish act less real for that? The consequences would be fatal, he had no doubt.
He was thus busy trying to analyze the future, when his servant entered, as he did every morning, bringing his hat and overcoat on his arm.
"Sir," he said, with a smile which he tried to render malicious, "you have forgotten these things at the house where you spent the evening yesterday. A servant—on horseback too—brought them. He handed me at the same time this letter, and is waiting for an answer."
Daniel took the letter, and for a minute or more examined the direction. The handwriting was a woman's, small and delicate, but in no ways like the long, angular hand of an American lady. At last he tore the envelope; and at once a penetrating but delicate perfume arose, which he had inhaled, he knew but too well, in Miss Brandon's rooms.
The letter was indeed from her, and on the top of the page bore her name, Sarah, in small blue Gothic letters. She wrote,—
"Is it really so, O Daniel! that you are entirely mine, and that I can count upon you? You told me so tonight. Do you still remember your promises?"
Daniel was petrified. Miss Brandon had told him that she was imprudence personified; and here she gave him a positive proof of it.
Could not these few lines become a terrible weapon against her? Did they not admit the most extraordinary interpretation? Still, as the bearer might be impatient, the servant asked,—
"What must I tell the man?"
"Ah, wait!" answered Daniel angrily.
And, sitting down at his bureau, he wrote to Miss Brandon,—
"Certainly, Miss Brandon, I remember the promises you extorted from me when I was not master of myself; I remember them but too well."
Suddenly an idea struck him; and he paused. What! Having been caught already in the very first trap she had prepared for his inexperience, was he to risk falling into a second? He tore the letter he had commenced into small pieces, and, turning to his servant, said,—
"Tell the man that I am out; and make haste and get me a carriage!"
Then, when he was once more alone, he murmured,—
"Yes, it is better so. It is much better to leave Miss Brandon in uncertainty. She cannot even suspect that her driving out this morning has enlightened me. She thinks I am still in the dark; let her believe it."
Still this letter of hers seemed to prepare some new intrigue, which troubled Daniel excessively. Miss Brandon was certain of achieving her end; what more did she want? What other mysterious aim could she have in view?
"Ah! I cannot make it out," sighed Daniel. "I must consult Brevan."
On his writing-table he found that important and urgent work which the minister had intrusted to his hands still unfinished. But the minister, the department, his position, his preferment,—all these considerations weighed as nothing in comparison with his passion.
He went down, therefore; and, while his carriage drove to his friend's house, he thought of the surprise he would cause Maxime.
When he arrived there, he found M. de Brevan standing in his shirt- sleeves before an immense marble table, covered all over with pots and bottles, with brushes, combs, and sponges, with pincers, polishers, and files, making his toilet.
If he expected Daniel, he had not expected him so soon; for his features assumed an expression which seemed to prohibit all confidential talk. But Daniel saw nothing. He shook hands with his friend, and, sinking heavily into a chair, he said,—
"I went to Miss Brandon. She has made me promise all she wanted. I cannot imagine how it came about!"
"Let us hear," said M. de Brevan.
Then, without hesitation, and with all the minutest details, Daniel told him how Miss Brandon had taken him into her little boudoir, and how she had exculpated herself from all complicity with Malgat by showing him the letters written by that wretched man.
"Strange letters!" he said, "which, if they are authentic"—
M. de Brevan shrugged his shoulders.
"You were forewarned," he said, "and you have promised all she wanted! Do you not think she might have made you sign your own death-sentence?"
"But Kergrist?" said Daniel. "Kergrist's brother is her friend."
"I dare say. But do you imagine that brother is any cleverer than you are?"
Although he was by no means fully satisfied, Daniel went on, describing his amazement when Miss Brandon told him that she did not love Count Ville-Handry.
But Maxime burst out laughing, and interrupted him, saying with bitter irony,—
"Of course! And then she went on, telling you that she had never yet loved anybody, having vainly looked in the world for the man of whom she dreamed. She painted to you the phoenix in such colors, that you had to say to yourself, 'What does she mean? That phoenix! Why, she means me!' That has tickled you prodigiously. She has thrown herself at your feet; you have raised her up; she has fainted; she has sobbed like a distressed dove in your arms; you have lost your head."
Daniel was overcome. He stammered,—
"How did you know?"
Maxime could not look him in the face; but his voice was as steady as ever when he replied, in a tone of bitterest sarcasm,—
"I guess it. Did I not tell you I knew Miss Brandon? She has only one card in her hand; but that is enough; it always makes a trick."
To have been deceived, and even to have been rendered ridiculous, is one of those misfortunes which we confess to ourselves, however painful the process may be; but to hear another person laugh at us after such a thing has happened is more than we can readily bear. Daniel, therefore, did not conceal his impatience, and said rather dryly,—
"If I have been the dupe of Miss Brandon, my dear Maxime, you see, at last, that I am so no longer."
"No, not in the least. And that, thanks to her; for she herself has destroyed my illusions."
"Unconsciously, of course, having ran away from her like a fool, I was wandering about in the streets near her house, when I saw her come out in her coupe."
"I saw her as distinctly as I see you. It was four o'clock in the morning, mind!"
"Is it possible? And what did you do?"
"I followed her."
M. de Brevan nearly let the brush fall, with which he was polishing his finger-nails; but he mastered his confusion so promptly, that Daniel did not perceive it.
"Ah! you followed her," he said in a voice which all his efforts could not steady entirely. "Then, of course, you know where she went."
"Alas, no! She drove so fast, that, quick as I am, I could not follow her, and lost sight of her."
Certainly M. de Brevan was breathing more freely, and said in an easy tone,—
"That is provoking, and you have lost a fine opportunity. I am, however, by no means astonished that you are at last enlightened."
"Oh! I am so; you may believe me. And yet"—
Daniel hesitated, for fear of seeing another sardonic smile appear on Maxime's lips. Still making an effort, he replied,—
"Well, I am asking myself whether all that Miss Brandon states about her childhood, her family, and her fortune, might not, after all, be true."
Maxime looked like a sensible man who is forced to listen to the absurd nonsense of an insane person.
"You think I am absurd," said Daniel. "Perhaps I am; but, then, do me the favor to explain to me how Miss Brandon, anxious as she must be to conceal her past, could herself point out to me the means to ascertain every thing about her, and even to learn the precise amount of her income? America is not so far off!"
M. de Brevan's face no longer expressed astonishment; he looked absolutely bewildered.
"What!" he cried out, "could you seriously think of undertaking a trip to America?"
"To be sure, my dear friend, you are, in all sincerity, too naive for our age. What! have you not yet been able to divine Miss Brandon's plan? And yet it is patent enough. When she saw you, and had taken your measure, she said to herself, 'Here is an excellent young man who is in my way, excessively in my way; he must go and breathe a better air a few thousand miles off.' And thereupon she suggested to you that pleasant trip to America."
After what Daniel had learned about Miss Brandon's character, this explanation sounded by no means improbable. Nevertheless, he was not quite satisfied. He objected to it thus:—
"Whether I go or stay, the wedding will still take place. Consequently, she has no interest in my being abroad. Believe me, Maxime, there is something else underneath. Outside of this marriage, Miss Brandon must be pursuing some other plan."
"Ah! That is what I cannot find out, to save my life. But you may be sure that I am not mistaken. I want no better evidence of it than the fact that she wrote to me this morning."
M. de Brevan jumped up, and said,—
"What! She has written to you?"
"Yes; it is that accursed letter, more than any thing else, that brings me here. Here it is, just read it; and, if you can understand it, you are more fortunate than I am."
At one glance M. de Brevan had read the five lines which Miss Brandon had written; and, turning deadly pale, he said,—
"This is incomprehensible. A note, and such an indiscreet note, from her who never writes!"
He looked upon Daniel as if he wished to penetrate his innermost thoughts, and then asked him, weighing his words with the utmost care,—
"If she should really love you, what would you say?"
Daniel looked disgusted. He replied,—"It is hardly generous in you to make sport of me, Maxime. I may be a fool; but I am not an idiot, to be conceited to that degree."
"That is no answer to my question," said Brevan; "and I repeat my question. What would you say?"
"I would say that I execrate her!"
"Oh! if you hate her so bitterly, you are very near loving her."
"I despise her; and without esteem"—
"That is an old story. That is no impediment."
"Finally, you know how dearly, how ardently, I love Miss Ville-Handry."
"Of course; but that is not the same thing."
M. de Brevan had at last finished his careful toilet. He put on a dressing-gown; and, carrying Daniel with him into the small room which he used as a dressing-room, he asked,—
"And what have you said in reply to that note?"
M. de Brevan had thrown himself into a comfortable chair, and assumed the careful air of a physician who has been consulted. He nodded, and said,—