But she had not yet gone half-way up the stairs which led to her own rooms, when she was held at the place by the sound of all the bells of the house, which had been set in motion by a furious hand. She bent over the balusters to listen. The servants were rushing about; the vestibule resounded with hurried steps; and she distinguished the imperious voice of M. Ernest, the count's valet, who called out,—
"Salts, quick! Fresh water. The countess has a nervous attack."
A bitter smile curled Henrietta's lips.
"At least," she said to herself, "I shall have poisoned this woman's joy." And, fearing to be caught thus listening, she went up stairs.
But, when she was alone once more, the poor girl failed not to recognize the utter futility of her fancied triumph. Whom had she wounded, after all? Her father.
However unwell the countess might be to-night,—and perhaps she was not really unwell,—she would certainly be well again in the morning; and then what would be the advantage of the scandal she had attempted in order to ruin her? Now Henrietta saw it very clearly,—now, when it was too late.
Worse than that! She fancied that what she had done to-day pledged her for the future. The road upon which she had started evidently led nowhere. Never mind, it seemed to her miserable cowardice to shrink from going on.
Rising with the sun, she was deliberating on what weak point she might make her next attack, when there came a knock at the door, and Clarissa, her own maid, entered.
"Here is a letter for you, miss," she said. "I have received it this moment, in an envelope addressed to me."
Henrietta examined the letter for a long time before opening it, studying the handwriting, which she did not know. Who could write to her, and in this way, unless it was Maxime de Brevan, to whom Daniel had begged her to intrust herself, and who, so far, had given no sign of life of himself?
It was M. de Brevan who wrote thus,—
"Madam,—Like all Paris, I also have heard of your proud and noble protest on the day of your father's unfortunate marriage. Egotists and fools will perhaps blame you. But you may despise them; for all the best men are on your side. And my dear Daniel, if he were here, would approve and admire your courage, as I do myself."
She drew a full breath, as if her heart had been relieved of a heavy burden.
Daniel's friend approved her conduct. This was enough to stifle henceforth the voice of reason, and to make her disregard every idea of prudence. The whole letter of M. de Brevan was, moreover, nothing but a long and respectful admonition to resist desperately.
Farther on he wrote,—
"At the moment of taking the train, Daniel handed me a letter, in which he expresses his innermost thoughts. With a sagacity worthy of such a heart, he foresees and solves in advance all the difficulties by which your step-mother will no doubt embarrass you hereafter. This letter is too precious to be intrusted to the mail, I shall, therefore, get myself introduced at your father's house before the end of the week, and I shall have the honor to put that letter into your own hands."
"I shall have an opportunity, tomorrow, to send Daniel news from here. If you wish to write to him, send me your letter to-day, Rue Laffitte, No. 62, and I will enclose it in mine."
Finally, there came a postscript in these words,—
"Mistrust, above all, M. Thomas Elgin."
This last recommendation caused Henrietta particular trouble, and made her feel all kinds of vague and terrible apprehensions.
"Why should I mistrust him," she said to herself, "more than the others?"
But a more pleasing anxiety soon came to her assistance. What? Here was an opportunity to send Daniel news promptly and safely, and she was running the risk, by her delays, of losing the chance? She hastened to dress; and, sitting down before her little writing-table, she went to work communicating to her only friend on earth all her sufferings since he had so suddenly left her, her griefs, her resentments, her hopes.
It was eleven o'clock when she had finished, having filled eight large pages with all she felt in her heart. As she was about to rise, she suddenly felt ill. Her knees gave way under her, and she felt as if every thing was trembling around her. What could this mean? she thought. And now only she remembered that she had eaten nothing since the day before.
"I must not starve myself," she said almost merrily to herself. Her long chat with Daniel had evidently rekindled her hopes.
She rang the bell; and, when her maid appeared, she said,—
"Bring me some breakfast!"
Miss Ville-Handry occupied three rooms. The first, her sitting-room, opened upon the hall; on the right was her bed-chamber; and on the left a boudoir with her piano, her music, and her books. When Henrietta took her meals up stairs, which of late had happened quite often, she ate in the sitting-room.
She had gone in there, and was clearing the table of the albums and little trifles which were lying about, so as to hasten matters, when the maid reappeared with empty hands.
"The count has given orders not to take any thing up stairs."
"That cannot be."
But a mocking voice from without interrupted her, saying,—
"It is so!"
And immediately Count Ville-Handry appeared, already dressed, curled, and painted, bearing the appearance of a man who is about to enjoy his revenge.
"Leave us!" he said to the maid-servant.
And, as soon as Clarissa had left the room, he turned to Henrietta with these words,—
"Yes, indeed, my dear Henrietta, I have given strict orders not to bring you up any thing to eat. Why should you indulge such fancies? I ask you. Are you unwell? If you are, we will send for the doctor. If not, you will do me the favor to come down and take your meals in the dining-room with the family,—with the countess and myself, M. Elgin and Mrs. Brian."
"There is no father who could stand this. The time of weakness is past, and so is the time of passion; therefore, you will come down. Oh! whenever you feel disposed. You will, perhaps, pout a day, maybe two days; but hunger drives the wolf into the village; and on the third day we shall see you come down as soon as the bell rings. I have in vain appealed to your heart; you see I am forced to appeal to your stomach."
Whatever efforts Henrietta might make to remain impassive, the tears would come into her eyes,—tears of shame and humiliation. Could this idea of starving her into obedience have originated with her father? No, he would never have thought of it! It was evidently a woman's thought, and the result of bitter, savage hate.
Still the poor girl felt that she was caught; and her heart revolted at the ignominy of the means, and the certainty that she would be forced to yield. Her cruel imagination painted to her at once the exultation of the new countess, when she, the daughter of Count Ville-Handry, would appear in the dining-room, brought there by want, by hunger.
"Father," she begged, "send me nothing but bread and water, but spare me that exposure."
But, if the count was repeating a lesson, he had learned it well. His features retained their sardonic expression; and he said in an icy tone,—
"I have told you what I desire. You have heard it, and that is enough."
He was turning to leave the room, when his daughter held him back.
"Father," she said, "listen to me."
"Well, what is it, now?"
"Yesterday you threatened to shut me up."
"To-day it is I who beseech you to do so. Send me to a convent. However harsh and strict the rules may be, however sad life may be there, I will find there some relief for my sorrow, and I will bless you with all my heart."
He only shrugged his shoulders over and over again; then he said,—
"A good idea! And from your convent you would at once write to everybody and everywhere, that my wife had turned you out of the house; that you had been obliged to escape from threats and bad treatment; you would repeat all the well-known elegies of the innocent young girl who is persecuted by a wicked stepmother. Not so, my dear, not so!"
The breakfast-bell, which was ringing below, interrupted him.
"You hear, Henrietta," he said. "Consult your stomach; and, according to what it tells you, come down, or stay here."
He went out, manifestly quite proud at having performed what he called an act of paternal authority, without vouchsafing a glance at his daughter, who had sunk back upon a chair; for she felt overcome, the poor child! by all the agony of her pride. It was all over: she could struggle no longer. People who would not shrink from such extreme measures in order to overcome her might resort to the last extremities. Whatever she could do, sooner or later she would have to succumb.
Hence—why might she not as well give way at once? She saw clearly, that, the longer she postponed it, the sweeter would be the victory to the countess, and the more painful would be the sacrifice to herself. Arming herself, therefore, with all her energy, she went down into the dining-room, where the others were already at table.
She had imagined that her appearance would be greeted by some insulting remark. Not at all. They seemed hardly to notice her. The countess, who had been talking, paused to say, "Good-morning, madam!" and then went on without betraying in her voice the slightest emotion.
Henrietta had even to acknowledge that they had been considerate. Her plate had not been put by her mother-in-law. A seat had been kept for her between Mrs. Brian and M. Elgin. She sat down, and, while eating, watched stealthily, and with all her powers of observation, these strangers who were henceforth the masters of her destiny, and whom she now saw for the first time; for yesterday she had hardly perceived them.
She was at once struck, painfully struck, with the dazzling, marvellous beauty of Countess Sarah, although she had been shown her photograph by her father, and ought thus to have been prepared. It was evident that the young countess had barely taken time to put on a wrapper before coming down to breakfast. Her complexion was more animated than usually. She exhibited all the touching confusion of a young bride, and was constantly more or less embarrassed.
Henrietta comprehended but too well the influence such a woman was likely to have over an old man who had fallen in love with her. It made her tremble. But grim Mrs. Brian appeared to her hardly less formidable. She could read nothing in her dull, heavy eye but cold wickedness; nothing in her lean, yellow face but an implacable will; all the wrinkles seemed to be permanently graven in wax.
She thought, after all, the least to be feared was tall, stiff M. Thomas Elgin. Seated by her, he had shown her discreetly some little attentions; and, when she observed him more closely, she discovered in his eyes something like commiseration.
"And yet," she thought, "it was against him that M. de Brevan warned me particularly."
But breakfast was over. Henrietta rose, and having bowed, without saying a word, was going back to her room when she met on the stairs some of the servants, who were carrying a heavy wardrobe. Upon inquiry she learned that, as Sir Thorn and Mrs. Brian were hereafter to live in the palace, they were bringing up their furniture.
She shook her head sadly; but in her rooms a greater surprise was awaiting her. Three servants were hard at work taking down her furniture, under the direction of M. Ernest, the count's valet.
"What are you doing there?" she asked, and "Who has permitted you?"
"We are only obeying the orders of the count, your father," replied M. Ernest. "We are getting your rooms ready for Madam Brian."
And, turning round to his colleagues, he said,—
"Go on, men! Take out that sofa; now!"
Overcome with surprise, Henrietta remained petrified where she was, looking at the servants as they went on with their work. What? These eager adventurers had taken possession of the palace, they invaded it, they reigned here absolutely, and that was not enough for them! They meant to take from her even the rooms she had occupied, she, the daughter of their dupe, the only heiress of Count Ville-Handry! This impudence seemed to her so monstrous, that unable to believe it, and yielding to a sudden impulse, she went back to the dining-room, and, addressing her father, said to him,—
"Is it really true, father, that you have ordered my furniture to be removed?"
"Yes, I have done so, my daughter. My architect will transform your three rooms into a large reception-room for Mrs. Brian, who had not space enough for"—
The young countess made a gesture of displeasure.
"I cannot understand," she said, "how Aunt Brian can accept that."
"I beg your pardon," exclaimed the admirable lady, "this is done entirely without my consent."
But the count interposed, saying,—
"Sarah, my darling, permit me to be sole judge in all the arrangements that concern my daughter."
Count Ville-Handry's accent was so firm as he said this, that one would have sworn the idea of dislodging Henrietta had sprung from his own brains. He went on,—
"I never act thoughtlessly, and always take time to mature my decisions. In this case I act from motives of the most ordinary propriety. Mrs. Brian is no longer young; my daughter is a mere child. If one of the two has to submit to some slight inconvenience, it is certainly my daughter."
All of a sudden M. Elgin rose.
"I should leave," he began.
Unfortunately the rest of the phrase was lost in an indistinct murmur.
He was no doubt at that moment recalling a promise he had made. And resolved not to interfere in the count's family affairs, and, on the other hand, indignant at what he considered an odious abuse of power, he left the room abruptly. His looks, his physiognomy, his gestures, all betrayed these sentiments so clearly, that Henrietta was quite touched.
But Count Ville-Handry continued, after a moment's surprise, saying,—
"Therefore, my daughter will hereafter live in the rooms formerly occupied by the companion of my—I mean of her mother. They are small, but more than sufficient for her. Besides, they have this advantage, that they can be easily overlooked from one of our own rooms, my dear Sarah; and that is important when we have to deal with an imprudent girl, who has so sadly abused the liberty which she enjoyed, thanks to my blind confidence."
What should she say? What could she reply?
If she had been alone with her father, she would certainly have defended herself; she would have tried to make him reconsider his decision; she would have besought him; she might have gone on her knees to him.
But here, in the presence of these two women, with the mocking eye of Countess Sarah upon her, it was impossible! Ah! she would have died a thousand times over rather than to give these miserable adventurers the joy and the satisfaction of a new humiliation.
"Let them crush me," she said to herself; "they shall never hear me complain, or cry for mercy."
And when her father, who had been quietly watching her, asked,—
"You shall be obeyed this very night," she replied.
And by a kind of miracle of energy, she went out of the room calmly, her head on high; without having shed a tear.
But God knew what she suffered.
To give up those little rooms in which she had spent so many happy hours, where every thing recalled to her sweet memories, certainly that was no small grief: it was nothing however, in comparison with that frightful perspective of having to live under the wary eye of Countess Sarah, under lock and key.
They would not even leave her at liberty to weep. Her intolerable sufferings would not extort a sigh from her that the countess did not hear on the other side of the partition, and delight in.
She was thus harassing herself, when she suddenly remembered the letter which she had written to Daniel. If M. de Brevan was to have it that same day, there was not a moment to lose. Already it was too late for the mail; and she would have to send it by a commissionaire.
She rang the bell, therefore, for Clarissa, her confidante, for the purpose of sending it to the Rue Laffitte. But, instead of Clarissa, one of the housemaids appeared, and said,—
"Your own maid is not in the house. Mrs. Brian has sent her to Circus Street. If I can do any thing for you"—
"No, I thank you!" replied Henrietta.
It seemed, then, that she counted for nothing any more in the house. She was not allowed to eat in her rooms; she was turned out of her own rooms; and the maid, long attached to her service, was taken from her. And here she was forced to submit to such humiliations without a chance of rebelling.
But time was passing; and every minute made it more difficult to let M. de Brevan have her letter in time for the mail.
"Well," said Henrietta to herself, "I will carry it myself."
And although she had, perhaps, in all her life not been more than twice alone in the street, she put on her bonnet, wrapped herself up in a cloak, and went down swiftly.
The concierge, a large man, very proud of his richly laced livery, was sitting before the little pavilion in which he lived, smoking, and reading his paper.
"Open the gates!" said Henrietta.
But the man, without taking his pipe out of his mouth, without even getting up from his seat, answered in a surly tone,—
"The count has sent me orders never to let you go out without a verbal or written permission; so that"—
"Impudence!" exclaimed Henrietta.
And resolutely she went up to the ponderous gates of the court-yard, stretching out her hand to pull the bolt. But the man, divining her intention, and quicker than she, had rushed up to the gate, and, crying out as loud as he could, he exclaimed,—
"Miss, miss! Stop! I have my orders, and I shall lose my place."
At his cries a dozen servants who were standing idly about in the stables, the vestibule, and the inner court, came running up. Then Sir Thorn appeared, ready to go out on horseback, and finally the count himself.
"What do you want? What are you doing there?" he asked his daughter.
"You see, I want to go out."
"Alone?" laughed the count. Then he continued harshly, pointing at the concierge,—
"This man would be instantly dismissed if he allowed you to leave the house alone. Oh, you need not look at me that way! Hereafter you will only go out when, and with whom, it pleases me. And do not hope to escape my watchful observation. I have foreseen every thing. The little gate to which you had a key has been nailed up. And, if ever a man should dare to steal into the garden, the gardeners have orders to shoot him down like a dog, whether it be the man with whom I caught you the other day, or some one else."
Under this mean and cowardly insult Henrietta staggered; but, immediately collecting herself, she exclaimed,—
"Great God! Am I delirious? Father, are you aware of what you are saying?"
And, as the suppressed laughter of the servants reached her, she added with—almost convulsive vehemence,—
"At least, say who the man was with whom I was in the garden, so that all, all may hear his name. Tell them that it was M. Daniel Champcey,—he whom my sainted mother had chosen for me among all,—he whom for long years you have daily received at your house, to whom you have solemnly promised my hand, who was my betrothed, and who would now be my husband, if we had chosen to approve of your unfortunate marriage. Tell them that it was M. Daniel Champcey, whom you had sent off the day before, and whom a crime, a forgery committed by your Sarah, forced to go to sea; for he had to be put out of the way at any hazard. As long as he was in Paris, you would never have dared treat me as I am treated."
Overcome by this unexpected violence, the count could only stammer out a few incoherent words. Henrietta was about to go on, when she felt herself taken by the arm, and gently but irresistibly taken up to the house. It was Sir Thorn, who tried to save her from her own excitement. She looked at him; a big tear was slowly rolling down the cheek of the impassive gentleman.
Then, when he had led her as far as the staircase, and she had laid hold of the balusters, he said,—
And went away with rapid steps.
Yes, "poor girl" indeed!
Her resolve was giving way under all these terrible blows; and seized with a kind of vertigo, out of breath, and almost beside herself, she had rushed up the steps, feeling as if she still heard the abominable accusations of her father, and the laughter of the servants.
"O God," she sobbed, "have pity on me!"
She felt in her heart that she had no hope left now but God, delivered up as she was to pitiless adversaries, sacrificed to the implacable hatred of a stepmother, abandoned by all, and betrayed and openly renounced by her own father.
Hour by hour she had seen how, by an incomprehensible combination of fatal circumstances, the infernal circle narrowed down, within which she was wretchedly struggling, and which soon would crush her effectually. What did they want of her? Why did they try every thing to exasperate her to the utmost? Did they expect some catastrophe to result from her despair?
Unfortunately, she did not examine this question carefully, too inexperienced as she was to suspect the subtle cunning of people whose wickedness would have astonished a criminal judge. Ah, how useful one word from Daniel would have been to her at this crisis! But, trembling with anguish for his betrothed, the unhappy man had not dared repeat to her the terrible words which had escaped M. de Brevan, in his first moment of expansion,—
"Miss Brandon leaves the dagger and the poisoned cup to fools, as too coarse and too dangerous means to get rid of people. She has safer means to suppress those who are in her way—means which justice never discovers."
Lost in sombre reflections, the poor girl was forgetting the hour, and did not notice that it had become dark already, when she heard the dinner-bell ring. She was free not to go down; but she revolted at the idea that the Countess Sarah might think her overcome. So she said to herself,—
"No. She shall never know how much I suffer!"
Ringing, then, for Clarissa, who had come back, she said,—
"Come, quick, dress me!"
And in less than five minutes she had arranged her beautiful hair, and put on one of her most becoming dresses. While changing her dress, she noticed the rustling of paper.
"Ah!" she said to herself, "my letter to Daniel. I had forgotten it."
Was it already too late to send it to M. de Brevan? Probably it was. But why might she not try, at least? So she gave it to Clarissa, saying,—
"You will take a cab, and take this letter immediately to M. de Brevan, Rue Laffitte, No. 62. If he is out, you will leave it, telling the people to be sure to give it to him as soon as he comes in. You can find some excuse, if they should ask you why you are going out. Be discreet."
She herself went down stairs, so determined to conceal her emotion, that she actually had a smile on her lips as she entered the dining-room. The fever that devoured her gave to her features unwonted animation, and to her eyes a strange brilliancy. Her beauty, ordinarily a little impaired, shone forth once more in amazing splendor, so as to eclipse almost that of the countess.
Even Count Ville-Handry was struck by it, and exclaimed, glancing at his young wife,—
Otherwise, this was the only notice which was taken of Henrietta. After that, no one seemed to mind her presence, except M. Elgin, whose eye softened whenever he looked at her. But what was that to her? Affecting a composure which she was far from possessing, she made an effort to eat, when a servant entered, and very respectfully whispered a few words in the ear of the countess.
"Very well," she said; "I'll be there directly."
And, without vouchsafing an explanation, she left the table, and remained perhaps ten minutes away.
"What was it?" asked Count Ville-Handry, with an accent of tenderest interest, when his young wife reappeared.
"Nothing, my dear," she replied, as she took her seat again,—"nothing, some orders to give."
Still Henrietta thought she noticed under this apparent indifference of her step-mother an expression of cruel satisfaction. More than that, she fancied she saw the countess and Mrs. Brian rapidly exchange looks, one saying, "Well," and the other answering, "All right."
The poor girl, prejudiced as she was, felt as if she had been stabbed once more to the heart.
"These wretches," she thought, "have prepared another insult for me."
This suspicion took so powerfully hold of her, that when dinner was over, instead of returning to her rooms, she followed her father and his new "friends" into the sitting-room. Count Ville-Handry spoke of Mrs. Brian and M. Elgin always as "the family."
They did not long remain alone. The count and his young wife had probably let it be known that they would be at home that evening; and soon a number of visitors came in, some of them old friends of the family, but the great majority intimates from Circus Street. Henrietta was too busy watching her stepmother to notice how eagerly she herself was examined, what glances they cast at her, and how careful the married ladies, as well as the young girls, were to leave her alone. It required a brutal scene to open her mind to the truth, and to bring her thoughts back to the horrible reality of her situation. That scene came but too soon.
As the visitors increased, the conversation had ceased to be general, and groups had formed; so that two ladies came to sit down close by Henrietta. They were apparently friends of the young countess, for she did not know them, and one of them had a strong foreign accent. They were talking. Instinctively Henrietta listened.
"Why did you not bring your daughter?" asked one of them.
"How could I?" replied the other. "I would not bring her here for the world. Don't you know what kind of a woman the count's daughter is? It is incredible, and almost too scandalous. On the day of her father's marriage she ran away with somebody, by the aid of a servant, who has since been dismissed; and they had to get the police to help them bring her back. If it had not been for our dear Sarah, who is goodness itself, they would have sent her to a house of correction."
A stifled cry interrupted them. They looked round. Henrietta had suddenly been taken ill, and had fallen to the ground. Instantly, and with one impulse, everybody was up. But the honorable M. Elgin had been ahead of them all, and had rushed up with such surprising promptness at the very moment when the accident happened, that it almost looked as if he had had a presentiment, and was watching for the precise time when his assistance would be needed.
Raising Henrietta with a powerful arm, he laid her on a sofa, not forgetting to slip a cushion under her head. Immediately the countess and the other ladies crowded around the fainting girl, rubbing the palms of her hands, moistening her temples with aromatic vinegar and cologne, and holding bottles of salts persistently to her nostrils.
Still all efforts to bring her to remained sterile; and this was so extraordinary, that even Count Ville-Handry began to be moved, although at first he had been heard to exclaim,—
"Pshaw! Leave her alone. It is nothing."
The mad passion of senile love had not yet entirely extinguished in him the instincts of a father; and anxiety rekindled the affection he had formerly felt for his child. He rushed, therefore, to the vestibule, calling out to the servants who were there on duty,—
"Quick! Let some one run for the doctor; never mind which,—the nearest!"
This acted as a signal for the guests to scatter at once. Finding that this fainting-fit lasted too long, and fearing perhaps a fatal termination, a painful scene, and tears, they slyly slipped out, one by one, and escaped.
In this way the countess, Mrs. Brian, M. Elgin, and the unhappy father found themselves soon once more alone with poor Henrietta, who was still unconscious.
"We ought not to leave her here," said Countess Sarah; "she will be better in her bed."
"Yes, that is true, you are right!" replied the count. "I shall have her carried to her room."
And he was stretching out his hand to pull the bell, when Sir Thorn stopped him, saying in a voice of deep emotion,—
"Never mind, count. I'll carry her myself."
And, without waiting for an answer, he took her up like a feather, and carried her to her room, followed by Count Ville-Handry, and his young wife. He could, of course, not remain in Henrietta's room; but it looked as if he could not tear himself away. For some time the servants, quite amazed, saw him walk up and down the passage with feverish steps, and, in spite of his usual impassiveness, giving all the signs of extraordinary excitement. Every ten minutes he paused in his walk to ask at the door, with a voice full of anxiety,—
"She is still in the same condition," was the answer.
In the meantime two physicians had arrived, but without obtaining any better results than the countess and her friends. They had exhausted all the usual remedies for such cases, and began, evidently, to be not a little surprised at the persistency of the symptoms. Nor could Count Ville-Handry suppress his growing anxiety as he saw them consulting in the recess of one of the windows, discussing more energetic means to be employed. At last, toward midnight, Sir Thorn saw the young countess come out of Henrietta's room.
"How is she?" he cried out.
Then the countess said, speaking very loud, so as to be heard by the servants,—
"She is coming to; and that is why I am leaving her. She dislikes me so terribly, that poor unhappy child, that I fear my presence might do her harm."
Henrietta had indeed recovered her consciousness. First had come a shiver running over her whole body; then she had tried painfully and repeatedly to raise herself on her pillows, looking around,—
Evidently she did not remember what had happened, and mechanically passed her hand to and fro over her brow, as if to brush away the dark veil that was hanging over her mind, looking with haggard eyes at the doctors, at her father, and at her confidante, Clarissa, who knelt by her bedside, weeping.
At last, when, all of a sudden, the horrid reality broke upon her mind, she threw herself back, and cried out,—
But she was saved; and the doctors soon withdrew, declaring that there was nothing to apprehend now, provided their prescriptions were carefully observed. The count then came up to his daughter, and, taking her hands, asked her,—
"Come, child. What has happened? What was the matter?"
She looked upon him in utter despair, and then said in a low voice,—
"Nothing! only you have ruined me, father."
"How, how?" said the count. "What do you mean?"
And very much embarrassed, perhaps angry against himself, and trying to find an excuse for what he had done, he added, simpering,—
"Is it not your own fault? Why do you treat Sarah so badly, and do all you can to exasperate me?"
"Yes, you are right. It is my fault," murmured Henrietta.
She said it in a tone of bitter irony now; but afterwards, when she was alone, and more quiet, reflecting in the silence of the night, she had to acknowledge, and confess to herself, that it was so. The scandal by which she had intended to crush her step-mother had fallen back upon herself, and crushed her.
Still, the next morning she was a little better; and, in spite of all that Clarissa could say, she would get up, and go down stairs, for all her hopes henceforth depended on that letter written by Daniel. She had been waiting day after day for M. de Brevan, who was to bring it to her; and for nothing in the world would she have been absent when he came at last.
But she waited for him in vain that day, and four days after.
Attributing his tardiness to some new misfortune, she thought of writing to him, when at last, on Tuesday,—the day which the countess had chosen for her reception-day,—but not until the room was already quite full of company, the servant announced,—"M. Palmer, M. de Brevan!"
Seized with most violent emotions, Henrietta turned round suddenly, casting upon the door one of those glances in which a whole soul is read at once. At last she was to know him whom her Daniel had called his second self. Two men entered: one, quite old, had gray hair, and looked as grave and solemn as a member of parliament; the other, who might be thirty or thirty-five years old, looked cold and haughty, having thin lips and a sardonic smile.
"That is the man!" said Henrietta to herself; "that is Daniel's friend!"
At first she disliked him excessively. Upon examining him more closely, she thought his composure affected, and his whole appearance lacking in frankness. But she never thought for a moment of distrusting M. de Brevan. Daniel had blindly recommended him to her; and that was enough. She had been too severely punished when she tried to follow her own inspirations, ever to think of repeating the experiment.
Still she kept him in view. After having been presented to the Countess Sarah and her husband, he had thrown himself into the crowd, and managed, after a while, to get near to her. He went from one group to another, throwing a word to each one, gaining thus, insensibly, and without affectation, a small chair, which was vacant, by the side of Henrietta.
And the air of perfect indifference with which he took possession of it would have made you think he had fully measured the danger of risking a confidential talk with a young lady under the eyes of fifty or sixty persons. He commenced with some of those set phrases which furnish the currency of society, speaking loud enough to be heard by the neighbors, and to satisfy their curiosity, if they should have a fancy for listening. As he noticed that Henrietta had turned very red, and looked overcome, while fixing most anxiously her eyes upon him, he even said,—
"I pray you, madam, affect a little more indifference. Smile; we may be watched. Remember that we must not know each other; that we are perfect strangers to each other."
Then he began in a very loud voice to sing the praise of the last new play that had been performed, until finally, thinking that he had put all suspicions asleep, he drew a little nearer, and, casting down his eyes, he said,—
"It is useless to tell you, madam, that I am M. de Brevan."
"I heard your name announced, sir," replied Henrietta in the same way.
"I have taken the liberty of writing to you, madam, under cover to your maid Clarissa, according to Daniel's orders; but I hope you will pardon me."
"I have nothing to pardon, sir, but to thank you very much, from the bottom of my heart, for your generous devotion."
No man is perfect. A passing blush colored the cheeks of M. de Brevan; he had to cough a little; and once or twice passed his hand between his collar and his neck, as if he felt troubled in his throat.
"You must have thought," continued Henrietta, "that I was not in great haste to avail myself of your kind offer; but—there were difficulties—in my way"—
"Oh, yes! I know," broke in M. de Brevan, sadly shaking his head; "your maid has told me. For she found me at home, as no doubt you have heard; and your letter arrived just in time to be sent on with mine. They will gain a fortnight in this way; for the mail for Cochin China does not leave more than once a month,—on the 26th."
But he paused suddenly, or rather raised his voice to resume his account of the new drama. Two young ladies had stopped just before them. As soon as they were gone, he went on,—
"I bring you, madam, Daniel's letter."
"I have folded it up very small, and I have it here in my hand; if you will let your handkerchief fall, I'll slip it into it as I pick it up."
The trick was not new; but it was also not very difficult. Still Henrietta did it awkwardly enough. Her letting the handkerchief fall looked any thing but natural; and, when she took it back again, she was all eagerness. Then, when she felt the crisp paper under the folds of the linen, she became all crimson in her face. Fortunately, M. de Brevan had the presence of mind to rise suddenly, and to move his chair so as to help her in concealing her embarrassment. Then, when he saw her calm again, he sat down once more, and went on, with an accent of deep interest,—
"Now, madam, permit me to inquire after your position here."
"It is terrible."
"Do they harass you?"
"No doubt, your step-mother?"
"Alas! who else would do it? But she dissembles, veiling her malignity under the most affected gentleness. In appearance she is all kindness to me. And my poor father becomes a willing instrument in her hands,—my poor father, formerly so kind, and so fond of me!"
She was deeply moved; and M. de Brevan saw the tears starting in her eyes. Quite frightened, he said,—
"Madam, for Heaven's sake control yourself!"
And, anxious to turn Henrietta's thoughts from her father, he asked,—
"How is Mrs. Brian to you?"
"She always takes sides against me."
"Naturally. And Sir Thorn?"
"You wrote me that I should mistrust him particularly, and so I do; but, I must confess, he alone seems to be touched by my misfortunes."
"Ah! that is the very reason why you ought to fear him."
M. de Brevan hesitated, and then answered, speaking very rapidly, and after having looked around cautiously,—
"Because M. Elgin might very well cherish a hope of replacing Daniel in your heart, and of becoming your husband."
"Great God!" exclaimed Henrietta, sinking back in her chair with an expression of horror. "Is it possible?"
"I am quite sure of it," replied M. Brevan.
And, as if he had been frightened himself by what he had said, he added,—
"Yes, I am quite sure. I have read the heart of that man; and before long you will have some terrible evidence of his intentions. But I pray, madam, let this remain a secret between us, to be kept religiously. Never allow yourself the slightest allusion."
"What can I do?" murmured the poor girl, "what can I do? You alone, sir, can advise me."
For some time M. de Brevan continued silent; then he said in a very sad voice,—
"My experience, madam, supplies me with but one advice,—be patient; say little; do as little as possible; and endeavor to appear insensible to their insults. I would say to you, if you will excuse the triviality of the comparison, imitate those feeble insects who simulate death when they are touched. They are defenceless; and that is their only chance of escape."
He had risen; and, while bowing deeply before Henrietta, he added,—
"I must also warn you, madam, not to be surprised if you see me doing every thing in my power for the purpose of winning the good-will of your step-mother. Believe me, if I tell you that such duplicity is very distasteful to my character. But I have no other way to obtain the privilege of coming here frequently, of seeing you, and of being useful to you, as I have promised your friend Daniel."
During the last visits which Daniel had paid to Henrietta, he had not concealed from her the fact that Maxime de Brevan had formerly been quite intimate with Sarah Brandon and her friends. But still, in explaining his reasons for trying to renew these relations, M. de Brevan had acted with his usual diplomacy.
But for this, she might have conceived some vague suspicions when she saw him, soon after he had left her, enter into a long conversation with the countess, then speak with Sir Thorn, and finally chat most confidentially with austere Mrs. Brian. But now, if she noticed it all, she was not surprised. Her mind was, in fact, thousands of miles away. She thought only of that letter which she had in her pocket, and which was burning her fingers, so to say. She could think of nothing else.
What would she not have given for the right to run away and read it at once? But adversity was teaching her gradually circumspection; and she felt it would be unwise to leave the room before the last guests had departed. Thus it was past two o'clock in the morning before she could open the precious letter, after having dismissed her faithful Clarissa.
Alas! she did not find what she had hoped for,—advice, or, better than that, directions how she should conduct herself. The fact is, that in his terrible distress, Daniel no longer was sufficiently master of himself to look calmly at the future, and to weigh the probabilities. In his despair he had filled three pages with assurances of his love, with promises that his last thoughts would be for her, and with prayers that she would not forget him. There were hardly twenty lines left for recommendations, which ought to have contained the most precise and minute details.
All his suggestions, moreover, amounted to this,—arm yourself with patience and resignation till my return. Do not leave your father's house unless in the last extremity, in case of pressing danger, and under no circumstances without first consulting Maxime.
And to fill up the measure, from excessive delicacy, and fearing to wound his friend's oversensitive feelings, Daniel had omitted to inform Henrietta of certain most important circumstances. Thus he only told her, that, if flight became her only means of escape from actual danger, she need not hesitate from pecuniary considerations; that he had foreseen every thing, and made the needful preparations.
How could she guess from this, that the unlucky man, carried away and blinded by passion, had intrusted fifty or sixty thousand dollars, his entire fortune, to his friend Maxime? Still the two friends agreed too fully on the same opinion to allow her to hesitate. Thus, when she fell asleep, she had formed a decision. She had vowed to herself that she would meet all the torments they might inflict upon her, with the stoicism of the Indian who is bound to the stake, and to be, among her enemies, like a dead person, whom no insult can galvanize into the semblance of life.
During the following weeks it was not so difficult for her to keep her promises. Whether it were weariness or calculation, they seemed to forget her. Except at meals, they took no more notice of her than if she had not been in existence.
That sudden access of affection which had moved Count Ville-Handry on that evening when he thought his daughter in danger had long since passed away. He only honored her with ironical glances, and never addressed a word to her. The countess observed a kind of affectionate reserve, like a well-disposed person who has seen all her advances repelled, and who is hurt, but quite ready to be friends at the first sign. Mrs. Brian never opened her thin lips but to growl out some unpleasant remark, of which a single word was intelligible: shocking! There remained the Hon. M. Elgin, whose sympathetic pity showed itself daily more clearly. But, since Maxime's warning, Henrietta avoided him anxiously.
She was thus leading a truly wretched life in this magnificent palace, in which she was kept a prisoner by her father's orders; for such she was; she could no longer disguise it from herself. She felt at every moment that she was watched, and overlooked most jealously, even when they seemed to forget her most completely. The great gates, formerly almost always open, were now kept carefully closed; and, when they were opened to admit a carriage, the concierge mounted guard before them, as if he were the keeper of a jail. The little garden-gate had been secured by two additional enormous locks; and whenever Henrietta, during her walks in the garden, came near it, she saw one of the gardeners watch her with anxious eyes. They were apparently afraid, not only that she might escape, but that she might keep up secret communications with the outer world. She wanted to be clear about that; and one morning she asked her father's permission to send to the Duchess of Champdoce, and beg her to come and spend the day with her. But Count Ville-Handry brutally replied that he did not want to see the Duchess of Champdoce; and that, besides, she was not in Paris, as her husband had taken her south to hasten her recovery.
On another occasion, toward the end of February, and when several days of fine spring weather had succeeded each other, the poor child could not help expressing a desire to go out and breathe a little fresh air. Her father said, in reply to her request,—"Every day, your mother and I go out and drive for an hour or two in the Bois de Boulogne. Why don't you go with us?"
She said nothing. She would sooner have allowed herself to be cut to pieces than to appear in public seated by the side of the young countess and in the same carriage with her.
Months passed thus without her having put a foot outside of the palace, except her daily attendance at mass at eight o'clock on Sunday mornings. Count Ville-Handry had not dared to refuse her that; but he had added the most painful and most humiliating conditions. On these occasions M. Ernest, his valet, accompanied her, with express orders not to let her speak to any one whatsoever, and to "apprehend" her (this was the count's own expression), and to bring her back forcibly, if needs be, if she should try to escape.
But in vain they multiplied the insults; they did not extort a single complaint. Her unalterable patience would have touched ordinary executioners. And yet she had no other encouragement, no other support, but what she received from M. de Brevan.
Faithful to the plan which he had mentioned to her, he had managed so well as gradually to secure the right to come frequently to the house. He was on the best terms with Mrs. Brian; and the count invited him to dinner. At this time Henrietta had entirely overcome her prejudice against him. She had discovered in M. de Brevan such a respectful interest in her welfare, such almost womanly delicacy, and so much prudence and discretion, that she blessed Daniel for having left her this friend, and counted upon his devotion as upon that of a brother.
Was it not he, who, on certain evenings, when she was well-nigh overcome by despair, whispered to her,—
"Courage; here is another day gone! Daniel will soon be back!"
But the more Henrietta was left to the inspirations of solitude, and compelled to live within herself only, the more she observed all that was going on around her. And she thought she noticed some very strange changes. Never would Count Ville-Handry's first wife have been able to recognize her reception-rooms. Where was that select society which had been attracted by her, and which she had fashioned into something like a court, in which her husband was king? The palace had become, so to say, the headquarters of that motley society which forms the "Foreign Legion" of pleasure and of scandal.
Sarah Brandon, now Countess Ville-Handry, was surrounded by that strange aristocracy which has risen upon the ruins of old Paris,—a contraband aristocracy, a dangerous kind of high life, which, by its unheard-of extravagance and mysterious splendor, dazzles the multitude, and puzzles the police.
The young countess did not exactly receive people notoriously tainted. She was too clever to commit such a blunder; but she bestowed her sweetest smiles upon all those equivocal Bohemians who represent all races, and whose revenues come much less from good acres in the broad sunlight than from the credulity and stupidity of mankind.
At first Count Ville-Handry had been rather shocked by this new world, whose manners and customs were unknown to him, and whose language even he hardly understood. But it had not taken long to acclimatize him.
He was the firm, the receiver of the fortune, the flag that covers the merchandise, the master, in fine, although he exercised no authority. All these titles secured to him the appearance of profound respect; and all vied with each other in flattering him to the utmost, and paying him court in the most abject manner. This led him to imagine that he had recovered the prestige he had enjoyed in former days, thanks to the skilful management of his first wife; and he assumed a new kind of grotesque importance commensurate with his revived vanity.
He had, besides, gone to work once more most industriously. All the business men who had called upon him before his marriage already reappeared now, accompanied by that legion of famished speculators, whom the mere report of a great enterprise attracts, like the flies settling upon a lump of sugar. The count shut himself up with these men in his study, and often spent the whole afternoon with them there.
"Most probably something is going on there," thought Henrietta.
She was quite sure of it when she saw her father unhesitatingly give up the splendid suite of apartments in the lower story of the palace, which were cut up into an infinite number of small rooms. On the doors there appeared, one by one, signs not usually found in such houses; as, "Office," "Board Room," "Secretary," "Cashier's Room."
Then office-furniture appeared in loads,—tables, desks, chairs; then mountains of huge volumes; and at last two immense safes, as large as a bachelor's-lodging.
Henrietta was seriously alarmed, and knowing beforehand that no one in the house would answer her questions, she turned to M. de Brevan. In the most off-hand manner he assured her that he knew nothing about it, but promised to inquire, and to let her know soon.
There was no necessity; for one morning, when Henrietta was wandering about listlessly around the offices, which began to be filled with clerks, she noticed an immense advertisement on one of the doors.
She went up to it, and read:—
For the development of Pennsylvania petroleum wells.
Capital, Ten Million of Francs. Twenty Thousand Shares of 500 Francs each.
The Charter may be seen at the Office of M. Lilois, N. P.
President, Count Ville-Handry.
The books for subscription will be opened on the 25th of March.
principal office, Palace of Count Ville-Handry, Rue de Varennes. branch office, Rue Lepelletier, No. 1p.
At the foot, in small print, was a full explanation of the enormous profits which might be expected, the imperative necessity which had led to the establishment of the Pennsylvania Petroleum Society, the nature of its proposed operations, the immense services which it would render to the world at large, and, above all, the immense profits which would promptly accrue to the stockholders.
Then there came an account of petroleum or oil wells, in which it was clearly demonstrated that this admirable product represented, in comparison with other oils, a saving of more than sixty per cent; that it gave a light of matchless purity and brilliancy; that it burnt without odor; and, above all, that, in spite of what might have been said by interested persons, there was no possible danger of explosion connected with its use.
"In less than twenty years," concluded the report in a strain of lyric prophecy, "petroleum will have taken the place of all the primitive and useless illuminating mediums now employed. It will replace, in like manner, all the coarse and troublesome varieties of fuel of our day. In less than twenty years the whole world will be lighted and heated by petroleum; and the oil-wells of Pennsylvania are inexhaustible."
A eulogy on the president, Count Ville-Handry, crowned the whole work,—a very clever eulogy, which called him a man sent by Providence; and, alluding to his colossal fortune, suggested that, with such a manager at the head of the enterprise, the shareholders could not possibly run any risk.
Henrietta was overwhelmed with surprise. "Ah!" she said to herself, "this is what Sarah Brandon and her accomplices were aiming at. My father is ruined!"
That Count Ville-Handry should risk all he possessed in this terrible game of speculation was not so surprising to Henrietta. But what she could not comprehend was this, that he should assume the whole responsibility of such a hazardous enterprise, and run the terrible risk of a failure. How could he, with his deeply-rooted aristocratic prejudices, ever consent to lend his name to an industrial enterprise?
"It must have cost prodigies of patience and cunning," she thought, "to induce him to make such a sacrifice, such a surrender of old and cherished convictions. They must have worried him terribly, and brought to bear upon him a fearful pressure."
She was, therefore, truly amazed, when, two days afterwards, she became accidentally a witness to a lively discussion between her father and the countess on this very subject of the famous placards, which were now scattered all over Paris and France. The countess seemed to be distressed by the whole affair, and presented to her husband all the objections which Henrietta herself would have liked to have urged; only she did it with all the authority she derived from the count's passionate love for her. She did not understand, she said, how her husband, a nobleman of ancient lineage, could stoop to "making money." Had he not enough of it already? Would he be any happier if he had twice or thrice as many thousands a year?
He met all these objections with a sweetish smile, like a great artist who hears an ignoramus criticise his work. And, when the countess paused, he deigned to explain to her in that emphatic manner which betrayed his intense conceit, that if he, the representative of the very oldest nobility, threw himself into the great movement, it was for the purpose of setting a lofty example. He had no desire for "filthy lucre," he assured her; he only desired to render his country a great service.
"Too dangerous a service!" replied the countess. "If you succeed, as you hope, who will thank you for it? No one. More than that, if you speak to them of disinterestedness, they will laugh in your face. If the thing fails, on the other hand, who is to pay? You. And they will call you a dunce into the bargain."
Count Ville-Handry shrugged his shoulders almost imperceptibly; and then he said, taking his wife by the hand,—
"Would you love me less if I were ruined?"
She looked at him with her beautiful eyes as if overflowing with affection, and replied in a voice full of emotion,—
"God is my witness, my friend, that I should be delighted to be able to prove to you that I did not think of money when I married you."
"Sarah!" cried the count in ecstasy, "Sarah, my darling, that was a word worth the whole of that fortune which you blame me for risking."
Even if Henrietta had been more disposed to mistrust appearances, she would never have supposed that the whole scene was most cunningly devised for the purpose of impressing upon the count's feeble intellect this idea more forcibly than ever. She was rather inclined to believe, and she did believe, that this Petroleum Society, conceived by Sir Thorn, was unpleasant to the countess; and that thus discord reigned in the enemy's camp.
The result of her meditations was a long letter to a gentleman for whom her mother had always entertained a great esteem, the Duke of Champdoce. After having explained to him her situation, she told him all that she knew of the new enterprise, and besought him to interfere whilst it was yet time.
When she had written her letter, she gave it to Clarissa, urging her to carry it immediately to its address. Alas! the poor girl was rapidly approaching an incident which was to bring about a crisis.
Having by chance followed the maid down stairs, she saw her go into the Countess Sarah's room, and hand her the letter.
Was Henrietta thus betrayed even by the girl whom she thought so fully devoted to her interests, and since when? Perhaps from the first day. Ah, how many things this explained to her which she had hitherto wondered at as perfectly incomprehensible!
This last infamy, however, tempted her to lay aside for once her carefully-nursed reserve. She rushed into the room, crimson with shame and wrath, and said in a fierce tone,—
"Give me that letter, madam!"
Clarissa had fled when she saw her treachery discovered.
"This letter," replied the countess coldly, "I shall hand to your father, madam, as it is my duty to do."
"Ah, take care, madam!" broke in the poor girl with a threatening gesture; "take care! My patience has its limits."
Her attitude and her accent were so terrible, that the countess thought it prudent to put a table between herself and her victim. But suddenly a great revolution had taken place in Henrietta's heart. She said roughly,—
"Look here, madam, let us have an explanation while we are alone. What do you want me to do?"
"Nothing, I assure you."
"Nothing? Who is it, then, that has meanly slandered me, has robbed me of my father's affection, surrounds me with spies, and overwhelms me with insults? Who forces me to lead this wretched life to which I am condemned?"
The countess showed in her features how deeply she was reflecting. She was evidently calculating the effect of a new plan.
"You will have it so," she replied resolutely. "Very well, then, I will be frank with you. Yes, I am bent on ruining you. Why? You know it as well as I do. I will ask you, in my turn, who is it that has done every thing that could possibly be done to prevent my marriage? Who has endeavored to crush me? Who would like to drive me from this house like an infamous person? Is it not you, always you? Yes, you are right. I hate you; I hate you unto death, and I avenge myself!"
"Wait! What had I done to you before my marriage? Nothing. You did not even know me by name. They came and told you atrocious stories invented by my enemies, and you believed them. Your father told you, 'They are wicked libels.' What did you answer? That 'those only are libelled who deserve it.' I wanted to prove to you that it is not so. You are the purest and chastest of girls whom I know; are you not? Very well. I defy you to find a single person around you who does not believe that you have had lovers."
Extreme situations have this peculiarity, that the principal actors may be agitated by the most furious passions, and still outwardly preserve the greatest calmness. Thus these two women, who were burning with mortal hatred, spoke with an almost calm voice.
"And you think, madam," resumed Henrietta, "that sufferings like mine can be long continued?"
"They will be continued till it pleases me to make an end to them."
"Or till I come of age."
The countess made a great effort to conceal her surprise.
"Oh!" she said to herself. "Oh, oh!"
"Or," continued the young girl, "till he returns whom you have taken from me, my betrothed, M. Daniel Champcey."
"Stop, madam. You are mistaken. It was not I who sent Daniel away."
Daniel! the countess said so; said familiarly, Daniel! Had she any right to do so? How? Whence this extraordinary impudence?
Still Henrietta saw in it only a new insult; no suspicion entered her soul, and she replied in the most ironical tone,—
"Then it was not you who sent that petition to the secretary of the navy? It was not you who ordered and paid for that forged document which caused M. Champcey to be ordered abroad?"
"No; and I told him so myself, the day before he left, in his own room."
Henrietta was stunned. What? This woman had gone to see Daniel? Was this true? It was not even plausible.
"In his room?" she repeated,—"in his room?"
"Why, yes, in University Street. I foresaw that trick which I could not prevent, and I wished to prevent it. I had a thousand reasons for wishing ardently that he should remain in Paris."
"A thousand reasons? You? Tell me only one!"
The countess courtesied, as if excusing herself for being forced to tell the truth against her inclination, and added simply,—
"I love him!"
As if she had suddenly seen an abyss opening beneath her feet, Henrietta threw herself back, pale, trembling, her eyes starting from their sockets.
"You—-love—Daniel!" she stammered,—"you love him!"
And, agitated by a nervous tremor, she said, laughing painfully,—
"But he—he? Can you hope that he will ever love you?"
"Yes, any day I may wish for it. And I shall wish it the day when he returns."
Was she speaking seriously? or was the whole scene only a bit of cruel sport? That is what Henrietta was asking herself, as far as she was able to control her thoughts; for she felt her head growing dizzy, and her thoughts rushed wildly through her mind.
"You love Daniel!" she repeated once more, "and yet you were married the very week after his departure!"
"And what was my father to you? A magnificent prey, which you did not like to let escape,—an easy dupe. After all, you acknowledge it yourself, it was his fortune you wanted. It was for his money's sake that you married him,—you, the young, marvellously-beautiful woman,—the old man."
A smile rose upon the lips of the countess, in which she appeared herself in all the deep treachery of her secret calculations. She broke in, laughing ironically—
"I? I had coveted the fortune of this dear count, my husband? You do not think of it, madam? Have you so completely forgotten the zeal with which you heard me, only the other day, try to turn him from this enterprise in which he is about to embark all he possesses?"
Henrietta hardly knew whether she was awake or asleep. Was she not, perhaps, under the influence of one of those hallucinations which fevers produce?
"And you dare tell me all these things, me, Count Ville-Handry's own daughter, the daughter of your husband?"
"Why not?" asked the countess.
And, shrugging her shoulders, she added in a careless tone,—
"Do you think I am afraid of your reporting me to him? You are at liberty to try it. Listen. I think I hear your father's footstep in the vestibule; call him in, and tell him what we have been talking about."
And, as Henrietta said nothing, she laughed, and said,—
"Ah! you hesitate. You do not dare do it? Well, you are wrong. I mean to hand him your letter, and I shall call him."
There was no need for it; for at the same moment the count entered, followed by austere, grim Mrs. Brian. As he perceived his wife and his daughter, his face lighted up immediately; and he exclaimed,—
"What? You are here, both of you, and chatting amicably like two charming sisters? My Henrietta has come back to her senses, I trust."
They were both silent; and, seeing how they looked at each other with fierce glances, he went on in a tone of great bitterness—
"But no, it is not so! I am not so fortunate. What is the matter? What has happened?"
The countess shook her head sadly, and replied,—
"The matter is, that your daughter, during your absence, has written a letter to one of my most cruel enemies, to that man who, you know, on our wedding-day, slandered me meanly; in fine, to the Duke of Champdoce!"
"And has any one of my servants dared to carry that letter?"
"No, my friend! It was brought to me in obedience to your orders; and the young lady summoned me haughtily to hand her that letter."
"That letter?" cried the count. "Where is that letter?"
The countess gave it to him with these words,—
"Perhaps it would be better to throw it into the fire without reading it."
But already he had torn the envelope; and, as he was reading the first lines, a crimson blush overspread his temples, and his eyes became bloodshot. For Henrietta, sure of the Duke of Champdoce, had not hesitated to open her heart to him, describing her situation as it really was; painting her step-mother as he had anticipated she would be; and at every turn certain phrases were repeated, which were so many blows with a dagger to the count.
"This is unheard of!" he growled with a curse. "This is incomprehensible! Such perversity has never been known before."
He went and stood before his daughter, his arms crossed, and cried with a voice of thunder,—
"Wretch! Will you disgrace us all?"
She made no reply. Immovable like a statue, she did not tremble under the storm. Besides, what could she do? Defend herself? She would not stoop to do that. Repeat the impudent avowals of the countess? What would be the use? Did she not know beforehand that the count would not believe her? In the meantime, grim Mrs. Brian had taken a seat by the side of her beloved Sarah.
"I," she said, "if I were, for my sins, afflicted with such a daughter, I would get her a husband as soon as possible."
"I have thought of that," replied the count; "and I believe I have even hit upon an arrangement which"—
But, when he saw his daughter's watchful eye fixed upon him, he paused, and, pointing towards the door, said to her brutally,—
"You are in the way here!"
Without saying a word, she went out, much less troubled by her father's fury than by the strange confessions which the countess had made. She only now began to measure the full extent of her step-mother's hatred, and knew that she was too practical a woman to waste her time by making idle speeches. Therefore, if she had stated that she loved Daniel,—a statement which Henrietta believed to be untrue,—if she had impudently confessed that she coveted her husband's fortune, she had a purpose in view. What was that purpose? How could any one unearth the truth from among such a mass of falsehood and deception?
At all events, the scene was strange enough to confound any one's judgment. And when Henrietta, that evening, found an opportunity to tell M. de Brevan what had happened, he trembled in his chair, and was so overwhelmed with surprise, that he forgot his precautions, and exclaimed almost aloud,—
"That is not possible!"
There was no doubt that he, usually so impassive, was terribly excited. In less than five minutes he had changed color more than ten times. You would have thought he was a man who at a single blow sees the edifice of all his hopes crumble to pieces. At last, after a moment's reflection, he said,—
"Perhaps it would be wise, madam, to leave the house."
But she replied sadly,—
"What? How can I do that? After so many odious calumnies, my honor and Daniel's honor oblige me to remain here. He recommends me only to flee at the last extremity, and when there is no other resource left. Now, I ask you, shall I be more unhappy or more seriously threatened to-morrow than I am to-day? Evidently not."
But, this confidence which Henrietta expressed was only apparent. In her heart she suffered from the most terrible presentiments. A secret voice told her that this scene, no doubt well prepared and carefully brought about, was but another step leading to the final catastrophe.
Days, however, passed by, and nothing unusual happened. It looked as if they had resolved, after that crisis, to give her a short respite, and time to recover.
Even the watch kept upon her movements was not quite as strict as heretofore. The countess kept out of her way. Mrs. Brian had given up the desire to frighten her by her incessant remarks. Her father she saw but rarely; for he was entirely absorbed in the preparations for the Pennsylvania Petroleum Society. Thus, a week later, all seemed to have entirely forgotten the terrible explosion produced by the letter to the Duke of Champdoce.
All? By no means. There was one of the inmates of the palace who recalled it daily,—M. Thomas Elgin.
On the very evening after the scene, his generous indignation had so far gotten the better of his usual reserve, and his pledge of neutrality, that he had taken the Countess Sarah aside, and overwhelmed her with sharp reproaches.
"You will have to eat your own words," he had told her, among other things, "if you use such abominable means to gratify your hatred."
It is true, that, when he thus took his kinswoman aside, he also took pains to be overheard by Henrietta. And besides, for fear, perhaps, that she might not fully appreciate his sentiments, he had stealthily pressed her hand, and whispered into her ear,—
"Poor, dear girl! But I am here. I shall watch."
This sounded like a promise to afford her protection, which certainly would have been efficient if it had been sincere. But was it sincere?
"No; most assuredly not!" said M. de Brevan when he was consulted. "It can be nothing but vile hypocrisy and the beginning of an abominable farce. You will see, madam."
What Henrietta really saw was, that the Hon. M. Elgin suddenly underwent a complete metamorphosis. A new Sir Thorn appeared, whom no one would have ever suspected under the cloak of icy reserve which the former had worn. His sympathetic pity of former days was succeeded by more tender sentiments. It was not pity now, which animated his big, blue-china eyes, but the half-suppressed flame of a discreet passion. In public he did not commit himself much; but there was no little attention which he did not pay Henrietta by stealth. He never left the room before her; and, on the reception-evenings, he always took a seat by her, and remained there till the end. The most direct result of these manoeuvres was to keep M. de Brevan from her. The latter became naturally very indignant at this, and began to dislike Sir Thorn to such an extent, that he could hardly contain himself.
"Well, madam," he said to Henrietta on one of the few occasions when he could speak to her,—"well, what did I tell you? Does the wretch show his hand clearly enough now?"
Henrietta discouraged her curious lover as much as she could; but it was impossible for her to avoid him, as they lived under the same roof, and sat down twice a day at the same table.
"The simplest way," was M. de Brevan's advice, "would be, perhaps, to provoke an explanation."
But he did not wait to be asked. One morning, after breakfast, he waited for Henrietta in the vestibule; and, when she appeared, he said in an embarrassed manner,—
"I must speak to you, madam; it is absolutely necessary."
She did not manifest any surprise, and simply replied,—
"Follow me, sir."
She entered into the parlor, and he came with her. For about a minute they remained there alone, standing face to face,—she trying to keep up her spirits, although blushing deeply; he, apparently so overcome, that he had lost the use of his voice. At last, all of a sudden, and as if making a supreme effort, Sir Thorn began in a breathless voice to declare, that, according to Henrietta's answer, he would be the happiest or the most unfortunate of mortals. Touched by her innocence, and the persecutions to which she was exposed, he had at first pitied her, then, discovering in her daily more excellent qualities, unusual energy, coupled with all the charming bashfulness of a young girl, he had no longer been able to resist such marvellous attractions.
Henrietta, still mistress of herself, because she was convinced that M. Elgin was only playing a wretched farce, observed him as closely as she could, and, when he paused a moment, began,—
"Believe me, sir"—
But he interrupted her, saying with unusual vehemence,—
"Oh! I beseech you, madam, let me finish. Many in my place would have spoken to your father; but I thought that would hardly be fair in your exceptional position. Still I have reason to believe that Count Ville- Handry would look upon my proposals with favor. But then he would probably have attempted to do violence to your feelings. Now I wish to be indebted to you only, madam, deciding in full enjoyment of your liberty; for"—
An expression of intense anxiety contracted the features of his usually so impassive face; and he added with great earnestness,—
"Miss Henrietta, I am an honorable man; I love you. Will you be my wife?"
By a stroke of instinctive genius, he had found the only argument, perhaps, that might have procured credit for his sincerity.
But what did that matter to Henrietta? She began, saying,—
"Believe me, sir. I fully appreciate the honor you do me; but I am no longer free"—
"I beseech you"—
"Freely, and among all men, I have chosen M. Daniel Champcey. My life is in his hands."
He tottered as if he had received a heavy blow, and stammered with a half-extinct voice,—
"Will you not leave me a glimpse of hope?"
"I would do wrong if I did so, sir, and I have never yet deceived any one."
But the Hon. M. Elgin was not one of those men who despair easily, and give up. He was not discouraged by a first failure; and he showed it very soon. The very next day he became a changed man, as if Henrietta's refusal had withered the very roots of his life. In his carriage, his gestures, and his tone of voice, he betrayed the utmost dejection. He looked as if he had grown taller and thinner. A bitter smile curled on his lips; and his magnificent whiskers, usually so admirably kept, now hung down miserably on his chest. And this intense melancholy grew and grew, till it became so evident to all the world, that people asked the countess,—
"What is the matter with poor M. Elgin? He looks funereal."
"He is unhappy," was the answer, accompanied by a sigh, which sounded as if it had been uttered in order to increase curiosity, and stimulate people to observe him more closely. Several persons did observe him; and they soon found out that Sir Thorn no longer took his seat by Henrietta as formerly, and that he avoided every occasion to address her a word.
For all that he was not resigned; far from that. He only laid siege from a distance now, spending whole evenings in looking at her from afar, absorbed in mute ecstasy. And at all times, incessantly and everywhere, she met him, as if he had been her shadow, or as if he had been condemned to breathe the air which had been displaced by her petticoats. One would have thought him endowed with the gift of multiplying himself; for he was inevitably seen wherever she was,—leaning against the door-frame, or resting his elbow on the mantlepiece, his eyes fixed upon her. And, when she did not see him, she felt his looks still weighing her down. M. de Brevan, having been made aware of his importunate attentions, seemed to check his indignation only with great difficulty. Once or twice he spoke of calling out this wretched fellow (so he called Sir Thorn); and, in order to quiet him, Henrietta had to repeat to him over and over again, that, after such an encounter, he would no longer be able to appear at the palace, and would thus deprive her of the only friend to whom she could look for assistance.
He yielded; but he said after careful consideration,—
"This abominable persecution cannot go on, madam: this man compromises you too dreadfully. You ought to lay your complaint before Count Ville-Handry."
She decided to do so, not without great reluctance; but the count stopped her at the first word she uttered.
"I think, my daughter, your vanity blinds you. Before M. Elgin, who is one of the most eminent financiers in all Europe, should think of a little insignificant person like you, he would look a long time elsewhere."
"Permit me, father"—
"Stop! If you should, however, not deceive yourself, it would be the greatest good luck for you, and an honor of which you ought to be very proud indeed. Do you think it would be easy to find a husband for you, after all the unpleasant talk to which you have given occasion?"
"I do not wish to marry, father."
"Of course not. However, as such a marriage would meet all my wishes, as it would serve to tighten the bonds which unite us with this honorable family (if M. Thomas Elgin should really have such intentions as you mention), I should know, I think, how to force you to marry him. However, I shall speak to him, and see."
He spoke to him indeed, and soon; for the very next morning the countess and Mrs. Brian purposely went out, so as to leave Henrietta and Sir Thorn alone. The honorable gentleman looked sadder than usually. He began thus,—
"Is it really true, madam, that you have made complaint to your father?"
"Your pertinacity compelled me to do so," replied Henrietta.
"Is the idea of becoming my wife so very revolting to you?"
"I have told you, sir, I am no longer free."
"Yes, to be sure! You love M. Daniel Champcey. You love him. He knows it; for you had told him so, no doubt: and yet he has forsaken you."
Sometimes, in her innermost heart, Henrietta had accused Daniel. But what she thought she would permit no one else to think. She replied, therefore, haughtily,—
"It was a point of honor with M. Champcey, and it was so with me. If he had hesitated, I would have been the first one to say to him, 'Duty calls; you must go.'"
Sir Thorn shook his head with a sardonic smile, and said,—
"But he did not hesitate. It is ten months now since he left you; and no one knows for how many more months, for how many years, he will be absent. For his sake you suffer martyrdom; and, when he returns, he may have long since forgotten you."
Her eyes beaming with faith, Henrietta rose to her full height, and replied,—
"I believe in Daniel as surely as in myself."
"And if they convinced you that you were mistaken?"
"They would render me a very sad service, which would bring no reward to any one."
Sir Thorn's lips moved, as if he were about to answer. A thought seemed to stop him. Then in a stifled voice, with a gesture of despair, he added,—
"Keep your illusions, madam; and farewell."
He was going to leave the room; but she threw herself in his way, crossed her arms, and said to him in an imperative tone,—
"You have gone too far, sir, to retrace your steps. You are bound now to justify your insidious insinuations, or, to confess that they were false."
Then he seemed to make up his mind, and said, speaking rapidly,—
"You will have it so? Well, be it so. Know, then, since you insist upon it, that M. Daniel Champcey has been deceiving you most wickedly; that he does not love you, and probably never did love you."
"That is what you say," replied Henrietta.
Her haughty carriage, the disdain, rather than disgust, with which she spoke, could not fail to exasperate M. Elgin. He checked himself, however, and said, in a short and cutting tone,—
"I say so because it is so; and any one but you, possessing a less noble ignorance of evil, would long since have discovered the truth. To what do you attribute Sarah's implacable enmity? To the memory of your offences on the occasion of her wedding? Poor child! If that had been all, her indifference would have given you back your place months ago. Jealousy alone is capable of that fierce and insatiable hatred which cannot be disarmed by tears or submission,—that hatred which time increases, instead of diminishing. Between Sarah and you, Miss Henrietta, there stands a man."
"Yes,—M. Daniel Champcey."
Henrietta felt as if a sharp knife had been plunged into her bosom.
"I do not understand you, sir," she said.
He, shrugging his shoulders, and assuming an air of commiseration, went on,—
"What? You will not understand that Sarah is your rival; that she has loved M. Champcey; that she is still madly in love with him? Ah! they have deceived Mrs. Brian and myself cruelly."
He turned his head aside, and murmured, as if speaking to himself,—
"———— ———— was her lover."
Miss Ville-Handry discerned the truth with admirable instinct, drew herself up, and said in her most energetic way,—
"That is false!"
Sir Thorn trembled; but that was all.
"You have asked me to tell the truth," he said coldly, "and I have done so. Try to remember. Have you forgotten that little scene, after which M. Champcey fled from our house in the middle of the night, bareheaded, without taking his overcoat?"
"Did you not think that was extraordinary? That night, you see, we discovered the whole thing. After having been one of the foremost to recommend to Sarah to marry your father, M. Champcey came and asked her to give up that marriage. He had, before that, tried to have it broken off through your agency, madam, using thus his influence over you, his betrothed, for the benefit of his passion."
"Ah! You lie impudently, sir!" said Henrietta.
To this charge, which fell like a blow upon his face, he only replied,—
"I have proofs."
"Letters written by M. Champcey to Sarah. I have obtained two; and I have them here in my pocket-book."
He put at the same time his hand to his pocket. She stopped him.
"These letters would prove nothing to me, sir."
She cast a withering glance at him, and said, in a voice of unbearable contempt,—
"Those who have sent a letter to the Navy Department, which pretended to have been written by Daniel, cannot find any difficulty in imitating his signature. Let us break off here, sir. I forbid you ever to speak to me again."
M. Elgin laughed in a terrible way.
"That is your last word?" he asked.
Instead of answering him, she drew a step aside, thus opening the way to the door, at which she pointed with her finger.
"Well," said Sir Thorn with an accent of fierce threatening, "remember this; I have sworn you shall be my wife, whether you will or not; and my wife you shall be!"
"Leave the room, sir, or I must give it up to you!"
He went out swearing; and, more dead than alive, Henrietta sank into an arm-chair. As long as she had been in the presence of the enemy, her pride had enabled her to keep up the appearance of absolute faith in Daniel; but, now she was alone, terrible doubts began to beset her. Was there not something true in the evident exaggerations of the Hon. M. Elgin? She was not quite sure. Had not Sarah also boasted of it, that she loved Daniel, and that she had been in his room? Finally, Henrietta recalled with a shudder, that, when Daniel had told her of his adventure in Circus Street, he had appeared embarrassed towards the end, and had failed fully to explain the reasons of his flight.
And to crown the matter, when she had tried to draw from M. de Brevan additional information on the subject, she had been struck by his embarrassment, and the lame and confused way in which he had defended his friend.
"Ah, now all is really over!" she thought. "The measure of my sufferings is full indeed!"
Unfortunately it was not yet full. A new persecution awaited her, infamous, monstrous, by the side of which all the others amounted to nothing.
"Whether you will, or not, you shall be mine," had Sir Thorn said; and from that moment he was bent upon convincing her that he was not the man to shrink from any thing, even unto violence.
He was no longer the sympathetic defender of former days, nor the timid lover, nor the sighing, rejected lover, who followed Henrietta everywhere. He was, henceforth, a kind of wild beast, pursuing her, harassing her, persecuting her, with his eyes glaring at her with abominable lust. He no longer looked at her furtively, as formerly; but he lay in wait for her in the passages, ready, apparently, to throw himself upon her; projecting his lips as if to touch her cheeks, and extending his arms as if to seize her around her waist. A drunken lackey pursuing a scullion would not have looked and acted more impudently.
Terrified, the poor girl threw herself on her knees before her father, beseeching him to protect her. But he pushed her back, and reproached her for slandering the most honorable and most inoffensive of men. Blindness could go no farther.
And Sir Thorn knew probably of her failure; for the next day he looked at her, laughing, as if he felt that he now might venture upon any thing. And he did venture upon something, that so far would have seemed impossible. One evening, or rather one night, when the count and the countess were at a ball, he came and knocked at the door of Henrietta's chamber.
Frightened, she rang the bell; and the servants who came up freed her from the intruder. But from that moment her terrors had no limit; and, whenever the count went out at night with his wife, she barricaded herself up in her chamber, and spent the whole night, dressed, in a chair. Could she remain any longer standing upon the brink of an abyss without name? She thought she could not; and after long and painful hesitation, she said one evening to M. de Brevan,—
"My mind is made up; I must flee."
Taken aback, as if he had received a blow upon his head, with his mouth wide open, his eyes stretched out, M. de Brevan had turned deadly pale; and the perspiration pearled in large drops on his temples, while his hands trembled like the eager hands of a man who touches, and is about to seize, a long-coveted prize.
"Then," he stammered out, "you are decided; you will leave your father's house?"
"I must," she said; and her eyes filled with bright tears. "And the sooner I can do it the better; for every moment I spend here now may bring a new danger. And yet, before risking any thing decisive, it might be better first to write to Daniel's aunt in order to ask her about the directions she may have received, and to tell her that very soon I shall come to ask for her pity and her protection."
"What? You think of seeking refuge at the house of that estimable lady?"
M. de Brevan, now entirely master of himself, and calculating with his usual calmness, gravely shook his head, and said,—
"You ought to be careful, madam. To seek an asylum at the house of our friend's relative might be a very grave imprudence."
"But Daniel recommended it to me in his letter."
"Yes; but he had not considered the consequences of the advice he gave you. Do not deceive yourself; the wrath of your enemies will be terrible when they find that you have escaped them. They will pursue you; they will employ the police; they will search for you all over France. Now, it is evident, that the very first place where they will look for you will be Daniel's relatives. The house of the old aunt will be watched at once, and most jealously. How can you there escape from inquiry and pursuit? It would be folly to hope for safety there."
Pensively Henrietta hung her head. Then she said,—
"Perhaps you are right, sir."
"Now," continued M. de Brevan, "let us see what they would do if they should discover you. You are not of age, consequently you are entirely dependent on the will of your father. Under the inspiration of your step-mother, he would attack Daniel's aunt, on the score of having inveigled a minor, and would bring you back here."
She seemed to reflect; then she said suddenly,—"I can implore the assistance of the Duchess of Champdoce."
"Unfortunately, madam, they told you the truth. For a year now, the Duke of Champdoce and his wife have been travelling in Italy."
A gesture of despair betrayed the terrible dejection of the poor girl.
"Great God!" she said, "what must I do?"
A passing smile appeared on the face of M. de Brevan; and he answered in his most persuasive manner,—
"Will you permit me to offer you some advice, madam?"
"Alas, sir! I beg you to do so for Heaven's sake."
"Well, this is the only plan that seems to me feasible. To-morrow morning I will rent in a quiet house a suitable lodging, less than modest, a little chamber. You will move into it, and await there your coming of age, or Daniel's return. No detective will ever think of seeking the daughter of Count Ville-Handry in a poor needlewoman's garret."
"And I am to stay there alone, forsaken and lost?"
"It is a sacrifice which it seems to me you have to make for safety's sake."
She said nothing, weighing the two alternatives,—to remain in the house, or to accept M. de Brevan's proposition. After a minute she said,—
"I will follow your advice, sir; only"—She was evidently painfully embarrassed, and covered with blushes.
"You see," she said, after long hesitation, "all this will cost money. Formerly I used to have always a couple of hundred dollars in my drawers somewhere; but now"—