"Madam," broke in M. de Brevan, "madam, is not my whole fortune entirely at your disposal?"
"To be sure, I have my jewels; and they are quite valuable."
"For that very reason you ought to be careful not to take them with you. We must guard against every thing. We may fail. They may discover my share in the attempt; and who knows what charges they would raise against me?"
His apprehension alone betrayed the character of the man; and still it did not enlighten Henrietta.
"Well, prepare every thing as you think best, sir," she said sadly. "I rely entirely upon your friendship, your devotion, and your honor."
M. de Brevan had a slight attack of coughing, which prevented him from answering at first. Then, finding that Henrietta was bent upon escaping, he tried to devise the means.
Henrietta proposed that they should wait for a night when the count would take the countess to a ball. She might then slip into the garden, and climb the wall. But the attempt seemed to be too dangerous in M. de Brevan's eyes. He said,—
"I think I see something better. Count Ville-Handry is going soon to give a great party?"
"The day after to-morrow, Thursday."
"All right. On Thursday, madam, you will complain early in the morning already, of a bad headache, and you will send for the doctor. He will prescribe something, I dare say, which you will not take; but they will think you are sick, and they will watch you less carefully. At night, however, towards ten o'clock, you will come down and conceal yourself at the foot of the back-stairs, in the corner of the courtyard. You can do that, I presume?"
"Very easily, sir."
"In that case all will be right. I will be here with a carriage at ten o'clock precisely. My coachman, whom I will instruct beforehand, instead of stopping at the great entrance, will pretend to go amiss, and stop just at the foot of the staircase. I will jump out; and you, you will swiftly jump into the carriage."
"Yes, that also can be done."
"As the curtains will be down, no one will see you. The carriage will drive out again, and wait for me outside; and ten minutes later I shall have joined you."
The plan being adopted, as every thing depended upon punctuality, M. de Brevan regulated his watch by Henrietta's; and then, rising, he said,—
"We have already conversed longer than we ought to have done in prudence. I shall not speak to you again to-night. Till Thursday."
And with sinking voice, she said,—
By this one word Henrietta sealed her destiny; and she knew it. She was fully aware of the terrible rashness of her plan. A voice had called to her, from her innermost heart, that her honor, her life, and all her earthly hopes, had thus been staked upon one card. She foresaw clearly what the world would say the day after her flight. She would be lost, and could hope for rehabilitation only when Daniel returned.
If she could only have been as sure of the heart of her chosen one as she had formerly been! But the cunning innuendoes of the countess, and the impudent asseverations of Sir Thorn, had done their work, and shaken her faith. Daniel had been absent for nearly a year now, and during all that time she had written to him every month; but she had received from him only two letters through M. de Brevan,—and what letters! Very polite, very cold, and almost without a word of hope.
If Daniel upon his return should abandon her!
And still, the more she reflected with all that lucidity with which the approach of a great crisis inspired her, the more she became impressed with the absolute necessity of flight. Yes, she must face unknown dangers, but only in order to escape from dangers which she knew but too well. She was relying upon a man who was almost a stranger to her; but was not this the only way to escape from the insults of a wretch who had become the boon companion, the friend, and the counsellor of her father? Finally, she sacrificed her reputation, that is, the appearance of honor; but she saved the reality, honor itself.
Ah, it was hard! As long as the day lasted on Wednesday, she was wandering about, pale as a ghost, all over the vast palace. She bade farewell to this beloved house, full of souvenirs of eighteen years in which she had played as a child, where Daniel's voice had caused her heart to beat loud and fast, and where her sainted mother had died. And in the evening, at table, big tears were rolling down her cheeks as she watched the stupidly-triumphant serenity of her father.
The next day, however, Thursday, Henrietta complained, as was agreed upon, of a violent headache; and the doctor was sent for. He found her in a violent fever, and ordered her to keep her bed. He little knew that he was thus restoring the poor girl to liberty. As soon as he had left, she rose; and, like a dying person who makes all her last dispositions, she hastened to put every thing in order in her drawers, putting together what she meant to keep, and burning what she wished to keep from the curiosity of the countess and her accomplices.
M. de Brevan had recommended her not to take her jewels. She left them, therefore, with the exception of such as she wore every day, openly displayed on a chiffonnier. The manner of her escape forbade her taking much baggage; and still some linen was indispensable. Upon reflection it did not seem to her inexpedient to take a small carpet- bag, which her mother had given her, and which contained a dressing- case, all the articles in which were of solid gold and of marvellously fine workmanship. When her preparations were complete, she wrote to her father a long letter, in which she explained fully the motives of her desperate resolution.
Then she waited. Night had fallen long since; and the last preparations for a princely entertainment filled the palace with noise and movement. She could hear the hasty steps of busy servants, the loud orders of butlers and stewards, the hammer of upholsterers who gave here and there a final touch.
Soon there came the rolling of wheels on the fine gravel in the court- yard, and the arrival of the first guests.
Henceforth it was for Henrietta only a question of minutes; and she counted them by her watch with a terrible beating of her heart. At last the hands marked a quarter before ten. Acting almost automatically, she rose, threw an immense cashmere shawl over her shoulders; and, taking her little bag in her hand, she escaped from her room, and slipped along the passages to the servants' stairs.
She went on tiptoe, holding her breath, eye and ear on the watch, ready at the smallest noise to run back, or to rush into the first open room. Thus she got down without difficulty, reached the dark hall at the foot of the staircase; and there in the shade, seated on her little bag, she waited, out of breath, her hair moist with a cold perspiration, her teeth clattering in her mouth from fear. At last it struck ten o'clock; and the vibration of the bell could still be heard, when M. de Brevan's coupe stopped at the door.
His coachman was certainly a skilful driver. Pretending to have lost the control of his horse, he made it turn round, and forced it back with such admirable awkwardness, that the carriage came close up to the wall, and the right hand door was precisely in the face of the dark little hall in which Henrietta was standing. As quick as lightning M. de Brevan jumped out. Henrietta rushed forward. Nobody saw any thing.
A moment later the carriage slowly drove out of the court-yard of the palace of Count Ville-Handry, and stopped at some little distance.
It was done. In leaving her father's house, Miss Ville-Handry had broken with all the established laws of society. She was at the mercy now of what might follow; and, according as events might turn out favorable or unfavorable, she was saved or lost. But she did not think of that. As the danger of being surprised passed away, the feverish excitement that had kept her up so far, also subsided, and she was lying, undone, on the cushions, when the door suddenly opened, and a man appeared. It was M. de Brevan.
"Well, madam," he cried with a strangely embarrassed voice, "we have conquered. I have just presented my respects to the Countess Sarah and her worthy companions; I have shaken hands with Count Ville-Handry; and no one has the shadow of a suspicion." And, as Henrietta said nothing, he added,—
"Now I think we ought to lose no time; for I must show myself again at the ball as soon as possible. Your lodgings are ready for you, madam; and I am going, with your leave, to drive you there."
She raised herself, and said, with a great effort,—
"Do so, sir!"
M. de Brevan had already jumped into the carriage, which started at full gallop; and, while they were driving along, he explained to Henrietta how she would have to conduct herself in the house in which he had engaged a lodging for her. He had spoken of her, he said, as of one of his relatives from the provinces, who had suffered a reverse of fortune, and who had come to Paris in the hope of finding here some way to earn her living.
"Remember this romance, madam," he begged her, "and let your words and actions be in conformity with it. And especially be careful never to utter my name or your father's. Remember that you are still under age, that you will be searched for anxiously, and that the slightest indiscretion may put them upon your traces."
Then, as she still kept silent, weeping, he wanted to take her hand, and thus noticed the little bag which she had taken.
"What is that?" he asked, in a tone, which, under its affected gentleness, betrayed no small dissatisfaction.
"Some indispensable articles."
"Ah! you did not after all take your jewels, madam?"
"No, certainly not, sir!"
Still this persistency on the part of M. de Brevan began to strike her as odd; and she would have betrayed her surprise, if the carriage had not at that moment stopped suddenly before No. 23 Water Street.
"Here we are, madam," said M. de Brevan.
And, lightly jumping down, he rang the bell at the door, which opened immediately. The room of the concierge was still light. M. de Brevan walked straight up to it, and opened the door like a man who is at home in a house.
"It is I," he said.
A man and a woman, the concierge and his wife, who had been dozing, her nose in a paper, started up suddenly.
"Monsieur Maxime!" they said with one voice.
"I bring," said M. de Brevan, "my young kinswoman, of whom I told you, Miss Henrietta."
If Henrietta had had the slightest knowledge of Parisian customs, she would have guessed from the bows of the concierge, and the courtesies of his wife, how liberally they had been rewarded in advance.
"The young lady's room is quite ready," said the man.
"My husband has arranged every thing himself," broke in his wife; "it was no trifle, after the papering had been done. And I—I made a fine fire there as early as five o'clock, to take out the dampness."
"Let us go up then," said Brevan.
The concierge and his wife, however, were economical people; and the gas on the stairs had long since been put out.
"Give me a candlestick, Chevassat," said the woman to her husband.
And with her lighted candle she went ahead, lighting M. de Brevan and Henrietta, and stopping at every landing to praise the neatness of the house. At last, in the fifth story, at the entrance to a dark passage, she opened a door, and said,—
"Here we are! The young lady will see how nice it is."
It might possibly have been nice in her eyes; but Henrietta, accustomed to the splendor of her father's palace, could not conceal a gesture of disgust. This more than modest chamber looked to her like a garret such as she would not have permitted the least of her maids to occupy at home.
But never mind! She went in bravely, putting her travelling-bag on a bureau, and taking off her shawl, as if to take possession of the lodging. But her first impression had not escaped M. de Brevan. He drew her into the passage while the woman was stirring the fire, and said in a low voice,—
"It is a terrible room; but prudence induced me to choose it."
"I like it as it is, sir."
"You will want a great many things, no doubt; but we will see to that to-morrow. To-night I must leave you: you know it is all important that I should be seen again at your father's house."
"You are quite right; sir, go, make haste!"
Still he did not wish to go without having once more recommended his "young kinswoman" to Mrs. Chevassat. He only left when she had over and over again assured him that there was nothing more to be done; and then the woman also went down.
The terrible emotions which had shaken and undermined Henrietta during the last forty-eight hours were followed now by a feeling of intense astonishment at what she had done, at the irrevocable step she had taken. Her quiet life had been interrupted by an event which to her appeared more stupendous than if a mountain had been moved. Standing by the mantle-piece, she looked at her pale face in the little looking-glass, and said to herself,—
"Is that myself, my own self?"
Yes, it was she herself, the only daughter of the great Count Ville- Handry, here in a strange house, in a wretched garret-room, which she called her own. It was she, yesterday still surrounded by princely splendor, waited on by an army of servants, now in want of almost every thing, and having for her only servant the old woman to whom M. de Brevan had recommended her.
Was this possible? She could hardly believe it herself. Still she felt no repentance at what she had done. She could not remain any longer in her father's house where she was exposed to the vilest insults from everybody. Could she have stayed any longer?
"But what is the use," she said to herself, "of thinking of what is past? I must not allow myself to think of it; I must shake off this heaviness."
And, to occupy her mind, she rose and went about to explore her new home, and to examine all it contained. It was one of those lodgings about which the owners of houses rarely trouble themselves, and where they never make the smallest repairs, because they are always sure of renting them out just as they are. The floor, laid in bricks, was going to pieces; and a number of bricks were loose, and shaking in their layers of cement. The ceiling was cracked, and fell off in scales; while all along the walls it was blackened by flaring tallow-candles. The papering, a greasy, dirty gray paper, preserved the fingermarks of all the previous occupants of the room from the time it had first been hung. The furniture, also, was in keeping with the room,—a walnut bedstead with faded calico curtains, a chest of drawers, a table, two chairs, and a miserable arm-chair; that was all.
A short curtain hung before the window. By the side of the bed was a little strip of carpeting; and on the mantlepiece a zinc clock between two blue glass vases. Nothing else!
How could M. de Brevan ever have selected such a room, such a hole? Henrietta could not comprehend it. He had told her, and she had believed him, that they must use extreme caution. But would she have been any more compromised, or in greater danger of being discovered by the Countess Sarah, if they had papared the room anew, put a simple felt carpet on the floor, and furnished the room a little more decently?
Still she did not conceive any suspicion even yet. She thought it mattered very little where and how she was lodged. She hoped it was, after all, only for a short time, and consoled herself with the thought that a cell in a convent would have been worse still. And any thing was better than her father's house.
"At least," she said, "I shall be quiet and undisturbed here."
Perhaps she was to be morally quiet; for as to any other peace, she was soon to be taught differently. Accustomed to the profound stillness of the immense rooms in her father's palace, Henrietta had no idea, of course, of the incessant movement that goes on in the upper stories of these Paris lodging-houses, which contain the population of a whole village, and where the tenants, separated from each other by thin partition-walls, live, so to say, all in public.
Sleep, under such circumstances, becomes possible only after long experience; and the poor girl had to pay very dear for her apprenticeship. It was past four o'clock before she could fall asleep, overcome by fatigue; and then it was so heavy a sleep, that she was not aroused by the stir in the whole house as day broke. It was broad daylight, hence, when she awoke; and a pale sun-ray was gliding into the room through the torn curtain. The zinc clock pointed at twelve o'clock. She rose and dressed hastily.
Yesterday, when she rose, she rang her bell, and her maid came in promptly, made a fire, brought her her slippers, and threw over her shoulders a warm, wadded dressing-wrapper. But to-day!
This thought carried her back to her father's house. What were they doing there at this hour? Her escape was certainly known by this time. No doubt they had sent the servants out in all directions. Her father, most probably, had gone to call in the aid of the police. She felt almost happy at the idea of being so safely concealed; and looking around her chamber, which appeared even more wretched by daylight than last night, she said,—
"No, they will never think of looking for me here!"
In the meantime she had discovered a small supply of wood near the fireplace; and, as it was cold, she was busy making a fire, when somebody knocked at her door. She opened; and Mrs. Chevassat, the wife of the concierge appeared.
"It is I, my pretty young lady," she said as she entered. "Not seeing you come down, I said to myself, 'I must go up to look after her.' And have you slept well?"
"Very well, madam, thank you!"
"Now, that's right. And how is your appetite? For that was what I came up for. Don't you think you might eat a little something?"
Henrietta not only thought of it; but she was very hungry. For there are no events and no adventures, no excitements and no sorrows, which prevent us from getting hungry; the tyranny of our physical wants is stronger than any thing else.
"I would be obliged to you, madam," she said, "if you would bring me up some breakfast."
"If I would! As often as you desire, my pretty young lady. Just give me the time to boil an egg, and to roast a cutlet, and I'll be up again."
Ordinarily sour-tempered, and as bitter as wormwood, Mrs. Chevassat had displayed all the amiability of which she was capable, hiding under a veil of tender sympathy the annoying eagerness of her eyes. Her hypocrisy was all wasted. The efforts she made were too manifest not to arouse the very worst suspicions.
"I am sure," thought Henrietta, "she is a bad woman."
Her suspicions were only increased when the worthy woman reappeared, bringing her breakfast, and setting it out on a little table before the fire, with all kinds of hideous compliments.
"You'll see how very well every thing is cooked, miss," she said.
Then, while Henrietta was eating, she sat down on a chair near the door, and commenced talking, without ever stopping. To hear her, the new tenant ought to thank her guardian angel who had brought her to this charming house, No. 23 Water Street, where there was such a concierge with such a wife!—he, the best of men; she, a real treasure of kindness, gentleness, and, above all, discretion.
"Quite an exceptional house," she added, "as far as the tenants are concerned. They are all people of notoriously high standing, from the wealthy old ladies in the best story to Papa Ravinet in the fourth story, and not excepting the young ladies who live in the small rooms in the back building."
Then, having passed them all in review, she began praising M. de Brevan, whom she always called M. Maxime. She declared that he had won her heart from the beginning, when he had first come to the house, day before yesterday, to engage the room. She had never seen a more perfect gentleman, so kind, so polite, and so liberal! With her great experience, she had at once recognized in him one of those men who seem to be born expressly for the purpose of inspiring the most violent passions, and of securing the most lasting attachments.
Besides, she added with a hideous smile, she was sure of his deep interest in her pretty new tenant; and she was so well convinced of this, that she would be happy to devote herself to her service, even without any prospect of payment.
This did not prevent her from saying to Henrietta, as soon as she had finished her breakfast,—
"You owe me two francs, miss; and, if you would like it, I can board you for five francs a day."
Thereupon she went into a lively discussion to show that this would be on her part a mere act of kindness, because, considering how dear every thing was, she would most assuredly lose.
But Henrietta stopped her. Drawing from her purse a twenty-franc piece, she said,—
"Make yourself paid, madam."
This was evidently not what the estimable woman expected; for she drew back with an air of offended dignity, and protested,—
"What do you take me to be, miss? Do you think me capable of asking for payment?"
And, shrugging her shoulders, she added,—
"Besides, does not all that regards your expenses concern M. Maxime?"
Thereupon she quickly folded the napkin, took the plates, and disappeared. Henrietta did not know what to think of it. She could not doubt that this Megsera pursued some mysterious aim with all her foolish talk; but she could not possibly guess what that aim could be. And still that was not all that kept her thoughts busy. What frightened her most of all was the feeling that she was evidently altogether at M. de Brevan's mercy. All her possessions amounted to about two hundred francs. She was in want of every thing, of the most indispensable articles: she had not another dress, nor another petticoat. Why had not M. de Brevan thought of that beforehand? Was he waiting for her to tell him of her distress, and to ask him for money? She could not think so, and she attributed his neglect to his excitement, thinking that he would no doubt come soon to ask how she was, and place himself at her service.
But the day passed away slowly, and night came; but he did not appear. What did this mean? What unforeseen event could have happened? what misfortune could have befallen him? Torn by a thousand wild apprehensions, Henrietta was more than once on the point of going to his house.
It was not before two o'clock on the next day that he appeared at last, affecting an easy air, but evidently very much embarrassed. If he did not come the night before, he said, it was because he was sure the Countess Sarah had him watched. The flight of the daughter of Count Ville-Handry was known all over Paris, and he was suspected of having aided and abetted her: so they had told him, he said, at his club. He also added that it would be imprudent in him to stay longer; and he left again, without having said a word to Henrietta, and without having apparently noticed her destitution.
And thus, for three days, he only came, to disappear almost instantly.
He always came painfully embarrassed, as if he had something very important to tell her; then his brow clouded over; and he went away suddenly, without having said any thing.
Henrietta, tortured by terrible doubts, felt unable to endure this atrocious uncertainty any longer. She determined to force an explanation when, on the fourth day, M. de Brevan came in, evidently under the influence of some terrible determination. As soon as he had entered, he locked the door, and said in a hoarse voice,—
"I must speak to you, madam, yes, I must!"
He was deadly pale; his white lips trembled; and his eyes shone with a fearful light, like those of a man who might have sought courage in strong drink.
"I am ready to listen," replied the poor girl, all trembling.
He hesitated again for a moment; then overcoming his reluctance, apparently by a great effort, he said,—
"Well, I wish to ask you if you have ever suspected what my real reasons were for assisting you to escape?"
"I think, sir, you have acted from kind pity for me, and also from friendship for M. Daniel Champcey."
"No! You are entirely mistaken."
She drew back instinctively, uttering only a low, "Ah!"
Pale as he had been, M. de Brevan had become crimson.
"Have you really noticed nothing? Are you really not aware that I love you?"
She could understand any thing but this, the unfortunate girl; any thing but such infamy, such an incredible insult! M. de Brevan must be either drunk or mad.
"Leave me, sir!" she said peremptorily, but with a voice trembling with indignation.
But he advanced towards her with open arms, and went on,—
"Yes, I love you madly, and for a long time,—ever since the first day I saw you."
Henrietta, however, had swiftly moved aside, and opened the window.
"If you advance another step, I shall cry for help."
He stopped, and, changing his tone, said to her,—
"Ah! You refuse? Well, what are you hoping for? For Daniel's return? Don't you know that he loves Sarah?"
"Ah! you abuse my forlorn condition infamously!" broke in the young girl. And, as he still insisted, she added,—
"Why don't you go, coward? Why don't you go, wretched man? Must I call?"
He was frightened, backed to the door, and half opened it; then he said,—
"You refuse me to-day; but, before the month is over, you will beg me to come to you. You are ruined; and I alone can rescue you."
At last, then, the truth had come out!
Overcome with horror, her hair standing at an end, and shaken by nervous spasms, poor Henrietta was trying to measure the depth of the abyss into which she had thrown herself.
Voluntarily, and with the simplicity of a child, she had walked into the pit which had been dug for her. But who, in her place, would not have trusted? Who could have conceived such an idea? Who could have suspected such monstrous rascality?
Ah! Now she understood but too well all the mysterious movements that had so puzzled her in M. de Brevan. She saw how profound had been his calculations when he recommended her so urgently not to take her jewels with her while escaping from her father's house, nor any object of value; for, if she had had her jewelry, she would have been in possession of a small fortune; she would have been independent, and above want, at least for a couple of years.
But M. de Brevan wanted her to have nothing. He knew, the coward! with what crushing contempt she would reject his first proposals; but he flattered himself with the hope that isolation, fear, destitution would at last reduce her to submission, and enable him—
"It is too horrible," repeated the poor girl,—"too horrible!"
And this man had been Daniel's friend! And it was he to whom Daniel, at the moment of sailing, had intrusted his betrothed! What atrocious deception! M. Thomas Elgin was no doubt a formidable bandit, faithless and unscrupulous; but he was known as such: he was known to be capable of any thing, and thus people were on their guard. But this man!—ah, a thousand times meaner and viler!—he had watched for a whole year, with smiling face, for the hour of treachery; he had prepared a hideous crime under the veil of the noblest friendship!
Henrietta thought she could divine what was the traitor's final aim. In obtaining possession of her, he no doubt thought he would secure to himself a large portion of Count Ville-Handry's immense fortune.
And hence, she continued in her meditations, hence the hatred between Sir Thorn and M. de Brevan. They both coveted the same thing; and each one trembled lest the other should first get hold of the treasure which he wanted to secure. The idea that the new countess was in complicity with M. de Brevan did not enter Henrietta's mind. On the contrary, she thought they were enemies, and divided from each other by separate and opposite interests.
"Ah!" she said to herself, "they have one feeling, at all events, in common; and that is hatred against me."
A few months ago, so fearful and so sudden a catastrophe would have crushed Henrietta, in all probability. But she had endured so many blows during the past year, that she bore this also; for it is a fact that the human heart learns to bear grief as the body learns to endure fatigue. Moreover, she called in to her assistance a light shining high above all this terrible darkness,—the remembrance of Daniel.
She had doubted him for an instant; but her faith had, after all, remained intact and perfect. Her reason told her, that, if he had really loved Sarah Brandon, her enemies, M. Elgin and M. de Brevan, would not have taken such pains to make her believe it. She thought, therefore, she was quite certain that he would return to her with his heart devoted to her as when he left her.
But, great God! to think of the grief and the rage of this man, when he should hear how wickedly and cowardly he had been betrayed by the man whom he called his friend! He would know how to restore the count's daughter to her proper position, and how to avenge her.
"And I shall wait for him," she said, her teeth firmly set,—"I shall wait for him!"
How? She did not ask herself that question; for she was yet in that first stage of enthusiasm, when we are full of heroic resolves which do not allow us to see the obstacles that are to be overcome. But she soon learned to know the first difficulties in her way, thanks to Dame Chevassat, who brought her her dinner as the clock struck six, according to the agreement they had made.
The estimable lady had assumed a deeply grieved expression; you might have sworn she had tears in her eyes. In her sweetest voice, she asked:—
"Well, well, my beautiful young lady; so you have quarrelled with our dear M. Maxime?"
Henrietta was so sure of the uselessness of replying, and so fearful of new dangers, that she simply replied,—
"I was afraid of it," replied the woman, "just from seeing him come down the stairs with a face as long as that. You see, he is in love with you, that kind young man; and you may believe me when I tell you so, for I know what men are."
She expected an answer; for generally her eloquence was very effective with her tenants. But, as no reply came, she went on,—
"We must hope that the trouble will blow over."
Looking at Mrs. Chevassat, one would have thought she was stunned.
"How savage you are!" she exclaimed at last. "Well, it is your lookout. Only I should like to know what you mean to do?"
"Why, about your board."
"I shall find the means, madam, you may be sure."
The old woman, however, who knew from experience what that cruel word, "living," sometimes means with poor forsaken girls, shook her head seriously, and answered,—
"So much the better; so much the better! Only I know you owe a good deal of money."
"Why, yes! The furniture here has never been paid for."
"What? The furniture"—
"Of course, M. Maxime was going to pay for it; he has told me so. But if you fall out in this way—you understand, don't you?"
She hardly did understand such fearful infamy. Still Henrietta did not show her indignation and surprise. She asked,—
"What did the furniture of this room cost? do you know?"
"I don't know. Something like five or six hundred francs, things are so dear now!" The whole was probably not worth a hundred and fifty or two hundred francs.
"Very well. I'll pay," said Henrietta. "The man will give me forty- eight hours' time, I presume?"
As the poor girl was now quite sure that this honeyed Megsera was employed by M. de Brevan to watch her, she affected a perfectly calm air. When she had finished her dinner, she even insisted upon paying on the spot fifty francs, which she owed for the last few days, and for some small purchases. But, when the old woman was gone, she sank into a chair, and said,—
"I am lost!"
There was, in fact, no refuge for her, no help to be expected.
Should she return to her father, and implore the pity of his wife? Ah! death itself would be more tolerable than such a humiliation. And besides, in escaping from M. de Brevan, would she not fall into the hands of M. Elgin?
Should she seek assistance at the hands of some of the old family friends? But which?
In greater distress than the shipwrecked man who in vain examines the blank horizon, she looked around for some one to help her. She forced her mind to recall all the people she had ever known. Alas! she knew, so to say, nobody. Since her mother had died, and she had been living alone, no one seemed to have remembered her, unless for the purpose of calumniating her.
Her only friends, the only ones who had made her cause their own, the Duke and the Duchess of Champdoce, were in Italy, as she had been assured.
"I can count upon nobody but myself," she repeated,—"myself, myself!"
Then rousing herself, she said, her heart swelling with emotion,—
"But never mind! I shall be saved!"
Her safety depended upon one single point: if she could manage to live till she came of age, or till Daniel returned, all was right.
"Is it really so hard to live?" she thought. "The daughters of poor people, who are as completely forsaken as I am, nevertheless live. Why should not I live also?"
Because the children of poor people have served, so to say, from the cradle, an apprenticeship of poverty,—because they are not afraid of a day without work, or a day without bread,—because cruel experience has armed them for the struggle,—because, in fine, they know life, and they know Paris,—because their industry is adapted to their wants, and they have an innate capacity to obtain some advantage from every thing, thanks to their smartness, their enterprise, and their energy.
But Count Ville-Handry's only daughter—the heiress of many millions, brought up, so to say, in a hothouse, according to the stupid custom of modern society—knew nothing at all of life, of its bitter realities, its struggles, and its sufferings. She had nothing but courage.
"That is enough," she said to herself. "What we will do, we can do."
Thus resolved to seek aid from no one, she set to work examining her condition and her resources.
As to objects of any value, she owned the cashmere which she had wrapped around her when she fled, the dressing-case in her mother's travelling-bag, a brooch, a watch, a pair of pretty ear-rings, and, lastly, two rings, which by some lucky accident she had forgotten to take off, one of which was of considerable value. All this, she thought, must have cost, at least, eight or nine thousand francs; but for how much would it sell? since she was resolved to sell it. This was the question on which her whole future depended.
But how could she dispose of these things? She wanted to have it all settled, so as to get rid of this sense of uncertainty; she wanted, especially, to pay for the scanty, wretched furniture in her chamber. Whom could she ask to help her? For nothing in the world would she have confided in Mrs. Chevassat; for her instincts told her, that, if she once let that terrible woman see what were her necessities, she would be bound hand and foot to her. She was thinking it out, when the idea of the pawnbroker occurred to her. She had heard such men spoken of; but she only knew that they kept places where poor people could get money upon depositing a pledge.
"That is the place I must go to," Henrietta said to herself.
But how was she to find one?
"Well, I'll find it some way," she said.
So she went down, to Mrs. Chevassat's great astonishment, but without answering her questions, where she was going to in such a hurry.
Having turned at the first corner, she went on at haphazard, walking quite rapidly, and not minding the passers-by, entirely occupied in looking at the houses and the sign-boards. But for more than an hour she wandered thus through all the small streets and alleys in those suburbs; she found nothing, and it was getting dark.
"And still I won't go home till I have found it," she said to herself wrathfully.
This resolution gave her courage to go up to a policeman, and, crimson like a poppy, to ask him,—
"Will you be so kind, sir, as to tell me a pawnbroker's shop?"
The man looked with pity at the young girl, whose whole person exhaled a perfume of distinction and of candor, asking himself, perhaps, what terrible misfortune could have reduced a lady like her to such a step; then he answered with a sigh,—
"There, madam, at the corner of the first street on the right, you will find a loan office."
"Loan office?" These words suggested to Henrietta no clear idea. But it mattered not. She went on in feverish haste, recognized the house that had been pointed out to her, went up stairs, and, pushing open a door, found herself in a large room, where some twenty people were standing about, waiting.
On the right hand three or four clerks, shut off from the public by a railing breast-high, were writing down the names of the depositors, and counting out money. Far back, a large opening was visible, where another clerk appeared from time to time, to take in the articles that were pawned. After waiting for five minutes, and without asking a question from anybody, Henrietta understood the whole process. Trembling as if she had committed a crime, she went to the opening behind, and put upon the ledge one of her rings, the most valuable of the two. Then she waited, not daring to look up; for it seemed to her as if all eyes were upon her.
"One diamond ring!" cried the clerk. "Nine hundred francs. Whose is it?"
The large amount caused all to look around; and a big woman, but too well dressed, and with a very impudent expression, said,—
"Oh, oh! The damsel dresses well!"
Crimson with shame, Henrietta had stepped up. She whispered,—
"It is my ring, sir."
The clerk looked at her, and then asked quite gently,—
"You have your papers?"
"Papers? What for?"
"The papers that establish your identity. Your passport, a receipt for rent, or any thing."
The whole company laughed at the ignorance of this girl. She stammered out,—
"I have no such papers, sir."
"Then we can make no advance."
One more hope, her last, vanished thus. She held out her hand, saying,—
"Please give me back my ring."
But the clerk now laughed, and replied,—
"No, no, my dear! that can't be done. You shall have it back when you bring me the papers, or when you come accompanied by two merchants who are known to us."
"That is so."
And, finding that he had lost time enough, he went on,—
"One velvet cloak! Thirty francs. Whose is it?"
Henrietta was rushing out, and down the stairs, pursued, as it seemed to her, by the cries of the crowd. How that clerk had looked at her! Did he think she had stolen the ring? And what was to become of it? The police would inquire; they would trace her out; and she would be carried back to her father's house, and given up to Sir Thorn. She could hardly keep up until she reached Water Street; and there fatigue, fright, and excitement made her forget her resolutions. She confessed her discomfiture to Mrs. Chevassat.
The honest woman tried to look as grave as an attorney whom a great client consults, who has unwittingly stirred up a wasps' nest; and, when her tenant had finished, she said in a voice apparently half drowned in tears,—
"Poor little kitten, poor little innocent kitten!"
But, if she succeeded in giving to her face an expression of sincere sympathy, the greedy look in her eyes betrayed but too clearly her immense satisfaction at seeing Henrietta at last at her feet.
"After all," she said, "you are prodigiously lucky in your misfortunes; for you are too imprudent in all conscience."
And, as the poor girl was not a little astonished at this, she went on,—
"Yes, you ran a great risk; and I can easily prove it to you. Who are you? Well, you need not turn pale that way: I don't ask any questions. But after all, if you carry your jewels yourself to the 'Uncle,' you go, so to say, and rush right into the lion's mouth. If they had arrested you when they saw you had no papers; if they had carried you before a magistrate—eh? Ah! my beautiful friend, you would have fared pretty badly, I dare say."
And then, changing her tone, she began scolding her beautiful young lady for having concealed her troubles from her. That was wrong; that hurt her feelings. Why had she given her money last night? Did she ask for money? Did she look like such a terrible creditor? She knew, God be thanked! what life was here below, and that we are bound to help one another. To be sure, there was that furniture dealer, who must be paid; but she would have been quite willing to make him wait; and why should he not? She had got very different people to wait! Why, only last week, she had sent one of those men away, and a dressmaker into the bargain, who came to levy upon one of her tenants in the back building,—the very nicest, and prettiest, and best of them all.
Thus she discoursed and discoursed with amazing volubility, till at last, when she thought she had made a sufficiently strong impression on her "poor little pussy-cat," she said,—
"But one can easily see, my dear young lady, that you are a mere child. Sell your poor little jewels! Why, that is murder, as long as there is some one at hand quite ready to do any thing for you."
At this sudden, but not altogether unexpected attack, Henrietta trembled.
"For I am sure," continued Mrs. Chevassat, "if it were only to be agreeable to you, he would give one of his arms, this poor M. Maxime."
Henrietta looked so peremptorily at her, that the worthy lady seemed to be quite disconcerted.
"I forbid you," cried the young lady, with a voice trembling with indignation,—"I forbid you positively ever to mention his name!"
The woman shrugged her shoulders.
"As you like it," she answered.
And then, ready to change the conversation, she added,—
"Well, then, let us return to your ring. What do you propose to do?"
"That is exactly why I came to you," replied Henrietta. "I do not know what is to be done in such a case."
Mrs. Chevassat smiled, very much pleased.
"And you did very well to come to us," she said.
"Chevassat will go, take the charcoal-dealer and the grocer next door with him; and before going to bed you will have your money, I promise you! You see he understands pretty well how to make the clerks do their duty, my Chevassat."
That evening the excellent man really condescended to go up stairs, and to bring Henrietta himself eight hundred and ninety-five francs.
He did not bring the whole nine hundred francs, he said; for, having put his two neighbors to some inconvenience, he was bound, according to established usage, to invite them to take something. For himself, he had, of course, kept nothing,—oh, nothing at all! He could take his oath upon that; for he preferred by far leaving that little matter to the beautiful young lady's liberality.
"Here are ten francs," said Henrietta curtly, in order to make an end to his endless talk.
Thus, with the few gold-pieces which she had found in her purse, the poor girl had a capital of about a thousand francs in hand. How many days, how many months, this sum would have secured to her, if the furniture-dealer had not been there with his bill! He did not fail to present himself next day, accompanied by Mrs. Chevassat. He asked for five hundred and seventy-nine francs. Such a sum for a few second-hand pieces of furniture which adorned that wretched garret! It was a clear swindle, and the impudence so great, that Henrietta was overwhelmed. But still she paid.
When he was gone, she sadly counted from one hand into the other the twenty-three gold-pieces that were left, when suddenly a thought occurred to her, that might have saved her, if she had followed it out.
It was the thought of leaving the house by stealth, of going to the station of the Orleans Railway, and of taking the first train for the home of Daniel's aunt. Alas! she was content with writing to her, and remained.
This inspiration was, moreover, to be the last favor which Providence vouchsafed to Henrietta,—an opportunity which, once allowed to pass, never returns. From that moment she found herself irrevocably insnared in a net which tightened day by day more around her, and held her a helpless captive. She had vowed to herself, the unfortunate girl, that she would economize her little hoard like the blood in her veins. But how could she economize?
She was without every thing. When M. de Brevan had gone to engage this garret-room, he had thought of nothing; or rather (and such a calculation was quite in keeping with his cold-blooded rascality) he had taken his measures so that his victim must soon be in utter destitution. Without any other clothes than those she wore on the night of her flight, she had no linen, no shoes, not a towel even to wipe her hands, unless she borrowed them from her friend down stairs.
Accustomed as she was to all the comforts of boundless wealth, and to all the refinements of cleanliness, these privations became to her a genuine martyrdom. Thus she spent in a variety of small purchases more than a hundred and fifty francs. The sum was enormous at a time when she could already count the days to the hour when she would be without bread. In addition to that she had to pay Mrs. Chevassat five francs a day for her board. Five francs were another enormous sum which troubled her grievously; for she would have been quite willing to live on bread and water. But in that direction she thought no economizing was possible.
One evening she had hinted at the necessity of retrenching, when Mrs. Chevassat had shot at her a venomous glance, which pierced her to the very marrow of her bones.
"It must be done," she said to herself.
In her mind she felt as if the five francs were a kind of daily ransom which she paid the estimable concierge's wife for her good-will. It is true, that, for such a consideration, the terrible woman was all attention for her "poor little pussy-cat;" for thus she had definitely dubbed Henrietta, becoming daily more familiar, and adding this odious and irritating presumption to all the other tortures of the poor girl. Many a time poor Henrietta had been made so indignant and furious, that she had been on the point of rebelling; but she had never dared, submitting to this familiarity for the same reason for which she paid her five francs every day. The old woman, taking her silence for consent, put no longer any restraint upon herself. She declared she could not comprehend how her "little pussy-cat," young and pretty as she was, could consent to live as she did. Was that a life?
Then she always came back to M. Maxime, who continued to call regularly twice a day, the poor young man!
"And more than that, poor little pussy," she added, "you will see that one of these days he will summon courage enough to come and offer you an apology."
But Henrietta would not believe that.
"He will never have such consummate impudence," she thought.
He had it, nevertheless. One morning, when she had just finished righting up her room, somebody knocked discreetly, at her door. Thinking that it was Mrs. Chevassat, who brought her her breakfast, she went to the door and opened it, without asking who was there. And she started back with amazement and with terror when she recognized M. de Brevan.
It really looked as if he were making a supreme effort over himself. He was deadly pale; his lips trembled; his eyes looked dim and uncertain; and he moved his lips and jaws as if he had gravel in his mouth.
"I have come, madam," he said, "to ask if you have reconsidered."
She made no reply, looking at him with an air of contempt which would have caused a man with some remnant of honor in his heart to flee from the spot instantly. But he had, no doubt, armed himself beforehand, against contempt.
"I know," he continued, "that my conduct must appear abominable in your eyes. I have led you into this snare, and I have meanly betrayed a friend's confidence; but I have an excuse. My passion is stronger than my will, than my reason."
"A vile passion for money!"
"You may think so, madam, if you choose. I shall not even attempt to clear myself. That is not what I came for. I came solely for the purpose of enlightening you in regard to your own position, which you do not seem to realize."
If she had followed her own impulses, Henrietta would have driven the wretch away. But she thought she ought to know his intentions and his plans. She overcame her disgust, therefore, and remained silent.
"In the first place," said M. de Brevan, apparently trying to collect his thoughts, "bear this in mind, madam. You are ruined in reputation, and ruined through me. All Paris is convinced, by this time, that I have run away with you; and that I keep you concealed in a charming place, where we enjoy our mutual love; in fact, that you are my mistress."
He seemed to expect an explosion of wrath. By no means! Henrietta remained motionless like a statue.
"What would you have?" he went on in a tone of sarcasm. "My coachman has been talking. Two friends of mine, who reached the palace on foot when I drove up, saw you jump into my coupe; and, as if that had not been enough, that absurd M. Elgin must needs call me out. We had a duel, and I have wounded him."
The manner in which the young girl shrugged her shoulders showed but too clearly that she did not believe M. de Brevan. He added,—
"If you doubt it, madam, pray read this, then, at the top of the second column."
She took the paper which he offered her, and there she read,—
"Yesterday, in the woods near Vincennes, a duel with swords was fought between M. M. de B—— and one of the most distinguished members of our American colony. After five minutes' close combat, M. E—— was wounded in the arm. It is said that the sudden and very surprising disappearance of one of the greatest heiresses of the Faubourg Saint Germain was not foreign to this duel. Lucky M. de B—— is reported to know too much of the beautiful young lady's present home for the peace of the family. But surely these lines ought to be more than enough on the subject of an adventure which will ere long, no doubt, end in a happy and brilliant marriage."
"You see, madam," said M. de Brevan, when he thought Henrietta had had time enough to read the article, "you see it is not I who advise marriage. If you will become my wife, your honor is safe."
In that simple utterance there was so much contempt, and such profound disgust, that M. de Brevan seemed to turn, if possible, whiter than before.
"Ah! I see you prefer marrying M. Thomas Elgin," he said.
She only shrugged her shoulders; but he went on,—
"Oh, do not smile! He or I; you have no other alternative. Sooner or later you will have to choose."
"I shall not choose, sir."
"Oh, just wait till poverty has come! Then you think, perhaps, you will only need to implore your father to come to your assistance. Do not flatter yourself. Your father has no other will but that of the Countess Sarah; and the Countess Sarah will have it so, that you marry Sir Thorn."
"I shall not appeal to my father, sir."
"Then you probably count upon Daniel's return? Ah, believe me! do not indulge in such dreams. I have told you Daniel loves the Countess Sarah; and, even if he did not love her, you have been too publicly disgraced for him ever to give you his name. But that is nothing yet. Go to the navy department, and they will tell you that 'The Conquest' is out on a cruise of two years more. At the time when Daniel returns, if he returns at all (which is very far from being certain), you will long since have become Mrs. Elgin or Madame de Brevan, unless"—
Henrietta looked at him so fixedly, that he could not bear the glance; and then she said in a deep voice,—
"Unless I die! did you not mean that? Be it so."
Coldly M. de Brevan bowed, as if he intended to say,—
"Yes, unless you should be dead: that was what I meant."
Then, opening the door, he added,—
"Let me hope, madam, that this is not your last word. I shall, however, have the honor of calling every week to receive your orders."
And, bowing, he left the room.
"What brought him here, the wretch! What does he want of me?"
Thus she questioned herself as soon as she was alone, and the door was 'shut.' And her anguish increased tenfold; for she did not believe a word of the pretexts which M. de Brevan had assigned for his visit. No, she could not admit that he had come to see if she had reflected, nor that he really cherished that abominable hope, that misery, hunger, and fear would drive her into his arms.
"He ought to know me well enough," she thought with a new access of wrath, "to be sure that I would prefer death a thousand times."
There was no doubt in her mind that this step, which had evidently been extremely painful to himself, had become necessary through some all-powerful consideration. But what could that be? By a great effort of mind Henrietta recalled, one by one, all the phrases used by M. de Brevan, in the hope that some word might give her light; but she discovered nothing. All he had told her as to the consequences of her flight, she had foreseen before she had resolved to escape. He had told her nothing new, but his duel with Sir Thorn; and, when she considered the matter, she thought that, also, quite natural. For did they not both covet with equal eagerness the fortune which she would inherit from her mother as soon as she came of age? The antagonism of their interests explained, she thought, their hatred; for she was well convinced that they hated each other mortally. The idea that Sir Thorn and M. de Brevan understood each other, and pursued a common purpose, never entered her mind; and, if it had suggested itself, she would have rejected it as absurd.
Must she, then, come to the conclusion that M. de Brevan had really, when he appeared before her, no other aim but to drive her to despair? But why should he do so? what advantage would that be to him? The man who wants to make a girl his own does not go to work to chill her with terror, and to inspire her with ineffable disgust. Still M. de Brevan had done this; and therefore he must aim at something different from that marriage of which he spoke.
What was that something? Such abominable things are not done for the mere pleasure of doing them, especially if that involves some amount of danger. Now, it was very clear, that upon Daniel's return, whether he still loved Henrietta or not, M. de Brevan would have a terrible account to give to that brave sailor who had trusted him with the care of his betrothed. Did M. de Brevan ever think of that return? Oh, yes! he did; and with secret terror. There was proof of that in one of the phrases that had escaped him.
After having said, "When Daniel returns," he had added, "if he ever returns, which is by no means sure."
Why this proviso? Had he any reasons to think that Daniel might perish in this dangerous campaign? Now she remembered, yes, she remembered distinctly, that M. de Brevan had smiled in a very peculiar way when he had said these words. And, as she recalled this, her heart sank within her, and she felt as if she were going to faint. Was he not capable of anything, the wretched man, who had betrayed him so infamously,—capable even of arming an assassin?
"Oh, I must warn Daniel!" she exclaimed, "I must warn him, and not lose a minute."
And, although she had written him a long letter only the day before, she wrote again, begging him to be watchful, to mistrust everybody, because most assuredly his life was threatened. And this letter she carried herself to the post-office, convinced as she was that to confide it to Mrs. Chevassat would have been the same as to send it to M. de Brevan.
It was astonishing, however, how the estimable lady seemed to become day by day more attached to Henrietta, and how expansive and demonstrative her affections grew. At all hours of the day, and on the most trivial pretexts, she would come up, sit down, and for entire hours entertain her with her intolerable speeches. She did not put any restraint upon herself any longer, but talked "from the bottom of her heart" with her "dear little pussy-cat," as if she had been her own daughter. The strange doctrines at which she had formerly only hinted, she now proclaimed without reserve, boasting of an open kind of cynicism, which betrayed a terrible moral perversity. It looked as if the horrible Megsera had been deputed by Henrietta's enemies for the special purpose of demoralizing and depraving her, if possible, and to drive her into the brilliant and easy life of sin in which so many unhappy women perish.
Fortunately, in this case, the messenger was ill-chosen. The eloquence of Mrs. Chevassat, which very likely would have inflamed the imagination of some poor but ambitious girl, caused nothing but disgust in Henrietta's heart. She had gotten into the habit of thinking of other things while the old woman was holding forth; and her noble soul floated off to regions where these vulgarities could reach her no more.
Her life was, nevertheless, a very sad one. She never went out, spending her days in her chamber, reading, or working at a great embroidery, a masterpiece of patience and taste, which she had undertaken with a faint hope that it might become useful in case of distress. But a new source of trouble roused her soon after from this dull monotony. Her money grew less and less; and at last the day came when she changed the last gold-piece of her nine hundred francs. It became urgent to resort once more to the pawnbroker; for these were the first days of April, and the honeyed words of Mrs. Chevassat had given her to understand that she had better get ready to pay on the 8th her rent, which amounted to a hundred francs.
She intrusted therefore to the concierge the remaining ring to be pawned. Calculating from the sum she had received for the first ring, she hoped to obtain for this one, at the very least, five or six hundred francs.
The concierge brought her one hundred and ninety francs.
At first, she was convinced the man had robbed her; and she gave him to understand that she thought so. But he showed her the receipt in a perfect rage.
"Look there," he said, "and remember to whom you are talking!"
On the receipt she read in fact these words: "Advanced, two hundred francs." Convinced of the injustice of her accusations, Henrietta had to make her apologies, and hardly succeeded by means of a ten-franc-piece in soothing the man's wounded feelings.
Alas! the poor girl did not know that one is always at liberty to pledge an article only for a given sum, a part of its real value; and she was too inexperienced in such matters to notice the reference to that mode of pawning on her receipt. However, it was one of those mishaps for poor Henrietta which cannot be mended, and from which we never recover. She lost two months' existence, the very time, perhaps, that was needed till Daniel's return. Still the day when the rent was due came, and she paid her hundred francs. The second day after that, she was once more without money, and, according to Mrs. Chevassat's elegant expression, forced to "live on her poor possessions." But the pawnbroker had too cruelly disappointed her calculations: she would not resort to him again, and risk a second disappointment.
This time she thought she would, instead of pawning, sell, her gold- dressing-case; and she requested the obliging lady below to procure her a purchaser. At first Mrs. Chevassat raised a host of objections.
"To sell such a pretty toy!" she said, "it's murder! Just think, you'll never see it again. If, on the other hand, you carry it to 'Uncle' you can take it out again as soon as you have a little money."
But she lost her pains, she saw and at last consented to bring up a kind of dealer in toilet-articles, an excellent honest man, she declared, in whom one could put the most absolute confidence. And he really showed himself worthy of her warm recommendation; for he offered instantly five hundred francs for the dressing-case, which was not worth much more than three times as much. Nor was this his last bid. After an hour's irritating discussions, after having ten times pretended to leave the room, he drew with many sighs his portemonnaie from its secret home, and counted upon the table the seven hundred francs in gold upon which Henrietta had stoutly insisted.
That was enough to pay Mrs. Chevassat for four months' board.
"But no," said the poor young girl to herself, "that would be pusillanimous in the highest degree."
And that very evening she summoned all her courage, and told the formidable woman in a firm tone of voice, that henceforth she would only take one meal, dinner. She had chosen this half-way measure in order not to avoid a scene, for that she knew she could not hope for, but a regular falling-out.
Contrary to all expectations, the concierge's wife appeared neither surprised nor angry. She only shrugged her shoulders as she said,—
"As you like, my 'little pussy-cat.' Only believe me, it is no use economizing in one's eating."
From the day of this coup d'etat, Henrietta went down every morning herself to buy her penny-roll and the little supply of milk which constituted her breakfast. For the rest of the day she did not leave her room, busying herself with her great work; and nothing broke in upon the distressing monotony of her life but the weekly visits of M. de Brevan.
For he did not forget his threat; and every week Henrietta was sure to see him come. He came in with a solemn air, and coldly asked if she had reflected since he had had the honor of presenting his respects to her. She did not answer him ordinarily, except by a look of contempt; but he did not seem in the least disconcerted. He bowed respectfully, and invariably said, before leaving the room,—
"Next time, then; I can wait. Oh! I have time; I can wait."
If he hoped thus to conquer Henrietta more promptly, he was entirely mistaken. This periodical insult acted only as an inducement to keep up her wrath and to increase her energy. Her pride rose at the thought of this unceasing struggle; and she swore that she would be victorious. It was this sentiment which inspired her with a thought, which, in its results, was destined to have a decisive influence on her future.
It was now the end of June, and she saw with trembling her little treasure grow smaller and smaller; when one day she asked Mrs. Chevassat, who seemed to be of unusually good-humor, if she could not procure her some work. She told her that she was considered quite skilful in all kinds of needlework.
But the woman laughed at the first words, and said,—
"Leave me alone! Are hands like yours made to work?"
And when Henrietta insisted, and showed her, as a proof of what she could do, the embroidery which she had commenced, she replied,—
"That is very pretty; but embroidering from morning till night would not enable a fairy to keep a canary-bird."
There was probably some truth in what she said, exaggerated as it sounded; and the poor girl hastened to add that she understood other kinds of work also. She was a first-class musician, for instance, and fully able to give music-lessons, or teach singing, if she could only get pupils. At these words a ray of diabolic satisfaction lighted up the old woman's eyes; and she cried out,—
"What, my 'pussy-cat,' could you play dancing-music, like those artists who go to the large parties of fashionable people?"
"Well, that is a talent worth something! Why did you not tell me before? I will think of it, and you shall see."
On the next Saturday, early in the morning, she appeared in Henrietta's room with the bright face of a bearer of good news.
"I have thought of you," she said as soon as she entered.
"We have a tenant in the house who is going to give a large party to-night. I have mentioned you to her; and she says she will give you thirty francs if you will make her guests jump. Thirty francs! That's a big sum; and besides, if they are pleased, you will get more customers."
"In what part of the house does she live?"
"In the second story of the back building, looking upon the yard. Mrs. Hilaire, a very nice person, and so good! there is no one like her. You would have to be there at nine o'clock precisely."
Quite happy, and full of hope, Henrietta spent a part of the afternoon in mending her only dress, a black silk dress, much worn unfortunately, and already often repaired. Still, by much skill and patience, she had managed to look quite respectable when she rang the bell at Mrs. Hilaire's door. She was shown into a room furnished with odd furniture, but brilliantly lighted, in which seven or eight ladies in flaming costumes, and as many fashionable gentlemen, were smoking and taking coffee. Both ladies and gentlemen had just risen from table; there was no mistaking it from their eyes and the sound of their voices.
"Look! there is the musician from the garret!" exclaimed a large, dark-skinned woman, pretty, but very vulgar, who seemed to be Mrs. Hilaire.
And, turning to Henrietta, she asked,—
"Will you take a little glass of something, my darling?"
The poor girl blushed crimson, and, painfully embarrassed, declined, and asked pardon for declining; when the lady broke in rather rudely, and said,—
"You are not thirsty? Very well. You'll drink after some time. In the meantime will you play us a quadrille? and mark the time, please."
Then imitating with distressing accuracy the barking voice of masters of ceremonies at public balls, she called out,—
"Take your positions, take your positions: a quadrille!"
Henrietta had taken her seat at the piano. She turned her back to the dancers; but she had before her a mirror, in which she saw every gesture of Mrs. Hilaire and her guests. And then she became quite sure of what she had suspected from the beginning. She understood into what company she had been inveigled by the concierge's wife. She had, however, sufficient self-control to finish the quadrille. But, when the last figure had been danced, she rose; and, walking up to the mistress of the house, said, stammering painfully, and in extreme embarrassment,—
"Please excuse me, madam, I have to leave. I feel very unwell. I could not play any more."
"How funny!" cried one of the gentlemen. "Here is our ball at an end!"
But the young woman said,—
"Hush, Julius! Don't you see how pale she is,—pale like death, the poor child! What is the matter with you, darling? Is it the heat that makes you feel badly? It is stifling hot here."
And, when Henrietta was at the door, she said,—
"Oh, wait! I do not trouble people for nothing. Come, Julius, turn your pockets inside out, and give the little one a twenty-franc-piece."
The poor girl was almost outside, when she turned, and said,—
"Thank you, madam; but you owe me nothing."
It was high time for Henrietta to leave. Her first surprise had been followed by mad anger, which drove the blood to her head, and made her weep bitter tears. She knew now that Mrs. Chevassat had caught her in this trap. What could the wretched woman have meant?
Carried away by an irresistible impulse, and no longer mistress of herself, Henrietta rushed down stairs, and broke like a whirlwind into the little box of the concierge, crying out,—
"How could you dare to send me to such people? You knew all about it. You are a wretch!"
Master Chevassat was the first to rise, and said,—
"What is the matter? Do you know to whom you are talking?"
But his wife interrupted him with a gesture, and, turning to Henrietta, said with cynic laughter,—
"Well, what next? Are these people not good enough for you; eh? In the first place, I am tired of your ways, my 'pussy-cat.' When one is a beggar, as you are, one stays at home like a good girl; and one does not run away with a young man, and gad about the world with lovers."
Thereupon she took advantage of the fact that Henrietta had paused upon the threshold, to push her brutally out of the room at the risk of throwing her down, and fiercely banged the door. An hour afterwards the poor girl vehemently reproached herself for her passion.
"Alas!" she said to herself, weeping, "the weak, the unhappy, have no right to complain. Who knows what this wicked woman will now do to avenge herself?"
She found it out the second day afterwards.
Coming down a little before seven o'clock, in order to buy her roll and her milk for breakfast, she met at the entrance-door Mrs. Hilaire, face to face. At the sight of the poor girl, that irascible woman turned as red as a poppy, and, rushing up to her, seized her by the arm, and shook it furiously, crying out at the same time with the full force of her lungs,—
"Ah, it is you, miserable beggar, who go and tell stories on me! Oh, what wickedness! A beggar whom I had sent for to allow her to earn thirty francs! And I must needs think she is sick, and pity her, and ask Julius to give her a twenty-franc-piece."
Henrietta felt that she ought not to blame this woman, who, after all, had shown her nothing but kindness. But she was thoroughly frightened, and tried to get away. The woman, however, held her fast, and cried still louder, till several tenants came to the open windows.
"They'll make you pay for that, my darling," she yelled, amid foul oaths, which her wrath carried along with it, as a torrent floats down stones and debris. "They'll make you pay for it! You'll have to clear out of here, I tell you!"
And the threat was not an idle one. That very afternoon the same lamentable scene was repeated; and so it went on every morning and every day. Mrs. Hilaire had friends in the house, who took up the quarrel, and fell upon Henrietta whenever she appeared. They lay in wait for her by turns; and she no sooner ventured upon the staircase than the shouts began; so that the unfortunate girl no longer dared leave the house. Early in the morning, as soon as the door was opened, she ran out to buy her daily provisions; then, running up swiftly, she barricaded herself in her chamber, and never stirred out again.
Surely, there was no lack of desire on her part to leave the house. But where should she go? Besides, the unknown frightened her; might it not have still greater terrors in reserve for her?
At last she was entirely without money.
In July her rent had cost her a hundred francs, and she had been compelled to buy a dress in place of her merino dress, which was falling to pieces. In the first days of August she was at the end of her resources. Nor would she have been able to make them last so long, even if she had not, ever since that evening at Mrs. Hilaire's, done entirely without the expensive board of Mrs. Chevassat. Even this rupture, at which Henrietta had at first rejoiced, became now to her a source of overwhelming trouble. She had still a few things that she might sell,—a brooch, her cashmere, her watch, and her ear-rings; but she did not know how and to whom she could sell them.
All the stories by which the wicked woman down stairs had tried to frighten her from going herself to the pawnbroker came back to her mind; and she saw herself, at the first attempt, arrested by the police, examined, and carried back to her father, handed over to Sarah and Sir Thorn, and—
Still want pressed her hard; and at last, after long hesitation, one evening, at dark, she slipped out to find a purchaser. What she was looking for was one of those dark little shops in which men lie in wait for their prey, whom the police always suspects, and carefully watches. She found one such as she desired. An old woman with spectacles on her nose, without even asking her name, and evidently taking her to be a thief, gave her, for her brooch and her ear-rings, a hundred and forty francs.
What was this sum of money? A nothing; Henrietta understood that perfectly. And hence, overcoming all her reserve and her reluctance, she vowed she would try every thing in her power to obtain work.
She kept her word, sustained by a secret hope of triumphing, by dint of energy and perseverance, over fate itself. She went from store to store, from door to door, so to say, soliciting employment, as she would have asked for alms, promising to do any thing that might be wanted, in return merely for her board and lodging. But it was written that every thing should turn against her. Her beauty, her charms, her distinguished appearance, her very manner of speaking, were so many obstacles in her way. Who could think of engaging a girl as a servant, who looked like a duchess? So that all her prayers only met with cold faces, shrugging of shoulders, and ironical smiles. She was refused everywhere. It is true that now and then some gallant clerk replied to her application by a declaration of love.
Chance had thrown into her hands one of those small handbills which bill-stickers paste upon the gutters, and in which workwomen are "wanted." Henceforth she spent her days in looking up these handbills, and in going to places from which they were issued. But here she met with the same difficulties. There was no end of questions.
"Who are you? Where have you been? By whom have you been employed?" and finally, always the same distressing answer,—
"We cannot employ persons like you."
Then she went to an employment agency. She had noticed one which displayed at the door a huge placard, on which places were offered from thirty-five up to a thousand francs a month. She went up stairs. A very loquacious gentleman made her first deposit a considerable sum, and then told her he had exactly what she wanted. She went ten times back to the office, and always in vain. After an eleventh appointment, he gave her the address of two houses, in one of which he assured her she would certainly be employed. These two houses turned out to be two small shops, where pretty young ladies were wanted to pour out absinthe, and to wait upon the customers.
This was Henrietta's last effort. For ten months she had now been struggling with a kind of helpless fury against inconquerable difficulties, and at last the springs of her energy had lost their elasticity. Now, crushed in body and mind, overwhelmed and conquered, she gave up.
It lacked still eighteen months before she would become of age. Since she had escaped from her father's house, she had not received a line from Daniel, although she had constantly written to him, and she had, of course, no means of ascertaining the date of his return. She had once, following M. de Brevan's advice, summoned courage enough to go to the navy department, and there to inquire if they had any news about "The Conquest." A clerk had replied to her, with a joke, that "The Conquest" might be afloat yet "a year or two." How could the poor girl wait till then? Why should she any longer maintain the useless struggle? She felt acute pains in her chest; she coughed; and, after walking a few yards, her legs gave way under her, and she broke out in cold perspiration. She now spent her days almost always in bed, shivering with chills, or plunged in a kind of stupor, during which her mind was filled with dismal visions. She felt as if the very sources of life were drying up within her, and as if all her blood was, drop by drop, oozing out of her through an open wound.
"If I could die thus!" she thought.
This was the last favor she asked of God. Henceforth, a miracle alone could save her; and she hardly wished to be saved. A perfect indifference and intense distaste of every thing filled her soul. She thought she had exhausted all that man can suffer; and there was nothing left for her to fear.
A last misfortune which now befell her did not elicit even a sigh from her. One afternoon, while she had been down stairs, she had left the window open. The wind had suddenly sprung up, slammed the blinds, and thus upset a chair. On this chair hung her cashmere; it fell into the fireplace, in which a little fire was still burning; and when she came back she found the shawl half-burnt to ashes. It was the only article of value which she still possessed; and she might at any time have procured several hundred francs for it.
"Well," she said, "what does it matter? It means three months taken from my life; that is all."
And she did not think of it any more; she did not even trouble herself about the rent, which became due in October.
"I shall not be able to pay it," she said to herself. "Mrs. Chevassat will give me notice, and then the hour will have come."
Still, to her great surprise, the worthy woman from below did not scold her for not having the money ready, and even promised she would make the owner of the house give her time. This inexplicable forbearance gave Henrietta a week's respite. But at last, one morning, she woke up, having not a cent left, having nothing even, she thought, that she could get money for, and being very hungry.
"Well," she thought, as if announcing to her own soul that the catastrophe had at last come, "all I need now is a few minutes' courage."
She said so in her mind; but in reality she was chilled to the heart by the fearful certainty that the crisis had really come: she felt as if the executioner were at the door of the room, ready to announce her sentence of death. And yet, for a month now, she had thought of suicide only; and the evening before she had thought it over with a kind of delight.
"I am surely not such a coward?" she said to herself in a fit of rage.
Yes, she was afraid. Yes, she told herself in vain that there was no other choice left to her but that between death and Sir Thorn, or M. de Brevan. She was terrified.
Alas! she was only twenty years old; she had never felt such exuberance of life within her; she wanted to live,—to live a month more, a week, a day!
If only her shawl had not been burnt! Then, examining with haggard eyes her chamber, she saw that exquisite piece of embroidery which she had undertaken. It was a dress, covered all over with work of marvellous delicacy and exquisite outlines. Unfortunately, it was far from being finished.
"Never mind!" she said to herself; "perhaps they will give me something for it."
And, wrapping the dress up hastily, she hurried to offer it for sale to the old woman who had already bought her ear-rings, and then her watch. The fearful old hag seemed to be overcome with surprise when she saw this marvel of skill.
"That's very fine," she said; "why, it is magnificent! and, if it were finished, it would be worth a mint of money; but as it is no one would want it."
She consented, however, to give twenty francs for it, solely from love of art, she said; for it was money thrown away. These twenty francs were, for Henrietta, an unexpected release.
"It will last me a month," she thought, determined to live on dry bread only; "and who can tell what a month may bring forth?"
And this unfortunate girl had an inheritance from her mother of more than a million! If she had but known it, if she had but had a single friend to advise her in her inexperience! But she had been faithful to her vow never to let her secret be known to a living soul; and the most terrible anguish had never torn from her a single complaint.
M. de Brevan knew this full well; for he had continued his weekly visits with implacable regularity. This perseverance, which had at first served to maintain Henrietta's courage, had now become a source of unspeakable torture.
"Ah, I shall be avenged!" she said to him one day. "Daniel will come back."
But he, shrugging his shoulders, had answered,—
"If you count upon that alone, you may as well surrender, and become my wife at once."
She turned her head from him with an expression of ineffable disgust. Rather the icy arms of Death! And still the pulsations of her heart were apparently counted. Since the end of November her twenty francs had been exhausted; and to prolong her existence she had had to resort to the last desperate expedients of extreme poverty. All that she possessed, all that she could carry from her chamber without being stopped by the concierge, she had sold, piece by piece, bit after bit, for ten cents, for five cents, for a roll. Her linen had been sacrificed first; then the covering of her bed, her curtains, her sheets. The mattress had gone the way of the rest,—the wool from the inside first, carried off by handfuls; then the ticking.
Thus, on the 25th of December, she found herself in a chamber as utterly denuded as if a fire had raged there; while she herself had on her body but a single petticoat under her thin alpaca dress, without a rag to cover herself in these wintry nights. Two evenings before, when terror triumphed over her resolution for a time, she had written her father a long letter. He had made no reply. Last night she had again written in these words:—
"I am hungry, and I have no bread. If by tomorrow at noon you have not come to my assistance, at one o'clock you will have ceased to have a daughter."
Tortured by cold and hunger, emaciated, and almost dying, she had waited for an answer. At noon nothing had come. She gave herself time till four o'clock. Four o'clock, and no answer.
"I must make an end of it," she said to herself.
Her preparations had been made. She had told the Cerberus below that she would be out all the evening; and she had procured a considerable stock of charcoal. She wrote two letters,—one to her father, the other to M. de Brevan.
After that she closed hermetically all the openings in her room, kindled two small fires, and, having commended her soul to God, stretched herself out on her bed. It was five o'clock.
A dense, bitter vapor spread slowly through the room; and the candle ceased to give a visible light. Then she felt as if an iron screw were tightening on her temples. She was suffocating, and felt a desire to sleep; but in her stomach she suffered intense pains.
Then strange and incoherent thoughts arose deliriously in her head; her ears were filled with confused noises; her pulse beat with extraordinary vehemence; nausea nearly convulsed her; and from time to time she fancied terrific explosions were breaking her skull to pieces.
The candle went out. Maddened by a sensation of dying, she tried to rise; but she could not. She wanted to cry; but her voice ended in a rattle in her throat.
Then her ideas became utterly confused. Respiration ceased. It was all over. She was suffering no longer.
Thus a few minutes longer, and all was really over. Count Ville- Handry's daughter was dying! Count Ville-Handry's daughter was dead!
But at that very hour the tenant of the fourth story, Papa Ravinet, the second-hand dealer, was going to his dinner. If he had gone down as usually, by the front staircase, no noise would have reached him. But Providence was awake. That evening he went down the back stairs, and heard the death-rattle of the poor dying girl. In our beautiful egotistical days, many a man, in the place of this old man, would not have gone out of his way. He, on the contrary, hurried down to inform the concierge. Many a man, again, would have been quieted by the apparent calmness of the Chevassat couple, and would have been satisfied with their assurance that Henrietta was not at home. He, however, insisted, and, in spite of the evident reluctance of the concierge and his wife, compelled them to go up, and brought out, by his words first, and then by his example, one tenant after another.