It was he likewise, who, while the concierge and the other people were deliberating, directed what was to be done for the dying girl, and who hastened to fetch from his magazine a mattress, sheets, blankets, wood to make a fire, in fact, every thing that was needed in that bare chamber.
A few moments later Henrietta opened her eyes. Her first sensation was a very strange one.
In the first place she was utterly amazed at feeling that she was in a warm bed,—she who had, for so many days, endured all the tortures of bitter cold. Then, looking around, she was dazzled by the candles that were burning on her table, and the beautiful, bright fire in her fireplace. And then she looked with perfect stupor at all the women whom she did not know, and who were bending over her, watching her movements.
Had her father at last come to her assistance?
No, for he would have been there; and she looked in vain for him among all these strange people.
Then, understanding from some words which were spoken close by her, that it was to chance alone she owed her rescue from death, she was filled with indescribable grief.
"To have suffered all that can be suffered in dying," she said to herself, "and then not to die after all!"
She almost had a feeling of hatred against all these people who were busying themselves around her. Now that they had brought her back to life, would they enable her to live?
Nevertheless, she distinguished very clearly what was going on in her room. She recognized the wealthy ladies from the first story, who had stayed to nurse her, and between them Mrs. Chevassat, who assumed an air of great activity, while she explained to them how Henrietta had deceived her affectionate heart in order to carry out her fatal purpose.
"You see, I did not dream of any thing," she protested in a whining tone. "A poor little pussy-cat, who was always merry, and this morning yet sang like a bird. I thought she might be a little embarrassed, but never suspected such misery. You see, ladies, she was as proud as a queen, and as haughty as the weather. She would rather have died than ask for assistance; for she knew she had only a word to say to me. Did I not already, in October, when I saw she would not be able to pay her rent, become responsible for her?"
And thereupon the infamous hypocrite bent over the poor girl, kissed her on her forehead, and said with a tender tone of voice,—
"Did you not love me, dear little pussy-cat; did not you? I know you loved poor old Mrs. Chevassat."
Unable to articulate a word, even if she had understood what was said, poor Henrietta shivered, shrank with horror and disgust from the contact with those lying lips. And the emotion which this feeling caused her did more for her than all the attentions that were paid her. Still, it was only after the doctor, who had been sent for, had come and bled her, that she was restored to the full use of her faculties. Then she thanked, in a very feeble voice, the people around her, assuring them that she felt much better now, and might safely be left alone.
The two wealthy ladies, whom curiosity had carried off at the moment when they were sitting down to dinner, did not wait for more, and, very happy to be released, slipped away at once. But the concierge's wife remained by Henrietta's bedside till she was alone with her victim; and then every thing changed in her face, tone of voice, look, and manner.
"Well," she commenced, "now you are happy, miss! You have advertised my house, and it will all be in the papers. Everybody will pity you, and think your lover a cold-blooded villain, who lets you die of starvation."
The poor young girl deprecated the charge with such a sweet, gentle expression of face, that a savage would have been touched; but Mrs. Chevassat was civilized.
"And still you know very well," she went on in a bitter tone, "that dear M. Maxime has done all he could to save you. Only day before yesterday, he offered you his whole fortune"—
"Madam," stammered Henrietta, "have you no mercy?"
Mercy—Mrs. Chevassat! What a joke!
"You would take nothing," she continued, "from M. Maxime. Why, I ask you? To play the virtuous woman, was it? It was hardly worth while, if you meant, immediately afterwards, to accept that old miser, who will make life hard enough for you. Ah, you have fallen into nice hands!"
Gathering up all the strength that had come back to her, Henrietta raised herself on the pillows, and asked,—
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, nothing! I see. After all, you would have it so. Besides, he had been looking after you a long time already."
As soon as Henrietta opened her eyes, Papa Ravinet had discreetly withdrawn, in order to leave the ladies, who were about her, time to undress her. Thus she had not seen the man who had saved her, and did not understand the allusions of the old woman.
"Explain, madam, explain!"
"Ah, upon my word! that is not difficult. The man who has pulled you out, who has brought you all these things to make your bed, and kindle a fire; why, that is the second-hand dealer of the fourth story! And he will not stop there, I am sure. Patience, and you will know well enough what I mean."
It must be borne in mind, that the woman, for fear Henrietta might sell to Papa Ravinet what she had to sell, or for some other reason, had always painted the old man to her in colors by no means flattering.
"What ought I to be afraid of?" asked Henrietta.
The woman hesitated. At last she answered,—
"If I were to tell you, you would repeat it to him when he comes back."
"No, I promise you."
"Swear it on your mother's sacred memory."
Thus reassured, the old woman came close up to her bed; and, in an animated but low voice, she said,—
"Well, I mean this: if you accept now what Papa Ravinet will offer you, in six months you will be worse than any of Mrs. Hilaire's girls. Ah! don't tell me 'I do not mean to touch him.' The old rascal has ruined more than one who was just as good as you are. That's his business; and, upon my word! he understands it. Now, forewarned, forearmed. I am going down to make you a soup. I'll be back at night. And above all, you hear, not a word!"
By one word Mrs. Chevassat had plunged Henrietta once more into an abyss of profound despair.
"Great God!" she said to herself, "why must the generous assistance of this old man be a new snare for me?"
With her elbow resting on her pillow, her forehead supported by her hand, her eyes streaming with tears, she endeavored to gather her ideas, which seemed to be scattered to the four winds, like the leaves of trees after a storm; when a modest, dry cough aroused her from her meditations.
She trembled, and raised her head.
In the framework of the open door stood a man of mature age and of medium height, looking at her.
It was Papa Ravinet, who, after a long conversation with the concierge, and after some words with his amiable wife, had come up to inquire after his patient. She guessed at it, rather than she knew; for, although she lived in the same house with him, she was not in the same part of the building, and she scarcely recollected having caught a glimpse of him now and then in crossing the yard.
"That," she thought, "is the man who plots my ruin, the wretch whom I am to avoid."
Now, it is true that this man, with his mournful face, his huge, brushlike eyebrows, and his small, yellow eyes, startling by their incessant activity, had for the observer something enigmatical about him, and therefore did not inspire much confidence.
Nevertheless, Henrietta thanked him none the less heartily, although greatly embarrassed, for his readiness to help her, his kind care, and his generosity in providing every thing she wanted.
"Oh! you owe me no thanks," he said. "I have only done my duty, and that very imperfectly."
And at once, in a rather grim manner, he began to tell her that what he had done was nothing in comparison with what he meant to do. He had but too well guessed what had led Henrietta to attempt suicide; he had only to look around her room. But he swore she should have nothing more to fear from want as long as he was there.
But, the more earnest and pressing the good man became in his protestations, the more Henrietta drew back within her usual reserve; her mind being filled with the prejudices instilled by Mrs. Chevassat. Fortunately he was a clever man, the old dealer; and by means of not saying what might shock her, and by saying much that could not fail to touch her, he gradually regained his position. He almost conquered her when he returned to her the letters she had written before making her dreadful preparations, and when she saw that they looked unhurt, and sealed as before. Thus, when he left her, after half an hour's diplomatic intercourse, he had obtained from the poor young girl the promise that she would not renew the attempt at her life, and that she would explain to him by what fatal combination of circumstances she had been reduced to such extreme suffering.
"You would not hesitate," he said, "if you knew how easy it often is, by a little experience, to arrange the most difficult matters."
Henrietta did not hesitate. A thought which had occurred to her as soon as she found herself alone had brought her to this conclusion: "If Papa Ravinet were really what Mrs. Chevassat says, that bad woman would not have warned me against him. If she tries to keep me from accepting the old man's assistance, she no doubt finds it to her advantage that I should do so."
When she tried, after that, to examine as coolly as she could the probable consequences of her decision, she found enormous chances in her favor. If Papa Ravinet was sincere, she might be enabled to wait for Daniel; if he was not sincere, what did she risk? She who had not feared death itself need not fear any thing else. Lucretia's dagger will always protect a brave woman's liberty.
But still, in spite of the pressing need she had for rest, her promise kept her awake for the greater part of the night; for she passed in her mind once more over the whole lamentable story of her sufferings, and asked herself what she might confess to, and what she ought to withhold from the old dealer. Had he not already discovered, by the address of one of her letters, that she was the daughter of Count Ville-Handry? And just that she would have liked to keep him from knowing. On the other hand, was it not foolish to ask the advice of a man to whom we will not confess the whole truth?
"I must tell him all," she said, "or nothing." And, after a moment's reflection, she added,—"I will tell him all, and keep nothing back." She was in this disposition, when in the morning, about nine o'clock, Papa Ravinet reappeared in her room. He looked very pale, the old man; and the expression of his face, and the tone of his voice, betrayed an emotion which he could scarcely control, together with deep anxiety.
"Well?" he asked forgetting in his preoccupation to inquire even how the poor girl had passed the night.
She shook her head sadly, and replied, pointing to a chair,—
"I have made up my mind, sir; sit down, please, and listen to me." The old dealer had been fully convinced that Henrietta would come to that; but he had not hoped for it so soon. He could not help exclaiming, "At last!" and intense, almost delirious joy shone in his eyes. Even this joy seemed to be so unnatural, that the young girl was made quite uncomfortable by it. Fixing her eyes upon the old man with all the power of observation of which she was capable, she said,—
"I am fully aware that what I am about to do is almost unparalleled in rashness. I put myself, to a certain extent, absolutely in your power, sir,—the power of an utter stranger, of whom I am told I have every thing to fear."
"O miss!" he declared, "believe me"—
But she interrupted him, saying with great solemnity,—
"I think, if you were to deceive me, you would be the meanest and least of men. I rely upon your honor."
And then in a firm voice she began the account of her life, from that fatal evening on which her father had said to her,—
"I have resolved, my daughter, to give you a second mother."
The old dealer had taken a seat facing Henrietta, and listened, fixing his eyes upon her face as if to enter into her thoughts, and to anticipate her meaning. His face was all aglow with excitement, like the face of a gambler who is watching the little white ball that is to make him a rich man or a beggar. It looked almost as if he had foreseen the terrible communication she was making, and was experiencing a bitter satisfaction at finding his presentiments confirmed,—
As Henrietta was proceeding, he would murmur now and then,—
"That is so! Yes, of course that had to come next."
And all these people whose abominable intrigues Henrietta was explaining to him were apparently better known to him than to her, as if he had frequently been in contact with them, or even lived in their intimacy. He gave his judgment on each one with amazing assurance, as the occasion presented itself, saying,—
"Ah! There I recognize Sarah and Mrs. Brian."
"Sir Thorn never does otherwise."
"Yes, that is all over Maxime de Brevan."
And, according to the different phases of the account, he would laugh bitterly and almost convulsively, or he would break out in imprecations.
"What a trick!" he murmured with an accent of deep horror, "what an infernal snare!"
At another point he turned deadly pale, and almost trembled on his chair, as if he were feeling ill, and were about to fall. Henrietta was telling him at that moment, from Daniel's recital, the circumstances under which M. de Kergrist had died, and Malgat had disappeared,—that poor cashier who had left such an immense deficit behind; who had been condemned to penal servitude; and whose body the police believed to have found in a wood near Paris. But, as soon as the young girl had finished, he rose all of a sudden, and cried out in a formidable voice,—
"I have them now, the wretches! this time I have them!"
And, breaking down under his excessive excitement, he sank into his chair, covering his face with his hands. Henrietta was dumfounded; she looked aghast at the old man, in whom she now placed all her hopes. Already, the night before, she had had some suspicions that he was not what he seemed to be; now she was quite sure. But who was he? She had nothing to go by to solve that riddle.
This only she thought she saw clearly, that Sarah Brandon, Mrs. Brian, and M. Thomas Elgin, as well as M. de Brevan, had at some time or other come in personal contact with Papa Ravinet, and that he hated them mortally.
"Unless he should try to deceive me," she thought, not having quite shaken off all doubts yet.
He had in the meantime mastered his emotion, and was regaining all his composure.
"Let no one, henceforth, deny Providence!" he exclaimed. "Ah! fools and idiots alone can do so. M. de Brevan had every reason to think that this house would keep the secret of his crime as safe as the grave, and so brought you here. And here it happens I must chance to live,—of all men, I,—and he remain unaware of it! By a kind of miracle we are brought together under the same roof,—you, the daughter of Count Ville-Handry, and I, one after the other, without knowing each other; and, at the very moment when this Brevan is about to triumph, Providence brings us together, and this meeting ruins him!"
His voice betrayed his fierce joy at approaching vengeance; his sallow cheeks flushed up; and his eyes shone brilliantly.
"For M. de Brevan was triumphing last night. The woman Chevassat, his confederate, had watched you, and noticing your preparations for committing suicide, had said to him, 'Rejoice! at last we shall get rid of her.'"
Henrietta shuddered, and stammered out,—
"Is it possible?"
Then the old man, looking at her half surprised, said,—
"What! after all you have seen of M. de Brevan, you have never suspected him of meditating your death?"
"Why, yes! I sometimes thought so."
"Well, this time you were right, madam. Ah! you do not know your enemies yet. But I know them, I; for I have had a chance of measuring the depth of their wickedness. And there your safety would lie, if you would follow my advice."
"I will, sir."
Papa Ravinet was evidently a little embarrassed. He said, however,—
"You see, madam, I shall have to ask you to trust me blindly."
"I will trust you blindly."
"It is of the utmost importance that you should escape out of reach of M. de Brevan; he must lose every trace of you. You will, consequently, have to leave this house."
"I will leave it."
"And in the way I say."
"I will obey you in every point."
The last shadow of trouble which had still overclouded the old dealer's brow vanished as if by magic.
"Then all will go well," he said, rubbing his hands as if he were taking off the skin; "and I guarantee the rest. Let us make haste to understand each other; for I have been here a long time, and the woman Chevassat must be on needles. Still, it is important she should not suspect that we are acting in concert."
As if afraid that an indiscreet ear might be listening at the door, he drew his chair quite close to Henrietta's bed, and whispered in a voice but just audible to her,—
"As soon as I have turned my back that woman will come up, burning with curiosity to know what has happened between us. You must pretend to be very angry with me. Give her to understand that you think me a wicked old man, who wants you to pay the price of infamy for the services I wish to render to you."
Henrietta had turned crimson. Now she stammered out,—
"Perhaps you dislike telling a falsehood?"
"You see—I cannot, I fear. It would not be easy to lie so as to deceive Mrs. Chevassat."
"Ah, madam, you must! it cannot be helped. If you admit the absolute necessity, you may succeed in misleading her. Remember that we must fight the enemy with his own weapons."
"Well, then, I will try, sir."
"So be it. The rest, you will see, is a small matter. As soon as night falls, you will dress, and watch for the moment when the concierge, as usually, goes about the house lighting the gas. As soon as you see him on the great staircase; you will make haste and run down. I shall take measures to have the woman Chevassat either kept engaged, or out of the house; and you will thus find it easy to slip out without being perceived. Once in the street, you will turn to the right. At the corner of the street, in front of the great Auction-Mart, you will see a cab standing, with a plaid handkerchief like this hanging out of the window. Get into it boldly; I'll be inside. I do not know if I have made it all clear to you?"
"Oh, perfectly, sir!"
"Then we understand each other. Do you feel strong enough?"
"Yes, sir. You may rely on me."
Every thing passed off just as the old dealer had foreseen; and Henrietta played her part so well, that at night, when her disappearance was discovered, Mrs. Chevassat was neither much surprised nor troubled.
"She was tired of life, the girl!" she said to her husband. "I saw it when I was up there. We'll see her again at the Morgue. As the charcoal did not do the work, she has tried the water."
Dear woman! She would not have gone to bed so quietly, nor have fallen asleep so comfortably, if she had suspected the truth.
What gave her such perfect peace was the certainty she had, that Henrietta had left the house bareheaded, with wretched, worn-out shoes on her feet, with nothing but one petticoat, and her thin alpaca dress on her body. Now, she was quite sure, that in such a state of destitution, and in this cold December night, the poor young girl would soon be weary wandering through the streets of Paris, and would be irresistibly drawn to the waters of the Seine.
But it was by no means so. When Henrietta was alone, after the departure of Papa Ravinet, she had only become confirmed in her determination to trust in him blindly: she had even forborne to think it over, as she had, humanly speaking, no other choice on earth. Thus, after having received Mrs. Chevassat's visit, and after having played the part assigned to her by the old dealer, she rose, and, although quite exhausted yet, took her place at the window to watch for the proper time. Four o'clock struck; and, as it was growing dark, the concierge came out, with a light in his hand, and went up the big staircase to light the lamps.
"Now is the time!" she said to herself.
And casting a last look at this wretched room, where she had suffered so much, and wept so much, and where she had expected to die, she slipped out. The back stairs were quite dark, and thus she was not recognized by two persons whom she met. The court was deserted, and the concierge's room locked. She crossed the hall, and at one bound was in the street. Some forty paces to the left she could see the place where Papa Ravinet was waiting for her in his cab. She ran there, got in; and the driver, who had received his instructions, whipped his horses as soon as he heard the door shut.
"And now, sir," she began, "where do you take me?"
By the light of the gas in the stores, which from time to time lighted up the interior of the carriage, she could see the features of her neighbor. He looked at her with manifest satisfaction; and a smile of friendly malice played upon his lips.
"Ah!" he replied, "that is a great secret. But you will know soon, for the man drives well."
The poor horses went, indeed, as fast as if the dollar which the driver had received had infused the noble blood of the fastest racer into their veins. They drove down the whole long street at a furious rate, turned to the right, and, after many more turns, stopped at last before a house of modest appearance. Lightly and promptly, like a sheriff's clerk, Papa Ravinet jumped out; and, having aided Henrietta to alight, he offered her his arm, and drew her into the house, saying,—
"You will see what a surprise I have in store for you."
In the third story the old man stopped; and, drawing a key from his pocket, he opened the door which faced the staircase. And, before she had time to consider, Henrietta found herself gently pushed into a small sitting-room, where a middle-aged lady was embroidering at a frame by the light of a large copper lamp.
"Dear sister," said Papa Ravinet, still in the door, "here is the young lady of whom I spoke to you, and who does us the honor to accept our hospitality."
Slowly the elderly lady put her needle into the canvas, pushed back the frame, and rose.
She seemed to be about fifty years old, and must have been beautiful formerly. But age and sorrow had blanched her hair, and furrowed her face; and the habit of silence and meditation seemed to have sealed her lips forever. Her stern countenance, nevertheless, expressed kindliness. She was dressed in black; and her costume betrayed a lady from a provincial town.
"You are welcome, madam," she said in a grave voice. "You will find in our modest home that peace and that sympathy which you need."
In the meantime, Papa Ravinet had come forward; and, bowing to Henrietta, he said,—
"I beg to present to you Mrs. Bertolle, my dearly beloved sister Mary, a widow, and a saint, who has devoted herself to her brother, and who has sacrificed to him every thing,—her fortune, her peace, and her life."
Ah! there was no mistaking the look with which the old man caressed the old lady: he worshipped her. But she interrupted him, as if embarrassed by his praise, saying,—
"You have told me so late, Anthony, that I have not been able to attend to all of your orders. But the young lady's room is ready, and if you choose"—
"Yes, we must show her the way."
The old lady having taken the lamp, after removing the screen, opened a door which led from the parlor directly into a small, modestly furnished room, which shone with exquisite tidiness, and which exhaled that fresh odor of lavender so dear to all housekeepers from the country. The mirrors and the furniture all glistened alike in the bright fire on the hearth; and the curtains were as white as snow.
At one glance the old dealer had taken in every thing; and, after a smile of gratitude addressed to his sister, he said to Henrietta,—
"This is your room, madam."
The poor girl, all overcome, sought in vain for words to express her gratitude. The old lady did not give her time. She showed her, spread out on the bed, petticoats, white linen, stockings, a warm dressing- wrapper of gray flannel with blue flowers, and at the foot a pair of slippers.
"This will answer for a change to-night, madam," she said. "I have provided what was most pressing; to-morrow we will see about the rest."
Big tears, tears of happiness and gratitude, this time, rolled down Henrietta's pale cheeks. Oh, indeed! this was a surprise, and a delicious one, which the ingenious foresight of her new friend had prepared for her.
"Ah, you are so kind!" she said, giving her hands to brother and sister—"you are so kind! How can I ever repay what you are doing for me?"
Then overcoming her emotion, and turning to Papa Ravinet, she added,—
"But pray, who are you, sir,—you who thus come to succor, a poor young girl who is an utter stranger to you, doubling the value of your assistance by your great delicacy?"
The old lady replied in his place,—"My brother, madam, is an unfortunate man, who has paid for a moment's forgetfulness of duty, with his happiness, his prospects, and his very life. Do not question him. Let him be for you what he is for all of us,—Anthony Ravinet, dealer in curiosities."
The voice of the old lady betrayed such great sorrow, silently endured, that Henrietta looked ashamed, regretting her indiscretion. But the old man at once said,—
"What I may say to you madam, is, that you owe me no gratitude,—no, none whatever. What I do, my own interest commands me to do; and I deserve no credit for it. Why do you speak of gratitude? It is I who shall forever be under obligations to you for the immense service which you render me."
He seemed to be inspired by his own words; his figure straightened up; his eyes flashed fire; and he was on the point of letting, perhaps, some secret escape him, when his sister interrupted him, saying reproachfully,—
He stopped at once. Then he resumed,—
"You are right; you are right! I forget myself here; and I ought to be already back in Water Street. It is of the utmost importance that that woman Chevassat should not miss me a moment to-night."
He was about to leave them, when the old lady held him back, and said,—
"You ought to go back, I know; only be careful! It is a miracle that M. de Brevan has never met you and recognized you, during the year he has been coming to the house in which you live. If such a misfortune should happen now, our enemies might once more escape us. After the young lady's desperate act, he would not fail to recognize the man who has saved her. What can you do to avoid meeting him?"
"I have thought of that danger," he replied. "When I go back, I shall tell the two Chevassats a little story, which will frighten them, so that they will advise Brevan never to appear there, except at night, as he formerly did."
Thereupon he bowed to Henrietta, and went away with the words,—
"To-morrow we will consult with each other."
The shipwrecked man who is saved at the last moment, when, strength and spirits being alike exhausted, he feels himself sinking into the abyss, cannot, upon feeling once more firm ground under his feet, experience a sense of greater happiness than Henrietta did that night. For the delicious sensation had become deeper and intenser by the evening spent in company with Papa Ravinet's sister.
The widow, free from embarrassment as from affectation, possessed a quiet dignity which appeared in certain words and ways she had, and which made Henrietta guess the principal events of her life. Ruined all of a sudden,—she did not say how,—some months after the death of her husband, she, who had been accustomed to all the comforts of opulence had seen herself reduced to poverty, and all its privations. This had happened about five years ago. Since then she had imposed upon herself the strictest economy, although she never neglected her appearance. She had but one servant, who came every morning to clean up the house; she herself did all the other work, washing and ironing her own linen, cooking only twice a week, and eating cold meat on the other days, as much to save money as to save time.
For her time had its value. She worked on her frame patterns for embroideries, for which a fashionable store paid her very good prices. There were days in summer when she earned three francs.
The blow had been a severe one; she did not conceal it. Gradually, however, she had become reconciled to it, and taken up this habit of economizing with unflinching severity, and down to the smallest details. At present, she felt in these very privations a kind of secret satisfaction which results from the sense of having accomplished a duty,—a satisfaction all the greater, the harder the duty is.
What duty, she did not say.
"That lady is a noble creature among many!" said Henrietta to herself that night, when she retired after a modest repast.
Still she could not get over the mystery which surrounded the lives of these two personages, whom fate, relenting at last, had placed in her way. What was the mystery in the past of this brother and sister? For there was one; and, so far from trying to conceal it, they had begged Henrietta not to inquire into it. And how was their past connected with her own past? How could their future depend in any way on her own future?
But fatigue soon made an end to her meditations, and confused her ideas; and, for the first time in two years, she fell asleep with a sense of perfect security; she slept peacefully, without starting at the slightest noise, without being troubled by silence, without wondering whether her enemies were watching her, without suspecting the very walls of her room.
When she awoke next morning, calm and refreshed, it was broad daylight, nearly ten o'clock; and a pale ray of the sun was playing over the polished furniture. When she opened her eyes, she saw the dealer's sister standing at the foot of her bed, like a good genius who had been watching over her slumbers.
"Oh, how lazy I am!" she exclaimed with the hearty laugh of a child; for she felt quite at home in this little bedroom, where she had only spent a night; she felt as much at home here as in her father's palace when her mother was still alive; and it seemed to her as if she had lived here many a year.
"My brother was here about half an hour ago to talk with you," said the old lady; "but we did not like to wake you. You needed repose so much! He will be back in the evening, and dine with us."
The bright smile which had lighted up Henrietta's face went out instantly. Absorbed in the happiness of the moment, she had forgotten every thing; and these few words brought her back to the reality of her position, and recalled to her the sufferings of the past and the uncertainty of the future.
The good widow in the meantime assisted her in getting up; and they spent the day together in the little parlor, busily cutting out and making up a black silk dress for which Papa Ravinet had brought the material in the morning, and which was to take the place of Henrietta's miserable, worn-out, alpaca dress. When the young girl had first seen the silk, she had remembered all the kind widow had told her of their excessive economy, and with difficulty only succeeded in checking her tears.
"Why should you go to such an expense?" she had said very sadly. "Would not a woollen dress have done quite as well? The hospitality which you offer me must in itself be quite a heavy charge upon you. I should never forgive myself for becoming a source of still greater privations to such very kind friends."
But the old lady shook her head, and replied,—
"Don't be afraid, child. We have money enough."
They had just lighted the lamp, when they heard a key in the outer door; and a moment later Papa Ravinet appeared. He was very red; and, although it was freezing outdoors, he was streaming with perspiration.
"I am exhausted," he said, sinking into, an armchair, and wiping his forehead with his broad checkered handkerchief. "You cannot imagine how I have been running about to-day! I wanted to take an omnibus to come home, but they were all full."
Henrietta jumped up, and exclaimed,—
"You have been to see my father?"
"No, madam. A week ago already, Count Ville-Handry left his palace."
A mad thought, the hope that her father might have separated from his wife, crossed Henrietta's mind.
"And the countess," she asked,—"the Countess Sarah?"
"She has gone with her husband. They live in Peletier Street, in a modest apartment just above the office of the Pennsylvania Petroleum Company. Sir Thorn and Mrs. Brian are there also. They have only kept two servants,—Ernest, the count's valet, and a certain Clarissa."
The name of the vile creature whose treachery had been one of the principal causes of Henrietta's misfortunes did not strike her ear.
"How could my father ever be induced to leave his home?" she asked.
"He sold it, madam, ten days ago."
"Great God! My father must be ruined!"
The old man bowed his head.
Thus were the sad presentiments realized which she had felt when first she had heard Count Ville-Handry speak of the Pennsylvania Petroleum Company. But never, oh, never! would she have imagined so sudden a downfall.
"My father ruined!" she repeated, as if she were unable to realize the precise meaning of these words.
"And only a year ago he had more than a hundred thousand dollars a year. Six millions swallowed up in twelve months!—six millions!"
And as the enormous amount seemed to be out of all proportion to the shortness of time, she said,—
"It cannot be. You must be mistaken, sir; they have misled you."
A smile of bitter irony passed over the old dealer's lips. He replied, as if much puzzled by Henrietta's doubts,—
"What, madam, you do not see yet? Alas! what I tell you is but too true; and, if you want proofs"—
He drew a newspaper from his pocket and handed it to Henrietta, pointing out to her on the first page an article marked with a red pencil.
"There!" he said.
It was one of those financial sheets which arise every now and then, and which profess to teach the art of becoming rich in a very short time, without running any risk. This paper bore a title calculated to reassure its readers. It was called "Prudence." Henrietta read aloud,—
"We shall never tire repeating to our subscribers the words which form our motto and our heading, 'Prudence, prudence! Do not trust new enterprises!'
"Out of a hundred enterprises which appear in the market, it may safely be said that sixty are nothing but the simplest kind of wells, into which the capital of foolhardy speculators is sunk almost instantly. Out of the remaining forty, twenty-five may be looked upon as suspicious enterprises, partaking too much of gambling speculations. Among the last fifteen even, a careful choice must be made before we find out the few that present safe guarantees."
The young girl paused, not understanding a word of all this stuff. But the old man said,—
"That is only the honey of the preface, the sweet syrup intended to conceal the bitterness of the medicine that is to follow. Go on, and you will understand."
She continued to read,—
"A recent event, we ought to say a recent disaster, has just confirmed our doctrines, and justifies but too clearly our admonition to be careful.
"A company which started into existence last year with amazing suddenness, which filled the whole world with its flaming advertisements, crowding the newspapers, and decorating the street-corners,—a company which was most surely to enrich its stockholders, is already no longer able to pay the interest on its paid-up capital.
"As to the capital itself—but we will not anticipate events.
"All of our readers will have understood that we are speaking of the Franco-American Society of Pennsylvania Oil-Wells, which for the last eight days has been the subject of universal excitement.
"On 'Change the shares of a hundred dollars are quoted at 4-to-5."
Blinding tears prevented Henrietta from going on. "Great God!" she exclaimed. "O God!" Then, mastering her weakness, she began once more to read,—
"And yet if ever any company seemed to offer all the material and moral guarantees which we can desire before risking our carefully saved earnings, this company presented them.
"It had at its head a man who in his day was looked up to as a statesman endowed with rare administrative talents, and whose reputation as a man of sterling integrity seemed to lie above all suspicion.
"Need we say that this was the 'high and mighty Count Ville-Handry'?
"Hence they did not spare this great and noble name, but proclaimed it aloud on the housetops. It was the Count Ville-Handry here, and the Count Ville-Handry there. He was to bestow upon the country a new branch of industry. He was to change vile petroleum into precious gold.
"It was especially brought into notice that the noble count's personal fortune was nearly equal to the whole capital of the new company,—ten millions. Hence he was risking his own money rather than the money of others.
"It is now a year since these dazzling promises were made. What remains of them all? Shares, worth five dollars yesterday, worth, perhaps, nothing at all to-morrow, and a more than doubtful capital.
"Who could have expected in our day a new edition of Law's Mississippi Scheme?"
The paper fell from the hands of the poor girl. She had turned as pale as death, and was staggering so, that Papa Ravinet's sister took her in her arms to support her.
"Horrible," she murmured; "this is horrible!" Still she had not yet read all. The old man picked up the paper, and read from another article, below the lines which carried poison in every word, the following comments:—
"Two delegates of the stockholders of the Pennsylvania Petroleum Company were to sail this morning from Brest for New York.
"These gentlemen have been sent out by their fellow-sufferers to examine the lands on which the oil-wells are situated which constitute the only security of the shareholders. Certain people have gone so far as to doubt even the existence of such oil-wells."
And in another place, under the head of local items:—
"The palace of Count Ville-Handry was sold last week. This magnificent building, with the princely real estate belonging to it, was knocked down to the highest bidder for the sum of one hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars. The misfortune is, that house and lot are burdened with mortgages, which amount together to nearly a hundred thousand dollars."
Henrietta was overcome, and had sunk into a chair.
"But that is simply infamous," she stammered out in an almost inaudible tone. "Nobody will believe such atrocious libels."
Pale and deeply grieved, Papa Ravinet and his sister exchanged looks of distress. Evidently the poor girl did not at all realize the terrible nature of the circumstances. And yet, seeing her thus crushed, they did not dare to enlighten her. At last the old dealer, knowing but too well that uncertainty is more agonizing than the most painful reality, said,—
"Your father is fearfully calumniated. But I have tried to inform myself. Two facts are but too certain. Count Ville-Handry is ruined; and the shares of the company of which he is the president have fallen to five dollars, because"—
His voice changed, and he added in a very low tone,—
"Because it is believed that the capital of the company has been appropriated to other purposes, and lost in speculations on 'Change."
The poor old dealer was suffering intensely, and showed it.
"Ah, madam, perfectly as I am convinced of Count Ville-Handry's uprightness and integrity, I also know that he was utterly ignorant of business. What did he understand of these speculations into which he was drawn? Nothing. It is a difficult and often a dangerous thing to manage large capitals. They have no doubt deceived him, cheated him, misled him, and driven him at last to the verge of bankruptcy."
Papa Ravinet trembled on his chair, and, raising his hands to the ceiling, exclaimed,—
"Who? You ask who? Why, those who had an interest in it, the wretches by whom he was surrounded,—Sarah, Sir Thorn"—
Henrietta shook her head and said,—
"I do not think the Countess Sarah looked with a favorable eye upon the formation of this company."
And, when objection was made, she went on,—
"Besides, what interest could she have in ruining my father? Evidently none. To ruin him was to ruin herself, since she was absolute mistress of her fortune, and free to dispose of it as she chose."
Proud of the accuracy of her decision, she was looking triumphantly at the old dealer. The latter saw now that he must strike a decisive blow; and his sister encouraged him by a gesture. He said,—
"Pray, listen to me, madam. So far I have only repeated to you the report on 'Change. I told you: They say the capital of the Pennsylvania Petroleum Company has been swallowed up by unlucky speculations on 'Change. But I do not believe these reports. I am, on the contrary, convinced, I am quite sure even, that these millions were not lost on 'Change, because they never were used for the purpose of speculating."
"Still they have disappeared, none the less; and your father is probably the last man in the world to tell us how and where they have disappeared. But I know it; and, when the question is raised how to recover these enormous sums, I shall cry out, 'Search Sarah Brandon, Countess Ville-Handry; search M. Thomas Elgin and Mrs. Brian; search Maxime de Brevan,' the wretched tool of these wicked women!"
Now at last a terrible light broke upon Henrietta's mind.
"Then," she stammered, "these infamous slanders are only put out to conceal an impudent robbery?"
The young girl's face showed that she was making a great effort to comprehend; and then she said again,—
"And in that case, the articles in the papers"—
"Were written by the wretches who have robbed your father, yes, madam!" And, shaking his fist with a threatening air, he added,—
"Oh! there is no mistaking it. Since when does this journal exist? Since about six months ago. From the day on which it was established, it was the aim and purpose of the founders to publish in it the articles which you haven't read."
Even if she could not well understand by what ingenious combinations such enormous sums could be abstracted, Henrietta was conquered by Papa Ravinet's sincere and earnest conviction.
"Then," she went on, "these wretches who have robbed my father now mean to ruin him!"
"They must do it for their own safety. The money has been stolen, you see; therefore there must be a thief. For the world, for the courts, the guilty one will be Count Ville-Handry."
"For the courts?"
The poor girl's eyes went from the brother to the sister with a terrible expression of bewilderment. At last she asked,—
"And do you believe Sarah will allow my father's name to be thus dishonored,—the name which she bears, and of which she was so proud?"
"She will, perhaps, even insist upon it."
"Great God! What do you mean? Why should she?"
Seeing her brother's hesitation, the old lady took it upon herself to answer. She touched the poor girl's arm, and said in a subdued voice,—
"Because, you see, my poor child, now that Sarah has gotten possession of the fortune she wanted, your father is in her way; because, you see, she wants to be free—do you understand?—free!"
Henrietta uttered a cry of such horror that both the brother and the sister saw at once that she had not misunderstood the horrible meaning of that word "free."
But, since the blow had fallen, the old dealer did not think the rest need be concealed from Henrietta. He got up, therefore, and, leaning against the mantlepiece, he addressed the poor girl, trembling in all her limbs with terror, and looking at him with a fixed and painful gaze, in these words,—
"You must at last learn to know, madam, the execrable woman who has sworn to ruin you. You see, I know, because I have experienced it myself, of what crimes she is capable; and I see clear in the dark night of her infernal intrigues. I know that this woman with the chaste brow, the open smile, and the soft eyes, has the genius and the instinct of a murderess, and has never counted upon any thing else, but murder for the gratification of her lusts."
The attitude of the old man, who raised his head on high while his breast swelled, breathed in every one of his sharp and threatening gestures an intense thirst of vengeance. He no longer measured his words carefully; and they overflowed from his lips as they came boiling up under the pressure of his rage.
"Anthony!" said the old lady more than once,—"Anthony, brother! I beseech you!"
But this friendly voice, ordinarily all-powerful, was not even heard by him now. He went on,—
"And now, madam, must I still explain to you the simple and yet formidable plan by which Sarah Brandon has succeeded in obtaining by one effort the immense fortune of the Ville-Handry family? From the first day, she has seen that you were standing between her and those millions; therefore she attacked you first of all. A brave and honest man, M. Daniel Champcey, loved you; he would have protected you; therefore she got him out of the way. The world might have become interested in you, might have taken your side; she beguiled your father, in his blind passion, to calumniate you, to ruin your reputation, and to expose you to the contempt of the world. Still you might have wished to secure a protector, you might have found one. She placed by your side her wretched tool, her spy, a forger, a criminal whom she knew to be able of doing things from which even an accomplished galley-slave would have shrunk with disgust and horror: I mean Maxime de Brevan."
The very excess, of eruption had restored a part of her energy to Henrietta. She said, therefore,—
"Alas, sir! have I not told you, on, the contrary, that Daniel himself had confided me to the care of M. de Brevan? Have I not told you"—
The old dealer smiled almost contemptuously, and then continued,—
"What does that prove? Nothing but the skill of M. de Brevan in carrying out Sarah Brandon's orders. In order to get the more completely the mastery over you, he began by obtaining the mastery over M. Champcey. How he succeeded in doing this, I do not know. But we shall know it when we want to know it; for we are going to find out every thing. Thus Sarah was, through M. de Brevan, kept informed of all your thoughts, of all your hopes, of every word you wrote to M. Champcey, and of all he said in reply; for you need not doubt he did answer, and they suppressed the letters, just as they, very probably, intercepted all of your letters which you did not yourself carry to the post-office. Still, as long as you were living under your father's roof, Sarah could do nothing against your life. She resolved, therefore, to force you to flee; and those mean persecutions of M. Elgin served their purpose. You thought, and perhaps, they think, that bandit really wanted your hand. Undeceive yourself. Your enemies knew your character too well to hope that you would ever break your word, and become faithless to M. Champcey. But they were bent upon handing you over to M. de Brevan. And thus, poor child! you were handed over to him. Maxime had as little idea of marrying you as Sir Thomas; he was quite prepared, when he dared to approach you with open arms, to be rejected with disgust. But he had received orders to add the horror of his persecutions to the horror of your isolation and your destitution.
"For he was quite sure, the scoundrel! that the secret of your sufferings would be well kept. He had carefully chosen the house in which you were to die of hunger and misery. The two Chevassats were bound to be his devoted accomplices, even unto death. This is what gave him the amazing boldness, the inconceivable brutality, to watch your slow agony; no doubt he became quite impatient at your delaying suicide so long.
"Finally you were driven to it; and your death would have realized their atrocious hopes, if Providence had not miraculously stepped in,—that Providence which always, sooner or later, takes its revenge, whatever the wicked may say to the contrary. Yes, these wretches thought they had now surely gotten rid of you, when I came in. That very morning, the woman Chevassat had told them, no doubt, 'She'll do it to-night!' And that evening, Sarah, Mrs. Brian, and M. Elgin asked, no doubt, full of hope, 'Is it all over?'"
Immovable, and white as marble, her eyes dilated beyond measure, and her lips half-open, poor Henrietta listened. She felt as if a bright ray of the sun had suddenly illumined the darkest depths of the abyss from which she had been barely snatched.
"Yes," she said, "yes; now I see it all."
Then, as the old dealer, out of breath, and his voice hoarse with indignation, paused a moment, she asked,—
"Still there is one circumstance which I cannot understand: Sarah insists upon it that she knew nothing of the forged letter by means of which Daniel was sent abroad. She told me, on the contrary, that she had wished to keep him here, because she loved him, and he loved her."
"Ah! do not believe a word of those infamous stories," broke in Papa Ravinet's sister.
But the old man scratched his head, and said,—
"No, certainly not! We ought not to believe such stories. And yet, I wonder if there is not some new trick in that. Unless, indeed—But no, that would be almost too lucky for us! Unless Sarah should really love M. Champcey!"
And, as if he was afraid of having given rise to hopes which he founded upon this contingency, he added at once,—
"But let us return to facts. When Sarah was sure of you, she turned her attention to your father. While they were murdering you slowly, she abused the inexperience of Count Ville-Handry to lead him into a path at the end of which he could not but leave his honor behind him. Notice, pray, that the articles which you read are dated on the very day on which you would probably have died. That is a clear evidence of her crime. Thinking that she had gotten rid of you, she evidently said to herself, 'And now for the father.'"
Henrietta grew red in her face, as if a jet of fire had blazed up in it. She exclaimed,—
"Great God! The proofs are coming out; the crime will be disclosed. I have no doubt the assassins told each other that Count Ville-Handry would never survive such a foul stain on his honor. And they dared all, sure as they were that that honorable man would carry the secret of their wickedness and of their unheard-of robbery with him to the grave."
Papa Ravinet leisurely wiped the perspiration from his brow. Then he replied in a hoarse voice,—
"Yes, that was probably, that was assuredly, the way Sarah Brandon reasoned within herself."
But Henrietta, full of admirable energy, had roused herself; and, with flushed cheeks and burning eyes, she said to him,—
"What! you knew all this? You knew that they were assassinating my father, and you did not warn him? Ah, that was cruel cautiousness!"
And quick like lightning she dashed forward, and would have rushed out, if the old lady had not promptly stepped in front of the door, saying,—
"Henrietta, poor child! where are you going?"
"To save my father, madam, who, perhaps at this very moment is struggling in the last agonies of death, as I was struggling in like manner only two nights ago."
Quite beside herself, she had clasped the knob of the door in her hands, and tried with all the strength she still possessed to move the old lady out of the way. But Papa Ravinet seized her by the arm, and said to her solemnly,—
"Madam, I swear to you by all you hold sacred, and my sister will swear to you in like manner, that your father's life is in no kind of danger."
She gave up the struggle; but her face bore the expression of the most harassing anxiety. The old man continued,—
"Do you wish to defeat our triumph? Would you like to give warning to our enemies, to put them on their guard, and to deprive us of all hopes of revenge?"
Henrietta almost mechanically passed her hand to and fro across her brow, as if she hoped she could thus restore peace to her mind.
"And mind," continued the old man with a persuasive voice, "mind that such imprudence would save our enemies, but would not save your father. Pray consider and answer me. Do you really think that your arguments would be stronger than Sarah Brandon's? You cannot so far underrate the diabolical cunning of your enemy. Why, she has no doubt taken all possible measures to keep your father's faith in her unshaken, and to let him die as he has lived, completely deceived by her, and murmuring with his last breath words of supreme love for her who kills him."
These arguments were so overwhelming, that Henrietta let go the door- knob, and slowly went back to her seat by the fire. And yet she was far from being reassured.
"If I were to appeal to the police," she suddenly proposed.
The old lady had come and taken a seat by Henrietta's side. She took her hands in her own now, and said, gently,—
"Poor child! Do you not see that the whole power of this abominable creature lies in the fact that she employs means which are not within the reach of human justice. Believe me, my child, it is best for you to rely blindly on my brother."
Once more the old dealer had come up to the mantlepiece. He repeated,—
"Yes, Miss Henrietta, rely on me. I have as much reason to curse Sarah Brandon as you have, and perhaps I hate her more. Rely on me; for my hatred has now been watching and waiting for years, ever anxious to reach her, and to avenge my sufferings. Yes, for long years I have been lying in wait, thirsting for vengeance, lost in darkness, but pursuing her tracks with the unwearied perseverance of the Indian. For the purpose of finding out who she is, and who her accomplices are, whence they came, and how they have met to plot together such fearful crimes,—for that purpose I have walked in the deepest mud, and stirred up heaps of infamy. But I have found out all. And yet in the whole life of Sarah Brandon,—a life of theft and murder,—I have till this moment not found a single fact which would bring her within the reach of the law, so cunning is her wickedness."
His face brightened with an air of triumph; and his voice rose high as he added,—
"But now! This time success seemed to her so sure and so easy, that she has neglected her usual precautions. Eager to enjoy her millions, and, in proportion, weary of playing a comedy of love with your father, she has been too eager. And she is lost if we, on our side, are not also too eager.
"As to your father, madam, I have my reasons for feeling safe about him. According to your mother's marriage contract, and in consequence of a bequest of a million and a half which were left her by one of her uncles, your father's estate is your debtor to the amount of two millions; and that sum is invested in mortgages on his estates in Anjou. That sum he cannot touch, even if he is bankrupt. Should he die before you, that sum remains still yours; but, if you die before him, it goes to him. Now Sarah has sworn, in her insatiate cupidity, that she will have these two millions also."
"Ah," said Henrietta, "you are right! It is Sarah's interest that my father should live; and he will live, therefore, as long as she does not know whether I am dead or alive, in fact, as long as she does not know what has become of me."
"And she must not know that for some time," chimed in the old man.
Then laughing his odd, silent laugh,—
"You ought to see the anxiety of your enemies since you have slipped out of their hands. That woman Chevassat had, last night, come to the conclusion that you were gone, and gone forever; but this morning matters looked very differently. Maxime de Brevan had been there, making a terrible row, and beating her (God forgive him!) because she had relaxed in her watchfulness. The rascal! The fellow has been spending the whole day in running from the police office to the Morgue, and back again. Destitute as you were, and almost without clothes, what could have become of you? I, for my part, did not show; and the Chevassats are far from suspecting that I had any thing to do with the whole affair. Ah! It will soon be our turn, and if you will only accept my suggestions, madam"—
It was past nine o'clock when the old dealer, his sister, and Henrietta sat down to their modest meal. But in the interval a hopeful smile had reappeared on Henrietta's face, and she looked almost happy, when, about midnight, Papa Ravinet left them with the words,—
"To-morrow evening I shall have news. I am going to the navy department."
The next day he reappeared precisely at six o'clock, but in what a condition! He had in his hand a kind of carpet-bag; and his looks and gestures made him look almost insane.
"Money!" he cried out to his sister as he entered. "I am afraid I have not enough; and make haste. I have to be at the Lyons Railway at seven o'clock."
And when his sister and Henrietta, terribly frightened, asked him,—
"What is the matter? What are you going to do?"
"Nothing," he replied joyously, "but that Heaven itself declares in our favor. I went to the department. 'The Conquest' will remain another year in Cochin China; but M. Champcey is coming back to Europe. He was to have taken passage on board a merchant vessel, 'The Saint Louis,' which is expected in Marseilles every day, if she has not already come in. And I—I am going to Marseilles, I must see M. Champcey before anybody else can see him."
When his sister had given him notes to the amount of four hundred dollars, he rushed out, exclaiming,—
"To-morrow I will send you a telegram!"
If there is in our civilized states a profession more arduous than others it is surely that of the sailor. So arduous is it, that we are almost disposed to ask how men can be found bold enough to embrace it, and firm enough in their resolution not to abandon it after having tried it. Not because of the hazards, the fatigues, and the dangers connected with it, but because it creates an existence apart, and because the conditions it imposes seem to be incompatible with free will.
Still no one is more attached to his home than the sailor. There are few among them who are not married. And by a kind of special grace they are apt to enjoy their short happiness as if it were for eternity, indifferent as to what the morning may bring.
But behold! one fine morning, all of a sudden, a big letter comes from the department.
It is an order to sail.
He must go, abandoning every thing and everybody,—mother, family, and friends, the wife he has married the day before, the young mother who sits smiling by the cradle of her first-born, the betrothed who was looking joyfully at her bridal veil. He must go, and stifle all those ominous voices which rise from the depth of his heart, and say to him, "Will you ever return? and, if you return, will you find them all, your dear ones? and, if you find them, will they not have changed? will they have preserved your memory as faithfully as you have preserved theirs?"
To be happy, and to be compelled to open to mishap this fatal door, absence! Hence it is only in comic operas, and inferior novels, that the sailors are seen to sing their most cheerful songs at the moment when a vessel is about to sail on a long and perilous voyage. The moment is, in reality, always a sad one, very grave and solemn.
Such could not fail to be the scene also, when "The Conquest" sailed,—the ship on board of which Daniel Champcey had been ordered as lieutenant. And certainly there had been good reasons for ordering him to make haste and get down to the port where she lay; for the very next day after his arrival, she hoisted anchor. She had been waiting for him only.
Having reached Rochefort at five o'clock in the morning, he slept the same night on board; and the next day "The Conquest" sailed. Daniel suffered more than any other man on board, although he succeeded in affecting a certain air of indifference. The thought of Henrietta being left in the hands of adventurers who were capable of any thing was a thorn in his side, which caused him great and constant pain. As he gradually calmed down, and peace returned to his mind, a thousand doubts assailed him concerning Maxime de Brevan: would he not be exposed to terrible temptation when he found himself thrown daily into the company of a great heiress? Might he not come to covet her millions, and try to abuse her peculiar situation in order to secure them to himself?
Daniel believed too firmly in his betrothed to apprehend that she would even listen to Brevan. But he reasoned, very justly, that his darling would be in a desperate condition indeed, if M. de Brevan, furious at being refused, should betray his confidence, and go over to the enemy, to the Countess Sarah.
"And I," he thought, "who in my last directions urged her to trust implicitly in Maxime, and to follow his advice as if it were my own!"
In the midst of these terrible anxieties, he hardly recollected that he had intrusted to Maxime every thing that he possessed. What was his money to him in comparison!
Thus it appeared to him a genuine favor of Providence when "The Conquest," six days out at sea, experienced a violent storm, which endangered her safety for nearly seventy-two hours. His thoughts disappeared while he felt his grave responsibility, as long as the sea tossed the vessel to and fro like a mere cork, and while the crew fought with the elements till they were overcome by fatigue. He had actually a good night's rest, which he had not enjoyed since he left Paris.
When he awoke, he was surprised to feel a certain peace of mind. Henceforth his fate was no longer in his own hands; he had been shown very clearly his inability to control events. Sad resignation succeeded to his terrible anxiety.
A single hope now kept him alive,—the hope of soon receiving a letter from Henrietta, or, it might be, of finding one upon arriving at his destination; for it was by no means impossible for "The Conquest" to be outstripped by some vessel that might have left port three weeks later. "The Conquest," an old wooden frigate, and a sailing vessel, justified her bad reputation of being the worst sailor in the whole fleet. Moreover, alternate calms and sudden blows kept her much longer than usually on the way. The oldest sailors said they had never seen a more tedious voyage.
To add to the discomfort, "The Conquest" was so crammed full with passengers, that sailors and officers had hardly half of the space usually allotted to them on board ship. Besides the crew, there were on board a half battalion of marines, and a hundred and sixty mechanics of various trades, whom government sent out for the use of the colony. Some of these artisans had their families with them, having determined to become settlers in Cochin China; others, generally quite young yet, only made the voyage in order to have an opportunity for seeing foreign lands, and for earning, perhaps, a little money. They were occasionally called upon to assist in handling the ship, and were, on the whole, good men, with the exception of four or five, who were so unruly that they had to be put in irons more than once.
The days passed, nevertheless; and "The Conquest" had been out three months, when one afternoon, as Daniel was superintending a difficult manoeuvre, he was suddenly seen to stagger, raise his arms on high, and fall backwards on the deck.
They ran up to him, and raised him up; but he gave no sign of life; and the blood poured forth from his mouth and nose in streams. Daniel had won the hearts of the crew by his even temper, his strict attention to duty, and his kindness, when off duty, to all who came in contact with him. Hence, when the accident became known, in an instant sailors and officers came hurrying up from one end of the frigate to the other, and even from the lowest deck, to see what had happened to him.
What had happened? No one could tell; for no one had seen any thing. Still it must be a very grave matter, to judge from the large pool of blood which dyed the deck at the place where the young man had fallen down so suddenly. They had carried him to the infirmary; and, as soon as he recovered his senses, the surgeons discovered the cause of his fall and his fainting.
He had an enormous contused wound on the back of his head, a little behind the left ear,—a wound such as a heavy hammer in the hands of a powerful man might have produced. Whence came this terrible blow, which apparently a miracle alone had prevented from crushing the skull? No one could explain this, neither the surgeons, nor the officers who stood around the bed of the wounded man. When Daniel could be questioned, he knew no more about it than the others. There had been no one standing near him; nor had he seen anybody come near him at the time of the accident; the blow, moreover, had been so violent, that he had fallen down unconscious. All these details soon became current among the sailors and passengers who had crowded on deck. They were received with incredulous smiles, and, when they could no longer be held in doubt, with bursts of indignation.
What! Lieut. Champcey had been struck in broad daylight, in the midst of the crew! How? By whom?
The whole matter was so wrapped up in mystery, that it became all important to clear it up; and the sailors themselves opened at once a kind of court of inquest. Some hairs, and a clot of blood, which were discovered on an enormous block, seemed to explain the riddle. It would seem that the rope to which this enormous block was fastened had slipped out of the hands of one of the sailors who were engaged in the rigging, carrying out the manoeuvre superintended by Daniel.
Frightened by the consequences of his awkwardness, but, nevertheless preserving his presence of mind, this man had, no doubt, drawn up the block so promptly, that he had not been noticed. Could it be hoped that he would accuse himself? Evidently not. Besides, what would be the use of it? The wounded man was the first to request that the inquiries might be stopped.
When, at the end of a fortnight, Champcey returned to duty, they ceased talking of the accident; unfortunately, such things happen but too frequently on board ship. Besides, the idea that "The Conquest" was drawing near her destination filled all minds, and sufficed for all conversations.
And really, one fine evening, as the sun was setting, land was seen, and the next morning, at daybreak, the frigate sailed into the Dong-Nai, the king of Cochin Chinese rivers, which is so wide and so deep, that vessels of the largest tonnage can ascend it without difficulty till they reach Saigon.
Standing on deck, Daniel watched the monotonous scenes which they passed,—a landscape strange in form, and exhaling mortal fevers from the soil, and the black yielding slime.
After a voyage of several months, he derived a melancholy pleasure from seeing the banks of the river overshadowed by mango trees and mangroves, with their supple, snakelike roots wandering far off under water; while on shore a soft, pleasant vegetation presented to the eye the whole range of shades in green, from the bluish, sickly green of the idrys to the dark, metallic green of the stenia. Farther inland, tall grapes, lianes, aloes, and cactus formed impenetrable thickets, out of which rose, like fluted columns, gigantic cocoa-palms, and the most graceful trees on earth, areca-palms. Through clearings here and there, one could follow, as far as the eye reached, the course of low, fever-breeding marshes, an immense mud-plain covered with a carpet of undulating verdure, which opened and closed again under the breeze, like the sea itself.
"Ah! That is Saigon, is it?" said to Daniel a voice full of delight.
He turned round. It was his best friend on board, a lieutenant like himself, who had come to his side, and, offering him a telescope, said with a great sigh of satisfaction,—
"Look! there, do you see? At last we are here. In two hours, Champcey, we shall be at anchor."
In the distance one could, in fact, make out upon the deep blue of the sky the profile of the curved roof of the pagodas in Saigon. It took a long hour yet, before, at a turn in the river, the town itself appeared, miserable looking,—with all deference to our geographies, be it said,—in spite of the immense labor of the French colony.
Saigon consists mainly of one wide street running parallel with the right bank of the Dong-Nai, a primitive, unpaved street cut up into ruts, broken in upon by large empty spaces, and lined with wooden houses covered with rice-straw or palm-leaves.
Thousands of boats crowd against the banks of the river along this street, and form a kind of floating suburb, overflowing with a strange medley of Annamites, Hindoos, and Chinamen. At a little distance from the river, there appear a few massive buildings with roofs of red tiles, pleasing to the eye, and here and there an Annamite farm, which seems to hide behind groups of areca-palms. Finally, on an eminence, rise the citadel, the arsenal, the house of the French commander, and the former dwelling of the Spanish colonel.
But every town is beautiful, where we land after a voyage of several months. Hence, as soon as "The Conquest" was safely at anchor, all the officers, except the midshipman on duty, went on shore, and hastened to the government house to ask if letters from France had arrived there before them. Their hopes were not deceived. Two three-masters, one French, the other English, which had sailed a month later than "The Conquest," had arrived there at the beginning of the week, bringing despatches.
There were two letters for Daniel, and with feverish hands and beating heart he took them from the hand of the old clerk. But at the first glance at the addresses he turned pale. He did not see Henrietta's handwriting. Still he tore open the envelopes, and glanced at the signatures. One of the letters was signed, "Maxime de Brevan;" the other, "Countess Ville-Handry," nee Sarah Brandon.
Daniel commenced with the latter. After informing him of her marriage, Sarah described at great length Henrietta's conduct on the wedding-day.
"Any other but myself," she said, "would have been incensed at this atrocious insult, and would abuse her position to be avenged. But I, who never yet forgave anybody, I will forgive her, Daniel, for your sake, and because I cannot see any one suffer who has loved you."
A postscript she had added ran thus,—
"Ah! why did you not prevent my marriage, when you could do so by a word? They think I have reached the summit of my wishes. I have never been more wretched."
This letter made Daniel utter an exclamation of rage. He saw nothing in it but bitter irony.
"This miserable woman," he thought, "laughs at me; and, when she says she does not blame Henrietta, that means that she hates her, and will persecute her."
Maxime's letter fortunately reassured him a little. Maxime confirmed Sarah's account, adding, moreover, that Miss Henrietta was very sad, but calm and resigned; and that her step-mother treated her with the greatest kindness. The surprising part was, that Brevan did not say a word of the large amounts that had been intrusted to his care, nor of his method of selling the lands, nor of the price which he had obtained.
But Daniel did not notice this; all his thoughts were with Henrietta.
"Why should she not have written," he thought, "when all the others found means to write?"
Overwhelmed with disappointment, he had sat down on a wooden bench in the embrasure of one of the windows in the hall where the letters were distributed. Travelling across the vast distance which separated him from France, his thoughts were under the trees in the garden of the count's palace. He felt as if a powerful effort of his will would enable him to transport himself thither. By the pale light of the moon he thought he could discern the dress of his beloved as she stole towards him between the old trees.
A friendly touch on the shoulder recalled him rudely to the real world. Four or five officers from "The Conquest" were standing around him, gay, and free from cares, a hearty laugh on their lips.
"Well, my dear Champcey," they said, "are you coming?"
"Why, to dinner!"
And as he looked at them with the air of a man who had just been roused, and has not had time to collect his thoughts, they went on,—
"Well, to dinner. It appears Saigon possesses an admirable French restaurant, where the cook, a Parisian, is simply a great artist. Come, get up, and let us go."
But Daniel was in a humor which made solitude irresistibly attractive. He trembled at the idea of being torn from his melancholy reveries, of being compelled to take his part in conversation, to talk, to listen, to reply.
"I cannot dine with you to-day, my friends," he said to his comrades.
"You are joking."
"No, I am not. I must return on board." Then only, the others were struck by the sad expression of his face; and, changing their tone, they asked him in the most affectionate manner,—
"What is the matter, Champcey? Have you heard of any misfortune, any death?"
"You have had letters from France, I see."
"They bring me nothing sad. I was expecting news, and they have not come; that is all."
"Oh! then you must come with us."
"Do not force me; I would be a sorry companion."
Still they insisted, as friends will insist who will not understand that others may not be equally tempted by what charms them; but nothing could induce Daniel to change his mind. At the door of the government house he parted with his comrades, and went back, sad and solitary, towards the harbor.
He reached without difficulty the banks of the Dong-Nai; but here obstacles presented themselves of which he had not thought. The night was so dark, that he could hardly see to find his way along a wharf in process of construction, and covered with enormous stones and timber. Not a light in all the native huts around. In spite of his efforts to pierce this darkness, he could discern nothing but the dark outline of the vessels lying at anchor in the river, and the light of the lighthouse as it trembled in the current.
He called. No voice replied. The silence, which was as deep as the darkness, was broken only by the low wash of the river as it flowed down rapidly.
"I am quite capable," thought Daniel, "of not finding the boat of 'The Conquest.'"
Still he did find it, after long search, drawn up, and half lost, in a crowd of native boats. But the boat seemed to be empty. It was only when he got into it, that he discovered a little midshipman fast asleep in the bottom, wrapped up in a carpet which was used to cover the seats for the officers. Daniel shook him. He rose slowly, and grumbling, as if overcome by sleep.
"Well, what is the matter?" he growled.
"Where are the men?" asked Daniel.
Quite awake now, the midshipman, who had good eyes, had noticed, in spite of the darkness, the gold of the epaulets. This made him very respectful at once; and he replied,—
"Lieutenant, all the men are in town."
"How so? All?"
"Why, yes, lieutenant! When all the officers had gone on shore, they told the boatswain they would not come back very soon, and he might take his time to eat a mouthful, and to drink a glass, provided the men did not get drunk."
That was so; and Daniel had forgotten the fact.
"And where did they go?" he asked.
"I don't know, lieutenant."
Daniel looked at the large, heavy boat, as if he had thought for a moment to return in it to "The Conquest" with no other help but the little midshipman; but, no, that was impracticable.
"Well, go to sleep again," he said to the boy.
And jumping on shore, without uttering a word of disappointment, he was going in search of his comrades, when he saw suddenly a man turn up out of the darkness, whose features it was impossible to distinguish.
"Who is there?" he asked.
"Mr. Officer," answered the man in an almost unintelligible jargon, a horrible medley of French, Spanish, and English. "I heard you tell the little man in the boat there"—
"I thought you wanted to get back on board your ship?"
"Well, then, if you like it, I am a boatman; I can take you over."
There was no reason why Daniel should mistrust the man. In all ports of the world, and at any hour of the day or the night, men are to be found who are lying in wait on the wharves for sailors who have been belated, and who are made to pay dear for such extra services.
"Ah! you are a boatman, you say?" Daniel exclaimed, quite pleased at the encounter. "Well, where is your boat?"
"There, Mr. Officer, a little way down; just follow me. But what ship do you want to go to?"
"That ship there."
And Daniel pointed out to him "The Conquest" as she lay not six hundred yards off in the river, showing her lights.
"That is rather far," grumbled the man; "the tide is low; and the current is very strong."
"I'll give you a couple of francs for your trouble."
The man clapped his hands with delight, and said,—
"Ah! if that's the way, all right. Come along, Mr. Officer, a little farther down. There, that's my boat. Get in, now steady!"
Daniel followed his directions; but he was so much struck by the man's awkwardness in getting the boat off, that he could not help saying to him,—
"Ah, my boy, you are not a boatman, after all!"
"I beg pardon, sir; I used to be one before I came to this country."
"What is your country?"
"Nevertheless, you will have to learn a great deal before you will ever be a sailor."
Still, as the boat was very small, a mere nutshell, in fact, Daniel thought he could, if needs be, take an oar himself. Thereupon, sitting down, and stretching out his legs, he was soon once more plunged in meditations. The unfortunate man was soon roused, however, by a terrible sensation.
Thanks to a shock, a wrong movement, or any other accident, the boat upset, and Daniel was thrown into the river; and, to fill the measure of his mishaps, one of his feet was so closely jammed in between the seat and the boat itself, that he was paralyzed in his movements, and soon under water.
He saw it all in an instant; and his first thought was,—
"I am lost!"
But, desperate as his position was, he was not the man to give up. Gathering, by one supreme effort, all his strength and energy, he took hold of the boat, that had turned over just above him, and pushed it so forcibly, that he loosened his foot, and at the same moment reached the surface. It was high time; for Daniel had swallowed much water.
"Now," he thought, "I have a chance to escape!"
A very frail chance, alas!—so small a chance, in fact, that it required all the strong will and the invincible courage of Daniel to give it any effect. A furious current carried him down like a straw; the little boat, which might have supported him, had disappeared; and he knew nothing about this formidable Dong-Nai, except that it went on widening to its mouth. There was nothing to guide him; for the night was so dark, that land and water, the river and its banks, all melted together in the uniform, bottomless darkness.
What had become of the boatman, however? At all events, he called,—
"Ahoy, my man!"
No answer. Had he been swept off? Or did he get back into the boat? Perhaps he was drowned already.
But all of a sudden Daniel's heart trembled with joy and hope. He had just made out, a few hundred yards below, a red light, indicating a vessel at anchor. All his efforts were directed towards that point. He was carried thither with an almost bewildering rapidity. He nearly touched it; and then, with incredible presence of mind, and great precision, at the moment when the current drove him close up to the anchor-chain, he seized it. He held on to it; and, having recovered his breath, he uttered three times in succession, with all the strength of his lungs, so sharp a cry, that it was heard above the fierce roar of the river,—
"Help, help, help!"
From the ship came a call, "Hold on!" proving to him that his appeal had been heard, and that help was at hand.
Too late! An eddy in the terrible current seized him, and, with irresistible violence, tore the chain, slippery with mud, out of his stiffened hands. Rolled over by the waters, he was rudely thrown against the side of the vessel, went under, and was carried off.
When he rose to the surface, the red light was far above him, and below no other light was in sight. No human help was henceforth within reach. Daniel could now count only upon himself in trying to make one of the banks. Although he could not measure the distance, which might be very great, the task did not seem to him beyond his strength, if he had only been naked. But his clothes encumbered him terribly; and the water which they soaked up made them, of course, every moment more oppressive.
"I shall be drowned, most assuredly," he thought, "if I cannot get rid of my clothes."
Excellent swimmer as he was, the task was no easy one. Still he accomplished it. After prodigious efforts of strength and skill, he got rid of his shoes; and then he cried out, as if in defiance of the blind element against which he was struggling,—
"I shall pull through! I shall see Henrietta again!"
But it had cost him an enormous amount of time to undress; and how could he calculate the distance which this current had taken him down—one of the swiftest in the world? As he tried to recall all he knew about it, he remembered having noticed that, a mile below Saigon, the river was as wide as a branch of the sea. According to his calculation, he must be near that spot now.
"Never mind," he said to himself, "I mean to get out of this."
Not knowing to which bank he was nearest, he had resolved, almost instinctively, to swim towards the right bank, on which Saigon stands.
He was thus swimming for about half an hour, and began already to feel his muscles stiffening, and his joints losing their elasticity, while his breathing became oppressed, and his extremities were chilled, when he noticed from the wash of the water that he was near the shore. Soon he felt the ground under his feet; but, the moment he touched it, he sank up to his waist into the viscous and tenacious slime, which makes all the Cochin China rivers so peculiarly dangerous.
There was the land, no doubt, and only the darkness prevented his seeing it; and yet his situation was more desperate than ever. His legs were caught as in a vice; the muddy water was boiling nearly up to his lips; and, at every effort to extricate himself, he sank deeper in, a little at a time, but always a little more. His presence of mind now began to leave him, as well as his strength; and his thoughts became confused, when he touched, instinctively feeling for a hold, the root of a mangrove.
That root might be the saving of his life. First he tried its strength; then, finding it sufficiently solid, he hoisted himself up by it, gently, but with the frenzied energy of a drowning man; then, creeping cautiously on the treacherous mud, he finally succeeded in reaching firm ground, and fell down exhausted.
He was saved from drowning; but what was to become of him, naked, exhausted, chilled as he was, and lost in this dark night in a strange and deserted country? After a moment, however, he rose, and tried to get on; but at every step he was held back on all sides by lianes and cactus thorns.
"Well," he said, "I must stay here till day breaks."
The rest of the night he spent in walking up and down, and beating his chest, in order to keep out the terrible chills which penetrated to the very marrow of his bones. The first light of dawn showed him how he was imprisoned within an apparently impenetrable thicket, out of which, it seemed, he could never find his way. He did find it, however, and after a walk of four hours, he reached Saigon.
Some sailors of a merchant-ship, whom he met, lent him a few clothes, and carried him on board "The Conquest," where he arrived more dead than alive.
"Where do you come from, great God! in such a state?" exclaimed his comrades when they saw him.
"What has happened to you?"
And, when he had told them all he had gone through since they parted, they said,—
"Certainly, my dear Champcey, you are a lucky fellow. This is the second accident from which you escape as by a miracle. Mind the third!"
"Mind the third!" that was exactly what Daniel thought.
For, in the midst of all the frightful sufferings he had undergone during the past night, he had reflected deeply. That block which had fallen on his head, no one knew whence; this boat sinking suddenly, and without apparent cause—were they the work of chance alone?
The awkwardness of the boatman who had so unexpectedly turned up to offer him his services had filled his mind with strange doubts. This man, a wretched sailor, might be a first-class swimmer; and, having taken all his measures before upsetting the boat, he might easily have reached land after the accident.
"This boatman," Daniel thought, "evidently wanted me to perish. Why, and what purpose? Evidently not for his sake. But who is interested in my death? Sarah Brandon? No, that cannot be!"
What was still less likely was, that a wretch in Sarah Brandon's pay should have found his way on board "The Conquest," and should then have been precisely at the right moment at the wharf, the first time Daniel went on shore. Still his suspicions troubled him to such a degree, that he determined to make every effort to solve the mystery.
To begin, he asked for a list of all the men who had been allowed to go on shore the night before. He learned in reply, that only the crews of the different boats had been at Saigon, but that all the emigrants having been allowed to land, several of these men had also gone on shore. With this information, and in spite of his great weakness, Daniel went to the chief of police at Saigon, and asked him for an officer. With this agent he went to the wharf, to the spot where the boat of "The Conquest" had been lying the night before, and asked him to make inquiries there as to any boatman that might have disappeared during the night.
None of the boatmen was missing; but they brought Daniel a poor Annamite fellow, who had been wandering about the river-bank ever since early morning, tearing his hair, and crying that he had been robbed; that they had stolen his boat. Daniel had been unable the night before to distinguish the form or the dress of the man whose services he had accepted; but he had heard his voice, and he recalled the peculiar intonation so perfectly, that he would have recognized it among thousands. Besides, this poor devil did not know a word of French (more than ten persons bore witness to it); and born on the river, and having always lived there, he was an excellent sailor. Finally, it was very clear, that, if this man had committed the crime, he would have been careful not to claim his boat.
What could Daniel conclude from this summary inquiry?
"There is no doubt about it," he thought. "I was to be murdered."
There is no man, however brave he may think himself, who would not tremble at the idea that he has, just by a miracle, escaped from the assassin's hand. There is not one who would not feel his blood grow chill in his veins at the thought that those who have failed in their attempt once will no doubt renew their efforts, and that perhaps the miracle may not be repeated.
That was Daniel's position.
He felt henceforth this terrible certainty, that war had been declared against him, a savage warfare, merciless, pitiless, a war of treachery and cunning, of snare and ambush. It had been proved to him that at his side, so to say, as his very shadow, there was ever a terrible enemy, stimulated by the thirst of gain, watching all his steps, ever awake and on the watch, and ready to seize the first opportunity to strike. The infernal cunning of the first two attempts enabled Daniel to measure the superior wickedness of the man who had been chosen and enlisted—at least Daniel thought so—by Sarah Brandon.
Still he did not say a word of the danger to which he was exposed, and even assumed, as soon as he had recovered from the first shock, a certain cheerfulness which he had not shown during the whole voyage, and under which he concealed his apprehensions.
"I do not want my enemy," he said to himself, "to suspect my suspicions."
But from that moment his suspicions never fell asleep; and every step he took was guided by most careful circumspection. He never put one foot before the other, so to say, without first having examined the ground; he never seized a man-rope without having first tried its solidity; he had made it a law to eat and drink nothing, not even a glass of water, but what came from the officers' table.
These perpetual precautions, these ceaseless apprehensions, were extremely repugnant to his daring temper; but he felt, that, under such circumstances, careless would be no longer courage, but simple folly. He had engaged in a duel in which he wanted to be victorious; hence he must at least defend himself against the attack. He felt, moreover, that he was the only protector his beloved had now; and that, if he died, she would certainly be lost. But he also thought not only of defending himself, but of getting at the assassin, and, through him, at the infamous creature by whom he was employed, Sarah Brandon.
He therefore pursued his search quietly, slowly, but indefatigably. Certain circumstances which he had at first forgotten, and a few points skilfully put together, gave him some hope. He had, for instance, ascertained that none but the crews of the boats had been on shore, and that, of these, not one had been for ten minutes out of sight of the others. Hence the pretended boatman was not a sailor on board "The Conquest." Nor could it have been one of the marines, as none of them had been allowed to leave the vessel. There remained the emigrants, fifty or sixty of whom had spent the night in Saigon.