"Speak, monsieur," interrupted Marguerite. "I will answer your questions frankly, or else not answer them at all."
"To resume, then," said he, "I am told that M. de Chalusse has no relatives, near or remote. Is this the truth?"
"So far as I know—yes, monsieur. Still, I have heard it said that a sister of his, Mademoiselle Hermine de Chalusse, abandoned her home twenty-five or thirty years ago, when she was about my age, and that she has never received her share of the enormous fortune left by her parents."
"And has this sister never given any sign of life?"
"Never! Still, monsieur, I have promised you to be perfectly frank. That letter which the Count de Chalusse received yesterday, that letter which I regard as the cause of his death—well, I have a presentiment that it came from his sister. It could only have been written by her or—by that other person whose letters—and souvenirs—you found in the escritoire."
"And—this other person—who can she be?" As the young girl made no reply, the magistrate did not insist, but continued: "And you, my child, who are you?"
She made a gesture of sorrowful resignation, and then, in a voice faltering with emotion, she answered: "I do not know, monsieur. Perhaps I am the count's daughter. I should be telling an untruth if I said that was not my belief. Yes, I believe it, but I have never been certain of it. Sometimes I have believed, sometimes I have doubted it. On certain days I have said to myself, 'Yes, it must be so!' and I have longed to throw my arms around his neck. But at other times I have exclaimed: 'No, it isn't possible!' and I have almost hated him. Besides, he never said a word on the subject—never a decisive word, at least. When I saw him for the first time, six years ago, I judged by the manner in which he forbade me to call him 'father,' that he would never answer any question I might ask on the subject."
If there was a man in the world inaccessible to idle curiosity, it was certainly this magistrate, whose profession condemned him to listen every day to family grievances, neighborly quarrels, complaints, accusations, and slander. And yet as he listened to Mademoiselle Marguerite, he experienced that strange disquietude which seizes hold of a person when a puzzling problem is presented. "Allow me to believe that many decisive proofs may have escaped your notice on account of your inexperience," he said.
But interrupting him with a gesture, she sadly remarked: "You are mistaken; I am not inexperienced."
He could not help smiling at what he considered her self-conceit. "Poor child!" said he; "how old are you? Eighteen?"
She shook her head. "Yes, by my certificate of birth I am only eighteen; but by the sufferings I have endured I am, perhaps, older than you are, monsieur, despite your white hair. Those who have lived such a life as I have, are never young; they are old in suffering, even in their childhood. And if by experience you mean lack of confidence, a knowledge of good and evil, distrust of everything and everybody, mine, young girl though I be, will no doubt equal yours." She paused, hesitated for a moment, and then continued: "But why should I wait for you to question me? It is neither sincere nor dignified on my part to do so. The person who claims counsel owes absolute frankness to his adviser. I will speak to you as if I were communing with my own soul. I will tell you what no person has ever known—no one, not even Pascal. And believe me, my past life was full of bitter misery, although you find me here in this splendid house. But I have nothing to conceal; and if I have cause to blush, it is for others, not for myself."
Perhaps she was impelled by an irresistible desire to relieve her overburdened heart, after long years of self-restraint; perhaps she no longer felt sure of herself, and desired some other advice than the dictates of her conscience, in presence of the calamity which had befallen her. At all events, too much engrossed in her own thoughts to heed the magistrate's surprise, or hear the words he faltered, she rose from her seat, and, with her hands pressed tightly on her throbbing brow, she began to tell the story of her life.
"My first recollections," she said, "are of a narrow, cheerless courtyard, surrounded by grim and massive walls, so high that I could scarcely see the top of them. At noontime in summer the sun visited one little corner, where there was a stone bench; but in winter it never showed itself at all. There were five or six small, scrubby trees, with moss-grown trunks and feeble branches, which put forth a few yellow leaves at springtime. We were some thirty children who assembled in this courtyard—children from five to eight years old, all clad alike in brown dresses, with a little blue handkerchief tied about our shoulders. We all wore blue caps on week-days, and white ones on Sundays, with woollen stockings, thick shoes, and a black ribbon, with a large metal cross dangling from our necks. Among us moved the good sisters, silent and sad, with their hands crossed in their large sleeves, their faces as white as their snowy caps, and their long strings of beads, set off with numerous copper medals, clanking when they walked like prisoners' chains. As a rule, each face wore the same expression of resignation, unvarying gentleness, and inexhaustible patience. But there were some who wore it only as one wears a mask—some whose eyes gleamed at times with passion, and who vented their cold, bitter anger upon us defenceless children. However, there was one sister, still young and very fair, whose manner was so gentle and so sad that even I, with my mere infantile intelligence, felt that she must have some terrible sorrow. During play-time she often took me on her knee and embraced me with convulsive tenderness, murmuring: 'Dear little one! darling little one!' Sometimes her endearments were irksome to me, but I never allowed her to see it, for fear of making her still more sad; and in my heart I was content and proud to suffer for and with her. Poor sister! I owe her the only happy hours of my infancy. She was called Sister Calliste. I do not know what has become of her, but often, when my heart fails me, I think of her, and even now I cannot mention her name without tears."
Mademoiselle Marguerite was indeed weeping—big tears which she made no attempt to conceal were coursing down her cheeks. It cost her a great effort to continue: "You have already understood, monsieur, what I myself did not know for several years. I was in a foundling asylum, and I was a foundling myself. I cannot say that we lacked anything; and I should be ungrateful if I did not say and feel that these good sisters were charity personified. But, alas! their hearts had only a certain amount of tenderness to distribute between thirty poor little girls, and so each child's portion was small; the caresses were the same for all, and I longed to be loved differently, to have kind words and caresses for myself alone. We slept in little white beds with snowy curtains, in a clean, well-ventilated dormitory, in the centre of which stood a statue of the Virgin, who seemed to smile on us all alike. In winter we had a fire. Our clothes were warm and neat; our food was excellent. We were taught to read and write, to sew and embroider. There was a recreation hour between all the exercises. Those who were studious and good were rewarded; and twice a week we were taken into the country for a long walk. It was during one of these excursions that I learned from the talk of the passers-by, what we were, and what we were called. Sometimes, in the afternoon, we were visited by elegantly-attired ladies, who were accompanied by their own children, radiant with health and happiness. The good sisters told us that these were 'pious ladies,' or 'charitable ladies,' whom we must love and respect, and whom we must never forget to mention in our prayers. They always brought us toys and cakes. Sometimes the establishment was visited by priests and grave old gentlemen, whose sternness of manner alarmed us. They peered into every nook and corner, asked questions about everything, assured themselves that everything was in its place, and some of them even tasted our soup. They were always satisfied; and the lady superior led them through the building, and bowed to them, exclaiming: 'We love them so much, the poor little dears! 'And the gentlemen replied: 'Yes, yes, my dear sister, they are very fortunate.' And the gentlemen were right. Poor laborers' children are often obliged to endure privations which we knew nothing of; they are often obliged to make their supper off a piece of dry bread—but, then, the crust is given them by their mother, with a kiss."
The magistrate, who was extremely ill at ease, had not yet succeeded in finding a syllable to offer in reply. Indeed, Mademoiselle Marguerite had not given him an opportunity to speak, so rapidly had this long-repressed flood of recollections poured from her lips. When she spoke the word "mother," the magistrate fancied she would show some sign of emotion.
But he was mistaken. On the contrary, her voice became harsher, and a flash of anger, as it were, darted from her eyes.
"I suffered exceedingly in that asylum," she resumed. "Sister Calliste left the establishment, and all the surroundings chilled and repelled me. My only few hours of happiness were on Sundays, when we attended church. As the great organ pealed, and as I watched the priests officiating at the altar in their gorgeous vestments, I forgot my own sorrows. It seemed to me that I was ascending on the clouds of incense to the celestial sphere which the sisters so often talked to us about, and where they said each little girl would find her mother."
Mademoiselle Marguerite hesitated for an instant, as if she were somewhat unwilling to give utterance to her thoughts; but at last, forcing herself to continue, she said: "Yes, I suffered exceedingly in that foundling asylum. Almost all my little companions were spiteful, unattractive in person, sallow, thin, and afflicted with all kinds of diseases, as if they were not unfortunate enough in being abandoned by their parents. And—to my shame, monsieur, I must confess it—these unfortunate little beings inspired me with unconquerable repugnance, with disgust bordering on aversion. I would rather have pressed my lips to a red-hot iron than to the forehead of one of these children. I did not reason on the subject, alas! I was only eight or nine years old; but I felt this antipathy in every fibre of my being. The others knew it too; and, in revenge, they ironically styled me 'the lady,' and left me severely alone. But sometimes, during playtime, when the good sisters' backs were turned, the children attacked me, beat me, and scratched my face and tore my clothes. I endured these onslaughts uncomplainingly, for I was conscious that I deserved them. But how many reprimands my torn clothes cost me! How many times I received only a dry crust for my supper, after being soundly scolded and called 'little careless.' But as I was quiet, studious, and industrious, a quicker learner than the majority of my companions, the sisters were fond of me. They said that I was a promising girl, and that they would have no difficulty in finding me a nice home with some of the rich and pious ladies who have a share in managing institutions of this kind. The only fault the sisters found with me was that I was sullen. But such was not really the case; I was only sad and resigned. Everything around me so depressed and saddened me that I withdrew into myself, and buried all my thoughts and aspirations deep in my heart. If I had naturally been a bad child, I scarcely know what would have been the result of this. I have often asked myself the question in all sincerity, but I have been unable to reply, for one cannot be an impartial judge respecting one's self. However, this much is certain, although childhood generally leaves a train of pleasant recollections in a young girl's life, mine was only fraught with torture and misery, desperate struggles, and humiliation. I was unwilling to be confirmed because I did not wish to wear a certain dress, which a 'benevolent lady' had presented for the use of the asylum, and which had belonged to a little girl of my own age who had died of consumption. The thought of arraying myself in this dress to approach the holy table frightened and revolted me as much as if I had been sentenced to drape myself in a winding-sheet. And yet it was the prettiest dress of all—white muslin beautifully embroidered. It had been ardently coveted by the other children, and had been given to me as a sort of reward of merit. And I dared not explain the cause of my unconquerable repugnance. Who would have understood me? I should only have been accused of undue sensitiveness and pride, absurd in one of my humble position. I was then only twelve years old; but no one knew the struggle in my mind save the old priest, my confessor. I could confess everything to him; he understood me, and did not reproach me. Still he answered: 'You must wear this dress, my child, for your pride must be broken. Go—I shall impose no other penance on you.' I obeyed him, full of superstitious terror; for it seemed to me that this was a frightful omen which would bring me misfortune, my whole life through. And I was confirmed in the dead girl's embroidered dress."
During the five-and-twenty years that he had held the position of justice of the peace, the magistrate had listened to many confessions, wrung from wretched souls by stern necessity, or sorrow, but never had his heart been moved as it now was, by this narrative, told with such uncomplaining anguish, and in a tone of such sincerity. However she resumed her story. "The confirmation over, our life became as gloomily monotonous as before; we read the same pious books and did the same work at the same hours as formerly. It seemed to me that I was stifling in this atmosphere. I gasped for breath, and thought that anything would be preferable to this semblance of existence, which was not real life. I was thinking of applying for the 'good situation,' which had so often been mentioned to me, when one morning I was summoned into the steward's office—a mysterious and frightful place to us children. He himself was a stout, dirty man, wearing large blue spectacles and a black silk skullcap; and from morning until night, summer and winter, he sat writing at a desk behind a little grating, hung with green curtains. Round the room were ranged the registers, in which our names were recorded and our appearances described, together with the boxes containing the articles found upon us, which were carefully preserved to assist in identifying us should occasion arise. I entered this office with a throbbing heart. In addition to the stout gentleman and the Lady Superior, I found there a thin, wiry man, with cunning eyes, and a portly woman, with a coarse but rather good-natured face. The superior at once informed me that I was in the presence of M. and Madame Greloux, bookbinders, who had come to the asylum in search of two apprentices, and she asked me if I should like to be one of them. Ah! monsieur, it seemed to me that heaven had opened before me and I boldly replied: 'Yes.' The gentleman in the black skullcap immediately emerged from his place behind the grating to explain my obligations and duties to me at length, especially insisting upon the point, that I ought to be grateful—I, a miserable foundling, reared by public charity—for the generosity which this good gentleman and lady showed in offering to take charge of me and employ me in their workshop. I must confess that I could not clearly realize in what this great generosity which he so highly praised consisted, nor did I perceive any reason why I should be particularly grateful. Still, to all the conditions imposed upon me, I answered, 'Yes, yes, yes!' so heartily that Madame Greloux seemed greatly pleased. 'It is evident that the child will be glad to get away,' she said to herself. Then the superior began to enumerate the obligations my employers would incur, repeating again and again that I was one of the very best girls in the asylum—pious, obedient, and industrious, reading and writing to perfection, and knowing how to sew and embroider as only those who are taught in such institutions can. She made Madame Greloux promise to watch over me as she would have watched over her own daughter; never to leave me alone; to take me to church, and allow me an occasional Sunday afternoon, so that I might pay a visit to the asylum. The gentleman with the spectacles and the skullcap then reminded the bookbinder of the duties of an employer toward his apprentices, and turning to a bookcase behind him, he even took down a large volume from which he read extract after extract, which I listened to without understanding a word, though I was quite sure that the book was written in French. At last, when the man and his wife had said 'Amen' to everything, the gentleman with the spectacles drew up a document which we all signed in turn. I belonged to a master."
She paused. Here her childhood ended. But almost immediately she resumed: "My recollections of these people are not altogether unpleasant. They were harassed and wearied by their efforts to support their son in a style of living far above their position; but, despite their sacrifices, their son had no affection for them, and on this account I pitied them. However, not only was the husband gloomy and quick-tempered, but his wife also was subject to fits of passion, so that the apprentices often had a hard time of it. Still, between Madame Greloux's tempests of wrath there were occasional gleams of sunshine. After beating us for nothing, she would exclaim, with quite as little reason, 'Come and kiss me, and don't pout any more. Here are four sous; go and buy yourself some cakes.'"
The justice started in his arm-chair. Was it, indeed, Mademoiselle Marguerite who was speaking, the proud young girl with a queenlike bearing, whose voice rang out like crystal? Was it she indeed, who imitated the harsh, coarse dialect of the lower classes with such accuracy of intonation? Ah! at that moment, as her past life rose so vividly before her, it seemed to her as if she were still in the years gone by, and she fancied she could still hear the voice of the bookbinder's wife.
She did not even notice the magistrate's astonishment. "I had left the asylum," she continued, "and that was everything to me. I felt that a new and different life was beginning, and that was enough. I flattered myself that I might win a more earnest and sincere affection among these honest, industrious toilers, than I had found in the asylum; and to win it and deserve it, I neglected nothing that good-will could suggest, or strength allow. My patrons no doubt fathomed my desire, and naturally enough, perhaps unconsciously, they took advantage of my wish to please. I can scarcely blame them. I had entered their home under certain conditions in view of learning a profession; they gradually made me their servant—it was praiseworthy economy on their part. What I had at first done of my own freewill and from a wish to please, at last became my daily task, which I was rigidly required to fulfil. Compelled to rise long before any one else in the house, I was expected to have everything in order by the time the others made their appearance with their eyes still heavy with sleep. It is true that my benefactors rewarded me after their fashion. On Sundays they took me with them on their excursions into the country, so as to give me a rest, they said, after the week's work. And I followed them along the dusty highways in the hot sunshine, panting, perspiring, and tottering under the weight of a heavy basket of provisions, which were eaten on the grass or in the woods, and the remnants of which fell to me. Madame Greloux's brother generally accompanied us; and his name would have lingered in my memory, even if it had not been a peculiar one. He was called Vantrasson. He was a tall, robust man, with eyes that made me tremble whenever he fixed them upon me. He was a soldier; intensely proud of his uniform; a great talker, and enchanted with himself. He evidently thought himself irresistible. It was from that man's mouth that I heard the first coarse word at which my unsophisticated heart took offence. It was not to be the last one. He finally told me that he had taken a fancy to me, and I was obliged to complain to Madame Greloux of her brother's persecutions. But she only laughed at me, and said: 'Nonsense! He's merely talking to hear himself talk.' Yes, that was her answer. And yet she was an honest woman, a devoted wife, and a fond mother. Ah! if she had had a daughter. But with a poor apprentice, who has neither father nor mother, one need not be over-fastidious. She had made a great many promises to the lady superior, but she fancied that the utterance of a few commonplace words of warning relieved her of all further obligations. 'And so much the worse for those who allow themselves to be fooled,' she always added in conclusion.
"Fortunately, my pride, which I had so often been reproached with, shielded me. My condition might be humble, but my spirit was lofty. It was a blessing from God, this pride of mine, for it saved me from temptation, while so many fell around me. I slept, with the other apprentices, in the attic, where we were entirely beyond the control of those who should have been our guardians. That is to say, when the day's toil was over, and the work-shop closed, we were free—abandoned to our own instincts, and the most pernicious influences. And neither evil advice nor bad example was wanting. The women employed in the bindery in nowise restrained themselves in our presence, and we heard them tell marvellous stories that dazzled many a poor girl. They did not talk as they did from any evil design, or out of a spirit of calculation, but from pure thoughtlessness, and because they were quite devoid of moral sense. And they never tired of telling us of the pleasures of life, of fine dinners at restaurants, gay excursions to Joinville-le-Pont, and masked balls at Montparnasse or the Elysee Montmartre. Ah! experience is quickly gained in these work-shops. Sometimes those who went off at night with ragged dresses and worn-out shoes, returned the next morning in superb toilettes to say that they resigned their situations, as they were not made for work, and intended to live like ladies. They departed radiant, but often before a month was over they came back, emaciated, hollow-eyed, and despairing, and humbly begged for a little work."
She paused, so crushed by the weight of these sad memories as to lose consciousness of the present. And the judge also remained silent, not daring to question her. And, besides, what good would it do? What could she tell him about these poor little apprentices that he did not know already? If he was surprised at anything, it was that this beautiful young girl, who had been left alone and defenceless, had possessed sufficient strength of character to escape the horrible dangers that threatened her.
However, it was not long before Mademoiselle Marguerite shook off the torpor which had stolen over her. "I ought not to boast of my strength, sir," she resumed. "Besides my pride, I had a hope to sustain me—a hope which I clung to with the tenacity of despair. I wished to become expert at my profession, for I had learned that skilled workers were always in demand, and could always command good wages. So when my household duties were over, I still found time to learn the business, and made such rapid progress that I astonished even my employer. I knew that I should soon be able to make five or six francs a day; and this prospect was pleasant enough to make me forget the present, well-nigh intolerable as it sometimes was. During the last winter that I spent with my employers, their orders were so numerous and pressing that they worked on Sundays as well as on week days, and it was with difficulty that I obtained an hour twice a month to pay a visit to the good sisters who had cared for me in my childhood. I had never failed in this duty, and indeed it had now become my only pleasure. My employer's conscience compelled him to pay me a trifle occasionally for the additional toil he imposed upon me, and the few francs I thus received I carried to the poor children at the asylum. After living all my life on public charity, I was able to give in my turn; and this thought gratified my pride, and increased my importance in my own eyes. I was nearly fifteen, and my term of apprenticeship had almost expired, when one bright day in March, I saw one of the lay sisters of the asylum enter the work-room. She was in a flutter of excitement; her face was crimson, and she was so breathless from her hurried ascent of the stairs that she gasped rather than said to me: 'Quick! come—follow me! Some one is waiting for you!' 'Who?—where?'—'Make haste! Ah! my dear child, if you only knew——' I hesitated; but Madame Greloux pushed me toward the door, exclaiming: 'Be off, you little stupid!' I followed the sister without thinking of changing my dress—without even removing the kitchen apron I wore. Downstairs, at the front door, stood the most magnificent carriage I had ever seen in my life. Its rich silk cushions were so beautiful that I scarcely dared to enter it; and I was all the more intimidated by a footman in gorgeous livery, who respectfully opened the door at our approach. 'You must get into the carriage,' said the sister; 'it was sent for you.' I obeyed her, and before I had recovered from my astonishment we had reached the asylum, and I was ushered into the office where the contract which bound me as an apprentice had been signed. As soon as I entered, the superior took me by the hand and led me toward a gentleman who was sitting near the window. 'Marguerite,' said she, 'salute Monsieur le Comte de Chalusse.'"
For some little time there had been a noise of footsteps and a subdued murmur of voices in the vestibule. Annoyed by this interruption, although he perfectly understood its cause, the magistrate rose and hastily opened the door. He was not mistaken. His clerk had returned from lunch, and the time of waiting seemed extremely long to him. "Ah! it's you," said the magistrate. "Very well! begin your inventory. It won't be long before I join you." And closing the door he resumed his seat again. Mademoiselle Marguerite was so absorbed in her narrative that she scarcely noticed this incident, and he had not seated himself before she resumed. "In all my life, I had never seen such an imposing looking person as the Count de Chalusse. His manner, attire, and features could not fail to inspire a child like me with fear and respect. I was so awed that I had scarcely enough presence of mind to bow to him. He glanced at me coldly, and exclaimed: 'Ah! is this the young girl you were speaking of?' The count's tone betrayed such disagreeable surprise that the superior was dismayed. She looked at me, and seemed indignant at my more than modest attire. 'It's a shame to allow a child to leave home dressed in this fashion,' she angrily exclaimed. And she almost tore my huge apron off me, and then with her own hands began to arrange my hair as if to display me to better advantage. 'Ah! these employers,' she exclaimed, 'the best of them are bad. How they do deceive you. It's impossible to place any confidence in their promises. Still, one can't always be at their heels.'
"But the superior's efforts were wasted, for M. de Chalusse had turned away and had begun talking with some gentlemen near by. For the office was full that morning. Five or six gentlemen, whom I recognized as the directors of the asylum, were standing round the steward in the black skullcap. They were evidently talking about me. I was certain of this by the glances they gave me, glances which, however, were full of kindness. The superior joined the group and began speaking with unusual vivacity, while standing in the recess of a window, I listened with all my might. But I must have overestimated my intelligence, for I could gain no meaning whatever from the phrases which followed each other in rapid succession; though the words 'adoption,' 'emancipation,' 'dowry,' 'compensation,' 'reimbursement for sums expended,' recurred again and again. I was only certain of one point: the Count de Chalusse wished something, and these gentlemen were specifying other things in exchange. To each of their demands he answered: 'Yes, yes—it's granted. That's understood.' But at last he began to grow impatient, and in a voice which impressed one with the idea that he was accustomed to command, he exclaimed, 'I will do whatever you wish. Do you desire anything more?' The gentlemen at once became silent, and the superior hastily declared that M. de Chalusse was a thousand times too good, but that one could expect no less of him, the last representative of one of the greatest and oldest families of France.
"I cannot describe the surprise and indignation that were raging in my soul. I divined—I felt that it was MY fate, MY future, MY life that were being decided, and I was not even consulted on the matter. They were disposing of me as if they were sure in advance of my consent. My pride revolted at the thought, but I could not find a word to say in protest. Crimson with shame, confused and furious, I was wondering how I could interfere, when suddenly the consultation ceased and the gentlemen at once surrounded me. One of them, a little old man with a vapid smile and twinkling eyes, tapped me on the cheek, and said: 'So she is as good as she is pretty!' I could have struck him; but all the others laughed approvingly, with the exception of M. de Chalusse, whose manner became more and more frigid, and whose lips wore a constrained smile, as if he had resolved to keep his temper despite all provocation. It seemed to me that he was suffering terribly, and I afterward learned that I had not been mistaken. Far from imitating the old gentleman's manner, he bowed to me very gravely, with an air of deference that quite abashed me, and went away after saying that he would return the next day to conclude the arrangements.
"I was at last left alone with the superior, whom I longed to question, but she gave me no time to do so, for with extreme volubility she began to tell me of my surprising good fortune, which was an unanswerable and conclusive proof of the kindness and protection of Providence. 'The count,' she said, 'was to become my guardian. He would certainly give me a dowry; and by and by, if I were grateful to him for his goodness, he would adopt me, a poor, fatherless and motherless girl, and I should bear the great name of Durtal de Chalusse, and inherit an immense fortune.' In conclusion, she said that there was no limit to the count's generosity, that he had consented to reimburse the asylum the money that had been spent on me, that he had offered to dower, I do not know how many poor girls, and that he had promised to build a chapel for the use of the establishment. This was all true, incredible as it might seem. That very morning, M. de Chalusse had called at the asylum, declared that he was old and childless, a bachelor without any near relatives, and that he wished to adopt a poor orphan. They had given him a list of all the children in the institution, and he had chosen me. 'A mere chance, my dear Marguerite,' repeated the superior. 'A mere chance—or rather a true miracle.' It did, indeed, seem a miracle, but I was more surprised than elated. I longed to be alone, so as to deliberate and reflect, for I knew that I was free to accept or decline this dazzling offer.
"I timidly asked permission to return to my employers to inform them of what had happened and consult with them; but my request was refused. The superior told me that I must deliberate and decide alone; and that when once my decision was taken, there could be no change. So I remained at the asylum, and dined at the superior's table; and during the night I occupied the room of a sister who was absent. What surprised me most of all was the deference with which I was treated. The sisters all seemed to consider me a person of great importance. And yet I hesitated.
"My indecision may seem absurd and hypocritical; but it was really sincere. My present situation was certainly by no means an enviable one. But the worst was over; my term as an apprentice had nearly expired, and my future seemed assured. My future! What could it be with the Count de Chalusse? It was painted in such brilliant colors that it frightened me. Why had the count chosen me in preference to any of the other girls? Was it really chance which had decided him in his choice? On reflecting, the miracle seemed to me to have been prepared in advance, and I fancied that it must conceal some mystery. More than this, the thought of yielding myself up to a stranger terrified me. Forty-eight hours had been granted me to consider my decision, and till the very last instant I remained in doubt. Who knows? Perhaps it would have been better for me if I had returned to my humble life. At all events, I should have been spared a great deal of sorrow and humiliation. But I lacked the courage; and when the time expired, I consented to the new arrangement.
"Should I live a thousand years I shall never forget the day I left the foundling asylum to become the Count de Chalusse's ward. It was a Saturday, and I had given my answer to the superior on the evening before. The next morning I received a visit from my former employers, who, having been informed of the great change in my prospects, had come to bid me good-bye. The cancelling of my apprenticeship had at first caused some trouble, but eventually the count's gold silenced their objections. Still, they were sorry to part with me, as I plainly saw. Their eyes were moist with tears. They were sorry to lose the poor little servant who had served them so faithfully. At the same time, however, I noticed evident constraint in their manner. They no longer said 'thee' and 'thou' to me; they no longer spoke roughly; but they said 'you,' and addressed me as 'mademoiselle.' Poor people! they awkwardly apologized for having ventured to accept my services, declaring in the same breath that they should never be able to replace me at the same price. Madame Greloux, moreover, declared that she should never forgive herself for not having sharply reproved her brother for his abominable conduct. He was a good-for-nothing fellow, she said, as was proved by the fact that he had dared to raise his eyes to me. For the first time in my life, I felt that I was sincerely loved; and I was so deeply touched that if my decision had not been written and signed, I should certainly have returned to live with these worthy people. But it was too late. A sister came to tell me that the superior wished to see me. I bade Father and Mother Greloux farewell and went downstairs.
"In the superior's room, a lady and two shop-girls, laden with boxes and parcels, were waiting for me. It was a dressmaker who had come with some clothes suited to my new station in life. I was told that she had been sent by the Count de Chalusse. This great nobleman thought of everything; and, although he had thirty servants to do his bidding, he never disdained to occupy himself with the pettiest details. So, for the first time, I was arrayed in rustling silk and clinging cashmere. My toilette was no trifling affair. All the good sisters clustered round me, and tried to beautify me with the same care and patience as they would have displayed in adorning the Virgin's statue for a fete-day. A secret instinct warned me that they were overdoing the matter, and that they were making me look ridiculous; but I did not mind. I allowed them to please themselves I could still feel Madame Greloux's tears on my hand, and the scene seemed to me as lugubrious as the last toilette of a prisoner under sentence of death. When they had completed their task, I heard a buzz of admiration round me. If the sisters were worthy of belief, they had never seen such a wonderful transformation. Those who were in the class-rooms or the sewing-room, were summoned to view and admire me, and some of the elder children were also admitted. Perhaps I was intended as an example for the latter, for I heard the lady superior say to them, 'You see, my dear children, the result of good behavior. Be diligent and dutiful, like our dear Marguerite, and God will reward you as He has rewarded her.' And, meantime, miserable in my finery, I waited—waited for M. de Chalusse, who was coming to take me away.
"At the appointed hour he appeared, with the same air of haughty reserve, that had so awed me on the occasion of our first meeting. He scarcely deigned to look at me, and although I watched him with poignant anxiety, I could read neither blame nor approval on his face. 'You see that your wishes have been scrupulously obeyed, Monsieur le Comte,' said the superior. 'I thank you,' he replied; 'and I shall prove the extent of my gratitude to the poor children under your charge.' Then, turning to me: 'Marguerite,' he said, 'take leave of—your mothers, and tell them that you will never forget their kindness.'"
The girl paused, for her emotion had rendered her words almost unintelligible. But, with an effort, she speedily conquered her weakness.
"It was only then," she continued, "that I realized how much I loved these poor nuns, whom I had sometimes almost cursed. I felt now how close the ties were, that bound me to this hospitable roof, and to these unfortunate children, my companions in misery and loneliness. It seemed to me as if my heart were breaking; and the superior, who was generally so impassible, appeared scarcely less moved than myself. At last, M. de Chalusse took me by the hand and led me away. In the street there was a carriage waiting for us, not such a beautiful one as that which had been sent to fetch me from my workshop, but a much larger one, with trunks and boxes piled on its roof. It was drawn by four gray horses. I felt more dead than alive, as I entered the carriage and took the seat which the count pointed out. He sat down opposite to me. All the sisters had assembled at the door of the asylum, and even the superior wept without making any attempt to hide her tears. 'Farewell!' they all cried; 'farewell, farewell, dear child! Don't forget your old friends. We shall pray for your happiness.' Alas! God could not have heard their prayers. At a sign from M. de Chalusse, a footman closed the door, the postilions cracked their whips, and the heavy vehicle rolled away.
"The die was cast. Henceforth, an impassable gulf was to separate me from this asylum, whither I had been carried in my infancy half dead, and wrapped in swaddling clothes, from which every mark that could possibly lead to identification had been carefully cut away. Whatever my future might prove, I felt that my past was gone forever. But I was too greatly agitated even to think; and crouching in a corner of the carriage, I watched M. de Chalusse with the poignant anxiety a slave displays as he studies his new master. Ah! monsieur, what a wondrous change! A mask seemed to have fallen from the count's face; his lips quivered, a tender light beamed in his eyes, and he drew me to him, exclaiming: 'Oh, Marguerite! my beloved Marguerite! At last—at last!' He sobbed—this old man, whom I had thought as cold and as insensible as marble; he crushed me in his close embrace, he almost smothered me with kisses. And I was frightfully agitated by the strange, indefinable feeling, kindled in my heart; but I no longer trembled with fear. An inward voice whispered that this was but the renewal of a former tie—one which had somehow been mysteriously broken. However, as I remembered the superior's assertion that it was a miracle in my favor—a wonderful interposition of Providence, I had courage enough to ask: 'So it was not chance that guided you in your choice?'
"My question seemed to take him by surprise. 'Poor Marguerite!' he murmured, 'dearly beloved child! for years I have been laboring to bring about this chance!' Instantly all the romantic stories I had heard in the asylum recurred to my mind. And Heaven knows there are plenty of these stories transmitted by the sisters from generation to generation, till they have become a sort of Golden Legend for poor foundlings. That sad formula, 'Father and mother unknown,' which figures on certificates of birth, acts as a dangerous stimulant for unhealthy imaginations, and leaves an open door for the most extravagant hopes. And thus influenced, I fixed my eyes on the face of the Count de Chalusse, striving to discover some resemblance in his features to my own. But he did not seem to notice my intent gaze, and following his train of thought, he muttered: 'Chance! It was necessary that they should think so, and they did think so. And yet the cleverest detectives in Paris, from old Tabaret to Fortunat, both masters in the art of following up a clue, had exhausted their resources in helping me in my despairing search.' The agony of suspense I was enduring had become intolerable; and unable to restrain myself longer, I exclaimed, with a wildly throbbing heart: 'Then, you are my father, Monsieur le Comte?' He pressed his hand to my lips with such violence that he hurt me, and then, in a voice quivering with excitement, he replied: 'Imprudent girl! What can you mean? Forget that unfortunate idea. Never utter the name of father—you hear me—never! I forbid it!' He had become extremely pale, and he looked anxiously around him, as if he feared that some one had overheard me—as if he had forgotten that we were alone in a carriage which was dashing onward at full speed!
"I was stupefied and alarmed by the sudden terror which M. de Chalusse had displayed and could not control. What could it all mean? What sorrowful recollections, what mysterious apprehensions, had my words aroused in the count's mind? I could not understand or imagine why he should regard my question as strange or unnatural. On the contrary, I thought it perfectly natural, dictated as it had been by circumstances, and by the count's own words and manner. And, in spite of my confusion and agitation, the inexplicable voice which we call presentiment whispered in my heart: 'He has forbidden you to CALL him father, but he has not said that he is not your father.' However, I had not time to reflect or to question M. de Chalusse any more, though at that moment I should have had the courage to do so; afterward I did not dare.
"Our carriage had drawn up outside the railway station, and the next instant we alighted. Then, for the first time, I learned the magical power of money, I, a poor girl—reared by public charity—and who for three years had worked for my daily bread. M. de Chalusse found the servants, who were to accompany us, awaiting him. They had thought of everything, and made every possible arrangement for our comfort. I had scarcely time to glance round me before we were on the platform in front of a train, which was ready to start. I perceived the very carriage that had brought us to the station already fastened on a low open truck, and I was advancing to climb into it, when M. de Chalusse stopped me. 'Not there,' said he, 'come with me.' I followed him, and he led me to a magnificent saloon carriage, much higher and roomier than the others, and emblazoned with the Chalusse coat-of-arms. 'This is our carriage, dear Marguerite, he said. I got in. The whistle sounded; and the train started off."
Mademoiselle Marguerite was growing very tired. Big drops of perspiration stood out on her forehead, she panted for breath, and her voice began to fail her.
The magistrate was almost frightened. "Pray rest a little, mademoiselle," he entreated, "there is no hurry."
But she shook her head and replied: "It is better to go on. I should never have courage to begin again if I paused." And thereupon she continued: "I had never gone farther than Versailles. This journey was at first as delightful as a glimpse into fairy-land. Our carriage was one of those costly whims which some millionaires indulge in. It consisted of a central saloon—a perfect chef-d'oeuvre of taste and luxury—with two compartments at either end, furnished with comfortable sleeping accommodation. And all this, the count seemed never weary of repeating, was mine—mine alone. Leaning back on the velvet cushions, I gazed at the changing landscape, as the train rushed madly on. Leaning over me, M. de Chalusse named all the towns and villages we passed: Brunoy, Melun, Fontainebleau, Villeneuve, Sens, Laroche. And each time the train stopped the servants came to ask if we wished for anything. When we reached Lyons, in the middle of the night, we found a delicious supper awaiting us. It was served as soon as we alighted, and in due time we were warned that the train was ready to start, and then we resumed our journey. You can imagine, perhaps, how marvellous all this seemed to a poor little apprentice, whose only ambition a week before was to earn five francs a day. What a change indeed! At last the count made me retire to one of the compartments, where I soon fell asleep, abandoning my efforts to distinguish what was dreamlike in my situation from reality. However, when I woke up I became terribly anxious. I asked myself what was awaiting me at the end of this long journey. M. de Chalusse's manner continued kind, and even affectionate; but he had regained his accustomed reserve and self-control, and I realized that it would be useless on my part to question him. At last, after a thirty hours' journey by rail, we again entered the count's berline, drawn by post-horses, and eventually M. de Chalusse said to me: 'Here is Cannes—we are at our journey's end.'
"In this town, which is one of the most charming that overlook the blue waters of the Mediterranean, the count owned a palace embowered among lovely orange-trees, only a few steps from the sea, and in full view of the myrtle and laurel groves which deck the isles of Sainte Marguerite. He told me that he proposed spending a few months here in seclusion, so as to give me time to accustom myself to my new position and the luxury that surrounded me. I was, indeed, extremely awkward, and my excessive timidity was increased by my pride. I did not know what to say, or what to do. I did not know how to use my hands, nor how to walk, nor how to carry myself. Everything embarrassed and frightened me; and I was conscious of my awkwardness, without being able to remedy it. I saw my blunders, and knew that I spoke a different language to that which was spoken around me. And yet the memory of Cannes will ever be dear to me. For there I first met the only friend I have now left in this world. I did not exchange a word with him, but by the quickened throbbings of my heart, when our eyes met, I felt that he would exert a powerful influence over my life, and events have since proved that I was not deceived. At that time, however, he was a stranger to me; and nothing on earth would have induced me to make inquiries concerning him. It was only by chance I learned that he lived in Paris, that his name was Pascal, and that he had come south as a companion to a sick friend.
"By a single word the count could have insured the happiness of my life and his own, but he did not speak it. He was the kindest and most indulgent of guardians, and I was often affected to tears by his tenderness. But, although my slightest wish was law, he did not grant me his confidence. The secret—the mystery that stood between us—was like a wall of ice. Still, I was gradually becoming accustomed to my new life, and my mind was regaining its equilibrium, when one evening the count returned home more agitated and excited, if possible, than on the day of my departure from the asylum. He summoned his valet, and, in a tone that admitted no reply, he exclaimed, 'I wish to leave Cannes at once—I must start in less than an hour—so procure some post-horses instantly.' And in answer to my inquiring glance, he said: 'It must be. It would be folly to hesitate. Each moment increases the peril that threatens us.'
"I was very young, inexperienced, and totally ignorant of life; but my sufferings, my loneliness, and the prospect of being compelled to rely upon myself, had imparted to my mind that precocious maturity which is so often observed among the children of the poor. Knowing from the very first that there was some mystery connected with the count's life, I had studied him with a child's patient sagacity—a sagacity which is all the more dangerous, as it is unsuspected—and I had come to the conclusion that a constant dread rendered his life a burden. Could it be for himself that he trembled, this great nobleman, who was so powerful by reason of his exalted rank, his connections, and his wealth? Certainly not. Was it for me, then? Undoubtedly it was. But why? It had not taken me long to discover that he was concealing me, or, at least, that he endeavored by all means in his power to prevent my presence in his house from being known beyond a very limited circle of friends. Our hurried departure from Cannes confirmed me in my impression.
"It might have been truly called a flight. We left that same evening at eleven o'clock, in a pouring rain, with the first horses that could be procured. Our only attendant was the count's valet—not Casimir, the man who insulted me a little while ago—but another man, an old and valued servant, who has since died, unfortunately, and who possessed his master's entire confidence. The other servants were dismissed with a princely gratuity, and told to disperse two days after our departure. We did not return to Paris, but journeyed toward the Italian frontier, and on arriving at Nice in the dead of night, we drove directly to the quay. The postilions unharnessed the horses, and we remained in the carriage. The valet, however, hastened off, and more than two hours elapsed before he returned. He declared that he had found it very difficult to procure what he wished for, but that at last, by a prodigal outlay of money, he had succeeded in overcoming all obstacles. What M. de Chalusse desired was a vessel ready for sea, and the bark which the valet had chartered now came up to the quay. Our carriage was put on board, we went below, and before daybreak we were under way.
"Three days later we were in Genoa, registered under a false name in a second class hotel. While we were on the open sea, the count had seemed to be less agitated, but now he was far from calm, and the precautions he took proved that he still feared pursuit. A malefactor flying from justice could not have taken greater pains to mislead the detectives on his track. And facts proved conclusively that I was the sole cause of the count's apprehension. On one occasion I even heard him discussing with his valet the feasibility of clothing me in masculine attire. And it was only the difficulty of obtaining a suitable costume that prevented him from carrying this project into execution. I ought to mention, however, that the servant did not share his master's anxiety, for three or four times I overheard him saying: 'The count is too good to worry himself so much about such bad stock. Besides, she won't overtake us. It isn't certain that she has even followed us. How can she know anything about it?' She! Who was she? This is what I racked my brain to discover, but without success. I must confess, monsieur, that being of a practical nature, and not in the least degree romantic, I arrived at the conclusion that the peril chiefly existed in the count's imagination, or that he greatly exaggerated it. Still he suffered none the less on that account, as was shown by the fact that the following month was spent in hurried journeys from one Italian city to another.
"It was the end of May before M. de Chalusse would consent to return to France; and then we went direct to Lyons. We had spent a couple of days there, when the count informed me that prudence required us to separate for a time—that our safety demanded this sacrifice. And without giving me time to say a word, he began to explain the advantages that would accrue from such an arrangement. I was extremely ignorant, and he wished me to profit by our temporary separation to raise my knowledge to a level with my new social position. He had, accordingly, made arrangements for me to enter the convent of Sainte-Marthe, an educational establishment which is as celebrated in the department of the Rhone as the Convent des Oiseaux is in Paris. He added that it would not be prudent for him to visit me; and he made me solemnly promise that I would never mention his name to any of my schoolmates. I was to send any letters I might write to an address which he would give me, and he would sign his answers with a fictitious name. He also told me that the lady superior of Sainte-Marthe knew his secret, and that I could confide in her. He was so restless and so miserably unhappy on the day when he acquainted me with these plans, that I really believed him insane. Nevertheless, I replied that I would obey him, and to tell the truth, I was not ill pleased at the thought of the change. My life with M. de Chalusse was a monotonous and cheerless one. I was almost dying of ennui, for I had been accustomed to work, bustle, and confusion with the Greloux, and I felt delighted at the prospect of finding myself among companions of my own age.
"Unfortunately, M. de Chalusse had forgotten one circumstance, which made my two years' sojourn at Sainte-Marthe a lingering and cruel agony. At first I was kindly treated by my schoolmates. A new pupil is always welcome, for her arrival relieves the monotony of convent-life. But it was not long before my companions wished to know my name; and I had none other than Marguerite to give them. They were astonished and wished to know who my parents were. I could not tell an untruth; and I was obliged to confess that I knew nothing at all respecting my father or my mother. After that 'the bastard'—for such was the name they gave me—was soon condemned to isolation. No one would associate with me during play-time. No one would sit beside me in the school-room. At the piano lesson, the girl who played after me pretended to wipe the keyboard carefully before commencing her exercises. I struggled bravely against this unjust ostracism; but all in vain. I was so unlike these other girls in character and disposition, and I had, moreover, been guilty of a great imprudence. I had been silly enough to show my companions the costly jewels which M. de Chalusse had given me, but which I never wore. And on two occasions I had proved to them that I had more money at my disposal than all the other pupils together. If I had been poor, they would, perhaps, have treated me with affected sympathy; but as I was rich, I became an enemy. It was war; and one of those merciless wars which sometimes rage so furiously in convents, despite their seeming quiet.
"I should surprise you, monsieur, if I told you what refined torture these daughters of noblemen invented to gratify their petty spite. I might have complained to the superior, but I scorned to do so. I buried my sorrow deep in my heart, as I had done years before; and I firmly resolved never to show ought but a smiling, placid face, so as to prove to my enemies that they were powerless to disturb my peace of mind. Study became my refuge and consolation; and I plunged into work with the energy of despair. I should probably still live at Sainte-Marthe now, had it not been for a trivial circumstance. One day I had a quarrel with my most determined enemy, a girl named Anais de Rochecote. I was a thousand times right; and I would not yield. The superior dared not tell me I was wrong. Anais was furious, and wrote I don't know what falsehoods to her mother. Madame de Rochecote thereupon interested the mothers of five or six other pupils in her daughter's quarrel, and one evening these ladies came in a body, and nobly and courageously demanded that the 'bastard' should be expelled. It was impossible, outrageous, monstrous, they declared, that their daughters should be compelled to associate with a girl like me—a nameless girl, who humiliated the other girls with her ill-gotten wealth. The superior tried to take my part; but these ladies declared they would take their daughters from the convent if I were not sent away. There was no help for it: I was sacrificed. Summoned by telegraph, M. de Chalusse hastened to Lyons, and two days later I left Sainte-Marthe with jeers and opprobrious epithets ringing in my ears."
Once before, that very morning, the magistrate had witnessed a display of the virile energy with which misfortune and suffering had endowed this proud but naturally timid girl. But he was none the less surprised at the sudden explosion of hatred which he now beheld; for it was hatred. The way in which Mademoiselle Marguerite's voice had quivered as she pronounced the name of Anais de Rochecote proved, unmistakably, that hers was one of those haughty natures that never forget an insult. All signs of fatigue had now disappeared. She had sprung from her chair, and remembrance of the shameful, cowardly affront she had received had brought a vivid flush to her cheeks and a bright gleam to her eyes.
"This atrocious humiliation happened scarcely a year ago, monsieur," she resumed; "and there is but little left for me to tell you. My expulsion from Sainte-Marthe made M. de Chalusse frantic with indignation. He knew something that I was ignorant of—that Madame de Rochecote, who enacted the part of a severe and implacable censor, was famed for the laxity of her morals. The count's first impulse was to wreak vengeance on my persecutors; for, in spite of his usual coolness, M. de Chalusse had a furious temper at times. It was only with the greatest difficulty that I dissuaded him from challenging General de Rochecote, who was living at the time. However, it now became necessary to make some other arrangements for me. M. de Chalusse offered to find another school, promising to take such precautions as would insure my peace of mind. But I interrupted him before he had spoken a dozen words, declaring I would rather return to the book-binders than chance another such experiment. And what I said I meant. A subterfuge—a fictitious name, for instance—could alone shield me from persecution similar to what I had endured at Sainte-Marthe. But I knew that I was incapable of playing such a part—I felt that I should somehow confess everything. My firmness imparted some resolution to M. de Chalusse. He exclaimed, with an oath, that I was right—that he was weary of all this deception and concealment, and that he would make arrangements to have me near him. 'Yes,' he concluded, embracing me, 'the die is cast, come what may!'
"However, these measures required a certain delay; and, in the meantime, he decided to install me in Paris, which is the only place where one can successfully hide from prying eyes. He purchased a small but convenient house, surrounded by a garden, in the neighborhood of the Luxembourg Palace, and here he installed me, with two old women and a trusty man-servant. As I needed a chaperon, he went in quest of one, and found Madame Leon."
On hearing this name, the magistrate gave the young girl a searching look, as if he hoped to discover what estimate she had formed of the housekeeper's character, as well as what degree of confidence she had granted her. But Mademoiselle Marguerite's face remained unaltered in expression.
"After so many trials," she resumed, "I thought I should now find rest and peace. Yes, I believed so; and the few months I spent in that quiet house will be the happiest of my life—I am sure of it. Judge of my surprise when, on going down into the little garden on the second day after my arrival, I saw the young man whom I had met at Cannes, and whose face had lingered in my memory for more than two years as the type of all that was best and noblest in the human countenance. He was standing near the gate. A cloud passed before my eyes. What mysterious freak of fate had caused him to pause there at that particular moment? This much is certain, he recognized me as I had recognized him. He bowed, smiling somewhat, and I fled indoors again, indignant with myself for not being angry at his audacity. I made many plans that day, but the next morning, at the same hour, I hid myself behind a Venetian blind, and saw him pause at the gate, and gaze at the garden with evident anxiety. I soon learned that he lived near by, with his widowed mother; and twice a day, when he went to the Palais de Justice and returned, he passed my home."
Her cheeks were crimson now, her eyes were lowered, and she was evidently embarrassed. But suddenly, as if ashamed of her blushes, she proudly raised her head, and said, in a firmer voice: "Shall I tell you our simple story? Is it necessary? I should not have concealed anything that has passed from my mother, if I had been so happy as to possess a mother. A few moments' conversation now and then, the exchange of a few letters, the pressure of a hand through the garden gate, and that is all. Still, I have been guilty of a grave and irreparable fault: I have disobeyed the one rule of my life—frankness; and I am cruelly punished for doing so. I did not tell all this to M. de Chalusse—in fact, I dared not. I was ashamed of my cowardice; from day to day I vowed that I would confess everything, and yet I procrastinated. I said to myself every night, 'It shall be done to-morrow; but when the morrow came I said, 'I will give myself another day—just one more day.' Indeed, my courage failed me when I thought of the count's aristocratic prejudices; and besides, I knew how ambitious he was for my future. On the other hand, moreover, Pascal was always pleading: 'Don't speak now. My circumstances are constantly improving. The day is not far off when I shall be able to offer you wealth and fame. When that day comes I will go to your guardian and ask him for your hand; but in Heaven's name don't speak now.' I understood Pascal's motives well enough. The count's immense fortune frightened him, and he feared that he would be accused of being a fortune-hunter. So I waited, with that secret anguish which still haunts those who have been unhappy even when their present is peaceful, and their future seems bright. I kept my secret, saying to myself that such happiness was not meant for me, that it would soon take flight.
"It took flight all too soon. One morning I heard a carriage draw up outside our door, and the next moment the Count de Chalusse entered the sitting-room. 'Everything is ready to receive you at the Hotel de Chalusse, Marguerite,' said he, 'come!' He ceremoniously offered me his arm, and I accompanied him. I could not even leave a message for Pascal, for I had never made a confidante of Madame Leon. Still, a faint hope sustained me. I thought that the precautions taken by M. de Chalusse would somewhat dispel the uncertainty of my position, and furnish me at least with some idea of the vague danger which threatened me. But no. His efforts, so far as I could discover, had been confined to changing his servants. Our life in this grand house was the same as it had been at Cannes—even more secluded, if that were possible. The count had aged considerably. It was evident that he was sinking beneath the burden of some ever-present sorrow. 'I am condemning you to a cheerless and melancholy youth,' he sometimes said to me, 'but it will not last forever—patience, patience!' Did he really love me? I think so. But his affection showed itself in a strange manner. Sometimes his voice was so tender that my heart was touched. At others there was a look of hatred in his eyes which terrified me. Occasionally he was severe almost to brutality, and then the next moment he would implore me to forgive him, order the carriage, take me with him to his jewellers', and insist upon me accepting some costly ornaments. Madame Leon declares that my jewels are worth more than twenty thousand francs. At times I wondered if his capricious affection and sternness were really intended for myself. It often seemed to me that I was only a shadow—the phantom of some absent person, in his eyes. It is certain that he often requested me to dress myself or to arrange my hair in a certain fashion, to wear such and such a color, or to use a particular perfume which he gave me. Frequently, when I was moving about the house, he suddenly exclaimed: 'Marguerite! I entreat you, remain just where you are!'
"I obeyed him, but the illusion had already vanished. A sob or an oath would come from his lips, and then in an angry voice he would bid me leave the room."
The magistrate did not raise his eyes from his talismanic ring; it might have been supposed that it had fascinated him. Still, his expression denoted profound commiseration, and he shook his head thoughtfully. The idea had occurred to him that this unfortunate young girl had been the victim, not precisely of a madman, but of one of those maniacs who have just enough reason left to invent the tortures they inflict upon those around them.
Speaking more slowly than before, as if she were desirous of attracting increased attention on the magistrate's part, Mademoiselle Marguerite now continued: "If I reminded M. de Chalusse of a person whom he had formerly loved, that person may have been my mother. I say, MAY HAVE BEEN, because I am not certain of it. All my efforts to discover the truth were unavailing. M. de Chalusse seemed to take a malicious pleasure in destroying all my carefully-arranged theories, and in upsetting the conjectures which he had encouraged himself only twenty-four hours previously. Heaven only knows how anxiously I listened to his slightest word! And it can be easily understood why I did so. My strange and compromising connection with him drove me nearly frantic. It was not strange that people's suspicions were aroused. True, he had changed all his servants before my arrival here; but he had requested Madame Leon to remain with me, and who can tell what reports she may have circulated? It has often happened that when returning from mass on Sundays, I have overheard persons say, 'Look! there is the Count de Chalusse's mistress!' Oh! not a single humiliation has been spared me—not a single one! However, on one point I did not feel the shadow of a doubt. The count had known my mother. He frequently alluded to her, sometimes with an outburst of passion which made me think that he had once adored, and still loved her; sometimes, with insults and curses which impressed me with the idea that she had cruelly injured him. But most frequently he reproached her for having unhesitatingly sacrificed me to insure her own safety. He said she could have had no heart; and that it was an unheard of, incomprehensible, and monstrous thing that a woman could enjoy luxury and wealth, undisturbed by remorse, knowing that her innocent and defenceless child was exposed all the while to the hardships and temptations of abject poverty. I was also certain that my mother was a married woman, for M. de Chalusse alluded to her husband more than once. He hated him with a terrible hatred. One evening, when he was more communicative than usual, he gave me to understand that the great danger he dreaded for me came either from my mother or her husband. He afterward did his best to counteract this impression; but he did not succeed in convincing me that his previous assertion was untrue."
The magistrate looked searchingly at Mademoiselle Marguerite. "Then those letters which we found just now in the escritoire are from your mother, mademoiselle?" he remarked.
The girl blushed. She had previously been questioned respecting these letters, and she had then made no reply. Now, she hesitated for a moment, and then quietly said: "Your opinion coincides with mine, monsieur."
Thereupon, as if she wished to avoid any further questioning on the subject, she hurriedly continued: "At last a new and even greater trouble came—a positive calamity, which made me forget the disgrace attached to my birth. One morning at breakfast, about a month ago, the count informed me that he expected two guests to dinner that evening. This was such an unusual occurrence that I was struck speechless with astonishment. 'It is extraordinary, I admit,' he added, gayly; 'but it is nevertheless true. M. de Fondege and the Marquis de Valorsay will dine here this evening. So, my dear Marguerite, look your prettiest in honor of our old friend.' At six o'clock the two gentlemen arrived together. I was well acquainted with M. de Fondege—the general, as he was commonly called. He was the count's only intimate friend, and often visited us. But I had never before seen the Marquis de Valorsay, nor had I ever heard his name until M. de Chalusse mentioned it that morning. I don't pretend to judge him. I will only say that as soon as I saw him, the dislike I felt for him bordered on aversion. My false position rendered his close scrutiny actually painful to me, and his attentions and compliments pleased me no better. At dinner he addressed his conversation exclusively to me, and I particularly remember a certain picture he drew of a model household, which positively disgusted me. In his opinion, a husband ought to content himself with being his wife's prime minister—the slave of her slightest caprice. He intended, if he married, to allow the Marquise de Valorsay perfect freedom, with an unlimited amount of money, the handsomest carriages, and the most magnificent diamonds in Paris—everything, indeed, that could gratify her vanity, and render her existence a fairylike dream. 'With such ideas on her husband's part the marchioness will be very difficult to please if she is not contented with her lot,' he added, glancing covertly at me. This exasperated me beyond endurance, and I dryly replied: 'The mere thought of such a husband would drive me to the shelter of a convent.' He seemed considerably disconcerted; and I noticed that the general, I mean M. de Fondege, gave him a mischievous look.
"However, when the gentlemen had gone, M. de Chalusse scolded me severely. He said that my sentimental philosophy was quite out of place in a drawing-room, and that my ideas of life, marriage, and duty could only have been gained in a foundling asylum. As I attempted to reply, he interrupted me to sound the praises of the Marquis de Valorsay, who not only came of an ancient family, and possessed immense, unencumbered estates, but was a talented, handsome man into the bargain; in short, one of those favored mortals whom all young girls sigh for. The scales fell from my eyes. I instantly understood that M. de Chalusse had selected the Marquis de Valorsay to be my husband, and thus the marquis had designedly explained his matrimonial programme for my benefit. It was a snare to catch the bird. I felt indignant that he should suppose me so wanting in delicacy of feeling and nobility of character as to be dazzled by the life of display and facile pleasure which he had depicted. I had disliked him at first, and now I despised him; for it was impossible to misunderstand the shameless proposal concealed beneath his half-jesting words. He offered me my liberty in exchange for my fortune. That is only a fair contract, one might say. Perhaps so; but if he were willing to do this for a certain amount of money, what would he not do for a sum twice or thrice as large? Such were my impressions, though I asked myself again and again if I were not mistaken. No; the events that followed only confirmed my suspicions. Three days later the marquis came again. His visit was to the count, and they held a long conference in this study. Having occasion to enter the room, after the marquis's departure, I noticed on the table a number of title deeds which he had probably brought for the count's inspection. On the following week there was another conference, and this time a lawyer was present. Any further doubts I might have felt were dispelled by Madame Leon, who was always well informed—thanks to her habit of listening at the keyholes. 'They are talking of marrying you to the Marquis de Valorsay—I heard them,' she remarked to me.
"However, the information did not terrify me. I had profited by the time allowed me for reflection, and I had decided upon the course I should pursue. I am timid, but I am not weak; and I was determined to resist M. de Chalusse's will in this matter, even if it became necessary for me to leave his house, and renounce all hopes of the wealth he had promised me. Still I said nothing to Pascal of my mental struggle and final determination. I did not wish to bind him by the advice which he would certainly have given me. I had his troth, and that sufficed. And it was with a thrill of joy that I said to myself: 'What does it matter if M. de Chalusse should be so angered by my refusal to obey him as to drive me from his house? It will rather be so much the better; Pascal will protect me.'
"But resistance is only possible when you are attacked; and M. de Chalusse did not even allude to the subject—perhaps because affairs had not yet been satisfactorily arranged between the marquis and himself—possibly because he wished to deprive me of the power to oppose him by taking me unawares. It would have been great imprudence on my part to broach the subject myself, and so I waited calmly and resignedly, storing up all my energy for the decisive hour. I willingly confess that I am not a heroine of romance—I do not look upon money with the contempt it deserves. I was resolved to wed solely in accordance with the dictates of my heart; but I wished, and HOPED, that M. de Chalusse would give me, not a fortune, but a modest dowry. He had become more communicative than usual on money matters, and took no pains to conceal the fact that he was engaged in raising the largest possible amount of ready cash. He received frequent visits from his stockbroker, and sometimes when the latter had left him, he showed me rolls of bank-notes and packages of bonds, saying, as he did so: 'You see that your future is assured, my dear Marguerite.'
"I am only doing the count justice when I say that my future was a subject of constant anxiety to him during the last few months of his life. Less than a fortnight after he had taken me from the asylum, he drew up a will, in which he adopted me and made me his sole legatee. But he afterward destroyed this document on the plea that it did not afford me sufficient security; and a dozen others shared the same fate. For his mind was constantly occupied with the subject, and he seemed to have a presentiment that his death would be a sudden one. I am forced to admit that he seemed less anxious to endow me with his fortune than to frustrate the hopes of some persons I did not know. When he burned his last will in my presence, he remarked: 'This document is useless: they would contest it, and probably succeed in having it set aside. I have thought of a better way; I have found an expedient which will provide for all emergencies.' And as I ventured some timid objection—for it was repugnant to my sense of honor to act as an instrument of vengeance or injustice, or assist, even passively, in despoiling any person of his rightful inheritance—he harshly, almost brutally, replied: 'Mind your own business! I will disappoint the folks who are waiting for my property as they deserve to be disappointed. They covet my estates do they! Very well, they shall have them. I will leave them my property, but they shall find it mortgaged to its full value.'
"Unfortunate man! all his plans have failed. The heirs whom he hated so bitterly, and whom I don't even know, whose existence people have not even suspected, can now come, and they will find the wealth he was determined to deprive them of intact. He dreamed of a brilliant destiny for me—a proud name, and the rank of a marchioness—and he has not even succeeded in protecting me from the most shameful insults. I have been accused of theft before his body was even cold. He wished to make me rich, frightfully rich, and he has not left me enough to buy my bread—literally, not enough to buy bread. He was in constant terror concerning my safety, and he died without even telling me what were the mysterious dangers which threatened me; without even telling me something which I am morally certain of—that he was my father. He raised me against my will to the highest social position—he placed that wonderful talisman, gold, in my hand; he showed me the world at my feet; and suddenly he allowed me to fall even to lower depths of misery than those in which he found me. Ah! M. de Chalusse, it would have been far better for me if you had left me in the foundling asylum to have earned my own bread. And yet, I freely forgive you."
Mademoiselle Marguerite reflected for a moment, questioning her memory to ascertain if she had told everything—if she had forgotten any particulars of importance. And as it seemed to her that she had nothing more to add, she approached the magistrate, and, with impressive solemnity of tone and manner, exclaimed: "My life up to the present hour is now as well known to you as it is to myself. You know what even the friend, who is my only hope, does not know as yet. And now, when I tell him what I really am, will he think me unworthy of him?"
The magistrate sprang to his feet, impelled by an irresistible force. Two big tears, the first he had shed for years, trembled on his eyelashes, and coursed down his furrowed cheeks. "You are a noble creature, my child," he replied, in a voice faltering with emotion; "and if I had a son, I should deem myself fortunate if he chose a wife like you."
She clasped her hands, with a gesture of intense joy and relief, and then sank into an arm-chair, murmuring: "Oh, thanks, monsieur, thanks!" For she was thinking of Pascal; and she had feared he might shrink from her when she fully revealed to him her wretched, sorrowful past, of which he was entirely ignorant. But the magistrate's words had reassured her.
The clock on the mantel-shelf struck half-past four. The magistrate and Mademoiselle Marguerite could hear stealthy footsteps in the hall, and a rustling near the door. The servants were prowling round about the study, wondering what was the reason of this prolonged conference. "I must see how the clerk is progressing with the inventory." said the magistrate. "Excuse me if I absent myself for a moment; I will soon return." And so saying he rose and left the room.
But it was only a pretext. He really wished to conceal his emotion and regain his composure, for he had been deeply affected by the young girl's narrative. He also needed time for reflection, for the situation had become extremely complicated since Mademoiselle Marguerite had informed him of the existence of heirs—of those mysterious enemies who had poisoned the count's peace. These persons would, of course, require to know what had become of the millions deposited in the escritoire, and who would be held accountable for the missing treasure? Mademoiselle Marguerite, unquestionably. Such were the thoughts that flitted through the magistrate's mind as he listened to his clerk's report. Nor was this all; for having solicited Mademoiselle Marguerite's confidence, he must now advise her. And this was a matter of some difficulty.
However, when he returned to the study he was quite self-possessed and impassive again, and he was pleased to see that on her side the unfortunate girl had, to some extent, at least, recovered her wonted composure. "Let us now discuss the situation calmly," he began. "I shall convince you that your prospects are not so frightful as you imagine. But before speaking of the future, will you allow me to refer to the past?" The girl bowed her consent. "Let us first of all consider the subject of the missing millions. They were certainly in the escritoire when M. de Chalusse replaced the vial; but now they are not to be found, so that the count must have taken them away with him."
"That thought occurred to me also."
"Did the treasure form a large package?"
"Yes, it was large; but it could have been easily concealed under the cloak which M. de Chalusse wore."
"Very good! What was the time when he left the house?"
"About five o'clock."
"When was he brought back?"
"At about half-past six."
"Where did the cabman pick him up?"
"Near the church of Notre Dame de Lorette, so he told me."
"Do you know the driver's number?"
"Casimir asked him for it, I believe."
Had any one inquired the reason of this semi-official examination, the magistrate would have replied that Mademoiselle Marguerite's interests alone influenced him in the course he was taking. This was quite true; and yet, without being altogether conscious of the fact, he was also impelled by another motive. This affair interested, almost fascinated, him on account of its mysterious surroundings, and influenced by the desire for arriving at the truth which is inherent in every human heart, he was anxious to solve the riddle. After a few moments' thoughtful silence, he remarked: "So the point of departure in our investigation, if there is an investigation, will be this: M. de Chalusse left the house with two millions in his possession; and while he was absent, he either disposed of that enormous sum—or else it was stolen from him."
Mademoiselle Marguerite shuddered. "Oh! stolen," she faltered.
"Yes, my child—anything is possible. We must consider the situation in every possible light. But to continue. Where was M. de Chalusse going?"
"To the house of a gentleman who would, he thought, be able to furnish the address given in the letter he had torn up."
"What was this gentleman's name?"
The magistrate wrote the name down on his tablets, and then, resuming his examination, he said: "Now, in reference to this unfortunate letter which, in your opinion, was the cause of the count's death, what did it say?"
"I don't know, monsieur. It is true that I helped the count in collecting the fragments, but I did not read what was written on them."
"That is of little account. The main thing is to ascertain who wrote the letter. You told me that it could only have come from the sister who disappeared thirty years ago, or else from your mother."
"That was, and still is, my opinion."
The magistrate toyed with his ring; and a smile of satisfaction stole over his face. "Very well!" he exclaimed, "in less than five minutes I shall be able to tell you whether the letter was from your mother or not. My method is perfectly simple. I have only to compare the handwriting with that of the letters found in the escritoire."
Mademoiselle Marguerite sprang up, exclaiming: "What a happy idea!"
But without seeming to notice the girl's surprise, he added: "Where are the remnants of this letter which you and the count picked up in the garden?"
"M. de Chalusse placed them in his pocket."
"They must be found. Tell the count's valet to look for them."
The girl rang; but M. Casimir, who was supposed to be engaged in making preparations for the funeral, was not in the house. However, another servant and Madame Leon offered their services, and certainly displayed the most laudable zeal, but their search was fruitless; the fragments of the letter could not be found. "How unfortunate!" muttered the magistrate, as he watched them turn the pockets of the count's clothes inside out. "What a fatality! That letter would probably have solved the mystery."
Compelled to submit to this disappointment, he returned to the study; but he was evidently discouraged. Although he did not consider the mystery insoluble, far from it, he realized that time and research would be required to arrive at a solution, and that the affair was quite beyond his province. One hope alone remained.
By carefully studying the last words which M. de Chalusse had written and spoken he might arrive at the intention which had dictated them. Experience had wonderfully sharpened his penetration, and perhaps he might discover a hidden meaning which would throw light upon all this doubt and uncertainty. Accordingly, he asked Mademoiselle Marguerite for the paper upon which the count had endeavored to pen his last wishes; and in addition he requested her to write on a card the dying man's last words in the order they had been uttered. But on combining the written and the spoken words the only result obtained was as follows:—"My entire fortune—give—friends—against—Marguerite—despoiled—your mother—take care." These twelve incoherent words revealed the count's absorbing and poignant anxiety concerning his fortune and Marguerite's future, and also the fear and aversion with which Marguerite's mother inspired him. But that was all; the sense was not precise enough for any practical purpose. Certainly the word "give" needed no explanation. It was plain that the count had endeavored to write, "I give my entire fortune." The meaning of the word "despoiled" was also clear. It had evidently been wrung from the half-unconscious man by the horrible thought that Marguerite—his own daughter, unquestionably—would not have a penny of all the millions he had intended for her. "Take care" also explained itself. But there were two words which seemed absolutely incomprehensible to the magistrate, and which he vainly strove to connect with the others in an intelligible manner. These were the words "friends" and "against," and they were the most legibly written of all. For the thirtieth time the magistrate was repeating them in an undertone, when a rap came at the door, and almost immediately Madame Leon entered the room.
"What is it?" inquired Mademoiselle Marguerite.
Laying a package of letters, addressed to M. de Chalusse, on the desk, the housekeeper replied: "These have just come by the post for the poor count. Heaven rest his soul!" And then handing a newspaper to Mademoiselle Marguerite, she added, in an unctuous tone: "And some one left this paper for mademoiselle at the same time."
"This paper—for me? You must be mistaken."
"Not at all. I was in the concierge's lodge when the messenger brought it; and he said it was for Mademoiselle Marguerite, from one of her friends." And with these words she made one of her very best courtesies, and withdrew.
The girl had taken the newspaper, and now, with an air of astonishment and apprehension, she slowly unfolded it. What first attracted her attention was a paragraph on the first page marked round with red chalk. The paper had evidently been sent in order that she might read this particular passage, and accordingly she began to peruse it. "There was a great sensation and a terrible scandal last evening at the residence of Madame d'A——, a well known star of the first magnitude——"
It was the shameful article which described the events that had robbed Pascal of his honor. And to make assurance doubly sure, to prevent the least mistake concerning the printed initials, the coward who sent the paper had appended the names of the persons mixed up in the affair, at full length, in pencil. He had written d'Argeles, Pascal Ferailleur, Ferdinand de Coralth, Rochecote. And yet, in spite of these precautions, the girl did not at first seize the full meaning of the article; and she was obliged to read it over again. But when she finally understood it—when the horrible truth burst upon her—the paper fell from her nerveless hands, she turned as pale as death, and, gasping for breath, leaned heavily against the wall for support.
Her features expressed such terrible suffering that the magistrate sprang from his chair with a bound. "What has happened?" he eagerly asked.
She tried to reply, but finding herself unable to do so, she pointed to the paper lying upon the floor, and gasped: "There! there!"
The magistrate understood everything at the first glance; and this man, who had witnessed so much misery—who had been the confidant of so many martyrs—was filled with consternation at thought of the misfortunes which destiny was heaping upon this defenceless girl. He approached her, and led her gently to an arm-chair, upon which she sank, half fainting. "Poor child!" he murmured. "The man you had chosen—the man whom you would have sacrificed everything for—is Pascal Ferailleur, is he not?"
"Yes, it is he."
"He is an advocate?"
"As I have already told you, monsieur."
"Does he live in the Rue d'Ulm?"
The magistrate shook his head sadly. "It is the same," said he. "I also know him, my poor child; and I loved and honored him. Yesterday I should have told you that he was worthy of you. He was above slander. But now, see what depths love of play has brought him to. He is a thief!"
Mademoiselle Marguerite's weakness vanished. She sprang from her chair, and indignantly faced the magistrate. "It is false!" she cried, vehemently; "and what that paper says is false as well!"
Had her reason been affected by so many successive blows? It seemed likely; for, livid a moment before, her face had now turned scarlet. She trembled nervously from head to foot, and there was a gleam of insanity in her big black eyes.
"If she doesn't weep, she is lost," thought the magistrate. And, instead of encouraging her to hope, he deemed it best to try and destroy what he considered a dangerous illusion. "Alas! my poor child," he said sadly, "you must not deceive yourself. The newspapers are often hasty in their judgment; but an article like that is only published when proof of its truth is furnished by witnesses of unimpeachable veracity."
She shrugged her shoulders as if she were listening to some monstrous absurdities, and then thoughtfully muttered: "Ah! now Pascal's silence is explained: now I understand why he has not yet replied to the letter I wrote him last night."
The magistrate persevered, however, and added: "So, after the article you have just read, no one can entertain the shadow of a doubt."
Mademoiselle Marguerite hastily interrupted him. "But I have not doubted him for a second!" she exclaimed. "Doubt Pascal! I doubt Pascal! I would sooner doubt myself. I might commit a dishonorable act; I am only a poor, weak, ignorant girl, while he—he——You don't know, then, that he was my conscience? Before undertaking anything, before deciding upon anything, if ever I felt any doubt, I asked myself, 'What would he do?' And the mere thought of him is sufficient to banish any unworthy idea from my heart." Her tone and manner betokened complete and unwavering confidence; and her faith imparted an almost sublime expression to her face. "If I was overcome, monsieur," she continued, "it was only because I was appalled by the audacity of the accusation. How was it possible to make Pascal even SEEM to be guilty of a dishonorable act? This is beyond my powers of comprehension. I am only certain of one thing—that he is innocent. If the whole world rose to testify against him, it would not shake my faith in him, and even if he confessed that he was guilty I should be more likely to believe that he was crazed than culpable!"