"But, my dear fellow," cried Sauvresy, "how can we clear up your affairs?"
"Oh, don't clear them up at all; do as I do—let the creditors act as they please, they will know how to settle it all, rest assured; let them sell out my property."
"Never! Then you would be ruined, indeed!"
"Well, it's only a little more or a little less."
"What splendid disinterestedness!" thought Bertha; "what coolness, what admirable contempt of money, what noble disdain of the petty details which annoy common people! Was Sauvresy capable of all this?"
She could not at least accuse him of avarice, since for her he was as prodigal as a thief; he had never refused her anything; he anticipated her most extravagant fancies. Still he had a strong appetite for gain, and despite his large fortune, he retained the hereditary respect for money. When he had business with one of his farmers, he would rise very early, mount his horse, though it were mid-winter, and go several leagues in the snow to get a hundred crowns. He would have ruined himself for her if she had willed it, this she was convinced of; but he would have ruined himself economically, in an orderly way.
"You are right," said he to Hector, "your creditors ought to know your exact position. Who knows that they are not acting in concert? Their simultaneous refusal to lend you a hundred thousand makes me suspect it. I will go and see them."
"Clair & Co., from whom I received my first loans, ought to be the best informed."
"Well, I will see Clair & Co. But look here, do you know what you would do if you were reasonable?"
"You would go to Paris with me, and both of us—"
Hector turned very pale, and his eyes shone.
"Never!" he interrupted, violently, "never!"
His "dear friends" still terrified him. What! Reappear on the theatre of his glory, now that he was fallen, ruined, ridiculous by his unsuccessful suicide? Sauvresy had held out his arms to him. Sauvresy was a noble fellow, and loved Hector sufficiently not to perceive the falseness of his position, and not to judge him a coward because he shrank from suicide. But the others!—
"Don't talk to me about Paris," said he in a calmer tone. "I shall never set my foot in it again."
"All right—so much the better; stay with us; I sha'n't complain of it, nor my wife either. Some fine day we'll find you a pretty heiress in the neighborhood. But," added Sauvresy, consulting his watch, "I must go if I don't want to lose the train."
"I'll go to the station with you," said Tremorel.
This was not solely from a friendly impulse. He wanted to ask Sauvresy to look after the articles left at the pawnbroker's in the Rue de Condo, and to call on Jenny. Bertha, from her window, followed with her eyes the two friends; who, with arms interlocked, ascended the road toward Orcival. "What a difference," thought she, "between these two men! My husband said he wished to be his friend's steward; truly he has the air of a steward. What a noble gait the count has, what youthful ease, what real distinction! And yet I'm sure that my husband despises him, because he has ruined himself by dissipation. He affected—I saw it—an air of protection. Poor youth! But everything about the count betrays an innate or acquired superiority; even his name, Hector—how it sounds!" And she repeated "Hector" several times, as if it pleased her, adding, contemptuously, "My husband's name is Clement!"
M. de Tremorel returned alone from the station, as gayly as a convalescent taking his first airing. As soon as Bertha saw him she left the window. She wished to remain alone, to reflect upon this event which had happened so suddenly, to analyze her sensations, listen to her presentiments, study her impressions and decide, if possible, upon her line of conduct. She only reappeared when the tea was set for her husband, who returned at eleven in the evening. Sauvresy was faint from hunger, thirst, and fatigue, but his face glowed with satisfaction.
"Victory!" exclaimed he, as he ate his soup. "We'll snatch you from the hands of the Philistines yet. Parbleu! The finest feathers of your plumage will remain, after all, and you will be able to save enough for a good cosey nest."
Bertha glanced at her husband.
"How is that?" said she.
"It's very simple. At the very first, I guessed the game of our friend's creditors. They reckoned on getting a sale of his effects; would have bought them in a lump dirt cheap, as it always happens, and then sold them in detail, dividing the profits of the operation."
"And can you prevent that?" asked Tremorel, incredulously.
"Certainly. Ah, I've completely checkmated these gentlemen. I've succeeded by chance—I had the good luck to get them all together this evening. I said to them, you'll let us sell this property as we please, voluntarily, or I'll outbid you all, and spoil your cards. They looked at me in amazement. My notary, who was with me, remarked that I was Monsieur Sauvresy, worth two millions. Our gentlemen opened their eyes very wide, and consented to grant my request."
Hector, notwithstanding what he had said, knew enough about his affairs to see that this action would save him a fortune—a small one, as compared with what he had possessed, yet a fortune.
The certainty of this delighted him, and moved by a momentary and sincere gratitude, he grasped both of Sauvresy's hands in his.
"Ah, my friend," cried he, "you give me my honor, after saving my life! How can I ever repay you?"
"By committing no imprudences or foolishnesses, except reasonable ones. Such as this," added Sauvresy, leaning toward Bertha and embracing her.
"And there is nothing more to fear?"
"Nothing! Why I could have borrowed the two millions in an hour, and they knew it. But that's not all. The search for you is suspended. I went to your house, took the responsibility of sending away all your servants except your valet and a groom. If you agree, we'll send the horses to be sold to-morrow, and they'll fetch a good price; your own saddle-horse shall be brought here."
These details annoyed Bertha. She thought her husband exaggerated his services, carrying them even to servility.
"Really," thought she, "he was born to be a steward."
"Do you know what else I did?" pursued Sauvresy. "Thinking that perhaps you were in want of a wardrobe, I had three or four trunks filled with your clothes, sent them out by rail, and one of the servants has just gone after them."
Hector, too, began to find Sauvresy's services excessive, and thought he treated him too much like a child who could foresee nothing. The idea of having it said before a woman that he was in want of clothes irritated him. He forgot that he had found it a very simple thing in the morning to ask his friend for some linen.
Just then a noise was heard in the vestibule. Doubtless the trunks had come. Bertha went out to give the necessary orders.
"Quick!" cried Sauvresy. "Now that we are alone, here are your trinkets. I had some trouble in getting them. They are suspicious at the pawnbroker's. I think they began to suspect that I was one of a band of thieves."
"You didn't mention my name, did you?"
"That would have been useless. My notary was with me, fortunately. One never knows how useful one's notary may be. Don't you think society is unjust toward notaries?"
Tremorel thought his friend talked very lightly about a serious matter, and this flippancy vexed him.
"To finish up, I paid a visit to Miss Jenny. She has been abed since last evening, and her chambermaid told me she had not ceased sobbing bitterly ever since your departure."
"Had she seen no one?"
"Nobody at all. She really thought you dead, and when I told her you were here with me, alive and well, I thought she would go mad for joy. Do you know, Hector, she's really pretty."
"And a very good little body, I imagine. She told me some very touching things. I would wager, my friend, that she don't care so much for your money as she does for yourself."
Hector smiled superciliously.
"In short, she was anxious to follow me, to see and speak to you. I had to swear with terrible oaths that she should see you to-morrow, before she would let me go; not at Paris, as you said you would never go there, but at Corbeil."
"Ah, as for that—"
"She will be at the station to-morrow at twelve. We will go down together, and I will take the train for Paris. You can get into the Corbeil train, and breakfast with Miss Jenny at the hotel of the Belle Image."
Hector began to offer an objection. Sauvresy stopped him with a gesture.
"Not a word," said he. "Here is my wife."
On going to bed, that night, the count was less enchanted than ever with the devotion of his friend Sauvresy. There is not a diamond on which a spot cannot be found with a microscope.
"Here he is," thought he, "abusing his privileges as the saver of my life. Can't a man do you a service, without continually making you feel it? It seems as though because he prevented me from blowing my brains out, I had somehow become something that belongs to him! He came very near upbraiding me for Jenny's extravagance. Where will he stop?"
The next day at breakfast he feigned indisposition so as not to eat, and suggested to Sauvresy that he would lose the train.
Bertha, as on the evening before, crouched at the window to see them go away. Her troubles during the past eight-and-forty hours had been so great that she hardly recognized herself. She scarcely dared to reflect or to descend to the depths of her heart. What mysterious power did this man possess, to so violently affect her life? She wished that he would go, never to return, while at the same time she avowed to herself that in going he would carry with him all her thoughts. She struggled under the charm, not knowing whether she ought to rejoice or grieve at the inexpressible emotions which agitated her, being irritated to submit to an influence stronger than her own will.
She decided that to-day she would go down to the drawing-room. He would not fail—were it only for politeness—to go in there; and then, she thought, by seeing him nearer, talking with him, knowing him better, his influence over her would vanish. Doubtless he would return, and so she watched for him, ready to go down as soon as she saw him approaching. She waited with feverish shudderings, anxiously believing that this first tete-a-tete in her husband's absence would be decisive. Time passed; it was more than two hours since he had gone out with Sauvresy, and he had not reappeared. Where could he be?
At this moment, Hector was awaiting Jenny at the Corbeil station. The train arrived, and Jenny soon appeared. Her grief, joy, emotion had not made her forget her toilet, and never had she been so rollickingly elegant and pretty. She wore a green dress with a train, a velvet mantle, and the jauntiest little hat in the world. As soon as she saw Hector standing near the door, she uttered a cry, pushed the people aside, and rushed into his arms, laughing and crying at the same time. She spoke quite loud, with wild gestures, so that everyone could hear what she said.
"You didn't kill yourself, after all," said she. "Oh, how I have suffered; but what happiness I feel to-day!"
Tremorel struggled with her as he could, trying to calm her enthusiastic exclamations, softly repelling her, charmed and irritated at once, and exasperated at all these eyes rudely fixed on him. For none of the passengers had gone out. They were all there, staring and gazing. Hector and Jenny were surrounded by a circle of curious folks.
"Come along," said Hector, his patience exhausted. He drew her out of the door, hoping to escape this prying curiosity; but he did not succeed. They were persistently followed. Some of the Corbeil people who were on the top of the omnibus begged the conductor to walk his horses, that this singular couple might not be lost to view, and the horses did not get into a trot until they had disappeared in the hotel.
Sauvresy's foresight in recommending the place of meeting had thus been disconcerted by Jenny's sensational arrival. Questions were asked; the hostess was adroitly interrogated, and it was soon known that this person, who waited for eccentric young ladies at the Corbeil station, was an intimate friend of the owner of Valfeuillu. Neither Hector nor Jenny doubted that they formed the general topic of conversation. They breakfasted gayly in the best room at the Belle Image, during which Tremorel recounted a very pretty story about his restoration to life, in which he played a part, the heroism of which was well calculated to redouble the little lady's admiration. Then Jenny in her turn unfolded her plans for the future, which were, to do her justice, most reasonable. She had resolved more than ever to remain faithful to Hector now that he was ruined, to give up her elegant rooms, sell her furniture, and undertake some honest trade. She had found one of her old friends, who was now an accomplished dressmaker, and who was anxious to obtain a partner who had some money, while she herself furnished the experience. They would purchase an establishment in the Breda quarter, and between them could scarcely fail to prosper. Jenny talked with a pretty, knowing, business-like air, which made Hector laugh. These projects seemed very comic to him; yet he was touched by this unselfishness on the part of a young and pretty woman, who was willing to work in order to please him.
But, unhappily, they were forced to part. Jenny had gone to Corbeil intending to stay a week; but the count told her this was absolutely impossible. She cried bitterly at first, then got angry, and finally consoled herself with a plan to return on the following Tuesday.
"Good-by," said she, embracing Hector, "think of me." She smilingly added, "I ought to be jealous; for they say your friend's wife is perhaps the handsomest woman in France. Is it true?"
"Upon my word, I don't know. I've forgotten to look at her."
Hector told the truth. Although he did not betray it, he was still under the surprise of his chagrin at the failure of his attempt at suicide. He felt the dizziness which follows great moral crises as well as a heavy blow on the head, and which distracts the attention from exterior things. But Jenny's words, "the handsomest woman in France," attracted his notice, and he could, that very evening, repair his forgetfulness. When he returned to Valfeuillu, his friend had not returned; Mme. Sauvresy was alone reading, in the brilliantly lighted drawing-room. Hector seated himself opposite her, a little aside, and was thus able to observe her at his ease, while engaging her in conversation. His first impression was an unfavorable one. He found her beauty too sculptural and polished. He sought for imperfections, and finding none, was almost terrified by this lovely, motionless face, these clear, cold eyes. Little by little, however, he accustomed himself to pass the greater part of the afternoon with Bertha, while Sauvresy was away arranging his affairs—selling, negotiating, using his time in cutting down interests and discussing with agents and attorneys. He soon perceived that she listened to him with pleasure, and he judged from this that she was a decidedly superior woman, much better than her husband. He had no wit, but possessed an inexhaustible fund of anecdotes and adventures. He had seen so many things and known so many people that he was as interesting as a chronicle. He had a sort of frothy fervor, not wanting in brilliancy, and a polite cynicism which, at first, surprised one. Had Bertha been unimpassioned, she might have judged him at his value; but she had lost her power of insight. She heard him, plunged in a foolish ecstasy, as one hears a traveller who has returned from far and dangerous countries, who has visited peoples of whose language the hearer is ignorant, and lived in the midst of manners and customs incomprehensible to ourselves.
Days, weeks, months passed on, and the Count de Tremorel did not find life at Valfeuillu as dull as he had thought. He insensibly slipped along the gentle slope of material well-being, which leads directly to brutishness. A physical and moral torpor had succeeded the fever of the first days, free from disagreeable sensations, though wanting in excitement. He ate and drank much, and slept twelve round hours. The rest of the time, when he did not talk with Bertha, he wandered in the park, lounged in a rocking-chair, or took a jaunt in the saddle. He even went fishing under the willows at the foot of the garden; and grew fat. His best days were those which he spent at Corbeil with Jenny. He found in her something of his past, and she always quarrelled with him, which woke him up. Besides, she brought him the gossip of Paris and the small talk of the boulevards. She came regularly every week, and her love for Hector, far from diminishing, seemed to grow with each interview. The poor girl's affairs were in a troubled condition. She had bought her establishment at too high a price, and her partner at the end of the first month decamped, carrying off three thousand francs. She knew nothing about the trade which she had undertaken, and she was robbed without mercy on all sides. She said nothing of these troubles to Hector, but she intended to ask him to come to her assistance. It was the least that he could do.
At first, the visitors to Valfeuillu were somewhat astonished at the constant presence there of a young man of leisure; but they got accustomed to him. Hector assumed a melancholy expression of countenance, such as a man ought to have who had undergone unheard-of misfortunes, and whose life had failed of its promise. He appeared inoffensive; people said:
"The count has a charming simplicity."
But sometimes, when alone, he had sudden and terrible relapses. "This life cannot last," thought he; and he was overcome with childish rage when he contrasted the past with the present. How could he shake off this dull existence, and rid himself of these stiffly good people who surrounded him, these friends of Sauvresy? Where should he take refuge? He was not tempted to return to Paris; what could he do there? His house had been sold to an old leather merchant; and he had no money except that which he borrowed of Sauvresy. Yet Sauvresy, to Hector's mind, was a most uncomfortable, wearisome, implacable friend; he did not understand half-way measures in desperate situations.
"Your boat is foundering," he said to Hector; "let us begin by throwing all that is superfluous into the sea. Let us keep nothing of the past; that is dead; we will bury it, and nothing shall recall it. When your situation is relieved, we will see."
The settlement of Hector's affairs was very laborious. Creditors sprung up at every step, on every side, and the list of them seemed never to be finished. Some had even come from foreign lands. Several of them had been already paid, but their receipts could not be found, and they were clamorous. Others, whose demands had been refused as exorbitant, threatened to go to law, hoping to frighten Sauvresy into paying. Sauvresy wearied his friend by his incessant activity. Every two or three days he went to Paris, and he attended the sales of the property in Burgundy and Orleans. The count at last detested and hated him; Sauvresy's happy, cheerful air annoyed him; jealousy stung him. One thought—that a wretched one—consoled him a little. "Sauvresy's happiness," said he to himself, "is owing to his imbecility. He thinks his wife dead in love with him, whereas she can't bear him."
Bertha had, indeed, permitted Hector to perceive her aversion to her husband. She no longer studied the emotions of her heart; she loved Tremorel, and confessed it to herself. In her eyes he realized the ideal of her dreams. At the same time she was exasperated to see in him no signs of love for her. Her beauty was not, then, irresistible, as she had often been told. He was gallant and courteous to her—nothing more.
"If he loved me," thought she, "he would tell me so, for he is bold with women and fears no one."
Then she began to hate the girl, her rival, whom Hector went to meet at Corbeil every week. She wished to see her, to know her. Who could she be? Was she handsome? Hector had been very reticent about Jenny. He evaded all questions about her, not sorry to let Bertha's imagination work on his mysterious visits.
The day at last came when she could no longer resist the intensity of her curiosity. She put on the simplest of her toilets, in black, threw a thick veil over her head, and hastened to the Corbeil station at the hour that she thought the unknown girl would present herself there. She took a seat on a bench in the rear of the waiting-room. She had not long to wait. She soon perceived the count and a young girl coming along the avenue, which she could see from where she sat. They were arm in arm, and seemed to be in a very happy mood. They passed within a few steps of her, and as they walked very slowly, she was able to scrutinize Jenny at her ease. She saw that she was pretty, but that was all. Having seen that which she wished, and become satisfied that Jenny was not to be feared (which showed her inexperience) Bertha directed her steps homeward. But she chose her time of departure awkwardly; for as she was passing along behind the cabs, which concealed her, Hector came out of the station. They crossed each other's paths at the gate, and their eyes met. Did he recognize her? His face expressed great surprise, yet he did not bow to her. "Yes, he recognized me," thought Bertha, as she returned home by the river-road; and surprised, almost terrified by her boldness, she asked herself whether she ought to rejoice or mourn over this meeting. What would be its result? Hector cautiously followed her at a little distance. He was greatly astonished. His vanity, always on the watch, had already apprised him of what was passing in Bertha's heart, but, though modesty was no fault of his, he was far from guessing that she was so much enamoured of him as to take such a step.
"She loves me!" he repeated to himself, as he went along. "She loves me!"
He did not yet know what to do. Should he fly? Should he still appear the same in his conduct toward her, pretending not to have seen her? He ought to fly that very evening, without hesitation, without turning his head; to fly as if the house were about to tumble about his head. This was his first thought. It was quickly stifled under the explosion of the base passions which fermented in him. Ah, Sauvresy had saved him when he was dying! Sauvresy, after saving him, had welcomed him, opened to him his heart, purse, house; at this very moment he was making untiring efforts to restore his fortunes. Men like Tremorel can only receive such services as outrages. Had not his sojourn at Valfeuillu been a continual suffering? Was not his self-conceit tortured from morning till night? He might count the days by their humiliations. What! Must he always submit to—if he was not grateful for—the superiority of a man whom he had always been wont to treat as his inferior?
"Besides," thought he, judging his friend by himself, "he only acts thus from pride and ostentation. What am I at his house, but a living witness of his generosity and devotion? He seems to live for me—it's Tremorel here and Tremorel there! He triumphs over my misfortunes, and makes his conduct a glory and title to the public admiration."
He could not forgive his friend for being so rich, so happy, so highly respected, for having known how to regulate his life, while he had exhausted his own fortune at thirty. And should he not seize so good an opportunity to avenge himself for the favors which overwhelmed him?
"Have I run after his wife?" said he to himself, trying to impose silence on his conscience. "She comes to me of her own will, herself, without the least temptation from me. I should be a fool if I repelled her."
Conceit has irresistible arguments. Hector, when he entered the house, had made up his mind. He did not fly. Yet he had the excuse neither of passion nor of temptation; he did not love her, and his infamy was deliberate, coldly premeditated. Between her and him a chain more solid than mutual attraction was riveted; their common hatred of Sauvresy. They owed too much to him. His hand had held both from degradation.
The first hours of their mutual understanding were spent in angry words, rather than the cooings of love. They perceived too clearly the disgrace of their conduct not to try to reassure each other against their remorse. They tried to prove to each other that Sauvresy was ridiculous and odious; as if they were absolved by his deficiencies, if deficiencies he had. If indeed trustfulness is foolishness, Sauvresy was indeed a fool, because he could be deceived under his own eyes, in his own house, because he had perfect faith in his wife and his friend. He suspected nothing, and every day he rejoiced that he had been able to keep Tremorel by him. He often repeated to his wife:
"I am too happy."
Bertha employed all her art to encourage these joyous illusions. She who had before been so capricious, so nervous, wilful, became little by little submissive to the degree of an angelic softness. The future of her love depended on her husband, and she spared no pains to prevent the slightest suspicion from ruffling his calm confidence. Such was their prudence that no one in the house suspected their state. And yet Bertha was not happy. Her love did not yield her the joys she had expected. She hoped to be transported to the clouds, and she remained on the earth, hampered by all the miserable ties of a life of lies and deceit.
Perhaps she perceived that she was Hector's revenge on her husband, and that he only loved in her the dishonored wife of an envied friend. And to crown all, she was jealous. For several months she tried to persuade Tremorel to break with Jenny. He always had the same reply, which, though it might be prudent, was irritating.
"Jenny is our security—you must think of that."
The fact was, however, that he was trying to devise some means of getting rid of Jenny. It was a difficult matter. The poor girl, having fallen into comparative poverty, became more and more tenacious of Hector's affection. She often gave him trouble by telling him that he was no longer the same, that he was changed; she was sad, and wept, and had red eyes.
One evening, in a fit of anger, she menaced him with a singular threat.
"You love another," she said. "I know it, for I have proofs of it. Take care! If you ever leave me, my anger will fall on her head, and I will not have any mercy on her."
The count foolishly attached no importance to these words; they only hastened the separation.
"She is getting very troublesome," thought he. "If some day I shouldn't go when she was expecting me, she might come up to Valfeuillu, and make a wretched scandal."
He armed himself with all his courage, which was assisted by Bertha's tears and entreaties, and started for Corbeil resolved to break off with Jenny. He took every precaution in declaring his intentions, giving the best reasons for his decision that he could think of.
"We must be careful, you know, Jenny," said he, "and cease to meet for a while. I am ruined, you know, and the only thing that can save me is marriage."
Hector had prepared himself for an explosion of fury, piercing cries, hysterics, fainting-fits. To his great surprise, Jenny did not answer a word. She became as white as her collar, her ruddy lips blanched, her eyes stared.
"So," said she, with her teeth tightly shut to contain herself, "so you are going to get married?"
"Alas, I must," he answered with a hypocritical sigh. "You know that lately I have only been able to get money for you by borrowing from my friend; his purse will not be at my service forever."
Jenny took Hector by the hand, and led him to the window. There, looking intently at him, as if her gaze could frighten the truth out of him, she said, slowly:
"It is really true, is it, that you are going to leave me to get married?"
Hector disengaged one of his hands, and placed it on his heart.
"I swear it on my honor," said he.
"I ought to believe you, then."
Jenny returned to the middle of the room. Standing erect before the mirror, she put on her hat, quietly disposing its ribbons as if nothing had occurred. When she was ready to go, she went up to Tremorel. "For the last time," said she, in a tone which she forced to be firm, and which belied her tearful, glistening eyes. "For the last time, Hector, are we really to part?"
Jenny made a gesture which Tremorel did not see; her face had a malicious expression; her lips parted to utter some sarcastic response; but she recovered herself almost immediately.
"I am going, Hector," said she, after a moment's reflection; "If you are really leaving me to get married, you shall never hear of me again."
"Why, Jenny, I hope I shall still remain your friend."
"Well, only if you abandon me for another reason, remember what I tell you; you will be a dead man, and she, a lost woman."
She opened the door; he tried to take her hand; she repulsed him.
Hector ran to the window to assure himself of her departure. She was ascending the avenue leading to the station.
"Well, that's over," thought he, with a sigh of relief. "Jenny was a good girl."
The count told half a truth when he spoke to Jenny of his marriage. Sauvresy and he had discussed the subject, and if the matter was not as ripe as he had represented, there was at least some prospect of such an event. Sauvresy had proposed it in his anxiety to complete his work of restoring Hector to fortune and society.
One evening, about a month before the events just narrated, he had led Hector into the library, saying:
"Give me your ear for a quarter of an hour, and don't answer me hastily. What I am going to propose to you deserves serious reflection."
"Well, I can be serious when it is necessary."
"Let's begin with your debts. Their payment is not yet completed, but enough has been done to enable us to foresee the end. It is certain that you will have, after all debts are paid, from three to four hundred thousand francs."
Hector had never, in his wildest hopes, expected such success.
"Why, I'm going to be rich," exclaimed he joyously.
"No, not rich, but quite above want. There is, too, a mode in which you can regain your lost position."
"A mode? what?"
Sauvresy paused a moment, and looked steadily at his friend.
"You must marry," said he at last.
This seemed to surprise Hector, but not disagreeably.
"I, marry? It's easier to give that advice than to follow it."
"Pardon me—you ought to know that I do not speak rashly. What would you say to a young girl of good family, pretty, well brought up, so charming that, excepting my own wife, I know of no one more attractive, and who would bring with her a dowry of a million?"
"Ah, my friend, I should say that I adore her! And do you know such an angel?"
"Yes, and you too, for the angel is Mademoiselle Laurence Courtois."
Hector's radiant face overclouded at this name, and he made a discouraged gesture.
"Never," said he. "That stiff and obstinate old merchant, Monsieur Courtois, would never consent to give his daughter to a man who has been fool enough to waste his fortune."
Sauvresy shrugged his shoulders.
"Now, there's what it is to have eyes, and not see. Know that this Courtois, whom you think so obstinate, is really the most romantic of men, and an ambitious old fellow to boot. It would seem to him a grand good speculation to give his daughter to the Count Hector de Tremorel, cousin of the Duke of Samblemeuse, the relative of the Commarins, even though you hadn't a sou. What wouldn't he give to have the delicious pleasure of saying, Monsieur the Count, my son-in-law; or my daughter, Madame the Countess Hector! And you aren't ruined, you know, you are going to have an income of twenty thousand francs, and perhaps enough more to raise your capital to a million."
Hector was silent. He had thought his life ended, and now, all of a sudden, a splendid perspective unrolled itself before him. He might then rid himself of the patronizing protection of his friend; he would be free, rich, would have a better wife, as he thought, than Bertha; his house would outshine Sauvresy's. The thought of Bertha crossed his mind, and it occurred to him that he might thus escape a lover who although beautiful and loving was proud and bold, and whose domineering temper began to be burdensome to him.
"I may say," said he, seriously to his friend, "that I have always thought Monsieur Courtois an excellent and honorable man, and Mademoiselle Laurence seems to me so accomplished a young lady, that a man might be happy in marrying her even without a dowry."
"So much the better, my dear Hector, so much the better. But you know, the first thing is to engage Laurence's affections; her father adores her, and would not, I am sure, give her to a man whom she herself had not chosen."
"Don't disturb yourself," answered Hector, with a gesture of triumph, "she will love me."
The next day he took occasion to encounter M. Courtois, who invited him to dinner. The count employed all his practised seductions on Laurence, which were so brilliant and able that they were well fitted to surprise and dazzle a young girl. It was not long before the count was the hero of the mayor's household. Nothing formal had been said, nor any direct allusion or overture made; yet M. Courtois was sure that Hector would some day ask his daughter's hand, and that he should freely answer, "yes;" while he thought it certain that Laurence would not say "no."
Bertha suspected nothing; she was now very much worried about Jenny, and saw nothing else. Sauvresy, after spending an evening with the count at the mayor's, during which Hector had not once quitted the whist-table, decided to speak to his wife of the proposed marriage, which he thought would give her an agreeable surprise. At his first words, she grew pale. Her emotion was so great that, seeing she would betray herself, she hastily retired to her boudoir. Sauvresy, quietly seated in one of the bedroom arm-chairs, continued to expatiate on the advantages of such a marriage—raising his voice, so that Bertha might hear him in the neighboring room.
"Do you know," said he, "that our friend has an income of sixty thousand crowns? We'll find an estate for him near by, and then we shall see him and his wife every day. They will be very pleasant society for us in the autumn months. Hector is a fine fellow, and you've often told me how charming Laurence is."
Bertha did not reply. This unexpected blow was so terrible that she could not think clearly, and her brain whirled.
"You don't say anything," pursued Sauvresy. "Don't you approve of my project? I thought you'd be enchanted with it."
She saw that if she were silent any longer, her husband would go in and find her sunk upon a chair, and would guess all. She made an effort and said, in a strangled voice, without attaching any sense to her words:
"Yes, yes; it is a capital idea."
"How you say that! Do you see any objections?"
She was trying to find some objection, but could not.
"I have a little fear of Laurence's future," said she at last.
"I only say what I've heard you say. You told me that Monsieur Tremorel has been a libertine, a gambler, a prodigal—"
"All the more reason for trusting him. His past follies guarantee his future prudence. He has received a lesson which he will not forget. Besides, he will love his wife."
"How do you know?"
"Parbleu, he loves her already."
"Who told you so?"
And Sauvresy began to laugh about Hector's passion, which he said was becoming quite pastoral.
"Would you believe," said he, laughing, "that he thinks our worthy Courtois a man of wit? Ah, what spectacles these lovers look through! He spends two or three hours every day with the mayor. What do you suppose he does there?"
Bertha, by great effort, succeeded in dissembling her grief; she reappeared with a smiling face. She went and came, apparently calm, though suffering the bitterest anguish a woman can endure. And she could not run to Hector, and ask him if it were true!
For Sauvresy must be deceiving her. Why? She knew not. No matter. She felt her hatred of him increasing to disgust; for she excused and pardoned her lover, and she blamed her husband alone. Whose idea was this marriage? His. Who had awakened Hector's hopes, and encouraged them? He, always he. While he had been harmless, she had been able to pardon him for having married her; she had compelled herself to bear him, to feign a love quite foreign to her heart. But now he became hateful; should she submit to his interference in a matter which was life or death to her?
She did not close her eyes all night; she had one of those horrible nights in which crimes are conceived. She did not find herself alone with Hector until after breakfast the next day, in the billiard-hall.
"Is it true?" she asked.
The expression of her face was so menacing that he quailed before it. He stammered:
He was silent at first, asking himself whether he should tell the truth or equivocate. At last, irritated by Bertha's imperious tone, he replied:
She was thunderstruck at this response. Till then, she had a glimmer of hope. She thought that he would at least try to reassure her, to deceive her. There are times when a falsehood is the highest homage. But no—he avowed it. She was speechless; words failed her.
Tremorel began to tell her the motives which prompted his conduct. He could not live forever at Valfeuillu. What could he, with his habits and tastes, do with a few thousand crowns a year? He was thirty; he must, now or never, think of the future. M. Courtois would give his daughter a million, and at his death there would be a great deal more. Should he let this chance slip? He cared little for Laurence, it was the dowry he wanted. He took no pains to conceal his meanness; he rather gloried in it, speaking of the marriage as simply a bargain, in which he gave his name and title in exchange for riches. Bertha stopped him with a look full of contempt.
"Spare yourself," said she. "You love Laurence."
He would have protested; he really disliked her.
"Enough," resumed Bertha. "Another woman would have reproached you; I simply tell you that this marriage shall not be; I do not wish it. Believe me, give it up frankly, don't force me to act."
She retired, shutting the door violently; Hector was furious.
"How she treats me!" said he to himself. "Just as a queen would speak to a serf. Ah, she don't want me to marry Laurence!" His coolness returned, and with it serious reflections. If he insisted on marrying, would not Bertha carry out her threats? Evidently; for he knew well that she was one of those women who shrink from nothing, whom no consideration could arrest. He guessed what she would do, from what she had said in a quarrel with him about Jenny. She had told him, "I will confess everything to Sauvresy, and we will be the more bound together by shame than by all the ceremonies of the church."
This was surely the mode she would adopt to break a marriage which was so hateful to her; and Tremorel trembled at the idea of Sauvresy knowing all.
"What would he do," thought he, "if Bertha told him? He would kill me off-hand—that's what I would do in his place. Suppose he didn't; I should have to fight a duel with him, and if I killed him, quit the country. Whatever would happen, my marriage is irrevocably broken, and Bertha seems to be on my hands for all time."
He saw no possible way out of the horrible situation in which he had put himself.
"I must wait," thought he.
And he waited, going secretly to the mayor's, for he really loved Laurence. He waited, devoured by anxiety, struggling between Sauvresy's urgency and Bertha's threats. How he detested this woman who held him, whose will weighed so heavily on him! Nothing could curb her ferocious obstinacy. She had one fixed idea. He had thought to conciliate her by dismissing Jenny. It was a mistake. When he said to her:
"Bertha, I shall never see Jenny again."
She answered, ironically:
"Mademoiselle Courtois will be very grateful to you!"
That evening, while Sauvresy was crossing the court-yard, he saw a beggar at the gate, making signs to him.
"What do you want, my good man?"
The beggar looked around to see that no one was listening.
"I have brought you a note," said he, rapidly, and in a low tone. "I was told to give it, only to you, and to ask you to read it when you are alone."
He mysteriously slipped a note, carefully sealed, into Sauvresy's hand.
"It comes from pretty girl," added he, winking.
Sauvresy, turning his back to the house, opened it and read:
"SIR—You will do a great favor to a poor and unhappy girl, if you will come to-morrow to the Belle Image, at Corbeil, where you will be awaited all day.
"Your humble servant, "JENNY F—-."
There was also a postscript.
"Please, sir, don't say a word of this to the Count de Tremorel."
"Ah ha," thought Sauvresy, "there's some trouble about Hector, that's bad for the marriage."
"I was told, sir," said the beggar, "there would be an answer."
"Say that I will come," answered Sauvresy, throwing him a franc piece.
The next day was cold and damp. A fog, so thick that one could not discern objects ten steps off, hung over the earth. Sauvresy, after breakfast, took his gun and whistled to his dogs.
"I'm going to take a turn in Mauprevoir wood," said he.
"A queer idea," remarked Hector, "for you won't see the end of your gun-barrel in the woods."
"No matter, if I see some pheasants."
This was only a pretext, for Sauvresy, on leaving Valfeuillu, took the direct road to Corbeil, and half an hour later, faithful to his promise, he entered the Belle Image tavern.
Jenny was waiting for him in the large room which had always been reserved for her since she became a regular customer of the house. Her eyes were red with recent tears; she was very pale, and her marble color showed that she had not slept. Her breakfast lay untouched on the table near the fireplace, where a bright fire was burning. When Sauvresy came in, she rose to meet him, and took him by the hand with a friendly motion.
"Thank you for coming," said she. "Ah, you are very good."
Jenny was only a girl, and Sauvresy detested girls; but her grief was so sincere and seemed so deep, that he was touched.
"You are suffering, Madame?" asked he.
"Oh, yes, very much."
Her tears choked her, and she concealed her face in her handkerchief.
"I guessed right," thought Sauvresy. "Hector has deserted her. Now I must smooth the wound, and yet make future meetings between them impossible."
He took the weeping Jenny's hand, and softly pulled away the handkerchief.
"Have courage," said he.
She lifted her tearful eyes to him, and said:
"You know, then?"
"I know nothing, for, as you asked me, I have said nothing to Tremorel; but I can imagine what the trouble is."
"He will not see me any more," murmured Jenny. "He has deserted me."
Sauvresy summoned up all his eloquence. The moment to be persuasive and paternal had come. He drew a chair up to Jenny's, and sat down.
"Come, my child," pursued he, "be resigned. People are not always young, you know. A time comes when the voice of reason must be heard. Hector does not desert you, but he sees the necessity of assuring his future, and placing his life on a domestic foundation; he feels the need of a home."
Jenny stopped crying. Nature took the upper hand, and her tears were dried by the fire of anger which took possession of her. She rose, overturning her chair, and walked restlessly up and down the room.
"Do you believe that?" said she. "Do you believe that Hector troubles himself about his future? I see you don't know his character. He dream of a home, or a family? He never has and never will think of anything but himself. If he had any heart, would he have gone to live with you as he has? He had two arms to gain his bread and mine. I was ashamed to ask money of him, knowing that what he gave me came from you."
"But he is my friend, my dear child."
"Would you do as he has done?"
Sauvresy did not know what to say; he was embarrassed by the logic of this daughter of the people, judging her lover rudely, but justly.
"Ah, I know him, I do," continued Jenny, growing more excited as her mind reverted to the past. "He has only deceived me once—the morning he came and told me he was going to kill himself. I was stupid enough to think him dead, and to cry about it. He, kill himself? Why, he's too much of a coward to hurt himself! Yes, I love him, but I don't esteem him. That's our fate, you see, only to love the men we despise."
Jenny talked loud, gesticulating, and every now and then thumping the table with her fist so that the bottles and glasses jingled. Sauvresy was somewhat fearful lest the hotel people should hear her; they knew him, and had seen him come in. He began to be sorry that he had come, and tried to calm the girl.
"But Hector is not deserting you," repeated he. "He will assure you a good position."
"Humph! I should laugh at such a thing! Have I any need of him? As long as I have ten fingers and good eyes, I shall not be at the mercy of any man. He made me change my name, and wanted to accustom me to luxury! And now there is neither a Miss Jenny, nor riches, but there is a Pelagie, who proposes to get her fifty sous a day, without much trouble."
"No," said Sauvresy, "you will not need—"
"What? To work? But I like work; I am not a do-nothing. I will go back to my old life. I used to breakfast on a sou's worth of biscuit and a sou's worth of potatoes, and was well and happy. On Sundays, I dined at the Turk for thirty sous. I laughed more then in one afternoon, than in all the years I have known Tremorel."
She no longer cried, nor was she angry; she was laughing. She was thinking of her old breakfasts, and her feasts at the Turk.
Sauvresy was stupefied. He had no idea of this Parisian nature, detestable and excellent, emotional to excess, nervous, full of transitions, which laughs and cries, caresses and strikes in the same minute, which a passing idea whirls a hundred leagues from the present moment.
"So," said Jenny, more calmly, "I snap my fingers at Hector," —she had just said exactly the contrary, and had forgotten it —"I don't care for him, but I will not let him leave me in this way. It sha'n't be said that he left me for another. I won't have it."
Jenny was one of those women who do not reason, but who feel; with whom it is folly to argue, for their fixed idea is impregnable to the most victorious arguments. Sauvresy asked himself why she had asked him to come, and said to himself that the part he had intended to play would be a difficult one. But he was patient.
"I see, my child," he commenced, "that you haven't understood or even heard me. I told you that Hector was intending to marry."
"He!" answered Jenny, with an ironical gesture. "He get married."
She reflected a moment, and added:
"If it were true, though—"
"I tell you it is so."
"No," cried Jenny, "no, that can't be possible. He loves another, I am sure of it, for I have proofs."
Sauvresy smiled; this irritated her.
"What does this letter mean," cried she warmly, "which I found in his pocket, six months ago? It isn't signed to be sure, but it must have come from a woman."
"Yes, one that destroys all doubts. Perhaps you ask, why I did not speak to him about it? Ah, you see, I did not dare. I loved him. I was afraid if I said anything, and it was true he loved another, I should lose him. And so I resigned myself to humiliation, I concealed myself to weep, for I said to myself, he will come back to me. Poor fool!"
"Well, but what will you do?"
"Me? I don't know—anything. I didn't say anything about the letter, but I kept it; it is my weapon—I will make use of it. When I want to, I shall find out who she is, and then—"
"You will compel Tremorel, who is kindly disposed toward you, to use violence."
"He? What can he do to me? Why, I will follow him like his shadow —I will cry out everywhere the name of this other. Will he have me put in St. Lazare prison? I will invent the most dreadful calumnies against him. They will not believe me at first; later, part of it will be believed. I have nothing to fear—I have no parents, no friends, nobody on earth who cares for me. That's what it is to raise girls from the gutter. I have fallen so low that I defy him to push me lower. So, if you are his friend, sir, advise him to come back to me."
Sauvresy was really alarmed; he saw clearly how real and earnest Jenny's menaces were. There are persecutions against which the law is powerless. But he dissimulated his alarm under the blandest air he could assume.
"Hear me, my child," said he. "If I give you my word of honor to tell you the truth, you'll believe me, won't you?"
She hesitated a moment, and said:
"Yes, you are honorable; I will believe you."
"Then, I swear to you that Tremorel hopes to marry a young girl who is immensely rich, whose dowry will secure his future."
"He tells you so; he wants you to believe it."
"Why should he? Since he came to Valfeuillu, he could have had no other affair than this with you. He lives in my house, as if he were my brother, between my wife and myself, and I could tell you how he spends his time every hour of every day as well as what I do myself."
Jenny opened her mouth to reply, but a sudden reflection froze the words on her lips. She remained silent and blushed violently, looking at Sauvresy with an indefinable expression. He did not observe this, being inspired by a restless though aimless curiosity. This proof, which Jenny talked about, worried him.
"Suppose," said he, "you should show me this letter."
She seemed to feel at these words an electric shock.
"To you?" she said, shuddering. "Never!"
If, when one is sleeping, the thunder rolls and the storm bursts, it often happens that the sleep is not troubled; then suddenly, at a certain moment, the imperceptible flutter of a passing insect's wing awakens one.
Jenny's shudder was like such a fluttering to Sauvresy. The sinister light of doubt struck on his soul. Now his confidence, his happiness, his repose, were gone forever. He rose with a flashing eye and trembling lips.
"Give me the letter," said he, in an imperious tone. Jenny recoiled with terror. She tried to conceal her agitation, to smile, to turn the matter into a joke.
"Not to-day," said she. "Another time; you are too curious."
But Sauvresy's anger was terrible; he became as purple as if he had had a stroke of apoplexy, and he repeated, in a choking voice:
"The letter, I demand the letter."
"Impossible," said Jenny. "Because," she added, struck with an idea, "I haven't got it here."
"Where is it?"
"At my room, in Paris."
"Come, then, let us go there."
She saw that she was caught; and she could find no more excuses, quick-witted as she was. She might, however, easily have followed Sauvresy, put his suspicions to sleep with her gayety, and when once in the Paris streets, might have eluded him and fled. But she did not think of that. It occurred to her that she might have time to reach the door, open it, and rush downstairs. She started to do so. Sauvresy caught her at a bound, shut the door, and said, in a low, hoarse voice:
"Wretched girl! Do you wish me to strike you?"
He pushed her into a chair, returned to the door, double locked it, and put the keys in his pocket. "Now," said he, returning to the girl, "the letter."
Jenny had never been so terrified in her life. This man's rage made her tremble; she saw that he was beside himself, that she was completely at his mercy; yet she still resisted him.
"You have hurt me very much," said she, crying, "but I have done you no harm."
He grasped her hands in his, and bending over her, repeated:
"For the last time, the letter; give it to me, or I will take it by force."
It would have been folly to resist longer. "Leave me alone," said she. "You shall have it."
He released her, remaining, however, close by her side, while she searched in all her pockets. Her hair had been loosened in the struggle, her collar was torn, she was tired, her teeth chattered, but her eyes shone with a bold resolution.
"Wait—here it is—no. It's odd—I am sure I've got it though —I had it a minute ago—"
And, suddenly, with a rapid gesture, she put the letter, rolled into a ball, into her mouth, and tried to swallow it. But Sauvresy as quickly grasped her by the throat, and she was forced to disgorge it.
He had the letter at last. His hands trembled so that he could scarcely open it.
It was, indeed, Bertha's writing.
Sauvresy tottered with a horrible sensation of dizziness; he could not see clearly; there was a red cloud before his eyes; his legs gave way under him, he staggered, and his hands stretched out for a support. Jenny, somewhat recovered, hastened to give him help; but her touch made him shudder, and he repulsed her. What had happened he could not tell. Ah, he wished to read this letter and could not. He went to the table, turned out and drank two large glasses of water one after another. The cold draught restored him, his blood resumed its natural course, and he could see. The note was short, and this was what he read:
"Don't go to-morrow to Petit-Bourg; or rather, return before breakfast. He has just told me that he must go to Melun, and that he should return late. A whole day!"
"He"—that was himself. This other lover of Hector's was Bertha, his wife. For a moment he saw nothing but that; all thought was crushed within him. His temples beat furiously, he heard a dreadful buzzing in his ears, it seemed to him as if the earth were about to swallow him up. He fell into a chair; from purple he became ashy white. Great tears trickled down his cheeks.
Jenny understood the miserable meanness of her conduct when she saw this great grief, this silent despair, this man with a broken heart. Was she not the cause of all? She had guessed who the writer of the note was. She thought when she asked Sauvresy to come to her, that she could tell him all, and thus avenge herself at once upon Hector and her rival. Then, on seeing this man refusing to comprehend her hints, she had been full of pity for him. She had said to herself that he would be the one who would be most cruelly punished; and then she had recoiled—but too late—and he had snatched the secret from her.
She approached Sauvresy and tried to take his hands; he still repulsed her.
"Let me alone," said he.
"Pardon me, sir—I am a wretch, I am horrified at myself."
He rose suddenly; he was gradually coming to himself.
"What do you want?"
"That letter—I guessed—"
He burst into a loud, bitter, discordant laugh, and replied:
"God forgive me! Why, my dear, did you dare to suspect my wife?"
While Jenny was muttering confused excuses, he drew out his pocket-book and took from it all the money it contained—some seven or eight hundred francs—which he put on the table.
"Take this, from Hector," said he, "he will not permit you to suffer for anything; but, believe me, you had best let him get married."
Then he mechanically took up his gun, opened the door, and went out. His dogs leaped upon him to caress him; he kicked them off. Where was he going? What was he going to do?
A small, fine, chilly rain had succeeded the morning fog; but Sauvresy did not perceive it. He went across the fields with his head bare, wandering at hazard, without aim or discretion. He talked aloud as he went, stopping ever and anon, then resuming his course. The peasants who met him—they all knew him—turned to look at him after having saluted him, asking themselves whether the master of Valfeuillu had not gone mad. Unhappily he was not mad. Overwhelmed by an unheard-of, unlooked-for catastrophe, his brain had been for a moment paralyzed. But one by one he collected his scattered ideas and acquired the faculty of thinking and of suffering. Each one of his reflections increased his mortal anguish. Yes, Bertha and Hector had deceived, had dishonored him. She, beloved to idolatry; he, his best and oldest friend, a wretch that he had snatched from misery, who owed him everything. And it was in his house, under his own roof, that this infamy had taken place. They had taken advantage of his noble trust, had made a dupe of him. The frightful discovery not only embittered the future, but also the past. He longed to blot out of his life these years passed with Bertha, with whom, but the night before, he had recalled these "happiest years of his life." The memory of his former happiness filled his soul with disgust. But how had this been done? When? How was it he had seen nothing of it? And now things came into his mind which should have warned him had he not been blind. He recalled certain looks of Bertha, certain tones of voice, which were an avowal. At times, he tried to doubt. There are misfortunes so great that to be believed there must be more than evidence.
"It is not possible!" muttered he.
Seating himself upon a prostrate tree in the midst of Mauprevoir forest, he studied the fatal letter for the tenth time within four hours.
"It proves all," said he, "and it proves nothing."
And he read once more.
"Do not go to-morrow to Petit-Bourg—"
Well, had he not again and again, in his idiotic confidence, said to Hector:
"I shall be away to-morrow, stay here and keep Bertha company."
This sentence, then, had no positive signification. But why add:
"Or rather, return before breakfast."
This was what betrayed fear, that is, the fault. To go away and return again anon, was to be cautious, to avoid suspicion. Then, why "he," instead of, "Clement?" This word was striking. "He" —that is, the dear one, or else, the master that one hates. There is no medium—'tis the husband, or the lover. "He," is never an indifferent person. A husband is lost when his wife, in speaking of him, says, "He."
But when had Bertha written these few lines? Doubtless some evening after they had retired to their room. He had said to her, "I'm going to-morrow to Melun," and then she had hastily scratched off this note and given it, in a book, to Hector.
Alas! the edifice of his happiness, which had seemed to him strong enough to defy every tempest of life, had crumbled, and he stood there lost in the midst of its debris. No more happiness, joys, hopes—nothing! All his plans for the future rested on Bertha; her name was mingled in his every dream, she was at once the future and the dream. He had so loved her that she had become something of himself, that he could not imagine himself without her. Bertha lost to him, he saw no direction in life to take, he had no further reason for living. He perceived this so vividly that the idea of suicide came to him. He had his gun, powder and balls; his death would be attributed to a hunting accident, and all would be over.
Oh, but the guilty ones!
They would doubtless go on in their infamous comedy—would seem to mourn for him, while really their hearts would bound with joy. No more husband, no more hypocrisies or terrors. His will giving his fortune to Bertha, they would be rich. They would sell everything, and would depart rejoicing to some distant clime. As to his memory, poor man, it would amuse them to think of him as the cheated and despised husband.
"Never!" cried he, drunk with fury, "never! I must kill myself, but first, I must avenge my dishonor!"
But he tried in vain to imagine a punishment cruel or terrible enough. What chastisement could expiate the horrible tortures which he endured? He said to himself that, in order to assure his vengeance, he must wait—and he swore that he would wait. He would feign the same stolid confidence, and resigned himself to see and hear everything.
"My hypocrisy will equal theirs," thought he.
Indeed a cautious duplicity was necessary. Bertha was most cunning, and at the first suspicion would fly with her lover. Hector had already—thanks to him—several hundred thousand francs. The idea that they might escape his vengeance gave him energy and a clear head.
It was only then that he thought of the flight of time, the rain falling in torrents, and the state of his clothes.
"Bah!" thought he, "I will make up some story to account for myself."
He was only a league from Valfeuillu, but he was an hour and a half reaching home. He was broken, exhausted; he felt chilled to the marrow of his bones. But when he entered the gate, he had succeeded in assuming his usual expression, and the gayety which so well hinted his perfect trustfulness. He had been waited for, but in spite of his resolutions, he could not sit at table between this man and woman, his two most cruel enemies. He said that he had taken cold, and would go to bed. Bertha insisted in vain that he should take at least a bowl of broth and a glass of claret.
"Really," said he, "I don't feel well."
When he had retired, Bertha said:
"Did you notice, Hector?"
"Something unusual has happened to him."
"Very likely, after being all day in the rain."
"No. His eye had a look I never saw before."
"He seemed to be very cheerful, as he always is."
"Hector, my husband suspects!"
"He? Ah, my poor good friend has too much confidence in us to think of being jealous."
"You deceive yourself, Hector; he did not embrace me when he came in, and it is the first time since our marriage."
Thus, at the very first, he had made a blunder. He knew it well; but it was beyond his power to embrace Bertha at that moment; and he was suffering more than he thought he should. When his wife and his friend ascended to his room, after dinner, they found him shivering under the sheets, red, his forehead burning, his throat dry, and his eyes shining with an unusual brilliancy. A fever soon came on, attended by delirium. A doctor was called, who at first said he would not answer for him. The next day he was worse. From this time both Hector and Bertha conceived for him the most tender devotion. Did they think they should thus in some sort expiate their crime? It is doubtful. More likely they tried to impose on the people about them; everyone was anxious for Sauvresy. They never deserted him for a moment, passing the night by turns near his bed. And it was painful to watch over him; a furious delirium never left him. Several times force had to be used to keep him on the bed; he tried to throw himself out of the window. The third day he had a strange fancy; he did not wish to stay in his chamber. He kept crying out:
"Carry me away from here, carry me away from here."
The doctor advised that he should be humored; so a bed was made up for him in a little room on the ground-floor, overlooking the garden. His wanderings did not betray anything of his suspicions; perhaps the firm will was able even to control the delirium. The fever finally yielded on the ninth day. His breathing became calmer, and he slept. When he awoke, reason had returned. That was a frightful moment. He had, so to speak, to take up the burden of his misery. At first he thought it the memory of a horrid night-mare; but no. He had not dreamed. He recalled the Belle Image, Jenny, the forest, the letter. What had become of the letter? Then, having the vague impression of a serious illness, he asked himself if he had said anything to betray the source of his misery. This anxiety prevented his making the slightest movement, and he opened his eyes softly and cautiously. It was eleven at night, and all the servants had gone to bed. Hector and Bertha alone were keeping watch; he was reading a paper, she was crocheting. Sauvresy saw by their placid countenances that he had betrayed nothing. He moved slightly; Bertha at once arose and came to him.
"How are you, dear Clement?" asked she, kissing him fondly on the forehead.
"I am no longer in pain."
"You see the result of being careless."
"How many days have I been sick?"
"Why was I brought here?"
"Because you wished it."
Tremorel had approached the bedside.
"You refused to stay upstairs," said he, "you were ungovernable till we had you brought here."
"But don't tire yourself," resumed Hector. "Go to sleep again, and you will be well by to-morrow. And good-night, for I am going to bed now, and shall return and wake your wife at four o'clock."
He went out, and Bertha, having given Sauvresy something to drink, returned to her seat.
"What a friend Tremorel is," murmured she. Sauvresy did not answer this terribly ironical exclamation. He shut his eyes, pretended to sleep, and thought of the letter. What had he done with it? He remembered that he had carefully folded it and put it in the right-hand pocket of his vest. He must have this letter. It would balk his vengeance, should it fall into his wife's hands; and this might happen at any moment. It was a miracle that his valet had not put it on the mantel, as he was accustomed to do with the things which he found in his master's pockets. He was reflecting on some means of getting it, of the possibility of going up to his bedroom, where his vest ought to be, when Bertha got up softly. She came to the bed and whispered gently:
He did not open his eyes, and she, persuaded that he was sleeping, though very lightly, stole out of the room, holding her breath as she went.
"Oh, the wretch!" muttered Sauvresy, "she is going to him!"
At the same time the necessity of recovering the letter occurred to him more vividly than ever.
"I can get to my room," thought he, "without being seen, by the garden and back-stairs. She thinks I'm asleep; I shall get back and abed before she returns."
Then, without asking himself whether he were not too feeble, or what danger there might be in exposing himself to the cold, he got up, threw a gown around him, put on his slippers and went toward the door.
"If anyone sees me, I will feign delirium," said he to himself.
The vestibule lamp was out and he found some difficulty in opening the door; finally, he descended into the garden. It was intensely cold, and snow had fallen. The wind shook the limbs of the trees crusted with ice. The front of the house was sombre. One window only was lighted—that of Tremorel's room; that was lighted brilliantly, by a lamp and a great blazing fire. The shadow of a man—of Hector—rested on the muslin curtains; the shape was distinct. He was near the window, and his forehead was pressed against the panes. Sauvresy instinctively stopped to look at his friend, who was so at home in his house, and who, in exchange for the most brotherly hospitality, had brought dishonor, despair and death.
Hector made a sudden movement, and turned around as if he was surprised by an unwonted noise. What was it? Sauvresy only knew too well. Another shadow appeared on the curtain—that of Bertha. And he had forced himself to doubt till now! Now proofs had come without his seeking. What had brought her to that room, at that hour? She seemed to be talking excitedly. He thought he could hear that full, sonorous voice, now as clear as metal, now soft and caressing, which had made all the chords of passion vibrate in him. He once more saw those beautiful eyes which had reigned so despotically over his heart, and whose expressions he knew so well. But what was she doing? Doubtless she had gone to ask Hector something, which he refused her, and she was pleading with him; Sauvresy saw that she was supplicating, by her motions; he knew the gesture well. She lifted her clasped hands as high as her forehead, bent her head, half shut her eyes. What languor had been in her voice when she used to say:
"Say, dear Clement, you will, will you not?"
And now she was using the same blandishments on another. Sauvresy was obliged to support himself against a tree. Hector was evidently refusing what she wished; then she shook her finger menacingly, and tossed her head angrily, as if she were saying:
"You won't? You shall see, then."
And then she returned to her supplications.
"Ah," thought Sauvresy, "he can resist her prayers; I never had such courage. He can preserve his coolness, his will, when she looks at him; I never said no to her; rather, I never waited for her to ask anything of me; I have passed my life in watching her lightest fancies, to gratify them. Perhaps that is what has ruined me!"
Hector was obstinate, and Bertha was roused little by little; she must be angry. She recoiled, holding out her arms, her head thrown back; she was threatening him. At last he was conquered; he nodded, "Yes." Then she flung herself upon him, and the two shadows were confounded in a long embrace.
Sauvresy could not repress an agonized cry, which was lost amid the noises of the night. He had asked for certainty; here it was. The truth, indisputable, evident, was clear to him. He had to seek for nothing more, now, except for the means to punish surely and terribly. Bertha and Hector were talking amicably. Sauvresy saw that she was about to go downstairs, and that he could not now go for the letter. He went in hurriedly, forgetting, in his fear of being discovered, to lock the garden door. He did not perceive that he had been standing with naked feet in the snow, till he had returned to his bedroom again; he saw some flakes on his slippers, and they were damp; quickly he threw them under the bed, and jumped in between the clothes, and pretended to be asleep.
It was time, for Bertha soon came in. She went to the bed, and thinking that he had not woke up, returned to her embroidery by the fire. Tremorel also soon reappeared; he had forgotten to take his paper, and had come back for it. He seemed uneasy.
"Have you been out to-night, Madame?" asked he, in a low voice.
"Have all the servants gone to bed?"
"I suppose so; but why do you ask?"
"Since I have been upstairs, somebody has gone out into the garden, and come back again."
Bertha looked at him with a troubled glance.
"Are you sure of what you say?"
"Certainly. Snow is falling, and whoever went out brought some back on his shoes. This has melted in the vestibule—"
Mme. Sauvresy seized the lamp, and interrupting Hector, said:
Tremorel was right. Here and there on the vestibule pavement were little puddles.
"Perhaps this water has been here some time," suggested Bertha.
"No. It was not there an hour ago, I could swear. Besides, see, here is a little snow that has not melted yet."
"It must have been one of the servants."
Hector went to the door and examined it.
"I do not think so," said he. "A servant would have shut the bolts; here they are, drawn back. Yet I myself shut the door to-night, and distinctly recollect fastening the bolts."
"It's very strange!"
"And all the more so, look you, because the traces of the water do not go much beyond the drawing-room door."
They remained silent, and exchanged anxious looks. The same terrible thought occurred to them both.
"If it were he?"
But why should he have gone into the garden? It could not have been to spy on them.
They did not think of the window.
"It couldn't have been Clement," said Bertha, at last. "He was asleep when I went back, and he is in a calm and deep slumber now."
Sauvresy, stretched upon his bed, heard what his enemies were saying. He cursed his imprudence.
"Suppose," thought he, "they should think of looking at my gown and slippers!"
Happily this simple idea did not occur to them; after reassuring each other as well as they were able, they separated; but each heart carried an anxious doubt. Sauvresy on that night had a terrible crisis in his illness. Delirium, succeeding this ray of reason, renewed its possession of his brain. The next morning Dr. R—- pronounced him in more danger than ever; and sent a despatch to Paris, saying that he would be detained at Valfeuillu three or four days. The distemper redoubled in violence; very contradictory symptoms appeared. Each day brought some new phase of it, which confounded the foresight of the doctors. Every time that Sauvresy had a moment of reason, the scene at the window recurred to him, and drove him to madness again.
On that terrible night when he had gone out into the snow, he had not been mistaken; Bertha was really begging something of Hector. This was it:
M. Courtois, the mayor, had invited Hector to accompany himself and his family on an excursion to Fontainebleau on the following day. Hector had cordially accepted the invitation. Bertha could not bear the idea of his spending the day in Laurence's company, and begged him not to go. She told him there were plenty of excuses to relieve him from his promise; for instance, he might urge that it would not be seemly for him to go when his friend lay dangerously ill. At first he positively refused to grant her prayer, but by her supplications and menaces she persuaded him, and she did not go downstairs until he had sworn that he would write to M. Courtois that very evening declining the invitation. He kept his word, but he was disgusted by her tyrannical behavior. He was tired of forever sacrificing his wishes and his liberty, so that he could plan nothing, say or promise nothing without consulting this jealous woman, who would scarcely let him wander out of her sight. The chain became heavier and heavier to bear, and he began to see that sooner or later it must be wrenched apart. He had never loved either Bertha or Jenny, or anyone, probably; but he now loved the mayor's daughter. Her dowry of a million had at first dazzled him, but little by little he had been subdued by Laurence's charms of mind and person. He, the dissipated rake, was seduced by such grave and naive innocence, such frankness and beauty; he would have married Laurence had she been poor—as Sauvresy married Bertha. But he feared Bertha too much to brave her suddenly, and so he waited. The next day after the quarrel about Fontainebleau, he declared that he was indisposed, attributed it to the want of exercise, and took to the saddle for several hours every day afterward. But he did not go far; only to the mayor's. Bertha at first did not perceive anything suspicious in Tremorel's rides; it reassured her to see him go off on his horse. After some days, however, she thought she saw in him a certain feeling of satisfaction concealed under the semblance of fatigue. She began to have doubts, and these increased every time he went out; all sorts of conjectures worried her while he was away. Where did he go? Probably to see Laurence, whom she feared and detested. The suspicion soon became a certainty with her. One evening Hector appeared, carrying in his button-hole a flower which Laurence herself had put there, and which he had forgotten to take out. Bertha took it gently, examined it, smelt it, and, compelling herself to smile:
"Why," said she, "what a pretty flower!"
"So I thought," answered Hector, carelessly, "though I don't know what it is called."
"Would it be bold to ask who gave it to you?"
"Not at all. It's a present from our good Plantat."
All Orcival knew that M. Plantat, a monomaniac on flowers, never gave them away to anyone except Mme. Laurence. Hector's evasion was an unhappy one, and Bertha was not deceived.
"You promised me, Hector," said she, "not to see Laurence any more, and to give up this marriage."
He tried to reply.
"Let me speak," she continued, "and explain yourself afterward. You have broken your word—you are deceiving my confidence! But I tell you, you shall not marry her!" Then, without awaiting his reply, she overwhelmed him with reproaches. Why had he come here at all? She was happy in her home before she knew him. She did not love Sauvresy, it was true; but she esteemed him, and he was good to her. Ignorant of the happiness of true love, she did not desire it. But he had come, and she could not resist his fascination. And now, after having engaged her affection, he was going to desert her, to marry another! Tremorel listened to her, perfectly amazed at her audacity. What! She dared to pretend that it was he who had abused her innocence, when, on the contrary, he had sometimes been astonished at her persistency! Such was the depth of her corruption, as it seemed to him, that he wondered whether he were her first or her twentieth lover. And she had so led him on, and had so forcibly made him feel the intensity of her will, that he had been fain still to submit to this despotism. But he had now determined to resist on the first opportunity; and he resisted.
"Well, yes," said he, frankly, "I did deceive you; I have no fortune —this marriage will give me one; I shall get married." He went on to say that he loved Laurence less than ever, but that he coveted her money more and more every day. "To prove this," he pursued, "if you will find me to-morrow a girl who has twelve hundred thousand francs instead of a million, I will marry her in preference to Mademoiselle Courtois."
She had never suspected he had so much courage. She had so long moulded him like soft wax, and this unexpected conduct disconcerted her. She was indignant, but at the same time she felt that unhealthy satisfaction that some women feel, when they meet a master who subdues them; and she admired Tremorel more than ever before. This time, he had taken a tone which conquered her; she despised him enough to think him quite capable of marrying for money. When he had done, she said:
"It's really so, then; you only care for the million of dowry?"
"I've sworn it to you a hundred times."
"Truly now, don't you love Laurence?"
"I have never loved her, and never shall." He thought that he would thus secure his peace until the wedding-day; once married, he cared not what would happen. What cared he for Sauvresy? Life is only a succession of broken friendships. What is a friend, after all? One who can and ought to serve you. Ability consists in breaking with people, when they cease to be useful to you.
"Hear me, Hector," said she at last. "I cannot calmly resign myself to the sacrifice which you demand. Let me have but a few days, to accustom myself to this dreadful blow. You owe me as much —let Clement get well, first."
He did not expect to see her so gentle and subdued; who would have looked for such concessions, so easily obtained? The idea of a snare did not occur to him. In his delight he betrayed how he rejoiced in his liberty, which ought to have undeceived Bertha; but she did not perceive it. He grasped her hand, and cried:
"Ah, you are very good—you really love me."
The Count de Tremorel did not anticipate that the respite which Bertha begged would last long. Sauvresy had seemed better during the last week. He got up every day, and commenced to go about the house; he even received numerous visits from the neighbors; without apparent fatigue. But alas, the master of Valfeuillu was only the shadow of himself. His friends would never have recognized in that emaciated form and white face, and burning, haggard eye, the robust young man with red lips and beaming visage whom they remembered. He had suffered so! He did not wish to die before avenging himself on the wretches who had filched his happiness and his life. But what punishment should he inflict? This fixed idea burning in his brain, gave his look a fiery eagerness. Ordinarily, there are three modes in which a betrayed husband may avenge himself. He has the right, and it is almost a duty—to deliver the guilty ones up to the law, which is on his side. He may adroitly watch them, surprise them and kill them. There is a law which does not absolve, but excuses him, in this. Lastly, he may affect a stolid indifference, laugh the first and loudest at his misfortune, drive his wife from his roof, and leave her to starve. But what poor, wretched methods of vengeance. Give up his wife to the law? Would not that be to offer his name, honor, and life to public ridicule? To put himself at the mercy of a lawyer, who would drag him through the mire. They do not defend the erring wife, they attack her husband. And what satisfaction would he get? Bertha and Tremorel would be condemned to a year's imprisonment, perhaps eighteen months, possibly two years. It seemed to him simpler to kill them. He might go in, fire a revolver at them, and they would not have time to comprehend it, for their agony would be but for a moment; and then? Then, he must become a prisoner, submit to a trial, invoke the judge's mercy, and risk conviction. As to turning his wife out of doors, that was to hand her over quietly to Hector. He imagined them leaving Valfeuillu, hand in hand, happy and smiling, and laughing in his face. At this thought he had a fit of cold rage; his self-esteem adding the sharpest pains to the wounds in his heart. None of these vulgar methods could satisfy him. He longed for some revenge unheard-of, strange, monstrous, as his tortures were. Then he thought of all the horrible tales he had read, seeking one to his purpose; he had a right to be particular, and he was determined to wait until he was satisfied. There was only one thing that could balk his progress—Jenny's letter. What had become of it? Had he lost it in the woods? He had looked for it everywhere, and could not find it.
He accustomed himself, however, to feign, finding a sort of fierce pleasure in the constraint. He learned to assume a countenance which completely hid his thoughts. He submitted to his wife's caresses without an apparent shudder; and shook Hector by the hand as heartily as ever. In the evening, when they were gathered about the drawing-room table, he was the gayest of the three. He built a hundred air-castles, pictured a hundred pleasure-parties, when he was able to go abroad again. Hector rejoiced at his returning health.