Émile Gaboriau.

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of the envelope was dissolved, and the letter could easily be opened
without showing in any way that it had ever been broken open. And now
the old man read the following words: -


"You are victorious, M. de Brevan. When you read this, I shall be no
longer alive.

"You may raise your head again; you are relieved of all fears. Daniel
can come back. I shall carry the secret of your infamy and your
cowardice into the grave with me.

"And yet, no!

"I can pardon you, having but a few moments longer to live; but God
will not pardon you. I - I shall be avenged. And, if it should require a
miracle, that miracle will be done, so as to inform that honorable man
who thought you were his friend, how and why the poor girl died whom he
had intrusted to your honor. H."


The old man was furious.

"The honor of Maxime de Brevan!" he growled with a voice of intense
hatred, - "the honor of Maxime de Brevan!"

But his terrible excitement did not keep him from manipulating the
other letter, addressed to Count Ville-Handry, in the same manner. The
operation was successful; and, without the slightest hesitation, he
read: -


"Dear father, - Broken down with anxiety, and faint from exhaustion, I
have waited till this morning for an answer to my humble letter, which I
had written to you on my knees.

"You have never replied to it; you are inexorable. I see I must die. I
shall die. Alas! I can hardly say I die willingly.

"I must appear very guilty in your eyes, father, that you should abandon
me thus to the hatred of Sarah Brandon and her people. And yet - ah! I
have suffered terribly. I have struggled hard before I could make up my
mind to leave your house, - the house where my mother had died, where I
had been so happy, and so tenderly beloved as a child by both of you.
Ah, if you but knew!

"And yet it was so little I asked of you! - barely enough to bury my
undeserved disgrace in a convent.

"Yes, undeserved, father; for I tell you at this hour, when no one
utters a falsehood, if my reputation was lost, my honor was not lost."


Big tears rolled down the cheeks of the old man; and he said in a
half-stifled voice, -

"Poor, poor child! And to think that for a whole year I have lived under
the same roof with her, without knowing it. But I am here. I am still in
time. Oh, what a friend _chance_ can be when it chooses!"

Most assuredly not one of the inmates of the house would have recognized
Papa Ravinet at this moment; he was literally transfigured. He was no
longer the cunning dealer in second-hand articles, the old scamp with
the sharp, vulgar face, so well known at all public sales, where he sat
in the front rank, watching for good bargains, and keeping cool when all
around him were in a state of fervent excitement.

The two letters he had just read had opened anew in his heart more than
one badly-healed and badly-scarred wound. He was suffering intensely;
and his pain, his wrath, and his hope of vengeance long delayed, gave
to his features a strange expression of energy and nobility. With
his elbows on the table, holding his head in his hands, and looking
apparently into the far past, he seemed to call up the miseries of the
past, and to trace out in the future the vague outlines of some great
scheme. And as his thoughts began to overflow, so to say, he broke out
in a strange, spasmodic monologue, -

"Yes," he murmured, "yes, I recognize you, Sarah Brandon! Poor child,
poor child! Overcome by such horrible intrigues! And that Daniel, who
intrusted her to the care of Maxime de Brevan - who is he? Why did she
not write to him when she suffered thus? Ah, if she had trusted me! What
a sad fate! And how can I ever hope to make her confide in _me_?"

An old clock struck seven, and the merchant was suddenly recalled to the
present; he trembled in all his limbs.

"Nonsense!" he growled. "I was falling asleep; and that is what I cannot
afford to do. I must go up stairs, and hear the child's confession."

Instantly, and with amazing dexterity, he replaced the letters in their
envelopes, dried them, pasted them up again, and smoothed them down,
till every trace of the steam had entirely disappeared. Then looking at
his work with an air of satisfaction, he said, -

"That was not so badly done. An expert in the post-office would not
suspect it. I may risk it."

And, thus re-assured, he rapidly mounted up to the fifth story; but
there Mrs. Chevassat suddenly barred his way, coming down stairs in a
manner which showed clearly that she had lain in wait for him.

"Well, my dear sir," she said with her sweetest manner: "so you have
become Miss Henrietta's banker?"

"Yes; do you object to it?"

"Oh, not at all! It is none of my business, only" -

She stopped, smiling wickedly, and then added, -

"Only she is a prodigiously pretty girl; and I was just saying to
myself, 'Upon my word, M. Ravinet's taste is not bad.'"

The merchant was on the point of giving her a pretty sharp, indignant
reply; but he controlled himself, because he knew how important it was
to mislead the woman; and, forcing himself to smile, he said, -

"You know I count upon your being discreet."

When he got up, he found that he ought, at least, to give credit to
Mamma Chevassat and the two ladies from the first floor, for having
employed their time well, and for having skilfully made use of the
articles he had contributed. The room, a short time ago cold and bare,
had an air of comfort about it now, which was delightful. On the
bureau stood a lamp with a shade to prevent the light from hurting the
patient's eyes; a bright fire blazed on the hearth; several old curtains
had been hung before the window, one before the other, to replace for
the time the missing panes; and on the table stood a teakettle, a china
cup, and two small medicine-bottles.

Evidently the doctor had been here during Ravinet's absence. He had
bled the poor girl, prescribed some medicines, and left again, with the
assurance that nothing more was needed but perfect quiet.

In fact, there was no trace left of the sufferings and the terrible
danger from which the patient had so marvellously escaped, except the
deep pallor of her face. Stretched out at full-length on her comfortable
bed with its thick mattresses and snow-white sheets, her head propped
up high on a couple of pillows, she was breathing freely, as was easily
seen by the steady, regular rising and falling of her bosom under the
cover.

But life and consciousness had also brought back to her a sense of the
horror of her position, and of her capacity for suffering.

Her brow resting on her arm, which was almost concealed by masses of
golden hair, immovable, and her eyes fixed steadily upon infinite space,
as if trying to pierce the darkness of the future, she would have looked
like a statue of sorrow rather than of resignation, but for the big
tears which were slowly dropping down her cheeks.

Her exquisite beauty looked almost ethereal under the circumstances; and
Papa Ravinet, when he saw her, remained fixed by admiration, standing
upon the threshold of the open door. But it occurred to him at once that
he might be looked upon as a spy, and that his feelings would be sure
to be misinterpreted. He coughed, therefore, to give warning, and then
stepped in.

At the noise he made, Henrietta roused herself. When she saw the old
merchant, she said in a faint, feeble voice, -

"Ah! it is you, sir. These kind ladies have told me all. You have saved
my life." Then, shaking her head, she added, -

"You have rendered me a sad service, sir."

She uttered these words so simply, but in a tone of such harrowing
grief, that Papa Ravinet was overcome.

"Unhappy child!" he exclaimed, "you do not think of trying it over
again?"

She made no answer. It was as good as if she had said, Yes.

"Why, you must be mad!" said the old man, excited almost beyond control.
"Only twenty years old, and give up life! That has never been done
before. You are suffering now; but you can hardly imagine what
compensation Providence may have in store for you hereafter" -

She interrupted him by a gesture, and said, -

"There was no future for me, sir, when I sought refuge in death."

"But" -

"Oh, don't try to convince me, sir! What I did, I had to do. I felt how
life was leaving me, and I only wished to shorten the agony. I had not
eaten any thing for three days when I lit that charcoal. Even to get the
charcoal, I had to risk a falsehood, and cheat the woman who let me have
it in credit. And yet God knows I was not wanting in courage. I would
have done the coarsest, hardest work cheerfully, joyously. But how did
I know how to get work? I asked Mrs. Chevassat a hundred times to obtain
employment for me; but she always laughed at me; and, when I begged
hard, she said" -

She stopped; and her face became crimson with shame. She dared not
repeat what the wife of the concierge had said. But she added in a voice
trembling with womanly shame and deep indignation, -

"Ah, that woman is a wicked creature!"

The old merchant was probably fully aware of the character of Mrs.
Chevassat. He guessed only too readily what kind of advice she had given
this poor girl of twenty, who had turned to her for help in her great
suffering. He uttered an oath which would have startled even that
estimable woman, and then said warmly, -

"I understand, Miss Henrietta, I understand. Do you think I don't know
what you must have suffered? I know poverty, as well as you. I can
understand your purpose but too well. Who would not give up life itself
when everybody abandons us? But I do not understand your despair, now
that circumstances have changed."

"Alas, sir, how have they changed?"

"How? What do you mean? Don't you see me? Do you think I would leave
you, after having been just in time to save your life? That would be
nice! No, my dear child, compose yourself; poverty shall not come near
you again, I'll see to that. You want somebody to advise you, to defend
you; and here I am; if you have enemies, let them beware! Come, smile
again, and think of the good times a-coming."

But she did not smile; she looked frightened, almost stupefied. Making
a supreme effort, she looked fixedly at the old man to see if she could
read in his face what were his real thoughts. He, on his part, was
seriously troubled by his failure to inspire her with confidence.

"Do you doubt my promises?" he asked her.

She shook her head; and uttering her words one by one, as if to give
them greater weight, she said, -

"I beg your pardon, sir. I do not doubt you. But I cannot understand why
you should offer me your kind protection."

Papa Ravinet affected a greater surprise than he really felt, and said,
raising his hands to heaven, -

"Great God! she mistrusts my good will."

"Sir!"

"Pray what can you have to fear from me? I am an old man; you are almost
a child. I come to help you. Is not that perfectly natural, and quite
simple?"

She said nothing; and he remained a few moments buried in thought, as if
trying to find out her motive for refusing his help. Suddenly he cried
out, beating his forehead, -

"Ah, I have it. That woman Chevassat has talked to you about me, no
doubt. Ah, the viper! I'll crush her one of these days! Come, let us be
frank; what has she told you?"

He hoped she would say a word at least. He waited; but nothing came.

Then he broke forth, with a vehemence scarcely controlled, and in words
very unexpected from a man like him, -

"Well, I will tell you what the old thief has told you. She told you
Papa Ravinet was a dangerous, ill-reputed man, who carried on in the
dark all kind of suspicious trades. She told you the old scamp was a
usurer, who knew no law, and kept no promise; whose only principle was
profit; who dealt in every thing with everybody, selling to-day old iron
in junk-shops, and to-morrow cashmere shawls to fashionable ladies; and
who lent money on imaginary securities - the talent of men and the beauty
of women. In fine, she told you that it was a piece of good-fortune for
a woman to be under my protection, and you knew it was a disgrace."

He stopped, as if to give the poor girl time to form her judgment, and
then went on more calmly, -

"Let us suppose there is such a Papa Ravinet as she has described. But
there is another one, whom but few people know, who has been sorely
tried by misfortune; and he is the one who now offers his aid to you."

There is no surer way to make people believe in any virtue we have, or
wish to appear to have, than to accuse ourselves of bad qualities, or
even vices, which we do not have. But, if the old man had calculated
upon this policy, he failed signally. Henrietta remained as icy as ever,
and said, -

"Believe me, sir, I am exceedingly obliged to you for all you have done
for me, and for your effort to convince me."

The poor man looked disappointed.

"In fact, you reject my offers, because I do not explain them to you by
any of the usual motives. But what can I tell you? Suppose I should say
to you that I have a daughter who has secretly left me, so that I do
not know what has become of her, and that her memory makes me anxious
to serve you. May I not have said to myself, that perhaps she is
struggling, just as you have done, with poverty; that she also has been
abandoned by her lover?"

The poor girl turned deadly pale as he spoke thus, and interrupted him
eagerly, raising herself on her pillows, -

"You are mistaken, sir. My position here may justify such suspicions, I
know; but I have no lover."

He replied, -

"I believe you; I swear I believe you. But, if that is so, how did you
get here? and how were you reduced to such extreme suffering?"

At last Papa Ravinet had touched the right chord. The poor girl was
deeply moved; and the tears started in her eyes. She said in a low
voice, -

"There are secrets which cannot be revealed."

"Not even when life and honor depend on them?"

"Yes."

"But" -

"Oh, pray do not insist!"

If Henrietta had known the old merchant, she would have read in his eyes
the satisfaction which he felt. A moment before he had despaired of ever
gaining her confidence; now he felt almost sure of success. The time
seemed to him to have come to strike a decisive blow.

"I have tried my best to win your confidence, I confess; but it was
solely in your own interest. If it had been otherwise, do you think
I should have asked you these questions, instead of finding out every
thing by simply tearing a piece of paper?"

The poor girl could not retain a cry of terror.

"You mean my letters?"

"I have both."

"Ah! That is why the ladies who nursed me looked for them everywhere in
vain."

Instead of any other answer, he drew them from his pocket, and laid them
on the bed with an air of injured innocence. To all appearances, the
envelopes had not been touched. Henrietta glanced at them, and then,
holding out her hand to the old man, she said, -

"I thank you, sir!"

He did not stir; but he felt that this false evidence of honesty had
helped him more than all his eloquence. He hastily added, -

"After all, I could not resist the temptation to read the directions,
and to draw my own conclusions. Who is Count Ville-Handry? I suppose he
is your father. And M. Maxime de Brevan? No doubt he is the young man
who called to see you so often. Ah, if you would but trust me! If you
but knew how a little experience of the world often helps us to overcome
the greatest difficulties!"

He was evidently deeply moved.

"However, wait till you are perfectly well again before you come to any
decision. Consider the matter carefully. You need not tell me any thing
else but what is absolutely necessary for me to know in order to advise
you."

"Yes, indeed! In that way I may" -

"Well, I'll wait, why, as long as you want me to wait, - two days, ten
days."

"Very well."

"Only, I pray you, promise me solemnly that you will give up all idea of
suicide."

"I promise you solemnly I will."

Papa Ravinet's eyes shone with delight; and he exclaimed joyously, -

"Done! I'll come up again to-morrow; for, to tell the truth, I am tired
to death, and must go and lie down."

But he told a fib; for he did not go back to his rooms. In spite of
the wretched weather, he left the house; and, as soon as he was in the
street, he hid himself in a dark corner, from which he could watch the
front-door of the house. He remained there a long time, exposed to wind
and rain, uttering now and then a low oath, and stamping with his feet
to keep himself warm. At last, just as it struck eleven, a hack stopped
at No. 23. A young man got out, rang the bell, and entered.

"He is Maxime de Brevan," murmured the old man. Then he added in a
savage voice, -

"I knew he would come, the scoundrel! to see if the charcoal had done
its work."

But the same moment the young man came out again, and jumped into the
carriage, which quickly drove off.

"Aha!" laughed the merchant. "No chance for you, my fine fellow! You
have lost your game, and you'll have to try your luck elsewhere; and
this time I am on hand. I hold you fast; and, instead of one bill to
pay, there will be two now."




II.

Generally it is in novels only that unknown people suddenly take it into
their heads to tell their whole private history, and to confide to their
neighbors even their most important and most jealously-guarded secrets.
In real life things do not go quite so fast.

Long after the old merchant had left Henrietta, she lay pondering, and
undecided as to what she should do on the next day. In the first place,
she asked herself who this odd man could be, who had spoken of himself
as a dangerous and suspicious person. Was he really what he appeared to
be? The girl almost doubted it. Although wholly inexperienced, she still
had been struck by certain astounding changes in Papa Ravinet. Thus,
whenever he became animated, his carriage, his gestures, and his
manners, contrasted with his country-fashioned costume, as if he had for
the moment forgotten his lesson. At the same time his language, usually
careless and incorrect, and full of slang terms belonging to his trade,
became pure and almost elegant.

What was his business? Had he been a dealer in second-hand articles
before he became a tenant in No. 23 Grange Street, three years ago? One
might very easily have imagined that Papa Ravinet (was that his real
name?) had before that been in a very different position. And why not?
Is not Paris the haven in which all shipwrecked sailors of society seek
a refuge? Does not Paris alone offer to all wretched and guilty people
a hiding-place, where they can begin a new life, lost and unknown in the
vast multitude? What discoveries might be made there? How many persons,
once brilliant lights in the great world, and then, of a sudden, sought
for in vain by friend and foe, might be found there again, disguised
in strange costumes, and earning a livelihood in most curious ways! Why
should not the old merchant be one of this class?

But, even if this were so, it would not have satisfactorily explained
to Henrietta the eagerness of Papa Ravinet to serve her, nor his
perseverance in offering her his advice. Was it merely from charity that
he did all this? Alas! Christian charity is not often so pressing.

Did he know who Henrietta was? Had he at any period of her life come in
contact with her? or had his interests ever been mixed up with hers? Was
he anxious to make a return for some kindness shown to him? or did he
count upon some reward in the future? Who could tell?

"Would it not be the height of imprudence to put myself in the power of
this man?" thought the poor girl.

If, on the other hand, she rejected his offers, she fell back into that
state of forlorn wretchedness, from which she had only been able to save
herself by suicide.

This view was all the more urgent, as the poor child, like all persons
who have been rescued from death only after having exhausted their
sufferings, now began to cling to life with an almost desperate
affection. It seemed as if the contact with death had wiped out at once
all the memory of the past, and all the threats of the future.

"O Daniel!" she said to herself, trembling all over, - "O Daniel! my only
friend upon earth, what would you suffer if you knew that you lost me
forever by the very means you chose to secure my safety!"

To refuse the assistance offered her by Papa Ravinet would have required
an amount of energy which she did not possess. The voice of reflection
continually said to her, -

"The old man is your only hope."

It never occurred to her to conceal the truth from Papa Ravinet, or to
deceive him by a fictitious story. She only thought how she could tell
him the truth without telling him all; how she could confess enough to
enable him to serve her, and yet not to betray a secret which she held
more dear than her happiness, her reputation, and life itself.

Unfortunately, she was the victim of one of those intrigues which are
formed and carried out within the narrow circle of a family, - intrigues
of the most abominable character, which people suspect, and often even
know perfectly well, and which yet remain unpunished, because they
cannot be reached by the law.

Henrietta's father, Count Ville-Handry, was in 1845 one of the
wealthiest land-owners of the province of Anjou. The good people near
Rosiers and Saint Mathurin were fond of pointing out to strangers the
massive towers of Ville-Handry, a magnificent castle half hid among
noble old woods on the beautiful slopes of the bluffs which line the
Loire.

"There," they said, "lives a true gentleman, a little too proud,
perhaps, but, nevertheless, a true gentleman."

For contrary to the usual state of things in the country, where envy
is apt to engender hatred, the count was quite popular, in spite of his
title and his large fortune. He was at that time about forty years old,
quite tall and good-looking, solemn and courteous, obliging, although
reserved, and very good-natured as long as no one spoke in his presence
of the church or the reigning family, the nobility or the clergy, of his
hounds or the wines of his vineyards, or of various other subjects on
which he had what he chose to consider his "own opinions."

As he spoke but rarely, and said little at the time, he said fewer
foolish things than most people, and thus obtained the reputation of
being clever and well-informed, of which he was very proud and very
careful. He lived freely, almost profusely, and thus put aside every
year but little more than about half his income. He had all his clothes
made in Paris, was proud of his foot, and always wore gloves.

His house was kept handsomely; and his gardens cost him a good deal of
money. He kept a pack of hounds, and six hunters. Finally, he kept half
a dozen lazy servants in the house, whose gorgeous liveries, with
the family coat-of-arms, were a source of perpetual wonder at Saint
Mathurin.

He would have been perfect, but for his passion for hunting.

As soon as the season opened, he was sure to be found, on foot or
on horseback, crossing the stubblefields, jumping over hedges, or
floundering in the swamps. This he carried so far, that the ladies of
the neighborhood, who had daughters, blamed him to his face for
his imprudence, and scolded him for risking his precious health so
recklessly.

This nobleman, forty years old, and enjoying all that heart could
desire, was unmarried. And yet he had not lacked opportunities to remedy
the evil. There was not a good mother for twenty miles around who did
not covet this prize for her daughter, - thirty thousand dollars a year,
and a great man.

He had only to appear at a ball in the provincial towns, and he was the
hero. Mothers and daughters kept their sweetest smiles for him; and kind
welcomes were offered on all sides. But all these manoeuvres had been
fruitless; he had escaped from all snares, and resisted the most cunning
devices.

Why was he so much opposed to marriage? His friends found the
explanation in a certain person, half housekeeper, half companion, who
lived in the castle, and was very pretty and very designing. But there
are malicious tongues everywhere.

The next year, however, an event occurred which was calculated to give
some ground to these idle, gossiping tales. One fine morning in the
month of July, 1847, the lady died suddenly of apoplexy. Six weeks
later, a report began to spread that Count Ville-Handry was going to be
married.

The report was well founded. The count did marry. The fact could not



Online LibraryÉmile GaboriauThe Clique of Gold → online text (page 2 of 39)