Émile Gaboriau.

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her feelings. Why had she given her money last night? Did she ask for
money? Did she look like such a terrible creditor? She knew, God be
thanked! what life was here below, and that we are bound to help one
another. To be sure, there was that furniture dealer, who must be paid;
but she would have been quite willing to make him wait; and why should
he not? She had got very different people to wait! Why, only last week,
she had sent one of those men away, and a dressmaker into the bargain,
who came to levy upon one of her tenants in the back building, - the very
nicest, and prettiest, and best of them all.

Thus she discoursed and discoursed with amazing volubility, till at
last, when she thought she had made a sufficiently strong impression on
her "poor little pussy-cat," she said, -

"But one can easily see, my dear young lady, that you are a mere child.
Sell your poor little jewels! Why, that is murder, as long as there is
some one at hand quite ready to do any thing for you."

At this sudden, but not altogether unexpected attack, Henrietta
trembled.

"For I am sure," continued Mrs. Chevassat, "if it were only to be
agreeable to you, he would give one of his arms, this poor M. Maxime."

Henrietta looked so peremptorily at her, that the worthy lady seemed to
be quite disconcerted.

"I forbid you," cried the young lady, with a voice trembling with
indignation, - "I forbid you positively ever to mention his name!"

The woman shrugged her shoulders.

"As you like it," she answered.

And then, ready to change the conversation, she added, -

"Well, then, let us return to your ring. What _do_ you propose to do?"

"That is exactly why I came to you," replied Henrietta. "I do not know
what is to be done in such a case."

Mrs. Chevassat smiled, very much pleased.

"And you did very well to come to us," she said.

"Chevassat will go, take the charcoal-dealer and the grocer next door
with him; and before going to bed you will have your money, I promise
you! You see he understands pretty well how to make the clerks do their
duty, my Chevassat."

That evening the excellent man really condescended to go up stairs, and
to bring Henrietta himself eight hundred and ninety-five francs.

He did not bring the whole nine hundred francs, he said; for, having
put his two neighbors to some inconvenience, he was bound, according
to established usage, to invite them to take something. For himself,
he had, of course, kept nothing, - oh, nothing at all! He could take his
oath upon that; for he preferred by far leaving that little matter to
the beautiful young lady's liberality.

"Here are ten francs," said Henrietta curtly, in order to make an end to
his endless talk.

Thus, with the few gold-pieces which she had found in her purse, the
poor girl had a capital of about a thousand francs in hand. How many
days, how many months, this sum would have secured to her, if the
furniture-dealer had not been there with his bill! He did not fail to
present himself next day, accompanied by Mrs. Chevassat. He asked for
five hundred and seventy-nine francs. Such a sum for a few second-hand
pieces of furniture which adorned that wretched garret! It was a clear
swindle, and the impudence so great, that Henrietta was overwhelmed. But
still she paid.

When he was gone, she sadly counted from one hand into the other
the twenty-three gold-pieces that were left, when suddenly a thought
occurred to her, that might have saved her, if she had followed it out.

It was the thought of leaving the house by stealth, of going to the
station of the Orleans Railway, and of taking the first train for the
home of Daniel's aunt. Alas! she was content with writing to her, and
remained.




XIX.

This inspiration was, moreover, to be the last favor which Providence
vouchsafed to Henrietta, - an opportunity which, once allowed to pass,
never returns. From that moment she found herself irrevocably insnared
in a net which tightened day by day more around her, and held her a
helpless captive. She had vowed to herself, the unfortunate girl, that
she would economize her little hoard like the blood in her veins. But
how could she economize?

She was without every thing. When M. de Brevan had gone to engage
this garret-room, he had thought of nothing; or rather (and such a
calculation was quite in keeping with his cold-blooded rascality) he had
taken his measures so that his victim must soon be in utter destitution.
Without any other clothes than those she wore on the night of her
flight, she had no linen, no shoes, not a towel even to wipe her hands,
unless she borrowed them from her friend down stairs.

Accustomed as she was to all the comforts of boundless wealth, and to
all the refinements of cleanliness, these privations became to her a
genuine martyrdom. Thus she spent in a variety of small purchases more
than a hundred and fifty francs. The sum was enormous at a time when
she could already count the days to the hour when she would be without
bread. In addition to that she had to pay Mrs. Chevassat five francs a
day for her board. Five francs were another enormous sum which troubled
her grievously; for she would have been quite willing to live on
bread and water. But in that direction she thought no economizing was
possible.

One evening she had hinted at the necessity of retrenching, when Mrs.
Chevassat had shot at her a venomous glance, which pierced her to the
very marrow of her bones.

"It must be done," she said to herself.

In her mind she felt as if the five francs were a kind of daily ransom
which she paid the estimable concierge's wife for her good-will. It
is true, that, for such a consideration, the terrible woman was all
attention for her "poor little pussy-cat;" for thus she had definitely
dubbed Henrietta, becoming daily more familiar, and adding this odious
and irritating presumption to all the other tortures of the poor girl.
Many a time poor Henrietta had been made so indignant and furious,
that she had been on the point of rebelling; but she had never dared,
submitting to this familiarity for the same reason for which she
paid her five francs every day. The old woman, taking her silence for
consent, put no longer any restraint upon herself. She declared she
could not comprehend how her "little pussy-cat," young and pretty as she
was, could consent to live as she did. Was that a life?

Then she always came back to M. Maxime, who continued to call regularly
twice a day, the poor young man!

"And more than that, poor little pussy," she added, "you will see that
one of these days he will summon courage enough to come and offer you an
apology."

But Henrietta would not believe that.

"He will never have such consummate impudence," she thought.

He had it, nevertheless. One morning, when she had just finished
righting up her room, somebody knocked discreetly, at her door. Thinking
that it was Mrs. Chevassat, who brought her her breakfast, she went to
the door and opened it, without asking who was there. And she started
back with amazement and with terror when she recognized M. de Brevan.

It really looked as if he were making a supreme effort over himself. He
was deadly pale; his lips trembled; his eyes looked dim and uncertain;
and he moved his lips and jaws as if he had gravel in his mouth.

"I have come, madam," he said, "to ask if you have reconsidered."

She made no reply, looking at him with an air of contempt which would
have caused a man with some remnant of honor in his heart to flee from
the spot instantly. But he had, no doubt, armed himself beforehand,
against contempt.

"I know," he continued, "that my conduct must appear abominable in
your eyes. I have led you into this snare, and I have meanly betrayed a
friend's confidence; but I have an excuse. My passion is stronger than
my will, than my reason."

"A vile passion for money!"

"You may think so, madam, if you choose. I shall not even attempt to
clear myself. That is not what I came for. I came solely for the purpose
of enlightening you in regard to your own position, which you do not
seem to realize."

If she had followed her own impulses, Henrietta would have driven the
wretch away. But she thought she ought to know his intentions and his
plans. She overcame her disgust, therefore, and remained silent.

"In the first place," said M. de Brevan, apparently trying to collect
his thoughts, "bear this in mind, madam. You are ruined in reputation,
and ruined through me. All Paris is convinced, by this time, that I have
run away with you; and that I keep you concealed in a charming place,
where we enjoy our mutual love; in fact, that you are my mistress."

He seemed to expect an explosion of wrath. By no means! Henrietta
remained motionless like a statue.

"What would you have?" he went on in a tone of sarcasm. "My coachman has
been talking. Two friends of mine, who reached the palace on foot when
I drove up, saw you jump into my _coupe_; and, as if that had not been
enough, that absurd M. Elgin must needs call me out. We had a duel, and
I have wounded him."

The manner in which the young girl shrugged her shoulders showed but too
clearly that she did not believe M. de Brevan. He added, -

"If you doubt it, madam, pray read this, then, at the top of the second
column."

She took the paper which he offered her, and there she read, -


"Yesterday, in the woods near Vincennes, a duel with swords was fought
between M. M. de B - - and one of the most distinguished members of our
American colony. After five minutes' close combat, M. E - - was wounded
in the arm. It is said that the sudden and very surprising disappearance
of one of the greatest heiresses of the Faubourg Saint Germain was not
foreign to this duel. Lucky M. de B - - is reported to know too much of
the beautiful young lady's present home for the peace of the family.
But surely these lines ought to be more than enough on the subject of
an adventure which will ere long, no doubt, end in a happy and brilliant
marriage."


"You see, madam," said M. de Brevan, when he thought Henrietta had
had time enough to read the article, "you see it is not I who advise
marriage. If you will become my wife, your honor is safe."

"Ah, sir!"

In that simple utterance there was so much contempt, and such profound
disgust, that M. de Brevan seemed to turn, if possible, whiter than
before.

"Ah! I see you prefer marrying M. Thomas Elgin," he said.

She only shrugged her shoulders; but he went on, -

"Oh, do not smile! He or I; you have no other alternative. Sooner or
later you will have to choose."

"I shall not choose, sir."

"Oh, just wait till poverty has come! Then you think, perhaps, you will
only need to implore your father to come to your assistance. Do not
flatter yourself. Your father has no other will but that of the Countess
Sarah; and the Countess Sarah will have it so, that you marry Sir
Thorn."

"I shall not appeal to my father, sir."

"Then you probably count upon Daniel's return? Ah, believe me! do not
indulge in such dreams. I have told you Daniel loves the Countess Sarah;
and, even if he did not love her, you have been too publicly disgraced
for him ever to give you his name. But that is nothing yet. Go to the
navy department, and they will tell you that 'The Conquest' is out on a
cruise of two years more. At the time when Daniel returns, if he returns
at all (which is very far from being certain), you will long since have
become Mrs. Elgin or Madame de Brevan, unless" -

Henrietta looked at him so fixedly, that he could not bear the glance;
and then she said in a deep voice, -

"Unless I die! did you not mean that? Be it so."

Coldly M. de Brevan bowed, as if he intended to say, -

"Yes, unless you should be dead: that was what I meant."

Then, opening the door, he added, -

"Let me hope, madam, that this is not your last word. I shall, however,
have the honor of calling every week to receive your orders."

And, bowing, he left the room.

"What brought him here, the wretch! What does he want of me?"

Thus she questioned herself as soon as she was alone, and the door was
'shut.' And her anguish increased tenfold; for she did not believe a
word of the pretexts which M. de Brevan had assigned for his visit. No,
she could not admit that he had come to see if she had reflected, nor
that he really cherished that abominable hope, that misery, hunger, and
fear would drive her into his arms.

"He ought to know me well enough," she thought with a new access of
wrath, "to be sure that I would prefer death a thousand times."

There was no doubt in her mind that this step, which had evidently
been extremely painful to himself, had become necessary through some
all-powerful consideration. But what could that be? By a great effort
of mind Henrietta recalled, one by one, all the phrases used by M.
de Brevan, in the hope that some word might give her light; but she
discovered nothing. All he had told her as to the consequences of her
flight, she had foreseen before she had resolved to escape. He had told
her nothing new, but his duel with Sir Thorn; and, when she considered
the matter, she thought that, also, quite natural. For did they not both
covet with equal eagerness the fortune which she would inherit from her
mother as soon as she came of age? The antagonism of their interests
explained, she thought, their hatred; for she was well convinced that
they hated each other mortally. The idea that Sir Thorn and M. de Brevan
understood each other, and pursued a common purpose, never entered her
mind; and, if it had suggested itself, she would have rejected it as
absurd.

Must she, then, come to the conclusion that M. de Brevan had really,
when he appeared before her, no other aim but to drive her to despair?
But why should he do so? what advantage would that be to him? The man
who wants to make a girl his own does not go to work to chill her with
terror, and to inspire her with ineffable disgust. Still M. de Brevan
had done this; and therefore he must aim at something different from
that marriage of which he spoke.

What was that something? Such abominable things are not done for the
mere pleasure of doing them, especially if that involves some amount of
danger. Now, it was very clear, that upon Daniel's return, whether he
still loved Henrietta or not, M. de Brevan would have a terrible account
to give to that brave sailor who had trusted him with the care of his
betrothed. Did M. de Brevan ever think of that return? Oh, yes! he did;
and with secret terror. There was proof of that in one of the phrases
that had escaped him.

After having said, "When Daniel returns," he had added, "if he ever
returns, which is by no means sure."

Why this proviso? Had he any reasons to think that Daniel might perish
in this dangerous campaign? Now she remembered, yes, she remembered
distinctly, that M. de Brevan had smiled in a very peculiar way when he
had said these words. And, as she recalled this, her heart sank within
her, and she felt as if she were going to faint. Was he not capable of
anything, the wretched man, who had betrayed him so infamously, - capable
even of arming an assassin?

"Oh, I must warn Daniel!" she exclaimed, "I must warn him, and not lose
a minute."

And, although she had written him a long letter only the day before, she
wrote again, begging him to be watchful, to mistrust everybody, because
most assuredly his life was threatened. And this letter she carried
herself to the post-office, convinced as she was that to confide it to
Mrs. Chevassat would have been the same as to send it to M. de Brevan.

It was astonishing, however, how the estimable lady seemed to become day
by day more attached to Henrietta, and how expansive and demonstrative
her affections grew. At all hours of the day, and on the most trivial
pretexts, she would come up, sit down, and for entire hours entertain
her with her intolerable speeches. She did not put any restraint upon
herself any longer, but talked "from the bottom of her heart" with
her "dear little pussy-cat," as if she had been her own daughter.
The strange doctrines at which she had formerly only hinted, she now
proclaimed without reserve, boasting of an open kind of cynicism, which
betrayed a terrible moral perversity. It looked as if the horrible
Megsera had been deputed by Henrietta's enemies for the special purpose
of demoralizing and depraving her, if possible, and to drive her into
the brilliant and easy life of sin in which so many unhappy women
perish.

Fortunately, in this case, the messenger was ill-chosen. The eloquence
of Mrs. Chevassat, which very likely would have inflamed the imagination
of some poor but ambitious girl, caused nothing but disgust in
Henrietta's heart. She had gotten into the habit of thinking of other
things while the old woman was holding forth; and her noble soul floated
off to regions where these vulgarities could reach her no more.

Her life was, nevertheless, a very sad one. She never went out, spending
her days in her chamber, reading, or working at a great embroidery, a
masterpiece of patience and taste, which she had undertaken with a faint
hope that it might become useful in case of distress. But a new source
of trouble roused her soon after from this dull monotony. Her money
grew less and less; and at last the day came when she changed the last
gold-piece of her nine hundred francs. It became urgent to resort once
more to the pawnbroker; for these were the first days of April, and the
honeyed words of Mrs. Chevassat had given her to understand that she had
better get ready to pay on the 8th her rent, which amounted to a hundred
francs.

She intrusted therefore to the concierge the remaining ring to be
pawned. Calculating from the sum she had received for the first ring,
she hoped to obtain for this one, at the very least, five or six hundred
francs.

The concierge brought her one hundred and ninety francs.

At first, she was convinced the man had robbed her; and she gave him
to understand that she thought so. But he showed her the receipt in a
perfect rage.

"Look there," he said, "and remember to whom you are talking!"

On the receipt she read in fact these words: "Advanced, two hundred
francs." Convinced of the injustice of her accusations, Henrietta had to
make her apologies, and hardly succeeded by means of a ten-franc-piece
in soothing the man's wounded feelings.

Alas! the poor girl did not know that one is always at liberty to pledge
an article only for a given sum, a part of its real value; and she was
too inexperienced in such matters to notice the reference to that mode
of pawning on her receipt. However, it was one of those mishaps for poor
Henrietta which cannot be mended, and from which we never recover. She
lost two months' existence, the very time, perhaps, that was needed till
Daniel's return. Still the day when the rent was due came, and she paid
her hundred francs. The second day after that, she was once more without
money, and, according to Mrs. Chevassat's elegant expression, forced
to "live on her poor possessions." But the pawnbroker had too cruelly
disappointed her calculations: she would not resort to him again, and
risk a second disappointment.

This time she thought she would, instead of pawning, sell, her gold-
dressing-case; and she requested the obliging lady below to procure her
a purchaser. At first Mrs. Chevassat raised a host of objections.

"To sell such a pretty toy!" she said, "it's murder! Just think, you'll
never see it again. If, on the other hand, you carry it to 'Uncle' you
can take it out again as soon as you have a little money."

But she lost her pains, she saw and at last consented to bring up a kind
of dealer in toilet-articles, an excellent honest man, she declared, in
whom one could put the most absolute confidence. And he really showed
himself worthy of her warm recommendation; for he offered instantly five
hundred francs for the dressing-case, which was not worth much more
than three times as much. Nor was this his last bid. After an hour's
irritating discussions, after having ten times pretended to leave the
room, he drew with many sighs his _portemonnaie_ from its secret home,
and counted upon the table the seven hundred francs in gold upon which
Henrietta had stoutly insisted.

That was enough to pay Mrs. Chevassat for four months' board.

"But no," said the poor young girl to herself, "that would be
pusillanimous in the highest degree."

And that very evening she summoned all her courage, and told the
formidable woman in a firm tone of voice, that henceforth she would only
take one meal, dinner. She had chosen this half-way measure in order
not to avoid a scene, for that she knew she could not hope for, but a
regular falling-out.

Contrary to all expectations, the concierge's wife appeared neither
surprised nor angry. She only shrugged her shoulders as she said, -

"As you like, my 'little pussy-cat.' Only believe me, it is no use
economizing in one's eating."

From the day of this _coup d'etat_, Henrietta went down every morning
herself to buy her penny-roll and the little supply of milk which
constituted her breakfast. For the rest of the day she did not leave her
room, busying herself with her great work; and nothing broke in upon the
distressing monotony of her life but the weekly visits of M. de Brevan.

For he did not forget his threat; and every week Henrietta was sure to
see him come. He came in with a solemn air, and coldly asked if she had
reflected since he had had the honor of presenting his respects to her.
She did not answer him ordinarily, except by a look of contempt; but
he did not seem in the least disconcerted. He bowed respectfully, and
invariably said, before leaving the room, -

"Next time, then; I can wait. Oh! I have time; I can wait."

If he hoped thus to conquer Henrietta more promptly, he was entirely
mistaken. This periodical insult acted only as an inducement to keep up
her wrath and to increase her energy. Her pride rose at the thought of
this unceasing struggle; and she swore that she would be victorious.
It was this sentiment which inspired her with a thought, which, in its
results, was destined to have a decisive influence on her future.

It was now the end of June, and she saw with trembling her little
treasure grow smaller and smaller; when one day she asked Mrs.
Chevassat, who seemed to be of unusually good-humor, if she could
not procure her some work. She told her that she was considered quite
skilful in all kinds of needlework.

But the woman laughed at the first words, and said, -

"Leave me alone! Are hands like yours made to work?"

And when Henrietta insisted, and showed her, as a proof of what she
could do, the embroidery which she had commenced, she replied, -

"That is very pretty; but embroidering from morning till night would not
enable a fairy to keep a canary-bird."

There was probably some truth in what she said, exaggerated as it
sounded; and the poor girl hastened to add that she understood other
kinds of work also. She was a first-class musician, for instance, and
fully able to give music-lessons, or teach singing, if she could only
get pupils. At these words a ray of diabolic satisfaction lighted up the
old woman's eyes; and she cried out, -

"What, my 'pussy-cat,' could you play dancing-music, like those artists
who go to the large parties of fashionable people?"

"Certainly!"

"Well, that is a talent worth something! Why did you not tell me before?
I will think of it, and you shall see."

On the next Saturday, early in the morning, she appeared in Henrietta's
room with the bright face of a bearer of good news.

"I have thought of you," she said as soon as she entered.

"Ah!"

"We have a tenant in the house who is going to give a large party
to-night. I have mentioned you to her; and she says she will give you
thirty francs if you will make her guests jump. Thirty francs! That's a
big sum; and besides, if they are pleased, you will get more customers."

"In what part of the house does she live?"

"In the second story of the back building, looking upon the yard. Mrs.
Hilaire, a very nice person, and so good! there is no one like her. You
would have to be there at nine o'clock precisely."

"I'll come."

Quite happy, and full of hope, Henrietta spent a part of the afternoon
in mending her only dress, a black silk dress, much worn unfortunately,
and already often repaired. Still, by much skill and patience, she
had managed to look quite respectable when she rang the bell at Mrs.
Hilaire's door. She was shown into a room furnished with odd furniture,



Online LibraryÉmile GaboriauThe Clique of Gold → online text (page 21 of 39)