Émile Gaboriau.

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but brilliantly lighted, in which seven or eight ladies in flaming
costumes, and as many fashionable gentlemen, were smoking and taking
coffee. Both ladies and gentlemen had just risen from table; there was
no mistaking it from their eyes and the sound of their voices.

"Look! there is the musician from the garret!" exclaimed a large,
dark-skinned woman, pretty, but very vulgar, who seemed to be Mrs.
Hilaire.

And, turning to Henrietta, she asked, -

"Will you take a little glass of something, my darling?"

The poor girl blushed crimson, and, painfully embarrassed, declined, and
asked pardon for declining; when the lady broke in rather rudely, and
said, -

"You are not thirsty? Very well. You'll drink after some time. In the
meantime will you play us a quadrille? and mark the time, please."

Then imitating with distressing accuracy the barking voice of masters of
ceremonies at public balls, she called out, -

"Take your positions, take your positions: a quadrille!"

Henrietta had taken her seat at the piano. She turned her back to the
dancers; but she had before her a mirror, in which she saw every gesture
of Mrs. Hilaire and her guests. And then she became quite sure of what
she had suspected from the beginning. She understood into what company
she had been inveigled by the concierge's wife. She had, however,
sufficient self-control to finish the quadrille. But, when the last
figure had been danced, she rose; and, walking up to the mistress of the
house, said, stammering painfully, and in extreme embarrassment, -

"Please excuse me, madam, I have to leave. I feel very unwell. I could
not play any more."

"How funny!" cried one of the gentlemen. "Here is our ball at an end!"

But the young woman said, -

"Hush, Julius! Don't you see how pale she is, - pale like death, the poor
child! What is the matter with you, darling? Is it the heat that makes
you feel badly? It is stifling hot here."

And, when Henrietta was at the door, she said, -

"Oh, wait! I do not trouble people for nothing. Come, Julius, turn your
pockets inside out, and give the little one a twenty-franc-piece."

The poor girl was almost outside, when she turned, and said, -

"Thank you, madam; but you owe me nothing."

It was high time for Henrietta to leave. Her first surprise had been
followed by mad anger, which drove the blood to her head, and made her
weep bitter tears. She knew now that Mrs. Chevassat had caught her in
this trap. What could the wretched woman have meant?

Carried away by an irresistible impulse, and no longer mistress of
herself, Henrietta rushed down stairs, and broke like a whirlwind into
the little box of the concierge, crying out, -

"How could you dare to send me to such people? You knew all about it.
You are a wretch!"

Master Chevassat was the first to rise, and said, -

"What is the matter? Do you know to whom you are talking?"

But his wife interrupted him with a gesture, and, turning to Henrietta,
said with cynic laughter, -

"Well, what next? Are these people not good enough for you; eh? In the
first place, I am tired of your ways, my 'pussy-cat.' When one is a
beggar, as you are, one stays at home like a good girl; and one does not
run away with a young man, and gad about the world with lovers."

Thereupon she took advantage of the fact that Henrietta had paused
upon the threshold, to push her brutally out of the room at the risk of
throwing her down, and fiercely banged the door. An hour afterwards the
poor girl vehemently reproached herself for her passion.

"Alas!" she said to herself, weeping, "the weak, the unhappy, have
no right to complain. Who knows what this wicked woman will now do to
avenge herself?"

She found it out the second day afterwards.

Coming down a little before seven o'clock, in order to buy her roll and
her milk for breakfast, she met at the entrance-door Mrs. Hilaire, face
to face. At the sight of the poor girl, that irascible woman turned as
red as a poppy, and, rushing up to her, seized her by the arm, and shook
it furiously, crying out at the same time with the full force of her
lungs, -

"Ah, it is you, miserable beggar, who go and tell stories on me! Oh,
what wickedness! A beggar whom I had sent for to allow her to earn
thirty francs! And I must needs think she is sick, and pity her, and ask
Julius to give her a twenty-franc-piece."

Henrietta felt that she ought not to blame this woman, who, after all,
had shown her nothing but kindness. But she was thoroughly frightened,
and tried to get away. The woman, however, held her fast, and cried
still louder, till several tenants came to the open windows.

"They'll make you pay for that, my darling," she yelled, amid foul
oaths, which her wrath carried along with it, as a torrent floats down
stones and debris. "They'll make you pay for it! You'll have to clear
out of here, I tell you!"

And the threat was not an idle one. That very afternoon the same
lamentable scene was repeated; and so it went on every morning and every
day. Mrs. Hilaire had friends in the house, who took up the quarrel, and
fell upon Henrietta whenever she appeared. They lay in wait for her by
turns; and she no sooner ventured upon the staircase than the shouts
began; so that the unfortunate girl no longer dared leave the house.
Early in the morning, as soon as the door was opened, she ran out to buy
her daily provisions; then, running up swiftly, she barricaded herself
in her chamber, and never stirred out again.

Surely, there was no lack of desire on her part to leave the house. But
where should she go? Besides, the unknown frightened her; might it not
have still greater terrors in reserve for her?

At last she was entirely without money.

In July her rent had cost her a hundred francs, and she had been
compelled to buy a dress in place of her merino dress, which was
falling to pieces. In the first days of August she was at the end of her
resources. Nor would she have been able to make them last so long, even
if she had not, ever since that evening at Mrs. Hilaire's, done entirely
without the expensive board of Mrs. Chevassat. Even this rupture, at
which Henrietta had at first rejoiced, became now to her a source of
overwhelming trouble. She had still a few things that she might sell, - a
brooch, her cashmere, her watch, and her ear-rings; but she did not know
how and to whom she could sell them.

All the stories by which the wicked woman down stairs had tried to
frighten her from going herself to the pawnbroker came back to her
mind; and she saw herself, at the first attempt, arrested by the police,
examined, and carried back to her father, handed over to Sarah and Sir
Thorn, and -

Still want pressed her hard; and at last, after long hesitation, one
evening, at dark, she slipped out to find a purchaser. What she was
looking for was one of those dark little shops in which men lie in wait
for their prey, whom the police always suspects, and carefully watches.
She found one such as she desired. An old woman with spectacles on her
nose, without even asking her name, and evidently taking her to be a
thief, gave her, for her brooch and her ear-rings, a hundred and forty
francs.

What was this sum of money? A nothing; Henrietta understood that
perfectly. And hence, overcoming all her reserve and her reluctance, she
vowed she would try every thing in her power to obtain work.

She kept her word, sustained by a secret hope of triumphing, by dint of
energy and perseverance, over fate itself. She went from store to store,
from door to door, so to say, soliciting employment, as she would have
asked for alms, promising to do any thing that might be wanted, in
return merely for her board and lodging. But it was written that every
thing should turn against her. Her beauty, her charms, her distinguished
appearance, her very manner of speaking, were so many obstacles in her
way. Who could think of engaging a girl as a servant, who looked like a
duchess? So that all her prayers only met with cold faces, shrugging of
shoulders, and ironical smiles. She was refused everywhere. It is true
that now and then some gallant clerk replied to her application by a
declaration of love.

Chance had thrown into her hands one of those small handbills which
bill-stickers paste upon the gutters, and in which workwomen are
"wanted." Henceforth she spent her days in looking up these handbills,
and in going to places from which they were issued. But here she met
with the same difficulties. There was no end of questions.

"Who are you? Where have you been? By whom have you been employed?" and
finally, always the same distressing answer, -

"We cannot employ persons like you."

Then she went to an employment agency. She had noticed one which
displayed at the door a huge placard, on which places were offered from
thirty-five up to a thousand francs a month. She went up stairs. A very
loquacious gentleman made her first deposit a considerable sum, and then
told her he had exactly what she wanted. She went ten times back to the
office, and always in vain. After an eleventh appointment, he gave her
the address of two houses, in one of which he assured her she would
certainly be employed. These two houses turned out to be two small
shops, where pretty young ladies were wanted to pour out absinthe, and
to wait upon the customers.

This was Henrietta's last effort. For ten months she had now been
struggling with a kind of helpless fury against inconquerable
difficulties, and at last the springs of her energy had lost their
elasticity. Now, crushed in body and mind, overwhelmed and conquered,
she gave up.

It lacked still eighteen months before she would become of age. Since
she had escaped from her father's house, she had not received a line
from Daniel, although she had constantly written to him, and she had, of
course, no means of ascertaining the date of his return. She had once,
following M. de Brevan's advice, summoned courage enough to go to the
navy department, and there to inquire if they had any news about "The
Conquest." A clerk had replied to her, with a joke, that "The Conquest"
might be afloat yet "a year or two." How could the poor girl wait till
then? Why should she any longer maintain the useless struggle? She felt
acute pains in her chest; she coughed; and, after walking a few yards,
her legs gave way under her, and she broke out in cold perspiration.
She now spent her days almost always in bed, shivering with chills,
or plunged in a kind of stupor, during which her mind was filled with
dismal visions. She felt as if the very sources of life were drying up
within her, and as if all her blood was, drop by drop, oozing out of her
through an open wound.

"If I could die thus!" she thought.

This was the last favor she asked of God. Henceforth, a miracle
alone could save her; and she hardly wished to be saved. A perfect
indifference and intense distaste of every thing filled her soul. She
thought she had exhausted all that man can suffer; and there was nothing
left for her to fear.

A last misfortune which now befell her did not elicit even a sigh from
her. One afternoon, while she had been down stairs, she had left the
window open. The wind had suddenly sprung up, slammed the blinds, and
thus upset a chair. On this chair hung her cashmere; it fell into the
fireplace, in which a little fire was still burning; and when she came
back she found the shawl half-burnt to ashes. It was the only article of
value which she still possessed; and she might at any time have procured
several hundred francs for it.

"Well," she said, "what does it matter? It means three months taken from
my life; that is all."

And she did not think of it any more; she did not even trouble herself
about the rent, which became due in October.

"I shall not be able to pay it," she said to herself. "Mrs. Chevassat
will give me notice, and then the hour will have come."

Still, to her great surprise, the worthy woman from below did not scold
her for not having the money ready, and even promised she would make
the owner of the house give her time. This inexplicable forbearance
gave Henrietta a week's respite. But at last, one morning, she woke up,
having not a cent left, having nothing even, she thought, that she could
get money for, and being very hungry.

"Well," she thought, as if announcing to her own soul that the
catastrophe had at last come, "all I need now is a few minutes'
courage."

She said so in her mind; but in reality she was chilled to the heart by
the fearful certainty that the crisis had really come: she felt as if
the executioner were at the door of the room, ready to announce her
sentence of death. And yet, for a month now, she had thought of suicide
only; and the evening before she had thought it over with a kind of
delight.

"I am surely not such a coward?" she said to herself in a fit of rage.

Yes, she was afraid. Yes, she told herself in vain that there was no
other choice left to her but that between death and Sir Thorn, or M. de
Brevan. She was terrified.

Alas! she was only twenty years old; she had never felt such exuberance
of life within her; she wanted to live, - to live a month more, a week, a
day!

If only her shawl had not been burnt! Then, examining with haggard eyes
her chamber, she saw that exquisite piece of embroidery which she had
undertaken. It was a dress, covered _all_ over with work of marvellous
delicacy and exquisite outlines. Unfortunately, it was far from being
finished.

"Never mind!" she said to herself; "perhaps they will give me something
for it."

And, wrapping the dress up hastily, she hurried to offer it for sale to
the old woman who had already bought her ear-rings, and then her watch.
The fearful old hag seemed to be overcome with surprise when she saw
this marvel of skill.

"That's very fine," she said; "why, it is magnificent! and, if it were
finished, it would be worth a mint of money; but as it is no one would
want it."

She consented, however, to give twenty francs for it, solely from love
of art, she said; for it was money thrown away. These twenty francs
were, for Henrietta, an unexpected release.

"It will last me a month," she thought, determined to live on dry bread
only; "and who can tell what a month may bring forth?"

And this unfortunate girl had an inheritance from her mother of more
than a million! If she had but known it, if she had but had a single
friend to advise her in her inexperience! But she had been faithful to
her vow never to let her secret be known to a living soul; and the most
terrible anguish had never torn from her a single complaint.

M. de Brevan knew this full well; for he had continued his weekly visits
with implacable regularity. This perseverance, which had at first served
to maintain Henrietta's courage, had now become a source of unspeakable
torture.

"Ah, I shall be avenged!" she said to him one day. "Daniel will come
back."

But he, shrugging his shoulders, had answered, -

"If you count upon that alone, you may as well surrender, and become my
wife at once."

She turned her head from him with an expression of ineffable disgust.
Rather the icy arms of Death! And still the pulsations of her heart were
apparently counted. Since the end of November her twenty francs had been
exhausted; and to prolong her existence she had had to resort to the
last desperate expedients of extreme poverty. All that she possessed,
all that she could carry from her chamber without being stopped by the
concierge, she had sold, piece by piece, bit after bit, for ten cents,
for five cents, for a roll. Her linen had been sacrificed first; then
the covering of her bed, her curtains, her sheets. The mattress had gone
the way of the rest, - the wool from the inside first, carried off by
handfuls; then the ticking.

Thus, on the 25th of December, she found herself in a chamber as utterly
denuded as if a fire had raged there; while she herself had on her body
but a single petticoat under her thin alpaca dress, without a rag to
cover herself in these wintry nights. Two evenings before, when terror
triumphed over her resolution for a time, she had written her father a
long letter. He had made no reply. Last night she had again written in
these words: -


"I am hungry, and I have no bread. If by tomorrow at noon you have not
come to my assistance, at one o'clock you will have ceased to have a
daughter."


Tortured by cold and hunger, emaciated, and almost dying, she had waited
for an answer. At noon nothing had come. She gave herself time till four
o'clock. Four o'clock, and no answer.

"I must make an end of it," she said to herself.

Her preparations had been made. She had told the Cerberus below that she
would be out all the evening; and she had procured a considerable stock
of charcoal. She wrote two letters, - one to her father, the other to M.
de Brevan.

After that she closed hermetically all the openings in her room, kindled
two small fires, and, having commended her soul to God, stretched
herself out on her bed. It was five o'clock.

A dense, bitter vapor spread slowly through the room; and the candle
ceased to give a visible light. Then she felt as if an iron screw were
tightening on her temples. She was suffocating, and felt a desire to
sleep; but in her stomach she suffered intense pains.

Then strange and incoherent thoughts arose deliriously in her head; her
ears were filled with confused noises; her pulse beat with extraordinary
vehemence; nausea nearly convulsed her; and from time to time she
fancied terrific explosions were breaking her skull to pieces.

The candle went out. Maddened by a sensation of dying, she tried to
rise; but she could not. She wanted to cry; but her voice ended in a
rattle in her throat.

Then her ideas became utterly confused. Respiration ceased. It was all
over. She was suffering no longer.




XX.

Thus a few minutes longer, and all was really over. Count Ville-
Handry's daughter was dying! Count Ville-Handry's daughter was dead!

But at that very hour the tenant of the fourth story, Papa Ravinet,
the second-hand dealer, was going to his dinner. If he had gone down as
usually, by the front staircase, no noise would have reached him. But
Providence was awake. That evening he went down the back stairs,
and heard the death-rattle of the poor dying girl. In our beautiful
egotistical days, many a man, in the place of this old man, would not
have gone out of his way. He, on the contrary, hurried down to inform
the concierge. Many a man, again, would have been quieted by the
apparent calmness of the Chevassat couple, and would have been satisfied
with their assurance that Henrietta was not at home. He, however,
insisted, and, in spite of the evident reluctance of the concierge and
his wife, compelled them to go up, and brought out, by his words first,
and then by his example, one tenant after another.

It was he likewise, who, while the concierge and the other people were
deliberating, directed what was to be done for the dying girl, and who
hastened to fetch from his magazine a mattress, sheets, blankets,
wood to make a fire, in fact, every thing that was needed in that bare
chamber.

A few moments later Henrietta opened her eyes. Her first sensation was a
very strange one.

In the first place she was utterly amazed at feeling that she was in a
warm bed, - she who had, for so many days, endured all the tortures of
bitter cold. Then, looking around, she was dazzled by the candles
that were burning on her table, and the beautiful, bright fire in her
fireplace. And then she looked with perfect stupor at all the women whom
she did not know, and who were bending over her, watching her movements.

Had her father at last come to her assistance?

No, for he would have been there; and she looked in vain for him among
all these strange people.

Then, understanding from some words which were spoken close by her, that
it was to chance alone she owed her rescue from death, she was filled
with indescribable grief.

"To have suffered all that can be suffered in dying," she said to
herself, "and then not to die after all!"

She almost had a feeling of hatred against all these people who were
busying themselves around her. Now that they had brought her back to
life, would they enable her to live?

Nevertheless, she distinguished very clearly what was going on in her
room. She recognized the wealthy ladies from the first story, who had
stayed to nurse her, and between them Mrs. Chevassat, who assumed an
air of great activity, while she explained to them how Henrietta had
deceived her affectionate heart in order to carry out her fatal purpose.

"You see, I did not dream of any thing," she protested in a whining
tone. "A poor little pussy-cat, who was always merry, and this morning
yet sang like a bird. I thought she might be a little embarrassed, but
never suspected such misery. You see, ladies, she was as proud as a
queen, and as haughty as the weather. She would rather have died than
ask for assistance; for she knew she had only a word to say to me. Did
I not already, in October, when I saw she would not be able to pay her
rent, become responsible for her?"

And thereupon the infamous hypocrite bent over the poor girl, kissed her
on her forehead, and said with a tender tone of voice, -

"Did you not love me, dear little pussy-cat; did not you? I know you
loved poor old Mrs. Chevassat."

Unable to articulate a word, even if she had understood what was said,
poor Henrietta shivered, shrank with horror and disgust from the contact
with those lying lips. And the emotion which this feeling caused her did
more for her than all the attentions that were paid her. Still, it was
only after the doctor, who had been sent for, had come and bled her,
that she was restored to the full use of her faculties. Then she
thanked, in a very feeble voice, the people around her, assuring them
that she felt much better now, and might safely be left alone.

The two wealthy ladies, whom curiosity had carried off at the moment
when they were sitting down to dinner, did not wait for more, and, very
happy to be released, slipped away at once. But the concierge's wife
remained by Henrietta's bedside till she was alone with her victim; and
then every thing changed in her face, tone of voice, look, and manner.

"Well," she commenced, "now you are happy, miss! You have advertised my
house, and it will all be in the papers. Everybody will pity you,
and think your lover a cold-blooded villain, who lets you die of
starvation."

The poor young girl deprecated the charge with such a sweet, gentle
expression of face, that a savage would have been touched; but Mrs.
Chevassat was civilized.

"And still you know very well," she went on in a bitter tone, "that dear
M. Maxime has done all he could to save you. Only day before yesterday,
he offered you his whole fortune" -

"Madam," stammered Henrietta, "have you no mercy?"

Mercy - Mrs. Chevassat! What a joke!

"You would take nothing," she continued, "from M. Maxime. Why, I ask
you? To play the virtuous woman, was it? It was hardly worth while, if
you meant, immediately afterwards, to accept that old miser, who will
make life hard enough for you. Ah, you have fallen into nice hands!"

Gathering up all the strength that had come back to her, Henrietta
raised herself on the pillows, and asked, -

"What do you mean?"

"Oh, nothing! I see. After all, you would have it so. Besides, he had
been looking after you a long time already."

As soon as Henrietta opened her eyes, Papa Ravinet had discreetly
withdrawn, in order to leave the ladies, who were about her, time to
undress her. Thus she had not seen the man who had saved her, and did
not understand the allusions of the old woman.

"Explain, madam, explain!"

"Ah, upon my word! that is not difficult. The man who has pulled you
out, who has brought you all these things to make your bed, and kindle
a fire; why, that is the second-hand dealer of the fourth story! And he
will not stop there, I am sure. Patience, and you will know well enough
what I mean."

It must be borne in mind, that the woman, for fear Henrietta might sell
to Papa Ravinet what she had to sell, or for some other reason, had
always painted the old man to her in colors by no means flattering.

"What ought I to be afraid of?" asked Henrietta.

The woman hesitated. At last she answered, -

"If I were to tell you, you would repeat it to him when he comes back."

"No, I promise you."

"Swear it on your mother's sacred memory."

"I swear."

Thus reassured, the old woman came close up to her bed; and, in an



Online LibraryÉmile GaboriauThe Clique of Gold → online text (page 22 of 39)