Émile Gaboriau.

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animated but low voice, she said, -

"Well, I mean this: if you accept now what Papa Ravinet will offer you,
in six months you will be worse than any of Mrs. Hilaire's girls. Ah!
don't tell me 'I do not mean to touch him.' The old rascal has ruined
more than one who was just as good as you are. That's his business; and,
upon my word! he understands it. Now, forewarned, forearmed. I am going
down to make you a soup. I'll be back at night. And above all, you hear,
not a word!"

By one word Mrs. Chevassat had plunged Henrietta once more into an abyss
of profound despair.

"Great God!" she said to herself, "why must the generous assistance of
this old man be a new snare for me?"

With her elbow resting on her pillow, her forehead supported by her
hand, her eyes streaming with tears, she endeavored to gather her ideas,
which seemed to be scattered to the four winds, like the leaves of
trees after a storm; when a modest, dry cough aroused her from her
meditations.

She trembled, and raised her head.

In the framework of the open door stood a man of mature age and of
medium height, looking at her.

It was Papa Ravinet, who, after a long conversation with the concierge,
and after some words with his amiable wife, had come up to inquire after
his patient. She guessed at it, rather than she knew; for, although she
lived in the same house with him, she was not in the same part of the
building, and she scarcely recollected having caught a glimpse of him
now and then in crossing the yard.

"That," she thought, "is the man who plots my ruin, the wretch whom I am
to avoid."

Now, it is true that this man, with his mournful face, his huge,
brushlike eyebrows, and his small, yellow eyes, startling by their
incessant activity, had for the observer something enigmatical about
him, and therefore did not inspire much confidence.

Nevertheless, Henrietta thanked him none the less heartily, although
greatly embarrassed, for his readiness to help her, his kind care, and
his generosity in providing every thing she wanted.

"Oh! you owe me no thanks," he said. "I have only done my duty, and that
very imperfectly."

And at once, in a rather grim manner, he began to tell her that what he
had done was nothing in comparison with what he meant to do. He had but
too well guessed what had led Henrietta to attempt suicide; he had only
to look around her room. But he swore she should have nothing more to
fear from want as long as he was there.

But, the more earnest and pressing the good man became in his
protestations, the more Henrietta drew back within her usual reserve;
her mind being filled with the prejudices instilled by Mrs. Chevassat.
Fortunately he was a clever man, the old dealer; and by means of not
saying what might shock her, and by saying much that could not fail to
touch her, he gradually regained his position. He almost conquered her
when he returned to her the letters she had written before making her
dreadful preparations, and when she saw that they looked unhurt,
and sealed as before. Thus, when he left her, after half an hour's
diplomatic intercourse, he had obtained from the poor young girl the
promise that she would not renew the attempt at her life, and that she
would explain to him by what fatal combination of circumstances she had
been reduced to such extreme suffering.

"You would not hesitate," he said, "if you knew how easy it often is, by
a little experience, to arrange the most difficult matters."

Henrietta did not hesitate. A thought which had occurred to her as soon
as she found herself alone had brought her to this conclusion: "If Papa
Ravinet were really what Mrs. Chevassat says, that bad woman would not
have warned me against him. If she tries to keep me from accepting the
old man's assistance, she no doubt finds it to her advantage that I
should do so."

When she tried, after that, to examine as coolly as she could the
probable consequences of her decision, she found enormous chances in
her favor. If Papa Ravinet was sincere, she might be enabled to wait for
Daniel; if he was not sincere, what did she risk? She who had not feared
death itself need not fear any thing else. Lucretia's dagger will always
protect a brave woman's liberty.

But still, in spite of the pressing need she had for rest, her promise
kept her awake for the greater part of the night; for she passed in her
mind once more over the whole lamentable story of her sufferings, and
asked herself what she might confess to, and what she ought to withhold
from the old dealer. Had he not already discovered, by the address of
one of her letters, that she was the daughter of Count Ville-Handry? And
just that she would have liked to keep him from knowing. On the other
hand, was it not foolish to ask the advice of a man to whom we will not
confess the whole truth?

"I must tell him all," she said, "or nothing." And, after a moment's
reflection, she added, - "I will tell him all, and keep nothing back."
She was in this disposition, when in the morning, about nine o'clock,
Papa Ravinet reappeared in her room. He looked very pale, the old man;
and the expression of his face, and the tone of his voice, betrayed an
emotion which he could scarcely control, together with deep anxiety.

"Well?" he asked forgetting in his preoccupation to inquire even how the
poor girl had passed the night.

She shook her head sadly, and replied, pointing to a chair, -

"I have made up my mind, sir; sit down, please, and listen to me." The
old dealer had been fully convinced that Henrietta would come to that;
but he had not hoped for it so soon. He could not help exclaiming, "At
last!" and intense, almost delirious joy shone in his eyes. Even this
joy seemed to be so unnatural, that the young girl was made quite
uncomfortable by it. Fixing her eyes upon the old man with all the power
of observation of which she was capable, she said, -

"I am fully aware that what I am about to do is almost unparalleled in
rashness. I put myself, to a certain extent, absolutely in your power,
sir, - the power of an utter stranger, of whom I am told I have every
thing to fear."

"O miss!" he declared, "believe me" -

But she interrupted him, saying with great solemnity, -

"I think, if you were to deceive me, you would be the meanest and least
of men. I rely upon your honor."

And then in a firm voice she began the account of her life, from that
fatal evening on which her father had said to her, -

"I have resolved, my daughter, to give you a second mother."

The old dealer had taken a seat facing Henrietta, and listened,
fixing his eyes upon her face as if to enter into her thoughts, and to
anticipate her meaning. His face was all aglow with excitement, like the
face of a gambler who is watching the little white ball that is to make
him a rich man or a beggar. It looked almost as if he had foreseen the
terrible communication she was making, and was experiencing a bitter
satisfaction at finding his presentiments confirmed, -

As Henrietta was proceeding, he would murmur now and then, -

"That is so! Yes, of course that had to come next."

And all these people whose abominable intrigues Henrietta was explaining
to him were apparently better known to him than to her, as if he had
frequently been in contact with them, or even lived in their intimacy.
He gave his judgment on each one with amazing assurance, as the occasion
presented itself, saying, -

"Ah! There I recognize Sarah and Mrs. Brian."

Or, -

"Sir Thorn never does otherwise."

Or, again, -

"Yes, that is all over Maxime de Brevan."

And, according to the different phases of the account, he would laugh
bitterly and almost convulsively, or he would break out in imprecations.

"What a trick!" he murmured with an accent of deep horror, "what an
infernal snare!"

At another point he turned deadly pale, and almost trembled on his
chair, as if he were feeling ill, and were about to fall. Henrietta was
telling him at that moment, from Daniel's recital, the circumstances
under which M. de Kergrist had died, and Malgat had disappeared, - that
poor cashier who had left such an immense deficit behind; who had been
condemned to penal servitude; and whose body the police believed to have
found in a wood near Paris. But, as soon as the young girl had finished,
he rose all of a sudden, and cried out in a formidable voice, -

"I have them now, the wretches! this time I have them!"

And, breaking down under his excessive excitement, he sank into his
chair, covering his face with his hands. Henrietta was dumfounded; she
looked aghast at the old man, in whom she now placed all her hopes.
Already, the night before, she had had some suspicions that he was not
what he seemed to be; now she was quite sure. But who was he? She had
nothing to go by to solve that riddle.

This only she thought she saw clearly, that Sarah Brandon, Mrs. Brian,
and M. Thomas Elgin, as well as M. de Brevan, had at some time or other
come in personal contact with Papa Ravinet, and that he hated them
mortally.

"Unless he should try to deceive me," she thought, not having quite
shaken off all doubts yet.

He had in the meantime mastered his emotion, and was regaining all his
composure.

"Let no one, henceforth, deny Providence!" he exclaimed. "Ah! fools and
idiots alone can do so. M. de Brevan had every reason to think that this
house would keep the secret of his crime as safe as the grave, and so
brought you here. And here it happens I must chance to live, - of all
men, I, - and he remain unaware of it! By a kind of miracle we are
brought together under the same roof, - you, the daughter of Count
Ville-Handry, and I, one after the other, without knowing each other;
and, at the very moment when this Brevan is about to triumph, Providence
brings us together, and this meeting ruins him!"

His voice betrayed his fierce joy at approaching vengeance; his sallow
cheeks flushed up; and his eyes shone brilliantly.

"For M. de Brevan was triumphing last night. The woman Chevassat,
his confederate, had watched you, and noticing your preparations for
committing suicide, had said to him, 'Rejoice! at last we shall get rid
of her.'"

Henrietta shuddered, and stammered out, -

"Is it possible?"

Then the old man, looking at her half surprised, said, -

"What! after all you have seen of M. de Brevan, you have never suspected
him of meditating your death?"

"Why, yes! I sometimes thought so."

"Well, this time you were right, madam. Ah! you do not know your enemies
yet. But I know them, I; for I have had a chance of measuring the depth
of their wickedness. And there your safety would lie, if you would
follow my advice."

"I will, sir."

Papa Ravinet was evidently a little embarrassed. He said, however, -

"You see, madam, I shall have to ask you to trust me blindly."

"I will trust you blindly."

"It is of the utmost importance that you should escape out of reach of
M. de Brevan; he must lose every trace of you. You will, consequently,
have to leave this house."

"I will leave it."

"And in the way I say."

"I will obey you in every point."

The last shadow of trouble which had still overclouded the old dealer's
brow vanished as if by magic.

"Then all will go well," he said, rubbing his hands as if he were taking
off the skin; "and I guarantee the rest. Let us make haste to understand
each other; for I have been here a long time, and the woman Chevassat
must be on needles. Still, it is important she should not suspect that
we are acting in concert."

As if afraid that an indiscreet ear might be listening at the door, he
drew his chair quite close to Henrietta's bed, and whispered in a voice
but just audible to her, -

"As soon as I have turned my back that woman will come up, burning with
curiosity to know what has happened between us. You must pretend to be
very angry with me. Give her to understand that you think me a wicked
old man, who wants you to pay the price of infamy for the services I
wish to render to you."

Henrietta had turned crimson. Now she stammered out, -

"But, sir" -

"Perhaps you dislike telling a falsehood?"

"You see - I cannot, I fear. It would not be easy to lie so as to deceive
Mrs. Chevassat."

"Ah, madam, you must! it cannot be helped. If you admit the absolute
necessity, you may succeed in misleading her. Remember that we must
fight the enemy with his own weapons."

"Well, then, I will try, sir."

"So be it. The rest, you will see, is a small matter. As soon as night
falls, you will dress, and watch for the moment when the concierge, as
usually, goes about the house lighting the gas. As soon as you see him
on the great staircase; you will make haste and run down. I shall take
measures to have the woman Chevassat either kept engaged, or out of
the house; and you will thus find it easy to slip out without being
perceived. Once in the street, you will turn to the right. At the corner
of the street, in front of the great Auction-Mart, you will see a cab
standing, with a plaid handkerchief like this hanging out of the window.
Get into it boldly; I'll be inside. I do not know if I have made it all
clear to you?"

"Oh, perfectly, sir!"

"Then we understand each other. Do you feel strong enough?"

"Yes, sir. You may rely on me."

Every thing passed off just as the old dealer had foreseen; and
Henrietta played her part so well, that at night, when her disappearance
was discovered, Mrs. Chevassat was neither much surprised nor troubled.

"She was tired of life, the girl!" she said to her husband. "I saw it
when I was up there. We'll see her again at the Morgue. As the charcoal
did not do the work, she has tried the water."




XXI.

Dear woman! She would not have gone to bed so quietly, nor have fallen
asleep so comfortably, if she had suspected the truth.

What gave her such perfect peace was the certainty she had, that
Henrietta had left the house bareheaded, with wretched, worn-out shoes
on her feet, with nothing but one petticoat, and her thin alpaca
dress on her body. Now, she was quite sure, that in such a state of
destitution, and in this cold December night, the poor young girl would
soon be weary wandering through the streets of Paris, and would be
irresistibly drawn to the waters of the Seine.

But it was by no means so. When Henrietta was alone, after the departure
of Papa Ravinet, she had only become confirmed in her determination to
trust in him blindly: she had even forborne to think it over, as she
had, humanly speaking, no other choice on earth. Thus, after having
received Mrs. Chevassat's visit, and after having played the part
assigned to her by the old dealer, she rose, and, although quite
exhausted yet, took her place at the window to watch for the proper
time. Four o'clock struck; and, as it was growing dark, the concierge
came out, with a light in his hand, and went up the big staircase to
light the lamps.

"Now is the time!" she said to herself.

And casting a last look at this wretched room, where she had suffered so
much, and wept so much, and where she had expected to die, she slipped
out. The back stairs were quite dark, and thus she was not recognized
by two persons whom she met. The court was deserted, and the concierge's
room locked. She crossed the hall, and at one bound was in the street.
Some forty paces to the left she could see the place where Papa Ravinet
was waiting for her in his cab. She ran there, got in; and the driver,
who had received his instructions, whipped his horses as soon as he
heard the door shut.

"And now, sir," she began, "where do you take me?"

By the light of the gas in the stores, which from time to time lighted
up the interior of the carriage, she could see the features of her
neighbor. He looked at her with manifest satisfaction; and a smile of
friendly malice played upon his lips.

"Ah!" he replied, "that is a great secret. But you will know soon, for
the man drives well."

The poor horses went, indeed, as fast as if the dollar which the driver
had received had infused the noble blood of the fastest racer into their
veins. They drove down the whole long street at a furious rate, turned
to the right, and, after many more turns, stopped at last before a house
of modest appearance. Lightly and promptly, like a sheriff's clerk, Papa
Ravinet jumped out; and, having aided Henrietta to alight, he offered
her his arm, and drew her into the house, saying, -

"You will see what a surprise I have in store for you."

In the third story the old man stopped; and, drawing a key from his
pocket, he opened the door which faced the staircase. And, before she
had time to consider, Henrietta found herself gently pushed into a small
sitting-room, where a middle-aged lady was embroidering at a frame by
the light of a large copper lamp.

"Dear sister," said Papa Ravinet, still in the door, "here is the young
lady of whom I spoke to you, and who does us the honor to accept our
hospitality."

Slowly the elderly lady put her needle into the canvas, pushed back the
frame, and rose.

She seemed to be about fifty years old, and must have been beautiful
formerly. But age and sorrow had blanched her hair, and furrowed her
face; and the habit of silence and meditation seemed to have sealed her
lips forever. Her stern countenance, nevertheless, expressed kindliness.
She was dressed in black; and her costume betrayed a lady from a
provincial town.

"You are welcome, madam," she said in a grave voice. "You will find in
our modest home that peace and that sympathy which you need."

In the meantime, Papa Ravinet had come forward; and, bowing to
Henrietta, he said, -

"I beg to present to you Mrs. Bertolle, my dearly beloved sister Mary, a
widow, and a saint, who has devoted herself to her brother, and who has
sacrificed to him every thing, - her fortune, her peace, and her life."

Ah! there was no mistaking the look with which the old man caressed the
old lady: he worshipped her. But she interrupted him, as if embarrassed
by his praise, saying, -

"You have told me so late, Anthony, that I have not been able to attend
to all of your orders. But the young lady's room is ready, and if you
choose" -

"Yes, we must show her the way."

The old lady having taken the lamp, after removing the screen, opened a
door which led from the parlor directly into a small, modestly furnished
room, which shone with exquisite tidiness, and which exhaled that fresh
odor of lavender so dear to all housekeepers from the country. The
mirrors and the furniture all glistened alike in the bright fire on the
hearth; and the curtains were as white as snow.

At one glance the old dealer had taken in every thing; and, after a
smile of gratitude addressed to his sister, he said to Henrietta, -

"This is your room, madam."

The poor girl, all overcome, sought in vain for words to express her
gratitude. The old lady did not give her time. She showed her, spread
out on the bed, petticoats, white linen, stockings, a warm dressing-
wrapper of gray flannel with blue flowers, and at the foot a pair of
slippers.

"This will answer for a change to-night, madam," she said. "I have
provided what was most pressing; to-morrow we will see about the rest."

Big tears, tears of happiness and gratitude, this time, rolled down
Henrietta's pale cheeks. Oh, indeed! this was a surprise, and a
delicious one, which the ingenious foresight of her new friend had
prepared for her.

"Ah, you are so kind!" she said, giving her hands to brother and
sister - "you are so kind! How can I ever repay what you are doing for
me?"

Then overcoming her emotion, and turning to Papa Ravinet, she added, -

"But pray, who are you, sir, - you who thus come to succor, a poor
young girl who is an utter stranger to you, doubling the value of your
assistance by your great delicacy?"

The old lady replied in his place, - "My brother, madam, is an
unfortunate man, who has paid for a moment's forgetfulness of duty, with
his happiness, his prospects, and _his_ very life. Do not question him.
Let him be for you what he is for all of us, - Anthony Ravinet, dealer in
curiosities."

The voice of the old lady betrayed such great sorrow, silently endured,
that Henrietta looked ashamed, regretting her indiscretion. But the old
man at once said, -

"What I may say to you madam, is, that you owe me no gratitude, - no,
none whatever. What I do, my own interest commands me to do; and I
deserve no credit for it. Why do you speak of gratitude? It is I who
shall forever be under obligations to you for the immense service which
you render me."

He seemed to be inspired by his own words; his figure straightened up;
his eyes flashed fire; and he was on the point of letting, perhaps,
some secret escape him, when his sister interrupted him, saying
reproachfully, -

"Anthony, Anthony!"

He stopped at once. Then he resumed, -

"You are right; you are right! I forget myself here; and I ought to be
already back in Water Street. It is of the utmost importance that that
woman Chevassat should not miss me a moment to-night."

He was about to leave them, when the old lady held him back, and said, -

"You ought to go back, I know; only be careful! It is a miracle that M.
de Brevan has never met you and recognized you, during the year he has
been coming to the house in which you live. If such a misfortune should
happen now, our enemies might once more escape us. After the young
lady's desperate act, he would not fail to recognize the man who has
saved her. What can you do to avoid meeting him?"

"I have thought of that danger," he replied. "When I go back, I shall
tell the two Chevassats a little story, which will frighten them, so
that they will advise Brevan never to appear there, except at night, as
he formerly did."

Thereupon he bowed to Henrietta, and went away with the words, -

"To-morrow we will consult with each other."

The shipwrecked man who is saved at the last moment, when, strength and
spirits being alike exhausted, he feels himself sinking into the abyss,
cannot, upon feeling once more firm ground under his feet, experience
a sense of greater happiness than Henrietta did that night. For the
delicious sensation had become deeper and intenser by the evening spent
in company with Papa Ravinet's sister.

The widow, free from embarrassment as from affectation, possessed a
quiet dignity which appeared in certain words and ways she had, and
which made Henrietta guess the principal events of her life. Ruined all
of a sudden, - she did not say how, - some months after the death of her
husband, she, who had been accustomed to all the comforts of opulence
had seen herself reduced to poverty, and all its privations. This had
happened about five years ago. Since then she had imposed upon herself
the strictest economy, although she never neglected her appearance. She
had but one servant, who came every morning to clean up the house;
she herself did all the other work, washing and ironing her own linen,
cooking only twice a week, and eating cold meat on the other days, as
much to save money as to save time.

For her time had its value. She worked on her frame patterns for
embroideries, for which a fashionable store paid her very good prices.
There were days in summer when she earned three francs.

The blow had been a severe one; she did not conceal it. Gradually,
however, she had become reconciled to it, and taken up this habit of
economizing with unflinching severity, and down to the smallest
details. At present, she felt in these very privations a kind of secret
satisfaction which results from the sense of having accomplished a
duty, - a satisfaction all the greater, the harder the duty is.

What duty, she did not say.

"That lady is a noble creature among many!" said Henrietta to herself
that night, when she retired after a modest repast.

Still she could not get over the mystery which surrounded the lives of
these two personages, whom fate, relenting at last, had placed in her
way. What was the mystery in the past of this brother and sister? For
there was one; and, so far from trying to conceal it, they had begged
Henrietta not to inquire into it. And how was their past connected
with her own past? How could their future depend in any way on her own
future?

But fatigue soon made an end to her meditations, and confused her ideas;
and, for the first time in two years, she fell asleep with a sense
of perfect security; she slept peacefully, without starting at the
slightest noise, without being troubled by silence, without wondering
whether her enemies were watching her, without suspecting the very walls



Online LibraryÉmile GaboriauThe Clique of Gold → online text (page 23 of 39)