Émile Gaboriau.

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be doubted any longer, when the banns were read, and the announcement
appeared in the official journal. And whom do you think he married?
The daughter of a poor widow, the Baroness Rupert, who lived in great
poverty at a place called Rosiers, having nothing but a small pension
derived from her husband, who had been a colonel of artillery.

If she had, at least, been of good and ancient family; if she had been,
at least, a native of the province!

But no. No one knew exactly who she was, or where she came from. Some
people said the colonel had married her in Austria; others, in Sweden.
Her husband, they added, had been made a baron after the fashion of
others, who dubbed themselves such during the first empire, and had no
right to call himself noble.

On the other hand, Pauline de Rupert, then twenty-three years old, was
in the full bloom of youth, and marvellously beautiful. Moreover, she
had, up to this time, been looked upon as a sensible, modest girl, very
bright and very sweet withal; in fact, possessed of every quality and
virtue that can make life happy, and add to the fame of a great house.

But now, not a cent, no dower, not even a trousseau!

Everybody was amazed; and a perfect storm of indignation arose in the
neighborhood. Was it possible, was it natural, that a great nobleman
like the count should end thus miserably, ridiculously? that he should
marry a penniless girl, an adventuress, - he who had had the pick and
choice of the richest and greatest ladies of the land?

Was Count Ville-Handry a fool? or was he only insane about Miss Rupert?
Was she not perhaps, after all, a designing hypocrite, who had very
quietly, in her retired home, woven the net in which the lion of Anjou
was now held captive?

People would have been less astonished, if they had known, that, for
years, a great intimacy had existed between the mother of the bride and
the housekeeper at the castle. But, on the other hand, this fact might
have led to very different surmises still.

However that might be, the count was not suffered long to remain in
doubt as to the entire change of opinion in the neighborhood. He saw it
as soon as he paid the usual visits in the town of Angers, and at the
houses of the nobility near him. No more affectionate smiles, no tender
welcomes, no little white hands stealthily seeking his. The doors that
formerly seemed to fly open at his mere approach now turned but slowly
on their hinges; some remained even closed, the owners being reported
not at home, although the count knew perfectly well that they were in.

One very noble and very pious old lady, who gave the keynote to society,
had said in the most decided manner, -

"For my part, I shall never receive at my house a damsel who used to
give music-lessons to my nieces, even if she had caught and entrapped a

The charge was true. Pauline, in order to provide her mother with some
of the comforts which are almost indispensable to old people, had given
lessons on the piano in the neighborhood. Her terms had been low enough;
now they blamed her for the sacrifice. They would have blamed her for
the noblest of virtues; for all the blame was laid upon her. When people
met her, they looked away, so as not to have to bow to her. Even when
she was leaning on the count's arm, there were persons who spoke very
kindly to him, and did not say a word to his wife, as if they had not
seen her, or she had not existed at all. This impertinence went so far,
that at last Count Ville-Handry, one day, almost beside himself with
anger, seized one of his neighbors by the collar of his coat, shook him
violently, and shouted out to him, -

"Do you see the countess, my wife, sir? How shall I chastise you to cure
you of your near-sightedness?"

Foreseeing a duel, the impertinent man made his excuses; and his
experience put the rest of them on their guard. But their opinions
remained unchanged; open war only changed into secret opposition, that
was all.

Fate, however, always more kind than man, held a reward in store for
Count Ville-Handry, which amply repaid him for his heroism in marrying
a poor girl. An uncle of his wife's, a banker at Dresden, died, and
left his "beloved niece Pauline" half a million dollars. This immensely
wealthy man, who had never assisted his sister in her troubles, and who
would have disinherited the daughter of a soldier of fortune, had been
flattered by the idea of writing in his last will the name of his niece,
the "high and mighty Countess Ville-Handry."

This unexpected piece of good-fortune ought to have delighted the
young wife. She might now have had her vengeance on all her miserable
slanderers, and enjoyed a boundless popularity. But far from it. She had
never appeared more sad than on the day when the great news reached her.

For on that very day she for the first time cursed her marriage. A
voice within her warned her that she ought never to have yielded to the
entreaties and the orders of her mother. An excellent daughter, as she
was to become the best of mothers, and the most faithful of wives, she
had sacrificed herself. And now an accident made all her sacrifices
useless, and punished her for having done her duty.

Ah, why had she not resisted, at least for the purpose of gaining time?

For when she was a girl she had dreamed of a very different future. Long
before giving herself to the count, she had, of her own free will, given
her heart to another. She had bestowed her first and warmest affections
upon a young man who was only two or three years older than she, - Peter
Champcey, the son of one of those marvellously rich farmers who live in
the valley of the Loire.

He worshipped her. Unfortunately one obstacle had risen between them
from the beginning, - Pauline's poverty. It could not be expected that
those keen, thrifty peasants, Champcey's father and mother, would ever
permit one of their sons - they had two - to commit the folly of making a

They had worked hard for their children. The oldest, Peter, was to be a
lawyer; the other, Daniel, who wanted to become a sailor, was studying
day and night to prepare for his examination. And the old couple were
not a little proud of these "gentlemen," their sons. They told everybody
who would listen, that, in return for the costly education they were
giving them, they expected them to marry large fortunes.

Peter knew his parents so well, that he never mentioned Pauline to them.

"When I am of age," he said to himself, "it will be a different matter."

Alas! Why had not Pauline's mother waited at least till then?

Poor young girl! On the day on which she entered the castle of Ville-
Handry, she had sworn she would bury this love of hers so deep in
the innermost recesses of her heart, that it should never come up and
trouble her thoughts. And she had kept her word.

But now it suddenly broke forth, more ardent, more powerful, than ever,
till it well-nigh overcame her, and crushed her - sweetly and sadly, like
the memory of lost days, and at the same time cruel and heart-rending,
like bitter remorse.

What had become of him? When he had heard that she was going to marry
the count, he had written to her a letter full of despair, in which he
overwhelmed her with irony and contempt. Later, whether he had forgotten
her or not, he also had married; and the two lovers who had once hoped
to pursue their way through life leaning one upon the other now went
each their own way.

For long hours the poor young wife struggled in the solitude of her
chamber against these ghosts of the past which crowded around her. But,
if ever a guilty thought called up a blush on her brow, she quickly
triumphed over it. Like a brave, loyal woman, she renewed her oath, and
swore to devote herself entirely to her husband. He had rescued her from
abject poverty, and bestowed upon her his fortune and his name; and she
owed it to him in return to make him happy.

She needed all her courage, all her energy, to fulfil her vows; for
the count's character lay fully open before her now, after two years of
married life. She knew precisely how narrow his mind was, how empty his
thoughts, and how cold his heart. She had long since found out that the
brilliant man of the world, whom everybody considered so clever, was
in reality an absolute nullity, incapable of any thought that was not
suggested to him by others, and at the same time full of overweening
self-esteem, and absurdly obstinate.

The worst, however, was, that the count was very near hating his wife.
He had heard so many people say that she was not his equal, that he
finally believed it himself. Besides, he blamed her for the prestige
which he had lost.

An ordinary woman would have shrunk from the difficult task which
Pauline had assumed, and would have thought that nothing more could be
expected of her than to keep sacred her marriage-vows. But the countess
was not an ordinary woman. Full of resignation, she meant to do more
than her duty.

Fortunately, a cradle standing by her bedside made the task somewhat
easier. She had a daughter, her Henrietta; and upon that darling curly
head she built a thousand castles in the air. From that moment she
roused herself from the languor to which she had given way for nearly
two years, and set to work to study the count with that amazing sagacity
which a high stake is apt to give.

A remark accidentally made by her husband cast a new light upon her
fate. One morning, when they had finished breakfast, he said, -

"Ah! Nancy was very fond of you. The day before she died, when she knew
she was going, she made me promise her to marry you."

This Nancy was the count's former housekeeper.

After this awkward speech, the poor countess saw clearly enough what
position that woman had really held at the castle. She understood how,
modestly keeping in the background, and sheltering herself under the
very humility of her position, she had been in truth the intellect, the
energy, and the strong will, of her master. Her influence over him had,
besides, been so powerful, that it had survived her, and that she had
been obeyed even in the grave.

Although cruelly humiliated by this confession of her husband's, the
countess had sufficient self-control not to blame him for his weakness.
She said to herself, -

"Well, be it so. For his happiness and for our peace, I will stoop to
play the part Nancy played."

This was more easily said than done; for the count was not the man to be
led openly, nor was he willing to listen to good advice, simply because
it was good. Irritable, jealous, and despotic, like all weak men, he
dreaded nothing so much as what he called an insult to his authority.
He meant to be master everywhere, in every thing, and forever. He was so
sensitive on this point, that his wife had only to show the shadow of a
purpose of her own, and he went instantly to work to oppose and prohibit

"I am not a weather-cock!" was one of his favorite sayings.

Poor fellow! He did not know that those who turn to the opposite side of
the wind, nevertheless turn, as well as those who go with the wind. The
countess knew it; and this knowledge made her strong. After working for
many months patiently and cautiously, she thought she had learnt the
secret of managing him, and that henceforth she would be able to control
his will whenever she was in earnest.

The opportunity to make the experiment came very soon. Although the
great people of the neighborhood had generally come round and treated
her quite fairly now, especially since she had become an heiress, the
countess found her position unpleasant, and was anxious to leave the
country. It recalled to her, besides, too many painful memories. There
were certain roads and lanes which she could never pass without a pang
at her heart. On the other hand, it was well known that the count had
sworn he would end his life in the province. He hated large cities; and
the mere idea of leaving his castle, where every thing was arranged to
suit his habits, made him seriously angry.

People would not believe it, therefore, when report first arose that
he was going to leave Ville-Handry, that he had bought a town-house
in Paris and that he would shortly go there to establish himself
permanently in the capital.

"It was much against the will of the countess," he said, full of delight
at her disappointment. "She would not agree to it at all; but I am not a
weather-cock. I insisted on having my way, and she yielded at last."

So that in the latter part of October, in 1851, the Count and the
Countess Ville-Handry moved into the magnificent house in Varennes
Street, a princely mansion, which, however, did not cost them more than
a third of its actual value, as they happened to buy at a time when real
estate was very low.

But it had been comparatively child's play to bring the count to Paris;
the real difficulty was to keep him there. Nothing was more likely than
that, deprived of the active exercise and the fresh air he enjoyed in
the country, he should miss his many occupations and duties, and either
succumb to weariness, or seek refuge in dissipation. His wife foresaw
this difficulty, and looked for an object that might give the count
abundant employment and amusement.

Already before leaving home she had dropped in his mind the seed of
that passion, which, in a man of fifty, can take the place of all
others, - ambition. Thus he came to Paris with the secret desire and the
hope of becoming a leader in politics, and making his mark in some great
affair of state.

The countess however, aware of the dangers which beset a man who
ventures upon such slippery ground, determined first to examine the
condition of things so as to be able to warn him in time. Fortunately
her fortune and her name were of great service to her in this
enterprise. She managed to assemble at her house all the celebrities of
the day. Her relations helped her; and soon her Wednesdays and Saturdays
became famous in Paris. People exerted themselves to the utmost to
obtain an invitation to her state dinners, or her smaller parties on
Sundays. Her house in Varennes Street was looked upon as neutral ground,
where political intrigues and party strife were alike tabooed. The
countess spent a whole winter in making her observations.

The world, seeing her sit modestly by her fireside, thought she was
wholly occupied with her pretty daughter, Henrietta, who was always
playing or reading by her side. But she was all the time listening, and
trying, with all her mental powers, to understand the great questions
of the day. She studied characters; watched the passions of some, and
discovered the cunning tricks of others, ever anxious to find out what
enemies she would have to fear, and what allies to conciliate. Like one
of those ill-taught professors who study in the morning what they mean
to teach in the afternoon, she prepared herself for the lessons which
she soon meant to give. Fortunately her apprenticeship was short, thanks
to her superior intellect, her womanly cleverness, and rare talents
which no one suspected.

She soon reaped the fruit of her labors.

The next winter the count, who had so far kept aloof from politics,
came out with his opinions. He soon made his mark, aided by his fine
appearance, his elegant manners, and imperturbable self-possession. He
spoke in public, and made an impression by his good common-sense.
He advised others, and they were struck by his sagacity. He had soon
enthusiastic partisans, and, of course, as violent adversaries. His
friends encouraged him to become the leader of his party; and he worked
day and night to achieve that end.

"Unfortunately I have to pay for it at home," he said to his intimate
friends; "for my wife is one of those timid women who cannot understand
that men are made for the excitement of public life. I should be still
in the province, if I had listened to her."

She enjoyed her work in quiet delight. The greater the success of her
husband in the world, the prouder she became of her own usefulness to
him. Her feelings were very much those of a dramatic poet who hears the
applause given to the characters which he has created.

But there was this wonderful feature in her work, - that nobody suspected
her; no one, not even her own child. She wanted Henrietta, as little as
the world, to know what she was to her husband; and she taught her not
only to love him as her father, but to respect and admire him as a man
of eminence. Of course, the count was the very last man to suspect any
thing. He might have been told all, and he would have believed nothing.

He fancied he had discovered himself the whole line of proceeding which
his wife had so carefully traced out for him. In the full sincerity
of his heart, he believed he had composed and written out the speeches
which she drew up for him; and the articles for the newspapers, and the
letters, which she dictated, appeared to him all to have sprung from his
own fertile brains. He was even sometimes surprised at the want of good
sense in his wife, and pointed out to her, quite ironically, that
the steps from which she tried hardest to dissuade him were the most
successful he took. But no irony could turn the countess from the path
which she had traced out for herself; nor did she ever allow a word or
even a smile to escape her, that might have betrayed her secret. When
her husband became sarcastic, she bowed her head, and said nothing. But,
the more he gloried in his utter nullity, the more she delighted in
her work, and found ample compensation in the approval of her own

The count had been so exceedingly good as to take her when she was
penniless; she owed him the historic name she bore and a large fortune;
but, in return, she had given him, and without his being aware of it,
a position of some eminence. She had made him happy in the only way in
which a small and ordinary man could be made happy, - by gratifying his

Now she was no longer under obligations to him.

"Yes," she said to herself, "we are quits, fairly quits!"

Now also, she reproached herself no longer for the long hours during
which her thoughts, escaping from the control of her will, had turned to
the man of her early choice.

Poor fellow! She had been his evil star.

His life had been imbittered from the day on which he found himself
forsaken by her whom he loved better than life itself. He had given up
every thing.

His parents had "hunted up" an heiress, as they called it, and he had
married her dutifully. But the good old people had been unlucky. The
bride, chosen among a thousand, had brought their son a fortune of a
hundred thousand dollars; but she was a bad woman. And after eight years
of wretched, intolerable married life, Peter Champcey had shot himself,
unable to bear any longer his domestic misfortunes, and the infidelity
of his wife.

He had, however, avoided committing this crime at Angers, where he held
a high official position. He had gone to Rosiers, the house formerly
occupied by Pauline's mother; and there, in a narrow lane, his body
was found by some peasants coming home from market. The ball had so
fearfully disfigured his face, that at first no one recognized him; and
the accident made a terrible sensation.

The countess heard of it first through her husband. He could not
understand, he said, how a man in good position, with a bright future
before him, and a large income to support him, could thus kill himself.

"And to choose such a strange place for his suicide!" he added. "It is
evident the man was insane."

But the countess did not hear this. She had fainted. She understood but
too well why Peter had wished to die in that lane overshadowed by old

"I killed him," she thought, "I killed him!"

The blow was so sudden and so severe, that she came near dying.
Fortunately her mother died nearly at the same time; and this misfortune
helped to explain her utter prostration and deep grief.

Her mother had been gradually fading away, after having had all
she desired, and living in real luxury during her last years. Her
selfishness was so intense, that she never became aware of the cruelty
with which she had sacrificed her daughter.

Sacrificed, however, she really had been; for never did woman suffer
what the countess endured from the day on which her lover's suicide
added bitter remorse to all her former grief. What would have become of
her, if her child had not bound her to life! But she resolved to live;
she felt that she was bound to live for Henrietta's sake.

Thus she struggled on quite alone, for she had not a soul in whom she
could confide, when one afternoon, as she was going down stairs, a
servant came to tell her that there was a young man in naval uniform
below, who desired to have the honor of waiting upon her.

The servant handed her his card; she took it, and read, -

"Daniel Champcey."

It was Daniel, Peter's brother. Pale as death, the countess turned as if
to escape.

"What must I say?" asked the servant, rather surprised at the emotion
shown by his mistress.

The poor woman felt as if she was going to faint.

"Show him up," she replied in a scarcely audible voice, - "show him up."

When she looked up again, there stood before her a young man, twenty-
three or twenty-four years old, with a frank and open face, and clear,
bright eyes, beaming with intelligence and energy.

The countess pointed at a chair near her; for she could not have uttered
a word to save her daughter's life.

He could not help noticing her embarrassment; but he did not guess the
cause. Peter had never mentioned Pauline's name in his father's house.

So he sat down, and explained why he came, showing neither embarrassment
nor forwardness.

As soon as he had graduated at the Naval Academy, he had been made a
midshipman on board "The Formidable," and there he was still. A younger
man had recently been wrongly promoted over him; and he had asked for
leave of absence to appeal to the secretary of the navy. He felt
quite sure of the justice of his claims; but he also knew that strong
recommendations never spoil a good cause. In fact, he hoped that Count
Ville-Handry, of whose kindness and great influence he had heard much,
would consent to indorse his claims.

Gradually, and while listening to him, the countess recovered her

"My husband will be happy to serve a countryman of his," she replied;
"and he will tell you so himself, if you will be kind enough to wait for
him, and stay to dinner."

Daniel did stay. At table he was placed by the side of Henrietta, who
was then fifteen years old; and the countess, seeing these two young
and handsome people side by side, was suddenly struck with an idea which
seemed to her nothing less than inspiration from on high. Why might she
not intrust the future happiness of her daughter to the brother of the
poor man who had loved her so dearly? Thus she might make some amends
for her own conduct, and show some respect to his memory.

"Yes," she said to herself that night, before falling asleep, "it must
be so. Daniel shall be Henrietta's husband."

Thus it came about, that, only a fortnight later, Count Ville-Handry
said to one of his intimate friends, pointing out Daniel, -

"That young Champcey is a very remarkable young man; he has a great
future before him. And one of these days, when he is a lieutenant, and
a few years older, if it should so happen that he liked Henrietta, and
asked me for my consent, I should not say no. The countess might think
and say of it what she chooses, I am master."

After that time Daniel became, unfortunately, a constant visitor at the
house in Varennes Street.

He had not only obtained ample satisfaction at headquarters, but, by the
powerful influence of certain high personages, he had been temporarily
assigned to duty in the bureau of the navy department, with the promise
of a better position in active service hereafter.

Thus Daniel and Henrietta saw a great deal of each other, and, to all
appearances, began to love each other.

"O God!" thought the countess, "why are they not a few years older?"

The poor lady had for some months been troubled by dismal presentiments.
She felt as if she would not live long; and she trembled at the idea of
leaving her child without any other protector but the count.

If Henrietta had at least known the truth, and, instead of admiring her
father as a man of superior ability, learned to mistrust his judgment!
A hundred times the countess was on the point of revealing her secret.
Alas! her great delicacy always kept her from doing so.

Online LibraryÉmile GaboriauThe Clique of Gold → online text (page 3 of 39)