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they were about to undertake depended Count Ville-Handry's life and
honor, and the happiness and whole future life of Daniel and Henrietta.

And Papa Ravinet and his sister had said, - "As for us, even more than
that depends upon it." The old dealer, therefore, drew up an easy-
chair, sat down, and began in a somewhat husky voice, -

"The Countess Sarah is not Sarah Brandon, and is not an American. Her
real name, by which she was known up to her sixteenth year, is Ernestine
Bergot; and she was born in Paris, in the suburb of Saint Martin, just
on the line of the corporation. To tell you in detail what the first
years of Sarah were like would be difficult indeed. There are things of
that kind which do not bear being mentioned. Her childhood might be her
excuse, if she could be excused at all.

"Her mother was one of those unfortunate women of whom Paris devours
every year several thousands; who come from the provinces in wooden
shoes, and are seen, six months later, dressed in all the fashion; and
who live a short, gay life, which invariably ends in the hospital.

"Her mother was neither better nor worse than the rest. When her
daughter came, she had neither the sense to part with her, nor the
courage - perhaps (who knows?) she had not the means - to mend her ways.
Thus the little one grew up by God's mercy, but at the Devil's bidding,
living by chance, now stuffed with sweet things, and now half-killed by
blows, fed by the charity of neighbors, while her mother remained for
weeks absent from her lodgings.

"Four years old, she wandered through the neighborhood dressed in
fragments of silk or velvet, with a faded ribbon in her hair, but
with bare feet in her torn shoes, hoarse, and shivering with severe
colds, - very much after the fashion of lost dogs, who rove around
open-air cooking-shops, - and looking in the gutters for cents with which
to buy fried potatoes or spoilt fruit.

"At a later time she extended the circle of her excursions, and wandered
all over Paris, in company of other children like herself, stopping
on the boulevards, before the brilliant shops or performing jugglers,
trying to learn how to steal from open stalls, and at night asking in a
plaintive voice for alms in behalf of her poor sick father. When twelve
years old she was as thin as a plank, and as green as a June apple, with
sharp elbows and long red hands. But she had beautiful light hair, teeth
like a young dog's, and large, impudent eyes. Merely upon seeing her go
along, her head high with an air of saucy indifference, coquettish under
her rags, and walking with elastic steps, you would have guessed in
her the young Parisian girl, the sister of the poor 'gamin,' a thousand
times more wicked than her brothers, and far more dangerous to society.
She was as depraved as the worst of sinners, fearing neither God nor the
Devil, nor man, nor anything.

"However, she did fear the police.

"For from them she derived the only notions of morality she ever
possessed; otherwise, it would have been love's labor lost to talk to
her of virtue or of duty. These words would have conveyed no meaning
to her imagination; she knew no more about them than about the abstract
ideas which they represent.

"One day, however, her mother, who had virtually made a servant of her,
had a praiseworthy inspiration. Finding that she had some money, she
dressed her anew from head to foot, bought her a kind of outfit, and
bound her as an apprentice to a dressmaker.

"But it came too late.

"Every kind of restraint was naturally intolerable to such a vagabond
nature. The order and the regularity of the house in which she lived
were a horror to her. To sit still all day long, a needle in her hand,
appeared to her harder than death itself. The very comforts around her
embarrassed her, and she felt as a savage would feel in tight boots. At
the end of the first week, therefore, she ran away from the dressmaker,
stealing a hundred francs. As long as these lasted, she roved over
Paris. When they were spent, and she was hungry, she came back to her

"But her mother had moved away, and no one knew what had become of her.
She was inquired after, but never found. Any other person would have
been in despair. Not she. The same day she entered as waiter in a
cheap coffee-house. Turned out there, she found employment in a low
restaurant, where she had to wash up the dishes and plates. Sent away
here, also, she became a servant in two or three other places of still
lower character; then, at last, utterly disgusted, she determined to do
nothing at all.

"She was sinking into the gutter, she was on the point of being lost
before she had reached womanhood, like fruit which spoils before it is
ripe, when a man turned up who was fated to arm her for life's Struggle,
and to change the vulgar thief into the accomplished monster of
perversity whom you know."

Here Papa Ravinet suddenly paused, and, looking at Daniel, said, -

"You must not believe, M. Champcey, that these details are imaginary.
I have spent five years of my life in tracing out Sarah's early
life, - five years, during which I have been going from door to door,
ever in search of information. A dealer in second-hand goods enters
everywhere without exciting suspicion. And then I have witnesses to
prove everything I have told you so far, - witnesses whom I shall summon,
and who will speak whenever the necessity arises to establish the
identity of the Countess Sarah."

Daniel made no reply.

Like Henrietta, even like Mrs. Bertolle, at this moment he was
completely fascinated by the old gentleman's manner and tone. The
latter, after having rested for a few minutes, went on, -

"The man who picked up Sarah was an old German artist, painter and
musician both, of rare genius, but a maniac, as they called him. At all
events, he was a good, an excellent man.

"One winter morning, as he was at work in his studio, he was struck by
the strange ring in a woman's voice, which recited in the court-yard
below a popular song. He went to the window, and beckoned the singer to
come up. It was Sarah; and she came. The good German used often to speak
of the deep compassion which seized him as he saw this tall girl of
fourteen come into his studio, - a child, stained by vice already, thin
like hunger itself, and shivering in her thin calico dress. But he was
at the same time almost dazzled by the rich promises of beauty in her
face, the pure notes of her superb voice, which had withstood so far,
and the surprising intelligence beaming in her features.

"He guessed what there was in her; he saw her, in his mind's eye, such
as she was to be at twenty.

"Then he asked her how she had come to be reduced to such misery, who
she was, where her parents lived, and what they did for a living. When
she had told him that she stood quite alone, and was dependent on no
one, he said to her, -

"'Well, if you will stay with me, I will adopt you; you shall be my
daughter; and I will make you an eminent artist.'

"The studio was warm, and it was bitterly cold outside. Sarah had no
roof over her head, and had eaten nothing for twenty-four hours. She

"She accepted, be it understood, not doubting, in her perversity, but
that this kind old man had other intentions besides those he mentioned
in offering her a home. She was mistaken. He recognized in her
marvellous talents, and thought of nothing but of making of her a true
marvel, which should astonish the world. He devoted himself heart and
soul to his new favorite, with all the enthusiastic ardor of an artist,
and all the jealous passion of an amateur.

"It was a hard task, however, which he had undertaken. Sarah could not
even read. She knew nothing, except sin.

"How the old German went to work to keep this untamable vagabond at
home, how he made her bend to his will, and submit to his lessons, no
one will ever be able to tell. It was long a problem for me also. Some
of the neighbors told me that he treated her harshly, beating her often
brutally; but neither threats nor blows were apt to make an impression
on Sarah Brandon. A friend of the old man's thought he had guessed the
riddle: he thought the old artist had succeeded in arousing Sarah's
pride. He had kindled in her a boundless ambition and the most
passionate covetousness. He intoxicated her with fairylike hopes.

"'Follow my counsels,' he used to say to her, 'and at twenty you will be
a queen, - a queen of beauty, of wit, and of genius. Study, and the
day will come when you will travel through Europe, a renowned artist,
welcomed in every capital, _feted_ everywhere, honored, and glorified.
Work, and wealth will come with fame, - immense, boundless wealth,
surpassing all your dreams. You will have the finest carriages, the most
magnificent diamonds; you will draw from inexhaustible purses; the whole
world will be at your feet; and the women will turn pale with envy and
jealousy when they see you. Among men there will be none so noble, none
so great, none so rich, but he will beg for one of your looks; and they
will fight for one of your smiles. Only work and study!'

"At all events, Sarah did work, and studied with a steady perseverance
which spoke of her faith in the promises of her old master, and of the
influence he had obtained over her through her vanity. At first she
had been deterred by the extreme difficulties which beset so late
a beginning; but her amazing natural gifts had soon begun to show
themselves, and in a short time her progress was almost miraculous.

"It is true that her innate sagacity had made her soon find out how
ignorant she was of the world. She saw that society did not exclusively
consist, as she had heretofore imagined, of people like those she had
known. She felt, for instance, what she had never suspected before, that
her unfortunate mother, with all her friends and companions, were only
the rare exceptions, laid under the ban by the immense majority.

"At last she actually learned to know the tree of good fruit, after
having for so many years known only the tree of forbidden fruit. She
listened with eager curiosity to all the old artist had to tell her. And
he knew much; for the eccentric old man had travelled for a long time
over the world, and observed man on every step of the social ladder. He
had been a favorite artist at the court of Vienna; he had had several
of his operas brought out in Italy; and he had been admitted to the best
society in Paris. At night, therefore, while sipping his coffee, his
feet on the andirons, and his long pipe in his mouth, he would soon
forget himself amid the recollections of his youth. He described to her
the splendor of courts, the beauty of women, the magnificence of their
toilets, and the intrigues which he had seen going on around him. He
spoke to her of the men whose portraits he had painted, of the manners
and the jealousies behind the stage, and of the great singers who had
sung in his operas.

"Thus it came about, that, two years later, no one would have recognized
the lean, wretched-looking vagabond of the suburbs in this fresh, rosy
girl, with the lustrous eyes and the modest mien, whom they called in
the house the 'pretty artist in the fifth story.'

"And yet the change was only on the surface.

"Sarah was already too thoroughly corrupted, when the good German picked
her up, to be capable of being entirely changed. He thought he had
infused his own rough honesty into her veins: he had only taught her a
new vice, - hypocrisy.

"The soul remained corrupt; and all the charms with which it was
outwardly adorned became only so many base allurements, like those
beautiful flowers which unfold their splendor on the surface of
bottomless swamps, and thus lead those whom they attract to miserable

"At that time, however, Sarah did not yet possess that marvellous
self-control which became one of her great charms hereafter; and at the
end of two years she could endure this peaceful atmosphere no longer;
she grew homesick after sin.

"As she was already a very fair musician, and her voice, trained by
a great master, possessed amazing power, she urged her old teacher to
procure her an engagement at one of the theatres. He refused in a manner
which made it clear to her that he would never change his mind on that
subject. He wanted to secure to his pupil one of those debuts which are
an apotheosis; and he had decided, as he told her, that she should not
appear in public till she had reached the full perfection of her voice
and her talent, - certainly not before her nineteenth or twentieth year.

"That meant she should wait three or four years longer, - a century!

"In former days Sarah would not have hesitated a moment; she would have
run away.

"But education had changed her ideas. She was quite able now to reflect
and to calculate. She asked herself where she could go, alone, without
money, without friends, and what she should do, and what would become of

"She knew what destitution meant, and she was afraid of it now.

"When she thought of the life her mother had led, - a long series of
nights spent in orgies, and of days without bread; that life of distress
and disgrace, when she depended on the whims of a good-for-nothing, or
the suspicions of a police constable, - Sarah felt the cold perspiration
break out on her temples.

"She wanted her liberty; but she did not want it without money. Vice
attracted her irresistibly; but it was gorgeous vice, seated in a
carriage, and bespattering with mud the poor, honest women who had to
walk on foot, while it was envied by the crowd, and worshipped by the
foolish. She remained, therefore, and studied hard.

"Perhaps, in spite of everything, in spite of herself and her execrable
instincts, Sarah might have become a great artist, if the old German had
not been taken from her by a terrible accident.

"One fine afternoon in April, in the beginning of spring, he was smoking
his pipe at the window, when he heard a noise in the street, and leaned
over to see.

"The bar broke, - he tried in vain to hold on to the window-frame, - and
the next moment he fell from the fifth story to the ground, and was
killed instantly.

"I have held in my own hands the police report of the accident. It
states that the fall was unavoidable; and that, if no such calamity had
occurred before, this was due to the simple fact, that, during the bad
weather, nobody had thought of looking out of the window. The castings
of the little railing in front were found to be broken in two places,
and so long ago, that a thick layer of rust had filled up the cracks.
The wooden part had become perfectly loose, as the mortar that
originally had kept it in place had been apparently eaten away by the
winter frosts."

Daniel and Henrietta had turned very pale. It was evident that the same
terrible suspicion had flashed upon their mind.

"Ah! it was Sarah's work," they exclaimed simultaneously. "It was Sarah
who had broken the bar, and loosened the wooden rods; she had, no doubt,
been watching for months to see her benefactor fall and kill himself."

Papa Ravinet shook his head.

"I do not say that," he said; "and, at all events, it would be
impossible to prove it at this time, - I mean, to prove it against her
denial. It is certain that no one suspected Sarah. She seemed to be in
despair; and everybody pitied her sincerely. Was she not ruined by this

"The old artist had left no will. His relatives, of whom several lived
in Paris, rushed to his rooms; and their first act was to dismiss Sarah,
after having searched her trunks, and after giving her to understand
that she ought to be very grateful if she was allowed to take away all
she said she owed to the munificence of her late patron.

"Still the inheritance was by no means what the heirs had expected.
Knowing that the deceased had had ample means, and how simply he had
always lived, they expected to find in his bureau considerable savings.
There was nothing. A single bond for less than two thousand dollars, and
a small sum in cash, were all that was found.

"Ah! I have long endeavored to find out what had become of the various
bonds and the ready money of the old artist; for everybody who had known
him agreed that there must be some. Do you know what I discovered by
dint of indefatigable investigations? I procured leave to examine the
books of the savings-bank in which he invested his earnings for the year
of his death; and I found there, that on the 17th of April, that is,
five days before the poor German's fall, a certain Ernestine Bergot had
deposited a sum of fifteen hundred francs."

"Ah, you see!" exclaimed Daniel. "Weary of the simple life with the old
man, she murdered him in order to get hold of his money."

But the old gentleman continued, as if he had heard nothing, -

"What Sarah did during the three first months of her freedom, I cannot
tell. If she went and rented furnished lodgings, she did it under a
false name. A clerk in the mayor's office, who is a great lover of
curiosities, and for whom I have procured many a good bargain, had
all the lists of lodging-houses for the four months from April to July
carefully examined; but no Ernestine Bergot could be found.

"I am quite sure, however, that she thought of the stage. One of
the former secretaries of the Lyric Theatre told me he recollected
distinctly a certain Ernestine, beautiful beyond description, who, came
several times, and requested a trial. She was, however, refused, simply
because her pretensions were almost ridiculous. And this was quite
natural; for her head was still full of all the ambitious dreams of the
old artist.

"The first positive trace I find of Sarah in that year appears towards
the end of summer. She was then living in a fashionable street with
a young painter full of talent, and very rich, called Planix. Did she
really love him? The friends of the unfortunate young man were sure she
did not. But he - he worshipped her; he loved her passionately, madly,
and was so absurdly jealous, that he became desperate if she stayed out
an hour longer than he expected. Hence she often complained of his love,
which restrained her cherished liberty; and still she bore it patiently
till fate threw in her way Maxime de Brevan."

At the name of the wretch who had been so bent upon ruining them both,
and who had been so nearly successful, Henrietta and Daniel trembled,
and looked at each other. But Papa Ravinet did not give them, time to
ask any questions, and continued, as calmly as if he had been reading a
report, -

"It was several years before this, that Justin Chevassat, released from
the galleys, had made a nobleman of himself, and claimed before all the
world to be Maxime de Brevan. We need not be surprised, in this age of
ours, where impudence takes the place of everything else, that he should
have promptly succeeded in making his way into high life, and in being
admitted to many houses which were considered more or less exclusive.
In a society which seems to have adopted for its motto the words
'Toleration and Discretion,' and where, consequently, anybody is
admitted without question, Justin Chevassat very naturally had a great
success. He had carefully prepared his way, like those adventurers who
never appear abroad without having their passports in much better order
than most honest travellers. He had learned prudence by experience; for
his antecedents were stormy enough, though less so than Sarah's.

"Justin's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Chevassat, now concierges of No. 23
Water Street, were, some thirty-eight or forty years ago, living in the
upper part of the suburb of Saint Honore. They had a very modest little
shop, partly restaurant, partly bar: their customers were generally the
servants of the neighborhood. They were people of easy principles and
loose morals, - as there are so many in our day, - honest enough as long
as there is nothing to be gained by being otherwise. As their trade
prospered, they were not dishonest; and, when any of their customers
forgot their portemonnaies at the shop, they always returned them. The
husband was twenty-four, and the wife nineteen years old, when, to their
great joy, a son was born. There was rejoicing in the shop; and the
child was christened Justin, in honor of his godfather, who was no less
a personage than the valet of the Marquis de Brevan.

"But to have a son is a small matter. To bring him up till he is
seven or eight years old, is nothing. The difficulty is to give him an
education which shall secure him a position in the world. This thought
now began to occupy the minds of his parents incessantly. These stupid
people, who had a business which supported them handsomely, and enabled
them, in the course of time, to amass a small fortune, did not see that
the best thing they could have done would have been to enlarge it, and
to leave it to their son. But no. They vowed they would sacrifice all
their savings, and deprive themselves even of the necessaries of life,
in order that their Justin might become a 'gentleman.'

"And what a gentleman! The mother dreamed of him as a rich broker, or,
at the very least, a notary's first clerk. The father preferred seeing
him a government official, holding one of those much-coveted places,
which give the owner, after twenty-five years' service, a title, and an
income of some six or seven hundred dollars.

"The result of all these speculations was, that, at the age of nine,
Master Justin was sent to a high school. He conducted himself there just
badly enough to be perpetually on the brink of being sent away, without
ever being really expelled. This made but little impression upon the two
Chevassats. They had become so accustomed to look upon their son as a
superior being, that it never entered their mind to think he was not the
first, the best, and the most remarkable pupil of the establishment. If
Justin's reports were bad, - and they were always bad, - they accused
the teachers of partiality. If he gained no prize at the end of the
year, - and he never got any, - they did not know what to do for him to
console him for having been victimized by such cruel injustice.

"The consequences of such a system need hardly be stated.

"When Justin was fourteen years old, he despised his parents thoroughly,
treated them like servants, and was so much ashamed of them, that he
would not allow his mother to come and see him in the parlor of the
college to which he had been admitted of late. When he was at home
during vacations, he would have cut his right arm off rather than help
his father, or pour out a glass of wine for a customer. He even stayed
away from the house on the plea that he could not endure the odors from
the kitchen.

"Thus he reached his seventeenth year. His course was not completed;
but, as he was tired of college-life, he declared he would not return
there, and he never did return. When his father asked him timidly what
he proposed doing, he shrugged his shoulders as his sole reply. What did
he do? Nothing. He idled about Paris.

"To dress in the height of fashion; to walk up and down before the most
renowned restaurants, with a toothpick in his mouth; to hire a carriage,
and drive it himself, having a hired groom in livery by his side, - this
was the delight of those days. At night he gambled; and, when he lost,
there was the till in his father's shop.

"His parents had rented for him, and comfortably furnished, a nice set
of rooms in their house, and tried by all manner of servility to keep
him at home, neglecting even their own business in order to be always
ready for his orders. But this did not prevent him from being constantly
away. He said he could not possibly receive his friends in a house where
his name was to be seen on the signboard of such a low establishment.

"It was his despair to be the son of a restaurant-keeper, and to be
called Chevassat.

"But greater grief was to come to him after two years' idle and
expensive life such as has been described.

"One fine morning when he needed a couple of hundred dollars, his
parents told him, with tears in their eyes, that they had not twenty
dollars in the house; that they were at the end of their resources; that
the day before a note of theirs had been protested; and that they were
at that moment on the brink of bankruptcy. They did not reproach Justin
with having spent all their savings; oh, no! On the contrary, they
humbly asked his pardon, if they were no longer able to provide for his
wants. And, with fear and trembling, they at last ventured to suggest,
that perhaps it would be well if he should seek some kind of work.

Online LibraryÉmile GaboriauThe Clique of Gold → online text (page 35 of 39)