Émile Gaboriau.

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"These letters, M. Champcey, are those which Sarah showed you; and
Malgat was frightened out of his senses. He had never written such
letters; and yet there was his handwriting, imitated with such amazing
perfection, that he began to doubt his own senses and his own reason. He
only saw clearly that no one would look upon them as forgeries.

"Ah! Maxime de Brevan is an artist. His letter to the navy department
has, no doubt, proved it to you.

"Seeing Malgat thus stupefied, Sarah took the word, and said, -

"'Look here, my dear; I'll give you some advice. Here are ten thousand
francs: take them, and run for your life. It is time yet to take the
train for Brussels.'

"But he rose, and said, -

"'No! There is nothing left for me but to die. May my blood come upon
you!'

"And he rushed out, pursued by the insulting laugh of the wretches."

Amazed at the inconceivable boldness of this atrocious plot, Daniel and
Henrietta were shuddering with horror. As to Mrs. Bertolle, she had sunk
into a chair, trembling in all her limbs. The old gentleman, however,
continued with evident haste, -

"Whether Malgat did, or did not, commit suicide, he was never heard of
again. The trial came on, and he was condemned _in contumaciam_ to ten
years' penal servitude. Sarah, also, was examined by a magistrate; but
she made it a success.

"And that was all. And this crime, one of the most atrocious ever
conceived by human wickedness, went to swell the long list of unpunished
outrages. The robbers triumphed impudently in broad daylight. They had
four hundred thousand francs. They could retire from business.

"No, indeed! Twenty thousand francs a year was far too little for their
immoderate desires! They accepted this fortune as an installment on
account on the future, and used it to wait patiently for new victims to
be stripped.

"Unfortunately, such victims would not show themselves. The house was
mounted upon a most expensive footing. M. de Brevan had, of course,
claimed his share; Sir Thorn was a gambler; Sarah loved diamonds; and
grim Mrs. Brian had her own vices. In short, the hour came when danger
was approaching; but, just at that moment, Sarah, looking around, met
with the unlucky victim she needed.

"This one was a handsome young man, almost a child yet, kind, generous,
and chivalrous. He was an orphan, and came up from his province, his
heart full of illusions, and in his pockets his entire fortune, - a sum
of five hundred thousand francs. His name was Charles de Kergrist.

"Maxime managed to bring him to the house in Circus Street. He saw
Sarah, and was dazzled. He loved her, and was lost.

"Ah! The poor fellow did not last long. At the end of five months, his
half million was in the hands of Sarah. And, when he had not a cent
left, she well-nigh forced him to write her three forged drafts,
swearing, that, on the day on which they became due, she would take them
up herself. But when the day came, and he called in Circus Street, he
was received as Malgat had been received. They told him that the forgery
had been discovered: that suit had been brought; that he was ruined.
They offered him, also, money to flee.

"Poor Kergrist! They had not miscalculated. Descended from a family in
which a keen sense of honor had been hereditary for many generations,
he did not hesitate. As soon as he left the house, he hanged himself on
Sarah's window, thinking that he would thus hold up to public censure
the infamous creature who had led him to commit a crime.

"Poor child! They had deceived him. He was not ruined. The forgery had
never been discovered; the drafts had never been used at all. A careful
investigation revealed nothing against Sarah Brandon; but the scandals
of the suicide diminished her prestige. She felt it; and, giving up her
dreams of greatness, she thought of marrying a fool who was immensely
wealthy, M. Wilkie Gordon, when Sir Thorn spoke to her of Count
Ville-Handry.

"In fortune, name, and age, the count was exactly what Sarah had dreamed
of so often. She threw herself upon him.

"How the old gentleman was drawn to Circus Street; how he was
surrounded, insnared, intoxicated, and finally made a husband - all that
you know but too well, M. Champcey. But what you do not know is the fact
that this marriage brought discord into the camp. M. de Brevan would not
hear of it; and it was the hope he had of breaking it up, which made
him speak to you so frankly of Sarah Brandon. When you went to ask
his advice, he was on bad terms with her: she had turned him off, and
refused to pay him any money. And he was so mortally offended, that he
would have betrayed her to the courts even, if he had known how to do it
without inculpating himself.

"You were the very person to reconcile them again, inasmuch as you gave
Maxime an opportunity of rendering Sarah Brandon a great service.

"He did not then anticipate that she would ever fall in love with
you, and that she, in her turn, would have to succumb to one of those
desperate passions which she had so often kindled in others, and used
for her own advantage. This discovery made him furious; and Sarah's
love, and Maxime's rage, will explain to you the double plot by
which you were victimized. Sarah, who loved you, wanted to get rid of
Henrietta, who was your betrothed: Maxime, stung by jealousy, wanted you
to die."

Visibly overcome by fatigue, Papa Ravinet fell back in his chair, and
remained silent for more than five minutes. Then he seemed to make one
more effort, and went on, -

"Now, let us sum up the whole. I know how Sarah, Sir Thorn, and Mrs.
Brian have gone to work to rob Count Ville-Handry, and to ruin him. I
know what they have done with the millions which they report were lost
in speculations; and I have the evidence in my hand. Therefore, I can
ruin them, without reference to their other crimes. Crochard's affidavit
alone suffices to ruin M. de Brevan. The two Chevassats, husband and
wife, have caught themselves by keeping the four thousand francs you
sent to Miss Henrietta. We have them safe, the wretches! The hour of
vengeance has come at last."

Henrietta did not let him conclude: she interrupted him, saying, -

"And my father, sir, my father?"

"M. Champcey will save him, madam."

Daniel had risen, deeply moved, and now asked, -

"What am I to do?"

"You must call on the Countess Sarah, and look as if you had forgotten
all that has happened, - as far as she is concerned, Miss Henrietta."

The young officer blushed all over, and stammered painfully, -

"Ah, I cannot play that part! I would not be able."

But Henrietta stopped him. Laying her hand on his shoulder, and looking
deep into the eyes of her betrothed, as if to search the very depths of
his conscience, she said, -

"Have you reasons for hesitating?"

He hung his head, and said, -

"I shall go."




XXXII.

It struck two when Daniel jumped out of a carriage before No. 79 in
Peletier Street, where the offices of the Pennsylvania Petroleum Company
were now, and where Count Ville-Handry lived at present.

Never in his life had he felt so embarrassed, or so dissatisfied with
himself. In vain had Papa Ravinet and Mrs. Bertolle brought up all
possible arguments to convince him, that, with a woman like Sarah
Brandon, all reprisals were fair; he would not be convinced.

Unfortunately, he could not refuse to go without risking the peace of
his Henrietta, her confidence, and her whole happiness; so he went as
bravely as he could.

A clerk whom he asked told him that the president was in his rooms, - in
the third story on the left. He went up. The maid who came to open the
door recognized him. It was the same Clarissa who had betrayed him.
When he asked for the count she invited him in. She took him through
an anteroom, dark, and fragrant with odors from the kitchen; and then,
opening a door, she said; -

"Please walk in!"

Before an immense table, covered with papers, sat Count Ville-Handry.
He had grown sadly old. His lower lip hung down, giving him a painful
expression of weakness of mind; and his watery eyes looked almost
senile. Still his efforts to look young had not been abandoned. He was
rouged and dyed as carefully as ever. When he recognized Daniel, he
pushed back his papers; and offering him his hand, as if they had parted
the day before, he said, -

"Ah, here you are back again among us! Upon my word, I am very glad to
see you! We know what you have been doing out there; for my wife sent me
again and again to the navy department to see if there were any news of
you. And you have become an officer of the Legion of Honor! You ought to
be pleased."

"Fortune has favored, me, count."

"Alas! I am sorry I cannot say as much for myself," replied the latter
with a sigh.

"You must be surprised," he continued, "to find me living in such a
dog's kennel, I who formerly - But so it goes. 'The ups and downs of
speculations,' says Sir Thorn. Look here, my dear Daniel, let me give
you a piece of advice: never speculate in industrial enterprises!
Nowadays it is mere gambling, furious gambling; and everybody cheats. If
you stake a dollar, you are in for everything. That is my story, and I
thought I would enrich my country by a new source of revenue. From the
first day on which I emitted shares, speculators have gotten hold of
them, and have crushed me, till my whole fortune has been spent in
useless efforts to keep them up. And yet Sir Thorn says I have fought as
bravely on this slippery ground as my ancestors did in the lists."

Every now and then the poor old man passed his hand over his face as
if trying to drive away painful thoughts; and then he went on in a
different tone of voice, -

"And yet I am far from complaining. My misfortunes have been the source
of the purest and highest happiness for me. It is to them I owe the
knowledge of the boundless devotion of a beloved wife; they have taught
me how dearly Sarah loves me. I alone can tell what treasures are hid
in that angelic heart, which they dared to calumniate. Ah! I think I can
hear her now, when I told her one evening how embarrassed I had become
in my finances.

"'To have concealed that from me!' she exclaimed, - 'from me, your wife:
that was wrong!' And the very next day she showed her sublime courage.
She sold her diamonds to bring me the proceeds, and gave up to me her
whole fortune. And, since we are living here, she goes out on foot, like
a simple citizen's wife; and more than once I have caught her preparing
our modest meals with her own hands."

Tears were flowing down the furrowed cheeks, leaving ghastly lines on
the rouged and whitened surface.

"And I," he resumed in an accent of deepest despair, - "I could not
reward her for such love and so many sacrifices. How did I compensate
her for being my only consolation, my joy, my sole happiness in life! I
ruined her; I impoverished her! If I were to die to-morrow, she would be
penniless."

Daniel trembled.

"Ah, count," he exclaimed, "don't speak of dying! People like you live a
hundred years."

But the old man lowered his voice, and said, -

"You see, I have not told you all yet. But you are my friend; and I know
I can open my heart to you. _I_ did not have the - the - cleverness to
overcome all the restrictions which hamper this kind of business. I was
imprudent, in spite of all Sir Thorn's warnings. To-morrow there will be
a meeting of the stockholders; and, if they do not grant me what I shall
have to ask of them, I may be in trouble. And, when a man calls himself
Count Ville-Handry, rather than appear in a police-court - you know what
I mean!"

He was interrupted by one of the clerks, who brought him a letter. He
read it, and said, -

"Tell them I am coming."

Then, turning again to Daniel, he added, -

"I must leave you; but the countess is at home, and she would never
forgive me if I did not take you in to present your respects to her.
Come! But be careful and don't say a word of my troubles. It would kill
her."

And, before Daniel could recover from his bewilderment, the count had
opened a door, and pushed him into the room, saying, -

"Sarah, M. Champcey."

Sarah started up as if she had received an electric shock. Her husband
had left them; but, even if he had been still in the room, she would
probably not have been any more able to control herself.

"You!" she cried, "Daniel, my Daniel!"

And turning to Mrs. Brian, who was sitting by the window, she said, -

"Leave us."

"Your conduct is perfectly shocking, Sarah!" began the grim lady. But
Sarah, as harshly as if she had been speaking to a servant, cut her
short, saying, -

"You are in the way, and I beg you will leave the room."

Mrs. Brian did so without saying a word; and the countess sank into an
arm-chair, as if overcome by a sudden good fortune which she was not
able to endure, looking intensely at Daniel, who stood in the centre of
the room like a statue.

She had on a simple black merino dress; she wore no jewelry; but her
marvellous, fatal beauty seemed to be all the more dazzling. The years
had passed over her without leaving any more traces on her than the
spring breeze leaves on a half-opened rose. Her hair still shone with
its golden flashes; her rosy lips smiled sweetly; and her velvet eyes
caressed you still, till hot fire seemed to run in your veins.

Once before Daniel had been thus alone with her; and, as the sensations
he then felt rose in his mind, he began to tremble violently. Then,
thinking of his purpose in coming here, and the treacherous part he was
about to act, he felt a desire to escape.

It was she who broke the charm. She began, saying, -

"You know, I presume, the misfortunes that have befallen us. Your
betrothed, Henrietta? Has the count told you?"

Daniel had taken a chair. He replied, -

"The count has said nothing about his daughter."

"Well, then, my saddest presentiments have been fulfilled. Unhappy girl!
I did what I could to keep her in the right way. But she fell, step by
step, and finally so low, that one day, when a ray of sense fell upon
her mind, she went and killed herself."

It was done. Sarah had overcome the last hesitation which Daniel still
felt. Now he was in the right temper to meet cunning with cunning. He
answered in an admirably-feigned tone of indifference, -

"Ah!"

Then, encouraged by the joyous surprise he read in Sarah's face, he went
on, -

"This expedition has cost me dear. Count Ville-Handry has just informed
me that he has lost his whole fortune. I am in the same category."

"What! You are" -

"Ruined. Yes; that is to say, I have been robbed, - robbed of every cent
I ever had. On the eve of my departure, I intrusted a hundred thousand
dollars, all I ever possessed, to M. de Brevan, with orders to hold
it at Miss Henrietta's disposal. He found it easier to appropriate the
whole to himself. So, you see, I am reduced to my pittance of pay as a
lieutenant. That is not much."

Sarah looked at Daniel with perfect amazement. In any other man, this
prodigious confidence in a friend would have appeared to her the extreme
of human folly; in Daniel, she thought it was sublime.

"Is that the reason why they have arrested M. de Brevan?" she asked.

Daniel had not heard of his arrest.

"What!" he said. "Maxime" -

"Was arrested last night, and is kept in close confinement."

However well prepared Daniel was by Papa Ravinet's account, he could
never have hoped to manage the conversation as well as chance did. He
replied, -

"It cannot be for having robbed me. M. de Brevan must have been arrested
for having attempted to murder me."

The lioness who has just been robbed of her whelps does not rise with
greater fury in her eyes than Sarah did when she heard these words.

"What!" she cried aloud. "He has dared touch you!"

"Not personally; oh, no! But he hired for the base purpose a wretched
felon, who was caught, and has confessed everything. I see that the
order to apprehend my friend Maxime must have reached here before me,
although it left Saigon some time later than I did."

Might not M. de Brevan be as cowardly as Crochard when he saw that all
was lost? This idea, one would think, would have made Sarah tremble. But
it never occurred to her.

"Ah, the wretch!" she repeated. "The scoundrel, the rascal!"

And, sitting down by Daniel, she asked him to tell her all the details
of these attempted assassinations, from which he had escaped only by a
miracle.

The Countess Sarah, in fact, never doubted for a moment but that Daniel
was as madly in love with her as Planix, as Malgat, and Kergrist, and
all the others, had been, she had become so accustomed to find her
beauty irresistible and all powerful. How could it ever have occurred to
her, that this man, the very first whom she loved sincerely, should also
be the first and the only one to escape from her snares? She was taken
in, besides, by the double mirage of love and of absence.

During the last two years she had so often evoked the image of Daniel,
she had so constantly lived with him in her thoughts, that she mistook
the illusion of her desires for the reality, and was no longer able to
distinguish between the phantom of her dreams and the real person.

In the meantime he entertained her by describing to her his actual
position, lamenting over the treachery by which he had been ruined, and
adding how hard he would find it at thirty to begin the world anew.

And she, generally, so clearsighted, was not surprised to find that
this man, who had been disinterestedness itself, should all of a sudden
deplore his losses so bitterly, and value money so highly.

"Why do you not marry a rich woman?" she suddenly asked him.

He replied with a perfection of affected candor which he would not have
suspected to be in his power the day before, -

"What? Do you - you, Sarah - give me such advice?"

He said it so naturally, and with such an air of aggrieved surprise,
that she was delighted and carried away by it, as if he had made her the
most passionate avowal.

"You love me? Do you really, really love me?"

The sound of a key turning in the door interrupted them.

And in an undertone, speaking passionately, she said, -

"Go now! You shall know by to-morrow who she is whom I have chosen for
you. Come and breakfast with us at eleven o'clock. Go now."

And, kissing him on his lips till they burnt with unholy fire, she
pushed him out of the room.

The poor man staggered like a drunken man, as he went down the stairs.

"I am playing an abominable game," he said to himself. "She does love
me! What a woman!"

It required nothing less to rouse him from his stupor than the sight
of Papa Ravinet, who was waiting for him below, hid in a corner of his
carriage.

"Is it you?" he said.

"Yes, myself. And it seems it was well I came. But for me, the count
would have kept you; but I came to your rescue by sending him up a
letter. Now, tell me all."

Daniel reported to him briefly, while they were driving along, his
conversation with the count and with Sarah. When he had concluded, the
old dealer exclaimed, -

"We have the whole matter in our hands now. But there is not a minute to
lose. Do you go back to the hotel, and wait for me there. I must go to
the court."

At the hotel Daniel found Henrietta dying with anxiety. Still she only
asked after her father. Was it pride, or was it prudence? She did not
mention Sarah's name. They had, however, not much time for conversation.
Papa Ravinet came back sooner than they expected, all busy and excited.
He drew Daniel aside to give him his last directions, and did not leave
him till midnight, when he went away, saying, -

"The ground is burning under our feet; be punctual to-morrow."

At the precise hour Daniel presented himself in Peletier Street, where
the count received him with a delighted air.

"Ah!" he exclaimed, "you come just in time. Brian is away; Sir Thorn is
out on business; and I shall have to leave you directly after breakfast.
You must keep the countess company. Come, Sarah, let us have breakfast."

It was an ill-omened breakfast.

Under the thick layers of rouge, the count showed his livid pallor;
and every moment nervous tremblings shook him from head to foot. The
countess affected childish happiness; but her sharp and sudden movements
betrayed the storm that was raging in her heart. Daniel noticed that she
incessantly filled the count's glass, - a strong wine it was too, - and
that, in order to make him take more, she drank herself an unusual
quantity.

It struck twelve, and Count Ville-Handry got up.

"Well," he said with the air and the voice of a man who braces himself
to mount the scaffold, "it must be done; they are waiting for me."

And, after having kissed his wife with passionate tenderness, he shook
hands with Daniel, and went out hurriedly.

Crimson and breathless, Sarah also had risen, and was listening
attentively. And, when she was quite sure that the count had gone
downstairs, she said, -

"Now, Daniel, look at me! Need I tell you who the woman is whom I have
chosen for you? It is - the Countess Ville-Handry."

He shook and trembled; but he controlled himself by a supreme effort,
and calmly smiling, in a half tender, half ironical tone, he replied, -

"Why, oh, why! do you speak to me of unattainable happiness? Are you not
married?"

"I may be a widow."

These words from her lips had a fearful meaning. But Daniel was prepared
for them, and said, -

"To be sure you may. But, unfortunately, you, also, are ruined. You are
as poor as I am; and we are too clever to think of joining poverty to
poverty."

She looked at him with a strange, sinister smile. She was evidently
hesitating. A last ray of reason lighted up the abyss at her feet. But
she was drunk with pride and passion; she had taken a good deal of wine;
and her usually cool head was in a state of delirium.

"And if I were not ruined?" she said at last in a hoarse voice; "what
would you say then?"

"I should say that you are the very woman of whom an ambitious man of
thirty might dream in his most glorious visions."

She believed him. Yes, she was capable of believing that what he said
was true; and, throwing aside all restraint, she went on, -

"Well, then, I will tell you. I am rich, - immensely rich. That entire
fortune which once belonged to Count Ville-Handry, and which he thinks
has been lost in unlucky speculations, - the whole of it is in my hands.
Ah! I have suffered horribly, to have to play for two long years the
loving wife to this decrepit old man. But I thought of you, my much
beloved, my Daniel; and that thought sustained me. I knew you would come
back; and I wanted to have royal treasures to give you. And I have them.
These much coveted millions are mine, and you are here; and now I can
say to you, 'Take them, they are yours; I give them to you as I give
myself to you.'"

She had drawn herself up to her full height as she said this; and she
looked splendid and fearful at the same time, in her matchless beauty,
diffusing energy and immodesty around her, and shaking her head
defiantly, till the waves of golden hair flowed over her shoulders.

The untamed vagabond of the gutter reappeared all of a sudden,
breathless and trembling, hoarse, lusting.

Daniel felt as if his reason was giving way. Still he had the strength
to say, -

"But unfortunately you are not a widow."

She drew close up to him, and said in a strident voice, -

"Not a widow? Do you know what Count Ville-Handry is doing at this
moment? He is beseeching his stockholders to relieve him from the
effects of his mismanagement. If they refuse him, he will be brought up
in court, and tried as a defaulter. Well, I tell you! they will refuse
him; for among the largest stockholders there are three who belong to
me: I have bribed them to refuse. What do you think the count will do
when he finds himself dishonored and disgraced? I will tell you again;
for I have seen him write his will, and load his revolver."

But the door of the outer room was opened. She turned as pale as death
itself, and, seizing Daniel's arm violently, she whispered, -

"Listen!"

Heavy steps were heard in the adjoining room, then - nothing more!

"It is he!" she whispered again. "Our fate is hanging in the scales" -

A shot was heard, which made the window-panes rattle, and cut her
short. She was seized with spasms from head to foot, but, making a great
effort, she cried out, -

"Free at last, Daniel; we are free!"

And, rushing to the door, she opened it.

She opened it, but instantly shut it again violently, and uttered a



Online LibraryÉmile GaboriauThe Clique of Gold → online text (page 38 of 39)