Émile Gaboriau.

The Clique of Gold online

. (page 4 of 39)
Online LibraryÉmile GaboriauThe Clique of Gold → online text (page 4 of 39)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


One night, as she returned from a great ball, she suddenly was seized
with vertigo. She did not think much of it, but sent for a cup of tea.

When it came, she was standing before the fireplace, undoing her hair;
but, instead of taking it, she suddenly raised her hand to her throat,
uttered a hoarse sound, and fell back.

They raised her up. In an instant the whole house was alive. They sent
for the doctors. All was in vain.

The Countess Ville-Handry had died from disease of the heart.




III.

Henrietta, roused by the noise all over the house, the voices in the
passages, and the steps on the staircase, and suspecting that some
accident had happened, had rushed at once into her mother's room.

There she had heard the doctors utter the fatal words, -

"All is over!"

There were five or six of them in the room; and one of them, his eyes
swollen from sleeplessness, and overcome with fatigue, had drawn the
count into a corner, and, pressing his hands, repeated over and over
again, -

"Courage, my dear sir, courage!"

He, overcome, with downcast eye, and cold perspiration on his pallid
brow, did not understand him; for he continued to stammer incessantly, -

"It is nothing, I hope. Did you not say it was nothing?"

There are misfortunes so terrible, so overwhelming in their suddenness,
that the stunned mind refuses to believe them, and denies their
genuineness in spite of their actual presence.

How could any one imagine or comprehend that the countess, who but a
moment ago was standing there full of life, in perfect health, and
the whole vigor of her years, apparently perfectly happy, smiling, and
beloved by all, - how could one conceive that she had all at once ceased
to exist?

They had laid her on her bed in her ball costume, - a blue satin dress
trimmed with lace. The flowers were still in her hair; and the blow
had come with such suddenness, that, even in death, she retained the
appearance of life; she was still warm, her skin transparent, and her
limbs supple. Even her eyes, still wide open, retained their expression,
and betrayed the last sensation that had filled her heart, - terror. It
looked as if she had had at that last moment a revelation of the future
which her too great cautiousness had prepared for her daughter.

"My mother is not dead; oh, no! she cannot be dead!" exclaimed
Henrietta. And she went from one doctor to the other, urging them,
beseeching them, to find some means -

What were they doing there, looking so blank, instead of acting? Were
they not going to restore her, - they whose business it was to cure
people, and who surely had saved a number of people? They turned away
from her, distressed by her terrible grief, expressing their inability
to help by a gesture; and then the poor girl went back to the bed, and,
bending over her mother, watched with a painfully bewildered air for her
return to life. It seemed to her as if she felt that noble heart still
beat under her hand, and as if those lips, sealed forever by death, must
speak again to re-assure her.

They attempted to take her away from that heartrending sight; they
begged her to go to her room; but she insisted upon staying. They tried
to remove her by force; but she clung to the bed, and vowed that they
should tear her to pieces sooner than make her leave her mother.

At last, however, the truth broke upon her. She sank down upon her knees
by the side of the bed, hiding her face in the drapery, and repeating
with fierce sobs, -

"My mother, my darling mother!"

It was nearly morning, and the pale dawn was stealing into the room,
when at last some sisters of charity came, who had been sent for; and
then a couple of priests; a little later (it was towards the end of
January) one of the count's friends appeared, who undertook all those
sickening preparations which our civilization demands in such cases. On
the next day the funeral took place.

More than two hundred persons called to condole with the count,
twenty-five or thirty ladies came and kissed Henrietta, calling her
their poor dear child.

Then horses were heard in the court-yard, coachmen quarrelling; orders
were given; and at last the hearse rolled away solemnly - and that was
all.

Henrietta wept and prayed in her chamber.

Late in the day, the count and Henrietta sat down at table alone for the
first time in their lives; but they did not eat a morsel. How could they
do it, seeing before them the empty seat, once occupied by her who was
the life of the whole house, and now never to be filled again?

And thus, for a long time, their meals were a steady reminder of their
loss. During the day they were seen wandering about the house, without
any apparent purpose, as if looking or hoping for something to happen.

But there was another true and warm heart, far from that house, which
had been sorely wounded by the death of the countess. Daniel had loved
her like a mother; and in his heart a mysterious voice warned him, that,
in losing her, he had well-nigh lost Henrietta.

He had called several times at the house of mourning; but it was only a
fortnight later that he was admitted. When Henrietta saw him, she felt
sorry she had not let him come in before. He had apparently suffered as
much as she; he looked pale; and his eyes were red.

They remained for some time seated opposite each other, without saying
a word, but deeply moved, and feeling instinctively that their common
grief bound them more firmly than ever to each other.

The count, in the meantime, walked up and down in the large room. He was
so much changed, that one might have failed to recognize him. There was
a strange want of steadiness in his movements; he looked almost like a
paralytic, whose crutches had suddenly broken down. Was he conscious
of the immense loss which he had suffered? His vanity was too great to
render that very probable.

"I shall master my grief as soon as I go back to work," he said.

He ought not to have done it; but he resumed his duties as a politician
at a time when they had become unusually difficult, and when great
things were expected of him. Two or three absurd, ridiculous, in fact
unpardonable blunders, ruined him forever. He lost his reputation as a
statesman, and with it his influence.

As yet, however, his reputation remained uninjured. No one suspected the
truth. They attributed the sudden failure of his faculties to the great
sorrow that had befallen him in the death of his wife.

"Who would have thought that he had loved her so deeply?" they asked one
another.

Henrietta was as much misled as the others, and perhaps even more. Her
respect and her admiration, so far from being diminished, only increased
day by day. She loved him all the more dearly as she watched the
apparent effect of his incurable grief.

He was really deeply grieved, but only by his fall. How had it come
about? He tortured his mind in vain; he could not find a plausible
explanation, and said over and over again, -

"It is perfectly inexplicable."

He talked of regular plots, of a coalition of his enemies, of the black
ingratitude of men, and their fickleness. At first he had thought of
going back to the country. But gradually, as day followed day, and
weeks grew into months, his wounded vanity began to heal; he forgot his
misfortunes, and adopted new habits of life.

He was a great deal at his club now, rode much on horseback, went to the
theatres, and dined with his friends. Henrietta was delighted; for she
had at one time begun to be seriously concerned for her father's health.
But she was not a little amazed when she saw him lay aside his mourning,
and exchange his simple costumes, suitable to his age, for the eccentric
fashions of the day, wearing brilliant waistcoats and fancy-colored
trousers.

Some days later matters grew worse.

One morning Count Ville-Handry, who was quite gray, appeared at
breakfast with jet black beard and hair. Henrietta could not restrain
an expression of amazement. But he smiled, and said with considerable
embarrassment, -

"My servant is making an experiment; he thinks this goes better with my
complexion, and makes me look younger."

Evidently something strange had occurred in the count's life. But what
was it?

Henrietta, although ignorant of the world, and at that time innocence
personified, was, nevertheless, a woman, and hence had the keen instinct
of her sex, which is better than all experience. She reflected, and she
thought she could guess what had happened.

After hesitating for three days, the poor girl, saddened rather than
frightened, confided her troubles to Daniel. But she had only spoken a
few words when he interrupted her, and, blushing deeply, said, -

"Do not trouble yourself about that, Miss Henrietta; and, whatever your
father may do, do not mind it."

That advice was more easily given than followed; for the count's ways
became daily more extraordinary. He had gradually drifted away from
his old friends and his wife's friends, and seemed to prefer to their
high-bred society the company of very curious people of all kinds. A
number of young men came in the forenoon on horseback, and in the most
unceremonious costumes. They came in smoking their cigars, and asked at
once for liquors and absinthe. In the afternoon, another set of men made
their appearance, - vulgar and arrogant people, with huge whiskers and
enormous watch-chains, who gesticulated vehemently, and were on most
excellent terms with the servants. They were closeted with the count;
and their discussions were so loud, they could be heard all over the
house.

What were the grave discussions that made so much noise? The count
undertook to enlighten his daughter. He told her, that, having been
ill-treated in politics, he intended to devote himself henceforth to
grand enterprises, and hoped confidently to realize an enormous fortune,
while, at the same time, rendering great service to certain branches of
industry.

A fortune? Why should he want money? What with his own estate, and what
with his wife's fortune, he had already an income of a hundred thousand
dollars. Was that not quite enough for a man of sixty-five and for a
young girl who did not spend a thousand a year on her toilet?

Henrietta asked him timidly, for she was afraid of hurting her father's
feelings, why he wanted more money.

He laughed heartily, tapped her cheek playfully, and said, -

"Ah, you would like to rule your papa, would you?"

Then he added more seriously, -

"Am I so old, my little lady, that I ought to go into retirement? Have
you, also, gone over to my enemies?"

"Oh, dear papa!"

"Well, my child, then you ought to know that a man such as I am cannot
condemn himself to inactivity, unless he wants to die. I do not want any
more money; what I want is an outlet for my energy and my talents."

This was so sensible a reply, that both Henrietta and Daniel felt quite
re-assured.

Both had been taught by the countess to look upon her husband as a man
of genius; hence they felt sure that he had only to undertake a thing,
and he was sure to succeed. Besides, Daniel hoped that such grave
matters of business would keep the count from playing the fashionable
young man.

But it seemed as if nothing could turn him from this folly; he became
daily younger and faster. He wore the most eccentric hats on one ear.
He ordered his coats to be made in the very last fashion; and never
went out without a camellia or a rosebud in his buttonhole. He no longer
contented himself with dyeing his hair, but actually began to rouge,
and used such strong perfumes, that one might have followed his track
through the streets by the odors he diffused around him.

At times he would sit for hours in an arm-chair, his eyes fixed on the
ceiling, his brow knit, and his thoughts apparently bent upon some grave
question. If he was spoken to, he started like a criminal caught in the
act. He who formerly prided himself on his magnificent appetite (he
saw in it a resemblance to Louis XIV.) now hardly ate any thing. On the
other hand, he was forever complaining of oppression in the chest, and
of palpitation of the heart.

His daughter repeatedly found him with tears in his eyes, - big tears,
which passed through his dyed beard, and fell like drops of ink on his
white shirt-front. Then, again, these attacks of melancholy would be
followed by sudden outbursts of joy. He would rub his hands till they
pained him; he would sing and almost dance with delight.

Now and then a commissionaire (it was always the same man) came and
brought him a letter. The count tore it from his hands, threw him a
gold-piece, and went to shut himself up in his study.

"Poor papa!" said Henrietta to Daniel. "There are moments when I tremble
for his mind."

At last, one evening after dinner, when he had drunk more than usually,
perhaps in order to gain courage, he drew his daughter on his knee, and
said in his softest voice, -

"Confess, my dear child, that in your innermost heart you have more than
once called me a very bad father. I dare say you blame me for leaving
you so constantly alone here in this large house, where you must die
from sheer weariness."

Such a charge would have been but too well founded. Henrietta was
left more completely to herself than the daughter of a workman, whose
business keeps him from home all day long. The workman, however, takes
his child out, at least on Sundays.

"I am never weary, papa," replied Henrietta.

"Really? Why, how do you occupy yourself?"

"Oh! in the first place I attend to the housekeeping, and try my best
to make home pleasant to you. Then I embroider, I sew, I study. In the
afternoon my music-teacher comes, and my English master. At night I
read."

The count smiled; but it was a forced smile.

"Never mind!" he broke in; "such a lonely life cannot go on. A girl
of your age stands in need of some one to advise her, to pet her, - an
affectionate and devoted friend. That is why I have been thinking of
giving you another mother."

Henrietta drew back her arm, which she had wound round her father's
neck; and, rising suddenly, she said, -

"You think of marrying again?"

He turned his head aside, hesitated moment, and then replied, -

"Yes."

At first the poor girl could not utter a word, so great were her stupor,
her indignation, her bitter grief; then she made an effort, and said in
a pained voice, -

"Do you really tell me so, papa? What! you would bring another wife
to this house, which is still alive with the voice of her whom we have
lost? You would make her sit down in the chair in which she used to sit,
and let her rest her feet on the cushion which she embroidered? Perhaps
you would even want me to call her mamma? Oh, dear papa! surely you do
not think of such profanation!"

The count's trouble was pitiful to behold. And yet, if Henrietta had
been less excited, she would have read in his eye that his mind was made
up.

"What I mean to do is done in your behalf, my dear child," he stammered
out at last. "I am old; I may die; we have no near relations; what would
become of you without a friend?"

She blushed crimson; but she said timidly, -

"But, papa, there is M. Daniel Champcey."

"Well?"

The count's eyes shone with delight as he saw that she was falling into
the pit he had dug for her. The poor girl went on, -

"I thought - I had hoped - poor mamma had told me - in fact, since you had
allowed M. Daniel to come here" -

"You thought I intended to make him my son-in-law?"

She made no answer.

"That was in fact the idea your mother had. She had certainly very odd
notions, against which I had to use the whole strength of my firm will.
A sailor is a sorry kind of husband, my dear child; a word from his
minister may part him for years from his wife."

Henrietta remained silent. She began to understand the nature of the
bargain which her father proposed to her, and it made her indignant.
He thought he had said enough for this time, and left her with these
words, -

"Consider, my child; for my part, I will also think of it."

What should she do? There were a hundred ways; but which to choose?
Finding herself alone, she took a pen, and for the first time in her
life she wrote to Daniel: -


"I must speak to you _instantly_. Pray come.

"Henrietta."


She gave the letter to a servant, ordering him to carry it at once
to its address; and then she waited in a state of feverish anxiety,
counting the minutes.

Daniel Champcey had, in a house not far from the university, three
rooms, the windows of which looked out upon the gardens of an adjoining
mansion, where the flowers bloomed brilliantly, and the birds sang
joyously. There he spent almost all the time which was not required
by his official duties. A walk in company with his friend, Maxime de
Brevan; a visit to the theatre, when a particularly fine piece was to
be given; and two or three calls a week at Count Ville-Handry's
house, - these were his sole and certainly very harmless amusements.

"A genuine old maid, that sailor is," said the concierge of the house.

The truth is, that, if Daniel's natural refinement had not kept him
from contact with what Parisians call "pleasure," his ardent love for
Henrietta would have prevented his falling into bad company. A pure,
noble love, such as his, based upon perfect confidence in her to whom
it is given, is quite sufficient to fill up a life; for it makes the
present delightful, and paints the distant horizon of the future in all
the bright colors of the rainbow.

But, the more he loved Henrietta, the more he felt bound to be worthy of
her, and to deserve her affections. He was not ambitious. He had chosen
a profession which he loved. He had a considerable fortune of his own,
and was thus, by his private income and his pay as an officer, secured
against want. What more could he desire? Nothing for himself.

But Henrietta belonged to a great house; she was the daughter of a man
who had filled a high position; she was immensely rich; and, even if he
had married her only with her own fortune, she would have brought him
ten times as much as he had. Daniel did not want Henrietta, on the
blessed day when she should become his own, to have any thing to wish
for or to regret. Hence he worked incessantly, indefatigably, waking up
every morning anew with the determination to make himself one of those
names which weigh more than the oldest parchments, and to win one
of those positions which make a wife as proud as she is fond of her
husband. Fortunately, the times were favorable to his ambition. The
French navy was in a state of transformation; but the marine was as yet
unreformed, waiting, apparently, for the hand of a man of genius.

And why might not he be that man? Supported by his love, he saw nothing
impossible in that thought, and fancied he could overcome all obstacles.

"Do you see that d - - little fellow, there, with his quiet ways?"
said Admiral Penhoel to his young officers. "Well, look at him; he'll
checkmate you all."

Daniel was busy in his study, finishing a paper for the minister, when
the count's servant came and brought him Henrietta's letter. He knew
that something extraordinary must have happened to induce Henrietta,
with her usual reserve, to take such a step, and, above all, to write to
him in such brief but urgent terms.

"Has any thing happened at the house?" he asked the servant.

"No, sir, not that I know."

"The count is not sick?"

"No, sir."

"And Miss Henrietta?"

"My mistress is perfectly well."

Daniel breathed more freely.

"Tell Miss Henrietta I am coming at once; and make haste, or I shall be
there before you."

As soon as the servant had left, Daniel dressed, and a moment later he
was out of the house. As he walked rapidly up the street in which the
count lived, he thought, -

"I have no doubt taken the alarm too soon; perhaps she has only some
commission for me."

But he was beset with dark presentiments, and had to tell himself that
that was not likely to be the case. He felt worse than ever, when, upon
being shown into the drawing-room, he saw Henrietta sitting by the fire,
deadly pale, with her eyes all red and inflamed from weeping.

"What is the matter with you?" he cried, without waiting for the door to
be closed behind him. "What has happened?"

"Something terrible, M. Daniel."

"Tell me, pray, what. You frighten me."

"My father is going to marry again."

At first Daniel was amazed. Then, recalling at once the gradual
transformation of the count, he said, -

"Oh, oh, oh! That explains every thing."

But Henrietta interrupted him; and, making a great effort, she repeated
to him in a half-stifled voice almost literally her conversation with
her father. When she had ended, Daniel said, -

"You have guessed right, Miss Henrietta. Your father evidently does
propose to you a bargain."

"Ah! but that is horrible."

"He wanted you to understand, that, if you would consent to his
marriage, he would consent" -

Shocked at what he was going to add, he stopped; but Henrietta said
boldly, -

"To ours, you mean, - to ours? Yes, so I understood it; and that was my
reason for sending for you to advise me."

Poor fellow! She was asking him to seal his fate.

"I think you ought to consent!" he stammered out.

She rose, trembling with indignation, and replied, -

"Never, never!"

Daniel was overcome by this sudden shock. Never. He saw all his hopes
dashed in an instant, his life's happiness destroyed forever, Henrietta
lost to him. But the very imminence of the danger restored to him his
energy. He mastered his grief, and said in an almost calm voice, -

"I beseech you, let me explain to you why I advised you so. Believe me,
your father does not want your consent at all. You cannot do without his
consent; but he can marry without asking you for yours. There is no law
which authorizes children to oppose the follies of their parents. What
your father wants is your silent approval, the certainty that his
new wife will be kindly received. If you refuse, he will go on,
nevertheless, and not mind your objections."

"Oh!"

"I am, unfortunately, but too sure of that. If he spoke to you of his
plans, you may be sure he had made up his mind. Your resistance
will lead only to our separation. He might possibly forgive you; but
she - Don't you think she should avail herself to the utmost of her
influence over him? Who can foresee to what extremities she might be led
by her hatred against you? And she must be a dangerous woman, Henrietta,
a woman who is capable of any thing."

"Why?"

He hesitated for a moment, not daring to speak out fully what he
thought; and at last he said slowly, as if weighing his words, -

"Because, because this marriage cannot be any thing else but a barefaced
speculation. Your father is immensely rich; she wants his fortune."

Daniel's reasoning was so sensible, and he pleaded his cause with such
eagerness, that Henrietta's resolution was evidently shaken.

"You want me to yield?" she asked.

"I beseech you to do it."

She shook her head sadly, and said in a tone of utter dejection, -

"Very well. It shall be done as you wish it. I shall not object to this
profanation. But you may be sure, my weakness will do us no good."

It struck ten. She rose, offered her hand to Daniel, and said, -

"I will see you to-morrow evening. By that time I shall know, and I will
tell you, the name of the woman whom father is going to marry; for I
shall ask him who she is."

She was spared that trouble. Next morning, the first words of the count
were, -

"Well, have you thought it over?"

She looked at him till he felt compelled to turn his head away; and then
she replied in a tone of resignation, -

"Father, you are master here. I should not tell you the truth, if I said
I was not going to suffer cruelly at the idea of a stranger coming here
to - But I shall receive her with all due respect."

Ah! The count was not prepared for such a speedy consent.

"Do not speak of respect," he said. "Tell me that you will be tender,
affectionate, and kind. Ah, if you knew her, Henrietta! She is an
angel."

"What is her age?"

"Twenty-five."

The count read in his daughter's face that she thought his new wife much
too young for him; and therefore he added, quickly, -

"Your mother was two years younger when I married her."

That was so; but he forgot that that was twenty years ago.

"However," he added, "you will see her; I shall ask her to let me
present you to her. She _is_ a foreigner, of excellent family, very
rich, marvellously clever and beautiful; and her name is Sarah Brandon."



Online LibraryÉmile GaboriauThe Clique of Gold → online text (page 4 of 39)