Émile Gaboriau.

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perfectly; the parts are carefully distributed, and" -

Daniel showed that he was utterly discouraged.

"There is no way, then, of getting hold of this woman?" he asked.

"I think not."

"But that adventure of which you spoke some time ago?"

"Which? That with poor Kergrist?"

"How do I know which? It was a fearful story; that is all I remember.
What did I, at that time, care for Miss Brandon? Now, to be sure" -

Brevan shook his head, and said, -

"Now, you think that story might become a weapon in your hands? No,
Daniel. Still it is not a very long one; and I can now tell it to you
more in detail than I could before.

"About fifteen months ago, there arrived in Paris a nice young man
called Charles de Kergrist. He had lost as yet none of his illusions,
being barely twenty-five years old, and having something like a hundred
thousand dollars of his own. He saw Miss Brandon, and instantly 'took
fire.' He fell desperately in love with her. What his relations were
with her, no one can tell positively, - I mean with sufficient evidence
to carry conviction to others, - for the young man was a model of
discretion. But what became only too well known was the fact, that,
about eight months later, the people living near Miss Brandon's house
saw one morning, when the shutters were opened, a corpse dangling at a
distance of a few feet above the ground from the iron fastenings of the
lady's window. Upon inspection, the dead man proved to be that unlucky
Kergrist. In the pocket of his overcoat a letter was found, in which he
declared that he committed suicide because an unreturned affection had
made life unbearable to him. Now, this letter - mark the fact - was open;
that is to say, it had been sealed, and the seal was broken."

"By whom?"

"Let me finish. The accident, as you may imagine, made a tremendous
noise. The family took it up. An inquest was held; and it was found that
the hundred thousand dollars which Kergrist had brought with him had
utterly disappeared."

"And Miss Brandon's reputation was not ruined?"

Maxime replied with a bitter, ironical smile, -

"You know very well that she was not. On the contrary, the hanging was
turned by her partisans into an occasion for praising her marvellous
virtuousness. 'If she had been weak,' they said, 'Kergrist would not
have hanged himself. Besides,' they added, 'how can a girl, be she ever
so pure and innocent, prevent her lovers from hanging themselves at
her windows? As to the money,' they said, 'it had been lost at the
gaming-table.' Kergrist was reported to have been seen at Baden-Baden
and at Homburg; no doubt he played."

"And the world was content with such an explanation?"

"Yes; why not? To be sure, some sceptical persons told the whole story
very differently. According, to their account, Miss Sarah had been the
mistress of M. de Kergrist, and, seeing him utterly ruined, had sent
him off one fine morning. They stated, that, the evening before the
accident, he had come to the house at the usual hour, and, finding
it closed, had begged, and even wept, and finally threatened to kill
himself; that, thereupon, he had really killed himself; (poor fool that
he was!) that Miss Brandon, concealed behind the blinds, had watched all
his preparations for the fearful act; that she had seen him fasten the
rope to the outside hinges of her window, put the noose around his
neck, and then swing off into eternity; that she had watched him closely
during his agony, and stood there till the last convulsions had passed
away."

"Horrible!" whispered Daniel, - "too horrible!"

But Maxime seized him by the arm, and pressing it so as almost to hurt
him, said in a low, hoarse voice, -

"That is not the worst yet. As soon as she saw that Kergrist was
surely dead, she slipped down stairs like a cat, opened the house-door
noiselessly, and, gliding stealthily along the wall till she reached the
body, she actually searched the still quivering corpse to assure herself
that there was nothing in the pockets that could possibly compromise
her. Finding the last letter of Kergrist, she took it away with her,
broke the seal, and read it; and, having found that her name was not
mentioned in it, she had the amazing audacity to return to the body, and
to put the letter back where she had found it. Then only she breathed
freely. She had gotten rid of a man whom she feared. She went to bed,
and slept soundly."

Daniel had become livid.

"That woman is a monster!" he exclaimed.

Brevan said nothing. His eyes shone with intense hatred; his lips were
quivering with indignation. He no longer thought of discretion, of
caution. He forgot himself, and gave himself up to his feelings.

"But I have not done yet, Daniel," he said, after a pause. "There is
another crime on record, of older date. The first appearance of Miss
Brandon in Paris society. You ought to know that also.

"One evening, about four years ago, the president of the Mutual Discount
Society came into the cashier's room to tell him, that, on the following
day, the board of directors would examine his books. The cashier, an
unfortunate man by the name of Malgat, replied that every thing was
ready; but, the moment the president had turned his back, he took a
sheet of paper, and wrote something like this: -

"'Forgive me, I have been an honest man forty years long; now a fatal
passion has made me mad. I have drawn money from the bank which was
intrusted to my care; and, in order to screen my defalcations, I have
forged several notes. I cannot conceal my crime any longer. The first
defalcation is only six months old. The whole amount is about four
hundred thousand francs. I cannot bear the disgrace which I have
incurred; in an hour I shall have ceased to live.'


"Malgat put this letter in a prominent place on his desk, and then
rushed out, without a cent in his pocket, to throw himself into the
canal. But when he reached the bank, and saw the foul, black water, he
was frightened. For hours and hours he walked up and down, asking God in
his madness for courage. He never found that courage.

"But what was he to do? He could not flee, having no money; and where
should he hide? He could not return to his bank; for there, by this
time, his crime must have become known. In his despair he ran as far as
the Champs Elysees, and late in the night he knocked at the door of Miss
Brandon's house.

"They did not know yet what had happened, and he was admitted. Then, in
his wild despair, he told them all, begging them to give him a couple of
hundreds only of the four hundred thousand which he had stolen in order
to give them to Miss Brandon, - a hundred only, to enable him to escape
to Belgium.

"They refused. And when he begged and prayed, falling on his knees
before Miss Sarah, Sir Thorn seized him by the shoulders, and turned him
out of the house."

Maxime, overcome by his intense excitement, fell into an easy-chair,
and remained there for a considerable time, his eyes fixed, his brow
darkened, repenting himself, no doubt, of his candor, his wrath, and his
forgetfulness of all he owed to himself and to others.

But, when he rose again, his rare strength of will enabled him to assume
his usual phlegmatic manner; and he continued in a mocking tone, -

"I see in your face, Daniel, that you think the story is monstrous,
improbable, almost impossible. Nevertheless, four years ago, it was
believed all over Paris, and set off by a number of hideous details
which I will spare you. If you care to look at the papers of that year,
you will find it everywhere. But four years are four centuries in Paris.
To say nothing of the many similar stories that have happened since."

Daniel said nothing, he only bowed his head sadly. He felt a kind of
painful emotion, such as he had never before experienced in his life.

"It is not so much the story itself," he said at last, "that overcomes
me so completely. What I cannot comprehend is, how this woman could
refuse the man whose accomplice she had been the small pittance he
required in order to evade justice, and to escape to Belgium."

"Nevertheless, that was so," repeated M. de Brevan; and then he added
emphatically, "at least, they say so."

Daniel did not notice this attempt to become more cautious again. He
continued pensively, -

"Is it not very improbable that Miss Brandon should not have been
afraid to exasperate the unfortunate man, and to drive him to desperate
measures? In his furious rage, he might have left the house, rushed to a
police-officer, and confessed to him every thing, laying the evidence he
had in his hands before a magistrate, and" -

"You say," replied Brevan, interrupting him with a dry, sardonic laugh,
"precisely what all the advocates of the fair American said at that
time. But I tell you, that her peculiarity is exactly the daring with
which she ventures upon the most dangerous steps. She does not pretend
to avoid difficulties; she crushes them. Her prudence consists in
carrying imprudence to the farthest limits."

"But" -

"You ought to credit her, besides, with sufficient astuteness and
experience to know that she had taken the most careful precautions,
having destroyed every evidence of her own complicity, and feeling quite
safe in that direction. Moreover, she had studied Malgat's character,
as she studied afterwards Kergrist's. She was quite sure that neither of
them would accuse her, even at the moment of death. And yet, in the
case of this Mutual Discount Society, her calculations did not prove
absolutely correct."

"How so?"

"It became known that she had received Malgat two or three times
secretly, for he did not openly enter her house; and the penny papers
had it, that 'the fair stranger was no stranger to small peculations.'
Public opinion was veering around, when it was reported that she
had been summoned to appear before a magistrate. That, however, was
fortunate for her; she came out from the trial whiter and purer than
Alpine snow."

"Oh!"

"And so perfectly cleared, that, when the whole matter was brought up in
court, she was not even summoned as a witness."

Daniel started up, and exclaimed, -

"What! Malgat had the sublime self-abnegation to undergo the agonies of
a trial, and the infamy of a condemnation, without allowing a word to
escape?"

"No. For the simple reason that Malgat was sentenced _in contumaciam_ to
ten years in the penitentiary."

"And what has become of the poor wretch?"

"Who knows? They say he killed himself. Two months later, a half
decomposed body was found in the forest of Saint Germain, which people
declared to be Malgat. However" -

He had become livid, in his turn; but he continued in an almost
inaudible voice, as if to meet Daniel's objections before they were
expressed, -

"However, somebody who used to be intimate with Malgat has assured me
that he met him one day in Dronot Street, before the great auction-
mart. The man said he recognized him, although he seemed to be most
artistically disguised. This is what has set me thinking more than once,
that, if people were not mistaken, a day might, after all, yet come,
when Miss Sarah would have a terrible bill to settle with her implacable
creditor."

He passed his hand across his brow as if to drive away such
uncomfortable thoughts, and then said with a forced laugh, -

"Now, my dear fellow, I have come to the end of my budget. The details
were all given me by Miss Sarah's friends as well as by her enemies.
Some you may read of in the papers; but most I know from my own long and
patient observation. And, if you ask me what interest I could have in
knowing such a woman, I will tell you frankly, that you see before you
one of her victims; for my dear Daniel, I have to confess it, I also
have been in love with her; and how! But I was too small a personage,
and too poor a devil, to be worth a serious thought of Miss Brandon.
As soon as she felt sure that her abominable tricks had set my head on
fire, and that I had become an idiot, a madman, a stupid fool - on that
very day she laughed in my face. Ah! I tell you, she played with me
as if I had been a child, and then she sent me off as if I had been a
lackey. And now I hate her mortally, as I loved her almost criminally.
Therefore, if I can help you, in secret, without becoming known, you may
count upon me."

Why should Daniel have doubted the truthfulness of his friend's
statements? Had he not himself, and quite voluntarily, confessed his
own folly, his own love, anticipating all questions, and making a clean
breast of the whole matter?

Not a doubt, therefore, arose in Daniel's mind. On the contrary, he
thanked God for having sent him such an ally, such a friend, who had
lived long enough amid all these intrigues of Parisian high life to know
all its secret springs, and to guide him safely. He took Maxime's hand
in his own, and said with deep feeling, -

"Now, my friend, we are bound to each other for life."

Brevan seemed deeply touched; he raised his hand as if to wipe a tear
from his eyes. But he was not a man to give way to tender feelings. He
said, -

"But how about your friend? How can we prevent his marrying Miss Sarah?
Does any way occur to you? No? Ah! you see, it will be hard work."

He seemed to meditate deeply for a few moments; then uttering his words
slowly and emphatically, as if to lend them their full weight, and
impress them forcibly on Daniel's mind, he resumed, -

"We must attack Miss Brandon herself, if we want to master the
situation. If we could once know who she really is, all would be safe.
Fortunately there is no difficulty in Paris in finding spies, if you
have money enough."

As the clock on the mantlepiece struck half-past ten, he started and
stopped. He jumped up as if suddenly inspired by a bright idea, and said
hurriedly, -

"But now I think of it, Daniel, you do not know Miss Brandon; you have
never even seen her!"

"No, indeed!"

"Well, that's a pity. We must know our enemies; how else can we even
smile at them? I want you to see Miss Sarah."

"But who will point her out to me? where? when?"

"I will do it to-night, at the opera. I bet she will be there!"

Daniel was in evening costume, having called upon Henrietta, and then he
was all ready.

"Very well," he said, "I am willing."

Without losing a moment, they went out, and reached the theatre just
as the curtain rose on the fourth act of Don Giovanni. They were,
fortunately, able to secure two orchestra-chairs. The stage was
gorgeous; but what did they care for the singer on the boards, or the
divine music of Mozart? Brevan took his opera-glasses out, and rapidly
surveying the house, he had soon found what he was looking for. He
touched Daniel with his elbow, and, handing him the glasses, whispered
in his ear, -

"Look there, in the third box from the stage; look, there she is!"




V.

Daniel looked up. In the box which Maxime had pointed out to him he saw
a girl of such rare and dazzling beauty, that he could hardly retain
a cry of admiration. She was leaning forward, resting on the velvet
cushion of her box, in order to hear better.

Her hair, perfectly overwhelming in its richness, was so carelessly
arranged, that no one could doubt it was all her own; it was almost
golden, but with such a bright sheen, that at every motion sparks seemed
to start from its dark masses. Her large, soft eyes were overshadowed by
long lashes; and as she now opened them wide, and now half closed them
again, they changed from the darkest to the lightest blue.

Her lips smiled in all the freshness and innocence of merry youth,
displaying now and then two rows of teeth, matchless in their beauty and
regularity.

"Can that be," said Daniel to himself, "the wretched creature whose
portrait Maxime has just given me?"

A little behind her, and half-hid in the shade of the box, appeared
a large bony head, adorned with an absurd bunch of feathers. Her eyes
flashed indignation; and her narrow lips seemed to say perpetually,
"Shocking!" That was Mrs. Brian.

Still farther back, barely discernible after long examination, arose a
tall, stiff figure, a bald, shining head, two dark, deep-sunk eyes, a
hooked nose, and a pair of immense streaming whiskers. That was the Hon.
Thomas Elgin, commonly known as Sir Thorn.

As Daniel was persistently examining the box, with the smiling girl,
the stern old woman, and the placid old man in the background, he felt
doubts of all kinds creeping into his mind.

Might not Maxime be mistaken? Did he not merely repeat the atrocious
slanders of the envious world?

These thoughts troubled Daniel; and he would have mentioned his doubts
to Maxime; but his neighbors were enthusiasts about music, and, as soon
as he bent over to whisper into his friend's ear, they growled, and, if
he ventured to utter a word, they forced him to be silent. At last the
curtain fell. Many left the house; others simply rose to look around;
but Maxime and Daniel remained in their seats. Their whole attention was
concentrated upon Miss Brandon's box, when they saw the door open, and
a gentleman enter, who, at the distance at which they sat, looked like
a very young man. His complexion was brilliantly fair, his beard jet
black, and his curly hair most carefully arranged. He had his opera-hat
under his arm, a camellia in his button-hole; and his light-yellow kid
gloves were so tight, that it looked as if they must inevitably burst
the instant he used his hands.

"Count Ville-Handry!" said Daniel to himself.

Somebody touched his shoulder slightly; and, as he turned round, he
found it was Maxime, who said with friendly irony, -

"Your old friend, is it not? The happy lover of Miss Brandon?"

"Yes, it is so. I have to confess it."

He was just in the act of explaining the reasons for his silence, when
M. de Brevan interrupted him, saying, -

"Just look, Daniel; just look!"

The count had taken a seat in the front part of the box, by Miss
Brandon's side, and was talking to her with studied affectation, bending
over her, gesticulating violently, and laughing till he showed every
one of the long yellow teeth which were left him. He was evidently on
exhibition, and desired to be seen by everybody. Suddenly, however,
after Miss Brandon had said a few words to him, he rose, and went out.

The bell behind the scenes was ringing, and the curtain was about to
rise again.

"Let us _go_," said Daniel to M. de Brevan: "I am suffering."

He was really suffering, mortified by the ridiculous scene which
Henrietta's father was playing. But he entertained no longer any doubts;
he had clearly seen how the adventuress was spurring on the old man, and
fanning his feeble flame.

"Ah! it will be hard work to rescue the count from the wiles of this
witch," said Maxime.

Having left the house, they were just turning into the narrow street
which leads to the boulevards, when they saw a tall man, wrapped up in
a huge cloak, coming towards them, and behind him a servant with a whole
armful of magnificent roses. It was Count Ville-Handry. Coming suddenly
face to face upon Daniel, he seemed at first very much embarrassed;
then, recovering himself, he said, -

"Why, is this you? Where on earth do you come from?"

"From the theatre."

"And you run away before the fifth act? That is a crime against the
majesty of Mozart. Come, go back with me, and I promise you a pleasant
surprise."

Brevan came up close to Daniel, and whispered to him, -

"Go; here is the opportunity I was wishing for."

Then he lifted his hat and went his way. Daniel, taken rather by
surprise, accompanied the count till he saw him stop near a huge landau,
open in spite of the cold weather, but guarded by three servants in
gorgeous livery. When they saw the count, they all three uncovered
respectfully; but he, without taking any notice of them, turned to the
porter who had the flowers, and said, -

"Scatter all these roses in this carriage."

The man hesitated. He was the servant of a famous florist, and had often
seen people pay forty or fifty dollars for such bouquets. He thought the
joke was carried too far. However, the count insisted. The roses were
piled up in the bottom of the carriage; and, when he had done, he
received a handsome fee for his trouble.

Then the count returned to the opera-house, Daniel following him, filled
with amazement. Evidently love had made the count young again, and now
gave wings to his steps. He ran up the steps of the great porch of the
opera-house, and in a few moments he was once more in Miss Brandon's
box. At once he took Daniel by the hand; and, drawing him into the box
close to the lady, he said to the young girl, -

"Permit me to present to you M. Daniel Champcey, one of our most
distinguished naval officers."

Daniel bowed, first to her, and then solemnly to Mrs. Brian, and long,
stiff Sir Thorn.

"I need not tell you, my dear count," said Miss Sarah, "that your
friends are always welcome here."

Then, turning to Daniel, she added, -

"Besides, I have long since known you."

"Me?"

"Yes, sir. And I even know that you are one of the most frequent
visitors at Count Ville-Handry's house."

She looked at Daniel with a kind of malicious simplicity, and then
added,

"_I_ do not mean to say that the count would not be wrong if he
attributed your frequent visits exclusively to his own merits. I have
heard something of a certain young lady" -

"Sarah," here broke in Mrs. Brian, "what you say there is highly
improper." This reproof, so far from checking Miss Sarah's merriment,
only seemed to increase it. Without losing sight of Daniel, she turned
to her aunt, and said, -

"Since the count is not opposed to this gentleman's paying his
attentions to his daughter, I think I may safely speak of them. It would
be such an extraordinary thing, if any thing should happen to interfere
with his hopes!"

Daniel, who had blushed all over, suddenly became deadly pale. After all
that he had been told, these words sounded to him, in spite of the loud
laugh that accompanied them, like a warning and a threat. But he was
not allowed the time to reflect. The piece was coming to an end; Miss
Brandon was drawing a fur cloak over her shoulders, and left on the
count's arm; while he had to escort Mrs. Brian, being closely followed
by tall, stiff Sir Thorn. The landau was at the door. The servants had
let down the steps; and Miss Sarah was just getting in. Suddenly, as her
foot touched the bottom of the carriage, she drew back, and cried out, -

"What is that? What is in there?"

The count came forward, looking visibly embarrassed.

"You are fond of roses," he said, "and I have ordered a few."

With these words he took up some of the leaves, and showed them to her.
But immediately Miss Brandon's terror was changed into wrath.

"You certainly are bent upon making me angry," she said. "You want
people to say everywhere that I make you commit all kinds of follies.
What a glorious thing to waste fifty dollars on flowers, when one has I
know not how many millions!"

Then, seeing by the light of the street-lamp that the count's face
showed deep disappointment, she said in a tone to make him lose the
little reason that was left him, -

"You would have been more welcome if you had brought me a cent's worth
of violets."

In the mean time Mrs. Brian had taken her seat by Miss Brandon's side;
Sir Thorn had gotten in; and it was now the count's turn. At the moment
when the servant was closing the door, Miss Sarah bent forward toward
Daniel, and said, -

"I hope I shall have the pleasure of soon seeing you again. Our dear
count will give you my address, and tell you my reception-days. I must
tell you that we American girls dote upon naval officers, and that I" -

The remainder was lost in the noise of the wheels. The carriage which
took Miss Brandon and Count Ville-Handry away was already at some
distance, before Daniel could recover from his amazement, his utter
consternation.

All these strange events, coming upon him one by one, in the course of
a few hours, and breaking suddenly in upon so calm and quiet a life,
overwhelmed him to such a degree, that he was not quite sure whether he
was dreaming or awake.

Alas! he was not dreaming. This Miss Sarah Brandon, who had just passed
away from him like a glorious vision from on high, was only too real;
and there, on the muddy pavement, a handful of rose-leaves bore witness
of the power of her charms, and the folly of her aged lover.

"Ah, we are lost!" exclaimed Daniel, in so loud a voice, that some of
the passers-by stopped, expecting one of those street-dramas which



Online LibraryÉmile GaboriauThe Clique of Gold → online text (page 6 of 39)