Émile Gaboriau.

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"'You are joking,' he said at first, 'and that pains me deeply.'

"But, when he saw that I had never in my life spoken more seriously, he,
who is usually so phlegmatic, became perfectly furious. As if I would
have come to him, if, by some impossible accident, I should have
been unhappy in my choice! But I fell from the clouds when he told me
outright that he meant to do all he could do to prevent such a match.
Nor would he give up his purpose, say what I could; and I had to use
all my skill to make him change his mind. At last, after more than two
hours' discussion, all that I could obtain from him was the promise
that he would remain neutral, and that he would leave to Mrs. Brian the
responsibility of refusing or accepting my offer."

He laughed, this good Count Ville-Handry, he laughed heartily, no doubt
recalling his discussion with Sir Thorn, and his triumphant skill.

"So," he resumed, "I went to Mrs. Brian. Ah! she did not mince matters.
At the first word, she called me - God forgive her! - an old fool, and
plainly told me that I must never show myself again in Circus Street.

"I insisted; but in vain. She would not even listen to me, the old
Puritan; and, when I became pressing, she dropped me a solemn curtsey,
and left me alone in the room, looking foolish enough, I am sure.

"For the time, I had nothing to do but to go away. I did so, hoping that
her interview with her niece might induce her to change her mind. Not at
all. The next morning, when I called at the house, the servants said
Sir Thorn was out, and Mrs. Brian and Miss Brandon had just left for
Fontainebleau. The day after, the same result; and for a whole week the
doors remained closed.

"I was becoming restless, when a commissionaire, one morning, brought
me a letter. It was Miss Brandon who wrote. She asked me to be that very
day, at four o'clock, in the Bois de Boulogne, near the waterfalls;
that she would ride out in the afternoon with Sir Thorn; that she would
escape from him, and meet me.

"As a matter of course, I was punctual; and it was well I was so, for,
a few minutes after I got there, I saw her - or rather I felt her - coming
towards me, riding at full speed. When she reached me, she stopped
suddenly, and, jumping from her horse, said to me, -

"'They watch me so jealously, that I could not write to you till to-day.
I am deeply wounded by this want of confidence, and I do not think I can
endure it any longer. Here I am, carry me off, let us go!'

"Never, O Daniel! never have I seen her look more marvellously beautiful
than she looked at that moment. She was flushed with excitement and the
rapid ride; her eyes shone with courage and passion; her lips trembled;
and then she said again, -

"'I know I am ruining myself; and you yourself - you will probably
despise me. But never mind! Let us be gone!'"

He paused, overcome with excitement; but, soon recovering, he
continued, -

"To hear a beautiful woman tell you that! Ah, Daniel! that is an
experience which alone is worth a man's whole life. And yet I had the
courage, mad as I felt I was becoming, to speak to her words of calm
reason. Yes, I had the sublime courage, and the almost fortuitous
control over myself, to conjure her to retreat into her house.

"She began to weep, and accused me of indifference.

"But I had discovered a way out of the difficulty, and said to her, -

"'Sarah, go home. Write to me what you have just told me, and I am sure
I shall compel your friends to grant me your hand.'

"This she did.

"And what I had foreseen came to pass. In the face of such evidence of
what they called our madness, Sir Thorn and Mrs. Brian dared not oppose
our plans any longer. After some little hesitations, and imposing
certain honorable conditions, they said to Sarah and myself, -

"'You will have it so. Go, then, and get married.'"

This is what Count Ville-Handry called chance, a "blessed chance," as
he said, utterly unmindful of the whole chain of circumstances which he
himself related. From the accident that had befallen M. Elgin, and the
fainting-fit of Miss Brandon, to the meeting in the Bois de Boulogne
and the proposed runaway-match, all seemed to him perfectly natural and
simple, - even the sudden enthusiasm of a young, frivolous woman for his
political opinions, and the learning by heart of his speeches.

Daniel was amazed. That a man like the count should be so perfectly
blind to the intrigue that was going on around him, seemed to him
incomprehensible. The count, however, was not so blind, that he should
not have at least suspected the nature of Daniel's feelings.

"What are you thinking of?" he asked. "Come, let us hear your opinion.
Tell us frankly that you suspect Miss Brandon, and accuse her of trying
to catch me in her snares, or, at least, of having selfish views."

"I do not say so," stammered Daniel.

"No, but you think so; and that is worse. Well, come; I think I can
convince you of your mistake. What do you think Miss Brandon would gain
by marrying me? A fortune, you say. I have only one word in reply; but
that is sufficient; Miss Brandon is richer than I am."

How, and at what price, Miss Brandon had managed to possess herself of
such a fortune, Daniel knew but too well from Maxime's account; hence he
could not suppress a nervous shudder, which the count noticed, and which
irritated him.

"Yes, richer than I am," he repeated. "The oil-wells which she has
inherited from her father bring her in, bad years and good years, from
thirty to forty thousand dollars a year, and that in spite of their
being sadly mismanaged. If they were well managed, they would produce,
three, four, or five times as much, or even more. Sir Thorn has proved
to me that they are an almost inexhaustible mine of wealth. If petroleum
was not fabulously profitable, how would you account for the oil-fever
with which these cool, calculating Americans have suddenly been seized,
and which has made more millionaires than the gold-fever in California
and the Territories? Ah! there is something to be made there yet, and
something grand, if one could dispose of a large capital."

He became excited, and forgot himself; but he soon checked himself. He
had evidently been on the point of letting a secret leak out. After a
few moments, he continued more calmly, -

"But enough of that. I trust your suspicions are removed. Next you
may tell me that Miss Brandon takes me because she can do no better.
Mistaken again, my friend. At this very moment she is called upon to
choose between me and a much younger man than I am, whose fortune,
moreover, is larger than mine, - Mr. Wilkie Gordon."

How did it come about that Count Ville-Handry seemed to appeal to
Daniel, and to plead his cause before him? Daniel did not even think
of asking himself that question; his mind was in a state of utter
confusion. Still, as the count insisted on having his opinion, as he
urged him, and repeatedly asked, "Well, do you see any other objection?"
he forgot at last his friend's prudent warning, and said in a troubled
voice, -

"No doubt, count, you know Miss Brandon's family?"

"Certainly! Do you think I would buy a cat in a bag? Her excellent
father was a model of honesty."

"And - her previous life?"

The count started from his chair, and, casting a savage glance at
Daniel, said, -

"Oh, oh! I see one of those rascally slanderers, who have tried to
tarnish the honor of the noblest and chastest of all women, has already
been at work here, anticipating my communication to you, and repeating
those infamous calumnies. You must give me the name of the scoundrel."

Unconsciously, almost, Daniel turned towards the door, behind which
M. de Brevan was listening. Perhaps he expected him to come forth; but
Maxime did not stir.

"Sarah's previous life!" continued the count. "I know every hour of it;
and I can answer for it as for my own. The darling! Before consenting
to be mine, she insisted upon my knowing every thing, yes, every thing,
without reserve or boastfulness; and I know what she has suffered. Did
they not actually say she had been the accomplice of a wretched thief, a
cashier of some bank, who had become a defaulter? Did they not say that
she had driven a foolish young man, a gambler, to commit suicide; and
that she had watched, unmoved, the tortures of his agony? Ah! you
have only to look at Miss Brandon to know that these vile stories are
wretched inventions of malicious enemies and rivals. And look here,
Daniel; you may believe me; whenever you see people calumniate a man
or a woman, you may rest assured that that man or woman has, somehow
or other, wounded or humiliated some vulgar person, some mean, envious
fool, who cannot endure his or her superiority in point of fortune,
rank, or beauty and talent."

He had actually recovered his youthful energy in thus defending his
beloved. His eye brightened up; his voice became strong, and his
gestures animated.

"But no more of that painful topic," he said: "let us talk seriously."

He rose, and leaning on the mantelpiece, so as to face Daniel, he
said, -

"I told you, my dear Daniel, that Sir Thorn and Mrs. Brian insisted upon
certain conditions before they consented to our marriage. One is, that
Miss Brandon is to be received by my relations as she deserves to
be, not only respectfully, but affectionately, even tenderly. As to
relations, there is not any. I have some remote cousins, who, having
nothing to expect from me when I die, do not trouble themselves any more
about me than I trouble myself about them. But I have a daughter; and
there is the danger. I know she is distressed at the idea of my marrying
again. She cannot bear the mere idea that another woman is to take the
place of her mother, to bear her name, and to rule in my house."

Daniel began at last to know what he had to understand by that
unsuccessful appointment which had procured him the pleasure of a visit
from Count Ville-Handry.

"Now," continued the latter, "I know my daughter. She is her mother over
again, weak, but obstinate beyond endurance. If she has taken it into
her head to receive Miss Brandon uncivilly, she will do so, in spite of
all she has promised me, and she will make a terrible scene of it.
And if Miss Brandon consents, in spite of all, to go on, my house will
become a hell to me, and my wife will suffer terribly. Now the question
is, whether I have sufficient influence over Henrietta to bring her to
reason. I think not. But this influence which I have not - a very nice
young man may have it; and that man is you."

Daniel had turned red. It was for the first time that the count spoke so
clearly. He went on, -

"I have never disapproved of my poor wife's plans; and the proof is,
that I have allowed you to pay your attentions to my daughter. But now I
make this condition: if my daughter is to Miss Brandon what she ought
to be to her, a tender and devoted sister, then, six months after my
wedding, there shall be another wedding at my house."

Daniel was about to speak; but he stopped him, saying, -

"No, not a word! I have shown you the wisdom of my decision, and you may
act accordingly."

He had already put on his hat and opened the door, when he added, -

"Ah! one word more. Miss Brandon has asked me to present you to her
to-night. She wants to speak to you. Come and dine with me; and after
dinner we will go to Circus Street. Now, pray think of what I have told
you, and good-by!"




VII.

Count Ville-Handry had hardly closed the door, when M. de Brevan rushed
out of the bedroom in which he had been concealed.

"Was I right?" he exclaimed.

But Daniel did not hear him. He had forgotten his very presence.
Overcome by the great effort he had made to conceal his emotions, he had
sunk into a chair, hiding his face in his hands, and said to himself
in a mournful voice, and as if trying to convince himself of an
overwhelming fact, -

"The count has lost his mind altogether, and we are lost."

The grief of this excellent young man was so great and so bitter, that
M. de Brevan seemed to be deeply moved. He looked at him for some
time with an air of pity, and then suddenly, as if yielding to a good
impulse, he touched his shoulder, and said, -

"Daniel!"

The unhappy man started like one who has suddenly been roused from deep
slumber; and, as he recalled what had just happened, he said, -

"You have heard all, Maxime?"

"All! I have not lost a word nor a gesture. But do not blame me for my
indiscretion. It enables me to give you some friendly advice. You know I
have paid dear for my experience."

He hesitated, being at a loss how to express his ideas; then he
continued in a short, sharp tone, -

"You love Miss Ville-Handry?"

"More than my life, don't you know?"

"Well, if that is so, abandon all thoughts of useless resistance; induce
Miss Henrietta to do as her father wishes; and persuade Miss Brandon to
let your wedding take place a month after her own. But ask for special
pledges. Miss Ville-Handry may suffer somewhat during that month; but
the day after your wedding you will carry her off to your own home, and
leave the poor old man to his amorous folly."

Daniel showed in his face that this suggestion opened a new prospect
before him.

"I had not thought of that," he said.

"It is all you can do."

"Yes, it is what prudence would advise me to do. But can I do so in
honor?"

"Oh, honor, honor!"

"Would it not be wrong in me to abandon the poor old man to the mercy of
Miss Brandon and her accomplices?"

"You will never be able to rescue him, my dear fellow."

"I ought at least to try. You thought so yesterday, and even this
morning, not two hours ago."

Maxime could scarcely hide his impatience.

"I did not know then what I know now," he said.

Daniel had risen, and was walking up and down the small room, replying
to his own objections, rather than to those raised by Brevan.

"If I were alone master," he said, "I might, perhaps, agree to a
capitulation. But could Henrietta accept it? Never, never! Her father
knows her well. She is as weak as a child; but at the proper moment she
can develop a masculine energy and an iron will."

"Why should you tell her at all who Miss Brandon is?"

"I have pledged my word of honor to tell her every thing."

Brevan again shrugged his shoulders, and there was no mistaking what he
meant by that gesture. He might just as well have said aloud, "Can one
conceive such stupidity?"

"Then you had better give up your Henrietta, my poor fellow," he said.

But Daniel's despair had been overcome. He ground his teeth with anger,
and said, -

"Not yet, my friend, not yet! An honest man who defends his honor and
his life is pretty strong. I have no experience, that is true; but I
have you, Maxime; and I know I can always count upon you."

Daniel did not seem to have noticed that M. de Brevan, at first all fire
and energy, had rapidly cooled off, like a man, who, having ventured too
far, thinks he has made a mistake, and tries to retrace his steps.

"Certainly you may count upon me," he replied; "but what can be done?"

"Well, what you said yourself. I shall call upon Miss Brandon, and watch
her. I shall dissemble, and gain time. If necessary, I shall employ
detectives, and find out her antecedents. I shall try to interest some
high personage in my behalf, - my minister, for instance, who is very
kind to me. Besides, I have an idea."

"Ah!"

"That unlucky cashier, whose story you told me, and who, you think, is
not dead - if we could find him. How did you call him? Oh, Malgat! An
advertisement inserted in all the leading newspapers of Europe would, no
doubt, reach him; and the hope of seeing himself avenged" -

M. de Brevan's cheeks began to redden perceptibly. He broke out with
strange vehemence, -

"What nonsense!"

Then he added, more collectedly, -

"You forget that Malgat has been sentenced to I know not how many years'
penal servitude, and that he will see in your advertisement a trick of
the police; so that he will only conceal himself more carefully than
ever."

But Daniel was not so easily shaken. He said, -

"I will think it over. I will see. Perhaps something might be done with
that young man whom the count mentioned, that M. Wilkie Gordon. If I
thought he was really anxious for Miss Brandon's hand" -

"I have heard it said, and I am sure it is so, the young man is one of
those idiots whom vanity renders insane, and who do not know what to do
in order to make themselves notorious. Miss Brandon being very famous,
he would marry her, just as he would pay a hundred thousand dollars for
a famous racer."

"And how do you account for Miss Brandon's refusal?"

"By the character of the man, whom I know very well, and whom she knows
as well. She is quite aware that, three months after the wedding, he
would decamp, and in less than a year she would be divorced. Then there
is another thing: Wilkie is only twenty-five years old; and you know a
fellow at that age is likely to live a good deal longer than a lover who
is beyond the sixties."

The way in which he said this lent to his words a terrible significance;
and Daniel, turning pale, stammered out, -

"Great God! Do you think Miss Brandon could" -

"Could do anything, most assuredly, - except, perhaps, get into trouble
with the police. I have heard her say that only fools employ poison or
the dagger."

A strange smile passed over his lips; and he added in a tone of horrible
irony, -

"It is true there are other means, less prompt, perhaps, but much safer,
by which people may be removed when they become inconvenient.

"What means? The same, no doubt, which she had employed to get rid
of poor Kergrist, and that unlucky Malgat, the cashier of the Mutual
Discount Society. Purely moral means, based upon her thorough knowledge
of the character of her victims, and her own infernal power over them."

But Daniel tried in vain to obtain more light from his friend. Brevan
answered evasively; perhaps because he did not dare to speak out freely,
and reveal his real thoughts; or because it lay in his plans to
be content with having added this horrible fear to all the other
apprehensions of his friend.

His embarrassment, just now unmistakable, had entirely disappeared, as
if he had come to a final decision after long hesitation. He who had
first advised all kinds of concessions now suggested the most energetic
resistance, and seemed to be confident of success.

When he at last left Daniel, he had made him promise to keep him hour
by hour informed of all that might happen, and, above all, to try every
means in his power to unmask Miss Brandon.

"How he hates her!" said Daniel to himself when he was alone, - "how he
hates her!"

But this very hatred, which had already troubled him the night before,
now disturbed him more and more, and kept him from coming to any
decision. The more he reflected, the more it seemed to him that Maxime
had allowed himself to be carried away beyond what was probable, or
even possible. The last accusation, especially, seemed to him perfectly
monstrous.

A young and beautiful woman, consumed by ambition and covetousness,
might possibly play a comedy of pure love while she was disgusted in her
heart. She might catch by vile tricks a foolish old man, and make him
marry her, openly and avowedly selling her beauty and her youth. Such
things happen, and are excused by the morality of our day. The same
wicked, heartless woman might speculate upon becoming speedily a widow,
and thus regaining her liberty, together with a large fortune. This also
happens, however horrible it may appear. But that she should marry a
poor old fool, with the preconceived purpose of hastening his end by a
deliberate crime, there was a depth in that wickedness which terrified
Daniel's imagination.

Deeply ensconced in his chair, he was losing himself in conjectures,
forgetting how time passed, and how his work was waiting for him, even
the invitation to dinner which the count had given to him, and the
prospect of being introduced that very evening to Miss Brandon. Night
came; and then only his concierge, who came in to see what had become of
him all day long, aroused him from his torpor.

"Ah, I am losing my senses!" he exclaimed, rising suddenly. "And
Henrietta, who has been waiting for me - what must she think of me?"

Miss Ville-Handry, at that very moment, had reached that degree of
anxiety which becomes well-nigh intolerable. After having waited for
Daniel all the evening of the day before, and after having spent a
sleepless night, she had surely expected him to-day, counting the
seconds by the beating of her heart, and starting at the noise of every
carriage in the street. In her despair, knowing hardly what she was
doing, she was thinking of running herself to University Street, to
Daniel's house, when the door opened.

In the same indifferent tone in which he announced friends and enemies,
the servant said, -

"M. Daniel Champcey."

Henrietta was up in a moment. She was about to exclaim, -

"What has kept you? What has happened?" But the words died away on her
lips.

It had been sufficient for her to look at Daniel's sad face to feel that
a great misfortune had befallen her.

"Ah! you had been right in your fears," she said, sinking into a chair.

"Alas!"

"Speak: let me know all."

"Your father has come to me, and offered me your hand, Henrietta,
provided I can obtain your consent to his marriage with Miss Brandon.
Now, listen to me; and then you can decide."

Faithful to his promise, he thereupon told her every thing he had
learned from Maxime and the count, suppressing only those details which
would have made the poor girl blush, and also that terrible charge which
he was unwilling to believe.

When he had ended, Henrietta said warmly, -

"What! I should allow my father to marry such a creature? I should sit
still and smile when such dishonor and such ruin are coming to a house
over which my mother has presided! No; far be it from me ever to be so
selfish! I shall oppose Miss Brandon's plans with all my strength and
all my energy."

"She may triumph, after all."

"She shall not triumph over my resistance and my contempt. Never - do you
hear me, Daniel? - never will I bow down before her. Never shall my hand
touch hers. And, if my father persists, I shall ask him, the day before
his wedding, to allow me to bury myself in a convent."

"He will not let you go."

"Then I shall shut myself up in my room, and never leave it again. I do
not think they will drag me out by force."

There was no mistaking it; she spoke with an earnestness and a
determination which nothing could shake or break. And yet the very
saddest presentiments oppressed Daniel's heart. He said, -

"But Miss Brandon will certainly not come alone to this house."

"Whom will she bring with her?"

"Her relatives, M. Thomas Elgin and Mrs. Brian. Oh Henrietta, dearest
Henrietta! to think that you should be exposed to the spite and the
persecution of these wretches!"

She raised her head proudly, and replied, -

"I am not afraid of them." Then she added in a gentler tone, -

"Besides, won't you always be near me, to advise me, and to protect me
in case of danger?"

"I? Don't you think they will try to part us soon enough?"

"No, Daniel, I know very well that the house will no longer be open to
you."

"Well?"

The poor girl blushed up to the roots of her hair, and, turning her.
eyes away from him to avoid his looks, she said, -

"Since they force us to do so, I must needs do a thing a girl, properly
speaking, ought not to do. We will meet secretly. I shall have to stoop
to win over one of my waiting-women, who may be discreet and obliging
enough to aid me, and, through her, I will write to you, and receive
your letters."

But this arrangement did not relieve Daniel from his terrible
apprehensions. There was a question which constantly rose to his lips,
and which still he did not dare to utter. At last, making a great
effort, he asked, -

"And then?"

Henrietta understood perfectly what he meant. She answered, -

"I thought you would be able to wait until the day should come when the
law would authorize me to make my own choice."

"Henrietta!"

She offered him her hand, and said solemnly, -

"And on that day, Daniel, I promise you, if my father still withholds
his consent, I will ask you openly for your arm; and then, in broad
daylight, before all the world, I shall leave this house never to
re-enter it again."

As quick as thought, Daniel had seized her hand, and, carrying it to his



Online LibraryÉmile GaboriauThe Clique of Gold → online text (page 8 of 39)