Émile Gaboriau.

The Clique of Gold online

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lips, he said, - "Thanks! A thousand thanks! You restore me to hope."

Still, before abandoning the effort, he thought he would try one more
measure; and for that purpose it was necessary that Henrietta should be
induced to conceal her intentions as long as possible. It was only with
great difficulty that he succeeded in obtaining her consent.

"I will do what you desire; but believe me, all your efforts will be in
vain."

She was interrupted by the arrival of Count Ville-Handry. He kissed
his daughter, said a few words about rain and fine weather; and then,
drawing Daniel into one of the windows, he asked -

"Have you spoken to her?"

"Yes."

"Well?"

"Miss Henrietta wants a few days to consider."

The count looked displeased, and said, -

"That is absurd. Nothing can be more ridiculous. But, after all, it is
your business, my dear Daniel. And, if you want any additional motive,
I will tell you that my daughter is very rich. She has a quarter of a
million of her own."

"Sir!" exclaimed Daniel indignantly.

But Count Ville-Handry had already turned upon his heels; and the butler
came to announce that dinner was on the table.

The meal, though excellent in itself, was necessarily very dull and
sad. It was promptly despatched; for the count seemed to be sitting on
needles, and every minute looked at his watch.

They had but just handed the coffee around, when he turned to Daniel,
saying, -

"Let us make haste. Miss Brandon expects us."

Daniel was instantly ready. But the count did not even give him time to
take leave of Henrietta; he carried him off to his carriage, pushed him
in, jumped in after him, and called out to the servant, - "Circus Street!
Miss Brandon! Drive fast!"




VIII.

The servants knew very well what the count meant when he said, "Drive
fast!" The coachman, on such occasions, made his horses literally go as
fast as they could; and, but for his great skill, the foot-passengers
would have been in considerable danger. Nevertheless, on this evening
Count Ville-Handry twice lowered the window to call out, -

"Don't drive at a walk!"

The fact is, that, in spite of his efforts to assume the air of a grave
statesman, he was as impatient, and as vain of his love, as a young
collegian hurrying to his first rendezvous with his beloved. During
dinner he had been sullen and silent; now he became talkative, and
chatted away, without troubling himself about the silence of his
companion.

To be sure, Daniel did not even listen. Half-buried in the corner of the
well-padded carriage, he tried his best to control his emotions; for he
was excited, more excited than ever in his life, by the thought that he
was to see, face to face, this formidable adventuress, Miss Brandon. And
like the wrestler, who, before making a decisive assault, gathers up all
his strength, he summoned to his aid his composure and his energy.
It took them not more than ten minutes to drive the whole distance to
Circus Street.

"Here we are!" cried the count.

And, without waiting for the steps to be let down, he jumped on the
sidewalk, and, running ahead of his servants, knocked at the door of
Miss Brandon's house. It was by no means one of those modern structures
which attract the eye of the passer-by by a ridiculous and conspicuous
splendor. Looking at it from the street, you would have taken it for the
modest house of a retired grocer, who was living in it upon his savings
at the rate of two or three thousand a year. It is true, that from
the street, you could see neither the garden, nor the stables and the
carriage-houses.

In the meantime a servant had appeared, who took the count's and
Daniel's coats, and showed them up stairs. When they reached the upper
landing, the count stopped, as if his breath had been giving out of a
sudden.

"There," he stammered, "there!"

"Where? What?" Daniel did not know what he meant. The count only wished
to say that "there" was the place where he had held Miss Brandon in
his arms the day she had fainted. But Daniel had no time to ask any
questions. Another servant appeared, coming out of the rooms, and,
bowing low before Count Ville-Handry, he said, -

"The ladies have but just risen from table, and are still dressing."

"Ah!"

"If the gentlemen will please sit down in the parlor, I will tell M.
Elgin."

"Very well," said the count, speaking in a tone which showed that he
considered himself perfectly at home in Miss Brandon's house. He entered
the parlor, followed by Daniel. It was a magnificent room; but every
thing in it, from the carpet on the floor to the chandelier on the
ceiling, betrayed the Puritanic taste of Mrs. Brian. It was splendid;
but the splendor was cold, stiff, and mournful. The furniture had sharp
angles, and suggested any thing but comfort. The bronze figures on the
mantlepiece-clock were biblical personages; and the other bronzes were
simply hideous. Except these, there was no ornament visible, not a
painting, nor a statuette.

Yes, one. Opposite the fireplace, in the place of honor, there stared
at you a painting in a most costly gilt frame, - a horrible daub,
representing a man of about fifty years, who wore a fancy uniform with
enormous epaulets, a huge sword, a plumed hat, and a blue sash, into
which two revolvers were thrust.

"Gen. Brandon, Miss Sarah's father," said Count Ville-Handry, in a tone
of deep respect, which unnerved Daniel. "As a work of art, this portrait
leaves, no doubt, much to be wished for; but they say the likeness is
excellent."

Certainly, though that might be so, there was no resemblance to be
discovered between the tanned face of this American general and the
blooming features of Miss Brandon. But there was something more. As
Daniel examined this picture nearer by, and more closely, he thought he
discovered a studied and intentional coarseness of execution. It looked
to him like the work of an artist who had endeavored to imitate those
wretched painters who live upon the vanity of weak men and little
children. He thought he discovered by the side of gross inaccuracies
unmistakable traces of a master's hand; and especially one of the ears,
half hid behind the hair, seemed to him admirably done.

But, before he could draw his conclusions from this strange discovery,
M. Thomas Elgin appeared in the room. He was in evening costume, looking
taller and stiffer than ever in his white cravat; and, as he came
forward, he halted a little on one foot, though leaning upon a big cane.

"What, my dear Sir Thorn!" exclaimed the count, "your leg still gives
you trouble?"

"Oh, a great deal!" replied the honorable gentleman, with a very marked
English accent, - "a great deal since this morning. The doctor thinks
there must be something the matter with the bone."

At the same time, obeying the tendency which we all have to display our
ailments, he slightly drew up his trousers, so that the bandages became
visible which he wore around his leg. Count Ville-Handry looked at it
with pity; then, forgetting that he had introduced Daniel already the
night before at the opera, he presented him once more; and, when the
ceremony was over, he said to Sir Thorn, -

"Upon my word, I am almost ashamed to appear so early; but I knew you
expected company to-night."

"Oh, only a few persons!"

"And I desired to see you for a few moments alone."

A strange grimace represented the only smile of which the honorable
gentleman was capable. He made it twice, and then said, caressing his
primly-cut whiskers, -

"They have told Miss Sarah that you are here, my dear count; and I heard
her tell Mrs. Brian that she was nearly ready. I cannot imagine how she
can spend so much time at her toilet."

They were thus chatting away before the fireplace, Sir Thorn stretched
out in an easy-chair, and the count leaning against the mantlepiece,
while Daniel had withdrawn into the embrasure of a window which looked
upon the court-yard and the garden behind the house. There, his brow
pressed against the cool window-panes, he was meditating. He could not
understand this wound of M. Elgin's.

"Is it possible that his fall was an intentional fall?" he thought, "or
did he really break his leg? If he did so, that fainting-fit might have
been natural, and not prearranged; but" -

He was just plunging into these doubts and speculations, when the noise
of a carriage entering the court-yard, aroused him from his thoughts.

He looked out. A _coupe_ had driven up to the back porch of the house. A
lady stepped out; and he was on the point of uttering a cry of surprise,
for he thought he recognized Miss Sarah in that woman. But could that be
so? He was unwilling to believe it, when she suddenly raised her head in
order to speak to the coachman, and the light from the lamps fell full
upon her face.

There was no doubt now on his mind. It was Miss Brandon.

She flew up the steps, and entered the house. He heard distinctly the
heavy door close behind her.

At the opera, the night before, a single word uttered by Miss Brandon
had sufficed to enlighten Daniel. But now this was a very different
matter. It was a potent fact, unmistakable and tangible, which came to
him in support of his suspicions.

In order to increase the passionate impatience of the count, they had
told him that Miss Brandon was still dressing, but that she was making
all haste to come down to him. Not a word had been said of her being
out, and of her return at that very moment. Where had she been? What new
intrigues had compelled her to leave the house just then? It must have
evidently been something of great importance to have kept her out till
so late an hour, and when she knew, moreover, that the count was waiting
for her.

This incident threw a flood of light on the cunning policy pursued in
this house, and on the clever and active complicity of M. Thomas Elgin
and Mrs. Brian. What their game really was, and how Count Ville-Handry
had been caught in the trap, he now understood well enough; he would
have been caught in it himself.

How clever these actors were! how perfect all the arrangements! and how
scientifically the smallest details were prepared! How marvellously well
even the parlor was arranged to serve the purposes of the owners! This
simple elegance could not but banish all doubts; and this horrible
portrait of the so-called Gen. Brandon - what a stroke of genius!

As to the lame leg of Sir Thorn, Daniel no longer believed in it.

"His leg is no more broken than mine," he thought.

But at the same time he marvelled at the self-denial of this gentleman,
who, in order to prove a falsehood, consented to wear his leg bandaged
up for months, as if it really had been severely injured.

"And to-night," said Daniel to himself, "the performance, no doubt, is
to be specially artistic, as they expected me."

Still, like a duellist, who tries to regain all his strength after a
sleepless night, Daniel was now fully prepared for the battle. He even
returned to the fireplace, for fear that his standing alone, and his
preoccupation, might betray his thoughts.

The conversation between Count Ville-Handry and M. Elgin had in the
meantime become very familiar; and the count was just detailing all his
arrangements for the approaching wedding. He would live, he said, with
his wife in the second story of his palace. The first story was to be
divided into two suites of apartments, - one for M. Thomas Elgin, and the
other for Mrs. Brian; for he knew very well that his adored Sarah would
never consent to part with her dear relatives, who had been father and
mother to her.

The last words remained in his throat; he stood as if he were petrified,
his eyes starting from their sockets, his mouth wide open.

Mrs. Brian had entered the room, followed by Miss Brandon. Daniel was
even more struck by her strange beauty to-day than at the opera; it
was literally dazzling. She wore on that night a dress of tea-color
embroidered with tiny bouquets in Chinese silk, and trimmed below with
an immense flounce of plaited muslin. In her hair, which looked even
more carelessly put up than usually, she had nothing but a branch of
fuschia, the crimson bells falling gracefully down upon her neck, where
they mingled with her golden curls.

She came smilingly up to Count Ville-Handry, and, offering him her brow
to kiss, she said, -

"Do I look well, dear count?"

He trembled from head to foot; and all he could do was to stretch out
his lips, and to stammer in an almost ecstatic tone of voice, -

"Oh, beautiful! too beautiful!"

"It has taken you long enough, I am sure," said Sir Thorn
severely, - "too long!"

He might have known that Miss Brandon had accomplished a miracle of
expeditiousness; for it was not a quarter of an hour since she returned
to the house.

"You are an impertinent villain, Thorn," she said, laughing in the fresh
and hearty manner of a child; "and I am very happy that the presence of
the count relieves _me_ from your eternal sermons."

"Sarah!" exclaimed Mrs. Brian reprovingly.

But she had already turned round, with her hand outstretched towards
Daniel, -

"I am so glad you have come, sir!" she said. "I am sure we shall
understand each other admirably."

She told him this with the softest possible voice; but, if he had known
her better, he would have read in the way in which she looked at him,
that her disposition towards him had entirely changed since yesterday;
then she wished him well; now she hated him savagely.

"Understand each other?" he repeated as he bowed; "in what?"

She made no answer.

The servant announced some of the usual visitors; and she went to
receive them. Ten o'clock struck; and from that moment the invited
guests did not cease to arrive. At eleven o'clock there were perhaps a
hundred persons in the room; and in the two adjoining rooms card-tables
had been arranged.

It appeared that the gentlemen who showed themselves there - old
men mostly, amply decorated with foreign orders, and young men in
extravagantly fashionable costumes - were not free from suspicion; but
they all belonged to Paris high-life, to that society, which, under a
dazzlingly brilliant outside, conceals hideous crimes, and allows now
and then traces of real misery to be seen through the rents in the
splendid livery worn by its members.

Some of these men stood, by the name they bore or the position they
filled, high above the rest of the company; they were easily recognized
by their haughty manner, and the intense deference with which their
slightest remarks were received. And to this crowd Count Ville-Handry
displayed his good-fortune. He assumed all the airs of the master of the
house; as if he had been in his own house, gave orders to the servants,
and then, with mock modesty, went from group to group, eagerly picking
up all the compliments he could gather on Miss Brandon's beauty, and his
own good luck.

Gracefully reclining in an easy-chair near the fireplace, Miss Sarah
looked a young queen surrounded by her court. But in spite of the
multitude of her admirers, and the number of compliments she received at
every moment, she never for a moment lost sight of Daniel, watching him
all the time stealthily, to read his thoughts in his features.

Once she even shocked the crowd of her worshippers by suddenly leaving
her place in order to ask him why he held himself so aloof, and whether
he felt indisposed. Then, seeing that he was a perfect stranger here,
she was good enough to point out to him some of the most remarkable men
in the crowd. In doing this, she was so anxious to make him aware of her
distinguished friends, that Daniel began to think she must have divined
his intentions, and thus indirectly defied him, as if she had said in so
many words, -

"You see what friends I have, and how they would defend me if you should
dare to attack me."

Nevertheless, he was not discouraged, being fully aware of all the
difficulties of his undertaking, and having long since counted up all
the obstacles in his way. While the conversation was going on around
him, he arranged in his head a plan, which, he hoped, would enable him
to find out the antecedents of this dangerous adventuress.

These thoughts preoccupied him to such a degree, that he did not become
aware how the rooms became gradually empty. It was so, nevertheless; and
there were finally only a few intimate friends left, and four players at
a card-table.

Then Miss Brandon arose, and, coming up to Daniel, said to him, -

"Will you grant me ten minutes' conversation, sir?"

He prepared to follow her, when Mrs. Brian interposed, saying a few
words in a tone of reproach to her niece. Daniel knew enough English to
understand that she said, -

"What you are doing is highly improper, Sarah."

"Shocking!" added M. Thomas Elgin.

But she shrugged her shoulders slightly, and replied in English, -

"My dear count alone would have a right to judge my conduct; and he has
authorized me to do what I am doing."

Then turning to Daniel, she said to him in French, -

"Come with me, sir."




IX.

Miss Sarah led Daniel to a small boudoir adjoining her own room. Nothing
could be fresher and more coquettish than this little room, which looked
almost like a greenhouse, so completely was it filled with rare and
fragrant flowers, while the door and window-frames were overgrown
with luxuriant creepers. In the windows stood large vases filled with
flowers; and the light bamboo chairs were covered with the same bright
silk with which the walls were hung. If the great reception-room
reflected the character of Mrs. Brian, this charming boudoir represented
Miss Brandon's own exquisite taste.

She sat down on a small sofa and began, after a short pause, -

"My aunt was right; it would have been more proper for me to convey to
you through M. Elgin what I want to say. But I have the independence
of all the girls of my country; and, when my interests are at stake, I
trust no one but myself."

She was bewitching in her ingenuousness as she uttered these words with
the air of a little child who looks cunning, and determined to undertake
something that appears quite formidable.

"I am told that my dear count has been to see you this afternoon," she
continued, "and you have heard that in less than a month I shall be the
Countess Ville-Handry?"

Daniel was surprised. In less than a month! What could be done in so
little time?

"Now, sir," continued Miss Brandon, "I wish to hear from your own lips
whether you see - any - objections to this match."

She spoke so frankly, that it was evident she was utterly unconscious of
that article in the code of social laws which prescribes that a French
girl must never mention the word "marriage" without blushing to the
roots of her hair. Daniel, on the contrary, was terribly embarrassed.

"I confess," he replied with much hesitation, "that I do not understand,
that I cannot possibly explain to myself, why you do me the honor" -

"To consult you? Pardon me; I think you understand me perfectly well.
Have they not promised you Miss Ville-Handry's hand?"

"The count has permitted me to hope" -

"He has pledged his word, sir, under certain conditions. My dear count
has told me every thing. I speak, therefore, to Count Ville-Handry's
son-in-law, and I repeat, Do you see any objections to this match?"

The question was too precisely put to allow of any prevarication. And
still Daniel was bent upon gaining time, and avoiding any positive
answer. For the first time in his life he said a falsehood; and, turning
crimson all over, he stammered out, -

"I see no objection."

"Really?"

"Really."

She shook her head, and then said very slowly, -

"If that is so, you will not refuse me a great favor. Carried away by
her grief at seeing her father marry again, Miss Ville-Handry hates me.
Will you promise me to use your influence in trying to persuade her to
change her disposition towards me?"

Never had honest Daniel Champcey been tried so hard. He answered
diplomatically, -

"I am afraid you overestimate my influence."

She looked at him suddenly with such a sharp and penetrating glance that
he felt almost startled, and then said, -

"I do not ask of you to succeed, only promise me upon your honor that
you will do your best, and I shall be very much obliged to you. Will you
give me that promise?"

Could he do so? The situation was so exceptional, Daniel had at all
cost to lull the enemy into security for a time, and for a moment he was
inclined to pledge his honor. Nay, more than that, he made an effort to
do it. But his lips refused to utter a false oath.

"You see," resumed Miss Brandon very coldly, "you see you were deceiving
me."

And, turning away from him, she hid her face in her hands, apparently
overcome by grief, and repeated in a tone of deep sorrow, -

"What a disgrace! Great God! What a humiliation!"

But suddenly she started up again, her face bright with a glow of hope,
and cried out, -

"Well, be it so. I like it all the better so. A mean man would not have
hesitated at an oath, however determined he might have been not to keep
it. Whilst you - I can trust you; you are a man of honor, and all is not
lost yet. Whence comes your aversion? Is it a question of money, the
count's fortune?"

"Miss Brandon!"

"No, it is not that, I see. I was quite sure of it. What, then, can it
be? Tell me, sir, I beseech you! tell me something."

What could he tell her? Daniel remained silent.

"Very well," said Sarah, clinching her teeth convulsively. "I
understand."

She made a supreme effort not to break out in sobs; and big tears,
resembling diamonds of matchless beauty, rolled slowly down from between
her long, trembling eyelashes.

"Yes," she said, "I understand. The atrocious calumnies which my enemies
have invented have reached you; and you have believed them. They have,
no doubt, told you that I am an adventuress, come from nowhere; that my
father, the brave defender of the Union, exists only in the painting
in my parlor; that no one knows where my income comes from; that
Thorn, that noble soul, and Mrs. Brian, a saint upon earth, are vile
accomplices of mine. Confess, you have been told all that, and you have
believed it."

Grand in her wrath, her cheeks burning, her lips trembling, she rose,
and added in a tone of bitter sarcasm, -

"Ah! When people are called upon to admire a noble deed, they refuse
to believe, they insist upon inquiring before they admire, they examine
carefully. But, if they are told something bad, they dispense with that
ceremony; however monstrous the thing may appear, however improbable it
may sound, they believe it instantly. They would not touch a child; but
they do not hesitate to repeat a slander which dishonors a woman, and
kills her as surely as a dagger. If I were a man, and had been told
that Miss Brandon was an adventuress, I would have been bent upon
ascertaining the matter. America is not so far off. I should have soon
found the ten thousand men who had served under Gen. Brandon, and they
would have told me what sort of a man their chief had been. I should
have examined the oil-regions of Pennsylvania; and I would have learned
there that the petroleum-wells belonging to M. Elgin, Mrs. Brian, and
Miss Brandon produce more than many a principality."

Daniel was amazed at the candor and the boldness with which this young
girl approached the terrible subject. To enable her to speak with such
energy and in such a tone, she must either be possessed of unsurpassed
impudence, or - he had to confess it - be innocent.

Overcome by the effort she had made, she had sunk back upon the sofa,
and continued in a lower tone of voice, as if speaking to herself, -

"But have I a right to complain? I reap as I have sown. Alas! Thorn has
told me so often enough, and I would not believe him. I was not twenty
years old when I came to Paris, after my poor father's death. I had been
brought up in America, where young girls know no other law but that of
their own consciences. They tell us at home, all the time, that it is
our first duty to be truthful. In France, young girls are taught that
hypocrisy is their first duty. We are taught not to blush, except
when we have done wrong; they are taught all the appearances of false
prudishness. In France, they work hard to save appearances; with us,
we aim at reality. In Philadelphia, I did every thing I chose to do,
provided I did not think it was wrong. I thought I could do the same
here. Poor me! I did not count upon the wickedness of the world. I went
out alone, on horseback, in the morning. I went alone to church, to pray



Online LibraryÉmile GaboriauThe Clique of Gold → online text (page 9 of 39)