The Clique of Gold by Emile Gaboriau - HTML preview
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Dear woman! She would not have gone to bed so quietly, nor have fallen asleep so comfortably, if she had suspected the truth.
What gave her such perfect peace was the certainty she had, that Henrietta had left the house bareheaded, with wretched, worn-out shoes on her feet, with nothing but one petticoat, and her thin alpaca dress on her body. Now, she was quite sure, that in such a state of destitution, and in this cold December night, the poor young girl would soon be weary wandering through the streets of Paris, and would be irresistibly drawn to the waters of the Seine.
But it was by no means so. When Henrietta was alone, after the departure of Papa Ravinet, she had only become confirmed in her determination to trust in him blindly: she had even forborne to think it over, as she had, humanly speaking, no other choice on earth. Thus, after having received Mrs. Chevassat's visit, and after having played the part assigned to her by the old dealer, she rose, and, although quite exhausted yet, took her place at the window to watch for the proper time. Four o'clock struck; and, as it was growing dark, the concierge came out, with a light in his hand, and went up the big staircase to light the lamps.
"Now is the time!" she said to herself.
And casting a last look at this wretched room, where she had suffered so much, and wept so much, and where she had expected to die, she slipped out. The back stairs were quite dark, and thus she was not recognized by two persons whom she met. The court was deserted, and the concierge's room locked. She crossed the hall, and at one bound was in the street. Some forty paces to the left she could see the place where Papa Ravinet was waiting for her in his cab. She ran there, got in; and the driver, who had received his instructions, whipped his horses as soon as he heard the door shut.
"And now, sir," she began, "where do you take me?"
By the light of the gas in the stores, which from time to time lighted up the interior of the carriage, she could see the features of her neighbor. He looked at her with manifest satisfaction; and a smile of friendly malice played upon his lips.
"Ah!" he replied, "that is a great secret. But you will know soon, for the man drives well." The poor horses went, indeed, as fast as if the dollar which the driver had received had infused the noble blood of the fastest racer into their veins. They drove down the whole long street at a furious rate, turned to the right, and, after many more turns, stopped at last before a house of modest appearance. Lightly and promptly, like a sheriff's clerk, Papa Ravinet jumped out; and, having aided Henrietta to alight, he offered her his arm, and drew her into the house, saying,--
"You will see what a surprise I have in store for you."
In the third story the old man stopped; and, drawing a key from his pocket, he opened the door which faced the staircase. And, before she had time to consider, Henrietta found herself gently pushed into a small sitting-room, where a middle-aged lady was embroidering at a frame by the light of a large copper lamp.
"Dear sister," said Papa Ravinet, still in the door, "here is the young lady of whom I spoke to you, and who does us the honor to accept our hospitality."
Slowly the elderly lady put her needle into the canvas, pushed back the frame, and rose. She seemed to be about fifty years old, and must have been beautiful formerly. But age and sorrow had blanched her hair, and furrowed her face; and the habit of silence and meditation seemed to have sealed her lips forever. Her stern countenance, nevertheless, expressed kindliness. She was dressed in black; and her costume betrayed a lady from a provincial town.
"You are welcome, madam," she said in a grave voice. "You will find in our modest home that peace and that sympathy which you need."
In the meantime, Papa Ravinet had come forward; and, bowing to Henrietta, he said,--
"I beg to present to you Mrs. Bertolle, my dearly beloved sister Mary, a widow, and a saint, who has devoted herself to her brother, and who has sacrificed to him every thing,-- her fortune, her peace, and her life."
Ah! there was no mistaking the look with which the old man caressed the old lady: he worshipped her. But she interrupted him, as if embarrassed by his praise, saying,--
"You have told me so late, Anthony, that I have not been able to attend to all of your orders. But the young lady's room is ready, and if you choose"--
"Yes, we must show her the way."
The old lady having taken the lamp, after removing the screen, opened a door which led from the parlor directly into a small, modestly furnished room, which shone with exquisite tidiness, and which exhaled that fresh odor of lavender so dear to all housekeepers from the country. The mirrors and the furniture all glistened alike in the bright fire on the hearth; and the curtains were as white as snow.
At one glance the old dealer had taken in every thing; and, after a smile of gratitude addressed to his sister, he said to Henrietta,--
"This is your room, madam."
The poor girl, all overcome, sought in vain for words to express her gratitude. The old lady did not give her time. She showed her, spread out on the bed, petticoats, white linen, stockings, a warm dressing- wrapper of gray flannel with blue flowers, and at the foot a pair of slippers.
"This will answer for a change to-night, madam," she said. "I have provided what was most pressing; to-morrow we will see about the rest."
Big tears, tears of happiness and gratitude, this time, rolled down Henrietta's pale cheeks. Oh, indeed! this was a surprise, and a delicious one, which the ingenious foresight of her new friend had prepared for her.
"Ah, you are so kind!" she said, giving her hands to brother and sister--"you are so kind! How can I ever repay what you are doing for me?"
Then overcoming her emotion, and turning to Papa Ravinet, she added,--
"But pray, who are you, sir,--you who thus come to succor, a poor young girl who is an utter stranger to you, doubling the value of your assistance by your great delicacy?"
The old lady replied in his place,--"My brother, madam, is an unfortunate man, who has paid for a moment's forgetfulness of duty, with his happiness, his prospects, and his very life. Do not question him. Let him be for you what he is for all of us,--Anthony Ravinet, dealer in curiosities."
The voice of the old lady betrayed such great sorrow, silently endured, that Henrietta looked ashamed, regretting her indiscretion. But the old man at once said,--
"What I may say to you madam, is, that you owe me no gratitude,--no, none whatever. What I do, my own interest commands me to do; and I deserve no credit for it. Why do you speak of gratitude? It is I who shall forever be under obligations to you for the immense service which you render me."
He seemed to be inspired by his own words; his figure straightened up; his eyes flashed fire; and he was on the point of letting, perhaps, some secret escape him, when his sister interrupted him, saying reproachfully,--
He stopped at once. Then he resumed,--
"You are right; you are right! I forget myself here; and I ought to be already back in Water Street. It is of the utmost importance that that woman Chevassat should not miss me a moment to-night."
He was about to leave them, when the old lady held him back, and said,--
"You ought to go back, I know; only be careful! It is a miracle that M. de Brevan has never met you and recognized you, during the year he has been coming to the house in which you live. If such a misfortune should happen now, our enemies might once more escape us. After the young lady's desperate act, he would not fail to recognize the man who has saved her. What can you do to avoid meeting him?"
"I have thought of that danger," he replied. "When I go back, I shall tell the two Chevassats a little story, which will frighten them, so that they will advise Brevan never to appear there, except at night, as he formerly did."
Thereupon he bowed to Henrietta, and went away with the words,-- "To-morrow we will consult with each other."
The shipwrecked man who is saved at the last moment, when, strength and spirits being alike exhausted, he feels himself sinking into the abyss, cannot, upon feeling once more firm ground under his feet, experience a sense of greater happiness than Henrietta did that night. For the delicious sensation had become deeper and intenser by the evening spent in company with Papa Ravinet's sister.
The widow, free from embarrassment as from affectation, possessed a quiet dignity which appeared in certain words and ways she had, and which made Henrietta guess the principal events of her life. Ruined all of a sudden,--she did not say how,--some months after the death of her husband, she, who had been accustomed to all the comforts of opulence had seen herself reduced to poverty, and all its privations. This had happened about five years ago. Since then she had imposed upon herself the strictest economy, although she never neglected her appearance. She had but one servant, who came every morning to clean up the house; she herself did all the other work, washing and ironing her own linen, cooking only twice a week, and eating cold meat on the other days, as much to save money as to save time.
For her time had its value. She worked on her frame patterns for embroideries, for which a fashionable store paid her very good prices. There were days in summer when she earned three francs.
The blow had been a severe one; she did not conceal it. Gradually, however, she had become reconciled to it, and taken up this habit of economizing with unflinching severity, and down to the smallest details. At present, she felt in these very privations a kind of secret satisfaction which results from the sense of having accomplished a duty,--a satisfaction all the greater, the harder the duty is.
What duty, she did not say.
"That lady is a noble creature among many!" said Henrietta to herself that night, when she retired after a modest repast.
Still she could not get over the mystery which surrounded the lives of these two personages, whom fate, relenting at last, had placed in her way. What was the mystery in the past of this brother and sister? For there was one; and, so far from trying to conceal it, they had begged Henrietta not to inquire into it. And how was their past connected with her own past? How could their future depend in any way on her own future?
But fatigue soon made an end to her meditations, and confused her ideas; and, for the first time in two years, she fell asleep with a sense of perfect security; she slept peacefully, without starting at the slightest noise, without being troubled by silence, without wondering whether her enemies were watching her, without suspecting the very walls of her room.
When she awoke next morning, calm and refreshed, it was broad daylight, nearly ten o'clock; and a pale ray of the sun was playing over the polished furniture. When she opened her eyes, she saw the dealer's sister standing at the foot of her bed, like a good genius who had been watching over her slumbers.
"Oh, how lazy I am!" she exclaimed with the hearty laugh of a child; for she felt quite at home in this little bedroom, where she had only spent a night; she felt as much at home here as in her father's palace when her mother was still alive; and it seemed to her as if she had lived here many a year.
"My brother was here about half an hour ago to talk with you," said the old lady; "but we did not like to wake you. You needed repose so much! He will be back in the evening, and dine with us."
The bright smile which had lighted up Henrietta's face went out instantly. Absorbed in the happiness of the moment, she had forgotten every thing; and these few words brought her back to the reality of her position, and recalled to her the sufferings of the past and the uncertainty of the future.
The good widow in the meantime assisted her in getting up; and they spent the day together in the little parlor, busily cutting out and making up a black silk dress for which Papa Ravinet had brought the material in the morning, and which was to take the place of Henrietta's miserable, worn-out, alpaca dress. When the young girl had first seen the silk, she had remembered all the kind widow had told her of their excessive economy, and with difficulty only succeeded in checking her tears.
"Why should you go to such an expense?" she had said very sadly. "Would not a woollen dress have done quite as well? The hospitality which you offer me must in itself be quite a heavy charge upon you. I should never forgive myself for becoming a source of still greater privations to such very kind friends."
But the old lady shook her head, and replied,-- "Don't be afraid, child. We have money enough."
They had just lighted the lamp, when they heard a key in the outer door; and a moment later Papa Ravinet appeared. He was very red; and, although it was freezing outdoors, he was streaming with perspiration.
"I am exhausted," he said, sinking into, an armchair, and wiping his forehead with his broad checkered handkerchief. "You cannot imagine how I have been running about to- day! I wanted to take an omnibus to come home, but they were all full."
Henrietta jumped up, and exclaimed,-- "You have been to see my father?"
"No, madam. A week ago already, Count Ville-Handry left his palace."
A mad thought, the hope that her father might have separated from his wife, crossed Henrietta's mind.
"And the countess," she asked,--"the Countess Sarah?"
"She has gone with her husband. They live in Peletier Street, in a modest apartment just above the office of the Pennsylvania Petroleum Company. Sir Thorn and Mrs. Brian are there also. They have only kept two servants,--Ernest, the count's valet, and a certain Clarissa."
The name of the vile creature whose treachery had been one of the principal causes of Henrietta's misfortunes did not strike her ear.
"How could my father ever be induced to leave his home?" she asked. "He sold it, madam, ten days ago."
"Great God! My father must be ruined!" The old man bowed his head.
Thus were the sad presentiments realized which she had felt when first she had heard Count Ville-Handry speak of the Pennsylvania Petroleum Company. But never, oh, never! would she have imagined so sudden a downfall.
"My father ruined!" she repeated, as if she were unable to realize the precise meaning of these words.
"And only a year ago he had more than a hundred thousand dollars a year. Six millions swallowed up in twelve months!--six millions!"
And as the enormous amount seemed to be out of all proportion to the shortness of time, she said,--
"It cannot be. You must be mistaken, sir; they have misled you."
A smile of bitter irony passed over the old dealer's lips. He replied, as if much puzzled by Henrietta's doubts,--
"What, madam, you do not see yet? Alas! what I tell you is but too true; and, if you want proofs"--
He drew a newspaper from his pocket and handed it to Henrietta, pointing out to her on the first page an article marked with a red pencil.
"There!" he said.
It was one of those financial sheets which arise every now and then, and which profess to teach the art of becoming rich in a very short time, without running any risk. This paper bore a title calculated to reassure its readers. It was called "Prudence." Henrietta read aloud,--
"We shall never tire repeating to our subscribers the words which form our motto and our heading, 'Prudence, prudence! Do not trust new enterprises!'
"Out of a hundred enterprises which appear in the market, it may safely be said that sixty are nothing but the simplest kind of wells, into which the capital of foolhardy speculators is sunk almost instantly. Out of the remaining forty, twenty-five may be looked upon as suspicious enterprises, partaking too much of gambling speculations. Among the last fifteen even, a careful choice must be made before we find out the few that present safe guarantees."
The young girl paused, not understanding a word of all this stuff. But the old man said,-- "That is only the honey of the preface, the sweet syrup intended to conceal the bitterness of the medicine that is to follow. Go on, and you will understand." She continued to read,--
"A recent event, we ought to say a recent disaster, has just confirmed our doctrines, and justifies but too clearly our admonition to be careful.
"A company which started into existence last year with amazing suddenness, which filled the whole world with its flaming advertisements, crowding the newspapers, and decorating the street-corners,--a company which was most surely to enrich its stockholders, is already no longer able to pay the interest on its paid-up capital.
"As to the capital itself--but we will not anticipate events.
"All of our readers will have understood that we are speaking of the Franco-American Society of Pennsylvania Oil-Wells, which for the last eight days has been the subject of universal excitement.
"On 'Change the shares of a hundred dollars are quoted at 4-to-5."
Blinding tears prevented Henrietta from going on. "Great God!" she exclaimed. "O God!" Then, mastering her weakness, she began once more to read,--
"And yet if ever any company seemed to offer all the material and moral guarantees which we can desire before risking our carefully saved earnings, this company presented them.
"It had at its head a man who in his day was looked up to as a statesman endowed with rare administrative talents, and whose reputation as a man of sterling integrity seemed to lie above all suspicion.
"Need we say that this was the 'high and mighty Count Ville- Handry'?
"Hence they did not spare this great and noble name, but proclaimed it aloud on the housetops. It was the Count Ville-Handry here, and the Count Ville-Handry there. He was to bestow upon the country a new branch of industry. He was to change vile petroleum into precious gold.
"It was especially brought into notice that the noble count's personal fortune was nearly equal to the whole capital of the new company,--ten millions. Hence he was risking his own money rather than the money of others.
"It is now a year since these dazzling promises were made. What remains of them all? Shares, worth five dollars yesterday, worth, perhaps, nothing at all to-morrow, and a more than doubtful capital.
"Who could have expected in our day a new edition of Law's Mississippi Scheme?"
The paper fell from the hands of the poor girl. She had turned as pale as death, and was staggering so, that Papa Ravinet's sister took her in her arms to support her.
"Horrible," she murmured; "this is horrible!" Still she had not yet read all. The old man picked up the paper, and read from another article, below the lines which carried poison in every word, the following comments:--
"Two delegates of the stockholders of the Pennsylvania Petroleum Company were to sail this morning from Brest for New York.
"These gentlemen have been sent out by their fellow-sufferers to examine the lands on which the oil-wells are situated which constitute the only security of the shareholders. Certain people have gone so far as to doubt even the existence of such oil- wells."
And in another place, under the head of local items:--
"The palace of Count Ville-Handry was sold last week. This magnificent building, with the princely real estate belonging to it, was knocked down to the highest bidder for the sum of one hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars. The misfortune is, that house and lot are burdened with mortgages, which amount together to nearly a hundred thousand dollars."
Henrietta was overcome, and had sunk into a chair.
"But that is simply infamous," she stammered out in an almost inaudible tone. "Nobody will believe such atrocious libels."
Pale and deeply grieved, Papa Ravinet and his sister exchanged looks of distress. Evidently the poor girl did not at all realize the terrible nature of the circumstances. And yet, seeing her thus crushed, they did not dare to enlighten her. At last the old dealer, knowing but too well that uncertainty is more agonizing than the most painful reality, said,--
"Your father is fearfully calumniated. But I have tried to inform myself. Two facts are but too certain. Count Ville-Handry is ruined; and the shares of the company of which he is the president have fallen to five dollars, because"--
His voice changed, and he added in a very low tone,--
"Because it is believed that the capital of the company has been appropriated to other purposes, and lost in speculations on 'Change."
The poor old dealer was suffering intensely, and showed it.
"Ah, madam, perfectly as I am convinced of Count Ville-Handry's uprightness and integrity, I also know that he was utterly ignorant of business. What did he understand of these speculations into which he was drawn? Nothing. It is a difficult and often a dangerous thing to manage large capitals. They have no doubt deceived him, cheated him, misled him, and driven him at last to the verge of bankruptcy."
Papa Ravinet trembled on his chair, and, raising his hands to the ceiling, exclaimed,-- "Who? You ask who? Why, those who had an interest in it, the wretches by whom he was surrounded,--Sarah, Sir Thorn"-- Henrietta shook her head and said,--
"I do not think the Countess Sarah looked with a favorable eye upon the formation of this company."
And, when objection was made, she went on,--
"Besides, what interest could she have in ruining my father? Evidently none. To ruin him was to ruin herself, since she was absolute mistress of her fortune, and free to dispose of it as she chose."
Proud of the accuracy of her decision, she was looking triumphantly at the old dealer. The latter saw now that he must strike a decisive blow; and his sister encouraged him by a gesture. He said,--
"Pray, listen to me, madam. So far I have only repeated to you the report on 'Change. I told you: They say the capital of the Pennsylvania Petroleum Company has been swallowed up by unlucky speculations on 'Change. But I do not believe these reports. I am, on the contrary, convinced, I am quite sure even, that these millions were not lost on 'Change, because they never were used for the purpose of speculating."
"Still they have disappeared, none the less; and your father is probably the last man in the world to tell us how and where they have disappeared. But I know it; and, when the question is raised how to recover these enormous sums, I shall cry out, 'Search Sarah Brandon, Countess Ville-Handry; search M. Thomas Elgin and Mrs. Brian; search Maxime de Brevan,' the wretched tool of these wicked women!"
Now at last a terrible light broke upon Henrietta's mind.
"Then," she stammered, "these infamous slanders are only put out to conceal an impudent robbery?"
The young girl's face showed that she was making a great effort to comprehend; and then she said again,--
"And in that case, the articles in the papers"--
"Were written by the wretches who have robbed your father, yes, madam!" And, shaking his fist with a threatening air, he added,--
"Oh! there is no mistaking it. Since when does this journal exist? Since about six months ago. From the day on which it was established, it was the aim and purpose of the founders to publish in it the articles which you haven't read."
Even if she could not well understand by what ingenious combinations such enormous sums could be abstracted, Henrietta was conquered by Papa Ravinet's sincere and earnest conviction.
"Then," she went on, "these wretches who have robbed my father now mean to ruin him!"
"They must do it for their own safety. The money has been stolen, you see; therefore there must be a thief. For the world, for the courts, the guilty one will be Count Ville- Handry."
"For the courts?"
The poor girl's eyes went from the brother to the sister with a terrible expression of bewilderment. At last she asked,--
"And do you believe Sarah will allow my father's name to be thus dishonored,--the name which she bears, and of which she was so proud?"
"She will, perhaps, even insist upon it."
"Great God! What do you mean? Why should she?"
Seeing her brother's hesitation, the old lady took it upon herself to answer. She touched the poor girl's arm, and said in a subdued voice,--
"Because, you see, my poor child, now that Sarah has gotten possession of the fortune she wanted, your father is in her way; because, you see, she wants to be free--do you understand?--free!"
Henrietta uttered a cry of such horror that both the brother and the sister saw at once that she had not misunderstood the horrible meaning of that word "free."
But, since the blow had fallen, the old dealer did not think the rest need be concealed from Henrietta. He got up, therefore, and, leaning against the mantlepiece, he addressed the poor girl, trembling in all her limbs with terror, and looking at him with a fixed and painful gaze, in these words,--
"You must at last learn to know, madam, the execrable woman who has sworn to ruin you. You see, I know, because I have experienced it myself, of what crimes she is capable; and I see clear in the dark night of her infernal intrigues. I know that this woman with the chaste brow, the open smile, and the soft eyes, has the genius and the instinct of a murderess, and has never counted upon any thing else, but murder for the gratification of her lusts."
The attitude of the old man, who raised his head on high while his breast swelled, breathed in every one of his sharp and threatening gestures an intense thirst of vengeance. He no longer measured his words carefully; and they overflowed from his lips as they came boiling up under the pressure of his rage.
"Anthony!" said the old lady more than once,--"Anthony, brother! I beseech you!"
But this friendly voice, ordinarily all-powerful, was not even heard by him now. He went on,--
"And now, madam, must I still explain to you the simple and yet formidable plan by which Sarah Brandon has succeeded in obtaining by one effort the immense fortune of the Ville-Handry family? From the first day, she has seen that you were standing between her and those millions; therefore she attacked you first of all. A brave and honest man, M. Daniel Champcey, loved you; he would have protected you; therefore she got him out of the way. The world might have become interested in you, might have taken your side; she beguiled your father, in his blind passion, to calumniate you, to ruin your reputation, and to expose you to the contempt of the world. Still you might have wished to secure a protector, you might have found one. She placed by your side her wretched tool, her spy, a forger, a criminal whom she knew to be able of doing things from which even an accomplished galley-slave would have shrunk with disgust and horror: I mean Maxime de Brevan."
The very excess, of eruption had restored a part of her energy to Henrietta. She said, therefore,--
"Alas, sir! have I not told you, on, the contrary, that Daniel himself had confided me to the care of M. de Brevan? Have I not told you"--
The old dealer smiled almost contemptuously, and then continued,--
"What does that prove? Nothing but the skill of M. de Brevan in carrying out Sarah Brandon's orders. In order to get the more completely the mastery over you, he began by obtaining the mastery over M. Champcey. How he succeeded in doing this, I do not know. But we shall know it when we want to know it; for we are going to find out every thing. Thus Sarah was, through M. de Brevan, kept informed of all your thoughts, of all your hopes, of every word you wrote to M. Champcey, and of all he said in reply; for you need not doubt he did answer, and they suppressed the letters, just as they, very probably, intercepted all of your letters which you did not yourself carry to the post-office. Still, as long as you were living under your father's roof, Sarah could do nothing against your life. She resolved, therefore, to force you to flee; and those mean persecutions of M. Elgin served their purpose. You thought, and perhaps, they think, that bandit really wanted your hand. Undeceive yourself. Your enemies knew your character too well to hope that you would ever break your word, and become faithless to M. Champcey. But they were bent upon handing you over to M. de Brevan. And thus, poor child! you were handed over to him. Maxime had as little idea of marrying you as Sir Thomas; he was quite prepared, when he dared to approach you with open arms, to be rejected with disgust. But he had received orders to add the horror of his persecutions to the horror of your isolation and your destitution.
"For he was quite sure, the scoundrel! that the secret of your sufferings would be well kept. He had carefully chosen the house in which you were to die of hunger and misery.
The two Chevassats were bound to be his devoted accomplices, even unto death. This is what gave him the amazing boldness, the inconceivable brutality, to watch your slow agony; no doubt he became quite impatient at your delaying suicide so long.
"Finally you were driven to it; and your death would have realized their atrocious hopes, if Providence had not miraculously stepped in, --that Providence which always, sooner or later, takes its revenge, whatever the wicked may say to the contrary. Yes, these wretches thought they had now surely gotten rid of you, when I came in. That very morning, the woman Chevassat had told them, no doubt, 'She'll do it to-night!' And that evening, Sarah, Mrs. Brian, and M. Elgin asked, no doubt, full of hope, 'Is it all over?'"
Immovable, and white as marble, her eyes dilated beyond measure, and her lips half- open, poor Henrietta listened. She felt as if a bright ray of the sun had suddenly illumined the darkest depths of the abyss from which she had been barely snatched.
"Yes," she said, "yes; now I see it all."
Then, as the old dealer, out of breath, and his voice hoarse with indignation, paused a moment, she asked,--
"Still there is one circumstance which I cannot understand: Sarah insists upon it that she knew nothing of the forged letter by means of which Daniel was sent abroad. She told me, on the contrary, that she had wished to keep him here, because she loved him, and he loved her."
"Ah! do not believe a word of those infamous stories," broke in Papa Ravinet's sister. But the old man scratched his head, and said,--
"No, certainly not! We ought not to believe such stories. And yet, I wonder if there is not some new trick in that. Unless, indeed-- But no, that would be almost too lucky for us! Unless Sarah should really love M. Champcey!"
And, as if he was afraid of having given rise to hopes which he founded upon this contingency, he added at once,--
"But let us return to facts. When Sarah was sure of you, she turned her attention to your father. While they were murdering you slowly, she abused the inexperience of Count Ville-Handry to lead him into a path at the end of which he could not but leave his honor behind him. Notice, pray, that the articles which you read are dated on the very day on which you would probably have died. That is a clear evidence of her crime. Thinking that she had gotten rid of you, she evidently said to herself, 'And now for the father.'"
Henrietta grew red in her face, as if a jet of fire had blazed up in it. She exclaimed,-- "Great God! The proofs are coming out; the crime will be disclosed. I have no doubt the assassins told each other that Count Ville-Handry would never survive such a foul stain on his honor. And they dared all, sure as they were that that honorable man would carry the secret of their wickedness and of their unheard-of robbery with him to the grave."
Papa Ravinet leisurely wiped the perspiration from his brow. Then he replied in a hoarse voice,--
"Yes, that was probably, that was assuredly, the way Sarah Brandon reasoned within herself."
But Henrietta, full of admirable energy, had roused herself; and, with flushed cheeks and burning eyes, she said to him,--
"What! you knew all this? You knew that they were assassinating my father, and you did not warn him? Ah, that was cruel cautiousness!"
And quick like lightning she dashed forward, and would have rushed out, if the old lady had not promptly stepped in front of the door, saying,--
"Henrietta, poor child! where are you going?"
"To save my father, madam, who, perhaps at this very moment is struggling in the last agonies of death, as I was struggling in like manner only two nights ago."
Quite beside herself, she had clasped the knob of the door in her hands, and tried with all the strength she still possessed to move the old lady out of the way. But Papa Ravinet seized her by the arm, and said to her solemnly,--
"Madam, I swear to you by all you hold sacred, and my sister will swear to you in like manner, that your father's life is in no kind of danger."
She gave up the struggle; but her face bore the expression of the most harassing anxiety. The old man continued,--
"Do you wish to defeat our triumph? Would you like to give warning to our enemies, to put them on their guard, and to deprive us of all hopes of revenge?"
Henrietta almost mechanically passed her hand to and fro across her brow, as if she hoped she could thus restore peace to her mind.
"And mind," continued the old man with a persuasive voice, "mind that such imprudence would save our enemies, but would not save your father. Pray consider and answer me. Do you really think that your arguments would be stronger than Sarah Brandon's? You cannot so far underrate the diabolical cunning of your enemy. Why, she has no doubt taken all possible measures to keep your father's faith in her unshaken, and to let him die as he has lived, completely deceived by her, and murmuring with his last breath words of supreme love for her who kills him."
These arguments were so overwhelming, that Henrietta let go the door- knob, and slowly went back to her seat by the fire. And yet she was far from being reassured.
"If I were to appeal to the police," she suddenly proposed.
The old lady had come and taken a seat by Henrietta's side. She took her hands in her own now, and said, gently,--
"Poor child! Do you not see that the whole power of this abominable creature lies in the fact that she employs means which are not within the reach of human justice. Believe me, my child, it is best for you to rely blindly on my brother."
Once more the old dealer had come up to the mantlepiece. He repeated,--
"Yes, Miss Henrietta, rely on me. I have as much reason to curse Sarah Brandon as you have, and perhaps I hate her more. Rely on me; for my hatred has now been watching and waiting for years, ever anxious to reach her, and to avenge my sufferings. Yes, for long years I have been lying in wait, thirsting for vengeance, lost in darkness, but pursuing her tracks with the unwearied perseverance of the Indian. For the purpose of finding out who she is, and who her accomplices are, whence they came, and how they have met to plot together such fearful crimes,--for that purpose I have walked in the deepest mud, and stirred up heaps of infamy. But I have found out all. And yet in the whole life of Sarah Brandon,--a life of theft and murder,--I have till this moment not found a single fact which would bring her within the reach of the law, so cunning is her wickedness."
His face brightened with an air of triumph; and his voice rose high as he added,--
"But now! This time success seemed to her so sure and so easy, that she has neglected her usual precautions. Eager to enjoy her millions, and, in proportion, weary of playing a comedy of love with your father, she has been too eager. And she is lost if we, on our side, are not also too eager.
"As to your father, madam, I have my reasons for feeling safe about him. According to your mother's marriage contract, and in consequence of a bequest of a million and a half which were left her by one of her uncles, your father's estate is your debtor to the amount of two millions; and that sum is invested in mortgages on his estates in Anjou. That sum he cannot touch, even if he is bankrupt. Should he die before you, that sum remains still yours; but, if you die before him, it goes to him. Now Sarah has sworn, in her insatiate cupidity, that she will have these two millions also."
"Ah," said Henrietta, "you are right! It is Sarah's interest that my father should live; and he will live, therefore, as long as she does not know whether I am dead or alive, in fact, as long as she does not know what has become of me."
"And she must not know that for some time," chimed in the old man. Then laughing his odd, silent laugh,--
"You ought to see the anxiety of your enemies since you have slipped out of their hands. That woman Chevassat had, last night, come to the conclusion that you were gone, and gone forever; but this morning matters looked very differently. Maxime de Brevan had been there, making a terrible row, and beating her (God forgive him!) because she had relaxed in her watchfulness. The rascal! The fellow has been spending the whole day in running from the police office to the Morgue, and back again. Destitute as you were, and almost without clothes, what could have become of you? I, for my part, did not show; and the Chevassats are far from suspecting that I had any thing to do with the whole affair. Ah! It will soon be our turn, and if you will only accept my suggestions, madam"--
It was past nine o'clock when the old dealer, his sister, and Henrietta sat down to their modest meal. But in the interval a hopeful smile had reappeared on Henrietta's face, and she looked almost happy, when, about midnight, Papa Ravinet left them with the words,--
"To-morrow evening I shall have news. I am going to the navy department."
The next day he reappeared precisely at six o'clock, but in what a condition! He had in his hand a kind of carpet-bag; and his looks and gestures made him look almost insane.
"Money!" he cried out to his sister as he entered. "I am afraid I have not enough; and make haste. I have to be at the Lyons Railway at seven o'clock."
And when his sister and Henrietta, terribly frightened, asked him,-- "What is the matter? What are you going to do?"
"Nothing," he replied joyously, "but that Heaven itself declares in our favor. I went to the department. 'The Conquest' will remain another year in Cochin China; but M. Champcey is coming back to Europe. He was to have taken passage on board a merchant vessel, 'The Saint Louis,' which is expected in Marseilles every day, if she has not already come in. And I--I am going to Marseilles, I must see M. Champcey before anybody else can see him."
When his sister had given him notes to the amount of four hundred dollars, he rushed out, exclaiming,--
"To-morrow I will send you a telegram!"