The Clique of Gold by Emile Gaboriau - HTML preview
Download the book in PDF, ePub, Kindle for a complete version.
There is not in all Paris a house better kept or more inviting-looking than No. 23 in Grange Street. As soon as you enter, you are struck by a minute, extreme neatness, which reminds you of Holland, and almost sets you a-laughing. The neighbors might use the brass plate on the door as a mirror to shave in; the stone floor is polished till it shines; and the woodwork of the staircase is varnished to perfection.
In the entrance-hall a number of notices, written in the peculiar style which owners of houses affect, request the tenants to respect the property of others, without regard to the high price they pay for their share. "Clean your feet, if you please," they say to all who come in or go out. "No spitting allowed on the stairs."
"Dogs are not allowed in the house."
Nevertheless, this admirably-kept house "enjoyed" but a sorry reputation in the neighborhood. Was it worse than other houses,--No. 21, for instance, or No. 25? Probably not; but there is a fate for houses as well as for men.
The first story was occupied by the families of two independent gentlemen, whose simplicity of mind was only equalled by that of their mode of life. A collector, who occasionally acted as broker, lived in the second story, and had his offices there. The third story was rented to a very rich man, a baron as people said, who only appeared there at long intervals, preferring, according to his own account, to live on his estates near Saintonge. The whole fourth story was occupied by a man familiarly known as Papa Ravinet, although he was barely fifty years old. He dealt in second-hand merchandise, furniture, curiosities, and toilet articles; and his rooms were filled to overflowing with a medley collection of things which he was in the habit of buying at auctions. The fifth story, finally, was cut up in numerous small rooms and closets, which were occupied by poor families or clerks, who, almost without exception, disappeared early in the morning, and returned only as late as possible at night.
An addition to the house in the rear had its own staircase, and was probably in the hands of still humbler tenants; but then it is so difficult to rent out small lodgings!
However this may have been, the house had a bad reputation; and the lodgers had to bear the consequences. Not one of them would have been trusted with a dollar's worth of goods in any of the neighboring shops. No one, however, stood, rightly or wrongly, in as bad repute as the doorkeeper, or concierge, who lived in a little hole near the great double entrance-door, and watched over the safety of the whole house. Master Chevassat and his wife were severely "cut" by their colleagues of adjoining houses; and the most atrocious stories were told of both husband and wife.
Master Chevassat was reputed to be well off; but the story went that he lent out money, and did not hesitate to charge a hundred per cent a month. He acted, besides, it was said, as agent for two of his tenants,--the broker, and the dealer in second-hand goods, and undertook the executions, when poor debtors were unable to pay. Mrs. Chevassat, however, had even graver charges to bear. People said she would do anything for money, and had aided and encouraged many a poor girl in the house in her evil career.
It was also asserted that the estimable couple had formerly lived in the fashionable Faubourg St. Honore, but had been compelled to leave there on account of several ugly occurrences. They were, finally, reported to have a son called Justin, a handsome fellow, thirty-five years old, who lived in the best society, and whom they nearly worshipped; while he was ashamed of them, and despised them, although he came often at night to ask them for money. No one, it must, however, be confessed, had ever seen this son; and no one knew him.
The two Chevassats shrugged their shoulders, and said it would be absurd if they should trouble themselves about public opinion, as long as their consciences were clear, and they owed nobody anything.
Towards the end of last December, however, on a Saturday afternoon, towards five o'clock, husband and wife were just sitting down to dinner, when the dealer in old clothes, Papa Ravinet, rushed like a tempest into their room.
He was a man of middle size, clean shaven, with small, bright, yellowish eyes, which shone with restless eagerness from under thick, bushy brows. Although he had lived for years in Paris, he was dressed like a man from the country, wearing a flowered silk vest, and a long frock-coat with an immense collar.
"Quick, Chevassat!" he cried, with a voice full of trouble. "Take your lamp, and follow me; an accident has happened upstairs."
He was so seriously disturbed, although generally very calm and cool, that the two Chevassats were thoroughly frightened.
"An accident!" exclaimed the woman; "that was all that was wanting. But pray, what has happened, dear M. Ravinet?"
"How do I know? This very moment, as I was just coming out of my room, I thought I heard the death-rattle of a dying person. It was in the fifth story. Of course I ran up a few steps, I listened. All was silent. I went down again, thinking I had been mistaken; and at once I heard again a sighing, a sobbing--I can't tell you exactly what; but it sounded exactly like the last sigh of a person in agony, and at the point of death."
"Then I ran down to tell you, and ask you to come up. I am not sure, you understand; but I think I could swear it was the voice of Miss Henrietta,--that pretty young girl who lives up there. Well, are you coming?"
But they did not stir.
"Miss Henrietta is not in her room," said Mrs. Chevassat coldly. "She went out just now, and told me she would not be back till nine o'clock. My dear M. Ravinet, you must have been mistaken; you had a ringing in your ears, or"--
"No, I am sure I was not mistaken! But never mind; we must see what it is."
During this conversation, the door of the room had been open; and several of the lodgers, hearing the voice of the merchant and the exclamations of the woman as they crossed the hall, had stopped and listened.
"Yes, we must see what it is," they repeated.
Master Chevassat dared no longer oppose the general desire so peremptorily expressed,-- "Let us go then, since you will have it so," he sighed.
And, taking up his lamp, he began to ascend the stairs, followed by the merchant, his wife, and five or six other persons.
The steps of all these people were heard all over the house; and from story to story the lodgers opened their doors to see what was going on. And, when they heard that something was likely to happen, they almost all left their rooms, and followed the others.
So that Master Chevassat had nearly a dozen curious persons behind him, when he stopped on the fifth floor to take breath.
The door to Miss Henrietta's room was the first on the left in the passage. He knocked at first gently, then harder, and at last with all his energy, till his heavy fists shook the thin partition-walls of all the rooms. Between each blow he cried,--
"Miss Henrietta, Miss Henrietta, they want you!" No reply came.
"Well!" he said triumphantly, "you see!"
But, whilst the man was knocking at the door, M. Ravinet had knelt down, and tried to open the door a little, putting now his eye, and now his ear, to the keyhole and to the slight opening between the door and the frame.
Suddenly he rose deadly pale. "It is all over; we are too late!"
And, as the neighbors expressed some doubts, he cried furiously,-- "Have you no noses? Don't you smell that abominable charcoal?"
Everybody tried to perceive the odor; and soon all agreed that he was right. As the door had given way a little, the passage had gradually become filled with a sickening vapor.
The people shuddered; and a woman's voice exclaimed,-- "She has killed herself!"
As it happens strangely enough, but too frequently, in such cases, all hesitated. "I am going for the police," said at last Master Chevassat.
"That's right!" replied the merchant. "Now there is, perhaps, a chance yet to save the poor girl; and, when you come back, it will of course be too late."
"What's to be done, then?"
"Break in the door."
"I dare not."
"Well, I will."
The kind-hearted man put his shoulder to the worm-eaten door, and in a moment the lock gave way. The bystanders shrank instinctively back; they were frightened. The door was wide open, and masses of vapors rolled out. Soon, however, curiosity triumphed over fear. No one doubted any longer that the poor girl was lying in there dead; and each one tried his best to see where she was.
In vain. The feeble light of the lamp had gone out in the foul air; and the darkness was frightful.
Nothing could be seen but the reddish glow of the charcoal, which was slowly going out under a little heap of white ashes in two small stoves. No one ventured to enter.
But Papa Ravinet had not gone so far to stop now, and remain in the passage. "Where is the window?" he asked the concierge.
"On the right there."
"Very well; I'll open it."
And boldly the strange man plunged into the dark room; and almost instantly the noise of breaking glass was heard. A moment later, and the air in the room had become once more fit for breathing, and everybody rushed in.
Alas! it was the death-rattle which M. Ravinet had heard.
On the bed, on a thin mattress, without blankets or bedclothes, lay a young girl about twenty years old, dressed in a wretched black merino dress, stretched out at full-length, stiff, lifeless.
The women sobbed aloud.
"To die so young!" they said over and over again, "and to die thus."
In the meantime the merchant had gone up to the bed, and examined the poor girl.
"She is not dead yet!" he cried. "No, she cannot be dead! Come, ladies, come here and help the poor child, till the doctor comes."
And then, with strange self-possession, he told them what to do for the purpose of recalling her to life.
"Give her air," he said, "plenty of air; try to get some air into her lungs. Cut open her dress; pour some vinegar on her face; rub her with some woollen stuff."
He issued his orders, and they obeyed him readily, although they had no hope of success. "Poor child!" said one of the women. "No doubt she was crossed in love."
"Or she was starving," whispered another.
There was no doubt that poverty, extreme poverty, had ruled in that miserable chamber: the traces were easily seen all around. The whole furniture consisted of a bed, a chest of drawers, and two chairs. There were no curtains at the window, no dresses in the trunk, not a ribbon in the drawers. Evidently everything that could be sold had been sold, piece by piece, little by little. The mattresses had followed the dresses,--first the wool, handful by handful, then the covering.
Too proud to complain, and cut off from society by bashfulness, the poor girl who was lying there had evidently gone through all the stages of suffering which the shipwrecked mariner endures, who floats, resting on a stray spar in the great ocean.
Papa Ravinet was thinking of all this, when a paper lying on the bureau attracted his eye. He took it up. It was the last will of the poor girl, and ran thus:--
"Let no one be accused; I die voluntarily. I beg Mrs. Chevassat will carry the two letters which I enclose to their addresses. She will be paid whatever I may owe her. Henrietta."
There were the two letters. On the first he read,--
Count Ville-Handry, Rue de Varennest 115. And, on the other,-- M. Maxime de Brevan, 62 Rue Laffitte.
A sudden light seemed to brighten up the small yellowish eye of the dealer in old clothes; a wicked smile played on his lips; and he uttered a very peculiar, "Ah!" But all this passed away in a moment.
His brow grew as dark as ever; and he looked around anxiously and suspiciously to see if anybody had caught the impression produced upon him by the letters.
No, nobody had noticed him, nobody was thinking of him; for everybody was occupied with Miss Henrietta.
Thereupon he slipped the paper and the two letters into the vast pocket of his huge frock- coat with a dexterity and a rapidity which would have excited the envy of an accomplished pickpocket. It was high time; for the women who were bending over the bed of the young girl were exhibiting signs of intense excitement. One of them said she was sure the body had trembled under her hand, and the others insisted upon it that she was mistaken. The matter was soon to be decided, however.
After, perhaps, twenty seconds of unspeakable anguish, during which all held their breath, and solemn stillness reigned in the room, a cry of hope and joy broke forth suddenly.
"She has trembled, she has moved!"
This time there was no doubt, no denial possible. The unfortunate girl had certainly moved, very faintly and feebly; but still she had stirred.
A slight color returned to her pallid cheeks; her bosom rose painfully, and sank again; her teeth, closely shut, opened; and with parted lips she stretched forth her neck as if to draw in the fresh air instinctively.
"She is alive!" exclaimed the women, almost frightened, and as if they had seen a miracle performed,--"she is alive!"
In an instant, M. Ravinet was by her side.
One of the women, the wife of the gentleman in the first story, held the head of the girl on her arm, and the poor child looked around with that blank, unmeaning eye which we see in mad-houses. They spoke to her; but she did not answer; evidently she did not hear.
"Never mind!" said the merchant, "she is saved; and, when the doctor comes, he will have little else to do. But she must be attended to, the poor child, and we cannot leave her here alone."
The bystanders knew very well what that meant; and yet hardly any one ventured timidly to assent, and say, "Oh, of course!"
This reluctance did not deter the good man. "We must put her to bed," he went on; "and, of course, she must have a mattress, bedclothes and blankets. We want wood also (for it is terribly cold here), and sugar for her tea, and a candle."
He did not mention all that was needed, but nearly so, and a great deal too much for the people who stood by. As a proof of this, the wife of the broker put grandly a five-franc piece on the mantlepiece, and quietly slipped out. Some of the others followed her example; but they left nothing. When Papa Ravinet had finished his little speech, there was nobody left but the two ladies who lived on the first floor, and the concierge and his wife. The two ladies, moreover, looked at each other in great embarrassment, as if they did not know what their curiosity might cost them. Had the shrewd man foreseen this noble abandonment of the poor girl? One would have fancied so; for he smiled bitterly, and said,--
Then, shrugging his shoulders, he added,--
"Luckily, I deal in all possible things. Wait a minute. I'll run down stairs, and I'll be back in a moment with all that is needed. After that, we shall see what can be done."
The face of the concierge's wife was a picture. Never in her life had she been so much astonished.
"They have changed Papa Ravinet, or I am mad."
The fact is, that the man was not exactly considered a benevolent and generous mortal. They told stories of him that would have made Harpagon envious, and touched the heart of a constable.
Nevertheless, he re-appeared soon after, almost succumbing under the weight of two excellent mattresses; and, when he came back a second time, he brought much more than he had mentioned.
Miss Henrietta was breathing more freely, but her face was still painfully rigid. Life had come back before the mind had recovered; and it was evident that she was utterly unconscious of her situation, and of what was going on around her. This troubled the two ladies not a little, although they felt very much relieved, and disposed to do everything, now that they were no longer expected to open their purses.
"Well, that is always the way," said Papa Ravinet boldly. "However, the doctor will bleed her, if there is any necessity."
And, turning to Master Chevassat, he added,--
"But we are in the way of these ladies; suppose we go down and take something? We can come back when the child is comfortably put to bed."
The good man lived, to tell the truth, in the same rooms in which the thousand and one things he was continually buying were piled up in vast heaps. There was no fixed place for his bed even. He slept where he could, or, rather, wherever an accidental sale had cleared a space for the time,--one night in a costly bed of the days of Louis XIV., and the next night on a lounge that he would have sold for a few francs. Just now he occupied a little closet not more than three- quarters full; and here he asked the concierge to enter.
He poured some brandy into two small wineglasses, put a teakettle on the fire, and sank into an arm-chair; then he said,--
"Well, M. Chevassat, what a terrible thing this is!"
His visitor had been well drilled by his wife, and said neither yes nor no; but the old merchant was a man of experience, and knew how to loosen his tongue.
"The most disagreeable thing about it," he said with an absent air, "is, that the doctor will report the matter to the police, and there will be an investigation."
Master Chevassat nearly dropped his glass.
"What? The police in the house? Well, good-by, then, to our lodgers; we are lost. Why did that stupid girl want to die, I wonder! But no doubt you are mistaken, my dear sir."
"No, I am not. But you go too fast. They will simply ask you who that girl is, how she supports herself, and where she lived before she came here."
"That is exactly what I cannot tell."
The dealer in old clothes seemed to be amazed; he frowned and said,--
"Halloo! that makes matters worse. How came it about that Miss Henrietta had rooms in your house?"
The concierge was evidently ill at ease; something was troubling him sorely.
"Oh! that is as clear as sunlight," he replied; "and, if you wish it, I'll tell you the story; you will see there is no harm done."
"Well, let us hear."
"Well, then, it was about a year ago this very day, when a gentleman came in, well dressed, an eyeglass stuck in his eye, impudent like a hangman's assistant, in fact a thoroughly fashionable young man. He said he had seen the notice that there was a room for rent up stairs, and wanted to see it. Of course I told him it was a wretched garret, unfit for people like him; but he insisted, and I took him up."
"To the room in which Miss Henrietta is now staying?"
"Exactly. I thought he would be disgusted; but no. He looked out of the window, tried the door if it would shut, examined the partition- wall, and at last he said, 'This suits me; I take the room.' And thereupon he hands me a twenty-franc piece to make it a bargain. I was amazed."
If M. Ravinet felt any interest in the story, he took pains not to show it; for his eyes wandered to and fro as if his thoughts were elsewhere, and he was heartily tired of the tedious account.
"And who is that fashionable young man?" he asked.
"Ah! that is more than I know, except that his name is Maxime."
That name made the old merchant jump as if a shower-bath had suddenly fallen upon his head. He changed color; and his small yellowish eyes had a strange look in them.
But he recovered promptly, so promptly, that his visitor saw nothing; and then he said in a tone of indifference,--
"The young man did not give you his family name?"
"But ought you not to have inquired?"
"Ah, there is the trouble! I did not do it."
Gradually, and by a great effort, Master Chevassat began to master his embarrassment. It looked as if he were preparing himself for the assault, and to get ready for the police- officer.
"I know it was wrong," he continued; "but you would not have acted differently in my place, my dear sir, I am sure. Just think! My room belonged to M. Maxime, for I had his money in my pocket. I asked him politely where he lived, and if there was any furniture to come. I caught it nicely. He laughed me in the face, and did not even let me finish my question. 'Do I look,' he said, 'like a man who lives in a place like this?' And when he saw I was puzzled, he went on to tell me that he took the room for a young person from the country, in whom he took an interest, and that the contract and the receipts for rent must all be made out in the name of Miss Henrietta. That was clear enough, wasn't it? Still it was my duty to know who Miss Henrietta was; so I asked him civilly. But he got angry, and told me that was none of my business, and that some furniture would be sent presently."
He stopped, waiting for his host to express his approbation by a word or a sign; but, as nothing came, he went on,--
"In fine, I did not dare to insist, and all was done as he wanted it done. That very day a dealer in second-hand furniture brought the pieces you have seen up stairs; and the day after, about eleven o'clock, Miss Henrietta herself appeared. She had not much baggage, I tell you; she brought every thing she owned in a little carpet-bag in her hand."
The old merchant was stooping over the fire as if his whole attention was given to the teakettle, in which the water was beginning to boil.
"It seems to me, my good friend," he said, "that you did not act very wisely. Still, if that is really all, I don't think they are likely to trouble you."
"What else could there be?"
"How do I know? But if that young damsel had been carried off by M. Maxime, if you were lending a hand in an elopement, I think you would be in a bad box. The law is pretty strict about it, in the case of a minor."
The concierge protested with a solemn air.
"I have told you the whole truth," he declared.
But Papa Ravinet did not by any means seem so sure of that.
"That is your lookout," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "Still, you may be sure they will ask you how it could happen that one of your tenants should fall into such a state of abject poverty without your giving notice to anybody."
"Why, in the first place, I do not wait upon my lodgers. They are free to do what they choose in their rooms."
"Quite right, Master Chevassat! quite right! So you did not know that M. Maxime no longer came to see Miss Henrietta?"
"He still came to see her."
In the most natural manner in the world, Papa Ravinet raised his arms to heaven, and exclaimed as if horror-struck,--
"What! is it possible? That handsome young man knew how the poor girl suffered? he knew that she was dying of hunger?"
Master Chevassat became more and more troubled. He began to see what the old merchant meant by his questions, and how unsatisfactory his answers were.
"Ah! you ask too many questions," he said at last. "It was not my duty to watch over M. Maxime. As for Miss Henrietta, as soon as she is able to move, the serpent! I tell you I'll send her off pretty quickly!"
The old merchant shook his head, and said in his softest voice,--
"My dear sir, you won't do that, because from today I'll pay the rent for her room. And, more than that, if you wish to oblige me, you will be very kind to the poor girl, you hear, and even respectful, if you please."
There was no misunderstanding the meaning of the word "oblige," from the manner in which he pronounced it; and yet he was about to enforce the recommendation, when a fretting voice exclaimed on the stairs,--
"Chevassat! where are you, Chevassat?"
"It's my wife," said the concierge.
And, delighted to get away, he said to Papa Ravinet--
"I understand; she shall be treated as politely as if she were the daughter of the owner of the house. But excuse me, I must attend to the door; they call me, and I must go down stairs."
He slipped out without waiting for an answer, and utterly unable to guess why the old merchant should take such a sudden interest in the lodger on the fifth floor.
"The rascal!" said Papa Ravinet to himself,--"the rascal!"
But he had found out what he wanted to know. He was alone, and he knew he had no time to lose.
Quickly he drew the teakettle from the fire; and, pulling out Miss Henrietta's two letters, he held the one that was addressed to M. Maxime de Brevan over the steam of the boiling water. In a moment the mucilage of the envelope was dissolved, and the letter could easily be opened without showing in any way that it had ever been broken open. And now the old man read the following words:--
"You are victorious, M. de Brevan. When you read this, I shall be no longer alive.
"You may raise your head again; you are relieved of all fears. Daniel can come back. I shall carry the secret of your infamy and your cowardice into the grave with me. "And yet, no!
"I can pardon you, having but a few moments longer to live; but God will not pardon you. I--I shall be avenged. And, if it should require a miracle, that miracle will be done, so as to inform that honorable man who thought you were his friend, how and why the poor girl died whom he had intrusted to your honor. H."
The old man was furious.
"The honor of Maxime de Brevan!" he growled with a voice of intense hatred,--"the honor of Maxime de Brevan!"
But his terrible excitement did not keep him from manipulating the other letter, addressed to Count Ville-Handry, in the same manner. The operation was successful; and, without the slightest hesitation, he read:--
"Dear father,--Broken down with anxiety, and faint from exhaustion, I have waited till this morning for an answer to my humble letter, which I had written to you on my knees.
"You have never replied to it; you are inexorable. I see I must die. I shall die. Alas! I can hardly say I die willingly.
"I must appear very guilty in your eyes, father, that you should abandon me thus to the hatred of Sarah Brandon and her people. And yet--ah! I have suffered terribly. I have struggled hard before I could make up my mind to leave your house,--the house where my mother had died, where I had been so happy, and so tenderly beloved as a child by both of you. Ah, if you but knew!
"And yet it was so little I asked of you!--barely enough to bury my undeserved disgrace in a convent.
"Yes, undeserved, father; for I tell you at this hour, when no one utters a falsehood, if my reputation was lost, my honor was not lost."
Big tears rolled down the cheeks of the old man; and he said in a half-stifled voice,-- "Poor, poor child! And to think that for a whole year I have lived under the same roof with her, without knowing it. But I am here. I am still in time. Oh, what a friend chance can be when it chooses!"
Most assuredly not one of the inmates of the house would have recognized Papa Ravinet at this moment; he was literally transfigured. He was no longer the cunning dealer in second-hand articles, the old scamp with the sharp, vulgar face, so well known at all public sales, where he sat in the front rank, watching for good bargains, and keeping cool when all around him were in a state of fervent excitement.
The two letters he had just read had opened anew in his heart more than one badly-healed and badly-scarred wound. He was suffering intensely; and his pain, his wrath, and his hope of vengeance long delayed, gave to his features a strange expression of energy and nobility. With his elbows on the table, holding his head in his hands, and looking apparently into the far past, he seemed to call up the miseries of the past, and to trace out in the future the vague outlines of some great scheme. And as his thoughts began to overflow, so to say, he broke out in a strange, spasmodic monologue,--
"Yes," he murmured, "yes, I recognize you, Sarah Brandon! Poor child, poor child! Overcome by such horrible intrigues! And that Daniel, who intrusted her to the care of Maxime de Brevan--who is he? Why did she not write to him when she suffered thus? Ah, if she had trusted me! What a sad fate! And how can I ever hope to make her confide in me?"
An old clock struck seven, and the merchant was suddenly recalled to the present; he trembled in all his limbs.
"Nonsense!" he growled. "I was falling asleep; and that is what I cannot afford to do. I must go up stairs, and hear the child's confession."
Instantly, and with amazing dexterity, he replaced the letters in their envelopes, dried them, pasted them up again, and smoothed them down, till every trace of the steam had entirely disappeared. Then looking at his work with an air of satisfaction, he said,--
"That was not so badly done. An expert in the post-office would not suspect it. I may risk it."
And, thus re-assured, he rapidly mounted up to the fifth story; but there Mrs. Chevassat suddenly barred his way, coming down stairs in a manner which showed clearly that she had lain in wait for him.
"Well, my dear sir," she said with her sweetest manner: "so you have become Miss Henrietta's banker?"
"Yes; do you object to it?"
"Oh, not at all! It is none of my business, only"-- She stopped, smiling wickedly, and then added,--
"Only she is a prodigiously pretty girl; and I was just saying to myself, 'Upon my word, M. Ravinet's taste is not bad.'"
The merchant was on the point of giving her a pretty sharp, indignant reply; but he controlled himself, because he knew how important it was to mislead the woman; and, forcing himself to smile, he said,--
"You know I count upon your being discreet."
When he got up, he found that he ought, at least, to give credit to Mamma Chevassat and the two ladies from the first floor, for having employed their time well, and for having skilfully made use of the articles he had contributed. The room, a short time ago cold and bare, had an air of comfort about it now, which was delightful. On the bureau stood a lamp with a shade to prevent the light from hurting the patient's eyes; a bright fire blazed on the hearth; several old curtains had been hung before the window, one before the other, to replace for the time the missing panes; and on the table stood a teakettle, a china cup, and two small medicine-bottles.
Evidently the doctor had been here during Ravinet's absence. He had bled the poor girl, prescribed some medicines, and left again, with the assurance that nothing more was needed but perfect quiet.
In fact, there was no trace left of the sufferings and the terrible danger from which the patient had so marvellously escaped, except the deep pallor of her face. Stretched out at full-length on her comfortable bed with its thick mattresses and snow-white sheets, her head propped up high on a couple of pillows, she was breathing freely, as was easily seen by the steady, regular rising and falling of her bosom under the cover.
But life and consciousness had also brought back to her a sense of the horror of her position, and of her capacity for suffering.
Her brow resting on her arm, which was almost concealed by masses of golden hair, immovable, and her eyes fixed steadily upon infinite space, as if trying to pierce the darkness of the future, she would have looked like a statue of sorrow rather than of resignation, but for the big tears which were slowly dropping down her cheeks.
Her exquisite beauty looked almost ethereal under the circumstances; and Papa Ravinet, when he saw her, remained fixed by admiration, standing upon the threshold of the open door. But it occurred to him at once that he might be looked upon as a spy, and that his feelings would be sure to be misinterpreted. He coughed, therefore, to give warning, and then stepped in.
At the noise he made, Henrietta roused herself. When she saw the old merchant, she said in a faint, feeble voice,--
"Ah! it is you, sir. These kind ladies have told me all. You have saved my life." Then, shaking her head, she added,--
"You have rendered me a sad service, sir."
She uttered these words so simply, but in a tone of such harrowing grief, that Papa Ravinet was overcome.
"Unhappy child!" he exclaimed, "you do not think of trying it over again?" She made no answer. It was as good as if she had said, Yes.
"Why, you must be mad!" said the old man, excited almost beyond control. "Only twenty years old, and give up life! That has never been done before. You are suffering now; but you can hardly imagine what compensation Providence may have in store for you hereafter"--
She interrupted him by a gesture, and said,--
"There was no future for me, sir, when I sought refuge in death."
"Oh, don't try to convince me, sir! What I did, I had to do. I felt how life was leaving me, and I only wished to shorten the agony. I had not eaten any thing for three days when I lit that charcoal. Even to get the charcoal, I had to risk a falsehood, and cheat the woman who let me have it in credit. And yet God knows I was not wanting in courage. I would have done the coarsest, hardest work cheerfully, joyously. But how did I know how to get work? I asked Mrs. Chevassat a hundred times to obtain employment for me; but she always laughed at me; and, when I begged hard, she said"--
She stopped; and her face became crimson with shame. She dared not repeat what the wife of the concierge had said. But she added in a voice trembling with womanly shame and deep indignation,--
"Ah, that woman is a wicked creature!"
The old merchant was probably fully aware of the character of Mrs. Chevassat. He guessed only too readily what kind of advice she had given this poor girl of twenty, who had turned to her for help in her great suffering. He uttered an oath which would have startled even that estimable woman, and then said warmly,--
"I understand, Miss Henrietta, I understand. Do you think I don't know what you must have suffered? I know poverty, as well as you. I can understand your purpose but too well. Who would not give up life itself when everybody abandons us? But I do not understand your despair, now that circumstances have changed."
"Alas, sir, how have they changed?"
"How? What do you mean? Don't you see me? Do you think I would leave you, after having been just in time to save your life? That would be nice! No, my dear child, compose yourself; poverty shall not come near you again, I'll see to that. You want somebody to advise you, to defend you; and here I am; if you have enemies, let them beware! Come, smile again, and think of the good times a-coming."
But she did not smile; she looked frightened, almost stupefied. Making a supreme effort, she looked fixedly at the old man to see if she could read in his face what were his real thoughts. He, on his part, was seriously troubled by his failure to inspire her with confidence.
"Do you doubt my promises?" he asked her.
She shook her head; and uttering her words one by one, as if to give them greater weight, she said,--
"I beg your pardon, sir. I do not doubt you. But I cannot understand why you should offer me your kind protection."
Papa Ravinet affected a greater surprise than he really felt, and said, raising his hands to heaven,--
"Great God! she mistrusts my good will."
"Pray what can you have to fear from me? I am an old man; you are almost a child. I come to help you. Is not that perfectly natural, and quite simple?"
She said nothing; and he remained a few moments buried in thought, as if trying to find out her motive for refusing his help. Suddenly he cried out, beating his forehead,--
"Ah, I have it. That woman Chevassat has talked to you about me, no doubt. Ah, the viper! I'll crush her one of these days! Come, let us be frank; what has she told you?"
He hoped she would say a word at least. He waited; but nothing came.
Then he broke forth, with a vehemence scarcely controlled, and in words very unexpected from a man like him,--
"Well, I will tell you what the old thief has told you. She told you Papa Ravinet was a dangerous, ill-reputed man, who carried on in the dark all kind of suspicious trades. She told you the old scamp was a usurer, who knew no law, and kept no promise; whose only principle was profit; who dealt in every thing with everybody, selling to-day old iron in junk-shops, and to-morrow cashmere shawls to fashionable ladies; and who lent money on imaginary securities--the talent of men and the beauty of women. In fine, she told you that it was a piece of good-fortune for a woman to be under my protection, and you knew it was a disgrace."
He stopped, as if to give the poor girl time to form her judgment, and then went on more calmly,--
"Let us suppose there is such a Papa Ravinet as she has described. But there is another one, whom but few people know, who has been sorely tried by misfortune; and he is the one who now offers his aid to you."
There is no surer way to make people believe in any virtue we have, or wish to appear to have, than to accuse ourselves of bad qualities, or even vices, which we do not have. But, if the old man had calculated upon this policy, he failed signally. Henrietta remained as icy as ever, and said,--
"Believe me, sir, I am exceedingly obliged to you for all you have done for me, and for your effort to convince me."
The poor man looked disappointed.
"In fact, you reject my offers, because I do not explain them to you by any of the usual motives. But what can I tell you? Suppose I should say to you that I have a daughter who has secretly left me, so that I do not know what has become of her, and that her memory makes me anxious to serve you. May I not have said to myself, that perhaps she is struggling, just as you have done, with poverty; that she also has been abandoned by her lover?"
The poor girl turned deadly pale as he spoke thus, and interrupted him eagerly, raising herself on her pillows,--
"You are mistaken, sir. My position here may justify such suspicions, I know; but I have no lover."
"I believe you; I swear I believe you. But, if that is so, how did you get here? and how were you reduced to such extreme suffering?"
At last Papa Ravinet had touched the right chord. The poor girl was deeply moved; and the tears started in her eyes. She said in a low voice,--
"There are secrets which cannot be revealed."
"Not even when life and honor depend on them?"
"Oh, pray do not insist!"
If Henrietta had known the old merchant, she would have read in his eyes the satisfaction which he felt. A moment before he had despaired of ever gaining her confidence; now he felt almost sure of success. The time seemed to him to have come to strike a decisive blow.
"I have tried my best to win your confidence, I confess; but it was solely in your own interest. If it had been otherwise, do you think I should have asked you these questions, instead of finding out every thing by simply tearing a piece of paper?"
The poor girl could not retain a cry of terror. "You mean my letters?"
"I have both."
"Ah! That is why the ladies who nursed me looked for them everywhere in vain."
Instead of any other answer, he drew them from his pocket, and laid them on the bed with an air of injured innocence. To all appearances, the envelopes had not been touched. Henrietta glanced at them, and then, holding out her hand to the old man, she said,--
"I thank you, sir!"
He did not stir; but he felt that this false evidence of honesty had helped him more than all his eloquence. He hastily added,--
"After all, I could not resist the temptation to read the directions, and to draw my own conclusions. Who is Count Ville-Handry? I suppose he is your father. And M. Maxime de Brevan? No doubt he is the young man who called to see you so often. Ah, if you would but trust me! If you but knew how a little experience of the world often helps us to overcome the greatest difficulties!"
He was evidently deeply moved.
"However, wait till you are perfectly well again before you come to any decision. Consider the matter carefully. You need not tell me any thing else but what is absolutely necessary for me to know in order to advise you."
"Yes, indeed! In that way I may"--
"Well, I'll wait, why, as long as you want me to wait,--two days, ten days."
"Only, I pray you, promise me solemnly that you will give up all idea of suicide."
"I promise you solemnly I will."
Papa Ravinet's eyes shone with delight; and he exclaimed joyously,--
"Done! I'll come up again to-morrow; for, to tell the truth, I am tired to death, and must go and lie down."
But he told a fib; for he did not go back to his rooms. In spite of the wretched weather, he left the house; and, as soon as he was in the street, he hid himself in a dark corner, from which he could watch the front-door of the house. He remained there a long time, exposed to wind and rain, uttering now and then a low oath, and stamping with his feet to keep himself warm. At last, just as it struck eleven, a hack stopped at No. 23. A young man got out, rang the bell, and entered.
"He is Maxime de Brevan," murmured the old man. Then he added in a savage voice,-- "I knew he would come, the scoundrel! to see if the charcoal had done its work."
But the same moment the young man came out again, and jumped into the carriage, which quickly drove off.
"Aha!" laughed the merchant. "No chance for you, my fine fellow! You have lost your game, and you'll have to try your luck elsewhere; and this time I am on hand. I hold you fast; and, instead of one bill to pay, there will be two now."