The Clique of Gold by Emile Gaboriau - HTML preview

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 Chapter 2

 

Generally it is in novels only that unknown people suddenly take it into their heads to tell their whole private history, and to confide to their neighbors even their most important and most jealously- guarded secrets. In real life things do not go quite so fast.

Long after the old merchant had left Henrietta, she lay pondering, and undecided as to what she should do on the next day. In the first place, she asked herself who this odd man could be, who had spoken of himself as a dangerous and suspicious person. Was he really what he appeared to be? The girl almost doubted it. Although wholly inexperienced, she still had been struck by certain astounding changes in Papa Ravinet. Thus, whenever he became animated, his carriage, his gestures, and his manners, contrasted with his country- fashioned costume, as if he had for the moment forgotten his lesson. At the same time his language, usually careless and incorrect, and full of slang terms belonging to his trade, became pure and almost elegant.

What was his business? Had he been a dealer in second-hand articles before he became a tenant in No. 23 Grange Street, three years ago? One might very easily have imagined that Papa Ravinet (was that his real name?) had before that been in a very different position. And why not? Is not Paris the haven in which all shipwrecked sailors of society seek a refuge? Does not Paris alone offer to all wretched and guilty people a hiding-place, where they can begin a new life, lost and unknown in the vast multitude? What discoveries might be made there? How many persons, once brilliant lights in the great world, and then, of a sudden, sought for in vain by friend and foe, might be found there again, disguised in strange costumes, and earning a livelihood in most curious ways! Why should not the old merchant be one of this class?

But, even if this were so, it would not have satisfactorily explained to Henrietta the eagerness of Papa Ravinet to serve her, nor his perseverance in offering her his advice. Was it merely from charity that he did all this? Alas! Christian charity is not often so pressing.

Did he know who Henrietta was? Had he at any period of her life come in contact with her? or had his interests ever been mixed up with hers? Was he anxious to make a return for some kindness shown to him? or did he count upon some reward in the future? Who could tell?

"Would it not be the height of imprudence to put myself in the power of this man?" thought the poor girl.

If, on the other hand, she rejected his offers, she fell back into that state of forlorn wretchedness, from which she had only been able to save herself by suicide.

This view was all the more urgent, as the poor child, like all persons who have been rescued from death only after having exhausted their sufferings, now began to cling to life with an almost desperate affection. It seemed as if the contact with death had wiped out at once all the memory of the past, and all the threats of the future.

"O Daniel!" she said to herself, trembling all over,--"O Daniel! my only friend upon earth, what would you suffer if you knew that you lost me forever by the very means you chose to secure my safety!"

To refuse the assistance offered her by Papa Ravinet would have required an amount of energy which she did not possess. The voice of reflection continually said to her,--

"The old man is your only hope."

It never occurred to her to conceal the truth from Papa Ravinet, or to deceive him by a fictitious story. She only thought how she could tell him the truth without telling him all; how she could confess enough to enable him to serve her, and yet not to betray a secret which she held more dear than her happiness, her reputation, and life itself.

Unfortunately, she was the victim of one of those intrigues which are formed and carried out within the narrow circle of a family,-- intrigues of the most abominable character, which people suspect, and often even know perfectly well, and which yet remain unpunished, because they cannot be reached by the law.

Henrietta's father, Count Ville-Handry, was in 1845 one of the wealthiest land-owners of the province of Anjou. The good people near Rosiers and Saint Mathurin were fond of pointing out to strangers the massive towers of Ville-Handry, a magnificent castle half hid among noble old woods on the beautiful slopes of the bluffs which line the Loire.

"There," they said, "lives a true gentleman, a little too proud, perhaps, but, nevertheless, a true gentleman."

For contrary to the usual state of things in the country, where envy is apt to engender hatred, the count was quite popular, in spite of his title and his large fortune. He was at that time about forty years old, quite tall and good-looking, solemn and courteous, obliging, although reserved, and very good-natured as long as no one spoke in his presence of the church or the reigning family, the nobility or the clergy, of his hounds or the wines of his vineyards, or of various other subjects on which he had what he chose to consider his "own opinions."

As he spoke but rarely, and said little at the time, he said fewer foolish things than most people, and thus obtained the reputation of being clever and well-informed, of which he was very proud and very careful. He lived freely, almost profusely, and thus put aside every year but little more than about half his income. He had all his clothes made in Paris, was proud of his foot, and always wore gloves.

His house was kept handsomely; and his gardens cost him a good deal of money. He kept a pack of hounds, and six hunters. Finally, he kept half a dozen lazy servants in the house, whose gorgeous liveries, with the family coat-of-arms, were a source of perpetual wonder at Saint Mathurin.

He would have been perfect, but for his passion for hunting.

As soon as the season opened, he was sure to be found, on foot or on horseback, crossing the stubblefields, jumping over hedges, or floundering in the swamps. This he carried so far, that the ladies of the neighborhood, who had daughters, blamed him to his face for his imprudence, and scolded him for risking his precious health so recklessly.

This nobleman, forty years old, and enjoying all that heart could desire, was unmarried. And yet he had not lacked opportunities to remedy the evil. There was not a good mother for twenty miles around who did not covet this prize for her daughter,--thirty thousand dollars a year, and a great man.

He had only to appear at a ball in the provincial towns, and he was the hero. Mothers and daughters kept their sweetest smiles for him; and kind welcomes were offered on all sides. But all these manoeuvres had been fruitless; he had escaped from all snares, and resisted the most cunning devices.

Why was he so much opposed to marriage? His friends found the explanation in a certain person, half housekeeper, half companion, who lived in the castle, and was very pretty and very designing. But there are malicious tongues everywhere.

The next year, however, an event occurred which was calculated to give some ground to these idle, gossiping tales. One fine morning in the month of July, 1847, the lady died suddenly of apoplexy. Six weeks later, a report began to spread that Count Ville-Handry was going to be married.

The report was well founded. The count did marry. The fact could not be doubted any longer, when the banns were read, and the announcement appeared in the official journal. And whom do you think he married? The daughter of a poor widow, the Baroness Rupert, who lived in great poverty at a place called Rosiers, having nothing but a small pension derived from her husband, who had been a colonel of artillery.

If she had, at least, been of good and ancient family; if she had been, at least, a native of the province!

But no. No one knew exactly who she was, or where she came from. Some people said the colonel had married her in Austria; others, in Sweden. Her husband, they added, had been made a baron after the fashion of others, who dubbed themselves such during the first empire, and had no right to call himself noble.

On the other hand, Pauline de Rupert, then twenty-three years old, was in the full bloom of youth, and marvellously beautiful. Moreover, she had, up to this time, been looked upon as a sensible, modest girl, very bright and very sweet withal; in fact, possessed of every quality and virtue that can make life happy, and add to the fame of a great house.

But now, not a cent, no dower, not even a trousseau!

Everybody was amazed; and a perfect storm of indignation arose in the neighborhood. Was it possible, was it natural, that a great nobleman like the count should end thus miserably, ridiculously? that he should marry a penniless girl, an adventuress,--he who had had the pick and choice of the richest and greatest ladies of the land?

Was Count Ville-Handry a fool? or was he only insane about Miss Rupert? Was she not perhaps, after all, a designing hypocrite, who had very quietly, in her retired home, woven the net in which the lion of Anjou was now held captive?

People would have been less astonished, if they had known, that, for years, a great intimacy had existed between the mother of the bride and the housekeeper at the castle. But, on the other hand, this fact might have led to very different surmises still.

However that might be, the count was not suffered long to remain in doubt as to the entire change of opinion in the neighborhood. He saw it as soon as he paid the usual visits in the town of Angers, and at the houses of the nobility near him. No more affectionate smiles, no tender welcomes, no little white hands stealthily seeking his. The doors that formerly seemed to fly open at his mere approach now turned but slowly on their hinges; some remained even closed, the owners being reported not at home, although the count knew perfectly well that they were in.

One very noble and very pious old lady, who gave the keynote to society, had said in the most decided manner,--

"For my part, I shall never receive at my house a damsel who used to give music-lessons to my nieces, even if she had caught and entrapped a Bourbon!"

The charge was true. Pauline, in order to provide her mother with some of the comforts which are almost indispensable to old people, had given lessons on the piano in the neighborhood. Her terms had been low enough; now they blamed her for the sacrifice. They would have blamed her for the noblest of virtues; for all the blame was laid upon her. When people met her, they looked away, so as not to have to bow to her. Even when she was leaning on the count's arm, there were persons who spoke very kindly to him, and did not say a word to his wife, as if they had not seen her, or she had not existed at all. This impertinence went so far, that at last Count Ville-Handry, one day, almost beside himself with anger, seized one of his neighbors by the collar of his coat, shook him violently, and shouted out to him,--

"Do you see the countess, my wife, sir? How shall I chastise you to cure you of your near-sightedness?"

Foreseeing a duel, the impertinent man made his excuses; and his experience put the rest of them on their guard. But their opinions remained unchanged; open war only changed into secret opposition, that was all.

Fate, however, always more kind than man, held a reward in store for Count Ville- Handry, which amply repaid him for his heroism in marrying a poor girl. An uncle of his wife's, a banker at Dresden, died, and left his "beloved niece Pauline" half a million dollars. This immensely wealthy man, who had never assisted his sister in her troubles, and who would have disinherited the daughter of a soldier of fortune, had been flattered by the idea of writing in his last will the name of his niece, the "high and mighty Countess Ville-Handry."

This unexpected piece of good-fortune ought to have delighted the young wife. She might now have had her vengeance on all her miserable slanderers, and enjoyed a boundless popularity. But far from it. She had never appeared more sad than on the day when the great news reached her.

For on that very day she for the first time cursed her marriage. A voice within her warned her that she ought never to have yielded to the entreaties and the orders of her mother. An excellent daughter, as she was to become the best of mothers, and the most faithful of wives, she had sacrificed herself. And now an accident made all her sacrifices useless, and punished her for having done her duty.

Ah, why had she not resisted, at least for the purpose of gaining time?

For when she was a girl she had dreamed of a very different future. Long before giving herself to the count, she had, of her own free will, given her heart to another. She had bestowed her first and warmest affections upon a young man who was only two or three years older than she,--Peter Champcey, the son of one of those marvellously rich farmers who live in the valley of the Loire.

He worshipped her. Unfortunately one obstacle had risen between them from the beginning,--Pauline's poverty. It could not be expected that those keen, thrifty peasants, Champcey's father and mother, would ever permit one of their sons--they had two--to commit the folly of making a love-match.

They had worked hard for their children. The oldest, Peter, was to be a lawyer; the other, Daniel, who wanted to become a sailor, was studying day and night to prepare for his examination. And the old couple were not a little proud of these "gentlemen," their sons. They told everybody who would listen, that, in return for the costly education they were giving them, they expected them to marry large fortunes.

Peter knew his parents so well, that he never mentioned Pauline to them. "When I am of age," he said to himself, "it will be a different matter." Alas! Why had not Pauline's mother waited at least till then?

Poor young girl! On the day on which she entered the castle of Ville- Handry, she had sworn she would bury this love of hers so deep in the innermost recesses of her heart, that it should never come up and trouble her thoughts. And she had kept her word.

But now it suddenly broke forth, more ardent, more powerful, than ever, till it well-nigh overcame her, and crushed her--sweetly and sadly, like the memory of lost days, and at the same time cruel and heart-rending, like bitter remorse.

What had become of him? When he had heard that she was going to marry the count, he had written to her a letter full of despair, in which he overwhelmed her with irony and contempt. Later, whether he had forgotten her or not, he also had married; and the two lovers who had once hoped to pursue their way through life leaning one upon the other now went each their own way.

For long hours the poor young wife struggled in the solitude of her chamber against these ghosts of the past which crowded around her. But, if ever a guilty thought called up a blush on her brow, she quickly triumphed over it. Like a brave, loyal woman, she renewed her oath, and swore to devote herself entirely to her husband. He had rescued her from abject poverty, and bestowed upon her his fortune and his name; and she owed it to him in return to make him happy.

She needed all her courage, all her energy, to fulfil her vows; for the count's character lay fully open before her now, after two years of married life. She knew precisely how narrow his mind was, how empty his thoughts, and how cold his heart. She had long since found out that the brilliant man of the world, whom everybody considered so clever, was in reality an absolute nullity, incapable of any thought that was not suggested to him by others, and at the same time full of overweening self-esteem, and absurdly obstinate.

The worst, however, was, that the count was very near hating his wife. He had heard so many people say that she was not his equal, that he finally believed it himself. Besides, he blamed her for the prestige which he had lost.

An ordinary woman would have shrunk from the difficult task which Pauline had assumed, and would have thought that nothing more could be expected of her than to keep sacred her marriage-vows. But the countess was not an ordinary woman. Full of resignation, she meant to do more than her duty.

Fortunately, a cradle standing by her bedside made the task somewhat easier. She had a daughter, her Henrietta; and upon that darling curly head she built a thousand castles in the air. From that moment she roused herself from the languor to which she had given way for nearly two years, and set to work to study the count with that amazing sagacity which a high stake is apt to give.

A remark accidentally made by her husband cast a new light upon her fate. One morning, when they had finished breakfast, he said,--

"Ah! Nancy was very fond of you. The day before she died, when she knew she was going, she made me promise her to marry you."

This Nancy was the count's former housekeeper.

After this awkward speech, the poor countess saw clearly enough what position that woman had really held at the castle. She understood how, modestly keeping in the background, and sheltering herself under the very humility of her position, she had been in truth the intellect, the energy, and the strong will, of her master. Her influence over him had, besides, been so powerful, that it had survived her, and that she had been obeyed even in the grave.

Although cruelly humiliated by this confession of her husband's, the countess had sufficient self-control not to blame him for his weakness. She said to herself,--

"Well, be it so. For his happiness and for our peace, I will stoop to play the part Nancy played."

This was more easily said than done; for the count was not the man to be led openly, nor was he willing to listen to good advice, simply because it was good. Irritable, jealous, and despotic, like all weak men, he dreaded nothing so much as what he called an insult to his authority. He meant to be master everywhere, in every thing, and forever. He was so sensitive on this point, that his wife had only to show the shadow of a purpose of her own, and he went instantly to work to oppose and prohibit it.

"I am not a weather-cock!" was one of his favorite sayings.

Poor fellow! He did not know that those who turn to the opposite side of the wind, nevertheless turn, as well as those who go with the wind. The countess knew it; and this knowledge made her strong. After working for many months patiently and cautiously, she thought she had learnt the secret of managing him, and that henceforth she would be able to control his will whenever she was in earnest.

The opportunity to make the experiment came very soon. Although the great people of the neighborhood had generally come round and treated her quite fairly now, especially since she had become an heiress, the countess found her position unpleasant, and was anxious to leave the country. It recalled to her, besides, too many painful memories. There were certain roads and lanes which she could never pass without a pang at her heart. On the other hand, it was well known that the count had sworn he would end his life in the province. He hated large cities; and the mere idea of leaving his castle, where every thing was arranged to suit his habits, made him seriously angry.

People would not believe it, therefore, when report first arose that he was going to leave Ville-Handry, that he had bought a town-house in Paris and that he would shortly go there to establish himself permanently in the capital.

"It was much against the will of the countess," he said, full of delight at her disappointment. "She would not agree to it at all; but I am not a weather-cock. I insisted on having my way, and she yielded at last."

So that in the latter part of October, in 1851, the Count and the Countess Ville-Handry moved into the magnificent house in Varennes Street, a princely mansion, which, however, did not cost them more than a third of its actual value, as they happened to buy at a time when real estate was very low.

But it had been comparatively child's play to bring the count to Paris; the real difficulty was to keep him there. Nothing was more likely than that, deprived of the active exercise and the fresh air he enjoyed in the country, he should miss his many occupations and duties, and either succumb to weariness, or seek refuge in dissipation. His wife foresaw this difficulty, and looked for an object that might give the count abundant employment and amusement.

Already before leaving home she had dropped in his mind the seed of that passion, which, in a man of fifty, can take the place of all others,--ambition. Thus he came to Paris with the secret desire and the hope of becoming a leader in politics, and making his mark in some great affair of state.

The countess however, aware of the dangers which beset a man who ventures upon such slippery ground, determined first to examine the condition of things so as to be able to warn him in time. Fortunately her fortune and her name were of great service to her in this enterprise. She managed to assemble at her house all the celebrities of the day. Her relations helped her; and soon her Wednesdays and Saturdays became famous in Paris. People exerted themselves to the utmost to obtain an invitation to her state dinners, or her smaller parties on Sundays. Her house in Varennes Street was looked upon as neutral ground, where political intrigues and party strife were alike tabooed. The countess spent a whole winter in making her observations.

The world, seeing her sit modestly by her fireside, thought she was wholly occupied with her pretty daughter, Henrietta, who was always playing or reading by her side. But she was all the time listening, and trying, with all her mental powers, to understand the great questions of the day. She studied characters; watched the passions of some, and discovered the cunning tricks of others, ever anxious to find out what enemies she would have to fear, and what allies to conciliate. Like one of those ill-taught professors who study in the morning what they mean to teach in the afternoon, she prepared herself for the lessons which she soon meant to give. Fortunately her apprenticeship was short, thanks to her superior intellect, her womanly cleverness, and rare talents which no one suspected.

She soon reaped the fruit of her labors.

The next winter the count, who had so far kept aloof from politics, came out with his opinions. He soon made his mark, aided by his fine appearance, his elegant manners, and imperturbable self-possession. He spoke in public, and made an impression by his good common-sense. He advised others, and they were struck by his sagacity. He had soon enthusiastic partisans, and, of course, as violent adversaries. His friends encouraged him to become the leader of his party; and he worked day and night to achieve that end.

"Unfortunately I have to pay for it at home," he said to his intimate friends; "for my wife is one of those timid women who cannot understand that men are made for the excitement of public life. I should be still in the province, if I had listened to her."

She enjoyed her work in quiet delight. The greater the success of her husband in the world, the prouder she became of her own usefulness to him. Her feelings were very much those of a dramatic poet who hears the applause given to the characters which he has created.

But there was this wonderful feature in her work,--that nobody suspected her; no one, not even her own child. She wanted Henrietta, as little as the world, to know what she was to her husband; and she taught her not only to love him as her father, but to respect and admire him as a man of eminence. Of course, the count was the very last man to suspect any thing. He might have been told all, and he would have believed nothing.

He fancied he had discovered himself the whole line of proceeding which his wife had so carefully traced out for him. In the full sincerity of his heart, he believed he had composed and written out the speeches which she drew up for him; and the articles for the newspapers, and the letters, which she dictated, appeared to him all to have sprung from his own fertile brains. He was even sometimes surprised at the want of good sense in his wife, and pointed out to her, quite ironically, that the steps from which she tried hardest to dissuade him were the most successful he took. But no irony could turn the countess from the path which she had traced out for herself; nor did she ever allow a word or even a smile to escape her, that might have betrayed her secret. When her husband became sarcastic, she bowed her head, and said nothing. But, the more he gloried in his utter nullity, the more she delighted in her work, and found ample compensation in the approval of her own conscience.

The count had been so exceedingly good as to take her when she was penniless; she owed him the historic name she bore and a large fortune; but, in return, she had given him, and without his being aware of it, a position of some eminence. She had made him happy in the only way in which a small and ordinary man could be made happy,-- by gratifying his vanity.

Now she was no longer under obligations to him. "Yes," she said to herself, "we are quits, fairly quits!"

Now also, she reproached herself no longer for the long hours during which her thoughts, escaping from the control of her will, had turned to the man of her early choice.

Poor fellow! She had been his evil star.

His life had been imbittered from the day on which he found himself forsaken by her whom he loved better than life itself. He had given up every thing.

His parents had "hunted up" an heiress, as they called it, and he had married her dutifully. But the good old people had been unlucky. The bride, chosen among a thousand, had brought their son a fortune of a hundred thousand dollars; but she was a bad woman. And after eight years of wretched, intolerable married life, Peter Champcey had shot himself, unable to bear any longer his domestic misfortunes, and the infidelity of his wife.

He had, however, avoided committing this crime at Angers, where he held a high official position. He had gone to Rosiers, the house formerly occupied by Pauline's mother; and there, in a narrow lane, his body was found by some peasants coming home from market. The ball had so fearfully disfigured his face, that at first no one recognized him; and the accident made a terrible sensation.

The countess heard of it first through her husband. He could not understand, he said, how a man in good position, with a bright future before him, and a large income to support him, could thus kill himself.

"And to choose such a strange place for his suicide!" he added. "It is evident the man was insane."

But the countess did not hear this. She had fainted. She understood but too well why Peter had wished to die in that lane overshadowed by old elm-trees. "I killed him," she thought, "I killed him!"

The blow was so sudden and so severe, that she came near dying. Fortunately her mother died nearly at the same time; and this misfortune helped to explain her utter prostration and deep grief.

Her mother had been gradually fading away, after having had all she desired, and living in real luxury during her last years. Her selfishness was so intense, that she never became aware of the cruelty with which she had sacrificed her daughter.

Sacrificed, however, she really had been; for never did woman suffer what the countess endured from the day on which her lover's suicide added bitter remorse to all her former grief. What would have become of her, if her child had not bound her to life! But she resolved to live; she felt that she was bound to live for Henrietta's sake.

Thus she struggled on quite alone, for she had not a soul in whom she could confide, when one afternoon, as she was going down stairs, a servant came to tell her that there was a young man in naval uniform below, who desired to have the honor of waiting upon her.

The servant handed her his card; she took it, and read,-- "Daniel Champcey."

It was Daniel, Peter's brother. Pale as death, the countess turned as if to escape.

"What must I say?" asked the servant, rather surprised at the emotion shown by his mistress.

The poor woman felt as if she was going to faint.

"Show him up," she replied in a scarcely audible voice,--"show him up."

When she looked up again, there stood before her a young man, twenty- three or twenty- four years old, with a frank and open face, and clear, bright eyes, beaming with intelligence and energy.

The countess pointed at a chair near her; for she could not have uttered a word to save her daughter's life.

He could not help noticing her embarrassment; but he did not guess the cause. Peter had never mentioned Pauline's name in his father's house.

So he sat down, and explained why he came, showing neither embarrassment nor forwardness.

As soon as he had graduated at the Naval Academy, he had been made a midshipman on board "The Formidable," and there he was still. A younger man had recently been wrongly promoted over him; and he had asked for leave of absence to appeal to the secretary of the navy. He felt quite sure of the justice of his claims; but he also knew that strong recommendations never spoil a good cause. In fact, he hoped that Count Ville- Handry, of whose kindness and great influence he had heard much, would consent to indorse his claims.

Gradually, and while listening to him, the countess recovered her calmness.

"My husband will be happy to serve a countryman of his," she replied; "and he will tell you so himself, if you will be kind enough to wait for him, and stay to dinner."

Daniel did stay. At table he was placed by the side of Henrietta, who was then fifteen years old; and the countess, seeing these two young and handsome people side by side, was suddenly struck with an idea which seemed to her nothing less than inspiration from on high. Why might she not intrust the future happiness of her daughter to the brother of the poor man who had loved her so dearly? Thus she might make some amends for her own conduct, and show some respect to his memory.

"Yes," she said to herself that night, before falling asleep, "it must be so. Daniel shall be

Henrietta's husband."

Thus it came about, that, only a fortnight later, Count Ville-Handry said to one of his intimate friends, pointing out Daniel,--

"That young Champcey is a very remarkable young man; he has a great future before him. And one of these days, when he is a lieutenant, and a few years older, if it should so happen that he liked Henrietta, and asked me for my consent, I should not say no. The countess might think and say of it what she chooses, I am master."

After that time Daniel became, unfortunately, a constant visitor at the house in Varennes Street.

He had not only obtained ample satisfaction at headquarters, but, by the powerful influence of certain high personages, he had been temporarily assigned to duty in the bureau of the navy department, with the promise of a better position in active service hereafter.

Thus Daniel and Henrietta saw a great deal of each other, and, to all appearances, began to love each other.

"O God!" thought the countess, "why are they not a few years older?"

The poor lady had for some months been troubled by dismal presentiments. She felt as if she would not live long; and she trembled at the idea of leaving her child without any other protector but the count.

If Henrietta had at least known the truth, and, instead of admiring her father as a man of superior ability, learned to mistrust his judgment! A hundred times the countess was on the point of revealing her secret. Alas! her great delicacy always kept her from doing so.

One night, as she returned from a great ball, she suddenly was seized with vertigo. She did not think much of it, but sent for a cup of tea.

When it came, she was standing before the fireplace, undoing her hair; but, instead of taking it, she suddenly raised her hand to her throat, uttered a hoarse sound, and fell back.

They raised her up. In an instant the whole house was alive. They sent for the doctors. All was in vain.

The Countess Ville-Handry had died from disease of the heart.