The Mystery of Orcival by Emile Gaboriau - HTML preview
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"Here he is," thought he, "abusing his privileges as the saver of my life. Can't a man do you a service, without continually making you feel it? It seems as though because he prevented me from blowing my brains out, I had somehow become something that belongs to him! He came very near upbraiding me for Jenny's extravagance. Where will he stop?"
The next day at breakfast he feigned indisposition so as not to eat, and suggested to Sauvresy that he would lose the train.
Bertha, as on the evening before, crouched at the window to see them go away. Her troubles during the past eight-and-forty hours had been so great that she hardly recognized herself. She scarcely dared to reflect or to descend to the depths of her heart. What mysterious power did this man possess, to so violently affect her life? She wished that he would go, never to return, while at the same time she avowed to herself that in going he would carry with him all her thoughts. She struggled under the charm, not knowing whether she ought to rejoice or grieve at the inexpressible emotions which agitated her, being irritated to submit to an influence stronger than her own will.
She decided that to-day she would go down to the drawing-room. He would not fail - were it only for politeness - to go in there; and then, she thought, by seeing him nearer, talking with him, knowing him better, his influence over her would vanish. Doubtless he would return, and so she watched for him, ready to go down as soon as she saw him approaching. She waited with feverish shudderings, anxiously believing that this first tete-a-tete in her husband's absence would be decisive. Time passed; it was more than two hours since he had gone out with Sauvresy, and he had not reappeared. Where could he be?
At this moment, Hector was awaiting Jenny at the Corbeil station. The train arrived, and Jenny soon appeared. Her grief, joy, emotion had not made her forget her toilet, and never had she been so rollickingly elegant and pretty. She wore a green dress with a train, a velvet mantle, and the jauntiest little hat in the world. As soon as she saw Hector standing near the door, she uttered a cry, pushed the people aside, and rushed into his arms, laughing and crying at the same time. She spoke quite loud, with wild gestures, so that everyone could hear what she said.
"You didn't kill yourself, after all," said she. "Oh, how I have suffered; but what happiness I feel to-day!"
Tremorel struggled with her as he could, trying to calm her enthusiastic exclamations, softly repelling her, charmed and irritated at once, and exasperated at all these eyes rudely fixed on him. For none of the passengers had gone out. They were all there, staring and gazing. Hector and Jenny were surrounded by a circle of curious folks.
"Come along," said Hector, his patience exhausted. He drew her out of the door, hoping to escape this prying curiosity; but he did not succeed. They were persistently followed. Some of the Corbeil people who were on the top of the omnibus begged the conductor to walk his horses, that this singular couple might not be lost to view, and the horses did not get into a trot until they had disappeared in the hotel.
Sauvresy's foresight in recommending the place of meeting had thus been disconcerted by Jenny's sensational arrival. Questions were asked; the hostess was adroitly interrogated, and it was soon known that this person, who waited for eccentric young ladies at the Corbeil station, was an intimate friend of the owner of Valfeuillu. Neither Hector nor Jenny doubted that they formed the general topic of conversation. They breakfasted gayly in the best room at the Belle Image, during which Tremorel recounted a very pretty story about his restoration to life, in which he played a part, the heroism of which was well calculated to redouble the little lady's admiration. Then Jenny in her turn unfolded her plans for the future, which were, to do her justice, most reasonable. She had resolved more than ever to remain faithful to Hector now that he was ruined, to give up her elegant rooms, sell her furniture, and undertake some honest trade. She had found one of her old friends, who was now an accomplished dressmaker, and who was anxious to obtain a partner who had some money, while she herself furnished the experience. They would purchase an establishment in the Breda quarter, and between them could scarcely fail to prosper. Jenny talked with a pretty, knowing, business-like air, which made Hector laugh. These projects seemed very comic to him; yet he was touched by this unselfishness on the part of a young and pretty woman, who was willing to work in order to please him.
But, unhappily, they were forced to part. Jenny had gone to Corbeil intending to stay a week; but the count told her this was absolutely impossible. She cried bitterly at first, then got angry, and finally consoled herself with a plan to return on the following Tuesday.
"Good-by," said she, embracing Hector, "think of me." She smilingly added, "I ought to be jealous; for they say your friend's wife is perhaps the handsomest woman in France. Is it true?"
"Upon my word, I don't know. I've forgotten to look at her."
Hector told the truth. Although he did not betray it, he was still under the surprise of his chagrin at the failure of his attempt at suicide. He felt the dizziness which follows great moral crises as well as a heavy blow on the head, and which distracts the attention from exterior things. But Jenny's words, "the handsomest woman in France," attracted his notice, and he could, that very evening, repair his forgetfulness. When he returned to Valfeuillu, his friend had not returned; Mme. Sauvresy was alone reading, in the brilliantly lighted drawing-room. Hector seated himself opposite her, a little aside, and was thus able to observe her at his ease, while engaging her in conversation. His first impression was an unfavorable one. He found her beauty too sculptural and polished. He sought for imperfections, and finding none, was almost terrified by this lovely, motionless face, these clear, cold eyes. Little by little, however, he accustomed himself to pass the greater part of the afternoon with Bertha, while Sauvresy was away arranging his affairs - selling, negotiating, using his time in cutting down interests and discussing with agents and attorneys. He soon perceived that she listened to him with pleasure, and he judged from this that she was a decidedly superior woman, much better than her husband. He had no wit, but possessed an inexhaustible fund of anecdotes and adventures. He had seen so many things and known so many people that he was as interesting as a chronicle. He had a sort of frothy fervor, not wanting in brilliancy, and a polite cynicism which, at first, surprised one. Had Bertha been unimpassioned, she might have judged him at his value; but she had lost her power of insight. She heard him, plunged in a foolish ecstasy, as one hears a traveller who has returned from far and dangerous countries, who has visited peoples of whose language the hearer is ignorant, and lived in the midst of manners and customs incomprehensible to ourselves.
Days, weeks, months passed on, and the Count de Tremorel did not find life at Valfeuillu as dull as he had thought. He insensibly slipped along the gentle slope of material wellbeing, which leads directly to brutishness. A physical and moral torpor had succeeded the fever of the first days, free from disagreeable sensations, though wanting in excitement. He ate and drank much, and slept twelve round hours. The rest of the time, when he did not talk with Bertha, he wandered in the park, lounged in a rocking-chair, or took a jaunt in the saddle. He even went fishing under the willows at the foot of the garden; and grew fat. His best days were those which he spent at Corbeil with Jenny. He found in her something of his past, and she always quarrelled with him, which woke him up. Besides, she brought him the gossip of Paris and the small talk of the boulevards. She came regularly every week, and her love for Hector, far from diminishing, seemed to grow with each interview. The poor girl's affairs were in a troubled condition. She had bought her establishment at too high a price, and her partner at the end of the first month decamped, carrying off three thousand francs. She knew nothing about the trade which she had undertaken, and she was robbed without mercy on all sides. She said nothing of these troubles to Hector, but she intended to ask him to come to her assistance. It was the least that he could do.
At first, the visitors to Valfeuillu were somewhat astonished at the constant presence there of a young man of leisure; but they got accustomed to him. Hector assumed a melancholy expression of countenance, such as a man ought to have who had undergone unheard-of misfortunes, and whose life had failed of its promise. He appeared inoffensive; people said:
"The count has a charming simplicity." But sometimes, when alone, he had sudden and terrible relapses. "This life cannot last," thought he; and he was overcome with childish rage when he contrasted the past with the present. How could he shake off this dull existence, and rid himself of these stiffly good people who surrounded him, these friends of Sauvresy? Where should he take refuge? He was not tempted to return to Paris; what could he do there? His house had been sold to an old leather merchant; and he had no money except that which he borrowed of Sauvresy. Yet Sauvresy, to Hector's mind, was a most uncomfortable, wearisome, implacable friend; he did not understand half-way measures in desperate situations.
"Your boat is foundering," he said to Hector; "let us begin by throwing all that is superfluous into the sea. Let us keep nothing of the past; that is dead; we will bury it, and nothing shall recall it. When your situation is relieved, we will see."
The settlement of Hector's affairs was very laborious. Creditors sprung up at every step, on every side, and the list of them seemed never to be finished. Some had even come from foreign lands. Several of them had been already paid, but their receipts could not be found, and they were clamorous. Others, whose demands had been refused as exorbitant, threatened to go to law, hoping to frighten Sauvresy into paying. Sauvresy wearied his friend by his incessant activity. Every two or three days he went to Paris, and he attended the sales of the property in Burgundy and Orleans. The count at last detested and hated him; Sauvresy's happy, cheerful air annoyed him; jealousy stung him. One thought - that a wretched one - consoled him a little. " Sauvresy's happiness," said he to himself, "is owing to his imbecility. He thinks his wife dead in love with him, whereas she can't bear him."
Bertha had, indeed, permitted Hector to perceive her aversion to her husband. She no longer studied the emotions of her heart; she loved Tremorel, and confessed it to herself. In her eyes he realized the ideal of her dreams. At the same time she was exasperated to see in him no signs of love for her. Her beauty was not, then, irresistible, as she had often been told. He was gallant and courteous to her - nothing more.
"If he loved me," thought she, "he would tell me so, for he is bold with women and fears no one."
Then she began to hate the girl, her rival, whom Hector went to meet at Corbeil every week. She wished to see her, to know her. Who could she be? Was she handsome? Hector had been very reticent about Jenny. He evaded all questions about her, not sorry to let Bertha's imagination work on his mysterious visits.
The day at last came when she could no longer resist the intensity of her curiosity. She put on the simplest of her toilets, in black, threw a thick veil over her head, and hastened to the Corbeil station at the hour that she thought the unknown girl would present herself there. She took a seat on a bench in the rear of the waiting-room. She had not long to wait. She soon perceived the count and a young girl coming along the avenue, which she could see from where she sat. They were arm in arm, and seemed to be in a very happy mood. They passed within a few steps of her, and as they walked very slowly, she was able to scrutinize Jenny at her ease. She saw that she was pretty, but that was all. Having seen that which she wished, and become satisfied that Jenny was not to be feared (which showed her inexperience) Bertha directed her steps homeward. But she chose her time of departure awkwardly; for as she was passing along behind the cabs, which concealed her, Hector came out of the station. They crossed each other's paths at the gate, and their eyes met. Did he recognize her? His face expressed great surprise, yet he did not bow to her. "Yes, be recognized me," thought Bertha, as she returned home by the river-road; and surprised, almost terrified by her boldness, she asked herself whether she ought to rejoice or mourn over this meeting. What would be its result? Hector cautiously followed her at a little distance. He was greatly astonished. His vanity, always on the watch, had already apprised him of what was passing in Bertha's heart, but, though modesty was no fault of his, he was far from guessing that she was so much enamoured of him as to take such a step.
"She loves me'!" he repeated to himself, as he went along. "She loves me!"
He did not yet know what to do. Should he fly? Should he still appear the same in his conduct toward her, pretending not to have seen her? He ought to fly that very evening, without hesitation, without turning his head; to fly as if the house were about to tumble about his head. This was his first thought. It was quickly stifled under the explosion of the base passions which fermented in him. Ah, Sauvresy had saved him when he was dying! Sauvresy, after saving him, had welcomed him, opened to him his heart, purse, house; at this very moment he was making untiring efforts to restore his fortunes. Men like Tremorel can only receive such services as outrages. Had not his sojourn at Valfeuillu been a continual suffering? Was not his self-conceit tortured from morning till night? He might count the days by their humiliations. What! Must he always submit to - if he was not grateful for - the superiority of a man whom he had always been wont to treat as his inferior?
"Besides," thought he, judging his friend by himself, "he only acts thus from pride and ostentation. What am I at his house, but a living witness of his generosity and devotion? He seems to live for me - it's Tremorel here and Tremorel there! He triumphs over my misfortunes, and makes his conduct a glory and title to the public admiration."
He could not forgive his friend for being so rich, so happy, so highly respected, for having known how to regulate his life, while he had exhausted his own fortune at thirty. And should he not seize so good an opportunity to avenge himself for the favors which overwhelmed him?
"Have I run after his wife?" said he to himself, trying to impose silence on his conscience. "She comes to me of her own will, herself, without the least temptation from me. I should be a fool if I repelled her."
Conceit has irresistible arguments. Hector, when he entered the house, had made up his mind. He did not fly. Yet he had the excuse neither of passion nor of temptation; he did not love her, and his infamy was deliberate, coldly premeditated. Between her and him a chain more solid than mutual attraction was riveted; their common hatred of Sauvresy. They owed too much to him. His hand had held both from degradation.
The first hours of their mutual understanding were spent in angry words, rather than the cooings of love. They perceived too clearly the disgrace of their conduct not to try to reassure each other against their remorse. They tried to prove to each other that Sauvresy was ridiculous and odious; as if they were absolved by his deficiencies, if deficiencies he had. If indeed trustfulness is foolishness, Sauvresy was indeed a fool, because he could be deceived under his own eyes, in his own house, because he had perfect faith in his wife and his friend. He suspected nothing, and every day he rejoiced that he had been able to keep Tremorel by him. He often repeated to his wife:
"I am too happy."
Bertha employed all her art to encourage these joyous illusions. She who had before been so capricious, so nervous, wilful, became little by little submissive to the degree of an angelic softness. The future of her love depended on her husband, and she spared no pains to prevent the slightest suspicion from ruffling his calm confidence. Such was their prudence that no one in the house suspected their state. And yet Bertha was not happy. Her love did not yield her the joys she had expected. She hoped to be transported to the clouds, and she remained on the earth, hampered by all the miserable ties of a life of lies and deceit.
Perhaps she perceived that she was Hector's revenge on her husband, and that he only loved in her the dishonored wife of an envied friend. And to crown all, she was jealous. For several months she tried to persuade Tremorel to break with Jenny. He always had the same reply, which, though it might be prudent, was irritating.
"Jenny is our security - you must think of that."
The fact was, however, that he was trying to devise some means of getting rid of Jenny. It was a difficult matter. The poor girl, having fallen into comparative poverty, became more and more tenacious of Hector's affection. She often gave him trouble by telling him that he was no longer the same, that he was changed; she was sad, and wept, and had red eyes.
One evening, in a fit of anger, she menaced him with a singular threat.
"You love another," she said. "I know it, for I have proofs of it. Take care! If you ever leave me, my anger will fall on her head, and I will not have any mercy on her."
The count foolishly attached no importance to these words; they only hastened the separation.
"She is getting very troublesome," thought he. "If some day I shouldn't go when she was expecting me, she might come up to Valfeuillu, and make a wretched scandal." He armed himself with all his courage, which was assisted by Bertha's tears and entreaties, and started for Corbeil resolved to break off with Jenny. He took every precaution in declaring his intentions, giving the best reasons for his decision that he could think of.
"We must be careful, you know, Jenny," said he, "and cease to meet for a while. I am ruined, you know, and the only thing that can save me is marriage."
Hector had prepared himself foran explosion of fury, piercing cries, hysterics, faintingfits. To his great surprise, Jenny did not answer a word. She became as white as her collar, her ruddy lips blanched, her eyes stared.
"So," said she, with her teeth tightly shut to contain herself, "so you are going to get married?"
"Alas, I must," he answered with a hypocritical sigh. "You know that lately I have only been able to get money for you by borrowing from my friend; his purse will not be at my service forever."
Jenny took Hector by the hand, and led him to the window. There, looking intently at him, as if her gaze could frighten the truth out of him, she said, slowly:
" It is really true, is it, that you are going to leave me to get married?"
Hector disengaged one of his hands, and placed it on his heart.
"I swear it on my honor," said he.
"I ought to believe you, then."
Jenny returned to the middle of the room. Standing erect before the mirror, she put on her hat, quietly disposing its ribbons as if nothing had occurred. When she was ready to go, she went up to Tremorel. "For the last time," said she, in a tone which she forced to be firm, and which belied her tearful, glistening eyes. "For the last time, Hector, are we really to part?"
Jenny made a gesture which Tremorel did not see; her face had a malicious expression.; her lips parted to utter some sarcastic response; but she recovered herself almost immediately.
"I am going, Hector," said she, after a moment's reflection; "If you are really leaving me to get married, you shall never hear of me again."
"Why, Jenny, I hope I shall still remain your friend." "Well, only if you abandon me for another reason, remember what I tell you; you will be a dead man, and she, a lost woman."
She opened the door; he tried to take her hand; she repulsed him.
Hector ran to the window to assure himself of her departure. She was ascending the avenue leading to the station.
"Well, that's over," thought he, with a sigh of relief. "Jenny was a good girl."