In 1658, at the corner of the streets Git-le-Coeur and Le Hurepoix (the site of the latter being now occupied by the Quai des Augustins as far as Pont Saint-Michel), stood the great mansion which Francis I had bought and fitted up for the Duchesse d'Etampes. It was at this period if not in ruins at least beginning to show the ravages of time. Its rich interior decorations had lost their splendour and become antiquated. Fashion had taken up its abode in the Marais, near the Place Royale, and it was thither that profligate women and celebrated beauties now enticed the humming swarm of old rakes and young libertines. Not one of them all would have thought of residing in the mansion, or even in the quarter, wherein the king's mistress had once dwelt. It would have been a step downward in the social scale, and equivalent to a confession that their charms were falling in the public estimation. Still, the old palace was not empty; it had, on the contrary, several tenants. Like the provinces of Alexander's empire, its vast suites of rooms had been subdivided; and so neglected was it by the gay world that people of the commonest description strutted about with impunity where once the proudest nobles had been glad to gain admittance. There in semi-isolation and despoiled of her greatness lived Angelique-Louise de Guerchi, formerly companion to Mademoiselle de Pons and then maid of honour to Anne of Austria. Her love intrigues and the scandals they gave rise to had led to her dismissal from court. Not that she was a greater sinner than many who remained behind, only she was unlucky enough or stupid enough to be found out. Her admirers were so indiscreet that they had not left her a shred of reputation, and in a court where a cardinal is the lover of a queen, a hypocritical appearance of decorum is indispensable to success. So Angelique had to suffer for the faults she was not clever enough to hide. Unfortunately for her, her income went up and down with the number and wealth of her admirers, so when she left the court all her possessions consisted of a few articles she had gathered together out of the wreck of her former luxury, and these she was now selling one by one to procure the necessaries of life, while she looked back from afar with an envious eye at the brilliant world from which she had been exiled, and longed for better days. All hope was not at an end for her. By a strange law which does not speak well for human nature, vice finds success easier to attain than virtue. There is no courtesan, no matter how low she has fallen, who cannot find a dupe ready to defend against the world an honour of which no vestige remains. A man who doubts the virtue of the most virtuous woman, who shows himself inexorably severe when he discovers the lightest inclination to falter in one whose conduct has hitherto been above reproach, will stoop and pick up out of the gutter a blighted and tarnished reputation and protect and defend it against all slights, and devote his life to the attempt to restore lustre to the unclean thing dulled by the touch of many fingers. In her days of prosperity Commander de Jars and the king's treasurer had both fluttered round Mademoiselle de Guerchi, and neither had fluttered in vain. Short as was the period necessary to overcome her scruples, in as short a period it dawned on the two candidates for her favour that each had a successful rival in the other, and that however potent as a reason for surrender the doubloons of the treasurer had been, the personal appearance of the commander had proved equally cogent. As both had felt for her only a passing fancy and not a serious passion, their explanations with each other led to no quarrel between them; silently and simultaneously they withdrew from her circle, without even letting her know they had found her out, but quite determined to revenge, themselves on her should a chance ever offer. However, other affairs of a similar nature had intervened to prevent their carrying out this laudable intention; Jeannin had laid siege to a more inaccessible beauty, who had refused to listen to his sighs for less than 30 crowns, paid in advance, and de Jars had become quite absorbed by his adventure with the convent boarder at La Raquette, and the business of that young stranger whom he passed off as his nephew. Mademoiselle de Guerchi had never seen them again; and with her it was out of sight out of mind. At the moment when she comes into our story she was weaving her toils round a certain Duc de Vitry, whom she had seen at court, but whose acquaintance she had never made, and who had been absent when the scandalous occurrence which led to her disgrace came to light. He was a man of from twenty-five to twenty-six years of age, who idled his life away: his courage was undoubted, and being as credulous as an old libertine, he was ready to draw his sword at any moment to defend the lady whose cause he had espoused, should any insolent slanderer dare to hint there was a smirch on her virtue. Being deaf to all reports, he seemed one of those men expressly framed by heaven to be the consolation of fallen women; such a man as in our times a retired opera-dancer or a superannuated professional beauty would welcome with open arms. He had only one fault--he was married. It is true he neglected his wife, according to the custom of the time, and it is probably also true that his wife cared very little about his infidelities. But still she was an insurmountable obstacle to the fulfilment of Mademoiselle de Guerchi's hopes, who but for her might have looked forward to one day becoming a duchess.
For about three weeks, however, at the time we are speaking of, the duke had neither crossed her threshold nor written. He had told her he was going for a few days to Normandy, where he had large estates, but had remained absent so long after the date he had fixed for his return that she began to feel uneasy. What could be keeping him? Some new flame, perhaps. The anxiety of the lady was all the more keen, that until now nothing had passed between them but looks of languor and words of love. The duke had laid himself and all he possessed at the feet of Angelique, and Angelique had refused his offer. A too prompt surrender would have justified the reports so wickedly spread against her; and, made wise by experience, she was resolved not to compromise her future as she had compromised her past. But while playing at virtue she had also to play at disinterestedness, and her pecuniary resources were consequently almost exhausted. She had proportioned the length of her resistance to the length of her purse, and now the prolonged absence of her lover threatened to disturb the equilibrium which she had established between her virtue and her money. So it happened that the cause of the lovelorn Duc de Vitry was in great peril just at the moment when de Jars and Jeannin resolved to approach the fair one anew. She was sitting lost in thought, pondering in all good faith on the small profit it was to a woman to be virtuous, when she heard voices in the antechamber. Then her door opened, and the king's treasurer walked in.
As this interview and those which follow took place in the presence of witnesses, we are obliged to ask the reader to accompany us for a time to another part of the same house.
We have said there were several tenants: now the person who occupied the rooms next to those in which Mademoiselle de Guerchi lived was a shopkeeper's widow called Rapally, who was owner of one of the thirty-two houses which then occupied the bridge Saint-Michel. They had all been constructed at the owner's cost, in return for a lease for ever. The widow Rapally's avowed age was forty, but those who knew her longest added another ten years to that: so, to avoid error, let us say she was forty-five. She was a solid little body, rather stouter than was necessary for beauty; her hair was black, her complexion brown, her eyes prominent and always moving; lively, active, and if one once yielded to her whims, exacting beyond measure; but until then buxom and soft, and inclined to pet and spoil whoever, for the moment, had arrested her volatile fancy. Just as we make her acquaintance this happy individual was a certain Maitre Quennebert, a notary of Saint Denis, and the comedy played between him and the widow was an exact counterpart of the one going on in the rooms of Mademoiselle de Guerchi, except that the roles were inverted; for while the lady was as much in love as the Duc de Vitry, the answering devotion professed by the notary was as insincere as the disinterested attachment to her lover displayed by the whilom maid of honour.
Maitre Quennebert was still young and of attractive appearance, but his business affairs were in a bad way. For long he had been pretending not to understand the marked advances of the widow, and he treated her with a reserve and respect she would fain have dispensed with, and which sometimes made her doubt of his love. But it was impossible for her as a woman to complain, so she was forced to accept with resignation the persistent and unwelcome consideration with which he surrounded her. Maitre Quennebert was a man of common sense and much experience, and had formed a scheme which he was prevented from carrying out by an obstacle which he had no power to remove. He wanted, therefore, to gain time, for he knew that the day he gave the susceptible widow a legal right over him he would lose his independence. A lover to whose prayers the adored one remains deaf too long is apt to draw back in discouragement, but a woman whose part is restricted to awaiting those prayers, and answering with a yes or no, necessarily learns patience. Maitre Quennebert would therefore have felt no anxiety as to the effect of his dilatoriness on the widow, were it not for the existence of a distant cousin of the late Monsieur Rapally, who was also paying court to her, and that with a warmth much greater than had hitherto been displayed by himself. This fact, in view of the state of the notary's affairs, forced him at last to display more energy. To make up lost ground and to outdistance his rival once more, he now began to dazzle the widow with fine phrases and delight her with compliments; but to tell the truth all this trouble was superfluous; he was beloved, and with one fond look he might have won pardon for far greater neglect.
An hour before the treasurer's arrival there had been a knock at the door of the old house, and Maitre Quennebert, curled, pomaded, and prepared for conquest, had presented himself at the widow's. She received him with a more languishing air than usual, and shot such arrows at him froth her eyes that to escape a fatal wound he pretended to give way by degrees to deep sadness. The widow, becoming alarmed, asked with tenderness--
"What ails you this evening?"
He rose, feeling he had nothing to fear from his rival, and, being master of the field, might henceforth advance or recede as seemed best for his interests.
"What ails me?" he repeated, with a deep sigh. "I might deceive you, might give you a misleading answer, but to you I cannot lie. I am in great trouble, and how to get out of it I don't know."
"But tell me what it is," said the widow, standing up in her turn.
Maitre Quennebert took three long strides, which brought him to the far end of the room, and asked--
"Why do you want to know? You can't help me. My trouble is of a kind a man does not generally confide to women."
"What is it? An affair of honour?
"Good God! You are going to fight!" she exclaimed, trying to seize him by the arm. "You are going to fight!"
"Ah! if it were nothing worse than that!" said Quennebert, pacing up and down the room: "but you need not be alarmed; it is only a money trouble. I lent a large sum, a few months ago, to a friend, but the knave has run away and left me in the lurch. It was trust money, and must be replaced within three days. But where am I to get two thousand francs?"
"Yes, that is a large sum, and not easy to raise at such short notice."
"I shall be obliged to have recourse to some Jew, who will drain me dry. But I must save my good name at all costs."
Madame Rapally gazed at him in consternation. Maitre Quennebert, divining her thought, hastened to add--
"I have just one-third of what is needed."
"With great care, and by scraping together all I possess, I can make up eight hundred livres. But may I be damned in the next world, or punished as a swindler in this, and one's as bad as the other to me, if I can raise one farthing more."
"But suppose someone should lend you the twelve hundred francs, what then?"
"Pardieu! I should accept them," cried the notary as if he had not the least suspicion whom she could mean. "Do you happen to know anyone, my dear Madame Rapally?"
The widow nodded affirmatively, at the same time giving him a passionate glance.
"Tell me quick the name of this delightful person, and I shall go to him to-morrow morning. You don't know what a service you are rendering me. And I was so near not telling you of the fix I was in, lest you should torment yourself uselessly. Tell me his name."
"Can you not guess it?"
"How should I guess it?"
"Think well. Does no one occur to you?"
"No, no one," said Quennebert, with the utmost innocence.
"Have you no friends?"
"One or two."
"Would they not be glad to help you?"
"They might. But I have mentioned the matter to no one."
"To no one?"
"Well, Madame Rapally--I hope I don't understand you; it's not possible; you would not humiliate me. Come, come, it's a riddle, and I am too stupid to solve it. I give it up. Don't tantalise me any longer; tell me the name."
The widow, somewhat abashed by this exhibition of delicacy on the part of Maitre Quennebert, blushed, cast down her eyes, and did not venture to speak.
As the silence lasted some time, it occurred to the notary that he had been perhaps too hasty in his supposition, and he began to cast round for the best means of retrieving his blunder.
"You do not speak," he said; "I see it was all a joke."
"No," said the widow at last in a timid voice, "it was no joke; I was quite in earnest. But the way you take things is not very encouraging."
"What do you mean?"
"Pray, do you imagine that I can go on while you glare at me with that angry frown puckering your forehead, as if you had someone before you who had tried to insult you?"
A sweet smile chased the frown from the notary's brow. Encouraged by the suspension of hostilities, Madame Rapally with sudden boldness approached him, and, pressing one of his hands in both her own, whispered--
"It is I who am going to lend you the money."
He repulsed her gently, but with an air of great dignity, and said--
"Madame, I thank you, but I cannot accept."
"Why can't you?"
At this he began to walk round and round the room, while the widow, who stood in the middle, turned as upon a pivot, keeping him always in view. This circus-ring performance lasted some minutes before Quennebert stood still and said--
"I cannot be angry with you, Madame Rapally, I know your offer was made out of the kindness of your heart,--but I must repeat that it is impossible for me to accept it."
"There you go again! I don't understand you at all! Why can't you accept? What harm would it do?"
"If there were no other reason, because people might suspect that I confided my difficulties to you in the hope of help."
"And supposing you did, what then? People speak hoping to be understood. You wouldn't have minded asking anyone else."
"So you really think I did come in that hope?"
"Mon Dieu! I don't think anything at all that you don't want. It was I who dragged the confidence from you by my questions, I know that very well. But now that you have told me your secret, how can you hinder me from sympathising with you, from desiring to aid you? When I learned your difficulty, ought I to have been amused, and gone into fits of laughter? What! it's an insult to be in a position to render you a service! That's a strange kind of delicacy!"
"Are you astonished that I should feel so strongly about it?"
"Nonsense! Do you still think I meant to offend you? I look on you as the most honourable man in the world. If anyone were to tell me that he had seen you commit a base action, I should reply that it was a lie. Does that satisfy you?"
"But suppose they got hold of it in the city, suppose it were reported that Maitre Quennebert had taken money from Madame de Rapally, would it be the same as if they said Maitre Quennebert had borrowed twelve hundred livres from Monsieur Robert or some other business man?"
"I don't see what difference it could make."
"But I do."
"It's not easy to express, but----"
"But you exaggerate both the service and the gratitude you ought to feel. I think I know why you refuse. You're ashamed to take it as a gift, aren't you."
"Yes, I am."
"Well, I'm not going to make you a gift. Borrow twelve hundred livres from me. For how long do you want the money?"
"I really don't know how soon I can repay you."
"Let's say a year, and reckon the interest. Sit down there, you baby, and write out a promissory note."
Maitre Quennebert made some further show of resistance, but at last yielded to the widow's importunity. It is needless to say that the whole thing was a comedy on his part, except that he really needed the money. But he did not need it to replace a sum of which a faithless friend had robbed him, but to satisfy his own creditors, who, out of all patience with him, were threatening to sue him, and his only reason for seeking out Madame de Rapally was to take advantage of her generous disposition towards himself. His feigned delicacy was intended to induce her to insist so urgently, that in accepting he should not fall too much in her esteem, but should seem to yield to force. And his plan met with complete success, for at the end of the transaction he stood higher than ever in the opinion of his fair creditor, on account of the noble sentiments he had expressed. The note was written out in legal form and the money counted down on the spot.
"How glad I am!" said she then, while Quennebert still kept up some pretence of delicate embarrassment, although he could not resist casting a stolen look at the bag of crowns lying on the table beside his cloak. "Do you intend to go back to Saint Denis to-night?"
Even had such been his intention, the notary would have taken very good care not to say so; for he foresaw the accusations of imprudence that would follow, the enumeration of the dangers by the way; and it was quite on the cards even that, having thus aroused his fears, his fair hostess should in deference to them offer him hospitality for the night, and he did not feel inclined for an indefinitely prolonged tete-a-tete.
"No;" he said, "I am going to sleep at Maitre Terrasson's, rue des Poitevins; I have sent him word to expect me. But although his house is only a few yards distant, I must leave you earlier than I could have wished, on account of this money."
"Will you think of me?"
"How can you ask?" replied Quennebert, with a sentimental expression. "You have compelled me to accept the money, but--I shall not be happy till I have repaid you. Suppose this loan should make us fall out?"
"You may be quite sure that if you don't pay when the bill falls due, I shall have recourse to the law."
"Oh, I know that very well."
"I shall enforce all my rights as a creditor."
"I expect nothing else."
"I shall show no pity."
And the widow gave a saucy laugh and shook her finger at him.
"Madame Rapally," said the notary, who was most anxious to bring this conversation to an end, dreading every moment that it would take a languishing tone,-"Madame Rapally, will you add to your goodness by granting me one more favour?"
"What is it?"
"The gratitude that is simulated is not difficult to bear, but genuine, sincere gratitude, such as I feel, is a heavy burden, as I can assure you. It is much easier to give than to receive. Promise me, then, that from now till the year is up there shall be no more reference between us to this money, and that we shall go on being good friends as before. Leave it to me to make arrangements to acquit myself honourably of my obligations towards you. I need say no more; till a year's up, mum's the word."
"It shall be as you desire, Maitre Quennebert," answered Madame Rapally, her eyes shining with delight. "It was never my intention to lay you under embarrassing obligations, and I leave it all to you. Do you know that I am beginning to believe in presentiments?"
"You becoming superstitious! Why, may I ask?"
"I refused to do a nice little piece of ready-money business this morning."
"Yes, because I had a sort of feeling that made me resist all temptation to leave myself without cash. Imagine! I received a visit to-day from a great lady who lives in this house--in the suite of apartments next to mine."
"What is her name?"
"Mademoiselle de Guerchi."
"And what did she want with you?"
"She called in order to ask me to buy, for four hundred livres, some of her jewels which are well worth six hundred, for I understand such things; or should I prefer it to lend her that sum and keep the jewels as security? It appears that mademoiselle is in great straits. De Guerchi--do you know the name?"
"I think I have heard it."
"They say she has had a stormy past, and has been greatly talked of; but then half of what one hears is lies. Since she came to live here she has been very quiet. No visitors except one--a nobleman, a duke--wait a moment! What's his name? The Duc-Duc de Vitry; and for over three weeks even he hasn't been near her. I imagine from this absence that they have fallen out, and that she is beginning to feel the want of money."
"You seem to be intimately acquainted with this young woman's affairs."
"Indeed I am, and yet I never spoke to her till this morning."
"How did you get your information, then?"
"By chance. The room adjoining this and one of those she occupies were formerly one large room, which is now divided into two by a partition wall covered with tapestry; but in the two corners the plaster has crumbled away with time, and one can see into the room through slits in the tapestry without being seen oneself. Are you inquisitive?"
"Not more than you, Madame Rapally."
"Come with me. Someone knocked at the street door a few moments ago; there's no one else in the douse likely to have visitors at this hour. Perhaps her admirer has come back."
"If so, we are going to witness a scene of recrimination or reconciliation. How delightful!"
Although he was not leaving the widow's lodgings, Maitre Quennebert took up his hat and cloak and the blessed bag of crown pieces, and followed Madame Rapally on tiptoe, who on her side moved as slowly as a tortoise and as lightly as she could. They succeeded in turning the handle of the door into the next room without making much noise.
"'Sh!" breathed the widow softly; "listen, they are speaking."
She pointed to the place where he would find a peep-hole in one corner of the room, and crept herself towards the corresponding corner. Quennebert, who was by no means anxious to have her at his side, motioned to her to blow out the light. This being done, he felt secure, for he knew that in the intense darkness which now enveloped them she could not move from her place without knocking against the furniture between them, so he glued his face to the partition. An opening just large enough for one eye allowed him to see everything that was going on in the next room. Just as he began his observations, the treasurer at Mademoiselle de Guerchi's invitation was about to take a seat near her, but not too near for perfect respect. Both of them were silent, and appeared to labour under great embarrassment at finding themselves together, and explanations did not readily begin. The lady had not an idea of the motive of the visit, and her quondam lover feigned the emotion necessary to the success of his undertaking. Thus Maitre Quennebert had full time to examine both, and especially Angelique. The reader will doubtless desire to know what was the result of the notary's observation.
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