Angelique-Louise de Guerichi was a woman of about twenty-eight years of age, tall, dark, and well made. The loose life she had led had, it is true, somewhat staled her beauty, marred the delicacy of her complexion, and coarsened the naturally elegant curves of her figure; but it is such women who from time immemorial have had the strongest attraction for profligate men. It seems as if dissipation destroyed the power to perceive true beauty, and the man of pleasure must be aroused to admiration by a bold glance and a meaning smile, and will only seek satisfaction along the trail left by vice. Louise-Angelique was admirably adapted for her way of life; not that her features wore an expression of shameless effrontery, or that the words that passed her lips bore habitual testimony to the disorders of her existence, but that under a calm and sedate demeanour there lurked a secret and indefinable charm. Many other women possessed more regular features, but none of them had a greater power of seduction. We must add that she owed that power entirely to her physical perfections, for except in regard to the devices necessary to her calling, she showed no cleverness, being ignorant, dull and without inner resources of any kind. As her temperament led her to share the desires she excited, she was really incapable of resisting an attack conducted with skill and ardour, and if the Duc de Vitry had not been so madly in love, which is the same as saying that he was hopelessly blind, silly, and dense to everything around him, he might have found a score of opportunities to overcome her resistance. We have already seen that she was so straitened in money matters that she had been driven to try to sell her jewels that very, morning.
Jeannin was the first to 'break silence.
"You are astonished at my visit, I know, my charming Angelique. But you must excuse my thus appearing so unexpectedly before you. The truth is, I found it impossible to leave Paris without seeing you once more."
"Thank you for your kind remembrance," said she, "but I did not at all expect it."
"Come, come, you are offended with me."
She gave him a glance of mingled disdain and resentment; but he went on, in a timid, wistful tone--
"I know that my conduct must have seemed strange to you, and I acknowledge that nothing can justify a man for suddenly leaving the woman he loves--I do not dare to say the woman who loves him--without a word of explanation. But, dear Angelique, I was jealous."
"Jealous!" she repeated incredulously.
"I tried my best to overcome the feeling, and I hid my suspicions from you. Twenty times I came to see you bursting with anger and determined to overwhelm you with reproaches, but at the sight of your beauty I forgot everything but that I loved you. My suspicions dissolved before a smile; one word from your lips charmed me into happiness. But when I was again alone my terrors revived, I saw my rivals at your feet, and rage possessed me once more. Ah! you never knew how devotedly I loved you."
She let him speak without interruption; perhaps the same thought was in her mind as in Quennebert's, who, himself a past master in the art of lying; was thinking--
"The man does not believe a word of what he is saying."
But the treasurer went on--
"I can see that even now you doubt my sincerity."
"Does my lord desire that his handmaiden should be blunt? Well, I know that there is no truth in what you say."
"Oh! I can see that you imagine that among the distractions of the world I have kept no memory of you, and have found consolation in the love of less obdurate fair ones. I have not broken in on your retirement; I have not shadowed your steps; I have not kept watch on your actions; I have not surrounded you with spies who would perhaps have brought me the assurance, 'If she quitted the world which outraged her, she was not driven forth by an impulse of wounded pride or noble indignation; she did not even seek to punish those who misunderstood her by her absence; she buried herself where she was unknown, that she might indulge in stolen loves.' Such were the thoughts that came to me, and yet I respected your hiding-place; and to-day I am ready to believe you true, if you will merely say, 'I love no one else!'"
Jeannin, who was as fat as a stage financier, paused here to gasp; for the utterance of this string of banalities, this rigmarole of commonplaces, had left him breathless. He was very much dissatisfied with his performance; and ready to curse his barren imagination. He longed to hit upon swelling phrases and natural and touching gestures, but in vain. He could only look at Mademoiselle de Guerchi with a miserable, heart-broken air. She remained quietly seated, with the same expression of incredulity on her features.
So there was nothing for it but to go on once more.
"But this one assurance that I ask you will not give. So what I have--been told is true: you have given your love to him."
She could not check a startled movement.
"You see it is only when I speak of him that I can overcome in you the insensibility which is killing me. My suspicions were true after all: you deceived me for his sake. Oh! the instinctive feeling of jealousy was right which forced me to quarrel with that man, to reject the perfidious friendship which he tried to force upon me. He has returned to town, and we shall meet! But why do I say 'returned'? Perhaps he only pretended to go away, and safe in this retreat has flouted with impunity, my despair and braved my vengeance!"
Up to this the lady had played a waiting game, but now she grew quite confused, trying to discover the thread of the treasurer's thoughts. To whom did he refer? The Duc de Vitry? That had been her first impression. But the duke had only been acquainted with her for a few months--since she had--left Court. He could not therefore have excited the jealousy of her whilom lover; and if it were not he, to whom did the words about rejecting "perfidious friendship," and "returned to town," and so on, apply? Jeannin divined her embarrassment, and was not a little proud of the tactics which would, he was almost sure; force her to expose herself. For there are certain women who can be thrown into cruel perplexity by speaking to them of their love-passages without affixing a proper name label to each. They are placed as it were on the edge of an abyss, and forced to feel their way in darkness. To say "You have loved" almost obliges them to ask "Whom?"
Nevertheless, this was not the word uttered by Mademoiselle de Guerchi while she ran through in her head a list of possibilities. Her answer was--
"Your language astonishes me; I don't understand what you mean."
The ice was broken, and the treasurer made a plunge. Seizing one of Angelique's hands, he asked--
"Have you never seen Commander de Jars since then?"
"Commander de Jars!" exclaimed Angelique.
"Can you swear to me, Angelique, that you love him not?"
"Mon Dieu! What put it into your head that I ever cared for him? It's over four months since I saw him last, and I hadn't an idea whether he was alive or dead. So he has been out of town? That's the first I heard of it."
"My fortune is yours, Angelique! Oh! assure me once again that you do not love him--that you never loved him!" he pleaded in a faltering voice, fixing a look of painful anxiety upon her.
He had no intention of putting her out of countenance by the course he took; he knew quite well that a woman like Angelique is never more at her ease than when she has a chance of telling an untruth of this nature. Besides, he had prefaced this appeal by the magic words, "My fortune' is yours!" and the hope thus aroused was well worth a perjury. So she answered boldly and in a steady voice, while she looked straight into his eyes--
"I believe you!" exclaimed Jeannin, going down on his knees and covering with his kisses the hand he still held. "I can taste happiness again. Listen, Angelique. I am leaving Paris; my mother is dead, and I am going back to Spain. Will you follow me thither?"
"I hesitated long before finding you out, so much did I fear a repulse. I set out to-morrow. Quit Paris, leave the world which has slandered you, and come with me. In a fortnight we shall be man and wife."
"You are not in earnest!"
"May I expire at your feet if I am not! Do you want me to sign the oath with my blood?"
"Rise," she said in a broken voice. "Have I at last found a man to love me and compensate me for all the abuse that has been showered on my head? A thousand times I thank you, not for what you are doing for me, but for the balm you pour on my wounded spirit. Even if you were to say to me now, 'After all, I am obliged to give you up' the pleasure of knowing you esteem me would make up for all the rest. It would be another happy memory to treasure along with my memory of our love, which was ineffaceable, although you so ungratefully suspected me of having deceived you."
The treasurer appeared fairly intoxicated with joy. He indulged in a thousand ridiculous extravagances and exaggerations, and declared himself the happiest of men. Mademoiselle de Guerchi, who was desirous of being prepared for every peril, asked him in a coaxing tone--
"Who can have put it into your head to be jealous of the commander? Has he been base enough to boast that I ever gave him my love?"
"No, he never said anything about you; but someway I was afraid."
She renewed her assurances. The conversation continued some time in a sentimental tone. A thousand oaths, a thousand protestations of love were, exchanged. Jeannin feared that the suddenness of their journey would inconvenience his mistress, and offered to put it off for some days; but to this she would not consent, and it was arranged that the next day at noon a carriage should call at the house and take Angelique out of town to an appointed place at which the treasurer was to join her.
Maitre Quennebert, eye and ear on the alert, had not lost a word of this conversation, and the last proposition of the treasurer changed his ideas.
"Pardieu!" he said to himself, "it looks as if this good man were really going to let himself be taken in and done for. It is singular how very clear-sighted we can be about things that don't touch us. This poor fly is going to let himself be caught by a very clever spider, or I'm much mistaken. Very likely my widow is quite of my opinion, and yet in what concerns herself she will remain stone-blind. Well, such is life! We have only two parts to choose between: we must be either knave or fool. What's Madame Rapally doing, I wonder?"
At this moment he heard a stifled whisper from the opposite corner of the room, but, protected by the distance and the darkness, he let the widow murmur on, and applied his eye once more to his peephole. What he saw confirmed his opinion. The damsel was springing up and down, laughing, gesticulating, and congratulating herself on her unexpected good fortune.
"Just imagine! He loves me like that!" she was saying to herself. "Poor Jeannin! When I remember how I used to hesitate. How fortunate that Commander de Jars, one of the most vain and indiscreet of men, never babbled about me! Yes, we must leave town to-morrow without fail. I must not give him time to be enlightened by a chance word. But the Duc de Vitry? I am really sorry for him. However, why did he go away, and send no word? And then, he's a married man. Ah! if I could only get back again to court some day!... Who would ever have expected such a thing? Good God! I must keep talking to myself, to be sure I'm not dreaming. Yes, he was there, just now, at my feet, saying to me, 'Angelique, you are going to become my wife.' One thing is sure, he may safely entrust his honour to my care. It would be infamous to betray a man who loves me as he does, who will give me his name. Never, no, never will I give him cause to reproach me! I would rather----"
A loud and confused noise on the stairs interrupted this soliloquy. At one moment bursts of laughter were heard, and the next angry voices. Then a loud exclamation, followed by a short silence. Being alarmed at this disturbance in a house which was usually so quiet, Mademoiselle de Guerchi approached the door of her room, intending either to call for protection or to lock herself in, when suddenly it was violently pushed open. She recoiled with fright, exclaiming--
"Commander de Jars!"
"On my word!" said Quennebert behind the arras, "'tis as amusing as a play! Is the commander also going to offer to make an honest woman of her? But what do I see?"
He had just caught sight of the young man on whom de Jars had bestowed the title and name of Chevalier de Moranges, and whose acquaintance the reader has already made at the tavern in the rue Saint-Andre-des-Arts. His appearance had as great an effect on the notary as a thunderbolt. He stood motionless, trembling, breathless; his knees ready to give way beneath him; everything black before his eyes. However, he soon pulled himself together, and succeeded in overcoming the effects of his surprise and terror. He looked once more through the hole in the partition, and became so absorbed that no one in the whole world could have got a word from him just then; the devil himself might have shrieked into his ears unheeded, and a naked sword suspended over his head would not have induced him to change his place.
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