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Andre had removed his coat and donned his blouse, the sleeves of which were rolled up to his shoulders. "I must get to business," murmured he, "to make up for lost time." He set to work with great vigor, but had hardly got into the swing, when a lad came actively up the ladder and told him that a gentleman wished to see him, "and a real swell, too," added the boy. Andre was a good deal put out at being disturbed, but when he reached the street and saw that it was M. de Breulh- Faverlay who was waiting for him, his ill-humor disappeared like chaff before the wind.
"Ah, this is really kind of you," cried he; for he could never forget the debt of gratitude he owed to the gentleman. "A thousand thanks for remembering me. Excuse my not shaking hands, but see;" and he exhibited his palms all white with plaster. As he did so the smile died away on his lips, for he caught sight of his friend's face.
"What is the matter?" exclaimed he, anxiously. "Is Sabine worse? Has she had a relapse?"
De Breulh shook his head, but the expression of his face clearly said,--
"Would to heavens it were only that!"
But the news that Sabine was not worse relieved Andre at once, and he patiently waited for his friend to explain.
"I have seen her twice for you," answered De Breulh; "but it is absolutely necessary that you should come to a prompt decision on an important affair."
"I am quite at your service," returned Andre a good deal surprised and troubled.
"Then come with me at once, I did not drive here, but we shall not be more than a quarter of an hour in reaching my house."
"I will follow you almost immediately. I only ask five minutes' grace to go up to the scaffold again."
"Have you any orders to give?"
"No, I have none."
"Why should you go, then?"
"To make myself a little more presentable."
"Is it an annoyance or inconvenience for you to go out in that dress?"
"Not a bit, I am thoroughly used to it; but it was for your sake."
"If that is all, come along."
"But people will stare at seeing you in company with a common workman."
"Let them stare." And drawing Andre's arm through his, M. de Breulh set off.
Andre was right; many persons did turn round to look at the fashionably dressed gentleman walking arm in arm with a mason in his working attire, but De Breulh took but little heed, and to all Andre's questions simply said, "Wait till we reach my house."
At length they arrived, without having exchanged twenty words, and entering the library closed the door. M. de Breulh did not inflict the torture of suspense upon his young friend a moment longer than was necessary.
"This morning, about twelve o'clock, as I was crossing the Avenue de Matignon, I saw Modeste, who had been waiting for you more than an hour."
"I could not help it."
"I know that. As soon as she saw me, she ran up to me at once. She was terribly disappointed at not having seen you; but knowing our intimacy, she intrusted me with a letter for you from Mademoiselle de Mussidan."
Andre shuddered; he felt that the note contained evil tidings, with which De Breulh was already acquainted. "Give it to me," said he, and with trembling hands he tore open the letter and perused its contents.
"I love you, and shall ever continue to do so, but I have duties-- most holy ones--which I must fulfil; duties which my name and position demand of me, even should the act cost me my life. We shall never meet again in this world, and this letter is the last one you will ever receive from me. Before long you will see the announcement of my marriage. Pity me, for great as your wretchedness will be, it will be as nothing compared to mine. Heaven have mercy upon us both! Andre, try and tear me out of your heart. I have not even the right to die, and oh, my darling, this--this is the last word you will ever receive from your poor unhappy
If M. de Breulh had insisted upon taking Andre home with him before he handed him the letter, it was because Modeste had given him some inkling of its contents. He feared that the effect would be tremendous upon nerves so highly strung and sensitive as those of Andre. But he need not have been alarmed on this point. As the young painter mastered the contents of the letter his features became ghastly pale, and a shudder convulsed every nerve and muscle of his frame. With a mechanical gesture he extended the paper to M. de Breulh, uttering the one word, "Read."
His friend obeyed him, more alarmed by Andre's laconism than he could have been by some sudden explosion of passion.
"Do not lose heart," exclaimed he.
But Andre interrupted him. "Lose heart!" said he; "you do not know me. When Sabine was ill, perhaps dying, far away from me, I did feel cast down; but now that she tells me that she loves me, my feelings are of an entirely different nature."
M. de Breulh was about to speak, but Andre went on.
"What is this marriage contract which my poor Sabine announces to me, as if it was her death-warrant? Her parents must all along have intended to break with you, but you were beforehand with them. Can they have received a more advantageous offer of marriage already? It is scarcely likely. When she confided the secret of her life to you, she certainly knew nothing of this. What terrible event has happened since then? My brave Sabine would never have submitted unless some coercion had been used that she could not struggle against; she would rather have quitted her father's house for ever."
As Andre uttered these words De Breulh's mind was busy with similar reflections, for Modeste had given him some hint of the approaching marriage, and had begged him to be most careful how he communicated the facts to Andre.
"You must have noticed," continued the young painter, "the strange coincidence between Sabine's illness and this note. You left her happy and full of hope, and an hour afterward she falls senseless, as though struck by lightning; as soon as she recovers a little she sends me this terrible letter. Do you remember that Madame de Bois Arden told us that during Sabine's illness her father and mother never left her bedside? Was not this for fear lest some guilty secret of theirs might escape her lips in a crisis of delirium?"
"Yes, I remember that, and I have long had reason to imagine that there is some terrible family secret in the Mussidans' family, such as we too often find among the descendants of noble houses."
"What can it be?"
"That I have no means of ascertaining, but that there is one I am sure."
Andre turned away and paced rapidly up and down the room. "Yes," said he, suddenly, "there is a mystery; but you and I will leave no stone unturned until we penetrate it." He drew a chair close to the side of his friend, who was reclining on a couch. "Listen," said he, "and correct me if you fancy that I am not right in what I am saying. Do you believe that the most terrible necessity alone has compelled Sabine to write this letter?"
"Both the Count and Countess were willing to accept you as their son- in-law?"
"Could M. de Mussidan have found a more brilliant match for his daughter, one who could unite so many advantages of experience and education to so enormous a fortune?"
De Breulh could hardly repress a smile.
"I am not wishing to pay you a compliment," said Andre impatiently. "Reply to my question."
"Very well then, I admit that according to the opinion of the world, I was a most eligible suitor, and that M. de Mussidan would find it hard to replace me."
"Then tell me how it comes about that neither the Count nor the Countess has made any effort to prevent this rupture?"
"Their pride, perhaps, has been wounded."
"Not so, for Modeste tells us that on the very day you sent the letter the Count was going to call on you to break off the engagement."
"Yes, that is so, if we are to believe Modeste."
As if to give more emphasis to his words, Andre started to his feet. "This," cried he, "this man, who has so suddenly appeared upon the scene, will marry Sabine, not only against her own will, but against that of her parents, and for what reason? Who is this man, and what is the mysterious power that he possesses? His power is too great to spring from an honorable source. Sabine is sacrificing herself to this man for some reason or other, and he, like a dastardly cur, is ready to take advantage of the nobleness of her heart."
"I admit the correctness of your supposition," said he; "and now, how do you propose to act?"
"I shall do nothing as yet," answered the young man, with a fierce gleam in his eyes. "Sabine asks me to tear her from my heart. I will affect to do so for the time. Modeste believes in me, and will help me. I have patience. The villain who has wrecked my life does not know me, and I will only reveal myself upon the day that I hold him helpless in my hand."
"Take care, Andre," urged De Breulh; "a false step would ruin your hopes for ever."
"I will make none; as soon as I have this man's name, I will insult him; there will be a duel, and I shall kill him--or he me."
"A duel will be the height of madness, and would ruin all your hopes of marriage with Sabine."
"The only thing that holds me back is that I do not wish that there should be a corpse between Sabine and myself. Blood on a bridal dress, they say, brings misery; and if this man is what I suspect him to be, I should be doing him too much honor if I crossed swords with him. No, I must have a deeper vengeance than this, for I can never forget that he nearly caused Sabine's death."
He paused for a few seconds, and once again broke the silence which reigned in the room.
"To abuse the power that he must possess shows what a miserable wretch he must be; and men do not attain such a height of infamy by a single bound. The course of his life must be full of similar crimes, growing deeper and deadlier as he moves on. I will make it my business to unmask him and to hold him up to the scorn and contempt of his fellow- men."
"Yes; that is the plan to pursue."
"And we will do so, sir. Ah! heaven help me! I say 'we,' for I have relied on you. The generous offer that you made to me I refused, and I was in the right in doing so; but I should now be a mere madman if I did not entreat you to grant me your aid and advice. We have both known hardship and are capable of going without food or sleep, if necessity requires it of us. We have both graduated in the school of poverty and sorrow. We can keep our plans to ourselves and act."
Andre paused, as if waiting for a reply, but his friend remained silent.
"My plan is most simple," resumed the young painter. "As soon as we know the fellow's name we shall be able to act. He will never suspect us, and we can follow him like his very shadow. There are professional detectives who, for a comparatively small sum, will lay bare a man's entire life. Are we not as clever as this fine fellow? We can work well together in our different circles; you, in the world of fashion, can pick up intelligence that I could not hope to gain; while I, from my lowly position, will study the hidden side of his life, for I can talk to the servants lounging at the front doors or the grooms at the public-houses without suspicion."
M. de Breulh was delighted at finding that he could have some occupation which would fill up the dreary monotony of his life.
"I am yours!" cried he; "and will work with you heart and soul!"
Before the artist could reply a loud blow was struck upon the library door, and a woman's voice exclaimed,--
"Let me in, Gontran, at once."
"It is Madame de Bois Arden," remarked De Breulh, drawing the bolt back; and the Viscountess rushed hastily into the room and threw herself into a low chair.
Her beautiful face was bedewed with tears, and she was in a terrible state of excitement.
"What is the matter, Clotilde?" asked De Breulh kindly, as he took her hand.
"Something terrible," answered she with a sob; "but you may be able to help me. Can you lend me twenty thousand francs?"
De Breulh smiled; a heavy weight had been lifted from his heart.
"If that is all you require, do not shed any more tears."
"But I want them at once."
"Can you give me half an hour?"
"Yes; but lose no time."
De Breulh drew a check and despatched his valet for the money.
"A thousand thanks!" said the Viscountess; "but money is not all that I require, I want your advice."
Andre was about to leave the cousins together, but the lady stopped him.
"Pray remain, M. Andre," said she; "you are not at all in the way; besides, I shall have to speak of some one in whom you take a very deep interest--of Mademoiselle de Mussidan, in short.
"I never knew such a strange occurrence," continued the Viscountess, recovering her spirits rapidly, "as that to which, my dear Gontran, you owe my visit. Well, I was just going up to dress, for I had been detained by visitor after visitor, when at two o'clock another came before I could give my order, 'Not at home.' This was the Marquis de Croisenois, the brother of the man who twenty years ago disappeared in so mysterious a manner. I hardly knew him at all, though of course we have met in society, and he bows to me in the Bois, but that is all."
"And yet he called on you to-day?" remarked De Breulh.
"Don't interrupt me," said the Viscountess. "Yes, he called, and that is enough. He is good-looking, faultlessly dressed, and talks well. He brought a letter from an old friend of my grandmother's, the Marchioness d'Arlanges. She is a dear old thing, she uses awful language, and some of her stories are quite too--you know what I mean. In the letter the old lady said that the Marquis was one of her friends, and begged me for her sake to do him the service he required. Of course I asked him to be seated, and assured him that I would do anything that lay in my power. Then he began talking about M. de Clinchain, and told me a funny story about that eccentric man and a little actress, when I heard a great noise in the anteroom. I was about to ring and inquire the cause, when the door flew open and in came Van Klopen, the ladies' tailor, with a very inflamed countenance. I thought that he had come in a hurry because he had hit on something extremely fetching and wished me to be the first to see it. But do you know what the impudent fellow wanted?"
A smile shone in De Breulh's eyes, as he answered,--
"You are right," returned the Viscountess, gravely; "he brought my bill into my very drawing-room, and handed it in before a stranger. I never thought that a man who supplies the most aristocratic portion of society could have been guilty of such a piece of impertinence. I ordered him to leave the room, taking it for granted that he would do so with an apology, but I was wrong. He flew into a rage and threatened me, and swore that if I did not settle the bill on the spot, he would go to my husband. The bill was nearly twenty thousand francs; imagine my horror! I was so thunderstruck at the amount that I absolutely entreated him to give me time. But my humility added to his annoyance, and taking a seat in an armchair, he declared that he would not move from it until he received his money, or had seen my husband."
"What was Croisenois doing all this time?" asked M. de Breulh.
"He did nothing at first, but at this last piece of audacity he took out his pocketbook, and throwing it in Van Klopen's face, said: 'Pay yourself, you insolent scoundrel, and get out of this.' "
"And the tailor went off?"
"No. 'I must give you a receipt,' said he, and taking writing materials from his pocket, he wrote at the foot of the bill, 'Received from the Marquis de Croisenois, on account of money owing by the Viscountess de Bois Arden, the sum of twenty thousand francs.' "
"Well," said De Breulh, looking very grave, "and after Van Klopen's departure, I suppose Croisenois remained to ask the favor regarding which he had called?"
"You are mistaken," answered his cousin. "I had great difficulty in making him speak; but at last he confessed that he was deeply in love with Mademoiselle de Mussidan, and entreated me to present him to her parents and exert all my influence in his behalf."
Both the young men started.
"That is the man!" cried they.
"What do you mean?" asked the Viscountess, looking from one to the other.
"That your Marquis de Croisenois is a despicable scoundrel, who had imposed upon the Marchioness d'Arlanges. Just you listen to our reasons for coming to this conclusion." And with the most perfect clearness De Breulh had the whole state of the case before the Viscountess.
The lady listened attentively, and then said,--
"Your premises are wrong; just let me say a word on the matter. You say that there is some man who by means of the influence that he exercises over the Count and Countess, can coerce them into granting him Sabine's hand. But, my dear Gontran, an utter stranger to the family could not exercise this power. Now M. de Croisenois has never entered the doors of the house, and came to me to ask for an introduction."
The justness of this remark silenced De Breulh, but Andre took another view of the matter.
"This seems all right at a first glance, but still, after the extraordinary scene that the Viscountess has described, I should like to ask a few questions. Was not Van Klopen's behavior very unexpected?"
"It was brutal and infamous."
"Are you not one of his best customers?"
"I am, and I have spent an enormous sum with him."
"But Van Klopen is nasty sometimes; did he not sue Mademoiselle de Riversac?" asked De Breulh.
"But he did not, I expect, force his way into her drawing-room and behave outrageously before a perfect stranger. Do you know M. de Croisenois?" returned Andre.
"Very slightly; he is of good family, and his brother George was much esteemed by all who knew him."
"Has he plenty of money?"
"I do not think so, but in time he will inherit a large fortune; very likely he is over head and ears in debt."
"And yet he had twenty thousand francs in his pocketbook; is not that rather a large sum to carry when you are simply making a morning call? and it is curious, too, that it should have been the exact sum wanted. Then there is another point; the pocketbook was hurled into Van Klopen's face. Did he submit without a word to such treatment?"
"He certainly said nothing," replied Madame de Bois Arden.
"One question more, if you please. Did Van Klopen open the book and count the notes before he gave the receipt?"
The Viscountess thought for a moment.
"I was a good deal excited," said she at length, "but I am almost sure that I saw no notes in Van Klopen's hands."
Andre's face grew radiant.
"Good, very good; he was told to pay himself, and yet he never looked to see if the money was there, but gave a receipt at once. Of course, as Van Klopen kept the pocketbook, the Marquis could have had nothing in it besides the exact sum that was required."
"It does seem odd," muttered De Breulh.
"But," said Andre, "your bill was not exactly twenty thousand francs, was it?"
"No," answered the Viscountess. "I ought to have had change to the amount of a hundred or a hundred and twenty francs, but I suppose he was too much excited to give it me."
"But for all that he could remember that he had writing materials with him, and give you a receipt?"
The Viscountess was utterly bewildered.
"And," continued Andre, "how is it that Van Klopen knew De Croisenois' name? And now, lastly, where is the receipt?"
Madame de Bois Arden turned very pale and trembled violently.
"Ah," said she, "I felt sure that something was going to happen, and it was on this very point that I wanted your advice. Well, I have not got the receipt. M. de Croisenois crumpled it up in his hand and threw it on the table. After a while, however, he took it up and put it in his pocket."
"It is all perfectly clear," said Andre in jubilant tones; "M. de Croisenois had need of your aid, he saw that he could not easily obtain it, and so sought to bind you by the means of a loan made to you at a time of great need."
"You are right," said De Breulh.
The Viscountess' giddy mode of action had brought her into many scrapes, but never into so terrible a one as this.
"Great heavens!" cried she, "what do you think that M. de Croisenois will do with this receipt?"
"He will do nothing," answered M. de Breulh, "if you do everything to advance his suit; but pause for an instant, and he will show the hand of steel which has up to now been covered by the velvet glove."
"I am not alarmed at a new slander?" returned the Viscountess.
"And why not?" answered De Breulh. "You know very well that in these days of lavish expenditure and unbridled luxury there are many women in society who are so basely vile that they ruin their lovers with as little compunction as their frailer sisters. To-morrow even De Croisenois may say at the club, 'On my word that little Bois Arden costs me a tremendous lot,' and hands about this receipt for twenty thousand francs. What do you imagine that people will think then?"
"The world knows me too well to think so ill of me."
"No, no, Clotilde, there is no charity in society; they will simply say that you are his mistress, and finding that the allowance from your husband is not enough for your needs, you are ruining your lover. There will be a significant laugh among the members, and in time, a very short time, the scandal in a highly sensational form will come to the ears of your husband."
The Viscountess wrung her hands.
"It is too horrible," wailed she. "And do you know that Bois Arden would put the worst construction on the whole affair, for he declares that a woman will sacrifice anything in order to outshine her sex in dress. Ah, I will never run up another bill anywhere; tell me, Gontran, what I had better do. Can you not get the receipt from De Croisenois?"
M. de Breulh paused for a moment and then replied, "Of course I could do so, but such a step would be very damaging to your reputation. I have no proof; and if I went to him, he would deny everything of course, and it would make him your enemy for life."
"Besides," added Andre, "you would put him on his guard, and he would escape us."
The unhappy woman glanced from one to the other in utter despair.
"Then I am lost," she exclaimed. "Am I to remain for the rest of my days in this villain's power?"
"Not so," returned Andre, "for I hope soon to put it out of M. de Croisenois' power to injure any one. What did he say when he asked you to introduce him to the Mussidans?"
"Then, madame, do not disturb yourself to-night. So long as he hopes you will be useful, so long he will stay his hand. Do as he wishes; never allude to the receipt; introduce him and speak well of him, while I, aided by M. de Breulh, will do my utmost to unmask this scoundrel; and as long as he believes himself to be in perfect security, our task will be an easy one."
Just then the servant returned from the bank, and as soon as the man had left the room De Breulh took the notes and placed them in his cousin's hand.
"Here is the money for De Croisenois," said he. "Take my advice, and give it to him this evening with a polite letter of thanks."
"A thousand thanks, Gontran; I will act as you advise."
"Remember you must not allude in your letter to his introduction to the Mussidans. What do you think, Andre?"
"I think a receipt for the money would be a great thing," answered he.
"But such a demand would arouse his suspicions."
"I think not, madame, and I see a way of doing it; have you a maid upon whom you could rely?"
"Yes, I have one."
"Good, then give the girl a letter and the notes done up in a separate parcel, and tell her exactly what she is to do. When she sees the Marquis, let her pretend to be alarmed at the great responsibility that she is incurring in carrying this large sum, and insist upon a receipt for her own protection."
"There is sound sense in that," said De Breulh.
"Yes, yes," said the Viscountess, "Josephine will do--as sharp a girl as you could find in a day's journey--and will manage the thing admirably. Trust to me," she continued, as a smile of hope spread over her face; "I will keep De Croisenois in a good humor; he will confide in me, and I will tell you everything. But, oh dear! what shall I do without Van Klopen? Why, there is not another man in Paris fit to stand in his shoes."
With these words the Viscountess rose to leave.
"I am completely worn out," remarked she; "and I have a dinner-party to-night. Good-bye then, until we meet again;" and with her spirits evidently as joyous as ever, she tripped into her carriage.
"Now," said Andre, as soon as they were once more alone, "we are on the track of De Croisenois. He evidently holds Madame de Mussidan as he holds Madame de Bois Arden. His is a really honorable mode of action; he surprises a secret, and then turns extortioner."
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