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"Well, I am sure the count can boast that he has had a curious wedding-day."
This was the way the servants spoke at the moment when Henrietta left the reception-room. She heard it; and without knowing whether they approved her conduct, or laughed at it, she felt gratified, so eager is passion for encouragement from anywhere.
But she had not yet gone half-way up the stairs which led to her own rooms, when she was held at the place by the sound of all the bells of the house, which had been set in motion by a furious hand. She bent over the balusters to listen. The servants were rushing about; the vestibule resounded with hurried steps; and she distinguished the imperious voice of M. Ernest, the count's valet, who called out,--
"Salts, quick! Fresh water. The countess has a nervous attack."
A bitter smile curled Henrietta's lips.
"At least," she said to herself, "I shall have poisoned this woman's joy." And, fearing to be caught thus listening, she went up stairs.
But, when she was alone once more, the poor girl failed not to recognize the utter futility of her fancied triumph. Whom had she wounded, after all? Her father.
However unwell the countess might be to-night,--and perhaps she was not really unwell,--she would certainly be well again in the morning; and then what would be the advantage of the scandal she had attempted in order to ruin her? Now Henrietta saw it very clearly,--now, when it was too late.
Worse than that! She fancied that what she had done to-day pledged her for the future. The road upon which she had started evidently led nowhere. Never mind, it seemed to her miserable cowardice to shrink from going on.
Rising with the sun, she was deliberating on what weak point she might make her next attack, when there came a knock at the door, and Clarissa, her own maid, entered.
"Here is a letter for you, miss," she said. "I have received it this moment, in an envelope addressed to me."
Henrietta examined the letter for a long time before opening it, studying the handwriting, which she did not know. Who could write to her, and in this way, unless it was Maxime de Brevan, to whom Daniel had begged her to intrust herself, and who, so far, had given no sign of life of himself?
It was M. de Brevan who wrote thus,--
"Madam,--Like all Paris, I also have heard of your proud and noble protest on the day of your father's unfortunate marriage. Egotists and fools will perhaps blame you. But you may despise them; for all the best men are on your side. And my dear Daniel, if he were here, would approve and admire your courage, as I do myself."
She drew a full breath, as if her heart had been relieved of a heavy burden.
Daniel's friend approved her conduct. This was enough to stifle henceforth the voice of reason, and to make her disregard every idea of prudence. The whole letter of M. de Brevan was, moreover, nothing but a long and respectful admonition to resist desperately.
Farther on he wrote,--
"At the moment of taking the train, Daniel handed me a letter, in which he expresses his innermost thoughts. With a sagacity worthy of such a heart, he foresees and solves in advance all the difficulties by which your step-mother will no doubt embarrass you hereafter. This letter is too precious to be intrusted to the mail, I shall, therefore, get myself introduced at your father's house before the end of the week, and I shall have the honor to put that letter into your own hands."
"I shall have an opportunity, tomorrow, to send Daniel news from here. If you wish to write to him, send me your letter to-day, Rue Laffitte, No. 62, and I will enclose it in mine."
Finally, there came a postscript in these words,--
"Mistrust, above all, M. Thomas Elgin."
This last recommendation caused Henrietta particular trouble, and made her feel all kinds of vague and terrible apprehensions.
"Why should I mistrust him," she said to herself, "more than the others?"
But a more pleasing anxiety soon came to her assistance. What? Here was an opportunity to send Daniel news promptly and safely, and she was running the risk, by her delays, of losing the chance? She hastened to dress; and, sitting down before her little writing-table, she went to work communicating to her only friend on earth all her sufferings since he had so suddenly left her, her griefs, her resentments, her hopes.
It was eleven o'clock when she had finished, having filled eight large pages with all she felt in her heart. As she was about to rise, she suddenly felt ill. Her knees gave way under her, and she felt as if every thing was trembling around her. What could this mean? she thought. And now only she remembered that she had eaten nothing since the day before.
"I must not starve myself," she said almost merrily to herself. Her long chat with Daniel had evidently rekindled her hopes.
She rang the bell; and, when her maid appeared, she said,--
"Bring me some breakfast!"
Miss Ville-Handry occupied three rooms. The first, her sitting-room, opened upon the hall; on the right was her bed-chamber; and on the left a boudoir with her piano, her music, and her books. When Henrietta took her meals up stairs, which of late had happened quite often, she ate in the sitting-room.
She had gone in there, and was clearing the table of the albums and little trifles which were lying about, so as to hasten matters, when the maid reappeared with empty hands.
"The count has given orders not to take any thing up stairs."
"That cannot be."
But a mocking voice from without interrupted her, saying,--
"It is so!"
And immediately Count Ville-Handry appeared, already dressed, curled, and painted, bearing the appearance of a man who is about to enjoy his revenge.
"Leave us!" he said to the maid-servant.
And, as soon as Clarissa had left the room, he turned to Henrietta with these words,--
"Yes, indeed, my dear Henrietta, I have given strict orders not to bring you up any thing to eat. Why should you indulge such fancies? I ask you. Are you unwell? If you are, we will send for the doctor. If not, you will do me the favor to come down and take your meals in the dining-room with the family,--with the countess and myself, M. Elgin and Mrs. Brian."
"There is no father who could stand this. The time of weakness is past, and so is the time of passion; therefore, you will come down. Oh! whenever you feel disposed. You will, perhaps, pout a day, maybe two days; but hunger drives the wolf into the village; and on the third day we shall see you come down as soon as the bell rings. I have in vain appealed to your heart; you see I am forced to appeal to your stomach."
Whatever efforts Henrietta might make to remain impassive, the tears would come into her eyes,--tears of shame and humiliation. Could this idea of starving her into obedience have originated with her father? No, he would never have thought of it! It was evidently a woman's thought, and the result of bitter, savage hate.
Still the poor girl felt that she was caught; and her heart revolted at the ignominy of the means, and the certainty that she would be forced to yield. Her cruel imagination painted to her at once the exultation of the new countess, when she, the daughter of Count Ville-Handry, would appear in the dining-room, brought there by want, by hunger.
"Father," she begged, "send me nothing but bread and water, but spare me that exposure."
But, if the count was repeating a lesson, he had learned it well. His features retained their sardonic expression; and he said in an icy tone,--
"I have told you what I desire. You have heard it, and that is enough."
He was turning to leave the room, when his daughter held him back.
"Father," she said, "listen to me."
"Well, what is it, now?"
"Yesterday you threatened to shut me up."
"To-day it is I who beseech you to do so. Send me to a convent. However harsh and strict the rules may be, however sad life may be there, I will find there some relief for my sorrow, and I will bless you with all my heart."
He only shrugged his shoulders over and over again; then he said,--
"A good idea! And from your convent you would at once write to everybody and everywhere, that my wife had turned you out of the house; that you had been obliged to escape from threats and bad treatment; you would repeat all the well-known elegies of the innocent young girl who is persecuted by a wicked stepmother. Not so, my dear, not so!"
The breakfast-bell, which was ringing below, interrupted him.
"You hear, Henrietta," he said. "Consult your stomach; and, according to what it tells you, come down, or stay here."
He went out, manifestly quite proud at having performed what he called an act of paternal authority, without vouchsafing a glance at his daughter, who had sunk back upon a chair; for she felt overcome, the poor child! by all the agony of her pride. It was all over: she could struggle no longer. People who would not shrink from such extreme measures in order to overcome her might resort to the last extremities. Whatever she could do, sooner or later she would have to succumb.
Hence--why might she not as well give way at once? She saw clearly, that, the longer she postponed it, the sweeter would be the victory to the countess, and the more painful would be the sacrifice to herself. Arming herself, therefore, with all her energy, she went down into the dining-room, where the others were already at table.
She had imagined that her appearance would be greeted by some insulting remark. Not at all. They seemed hardly to notice her. The countess, who had been talking, paused to say, "Good-morning, madam!" and then went on without betraying in her voice the slightest emotion.
Henrietta had even to acknowledge that they had been considerate. Her plate had not been put by her mother-in-law. A seat had been kept for her between Mrs. Brian and M. Elgin. She sat down, and, while eating, watched stealthily, and with all her powers of observation, these strangers who were henceforth the masters of her destiny, and whom she now saw for the first time; for yesterday she had hardly perceived them.
She was at once struck, painfully struck, with the dazzling, marvellous beauty of Countess Sarah, although she had been shown her photograph by her father, and ought thus to have been prepared. It was evident that the young countess had barely taken time to put on a wrapper before coming down to breakfast. Her complexion was more animated than usually. She exhibited all the touching confusion of a young bride, and was constantly more or less embarrassed.
Henrietta comprehended but too well the influence such a woman was likely to have over an old man who had fallen in love with her. It made her tremble. But grim Mrs. Brian appeared to her hardly less formidable. She could read nothing in her dull, heavy eye but cold wickedness; nothing in her lean, yellow face but an implacable will; all the wrinkles seemed to be permanently graven in wax.
She thought, after all, the least to be feared was tall, stiff M. Thomas Elgin. Seated by her, he had shown her discreetly some little attentions; and, when she observed him more closely, she discovered in his eyes something like commiseration.
"And yet," she thought, "it was against him that M. de Brevan warned me particularly."
But breakfast was over. Henrietta rose, and having bowed, without saying a word, was going back to her room when she met on the stairs some of the servants, who were carrying a heavy wardrobe. Upon inquiry she learned that, as Sir Thorn and Mrs. Brian were hereafter to live in the palace, they were bringing up their furniture.
She shook her head sadly; but in her rooms a greater surprise was awaiting her. Three servants were hard at work taking down her furniture, under the direction of M. Ernest, the count's valet.
"What are you doing there?" she asked, and "Who has permitted you?"
"We are only obeying the orders of the count, your father," replied M. Ernest. "We are getting your rooms ready for Madam Brian."
And, turning round to his colleagues, he said,--
"Go on, men! Take out that sofa; now!"
Overcome with surprise, Henrietta remained petrified where she was, looking at the servants as they went on with their work. What? These eager adventurers had taken possession of the palace, they invaded it, they reigned here absolutely, and that was not enough for them! They meant to take from her even the rooms she had occupied, she, the daughter of their dupe, the only heiress of Count Ville-Handry! This impudence seemed to her so monstrous, that unable to believe it, and yielding to a sudden impulse, she went back to the dining-room, and, addressing her father, said to him,--
"Is it really true, father, that you have ordered my furniture to be removed?"
"Yes, I have done so, my daughter. My architect will transform your three rooms into a large reception-room for Mrs. Brian, who had not space enough for"--
The young countess made a gesture of displeasure.
"I cannot understand," she said, "how Aunt Brian can accept that."
"I beg your pardon," exclaimed the admirable lady, "this is done entirely without my consent."
But the count interposed, saying,--
"Sarah, my darling, permit me to be sole judge in all the arrangements that concern my daughter."
Count Ville-Handry's accent was so firm as he said this, that one would have sworn the idea of dislodging Henrietta had sprung from his own brains. He went on,--
"I never act thoughtlessly, and always take time to mature my decisions. In this case I act from motives of the most ordinary propriety. Mrs. Brian is no longer young; my daughter is a mere child. If one of the two has to submit to some slight inconvenience, it is certainly my daughter."
All of a sudden M. Elgin rose.
"I should leave," he began.
Unfortunately the rest of the phrase was lost in an indistinct murmur.
He was no doubt at that moment recalling a promise he had made. And resolved not to interfere in the count's family affairs, and, on the other hand, indignant at what he considered an odious abuse of power, he left the room abruptly. His looks, his physiognomy, his gestures, all betrayed these sentiments so clearly, that Henrietta was quite touched.
But Count Ville-Handry continued, after a moment's surprise, saying,--
"Therefore, my daughter will hereafter live in the rooms formerly occupied by the companion of my--I mean of her mother. They are small, but more than sufficient for her. Besides, they have this advantage, that they can be easily overlooked from one of our own rooms, my dear Sarah; and that is important when we have to deal with an imprudent girl, who has so sadly abused the liberty which she enjoyed, thanks to my blind confidence."
What should she say? What could she reply?
If she had been alone with her father, she would certainly have defended herself; she would have tried to make him reconsider his decision; she would have besought him; she might have gone on her knees to him.
But here, in the presence of these two women, with the mocking eye of Countess Sarah upon her, it was impossible! Ah! she would have died a thousand times over rather than to give these miserable adventurers the joy and the satisfaction of a new humiliation.
"Let them crush me," she said to herself; "they shall never hear me complain, or cry for mercy."
And when her father, who had been quietly watching her, asked,--
"You shall be obeyed this very night," she replied.
And by a kind of miracle of energy, she went out of the room calmly, her head on high; without having shed a tear.
But God knew what she suffered.
To give up those little rooms in which she had spent so many happy hours, where every thing recalled to her sweet memories, certainly that was no small grief: it was nothing however, in comparison with that frightful perspective of having to live under the wary eye of Countess Sarah, under lock and key.
They would not even leave her at liberty to weep. Her intolerable sufferings would not extort a sigh from her that the countess did not hear on the other side of the partition, and delight in.
She was thus harassing herself, when she suddenly remembered the letter which she had written to Daniel. If M. de Brevan was to have it that same day, there was not a moment to lose. Already it was too late for the mail; and she would have to send it by a commissionaire.
She rang the bell, therefore, for Clarissa, her confidante, for the purpose of sending it to the Rue Laffitte. But, instead of Clarissa, one of the housemaids appeared, and said,--
"Your own maid is not in the house. Mrs. Brian has sent her to Circus Street. If I can do any thing for you"--
"No, I thank you!" replied Henrietta.
It seemed, then, that she counted for nothing any more in the house. She was not allowed to eat in her rooms; she was turned out of her own rooms; and the maid, long attached to her service, was taken from her. And here she was forced to submit to such humiliations without a chance of rebelling.
But time was passing; and every minute made it more difficult to let M. de Brevan have her letter in time for the mail.
"Well," said Henrietta to herself, "I will carry it myself."
And although she had, perhaps, in all her life not been more than twice alone in the street, she put on her bonnet, wrapped herself up in a cloak, and went down swiftly.
The concierge, a large man, very proud of his richly laced livery, was sitting before the little pavilion in which he lived, smoking, and reading his paper.
"Open the gates!" said Henrietta.
But the man, without taking his pipe out of his mouth, without even getting up from his seat, answered in a surly tone,--
"The count has sent me orders never to let you go out without a verbal or written permission; so that"--
"Impudence!" exclaimed Henrietta.
And resolutely she went up to the ponderous gates of the court-yard, stretching out her hand to pull the bolt. But the man, divining her intention, and quicker than she, had rushed up to the gate, and, crying out as loud as he could, he exclaimed,--
"Miss, miss! Stop! I have my orders, and I shall lose my place."
At his cries a dozen servants who were standing idly about in the stables, the vestibule, and the inner court, came running up. Then Sir Thorn appeared, ready to go out on horseback, and finally the count himself.
"What do you want? What are you doing there?" he asked his daughter.
"You see, I want to go out."
"Alone?" laughed the count. Then he continued harshly, pointing at the concierge,--
"This man would be instantly dismissed if he allowed you to leave the house alone. Oh, you need not look at me that way! Hereafter you will only go out when, and with whom, it pleases me. And do not hope to escape my watchful observation. I have foreseen every thing. The little gate to which you had a key has been nailed up. And, if ever a man should dare to steal into the garden, the gardeners have orders to shoot him down like a dog, whether it be the man with whom I caught you the other day, or some one else."
Under this mean and cowardly insult Henrietta staggered; but, immediately collecting herself, she exclaimed,--
"Great God! Am I delirious? Father, are you aware of what you are saying?"
And, as the suppressed laughter of the servants reached her, she added with--almost convulsive vehemence,--
"At least, say who the man was with whom I was in the garden, so that all, all may hear his name. Tell them that it was M. Daniel Champcey,--he whom my sainted mother had chosen for me among all,--he whom for long years you have daily received at your house, to whom you have solemnly promised my hand, who was my betrothed, and who would now be my husband, if we had chosen to approve of your unfortunate marriage. Tell them that it was M. Daniel Champcey, whom you had sent off the day before, and whom a crime, a forgery committed by your Sarah, forced to go to sea; for he had to be put out of the way at any hazard. As long as he was in Paris, you would never have dared treat me as I am treated."
Overcome by this unexpected violence, the count could only stammer out a few incoherent words. Henrietta was about to go on, when she felt herself taken by the arm, and gently but irresistibly taken up to the house. It was Sir Thorn, who tried to save her from her own excitement. She looked at him; a big tear was slowly rolling down the cheek of the impassive gentleman.
Then, when he had led her as far as the staircase, and she had laid hold of the balusters, he said,--
And went away with rapid steps.
Yes, "poor girl" indeed!
Her resolve was giving way under all these terrible blows; and seized with a kind of vertigo, out of breath, and almost beside herself, she had rushed up the steps, feeling as if she still heard the abominable accusations of her father, and the laughter of the servants.
"O God," she sobbed, "have pity on me!"
She felt in her heart that she had no hope left now but God, delivered up as she was to pitiless adversaries, sacrificed to the implacable hatred of a stepmother, abandoned by all, and betrayed and openly renounced by her own father.
Hour by hour she had seen how, by an incomprehensible combination of fatal circumstances, the infernal circle narrowed down, within which she was wretchedly struggling, and which soon would crush her effectually. What did they want of her? Why did they try every thing to exasperate her to the utmost? Did they expect some catastrophe to result from her despair?
Unfortunately, she did not examine this question carefully, too inexperienced as she was to suspect the subtle cunning of people whose wickedness would have astonished a criminal judge. Ah, how useful one word from Daniel would have been to her at this crisis! But, trembling with anguish for his betrothed, the unhappy man had not dared repeat to her the terrible words which had escaped M. de Brevan, in his first moment of expansion,--
"Miss Brandon leaves the dagger and the poisoned cup to fools, as too coarse and too dangerous means to get rid of people. She has safer means to suppress those who are in her way--means which justice never discovers."
Lost in sombre reflections, the poor girl was forgetting the hour, and did not notice that it had become dark already, when she heard the dinner-bell ring. She was free not to go down; but she revolted at the idea that the Countess Sarah might think her overcome. So she said to herself,--
"No. She shall never know how much I suffer!"
Ringing, then, for Clarissa, who had come back, she said,--
"Come, quick, dress me!"
And in less than five minutes she had arranged her beautiful hair, and put on one of her most becoming dresses. While changing her dress, she noticed the rustling of paper.
"Ah!" she said to herself, "my letter to Daniel. I had forgotten it."
Was it already too late to send it to M. de Brevan? Probably it was. But why might she not try, at least? So she gave it to Clarissa, saying,--
"You will take a cab, and take this letter immediately to M. de Brevan, Rue Laffitte, No. 62. If he is out, you will leave it, telling the people to be sure to give it to him as soon as he comes in. You can find some excuse, if they should ask you why you are going out. Be discreet."
She herself went down stairs, so determined to conceal her emotion, that she actually had a smile on her lips as she entered the dining-room. The fever that devoured her gave to her features unwonted animation, and to her eyes a strange brilliancy. Her beauty, ordinarily a little impaired, shone forth once more in amazing splendor, so as to eclipse almost that of the countess.
Even Count Ville-Handry was struck by it, and exclaimed, glancing at his young wife,--
Otherwise, this was the only notice which was taken of Henrietta. After that, no one seemed to mind her presence, except M. Elgin, whose eye softened whenever he looked at her. But what was that to her? Affecting a composure which she was far from possessing, she made an effort to eat, when a servant entered, and very respectfully whispered a few words in the ear of the countess.
"Very well," she said; "I'll be there directly."
And, without vouchsafing an explanation, she left the table, and remained perhaps ten minutes away.
"What was it?" asked Count Ville-Handry, with an accent of tenderest interest, when his young wife reappeared.
"Nothing, my dear," she replied, as she took her seat again,--"nothing, some orders to give."
Still Henrietta thought she noticed under this apparent indifference of her step-mother an expression of cruel satisfaction. More than that, she fancied she saw the countess and Mrs. Brian rapidly exchange looks, one saying, "Well," and the other answering, "All right."
The poor girl, prejudiced as she was, felt as if she had been stabbed once more to the heart.
"These wretches," she thought, "have prepared another insult for me."
This suspicion took so powerfully hold of her, that when dinner was over, instead of returning to her rooms, she followed her father and his new "friends" into the sitting-room. Count Ville-Handry spoke of Mrs. Brian and M. Elgin always as "the family."
They did not long remain alone. The count and his young wife had probably let it be known that they would be at home that evening; and soon a number of visitors came in, some of them old friends of the family, but the great majority intimates from Circus Street. Henrietta was too busy watching her stepmother to notice how eagerly she herself was examined, what glances they cast at her, and how careful the married ladies, as well as the young girls, were to leave her alone. It required a brutal scene to open her mind to the truth, and to bring her thoughts back to the horrible reality of her situation. That scene came but too soon.
As the visitors increased, the conversation had ceased to be general, and groups had formed; so that two ladies came to sit down close by Henrietta. They were apparently friends of the young countess, for she did not know them, and one of them had a strong foreign accent. They were talking. Instinctively Henrietta listened.
"Why did you not bring your daughter?" asked one of them.
"How could I?" replied the other. "I would not bring her here for the world. Don't you know what kind of a woman the count's daughter is? It is incredible, and almost too scandalous. On the day of her father's marriage she ran away with somebody, by the aid of a servant, who has since been dismissed; and they had to get the police to help them bring her back. If it had not been for our dear Sarah, who is goodness itself, they would have sent her to a house of correction."
A stifled cry interrupted them. They looked round. Henrietta had suddenly been taken ill, and had fallen to the ground. Instantly, and with one impulse, everybody was up. But the honorable M. Elgin had been ahead of them all, and had rushed up with such surprising promptness at the very moment when the accident happened, that it almost looked as if he had had a presentiment, and was watching for the precise time when his assistance would be needed.
Raising Henrietta with a powerful arm, he laid her on a sofa, not forgetting to slip a cushion under her head. Immediately the countess and the other ladies crowded around the fainting girl, rubbing the palms of her hands, moistening her temples with aromatic vinegar and cologne, and holding bottles of salts persistently to her nostrils.
Still all efforts to bring her to remained sterile; and this was so extraordinary, that even Count Ville-Handry began to be moved, although at first he had been heard to exclaim,--
"Pshaw! Leave her alone. It is nothing."
The mad passion of senile love had not yet entirely extinguished in him the instincts of a father; and anxiety rekindled the affection he had formerly felt for his child. He rushed, therefore, to the vestibule, calling out to the servants who were there on duty,--
"Quick! Let some one run for the doctor; never mind which,--the nearest!"
This acted as a signal for the guests to scatter at once. Finding that this fainting-fit lasted too long, and fearing perhaps a fatal termination, a painful scene, and tears, they slyly slipped out, one by one, and escaped.
In this way the countess, Mrs. Brian, M. Elgin, and the unhappy father found themselves soon once more alone with poor Henrietta, who was still unconscious.
"We ought not to leave her here," said Countess Sarah; "she will be better in her bed."
"Yes, that is true, you are right!" replied the count. "I shall have her carried to her room."
And he was stretching out his hand to pull the bell, when Sir Thorn stopped him, saying in a voice of deep emotion,--
"Never mind, count. I'll carry her myself."
And, without waiting for an answer, he took her up like a feather, and carried her to her room, followed by Count Ville-Handry, and his young wife. He could, of course, not remain in Henrietta's room; but it looked as if he could not tear himself away. For some time the servants, quite amazed, saw him walk up and down the passage with feverish steps, and, in spite of his usual impassiveness, giving all the signs of extraordinary excitement. Every ten minutes he paused in his walk to ask at the door, with a voice full of anxiety,--
"She is still in the same condition," was the answer.
In the meantime two physicians had arrived, but without obtaining any better results than the countess and her friends. They had exhausted all the usual remedies for such cases, and began, evidently, to be not a little surprised at the persistency of the symptoms. Nor could Count Ville-Handry suppress his growing anxiety as he saw them consulting in the recess of one of the windows, discussing more energetic means to be employed. At last, toward midnight, Sir Thorn saw the young countess come out of Henrietta's room.
"How is she?" he cried out.
Then the countess said, speaking very loud, so as to be heard by the servants,--
"She is coming to; and that is why I am leaving her. She dislikes me so terribly, that poor unhappy child, that I fear my presence might do her harm."
Henrietta had indeed recovered her consciousness. First had come a shiver running over her whole body; then she had tried painfully and repeatedly to raise herself on her pillows, looking around,--
Evidently she did not remember what had happened, and mechanically passed her hand to and fro over her brow, as if to brush away the dark veil that was hanging over her mind, looking with haggard eyes at the doctors, at her father, and at her confidante, Clarissa, who knelt by her bedside, weeping.
At last, when, all of a sudden, the horrid reality broke upon her mind, she threw herself back, and cried out,--
But she was saved; and the doctors soon withdrew, declaring that there was nothing to apprehend now, provided their prescriptions were carefully observed. The count then came up to his daughter, and, taking her hands, asked her,--
"Come, child. What has happened? What was the matter?"
She looked upon him in utter despair, and then said in a low voice,--
"Nothing! only you have ruined me, father."
"How, how?" said the count. "What do you mean?"
And very much embarrassed, perhaps angry against himself, and trying to find an excuse for what he had done, he added, simpering,--
"Is it not your own fault? Why do you treat Sarah so badly, and do all you can to exasperate me?"
"Yes, you are right. It is my fault," murmured Henrietta.
She said it in a tone of bitter irony now; but afterwards, when she was alone, and more quiet, reflecting in the silence of the night, she had to acknowledge, and confess to herself, that it was so. The scandal by which she had intended to crush her step-mother had fallen back upon herself, and crushed her.
Still, the next morning she was a little better; and, in spite of all that Clarissa could say, she would get up, and go down stairs, for all her hopes henceforth depended on that letter written by Daniel. She had been waiting day after day for M. de Brevan, who was to bring it to her; and for nothing in the world would she have been absent when he came at last.
But she waited for him in vain that day, and four days after.
Attributing his tardiness to some new misfortune, she thought of writing to him, when at last, on Tuesday,--the day which the countess had chosen for her reception-day,--but not until the room was already quite full of company, the servant announced,--"M. Palmer, M. de Brevan!"
Seized with most violent emotions, Henrietta turned round suddenly, casting upon the door one of those glances in which a whole soul is read at once. At last she was to know him whom her Daniel had called his second self. Two men entered: one, quite old, had gray hair, and looked as grave and solemn as a member of parliament; the other, who might be thirty or thirty-five years old, looked cold and haughty, having thin lips and a sardonic smile.
"That is the man!" said Henrietta to herself; "that is Daniel's friend!"
At first she disliked him excessively. Upon examining him more closely, she thought his composure affected, and his whole appearance lacking in frankness. But she never thought for a moment of distrusting M. de Brevan. Daniel had blindly recommended him to her; and that was enough. She had been too severely punished when she tried to follow her own inspirations, ever to think of repeating the experiment.
Still she kept him in view. After having been presented to the Countess Sarah and her husband, he had thrown himself into the crowd, and managed, after a while, to get near to her. He went from one group to another, throwing a word to each one, gaining thus, insensibly, and without affectation, a small chair, which was vacant, by the side of Henrietta.
And the air of perfect indifference with which he took possession of it would have made you think he had fully measured the danger of risking a confidential talk with a young lady under the eyes of fifty or sixty persons. He commenced with some of those set phrases which furnish the currency of society, speaking loud enough to be heard by the neighbors, and to satisfy their curiosity, if they should have a fancy for listening. As he noticed that Henrietta had turned very red, and looked overcome, while fixing most anxiously her eyes upon him, he even said,--
"I pray you, madam, affect a little more indifference. Smile; we may be watched. Remember that we must not know each other; that we are perfect strangers to each other."
Then he began in a very loud voice to sing the praise of the last new play that had been performed, until finally, thinking that he had put all suspicions asleep, he drew a little nearer, and, casting down his eyes, he said,--
"It is useless to tell you, madam, that I am M. de Brevan."
"I heard your name announced, sir," replied Henrietta in the same way.
"I have taken the liberty of writing to you, madam, under cover to your maid Clarissa, according to Daniel's orders; but I hope you will pardon me."
"I have nothing to pardon, sir, but to thank you very much, from the bottom of my heart, for your generous devotion."
No man is perfect. A passing blush colored the cheeks of M. de Brevan; he had to cough a little; and once or twice passed his hand between his collar and his neck, as if he felt troubled in his throat.
"You must have thought," continued Henrietta, "that I was not in great haste to avail myself of your kind offer; but--there were difficulties--in my way"--
"Oh, yes! I know," broke in M. de Brevan, sadly shaking his head; "your maid has told me. For she found me at home, as no doubt you have heard; and your letter arrived just in time to be sent on with mine. They will gain a fortnight in this way; for the mail for Cochin China does not leave more than once a month,--on the 26th."
But he paused suddenly, or rather raised his voice to resume his account of the new drama. Two young ladies had stopped just before them. As soon as they were gone, he went on,--
"I bring you, madam, Daniel's letter."
"I have folded it up very small, and I have it here in my hand; if you will let your handkerchief fall, I'll slip it into it as I pick it up."
The trick was not new; but it was also not very difficult. Still Henrietta did it awkwardly enough. Her letting the handkerchief fall looked any thing but natural; and, when she took it back again, she was all eagerness. Then, when she felt the crisp paper under the folds of the linen, she became all crimson in her face. Fortunately, M. de Brevan had the presence of mind to rise suddenly, and to move his chair so as to help her in concealing her embarrassment. Then, when he saw her calm again, he sat down once more, and went on, with an accent of deep interest,--
"Now, madam, permit me to inquire after your position here."
"It is terrible."
"Do they harass you?"
"No doubt, your step-mother?"
"Alas! who else would do it? But she dissembles, veiling her malignity under the most affected gentleness. In appearance she is all kindness to me. And my poor father becomes a willing instrument in her hands,--my poor father, formerly so kind, and so fond of me!"
She was deeply moved; and M. de Brevan saw the tears starting in her eyes. Quite frightened, he said,--
"Madam, for Heaven's sake control yourself!"
And, anxious to turn Henrietta's thoughts from her father, he asked,--
"How is Mrs. Brian to you?"
"She always takes sides against me."
"Naturally. And Sir Thorn?"
"You wrote me that I should mistrust him particularly, and so I do; but, I must confess, he alone seems to be touched by my misfortunes."
"Ah! that is the very reason why you ought to fear him."
M. de Brevan hesitated, and then answered, speaking very rapidly, and after having looked around cautiously,--
"Because M. Elgin might very well cherish a hope of replacing Daniel in your heart, and of becoming your husband."
"Great God!" exclaimed Henrietta, sinking back in her chair with an expression of horror. "Is it possible?"
"I am quite sure of it," replied M. Brevan.
And, as if he had been frightened himself by what he had said, he added,--
"Yes, I am quite sure. I have read the heart of that man; and before long you will have some terrible evidence of his intentions. But I pray, madam, let this remain a secret between us, to be kept religiously. Never allow yourself the slightest allusion."
"What can I do?" murmured the poor girl, "what can I do? You alone, sir, can advise me."
For some time M. de Brevan continued silent; then he said in a very sad voice,--
"My experience, madam, supplies me with but one advice,--be patient; say little; do as little as possible; and endeavor to appear insensible to their insults. I would say to you, if you will excuse the triviality of the comparison, imitate those feeble insects who simulate death when they are touched. They are defenceless; and that is their only chance of escape."
He had risen; and, while bowing deeply before Henrietta, he added,--
"I must also warn you, madam, not to be surprised if you see me doing every thing in my power for the purpose of winning the good-will of your step-mother. Believe me, if I tell you that such duplicity is very distasteful to my character. But I have no other way to obtain the privilege of coming here frequently, of seeing you, and of being useful to you, as I have promised your friend Daniel."
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