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But, this confidence which Henrietta expressed was only apparent. In her heart she suffered from the most terrible presentiments. A secret voice told her that this scene, no doubt well prepared and carefully brought about, was but another step leading to the final catastrophe.
Days, however, passed by, and nothing unusual happened. It looked as if they had resolved, after that crisis, to give her a short respite, and time to recover.
Even the watch kept upon her movements was not quite as strict as heretofore. The countess kept out of her way. Mrs. Brian had given up the desire to frighten her by her incessant remarks. Her father she saw but rarely; for he was entirely absorbed in the preparations for the Pennsylvania Petroleum Society. Thus, a week later, all seemed to have entirely forgotten the terrible explosion produced by the letter to the Duke of Champdoce.
All? By no means. There was one of the inmates of the palace who recalled it daily,--M. Thomas Elgin.
On the very evening after the scene, his generous indignation had so far gotten the better of his usual reserve, and his pledge of neutrality, that he had taken the Countess Sarah aside, and overwhelmed her with sharp reproaches.
"You will have to eat your own words," he had told her, among other things, "if you use such abominable means to gratify your hatred."
It is true, that, when he thus took his kinswoman aside, he also took pains to be overheard by Henrietta. And besides, for fear, perhaps, that she might not fully appreciate his sentiments, he had stealthily pressed her hand, and whispered into her ear,--
"Poor, dear girl! But I am here. I shall watch."
This sounded like a promise to afford her protection, which certainly would have been efficient if it had been sincere. But was it sincere?
"No; most assuredly not!" said M. de Brevan when he was consulted. "It can be nothing but vile hypocrisy and the beginning of an abominable farce. You will see, madam."
What Henrietta really saw was, that the Hon. M. Elgin suddenly underwent a complete metamorphosis. A new Sir Thorn appeared, whom no one would have ever suspected under the cloak of icy reserve which the former had worn. His sympathetic pity of former days was succeeded by more tender sentiments. It was not pity now, which animated his big, blue-china eyes, but the half-suppressed flame of a discreet passion. In public he did not commit himself much; but there was no little attention which he did not pay Henrietta by stealth. He never left the room before her; and, on the reception-evenings, he always took a seat by her, and remained there till the end. The most direct result of these manoeuvres was to keep M. de Brevan from her. The latter became naturally very indignant at this, and began to dislike Sir Thorn to such an extent, that he could hardly contain himself.
"Well, madam," he said to Henrietta on one of the few occasions when he could speak to her,--"well, what did I tell you? Does the wretch show his hand clearly enough now?"
Henrietta discouraged her curious lover as much as she could; but it was impossible for her to avoid him, as they lived under the same roof, and sat down twice a day at the same table.
"The simplest way," was M. de Brevan's advice, "would be, perhaps, to provoke an explanation."
But he did not wait to be asked. One morning, after breakfast, he waited for Henrietta in the vestibule; and, when she appeared, he said in an embarrassed manner,--
"I must speak to you, madam; it is absolutely necessary."
She did not manifest any surprise, and simply replied,--
"Follow me, sir."
She entered into the parlor, and he came with her. For about a minute they remained there alone, standing face to face,--she trying to keep up her spirits, although blushing deeply; he, apparently so overcome, that he had lost the use of his voice. At last, all of a sudden, and as if making a supreme effort, Sir Thorn began in a breathless voice to declare, that, according to Henrietta's answer, he would be the happiest or the most unfortunate of mortals. Touched by her innocence, and the persecutions to which she was exposed, he had at first pitied her, then, discovering in her daily more excellent qualities, unusual energy, coupled with all the charming bashfulness of a young girl, he had no longer been able to resist such marvellous attractions.
Henrietta, still mistress of herself, because she was convinced that M. Elgin was only playing a wretched farce, observed him as closely as she could, and, when he paused a moment, began,--
"Believe me, sir"--
But he interrupted her, saying with unusual vehemence,--
"Oh! I beseech you, madam, let me finish. Many in my place would have spoken to your father; but I thought that would hardly be fair in your exceptional position. Still I have reason to believe that Count Ville- Handry would look upon my proposals with favor. But then he would probably have attempted to do violence to your feelings. Now I wish to be indebted to you only, madam, deciding in full enjoyment of your liberty; for"--
An expression of intense anxiety contracted the features of his usually so impassive face; and he added with great earnestness,--
"Miss Henrietta, I am an honorable man; I love you. Will you be my wife?"
By a stroke of instinctive genius, he had found the only argument, perhaps, that might have procured credit for his sincerity.
But what did that matter to Henrietta? She began, saying,--
"Believe me, sir. I fully appreciate the honor you do me; but I am no longer free"--
"I beseech you"--
"Freely, and among all men, I have chosen M. Daniel Champcey. My life is in his hands."
He tottered as if he had received a heavy blow, and stammered with a half-extinct voice,--
"Will you not leave me a glimpse of hope?"
"I would do wrong if I did so, sir, and I have never yet deceived any one."
But the Hon. M. Elgin was not one of those men who despair easily, and give up. He was not discouraged by a first failure; and he showed it very soon. The very next day he became a changed man, as if Henrietta's refusal had withered the very roots of his life. In his carriage, his gestures, and his tone of voice, he betrayed the utmost dejection. He looked as if he had grown taller and thinner. A bitter smile curled on his lips; and his magnificent whiskers, usually so admirably kept, now hung down miserably on his chest. And this intense melancholy grew and grew, till it became so evident to all the world, that people asked the countess,--
"What is the matter with poor M. Elgin? He looks funereal."
"He is unhappy," was the answer, accompanied by a sigh, which sounded as if it had been uttered in order to increase curiosity, and stimulate people to observe him more closely. Several persons did observe him; and they soon found out that Sir Thorn no longer took his seat by Henrietta as formerly, and that he avoided every occasion to address her a word.
For all that he was not resigned; far from that. He only laid siege from a distance now, spending whole evenings in looking at her from afar, absorbed in mute ecstasy. And at all times, incessantly and everywhere, she met him, as if he had been her shadow, or as if he had been condemned to breathe the air which had been displaced by her petticoats. One would have thought him endowed with the gift of multiplying himself; for he was inevitably seen wherever she was,--leaning against the door-frame, or resting his elbow on the mantlepiece, his eyes fixed upon her. And, when she did not see him, she felt his looks still weighing her down. M. de Brevan, having been made aware of his importunate attentions, seemed to check his indignation only with great difficulty. Once or twice he spoke of calling out this wretched fellow (so he called Sir Thorn); and, in order to quiet him, Henrietta had to repeat to him over and over again, that, after such an encounter, he would no longer be able to appear at the palace, and would thus deprive her of the only friend to whom she could look for assistance.
He yielded; but he said after careful consideration,--
"This abominable persecution cannot go on, madam: this man compromises you too dreadfully. You ought to lay your complaint before Count Ville-Handry."
She decided to do so, not without great reluctance; but the count stopped her at the first word she uttered.
"I think, my daughter, your vanity blinds you. Before M. Elgin, who is one of the most eminent financiers in all Europe, should think of a little insignificant person like you, he would look a long time elsewhere."
"Permit me, father"--
"Stop! If you should, however, not deceive yourself, it would be the greatest good luck for you, and an honor of which you ought to be very proud indeed. Do you think it would be easy to find a husband for you, after all the unpleasant talk to which you have given occasion?"
"I do not wish to marry, father."
"Of course not. However, as such a marriage would meet all my wishes, as it would serve to tighten the bonds which unite us with this honorable family (if M. Thomas Elgin should really have such intentions as you mention), I should know, I think, how to force you to marry him. However, I shall speak to him, and see."
He spoke to him indeed, and soon; for the very next morning the countess and Mrs. Brian purposely went out, so as to leave Henrietta and Sir Thorn alone. The honorable gentleman looked sadder than usually. He began thus,--
"Is it really true, madam, that you have made complaint to your father?"
"Your pertinacity compelled me to do so," replied Henrietta.
"Is the idea of becoming my wife so very revolting to you?"
"I have told you, sir, I am no longer free."
"Yes, to be sure! You love M. Daniel Champcey. You love him. He knows it; for you had told him so, no doubt: and yet he has forsaken you."
Sometimes, in her innermost heart, Henrietta had accused Daniel. But what she thought she would permit no one else to think. She replied, therefore, haughtily,--
"It was a point of honor with M. Champcey, and it was so with me. If he had hesitated, I would have been the first one to say to him, 'Duty calls; you must go.'"
Sir Thorn shook his head with a sardonic smile, and said,--
"But he did not hesitate. It is ten months now since he left you; and no one knows for how many more months, for how many years, he will be absent. For his sake you suffer martyrdom; and, when he returns, he may have long since forgotten you."
Her eyes beaming with faith, Henrietta rose to her full height, and replied,--
"I believe in Daniel as surely as in myself."
"And if they convinced you that you were mistaken?"
"They would render me a very sad service, which would bring no reward to any one."
Sir Thorn's lips moved, as if he were about to answer. A thought seemed to stop him. Then in a stifled voice, with a gesture of despair, he added,--
"Keep your illusions, madam; and farewell."
He was going to leave the room; but she threw herself in his way, crossed her arms, and said to him in an imperative tone,--
"You have gone too far, sir, to retrace your steps. You are bound now to justify your insidious insinuations, or, to confess that they were false."
Then he seemed to make up his mind, and said, speaking rapidly,--
"You will have it so? Well, be it so. Know, then, since you insist upon it, that M. Daniel Champcey has been deceiving you most wickedly; that he does not love you, and probably never did love you."
"That is what you say," replied Henrietta.
Her haughty carriage, the disdain, rather than disgust, with which she spoke, could not fail to exasperate M. Elgin. He checked himself, however, and said, in a short and cutting tone,--
"I say so because it is so; and any one but you, possessing a less noble ignorance of evil, would long since have discovered the truth. To what do you attribute Sarah's implacable enmity? To the memory of your offences on the occasion of her wedding? Poor child! If that had been all, her indifference would have given you back your place months ago. Jealousy alone is capable of that fierce and insatiable hatred which cannot be disarmed by tears or submission,--that hatred which time increases, instead of diminishing. Between Sarah and you, Miss Henrietta, there stands a man."
"Yes,--M. Daniel Champcey."
Henrietta felt as if a sharp knife had been plunged into her bosom.
"I do not understand you, sir," she said.
He, shrugging his shoulders, and assuming an air of commiseration, went on,--
"What? You will not understand that Sarah is your rival; that she has loved M. Champcey; that she is still madly in love with him? Ah! they have deceived Mrs. Brian and myself cruelly."
He turned his head aside, and murmured, as if speaking to himself,--
"-------- -------- was her lover."
Miss Ville-Handry discerned the truth with admirable instinct, drew herself up, and said in her most energetic way,--
"That is false!"
Sir Thorn trembled; but that was all.
"You have asked me to tell the truth," he said coldly, "and I have done so. Try to remember. Have you forgotten that little scene, after which M. Champcey fled from our house in the middle of the night, bareheaded, without taking his overcoat?"
"Did you not think that was extraordinary? That night, you see, we discovered the whole thing. After having been one of the foremost to recommend to Sarah to marry your father, M. Champcey came and asked her to give up that marriage. He had, before that, tried to have it broken off through your agency, madam, using thus his influence over you, his betrothed, for the benefit of his passion."
"Ah! You lie impudently, sir!" said Henrietta.
To this charge, which fell like a blow upon his face, he only replied,--
"I have proofs."
"Letters written by M. Champcey to Sarah. I have obtained two; and I have them here in my pocket-book."
He put at the same time his hand to his pocket. She stopped him.
"These letters would prove nothing to me, sir."
She cast a withering glance at him, and said, in a voice of unbearable contempt,--
"Those who have sent a letter to the Navy Department, which pretended to have been written by Daniel, cannot find any difficulty in imitating his signature. Let us break off here, sir. I forbid you ever to speak to me again."
M. Elgin laughed in a terrible way.
"That is your last word?" he asked.
Instead of answering him, she drew a step aside, thus opening the way to the door, at which she pointed with her finger.
"Well," said Sir Thorn with an accent of fierce threatening, "remember this; I have sworn you shall be my wife, whether you will or not; and my wife you shall be!"
"Leave the room, sir, or I must give it up to you!"
He went out swearing; and, more dead than alive, Henrietta sank into an arm-chair. As long as she had been in the presence of the enemy, her pride had enabled her to keep up the appearance of absolute faith in Daniel; but, now she was alone, terrible doubts began to beset her. Was there not something true in the evident exaggerations of the Hon. M. Elgin? She was not quite sure. Had not Sarah also boasted of it, that she loved Daniel, and that she had been in his room? Finally, Henrietta recalled with a shudder, that, when Daniel had told her of his adventure in Circus Street, he had appeared embarrassed towards the end, and had failed fully to explain the reasons of his flight.
And to crown the matter, when she had tried to draw from M. de Brevan additional information on the subject, she had been struck by his embarrassment, and the lame and confused way in which he had defended his friend.
"Ah, now all is really over!" she thought. "The measure of my sufferings is full indeed!"
Unfortunately it was not yet full. A new persecution awaited her, infamous, monstrous, by the side of which all the others amounted to nothing.
"Whether you will, or not, you shall be mine," had Sir Thorn said; and from that moment he was bent upon convincing her that he was not the man to shrink from any thing, even unto violence.
He was no longer the sympathetic defender of former days, nor the timid lover, nor the sighing, rejected lover, who followed Henrietta everywhere. He was, henceforth, a kind of wild beast, pursuing her, harassing her, persecuting her, with his eyes glaring at her with abominable lust. He no longer looked at her furtively, as formerly; but he lay in wait for her in the passages, ready, apparently, to throw himself upon her; projecting his lips as if to touch her cheeks, and extending his arms as if to seize her around her waist. A drunken lackey pursuing a scullion would not have looked and acted more impudently.
Terrified, the poor girl threw herself on her knees before her father, beseeching him to protect her. But he pushed her back, and reproached her for slandering the most honorable and most inoffensive of men. Blindness could go no farther.
And Sir Thorn knew probably of her failure; for the next day he looked at her, laughing, as if he felt that he now might venture upon any thing. And he did venture upon something, that so far would have seemed impossible. One evening, or rather one night, when the count and the countess were at a ball, he came and knocked at the door of Henrietta's chamber.
Frightened, she rang the bell; and the servants who came up freed her from the intruder. But from that moment her terrors had no limit; and, whenever the count went out at night with his wife, she barricaded herself up in her chamber, and spent the whole night, dressed, in a chair. Could she remain any longer standing upon the brink of an abyss without name? She thought she could not; and after long and painful hesitation, she said one evening to M. de Brevan,--
"My mind is made up; I must flee."
Taken aback, as if he had received a blow upon his head, with his mouth wide open, his eyes stretched out, M. de Brevan had turned deadly pale; and the perspiration pearled in large drops on his temples, while his hands trembled like the eager hands of a man who touches, and is about to seize, a long-coveted prize.
"Then," he stammered out, "you are decided; you will leave your father's house?"
"I must," she said; and her eyes filled with bright tears. "And the sooner I can do it the better; for every moment I spend here now may bring a new danger. And yet, before risking any thing decisive, it might be better first to write to Daniel's aunt in order to ask her about the directions she may have received, and to tell her that very soon I shall come to ask for her pity and her protection."
"What? You think of seeking refuge at the house of that estimable lady?"
M. de Brevan, now entirely master of himself, and calculating with his usual calmness, gravely shook his head, and said,--
"You ought to be careful, madam. To seek an asylum at the house of our friend's relative might be a very grave imprudence."
"But Daniel recommended it to me in his letter."
"Yes; but he had not considered the consequences of the advice he gave you. Do not deceive yourself; the wrath of your enemies will be terrible when they find that you have escaped them. They will pursue you; they will employ the police; they will search for you all over France. Now, it is evident, that the very first place where they will look for you will be Daniel's relatives. The house of the old aunt will be watched at once, and most jealously. How can you there escape from inquiry and pursuit? It would be folly to hope for safety there."
Pensively Henrietta hung her head. Then she said,--
"Perhaps you are right, sir."
"Now," continued M. de Brevan, "let us see what they would do if they should discover you. You are not of age, consequently you are entirely dependent on the will of your father. Under the inspiration of your step-mother, he would attack Daniel's aunt, on the score of having inveigled a minor, and would bring you back here."
She seemed to reflect; then she said suddenly,--"I can implore the assistance of the Duchess of Champdoce."
"Unfortunately, madam, they told you the truth. For a year now, the Duke of Champdoce and his wife have been travelling in Italy."
A gesture of despair betrayed the terrible dejection of the poor girl.
"Great God!" she said, "what must I do?"
A passing smile appeared on the face of M. de Brevan; and he answered in his most persuasive manner,--
"Will you permit me to offer you some advice, madam?"
"Alas, sir! I beg you to do so for Heaven's sake."
"Well, this is the only plan that seems to me feasible. To-morrow morning I will rent in a quiet house a suitable lodging, less than modest, a little chamber. You will move into it, and await there your coming of age, or Daniel's return. No detective will ever think of seeking the daughter of Count Ville-Handry in a poor needlewoman's garret."
"And I am to stay there alone, forsaken and lost?"
"It is a sacrifice which it seems to me you have to make for safety's sake."
She said nothing, weighing the two alternatives,--to remain in the house, or to accept M. de Brevan's proposition. After a minute she said,--
"I will follow your advice, sir; only"--She was evidently painfully embarrassed, and covered with blushes.
"You see," she said, after long hesitation, "all this will cost money. Formerly I used to have always a couple of hundred dollars in my drawers somewhere; but now"--
"Madam," broke in M. de Brevan, "madam, is not my whole fortune entirely at your disposal?"
"To be sure, I have my jewels; and they are quite valuable."
"For that very reason you ought to be careful not to take them with you. We must guard against every thing. We may fail. They may discover my share in the attempt; and who knows what charges they would raise against me?"
His apprehension alone betrayed the character of the man; and still it did not enlighten Henrietta.
"Well, prepare every thing as you think best, sir," she said sadly. "I rely entirely upon your friendship, your devotion, and your honor."
M. de Brevan had a slight attack of coughing, which prevented him from answering at first. Then, finding that Henrietta was bent upon escaping, he tried to devise the means.
Henrietta proposed that they should wait for a night when the count would take the countess to a ball. She might then slip into the garden, and climb the wall. But the attempt seemed to be too dangerous in M. de Brevan's eyes. He said,--
"I think I see something better. Count Ville-Handry is going soon to give a great party?"
"The day after to-morrow, Thursday."
"All right. On Thursday, madam, you will complain early in the morning already, of a bad headache, and you will send for the doctor. He will prescribe something, I dare say, which you will not take; but they will think you are sick, and they will watch you less carefully. At night, however, towards ten o'clock, you will come down and conceal yourself at the foot of the back-stairs, in the corner of the courtyard. You can do that, I presume?"
"Very easily, sir."
"In that case all will be right. I will be here with a carriage at ten o'clock precisely. My coachman, whom I will instruct beforehand, instead of stopping at the great entrance, will pretend to go amiss, and stop just at the foot of the staircase. I will jump out; and you, you will swiftly jump into the carriage."
"Yes, that also can be done."
"As the curtains will be down, no one will see you. The carriage will drive out again, and wait for me outside; and ten minutes later I shall have joined you."
The plan being adopted, as every thing depended upon punctuality, M. de Brevan regulated his watch by Henrietta's; and then, rising, he said,--
"We have already conversed longer than we ought to have done in prudence. I shall not speak to you again to-night. Till Thursday."
And with sinking voice, she said,--
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