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It was exactly two years since Daniel and Henrietta had been parted by the foulest treachery,--two years since that fatal evening when the stupidly ironical voice of Count Ville-Handry had suddenly made itself heard near them under the old trees of the garden of the palace.
What had not happened since then? What unheard-of, most improbable events; what trials, what tribulations, what sufferings! They had endured all that the human heart can endure. There was not a day, so to say, in these two years, that had not brought them its share of grief and sorrow. How often both of them had despaired of the future! How many times they had sighed for death!
And yet, after all these storms, here they were reunited once more, in unspeakable happiness, forgetting every thing,--their enemies and the whole world, the anxieties of the past, and the uncertainty of the future.
They remained thus for a long time, holding each other closely, overcome with happiness, unable, as yet, to believe in the reality for which they had sighed so long, unable to utter a word, laughing and weeping in one breath.
Now and then they would move apart a little, throwing back the head in order the better to look at each other; then swiftly they would fold each other again closely in their arms, as if they were afraid they might be separated anew.
"How they love each other!" whispered Mrs. Bertolle in her brother's ear,--"the poor young people!"
And big tears rolled down her cheeks, while the old dealer, not less touched, but showing his emotion differently, closed his hands fiercely, and said,--
"All right, all right! They will have to pay for everything."
Daniel, in the meantime, was recovering himself gradually; and reason once more got the better of his feelings. He led Henrietta to an arm- chair at the corner of the fireplace, and sitting down in front of her, after having taken her hands in his own, he asked her to give him a faithful account of the two terrible years that had just come to an end.
She had to tell him everything,--her humiliations in her father's house, the insults she had endured, the wicked slanders by which her honor had been tainted, the incomprehensible blindness of the count, the surly provocations of her step-mother, the horrible attentions of Sir Thorn; in fine, the whole abominable plot which had been formed, as she found out too late, for the purpose of driving her to seek safety in flight, and to give herself up to Maxime de Brevan.
Trembling with rage, livid, his eyes bloodshot, Daniel suddenly let go Henrietta's hands, and exclaimed in a half-smothered voice,--
"Ah, Henrietta! your father deserved--Wretched old man! to abandon his child to the mercy of such miserable wretches!"
And, when the poor girl looked at him imploringly, he replied,--
"Be it so! I will say nothing more of the count. He is your father, and that is enough."
Then he added coldly,--
"But that M. Thomas Elgin, I swear by God he shall die by my hand; and as to Sarah Brandon"--
He was interrupted by the old dealer, who tapped him lightly on the shoulder, and said with an indescribable smile,--
"You shall not do that honor to the Hon. M. Elgin, M. Champcey. People like him do not die by the sword of honest men."
In the meantime Henrietta had resumed her history, and spoke of her surprise and amazement when she reached that bare room in Water Street, with its scanty second-hand furniture.
"And yet, Henrietta," here broke in Daniel, "I had handed that man all my money to be placed at your disposal in case of any accident."
"What!" exclaimed the old dealer, "you had"--
He did not finish, but looked at the young officer with an utterly amazed air, as if he were an improbable phenomenon, never seen before.
Daniel shook his head sadly.
"Yes," he said, "I know it was an insane thing. But it was less insane than to intrust my betrothed to his care. I believed in the friendship of that man."
"And besides," remarked Mrs. Bertolle, "how could you suppose such atrocious treachery? There are crimes which honest hearts never even conceive."
Henrietta continued, describing her sensations when she found herself for the first time in her life harassed by want, destitution, hunger. But, when she came to the disgusting ill-treatment she received at the hands of the concierge's wife, Daniel cried out,--
And, fearfully excited, he asked her,--
"Did I hear right? Did you say the concierge of that house in Water Street, and his wife, were called Chevassat?"
"Because Maxime de Brevan's real name is Justin Chevassat."
Papa Ravinet started up as if he had been shot.
"What," he said, "you know that?"
"I learned it three months ago. I also know that my friend, the proud nobleman, Maxime de Brevan, who has been received in the most aristocratic salons of Paris, has been a galley-slave, condemned for forgery."
Henrietta had risen, filled with terror.
"Then," she stammered, "this wretched man was"--
"Chevassat's son; yes, madam," replied Mrs. Bertolle.
"Oh!" exclaimed the poor girl, "oh!"
And she fell heavily back into her chair, overcome by this discovery. The old dealer alone preserved his calm appearance.
"How did you learn that?" he asked Daniel.
"Through the man whom my friend Maxime had hired to murder me."
Positively this threatened to be too much for Henrietta's mind.
"Ah! I thought the mean coward would try to get you out of the way, Daniel. I wrote to you to be careful."
"And I received your letter, my darling, but too late. After having missed me twice, the assassin fired at me; and I was in my bed, a ball in my chest, dying."
"What has become of the murderer?" asked Papa Ravinet.
"He was arrested."
"Then he confessed?"
"Yes, thanks to the astonishing cleverness of the magistrate who carried on the investigation."
"What has become of him?"
"He has left Saigon by this time. They have sent him home to be tried here."
"I am surprised he has not yet been arrested. The papers in the case were sent to Paris by a vessel which left a fortnight before I left. To be sure, 'The Saint Louis' may have gotten ahead of her. At all events, I have in my keeping a letter to the court."
Papa Ravinet seemed to be almost delirious with joy. He gesticulated like a madman; he laughed nervously, and almost frightfully, till his sides shook; and at last he said,--
"I shall see Brevan on the scaffold! Yes, I shall!"
But from that moment there was an end of that logical order which the old gentleman had so far kept up. As it always happens with people who are under the influence of some passion, eager to learn what they do not know, and little disposed to tell what they do know, confusion prevailed soon. Questions crossed each other, and followed, without order or connection. Answers came at haphazard. Each wanted to be heard; and all were speaking at once. Thus the explanations, which, by a little management, might have been given in twenty minutes, took them more than two hours.
At last, after the lapse of this time, and by dint of great efforts, it became possible to ascertain the sum total of the information given by Papa Ravinet, Daniel, and Henrietta. The truth began to show itself in the midst of this chaos; and the plot of Sarah Brandon and her accomplices appeared in all its hideous outlines. A plan of striking simplicity, the success of which seemed to have hung upon a hair. If the old dealer, instead of going down by the backstairs, had taken the front staircase, he would never have heard Henrietta's agony, and the poor child would have been lost.
If Crochard's ball had been a few lines nearer the heart, Daniel would have been killed.
And still the old dealer was not quite satisfied. He hung his lip, and winked with his yellow eyes, as if he wished it to be understood that he was by no means fully convinced, and that there were certain points which required fuller explanation.
"Look here, M. Champcey," he began at last, "the more I think of it, the more I am convinced that Sarah Brandon had nothing to do with these attempts at assassination, which so nearly made an end of you. She is too strong in her perversity to stoop to such coarse means, which always leave traces behind, and finally lead to a court of justice. She always acts alone, when her mind is made up; and her accomplices aid her only unconsciously, so that they can never betray her."
Daniel had been thoughtful.
"What you tell me," he answered, "I was told before by M. de Brevan."
The old gentleman did not seem to hear him, so intensely did he apply all the faculties of his mind to the problem before him.
"Still," he continued, "there is no doubt about the manner in which Crochard, surnamed Bagnolet, was employed. Could Brevan have done so without Sarah's knowledge, and perhaps even contrary to her wishes?"
"That is quite possible; but then why should he have done so?"
"To secure to himself the fortune which M. Champcey had so imprudently intrusted to him," said Henrietta.
But Papa Ravinet shook his head, looking very wise, and said,--
"That is one explanation. I do not say no to it; but it is not the true one yet. Murder is so dangerous an expedient, that even the boldest criminals only resort to it in the last extremity, and generally very much against their inclination. Could not Brevan have possessed himself of M. Champcey's property without a murder? Of course, he could.
"Then we must look for another motive. You may say, it was fear which drove him to it. No; for at the time when he engaged Crochard, he could not foresee the atrocious outrages of which he would have become guilty during the succeeding year. Believe my experience; I discern in the whole affair a hurry and an awkwardness which betray a passion, a violent hatred, or, perhaps"--
He stopped suddenly, and seemed to reflect and deliberate, while he was mechanically stroking his chin. Then all of a sudden, looking strangely at Daniel, he asked him,--
"Could the Countess Sarah be in love with you, M. Champcey?"
Daniel's face turned crimson. He had not forgotten that fatal evening, when, in the house in Circus Street, he had held Sarah Brandon in his arms; and the intoxicating delirium of that moment had left in his heart a bitter and undying pang of remorse. He had never dared confess to Henrietta that Sarah had actually come to his rooms alone. And even to-night, while giving very fully all the details of his passage out, and his residence in Saigon, he had not said a word of the letters which had been addressed to him by the countess.
"Sarah Brandon in love with me?" he stammered. "What an idea!"
But he could not tell a falsehood; and Henrietta would not have been a woman, if she had not noticed his embarrassment.
"Why not?" she asked.
And, looking fixedly at Daniel, she went on,--
"That wretched woman impudently boasted to my face that she loved you; more than that, she swore that you, also, had loved her, and were still in love with her. She laughed at me contemptuously, telling me that she had it in her power to make you do anything she chose, and offering to show me your letters"--
She paused a moment, turned her head aside, and said with a visible effort,--
"Finally, M. Thomas Elgin assured me that Sarah Brandon had been your mistress, and that the marriage with my father took place only in consequence of a quarrel between you."
Daniel had listened to her, trembling with indignation. He now cried out,--
"And you could believe these false calumnies! Oh, no, no! tell me that there is no need for me to justify myself to"--
Then turning to Papa Ravinet, he said,--
"Suppose, we admit, for a moment, that she might have been in love, as you say, what would that prove?"
The cunning old dealer remained apparently unmoved for a time; but his small eyes were sparkling with malicious delight and satisfaction.
"Ah! you would not talk so, if you knew Sarah Brandon's antecedents as well as I do. Ask my sister about her and Maxime de Brevan, and she will tell you why I look upon that apparently trifling circumstance as so very important."
Mrs. Bertolle made a sign that she assented; and he, sure, henceforth, that his sagacity had not been at fault, continued,--
"Pardon me, M. Champcey, if I insist, and especially if I do so in Miss Henrietta's presence; but our interest, I might almost say our safety, requires it. Maxime de Brevan is caught, to be sure; but he is only a vulgar criminal; and we have, as yet, neither Thomas Elgin, nor Mrs. Brian, who are far more formidable, nor, above all, Sarah Brandon, who is a thousand times more wicked, and more guilty, than all the rest. You will tell me that we have ninety-nine chances out of a hundred on our side; maybe! Only a single, slight mistake may lead us altogether astray; and then there is an end to all our hopes, and these rascals triumph after all!"
He was but too right. Daniel felt it; and hence he said, without hesitating any longer, but looking stealthily at Henrietta's face,--
"Since that is so, I will not conceal from you that the Countess Sarah has written me a dozen letters of at least extraordinary nature."
"You have kept them, I hope?"
"Yes; they are all in one of my trunks."
Papa Ravinet was evidently much embarrassed; but at last he said,--
"Ah! if I might dare? But no; it would be asking too much, perhaps, to beg you to let me see them?"
He did not know how ready Daniel was to grant the request. Ready as he was, to tell Henrietta everything, he could not but wish that she should read these letters, as she would see from them, that, if the countess had written to him, he had never returned an answer.
"You can never ask too much, M. Ravinet," he replied. "Lefloch, my servant, must have come up by this time with the trunks; and, if you give me time to go down to my room, you shall have the letters at once."
He was on the point of leaving the room, when the old dealer held him back, and said,--
"Sir, you forget the man who has been following you all the way from Marseilles. Wait till my sister has made sure that there is nobody watching you."
Mrs. Bertolle at once went out; but she noticed nothing suspicious, and found all the passages silent and deserted. The spy had probably gone to make his report to his employers. Daniel went down promptly; and, when he came back, he held in his hand a bundle of faded and crumpled papers, which he handed to Papa Ravinet, with the words,--
"Here they are!"
Strange as it may seem, when the old gentleman touched these letters, impregnated with the peculiar perfume affected by Sarah Brandon, he trembled and turned pale. Immediately, however, perhaps in order to conceal his embarrassment, or to be the better able to reflect, he took a candlestick from the mantlepiece, and sat down aside, at one of the small tables. Mrs. Bertolle, Daniel, and Henrietta were silent; and nothing broke the stillness but the rustling of the paper, and the old gentleman's voice as he muttered,--
"This is fabulous,--Sarah writing such things! She did not even disguise her handwriting,--she who never committed an imprudence in her life; she ruins herself. And she signs her name!"
But he had seen enough. He folded up the letters, and, rising again, said to Champcey,--
"No doubt now! Sarah loves you madly, insanely. Ah! how she does love! Well, well, all heartless women love thus when a sudden passion conquers them, setting their brains and their senses on fire, and"--
Daniel noticed in Henrietta's face a sign of concern; and, quite distressed, he beckoned to the old gentleman to say nothing more. But he saw nothing, full as he was of his notion, and went on,--
"Now I understand. Sarah Brandon has not been able to keep her secret; and Brevan, seeing her love, and furious with jealousy, did not consider that to hire an assassin was to ruin himself."
The indignation he felt had restored the blood to his face; and, as he struck the packet of letters with the palm of his hand, he exclaimed,--
"Yes, all is clear now; and by this correspondence, Sarah Brandon, you are ours!"
What could be the plan of Papa Ravinet? Did he expect to use these letters as weapons against her? or did he propose to send them to Count Ville-Handry in order to open his eyes? Daniel trembled at the idea; for his loyalty rebelled against such a vengeance; he felt as if he would have become a traitor.
"You see, to use a woman's correspondence, however odious and contemptible she may be, would always be very repugnant to me."
"I had no idea of asking such a thing of you," replied the old dealer. "No; it is something very different I want you to do."
And, when Daniel still seemed to be embarrassed, he added,--
"You ought not to give way to such exaggerated delicacy, M. Champcey. All weapons are fair when we are called upon to defend our lives and our honor against rascals; and that is where we are. If we do not hasten to strike Sarah Brandon, she will anticipate us; and then"--
He had been leaning against the mantlepiece, close to Mrs. Bertolle, who sat there silent and immovable; and now he raised his head, and, looking attentively at Henrietta and Daniel by turns, he added,--
"Perhaps you are both not exactly conscious of the position in which you stand. Having been reunited to-night, after such terrible trials, and having, both of you, escaped, almost by a miracle, from death, you feel, no doubt, as if all trouble was at an end, and the future was yours. I must undeceive you. You are precisely where you were the day before M. Champcey left France. You cannot any more now than at that time marry without Count Ville-Handry's consent. Will he give it? You know very well that the Countess Sarah will not let him. Will you defy prejudices, and proudly avow your love? Ah, have a care! If you sin against social conventionalities, you risk your whole happiness of life. Will you hide yourself, on the other hand? However careful you may be, the world will find you out; and fools and hypocrites will overwhelm you with slander. And Miss Henrietta has been too much calumniated already."
To soar in the azure air, and suddenly to fall back into the mud on earth; to indulge in the sweetest of dreams, and all at once to be recalled to stern reality,--this is what Daniel and Henrietta endured at that moment. The calm, collected voice of the old dealer sounded cruel to them. Still he was but a sincere friend, who did his painful duty in awakening them from such deceptive illusions.
"Now," he went on, "mind that I take everything at the best; and even suppose the case, that Count Ville-Handry leaves his daughter free to choose: would that be enough? Evidently not; for the moment Sarah Brandon hears that Miss Henrietta has not committed suicide, but is, instead, at the Hotel du Louvre, within easy reach of M. Daniel Champcey, she will prevail on her husband to shut his daughter up in a convent. For another year, Miss Henrietta is yet under paternal control; that is, in this case, at the mercy of a revengeful step-mother, who looks upon her as a successful rival."
At this idea, that Henrietta might be once more taken from him, Daniel felt his blood chill off in his veins; and he exclaimed,--
"Ah, and I never dreamed of any of these things! I was mad! Joy had blinded my eyes completely."
But the old gentleman beckoned to him to say nothing, and with an almost imperious gesture went on,--
"Oh, wait! I have not yet shown you the most urgent danger: Count Ville-Handry, who, when you knew him, had, I know not how many millions, is completely ruined. Of all he once owned, of his lands, forests, castles, deeds, and bonds, there is nothing left. His last cent, his last rod of land, has been taken from him. You left him living like a prince in his forefathers' palace: you will find him vegetating in the fourth story of a lodging-house. You know, that, being poor, he is deemed guilty. The day is drawing near when Sarah Brandon will get rid of him, as she has gotten rid of Kergrist, of Malgat the poor cashier, and others. The means are at hand. Already the name of Count Ville-Handry is seriously compromised. The company which he has established is breaking to pieces; and the papers hold him up to public contempt. If he cannot pay to-day, he will be to-morrow accused of fraudulent bankruptcy. Now, I ask you, is the count a man who will survive such a disgrace?"
For some time Henrietta had been unable to suppress her sobs; under this terrible threat she broke out in loud weeping.
"Ah, sir!" she said, "you have misled me. You assured me that my father's life was in no danger."
"And I promise you still, it is not in danger. Would I be here, if I did not think that Sarah was not quite ready yet?"
Daniel, also, had suffered terribly during this discussion; and he now said passionately,--
"Would it not be a crime for us to think, to wait, and to calculate, when such great dangers are impending? Come, sir, let us go"--
"Ah, how do I know? Into court, to the count, to a lawyer who can advise us. There must be something that can be done."
The old dealer did not stir.
"Poor, honest young man!" he said with an accent of bitter irony. "And what could we tell the lawyer? That Sarah Brandon has made an old man, the Count Ville-Handry, fall madly in love with her? That is no crime. That she has made him marry her? That was her right. That the count has launched forth in speculations? She opposed it. That he understood nothing of business? She could not help that. That he has been duped, cheated, and finally ruined in two short years? Apparently she is as much ruined as he is. That, in order to delay the catastrophe, he has resorted to illegal means? She is sorry for it. That he will not survive the taint on his ancient name? What can she do? Sarah, who was able to clear herself the day after Malgat's disappearance, will not be at a loss now to establish her innocence."
"But the count, sir, the count! Can we not go to him?"
"Count Ville-Handry would say to you--But you shall hear to-morrow what he will tell you."
Daniel began to feel utterly dismayed.
"What can be done, then?" he asked.
"We must wait till we have sufficient evidence in hand to crush at one blow Sarah Brandon, Thorn, and Mrs. Brian."
"Well; but how shall we get such evidence?"
The old gentleman cast a look of intelligence at his sister, smiled, and said with a strange accent in his voice,--
"I have collected some. As to the rest"--
"Well, my dear M. Champcey, I am no longer troubled about getting more, since I have found out that the Countess Sarah is in love with you."
Now Daniel began to understand the part Papa Ravinet expected him to play. Still he did not object; he bowed his head under the clear eye of Henrietta, and said in a low voice,--
"I will do what you wish me to do, sir."
The old gentleman uttered a low cry of delight, as if he had been relieved of an overwhelming anxiety.
"Then," he said, "we will begin the campaign tomorrow morning. But we must know exactly who the enemies are whom we have to meet. Listen, therefore!"
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