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It struck midnight; but the poor people in the little parlor in the Hotel du Louvre hardly thought of sleep. How could they have become aware of the flight of time, as long as all their faculties were bent upon the immense interests that were at stake? On the struggle which they were about to undertake depended Count Ville-Handry's life and honor, and the happiness and whole future life of Daniel and Henrietta.
And Papa Ravinet and his sister had said,--"As for us, even more than that depends upon it." The old dealer, therefore, drew up an easy- chair, sat down, and began in a somewhat husky voice,--
"The Countess Sarah is not Sarah Brandon, and is not an American. Her real name, by which she was known up to her sixteenth year, is Ernestine Bergot; and she was born in Paris, in the suburb of Saint Martin, just on the line of the corporation. To tell you in detail what the first years of Sarah were like would be difficult indeed. There are things of that kind which do not bear being mentioned. Her childhood might be her excuse, if she could be excused at all.
"Her mother was one of those unfortunate women of whom Paris devours every year several thousands; who come from the provinces in wooden shoes, and are seen, six months later, dressed in all the fashion; and who live a short, gay life, which invariably ends in the hospital.
"Her mother was neither better nor worse than the rest. When her daughter came, she had neither the sense to part with her, nor the courage--perhaps (who knows?) she had not the means--to mend her ways. Thus the little one grew up by God's mercy, but at the Devil's bidding, living by chance, now stuffed with sweet things, and now half-killed by blows, fed by the charity of neighbors, while her mother remained for weeks absent from her lodgings.
"Four years old, she wandered through the neighborhood dressed in fragments of silk or velvet, with a faded ribbon in her hair, but with bare feet in her torn shoes, hoarse, and shivering with severe colds,--very much after the fashion of lost dogs, who rove around open-air cooking-shops,--and looking in the gutters for cents with which to buy fried potatoes or spoilt fruit.
"At a later time she extended the circle of her excursions, and wandered all over Paris, in company of other children like herself, stopping on the boulevards, before the brilliant shops or performing jugglers, trying to learn how to steal from open stalls, and at night asking in a plaintive voice for alms in behalf of her poor sick father. When twelve years old she was as thin as a plank, and as green as a June apple, with sharp elbows and long red hands. But she had beautiful light hair, teeth like a young dog's, and large, impudent eyes. Merely upon seeing her go along, her head high with an air of saucy indifference, coquettish under her rags, and walking with elastic steps, you would have guessed in her the young Parisian girl, the sister of the poor 'gamin,' a thousand times more wicked than her brothers, and far more dangerous to society. She was as depraved as the worst of sinners, fearing neither God nor the Devil, nor man, nor anything.
"However, she did fear the police.
"For from them she derived the only notions of morality she ever possessed; otherwise, it would have been love's labor lost to talk to her of virtue or of duty. These words would have conveyed no meaning to her imagination; she knew no more about them than about the abstract ideas which they represent.
"One day, however, her mother, who had virtually made a servant of her, had a praiseworthy inspiration. Finding that she had some money, she dressed her anew from head to foot, bought her a kind of outfit, and bound her as an apprentice to a dressmaker.
"But it came too late.
"Every kind of restraint was naturally intolerable to such a vagabond nature. The order and the regularity of the house in which she lived were a horror to her. To sit still all day long, a needle in her hand, appeared to her harder than death itself. The very comforts around her embarrassed her, and she felt as a savage would feel in tight boots. At the end of the first week, therefore, she ran away from the dressmaker, stealing a hundred francs. As long as these lasted, she roved over Paris. When they were spent, and she was hungry, she came back to her mother.
"But her mother had moved away, and no one knew what had become of her. She was inquired after, but never found. Any other person would have been in despair. Not she. The same day she entered as waiter in a cheap coffee-house. Turned out there, she found employment in a low restaurant, where she had to wash up the dishes and plates. Sent away here, also, she became a servant in two or three other places of still lower character; then, at last, utterly disgusted, she determined to do nothing at all.
"She was sinking into the gutter, she was on the point of being lost before she had reached womanhood, like fruit which spoils before it is ripe, when a man turned up who was fated to arm her for life's Struggle, and to change the vulgar thief into the accomplished monster of perversity whom you know."
Here Papa Ravinet suddenly paused, and, looking at Daniel, said,--
"You must not believe, M. Champcey, that these details are imaginary. I have spent five years of my life in tracing out Sarah's early life,--five years, during which I have been going from door to door, ever in search of information. A dealer in second-hand goods enters everywhere without exciting suspicion. And then I have witnesses to prove everything I have told you so far,--witnesses whom I shall summon, and who will speak whenever the necessity arises to establish the identity of the Countess Sarah."
Daniel made no reply.
Like Henrietta, even like Mrs. Bertolle, at this moment he was completely fascinated by the old gentleman's manner and tone. The latter, after having rested for a few minutes, went on,--
"The man who picked up Sarah was an old German artist, painter and musician both, of rare genius, but a maniac, as they called him. At all events, he was a good, an excellent man.
"One winter morning, as he was at work in his studio, he was struck by the strange ring in a woman's voice, which recited in the court-yard below a popular song. He went to the window, and beckoned the singer to come up. It was Sarah; and she came. The good German used often to speak of the deep compassion which seized him as he saw this tall girl of fourteen come into his studio,--a child, stained by vice already, thin like hunger itself, and shivering in her thin calico dress. But he was at the same time almost dazzled by the rich promises of beauty in her face, the pure notes of her superb voice, which had withstood so far, and the surprising intelligence beaming in her features.
"He guessed what there was in her; he saw her, in his mind's eye, such as she was to be at twenty.
"Then he asked her how she had come to be reduced to such misery, who she was, where her parents lived, and what they did for a living. When she had told him that she stood quite alone, and was dependent on no one, he said to her,--
"'Well, if you will stay with me, I will adopt you; you shall be my daughter; and I will make you an eminent artist.'
"The studio was warm, and it was bitterly cold outside. Sarah had no roof over her head, and had eaten nothing for twenty-four hours. She accepted.
"She accepted, be it understood, not doubting, in her perversity, but that this kind old man had other intentions besides those he mentioned in offering her a home. She was mistaken. He recognized in her marvellous talents, and thought of nothing but of making of her a true marvel, which should astonish the world. He devoted himself heart and soul to his new favorite, with all the enthusiastic ardor of an artist, and all the jealous passion of an amateur.
"It was a hard task, however, which he had undertaken. Sarah could not even read. She knew nothing, except sin.
"How the old German went to work to keep this untamable vagabond at home, how he made her bend to his will, and submit to his lessons, no one will ever be able to tell. It was long a problem for me also. Some of the neighbors told me that he treated her harshly, beating her often brutally; but neither threats nor blows were apt to make an impression on Sarah Brandon. A friend of the old man's thought he had guessed the riddle: he thought the old artist had succeeded in arousing Sarah's pride. He had kindled in her a boundless ambition and the most passionate covetousness. He intoxicated her with fairylike hopes.
"'Follow my counsels,' he used to say to her, 'and at twenty you will be a queen,--a queen of beauty, of wit, and of genius. Study, and the day will come when you will travel through Europe, a renowned artist, welcomed in every capital, feted everywhere, honored, and glorified. Work, and wealth will come with fame,--immense, boundless wealth, surpassing all your dreams. You will have the finest carriages, the most magnificent diamonds; you will draw from inexhaustible purses; the whole world will be at your feet; and the women will turn pale with envy and jealousy when they see you. Among men there will be none so noble, none so great, none so rich, but he will beg for one of your looks; and they will fight for one of your smiles. Only work and study!'
"At all events, Sarah did work, and studied with a steady perseverance which spoke of her faith in the promises of her old master, and of the influence he had obtained over her through her vanity. At first she had been deterred by the extreme difficulties which beset so late a beginning; but her amazing natural gifts had soon begun to show themselves, and in a short time her progress was almost miraculous.
"It is true that her innate sagacity had made her soon find out how ignorant she was of the world. She saw that society did not exclusively consist, as she had heretofore imagined, of people like those she had known. She felt, for instance, what she had never suspected before, that her unfortunate mother, with all her friends and companions, were only the rare exceptions, laid under the ban by the immense majority.
"At last she actually learned to know the tree of good fruit, after having for so many years known only the tree of forbidden fruit. She listened with eager curiosity to all the old artist had to tell her. And he knew much; for the eccentric old man had travelled for a long time over the world, and observed man on every step of the social ladder. He had been a favorite artist at the court of Vienna; he had had several of his operas brought out in Italy; and he had been admitted to the best society in Paris. At night, therefore, while sipping his coffee, his feet on the andirons, and his long pipe in his mouth, he would soon forget himself amid the recollections of his youth. He described to her the splendor of courts, the beauty of women, the magnificence of their toilets, and the intrigues which he had seen going on around him. He spoke to her of the men whose portraits he had painted, of the manners and the jealousies behind the stage, and of the great singers who had sung in his operas.
"Thus it came about, that, two years later, no one would have recognized the lean, wretched-looking vagabond of the suburbs in this fresh, rosy girl, with the lustrous eyes and the modest mien, whom they called in the house the 'pretty artist in the fifth story.'
"And yet the change was only on the surface.
"Sarah was already too thoroughly corrupted, when the good German picked her up, to be capable of being entirely changed. He thought he had infused his own rough honesty into her veins: he had only taught her a new vice,--hypocrisy.
"The soul remained corrupt; and all the charms with which it was outwardly adorned became only so many base allurements, like those beautiful flowers which unfold their splendor on the surface of bottomless swamps, and thus lead those whom they attract to miserable death.
"At that time, however, Sarah did not yet possess that marvellous self-control which became one of her great charms hereafter; and at the end of two years she could endure this peaceful atmosphere no longer; she grew homesick after sin.
"As she was already a very fair musician, and her voice, trained by a great master, possessed amazing power, she urged her old teacher to procure her an engagement at one of the theatres. He refused in a manner which made it clear to her that he would never change his mind on that subject. He wanted to secure to his pupil one of those debuts which are an apotheosis; and he had decided, as he told her, that she should not appear in public till she had reached the full perfection of her voice and her talent,--certainly not before her nineteenth or twentieth year.
"That meant she should wait three or four years longer,--a century!
"In former days Sarah would not have hesitated a moment; she would have run away.
"But education had changed her ideas. She was quite able now to reflect and to calculate. She asked herself where she could go, alone, without money, without friends, and what she should do, and what would become of her.
"She knew what destitution meant, and she was afraid of it now.
"When she thought of the life her mother had led,--a long series of nights spent in orgies, and of days without bread; that life of distress and disgrace, when she depended on the whims of a good-for-nothing, or the suspicions of a police constable,--Sarah felt the cold perspiration break out on her temples.
"She wanted her liberty; but she did not want it without money. Vice attracted her irresistibly; but it was gorgeous vice, seated in a carriage, and bespattering with mud the poor, honest women who had to walk on foot, while it was envied by the crowd, and worshipped by the foolish. She remained, therefore, and studied hard.
"Perhaps, in spite of everything, in spite of herself and her execrable instincts, Sarah might have become a great artist, if the old German had not been taken from her by a terrible accident.
"One fine afternoon in April, in the beginning of spring, he was smoking his pipe at the window, when he heard a noise in the street, and leaned over to see.
"The bar broke,--he tried in vain to hold on to the window-frame,--and the next moment he fell from the fifth story to the ground, and was killed instantly.
"I have held in my own hands the police report of the accident. It states that the fall was unavoidable; and that, if no such calamity had occurred before, this was due to the simple fact, that, during the bad weather, nobody had thought of looking out of the window. The castings of the little railing in front were found to be broken in two places, and so long ago, that a thick layer of rust had filled up the cracks. The wooden part had become perfectly loose, as the mortar that originally had kept it in place had been apparently eaten away by the winter frosts."
Daniel and Henrietta had turned very pale. It was evident that the same terrible suspicion had flashed upon their mind.
"Ah! it was Sarah's work," they exclaimed simultaneously. "It was Sarah who had broken the bar, and loosened the wooden rods; she had, no doubt, been watching for months to see her benefactor fall and kill himself."
Papa Ravinet shook his head.
"I do not say that," he said; "and, at all events, it would be impossible to prove it at this time,--I mean, to prove it against her denial. It is certain that no one suspected Sarah. She seemed to be in despair; and everybody pitied her sincerely. Was she not ruined by this misfortune?
"The old artist had left no will. His relatives, of whom several lived in Paris, rushed to his rooms; and their first act was to dismiss Sarah, after having searched her trunks, and after giving her to understand that she ought to be very grateful if she was allowed to take away all she said she owed to the munificence of her late patron.
"Still the inheritance was by no means what the heirs had expected. Knowing that the deceased had had ample means, and how simply he had always lived, they expected to find in his bureau considerable savings. There was nothing. A single bond for less than two thousand dollars, and a small sum in cash, were all that was found.
"Ah! I have long endeavored to find out what had become of the various bonds and the ready money of the old artist; for everybody who had known him agreed that there must be some. Do you know what I discovered by dint of indefatigable investigations? I procured leave to examine the books of the savings-bank in which he invested his earnings for the year of his death; and I found there, that on the 17th of April, that is, five days before the poor German's fall, a certain Ernestine Bergot had deposited a sum of fifteen hundred francs."
"Ah, you see!" exclaimed Daniel. "Weary of the simple life with the old man, she murdered him in order to get hold of his money."
But the old gentleman continued, as if he had heard nothing,--
"What Sarah did during the three first months of her freedom, I cannot tell. If she went and rented furnished lodgings, she did it under a false name. A clerk in the mayor's office, who is a great lover of curiosities, and for whom I have procured many a good bargain, had all the lists of lodging-houses for the four months from April to July carefully examined; but no Ernestine Bergot could be found.
"I am quite sure, however, that she thought of the stage. One of the former secretaries of the Lyric Theatre told me he recollected distinctly a certain Ernestine, beautiful beyond description, who, came several times, and requested a trial. She was, however, refused, simply because her pretensions were almost ridiculous. And this was quite natural; for her head was still full of all the ambitious dreams of the old artist.
"The first positive trace I find of Sarah in that year appears towards the end of summer. She was then living in a fashionable street with a young painter full of talent, and very rich, called Planix. Did she really love him? The friends of the unfortunate young man were sure she did not. But he--he worshipped her; he loved her passionately, madly, and was so absurdly jealous, that he became desperate if she stayed out an hour longer than he expected. Hence she often complained of his love, which restrained her cherished liberty; and still she bore it patiently till fate threw in her way Maxime de Brevan."
At the name of the wretch who had been so bent upon ruining them both, and who had been so nearly successful, Henrietta and Daniel trembled, and looked at each other. But Papa Ravinet did not give them, time to ask any questions, and continued, as calmly as if he had been reading a report,--
"It was several years before this, that Justin Chevassat, released from the galleys, had made a nobleman of himself, and claimed before all the world to be Maxime de Brevan. We need not be surprised, in this age of ours, where impudence takes the place of everything else, that he should have promptly succeeded in making his way into high life, and in being admitted to many houses which were considered more or less exclusive. In a society which seems to have adopted for its motto the words 'Toleration and Discretion,' and where, consequently, anybody is admitted without question, Justin Chevassat very naturally had a great success. He had carefully prepared his way, like those adventurers who never appear abroad without having their passports in much better order than most honest travellers. He had learned prudence by experience; for his antecedents were stormy enough, though less so than Sarah's.
"Justin's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Chevassat, now concierges of No. 23 Water Street, were, some thirty-eight or forty years ago, living in the upper part of the suburb of Saint Honore. They had a very modest little shop, partly restaurant, partly bar: their customers were generally the servants of the neighborhood. They were people of easy principles and loose morals,--as there are so many in our day,--honest enough as long as there is nothing to be gained by being otherwise. As their trade prospered, they were not dishonest; and, when any of their customers forgot their portemonnaies at the shop, they always returned them. The husband was twenty-four, and the wife nineteen years old, when, to their great joy, a son was born. There was rejoicing in the shop; and the child was christened Justin, in honor of his godfather, who was no less a personage than the valet of the Marquis de Brevan.
"But to have a son is a small matter. To bring him up till he is seven or eight years old, is nothing. The difficulty is to give him an education which shall secure him a position in the world. This thought now began to occupy the minds of his parents incessantly. These stupid people, who had a business which supported them handsomely, and enabled them, in the course of time, to amass a small fortune, did not see that the best thing they could have done would have been to enlarge it, and to leave it to their son. But no. They vowed they would sacrifice all their savings, and deprive themselves even of the necessaries of life, in order that their Justin might become a 'gentleman.'
"And what a gentleman! The mother dreamed of him as a rich broker, or, at the very least, a notary's first clerk. The father preferred seeing him a government official, holding one of those much-coveted places, which give the owner, after twenty-five years' service, a title, and an income of some six or seven hundred dollars.
"The result of all these speculations was, that, at the age of nine, Master Justin was sent to a high school. He conducted himself there just badly enough to be perpetually on the brink of being sent away, without ever being really expelled. This made but little impression upon the two Chevassats. They had become so accustomed to look upon their son as a superior being, that it never entered their mind to think he was not the first, the best, and the most remarkable pupil of the establishment. If Justin's reports were bad,--and they were always bad,--they accused the teachers of partiality. If he gained no prize at the end of the year,--and he never got any,--they did not know what to do for him to console him for having been victimized by such cruel injustice.
"The consequences of such a system need hardly be stated.
"When Justin was fourteen years old, he despised his parents thoroughly, treated them like servants, and was so much ashamed of them, that he would not allow his mother to come and see him in the parlor of the college to which he had been admitted of late. When he was at home during vacations, he would have cut his right arm off rather than help his father, or pour out a glass of wine for a customer. He even stayed away from the house on the plea that he could not endure the odors from the kitchen.
"Thus he reached his seventeenth year. His course was not completed; but, as he was tired of college-life, he declared he would not return there, and he never did return. When his father asked him timidly what he proposed doing, he shrugged his shoulders as his sole reply. What did he do? Nothing. He idled about Paris.
"To dress in the height of fashion; to walk up and down before the most renowned restaurants, with a toothpick in his mouth; to hire a carriage, and drive it himself, having a hired groom in livery by his side,--this was the delight of those days. At night he gambled; and, when he lost, there was the till in his father's shop.
"His parents had rented for him, and comfortably furnished, a nice set of rooms in their house, and tried by all manner of servility to keep him at home, neglecting even their own business in order to be always ready for his orders. But this did not prevent him from being constantly away. He said he could not possibly receive his friends in a house where his name was to be seen on the signboard of such a low establishment.
"It was his despair to be the son of a restaurant-keeper, and to be called Chevassat.
"But greater grief was to come to him after two years' idle and expensive life such as has been described.
"One fine morning when he needed a couple of hundred dollars, his parents told him, with tears in their eyes, that they had not twenty dollars in the house; that they were at the end of their resources; that the day before a note of theirs had been protested; and that they were at that moment on the brink of bankruptcy. They did not reproach Justin with having spent all their savings; oh, no! On the contrary, they humbly asked his pardon, if they were no longer able to provide for his wants. And, with fear and trembling, they at last ventured to suggest, that perhaps it would be well if he should seek some kind of work.
"He told them coolly that he would think it over, but that he must have his two hundred dollars. And he got them. His father and mother had still a watch and some jewelry; they pawned everything and brought him the proceeds.
"Still he saw that the till he had considered inexhaustible was really empty, and that henceforth his pockets also would be empty, unless he could devise some means to fill them. He went, therefore, in search of some employment; and his godfather, the valet, found one for him at the house of a banker, who was in want of a reliable young man to be trained for his business, and hereafter to be intrusted with the management of his funds."
Papa Ravinet's voice changed so perceptibly as he uttered these last words, that Daniel and Henrietta, with one impulse, asked him,--
"Is anything the matter, sir?"
He did not make any reply; but his sister, Mrs. Bertolle, said,--
"No, there is nothing the matter with my brother;" and she looked at him with a nod of encouragement.
"I am all right," he said, like an echo. Then, making a great effort, he continued,--
"Justin Chevassat was at twenty precisely what you know him to be as Maxime de Brevan,--a profound dissembler, a fierce egotist devoured by vanity, in fine, a man of ardent passions, and capable of anything to satisfy his desires.
"The hope of getting rich at once by some great stroke was already so deeply rooted in his mind, that it gave him the strength to change his habits and manner of life from one day to another, and to keep up the deceit with a perseverance unheard of at his age. This lazy, profligate gambler rose with the day, worked ten hours a day, and became the model of all clerks. He had resolved to win the favor of his patron, and to be trusted. He succeeded in doing it by the most consummate hypocrisy. So that, only two years after he had first been admitted into the house, he had already been promoted to a place which conferred upon him the keeping of all the valuables of the firm.
"This occurred before those accidents which have, since that time, procured for the keepers of other people's money such a sad reputation. Nowadays it seems almost an ordinary event to hear of some cashier's running away with the funds intrusted to his keeping; and no one is astonished. To create a sensation by such an occurrence, the sum must be almost fabulous, say, two or three millions. And, even in that case, the loser is by no means the man in whom the world is most interested.
"At the time of which I am now speaking, defalcations were quite rare as yet. Financial companies and brokers did not contemplate being robbed by their own clerks as one of the ordinary risks. When they knew the keys of their safe to be in the hands of an honest man, whose family and mode of life were well known, they slept soundly. Justin Chevassat's patron was thus sleeping soundly for ten months, when one Sunday he was specially in need of certain bonds which Justin used to keep in one of the drawers of his desk. He did not like to have his clerk hunted up on such a day; so he simply sent for a locksmith to open the drawer.
"The first thing he saw was a draft signed by himself; and yet he had never put his name to such a paper. Still, most assuredly, it was his signature; he would have sworn to it in court. And yet he was as sure as he was standing there, that it was not he who had put his name, and the somewhat complicated ornament belonging to it, where he saw it written.
"His first amazement was succeeded by grievous apprehension. He had the other drawers opened likewise, searched them, and soon discovered all the details of a formidable and most ingenious plan, by which he was to be robbed at a single blow of more than a million.
"If he had slept soundly one month longer, he would have been ruined. His favorite clerk was a wretch, a forger of matchless skill. He instantly sent for a detective; and the next morning, when Justin Chevassat came as usual, he was arrested. It was then thought that his crime was confined to this abortive attempt. Not so. A minute and careful examination of all the papers soon revealed other misdeeds. Evidence was found, that, on the very next day after the day on which he had been appointed confidential clerk, he had stolen a thousand dollars, concealing his theft by a false entry. Since that time not a week had passed without his laying hands on a more or less considerable sum; and all these thefts had been most ingeniously covered by such skilful imitations of other people's signatures, that he had once been sick for a fortnight, and yet his substitute had never become aware of anything. In fine, it appeared that the sum total of his defalcations amounted to some eighty thousand dollars.
"What had he done with all that money? The magistrate before whom he was brought at once asked that question. He replied that he had not a cent left. His explanations and his excuses were the old story pleaded by all who put their hands into their neighbors' pockets.
"To hear him, no one could be more innocent than he was, however guilty he might appear at first sight. He was like one of those men who allow their little finger to be caught in a machine. His only fault was the desire to speculate on 'Change. Did not his employer speculate himself? Having lost some money, and fearing to lose his place if he did not pay, the fatal thought had occurred to him to borrow from the strong box. From that moment he had only cherished one thought,--to restore what he had taken. If he speculated anew, it was from extreme honesty, and because he constantly hoped to gain enough to make restitution. But most extraordinary ill luck had pursued him; so that, seeing the deficit growing larger and larger, and overcome with remorse and terror, he had almost gone mad, and ceased to put any restraint upon himself.
"He laid great stress upon the fact that his whole eighty thousand dollars had been lost on 'Change, and that he would have looked upon himself as the meanest of rascals, if he had spent any part of it on his personal enjoyments. Unfortunately the forged checks and drafts in his drawer destroyed the force of this plea. Convinced that the sums he had thus obtained were not lost, the investigating magistrate suspected the parents of the accused. He questioned them, and obtained sufficient evidence against them to justify their arrest. But they could not be convicted at the trial, and had to be released. Justin Chevassat, however, appeared at the assizes.
"Matters looked very serious for him; but he had the good luck of falling in with a young lawyer who initiated in his case a system of pleading which has since become very popular. He made no effort to exculpate his client: he boldly accused the banker. 'Was it the act of a sensible man,' he said, 'to trust so young a man with such important sums? Was it not tempting him beyond his powers of resistance, and almost provoking him to become dishonest? What, this banker never examined his books for so many months? What kind of a business was it, where a cashier could so easily take eighty thousand dollars, and remain undiscovered? And then, what immorality in a banker to speculate on 'Change, and thus to set so bad an example to his young, inexperienced clerks!'
"Justin Chevassat escaped with twenty years' penal servitude.
"What he was at the galleys, you may imagine from what you know of him. He played the 'repentant criminal,' overflowing with professions of sorrow for the past, and amendment in future, and cringing and crouching at the feet of the officials of the prison. He carried on this comedy so successfully, that, after three years and a half, he was pardoned. But he had not lost his time in prison. The contact with the vilest of criminals had sharpened his wits, and completed his education in rascality. He came out of prison an accomplished felon. And even while he still dragged the chain and ball along with him, he was already planning and maturing new plots for the future, which he afterwards executed with success. He conceived the idea of bursting forth in a new shape, under which no one would ever suspect his former identity.
"How he went about to do this, I am enabled to tell you accurately. Through his godfather, the valet, who had died before his trial, Justin Chevassat knew the history of the Brevan family in its minutest details. It was a very sad story. The old marquis had died insolvent, after having lost his five sons, who had gone abroad to make their fortunes. The noble family had thus become extinct; but Justin proposed to continue its lineage. He knew that the Brevans were originally from Maine; that they had formerly owned immense estates in the neighborhood of Mans; and that they had not been there for more than twenty years. Would they still be remembered in a land where they had once been all powerful? Most assuredly they would. Would people take the trouble to inquire minutely what had become of the marquis and his five sons? As assuredly not.
"Chevassat's plot was based upon these calculations.
"As soon as he was free once more, he devoted all his energies to the destruction of every trace of his identity; and, when he thought he had accomplished this, he went to Mans, assuming the name of one of the sons of the marquis, who had been nearly of his own age. No one doubted for a moment that he was Maxime de Brevan. Who could have doubted it, when he purchased the old family mansion for a considerable sum, although it only consisted of a ruinous castle, and a small farm adjoining the house? He paid cash, moreover, proving thus the correctness of the magistrate's suspicions as to his story about losses on 'Change, and as to the complicity of his parents. He even took the precaution of living on his little estate for four years, practising the life of a country-gentleman, received with open arms by the nobility of the neighborhood, forming friendships, gaining supporters, and becoming more and more identified with Maxime de Brevan.
"What was his aim at that time? I always thought he was looking out for a wealthy wife, so as to consolidate his position; and he came near realizing his hopes.
"He was on the point of marrying a young lady from Mans, who would have brought him half a million in money, and the banns had already been published, when, all of a sudden, the marriage was broken off, no one knew why.
"This only is certain: he was so bitterly disappointed by his failure, that he sold his property, and left the country. For the next three years, he lived in Paris, more completely Maxime de Brevan than ever; and then he met Sarah Brandon."
Papa Ravinet had been speaking now for nearly three hours, and he was beginning to feel exhausted. He showed his weariness in his face; and his voice very nearly gave out. Still it was in vain for Daniel, Henrietta, and Mrs. Bertolle herself to unite in begging him to go and lie down for a few moments.
"No," he replied, "I will go to the end. You do not know how important it is that M. Champcey should be in a position to act to-morrow, or rather to-day.
"It was at a fancy ball," he went on, "given by M. Planix, that Sarah Brandon, at that time still known as Ernestine Bergot, and Justin Chevassat, now Maxime de Brevan, met for the first time. He was completely overpowered by her marvellous beauty, and she--she was strangely impressed by the peculiar expression in Maxime's face. Perhaps they divined each other's character, perhaps they had an intuitive perception of who they were. At all events, they soon became acquainted, drawn as they were to each other by an instinctive and irresistible attraction. They danced several times together; they sat side by side; they talked long and intimately; and, when the ball came to an end, they were friends already.
"They met frequently; and, if it were not profanation, I would say they loved each other. They seemed to be made on purpose to understand, and, so to say, compliment, each other, equally corrupt as they were, devoured by the same sinful desires, and alike free from all the old-fashioned prejudices, as they called it, about justice, morals, and honor. They could hardly help coming soon to some understanding by which they agreed to associate their ambitions and their plans for the future.
"For in those early days, when their feelings were still undented, they had no secrets for each other. Love had torn the mask from their faces; and each one vied with the other in letting the foulness of their past days be seen clearly. This, no doubt, secured, first the constancy of their passion, and the continuation of their intimacy long after they had ceased loving each other.
"For now they hate each other; but they are also afraid of each other. Ten times they have tried to break off their intimacy; and as often they have been compelled to renew it, bound as they feel they are to each other by a chain far more oppressive and solid than the one Justin Chevassat wore at the galleys.
"At first, however, they had to conceal their intimacy; for they had no money. By joining what she had stolen from her benefactor, to what she had obtained from M. Planix, Sarah could not make up more than some forty thousand francs. 'That was not enough,' she said, 'to "set up" the most modest establishment.' As to M. de Brevan, however economical he had been, he had come to an end of the sums stolen from his employer. For eight or ten months now, he had been reduced to all kinds of dangerous expedients in order to live. He rode in his carriage; but he had been more than once very happy when he could extort a twenty-franc-piece from his parents. He visited them, of course only in secret; for they had in the meantime exchanged their shop, for the modest little box assigned to the concierge of No. 23 Water Street.
"Far, therefore, from being able to be useful to Sarah, he was perfectly delighted when she brought him one fine day ten thousand francs to alleviate his distress.
"'Ah!' she said to him on this occasion, and often thereafter, 'why can't we have that fool's money?' meaning her friend and lover, M. Planix.
"The next step was naturally an attempt at obtaining this much coveted treasure. To begin, Sarah induced him to make a last will, in which he made her his residuary legatee. One would be at a loss to guess how she could obtain this from a young, healthy man, full of life and happiness, if it were not that love will explain everything. When this success had been achieved, M. de Brevan undertook to introduce in the society frequented by Sarah and M. Planix one of his friends, who was considered, and who really was, the best swordsman in Paris, a good fellow otherwise, honor itself, and rather patient in temper than given to quarrelling.
"Without compromising herself, and with that abominable skill which is peculiarly her own, Sarah, coquetted just enough with this young man, M. de Font-Avar, to tempt him to pay her some attentions. But that very night she complained to M. Planix of his persecution, and knew so skilfully how to excite his jealousy, and to wound his vanity, that, three days later, he allowed himself to be carried away by passion, and struck M. de Font-Avar in the presence of a dozen friends.
"A duel became inevitable; and M. de Brevan, pretending to try and reconcile the two young men, secretly fanned the flame. The duel came off one Saturday morning, in the woods near Vincennes. They fought with small-swords; and, after little more than a minute, M. Planix received a stab in his breast, fell, and was dead in an instant. He was not yet twenty-seven years old.
"Sarah's joy was almost delirious. Accomplished actress as she was, she could hardly manage to shed a few tears for the benefit of the public, when the body, still warm, was brought to the house. And still she had once loved the man, whom she had now assassinated.
"Even as she knelt by the bedside, hiding her face in her handkerchief, she was thinking only of the testament, lying safe and snug, as she knew, in one of the drawers of that bureau, enclosed in a large official envelope with a huge red wax seal.
"It was opened and read the same day by the justice of the peace, who had been sent for to put the seals on the deceased man's property. And then Sarah began to cry in good earnest. Her tears were tears of rage. For seized by a kind of remorse, and at a moment when Sarah's absence had rendered him very angry, M. Planix had added two lines as a codicil.
"He still said, 'I appoint Miss Ernestine Bergot my residuary legatee'; but he had written underneath, 'on condition that she shall pay to each of my sisters the sum of a hundred and fifty thousand francs.' This was more than three-fourths of his whole fortune.
"When she arrived, therefore, that night, at Brevan's rooms, her first words were,--
"'We have been robbed! Planix was a wretch! We won't have a hundred thousand francs left.'
"Maxime, however, recovered his equanimity pretty soon; for the sum appeared to him quite large enough to pay for a crime in which they had run no risk, and he was quite as willing as before to marry Sarah; but she refused to listen to him, saying that a hundred thousand francs were barely enough for a year's income, and that they must wait. It was then that M. de Brevan became a gambler. The wretch actually believed in the cards; he believed that fortunes could be made by playing. He had systems of his own which could not fail, and which he was bent upon trying.
"He proposed to Sarah to risk the hundred thousand francs, promising to make a million out of them; and she yielded, tempted by the very boldness of his proposition.
"They resolved they would not stop playing till they had won a million, or lost everything. And so they went to Homburg. There they led a mad life for a whole month, spending ten hours every day at the gaming-table, feverish, breathless, fighting the bank with marvellous skill and almost incredible coolness. I have met an old croupier who recollects them even now. Twice they were on the point of staking their last thousand-franc-note; and one lucky day they won as much as four hundred thousand francs. That day, Maxime proposed they should leave Homburg. Sarah, who kept the money, refused, repeating her favorite motto, 'All, or nothing.'
"It was nothing. Victory remained, as usual, with, the 'big battalions;' and one evening the two partners returned to their lodgings, ruined, penniless, having not even a watch left, and owing the hotel-keeper a considerable sum of money.
"That evening Maxime spoke of blowing his brains out. Never, on the contrary, had Sarah been merrier.
"The next morning she dressed very early and went out, saying she had a plan in her head, and would soon be back.
"But she did not come back; and all that day M. de Brevan, devoured by anxiety, waited in vain for her return. At five o'clock, however, a messenger brought him a letter. He opened it; there were three thousand francs in it, and these words:--
"'When you receive these lines, I shall be far from Homburg. Do not wait for me. Enclosed is enough to enable you to return to Paris. You shall see me again when our fortune is made.
"Maxime was at first overcome with amazement. To be abandoned in this way! To be thus unceremoniously dismissed, and by Sarah! He could not recover from it. But anger soon roused him to fury; and at the same time he was filled with an intense desire to avenge himself. But, in order to avenge himself, he must first know how to find his faithless ally. What had become of her? Where had she gone?
"By dint of meditating, and recollecting all he could gather in his memory, M. de Brevan remembered having seen Sarah two or three times, since fortune had forsaken them, in close conversation with a tall, thin gentleman of about forty years, who was in the habit of wandering through the rooms, and attracted much attention by his huge whiskers, his stiff carriage, and his wearied expression. No doubt Sarah, being ruined, had fallen an easy prey to this gentleman, who looked as if he might be a millionaire.
"Where did he stay? At the Hotel of the Three Kings. Maxime went there at once. Unfortunately, he was too late. The gentleman had left that morning for Frankfort, by the 10.45 train, with an elderly lady, and a remarkably pretty girl.
"Sure of his game now, M. de Brevan left immediately for Frankfort, convinced that Sarah's brilliant beauty would guide him like a star. But he hunted in vain all over town, inquiring at the hotels, and bothering everybody with his questions. He found no trace of the fugitives.
"When he returned to his lodgings that night, he wept.
"Never in his life had he fancied himself half so unhappy. In losing Sarah, he thought he had lost everything. During the five months of their intimacy, she had gained such complete ascendency over him, that now, when he was left to his own strength, he felt like a lost child, having no thought and no resolution.
"What was to become of him, now that this woman was no longer there to sustain and inspire him,--that woman with the marvellous talent for intrigue, the matchless courage that shrank from nothing, and the energy which sufficed for everything? Sarah had, besides, filled his imagination with such magnificent hopes, and opened before his covetous eyes such a vast horizon of enjoyment, that he had come to look upon things as pitiful, which would formerly have satisfied his highest wishes. Should he, after having dreamed of those glorious achievements by which millions are won in a day, sink back again into the meanness of petty thefts? His heart turned from that prospect with unspeakable loathing; and yet what was he to do?
"He knew, that, if he returned to Paris, matters would not be very pleasant for him there. His creditors, made restless by his prolonged absence, would fall upon him instantly. How could he induce them to wait? Where could he get the money to pay them, at least, a percentage of his dues? How would he support himself? Were all of his dark works to be useless? Was he to be shipwrecked before ever seeing even the distant port?
"Nevertheless, he returned to Paris, faced the storm, passed through the crisis, and resumed his miserable life, associating with another adventurer like himself, and succeeding thus, by immensely hard work, in maintaining his existence and his assumed name. Ah! if our honest friends could but know what misery, what humiliations and anxieties are hid beneath that false splendor of high life, which they often envy, they would think themselves fully avenged.
"It is certain that Maxime de Brevan found times hard in those days, and actually more than once regretted that he had not remained a stupid, honest man. He thought that was so simple, and so clever.
"Thus it came about, that, two years later, he had not yet been reconciled to Sarah's absence. Often and often, in his hours of distress, he recalled her parting promise, 'You shall see me again when our fortune is made.' He knew she was quite capable of amassing millions; but, when she had them, would she still think of him? Where was she? What could have become of her?
"Sarah was at that time in America.
"That tall, light-haired gentleman, that eminently respectable lady, who had carried her off, were M. Thomas Elgin and Mrs. Brian. Who were these people? I have had no time to trace out their antecedents. All I know is, that they belonged to that class of adventurers whom one sees at all the watering-places and gambling-resorts,--at Nice, at Monaco, and during the winter in Italy; swindlers of the highest class, who unite consummate skill with excessive caution; who are occasionally suspected, but never found out; and who are frequently indebted to their art of making themselves agreeable, and even useful to others, to the carelessness of travellers, and their thorough knowledge of life, for the acquaintance, or even friendship, of people whom one is astonished to find in such company.
"Sir Thorn and Mrs. Brian were both English, and, so far, they had managed to live very pleasantly. But old age was approaching; and they began to be fearful about the future, when they fell in with Sarah. They divined her, as she had divined Maxime; and they saw in her an admirable means to secure a fortune. They did not hesitate, therefore, to offer her a compact by which she was to be a full partner, although they themselves had to risk all they possessed,--a capital of some twenty thousand dollars. You have seen what these respectable people proposed to make of her,--a snare and a pitfall. They knew very well that her matchless beauty would catch fools innumerable, and bring in a rich harvest of thousand-franc-notes.
"The idea was by no means new, M. Champcey, as you seem to think; nor is the case a rare one.
"In almost all the capitals of Europe, you will find even now some of these almost sublimely beautiful creatures, who are exhibited in the great world by cosmopolitan adventurers. They have six or seven years,--eighteen to twenty-five,--during which, their beauty and their tact may secure an immense fortune to themselves and their comrades; and according to chance, to their skill, or the whims or the folly of men, they end by marrying some great personage in high life, or by keeping a wretched gambling hell in the suburbs. They may fall upon the velvet cushions of a princely carriage, or sink, step by step, to the lowest depths of society.
"M. Elgin and Mrs. Brian had agreed that they would exhibit Sarah in Paris; that she was to marry a duke with any number of millions; and that they should be paid for their trouble by receiving an annual allowance of some ten thousand dollars. But, in order to undertake the adventure with a good chance of success, it was indispensable that Sarah should lose her nationality as a Parisian; that she should rise anew, as an unknown star; and, above all, that she should be trained and schooled for the profession she was to practise.
"Hence the trip to America, and her long residence there.
"Chance had helped the wretches. They had hardly landed, when they found that they could easily introduce the girl as the daughter of Gen. Brandon, just as Justin Chevassat had managed to become Maxime de Brevan. In this way, Ernestine Bergot appeared at once in the best society of Philadelphia as Sarah Brandon. Not less prudent than Maxime, M. Elgin also purchased, in spite of his limited means, for a thousand dollars, vast tracts of land in the western part of the State, where there was no trace of oil-wells, but where there might very well be a good many, and had them entered upon the name of his ward.
"Of all these measures, I have the evidence in hand, and can produce it at any moment."
For some time already, Daniel and Henrietta had looked at each other with utter amazement. They were almost dumfounded by the prodigious sagacity, the cunning, patience, and labor which the old dealer must have employed to collect this vast mass of information. But he continued, after a short pause,--
"Sir Thorn and Mrs. Brian found out in a few days how well they had been served by their instincts in taking hold of Sarah. In less than six months, this wonderful girl, whose education they had undertaken, spoke English as well as they did, and had become their master, controlling them by the very superiority of her wickedness. From the day on which Mrs. Brian explained to her the part she was expected to play, she had assumed it so naturally and so perfectly, that all traces of art disappeared at once. She had instinctively appreciated the immense advantage she would derive from personifying a young American girl, and the irresistible effect she might easily produce by her freedom of movement and her bold ingenuousness. Finally, at the end of eighteen months' residence in America, M. Elgin declared that the moment had come when Sarah might appear on the stage.
"It was, therefore, twenty-eight months after their parting in Homburg, that M. de Brevan received, one morning, the following note:--
"'Come to-night, at nine o'clock, to M. Thomas Elgin's house in Circus Street, and be prepared for a surprise.'
"He went there. A tall man opened the door of the sitting-room; and, at the sight of a young lady who sat before the fire, he could not help exclaiming, 'Ernestine, is that you?'
"But she interrupted him at once, saying, 'You are mistaken: Ernestine Bergot is dead, and buried by the side of Justin Chevassat, my dear M. de Brevan. Come, lay aside that amazed air, and kiss Miss Sarah Brandon's hand.'
"It was heaven opening for Maxime. She had at last come back to him,--this woman, who had come across his life like a tempest, and whose memory he had retained in his heart, as a dagger remains in the wound it has made. She had come back, more beautiful than ever, irresistible in her matchless charms; and he fancied it was love which had brought her back.
"His vanity led him astray. Sarah Brandon had long since ceased to admire him. Familiar as she was with the life of adventurers in high life, she had soon learned to appreciate M. de Brevan at his just value. She saw him now as he really was,--timid, overcautious, petty, incapable of conceiving bold combinations, scarcely good enough for the smallest of plots, ridiculous, in fine, as all needy scamps are.
"Nevertheless, Sarah wanted him, although she despised him. On the point of entering upon a most dangerous game, she felt the necessity of having one accomplice, at least, in whom she could trust blindly. She had, to be sure, Mrs. Brian and Sir Thorn, as he began to be called now; but she mistrusted them. They held her, and she had no hold on them. On the other hand, Maxime de Brevan was entirely hers, dependent on her pleasure, as the lump of clay in the hands of the sculptor.
"It is true that Maxime appeared almost distressed when he heard that that immense fortune which he coveted with all his might was still to be made, and that Sarah was no farther advanced now than she was on the day of their separation. She might even have said that she was less so; for the two years and more which had just elapsed had made a large inroad upon the savings of M. Elgin and Mrs. Brian. When they had paid for their establishment in Circus Street, when they had advanced the hire of a coupe, a landau, and two saddle-horses, they had hardly four thousand dollars left in all.
"They knew, therefore, that they must succeed or sink in the coming year. And, thus driven to bay, they were doubly to be feared. They were determined to fall furiously upon the first victim that should pass within reach, when chance brought to them the unlucky cashier of the Mutual Discount Society, Malgat."
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