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For a few moments the fatigue of the old dealer seemed to have disappeared. He was sitting up straight, with tremulous lips, with flashing eyes, and continued in a strangely strident voice,--
"Fools alone attach no weight to trifling occurrences. And still it is those that appear most insignificant which we ought to fear most, because they alone determine our fate, precisely as an atom of sand dismembers the most powerful engine.
"It was on a fine afternoon in the month of October when Sarah Brandon appeared for the first time before the eyes of Malgat. He was at that time a man of forty, sprung from an old and respectable though modest family, content with his lot in life, and rather simple, as most men are who have always lived far from the intrigues of society. He had one passion, however,--he filled the five rooms of his lodgings with curiosities of every kind, happy for a week to come, if he had discovered a piece of old china, or a curious piece of furniture, which he could purchase cheap. He was not rich, his whole patrimony having been long since spent on his collections; but he had a place that brought him some three thousand dollars; and he was sure of an ample pension in his old age.
"He was honest in the highest sense of the word; his honesty being instinctive, so to say, never reasoning, never hesitating. For fifteen years now, he had been cashier; and hundreds of millions had passed through his hands without arousing in him a shadow of covetousness. He handled the gold in the bags, and the notes in the portfolios, with as much indifference as if they had been pebbles and dry leaves. His employers, besides, felt for him more than ordinary esteem: it was true and devoted friendship. Their confidence in him was so great, that they would have laughed in the face of any one who should have come and told them, 'Malgat is a thief!'
"Such he was, when, that morning, he was standing near his safe, and saw a gentleman come to his window who had just cashed a check drawn by the Central Bank of Philadelphia upon the Mutual Discount Bank. This gentleman, who was M. Elgin, spoke such imperfect French, that Malgat asked him, for convenience sake, to step inside the railing. He came in, and behind him Sarah Brandon.
"How can I describe to you the sensations of the poor cashier as he beheld this amazing beauty! He could hardly stammer out a few incoherent words; and the gentleman and the young lady had long since left, when he was still lost in a kind of idiotic delight. He had been overtaken by one of those overwhelming passions which sometimes felled to the ground the strongest and simplest of men at the age of forty.
"Alas! Sarah had but too keenly noticed the impression she had produced. To be sure, Malgat was very far from that ideal of a millionaire husband of whom these adventurers dreamed; but, after all, he held the keys of a safe in which lay millions. One might always get something out of him wherewith to wait for better things to come. Their plan was soon formed.
"The very next day M. Elgin presented himself alone at the office to ask for some information. He returned three days after with another draft. By the end of the week, he had furnished Malgat with an opportunity to render him some trifling service. Thus relations began to exist between them; and, at the end of a fortnight, Sir Thorn could, with all propriety, ask the cashier to dine with him in Circus Street. A voice from within--one of those presentiments to which we ought always to listen--warned Malgat not to accept the invitation; but he was already no longer his own master.
"He went to dinner in Circus Street, and he left it madly in love.
"He had felt as if Sarah Brandon's eyes had been all the time upon him,--those strange, sublimely beautiful eyes, which upset our very being within us, weakening the most powerful energy, troubling the senses, and leading reason astray--eyes which dazzle, enchant, and bewitch.
"The commonest politeness required that Malgat should call upon Mrs. Brian and M. Elgin. This call was followed by many others. A man less blinded by passion might have become suspicious at the eagerness with which these wretches, driven by necessity, carried on their intrigue. Six weeks after their first meeting, Malgat fancied that Sarah was wildly in love with him. It was absurd, most assuredly; it was foolish, insane. Nevertheless, he believed it. He thought those rapturous glances were genuine; he believed in the truthfulness of that intoxicating sweetness of her voice, and those enchanting blushes, which his coming never failed to call forth.
"Now began the second act of the hideous comedy. Mrs. Brian appeared one day, all of a sudden, to notice something, and promptly requested Malgat never to put foot again within that house. She accused him of an attempt to seduce Sarah Brandon. I dare say, you can imagine, the fool! how he protested, affirming the purity of his intentions, and swearing that he would be the happiest of mortals if they would condescend to grant him the hand of her niece. But Sir Thorn, in the haughtiest tone possible, asked him how he could dare think of such a thing, and presume that he could ever be a fit match for a young lady who had a dower of two hundred thousand dollars.
"Malgat left with tottering steps, despair in his heart, and resolved to kill himself. When he returned home, he actually went to look among his curiosities for an old flint-lock pistol, and began to load it.
"Ah! why did he not kill himself then? He would have carried his deceptive illusions and his unstained honor with him to the grave.
"He was just about to make his will when they brought him a letter from Sarah. She wrote thus:--
"'When a girl like myself loves, she loves for life, and she is his whom she loves, or she is nobody's. If your love is true, if dangers and difficulties terrify you no more than they terrify me, knock to-morrow night, at ten o'clock, at the gate of the court. I will open.'
"Mad with joy and hope, Malgat went to the fatal meeting. Do you know what happened? Sarah fell around his neck, and said,--
"'I love you. Let us run away.'
"Ah! if he had taken her at her word, and answered her, offering her his arm,--
"'Yes, let us flee,' the plot might have been defeated, and he might have been saved; for she would certainly not have gone with him.
"But with that clear perception which was a perfect marvel in her, and looked like the gift of second sight, she had taken the measure of the cashier, and exposed herself to the danger, well-knowing that he would shrink from doing what she asked.
"He did shrink, the idiot! he was afraid. He said to himself that it would be a mean thing to abuse the attachment of this pure and trustful girl, to separate her from her family, and to ruin her forever.
"He did have this wonderful power of self-denial to dissuade her from taking such a step, and to induce her to be patient, giving time an opportunity of coming to their assistance, while he would do all he could to overcome the obstacles in the way.
"For hours after he had left Sarah Brandon, Malgat had not recovered from the excitement; and he would have thought the whole a dream, but for the penetrating perfume which his clothes still retained where she had rested her beautiful head. But, when he at last began to examine his position, he came to the conclusion that he had indulged in childish illusions, and that he could never hope to satisfy the demands made by M. Elgin and Mrs. Brian. There was but one way, a single way, by which he could ever hope to obtain possession of this woman whom he worshipped; and that was the one she had herself proposed,--an abduction. To determine upon such a step, however, was for Malgat to end his peaceful life forever, to lose his place, to abandon the past, and to venture upon an unknown future. But how could he reason at a moment when his whole mind was filled with thoughts of the most amazing happiness that ever was enjoyed by mortal being?
"Whenever he thought of flight, there arose before him one obstacle which he could not overcome. He had no money. How could he expose this rich heiress, who left all for his sake, this beautiful girl, who was accustomed to every imaginable luxury, to want and humiliation? No; that he could never dare. And yet his whole available capital did not amount to three thousand dollars. His fortune was invested in those curiosities that were piled up all over his rooms,--beautiful objects to his eyes in former days, but now hateful, and annoying to behold. He knew they represented a large sum, quite a respectable fortune; but such collections cannot be sold overnight; and time was pressing.
"He had seen Sarah several times secretly; and each time she had appeared to him more mournful and dejected. She could bring him nothing but most distressing news. Mrs. Brian spoke of giving her in marriage to a friend of hers. M. Elgin proposed to take her abroad. And, with such troubles filling his head, the poor cashier had to attend to his daily duties, and from morning till night receive tens and hundreds of thousands; and never yet, I swear it, the thought occurred to him of taking a small fraction of these treasures.
"He had determined to sell all his collections as a whole, at any price he could get, when one day, a few moments before the office closed, a lady appeared, whose ample dress concealed her figure, while a thick veil completely shrouded her features.
"This lady raised her veil. It was she. It was Sarah Brandon.
"Malgat begged her to enter. He was overcome. What new misfortune had happened to induce her to take such a step? She told him in a few words.
"Sir Thorn had found out their secret meetings: he had told her to be ready to start for Philadelphia the next morning.
"The crisis had come. They must choose now between two things,--either to flee that very day, or be separated forever.
"Ah! never had Sarah been so beautiful as at this moment, when she seemed to be maddened by grief; never had her whole personal beauty exhaled such powerful, such irresistible charms. Her breath went and came, causing her almost to sob at every respiration; and big tears, like scattered beads from a chaplet of pearls, rolled down her pale cheeks.
"Malgat stood a moment before her, stunned by the blow; and the imminence of the danger extorted from him a confession of the reasons that had made him hesitate so long. He told her, cruelly humiliated by the avowal, that he had no money.
"But she rose when she heard it, as if she had been stung by an insult, and repeated with crushing irony,--
"'No money? No money?'
"And when Malgat, more heartily ashamed of his poverty than he could have been of a crime, blushed to the roots of his hair, she pointed at the immense safe, which overflowed with gold and bank-notes, and said,--
"'And what is all that?'
"Malgat jumped up, and stood before the safe, his arms far outstretched, as if to defend it, and said in an accent of ineffable terror,--
"'What are you thinking of? And my honor?'
"This was to be his last effort to preserve his honor. Sarah looked him straight in the face, and said slowly,--
"'And my honor! My honor is nothing to you? Do I not give myself? Do you mean to drive a bargain?'
"Great God! She said this with an accent and with a look which would have tempted an angel. Malgat fell helpless into a chair.
"Then she came close up to him, and, casting upon him those burning glances which blazed with superhuman audacity, she sighed,--
"'If you loved me really! Ah, if you really loved me!'
"And she bent over him, tremulous with passion, watching his features so closely, that their lips nearly touched.
"'If you loved me as I love you,' she whispered again.
"It was all over; Malgat was lost. He drew Sarah towards him, and said, kissing her,--
"'Very well then. Yes!'
"She immediately disengaged herself, and with eager hands seized one parcel of bank-notes after another, pushing them into a little morocco bag which she held in her hand. And, when the bag was full, she said,--
"'Now we are safe. To-night at ten o'clock, at the gate of the court- yard, with a carriage. To-morrow, at daybreak, we shall be out of France, and free. Now we are bound to each other forever,--and I love you!'
"And she went away. And he let her go away."
The old gentleman had become ghastly white, his few hairs seemed to stand on end, and large drops of perspiration inundated his face as he swallowed at a gulp a cup of tea, and then went on, laughing bitterly,--
"You suppose, no doubt, that, when Sarah had left him, Malgat came to himself? By no means. It seemed as if, with that kiss, with which she had paid him for his crime, the infamous creature had inspired him with the same genius for evil that was in her.
"Far from repenting, he rejoiced at what had been done; and when he learned, that, on the following day, the board of directors were to meet to examine the books, he laughed at the faces they would make; for I told you he was mad. With all the coolness of a hardened thief, he calculated the total amount of what had been abstracted: it was four hundred thousand francs. Immediately, in order to conceal the true state of things, he took his books, and, with almost diabolic skill, altered the figures, and changed the entries, so as to make it appear that the defalcation was of long date, and that various sums had been abstracted for several months. When he had finished his fearful task, he wrote to the board a hypocritical letter, in which he stated that he had robbed the safe in order to pay his differences on 'Change, and that now, when he could no longer conceal his crime, he was going to commit suicide. When this was done, he left his office, as if nothing had happened.
"The proof that he acted under the incomprehensible influence of a kind of hallucination is this, that he felt neither remorse nor fear. As he was resolved not to return to his house, nor to encumber himself with luggage, he dined at a restaurant, spent a few minutes at a theatre, and then posted his letter to the board of directors, so that it might reach them early in the morning.
"At ten o'clock he knocked at the gate of the house in Circus Street. A servant came and opened, saying in a mysterious manner,--
"'Please go up. The young lady is waiting.'
"A terrible presentiment seized him at that moment, and chilled him to the marrow in his bones. In the parlor Sarah was sitting on a sofa, and Maxime de Brevan by her side. They were laughing so loud, that he heard them in the anteroom. When Malgat entered, she raised her head with a dissatisfied air, and said rudely,--
"'Ah! It is you. What do you want now?'
"Surely, such a reception ought to have disabused the unfortunate man. But no! When he began to stammer some explanations, she interrupted him, saying,--
"'Let us speak frankly. You come to run away with me, don't you? Well, that is simply nonsense. Look at yourself, my good friend, and tell me if a girl such as I am can be in love with a man like you. As to that small loan, it does not pay me, I assure you, by half, for the sublime little comedy which I have had to play. Believe me, at all events, when I tell you that I have taken all my precautions so as not to be troubled by anything you may say or do. And now, sir, I wish you good-evening; or must I go?'
"Ah! she might have spoken a long time yet, and Malgat would not have thought of interrupting her. The fearful truth broke all of a sudden upon him; and he felt as if the whole world were going to pieces. He understood the enormity of the crime; he discerned the fatal consequences, and knew he was ruined. A thousand voices arose from his conscience, telling him, 'You are a thief! You are a forger! You are dishonored!'
"But, when he saw Sarah Brandon get up to leave the room, he was seized with an attack of furious rage, and threw himself upon her, crying,--
"'Yes, I am lost; but you shall die, Sarah Brandon!'
"Poor fool! who did not know that these wretches had, of course, foreseen his wrath, and prepared for the emergency. Supple, like one of those lost children of the gutter among whom she had lived once upon a time, Sarah Brandon escaped from Malgat's grasp, and by a clever trick threw him upon an arm-chair. Before he could rise again, he was held fast by Maxime de Brevan, and by M. Elgin, who had heard the noise, and rushed in from the adjoining room.
"The poor man did not attempt to resist. Why should he? Within him, moreover, a faint hope began to rise. It seemed to him impossible that such a monstrous wrong could be carried out, and that he would have only to proclaim the wickedness of these wretches to have them in his power.
"'Let me go!' he said. 'I must go!'
"But they did not allow him to go as yet. They guessed what was going on in his mind. Sir Thorn asked him coolly,--
"'Where do you think of going? Do you mean to denounce us? Have a care! You would only sacrifice yourself, without doing us any harm. If you think you can use Sarah's letter, in which she appoints a meeting, as a weapon against us, you are mistaken. She did not write that letter; and, moreover, she can prove an alibi. You see we have prepared everything for this business during the last three months; and nothing has been left to chance. Do not forget that I have commissioned you twenty times to buy or sell for me on 'Change, and that it was always done in your name, at my request. How can you say you did not speculate on 'Change?'
"The poor cashier's heart sank within him. Had he not himself, for fear lest a suspicion should fall upon Sarah Brandon, told the board of directors in his letter that he had been tempted by unlucky speculations? Had he not altered the entries in the books in order to prove this assertion? Would they believe him if he were to tell the truth? Whom could he ever hope to persuade that what was probable was false, and that the improbable was true? Sir Thorn continued with his horrid sneers,--
"'Have you forgotten the letters which you wrote me for the purpose of borrowing money from me, and in which you confess your defalcations? Here they are. You can read them.'
"These letters, M. Champcey, are those which Sarah showed you; and Malgat was frightened out of his senses. He had never written such letters; and yet there was his handwriting, imitated with such amazing perfection, that he began to doubt his own senses and his own reason. He only saw clearly that no one would look upon them as forgeries.
"Ah! Maxime de Brevan is an artist. His letter to the navy department has, no doubt, proved it to you.
"Seeing Malgat thus stupefied, Sarah took the word, and said,--
"'Look here, my dear; I'll give you some advice. Here are ten thousand francs: take them, and run for your life. It is time yet to take the train for Brussels.'
"But he rose, and said,--
"'No! There is nothing left for me but to die. May my blood come upon you!'
"And he rushed out, pursued by the insulting laugh of the wretches."
Amazed at the inconceivable boldness of this atrocious plot, Daniel and Henrietta were shuddering with horror. As to Mrs. Bertolle, she had sunk into a chair, trembling in all her limbs. The old gentleman, however, continued with evident haste,--
"Whether Malgat did, or did not, commit suicide, he was never heard of again. The trial came on, and he was condemned in contumaciam to ten years' penal servitude. Sarah, also, was examined by a magistrate; but she made it a success.
"And that was all. And this crime, one of the most atrocious ever conceived by human wickedness, went to swell the long list of unpunished outrages. The robbers triumphed impudently in broad daylight. They had four hundred thousand francs. They could retire from business.
"No, indeed! Twenty thousand francs a year was far too little for their immoderate desires! They accepted this fortune as an installment on account on the future, and used it to wait patiently for new victims to be stripped.
"Unfortunately, such victims would not show themselves. The house was mounted upon a most expensive footing. M. de Brevan had, of course, claimed his share; Sir Thorn was a gambler; Sarah loved diamonds; and grim Mrs. Brian had her own vices. In short, the hour came when danger was approaching; but, just at that moment, Sarah, looking around, met with the unlucky victim she needed.
"This one was a handsome young man, almost a child yet, kind, generous, and chivalrous. He was an orphan, and came up from his province, his heart full of illusions, and in his pockets his entire fortune,--a sum of five hundred thousand francs. His name was Charles de Kergrist.
"Maxime managed to bring him to the house in Circus Street. He saw Sarah, and was dazzled. He loved her, and was lost.
"Ah! The poor fellow did not last long. At the end of five months, his half million was in the hands of Sarah. And, when he had not a cent left, she well-nigh forced him to write her three forged drafts, swearing, that, on the day on which they became due, she would take them up herself. But when the day came, and he called in Circus Street, he was received as Malgat had been received. They told him that the forgery had been discovered: that suit had been brought; that he was ruined. They offered him, also, money to flee.
"Poor Kergrist! They had not miscalculated. Descended from a family in which a keen sense of honor had been hereditary for many generations, he did not hesitate. As soon as he left the house, he hanged himself on Sarah's window, thinking that he would thus hold up to public censure the infamous creature who had led him to commit a crime.
"Poor child! They had deceived him. He was not ruined. The forgery had never been discovered; the drafts had never been used at all. A careful investigation revealed nothing against Sarah Brandon; but the scandals of the suicide diminished her prestige. She felt it; and, giving up her dreams of greatness, she thought of marrying a fool who was immensely wealthy, M. Wilkie Gordon, when Sir Thorn spoke to her of Count Ville-Handry.
"In fortune, name, and age, the count was exactly what Sarah had dreamed of so often. She threw herself upon him.
"How the old gentleman was drawn to Circus Street; how he was surrounded, insnared, intoxicated, and finally made a husband--all that you know but too well, M. Champcey. But what you do not know is the fact that this marriage brought discord into the camp. M. de Brevan would not hear of it; and it was the hope he had of breaking it up, which made him speak to you so frankly of Sarah Brandon. When you went to ask his advice, he was on bad terms with her: she had turned him off, and refused to pay him any money. And he was so mortally offended, that he would have betrayed her to the courts even, if he had known how to do it without inculpating himself.
"You were the very person to reconcile them again, inasmuch as you gave Maxime an opportunity of rendering Sarah Brandon a great service.
"He did not then anticipate that she would ever fall in love with you, and that she, in her turn, would have to succumb to one of those desperate passions which she had so often kindled in others, and used for her own advantage. This discovery made him furious; and Sarah's love, and Maxime's rage, will explain to you the double plot by which you were victimized. Sarah, who loved you, wanted to get rid of Henrietta, who was your betrothed: Maxime, stung by jealousy, wanted you to die."
Visibly overcome by fatigue, Papa Ravinet fell back in his chair, and remained silent for more than five minutes. Then he seemed to make one more effort, and went on,--
"Now, let us sum up the whole. I know how Sarah, Sir Thorn, and Mrs. Brian have gone to work to rob Count Ville-Handry, and to ruin him. I know what they have done with the millions which they report were lost in speculations; and I have the evidence in my hand. Therefore, I can ruin them, without reference to their other crimes. Crochard's affidavit alone suffices to ruin M. de Brevan. The two Chevassats, husband and wife, have caught themselves by keeping the four thousand francs you sent to Miss Henrietta. We have them safe, the wretches! The hour of vengeance has come at last."
Henrietta did not let him conclude: she interrupted him, saying,--
"And my father, sir, my father?"
"M. Champcey will save him, madam."
Daniel had risen, deeply moved, and now asked,--
"What am I to do?"
"You must call on the Countess Sarah, and look as if you had forgotten all that has happened,--as far as she is concerned, Miss Henrietta."
The young officer blushed all over, and stammered painfully,--
"Ah, I cannot play that part! I would not be able."
But Henrietta stopped him. Laying her hand on his shoulder, and looking deep into the eyes of her betrothed, as if to search the very depths of his conscience, she said,--
"Have you reasons for hesitating?"
He hung his head, and said,--
"I shall go."
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