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When Henrietta saw how the young officer was overcome by the mere mention of that name, Sarah Brandon, she felt the blood turn to ice in her veins. She knew perfectly well that a man like Daniel was not likely to be so utterly overwhelmed unless there was something fearful, unheard of, in the matter.
"Do you know the woman, Daniel?"
But he, regretting his want of self-possession, was already thinking how he could make amends for his imprudence.
"I swear to you," he began.
"Oh, don't swear! I see you know who she is."
"I know nothing about her."
"It is true I have heard people talk of her once, a long time ago."
"One of my friends, Maxime de Brevan, a fine, noble fellow."
"What sort of a woman is she?"
"Ah, me! that I cannot tell you. Maxime happened to mention her just in passing; and I never thought that one of these days I should--If I seemed to be so very much surprised just now, it was because I remembered, all of a sudden, a very ugly story in which Maxime said she had been involved, and then"--
He was ridiculous in his inability to tell a fib; so, when he found that he was talking nonsense, he turned his head away to avoid Henrietta's eyes. She interrupted him, and said reproachfully,--
"Do you really think I am not strong enough to hear the truth?"
At first he did not reply. Overcome by the strange position in which he found himself, he looked for a way to escape, and found none. At last he said,--
"Miss Henrietta, you must give me time before I tell you any more. I know nothing positive; and I dare say I am unnecessarily alarmed. I will tell you all as soon as I am better informed."
"When will that be?"
"To-night, if I can find Maxime de Brevan at home, as I hope I shall do; if I miss him, you must wait till to-morrow."
"And if your suspicions turn out to be well founded; if what you fear, and hide from me now, is really so,--what must I do then?"
Without a moment's hesitation, he rose and said in a solemn voice,--
"I am not going to tell you again how I love you, Henrietta; I am not going to tell you that to lose you would be death to me, and that in our family we do not value life very highly; you know that, don't you? But, in spite of all that, if my fears should be well founded, as I apprehend they are, I should not hesitate to say to you, whatever might be the consequences, Henrietta, and even if we should have to part forever, we must try our utmost, we must employ all possible means in our power, to prevent a marriage between Count Ville-Handry and Sarah Brandon."
In spite of all her sufferings, Henrietta felt her heart bounding with unspeakable happiness and joy. Ah! he deserved to be loved,--this man whom her heart had freely chosen among them all,--this man who gave her such an overwhelming proof of his love. She offered him her hand; and, with her eyes beaming with enthusiasm and tenderness, she said,--
"And I, I swear by the sacred memory of my mother, that whatever may happen, and whatever force they may choose to employ, I shall never belong to any one but to you."
Daniel had seized her hand, and held it for some time pressed to his lips. At last, when his rapture gave way to calmer thoughts, he said,--
"I must leave you at once, Henrietta, if I want to catch Maxime."
As he left, his head was in a whirl, his thoughts in a maze. His life and his happiness were at stake; and a single word would decide his fate in spite of all he could do.
A cab was passing; he hailed it, jumped in, and cried to the driver,--
"Go quick, I say! You shall have five francs! No. 61 Rue Laffitte!"
That was the house where Maxime de Brevan lived.
He was a man of thirty or thirty-five years, remarkably well made, light-haired, wearing a full beard, with a bright eye, and pleasing face. Mixing on intimate terms with the men who make up what is called high life, and with whom pleasure is the only occupation, he was very popular with them all. They said he was a man that could always be relied upon, at all times ready to render you a service when it was in his power, a pleasant companion, and an excellent second whenever a friend had to fight a duel.
In fine, neither slander nor calumny had ever attacked his reputation. And yet, far from following the advice of the philosopher, who tells us to keep our life from the eye of the public, Maxime de Brevan seemed to take pains to let everybody into his secrets. He was so anxious to tell everybody where he had been, and what he had been doing, that you might have imagined he was always preparing to prove an alibi.
Thus he told the whole world that the Brevans came originally from the province of Maine, and that he was the last, the sole representative, of that old family. Not that he prided himself particularly on his ancestors; he acknowledged frankly that there was very little left of their ancient splendor; in fact, nothing but a bare support. But he never said what this "support" amounted to; his most intimate friends could not tell whether he had one thousand or ten thousand a year. So much only was certain, that, to his great honor and glory, he had solved the great problem of preserving his independence and his dignity while associating, a comparatively poor man, with the richest young men of Paris.
His rooms were simple and unpretending; and he kept but a single servant--his carriage he hired by the month.
How had Maxime Brevan become Daniel's friend? In the simplest possible way. They had been introduced to each other at a great ball by a common friend of theirs, a lieutenant in the navy. About one o'clock in the morning they had gone home together; and as the moon was shining brightly, the weather was mild, and the walking excellent, they had loitered about the Place de la Concorde while smoking their cigars.
Had Maxime really felt such warm sympathy for his friend? Perhaps so. At all events, Daniel had been irresistibly attracted by the peculiar ways of Maxime, and especially by the cool stoicism with which he spoke of his genteel poverty. Then they had met again, and finally became intimate.
Brevan was just dressing for the opera when Daniel entered his room. He uttered a cry of delight when he saw him, as he always did.
"What!" he said, "the hermit student from the other side of the river in this worldly region, and at this hour? What good wind blows you over here?"
Then, suddenly noticing Daniel's terrified appearance, he added,--
"But what am I talking about? You look frightened out of your wits. What's the matter?"
"A great misfortune, I fear," replied Daniel.
"How so? What is it?"
"And I want you to help me."
"Don't you know that I am at your service?"
Daniel certainly thought so.
"I thank you in advance, my dear Maxime; but I do not wish to give you too much trouble. I have a long story to tell you, and you are just going out"--
But Brevan interrupted him, shaking his head kindly, and saying,--
"I was only going out for want of something better to do, upon my word! So sit down, and tell me all."
Daniel had been so overcome by terror, and the fear that he might possibly lose Henrietta, that he had run to his friend without considering what he was going to tell him. Now, when the moment came to speak, he was silent. The thought had just occurred to him, that Count Ville-Handry's secret was not his own, and that he was in duty bound not to betray it, if possible, even if he could have absolutely relied upon his friend's discretion.
He did not reply, therefore, but walked up and down the room, seeking in vain some plausible excuse, and suffering perfect agony. This continued so long, that Maxime, who had of late heard much of diseases of the brain, asked himself if Daniel could possibly have lost his mind.
No; for suddenly his friend stopped before him, and said in a short, sharp tone,--
"First of all, Maxime, swear that you will never, under any circumstances, say to any human being a word of what I am going to tell you."
Thoroughly mystified, Brevan raised his hand, and said,--
"I pledge my word of honor!"
This promise seemed to re-assure Daniel; and, when he thought he had recovered sufficient control over himself, he said,--
"Some months ago, my dear friend, I heard you telling somebody a horrible story concerning a certain Mrs. Sarah Brandon"--
"Miss, if you please, not Mrs."
"Well, it does not matter. You know her?"
"Certainly. Everybody knows her."
Daniel did not notice the extreme self-conceit with which these words were uttered.
"All right, then. Now, Maxime, I conjure you, by our friendship, tell me frankly what you think of her. What kind of a woman is this Miss Brandon?"
His features, as well as his voice, betrayed such extreme excitement, that Brevan was almost stunned. At last he said,--
"But, my dear fellow, you ask me that in a manner"--
"I must know the truth, I tell you. It is of the utmost importance to me."
Brevan, struck by a sudden thought, touched his forehead, and exclaimed,--
"Oh, I see! You are in love with Sarah!"
Daniel would never have thought of such a subterfuge in order to avoid mentioning the name of Count Ville-Handry; but, seeing it thus offered to him, he determined to profit by the opportunity.
"Well, yes, suppose it is so," he said with a sigh.
Maxime raised his hands to heaven, and said in a tone of painful conviction,--
"In that case you are right. You ought to inquire; for you may be close upon a terrible misfortune."
"Ah, is she really so formidable?"
Maxime shrugged his shoulders, as if he were impatient at being called upon to prove a well-known fact, and said,--
"I should think so."
There seemed to be no reason why Daniel should persist in his questions after that. Those words ought to have been explanation enough. Nevertheless he said in a subdued voice,--
"Pray explain, Maxime! Don't you know, that, as I lead a very quiet life, I know nothing?"
Brevan, looking more serious than he had ever done, rose and replied, leaning against the mantlepiece,--
"What would you have me tell you? It is only fools who call out to lovers to beware; and to warn a man who will not be warned, is useless. Are you really in love with Miss Sarah, or are you not? If you are, nothing that I could say would change your mind. Suppose I were to tell you that this Sarah is a wretched creature, an infamous forger, who has already the death of three poor devils on her conscience, who loved her as you do? Suppose I told you worse things than these, and could prove them? Do you know what would happen? You would press my hand with effusion. You would overwhelm me with thanks, tears in your eye. You would vow, in the candor of your heart, that you are forever cured, and, when you leave me"--
"You would rush to your beloved, tell her all I said, and beseech her to clear herself of all these charges."
"I beg your pardon; I am not one of those men who"--
But Brevan was getting more and more excited. He interrupted his friend, and said,--
"Nonsense! You are a man like all other men. Passion does not reason, does not calculate; and that is the secret of its strength. As long as we have a spark of commonsense left, we are not really in love. That is so, I tell you; and no will, no amount of energy, can do any thing with it. There are people who tell you soberly that they have been in love without losing their senses, and reproach you for not keeping cool. Bosh! Those people remind me of still champagne blaming sparkling champagne for popping off the cork. And now, my dear fellow, have the kindness to accept this cigar, and let us take a walk."
Was that really so as Brevan said? Was it true that real love destroys in us the faculty of reasoning, and of distinguishing truth from falsehood? Did he really not love Henrietta truly, because he was on the point of giving her up for the sake of doing his duty?
Oh, no, no! Brevan had been speaking of another kind of love,--a love neither pure nor chaste. He spoke of those passions which suddenly strike us down like lightning; which confound our senses, and mislead our judgment; which destroy every thing, as fire does, and leave nothing behind but disaster and disgrace and remorse.
But all the more painful became Daniel's thoughts as he remembered that Count Ville-Handry was overcome by one of these terrible passions for a worthless creature. He could not accept Maxime's offer.
"One word, I pray you," he said. "Suppose I lose my free will, and surrender absolutely; what will become of me?"
Brevan looked at him with an air of pity, and said,--
"Not much will happen to you; only"--
And then he added with almost sternness, mixed with bitter sarcasm,--
"You ask me for your horoscope? Be it so. Have you a large fortune?"
"About fifty thousand dollars."
"Well, in six months they will be gone; in a year you will be overwhelmed with debts, and at your wits' end; in less than a year and a half, you will have become a forger."
"Ah! You asked me to tell you the truth. Then, as to your social position. Now it is excellent; you have been promoted as rapidly as merit could claim, everybody says. You will be an admiral one of these days. But in six months you will be nothing at all; you will have resigned your commission, or you will have been dismissed."
"No. You are an honest man, the most honorable man I know; after six months' acquaintance with Sarah Brandon, you will have lost your self- respect so completely, that you will have become a drunkard. There is your picture. 'It's not flattered!' you will say. But you wanted to have it. And now let us go."
This time he was determined; and Daniel saw that he would not obtain another word from him, unless he changed his tactics. He held him back, therefore, a moment; and, as he opened the door, he said,--
"Maxime, you must pardon me a very innocent deception, which was suggested by your own words. It is not I who am in love with Miss Sarah Brandon."
Brevan was so much surprised, he could not stir.
"Who is it, then?" he asked.
"One of my friends."
"I wish you would render the service I ask of you doubly valuable by not asking me that question,--at least, not to-day."
Daniel spoke with such an accent of truth, that not a shadow of doubt remained on Maxime's mind. It was not Daniel who had fallen in love with Sarah Brandon. Brevan did not doubt that for a moment. But he could not conceal his trouble, and his disappointment even, as he exclaimed,--
"Well done, Daniel! Tell me that your ingenuous people cannot deceive anybody!"
However, he said nothing more about it; and, while Daniel was pouring out his excuses, he quietly went back to the fire, and sat down. After a moment's silence, he began again,--
"Let us assume, then, that it is one of your friends who is bewitched?"
"And the matter is--serious?"
"Alas! He talks of marrying that woman."
Maxime shrugged his shoulders contemptuously, and said,--
"As to that, console yourself. Sarah will never consent."
"So far from that, she herself has made the suggestion."
This time, Maxime raised his head suddenly, and looked stupefied.
"Then your friend must be very rich."
"He is immensely rich."
"He bears a great name, and holds a high position?"
"His name is one of the oldest and noblest in the province of Anjou."
"And he is a very old man?"
"He is sixty-five."
Brevan struck the marble slab of the mantlepiece with his fist so that it shook, and exclaimed,--
"Ah, she told me she would succeed!"
And then he added in a very low tone of voice, as if speaking to himself with an indescribable accent of mingled admiration and hatred,--
"What a woman! Oh, what a woman!"
Daniel, who was himself greatly excited, and far too busy with his own thoughts to observe what was going on, did not notice the excitement of his friend; he continued quietly,--
"Now you will understand my great curiosity. In order to prevent the scandal of such a marriage, my friend's family would do every thing in the world. But how can you attack a woman of whose antecedents and mode of life nothing is known?"
"Yes, I understand," said Brevan,--"I understand."
His features betrayed that he was making a great mental effort. He remained for some time absorbed in his thoughts; and at last he said, as if coming to a decision,--
"No, I do not see any way to prevent this marriage; none at all."
"Still, from what you told me"--
"About the cupidity of this woman."
"If she were offered a large sum, some eighty or a hundred thousand dollars?"
Maxime laughed out loud; but there was not the true ring in his laughter.
"You might offer her two hundred thousand, and she would laugh at you. Do you think she would be fool enough to content herself with a fraction of a fortune, if she can have the whole, with a great name and a high position into the bargain?"
Daniel opened his lips to present another suggestion; but Maxime, laying aside his usual half-dreamy, mocking manner, said, as if roused by a matter of great personal interest,--
"You do not understand me, my dear friend. Miss Brandon is not one of those vulgar hawks, who, in broad daylight, seize upon a poor pigeon, pluck it alive, and cast it aside, still living, and bleeding all over."
"Then, Maxime, she must be"--
"Well, I tell you you misapprehend her. Miss Brandon"--
He stopped suddenly, and looking at Daniel with a glance with which a judge examines the features of a criminal, he added in an almost threatening voice,--
"By telling you what little I know about her, Daniel, I give you the highest proof of confidence which one man can give to another. I love you too dearly to exact your promise to be discreet. If you ever mention my name in connection with this affair, if you ever let any one suspect that you learned what I am going to tell you from me, you will dishonor yourself."
Daniel, deeply moved, seized his friend's hand, and, pressing it most affectionately, said,--
"Ah, you know Daniel Champcey is to be relied upon."
Maxime knew it; for he continued,--
"Miss Sarah Brandon is one of those female cosmopolitan adventurers, whom steam brings nowadays to us from all the four quarters of the world. Like so many others, she, also, has come to Paris to spread her net, and catch her birds, But she is made of finer stuff than most of them, and more clever. Her ambition soars higher; and she possesses a real genius for intrigues. She means to have a fortune, and is willing to pay any price for it; but she is also desirous to be respected in the world.
"I should not be surprised if anybody told me Miss Sarah was born within ten miles of Paris; but she calls herself an American. The fact is, she speaks English like an Englishwoman, and knows a great deal more of America than you know of Paris. I have heard her tell the story of her family to a large and attentive audience; but I do not say that I believed it.
"According to her own account, M. Brandon, her father, a thoroughbred Yankee, was a man of great enterprise and energy, who was ten times rich, and as often wretchedly poor again in his life, but died leaving several millions. This Brandon, she says, was a banker and broker in New York when the civil war broke out. He entered the army, and in less than six months, thanks to his marvellous energy, he rose to be a general. When peace came, he was without occupation, and did not know what on earth to do with himself. Fortunately, his good star led him into a region where large tracts of land happened to be for sale. He bought them for a few thousand dollars, and soon after discovered on his purchase the most productive oil-wells in all America. He was just about to be another Peabody when a fearful accident suddenly ended his life; he was burnt in an enormous fire that destroyed one of his establishments.
"As to her mother, Miss Sarah says she lost her when she was quite young, in a most romantic, though horrible manner"--
"What!" broke in Daniel, "has nobody taken the trouble to ascertain if all these statements are true?"
"I am sure I do not know. This much is certain, that sometimes curious facts leak out. For instance, I have fallen in with Americans who have known a broker Brandon, a Gen. Brandon, a Petroleum Brandon."
"He may have borrowed the name."
"Certainly, especially when the original man is said to have died in America. However, Miss Brandon has been living now for five years in Paris. She came here accompanied by a Mrs. Brian, a relative of hers, who is the dryest, boniest person you can imagine, but at the same time the slyest woman I have ever seen. She also brought with her a kind of protector, a Mr. Thomas Elgin, also a relation of hers, a most extraordinary man, stiff like a poker, but evidently a dangerous man, who never opens his mouth except when he eats. He is a famous hand at small-swords, however, and snuffs his candle, nine times out of ten, at a distance of thirty yards. This Mr. Thomas Elgin, whom the world calls familiarly Sir Thorn, and Mrs. Brian, always stay with Miss Sarah.
"When she first arrived, Miss Sarah established herself in a house near the Champs Elysees, which she furnished most sumptuously. Sir Thorn, who is a jockey of the first water, had discovered a pair of gray horses for her which made a sensation at the Bois de Boulogne, and drew everybody's attention to their fair owner. Heaven knows how she had managed to get a number of letters of introduction. But certainly two or three of the most influential members of the American colony here received her at their houses. After that, all was made easy. Gradually she crept into society; and now she is welcome almost everywhere, and visits, not only at the best houses, but even in certain families which have a reputation of being quite exclusive.
"In fine, if she has enemies, she has also fanatic partisans. If some people say she is a wretch, others--and they are by no means the least clever--tell you that she is an angel, only wanting wings to fly away from this wicked world. They talk of her as of a poor little orphan- girl, whom people slander atrociously because they envy her youth, her beauty, her splendor."
"Ah, is she so rich?"
"Miss Brandon spends at least twenty thousand dollars a year."
"And no one inquires where they come from?"
"From her sainted father's petroleum-wells, my dear fellow. Petroleum explains everything."
Brevan seemed to feel a kind of savage delight in seeing Daniel's despair, and in explaining to him most minutely how solidly, and how skilfully Miss Sarah Brandon's position in the world had been established. Had he any expectation to prevent a struggle with her by exaggerating her strength? Or rather, knowing Daniel as he did,--far better, unfortunately, than he was known by him,--was he trying to irritate him more and more against this formidable adversary?
At all events, he continued in that icy tone which gives to sarcasm its greatest bitterness,--
"Besides, my dear Daniel, if you are ever introduced at Miss Brandon's,--and I pray you will believe me, people are not so easily introduced there,--you will be dumfounded at first by the tone that prevails in that house. The air is filled with a perfume of hypocrisy which would rejoice the stiffest of Quakers. Cant rules supreme there, putting a lock to the mouth, and a check to the eyes."
Daniel began evidently to be utterly bewildered.
"But how, how can you reconcile that," he said, "with the thoroughly worldly life of Miss Brandon?"
"Oh, very easily, my dear fellow! and there you see the sublime policy of the three rogues. To the outer world, Miss Brandon is all levity, indiscretion, coquettishness, and even worse. She drives herself, shortens her petticoats, and cuts down her dress-bodies atrociously. She says she has a right to do as she pleases, according to the code of laws which govern American young ladies. But at home she bows to the taste and the wishes of her relative, Mrs. Brian, who displays all the extreme prudishness of the austerest Puritan. Then she has that stiff, tall Sir Thorn ever at her side, who never jokes. Oh! they understand each other perfectly; the parts are carefully distributed, and"--
Daniel showed that he was utterly discouraged.
"There is no way, then, of getting hold of this woman?" he asked.
"I think not."
"But that adventure of which you spoke some time ago?"
"Which? That with poor Kergrist?"
"How do I know which? It was a fearful story; that is all I remember. What did I, at that time, care for Miss Brandon? Now, to be sure"--
Brevan shook his head, and said,--
"Now, you think that story might become a weapon in your hands? No, Daniel. Still it is not a very long one; and I can now tell it to you more in detail than I could before.
"About fifteen months ago, there arrived in Paris a nice young man called Charles de Kergrist. He had lost as yet none of his illusions, being barely twenty-five years old, and having something like a hundred thousand dollars of his own. He saw Miss Brandon, and instantly 'took fire.' He fell desperately in love with her. What his relations were with her, no one can tell positively,--I mean with sufficient evidence to carry conviction to others,--for the young man was a model of discretion. But what became only too well known was the fact, that, about eight months later, the people living near Miss Brandon's house saw one morning, when the shutters were opened, a corpse dangling at a distance of a few feet above the ground from the iron fastenings of the lady's window. Upon inspection, the dead man proved to be that unlucky Kergrist. In the pocket of his overcoat a letter was found, in which he declared that he committed suicide because an unreturned affection had made life unbearable to him. Now, this letter--mark the fact--was open; that is to say, it had been sealed, and the seal was broken."
"Let me finish. The accident, as you may imagine, made a tremendous noise. The family took it up. An inquest was held; and it was found that the hundred thousand dollars which Kergrist had brought with him had utterly disappeared."
"And Miss Brandon's reputation was not ruined?"
Maxime replied with a bitter, ironical smile,--
"You know very well that she was not. On the contrary, the hanging was turned by her partisans into an occasion for praising her marvellous virtuousness. 'If she had been weak,' they said, 'Kergrist would not have hanged himself. Besides,' they added, 'how can a girl, be she ever so pure and innocent, prevent her lovers from hanging themselves at her windows? As to the money,' they said, 'it had been lost at the gaming-table.' Kergrist was reported to have been seen at Baden-Baden and at Homburg; no doubt he played."
"And the world was content with such an explanation?"
"Yes; why not? To be sure, some sceptical persons told the whole story very differently. According, to their account, Miss Sarah had been the mistress of M. de Kergrist, and, seeing him utterly ruined, had sent him off one fine morning. They stated, that, the evening before the accident, he had come to the house at the usual hour, and, finding it closed, had begged, and even wept, and finally threatened to kill himself; that, thereupon, he had really killed himself; (poor fool that he was!) that Miss Brandon, concealed behind the blinds, had watched all his preparations for the fearful act; that she had seen him fasten the rope to the outside hinges of her window, put the noose around his neck, and then swing off into eternity; that she had watched him closely during his agony, and stood there till the last convulsions had passed away."
"Horrible!" whispered Daniel,--"too horrible!"
But Maxime seized him by the arm, and pressing it so as almost to hurt him, said in a low, hoarse voice,--
"That is not the worst yet. As soon as she saw that Kergrist was surely dead, she slipped down stairs like a cat, opened the house-door noiselessly, and, gliding stealthily along the wall till she reached the body, she actually searched the still quivering corpse to assure herself that there was nothing in the pockets that could possibly compromise her. Finding the last letter of Kergrist, she took it away with her, broke the seal, and read it; and, having found that her name was not mentioned in it, she had the amazing audacity to return to the body, and to put the letter back where she had found it. Then only she breathed freely. She had gotten rid of a man whom she feared. She went to bed, and slept soundly."
Daniel had become livid.
"That woman is a monster!" he exclaimed.
Brevan said nothing. His eyes shone with intense hatred; his lips were quivering with indignation. He no longer thought of discretion, of caution. He forgot himself, and gave himself up to his feelings.
"But I have not done yet, Daniel," he said, after a pause. "There is another crime on record, of older date. The first appearance of Miss Brandon in Paris society. You ought to know that also.
"One evening, about four years ago, the president of the Mutual Discount Society came into the cashier's room to tell him, that, on the following day, the board of directors would examine his books. The cashier, an unfortunate man by the name of Malgat, replied that every thing was ready; but, the moment the president had turned his back, he took a sheet of paper, and wrote something like this:--
"'Forgive me, I have been an honest man forty years long; now a fatal passion has made me mad. I have drawn money from the bank which was intrusted to my care; and, in order to screen my defalcations, I have forged several notes. I cannot conceal my crime any longer. The first defalcation is only six months old. The whole amount is about four hundred thousand francs. I cannot bear the disgrace which I have incurred; in an hour I shall have ceased to live.'
"Malgat put this letter in a prominent place on his desk, and then rushed out, without a cent in his pocket, to throw himself into the canal. But when he reached the bank, and saw the foul, black water, he was frightened. For hours and hours he walked up and down, asking God in his madness for courage. He never found that courage.
"But what was he to do? He could not flee, having no money; and where should he hide? He could not return to his bank; for there, by this time, his crime must have become known. In his despair he ran as far as the Champs Elysees, and late in the night he knocked at the door of Miss Brandon's house.
"They did not know yet what had happened, and he was admitted. Then, in his wild despair, he told them all, begging them to give him a couple of hundreds only of the four hundred thousand which he had stolen in order to give them to Miss Brandon,--a hundred only, to enable him to escape to Belgium.
"They refused. And when he begged and prayed, falling on his knees before Miss Sarah, Sir Thorn seized him by the shoulders, and turned him out of the house."
Maxime, overcome by his intense excitement, fell into an easy-chair, and remained there for a considerable time, his eyes fixed, his brow darkened, repenting himself, no doubt, of his candor, his wrath, and his forgetfulness of all he owed to himself and to others.
But, when he rose again, his rare strength of will enabled him to assume his usual phlegmatic manner; and he continued in a mocking tone,--
"I see in your face, Daniel, that you think the story is monstrous, improbable, almost impossible. Nevertheless, four years ago, it was believed all over Paris, and set off by a number of hideous details which I will spare you. If you care to look at the papers of that year, you will find it everywhere. But four years are four centuries in Paris. To say nothing of the many similar stories that have happened since."
Daniel said nothing, he only bowed his head sadly. He felt a kind of painful emotion, such as he had never before experienced in his life.
"It is not so much the story itself," he said at last, "that overcomes me so completely. What I cannot comprehend is, how this woman could refuse the man whose accomplice she had been the small pittance he required in order to evade justice, and to escape to Belgium."
"Nevertheless, that was so," repeated M. de Brevan; and then he added emphatically, "at least, they say so."
Daniel did not notice this attempt to become more cautious again. He continued pensively,--
"Is it not very improbable that Miss Brandon should not have been afraid to exasperate the unfortunate man, and to drive him to desperate measures? In his furious rage, he might have left the house, rushed to a police-officer, and confessed to him every thing, laying the evidence he had in his hands before a magistrate, and"--
"You say," replied Brevan, interrupting him with a dry, sardonic laugh, "precisely what all the advocates of the fair American said at that time. But I tell you, that her peculiarity is exactly the daring with which she ventures upon the most dangerous steps. She does not pretend to avoid difficulties; she crushes them. Her prudence consists in carrying imprudence to the farthest limits."
"You ought to credit her, besides, with sufficient astuteness and experience to know that she had taken the most careful precautions, having destroyed every evidence of her own complicity, and feeling quite safe in that direction. Moreover, she had studied Malgat's character, as she studied afterwards Kergrist's. She was quite sure that neither of them would accuse her, even at the moment of death. And yet, in the case of this Mutual Discount Society, her calculations did not prove absolutely correct."
"It became known that she had received Malgat two or three times secretly, for he did not openly enter her house; and the penny papers had it, that 'the fair stranger was no stranger to small peculations.' Public opinion was veering around, when it was reported that she had been summoned to appear before a magistrate. That, however, was fortunate for her; she came out from the trial whiter and purer than Alpine snow."
"And so perfectly cleared, that, when the whole matter was brought up in court, she was not even summoned as a witness."
Daniel started up, and exclaimed,--
"What! Malgat had the sublime self-abnegation to undergo the agonies of a trial, and the infamy of a condemnation, without allowing a word to escape?"
"No. For the simple reason that Malgat was sentenced in contumaciam to ten years in the penitentiary."
"And what has become of the poor wretch?"
"Who knows? They say he killed himself. Two months later, a half decomposed body was found in the forest of Saint Germain, which people declared to be Malgat. However"--
He had become livid, in his turn; but he continued in an almost inaudible voice, as if to meet Daniel's objections before they were expressed,--
"However, somebody who used to be intimate with Malgat has assured me that he met him one day in Dronot Street, before the great auction- mart. The man said he recognized him, although he seemed to be most artistically disguised. This is what has set me thinking more than once, that, if people were not mistaken, a day might, after all, yet come, when Miss Sarah would have a terrible bill to settle with her implacable creditor."
He passed his hand across his brow as if to drive away such uncomfortable thoughts, and then said with a forced laugh,--
"Now, my dear fellow, I have come to the end of my budget. The details were all given me by Miss Sarah's friends as well as by her enemies. Some you may read of in the papers; but most I know from my own long and patient observation. And, if you ask me what interest I could have in knowing such a woman, I will tell you frankly, that you see before you one of her victims; for my dear Daniel, I have to confess it, I also have been in love with her; and how! But I was too small a personage, and too poor a devil, to be worth a serious thought of Miss Brandon. As soon as she felt sure that her abominable tricks had set my head on fire, and that I had become an idiot, a madman, a stupid fool--on that very day she laughed in my face. Ah! I tell you, she played with me as if I had been a child, and then she sent me off as if I had been a lackey. And now I hate her mortally, as I loved her almost criminally. Therefore, if I can help you, in secret, without becoming known, you may count upon me."
Why should Daniel have doubted the truthfulness of his friend's statements? Had he not himself, and quite voluntarily, confessed his own folly, his own love, anticipating all questions, and making a clean breast of the whole matter?
Not a doubt, therefore, arose in Daniel's mind. On the contrary, he thanked God for having sent him such an ally, such a friend, who had lived long enough amid all these intrigues of Parisian high life to know all its secret springs, and to guide him safely. He took Maxime's hand in his own, and said with deep feeling,--
"Now, my friend, we are bound to each other for life."
Brevan seemed deeply touched; he raised his hand as if to wipe a tear from his eyes. But he was not a man to give way to tender feelings. He said,--
"But how about your friend? How can we prevent his marrying Miss Sarah? Does any way occur to you? No? Ah! you see, it will be hard work."
He seemed to meditate deeply for a few moments; then uttering his words slowly and emphatically, as if to lend them their full weight, and impress them forcibly on Daniel's mind, he resumed,--
"We must attack Miss Brandon herself, if we want to master the situation. If we could once know who she really is, all would be safe. Fortunately there is no difficulty in Paris in finding spies, if you have money enough."
As the clock on the mantlepiece struck half-past ten, he started and stopped. He jumped up as if suddenly inspired by a bright idea, and said hurriedly,--
"But now I think of it, Daniel, you do not know Miss Brandon; you have never even seen her!"
"Well, that's a pity. We must know our enemies; how else can we even smile at them? I want you to see Miss Sarah."
"But who will point her out to me? where? when?"
"I will do it to-night, at the opera. I bet she will be there!"
Daniel was in evening costume, having called upon Henrietta, and then he was all ready.
"Very well," he said, "I am willing."
Without losing a moment, they went out, and reached the theatre just as the curtain rose on the fourth act of Don Giovanni. They were, fortunately, able to secure two orchestra-chairs. The stage was gorgeous; but what did they care for the singer on the boards, or the divine music of Mozart? Brevan took his opera-glasses out, and rapidly surveying the house, he had soon found what he was looking for. He touched Daniel with his elbow, and, handing him the glasses, whispered in his ear,--
"Look there, in the third box from the stage; look, there she is!"
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