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The count must have risen early that day. Although it was not yet ten o'clock, he was already brilliant, rouged, dyed, and frizzed. Of course all these results had not been the work of an hour. As he entered, he drew a long breath, and said,--
"Ah! You live pretty high up, my dear Daniel."
Poor fellow! He forgot that he was playing the young man. But he recalled himself at once, and added, full of vivacity,--
"Not that I complain of it; oh, no! A few stories to climb--what is that to me?"
At the same time he stretched out his leg, and caressed his calf, as if to exhibit its vigor and its suppleness. In the meantime, Daniel, full of respect for his future father-in-law, had drawn forward his easiest arm-chair. The count took it, and in an airy manner, which contrasted ill with his evident embarrassment, he said,--
"I am sure, my dear Daniel, you must be very much surprised and puzzled to see me here; are you not?"
"I confess, sir, I am. If you wished to speak to me, you had only to drop me a line, and I should have waited upon you at once."
"I am sure you would! But that is not necessary. In fact, I have nothing to say to you. I should not have come to see you, if I had not missed an appointment. I was to meet one of my fellow members of the assembly, and he did not come to the place where we were to meet. On my return home, I happened to pass your house; and I said to myself, 'Why not go up and see my sailor friend? I might ask him what he thinks of a certain young lady to whom he had, last night, the honor of being presented.'"
Now or never was the favorable moment for following Maxime's advice; hence Daniel, instead of replying, simply smiled as pleasantly as he could.
But that did not satisfy the count; so he repeated the question more directly, and said,--
"Come, tell us frankly, what do you think of Miss Brandon?"
"She is one of the greatest beauties I have ever seen in my life."
Count Ville-Handry's eyes beamed with delight and with pride as he heard these words. He exclaimed,--
"Say she is the greatest beauty, the most marvellous and transcendent beauty, you ever saw. And that, M. Daniel Champcey, is her smallest attraction. When she opens her lips, the charms of her mind, beauty and her mind, and remember her admirable ingenuousness, her naive freshness, and all the treasures of her chaste and pure soul."
This excessive, almost idiotic admiration, this implicit, absurd faith in his beloved, gave the painted face of the count a strange, almost ecstatic expression. He said to himself, but loud enough to be heard,--
"And to think that chance alone has led me to meet this angel!"
A sudden start, involuntary on the part of Daniel, seemed to disturb him; for he resumed his speech, laying great stress upon his words,--
"Yes, chance alone; and I can prove it to you."
He settled down in his chair like a man who is going to speak for some length of time; and, in that emphatic manner which so well expressed the high opinion he had of himself, he continued,--
"You know, my friend, how deeply I was affected by the death of the Countess Ville-Handry. It is true she was not exactly the companion a statesman of my rank would have chosen. Her whole capacity rarely rose beyond the effort to distinguish a ball-dress from a dinner-dress. But she was a good woman, attentive, discreet, and devoted to me; an excellent manager, economical, and yet always sure to do honor to the high reputation of my house."
Thus, in all sincerity, the count spoke of her who had literally made him, and who, for sixteen long years, had galvanized his empty head.
"In short," he continued, "the loss of my wife so completely upset me, that I lost all taste for the occupations which had so far been dear to me; and I set about to find distractions elsewhere. Soon after I had gotten into the habit of going frequently to my club, I fell in with M. Thomas Elgin, and, although we never became intimate, we always exchanged a friendly greeting, and occasionally a cigar.
"Sir Thorn, as they call him, is an excellent horseman, you know, and used to ride out every morning at an early hour; and as the physicians had recommended to me horseback exercise, and as I like it, because I excel in riding, as in every thing else, we often met in the Bois de Boulogne. We wished each other good-day; and sometimes we galloped a little while side by side. I am rather reserved; but Sir Thorn is even more so, and thus it did not seem that our acquaintance was ever to ripen into any thing better, till an accident brought us together.
"One morning we were returning slowly from a long ride, when Sir Thorn's mare, a foolish brute, suddenly shied, and jumped so high, that he was thrown. I jumped down instantly to help him up again; but he could not rise. You know nothing ordinarily hurts these Americans. But it seems, as we found out afterwards, that he had sprained an ankle, and dislocated a knee. There was no one near the place; and I began to be seriously embarrassed, when fortunately two soldiers appeared. I called to them, and sent one on my horse to the nearest hack-stand to bring a carriage. As soon as it came, we raised the invalid, and put him in as well as we could; I got on the box to show the man the way to Sir Thorn's house. When we arrived there, I rang the bell, and told the servants to come down to their master. They got him, with some difficulty, out of the hack; and there they were, carrying him painfully up the stairs, and he groaning feebly, for he suffered terribly.
"I was going up before them; and, as I reached the second story, a door suddenly opened, and a young girl was standing right before me.
"She was evidently dressing, when the noise which we made startled her; and she came running out. She had only taken time to throw a loose wrapper around her shoulders; and her dishevelled hair streamed out from under a kind of coquettish morning-cap.
"When she saw her kinsman in the arms of the servants, she imagined he was dangerously wounded, perhaps even--She turned as pale as death, and, uttering a loud cry, she tottered.
"She would have fallen down the steps, head foremost, if I had not caught her in my arms. She had fainted. And there I held her, leaning on my shoulder, so close that I became aware of the warmth of her lovely body, and actually felt her heart beat against mine. Her cap had become unfastened; and her hair fell in golden floods all over me, and down to the floor. But all this lasted only a few seconds.
"When she recovered, and found herself in the arms of a man, she rose with an air of extreme distress, and, slipping away, disappeared in her room."
At the mere description of this scene, the count turned pale under his rouge; and his voice forsook him. Nor did he in any way attempt to conceal his emotion.
"I am a poor old fellow," he said; "and between you and me, my dear Daniel, I will tell you that the women--well--the women have not been--exactly cruel to me. In fact, I thought I had outlived all the emotions which they can possibly give us.
"Well, I was mistaken. Never in my life, I assure you, have I felt such a deep sensation as when Miss Brandon was lying in my arms."
While saying this, he had pulled out his handkerchief, saturated with a strong perfume, and was wiping his forehead, though very gently, and with infinite precautions, so as not to spoil the artistic work of his valet.
"You will know Miss Brandon," he went on, "I hope soon. Once having seen her, one wants to see her again. I was lucky enough to have a pretext for coming again; and the very next day I was at her door, inquiring after M. Thomas Elgin. They showed me into the room of that excellent gentleman, where I found him stretched out on an invalid's chair, with his legs all bandaged up. By his side sat a venerable lady, to whom he presented me, and who was no other than Mrs. Brian.
"They received me very kindly, although with some little reserve under all their politeness; but I staid and staid in vain beyond the proper time; Miss Sarah did not appear.
"Nor did I see her upon subsequent occasions, when I repeated my visits, until at last I came to the conclusion that she avoided me purposely.
"Upon my word, I believed it. But one day Sir Thorn, who was improving very rapidly, expressed a desire to walk out a few steps in the Champs Elysees. I offered him my arm; he accepted it; and, when we came back, he asked me if I would be kind enough to take pot-luck with him."
However important these communications were for Daniel, he was for some time already listening but very inattentively to the count's recital, for he had heard a strange, faint noise, which he could not by any means explain to himself. At last, looking all around, he discovered the cause.
The door to his bedroom, which he was sure he had closed himself, was now standing partly open. No doubt M. de Brevan, weary of his confinement and excited by curiosity, had chosen this way to see and to listen. Of all this, however, Count Ville-Handry saw nothing, and suspected nothing.
"Thus," he continued, "I was at last to see Miss Sarah again. Upon my word, I was less excited, I think, the day I made my first speech. But you know I have some power over myself; and I had recovered my calmness, when Sir Thorn confessed to me that he would have invited me long since, but for the fear of offending his young relative, who had declared she would never meet me again. I was grieved, and asked how I had offended her. And then Sir Thorn, with that marvellous composure which never leaves him, said, 'It is not you she blames, but herself, on account of that ridiculous scene the other day.'
"Do you hear, Daniel, he called that adorable scene which I have just described to you, ridiculous! It is only Americans who can commit such absurdities.
"I have since found out that they had almost to force Miss Brandon to receive me; but she had tact enough not to let me see it, when I was formally presented to her, just before going to dinner. It is true, she blushed deeply; but she took my hand with the utmost cordiality, and cut me short when I was trying to pay her some compliment, saying,--
"'You are Thorn's friend; I am sure we shall be friends also.'
"Ah, Daniel! you admired Miss Brandon at the theatre; but you ought to see her at her house. Abroad she sacrifices herself in order to pay proper regard to the world; but at home she can venture to be herself.
"We soon became friends, as she had foretold, so soon, in fact, that I was quite surprised when I found her addressing me like an old acquaintance. I soon discovered how that came about.
"Our young girls here in France, my dear Daniel, are charming, no doubt, but generally ill taught, frivolous, and caring for nothing but balls, novels, or dress. The Americans are very different. Their serious minds are occupied with the same subjects which fill their parents' minds,--with politics, industry, discussions in the assembly, discoveries in science, &c. A man like myself, known abroad and at home during a long political career of some distinction, could not be a stranger to Miss Brandon. My earnestness in defending those causes which I considered just had often filled her with enthusiasm. Deeply moved by my speeches, which she was in the habit of reading, she had often thought of the speaker. I think I can hear her now say with that beautiful voice of hers, which has the clear ring of pure crystal,--
"'Oh, yes! I knew you, count; I knew you long ago. And there was many a day when I wished I were a friend of yours, so that I might say to you, "Well done, sir! what you are doing is grand, is noble!"'
"And that was true; for she remembered a number of passages from my speeches, even from such as I had forgotten myself; and she always quoted them literally. At times, I was amazed at some peculiarly bold thoughts which she uttered; and, when I complimented her upon them, she broke out in loud laughter, and said,--
"'Why, count, these are your own ideas; I got them from you. You said so on such and such an occasion.'
"And when I looked at night, after my return, into my papers, to ascertain the fact, I found almost always that Miss Brandon had been right. Need I tell you after that, that I soon became an almost daily visitor at the house in Circus Street? Surely you take it for granted.
"But what I must tell you is, that I found there the most perfect happiness, and the purest that I have ever known upon earth. I was filled with respect and with admiration, when I looked at their rigid morality, united with the heartiest cheerfulness. There I enjoyed my happiest hours, between Mrs. Brian, the Puritan lady, so strict for herself, so indulgent for others; and Thomas Elgin, the noblest and best of men, who conceals under an appearance of icy coldness the warmest and kindest of hearts."
What was Count Ville-Handry aiming at? or had he no aim at all?
Had he come merely to confide to Daniel the amazing romance of his love? Or did he simply yield to the natural desire of all lovers, to pour out the exuberance of their feelings, and to talk of their love, even when they know that their indiscretion may be fatal to their success?
Daniel put these questions to himself; but the count did not leave him time to reflect, and to answer them.
After a short pause, he seemed to rouse himself, and said, suddenly changing his tone,--
"I guess what you think, my dear Daniel. You say to yourself, 'Count Ville-Handry was in love.' Well, I assure you you are mistaken."
Daniel started from his chair; and, overcome by amazement, he exclaimed,--
"Can it be possible?"
"Exactly so; I give you my word of honor. The feelings which attracted me toward Miss Brandon were the same that bound me to my daughter. But as I am a shrewd observer, and have some knowledge of the human heart, I could not help being struck by a change in Miss Brandon's face, and especially in her manner. After having treated me with the greatest freedom and familiarity, she had suddenly become reserved, and almost cold. It was evident to me that she was embarrassed in my presence. Our constant intercourse, so far from reassuring her, seemed to frighten her. You may guess how I interpreted this change, my dear Daniel.
"But, as I have never been a conceited man, I thought I might be mistaken. I devoted myself, therefore, to more careful observation; and I soon became aware, that, if I loved Miss Brandon only with the affection of a father, I had succeeded in inspiring her with a more tender sentiment."
In any other person, this senile self-conceit would have appeared intensely absurd to Daniel; in his Henrietta's father, it pained him deeply. The count actually noticed his downcast look, and, misinterpreting it, asked him,--
"Could you doubt what I say?"
"Oh, no, sir!"
"Very well, then. I can assure you, at all events, that this discovery troubled me not a little. I was so surprised by it, that for three days I could neither think of it coolly, nor decide on what I ought to do. Still it was necessary I should make up my mind. I did not for a moment think of abusing the confidence of this innocent child; and yet I knew, I felt it, she was absolutely in my power. But no! It would have been infamous in me to repay the hospitality of excellent Mrs. Brian, and the kindness of noble M. Elgin, with such ingratitude. On the other hand, must I necessarily deny myself my pleasant visits at the house in Circus Street, and break with friends who were so dear to me? I thought of that, also; but I had not the courage to do so."
He hesitated for a moment, trying to read in Daniel's eyes his real opinion. After a while, he said very gravely,--
"It was then only, that the idea of marrying her occurred to me."
Daniel had been expecting the fatal word; thus, however heavy the blow was, it found him prepared. He remained immovable.
This indifference seemed to surprise the count; for he uttered an expression of discontent, and curtly repeated,--
"Yes, I thought of marrying her. You will say, 'That was a serious matter.' I know that only too well; and therefore I did not decide the question in a hurry, but weighed the reasons for and against very carefully. I am not one of those weak men, you know, I am sure, who can easily be hoodwinked, and who fancy they alone possess the secret of perennial youth. No, no, I know myself, and am fully aware, better than anybody else, that I am approaching maturer years.
"This was, in fact, the first objection that arose in my mind. But then I answered it triumphantly by the fact that age is not a matter to be decided by the certificate of baptism, but that we are just as old as we appear to be. Now, thanks to an exceptionally sober and peaceful life, of which forty years were spent in the country, to an iron constitution, and to the extreme care I have always taken of my health, I possess a--what shall I say?--a vigor which many young men might envy, who can hardly drag one foot after the other."
He rose as he said this, threw out his chest, straightened his back, and stretched out his well-shaped leg. Then, when he thought Daniel had sufficiently admired him, he continued,--
"Now, what of Miss Brandon? You think, perhaps, she is still in her teens? Far from that! She is at least twenty-five, my dear friend; and, for a woman, twenty-five years are--ah, ah!"
He smiled ironically, as if to say that to him a woman of twenty-five appeared an old, a very old woman. Then he went on,--
"Besides, I know how serious her disposition is, and her eminent good sense. You may rely upon me, when I tell you I have studied her. A thousand trifles, of no weight in appearance, and unnoticed by herself in all probability, have told me that she abhors very young men. She has learnt to appreciate the value of young husbands of thirty, who are all fire and flame in the honeymoon, and who, six months later, wearied with pure and tranquil happiness, seek their delights elsewhere. It is not only of late that I have found out how truly she values what is, after all, most desirable in this world,--a great name worthily borne by a true man, and a reputation that would shed new radiance upon her. How often have I heard her say to Mrs. Brian, 'Above all, aunt, I want to be proud of my husband; I want to see everybody's eye sparkle with admiration and envy as soon as I mention his name, which will have become mine also; I want people to whisper around me, "Ah, how happy she is to be loved by such a man!"'"
He shook his head gravely, and said in a solemn tone,--
"I examined myself, Daniel, and found that I answered all of Miss Brandon's expectations; and the result of my meditations was, that I would be a madman to allow such happiness to escape me, and that I was bound to risk every thing. I made up my mind, therefore, firmly, and went to M. Elgin in order to make him aware of my intentions. I cannot describe to you the amazement of that worthy gentleman.
"'You are joking,' he said at first, 'and that pains me deeply.'
"But, when he saw that I had never in my life spoken more seriously, he, who is usually so phlegmatic, became perfectly furious. As if I would have come to him, if, by some impossible accident, I should have been unhappy in my choice! But I fell from the clouds when he told me outright that he meant to do all he could do to prevent such a match. Nor would he give up his purpose, say what I could; and I had to use all my skill to make him change his mind. At last, after more than two hours' discussion, all that I could obtain from him was the promise that he would remain neutral, and that he would leave to Mrs. Brian the responsibility of refusing or accepting my offer."
He laughed, this good Count Ville-Handry, he laughed heartily, no doubt recalling his discussion with Sir Thorn, and his triumphant skill.
"So," he resumed, "I went to Mrs. Brian. Ah! she did not mince matters. At the first word, she called me--God forgive her!--an old fool, and plainly told me that I must never show myself again in Circus Street.
"I insisted; but in vain. She would not even listen to me, the old Puritan; and, when I became pressing, she dropped me a solemn curtsey, and left me alone in the room, looking foolish enough, I am sure.
"For the time, I had nothing to do but to go away. I did so, hoping that her interview with her niece might induce her to change her mind. Not at all. The next morning, when I called at the house, the servants said Sir Thorn was out, and Mrs. Brian and Miss Brandon had just left for Fontainebleau. The day after, the same result; and for a whole week the doors remained closed.
"I was becoming restless, when a commissionaire, one morning, brought me a letter. It was Miss Brandon who wrote. She asked me to be that very day, at four o'clock, in the Bois de Boulogne, near the waterfalls; that she would ride out in the afternoon with Sir Thorn; that she would escape from him, and meet me.
"As a matter of course, I was punctual; and it was well I was so, for, a few minutes after I got there, I saw her--or rather I felt her--coming towards me, riding at full speed. When she reached me, she stopped suddenly, and, jumping from her horse, said to me,--
"'They watch me so jealously, that I could not write to you till to-day. I am deeply wounded by this want of confidence, and I do not think I can endure it any longer. Here I am, carry me off, let us go!'
"Never, O Daniel! never have I seen her look more marvellously beautiful than she looked at that moment. She was flushed with excitement and the rapid ride; her eyes shone with courage and passion; her lips trembled; and then she said again,--
"'I know I am ruining myself; and you yourself--you will probably despise me. But never mind! Let us be gone!'"
He paused, overcome with excitement; but, soon recovering, he continued,--
"To hear a beautiful woman tell you that! Ah, Daniel! that is an experience which alone is worth a man's whole life. And yet I had the courage, mad as I felt I was becoming, to speak to her words of calm reason. Yes, I had the sublime courage, and the almost fortuitous control over myself, to conjure her to retreat into her house.
"She began to weep, and accused me of indifference.
"But I had discovered a way out of the difficulty, and said to her,--
"'Sarah, go home. Write to me what you have just told me, and I am sure I shall compel your friends to grant me your hand.'
"This she did.
"And what I had foreseen came to pass. In the face of such evidence of what they called our madness, Sir Thorn and Mrs. Brian dared not oppose our plans any longer. After some little hesitations, and imposing certain honorable conditions, they said to Sarah and myself,--
"'You will have it so. Go, then, and get married.'"
This is what Count Ville-Handry called chance, a "blessed chance," as he said, utterly unmindful of the whole chain of circumstances which he himself related. From the accident that had befallen M. Elgin, and the fainting-fit of Miss Brandon, to the meeting in the Bois de Boulogne and the proposed runaway-match, all seemed to him perfectly natural and simple,--even the sudden enthusiasm of a young, frivolous woman for his political opinions, and the learning by heart of his speeches.
Daniel was amazed. That a man like the count should be so perfectly blind to the intrigue that was going on around him, seemed to him incomprehensible. The count, however, was not so blind, that he should not have at least suspected the nature of Daniel's feelings.
"What are you thinking of?" he asked. "Come, let us hear your opinion. Tell us frankly that you suspect Miss Brandon, and accuse her of trying to catch me in her snares, or, at least, of having selfish views."
"I do not say so," stammered Daniel.
"No, but you think so; and that is worse. Well, come; I think I can convince you of your mistake. What do you think Miss Brandon would gain by marrying me? A fortune, you say. I have only one word in reply; but that is sufficient; Miss Brandon is richer than I am."
How, and at what price, Miss Brandon had managed to possess herself of such a fortune, Daniel knew but too well from Maxime's account; hence he could not suppress a nervous shudder, which the count noticed, and which irritated him.
"Yes, richer than I am," he repeated. "The oil-wells which she has inherited from her father bring her in, bad years and good years, from thirty to forty thousand dollars a year, and that in spite of their being sadly mismanaged. If they were well managed, they would produce, three, four, or five times as much, or even more. Sir Thorn has proved to me that they are an almost inexhaustible mine of wealth. If petroleum was not fabulously profitable, how would you account for the oil-fever with which these cool, calculating Americans have suddenly been seized, and which has made more millionaires than the gold-fever in California and the Territories? Ah! there is something to be made there yet, and something grand, if one could dispose of a large capital."
He became excited, and forgot himself; but he soon checked himself. He had evidently been on the point of letting a secret leak out. After a few moments, he continued more calmly,--
"But enough of that. I trust your suspicions are removed. Next you may tell me that Miss Brandon takes me because she can do no better. Mistaken again, my friend. At this very moment she is called upon to choose between me and a much younger man than I am, whose fortune, moreover, is larger than mine,--Mr. Wilkie Gordon."
How did it come about that Count Ville-Handry seemed to appeal to Daniel, and to plead his cause before him? Daniel did not even think of asking himself that question; his mind was in a state of utter confusion. Still, as the count insisted on having his opinion, as he urged him, and repeatedly asked, "Well, do you see any other objection?" he forgot at last his friend's prudent warning, and said in a troubled voice,--
"No doubt, count, you know Miss Brandon's family?"
"Certainly! Do you think I would buy a cat in a bag? Her excellent father was a model of honesty."
"And--her previous life?"
The count started from his chair, and, casting a savage glance at Daniel, said,--
"Oh, oh! I see one of those rascally slanderers, who have tried to tarnish the honor of the noblest and chastest of all women, has already been at work here, anticipating my communication to you, and repeating those infamous calumnies. You must give me the name of the scoundrel."
Unconsciously, almost, Daniel turned towards the door, behind which M. de Brevan was listening. Perhaps he expected him to come forth; but Maxime did not stir.
"Sarah's previous life!" continued the count. "I know every hour of it; and I can answer for it as for my own. The darling! Before consenting to be mine, she insisted upon my knowing every thing, yes, every thing, without reserve or boastfulness; and I know what she has suffered. Did they not actually say she had been the accomplice of a wretched thief, a cashier of some bank, who had become a defaulter? Did they not say that she had driven a foolish young man, a gambler, to commit suicide; and that she had watched, unmoved, the tortures of his agony? Ah! you have only to look at Miss Brandon to know that these vile stories are wretched inventions of malicious enemies and rivals. And look here, Daniel; you may believe me; whenever you see people calumniate a man or a woman, you may rest assured that that man or woman has, somehow or other, wounded or humiliated some vulgar person, some mean, envious fool, who cannot endure his or her superiority in point of fortune, rank, or beauty and talent."
He had actually recovered his youthful energy in thus defending his beloved. His eye brightened up; his voice became strong, and his gestures animated.
"But no more of that painful topic," he said: "let us talk seriously."
He rose, and leaning on the mantelpiece, so as to face Daniel, he said,--
"I told you, my dear Daniel, that Sir Thorn and Mrs. Brian insisted upon certain conditions before they consented to our marriage. One is, that Miss Brandon is to be received by my relations as she deserves to be, not only respectfully, but affectionately, even tenderly. As to relations, there is not any. I have some remote cousins, who, having nothing to expect from me when I die, do not trouble themselves any more about me than I trouble myself about them. But I have a daughter; and there is the danger. I know she is distressed at the idea of my marrying again. She cannot bear the mere idea that another woman is to take the place of her mother, to bear her name, and to rule in my house."
Daniel began at last to know what he had to understand by that unsuccessful appointment which had procured him the pleasure of a visit from Count Ville-Handry.
"Now," continued the latter, "I know my daughter. She is her mother over again, weak, but obstinate beyond endurance. If she has taken it into her head to receive Miss Brandon uncivilly, she will do so, in spite of all she has promised me, and she will make a terrible scene of it. And if Miss Brandon consents, in spite of all, to go on, my house will become a hell to me, and my wife will suffer terribly. Now the question is, whether I have sufficient influence over Henrietta to bring her to reason. I think not. But this influence which I have not--a very nice young man may have it; and that man is you."
Daniel had turned red. It was for the first time that the count spoke so clearly. He went on,--
"I have never disapproved of my poor wife's plans; and the proof is, that I have allowed you to pay your attentions to my daughter. But now I make this condition: if my daughter is to Miss Brandon what she ought to be to her, a tender and devoted sister, then, six months after my wedding, there shall be another wedding at my house."
Daniel was about to speak; but he stopped him, saying,--
"No, not a word! I have shown you the wisdom of my decision, and you may act accordingly."
He had already put on his hat and opened the door, when he added,--
"Ah! one word more. Miss Brandon has asked me to present you to her to-night. She wants to speak to you. Come and dine with me; and after dinner we will go to Circus Street. Now, pray think of what I have told you, and good-by!"
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