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Miss Sarah led Daniel to a small boudoir adjoining her own room. Nothing could be fresher and more coquettish than this little room, which looked almost like a greenhouse, so completely was it filled with rare and fragrant flowers, while the door and window-frames were overgrown with luxuriant creepers. In the windows stood large vases filled with flowers; and the light bamboo chairs were covered with the same bright silk with which the walls were hung. If the great reception-room reflected the character of Mrs. Brian, this charming boudoir represented Miss Brandon's own exquisite taste.
She sat down on a small sofa and began, after a short pause,--
"My aunt was right; it would have been more proper for me to convey to you through M. Elgin what I want to say. But I have the independence of all the girls of my country; and, when my interests are at stake, I trust no one but myself."
She was bewitching in her ingenuousness as she uttered these words with the air of a little child who looks cunning, and determined to undertake something that appears quite formidable.
"I am told that my dear count has been to see you this afternoon," she continued, "and you have heard that in less than a month I shall be the Countess Ville-Handry?"
Daniel was surprised. In less than a month! What could be done in so little time?
"Now, sir," continued Miss Brandon, "I wish to hear from your own lips whether you see--any--objections to this match."
She spoke so frankly, that it was evident she was utterly unconscious of that article in the code of social laws which prescribes that a French girl must never mention the word "marriage" without blushing to the roots of her hair. Daniel, on the contrary, was terribly embarrassed.
"I confess," he replied with much hesitation, "that I do not understand, that I cannot possibly explain to myself, why you do me the honor"--
"To consult you? Pardon me; I think you understand me perfectly well. Have they not promised you Miss Ville-Handry's hand?"
"The count has permitted me to hope"--
"He has pledged his word, sir, under certain conditions. My dear count has told me every thing. I speak, therefore, to Count Ville-Handry's son-in-law, and I repeat, Do you see any objections to this match?"
The question was too precisely put to allow of any prevarication. And still Daniel was bent upon gaining time, and avoiding any positive answer. For the first time in his life he said a falsehood; and, turning crimson all over, he stammered out,--
"I see no objection."
She shook her head, and then said very slowly,--
"If that is so, you will not refuse me a great favor. Carried away by her grief at seeing her father marry again, Miss Ville-Handry hates me. Will you promise me to use your influence in trying to persuade her to change her disposition towards me?"
Never had honest Daniel Champcey been tried so hard. He answered diplomatically,--
"I am afraid you overestimate my influence."
She looked at him suddenly with such a sharp and penetrating glance that he felt almost startled, and then said,--
"I do not ask of you to succeed, only promise me upon your honor that you will do your best, and I shall be very much obliged to you. Will you give me that promise?"
Could he do so? The situation was so exceptional, Daniel had at all cost to lull the enemy into security for a time, and for a moment he was inclined to pledge his honor. Nay, more than that, he made an effort to do it. But his lips refused to utter a false oath.
"You see," resumed Miss Brandon very coldly, "you see you were deceiving me."
And, turning away from him, she hid her face in her hands, apparently overcome by grief, and repeated in a tone of deep sorrow,--
"What a disgrace! Great God! What a humiliation!"
But suddenly she started up again, her face bright with a glow of hope, and cried out,--
"Well, be it so. I like it all the better so. A mean man would not have hesitated at an oath, however determined he might have been not to keep it. Whilst you--I can trust you; you are a man of honor, and all is not lost yet. Whence comes your aversion? Is it a question of money, the count's fortune?"
"No, it is not that, I see. I was quite sure of it. What, then, can it be? Tell me, sir, I beseech you! tell me something."
What could he tell her? Daniel remained silent.
"Very well," said Sarah, clinching her teeth convulsively. "I understand."
She made a supreme effort not to break out in sobs; and big tears, resembling diamonds of matchless beauty, rolled slowly down from between her long, trembling eyelashes.
"Yes," she said, "I understand. The atrocious calumnies which my enemies have invented have reached you; and you have believed them. They have, no doubt, told you that I am an adventuress, come from nowhere; that my father, the brave defender of the Union, exists only in the painting in my parlor; that no one knows where my income comes from; that Thorn, that noble soul, and Mrs. Brian, a saint upon earth, are vile accomplices of mine. Confess, you have been told all that, and you have believed it."
Grand in her wrath, her cheeks burning, her lips trembling, she rose, and added in a tone of bitter sarcasm,--
"Ah! When people are called upon to admire a noble deed, they refuse to believe, they insist upon inquiring before they admire, they examine carefully. But, if they are told something bad, they dispense with that ceremony; however monstrous the thing may appear, however improbable it may sound, they believe it instantly. They would not touch a child; but they do not hesitate to repeat a slander which dishonors a woman, and kills her as surely as a dagger. If I were a man, and had been told that Miss Brandon was an adventuress, I would have been bent upon ascertaining the matter. America is not so far off. I should have soon found the ten thousand men who had served under Gen. Brandon, and they would have told me what sort of a man their chief had been. I should have examined the oil-regions of Pennsylvania; and I would have learned there that the petroleum-wells belonging to M. Elgin, Mrs. Brian, and Miss Brandon produce more than many a principality."
Daniel was amazed at the candor and the boldness with which this young girl approached the terrible subject. To enable her to speak with such energy and in such a tone, she must either be possessed of unsurpassed impudence, or--he had to confess it--be innocent.
Overcome by the effort she had made, she had sunk back upon the sofa, and continued in a lower tone of voice, as if speaking to herself,--
"But have I a right to complain? I reap as I have sown. Alas! Thorn has told me so often enough, and I would not believe him. I was not twenty years old when I came to Paris, after my poor father's death. I had been brought up in America, where young girls know no other law but that of their own consciences. They tell us at home, all the time, that it is our first duty to be truthful. In France, young girls are taught that hypocrisy is their first duty. We are taught not to blush, except when we have done wrong; they are taught all the appearances of false prudishness. In France, they work hard to save appearances; with us, we aim at reality. In Philadelphia, I did every thing I chose to do, provided I did not think it was wrong. I thought I could do the same here. Poor me! I did not count upon the wickedness of the world. I went out alone, on horseback, in the morning. I went alone to church, to pray to God. If I wanted any thing for my toilet, I sent for the carriage, and drove out, alone, to buy it. When a man spoke to me, I did not feel bound to cast down my eyes; and, if he was amusing and witty, I laughed. If a new fashion pleased me, I adopted it. I committed all these crimes. I was young, rich, popular. These were as many more crimes. And after I had been here a year, they said that Malgat, that wretch"--
She jumped up as she said this, ran up to Daniel, and, seizing him by the hands, she said,--
"Malgat! Have they talked to you about Malgat?"
And, as he hesitated to answer, she added:--
"Ah, answer me! Don't you see that your hesitation is an insult?"
As if in utter despair, she raised her hands to heaven, calling God, as it were, to witness, and asking for inspiration from on high. Then she added suddenly,--
"But I have proofs, irrefutable proofs of Malgat's rascality."
And, without waiting for another word, she hurried into the adjoining room. Daniel, moved to the bottom of his heart, remained standing where he was, immovable, like a statue.
He was utterly confounded and overcome by the charm of that marvellous voice, which passed through the whole gamut of passion with such a sonorous ring, and yet with such sweet languor, that it seemed by turns to sob and to threaten, to sigh with sadness and to thunder with wrath.
"What a woman!" he said to himself, repeating thus unconsciously the words uttered by M. de Brevan.
"What a woman! And how well she defends herself."
But Miss Brandon was already back again, carrying in her arms a small box of costly wood inlaid with jewels. She resumed her seat on the sofa; and in that brief, sharp tone which betrays terrible passions restrained with a great effort, she said,--
"Before all, I must thank you, M. Champcey, for your frankness, since it enables me to defend myself. I knew that slander had attacked me; I felt it, so to say, in the air I was breathing; but I had never been able yet to take hold of it. Now, for the first time, I can face it; and I owe it to you that I am able to defy it. Listen, therefore; for I swear to you by all that is most sacred to me, by the memory of my sainted mother, I swear to you solemnly, that you shall hear the truth, and nothing but the truth."
She had opened the box, and was eagerly searching something among the papers inside. She then continued, in feverish haste,--
"M. Malgat was the cashier and confidential clerk of the Mutual Discount Society, a large and powerful company. M. Elgin had some business with him, a few weeks after our arrival here, for the purpose of drawing funds which he had in Philadelphia. He found him an exceedingly obliging man, and, to show his appreciation, invited him to dine here. Thus he became acquainted with Mrs. Brian and myself. He was a man of about forty, of medium height, ordinary looking, very polite, but not refined in his manners. The first time I looked at his light yellow eyes, I felt disgusted and frightened. I read in his face an expression of base vice. The impression was so strong, that I could not help telling M. Elgin how sure I was this man would turn out a bad man, and that he ought not to trust him in money-matters."
Daniel listened with breathless attention. This description of Malgat impressed his portrait so deeply on his mind, that he thought he saw him before his eyes, and would certainly recognize him if he should ever meet him.
"M. Elgin," continued Miss Brandon, "only laughed at my presentiments; and even Mrs. Brian, I remember distinctly, scolded me, saying it was very wrong to judge a man by his appearance, and that there were very honest men in the world who had yellow eyes. I must acknowledge, moreover, that M. Malgat behaved perfectly well whenever he was here. As M. Elgin did not know Paris, and had money to invest, he advised him what to do. When we had drafts upon the Mutual Discount Society, he always saved M. Elgin the trouble, and brought the money himself. After a while, when M. Elgin took it into his head to try some small speculations on 'change, M. Malgat offered him his assistance, although they never had any luck, in fact."
By this time Miss Brandon had found the papers she was looking for. She handed them to Daniel, saying,--
"And, if you do not believe what I say, look at this."
There were a dozen square bits of paper, on which Malgat had reported the result of his operations on 'change, which he carried on on account of, and with the money of, M. Elgin. All ended with these words:--
"We have lost considerably; but we may be more fortunate next time. There is a capital chance on such and such funds; send me all the money you can spare."
The words were always the same; the name of the funds alone varied in each.
"That is strange," said Daniel.
Miss Sarah shook her head.
"Strange? Yes, indeed!" she replied. "But it does not help me in any way. This letter, however, will tell you more. Read it, sir, and read it aloud."
Daniel took the letter, and read,--
"'Paris, Dec. 5, 1865.
"'M. Thomas Elgin. Dear Sir,--It is to you alone, the most honorable among men, that I can make the terrible confession that I have committed a crime.
"'I am wretched. Employed by you in your speculations, I have given way to temptation, and have speculated on my own account. One loss brought about another, I lost my head; I hoped to recover my money; and now, at this hour, I owe more than ten thousand dollars, which I have taken from the safe of the society.
"'Will you have pity on me? Will you be so generous as to lend me that sum? I may not be able to return it in less than six or seven years; but I will repay you, I swear it, with interest.
"'I await your answer, like a criminal, who waits for the verdict. It is a matter of life and death with me; and as you decide, so I may be saved, or disgraced forever. A. Malgat.'"
On the margin, methodical M. Elgin had written in his angular handwriting,--
"Answered immediately. Sent to M. M. ten thousand dollars, to be drawn from funds deposited with the Mutual Discount Society. No interest to be paid."
"And that," stammered Daniel, "that is the man"--
"Whom they charge me with having turned aside from the paths of honesty; yes, sir! Now you learn to know him. But wait. You see, he was saved. It was not long before he appeared here, his false face bathed in tears. I can find no words to convey to you the exaggerated expressions of his gratitude. He refused to shake hands with M. Elgin, he said, because he was no longer worthy of such honor. He spoke of nothing but of his devotion unto death. It is true M. Elgin carried his generosity to an extreme. He, a model of honesty, who would have starved to death rather than touch the gold intrusted to his care,--he consoled Malgat, finding all kinds of apology for him, telling him, that, after all, he was not so very much to blame, that there were temptations too strong to be resisted, and repeating even those paradoxical principles which have been specially invented as an apology for thieves. Malgat had still some money of his own; but M. Elgin did not ask him for it, for fear of hurting his feelings. He continued to invite him, and urged him to come and dine with us as heretofore."
She stopped, laughing in a nervous manner, which was painful to hear, and then continued, in a hoarse voice,--
"Do you know, M. Champcey, how Malgat repaid all this kindness? Read this note; it will restore me in your esteem, I trust."
It was another letter written by Malgat to M. Elgin, and ran thus,--
"M. Elgin,--I have deceived you. It was not ten thousand dollars I had taken, but sixty thousand five hundred dollars.
"Thanks to false entries, I have been able to conceal my defalcations until now; but I can do so no longer. The board of directors have begun to suspect me; and the president has just told me that tomorrow the books will be examined. I am lost.
"I ought to kill myself, I know; but I have not the courage to do so. I venture to ask you to furnish me the means of escaping from this country. I beseech you on my knees, in the name of all that is dear to you, for mercy's sake; for I am penniless, and cannot even pay the fare on the railway as far as the frontier. Nor can I return to my house; for I am watched.
"Once more, M. Elgin, have pity on a poor man, and leave the answer with the concierge. I will come by about nine o'clock. A. Malgat."
Not on the margin, as before, but across the lines, M. Elgin had written these laconic words:--
"Answered immediately. No! The scamp!"
Daniel could not have uttered a word to save his life; he was too fearfully excited. Miss Brandon continued,--
"We were dining alone that day; and M. Elgin was so indignant, that he forgot his usual reserve, and told us everything. Ah! I felt only pity for the poor man; and I besought him to give the wretch the means to escape. But he was inflexible. Seeing, however, how excited I was, he tried to reassure me by telling me that Malgat would certainly not come, that he would not dare to expect an answer to such a letter."
She pressed both her hands on her heart, as if to still its beating; and then continued, in a weak voice,--
"Nevertheless, he came, and, seeing his hopes disappointed, he insisted upon speaking to us. The servants let him go up, and he entered. Ah! if I lived a thousand years, I should never forget that fearful scene. Feeling that all was lost, this thief, this defaulter, had become enraged; he demanded money. At first he asked for it on his knees in humble words; but, when he found that this did not answer, he suddenly rose in a perfect fury, his mouth foaming, his eyes bloodshot, and overwhelmed us with the coarsest insults. At last M. Elgin's patience gave out, and he rang for the servants. They had to employ force to drag him out; and, as they pushed him down stairs, he threatened us with his fist, and swore that he would be avenged."
Miss Brandon shuddered till she appeared to be all in a quiver; and, for a moment, Daniel thought she was going to be ill. But she made an effort to overcome her weakness; and, in a more decided tone, she continued,--
"Forty-eight hours passed; and the impression of this horrible scene began to fade from our minds, till it appeared like a bad dream. If we mentioned Malgat at all, it was with pity and contempt; for what could he do to us? Nothing, you will say. Even if he should dare to accuse us of some great crime, we thought no one would listen to him, and we should never hear of it. How could we imagine that the world would set to work doubting our honor upon the mere word of a wretch like him?
"His crime had, in the meantime, become known; and all the papers were full of it, adding a number of more or less reliable stories. They exaggerated the sums he had stolen; and they said he had succeeded in escaping to England, and that the police had lost his traces in London.
"I, poor girl, had nearly forgotten the whole matter.
"He had really fled; but, before leaving Paris, he had succeeded in preparing everything for the vengeance which he had threatened. Where could he have found people mean enough to serve his purposes? and who were they? I do not know. Perhaps he did nothing more, as Mrs. Brian suggested, than to address two or three anonymous letters to some of our acquaintances, who he knew did not like us, or envied us.
"At all events, in less than a week after his disappearance, it was reported everywhere, that I, Sarah Brandon, had been an accomplice of this defaulter, and, worse than that, that the sums he had stolen might easily be found, if a certain bureau in my bedchamber could be searched.
"Yes, that is what they said, at first in a whisper and most cautiously, then louder, and finally openly, and before all the world.
"Soon the papers took it up. They repeated the facts, arranging them to suit their purpose, and alluding to me in a thousand infamous innuendoes. They said that Malgat's defalcation was after the American style, and that it was perfectly natural he should go to a foreign country, after having been associated with a certain foreign lady."
She had become crimson all over; her bosom rose; and shame, indignation, and resentment alternately appeared on her face, changing finally into an ardent desire of vengeance.
"We, in the meantime," she continued, "quiet and safe in our honesty, did not even suspect these infamous proceedings. It is true, I had been struck by some strange whisperings, by curious looks and singular smiles, when I passed some of my friends; but I had not noticed them specially.
"A paper which had been left at the house one afternoon, when we were out, showed us the true state of things. It was a summons. I was ordered to appear before a magistrate.
"It was a thunderbolt. Mad with wrath and grief, M. Elgin swore I should not go, that he would most assuredly find out the authors of this infamous libel, and that, in the meantime, he would challenge and kill every one who dared repeat it.
"In vain did Mrs. Brian and myself beseech him, on our knees, not to leave the house until he had grown cooler. He pushed us aside almost with brutality, and rushed out, taking with him the papers and letters written by Malgat.
"We were at the end of our endurance, having suffered all the tortures of anxiety, when, at last, near midnight, M. Elgin returned, pale, exhausted, and distressed. He had found no one willing even to listen to him; everybody telling him that he was much too good to give a thought to such infamous reports; that they were too absurd to be believed."
She nearly gave way, sobs intercepting her words; but she mastered her emotion, and continued,--
"The next day I went to the court-house; and, after being kept waiting for a long time in a dark passage, I was brought before the magistrate. He was an elderly man, with hard features and piercing eyes, who received me almost brutally, as if I had been a criminal. But, when I had shown him the letters which you have just read, his manner suddenly changed, pity got the better of him; and I thought I saw a tear in his eye. Ah! I shall be eternally grateful to him for the words he said when I left his office,--
"'Poor, poor young girl! Justice bows reverently before your innocence. Would to God that the world could be made to do the same!'"
She fixed her eyes, trembling with fear and hope, upon Daniel, and added, in a voice of supplication and touching humility,--
"The world has been more cruel than justice itself but you, sir, will you be harder than the magistrate?"
Alas! Daniel was sorely embarrassed what to answer. He felt as if all his senses were in an uproar and in utter confusion.
"Sir!" begged Miss Brandon again. "M. Champcey!"
She continued to fix her eyes upon him. He turned his head aside, feeling as if, under her obstinate gaze, his mind left him, his energy evaporated, and all the fibres of his strong will were breaking.
"Great God!" exclaimed Miss Brandon, with grieved surprise; "he still doubts me. Sir, I pray you, speak! Do you doubt the authenticity of these letters? Ah, if you do, take them; for I do not hesitate to confide them, the only proofs of my innocence, to your honor. Take them and show them to the other clerks who have been sitting for twenty years in the same office with Malgat; and they will tell you that it is his handwriting; that he has signed his own condemnation. And, if that is not enough for you, go to the magistrate who examined me; his name is Patrigent."
And she waited, waited, but not a word came forth.
Daniel had sunk, undone, into a chair; and his elbow resting on a small stand, his brow in his hands, he endeavored to think, to reason. Then Miss Brandon rose, came gently up to him, and taking his hand, said softly,--
"I beseech you!"
But as if suddenly electrified by the touch of this soft, warm hand, Daniel rose so hastily, that he upset the chair; and, trembling with mysterious terror, he cried out,--
It was as if a fearful insult had set Miss Brandon on fire. Her face turned crimson, and then, almost instantly, livid; and, stepping back a little, she darted at Daniel a look of burning hatred.
"Oh!" she murmured, "oh!" finding, apparently, no words to express all she felt.
Was she going away? It looked as if she thought of it, for she walked to the door; but, suddenly changing her mind, she came back to where she had stood, facing Daniel.
"This is the first time in my life," she said, trembling with rage, "that I condescend to justify myself against such infamous charges; and you abuse my patience by heaping insult after insult upon me. But never mind. I look upon you as upon Henrietta's husband; and, since I have commenced, I mean to finish."
Daniel tried to say a few words of apology; but she interrupted him,--
"Well, yes; one night a young man, Charles de Kergrist,--a profligate, a gambler, crowning his scandalous life with the vilest and meanest act,--did come and kill himself under my window. The next day a great outcry arose against me. Three days later the brother of that wretched madman, a M. Rene de Kergrist, came and held M. Elgin to account. But do you know what came of these explanations? Charles de Kergrist, it appears, killed himself after a supper, which he left in a state of drunkenness. He committed suicide because he had lost his fortune at Homburg and at Baden; because he had exhausted his last resources; because his family, ashamed at his disgrace, refused to acknowledge him any longer. And, if he chose my window for his self-murder, it was because he wanted to satisfy a petty grievance. Looking upon me as an heiress, whose fortune would enable him to continue his extravagant life, he had courted me, and been refused by M. Elgin. Finally, at the time when the catastrophe occurred, I was sixty miles away from here, in Tours, staying at the house of one of M. Elgin's friends, M. Palmer, who deposed"--
And, as Daniel looked at her with an air of utter bewilderment, she added,--
"Perhaps you will ask me for proofs of what I state. I have none to give you. But I know a man who can give you what you want, and that man is M. de Kergrist's brother; for, after those explanations, he has continued to be our friend, sir, one of our best friends. And he was here to-night, and you have seen him; for he came and spoke to me while you were standing by me. M. de Kergrist lives here in Paris; and M. Elgin will give you his address."
She looked at Daniel with a glance in which pity and contempt were strangely mixed, and then added, in her proudest tone,--
"And now, sir, since I have deigned to stand here like a criminal, do you sit in judgment on me. Question me, and I will answer. What else are you going to charge me with?"
A judge, however, ought to be calm; and Daniel was but too conscious of his deep excitement; he knew he could not even prevent his features from expressing his utter bewilderment. He gave up all discussion therefore, and simply said,--
"I believe you, Miss Brandon, I believe you."
Miss Brandon's beautiful eyes lighted up for a moment with joy; and in a tone of voice which sounded like the echo of her heart, she said,--
"Oh, thank you, sir! now I am sure you will grant me Miss Henrietta's friendship."
Why did she mention that name? It broke the charm which had overcome Daniel. He saw how weak he had been, and was ashamed of himself.
He said sternly, thus proving his anger at himself, and the failure of his judgment,--
"Permit me not to reply to that to-night. I should like to consider."
She looked at him half stupefied.
"What do you mean?" she said. "Have I, or have I not, removed your doubts, your insulting suspicions? Perhaps you wish to consult one of my enemies?"
She spoke in a tone of such profound disdain, that Daniel, stung to the quick, forgot the discretion which he had intended to observe, and said,--
"Since you insist upon it, Miss Brandon, I must confess that there is one doubt which you have not removed."
Daniel hesitated, regretting the words he had allowed to escape him. But he had gone too far now to retract. He replied,--
"I do not understand, Miss Brandon, how you can marry Count Ville- Handry."
"You are young. You are immensely rich, you say. The count is sixty-six years old."
She, who had been so daring that nothing seemed to be able to disconcert her, now lowered her head like a timid boarding-school girl who has been caught acting contrary to rules; and a flood of crimson spread over her face, and every part of her figure which was not concealed by her dress.
"You are cruel, sir!" she stammered; "the secret into which you pry is one of those which a girl hardly dares to confide to her mother."
He was triumphant, thinking he had caught her at last.
"Ah, indeed!" he said ironically.
But the proud young lady did not waver, and replied with bitter sadness,--
"You will have it so; be it so. For your sake, I will lay aside that veil of proud reserve which conceals the mysteries of a young girl's heart. I do not love Count Ville-Handry."
Daniel was startled. This confession seemed to him the height of imprudence.
"I do not love him,--at least not with real love; and I have never allowed him to hope for such a feeling. Still I shall be most happy to become his wife. Do not expect me to explain to you what is going on within me. I myself hardly understand it as yet. I can give no precise name to that feeling of sympathy which attracts me towards him. I have been captivated by his wit and his kindness; his words have an indescribable charm for me. That is all I can tell you."
Daniel could not believe his ears.
"And," she continued, "if you must have motives of more ordinary character, I will confess to you that I can no longer endure this life, harassed as I am by vile calumnies. The palace of Count Ville-Handry appears to me an asylum, where I shall bury my disappointments and my sorrows, and where I shall find peace and a position which commands respect. Ah! you need not be afraid for that great and noble name. I shall bear it worthily and nobly, and shrink from no sacrifice to enhance its splendor. You may say that I am a calculating woman. I dare say I am; but I see nothing mean or disgraceful in my hopes."
Daniel had thought he had confounded her, and it was she who crushed him by her bold frankness; for there was nothing to say, no reasonable objection to make. Fifty marriages out of every hundred are made upon less high ground. Miss Brandon, however, was not a woman to be easily overcome. She rose as she spoke, to her former haughtiness, and inspired herself with the sound of her voice.
"During the last two years," she said, "I have had twenty offers; and among them three or four that would have been acceptable to a duchess. I have refused them, in spite of M. Elgin and Mrs. Brian. Only yesterday, a man of twenty-five, a Gordon Chalusse, was here at my feet. I have sent him off like the others, preferring my dear count. And why?"
She remained a moment buried in thought, her eyes swimming in tears; and, answering apparently her own questions, rather than Daniel's, she went on,--
"Thanks to my beauty, as the world calls it, a fatal beauty, alas! I have been admired, courted, filled to satiety with compliments. They say I am in the most elegant and most polished society in Europe; and yet I have looked in vain for the man whose eye could for a moment even break the peace of my heart. I have seen everywhere only persons of like perfection, whose characters had no more wrinkles than the coat made by the first of tailors, all equally eager and gallant, playing well, talking well, dancing well, riding well."
She shook her head with a movement full of energy; and, beaming with enthusiasm, she exclaimed,--
"Ah! I had dreamed of better things to come. What I dreamed of was a man of noble heart, with an inflexible will, capable of attempting what others dared not,--what, I do not know, but something grand, perilous, impossible. I dreamed of one of those ambitious men with a pale brow, a longing look, whose eyes sparkle with genius,--one of those strong men who impose their will upon the multitude, and who remove mountains by the force of their will.
"Alas! to repay the love of such a man, I would have found treasures in my heart, which now remain useless, like all the wealth that is buried at the bottom of the sea. I would have drunk deep from the cup of my hopes; my pulse would have kept time with the fever of his excitement. For his sake, I would have made myself small, humble, useful; I would have watched in his looks for the shadow of a desire.
"But how proud I would have been, I, his wife, of his success and of his glories, of the reverence paid him by his admirers, and the hatred of his enemies!"
Her voice had vibrations in it that might have stirred up the heart of a stoic. The splendor of her exalted beauty illumined the room.
And gradually, one by one, Daniel's suspicions vanished, or fell to pieces like the ill-jointed pieces of an ancient armor. But Miss Brandon paused, ashamed of her vehemence, and continued more slowly,--
"Now, sir, you know me better than any other person in this world. You alone have read the innermost heart of Sarah Brandon. And yet I see you today for the first time in my life. And yet you are the first man who has ever dared to speak harshly to me, harsh unto insult. Will you make me repent of my frankness? Oh, no, no! surely you will not be so cruel. I know you to be a man of honor and of high principles; I know how, in order to save a name which you revere, you have risked your prospects in life, the girl you love, and an enormous fortune. Yes, Miss Ville-Handry has made no ordinary choice."
She looked as if she were utterly despondent, and added, in a tone of concentrated rage,--
"And I, I know my fate."
Then followed a pause, a terrible pause. They were standing face to face, pale, troubled, trembling with excitement, their teeth firmly set, their eyes eloquent with deep feeling.
Daniel, as he felt the hot breath of this terrible passion, became almost unconscious of the surroundings; his mind was shaken; a mysterious delirium took possession of his senses; the blood rushed to his head; and he felt as if the beating at his temples was ringing in the whole house.
"Yes," began at last Miss Brandon once more, "my fate is sealed. I must become the Countess of Ville-Handry, or I am lost. And once more, sir, I beseech you induce Miss Henrietta to receive me like an elder sister. Ah! if I were the woman you think I am, what would I care for Miss Henrietta and her enmity? You know very well that the count will go on at any hazard. And yet I beg,--I who am accustomed to command everywhere. What more can I do? Do you want to see me at your feet? Here I am."
And really, as she said this, she sank down so suddenly, that her knees struck the floor with a noise; and, seizing Daniel's hands, she pressed them upon her burning brow.
"Great God!" she sighed, "to be rejected, by him!"
Her hair had become partially loosened, and fell in masses on Daniel's hands. He trembled from head to foot; and, bending over Miss Brandon, he raised her, and held her, half lifeless, while her head rested on his shoulder.
"Miss Sarah," he said in a hoarse, low voice.
They were so near to each other, that their breaths mingled, and Daniel felt Miss Brandon's sobs on his heart, burning him like fiery flames. Then, half drunk with excitement, forgetting every thing, he pressed his lips upon the lips of this strange girl.
But she, starting up instantly, drew back, and cried,--
"Daniel! unhappy man!"
Then breaking out in sobs, she stammered,--
"Go! I pray you go! I ask for nothing now. If I must be lost, I must."
And he replied with terrible vehemence,--
"Your will shall be done, Sarah; I am yours. You may count upon me."
And he rushed out like a madman, down the staircase, taking three steps at once, and, finding the house-door open, out into the street.
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