Poems & Short Stories: 4,271
Forum Members: 70,634
Forum Posts: 1,033,546
And over 2 million unique readers monthly!
On hearing M. de Valorsay's name, Mademoiselle Marguerite and the magistrate exchanged glances full of wondering conjecture. The girl was undecided what course to pursue; but the magistrate put an end to her perplexity. "Ask the marquis to come up," he said to the servant.
The footman left the room; and, as soon as he had disappeared, Mademoiselle Marguerite exclaimed: "What, monsieur! after all I have told you, you still wish me to receive him?"
"It is absolutely necessary that you should do so. You must know what he wishes and what hope brings him here. Calm yourself, and submit to necessity."
In a sort of bewilderment, the girl hastily arranged her disordered dress, and caught up her wavy hair which had fallen over her shoulders. "Ah! monsieur," she remarked, "don't you understand that he still believes me to be the count's heiress? In his eyes, I am still surrounded by the glamor of the millions which are mine no longer."
"Hush! here he comes!"
The Marquis de Valorsay was indeed upon the threshold, and a moment later he entered the room. He was clad with the exquisite taste of those intelligent gentlemen to whom the color of a pair of trousers is a momentous matter, and whose ambition is satisfied if they are regarded as a sovereign authority respecting the cut of a waistcoat. As a rule, his expression of face merely denoted supreme contentment with himself and indifference as to others, but now, strange to say, he looked grave and almost solemn. His right leg--the unfortunate limb which had been broken when he fell from his horse in Ireland--seemed stiff, and dragged a trifle more than usual, but this was probably solely due to the influence of the atmosphere. He bowed to Mademoiselle Marguerite with every mark of profound respect, and without seeming to notice the magistrate's presence.
"You will excuse me, I trust, mademoiselle," said he, "in having insisted upon seeing you, so that I might express my deep sympathy. I have just heard of the terrible misfortune which has befallen you--the sudden death of your father."
She drew back as if she were terrified, and repeated: "My father!"
The marquis did not evince the slightest surprise. "I know," said he, in a voice which he tried to make as feeling as possible, "I know that M. de Chalusse kept this fact concealed from you; but he confided his secret to me."
"To you?" interrupted the magistrate, who was unable to restrain himself any longer.
The marquis turned haughtily to this old man dressed in black, and in the dry tone one uses in speaking to an indiscreet inferior, he replied: "To me, yes, monsieur; and he acquainted me not only by word of mouth, but in writing also, with the motives which influenced him, expressing his fixed intention, not only of recognizing Mademoiselle Marguerite as his daughter, but also of adopting her in order to insure her undisputed right to his fortune and his name."
"Ah!" said the magistrate as if suddenly enlightened; "ah! ah!"
But without noticing this exclamation which was, at least, remarkable in tone, M. de Valorsay again turned to Mademoiselle Marguerite, and continued: "Your ignorance on this subject, mademoiselle, convinces me that your servants have not deceived me in telling me that M. de Chalusse was struck down without the slightest warning. But they have told me one thing which I cannot believe. They have told me that the count made no provision for you, that he left no will, and that--excuse a liberty which is prompted only by the most respectful interest--and that, the result of this incomprehensible and culpable neglect is that you are ruined and almost without means. Can this be possible?"
"It is the exact truth, monsieur," replied Mademoiselle Marguerite. "I am reduced to the necessity of working for my daily bread."
She spoke these words with a sort of satisfaction, expecting that the marquis would betray his disappointed covetousness by some significant gesture or exclamation, and she was already prepared to rejoice at his confusion. But her expectations were not realized. Instead of evincing the slightest dismay or even regret, M. de Valorsay drew a long breath, as if a great burden had been lifted from his heart, and his eyes sparkled with apparent delight. "Then I may venture to speak," he exclaimed, with unconcealed satisfaction, "I will speak, rnademoiselle, if you will deign to allow me."
She looked at him with anxious curiosity, wondering what was to come. "Speak, monsieur," she faltered.
"I will obey you, mademoiselle," he said, bowing again. "But first, allow me to tell you how great my hopes have been. M. de Chalusse's death is an irreparable misfortune for me as for yourself. He had allowed me, mademoiselle, to aspire to the honor of becoming a suitor for your hand. If he did not speak to you on the subject, it was only because he wished to leave you absolutely free, and impose upon me the difficult task of winning your consent. But between him and me everything had been arranged in principle, and he was to give a dowry of three millions of francs to Mademoiselle Marguerite de Chalusse, his daughter."
"I am no longer Mademoiselle de Chalusse, Monsieur le Marquis, and I am no longer the possessor of a fortune."
He felt the sharp sting of this retort, for the blood rose to his cheeks, still he did not lose his composure. "If you were still rich, mademoiselle," he replied, in the reproachful tone of an honest man who feels that he is misunderstood, "I should, perhaps, have strength to keep the sentiments with which you have inspired me a secret in my own heart; but--" He rose, and with a gesture which was not devoid of grace, and in a full ringing voice he added: "But you are no longer the possessor of millions; and so I may tell you, Mademoiselle Marguerite, that I love you. Will you be my wife?"
The poor girl was obliged to exercise all her powers of self- control to restrain an exclamation of dismay. It was indeed more than dismay; she was absolutely terrified by the Marquis de Valorsay's unexpected declaration, and she could only falter: "Monsieur! monsieur!"
But with an air of winning frankness he continued: "Need I tell you who I am, mademoiselle? No; that is unnecessary. The fact that my suit was approved of by M. de Chalusse is the best recommendation I can offer you. The pure and stainless name I bear is one of the proudest in France; and though my fortune may have been somewhat impaired by youthful folly, it is still more than sufficient to maintain an establishment in keeping with my rank."
Mademoiselle Marguerite was still powerless to reply. Her presence of mind had entirely deserted her, and her tongue seemed to cleave to her palate. She glanced entreatingly at the old magistrate, as if imploring his intervention, but he was so absorbed in contemplating his wonderful ring, that one might have imagined he was oblivious of all that was going on around him.
"I am aware that I have so far not been fortunate enough to please you, mademoiselle," continued the marquis. "M. de Chalusse did not conceal it from me--I remember, alas! that I advocated in your presence a number of stupid theories, which must have given you a very poor opinion of me. But you will forgive me, I trust. My ideas have entirely changed since I have learned to understand and appreciate your vigorous intellect and nobility of soul. I thoughtlessly spoke to you in the language which is usually addressed to young ladies of our rank of life--frivolous beauties, who are spoiled by vanity and luxury, and who look upon marriage only as a means of enfranchisement."
His words were disjointed as if emotion choked his utterance. At times, it seemed as if he could scarcely command his feelings; and then his voice became so faint and trembling that it was scarcely intelligible.
However, by allowing him to continue, by listening to what he said, Mademoiselle Marguerite was encouraging him, even more-- virtually binding herself. She understood that this was the case, and making a powerful effort, she interrupted him, saying: "I assure you, Monsieur le Marquis, that I am deeply touched--and grateful--but I am no longer free."
"Pray, mademoiselle, pray do not reply to-day. Grant me a little time to overcome your prejudices."
She shook her head, and in a firmer voice, replied: "I have no prejudices; but for some time past already, my future has been decided, irrevocably decided."
He seemed thunderstruck, and his manner apparently indicated that the possibility of a repulse had never entered his mind. His eyes wandered restlessly from Mademoiselle Marguerite to the countenance of the old magistrate, who remained as impassive as a sphinx, and at last they lighted on a newspaper which was lying on the floor at the young girl's feet. "Do not deprive me of all hope," he murmured.
She made no answer, and understanding her silence, he was about to retire when the door suddenly opened and a servant announced: "Monsieur de Fondege."
Mademoiselle Marguerite touched the magistrate on the shoulder to attract his attention. "This gentleman is M. de Chalusse's friend whom I sent for this morning."
At the same moment a man who looked some sixty years of age entered the room. He was very tall, and as straight as the letter I, being arrayed in a long blue frock-coat, while his neck, which was as red and as wrinkled as that of a turkey-cock, was encased in a very high and stiff satin cravat. On seeing his ruddy face, his closely cropped hair, his little eyes twinkling under his bushy eyebrows, and his formidable mustaches a la Victor Emmanuel, you would have immediately exclaimed: "That man is an old soldier!"
A great mistake! M. de Fondege had never been in the service, and it was only in mockery of his somewhat bellicose manners and appearance that some twenty years previously his friends had dubbed him "the General." However, the appellation had clung to him. The nickname had been changed to a title, and now M. de Fondege was known as "the General" everywhere. He was invited and announced as "the General." Many people believed that he had really been one, and perhaps he fancied so himself, for he had long been in the habit of inscribing "General A. de Fondege" on his visiting cards. The nickname had had a decisive influence on his life. He had endeavored to show himself worthy of it, and the manners he had at first assumed, eventually became natural ones. He seemed to be the conventional old soldier--irascible and jovial at the same time; brusk and kind; at once frank, sensible and brutal; as simple as a child, and yet as true as steel. He swore the most tremendous oaths in a deep bass voice, and whenever he talked his arms revolved like the sails of a windmill. However, Madame de Fondege, who was a very angular lady, with a sharp nose and very thin lips, assured people that her husband was not so terrible as he appeared. He was not considered very shrewd, and he pretended to have an intense dislike for business matters. No one knew anything precise about his fortune, but he had a great many friends who invited him to dinner, and they all declared that he was in very comfortable circumstances.
On entering the study this worthy man did not pay the slightest attention to the Marquis de Valorsay, although they were intimate friends. He walked straight up to Mademoiselle Marguerite, caught her in his long arms, and pressed her to his heart, brushing her face with his huge mustaches as he pretended to kiss her. "Courage, my dear," he growled; "courage. Don't give way. Follow my example. Look at me!" So saying he stepped back, and it was really amusing to see the extraordinary effort he made to combine a soldier's stoicism with a friend's sorrow. "You must wonder at my delay, my dear," he resumed, "but it was not my fault. I was at Madame de Rochecote's when I was informed that your messenger was at home waiting for me. I returned, and heard the frightful news. It was a thunderbolt. A friend of thirty years' standing! A thousand thunderclaps! I acted as his second when he fought his first duel. Poor Chalusse!
A man as sturdy as an oak, and who ought to have outlived us all. But it is always so; the best soldiers always file by first at dress-parade."
The Marquis de Valorsay had beaten a retreat, the magistrate was hidden in a dark corner, and Mademoiselle Marguerite, who was accustomed to the General's manner, remained silent, being well aware that there was no chance of putting in a word as long as he had possession of the floor. "Fortunately, poor Chalusse was a prudent man," continued M. de Fondege. "He loved you devotedly, my dear, as his testamentary provisions must have shown you."
"Yes, most certainly. Surely you don't mean to try and conceal anything from one who knows all. Ah! you will be one of the greatest catches in Europe, and you will have plenty of suitors."
Mademoiselle Marguerite sadly shook her head. "You are mistaken, General; the count left no will, and has made no provision whatever for me."
M. de Fondege trembled, turned a trifle pale, and in a faltering voice, exclaimed: "What! You tell me that? Chalusse! A thousand thunderclaps! It isn't possible."
"The count was stricken with apoplexy in a cab. He went out about five o'clock, on foot, and a little before seven he was brought home unconscious. Where he had been we don't know."
"You don't know? you don't know?"
"Alas! no; and he was only able to utter a few incoherent words before he died." Thereupon the poor girl began a brief account of what had taken place during the last four-and-twenty hours. Had she been less absorbed in her narrative she would have noticed that the General was not listening to her. He was sitting at the count's desk and was toying with the letters which Madame Leon had brought into the room a short time previously. One of them especially seemed to attract his attention, to exercise a sort of fascination over him as it were. He looked at it with hungry eyes, and whenever he touched it, his hand trembled, or involuntarily clinched. His face, moreover, had become livid; his eyes twitched nervously; he seemed to have a difficulty in breathing, and big drops of perspiration trickled down his forehead. If the magistrate were able to see the General's face, he must certainly have been of opinion that a terrible conflict was raging in his mind. The struggle lasted indeed for fully five minutes, and then suddenly, certain that no one saw him, he caught up the letter in question and slipped it into his pocket.
Poor Marguerite was now finishing her story: "You see, monsieur, that, far from being an heiress, as you suppose, I am homeless and penniless," she said.
The General had risen from his chair, and was striding up and down the room with every token of intense agitation. "It's true," he said apparently unconscious of his words. "She's ruined--lost-- the misfortune is complete!" Then, suddenly pausing with folded arms in front of Mademoiselle Marguerite: "What are you going to do?" he asked.
"God will not forsake me, General," she replied.
He turned on his heel and resumed his promenade, wildly gesticulating and indulging in a furious monologue which was certainly not very easy to follow. "Frightful! terrible!" he growled. "The daughter of an old comrade--zounds!--of a friend of thirty years' standing--to be left in such a plight! Never, a thousand thunderclaps!--never! Poor child!--a heart of gold, and as pretty as an angel! This horrible Paris would devour her at a single mouthful! It would be a crime--an abomination! It sha'n't be!--the old veterans are here, firm as rocks!"
Thereupon, approaching the poor girl again, he exclaimed in a coarse but seemingly feeling voice: "Mademoiselle Marguerite."
"You are acquainted with my son, Gustave Fondege, are you not?"
"I think I have heard you speak of him to M. de Chalusse several times."
The General tugged furiously at his mustaches as was his wont whenever he was perplexed or embarrassed. "My son," he resumed, "is twenty-seven. He's now a lieutenant of hussars, and will soon be promoted to the rank of captain. He's a handsome fellow, sure to make his way in the world, for he's not wanting in spirit. As I never attempt to hide the truth, I must confess that he's a trifle dissipated; but his heart is all right, and a charming little wife would soon turn him from the error of his ways, and he'd become the pearl of husbands." He paused, passed his forefinger three or four times between his collar and his neck, and then, in a half-strangled voice, he added: "Mademoiselle Marguerite, I have the honor to ask for your hand in marriage on behalf of Lieutenant Gustave de Fondege, my son."
There was a dangerous gleam of anger in Mademoiselle Marguerite's eyes, as she coldly replied: "I am honored by your request, monsieur; but my future is already decided."
Some seconds elapsed before M. de Fondege could recover his powers of speech. "This is a piece of foolishness," he faltered, at last with singular agitation." Let me hope that you will reconsider the matter. And if Gustave doesn't please you, we will find some one better. But under no circumstances will Chalusse's old comrade ever desert you. I shall send Madame de Fondege to see you this evening. She's a good woman and you will understand each other. Come, answer me, what do you say to it?"
His persistence irritated the poor girl beyond endurance, and to put an end to the painful scene, she at last asked: "Would you not like to look--for the last time--at M. de Chalusse?"
"Ah! yes, certainly--an old friend of thirty years' standing." So saying he advanced toward the door leading into the death-room, but on reaching the threshold, he cried in sudden terror: "Oh! no, no, I could not." And with these words he withdrew or rather he fled from the room down the stairs.
As long as the General had been there, the magistrate had given no sign of life. But seated beyond the circle of light cast by the lamps, he had remained an attentive spectator of the scene, and now that he found himself once more alone with Mademoiselle Marguerite he came forward, and leaning against the mantelpiece and looking her full in the face he exclaimed: "Well, my child?"
The girl trembled like a culprit awaiting sentence of death, and it was in a hollow voice that she replied: "I understood--"
"What?" insisted the pitiless magistrate.
She raised her beautiful eyes, in which angry tears were still glittering, and then answered in a voice which quivered with suppressed passion, "I have fathomed the infamy of those two men who have just left the house. I understood the insult their apparent generosity conceals. They had questioned the servants, and had ascertained that two millions were missing. Ah, the scoundrels! They believe that I have stolen those millions; and they came to ask me to share the ill-gotten wealth with them. What an insult! and to think that I am powerless to avenge it! Ah! the servants' suspicions were nothing in comparison with this. At least, they did not ask for a share of the booty as the price of their silence!"
The magistrate shook his head as if this explanation scarcely satisfied him. "There is something else, there is certainly something else," he repeated. But the doors were still open, so he closed them carefully, and then returned to the girl he was so desirous of advising. "I wish to tell you," he said, "that you have mistaken the motives which induced these gentlemen to ask for your hand in marriage."
"Do you believe, then, that you have fathomed them?"
"I could almost swear that I had. Didn't you remark a great difference in their manner? Didn't one of them, the marquis, behave with all the calmness and composure which are the result of reflection and calculation? The other, on the contrary, acted most precipitately, as if he had suddenly come to a determination, and formed a plan on the impulse of the moment."
Mademoiselle Marguerite reflected.
"That's true," she said, "that's indeed true. Now I recollect the difference."
"And this is my explanation of it," resumed the magistrate. "'The Marquis de Valorsay,' I said to myself, 'must have proofs in his possession that Mademoiselle Marguerite is the count's daughter-- written and conclusive proofs, that is certain--probably a voluntary admission of the fact from the father. Who can prove that M. de Valorsay does not possess this acknowledgment? In fact, he must possess it. He hinted it himself.' Accordingly on hearing of the count's sudden death, he said to himself, 'If Marguerite was my wife, and if I could prove her to be M. de Chalusse's daughter, I should obtain several millions.' Whereupon he consulted his legal adviser who assured him that it would be the best course he could pursue; and so he came here. You repulsed him, but he will soon make another assault, you may rest assured of that. And some day or other he will come to you and say, 'Whether we marry or not, let us divide.'"
Mademoiselle Marguerite was amazed. The magistrate's words seemed to dispel the mist which had hitherto hidden the truth from view. "Yes," she exclaimed, "yes, you are right, monsieur."
He was silent for a moment, and then he resumed: "I understand M. de Fondege's motive less clearly; but still I have some clue. He had not questioned the servants. That is evident from the fact that on his arrival here he believed you to be the sole legatee. He was also aware that M. de Chalusse had taken certain precautions we are ignorant of, but which he is no doubt fully acquainted with. What you told him about your poverty amazed him, and he immediately evinced a desire to atone for the count's neglect with as much eagerness as if he were the cause of this negligence himself. And, indeed, judging by the agitation he displayed when he was imploring you to become his son's wife, one might almost imagine that the sight of your misery awakened a remorse which he was endeavoring to quiet. Now, draw your own conclusions."
The wretched girl looked questioningly at the magistrate as if she hesitated to trust the thoughts which his words had awakened in her mind. "Then you think, monsieur," she said, with evident reluctance, "you think, you suppose, that the General is acquainted with the whereabouts of the missing millions?"
"Quite correct," answered the magistrate, and then as if he feared that he had gone too far, he added: "but draw your own conclusions respecting the matter. You have the whole night before you. We will talk it over again to-morrow, and if I can be of service to you in any way, I shall be only too glad."
"Oh--to-morrow, to-morrow--I must go to dinner now; besides, my clerk must be getting terribly impatient."
The clerk was, indeed, out of temper. Not that he had finished taking an inventory of the appurtenances of this immense house, but because he considered that he had done quite enough work for one day. And yet his discontent was sensibly diminished when he calculated the amount he would receive for his pains. During the nine years he had held this office he had never made such an extensive inventory before. He seemed somewhat dazzled, and as he followed his superior out of the house, he remarked: "Do you know, monsieur, that as nearly as I can discover the deceased's fortune must amount to more than twenty millions--an income of a million a year! And to think that the poor young lady shouldn't have a penny of it. I suspect she's crying her eyes out."
But the clerk was mistaken. Mademoiselle Marguerite was then questioning M. Casimir respecting the arrangements which he had made for the funeral, and when this sad duty was concluded, she consented to take a little food standing in front of the sideboard in the dining-room. Then she went to kneel in the count's room, where four members of the parochial clergy were reciting the prayers for the dead.
She was so exhausted with fatigue that she could scarcely speak, and her eyelids were heavy with sleep. But she had another task to fulfil, a task which she deemed a sacred duty. She sent a servant for a cab, threw a shawl over her shoulders, and left the house accompanied by Madame Leon. The cabman drove as fast as possible to the house where Pascal and his mother resided in the Rue d'Ulm; but on arriving there, the front door was found to be closed, and the light in the vestibule was extinguished. Marguerite was obliged to ring five or six times before the concierge made his appearance.
"I wish to see Monsieur Ferailleur," she quietly said.
The man glanced at her scornfully, and then replied: "He no longer lives here. The landlord doesn't want any thieves in his house. He's sold his rubbish and started for America, with his old witch of a mother."
So saying he closed the door again, and Marguerite was so overwhelmed by this last and unexpected misfortune, that she could hardly stagger back to the vehicle. "Gone!" she murmured; "gone! without a thought of me! Or does he believe me to be like all the rest? But I will find him again. That man Fortunat, who ascertained addresses for M. de Chalusse, will find Pascal for me."
|Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily|
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.