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For some little time there had been a noise of footsteps and a subdued murmur of voices in the vestibule. Annoyed by this interruption, although he perfectly understood its cause, the magistrate rose and hastily opened the door. He was not mistaken. His clerk had returned from lunch, and the time of waiting seemed extremely long to him. "Ah! it's you," said the magistrate. "Very well! begin your inventory. It won't be long before I join you." And closing the door he resumed his seat again. Mademoiselle Marguerite was so absorbed in her narrative that she scarcely noticed this incident, and he had not seated himself before she resumed. "In all my life, I had never seen such an imposing looking person as the Count de Chalusse. His manner, attire, and features could not fail to inspire a child like me with fear and respect. I was so awed that I had scarcely enough presence of mind to bow to him. He glanced at me coldly, and exclaimed: 'Ah! is this the young girl you were speaking of?' The count's tone betrayed such disagreeable surprise that the superior was dismayed. She looked at me, and seemed indignant at my more than modest attire. 'It's a shame to allow a child to leave home dressed in this fashion,' she angrily exclaimed. And she almost tore my huge apron off me, and then with her own hands began to arrange my hair as if to display me to better advantage. 'Ah! these employers,' she exclaimed, 'the best of them are bad. How they do deceive you. It's impossible to place any confidence in their promises. Still, one can't always be at their heels.'
"But the superior's efforts were wasted, for M. de Chalusse had turned away and had begun talking with some gentlemen near by. For the office was full that morning. Five or six gentlemen, whom I recognized as the directors of the asylum, were standing round the steward in the black skullcap. They were evidently talking about me. I was certain of this by the glances they gave me, glances which, however, were full of kindness. The superior joined the group and began speaking with unusual vivacity, while standing in the recess of a window, I listened with all my might. But I must have overestimated my intelligence, for I could gain no meaning whatever from the phrases which followed each other in rapid succession; though the words 'adoption,' 'emancipation,' 'dowry,' 'compensation,' 'reimbursement for sums expended,' recurred again and again. I was only certain of one point: the Count de Chalusse wished something, and these gentlemen were specifying other things in exchange. To each of their demands he answered: 'Yes, yes--it's granted. That's understood.' But at last he began to grow impatient, and in a voice which impressed one with the idea that he was accustomed to command, he exclaimed, 'I will do whatever you wish. Do you desire anything more?' The gentlemen at once became silent, and the superior hastily declared that M. de Chalusse was a thousand times too good, but that one could expect no less of him, the last representative of one of the greatest and oldest families of France.
"I cannot describe the surprise and indignation that were raging in my soul. I divined--I felt that it was my fate, my future, my life that were being decided, and I was not even consulted on the matter. They were disposing of me as if they were sure in advance of my consent. My pride revolted at the thought, but I could not find a word to say in protest. Crimson with shame, confused and furious, I was wondering how I could interfere, when suddenly the consultation ceased and the gentlemen at once surrounded me. One of them, a little old man with a vapid smile and twinkling eyes, tapped me on the cheek, and said: 'So she is as good as she is pretty!' I could have struck him; but all the others laughed approvingly, with the exception of M. de Chalusse, whose manner became more and more frigid, and whose lips wore a constrained smile, as if he had resolved to keep his temper despite all provocation. It seemed to me that he was suffering terribly, and I afterward learned that I had not been mistaken. Far from imitating the old gentleman's manner, he bowed to me very gravely, with an air of deference that quite abashed me, and went away after saying that he would return the next day to conclude the arrangements.
"I was at last left alone with the superior, whom I longed to question, but she gave me no time to do so, for with extreme volubility she began to tell me of my surprising good fortune, which was an unanswerable and conclusive proof of the kindness and protection of Providence. 'The count,' she said, 'was to become my guardian. He would certainly give me a dowry; and by and by, if I were grateful to him for his goodness, he would adopt me, a poor, fatherless and motherless girl, and I should bear the great name of Durtal de Chalusse, and inherit an immense fortune.' In conclusion, she said that there was no limit to the count's generosity, that he had consented to reimburse the asylum the money that had been spent on me, that he had offered to dower, I do not know how many poor girls, and that he had promised to build a chapel for the use of the establishment. This was all true, incredible as it might seem. That very morning, M. de Chalusse had called at the asylum, declared that he was old and childless, a bachelor without any near relatives, and that he wished to adopt a poor orphan. They had given him a list of all the children in the institution, and he had chosen me. 'A mere chance, my dear Marguerite,' repeated the superior. 'A mere chance--or rather a true miracle.' It did, indeed, seem a miracle, but I was more surprised than elated. I longed to be alone, so as to deliberate and reflect, for I knew that I was free to accept or decline this dazzling offer.
"I timidly asked permission to return to my employers to inform them of what had happened and consult with them; but my request was refused. The superior told me that I must deliberate and decide alone; and that when once my decision was taken, there could be no change. So I remained at the asylum, and dined at the superior's table; and during the night I occupied the room of a sister who was absent. What surprised me most of all was the deference with which I was treated. The sisters all seemed to consider me a person of great importance. And yet I hesitated.
"My indecision may seem absurd and hypocritical; but it was really sincere. My present situation was certainly by no means an enviable one. But the worst was over; my term as an apprentice had nearly expired, and my future seemed assured. My future! What could it be with the Count de Chalusse? It was painted in such brilliant colors that it frightened me. Why had the count chosen me in preference to any of the other girls? Was it really chance which had decided him in his choice? On reflecting, the miracle seemed to me to have been prepared in advance, and I fancied that it must conceal some mystery. More than this, the thought of yielding myself up to a stranger terrified me. Forty-eight hours had been granted me to consider my decision, and till the very last instant I remained in doubt. Who knows? Perhaps it would have been better for me if I had returned to my humble life. At all events, I should have been spared a great deal of sorrow and humiliation. But I lacked the courage; and when the time expired, I consented to the new arrangement.
"Should I live a thousand years I shall never forget the day I left the foundling asylum to become the Count de Chalusse's ward. It was a Saturday, and I had given my answer to the superior on the evening before. The next morning I received a visit from my former employers, who, having been informed of the great change in my prospects, had come to bid me good-bye. The cancelling of my apprenticeship had at first caused some trouble, but eventually the count's gold silenced their objections. Still, they were sorry to part with me, as I plainly saw. Their eyes were moist with tears. They were sorry to lose the poor little servant who had served them so faithfully. At the same time, however, I noticed evident constraint in their manner. They no longer said 'thee' and 'thou' to me; they no longer spoke roughly; but they said 'you,' and addressed me as 'mademoiselle.' Poor people! they awkwardly apologized for having ventured to accept my services, declaring in the same breath that they should never be able to replace me at the same price. Madame Greloux, moreover, declared that she should never forgive herself for not having sharply reproved her brother for his abominable conduct. He was a good- for-nothing fellow, she said, as was proved by the fact that he had dared to raise his eyes to me. For the first time in my life, I felt that I was sincerely loved; and I was so deeply touched that if my decision had not been written and signed, I should certainly have returned to live with these worthy people. But it was too late. A sister came to tell me that the superior wished to see me. I bade Father and Mother Greloux farewell and went downstairs.
"In the superior's room, a lady and two shop-girls, laden with boxes and parcels, were waiting for me. It was a dressmaker who had come with some clothes suited to my new station in life. I was told that she had been sent by the Count de Chalusse. This great nobleman thought of everything; and, although he had thirty servants to do his bidding, he never disdained to occupy himself with the pettiest details. So, for the first time, I was arrayed in rustling silk and clinging cashmere. My toilette was no trifling affair. All the good sisters clustered round me, and tried to beautify me with the same care and patience as they would have displayed in adorning the Virgin's statue for a fete-day. A secret instinct warned me that they were overdoing the matter, and that they were making me look ridiculous; but I did not mind. I allowed them to please themselves I could still feel Madame Greloux's tears on my hand, and the scene seemed to me as lugubrious as the last toilette of a prisoner under sentence of death. When they had completed their task, I heard a buzz of admiration round me. If the sisters were worthy of belief, they had never seen such a wonderful transformation. Those who were in the class-rooms or thee sewing-room, were summoned to view and admire me, and some of the elder children were also admitted. Perhaps I was intended as an example for the latter, for I heard the lady superior say to them, 'You see, my dear children, the result of good behavior. Be diligent and dutiful, like our dear Marguerite, and God will reward you as He has rewarded her.' And, meantime, miserable in my finery, I waited--waited for M. de Chalusse, who was coming to take me away.
"At the appointed hour he appeared, with the same air of haughty reserve, that had so awed me on the occasion of our first meeting. He scarcely deigned to look at me, and although I watched him with poignant anxiety, I could read neither blame nor approval on his face. 'You see that your wishes have been scrupulously obeyed, Monsieur le Comte,' said the superior. 'I thank you,' he replied; 'and I shall prove the extent of my gratitude to the poor children under your charge.' Then, turning to me: 'Marguerite,' he said, 'take leave of--your mothers, and tell them that you will never forget their kindness.'"
The girl paused, for her emotion had rendered her words almost unintelligible. But, with an effort, she speedily conquered her weakness.
"It was only then," she continued, "that I realized how much I loved these poor nuns, whom I had sometimes almost cursed. I felt now how close the ties were, that bound me to this hospitable roof, and to these unfortunate children, my companions in misery and loneliness. It seemed to me as if my heart were breaking; and the superior, who was generally so impassible, appeared scarcely less moved than myself. At last, M. de Chalusse took me by the hand and led me away. In the street there was a carriage waiting for us, not such a beautiful one as that which had been sent to fetch me from my workshop, but a much larger one, with trunks and boxes piled on its roof. It was drawn by four gray horses. I felt more dead than alive, as I entered the carriage and took the seat which the count pointed out. He sat down opposite to me. All the sisters had assembled at the door of the asylum, and even the superior wept without making any attempt to hide her tears. 'Farewell!' they all cried; 'farewell, farewell, dear child! Don't forget your old friends. We shall pray for your happiness.' Alas! God could not have heard their prayers. At a sign from M. de Chalusse, a footman closed the door, the postilions cracked their whips, and the heavy vehicle rolled away.
"The die was cast. Henceforth, an impassable gulf was to separate me from this asylum, whither I had been carried in my infancy half dead, and wrapped in swaddling clothes, from which every mark that could possibly lead to identification had been carefully cut away. Whatever my future might prove, I felt that my past was gone forever. But I was too greatly agitated even to think; and crouching in a corner of the carriage, I watched M. de Chalusse with the poignant anxiety a slave displays as he studies his new master. Ah! monsieur, what a wondrous change! A mask seemed to have fallen from the count's face; his lips quivered, a tender light beamed in his eyes, and he drew me to him, exclaiming: 'Oh, Marguerite! my beloved Marguerite! At last--at last!' He sobbed-- this old man, whom I had thought as cold and as insensible as marble; he crushed me in his close embrace, he almost smothered me with kisses. And I was frightfully agitated by the strange, indefinable feeling, kindled in my heart; but I no longer trembled with fear. An inward voice whispered that this was but the renewal of a former tie--one which had somehow been mysteriously broken. However, as I remembered the superior's assertion that it was a miracle in my favor--a wonderful interposition of Providence, I had courage enough to ask: 'So it was not chance that guided you in your choice?'
"My question seemed to take him by surprise. 'Poor Marguerite!' he murmured, 'dearly beloved child! for years I have been laboring to bring about this chance!' Instantly all the romantic stories I had heard in the asylum recurred to my mind. And Heaven knows there are plenty of these stories transmitted by the sisters from generation to generation, till they have become a sort of Golden Legend for poor foundlings. That sad formula, 'Father and mother unknown,' which figures on certificates of birth, acts as a dangerous stimulant for unhealthy imaginations, and leaves an open door for the most extravagant hopes. And thus influenced, I fixed my eyes on the face of the Count de Chalusse, striving to discover some resemblance in his features to my own. But he did not seem to notice my intent gaze, and following his train of thought, he muttered: 'Chance! It was necessary that they should think so, and they did think so. And yet the cleverest detectives in Paris, from old Tabaret to Fortunat, both masters in the art of following up a clue, had exhausted their resources in helping me in my despairing search.' The agony of suspense I was enduring had become intolerable; and unable to restrain myself longer, I exclaimed, with a wildly throbbing heart: 'Then, you are my father, Monsieur le Comte?' He pressed his hand to my lips with such violence that he hurt me, and then, in a voice quivering with excitement, he replied: 'Imprudent girl! What can you mean? Forget that unfortunate idea. Never utter the name of father--you hear me--never! I forbid it!' He had become extremely pale, and he looked anxiously around him, as if he feared that some one had overheard me--as if he had forgotten that we were alone in a carriage which was dashing onward at full speed!
"I was stupefied and alarmed by the sudden terror which M. de Chalusse had displayed and could not control. What could it all mean? What sorrowful recollections, what mysterious apprehensions, had my words aroused in the count's mind? I could not understand or imagine why he should regard my question as strange or unnatural. On the contrary, I thought it perfectly natural, dictated as it had been by circumstances, and by the count's own words and manner. And, in spite of my confusion and agitation, the inexplicable voice which we call presentiment whispered in my heart: 'He has forbidden you to call him father, but he has not said that he is not your father.' However, I had not time to reflect or to question M. de Chalusse any more, though at that moment I should have had the courage to do so; afterward I did not dare.
"Our carriage had drawn up outside the railway station, and the next instant we alighted. Then, for the first time, I learned the magical power of money, I, a poor girl--reared by public charity-- and who for three years had worked for my daily bread. M. de Chalusse found the servants, who were to accompany us, awaiting him. They had thought of everything, and made every possible arrangement for our comfort. I had scarcely time to glance round me before we were on the platform in front of a train, which was ready to start. I perceived the very carriage that had brought us to the station already fastened on a low open truck, and I was advancing to climb into it, when M. de Chalusse stopped me. 'Not there,' said he, 'come with me.' I followed him, and he led me to a magnificent saloon carriage, much higher and roomier than the others, and emblazoned with the Chalusse coat-of-arms. 'This is our carriage, dear Marguerite, he said. I got in. The whistle sounded; and the train started off."
Mademoiselle Marguerite was growing very tired. Big drops of perspiration stood out on her forehead, she panted for breath, and her voice began to fail her.
The magistrate was almost frightened. "Pray rest a little, mademoiselle," he entreated, "there is no hurry."
But she shook her head and replied: "It is better to go on. I should never have courage to begin again if I paused." And thereupon she continued: "I had never gone farther than Versailles. This journey was at first as delightful as a glimpse into fairy-land. Our carriage was one of those costly whims which some millionaires indulge in. It consisted of a central saloon--a perfect chef-d'oeuvre of taste and luxury--with two compartments at either end, furnished with comfortable sleeping accommodation. And all this, the count seemed never weary of repeating, was mine-- mine alone. Leaning back on the velvet cushions, I gazed at the changing landscape, as the train rushed madly on. Leaning over me, M. de Chalusse named all the towns and villages we passed: Brunoy, Melun, Fontainebleau, Villeneuve, Sens, Laroche. And each time the train stopped the servants came to ask if we wished for anything. When we reached Lyons, in the middle of the night, we found a delicious supper awaiting us. It was served as soon as we alighted, and in due time we were warned that the train was ready to start, and then we resumed our journey. You can imagine, perhaps, how marvellous all this seemed to a poor little apprentice, whose only ambition a week before was to earn five francs a day. What a change indeed! At last the count made me retire to one of the compartments, where I soon fell asleep, abandoning my efforts to distinguish what was dreamlike in my situation from reality. However, when I woke up I became terribly anxious. I asked myself what was awaiting me at the end of this long journey. M. de Chalusse's manner continued kind, and even affectionate; but he had regained his accustomed reserve and self- control, and I realized that it would be useless on my part to question him. At last, after a thirty hours' journey by rail, we again entered the count's berline, drawn by post-horses, and eventually M. de Chalusse said to me: 'Here is Cannes--we are at our journey's end.'
"In this town, which is one of the most charming that overlook the blue waters of the Mediterranean, the count owned a palace embowered among lovely orange-trees, only a few steps from the sea, and in full view of the myrtle and laurel groves which deck the isles of Sainte Marguerite. He told me that he proposed spending a few months here in seclusion, so as to give me time to accustom myself to my new position and the luxury that surrounded me. I was, indeed, extremely awkward, and my excessive timidity was increased by my pride. I did not know what to say, or what to do. I did not know how to use my hands, nor how to walk, nor how to carry myself. Everything embarrassed and frightened me; and I was conscious of my awkwardness, without being able to remedy it. I saw my blunders, and knew that I spoke a different language to that which was spoken around me. And yet the memory of Cannes will ever be dear to me. For there I first met the only friend I have now left in this world. I did not exchange a word with him, but by the quickened throbbings of my heart, when our eyes met, I felt that he would exert a powerful influence over my life, and events have since proved that I was not deceived. At that time, however, he was a stranger to me; and nothing on earth would have induced me to make inquiries concerning him. It was only by chance I learned that he lived in Paris, that his name was Pascal, and that he had come south as a companion to a sick friend.
"By a single word the count could have insured the happiness of my life and his own, but he did not speak it. He was the kindest and most indulgent of guardians, and I was often affected to tears by his tenderness. But, although my slightest wish was law, he did not grant me his confidence. The secret--the mystery that stood between us--was like a wall of ice. Still, I was gradually becoming accustomed to my new life, and my mind was regaining its equilibrium, when one evening the count returned home more agitated and excited, if possible, than on the day of my departure from the asylum. He summoned his valet, and, in a tone that admitted no reply, he exclaimed, 'I wish to leave Cannes at once-- I must start in less than an hour--so procure some post-horses instantly.' And in answer to my inquiring glance, he said: 'It must be. It would be folly to hesitate. Each moment increases the peril that threatens us.'
"I was very young, inexperienced, and totally ignorant of life; but my sufferings, my loneliness, and the prospect of being compelled to rely upon myself, had imparted to my mind that precocious maturity which is so often observed among the children of the poor. Knowing from the very first that there was some mystery connected with the count's life, I had studied him with a child's patient sagacity--a sagacity which is all the more dangerous, as it is unsuspected--and I had come to the conclusion that a constant dread rendered his life a burden. Could it be for himself that he trembled, this great nobleman, who was so powerful by reason of his exalted rank, his connections, and his wealth? Certainly not. Was it for me, then? Undoubtedly it was. But why? It had not taken me long to discover that he was concealing me, or, at least, that he endeavored by all means in his power to prevent my presence in his house from being known beyond a very limited circle of friends. Our hurried departure from Cannes confirmed me in my impression.
"It might have been truly called a flight. We left that same evening at eleven o'clock, in a pouring rain, with the first horses that could be procured. Our only attendant was the count's valet--not Casimir, the man who insulted me a little while ago-- but another man, an old and valued servant, who has since died, unfortunately, and who possessed his master's entire confidence. The other servants were dismissed with a princely gratuity, and told to disperse two days after our departure. We did not return to Paris, but journeyed toward the Italian frontier, and on arriving at Nice in the dead of night, we drove directly to the quay. The postilions unharnessed the horses, and we remained in the carriage. The valet, however, hastened off, and more than two hours elapsed before he returned. He declared that he had found it very difficult to procure what he wished for, but that at last, by a prodigal outlay of money, he had succeeded in overcoming all obstacles. What M. de Chalusse desired was a vessel ready for sea, and the bark which the valet had chartered now came up to the quay. Our carriage was put on board, we went below, and before daybreak we were under way.
"Three days later we were in Genoa, registered under a false name in a second class hotel. While we were on the open sea, the count had seemed to be less agitated, but now he was far from calm, and the precautions he took proved that he still feared pursuit. A malefactor flying from justice could not have taken greater pains to mislead the detectives on his track. And facts proved conclusively that I was the sole cause of the count's apprehension. On one occasion I even heard him discussing with his valet the feasibility of clothing me in masculine attire. And it was only the difficulty of obtaining a suitable costume that prevented him from carrying this project into execution. I ought to mention, however, that the servant did not share his master's anxiety, for three or four times I overheard him saying: 'The count is too good to worry himself so much about such bad stock. Besides, she won't overtake us. It isn't certain that she has even followed us. How can she know anything about it?' She! Who was she? This is what I racked my brain to discover, but without success. I must confess, monsieur, that being of a practical nature, and not in the least degree romantic, I arrived at the conclusion that the peril chiefly existed in the count's imagination, or that he greatly exaggerated it. Still he suffered none the less on that account, as was shown by the fact that the following month was spent in hurried journeys from one Italian city to another.
"It was the end of May before M. de Chalusse would consent to return to France; and then we went direct to Lyons. We had spent a couple of days there, when the count informed me that prudence required us to separate for a time--that our safety demanded this sacrifice. And without giving me time to say a word, he began to explain the advantages that would accrue from such an arrangement. I was extremely ignorant, and he wished me to profit by our temporary separation to raise my knowledge to a level with my new social position. He had, accordingly, made arrangements for me to enter the convent of Sainte-Marthe, an educational establishment which is as celebrated in the department of the Rhone as the Convent des Oiseaux is in Paris. He added that it would not be prudent for him to visit me; and he made me solemnly promise that I would never mention his name to any of my schoolmates. I was to send any letters I might write to an address which he would give me, and he would sign his answers with a fictitious name. He also told me that the lady superior of Sainte-Marthe knew his secret, and that I could confide in her. He was so restless and so miserably unhappy on the day when he acquainted me with these plans, that I really believed him insane. Nevertheless, I replied that I would obey him, and to tell the truth, I was not ill pleased at the thought of the change. My life with M. de Chalusse was a monotonous and cheerless one. I was almost dying of ennui, for I had been accustomed to work, bustle, and confusion with the Greloux, and I felt delighted at the prospect of finding myself among companions of my own age.
"Unfortunately, M. de Chalusse had forgotten one circumstance, which made my two years' sojourn at Sainte-Marthe a lingering and cruel agony. At first I was kindly treated by my schoolmates. A new pupil is always welcome, for her arrival relieves the monotony of convent-life. But it was not long before my companions wished to know my name; and I had none other than Marguerite to give them. They were astonished and wished to know who my parents were. I could not tell an untruth; and I was obliged to confess that I knew nothing at all respecting my father or my mother. After that 'the bastard'--for such was the name they gave me--was soon condemned to isolation. No one would associate with me during play-time. No one would sit beside me in the school-room. At the piano lesson, the girl who played after me pretended to wipe the keyboard carefully before commencing her exercises. I struggled bravely against this unjust ostracism; but all in vain. I was so unlike these other girls in character and disposition, and I had, moreover, been guilty of a great imprudence. I had been silly enough to show my companions the costly jewels which M. de Chalusse had given me, but which I never wore. And on two occasions I had proved to them that I had more money at my disposal than all the other pupils together. If I had been poor, they would, perhaps, have treated me with affected sympathy; but as I was rich, I became an enemy. It was war; and one of those merciless wars which sometimes rage so furiously in convents, despite their seeming quiet.
"I should surprise you, monsieur, if I told you what refined torture these daughters of noblemen invented to gratify their petty spite. I might have complained to the superior, but I scorned to do so. I buried my sorrow deep in my heart, as I had done years before; and I firmly resolved never to show ought but a smiling, placid face, so as to prove to my enemies that they were powerless to disturb my peace of mind. Study became my refuge and consolation; and I plunged into work with the energy of despair. I should probably still live at Sainte-Marthe now, had it not been for a trivial circumstance. One day I had a quarrel with my most determined enemy, a girl named Anais de Rochecote. I was a thousand times right; and I would not yield. The superior dared not tell me I was wrong. Anais was furious, and wrote I don't know what falsehoods to her mother. Madame de Rochecote thereupon interested the mothers of five or six other pupils in her daughter's quarrel, and one evening these ladies came in a body, and nobly and courageously demanded that the 'bastard' should be expelled. It was impossible, outrageous, monstrous, they declared, that their daughters should be compelled to associate with a girl like me--a nameless girl, who humiliated the other girls with her ill-gotten wealth. The superior tried to take my part; but these ladies declared they would take their daughters from the convent if I were not sent away. There was no help for it: I was sacrificed. Summoned by telegraph, M. de Chalusse hastened to Lyons, and two days later I left Sainte-Marthe with jeers and opprobrious epithets ringing in my ears."
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