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Beset by a thousand fears and anxieties, Blanche had failed to notice that Aunt Medea was no longer the same.
The change, it is true, had been gradual; it had not struck the servants, but it was none the less positive and real, and it betrayed itself in numberless trifles.
For example, though the poor dependent still retained her humble, resigned manner; she had lost, little by little, the servile fear that had showed itself in her every movement. She no longer trembled when anyone addressed her, and there was occasionally a ring of independence in her voice.
If visitors were present, she no longer kept herself modestly in the background, but drew forward her chair and took part in the conversation. At table, she allowed her preferences and her dislikes to appear. On two or three occasions she had ventured to differ from her niece in opinion, and had even been so bold as to question the propriety of some of her orders.
Once Mme. Blanche, on going out, asked Aunt Medea to accompany her; but the latter declared she had a cold, and remained at home.
And, on the following Sunday, although Blanche did not wish to attend vespers, Aunt Medea declared her intention of going; and as it rained, she requested the coachman to harness the horses to the carriage, which was done.
All this was nothing, in appearance; in reality, it was monstrous, amazing. It was quite plain that the humble relative was becoming bold, even audacious, in her demands.
As this departure, which her niece had just announced so gayly, had never been discussed before her, she was greatly surprised.
"What! you are going away," she repeated; "you are leaving Courtornieu?"
"And without regret."
"To go where, pray?"
"To Paris. We shall reside there; that is decided. That is the place for my husband. His name, his fortune, his talents, the favor of the King, assure him a high position there. He will repurchase the Hotel de Sairmeuse, and furnish it magnificently. We shall have a princely establishment."
All the torments of envy were visible upon Aunt Medea's countenance.
"'And what is to become of me?" she asked, in plaintive tones.
"You, aunt! You will remain here; you will be mistress of the chateau. A trustworthy person must remain to watch over my poor father. You will be happy and contented here, I hope."
But no; Aunt Medea did not seem satisfied.
"I shall never have courage to stay all alone in this great chateau," she whined.
"You foolish woman! will you not have the servants, the gardeners, and the concierge to protect you?"
"That makes no difference. I am afraid of insane people. When the marquis began to rave and howl this evening, I felt as if I should go mad myself."
Blanche shrugged her shoulders.
"What do you wish, then?" she asked, in a still more sarcastic manner.
"I thought--I wondered--if you would not take me with you."
"To Paris! You are crazy, I do believe. What would you do there?"
"Blanche, I entreat you, I beseech you, to do so!"
"Impossible, aunt; impossible!"
Aunt Medea seemed to be in despair.
"And what if I should tell you that I cannot remain here--that I dare not--that I should die!"
A flush of impatience dyed the cheek of Mme. Blanche.
"You weary me beyond endurance," she said, rudely.
And with a gesture that increased the harshness of her words, she added:
"If Courtornieu displeases you so much, there is nothing to prevent you from seeking a home more to your taste. You are free and of age."
Aunt Medea turned very pale, and she bit her lips until the blood came.
"That is to say," she said, at last, "you permit me to take my choice between dying of fear at Courtornieu and ending my days in a hospital. Thanks, my niece, thanks. That is like you. I expected nothing less of you. Thanks!"
She raised her head, and a dangerous light gleamed in her eyes. There was the hiss of a serpent in the voice in which she continued:
"Very well! this decides me. I entreated you, and you brutally refused to heed my prayer, now I command and I say: 'I will go!' Yes, I intend to go with you to Paris--and I shall go. Ah! it surprises you to hear poor, meek, much-abused Aunt Medea speak in this way. I have endured in silence for a long time, but I have rebelled at last. My life in this house has been a hell. It is true that you have given me shelter --that you have fed and lodged me; but you have taken my entire life in exchange. What servant ever endured what I have endured? Have you ever treated one of your maids as you have treated me, your own flesh and blood? And I have had no wages; on the contrary, I was expected to be grateful since I lived by your tolerance. Ah! you have made me pay dearly for the crime of being poor. How you have insulted me-- humiliated me--trampled me under foot!"
The bitter rancor which had been accumulating for years fairly choked her; but after a moment she resumed, in a tone of intense irony:
"You ask me what would I do in Paris? I, too, would enjoy myself. What will you do, yourself? You will go to Court, to balls, and to the play, will you not? Very well, I will accompany you. I will attend these fetes. I will have handsome toilets, I--poor Aunt Medea--who have never seen myself in anything but shabby black woollen dresses. Have you ever thought of giving me the pleasure of possessing a handsome dress? Yes, twice a year, perhaps, you have given me a black silk, recommending me to take good care of it. But it was not for my sake that you went to this expense. It was for your own sake; and in order that your poor relation should do honor to your generosity. You dressed me in it, as you sew gold lace upon the clothing of your lackeys, through vanity. And I endured all this; I made myself insignificant and humble; buffeted upon one cheek, I offered the other. I must live--I must have food. And you, Blanche, how often, to make me subservient to your will, have you said to me: 'You will do thus-and-so, if you desire to remain at Courtornieu?' And I obeyed--I was forced to obey, since I knew not where to go. Ah! you have abused me in every way; but now my turn has come!"
Blanche was so amazed that she could not articulate a syllable. At last, in a scarcely audible voice, she faltered:
"I do not understand you, aunt; I do not understand you."
The poor dependent shrugged her shoulders, as her niece had done a few moments before.
"In that case," said she, slowly, "I may as well tell you that since you have, against my will, made me your accomplice, we must share everything in common. I share the danger; I will share the pleasure. What if all should be discovered? Do you ever think of that? Yes; and that is why you are seeking diversion. Very well! I also desire diversion. I shall go to Paris with you."
By a terrible effort Blanche had succeeded in regaining her self- possession, in some measure at least.
"And if I should say no?" she responded, coldly.
"But you will not say no."
"And why, if you please?"
"Will you go to the authorities and denounce me?"
Aunt Medea shook her head.
"I am not such a fool," she retorted. "I should only compromise myself. No, I shall not do that; but I might, perhaps, tell your husband what happened at the Borderie."
Blanche shuddered. No threat was capable of moving her like that.
"You shall accompany us, aunt," said she; "I promise it."
Then she added, gently:
"But it is unnecessary to threaten me. You have been cruel, aunt, and at the same time, unjust. If you have been unhappy in our house, you alone are to blame. Why have you said nothing? I attributed your complaisance to your affection for me. How was I to know that a woman as quiet and modest as yourself longed for fine apparel. Confess that it was impossible. Had I known-- But rest easy, aunt; I will atone for my neglect."
And as Aunt Medea, having obtained all she desired, stammered an excuse:
"Nonsense!" Blanche exclaimed; "let us forget this foolish quarrel. You forgive me, do you not?"
And the two ladies embraced each other with the greatest effusion, like two friends united after a misunderstanding. But Aunt Medea was as far from being deceived by this mock reconciliation as the clearsighted Blanche.
"It will be best for me to keep on the qui vive," thought the humble relative. "God only knows with what intense joy my dear niece would send me to join Marie-Anne."
Perhaps a similar thought flitted through the mind of Mme. Blanche.
She felt as a convict might feel on seeing his most execrated enemy, perhaps the man who had betrayed him, fastened to the other end of his chain.
"I am bound now and forever to this dangerous and perfidious creature," she thought. "I am no longer my own mistress; I belong to her. When she commands, I must obey. I must be the slave of her every caprice--and she has forty years of humiliation and servitude to avenge."
The prospect of such a life made her tremble; and she racked her brain to discover some way of freeing herself from her detested companion.
Would it be possible to inspire Aunt Medea with a desire to live independently in her own house, served by her own servants?
Might she succeed in persuading this silly old woman, who still longed for finery and ball-dresses, to marry? A handsome marriage-portion will always attract a husband.
But, in either case, Blanche would require money--a large sum of money, for whose use she would be accountable to no one.
This conviction made her resolve to take possession of about two hundred and fifty thousand francs, in bank-notes and coin, belonging to her father.
This sum represented the savings of the Marquis de Courtornieu during the past three years. No one knew he had laid it aside, except his daughter; and now that he had lost his reason, Blanche, who knew where the hoard was concealed, could take it for her own use without the slightest danger.
"With this," she thought, "I can at any moment enrich Aunt Medea without having recourse to Martial."
After this little scene there was a constant interchange of delicate attentions and touching devotion between the two ladies. It was "my dearest little aunt," and "my dearly beloved niece," from morning until night; and the gossips of the neighborhood, who had often commented upon the haughty disdain which Mme. Blanche displayed in her treatment of her relative, would have found abundant food for comment had they known that Aunt Medea was protected from the possibility of cold by a mantle lined with costly fur, exactly like the marquise's own, and that she made the journey, not in the large Berlin, with the servants, but in the post-chaise with the Marquis and Marquise de Sairmeuse.
The change was so marked that even Martial remarked it, and as soon as he found himself alone with his wife, he exclaimed, in a tone of good- natured raillery:
"What is the meaning of all this devotion? We shall finish by encasing this precious aunt in cotton, shall we not?"
Blanche trembled, and flushed a little.
"I love good Aunt Medea so much!" said she. "I never can forget all the affection and devotion she lavished upon me when I was so unhappy."
It was such a plausible explanation that Martial took no further notice of the matter, for his mind just then was fully occupied.
The agent, whom he had sent to Paris in advance, to purchase, if possible, the Hotel de Sairmeuse, had written him to make all possible haste, as there was some difficulty about concluding the bargain.
"Plague take the fellow!" said the marquis, angrily, on receiving this news. "He is quite stupid enough to let this opportunity, for which we have been waiting ten years, slip through his fingers. I shall find no pleasure in Paris if I cannot own our old residence."
He was so impatient to reach Paris that, on the second day of their journey, he declared if he were alone he would travel all night.
"Do so now," said Blanche, graciously; "I do not feel fatigued in the least, and a night of travel does not appall me."
They did travel all night, and the next day, about nine o'clock, they alighted at the Hotel Meurice.
Martial scarcely took time to eat his breakfast.
"I must go and see my agent at once," he said, as he hurried off. "I will soon be back."
He reappeared in about two hours, pleased and radiant.
"My agent was a simpleton," he exclaimed. "He was afraid to write me that a man, upon whom the conclusion of the sale depends, demands a bonus of fifty thousand francs. He shall have it in welcome."
Then, in a tone of gallantry, which he always used in addressing his wife, he said:
"It only remains for me to sign the paper; but I will not do so unless the house suits you. If you are not too tired, I would like you to visit it at once. Time presses, and we have many competitors."
This visit was, of course, one of pure form; but Mme. Blanche would have been hard to please if she had not been satisfied with this mansion, one of the most magnificent in Paris, with an entrance on the Rue de Crenelle, and large gardens shaded with superb trees, and extending to the Rue de Varennes.
Unfortunately, this superb dwelling had not been occupied for several years, and required many repairs.
"It will take at least six months to restore it," said Martial; "perhaps more. It is true that they might in three months, perhaps, render a portion of it very comfortable."
"It would be living in one's own house, at least," approved Blanche, divining her husband's wishes.
"Ah! then you agree with me! In that case, you may rest assured that I will expedite matters as much as possible."
In spite, or rather by reason of his immense fortune, the Marquis de Sairmeuse knew that a person is never so well, nor so quickly served, as when he serves himself, so he resolved to take the matter into his own hands. He conferred with architects, interviewed contractors, and hurried on the workmen.
As soon as he was up in the morning he started out without waiting for breakfast, and seldom returned until dinner.
Although Blanche was compelled to pass most of her time within doors, on account of the bad weather, she was not inclined to complain. Her journey, the unaccustomed sights and sounds of Paris, the novelty of life in a hotel, all combined to distract her thoughts from herself. She forgot her fears; a sort of haze enveloped the terrible scene at the Borderie; the clamors of conscience sank into faint whispers.
The past seemed fading away, and she was beginning to entertain hopes of a new and better life, when one day a servant entered, and said:
"There is a man below who wishes to speak with Madame."
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