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The Count Hector de Tremorel, at twenty-six, was the model and ideal of the polished man of the world, proper to our age; a man useless alike to himself and to others, harmful even, seeming to have been placed on earth expressly to play at the expense of all. Young, noble, elegant, rich by millions, endowed with vigorous health, this last descendant of a great family squandered most foolishly and ignobly both his youth and his patrimony. He acquired by excesses of all kinds a wide and unenviable celebrity. People talked of his stables, his carriages, his servants, his furniture, his dogs, his favorite loves. His cast-off horses still took prizes, and a jade distinguished by his notice was eagerly sought by the young bloods of the town. Do not think, however, that he was naturally vicious; he had a warm heart, and even generous emotions at twenty. Six years of unhealthy pleasures had spoiled him to the marrow. Foolishly vain, he was ready to do anything to maintain his notoriety. He had the bold and determined egotism of one who has never had to think of anyone but himself, and has never suffered. Intoxicated by the flatteries of the so-called friends who drew his money from him, he admired himself, mistaking his brutal cynicism for wit, and his lofty disdain of all morality and his idiotic scepticism, for character. He was also feeble; he had caprices, but never a will; feeble as a child, a woman, a girl. His biography was to be found in the petty journals of the day, which retailed his sayings - or what he might have said; his least actions and gestures were reported.
One night when he was supping at the Cafe-de Paris, he threw all the plates out the window. It cost him twenty thousand francs. Bravo! One morning gossiping Paris learned with stupefaction that he had eloped to Italy with the wife of X-, the banker, a lady nineteen years married. He fought a duel, and killed his man. The week after, he was wounded in another. He was a hero! On one occasion he went to Baden, where he broke the bank. Another time, after playing sixty hours, he managed to lose one hundred and twenty thousand francs - won by a Russian prince.
He was one of those men whom success intoxicates, who long for applause, but who care not for what they are applauded. Count Hector was more than ravished by the noise he made in the world. It seemed to him the acme of honor and glory to have his name or initials constantly in the columns of the Parisian World. He did not betray this, however, but said, with charming modesty, after each new adventure:
"When will they stop talking about me?"
On great occasions, he borrowed from Louis XIV the epigram:
"After me the deluge."
The deluge came in his lifetime.
One April morning, his valet, a villainous fellow, drilled and dressed up by the count - woke him at nine o'clock with this speech:
"Monsieur, a bailiff is downstairs in the ante-chamber, and has come to seize your furniture."
Hector turned on his pillow, yawned, stretched, and replied:
"Well, tell him to begin operations with the stables and carriage-house; and then come up and dress me."
He did not seem disturbed, and the servant retired amazed at his master's coolness. The count had at least sense enough to know the state of his finances; and he had foreseen, nay, expected the bailiff's visit. Three years before, when he had been laid up for six weeks in consequence of a fall from his horse, he had measured the depth of the gulf toward which he was hastening. Then, he might yet have saved himself. But he must have changed his whole course of life, reformed his household, learned that twenty-one franc pieces made a napoleon. Fie, never! After mature reflection he had said to himself that he would go on to the end. When the last hour came, he would fly to the other end of France, erase his name from his linen, and blow his brainsout in some forest.
This hour had now come.
By contracting debts, signing bills, renewing obligations, paying interests and compound interests, giving commissions by always borrowing, and never paying, Hector had consumed the princely heritage - nearly four millions in lands - which he had received at his father's death. The winter just past had cost him fifty thousand crowns. He had tried eight days before to borrow a hundred thousand francs, and had failed. He had been refused, not because his property was not as much as he owed, but because it was known that property sold by a bankrupt does not bring its value.
Thus it was that when the valet came in and said, "The bailiff is here," he seemed like a spectre commanding suicide.
Hector took the announcement coolly and said, as he got up:
"Well, here's an end of it."
He was very calm, though a little confused. A little confusion is excusable when a man passes from wealth to beggary. He thought he would make his last toilet with especial care. Parbleu! The French nobility goes into battle in court costume! He was ready in less than an hour. He put on his bejewelled watch-chain; then he put a pair of little pistols, of the finest quality, in his overcoat pocket; then he sent the valet away, and opening his desk, he counted up what funds he had left. Ten thousand and some hundreds of francs remained. He might with this sum take a journey, prolong his life two or three months; but he repelled with disdain the thought of a miserable subterfuge, of a reprieve in disguise. He imagined that with this money he might make a great show of generosity, which would be talked of in the world; it would be chivalrous to breakfast with his inamorata and make her a present of this money at dessert. During the meal he would be full of nervous gayety, of cynical humor, and then he would announce his intention to kill himself. The girl would not fail to narrate the scene everywhere; she would repeat his last conversation, his last will and gift; all the cafes would buzz with it at night; the papers would be full of it.
This idea strangely excited him, and comforted him at once. He was going out, when his eyes fell upon the mass of papers in his desk. Perhaps there was something there which might dim the positiveness of his resolution. He emptied all the drawers without looking or choosing, and put all the papers in the fire. He looked with pride upon this conflagration; there were bills, love letters, business letters, bonds, patents of nobility, deeds of property. Was it not his brilliant past which flickered and consumed in the fireplace?
The bailiff occurred to him, and he hastily descended. He was the most polite of bailiffs, a man of taste and wit, a friend of artists, himself a poet at times. He had already seized eight horses in the stables with all their harness and trappings, and five carriages with their equipage, in the carriage-house.
"I'm going on slowly, Count," said he bowing. "Perhaps you wish to arrest the execution. The sum is large, to be sure, but a man in your position - "
"Believe that you are here because it suits me," interrupted Hector, proudly, " this house doesn't suit me; I shall never enter it again. So, as you are master, go on."
And wheeling round on his heel he went off.
The astonished bailiff proceeded with his work. He went from room to room, admiring and seizing. He seized cups gained at the races, collections of pipes and arms, and the library, containing many sporting-books, superbly bound.
Meanwhile the Count de Tremorel, who was resolved more than ever on suicide, ascending the boulevards came to his inamorata's house, which was near the Madeleine. He had introduced her some six months before into the demi-monde as Jenny Fancy. Her real name was Pelagie Taponnet, and although the count did not know it, she was his valet's sister. She was pretty and lively, with delicate hands and a tiny foot, superb chestnut hair, white teeth, and great impertinent black eyes, which were languishing, caressing, or provoking, at will. She had passed suddenly from the most abject poverty to a state of extravagant luxury. This brilliant change did not astonish her as much as you might think. Forty-eight hours after her removal to her new apartments, she had established order among the servants; she made them obey a glance or a gesture; and she made her dress-makers and milliners submit with good grace to her orders. Jenny soon began to languish, in her fine rooms, for new excitement; her gorgeous toilets no longer amused her. A woman's happiness is not complete unless seasoned by the jealousy of rivals. Jenny's rivals lived in the Faubourg du Temple, near the barrier; they could not envy her splendor, for they did not know her, and she was strictly forbidden to associate with and so dazzle them. As for Tremorel, Jenny submitted to him from necessity. He seemed to her the most tiresome of men. She thought his friends the dreariest of beings. Perhaps she perceived beneath their ironically polite manner, a contempt for her, and understood of how little consequence she was to these rich people, these high livers, gamblers, men of the world. Her pleasures comprised an evening with someone of her own class, card-playing, at which she won, and a midnight supper. The rest of the time she suffered ennui. She was wearied to death: A hundred times she was on the point of discarding Tremorel, abandoning all this luxury, money, servants, and resuming her old life. Many a time she packed up; her vanity always checked her at the last moment.
Hector de Tremorel rang at her door at eleven on the morning in question. She did not expect him so early. and she was evidently surprised when he told her he had come to breakfast, and asked her to hasten the cook, as he was in a great hurry.
She had never, she thought, seen him so amiable, so gay. All through breakfast he sparkled, as he promised himself he would, with spirit and fun. At last, while they were sipping their coffee, Hector spoke:
"All this, my dear, is only a preface, intended to prepare you for a piece of news which will surprise you. I am a ruined man."
She looked at him with amazement, not seeming to comprehend him.
"I said - ruined," said he, laughing bitterly, "as ruined as man can be."
"Oh, you are making fun of me, joking - "
"I never spoke so seriously in my life. It seems strange to you, doesn't it? Yet it's sober truth."
Jenny's large eyes continued to interrogate him.
"Why," he continued, with lofty carelessness, "life, you know, is like a bunch of grapes, which one either eats gradually, piece by piece, or squeezes into a glass to be tossed off at a gulp. I've chosen the latter way. My grape was four million francs; they are drunk up to the dregs. I don't regret them, I've had a jolly life for my money. But now I can flatter myself that I am as much of a beggar as any beggar in France. Everything at my house is in the bailiff's hands - I am without a domicile, without a penny."
He spoke with increasing animation as the multitude of diverse thoughts passed each other tumultuously in his brain. And he was not playing a part. He was speaking in all good faith.
"But - then - " stammered Jenny.
"What? Are you free? Just so-"
She hardly knew whether to rejoice or mourn.
"Yes," he continued, "I give you back your liberty."
Jenny made a gesture which Hector misunderstood.
"Oh! be quiet," he added quickly, "I sha'n't leave you thus; I would not desert you in a state of need. This furniture is yours, and I have provided for you besides. Here in my pocket are five hundred napoleons; it is my all; I have brought it to give to you."
He passed the money over to her on a plate, laughingly, imitating the restaurant waiters. She pushed it back with a shudder.
"Oh, well," said he, "that's a good sign, my dear; very good, very good. I've always thought and said that you were a good girl - in fact, too good; you needed correcting."
She did, indeed, have a good heart; for instead of taking Hector's bank-notes and turning him out of doors, she tried to comfort and console him. Since he had confessed,to her that he was penniless, she ceased to hate him, and even commenced to love him. Hector, homeless, was no longer the dreaded man who paid to be master, the millionnaire who, by a caprice, had raised her from the gutter. He was no longer the execrated tyrant. Ruined, he descended from his pedestal, he became a man like others, to be preferred to others, as a handsome and gallant youth. Then Jenny mistook the last artifice of a discarded vanity for a generous impulse of the heart, and was deeply touched by this splendid last gift.
"You are not as poor as you say," she said," for you still have so large a sum."
"But, dear child, I have several times given as much for diamonds which you envied."
She reflected a moment, then as if an idea had struck her, exclaimed:
"That's true enough; but I can spend, oh, a great deal less, and yet be just as happy. Once, before I knew you, when I was young (she was now nineteen), ten thousand francs seemed to me to be one of those fabulous sums which were talked about, but which few men ever saw in one pile, and fewer still held in their hands."
She tried to slip the money into the count's pocket; but he prevented it.
"Come, take it back, keep it - "
"What shall I do with it?"
"I don't know, but wouldn't this money bring in more? Couldn't you speculate on the Bourse, bet at the races, play at Baden, or something? I've heard of people that are now rich as kings, who commenced with nothing, and hadn't your talents either. Why don't you do as they did?"
She spoke excitedly, as a woman does who is anxious to persuade. He looked at her, astonished to find her so sensitive, so disinterested.
"You will, won't you?" she insisted, "now, won't you?"
"You are a good girl," said he, charmed with her, "but you must take this money. I give it to you, don't be worried about anything."
"But you - have you still any money? What have you?"
"I have yet-"
He stopped, searched his pockets, and counted the money in his purse.
"Faith, here's three hundred and forty francs - more than I need. I must give some napoleons to your servants before I go."
"And what for Heaven's sake will become of you?"
He sat back in his chair, negligently stroked his handsome beard, and said:
"I am going to blow my brains out."
Hector thought that she doubted what he said. He took his pistols out of his pockets, showed them to her, and went on:
"You see these toys? Well, when I leave you, I shall go somewhere - no matter where - put the muzzle to my temple, thus, press the trigger - and all will be over!"
She gazed at him, her eyes dilated with terror, pale, breathing hard and fast. But at the same time, she admired him. She marvelled at so much courage, at this calm, this careless railing tone. What superb disdain of life! To exhaust his fortune and then kill himself, without a cry, a tear, or a regret, seemed to her an act of heroism unheard of, unexampled. It seemed to her that a new, unknown, beautiful, radiant man stood before her. She loved him as she had never loved before!
"No!" she cried, "no! It shall not be!"
And rising suddenly, she rushed to him and seized him by the arm.
"You will not kill yourself, will you? Promise me, swear it to me. It isn't possible, you would not! I love you - I couldn't bear you before. Oh, I did not know you, but now - come, we will be happy. You, who have lived with millions don't know how much ten thousand francs are - but I know. We can live a long time on that, and very well, too. Then, if we are obliged to sell the useless things - the horses, carriages, my diamonds, my green cashmere, we can have three or four times that sum. Thirty thousand francs - it's a fortune! Think how many happy days-"
The Count de Tremorel shook his head, smilingly. He was ravished; his vanity was flattered by the heat of the passion which beamed from the poor girl's eyes. How he was beloved! How he would be regretted! What a hero the world was about to lose!
"For we will not stay here," Jenny went on, "we will go and conceal ourselves far from Paris, in a little cottage. Why, on the other side of Belleville you can get a place surrounded by gardens for a thousand francs a year. How well off we should be there! You would never leave me, for I should be jealous - oh, so jealous! We wouldn't have any servants, and you should see that I know how to keep house."
Hector said nothing.
"While the money lasts," continued Jenny, "we'll laugh away the days. When it's all gone, if you are still decided, you will kill yourself - that is, we will kill ourselves together. But not with a pistol - No! We'll light a pan of charcoal, sleep in one another's arms, and that will be the end. They say one doesn't suffer that way at all."
This idea drew Hector from his torpor, and awoke in him a recollection which ruffled all his vanity.
Three or four days before, he had read in a paper the account of the suicide of a cook, who, in a fit of love and despair, had bravely suffocated himself in his garret. Before dying he had written a most touching letter to his faithless love. The idea of killing himself like a cook made him shudder. He saw the possibility of the horrible comparison. How ridiculous! And the Count de Tremorel had a wholesome fear of ridicule. To suffocate himself, at Belleville, with a grisette, how dreadful! He almost rudely pushed Jenny's arms away, and repulsed her.
"Enough of that sort of thing," said he, in his careless tone. "What you say, child, is all very pretty, but utterly absurd. A man of my name dies, and doesn't choke." And taking the bank-notes from his pocket, where Jenny had slipped them, he threw them on the table.
He would have gone, but Jenny, red and with glistening eyes, barred the door with her body.
"You shall not go!" she cried, "I won't have you; you are mine - for I love you; if you take one step, I will scream."
The count shrugged his shoulders.
"But we must end all this!"
"You sha'n't go!
"Well, then, I'll blow my brains out here." And taking out one of his pistols, he held it to his forehead, adding, "If you call out and don't let me pass, I shall fire." He meant the threat for earnest.
But Jenny did not call out; she could not; she uttered a deep groan and fainted.
"At last!" muttered Hector, replacing the pistol in his pocket.
He went out, not taking time to lift her from the floor where she had fallen, and shut the door. Then he called the servants into the vestibule, gave them ten napoleons to divide among them, and hastened away.
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