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M. Plantat stopped. His companions had not suffered a gesture or a word to interrupt him. M. Lecoq, as he listened, reflected. He asked himself where M. Plantat could have got all these minute details. Who had written Tremorel's terrible biography? As he glanced at the papers from which Plantat read, he saw that they were not all in the same handwriting.
The old justice of the peace pursued the story:
Bertha Lechaillu, though by an unhoped-for piece of good fortune she had become Madame Sauvresy, did not love her husband. She was the daughter of a poor country school-master, whose highest ambition had been to be an assistant teacher in a Versailles school; yet she was not now satisfied. Absolute queen of one of the finest domains in the land, surrounded by every luxury, spending as she pleased, beloved, adored, she was not content. Her life, so well regulated, so constantly smooth, without annoyances and disturbance, seemed to her insipid. There were always the same monotonous pleasures, always recurring each in its season. There were parties and receptions, horse rides, hunts, drives - and it was always thus! Alas, this was not the life she had dreamed of; she was born for more exciting pleasures. She yearned for unknown emotions and sensations, the unforeseen, abrupt transitions, passions, adventures. She had not liked Sauvresy from the first day she saw him, and her secret aversion to him increased in proportion as her influence over him grew more certain. She thought him common, vulgar, ridiculous. She thought the simplicity of his manners, silliness. She looked at him, and saw nothing in him to admire. She did not listen to him when he spoke, having already decided in her wisdom that he could say nothing that was not tedious or commonplace. She was angry that he had not been a wild young man, the terror of his family.
He had, however, done as other young men do. He had gone to Paris and tried the sort of life which his friend Tremorel led. He had enough of it in six months, and hastily returned to Valfeuillu, to rest after such laborious pleasures. The experience cost him a hundred thousand francs, but he said he did not regret purchasing it at this price.
Bertha was wearied with the constancy and adoration of her husband. She had only to express a desire to be at once obeyed, and this blind submission to all her wishes appeared to her servile in a man. A man is born, she thought, to command, and not to obey; to be master, and not slave. She would have preferred a husband who would come in in the middle of the night, still warm from his orgy, having lost at play, and who would strike her if she upbraided him. A tyrant, but a man. Some months after her marriage she suddenly took it into her head to have absurd freaks and extravagant caprices. She wished to prove him, and see how far his constant complacence would go. She thought she would tire him out. It was intolerable to feel absolutely sure of her husband, to know that she so filled his heart that he had room for no other, to have nothing to fear, not even the caprice of an hour. Perhaps there was yet more than this in Bertha's aversion. She knew herself, and confessed to herself that had Sauvresy wished, she wouldhave been his without being his wife. She was so lonely at her father's, so wretched in her poverty, that she would have fled from her home, even for this. And she despised her husband because he had not despised her enough!
People were always telling her that she was the happiest of women. Happy! And there were days when she wept when she thought that she was married. Happy! There were times when she longed to fly, to seek adventure and pleasure, all that she yearned for, what she had not had and never would have. The fear of poverty - which she knew we1l - restrained her. This fear was caused in part by a wise precaution which her father, recently dead, had taken. Sauvresy wished to insert in the marriage-contract a settlement of five hundred thousand francs on his affianced. The worthy Lechailin had opposed this generous act.
"My daughter," he said, "brings you nothing. Settle forty thousand francs on her if you will, not a sou more; otherwise there shall be no marriage."
As Sauvresy insisted, the old man added:
"I hope that she will be a good and worthy wife; if so, your fortune will be hers. But if she is not, forty thousand francs will be none too little for her. Of course, if you are afraid that you will die first, you can make a will."
Sauvresy was forced to yield. Perhaps the worthy school-master knew his daughter; if so he was the only one. Never did so consummate a hypocrisy minister to so profound a perversity, and a depravity so inconceivable in a young and seemingly innocent girl. If, at the bottom of her heart, she thought herself the most wretched of women, there was nothing of it apparent - it was a well-kept secret. She knew how to show to her husband, in place of the love she did not feel, the appearance of a passion at once burning and modest, betraying furtive glances and a flush as of pleasure, when he entered the room.
All the world said:
"Bertha is foolishly fond of her husband."
Sauvresy was sure of it, and he was the first to say, not caring to conceal his joy:
"My wife adores me."
Such were man and wife at Valfeuillu when Sauvresy found Tremorel on the banks of the Seine with a pistol in his hand. Sauvresy missed his dinner that evening for the first time since his marriage, though he had promised to be prompt, and the meal was kept waiting for him. Bertha might have been anxious about this delay; she was only indignant at what she called inconsiderateness. She was asking herself how she should punish her husband, when, at ten o'clock at night, the drawing-room door was abruptly thrown open, and Sauvresy stood smiling upon the threshold.
"Bertha," said he, "I've brought you an apparition."
She scarcely deigned to raise her head. Sauvresy continued:
"An apparition whom you know, of whom I have often spoken to you, whom you will like because I love him, and because he is my oldest comrade, my best friend."
And standing aside, he gently pushed Hector into the room.
"Madame Sauvresy, permit me to present to you Monsieur the Count de Tremorel."
Bertha rose suddenly, blushing, confused, agitated by an indefinable emotion, as if she saw in reality an apparition. For the first time in her life she was abashed, and did not dare to raise her large, clear blue eyes.
"Monsieur," she stammered, "you are welcome."
She knew Tremorel's name well. Sauvresy had often mentioned it, and she had seen it often in the papers, and had heard it in the drawing-rooms of all her friends. He who bore it seemed to her, after what she had heard a great personage. He was, according to his reputation, a hero of another age, a social Don Quixote, a terribly fast man of the world. He was one of those men whose lives astonish common people, whom the well-to-do citizen thinks faithless and lawless, whose extravagant passions overleap the narrow bounds of social prejudice; a man who tyrannizes over others, whom all fear, who fights on the slightest provocation, who scatters gold with a prodigal hand, whose iron health resists the most terrible excesses. She had often in her miserable reveries tried to imagine what kind of man this Count de Tremorel was. She awarded him with such qualities as she desired for her fancied hero, with whom she could fly from her husband in search, of new adventures. And now, of a sudden, he appeared before her.
"Give Hector your hand, dear," said Sauvresy. She held out her hand, which Tremorel lightly pressed, and his touch seemed to give her an electric shock.
Sauvresy threw himself into an arm-chair.
"You see, Bertha," said he, "our friend Hector is exhausted with the life he has been leading. He has been advised to rest, and has come to seek it here, with us."
"But, dear," responded Bertha, "aren't you afraid that the count will be bored a little here?"
"Valfeuillu is very quiet, and we are but dull country folks."
Bertha talked for the sake of talking, to break a silence which embarrassed her, to make Tremorel speak, and hear his voice. As she talked she observed him, and studied the impression she made on him. Her radiant beauty usually struck those who saw her for the first time with open admiration. He remained impassible. She recognized the worn-out rake of title, the fast man who has tried, experienced, exhausted all things, in his coldness and superb indifference. And because he did not admire her she admired him the more.
"What a difference," thought she, "between him and that vulgar Sauvresy, who is surprised at everything, whose face shows all that he thinks, whose eye betrays what he is going to say before he opens his mouth."
Bertha was mistaken. Hector was not as cold and indifferent as she imagined. He was simply wearied, utterly exhausted. He could scarcely sit up after the terrible excitements of the last twenty-four hours. He soon asked permission to retire. Sauvresy, when left alone with his wife, told her all that happened, and the events which resulted in Tremorel's coming to Valfeuillu; but like a true friend omitted everything that would cast ridicule upon his old comrade.
"He's a big child," said he, "a foolish fellow, whose brain is weak but we'll take care of him and cure him."
Bertha never listened to her husband so attentively before. She seemed to agree with him, but she really admired Tremorel. Like Jenny, she was struck with the heroism which could squander a fortune and then commit suicide.
"Ah! "sighed she, "Sauvresy would not have done it!
No, Sauvresy was quite a different man from the Count de Tremorel. The next day he declared his intention to adjust his friend's affairs. Hector had slept well, having spent the night on an excellent bed, undisturbed by pressing anxieties; and he appeared in the morning sleek and well-dressed, the disorder and desperation of the previous evening having quite disappeared. He had a nature not deeply impressible by events; twenty-four hours consoled him for the worst catastrophes, and he soon forgot the severest lessons of life. If Sauvresy had bid him begone, he would not have known where to go; yet he had already resumed the haughty carelessness of the millionnaire, accustomed to bend men and circumstances to his will. He was once more calm and cold, coolly joking, as if years had passed since that night at the hotel, and as if all the disasters to his fortune had been repaired. Bertha was amazed at this tranquillity after such great reverses, and thought this childish recklessness force of character.
"Now," said Sauvresy, "as I've become your man of business, give me my instructions, and some valuable hints. What is, or was, the amount of your fortune?"
"I haven't the least idea."
Sauvresy provided himself with a pencil and a large sheet of paper, ready to set down the figures. He seemed a little surprised.
"All right," said he, "we'll put x down as the unknown quantity of the assets: now for the liabilities.
Hector made a superbly disdainful gesture.
"Don't know, I'm sure, what they are."
"What, can't you give a rough guess?"
"Oh, perhaps. For instance, I owe between five and six hundred thousand francs to Clair & Co., five hundred thousand to Dervoy; about as much to Dubois, of Orleans - "
"I can't remember any more."
"But you must have a memorandum of your loans somewhere?"
"You have at least kept your bonds, bills, and the sums of your various debts?"
"None of them. I burnt up all my papers yesterday."
Sauvresy jumped up from his chair in astonishment; such a method of doing business seemed to him monstrous; he could not suppose that Hector was lying. Yet he was lying, and this affectation of ignorance was a conceit of the aristocratic man of the world. It was very noble, very distingue, to ruin one's self without knowing how!
"But, my dear fellow," cried Sauvresy, "how can we clear up your affairs?"
"Oh, don't clear them up at all; do as I do - let the creditors act as they please, they will know how to settle 'it all, rest assured; let them sell out my property."
"Never! Then you would be ruined, indeed!"
"Well, it's only a little more or a little less."
"What splendid disinterestedness!" thought Bertha; "what coolness, what admirable contempt of money, what noble disdain of the petty details which annoy common people! Was Sauvresy capable of all this?"
She could not at least accuse him of avarice, since for her he was as prodigal as a thief; he had never refused her anything; he anticipated her most extravagant fancies. Still he had a strong appetite for gain, and despite his large fortune, he retained the hereditary respect for money. When he had business with one of his farmers, he would rise very early, mount his horse, though it were mid-winter, and go several leagues in the snow to get a hundred crowns. He would have ruined himself for her if she had willed it, this she was convinced of; but he would have ruined himself economically, in an orderly way.
"You are right," said he to Hector, "your creditors ought to know your exact position. Who knows that they are not acting in concert? Their simultaneous refusal to lend you a hundred thousand makes me suspect it. I will go and see them."
"Clair & Co., from whom I received my first loans, ought to be the best informed."
"Well, I will see Clair & Co. But look here, do you know what you would do if you were reasonable?"
"You would go to Paris with me, and both of us - "
Hector turned very pale, and his eyes shone.
"Never!" he interrupted, violently, "never!"
His "dear friends" still terrified him. What! Reappear on the theatre of his glory, now that he was fallen, ruined, ridiculous by his unsuccessful suicide? Sauvresy had held out his arms to him. Sauvresy was a noble fellow, and loved Hector sufficiently not to perceive the falseness of his position, and not to judge him a coward because he shrank from suicide. But the others! -
"Don't talk to me about Paris," said he in a calmer tone. "I shall never set my foot in it again.
"All right - so much the better; stay with us; I sha'n't complain of it, nor my wife either. Some fine day we'll find you a pretty heiress in the neighborhood. But," added Sauvresy, consulting his watch, "I must go if I don't want to lose the train."
"I'll go to the station with you," said Tremorel.
This was not solely from a friendly impulse. He wanted to ask Sauvresy to look after the articles left at the pawnbroker's in the Rue de Condo, and to call on Jenny. Bertha, from her window, followed with her eyes the two friends; who, with arms interlocked, ascended the road toward Orcival. "What a difference," thought she, "between these two men! My husband said he wished to be his friend's steward; truly he has the air of a steward. What a noble gait the count has, what youthful ease, what real distinction! And yet I'm sure that my husband despises him, because he has ruined himself by dissipation. He affected - I saw it - an air of protection. Poor youth! But everything about the count betrays an innate or acquired superiority; even his name, Hector - how it sounds!" And she repeated "Hector" several times, as if it pleased her, adding, contemptuously, "My husband's name is Clement!"
M. de Tremorel returned alone from the station, as gayly as a convalescent taking his first airing. As soon as Bertha saw him she left the window. She wished to remain alone, to reflect upon this event which had happened so suddenly, to analyze her sensations, listen to her presentiments, study her impressions and decide, if possible, upon her line of conduct. She only reappeared when the tea was set for her husband, who returned at eleven in the evening. Sauvresy was faint from hunger, thirst, and fatigue, but his face glowed with satisfaction.
"Victory!" exclaimed he, as he ate his soup. "We'll snatch you from the hands of the Philistines yet. Parbleu! The finest feathers of your plumage will remain, after all, and you will be able to save enough for a good cosey nest."
Bertha glanced at her husband.
"How is that?" said she.
"It's very simple. At the very first, I guessed the game of our friend's creditors. They reckoned on getting a sale of his effects; would have bought them in a lump dirt cheap, as it always happens, and then sold them in detail, dividing the profits of the operation."
"And can you prevent that?" asked Tremorel, incredulously.
"Certainly. Ah, I've completely checkmated these gentlemen. I've succeeded by chance - I had the good luck to get them all together this evening. I said to them, you'll let us sell this property as we please, voluntarily, or I'll outbid you all, and spoil your cards. They looked at me in amazement. My notary, who was with me, remarked that I was Monsieur Sauvresy, worth two millions. Our gentlemen opened their eyes very wide, and consented to grant my request."
Hector, notwithstanding what he had said, knew enough about his affairs to see that this action would save him a fortune - a small one, as compared with what he had possessed, yet a fortune.
The certainty of this delighted him, and moved by a momentary and sincere gratitude, he grasped both of Sauvresy's hands in his.
"Ah, my friend," cried he, "you give me my honor, after saving my ife! How can I ever repay you?"
"By committing no imprudences or foolishnesses, except reasonable ones. Such as this," added Sauvresy, leaning toward Bertha and embracing her.
"And there is nothing more to fear?"
"Nothing! Why I could have borrowed the two millions in an hour, and they knew it. But that's not all. The search for you is suspended. I went to your house, took the responsibility of sending away all your servants except your valet and a groom. If you agree, we'll send the horses to be sold to-morrow, and they'll fetch a good price; your own saddle-horse shall be brought here."
"These details annoyed Bertha. She thought her husband exaggerated his services, carrying them even to servility.
"Really," thought she, "he was born to be a steward."
"Do you know what else I did?" pursued Sauvresy. Thinking that perhaps you were in want of a wardrobe, I had three or four trunks filled with your clothes, sent them out by rail, and one of the servants has just gone after them."
Hector, too, began to find Sauvresy's services excessive, and thought he treated him too much like a child who could foresee nothing. The idea of having it said before a woman that he was in want of clothes irritated him. He forgot that he had found it a very simple thing in the morning to ask his friend for some linen.
Just then a noise was heard in the vestibule. Doubtless the trunks had come. Bertha went out to give the necessary orders.
"Quick!" cried Sauvresy. "Now that we are alone, here are your trinkets. I had some trouble in getting them. They are suspicious at the pawnbroker's. I think they began to suspect that I was one of a band of thieves."
"You didn't mention my name, did you?"
"That would have been useless. My notary was with me, fortunately. One never knows how useful one's notary may be. Don't you think society is unjust toward notaries?"
Tremorel thought his friend talked very lightly about a serious matter, and this flippancy vexed him.
"To finish up, I paid a visit to Miss Jenny. She has been abed since last evening, and her chambermaid told me she had not ceased sobbing bitterly ever since your departure."
"Had she seen no one?"
"Nobody at all. She really thought you dead, and when I told her you were here with me, alive and well, I thought she would go mad for joy. Do you know, Hector, she's really pretty."
"Yes - not bad."
"And a very good little body, I imagine. She told me some very touching things. I would wager, my friend, that she don't care so much for your money as she does for yourself."
Hector smiled superciliously.
"In short, she was anxious to follow me, to see and speak to you. I had to swear with terrible oaths that she should see you to-morrow, before she would let me go; not at Paris, as you said you would never go there, but at Corbeil."
"Ah, as for that-"
"She will be at the station to-morrow at twelve. We will go down together, and I will take the train for Paris. You can get into the Corbeil train, and breakfast with Miss Jenny at the hotel of the Belle Image."
Hector began to offer an objection. Sauvresy stopped him with a gesture.
"Not a word," said he. "Here is my wife."
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