The Widow Lerouge by Emile Gaboriau
After seeing the Count de Commarin safely in his carriage at the entrance of the Palais de Justice, Noel Gerdy seemed inclined to leave him. Resting one hand against the half-opened carriage door, he bowed respectfully, and said: "When, sir, shall I have the honour of paying my respects to you?"
"Come with me now," said the old nobleman.
The advocate, still leaning forward, muttered some excuses. He had, he said, important business: he must positively return home at once.
"Come," repeated the count, in a tone which admitted no reply.
"You have found your father," said M. de Commarin in a low tone; "but I must warn you, that at the same time you lose your independence."
The carriage started; and only then did the count notice that Noel had very modestly seated himself opposite him. This humility seemed to displease him greatly.
"Sit here by my side, sir," he exclaimed; "are you not my son?"
The advocate, without replying, took his seat by the side of the terrible old man, but occupied as little room as possible.
He had been very much upset by his interview with M. Daburon; for he retained none of his usual assurance, none of that exterior coolness by which he was accustomed to conceal his feelings. Fortunately, the ride gave him time to breathe, and to recover himself a little.
On the way from the Palais de Justice to the De Commarin mansion, not a word passed between the father and son. When the carriage stopped before the steps leading to the principal entrance, and the count got out with Noel's assistance, there was great commotion among the servants.
There were, it is true, few of them present, nearly all having been summoned to the Palais; but the count and the advocate had scarcely disappeared, when, as if by enchantment, they were all assembled in the hall. They came from the garden, the stables, the cellar, and the kitchen. Nearly all bore marks of their calling. A young groom appeared with his wooden shoes filled with straw, shuffling about on the marble floor like a mangy dog on a Gobelin tapestry. One of them recognised Noel as the visitor of the previous Sunday; and that was enough to set fire to all these gossip-mongers, thirsting for scandal.
Since morning, moreover, the unusual events at the De Commarin mansion had caused a great stir in society. A thousand stories were circulated, talked over, corrected, and added to by the ill-natured and malicious,--some abominably absurd, others simply idiotic. Twenty people, very noble and still more proud, had not been above sending their most intelligent servants to pay a little visit among the count's retainers, for the sole purpose of learning something positive. As it was, nobody knew anything; and yet everybody pretended to be fully informed.
Let any one explain who can this very common phenomenon: A crime is committed; justice arrives, wrapped in mystery; the police are still ignorant of almost everything; and yet details of the most minute character are already circulated about the streets.
"So," said a cook, "that tall dark fellow with the whiskers is the count's true son!"
"You are right," said one of the footmen who had accompanied M. de Commarin; "as for the other, he is no more his son than Jean here; who, by the way, will be kicked out of doors, if he is caught in this part of the house with his dirty working-shoes on."
"What a romance," exclaimed Jean, supremely indifferent to the danger which threatened him.
"Such things constantly occur in great families," said the cook.
"How ever did it happen?"
"Well, you see, one day, long ago, when the countess who is now dead was out walking with her little son, who was about six months old, the child was stolen by gypsies. The poor lady was full of grief; but above all, was greatly afraid of her husband, who was not over kind. What did she do? She purchased a brat from a woman, who happened to be passing; and, never having noticed his child, the count has never known the difference."
"But the assassination!"
"That's very simple. When the woman saw her brat in such a nice berth, she bled him finely, and has kept up a system of blackmailing all along. The viscount had nothing left for himself. So he resolved at last to put an end to it, and come to a final settling with her."
"And the other, who is up there, the dark fellow?"
The orator would have gone on, without doubt, giving the most satisfactory explanations of everything, if he had not been interrupted by the entrance of M. Lubin, who came from the Palais in company of young Joseph. His success, so brilliant up to this time, was cut short, just like that of a second-rate singer when the star of the evening comes on the stage. The entire assembly turned towards Albert's valet, all eyes questioning him. He of course knew all, he was the man they wanted. He did not take advantage of his position, and keep them waiting.
"What a rascal!" he exclaimed at first. "What a villainous fellow is this Albert!"
He entirely did away with the "Mr." and the "Viscount," and met with general approval for doing so.
"However," he added, "I always had my doubts. The fellow didn't please me by half. You see now to what we are exposed every day in our profession, and it is dreadfully disagreeable. The magistrate did not conceal it from me. 'M. Lubin,' said he, 'it is very sad for a man like you to have waited on such a scoundrel.' For you must know, that, besides an old woman over eighty years old, he also assassinated a young girl of twelve. The little child, the magistrate told me, was chopped into bits."
"Ah!" put in Joseph; "he must have been a great fool. Do people do those sort of things themselves when they are rich, and when there are so many poor devils who only ask to gain their living?"
"Pshaw!" said M. Lubin in a knowing tone; "you will see him come out of it as white as snow. These rich men can do anything."
"Anyhow," said the cook, "I'd willingly give a month's wages to be a mouse, and to listen to what the count and the tall dark fellow are talking about. Suppose some one went up and tried to find out what is going on."
This proposition did not meet with the least favour. The servants knew by experience that, on important occasions, spying was worse than useless.
M. de Commarin knew all about servants from infancy. His study was, therefore, a shelter from all indiscretion. The sharpest ear placed at the keyhole could hear nothing of what was going on within, even when the master was in a passion, and his voice loudest. One alone, Denis, the count's valet, had the opportunity of gathering information; but he was well paid to be discreet, and he was so.
At this moment, M. de Commarin was sitting in the same arm-chair on which the evening before he had bestowed such furious blows while listening to Albert.
As soon as he left his carriage, the old nobleman recovered his haughtiness. He became even more arrogant in his manner, than he had been humble when before the magistrate, as though he were ashamed of what he now considered an unpardonable weakness.
He wondered how he could have yielded to a momentary impulse, how his grief could have so basely betrayed him.
At the remembrance of the avowals wrested from him by a sort of delirium, he blushed, and reproached himself bitterly. The same as Albert, the night before, Noel, having fully recovered himself, stood erect, cold as marble, respectful, but no longer humble.
The father and son exchanged glances which had nothing of sympathy nor friendliness.
They examined one another, they almost measured each other, much as two adversaries feel their way with their eyes before encountering with their weapons.
"Sir," said the count at length in a harsh voice, "henceforth this house is yours. From this moment you are the Viscount de Commarin; you regain possession of all the rights of which you were deprived. Listen, before you thank me. I wish, at once, to relieve you of all misunderstanding. Remember this well, sir; had I been master of the situation, I would never have recognised you: Albert should have remained in the position in which I placed him."
"I understand you, sir," replied Noel. "I don't think that I could ever bring myself to do an act like that by which you deprived me of my birthright; but I declare that, if I had the misfortune to do so, I should afterwards have acted as you have. Your rank was too conspicuous to permit a voluntary acknowledgment. It was a thousand times better to suffer an injustice to continue in secret, than to expose the name to the comments of the malicious."
This answer surprised the count, and very agreeably too. But he wouldn't let his satisfaction be seen, and it was in a still harsher voice that he resumed.
"I have no claim, sir, upon your affection; I do not ask for it, but I insist at all times upon the utmost deference. It is traditional in our house, that a son shall never interrupt his father when he is speaking; that, you have just been guilty of. Neither do children judge their parents; that also you have just done. When I was forty years of age my father was in his second childhood; but I do not remember ever having raised my voice above his. This said, I continue. I provided the necessary funds for the expenses of Albert's household completely, distinct from my own, for he had his own servants, horses, and carriages; and besides that I allowed the unhappy boy four thousand francs a month. I have decided in order to put a stop to all foolish gossip, and to make your position the easier, that you should live on a grander scale; this matter concerns myself. Further, I will increase your monthly allowance to six thousand francs; which I trust you will spend as nobly as possible, giving the least possible cause for ridicule. I cannot too strongly exhort you to the utmost caution. Keep close watch over yourself. Weigh your words well. Study your slightest actions. You will be the point of observation of the thousands of impertinent idlers who compose our world; your blunders will be their delight. Do you fence?"
"That will do! Do you ride?"
"No; but in six months I will be a good horseman, or break my neck."
"You must become a horseman, and not break anything. Let us proceed. You will, of course, not occupy Albert's apartments. They will be walled off, as soon as I am free of the police. Thank heaven! the house is large. You will occupy the other wing; and there will be a separate entrance to your apartments, by another staircase. Servants, horses, carriages, furniture, such as become a viscount, will be at your service, cost what it may, within forty-eight hours. On the day of your taking possession, you must look as though you had been installed there for years. There will be a great scandal; but that cannot be avoided. A prudent father might send you away for a few months to the Austrian or Russian courts; but, in this instance, such prudence would be absurd. Much better a dreadful outcry, which ends quickly, than low murmurs which last forever. Dare public opinion; and, in eight days, it will have exhausted its comments, and the story will have become old. So, to work! This very evening the workmen shall be here; and, in the first place, I must present you to my servants."
To put his purpose into execution, the count moved to touch the bell- rope. Noel stopped him.
Since the commencement of this interview, the advocate had wandered in the regions of the thousand and one nights, the wonderful lamp in his hand. The fairy reality cast into the shade his wildest dreams. He was dazzled by the count's words, and had need of all his reason to struggle against the giddiness which came over him, on realising his great good fortune. Touched by a magic wand, he seemed to awake to a thousand novel and unknown sensations. He rolled in purple, and bathed in gold.
But he knew how to appear unmoved. His face had contracted the habit of guarding the secret of the most violent internal excitement. While all his passions vibrated within him, he appeared to listen with a sad and almost indifferent coldness.
"Permit me, sir," he said to the count "without overstepping the bounds of the utmost respect, to say a few words. I am touched more than I can express by your goodness; and yet I beseech you, to delay its manifestation. The proposition I am about to suggest may perhaps appear to you worthy of consideration. It seems to me that the situation demands the greatest delicacy on my part. It is well to despise public opinion, but not to defy it. I am certain to be judged with the utmost severity. If I install myself so suddenly in your house, what will be said? I shall have the appearance of a conqueror, who thinks little, so long as he succeeds, of passing over the body of the conquered. They will reproach me with occupying the bed still warm from Albert's body. They will jest bitterly at my haste in taking possession. They will certainly compare me to Albert, and the comparison will be to my disadvantage, since I should appear to triumph at a time when a great disaster has fallen upon our house."
The count listened without showing any signs of disapprobation, struck perhaps by the justice of these reasons. Noel imagined that his harshness was much more feigned than real; and this idea encouraged him.
"I beseech you then, sir," he continued, "to permit me for the present in no way to change my mode of living, By not showing myself, I leave all malicious remarks to waste themselves in air,--I let public opinion the better familiarise itself with the idea of a coming change. There is a great deal in not taking the world by surprise. Being expected, I shall not have the air of an intruder on presenting myself. Absent, I shall have the advantages which the unknown always possess; I shall obtain the good opinion of all those who have envied Albert; and I shall secure as champions all those who would to-morrow assail me, if my elevation came suddenly upon them. Besides, by this delay, I shall accustom myself to my abrupt change of fortune. I ought not to bring into your world, which is now mine, the manners of a parvenu. My name ought not to inconvenience me, like a badly fitting coat."
"Perhaps it would be wisest," murmured the count.
This assent, so easily obtained, surprised Noel. He got the idea that the count had only wished to prove him, to tempt him. In any case, whether he had triumphed by his eloquence, or whether he had simply shunned a trap, he had succeeded. His confidence increased; he recovered all his former assurance.
"I must add, sir," he continued, "that there are a few matters concerning myself which demand my attention. Before entering upon my new life, I must think of those I am leaving behind me. I have friends and clients. This event has surprised me, just as I am beginning to reap the reward of ten years of hard work and perseverance. I have as yet only sown; I am on the point of reaping. My name is already known; I have obtained some little influence. I confess, without shame, that I have heretofore professed ideas and opinions that would not be suited to this house; and it is impossible in the space of a day--"
"Ah!" interrupted the count in a bantering tone, "you are a liberal. It is a fashionable disease. Albert also was a great liberal."
"My ideas, sir," said Noel quickly, "were those of every intelligent man who wishes to succeed. Besides, have not all parties one and the same aim--power? They merely take different means of reaching it. I will not enlarge upon this subject. Be assured, sir, that I shall know how to bear my name, and think and act as a man of my rank should."
"I trust so," said M. de Commarin; "and I hope that you will never make me regret Albert."
"At least, sir, it will not be my fault. But, since you have mentioned the name of that unfortunate young man, let us occupy ourselves about him."
The count cast a look of distrust upon Noel.
"What can now be done for Albert?" he asked.
"What, sir!" cried Noel with ardour, "would you abandon him, when he has not a friend left in the world? He is still your son, sir, he is my brother; for thirty years he has borne the name of Commarin. All the members of a family are jointly liable. Innocent, or guilty, he has a right to count upon us; and we owe him our assistance."
"What do you then hope for, sir?" asked the count.
"To save him, if he is innocent; and I love to believe that he is. I am an advocate, sir, and I wish to defend him. I have been told that I have some talent; in such a cause I must have. Yes, however strong the charges against him may be, I will overthrow them. I will dispel all doubts. The truth shall burst forth at the sound of my voice. I will find new accents to imbue the judges with my own conviction. I will save him, and this shall be my last cause."
"And if he should confess," said the count, "if he has already confessed?"
"Then, sir," replied Noel with a dark look, "I will render him the last service, which in such a misfortune I should ask of a brother, I will procure him the means of avoiding judgment."
"That is well spoken, sir," said the count, "very well, my son!"
And he held out his hand to Noel, who pressed it, bowing a respectful acknowledgment. The advocate took a long breath. At last he had found the way to this haughty noble's heart; he had conquered, he had pleased him.
"Let us return to yourself, sir," continued the count. "I yield to the reasons which you have suggested. All shall be done as you desire. But do not consider this a precedent. I never change my plans, even though they are proved to be bad, and contrary to my interests. But at least nothing prevents your remaining here from to-day, and taking your meals with me. We will, first of all, see where you can be lodged, until you formally take possession of the apartments which are to be prepared for you."
Noel had the hardihood to again interrupt the old nobleman.
"Sir," said he, "when you bade me follow you here, I obeyed you, as was my duty. Now another and a sacred duty calls me away. Madame Gerdy is at this moment dying. Ought I to leave the deathbed of her who filled my mother's place?"
"Valerie!" murmured the count. He leaned upon the arm of his chair, his face buried in his hands; in one moment the whole past rose up before him.
"She has done me great harm," he murmured, as if answering his thoughts. "She has ruined my whole life; but ought I to be implacable? She is dying from the accusation which is hanging over Albert our son. It was I who was the cause of it all. Doubtless, in this last hour, a word from me would be a great consolation to her. I will accompany you, sir."
Noel started at this unexpected proposal.
"O sir!" said he hastily, "spare yourself, pray, a heart-rending sight. Your going would be useless. Madame Gerdy exists probably still; but her mind is dead. Her brain was unable to resist so violent a shock. The unfortunate woman would neither recognise nor understand you."
"Go then alone," sighed the count, "go, my son!"
The words "my son," pronounced with a marked emphasis, sounded like a note of victory in Noel's ears.
He bowed to take his leave. The count motioned him to wait.
"In any case," he said, "a place at table will be set for you here. I dine at half-past six precisely. I shall be glad to see you."
He rang. His valet appeared.
"Denis," said he, "none of the orders I may give will affect this gentleman. You will tell this to all the servants. This gentleman is at home here."
The advocate took his leave; and the count felt great comfort in being once more alone. Since morning, events had followed one another with such bewildering rapidity that his thoughts could scarcely keep pace with them. At last, he was able to reflect.
"That, then," said he to himself, "is my legitimate son. I am sure of his birth, at any rate. Besides I should be foolish to disown him, for I find him the exact picture of myself at thirty. He is a handsome fellow, Noel, very handsome. His features are decidedly in his favour. He is intelligent and acute. He knows how to be humble without lowering himself, and firm without arrogance. His unexpected good fortune does not turn his head. I augur well of a man who knows how to bear himself in prosperity. He thinks well; he will carry his title proudly. And yet I feel no sympathy with him; it seems to me that I shall always regret my poor Albert. I never knew how to appreciate him. Unhappy boy! To commit such a vile crime! He must have lost his reason. I do not like the look of this one's eye. They say that he is perfect. He expresses, at least, the noblest and most appropriate sentiments. He is gentle and strong, magnanimous, generous, heroic. He is without malice, and is ready to sacrifice himself to repay me for what I have done for him. He forgives Madame Gerdy; he loves Albert. It is enough to make one distrust him. But all young men now-a-days are so. Ah! we live in a happy age. Our children are born free from all human shortcomings. They have neither the vices, the passions, nor the tempers of their fathers; and these precocious philosophers, models of sagacity and virtue, are incapable of committing the least folly. Alas! Albert, too, was perfect; and he has assassinated Claudine! What will this one do?--All the same," he added, half-aloud, "I ought to have accompanied him to see Valerie!"
And, although the advocate had been gone at least a good ten minutes, M. de Commarin, not realising how the time had passed, hastened to the window, in the hope of seeing Noel in the court-yard, and calling him back.
But Noel was already far away. On leaving the house, he took a cab and was quickly driven to the Rue St. Lazare.
On reaching his own door, he threw rather than gave five francs to the driver, and ran rapidly up the four flights of stairs.
"Who has called to see me?" he asked of the servant.
"No one, sir."
He seemed relieved from a great anxiety, and continued in a calmer tone, "And the doctor?"
"He came this morning, sir," replied the girl, "while you were out; and he did not seem at all hopeful. He came again just now, and is still here."
"Very well. I will go and speak to him. If any one calls, show them into my study, and let me know."
On entering Madame Gerdy's chamber, Noel saw at a glance that no change for the better had taken place during his absence. With fixed eyes and convulsed features, the sick woman lay extended upon her back. She seemed dead, save for the sudden starts, which shook her at intervals, and disarranged the bedclothes.
Above her head was placed a little vessel, filled with ice water, which fell drop by drop upon her forehead, covered with large bluish spots. The table and mantel-piece were covered with little pots, medicine bottles, and half-emptied glasses. At the foot of the bed, a piece of rag stained with blood showed that the doctor had just had recourse to leeches.
Near the fireplace, where was blazing a large fire, a nun of the order of St. Vincent de Paul was kneeling, watching a saucepan. She was a young woman, with a face whiter than her cap. Her immovably placid features, her mournful look, betokened the renunciation of the flesh, and the abdication of all independence of thought.
Her heavy grey costume hung about her in large ungraceful folds. Every time she moved, her long chaplet of beads of coloured box-wood, loaded with crosses and copper medals, shook and trailed along the floor with a noise like a jingling of chains.
Dr. Herve was seated on a chair opposite the bed, watching, apparently with close attention, the nun's preparations. He jumped up as Noel entered.
"At last you are here," he said, giving his friend a strong grasp of the hand.
"I was detained at the Palais," said the advocate, as if he felt the necessity of explaining his absence; "and I have been, as you may well imagine, dreadfully anxious."
He leant towards the doctor's ear, and in a trembling voice asked: "Well, is she at all better?"
The doctor shook his head with an air of deep discouragement.
"She is much worse," he replied: "since morning bad symptoms have succeeded each other with frightful rapidity."
He checked himself. The advocate had seized his arm and was pressing it with all his might. Madame Gerdy stirred a little, and a feeble groan escaped her.
"She heard you," murmured Noel.
"I wish it were so," said the doctor; "It would be most encouraging. But I fear you are mistaken. However, we will see." He went up to Madame Gerdy, and, whilst feeling her pulse, examined her carefully; then, with the tip of his finger, he lightly raised her eyelid.
The eye appeared dull, glassy, lifeless.
"Come, judge for yourself; take her hand, speak to her."
Noel, trembling all over, did as his friend wished. He drew near, and, leaning over the bed, so that his mouth almost touched the sick woman's ear, he murmured: "Mother, it is I, Noel, your own Noel. Speak to me, make some sign, do you hear me, mother?"
It was in vain; she retained her frightful immobility. Not a sign of intelligence crossed her features.
"You see," said the doctor, "I told you the truth."
"Poor woman!" sighed Noel, "does she suffer?"
"Not at present."
The nun now rose; and she too came beside the bed.
"Doctor," said she: "all is ready."
"Then call the servant, sister, to help us. We are going to apply a mustard poultice."
The servant hastened in. In the arms of the two women, Madame Gerdy was like a corpse, whom they were dressing for the last time. She was as rigid as though she were dead. She must have suffered much and long, poor woman, for it was pitiable to see how thin she was. The nun herself was affected, although she had become habituated to the sight of suffering. How many invalids had breathed their last in her arms during the fifteen years that she had gone from pillow to pillow!
Noel, during this time, had retired into the window recess, and pressed his burning brow against the panes.
Of what was he thinking, while she who had given him so many proofs of maternal tenderness and devotion was dying a few paces from him? Did he regret her? was he not thinking rather of the grand and magnificent existence which awaited him on the other side of the river, at the Faubourg St. Germain? He turned abruptly round on hearing his friend's voice.
"It is done," said the doctor; "we have only now to wait the effect of the mustard. If she feels it, it will be a good sign; if it has no effect, we will try cupping."
"And if that does not succeed?"
The doctor answered only with a shrug of the shoulders, which showed his inability to do more.
"I understand your silence, Herve," murmured Noel. "Alas! you told me last night she was lost."
"Scientifically, yes; but I do not yet despair. It is hardly a year ago that the father-in-law of one of our comrades recovered from an almost identical attack; and I saw him when he was much worse than this; suppuration had set in."
"It breaks my heart to see her in this state," resumed Noel. "Must she die without recovering her reason even for one moment? Will she not recognise me, speak one word to me?"
"Who knows? This disease, my poor friend, baffles all foresight. Each moment, the aspect may change, according as the inflammation affects such or such a part of the brain. She is now in a state of utter insensibility, of complete prostration of all her intellectual faculties, of coma, of paralysis so to say; to-morrow, she may be seized with convulsions, accompanied with a fierce delirium."
"And will she speak then?"
"Certainly; but that will neither modify the nature nor the gravity of the disease."
"And will she recover her reason?"
"Perhaps," answered the doctor, looking fixedly at his friend; "but why do you ask that?"
"Ah, my dear Herve, one word from Madame Gerdy, only one, would be of such use to me!"
"For your affair, eh! Well, I can tell you nothing, can promise you nothing. You have as many chances in your favour as against you; only, do not leave her. If her intelligence returns, it will be only momentary, try and profit by it. But I must go," added the doctor; "I have still three calls to make."
Noel followed his friend. When they reached the landing, he asked: "You will return?"
"This evening, at nine. There will be no need of me till then. All depends upon the watcher. But I have chosen a pearl. I know her well."
"It was you, then, who brought this nun?"
"Yes, and without your permission. Are you displeased?"
"Not the least in the world. Only I confess--"
"What! you make a grimace. Do your political opinions forbid your having your mother, I should say Madame Gerdy, nursed by a nun of St. Vincent?"
"My dear Herve, you--"
"Ah! I know what you are going to say. They are adroit, insinuating, dangerous, all that is quite true. If I had a rich old uncle whose heir I expected to be, I shouldn't introduce one of them into his house. These good creatures are sometimes charged with strange commissions. But, what have you to fear from this one? Never mind what fools say. Money aside, these worthy sisters are the best nurses in the world. I hope you will have one when your end comes. But good-bye; I am in a hurry."
And, regardless of his professional dignity, the doctor hurried down the stairs; while Noel, full of thought, his countenance displaying the greatest anxiety, returned to Madame Gerdy.
At the door of the sick-room, the nun awaited the advocate's return.
"Sir," said she, "sir."
"You want something of me, sister?"
"Sir, the servant bade me come to you for money; she has no more, and had to get credit at the chemist's."
"Excuse me, sister," interrupted Noel, seemingly very much vexed; "excuse me for not having anticipated your request; but you see I am rather confused."
And, taking a hundred-franc note out of his pocket-book, he laid it on the mantel piece.
"Thanks, sir," said the nun; "I will keep an account of what I spend. We always do that," she added; "it is more convenient for the family. One is so troubled at seeing those one loves laid low by illness. You have perhaps not thought of giving this poor lady the sweet aid of our holy religion! In your place, sir, I should send without delay for a priest,--"
"What, now, sister? Do you not see the condition she is in? She is the same as dead; you saw that she did not hear my voice."
"That is of little consequence, sir," replied the nun; "you will always have done your duty. She did not answer you; but are you sure that she will not answer the priest? Ah, you do not know all the power of the last sacraments! I have seen the dying recover their intelligence and sufficient strength to confess, and to receive the sacred body of our Lord Jesus Christ. I have often heard families say that they do not wish to alarm the invalid, that the sight of the minister of our Lord might inspire a terror that would hasten the final end. It is a fatal error. The priest does not terrify; he reassures the soul, at the beginning of its long journey. He speaks in the name of the God of mercy, who comes to save, not to destroy. I could cite to you many cases of dying people who have been cured simply by contact with the sacred balm."
The nun spoke in a tone as mournful as her look. Her heart was evidently not in the words which she uttered. Without doubt, she had learned them when she first entered the convent. Then they expressed something she really felt, she spoke her own thoughts; but, since then, she had repeated the words over and over again to the friends of every sick person that she attended, until they lost all meaning so far as she was concerned. To utter them became simply a part of her duties as nurse, the same as the preparation of draughts, and the making of poultices.
Noel was not listening to her; his thoughts were far away.
"Your dear mother," continued the nun, "this good lady that you love so much, no doubt trusted in her religion. Do you wish to endanger her salvation? If she could speak in the midst of her cruel sufferings--"
The advocate was on the point of replying, when the servant announced that a gentleman, who would not give his name, wished to speak with him on business.
"I will come," he said quickly.
"What do you decide, sir?" persisted the nun.
"I leave you free, sister, to do as you may judge best."
The worthy woman began to recite her lesson of thanks, but to no purpose. Noel had disappeared with a displeased look; and almost immediately she heard his voice in the next room, saying: "At last you have come, M. Clergeot, I had almost given you up!"
The visitor, whom the advocate had been expecting, is a person well known in the Rue St. Lazare, round about the Rue de Provence, the neighbourhood of Notre Dame de Lorette, and all along the exterior Boulevards, from the Chaussee des Martyrs to the Rond-Point of the old Barriere de Clichy.
M. Clergeot is no more a usurer than M. Jourdin's father was a shopkeeper. Only, as he has lots of money, and is very obliging, he lends it to his friends; and, in return for this kindness, he consents to receive interest, which varies from fifteen to five hundred per cent.
The excellent man positively loves his clients, and his honesty is generally appreciated. He has never been known to seize a debtor's goods; he prefers to follow him up without respite for ten years, and tear from him bit by bit what is his due.
He lives near the top of the Rue de la Victoire. He has no shop, and yet he sells everything saleable, and some other things, too, that the law scarcely considers merchandise. Anything to be useful or neighbourly. He often asserts that he is not very rich. It is possibly true. He is whimsical more than covetous, and fearfully bold. Free with his money when one pleases him, he would not lend five francs, even with a mortgage on the Chateau of Ferrieres as guarantee, to whosoever does not meet with his approval. However, he often risks his all on the most unlucky cards.
His preferred customers consist of women of doubtful morality, actresses, artists, and those venturesome fellows who enter upon professions which depend solely upon those who practice them, such as lawyers and doctors.
He lends to women upon their present beauty, to men upon their future talent. Slight pledges! His discernment, it should be said, however, enjoys a great reputation. It is rarely at fault. A pretty girl furnished by Clergeot is sure to go far. For an artist to be in Clergeot's debt was a recommendation preferable to the warmest criticism.
Madame Juliette had procured this useful and honourable acquaintance for her lover.
Noel, who well knew how sensitive this worthy man was to kind attentions, and how pleased by politeness, began by offering him a seat, and asking after his health. Clergeot went into details. His teeth were still good; but his sight was beginning to fail. His legs were no longer so steady, and his hearing was not all that could be desired. The chapter of complaints ended--"You know," said he, "why I have called. Your bills fall due to-day; and I am devilishly in need of money. I have one of ten, one of seven, and a third of five thousand francs, total, twenty-two thousand francs."
"Come, M. Clergeot," replied Noel, "do not let us have any joking."
"Excuse me," said the usurer; "I am not joking at all."
"I rather think you are though. Why, it's just eight days ago to-day that I wrote to tell you that I was not prepared to meet the bills, and asked for a renewal!"
"I recollect very well receiving your letter."
"What do you say to it, then?"
"By my not answering the note, I supposed that you would understand that I could not comply with your request; I hoped that you would exert yourself to find the amount for me."
Noel allowed a gesture of impatience to escape him.
"I have not done so," he said; "so take your own course. I haven't a sou."
"The devil. Do you know that I have renewed these bills four times already?"
"I know that the interest has been fully and promptly paid, and at a rate which cannot make you regret the investment."
Clergeot never likes talking about the interest he received. He pretends that it is humiliating.
"I do not complain; I only say that you take things too easily with me. If I had put your signature in circulation all would have been paid by now."
"Not at all."
"Yes, you would have found means to escape being sued. But you say to yourself: 'Old Clergeot is a good fellow.' And that is true. But I am so only when it can do me no harm. Now, to-day, I am absolutely in great need of my money. Ab--so--lute--ly," he added, emphasising each syllable.
The old fellow's decided tone seemed to disturb the advocate.
"Must I repeat it?" he said; "I am completely drained, com--plete-- ly!"
"Indeed?" said the usurer; "well, I am sorry for you; but I shall have to sue you."
"And what good will that do? Let us play above board, M. Clergeot. Do you care to increase the lawyers' fees? You don't do you? Even though, you may put me to great expense, will that procure you even a centime? You will obtain judgment against me. Well, what then? Do you think of putting in an execution? This is not my home; the lease is in Madame Gerdy's name."
"I know all that. Besides, the sale of everything here would not cover the amount."
"Then you intend to put me in prison, at Clichy! Bad speculation, I warn you, my practice will be lost, and, you know, no practice, no money."
"Good!" cried the worthy money-lender. "Now you are talking nonsense! You call that being frank. Pshaw! If you supposed me capable of half the cruel things you have said, my money would be there in your drawer, ready for me."
"A mistake! I should not know where to get it, unless by asking Madame Gerdy, a thing I would never do."
A sarcastic and most irritating little laugh, peculiar to old Clergeot, interrupted Noel.
"It would be no good doing that," said the usurer; "mamma's purse has long been empty; and if the dear creature should die now,--they tell me she is very ill,--I would not give two hundred napoleons for the inheritance."
The advocate turned red with passion, his eyes glittered; but he dissembled, and protested with some spirit.
"We know what we know," continued Clergeot quietly. "Before a man risks his money, he takes care to make some inquiries. Mamma's remaining bonds were sold last October. Ah! the Rue de Provence is an expensive place! I have made an estimate, which is at home. Juliette is a charming woman, to be sure; she has not her equal, I am convinced; but she is expensive, devilish expensive."
Noel was enraged at hearing his Juliette thus spoke of by this honourable personage. But what reply could he make? Besides, none of us are perfect; and M. Clergeot possessed the fault of not properly appreciating women, which doubtless arises from the business transactions he has had with them. He is charming in his business with the fair sex, complimenting and flattering them; but the coarsest insults would be less revolting than his disgusting familiarity.
"You have gone too fast," he continued, without deigning to notice his client's ill looks; "and I have told you so before. But, you would not listen; you are mad about the girl. You can never refuse her anything. Fool! When a pretty girl wants anything, you should let her long for it for a while; she has then something to occupy her mind and keep her from thinking of a quantity of other follies. Four good strong wishes, well managed, ought to last a year. You don't know how to look after your own interests. I know that her glance would turn the head of a stone saint; but you should reason with yourself, hang it! Why, there are not ten girls in Paris who live in such style! And do you think she loves you any the more for it? Not a bit. When she has ruined you, she'll leave you in the lurch."
Noel accepted the eloquence of his prudent banker like a man without an umbrella accepts a shower.
"What is the meaning of all this!" he asked.
"Simply that I will not renew your bills. You understand? Just now, if you try very hard, you will be able to hand me the twenty-two thousand francs in question. You need not frown: you will find means to do so to prevent my seizing your goods,--not here, for that would be absurd, but at your little woman's apartments. She would not be at all pleased, and would not hesitate to tell you so."
"But everything there belongs to her; and you have no right--"
"What of that? She will oppose the seizure, no doubt, and I expect her to do so; but she will make you find the requisite sum. Believe me, you had best parry the blow. I insist on being paid now. I won't give you any further delay; because, in three months' time, you will have used your last resources. It is no use saying 'No,' like that. You are in one of those conditions that must be continued at any price. You would burn the wood from your dying mother's bed to warm this creature's feet. Where did you obtain the ten thousand francs that you left with her the other evening? Who knows what you will next attempt to procure money? The idea of keeping her fifteen days, three days, a single day more, may lead you far. Open your eyes. I know the game well. If you do not leave Juliette, you are lost. Listen to a little good advice, gratis. You must give her up, sooner or later, mustn't you? Do it to-day, then."
As you see, our worthy Clergeot never minces the truth to his customers, when they do not keep their engagements. If they are displeased, so much the worse for them! His conscience is at rest. He would never join in any foolish business.
Noel could bear it no longer: and his anger burst forth.
"Enough," he cried decidedly. "Do as you please, M. Clergeot, but have done with your advice. I prefer the lawyer's plain prose. If I have committed follies, I can repair them, and in a way that would surprise you. Yes, M. Clergeot, I can procure twenty-two thousand francs; I could have a hundred thousand to-morrow morning, if I saw fit. They would only cost me the trouble of asking for them. But that I will not do. My extravagance, with all due deference to you, will remain a secret as heretofore. I do not choose that my present embarrassed circumstances should be even suspected. I will not relinquish, for your sake, that at which I have been aiming, the very day it is within my grasp."
"He resists," thought the usurer; "he is less deeply involved than I imagined."
"So," continued the advocate, "put your bills in the hands of your lawyer. Let him sue me. In eight days, I shall be summoned to appear before the Tribunal de Commerce, and I shall ask for the twenty-five days' delay, which the judges always grant to an embarrassed debtor. Twenty-five and eight, all the world over, make just thirty-three days. That is precisely the respite I need. You have two alternatives: either accept from me at once a new bill for twenty-four thousand francs payable in six weeks, or else, as I have an appointment, go off to your lawyer."
"And in six weeks," replied the usurer, "you will be in precisely the same condition you are to-day. And forty-five days more of Juliette will cost--"
"M. Clergeot," interrupted Noel, "long before that time, my position will be completely changed. But I have finished," he added rising; "and my time is valuable."
"One moment, you impatient fellow!" exclaimed the good-natured banker, "you said twenty-four thousand francs at forty-five days?"
"Yes. That is about seventy-five per cent,--pretty fair interest."
"I never cavil about interest," said M. Clergeot; "only--" He looked slyly at Noel scratching his chin violently, a movement which in him indicated how insensibly his brain was at work. "Only," he continued, "I should very much like to know what you are counting upon."
"That I will not tell you. You will know it ere long, in common with all the world."
"I have it!" cried M. Clergeot, "I have it! You are going to marry! You have found an heiress, of course, your little Juliette told me something of the sort this morning. Ah! you are going to marry! Is she pretty? But no matter. She has a full purse, eh? You wouldn't take her without that. So you are going to start a home of your own?"
"I did not say so."
"That's right. Be discreet. But I can take a hint. One word more. Beware of the storm; your little woman has a suspicion of the truth. You are right; it wouldn't do to be seeking money now. The slightest inquiry would be sufficient to enlighten your father-in-law as to your financial position, and you would lose the damsel. Marry and settle down. But get rid of Juliette, or I won't give five francs for the fortune. So it is settled: prepare a new bill for twenty-four thousand francs, and I will call for it when I bring you the old ones on Monday."
"You haven't them with you, then?"
"No. And to be frank, I confess that, knowing well I should get nothing from you, I left them with others at my lawyer's. However, you may rest easy: you have my word."
M. Clergeot made a pretence of retiring; but just as he was going out, he returned quickly.
"I had almost forgotten," said he; "while you are about it, you can make the bill for twenty-six thousand francs. Your little woman ordered some dresses, which I shall deliver to-morrow; in this way they will be paid for."
The advocate began to remonstrate. He certainly did not refuse to pay, only he thought he ought to be consulted when any purchases were made. He didn't like this way of disposing of his money.
"What a fellow!" said the usurer, shrugging his shoulders; "do you want to make the girl unhappy for nothing at all? She won't let you off yet, my friend. You may be quite sure she will eat up your new fortune also. And you know, if you need any money for the wedding, you have but to give me some guarantee. Procure me an introduction to the notary, and everything shall be arranged. But I must go. On Monday then."
Noel listened, to make sure that the usurer had actually gone. When he heard him descending the staircase, "Scoundrel!" he cried, "miserable thieving old skinflint! Didn't he need a lot of persuading? He had quite made up his mind to sue me. It would have been a pleasant thing had the count come to hear of it. Vile usurer! I was afraid, one moment, of being obliged to tell him all."
While inveighing thus against the money-lender, the advocate looked at his watch.
"Half-past five already," he said.
His indecision was great. Ought he to go and dine with his father? Could he leave Madame Gerdy? He longed to dine at the de Commarin mansion; yet, on the other hand, to leave a dying woman!
"Decidedly," he murmured, "I can't go."
He sat down at his desk, and with all haste wrote a letter of apology to his father. Madame Gerdy, he said, might die at any moment; he must remain with her. As he bade the servant give the note to a messenger, to carry it to the count, a sudden thought seemed to strike him.
"Does madame's brother," he asked, "know that she is dangerously ill?"
"I do not know, sir," replied the servant, "at any rate, I have not informed him."
"What, did you not think to send him word? Run to his house quickly. Have him sought for, if he is not at home; he must come."
Considerably more at ease, Noel went and sat in the sick-room. The lamp was lighted; and the nun was moving about the room as though quite at home, dusting and arranging everything, and putting it in its place. She wore an air of satisfaction, that Noel did not fail to notice.
"Have we any gleam of hope, sister?" he asked.
"Perhaps," replied the nun. "The priest has been here, sir; your dear mother did not notice his presence; but he is coming back. That is not all. Since the priest was here, the poultice has taken admirably. The skin is quite reddened. I am sure she feels it."
"God grant that she does, sister!"
"Oh, I have already been praying! But it is important not to leave her alone a minute. I have arranged all with the servant. After the doctor has been, I shall lie down, and she will watch until one in the morning. I will then take her place and--"
"You shall both go to bed, sister," interrupted Noel, sadly. "It is I, who could not sleep a wink, who will watch through this night."