The Widow Lerouge by Emile Gaboriau
Included in Madame Gerdy's lease was a coach-house, which was used by her as a lumber room. Here were heaped together all the old rubbish of the household, broken pieces of furniture, utensils past service, articles become useless or cumbrous. It was also used to store the provision of wood and coal for the winter. This old coach-house had a small door opening on the street, which had been in disuse for many years; but which Noel had had secretly repaired and provided with a lock. He could thus enter or leave the house at any hour without the concierge or any one else knowing. It was by this door that the advocate went out, though not without using the utmost caution in opening and closing it. Once in the street, he stood still a moment, as if hesitating which way to go. Then, he slowly proceeded in the direction of the St. Lazare railway station, when a cab happening to pass, he hailed it. "Rue du Faubourg Montmarte, at the corner of the Rue de Provence," said Noel, entering the vehicle, "and drive quick."
The advocate alighted at the spot named, and dismissed the cabman. When he had seen him drive off, Noel turned into the Rue de Provence, and, after walking a few yards, rang the bell of one of the handsomest houses in the street. The door was immediately opened. As Noel passed before him the concierge made a most respectful, and at the same time patronizing bow, one of those salutations which Parisian concierges reserve for their favorite tenants, generous mortals always ready to give. On reaching the second floor, the advocate paused, drew a key from his pocket, and opening the door facing him, entered as if at home. But at the sound of the key in the lock, though very faint, a lady's maid, rather young and pretty, with a bold pair of eyes, ran toward him.
"Ah! it is you, sir," cried she.
This exclamation escaped her just loud enough to be audible at the extremity of the apartment, and serve as a signal if needed. It was as if she had cried, "Take care!"
Noel did not seem to notice it. "Madame is there?" asked he.
"Yes, sir, and very angry too. This morning she wanted to send some one to you. A little while ago she spoke of going to find you, sir, herself. I have had much difficulty in prevailing on her not to disobey your orders."
"Very well," said the advocate.
"Madame is in the smoking room," continued the girl "I am making her a cup of tea. Will you have one, sir?"
"Yes," replied Noel. "Show me a light, Charlotte."
He passed successively through a magnificent dining-room, a splendid gilded drawing-room in Louis XIV. style, and entered the smoking-room. This was a rather large apartment with a very high ceiling. Once inside one might almost fancy oneself three thousand miles from Paris, in the house of some opulent mandarin of the celestial Empire. Furniture, carpet, hangings, pictures, all had evidently been imported direct from Hong Kong or Shanghai. A rich silk tapestry representing brilliantly coloured figures, covered the walls, and hid the doors from view. All the empire of the sun and moon was depicted thereon in vermillion landscapes: corpulent mandarins surrounded by their lantern-bearers; learned men lay stupefied with opium, sleeping under their parasols; young girls with elevated eyebrows, stumbled upon their diminutive feet swathed in bandages. The carpet of a manufacture unknown to Europeans, was strewn with fruits and flowers, so true to nature that they might have deceived a bee. Some great artist of Pekin had painted on the silk which covered the ceiling numerous fantastic birds, opening on azure ground their wings of purple and gold. Slender rods of lacquer, inlaid with mother of pearl, bordered the draperies, and marked the angles of the apartment. Two fantastic looking chests entirely occupied one side of the room. Articles of furniture of capricious and incoherent forms, tables with porcelain tops, and chiffoniers of precious woods encumbered every recess or angle. There were also ornamental cabinets and shelves purchased of Lien-Tsi, the Tahan of Sou-Tcheou, the artistic city, and a thousand curiosities, both miscellaneous and costly, from the ivory sticks which are used instead of forks, to the porcelain teacups, thinner than soap bubbles, --miracles of the reign of Kien-Loung. A very large and very low divan piled up with cushions, covered with tapestry similar to the hangings, occupied one end of the room. There was no regular window, but instead a large single pane of glass, fixed into the wall of the house; in front of it was a double glass door with moveable panes, and the space between was filled with the most rare flowers. The grate was replaced by registers adroitly concealed, which maintained in the apartment a temperature fit for hatching silkworms, thus truly harmonising with the furniture.
When Noel entered, a woman, still young, was reclining on the divan, smoking a cigarette. In spite of the tropical heat, she was enveloped in heavy Cashmere shawls. She was small, but then only small women can unite in their persons every perfection. Women who are above the medium height must be either essays, or errors of nature. No matter how lovely they may look, they invariably present some defect, like the work of a statuary, who, though possessed of genius, attempts for the first time sculpture on a grand scale. She was small, but her neck, her shoulders, and her arms had the most exquisite contours. Her hands with their tapering fingers and rosy nails looked like jewels preciously cared for. Her feet, encased in silken stockings almost as thin as a spider's-web, were a marvel; not that they recalled the very fabulous foot which Cinderella thrust into the glass slipper; but the other, very real, very celebrated and very palpable foot, of which the fair owner (the lovely wife of a well-known banker) used to present the model either in bronze or in marble to her numerous admirers. Her face was, not beautiful, nor even pretty; but her features were such as one seldom forgets; for, at the first glance, they startled the beholder like a flash of lightning. Her forehead was a little high, and her mouth unmistakably large, notwithstanding the provoking freshness of her lips. Her eyebrows were so perfect they seem to have been drawn with India ink; but, unhappily the pencil had been used too heavily; and they gave her an unpleasant expression when she frowned. On the other hand, her smooth complexion had a rich golden pallor; and her black and velvety eyes possessed enormous magnetic power. Her teeth were of a pearly brilliancy and whiteness, and her hair, of prodigious opulence, was black and fine, and glossy as a raven's wing.
On perceiving Noel, as he pushed aside the silken hangings, she half arose and leaned upon her elbow. "So you have come at last?" she observed in a tone of vexation; "you are very kind."
The advocate felt almost suffocated by the oppressive temperature of the room. "How warm it is!" said he; "it is enough to stifle one!"
"Do you find it so?" replied the young woman. "Well, I am actually shivering! It is true though, that I am very unwell. Waiting is unbearable to me, it acts upon my nerves; and I have been waiting for you ever since yesterday."
"It was quite impossible for me to come," explained Noel, "quite impossible!"
"You knew, however," continued the lady, "that to-day was my settling day; and that I had several heavy accounts to settle. The tradesmen all came, and I had not a half-penny to give them. The coachmaker sent his bill, but there was no money. Then that old rascal Clergot, to whom I had given an acceptance for three thousand francs, came and kicked up a frightful row. How pleasant all this is!"
Noel bowed his head like a schoolboy rebuked for having neglected his lessons. "It is but one day behind," he murmured.
"And that is nothing, is it?" retorted the young woman. "A man who respects himself, my friend, may allow his own signature to be dishonoured, but never that of his mistress! Do you wish to destroy my credit altogether? You know very well that the only consideration I receive is what my money pays for. So as soon as I am unable to pay, it will be all up with me."
"My dear Juliette," began the advocate gently.
"Oh, yes! that's all very fine," interrupted she. "Your dear Juliette! your adored Juliette! so long as you are here it is really charming; but no sooner are you outside than you forget everything. Do you ever remember then that there is such a person as Juliette?"
"How unjust you are!" replied Noel. "Do you not know that I am always thinking of you; have I not proved it to you a thousand times? Look here! I am going to prove it to you again this very instant." He withdrew from his pocket the small packet he had taken out of his bureau drawer, and, undoing it, showed her a handsome velvet casket. "Here," said he exultingly, "is the bracelet you longed for so much a week ago at Beaugrau's."
Madame Juliette, without rising, held out her hand to take the casket, and, opening it with the utmost indifference, just glanced at the jewel, and merely said, "Ah!"
"Is this the one you wanted?" asked Noel.
"Yes, but it looked much prettier in the shop window." She closed the casket, and threw it carelessly on to a small table near her.
"I am unfortunate this evening," said the advocate, much mortified.
"I see plainly the bracelet does not please you."
"Oh, but it does. I think it lovely . . . besides, it will complete the two dozen."
It was now Noel's turn to say: "Ah! . . ." and as Juliette said nothing, he added: "Well, if you are pleased, you do not show it."
"Oh! so that is what you are driving at!" cried the lady. "I am not grateful enough to suit you! You bring me a present, and I ought at once to pay cash, fill the house with cries of joy, and throw myself upon my knees before you, calling you a great and magnificent lord!"
Noel was unable this time to restrain a gesture of impatience, which Juliette perceived plainly enough, to her great delight.
"Would that be sufficient?" continued she. "Shall I call Charlotte, so that she may admire this superb bracelet, this monument of your generosity? Shall I have the concierge up, and call the cook to tell them how happy I am to possess such a magnificent lover."
The advocate shrugged his shoulders like a philosopher, incapable of noticing a child's banter. "What is the use of these insulting jests?" said he. "If you have any real complaint against me, better to say so simply and seriously."
"Very well," said Juliette, "let us be serious. And, that being so, I will tell you it would have been better to have forgotten the bracelet, and to have brought me last night or this morning the eight thousand francs I wanted."
"I could not come."
"You should have sent them; messengers are still to be found at the street-corners."
"If I neither brought nor sent them, my dear Juliette, it was because I did not have them. I had trouble enough in getting them promised me for to-morrow. If I have the sum this evening, I owe it to a chance upon which I could not have counted an hour ago; but by which I profited, at the risk of compromising myself."
"Poor man!" said Juliette, with an ironical touch of pity in her voice. "Do you dare to tell me you have had difficulty in obtaining ten thousand francs,--you?"
The young woman looked at her lover, and burst into a fit of laughter. "You are really superb when you act the poor young man!" said she.
"I am not acting."
"So you say, my own. But I see what you are aiming at. This amiable confession is the preface. To-morrow you will declare that your affairs are very much embarrassed, and the day after to-morrow . . . Ah! you are becoming very avaricious. It is a virtue you used not to possess. Do you not already regret the money you have given me?"
"Wretched woman!" murmured Noel, fast losing patience.
"Really," continued the lady, "I pity you, oh! so much. Unfortunate lover! Shall I get up a subscription for you? In your place, I would appeal to public charity."
Noel could stand it no longer, in spite of his resolution to remain calm. "You think it a laughing matter?" cried he. "Well! let me tell you, Juliette, I am ruined, and I have exhausted my last resources! I am reduced to expedients!"
The eyes of the young woman brightened. She looked at her lover tenderly. "Oh, if 'twas only true, my big pet!" said she. "If I only could believe you!"
The advocate was wounded to the heart. "She believes me," thought he; "and she is glad. She detests me."
He was mistaken. The idea that a man had loved her sufficiently to ruin himself for her, without allowing even a reproach to escape him, filled this woman with joy. She felt herself on the point of loving the man, now poor and humbled, whom she had despised when rich and proud. But the expression of her eyes suddenly changed, "What a fool I am," cried she, "I was on the point of believing all that, and of trying to console you. Don't pretend that you are one of those gentlemen who scatter their money broadcast. Tell that to somebody else, my friend! All men in our days calculate like money-lenders. There are only a few fools who ruin themselves now, some conceited youngsters, and occasionally an amorous old dotard. Well, you are a very calm, very grave, and very serious fellow, but above all, a very strong one."
"Not with you, anyhow," murmured Noel.
"Come now, stop that nonsense! You know very well what you are about. Instead of a heart, you have a great big double zero, just like a Homburg. When you took a fancy to me, you said to yourself, 'I will expend so much on passion,' and you have kept your word. It is an investment, like any other, in which one receives interest in the form of pleasure. You are capable of all the extravagance in the world, to the extent of your fixed price of four thousand francs a month! If it required a franc more you would very soon take back your heart and your hat, and carry them elsewhere; to one or other of my rivals in the neighborhood."
"It is true," answered the advocate, coolly. "I know how to count, and that accomplishment is very useful to me. It enables me to know exactly how and where I have got rid of my fortune."
"So you really know?" sneered Juliette.
"And I can tell you, madam," continued he. "At first you were not very exacting, but the appetite came with eating. You wished for luxury, you have it; splendid furniture, you have it; a complete establishment, extravagant dresses, I could refuse you nothing. You required a carriage, a horse, I gave them you. And I do not mention a thousand other whims. I include neither this Chinese cabinet nor the two dozen bracelets. The total is four hundred thousand francs!"
"Are you sure?"
"As one can be who has had that amount, and has it no longer."
"Four hundred thousand francs, only fancy! Are there no centimes?"
"Then, my dear friend, if I make up my bill, you will still owe me something."
The entrance of the maid with the tea-tray interrupted this amorous duet, of which Noel had experienced more than one repetition. The advocate held his tongue on account of the servant. Juliette did the same on account of her lover, for she had no secrets from Charlotte, who had been with her three years, and with whom she had shared everything, sometimes even her lovers.
Madame Juliette Chaffour was a Parisienne. She was born about 1839, somewhere in the upper end of the Faubourg Montmarte. Her father was unknown. Her infancy was a long alternation of beatings and caresses, equally furious. She had lived as best she could, on sweetmeats and damaged fruit; so that now her stomach could stand anything. At twelve years old she was as thin as a nail, as green as a June apple, and more depraved than the inmates of the prison of St. Lazare. Prudhomme would have said that this precocious little hussy was totally destitute of morality. She had not the slightest idea what morality was. She thought the world was full of honest people living like her mother, and her mother's friends. She feared neither God nor devil, but she was afraid of the police. She dreaded also certain mysterious and cruel persons, whom she had heard spoken of, who dwell near the Palais de Justice, and who experience a malicious pleasure in seeing pretty girls in trouble. As she gave no promise of beauty, she was on the point of being placed in a shop, when an old and respectable gentleman, who had known her mamma some years previously, accorded her his protection. This old gentleman, prudent and provident like all old gentlemen, was a connoisseur, and knew that to reap one must sow. He resolved first of all to give his protege just a varnish of education. He procured masters for her, who in less than three years taught her to write, to play the piano, and to dance. What he did not procure her, however, was a lover. She therefore found one for herself, an artist who taught her nothing very new, but who carried her off to offer her half of what he possessed, that is to say nothing. At the end of three months, having had enough of it, she left the nest of her first love, with all she possessed tied up in a cotton pocket handkerchief.
During the four years which followed, she led a precarious existence, sometimes with little else to live upon but hope, which never wholly abandons a young girl who knows she has pretty eyes. By turns she sunk to the bottom, or rose to the surface of the stream in which she found herself. Twice had fortune in new gloves come knocking at her door, but she had not the sense to keep her. With the assistance of a strolling player, she had just appeared on the stage of a small theatre, and spoken her lines rather well, when Noel by chance met her, loved her, and made her his mistress. Her advocate, as she called him, did not displease her at first. After a few months, though, she could not bear him. She detested him for his polite and polished manners, his manly bearing, his distinguished air, his contempt, which he did not care to hide, for all that is low and vulgar, and, above all, for his unalterable patience, which nothing could tire. Her great complaint against him was that he was not at all funny, and also, that he absolutely declined to conduct her to those places where one can give a free vent to one's spirits. To amuse herself, she began to squander money; and her aversion for her lover increased at the same rate as her ambition and his sacrifices. She rendered him the most miserable of men, and treated him like a dog; and this not from any natural badness of disposition, but from principle. She was persuaded that a woman is beloved in proportion to the trouble she causes and the mischief she does.
Juliette was not wicked, and she believed she had much to complain of. The dream of her life was to be loved in a way which she felt, but could scarcely have explained. She had never been to her lovers more than a plaything. She understood this; and, as she was naturally proud, the idea enraged her. She dreamed of a man who would be devoted enough to make a real sacrifice for her, a lover who would descend to her level, instead of attempting to raise her to his. She despaired of ever meeting such a one. Noel's extravagance left her as cold as ice. She believed he was very rich, and singularly, in spite of her greediness, she did not care much for money. Noel would have won her easier by a brutal frankness that would have shown her clearly his situation. He lost her love by the delicacy of his dissimulation, that left her ignorant of the sacrifices he was making for her.
Noel adored Juliette. Until the fatal day he saw her, he had lived like a sage. This, his first passion, burned him up; and, from the disaster, he saved only appearances.
The four walls remained standing, but the interior of the edifice was destroyed. Even heroes have their vulnerable parts, Achilles died from a wound in the heel. The most artfully constructed armour has a flaw somewhere. Noel was assailable by means of Juliette, and through her was at the mercy of everything and every one. In four years, this model young man, this advocate of immaculate reputation, this austere moralist, had squandered not only his own fortune on her, but Madame Gerdy's also. He loved her madly, without reflection, without measure, with his eyes shut. At her side, he forgot all prudence, and thought out loud. In her boudoir, he dropped his mask of habitual dissimulation, and his vices displayed themselves, at ease, as his limbs in a bath. He felt himself so powerless against her, that he never essayed to struggle. She possessed him. Once or twice he attempted to firmly oppose her ruinous caprices; but she had made him pliable as the osier. Under the dark glances of this girl, his strongest resolutions melted more quickly than snow beneath an April sun. She tortured him; but she had also the power to make him forget all by a smile, a tear, or a kiss. Away from the enchantress, reason returned at intervals, and, in his lucid moments, he said to himself, "She does not love me. She is amusing herself at my expense!" But the belief in her love had taken such deep root in his heart that he could not pluck it forth. He made himself a monster of jealousy, and then argued with himself respecting her fidelity. On several occasions he had strong reasons to doubt her constancy, but he never had the courage to declare his suspicions. "If I am not mistaken, I shall either have to leave her," thought he, "or accept everything in the future." At the idea of a separation from Juliette, he trembled, and felt his passion strong enough to compel him to submit to the lowest indignity. He preferred even these heartbreaking doubts to a still more dreadful certainty.
The presence of the maid who took a considerable time in arranging the tea-table gave Noel an opportunity to recover himself. He looked at Juliette; and his anger took flight. Already he began to ask himself if he had not been a little cruel to her. When Charlotte retired, he came and took a seat on the divan beside his mistress, and attempted to put his arms round her. "Come," said he in a caressing tone, "you have been angry enough for this evening. If I have done wrong, you have punished me sufficiently. Kiss me, and make it up."
She repulsed him angrily, and said in a dry tone,--"Let me alone! How many times must I tell you that I am very unwell this evening."
"You suffer, my love?" resumed the advocate, "where? Shall I send for the doctor?"
"There is no need. I know the nature of my malady; it is called ennui. You are not at all the doctor who could do anything for me."
Noel rose with a discouraged air, and took his place at the side of the tea-table, facing her. His resignation bespoke how habituated he had become to these rebuffs. Juliette snubbed him; but he returned always, like the poor dog who lies in wait all day for the time when his caresses will not be inopportune. "You have told me very often during the last few months, that I bother you. What have I done?" he asked.
"Well, then, why--?"
"My life is nothing more than a continual yawn," answered the young woman; "is it my fault? Do you think it very amusing to be your mistress? Look at yourself. Does there exist another being as sad, as dull as you, more uneasy, more suspicious, devoured by a greater jealousy!"
"Your reception of me, my dear Juliette," ventured Noel "is enough to extinguish gaiety and freeze all effusion. Then one always fears when one loves!"
"Really! Then one should seek a woman to suit oneself, or have her made to order; shut her up in the cellar, and have her brought upstairs once a day, at the end of dinner, during dessert, or with the champagne just by way of amusement."
"I should have done better not to have come," murmured the advocate.
"Of course. I am to remain alone here, without anything to occupy me except a cigarette and a stupid book, that I go to sleep over? Do you call this an existence, never to budge out of the house even?"
"It is the life of all the respectable women that I know," replied the advocate drily.
"Then I cannot compliment them on their enjoyment. Happily, though, I am not a respectable woman, and I can tell you I am tired of living more closely shut up than the wife of a Turk, with your face for sole amusement."
"You live shut up, you?"
"Certainly!" continued Juliette, with increased bitterness. "Come, have you ever brought one of your friends here? No, you hide me. When have you offered me your arm for a walk? Never, your dignity would be sullied, if you were seen in my company. I have a carriage. Have you entered it half a dozen times? Perhaps; but then you let down the blinds! I go out alone. I walk about alone!"
"Always the same refrain," interrupted Noel, anger getting the better of him, "always these uncalled for complaints. As though you had still to learn the reason why this state of things exists."
"I know well enough," pursued the young woman, "that you are ashamed of me. Yet I know many bigger swells then you, who do not mind being seen with their mistresses. My lord trembles for his fine name of Gerdy that I might sully, while the sons of the most noble families are not afraid of showing themselves in public places in the company of the stupidest of kept women."
At last Noel could stand it no longer, to the great delight of Madame Chaffour.
"Enough of these recriminations!" cried he, rising. "If I hide our relations, it is because I am constrained to do so. Of what do you complain? You have unrestrained liberty; and you use it, too, and so largely that your actions altogether escape me. You accuse me of creating a vacuum around you. Who is to blame? Did I grow tired of a happy and quiet existence? My friends would have come to see us in a home in accordance with a modest competence. Can I bring them here? On seeing all this luxury, this insolent display of my folly, they would ask each other where I obtained all the money I have spent on you. I may have a mistress, but I have not the right to squander a fortune that does not belong to me. If my acquaintances learnt to-morrow that it is I who keep you, my future prospects would be destroyed. What client would confide his interests to the imbecile who ruined himself for the woman who has been the talk of all Paris? I am not a great lord, I have neither an historical name to tarnish, nor an immense fortune to lose. I am plain Noel Gerdy, a advocate. My reputation is all that I possess. It is a false one, I admit. Such as it is, however, I must keep it, and I will keep it."
Juliette who knew her Noel thoroughly, saw that she had gone far enough. She determined, therefore, to put him in a good humor again. "My friend," said she, tenderly, "I did not wish to cause you pain. You must be indulgent, I am so horribly nervous this evening."
This sudden change delighted the advocate, and almost sufficed to calm his anger. "You will drive me mad with your injustice," said he. "While I exhaust my imagination to find what can be agreeable to you, you are perpetually attacking my gravity; yet it is not forty-eight hours since we were plunged in all the gaiety of the carnival. I kept the fete of Shrove Tuesday like a student. We went to a theatre; I then put on a domino, and accompanied you to the ball at the opera, and even invited two of my friends to sup with us."
"It was very gay indeed!" answered the young woman, making a wry face.
"So I think."
"Do you! Then you are not hard to please. We went to the Vaudeville, it is true, but separately, as we always do, I alone above, you below. At the ball you looked as though you were burying the devil. At the supper table your friends were as melancholy as a pair of owls. I obeyed your orders by affecting hardly to know you. You imbibed like a sponge, without my being able to tell whether you were drunk or not."
"That proves," interrupted Noel, "that we ought not to force our tastes. Let us talk of something else."
He took a few steps in the room, then looking at his watch said: "Almost one o'clock; my love, I must leave you."
"What! you are not going to remain?"
"No, to my great regret; my mother is dangerously ill."
He unfolded and counted out on the table the bank notes he had received from old Tabaret.
"My little Juliette," said he, "here are not eight thousand francs, but ten thousand. You will not see me again for a few days."
"Are you leaving Paris, then?"
"No; but my entire time will be absorbed by an affair of immense importance to myself. If I succeed in my undertaking, my dear, our future happiness is assured, and you will then see whether I love you!"
"Oh, my dear Noel, tell me what it is."
"I cannot now."
"Tell me I beseech you," pleaded the young woman, hanging round his neck, raising herself upon the tips of her toes to press her lips to his. The advocate embraced her; and his resolution seemed to waver.
"No," said he at length, "seriously I cannot. Of what use to awaken in you hopes which can never be realized? Now, my darling, listen to me. Whatever may happen, understand, you must under no pretext whatever again come to my house, as you once had the imprudence to do. Do not even write to me. By disobeying, you may do me an irreparable injury. If any accident occurs, send that old rascal Clergot to me. I shall have a visit from him the day after to-morrow, for he holds some bills of mine."
Juliette recoiled, menacing Noel with a mutinous gesture. "You will not tell me anything?" insisted she.
"Not this evening, but very soon," replied the advocate, embarrassed by the piercing glance of his mistress.
"Always some mystery!" cried Juliette, piqued at the want of success attending her blandishments.
"This will be the last, I swear to you!"
"Noel, my good man," said the young woman in a serious tone, "you are hiding something from me. I understand you, as you know; for several days past there has been something or other the matter with you, you have completely changed."
"I swear to you, Juliette--"
"No, swear nothing; I should not believe you. Only remember, no attempt at deceiving me, I forewarn you. I am a woman capable of revenge."
The advocate was evidently ill at ease. "The affair in question," stammered he, "can as well fail as succeed."
"Enough," interrupted Juliette; "your will shall be obeyed. I promise that. Come, sir, kiss me. I am going to bed."
The door was hardly shut upon Noel when Charlotte was installed on the divan near her mistress. Had the advocate been listening at the door, he might have heard Madame Juliette saying, "No, really, I can no longer endure him. What a bore he is, my girl. Ah! if I was not so afraid of him, wouldn't I leave him at once? But he is capable of killing me!"
The girl vainly tried to defend Noel; but her mistress did not listen. She murmured, "Why does he absent himself, and what is he plotting? An absence of eight days is suspicious. Can he by any chance intend to be married? Ah! if I only knew. You weary me to death, my good Noel, and I am determined to leave you to yourself one of these fine mornings; but I cannot permit you to quit me first. Supposing he is going to get married? But I will not allow it. I must make inquiries."
Noel, however, was not listening at the door. He went along the Rue de Provence as quickly as possible, gained the Rue St. Lazare, and entered the house as he had departed, by the stable door. He had but just sat down in his study, when the servant knocked.
"Sir," cried she, "in heaven's name answer me!"
He opened the door and said impatiently, "What is it?"
"Sir," stammered the girl in tears, "this is the third time I have knocked, and you have not answered. Come, I implore you. I am afraid madame is dying!"
He followed her to Madame Gerdy's room. He must have found the poor woman terribly changed, for he could not restrain a movement of terror. The invalid struggled painfully beneath her coverings. Her face was of a livid paleness, as though there was not a drop of blood left in her veins; and her eyes, which glittered with a sombre light, seemed filled with a fine dust. Her hair, loose and disordered, falling over her cheeks and upon her shoulders, contributed to her wild appearance. She uttered from time to time a groan hardly audible, or murmured unintelligible words. At times, a fiercer pang than the former ones forced a cry of anguish from her. She did not recognise Noel.
"You see, sir," said the servant.
"Yes. Who would have supposed her malady could advance so rapidly? Quick, run to Dr. Herve's, tell him to get up, and to come at once, tell him it is for me." And he seated himself in an arm-chair, facing the suffering woman.
Dr. Herve was one of Noel's friends, an old school-fellow, and the companion of his student days. The doctor's history differed in nothing from that of most young men, who, without fortune, friends, or influence, enter upon the practice of the most difficult, the most hazardous of professions that exist in Paris, where one sees so many talented young doctors forced, to earn their bread, to place themselves at the disposition of infamous drug vendors. A man of remarkable courage and self-reliance, Herve, his studies over, said to himself, "No, I will not go and bury myself in the country, I will remain in Paris, I will there become celebrated. I shall be surgeon- in-chief of an hospital, and a knight of the Legion of Honour."
To enter upon this path of thorns, leading to a magnificent triumphal arch, the future academician ran himself twenty thousand francs in debt to furnish a small apartment. Here, armed with a patience which nothing could fatigue, an iron resolution that nothing could subdue, he struggled and waited. Only those who have experienced it can understand what sufferings are endured by the poor, proud man, who waits in a black coat, freshly shaven, with smiling lips, while he is starving of hunger! The refinements of civilization have inaugurated punishments which put in the shade the cruelties of the savage. The unknown physician must begin by attending the poor who cannot pay him. Sometimes too the patient is ungrateful. He is profuse in promises whilst in danger; but, when cured, he scorns the doctor, and forgets to pay him his fee.
After seven years of heroic perseverance, Herve has secured at last a circle of patients who pay him. During this he lived and paid the exorbitant interest of his debt, but he is getting on. Three or four pamphlets, and a prize won without much intrigue, have attracted public attention to him. But he is no longer the brave young enthusiast, full of the faith and hope that attended him on his first visits. He still wishes, and more than ever, to acquire distinction, but he no longer expects any pleasure from his success. He used up that feeling in the days when he had not wherewith to pay for his dinner. No matter how great his fortune may be in the days to come, he has already paid too dearly for it. For him future success is only a kind of revenge. Less than thirty-five years old, he is already sick of the world, and believes in nothing. Under the appearance of universal benevolence he conceals universal scorn. His finesse, sharpened by the grindstone of adversity, has become mischievous. And, while he sees through all disguises worn by others, he hides his penetration carefully under a mask of cheerful good nature and jovialness. But he is kind, he loves his friends, and is devoted to them.
He arrived, hardly dressed, so great had been his haste. His first words on entering were, "What is the matter?"
Noel pressed his hand in silence, and by way of answer, pointed to the bed. In less than a minute, the doctor seized the lamp, examined the sick woman, and returned to his friend. "What has happened?" he asked sharply. "It is necessary I should know."
The advocate started at the question. "Know what?" stammered he.
"Everything!" answered Herve. "She is suffering from inflammation of the brain. There is no mistaking that. It is by no means a common complaint, in spite of the constant working of that organ. What can have caused it? There appears to be no injury to the brain or its bony covering, the mischief, then, must have been caused by some violent emotion, a great grief, some unexpected catastrophe . . ."
Noel interrupted his friend by a gesture, and drew him into the embrasure of the window. "Yes, my friend," said he in a low tone, "Madame Gerdy has experienced great mental suffering, she has been frightfully tortured by remorse. Listen, Herve. I will confide our secret to your honour and your friendship. Madame Gerdy is not my mother; she despoiled me, to enrich her son with my fortune and my name. Three weeks ago I discovered this unworthy fraud; she knows it, and the consequences terrify her. Ever since, she has been dying minute by minute."
The advocate expected some exclamations of astonishment, and a host of questions from his friend; but the doctor received the explanation without remark, as a simple statement, indispensable to his understanding the case.
"Three weeks," he murmured; "then, that explains everything. Has she appeared to suffer much during the time?"
"She complained of violent headaches, dimness of sight, and intolerable pains in her ears, she attributed all that though to megrims. Do not, however, conceal anything from me, Herve; is her complaint very serious?"
"So serious, my friend, so invariably fatal, that I am almost undertaking a hopeless task in attempting a cure."
"Ah! good heaven!"
"You asked for the truth, and I have told it you. If I had that courage, it was because you told me this poor woman is not your mother. Nothing short of a miracle can save her; but this miracle we may hope and prepare for. And now to work!"