The Widow Lerouge by Emile Gaboriau
The clock of the St. Lazare terminus was striking eleven as old Tabaret, after shaking hands with Noel, left his house, still bewildered by what he had just heard. Obliged to restrain himself at the time, he now fully appreciated his liberty of action. It was with an unsteady gait that he took his first steps in the street, like the toper, who, after being shut up in a warm room, suddenly goes out into the open air. He was beaming with pleasure, but at the same time felt rather giddy, from that rapid succession of unexpected revelations, which, so he thought, had suddenly placed him in possession of the truth.
Notwithstanding his haste to arrive at M. Daburon's he did not take a cab. He felt the necessity of walking. He was one of those who require exercise to see things clearly. When he moved about his ideas fitted and classified themselves in his brain, like grains of wheat when shaken in a bushel. Without hastening his pace, he reached the Rue de la Chaussee d'Antin, crossed the Boulevard with its resplendent cafes, and turned to the Rue Richelieu.
He walked along, unconscious of external objects, tripping and stumbling over the inequalities of the sidewalk, or slipping on the greasy pavement. If he followed the proper road, it was a purely mechanical impulse that guided him. His mind was wandering at random through the field of probabilities, and following in the darkness the mysterious thread, the almost imperceptible end of which he had seized at La Jonchere.
Like all persons labouring under strong emotion without knowing it, he talked aloud, little thinking into what indiscreet ears his exclamations and disjointed phrases might fall. At every step, we meet in Paris people babbling to themselves, and unconsciously confiding to the four winds of heaven their dearest secrets, like cracked vases that allow their contents to steal away. Often the passers-by mistake these eccentric monologuists for lunatics. Sometimes the curious follow them, and amuse themselves by receiving these strange confidences. It was an indiscretion of this kind which told the ruin of Riscara the rich banker. Lambreth, the assassin of the Rue de Venise, betrayed himself in a similar manner.
"What luck!" exclaimed old Tabaret. "What an incredible piece of good fortune! Gevrol may dispute it if he likes, but after all, chance is the cleverest agent of the police. Who would have imagined such a history? I was not, however, very far from the reality. I guessed there was a child in the case. But who would have dreamed of a substitution?--an old sensational effect, that playwrights no longer dare make use of. This is a striking example of the danger of following preconceived ideas in police investigation. We are affrighted at unlikelihood; and, as in this case, the greatest unlikelihood often proves to be the truth. We retire before the absurd, and it is the absurd that we should examine. Everything is possible. I would not take a thousand crowns for what I have learnt this evening. I shall kill two birds with one stone. I deliver up the criminal; and I give Noel a hearty lift up to recover his title and his fortune. There, at least; is one who deserves what he will get. For once I shall not be sorry to see a lad get on, who has been brought up in the school of adversity. But, pshaw! he will be like all the rest. Prosperity will turn his brain. Already he begins to prate of his ancestors. . . . Poor humanity he almost made me laugh. . . . But it is mother Gerdy who surprises me most. A woman to whom I would have given absolution without waiting to hear her confess. When I think that I was on the point of proposing to her, ready to marry her! B-r-r-r!"
At this thought, the old fellow shivered. He saw himself married, and all on a sudden, discovering the antecedents of Madame Tabaret, becoming mixed up with a scandalous prosecution, compromised, and rendered ridiculous.
"When I think," he continued, "that my worthy Gevrol is running after the man with the earrings! Run, my boy, run! Travel is a good thing for youth. Won't he be vexed? He will wish me dead. But I don't care. If any one wishes to do me an injury, M. Daburon will protect me. Ah! there is one to whom I am going to do a good turn. I can see him now, opening his eyes like saucers, when I say to him, 'I have the rascal!' He can boast of owing me something. This investigation will bring him honour, or justice is not justice. He will, at least, be made an officer of the Legion of Honour. So much the better! I like him. If he is asleep, I am going to give him an agreeable awaking. Won't he just overpower me with questions! He will want to know everything at once."
Old Tabaret, who was now crossing the Pont des Saints-Peres, stopped suddenly. "But the details!" said he. "By Jove! I have none. I only know the bare facts." He resumed his walk, and continued, "They are right at the office, I am too enthusiastic; I jump at conclusions, as Gevrol says. When I was with Noel, I should have cross-examined him, got hold of a quantity of useful details; but I did not even think of doing so. I drank in his words. I would have had him tell the story in a sentence. All the same, it is but natural; when one is pursuing a stag, one does not stop to shoot a blackbird. But I see very well now, I did not draw him out enough. On the other hand, by questioning him more, I might have awakened suspicions in Noel's mind, and led him to discover that I am working for the Rue de Jerusalem. To be sure, I do not blush for my connection with the police, I am even vain of it; but at the same time, I prefer that no one should know of it. People are so stupid, that they detest the police, who protect them; I must be calm and on my best behaviour, for here I am at the end of my journey."
M. Daburon had just gone to bed, but had given orders to his servant; so that M. Tabaret had but to give his name, to be at once conducted to the magistrate's sleeping apartment. At sight of his amateur detective, M. Daburon raised himself in his bed, saying, "There is something extraordinary! What have you discovered? have you got a clue?"
"Better than that," answered the old fellow, smiling with pleasure.
"I know the culprit!"
Old Tabaret ought to have been satisfied; he certainly produced an effect. The magistrate bounded in his bed. "Already!" said he. "Is it possible?"
"I have the honour to repeat to you, sir," resumed the old fellow, "that I know the author of the crime of La Jonchere."
"And I," said M. Daburon, "I proclaim you the greatest of all detectives, past or future. I shall certainly never hereafter undertake an investigation without your assistance."
"You are too kind, sir. I have had little or nothing to do in the matter. The discovery is due to chance alone."
"You are modest, M. Tabaret. Chance assists only the clever, and it is that which annoys the stupid. But I beg you will be seated and proceed."
Then with the lucidness and precision of which few would have believed him capable, the old fellow repeated to the magistrate all that he had learned from Noel. He quoted from memory the extracts from the letters, almost without changing a word.
"These letters," added he, "I have seen; and I have even taken one, in order to verify the writing. Here it is."
"Yes," murmured the magistrate--"Yes, M. Tabaret, you have discovered the criminal. The evidence is palpable, even to the blind. Heaven has willed this. Crime engenders crime. The great sin of the father has made the son an assassin."
"I have not given you the names, sir," resumed old Tabaret. "I wished first to hear your opinion."
"Oh! you can name them," interrupted M. Daburon with a certain degree of animation, "no matter how high he may have to strike, a French magistrate has never hesitated."
"I know it, sir, but we are going very high this time. The father who has sacrificed his legitimate son for the sake of his bastard is Count Rheteau de Commarin, and the assassin of Widow Lerouge is the bastard, Viscount Albert de Commarin!"
M. Tabaret, like an accomplished artist, had uttered these words slowly, and with a deliberate emphasis, confidently expecting to produce a great impression. His expectation was more than realized. M. Daburon was struck with stupor. He remained motionless, his eyes dilated with astonishment. Mechanically he repeated like a word without meaning which he was trying to impress upon his memory: "Albert de Commarin! Albert de Commarin!"
"Yes," insisted old Tabaret, "the noble viscount. It is incredible, I know." But he perceived the alteration in the magistrate's face, and a little frightened, he approached the bed. "Are you unwell, sir?" he asked.
"No," answered M. Daburon, without exactly knowing what he said. "I am very well; but the surprise, the emotion,--"
"I understand that," said the old fellow.
"Yes, it is not surprising, is it? I should like to be alone a few minutes. Do not leave the house though; we must converse at some length on this business. Kindly pass into my study, there ought still to be a fire burning there. I will join you directly."
Then M. Daburon slowly got out of bed, put on a dressing gown, and seated himself, or rather fell, into an armchair. His face, to which in the exercise of his austere functions he had managed to give the immobility of marble, reflected the most cruel agitation; while his eyes betrayed the inward agony of his soul. The name of Commarin, so unexpectedly pronounced, awakened in him the most sorrowful recollections, and tore open a wound but badly healed. This name recalled to him an event which had rudely extinguished his youth and spoilt his life. Involuntarily, he carried his thoughts back to this epoch, so as to taste again all its bitterness. An hour ago, it had seemed to him far removed, and already hidden in the mists of the past; one word had sufficed to recall it, clear and distinct. It seemed to him now that this event, in which the name of Albert de Commarin was mixed up, dated from yesterday. In reality nearly two years elapsed since.
Pierre-Marie Daburon belonged to one of the oldest families of Poitou. Three or four of his ancestors had filled successively the most important positions in the province. Why, then, had they not bequeathed a title and a coat of arms to their descendants?
The magistrate's father possesses, round about the ugly modern chateau which he inhabits, more than eight hundred thousand francs' worth of the most valuable land. By his mother, a Cottevise-Luxe, he is related to the highest nobility of Poitou, one of the most exclusive that exists in France, as every one knows.
When he received his nomination in Paris, his relationship caused him to be received at once by five or six aristocratic families, and it was not long before he extended his circle of acquaintance.
He possessed, however, none of the qualifications which ensure social success. He was cold and grave even to sadness, reserved and timid even to excess. His mind wanted brilliancy and lightness; he lacked the facility of repartee, and the amiable art of conversing without a subject; he could neither tell a lie, nor pay an insipid compliment. Like most men who feel deeply, he was unable to interpret his impressions immediately. He required to reflect and consider within himself.
However, he was sought after for more solid qualities than these: for the nobleness of his sentiments, his pleasant disposition, and the certainty of his connections. Those who knew him intimately quickly learned to esteem his sound judgment, his keen sense of honour, and to discover under his cold exterior a warm heart, an excessive sensibility, and a delicacy almost feminine. In a word, although he might be eclipsed in a room full of strangers or simpletons, he charmed all hearts in a smaller circle, where he felt warmed by an atmosphere of sympathy.
He accustomed himself to go about a great deal. He reasoned, wisely perhaps, that a magistrate can make better use of his time than by remaining shut up in his study, in company with books of law. He thought that a man called upon to judge others, ought to know them, and for that purpose study them. An attentive and discreet observer, he examined the play of human interests and passions, exercised himself in disentangling and manoeuvring at need the strings of the puppets he saw moving around him. Piece by piece, so to say, he laboured to comprehend the working of the complicated machine called society, of which he was charged to overlook the movements, regulate the springs, and keep the wheels in order.
And on a sudden, in the early part of the winter of 1860 and 1861, M. Daburon disappeared. His friends sought for him, but he was nowhere to be met with. What could he be doing? Inquiry resulted in the discovery that he passed nearly all his evenings at the house of the Marchioness d'Arlange. The surprise was as great as it was natural.
This dear marchioness was, or rather is,--for she is still in the land of the living,--a personage whom one would consider rather out of date. She is surely the most singular legacy bequeathed us by the eighteenth century. How, and by what marvellous process she had been preserved such as we see her, it is impossible to say. Listening to her, you would swear that she was yesterday at one of those parties given by the queen where cards and high stakes were the rule, much to the annoyance of Louis XIV., and where the great ladies cheated openly in emulation of each other.
Manners, language, habits, almost costume, she has preserved everything belonging to that period about which authors have written only to display the defects. Her appearance alone will tell more than an exhaustive article, and an hour's conversation with her, more than a volume.
She was born in a little principality, where her parents had taken refuge whilst awaiting the chastisements and repentance of an erring and rebellious people. She had been brought up amongst the old nobles of the emigration, in some very ancient and very gilded apartment, just as though she had been in a cabinet of curiosities. Her mind had awakened amid the hum of antediluvian conversations, her imagination had first been aroused by arguments a little less profitable than those of an assembly of deaf persons convoked to decide upon the merits of the work of some distinguished musician. Here she imbibed a fund of ideas, which, applied to the forms of society of to-day, are as grotesque as would be those of a child shut up until twenty years of age in an Assyrian museum.
The first empire, the restoration, the monarchy of July, the second republic, the second empire, have passed beneath her windows, but she has not taken the trouble to open them. All that has happened since '89 she considers as never having been. For her it is a nightmare from which she is still awaiting a release. She has looked at everything, but then she looks through her own pretty glasses which show her everything as she would wish it, and which are to be obtained of dealers in illusions.
Though over sixty-eight years old she is as straight as a poplar, and has never been ill. She is vivacious, and active to excess, and can only keep still when asleep, or when playing her favorite game of piquet. She has her four meals a day, eats like a vintager, and takes her wine neat. She professes an undisguised contempt for the silly women of our century who live for a week on a partridge, and inundate with water grand sentiments which they entangle in long phrases. She has always been, and still is, very positive, and her word is prompt and easily understood. She never shrinks from using the most appropriate word to express her meaning. So much the worse, if some delicate ears object! She heartily detests hypocrisy.
She believes in God, but she believes also in M. de Voltaire, so that her devotion is, to say the least, problematical. However, she is on good terms with the curate of her parish, and is very particular about the arrangement of her dinner on the days she honours him with an invitation to her table. She seems to consider him a subaltern, very useful to her salvation, and capable of opening the gate of paradise for her.
Such as she is, she is shunned like the plague. Everybody dreads her loud voice, her terrible indiscretion, and the frankness of speech which she affects, in order to have the right of saying the most unpleasant things which pass through her head. Of all her family, there only remains her granddaughter, whose father died very young.
Of a fortune originally large, and partly restored by the indemnity allowed by the government, but since administered in the most careless manner, she has only been able to preserve an income of twenty thousand francs, which diminishes day by day. She is, also, proprietor of the pretty little house which she inhabits, situated near the Invalides, between a rather narrow court-yard, and a very extensive garden.
So circumstanced, she considers herself the most unfortunate of God's creatures, and passes the greater part of her life complaining of her poverty. From time to time, especially after some exceptionally bad speculation, she confesses that what she fears most is to die in a pauper's bed.
A friend of M. Daburon's presented him one evening to the Marchioness d'Arlange, having dragged him to her house in a mirthful mood, saying, "Come with me, and I will show you a phenomenon, a ghost of the past in flesh and bone."
The marchioness rather puzzled the magistrate the first time he was admitted to her presence. On his second visit, she amused him very much; for which reason, he came again. But after a while she no longer amused him, though he still continued a faithful and constant visitor to the rose-coloured boudoir wherein she passed the greater part of her life.
Madame d'Arlange conceived a violent friendship for him, and became eloquent in his praises.
"A most charming young man," she declared, "delicate and sensible! What a pity he is not born!" (Her ladyship meant born of noble parentage, but used the phrase as ignoring the fact of the unfortunates who are not noble having been born at all) "One can receive him though, all the same; his forefathers were very decent people, and his mother was a Cottevise who, however, went wrong. I wish him well, and will do all I can to push him forward."
The strongest proof of friendship he received from her was, that she condescended to pronounce his name like the rest of the world. She had preserved that ridiculous affectation of forgetfulness of the names of people who were not of noble birth, and who in her opinion had no right to names. She was so confirmed in this habit, that, if by accident she pronounced such a name correctly, she immediately repeated it with some ludicrous alteration. During his first visit, M. Daburon was extremely amused at hearing his name altered every time she addressed him. Successively she made it Taburon, Dabiron, Maliron, Laliron, Laridon; but, in three months time, she called him Daburon as distinctly as if he had been a duke of something, and a lord of somewhere.
Occasionally she exerted herself to prove to the worthy magistrate that he was a nobleman, or at least ought to be. She would have been happy, if she could have persuaded him to adopt some title, and have a helmet engraved upon his visiting cards.
"How is it possible," said she, "that your ancestors, eminent, wealthy, and influential, never thought of being raised from the common herd and securing a title for their descendants? Today you would possess a presentable pedigree.--"
"My ancestors were wise," responded M. Daburon. "They preferred being foremost among their fellow-citizens to becoming last among the nobles."
Upon which the marchioness explained, and proved to demonstration, that between the most influential and wealthy citizen and the smallest scion of nobility, there was an abyss that all the money in the world could not fill up.
They who were so surprised at the frequency of the magistrate's visits to this celebrated "relic of the past" did not know that lady's granddaughter, or, at least, did not recollect her; she went out so seldom! The old marchioness did not care, so she said, to be bothered with a young spy who would be in her way when she related some of her choice anecdotes.
Claire d'Arlange was just seventeen years old. She was extremely graceful and gentle in manner, and lovely in her natural innocence. She had a profusion of fine light brown hair, which fell in ringlets over her well-shaped neck and shoulders. Her figure was still rather slender; but her features recalled Guide's most celestial faces. Her blue eyes, shaded by long lashes of a hue darker than her hair, had above all an adorable expression.
A certain air of antiquity, the result of her association with her grandmother, added yet another charm to the young girl's manner. She had more sense, however, than her relative; and, as her education had not been neglected, she had imbibed pretty correct ideas of the world in which she lived. This education, these practical ideas, Claire owed to her governess, upon whose shoulders the marchioness had thrown the entire responsibility of cultivating her mind.
This governess, Mademoiselle Schmidt, chosen at hazard, happened by the most fortunate chance to be both well informed and possessed of principle. She was, what is often met with on the other side of the Rhine, a woman at once romantic and practical, of the tenderest sensibility and the severest virtue. This good woman, while she carried her pupil into the land of sentimental phantasy and poetical imaginings, gave her at the same time the most practical instruction in matters relating to actual life. She revealed to Claire all the peculiarities of thought and manner that rendered her grandmother so ridiculous, and taught her to avoid them, but without ceasing to respect them.
Every evening, on arriving at Madame d'Arlange's, M. Daburon was sure to find Claire seated beside her grandmother, and it was for that that he called. Whilst listening with an inattentive ear to the old lady's rigmaroles and her interminable anecdotes of the emigration, he gazed upon Claire, as a fanatic upon his idol. Often in his ecstasy he forgot where he was for the moment and became absolutely oblivious of the old lady's presence, although her shrill voice was piercing the tympanum of his ear like a needle. Then he would answer her at cross- purposes, committing the most singular blunders, which he labored afterwards to explain. But he need not have taken the trouble. Madame d'Arlange did not perceive her courtier's absence of mind; her questions were of such a length, that she did not care about the answers. Having a listener, she was satisfied, provided that from time to time he gave signs of life.
When obliged to sit down to play piquet, he cursed below his breath the game and its detestable inventor. He paid no attention to his cards. He made mistakes every moment, discarding what he should keep in and forgetting to cut. The old lady was annoyed by these continual distractions, but she did scruple to profit by them. She looked at the discard, changed the cards which did not suit her, while she audaciously scored points she never made, and pocketed the money thus won without shame or remorse.
M. Daburon's timidity was extreme, and Claire was unsociable to excess, they therefore seldom spoke to each other. During the entire winter, the magistrate did not directly address the young girl ten times; and, on these rare occasions, he had learned mechanically by heart the phrase he proposed to repeat to her, well knowing that, without this precaution, he would most likely be unable to finish what he had to say.
But at least he saw her, he breathed the same air with her, he heard her voice, whose pure and harmonious vibrations thrilled his very soul.
By constantly watching her eyes, he learned to understand all their expressions. He believed he could read in them all her thoughts, and through them look into her soul like through an open window.
"She is pleased to-day," he would say to himself; and then he would be happy. At other times, he thought, "She has met with some annoyance to-day;" and immediately he became sad.
The idea of asking for her hand many times presented itself to his imagination; but he never dared to entertain it. Knowing, as he did, the marchioness's prejudices, her devotion to titles, her dread of any approach to a misalliance, he was convinced she would shut his mouth at the first word by a very decided "no," which she would maintain. To attempt the thing would be to risk, without a chance of success, his present happiness which he thought immense, for love lives upon its own misery.
"Once repulsed," thought he, "the house is shut against me; and then farewell to happiness, for life will end for me." Upon the other hand, the very rational thought occurred to him that another might see Mademoiselle d'Arlange, love her, and, in consequence, ask for and obtain her. In either case, hazarding a proposal, or hesitating still, he must certainly lose her in the end. By the commencement of spring, his mind was made up.
One fine afternoon, in the month of April, he bent his steps towards the residence of Madame d'Arlange, having truly need of more bravery than a soldier about to face a battery. He, like the soldier, whispered to himself, "Victory or death!" The marchioness who had gone out shortly after breakfast had just returned in a terrible rage, and was uttering screams like an eagle.
This was what had taken place. She had some work done by a neighboring painter some eight or ten months before; and the workman had presented himself a hundred times to receive payment, without avail. Tired of this proceeding, he had summoned the high and mighty Marchioness d'Arlange before the Justice of the Peace.
This summons had exasperated the marchioness; but she kept the matter to herself, having decided, in her wisdom, to call upon the judge and request him to reprimand the insolent painter who had dared to plague her for a paltry sum of money. The result of this fine project may be guessed. The judge had been compelled to eject her forcibly from his office; hence her fury.
M. Daburon found her in the rose-colored boudoir half undressed, her hair in disorder, red as a peony, and surrounded by the debris of the glass and china which had fallen under her hands in the first moments of her passion. Unfortunately, too, Claire and her governess were gone out. A maid was occupied in inundating the old lady with all sorts of waters, in the hope of calming her nerves.
She received Daburon as a messenger direct from Providence. In a little more than half an hour, she told her story, interlarded with numerous interjections and imprecations.
"Do you comprehend this judge?" cried she. "He must be some frantic Jacobin,--some son of the furies, who washed their hands in the blood of their king. Ah! my friend, I read stupor and indignation in your glance. He listened to the complaint of that impudent scoundrel whom I enabled to live by employing him! And when I addressed some severe remonstrances to this judge, as it was my duty to do, he had me turned out! Do you hear? turned out!"
At this painful recollection, she made a menacing gesture with her arm. In her sudden movement, she struck a handsome scent bottle that her maid held in her hand. The force of the blow sent it to the other end of the room, where it broke into pieces.
"Stupid, awkward fool!" cried the marchioness, venting her anger upon the frightened girl.
M. Daburon, bewildered at first, now endeavored to calm her exasperation. She did not allow him to pronounce three words.
"Happily you are here," she continued; "you are always willing to serve me, I know. I count upon you! you will exercise your influence, your powerful friends, your credit, to have this pitiful painter and this miscreant of a judge flung into some deep ditch, to teach them the respect due to a woman of my rank."
The magistrate did not permit himself even to smile at this imperative demand. He had heard many speeches as absurd issue from her lips without ever making fun of them. Was she not Claire's grandmother? for that alone he loved and venerated her. He blessed her for her granddaughter, as an admirer of nature blesses heaven for the wild flower that delights him with its perfume.
The fury of the old lady was terrible; nor was it of short duration. At the end of an hour, however, she was, or appeared to be, pacified. They replaced her head-dress, repaired the disorder of her toilette, and picked up the fragments of broken glass and china. Vanquished by her own violence, the reaction was immediate and complete. She fell back helpless and exhausted into an arm-chair.
This magnificent result was due to the magistrate. To accomplish it, he had had to use all his ability, to exercise the most angelic patience, the greatest tact. His triumph was the more meritorious, because he came completely unprepared for this adventure, which interfered with his intended proposal. The first time that he had felt sufficient courage to speak, fortune seemed to declare against him, for this untoward event had quite upset his plans.
Arming himself, however, with his professional eloquence, he talked the old lady into calmness. He was not so foolish as to contradict her. On the contrary, he caressed her hobby. He was humorous and pathetic by turns. He attacked the authors of the revolution, cursed its errors, deplored its crimes, and almost wept over its disastrous results. Commencing with the infamous Marat he eventually reached the rascal of a judge who had offended her. He abused his scandalous conduct in good set terms, and was exceedingly severe upon the dishonest scamp of a painter. However, he thought it best to let them off the punishment they so richly deserved; and ended by suggesting that it would perhaps be prudent, wise, noble even to pay.
The unfortunate word "pay" brought Madame d'Arlange to her feet in the fiercest attitude.
"Pay!" she screamed. "In order that these scoundrels may persist in their obduracy! Encourage them by a culpable weakness! Never! Besides to pay one must have money! and I have none!"
"Why!" said M. Daburon, "it amounts to but eighty-seven francs!"
"And is that nothing?" asked the marchioness; "you talk very foolishly, my dear sir. It is easy to see that you have money; your ancestors were people of no rank; and the revolution passed a hundred feet above their heads. Who can tell whether they may not have been the gainers by it? It took all from the d'Arlanges. What will they do to me, if I do not pay?"
"Well, madame, they can do many things; almost ruin you, in costs. They may seize your furniture."
"Alas!" cried the old lady, "the revolution is not ended yet. We shall all be swallowed up by it, my poor Daburon! Ah! you are happy, you who belong to the people! I see plainly that I must pay this man without delay, and it is frightfully sad for me, for I have nothing, and am forced to make such sacrifices for the sake of my grandchild!"
This statement surprised the magistrate so strongly that involuntarily he repeated half-aloud, "Sacrifices?"
"Certainly!" resumed Madame d'Arlange. "Without her, would I have to live as I am doing, refusing myself everything to make both ends meet? Not a bit of it! I would invest my fortune in a life annuity. But I know, thank heaven, the duties of a mother; and I economise all I can for my little Claire."
This devotion appeared so admirable to M. Daburon, that he could not utter a word.
"Ah! I am terribly anxious about this dear child," continued the marchioness. "I confess M. Daburon, it makes me giddy when I wonder how I am to marry her."
The magistrate reddened with pleasure. At last his opportunity had arrived; he must take advantage of it at once.
"It seems to me," stammered he, "that to find Mademoiselle Claire a husband ought not to be difficult."
"Unfortunately, it is. She is pretty enough, I admit, although rather thin, but, now-a-days, beauty goes for nothing. Men are so mercenary they think only of money. I do not know of one who has the manhood to take a d'Arlange with her bright eyes for a dowry."
"I believe that you exaggerate," remarked M. Daburon, timidly.
"By no means. Trust to my experience which is far greater than yours. Besides, when I find a son-in-law, he will cause me a thousand troubles. Of this, I am assured by my lawyer. I shall be compelled, it seems, to render an account of Claire's patrimony. As if ever I kept accounts! It is shameful! Ah! if Claire had any sense of filial duty, she would quietly take the veil in some convent. I would use every effort to pay the necessary dower; but she has no affection for me."
M. Daburon felt that now was the time to speak. He collected his courage, as a good horseman pulls his horse together when going to leap a hedge, and in a voice, which he tried to render firm, he said: "Well! Madame, I believe I know a party who would suit Mademoiselle Claire,--an honest man, who loves her, and who will do everything in the world to make her happy."
"That," said Madame d'Arlange, "is always understood."
"The man of whom I speak," continued the magistrate, "is still young, and is rich. He will be only too happy to receive Mademoiselle Claire without a dowry. Not only will he decline an examination of your accounts of guardianship, but he will beg you to invest your fortune as you think fit."
"Really! Daburon, my friend, you are by no means a fool!" exclaimed the old lady.
"If you prefer not to invest your fortune in a life-annuity, your son- in-law will allow you sufficient to make up what you now find wanting."
"Ah! really I am stifling," interrupted the marchioness. "What! you know such a man, and have never yet mentioned him to me! You ought to have introduced him long ago."
"I did not dare, madame, I was afraid--"
"Quick! tell me who is this admirable son-in-law, this white blackbird? where does he nestle?"
The magistrate felt a strange fluttering of the heart; he was going to stake his happiness on a word. At length he stammered, "It is I, madame!"
His voice, his look, his gesture were beseeching. He was surprised at his own audacity, frightened at having vanquished his timidity, and was on the point of falling at the old lady's feet. She, however, laughed until the tears came into her eyes, then shrugging her shoulders, she said: "Really, dear Daburon is too ridiculous, he will make me die of laughing! He is so amusing!" After which she burst out laughing again. But suddenly she stopped, in the very height of her merriment, and assumed her most dignified air. "Are you perfectly serious in all you have told me, M. Daburon?" she asked.
"I have stated the truth," murmured the magistrate.
"You are then very rich?"
"I inherited, madame, from my mother, about twenty thousand francs a year. One of my uncles, who died last year, bequeathed me over a hundred thousand crowns. My father is worth about a million. Were I to ask him for the half to-morrow, he would give it to me; he would give me all his fortune, if it were necessary to my happiness, and be but too well contented, should I leave him the administration of it."
Madame d'Arlange signed to him to be silent; and, for five good minutes at least, she remained plunged in reflection, her forehead resting in her hands. At length she raised her head.
"Listen," said she. "Had you been so bold as to make this proposal to Claire's father, he would have called his servants to show you the door. For the sake of our name I ought to do the same; but I cannot do so. I am old and desolate; I am poor; my grandchild's prospects disquiet me; that is my excuse. I cannot, however, consent to speak to Claire of this horrible misalliance. What I can promise you, and that is too much, is that I will not be against you. Take your own measures; pay your addresses to Mademoiselle d'Arlange, and try to persuade her. If she says 'yes,' of her own free will, I shall not say 'no.'"
M. Daburon, transported with happiness, could almost have embraced the old lady. He thought her the best, the most excellent of women, not noticing the facility with which this proud spirit had been brought to yield. He was delirious, almost mad.
"Wait!" said the old lady; "your cause is not yet gained. Your mother, it is true, was a Cottevise, and I must excuse her for marrying so wretchedly; but your father is simple M. Daburon. This name, my dear friend, is simply ridiculous. Do you think it will be easy to make a Daburon of a young girl who for nearly eighteen years has been called d'Arlange?"
This objection did not seem to trouble the magistrate.
"After all," continued the old lady, "your father gained a Cottevise, so you may win a d'Arlange. On the strength of marrying into noble families, the Daburons may perhaps end by ennobling themselves. One last piece of advice; you believe Claire to be just as she looks,-- timid, sweet, obedient. Undeceive yourself, my friend. Despite her innocent air, she is hardy, fierce, and obstinate as the marquis her father, who was worse than an Auvergne mule. Now you are warned. Our conditions are agreed to, are they not? Let us say no more on the subject. I almost wish you to succeed."
This scene was so present to the magistrate's mind, that as he sat at home in his arm-chair, though many months had passed since these events, he still seemed to hear the old lady's voice, and the word "success" still sounded in his ears.
He departed in triumph from the d'Arlange abode, which he had entered with a heart swelling with anxiety. He walked with his head erect, his chest dilated, and breathing the fresh air with the full strength of his lungs. He was so happy! The sky appeared to him more blue, the sun more brilliant. This grave magistrate felt a mad desire to stop the passers-by, to press them in his arms, to cry to them,--"Have you heard? The marchioness consents!"
He walked, and the earth seemed to him to give way beneath his footsteps; it was either too small to carry so much happiness, or else he had become so light that he was going to fly away towards the stars.
What castles in the air he built upon what Madame d'Arlange had said to him! He would tender his resignation. He would build on the banks of the Loire, not far from Tours, an enchanting little villa. He already saw it, with its facade to the rising sun, nestling in the midst of flowers, and shaded with wide-spreading trees. He furnished this dwelling in the most luxuriant style. He wished to provide a marvellous casket, worthy the pearl he was about to possess. For he had not a doubt; not a cloud obscured the horizon made radiant by his hopes, no voice at the bottom of his heart raised itself to cry, "Beware!"
From that day, his visits to the marchioness became more frequent. He might almost be said to live at her house. While he preserved his respectful and reserved demeanour towards Claire, he strove assiduously to be something in her life. True love is ingenious. He learnt to overcome his timidity, to speak to the well-beloved of his soul, to encourage her to converse with him, to interest her. He went in quest of all the news, to amuse her. He read all the new books, and brought to her all that were fit for her to read.
Little by little he succeeded, thanks to the most delicate persistence, in taming this shy young girl. He began to perceive that her fear of him had almost disappeared, that she no longer received him with the cold and haughty air which had previously kept him at a distance. He felt that he was insensibly gaining her confidence. She still blushed when she spoke to him; but she no longer hesitated to address the first word. She even ventured at times to ask him a question. If she had heard a play well spoken of and wished to know the subject, M. Daburon would at once go to see it, and commit a complete account of it to writing, which he would send her through the post. At times she intrusted him with trifling commissions, the execution of which he would not have exchanged for the Russian embassy.
Once he ventured to send her a magnificent bouquet. She accepted it with an air of uneasy surprise, but begged him not to repeat the offering.
The tears came to his eyes; he left her presence broken-hearted, and the unhappiest of men. "She does not love me," thought he, "she will never love me." But, three days after, as he looked very sad, she begged him to procure her certain flowers, then very much in fashion, which she wished to place on her flower-stand. He sent enough to fill the house from the garret to the cellar. "She will love me," he whispered to himself in his joy.
These events, so trifling but yet so great, had not interrupted the games of piquet; only the young girl now appeared to interest herself in the play, nearly always taking the magistrate's side against the marchioness. She did not understand the game very well; but, when the old gambler cheated too openly, she would notice it, and say, laughingly,--"She is robbing you, M. Daburon,--she is robbing you!" He would willingly have been robbed of his entire fortune, to hear that sweet voice raised on his behalf.
It was summer time. Often in the evening she accepted his arm, and, while the marchioness remained at the window, seated in her arm-chair, they walked around the lawn, treading lightly upon the paths spread with gravel sifted so fine that the trailing of her light dress effaced the traces of their footsteps. She chatted gaily with him, as with a beloved brother, while he was obliged to do violence to his feelings, to refrain from imprinting a kiss upon the little blonde head, from which the light breeze lifted the curls and scattered them like fleecy clouds. At such moments, he seemed to tread an enchanted path strewn with flowers, at the end of which appeared happiness.
When he attempted to speak of his hopes to the marchioness, she would say: "You know what we agreed upon. Not a word. Already does the voice of conscience reproach me for lending my countenance to such an abomination. To think that I may one day have a granddaughter calling herself Madame Daburon! You must petition the king, my friend, to change your name."
If instead of intoxicating himself with dreams of happiness, this acute observer had studied the character of his idol, the effect might have been to put him upon his guard. In the meanwhile, he noticed singular alterations in her humour. On certain days, she was gay and careless as a child. Then, for a week, she would remain melancholy and dejected. Seeing her in this state the day following a ball, to which her grandmother had made a point of taking her, he dared to ask her the reason of her sadness.
"Oh! that," answered she, heaving a deep sigh, "is my secret,--a secret of which even my grandmother knows nothing."
M. Daburon looked at her. He thought he saw a tear between her long eyelashes.
"One day," continued she, "I may confide in you: it will perhaps be necessary."
The magistrate was blind and deaf. "I also," answered he, "have a secret, which I wish to confide to you in return."
When he retired towards midnight, he said to himself, "To-morrow I will confess everything to her." Then passed a little more than fifty days, during which he kept repeating to himself,--"To-morrow!"
It happened at last one evening in the month of August; the heat all day had been overpowering; towards dusk a breeze had risen, the leaves rustled; there were signs of a storm in the atmosphere.
They were seated together at the bottom of the garden, under the arbour, adorned with exotic plants, and, through the branches, they perceived the fluttering gown of the marchioness, who was taking a turn after her dinner. They had remained a long time without speaking, enjoying the perfume of the flowers, the calm beauty of the evening.
M. Daburon ventured to take the young girl's hand. It was the first time, and the touch of her fine skin thrilled through every fibre of his frame, and drove the blood surging to his brain.
"Mademoiselle," stammered he, "Claire--"
She turned towards him her beautiful eyes, filled with astonishment.
"Forgive me," continued he, "forgive me. I have spoken to your grandmother, before daring to raise my eyes to you. Do you not understand me? A word from your lips will decide my future happiness or misery. Claire, mademoiselle, do not spurn me: I love you!"
While the magistrate was speaking, Mademoiselle d'Arlange looked at him as though doubtful of the evidence of her senses; but at the words, "I love you!" pronounced with the trembling accents of the most devoted passion, she disengaged her hand sharply, and uttered a stifled cry.
"You," murmured she, "is this really you?"
M. Daburon, at this the most critical moment of his life was powerless to utter a word. The presentiment of an immense misfortune oppressed his heart. What were then his feelings, when he saw Claire burst into tears. She hid her face in her hands, and kept repeating,--
"I am very unhappy, very unhappy!"
"You unhappy?" exclaimed the magistrate at length, "and through me? Claire, you are cruel! In heaven's name, what have I done? What is the matter? Speak! Anything rather then this anxiety which is killing me."
He knelt before her on the gravelled walk, and again made an attempt to take her hand. She repulsed him with an imploring gesture.
"Let me weep," said she: "I suffer so much, you are going to hate me, I feel it. Who knows! you will, perhaps, despise me, and yet I swear before heaven that I never expected what you have just said to me, that I had not even a suspicion of it!"
M. Daburon remained upon his knees, awaiting his doom.
"Yes," continued Claire, "you will think you have been the victim of a detestable coquetry. I see it now! I comprehend everything! It is not possible, that, without a profound love, a man can be all that you have been to me. Alas! I was but a child. I gave myself up to the great happiness of having a friend! Am I not alone in the world, and as if lost in a desert? Silly and imprudent, I thoughtlessly confided in you, as in the best, the most indulgent of fathers."
These words revealed to the unfortunate magistrate the extent of his error. The same as a heavy hammer, they smashed into a thousand fragments the fragile edifice of his hopes. He raised himself slowly, and, in a tone of involuntary reproach, he repeated,--"Your father!"
Mademoiselle d'Arlange felt how deeply she had wounded this man whose intense love she dare not even fathom. "Yes," she resumed, "I love you as a father! Seeing you, usually so grave and austere, become for me so good, so indulgent, I thanked heaven for sending me a protector to replace those who are dead."
M. Daburon could not restrain a sob; his heart was breaking.
"One word," continued Claire,--"one single word, would have enlightened me. Why did you not pronounce it! It was with such happiness that I leant on you as a child on its mother; and with what inward joy I said to myself, 'I am sure of one friend, of one heart into which runs the overflow of mine!' Ah! why was not my confidence greater? Why did I withhold my secret from you? I might have avoided this fearful calamity. I ought to have told you long since. I no longer belong to myself freely and with happiness, I have given my life to another."
To hover in the clouds, and suddenly to fall rudely to the earth, such was M. Daburon's fate; his sufferings are not to be described.
"Far better to have spoken," answered he; "yet no. I owe to your silence, Claire, six months of delicious illusions, six months of enchanting dreams. This shall be my share of life's happiness."
The last beams of closing day still enabled the magistrate to see Mademoiselle d'Arlange. Her beautiful face had the whiteness and the immobility of marble. Heavy tears rolled silently down her cheeks. It seemed to M. Daburon that he was beholding the frightful spectacle of a weeping statue.
"You love another," said he at length, "another! And your grandmother does not know it. Claire, you can only have chosen a man worthy of your love. How is it the marchioness does not receive him?"
"There are certain obstacles," murmured Claire, "obstacles which perhaps we may never be able to remove; but a girl like me can love but once. She marries him she loves, or she belongs to heaven!"
"Certain obstacles!" said M. Daburon in a hollow voice. "You love a man, he knows it, and he is stopped by obstacles?"
"I am poor," answered Mademoiselle d'Arlange, "and his family is immensely rich. His father is cruel, inexorable."
"His father," cried the magistrate, with a bitterness he did not dream of hiding, "his father, his family, and that withholds him! You are poor, he is rich, and that stops him! And yet he knows you love him! Ah! why am I not in his place? and why have I not the entire universe against me? What sacrifice can compare with love? such as I understand it. Nay, would it be a sacrifice? That which appears most so, is it not really an immense joy? To suffer, to struggle, to wait, to hope always, to devote oneself entirely to another; that is my idea of love."
"It is thus I love," said Claire with simplicity.
This answer crushed the magistrate. He could understand it. He knew that for him there was no hope; but he felt a terrible enjoyment in torturing himself, and proving his misfortune by intense suffering.
"But," insisted he, "how have you known him, spoken to him? Where? When? Madame d'Arlange receives no one."
"I ought now to tell you everything, sir," answered Claire proudly. "I have known him for a long time. It was at the house of one of my grandmother's friends, who is a cousin of his,--old Mademoiselle Goello, that I saw him for the first time. There we spoke to each other; there we meet each other now."
"Ah!" exclaimed M. Daburon, whose eyes were suddenly opened, "I remember now. A few days before your visit to Mademoiselle Goello, you are gayer than usual; and, when you return, you are often sad."
"That is because I see how much he is pained by the obstacles he cannot overcome."
"Is his family, then, so illustrious," asked the magistrate harshly, "that it disdains alliance with yours?"
"I should have told you everything, without waiting to be questioned, sir," answered Mademoiselle d'Arlange, "even his name. He is called Albert de Commarin."
The marchioness at this moment, thinking she had walked enough, was preparing to return to her rose-coloured boudoir. She therefore approached the arbour, and exclaimed in her loud voice:--
"Worthy magistrate, piquet awaits you."
Mechanically the magistrate arose, stammering, "I am coming."
Claire held him back. "I have not asked you to keep my secret, sir," said she.
"O mademoiselle!" said M. Daburon, wounded by this appearance of doubt.
"I know," resumed Claire, "that I can count upon you; but, come what will, my tranquillity is gone."
M. Daburon looked at her with an air of surprise; his eyes questioned her.
"It is certain," continued she, "that what I, a young and inexperienced girl, have failed to see, has not passed unnoticed by my grandmother. That she has continued to receive you is a tacit encouragement of your addresses; which I consider, permit me to say, as very honourable to myself."
"I have already mentioned, mademoiselle," replied the magistrate, "that the marchioness has deigned to authorise my hopes."
And briefly he related his interview with Madame d'Arlange, having the delicacy, however, to omit absolutely the question of money, which had so strongly influenced the old lady.
"I see very plainly what effect this will have on my peace," said Claire sadly. "When my grandmother learns that I have not received your homage, she will be very angry."
"You misjudge me, mademoiselle," interrupted M. Daburon. "I have nothing to say to the marchioness. I will retire, and all will be concluded. No doubt she will think that I have altered my mind!"
"Oh! you are good and generous, I know!"
"I will go away," pursued M. Daburon; "and soon you will have forgotten even the name of the unfortunate whose life's hopes have just been shattered."
"You do not mean what you say," said the young girl quickly.
"Well, no. I cherish this last illusion, that later on you will remember me with pleasure. Sometimes you will say, 'He loved me,' I wish all the same to remain your friend, yes, your most devoted friend."
Claire, in her turn, clasped M. Daburon's hands, and said with great emotion:--"Yes, you are right, you must remain my friend. Let us forget what has happened, what you have said to-night, and remain to me, as in the past, the best, the most indulgent of brothers."
Darkness had come, and she could not see him; but she knew he was weeping, for he was slow to answer.
"Is it possible," murmured he at length, "what you ask of me? What! is it you who talk to me of forgetting? Do you feel the power to forget? Do you not see that I love you a thousand times more than you love--" He stopped, unable to pronounce the name of Commarin; and then, with an effort he added: "And I shall love you always."
They had left the arbour, and were now standing not far from the steps leading to the house.
"And now, mademoiselle," resumed M. Daburon, "permit me to say, adieu! You will see me again but seldom. I shall only return often enough to avoid the appearance of a rupture."
His voice trembled, so that it was with difficulty he made it distinct.
"Whatever may happen," he added, "remember that there is one unfortunate being in the world who belongs to you absolutely. If ever you have need of a friend's devotion, come to me, come to your friend. Now it is over . . . I have courage. Claire, mademoiselle, for the last time, adieu!"
She was but little less moved than he was. Instinctively she approached him, and for the first and last time he touched lightly with his cold lips the forehead of her he loved so well. They mounted the steps, she leaning on his arm, and entered the rose-coloured boudoir where the marchioness was seated, impatiently shuffling the cards, while awaiting her victim.
"Now, then, incorruptible magistrate," cried she.
But M. Daburon felt sick at heart. He could not have held the cards. He stammered some absurd excuses, spoke of pressing affairs, of duties to be attended to, of feeling suddenly unwell, and went out, clinging to the walls.
His departure made the old card-player highly indignant. She turned to her grand-daughter, who had gone to hide her confusion away from the candles of the card table, and asked, "What is the matter with Daburon this evening?"
"I do not know, madame," stammered Claire.
"It appears to me," continued the marchioness, "that the little magistrate permits himself to take singular liberties. He must be reminded of his proper place, or he will end by believing himself our equal."
Claire tried to explain the magistrate's conduct: "He has been complaining all the evening, grandmamma; perhaps he is unwell."
"And what if he is?" exclaimed the old lady. "Is it not his duty to exercise some self-denial, in return for the honour of our company? I think I have already related to you the story of your granduncle, the Duke de St Hurluge, who, having been chosen to join the king's card party on their return from the chase, played all through the evening and lost with the best grace in the world two hundred and twenty pistoles. All the assembly remarked his gaiety and his good humour. On the following day only it was learned, that, during the hunt, he had fallen from his horse, and had sat at his majesty's card table with a broken rib. Nobody made any remark, so perfectly natural did this act of ordinary politeness appear in those days. This little Daburon, if he is unwell, would have given proof of his breeding by saying nothing about it, and remaining for my piquet. But he is as well as I am. Who can tell what games he has gone to play elsewhere!"