The Widow Lerouge by Emile Gaboriau
On the same day that the crime of La Jonchere was discovered, and precisely at the hour that M. Tabaret made his memorable examination in the victim's chamber, the Viscount Albert de Commarin entered his carriage, and proceeded to the Northern railway station, to meet his father.
The young man was very pale: his pinched features, his dull eyes, his blanched lips, in fact his whole appearance denoted either overwhelming fatigue or unusual sorrow. All the servants had observed, that, during the past five days, their young master had not been in his ordinary condition: he spoke but little, ate almost nothing, and refused to see any visitors. His valet noticed that this singular change dated from the visit, on Sunday morning, of a certain M. Noel Gerdy, who had been closeted with him for three hours in the library.
The Viscount, gay as a lark until the arrival of this person, had, from the moment of his departure, the appearance of a man at the point of death. When setting forth to meet his father, the viscount appeared to suffer so acutely that M. Lubin, his valet, entreated him not to go out; suggesting that it would be more prudent to retire to his room, and call in the doctor.
But the Count de Commarin was exacting on the score of filial duty, and would overlook the worst of youthful indiscretions sooner than what he termed a want of reverence. He had announced his intended arrival by telegraph, twenty-four hours in advance; therefore the house was expected to be in perfect readiness to receive him, and the absence of Albert at the railway station would have been resented as a flagrant omission of duty.
The viscount had been but five minutes in the waiting-room, when the bell announced the arrival of the train. Soon the doors leading on to the platform were opened, and the travelers crowded in. The throng beginning to thin a little, the count appeared, followed by a servant, who carried a travelling pelisse lined with rare and valuable fur.
The Count de Commarin looked a good ten years less than his age. His beard and hair, yet abundant, were scarcely gray. He was tall and muscular, held himself upright, and carried his head high. His appearance was noble, his movements easy. His regular features presented a study to the physiognomist, all expressing easy, careless good nature, even to the handsome, smiling mouth; but in his eyes flashed the fiercest and the most arrogant pride. This contrast revealed the secret of his character. Imbued quite as deeply with aristocratic prejudice as the Marchioness d'Arlange, he had progressed with his century or at least appeared to have done so. As fully as the marchioness, he held in contempt all who were not noble; but his disdain expressed itself in a different fashion. The marchioness proclaimed her contempt loudly and coarsely; the count had kept eyes and ears open and had seen and heard a good deal. She was stupid, and without a shade of common sense. He was witty and sensible, and possessed enlarged views of life and politics. She dreamed of the return of the absurd traditions of a former age; he hoped for things within the power of events to bring forth. He was sincerely persuaded that the nobles of France would yet recover slowly and silently, but surely, all their lost power, with its prestige and influence.
In a word, the count was the flattered portrait of his class; the marchioness its caricature. It should be added, that M. de Commarin knew how to divest himself of his crushing urbanity in the company of his equals. There he recovered his true character, haughty, self- sufficient, and intractable, enduring contradiction pretty much as a wild horse the application of the spur. In his own house, he was a despot.
Perceiving his father, Albert advanced towards him. They shook hands and embraced with an air as noble as ceremonious, and, in less than a minute, had exchanged all the news that had transpired during the count's absence. Then only did M. de Commarin perceive the alteration in his son's face.
"You are unwell, viscount," said he.
"Oh, no, sir," answered Albert, laconically.
The count uttered "Ah!" accompanied by a certain movement of the head, which, with him, expressed perfect incredulity; then, turning to his servant, he gave him some orders briefly.
"Now," resumed he, "let us go quickly to the house. I am in haste to feel at home; and I am hungry, having had nothing to-day, but some detestable broth, at I know not what way station."
M. de Commarin had returned to Paris in a very bad temper, his journey to Austria had not brought the results he had hoped for. To crown his dissatisfaction, he had rested, on his homeward way, at the chateau of an old friend, with whom he had had so violent a discussion that they had parted without shaking hands. The count was hardly seated in his carriage before he entered upon the subject of this disagreement.
"I have quarrelled with the Duke de Sairmeuse," said he to his son.
"That seems to me to happen whenever you meet," answered Albert, without intending any raillery.
"True," said the count: "but this is serious. I passed four days at his country-seat, in a state of inconceivable exasperation. He has entirely forfeited my esteem. Sairmeuse has sold his estate of Gondresy, one of the finest in the north of France. He has cut down the timber, and put up to auction the old chateau, a princely dwelling, which is to be converted into a sugar refinery; all this for the purpose, as he says, of raising money to increase his income!"
"And was that the cause of your rupture?" inquired Albert, without much surprise.
"Certainly it was! Do you not think it a sufficient one?"
"But, sir, you know the duke has a large family, and is far from rich."
"What of that? A French noble who sells his land commits an unworthy act. He is guilty of treason against his order!"
"Oh, sir," said Albert, deprecatingly.
"I said treason!" continued the count. "I maintain the word. Remember well, viscount, power has been, and always will be, on the side of wealth, especially on the side of those who hold the soil. The men of '93 well understood this principle, and acted upon it. By impoverishing the nobles, they destroyed their prestige more effectually than by abolishing their titles. A prince dismounted, and without footmen, is no more than any one else. The Minister of July, who said to the people, 'Make yourselves rich,' was not a fool. He gave them the magic formula for power. But they have not the sense to understand it. They want to go too fast. They launch into speculations, and become rich, it is true; but in what? Stocks, bonds, paper,--rags, in short. It is smoke they are locking in their coffers. They prefer to invest in merchandise, which pays eight or ten per cent, to investing in vines or corn which will return but three. The peasant is not so foolish. From the moment he owns a piece of ground the size of a handkerchief, he wants to make it as large as a tablecloth. He is slow as the oxen he ploughs with, but as patient, as tenacious, and as obstinate. He goes directly to his object, pressing firmly against the yoke; and nothing can stop or turn him aside. He knows that stocks may rise or fall, fortunes be won or lost on 'change; but the land always remains,--the real standard of wealth. To become landholders, the peasant starves himself, wears sabots in winter; and the imbeciles who laugh at him will be astonished by and by when he makes his '93, and the peasant becomes a baron in power if not in name."
"I do not understand the application," said the viscount.
"You do not understand? Why, what the peasant is doing is what the nobles ought to have done! Ruined, their duty was to reconstruct their fortunes. Commerce is interdicted to us; be it so: agriculture remains. Instead of grumbling uselessly during the half-century, instead of running themselves into debt, in the ridiculous attempt to support an appearance of grandeur, they ought to have retreated to their provinces, shut themselves up in their chateaux; there worked, economised, denied themselves, as the peasant is doing, purchased the land piece by piece. Had they taken this course, they would to-day possess France. Their wealth would be enormous; for the value of land rises year after year. I have, without effort, doubled my fortune in thirty years. Blauville, which cost my father a hundred crowns in 1817, is worth to-day more than a million: so that, when I hear the nobles complain, I shrug the shoulder. Who but they are to blame? They impoverish themselves from year to year. They sell their land to the peasants. Soon they will be reduced to beggary, and their escutcheons. What consoles me is, that the peasant, having become the proprietor of our domains will then be all-powerful, and will yoke to his chariot wheels these traders in scrip and stocks, whom he hates as much as I execrate them myself."
The carriage at this moment stopped in the court-yard of the de Commarin mansion, after having described that perfect half-circle, the glory of coachmen who preserve the old tradition.
The count alighted first, and leaning upon his son's arm, ascended the steps of the grand entrance. In the immense vestibule, nearly all the servants, dressed in rich liveries, stood in a line. The count gave them a glance, in passing, as an officer might his soldiers on parade, and proceeded to his apartment on the first floor, above the reception rooms.
Never was there a better regulated household than that of the Count de Commarin. He possessed in a high degree the art, more rare than is generally supposed, of commanding an army of servants. The number of his domestics caused him neither inconvenience nor embarrassment. They were necessary to him. So perfect was the organisation of this household, that its functions were performed like those of a machine, --without noise, variation, or effort.
Thus when the count returned from his journey, the sleeping hotel was awakened as if by the spell of an enchanter. Each servant was at his post; and the occupations, interrupted during the past six weeks, resumed without confusion. As the count was known to have passed the day on the road, the dinner was served in advance of the usual hour. All the establishment, even to the lowest scullion, represented the spirit of the first article of the rules of the house, "Servants are not to execute orders, but anticipate them."
M. de Commarin had hardly removed the traces of his journey, and changed his dress, when his butler announced that the dinner was served.
He went down at once; and father and son met upon the threshold of the dining-room. This was a large apartment, with a very high ceiling, as were all the rooms of the ground floor, and was most magnificently furnished. The count was not only a great eater, but was vain of his enormous appetite. He was fond of recalling the names of great men, noted for their capacity of stomach. Charles V. devoured mountains of viands. Louis XIV. swallowed at each repast as much as six ordinary men would eat at a meal. He pretended that one can almost judge of men's qualities by their digestive capacities; he compared them to lamps, whose power of giving light is in proportion to the oil they consume.
During the first half hour, the count and his son both remained silent. M. de Commarin ate conscientiously, not perceiving or not caring to notice that Albert ate nothing, but merely sat at the table as if to countenance him. The old nobleman's ill-humour and volubility returned with the dessert, apparently increased by a Burgundy of which he was particularly fond, and of which he drank freely.
He was partial, moreover, to an after dinner argument, professing a theory that moderate discussion is a perfect digestive. A letter which had been delivered to him on his arrival, and which he had found time to glance over, gave him at once a subject and a point of departure.
"I arrived home but an hour ago;" said he, "and I have already received a homily from Broisfresnay."
"He writes a great deal," observed Albert.
"Too much; he consumes himself in ink. He mentions a lot more of his ridiculous projects and vain hopes, and he mentions a dozen names of men of his own stamp who are his associates. On my word of honour, they seem to have lost their senses! They talk of lifting the world, only they want a lever and something to rest it on. It makes me die with laughter!"
For ten minutes the count continued to discharge a volley of abuse and sarcasm against his best friends, without seeming to see that a great many of their foibles which he ridiculed were also a little his own.
"If," continued he more seriously,--"if they only possessed a little confidence in themselves, if they showed the least audacity! But no! they count upon others to do for them what they ought to do for themselves. In short, their proceedings are a series of confessions of helplessness, of premature declarations of failure."
The coffee having been served, the count made a sign, and the servants left the room.
"No," continued he, "I see but one hope for the French aristocracy, but one plank of salvation, one good little law, establishing the right of primogeniture."
"You will never obtain it."
"You think not? Would you then oppose such a measure, viscount?"
Albert knew by experience what dangerous ground his father was approaching, and remained silent.
"Let us put it, then, that I dream of the impossible!" resumed the count. "Then let the nobles do their duty. Let all the younger sons and the daughters of our great families forego their rights, by giving up the entire patrimony to the first-born for five generations, contenting themselves each with a couple of thousand francs a year. By that means great fortunes can be reconstructed, and families, instead of being divided by a variety of interests, become united by one common desire."
"Unfortunately," objected the viscount, "the time is not favorable to such devotedness."
"I know it, sir," replied the count quickly; "and in my own house I have the proof of it. I, your father, have conjured you to give up all idea of marrying the granddaughter of that old fool, the Marchioness d'Arlange. And all to no purpose; for I have at last been obliged to yield to your wishes."
"Father--" Albert commenced.
"It is well," interrupted the count. "You have my word; but remember my prediction: you will strike a fatal blow at our house. You will be one of the largest proprietors in France; but have half a dozen children, and they will be hardly rich. If they also have as many, you will probably see your grandchildren in poverty!"
"You put all at the worst, father."
"Without doubt: it is the only means of pointing out the danger, and averting the evil. You talk of your life's happiness. What is that? A true noble thinks of his name above all. Mademoiselle d'Arlange is very pretty, and very attractive; but she is penniless. I had found an heiress for you."
"Whom I should never love!"
"And what of that? She would have brought you four millions in her apron,--more than the kings of to-day give their daughters. Besides which she had great expectations."
The discussion upon this subject would have been interminable, had Albert taken an active share in it; but his thoughts were far away. He answered from time to time so as not to appear absolutely dumb, and then only a few syllables. This absence of opposition was more irritating to the count than the most obstinate contradiction. He therefore directed his utmost efforts to excite his son to argue.
However he was vainly prodigal of words, and unsparing in unpleasant allusions, so that at last he fairly lost his temper, and, on receiving a laconic reply, he burst forth: "Upon my word, the butler's son would say the same as you! What blood have you in your veins? You are more like one of the people than a Viscount de Commarin!"
There are certain conditions of mind in which the least conversation jars upon the nerves. During the last hour, Albert had suffered an intolerable punishment. The patience with which he had armed himself at last escaped him.
"Well, sir," he answered, "if I resemble one of the people, there are perhaps good reasons for it."
The glance with which the viscount accompanied his speech was so expressive that the count experienced a sudden shock. All his animation forsook him, and in a hesitating voice, he asked: "What is that you say, viscount?"
Albert had no sooner uttered the sentence than he regretted his precipitation, but he had gone too far to stop.
"Sir," he replied with some embarrassment, "I have to acquaint you with some important matters. My honour, yours, the honour of our house, are involved. I intended postponing this conversation till to-morrow, not desiring to trouble you on the evening of your return. However, as you wish me to explain, I will do so."
The count listened with ill-concealed anxiety. He seemed to have divined what his son was about to say, and was terrified at himself for having divined it.
"Believe me. sir," continued Albert slowly, "whatever may have been your acts, my voice will never be raised to reproach you. Your constant kindness to me--"
M. de Commarin held up his hand. "A truce to preambles; let me have the facts without phrases," said he sternly.
Albert was some time without answering, he hesitated how to commence.
"Sir," said he at length, "during your absence, I have read all your correspondence with Madame Gerdy. All!" added he, emphasising the word, already so significant.
The count, as though stung by a serpent, started up with such violence that he overturned his chair.
"Not another word!" cried he in a terrible voice. "I forbid you to speak!" But he no doubt soon felt ashamed of his violence, for he quietly raised his chair, and resumed in a tone which he strove to render light and rallying: "Who will hereafter refuse to believe in presentiments? A couple of hours ago, on seeing your pale face at the railway station, I felt that you had learned more or less of this affair. I was sure of it."
There was a long silence. With one accord, father and son avoided letting their eyes meet, lest they might encounter glances too eloquent to bear at so painful a moment.
"You were right, sir," continued the count, "our honour is involved. It is important that we should decide on our future conduct without delay. Will you follow me to my room?"
He rang the bell, and a footman appeared almost immediately.
"Neither the viscount nor I am at home to any one," said M. de Commarin, "no matter whom."