The Widow Lerouge by Emile Gaboriau
The revelation which had just taken place, irritated much more than it surprised the Count de Commarin. For twenty years, he had been constantly expecting to see the truth brought to light. He knew that there can be no secret so carefully guarded that it may not by some chance escape; and his had been known to four people, three of whom were still living.
He had not forgotten that he had been imprudent enough to trust it to paper, knowing all the while that it ought never to have been written. How was it that he, a prudent diplomat, a statesman, full of precaution, had been so foolish? How was it that he had allowed this fatal correspondence to remain in existence! Why had he not destroyed, at no matter what cost, these overwhelming proofs, which sooner or later might be used against him? Such imprudence could only have arisen from an absurd passion, blind and insensible, even to madness.
So long as he was Valerie's lover, the count never thought of asking the return of his letters from his beloved accomplice. If the idea had occurred to him, he would have repelled it as an insult to the character of his angel. What reason could he have had to suspect her discretion? None. He would have been much more likely to have supposed her desirous of removing every trace, even the slightest, of what had taken place. Was it not her son who had received the benefits of the deed, who had usurped another's name and fortune?
When eight years after, believing her to be unfaithful, the count had put an end to the connection which had given him so much happiness he thought of obtaining possession of this unhappy correspondence. But he knew not how to do so. A thousand reasons prevented his moving in the matter.
The principal one was, that he did not wish to see this woman, once so dearly loved. He did not feel sufficiently sure either of his anger or of his firmness. Could he, without yielding, resist the tearful pleading of those eyes, which had so long held complete sway over him?
To look again upon this mistress of his youth would, he feared, result in his forgiving her; and he had been too cruelly wounded in his pride and in his affection to admit the idea of a reconciliation.
On the other hand, to obtain the letters though a third party was entirely out of the question. He abstained, then, from all action, postponing it indefinitely. "I will go to her," said he to himself; "but not until I have so torn her from my heart that she will have become indifferent to me. I will not gratify her with the sight of my grief."
So months and years passed on; and finally he began to say and believe that it was too late. And for now more than twenty years, he had never passed a day without cursing his inexcusable folly. Never had he been able to forget that above his head a danger more terrible than the sword of Damocles hung, suspended by a thread, which the slightest accident might break.
And now that thread had broken. Often, when considering the possibility of such a catastrophe, he had asked himself how he should avert it? He had formed and rejected many plans: he had deluded himself, like all men of imagination, with innumerable chimerical projects, and now he found himself quite unprepared.
Albert stood respectfully, while his father sat in his great armorial chair, just beneath the large frame in which the genealogical tree of the illustrious family of Rheteau de Commarin spread its luxuriant branches. The old gentleman completely concealed the cruel apprehensions which oppressed him. He seemed neither irritated nor dejected; but his eyes expressed a haughtiness more than usually disdainful, and a self-reliance full of contempt.
"Now viscount," he began in a firm voice, "explain yourself. I need say nothing to you of the position of a father, obliged to blush before his son; you understand it, and will feel for me. Let us spare each other, and try to be calm. Tell me, how did you obtain your knowledge of this correspondence?"
Albert had had time to recover himself, and prepare for the present struggle, as he had impatiently waited four days for this interview.
The difficulty he experienced in uttering the first words had now given place to a dignified and proud demeanor. He expressed himself clearly and forcibly, without losing himself in those details which in serious matters needlessly defer the real point at issue.
"Sir," he replied, "on Sunday morning, a young man called here, stating that he had business with me of the utmost importance. I received him. He then revealed to me that I, alas! am only your natural son, substituted through your affection, for the legitimate child borne you by Madame de Commarin."
"And did you not have this man kicked out of doors?" exclaimed the count.
"No, sir. I was about to answer him very sharply, of course; but, presenting me with a packet of letters, he begged me to read them before replying."
"Ah!" cried M. de Commarin, "you should have thrown them into the fire, for there was a fire, I suppose? You held them in your hands; and they still exist! Why was I not there?"
"Sir!" said Albert, reproachfully. And, recalling the position Noel had occupied against the mantelpiece, and the manner in which he stood, he added,--"Even if the thought had occurred to me, it was impracticable. Besides, at the first glance, I recognised your handwriting. I therefore took the letters, and read them."
"And then, sir, I returned the correspondence to the young man, and asked for a delay of eight days; not to think over it myself--there was no need of that,--but because I judged an interview with you indispensable. Now, therefore, I beseech you, tell me whether this substitution really did take place.
"Certainly it did," replied the count violently, "yes, certainly. You know that it did, for you have read what I wrote to Madame Gerdy, your mother."
Albert had foreseen, had expected this reply; but it crushed him nevertheless.
There are misfortunes so great, that one must constantly think of them to believe in their existence. This flinching, however, lasted but an instant.
"Pardon me, sir," he replied. "I was almost convinced; but I had not received a formal assurance of it. All the letters that I read spoke distinctly of your purpose, detailed your plan minutely; but not one pointed to, or in any way confirmed, the execution of your project."
The count gazed at his son with a look of intense surprise. He recollected distinctly all the letters; and he could remember, that, in writing to Valerie, he had over and over again rejoiced at their success, thanking her for having acted in accordance with his wishes.
"You did not go to the end of them, then, viscount," he said, "you did not read them all?"
"Every line, sir, and with an attention that you may well understand. The last letter shown me simply announced to Madame Gerdy the arrival of Claudine Lerouge, the nurse who was charged with accomplishing the substitution. I know nothing beyond that."
"These proofs amount to nothing," muttered the count. "A man may form a plan, cherish it for a long time, and at the last moment abandon it; it often happens so."
He reproached himself for having answered so hastily. Albert had had only serious suspicions, and he had changed them to certainty. What stupidity!
"There can be no possible doubt," he said to himself; "Valerie has destroyed the most conclusive letters, those which appeared to her the most dangerous, those I wrote after the substitution. But why has she preserved these others, compromising enough in themselves? and why, after having preserved them, has she let them go out of her possession?"
Without moving, Albert awaited a word from the count. What would it be? No doubt, the old nobleman was at that moment deciding what he should do.
"Perhaps she is dead!" said M. de Commarin aloud.
And at the thought that Valerie was dead, without his having again seen her, he started painfully. His heart, after more than twenty years of voluntary separation, still suffered, so deeply rooted was this first love of his youth. He had cursed her; at this moment he pardoned her. True, she had deceived him; but did he not owe to her the only years of happiness he had ever known? Had she not formed all the poetry of his youth? Had he experienced, since leaving her, one single hour of joy or forgetfulness? In his present frame of mind, his heart retained only happy memories, like a vase which, once filled with precious perfumes, retains the odour until it is destroyed.
"Poor woman!" he murmured.
He sighed deeply. Three or four times his eyelids trembled, as if a tear were about to fall. Albert watched him with anxious curiosity. This was the first time since the viscount had grown to man's estate that he had surprised in his father's countenance other emotion than ambition or pride, triumphant or defeated. But M. de Commarin was not the man to yield long to sentiment.
"You have not told me, viscount," he said, "who sent you that messenger of misfortune."
"He came in person, sir, not wishing, he told me to mix any others up in this sad affair. The young man was no other than he whose place I have occupied,--your legitimate son, M. Noel Gerdy himself."
"Yes," said the count in a low tone, "Noel, that is his name, I remember." And then, with evident hesitation, he added: "Did he speak to you of his--of your mother?"
"Scarcely, sir. He only told me that he came unknown to her; that he had accidentally discovered the secret which he revealed to me."
M. de Commarin asked nothing further. There was more for him to learn. He remained for some time deep in thought. The decisive moment had come; and he saw but one way to escape.
"Come, viscount," he said, in a tone so affectionate that Albert was astonished, "do not stand; sit down here by me, and let us discuss this matter. Let us unite our efforts to shun, if possible, this great misfortune. Confide in me, as a son should in his father. Have you thought of what is to be done? have you formed any determination?"
"It seems to me, sir, that hesitation is impossible."
"In what way?"
"My duty, father, is very plain. Before your legitimate son, I ought to give way without a murmur, if not without regret. Let him come. I am ready to yield to him everything that I have so long kept from him without a suspicion of the truth--his father's love, his fortune and his name."
At this most praiseworthy reply, the old nobleman could scarcely preserve the calmness he had recommended to his son in the earlier part of the interview. His face grew purple; and he struck the table with his fist more furiously than he had ever done in his life. He, usually so guarded, so decorous on all occasions, uttered a volley of oaths that would not have done discredit to an old cavalry officer.
"And I tell you, sir, that this dream of yours shall never take place. No; that it sha'n't. I swear it. I promise you, whatever happens, understand, that things shall remain as they are; because it is my will. You are Viscount de Commarin, and Viscount de Commarin you shall remain, in spite of yourself, if necessary. You shall retain the title to your death, or at least to mine; for never, while I live, shall your absurd idea be carried out."
"But, sir," began Albert, timidly.
"You are very daring to interrupt me while I am speaking, sir," exclaimed the count. "Do I not know all your objections beforehand? You are going to tell me that it is a revolting injustice, a wicked robbery. I confess it, and grieve over it more than you possibly can. Do you think that I now for the first time repent of my youthful folly? For twenty years, sir, I have lamented my true son; for twenty years I have cursed the wickedness of which he is the victim. And yet I learnt how to keep silence, and to hide the sorrow and remorse which have covered my pillow with thorns. In a single instant, your senseless yielding would render my long sufferings of no avail. No, I will never permit it!"
The count read a reply on his son's lips: he stopped him with a withering glance.
"Do you think," he continued, "that I have never wept over the thought of my legitimate son passing his life struggling for a competence? Do you think that I have never felt a burning desire to repair the wrong done him? There have been times, sir, when I would have given half of my fortune simply to embrace that child of a wife too tardily appreciated. The fear of casting a shadow of suspicion upon your birth prevented me. I have sacrificed myself to the great name I bear. I received it from my ancestors without a stain. May you hand it down to your children equally spotless! Your first impulse was a worthy one, generous and noble; but you must forget it. Think of the scandal, if our secret should be disclosed to the public gaze. Can you not foresee the joy of our enemies, of that herd of upstarts which surrounds us? I shudder at the thought of the odium and the ridicule which would cling to our name. Too many families already have stains upon their escutcheons; I will have none on mine."
M. de Commarin remained silent for several minutes, during which Albert did not dare say a word, so much had he been accustomed since infancy to respect the least wish of the terrible old gentleman.
"There is no possible way out of it," continued the count. "Can I discard you to-morrow, and present this Noel as my son, saying, 'Excuse me, but there has been a slight mistake; this one is the viscount?' And then the tribunals will get hold of it. What does it matter who is named Benoit, Durand, or Bernard? But, when one is called Commarin, even but for a single day, one must retain that name through life. The same moral does not do for everyone; because we have not the same duties to perform. In our position, errors are irreparable. Take courage, then, and show yourself worthy of the name you bear. The storm is upon you; raise your head to meet it."
Albert's impassibility contributed not a little to increase M. de Commarin's irritation. Firm in an unchangeable resolution, the viscount listened like one fulfilling a duty: and his face reflected no emotion. The count saw that he was not shaken.
"What have you to reply?" he asked.
"It seems to me sir, that you have no idea of all the dangers which I foresee. It is difficult to master the revolts of conscience."
"Indeed!" interrupted the count contemptuously; "your conscience revolts, does it? It has chosen its time badly. Your scruples come too late. So long as you saw that your inheritance consisted of an illustrious title and a dozen or so of millions, it pleased you. To-day the name appears to you laden with a heavy fault, a crime, if you will; and your conscience revolts. Renounce this folly. Children, sir, are accountable to their fathers; and they should obey them. Willing or unwilling, you must be my accomplice; willing or unwilling, you must bear the burden, as I have borne it. And, however much you may suffer, be assured your sufferings can never approach what I have endured for so many years."
"Ah, sir!" cried Albert, "is it then I, the dispossessor, who has made this trouble? is it not, on the contrary, the dispossessed! It is not I who you have to convince, it is M. Noel Gerdy."
"Noel!" repeated the count.
"Your legitimate son, yes, sir. You act as if the issue of this unhappy affair depended solely upon my will. Do you then, imagine that M. Gerdy will be so easily disposed of, so easily silenced? And, if he should raise his voice, do you hope to move him by the considerations you have just mentioned?"
"I do not fear him."
"Then you are wrong, sir, permit me to tell you. Suppose for a moment that this young man has a soul sufficiently noble to relinquish his claim upon your rank and your fortune. Is there not now the accumulated rancour of years to urge him to oppose you? He cannot help feeling a fierce resentment for the horrible injustice of which he has been the victim. He must passionately long for vengeance, or rather reparation."
"He has no proofs."
"He has your letters, sir."
"They are not decisive, you yourself have told me so."
"That is true, sir; and yet they convinced me, who have an interest in not being convinced. Besides, if he needs witnesses, he will find them."
"Who? Yourself, viscount?"
"Yourself, sir. The day when he wishes it, you will betray us. Suppose you were summoned before a tribunal, and that there, under oath, you should be required to speak the truth, what answer would you make?"
M. de Commarin's face darkened at this very natural supposition. He hesitated, he whose honour was usually so great.
"I would save the name of my ancestors," he said at last.
Albert shook his head doubtfully. "At the price of a lie, my father," he said. "I never will believe it. But let us suppose even that. He will then call Madame Gerdy."
"Oh, I will answer for her!" cried the count, "her interests are the same as ours. If necessary, I will see her. Yes," he added with an effort, "I will call on her, I will speak to her; and I will guarantee that she will not betray us."
"And Claudine," continued the young man; "will she be silent, too?"
"For money, yes; and I will give her whatever she asks."
"And you would trust, father, to a paid silence, as if one could ever be sure of a purchased conscience? What is sold to you may be sold to another. A certain sum may close her mouth; a larger will open it."
"I will frighten her."
"You forget, father, that Claudine Lerouge was Noel Gerdy's nurse, that she takes an interest in his happiness, that she loves him. How do you know that he has not already secured her aid? She lives at Bougival. I went there, I remember, with you. No doubt, he sees her often; perhaps it is she who put him on the track of this correspondence. He spoke to me of her, as though he were sure of her testimony. He almost proposed my going to her for information."
"Alas!" cried the count, "why is not Claudine dead instead of my faithful Germain?"
"You see, sir," concluded Albert, "Claudine Lerouge would alone render all your efforts useless."
"Ah, no!" cried the count; "I shall find some expedient."
The obstinate old gentleman was not willing to give in to this argument, the very clearness of which blinded him. The pride of his blood paralyzed his usual practical good sense. To acknowledge that he was conquered humiliated him, and seemed to him unworthy of himself. He did not remember to have met during his long career an invincible resistance or an absolute impediment. He was like all men of imagination, who fall in love with their projects, and who expect them to succeed on all occasions, as if wishing hard was all that was necessary to change their dreams into realities.
Albert this time broke the silence, which threatened to be prolonged.
"I see, sir," he said, "that you fear, above all things, the publicity of this sad history; the possible scandal renders you desperate. But, unless we yield, the scandal will be terrible. There will be a trial which will be the talk of all Europe. The newspapers will print the facts, accompanied by heavens knows what comments of their own. Our name, however the trial results, will appear in all the papers of the world. This might be borne, if we were sure of succeeding; but we are bound to lose, my father, we shall lose. Then think of the exposure! think of the dishonour branded upon us by public opinion."
"I think," said the count, "that you can have neither respect nor affection for me, when you speak in that way."
"It is my duty, sir, to point out to you the evils I see threatening, and which there is yet time to shun. M. Noel Gerdy is your legitimate son, recognize him, acknowledge his just pretensions, and receive him. We can make the change very quietly. It is easy to account for it, through a mistake of the nurse, Claudine Lerouge, for instance. All parties being agreeable, there can be no trouble about it. What is to prevent the new Viscount de Commarin from quitting Paris, and disappearing for a time? He might travel about Europe for four or five years; by the end of that time, all will be forgotten, and no one will remember me."
M. de Commarin was not listening; he was deep in thought.
"But instead of contesting, viscount," he cried, "we might compromise. We may be able to purchase these letters. What does this young fellow want? A position and a fortune? I will give him both. I will make him as rich as he can wish. I will give him a million; if need be, two, three,--half of all I possess. With money, you see, much money--"
"Spare him, sir; he is your son."
"Unfortunately! and I wish him to the devil! I will see him, and he will agree to what I wish. I will prove to him the bad policy of the earthen pot struggling with the iron kettle; and, if he is not a fool, he will understand.
The count rubbed his hands while speaking. He was delighted with this brilliant plan of negotiation. It could not fail to result favorably. A crowd of arguments occurred to his mind in support of it. He would buy back again his lost rest.
But Albert did not seem to share his father's hopes, "You will perhaps think it unkind in me, sir," said he, sadly, "to dispel this last illusion of yours; but I must. Do not delude yourself with the idea of an amicable arrangement; the awakening will only be the more painful. I have seen M. Gerdy, my father, and he is not one, I assure you, to be intimidated. If there is an energetic will in the world, it is his. He is truly your son; and his expression, like yours, shows an iron resolution, that may be broken but never bent. I can still hear his voice trembling with resentment, while he spoke to me. I can still see the dark fire of his eyes. No, he will never accept a compromise. He will have all or nothing; and I cannot say that he is wrong. If you resist, he will attack you without the slightest consideration. Strong in his rights, he will cling to you with stubborn animosity. He will drag you from court to court; he will not stop short of utter defeat or complete triumph."
Accustomed to absolute obedience from his son, the old nobleman was astounded at this unexpected obstinacy.
"What is your object in saying all this?" he asked.
"It is this, sir. I should utterly despise myself, if I did not spare your old age this greatest of calamities. Your name does not belong to me; I will take my own. I am your natural son; I will give up my place to your legitimate son. Permit me to withdraw with at least the honour of having freely done my duty. Do not force me to wait till I am driven out in disgrace."
"What!" cried the count, stunned, "you will abandon me? You refuse to help me, you turn against me, you recognize the rights of this man in spite of my wishes?"
Albert bowed his head. He was much moved, but still remained firm.
"My resolution is irrevocably taken," he replied. "I can never consent to despoil your son."
"Cruel, ungrateful boy!" cried M. de Commarin. His wrath was such, that, when he found he could do nothing by abuse, he passed at once to jeering. "But no," he continued, "you are great, you are noble, you are generous; you are acting after the most approved pattern of chivalry, viscount, I should say, my dear M. Gerdy; after the fashion of Plutarch's time! So you give up my name and my fortune, and you leave me. You will shake the dust from your shoes upon the threshold of my house; and you will go out into the world. I see only one difficulty in your way. How do you expect to live, my stoic philosopher? Have you a trade at your fingers' ends, like Jean Jacques Rousseau's Emile? Or, worthy M. Gerdy, have you learned economy from the four thousand francs a month I allow you for waxing your moustache? Perhaps you have made money on the Bourse! Then my name must have seemed very burdensome to you to bear, since you so eagerly introduced it into such a place! Has dirt, then, so great an attraction for you that you must jump from your carriage so quickly? Say, rather, that the company of my friends embarrasses you, and that you are anxious to go where you will be among your equals."
"I am very wretched, sir," replied Albert to this avalanche of insults, "and you would crush me!"
"You wretched! Well, whose fault is it? But let us get back to my question. How and on what will you live?"
"I am not so romantic as you are pleased to say, sir. I must confess that, as regards the future, I have counted upon your kindness. You are so rich, that five hundred thousand francs would not materially affect your fortune; and, on the interest of that sum, I could live quietly, if not happily."
"And suppose I refuse you this money?"
"I know you well enough, sir, to feel sure that you will not do so. You are too just to wish that I alone should expiate wrongs that are not of my making. Left to myself, I should at my present age have achieved a position. It is late for me to try and make one now; but I will do my best."
"Superb!" interrupted the count; "you are really superb! One never heard of such a hero of romance. What a character! But tell me, what do you expect from all this astonishing disinterestedness?"
The count shrugged his shoulders, looked sarcastically at his son, and observed: "The compensation is very slight. And you expect me to believe all this! No, sir, mankind is not in the habit of indulging in such fine actions for its pleasure alone. You must have some reason for acting so grandly; some reason which I fail to see."
"None but what I have already told you."
"Therefore it is understood you intend to relinquish everything; you will even abandon your proposed union with Mademoiselle Claire d'Arlange? You forget that for two years I have in vain constantly expressed my disappointment of this marriage."
"No, sir. I have seen Mademoiselle Claire; I have explained my unhappy position to her. Whatever happens, she has sworn to be my wife."
"And do you think that Madame d'Arlange will give her granddaughter to M. Gerdy?"
"We hope so, sir. The marchioness is sufficiently infected with aristocratic ideas to prefer a nobleman's bastard to the son of some honest tradesman; but should she refuse, we would await her death, though without desiring it."
The calm manner in which Albert said this enraged the count.
"Can this be my son?" he cried. "Never! What blood have you then in your veins, sir? Your worthy mother alone might tell us, provided, however, she herself knows."
"Sir," cried Albert menacingly, "think well before you speak! She is my mother, and that is sufficient. I am her son, not her judge. No one shall insult her in my presence, I will not permit it, sir; and I will suffer it least of all from you."
The count made great efforts to keep his anger within bounds, but Albert's behavior thoroughly enraged him. What, his son rebelled, he dared to brave him to his face, he threatened him! The old fellow jumped from his chair, and moved towards the young man as if he would strike him.
"Leave the room," he cried, in a voice choking with rage, "leave the room instantly! Retire to your apartments, and take care not to leave them without my orders. To-morrow I will let you know my decision."
Albert bowed respectfully, but without lowering his eyes and walked slowly to the door. He had already opened it, when M. de Commarin experienced one of those revulsions of feeling, so frequent in violent natures.
"Albert," said he, "come here and listen to me."
The young man turned back, much affected by this change.
"Do not go," continued the count, "until I have told you what I think. You are worthy of being the heir of a great house, sir. I may be angry with you; but I can never lose my esteem for you. You are a noble man, Albert. Give me your hand."
It was a happy moment for these two men, and such a one as they had scarcely ever experienced in their lives, restrained as they had been by cold etiquette. The count felt proud of his son, and recognised in him himself at that age. For a long time their hands remained clasped, without either being able to utter a word.
At last, M. de Commarin resumed his seat.
"I must ask you to leave me, Albert," he said kindly. "I must be alone to reflect, to try and accustom myself to this terrible blow."
And, as the young man closed the door, he added, as if giving vent to his inmost thoughts, "If he, in whom I have placed all my hope, deserts me, what will become of me? And what will the other one be like?"
Albert's features, when he left the count's study, bore traces of the violent emotions he had felt during the interview. The servants whom he met noticed it the more, as they had heard something of the quarrel.
"Well," said an old footman who had been in the family thirty years, "the count has had another unhappy scene with his son. The old fellow has been in a dreadful passion."
"I got wind of it at dinner," spoke up a valet de chambre: "the count restrained himself enough not to burst out before me; but he rolled his eyes fiercely."
"What can be the matter?"
"Pshaw! that's more than they know themselves. Why, Denis, before whom they always speak freely, says that they often wrangle for hours together, like dogs, about things which he can never see through."
"Ah," cried out a young fellow, who was being trained to service, "if I were in the viscount's place, I'd settle the old gent pretty effectually!"
"Joseph, my friend," said the footman pointedly, "you are a fool. You might give your father his walking ticket very properly, because you never expect five sous from him; and you have already learned how to earn your living without doing any work at all. But the viscount, pray tell me what he is good for, what he knows how to do? Put him in the centre of Paris, with only his fine hands for capital, and you will see."
"Yes, but he has his mother's property in Normandy," replied Joseph.
"I can't for the life of me," said the valet de chambre, "see what the count finds to complain of; for his son is a perfect model, and I shouldn't be sorry to have one like him. There was a very different pair, when I was in the Marquis de Courtivois's service. He was one who made it a point never to be in good humor. His eldest son, who is a friend of the viscount's, and who comes here occasionally, is a pit without a bottom, as far as money is concerned. He will fritter away a thousand-franc note quicker than Joseph can smoke a pipe."
"But the marquis is not rich," said a little old man, who himself had perhaps the enormous wages of fifteen francs; "he can't have more than sixty thousand francs' income at the most."
"That's why he gets angry. Every day there is some new story about his son. He had an apartment in the house; he went in and out when he pleased; he passed his nights in gaming and drinking; he cut up so with the actresses that the police had to interfere. Besides all this, I have many a time had to help him up to his room, and put him to bed, when the waiters from the restaurants brought him home in a carriage, so drunk that he could scarcely say a word."
"Ha!" exclaimed Joseph enthusiastically, "this fellow's service must be mighty profitable."
"That was according to circumstances. When he was at play, he was lavish with his money; but he always lost: and, when he was drunk, he had a quick temper, and didn't spare the blows. I must do him the justice to say, though, that his cigars were splendid. But he was a ruffian; while the viscount here is a true child of wisdom. He is severe upon our faults, it is true; but he is never harsh nor brutal to his servants. Then he is uniformly generous; which in the long run pays us best. I must say that he is better than the majority, and that the count is very unreasonable."
Such was the judgment of the servants. That of society was perhaps less favorable.
The Viscount de Commarin was not one of those who possess the rather questionable and at times unenviable accomplishment of pleasing every one. He was wise enough to distrust those astonishing personages who are always praising everybody. In looking about us, we often see men of success and reputation, who are simply dolts, without any merit except their perfect insignificance. That stupid propriety which offends no one, that uniform politeness which shocks no one's vanity, have peculiarly the gift of pleasing and of succeeding.
One cannot meet certain persons without saying, "I know that face; I have seen it somewhere, before;" because it has no individuality, but simply resembles faces seen in a common crowd. It is precisely so with the minds of certain other people. When they speak, you know exactly what they are going to say; you have heard the same thing so many times already from them, you know all their ideas by heart. These people are welcomed everywhere: because they have nothing peculiar about them; and peculiarity, especially in the upper classes, is always irritating and offensive; they detest all innovations.
Albert was peculiar; consequently much discussed, and very differently estimated. He was charged with sins of the most opposite character, with faults so contradictory that they were their own defence. Some accused him, for instance, of entertaining ideas entirely too liberal for one of his rank; and, at the same time, others complained of his excessive arrogance. He was charged with treating with insulting levity the most serious questions, and was then blamed for his affectation of gravity. People knew him scarcely well enough to love him, while they were jealous of him and feared him.
He wore a bored look in all fashionable reunions, which was considered very bad taste. Forced by his relations, by his father, to go into society a great deal, he was bored, and committed the unpardonable sin of letting it be seen. Perhaps he had been disgusted by the constant court made to him, by the rather coarse attentions which were never spared the noble heir of one of the richest families in France. Having all the necessary qualities for shining, he despised them. Dreadful sin! He did not abuse his advantages; and no one ever heard of his getting into a scrape.
He had had once, it was said, a very decided liking for Madame Prosny, perhaps the naughtiest, certainly the most mischievous woman in Paris; but that was all. Mothers who had daughters to dispose of upheld him; but, for the last two years, they had turned against him, when his love for Mademoiselle d'Arlange became well known.
At the club they rallied him on his prudence. He had had, like others, his run of follies; but he had soon got disgusted with what it is the fashion to call pleasure. The noble profession of bon vivant appeared to him very tame and tiresome. He did not enjoy passing his nights at cards; nor did he appreciate the society of those frail sisters, who in Paris give notoriety to their lovers. He affirmed that a gentleman was not necessarily an object of ridicule because he would not expose himself in the theatre with these women. Finally, none of his friends could ever inoculate him with a passion for the turf.
As doing nothing wearied him, he attempted, like the parvenu, to give some meaning to life by work. He purposed, after a while, to take part in public affairs; and, as he had often been struck with the gross ignorance of many men in power, he wished to avoid their example. He busied himself with politics; and this was the cause of all his quarrels with his father. The one word of "liberal" was enough to throw the count into convulsions; and he suspected his son of liberalism, ever since reading an article by the viscount, published in the "Revue des Deux Mondes."
His ideas, however, did not prevent his fully sustaining his rank. He spent most nobly on the world the revenue which placed his father and himself a little above it. His establishment, distinct from the count's, was arranged as that of a wealthy young gentleman's ought to be. His liveries left nothing to be desired; and his horses and equipages were celebrated. Letters of invitation were eagerly sought for to the grand hunting parties, which he formed every year towards the end of October at Commarin,--an admirable piece of property, covered with immense woods.
Albert's love for Claire--a deep, well-considered love--had contributed not a little to keep him from the habits and life of the pleasant and elegant idleness indulged in by his friends. A noble attachment is always a great safeguard. In contending against it, M. de Commarin had only succeeded in increasing its intensity and insuring its continuance. This passion, so annoying to the count, was the source of the most vivid, the most powerful emotions in the viscount. Ennui was banished from his existence.
All his thoughts took the same direction; all his actions had but one aim. Could he look to the right or the left, when, at the end of his journey, he perceived the reward so ardently desired? He resolved that he would never have any wife but Claire; his father absolutely refused his consent. The effort to change this refusal had long been the business of his life. Finally, after three years of perseverance, he had triumphed; the count had given his consent. And now, just as he was reaping the happiness of success, Noel had arrived, implacable as fate, with his cursed letters.
On leaving M. de Commarin, and while slowly mounting the stairs which led to his apartments, Albert's thoughts reverted to Claire. What was she doing at that moment? Thinking of him no doubt. She knew that the crisis would come that very evening, or the next day at the latest. She was probably praying. Albert was thoroughly exhausted; his head felt dizzy, and seemed ready to burst. He rang for his servant, and ordered some tea.
"You do wrong in not sending for the doctor, sir," said Lubin, his valet. "I ought to disobey you, and send for him myself."
"It would be useless," replied Albert sadly; "he could do nothing for me."
As the valet was leaving the room, he added,--"Say nothing about my being unwell to any one, Lubin; it is nothing at all. If I should feel worse, I will ring."
At that moment, to see any one, to hear a voice, to have to reply, was more than he could bear. He longed to be left entirely to himself.
After the painful emotions arising from his explanations with the count, he could not sleep. He opened one of the library windows, and looked out. It was a beautiful night: and there was a lovely moon. Seen at this hour, by the mild, tremulous evening light, the gardens attached to the mansion seemed twice their usual size. The moving tops of the great trees stretched away like an immense plain, hiding the neighbouring houses; the flower-beds, set off by the green shrubs, looked like great black patches, while particles of shell, tiny pieces of glass, and shining pebbles sparkled in the carefully kept walks. The horses stamped in the stable and the rattling of their halter chains against the bars of the manger could be distinctly heard. In the coach-house the men were putting away for the night the carriage, always kept ready throughout the evening, in case the count should wish to go out.
Albert was reminded by these surroundings, of the magnificence of his past life. He sighed deeply.
"Must I, then, lose all this?" he murmured. "I can scarcely, even for myself, abandon so much splendour without regret; and thinking of Claire makes it hard indeed. Have I not dreamed of a life of exceptional happiness for her, a result almost impossible to realise without wealth?"
Midnight sounded from the neighbouring church of St. Clotilde, and as the night was chilly, he closed the window, and sat down near the fire, which he stirred. In the hope of obtaining a respite from his thoughts, he took up the evening paper, in which was an account of the assassination at La Jonchere; but he found it impossible to read: the lines danced before his eyes. Then he thought of writing to Claire. He sat down at his desk, and wrote, "My dearly loved Claire," but he could go no further; his distracted brain could not furnish him with a single sentence.
At last, at break of day, he threw himself on to a sofa, and fell into a heavy sleep peopled with phantoms.
At half-past nine in the morning, he was suddenly awakened, by the noise of the door being hastily opened. A servant entered, with a scared look on his face, and so out of breath from having come up the stairs four at a time, that he could scarcely speak.
"Sir," said he, "viscount, be quick, fly and hide, save yourself, they are here, it is the--"
A commissary of police, wearing his sash, appeared at the door. He was followed by a number of men, among whom M. Tabaret could be seen, keeping as much out of sight as possible.
The commissary approached Albert.
"You are," he asked, "Guy Louis Marie Albert de Rheteau de Commarin?"
The commissary placed his hand upon him, while pronouncing the usual formula: "M. de Commarin, in the name of the law I arrest you."
"Me, sir? me?"
Albert, aroused suddenly from his painful dreams, seemed hardly to comprehend what was taking place, seemed to ask himself,--"Am I really awake? Is not this some hideous nightmare?"
He threw a stupid, astonished look upon the commissary of police, his men, and M. Tabaret, who had not taken his eyes off him.
"Here is the warrant," added the commissary, unfolding the paper.
Mechanically Albert glanced over it.
"Claudine assassinated!" he cried.
Then very low, but distinct enough to be heard by the commissary, by one of his officers, and by old Tabaret, he added,--"I am lost!"
While the commissary was making inquiries, which immediately follow all arrests, the police officers spread through the apartments, and proceeded to a searching examination of them. They had received orders to obey M. Tabaret, and the old fellow guided them in their search, made them ransack drawers and closets, and move the furniture to look underneath or behind. They seized a number of articles belonging to the viscount,--documents, manuscripts, and a very voluminous correspondence; but it was with especial delight that M. Tabaret put his hands on certain articles, which were carefully described in their proper order in the official report:
1. In the ante-room, hung with all sorts of weapons, a broken foil was found behind a sofa. This foil has a peculiar handle, and is unlike those commonly sold. It is ornamented with the count's coronet, and the initials A. C. It has been broken at about the middle; and the end cannot be found. When questioned, the viscount declared that he did not know what had become of the missing end.
2. In the dressing-room, a pair of black cloth trousers was discovered still damp, and bearing stains of mud or rather of mould. All one side is smeared with greenish moss, like that which grows on walls. On the front are numerous rents; and one near the knee is about four inches long. These trousers had not been hung up with the other clothes; but appear to have been hidden between two large trunks full of clothing.
3. In the pocket of the above mentioned trousers was found a pair of lavender kid gloves. The palm of the right hand glove bears a large greenish stain, produced by grass or moss. The tips of the fingers have been worn as if by rubbing. Upon the backs of both gloves are some scratches, apparently made by finger-nails.
4. There were also found in the dressing-room two pairs of boots, one of which, though clean and polished, was still very damp; and an umbrella recently wetted, the end of which was still covered with a light coloured mud.
5. In a large room, called the library, were found a box of cigars of the trabucos brand, and on the mantel-shelf a number of cigar-holders in amber and meerschaum.
The last article noted down, M. Tabaret approached the commissary of police.
"I have everything I could desire," he whispered.
"And I have finished," replied the commissary. "Our prisoner does not appear to know exactly how to act. You heard what he said. He gave in at once. I suppose YOU will call it lack of experience."
"In the middle of the day," replied the amateur detective in a whisper, "he would not have been quite so crestfallen. But early in the morning, suddenly awakened, you know-- Always arrest a person early in the morning, when he's hungry, and only half awake."
"I have questioned some of the servants. Their evidence is rather peculiar."
"Very well; we shall see. But I must hurry off and find the investigating magistrate, who is impatiently expecting me."
Albert was beginning to recover a little from the stupor into which he had been plunged by the entrance of the commissary of police.
"Sir," he asked, "will you permit me to say a few words in your presence to the Count de Commarin? I am the victim of some mistake, which will be very soon discovered."
"It's always a mistake," muttered old Tabaret.
"What you ask is impossible," replied the commissary. "I have special orders of the strictest sort. You must not henceforth communicate with a living soul. A cab is in waiting below. Have the goodness to accompany me to it."
In crossing the vestibule, Albert noticed a great stir among the servants; they all seemed to have lost their senses. M. Denis gave some orders in a sharp, imperative tone. Then he thought he heard that the Count de Commarin had been struck down with apoplexy. After that, he remembered nothing. They almost carried him to the cab which drove off as fast as the two little horses could go. M. Tabaret had just hastened away in a more rapid vehicle.