Chapter XVIII
 

"O God! send Pascal to my aid," prayed Mademoiselle Marguerite, as she left M. Fortunat's house. Now she understood the intrigue she had been the victim of; but, instead of reassuring her the agent had frightened her, by revealing the Marquis de Valorsay's desperate plight. She realized what frenzied rage must fill this man's heart as he felt himself gradually slipping from the heights of opulence, down into the depths of poverty and crime. What might he not dare, in order to preserve even the semblance of grandeur for a year, or a month, or a day longer! Had they measured the extent of his villainy? Would he even hesitate at murder? And the poor girl asked herself with a shudder if Pascal were still living; and a vision of his bleeding corpse, lying lifeless in some deserted street, rose before her. And who could tell what dangers threatened her personally? For, though she knew the past, she could not read the future. What did M. de Valorsay's letter mean? and what was the fate that he held in reserve for her, and that made him so sanguine of success? The impression produced upon her mind was so terrible that for a moment she thought of hastening to the old justice of the peace to ask for his protection and a refuge. But this weakness did not last long. Should she lose her energy? Should her will fail her at the decisive moment? "No, a thousand times no!" she said to herself again and again. "I will die if needs be, but I will die fighting!" And the nearer she approached the Rue Pigalle, the more energetically she drove away her apprehension, and sought for an excuse calculated to satisfy any one who might have noticed her long absence.

An unnecessary precaution. She found the house as when she left it, abandoned to the mercy of the servants--the strangers sent the evening before from the employment office. Important matters still kept the General and his wife from home. The husband had to show his horses; and the wife was intent upon shopping. As for Madame Leon, most of her time seemed to be taken up by the family of relatives she had so suddenly discovered. Alone, free from all espionage, and wishing to ward off despondency by occupation, Mademoiselle Marguerite was just beginning a letter to her friend the old magistrate, when a servant entered and announced that her dressmaker was there and wished to speak with her. "Let her come in," replied Marguerite, with unusual vivacity. "Let her come in at once."

A lady who looked some forty years of age, plainly dressed, but of distinguished appearance, was thereupon ushered into the room. Like any well-bred modiste, she bowed respectfully while the servant was present, but as soon as he had left the room she approached Mademoiselle Marguerite and took hold of her hands: "My dear young lady," said she, "I am the sister-in-law of your old friend, the magistrate. Having an important message to send to you, he was trying to find a person whom he could trust to play the part of a dressmaker, as had been agreed upon between you, when I offered my services, thinking he could find no one more trusty than myself."

Tears glittered in Mademoiselle Marguerite's eyes. The slightest token of sympathy is so sweet to the heart of the lonely and unfortunate! "How can I ever thank you, madame?" she faltered.

"By not attempting to thank me at all, and by reading this letter as soon as possible.:

The note she now produced ran as follows:

"MY DEAR CHILD--At last I am on the track of the thieves. By conferring with the people from whom M. de Chalusse received the money a couple of days before his death, I have been fortunate enough to obtain from them some minute details respecting the missing bonds, as well as the numbers of the bank-notes which were deposited in the escritoire. With this information, we cannot fail to prove the guilt of the culprits sooner or later. You write me word that the Fondeges are spending money lavishly; try and find out the names of the people they deal with, and communicate them to me. Once more, I tell you that I am sure of success. Courage!"

"Well!" said the spurious dressmaker, when she saw that Marguerite had finished reading the letter. "What answer shall I take my brother-in-law?"

"Tell him that he shall certainly have the information he requires to-morrow. To-day, I can only give him the name of the carriage builder, from whom M. de Fondege has purchased his new carriages."

"Give it to me in writing, it is much the safest way."

Mademoiselle Marguerite did so, and her visitor who, as a woman, was delighted to find herself mixed up in an intrigue, then went off repeating the old magistrate's advice: "Courage!"

But it was no longer necessary to encourage Mademoiselle Marguerite. The assurance of being so effectually helped, had already increased her courage an hundredfold. The future that had seemed so gloomy only a moment before, had now suddenly brightened. By means of the negative in the keeping of the photographer, Carjat, she had the Marquis de Valorsay in her power, and the magistrate, thanks to the numbers of the bank- notes, could soon prove the guilt of the Fondeges. The protection of Providence was made evident in an unmistakable manner. Thus it was with a placid and almost smiling face that she successively greeted Madame Leon, who returned home quite played out, then Madame de Fondege, who made her appearance attended by two shop- boys overladen with packages, and finally the General, who brought his son, Lieutenant Gustave, with him to dinner.

The lieutenant was a good-looking fellow of twenty-seven, or thereabouts, with laughing eyes and a heavy mustache. He made a great clanking with his spurs, and wore the somewhat theatrical uniform of the 13th Hussars rather ostentatiously. He bowed to Mademoiselle Marguerite with a smile that was too becoming to be displeasing; and he offered her his arm with an air of triumph to lead her to the dining-room, as soon as the servant came to announce that "Madame la Comtesse was served."

Seated opposite to him at table, the young girl could not refrain from furtively watching the man whom they wished to compel her to marry. Never had she seen such intense self-complacency coupled with such utter mediocrity. It was evident that he was doing his best to produce a favorable impression; but as the dinner progressed, his conversation became rather venturesome. He gradually grew extremely animated; and three or four adventures of garrison life which he persisted in relating despite his mother's frowns, were calculated to convince his hearers that he was a great favorite with the fair sex. It was the good cheer that loosened his tongue. There could be no possible doubt on that score; and, indeed, while drinking a glass of the Chateau Laroze, to which Madame Leon had taken such a liking, he was indiscreet enough to declare that if his mother had always kept house in this fashion, he should have been inclined to ask for more frequent leaves of absence.

However, strange to say, after the coffee was served, the conversation languished till at last it died out almost entirely. Madame de Fondege was the first to disappear on the pretext that some domestic affairs required her attention. The General was the next to rise and go out, in order to smoke a cigar; and finally Madame Leon made her escape without saying a word. So Mademoiselle Marguerite was left quite alone with Lieutenant Gustave. It was evident enough to the young girl that this had been preconcerted; and she asked herself what kind of an opinion M. and Madame de Fondege could have of her delicacy. The proceeding made her so indignant that she was on the point of rising from the table and of retiring like the others, when reason restrained her. She said to herself that perhaps she might gain some useful information from this young man, and so she remained.

His face was crimson, and he seemed by far the more embarrassed of the two. He sat with one elbow resting on the table, and with his gaze persistently fixed upon a tiny glass half full of brandy which he held in his hand, as if he hoped to gain some sublime inspiration from it. At last, after an interval of irksome silence, he ventured to exclaim: "Mademoiselle, should you like to be an officer's wife?"

"I don't know," answered Marguerite.

"Really! But at least you understand my motive in asking this question?"

"No."

Any one but the complacent lieutenant would have been disconcerted by Mademoiselle Marguerite's dry tone; but he did not even notice it. The effort that he was making in his intense desire to be eloquent and persuasive absorbed the attention of all his faculties. "Then permit me to explain, mademoiselle," he resumed. "We meet this evening for the first time, but our acquaintance is not the affair of a day. For I know not how long my father and mother have continually been chanting your praises. 'Mademoiselle Marguerite does this; Mademoiselle Marguerite does that.' They never cease talking of you, declaring that heart, wit, talent, beauty, all womanly charms are united in your person. And they have never wearied of telling me that the man whom you honored with your preference would be the happiest of mortals. However, so far I had no desire to marry, and I distrusted them. In fact, I had conceived a most violent prejudice against you. Yes, upon my honor! I felt sure that I should dislike you; but I have seen you and all is changed. As soon as my eyes fell upon you, I experienced a powerful revulsion of feeling. I was never so smitten in my life--and I said to myself, 'Lieutenant, it is all over--you are caught at last!'"

Pale with anger, astonished and humiliated beyond measure, the young girl listened with her head lowered, vainly trying to find words to express the feelings which disturbed her; but M. Gustave, misunderstanding her silence, and congratulating himself upon the effect he had produced, grew bolder, and with the tenderest and most impassioned inflection he could impart to his voice, continued: "Who could fail to be impressed as I have been? How could one behold, without rapturous admiration, such beautiful eyes, such glorious black hair, such smiling lips, such a graceful mien, such wonderful charms of person and of mind? How would it be possible to listen, unmoved, to a voice which is clearer and purer than crystal? Ah! my mother's descriptions fell far short of the truth. But how can one describe the perfections of an angel? To any one who has the happiness or the misfortune of knowing you, there can only be one woman in the world!"

He had gradually approached her chair, and now extended his hand to take hold of Marguerite's, and probably raise it to his lips. But she shrank from the contact as from red-hot iron, and rising hurriedly, with her eyes flashing, and her voice quivering with indignation: "Monsieur!" she exclaimed, "Monsieur!"

He was so surprised that he stood as if petrified, with his eyes wide open and his hand still extended. "Permit me--allow me to explain," he stammered. But she declined to listen. "Who has told you that you could address such words to me with impunity?" she continued. "Your parents, I suppose; I daresay they told you to be bold. And that is why they have left us, and why no servant has appeared. Ah! they make me pay dearly for the hospitality they have given me!" As she spoke the tears started from her eyes and glistened on her long lashes. "Whom did you fancy you were speaking to?" she added. "Would you have been so audacious if I had a father or a brother to resent your insults?"

The lieutenant started as if he had been lashed with a whip. "Ah! you are severe!" he exclaimed.

And a happy inspiration entering his mind, he continued: "A man does not insult a woman, mademoiselle, when, while telling her that he loves her and thinks her beautiful, he offers her his name and life."

Mademoiselle Marguerite shrugged her shoulders ironically, and remained for a moment silent. She was very proud, and her pride had been cruelly wounded; but reason told her that a continuation of this scene would render a prolonged sojourn in the General's house impossible; and where could she go, without exciting malevolent remarks? Whom could she ask an asylum of? Still this consideration alone would not have sufficed to silence her. But she remembered that a quarrel and a rupture with the Fondeges would certainly imperil the success of her plans. "So I will swallow even this affront," she said to herself; and then in a tone of melancholy bitterness, she remarked, aloud: "A man cannot set a very high value on his name when he offers it to a woman whom he knows absolutely nothing about."

"Excuse me--you forget that my mother----"

"Your mother has only known me for a week."

An expression of intense surprise appeared on the lieutenant's face. "Is it possible?" he murmured.

"Your father has met me five or six times at the table of the Count de Chalusse, who was his friend--but what does he know of me?" resumed Mademoiselle Marguerite. "That I came to the Hotel de Chalusse a year ago, and that the count treated me like a daughter--that is all! Who I am, where I was reared, and how, and what my past life has been, these are matters that M. de Fondege knows nothing whatever about."

"My parents told me that you were the daughter of the Count de Chalusse, mademoiselle."

"What proof have they of it? They ought to have told you that I was an unfortunate foundling, with no other name than that of Marguerite."

"Oh!"

"They ought to have told you that I am poor, very poor, and that I should probably have been reduced to the necessity of toiling for my daily bread, if it had not been for them."

An incredulous smile curved the lieutenant's lips. He fancied that Mademoiselle Marguerite only wished to prove his disinterestedness, and this thought restored his assurance. "Perhaps you are exaggerating a little, mademoiselle," he replied.

"I am not exaggerating--I possess but ten thousand francs in the world--I swear it by all that I hold sacred."

"That would not even be the dowry required of an officer's wife by law," muttered the lieutenant.

Was his incredulity sincere or affected? What had his parents really told him? Had they confided everything to him, and was he their accomplice? or had they told him nothing? All these questions flashed rapidly through Marguerite's mind. "You suppose that I am rich, monsieur," she resumed at last. "I understand that only too well. If I was, you ought to shun me as you would shun a criminal, for I could only be wealthy through a crime."

"Mademoiselle----"

"Yes, through a crime. After M. de Chalusse's death, two million francs that had been placed in his escritoire for safe keeping, could not be found. Who stole the money? I myself have been accused of the theft. Your father must have told you of this, as well as of the cloud of suspicion that is still hanging over me."

She paused, for the lieutenant had become whiter than his shirt. "Good God!" he exclaimed in a tone of horror, as if a terrible light had suddenly broken upon his mind. He made a movement as if to leave the room, but suddenly changing his mind, he bowed low before Mademoiselle Marguerite, and said, in a husky voice: "Forgive me, mademoiselle, I did not know what I was doing. I have been misinformed. I have been beguiled by false hopes. I entreat you to say that you forgive me."

"I forgive you, monsieur."

But still he lingered. "I am only a poor devil of a lieutenant," he resumed, "with no other fortune than my epaulettes, no other prospects than an uncertain advancement. I have been foolish and thoughtless. I have committed many acts of folly; but there is nothing in my past life for which I have cause to blush." He looked fixedly at Mademoiselle Marguerite, as if he were striving to read her inmost soul; and in a solemn tone, that contrasted strangely with his usual levity of manner, he added: "If the name I bear should ever be compromised, my prospects would be blighted forever! The only course left for me would be to tender my resignation. I will leave nothing undone to preserve my honor in the eyes of the world, and to right those who have been wronged. Promise me not to interfere with my plans."

Mademoiselle Marguerite trembled like a leaf. She now realized her terrible imprudence. He had divined everything. As she remained silent, he continued wildly: "I entreat you. Do you wish me to beg you at your feet?"

Ah! it was a terrible sacrifice that he demanded of her. But how could she remain obdurate in the presence of such intense anguish? "I will remain neutral," she replied, "that is all I can promise. Providence shall decide."

"Thank you," he said, sadly, suspecting that perhaps it was already too late--"thank you." Then he turned to go, and, in fact, he had already opened the door, when a forlorn hope brought him back to Mademoiselle Marguerite, whose hand he took, timidly faltering, "We are friends, are we not?"

She did not withdraw her icy hand, and in a scarcely audible voice, she repeated: "We are friends?"

Convinced that he could obtain nothing more from her than her promised neutrality, the lieutenant thereupon hastily left the room, and she sank back in her chair more dead than alive. "Great God! what is coming now?" she murmured.

She thought she could understand the unfortunate young man's intentions, and she listened with a throbbing heart, expecting to hear a stormy explanation between his parents and himself. In point of fact, she almost immediately afterward heard the lieutenant inquire in a stern, imperious voice: "Where is my father?"

"The General has just gone to his club."

"And my mother?"

"A friend of hers called a few moments ago to take her to the opera."

"What madness!"

That was all. The outer door opened and closed again with extreme violence, and then Marguerite heard nothing save the sneering remarks of the servants.

It was, indeed, madness on the part of M. and Madame de Fondege not to have waited to learn the result of this interview, planned by themselves, and upon which their very lives depended. But delirium seemed to have seized them since, thanks to a still inexplicable crime, they had suddenly found themselves in possession of an immense fortune. Perhaps in this wild pursuit of pleasure, in the haste they displayed to satisfy their covetous longings, they hoped to forget or silence the threatening voice of conscience. Such was Mademoiselle Marguerite's conclusion; but she was not long left to undisturbed meditation. By the lieutenant's departure the restrictions which had been placed upon the servants' movements had evidently been removed, for they came in to clear the table.

Having with some little difficulty obtained a candle from one of these model servants, Mademoiselle Marguerite now retired to her own room. In her anxiety, she forgot Madame Leon, but the latter had not forgotten her; she was even now listening at the drawing- room door, inconsolable to think that she had not succeeded in hearing at least part of the conversation between the lieutenant and her dear young lady. Marguerite had no wish to reflect over what had occurred. As she was determined to keep the promise which Lieutenant Gustave had wrung from her, it mattered little whether she had committed a great mistake in allowing him to discover her knowledge of his parent's guilt, and in listening to his entreaties. A secret presentiment warned her that the punishment which would overtake the General and his wife would be none the less terrible, despite her own forbearance, and that they would find their son more inexorable than the severest judge.

The essential thing was to warn the old magistrate; and so in a couple of pages she summarized the scene of the evening, feeling sure that she would find an opportunity to post her letter on the following day. This duty accomplished, she took a book and went to bed, hoping to drive away her gloomy thoughts by reading. But the hope was vain. Her eyes read the words, followed the lines and crossed the pages, but her mind utterly refused to obey her will, and in spite of all her efforts persisted in turning to the shrewd youth who had solemnly sworn to find Pascal for her. A little after midnight Madame de Fondege returned from the opera, and at once proceeded to reprimand her maid for not having lighted a fire. The General returned some time afterward, and he was evidently in the best of spirits.

They have not seen their son," said Mademoiselle Marguerite to herself, and this anxiety, combined with many others, tortured her so cruelly, that she did not fall asleep until near daybreak. Even then she did not slumber long. It was scarcely half-past seven when she was aroused by a strange commotion and a loud sound of hammering. She was trying to imagine the cause of all this uproar, when Madame de Fondege, already arrayed in a marvellous robe composed of three skirts and an enormous puff, entered the room. "I have come to take you away, my dear child," she exclaimed. "The owner of the house has decided to make some repairs, and the workmen have already invaded our apartments. The General has taken flight, let us follow his example--so make yourself beautiful and we'll go at once."

Without a word, the young girl hastened to obey, while Madame de Fondege expiated on the delightful drive they would take together in the wonderful brougham which the General had purchased a couple of days before. As for Lieutenant Gustave, she did not even mention his name.

Accustomed to the superb equipages of the Chalusse establishment, Mademoiselle Marguerite did not consider the much-lauded brougham at all remarkable. At the most, it was very showy, having apparently been selected with a view to attracting as much attention as possible. Madame de Fondege was not in a mood to consider an objection that morning. She was evidently in a nervous state of mind, extremely restless and excited indeed, it seemed impossible for her to keep still. In default of something better to do, she visited at least a dozen shops, asking to see everything, finding everything frightful, and purchasing without regard to price. It might have been fancied that she wished to buy all Paris. About ten o'clock she dragged Marguerite to Van Klopen's. Received as a habituee of the establishment, thanks to the numerous orders she had given within the past few days, she was even allowed to enter the mysterious saloon in which the illustrious ruler of Fashion served such of his clients as had a predilection for absinthe or madeira. On leaving the place, and before entering the carriage again, Madame de Fondege turned to Marguerite and inquired: "Where shall we go now? I have given the servants an 'outing' on account of the workmen, and we cannot breakfast at home. Why can't we go to a restaurant, we two? Many of the most distinguished ladies are in the habit of doing so. You will see how people will look at us! I am sure it will amuse you immensely."

"Ah! madame, you forget that it is not a fortnight since the count's death!"

Madame de Fondege was about to make an impatient reply, but she mastered the impulse, and in a tone of hypocritical compassion, exclaimed: "Poor child! poor, dear child! that's true. I had forgotten. Well, such being the case, we'll go and ask Baroness Trigault to give us our breakfast. You will see a lovely woman." And addressing the coachman she instructed him to drive to the Trigault mansion in the Rue de la Ville l'Eveque.

When Madame de Fondege's brougham drew up before the door, the baron was standing in the courtyard with a cigar between his teeth, examining a pair of horses which had been sent him on approbation. He did not like his wife's friend, and he usually avoided her. But precisely because he was acquainted with the General's crime and Pascal's plans, he thought it politic to seem amiable. So, on recognizing Madame de Fondege through the carriage window, he hastened forward with outstretched hand to assist her in alighting. "Did you come to take breakfast with us?" he asked. "That would be a most delightful----"

The remainder of the sentence died unuttered upon his lips. His face became crimson, and the cigar he was holding slipped from his fingers. He had just perceived Mademoiselle Marguerite, and his consternation was so apparent that Madame de Fondege could not fail to remark it; however, she attributed it to the girl's remarkable beauty. "This is Mademoiselle de Chalusse, my dear baron," said she, "the daughter of the noble and esteemed friend whom we so bitterly lament."

Ah! it was not necessary to tell the baron who this young girl was; he knew it only too well. He was not overcome for long; a thought of vengeance speedily flashed through his mind. It seemed to him that Providence itself offered him the means of putting an end to an intolerable situation. Regaining his self-control by a powerful effort, he preceded Madame de Fondege through the magnificent apartments of the mansion, lightly saying: "My wife is in her boudoir. She will be delighted to see you. But first of all, I have a good secret to confide to you. So let me take this young lady to the baroness, and you and I can join them in a moment!" Thereupon, without waiting for any rejoinder, he took Marguerite's arm and led her toward the end of the hall. Then opening a door, he exclaimed in a mocking voice: "Madame Trigault, allow me to present to you the daughter of the Count de Chalusse." And adding in a whisper: "This is your mother, young girl," he pushed the astonished Marguerite into the room, closed the door, and returned to Madame de Fondege.

Paler than her white muslin wrapper, the Baroness Trigault sprang from her chair. This was the woman who, while her husband was braving death to win fortune for her, had been dazzled by the Count de Chalusse's wealth, and who, later in life, when she was the richest of the rich, had sunk into the very depths of degradation--had stooped, indeed, to a Coralth! The baroness had once been marvellously beautiful, and even now, many murmurs of admiration greeted her when she dashed through the Champs Elysees in her magnificent equipage, attired in one of those eccentric costumes which she alone dared to wear. She was a type of the wife created by the customs of fashionable society; the woman who feels elated when her name appears in the newspapers and in the chronicles of Parisian "high life"; who has no thought of her deserted fireside, but is ever tormented by a terrible thirst for bustle and excitement; whose head is empty, and whose heart is dry--the woman who only exists for the world; and who is devoured by unappeasable covetousness, and who, at times, envies an actress's liberty, and the notoriety of the leaders of the demi- monde; the woman who is always in quest of fresh excitement, and fails to find it; the woman who is blase, and prematurely old in mind and body, and who yet still clings despairingly to her fleeting youth.

Inaccessible to any emotion but vanity, the baroness had never shed a tear over her husband's sufferings. She was sure of her absolute power over him. What did the rest matter? She even gloried in her knowledge that she could make this man--who loved her in spite of everything--at one moment furious with rage or wild with grief, and then an instant afterward plunge him into the rapture of a senseless ecstasy by a word, a smile, or a caress. For such was her power, and she often exercised it mercilessly. Even after the frightful scene that Pascal had witnessed, she had made another appeal to the baron, and he had been weak enough to give her the thirty thousand francs which M. de Coralth needed to purchase his wife's silence.

However, this time the baroness trembled. Her usual shrewdness had not deserted her, and she perfectly understood all that Marguerite's presence in that house portended. Since her husband brought this young girl--her daughter--to her he must know everything, and have taken some fatal resolution. Had she, indeed, exhausted the patience which she had fancied inexhaustible? She was not ignorant of the fact that her husband had disposed of his immense fortune in a way that would enable him to say and prove that he was insolvent whenever occasion required; and if he found courage to apply for a legal separation, what could she hope to obtain from the courts? A bare living, almost nothing. In such a case, how could she exist? She would be compelled to spend her last years in the same poverty that had made her youth so wretched. She saw herself--ah! what a frightful misfortune--turfed out of her princely home, and reduced to furnished apartments rented for five hundred francs a year!

Mademoiselle Marguerite was no less startled and horror-stricken than Madame Trigault, and she stood rooted to the spot, exactly where the baron had left her. Silent and motionless, they confronted each other for a moment which seemed a century to both of them. The resemblance--which had astonished Pascal could not fail to strike them, for it was still more noticeable now that they stood face to face. But anything was preferable to this torturing suspense, and so, summoning all her courage, the baroness broke the silence by saying: "You are the daughter of the Count de Chalusse?"

"I think so, but I have no proofs of it."

"And--your mother?"

"I don't know her; madame, and I have no desire to know her."

Disconcerted by this brief but implacable reply, Madame Trigault hung her head.

"What could I have to say to my mother?" continued Marguerite. "That I hate her? My courage would fail me to do so. And yet, how can I think without bitterness of the woman who, after abandoning me herself, endeavored to deprive me of my father's love and protection? I could have forgiven anything but that. Ah! I have not always been so patient and resigned! The laws of our country do not forbid illigitimate children to search for their parents, and more than once I have said to myself that I would discover my mother, and have my revenge."

"But you have no means of discovering her?"

"In this you are greatly mistaken, madame. After the Count de Chalusse's death, a package of letters, a glove and some withered flowers were found in one of the drawers of his escritoire."

The baroness started back as if a yawning chasm had suddenly opened at her feet. "My letters!" she exclaimed. "Ah! wretched woman that I am, he kept them. It is all over! I am lost, for of course, they have been read?"

"The ribbon securing them together has never been untied."

"Is that true? Don t deceive me! Where are they, then--where are they?"

"Under the protection of the seals affixed by the justice of the peace."

Madame Trigault tottered, as if she were about to fall. "Then it is only a reprieve," she moaned, "and I am none the less ruined. Those cursed letters will necessarily be read, and all will be discovered. They will see----" The thought of what they would see endowed her with the energy of despair, and clutching hold of Marguerite's wrists: "Listen!" said she, approaching so near that her hot breath scorched the girl's cheeks, "no one must be allowed to see those letters!--it must not be! I will tell you what they contain. I hated my husband; I loved the Count de Chalusse madly, and he had sworn that he would marry me if ever I became a widow. Do you understand now? The name of the poison I obtained--how I proposed to administer it, and what its effects would be--all this is plainly written in my own handwriting and signed--yes, signed-- with my own name. The plot failed, but it was none the less real, positive, palpable--and those letters are a proof of it. But they shall never be read--no--not if I am obliged to set fire to the Hotel de Chalusse with my own hand."

Now the count's constant terror, the fear with which this woman had inspired him, were explained. He was an accomplice--he also had written no doubt, and she had preserved his letters as he had preserved hers. Crime had bound them indissolubly together.

Horrified beyond expression, Marguerite freed herself from Madame Trigault's grasp. "I swear to you, madame, that everything any human being can do to save your letters shall be done by me," she exclaimed.

"And have you any hope of success?"

"Yes," replied the girl, remembering her friend, the magistrate.

Moved by a far more powerful emotion than any she had ever known before, the baroness uttered an exclamation of joy. "Ah! how good you are!" she exclaimed--"how generous! how noble! You take your revenge in giving me back life, honor, everything--for you are my daughter; do you not know it? Did they not tell you, before bringing you here, that I was the hated and unnatural mother who abandoned you?"

She advanced with tearful eyes and outstretched arms, but Marguerite sternly waved her back. "Spare yourself, madame, and spare me, the humiliation of an unnecessary explanation."

"Marguerite! Good God! you repulse me. After all you have promised to do for me, will you not forgive me?"

"I will try to forget, madame," replied the girl and she was already stepping toward the door when the baroness threw herself at her feet, crying, in a heart-rending tone: "Have pity, Marguerite, I am your mother. One has no right to deny one's own mother."

But the young girl passed on. "My mother is dead, madame; I do not know you!" And she left the room without even turning her head, without even glancing at the baroness, who had fallen upon the floor in a deep swoon.