The Count's Millions by Emile Gaboriau
Part 3 out of 7
by the overpowering evidence against him, he allowed himself to be
searched, and without much demur consented to refund the fruit of
his knavery, to the amount of two thousand louis. The strangest
thing connected with this scandal is, that M. F----, who is an
advocate by profession, has always enjoyed an enviable reputation
for integrity; and, unfortunately, this prank cannot be attributed
to a momentary fit of madness, for the fact that he had provided
himself with these cards in advance proves the act to have been
premeditated. One of the persons present was especially
displeased. This was the Viscount de C----, who had introduced M.
F---- to Madame d'A----. Extremely annoyed by this contretemps,
he took umbrage at an offensive remark made by M. de R----, and it
was rumored that these gentlemen would cross swords at daybreak
"LATER INTELLIGENCE.--We learn at the moment of going to press
that an encounter has just taken place between M. de R---- and M.
de C----. M. de R---- received a slight wound in the side, but
his condition is sufficiently satisfactory not to alarm his
The paper slipped from Pascal's hand. His features were almost
unrecognizable in his passion and despair. "It is an infamous
lie!" he said, hoarsely. "I am innocent; I swear it upon my
honor!" Dartelle averted his face, but not quickly enough to
prevent Pascal from noticing the look of withering scorn in his
eyes. Then, feeling that he was condemned, that his sentence was
irrevocable, and that there was no longer any hope: "I know the
only thing that remains for me to do!" he murmured.
Dartelle turned, his eyes glistening with tears. He seized
Pascal's hands and pressed them with sorrowful tenderness, as if
taking leave of a friend who is about to die. "Courage!" he
Pascal fled like a madman. "Yes," he repeated, as he rushed along
the Boulevard Saint-Michel, "that is the only thing left me to
When he reached home he entered his office, double-locked the
door, and wrote two letters--one to his mother, the other to the
president of the order of Advocates. After a moment's thought he
began a third, but tore it into pieces before he had completed it.
Then, without an instant's hesitation, and like a man who had
fully decided upon his course, he took a revolver and a box of
cartridges from a drawer in his desk. "Poor mother!" he murmured;
"it will kill her--but my disgrace would kill her too. Better
shorten the agony."
He little fancied at that supreme moment that each of his
gestures, each contraction of his features, were viewed by the
mother whose name he faltered. Since her son had left her to go
to the Palais de Justice, the poor woman had remained almost crazy
with anxiety; and when she heard him return and lock himself in
his office--a thing he had never done before--a fearful
presentiment was aroused in her mind. Gliding into her son's
bedroom, she at once approached the door communicating with his
office. The upper part of this portal was of glass; it was
possible to see what was occurring in the adjoining room. When
Madame Ferailleur perceived Pascal seat himself at his desk and
begin to write, she felt a trifle reassured, and almost thought of
going away. But a vague dread, stronger than reason or will,
riveted her to the spot. A few moments later, when she saw the
revolver in her son's hand, she understood everything. Her blood
froze in her veins; and yet she had sufficient self-control to
repress the cry of terror which sprang to her lips. She realized
that the danger was terrible, imminent, extreme. Her heart,
rather than her bewildered reason, told her that her son's life
hung on a single thread. The slightest sound, a word, a rap on
the door might hasten the unfortunate man's deed.
An inspiration from heaven came to the poor mother. Pascal had
contented himself with locking the door leading to the ante-room.
He had forgotten this one, or neglected it, not thinking that
anybody would approach his office through his bedroom. But his
mother perceived that this door opened toward her. So, turning
the knob with the utmost caution, she flung it suddenly open, and
reaching her son's side with a single bound, she clasped him
closely in her arms. "Pascal, wretched boy! what would you do?"
He was so surprised that his weapon fell from his hand, and he
sank back almost fainting in his arm-chair. The idea of denying
his intention never once occurred to him; besides, he was unable
to articulate a word. But on his desk there lay a letter
addressed to his mother which would speak for him.
Madame Ferailleur took it, tore the envelope open, and read:
"Forgive me--I'm about to die. It must be so. I cannot survive
dishonor; and I am dishonored."
"Dishonored!--you!" exclaimed the heartbroken mother. "My God!
what does this mean? Speak. I implore you: tell me all--you
must. I command you to do so. I command you!"
He complied with this at once supplicating and imperious behest,
and related in a despairing voice the events which had wrought his
woe. He did not omit a single particular, but tried rather to
exaggerate than palliate the horrors of his situation. Perhaps he
found a strange satisfaction in proving to himself that there was
no hope left; possibly he believed his mother would say: "Yes, you
are right; and death is your only refuge!"
As Madame Ferailleur listened, however, her eyes dilated with fear
and horror, and she scarcely realized whether she were awake or in
the midst of some frightful dream. For this was one of those
unexpected catastrophes which are beyond the range of human
foresight or even imagination, and which her mind could scarcely
conceive or admit. But SHE did not doubt him, even though his
friends had doubted him. Indeed, if he had himself told her that
he was guilty of cheating at cards, she would have refused to
believe him. When his story was ended, she exclaimed: "And you
wished to kill yourself? Did you not think, senseless boy, that
your death would give an appearance of truth to this vile
With a mother's wonderful, sublime instinct, she had found the
most powerful reason that could be urged to induce Pascal to live.
"Did you not feel, my son, that it showed a lack of courage on
your part to brand yourself and your name with eternal infamy, in
order to escape your present sufferings? This thought ought to
have stayed your hand. An honest name is a sacred trust which no
one has a right to abuse. Your father bequeathed it to you, pure
and untarnished, and so you must preserve it. If others try to
cover it with opprobrium, you must live to defend it."
He lowered his head despondently, and in a tone of profound
discouragement, he replied: "But what can I do? How can I escape
from the web which has been woven around me with such fiendish
cunning? If I had possessed my usual presence of mind at the
moment of the accusation, I might have defended and justified
myself, perhaps. But now the misfortune is irreparable. How can
I unmask the traitor, and what proofs of his guilt can I cast in
"All the same, you ought not to yield without a struggle,"
interrupted Madame Ferailleur, sternly. "It is wrong to abandon a
task because it is difficult; it must be accepted, and, even if
one perish in the struggle, there is, at least, the satisfaction
of feeling that one has not failed in duty."
"I must not keep the truth from you, Pascal! What! are you lacking
in energy? Come, my son, rise and raise your head. I shall not
let you fight alone. I will fight with you."
Without speaking a word, Pascal caught hold of his mother's hands
and pressed them to his lips. His face was wet with tears. His
overstrained nerves relaxed under the soothing influence of
maternal tenderness and devotion. Reason, too, had regained her
ascendency. His mother's noble words found an echo in his own
heart, and he now looked upon suicide as an act of madness and
cowardice. Madame Ferailleur felt that the victory was assured,
but this did not suffice; she wished to enlist Pascal in her
plans. "It is evident," she resumed, "that M. de Coralth is the
author of this abominable plot. But what could have been his
object? Has he any reason to fear you, Pascal? Has he confided to
you, or have you discovered, any secret that might ruin him if it
"Then he must be the vile instrument of some even more despicable
being. Reflect, my son. Have you wounded any of your friends?
Are you sure that you are in nobody's way? Consider carefully.
Your profession has its dangers; and those who adopt it must
expect to make bitter enemies."
Pascal trembled. It seemed to him as if a ray of light at last
illumined the darkness--a dim and uncertain ray, it is true, but
still a gleam of light.
"Who knows!" he muttered; "who knows!"
Madame Ferailleur reflected a few moments, and the nature of her
reflections brought a flush to her brow. "This is one of those
cases in which a mother should overstep reserve," said she. "If
you had a mistress, my son----"
"I have none," he answered, promptly. Then his own face flushed,
and after an instant's hesitation, he added: "But I entertain the
most profound and reverent love for a young girl, the most
beautiful and chaste being on earth--a girl who, in intelligence
and heart, is worthy of you, my own mother."
Madame Ferailleur nodded her head gravely, as much as to say that
she had expected to find a woman at the bottom of the mystery.
"And who is this young girl?" she inquired. "What is her name?"
Pascal's embarrassment increased. "She has no other name," he
replied, hurriedly, "and she does not know her parents. She
formerly lived in our street with her companion, Madame Leon, and
an old female servant. It was there that I saw her for the first
time. She now lives in the house of the Count de Chalusse, in the
Rue de Courcelles."
"In what capacity?"
"The count has always taken care of her--she owes her education to
him. He acts as her guardian; and although she has never spoken
to me on the subject, I fancy that the Count de Chalusse is her
"And does this girl love you, Pascal?"
"I believe so, mother. She has promised me that she will have no
other husband than myself."
"And the count?"
"He doesn't know--he doesn't even suspect anything about it. Day
after day I have been trying to gather courage to tell you
everything, and to ask you to go to the Count de Chalusse. But my
position is so modest as yet. The count is immensely rich, and he
intends to give Marguerite an enormous fortune--two millions, I
Madame Ferailleur interrupted him with a gesture. "Look no
further," she said; "you have found the explanation."
Pascal sprang to his feet with crimson cheeks, flaming eyes, and
quivering lips. "It may be so," he exclaimed; "it may be so! The
count's immense fortune may have tempted some miserable scoundrel.
Who knows but some one may have been watching Marguerite, and have
discovered that I am an obstacle?"
"Something told me that my suspicions were correct," said Madame
Ferailleur. "I had no proofs, and yet I felt sure of it."
Pascal was absorbed in thought. "And what a strange coincidence,"
he eventually remarked. "Do you know, the last time I saw
Marguerite, a week ago, she seemed so sad and anxious that I felt
alarmed. I questioned her, but at first she would not answer.
After a little while, however, as I insisted, she said: 'Ah, well,
I fear the count is planning a marriage for me. M. de Chalusse
has not said a word to me on the subject, but he has recently had
several long conferences in private with a young man whose father
rendered him a great service in former years. And this young man,
whenever I meet him, looks at me in such a peculiar manner.'"
"What is his name?" asked Madame Ferailleur.
"I don't know--she didn't mention it; and her words so disturbed
me that I did not think of asking. But she will tell me. This
evening, if I don't succeed in obtaining an interview, I will
write to her. If your suspicions are correct, mother, our secret
is in the hands of three persons, and so it is a secret no longer----"
He paused suddenly to listen. The noise of a spirited altercation
between the servant and some visitor, came from the ante-room. "I
tell you that he IS at home," said some one in a panting voice,
"and I must see him and speak with him at once. It is such an
urgent matter that I left a card-party just at the most critical
moment to come here."
"I assure you, monsieur, that M. Ferailleur has gone out."
"Very well; I will wait for him, then. Take me to a room where I
can sit down."
Pascal turned pale, for he recognized the voice of the individual
who had suggested searching him at Madame d'Argeles's house.
Nevertheless, he opened the door; and a man, with a face like a
full moon, and who was puffing and panting like a locomotive, came
forward with the assurance of a person who thinks he may do
anything he chooses by reason of his wealth. "Zounds!" he
exclaimed. "I knew perfectly well that you were here. You don't
recognize me, perhaps, my dear sir. I am Baron Trigault--I came
The words died away on his lips, and he became as embarrassed as
if he had not possessed an income of eight hundred thousand francs
a year. The fact is he had just perceived Madame Ferailleur. He
bowed to her, and then, with a significant glance at Pascal he
said: "I should like to speak to you in private, monsieur, in
reference to a matter--"
Great as was Pascal's astonishment, he showed none of it on his
face. "You can speak in my mother's presence," he replied,
coldly; "she knows everything."
The baron's surprise found vent in a positive distortion of his
features. "Ah!" said he, in three different tones; "ah! ah!" And
as no one had offered him a seat, he approached an arm-chair and
took possession of it, exclaiming, "You will allow me, I trust?
Those stairs have put me in such a state!"
In spite of his unwieldy appearance, this wealthy man was endowed
with great natural shrewdness and an unusually active mind. And
while he pretended to be engaged in recovering his breath he
studied the room and its occupants. A revolver was lying on the
floor beside a torn and crumpled letter, and tears were still
glittering in the eyes of Madame Ferailleur and her son. A keen
observer needed no further explanation of the scene.
"I will not conceal from you, monsieur," began the baron, "that I
have been led here by certain compunctions of conscience." And,
misinterpreting a gesture which Pascal made, "I mean what I say,"
he continued; "compunctions of conscience. I have them
occasionally. Your departure this morning, after that deplorable
scene, caused certain doubts and suspicions to arise in my mind;
and I said to myself, 'We have been too hasty; perhaps this young
man may not be guilty.'"
"Monsieur!" interrupted Pascal, in a threatening tone.
"Excuse me, allow me to finish, if you please. Reflection, I must
confess, only confirmed this impression, and increased my doubts.
'The devil!' I said to myself again; 'if this young man is
innocent, the culprit must be one of the habitues of Madame
d'Argeles's house--that is to say, a man with whom I play twice a
week, and whom I shall play with again next Monday.' And then I
became uneasy, and here I am!" Was the absurd reason which the
baron gave for his visit the true one? It was difficult to decide.
"I came," he continued, "thinking that a look at your home would
teach me something; and now I have seen it, I am ready to take my
oath that you are the victim of a vile conspiracy."
So saying he noisily blew his nose, but this did not prevent him
from observing the quiet joy of Pascal and his mother. They were
amazed. But although these words were calculated to make them
feel intensely happy, they still looked at their visitor with
distrust. It is not natural for a person to interest himself in
other people's misfortunes, unless he has some special motive for
doing so; and what could this singular man's object be?
However, he did not seem in the slightest degree disconcerted by
the glacial reserve with which his advances were received. "It is
clear that you are in some one's way," he resumed, "and that this
some one has invented this method of ruining you. There can be no
question about it. The intention became manifest to my mind the
moment I read the paragraph concerning you in the Figaro. Have
you seen it? Yes? Well, what do you think of it? I would be
willing to swear that it was written from notes furnished by your
enemy. Moreover, the particulars are incorrect, and I am going to
write a line of correction which I shall take to the office
myself." So saying he transported his unwieldy person to Pascal's
desk, and hastily wrote as follows:
"As a witness of the scene that took place at Madame d'A----s's
house last night, allow me to make an important correction. It is
only too true that extra cards were introduced into the pack, but
that they were introduced by M. F---- is not proven, since he was
NOT SEEN to do it. I know that appearances are against him, but
he nevertheless possesses my entire confidence and esteem.
Meanwhile Madame Ferailleur and her son had exchanged significant
glances. Their impressions were the same. This man could not be
an enemy. When the baron had finished his letter, and had read it
aloud, Pascal, who was deeply moved, exclaimed: "I do not know how
to express my gratitude to you, monsieur; but if you really wish
to serve me, pray don't send that note. It would cause you a
great deal of trouble and annoyance, and I should none the less be
obliged to relinquish the practice of my profession--besides, I am
especially anxious to be forgotten for a time."
"So be it--I understand you; you hope to discover the traitor, and
you do not wish to put him on his guard. I approve of your
prudence. But remember my words: if you ever need a helping hand,
rap at my door; and when you hold the necessary proofs, I will
furnish you with the means of rendering your justification even
more startling than the affront." He prepared to go, but before
crossing the threshold, he turned and said: "In future I shall
watch the fingers of the player who sits on my left hand. And if
I were in your place, I would obtain the notes from which that
newspaper article was written. One never knows the benefit that
may be derived, at a certain moment, from a page of writing."
As he started off, Madame Ferailleur sprang from her chair.
"Pascal," she exclaimed, "that man knows something, and your
enemies are his; I read it in his eyes. He, too, distrusts M. de
"I understood him, mother, and my mind is made up. I must
disappear. From this moment Pascal Ferailleur no longer exists."
That same evening two large vans were standing outside Madame
Ferailleur's house. She had sold her furniture without reserve,
and was starting to join her son, who had already left for Le
Havre, she said, in view of sailing to America.
"There are a number of patients waiting for me. I will drop in
again about midnight. I still have several urgent visits to
make." Thus had Dr. Jodon spoken to Mademoiselle Marguerite; and
yet, when he left the Hotel de Chalusse, after assuring himself
that Casimir would have some straw spread over the street, the
doctor quietly walked home. The visits he had spoken of merely
existed in his imagination; but it was a part of his role to
appear to be overrun with patients. To tell the truth, the only
patient he had had to attend to that week was a superannuated
porter, living in the Rue de la Pepiniere, and whom he visited
twice a day, for want of something better to do. The remainder of
his time was spent in waiting for patients who never came, and in
cursing the profession of medicine, which was ruined, he declared,
by excessive competition, combined with certain rules of decorum
which hampered young practitioners beyond endurance.
However, if Dr. Jodon had devoted one-half of the time he spent in
cursing and building castles in the air to study, he might have,
perhaps, raised his little skill to the height of his immense
ambition. But neither work nor patience formed any part of his
system. He was a man of the present age, and wished to rise
speedily with as little trouble as possible. A certain amount of
display and assurance, a little luck, and a good deal of
advertising would, in his opinion, suffice to bring about this
result. It was with this conviction, indeed, that he had taken up
his abode in the Rue de Courcelles, situated in one of the most
aristocratic quarters of Paris. But so far, events had shown his
theory to be incorrect. In spite of the greatest economy, very
cleverly concealed, he had seen the little capital which
constituted his entire fortune dwindle away. He had originally
possessed but twenty thousand francs, a sum which in no wise
corresponded with his lofty pretensions. He had paid his rent
that very morning; and he could not close his eyes to the fact
that the time was near at hand when he would be unable to pay it.
What should he do then? When he thought of this contingency, and
it was a subject that filled his mind to the exclusion of all
other matters, he felt the fires of wrath and hatred kindle in his
soul. He utterly refused to regard himself as the cause of his
own misfortunes; on the contrary, following the example of many
other disappointed individuals, he railed at mankind and
everything in general--at circumstances, envious acquaintances,
and enemies, whom he certainly did not possess.
At times he was capable of doing almost anything to gratify his
lust for gold, for the privations which he had endured so long
were like oil cast upon the flame of covetousness which was ever
burning in his breast. In calmer moments he asked himself at what
other door he could knock, in view of hastening the arrival of
Fortune. Sometimes he thought of turning dentist, or of trying to
find some capitalist who would join him in manufacturing one of
those patent medicines which are warranted to yield their
promoters a hundred thousand francs a year. On other occasions he
dreamed of establishing a monster pharmacy, or of opening a
private hospital. But money was needed to carry out any one of
these plans, and he had no money. There was the rub. However the
time was fast approaching when he must decide upon his course; he
could not possibly hold out much longer.
His third year of practice in the Rue de Courcelles had not
yielded him enough to pay his servant's wages. For he had a
servant, of course. He had a valet for the same reason as he had
a suite of rooms of a superficially sumptuous aspect. Faithful to
his system, or, rather, to his master's system, he had sacrificed
everything to show. The display of gilding in his apartments was
such as to make a man of taste shut his eyes to escape the sight
of it. There were gorgeous carpets and hangings, frescoed
ceilings, spurious objects of virtu, and pier-tables loaded with
ornaments. An unsophisticated youth from the country would
certainly have been dazzled; but it would not do to examine these
things too closely. There was more cotton than silk in the velvet
covering of the furniture; and if various statuettes placed on
brackets at a certain height had been closely inspected, it would
have been found that they were of mere plaster, hidden beneath a
coating of green paint, sprinkled with copper filings. This
plaster, playing the part of bronze, was in perfect keeping with
the man, his system, and the present age.
When the doctor reached home, his first question to his servant
was as usual: "Has any one called?"
The doctor sighed, and passing through his superb waiting-room, he
entered his consulting sanctum, and seated himself in the chimney
corner beside an infinitesimal fire. He was even more thoughtful
than usual. The scene which he had just witnessed at the Count de
Chalusse's house recurred to his mind, and he turned it over and
over again in his brain, striving to find some way by which he
might derive an advantage from the mystery. For he was more than
ever convinced that there was a mystery. He had been engrossed in
these thoughts for some time, when his meditations were disturbed
by a ring at the bell. Who could be calling at this hour?
The question was answered by his servant, who appeared and
informed him that a lady, who was in a great hurry, was waiting in
the reception-room. "Very well," was his reply; "but it is best
to let her wait a few moments." For he had at least this merit: he
never deviated from his system. Under no circumstances whatever
would he have admitted a patient immediately; he wished him to
wait so that he might have an opportunity of reflecting on the
advantages of consulting a physician whose time was constantly
However, when ten minutes or so had elapsed, he opened the door,
and a tall lady came quickly forward, throwing back the veil which
had concealed her face. She must have been over forty-five; and
if she had ever been handsome, there was nothing to indicate it
now. She had brown hair, thickly sprinkled with gray, but very
coarse and abundant, and growing low over her forehead; her nose
was broad and flat; her lips were thick, and her eyes were dull
and expressionless. However, her manners were gentle and rather
melancholy; and one would have judged her to be somewhat of a
devotee. Still for the time being she seemed greatly agitated.
She seated herself at the doctor's invitation; and without waiting
for him to ask any questions: "I ought to tell you at once,
monsieur," she began, "that I am the Count de Chalusse's house-
In spite of his self-control, the doctor bounded from his chair.
"Madame Leon?" he asked, in a tone of intense surprise.
She bowed, compressing her thick lips. "I am known by that name--
yes, monsieur. But it is only my Christian name. The one I have
a right to bear would not accord with my present position.
Reverses of fortune are not rare in these days; and were it not
for the consoling influences of religion, one would not have
strength to endure them."
The physician was greatly puzzled. "What can she want of me?" he
Meanwhile, she had resumed speaking: "I was much reduced in
circumstances--at the end of my resources, indeed--when M. de
Chalusse--a family friend--requested me to act as companion to a
young girl in whom he was interested--Mademoiselle Marguerite. I
accepted the position; and I thank God every day that I did so,
for I feel a mother's affection for this young girl, and she loves
me as fondly as if she were my own daughter." In support of her
assertion, she drew a handkerchief from her pocket, and succeeded
in forcing a few tears to her eyes. "Under these circumstances,
doctor," she continued, "you cannot fail to understand that the
interests of my dearly beloved Marguerite bring me to you. I was
shut up in my own room when M. de Chalusse was brought home, and I
did not hear of his illness until after your departure. Perhaps
you might say that I ought to have waited until your next visit;
but I had not sufficient patience to do so. One cannot submit
without a struggle to the torture of suspense, when the future of
a beloved daughter is at stake. So here I am." She paused to take
breath, and then added, "I have come, monsieur, to ask you to tell
me the exact truth respecting the count's condition."
The doctor was expecting something very different, but
nevertheless he replied with all due gravity and self-possession.
"It is my painful duty to tell you, madame, that there is scarcely
any hope, and that I expect a fatal termination within twenty-four
hours, unless the patient should regain consciousness."
The housekeeper turned pale. "Then all is lost," she faltered,
"all is lost!" And unable to articulate another word she rose to
her feet, bowed, and abruptly left the room.
Before the grate, with his mouth half open, and his right arm
extended in an interrupted gesture, the doctor stood speechless
and disconcerted. It was only when the outer door closed with a
bang that he seemed restored to consciousness. And as he heard
the noise he sprang forward as if to recall his visitor. "Ah!" he
exclaimed, with an oath, "the miserable old woman was mocking me!"
And urged on by a wild, irrational impulse, he caught up his hat
and darted out in pursuit. Madame Leon was considerably in
advance of him, and was walking very quickly; still, by quickening
his pace, he might have overtaken her. However, he did not join
her, for he scarcely knew what excuse to offer for such a strange
proceeding; he contented himself by cautiously following her at a
little distance. Suddenly she stopped short. It was in front of
a tobacconist's shop, where there was a post-office letter-box.
The shop was closed, but the box was there with its little slit
for letters to be dropped into it. Madame Leon evidently
hesitated. She paused, as one always does before venturing upon a
decisive act, from which there will be no return, whatever may be
the consequences. An observer never remains twenty minutes before
a letter-box without witnessing this pantomime so expressive of
irresolution. At last, however, she shrugged her shoulders with a
gesture which eloquently expressed the result of her
deliberations; and drawing a letter from her bosom, she dropped it
into the box, and then hastened on more quickly than before.
"There is not the slightest doubt," thought the doctor, "that
letter had been prepared in advance, and whether it should be sent
or not depended on the answer I gave."
We have already said that M. Jodon was not a wealthy man, and yet
he would willingly have given a hundred-franc note to have known
the contents of this letter, or even the name of the person to
whom it was addressed. But his chase was almost ended. Madame
Leon had reached the Hotel de Chalusse, and now went in. Should
he follow her? His curiosity was torturing him to such a degree
that he had an idea of doing so; and it required an heroic effort
of will to resist the temptation successfully. But a gleam of
common sense warned him that this would be a terrible blunder.
Once already during the evening his conduct had attracted
attention; and he began to realize that there was a better way of
winning confidence than by intruding almost forcibly into other
people's affairs. Accordingly he thoughtfully retraced his steps,
feeling intensely disgusted with himself. "What a fool I am!" he
grumbled. "If I had kept the old woman in suspense, instead of
blurting out the truth, I might have learned the real object of
her visit; for she had an object. But what was it?"
The doctor spent the two hours that remained to him before making
his second visit in trying to discover it. But, although nothing
prevented him from exploring the boundless fields of improbable
possibilities, he could think of nothing satisfactory. There was
only one certain point, that Madame Leon and Mademoiselle
Marguerite were equally interested in the question as to whether
the count would regain consciousness or not. As to their
interests in the matter, the doctor felt confident that they were
not identical; he was persuaded that a secret enmity existed
between them, and that the housekeeper had visited him without
Mademoiselle Marguerite's knowledge. For he was not deceived by
Madame Leon, or by her pretended devotion to Mademoiselle
Marguerite. Her manner, her smooth words, her tone of pious
resignation, and the allusion to the grand name she had the right
to bear, were all calculated to impose upon one; but she had been
too much disconcerted toward the last to remember her part. Dr.
Jodon lacked the courage to return to his sumptuous rooms, and it
was in a little cafe that he thus reflected upon the situation,
while drinking some execrable beer brewed in Paris out of a glass
manufactured in Bavaria.
At last midnight sounded--the hour had come. Still the doctor did
not move. Having been obliged to wait himself, he wished, in
revenge, to make the others wait, and it was not until the cafe
closed that he again walked up the Rue de Courcelles. Madame Leon
had left the gate ajar, and the doctor had no difficulty in making
his way into the courtyard. As in the earlier part of the
evening, the servants were assembled in the concierge's lodge; but
the careless gayety which shone upon their faces a few hours
before had given place to evident anxiety respecting their future
prospects. Through the windows of the lodge they could be seen
standing round the two choice spirits of the household, M.
Bourigeau, the concierge, and M. Casimir, the valet, who were
engaged in earnest conversation. And if the doctor had listened,
he would have heard such words as "wages," and "legacies," and
"remuneration for faithful service," and "annuities" repeated over
and over again.
But M. Jodon did not listen. Thinking he should find some servant
inside, he entered the house. However, there was nobody to
announce his presence; the door closed noiselessly behind him, the
heavy carpet which covered the marble steps stifled the sound of
his footsteps, and he ascended the first flight without seeing any
one. The door opening into the count's room was open, the room
itself being brilliantly lighted by a large fire, and a lamp which
stood on a corner of the mantel-shelf. Instinctively the doctor
paused and looked in. There had been no change since his first
visit. The count was still lying motionless on his pillows; his
face was swollen, his eyelids were closed, but he still breathed,
as was shown by the regular movement of the covering over his
chest. Madame Leon and Mademoiselle Marguerite were his only
attendants. The housekeeper, who sat back a little in the shade,
was half reclining in an arm-chair with her hands clasped in her
lap, her lips firmly compressed, and her eyes fixed upon vacancy.
Pale but calm, and more imposing and more beautiful than ever,
Mademoiselle Marguerite was kneeling beside the bed, eagerly
watching for some sign of renewed life and intelligence on the
A little ashamed of his indiscretion, the doctor retreated seven
or eight steps down the stairs, and then ascended them again,
coughing slightly, so as to announce his approach. This time he
was heard. for Mademoiselle Marguerite came to the door to meet
him. "Well?" he inquired.
He advanced toward the bed, but before he had time to examine his
patient Mademoiselle Marguerite handed him a scrap of paper. "The
physician who usually attends M. de Chalusse has been here in your
absence, monsieur," said she. "This is his prescription, and we
have already administered a few drops of the potion."
M. Jodon, who was expecting this blow, bowed coldly.
"I must add," continued Mademoiselle Marguerite, "that the doctor
approved of all that had been done; and I beg you will unite your
skill with his in treating the case."
Unfortunately all the medical skill of the faculty would have
availed nothing here. After another examination, Dr. Jodon
declared that it would be necessary to wait for the action of
nature, but that he must be informed of the slightest change in
the sick man's condition. "And I will tell my servant to wake me
at once if I am sent for," he added.
He was already leaving the room, when Madame Leon barred his
passage. "Isn't it true, doctor, that one attentive person would
suffice to watch over the count?" she asked.
"Most assuredly," he answered.
The housekeeper turned toward Mademoiselle Marguerite. "Ah, you
see, my dear young lady," she said, "what did I tell you? Listen
to me; take a little rest. Watching is not suitable work for one
of your age----"
"It is useless to insist," interrupted the young girl, resolutely.
"I shall remain here. I shall watch over him myself."
The housekeeper made no reply; but it seemed to the doctor that
the two women exchanged singular glances. "The devil!" he
muttered, as he took his departure; "one might think that they
distrusted each other!"
Perhaps he was right; but at all events he had scarcely left the
house before Madame Leon again urged her dear young lady to take a
few hours' rest. "What can you fear?" she insisted, in her
wheedling voice. "Sha'n't I be here? Do you suppose your old Leon
capable of losing herself in sleep, when your future depends upon
a word from that poor man lying there?"
"Ah, no! my dear young lady; my love for you compels me "
"Oh, enough!" interrupted Mademoiselle Marguerite; "enough, Leon!"
Her tone was so determined that the housekeeper was compelled to
yield; but not without a deep sigh, not without an imploring
glance to Heaven, as if calling upon Providence to witness the
purity of her motives and the usefulness of her praiseworthy
efforts. "At least, my dear lady, wrap yourself up warmly. Shall
I go and bring you your heavy travelling shawl?"
"Thanks, my dear Leon--Annette will bring it."
"Then, pray, send for it. But we are not going to watch alone?
What should we do if we needed anything?"
"I will call," replied Marguerite.
This was unnecessary, for Dr. Jodon's departure from the house had
put an abrupt termination to the servants' conference; and they
were now assembled on the landing, anxious and breathless, and
peering eagerly into the sick-room.
Mademoiselle Marguerite went toward them. "Madame Leon and myself
will remain with the count," she said. "Annette"--this was the
woman whom she liked best of all the servants "Casimir and a
footman will spend the night in the little side salon. The others
Her orders were obeyed. Two o'clock sounded from the church-tower
near by, and then the solemn and terrible silence was only broken
by the hard breathing of the unconscious man and the implacable
ticktack of the clock on the mantel-shelf, numbering the seconds
which were left for him to live. From the streets outside, not a
sound reached this princely abode, which stood between a vast
courtyard and a garden as large as a park. Moreover, the straw
which had been spread over the paving-stones effectually deadened
the rumble of the few vehicles that passed. Enveloped in a soft,
warm shawl, Madame Leon had again taken possession of her arm-
chair, and while she pretended to be reading a prayer-book, she
kept a close watch over her dear young lady, as if she were
striving to discover her in-most thoughts. Mademoiselle
Marguerite did not suspect this affectionate espionage. Besides,
what would it have mattered to her? She had rolled a low arm-chair
near the bedside, seated herself in it, and her eyes were fixed
upon M. de Chalusse. Two or three times she started violently,
and once even she said to Madame Leon: "Come--come and see!"
It seemed to her that there was a faint change in the patient's
face; but it was only a fancy--she had been deceived by the
shadows that played about the room, caused by the capricious flame
in the grate. The hours were creeping on, and the housekeeper,
wearying at last of her fruitless watch, dropped asleep; her head
fell forward on to her breast, her prayer-book slipped from her
hands, and finally she began to snore. But Mademoiselle
Marguerite did not perceive this, absorbed as she was in thoughts
which, by reason of their very profundity, had ceased to be
sorrowful. Perhaps she felt she was keeping a last vigil over her
happiness, and that with the final breath of this dying man all
her girlhood's dreams and all her dearest hopes would take flight
for evermore. Undoubtedly her thoughts flew to the man to whom
she had promised her life--to Pascal, to the unfortunate fellow
whose honor was being stolen from him at that very moment, in a
About five o'clock the air became so close that she felt a sudden
faintness, and opened the window to obtain a breath of fresh air.
The noise aroused Madame Leon from her slumbers. She rose,
yawned, and rather sullenly declared that she felt very queer, and
would certainly fall ill if she did not take some refreshment. It
became necessary to summon M. Casimir, who brought her a glass of
Madeira and some biscuits. "Now I feel better," she murmured,
after her repast. "My excessive sensibility will be the death of
me." And so saying, she dropped asleep again.
Mademoiselle Marguerite had meanwhile returned to her seat; but
her thoughts gradually became confused, her eyelids grew heavy,
and although she struggled, she at last fell asleep in her turn,
with her head resting on the count's bed. It was daylight when a
strange and terrible shock awoke her. It seemed to her as if an
icy hand, some dead person's hand, was gently stroking her head,
and tenderly caressing her hair. She at once sprang to her feet.
The sick man had regained consciousness; his eyes were open and
his right arm was moving. Mademoiselle Marguerite darted to the
bell-rope and pulled it violently, and as a servant appeared in
answer to the summons, she cried: "Run for the physician who lives
near here--quick!--and tell him that the count is conscious."
In an instant, almost, the sick-room was full of servants, but the
girl did not perceive it. She had approached M. de Chalusse, and
taking his hand, she tenderly asked: "You hear me, do you not,
monsieur? Do you understand me?"
His lips moved; but only a hollow, rattling sound, which was
absolutely unintelligible, came from his throat. Still, he
understood her; as it was easy to see by his gestures--despairing
and painful ones, for paralysis had not released its hold on its
victim, and it was only with great difficulty that he could
slightly move his right arm. He evidently desired something. But
They mentioned the different articles in the room--everything
indeed that they could think of. But in vain, until the
housekeeper suddenly exclaimed: "He wishes to write."
That was, indeed, what he desired. With the hand that was
comparatively free, with the hoarse rattle that was his only
voice, M. de Chalusse answered, "Yes, yes!" and his eyes even
turned to Madame Leon with an expression of joy and gratitude.
They raised him on his pillows, and brought him a small writing-
desk, with some paper, and a pen that had been dipped in ink. But
like those around him, he had himself over-estimated his strength;
if he could move his hand, he could not CONTROL its movements.
After a terrible effort and intense suffering, however, he
succeeded in tracing a few words, the meaning of which it was
impossible to understand. It was only with the greatest
difficulty that these words could be deciphered--"My entire
fortune--give--friends--against----" This signified nothing.
In despair, he dropped the pen, and his glance and his hand turned
to that part of the room opposite his bed. "Monsieur means his
"Yes, yes," the sick man hoarsely answered.
"Perhaps the count wishes that it should be opened?"
"Yes, yes!" was the reply again.
"My God!" exclaimed Mademoiselle Marguerite, with a gesture of
despair; "what have I done? I have broken the key. I feared the
responsibility which would fall upon us all."
The expression of the count's face had become absolutely
frightful. It indicated utter discouragement, the most bitter
suffering, the most horrible despair. His soul was writhing in a
body from which life had fled. Intelligence, mind, and will were
fast bound in a corpse which they could not electrify. The
consciousness of his own powerlessness caused him a paroxysm of
frantic rage; his hands clinched, the veins in his throat swelled,
his eyes almost started from their sockets, and in a harsh, shrill
voice that had nothing human in it, he exclaimed: "Marguerite!--
despoiled!--take care!--your mother!" And this was all--it was the
supreme effort that broke the last link that bound the soul to
"A priest!" cried Madame Leon!" A priest! In the name of Heaven,
go for a priest!"
"Rather for a notary," suggested M. Casimir. "You see he wishes
to make a will."
But at that moment the physician entered, pale and breathless. He
walked straight to the bedside, glanced at the motionless form,
and solemnly exclaimed: "The Count de Chalusse is dead!"
There was a moment's stupor--the stupor which always follows
death, especially when death comes suddenly and unexpectedly. A
feeling of mingled wonder, selfishness, and fear pervaded the
group of servants. "Yes, it is over!" muttered the doctor; "it is
And as he was familiar with these painful scenes, and had lost
none of his self-possession, he furtively studied Mademoiselle
Marguerite's features and attitude. She seemed thunderstruck.
With dry, fixed eyes and contracted features, she stood rooted to
her place, gazing at the lifeless form as if she were expecting
some miracle--as if she still hoped to hear those rigid lips
reveal the secret which he had tried in vain to disclose, and
which he had carried with him to the grave.
The physician was the only person who observed this. The other
occupants of the room were exchanging looks of distress. Some of
the women had fallen upon their knees, and were sobbing and
praying in the same breath. But Madame Leon's sobs could be heard
above the rest. They were at first inarticulate moans, but
suddenly she sprang toward Mademoiselle Marguerite, and clasping
her in her arms, she cried: "What a misfortune! My dearest child,
what a loss!" Utterly incapable of uttering a word, the poor girl
tried to free herself from this close embrace, but the housekeeper
would not be repulsed, and continued: "Weep, my dear young lady,
weep! Do not refuse to give vent to your sorrow."
She herself displayed so little self-control that the physician
reprimanded her with considerable severity, whereat her emotion
increased, and with her handkerchief pressed to her eyes, she
sobbed: "Yes, doctor, yes; you are right; I ought to moderate my
grief. But pray, doctor, remove my beloved Marguerite from this
scene, which is too terrible for her young and tender heart.
Persuade her to retire to her own room, so that she may ask God
for strength to bear the misfortune which has befallen her."
The poor girl had certainly no intention of leaving the room, but
before she could say so, M. Casimir stepped forward. "I think,"
he dryly observed, "that mademoiselle had better remain here."
"Eh?" said Madame Leon, looking up suddenly. "And why, if you
Anger had dried the housekeeper's tears. "What do you mean?" she
asked. "Do you pretend to prevent mademoiselle from doing as she
chooses in her own house?"
M. Casimir gave vent to a contemptuous whistle, which, twenty-four
hours earlier, would have been punished with a heavy blow from the
man who was now lying there--dead. "Her own house!" he answered;
"her own house! Yesterday I shouldn't have denied it; but to-day
it's quite another thing. Is she a relative? No, she isn't. What
are you talking about, then? We are all equals here."
He spoke so impudently that even the doctor felt indignant.
"Scoundrel!" said he.
But the valet turned toward him with an air which proved that he
was well acquainted with the doctor's servant, and, consequently,
with all the secrets of the master's life. "Call your own valet a
scoundrel, if you choose," he retorted, "but not me. Your duties
here are over, aren't they? So leave us to manage our own affairs.
Thank heaven, I know what I'm talking about. Everybody knows that
caution must be exercised in a dead man's house, especially when
that house is full of money, and when, instead of relatives, there
are--persons who--who are there nobody knows how or why. In case
any valuables were missed, who would be accused of taking them?
Why, the poor servants, of course. Ah, they have broad shoulders!
Their trunks would be searched; and even if nothing were found,
they would be sent to prison all the same. In the meantime other
people would escape with the booty. No, Lisette! No one will stir
from this room until the arrival of the justice----"
Madame Leon was bursting with rage. "All right!" she interrupted;
"I'm going to send for the count's particular friend, General----"
"I don't care a fig for your general."
It was Mademoiselle Marguerite who put an end to this indecent
dispute. Its increasing violence had aroused her from her stupor.
Casimir's impudence brought a flush to her forehead, and stepping
forward with haughty resolution, she exclaimed: "You forget that
one never raises one's voice in the chamber of death." Her words
were so true, and her manner so majestic, that M. Casimir was
silenced. Then, pointing to the door, she coldly added: "Go for
the justice of the peace, and don't set foot here again, except in
He bowed, stammered an unintelligible apology, and left the room.
"She always gets the best of me," he growled, as he went
downstairs. "But seals shall be put on everything."
When he entered the porter's lodge, M. Bourigeau was just getting
up, having slept all night, while his wife watched. "Quick,"
ordered M. Casimir; "make haste and finish dressing, and run for
the justice of the peace--we must have him here at once.
Everything must be done regularly and in order, upstairs."
The concierge was in despair. "Heavens!" he exclaimed; "so the
master's dead! What a misfortune!"
"You may well say so; and this is the second time such a thing has
happened to me. I remember now what a shrewd fellow named Chupin
once said to me. 'If I were a servant,' he remarked, 'before
entering a man's service, I'd make him insure his life for my
benefit in one of those new-fangled companies, so that I might
step into a handsome fortune if he took it into his head to die.'
But make haste, Bourigeau."
"That's a famous idea, but scarcely practicable," growled the
"I don't know whether it is or not. But at all events I'm
terribly annoyed. The count was giving me enormous wages, and I
had got him nicely into my ways. Well, after all, I shall only
have to begin again!"
M. Bourigeau had not yet attained to the heights of such serene
philosophy, and as he buttoned his overcoat, he groaned: "Ah!
you're not situated as I am, Casimir. You've only yourself to
look out for. I have my furniture; and if I don't succeed in
finding a position where I can have two rooms, I shall be obliged
to sell part of it. What a blessed nuisance!"
As soon as he was dressed he started off on his mission; and M.
Casimir, who dared not return to the house, began walking slowly
to and fro in front of the lodge. He had made some thirty turns
or so, and was beginning to feel impatient, when he saw Victor
Chupin approaching. "You are always on hand at the right moment,"
remarked M. Casimir. "It's all over!"
Chupin turned eagerly. "Then our bargain holds?" he exclaimed.
"You understand what I mean--the funeral, you know."
"It isn't certain that I shall have anything to do with it; but
call again in three hours from now."
"All right, I'll be here."
"And M. Fortunat?" asked Casimir.
"He received what he called a 'violent shock' last evening, but
he's better this morning. He instructed me to tell you that he
should look for you between twelve and one--you know where."
"I'll endeavor to be there, although it may be difficult for me to
get away. If I go, however, I'll show him the letter that caused
the count's illness; for the count threw it away, after tearing it
into several pieces, and I found some of the bits which escaped
his notice as well as mademoiselle's. It's a strange letter, upon
Chupin gazed at the valet with a look of mingled wonder and
admiration. "By Jove!" he exclaimed, "how fortunate a man must be
to secure a valet like you!"
His companion smiled complacently, but all of a sudden he
remarked: "Make haste and go. I see Bourigeau in the distance,
bringing the justice of the peace."
The magistrate who was now approaching the Chalusse mansion in the
concierge's company, exemplified in a remarkable manner all the
ideas that are awakened in one's mind by the grand yet simple
title of "Justice of the Peace." He was the very person you would
like to think of as the family magistrate; as the promoter of
friendly feeling; as the guardian of the rights of the absent, the
young, and the weak; as the just arbiter in unfortunate
differences between those who are closely related; a sage of wide
experience and boundless benevolence; a judge whose paternal
justice dispenses with all pomp and display, and who is allowed by
French statutes to hold his court by his own fireside, providing
the doors stand open. He was considerably over fifty, tall, and
very thin, with bent shoulders. His clothes were rather old-
fashioned in cut, but by no means ridiculous. The expression of
his face was gentleness itself; but it would not have done to
presume upon this gentleness, for his glance was keen and
piercing--like the glance of all who are expert in diving into
consciences, and discovering the secrets hidden there. Moreover,
like all men who are accustomed to deliberate in public, his
features were expressionless. He could see and hear everything,
suspect and understand everything, without letting a muscle of his
face move. And yet the habitues of his audience-chamber, and his
clerks, pretended that they could always detect the nature of his
impressions. A ring which he wore upon one of his fingers served
as a barometer for those who knew him. If a difficult case, or
one that embarrassed his conscience, presented itself, his eyes
fixed themselves obstinately upon this ring. If he were satisfied
that everything was right, he looked up again, and began playing
with the ring, slipping it up and down between the first and
second joint of his finger; but if he were displeased, he abruptly
turned the bezel inside.
In appearance, he was sufficiently imposing to intimidate even M.
Casimir. The proud valet bowed low as the magistrate approached,
and with his heart in his mouth, and in an obsequious voice he
said: "It was I who took the liberty of sending for you,
"Ah!" said the magistrate, who already knew as much about the
Hotel de Chalusse, and the events of the past twelve hours, as M.
Casimir himself; for on his way to the house, he had turned
Bourigeau inside out like a glove, by means of a dozen gentle
"If monsieur wishes I will explain," resumed M. Casimir.
"Nothing! It is quite unnecessary. Usher us in."
This "us" astonished the valet; but before they reached the house
it was explained to him. He discovered a man of flourishing and
even jovial mien who was walking along in the magistrate's shadow
carrying a large black portfolio under his arm. This was
evidently the clerk. He seemed to be as pleased with his
employment as he was with himself; and as he followed M. Casimir,
he examined the adornments of the mansion, the mosaics in the
vestibule, the statuary and the frescoed walls with an appraiser's
eye. Perhaps he was calculating how many years' salary it would
require to pay for the decorating of this one staircase.
On the threshold of the death room the magistrate paused. There
had been some change during M. Casimir's absence. The doctor had
left. The bed had been rearranged, and several candles were
burning on a table covered with a white cloth. Madame Leon had
gone to her own room, accompanied by two servants, to fetch a
vessel of holy water and a branch of withered palm. She was now
engaged in repeating the prayers for the dead, pausing from time
to time to dip the palm branch in the holy water, and sprinkle the
bed. Both windows had been opened in spite of the cold. On the
marble hearth stood a chafing-dish full of embers from which rose
spiral rings of smoke, filling the room with a pungent odor as a
servant poured some vinegar and sugar on to the coals.
As the magistrate appeared, every one rose up. Then, after
bestowing prolonged scrutiny upon the room and its occupants, he
respectfully removed his hat, and walked in. "Why are so many
people here?" he inquired.
"I suggested that they should remain," replied M. Casimir,
"You are--suspicious," interrupted the magistrate.
His clerk had already drawn a pen and some paper from his
portfolio, and was engaged in reading the decision, rendered by
the magistrate at the request of one Bourigeau, and in virtue of
which, seals were about to be affixed to the deceased nobleman's
personal effects. Since the magistrate had entered the room, his
eyes had not once wandered from Mademoiselle Marguerite, who was
standing near the fireplace, looking pale but composed. At last
he approached her, and in a tone of deep sympathy: "Are you
Mademoiselle Marguerite?" he asked.
She raised her clear eyes, rendered more beautiful than ever, by
the tears that trembled on her lashes, and in a faltering voice,
replied: "Yes, monsieur."
"Are you a relative? Are you connected in any way with the Count
de Chalusse? Have you any right to his property?"
"Excuse me, mademoiselle, but these questions are indispensable.
Who intrusted you to the care of M. de Chalusse, and by what
right? Was it your father or your mother?"
"I have neither father nor mother, monsieur. I am alone in the
The magistrate glanced keenly round the room. "Ah! I understand,"
said he, at last; "advantage has been taken of your isolation to
treat you with disrespect, to insult you, perhaps."
Every head drooped, and M. Casimir bitterly regretted that he had
not remained below in the courtyard. Mademoiselle Marguerite
looked at the magistrate in astonishment, for she was amazed by
his penetration. She was ignorant of his conversation with
Bourigeau on the road, and did not know that through the
concierge's ridiculous statements and accusations, the magistrate
had succeeded in discovering at least a portion of the truth.
"I shall have the honor of asking for a few moments' conversation
with you presently, mademoiselle," he said. "But first, one
question. I am told that the Count de Chalusse entertained a very
lively affection for you. Are you sure that he has not taken care
to provide for your future? Are you sure that he has not left a
The girl shook her head. "He made one in my favor some time ago,"
she replied. "I saw it; he gave it to me to read; but it was
destroyed a fortnight after my arrival here, and in compliance
with my request."
Madame Leon had hitherto been dumb with fear, but, conquering her
weakness, she now decided to draw near and take part in the
conversation. "How can you say that, my dear young lady?" she
exclaimed. "You know that the count--God rest his soul!--was an
extremely cautious man. I am certain that there is a will
The magistrate's eyes were fixed on his ring. "It would be well
to look, perhaps, before affixing the seals. You have a right to
require this; so, if you wish----"
But she made no reply.
"Oh, yes!" insisted Madame Leon; "pray look, monsieur."
"But where should we be likely to find a will?"
"Certainly in this room--in this escritoire, or in one of the
deceased count's cabinets."
The magistrate had learnt the story of the key from Bourigeau, but
all the same he asked: "Where is the key to this escritoire?"
"Alas! monsieur," replied Mademoiselle Marguerite, "I broke it
last night when M. de Chalusse was brought home unconscious. I
hoped to avert what has, nevertheless, happened. Besides, I knew
that his escritoire contained something over two millions in gold
Two millions--there! The occupants of the room stood aghast. Even
the clerk was so startled that he let a blot fall upon his paper.
Two millions! The magistrate was evidently reflecting. "Hum!" he
murmured, meditatively. Then, as if deciding on his course, he
"Let a locksmith be sent for."
A servant went in search of one; and while they were waiting for
his return, the magistrate sat down beside his clerk and talked to
him in a low voice. At last the locksmith appeared, with his bag
of tools hanging over his shoulder, and set to work at once. He
found his task a difficult one. His pick-locks would not catch,
and he was talking of filing the bolt, when, by chance, he found
the joint, and the door flew open. But the escritoire was empty.
There were only a few papers, and a bottle about three-quarters
full of a crimson liquid on the shelf. Had M. de Chalusse rose
and shook off his winding sheet, the consternation would not have
been greater. The same instinctive fear thrilled the hearts of
everybody present. An enormous fortune had disappeared. The same
suspicions would rest upon them all. And each servant already saw
himself arrested, imprisoned, and dragged before a law court.
However, anger speedily followed bewilderment, and a furious
clamor arose. "A robbery has been committed!" cried the servants,
in concert. "Mademoiselle had the key. It is wrong to suspect
Revolting as this exhibition was, it did not modify the
magistrate's calmness. He had witnessed too many such scenes in
the course of his career, and, at least, a score of times he had
been compelled to interpose between children who had come to blows
over their inheritance before their father's body was even cold.
"Silence!" he commanded sternly. And as the tumult did not cease,
as the servants continued to cry, "The thief must be found. We
shall have no difficulty in discovering the culprit," the
magistrate exclaimed, still more imperiously: "Another word, and
you all leave the room."
They were silenced; but there was a mute eloquence about their
looks and gestures which it was impossible to misunderstand.
Every eye was fixed upon Mademoiselle Marguerite with an almost
ferocious expression. She knew it only too well; but, sublime in
her energy, she stood, with her head proudly erect, facing the
storm, and disdaining to answer these vile imputations. However
she had a protector near by--the magistrate in person. "If this
treasure has been diverted from the inheritance," said he, "the
thief will be discovered and punished. But I wish to have one
point explained--who said that Mademoiselle Marguerite had the key
of the escritoire?"
"I did," replied a footman. "I was in the dining-room yesterday
morning when the count gave it to her."
"For what purpose did he give it to her?"
"That she might obtain this vial--I recognized it at once. She
brought it down to him."
"Did she return the key?"
"Yes; she gave it to him when she handed him the vial, and I saw
him put it in his pocket."
The magistrate pointed to the bottle which was standing on the
shelf. "Then the count himself must have put the vial back in its
place," said he. "Further comment is unnecessary; for, if the
money had then been missing, he could not have failed to discover
the fact." No one had any reply to make to this quiet defence,
which was, at the same time, a complete vindication. "And,
besides," continued the magistrate, "who told you that this
immense sum would be found here? Did you know it? Which one of you
knew it?" And as nobody still ventured any remark, he added in an
even more severe tone, and without seeming to notice Mademoiselle
Marguerite's look of gratitude, "It is by no means a proof of
honesty to be so extremely suspicious. Would it not have been
easier to suppose that the deceased had placed the money somewhere
else, and that it will yet be found?"
The clerk had been even less disturbed than the magistrate. He
also was blase, having witnessed too many of those frightful and
shameless dramas which are enacted at a dead man's bedside, to be
surprised at anything. If he had deigned to glance at the
escritoire, it was only because he was curious to see how small a
space would suffice to contain two millions; and then he had begun
to calculate how many years he would be obliged to remain a clerk
before he could succeed in amassing such a fabulous sum. However,
hearing his superior express the intention of continuing the
search for the will, and the missing treasure, he abruptly
abandoned his calculation, and exclaimed, "Then, I suppose, I can
commence my report, monsieur?"
"Yes," replied the magistrate, "write as follows:" And in a
monotonous voice he began to dictate the prescribed formula, an
unnecessary proceeding, for the clerk was quite as familiar with
it as the magistrate himself:--"On the 16th of October, 186-, at
nine o'clock in the morning, in compliance with the request of the
servants of the deceased Louis-Henri-Raymond de Durtal, Count de
Chalusse, and in the interest of his presumptive heirs, and all
others connected with him, and in accordance with the requirements
of clauses 819 (Code Napoleon) and 909 (Code of Procedure), we,
justice of the peace, accompanied by our clerk, visited the
residence of the deceased aforesaid, in the Rue de Courcelles,
where, having entered a bedroom opening on to the courtyard, and
lighted by two windows looking toward the south, we found the body
of the deceased aforesaid, lying on his bed, and covered with a
sheet. In this room were----" He paused in his dictation, and
addressing the clerk, "Take down the names of all present," said
he. "That will require some little time, and, meanwhile, I will
continue my search."
They had, in fact, only examined the shelf of the escritoire, and
the drawers were still to be inspected. In the first which he
opened, the magistrate found ample proofs of the accuracy of the
information which had been furnished him by Mademoiselle
Marguerite. The drawer contained a memorandum which established
the fact that the Credit Foncier had lent M. de Chalusse the sum
of eight hundred and fifty thousand francs, which had been
remitted to him on the Saturday preceding his death. Beside this
document lay a second memorandum, signed by a stockbroker named
Pell, setting forth that the latter had sold for the count
securities of various descriptions to the amount of fourteen
hundred and twenty-three thousand francs, which sum had been paid
to the count on the preceding Tuesday, partly in bank-notes and
partly in gold. It was thus evident that M. de Chalusse had
received a grand total of two million two hundred and seventy-
three thousand francs within the past six days.
In the drawer which was next opened, the magistrate only found a
number of deeds, bonds, leases, and mortgages; but they proved
that public rumor, far from exaggerating the figures of the
count's fortune, had diminished it, and this made it difficult to
explain why he had contracted a loan. The third and last drawer
contained twenty-eight thousand francs, in packages of twenty-
franc pieces. Finally, in a small casket, the magistrate found a
packet of letters, yellow with age and bound together with a broad
piece of blue velvet; as well as three or four withered bouquets,
and a woman's glove, which had been worn by a hand of marvellous
smallness. These were evidently the relics of some great passion
of many years before; and the magistrate looked at them for a
moment with a sigh.
His own interest prevented him from noticing Mademoiselle
Marguerite's agitation. She had almost fainted on perceiving
these souvenirs of the count's past life so suddenly exhumed.
However, the examination of the escritoire being over, and the
clerk having completed his task of recording the names of all the
servants, the magistrate said, in a loud voice, "I shall now
proceed to affix the seals; but, before doing so, I shall take a
portion of the money found in this desk, and set it apart for the
expenses of the household, in accordance with the law. Who will
take charge of this money?"
"Oh, not I!" exclaimed Madame Leon.
"I will take charge of it," said M. Casimir.
"Then here are eight thousand francs, for which you will be held
M. Casimir being a prudent man, counted the money himself, and
after doing so, "Who will attend to the count's obsequies?" he
"You, and without loss of time."
Proud of his new importance, the valet hastily left the room, his
self-complacency increased by the thought that he was to breakfast
with M. Isidore Fortunat, and would afterward share a fat
commission with Victor Chupin.
However, the magistrate had already resumed his dictation: "And at
this moment we have affixed bands of white tape, sealed at either
end with red wax, bearing the impress of our seal as justice of
the peace, to wit: In the aforesaid chamber of the deceased:
First, A band of tape, covering the keyhole of the lock of the
escritoire, which had been previously opened by a locksmith
summoned by us, and closed again by the said locksmith----" And so
the magistrate and his clerk went from one piece of furniture to
another, duly specifying in the report each instance in which the
seals were affixed.
From the count's bedroom they passed into his study, followed by
Mademoiselle Marguerite, Madame Leon, and the servants. By noon
every article of furniture in which M. de Chalusse would have been
likely to deposit his valuables or a will, had been searched, and
nothing, absolutely nothing, had been found. The magistrate had
pursued his investigation with the feverish energy which the most
self-possessed of men are apt to display under such circumstances,
especially when influenced by the conviction that the object they
are seeking is somewhere within their reach, perhaps under their
very hand. Indeed, he was persuaded--he was sure--he would, in
fact, have sworn that the Count de Chalusse had taken all the
precautions natural in childless men, who have no near relatives
to inherit their fortune, or who have placed their interest and
affections beyond their family circle. And when he was obliged to
abandon his search, his gesture indicated anger rather than
discouragement; for apparent evidence had not shaken his
conviction in the least. So he stood motionless, with his eyes
riveted on his ring, as if waiting some miraculous inspiration
from it. "For the count's only fault, I am sure, was in being too
cautious," he muttered. "This is frequently the case, and it
would be quite in keeping with the character of this man, judging
from what I know of him."
Madame Leon lifted her hands to heaven. "Ah, yes! such was,
indeed, his nature," she remarked, approvingly. "Never, no never,
have I seen such a suspicious and distrustful person as he was.
Not in reference to money--no, indeed--for he left that lying
about everywhere; but about his papers. He locked them up with
the greatest care, as if he feared that some terrible secret might
evaporate from them. It was a mania with him. If he had a letter
to write, he barricaded his door, as if he were about to commit
some horrible crime. More than once have I seen him----" The
words died away on her lips, and she remained motionless and
abashed, like a person who has just escaped some great peril. One
word more, and involuntarily, without even knowing it, she would
have confessed her besetting sin, which was listening at, and
peering through, the keyholes of the doors that were closed
against her. Still, she deluded herself with the belief that this
slight indiscretion of her overready tongue had escaped the
He certainly did not seem to be conscious of it, for he was giving
his attention entirely to Mademoiselle Marguerite, who seemed to
have regained the cold reserve and melancholy resignation habitual
to her. "You see, mademoiselle," he remarked, "that I have done
all that is in my power to do. We must now leave the search to
chance, and to the person who takes the inventory. Who knows what
surprise may be in store for us in this immense house, of which we
have only explored three rooms?"
She shook her head gently and replied: "I can never be
sufficiently grateful for your kindness, monsieur, and for the
great service you rendered me in crushing that infamous
accusation. As regards the rest, I have never expected anything--
I do not expect anything now."
She believed what she said, and her tone of voice proved this so
unmistakably that the magistrate was surprised and somewhat
disturbed. "Come, come, my young lady," he said, with almost
paternal kindness of manner, "you ought not to despond. Still,
you must have certain reasons for speaking as you do; and as I am
free for an hour, we are going to have a plain talk, as if we were
father and daughter."
On hearing these words, the clerk rose with a cloud on his jovial
face. He impatiently jingled his bunch of keys; for as the seals
are successively affixed, each key is confided to the clerk, to
remain in his hands until the seals are removed.
"I understand," said the magistrate. "Your stomach, which is more
exacting in its demands than mine, is not satisfied with a cup of
chocolate till dinner-time. So, go and get your lunch; on your
return, you will find me here. You may now conclude the report,
and request these parties to sign it."
Urged on by hunger, the clerk hastily mumbled over the remainder
of the formula, called all the names that he had inserted in the
report, and each of the servants advanced in turn, signed his or
her name, or made a cross, and then retired. Madame Leon read in
the judge's face that she also was expected to withdraw; and she
was reluctantly leaving the room, when Mademoiselle Marguerite
detained her to ask: "Are you quite sure that nothing has come for
"Nothing, mademoiselle; I went in person to inquire of the
"Did you post my letter last night?"
"Oh! my dear young lady, can you doubt it?"
The young girl stifled a sigh, and then, with a gesture of
dismissal, she remarked, "M. de Fondege must be sent for."
"I will send for him at once," replied the housekeeper; and
thereupon she left the room, closing the door behind her with a
The justice of the peace and Mademoiselle Marguerite were at last
alone in M. de Chalusse's study. This room, which the count had
preferred above all others, was a spacious, magnificent, but
rather gloomy apartment, with lofty walls and dark, richly carved
furniture. Its present aspect was more than ever solemn and
lugubrious, for it gave one a chill to see the bands of white tape
affixed to the locks of the cabinets and bookcases. When the
magistrate had installed himself in the count's arm-chair, and the
girl had taken a seat near him, they remained looking at each
other in silence for a few moments. The magistrate was asking
himself how he should begin. Having fathomed Mademoiselle
Marguerite's extreme sensitiveness and reserve, he said to himself
that if he offended or alarmed her, she would refuse him her
confidence, in which case he would be powerless to serve her as he
wished to do. He had, in fact, an almost passionate desire to be
of service to her, feeling himself drawn toward her by an
inexplicable feeling of sympathy, in which esteem, respect, and
admiration alike were blended, though he had only known her for a
few hours. Still, he must make a beginning. "Mademoiselle," he
said, at last, "I abstained from questioning you before the
servants--and if I take the liberty of doing so now, it is not,
believe me, out of any idle curiosity; moreover, you are not
compelled to answer me. But you are young--and I am an old man;
and it is my duty--even if my heart did not urge me to do so--to
offer you the aid of my experience----"
"Speak, monsieur," interrupted Marguerite. "I will answer your
questions frankly, or else not answer them at all."
"To resume, then," said he, "I am told that M. de Chalusse has no
relatives, near or remote. Is this the truth?"
"So far as I know--yes, monsieur. Still, I have heard it said
that a sister of his, Mademoiselle Hermine de Chalusse, abandoned
her home twenty-five or thirty years ago, when she was about my
age, and that she has never received her share of the enormous
fortune left by her parents."
"And has this sister never given any sign of life?"
"Never! Still, monsieur, I have promised you to be perfectly
frank. That letter which the Count de Chalusse received
yesterday, that letter which I regard as the cause of his death--
well, I have a presentiment that it came from his sister. It
could only have been written by her or--by that other person whose
letters--and souvenirs--you found in the escritoire."
"And--this other person--who can she be?" As the young girl made
no reply, the magistrate did not insist, but continued: "And you,
my child, who are you?"
She made a gesture of sorrowful resignation, and then, in a voice
faltering with emotion, she answered: "I do not know, monsieur.
Perhaps I am the count's daughter. I should be telling an untruth
if I said that was not my belief. Yes, I believe it, but I have
never been certain of it. Sometimes I have believed, sometimes I
have doubted it. On certain days I have said to myself, 'Yes, it
must be so!' and I have longed to throw my arms around his neck.
But at other times I have exclaimed: 'No, it isn't possible!' and
I have almost hated him. Besides, he never said a word on the
subject--never a decisive word, at least. When I saw him for the
first time, six years ago, I judged by the manner in which he
forbade me to call him 'father,' that he would never answer any
question I might ask on the subject."
If there was a man in the world inaccessible to idle curiosity, it
was certainly this magistrate, whose profession condemned him to
listen every day to family grievances, neighborly quarrels,
complaints, accusations, and slander. And yet as he listened to
Mademoiselle Marguerite, he experienced that strange disquietude
which seizes hold of a person when a puzzling problem is
presented. "Allow me to believe that many decisive proofs may
have escaped your notice on account of your inexperience," he
But interrupting him with a gesture, she sadly remarked: "You are
mistaken; I am not inexperienced."
He could not help smiling at what he considered her self-conceit.
"Poor child!" said he; "how old are you? Eighteen?"
She shook her head. "Yes, by my certificate of birth I am only
eighteen; but by the sufferings I have endured I am, perhaps,
older than you are, monsieur, despite your white hair. Those who
have lived such a life as I have, are never young; they are old in
suffering, even in their childhood. And if by experience you mean
lack of confidence, a knowledge of good and evil, distrust of
everything and everybody, mine, young girl though I be, will no
doubt equal yours." She paused, hesitated for a moment, and then
continued: "But why should I wait for you to question me? It is
neither sincere nor dignified on my part to do so. The person who
claims counsel owes absolute frankness to his adviser. I will
speak to you as if I were communing with my own soul. I will tell
you what no person has ever known--no one, not even Pascal. And
believe me, my past life was full of bitter misery, although you
find me here in this splendid house. But I have nothing to
conceal; and if I have cause to blush, it is for others, not for
Perhaps she was impelled by an irresistible desire to relieve her
overburdened heart, after long years of self-restraint; perhaps
she no longer felt sure of herself, and desired some other advice
than the dictates of her conscience, in presence of the calamity
which had befallen her. At all events, too much engrossed in her
own thoughts to heed the magistrate's surprise, or hear the words
he faltered, she rose from her seat, and, with her hands pressed
tightly on her throbbing brow, she began to tell the story of her
"My first recollections," she said, "are of a narrow, cheerless
courtyard, surrounded by grim and massive walls, so high that I
could scarcely see the top of them. At noontime in summer the sun
visited one little corner, where there was a stone bench; but in
winter it never showed itself at all. There were five or six
small, scrubby trees, with moss-grown trunks and feeble branches,
which put forth a few yellow leaves at springtime. We were some
thirty children who assembled in this courtyard--children from
five to eight years old, all clad alike in brown dresses, with a
little blue handkerchief tied about our shoulders. We all wore
blue caps on week-days, and white ones on Sundays, with woollen
stockings, thick shoes, and a black ribbon, with a large metal
cross dangling from our necks. Among us moved the good sisters,
silent and sad, with their hands crossed in their large sleeves,
their faces as white as their snowy caps, and their long strings
of beads, set off with numerous copper medals, clanking when they
walked like prisoners' chains. As a rule, each face wore the same
expression of resignation, unvarying gentleness, and inexhaustible
patience. But there were some who wore it only as one wears a
mask--some whose eyes gleamed at times with passion, and who
vented their cold, bitter anger upon us defenceless children.
However, there was one sister, still young and very fair, whose
manner was so gentle and so sad that even I, with my mere
infantile intelligence, felt that she must have some terrible
sorrow. During play-time she often took me on her knee and
embraced me with convulsive tenderness, murmuring: 'Dear little
one! darling little one!' Sometimes her endearments were irksome
to me, but I never allowed her to see it, for fear of making her
still more sad; and in my heart I was content and proud to suffer
for and with her. Poor sister! I owe her the only happy hours of
my infancy. She was called Sister Calliste. I do not know what
has become of her, but often, when my heart fails me, I think of
her, and even now I cannot mention her name without tears."
Mademoiselle Marguerite was indeed weeping--big tears which she
made no attempt to conceal were coursing down her cheeks. It cost
her a great effort to continue: "You have already understood,
monsieur, what I myself did not know for several years. I was in
a foundling asylum, and I was a foundling myself. I cannot say
that we lacked anything; and I should be ungrateful if I did not
say and feel that these good sisters were charity personified.
But, alas! their hearts had only a certain amount of tenderness to
distribute between thirty poor little girls, and so each child's
portion was small; the caresses were the same for all, and I
longed to be loved differently, to have kind words and caresses
for myself alone. We slept in little white beds with snowy
curtains, in a clean, well-ventilated dormitory, in the centre of
which stood a statue of the Virgin, who seemed to smile on us all
alike. In winter we had a fire. Our clothes were warm and neat;
our food was excellent. We were taught to read and write, to sew
and embroider. There was a recreation hour between all the
exercises. Those who were studious and good were rewarded; and
twice a week we were taken into the country for a long walk. It
was during one of these excursions that I learned from the talk of
the passers-by, what we were, and what we were called. Sometimes,
in the afternoon, we were visited by elegantly-attired ladies, who
were accompanied by their own children, radiant with health and
happiness. The good sisters told us that these were 'pious
ladies,' or 'charitable ladies,' whom we must love and respect,
and whom we must never forget to mention in our prayers. They
always brought us toys and cakes. Sometimes the establishment was
visited by priests and grave old gentlemen, whose sternness of
manner alarmed us. They peered into every nook and corner, asked
questions about everything, assured themselves that everything was
in its place, and some of them even tasted our soup. They were
always satisfied; and the lady superior led them through the
building, and bowed to them, exclaiming: 'We love them so much,
the poor little dears! 'And the gentlemen replied: 'Yes, yes, my
dear sister, they are very fortunate.' And the gentlemen were
right. Poor laborers' children are often obliged to endure
privations which we knew nothing of; they are often obliged to
make their supper off a piece of dry bread--but, then, the crust
is given them by their mother, with a kiss."
The magistrate, who was extremely ill at ease, had not yet
succeeded in finding a syllable to offer in reply. Indeed,
Mademoiselle Marguerite had not given him an opportunity to speak,
so rapidly had this long-repressed flood of recollections poured
from her lips. When she spoke the word "mother," the magistrate
fancied she would show some sign of emotion.
But he was mistaken. On the contrary, her voice became harsher,
and a flash of anger, as it were, darted from her eyes.
"I suffered exceedingly in that asylum," she resumed. "Sister
Calliste left the establishment, and all the surroundings chilled
and repelled me. My only few hours of happiness were on Sundays,
when we attended church. As the great organ pealed, and as I
watched the priests officiating at the altar in their gorgeous
vestments, I forgot my own sorrows. It seemed to me that I was
ascending on the clouds of incense to the celestial sphere which
the sisters so often talked to us about, and where they said each
little girl would find her mother."
Mademoiselle Marguerite hesitated for an instant, as if she were
somewhat unwilling to give utterance to her thoughts; but at last,
forcing herself to continue, she said: "Yes, I suffered
exceedingly in that foundling asylum. Almost all my little
companions were spiteful, unattractive in person, sallow, thin,
and afflicted with all kinds of diseases, as if they were not
unfortunate enough in being abandoned by their parents. And--to
my shame, monsieur, I must confess it--these unfortunate little
beings inspired me with unconquerable repugnance, with disgust
bordering on aversion. I would rather have pressed my lips to a
red-hot iron than to the forehead of one of these children. I did
not reason on the subject, alas! I was only eight or nine years
old; but I felt this antipathy in every fibre of my being. The
others knew it too; and, in revenge, they ironically styled me
'the lady,' and left me severely alone. But sometimes, during
playtime, when the good sisters' backs were turned, the children
attacked me, beat me, and scratched my face and tore my clothes.
I endured these onslaughts uncomplainingly, for I was conscious
that I deserved them. But how many reprimands my torn clothes
cost me! How many times I received only a dry crust for my supper,
after being soundly scolded and called 'little careless.' But as I
was quiet, studious, and industrious, a quicker learner than the
majority of my companions, the sisters were fond of me. They said
that I was a promising girl, and that they would have no
difficulty in finding me a nice home with some of the rich and
pious ladies who have a share in managing institutions of this
kind. The only fault the sisters found with me was that I was
sullen. But such was not really the case; I was only sad and
resigned. Everything around me so depressed and saddened me that
I withdrew into myself, and buried all my thoughts and aspirations
deep in my heart. If I had naturally been a bad child, I scarcely
know what would have been the result of this. I have often asked
myself the question in all sincerity, but I have been unable to
reply, for one cannot be an impartial judge respecting one's self.
However, this much is certain, although childhood generally leaves
a train of pleasant recollections in a young girl's life, mine was
only fraught with torture and misery, desperate struggles, and
humiliation. I was unwilling to be confirmed because I did not
wish to wear a certain dress, which a 'benevolent lady' had
presented for the use of the asylum, and which had belonged to a
little girl of my own age who had died of consumption. The
thought of arraying myself in this dress to approach the holy
table frightened and revolted me as much as if I had been
sentenced to drape myself in a winding-sheet. And yet it was the
prettiest dress of all--white muslin beautifully embroidered. It
had been ardently coveted by the other children, and had been
given to me as a sort of reward of merit. And I dared not explain
the cause of my unconquerable repugnance. Who would have
understood me? I should only have been accused of undue
sensitiveness and pride, absurd in one of my humble position. I
was then only twelve years old; but no one knew the struggle in my
mind save the old priest, my confessor. I could confess
everything to him; he understood me, and did not reproach me.
Still he answered: 'You must wear this dress, my child, for your
pride must be broken. Go--I shall impose no other penance on
you.' I obeyed him, full of superstitious terror; for it seemed to
me that this was a frightful omen which would bring me misfortune,
my whole life through. And I was confirmed in the dead girl's
During the five-and-twenty years that he had held the position of
justice of the peace, the magistrate had listened to many
confessions, wrung from wretched souls by stern necessity, or
sorrow, but never had his heart been moved as it now was, by this
narrative, told with such uncomplaining anguish, and in a tone of
such sincerity. However she resumed her story. "The confirmation
over, our life became as gloomily monotonous as before; we read
the same pious books and did the same work at the same hours as
formerly. It seemed to me that I was stifling in this atmosphere.
I gasped for breath, and thought that anything would be preferable
to this semblance of existence, which was not real life. I was
thinking of applying for the 'good situation,' which had so often
been mentioned to me, when one morning I was summoned into the
steward's office--a mysterious and frightful place to us children.
He himself was a stout, dirty man, wearing large blue spectacles
and a black silk skullcap; and from morning until night, summer
and winter, he sat writing at a desk behind a little grating, hung
with green curtains. Round the room were ranged the registers, in
which our names were recorded and our appearances described,
together with the boxes containing the articles found upon us,
which were carefully preserved to assist in identifying us should
occasion arise. I entered this office with a throbbing heart. In
addition to the stout gentleman and the Lady Superior, I found
there a thin, wiry man, with cunning eyes, and a portly woman,
with a coarse but rather good-natured face. The superior at once
informed me that I was in the presence of M. and Madame Greloux,
bookbinders, who had come to the asylum in search of two
apprentices, and she asked me if I should like to be one of them.
Ah! monsieur, it seemed to me that heaven had opened before me and
I boldly replied: 'Yes.' The gentleman in the black skullcap
immediately emerged from his place behind the grating to explain
my obligations and duties to me at length, especially insisting
upon the point, that I ought to be grateful--I, a miserable
foundling, reared by public charity--for the generosity which this
good gentleman and lady showed in offering to take charge of me
and employ me in their workshop. I must confess that I could not
clearly realize in what this great generosity which he so highly
praised consisted, nor did I perceive any reason why I should be
particularly grateful. Still, to all the conditions imposed upon
me, I answered, 'Yes, yes, yes!' so heartily that Madame Greloux
seemed greatly pleased. 'It is evident that the child will be
glad to get away,' she said to herself. Then the superior began
to enumerate the obligations my employers would incur, repeating
again and again that I was one of the very best girls in the
asylum--pious, obedient, and industrious, reading and writing to
perfection, and knowing how to sew and embroider as only those who
are taught in such institutions can. She made Madame Greloux
promise to watch over me as she would have watched over her own
daughter; never to leave me alone; to take me to church, and allow
me an occasional Sunday afternoon, so that I might pay a visit to
the asylum. The gentleman with the spectacles and the skullcap
then reminded the bookbinder of the duties of an employer toward
his apprentices, and turning to a bookcase behind him, he even
took down a large volume from which he read extract after extract,
which I listened to without understanding a word, though I was
quite sure that the book was written in French. At last, when the
man and his wife had said 'Amen' to everything, the gentleman with
the spectacles drew up a document which we all signed in turn. I
belonged to a master?"
She paused. Here her childhood ended. But almost immediately she
resumed: "My recollections of these people are not altogether
unpleasant. They were harassed and wearied by their efforts to
support their son in a style of living far above their position;
but, despite their sacrifices, their son had no affection for
them, and on this account I pitied them. However, not only was
the husband gloomy and quick-tempered, but his wife also was
subject to fits of passion, so that the apprentices often had a
hard time of it. Still, between Madame Greloux's tempests of
wrath there were occasional gleams of sunshine. After beating us
for nothing, she would exclaim, with quite as little reason, 'Come
and kiss me, and don't pout any more. Here are four sous; go and
buy yourself some cakes.'"
The justice started in his arm-chair. Was it, indeed,
Mademoiselle Marguerite who was speaking, the proud young girl
with a queenlike bearing, whose voice rang out like crystal? Was
it she indeed, who imitated the harsh, coarse dialect of the lower
classes with such accuracy of intonation? Ah! at that moment, as
her past life rose so vividly before her, it seemed to her as if
she were still in the years gone by, and she fancied she could
still hear the voice of the bookbinder's wife.
She did not even notice the magistrate's astonishment. "I had
left the asylum," she continued, "and that was everything to me.
I felt that a new and different life was beginning, and that was
enough. I flattered myself that I might win a more earnest and
sincere affection among these honest, industrious toilers, than I
had found in the asylum; and to win it and deserve it, I neglected
nothing that good-will could suggest, or strength allow. My
patrons no doubt fathomed my desire, and naturally enough, perhaps
unconsciously, they took advantage of my wish to please. I can
scarcely blame them. I had entered their home under certain
conditions in view of learning a profession; they gradually made
me their servant--it was praiseworthy economy on their part. What
I had at first done of my own freewill and from a wish to please,
at last became my daily task, which I was rigidly required to
fulfil. Compelled to rise long before any one else in the house,
I was expected to have everything in order by the time the others
made their appearance with their eyes still heavy with sleep. It
is true that my benefactors rewarded me after their fashion. On
Sundays they took me with them on their excursions into the
country, so as to give me a rest, they said, after the week's
work. And I followed them along the dusty highways in the hot
sunshine, panting, perspiring, and tottering under the weight of a
heavy basket of provisions, which were eaten on the grass or in
the woods, and the remnants of which fell to me. Madame Greloux's
brother generally accompanied us; and his name would have lingered
in my memory, even if it had not been a peculiar one. He was
called Vantrasson. He was a tall, robust man. with eyes that
made me tremble whenever he fixed them upon me. He was a soldier;
intensely proud of his uniform; a great talker, and enchanted with
himself. He evidently thought himself irresistible. It was from
that man's mouth that I heard the first coarse word at which my
unsophisticated heart took offence. It was not to be the last
one. He finally told me that he had taken a fancy to me, and I
was obliged to complain to Madame Greloux of her brother's
persecutions. But she only laughed at me, and said: 'Nonsense!
He's merely talking to hear himself talk.' Yes, that was her
answer. And yet she was an honest woman, a devoted wife, and a
fond mother. Ah! if she had had a daughter. But with a poor
apprentice, who has neither father nor mother, one need not be
over-fastidious. She had made a great many promises to the lady
superior, but she fancied that the utterance of a few commonplace
words of warning relieved her of all further obligations. 'And so
much the worse for those who allow themselves to be fooled,' she
always added in conclusion.
"Fortunately, my pride, which I had so often been reproached with,
shielded me. My condition might be humble, but my spirit was
lofty. It was a blessing from God, this pride of mine, for it
saved me from temptation, while so many fell around me. I slept,
with the other apprentices, in the attic, where we were entirely
beyond the control of those who should have been our guardians.
That is to say, when the day's toil was over, and the work-shop
closed, we were free--abandoned to our own instincts, and the most
pernicious influences. And neither evil advice nor bad example
was wanting. The women employed in the bindery in nowise
restrained themselves in our presence, and we heard them tell
marvellous stories that dazzled many a poor girl. They did not
talk as they did from any evil design, or out of a spirit of
calculation, but from pure thoughtlessness, and because they were
quite devoid of moral sense. And they never tired of telling us
of the pleasures of life, of fine dinners at restaurants, gay
excursions to Joinville-le-Pont, and masked balls at Montparnasse
or the Elysee Montmartre. Ah! experience is quickly gained in
these work-shops. Sometimes those who went off at night with
ragged dresses and worn-out shoes, returned the next morning in
superb toilettes to say that they resigned their situations, as
they were not made for work, and intended to live like ladies.
They departed radiant, but often before a month was over they came
back, emaciated, hollow-eyed, and despairing, and humbly begged
for a little work."
She paused, so crushed by the weight of these sad memories as to
lose consciousness of the present. And the judge also remained
silent, not daring to question her. And, besides, what good would
it do? What could she tell him about these poor little apprentices
that he did not know already? If he was surprised at anything, it
was that this beautiful young girl, who had been left alone and
defenceless, had possessed sufficient strength of character to
escape the horrible dangers that threatened her.
However, it was not long before Mademoiselle Marguerite shook off
the torpor which had stolen over her. "I ought not to boast of my
strength, sir," she resumed. "Besides my pride, I had a hope to
sustain me--a hope which I clung to with the tenacity of despair.
I wished to become expert at my profession, for I had learned that
skilled workers were always in demand, and could always command
good wages. So when my household duties were over, I still found
time to learn the business, and made such rapid progress that I
astonished even my employer. I knew that I should soon be able to
make five or six francs a day; and this prospect was pleasant
enough to make me forget the present, well-nigh intolerable as it
sometimes was. During the last winter that I spent with my
employers, their orders were so numerous and pressing that they
worked on Sundays as well as on week days, and it was with
difficulty that I obtained an hour twice a month to pay a visit to
the good sisters who had cared for me in my childhood. I had
never failed in this duty, and indeed it had now become my only
pleasure. My employer's conscience compelled him to pay me a
trifle occasionally for the additional toil he imposed upon me,
and the few francs I thus received I carried to the poor children
at the asylum. After living all my life on public charity, I was
able to give in my turn; and this thought gratified my pride, and
increased my importance in my own eyes. I was nearly fifteen, and
my term of apprenticeship had almost expired, when one bright day
in March, I saw one of the lay sisters of the asylum enter the
work-room. She was in a flutter of excitement; her face was
crimson, and she was so breathless from her hurried ascent of the
stairs that she gasped rather than said to me: 'Quick! come--
follow me! Some one is waiting for you!' 'Who?--where?'--'Make
haste! Ah! my dear child, if you only knew----' I hesitated; but
Madame Greloux pushed me toward the door, exclaiming: 'Be off, you
little stupid!' I followed the sister without thinking of changing
my dress--without even removing the kitchen apron I wore.
Downstairs, at the front door, stood the most magnificent carriage
I had ever seen in my life. Its rich silk cushions were so
beautiful that I scarcely dared to enter it; and I was all the
more intimidated by a footman in gorgeous livery, who respectfully
opened the door at our approach. 'You must get into the
carriage,' said the sister; 'it was sent for you.' I obeyed her,
and before I had recovered from my astonishment we had reached the
asylum, and I was ushered into the office where the contract which
bound me as an apprentice had been signed. As soon as I entered,
the superior took me by the hand and led me toward a gentleman who
was sitting near the window. 'Marguerite,' said she, 'salute
Monsieur le Comte de Chalusse.'"
For some little time there had been a noise of footsteps and a
subdued murmur of voices in the vestibule. Annoyed by this
interruption, although he perfectly understood its cause, the
magistrate rose and hastily opened the door. He was not mistaken.
His clerk had returned from lunch, and the time of waiting seemed
extremely long to him. "Ah! it's you," said the magistrate.
"Very well! begin your inventory. It won't be long before I join
you." And closing the door he resumed his seat again.
Mademoiselle Marguerite was so absorbed in her narrative that she
scarcely noticed this incident, and he had not seated himself
before she resumed. "In all my life, I had never seen such an
imposing looking person as the Count de Chalusse. His manner,
attire, and features could not fail to inspire a child like me
with fear and respect. I was so awed that I had scarcely enough
presence of mind to bow to him. He glanced at me coldly, and
exclaimed: 'Ah! is this the young girl you were speaking of?' The
count's tone betrayed such disagreeable surprise that the superior
was dismayed. She looked at me, and seemed indignant at my more
than modest attire. 'It's a shame to allow a child to leave home
dressed in this fashion,' she angrily exclaimed. And she almost
tore my huge apron off me, and then with her own hands began to
arrange my hair as if to display me to better advantage. 'Ah!
these employers,' she exclaimed, 'the best of them are bad. How
they do deceive you. It's impossible to place any confidence in
their promises. Still, one can't always be at their heels.'
"But the superior's efforts were wasted, for M. de Chalusse had
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