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Title: Pride - one of the seven cardinal sins
Author: Sue, Eugène, 1804-1857
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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[Illustration: 'Here Is a Very Important Letter']



Pride

One of the Seven Cardinal Sins

By Eugene Sue

Illustrated with Etchings by
Adrian Marcel

In Two Volumes

Dana Estes & Company
Publishers

Boston

_Copyright, 1899_

BY FRANCIS A. NICCOLLS & CO.



THE SEVEN CARDINAL SINS

PRIDE



CONTENTS.

Vol. I.

CHAPTER                                                    PAGE

  I.   THE OLD COMMANDER                                     13

 II.   THE BRAVE DUKE                                        24

III.   THE DINNER IN THE ARBOUR                              32

IV.   THE DUCHESS                                            41

 V.   THE LION OF THE BALL                                   54

VI.   THE DUEL                                               66

VII.   THE PRETTY MUSICIAN                                   73

VIII.   THE UNHAPPY SECRET                                   79

IX.   THE PRIVATE INTERVIEW                                  89

 X.   REVELATIONS                                            96

XI.   THE PURSE OF MONEY                                    106

XII.   A VAIN INTERVIEW                                     115

XIII.   UNEXPECTED CONSOLATION                              125

XIV.   THE SOLEMN COMPACT                                   136

XV.   A GLORIOUS DREAM                                      145

XVI.   AN INCOMPREHENSIBLE REFUSAL                          154

XVII.   PRESUMPTION AND INDIGNATION                         161

XVIII.   A PURELY BUSINESS TRANSACTION                      171

XIX.   IN M. DE MORNAND'S STUDY                             177

XX.   ATTENTIONS TO THE HEIRESS                             185

XXI.   THE HUNCHBACK MEETS THE HEIRESS                      195

XXII.   AN ORGY OF SINCERITY                                204

XXIII.   AN INVOLUNTARY AVERSION                            213

XXIV.   AN UNWELCOME VISITOR                                224

XXV.   MATRIMONIAL INTENTIONS DISCLOSED                     232

XXVI.   THE COMMANDER'S ADVICE                              242

XXVII.   THE ABODE OF THE DUCHESS                           251

XXVIII.   A SACRED MISSION                                  261

XXIX.   HUMILIATION AND CONSOLATION                         273

XXX.   AN APOLOGY ACCEPTED                                  283

XXXI.   THE PRIVATE STAIRWAY                                293

XXXII.   UNBURDENING THE HEART                              302

XXXIII.   THE THREE RIVALS                                  310

XXXIV.    TORMENTED BY DOUBTS                               321



LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS.


PAGE

"'HERE IS A VERY IMPORTANT LETTER'" _Frontispiece_

"RAN HIS BLADE THROUGH HIS ANTAGONIST'S RIGHT ARM" 69

"SHE HELD OUT THE BANK-NOTE" 130

"'I WILL GO AND TRY TO FIND THAT YOUNG COXCOMB'" 278



PRIDE.



CHAPTER I.

THE OLD COMMANDER.


Elle avait un vice, l'orgueil, qui lui tenait lieu de toutes les
qualités.[A]

[A] She had one fault, pride, which, in her, answered in place of all
the virtues.

COMMANDER BERNARD, a resident of Paris, after having served under the
Empire in the Marine Corps, and under the Restoration as a lieutenant in
the navy, was retired about the year 1830, with the brevet rank of
captain.

Honourably mentioned again and again for his daring exploits in the
maritime engagements of the East Indian war, and subsequently recognised
as one of the bravest soldiers in the Russian campaign, M. Bernard, the
most unassuming and upright of men, with the kindest heart in the world,
lived quietly and frugally upon his modest pension, in a little
apartment on one of the least frequented streets of the Batignolles.

An elderly woman, named Madame Barbançon, had kept house for him ten
years or more, and, though really very fond of him, led him a rather
hard life at times, for the worthy female, who had an extremely high
temper and a very despotic disposition, was very fond of reminding her
employer that she had sacrificed an enviable social position to serve
him.

The real truth was, Madame Barbançon had long acted as assistant in the
establishment of a well-known midwife,--an experience which furnished
her with material for an inexhaustible stock of marvellous stories, her
great favourite being her adventure with a masked lady who, with her
assistance, had brought a lovely girl baby into the world, a child
Madame Barbançon had taken care of for two years, but which had been
claimed by a stranger at the expiration of that time.

Four or five years after this memorable event, Madame Barbançon decided
to resign her practice and assume the twofold functions of nurse and
housekeeper.

About this time Commander Bernard, who was suffering greatly from the
reopening of several old wounds, needed a nurse, and was so well pleased
with Madame Barbançon's skill that he asked her to enter his service.

"You will have a pretty easy time of it, Mother Barbançon," the veteran
said to her. "I am not hard to live with, and we shall get along
comfortably together."

Madame Barbançon promptly accepted the offer, elevated herself forthwith
to the position of Commander Bernard's _dame de confiance_, and slowly
but surely became a veritable servant-mistress. Indeed, seeing the
angelic patience with which the commander endured this domestic tyranny,
one would have taken the old naval officer for some meek-spirited
_rentier_, instead of one of the bravest soldiers of the Empire.

Commander Bernard was passionately fond of gardening, and lavished any
amount of care and attention upon a little arbour, constructed by his
own hands and covered with clematis, hop-vines, and honeysuckle, where
he loved to sit after his frugal dinner and smoke his pipe and think of
his campaigns and his former companions in arms. This arbour marked the
limits of the commander's landed possessions, for though very small, the
garden was divided into two parts. The portion claimed by Madame
Barbançon aspired only to be useful; the other, of which the veteran
took entire charge, was intended to please the eye only.

The precise boundaries of these two plats of ground had been, and were
still, the cause of a quiet but determined struggle between the
commander and his housekeeper.

Never did two nations, anxious to extend their frontiers, each at the
expense of the other, resort to more trickery or display greater
cleverness and perseverance in concealing and maintaining their mutual
attempts at invasion.

We must do the commander the justice to say that he fought only for his
rights, having no desire to extend, but merely to preserve his territory
intact,--territory upon which the bold and insatiable housekeeper was
ever trying to encroach by establishing her thyme, savory, parsley, and
camomile beds among her employer's roses, tulips, and peonies.

Another cause of heated controversy between the commander and Madame
Barbançon was the implacable hatred the latter felt for Napoleon, whom
she had never forgiven for the death of a young soldier,--the only lover
she had ever been able to boast of, probably. She carried this rancour
so far, in fact, as to style the Emperor that "Corsican ogre," and even
to deny him the possession of any military genius, an asseveration that
amused the veteran immensely.

Nevertheless, in spite of these diverse political sentiments, and the
ever recurring and annoying question of the boundaries of the two
gardens, Madame Barbançon was, at heart, sincerely devoted to her
employer, and attended assiduously to his every want, while the
veteran, for his part, would have sorely missed his irascible
housekeeper's care and attentions.

The spring of 1844 was fast drawing to a close. The May verdure was
shining in all its freshness; three o'clock in the afternoon had just
sounded; and though the day was warm, and the sun's rays ardent, the
pleasant scent of freshly watered earth, combined with the fragrant
odour of several small clumps of lilacs and syringas, testified to the
faithful care the commander bestowed upon his garden, for from a
frequently and laboriously filled wash-tub sunk in the earth, and
dignified with the name of reservoir, the veteran had just treated his
little domain to a refreshing shower; nor had he, in his generous
impartiality, excluded his housekeeper's vegetable beds and kitchen
herbs from the benefits of his ministrations.

The veteran, in his gardening costume of gray linen jacket and big straw
hat, was now resting from his labours in the arbour, already nearly
covered with a vigorous growth of clematis and honeysuckle. His
sunburned features were characterised by an expression of unusual
frankness and kindness, though a heavy moustache, as white as his
bristling white hair, imparted a decidedly martial air to his
physiognomy.

After wiping the sweat from his forehead with a blue checked
handkerchief and returning it to his pocket, the veteran picked up his
pipe from a table in the arbour, filled and lighted it, then,
establishing himself in an old cane-bottomed armchair, began to smoke
and enjoy the beauty of the day, the stillness of which was broken only
by the occasional twitter of a few birds and the humming of Madame
Barbançon, who was engaged in gathering some lettuce and parsley for the
supper salad. If the veteran had not been blessed with nerves of steel,
his _dolce far niente_ would have been sadly disturbed by the monotonous
refrain of the old-fashioned love song entitled "Poor Jacques," which
the worthy woman was murdering in the most atrocious manner.

    "Mais à présent que je suis loin de toi,
        Je mange de tout sur la terre,"[B]

she sang in a voice as false as it was nasal, and the lugubrious,
heart-broken expression she gave to the words, shaking her head sadly
the while, made the whole thing extremely ludicrous.

[B] Instead of "Je manque de tout sur la terre."

For ten years Commander Bernard had endured this travesty without a
murmur, and without taking the slightest notice of the ridiculous
meaning Madame Barbançon gave to the last line of the chorus.

It is quite possible that to-day the meaning of the words struck him
more forcibly, and that a desire to devour everything upon the surface
of the earth did not seem to him to be the natural consequence of
separation from one's beloved, for, after having lent an impartial and
attentive ear a second time to his housekeeper's doleful ditty, he
exclaimed, laying his pipe on the table:

"What the devil is that nonsense you are singing, Madame Barbançon?"

"It is a very pretty love song called 'Poor Jacques,'" snapped Madame
Barbançon, straightening herself up. "Every one to his taste, you know,
monsieur, and you have a perfect right to make fun of it, if you choose,
of course. This isn't the first time you have heard me sing it, though."

"No, no, you're quite right about that!" responded the commander,
satirically.

"I learned the song," resumed the housekeeper, sighing heavily, "in
days--in days--but enough!" she exclaimed, burying her regrets in her
capacious bosom. "I sang it, I remember, to that masked lady who came--"

"I'd rather hear the song," hastily exclaimed the veteran, seeing
himself threatened with the same tiresome story. "Yes, I much prefer the
song to the story. It isn't so long, but the deuce take me if I
understand you when you say:

    "'Mais à présent que je suis loin de toi,
           Je mange de tout sur la terre.'"

"What, monsieur, you don't understand?"

"No, I don't."

"It is very plain it seems to me, but soldiers are so unfeeling."

"But think a moment, Mother Barbançon; here is a girl who, in her
despair at poor Jacques's absence, sets about eating everything on the
face of the earth."

"Of course, monsieur, any child could understand that."

"But I do not, I must confess."

"What! you can't understand that this unfortunate young girl is so
heart-broken, after her lover's departure, that she is ready to eat
anything and everything--even poison, poor thing! Her life is of so
little value to her,--she is so wretched that she doesn't even know what
she is doing, and so eats everything that happens to be within
reach--and yet, her misery doesn't move you in the least."

The veteran listened attentively to this explanation, which did not seem
to him so entirely devoid of reason, now, after all.

"Yes, yes, I understand," he responded, nodding his head; "but it is
like all love songs--extremely far-fetched."

"'Poor Jacques' far-fetched? The idea!" cried Madame Barbançon,
indignantly.

"'Every one to his taste,' as you remarked a moment ago," answered the
veteran. "I like our old sea songs very much better. A man knows what he
is singing about when he sings them."

And in a voice as powerful as it was discordant, the old captain began
to sing:

    "Pour aller à Lorient pêcher des sardines,
        Pour aller à Lorient pêcher des harengs--"

"Monsieur!" exclaimed Madame Barbançon, interrupting her employer, with
a highly incensed and prudish air, for she knew the end of the ditty,
"you forget there are ladies present."

"Is that so?" demanded the veteran, straining his neck to see outside of
the arbour.

"There is no need to make such an effort as that, it seems to me,"
remarked the housekeeper, with great dignity. "You can see me easy
enough, I should think."

"That is true, Mother Barbançon. I always forget that you belong to the
other sex, but for all that I like my song much better than I do yours.
It was a great favourite on the _Armide_, the frigate on which I shipped
when I was only fourteen, and afterwards we sang it many a time on dry
land when I was in the Marine Corps. Oh, those were happy days! I was
young then."

"Yes, and then Bû-û-onaparte"--it is absolutely necessary to spell and
accent the word in this way, to give the reader any idea of the
disdainful and sneering manner in which Mother Barbançon uttered the
name of the great man who had been the cause of her brave soldier boy's
death--"Bû-û-onaparte was your leader."

"Yes, the Emperor, that 'Corsican ogre,' the Emperor you revile so,
wasn't far off, I admit."

"Yes, monsieur, your Emperor was an ogre, and worse than an ogre."

"What! worse than an ogre?"

"Yes, yes, laugh as much as you like, but he was. Do you know, monsieur,
that when that Corsican ogre had the Pope in his power at Fontainebleau,
do you know how grossly he insulted our Holy Father, your beast of a
Bû-û-onaparte?"

"No, Mother Barbançon, I never heard of it, upon my word of honour."

"It is of no use for you to deny it; I heard it from a young man in the
guards--"

"Who must be a pretty old customer by this time, but let us hear the
story."

"Ah, well, monsieur, your Bû-û-onaparte was mean enough, in his longing
to humiliate the Pope, to harness him to the little King of Rome's
carriage, then get into it and make the poor Holy Father drag him across
the park at Fontainebleau, in order that he might go in this fashion to
announce his divorce to the Empress Josephine--that poor, dear, good
woman!"

"What, Mother Barbançon," exclaimed the old sailor, almost choking with
laughter, "that scoundrel of an Emperor made the Pope drag him across
the park in the King of Rome's carriage to tell the Empress Josephine of
his divorce?"

"Yes, monsieur, in order to torment her on account of her religion, just
as he forced her to eat a big ham every Good Friday in the presence of
Roustan, that dreadful mameluke of his, who used to boast of being a
Mussulman and talk about his harem before the priests, just to insult
the clergy, until they blushed with shame. There is nothing to laugh at
in all this, monsieur. At one time, everybody knew and talked about it,
even--"

But, unfortunately, the housekeeper was unable to continue her tirade.
Her recriminations were just then interrupted by a vigorous peal of the
bell, and she hurried off to open the door.

A few words of explanation are necessary before the introduction of a
new character, Olivier Raymond, Commander Bernard's nephew.

The veteran's sister had married a copyist in the Interior Department,
and after several years of wedded life the clerk died, leaving a widow
and one son, then about eight years of age; after which several friends
of the deceased interested themselves in the fatherless boy's behalf,
and secured him a scholarship in a fairly good school.

The widow, left entirely without means, and having no right to a
pension, endeavoured to support herself by her needle, but after a few
years of pinched and laborious existence she left her son an orphan. His
uncle Bernard, his sole relative, was then a lieutenant in command of a
schooner attached to one of our naval stations in the Southern Pacific.
Upon his return to France, the captain found that his nephew's last year
in college was nearing an end. Olivier, though his college course had
been marked by no particularly brilliant triumphs, had at least
thoroughly profited by his gratuitous education, but unfortunately, this
education being, as is often the case, far from practical, his future on
leaving college was by no means assured.

After having reflected long and seriously upon his nephew's precarious
position, and being unable to give him any pecuniary assistance by
reason of the smallness of his own pay, Commander Bernard said to
Olivier:

"My poor boy, there is but one thing for you to do. You are strong,
brave, and intelligent. You have received an education which renders you
superior to most of the poor young men who enlist in the army. The
conscription is almost sure to catch you next year. Get ahead of it.
Enlist. In that case, you will at least be able to select the branch of
the service you will enter. There is fighting in Africa, and in five or
six years you are likely to be made an officer. This will give you some
chance of a career. Still, if the idea of a military life is distasteful
to you, my dear boy, we will try to think of something else. We can get
along on my pay, as a retired officer, until something else offers. Now
think the matter over."

Olivier was not long in making up his mind. Three months afterward he
enlisted, on condition that he should be assigned to the African
Chasseurs. A year later he was a quartermaster's sergeant; one year
afterward a quartermaster. Attacked with one of those stubborn fevers,
which a return to a European climate alone can cure, Olivier,
unfortunately, was obliged to leave Africa just as he had every reason
to expect an officer's epaulettes. After his recovery he was assigned to
a regiment of hussars, and, after eighteen months' service in that, he
had recently come to spend a six months' furlough in Paris, with his
uncle.

The old sailor's flat consisted of a tiny kitchen, into which Madame
Barbançon's room opened, of a sort of hall-way, which served as a
dining-room, and another considerably larger room, in which the
commander and his nephew slept. Olivier, knowing how little his uncle
had to live on, would not consent to remain idle. He wrote a remarkably
good hand, and this, together with the knowledge of accounts acquired
while acting as quartermaster, enabled him to secure several sets of
books to keep among the petty merchants in the neighbourhood; so,
instead of being a burden upon the veteran, the young officer, with
Madame Barbançon's connivance, secretly added his mite to the
forty-eight francs' pay the commander received each month, besides
treating his uncle now and then to agreeable surprises, which both
delighted and annoyed the worthy man, knowing, as he did, the assiduous
labour Olivier imposed upon himself to earn this money.

Accustomed from childhood to privations of every kind, first by his
experience as a charity pupil, and subsequently by the vicissitudes of
army life in Africa, kind-hearted, genial, enthusiastic, and brave,
Olivier had but one fault, that is, if an excessive delicacy in all
money matters, great and small, can be called a fault. As a common
soldier, he even carried his scruples so far that he would refuse the
slightest invitation from his comrades, if he was not allowed to pay
his own score. This extreme sensitiveness having been at first ridiculed
and considered mere affectation, two duels, in which Olivier quite
covered himself with glory, caused this peculiarity in the character of
the young soldier to be both accepted and respected.

Olivier, cheerful, obliging, quick-witted, and delighted with
everything, enlivened his uncle's modest home immensely by his gay
spirits. In his rare moments of leisure the young man cultivated his
taste by reading the great poets, or else he spaded and watered and
gardened with his uncle, after which they smoked their pipes, and talked
of foreign lands and of war. At other times, calling into play the
culinary knowledge acquired in African camps, Olivier initiated Madame
Barbançon into the mysteries of _brochettes de mouton_ and other viands,
the cooking lessons being enlivened with jokes and all sorts of teasing
remarks about Bû-û-onaparte, though the housekeeper scolded and snubbed
Olivier none the less because she loved him with her whole heart. In
short, the young man's presence had cheered the monotonous existence of
the veteran and his housekeeper so much that their hearts quite failed
them when they recollected that two months of Olivier's leave had
already expired.



CHAPTER II.

THE BRAVE DUKE.


OLIVIER RAYMOND was not more than twenty-four years of age, and
possessed a singularly expressive and attractive face. His short, white
hussar jacket, trimmed with red and decorated with yellow frogs, his
well-cut, light blue trousers, that fitted his well-formed supple limbs
perfectly, and his blue kepi, perched upon one side of a head covered
with hair of the same bright chestnut hue as his moustache, imparted an
extremely dashing and martial air to his appearance, only, instead of a
sabre, Olivier carried that day under his left arm a big roll of papers,
and in his right hand a formidable bundle of pens.

As the young man deposited these eminently peaceful implements upon a
table, he turned, and exclaimed gaily, "How are you, Mamma Barbançon?"

In fact, he even had the audacity to put his long arms about the
housekeeper's bony waist, and give her a slight squeeze as he spoke.

"Will you never have done with your nonsense, you rascal?" snapped the
delighted housekeeper.

"Oh, this is only the beginning. I've got to make a complete conquest of
you, Mamma Barbançon."

"Of me?"

"Unquestionably. It is absolutely necessary. I'm compelled to do it."

"And why?"

"In order to induce you to grant me a favour."

"We'll see about that. What is it?"

"Tell me first where my uncle is."

"Smoking his pipe out under the arbour."

"All right! Wait for me here, Mamma Barbançon, and prepare your mind for
something startling."

"Something startling, M. Olivier?"

"Yes, something monstrous--unheard-of--impossible!"

"Monstrous--unheard-of--" repeated Madame Barbançon, wonderingly, as she
watched the young soldier dash off in pursuit of his uncle.

"How are you, my lad? I didn't expect you so early," said the old
captain, holding out his hand to his nephew in pleased surprise. "Home
so soon! But so much the better!"

"So much the better!" retorted Olivier, gaily. "On the contrary, you
little know what is in store for you. Courage, uncle, courage!"

"Stop your nonsense, you young scoundrel!"

"Close your eyes, and now, 'forward march!'"

"Forward march? Against whom?"

"Against Mother Barbançon, my brave uncle."

"But why?"

"To break the news that--that--that I have invited--some one to dinner."

"The devil!" exclaimed the veteran, recoiling a step or two in evident
dismay.

"To dinner--to-day," continued the young lieutenant.

"The devil!" reiterated the veteran, recoiling three steps this time.

"Moreover, my guest--is a duke," continued Olivier.

"A duke! We are lost!" faltered the veteran.

And this time he entirely vanished from sight in his verdant refuge,
where he seemed as resolved to maintain his stand as if in some
impregnable fortress. "May the devil and all his imps seize me if I
undertake to announce any such fact as this to Mother Barbançon!"

"What, uncle,--an officer of marines--afraid?"

"But you've no idea what a scrape you've got yourself into, young man!
It's a desperate case, I tell you. You don't know Madame Barbançon. But,
good heavens, here she comes now!"

"Our retreat is cut off, uncle," laughed the young man, as Madame
Barbançon, whose curiosity had been excited to such a degree that she
could wait no longer, appeared in the entrance to the arbour. "My guest
will be here in an hour at the very latest, and we needs must conquer or
perish of hunger,--you and I and my guest, whose name, I ought to tell
you, is the Duc de Senneterre."

"It's no affair of mine, unhappy boy," responded the commander. "Tell
her yourself; here she is."

But Olivier only laughed, and, turning to the dreaded housekeeper,
exclaimed:

"My uncle has something to tell you, Madame Barbançon."

"There's not a word of truth in what he says," protested the veteran,
wiping the sweat from his brow with his checked handkerchief. "It is
Olivier who has something to tell you."

"Come, come, uncle, Mother Barbançon is not as dangerous as she looks.
Make a clean breast of it."

"It is your affair, my boy. Get out of the scrape as best you can."

The housekeeper, after having glanced first at the uncle and then at the
nephew with mingled curiosity and anxiety, at last asked, turning to her
employer:

"What is it, monsieur?"

"Ask Olivier, my dear woman. As for me, I've nothing whatever to do with
it; I wash my hands of the whole affair."

"Ah, well, Mamma Barbançon," said the young soldier, bravely, "you are
to lay three covers instead of two at dinner, that is all."

"Three covers, M. Olivier, and why?"

"Because I have invited a former comrade to dine with us."

"_Bon Dieu!_" exclaimed the housekeeper, evidently more terrified than
angry, "a guest, and this is not even _pot au feu_ day. We have only an
onion soup, a vinaigrette made out of yesterday's beef, and a salad."

"And what more could you possibly want, Mamma Barbançon?" cried Olivier,
joyously, for he had not expected to find the larder nearly so well
supplied. "An onion soup concocted by you, a vinaigrette and a salad
seasoned by you, make a banquet for the gods, and my comrade, Gerald,
will dine like a king. Take notice that I do not say like an emperor,
Mamma Barbançon."

But this delicate allusion to madame's anti-Bonapartist opinions passed
unnoticed. For the moment the worshipper of the departed guardsman was
lost in the anxious housewife.

"To think that you couldn't have selected a _pot au feu_ day when it
would have been such an easy matter, M. Olivier," she exclaimed,
reproachfully.

"It was not I but my comrade who chose the day, Mamma Barbançon."

"But in polite society, M. Olivier, it is a very common thing to say
plainly: 'Don't come to-day; come to-morrow. We shall have the _pot au
feu_ then.' But, after all, I don't suppose we've got dukes and peers to
deal with."

Olivier was strongly tempted to excite the worthy housewife's
perturbation to the highest pitch by telling her that it was indeed a
duke that was coming to eat her vinaigrette, but scarcely daring to
subject Madame Barbançon's culinary self-love to this severe test, he
contented himself with saying:

"The mischief is done, Mamma Barbançon, so all I ask is that you will
not put me to shame in the presence of an old African comrade."

"Great heavens! Is it possible you fear that, M. Olivier? Put you to
shame--I? Quite the contrary, for I would like--"

"It is getting late," said Olivier, "and my friend will soon be here, as
hungry as a wolf, so, Mamma Barbançon, take pity on us!"

"True, I haven't a minute to lose."

And the worthy woman bustled away, repeating dolefully, "To think he
couldn't have chosen _pot au feu_ day."

"Well, she took it much better than I expected," remarked the veteran.
"It is evident that she is very fond of you. But now, between ourselves,
my dear nephew, you ought to have warned me of your intentions, so your
friend might have found, at least, a passable dinner, but you just ask
him to come and take pot-luck; and he is a duke into the bargain. But,
tell me, how the deuce did you happen to have a duke for a comrade in
the African Chasseurs?"

"I'll explain, my dear uncle, for I'm sure you'll take a great fancy to
my friend Gerald. There are not many of his stamp to be found nowadays,
I assure you. We were classmates at the college of Louis le Grand. I
left for Africa. Six months afterward my friend Gerald was in the ranks
beside me."

"A private?"

"Yes."

"But why didn't he enter the army by way of St. Cyr? It was merely a
whim or caprice on his part, I suppose, this enlisting?"

"No, uncle; on the contrary, Gerald's conduct in the matter has been the
result of profound reflection. He is a grand seigneur by birth, being,
as I told you just now, the Duc de Senneterre."

"That is a name that has figured prominently in the history of France,"
remarked the old sailor.

"Yes, the house of Senneterre is as ancient as it is illustrious,
uncle, but Gerald's family has lost the greater part of the immense
fortune it once possessed. There remains now, I think, an income of
barely forty thousand francs a year. That is a good deal of money for
the generality of people, but not for persons of noble birth; besides,
Gerald has two sisters who must be provided with dowries."

"But tell me how and why your young duke happened to join the army as a
private?"

"In the first place, my friend Gerald is very original in his ideas, and
has all kinds of odd notions about life. When he found himself within
the conscription age, on leaving college, his father--he had a father
then--remarked one day, as if it were the most natural thing in the
world, that arrangements must be made to secure a substitute if any such
contingency should arise, and do you know what this peculiar friend of
mine replied?"

"Tell me."

"'Father,' said Gerald, 'this is a duty that every right-minded man owes
to his country. It is an obligation of race, particularly when a war is
actually going on, and I consider it an ignoble act to endeavour to
escape the dangers of war by hiring some poor devil to leave his farm or
work-bench and go and run the risk of being killed in your stead. To do
this is to confess oneself a coward, and, as I am not desirous of such a
reputation, I shall serve, if my name is drawn.'"

"Zounds! I'm in love with your young duke, already!" exclaimed the
veteran.

"He stated the case pretty correctly, didn't he?" replied Olivier, with
friendly complacency. "Though this resolution seemed very strange to his
father, that gentleman had too keen a sense of honour to oppose it.
Gerald's name was drawn, and that is the way he happened to be a private
in the African Chasseurs, currying his horse, doing his share of the
stable and kitchen work like the rest of us, and even going to the
guard-house without a word of complaint if he absented himself without
permission. In short, there wasn't a better soldier in the regiment."

"Nor a braver, too, I'll be bound," said the veteran, more and more
interested.

"Brave as a lion, and so gay and enthusiastic when he charged upon the
enemy that he would have fired the hearts of a whole battalion!"

"But with his name and connections, I should think he would soon have
been made an officer."

"And so he would, doubtless, though he cared nothing about it, for when
his term of service expired, and he had paid his debt to his country, as
he expressed it, he said he wanted to return and again enjoy the
pleasures of Paris life of which he was passionately fond. After three
years of service Gerald had become a quartermaster like myself. About
this time he was severely wounded in the shoulder during a bold charge
upon quite a large body of Arabs. Fortunately, I was able to extricate
him and carry him off the field,--lifeless to all appearance,--on my
horse. The result was he was furloughed, and on leaving the service he
went back to Paris. We had become quite intimate, and after his return
to France we kept up quite a brisk correspondence. I hoped to meet him
again upon my arrival here, but I learned that he was travelling in
England. This morning, as I was walking along the boulevard, I heard
some one call me at the top of his voice, and, turning, I saw Gerald
jump out of a handsome cabriolet, and a second later we were embracing
each other as two friends embrace each other on the battlefield after a
warm engagement."

"'We must dine and spend the evening together,' he said.' Where are you
staying?'

"'With my uncle,' I replied.' I have told him about you a hundred times,
and he loves you almost as much as I do.'

"'Very well, then I will come and take dinner with you,' said Gerald.
'I want to see your uncle. I have a thousand things to say to him.'

"And knowing what a kind-hearted, unassuming fellow Gerald is, I
assented to his proposal, warning him, however, that I should be obliged
to leave him at seven o'clock, exactly as if I were clerk of the court,
or was obliged to return to quarters," concluded Olivier, gaily.

"Good lad that you are!" said the commander, affectionately.

"It will give me great pleasure to introduce Gerald to you, uncle, for I
know that you will feel at ease with him at once; besides," continued
the young soldier, colouring a little, "Gerald is rich, I am poor. He
knows my scruples, and as he is aware that I could not afford to pay my
share of the bill at any fashionable restaurant, he preferred to invite
himself here."

"I understand," said the veteran, "and your young duke shows both
delicacy of feeling and kindness of heart in acting thus. Let us at
least hope that Madame Barbançon's vinaigrette won't disagree with him,"
added the commander, laughing.

He had scarcely given utterance to this philanthropical wish when the
door-bell gave another loud peal, and a moment afterwards the uncle and
nephew saw the young Duc de Senneterre coming down the garden walk
preceded by Madame Barbançon, who was in such a state of mental
perturbation that she had entirely forgotten to remove her big kitchen
apron.



CHAPTER III.

THE DINNER IN THE ARBOUR.


The Duc de Senneterre, who was about Olivier Raymond's age, had a
distinguished bearing, and an exceedingly handsome and attractive face,
with black hair and moustache, and eyes of a deep rich blue. His attire
was marked with an elegant simplicity.

"Uncle, this is Gerald, my best friend, of whom I have so often spoken,"
said Olivier.

"I am delighted to see you, monsieur," said the veteran, cordially
offering his hand to his nephew's friend.

"And I, commander," rejoined Gerald, with that deference to age which is
imbibed from prolonged military service, "am sincerely glad to have the
honour of pressing your hand. I know all your goodness to Olivier, and
as I regard him almost as a brother, you must understand how thoroughly
I have always appreciated your devotion to him."

"Gentlemen, will you have your soup in the house or under the arbour, as
you usually do when the weather is fine?" inquired Madame Barbançon.

"We will dine in the arbour--if the commander approves, my dear Madame
Barbançon," responded Gerald; "it will be charming; the afternoon is
perfect."

"Monsieur knows me?" exclaimed the housekeeper, looking first at
Olivier, and then at the duke, in great astonishment.

"Know you, Madame Barbançon?" exclaimed Gerald, gaily. "Why, hasn't
Olivier spoken of you a hundred times while we were in camp, and
haven't we had more than one quarrel all on your account?"

"On my account?"

"Most assuredly. That rascal of an Olivier is a great Bonapartist, you
know. He cannot forgive any one for detesting that odious tyrant, and I
took your part, for I, too, abhor the tyrant--that vile Corsican ogre!"

"Corsican ogre! You are a man after my own heart, monsieur. Let us shake
hands--we understand each other," cried the housekeeper, triumphantly.

And she extended her bony hand to Gerald, who shook it heartily, at the
same time remarking to the commander:

"Upon my word, sir, you had better take care, and you, too, Olivier,
will have to look out now. Madame Barbançon had no one to help her
before, now she will have a sturdy auxiliary in me."

"Look here, Madame Barbançon," exclaimed Olivier, coming to the rescue
of his friend whom the housekeeper seemed inclined to monopolise,
"Gerald must be nearly famished, you forget that. Come, I'll help you
bring the table out here."

"True, I had forgotten all about dinner," cried the housekeeper,
hastening towards the house.

Seeing Olivier start after her, as if to aid her, Gerald said:

"Wait a moment, my dear fellow, do you suppose I'm going to leave all
the work to you?"

Then turning to the commander:

"You don't object, I trust, commander. I am making very free, I know,
but when we were in the army together Olivier and I set the mess-table
more than once, so you will find that I'm not as awkward as you might
suppose."

It was a pleasure to see how cleverly and adroitly and gaily Gerald
assisted his former comrade in setting the table under the arbour. The
task was accomplished so quickly and neatly that one would have
supposed that the young duke, like his friend, must have been used to
poverty all his life.

To please his friend, Gerald, in half an hour, made a complete conquest
of the veteran and his housekeeper, who was delighted beyond expression
to see her anti-Bonapartist ally partake with great apparent enjoyment
of her onion soup, salad, and vinaigrette, to which Gerald even asked to
be helped twice.

It is needless to say that, during this cheerful repast, the veteran,
delicately led on by Gerald, was induced to talk of his campaigns; then,
this tribute of respect paid to their companion's superior years, the
two young men related all sorts of episodes of their college and army
life.

The veteran had lighted his pipe, and Gerald and Olivier their cigars,
when the latter happened to inquire of his friend:

"By the way, what has become of that scoundrel, Macreuse, who used to
play the spy on us at college? You remember him?--a big, light-haired
fellow, who used to cuff us soundly as he passed, just because he dared
to, being twice as big as we were."

At the name of Macreuse, Gerald's face took on an expression of mingled
contempt and aversion, and he replied:

"You speak rather slightingly,--M. Célestin de Macreuse, it seems to
me."

"_De_ Macreuse!" cried Olivier. "He must have treated himself to the
_de_ since we knew him, then. In those days his origin was shrouded in
mystery. Nobody knew anything about his parents. He was so poor that he
once ate half a dozen wood-lice to earn a sou."

"And then he was so horribly cruel," added Gerald; "do you remember his
putting those little birds' eyes out with a pin to see if they would fly
afterwards?"

"The scoundrel!" exclaimed the indignant commander. "Such a man as that
ought to be flayed alive."

"It would rejoice my heart to see your prediction fulfilled, commander,"
said Gerald, laughing. Then, turning to Olivier, he continued: "It will
surprise you very much, I think, when I tell you what I know of M.
Célestin de Macreuse. I have told you, I believe, how very exclusive the
society is in which my mother has always moved, so you can judge of my
astonishment when one evening, shortly after my return to Paris, I heard
the name of M. de Macreuse announced in my mother's drawing-room. It was
the very man. I had retained such an unpleasant recollection of the
fellow, that I went to my mother and said:

"'Why do you receive that man who just spoke to you,--that big,
light-haired, sallow man?'

"'Why, that is M. de Macreuse,' my mother replied, in tones indicative
of the profoundest respect.

"'And who is M. de Macreuse, my dear mother? I never saw him in your
house before.'

"'No, for he has just returned from his travels,' she answered. 'He is a
very distinguished and highly exemplary young man,--the founder of the
St. Polycarpe Mission.'

"'The deuce! And what is the St. Polycarpe Mission, my dear mother?'

"'It is a society that strives to make the poor resigned to their misery
by teaching them that the more they suffer here, the happier they will
be hereafter.'

"'_Se non è vero, è ben trovato_,' I laughingly remarked. 'But it seems
to me that this fellow has a very plump face to be advocating the good
effects of starvation.'

"'My son, I meant every word that I just said to you,' replied my
mother, gravely. 'Many highly esteemed persons have connected themselves
with M. de Macreuse's work,--a work to which he devotes himself with
truly evangelical zeal. But here he comes. I would like to introduce you
to him.'

"'Pray do nothing of the kind, mother,' I retorted, quickly. 'I am sure
to be impolite; I do not like the gentleman's looks; besides, what I
already know of him makes my antipathy to his acquaintance
insurmountable. We were at college together, and--'

"But I was unable to say any more; Macreuse was now close to my mother,
and I was standing beside her. 'My dear M. de Macreuse,' she said to her
protégé, in the most amiable manner, after casting a withering look at
me, 'I wish to introduce my son, one of your former classmates, who will
be charmed to renew his acquaintance with you.'

"Macreuse bowed profoundly, then said, in a rather condescending way, 'I
have been absent from Paris some time, monsieur, and was consequently
ignorant of your return to France, so I did not expect to have the
honour of meeting you at your mother's house this evening. We were at
college together, and--'

"'That is true,' I interrupted, 'and I recollect perfectly well how you
played the spy on us to ingratiate yourself with the teachers; how you
would stoop to any dirty trick to make a penny; and how you put out the
eyes of little birds with pins. Possibly this last was in the charitable
hope that their sufferings here would profit them hereafter.'"

"A clever thrust that!" exclaimed the commander, with a hearty laugh.

"And what did Macreuse say?" asked Olivier.

"The scoundrel's big moon face turned scarlet. He tried to smile and
stammer out a few words, but suddenly my mother, looking at me with a
reproachful air, rose, and to rescue our friend from his embarrassment,
I suppose, said, 'M. de Macreuse, may I ask you to take me to get a cup
of tea?'"

"But how did this man gain an entrance into such an exclusive circle as
that of the Faubourg St Germain?" inquired Olivier.

"Nobody knows exactly," replied Gerald. "This much is true, however. If
one door in our circle opens, all the others soon do the same. But this
first door is hard to open, and who opened it for Macreuse nobody knows,
though some persons seem to think that it was Abbé Ledoux, a favourite
spiritual director in our set. This seems quite probable, and I have
taken almost as strong a dislike to the abbé as to Macreuse. If this
dislike needed any justification, it would have it, so far as I am
concerned, in the estimate of Macreuse's character formed by a singular
man who is rarely deceived in his judgment of persons."

"And who is this infallible man, pray?" inquired Olivier, smiling.

"A hunchback no taller than that," replied Gerald, indicating with his
hand a height of about four and a half feet.

"A hunchback?" repeated Olivier, greatly surprised.

"Yes, a hunchback, as quick-witted and determined as his satanic majesty
himself,--stiff as an iron bar to those whom he dislikes and despises,
but full of affection and devotion to those whom he honours--though such
persons, I am forced to admit, are rare--and never making the slightest
attempt to conceal from any individual the liking or aversion he or she
inspires."

"It is fortunate for him that his infirmity gives him this privilege of
plain speaking," remarked the commander. "But for that, your hunchback
would be likely to have a hard time of it."

"His infirmity?" said Gerald, laughing. "Though a hunchback, the Marquis
de Maillefort is, I assure you--"

"He is a marquis?" interrupted Olivier.

"Yes, a marquis, and an aristocrat of the old school. He is a scion of
the ducal house of Haut-martel, the head of which has resided in Germany
since 1830. But though he is a hunchback, M. de Maillefort, as I was
about to remark before, is as alert and vigorous as any young man, in
spite of his forty-five years. And, by the way, you and I consider
ourselves pretty good swordsmen, do we not?"

"Well, yes."

"Very well; the marquis could touch us eight times out of twelve. He
rivals the incomparable Bertrand. His movements are as light as a
bird's, and as swift as lightning itself."

"This brave little hunchback interests me very much," said the veteran.
"If he has fought any duels his adversaries must have cut strange
figures."

"The marquis has fought several duels, in all of which he evinced the
greatest coolness and courage, at least so my father, who was a personal
friend of the marquis, once told me."

"And he goes into society in spite of his infirmity?" inquired Olivier.

"Sometimes he frequents it assiduously; then absents himself for months
at a time. His is a very peculiar nature. My father told me that for
many years the marquis seemed to be in a state of profound melancholy,
but I have never seen him other than gay and amusing."

"But with his courage, his skill in the use of weapons, and his quick
wit, he is certainly a man to be feared."

"Yes, and you can easily imagine how greatly his presence disquiets
certain persons whom society continues to receive on account of their
birth, in spite of their notorious villainies. Macreuse, for instance,
as soon as he sees the marquis enter by one door, makes his escape by
another."

The conversation was here interrupted by an incident which would have
been unworthy even of comment in some parts of the town, but rare enough
in the Batignolles.

The arbour in which the little party had dined skirted the garden wall,
and at the farther end of it was a latticed gate, which afforded the
occupants a view of the street beyond. A handsome carriage, drawn by two
superb horses stopped exactly in front of this gate.

This carriage was empty.

The footman on the box beside the driver, and, like him, dressed in rich
livery, descended from his seat, and drawing from his pocket a letter
that evidently bore an address, looked from side to side as if in search
of a number, then disappeared, after motioning the coachman to follow
him.

"This is the first vehicle of that kind I've seen in the Batignolles in
ten years," remarked the old sailor. "It is very flattering to the
neighbourhood."

"I never saw finer horses," said Olivier, with the air of a connoisseur.
"Do they belong to you, Gerald?"

"Do you take me for a millionaire?" responded the young duke, gaily. "I
keep a saddle-horse, and I put one of my mother's horses in my
cabriolet, when she is not using them. That is my stable. This does not
prevent me from loving horses, or from being something of a sporting
man. But, speaking of horses, do you remember that dunce, Mornand,
another of our college mates?"

"And still another of our mutual antipathies,--of course I do. What has
become of him?"

"He is quite a distinguished personage now."

"He! Nonsense!"

"But I tell you he is. He is a member of the Chamber of Peers. He
discourses at length, there. People even listen to him. In short, he is
a minister in embryo."

"De Mornand?"

"Yes, my worthy friend. He is as dull as ever, and twice as arrogant and
self-complacent. He doubts everything except his own merit. He possesses
an insatiable ambition, and he belongs to a coterie of jealous and
spiteful individuals,--spiteful because they are mediocre, or, rather,
mediocre because they are spiteful. Such men rise in the world with,
marvellous rapidity, though Mornand has a broad back and supple
loins,--he will succeed, one aiding the other."

Just then the footman who had disappeared with the carriage returned,
and, seeing through the latticed gate the little party in the arbour,
approached, and, raising his hand to his hat, said:

"Gentlemen, will you be so kind as to tell me if this garden belongs to
No. 7?"

"Yes," replied the commander.

"And to the apartment on the ground floor of that house?"

"Yes."

"I rang that bell three times, but no one answered it."

"I occupy that apartment," said the commander, greatly surprised. "What
do you want?"

"Here is a very important letter for a Madame Barbançon, who, I am told,
lives here."

"Yes, she does live here," replied the veteran, more and more surprised.

Then, seeing the housekeeper at the other end of the garden, he called
out to her:

"Mother Barbançon, the door-bell has rung three times, unanswered, while
you've been trespassing upon my preserves. Come quick! Here is a letter
for you."



CHAPTER IV.

THE DUCHESS.


Madame Barbançon promptly responded to this peremptory summons, and,
after a hasty apology to her employer, said to the waiting servant:

"You have a letter for me? From whom?"

"From the Comtesse de Beaumesnil, madame," replied the man, handing
Madame Barbançon the letter through the lattice.

"Madame la Comtesse de Beaumesnil?" exclaimed the astonished
housekeeper; "I do not know her. I not only don't know her, but I
haven't the slightest idea who she is--not the slightest," the worthy
woman repeated, as she opened the letter.

"The Comtesse de Beaumesnil?" inquired Gerald, evidently much
interested.

"Do you know her?" asked Olivier.

"I met her two or three years ago," replied Gerald. "She was wonderfully
beautiful, then, but the poor woman has not left her bed for a year. I
understand that hers is a hopeless case. Worse still, M. de Beaumesnil,
who had gone to Italy with their only child, a daughter, who was ordered
south by the physicians,--M. de Beaumesnil died quite recently in
Naples, in consequence of having been thrown from his horse, so if
Madame de Beaumesnil dies, as they apprehend, her daughter will be left
an orphan at the age of fifteen or sixteen years."

"Poor child! This is really very sad," said the commander,
sympathisingly.

"Nevertheless, Mlle. de Beaumesnil has a brilliant future before her,"
continued Gerald, "for she will be the richest heiress in France. The
Beaumesnil property yields an income of over three million francs!"

"Three million francs!" exclaimed Olivier, laughing. "Can it be that
there are people who really have an income of three million francs? Do
such people come and go, and move about and talk, just like other
people? I should certainly like to be brought face to face with one of
these wonderful creatures, Gerald."

"I'll do my best to gratify you, but I warn you that as a general thing
they are not pleasant to contemplate. I am not referring to Mlle. de
Beaumesnil, however; she may be as beautiful as her mother."

"I should like very much to know how one can spend such an income as
that," said the commander, in all sincerity, emptying the ashes from his
pipe.

"Great Heavens! is it possible?" exclaimed Madame Barbançon, who, in the
meantime, had read the letter handed to her. "I am to go in a
carriage--in a carriage like that?"

"What is the matter, Mother Barbançon?" inquired the veteran.

"I must ask you to let me go away for a little while."

"Certainly, but where are you going, may I ask?"

"To the house of Madame de Beaumesnil," replied the good woman, in a
very important tone. "She desires some information which I alone can
give, it seems. May I turn Bonapartist if I know what to make of all
this!"

But the next instant the former midwife uttered an exclamation, as if a
new and startling idea had just occurred to her, and, turning to her
employer, she said:

"Monsieur, will you step out into the garden a moment with me? I want to
say a word to you in private."

"Oh," replied the veteran, following the lady out of the arbour, "it is
an important matter, it seems. Go on; I am listening, Madame
Barbançon."

The housekeeper, having led her employer a short distance from the
arbour, turned to him and said, with a mysterious air:

"Monsieur, do you know Madame Herbaut, who lives on the second floor and
has two daughters? The lady to whom I introduced M. Olivier about a
fortnight ago, you recollect."

"I don't know her, but you have often spoken to me about her. Well, what
of it?"

"I recollect now that one of her particular friends, Madame Laîné, is
now in Italy, acting as governess to the daughter of a countess whose
name sounds something like Beaumesnil. In fact, it may be this very same
countess."

"It may be, I admit, Mother Barbançon. Well, go on."

"And she may have heard about me through Madame Laîné, whom I have met
at Madame Herbaut's."

"That, too, is very possible, Madame Barbançon. You will soon know for a
certainty, however, as you are going to Madame Beaumesnil's."

"_Mon Dieu!_ monsieur, another idea has just occurred to me."

"Let us hear it," said the veteran, with infinite patience.

"I have told you about that masked lady who--"

"You're not going to tell that story again, surely!" cried the
commander, with the evident intention of beating a retreat.

"No, monsieur, but what if all this should have some connection with
that young lady?"

"The quickest way to ascertain, Mother Barbançon, is to get off as soon
as possible. We shall both be the gainers by it."

"You are right, monsieur. I will go at once."

And following her employer, who had returned to his guests in the
arbour, the housekeeper said to the footman, who was still standing a
few feet from the gate:

"Young man, as soon as I can get my bonnet and shawl on I shall be at
your service."

And a few minutes afterwards Madame Barbançon, triumphantly passing the
gate in her carriage, felt that the deference due her employer made it
incumbent upon her to rise to her feet in the vehicle, and bow low to
the commander and his guests.

Just then the clock in a neighbouring church struck seven.

"Seven o'clock!" exclaimed Olivier, evidently much annoyed. "I am very
sorry, my dear Gerald, but I shall have to leave you."

"Already! And why?"

"I promised a worthy mason in the neighbourhood that I would go over his
accounts with him this evening, and you have no idea what a task it is
to straighten out books like his!"

"True, you did warn me that you would only be at liberty until seven
o'clock," replied Gerald. "I had forgotten the fact, I was enjoying my
visit so much."

"Olivier," remarked the veteran, whose spirits seemed to have undergone
a sudden decline since his nephew's allusion to the work to which he
intended to devote his evening, "Olivier, as Madame Barbançon is absent,
will you do me the favour to bring from the cellar the last bottle of
that Cyprian wine I brought from the Levant? M. Gerald must take a glass
of it with us before we separate. The mason's accounts won't suffer if
they do have to wait half an hour."

"An excellent idea, uncle, for I do not have to be as punctual now as if
it were the week before pay-day. I'll get the wine at once. Gerald shall
taste your nectar, uncle."

And Olivier hastened away.

"M. Gerald," began the commander, with no little embarrassment, "it was
not merely to give you a taste of my Cyprian wine that I sent Olivier
away. It was in order that I might be able to speak to you, his best
friend, very plainly in regard to him, and to tell you how kind and
thoughtful and generous he is."

"I know all that, commander. I know it well, but I like to hear it from
your lips,--the lips of one who knows and loves Olivier."

"No, M. Gerald, no, you do not know all. You have no idea of the
arduous, distasteful labour the poor boy imposes upon himself, not only
that he may be no expense to me during his furlough, but that he may be
able to make me little presents now and then, which I dare not refuse
for fear of paining him. This handsome pipe, it was he who gave it to
me. I am very fond of roses. He has just presented me with two superb
new varieties. I had long wanted a big easy chair, for when my wounds
reopen, which happens only too often, I am sometimes obliged to sit up
several nights in succession. But a large armchair cost too much. Still,
about a week ago, what should I see some men bringing in but that much
desired article of furniture! I might have known it, for Olivier had
spent I don't know how many nights in copying documents. Excuse these
confidential disclosures on the part of poor but honest people, M.
Gerald," said the old sailor, in a voice that trembled with emotion,
while a tear stole down his cheek, "but my heart is full. I must open it
to some one, and it is a twofold pleasure to be able to tell all this to
you."

Gerald seemed about to speak, but the commander interrupted him.

"Pardon me, M. Gerald, you will think me too garrulous, I fear, but
Olivier will be here in a minute, and I have a favour to ask of you. By
reason of your exalted position, you must have many grand acquaintances,
M. Gerald. My poor Olivier has no influence, and yet his services, his
education, and his conduct alike entitle him to promotion. But he has
never been willing, or he has never dared to approach any of his
superiors on this subject. I can understand it, for if I had been a
'hustler'--as you call it--I should hold a much higher rank to-day. It
seems to be a family failing. Olivier is like me. We both do our best,
but when it is a question of asking favours our tongues cleave to the
roof of our mouths, and we're ashamed to look anybody in the face. But
take care! Here comes Olivier," hastily exclaimed the old sailor,
picking up his pipe and beginning to puff at it with all his might; "try
to look unconcerned, M. Gerald, for heaven's sake try to look
unconcerned, or Olivier will suspect something."

"Olivier must be a lieutenant before his leave expires, commander, and I
believe he will be," said Gerald, deeply touched by these revelations on
the part of the veteran. "I have very little influence myself, but I
will speak to the Marquis de Maillefort. His word carries great weight
everywhere, and strongly urged by him, Olivier's promotion--which is
only just and right--is assured. I will attend to the matter. You need
give yourself no further anxiety on the subject."

"Ah, M. Gerald, I was not mistaken in you, I see," said the commander,
hurriedly. "You are kind as a brother to my poor boy--but here he
is--don't let him suspect anything."

And the good man began to smoke his pipe with the most unconcerned air
imaginable, though he was obliged furtively to dash a tear from out the
corner of his eye, while Gerald to divert his former comrade's
suspicions still more effectually, cried:

"So you've got here at last, slow-coach! I'm strongly inclined to think
you must have fallen in with some pretty barmaid like that handsome
Jewess at Oran. Do you remember her, you gay Lothario?"

"She was a beauty, that's a fact," replied the young soldier, smiling at
the recollection thus evoked, "but she couldn't hold a candle to the
young girl I just met in the courtyard," replied Olivier, setting the
dusty bottle of Cyprian wine carefully on the table.

"Ah, your prolonged stay is easily explained now!" retorted Gerald.

"Just hear the coxcomb," chimed in the veteran. "And who is this
beauty?"

"Yes, yes, do give us the particulars of your conquest."

"She would suit you wonderfully well, M. le duc," laughed Olivier,
"wonderfully well, for she is a duchess."

"A duchess?" queried Gerald.

"A duchess here!" exclaimed the commander. "The locality is indeed
honoured, to-day. This is something new."

"I was only trying to gratify your vanity a little,--the vanity of a
Batignollais, you know. My conquest, as that harebrained Gerald is
pleased to call it, is no conquest at all; besides, the lady in question
is not really a duchess, though people call her so."

"And why, pray?" inquired Gerald.

"Because they say she is as proud and beautiful as any duchess."

"But who is she? In my character of duke, my curiosity on this point
should be gratified," insisted Gerald.

"She is a music teacher," replied Olivier. "She is degrading herself
terribly, you see."

"Say rather the piano is becoming ennobled by the touch of her taper
fingers,--for she must have the hands of a duchess, of course. Come now,
tell us all about it. If you're in love, whom should you take into your
confidence if not your uncle and your former comrade?"

"I sincerely wish I had the right to take you into my confidence," said
Olivier, laughing; "but to tell the truth, this is the first time I ever
saw the young girl."

"But tell us all you know about her."

"There is a Madame Herbaut who has rooms on the second floor of the
house," replied Olivier, "and every Sunday this excellent woman invites
a number of young girls, friends of her daughters, to spend the evening
with her. Some are bookkeepers or shop girls, others are drawing
teachers, or music teachers, like the duchess. There are several very
charming girls among them, I assure you, though they work hard all day
to earn an honest living. And how intensely they enjoy their Sunday with
kind Madame Herbaut! They play games, and dance to the music of the
piano. It is very amusing to watch them, and twice when Madame Barbançon
took me up to Madame Herbaut's rooms--"

"I demand an introduction to Madame Herbaut,--an immediate introduction,
do you hear?" cried the young duke.

"You demand--you demand. So you think you have only to ask, I suppose,"
retorted Olivier, gaily. "Understand, once for all, that the Batignolles
are quite as exclusive as the Faubourg St. Germain."

"Ah, you are jealous! You make a great mistake, though, for real or
supposed duchesses have very little charm for me. One doesn't come to
the Batignolles to fall in love with a duchess, so you need have no
fears on that score; besides, if you refuse my request, I'm on the best
possible terms with Mother Barbançon, and I'll ask her to introduce me
to Madame Herbaut."

"Try it, and see if you succeed in securing admittance," responded
Olivier, with a laughable air of importance. "But to return to the
subject of the duchess," he continued, "Madame Herbaut, who is evidently
devoted to her, remarked to me the other day, when I was going into
ecstasies over this company of charming young girls: 'Ah, what would you
say if you could see the duchess? Unfortunately, she has failed us these
last two Sundays, and we miss her terribly, for all the other girls
simply worship her; but some time ago she was summoned to the bedside of
a very wealthy lady who is extremely ill, and whose sufferings are so
intense, as well as so peculiar in character, that her physician, at
his wit's end, conceived the idea that soft and gentle music might
assuage her agony at least to some extent.'"

"How singular!" exclaimed Gerald. "This invalid, whose sufferings they
are endeavouring to mitigate in every conceivable way, and to whom your
duchess must have been summoned, is Madame la Comtesse de Beaumesnil."

"The same lady who just sent for Madame Barbançon?" inquired the
veteran.

"Yes, monsieur, for I had heard before of this musical remedy resorted
to in the hope of assuaging that lady's terrible sufferings."

"A strange idea," said Olivier, "but one that has not proved entirely
futile, I should judge, as the duchess, who is a fine musician, goes to
the house of Madame de Beaumesnil every evening. That is the reason I
did not see her at either of Madame Herbaut's soirées. She had just been
calling on that lady, probably, when I met her just now. Struck by her
regal bearing and her extraordinary beauty, I asked the porter if he
knew who she was. 'It was the duchess I'm sure, M. Olivier,' he
answered."

"This is all very interesting and charming, but it is rather too
melancholy to suit my taste," said Gerald. "I prefer those pretty and
lively girls who grace Madame Herbaut's entertainments. If you don't
take me to one, you're an ingrate. Remember that pretty shop-girl in
Algiers, who had an equally pretty sister!"

"What!" exclaimed the veteran, "I thought you were talking a moment ago
of a pretty Jewess at Oran!"

"But, uncle, when one is at Oran one's sweetheart is at Oran. When one
is at Algiers, one's sweetheart is there."

"So you're trying to outdo Don Juan, you naughty boy!" cried the
veteran, evidently much flattered by his nephew's popularity with the
fair sex.

"But what else could you expect, commander?" asked Gerald. "It is not a
matter of inconstancy, you see, but simply of following one's regiment,
that is all. That is the reason Olivier and I were obliged to desert the
beauties of Oran for the pretty shop-girls of Algiers."

"Just as a change of station compelled us to desert the bronze-cheeked
maidens of Martinique for the fisher maids of St. Pierre Miquelon,"
remarked the old sailor, who was becoming rather lively under the
influence of the Cyprian wine which had been circulating freely during
the conversation.

"A very sudden change of zone, commander," remarked Gerald, nudging the
veteran with his elbow. "It must have been leaving fire for ice."

"No, no, you're very much mistaken there," protested the veteran,
vehemently. "I don't know what to make of it, but those fisher maidens,
fair as albinos, had the very deuce in them. There was one little
roly-poly with white lashes, particularly, whom they called the
Whaler--"

"About the temperature of Senegambia, eh, uncle?"

"I should say so," ejaculated the veteran. And as he replaced his glass
upon the table, he made a clucking sound with his tongue, but it was
hard to say whether this significant sound had reference to his
recollection of the fair Whaler or to the pleasant flavour of the
Cyprian wine. Then suddenly recollecting himself, the worthy man
exclaimed:

"Well, well, what am I thinking of? It ill becomes an old fellow like me
to be talking on such subjects to youths like you! Go on, talk of your
Jewesses and your duchesses as much as you please, boys. It suits your
years."

"Very well, then, I insist that Olivier shall take me to Madame
Herbaut's," said the persistent Gerald.

"See the result of satiety. You go in the most fashionable and
aristocratic society, and yet envy us our poor little Batignollais
entertainments."

"Fashionable society is not at all amusing," said Gerald. "I frequent it
merely to please my mother. To-morrow, for example, will be a
particularly trying day to me, for my mother gives an afternoon dance.
By the way, why can't you come, Olivier?"

"Come where?"

"Why, to this dance my mother gives."

"I?"

"Yes, you! Why not?"

"I, Olivier Raymond, a private in the hussars, attend a dance given in
the Faubourg St. Germain!"

"It would be very strange if I could not take my dearest friend to my
mother's house merely because he has the honour to be one of the bravest
soldiers in the French army. Olivier, you must come. I insist upon it."

"In jacket and kepi, I suppose," said Olivier, smilingly, referring to
his poverty, which did not permit him to indulge in citizen's clothing.

Knowing how this worthy fellow spent the proceeds of his arduous toil,
and knowing, too, his extreme sensitiveness in money matters, Gerald
could only say in reply:

"True, I did not think of that. It is a pity, for we might have had a
very pleasant time together. I could have shown you some of our
fashionable beauties, though I feel sure that, so far as young and
pretty faces are concerned, Madame Herbaut's entertainments have the
advantage."

"Do you see, uncle, how cleverly he returns to the charge?"

The clock in the neighbouring steeple struck eight.

"Eight o'clock!" cried Olivier. "The deuce! My master mason has been
waiting for me for an hour. I've got to go, Gerald. I promised to be
punctual,--an hour late is a good deal. Good night, uncle."

"You're going to work half the night, again," remarked the veteran,
casting a meaning look at Gerald. "I shall wait up for you, though."

"No, no, uncle, go to bed. Tell Madame Barbançon to leave the key with
the porter, and some matches in the kitchen. I won't wake you, I'll come
in quietly."

"Good-bye, M. Gerald," said the veteran, taking the young duke's hand,
and pressing it in a very significant manner, as if to remind him of his
promise in regard to Olivier's promotion.

"Good-bye, commander," said Gerald, returning the pressure, and
indicating by a gesture that he read the veteran's thought. "You will
permit me to come and see you again, will you not?"

"It would give me great pleasure, you may be sure of that, M. Gerald."

"Yes, commander, for I judge you by myself. Good-bye. Come, Olivier, I
will accompany you to the door of your master mason."

"I shall have the pleasure of your company a quarter of an hour longer,
then. Good night, uncle."

"Good night, my dear boy."

And Olivier, taking up his bundle of papers and pens, left the house arm
in arm with Gerald. At the master mason's door they separated, promising
to see each other again at an early day.

About an hour after Olivier left his uncle, Madame Barbançon was brought
back to the Batignolles in Madame de Beaumesnil's carriage.

The veteran, amazed at the silence of his housekeeper, and at the gloomy
expression of her face, addressed her several times in vain, and finally
begged her to help herself to the small portion of Cyprian wine that
remained. Madame Barbançon took the bottle and started towards the door,
then stopped short and crossed her arms with a meditative air, a
movement that caused the wine-bottle to fall with a crash upon the
floor.

"The deuce take you!" cried the veteran. "Look at the Cyprian wine
you've wasted."

"True, I've broken the bottle," replied the housekeeper, with the air of
a person just waking from a dream. "It is not surprising. Since I saw
and heard Madame la Comtesse de Beaumesnil,--for I have just seen her,
and in such a pitiable state, poor woman!--I have been racking my brain
to remember something I can not remember, and I know very well that I
shall be absolutely good for nothing for a long time."

"It is a good thing to know this in advance," replied the veteran, with
his usual placidity of manner on seeing Madame Barbançon again relapse
into a deeply preoccupied frame of mind.



CHAPTER V.

THE LION OF THE BALL.


On the day following Olivier Raymond's chance meeting with Gerald, the
mother of the latter gave a dancing party.

The Duchesse de Senneterre, both by birth and by marriage, was connected
with the oldest and most illustrious families of France, and though her
fortune was insignificant and her house small, she gave every year four
or five small but extremely elegant and exclusive dancing receptions, of
which she and her two young daughters did the honours with perfect
grace. The Duc de Senneterre, dead for two years, had held a high office
under the Restoration.

The three windows of the salon where the guests danced opened into a
very pretty garden, and the day being superb, many ladies and gentlemen
stepped out for a chat or a stroll through the paths bordered with
flowering shrubs during the intervals between the dances.

Four or five men, chancing to meet near a big clump of lilacs, had
paused to exchange the airy nothings that generally compose the
conversation at such a gathering.

Among this group were two men that merit attention. One, a man about
thirty-five years of age, but already obese, with an extremely pompous,
indolent, and supercilious manner and a lack-lustre eye, was the Comte
de Mornand, the same man who had been mentioned at Commander Bernard's
the evening before, when Olivier and Gerald were comparing their
reminiscences of college life.

M. de Mornand occupied a hereditary seat in the Chamber of Peers.

The other, an intimate friend of the count, was a man of about the same
age,--tall, slim, angular, a trifle round-shouldered, and also a little
bald,--whose flat head, prominent and rather bloodshot eyes imparted an
essentially reptilian character to his visage. This was the Baron de
Ravil. Though his means of support were problematical in the extreme
when compared with his luxurious style of living, the baron was still
received in the aristocratic society in which his birth entitled him to
a place, but never did any intriguer--we use the word in its lowest,
most audacious sense--display more brazen effrontry or daring impudence.

"Have you seen the lion of the ball?" inquired one of the men of the
party, addressing M. de Mornand.

"I have but just arrived, and have no idea to whom you refer," replied
the count.

"Why, the Marquis de Maillefort."

"That cursed hunchback!" exclaimed M. de Ravil; "it is all his fault
that this affair seems so unconscionably dull. His hideous presence is
enough to cast a damper over any festivity."

"How strange it is that the marquis appears in society for a few weeks,
now and then, and then suddenly disappears again," remarked another
member of the group.

"I believe he is a manufacturer of counterfeit money and emerges from
his seclusion, now and then, to put his spurious coin in circulation,"
remarked M. de Ravil. "This much is certain--incomprehensible as it
appears--he actually loaned me a thousand franc note, which I shall
never return, the other night, at the card-table. And what do you
suppose the impertinent creature said as he handed it to me? 'It will
afford me so much amusement to dun you for it, baron.' He need have no
fears. He will amuse himself in that way a long time."

"But all jesting aside, this marquis is a very peculiar man," remarked
another member of the party. "His mother, the old Marquise de
Maillefort, left him a very handsome fortune, but no one can imagine
what he does with his money, for he lives very modestly."

"I used to meet him quite frequently at poor Madame de Beaumesnil's."

"By the way, do you know they say she is said to be lying at the point
of death?"

"Madame de Beaumesnil?"

"Yes; she is about to receive the last sacrament. At least that is what
they told Madame de Mirecourt, who stopped to inquire for her on her way
here."

"Her case must, indeed, have been incurable, then, for her physician is
that famous Doctor Gasterini, who is as great a savant as he is a
gourmand, which is certainly saying a good deal."

"Poor woman! she is young to die."

"And what an immense fortune her daughter will have," exclaimed M. de
Mornand. "She will be the richest heiress in France, and an orphan
besides. What a rare titbit for a fortune-hunter!"

As he uttered these words, M. de Mornand's eyes encountered those of his
friend Ravil.

Both started slightly, as if the same idea had suddenly occurred to both
of them. With a single look they must have read each other's thoughts.

"The richest heiress in France!"

"And an orphan!"

"And an immense landed property besides!" exclaimed the three other men
in accents of undisguised covetousness.

After which, one of them, without noticing the interchange of glances
between M. de Mornand and his friend, continued:

"And how old is this Mlle. de Beaumesnil?"

"Not over fifteen," replied M. de Ravil, "and exceedingly
unprepossessing in appearance, sickly and positively insignificant
looking, in fact."

"Sickly,--that is not objectionable, by any means, quite the contrary,"
said one of the party, reflectively.

"And homely?" remarked another, turning to Ravil. "You have seen her,
then?"

"Not I, but one of my aunts saw the girl at the Convent of the Sacred
Heart before Beaumesnil took her to Italy by the physician's order."

"Poor Beaumesnil, to die in Naples from a fall from his horse!"

"And you say that Mlle. de Beaumesnil is very homely?" he continued,
while M. de Mornand seemed to grow more and more thoughtful.

"Hideous! I think it more than likely that she's going into a decline,
too, from what I hear," responded Ravil, disparagingly; "for, after
Beaumesnil's death, the physician who had accompanied them to Naples
declared that he would not be responsible for the result if Mlle. de
Beaumesnil returned to France. She is a consumptive, I tell you, a
hopeless consumptive."

"A consumptive heiress!" exclaimed another man ecstatically. "Can any
one conceive of a more delightful combination!"

"Ah, yes, I understand," laughed Ravil, "but it is absolutely necessary
that the girl should live long enough for a man to marry her, which
Mlle. de Beaumesnil is not likely to do. She is doomed. I heard this
through M. de la Rochaiguë, her nearest relative. And he ought to know,
as the property comes to him at her death, if she doesn't marry. Perhaps
that accounts for his being so sanguine."

"What a lucky thing it would be for Madame de la Rochaiguë, who is so
fond of luxury and society!"

"Yes, in other people's houses."

"It is very strange, but it seems to me I have heard that Mlle. de
Beaumesnil strongly resembles her mother, who used to be one of the
prettiest women in Paris," remarked another gentleman.

"This girl is atrociously ugly, I tell you," said M. de Ravil. "In fact,
I'm not sure that she isn't deformed as well."

"Yes," remarked M. de Mornand, awakening from his reverie, "several
other persons have said the very same thing about the girl that Ravil
does."

"But why didn't her mother accompany her to Italy?"

"Because the poor woman had already been attacked by the strange malady
to which she is about to succumb, it seems. People say that it was a
terrible disappointment to her because she could not follow her daughter
to Naples, and that this disappointment has contributed not a little to
her present hopeless state."

"It would seem, then, that Doctor Dupont's musical cure has proved a
failure."

"What musical cure?"

"Knowing Madame de Beaumesnil's passionate love of music, the doctor, to
mitigate his patient's sufferings and arouse her from her langour,
ordered that soft and soothing music should be played or sung to her."

"Not a bad idea, though revived from the times of Saul and David,"
commented Ravil.

"Well, what was the result?"

"Madame de Beaumesnil seemed benefited at first, they say, but her
malady soon regained the ascendency."

"I have heard that poor Beaumesnil's sudden death was a terrible shock
to her."

"Bah!" exclaimed M. de Mornand, with a contemptuous shrug of the
shoulders, "she never cared a straw for Beaumesnil. She only married him
for his millions of millions. Besides, as a young girl she had any
number of lovers. In short," continued M. de Mornand, puffing out his
cheeks with an air of supercilious dignity, "Madame de Beaumesnil is
really a woman of no reputation whatever, and, in spite of the enormous
fortune she will leave, no honourable man would ever be willing to marry
the daughter of such a mother."

"Scoundrel!" exclaimed a voice which seemed to respond indignantly to M.
de Mornand's last words from behind the clump of lilacs.

There was a moment of amazed silence; then M. de Mornand, purple with
anger, made a hasty circuit of the clump of shrubbery. He found no one
there, however. The path at this place making an abrupt turn, the person
who uttered the opprobrious epithet could make his escape with
comparative ease.

"There are no more infamous scoundrels than the persons who insult
others without daring to show themselves," cried M. de Mornand, in a
loud voice.

This strange incident had scarcely taken place before the sound of the
orchestra drew the promenaders back to the salon.

M. de Mornand being left alone with Ravil, the latter said to him:

"Somebody who dared not show himself called you a scoundrel. We had
better say no more about it. But did you understand me?"

"Perfectly. The same idea suddenly, I might almost say simultaneously,
occurred to me, and for an instant I was dazzled--even dazed by it."

"An income of over three millions! What an incorruptible minister you
will be, eh?"

"Hush! It is enough to turn one's brain."

The conversation was suddenly interrupted by the arrival of a third
party, who, addressing M. de Mornand, said, with the most scrupulous
politeness:

"Monsieur, will you do me the favour to act as my vis-à-vis?"

M. de Mornand's surprise was so great that he started back without
uttering a word on hearing this request, for the person who had just
made it was no other than the Marquis de Maillefort, the singular
hunchback, of whom frequent mention has already been made in these
pages.

There was also another feeling that prevented M. de Mornand from
immediately replying to this strange proposition, for, in the full,
vibrating voice of the speaker, M. de Mornand fancied, for an instant,
that he recognised the voice of the unseen person who had called him a
scoundrel when he spoke in such disparaging terms of Madame de
Beaumesnil.

The Marquis de Maillefort, pretending not to notice the air of
displeased surprise with which M. de Mornand had greeted the proposal,
repeated in the same tone of scrupulous politeness:

"Monsieur, will you do me the favour to act as my vis-à-vis in the next
quadrille?"

On hearing this request on the part of the deformed man thus reiterated,
M. de Mornand, without concealing his desire to laugh, exclaimed:

"Act as your vis-à-vis,--yours, monsieur?"

"Yes, monsieur," replied the marquis, with the most innocent air
imaginable.

"But,--but what you ask is--is--permit me to say--very remarkable."

"And very dangerous, my dear marquis," added the Baron de Ravil, with
his usual sneer.

"As for you, baron, I might put a no less offensive and, perhaps, even
more dangerous question to you," retorted the marquis, smiling. "When
will you return the thousand francs I had the pleasure of loaning to you
the other evening?"

"You are too inquisitive, marquis."

"Come, come, baron, don't treat M. de Talleyrand's _bon mots_ as you
treat thousand franc notes."

"What do you mean by that, marquis?"

"I mean that it costs you no more to put one in circulation than the
other."

M. de Ravil bit his lip.

"This explanation is not altogether satisfactory, M. le marquis," he
said, coldly.

"You have an unquestionable right to be very exacting in the matter of
explanations, baron," retorted the marquis, in the same tone of
contemptuous persiflage; "but you have no right to be indiscreet, as you
certainly are at this moment. I had the honour to address M. de Mornand,
and you intrude yourself into our conversation, which is exceedingly
annoying to me."

Then, turning to M. de Mornand, the hunchback continued:

"You did me the honour, just now, to say that my request that you would
act as my vis-à-vis was very remarkable, I believe."

"Yes, monsieur," replied M. de Mornand, quite gravely this time, for he
began to suspect that this singular proposal was only a pretext, and the
longer he listened to the voice, the more certain he became that it was
the same which had styled him a scoundrel. "Yes, monsieur," he
continued, with mingled hauteur and assurance, "I did say, and I repeat
it, that this request to act as your vis-à-vis was very remarkable on
your part."

"And why, may I ask, if you do not think me too inquisitive?"

"Because--why--because it is--it is, I think, very singular that--"

Then as M. de Mornand did not finish the sentence:

"I have a rather peculiar habit, monsieur," the marquis said, lightly.

"What is it, monsieur?"

"Having the misfortune to be a hunchback and consequently an object of
ridicule, I have reserved for myself the exclusive right to ridicule my
deformity, and as I flatter myself I do that to the satisfaction of
people in general--excuse my conceit, monsieur, I beg--I do not permit
any one to do badly what I do so well myself."

"Monsieur!" exclaimed M. de Mornand, vehemently.

"Permit me to give you an example," continued the marquis in the same
airy tone, "I just asked you to do me the favour to act as my vis-à-vis.
Ah, well, instead of answering, 'Yes, monsieur,' or 'No, monsieur,' in a
polite manner, you respond in a voice choked with laughter, 'Your
request for me to act as your vis-à-vis is very remarkable.' And when I
ask you to finish the sentence, you hesitate and stammer and say
nothing."

"But, monsieur--"

"But, monsieur," hastily exclaimed the hunchback, interrupting his
companion afresh; "if, instead of being polite, you are disposed to
enjoy yourself at my expense, you ought to say something decidedly
impertinent, as, for example: 'M. de Maillefort, I have a horror of
deformities and really cannot bear the idea of seeing you dance;' or
'Really, M. de Maillefort, I have too much pride to show myself in the
back to back figure with you.' So you see, my dear M. de Mornand,"
continued the hunchback, with increasing jovialness, "that, as I can
ridicule myself better than any one else can, I am perfectly right not
to allow any one else to do clumsily what I can do so admirably myself."

"You say that you will not allow," began M. de Mornand, impatiently--

"Come, come, Mornand, this is all nonsense," exclaimed Ravil. "And, you,
marquis, are much too sensible a man--"

"That is not the question," replied Mornand, hotly. "This gentleman says
he will not allow--"

"Any person to ridicule me," interrupted the marquis. "No, I will not
tolerate it for a single instant; I repeat it."

"But Mornand certainly never thought for a single instant of ridiculing
you, I am sure, marquis," cried Ravil.

"Is that true, baron?"

"Yes, certainly, certainly."

"Then the gentleman will do me the favour to explain what he meant by
his reply."

"That is very simple. I will volunteer--"

"My dear Ravil," interposed M. de Mornand, firmly, "you are going
entirely too far. As M. de Maillefort descends to sarcasm and threats, I
deem it proper to refuse him any explanation whatever, and M. de
Maillefort is at perfect liberty to impute any meaning he pleases to my
words."

"Impute any meaning to your words?" exclaimed the hunchback, laughing.
"Really, I could not take any such task as that upon myself. That is the
business of your honourable colleagues in the Chamber of Peers when you
treat them to one of those superb speeches--which you alone have the
ability to understand--"

"Let us put an end to this," exclaimed M. de Mornand, exasperated beyond
endurance. "Consider my words as insulting as any words could possibly
be, monsieur."

"You are mad," cried Ravil. "All this is, or will be, supremely
ridiculous if taken seriously."

"You are right, my poor baron," said the marquis, with a contrite air;
"it will become supremely ridiculous as you say, but, monsieur, see what
a good fellow I am, I will be content with the following apology made
verbally by M. de Mornand in the presence of three or four witnesses of
my own choosing: 'M. le Marquis de Maillefort, I very humbly and
contritely ask your pardon for having dared--'"

"Enough, monsieur!" exclaimed M. de Mornand. "You must believe me either
a coward or an egregious fool."

"So you refuse the reparation I demand?" asked the marquis; "you refuse
it, absolutely?"

"Absolutely, monsieur, absolutely."

"Then I feel obliged to terminate this interview as I began it, by again
having the honour to say to you: 'Will you do me the favour to act as my
vis-à-vis?'"

"What, monsieur, as your vis-à-vis?" repeated M. de Mornand, in profound
astonishment.

"My vis-à-vis in a _danse à deux_," added the hunchback, with a meaning
gesture. "Do you understand me?"

"A duel--with you?" cried M. de Mornand, who, in his first transport of
anger, had forgotten the high social position of the hunchback, and the
ridicule which would be heaped upon him if he engaged in a personal
encounter with such an adversary. "A duel with you, monsieur? Really--"

"Are you going to plead as an excuse that such a position would be
too--too remarkable or too dangerous, as your friend Ravil would say?"

"No, monsieur, I do not consider it too dangerous--but too ridiculous."

"Yes, frightfully ridiculous to you, as I remarked to your honest friend
here a moment ago."

"Really, gentlemen," exclaimed Ravil, "I will never permit--"

Then seeing Gerald de Senneterre passing through the garden, he added:

"Here comes the Duc de Senneterre, the son of the house. I shall ask him
to assist me in putting a stop to this foolish quarrel."

"Yes, gentlemen, the duke's coming is most opportune," replied the
hunchback. And turning towards the young man, he called out:

"Gerald, my friend, we need your assistance."

"What is the matter, marquis?" asked Gerald, in a manner that was both
deferential and affectionate.

"Have you any cigars?"

"Plenty of them, marquis."

"Well, my dear Gerald, these gentlemen and I are dying to smoke. Won't
you take us up to your rooms?"

"Certainly," replied Gerald, gaily. "I have no engagement for this
dance, so I have a quarter of an hour at my disposal."

"That is all the time we shall need," said the hunchback, with a meaning
look at Mornand and Ravil. "Come, gentlemen," he added, taking Gerald's
arm and walking on ahead of the future minister and his friend.

A minute or two afterwards the four gentlemen reached Gerald's
apartments, which consisted of three rooms,--one, extremely large, on
the third floor of the house.

The young duke having politely begged Messieurs de Mornand and de Ravil
to pass in first, M. de Maillefort, locking the door and slipping the
key in his pocket, remarked to Gerald:

"Allow me, my friend."

"But why do you lock the door, M. le marquis," asked Gerald, greatly
surprised.

"So we shall not be disturbed," answered the hunchback, "but be able to
smoke in peace."

"You are certainly a very cautious man, M. le marquis," said Gerald,
laughing, as he ushered the party into the furthermost room, which,
being much larger than the others, served both as a sitting-room and
study for the young duke.

Upon one of the panels in this room hung a large shield covered with
crimson velvet, on which quite a number of weapons were displayed.



CHAPTER VI.

THE DUEL.


On seeing the Marquis de Maillefort lock the door of the apartment, M.
de Mornand partially divined the hunchback's intentions, and any
lingering doubts he may have felt were promptly dispelled when the
marquis untied his cravat and hastily divested himself of both coat and
waistcoat, to the great astonishment of Gerald, who had just turned to
approach him with an open box of cigars in his hand.

Almost at the same instant, the marquis, pointing to two swords hanging
with the other weapons on the shield, said to the young man:

"My dear Gerald, have the goodness to measure those swords with M. de
Ravil, and give the longest to my adversary if there is any difference
in them. You know the proverb, 'Hunchbacks have long arms.'"

"What!" exclaimed Gerald, in profound astonishment, "those swords?"

"Certainly, my friend. This is the situation in two words. That
gentleman (pointing to Mornand) has just been extremely impertinent to
me. He refused to apologise, and the time has now passed when I would
accept any apology, even if he would consent to make it. There is
consequently nothing for us to do but fight. You will act as my second;
M. de Ravil will act in the same capacity for M. de Mornand, and we will
settle our differences here and now."

Then, turning to his antagonist, the marquis added:

"Come, monsieur, off with your coat. Gerald has only a quarter of an
hour to spare, and we must make the most of it."

"What a pity Olivier could not witness this scene!" thought Gerald, who
had recovered from his astonishment, and who now began to regard the
adventure as extremely piquant, the more so as he had very little
sympathy for Messieurs Mornand and Ravil, and a very warm affection for
the marquis.

But though the hunchback had made this open declaration of war, M. de
Ravil turned to Gerald, and said, in a tone of profound conviction:

"You must feel that such a duel as this is entirely out of the question,
M. le duc?"

"And why, monsieur?" inquired Gerald, dryly.

"Thanks, Gerald," exclaimed the marquis. "The swords, my friend, quick,
the swords!"

"But think of permitting such an encounter in your mother's house! It
must not be, M. le duc. Think of it, a duel, in a room in your house,
and for the most trivial cause," insisted Ravil, as he saw Gerald walk
to the panel and take down the swords.

"I consider myself the sole judge of the propriety of what occurs in my
apartments," retorted Gerald. "There are numerous instances of similar
duels, are there not, M. de Mornand?"

"Any place is suitable for avenging an affront, M. le duc," was the
prompt and angry reply.

"Bravo! the Cid never made a better retort!" exclaimed the hunchback.
"Come, my dear M. de Mornand, off with your coat! It is hardly fair that
I, who am not exactly modelled after the Apollo Belvedere, should be the
first to strip."

M. de Mornand, at his wit's end, pulled off his coat.

"I absolutely refuse to act as second in such a duel," shouted M. de
Ravil.

"You can do as you please about that," responded the hunchback. "I have
the key of the door in my pocket, but you can look out of the window, or
beat a tattoo upon the pane, if you prefer. That little act of bravado
might have a good effect on M. de Mornand, perhaps."

"De Ravil, measure the swords, I beg of you," cried the other principal
in the affair.

"You insist?"

"I do."

"So be it,--but you are mad."

Then, turning to Gerald, he added, "You are taking a great
responsibility upon yourself, monsieur."

"That will do, monsieur," replied Gerald, coldly.

The proverb the marquis had quoted seemed a true one, for, when that
gentleman rolled his shirt-sleeve up above his elbow, there was
disclosed to view a long, thin, but sinewy arm, upon which the muscles
stood out like whipcords, while his opponent's arm was plump and soft.

The outcome of the encounter was apparent from the manner in which the
antagonists fell into position, and in which they crossed blades, when
Gerald, after having exchanged glances with Ravil, gave the signal for
the combat to begin.

Not that M. de Mornand evinced any signs of cowardice! On the contrary,
he manifested the courage which any well-bred man is almost sure to
display, but he was unmistakably nervous, and, though he showed a fair
knowledge of fencing, his play was characterised by excessive prudence.
He held himself out of reach as much as possible, and always upon the
defensive, parrying his antagonist's thrusts skilfully enough, but never
attacking.

[Illustration: Ran His Blade Through His Antagonist's Right Arm]

For a single instant Ravil, and even Gerald, were terrified at the
expression of ferocious hatred that overspread the features of the
marquis when he confronted his adversary, but, suddenly recovering
himself, he became the same gay, mocking cynic as at the beginning
of this strange scene, and, as the look of sullen rage he had
concentrated upon M. de Mornand softened, his thrusts became less
violent and murderous, and, at last, wishing doubtless to end the
affair, he made a feint. M. de Mornand responded ingenuously, whereupon
his opponent, with a quick, upward thrust, ran his blade through his
antagonist's right arm.

At the sight of blood, Gerald and Ravil both sprang forward, exclaiming:

"Enough, gentlemen, enough!"

Both men lowered their swords on hearing this exclamation, and the
marquis said, in a clear voice:

"I declare myself satisfied; I will even humbly beg your pardon--for
being a hunchback, M. de Mornand. It is the only excuse I can reasonably
offer you."

"It is sufficient, monsieur," said M. de Mornand, with a bitter smile,
while Gerald and De Ravil bound up the wounded arm with the aid of a
handkerchief.

This done, the two men re-dressed themselves, after which M. de
Maillefort said to M. de Mornand:

"Will you grant me the favour of a moment's conversation in another
room?"

"I am at your service."

"Will you permit it, Gerald?"

"Certainly," replied the young duke.

The two gentlemen having stepped into Gerald's bedroom, the hunchback
said, in his usual mocking way:

"Though it may be in very poor taste to speak of one's generosity, my
dear sir, I am obliged to admit that for a minute or two I felt strongly
inclined to kill you, and that it would have been a very easy matter for
me to do it."

"You should have availed yourself of the opportunity, monsieur."

"But I reflected--"

"And with what object?"

"You will excuse me, I am sure, for not opening my whole heart to you,
but permit me to beg that you will consider the slight wound you have
just received merely an aid to memory."

"I do not understand you in the least, monsieur."

"You know, of course, that one often places a bit of paper in one's
snuff-box, or ties a knot in the corner of one's handkerchief, to remind
one of a rendezvous or a promise."

"Yes, monsieur; and what of it, may I ask?"

"I am strongly in hopes that the slight wound which I have just given
you in the arm will serve as such an effectual reminder that the date of
this little episode will never be effaced from your memory."

"And why are you so desirous that this date should be indelibly engraved
upon my memory?"

"The explanation is very simple. I wish to fix the date in your memory
in an ineffaceable manner,--because it is quite possible that I shall
some time have occasion to remind you of _all you have said_ this
afternoon."

"Remind me of all I have said this afternoon?"

"Yes, monsieur, and in the presence of irrefutable witnesses that I
shall summon in case of need."

"I understand you less and less, monsieur."

"I see no particular advantage in your understanding me any better just
at this time, my dear sir, so you must permit me to take leave of you,
and go and bid my friend Gerald good-bye."

It is easy to comprehend that the real cause of M. de Maillefort's
challenge to M. de Mornand was the insulting manner in which that
gentleman had spoken of Madame de Beaumesnil, for the latter's
suspicions were correct, and it was the hunchback who, unseen, had
cried, "Scoundrel!" on hearing M. de Mornand's coarse words.

But why had M. de Maillefort, who was usually so frank and outspoken,
taken this roundabout way to secure a pretext for avenging the insult
offered to Madame de Beaumesnil? And what could be his object in wishing
to remind M. de Mornand of this special day, and in perhaps calling him
to account for all he had just said in the presence of reliable
witnesses?

These questions will be satisfactorily answered as the story proceeds.

The Marquis de Maillefort had just bidden Gerald good-bye, when one of
the servants brought the young duke the following letter, written by
Olivier that same morning.

       *       *       *       *       *

"MY GOOD GERALD:--'Man proposes and God disposes,' and last night,
Providence, in the shape of my worthy master mason, decided that I must
absent myself from Paris for a fortnight or three weeks, and I am truly
sorry, for there can be no repetition of our pleasant dinner-party of
yesterday for a long time to come.

"The fact is, my master mason is a very poor arithmetician, and he has
become so mixed up in his specifications for some work he is to do in a
château near Luzarches that it is impossible for me to make head or tail
of his figures. For me to be able to cast any light on this portentous
gloom, I shall be obliged to go through a host of measurements which I
shall have to take myself, if I would avoid more puzzles, and this will
necessitate a prolonged absence, I fear. I never told you, did I? that
my master mason was formerly a sergeant in the engineer corps, a brave,
honest, plain, kind-hearted man, and you know that life with people of
that sort is easy and pleasant. One of my chief reasons, too, for going
to his assistance is that, so far as I am able to judge, he is cheating
himself badly,--such a rare thing in these days that I shall not be
sorry to verify the fact.

"I leave my uncle--what a heart of gold he has, hasn't he?--with no
little anxiety. Ever since Madame Barbançon was brought back to us in
Madame de Beaumesnil's superb equipage she has been in a truly alarming
frame of mind, and I tremble for my uncle's digestion. She has not so
much as mentioned Bonaparte's name, and seems to be in a brown study all
the time,--pauses thoughtfully in the garden, and every now and then
stands stock-still in her kitchen with eyes fixed upon vacancy. She gave
us sour milk this morning, and the eggs were like leather. So take heed,
my dear Gerald, if you should happen to drop in at meal-time. It is
evident, too, that Madame Barbançon is burning with a desire to be
questioned concerning the particulars of her recent visit, but very
naturally my uncle and I avoid the subject, as there is really something
strange and even incomprehensible about the affair.

"If you have time, drop in and see my uncle. It would please him very
much, for he will miss me sadly, I fear, and he has taken a great fancy
to you. What ineffable kindness of heart and unswerving uprightness of
soul are concealed beneath his plain exterior! Ah, my dear Gerald, I
have never craved wealth for myself, but I tremble to think that, at his
age and with his infirmities, my uncle will have more and more
difficulty in living on his modest pay, in spite of all the little
privations he endures so courageously. And if he should become really
ill,--for two of his wounds reopen frequently,--sickness is so hard upon
the poor? Ah, Gerald, the thought is a cruel one to me.

"Forgive me, my friend and brother. I began this letter cheerfully, and
it has become really funereal in tone. Good-bye, Gerald, good-bye. Write
me at Luzarches.

"Yours devotedly,

"OLIVIER RAYMOND."



CHAPTER VII.

THE PRETTY MUSICIAN.


About seven o'clock on the evening of the same day on which M. de
Maillefort's duel took place, and just as the sun was beginning to
vanish from sight in a bank of dark clouds that indicated a stormy
night,--for occasional big drops of rain were already falling,--a young
girl was crossing the Place de la Concorde, in the direction of the
Faubourg Ste. Honoré.

This girl carried under her left arm two large music books whose shabby
bindings attested to long and faithful service; in her right hand she
held a small umbrella. Her attire, which was modest in the extreme,
consisted of a plain black silk dress with a small mantle of the same
material, and, though the spring was already far advanced, she wore on
her head a gray felt hat tied under the chin with broad ribbons of the
same quiet hue. A few soft, curling tresses of golden hair, which the
wind had loosened from their confinement, caressed her low, broad
forehead, and made a lovely frame for her sweet, youthful face, which
wore an expression of profound sadness, but which was also instinct with
refinement, modesty, and quiet dignity. This same natural dignity
manifested itself in the thoughtful and rather proud expression of the
girl's large blue eyes. Her bearing was graceful and distinguished, and
though her mantle concealed her figure, one instinctively felt that it
was not only lithe, but perfect in contour, for her garments were worn
with such an air of distinction that one forgot their shabbiness.

As she lifted her dress slightly in crossing a gutter, a pretty foot,
clad in a neat, well-fitting, though rather thick-soled shoe, was
disclosed to view, and one also caught a glimpse of a petticoat of
dazzling whiteness, edged with a narrow lace-trimmed ruffle.

At the corner of the Rue des Champs Élysées, a beggar woman, with a
child in her arms, addressed a few words to her in an imploring voice,
whereupon the girl paused, and after a moment's embarrassment,--for
having both hands occupied, one with her music books and the other with
her umbrella, she could not get at her pocket,--she solved the
difficulty by confiding the music books temporarily to the poor woman's
care, and transferring her umbrella to her other hand. This done, the
girl drew out her purse, which contained barely four francs in small
change, and, taking from it a two sous piece, said hurriedly, but in
tones of entrancing sweetness:

"Forgive me, good mother, forgive me for being unable to offer you
more."

Then, with a compassionate glance at the pale face of the infant which
the woman was pressing to her breast, she added:

"Poor little thing! May God preserve it to you!" Then resuming
possession of her music books, and casting another glance of tender
commiseration on the poor creatures, she continued on her way down the
Champs Élysées.

We have dwelt upon the apparently trivial details of this act of
charity, merely because they seem to us so significant. The gift, though
trifling in value, had not been given haughtily or thoughtlessly; nor
was the young girl content with dropping a bit of money into the
outstretched hand. There was also another circumstance which, though
trivial, was highly significant: the young girl had removed her glove
before proffering her alms--as she would have done before touching the
hand of a friend and equal.

It so happened that M. de Ravil, who had just escorted his wounded
friend to his home on the Rue de Madeleine, met the young girl on the
pavement of the Rue des Champs Élysées, and, struck by her beauty and by
the distinguished bearing which contrasted so strongly with the
excessive plainness of her attire, he paused a moment directly in front
of her and eyed her cynically, then, as she walked quickly on, he turned
and followed her.

As she turned into the Rue de l'Arcade, a street little frequented at
that hour of the day, he quickened his pace, and, overtaking the fair
unknown, said, insolently:

"Mademoiselle gives music lessons, I judge? Will she be kind enough to
come and give me one--at my house?"

As he spoke he laid his hand upon the arm of the girl, who turned
quickly with a faint cry; then, though her cheeks were crimson with
terror and emotion, she cast such a look of withering scorn on Ravil
that, in spite of his natural impudence, his eyes fell, and bowing low
before the unknown with an air of ironical deference, he said:

"Pardon me, madame la princesse, I was mistaken in the person."

The girl continued on her way, forcing herself to walk quietly in spite
of her painful anxiety, for the house to which she going was only a
short distance off now.

"All the same, I intend to follow her and see who this shabbily dressed
girl who gives herself the airs of a duchess is," Ravil said to himself.

The comparison was an eminently just one, though he did not know it, for
Herminie--that was the girl's name; in fact, being a foundling, she had
no other--for Herminie was indeed a duchess, if one means by that word
a charming combination of beauty, grace, and natural refinement,
accompanied by that indomitable pride which is inherent in every
fastidious and sensitive nature.

It has been truly said that many duchesses, both as regards appearance
and instincts, were born _lorettes_; while, on the other hand, many poor
creatures of the most obscure origin were born duchesses.

Herminie herself was certainly a living example of the truth of this
assertion, for the friends she had made in her humble rôle of singing
and piano teacher always called her the duchess,--a few from jealousy,
for even the most generous and unassuming of people have their
detractors, others, on the contrary, because the term best expressed the
impression Herminie's manner and appearance made upon them. It is hardly
necessary to say that the young lady in question was no other than the
duchess of whom Olivier had made frequent mention during the dinner at
Commander Bernard's house.

Herminie, still closely followed by Ravil, soon left the Rue de l'Arcade
for the Rue d'Anjou, where she entered an imposing mansion, thus
escaping the annoying pursuit of that cynical personage.

"How strange!" he exclaimed, pausing a few yards off. "Why the devil is
that girl going into the Hôtel de Beaumesnil with her music books under
her arm. She certainly cannot live there."

Then, after a moment's reflection, he added, "But now I think of it,
this must be the female David who is trying to assuage Madame de
Beaumesnil's sufferings by the charm of her music. That lady might well
be likened to good King Saul by reason of her great wealth, which will
all go to that young girl in whom my friend Mornand already feels such
an interest. As for me, that pretty musician who has just entered the
home of the countess suits my fancy. I mean to wait until she comes
out, for I must find out where she lives."

The expression of melancholy on Herminie's charming face deepened as she
crossed the threshold, and, passing the porter without speaking, as any
member of the household might have done, entered the magnificent hall of
this sumptuous abode.

It was still daylight, but the entire lower floor was brilliantly
lighted. As she noted this fact, her surprise changed to anguish, which
increased when she saw none of the footmen who were usually in
attendance.

A profound stillness pervaded the mansion as the young girl, with her
heart throbbing almost to bursting, mounted the handsome stairway to a
broad landing, which commanded a view of a long line of large and
magnificently furnished apartments.

These rooms, too, were brilliantly lighted but also deserted, and the
pale light of the candles, contending with the glowing rays of the
setting sun, produced a very strange and most unnatural effect.

Herminie, unable to account for the poignant anxiety to which she was a
prey, hurried breathlessly on through several rooms, then paused
suddenly.

It seemed to her that she could hear stifled sobs in the distance.

At last she reached a door leading into a long picture-gallery, and at
the farther end of this gallery Herminie saw all the inmates of the
mansion kneeling just outside the threshold of an open door.

A terrible presentiment seized the young girl. When she left Madame de
Beaumesnil the evening before, that lady was alarmingly, though not
hopelessly ill; but now, these lights, this lugubrious silence, broken
only by smothered sobs, indicated beyond a doubt that Madame de
Beaumesnil was receiving the last sacrament.

The young girl, overcome with grief and terror, felt that her strength
was deserting her, and instinctively clutched at one of the consoles
for support; then, endeavouring to conceal her emotion and her tears,
again hastened on with tottering steps towards the group of servants in
the open doorway of Madame de Beaumesnil's chamber, and knelt there in
the midst of them.



CHAPTER VIII.

THE UNHAPPY SECRET.


Through the open doorway before which Herminie had just knelt, she could
see by the wan light of an alabaster lamp Madame de Beaumesnil, a woman
only about thirty-eight years of age, but frightfully pale and
emaciated. The countess, who was sitting up in bed, supported by
pillows, had her hands clasped devoutly. Her features, once of rare
beauty, were drawn and haggard, her large eyes, formerly of a clear,
bright blue, had lost their lustre, though they were riveted with
mingled anxiety and anguish upon the face of Abbé Ledoux, her parish
priest, who had just administered the last sacrament.

A minute before Herminie's arrival, Madame de Beaumesnil, lowering her
voice still more, though weakness and suffering had already reduced it
to little more than a faint whisper, had said to the priest:

"Ah, my father, forgive me, but even at this solemn hour I cannot help
thinking with even more bitterness of heart of that poor child,--my
other daughter,--the unhappy fruit of a sin which has burdened my life
with the most poignant remorse."

"Hush, madame," replied the priest, who, as he cast a furtive glance at
the kneeling servants, had just seen Herminie take her place in their
midst; "hush, madame, she is here."

"She is?"

"Yes, she came in a moment ago, and is now kneeling with your people."

As he spoke, the priest turned and walked towards the door to close it,
after having first intimated by a gesture that the sad ceremony was
over.

"I remember now--that yesterday--when Herminie left me--I begged her to
return to-day at this very hour. The physician was right,--the angelic
voice of the dear child, her tender melodies, have often assuaged my
sufferings."

"Take care, madame. Be more prudent, I beg of you," pleaded the priest,
alone now with the invalid.

"Oh, I am. My daughter suspects nothing," answered Madame de Beaumesnil,
with a bitter smile.

"That is quite probable," said the priest, "for it was only chance, or,
rather, the inscrutable will of Providence, that brought this young
woman to your notice a short time ago. Doubtless it is the Saviour's
will that you should be subjected to a still harder test."

"Hard, indeed, my father, since I shall be obliged to depart from this
life without ever having said 'my daughter' to this unfortunate girl.
Alas! I shall carry my wretched secret with me to the grave."

"Your vow imposes this sacrifice upon you, madame. It is a sacred
obligation," said the priest, severely. "To break your vow, to thus
perjure yourself, would be sacrilege."

"I have never thought of perjuring myself, my father," replied Madame de
Beaumesnil, despondently; "but God is punishing me cruelly. I am dying,
and yet I am forced to treat as a stranger my own child,--who is
there--only a few feet from me, kneeling among my people, and who must
never know that I am her mother."

"Your sin was great, madame. The expiation must be correspondingly
great."

"But how long it has lasted for me, my father. Faithful to my vow, I
never even tried to discover what had become of my unfortunate child.
Alas! but for the chance which brought her to my notice a few days ago,
I should have died without having seen her for seventeen years."

"These thoughts are very sinful, my daughter," said the priest, sternly.
"They caused you to take a most imprudent step yesterday."

"Have no fears, my father. It is impossible that the woman I sent for
yesterday, openly, in order to avert any suspicion, should suspect my
motive in asking for information which she alone could give."

"And this information?"

"Confirmed--as I anticipated--in the most irrefutable manner--what I
already knew--that Herminie is my daughter."

"But why do you feel so sure of this woman's discretion?"

"Because she lost all trace of my daughter after their separation
sixteen years ago."

"But are you sure this woman did not recognise you?"

"I confessed to you, my father, that I had a mask on my face when I
brought Herminie into the world with this woman's aid, and yesterday, in
my interview with her, I found it easy to convince her that the mother
of the child I was inquiring about had been dead for several years."

"It is necessary that I should grant you absolution for this act of
deception," answered Abbé Ledoux, with great severity. "You can see now
the fatal consequences of your criminal solicitude for a person who,
after your vow, should always have remained a stranger to you."

"Ah, that oath which remorse and gratitude for the most generous
forgiveness extorted from me! I have often cursed it,--but I have always
kept it, my father."

"And yet, my sister, even at such an hour as this, your every thought is
given to that young girl."

"No, not my every thought, my father, for I have another child. But
alas! I cannot prevent my heart from throbbing faster at the approach of
Herminie, who is also my daughter. Can I prevent my heart from going out
to her? I may have courage to control my lips, to guard my eyes, and to
conceal my feelings when Herminie is with me, but I cannot prevent
myself from feeling a mother's tenderness for her."

"Then you must forbid the girl the house," said the priest, sternly.
"You can easily invent a plausible pretext for that, I am sure. Thank
her for her services, and--"

"No, no, I should never have the courage to do that," said the countess,
quickly. "Is it not hard enough for me that my other daughter, whose
affection would have been so consoling in this trying hour, is in a
foreign land, mourning the loss of the father of whom she was so
suddenly bereft? And who knows, perhaps Ernestine, too, is dying as I
am. Poor child! She was so weak and frail when she went away! Oh, was
there ever a mother as much to be pitied as I am?"

And two burning tears fell from Madame de Beaumesnil's eyes.

"Calm yourself, my sister," said the abbé, soothingly; "do not grieve
so. Put your trust in Heaven. Our Saviour's mercy is great. He has
sustained you through this solemn ceremony, which was, as I told you,
merely a precaution, for, God be praised! your condition, though
alarming, is by no means hopeless."

Madame de Beaumesnil shook her head sadly, as she replied:

"I am growing weaker fast, my father, but now that my last duties are
performed I feel much calmer. Ah, if I did not have my children to think
of, I could die in peace."

"I understand you, my sister," said the priest, soothingly. Then
watching Madame de Beaumesnil's face closely all the while, he
continued:

"I understand you, my sister. The future of your child, your legitimate
child,--I cannot and must not speak of the other,--her future excites
your liveliest apprehensions--and you are right--an orphan--and so
young, poor child!"

"Alas! yes, a mother's place can never be filled."

"Then why do you hesitate, my sister?" said the abbé, slowly and
impressively, "why do you hesitate to assure this beloved daughter's
future happiness? Why have you never permitted me--though I have long
desired the favour--to introduce to you that good and devout young man,
that model of wisdom and virtue, of whom I have so often spoken. Your
mother's heart would long since have appreciated this paragon of
Christian virtues; and sure, in advance, of your daughter's obedience to
your last wishes, you could have recommended him to her by a few lines,
which I myself would have delivered to the poor child. You could easily
have advised her to take for her husband M. Célestin de Macreuse. Your
daughter would then be sure of a most estimable and devout husband,
for--"

"My father," interrupted Madame de Beaumesnil, without making any effort
to conceal the painful feelings that this conversation was awakening. "I
have told you that I do not doubt the great worth of this gentleman you
have so often mentioned to me, but my daughter Ernestine is not sixteen
yet, and I am not willing to insist upon her marrying a man she does not
even know, for the dear child has so much affection for me that she
would be quite capable of sacrificing herself to please me."

"We will say no more about it, then, my dear sister," said the abbé,
with a contrite air. "In calling your attention to M. Célestin de
Macreuse, I had but one object in view. That was to save you from the
slightest anxiety concerning your dear Ernestine's future. You speak of
sacrifices, my sister, but permit me to say that the great danger is
that your poor child will be sacrificed some day to some man who is
unworthy of her,--to some irreligious, dissipated spendthrift. You are
unwilling to influence your daughter in her choice of a husband, you
say. But alas! who will guide her in her choice if she has the
misfortune to lose you? Will it be her selfish, worldly relatives, or
will your too artless and credulous child blindly yield to the
promptings of her heart. Ah, my sister, think of the dangers and the
deception to which she will inevitably be exposed! Think of the crowd of
suitors which her immense fortune is sure to attract! Ah, believe me, my
sister, it would be wiser to save her from these perils in advance by a
prudent and sensible choice."

"Forgive me, my father," said Madame de Beaumesnil, greatly agitated,
and evidently desirous of putting an end to this painful conversation;
"but I am feeling very weak and tired. I appreciate and am truly
grateful for the interest you take in my daughter. I shall do my duty
faithfully by her so long as I am spared. Your words will not be
forgotten, I assure you, my father, and may Heaven give me the strength
and the time to act."

Too shrewd and crafty to press the claims of his protégé further, Abbé
Ledoux said, benignly:

"May Heaven inspire you, my sister. I doubt not that our gracious Lord
will make your duty as a mother clear to you. Courage, my sister,
courage. And now farewell until to-morrow."

"The morrow belongs to God."

"I can at least implore him to prolong your days, my sister," answered
the priest, bowing low.

He left the room.

The door had scarcely closed behind him before the countess rang for one
of her attendants.

"Is Mlle. Herminie here?" she asked.

"Yes, madame la comtesse."

"Ask her to come in. I wish to see her."

"Yes, madame la comtesse," replied the maid, hastening off to fulfil her
employer's instructions.

       *       *       *       *       *

A few minutes afterwards, Herminie, pale and sad, though apparently
calm, entered Madame de Beaumesnil's chamber, with her music books in
her hand.

"I was told that madame la comtesse wished to see me," she said, with
marked deference.

"Yes, mademoiselle. I have--I have a favour to ask of you," replied
Madame de Beaumesnil, who was racking her brain to devise some way of
bringing her daughter closer to her.

"I am entirely at madame's service," Herminie answered, promptly but
quietly.

"I have a letter to write, mademoiselle,--only a few lines, but I am not
sure that I shall have the strength to write it. There is no one here
that I can ask to do it in my stead. Should it be necessary, would you
be willing to act as my secretary?"

"With the greatest pleasure, madame," was the ready response.

"I thank you for your willingness to oblige me."

"Does madame la comtesse wish me to get the necessary writing materials
for her?"

"A thousand thanks, mademoiselle," replied the poor mother, though she
longed to accept her daughter's offer so she might keep her with her as
long as possible. "I will ring for some one. I am loath to give you so
much trouble."

"It is no trouble to me, madame. I will gladly get the necessary
materials if you will tell me where to find them."

"Over there, on that table near the piano, mademoiselle. I must also ask
you to have the goodness to light a candle,--the light from the lamp is
not enough. But really I am trespassing entirely too much upon your good
nature," added Madame de Beaumesnil, as her daughter lighted a candle
and brought the necessary writing materials to the bedside.

The countess having taken a sheet of paper and laid it upon a
blotting-case placed upon her knees, accepted a pen from the hand of
Herminie, who was holding the candle in the other.

Madame de Beaumesnil tried to write a few words, but her extreme
weakness, together with her failing sight, compelled her to desist from
her efforts; the pen dropped from her trembling fingers, and, sinking
back upon her pillows, the countess said to Herminie, with a forced
smile:

"I am not as strong as I thought, so I shall be obliged to accept your
kind offer, mademoiselle."

"Madame la comtesse has been in bed so long that she should not be
surprised to find herself a little weak," responded Herminie, anxious to
reassure Madame de Beaumesnil and herself as well.

"You are right, mademoiselle. It was very foolish in me to try to write.
I will dictate to you, if you have no objections."

Herminie had not felt at liberty to remove her hat, and the countess,
from whom the brim concealed a part of her child's face, said, with some
embarrassment:

"If you would take off your hat, mademoiselle, you would find it more
convenient to write, I think."

Herminie removed her hat, and the countess, who was fairly devouring the
girl with her eyes, had an opportunity to admire at her ease, with true
maternal pride, the charming face and golden tresses of her child.

"I am at your service now, madame la comtesse," said Herminie, seating
herself at a table.

"Then will you kindly write this." And the countess proceeded to dictate
as follows:

"Madame de Beaumesnil would be greatly obliged to M. le Marquis de
Maillefort if he would come to her house as soon as possible, even
should that be at a late hour of the night.

"Madame de Beaumesnil, being very weak, is obliged to have recourse to
the hand of another person in order to write to M. de Maillefort, to
whom she reiterates the assurance of her very highest regard."

As Madame de Beaumesnil dictated this note she was assailed by one of
those puerile, but no less poignant, fears that only a mother can
understand.

Delighted by the refinement of manner and language she noticed in her
daughter, and aware that she was a musical artiste of a high order, the
countess asked herself, with a mother's jealous solicitude, if
Herminie's education was all it should be, and if her child's great
musical talent might not have been cultivated at the expense of other
and less showy accomplishments.

And strange as it may seem,--so important are the merest trifles to a
mother's pride,--at that moment, and in spite of all her grave
anxieties, Madame de Beaumesnil was saying to herself:

"What if my daughter did not spell well? What if her handwriting should
prove execrable?"

This fear was so keen that for a minute or two the countess dared not
ask Herminie to show her the letter she had written, but, finally,
unable to endure the suspense any longer, she asked:

"Have you finished, mademoiselle?"

"Yes, madame la comtesse."

"Then will you have the goodness to hand me the letter so--so I can see
if M. de Maillefort's name is spelled correctly. I neglected to tell you
how it was spelled," added the countess, unable to invent any better
excuse for her curiosity.

Herminie placed the letter in Madame de Beaumesnil's hand. And how proud
and delighted that lady was when she saw that the spelling was not only
absolutely perfect, but that the chirography was both graceful and
distinguished.

"Wonderful! I never saw more beautiful writing!" exclaimed Madame de
Beaumesnil, hastily.

Then, fearing her companion would notice her emotion, she added, more
calmly:

"Will you kindly address the letter now, mademoiselle, to--

    "_M. le Marquis de Maillefort,_
            _"No. 45 Rue des Martyrs._"

Madame de Beaumesnil then summoned a trusty maid who waited upon her
exclusively, and as soon as she came in, said to her:

"Madame Dupont, you will take a carriage and deliver this letter
yourself to the person to whom it is addressed. In case M. de Maillefort
is not at home, you are to wait for him."

"But what if madame la comtesse should need anything during my absence?"
said the maid, evidently much surprised at this order.

"Attend to my commission," replied Madame de Beaumesnil. "Mademoiselle
here will, I am sure, be kind enough to perform any service I may
require."

Herminie bowed her assent.

The countess proceeded to repeat her instructions to her attendant, and
while she was thus engaged, Herminie feeling comparatively safe from
observation, gazed at Madame de Beaumesnil with a world of love and
anxiety in her eyes, saying to herself the while, with touching
resignation:

"I dare not gaze at her except by stealth, and yet she is my mother. Ah,
may she never suspect that I know the unhappy secret of my birth."



CHAPTER IX.

THE PRIVATE INTERVIEW.


It was with an expression of almost triumphant satisfaction that Mme. de
Beaumesnil watched her maid depart.

The poor mother felt sure now of at least an hour alone with her
daughter.

Thanks to this happiness, a faint flush overspread her pallid cheeks,
her dim eyes began to sparkle with a feverish light, and the intense
prostration gave place to an unnatural excitement, for the countess was
making an almost superhuman effort to profit by this opportunity to talk
with her daughter alone.

The door had scarcely closed upon the attendant when Madame de
Beaumesnil said:

"Mademoiselle, will you have the goodness to pour into a cup five or six
spoonfuls of that cordial there on the mantel?"

"But, madame, you forget that the physician ordered you to take this
medicine only in small doses," protested Herminie, anxiously. "At least,
it seems to me I heard him give those directions yesterday."

"Yes, but I am feeling much better now, and this potion will do me a
wonderful amount of good, I think--will give me new strength, in fact."

"Madame la comtesse is really feeling better?" asked Herminie, divided
between a desire to believe Madame de Beaumesnil and a fear of seeing
her deceived as to the gravity of her situation.

"You can scarcely credit the improvement I speak of, perhaps. The sad
rites you witnessed a few minutes ago frightened you, I suppose, and
very naturally. But it was only a precaution on my part, for the
consciousness of having fulfilled my religious duties, and of being
ready to appear before God, gives me a serenity of soul to which the
improved condition of which I speak is doubtless due, at least in some
measure. I feel sure, too, that the cordial I asked you for just now,
but which you refuse to give me," added Madame de Beaumesnil, smiling,
"would do me a great deal of good, and enable me to listen once again to
one of the songs which have so often assuaged my sufferings."

"As madame insists, I will give her the cordial," said Herminie.

And the young girl, reflecting that a larger or smaller dose of the
cordial would probably make very little difference, after all, poured
four spoonfuls into a cup and handed it to Madame de Beaumesnil.

The countess, as she took the cup from Herminie, managed to touch her
hand, then, rejoiced to have her daughter so near her, sipped the
cordial very slowly and then gave such a sigh of weariness as to almost
compel Herminie to ask:

"Is madame la comtesse fatigued?"

"Rather. It seems to me that if I could sit bolt upright for a little
while I should be more comfortable, but I am hardly strong enough to do
that."

"If madame la comtesse would--would lean upon me," said the young girl,
hesitatingly, "it might rest her a little."

"I would accept your offer if I did not feel that I was imposing upon
your kindness," replied Madame de Beaumesnil, delighted at the success
of her little ruse.

Herminie's heart swelled almost to bursting as she seated herself upon
the side of the bed and pillowed the invalid's head upon her daughter's
bosom.

As they found themselves for the first time in each others' arms, so to
speak, the mother and daughter both trembled with emotion. Their
position prevented them from seeing each others' faces; but for that
Mme. de Beaumesnil, in spite of her vow, might not have been able to
guard her secret any longer.

"No, no, there must be no guilty weakness on my part," thought Madame de
Beaumesnil. "My poor child shall never know this sad secret, I have
sworn it. Is it not a piece of unlooked-for good fortune for me to be
the recipient of her affectionate care, which I owe to her kindness of
heart rather than to filial instinct, of course?"

"Oh, I would rather die than allow my mother to suspect that I know I am
her daughter," thought Herminie, in her turn. "Possibly she is ignorant
of the fact herself. Perhaps it was chance, and chance alone, that
brought about my present relations with Madame de Beaumesnil; perhaps I
am really only a stranger in her eyes."

"I thank you, mademoiselle," said Madame de Beaumesnil, after a while,
but without venturing a glance at Herminie. "I feel more comfortable,
now."

"Will madame la comtesse allow me to arrange her pillows for her before
she lies down again?"

"If you will be so good," replied Madame de Beaumesnil, for would not
this little service keep her daughter beside her a few seconds longer?

Mademoiselle and madame la comtesse! If one could but have heard the
tone in which the mother and daughter interchanged these cold and
ceremonious appellations which had never before seemed so icy in
character!

"I have to thank you once again, mademoiselle," said the countess, after
she had lain down. "I find myself more and more comfortable, thanks to
your kind attentions. The cordial, too, seems to have done me good, and
I feel sure that I shall have a very comfortable night."

Herminie glanced dubiously at her hat and mantle. She feared that she
would be dismissed on the maid's return, for it was quite likely that
Madame de Beaumesnil would not care to hear any music that evening.

Unwilling to renounce her last hope, the young girl said, timidly:

"Madame la comtesse asked me to bring some selections from 'Oberon' this
evening, but perhaps she does not care to listen to them."

"Quite the contrary, mademoiselle," said Madame de Beaumesnil, quickly.
"You know how often your singing has mitigated my sufferings, and this
evening I am feeling so well that music will prove, not an anodyne, but
a genuine pleasure."

Herminie cast a quick glance at Madame de Beaumesnil, and was struck by
the change in that lady's usually drawn and pallid countenance. A slight
colour tinged her cheeks now, and her expression was calm, even smiling.

On beholding this metamorphosis, the girl's gloomy presentiments
vanished. Hope revived in her heart, and she almost believed that her
mother had been saved by one of those sudden changes so common in
nervous maladies.

So inexpressibly pleased and relieved, Herminie took her music and
walked to the piano.

Directly over the instrument hung a portrait of a little girl five or
six years of age, playing with a magnificent greyhound. She was not
pretty, but the childish face had a remarkably sweet and ingenuous
expression. This portrait, painted about ten years before, was that of
Ernestine de Beaumesnil, the Comtesse de Beaumesnil's legitimate child.

Herminie had not needed to ask who the original of this portrait was,
and more than once she had cast a timid, loving glance at this little
sister whom she did not know, and whom she would never know, perhaps.

On seeing this portrait now, Herminie, still under the influence of her
late emotion, felt even more deeply moved than usual, and for a minute
or two she could not take her eyes off the picture. Meanwhile, Madame de
Beaumesnil was tenderly watching the girl's every movement, and noted
her contemplation of Ernestine's portrait with keen delight.

"Poor Herminie!" thought the countess. "She has a mother and a sister,
and yet she will never know the sweetness of those words: my sister--my
mother."

And furtively wiping away a tear, Madame de Beaumesnil said aloud to
Herminie, whose eyes were still riveted upon the portrait:

"That is my daughter. She has a sweet face, has she not?"

Herminie started as if she had been detected in some grievous crime, and
blushed deeply as she timidly replied:

"Pardon me, madame; I--I--"

"Oh, look at it, look at it all you please," exclaimed Madame de
Beaumesnil, hastily. "Though she is nearly grown now, and has changed
very much in some respects, she still retains that same sweet, ingenuous
expression. She is not nearly as handsome as you are," said the poor
mother, with secret pride, and well pleased to be able to thus unite her
two daughters in the same comparison, "but Ernestine's face, like yours,
possesses a wonderful charm."

Then, fearing she had gone too far, Madame de Beaumesnil added, sadly:

"Poor child! Heaven grant she may be better now!"

"Are you really very anxious about her health, madame la comtesse?"

"She has not been at all well for some months past. She grew so rapidly
that we were very anxious about her. The physicians advised us to take
her to Italy, but my own health would not permit me to accompany her.
Fortunately, the latest reports from her are very encouraging. Poor,
dear child! She writes every day a sort of journal for me. You can not
imagine anything more touching than her artless confessions. I will let
you read some extracts from these letters. You will love Ernestine,
then; you could not help loving her."

"I am sure of that, madame, and I thank you a thousand times for your
promise," said Herminie. "As the last news received from your daughter
is so reassuring, pray do not worry any more about her. Youth has so
many chances in its favour anywhere, and under the beautiful skies of
Italy she is sure to recover her health."

A bitter thought flitted through Madame de Beaumesnil's mind.

Remembering the expensive journey, the constant care, and the heavy
outlay Ernestine's feeble health had necessitated, the countess asked
herself with something closely akin to terror what Herminie would have
done--poor, deserted creature that she was!--if she had found herself in
Ernestine's position, and if her life could have been saved only by the
assiduous care and expensive travel which the wealthy alone can command.

This thought excited in Madame de Beaumesnil's breast a still keener
desire to know how Herminie had overcome the many difficulties of her
precarious position, for the countess had known absolutely nothing in
regard to the girl's life up to the time when a mere chance had brought
the mother and daughter together.

But how could she solicit these revelations without betraying herself?
To what agony she might subject herself by asking her daughter for the
story of her life!

This reflection had always prevented Madame de Beaumesnil from
questioning Herminie, heretofore, but that evening, either because the
countess felt that the apparent improvement in her condition was a
precursor of the end, or because a feeling of tenderness, increased by
the events of the evening, proved too strong for her powers of
resistance, Madame de Beaumesnil resolved to question Herminie.



CHAPTER X.

REVELATIONS.


While Madame de Beaumesnil was silently revolving in her mind the surest
means of inducing Herminie to tell the story of her past life, the girl
stood turning the pages of her music book, waiting for the countess to
ask her to begin.

"You will think me very changeable, I fear, mademoiselle," said the
countess, at last; "but if it is all the same to you, I would prefer to
postpone the music until about ten o'clock. That is usually my worst
time, though perhaps I shall escape it to-night. If I do not, I should
regret having exhausted a resource which has so often relieved me. Nor
is this all; after having admitted that I am whimsical, I fear that you
will now accuse me of having entirely too much curiosity."

"And why, madame?"

"Come and seat yourself here beside me," said the countess,
affectionately, "and tell me how it is that you who can not be more than
seventeen or eighteen years of age--"

"Eighteen years and six months, madame la comtesse."

"Well, then, how it is that you are such an accomplished musician at
your age?"

"Madame la comtesse judges me too flatteringly. I have always had a
great love for music, and I had very little trouble in learning it."

"But who was your instructor? Where did you learn music?"

"I was taught in the school I attended, madame la comtesse."

"In Paris, then, I suppose?"

"No; I have attended school in other places besides Paris."

"Where?"

"In Beauvais. I lived there until I was ten years old."

"And after that?"

"I was placed in a Parisian school."

"And how long did you remain there?"

"Until I was sixteen and a half."

"And after that?"

"I left school and began to give lessons in singing and on the piano."

"And ever since that time you have--?"

Madame de Beaumesnil hastily checked herself, then added, with no little
embarrassment:

"I am really ashamed of my inquisitiveness--nothing but the deep
interest I take in you could excuse it, mademoiselle."

"The questions madame la comtesse deigns to address to me are evidently
so kindly meant that I am only too glad to answer them in all
sincerity."

"Well, then, with whom did you make your home after leaving school?"

"With whom did I make my home, madame?"

"Yes; I mean with what persons?"

"I had no one to go to, madame."

"No one?" exclaimed Madame de Beaumesnil, with truly heroic courage.
"You had no relatives? No family?"

"I have no relatives, madame la comtesse," replied Herminie, with a
courage equal to that of her mother. "I have no relatives."

"I am sure now that she does not know that I am her daughter," Herminie
said to herself. "If she did, she certainly would not have had the
courage to ask me such a question."

"Then with whom have you lived since that time?" asked the countess.

"I have lived alone."

"Entirely alone?"

"Yes, madame."

"Forgive me this one more question, for at your age--such a position is
so unusual--and so very interesting--have you always had scholars enough
to support you?"

"Oh, yes, madame la comtesse," replied poor Herminie, bravely.

"And you live entirely alone, though you are so young?"

"What else could I do, madame? One can not choose one's lot; one can
only accept it, and by the aid of industry and courage try to make one's
existence, if not brilliant, at least happy."

"Happy!" exclaimed Madame de Beaumesnil, in accents of irrepressible
delight; "you are really happy?"

As she uttered these words her countenance, as well as her voice,
betrayed such intense joy and relief that Herminie's doubts returned,
and she said to herself:

"Perhaps she does know that I am her daughter. If she does not, why
should she be so pleased to learn that I am happy. It matters little,
however. If she does know that I am her daughter, I must reassure her so
as to save her from vain regrets, and perhaps remorse. If I am a
stranger to her, it is no less necessary for me to reassure her, else
she may think I wish to excite her commiseration, and my pride revolts
at the idea of that."

Meanwhile, Madame de Beaumesnil, longing to hear Herminie repeat an
assurance so precious to a mother's heart, exclaimed:

"And you say you are happy--really and truly happy?"

"Yes, madame," answered Herminie, almost gaily, "very happy."

Seeing her daughter's charming face thus radiant with innocent joy and
youthful beauty, the countess was obliged to make a violent effort to
keep from betraying herself, and it was with a fair imitation of
Herminie's gaiety that she replied:

"Don't laugh at my question, mademoiselle, but to us, who are
unfortunately accustomed to all the luxuries and superfluities of
wealth, there are many things that seem incomprehensible. When you left
school, however modest your wants may have been, how did you manage to
supply them?"

"Oh, I was rich, then, madame la comtesse," said Herminie, smiling.

"How was that?"

"Two years after I was placed at a Parisian school, the remittances
which had, up to that time, been received for my schooling ceased. I was
then twelve years old, and the principal of the school was very fond of
me. 'My child,' she said to me one day, 'your friends have ceased to pay
for you, but that makes no difference; you shall stay on just the
same.'"

"Noble woman!"

"She was the best woman that ever lived, madame la comtesse, but,
unfortunately, she is dead now," said Herminie, sadly.

Then, unwilling to leave the countess under a painful impression, she
added, smilingly:

"But the kind-hearted woman had not taken my greatest fault into
consideration in making these plans. For, as you ask me to be perfectly
frank with you, madame, I am forced to admit that I have one great and
deplorable fault."

"And what is it, may I ask?"

"Alas! madame, it is _pride_."

"Pride?"

"Yes; so when our kind-hearted principal offered to keep me out of
charity, my pride revolted, and I told her I would accept her offer only
upon condition that I was allowed to pay by my work for what she offered
me gratuitously."

"You said that at the age of twelve. What a little braggart she must
have thought you. And how did you propose to pay her, pray?"

"By superintending the practising of the younger music pupils, for I was
very far advanced for my age, having always had a passion for music."

"And did she accept your proposal?"

"Gladly, madame la comtesse. My determination to be independent seemed
to touch her deeply."

"I can readily understand that."

"Thanks to her, I soon had a large number of pupils, several of them
much older than myself,--my pride is continually cropping out, you see,
madame. In this way, what was at first child's play became a vocation,
and, later on, a valuable resource. At the age of fourteen, I was the
second piano teacher, with a salary of twelve hundred francs, so you can
form some estimate of the wealth I must have amassed at the age of
sixteen and a half."

"Poor child! So young, and yet so full of indomitable energy and noble
pride!" exclaimed the countess, unable to restrain her tears.

"Then why did you leave the school?" she continued, after she had
conquered her emotion.

"Our noble-hearted principal died, and another lady--who unfortunately
did not resemble my benefactress in the least--took her place. The
newcomer, however, proposed that I should remain in the institution upon
the same terms. I accepted her offer, but, at the end of two months, my
great fault--and my hot head--caused me to sever my connection with the
school."

"And why?"

"My new employer was as hard and tyrannical as the other had been kind
and affectionate, and one day--"

Herminie's beautiful face turned a vivid scarlet at the recollection,
and she hesitated a moment.

"One day," she continued, at last, "this lady made a remark to me that
cut me to the quick."

"What did the wicked creature say to you?" demanded Madame de
Beaumesnil, for Herminie had paused again, unwilling to wound the
countess by repeating the insulting and heartless words:

"You are very proud for a bastard that was reared by charity in this
very house."

"What did that wicked woman say to you?" insisted Madame de Beaumesnil.

"I beg that you will not insist upon my repeating her heartless words,"
replied Herminie. "Though I have not forgotten, I have at least forgiven
them. But the very next day I left the house with my little savings.
With these I fitted up my modest _ménage_, for since that time I have
lived alone, in a home of my own."

Herminie uttered the words, "in a home of my own," with such a proud and
satisfied air, that Madame de Beaumesnil, with tears in her eyes,
despite the smile upon her lips, pressed the young girl's hand
affectionately, and said:

"I am sure this home of yours must be charming."

"Oh, yes, madame, there is nothing too elegant for me."

"Come, tell me all about it. How many rooms are there in your
apartment?"

"Only one, besides a tiny hall; but it is on the ground floor, and looks
out upon a garden. The room is small, so I could afford a pretty carpet
and curtains. I have only one armchair, but that is velvet. I have but
little furniture, it is true, but that little is in very good taste, I
think. There is one thing more that I aspire to, however, and that
ambition will soon be realised."

"And what is that?"

"It is to have a little maid,--a child thirteen or fourteen years of
age, whom I shall rescue from misery and want, and who will be as happy
as the day is long with me. I have heard of an orphan girl, about twelve
years old, a dear, obedient, affectionate child, they say, so you can
judge how pleased I shall be when I am able to take her into my service.
It will not be a useless expense, either, madame la comtesse, for then I
shall not be obliged to go out alone to give my lessons,--and that is so
unpleasant, for, as you must know, madame, a young girl who is obliged
to go out alone--"

Herminie's voice faltered, and tears of shame filled her eyes as she
thought of the insult she had just received from M. de Ravil, as well as
other annoyances of a like nature to which she had often been subjected
in spite of her modest and dignified bearing.

"I understand, my child, and I approve your plan," said Madame de
Beaumesnil, more and more deeply touched. "But your pupils--who procures
them for you? And do you always have as many as you need?"

"Generally, madame la comtesse. In summer, when several of my pupils go
to the country, I follow other pursuits. I can embroider very well;
sometimes I copy music--I have even composed several pieces. I have
maintained friendly relations, too, with several of my former
schoolmates, and it was through one of them that I was recommended to
the wife of your physician, who was looking for a young person, a good
musician, to play and sing for you."

Herminie, who had begun her story seated in an armchair near the
bedside, now found herself half reclining on the bed, clasped in her
mother's arms.

Both had unconsciously yielded to the promptings of filial and maternal
love, for Madame de Beaumesnil, after placing Herminie near her, had
ventured to retain one of her daughter's hands during the narration of
this simple yet touching story, and as Herminie recounted the principal
incidents of her past life to her mother, she felt Madame de
Beaumesnil's hand draw her closer and closer, until she found herself
leaning over the bed with her mother's arms around her neck.

Then seized with a sort of maternal frenzy, Madame de Beaumesnil,
instead of continuing the conversation and answering her daughter,
seized Herminie's lovely face in her two hands, and, without uttering a
word, covered it with tears and impassioned kisses, after which the
mother and daughter remained for several minutes clasped in a convulsive
embrace. It is well-nigh certain that the secret which it had been so
difficult to guard, and which had more than once been upon their lips,
would have escaped them this time if they had not been suddenly recalled
to consciousness by a knock at the door.

Madame de Beaumesnil, terrified at the thought of the act of perjury she
had been on the verge of committing, but unable to explain this wild
transport of tenderness on her part, exclaimed incoherently, as she
gently released Herminie from her embrace:

"Forgive me, forgive me, my child! I am a mother,--my own child is far
away--and her absence causes me the deepest regret. My poor brain is so
weak--now--and for a moment--I laboured under the delusion--the strange
delusion that it was--that it was my absent daughter I was pressing to
my heart. Pardon the strange hallucination--you cannot but pity a poor
mother who realises that she is dying without being able to embrace her
child for the last time."

"Dying!" exclaimed the girl, raising her tear-stained face and gazing
wildly at her mother.

But hearing the knock repeated, Herminie hastily dried her tears, and,
forcing herself to appear calm, said to her mother:

"This is the second time some one has knocked, madame la comtesse."

"Admit the person," murmured Madame de Beaumesnil, faintly, quite
overcome by the painful scene. It proved to be the confidential maid of
the countess. She entered, and said:

"I went to M. le Marquis de Maillefort as madame directed."

"Well?" demanded Madame de Beaumesnil, eagerly.

"And M. le marquis is waiting below until madame la comtesse is ready to
see him."

"Heaven be praised!" murmured Madame de Beaumesnil, fervently. "God is
rewarding me for having had the strength to keep my vow!"

Then, turning to the maid, she added:

"Bring M. de Maillefort here at once."

Herminie, quite overcome by so many conflicting emotions, and feeling
that her presence was no longer desired, took her hat and mantle with
the intention of departing at once.

The countess never took her eyes from the young girl's face. She was
gazing at her daughter for the last time, perhaps, for the poor mother
felt her life was nearly over now. Nevertheless she had the courage to
say to Herminie in an almost unconcerned voice in order to deceive the
girl as to her real condition:

"We will have our selections from 'Oberon' to-morrow, mademoiselle. You
will have the goodness to come early, will you not?"

"Yes, madame la comtesse," replied Herminie.

"Show mademoiselle out, Madame Dupont, and then bring M. de Maillefort,"
the countess said to her maid. But as she watched her daughter move
towards the door she could not help saying to her for the last time:

"Farewell, mademoiselle."

"Farewell, madame la comtesse," answered Herminie.

And it was in these formal words that these two poor, heart-broken
creatures gave vent to their grief and despair at this final hour of
parting.

Madame Dupont showed Herminie to the street door without taking her past
the drawing-room in which M. de Maillefort was waiting. Just as the
young girl was leaving, Madame Dupont said, kindly:

"You have forgotten your umbrella, mademoiselle, and you will need it,
for it is a dreadful night. The rain is falling in torrents."

"Thank you, madame," said Herminie, recollecting now that she had left
her umbrella just outside the door of the reception-room, and hastening
back for it.

It was indeed, raining in torrents, but Herminie, absorbed in grief, did
not even notice that the night was dark and stormy as she left the Hôtel
de Beaumesnil, and wended her solitary way homeward.



CHAPTER XI.

THE PURSE OF MONEY.


M. de Maillefort was waiting alone in one of the drawing-rooms when
Madame Dupont came to conduct him into Madame de Beaumesnil's presence.

The hunchback's countenance had lost its usual expression of cynical
raillery. Profound sadness, mingled with an intense anxiety and
surprise, could be easily discerned upon his features.

Standing with one elbow resting on the mantel, and his head supported on
his hand, the marquis seemed lost in thought. One might almost have
fancied that he was seeking the solution of some difficult enigma; but
now and then he would wake from his reverie and gaze around him with
eyes glittering with tears, then hurriedly passing his hand across his
forehead, as if to drive away painful thoughts, he began to pace the
room with hasty strides.

Only a few minutes had elapsed, however, when Madame Dupont came to say:

"If M. le marquis will be kind enough to follow me, madame la comtesse
will see him now."

Stepping in front of the marquis, Madame Dupont opened the door leading
into Madame de Beaumesnil's apartment and announced:

"M. le Marquis de Maillefort!"

The countess had made an invalid's toilet. Her blonde hair, somewhat
dishevelled by the passionate embraces bestowed upon her daughter, had
been smoothed afresh, a dainty cap of Valenciennes lace surmounted the
pale face, from which every tinge of colour had now fled. Her eyes, so
brilliant with maternal tenderness a few moments before, had lost their
lustre, and the hands that burned so feverishly when they pressed
Herminie's were fast growing cold.

Noting the appalling change in the features of the countess, whom he had
seen but a comparatively short time before radiant with youth and
beauty, M. de Maillefort started violently, then paused a moment in
spite of himself.

"You find me greatly changed, do you not, M. de Maillefort?" asked
Madame de Beaumesnil, with a sad smile.

The hunchback made no reply. His head drooped, and when he raised it
again, after a minute or two, he was as pale as death.

Madame de Beaumesnil motioned the marquis to seat himself in an armchair
near the bedside, saying as she did so, in a grave but affectionate
voice:

"I fear my moments even are numbered, M. de Maillefort, and I shall
therefore endeavour to make this interview as brief as possible."

The marquis silently took the seat designated by the countess, who
added:

"My note must have surprised you."

"Yes, madame."

"But kind and generous as ever, you hastened to comply with my request."

The marquis bowed, and, in a voice full of emotion, the countess went
on:

"M. de Maillefort, you have loved me devotedly," she said.

The hunchback started visibly, and gazed at the countess with mingled
dismay and astonishment.

"Do not be surprised that I should have discovered a secret that no one
else has even suspected," continued the countess, "for love, true love,
always betrays itself to the person loved."

"So you knew," stammered the hunchback.

"I knew all," replied the countess, extending her ice-cold hand to M. de
Maillefort, who pressed it reverently, while tears which he could no
longer repress streamed down his cheeks.

"Yes, I knew all," continued the countess, "your noble, though carefully
concealed, devotion, and the suffering so heroically endured."

"You knew all?" repeated M. de Maillefort, hesitatingly; "you knew all,
and yet your greeting was always kind and gracious when we chanced to
meet. You knew all, and yet I never detected a mocking smile upon your
lips or a gleam of disdainful pity in your eye."

"M. de Maillefort," the countess answered, with touching dignity, "it is
in the name of the love you have borne me, it is in the name of the
affectionate esteem with which your character has always inspired me,
that I now, at the hour of death, beg that you will allow me to entrust
to your keeping the interests I hold most dear."

"Forgive me, madame, forgive me," said the marquis, with even greater
emotion, "for having even for an instant fancied that a heart like yours
could scorn or ridicule an unconquerable but carefully concealed love.
Speak on, madame, I believe I am worthy of the confidence you show in
me."

"M. de Maillefort, this night will be my last."

"Madame!"

"I am not deceiving myself. It is only by a strong effort of will and a
powerful stimulant that I have managed to hold death at bay for several
hours past. Listen, then, for, as I just told you, my moments are
numbered."

The hunchback dried his tears and listened with breathless attention.

"You have heard of the frightful accident of which M. de Beaumesnil was
the victim. By reason of his death--and mine--my daughter Ernestine will
soon be an orphan in a strange land, with no one to care for her but a
governess. Nor is this all. Ernestine is an angel of goodness and
ingenuousness, but she is exceedingly timid. Tenderly guarded both by
her father and myself, she is as ignorant of the world as only a
sixteen-year-old girl who has been jealously watched over by her
parents, and who naturally prefers quiet and simplicity, can be. On some
accounts one might suppose that I need feel no anxiety in regard to her
future, for she will be the richest heiress in France, but I cannot
overcome my uneasiness when I think of the persons who will probably
have charge of my daughter when I am gone, for it is M. and Madame de la
Rochaiguë who, as her nearest relatives, will doubtless be selected as
her guardians. This being the case, you can easily understand my
apprehensions, I think."

"It would, indeed, be desirable that your daughter should have more
judicious guardians, but Mlle. de Beaumesnil is sixteen. Her minority
will not last long; besides, the persons to whom you allude are erratic
and ridiculous rather than dangerous."

"I know that, still, Ernestine's hand will be so strongly coveted--I
have already had convincing proofs of that"--added Madame de Beaumesnil,
remembering her confessor's persistent efforts in M. de Macreuse's
behalf, "the poor child will be the victim of such persecution that I
shall not feel entirely reassured unless she has a faithful and devoted
friend of superior character, willing and capable of guiding her in her
choice. Will you be this faithful friend to my child, M. de Maillefort?
Consent, I beseech you, and I shall leave the world satisfied that my
daughter's lot in life will be as happy as it will be brilliant."

"I will endeavour to be such a friend to your daughter, madame.
Everything that I can do for her, I will do."

"Ah, I can breath freely now, I no longer feel any anxiety in regard to
Ernestine. I know what such a promise means from you, M. de Maillefort,"
exclaimed the countess, her face beaming with hope and serenity.

But almost immediately a consciousness of increasing weakness, together
with other unfavourable symptoms, convinced Madame de Beaumesnil that
her end was fast approaching. Her countenance, which had beamed for a
moment with the hope and serenity M. de Maillefort's promise had
inspired, became troubled again, and in a hurried, almost entreating
voice, she continued:

"But this is not all, M. de Maillefort, I have a still greater favour to
ask of you. Aided by your counsels, my daughter Ernestine will be as
happy as she is rich. Her future is as bright and as well assured as any
person's can be, but it is very different concerning the future of a
poor but noble-hearted creature, whom--I--I wish that you--"

Madame de Beaumesnil paused. Say more she dared not--could not.

Though she had resolved to tell M. de Maillefort the secret of
Herminie's birth, in the hope of ensuring her child the protection of
this generous man, she shrank from the shame of such a confession,--a
confession which would also have been a violation of the solemn oath she
had taken years before, and faithfully kept.

The marquis, seeing her hesitate, said, gently:

"What is it, madame? Will you not be kind enough to tell me what other
service I can render you? Do you not know that you can depend upon me as
one of the most devoted of your friends?"

"I know that! I know that!" gasped Madame de Beaumesnil, "but I dare
not--I am afraid--"

The marquis, deeply touched by her distress, endeavoured to make it
easier for her to prefer her request by saying:

"When you checked yourself just now, madame, you were speaking, I think,
of the uncertain future of a poor but noble-hearted creature. Who is
she? And in what way can I be of service to her?"

Overcome with grief and increasing weakness, Madame de Beaumesnil buried
her face in her hands, and burst into tears; then, after a brief
silence, riveting her weeping eyes on the marquis, and endeavouring to
appear more calm, she said, brokenly:

"Yes, you might be of the greatest possible service to a poor
girl--worthy in every respect--of your interest, for she, too, is an
orphan--a most unfortunate orphan,--for she is both friendless and
penniless, but, oh, so brave, and so proud! In short, she is an angel,"
cried the countess, with a vehemence at which M. de Maillefort marvelled
greatly. "Yes," continued Madame de Beaumesnil, sobbing violently, "Yes,
she is an angel of courage and of virtue, and it is for this angel that
I ask the same fatherly interest I asked for my daughter Ernestine. Oh,
M. de Maillefort, do not refuse my request, I beseech you!"

The excitement and embarrassment Madame de Beaumesnil manifested in
speaking of this orphan, together with the almost frenzied appeal in her
behalf, excited the Marquis de Maillefort's profound astonishment.

For a moment he was too amazed to speak; then, all of a sudden, he
started violently, for a terrible suspicion darted through his mind. He
recollected some of the scandalous (up to this time he had always styled
them infamous) reports, which had been rife in former years, concerning
Madame de Beaumesnil, and which he had avenged by challenging M. de
Mornand that very day.

Could it be that there had really been a foundation for these rumours?
Was this orphan, in whom Madame de Beaumesnil seemed to take such a
profound interest, bound to the countess by a secret tie? Was she,
indeed, the child of her shame?

But almost immediately the marquis, full of confidence in Madame de
Beaumesnil's virtue, drove away these odious suspicions, and bitterly
reproached himself for having entertained them even for a moment.

The countess, terrified by the hunchback's silence, said to him, in
trembling tones:

"Forgive me, M. de Maillefort. I see that I have presumed too much upon
your generous kindness. Not content with having secured your fatherly
protection for my daughter, Ernestine, I must needs seek to interest you
in an unfortunate stranger. Pardon me, I beseech you."

The tone in which Madame de Beaumesnil uttered these words was so
heart-broken and full of despair that M. de Maillefort's suspicions
revived. One of his dearest illusions was being ruthlessly destroyed.
Madame de Beaumesnil was no longer the ideal woman he had so long
adored.

But taking pity on this unhappy mother, and understanding how terribly
she must suffer, M. de Maillefort felt his eyes fill with tears, and it
was in an agitated voice that he replied:

"You need have no fears, madame, I shall keep my promise, and the orphan
girl you commend to my care will be as dear to me as Mlle. de
Beaumesnil. I shall have two daughters instead of one."

And he pressed the hand of Madame de Beaumesnil affectionately, as if to
seal his promise.

"Now I can die in peace!" exclaimed the countess. And before the marquis
could prevent it, she had pressed her cold lips upon the hand he had
offered her; and, from this manifestation of ineffable gratitude, M. de
Maillefort was convinced that the person in question was indeed Madame
de Beaumesnil's illegitimate child.

All at once, either because so much violent emotion had exhausted the
invalid's strength, or because her malady--concealed for a time by an
apparent improvement in the sufferer's condition--had attained its
height, Madame de Beaumesnil made a sudden movement, at the same time
uttering a cry of agony.

"Good God, madame, what is it?" cried the marquis, terrified at the
sudden alteration in Madame de Beaumesnil's features.

"It is nothing," she answered, heroically, "a slight pain, that is all.
But here, take this key,--quick, I beg of you," she added, drawing out a
key from under her pillow and handing it to him.

"Open--that--secretary," she gasped.

The marquis obeyed.

"There is a purse in the middle drawer. Do you see it?"

"Yes, here it is."

"Keep it, I beg of you. It contains a sum of money which I have a
perfect right to dispose of. It will at least save the young girl I
commended to your care from want. Only promise me," continued the poor
mother, her voice becoming more and more feeble each moment,--"promise
me that you will never mention my name to--to this orphan--nor tell her
who it was that asked you to place this money in her hands. But tell
her, oh, tell this unfortunate child that she was tenderly loved until
the last, and that--that it was absolutely necessary--"

The countess was so weak now that the conclusion of the sentence was
inaudible.

"But this purse--to whom am I to give it, madame? Where shall I find
this young girl, and what is her name?" exclaimed M. de Maillefort,
alarmed by the sudden change in Madame de Beaumesnil's condition, and by
her laboured breathing.

But instead of answering M. de Maillefort's question Madame de
Beaumesnil sank back on her pillows with a despairing moan, and clasped
her hands upon her breast.

"Speak to me, madame," cried the marquis, bending over the countess in
the utmost terror and alarm. "This young girl, tell me where I can find
her, and who she is."

"I am dying--dying--" murmured Madame de Beaumesnil, lifting her eyes
heavenward.

Then with a last supreme effort, she faltered:

"Don't forget--your promise--my child--the orphan!"

In another moment the countess was no more; and M. de Maillefort,
overcome with grief and chagrin, could no longer doubt that this orphan,
whose name and place of abode were alike unknown to him, was Madame de
Beaumesnil's illegitimate child.

       *       *       *       *       *

The funeral rites of Madame de Beaumesnil were conducted with great
splendour.

The Baron de la Rochaiguë acted as chief mourner. M. de Maillefort,
invited by letter to take part in the ceremonial, joined the funeral
cortége.

In an obscure corner of the church, kneeling as if crushed by the weight
of her despair, a young girl prayed and sobbed, unheeded by any one.

It was Herminie.



CHAPTER XII.

A VAIN INTERVIEW.


Several days after Madame de Beaumesnil's funeral, M. de Maillefort,
arousing himself from the gloomy lethargy into which the death of the
countess had plunged him, resolved to carry out that unfortunate lady's
last wishes in regard to the unknown orphan, though he fully realised
all the difficulties of the mission intrusted to him.

How should he go to work to find the young girl whom Madame de
Beaumesnil had so urgently commended to his care?

To whom could he apply for information that would give him the necessary
clue to her identity?

Above all, how could he secure this information without compromising
Madame de Beaumesnil's good name and the secrecy with which she had
wished him to carry out her intentions with regard to this mysterious
daughter,--her illegitimate child, as M. de Maillefort could no longer
doubt.

The hunchback recollected that on the evening of her death the countess
had sent a confidential servant to beg him to come to the Hôtel de
Beaumesnil without delay.

"This woman has been in Madame de Beaumesnil's service a long time,"
thought the marquis. "She may be able to give me some information."

So M. de Maillefort's valet, a trustworthy and devoted man, was sent to
bring Madame Dupont to the house of the marquis.

"I know how devotedly you were attached to your mistress, my dear Madame
Dupont," the marquis began.

"Ah, monsieur, madame la comtesse was so good and kind!" exclaimed
Madame Dupont, bursting into tears. "How could one help being devoted to
her in life and in death?"

"It is because I am so sure of this devotion, as well as of your respect
for the memory of your deceased mistress, that I requested you to come
to my house, my dear Madame Dupont. I wish to speak to you on a very
delicate subject."

"I am listening, M. le marquis."

"The proof of confidence which Madame de Beaumesnil gave by sending for
me just before her death must convince you that any questions I may put
to you are of an almost sacred nature, so I can safely count upon your
frankness and discretion."

"You can, indeed, M. le marquis."

"I am sure of it. Now the state of affairs is just this: Madame de
Beaumesnil has for a long time, as nearly as I can learn,--at the
request of a friend,--taken charge of a young orphan girl who, by the
death of her protectress, is now deprived of the means of support. I am
ignorant of this young girl's name, as well as of her place of
residence, and I am anxious to ascertain both as soon as possible. Can
you give me any information on the subject?"

"A young orphan girl?" repeated Madame Dupont, thoughtfully.

"Yes."

"During the ten years I have been in the service of madame la comtesse,
I have never known any young girl who came regularly to the house or who
seemed to be a protégée of hers."

"Are you sure?"

"Perfectly sure, M. le marquis."

"And Madame de Beaumesnil never entrusted you with any commission in
connection with the young girl of whom I speak?"

"Never, M. le marquis. Many persons applied to madame for aid, for she
was very liberal, but I never noticed that she gave any particular
person the preference or interested herself any more in one person than
in another, and I feel sure that if madame had wished any confidential
mission performed, she would certainly have entrusted it to me."

"That is exactly what I thought, and it was for that very reason I felt
confident of securing some information from you. Come now, try and think
if you can not remember some young girl in whom Madame de Beaumesnil has
seemed to take a special interest for some time past."

"I can remember no one, absolutely no one," answered Madame Dupont after
several minutes of profound reflection.

The thought of Herminie did occur to her, but was instantly dismissed,
for there had been nothing in Madame de Beaumesnil's manner towards the
young musician that indicated any special interest; besides, she and the
countess had met for the first time less than a fortnight before the
latter's death, while the marquis declared that the young girl of whom
he was in search had been under Madame de Beaumesnil's protection for a
long time.

"Then I must endeavour to secure my information elsewhere," said the
marquis, with a sigh.

"Wait a moment, M. le marquis," exclaimed Madame Dupont. "What I am
going to tell you may have no connection with the young girl of whom you
speak, but it will do no harm to mention it."

"Let me hear what it is."

"The day before her death, madame la comtesse sent for me, and said:
'Take a cab and carry this letter to a woman who lives in the
Batignolles. Do not tell her who sent you, but bring her back with you,
and show her up to my room immediately upon her arrival.'"

"And this woman's name?"

"Was a very peculiar one, M. le marquis, and I have not forgotten it.
She is called Madame Barbançon."

"Was she a frequent visitor at Madame de Beaumesnil's house?"

"She was never there except that once."

"And did you bring this woman to Madame de Beaumesnil's?"

"I did not."

"How was that?"

"After giving me the order I just spoke of, madame seemed to change her
mind, for she said to me: 'All things considered, Madame Dupont, you had
better not take a cab. It would give the affair an air of mystery. Order
out the carriage, give this letter to the footman, and tell him to
deliver it to the person to whom it is addressed.'"

"And he found the woman?"

"Yes, M. le marquis."

"And did Madame de Beaumesnil have a conversation with her?"

"The interview lasted at least two hours, M. le marquis."

"How old was this woman?"

"Fifty years of age at the very least, and a very ordinary person."

"And after her interview with the countess?"

"She was taken back to her home in madame's carriage."

"And you say she has never been at the Hôtel de Beaumesnil since?"

"No, M. le marquis."

After remaining silent for some time, the hunchback turned to Madame
Dupont, and asked:

"What did you say this woman's name was?"

"Madame Barbançon."

The hunchback wrote down the name in his note-book, then asked:

"And she lives where?"

"In the Batignolles."

"The street and number, if you please."

"I do not know, M. le marquis. I only remember that the footman told us
that the house where she lived was in a very quiet street, and that
there was a garden, into which one could look through a small latticed
gate."

The hunchback, after jotting down these items in his note-book, said:

"I thank you very much for this information, though it may be of little
or no assistance to me in my search. If you should at any time recall
other facts which you think may be of service, I hope you will notify me
at once."

"I will not fail to do so, M. le marquis."

M. de Maillefort, having rewarded Madame Dupont handsomely, called a cab
and ordered the coachman to drive him to the Batignolles.

After two hours of persistent inquiry and assiduous search the marquis
at last discovered Commander Bernard's house, where he found only Madame
Barbançon at home.

Olivier had left Paris several days before in company with his master
mason, and the veteran had just gone out for his daily walk.

The housekeeper on opening the door was so unpleasantly impressed by the
visitor's deformity, that, instead of inviting him in, she remained
standing upon the threshold, thus barring M. de Maillefort's passage.

That gentleman, noting the unfavourable impression he was making upon
the housekeeper, bowed very politely, and said:

"Have I the honour of speaking to Madame Barbançon?"

"Yes, monsieur; and what do you want of Madame Barbançon?"

"I am desirous that you should grant me the honour of a few minutes'
conversation."

"And why, monsieur?" demanded the housekeeper, eyeing the stranger
distrustfully.

"I wish to confer with you, madame, on a very important matter."

"But I do not even know you."

"I have the advantage of knowing you, though only by name, it is true."

"A fine story that! I, too, know the Grand Turk by name."

"My dear Madame Barbançon, will you permit me to say that we could talk
very much more at our ease inside, than out here on the doorstep."

"I only care to be at ease with persons I like, monsieur," retorted the
housekeeper, tartly.

"I can understand your distrust, my dear madame," replied the marquis,
concealing his impatience, "so I will vouch for myself by a name that is
not entirely unknown to you."

"What name is that?"

"That of Madame la Comtesse de Beaumesnil."

"Do you come at her request, monsieur?" asked the housekeeper, quickly.

"At her request? No, madame," sadly replied the hunchback, shaking his
head, "Madame de Beaumesnil is dead."

"Dead! And when did the poor, dear lady die?"

"Let us step inside and I will then answer your question," said the
marquis, in an authoritative manner that rather awed Madame Barbançon;
besides, she was very anxious to hear the particulars of Madame de
Beaumesnil's death.

"And you say that Madame de Beaumesnil is dead?" exclaimed the
housekeeper, as soon as they had entered the house.

"She died several days ago--the very next day after her interview with
you."

"What, monsieur, you know?"

"I know that Madame de Beaumesnil had a long conversation with you, and
I am fulfilling her last wishes in asking you to accept these
twenty-five napoleons from her."

And the hunchback showed Madame Barbançon a small silk purse filled with
shining gold.

The words "twenty-five napoleons" grievously offended the housekeeper's
ears. Had the marquis said twenty-five louis the effect would probably
have been entirely different.

So instead of taking the proffered gold, Madame Barbançon, feeling all
her former doubts revive, answered majestically, as she waved aside the
purse with an expression of superb disdain:

"I do not accept napoleons," accenting the detested name strongly; "no,
I do not accept napoleons from the first person that happens to come
along--without knowing--do you understand, monsieur?"

"Without knowing what, my dear madame?"

"Without knowing who these people are who say napoleons as if it would
scorch their mouths if they should utter the word louis. But it is all
plain enough now," she added, sardonically. "Tell me who you go with and
I will tell you who you are. Now what do you want with me? I have my
soup pot to watch."

"As I told you before, madame, I came to bring you a slight token of
Madame de Beaumesnil's gratitude for the discretion and reserve you
displayed in a certain affair."

"What affair?"

"You know very well."

"I haven't the slightest idea what you mean."

"Come, come, my dear Madame Barbançon, why will you not be perfectly
frank with me? I was one of Madame de Beaumesnil's most intimate
friends, and I know all about that orphan--you know--that orphan."

"That orphan?"

"Yes, that young girl, I need say no more. You see I know all about it."

"Then if you know all about it, why do you come here to question me?"

"I come in the interest of the young girl--you know who I mean--to ask
you to give me her address, as I have a very important communication to
make to her."

"Really?"

"Really."

"Well, well, did anybody ever hear the equal of that?" snorted the
housekeeper, indignantly.

"But my dear Madame Barbançon, what is there so very extraordinary in
what I am saying to you?"

"This," yelled the housekeeper, "this--that you are nothing more or less
than a miserable old roué!"

"I?"

"Yes, a miserable scoundrel who is trying to bribe me, and make me blab
all I know by promises of gold."

"But, my dear madame, I assure you--"

"But understand me once for all: if that hump of yours was stuffed with
napoleons, and you authorised me to help myself to all I wanted, I
wouldn't tell you a word more than I chose to. That is the kind of a
woman I am!"

"But, Madame Barbançon, do pray listen to me. You are a worthy and
honest woman."

"Yes, I flatter myself that I am."

"And very justly, I am sure. That being the case, if you would only
hear me to the end you would answer very differently, I am sure, for--"

"I should do nothing of the kind. Oh, I understand, you came here
intending to pump me and get all you could out of me, but, thank Heaven,
I was smart enough to see through you from the very first, and now I
tell you once for all you had better let me alone."

"But one word, I beg, my dear friend," pleaded the marquis, trying to
take his irascible companion's hand.

"Don't touch me, you vile libertine," shrieked the housekeeper,
springing back in prudish terror. "I know you now for the serpent that
you are! First it was 'madame,' and then 'my dear madame,' and now 'my
dear friend,' and you'll wind up with 'my treasure,' I suppose!"

"But Madame Barbançon, I do assure you--"

"I have always heard it said that humpbacked people were worse than
monkeys," exclaimed the housekeeper, recoiling still further. "If you
don't take yourself off, sir, and at once, I'll call the neighbours;
I'll yell for the police; I'll cry fire!"

"You must be crazy, woman," exclaimed the marquis, exasperated by the
complete failure of his efforts so far as Madame Barbançon was
concerned. "What the devil do you mean by all this pretended indignation
and prudery? You are very nearly as ugly as I am, and we are not
calculated to tempt each other. I say once more, and for the last time,
and you had better weigh my words well, I came here in the hope of being
of assistance to a poor and worthy young girl whom you must know. And if
you do know her, you are doing her an irreparable wrong--do you
understand me?--by refusing to tell me where she is and to assist me in
finding her. Consider well--the future of this young girl is in your
hands, and I am sure you are really too kind-hearted to wish to injure a
worthy girl who has never harmed you."

M. de Maillefort spoke with so much feeling, his tone was so earnest and
sincere, that Madame Barbançon began to feel that there was really no
just cause for her distrust, after all.

"Well, monsieur, I may have been mistaken in thinking that you were
trying to make love to me," she began.

"You certainly were."

"But as for telling you anything I oughtn't to tell you, you won't make
me do that, however hard you may try. It is quite possible that you're a
respectable man, and that your intentions are good, but I'm an honest
woman, too, and I know what I ought and what I ought not to tell; so,
though you might cut me in pieces, you wouldn't get a treacherous word
out of me. That is the kind of a woman I am!"

"Where the devil can one hope to find a woman of sense?" M. de
Maillefort said to himself as he left Madame Barbançon, quite despairing
of getting any information out of the worthy housekeeper, and realising
only too well the futility of his first efforts to discover Madame de
Beaumesnil's illegitimate child.



CHAPTER XIII.

UNEXPECTED CONSOLATION.


Two months had elapsed since the death of Madame de Beaumesnil, and
great activity reigned in the house of M. le Baron de la Rochaiguë, who
had been appointed guardian of Ernestine de Beaumesnil at a family
council convoked shortly after the demise of the countess.

The servants of the household were hurrying to and fro arranging
articles of furniture, under the superintendence of the baron, his wife,
and his sister, Mlle. Helena de la Rochaiguë, an old maid about
forty-five years of age, whose plain black dress, downcast eyes, white,
pinched face, and severely arranged white hair made her look very much
like a _religieuse_, though she had never taken monastic vows.

M. de la Rochaiguë, a very tall, thin man, between sixty and seventy
years of age, was quite bald. He had a receding forehead and chin,
prominent blue eyes, and a long nose. His lips were wreathed in a
perpetual smile, which displayed exceedingly white, but unusually long,
teeth, that imparted a decidedly sheep-like character to his
physiognomy. He had an excellent figure, and by holding himself rigidly
erect and buttoning his long black coat straight up to his white cravat,
he managed to make himself a living copy of the portrait of Canning,
"the perfect type of a gentleman statesman," as the baron often
remarked.

M. de la Rochaiguë was not a statesman, however, though he had long
aspired to become one. In fact, this ambition had developed into a sort
of mania with him. Believing himself an unknown Canning, and being
unable to air his eloquence in the councils of the nation, he took
advantage of each and every opportunity to make a speech, and always
assumed a parliamentary tone and attitude in discussing the most trivial
matter.

One of the most salient characteristics of the baron's oratory was a
redundancy of adjectives and adverbs, which seemed to him to treble the
effect of his finest thoughts, though if we might venture to adopt the
baron's phraseology, we could truly say that nothing could be more
insignificant, more commonplace, and more void of meaning than what he
styled his thoughts.

Madame de la Rochaiguë, who was now about forty-five, had been extremely
pretty, coquettish, and charming. Her figure was still slender and
graceful, but the youthfulness and elaborateness of her toilets seemed
ill-suited to one of her mature years.

The baroness was passionately fond of luxury and display. There was
nothing that she loved better than to organise and preside at
magnificent entertainments, but unfortunately, her fortune, though
considerable, did not correspond with her very expensive tastes.
Besides, she had no intention of impoverishing herself; so being an
extremely shrewd and economical woman, she managed to enjoy the prestige
which lavish expenditure imparts to one by frequently acting as the
patroness of the many obscure but enormously rich foreigners or
provincials--meteors--who, after dazzling Paris a few years, vanish for
ever in darkness and oblivion.

Madame de la Rochaiguë in such cases did not allow her protégés the
slightest liberty, even in the selection of their guests. She gave them
a list of the persons they were to entertain, not even granting them
permission to invite such of their friends or compatriots as she did not
consider worthy to appear in aristocratic society.

The baroness, holding a high social position herself, could easily
launch her clients in the best society, but in the meantime she was
really the mistress of their house. It was she alone who planned their
entertainments, and it was to her that persons applied for a place on
the list of guests bidden to these sumptuous and exclusive reunions.

It is needless to say that she considered a box at the opera and other
fashionable places of amusement an absolute necessity, and, in this box,
the best seat was always reserved for her. It was the same at the races,
and in the frequent visits to the seashore and other fashionable
watering-places. Her protégés rented a house, and sent down chefs,
servants, and horses and carriages, and in these admirably appointed
establishments Madame de la Rochaiguë kept open house for her friends.

So insatiable is the longing for pleasure in society, even the most
fashionable society, that, instead of revolting at the idea of a woman
of noble birth devoting herself to the shameful robbing of these
unfortunate people whose foolish vanity was leading them on to ruin,
society flattered Madame de la Rochaiguë, the dispenser of all this
lavish hospitality, and the lady herself was not a little proud of the
advantages she derived from her patronage; besides being clever, witty,
shrewd, and remarkably self-possessed, Madame de la Rochaiguë was one of
the seven or eight brilliant women who exerted a real influence over
what is known as Parisian society.

The three persons above referred to were engaged in adding the finishing
touches to a spacious suite of superbly appointed apartments that
occupied the entire first floor of a mansion in the Faubourg St.
Germain.

M. and Madame de la Rochaiguë had relinquished these rooms and
established themselves on the second floor, a part of which was occupied
by Mlle. de la Rochaiguë, while the rest had heretofore served as
quarters for the baron's daughter and son-in-law, when they left their
estates, where they resided most of the year, for a two months' sojourn
in Paris.

These formerly rather dilapidated and very parsimoniously furnished
apartments had been entirely renovated and superbly decorated for Mlle.
Ernestine de Beaumesnil, whose health had become sufficiently restored
to admit of her return to France, and who was expected to arrive from
Italy that very day, accompanied by her governess, and a sort of steward
or courier whom M. de la Rochaiguë had despatched to Naples to bring the
orphan home.

The extreme care which the baron and his wife and sister were bestowing
on the arrangement of the rooms was almost ludicrous, so plainly did it
show the intense eagerness and obsequiousness with which Mlle. de
Beaumesnil was awaited, though there was something almost depressing in
the thought that all this splendour was for a mere child of sixteen, who
seemed likely to be almost lost in these immense rooms.

After a final survey of the apartments, M. de la Rochaiguë summoned all
the servants, and, seeing a fine opportunity for a speech, uttered the
following memorable words with all his wonted majesty of demeanour:

"I here assemble my people together, to say, declare, and signify to
them that Mlle. de Beaumesnil, my cousin and ward, is expected to arrive
this evening. I desire also to say to them that Madame de la Rochaiguë
and myself intend, desire, and wish that our people should obey Mlle. de
Beaumesnil's orders even more scrupulously than our own. In other words,
I desire to say to our people that anything and everything Mlle. de
Beaumesnil may say, order, or command, they are to obey as implicitly,
unhesitatingly, and blindly as if the order had been given by Madame de
la Rochaiguë or myself. I count upon the zeal, intelligence, and
exactitude of my people in this particular, and we shall reward
handsomely all who manifest hearty good-will, solicitude, and
unremitting zeal in Mlle. de Beaumesnil's service."

After this eloquent adjuration the servants were dismissed, and the
cooks were ordered to have everything in readiness to serve either a hot
or cold repast in case Mlle. de Beaumesnil should desire something to
eat on her arrival.

These preparations concluded, Madame de la Rochaiguë suggested to her
husband that they go up to their own apartments.

"I was about to make the same proposition to you," responded M. de la
Rochaiguë, smiling, and showing his long teeth with the most affable air
imaginable.

As the baron and baroness and Mlle. de la Rochaiguë were leaving the
apartment, a servant stepped up to M. de la Rochaiguë, and said:

"There is a young woman here who wishes to speak with madame."

"Who is she?"

"She did not give her name. She came to return something belonging to
the late Comtesse de Beaumesnil."

"Admit her," said the baroness.

Then, turning to her husband and sister-in-law, she said:

"I wonder who it can be?"

"I haven't the slightest idea, but we shall soon know."

"Some claim on the estate, probably," remarked the baroness. "It should
have been sent to the notary."

Almost at the same instant the servant opened the door, and announced:

"Mademoiselle Herminie."

Though beautiful under any and all circumstances, the lovely face of the
"duchess," wan from the profound grief caused by the death of her
mother, wore an expression of intense sadness. Her lovely golden hair,
which she usually wore in long curls, was wound smoothly around her
head, for, in her bitter sorrow, the poor child for the last two months
had entirely forgotten the innocent vanities of youth. Another trivial
but highly significant detail,--Herminie's white and beautifully shaped
hands were bare; the shabby little gloves so often and carefully mended
were no longer wearable, and her increasing poverty would not permit her
to purchase others.

Yes, her poverty, for, wounded to the heart by her mother's death, and
dangerously ill for six weeks, the young girl had been unable to give
the music lessons which were her only means of support, and her little
store of savings had been swallowed up in the expenses of her illness,
so, while waiting for the pay for the lessons resumed only a few days
before, Herminie had been obliged to pawn some silver purchased in an
hour of affluence, and on the paltry sum thus obtained she was now
living with a parsimony which want alone can teach.

On seeing this pale but beautiful girl, whose clothing indicated extreme
poverty, in spite of its scrupulous neatness, the baron and his wife
exchanged glances of surprise.

"I am Madame de la Rochaiguë, mademoiselle," said the baroness. "What
can I do for you?"

"I came, madame, to rectify a mistake," replied Herminie, blushing
deeply, "and return this five hundred franc note which was sent to me
by--by the late Madame de Beaumesnil's notary."

In spite of her courage, Herminie felt the tears rush to her eyes on
uttering her mother's name, but making a violent effort to conquer her
emotion, she held out the bank-note enclosed in an envelope, bearing
this address:

    _For Mlle. Herminie,_
                  _Singing Teacher._

[Illustration: "She Held Out the Bank-note."]

"Ah, yes, it was you, mademoiselle, who used to play and sing for Madame
de Beaumesnil."

"Yes, madame."

"I recollect now that the family council decided that five hundred
francs should be sent to you for your services. It was considered that
this amount--"

"Would be a suitable, sufficient, and satisfactory remuneration," added
the baron, sententiously.

"And if it is not, the complaint should be made to the notary, not to
us," added the baroness.

"I have come, madame," said Herminie, gently but proudly, "to return the
money. I have been paid."

No one present realised or could realise the bitter sorrow hidden in
these words:

"I have been paid."

But Herminie's dignity and disinterestedness, a disinterestedness which
the shabby garments of the young girl rendered the more remarkable, made
a deep impression on Madame de la Rochaiguë, and she said:

"Really, mademoiselle, I can not praise too highly this delicacy and
keen sense of honour on your part. The family did not know that you had
been paid, but," added the baroness, hesitatingly, for Herminie's air of
quiet dignity impressed her not a little,--"but I--I feel that I may, in
the name of the family, beg you to keep this five hundred francs--as--as
a gift."

And the baroness held out the bank-note to the young girl, casting
another quick glance at her shabby garments as she did so.

Again a blush of wounded pride mounted to Herminie's brow, but it is
impossible to describe the perfect courtesy and proud simplicity with
which the girl replied:

"Will you, madame, kindly reserve this generous gift for the many
persons who must appeal to you for charity."

Then, without another word, Herminie bowed to Madame de la Rochaiguë,
and turned towards the door.

"Excuse me, mademoiselle," cried the baroness, "one word more, just
one."

The young girl, unable to entirely conceal the tears of humiliation
repressed with such difficulty until now, turned, and said to Madame de
la Rochaiguë, who seemed to have been suddenly struck with a new idea:

"What do you wish, madame?"

"I must ask you first to pardon an insistence which seems to have
wounded your delicacy, and made you think, perhaps, that I wished to
humiliate you, but I assure you--"

"I never suppose that any one desires to humiliate me, madame," replied
Herminie, gently and firmly, but without allowing Madame de la Rochaiguë
to finish her sentence.

"And you are right, mademoiselle," responded the baroness, "for it is an
entirely different sentiment that you inspire. Now, I have a service, I
might even say a favour, to ask of you."

"Of me?"

"Do you still give piano lessons, mademoiselle?"

"Yes, madame."

"M. de la Rochaiguë," said the baroness, pointing to her husband, who
was smiling according to his custom, "is the guardian of Mlle. de
Beaumesnil, who is expected to arrive here this evening."

"Mlle. de Beaumesnil!" exclaimed Herminie, with a violent start; "she is
coming here--to-day?"

"As madame has just had the honour to say to you, we expect Mlle. de
Beaumesnil, my much loved cousin and ward, will arrive this evening,"
said the baron. "These apartments are intended for her," he added,
casting a complacent glance around the magnificent room, "apartments
worthy in every respect of the richest heiress in France, for whom
nothing is too good--"

But the baroness, unceremoniously interrupting her husband, said to
Herminie:

"Mlle. de Beaumesnil is only sixteen, and her education is not yet
entirely completed. She will need instruction in several branches, and
if you can make it convenient to give Mlle. de Beaumesnil lessons in
music we should be delighted to entrust her to you."

Though the possibility of such an offer had gradually dawned upon
Herminie's mind as the baroness proceeded, the thought that a most lucky
chance was about to bring her in contact with her sister so overcame her
that she would doubtless have betrayed herself if the baron, eager to
improve this fresh opportunity to pose as an orator, had not slipped his
left hand in the breast of his tightly buttoned coat, and, with his
right hand oscillating like a pendulum, said:

"Mademoiselle, though we feel it a sacred duty to select our dear ward's
instructors with the most scrupulous care, it is also an infinite
satisfaction, pleasure, and happiness to us to occasionally meet
persons, who, like yourself, are endowed with all the necessary
attributes for the noble vocation to which they have dedicated
themselves in the sacred interest of education."

This speech, or rather this tirade, which the baron uttered in a single
breath, fortunately afforded Herminie time to recover her composure, and
it was with comparative calmness that she turned to Madame de la
Rochaiguë, and said:

"I am deeply touched, madame, by the confidence you manifest in me. I
shall try to prove that I am worthy of it."

"Very well, mademoiselle, as you accept my offer I will notify you as
soon as Mlle. de Beaumesnil is ready to begin her lessons, for she will
probably need several days in which to recover from the fatigue of her
journey."

"I will wait, then, until I hear from you before coming to Mlle. de
Beaumesnil," said Herminie. Then she bowed and withdrew.

It was in an ecstasy of delight that the girl returned to her humble
home.

Delicacy, a truly laudable pride, and filial love of the purest and most
elevated kind would prevent Herminie from ever revealing to her sister
the bond of union between them, even as these same sentiments had given
her strength to keep silence before Madame de Beaumesnil; but the
prospect of this speedy meeting plunged the young artiste into a
transport of delight, and brought her the most unexpected consolation.

Moreover, her natural sagacity, together with a vague distrust of both
M. and Madame de la Rochaiguë, whom she had just seen for the first
time, told Herminie that this child of sixteen summers, this sister whom
she loved without even knowing her, should have been entrusted to the
care of very different persons; and if her expectations did not deceive
her, the affection she hoped to arouse in her sister's heart might be
made to exert a very beneficial influence.

It is almost unnecessary to say that, in spite of her very straitened
circumstances, it never once occurred to Herminie to compare the almost
fabulous wealth of her sister with her own condition, which was that of
a poor artiste exposed to all the trying vicissitudes of sickness and
poverty.

Proud and generous natures diffuse around them a radiance which not
unfrequently melts even the thick ice of selfishness and egotism, as in
the preceding interview, when Herminie's dignity, exquisite grace, and
simplicity of manner had awakened so much interest and extorted such
respect from M. and Madame de la Rochaiguë,--worldly-minded and
unsympathising though they were,--that they had entirely of their own
accord made the young girl the offer that so rejoiced her heart.

The baron and his wife and sister, left alone after Herminie's
departure, went up to their own apartments to hold a conference on the
subject of Ernestine de Beaumesnil's arrival and the tactics that should
be pursued.



CHAPTER XIV.

THE SOLEMN COMPACT.


They had scarcely reached the drawing-room on the floor above before
Helena de la Rochaiguë, who had seemed very thoughtful ever since
Herminie's arrival, remarked to the baroness:

"I think, sister, that you did wrong to select that girl for Ernestine's
music-teacher."

"Wrong? And why?" demanded the baroness.

"The girl seems to me to be very proud," replied Helena, placidly. "Did
you notice how haughtily she returned that bank-note, though the
shabbiness of her clothing showed conclusively that she was in great
need?"

"It was that very thing that influenced me," answered the baroness.
"There is something so interesting in such a proud refusal on the part
of a poor person; besides, this young girl had such a charming dignity
of manner that I was forced, even against my better judgment, to make
her the offer you censure, my dear sister."

"Pride should never be considered other than reprehensible," said
Helena, sanctimoniously. "It is the worst of the seven great sins. Pride
is the exact opposite of Christian humility, without which there is no
salvation," she added, "and I fear this girl will exert a most
pernicious influence over Ernestine de Beaumesnil."

Madame de la Rochaiguë smiled faintly as she stole a furtive glance at
her husband, who gave a slight shrug of the shoulders, which indicated
pretty plainly how little respect he felt for Helena's opinions.

Long accustomed to regard this devotee as a nonentity, the baron and his
wife never for a moment supposed that this narrow-minded, bigoted old
maid, who never lost her temper, no matter how great the provocation
might be, and who did not utter a dozen words in the course of a day,
could ever have a thought beyond those connected with the performance of
her religious duties.

"We will think over your suggestion, my dear sister," said the baroness,
suavely. "After all, we have made no binding contract with this young
person. Your remarks, however, seem to form a natural introduction to
the subject of this conference."

Instantly the baron sprang up, and turned his chair around so he could
rest his hands upon the back of it, and also ensure himself the ample
space which his parliamentary attitudes and oratorical gestures
demanded. Already, slipping his hand in the breast of his coat, and
swaying his right arm to and fro, he was preparing to speak, when his
wife said, impatiently:

"Pardon me, M. de la Rochaiguë, but you must really do me the favour to
let your chair alone and sit down. You can express your opinion without
any flights of oratory. It will be much better to talk this matter over
in a plain matter-of-fact way without indulging in any perorations.
Reserve your oratorical powers for the tribune which you are sure to
reach sooner or later, and resign yourself to-day to talking like a man
of tact and common sense. If you do not, I shall interrupt you every
other minute."

The baron knew by experience how deeply his wife loathed a speech, so he
turned his chair around again and subsided into it with a sigh.

"Ernestine will arrive this evening, so we must decide upon the course
we are to pursue," began the baroness.

"Yes, that is absolutely necessary," replied the baron, "for everything
depends upon our harmonious action. We must have the blindest, most
entire, most implicit confidence in each other."

"Otherwise we shall lose all the advantages we ought to derive from this
guardianship," added the baroness.

"For of course one does not act as guardian merely for the pleasure of
it," interpolated the baron.

"On the contrary, we ought to derive both pleasure and profit from the
connection," said the baroness.

"That is precisely what I meant," retorted the baron.

"I do not doubt it," replied the baroness. Then she added: "Let us agree
in the first place that, in all matters relating to Ernestine, we will
never act without a full understanding with one another."

"That resolution is adopted!" cried the baron.

"And is eminently just," remarked Helena.

"As we long ago broke off all connection with the Comtesse de
Beaumesnil,--a woman I never could tolerate,"--continued the baroness,
"we know absolutely nothing about Ernestine's character, but fortunately
she is barely sixteen, and in a couple of days we shall be able to read
her like a book."

"You may trust to my sagacity for that," said the baron, with a truly
Machiavelian air.

"I shall trust to your penetration, of course, but just a little to my
own as well," responded the baroness. "But whatever kind of a girl
Ernestine may be, there is but one course for us to pursue. We must
lavish every attention upon her, gratify her slightest wish, try to
ascertain her tastes; in short, flatter her, satisfy her every whim,
please her in every possible way. We must do all this if we would
succeed. As for the means, they will be found when we become acquainted
with Ernestine's habits and tastes."

"The sum and substance of the whole matter is this," began the baron,
rising majestically from his chair.

But at a glance from his wife, he reseated himself, and continued, much
more modestly:

"Ernestine must think and see and act only through us. That is the main
thing."

"The end justifies the means," added Helena, devoutly.

"We are perfectly agreed upon the proper course of action," remarked the
baroness. "Ernestine cannot but feel grateful to us for going up-stairs
and giving her possession of the entire lower floor, which it has cost
nearly fifty thousand francs to renovate, decorate, and furnish for her
use."

"And the improvements and furniture will revert to us, of course, as the
house is ours," added the baron; "and you know it was decided in the
family council that the richest heiress in France must be suitably
housed."

"But a much more important and delicate question remains to be
discussed," continued the baroness, "the question as to what is to be
done in regard to the suitors who are sure to spring up on every side."

"Certain to," said the baron, avoiding his wife's eye.

Helena said never a word, but listened with all her ears.

"Ernestine is sixteen, nearly old enough to be married," continued the
baroness, "so the relation we hold to her will give us a prodigious
amount of influence, for people will think--and rightly--that we shall
virtually decide her in her choice of a husband. This fact is already
apparent, for, since you were appointed guardian to Ernestine, any
number of persons of high position and noble birth have made, and are
still making, all sorts of advances and friendly overtures to me in
order to get into my good graces, as the saying is."

"And I, too, have noticed that people I haven't seen for ages, and with
whom I was never on particularly friendly terms, are endeavouring to
renew their acquaintance. The other day, at Madame de Mirecourt's, I
had a crowd around me, I was literally surrounded, beset on every
side," said the baron, complacently.

"And even the Marquis de Maillefort, whom I have always hated, is no
exception to the rule," added the baroness.

"And you are right," exclaimed the baron. "There is no one in the whole
world I hate as I hate that infernal hunchback!"

"I have seen him twice," Helena said, piously, in her turn. "Every vice
seems to be written on his face. He looks like Satan himself."

"Well, one day this Satan suddenly dropped down from the clouds, as cool
as you please, though he hadn't set foot in my house for five or six
years, and he has called several times since."

"If he has taken to flattering you and paying court to you it can hardly
be on his own account."

"Evidently not, so I am convinced that M. de Maillefort has some
ulterior motive, and I am resolved to discover this motive."

"I'm sorry to learn that he's coming here again," said M. de la
Rochaiguë. "He is my greatest antipathy, my _bête noire_."

"Oh, don't talk nonsense," exclaimed the baroness, impatiently; "we have
got to put up with the marquis, there's no help for it. Besides, if a
man of his position makes such advances to you, how will it be with
others? This is an incontestable proof of our influence. Let us
endeavour to profit by it in every possible way, and by and by, when the
girl is ready to settle down, we shall be stupid indeed if we cannot
induce her to make a choice that will be very advantageous to us."

"You state the case admirably, my dear," said the baron, apparently much
impressed, while Helena, who was evidently no less deeply interested,
drew her chair closer to that of her brother and his wife.

"And now had we better hasten or retard the moment when Ernestine makes
her choice?" asked the baroness.

"A very important question," said the baron.

"My advice would be to defer any decision upon this subject for six
months," said the baroness.

"That is my opinion, too," exclaimed the baron, as if this statement of
his wife's views had given him great inward satisfaction.

"I agree with you perfectly, my brother, and with you, my sister," said
Helena, who had listened silently and with downcast eyes to every word
of the conversation.

"Very well," said the baroness, evidently well pleased with this harmony
of feeling. "And now there can be no doubt that we shall be able to
conduct the affair to a successful termination, for we will all take a
solemn oath, by all we hold most dear, to accept no suitor for
Ernestine's hand, without warning and consulting one another."

"To act alone or secretly would be an act of infamous, shameless, and
horrible treachery," exclaimed the baron, as if shocked at the mere idea
of such an atrocity.

"_Mon Dieu!_" murmured Helena, clasping her hands. "Who could ever think
of acting such a treacherous part?"

"It would be an infamous act," said the baroness, in her turn, "and
worse,--it would be a fatal blunder. We shall be strong if we act in
unison, but weak, if we act independently of one another."

"In union there is strength!" said the baron, sententiously.

"So, unless we mutually agree upon a change of plan, we will defer all
action on the subject of Ernestine's marriage for six months, in order
that we may have time to strengthen our influence over her."

"This question decided, there is another important matter to be
considered," continued the baroness. "Is Ernestine to be allowed to
retain her governess or not? This Madame Laîné, as nearly as I can
ascertain, is only a little above the ordinary maid. She has been with
Ernestine two years, though, and must, consequently, have some influence
over her."

"In that case, we had better oust the governess, or prejudice Ernestine
against her," volunteered the baron, with an air of profound wisdom.
"That would be the thing to do."

"A very silly thing," retorted the baroness.

"But, my dear--"

"The only sensible thing to do in such a contingency is to win the
governess over to our side, and then see that she acts according to our
instructions. In that case, this woman's influence, instead of being
dangerous, would prove of the greatest possible service to us."

"That is true," said Helena.

"Yes, considered from this point of view, the governess might be very
useful, very serviceable, and very advantageous," said the baron,
thoughtfully; "but if she should refuse to ally herself with our
interests,--if our attempts to conciliate this woman should excite
Ernestine's suspicions, what then?"

"We must first see what can be done, and I'll attend to that," said the
baroness. "If we find that the woman cannot be won over, then we will
adopt M. de la Rochaiguë's first suggestion, and get rid of the
governess."

The conference was here interrupted by a servant, who came to announce
that the courier who preceded Mlle. de Beaumesnil's carriage had just
ridden into the courtyard, and said that he was but a half hour in
advance of the others.

"Quick--quick--to our toilets," said the baroness, as soon as the
servant left the room. Then she added, as if the thought had just
occurred to her:

"But, now I think of it, being cousins, we wore mourning six weeks for
the countess. It would be a good idea, perhaps, to put it on again. All
Ernestine's servants are in black, and by our order her carriages will
be draped in black. Don't you think that if I should be dressed in
colours the first time she sees me, the child would think hard of it?"

"You are right, my dear," said the baron. "Resume your mourning, if only
for a fortnight."

"I hate the idea," said the baroness, "for black is frightfully
unbecoming to me. But this is one of the many sacrifices a person is
obliged to make. Now, as to our compact," added the baroness. "No secret
or independent step is to be taken in regard to Ernestine. We will all
make a solemn promise to that effect. I, for one, swear it."

"And I," said the baron.

"And I," murmured Helena.

All three then hurried off to dress for the evening.

The baroness had no sooner locked herself in her own room, however, than
she seated herself at her desk, and hastily penned the following note:

       *       *       *       *       *

"MY DEAREST JULIE:--The child arrives this evening. I shall be at your
house to-morrow morning at ten o'clock. We haven't a minute to lose.
Notify a certain person at once. We must come to a full understanding
without delay. Silence and prudence,

"L. DE L. R."

The baroness addressed this note to--

    _Madame la Vicomtesse de Mirecourt._

Then, calling her maid, and handing her the missive, she said:

"While we are at table you must take this to Madame de Mirecourt. You
will take a box with you when you go out, as if you were going on an
errand."

Almost at the same moment the baron was affixing his signature to the
following note:

"M. de la Rochaiguë begs that M. le Baron de Ravil will see him
to-morrow at his house between one and two o'clock in the afternoon. The
matter is urgent.

"M. de la Rochaiguë counts upon seeing M. de Ravil at the time and place
named, and assures him of his most distinguished consideration."

The baron addressed this note to--

    _M. le Baron de Ravil,_
        _No. 7 Rue Godot-de-Mauroy._

Then he said to his valet:

"Call some one to post this letter at once."

And last, but not least, Mlle. Helena, after taking the same precautions
as the baron and baroness, penned the following note:

       *       *       *       *       *

"MY DEAR ABBÉ:--Do not fail to call to-morrow morning at ten o'clock.

"May God be with you. The hour has come.

"Pray for me as I pray for you.

"H. DE L. R."

       *       *       *       *       *

This note Helena addressed to--

    _M. l' Abbé Ledoux,_
        _Rue de la Plaushe._



CHAPTER XV.

A GLORIOUS DREAM.


On the day following this conference in the Rochaiguë family, three
important scenes took place in the homes of as many different persons.

The first occurred in the house of Abbé Ledoux, the priest we saw
administering the last sacrament to Madame de Beaumesnil.

The abbé was a small man, with an insinuating smile, a sharp,
penetrating eye, ruddy complexion, and gray hair.

He was pacing his bedroom in a restless, agitated manner, glancing every
now and then at the clock, and seemed to be waiting for some one.

Suddenly the sound of the door-bell was heard; the door opened, and a
servant, who looked very much like a sacristan, announced:

"M. Célestin de Macreuse."

This pious founder of the St. Polycarpe mission was a tall, rather stout
young man with excellent manners, rather faded light hair, regular
features, and fine complexion. In fact, he might easily have passed for
a handsome man, had it not been for the expression of treacherous
sweetness and extreme self-complacency that characterised his
countenance.

When he entered the room M. de Macreuse kissed Abbé Ledoux in a
Christianlike manner on both cheeks, and the abbé returned the salute in
the same apostolic fashion.

"You have no idea how impatiently I have been waiting for you, my dear
Célestin," he said.

"There was a meeting at the mission to-day, M. l'abbé, and a very stormy
meeting it was. You cannot conceive what a blind spirit of rebellion
those miserable creatures display. Ah, how much suffering is needed to
make these coarse natures understand how essential to their salvation is
the poverty in which they are now living! But no, instead of being
content with a chance of salvation, instead of living with their gaze
directed heavenward, they persist in keeping their eyes on their earthly
surroundings, in comparing their condition with that of more favoured
mortals, and in prating of their right to employment and to happiness.
To happiness! What heresy! It is truly disheartening!"

The abbé listened to Célestin's tirade with a half smile, thinking the
while of the pleasant surprise he had in store for his visitor.

"And what do you suppose has been going on while you were talking wisdom
to those miserable wretches down there, my dear Célestin?" asked the
abbé. "I have been talking to Mlle. de la Rochaiguë about you. Another
subject of conversation, too, was the arrival of the little Beaumesnil."

"What!" exclaimed M. de Macreuse, colouring with surprise and delight,
"do you mean to say that Mlle. de Beaumesnil--"

"Returned to Paris last evening."

"And Mlle. de la Rochaiguë?"

"Is still of the same mind in regard to you,--ready to do anything, in
fact, to prevent this immense fortune from falling into evil hands. I
saw the dear lady this morning; we have decided upon our course of
action, and it will be no fault of ours if you do not marry Mlle. de
Beaumesnil."

"Ah, if that glorious dream is ever realised it will be to you that I
shall owe this immense, this incalculable fortune!" exclaimed M. de
Macreuse, seizing the abbé's hands and pressing them fervently.

"It is thus that pious young men who are living examples of all the
Christian virtues are rewarded in this day and generation," answered the
abbé, jovially.

"And such a fortune! Such a golden future! Is it not enough to dazzle
any one?" cried Célestin, with an expression of intense cupidity on his
face.

"How ardently the dear boy loves money," said the abbé, with a paternal
air, pinching Célestin's plump cheek as he spoke. "Well, we must do our
very best to secure it for him, then. Unfortunately, I could not
persuade that hard-headed Madame de Beaumesnil to make a will
designating you as her daughter's future husband. If she had done that
we should not have had the slightest trouble. Armed with this request of
a dying mother, Mlle. de la Rochaiguë and I could have appealed to the
girl, who would have consented to anything out of respect for her
mother's memory. It would have been a fine thing; besides, there could
have been no opposition then, you see, but of course that is not to be
thought of now."

"And why is it not to be thought of?" asked M. de Macreuse, with some
hesitation, but looking the abbé straight in the eye.

That gentleman returned the gaze with the same intentness.

Célestin averted his eyes, but it was with a faint smile that he
replied:

"When I said that it might not be absolutely necessary for us to
renounce the assistance of such a statement of Madame de Beaumesnil's
wishes--"

"In writing?" demanded the abbé, casting down his eyes in his turn,
before the bold assent Célestin's look conveyed.

There was a moment's silence, after which the abbé said, as calmly as if
no such incident had interrupted the conversation:

"Consequently, we must begin a new campaign, Circumstances favour us;
besides, we are the first in the field, the baron and his wife having no
one in view as yet; at least, Mlle. de Rochaiguë, who is entirely
devoted to us, says so. As for her brother and his wife, they are
extremely selfish and avaricious persons, so it is quite possible that,
if we seem likely to succeed, they will side with us, that is, if they
feel that it will be to their interest to do so. But we must first place
ourselves in a position that will enable us to make our own terms."

"And when, and in what way, am I to make Mlle. de Beaumesnil's
acquaintance, my dear abbé?"

"We have not yet decided that very important question. A formal
introduction is evidently out of the question, as the baron and his wife
would be sure to suspect our intentions. Besides, a slight air of
mystery and secrecy would be much more likely to excite Mlle. de
Beaumesnil's curiosity and interest. It is necessary, too, if we wish to
produce the best possible effect, that this introduction should be
managed with an eye to the young girl's character."

Célestin cast a glance of mingled surprise and inquiry at his companion.

"So you had better allow us to attend to all that," continued the abbé,
in a tone of affectionate superiority. "We understand human nature
thoroughly. From what I have been able to learn, the little Beaumesnil
must be exceedingly religious and devout. It is also an excellent thing
to know that Mlle. de Beaumesnil has a decided preference for the altar
of Mary--a very natural predilection in a young girl."

"Permit me to interrupt you an instant, my dear abbé," said Célestin,
hastily.

"What is it, my dear boy?"

"M. and Madame de la Rochaiguë are not very regular in the performance
of their religious duties, but Mlle. Helena never misses a service."

"That is true."

"It will be only natural, then, that she should take Mlle. de Beaumesnil
to the Church of St. Thomas d'Aquin, that being the church she always
attends."

"Evidently."

"It would be well, then, for her to perform her devotions at the altar
of the Virgin, where she will also conduct her young friend to-morrow
morning at nine o'clock. I would also suggest that the ladies take their
places to the left of the altar."

"To the left of the altar! and why, Célestin?"

"Because I shall be performing my devotions at the same altar."

"Excellent!" cried the abbé, "no better plan could be devised. Mlle.
Helena shall call the girl's attention to you, and you will make an
admirable impression from the very first. A very clever idea, my dear
Célestin, a very clever idea!"

"Don't give me the credit of it, my dear abbé," replied Célestin, with
ironical modesty. "Render unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsar's."

"And to what Cæsar am I to attribute this admirable idea for a first
interview?"

"To the author of these lines, my dear abbé." And in a sardonic tone, M.
de Macreuse repeated:

    "'Ah, if you had but seen him as I first saw him,
      You would feel for him the same fondness that I feel.
      Each day to church he came with gentle air,
      To kneel devoutly right before me,
      And attracted the gaze of all assembled there,
      By the sincerity and ardour of his prayer.'

"You see everything has been planned for me, even to offering the holy
water on leaving the church," added Macreuse. "And yet, people persist
in declaring that the writings of this impious playwright are immoral
and reprehensible."

"That's pretty good, upon my word!" cried the abbé, laughing heartily.
"Well, Heaven speed the good cause, whatever may be the weapons used!
You have everything to hope for, my dear Célestin. You are clever and
persevering, and more likely to make a favourable impression on the
orphan than any one I know. I would advise, however, that you be
extremely careful about your dress. Let it be rich, but not gaudy, and
characterised always by that elegant simplicity which is the perfection
of good taste. Let me look at you a minute, Yes," continued the abbé,
after scrutinising the young man closely for a moment, "you had better
give a slight wave to your hair instead of wearing it smooth. It takes
something more than fine talk to captivate a young girl's fancy."

"Oh, you need feel no uneasiness, my dear abbé, I understand all those
little matters. I know, too, that the greatest victories are often won
by trivial means. And success in this instance means the most delightful
and blissful future of which man ever dreamed," exclaimed Célestin, his
eyes sparkling joyously.

"And you will attain this success, for all the resources at our
disposal--and they are immense--will be employed, if need be."

"Ah, my indebtedness to you will be immeasurable."

"And your success will not benefit you alone!"

"What do you mean by that, my dear abbé?"

"I mean that your success will have an enormous, an incalculable
influence. Yes, all those fine young gentlemen who pose as freethinkers,
all the lukewarm, all the indifferent, who uphold us but weakly, will
see what one gains by being with us, for us, and of us. These advantages
have also been demonstrated to some extent, I think, by the very
enviable position--especially for one of your years and of--of
your--obscure birth--" added the abbé, blushing a little, and Célestin
somehow seemed to share this embarrassment.

"So, my dear Célestin," the priest continued, "while envious and
insolent aristocrats squander their wealth and their health in vile
orgies and senseless dissipation, you, my dear child,--come from nobody
knows where, aided and pushed forward by nobody knows whom,--will
quietly make your way in the world, and soon every one will be petrified
with amazement at your marvellous good fortune."

"Ah, my dear abbé, you may rest assured that my gratitude--"

But the abbé again interrupted him by saying, with a peculiar smile:

"Do not persist in talking of your gratitude. No one has a chance to be
ungrateful to us. We are not children; we take our precautions; besides,
our best guarantee is the love and good-will of those who are indebted
to us."

And the abbé, again pinching the young man's ear in a paternal way,
continued:

"Now let me mention another no less important matter. You know the
saying, 'He who hears only one bell hears but one note.' You may rest
assured that Mlle. Helena will descant eloquently upon your many virtues
to the little Beaumesnil. Your goodness, your piety, the angelic
sweetness of your face, the dignified modesty of your demeanour, will be
her constant theme. She will do everything she can to make the girl fall
madly in love with you; but it would be an excellent thing if these
praises were echoed by somebody else, and particularly if they were
repeated by persons of such prominence that the words would exert a
great influence upon the mind of the little Beaumesnil."

"That would be a great help, I admit, my dear abbé."

"Let us see, then, my dear Célestin. Among your fashionable friends is
there no lady who could be entrusted with this delicate mission? How
about Madame de Francville?"

"She is too silly."

"Madame de Bonrepos, then?"

"She is too indiscreet and too garrulous."

"Madame Lefébure?"

"She is too much of a plebeian. There is but one lady upon whose
friendship and discretion I can rely sufficiently to make such a
request," continued Célestin, after quite a long pause. "That is Madame
la Duchesse de Senneterre."

"And you couldn't possibly do better, for the duchess has an immense
amount of influence in society," said the abbé, thoughtfully. "I think,
too, that you are not mistaken in your assertion, for I have heard her
praise you very warmly on several occasions, and have even heard her
express great regret that her son Gerald was not more like you."

On hearing Gerald's name, M. de Macreuse's face darkened ominously, and
it was in a tone of positive hatred that he exclaimed:

"That man insulted me before everybody not very long ago. I will have my
revenge, you may be sure of that."

"My dear boy, did you never hear the Roman proverb, 'Vengeance should be
eaten cold.' It is a true one. My advice to you is to remember--and
wait. Haven't you a good deal of influence over his mother already?"

"Yes," replied Célestin, "and the longer I think about it, the more
convinced I am that it is to Madame de Senneterre that I ought to apply
in this matter. I have had convincing proof of the interest she takes in
me more than once; and the confidence I now show in her will please her,
I am sure. I will consult with her, too, I think, as to the best means
of establishing friendly relations between her and Mlle. de Beaumesnil.
That will be a comparatively easy matter, I think."

"In that case, you had better see the duchess as soon as possible,"
replied the abbé.

"It is only half past twelve," said Célestin, glancing at the clock,
"and Madame de Senneterre is generally at home to her intimate friends
from one to two o'clock. I will go there at once."

"On your way you had better consider well if any inconveniences are
likely to result from these overtures on your part. I can see only
advantages."

"It is the same with me. Nevertheless, I will think the matter over. As
for the rest, that is decided, you know. To-morrow morning at nine
o'clock, a little to the left of the altar, in the Chapel of the Virgin,
in the Church of St. Thomas d'Aquin, remember."

"That is understood," answered the abbé. "I will go and inform Mlle.
Helena of our arrangements. She will be at the chapel with Mlle. de
Beaumesnil to-morrow morning at nine o'clock. I can vouch for that. Now
go at once to Madame de Senneterre's. You have no time to lose."

So, after an affectionate leave-taking, Célestin hastened to the Hôtel
de Senneterre.



CHAPTER XVI.

AN INCOMPREHENSIBLE REFUSAL.


On the morning of the same day on which the foregoing conversation
between Abbé Ledoux and M. de Macreuse took place, Madame la Duchesse de
Senneterre, having received an important letter, went out at ten
o'clock, as usual. On her return, at half past eleven, she immediately
asked for her son Gerald; but that young gentleman's valet reported to
madame's maid that M. le duc had not slept at home the night before.

About noon there came another and very peremptory message from the
duchess, but her son had not yet returned. At last, about half past
twelve, Gerald entered his mother's room, and was about to embrace her
with affectionate gaiety, when the duchess, pushing him away, said,
reproachfully:

"This is the third time I have sent for you, my son."

"I have but just returned home, and here I am! What do you wish, my dear
mother?"

"You have but just returned home at this hour? What scandalous
behaviour!"

"What scandalous behaviour?"

"Listen to me, my son: there are some things I will not discuss; but do
not mistake my aversion to speaking of them for either tolerance or
blindness."

"My dear mother," said Gerald, firmly, but deferentially, "you have
always found me, and you will always find me, the most affectionate and
respectful of sons; and it is hardly necessary for me to add that my
name, which is also yours, shall be always and everywhere honoured and
worthy of honour. But what else can you expect? I am twenty-four, and I
live and amuse myself like a man of twenty-four."

"But, Gerald, you know that the life you are leading has troubled me
very much for a long time, both on your account and my own. You shun
society, though your name and talents entitle you to a distinguished
place in its ranks, and you keep very bad company."

"Well, so far as women are concerned, I am forced to say that what you
call bad company is the best, in my opinion. Come, come, mother, don't
be angry! You know I'm still a soldier, so far as plain speaking is
concerned. I consequently admit that I have a slight weakness for pretty
girls in the lower walks of life. So far as men are concerned, I have
friends of whom any man might be proud; but one of the dearest among
them is a former soldier in my regiment. If you knew him, mother, you
would have a better opinion of me," added Gerald, smiling, "for you
judge a man by his friends, you know."

"Is there anybody in the world but you who chooses his intimate friends
from among common soldiers?" exclaimed the duchess, shrugging her
shoulders disdainfully.

"I think so, my dear mother, though it isn't everybody who has a chance
to select his friends on the battle-field."

"But I am not talking of your relations with men, my son, I am
reproaching you for compromising yourself as you do with those common
girls."

"But they are so amusing."

"My son!"

"Pardon me, my dear mother," said Gerald, kissing his mother in spite of
her strenuous efforts to prevent it. "I was wrong, yes, I was wrong. The
truth is, though,--but, oh, dear! what shall I say? I don't want to
horrify you again--but really, mother, vestal virgins are not to my
taste, and you surely wouldn't like to see me carrying ruin and
desolation into happy households, would you, mother?" he continued, in
half tragic tones. "Besides, the truth is,--for virtue's sake,
perhaps,--I like girls of the people better. The sanctity of marriage
isn't outraged, you see, and then, as I said before, they're infinitely
more amusing."

"You will excuse me from expressing any opinion on your choice of
mistresses," retorted the duchess, angrily; "but it is certainly my duty
to censure in the severest manner the strange frivolity of your conduct.
You do not realise how you are injuring yourself."

"In what way?"

"Do you suppose that if the question of a marriage was broached--"

"A marriage?" cried Gerald; "but I've no intention of marrying, not the
slightest."

"You will do me the favour to listen to me, I hope."

"I am listening."

"You know Madame de Mirecourt?"

"Yes; but fortunately she is married, so you can't offer me to her. I'm
glad of it, for she's the worst plotter and schemer on earth."

"Possibly she is, but she is an intimate friend of Madame de la
Rochaiguë, who is also one of my friends."

"How long since, may I ask? Haven't I often heard you say that that
woman was the very personification of meanness?"

"That is neither here nor there," said the duchess, hastily interrupting
him, "Madame de la Rochaiguë has now for a ward Mlle. de Beaumesnil, the
richest heiress in France."

"Who is now in Italy."

"Who is now in Paris."

"She has returned?"

"Yes, last evening; and this morning, at ten o'clock, I had a long and
very satisfactory interview with Madame de Rochaiguë at Madame de
Mirecourt's house. I have been devoting my time and attention to a
certain matter for nearly a month, but knowing your habitual levity, I
would not say a word about it to you. Fortunately, everything has been
kept such a close secret between Madame de la Rochaiguë, Madame de
Mirecourt, and myself, that we are very hopeful--"

"Hopeful of what?"

"Why, of bringing about a marriage between Mlle. de Beaumesnil and
yourself."

"A marriage!" cried Gerald, bounding out of his chair.

"Yes, a marriage--with the richest heiress in France," replied Madame de
Senneterre.

Then, without making any effort to conceal her uneasiness, she
continued:

"If it were not for your conduct, we should have every chance in our
favour, though suitors and rivals will soon be pouring in on every side.
There will be a hard struggle for the prize, and Heaven knows even the
truth will be terribly damaging to you. Ah, if with your name, your
talents, and your face you were a model of virtue and propriety like
that excellent M. de Macreuse, for example--"

"But are you really thinking seriously of this marriage, mother?" asked
Gerald, more and more astonished.

"Am I thinking of it seriously? You ask me that?"

"My dear mother, I am infinitely grateful to you for your kind
intentions, but I repeat that I have no desire to marry."

"What is that you say?"

"I say, my dear mother, that I have no intention of marrying anybody."

"_Mon Dieu!_ he is mad!" cried Madame de Senneterre. "He refuses the
richest heiress in France!"

"Listen, mother," said Gerald, gravely, but tenderly; "I am an honest
man, and being such, I confess that I love pleasure above all things,
consequently I should make a detestable husband, even for the richest
heiress in France."

"A colossal fortune--an unheard-of fortune!" faltered Madame de
Senneterre, stupefied by this refusal on the part of her son. "An income
of over three million francs! Think of it!"

"But I love pleasure and my liberty more!"

"What you say is abominable!" cried Madame de Senneterre, almost beside
herself. "Why, you are an idiot, and worse than an idiot!"

"But, my dear mother, I love independence, and gay suppers and good
times, generally,--in short, the life of a bachelor. I still have six
years of such joyous existence before me, and I wouldn't sacrifice them
for all the money in the world; besides," added Gerald, more seriously,
"I really couldn't be mean enough to make a poor girl I had married for
her money as miserable as she was ridiculous. Besides, mother, you know
very well that I absolutely refused to buy a substitute to go and be
killed in my stead, so you can not wonder that I refuse to sell myself
for any woman's millions."

"But, my son--"

"My dear mother, it is just this. Your M. de Macreuse,--and if you
really have any regard for him, don't hold him up to me again as a
model, or I shall break all the canes I possess over his back,--your M.
de Macreuse, who is so devout, would probably not have the same scruples
that I, a mere pagan, have. But such as I am, such I shall remain, and
love you even more than ever, my dear mother," added Gerald, kissing the
hand of the duchess respectfully.

There are strange coincidences in this life of ours.

Gerald had scarcely uttered M. de Macreuse's name before a servant
rapped at the door, and, on being told to enter, announced that M. de
Macreuse wished to see the duchess in regard to a very important matter.

"Did you tell him that I was at home?" asked Madame de Senneterre.

"Madame la duchesse gave no order to the contrary."

"Very well,--ask M. de Macreuse to wait a moment."

Then turning to her son, she said, no longer with severity, but with
deep sadness:

"Your incomprehensible refusal grieves and disappoints me more than I
can express, so I beg and implore that you will remain here. I will
return almost immediately. Ah, my son, my dear son, you can not imagine
the terrible chagrin you are causing me."

"Pray, mother, do not say that," pleaded Gerald, touched by his mother's
grief. "You know how much I love you."

"You are always saying that, Gerald. I wish I could believe it."

"Then send that brute of a Macreuse away, and let me try to convince you
that my conduct is at least loyal and honest. What, you insist upon
going?" he added, seeing his mother moving towards the door.

"M. de Macreuse is waiting for me," replied the duchess.

"Then let me send him word to take himself off. There is no necessity of
bothering with him."

But as M. de Senneterre started towards the bell with the evident
intention of giving the order, his mother checked him by saying:

"Really, Gerald, another of my great annoyances is the intense
aversion--I will not say jealousy--you seem to entertain for a worthy
young man whose exemplary life, modesty, and piety ought to be an
example to you. Ah, would to Heaven that you had his principles and
virtues! If that were the case, you would not prefer low company and a
life of dissipation to a brilliant marriage which would assure your
happiness and mine."

With this parting thrust Madame de Senneterre went to join M. de
Macreuse, leaving her son alone, but not without making him promise that
he would wait for her return.



CHAPTER XVII.

PRESUMPTION AND INDIGNATION.


When the duchess returned to her son, her cheeks were flushed, and
intense indignation was depicted on her visage.

"Who ever would have believed it? Did any one ever hear of such
audacity?" she exclaimed, on entering the room.

"What is the matter, mother?"

"M. de Macreuse is a scoundrel,--a vile scoundrel!" cried Madame de
Senneterre, in a tempest of wrath.

Gerald could not help bursting into a hearty laugh, despite his mother's
agitation; then, regretting this unseemly hilarity, he said:

"Forgive me, mother, but this revulsion of feeling is so sudden and so
very remarkable! But tell me, has this man failed in respect to you?"
demanded Gerald, very seriously, this time.

"Such a person as he is never forgets his manners," answered the
duchess, spitefully.

"Then what is the meaning of this anger? You were swearing by your M. de
Macreuse a minute ago!"

"Don't call him my M. de Macreuse, if you please," cried Madame de
Senneterre, interrupting her son, impetuously. "Do you know the object
of his visit? He came to ask me to say all I could in his praise,--in
his praise, indeed!"

"But to whom, and for what purpose?"

"Did any one ever hear of such audacity!"

"But tell me his object in making this request, mother."

"His object! Why, the man wants to marry Mlle. de Beaumesnil!"

"He!"

"Did any one ever hear of such presumption?"

"Macreuse?"

"A mere nobody! A common vagrant!" cried the duchess. "Really, it is
hard to imagine who could have had the audacity to introduce a creature
like that into our circle."

"But how did he happen to reveal his projects to you?"

"Because I have always treated him with consideration, I suppose;
because, like so many other fools I took him up, without knowing why,
until the fellow thought he had a right to come and say to me that, by
reason of the friendly interest I had always taken in him, and the
eulogiums I had lavished upon him, he really felt it his duty to confide
to me, under the pledge of secrecy, his intentions with regard to Mlle.
de Beaumesnil; not doubting, he had the audacity to remark that I would
say a few words in his favour to that young lady, adding that he would
trust to--to my friendly interest. I do believe he had the impudence to
say--to find an opportunity to do him this favour at the earliest
possible moment. Really, effrontery is no name for assurance like his!"

"But really, my dear mother, you must confess that it is your own fault.
Haven't I heard you praise and flatter this Macreuse in the most
outrageous manner, again and again?"

"Praise him--flatter him!" exclaimed Madame de Senneterre, naïvely. "Did
I suppose then that he would have the impudence to take it into his head
to marry the richest heiress in France, or to think of such a thing as
competing with my son? Besides, with all his boasted shrewdness, the
man is nothing more or less than a fool to apply to me for assistance in
his schemes! He will be surprised when he finds out how I will serve his
interests. His pretensions are ridiculous, positively ridiculous! He is
an adventurer, a scoundrel! He hasn't even a name, and looks like a
sacristan who has just been to dine with his parish priest. He is a
hypocrite, a pedant, and a most unmitigated bore, with all his pretended
virtues. Besides, he hasn't the slightest chance, for, from what Madame
de la Rochaiguë tells me, Mlle. de Beaumesnil would be delighted to
become a duchess. Quite a woman of the world, though so young, she has a
full appreciation of all the pleasures and advantages which a large
fortune combined with a high social position gives, and it certainly is
not a plebeian like M. de Macreuse who can give her this high social
position."

"And what reply did you make to his request?"

"Enraged at his audacity, I was on the point of telling him that his
pretensions were as absurd as they were insolent, and of forbidding him
to ever set foot in my house again; but I reflected that I might be able
to circumvent him most successfully by pretending that I was willing to
assist him, so I promised that I would speak of him, as he deserved--and
I certainly shall not fail to do so. Oh, I will urge his claims in an
effectual manner, I'll vouch for that."

"Do you know, my dear mother, that it is not at all unlikely that
Macreuse will attain his end?"

"He marry Mlle. de Beaumesnil, he?"

"Yes."

"Nonsense! Are you, too, mad?"

"Don't deceive yourself, mother. The coterie that sustains him is
all-powerful. He has on his side,--I don't mind telling you now you
detest him so thoroughly,--he has on his side all the women who have
become bigots, because they are old, all the young women who are prudes,
because they are ugly, all the male devotees, because they make capital
out of their religion, and all the serious-minded men, because they are
so stupid; so you see the name of his supporters is legion."

"But with my social standing, my opinion will have some weight, I
think," retorted the duchess.

"But you have been one of his warmest champions and admirers up to the
present time, and no one will be able to explain your sudden change of
feeling, or, rather, every one will be able to explain it; and, instead
of injuring Macreuse, the war you wage against him will aid him. The
fellow is an unmitigated scoundrel and arrant hypocrite. You have no
idea with whom you have to deal, my dear mother."

"Really, you take this very calmly--with truly heroic self-abnegation, I
might say," exclaimed the duchess, bitterly.

"No, I assure you, his presumption excites my deepest indignation. A
fellow like Macreuse to have such pretensions and perhaps be able to
realise them, a man who from my school-days has always inspired me with
both loathing and aversion! And this poor Mlle. de Beaumesnil whom I do
not even know, but who becomes interesting in my eyes the minute she is
in danger of becoming the wife of that rascal,--really I have half a
mind to marry her myself, if only to spoil Macreuse's plans and save the
poor little thing from that villain's clutches."

"Oh, Gerald, my son," cried the duchess, "your marriage would make me
the happiest of mothers!"

"But--my liberty--my precious liberty!"

"But, Gerald, think of it,--with one of the most illustrious names in
France, and then to become the richest and greatest landowner in France!
Think of the power this immense fortune will give combined with a
position like yours, my dear Gerald."

"Yes, that is so," answered Gerald, reflectively, "but think of me,
too, condemned to a life of ennui, and silk hose every evening
henceforth and for ever. Besides, remember those dear girls who love me
so devotedly; for, having the good fortune to be young and poor, I am
forced to believe that their love is entirely disinterested."

"But, my dear," insisted the duchess, urged on in spite of herself by
her ambition to see her son make this wealthy marriage, "perhaps you
exaggerate the requirements of duty too much. Because you are married is
no reason--"

"Oh, mother, mother, to think I should ever hear you recommending laxity
of morals after marriage!"

"You misunderstand my meaning entirely, my son," replied Madame de
Senneterre, considerably embarrassed. "I didn't say anything of the
kind. If I insist, it is not only to inspire you with a desire to
supplant this abominable man, but also for humanity's sake, so to
speak."

"Humanity's sake?"

"Certainly, that poor little Mlle. de Beaumesnil would positively die of
grief and despair if she is forced to live with such a monster. It would
be a most generous and commendable act to save her from him."

"Really, mother, I expect to hear you say in a minute or two that I
shall deserve the Monthyon prize, if I contract this marriage."

"Yes, if the Monthyon prize is to be awarded to the son who makes his
mother the happiest of women," replied Madame de Senneterre, looking up
at Gerald with eyes full of tears.

Gerald loved his mother so devotedly that the emotion she manifested
touched the young duke deeply, and he said, with a smile:

"Ah, what a dangerous thing a mother is! She seems to be quite capable
of marrying you to the heiress of millions, even against your will,
especially when there is danger that a scoundrel like Macreuse may be
converted into a millionaire. The fact is, the more I think of it the
more pleased I am at the idea of circumventing this hypocrite. What a
blow it would be to him! But there is one difficulty, my dear mother,
and it strikes me that I am a little late in thinking of it."

"What do you mean?"

"I am by no means sure that I should please Mlle. de Beaumesnil."

"You will only have to try to succeed in doing it, I am sure, my dear
Gerald."

"A true mother's view of the matter."

"I know you better than most people, perhaps."

"You are not capable of giving an opinion on the matter, I see. Your
affection blinds you, but I forgive you."

"Leave the matter to me, Gerald. Only consent to be guided by me, and
see if I don't conduct the affair to a successful termination."

"Do you know that one would take you for an inveterate match-maker if
one didn't know you," said Gerald, gaily. "But all mothers are alike in
one respect, when their children's interests are at stake they become
positive tigresses and lionesses. Very well, whatever your will may be I
resign myself to it blindly."

"My dear, good Gerald," cried the delighted duchess, positively weeping
with joy; "you cannot imagine how happy you have made me. That wretched
Macreuse will die of spite."

"That is so, mother. I shall give him the jaundice instead of the
sword-thrust he would have declined to take."

"Now, Gerald, let us talk the matter over sensibly."

"So be it. I am listening."

"As you have made up your mind, it is of the utmost importance that you
should see Mlle. de Beaumesnil as soon as possible."

"Very well."

"This first interview, you must understand, is of great importance."

"Unquestionably."

"The fact is so apparent that I had a long talk with Mesdames de
Mirecourt and de la Rochaiguë upon the subject this morning. From what
the latter lady is able to judge of Mlle. de Beaumesnil's character,
this is the plan we think most expedient; but you shall judge for
yourself, Gerald."

"Very well, let me hear it."

"We recognised from the first the impossibility of representing you as a
serious-minded and settled man--"

"And you showed your good sense, for I should have proved you a set of
base deceivers only too soon," retorted Gerald, laughing.

"Of course there is no hope of avoiding the many censorious remarks
which the frivolity of your conduct seems to justify, my poor Gerald, so
the best thing we can do is to make everything that is said against you
redound to your credit as much as possible."

"Only mothers could show themselves such clever diplomatists as that."

"Fortunately, Mlle. de Beaumesnil, judging from what Madame de la
Rochaiguë says,--she talked with the girl awhile last evening, and the
mind of a child of sixteen is not difficult to read,--fortunately,
Ernestine de Beaumesnil seems to be very fond of luxury, splendour, and
display, so we think it advisable that you should first appear before
her in the character of one of the most elegant young men in Paris."

"If you are clever enough to find such an opportunity, I consent, I am
sure."

"It is to-morrow afternoon, is it not, that you are to take part in that
race in the Bois de Boulogne?"

"Yes, I promised that ninny, De Courville, who has a number of fine
horses he is afraid to mount himself, that I would ride his horse,
'Young Emperor,' in the hurdle race."

"Capital! Madame de la Rochaiguë shall take Mlle. de Beaumesnil to the
race. They will call for me, and as soon as we reach the Bois it will
seem the most natural thing in the world that you should come up and
talk with us before the racing begins. Your jockey costume of orange
satin with black velvet trimmings is extremely becoming to you."

"One word, if you please, my dear mother."

"Let me finish, please. Mlle. de Beaumesnil will see you among a crowd
of fashionable young men, in which you shine preëminent, every one must
admit. And, then, I don't doubt that you will win the race. It is
absolutely necessary that you should win it, Gerald."

"It is the general opinion, mother, that the 'Young Emperor' and I will
come out ahead, but--"

"You certainly ride superbly," said the duchess, again interrupting her
son; "and when Ernestine sees you excelling your competitors in the
midst of frantic applause, there can be very little doubt that, upon one
with the tastes and character she seems to have, the impression produced
will be excellent; and if, after this first meeting, you make yourself
as agreeable as you can be when you choose, that impudent Macreuse will
appear odious in her eyes even if he should have the audacity to enter
the lists."

"May I be allowed to say a word now, my dear mother?"

"Certainly."

"I see no objection to being introduced by you to Mlle. de Beaumesnil at
a race in the Bois de Boulogne; but do you really think it advisable
that the presentation should take place on a day that I am arrayed in
the garb of a jockey?"

"But why not? I am sure the costume is extremely becoming to you."

"It seems to me to savour too much of an actor."

"Really, Gerald, you have the most peculiar ideas."

"No, no, my dear mother, it is you who have such ideas, without
suspecting it. But, seriously, you can present me to Mlle. de Beaumesnil
where you please, when you please, and as you please, either afoot or on
horseback,--you are at liberty to choose, you see. But I will not have
recourse to the fascinations of a jockey's costume. I don't need them,"
added Gerald, with a comical affectation of extreme complacency. "I
shall dazzle and fascinate Mlle. de Beaumesnil by a host of admirable
moral and conjugal qualities."

"Really, Gerald, you are incorrigible. You can not treat even the most
important things seriously."

"What does that matter, provided the things are accomplished?"

The conversation between the duchess and her son was interrupted a
second time by a valet who announced that the Baron de Ravil wished to
see M. le duc on very important business, and that he was now waiting in
the apartments of M. le duc.

"Very well," said Gerald, though he was greatly surprised at this visit.

After the valet withdrew, the duchess said to her son:

"What business can you have with M. de Ravil? I can not bear the man. He
is received everywhere, though, and I must confess that I set the
example as much as any one, without really knowing why I do it."

"The explanation is very simple. His father was a very popular man. He
introduced his son into the same social circle in which he himself
moved, and, once admitted, Ravil, the younger, continued to be received.
I, too, dislike him thoroughly. I have not seen him since the day of
that strange duel between the marquis and M. de Mornand, and I have no
idea what he can want with me. By the way, I heard an anecdote yesterday
that shows his real character, perfectly. A poor fellow who is not very
well off in this world's goods obligingly opened his purse to Ravil, and
this is the way Ravil repaid him for his kindness: 'Where the devil did
the fool steal that two hundred louis he loaned to me?' he exclaimed in
the presence of a number of acquaintances afterward."

"How shameful!" cried the duchess.

"I will go and see what he has to say," remarked Gerald. "The man always
seems to know everything that is going on. Wait for me, though, my dear
mother. In a few minutes I may return as enthusiastic in regard to this
cynical personage as you were exasperated against Macreuse."

"That is very ungenerous in you, Gerald."

"Well, at least admit that you and I are not very fortunate in our
callers, this morning, my dear mother."

And M. de Senneterre hurried off to join the baron.



CHAPTER XVIII.

A PURELY BUSINESS TRANSACTION.


Gerald greeted M. de Ravil with a cold politeness which did not
disconcert his guest in the least, however.

"To what am I to attribute the honour of your visit?" asked Gerald,
dryly, without sitting down himself or requesting his visitor to be
seated.

The baron, apparently entirely indifferent to this cool reception,
replied:

"M. le duc, I came to call your attention to a very promising business
matter."

"I am not in business."

"Would you like to marry, M. le duc?"

"Monsieur," said Gerald, haughtily, "this question--"

"Excuse me, M. le duc, I called here in your interest, and necessarily,
also, in my own. Will you consequently have the kindness to listen to
me? What do you risk by doing so? I ask only ten minutes."

"I am listening, monsieur," replied Gerald, whose curiosity had been
aroused by the baron's question.

"I ask once more, then, M. le duc: 'Would you like to marry?' I must
have a reply before continuing the conversation."

"But monsieur, I--"

"Pardon me, I did not make my question explicit enough. Would you like
to make a fabulously rich marriage, M. le duc?"

"Has M. de Ravil any particular person in view?"

"Possibly."

"But you are a bachelor and a society man. Why do you not marry the lady
yourself?"

"I have no fortune, monsieur; my name is comparatively insignificant; my
appearance by no means prepossessing. In short, there isn't the
slightest chance of my making such a marriage, so I thought of you, M.
le duc."

"I am greatly obliged to you for your generosity, monsieur, but before
we go any further, permit me to ask you a rather delicate question. I
would not like to wound your feelings, you know, but--"

"I'm not at all sensitive."

"I thought as much. Ah, well, what remuneration do you expect for your
generous interest?"

"I ask one and a half per cent. of the dowry," answered the cynic,
boldly.

And perceiving the disgust and contempt which his words had excited, the
baron said, coolly:

"I thought I gave you clearly to understand that it was a purely
business transaction."

"That is true, monsieur."

"Then what is the use of mincing matters?"

"None at all," replied Gerald, controlling himself; "so I will say very
plainly that this charge of one and a half per cent. of the dowry seems
to me quite reasonable."

"Yes, isn't it?"

"Certainly, but I must know to whom you think of marrying me, and how
you will manage to bring the match about."

"You are very fond of hunting, I believe, M. le duc."

"Yes."

"And you are an adept at it, I am told."

"Yes."

"Well, when your pointer or your setter have made a sure stand, they
have done their duty, have they not? The rest depends upon the accuracy
of your aim and the quickness of your fire."

"If you mean by that, monsieur, that, when you have once told me there
is a rich heiress in the market, your one and a half per cent. is
earned, I--"

"Pardon me, M. le duc, I am too good a business man to come to you with
any such proposition as that. In short, I stand ready to place you in a
position which is not only admirable in every respect, but entirely
inaccessible to any other person. Your own personal attractions and your
illustrious name will easily do the rest."

"And this position?"

"You must know, M. le duc, that I am not green enough to tell you my
secret before you have given me your word as a gentleman that--"

"M. de Ravil," said Gerald, interrupting the scoundrel whom he was
strongly tempted to kick out of the house, "this jesting has lasted
quite long enough."

"What jesting, M. le duc?"

"You must understand that I cannot consider such a proposition
seriously. Wed under your auspices,--that would be a little too
ridiculous."

"You refuse, then!"

"I have that honour."

"Reflect, M. le duc. Remember that saying of Talleyrand--"

"You quote Talleyrand very often."

"He is my teacher, M. le duc."

"And you do him honour. But to what saying of the great diplomatist do
you refer?"

"This, M. le duc: 'One should always distrust one's first impulse,
because it is usually a good one.' The saying is a wise one. Profit by
it."

"Ah, monsieur, you little know how much truth there is in what you say,
and how extremely apropos it is, so far as you are concerned."

"Indeed?"

"I accepted your counsel in advance, for if I had yielded to the first
impulse which your proposition inspired, I--I should have--"

"Should have done what, M. le duc?"

"You are too shrewd not to suspect what it was, my dear baron, and I am
too polite--to tell you--in my own house."

"Pardon me, M. le duc, but I have no time to waste in guessing riddles.
So you refuse my offer?"

"Yes."

"One word more, M. le duc. I feel it my duty to warn you that to-night
it will be too late,--in case you should change your mind,--for I have
somebody else to put in your place. I will even admit that I thought of
this other person first, but, upon reflection, I decided that you would
have a much better chance of success than the other man. To make the
match and get my one and a half per cent. is what I am after, so if you
decline my offer, I shall return to my first combination."

"You are certainly a very cautious man, my dear baron, and it is a
relief to know I shall not have the chagrin of seeing you lose, by
reason of my refusal--for I still refuse--the honest gains you are
endeavouring to secure by such honourable means. But are you not afraid
that I may be so indiscreet as to noise your new industry abroad?"

"I should be only too delighted, M. le duc. Such a revelation would be a
splendid advertisement for me, and bring me hosts of clients. _Au
revoir_, then, M. le duc. I shall be none the less at your service
another time."

With a low bow to Gerald, the baron left the room as cool and
unconcerned as he had entered it, and wended his way towards the Rue de
la Madeleine, where his friend, Mornand, lived.

"This dukeling, doubtless, suspected that Mlle. de Beaumesnil is the
lady in question, and means to rob me of my profits by winning the
prize without my assistance," the cynic said to himself as he walked
along. "It is contemptible in him, but he hasn't got her yet, and he
won't get her without a pretty hard fight, that is certain. But it is a
great pity! The fellow is a duke, and handsome and clever, too. I was
sure of success with him, and now I've got to fall back on that ass,
Mornand. I was wise not to say anything about my intentions in relation
to the Duc de Senneterre, to that old sneak, Rochaiguë. There was plenty
of time to do that, if this handsome gosling responded to my call, as
well as to take back all I had said in Mornand's favour, and give the
necessary instructions to that old female rake of a Laîné, the
governess. Whatever I want done, she will do, and she can be of
incalculable assistance to me--self-interest will ensure her devotion
and prudence. Fortunately, too, I have managed to get on the right side
of Rochaiguë, so now I have nothing to do but state the case to Mornand,
who must be waiting very impatiently to hear the result of my interview
with the baron."

Pursuing this train of thought, M. de Ravil had reached the corner of
the Rue Champs Élysées, where he had first met Herminie when the latter
was on her way to the house of Madame de Beaumesnil.

"It was here I met that young girl on the day of Mornand's duel with the
hunchback," Ravil said to himself. "She spent the night at the Hôtel de
Beaumesnil, and the next day I ascertained from the servants that she
was a singing teacher, and lived on the Rue de Monceau in the
Batignolles. I've haunted that locality, but have never been able to
catch a glimpse of her. Why the devil that pretty blonde took such a
hold on me I can't imagine! If I had my percentage of the little
Beaumesnil's dowry I would certainly gratify my fancy for that pretty
musician, who carries herself like a duchess, in spite of her shabby
attire. I am quite sure she wouldn't decline my offer of a neat little
establishment, for she must be nearly starving on her music lessons. Now
I must set to work to stir up Mornand. He is stupid, but perseveres when
you once get him started. Rochaiguë is all right, so our chances are
good."

And Ravil entered the abode of his intimate friend.



CHAPTER XIX.

IN M. DE MORNAND'S STUDY.


"Well!" exclaimed M. de Mornand, as soon as he saw Ravil enter his
modest study filled with huge piles of printed reports and all sorts of
communications from members of the Chamber of Deputies; "well, have you
seen M. de Rochaiguë?"

"Yes, I have seen him, and everything looks very promising."

"You may rest assured that I shall never forget your kindness in the
matter. It is evident that it is quite as much a matter of friendship as
of money with you, and I am all the more grateful from the fact that
your heart is not supposed to be particularly vulnerable."

"It is vulnerable enough to you, and that is all that is necessary in
the present instance."

"And the governess, have you spoken to her?"

"Not yet."

"Why not?"

"Because several little matters must be settled between us. I'll explain
what they are presently; besides, there is no hurry. Madame Laîné, the
governess, will do whatever I wish, and whenever I wish it done."

"Whatever did Rochaiguë say? Is he satisfied with the information he has
secured in regard to me. Have my colleagues and political supporters
spoken a good word for me? Do you think--?"

"You give me no chance to answer any of your questions."

"But you see ever since the possibility of this marriage first occurred
to me--and I have good reason to remember the date, for that ridiculous
duel with that miserable hunchback will always remind me of it," added
M. de Mornand, with a bitter smile--"ever since the possibility first
occurred to me, as I said before, this marriage has been a fixed idea
with me. Situated as I am, it means more than wealth to me,--power--the
highest diplomatic positions--will all be within my reach."

"Have you finished?"

"Yes, yes, I am listening."

"That is fortunate. Very well, all the information M. de la Rochaiguë
has received corroborates what I had already told him. He is firmly
convinced that you will attain the position of minister or ambassador
sooner or later, but that the time would be greatly hastened by your
marriage with Mlle. de Beaumesnil, for men who are immensely rich are
preferred for such positions, their wealth being considered a guarantee
against all sorts of villainies. The good man is also certain that, if
he brings about your marriage with his ward, you will as soon as you
rise to power have him made a peer of France, for if persons who are
hung could be restored to life, this man would willingly be hung to
secure a seat in the Luxembourg. It is an infirmity, a positive mania
with him, and you may rest assured that I have made the most of it."

"If he brings about the marriage, his elevation to the peerage is
assured. He has been president of one of the commissions for years, and
I will nominate him at once."

"He hasn't the slightest doubt of it, and, being an old-fashioned sort
of a man, he relies upon your promise, and is willing to do anything in
his power to further your interests with his ward at once."

"Bravo! and Mlle. de Beaumesnil, what does he say about her? Being so
young and so entirely alone in the world, she isn't likely to offer
much opposition, so I should think he would feel pretty confident of
success."

"He never saw her until last evening, you recollect, but, thanks to a
few judicious questions, he fancies he has been able to discover that
this young woman is strongly inclined to be ambitious, and that her head
would be quite turned by the prospect of marrying a future minister or
ambassador, so she could have a crowd of other women under her feet."

"That is truly providential!" cried M. de Mornand, almost beside himself
with joy. "And when can I see her?"

"I have an idea about that, but I concluded to say nothing to Rochaiguë
on the subject until after I had spoken to you."

"Well, well, let us hear the idea!" said M. de Mornand, rubbing his
hands, jubilantly.

"In the first place, you must understand that you are not handsome, that
you are much too fat, that you have entirely too large an abdomen, and
anything but a distinguished air. Pardon my sincerity, it is a friend
who speaks."

"That is all right!" responded Mornand, trying hard to conceal the
annoyance which his friend's plain speaking caused. "Between friends one
can say and hear anything."

"That is an excellent maxim. I will therefore add that you are neither
attractive, clever, nor good-tempered, but fortunately you have, or seem
to have, a very considerable amount of political tact. You have made a
careful study of the best means of corrupting consciences; you were born
a corrupter as one is born a singer. Moreover, you are endowed with an
eloquence of the continuous flow sort, capable of extinguishing and
bewildering the best orators--on the other side. In a drawing-room you
are heavy, clumsy, and awkward, like all big men; but in the tribune,
with the railing concealing your abdomen, and your chest swelling out
majestically under your embroidered coat, you are quite imposing, and
can even be said to have some pretensions to good looks."

"Of what earthly use is all this?" retorted Mornand, impatiently; "you
know very well that we politicians, we men of mark, care nothing in the
world about being considered handsome."

"Oh, that is all nonsense! Don't interrupt me. I was about to say that
so much depends upon a first impression that it is by all means
advisable that you should appear before Mlle. de Beaumesnil in your most
attractive guise, so you may fascinate and magnetise her, so to speak.
Do you understand?"

"That is an excellent idea, but how is it to be managed?"

"You are to make a speech three days hence in the Chamber, are you not?"

"Yes, upon the cod fisheries,--a speech full of dry statistics."

"Ah, well, you must be flowery, poetical, pathetic, pastoral, anything
but statistical, and this is an easy matter if you will only confine
yourself to one side of the question. You can talk of the fishermen and
their interesting families, the surf that breaks in thunder upon the
beach, the pale moonlight on the dunes, our gallant navy, and all that
kind of stuff."

"But I have considered the question from a purely financial point of
view."

"Then tear up that speech and write another, for you must devote all the
powers of your eloquence to dazzling the little Beaumesnil."

"What on earth do you mean?"

"Listen to me, innocent! Rochaiguë shall be notified, and day after
to-morrow the young lady will hear everybody around her saying: 'On
Thursday the eloquent M. Mornand, the future minister, is to speak in
the House of Peers. All Paris will be there. They are issuing tickets of
admission, for when M. de Mornand speaks it is an event!'"

"I understand. You are certainly nothing more or less than a genius,
Ravil!" exclaimed M. de Mornand.

"M. de la Rochaiguë will naturally inquire if Mlle. de Beaumesnil would
not like to attend the session, and we will arrange it so that Rochaiguë
will amuse the girl with things outside until the time comes for you to
ascend the tribune and unloose the fountains of your eloquence. I will
then run out and warn the guardian, who will come in with his ward to
witness your triumph."

"Admirably planned!"

"And if you can organise a claque from among your colleagues to
interlard your speech with exclamations of 'Good! Bravo! Admirable!' our
success is assured."

"The plan is admirable, as I said before. There is but one thing that
worries me."

"And what is that?"

"Why, as soon as my speech is ended that fool Montdidier will begin to
contradict all I said. He isn't much of a politician, and he is not at
all practical, but he's as witty and sarcastic as the devil, and doesn't
hesitate to say aloud what other people scarcely dare to think in their
most secret hearts. If he should begin that before Mlle. de
Beaumesnil--"

"Oh, you need have no fears on that score. As soon as you have finished
your speech, and while you are receiving the congratulations of your
colleagues, we will exclaim: 'A magnificent effort, truly! He is a
Mirabeau, a Fox, a Sheridan, a Canning! It is not worth while to remain
any longer. There will be nothing worth listening to after that!' So we
will hurry out with the girl, after which Montdidier can ascend the
tribune and tear you to pieces and ridicule you as much as he likes. But
there is another means which I have not mentioned before,--an effectual
means which I have reserved until the last, but which will not only win
you the prize, but make it possible for you to retire from political
life if you like, and also to tell Rochaiguë in so many words that you
cannot make him a peer of France, for, thanks to a brilliant idea that
has occurred to me, the baron will not only do everything in his power
to further your marriage, but you will also have Madame de la Rochaiguë
and her sister-in-law on your side, though the most we can hope for now
is that they will remain neutral."

"Then why do you not employ this means, and at once?"

"I have hazarded a few words, thrown out a few hints, but I have
ventured nothing decisive."

"And why not?"

"You see I am not positive that--that you will like it. You might have
scruples--and yet the most honest and highly respected men, even kings
themselves--"

"Kings themselves? May I be hanged if I have the slightest idea what you
are driving at."

"But men are sometimes so absurdly sensitive on the subject."

"Sensitive?"

"Still, one is not responsible for it. Can one fight against nature?"

"Against nature? Really, Ravil, you must be losing your wits. What do
you mean by all this?"

"You are fortunate, too, inasmuch as appearances are in your favour. You
are stout, you have rather a shrill voice, and scarcely any beard--"

"And what of that?"

"You don't understand me?"

"No."

"And he calls himself a politician?"

"What the devil do you mean by prating about my shrill voice, my sparse
beard, and my political astuteness?"

"Mornand, you make me doubt your sagacity. Think, what did you say to
me only day before yesterday concerning the marriage of the young Queen
of Spain?"

"Day before yesterday?"

"Yes, that state secret, you know."

"Hush, hush!"

"Oh, you needn't be afraid,--I shall be as silent as the grave. Do you
recollect now?"

"Yes, I told you that if we could only marry a French prince to the
sister of the Queen of Spain, it would be one of the most brilliant of
diplomatic triumphs to give the aforesaid queen, for a husband, a prince
who offered sufficient guarantees--through his antecedents--that the
queen would never have any children. The throne would then pass
eventually into the possession of her sister's children, that is to say,
into the possession of French princes. A magnificent combination," added
the future minister, enthusiastically. "It would be a continuation of
the policy of the Great Monarch!"

"Well, the illustration is apt. Profit by it," retorted Ravil, shrugging
his shoulders.

"What do you mean?"

"Answer me this: Who are Mlle. de Beaumesnil's only remaining
relatives?"

"M. de la Rochaiguë, his sister, and, after them, M. de la Rochaiguë's
daughter, who is married and resides in the provinces."

"Exactly; so if Mlle. de Beaumesnil should die without issue--?"

"It is the Rochaiguë family that would inherit the fortune. That is as
plain as daylight. But what the devil are you driving at?"

"Wait; now suppose that the Rochaiguë family can persuade Mlle. de
Beaumesnil to marry a man who can furnish those same guarantees,--those
same reassuring antecedents you spoke of as desirable in the Queen of
Spain's husband? Would not the Rochaiguës find it greatly to their
interest to bring about a marriage that would ensure them the
possession of their young relative's wealth at some future day?"

"I understand, Ravil," said M. de Mornand, thoughtfully, and as if
deeply impressed by the grandeur of the scheme.

"Tell me, then, are you willing that I should pose you before the eyes
of the Rochaiguës as a man (except for royal lineage) perfectly adapted
to be the husband of a Queen of Spain who has a French prince for a
brother-in-law? It will ensure you the support of the baron's wife and
sister, remember."

After a prolonged silence, the Comte de Mornand said, with a both
diplomatic and majestic air:

"De Ravil,--I give you _carte blanche_."



CHAPTER XX.

ATTENTIONS TO THE HEIRESS.


Near the close of the day in which Ernestine de Beaumesnil had
unconsciously been the object of so much avaricious envy, and of so many
more or less perfidious machinations, the young girl was alone in one of
her sumptuous apartments, awaiting the dinner hour.

The richest heiress in France was far from being beautiful or even
pretty. Her high forehead, prominent cheekbones, and rather long chin
imparted considerable irregularity to her features, but this was soon
forgotten in the charm of the young girl's face and expression; for the
forehead, fair as alabaster, and surrounded with a wealth of rich
chestnut hair, surmounted blue eyes of infinite sweetness, while rich
scarlet lips, pearl white teeth, and a smile that was both ingenuous and
melancholy seemed to implore forgiveness for the imperfections of the
face.

Ernestine de Beaumesnil, who was now only sixteen, had grown very
rapidly, so, although her tall figure was perfectly straight and
symmetrical, the young girl, who had but just regained her health, still
held herself slightly bent, an attitude which made the graceful lines of
her remarkably beautiful throat all the more noticeable.

In short, antiquated and common as the comparison is, the expression, a
lily bending upon its stem, described Ernestine de Beaumesnil's
appearance exactly.

Poor orphan, crushed by the sorrow which her mother's death had caused
her!

Poor child, overwhelmed by the, to her, crushing weight of her colossal
wealth!

Strange contrast, indeed! It was pity, an even tender pity which the
face and eyes and attitude of this heiress of almost royal wealth seemed
to invoke!

The plain black dress which Ernestine wore enhanced the remarkable
brilliancy of her complexion; but as she sat there with her hands folded
upon her knees, and her head bowed upon her breast, the young orphan
looked very sad and thoughtful.

It was half past five when the girl's governess stole softly into the
room and said:

"Will mademoiselle see Mlle. de la Rochaiguë?"

"Certainly, my good Laîné," replied the girl, startled out of her
reverie. "Why doesn't Mlle. de la Rochaiguë come in?"

The governess went out and returned almost immediately, followed by
Mlle. Helena de la Rochaiguë, who made two profound and very ceremonious
bows, which the poor child instantly returned, surprised and pained to
see a woman of Mlle. Helena's age approach her with such obsequiousness.

"I thank Mlle. de Beaumesnil for having kindly granted me a moment's
conversation," said Mlle. Helena, in a formal but extremely deferential
tone, making another low bow, which Ernestine returned as before, after
which she said, with evident embarrassment:

"I, too, have a favour to ask of you, Mlle. Helena."

"Of me? How glad I am!" exclaimed M. Macreuse's protectress, quickly.

"I beg you will have the goodness to call me Ernestine instead of Mlle.
de Beaumesnil. If you knew how it overawes me, mademoiselle."

"I feared I should displease you, mademoiselle, by being more familiar."

"Once more I beseech you to say 'Ernestine' and not mademoiselle. Are we
not relatives? And after a little, if you find I am deserving of your
love, you will say 'My dear Ernestine,' will you not?"

"Ah, my affection was won the moment I saw you, my dear Ernestine,"
replied Helena, with effusion. "I could see that all the Christian
graces, so adorable in one of your years, flourished in your heart. I
will not speak of your beauty, though it is so charmingly spirituelle in
its type, for you look like one of Raphael's madonnas. Beauty,"
continued the devotee, casting down her eyes, "beauty is a fleeting gift
and valueless in the eyes of the Saviour, while the noble qualities with
which you are endowed will ensure your eternal salvation."

Overwhelmed by this avalanche of extravagant praise, the orphan did not
know what to say in reply, and could only stammer a feeble protest:

"I do not deserve such praise, mademoiselle," she said, "and--and--"

Then, well pleased to discover a means of escaping this flattery which
made a singularly unpleasant impression upon her in spite of her
inexperience, she added:

"But you said you wished to ask me something, did you not,
mademoiselle?"

"Yes," responded Helena, "I came to ask your wishes in regard to service
to-morrow."

"What service, mademoiselle?"

"Why, the holy office we attend every day."

Then, seeing that Ernestine evinced some surprise, Mlle. Helena added,
sanctimoniously:

"We go every day to pray an hour for the souls of your father and
mother."

Until then the young girl had never had any fixed hour to pray for her
father and mother. The orphan prayed nearly all day; that is to say,
almost every minute she was thinking with pious respect and ineffable
tenderness of the parents whose loss she so deeply deplored. Now,
scarcely daring to decline mademoiselle's invitation, Ernestine sadly
replied:

"I thank you for the kind thought, mademoiselle. I will accompany you,
of course."

"The nine o'clock mass would be most suitable, I think," said the
devotee, "and that is said in the Chapel of the Virgin, for whom you
have a special preference, I think you remarked last evening,
Ernestine."

"Yes, mademoiselle, every Sunday in Italy I attended mass in the Chapel
of the Madonna. She, too, was a mother, so it seemed most fitting that I
should address my prayers for my mother to her."

"They will certainly prove efficacious, Ernestine, and as you have
commenced your devotions under the invocation of the mother of our
blessed Saviour, it would be well to continue them under the same
protection, so we will perform our devotions in the Chapel of the Virgin
every morning at nine o'clock."

"I will be ready, mademoiselle."

"Then will you authorise me to give the necessary orders so your
carriage and servants will be ready at that hour?"

"My carriage,--my servants?"

"Certainly," said the devotee, with emphasis. "Your carriage, with your
own coat of arms emblazoned upon it, and draped in mourning. One of the
footmen will follow us into the church, carrying a black velvet bag
containing our prayer-books. You know, of course, that is the custom
followed by all people of fashion and position."

"Forgive me, mademoiselle, but I really do not see the use of so much
pomp. I go to church only to pray, so can we not go afoot? The weather
is so delightful at this season of the year."

"What an admirable example of modesty in the midst of opulence, and
simplicity in the midst of grandeur!" cried the devotee. "Ah, Ernestine,
you have indeed been blessed by the Saviour. Not a single virtue is
lacking. You possess the rarest of all, saintly, divine humility,--you
who are, nevertheless, the richest heiress in France."

Ernestine gazed at Mlle. Helena with increasing astonishment.

The artless girl did not feel that she was expressing any remarkably
laudable sentiments in saying that she preferred to walk to church on a
delightful summer morning; so her surprise increased on hearing the
devotee continue to laud her to the skies in almost ecstatic tones.

"The grace of Heaven has indeed touched your heart, my dear Ernestine,"
she exclaimed. "Yes, yes, everything indicates beyond a doubt that the
Saviour has blessed you by inspiring you with the most profoundly
religious sentiments, by giving you a taste for an exemplary life, spent
in the exercise of a piety which does not forbid those harmless
diversions which may be found in society. May God protect and watch over
you, my dear Ernestine, and soon, perhaps, he will give you a still more
unmistakable sign of his all-powerful protection."

The loquacity of the usually silent and reserved devotee was interrupted
by the appearance of Madame de la Rochaiguë, who, less discreet than her
sister-in-law, entered unannounced.

The baroness, greatly surprised to find Ernestine tête-à-tête with
Helena, eyed the latter rather suspiciously, but the devotee assumed
such a vacant and sanctimonious expression that the lady's suspicions
were instantly dispelled.

The orphan rose and advanced to meet Madame de la Rochaiguë who,
bustling in, bright and sparkling and smiling, said to the girl in the
tenderest manner, seizing both her hands:

"My dearest child, I have come--if you will permit me--to keep you
company until the dinner hour, for I am really jealous of my dear
sister-in-law's good fortune."

"How very kind you all are to me, madame!" replied Ernestine, grateful
for the kind attentions of the baroness.

Helena rose to go, and, with the intention of anticipating any possible
question Madame de la Rochaiguë's curiosity might prompt, said to the
young girl:

"To-morrow morning at nine o'clock, that is understood, is it not?"

Then, after an affectionate nod of the head to the baroness, Helena
departed, escorted to the door by Mlle. de Beaumesnil.

As she was returning to Madame de la Rochaiguë, that lady drew back a
few steps in proportion as Ernestine approached, and said to her, in
tones of tender reproach:

"Ah, my dear, sweet child, you are incorrigible!"

"And why, madame, do you say that?"

"I am terribly, pitilessly, brutally plain-spoken as I have told you. It
is one of my greatest faults, so I shall scold you, scold you every day
of your life, if you don't hold yourself straighter."

"It is true, madame, though I certainly try my best not to bend over
so."

"But I shall not allow it, my darling child. I shall show you no mercy.
What is the use of having such a lovely figure if you do not show it off
any better? What is the use of having such a charming face, with such
delicate features, and such an air of distinction, if you keep your head
always bowed?"

"But, madame!" exclaimed the orphan, no less embarrassed by these
worldly eulogiums than by those which the devotee had lavished upon her.

"Nor is this all," continued Madame de la Rochaiguë, with affectionate
gaiety. "I have a good scolding in store for that excellent Madame
Laîné. You have beautiful hair, and you would look a thousand times
better if you wore it in curls. The carriage of your head is naturally
so graceful and distinguished,--when you hold yourself erect, I mean of
course,--that long curls would be wonderfully becoming to you."

"I have always worn my hair in this way, madame, and have never thought
of changing my style of coiffure, it being, I confess, a matter of very
little consequence to me."

"And that is very wrong in you, my dearest, for I want you to be
attractive, very attractive. I am so proud of my charming ward that I
want her to outshine everybody, even our greatest beauties."

"I could never hope to do that, madame," replied Ernestine, with a
gentle smile.

"But you must and shall, mademoiselle," laughingly replied the baroness.
"I want you to understand, once for all, that my ambition for you knows
no bounds. In short, I mean that you shall be considered the prettiest
and most charming of young girls, as you will by and by be known as the
most elegant of women. It is true I saw you first only yesterday, but
from certain traits and tendencies which I have noticed in you, I am
sure, as I remarked just now, that you were born to be a brilliant star
in the fashionable world."

"I, madame?" exclaimed the orphan, wonderingly.

"Yes, I am positive of it, for to be the rage it is not absolutely
necessary to possess beauty or wealth or aristocratic lineage, or to be
a marquise or a duchess, though it must be admitted that this last title
aids one very materially. No, no, the one essential, I assure you, is a
certain _je ne sais quoi!_ You have it; it is the easiest thing in the
world to discern it in you."

"Really, madame, you amaze me," exclaimed the poor child, utterly
abashed.

"That is very natural, for you, of course, cannot understand this, my
dear child; but I, who am studying you with the proud but jealous eye
of a mother, do understand it. I can foresee what you will become, and I
rejoice at it. No life can be half as delightful as that of one of
society's favourites. Queen of every fête, her life is a continual
enchantment. And, now I think of it, to give you some idea of the world
of fashion over which you are certainly destined to reign some day, I
will take you to the races in the Bois de Boulogne, where you will see
the _crême de la crême_ of Parisian society. It is a diversion entirely
compatible with your mourning."

"Excuse me, madame, but such crowds always frighten me, and--and--"

"My darling child!" exclaimed the baroness, interrupting her ward, "it
is useless to oppose me. I am the most obstinate creature in the world.
Besides, I insist upon being treated as well as my good sister-in-law.
By the way, my dear, tell me right here and now what you two have been
plotting to do so early to-morrow morning."

"Mlle. Helena wishes to take me with her to church, madame."

"She is right, my dearest child. One should never neglect one's
religious duties; but nine o'clock--that is frightfully early. Women of
fashion never go before noon; then one at least has time to make a
handsome morning toilet, and one also meets many of one's acquaintances
there."

"I am in the habit of rising early, madame, and as Mlle. Helena seemed
to prefer going at nine o'clock, it made no difference to me."

"My dear child, I told you a little while ago that I should be
appallingly frank with you."

"And I shall thank you very much for it, madame."

"Of course, you ought not to be proud and arrogant because you are the
richest heiress in France, but though you should not abuse your power to
impose your wishes and caprices upon others, there is certainly no need
of your going so far as to gratify the caprices of others. Do not forget
that your immense wealth--"

"Alas! madame," said Ernestine, unable to repress two big tears that
rose to her eyes and then rolled slowly down her cheeks, "on the
contrary, I am doing my very best to forget this wealth, for it reminds
me that I am an orphan."

"My poor dear little darling!" exclaimed Madame de la Rochaiguë,
embracing Ernestine effusively, "how angry I am with myself for having
unintentionally grieved you. Dry those lovely eyes, I beg of you. It
makes me wretched to see you weep!"

Ernestine wiped away her tears, and the baroness continued,
affectionately:

"Come, my child, you must be brave and sensible. Of course it is a
terrible, an irreparable misfortune to be an orphan, but as the
misfortune is irreparable you should make the best of it, and say to
yourself that you at least are blessed with some devoted relatives and
friends, and that, though the past is sad and gloomy, the future may be
most brilliant."

As Madame de la Rochaiguë was thus consoling the orphan, a deprecating
rap was heard at the door.

"Who is it?" inquired the baroness.

"Mlle. de Beaumesnil's majordomo, who solicits the honour of throwing
himself at her feet."

Ernestine evinced so much surprise that the baroness said, smilingly:

"It is only one of M. de la Rochaiguë's jokes. It is he who is at the
door."

Mlle. de Beaumesnil also tried to smile as the baroness said, in a loud
voice:

"Come in, M. majordomo, come in!"

Whereupon the baron entered, showing his long teeth more than ever in
the broad smile his joke had inspired. Approaching Ernestine with great
deference, he bowed low before her and even kissed her hand, saying as
he did so:

"Is my charming ward still content with me? Is anything lacking for her
comfort? Does she find her establishment on a suitable footing? Has she
discovered any inconveniences in her apartments? Is she satisfied with
her servants?"

"There is nothing with which I can find the slightest fault," answered
Ernestine; "quite the contrary, indeed, for this magnificent suite of
rooms, exclusively for my use, is--"

"Nothing can be too handsome or too luxurious for the richest heiress in
France," interrupted the baron, in his most peremptory tones.

"I am deeply gratified and touched by the affectionate welcome I have
received from your family," said Ernestine; "and I assure you that
everything else is of very little importance to me."

Just then the folding doors opened, and the butler announced, in a loud
voice: "Mademoiselle is served."



CHAPTER XXI.

THE HUNCHBACK MEETS THE HEIRESS.


The baron offered his arm to Ernestine, and conducted her into the
dining-room. Helena came in a few minutes afterwards, a trifle late by
reason of having despatched a letter to Abbé Ledoux, announcing her
plans for the morrow.

During the entire repast Ernestine was the object of the most obsequious
attentions, not only from the baron and his wife and sister, but also
from the servants, who were as deeply impressed as their employers by
the magical power of those words, "the richest heiress in France."

Towards the end of the meal, the baron, with the most careless air
imaginable, remarked to Mlle. de Beaumesnil:

"Well, my dear ward, as you have now recovered from the fatigue of your
journey, it seems to me you ought to go out to-morrow and amuse yourself
a little."

"Helena and I think so, too," replied Madame de la Rochaiguë, "so your
sister is going to take Ernestine to church to-morrow morning. In the
afternoon, Mlle. Palmyre and Mlle. Barenne will come with some dresses
and hats I ordered yesterday for our dear child, and day after to-morrow
Ernestine and I are going for a drive."

"Capital, capital!" exclaimed the baron. "I see that to-morrow and the
day after will be fully occupied, but I think it is hardly fair for me
to be so entirely left out, so I beg to have my turn on the day
following. Will you grant my request?"

"Certainly, with the greatest pleasure," replied Ernestine.

"The readiness of the response increases its value two-fold," said the
baron, with such evident gratitude that the orphan was wondering what
she could have said when the baroness, turning to her husband,
exclaimed:

"Well, let us hear your plans for your day, M. de la Rochaiguë."

"I am not so spiritual-minded as my sister, nor as worldly as you, my
dear," answered the baron, "so I am going to propose to our dear ward
(weather, of course, permitting) a visit to one of the most beautiful
gardens in Paris, where she will see a wonderful collection of plants
and flowers."

"You could not have pleased me better, monsieur," exclaimed Ernestine,
delightedly. "I am so fond of flowers."

"Nor is that all," added the baron, "for, as I am a prudent man, in case
of bad weather, my charming ward and I can enjoy a promenade through
several superb conservatories, or a magnificent picture-gallery, rich in
masterpieces of the modern school of art."

"And where is this combination of rare and beautiful things to be found,
monsieur?" inquired Ernestine, with great interest.

"A nice Parisienne you are, and you, too, baroness, and you, too, my
sister," laughed M. de la Rochaiguë, with a knowing air, "for I see very
plainly that none of you have the slightest idea where this collection
of wonders is to be found, though it is almost at your very door."

"Really," began Mlle. de la Rochaiguë, "I have been trying to think."

"And you can't imagine," retorted the baron, radiant. "Ah, well, I will
take pity on you. All these wonders are to be found at the Luxembourg."

"The Luxembourg!" exclaimed the baroness, laughing. Then, turning to
Ernestine:

"Ah, my dear child, it is a trap, an abominable trap, M. de la Rochaiguë
has set for you. You don't know my husband's passion for another of the
wonders of the Luxembourg. He has taken good care not to reveal that,
I'll be bound!"

"And what is this other attraction, madame?" asked the young girl,
smiling.

"Ah, you poor, dear innocent, let me tell you that M. de la Rochaiguë is
quite capable of taking you to a session of the Chamber of Peers, under
pretext of showing you beautiful conservatories and flowers and
picture-galleries."

"Well, why should I not take her into the diplomatic gallery, if she
wishes?" retorted the baron. "She will find plenty of good company there
in the shape of the fortunate wives of foreign ambassadors and
ministers,--for I maintain that there is not a more delightful,
charming, and enviable position in the world than that of the wife of a
minister and ambassador. Ah, my dear wife," added this unknown Canning,
turning to the baroness, "what would I not give to be able to elevate
you to such a position. You would be envied, flattered, adored! You
would become, I am sure, a wonderfully clever politician! It is not
unlikely that you would even control the state, perhaps. Could any woman
desire a grander rôle?"

"You see what a dangerous flatterer M. de la Rochaiguë is, my dear
child," remarked the baroness. "He is quite capable of imbuing you with
a taste for politics, too."

"Me? Oh, I have no fear of that," responded Ernestine, smiling.

"You may laugh at me as much as you like, my dear," the baron said to
his wife; "but I do assert that I perceive in our dear ward a
thoughtfulness, a self-control, and a power of discrimination remarkable
in one of her years, to say nothing of the fact that she strikingly
resembles the portrait of the beautiful and famous Duchesse de
Longueville, who exerted such a marvellous influence in politics under
the Fronde."

"Well, well, this is really too much," exclaimed the baroness,
interrupting her husband with a fresh outburst of merriment.

The orphan, who had suddenly become thoughtful, did not join in this
gaiety. She was thinking how very strange it was that within the last
two hours three persons had, in turn, discovered that she was so
singularly adapted to fill three such entirely different rôles, viz.:
That of a devotee, that of a woman of fashion, and that of a female
politician.

The conversation was interrupted by the sound of carriage-wheels in the
courtyard below.

"Haven't you given orders that you are not at home this evening?"
inquired the baron, turning to his wife.

"No, but I am expecting no one,--that is, no one but Madame de
Mirecourt, who, you know, occasionally drops in for a few minutes on her
way to some ball or reception."

"Shall you see her in case she does?"

"If it will not be disagreeable to you, and if you will allow me to
receive her in your drawing-room," said the baroness, turning to
Ernestine. "She is a very charming woman."

"Do exactly as you please, madame," replied Ernestine, cordially.

"Show the visitor into Mlle. de Beaumesnil's drawing-room," the baroness
said to one of the servants.

The man withdrew, but returned a moment afterwards to say:

"I showed the visitor into mademoiselle's drawing-room as madame
ordered, but it is not Madame de Mirecourt."

"Who is it, then?"

"M. le Marquis de Maillefort, madame."

"That detestable man!" exclaimed the baron. "A visit at this hour is an
inexcusable familiarity on his part."

The baroness motioned to her husband to be more guarded before the
servants, then whispered to Ernestine, who seemed surprised at this
incident:

"M. de la Rochaiguë does not like M. de Maillefort, who is really one of
the most spiteful and mischief-making hunchbacks imaginable."

"A positive devil!" added Helena.

"It seems to me that I have heard my mother speak of a M. de
Maillefort," remarked Ernestine, thoughtfully.

"That is more than likely, my dearest child," replied the baroness,
smiling, "though no one ever speaks of M. de Maillefort as one's good
angel."

"I do not recollect to have heard her say anything either good or bad
about M. de Maillefort," answered the orphan. "I merely remember the
name."

"And the name is that of a veritable ogre," said the baron, spitefully.

"But if M. de Maillefort is so objectionable, why do you receive him,
madame?" inquired the orphan, hesitatingly.

"Ah, my dear child, in society one is obliged to make many concessions,
particularly when a person of M. de Maillefort's birth is concerned."

Then addressing the baron, she added:

"It is impossible to prolong the meal farther, for coffee has been
served in the drawing-room."

Madame de la Rochaiguë arose from the table. The baron, concealing his
annoyance as best he could, offered his arm to his ward, and the entire
party returned to the drawing-room where M. de Maillefort was waiting.

The marquis had so long been accustomed to concealing his love for
Madame de Beaumesnil,--the one passion of his life, but one which she
alone had divined,--that, on seeing Ernestine, he betrayed none of the
interest he felt in her. He remembered, too, not without annoyance, that
it would be necessary to appear curt and sarcastic before the orphan, as
any sudden change in his manner or language would be sure to arouse the
suspicions of the Rochaiguës, and, in order to protect Ernestine from
them, and, perhaps, even from herself, or, in other words, to carry out
her mother's last wishes, he must carefully refrain from exciting the
distrust of those around her.

M. de Maillefort, who was endowed with remarkably acute powers of
perception, noted, with a pang of real anguish, the unpleasant
impression his appearance seemed to make upon Ernestine; for the latter,
still under the influence of the slanders that had been heaped upon him,
had involuntarily shuddered, and averted her gaze from his distorted
form.

Painful as the feelings of the marquis were, he had the courage to
conceal them, and, advancing towards Madame de la Rochaiguë, with a
smile on his lips and an ironical gleam in his eye, he said:

"I am very bold, am I not, my dear baroness? But you know, or rather you
are ignorant, that one has friends only to impose upon their good
nature, at least unless, like Mlle. de la Rochaiguë here," he added,
bowing low to that lady, "one has no faults at all, but is nothing more
or less than an angel descended from heaven for the edification of the
faithful. Then it is even worse, I believe, for when one is perfect, one
inspires one's friends with envy, or with admiration, for with many
people these two sentiments are one and the same."

Then, turning to M. de la Rochaiguë, he continued:

"Am I not right, baron? I appeal to you who have the good fortune not to
wound either by your virtues or your failings."

The baron smiled until he showed his long teeth in the most startling
fashion, then, trying to conceal his ill-humour, he exclaimed:

"Ah, marquis, marquis, always sarcastic, but always charming!"

Then seeing that he could not avoid introducing M. de Maillefort to
Ernestine, who was watching the hunchback with growing uneasiness, the
baron said to his ward:

"My dear Ernestine, allow me to introduce M. le Marquis de Maillefort,
one of my particular friends."

After bowing to the young girl, who returned the bow with an embarrassed
air, the hunchback said, with formal politeness:

"I am delighted, mademoiselle, to have still another reason for often
coming to Madame de la Rochaiguë's house."

And as if he considered himself released from the necessity of paying
any further attention to the orphan by this commonplace remark, he bowed
again, and then took a seat beside the baroness, while her husband tried
to conceal his ill-temper by sipping his coffee very slowly, and Helena
took Ernestine a few steps aside, under pretext of calling her attention
to the plants in a jardinière.

The marquis, without seeming to pay the slightest attention to
Ernestine, never once lost sight of them. He had a remarkably keen sense
of hearing, and he hoped to catch a few words of the conversation
between the devotee and the orphan, while he chatted gaily with Madame
de la Rochaiguë, both of them endeavouring to conceal their real
thoughts under the airiest persiflage, and to try and discover what the
other was driving at, in vulgar parlance.

The frivolous character of such a conversation favoured the hunchback's
intentions, so, while he listened to Madame de la Rochaiguë with a
distrait ear, he listened eagerly with the other to Ernestine, the
baron, and Helena.

The devotee and her brother, believing the marquis absorbed in his
conversation with Madame de la Rochaiguë, reminded the orphan, in the
course of their conversation, of the promise she had made to accompany
Helena to church the next morning at nine o'clock, and also to go with
the baron a couple of days afterwards to view the wonders of the
Luxembourg.

Though there was nothing extraordinary in these plans, M. de
Maillefort's distrust of the Rochaiguë family was so great that he
deemed it advisable to neglect no detail, however insignificant it might
appear, so he noted these facts carefully, even while replying with his
accustomed wit to Madame de la Rochaiguë's commonplaces.

The hunchback's attention had been divided in this way for, perhaps, a
quarter of an hour, when he saw, out of the corner of his eye, Helena
make a whispered remark to Ernestine, accompanied by a glance at Madame
de la Rochaiguë, as if to say that it was not worth while to interrupt
her conversation, after which the orphan, Helena, and the baron left the
room.

Madame de la Rochaiguë did not perceive their intention until the door
closed behind them, but their departure suited her perfectly. The
presence of other persons would prevent the explanation she considered
it absolutely necessary to have with the marquis, for she was too shrewd
and too well versed in the ways of the world not to have felt certain,
as she had said to her husband, that the marquis, in thus renewing their
acquaintance after a long interruption, had been actuated by a desire to
meet the heiress, concerning whom, consequently, he must have some
secret designs.

The hunchback's love for Madame de Beaumesnil having been suspected by
no one, and his last interview with the dying countess being likewise a
secret, Madame de la Rochaiguë did not and could not suspect the
solicitude the marquis felt concerning Ernestine.

But wishing to ascertain the designs of the hunchback, so as to
circumvent them if they interfered with her own, Madame de la Rochaiguë
abruptly changed the subject as soon as the door had closed upon the
orphan, by saying:

"Well, marquis, what do you think of Mlle. de Beaumesnil?"

"I think her very generous."

"Very generous, marquis? What do you mean by that?"

"Why, with her fortune, your ward would have a perfect right to be as
ugly and humpbacked as I am. But does she really possess many admirable
traits of character?"

"I have known her so short a time, I scarcely know how to answer you."

"Why this reticence? You must feel sure that I did not come to ask your
ward's hand in marriage."

"Who knows?" retorted the baroness, laughing.

"I know, and I have told you."

"Seriously, marquis, I am positive that at this very moment a hundred
matrimonial projects have already been formed--"

"Against Mlle. de Beaumesnil?"

"'Against' is very suggestive. But one moment, marquis. I wish to be
perfectly frank with you."

"Indeed!" exclaimed the hunchback, in mocking surprise. "Ah, well, so do
I. Come, my dear baroness, let us have this little treat in the way of
sincerity, which is such a rare thing, alas!"

And M. de Maillefort drew his chair nearer the sofa on which the
baroness was seated.



CHAPTER XXII.

AN ORGY OF SINCERITY.


After a moment's silence, Madame de la Rochaiguë, with a penetrating
glance at M. de Maillefort, said:

"Marquis, I understand you."

"Bah!"

"Understand you perfectly."

"You do everything to perfection, so this does not surprise me. But let
me hear the proofs of these surprising powers of penetration on your
part."

"For fear of harrowing my feelings too much, I will not count the number
of years during which you never set foot in my house, and now you
suddenly return with a truly flattering eagerness. So, being a sensible
woman, and not a mere bundle of conceit, I say to myself--"

"Come, baroness, what is it you say to yourself?"

"I say to myself simply this: 'After M. de Maillefort's long desertion
of me, to what am I now indebted for the novel pleasure of seeing him so
often? It must be because I am Mlle. de Beaumesnil's guardian, and
because this most estimable marquis has some special reason for again
favouring me with his visits.'"

"You are about right, baroness, upon my word."

"What! you admit it?"

"I am compelled to."

"You almost make me doubt my powers of penetration by your prompt
confession, marquis."

"Are we not striving to outdo each other in frankness?"

"True; I forgot that."

"And now I, in my turn, will explain why I so suddenly ceased to visit
your house. You see, madame, I am something of a stoic, and when
anything gives me very great pleasure I suddenly renounce it, so I may
not allow myself to become enervated by too much pleasure. That is why I
suddenly ceased to visit you."

"I would like to believe it, but--"

"You can at least try. As to the resumption of my visits--"

"Ah, that is the most curious part--"

"You have guessed the reason--pretty nearly."

"Pretty nearly, marquis?"

"Yes, for though I have no special plans in relation to the subject of
your ward's marriage, I can't help saying to myself that this great
heiress is sure to draw a crowd of unscrupulous fortune-hunters around
her, and Madame de la Rochaiguë's house will soon be the scene of all
sorts of amusing intrigues. A person who desires to see all the amusing
acts of this comedy can view them from the reserved seats, so to speak,
in Madame de la Rochaiguë's house. At my age, and made as I am, I have
no other amusement in the world except what observation affords me; so I
intend to frequent Madame de la Rochaiguë's house for that purpose. She
will receive me, because she received me years ago, and because, after
all, I am not any more stupid, nor any more of a bore than other people.
So, from my quiet corner, I will watch the fierce struggle between the
rival suitors. This is the truth, and now, baroness, you surely will not
be so hard-hearted as to refuse me a place in your drawing-room where I
can watch this contest, of which your ward is to be the prize."

"But, marquis, you are not one of those persons who can watch people
fight, without taking a hand in it yourself," said Madame de la
Rochaiguë, shaking her head.

"Well, I can't say that I am."

"So you will not remain neutral."

"I don't know about that," answered the marquis.

Then, emphasising the words strongly, he added:

"As I am experienced in the ways of the world, as I have a horror of
cowardice and conceit, and as I have always maintained my habit of plain
speaking, I admit that if I should see a brave warrior, whose courage
and worth have interested me, perfidiously attacked, I should be very
likely to come to that person's assistance with all the means at my
disposal."

"But this, permit me to say, monsieur," responded the baroness,
concealing her anger under a forced laugh, "is nothing more nor less
than a sort of inquisition, of which you will be the inquisitor-general,
and which will be located in my house."

"Yes, in your house, or elsewhere; for you know, baroness, that if the
whim should seize you,--every pretty woman, you know, must have her
whims, and you are certainly entitled to a good many of them,--I repeat
that, if the whim should seize you, you could easily tell your servants
that in future you will never be at home to me."

"Why, marquis, can you suppose--?"

"I was only jesting," replied M. de Maillefort, dryly. "The baron is too
sensible a man to allow your doors to be closed against me without a
cause, and he will spare me, I am sure, any explanation on the subject.
I have the honour to tell you, my dear baroness, that having resolved to
watch these very amusing doings, to see, in fact, how the richest
heiress in France is married off, I can establish my point of
observation almost anywhere, for, in spite of my diminutive stature, I
can manage to see from almost any position, high or low."

"Then, my dear marquis, you must confess that it is an offensive and
defensive alliance you are proposing to me," said Madame de la
Rochaiguë, with the same forced smile.

"Not the least bit in the world. I shall neither be for you nor against
you. I shall merely watch what goes on, with a keen eye, and perhaps try
to aid this suitor, or to circumvent the other suitor, according to my
best judgment and my feeble resources, if the desire seizes me, or
rather if justice and truth demand it, for you know I am very peculiar
in my notions."

"But why not content yourself with the rôle of a looker-on? Why can you
not remain neutral?"

"Because, as you yourself remarked just now, my dear baroness, I am not
one of those persons who can watch others fight without taking a hand in
the fight myself."

"But," said Madame de la Rochaiguë, quite at her wits' end,
"suppose,--and it is merely a supposition, for we have decided not to
think of Ernestine's marriage for a long time yet,--suppose, I say, that
we did have some one in view for her, what would you do?"

"I haven't the slightest idea, upon my word!"

"Come, come, M. le marquis, you are not acting fairly with me. You have
some scheme of your own."

"Nothing of the kind. I do not know Mlle. de Beaumesnil; I have no
suitor to suggest for her. I am, consequently, an entirely disinterested
looker-on, and, this being the case, my dear baroness, I do not exactly
understand why you should have any objection to my watching the amusing
proceedings."

"That is true," said Madame de la Rochaiguë, recovering her composure,
"for, after all, in marrying Ernestine, what can we have in view, except
her happiness?"

"Nothing, of course."

"Consequently, we have nothing to fear from your observation, as you
call it, my dear marquis."

"Nothing, absolutely nothing."

"For, in case we should make a mistake--"

"Which may happen to any one, even one who has the best intentions in
the world."

"Certainly, marquis. Well, in that event, you would not fail to come to
our assistance, and warn us of our danger."

"That is what an observer is for," laughingly remarked M. de Maillefort,
rising to take leave.

"What, marquis, you are going so soon?"

"To my great regret. I must make the tour of five or six drawing-rooms,
to hear what people are saying about your young heiress. You have no
idea how amusing, curious, and sometimes revolting the remarks upon the
subject of her immense dowry are!"

"Ah, well, my dear marquis," said Madame de la Rochaiguë, offering her
hand to the hunchback in the most cordial manner, "I hope to see you
often, very often; and as all this seems to interest you so much, I
shall keep you fully posted."

"And I, too, will promise to tell you everything I hear. It will be
wonderfully amusing. And, by the way," added the marquis, with the most
careless air imaginable, though he had come to Madame de la Rochaiguë's
house as much to endeavour to secure some light upon an as yet
impenetrable mystery as to see Ernestine,--"by the way, did you ever
hear anything about an illegitimate child that M. de Beaumesnil left?"

"M. de Beaumesnil?" asked the baroness, with evident surprise.

"Yes," replied the hunchback, for, in putting the question thus, he
hoped to attain his object without endangering the secret he thought he
had discovered in relation to Madame de Beaumesnil; "yes, did you never
hear that M. de Beaumesnil had an illegitimate child?"

"No," replied the baroness, "this is the first time I ever heard of any
such rumour, though a long while ago there was some talk about a liaison
the countess had prior to her marriage. It must, consequently, have been
in connection with her that you heard this story of an illegitimate
child, but I, myself, have never heard anything on the subject before."

"Then whether this rumour relates to the count or the countess, there is
evidently not the slightest truth in it, my dear baroness, for, by
reason of your close connection with the family, you would have been
sure to know of the matter."

"And I assure you, marquis, that we have never heard or seen anything
that would lead us to suppose that either M. or Madame de Beaumesnil
left any illegitimate child."

M. de Maillefort, who was endowed with an unusual amount of penetration,
as well as tact, now felt fully convinced of Madame de la Rochaiguë's
entire ignorance of the existence of any illegitimate child, and the
failure of this fresh attempt on his part caused him deep chagrin,
particularly as he began to despair of discovering any trace of this
unknown child, and of thus complying with Madame de Beaumesnil's dying
request.

Madame de la Rochaiguë, without appearing to notice the hunchback's
preoccupation, continued, gaily:

"It is really very amusing to listen to all the rumours that are afloat
concerning our ward's inheritance, as well as the large but singular
legacies left by the countess."

"Indeed?"

"There is little or no foundation for these absurd reports," continued
the baroness, in supercilious tones, for she had always disliked Madame
de Beaumesnil. "The countess left a few trifling legacies to three or
four old retainers, and small gratuities to her other servants. That is
all the magnificent legacies, of which everybody is talking, amount to.
But while the countess was in such a generous mood, she ought not to
have been guilty of the ingratitude of forgetting a poor girl to whom
she certainly owed some recognition of her services."

"To whom do you refer?" asked the marquis, concealing the pain he felt
on hearing the baroness thus asperse Madame de Beaumesnil's memory. "Of
what young girl are you speaking?"

"You have not heard, then, that, during the last days of her life, the
countess, at the advice of her physician, summoned to her bedside a
young and talented musician, who assisted not a little in assuaging the
lady's sufferings?"

"It seems to me that I do recollect hearing this fact spoken of,"
answered the marquis.

"Well, does it not seem monstrous that the countess did not leave even a
slight legacy to this poor girl? It may have been an oversight on her
part, but, to me, it looks exceedingly like ingratitude."

The marquis knew Madame de Beaumesnil's kindness and nobility of heart
so well that he, too, was struck by this apparent forgetfulness of the
young artiste's claims.

After a moment of reflection, however, he vaguely felt that, inasmuch as
such an oversight, if real, was inexplicable, there must have been
something more than a mere failure of memory in the circumstance, so he
said:

"You are sure, madame, that this young girl received no remuneration
from Madame de Beaumesnil for her services? You are positive of it?"

"We were so unanimously convinced of the fact," replied the baroness,
delighted at this opportunity to show her generosity, "that, deploring
this ingratitude on the part of the countess, we decided to send five
hundred francs to the young girl."

"That was only just."

"I think so, too, but what do you think came of it?"

"I haven't the slightest idea."

"Well, the young artiste brought the five hundred francs back to us and
told us that she had been paid."

"She must be a noble-hearted girl," exclaimed the marquis; "but you see
from that, that the countess had not forgotten the young musician, after
all. Doubtless, she must have given her a suitable token of her
gratitude while she was alive instead of leaving her a legacy."

"You would not think so, monsieur, if you had seen how indicative of
decent poverty the young girl's garments were. She would certainly have
been better dressed if she had been a recipient of Madame de
Beaumesnil's bounty. In fact, the young artiste, who, by the way, is
wonderfully handsome, so excited my compassion and admiration by the
delicacy of her conduct that I suggested she should come and give
Ernestine music lessons."

"You did? Why, that was very noble of you!"

"Your astonishment is not very flattering, marquis."

"You mistake admiration for astonishment, baroness. I am not surprised
in the least. I know the wonderful kindness and gentleness of your heart
too well," added M. de Maillefort, concealing his hope that he had at
last found the desired clue under his usual persiflage.

"Instead of making fun of my kindness of heart, marquis," replied Madame
de la Rochaiguë, "you ought to imitate it by endeavouring to procure the
poor young girl some pupils among your numerous acquaintances."

"Certainly," replied the marquis, rather indifferently, however; "I will
do the best I can for your protégée, though I am not considered much of
a musical connoisseur, I fear. But what is this young girl's name, and
where does she live?"

"Her name is Herminie, and she lives on the Rue de Monceau. I don't
remember the number, but I will ascertain and let you know."

"I will secure some pupils for Mlle. Herminie if I can; but, in return,
if I should ever ask your protection for some suitor for Mlle. de
Beaumesnil's hand,--some suitor whom I see getting the worst of it in
the mêlée, you will grant my request, will you not?"

"You set a high value on your services, I must say, marquis," replied
the baroness, laughing in a very constrained way; "but I am sure we
shall come to an amicable understanding."

"You can not imagine how deeply I rejoice in advance at the touching
harmony which is henceforth to exist between us, my dear baroness. Well,
after all, let us admit that this little orgy of sincerity has been of
immense advantage to us. We are full of confidence in each other now,
are we not, my dear baroness?"

"Unquestionably, and mutual confidence, alas, is so rare!" exclaimed the
baroness, with a sigh.

"But all the more precious when it is found, eh, my dear baroness?"

"Unquestionably, my dear marquis. _Au revoir_, then, if you must go. I
shall hope to see you again very soon."

"I trust so," responded M. de Maillefort, as he left the room.

"Detestable man!" exclaimed Madame de la Rochaiguë, springing from the
sofa, and beginning to pace the room excitedly, while she gave vent to
her long-repressed feelings. "Every word that accursed hunchback uttered
contained either a sarcasm or a threat," she added, venomously.

"He's a contemptible scoundrel! There isn't the slightest doubt of it,"
exclaimed the baron, suddenly drawing aside the portières at one of the
doors opening into the drawing-room.



CHAPTER XXIII.

AN INVOLUNTARY AVERSION.


On seeing M. de la Rochaiguë thus reappear near the sofa where she had
sat during her conversation with M. de Maillefort, the baroness
exclaimed:

"What, monsieur, were you there?"

"Certainly, for suspecting that your interview with M. de Maillefort
would prove exceedingly interesting as soon as you two were left alone
together, I slipped into the little salon, and have been listening there
behind the portières close to you."

"You heard what that detestable marquis said, then?"

"Yes, madame, and I also noticed that you were so weak as to ask him to
come again, instead of giving him plainly to understand that his
presence here was no longer desired. You had a fine opportunity to do
it, and you should have availed yourself of it."

"But, monsieur, is not the Marquis de Maillefort as dangerous in one
place as another? He made me understand that very plainly; besides, one
can not treat a man of M. de Maillefort's lineage and importance in a
rude manner."

"What do you suppose would happen if you did?"

"This: the marquis would undoubtedly demand satisfaction of you for such
an insult. Are you not aware that he has fought a number of duels, all
of which resulted disastrously for his opponents, and have you not heard
that only a few days ago he forced M. de Mornand to fight merely on
account of an ill-timed jest in which the latter indulged?"

"But I, madame, am not as obliging and simple as M. de Mornand. I would
not have fought."

"Then, M. de Maillefort would have made your life a burden by his sneers
and ridicule, until you would have been compelled to hide yourself from
very shame."

"But are there no laws to protect a man from such a monster? Ah, if I
were in the Chamber of Peers such scandalous proceedings should not go
unpunished! An honest man should not be at the mercy of the first
cutthroat that happens to come along!" exclaimed the indignant baron.
"But in heaven's name, what is the matter with him,--what does this
damned marquis want, anyhow?"

"You must have very little penetration, monsieur, for he certainly
talked with almost brutal frankness, it seemed to me. Others would have
resorted to circumlocution and even falsehood, but M. de
Maillefort?--no, 'You intend to marry off Mlle. de Beaumesnil,' he says.
'I intend to see in what manner and to whom you marry her, and if your
choice does not please me I shall interfere.' This is what he had the
audacity to say to me, and he is in a position to carry out his threat."

"Fortunately, Ernestine seems to have taken an intense dislike to this
horrid hunchback, and Helena must tell her that he was the mortal enemy
of the countess."

"What good will that do? Suppose we should find a party that suited us
and Ernestine, isn't the marquis, by his sneers and sarcasms, quite
capable of inspiring the innocent girl with an aversion for the very
person we want her to marry? And it is not only here, in this house,
that he can play us this shameful trick,--and many others that he is
capable of concocting,--but he can do it anywhere and everywhere he
meets Ernestine, for we cannot hide her. We shall be obliged to take her
out into society."

"Is it this that you fear most? I should be of the same opinion,
perhaps, if--"

"Do you suppose I know what I fear? I would a hundred times rather have
some real danger to contend with, no matter how threatening it might be,
for then I should at least know what the danger was, and perhaps
contrive to escape it, while now the marquis will keep us in a state of
perplexity that may cause us to commit a thousand blunders, and hamper
us in every way. Consequently there is nothing for us to do but look the
situation straight in the face and say to ourselves: 'Here is a man of
wonderful discernment and diabolical cleverness, who sees, or will
endeavour to see and know, all that we do, and who, unfortunately, has a
thousand means of attaining his ends, while we have no means whatever of
escaping his surveillance.'"

"I am more and more convinced that the opinion I expressed a short time
ago is a just and correct one," said the baron, complacently.

"What opinion?"

"That the marquis is an abominable scoundrel."

"Good evening, monsieur," said Madame de la Rochaiguë, wrathfully,
starting towards the door.

"What, you are going like that when we are in such desperate straits,
and without coming to any decision!"

"Decision about what?"

"Why, about what we shall do in the matter."

"I know one thing!" exclaimed Madame de la Rochaiguë, completely beside
herself, and stamping her foot angrily, "this abominable hunchback has
demoralised me completely, and you--you finish by utterly stupefying me
with your asinine remarks."

And Madame de la Rochaiguë flounced out of the room, slamming the door
violently in the baron's very face.

During the conversation between Madame de la Rochaiguë and M. de
Maillefort, Helena had taken Mlle. de Beaumesnil back to her own room.
As she was about to leave the young girl she said:

"Sleep well, my dear Ernestine, and pray to the Saviour that he will not
allow the face of that frightful M. de Maillefort to trouble your
dreams."

"I really don't know why it is, mademoiselle, but he almost terrifies
me."

"The feeling is very natural," replied the devotee, gently; "more
natural than you suppose, for if you knew--"

As Helena paused, the young girl said:

"You did not finish, mademoiselle."

"There are some things which it pains one to say against one's
neighbour, even though he may deserve it," remarked the devotee, with a
saintly air. "This M. de Maillefort--"

"Well, mademoiselle?"

"I am afraid of paining you, my dear Ernestine--"

"Go on, I beg of you, mademoiselle."

"Ah, well, as you insist, I am compelled to tell you that this Marquis
de Maillefort has always been one of your mother's bitterest enemies."

"My mother's?" cried Mlle. de Beaumesnil, wonderingly.

Then she added, with touching naïveté:

"Some one must have deceived you, mademoiselle. My mother could not have
had any enemies."

In a tone of tender commiseration, Helena replied, shaking her head:

"My dear child, such artlessness does your heart credit; but, alas! the
best and most inoffensive people are exposed to the animosity of the
wicked. Have not the gentle lambs ravening wolves for enemies?"

"But how had my mother ever wronged M. de Maillefort, mademoiselle?"
asked Ernestine, with tears in her eyes.

"Why, in no way. Just Heaven! one might as well say that an innocent
dove would attack a tiger."

"Then what was the cause of M. de Maillefort's animosity?"

"Alas! my poor child, I cannot tell you that. It would be too
revolting--too horrible," answered Helena, sighing heavily.

"Then I have good cause to loathe this man, and yet I blamed myself for
yielding to my involuntary aversion."

"Ah, my dearest child, may you never have a less justifiable aversion,"
said the devotee, sanctimoniously, lifting her eyes heavenward.

Then she added:

"I must leave you, now, my dear Ernestine. Sleep sweetly. To-morrow
morning, at nine o'clock, I will come for you to go to church."

"Good-bye until to-morrow, mademoiselle; but, alas! you leave me with
sad thoughts,--my mother had an enemy."

"It is best to know the real character of the wicked, my dear Ernestine,
for then one can at least guard against their evil doing. And now
good-bye until to-morrow morning."

"Good night, mademoiselle."

So Mlle. de la Rochaiguë departed, proud of the perfidious cunning with
which she had aroused a cruel distrust of M. de Maillefort in Mlle. de
Beaumesnil's heart.

Ernestine left alone, rang for her governess, who also acted as her
personal attendant.

Madame Laîné entered.

She was about forty years of age, with a somewhat insipid face, and a
pleasant, though rather obsequious manner, in which there was a touch of
servility that made it very different from the devotion of a faithful
nurse, which is always instinct with the dignity of disinterested
affection.

"Does mademoiselle wish to retire?" asked Madame Laîné.

"No, my good Laîné, not yet. Bring me my writing-desk, please."

"Yes, mademoiselle."

The desk having been brought from Ernestine's chamber, her governess
said:

"There is something I wish to tell mademoiselle."

"What is it?"

"Madame has hired two other maids for mademoiselle, and--"

"I have told you that I require no other personal attendants than you
and Thérèse."

"I know it, mademoiselle, and I said as much to madame, but she thinks
you are not sufficiently well served."

"You satisfy me perfectly."

"But madame says these young women are to stay in case you should need
them, and this suits all the better as madame dismissed her own maid
recently, and these women are to attend her in the meantime."

"That is all very well," responded Ernestine, indifferently.

"Mademoiselle desires nothing?"

"No, I thank you."

"Does mademoiselle find herself comfortable here?"

"Very comfortable."

"The apartments are certainly superb, but there is nothing too good for
mademoiselle. Every one says so."

"My good Laîné, you may put out what I shall require for the night,"
said Ernestine, without paying any attention to the governess's remark.
"I can undress without your assistance, but I would like you to wake me
a little before eight to-morrow morning."

"Yes, mademoiselle."

Madame Laîné turned as if to leave the room, but as Ernestine opened
her desk to write, the governess paused, and said:

"I have a favour to ask of mademoiselle."

"What is it?"

"I should be very grateful to mademoiselle if she would have the
goodness to spare me a couple of hours to-morrow, or the day after, to
go and see a relative of mine, Madame Herbaut, who lives in the
Batignolles."

"Very well, go to-morrow morning, while I am at church."

"I thank mademoiselle for her kindness."

"Good-night, my good Laîné," said Ernestine, thus dismissing her
governess, who seemed inclined to continue the conversation.

This interview gives a pretty correct idea of the relations that existed
between Mlle. de Beaumesnil and Madame Laîné.

The latter had often endeavoured to establish herself on a more familiar
footing with her young mistress, but at the very first effort in this
direction Mlle. de Beaumesnil always put an end to the conversation, not
haughtily nor curtly, but by giving some order in a kindly way.

After Madame Laîné's departure, Ernestine remained lost in thought for
some time; then, seating herself at the table, on which her desk had
been placed, she opened it and took out a small book bound in Russia
leather, the first leaves of which were already filled.

The history of this book was simple but touching.

On her departure for Italy, Ernestine had promised her mother to write
every day a sort of diary of her journey. This promise the girl had kept
until the sorrowful days that immediately followed her father's fatal
accident, and the even more terrible days that followed the news of the
Comtesse de Beaumesnil's death; and now that she had rallied a little
from these crushing blows, Ernestine found a sort of pious consolation
in continuing to write to her mother every day, keeping up the both
pleasant and cruel illusion by continuing these confidential
revelations.

The first part of this book contained copies of the letters Ernestine
had written to her mother while that lady was living.

The second part, separated from the first by a black cross, contained
the letters which the poor child had, alas! had no need to recopy.

Mlle. de Beaumesnil seated herself at the table, and, after she had
wiped away the tears which the sight of this book always evoked, she
wrote as follows:

"I have not written to you, my darling mamma, since my arrival at M. de
la Rochaiguë's house, because I wished to analyse my first impressions
carefully.

"Besides, you know how peculiar I am, and how, whenever I go to a
strange place now, I find myself almost dazed for a day or two by the
change. It seems as if I must have time to become accustomed to the new
objects by which I am surrounded, to recover my mental faculties.

"The apartments set aside for my exclusive use are so magnificent and so
spacious that I felt lost in them yesterday, but to-day I am becoming
more accustomed to them.

"Madame de la Rochaiguë and her husband and sister have welcomed me as
if I were their own child. They lavish every attention and kindness upon
me, and if one could have any feeling save gratitude, for such a cordial
reception, I should feel amazed that persons so much older than I am,
should treat me with so much deference.

"M. de la Rochaiguë, my guardian, is kindness itself. His wife, who
quite spoils me by her tenderness, is of a very gay and lively
disposition. Mlle. Helena, her sister-in-law, is the gentlest and most
saintly person imaginable.

"You see, my dearest mother, that you need feel no anxiety concerning
your poor Ernestine's lot. Surrounded by such devoted friends, she is as
happy as she can be, now.

"My chief desire is to become better acquainted with M. de la Rochaiguë
and his family, for then they will doubtless treat me with less
ceremony, and cease to pay me compliments which embarrass me greatly,
but which they probably feel obliged to pay me in order to make me feel
at ease.

"They are so kind that each person in turn seems to be racking his or
her brain for the pleasantest and most complimentary thing they can say
to me. By and by, I hope that they will see they do not need to flatter
me to gain my affection. One would almost suppose from their manner that
they were under the greatest obligations to me for being allowed to
receive me into their household. This does not surprise me much,
however, my dearest mother, for how often you have told me that refined
people always seem grateful for the services they are able to render
others.

"I have had some very painful moments to-day,--not by any fault of my
guardian or his family, however.

"This morning, a gentleman (my notary, as I learned afterwards) was
introduced to me by my guardian, who said:

"'My dear ward, I think it would be well for you to know the precise
amount of your fortune, and this gentleman will now tell you.'

"Whereupon, the notary, opening a book he had brought with him, showed
me the last page all covered with figures, and said:

"'Mademoiselle, from the exact'--he used a word here that I have
forgotten--'your yearly income amounts to the sum of three million one
hundred and twenty thousand francs, which gives you nearly eight
thousand francs a day, so you are the richest heiress in France.'

"This, my poor dear mother, reminded me again of what, alas! I scarcely
ever forget,--that I was an orphan, and alone in the world; and in spite
of all my efforts to control my feelings, I wept bitterly."

Ernestine was obliged to stop writing. Her tears had burst forth afresh,
for to this tender-hearted, artless child, this rich inheritance meant
the loss of her mother and of her father.

Becoming calmer after a few moments, she resumed her pen, and continued:

"It is difficult for me to explain it, but on learning that I had eight
thousand francs a day, as the notary said, I felt a great awe, not
unmixed with fear.

"'So much money--just for myself! why is it?' I thought.

"It seemed to me unjust.

"What had I done to be so rich?

"And then those words which had made me weep, 'You are the richest
heiress in France,' almost terrified me.

"Yes; I know not how to explain it, but the knowledge that I possessed
this immense fortune made me feel strangely uneasy. It seemed to me that
I must feel as people feel who have a great treasure, and who tremble at
the thought of the dangers they will incur if any one tries to rob them
of it.

"And yet, no; this comparison is not a just one, for I never cared very
much for the money you and my father gave me each month to gratify my
fancies.

"In fact, I seem unable to analyse my feelings when I think of my
wealth, as they call it. It is strange and inexplicable, but perhaps I
shall feel differently by and by.

"In the meantime, I am surrounded by the kindest and most devoted of
relatives. What can I have to fear? It is pure childishness on my part,
undoubtedly. But to whom can I tell everything, if not to you? M. de la
Rochaiguë and the other members of his household are wonderfully kind to
me, but I shall never make confidants of them. You know I have always
been very reserved to every one but you and my father; and I often
reproach myself for not being more familiar with my good Laîné, who has
been with me several years. But anything like familiarity is impossible
to me, though I am far from being proud."

Then alluding to the aversion she felt for M. de Maillefort, in
consequence of Mlle. Helena's calumnies, Ernestine added:

"I was cruelly hurt this evening, but it was such a disgraceful thing
that, out of respect to you, my dear mother, I will not write it, nor do
I really believe that I should have the courage.

"Good night, my darling mamma. To-morrow and the day following, I am
going to nine o'clock mass with Mlle. de la Rochaiguë. She is so good
and kind that I could not refuse. But my most fervent prayers, my dear
mother, are those I offer up in solitude. To-morrow morning and other
mornings, in the midst of the careless crowd, I shall pray for you, but
it is when I am alone, as now, that my every thought and my very soul
lifts itself to thee, and that I pray to thee as one prays to God--my
beloved and sainted mother!"

After having replaced the book in the writing-desk, the key of which she
wore always suspended around her neck, the orphan sought her couch, and
slept much more calmly and peacefully now she had made these artless
confessions to an--alas!--now immortal mother.



CHAPTER XXIV.

AN UNWELCOME VISITOR.


On the morning following the day on which M. de Maillefort had been
introduced to Mlle. de Beaumesnil for the first time, Commander Bernard
was lying stretched out in the comfortable armchair which had been a
present from Olivier.

It was a beautiful summer morning, and the old sailor gazed out sadly
through the window on the parched flower beds, now full of weeds, for a
month before two of the veteran's old wounds had reopened, keeping him a
prisoner in his armchair, and preventing him from working in his beloved
garden.

The housekeeper was seated near the commander, busy with some sewing,
but for several minutes she must have been indulging in her usual
recriminations against "Bû-û-onaparte," for she was now saying to the
veteran, in tones of bitter indignation:

"Yes, monsieur, raw, raw; I tell you he ate it raw!"

The veteran, when his acute suffering abated a little, could not help
laughing at the housekeeper's absurd stories, so he said:

"What was it that this diabolical Corsican ogre ate raw, Mother
Barbançon?"

"His beef, monsieur! Yes, the night before the battle he ate his meat
raw! And do you know why?"

"No," answered the veteran, turning himself with difficulty in his
armchair; "I can not imagine, I am sure."

"The wretch did it to render himself more ferocious, so he would have
the courage to see his soldiers exterminated by the enemy,--above all,
the conscripts," added the indignant housekeeper. "His sole object in
life was to provide food for cannon, as he said, and so to depopulate
France by conscriptions that there would not be a single Frenchman left.
That was his diabolical scheme!"

Commander Bernard replied to this tirade by another loud burst of
laughter.

"Let me ask just this one question," he said. "If Bonaparte desired that
there shouldn't be another Frenchman left in France, who the devil would
he have had to reign over, then?"

"Why, negroes, of course," snapped the housekeeper, shrugging her
shoulders impatiently, and acting quite as if an absurdly easy question
had been put to her.

It was such a ridiculous answer, and so entirely unexpected, that a
moment of positive stupefaction preceded a fresh outburst of hilarity on
the part of the commander, who, as soon as he could control his mirth a
little, inquired:

"Negroes, what negroes?"

"Why, those American negroes with whom he was always plotting, and who,
while he was on his rock, began a tunnel which, starting at
Champ-d'Asile, and passing under St. Helena, was intended to transport
to the capital of the empire other negroes, friends of the American
negroes, so Bû-û-onaparte, in company with his odious Roustan, could
return to ravage all France."

"Really, Mother Barbançon," exclaimed the veteran, admiringly, "I never
knew your imagination to soar to such sublime heights before."

"I don't see that there is anything to laugh at, monsieur. Would you
like to have conclusive proof that the monster always intended to
replace the French by negroes?"

"I should indeed, Mother Barbançon," exclaimed the veteran, wiping tears
of mirth from his eyes. "Come, let us have the proof."

"Ah, well, monsieur, hasn't everybody said for years that your
Bû-û-onaparte treated the French like so many negroes?"

"Bravo, Mother Barbançon, bravo!"

"Well, isn't that proof enough that he would like to have had all
negroes instead of Frenchmen under his thumb?"

"Thanks, Mother Barbançon!" exclaimed the poor commander, fairly
writhing with merriment. "But this is too much, really too much!"

Two loud and imperious peals of the bell made the housekeeper spring
from her chair and hurry out of the room, exclaiming:

"There is some one who rings in a lordly way, I must say."

And closing the door of the veteran's chamber behind her, Madame
Barbançon flew to admit the visitor.

This proved to be a stout man about fifty years of age, wearing the
uniform of a second lieutenant in the National Guard,--a uniform that
gaped in a ridiculous manner behind, and disclosed to view in front an
enormous stomach, over which dangled a big gold chain. This personage,
who wore an immense bearskin hat that nearly covered his eyes, had a
pompous and extremely self-important air.

On beholding him, Madame Barbançon knit her brows, and, evidently not
very deeply impressed by the dignity of this citizen soldier, asked, in
a decidedly sharp tone:

"What, you here again?"

"It would be very strange if an owner"--the word owner was uttered with
the majestic air of a ruling sovereign--"if an owner could not come into
his own house, when--"

"You are not in your own house, for you have rented it to the
commander."

"This is the seventeenth of the month, and my porter has sent me a
printed notice that my rent has not been paid, so I--"

"We all know that. This is the third time in the last two days that you
have been here to dun us. Do you expect us to give you our last cent for
the rent? We'll pay you when we can, and that is all there is about it."

"When you can? A house owner is not to be paid in promises."

"House owner! You can boast of being a house owner only because for the
last twenty years you've been putting pepper in your brandy and chicory
in your coffee, as well as dipping your candles in boiling water to melt
off the tallow without anybody's discovering it, and with the proceeds
of this cheating you've perhaps bought a few houses. I don't see
anything to be so proud of in that, do you?"

"I have been a grocer, it is true. It is also true that I made money in
my business, and I am proud of the fact, madame."

"You have no reason to be. Besides, if you are rich, how can you have
the heart to torment a worthy man like the commander merely because he
is a little behind in his rent--for the first time, too, in over three
years."

"I don't care anything about that. Pay me my money, or out you go! It is
very astonishing; people can't pay their rent, but they must have
gardens and every modern convenience, these fastidious tenants of mine!"

"Come, come, M. Bouffard, don't go too far or you may be sorry for it!
Of course he must have a garden, this brave man, crippled with wounds,
for a garden is his only pleasure in life. If, instead of sticking to
your counter, you had gone to the wars like the commander, and shed your
blood in the four quarters of the globe, and in Russia, you wouldn't own
any more houses than he does! Go, and see if you do!"

"Once, twice, I ask, will you pay me to-day?"

"Three times, a hundred times, and a thousand times, no! Since the
commander's wound reopened, he can sleep only with the aid of opium.
That drug is as costly as gold itself, and the one hundred and fifty
francs he has received has had to go in medicine and doctor's visits."

"I don't care anything about your reasons. House owners would be in a
nice fix if they listened to their tenants' excuses. It was just the
same at one of my houses on the Rue de Monceau where I've just been. My
tenant there is a music teacher, who can't pay her rent because she's
been sick, she says, and hasn't been able to give lessons as usual. The
same old story! When a person is sick, he ought to go to the hospital,
and give you a chance to find another tenant."

"The hospital! Commander Bernard go to the hospital!" cried the now
thoroughly exasperated housekeeper. "No, not even if I have to go out as
a ragpicker at night, and nurse him in the daytime, he sha'n't go to the
hospital, understand that, but you run a great risk of going there
yourself if you don't clear out, for M. Olivier is coming back, and
he'll give you more kicks in your miserable stomach than you have hairs
in your bearskin cap."

"I would like to see any other house owner who would allow himself to be
abused in this fashion in his own house. But enough of this. I'll be
back at four o'clock, and if the hundred and fifty francs are not ready
for me, I'll seize your furniture."

"And I'll seize my fire-shovel and give you the reception you deserve!"

And the housekeeper slammed the door in M. Bouffard's face, and went
back to the commander. His fit of hilarity was over, but he was still in
a very good humour, so, on seeing Madame Barbançon return with cheeks
blazing with anger, the old sailor said to her:

"Well, it seems that you didn't expend all your wrath upon Bonaparte,
Mother Barbançon. Who the devil are you in such a rage with now?"

"With some one who isn't a bit better than your Emperor, I can tell you
that. The two would make a pretty pair. Bah!"

"And who is it that is such a good match for the emperor, Mother
Barbançon?"

"It is--"

But the housekeeper suddenly checked herself.

"Poor, dear man," she thought, "it would almost kill him if I should
tell him that the rent isn't paid, that the expenses of his illness have
eaten up every penny of his money, as well as sixty francs of my own.
I'll wait until M. Olivier comes. He may have some good news for us."

"What the deuce are you mooning about there instead of answering me,
Mother Barbançon? Is it some new atrocity of the little corporal's that
you are going to treat me to?"

"How glad I am! That must be M. Olivier," cried the housekeeper, hearing
the bell ring again, gently this time.

And again leaving her employer, Madame Barbançon ran to the door. It
was, indeed, the commander's nephew this time.

"Well, M. Olivier?" asked the housekeeper, anxiously.

"We are saved," replied the young man, wiping the sweat from his
forehead. "My worthy friend, the mason, had some difficulty in getting
the money he owed me, for I had not told him I should want it so soon,
but here are the two hundred francs at last," said Olivier, handing a
little bag of coin to the housekeeper.

"What a relief it is, M. Olivier."

"Why, has the landlord been here again?"

"He just left, the scoundrel! I told him pretty plainly what I thought
of him."

"But, my dear Madame Barbançon, when one owes a man money, one must pay
it. But my poor uncle suspects nothing, does he?"

"No, not a thing, I'm glad to say."

"So much the better."

"Such a capital idea has just struck me!" exclaimed the vindictive
housekeeper, as she counted the money the young man had just handed her.
"Such a capital idea!"

"What is it, Mother Barbançon?"

"That scoundrel will be back here at four o'clock, and I'm going to make
up a hot fire in my cook-stove and put thirty of these five-franc pieces
in it, and when that monster of a M. Bouffard comes, I'll tell him to
wait a minute, and then I'll go and take the money out with my tongs and
pile the coins up on the table, and then I'll say to him, 'There's your
money; take it.' That will be fine, M. Olivier, won't it. The law
doesn't forbid that, does it?"

"So you want to fire red-hot bullets at all the rich grocers, do you?"
laughed Olivier. "Do better than that. Save your charcoal, and give the
hundred and fifty francs to M. Bouffard cold."

"You are entirely too good-natured, M. Olivier. Let me at least spoil
his pretty face with my nails, the brigand."

"Nonsense! He's much more stupid than wicked."

"He's both, M. Olivier, he's both, I tell you!"

"But how is my uncle this morning? I went out so early that he was still
asleep, and I didn't like to wake him."

"He is feeling better, for he and I just had a fine dispute about his
monster. And then your return, why, it is worth more to him than all the
medicines in the world, and when I think that but for you that frightful
Bouffard might have turned us out in three or four days! And Heaven
knows that our belongings wouldn't have brought much, for our six
tablespoons and the commander's watch went when he was ill three years
ago."

"My good Mother Barbançon, don't talk of that, or you will drive me mad,
for when my furlough is over I shall not be here, and what happened
to-day may happen again at any time. But I won't even think of it. It is
too terrible!"

The commander's bell rang, and on hearing the sound the housekeeper said
to the young man, whose face wore an almost heart-broken expression:

"That is the commander ringing. For heaven's sake don't look so sad, M.
Olivier; he will be sure to suspect something."

"You needn't be afraid of that. But, by the way, Gerald is sure to call
this morning. You must let him in."

"All right, M. Olivier. Go to the commander at once, and I will soon
have your breakfast ready. Dear me, M. Olivier," she continued, with a
sigh, "can you be content with--"

"My dear, good woman," cried the young soldier, without allowing her to
finish, "don't I always have enough? Aren't you always depriving
yourself of something to give it to me?"

"Hush! Monsieur is ringing again. Hasten to him at once!"

And Olivier obeyed.



CHAPTER XXV.

MATRIMONIAL INTENTIONS DISCLOSED.


At the sight of Olivier, the commander's features assumed a joyful
expression, and, not being able to rise from his armchair, he held out
both hands to his nephew, saying:

"Good morning, my boy."

"Good morning, uncle."

"I feel strongly inclined to scold you."

"Me, uncle?"'

"Certainly. Though you only returned yesterday you were off this morning
almost before sunrise. I woke quite early, happy in the thought that I
was not alone, as I have been for two months past. I glance over at your
bed, but no Olivier is to be seen. You had already flown."

"But, uncle--"

"But, my boy, you have cheated me out of nearly two months of your leave
already. A hitch in your master mason's business matters, you told me.
So be it; but now, thanks to the earnings of these two months, you must
be almost a millionaire, so I intend to enjoy your society from this on.
You have earned plenty of money. As it is for me that you are always
working, I cannot prevent you from making me presents, and Heaven only
knows what you are plotting to do with your millions this very minute,
M. Croesus; but I tell you one thing, if you leave me as much of the
time alone as you did before you went away, I will not accept another
present from you. I swear I will not!"

"But, uncle, listen to me--"

"You have only two more months to spend with me, and I am determined to
make the most of them. What is the use of working as you do? Do you
suppose that, with a manager like Mother Barbançon, my purse is not
always full? Only two or three days ago I said to her: 'Well, Madame
Steward, how are we off for funds?' 'You needn't worry about that,
monsieur,' she replied; 'when one has more than one spends, there is a
plenty.' I tell you that a cashier who answers like that is a comfort."

"Oh, well, uncle," said Olivier, anxious to put an end to this
embarrassing conversation, "I promise that I will leave you as little as
possible henceforth. Now, one thing more, do you feel able to see Gerald
this morning?"

"Why, of course. What a kind and loyal heart that young duke has! When I
think that during your absence he came here again and again to see me,
and smoke his cigar with me! I was suffering the torments of the damned,
but somehow he managed to make me feel ever so much more comfortable.
'Olivier is away,' he said to me, 'and it is my business to look after
you.'"

"My good Gerald!" murmured Olivier, deeply moved.

"Yes, he is good. A young man of his position, who leaves his pleasures,
his sweethearts, and friends of his own age, to come and spend two or
three hours with an old cripple like me, proves conclusively that he has
a good heart. But I'm not a conceited fool, I know very well that it was
on your account that Gerald came to see me, my dear nephew, and because
he knew it would give you pleasure."

"No, no, uncle. It was for your sake, and for yours alone, believe me!"

"Hum!"

"He will tell you so himself, presently, for he wrote yesterday to ask
if he would find us at home this morning."

"Alas! he is only too certain to find me; I cannot budge from my
armchair. You see the melancholy proof of that," added the old sailor,
pointing to his dry and weedy flower borders. "My poor garden is nearly
burnt up. Mamma Barbançon has been too busy to attend to it; besides, my
illness seems to have put her all out of sorts. I suggested asking the
porter to water the flowers every day or two; but you should have heard
how she answered me. 'Bring strangers into the house to steal and
destroy everything!' You know what a temper the good woman has, and I
dared not insist, so you can see what a terrible condition my poor
flowers are in."

"Never mind, uncle; I am back now, and I will act as your head
gardener," said Olivier, gaily. "I have thought of it before, and if I
had not been obliged to go out early this morning on business, you would
have found your garden all weeded, and fresh as a rose sparkling with
dew when you woke this morning. But to-morrow morning,--well, you shall
see!"

The commander was about to thank Olivier when Madame Barbançon opened
the door and asked if M. Gerald could come in.

"I should say he could come in!" exclaimed the old naval officer, gaily,
as Olivier advanced to meet his friend.

"Thank heaven! his master mason has returned him to us at last,"
exclaimed the veteran, pointing to Olivier.

"Hopeless chaos seemed to reign in the worthy man's estimates," replied
Olivier, "and when they were at last adjusted, the manager of the
property, struck by my fine handwriting and symmetrical figures, asked
me to straighten out some accounts of his, and I consented. But now I
think of it, do you know, Gerald, who owns the magnificent château in
which I spent the last two months?"

"I haven't the slightest idea."

"Well, the Marquise of Carabas."

"What Marquise of Carabas?"

"The enormously wealthy heiress you were talking to us about before I
went away."

"Mlle. de Beaumesnil?" exclaimed Gerald, in profound astonishment.

"The same. This magnificent estate belongs to her and yields her a
yearly income of twenty thousand livres; and it seems that she has
dozens of such properties."

"What the devil can one do with so much money?" exclaimed the veteran.

"It is certainly a strange coincidence," murmured Gerald, thoughtfully.

"And why?"

"Because there is a possibility of my marrying Mlle. de Beaumesnil."

"Indeed, M. Gerald," said the veteran, artlessly, "so a desire to marry
has seized you since I saw you last?"

"So you are in love with Mlle. de Beaumesnil?" asked Olivier, no less
naïvely.

Gerald, surprised at these questions, replied, after a moment of
reflection:

"It is perfectly natural that you should speak in this way, commander,
and you, too, Olivier; and among all the persons I know you are the only
ones. Yes, for if I had said to a thousand other people, 'It is proposed
that I should marry the richest heiress in France,' each and every one
of them would have replied without a thought about anything else: 'Yes,
marry her by all means. It is a splendid match; marry her, by all
means!'"

Then, after another pause, Gerald added:

"Of course it is only right, but how rare, oh, how rare!"

"Upon my word, I had no idea that I was saying anything remarkable, M.
Gerald. Olivier thinks exactly as I do, don't you, my boy?"

"Yes, uncle. But what is the matter with you, Gerald? Why do you seem so
serious all of a sudden?"

"I will tell you," said the young duke, whose features did, indeed, wear
an unusually thoughtful expression. "I came here this morning to inform
you of my matrimonial intentions,--you, commander, and you, Olivier, for
I regard you both as sincere and devoted friends."

"You certainly have no truer ones, M. Gerald," said the veteran,
earnestly.

"I am certain of that, commander, and this knowledge made me doubly
anxious to confide my projects to you."

"That is very natural," replied Olivier, "for you know so well that
whatever interests you interests us."

"The real state of the case is this," said Gerald, replying to his
friend's words by a friendly gesture. "Yesterday, my mother, dazzled by
Mlle. de Beaumesnil's wealth, proposed to me that I should marry that
young lady. My mother considered my success certain, if I would consent
to follow her counsels. But remembering the pleasures of my bachelor
life and of independence, I at first refused."

"But if you have no liking for married life, the millions upon millions
should not induce you to change this determination," remarked the old
naval officer, kindly.

"But wait, commander," said Gerald, with some little embarrassment. "My
refusal irritated my mother. She told me I was blind, and that I had no
sense; but finally her anger gave place to such profound chagrin that,
seeing her inconsolable at my refusal, I--"

"You consented to the marriage?" asked Olivier.

"Yes," replied Gerald.

Then noticing a slight movement of astonishment on the part of the old
sailor, Gerald added:

"Commander, my decision seems to surprise you."

"Yes, M. Gerald."

"But why? Tell me frankly."

"Well, M. Gerald, if you consent to marry contrary to your inclination,
and that merely to please your mother, I fear you are making a great
mistake," answered the veteran, in firm, but affectionate tones, "for
sooner or later your wife will suffer for the compulsion you exert upon
yourself to-day, and one ought not to marry to make a woman unhappy.
Don't you agree with me, Olivier?"

"Perfectly."

"But how could I bear to see my mother weep, my mother who seems to have
set her heart upon this marriage?"

"But think of seeing your wife weep, M. Gerald. Your mother has your
affection to console her, while your wife, poor orphan that she is, who
will console her? No one, or perhaps she will do as so many other women
do,--console herself with lovers who are inferior to you in every way.
They will torment her, they will disgrace her, perhaps,--another chance
of misery for the poor creature!"

The young duke's head drooped, and he answered not a word.

"You asked us to be frank with you, M. Gerald," continued the commander,
"and we are, because we love you sincerely."

"I did not doubt that you would be perfectly frank with me, so I ought
to be equally so, and say in my defence that in consenting to this
marriage I was influenced by another and not altogether ungenerous
sentiment. You remember that I spoke of Macreuse, the other day,
Olivier?"

"That miserable wretch who put little birds' eyes out with pins!" cried
the veteran, upon whom this incident had evidently made a deep
impression, "that hypocrite who is now a hanger-on of the clergy?"

"The same, commander. Well, he is one of the aspirants for Mlle. de
Beaumesnil's hand."

"Macreuse!" exclaimed Olivier. "Poor girl, but he has no chance of
success, has he?"

"My mother says not, but I fear that he has; for the Church supports
Macreuse's claims, and the Church is very powerful."

"Such a scoundrel as that succeed!" cried the old officer. "It would be
shameful!"

"And it was because I was so indignant at the idea that, already touched
by my mother's disappointment, I consented to the marriage partly in
order to circumvent that wretch, Macreuse."

"But afterwards, M. Gerald, you reflected, did you not, that an
honourable man like yourself does not marry merely to please his mother
and circumvent a rival, even if that rival is a Macreuse?"

"What, commander!" exclaimed Gerald, evidently much surprised. "Do you
think it would be better to allow this wretch to marry Mlle. de
Beaumesnil, when he wants her only for her money?"

"Nothing of the kind," answered the veteran, warmly. "One should always
prevent a crime when one can, and if I were in your place, M. Gerald--"

"What would you do, commander?"

"I would go first to M. Macreuse, and say to him: 'You are a scoundrel,
and as scoundrels should not be allowed to marry women to make them
miserable all their lives, I forbid you to marry Mlle. de Beaumesnil,
and I will prevent you from marrying her; I do not know her, I have no
intention of marrying her myself, but I take an interest in her because
she is in some danger of becoming your wife. As that, in my opinion,
would be infinitely worse for her than if she were going to be bitten by
a mad dog, I intend to warn her that you are worse than a mad dog.'"

"That would be doing exactly right, uncle, exactly!" cried Olivier.

But Gerald motioned him not to interrupt the veteran, who continued:

"I should then go straight to Mlle. de Beaumesnil, and say to her: 'My
dear young lady, there is a certain M. Macreuse who wants to marry you
for your money. He is a vile cur, and I will prove it to his face
whenever and wherever you like. Take my advice; it is entirely
disinterested, for I haven't the slightest idea of marrying you myself,
but honest men should always put unsuspecting persons on their guard
against scoundrels.' I tell you, M. Gerald, my way may be
unconventional, but there might be very much worse ones."

"The course my uncle suggests, though rather rough, certainly has the
merit of being eminently straightforward, you must admit, my dear
Gerald," said Olivier, smilingly; "but you, who are so much better
versed in the ways of the world than either of us are, probably know
whether you could not achieve the same result by less violent means."

But Gerald, more and more impressed by the veteran's frankness and good
sense, had listened to him very respectfully.

"Thanks, commander," he exclaimed, offering him his hand, "you and
Olivier have prevented me from doing a dishonourable deed, for the
danger was all the greater from the fact that I was investing it with a
semblance of virtue. To make my mother the happiest of women, and
prevent Mlle. de Beaumesnil from becoming the victim of a man like
Macreuse, seemed a very fine thing to me at first. I was deceiving
myself most abominably, for I not only gave no thought whatever to the
future of this young girl whom I would probably make miserable for life,
but I was yielding, though unconsciously, to the fascination of her
colossal wealth."

"You are wrong about that, Gerald, I am sure."

"I am not, upon my word, Olivier. So, to save myself from further
temptation, I shall return to my first resolution, viz., not to marry at
all. I regret only one thing in this change of plans," added Gerald,
with much feeling, "and that is the deep disappointment I shall cause
my mother, though she is sure to approve my course eventually."

"But listen, Gerald," interrupted Olivier; "you should not do wrong
merely to please your mother, as uncle says. Yet a mother is so kind,
and it grieves one so much to see her unhappy, why should you not try to
satisfy her without the sacrifice of your convictions as an honest and
honourable man?"

"Good, my boy!" exclaimed the veteran. "But how is that to be done?"

"Explain, Olivier."

"You have no wish to marry, you say?"

"Not the slightest."

"And you have never seen Mlle. de Beaumesnil?"

"Never."

"Then you cannot love her, of course, that is evident. But who knows but
you might fall in love with her if you did see her? A bachelor life is
your idea of perfect happiness now, I admit. But is it not quite
possible that Mlle. de Beaumesnil might inspire you with a taste for
married life instead?"

"You are right, Olivier," exclaimed the veteran. "You ought to see the
young lady before you refuse, M. Gerald, and perhaps, as Olivier says,
the desire to marry may seize you."

"Impossible, commander!" cried Gerald, gaily. "One is born a husband as
one is born a poet or a cripple, and then there is another
objection,--the most important of all,--that occurs to me now. It is
that the young lady in question is the richest heiress in France."

"And what of that?" urged Olivier. "What difference does that make?"

"It makes a great deal of difference," replied Gerald, "for even if I
was obliged to admit that Mlle. de Beaumesnil pleased me
infinitely,--that I was dead in love with her, in fact, and that she
shared my love,--the fact remains that she is the possessor of a
princely fortune, while I have nothing; for my paltry twelve thousand a
year would be but a drop in the ocean of Mlle. de Beaumesnil's millions.
It would be too humiliating to a man's pride, would it not, commander,
to marry a woman to whom you can give nothing, but who gives you
everything? Besides, however sincere your love may be, don't you have
the appearance of marrying for mercenary motives? Don't you know that
everybody would say: 'Mlle. de Beaumesnil wanted to be a duchess. Gerald
de Senneterre hadn't a penny, so he sold her his name and title, and
threw himself in.'"

On hearing these words, the uncle glanced at his nephew with a decidedly
embarrassed air.



CHAPTER XXVI.

THE COMMANDER'S ADVICE.


Gerald did not fail to notice this fact, and it was with a smile that he
exclaimed:

"Yes, I was sure of it, commander. There is something so humiliating to
an honest man's pride in such a glaring inequality of fortune that you
are as unpleasantly impressed by it as I am. Your silence proves that
conclusively."

"The fact is," replied the veteran, after a moment's silence,--"the fact
is, I really can't explain why such a state of things would appear
perfectly natural and right to me if it was the man who possessed the
fortune, and the lady had nothing."

Then the old officer added, with a good-natured smile:

"You think me a great simpleton, I expect, M. Gerald."

"Quite the contrary. Your thought owes its origin to the most profound
delicacy of feeling, commander," answered Gerald. "It is the most
natural thing in the world that a penniless, but charming young girl,
accomplished and endowed with noble attributes of mind and heart, should
marry an immensely rich man,--if their love be mutual,--but for a man
who has nothing, to marry a woman who has everything--"

"Ah, uncle, and you, too, Gerald," exclaimed Olivier, interrupting his
friend, "you are both entirely wrong about this matter."

"And why, if you please?"

"You admit, and so do I, that a penniless young girl is quite justified
in marrying an immensely rich man, but this is only on condition that
she loves the man sincerely."

"Of course!" said Gerald. "If she is actuated by mercenary motives, it
becomes nothing more nor less than a business transaction."

"And disgraceful accordingly," added the old sailor.

"Very well, then," continued Olivier, "why should a poor man,--because,
Gerald, you are poor in comparison with Mlle. de Beaumesnil,--why, then,
I ask, should you be censured for marrying that young lady if you love
her sincerely in spite of her millions,--in short, if you love her as
sincerely as if she were without name and without fortune?"

"That is true, M. Gerald," chimed in the commander; "if one loves as an
honest man should love, if one is certain that he loves not the money,
but the woman, one's conscience is clear. What right can any one have to
reproach him? In short, I advise you to see Mlle. de Beaumesnil first,
and decide afterwards."

"Yes, that will, I believe, be best," Gerald replied. "That will decide
everything. Ah, I was wise to come and talk over my plans with you,
commander, and with you, Olivier."

"Nonsense, M. Gerald, as if, in the refined circles in which you move,
there were not plenty of persons who would have said the same things
Olivier and I have just said to you."

"Ah, don't you believe it," responded Gerald, shrugging his shoulders.

Then, more gravely, he added:

"It is the same in the middle classes, if not worse. Everybody cares
only for money."

"But why the devil is it that Olivier and I are so superior to all the
rest of the world, M. Gerald?" asked the commander, laughing.

"Why?" repeated Gerald, with much feeling. "It is because you,
commander, have led for forty years the hard, rough, dangerous,
unselfish life of a sailor; it is because while you were leading this
life you acquired the Christian virtues of resignation and contentment
with little; it is because, ignorant of the cowardly concessions of
society in these matters, you consider a man who marries for money as
dishonourable as a man who cheats at cards, or shirks his duty on the
battle-field. Am I not right, commander?"

"But you see it all seems so very plain to me, M. Gerald, that--"

"Oh, yes, very plain to you and to Olivier, who has led, like me, though
for a much longer time, the life of a soldier,--a life that teaches one
unselfishness and brotherly feeling. Is this not true?"

"My brave, kind-hearted Gerald!" cried the young soldier, as deeply
moved as his friend. "But you must admit that, though the life of a
soldier may have developed your natural generosity, it certainly did not
endow you with that virtue. You, alone, perhaps, of all the young men in
your rank of life, were capable of realising the sort of cowardice one
manifested in sending some poor devil to the wars to be killed in your
place,--you, alone, too, seem to feel some scruples with regard to a
marriage that all the others would gladly contract at any cost."

"You are not going to begin to pay me compliments at this late day, I
hope," laughed Gerald. "Very well, then, it is decided that I am to see
Mlle. de Beaumesnil, and leave the rest to fate. My course is marked out
for me. I will not deviate from it, I promise you."

"Bravo, my dear Gerald," replied Olivier, gaily. "I see you now in my
mind's eye in love, married,--a happy Benedict, in short. Ah, well,
there's no happiness like it, I'm sure. And alas! I, yesterday, knowing
nothing of your plans, asked Madame Herbaut's permission to introduce
to her a former comrade, a very worthy young man, whom she instantly
accepted on the strength of my all-potent recommendation."

"You don't say so," exclaimed Gerald, laughing. "Oh, well, you needn't
consider me as good as dead and buried. I shall promptly avail myself of
her kind permission to call, I assure you."

"You will?"

"Most assuredly I shall."

"But your matrimonial projects?"

"Why, they make me all the more determined on this point."

"Explain, I beg of you."

"Why, the explanation is very simple, it seems to me. The more reason I
have to love a bachelor's life, the better I shall have to love Mlle. de
Beaumesnil in order to renounce my pleasures, and consequently the more
certain I shall be of the sentiment she inspires. So, once for all, let
it be understood that you are to take me with you to Madame Herbaut's,
and to make me still stronger--to resist temptation, of course, I'll
become the lover of one of the rivals, or even of one of the satellites
of that famous duchess who is such a bugbear to me, and with whom I
strongly suspect you of being in love."

"Nonsense, Gerald!"

"Come, be frank with me. You surely can't suspect me of desire to cut
you out. As if there were not plenty of duchesses in the world! Do you
remember the sutler's pretty wife? You had only to say the word, and I,
forthwith, left the coast clear for you."

"What, another!" cried the commander. "What a fascinating rascal my
nephew must be!"

"Ah, commander, if you knew the number of hearts the scamp won in
Algiers alone! Madame Herbaut's fair guests had better be on their guard
if they don't want to fall victims to Olivier's fascinations!"

"I haven't any designs on the charming guests, you big simpleton,"
retorted Olivier, gaily. "But seriously, do you really wish me to take
you to Madame Herbaut's?"

"Certainly I do," answered Gerald. Then turning to the veteran, he
continued:

"You really must not consider me a harebrained fellow on account of this
determination on my part, commander. I have accepted your friendly
advice in regard to marriage, you say, and yet I end the conversation by
begging Olivier to take me to Madame Herbaut's. Ah, well, strange as
this may appear to you, commander, I say, no longer jestingly, but in
all seriousness this time, that the less change I make in my habits, the
more sincere my love for Mlle. de Beaumesnil will have to be to induce
me to abandon them."

"Upon my word, M. Gerald, I must confess that your reasons seemed
decidedly odd to me at first," replied the veteran, "but, on reflection,
I find them quite sensible. There would, perhaps, be a sort of
hypocritical premeditation in breaking off in advance with a life you
have led so long."

"Come then, Olivier, and introduce me to Madame Herbaut's charming
tribe," exclaimed Gerald, gaily. "Good-bye, commander, I shall return
soon and often. What else can you expect? You can't hope to act as my
father confessor without more or less trouble, you know."

"You'll find me a pretty exacting mentor as regards absolution and
matters of conscience, I warn you," retorted the old sailor, gaily. "You
must drop in again soon, for you are to keep me posted about the
progress of your matrimonial schemes, you recollect."

"Of course. It is my bounden duty to tell you all now, commander, and I
shall not fail to do it. But now I think of it, I must report with
regard to a commission you entrusted to me, M. Bernard. Will you allow
me a word with your uncle in private, Olivier?"

"Most assuredly," answered the young soldier, promptly leaving the room.

"I have some good news for you, commander," said Gerald, in a low tone.
"Thanks partly to my own efforts, and especially to the Marquis de
Maillefort's recommendation, Olivier's appointment as a second
lieutenant is almost certain."

"Is it possible, M. Gerald!"

"There is very little doubt of it, I think, for it is very generally
known that the Marquis de Maillefort is being strongly urged to become a
deputy, and this fact has increased his influence very much."

"Ah, M. Gerald, how can I express my gratitude--"

"I must hasten to rejoin Olivier, my dear commander," said Gerald, to
escape the veteran's thanks. "His suspicions are sure to be aroused by a
longer conversation."

"So you have a secret with my uncle," cried Olivier, as soon as his
friend rejoined him.

"Oh, yes, you know I'm a man of mysteries; and, by the way, before we
adjourn to Madame Herbaut's, I have another and very mysterious favour
to ask of you."

"Let me hear it."

"You know all about this neighbourhood. Can't you recommend some quiet
lodgings in a retired street hereabouts?"

"What! You are thinking of deserting the Faubourg St. Germain for the
Batignolles? How delightful!"

"Nonsense! Listen to me. Of course, living in my mother's house I cannot
receive my friends indiscriminately,--you understand."

"Very well."

"So I have had some rooms elsewhere, but the house has changed hands,
and the new owner is such a strictly moral man that he has warned me
that I have got to leave when my month is up,--that is, day after
to-morrow."

"All the better. It is a very fortunate thing, I think. You're about to
marry, so bid farewell to your amours."

"Olivier, you have heard my ideas on the subject. Your uncle approves
them. I am resolved to change none of my bachelor habits in advance, and
if I should abandon the idea of marriage altogether, think of my
desolate situation, homeless and loveless! No, no, I am much too
cautious and far-sighted not to--to preserve a pear to quench my
thirst."

"You're a man of infinite precautions, certainly. Very well, as I go and
come I'll look at the notices of rooms to rent in the windows."

"Two little rooms, with a private hall, is all I need. I'll look myself
when we leave Madame Herbaut's, for time presses. Day after to-morrow is
the fatal day. Say, Olivier, wouldn't it be strange if I should discover
what I need right here? Do you remember the lines:

    "'What if in this same quiet spot
      I both sweet love and friendship true should find?'

"The lines seem to me a fit motto for a shepherd's pipe; but what of
that? Truth needs no ornamentation. But now on, on to the house of
Madame Herbaut!"

"You still insist? Consider well."

"Olivier, you are really intolerable. I'll go alone if you won't
accompany me."

"Come, then, the die is cast. It is understood that you are simply
Gerald Senneterre, a former comrade of mine."

"Senneterre? No; that would be too imprudent. You had better call me
Gerald Auvernay, for I am adorned with the marquisate of Auvernay, my
dear Olivier, though you may not be aware of the fact."

"You are M. Gerald Auvernay, then; that is decided. But the devil!"

"What's the matter now?"

"But what else are you going to be?"

"What else am I going to be?"

"Yes; what is to be your occupation?"

"Why, a bachelor of the new school."

"Pshaw! I can't introduce you to Madame Herbaut as a young man who is
living on the income of the money he saved while in the army. Besides,
Madame Herbaut receives no idlers. You would excite her suspicions at
once, for the worthy woman strongly distrusts young men who have nothing
to do but court pretty girls, for you'll find that her girls are
pretty."

"All this is certainly very amusing. Well, what do you want me to be?"

"I haven't the slightest idea."

"Let me see," said Gerald, laughing. "How would you like me to be an
apothecary?"

"That would do very well, I should think."

"Oh, no, I was only joking; that wouldn't answer at all."

"But there are some very nice and gentlemanly apothecaries, I assure
you, Gerald."

"But really I shouldn't dare to look any one of those pretty girls in
the face."

"Let's try to think of something else, then. What do you say to being
the clerk of a notary? How does that suit you?"

"Admirably. My mother has an interminable lawsuit on hand, and I drop in
to see her notary and lawyer occasionally, so I can study the part from
nature."

"Very well, follow me, then, and I will introduce you as Gerald
Auvernay, clerk to a notary."

"Chief clerk to a notary," corrected Gerald, with great emphasis.

"Come on, ambitious youth!"

Gerald, thanks to Olivier's recommendation, was received by Madame
Herbaut with great cordiality.

On the afternoon of that same day grim M. Bouffard called for the rent
Commander Bernard owed him. Madame Barbançon paid him, overcoming with
great difficulty her strong desire to disfigure the ferocious landlord's
face with her nails.

Unfortunately, the money thus obtained, instead of appeasing M.
Bouffard's greed, seemed to imbue him with increased energy to collect
his dues, and persuaded that, but for his persistent dunning and abuse,
Madame Barbançon would not have paid him, he hastened off to the Rue
Monceau where Herminie lived, resolved to treat the poor girl with
increased severity, and thus secure the payment of the rent she owed
him.



CHAPTER XXVII.

THE ABODE OF THE DUCHESS.


Herminie lived on the Rue de Monceau in one of the numerous dwellings of
which M. Bouffard was the owner. She occupied a room on the ground
floor, reached by a small hallway opening under the archway of the
porte-cochère. The two windows looked out upon a pretty garden, enclosed
on one side by an evergreen hedge, and on the other by a tall lattice
that separated it from the adjoining street.

This garden really pertained to a much larger apartment on the ground
floor, an apartment which, together with another suite of rooms on the
third floor, was unoccupied,--an unpleasant state of things, which
considerably increased M. Bouffard's ill-humour towards his delinquent
tenants.

Nothing could have been simpler, yet in better taste, than this abode of
the duchess.

A cheap but exceedingly fresh and pretty chintz covered the walls and
rather low ceiling of the room. In the daytime full draperies of the
same material concealed a large alcove in which the bed stood, as well
as two glass doors near it, one of which opened into a tiny
dressing-room, and the other into the hall, a sort of antechamber about
eight feet square.

Chintz curtains, lined with pink, veiled the windows, which were also
decorated with pretty white muslin sash curtains, tied back with pink
ribbons. A carpet, with a white ground, with small bouquets of pink
roses dropped here and there,--this carpet had been the most expensive
item in Herminie's furnishing,--covered the floor. The mantel drapery,
beautifully embroidered by Herminie herself, was pale blue, with
garlands of roses and jonquils. Two candlesticks of exquisite Pompeian
design stood, one on either side of a white marble clock, surmounted by
a statuette of Joan of Arc, while at each end of the mantel stood two
tall vases of _grès verni_, a wonderful invention, by the way. These
vases, which were of the purest Etruscan form, held big bunches of fresh
roses, which filled the room with their delicious fragrance.

These modest mantel decorations, being all of the cheapest materials,
were of slight intrinsic value, having cost not more than fifty or sixty
francs, but from an artistic point of view they were irreproachable.

Opposite the fireplace stood Herminie's piano, her bread-winner. Between
the two windows was a table, which also served as a bookcase, the
duchess having arranged several works by her favourite authors upon it,
as well as a few books which she had received as prizes during her
school-days.

Here and there upon the wall, in plain pine frames, so highly polished
that they looked like citron wood, hung a few well-chosen engravings,
among them "Mignon Pining for Her Native Land," and "Mignon Longing for
Heaven," both by Scheffer, hanging one on either side of Francesca da
Rimini, by the same artist.

In two corners of the room small _étagères_ held several plaster
statuettes, reduced copies of famous antiques. A small rosewood cabinet,
bought for a song from some second-hand furniture dealer in the
Batignolles, two pretty tapestry-covered chairs,--Herminie's
handiwork,--and a large armchair of green satin decorated with beautiful
silk embroidery in brilliant hues, representing flowers and birds,
completed the furniture of the room.

By means of industry and intelligence, combined with exquisite taste,
Herminie had been able to create for herself this elegant and refined
home at comparatively little expense.

Culinary duties or details may have been distasteful to this fastidious
duchess. At all events, she had managed to escape that difficulty
through the good offices of the portress, who, for a trifling
compensation, brought her a glass of milk every morning, and in the
evening a plate of excellent soup, accompanied with a dish of vegetables
and some fruit,--a frugal repast rendered appetising enough by the
exquisite daintiness of Herminie's dinner-table; for though the duchess
possessed only two cups and half a dozen plates, they were of fine
china, and when the girl had placed on her round table, covered with a
napkin of dazzling whiteness, her carafe, her cut-glass tumbler, her two
shining silver forks and spoons, and her pretty china plate decorated
with tiny pink roses and forget-me-nots, the simplest food seemed
wonderfully appetising.

But alas! to Herminie's intense chagrin, her silver spoons and forks,
and her watch, the only really valuable article she possessed, were now
in pawn at the _mont de piété_, where she had been obliged to send them
by the portress, the poor girl having no other means of defraying the
daily expenses of her illness, and of obtaining a small sum of money
upon which she could live until she was able to resume the lessons
interrupted by her illness, for a period of nearly two months.

This long delay was the cause of Herminie's extreme poverty and
consequent inability to pay the one hundred and eighty francs she owed
M. Bouffard for rent.

One hundred and eighty francs!

And the poor child possessed only about fifteen francs upon which she
would have to live for nearly a month!

It is evident, therefore, that the foot of a man had never crossed
Herminie's threshold.

The duchess, free and untrammelled in every way, had never
loved,--though she had inspired love in the hearts of many, without
intending or even caring to do so, for she was too proud to stoop to
coquetry, and too generous to enjoy the torments of an unrequited love.
None of her suitors had pleased Herminie, in spite of the honesty of
their matrimonial overtures, based in some cases, at least, upon a
certain amount of affluence, for several had been engaged in business,
while others were musicians like Herminie herself, and others clerks in
dry-goods establishments, or bookkeepers.

The duchess could not fail to display, in her choice of a husband, the
refined taste and exquisite delicacy which were her most prominent
characteristics; but it is needless to say that the social position of
the man she loved, whether high or low, would not have influenced her in
the least.

She knew by herself, and she gloried in the knowledge, that rare
nobility and refinement of soul are sometimes found in the poorest and
most obscure, and that which had oftenest offended her in her suitors
were the slight imperfections, not apparent very possibly to any one
save the duchess, but inexpressibly obnoxious to her.

This suitor had been too boisterous in manner; that one, too familiar
and unrefined; this one had a rasping voice; that one was almost
grotesque in appearance. Nevertheless, some of the rejected suitors
possessed many admirable qualities of mind and heart, as Herminie
herself had been the first to admit. These she considered the best and
most worthy men in the world, and frankly granted them her esteem, and
even her friendship, but not her love.

It was not from any feeling of disdain or foolish ambition that Herminie
had refused them, but simply, as she herself had said to the
unfortunates, "because she felt no love for them, and was resolved to
remain single all her life rather than marry without experiencing a
sincere and profound love." And yet, by reason of this very pride,
fastidiousness, and sensitiveness, Herminie must have suffered much more
than the generality of persons from the painful and almost inevitable
annoyances inherent to the position of a young girl who is not only
obliged to live alone, but who is also exposed to the unfortunate
conditions which may result at any time from a lack of employment or
from sickness.

For some time, alas! the duchess had been realising most cruelly the
unhappy consequences of her poverty and isolation. Any person who
understands Herminie's character and her pride,--a pride that had
impelled the young girl, in spite of her pressing need, to proudly
return the five hundred franc note sent her by the executors of the
Beaumesnil estate,--can readily understand the mingled terror and dismay
with which the poor child was awaiting the return of M. Bouffard, for,
as he had remarked to Madame Barbançon, he intended to pay his last
round of visits to his delinquent tenants that afternoon.

Herminie was trying to devise some means of satisfying this coarse and
insolent man, but, having already, pawned her silver and her watch, she
had nothing more to pawn. No one would have loaned her twenty francs on
her mantel ornaments, tasteful as they were, and her pictures and
statuettes would have brought little or nothing.

Overcome with terror at the thought of her truly pitiable condition,
Herminie was weeping bitterly and shuddering in the dread expectation of
hearing M. Bouffard's imperious peal of the bell at any moment.

Yet so noble and generous was this young girl's nature that, even in the
midst of these cruel perplexities, Herminie never once thought of saying
to herself that she might be saved by an infinitesimal portion of the
enormous superabundance belonging to the sister whose sumptuous
apartments she had seen a couple of days before. If the duchess thought
of her sister at all, it was that she might find in the hope of seeing
her some diversion from her present grief and chagrin. And for this
sorrow and chagrin Herminie now blamed herself as she cast a tearful
glance around her pretty room, reproaching herself the while for her
unwarranted expenditures.

She ought to have saved up this money for a rainy day, she said to
herself, and for such misfortunes as sickness or a lack of pupils. She
ought to have resigned herself to taking a room on the fourth floor,
next door to strangers, to living separated from them only by a thin
partition, in a bare and desolate room with dirty walls. She ought not
to have allowed herself to be tempted by this outlook upon a pretty
garden, and by the seclusion of her present apartments. She ought to
have kept her money, too, instead of spending it on the pretty trifles
which had been the only companions of her solitude, and which had
converted the little room into a delightful retreat where she had lived
so happily, confident of her ability to support herself.

Who ever would have supposed that a person as proud as she was would
have to submit to the coarse, but just abuse of a man to whom she owed
money,--money that she could not pay?

Could anything be more humiliating?

But these severe though just reproaches for past delinquencies did not
ameliorate her present misery in the least; and she remained seated in
her armchair, her eyes swollen with weeping, now absorbed in a gloomy
reverie, now starting violently at the slightest sound, fearing that it
presaged the arrival of M. Bouffard.

At last the agonising suspense was ended by a violent pull of the bell.

"It is he," murmured the poor creature, trembling in every limb. "I am
lost!" she moaned.

And she remained seated in her chair, absolutely paralysed with fear.

A second peal of the bell, even more violent than the first, resounded
in the tiny hall.

Herminie dried her eyes, summoned up all her courage, and, pale and
trembling, went to open the door.

She had not been deceived.

It was M. Bouffard.

This glorious representative of the nation had laid aside the uniform of
a citizen soldier and donned a gray sack coat.

"Well, have you my money ready?" he demanded, roughly, planting himself
on the threshold of the door the girl had opened for him with such an
unsteady hand.

"But, monsieur--"

"Do you intend to pay me, yes or no?" exclaimed M. Bouffard, in such a
loud voice that the question was overheard by two other persons.

One was then standing under the porte-cochère. The other was mounting
the staircase which started close to the entrance to Herminie's
apartments.

"I ask you for the last time, will you pay me? Answer me, yes or no!"
repeated M. Bouffard, in even louder and more threatening tones.

"In pity do not speak so loud," said Herminie, in imploring accents. "I
assure you that, though I cannot pay you, it is not my fault; indeed it
is not."

"I am in my own house, and I will talk as I please. If any one overhears
me so much the better. It may serve as a lesson to other tenants who may
want to get out of paying their rent just like you."

"Step inside, monsieur, I beseech you," pleaded Herminie, clasping her
hands, imploringly; "and I will explain."

"Explain--explain what?" retorted M. Bouffard, following the girl into
her room. "There's no explanation possible. The whole affair is very
simple. Are you going to pay me,--yes, or no?"

"It is impossible, unfortunately, just at this time," said Herminie,
dashing away a tear, "but if you will have the great kindness to wait--"

"Always the same old story!" sneered M. Bouffard, shrugging his
shoulders.

Then glancing around the room with a sardonic air, he added:

"This is a pretty state of things! Here is a tenant who declares she
cannot pay her rent, and yet indulges in fine carpets, chintz hangings,
and all sorts of knick-knacks. If it isn't enough to make a man swear!
I, who own seven houses in the city of Paris, have a carpet only in my
drawing-room, and Madame Bouffard's boudoir is hung with a fifteen sous
paper; and yet, here is a young woman who gives herself the airs of a
princess, though she hasn't a penny."

Herminie, driven to desperation, lifted her head proudly, and, in a
manner that was both firm and dignified, said:

"This piano is worth at least four times the amount of my indebtedness,
monsieur. Send for it whenever you please. It is the only article of
value I possess. Dispose of it; sell it whenever you like."

"Am I a dealer in pianos? How do I know what I should realise from the
sale of your instrument? You must pay me my rent in money, and not in
pianos."

"But good heavens, monsieur! I have no money. I offer you my piano,
though I earn my living by it. What more can I do?"

"I won't accept anything of the kind. You have money, I know it. You
sent a watch and some silver, too, to the pawnbroker's, for it was my
portress who took them there for you. You can't humbug me, you see."

"Alas! monsieur, the paltry sum they loaned me I have been obliged to
spend for--"

But Herminie did not finish the sentence. She had just perceived a
gentleman standing in the open doorway. It was M. de Maillefort, and he
had been an unobserved witness of the painful scene for several minutes.

Noting the girl's sudden start, and the surprised glance she was
directing towards the door, M. Bouffard turned his head, and, seeing the
hunchback, seemed quite as astonished as Herminie.

The marquis now advanced, and, bowing respectfully to Herminie, said:

"I beg a thousand pardons for thus intruding, mademoiselle, but I found
the door open, and as I hope you will do me the honour to grant me a few
moments' conversation on a very important matter, I ventured to enter."

After these words, which were uttered with as much courtesy as
deference, the marquis turned to M. Bouffard and surveyed him from head
to foot with such an expression of withering contempt that the ex-grocer
became not only embarrassed, but thoroughly intimidated as well, in the
presence of this hunchback, who said to him, coldly:

"I came, monsieur, to solicit the honour of a few minutes' conversation
with this young lady."

"Oh--ah! Well, what is that to me?" grunted M. Bouffard, gradually
regaining his assurance.

The marquis, without paying the slightest attention to M. Bouffard, and
addressing Herminie, who was becoming more and more astonished, asked,
deferentially:

"Will mademoiselle do me the favour to grant me the interview I ask?"

"But, monsieur," replied the girl, much embarrassed, "I do not know--I
am not sure--"

"I must take the liberty of remarking that, as it is absolutely
necessary that our conversation should be strictly confidential, it is
indispensable that this--this gentleman should leave us, unless there
may still be something you wish to say to him. In that case, I will
retire."

"I have nothing further to say to monsieur," answered Herminie, pleased
at the idea of escaping from her present painful position, even for a
few moments.

"Mademoiselle has nothing more to say to you, monsieur," said the
marquis to M. Bouffard, with a meaning gesture.

But the ex-grocer, who was now himself again, and who was consequently
furious at the thought that he had allowed himself to be awed by the
hunchback, exclaimed:

"So you fancy a man can be turned out of his own house without paying
him his just dues, monsieur, and all because you support this--"

"Enough, monsieur, enough!" cried the marquis, hastily interrupting
Bouffard.

And even as he spoke, he seized the offender by the arm with such
violence that the ex-grocer, feeling the long, bony fingers of the
hunchback hold him as in a vise, gazed at him with mingled fear and
astonishment.

But the marquis, still smiling in the most amiable manner, continued
with marvellous affability:

"I regret that I am unable to enjoy your delightful society any longer,
my dear sir, but you see I am at mademoiselle's orders, and as she is
good enough to grant me a few minutes, I must not abuse her kindness."

As he spoke, the marquis half led, half dragged M. Bouffard to the door,
and that worthy, astonished to encounter such physical vigour and such
an authoritative manner in a hunchback, offered no further resistance.

"I will go, as I have some other matters to attend to in the house," he
exclaimed, making the best of the situation. "I am going up-stairs for
awhile, but I shall return after you leave. I intend to have my money
then, if I don't--"

The marquis bowed ironically, closed the door in the ex-grocer's face,
and then returned to Herminie.



CHAPTER XXVIII.

A SACRED MISSION.


M. de Maillefort, much impressed by what Madame de la Rochaiguë had told
him about the young musician who had been so unjustly treated, as she
averred, by Madame de Beaumesnil, had again questioned Madame Dupont, a
confidential attendant of the deceased countess.

This examination, which the marquis had conducted with great prudence
and skill, revealed many new details concerning the relations which had
existed between the countess and that young girl, and though Madame
Dupont seemed to have no suspicion of the truth, M. de Maillefort felt
almost certain that Herminie must be Madame de Beaumesnil's illegitimate
child.

In spite of this firm conviction on his part, the marquis resolved to
approach Herminie with the greatest reserve, not only because any
revelation of his suspicions would dishonour Madame de Beaumesnil's
memory, but, also, because the countess had never revealed her secret to
M. de Maillefort, who had mistrusted rather than discovered it.

Herminie, utterly unable to imagine the object of this stranger's visit,
was standing by the mantel, pale and agitated when the marquis returned
to her side after M. Bouffard's summary expulsion.

A single quick glance around the abode of the duchess had satisfied the
marquis of the perfect order, refined taste, and exquisite neatness of
the girl's home, and this, together with what Madame de la Rochaiguë had
told him of her noble disinterestedness, gave him a very high opinion
of Herminie, and, almost sure that he saw in her the person he was so
anxious to find, he studied her charming features in the hope of
discovering a resemblance to Madame de Beaumesnil, and fancied that he
had succeeded.

Though she did not exactly resemble her mother, Herminie, like Madame de
Beaumesnil, was a blonde. Like her, she had blue eyes, and though the
contour of the two faces was not alike, there was certainly a family
likeness that could not fail to strike a close observer like M. de
Maillefort; so it was with an emotion that he found it difficult to
conceal that he approached Herminie, who was becoming more and more
embarrassed by the long silence, and by the searching though almost
affectionate gaze of her strange visitor.

"Mademoiselle," he said, at last, in an almost fatherly tone, "I must
beg you to excuse my delay, but I experience a sort of embarrassment in
expressing the great interest I feel in you."

M. de Maillefort's voice, as he uttered these words, was so full of
feeling that the young girl looked at him wonderingly, then, more and
more surprised, she ventured, timidly:

"But this interest, monsieur--"

"You cannot imagine what has aroused it. Very well, I will tell you, my
dear child,--for let me call you that," the hunchback continued, as if
in answer to a hasty movement on the part of Herminie; "my age and the
interest I feel in you certainly give me a right to call you my dear
child, if you will permit such a familiarity."

"It might serve to prove my gratitude for the kind and consoling words
you have just uttered, monsieur, though the humiliating position in
which you just saw me placed--"

"Oh, do not trouble yourself in the least about that," interrupted the
marquis, "I--"

"I am not trying to justify myself," said Herminie, proudly,
interrupting the marquis in her turn. "I have nothing to blush for, and
though, for some inexplicable reason, you are kind enough to evince an
interest in me, it is only my duty to tell you, or to try to prove to
you, that it was neither mismanagement, extravagance, nor idleness that
placed me in such a humiliating position for the first time in my life.
Ill for nearly two months past, I have been unable to give lessons as
usual. I resumed them only a few days ago, so I have been obliged to
spend the small amount of money I had saved. This is the truth,
monsieur. If I am a little in debt, it is only in consequence of my
illness."

"Strange," thought the marquis, mentally comparing the date of the
countess's death with that of the beginning of Herminie's illness, "it
was about the time of Madame de Beaumesnil's death that this poor child
must have been taken ill. Can grief have been the cause?"

And in tones of touching sympathy, the marquis asked aloud:

"And was this attack of illness severe, my dear child? You were
overworked, perhaps."

Herminie blushed deeply. Her embarrassment was great, for she felt that
it would be necessary to utter an untruth to conceal the real cause of
her illness, and it was with considerable hesitation that she finally
replied:

"I think I must have been overfatigued, monsieur, for the attack was
followed by a sort of mental prostration, but now, thank Heaven, I am
well again."

The girl's embarrassment and hesitation did not escape the marquis, who
had already noted the expression of profound melancholy on Herminie's
features.

"There isn't the slightest doubt of it," he mentally exclaimed. "She
became ill with grief after Madame de Beaumesnil's death. She knows,
then, that the countess was her mother. But in that case, why didn't the
countess, in the frequent opportunities she must have had to be alone
with her daughter, give her this money she entrusted to me?"

A prey to these perplexities, the hunchback, after another silence, said
to Herminie:

"My dear child, I came here with the intention of maintaining the utmost
reserve. Distrusting my own judgment, and greatly in doubt as to the
course I ought to pursue, I had resolved to approach the subject that
brought me here with infinite caution, for it is a delicate, yes, a
sacred mission, that I have to fulfil."

"What do you mean, monsieur?"

"Will you be kind enough to listen to me, my dear child. What I have
heard about you, and what I have just seen, or rather divined,
perhaps,--in short, the confidence you inspire,--had changed this
determination on my part, and I am going to talk to you freely and
frankly, sure that I am speaking to an honest, true-hearted woman. You
know Madame de Beaumesnil,--you loved her--"

Herminie could not repress a movement of astonishment, mingled with
anxiety.

"Yes, I know," continued the hunchback. "You loved Madame de Beaumesnil
devotedly. Your grief at her death was the sole cause of your illness."

"Monsieur," cried Herminie, terrified to see her secret, or rather that
of her mother, almost at the mercy of a stranger, "I do not know what
you mean. I conceived for Madame de Beaumesnil, during the brief time we
were together, the respectful affection she deserved. Like all who knew
her, I deeply deplored her death, but--"

"It is only right and natural that you should answer me thus, my dear
child," said the marquis, interrupting Herminie. "You cannot have much
confidence in me, not knowing who I am, not knowing even my name. I am
M. de Maillefort."

"M. de Maillefort!" exclaimed the young girl, remembering that she had
written a letter addressed to the marquis for her mother.

"You have heard my name before, then!"

"Yes, monsieur. Madame la Comtesse de Beaumesnil, not feeling strong
enough to write herself, asked me to do it in her stead, and the letter
you received on the night of her death--"

"Was written by you?"

"Yes, monsieur."

"Then you must feel, my dear child, that you owe me your entire
confidence. Madame de Beaumesnil had no more devoted friend than
myself,--and it was upon the strength of this friendship of more than
thirty years' standing, that she felt she could rely upon me
sufficiently to entrust me with a sacred mission."

"Can he mean that my mother confided the secret of my birth to him?"
thought Herminie.

The marquis, noticing Herminie's increasing agitation, and confident
that he had at last found Madame de Beaumesnil's illegitimate daughter,
continued:

"The letter you wrote for Madame de Beaumesnil requested me to come to
her even at that late hour of the night. You remember this fact, do you
not?"

"Yes, monsieur."

"I obeyed the summons as soon as I received it. The countess felt that
her end was fast approaching," continued the hunchback, in a voice that
trembled with suppressed emotion. "After commending her daughter
Ernestine to my care, Madame de Beaumesnil implored me to--to do her a
last service. She entreated me to--to divide my care and interest
between her daughter and--and another young girl no less dear to her--"

"He knows all," Herminie said to herself, with a sinking heart. "My poor
mother's sin is no secret to him."

"This other young girl," continued the hunchback, more and more
overcome, "was an angel, the countess told me. Yes, those were her very
words,--an angel of virtue and courage, a brave and noble-hearted girl,"
added the marquis, his eyes wet with tears. "A poor, lonely orphan, who,
though destitute alike of friends and resources, had struggled bravely
on against a most adverse fate. Ah, if you could have heard the accents
of despairing tenderness in which that most unhappy woman and
unfortunate mother spoke of that young girl; for I divined--though she
made no such admission, deterred, doubtless, by the shame of such an
avowal--that only a mother could speak thus and suffer thus on thinking
of her daughter's fate. No, no, it was not a stranger that the countess
commended to my care with so much earnestness on her death-bed."

The marquis, overcome by emotion, paused an instant and wiped his
tear-dimmed eyes.

"Oh, my mother," Herminie said to herself, making a brave effort at
self-control, "then your last thoughts were indeed of your unhappy
daughter!"

"I made the dying woman a solemn promise that I would fulfil her last
request, and divide my solicitude between Ernestine de Beaumesnil and
the young girl the countess implored me so earnestly to protect. Then
she gave me this purse," continued the hunchback, drawing it from his
pocket, "which contains, she assured me, a small competence which she
charged me to deliver to the young girl whose future would thus be
assured. But, unfortunately, Madame de Beaumesnil breathed her last
without having told me the orphan's name."

"Thank Heaven! He only has his suspicions, then!" Herminie said to
herself, rapturously. "I shall not have to bear the anguish of seeing a
stranger know my mother's fault. Her memory will remain untarnished."

"You can judge of my anxiety and chagrin, my dear child," continued the
marquis. "How was I to comply with Madame de Beaumesnil's last request,
ignorant of the young girl's name? Nevertheless, I began my search,
and, at last, after many fruitless attempts, I have found that orphan
girl, beautiful, courageous, generous, as her poor mother said, and that
girl is--is you--my child--my dear child," cried the hunchback, seizing
both Herminie's hands.

Then, in a transport of joy and ineffable tenderness, he exclaimed:

"You see I have indeed the right to call you my child. No, never was
there any father prouder of his daughter!"

"Monsieur," answered Herminie, in a voice she tried hard to make calm
and firm, "though it costs me a great deal to destroy this illusion on
your part, it is my duty to do it."

"What!" cried the hunchback.

"I am not the person you are seeking, monsieur," replied Herminie,
firmly.

The marquis recoiled a step or two and gazed at the young girl without
being able to utter a word.

To resist the influence of the revelation M. de Maillefort had just made
to her, Herminie needed a heroic courage born of all that was purest and
noblest in her character,--filial pride.

The young girl's heart revolted at the mere thought of confessing her
mother's disgrace to a stranger by acknowledging herself to be Madame de
Beaumesnil's daughter.

For what right had Herminie to confirm this stranger's suspicions by
revealing a secret the countess herself had been unwilling to confess to
her most devoted friend, a secret, too, which her mother had had the
strength to conceal from her when clasped to her bosom, her child's
heart-throbs mingled with her own.

While these generous thoughts were passing swiftly through Herminie's
mind, the marquis, astounded by this refusal on the part of a young girl
whose identity he could not doubt, tried in vain to discover the reason
of this strange determination on her part.

At last he said to Herminie:

"Some motive, which it is impossible for me to fathom, prevents you from
telling me the truth, my dear child. This motive, whatever it may be, is
certainly noble and generous; then, why conceal it from me, your
mother's friend, a friend who feels that he is obeying your mother's
last wishes in coming to you?"

"This conversation is as painful to me as it is to you, M. le marquis,"
Herminie replied, sadly, "for it brings to mind a person who treated me
with the greatest kindness during the brief time I was called upon to
minister to her as a musician, and in no other capacity, I give you my
word. I think that this declaration should be sufficient, and that you
should spare me further entreaties on this subject. I repeat that I am
not the person you are seeking."

On hearing this assurance again repeated, some of M. de Maillefort's
doubts returned; but unwilling to abandon all hope, he exclaimed:

"No, no, I cannot be mistaken. Never shall I forget Madame de
Beaumesnil's anxiety, nor her prayers for--"

"Permit me to interrupt you, M. le marquis, and to say to you that,
under the painful influence of a scene that must have been particularly
trying to you, you doubtless mistook the nature of the interest Madame
de Beaumesnil felt in the orphan of whom you speak. To defend Madame de
Beaumesnil's memory against such a mistake, I have no other right than
that of gratitude, but the respectful regard I and every one else felt
for Madame la comtesse convinces me that this is an error on your part."

This manner of looking at the matter accorded too well with M. de
Maillefort's own secret hopes for him to turn an entirely deaf ear to
this argument. Still, remembering the terrible anguish of the countess
when she commended the orphan to his protection, he said:

"This much is certain: no one would speak in such terms of a stranger."

"How do you know that, M. le marquis?" retorted Herminie, gaining ground
inch by inch. "I have heard many instances cited of Madame de
Beaumesnil's boundless generosity. Her affection for some persons she
assisted was, I have heard, as great as that she manifested for the
orphan she asked you to protect, and as this girl, you say, is as
deserving as she is unfortunate, it seems to me a sufficient explanation
of the great interest the countess took in her. Possibly, too, she felt
her protection to be a duty. Possibly some friend had confided the girl
to Madame de Beaumesnil's care, as that lady in turn confided her to
yours."

"But in that case, why should she have laid such stress upon concealing
the name of the donor from the person to whom I was to deliver this
money?"

"Because Madame de Beaumesnil, in this case, perhaps, as in many others,
wished to conceal her benevolence."

And Herminie having now entirely recovered her coolness and composure,
presented these arguments with such readiness that the marquis at last
began to think that he had been deceived, and that he had suspected
Madame de Beaumesnil unjustly.

Then a new idea occurred to him, and he exclaimed:

"But even admitting that the merit and the misfortunes of this orphan
are her only claim, do not these conditions seem especially applicable
in your own case? Why should it not be you the countess meant?" he
asked.

"I knew Madame de Beaumesnil too short a time for me to deserve any such
mark of her bounty, M. le marquis; besides, as the countess did not
designate me by name, how can I,--I appeal to your own delicacy of
feeling,--how can I accept a large sum of money on the mere supposition
that it may have been intended for me?"

"All that would be very true if you did not deserve the gift."

"And in what way have I deserved it, M. le marquis?"

"By your attentions to the countess, and the alleviation of suffering
she secured through you. Why is it at all unlikely that she should have
desired to compensate you as she did others?"

"I do not understand you, monsieur."

"The will of the countess contained several legacies. You seem to be the
only person who was forgotten, in fact."

"I had no right to expect any bequest, M. le marquis. I was paid for my
services."

"By Madame de Beaumesnil?"

"By Madame de Beaumesnil," answered Herminie, firmly.

"Yes, you said as much to Madame de la Rochaiguë on so nobly
returning--"

"Money that did not belong to me, M. le marquis, that is all."

"No!" exclaimed M. de Maillefort, his former convictions suddenly
regaining the ascendency. "No, I was not mistaken,--instinct, reason,
conviction, all tell me that you are--"

"M. le marquis," said Herminie, interrupting the hunchback, for she was
anxious to put an end to this painful scene, "one word more, and only
one. You were Madame de Beaumesnil's most valued friend, for on her
death-bed she entrusted her daughter to your care. Would she not also
have told you in that supreme moment if she had another child?"

"Great Heaven, no!" exclaimed the marquis, involuntarily. "The unhappy
woman would have shrunk from the shame of such an avowal."

"Yes, I am sure of that," thought Herminie, bitterly. "And is it I who
will make the disgraceful confession from which my poor mother shrank?"

The conversation was here interrupted by M. Bouffard's entrance. The
emotion of the marquis and of the young girl was so great that they had
not noticed the opening of the hall door.

The once ferocious landlord seemed to be in a very different mood.
Something must have appeased his wrath, for his coarse and brutal manner
had vanished, and his rubicund visage was wreathed with a crafty smile.

"What do you want?" demanded the marquis, curtly. "What are you doing
here?"

"I came to make my excuses to mademoiselle."

"Your excuses?" said the young girl, greatly surprised.

"Yes, mademoiselle, and I wish to make them before monsieur, as I
reproached you for not paying me in his presence, so I now declare
before him,--I swear it in the presence of God and man,--I swear that I
have been paid all that mademoiselle owed me."

"You have been paid!" cried Herminie, in amazement; "and by whom,
monsieur?"

"Oh, you know very well, mademoiselle," responded M. Bouffard, with the
same coarse laugh. "You know very well! What a sly one you are!"

"I have no idea what you mean, monsieur," said Herminie, indignantly.

"Bah!" cried M. Bouffard, shrugging his shoulders, "I suppose you're not
going to try to make me believe that handsome young men pay the rent for
pretty blondes merely for the love of God!"

"Some one has paid my rent for me, monsieur?" demanded Herminie,
blushing scarlet.

"Yes, some one has paid it, and in shining yellow gold," replied M.
Bouffard, drawing several gleaming coins from his pocket and tossing
them up in the air. "Look at the yellow boys, ain't they pretty, eh?"

"And this gold, monsieur," said Herminie, unable to believe her own
ears,--"this gold--who gave it to you?"

"Oh, don't try to play innocent, my dear. The person who paid me is a
handsome fellow, tall, and dark complexioned, with a brown moustache.
That description would answer for his passport, if he wanted one."

The marquis had listened to M. Bouffard first with surprise, and then
with utter dismay.

This young girl, in whom he had taken so deep an interest, had suddenly
become hateful in his eyes; so coldly bowing to Herminie, he walked
silently to the door, with an expression of bitter disappointment on his
face.

"Ah," he thought, "still another lost illusion!"

"Remain, monsieur," cried the young girl, running after him, all of a
tremble, and overcome with shame, "I entreat you--I implore you to
remain!"



CHAPTER XXIX.

HUMILIATION AND CONSOLATION.


On hearing Herminie's appeal, M. de Maillefort turned and asked, coldly
and sternly:

"What do you want, mademoiselle?"

"What do I want, monsieur?" the girl exclaimed, her cheeks on fire, her
eyes sparkling with tears of wounded pride and indignation. "What I want
is to tell this man in your presence that he lies."

"I?" snorted M. Bouffard, indignantly. "Really, this is a little too
much, when I have the yellow boys right here in my pocket."

"But I tell you that you lie!" cried the girl, advancing towards him,
with a commanding gesture. "I have given no one the right to pay you, or
to make me the victim of such an insult."

In spite of the coarseness of his nature, M. Bouffard was not a little
impressed by this display of fiery indignation, so retreating a step or
two, the owner of the house stammered by way of excuse:

"But I swear to you, mademoiselle, upon my sacred word of honour, that,
as I was going up-stairs a few minutes ago, I was stopped on the first
landing by a handsome, dark-complexioned young man who gave me this gold
to pay your rent. I'm telling you the honest truth; upon my word I am!"

"Oh, my God, to be humiliated and insulted like this!" cried the young
girl, her long repressed sobs bursting forth at last.

After a moment, turning to the hunchback, a silent witness of the scene,
Herminie said, in entreating tones, her beautiful face bathed with
tears:

"Oh, in pity, do not believe that I have merited this insult, M. le
marquis."

"A marquis!" muttered M. Bouffard, hastily removing his hat, which he
had kept upon his head up to that time.

M. de Maillefort, turning to Herminie, his face beaming as if a heavy
weight had been lifted from his heart, took her by the hand as a father
might have done, and said:

"I believe you, I believe you, my dear child! Do not stoop to justify
yourself. Your tears, and the evident sincerity of your words, as well
as your just indignation, all satisfy me that you are speaking the
truth, and that this insulting liberty was taken without your knowledge
or consent."

"I am certainly willing to say this much," said M. Bouffard, "though
I've been in the habit of coming to the house almost every day, I never
saw this young man before. But why do you feel so badly about it, my
dear young lady? Your rent is paid, and you may as well make the best of
it. There are plenty of other people who would like to be humiliated in
the same way. Ha, ha, ha!" added M. Bouffard, with his coarse laugh.

"But you will not keep this money, monsieur?" cried Herminie. "I beg you
will not; sell my piano,--my bed,--anything I possess, but in pity
return this money to the person who gave it to you. If you keep it, the
shame is mine, monsieur!"

"How you do go on!" exclaimed M. Bouffard. "I didn't feel insulted in
the least in pocketing my rent. A bird in the hand is worth two in the
bush, you know. Besides, where am I likely to find this handsome young
man to return him his money? He is a stranger to me. I haven't the
slightest idea who he is or where he came from; but it can easily be
arranged. When you see the fellow you can tell him that it was against
your wishes that I kept his money, but that I am a regular old Shylock
and all that. Put all the blame on me, I don't mind; I've got a thick
hide."

"Mademoiselle," said M. de Maillefort, addressing Herminie, who, with
her face buried in her hands, was silently weeping, "will you consent to
take my advice?"

"What would you have me do, monsieur?"

"Accept from me, who am old enough to be your father,--from me, who was
the devoted friend of a person for whom you had as much respect as
affection,--accept from me a loan sufficient to pay this gentleman. Each
month you can pay me in small instalments. As for the money monsieur has
already received, why, he must do his best to find the stranger who gave
it to him. If he fails, he must give the money to some local charity."

Herminie listened to this proposal with the liveliest gratitude.

"Oh, thank you, thank you, M. le marquis," she exclaimed. "I accept your
kind offer gladly, and am proud to be under obligations to you."

"But I utterly refuse to be a party to any such arrangement," exclaimed
M. Bouffard.

"And why, monsieur?" demanded the marquis.

"I will not,--I will not, I tell you. It sha'n't be said that--in short,
I'm not such a monster that--but no matter, let it be understood, once
for all, that the marquis is to keep his money. I'll try to find that
young coxcomb; if I don't, I'll drop his money in the poor-box. I won't
sell your piano, mademoiselle, but I'll be paid, all the same. What do
you say to that?"

"Have the goodness to explain, monsieur, if you please," said the
marquis.

"Well, this is the long and short of it," answered M. Bouffard. "My
daughter Cornelia has a music teacher, quite a famous teacher, I
believe,--a M. Tonnerriliuskoff--"

"With such a name one ought certainly to make a noise in the world,"
said the marquis.

"And on the piano, too, M. le marquis. He's a six-footer, with a big,
black moustache, and hands as big as--as shoulders of mutton. But this
famous teacher costs like the devil,--fifteen francs a lesson, to say
nothing of the repairs to the piano, which he almost hammers to pieces,
he is so strong. Now if mademoiselle here would give Cornelia lessons at
five--no, say four francs a lesson, and three lessons a week,--that
would make twelve francs a week,--she could soon pay me what she owes
me, and afterwards could pay her entire rent that way."

"Bravo, M. Bouffard!" cried the marquis.

"Well, what do you think of my proposition, mademoiselle?"

"I accept it most gratefully, and thank you with all my heart for this
chance to free myself of my obligations to you in such an easy way. I
assure you that I will do everything possible to further your daughter's
progress."

"Oh, that will be all right, I'm sure. It is understood, is it? Three
lessons a week, at four francs a lesson, beginning day after to-morrow.
That will be twelve francs a week,--better call it ten, I guess,--it's
easier to calculate. Ten francs a week makes forty francs a
month,--quite a snug little sum."

"Any terms you choose to name will suit me, monsieur. I accept them
gratefully."

"Ah, well, my dear sir," said the marquis, turning to M. Bouffard,
"aren't you much better satisfied with yourself now than you were awhile
ago, when you were frightening this poor child nearly to death by your
threats?"

"That's a fact, monsieur,--that's a fact, for this young lady is
certainly deserving. Then, too, I shall get rid of that odious music
master, with his big, black moustache and fifteen franc lessons.
Besides, he is always having his big hands on Cornelia's hands to show
her the fingering, he says, and I don't like it."

"My dear M. Bouffard," said the marquis, taking the ex-grocer a little
aside, "will you allow me to give you a word of advice?"

"Why certainly, M. le marquis."

"Never give masters to a young girl or a young woman, because sometimes,
you see, there is a change of rôles."

"A change of rôles, M. le marquis?" repeated M. Bouffard, wonderingly.

"Yes; not unfrequently the scholar becomes the mistress,--the mistress
of the master. Understand?"

"The mistress of the master? Oh, yes, very good! I understand perfectly.
That is good; very good, indeed! Ha, ha, ha!"

Then, suddenly becoming serious, he added:

"But now I think of it, if that Hercule de Tonnerriliuskoff
undertakes--"

"Mlle. Bouffard's virtue must be above suspicion, my dear sir; still, it
might be safer--"

"The brigand shall never set foot in my house again. Thanks for your
counsel, M. le marquis."

Then, returning to Herminie, M. Bouffard added:

"So we will begin day after to-morrow at two o'clock; that is Cornelia's
hour."

"At two o'clock, then. I will be punctual, I promise you."

"And at ten francs a week?"

"Yes, monsieur, and even less, if you say so."

"Would you come for eight?"

"Yes," answered Herminie, smiling, in spite of herself.

"We'll say eight francs, then."

"Come, come, M. Bouffard, a wealthy real estate owner like you shouldn't
stoop to any such haggling," the marquis interposed. "What! an
elector,--perhaps even an officer in the National Guard,--for you seem
to me quite equal to such a position--"

M. Bouffard straightened himself up proudly, and, making a military
salute, responded:

"A second lieutenant in the first company of the second regiment of the
first batallion, M. le marquis."

"All the more reason that you should uphold the dignity of your rank,
dear M. Bouffard," replied M. de Maillefort.

"That is true, M. le marquis. I said ten francs, and ten francs it shall
be. I always honour my signature. I will go and try to find that young
coxcomb. He may be hanging around somewhere outside the house now. I'll
ask Mother Moufflon, the portress, if she knows anything about him, and
tell her to watch out for him. Your servant, M. le marquis. I'll see you
again, day after to-morrow, mademoiselle."

Then, turning again, just as he reached the door, he said to Herminie:

"Mademoiselle, an idea has just occurred to me. You see I'd like to
convince the marquis here that Bouffard is not such a bad fellow, after
all."

"Let us hear the idea, M. Bouffard," said the hunchback.

"You see that little garden out there, M. le marquis?"

"Yes."

"It belongs to the large apartment on this floor. Ah, well, I intend to
allow mademoiselle the use of this garden--until the other apartment is
rented, at least."

"Do you really?" cried Herminie, overjoyed. "Oh, I thank you so much.
What pleasure it will give me to walk about in that pretty garden!"

But M. Bouffard had already fled, as if his natural modesty forbade his
listening to the protestations of gratitude such a generous offer must
inspire.

[Illustration: "'I Will Go and Try To Find That Young Coxcomb'"]

"One has no idea what it costs such people as that to be generous
and obliging," remarked the hunchback, laughing.

Then becoming serious again, he said: "My dear child, what I have just
seen and heard gives me such a clear understanding of the nobility of
your heart and the firmness of your character, that I realise the
futility of any renewed efforts in relation to the matter that brought
me here. If I am mistaken, if you are not Madame de Beaumesnil's
daughter, you will naturally persist in your denial; if, on the
contrary, I have divined the truth, you will still persist in denying
it, actuated, I am sure, by some secret but honourable motive. I shall
insist no further. One word more: I have been deeply touched by the
feeling that prompted you to defend Madame de Beaumesnil's memory
against suspicions which may be entirely without foundation. If you were
not so proud, I should tell you that your disinterestedness is all the
more noble from the fact that your situation is so precarious; and, by
the way, let me say right here that, though M. Bouffard has deprived me
of the pleasure of being of service to you this time, I want you to
promise me, my dear child, that in future you will apply only to me."

"And to whom else could I apply without humiliation, M. le marquis?"

"Thank you, my dear child, but no more, M. le marquis, I beg. In our
recent grave conversation I had no time to protest against this
ceremonious appellation; but now we are old friends, no more M. le
marquis, I beseech you. That is agreed, is it not?" asked the hunchback,
cordially offering his hand to the young girl, who pressed it gratefully
as she exclaimed:

"Ah, monsieur, such kindness and such generous confidence more than
consoles me for the humiliation I suffered in your presence."

"Dismiss that from your mind entirely, my dear child. The insult you
received only proves that the insolent stranger is as foolish as he is
coarse. It is doing him entirely too much honour to retain a lasting
remembrance of his offence."

"You are right, monsieur," replied Herminie, though she still blushed
deeply with wounded pride and indignation; "contempt, the most profound
contempt is all that such an insult merits."

"Undoubtedly; but, unfortunately, your loneliness and unprotected
condition are probably to a great extent accountable for this
unwarranted presumption on the part of a stranger, my poor child, so, as
you permit me to talk in all sincerity, why have you never thought of
boarding with some respectable elderly woman, instead of living alone?"

"I have thought of doing that more than once, but it is difficult to
find the right person--that is when one is as exigeante as I am," she
added, smiling.

"You admit that you are very _exigeante_, then?" asked the marquis, also
smiling.

"Really I cannot help it, it seems to me, monsieur; could I find such
surroundings as these in the home of a person whose means are as modest
as mine? Besides, I ought not to say it, perhaps, but I am so keenly
sensitive to certain faults of education and manner that I should
positively suffer at times. It is silly and ridiculous, I know, for lack
of breeding does not lessen the virtue and kindness of most of the
people of the class to which I belong, but to which my education has
rendered me somewhat superior. Still it is intensely repugnant to me,
and I consequently prefer to live alone, in spite of the many
inconveniences of such an isolated position. Another objection is that I
should be under an obligation to any person who would receive me into
her family, and I fear that I might be made to feel this obligation too
much."

"All this is very natural," said the hunchback, after a moment's
reflection. "It would scarcely be possible for one of your proud nature
to act or feel otherwise, and this pride, which I admire so much in you,
has been, and I am sure always will be, your best safeguard. But this
will not prevent me, with your permission, of course, from coming now
and then to see if I can serve you in any way."

"Can you doubt the pleasure, the very great pleasure it will give me to
see you?"

"I will not so wrong you as to doubt it, my dear child."

Seeing M. de Maillefort rise to take leave, Herminie felt strongly
tempted to make some inquiry concerning Ernestine de Beaumesnil, whom he
had probably seen ere this; but the young girl feared she might betray
herself and arouse M. de Maillefort's suspicions by speaking of her
sister.

"Farewell, my dear child," said the marquis, rising. "I came here in the
hope of finding a daughter to love and protect, and I shall not return
with an empty heart. And now again, farewell--and _au revoir_."

"And soon, I hope, M. le marquis," responded Herminie, with respectful
deference.

"Nonsense!" said the hunchback, smiling. "There is no marquis here, but
an old man who loves you,--yes, loves you with all his heart. Don't
forget that."

"Oh, I shall never forget it, monsieur."

"Good, that promise atones for everything. Once more au revoir, my
child."

And M. de Maillefort departed, still in doubt as to Herminie's identity,
and no less in doubt in regard to the best means of carrying out Madame
de Beaumesnil's last wishes.

The young girl, left alone, reflected long upon the incidents of the
day, which, after all, had proved a happy one for her, for by refusing a
gift which proved her mother's deep solicitude for her welfare, but
which might compromise that mother's memory, the young girl had gained
M. de Maillefort's warm friendship.

But the payment made to M. Bouffard by a stranger was a terrible blow to
Herminie's pride.

"I must seem despicable, indeed, in the eyes of a person who dared to
take such a liberty as that," the proud girl was saying to herself just
as there came a timid ring at the door.

Herminie opened it to find herself confronted by M. Bouffard and a
stranger.

This stranger was Gerald de Senneterre.



CHAPTER XXX.

AN APOLOGY ACCEPTED.


On seeing the Duc de Senneterre, who was an entire stranger to her,
Herminie coloured with surprise, and said to M. Bouffard, with much
embarrassment:

"I did not expect to have the pleasure of seeing you again so soon,
monsieur."

"No more did I, mademoiselle. No more did I! It was this gentleman who
forced me to return."

"But I do not know the gentleman," Herminie answered, more and more
astonished.

"No; I have not the honour of being known to you, mademoiselle," said
Gerald, with an expression of the deepest anxiety on his handsome
features, "and yet, I have come to ask a favour of you. I beseech you
not to refuse it."

Gerald's handsome face showed so much frankness, his emotion seemed so
sincere, his voice was so earnest, his manner so respectful, and his
appearance so elegant and _distingué_, that it never once occurred to
Herminie that this could be the stranger she was so bitterly
reproaching.

Besides, reassured by M. Bouffard's presence, and unable to imagine what
favour the stranger could have come to ask, the duchess, turning to her
landlord, said, timidly:

"Will you have the goodness to come in, monsieur?"

And as she spoke, she led the way into her own room.

The young duke had never seen a woman who compared with Herminie in
beauty, and this beauty alike of form and feature was greatly enhanced
by the dignified modesty of her demeanour.

But when Gerald followed the girl into her room and saw the countless
indications of refined habits and exquisite taste everywhere apparent,
he felt more and more confused, and in his profound embarrassment he
could not utter a word.

Amazed at the stranger's silence, Herminie turned inquiringly to M.
Bouffard, who said:

"It will be best to begin at the beginning, my dear young lady. I will
explain why this gentleman--"

"Allow me," said Gerald, interrupting M. Bouffard. Then, turning to
Herminie, he continued, with a charming mixture of frankness and
deference:

"I may as well confess that it is not a favour I have come to ask, but
forgiveness."

"Of me, monsieur--and why?" asked Herminie, ingenuously.

"My dear mademoiselle," said M. Bouffard, with a meaning gesture, "this
is the young man who paid me that money, you know. I met him just now,
and--"

"It was you, monsieur?" cried Herminie, superb in her indignation. And
looking Gerald full in the face, she repeated, witheringly:

"It was you?"

"Yes, mademoiselle, but listen, I beg of you."

"Enough, monsieur, enough!" said Herminie. "Such audacity seems
inconceivable! You have at least the courage to insult, monsieur," added
Herminie, with crushing contempt.

"But, mademoiselle, do not suppose for one moment--" pleaded Gerald.

"Monsieur," said the young girl, again interrupting him, but in a voice
that trembled violently, for she could feel tears of grief and
humiliation rising to her eyes, "I can only beg that you will leave my
house. I am a woman,--and I am alone."

These last words were uttered in such tones of intense sadness that
Gerald was moved to tears in spite of himself, and when the young girl
raised her head after a violent effort to conquer her emotion, she saw
two big tears gleaming in the eyes of the stranger, who, after bowing
low without a word, started towards the door.

But M. Bouffard, seizing Gerald by the arm, exclaimed:

"Why, stop a second! You surely are not going like that!"

And we must admit that M. Bouffard added mentally:

"And my little apartment on the third floor, am I to lose my chance of
renting that?"

"Monsieur," interposed Herminie, seeing her landlord attempt to detain
the offender; "monsieur, I must insist--"

"But, my dear young lady, you certainly ought to know why I brought this
young man here," exclaimed M. Bouffard. "You surely cannot suppose that
it was with the intention of annoying you. The fact is, I met the young
fellow near the _barrière_, and as soon as I laid eyes on him, I called
out, 'Ah, my generous youth, a nice scrape you got me into with your
yellow boys. Here they are; take them, and don't let me see any more of
them, if you please.' And then I told him how you had felt about the
service he had rendered you, and how you had cried and taken on, until
monsieur turned red, and then pale, and then green, and finally said to
me, apparently quite miserable about what I had told him, 'Ah, monsieur,
I have unintentionally insulted a person whose unprotected position
renders her all the more worthy of respect. I owe her an apology, and I
will make it in your presence, as you were my involuntary accomplice.
Come, monsieur, come.' Upon my word of honour, mademoiselle, these were
the very words the young man said to me, and somehow what he said
touched me. I can't imagine what is the matter with me to-day, I'm as
chicken-hearted as a woman. I thought he was right to want to come and
apologise to you, so I brought him along, or, rather, he brought me
along, for he took me by the arm and dragged me along at the
double-quick. In fact, I never walked so fast in my life."

The sincerity of the words was unmistakable, and as Herminie was endowed
with a keen sense of justice, and she had been not a little touched by
the tears she had seen glittering in Gerald's eyes, she said to the
stranger, in a tone which indicated a strong desire to end this painful
scene as soon as possible:

"In that case, monsieur, the offence of which I complain was
unintentional, and it was not to aggravate the offence that you returned
here. I believe this, monsieur, and this should satisfy you, I think."

"If you desire it, mademoiselle, I will leave at once without saying a
word in my own defence."

"Do have a little pity, my dear young lady," pleaded M. Bouffard. "You
have allowed me to speak, now listen to the gentleman."

Whereupon the Duc de Senneterre, taking Herminie's silence for an
assent, said:

"Mademoiselle, this is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the
truth. I was passing along the street, looking for lodgings, and
naturally paused in front of the house as I saw several notices of rooms
to rent. I asked permission to inspect the apartments, and going on in
advance of the portress, who promised to join me in a minute, I began to
ascend the stairs. As I reached the first landing my attention was
attracted by a timid, supplicating voice. This voice was yours,
mademoiselle, and you were pleading with this gentleman. I paused
involuntarily, not from any idle curiosity, but because I could not
listen to such a touching appeal unmoved. So I heard all, and my only
thought was that a woman was in trouble, and that I could save her,
without her even knowing it, so seeing a man come out of your room a few
minutes afterwards I called to him."

"Yes," continued M. Bouffard, "and said to me angrily, 'Here is money,
pay yourself, and cease to torment a woman, who is only too unhappy
already.' If I did not tell you this at first, my dear young lady, it
was only because I wanted to have my little joke, and afterwards I was
frightened to see how angry you were."

"That is my offence, mademoiselle," continued Gerald. "I yielded to a
thoughtless, though not ungenerous impulse, whose deplorable
consequences I did not foresee. I unfortunately forgot that the sacred
right to render certain services belongs only to tried and trusted
friends. I forgot, too, that, however spontaneous and disinterested
commiseration may be, it may nevertheless be a cruel insult under some
circumstances. When this gentleman told me of your just indignation,
mademoiselle, and told me the wrong I had unwittingly done you, I felt
it to be my duty as an honourable man to come and beg your pardon, and
tell you the simple truth. I had never had the honour of seeing you; I
did not even know your name, and I shall probably never see you again,
but I wish that I could convince you that I had not the slightest
intention of insulting you, and that I never realised the gravity of my
offence until now."

Gerald was speaking the truth, and his sincerity, emotion, and tact
convinced Herminie that such, indeed, was the case.

Another and entirely different idea also influenced the ingenuous girl,
or, rather, an apparently trivial but to her highly significant
circumstance, viz., that the stranger was seeking a modest lodging. This
convinced her that he was not rich, and that the generosity he had
manifested towards her must necessarily have been at the cost of no
little personal sacrifice.

These considerations, aided very considerably, perhaps,--and why not,
may we ask?--by the influence almost always exerted by a handsome,
frank, and expressive face, appeased Herminie's wrath wonderfully. In
fact, far from feeling the slightest indignation against Gerald now, she
was really touched by the generous impulse to which he had yielded, and
which he had just explained with such perfect frankness, and too honest
and ingenuous herself to conceal her thoughts, she said to Gerald, with
charming simplicity:

"My embarrassment is very great, monsieur, for I must reproach myself
for having entirely misinterpreted an act, the kindness of which I now
appreciate. I can only beg you to forget the intemperance of my first
remarks."

"Permit me to say, on the contrary, that I shall never forget them,
mademoiselle," replied Gerald, "for they will always remind me that
there is one attribute which should be respected above all others in a
woman,--her dignity."

And bowing deferentially to Herminie, Gerald turned to leave the room.

M. Bouffard had listened to the latter part of this conversation in
open-mouthed wonder, it being just about as intelligible to him as if it
had been carried on in Greek; but now checking Gerald, who had started
towards the door, the ex-grocer, evidently with the idea that he was
achieving a master-stroke, exclaimed:

"One moment, my good sir, one moment. As mademoiselle is no longer
offended with you, there is no reason why you shouldn't take those nice
little rooms on the third floor I was telling you about,--a small hall,
and two cozy rooms; one that will answer for a sitting-room, and the
other for a bedroom--just the thing for a bachelor."

On hearing this proposal, Herminie became very uneasy, for it would have
been decidedly unpleasant to see Gerald installed in the same house.

But the young duke promptly replied:

"I have already told you that the rooms would not suit me, my dear sir."

"Yes, because this young lady was offended with you, and it is very
unpleasant to be on bad terms with one's fellow tenants. But now this
young lady has forgiven you, there is no reason you shouldn't take those
nice rooms."

"I am even less inclined to take them now," replied Gerald, venturing a
glance at Herminie.

The young girl did not raise her eyes, but she blushed slightly, for she
appreciated the delicacy of Gerald's refusal.

"What!" exclaimed M. Bouffard, profoundly astonished; "now you have made
up with mademoiselle, you are less inclined to take them than ever? Is
it possible that you have noticed any objections to my house since you
came back?"

"It is not precisely that which deprives me of the pleasure of taking up
my abode under your roof, my dear sir, but--"

"Come, I'll let you have those rooms for two hundred and fifty francs,
with a small cellar thrown in, if you want it."

"Impossible, my dear sir, impossible."

"Call it two hundred and forty, then, and say no more about it."

"I am obliged to call your attention to the fact that mademoiselle's
room is not the place for this haggling, monsieur."

Then turning to Herminie and bowing profoundly, the young duke said:

"Believe me, mademoiselle, I shall always retain a most delightful
recollection of this first and last interview."

The girl bowed graciously, but without raising her eyes, and Gerald
departed, resolutely pursued by M. Bouffard, who seemed determined not
to lose his prey.

But Gerald remained obdurate in spite of the landlord's tempting offers.
The ex-grocer persisted in his efforts, so Gerald, to get rid of him,
and perhaps also to have an opportunity to think over his meeting with
Herminie, quickened his pace and told the landlord that he intended to
extend his walk as far as the fortifications. So he started off, leaving
M. Bouffard in despair at having missed this fine opportunity to rent
those charming third story rooms.

A road leading to the fortifications intersected the Rue de Monceau near
this point. Gerald took it, and then strolled slowly along, absorbed in
a profound reverie.

Herminie's rare beauty, as well as her dignity and refinement of manner
had made a deep impression on the young duke, and the more he said to
himself that he had, of course, seen this charming creature for the
first and last time, the more he rebelled against the thought.

Besides, upon analysing or rather comparing his former fancies with his
sudden but deep interest in Herminie, and discovering nothing like it in
the past, Gerald asked himself, with no little uneasiness:

"What if I should be really caught this time?"

He had just asked himself this question when he was met by an officer of
engineers wearing an army redingote without epaulettes, and a big straw
hat.

"Why, it's Senneterre!" exclaimed this officer.

The young duke looked up and recognised Captain Comtois, one of his
former comrades in the African army.

"How are you, my dear Comtois?" he exclaimed, cordially offering his
hand. "I did not expect to see you here, though you are quite in your
native element, I must admit," he added, with a glance at the
fortifications.

"Yes, my dear fellow, we're making the earth fly and the work is
advancing rapidly. I am general-in-chief of that army of labourers and
masons you see over there. In Africa, we tore down walls; here, we build
them up. Did you come over to look at the works? If you did, I'll show
you about."

"A thousand thanks for your kind offer, my dear Comtois, I'll remind you
of your promise some day soon."

"Very well, come and take breakfast with me any morning you like. I am
living in camp over there. It will remind you of old times; you'll think
you're in a Bedouin camp again. Oh, by the way, you remember Clarville,
that young lieutenant of _spahis_ who resigned in order that he might
have the satisfaction of fighting Colonel Duval a year afterwards?"

"Clarville? Yes, a brave fellow--I remember him perfectly."

"Well, after he resigned, he had very little to live on, and the failure
of some bank swept away the little that he had. In fact, if I hadn't
happened to come across him, I believe he would have starved.
Fortunately, I was able to take him on as overseer, and that pays him a
little something."

"Poor fellow! it was a lucky thing for him, though."

"I should think so, particularly as he is married,--a love-match,--that
is to say, the girl hadn't a penny, and there are two little children in
the bargain, so you can judge of his situation. He manages to make both
ends meet, but that is all. I have been to see him. He lives in a side
street at the end of the Rue de Monceau."

"At the end of the Rue de Monceau?" asked Gerald, hastily. "I, too, must
go and see him."

"He would be delighted, my dear Senneterre, for when misfortunes come,
one's visitors are rare."

"What is the number of the house?"

"It is the only house on the street,--a little bit of a house. The
devil! There's the second bell. I must leave you, my dear Senneterre,
and get my men together. Good-bye; don't forget your promise."

"No, certainly not."

"And I may tell Clarville you're coming to see him?"

"Yes, day after to-morrow."

"It will please him very much; good-bye."

"Good-bye, my dear fellow."

"Don't forget Clarville's address."

"I am not very likely to," thought Gerald. "The street where he lives
must skirt the end of the garden of the house where I just saw that
adorable girl."

So, while the captain rushed off towards a group of wooden shanties in
the distance, Gerald strolled along, a prey to a sort of feverish
agitation.

The sun was low in the horizon when he awoke from his reverie.

"I don't know what will come of all this," he said to himself, "but this
time, and it is the only time, I feel that I'm gone, absolutely gone,
this time!"



CHAPTER XXXI.

THE PRIVATE STAIRWAY.


In spite of the deep and novel impression made upon Gerald by his
interview with Herminie, he had met Ernestine de Beaumesnil; for, in
accordance with the plans of the Rochaiguës, the richest heiress in
France had directly or indirectly made the acquaintance of the three
aspirants for her hand.

A month had passed since these different presentations, and since the
first interview between Gerald and Herminie, an interview whose
consequences will become apparent later on.

The clock had just struck eleven, and Mlle. de Beaumesnil was sitting
alone in her chamber, deeply absorbed in thought. Her girlish face had
lost none of its sweetness and candour, though a rather sarcastic, and
sometimes almost mournful, smile occasionally flitted across her lips,
and one sometimes noticed a resolute expression, which contrasted
strangely with the almost childish ingenuousness of her features.

Suddenly Mlle. de Beaumesnil rose, walked to the mantel, and placed her
hand on the bell rope; then she paused a moment as if undecided in
relation to some important matter.

At last, as if her mind was fully made up, she rang, and almost
immediately Madame Laîné, her governess, entered, with an eager, almost
obsequious, air.

"Does mademoiselle desire anything?" she asked.

"Sit down, my dear Laîné."

"Mademoiselle is too kind."

"Sit down, I beg. There is something I wish to say to you."

"Only to obey mademoiselle," said the governess, much surprised at this
familiarity on the part of her young mistress, who had always treated
her heretofore with marked reserve.

"My dear Laîné," said Mlle. de Beaumesnil, in an almost affectionate
tone, "you have often told me that I could count upon your attachment."

"Oh, yes, mademoiselle."

"And upon your devotion as well?"

"In life and in death, mademoiselle."

"And also upon your discretion?"

"I only ask that mademoiselle will put me to the test, then she can
judge," replied the governess, more and more delighted with this truly
promising beginning.

"Very well, I am about to put you to the test."

"How rejoiced I am at such a mark of confidence on mademoiselle's part!"

"Yes, a mark of great confidence, of which I hope you will be found
deserving."

"I swear to mademoiselle that--"

"Oh, I believe you," said Ernestine, interrupting these protestations on
the part of her governess; "but tell me, nearly a week ago you asked me
to give you to-morrow evening, in order that you might attend a small
reunion which takes place every Sunday night at the house of one of your
friends named--What is the name? I have forgotten it."

"Her name is Madame Herbaut, mademoiselle. This friend of mine has two
daughters, and every Sunday she invites a few people of their age to her
house. I think I said as much to mademoiselle when I asked her
permission to attend the entertainment."

"And who are these young people?"

"The young girls who visit Madame Herbaut are mostly shop-girls, or
young women who give music and drawing lessons. There are also several
bookkeepers among them. As for the men, they are, for the most part,
shop-keepers, or musicians, or lawyer's clerks,--all very respectable
young men, I assure you, for Madame Herbaut is very particular about the
people she invites, and very naturally, as she has daughters to marry
off, and between you and me, mademoiselle, it is to establish them in
life that she gives these little reunions."

"My dear Laîné," said Ernestine, as if it were the most natural thing in
the world, "I want to attend one of these reunions at Madame Herbaut's."

"Mademoiselle!" exclaimed the governess, thinking her ears must have
deceived her, "what did mademoiselle say?"

"I said I wished to attend one of Madame Herbaut's
entertainments,--to-morrow evening, for instance."

"Good heavens! Is mademoiselle really in earnest?"

"Decidedly so."

"What, you, mademoiselle, go to the house of such a very humble person!
Impossible! Mademoiselle cannot even be thinking of such a thing?"

"Impossible, and why, my good Laîné?"

"Why, the baron and baroness would never give their consent."

"So I do not intend to ask it."

"But mademoiselle would not go to Madame Herbaut's without consulting
the baron!" cried the governess.

"Certainly."

"But how could you, mademoiselle?"

"My dear Laîné, you told me a minute ago that I could count upon you."

"And I repeat it, mademoiselle."

"Very well, then, you must take me to Madame Herbaut's to-morrow
evening."

"I, mademoiselle? Really, I don't know whether I am awake or only
dreaming."

"You are not dreaming, so to-morrow evening you will introduce me to
Madame Herbaut as one of your relatives, an orphan."

"One of my relatives! Great Heavens! I should never dare!"

"Let me finish, please. You will introduce me, I say, as one of your
relatives, recently arrived from the country, who earns her living
as--as an embroiderer, for example. But, remember this, if you are
guilty of the slightest indiscretion or blunder, and so cause any one to
suspect that I am not what I wish to appear, that is to say, an orphan
who supports herself by her own exertions, you will not remain another
minute in my service, while if you follow my instructions carefully you
may expect anything from me."

"Really, mademoiselle, you surprised me so I cannot seem to get over it.
But why does mademoiselle wish me to introduce her to Madame Herbaut as
a relative of mine and an orphan?"

"Don't ask me any more questions, Laîné. Can I depend upon you, yes or
no?"

"Yes, mademoiselle, in life and in death. But--"

"No 'buts,' if you please, and now one word more, and the last. You
know, of course," added the young girl, with a strangely bitter smile,
"that I am the richest heiress in France."

"Certainly, mademoiselle, everybody knows that, and says that there is
no other fortune in the country nearly as large as mademoiselle's."

"Ah, well, if you will do what I ask, and, above all, if you will be
discreet, thoroughly discreet, understand,--I insist upon that, for it
is absolutely necessary that Madame Herbaut should believe me what I
mean to appear, a poor orphan supporting herself by her own
exertions,--in short, if, thanks to your cleverness and discretion,
everything passes off as I wish, you shall see how the richest heiress
in France pays a debt of gratitude."

"What you say pains me deeply, mademoiselle," exclaimed the governess,
with a gesture of superb disinterestedness. "Can mademoiselle suppose
that I wish to set a price on my devotion?"

"No, but I deem it only right to set a price on my gratitude."

"Good Heavens! Mademoiselle, you know very well that if you should
become as poor as I am I should be just as devoted to you."

"I do not doubt that in the least, but until I become poor, do what I
ask. Take me to Madame Herbaut's to-morrow evening."

"But if you will talk the matter over a little you will see how
impossible your plan is."

"And why?"

"In the first place, how can you arrange to have the disposal of your
evening? The baron and baroness and Mlle. Helena never leave you."

"Oh, I can manage that very easily. To-morrow morning I will say that I
passed a very uncomfortable night, and that I am not feeling at all
well. I will remain in my room all day, and to-morrow evening you will
go to the family and tell them that I am asleep and don't wish to be
disturbed by anybody. My guardian and his family respect my slightest
wish so abjectly that they will not dare to disturb my slumbers," added
Mlle. de Beaumesnil, with mingled sadness and disdain.

"Oh, mademoiselle is perfectly right about that. No one would dare to
contradict or oppose mademoiselle in anything. If mademoiselle should
tell M. le baron to stand on his head, he would do it without a word."

"Oh, yes, they are certainly the most considerate of relatives, so full
of tenderness and dignity," replied Ernestine, with a rather peculiar
expression. "Ah, well, you see, then, that it will be an easy matter
for me to secure an evening to myself."

"Yes, mademoiselle, but how shall we manage to get out of the house?"

"Get out of the house?"

"Yes. I mean without meeting any one on the stairway, or being seen by
the concierge."

"That is your lookout. I depend upon you to devise a means of doing
that."

"Oh, it is very easy to say devise a means, mademoiselle, but--"

"I foresaw this difficulty, of course, but I said to myself, 'My dear
Laîné is very clever. She will assist me in this.'"

"Heaven knows I would be only too glad to, mademoiselle, but I really do
not see--"

"Put on your thinking-cap. I have never used any but the main stairway,
but are there no servants' stairways leading from my apartments?"

"Of course, mademoiselle. There are two such staircases, but you would
run a great risk of meeting the servants if you used either of them;
that is," added the governess, thoughtfully,--"that is unless you should
choose the time that they are at dinner, about eight o'clock, for
example."

"Your idea is an admirable one."

"Mademoiselle should not rejoice too soon."

"Why?"

"Mademoiselle will still have to pass the porter's lodge, and he is a
regular Cerberus, for ever on the watch."

"That is true, we shall have to think of some other way."

"I am trying, mademoiselle, but it's no easy matter, I assure you."

"But not impossible, it seems to me."

"Ah, I have an idea, mademoiselle!" exclaimed the governess, suddenly,
after reflecting a moment.

"Let me hear it."

"Excuse me, mademoiselle, but I'm not sure that it is at all feasible
yet. Let me go and see. I'll be back in a moment."

And the governess darted out of the room. The orphan was left alone.

"I was right," she murmured, with an expression of bitter disgust. "This
woman has a base and mercenary nature, like so many others, but these
very failings will ensure me her submission, and, above all, her
discretion."

In a few minutes the governess returned, radiant.

"Victory, mademoiselle!" she exclaimed, rapturously.

"Explain, if you please."

"Mademoiselle is aware that her dressing-room opens into my bedroom."

"Yes."

"And adjoining my chamber there is a large room containing the wardrobes
for mademoiselle's dresses."

"Well?"

"There is a door in this room which opens upon a narrow staircase to
which I never paid any attention before."

"And where does this staircase lead?"

"It leads down to a small door which has been closed up, but which
opens, as nearly as I can judge, upon the side street."

"This door opens upon the street?" cried Mlle. de Beaumesnil, quickly.

"Yes, mademoiselle, and this is not at all surprising. In many of the
large houses in this neighbourhood there are small private stairways
leading up to the sleeping apartments, because in former times the
ladies of the court--"

"The ladies of the court?" inquired Ernestine, so naïvely that Madame
Laîné's eyes fell before the girl's innocent gaze.

So, fearing that she was going too far, and that she might imperil her
recently acquired intimacy with her pupil, Madame Laîné said:

"I don't care to fill mademoiselle's ears with a lot of servants'
gossip."

"And you are right. But if this door which leads into the street is
condemned, how shall we open it?"

"It is bolted and nailed up on the inside--but mademoiselle needn't
worry. I have all night before me, and to-morrow morning I hope to have
a good report to make to mademoiselle."

"Very well If you think it necessary, inform your friend, Madame
Herbaut, in advance that you will bring a relative with you to-morrow
evening."

"I will do so, though it isn't at all necessary. Mademoiselle, if she
accompanies me, will be as cordially received as I am. There is very
little ceremony among people of that class."

"Very well, it is understood, then. But I repeat once more that I shall
expect the utmost caution on your part. Your reward depends upon that."

"Mademoiselle can punish me in any way she pleases if I break my word."

"I would much rather reward you. See what you can do about that door
now, and let me hear early to-morrow morning."

"But really, mademoiselle, all this is very extraordinary!"

"What do you mean?"

"I refer to mademoiselle's desire to go to Madame Herbaut's. It seems to
me such a strange idea on mademoiselle's part. But I feel no
uneasiness," added the governess, with a complacent air. "I know
mademoiselle too well to suppose for one moment that she would involve a
poor woman like myself in any trouble, and though I do not presume to
question mademoiselle, may I not--as I, of course, must not speak of
this matter to any one else--may I not know why, mademoiselle--"

"Good-night, my dear Laîné," said mademoiselle, rising, and thus putting
an end to the conversation. "Let me know the results of your researches
early to-morrow morning."

Delighted to have a secret between her pupil and herself at last, a
secret which she regarded as convincing proof of a confidence which
would ensure her a modest fortune, at least, Madame Laîné discreetly
withdrew, leaving Mlle. de Beaumesnil again alone.

After a few moments of reflection the orphan unlocked her desk, and,
opening the journal dedicated to her mother, began to write hurriedly,
even impetuously.



CHAPTER XXXII.

UNBURDENING THE HEART.


"The resolve I have just made, my dear mother," wrote Ernestine, "is a
dangerous one; I fear I did wrong to make it, but to whom can I turn for
advice?

"To you, my dearest mother, I know, but it was while invoking your aid
and protection that this idea occurred to me, and I feel that I must
solve, at any cost, the doubts that so torment me.

"During the last few days many revelations have been made to me, some of
such a sad and depressing nature that they seem to have upset me
entirely, and it is with great difficulty, even now, that I can compose
myself sufficiently to lay my heart bare to you, my kind and tender
mother.

"For some time after my arrival in this house, I could speak only in
terms of the highest praise of my guardian and his family, though
sometimes in my secret heart I did censure them a little for the
inordinate amount of flattery and attention they lavished upon me.

"This attention and these flatteries have not ceased; they have rather
increased, if that were possible.

"My mental attributes, my character, and even my slightest word and act
are praised in the most exaggerated way. As for my figure, my bearing,
my personal appearance, and my every movement, they are all equally
graceful, enchanting, divine,--in short, there is not a more attractive
person in the world than I am.

"Saintly Mlle. Helena, who was never known to utter an untruth, assures
me that I look like a madonna.

"Madame de la Rochaiguë says, with what she terms really brutal
frankness, that I am endowed with such rare distinction and elegance of
manner, as well as so many charms of person, that I am sure to become
the most admired woman in Paris some day, in spite of myself.

"And last, but not least, according to my guardian, a serious-minded and
extremely thoughtful man, the beauty of my features and the dignity of
my bearing give me a striking resemblance to the beautiful Duchesse de
Longueville, so famous under the Fronde.

"And when one day, in my artlessness, I expressed astonishment at my
resembling so many persons at the same time, do you know, my dearest
mother, what the answer was?

"'It is very simple. In you, mademoiselle, the most diverse charms are
united, so, in you, each person finds the attraction he prefers.'

"And these flatteries pursue me everywhere. If the hair-dresser comes to
arrange my hair, never before in his life did he see such superb
tresses.

"If I am taken to the milliner's,'What is the use of selecting any
particular shape?' says that lady. 'With a face like mademoiselle's any
style is equally charming and becoming.'

"The dressmaker declares that my figure is so wonderfully elegant that,
dressed in a loosely fitting sack, I should drive the ladies most famed
for their perfection of form wild with envy.

"It is the same with the shoemaker, who declares that he will have to
make a special last for me, never having worked for the possessor of so
small a foot as mine.

"The glovemaker outdoes him even, by declaring that I have the hand of a
dwarf.

"So you see, my dear mother, I may almost consider myself a phenomenon,
fit for a museum.

"Oh, mother, mother, it was not in this way that you spoke when, taking
my face in your two hands, and kissing me on the forehead, you said:

"'My poor Ernestine, you are not beautiful, or even pretty, but the
candour and sweetness of your disposition are so plainly written on your
expressive face that I do not regret your lack of beauty.'

"And these words of praise, the only ones, I believe, that you ever gave
me, I believed, and they made me very happy.

"But alas! the daughter you so fondly loved, has she remained worthy of
you? I do not know. I am not sure.

"Then I knew nothing of doubts, suspicion, and mockery! And for several
days past cruel presentiments have taken such a hold on me that I am as
much astonished as alarmed.

"There must be something terribly insidious in the effects of flattery,
for--to you I must confess all--though I have often thought the praises
lavished upon me must be exaggerated, I wondered why it should be that
so many different people should be so unanimous in praising everything I
said and did.

"Nor is this all.

"The other day Madame de la Rochaiguë took me to a concert. I soon
perceived that everybody was looking at me. A number of persons even
passed and repassed me several times, to examine me more closely, I
suppose, though I was very simply dressed. Even when I come out of
church I notice that every one stares at me. I mention the fact, and my
guardian and his family say: 'Yes, you are right. Everybody does stare
at you. See what a sensation you create everywhere!'

"And, in the face of this evidence, what can I say? Nothing.

"I must admit that all this flattery was becoming very pleasant to me.
It surprised me less and less, and though it sometimes occurred to me
how grossly exaggerated it was, I promptly silenced any misgivings on
the subject, by saying to myself:

"'But if this is not true, why is the sensation I create--as my guardian
says--so general?'

"Alas! I was soon to learn.

"This is what occurred:

"A gentleman of whom I have never dared to speak until now, has called
at my guardian's house several times. This gentleman is M. le Marquis de
Maillefort. He is deformed; he has a sardonic air, and he is always
uttering the most sarcastic remarks or ironical compliments that sting
worse than his sarcasms.

"On account of the antipathy he inspired in me, I usually found some
excuse for leaving the drawing-room soon after his arrival, and I was
encouraged in this by the persons around me, for they both feared and
hated M. de Maillefort, though they always greeted him with pretended
affability.

"Three days ago he was ushered into the room where I happened to be
sitting alone with Mlle. Helena. To leave the room at once would have
been too discourteous, so I remained, hoping to be able to make my
escape in a few minutes.

"This short conversation then ensued between M. de Maillefort and Mlle.
Helena. Alas! I have not forgotten a word of it.

"'Ah, good evening, my dear Mlle. Helena,' the marquis began, with his
most sarcastic air. 'I am delighted to find Mlle. de Beaumesnil with
you. She will derive such benefit from your pious conversation. She must
profit so much by your excellent counsels, as well as by those of your
worthy brother and your no less excellent sister-in-law!'

"'We hope so, indeed, M. le marquis, for we feel that we have a sacred
duty to fulfil towards Mlle. de Beaumesnil.'

"'Unquestionably,' replied M. de Maillefort, in more and more sarcastic
tones, 'a sacred duty to which you and yours will sedulously devote
yourselves. Are you not continually repeating to Mlle. de Beaumesnil:
"You are the richest heiress in France, and being that, you are
necessarily the most accomplished and wonderfully gifted person in the
world?"'

"'But, monsieur,' exclaimed Mlle. Helena, interrupting him, 'what you
say--'

"'I leave it to Mlle. de Beaumesnil herself,' retorted the marquis. 'If
she speaks the truth, will she not be obliged to admit that a continual
chorus of praise is resounding around her, magnificently sustained by
our dear baron, his wife, and you, Mlle. Helena,--a delightful chorus in
which you all three sustain your parts with wonderful skill, with
touching self-abnegation and sublime disinterestedness? All rôles are
alike to you. To-day, as leaders of the choir, you give the keynote to a
crowd of Mlle. de Beaumesnil's admirers; to-morrow, brilliant soloists,
you will improvise hymns of praise which will reveal the extent of your
resources, the flexibility of your art, and, above all, the adorable
sincerity of your noble hearts.'

"'I suppose, then, monsieur,' said Mlle. Helena, colouring, doubtless,
with anger, 'I suppose, then, that I am to infer that our dear ward has
none of the admirable traits and personal charms which are so generally
conceded to her.'

"'Because she is the richest heiress in France,' replied M. de
Maillefort, with an ironical bow to me; 'and in this character Mlle. de
Beaumesnil has a right to the most outrageous as well as the most
insulting flattery,--insulting, because it is so manifestly untrue, and
dictated solely by baseness and cupidity.'

"I rose, and left the room, scarcely able to keep back the tears.

       *       *       *       *       *

"I cannot forget his words, mother. They are continually ringing in my
ears.

"M. de Maillefort's remarks were a revelation to me. My eyes were
opened. I understand everything now.

"The praises of every sort and kind, the attentions and protestations of
affection lavished upon me, the sensation I always create at
entertainments, even the flattering remarks of my tradespeople, are all
addressed to the richest heiress in France.

"Ah, mother, it was not without cause that I wrote you of the strange
and unpleasant effect it produced upon me when, the day after my arrival
in this house, I was so pompously informed that I was the mistress of a
colossal fortune.

"'It seems to me,' I said to you then,'that I am in the situation of a
person who possesses a valuable treasure, and fears that it may be
stolen from him at any moment.'

"I understand this feeling now.

"It was the vague presentiment of this fear and distrust which has
pursued me so relentlessly since the truth was thus harshly revealed to
me.

"The praise bestowed upon me, the protestations of attachment made to
me, are due solely to my wealth.

"Yes, mother, M. de Maillefort's spiteful remarks have really been
productive of a great deal of good, though they did cause me so much
pain, for they have enlightened me in regard to the incomprehensible but
increasing dislike my guardian and his family were inspiring in my
heart.

"This revelation at last explains the obsequiousness and servility which
surround me on every side.

"And now, my dearly beloved mother, my confession becomes a painful one,
even when made to thee. It may be because this atmosphere of deceit and
adulation in which I am living has already contaminated me, or, perhaps,
because I shrink in such dismay from the thought that all this praise
and all these demonstrations of affection are due solely to my wealth,
but I can scarcely credit so much baseness and deceitfulness, nor can I
quite believe that I am so utterly unattractive, or that I am wholly
incapable of inspiring any sincere and disinterested affection.

"And you see, my dearest mother, I no longer know what to think, not
only of other people, but of myself. These doubts, this continual
suspicion and distrust, are intolerable. I try in vain to devise some
means of discovering the truth. From whom can I expect an honest reply?

"Nor is this all. Several recent events have rendered my situation still
more trying.

"You shall judge of it.

"M. de Maillefort's sarcastic allusions in regard to the perfections
which I must necessarily possess in my character of heiress have
doubtless been repeated to my guardian and his wife by Mlle. Helena, or
else some other event, of which I am ignorant, has induced those around
me to disclose projects of which I had no previous knowledge or even
suspicion, and which have increased my distrust and uneasiness a
thousandfold."

Mademoiselle was here interrupted in her writing by two cautious raps at
her door.

Surprised and almost terrified, as in her preoccupation she had
forgotten the subject of her late conversation with her governess, the
orphan asked, in trembling tones:

"Who is it?"

"I, mademoiselle," replied Madame Laîné's voice.

"Come in," said Ernestine, remembering now.

"What is the matter?" she asked, as her governess entered.

"I have some good news for mademoiselle. My hands are all bloody, you
see, but that doesn't matter."

"I see," cried Ernestine, greatly alarmed. "What has happened? How did
you hurt yourself so? Here, take this handkerchief and stanch the
blood."

"Oh, it's but a mere scratch, mademoiselle," replied the governess,
heroically. "In your service, I would brave death itself."

This exaggeration cooled Mlle. de Beaumesnil's compassion very
considerably, and she replied:

"I believe in your courageous devotion, of course, but pray bind up your
hand."

"If mademoiselle desires it, of course, but this scratch is of no
consequence, for the door is open, mademoiselle. I succeeded in prying
out the staples of the padlock, and in removing an iron bar that also
secured the door, which opens into the street exactly as I supposed."

"You may be sure that I shall reward you, my dear Laîné, for this--"

"Oh, do not speak of rewarding me, I implore you, mademoiselle. Am I not
more than paid in the pleasure of serving you? But mademoiselle will
excuse me, I hope, for coming back contrary to her orders, but I was so
delighted to have succeeded."

"On the contrary I am very grateful for the zeal you have manifested. So
you think we can count upon carrying out our plans to-morrow?"

"There isn't the slightest doubt of that, now, mademoiselle."

"Then have a very simple white dress ready for me to wear to-morrow
evening, and as soon as it is dark you and I will go to Madame
Herbaut's. And once more let me remind you that I shall expect you to
exercise the greatest caution."

"Mademoiselle need have no anxiety on that account. Has mademoiselle any
further orders?"

"No, I only desire to thank you again for your zeal."

"Then I will bid mademoiselle good night."

"Good night, my dear Laîné."

The governess left the room and Mlle. de Beaumesnil resumed her
writing.



CHAPTER XXXIII.

THE THREE RIVALS.


"In order to fully understand these recent events, it is necessary to
review the past, my dear mother," Mlle. de Beaumesnil continued.

"The day after my arrival at my guardian's house I went to church with
Mlle. Helena, who during mass called my attention to a young man who was
praying fervently before the same altar.

"This young man I afterwards learned was a M. Célestin de Macreuse.

"Mlle. Helena's attention had been attracted to him, she told me,
because, instead of kneeling upon a chair like every one else, he was
kneeling upon the marble floor of the church. It must have been for his
mother, too, that he was praying, for we afterwards heard him ask the
priest who took up the collection in our part of the church for another
novena of masses in the same chapel for the repose of his mother's soul.

"As we were coming out of church, M. de Macreuse offered us the holy
water with a bow, for he had preceded us to the font. A moment
afterwards, we saw him distributing alms among a number of beggars who
had crowded around him, saying in a faltering voice: 'The little I can
give, I offer you in the name of my mother who is no more. Pray for
her.'

"Just as M. de Macreuse was disappearing in the crowd I perceived M. de
Maillefort. Whether he was just entering or leaving the church I can
not say; but Mlle. Helena, who caught sight of him just as I did, seemed
surprised and even disturbed by his presence.

"On our way home she spoke several times of this M. de Macreuse, who
seemed to be so truly devout and charitable. She did not know him
personally, she said, but she could not help feeling a great interest in
him because he seemed to possess virtues seldom found in young men of
the present day.

"The next day we went to church again; and again we saw M. de Macreuse.
He was performing his devotions in the same chapel, and this time he was
so deeply absorbed in prayer that, when mass was over, he remained on
his knees with his forehead almost touching the marble pavement, and
seemed positively crushed with grief. A moment afterwards he fell
backward in a sort of swoon, and had to be carried into the sacristy.

"'Unfortunate young man,' whispered Mlle. Helena, 'how inconsolable he
is! How deeply he mourns for his mother! What a noble and tender heart
he must have.'

"I shared this feeling of compassion, for who could better sympathise
with the sorrow of this young man whose melancholy face indicated the
deepest grief.

"Just as the door of the sacristy opened to admit the beadles, who had
come to M. de Macreuse's assistance, M. de Maillefort, who chanced to be
directly in their path, began to smile ironically.

"Mlle. Helena seemed more and more disturbed to see M. de Maillefort at
church a second time.

"'This imp of Satan must have come to the house of God for some deviltry
or other,' she remarked to me.

"On the afternoon of that same day, Madame de la Rochaiguë insisted upon
my driving with her and one of her friends, Madame la Duchesse de
Senneterre, a lady I had never met before. We went to the Bois. There
were a great many people there, and as our carriage was moving along at
a snail's pace, Madame de la Rochaiguë remarked to her friend:

"'Isn't that your son I see on horseback over there, my dear duchess?'

"'Yes, I believe it is Gerald,' replied Madame de Senneterre, turning
her lorgnette in the direction indicated.

"'I hope he will see us, and come and speak to us,' added Madame de
Mirecourt, who was also with us.

"'Oh, M. de Senneterre will not fail to do that, as the duchess
fortunately is with us,' replied Madame de la Rochaiguë. 'I say
fortunately, but that is not exactly the word, as that lady's presence
prevents us from saying all we would like to say in M. Gerald's praise.'

"'Oh, as for that, I warn you I haven't a bit of maternal modesty,'
answered Madame de Senneterre, smiling. 'I never hear half enough nice
things said about my son.'

"'However exacting you may be, you ought to be very well satisfied on
that score, it seems to me, my dear duchess,' replied Madame de
Mirecourt.

"'But speaking of M. de Senneterre, did you ever hear why he enlisted as
a common soldier, at the age of eighteen?' continued Madame de
Mirecourt, addressing Madame de la Rochaiguë.

"'No,' replied that lady, 'I have heard that, beginning as a common
soldier, in spite of his birth, he gained his several promotions, as
well as his cross, on the battlefield, at the cost of several wounds;
but I never heard why he enlisted.'

"'Madame la duchesse,' said Madame de Mirecourt, turning to Madame de
Senneterre, 'is it not true that your son enlisted because he thought it
cowardly to hire a man to go and be killed in his stead?'

"'Yes, that is true,' replied Madame de Senneterre; 'that is the reason
my son gave us, and he carried out his resolution in spite of my tears
and entreaties.'

"'Superb!' exclaimed Madame de la Rochaiguë. 'Nobody in the world but M.
de Senneterre would ever have made and carried out such a chivalrous
resolution as that.'

"'It is easy to judge of the generosity of his character from that fact
alone,' added Madame de Mirecourt.

"'Oh, I can say with just pride that there is no better son in the world
than my Gerald,' remarked Madame de Senneterre.

"'And when one says that, one says everything,' added Madame de la
Rochaiguë.

"I listened in silence to this conversation, naturally sharing in the
admiration that M. de Senneterre's generous act excited in those around
me.

"A few minutes afterwards, a party of young men passed us on horseback.
One of them, I noticed, paused on seeing us, wheeled his horse around
and came back.

"This young man proved to be M. de Senneterre. He bowed to his mother;
Madame de la Rochaiguë introduced him to me. He made a few courteous
remarks, and then walked his horse along by the side of our carriage
while we drove several times around the race-track.

"It is needless to say that scarcely a handsome equipage passed without
an interchange of friendly bows between the occupants and M. de
Senneterre, who seemed to be a general favourite.

"During the conversation he had with us, he was very gay and a trifle
sarcastic, but not the least spiteful.

"A short time before he left us, we met a magnificent carriage, drawn by
four horses. Its sole occupant was a man to whom many persons bowed with
great deference. This man bowed very low to M. de Senneterre, who,
instead of returning the salute, surveyed him with the utmost disdain.

"'Why, that was M. du Tilleul that just passed, M. de Senneterre!'
exclaimed Madame de la Rochaiguë, evidently much surprised.

"'Yes, madame.'

"'He bowed to you.'

"'True, madame.'

"'But you did not return his bow.'

"'I no longer bow to M. du Tilleul, madame.'

"'But everybody else does.'

"'Then they do very wrong, in my opinion.'

"'But why, M. de Senneterre?'

"'You ask me that, with his recent affair with Madame--'

"Then suddenly checking himself, probably on account of my presence, he
continued, addressing Madame de la Rochaiguë:

"'You have heard about his conduct with a certain marquise?'

"'Of course.'

"'Well, in my opinion, a man who behaves with such cowardice and cruelty
is a scoundrel, and I do not bow to a scoundrel.'

"'Still, he is received everywhere,' remarked Madame de Mirecourt.

"'Yes, because he owns the handsomest house in Paris, and everybody
wishes to attend his entertainments.'

"'Oh, you are entirely too particular, M. Gerald,' said Madame de
Mirecourt.

"'I too particular?' exclaimed M. de Senneterre, laughing. 'What a
frightful slander! I will convince you to the contrary. Look at that
little green brougham coming this way, and that--'

"'Gerald!' cried Madame de Senneterre, reminding her son of my presence
with a look, for I had involuntarily turned to glance at the vehicle to
which M. de Senneterre had called attention, and which was occupied by a
young and extremely pretty woman, who seemed to be following the young
duke with her eyes.

"His mother's warning exclamation, and the look she cast at me, made M.
de Senneterre bite his lips, but it was with a smile that he replied:

"You are right, mother. It would make angels too unhappy to know that
there are such things as demons in the world."

This half apology was indirectly addressed to me, I suppose, for two of
the ladies glanced at me, smiling in their turn, and I felt greatly
embarrassed.

"As we were leaving, Madame de Senneterre asked:

"You dine with me to-day, do you not, Gerald?"

"No, mother, and I must ask you to pardon me for not having told you
that I had made another engagement."

"That is very unfortunate, for I, too, have made an engagement for you,"
replied Madame de Senneterre, smiling.

"All right, mother," said M. de Senneterre, affectionately; "I will send
my friends a brief note of excuse; then I shall be entirely at your
service."

And after having bowed very deferentially to us, M. de Senneterre
started his horse off at a gallop.

"He rides with perfect skill and grace, and on horseback reminds me not
a little of my poor father.

"Though he had addressed only a very few remarks to me, I feel sure,
from what I saw and heard during this interview, that M. de Senneterre
must possess a frank, generous, and resolute nature, as well as a
profound respect and affection for his mother. The other ladies must
have thought so, too, for they did not cease praising him until we
separated.

"The next day and the day following, we again saw M. de Macreuse at
church. His grief seemed no less deep, though more calm. Two or three
times he happened to glance in our direction, and I could not help being
struck by the contrast between his sad, almost timid look and bearing,
and M. le Duc de Senneterre's dashing ease of manner.

"The next day after our visit to the Bois, I accompanied my guardian to
the garden of the Luxembourg, as I had promised.

"We had visited the conservatories and the magnificent rose gardens,
when we met a friend of M. de la Rochaiguë. He was introduced to me as
the Baron de Ravil or du Ravil, I believe.

"This gentleman walked along beside us for several minutes, then,
drawing out his watch, he remarked to M. de la Rochaiguë:

"'Pardon me for leaving you so soon, M. le baron, but I am very anxious
not to miss this important session.'

"'What important session?' inquired my guardian.

"'Can it be that you haven't heard that M. de Mornand speaks to-day?'

"'Is it possible?'

"'Certainly; all Paris will be there, for when M. de Mornand speaks, it
is an event.'

"'It is indeed. He is a man of wonderful talent, I think, a man who can
hardly fail to be minister some day or other. How unfortunate that I did
not hear of this before. I am sure, my dear ward, that the session would
have interested you very much, in spite of all Madame de la Rochaiguë's
nonsensical talk, but if I should take you to the chamber now she would
be sure to accuse me of having set a trap for you.'

"'Still, if mademoiselle has the slightest desire to attend the session,
I am at your service, M. le baron,' said our companion; 'I expected to
meet one of my nieces and her husband here, but they have not come, and
probably will not, now. I had procured tickets of admission to the
diplomatic gallery for them, and if these tickets would be of any
service to you--'

"'What do you say, my dear ward?'

"'I will do whatever you like, monsieur; but it seems to me a session of
the Chamber of Peers might be very interesting,' I added, chiefly out
of regard for my guardian, I fear.

"'Very well, I will accept your offer, then, my dear M. de Ravil,' cried
M. de la Rochaiguë, 'and you are lucky, indeed, my dear child,' he
added, turning to me, 'to happen here on a day M. de Mornand speaks.'

"We hastened towards the palace, and just as we were leaving the
quincunxes I saw, some distance off, M. de Maillefort, who seemed to be
following us,--a fact that surprised me, and made me rather uneasy.

"'Why do I meet this wicked man at every turn?' I said to myself. 'Who
could have informed him of our plans?'

"The diplomatic gallery, where we had seats, was filled with elegantly
dressed ladies. I occupied a seat on the upper row of benches between my
guardian and M. de Ravil.

"A gentleman near us, having been heard to remark that some noted
orator--he did not refer to M. de Mornand--was also to speak during the
session, M. de Ravil replied that there was no other orator who could
compare with M. de Mornand, and that this crowd had come to hear him. He
ascended the tribune almost immediately, and there was a profound
silence.

"I was incapable of criticising or even of entirely comprehending M. de
Mornand's discourse. It related to subjects with which I was totally
unacquainted, but I was deeply impressed by the conclusion of his
speech, in which he spoke with the warmest sympathy of the unhappy lot
of fishermen's families awaiting in sickening suspense upon the beach
the return of a beloved father, son, or husband, while the tempest was
raging wildly around them.

"It so happened that, as M. de Mornand uttered these touching words, he
turned towards our tribune, and his strong face seemed to me filled with
a profound compassion for the unfortunate creatures whose cause he had
espoused.

"'Wonderful! How very touching!' whispered M. de Ravil, wiping his eyes,
for he, too, seemed deeply affected.

"'M. de Mornand is sublime!' exclaimed my guardian. 'There is little
doubt that his speech will greatly ameliorate the lot of thousands of
these unfortunates.'

"Prolonged applause followed the conclusion of M. de Mornand's speech.
He was about to leave the tribune when another member of the Chamber, a
man with a malevolent, sarcastic face, rose in his seat, and said:

"'I ask the permission of the Chamber to ask M. de Mornand a simple
question before he descends from the tribune and before his sudden and
generous compassion for our brave fishermen shall consequently have
evaporated.'

"'If you will take my advice, we will leave at once to escape the
crowd,' M. de Ravil remarked to my guardian. 'M. de Mornand having
finished, everybody will want to go, for there will be nothing else of
interest.'

"M. de la Rochaiguë offered me his arm, but just as we were leaving the
hall we heard shouts of laughter, and renewed applause.

"'I know what that means,' remarked M. de Ravil. 'M. de Mornand has
crushed, by his sarcasm, the imprudent member who had the audacity to
question any of his statements, for when he wishes to be, M. de Mornand
is as witty as the devil.'

"My guardian having suggested that we extend our walk to the
observatory, I consented, and M. de Ravil accompanied us.

"'M. le baron,' he remarked to my guardian; 'did you notice Madame de
Bretigny, who left the hall just as we did?'

"'The wife of the minister? No, I did not.'

"'I am sorry, monsieur, for you would have seen one of the noblest women
that ever lived. You have no idea what wonderfully good use she makes
of her position as a minister's wife, or of the vast amount of good she
does, the wrongs she repairs, and the assistance she gives to the
worthy.'

"'I am not surprised to hear it,' replied my guardian. 'In a position
like that of Madame de Bretigny, one can do any amount of good, for--'

"But interrupting himself suddenly, he turned to M. de Ravil and
exclaimed, eagerly:

"'Say, isn't that he over there in that secluded path, walking along,
looking at the flowers?'

"'To whom do you refer?'

"'Why, to M. de Mornand. Look!'

"'You're right, it is he!' replied M. de Ravil. 'He has forgotten his
triumph--and is finding a welcome relief from the onerous cares of state
in gazing at the flowers. This does not surprise me, however, for, with
all his talent and his political genius, he is one of the best and most
simple-hearted of men, and his tastes prove it. After his brilliant
success, what does he seek? Solitude and flowers.'

"'M. de Ravil, you know M. de Mornand, do you not?' inquired my
guardian.

"'Slightly. I meet him occasionally in society.'

"'But you know him well enough to speak to him, do you not?'

"'Certainly.'

"'Then go and congratulate him on the success he just achieved. We will
follow you so as to get a closer look at this great man. What do you say
to my scheme, my dear ward?'

"'I will accompany you, monsieur. One always likes to see distinguished
men like M. de Mornand.'

"Changing our course, we soon reached the path where M. de Mornand was
walking. He replied to M. de Ravil's and my guardian's compliments with
quite as much modesty as simplicity of manner, and addressed a few
kindly remarks to me, after which we left him to continue his lonely
promenade.

"'When one thinks that this simple-mannered man will govern France in
less than six months!' exclaimed M. de Ravil.

"'Say admirably-mannered, my dear M. de Ravil,' corrected my guardian.
'M. de Mornand has quite the manner of a grand seigneur. He is both
affable and dignified. He is not one of those silly popinjays who think
only of the tie of their cravats and the cut of their hair.'

"'Creatures of that type are never likely to govern France,' answered M.
de Ravil. 'I say govern because M. de Mornand will not accept a
subordinate position. He will be chief of the Cabinet which he forms.
May Heaven preserve him, M. le Baron. The welfare of France and the
peace of the civilised world depend upon him,' added M. de Ravil, in
tones of profound conviction.

"As I walked homeward with my guardian, I thought that there could
indeed be no more enviable and noble position than that of a man who,
like M. de Mornand, exercises a controlling influence over the welfare
of France and the peace of Europe.

"Such, my dear mother, were the circumstances under which I met, for the
first time, Messieurs Macreuse, Senneterre, and Mornand.

"I will now tell you what the consequences of these meetings have
been."



CHAPTER XXXIV.

TORMENTED BY DOUBTS.


"At the expiration of a few days Mlle. Helena had succeeded in securing
full information in regard to M. Célestin de Macreuse, and she began to
talk of him, not occasionally, but almost incessantly.

"She told me that M. de Macreuse, by his birth and connections, was
entitled to a place in the very best society; but, being endowed with
the most exemplary piety, and with wonderfully philanthropic instincts,
he had founded a charitable mission of the most admirable kind, and
though still young, his name was uttered everywhere with the most
profound affection and respect.

"Madame de la Rochaiguë, on the other hand, praised M. de Senneterre in
the most extravagant way, while my guardian embraced every opportunity
to laud M. de Mornand's talents and virtues to the skies.

"At first I saw nothing extraordinary in these flattering mentions of
persons who seemed well worthy of praise, but I soon began to notice
that the names of these gentlemen were mentioned by my guardian, his
wife, or his sister only in conversations which one or the other had
separately with me.

"At last came the day when M. de Maillefort so spitefully, but, alas! so
truly, explained the real cause of the attentions and flattery lavished
upon me, and it soon became evident to me that my guardian and his wife,
apprised of the situation by Mlle. Helena, must fear the consequences
of the revelation which had been such a shock to me; for the very next
day each one of the three, in turn, disclosed his or her plans to
me,--plans evidently conceived long before,--and assured me that the
happiness of my life and the certainty of a blissful future depended
upon my marrying--

"M. de Macreuse,--according to Mlle. Helena.

"M. de Senneterre,--according to Madame de la Rochaiguë.

"M. de Mornand,--according to my guardian.

"On hearing these unexpected proposals, my surprise and uneasiness were
so great that I could make no coherent reply, and my embarrassed,
incoherent words having been taken as a sort of tacit consent, I, after
a little reflection, decided to leave the champions of these three
suitors under the same erroneous impression.

"This induced them to make their confidential disclosures much more
complete.

"'My brother and his wife,' said Mlle. Helena, 'are excellent people,
but extremely vain and worldly. Neither of them is capable of
appreciating the rare excellence of M. de Macreuse's principles, his
Christian virtues, and his almost angelic piety; so we must keep our
secret, my dear Ernestine, until you have chosen the husband I suggest,
because he is so worthy of your choice. Then, proud and honoured by this
choice, you will only have to notify my brother, your guardian, who will
give his consent, I am sure, if you only evince proper firmness. If he
should refuse his consent, which is not at all likely, however, we will
resort to other and certain means of ensuring your happiness.'

"'My poor sister Helena,' said M. de la Rochaiguë, in his turn, 'is a
most excellent woman, a saint if there ever was one, but she knows
nothing in the world about mundane matters. If you should take it into
your head to say anything about M. de Mornand to her, she would open her
eyes in astonishment, and tell you that he cares only for the vain
things of this world, that he is ambitious of power, etc. As for my
wife, she is perfect, but separate her from her balls, and her toilets,
and her social gossip, and her beaux who think only of the tie of their
cravats, and their strawberry-coloured gloves, and she is completely at
sea, for she knows nothing in the world about higher things. To her, M.
de Mornand would be a grave, serious, depressing man, a statesman, in
short, and by the slighting manner in which you have heard her speak of
the Chamber of Peers, my dear child, you can imagine how she would
regard a proposal of marriage from him. So all this must be kept a
profound secret between you and me, my dear ward, and your mind once
made up, as it is I who am your guardian after all, and as your marriage
will depend upon my consent, you will have no difficulty in carrying out
your wishes eventually.'

"'You must understand, my dear child,' said Madame de la Rochaiguë,
'that all I have just said to you about M. de Senneterre must be kept a
profound secret between us. My sister Helena knows no more about
matrimonial matters than a babe unborn, and that dear husband of mine
has really gone politics mad. He dreams only of the Chamber of Peers,
and knows no more about the fashions, and pleasure, and elegance, than a
Huron Indian. In fact, he has no conception whatever of the delights of
a life shared with a charming young duke, who is the most generous and
amiable of men. So let us guard our secret well, my dearest child, and,
when the time comes to inform your guardian of your decision, I'll
attend to that, for M. de la Rochaiguë has been in the habit of letting
me have my own way so long that I am sure he will offer no opposition in
this instance, but readily consent to do whatever we wish in the matter.
And now I want to tell you that a most fortunate idea occurred to me the
other day,' continued Madame de la Rochaiguë. 'I have begged one of my
friends, whom you already know, Madame de Mirecourt, to give a ball one
week from to-day; so, my dear child, next Thursday, in the public
_tête-à-tête_ of a quadrille, you will have an opportunity to judge of
the sincerity of the sentiment M. de Senneterre feels for you.'

"The very next morning after this conversation my guardian said to me,
in the most confidential manner:

"'My wife thinks of taking you to a ball Madame de Mirecourt intends to
give. You will see M. de Mornand at this entertainment, and I am sure he
will not let the opportunity pass to convince you of the deep and
irresistible impression the sight of you made upon him when we went to
congratulate him on the success of his speech that day at the palace.'

"In like manner, a couple of days after my guardian and his wife had
thus disclosed their plans, Mlle. Helena said to me:

"'My dear Ernestine, my sister-in-law intends to take you to Madame de
Mirecourt's ball Thursday. I think this will be an excellent opportunity
for you to meet M. de Macreuse, and though this poor young man, who is
so bowed down with grief, has none of the frivolous attributes which
enable one to shine at affairs of this kind, he has requested one of his
particular friends--quite an important personage, by the way, the sister
of the Bishop of Ratopolis--to ask Madame de Mirecourt for a card for
him. This request was promptly complied with, so on Thursday you will
see him, and I feel sure you will not be able to resist his eloquence
when he tells you, as he has told me, how your adored image has followed
him everywhere, and has even troubled his prayers ever since the first
time he saw you at church.'

"It is consequently at the ball next Thursday, my dearest mother, that I
am to have my first interview with Messrs. de Macreuse, de Senneterre
and de Mornand.

"Even if M. de Maillefort's sarcastic remarks had not harshly revealed
the real cause of the admiration and affection so generally manifested
for me, my fears and suspicions must now have been awakened by the
duplicity of those around me, plotting unbeknown to each other, and
deceiving each other in order to succeed in their nefarious designs. You
can judge of my anxiety, my beloved mother, now these two successive
revelations have assumed such grave importance.

"To complete my confession, my dear mother, I must tell you plainly what
my first impressions were in relation to the three persons the different
members of the Rochaiguë family wish me to marry.

"Up to this time, I had never given the subject of marriage so much as a
thought; the day for that seemed so far off, and it was such an
important matter, that if a vague thought of it ever did flit through my
mind, I merely congratulated myself that there was no need of troubling
myself about that matter for a long time.

"Consequently it was not with any thought of him as a possible husband
that I was touched by the evident grief of M. de Macreuse, who, like
myself, was mourning the loss of a mother, though what Mlle. Helena was
continually saying about the sweetness of his expression, his profound
melancholy, and the kindness of his heart as shown by his munificent
alms, all combined to add a profound esteem to the compassion I felt for
him.

"M. de Senneterre, by the frankness and generosity of his character, by
his unaffected gaiety and the graceful elegance of his manners, had
pleased me very much; and it seemed to me that it would be very easy,
though I am naturally so reserved, to feel perfect confidence in him.

"As for M. de Mornand, he had impressed me very much, though this was
probably due quite as much to what I had heard about the superiority of
his talents and character as to the powerful influence he seemed to
exert, so I felt almost overwhelmed, though decidedly proud of the few
kind words he addressed to me when I met him in the garden of the
Luxembourg.

"And now when M. de Maillefort's revelations have made me distrust
everything and everybody, I hear that all three of these men desire to
marry me. Is it strange, then, that I am no longer able to read my own
heart, and that, tormented by all kinds of doubts and suspicions, I ask
myself if these three suitors for my hand are not all actuated by the
same base motives as the persons by whom I am surrounded.

"And harassed by these doubts, all that pleased me and all that I so
much admired in them now disturbs and alarms me. What if M. de
Macreuse's grief and piety, M. de Senneterre's charming urbanity of
manner, and M. de Mornand's grand and generous utterances, all conceal
base and mercenary natures!

"Oh, mother, if you knew how terrible to me are these doubts which are
completing the work of destruction M. de Maillefort's revelation began.

"They are the more terrible because I shall always be obliged to live
with my guardian and his family, and if I become convinced beyond a
doubt that they have flattered and deceived me merely for their own
aggrandisement, I shall feel for them only the bitterest contempt and
aversion.

"Because I am immensely rich, must I be married only for my money?

"Am I doomed to the misery of such a marriage, the indifference,
contempt, hatred, perhaps, that are sure to follow when a man is mean
enough to wed a woman merely for mercenary motives?

"Oh, mother, the thought is so horrible that it haunts me continually. I
can not drive it away, strive as I may.

"So I have resolved to escape from it at the cost of a dangerous,
perhaps fatal experiment.

"I have been induced to make this resolve because it seemed to be the
only means of satisfying my cruel doubts, not only in regard to others,
but myself as well. I must know once for all what I really am, and what
I really appear to be, independent of my fortune.

"Satisfied on this point, I shall easily be able to distinguish the true
from the false. But how am I to ascertain what I am? How am I to
discover my precise value, so to speak? Whom can I ask? Who will be
frank enough to separate the young girl from the heiress in his
valuation?

"Besides, would such a verdict, however severe or kindly it might be,
satisfy and reassure me entirely?

"No, I must have the verdict of several disinterested parties.

"But where can I find any such persons? After a great deal of thought, I
have decided upon this plan.

"Madame Laîné was telling me about a week ago of some little
entertainments that one of her friends gives every Sunday. I have sought
and found, this evening, a way to attend one of these reunions in
company with my governess, but ostensibly as a relative of hers, a young
orphan who supports herself by her daily toil, like all the other young
people who compose the company.

"There no one will know me. What they really think of me will be shown
conclusively by the reception given me. The rare perfections with which
I am endowed--according to those around me--have had such a sudden and
irresistible effect, they say, upon them, and upon the husbands they
have picked out for me,--in short, I produce such a sensation at all the
assemblies I frequent, that I am anxious to see if I shall prove equally
irresistible to the young people at Madame Herbaut's modest
entertainment.

"If I do not, I shall know that I have been basely deceived, and there
is little danger that I shall ever endanger my future happiness by
fixing my choice upon either of the suitors attracted solely by
cupidity.

"I am also resolved to find some means of escaping the snares that seem
to surround me on every side.

"What means I do not know. Alas! alone in the world as I am, in whom can
I confide? In whom can I trust?

"In God and in you, my mother. I shall obey all the inspirations you
send me, as I obey this, for, strange as it may appear, I cannot divest
myself of the idea that this did come from you. At all events, it had
its origin in a wise and noble sentiment,--a desire to know the truth,
however disheartening it may be.

"So to-morrow, I am resolved to attend the reunion at Madame Herbaut's
house."

       *       *       *       *       *

So the next day, Mlle. de Beaumesnil, having feigned indisposition, and
having escaped the assiduous attentions of the Rochaiguës by a firm
refusal to admit them to her room, left the house soon after nightfall,
accompanied by her governess, and, taking a cab some distance from the
mansion, was driven to Madame Herbaut's house.

END OF VOLUME I.



THE SEVEN CARDINAL SINS

PRIDE--CONTINUED

[Illustration: "Gerald rushed in like one distracted"]



Pride--One of the Seven Cardinal Sins.

_ILLUSTRATED WITH ETCHINGS BY
ADRIAN MARCEL._

_BY EUGENE SUE_

_IN TWO VOLUMES_

_VOLUME II._



CONTENTS.

Vol. II.

CHAPTER                                                    PAGE

     I.   MADAME HERBAUT'S PARTY                             13

    II.   THE DUCHESS ENTERTAINS ERNESTINE                   23

   III.   A BOLD QUESTION                                    33

    IV.   REASON ASSERTS ITSELF                              43

     V.   A CONSUMING FEVER OF LOVE                          53

    VI.   A DELICATE MISSION                                 61

   VII.   GOOD NEWS                                          71

  VIII.   A STARTLING REVELATION                             82

    IX.   AN UNEXPECTED MEETING                              91

     X.   DESPAIR                                            99

    XI.   THE BALL                                          107

   XII.   M. DE MACREUSE OVERDOES THE MATTER                118

  XIII.   AN HONEST CONFESSION IS GOOD FOR THE SOUL         131

   XIV.   VILLAINY UNMASKED                                 141

    XV.   THE PROSPECTIVE MINISTER'S DEFEAT                 151

   XVI.   DISINTERESTED AFFECTION                           162

  XVII.   A FRIEND IN NEED                                  171

 XVIII.   A QUESTION OF IDENTITY                            183

   XIX.   ERNESTINE'S APPEAL                                190

    XX.   AN ALLIANCE OFFENSIVE AND DEFENSIVE               198

   XXI.   "DIAMOND CUT DIAMOND"                             207

  XXII.   A FINAL VICTORY                                   216

 XXIII.   A TEMPTING BAIT                                   228

  XXIV.   AN UNCONDITIONAL SURRENDER                        241

   XXV.   A SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCE                         253

  XXVI.   A CRUCIAL MOMENT                                  262

 XXVII.   THE MYSTERY DEEPENS                               274

XXVIII.   FOILED!                                           284

  XXIX.   AN EVENTFUL DAY                                   294

   XXX.   THE SIGNING OF THE MARRIAGE CONTRACTS             306

  XXXI.   THE BARON HAS HIS REVENGE                         314

 XXXII.   CONCLUSION                                        322



LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS.


                                                               PAGE

"GERALD RUSHED IN LIKE ONE DISTRACTED"                _Frontispiece_

"'SHE HAS FAINTED'"                                              72

"'ENOUGH, MONSIEUR, ENOUGH'"                                    148

"M. DE MAILLEFORT, ACCOMPANIED BY GERALD, BURST INTO THE ROOM"  290



PRIDE.



CHAPTER I.

MADAME HERBAUT'S PARTY.


Madame Herbaut occupied quite a spacious suite of apartments on the
third floor of the same house in which Commander Bernard lived.

The rooms devoted to these Sunday reunions consisted of the dining-room,
where the young people danced to the music of the piano; the
drawing-room, where there were card-tables for those who did not care to
dance, and, lastly, Madame Herbaut's bedroom, where guests could sit and
chat without being disturbed by the noise of the dancing, and without
disturbing the card-players.

This simply furnished, but comfortable abode indicated that Madame
Herbaut--who, by the way, was the widow of a small merchant--was in very
comfortable circumstances, though far from rich.

The worthy woman's two daughters found lucrative employment, one in
painting on china, the other in copying music,--work which had led to
her acquaintance with Herminie, who also copied music when pupils were
scarce.

The rooms presented a scene of even more than usual gaiety that evening.
There were about fifteen young girls, none over twenty years of age,
all resolved to make the most of Sunday, their only day of rest and
pleasure, so richly earned by toil and confinement all the week, either
at the counter, in the office, in some gloomy little back shop on the
Rue St. Denis or the Rue des Bourdonnais, or perhaps in some _pension_.

Some of these young girls were extremely pretty, and nearly all were
dressed with the good taste that characterises the attire of this humble
and industrious class of people only in Paris, probably.

These poor girls, being obliged to work hard all the rest of the week,
reserved all their little coquettish adornments for their one fête day,
the day so impatiently awaited on Saturday, and so deeply regretted on
Monday.

As is usual at such reunions, the masculine element in the little
assembly presented a much less elegant and stylish appearance than the
feminine element. In fact, but for some almost imperceptible shades of
difference, most of these young girls were as bright and attractive as
if they belonged to the very best society, but this slight superiority
on the part of the young girls was soon forgotten, thanks to the cordial
good-humour and frank gaiety, tempered with respect, which the young men
displayed towards their fair companions.

Instead of being at its best about one o'clock in the morning, as is
generally the case with a fashionable ball, this little assembly reached
the very zenith of animation and enjoyment about nine o'clock, as the
hostess always sent her guests home relentlessly before midnight, so
they would be ready to resume work the next morning at the accustomed
hour.

And what a dreary time Monday morning was, with the music and laughter
of the night before still ringing in your ears, and the prospect of six
long days of close confinement and drudgery before you!

But with what growing impatience and transports of joy you watched the
approach of the longed-for day.

It comes at last, and then what exuberant happiness!

Oh, rare and modest joys that have never been impaired by satiety!

But Madame Herbaut's guests were not philosophising much that evening.
They were reserving their philosophy for Monday.

These untiring young people were whirling swiftly around the room to the
inspiring strains of a lively polka; and such was the magic of the
strains that even the ladies and gentlemen in the drawing-room, in spite
of their age and the grave preoccupations of Pope Joan and loto,--the
only games Madame Herbaut allowed,--moved their heads to and fro and
kept time with their feet, in short, executed a sort of antiquated
sitting polka, which testified to the skill of the musician at the
piano.

And this musician was Herminie.

About a month had passed since her first meeting with Gerald. Had other
meetings followed that interview begun under most unpleasant auspices
and ending with a gracious forgiveness? We shall know in due time.

This evening, in a dress of some soft, pale blue material that cost,
perhaps, twenty sous a yard, and a large bow of ribbon of the same
delicate hue in her magnificent golden hair, the duchess was ravishingly
beautiful.

A faint rose tint suffused her cheeks, her large blue eyes shone like
stars, and her half smiling scarlet lips revealed a row of pearl-white
teeth, while her girlish bosom rose and fell gently beneath the thin
fabric that veiled it, and her little foot, daintily clad in a satin
slipper, beat time to the strains of the lively polka.

To-day there could be no doubt that Herminie was very happy. Far from
holding herself aloof from the amusements of her companions, Herminie
greatly enjoyed seeing them enjoy themselves, and always did everything
in her power to add to their pleasure, but this generosity of feeling
would hardly suffice to explain the exuberance of life and youth and
happiness which imparted an unusually radiant expression to the
enchanting features of the duchess. One somehow felt that this charming
creature knew how charming and lovely and refined she was, and that the
knowledge made her, not proud, but happy,--happy like those generous
possessors of wealth, who prize their wealth chiefly because it enables
them to confer happiness on others.

Though the duchess was deeply interested in her polka and the dancers,
she turned her head involuntarily several times on hearing the door
open, but on seeing the persons who entered, she seemed rather to
reproach herself for her inattention to the business in hand.

The door opened again, and again Herminie cast a quick, almost impatient
glance in that direction.

The newcomer this time was Olivier, the commander's nephew.

Seeing the young soldier leave the door open as if some one was
following him, Herminie blushed slightly, and ventured another glance.
But alas! in the doorway behind him there appeared a stout, rosy youth
of eighteen, with an honest, artless face, and hands encased in green
kid gloves.

It is difficult to say why Herminie seemed a little disappointed on the
entrance of this youth,--perhaps it was because she hated green kid
gloves,--but the disappointment betrayed itself in a charming pout and
in the increasing vivacity of the strains to which her little foot was
impatiently beating time.

The polka ended, Herminie, who had been at the piano ever since the
beginning of the evening, was immediately surrounded, and thanked and
complimented and furthermore invited to dance by a number of the young
men, but she filled the souls of the aspirants with despair by pleading
a slight lameness as an excuse for not dancing that evening.

And you should have seen the gait Herminie adopted, in support of this
atrocious falsehood, decided upon the minute she saw Olivier come in
alone! Certainly no wounded dove ever dragged her little pink foot along
with a more distressed air.

Inconsolable at this accident which deprived them of the much coveted
pleasure of dancing with the duchess, the aspirants, hoping for some
compensation, offered their arm to the interesting cripple, but she had
the cruelty to prefer the support of Madame Herbaut's eldest daughter,
and repaired with her to that lady's room to rest and get a little fresh
air, she said, as the windows of that apartment overlooked Commander
Bernard's garden.

Herminie had hardly left the room, leaning on Hortense Herbaut's arm,
when Mlle. de Beaumesnil arrived, accompanied by Madame Laîné.

The richest heiress in France wore a dress of simple white muslin, with
a narrow blue sash, and her entrance was unnoticed, though it occurred
during the interval between two quadrilles.

Ernestine was not pretty, neither was she ugly, so no one paid the
slightest attention to her; and as the young girl compared this
reception with the flattering eagerness with which people had crowded
around her heretofore, her heart sank, and she began to realise the
truth of M. de Maillefort's words.

"They knew my name at the other entertainments," Ernestine said to
herself, "and it was only the heiress that they gazed at, and flattered,
and besieged with attentions."

       *       *       *       *       *

Madame Laîné was just introducing Ernestine to Madame Herbaut when that
lady's eldest daughter, who had accompanied Herminie to the bedroom,
said, after a glance into the drawing-room:

"I must leave you, my dear duchess. I notice that a lady has just come
in who wrote to mamma this morning, asking permission to bring a young
relative with her, so you see--"

"Why, go, of course, my dear Hortense. You must do the honours of your
house, certainly," replied Herminie, not sorry, perhaps, to be left
alone awhile.

So Mlle. Herbaut rejoined her mother, who was welcoming Ernestine with
simple cordiality.

"You will soon become used to our ways, my dear," she was saying. "The
young girls and the young men dance in the dining-room, while their
mothers and fathers--when they come--play cards in the drawing-room, so
you see each guest amuses himself to his liking."

Then, to her daughter, she added:

"Hortense, take mademoiselle to the dining-room. You, my dear friend,"
she continued, addressing the governess, "must come to the Pope Joan
table. I know your taste, you see."

As we said before, this introduction had taken place in the interval
between the polka and a quadrille, and a young painter, a very good
musician, having taken Herminie's seat, now struck a few chords as a
signal for the dancers to take their places.

The Herbaut girls, being daughters of the house, and being also
extremely pretty and good-natured, seldom lacked for partners, and
Olivier, wearing with much grace the dashing uniform which would have
sufficed to distinguish him from the other men, even if he had not been
remarkably prepossessing in appearance, approached Mlle. Herbaut just as
she was entering the dining-room, in company with Ernestine, and said:

"You haven't forgotten, I hope, that this quadrille belongs to me, Mlle.
Hortense. Don't you think we had better take our places?"

"I will be at your service in a second, M. Olivier," replied Hortense,
who was conducting Mlle. de Beaumesnil towards a long couch, on which
several other young girls were seated.

"I hope you will pardon me for leaving you so soon," she remarked to
Ernestine, "but I am engaged for this dance. Won't you take a seat here
on the couch. I'm sure you will not lack for partners."

"Pray do not trouble yourself any further about me, mademoiselle,"
replied Ernestine.

The sounds of the piano becoming more and more peremptory, Hortense
Herbaut hurried off to join her partner, and Mlle. de Beaumesnil seated
herself on the couch.

The test on which Ernestine had so courageously resolved was beginning
in earnest. Near her sat five or six young girls, the least attractive,
it must be admitted, of the guests, and who, not having been engaged in
advance, like the belles of the ball, were modestly waiting for an
invitation to take part in the quadrille.

Either because Ernestine's companions were prettier than she was, or
because their manner was more attractive, she saw one after another of
them invited, without any apparent notice being taken of her.

Only one very plain-looking young girl was sharing Mlle. de Beaumesnil's
neglected condition when some one exclaimed:

"Another couple is needed! We must have another couple here!"

The youth so gorgeously adorned with the apple-green kid gloves was
anxious to do his part towards filling the vacancy, so, seeing two young
girls still unengaged, he rushed forward to invite one of them, but
instead of making his choice unhesitatingly, so as to spare the one that
was left the petty humiliation of feeling herself weighed in the balance
only to be found wanting, he stood for a few seconds as if undecided,
and then selected Mlle. de Beaumesnil's neighbour, his preference
being, doubtless, due to the greater showiness of her apparel.

Trivial as this incident seems, perhaps, it would be difficult to
describe the intense anguish that wrung Mlle. de Beaumesnil's heart.

On seeing several of the other young girls invited in turn, Ernestine's
natural modesty had excused the preference thus evinced, but in
proportion as the number of her companions diminished, and when she at
last found herself left alone with this unprepossessing companion, whose
homeliness was not even redeemed by any pretensions to elegance of
manner, her heart sank within her, but when she saw herself disdained,
as it were, after having been compared with her companion, she
experienced a terrible shock.

"Alas!" she said to herself, with infinite sadness, "if I cannot stand
comparison with these young girls around me, and particularly with this
last one, nobody can ever care for me, and any one who tries to convince
me to the contrary must be--I see plainly now--actuated only by base and
mercenary motives. All these young girls who have been preferred to me
can, at least, feel assured that the preference is sincere,--there are
no cruel doubts to mar the pleasure of their innocent triumph; but I--I
shall never know even this slight happiness."

And Mlle. de Beaumesnil's grief at the thought was so poignant that she
had all she could do to repress her tears.

But though these tears did not flow, her pale face betrayed such painful
emotion that two generous-hearted people each noticed it in turn.

The quadrille was going on while mademoiselle abandoned herself to these
gloomy reflections, and Olivier, who was dancing with Mlle. Hortense
Herbaut, found himself directly opposite Ernestine, and thus in a
position to observe the humiliating situation in which she was placed,
as well as the almost heart-broken expression of her face. Olivier was
so deeply touched that he asked:

"Who is that young lady sitting alone over there? I have never seen her
here before, I think."

"No, M. Olivier, she is a stranger. One of mamma's friends brought her
this evening."

"She is not pretty, and she doesn't seem to know anybody. At least
nobody has asked her to dance. Poor little thing, how dull it must be
for her!"

"If I had not been engaged for this dance, I should have stayed with
her, but--"

"Of course, Mlle. Hortense, you have your duties as hostess to attend
to, but I will certainly ask her to dance the next quadrille with me. I
don't like to see her so neglected."

"Mother and I will both feel exceedingly grateful to you, M. Olivier. It
would be a real deed of charity," said Hortense.

Almost at the same instant that Olivier first noticed Mlle. de
Beaumesnil's isolation, Herminie entered the salon from the adjoining
bedroom, and, walking up to one of the card-tables, leaned over the back
of Madame Herbaut's chair to watch the game. From where she stood she
could look straight out into the dining-room through the folding doors,
and, chancing to raise her eyes, she exclaimed:

"Why, who is that young girl sitting there alone on the couch, and
looking so sad?"

Madame Herbaut, glancing up from her cards, answered:

"It is a young girl one of my friends over there at the Pope Joan table
brought with her this evening. She doesn't know anybody here, and, not
being at all pretty, it is not surprising that she has no partner."

"But the poor child can't be allowed to sit there alone all the
evening," said Herminie, "so, as I can't dance myself, I'll try to
entertain the stranger and make the time seem less tedious to her."

"It is just like you to think of doing such a kind and generous act,"
replied Madame Herbaut, laughing, "and I assure you I shall be very
grateful to you, for Hortense and Claire have so many other duties on
their hands, and I fear there isn't much likelihood of this young girl's
securing any partners."

"Oh, don't worry about that, madame," replied Herminie. "I'm sure I
shall be able to save her from any discomfort on that account."

"How will you do it, my dear duchess?"

"Oh, that is my affair," laughed Herminie.

And still limping slightly,--deceitful creature that she was,--she
walked towards the couch on which Mlle. de Beaumesnil was sitting.



CHAPTER II.

THE DUCHESS ENTERTAINS ERNESTINE.


Mlle. de Beaumesnil, on seeing Herminie approach, was so struck by her
remarkable beauty that she entirely failed to notice the slight lameness
which the duchess had feigned in order to avoid dancing that evening.

So what was Ernestine's surprise, when the duchess, seating herself
beside her, said, in the most friendly manner:

"I am deputised by Madame Herbaut to come and keep you company for a
little while, in place of her daughters, who, of course, have many
duties to perform."

"So some one at least pities me," thought Mlle. de Beaumesnil, deeply
humiliated.

But Herminie's voice and manner were so sweet and engaging, and the
expression of her face was so kind, that Ernestine, reproaching herself
for the bitterness of her first thought, replied:

"I thank you very much, mademoiselle, but I fear that by thus detaining
you, I shall deprive you of the pleasure of--"

"Of dancing?" asked Herminie, smilingly. "I assure you, mademoiselle,
that my foot hurts me too much this evening to permit of my enjoying
myself in that way, so I trust you will grant me your companionship as a
compensation for my misfortune."

"Really, mademoiselle, you quite overpower me by your kindness."

"I am only doing what you would gladly do for me, I am sure,
mademoiselle, if you should see me sitting alone, as frequently happens
when one attends a little entertainment like this for the first time."

"I do not believe, mademoiselle," replied Ernestine, smiling, and now
made entirely at ease by these gracious advances,--"in fact, I am sure
that you would never be left alone even the first time you went
anywhere."

"Oh, mademoiselle, mademoiselle, it is you who are overwhelming me with
compliments now," laughingly protested Herminie.

"I assure you that I am only saying what I really think," Ernestine
replied so artlessly that the duchess, appreciating the artless
flattery, replied:

"I thank you for your very flattering words. I am sure that they are
sincere; as for their being really deserved,--that is an entirely
different thing. But tell me, what do you think of our little party?"

"It is charming, mademoiselle."

"I think so, too. Everybody is so gay and animated! Each guest seems
determined to make the most of every minute of time. Nor is it strange.
Sunday comes only once a week for all of us here, and enjoyment is
really enjoyment, while to many people it is a fatiguing occupation.
Surfeited with pleasure, they do not even know what it is to be amused;
and it seems to me that nothing could be more sad than to be always
trying hard to amuse oneself."

"Oh, yes, it must be sad, as sad as trying to find true affection, when
nobody cares for you," Ernestine answered, unconsciously revealing the
thought uppermost in her mind.

There was such an intense melancholy in the girl's tone and in her face,
that Herminie was deeply touched by it.

"Poor child!" she said to herself, "probably she is not a favourite at
home, and that makes her all the more sensitive to slights when she is
out in company."

Something Herminie noticed just then seemed to confirm this suspicion,
for the progress of the dance having brought the green-gloved youth and
his partner directly opposite Ernestine, the duchess saw the favoured
one cast several compassionate and rather patronising glances at the
less fortunate damsel.

Mlle. de Beaumesnil also noticed these glances, and fancied that she
must be an object of pity to every one. The thought, of course, wounded
her deeply, so one can judge of her gratitude, when Herminie said, with
a smile:

"Are you willing to waive all ceremony between us, mademoiselle?"

"Certainly."

"Well, I find it dreadfully warm here. Would you mind going with me to
Madame Herbaut's chamber to stay awhile?"

"Oh, thank you, mademoiselle, thank you," exclaimed Ernestine,
gratefully, rising eagerly as she spoke.

"But why do you thank me?" asked Herminie, drawing the younger girl's
hand through her arm. "On the contrary, it is I who should thank you for
consenting to leave the ballroom on my account."

"I thank you because I understand your motive, mademoiselle," replied
Ernestine, as they entered Madame Herbaut's chamber, which they found
entirely deserted.

"Well, now that we are alone, explain again why you thanked me a minute
ago," said Herminie, when they had seated themselves.

"Mademoiselle, you are very generous, so you must be equally frank,"
began Ernestine.

"Frankness is one of my greatest virtues--or failings, mademoiselle,"
replied Herminie, smiling. "But why this appeal to my frankness?"

"Just now, when you asked me to accompany you here because the other
room was too warm, you were impelled to do it merely by your kindness of
heart. You said to yourself: 'This poor girl is neglected. No one asks
her to dance because she is so unattractive. If she remains here, she
will become an object of ridicule, and the knowledge will wound her
deeply. I will save her from this humiliation by getting away under some
pretext or other.' That was exactly what you said to yourself. Is it not
so?" insisted Mlle. de Beaumesnil, making no effort to conceal her tears
this time. "Confess that what I say is only the truth?"

"It is," said Herminie, with her accustomed honesty. "Why should I not
admit that your unpleasant position excited my sympathy?"

"And I thank you for it," said Ernestine, offering her hand to her
companion. "You have no idea how grateful I am, too, for your
sincerity."

"And, as you insist upon my being perfectly frank, I must tell you that
you have no idea how deeply you pained me just now," said Herminie,
pressing the proffered hand cordially.

"I?"

"Yes; for when I remarked what a sad thing it must be to strive as hard
for enjoyment as some people do, you replied, in accents that touched me
to the heart, 'Yes, it must be as sad as trying to find true affection
when nobody cares for you.' Have I not set you an example of frankness?
Can you not be equally frank with me?"

"It is true, mademoiselle, that I do not seem to follow your example in
this respect," said Ernestine, hesitatingly.

"Ah, well, let me ask you just one question, and pray do not attribute
it to mere idle curiosity. Can it be that you do not find among your own
relatives the affection you long for?"

"I am an orphan," replied Mlle. de Beaumesnil, in such a touching voice
that Herminie's sympathy increased.

"An orphan!" she repeated; "an orphan! Alas! I understand, for I, too--"

"You, too, are an orphan?"

"Yes."

"How glad I am!" exclaimed Ernestine, naïvely. Then thinking how cruel
or, at least, how strange the remark must have sounded, she added:

"Forgive me, mademoiselle, forgive me, but--"

"Ah, I think I read your feelings in my turn," responded Herminie. "Your
exclamation simply meant: 'She knows how sad the lot of an orphan is,
and she will love me, perhaps. Perhaps in her I shall find the affection
I have failed to find elsewhere.' Am I right?" added Herminie, offering
her hand in her turn. "Have I not read your thoughts aright?"

"Yes, that is true," replied Ernestine, yielding more and more to the
singular charm that pervaded her companion's every word and look. "You
have been so kind to me; you seem so honest and sincere that I do indeed
long for your affection, mademoiselle. It--it is an ambition only. I
dare not call it a hope, for you scarcely know me," concluded Ernestine,
timidly.

"But do you know me any better than I know you?"

"No, but with you it is very different."

"And why?"

"Because I am already under deep obligations to you, and yet I ask an
even greater favour."

"But how do you know that I will not be very glad to give you the
friendship you ask in exchange for yours? You seem to me well worthy of
it," said Herminie, who, on her side, was beginning to feel an
increasing fondness for Ernestine.

Then, suddenly becoming thoughtful, she added: "Do you know that this is
very strange?"

"What, mademoiselle?" asked Ernestine, a little worried by the
seriousness of her companion's face.

"We have known each other barely half an hour. I do not know your name,
you do not know mine; yet here we are almost exchanging confidences."

"But why should you be surprised to see affection and confidence spring
up suddenly between a benefactress and the person obliged,
mademoiselle?" asked Ernestine, timidly, almost imploringly, as if
fearing Herminie might regret the interest she had manifested in her up
to this time. "I am sure nothing could bring two persons together so
quickly and so closely as compassion on one side and gratitude on the
other."

"I am too anxious to believe you not to yield to your arguments very
readily," Herminie answered, half laughingly, half seriously.

"But my reasoning is true, mademoiselle," said Ernestine, encouraged by
her success, and anxious to make her companion share her convictions;
"besides, the similarity in our situations helps to bring us together.
The fact that we are both orphans is surely a bond between us."

"It is indeed," said the duchess, pressing Ernestine's hand
affectionately.

"Then you will really grant me your affection some day?"

"A few minutes ago, without even knowing you, I was touched by your
painful position," replied Herminie. "Now I feel that I love you because
it is so evident that you have a kind and noble heart."

"Oh, if you only knew what pleasure your words give me! I will never
prove ungrateful, I swear it, mademoiselle!"

Then as if bethinking herself, she added, "Mademoiselle? It seems to me
that it will be very difficult for me to call you that now."

"And equally difficult for me to reply in the same ceremonious way,"
responded the duchess. "So call me Herminie and I will call you--"

"Ernestine."

"Ernestine," exclaimed Herminie, remembering that this was her sister's
name,--the name the Comtesse de Beaumesnil had mentioned several times
in the young musician's presence when speaking of her beloved daughter;
"you are called Ernestine? You spoke of one bond between us just a
moment ago; this is another."

"What do you mean?"

"A lady to whom I was deeply attached had a daughter who was also named
Ernestine."

"You see how many reasons there are that we should love each other,
Herminie," said Mlle. de Beaumesnil; "and as we are friends now, I am
going to ask you all sorts of impertinent questions."

"Proceed, then!" said Herminie, smiling.

"Well, in the first place, what do you do for a living? What is your
profession, Herminie?"

"I give lessons on the piano and in singing."

"How lucky your pupils are! How kind you must be to them!"

"No, indeed, I am very severe," replied the duchess, gaily. "And you,
Ernestine, what do you do?"

"I--I do embroidery and tapestry work," Mlle. de Beaumesnil answered,
somewhat embarrassed.

"And do you have plenty of work, my dear child?" asked Herminie, with
almost maternal solicitude; "work of that kind is usually so very scarce
at this season of the year."

"I came from the country only a short time ago to join my relative
here," replied poor Ernestine, more and more confused; then gathering a
certain amount of courage from the very exigency of the situation, she
added: "So you see, Herminie, that I have never lacked work yet."

"If you ever should, I think I might be able to procure it for you, my
dear Ernestine."

"You! and how?"

"I, too, have done embroidery for some of the large shops, when--well,
one may surely confess it to a friend--when pupils were scarce, and I
had to eke out a living in that way; so as they were very well satisfied
with my work at the establishment of which I speak,--one of the largest
in town by the way,--I am still on good terms with them, and feel sure
that a recommendation from me would ensure you work if you need it."

"But as you embroider, too, Herminie, I should be depriving you of one
of your resources, and if pupils should become scarce again, what would
you do?" asked Ernestine, deeply touched by Herminie's generous offer.

"Oh, I have other resources now," answered the other girl, proudly. "I
copy music, too. But the important thing, you see, Ernestine, is to be
certain of work, for you, too, alas! know, perhaps, that it is not
enough for those who labour for their daily bread to have energy and
determination; they must have employment as well."

"Certainly, and that is very hard to find sometimes," said Ernestine,
sadly, thinking for the first time of the sad lot of many young girls,
and reflecting that her new friend had doubtless been in the deplorable
situation of which she spoke.

"Yes, and it is terrible for one to see oneself nearing the end of one's
resources, no matter how willing to work and how courageous one may be,"
replied Herminie, sadly. "And it is for this very reason that I will do
everything in my power to spare you such misery as that, my poor
Ernestine. But tell me, where do you live? I will call and see you
sometime when I am out giving lessons, that is, if it is not too far out
of my way, for I have to be very saving of my time."

Mlle. de Beaumesnil's embarrassment was very great, and it was still
farther augmented by the painful necessity of being compelled to utter a
falsehood, so it was with no little hesitation that she replied:

"I should be very glad to see you, my dear Herminie, but--but my
relative--"

"Poor child, I understand," said Herminie, quickly, unconsciously coming
to Ernestine's assistance. "You are not in your own home, of course, and
your relative makes you painfully conscious of the fact, sometimes,
perhaps."

"That is it exactly," said Mlle. de Beaumesnil, delighted with this
excuse. "My relative is not bad at heart, but so peevish, and such a
grumbler. I don't believe there was ever another such grumbler in the
world," she added, smiling.

"That is enough for me," exclaimed Herminie, laughing in her turn. "If
she's a grumbler, she'll never have a visit from me. The only way out of
the difficulty, Ernestine, is for you to come and see me whenever you
have time."

"I was just going to ask you to grant me that privilege."

"Yes, yes, you shall come and see how pretty my room is," said the
duchess.

Then remembering that her new friend was not as comfortably housed,
Herminie added:

"When I say that, I don't really mean it. My room is really very
unpretentious."

But Ernestine understood Herminie's disposition and character pretty
well already, so she said, smiling:

"Be honest, Herminie."

"About what?"

"Your room is charming, and you only retracted your words because you
thought I would feel badly because I hadn't a room as pretty as yours."

"Do you know, Ernestine, that you would be a very dangerous person to
have around if any one had a secret, for you seem to divine
everything."

"I was sure of it! Your room is charming. How I shall enjoy seeing it."

"You must not say how I shall enjoy seeing it. You must say, 'Herminie,
I am coming to take a glass of milk with you some morning, soon.'"

"Oh, I'll say that with all the pleasure in life."

"And I accept your offer with equal pleasure. Only when you come,
Ernestine, don't let it be any later than nine o'clock, for I begin my
round of lessons at ten. And now what day will you come?"

Mlle. de Beaumesnil was rescued from this embarrassing situation by
Providence in the shape of a handsome non-commissioned officer of
hussars, who was no other than Olivier.

Faithful to the promise made to Mlle. Herbaut, the kind-hearted fellow
had come to ask Ernestine to dance the next quadrille with him, so,
after having greeted Herminie in the most cordial and respectful manner,
he bowed low before Ernestine, with the stereotyped phrase:

"Will mademoiselle do me the honour to dance the next quadrille with
me."



CHAPTER III.

A BOLD QUESTION.


Mlle. de Beaumesnil was doubly surprised, as the invitation must have
been premeditated, inasmuch as she was not then in the ball-room, so
having no answer ready in her astonishment, Herminie came to her
assistance by saying gaily to the young soldier:

"I accept your invitation in mademoiselle's name, M. Olivier, for she is
quite capable of depriving herself of the pleasure of dancing merely to
keep me company."

"As mademoiselle has accepted for me," added Ernestine, smiling, "I can
but follow her example."

Olivier bowed again, and turning to Herminie remarked:

"Unfortunately I arrived very late this evening, mademoiselle, for I
found you had not only ceased playing, but had also abandoned all idea
of dancing."

"You did come very late, M. Olivier, for I recollect seeing you come in
at the conclusion of the last polka I played."

"Alas! mademoiselle, you see in me a victim of my own patience and
another's unpunctuality. I was waiting for a friend who intended to come
with me."

Herminie blushed slightly and averted her eyes.

"But this friend did not come," Olivier added.

"Possibly he is ill, M. Olivier," said the duchess, with feigned
indifference.

"No, mademoiselle, he is perfectly well, for I saw him only a few hours
ago, but I think his mother must have detained him, for the
kind-hearted fellow never opposes her in anything."

The words seemed to dispel the slight cloud which had gathered, now and
then, on the brow of the duchess during the evening, and she answered,
gaily:

"Then you do very wrong to blame your friend if he has such a good
excuse for his absence, M. Olivier."

"I am not blaming him in the least, Mlle. Herminie. I am only pitying
him for not having come, and pitying myself for arriving so late, as I
might, perhaps, have had the pleasure of dancing with mademoiselle
sooner," added Olivier, addressing Mlle. de Beaumesnil, so she would not
feel that she was left out of the conversation.

Suddenly the words, "Take your places!" resounded through the room,
accompanied by a few chords on the piano.

"I am at your service, mademoiselle," said Olivier, offering his arm to
Ernestine.

The girl arose to accompany Olivier, but Herminie caught her by the
hand, and whispered:

"One moment, Ernestine, let me arrange your sash. It needs pinning."

And the duchess, with charming solicitude, straightened a disordered
fold in the sash, fastened it with a pin she took from her own girdle,
smoothed out a slight wrinkle in Ernestine's corsage,--rendered her, in
short, all those little kindly services which two devoted sisters are
always performing for each other.

"Now, mademoiselle," remarked Herminie, with kindly gravity, after
another brief survey of Ernestine's toilet, "I will let you go and
dance, but you must promise to enjoy yourself immensely."

Mlle. de Beaumesnil was so touched by Herminie's little attentions that,
before accepting Olivier's arm, she found an opportunity to imprint a
light kiss on the cheek of the duchess, and whisper:

"Thanks again! Many, many thanks!"

And really happy for the first time since her mother's death, Ernestine
left Herminie, took the arm Olivier offered, and accompanied him into
the ball-room.

The young hussar was remarkably handsome and distinguished-looking,
cordial in his manner towards men, and extremely deferential to women.
This, together with the fact that he wore his showy uniform, decorated
with the cross he had so bravely won, with easy grace, made him a great
favourite at Madame Herbaut's entertainments, so Ernestine excited not a
little envy and jealousy when she appeared in the ball-room on Olivier's
arm.

Even the most artless and ingenuous women are quick to discern the
effect they produce upon other women.

And in Mlle. de Beaumesnil's case, these powers of penetration were
united with a firm determination to observe every incident of the
evening with the closest attention, so, on perceiving the envy which
Olivier's preference excited, the young girl's gratitude increased.

She did not doubt in the least that Olivier, out of the kindness of his
heart, had wished to avenge the painful, almost humiliating slight she
had received earlier in the evening, and a natural feeling of gratitude
made Mlle. de Beaumesnil treat Olivier with less reserve, perhaps, than
was quite proper in the extremely delicate position in which she was
placed.

Olivier, in promising Mlle. Herbaut that he would ask Ernestine to
dance, had merely yielded to a generous impulse, for, seeing Mlle. de
Beaumesnil such a long way off, he had thought her almost ugly. He had
never exchanged a word with her, he did not know whether she was clever
or stupid, so, glad to find a topic of conversation in the warm
friendship that seemed to exist between Herminie and Ernestine, he
remarked to the latter, in one of the pauses of the dance:

"You seem to know Mlle. Herminie very well, mademoiselle. What a
charming young lady she is!"

"I agree with you perfectly, monsieur, though I met Mlle. Herminie this
evening for the first time."

"Indeed!"

"Our sudden intimacy surprises you, does it not, monsieur? But why
should it? Sometimes the richest are the most generous. They do not wait
to be asked; they offer their largess to you of their own accord. That
was the case with Herminie this evening."

"I understand, mademoiselle. You knew no one here, and Mlle. Herminie--"

"Seeing me alone, had the goodness to come to me. This can not surprise
you very much, however."

"Why not, mademoiselle?"

"Because a moment ago you, monsieur, were actuated by the same
charitable impulse in asking me to dance."

"Charitable? What an expression to use in this connection,
mademoiselle!"

"It is the right one, however."

"Quite the contrary, mademoiselle."

"Come, admit it, monsieur. You ought always to tell the truth, you
know."

"Frankly, mademoiselle," responded Olivier, smiling in his turn, "should
I be performing an act of charity--allow me to make this comparison--in
culling a forgotten or unseen flower?"

"Say, rather, a rejected one."

"So be it, mademoiselle. But might this not merely show the poor taste
of a person who would prefer a big red poppy to a modest violet."

And Olivier cast a laughing glance at the buxom lass whose gaudy attire
did seem to justify the comparison.

Mlle. de Beaumesnil could not help smiling, but she answered, with a
shake of the head:

"Ah, monsieur, kind as your reply is, it proves that I am doubly right."

"How is that, mademoiselle?"

"You took compassion on me, and you still have sufficient compassion to
be unwilling to admit the fact."

"You do right to insist upon frankness, mademoiselle. It is a thousand
times better than compliments."

"And what I certainly expect of you, monsieur."

"Well, yes, mademoiselle; seeing that you were the only person not
dancing, I thought how dull it must be for you, and I resolved to engage
you for the next quadrille. I hope my sincerity has not offended you,
but you insisted--"

"Certainly, monsieur; and I am so grateful for your sincerity that if I
dared--"

"Do not hesitate, I beg of you, mademoiselle."

"But no, however frank you may be, however great a lover of truth, your
sincerity, I am sure, would not exceed certain limits--"

"Those you yourself prescribe, mademoiselle; no others."

"Are you in earnest?"

"I am, I assure you."

"The question I am about to put to you, monsieur, will seem so peculiar,
so bold, perhaps."

"Then, mademoiselle, I shall tell you that it seems strange and bold,
that is all."

"I don't think I shall ever dare--"

"Ah, mademoiselle, you seem to be afraid of frankness, in your turn,"
said Olivier, laughing.

"Say, rather, that I tremble for your sincerity; it will have to be so
great, so rare, to stand my test."

"You need have no fears, I will vouch for it, mademoiselle."

"Well, monsieur, what do you think of my appearance?"

"Mademoiselle," stammered Olivier, who was not in the least prepared for
such a brusque and embarrassing question; "really--I--"

"Ah, you see that you dare not say what you think, monsieur," exclaimed
Ernestine, gaily. "But wait, to put you quite at your ease, let us
suppose that on leaving this entertainment you should meet one of your
friends, and in telling him about the young ladies you danced with, what
would you say about me if you should happen to remember that I was one
of your partners?"

"Well, mademoiselle," responded Olivier, who had partially recovered
from his surprise, "I should merely say to my friend, 'I saw a young
lady whom nobody asked to dance. This interested me in her, so I engaged
her for the next quadrille, not supposing that our conversation would
prove particularly interesting, for not knowing the young lady at all, I
had nothing but commonplaces to say to her. But quite the contrary.
Thanks to my partner, our conversation was extremely animated, and the
time passed like a dream.'"

"And what if your friend should perhaps ask if this young lady was
pretty or ugly?"

"I should say that I had not been able to distinguish her features very
well from a distance," replied Olivier, intrepidly, "but on seeing her
closer, and looking at her more attentively, and more particularly after
I had heard her talk, I found her face so gentle and kind and
characterised by such an expression of winning frankness that I ceased
to think that she was not pretty. But I should add, still speaking to my
friend, of course: 'Do not repeat these remarks made to you in
confidence, for it is only women of great good sense and amiability who
ask for, or forgive, sincerity.' It is consequently only to a very
discreet friend that I should say this, mademoiselle."

"I thank you so much, monsieur. I am grateful, you have no idea how
grateful, for your frankness," said Mlle. de Beaumesnil, in such a
sincere and earnest voice that Olivier, surprised and touched in spite
of himself, gazed at the girl with lively interest.

Just then the dance ended, and Olivier took Ernestine back to Herminie,
who was waiting for her; then, impressed by the singular character of
the young girl with whom he had just danced, he withdrew himself a
little apart to think over their strange conversation.

"You enjoyed yourself very much, did you not, Ernestine?" asked
Herminie, affectionately. "I knew it by your face. You talked all the
time you were dancing."

"M. Olivier is very pleasant; besides, knowing that you were so well
acquainted with him made me feel perfect confidence in him at once."

"And he deserves it, I assure you, Ernestine. No one could have a better
heart or a nobler character. His most intimate friend"--and the duchess
blushed almost imperceptibly--"tells me that M. Olivier works like a
slave at the most uncongenial employment in order to utilise his leave
and assist his uncle, a retired officer of marines, crippled with
wounds, who resides in this same house and has only his pension to live
on."

"This doesn't surprise me at all, Herminie. I knew that M. Olivier must
have a kind heart."

"He is as brave as a lion, too, with it all. His friend, who served in
the same regiment, has told me of many deeds of wonderful valour on M.
Olivier's part."

"That seems only natural to me. I have always believed that good and
kind-hearted people were the bravest," replied Ernestine. "You, for
example, must be very courageous, Herminie."

The conversation between the two young girls was again interrupted by a
young man, who, after interchanging a quick glance with Herminie,
politely invited Ernestine to dance.

Mlle. de Beaumesnil saw the look, and it made her blush and smile.
Nevertheless, she made an engagement to dance the next quadrille, but as
soon as the young man had walked away Ernestine gaily remarked to her
new friend:

"You are making me a very dangerous person, my dear Herminie."

"Why do you say that, Ernestine?"

"That invitation I just received--"

"Well, what of it?"

"Was all your work."

"Mine?"

"Yes, you said to yourself, 'This poor Ernestine must, at least, dance
twice during the evening. Everybody is not as kind-hearted as M.
Olivier, but I am queen here, and I will give orders to one of my
subjects.'"

But just then Queen Herminie's subject came to say that the quadrille
was forming.

"Good-bye, Madame Sybil," exclaimed Herminie, shaking her finger
threateningly at Mlle. de Beaumesnil. "I'll teach you not to be so proud
of your wonderful powers of divination."

The young girl had scarcely walked away with her partner before Olivier
came up, and, seating himself beside the duchess, said:

"Who is that young girl I just danced with?"

"An orphan who supports herself by her embroidery, M. Olivier, and who
is not very happy, I think, for you can not imagine the touching way in
which she thanked me for my attention this evening. It was this that
made us friends so quickly, for I never saw her until to-night."

"That is what she meant, I suppose, by speaking so artlessly of what she
called your compassion, and mine."

"Poor child! She must have been very unkindly treated, and is still,
perhaps, to make her so grateful for the slightest show of interest."

"Hers is certainly a very original character. You can't imagine what a
strange question she asked me, imploring me to be perfectly frank all
the while."

"No, I can not."

"Well, she asked me whether I thought her pretty or ugly."

"What a strange child! And what did you answer?"

"I told her the truth, as she insisted."

"What! M. Olivier, did you really tell her that she wasn't pretty?"

"I certainly did, adding, however,--and that, too, was the truth,--that
she had such a frank and gentle manner that it made one quite forget
that she was not pretty."

"Great heavens! M. Olivier," cried Herminie, almost in affright, "that
wasn't a pleasant thing for her to hear. And she did not seem hurt?"

"Not the least bit in the world. Quite the contrary, in fact, and that
was what surprised me so much. When one asks questions of this nature, a
request to be frank generally means that you are to lie; while she
thanked me in such an earnest and pathetic way for my sincerity that I
was really touched, in spite of myself."

"Do you know what I think, M. Olivier? I really believe the poor child
must have been very unkindly treated at home. She must have been told a
hundred times that she was a monster of ugliness, and, finding herself
for the first time in her life with some one she really felt that she
could trust, she wanted to know the truth in regard to herself."

"You are probably right, Mlle. Herminie, and what touched me, as it did
you, was to see with what gratitude the poor girl welcomed the slightest
sign of interest, provided it was sincere."

"Would you believe it, I have seen big tears well up in her eyes more
than once this evening, M. Olivier?"

"I, too, somehow fancied that her gaiety concealed a habitual
melancholy. She was trying to forget herself, perhaps."

"And then her trade, which unfortunately requires such an expenditure of
time and labour, is so unremunerative, poor child! If the trials of
poverty should be added to her other troubles--"

"I fear that is only too probable, Mlle. Herminie," said Olivier,
feelingly. "She is, indeed, very much to be pitied!"

"Hush, here she comes," said Herminie. Then she added: "But she is
putting on her wrap; they must be taking her away."

And in fact, Ernestine, behind whom Madame Laîné was walking with an
imposing air, came to the door, and made a slight movement of the head
to Herminie as if to indicate that she was leaving with regret.

The duchess hastened to her new friend. "What! you are going already?"
she asked.

"I must," answered Ernestine, with a meaning look at innocent Madame
Laîné.

"But you will come next Sunday, will you not? You know we shall have a
thousand things to say to each other."

"I hope to come, my dear Herminie, I shall be so anxious to see you
again."

Then with a gracious bow to the young hussar, Ernestine said:

"_Au revoir_, M. Olivier."

"_Au revoir_, mademoiselle," replied the young soldier, with a bow.

An hour afterwards Mlle. de Beaumesnil and Madame Laîné were safe within
the walls of the Hôtel de la Rochaiguë.



CHAPTER IV.

REASON ASSERTS ITSELF.


On her return from Madame Herbaut's little entertainment, mademoiselle
opened her journal and wrote as follows:

"Thank Heaven, my darling mamma; the inspiration to which I yielded was
a wise one!

"What a cruel lesson I received at first, then how much valuable
information, and lastly what delightful compensation!

"Two persons with true, honest hearts manifested a genuine interest in
me.

"A genuine, unselfish interest this time, for these persons, at least,
have not even a suspicion that I am the richest heiress in France.

"On the contrary, they believe me to be poor, almost on the verge of
absolute want, in fact; and then, what is more, they have been perfectly
honest with me. I know it, I am certain of it!

"Judge of my happiness! I have met some one at last whom I feel I can
trust, I, who have come to distrust everybody and everything, thanks to
the fulsome flattery of those around me.

"At last I know what I am really worth--how I really appear in the eyes
of others.

"I am far from pretty; there is nothing in the world about me worthy of
the slightest notice. I am one of those persons who must pass through
life unnoticed unless some compassionate heart should be touched by my
naturally gentle and rather melancholy ways.

"The feeling I must really inspire, if I inspire any feeling at all, is
that sort of affectionate commiseration that truly noble souls feel when
they are brought into close contact with an inoffensive creature who is
suffering from some hidden sorrow.

"If this commiseration ever attracts one of these noble natures to me,
what it will find and love in me is sweetness of disposition combined
with an intense longing for mutual sincerity.

"This, then, is precisely what I am,--nothing less, nothing more!

"And when I compare these slight attractions, the only ones I possess,
with the marvellous charms and perfections with which my flatterers have
endowed me; when I think of the sudden and irresistible passions I have
inspired in persons who have scarcely exchanged a word with me; when I
think of the sensation I create in fashionable circles, and then think
of the modest entertainment this evening, where I was invited to dance
only from a feeling of pity, and where I saw all the other young girls
chosen in preference to me, because I was the least attractive one
present,--oh, mother, I, who never hated any one in my whole life
before, now feel that I hate as deeply as I despise these persons who
have so shamefully deceived me by their base flattery.

"I am astonished at all the bitter, insolent, and opprobrious epithets
which occur to me, and with which I long to crush my deceivers some day,
or, rather, when a test to which I mean to subject them at that grand
ball next Thursday has wholly convinced me of their deceitfulness and
treachery.

"Alas! my dear mother, suppose any one had told me a short time ago that
I, who am naturally so timid, should make such a bold resolve some day!

"But the necessity of escaping the greatest of misfortunes imparts
courage and determination even to the most timid.

"But, as I have said before, my dear mother, the cruel lesson I received
was not without its compensations.

"In the first place, I have gained, I am sure, a generous and sincere
friend. Seeing me slighted and neglected, a charming young girl took
pity on me. She came to me, and endeavoured to console me with wonderful
cleverness and kindness.

"I felt, or, rather, I feel, for her the tenderest gratitude.

"Oh, if you only knew, mother, how novel and pleasant and delightful it
was for me, the richest heiress in France, to find some one who, upon
seeing me neglected, and, as she supposed, unhappy, on that very account
manifests the most touching interest in me,--who, in short, loves me for
myself alone.

"To be sought out and to be loved on account of your supposed
misfortunes, what ineffable happiness this is to a person who, up to
that time, has been loved, apparently, only on account of the wealth she
is known to possess.

"The sincere affection I have gained this time is unspeakably precious
to me, because it gives me the hope of such a happy future. With a tried
and trusted friend, what have I to fear? Ah, I have no fear of seeing
this friend change some day when I tell her who I really am!

"What I have said in regard to Herminie, for that is her name, also
applies to M. Olivier, who might be taken for this young girl's brother,
so great is his kindness of heart and his honesty. Seeing that no one
had asked me to dance, it was he who invited me out of pity, and so
great is his frankness that he did not deny that he was actuated by
motives of compassion. Moreover, when I had the hardihood to ask him if
he thought me pretty, he replied that he did not, but that I had a face
which was interesting by reason of its gentle, rather sad expression.

"These honest words gave me inexpressible pleasure and satisfaction. I
felt that they were true, for they reminded me of what you said to me
once, my beloved mother, when you were speaking of my looks; besides,
the words were addressed, not to the wealthy heiress, but to the little
embroideress.

"M. Olivier is only a common soldier, I know; but he must have received
an excellent education, for he expresses himself admirably and his
manners are perfect. Besides, he is as kind-hearted and good as he is
brave, for he evinces a truly filial devotion for his aged uncle, a
retired naval officer.

"Oh, mother, what noble and courageous natures these are! How entirely
at ease one feels with them! How their frankness and sincerity rejoices
one's heart! How healthy and wholesome to the soul such association is!
What serenity and cheerful resignation they display under adverse
circumstances, for both these young people are obliged to work
hard,--Herminie, for a mere subsistence; M. Olivier, to increase his old
uncle's inadequate means.

"To work for a living!

"And yet Herminie told me if work should fail me at any time she would
do her best to secure me employment from a large establishment for which
she had occasionally worked herself, for I had no idea yet what a
dreadful thing it was to be out of work.

"To be out of work!

"Great Heavens, that means to lack food! That means want, misery, death
itself, perhaps!

"All the merry, laughing girls I saw at this little entertainment, girls
who are, like Herminie, dependent entirely upon their own exertions for
a livelihood, may know all the horrors of abject want to-morrow, if work
should fail them!

"Is there no one to whom they can go and say, 'I am brave and willing,
only give me work?'

"But such a state of things is unjust! It is shameful! Is there no such
thing as pity for the woes of others in the world? Is it a matter of
little or no consequence that there should be so many people in the
world who do not know whether they will have food on the morrow?

"Oh, mother, mother, now I understand the vague fear and uneasiness I
experienced when they told me I was so rich! I had good reason to say to
myself, with something akin to remorse:

"Such vast wealth for myself alone? And why?

"Why should I have so much and others nothing?

"How did I acquire this immense fortune?

"Alas! I acquired it only by your death, my mother, and by your death,
my father.

"So I had to lose those I held most dear in the world in, order to
become so rich.

"In order that I may be so rich, it is necessary, perhaps, that
thousands of young girls like Herminie should be always in danger of
want,--happy to-day, filled with despair to-morrow.

"And when they have lost their only treasures, the lightheartedness and
gaiety of youth, when they are old, and when not only work, but strength
is lacking, what becomes of these unfortunates?

"Oh, mother, the more I think of the terrible difference between my lot
and that of Herminie and so many other young girls--the more I think of
the dangers that surround me, of all the nefarious schemes of which I am
the object because I am rich, it seems to me that wealth imparts a
strange bitterness to the heart.

"Now my reason has at last asserted itself, I must satisfy myself of the
omnipotent power of wealth over venal souls; I must see to what depths
of degradation I, a girl of sixteen, can make those around me stoop.
Yes, for my eyes are open now. I realise with profound gratitude that M.
de Maillefort's revelations alone started this train of thought that is
making everything more and more clear to me every minute.

"I do not know, but it seems to me, my dear mother, that I can express
my thoughts more clearly now, that my mind is developing, that my
faculties are awakening from a sort of stupor, that my character is
undergoing a decided change in many respects, and that, while it remains
keenly susceptible to all that is sincere and generous, it is becoming
strongly antagonistic and aggressive to all that is false, base and
mercenary.

"I am convinced of one thing: they lied to me when they told me that M.
de Maillefort was your enemy. They told me so merely because they wanted
to make me distrust his counsels. It was designedly that they fostered
my dislike of him, a dislike caused by the slanders of which I have been
the dupe.

"No, never shall I forget that it was to M. de Maillefort's revelations
that I was indebted for the idea of going to Madame Herbaut's, where I
not only learned the truth concerning myself, but where I met the only
two really generous and sincere persons that I have known since I lost
you, my father, and you, my mother."

       *       *       *       *       *

The morning after Madame Herbaut's ball Mlle. de Beaumesnil rang for her
governess a little earlier than usual.

Madame Laîné appeared almost instantly, however.

"Did mademoiselle have a comfortable night?" she asked.

"Very, my dear Laîné but tell me, have you made the inquiries I asked
you to last evening, so we may know whether any one suspected our
absence."

"No one has the slightest suspicion of it, mademoiselle. Madame de la
Rochaiguë did not send to inquire for you until early this morning."

"And you replied?"

"That mademoiselle had passed a very comfortable, though slightly
restless, night; but that the quiet and rest had benefited mademoiselle
very much."

"That is all right then, my dear Laîné, and now I have another favour to
ask of you."

"I am at mademoiselle's service; but I am so distressed about what
happened at Madame Herbaut's last night," said the governess. "I was in
torture the whole evening."

"But what happened at Madame Herbaut's?"

"Why, mademoiselle was received with such coldness and indifference. It
was shameful, for mademoiselle is in the habit of seeing everybody crowd
around her as they ought."

"As they ought?"

"Most assuredly. Mademoiselle knows very well the respect that is due to
her position, so last evening I was mortified and incensed beyond
expression. 'Ah,' I said to myself,'if you only knew that this young
lady you are neglecting is Mlle. de Beaumesnil, you would all be down on
your knees in the twinkling of an eye.'"

"My dear Laîné, let me first set your mind at rest about last evening. I
was delighted, and I enjoyed myself so much that I intend to go again
next Sunday evening."

"What, mademoiselle wishes to go again?"

"I shall go, that is decided. Now, another thing. The reception which I
met with at Madame Herbaut's, and which scandalises you so deeply, is
convincing proof of the discretion I expected from you. I thank you for
it, and if you always act in this way I assure you your fortune is
made."

"But mademoiselle knows that it is not self-interest--that--"

"Yet that need not prevent me from rewarding you as you deserve, my dear
Laîné. And that is not all; I want you to ask Madame Herbaut for the
address of one of the young ladies I met last evening. The young lady I
mean is called Herminie, and she gives music lessons."

"I shall not have to apply to Madame Herbaut for that, mademoiselle, M.
le baron's steward knows the address."

"What! Our steward knows Mlle. Herminie's address?" exclaimed Ernestine,
greatly astonished.

"Yes, mademoiselle. They were speaking of the young lady in the office
only a few days ago."

"Of Mlle. Herminie?"

"Yes, mademoiselle. It was in relation to a five hundred franc note that
she returned to the baroness. Louis, one of the footmen, heard the whole
conversation through the door of the reception-room."

"Madame de la Rochaiguë knows Herminie?" cried Ernestine, whose surprise
and curiosity were increased by each word the governess uttered. "And
what is this about a five hundred franc note?"

"Why, it seems that this honest young girl--I told you that Madame
Herbaut was exceedingly particular in the selection of her guests--this
honest young girl returned the five hundred francs because she said she
had already been paid by the countess."

"What countess?"

"Why, mademoiselle's mother."

"My mother paid Herminie? And for what?"

"Ah, yes, it is true that mademoiselle is not aware--I suppose no one
has told mademoiselle for fear of making her still more sad."

"Has not told me what? In Heaven's name, speak!"

"Why, the late countess suffered so much towards the last, that the
physicians, at their wit's end, thought that music might ameliorate her
sufferings, at least to some extent."

"Great Heaven! I can not believe it. Go on, go on."

"So they sent for a young musician, and this young musician was
Herminie!"

"Herminie?"

"Yes, mademoiselle. For ten days or a fortnight before Madame la
comtesse died, mademoiselle came to play and sing to her every day, and
they say it quieted the countess very much, but unfortunately it was too
late."

While Ernestine was drying the tears these sad details, hitherto unknown
to her, had brought to her eyes, Madame Laîné continued:

"It seems that, after your mother's death, the baroness, thinking Mlle.
Herminie had not been paid, sent her five hundred francs, but this
noble-hearted young girl brought the money back and declared that the
countess owed her nothing."

"She saw my dying mother! She assuaged her sufferings," thought
Ernestine, with inexpressible emotion. "Ah, how I long to tell her that
I am the daughter of the lady she loved, for how could any one know my
mother without loving her?"

Then starting violently at another recollection, the young girl said to
herself:

"But I remember now, that, when I told her my name was Ernestine, the
coincidence seemed to strike her, and she seemed to be deeply moved when
she said that a lady, for whom she had a profound regard, had a daughter
who was also named Ernestine. So my mother must have talked to her about
me, and if my mother talked to her as confidentially as that, my mother
must have loved her; so I, too, have reason to love her. In fact, it is
my bounden duty. My brain whirls, my heart overflows. This is too much
happiness. I can hardly believe it."

Dashing away her tears, Ernestine turned to her governess and asked:

"But how did the steward ascertain Mlle. Herminie's address."

"He went to the notary who sent the five hundred francs, for Madame de
la Rochaiguë wished to ascertain the address so she could send it to M.
de Maillefort."

"What, does M. de Maillefort, too, know Herminie?"

"I cannot say, mademoiselle, all I know is that the steward took
Herminie's address to M. le marquis nearly a month ago."

"Get me the address at once, my dear Laîné."

In a few minutes the governess brought the address and Ernestine
immediately sat down and wrote as follows:

       *       *       *       *       *

"MY DEAR HERMINIE:--You invited me to come and see your pretty room. I
shall come early day after to-morrow--Tuesday, early in the morning, so
I may be sure of not interfering in your work. I look forward with
delight to seeing you again. I have a thousand things to tell you. With
love,

"Your sincere friend,

"ERNESTINE."

       *       *       *       *       *

After she had sealed this note, Mlle. de Beaumesnil said to her
governess:

"I wish you to post this letter yourself, my dear Laîné."

"Yes, mademoiselle."

"How shall I manage to get out alone with Madame Laîné day after
to-morrow?" Ernestine said to herself. "I have no idea, but my heart
tells me that I shall see Herminie again!"



CHAPTER V.

A CONSUMING FEVER OF LOVE.


On the morning of the same day that mademoiselle had appointed for her
visit to Herminie, Gerald de Senneterre was having a long conversation
with Olivier.

The two young men were sitting under the little arbour of which
Commander Bernard was so fond.

The young duke's face was extremely pale and agitated. In fact, he
seemed a prey to the deepest anxiety and distress.

"So you will see her, my dear Olivier," he was saying to his friend.

"At once. I wrote to her last evening requesting an interview. She has
not answered my note, so she consents."

"Then in an hour my fate will be decided," groaned Gerald.

"I am forced to admit that I think this a very serious matter," said
Olivier. "You know, even better than I do, how proud this young girl is,
and that which would be our greatest chance of success with any one else
will be almost sure to have an exactly opposite effect in her case.
Still, we will not despair."

"But, Olivier, if I should be obliged to give her up, I don't know how I
could bear it!" exclaimed Gerald, hoarsely. "I should kill myself, I
believe!"

"Gerald! Gerald!"

"Yes, I admit it. I love her to distraction. I never believed before
that even the most impassioned love could attain such a degree of
intensity. My love is a consuming fever,--a fixed idea that absorbs me
utterly. You know Herminie--"

"Yes, and I know that a more noble and beautiful creature never lived."

"Olivier, I am the most miserable of men!" exclaimed Gerald, burying his
face in his hands.

"Come, come, Gerald, don't give way so. You can rely upon me. I believe,
too, that you can trust her. Does she not love you as much as you love
her? So don't be despondent. On the contrary, hope, and if,
unfortunately--"

"But I tell you that I can not and will not live without her."

There was such evident sincerity in the words, as well as such
passionate resolve, that Olivier shuddered, for he knew what an
indomitable will his former comrade possessed.

"Gerald," he said, with deep emotion, "again I tell you that you should
not despair. Wait here until my return."

"You are right," said Gerald, passing his hand across his fevered brow.
"I will wait for you."

Olivier, unwilling to leave his friend in such a despondent mood,
continued:

"I forgot to tell you that I informed my uncle of your intentions in
regard to Mlle. de Beaumesnil, and they have his unqualified approval.
'Such conduct is worthy of him,' he said to me, so day after to-morrow,
Gerald--"

"Day after to-morrow!" exclaimed the young duke, bitterly and
impatiently. "I am not thinking of anything so far off. It is as much as
I can do to see my way from hour to hour."

"But, Gerald, it is a duty you have to perform."

"Don't talk to me about anything but Herminie. I am utterly indifferent
to everything else. What are these so-called duties and obligations to
me when I am in torture?"

"You do not realise what you are saying."

"Yes, I do."

"No, you do not."

"Olivier!"

"Oh, you may rebel as much as you please, but I tell you that your
conduct, now as ever, shall be that of a man of honour. You will go to
this ball to meet Mlle. de Beaumesnil."

"I'll be d---- d if I will. I am at liberty to do as I please, I think,
monsieur."

"No, Gerald, you are not at liberty to do anything that is dishonest or
dishonourable."

"Do you know that what you are saying--" began the young duke, pale with
anger; but seeing the expression of sorrowful astonishment on Olivier's
features, Gerald became ashamed of his outburst, and, extending his hand
to his friend, he said, in an almost beseeching voice:

"Forgive me, Olivier, forgive me! To think that almost at the very
moment that you are undertaking the gravest and most delicate mission
for me, I should so far forget myself--"

"Come, come, you needn't go to making excuses," said Olivier, preventing
his friend from continuing by affectionately pressing his hand.

"You must have compassion on me, Olivier," said Gerald, despondently. "I
really believe I must be mad."

The conversation was here interrupted by the sudden arrival of Madame
Barbançon, who rushed into the arbour, crying:

"Oh, M. Olivier, M. Olivier!"

"What is the matter, Madame Barbançon?"

"The commander!"

"Well?"

"He has gone out!"

"What, suffering as he is to-day!" exclaimed Olivier, anxiously. "It was
very imprudent. Didn't you try to prevent him from going, Mother
Barbançon?"

"Alas! M. Olivier, I really believe the commander is not in his right
mind."

"What?"

"I was out, and it was the porter who admitted M. Gerald in my absence.
When I returned a few minutes ago, M. Bernard was laughing and singing,
and I really believe even dancing, in spite of his weakness, and at last
he flung his arms around me, shouting like a maniac, 'Victory, Mother
Barbançon, victory!'"

Gerald, in spite of his own troubles, could not repress a faint smile.
It seemed as if he understood the cause of the old officer's delight,
but when Olivier, who was really much disturbed, asked, "Do you know
anything about this, Gerald?" the young duke replied, with the most
natural air in the world:

"Nothing whatever, upon my word! It seems to me more than probable,
though, that the commander must have heard some good news, and there
would be certainly nothing alarming about that."

"Good news!" repeated Olivier, much surprised, and trying in vain to
imagine what it could be.

"Well, this much is certain," interposed Madame Barbançon, "after the
commander had shouted 'Victory!' almost at the top of his voice, he
asked: 'Is Olivier in the garden?' 'Yes, with M. Gerald,' I replied.
'Then get me my hat and cane quick, Mother Barbançon,' said he, 'and let
me get off as soon as I can.' 'What! you are going out, weak as you
are?' I exclaimed. 'You are very foolish to think of such a thing,
monsieur.' But the commander wouldn't listen, and clapped his hat on his
head and started as if he intended to come out here and speak to you;
then he stopped short, and after reflecting a moment retraced his steps
and went out at the front door, singing that miserable old song he sings
only when he is in high glee about something,--which doesn't often
happen with the poor, dear man!"

"I don't know what to make of it," said Olivier, "and I can't help
feeling a little uneasy. My uncle has seemed so feeble since his last
attack, that a half hour in the garden yesterday exhausted him
completely."

"Oh, don't be alarmed, my friend, joy never kills."

"I think I had better go down the street a little way, M. Olivier," said
Madame Barbançon. "He has an idea that exercise outside will do him more
good than his walks in the garden, and perhaps I shall find him down
there. But what on earth could he have meant by his 'Victory, Mother
Barbançon, victory!' He must have heard something new in favour of his
Bû-û-onaparte."

And the worthy woman hastened off.

"Don't be uneasy, Olivier," said Gerald, kindly. "The worst that can
happen is that the commander may tire himself a little."

The clock in the neighbouring steeple struck nine, and Olivier,
remembering the mission he had promised to fulfil, said:

"Well, it is nine o'clock. I am going."

"My dear Olivier," said Gerald, "you forget your own anxieties in your
solicitude for my interests; and I, in my selfishness, haven't said so
much as a word to you about your sweetheart."

"What sweetheart?"

"Why, the young girl you met at Madame Herbaut's Sunday."

"I would that your love affair were as tranquil as mine, Gerald; that
is, if you can dignify with that name the interest one naturally feels
in a young girl who is neither happy nor at all pretty, but who has a
sweet face, an excellent disposition, and great originality of
character."

"But you are thinking of this poor girl a great deal of the time, it
seems to me."

"That is true, though I really don't know why. If I find out I will tell
you. But never mind me. You have just displayed a vast amount of heroism
in forgetting your own passion long enough to interest yourself in what
you are pleased to call my love affair," said Olivier, smiling. "This
generosity on your part is sure to be rewarded, so courage, my friend!
Keep up a good heart and wait for me here."

       *       *       *       *       *

Herminie, for her part, was thinking of Olivier's approaching visit with
a vague uneasiness that cast a slight cloud over her usually radiant
face.

"What can M. Olivier want?" thought the duchess. "This is the first time
he has ever asked to call on me, and he wishes to see me on a very
important matter, he says in his note. This important matter cannot
concern him. What if it should concern Gerald, who is his most intimate
friend? But I saw Gerald only yesterday, and I shall see him again
to-day, for it is to-morrow that he is to tell his mother of our love. I
can't imagine why the idea of this approaching interview worries me so.
But that reminds me, I must inform the portress that I am at home to M.
Olivier."

As she spoke, she pulled a bell that communicated with the room of
Madame Moufflon, the portress, who promptly responded to the summons.

"Madame Moufflon, some one will call to see me this morning, and you are
to admit the visitor," said Herminie.

"If it is a lady, of course. I understand."

"But it is not a lady who will call this morning," replied Herminie,
with some embarrassment.

"It is not a lady? Then it must be that little hunchback I have orders
to admit at any time, I suppose."

"No, Madame Moufflon, it is not M. de Maillefort, but a young man."

"A young man?" exclaimed the portress, "a young man? Well, this is the
first time--"

"The young man will tell you his name. It is Olivier."

"Olivier? That is not hard to remember. I'll just think of olives; I
adore them! Olivier, olives, olive oil--it is very nearly the very same
thing. I sha'n't forget it. But, by the way, speaking--not of young men,
for this old serpent isn't young--I saw that old scoundrel hanging
around the house again last evening."

"Again?" exclaimed Herminie, with a look of scorn and disgust at the
thought of Ravil.

For this cynic, since his first meeting with Herminie, had made numerous
attempts to see the young girl, but the portress proving above bribery,
he had written several times to Herminie, who had treated his letters
with the disdain they deserved.

"Yes, mademoiselle, I saw the old snake hanging around again yesterday,"
continued the portress, "and when I planted myself in the doorway to
watch him, he sneered at me as he passed, but I just said to myself:
'Sneer away, you old viper. You'll laugh on the other side of your mouth
one of these days.'"

"I cannot help encountering this man on the street sometimes," said
Herminie, "for he seems to be always trying to put himself in my way;
but I needn't tell you, Madame Moufflon, that he must never be admitted
to the house on any pretext whatever."

"Oh, you needn't worry about that, mademoiselle, he knows pretty well
who he has to deal with by this time."

"But I forgot to mention that a young lady will probably call this
morning, too, Madame Moufflon."

"Very well. But if M. Olivier should be here when the young lady calls,
what then? Shall I admit her just the same?"

"Certainly."

"Oh, I never told you, did I, mademoiselle, that M. Bouffard, who was so
rough to you, but who has been as gentle as a lamb ever since you began
giving his daughter lessons, is always praising you to the skies now. He
said to me only the other day, 'There are plenty of rosières who are not
half as good and modest as Mlle. Herminie. She is a young lady who--'"

But a peal of the door-bell put a sudden end to these eulogiums.

"It is M. Olivier, I expect," said Herminie. "Show him in, please,
Madame Moufflon."

And a minute afterwards that worthy dame ushered in Olivier, and
Herminie found herself alone with Gerald's intimate friend.



CHAPTER VI.

A DELICATE MISSION.


The vague uneasiness which Herminie had felt was greatly increased at
the sight of Olivier, for the young man looked unusually grave. The
duchess even fancied that he avoided her gaze, as if embarrassed, and
this embarrassment on his part was made still more apparent by his
silence and evident reluctance to explain the object of his visit.

Herminie was the first to break this silence.

"You wrote, M. Olivier, that you wished to see me about a very important
matter," she said, at last.

"Very important, mademoiselle."

"I judge so from your manner. What have you to tell me?"

"It concerns Gerald, mademoiselle."

"Great Heavens! What misfortune has befallen him?" exclaimed the
duchess, much frightened.

"None, mademoiselle. I left him only a few minutes ago."

Herminie, thus reassured, felt deeply incensed with herself for her
unguarded exclamation, and, blushing deeply, she said to Olivier:

"I trust you will not misinterpret--"

But the natural frankness of her character asserted itself, and she
said, with quiet dignity:

"But why should I try to conceal from you something that you know
already, M. Olivier. Are you not Gerald's dearest friend, in fact,
almost a brother to him? Neither of us have any cause to blush for our
mutual attachment. To-morrow, he is to inform his mother of his
intentions and ask her consent, which he is almost certain to gain. For
why should he not gain it. Our conditions in life are almost identical.
He supports himself by his own exertions, as I support myself by mine.
Our lot will be humble, and--But, forgive me, M. Olivier, for thus
boring you. It is a fault to which all lovers are prone. But as no
misfortune has befallen Gerald, what is the important matter that brings
you here?"

Herminie's words indicated such a feeling of perfect security that
Olivier realised the difficulties of his task even more keenly, and it
was with painful hesitation that he replied:

"As I said before, no misfortune has befallen Gerald; but I come to you
at his request."

Herminie's face, which had grown quite serene, became anxious again, and
she said:

"Pray have the kindness to explain, M. Olivier. You say you have come at
Gerald's request? Why is an intermediary needed, even in the person of
his most intimate friend? This astonishes me. Why did not Gerald come
himself?"

"Because there is something he is afraid to confess to you,
mademoiselle."

Herminie started violently; the expression of her face changed, and,
looking searchingly at Olivier, she repeated:

"There is something Gerald is afraid to confess to me?"

"Yes, mademoiselle."

"It must be something terrible if he dares not tell me," exclaimed the
girl, paling visibly.

"I meant to have used more precautions, and to have approached the
subject in a more roundabout way, mademoiselle," replied Olivier, who
was in torture, "but I see that such a course on my part would only
serve to prolong your anxiety--"

"My God! What am I about to hear?" murmured the young girl, trembling
violently in every limb.

"Truth is better than falsehood, Mlle. Herminie."

"Falsehood?"

"In a word, Gerald can no longer endure the false position in which a
peculiar combination of circumstances, and his desire to see you, have
placed him. His courage has failed him. He has resolved that he will
deceive you no longer, and, whatever may come of it, trusting to your
generosity, he sends me, I repeat, to tell you what he is afraid to
confess himself,--for he knows how bitterly you abhor deceit, and
unfortunately Gerald has deceived you."

"Deceived me?"

"Yes, Gerald is not what he seems to be. You have known him under an
assumed name. He has pretended to be what he is not."

"My God!" murmured the young girl, in abject terror.

A horrible suspicion had assailed her.

Never supposing for an instant that Olivier could have an aristocrat for
an intimate friend, the poor child feared that Gerald had taken another
name in order to conceal, not the obscurity of his birth or
condition,--these were no disgrace in Herminie's eyes,--but guilty or
dishonourable antecedents. In short, she imagined that Gerald must have
committed some dishonourable act in the past.

So, in her wild terror, the girl, holding up her two hands as if to ward
off an impending blow, exclaimed, brokenly:

"Do not finish this shameful confession, do not, I beseech you."

"Shameful!" repeated Olivier. "What! because Gerald has concealed the
fact that he is the Duc de Senneterre--"

"You say that Gerald, your friend--"

"Is the Duc de Senneterre! Yes, mademoiselle. We were at college
together; he enlisted, as I did. In that way I met him again, and since
that time our intimacy has never flagged. And now, Mlle. Herminie, you
can, perhaps, understand why Gerald concealed his real name and position
from you. It was a wrong to which I became an accomplice through
thoughtlessness; for what has since become a serious matter, that I
deeply regret, was at first merely intended as a joke. Unfortunately,
the introduction of Gerald as a notary's clerk to Madame Herbaut had
already been made, when a singular chance brought you and my friend
together. You will understand the rest. But I repeat that Gerald
resolved, of his own free will, to confess the truth to you, as a
continued deception was too revolting to his sense of honour."

On hearing that Gerald, instead of being a disgraced man, hiding under
an assumed name, had really been guilty of no other wrong than that of
concealing his noble birth, the revulsion of feeling Herminie underwent
was so sudden and violent that she at first experienced a sort of
vertigo; but when she became capable of reflection, when she became able
to realise the consequences of this revelation, the young girl, who was
as pale as death, trembled in every limb. Her knees tottered under her,
and for a moment she was obliged to lean against the mantel for support.

When she did speak, it was in a strangely altered voice.

"M. Olivier," she said, "I am going to say something that may seem
utterly senseless to you. A moment ago, before you had told me all, a
terrible suspicion that Gerald had concealed his real name because he
had been guilty of some wrong doing occurred to me--"

"What, you could believe that?"

"Yes, I did believe that, but I do not know but the truth you have told
me concerning Gerald's position causes me deeper sorrow than that I
experienced when I thought Gerald might be a dishonoured man."

"Impossible, mademoiselle, impossible!"

"This seems to you as absurd as it does senseless, does it not?" asked
the young girl, bitterly.

"It does indeed."

"But in that case, by the power of my love, I might hope to raise him
from his slough of despond, to restore his self-respect, to rehabilitate
him in my eyes, and in his own; but between me and M. le Duc de
Senneterre there is now an unfathomable abyss."

"Oh, reassure yourself on that point," hastily exclaimed Olivier, hoping
to cure the wound he had inflicted and to change his companion's grief
to joy. "You really need have no fears on that score, Mlle. Herminie. I
was deputised to inform you of Gerald's deception, but, thank Heaven! I
am also authorised to tell you that he intends to atone for his fault
and in the most satisfactory manner. Gerald may have deceived you in
some matters, but he has never deceived you as to the sincerity of his
sentiments. They are now what they have always been; his determination
does not waver in the least. To-day, as yesterday, Gerald has only one
desire, one hope,--that you will consent to bear his name, only to-day
his name is that of the Duc de Senneterre. That is all."

"That is all!" exclaimed Herminie, whose deep despondency seemed to have
given place to a sorrowful indignation. "That is all, you say, monsieur?
So it is nothing to have won my affection under false pretences--to have
reduced me to the trying necessity of renouncing a love which was the
hope and blessing of my life or of entering a family that will regard me
with aversion and disdain! And you call this nothing, monsieur! Ah, your
friend pretends to love me, and yet respects me so little as to believe
that I will ever submit to the countless humiliations such a marriage
is sure to bring upon me!"

"But, Mlle. Herminie--"

"Listen to me, M. Olivier. If, after our first meeting, which, by reason
of its very strangeness, made a deep impression upon me,--if, I say,
after our first meeting, Gerald had frankly confessed that he was the
Duc de Senneterre, I should have resisted my growing affection with all
my strength, and I should have triumphed over it, perhaps; but, in any
case, I would never willingly have seen Gerald again. I will not be his
mistress, and, as I said before, I am not the woman to submit to the
humiliations that await me if I consent to become his wife."

"You are very much mistaken, Mlle. Herminie. Accept Gerald's offer, and
you will have no humiliations to fear. Gerald is his own master. Since
he lost his father several years ago, he has had unbounded influence
over his mother. He will make her understand what this love is to him.
But if Madame de Senneterre seems disposed to sacrifice Gerald's
happiness to financial greed, my friend is resolved, after all means of
persuasion have been exhausted, of course, to dispense with his mother's
consent, if need be."

"But I, monsieur, must have, cost what it may, not the affection,--for
that does not come at will,--but the esteem of my husband's mother
because I am worthy of her esteem. Never, do you understand me, never
shall any one say that I was the cause of a rupture between Gerald and
his mother, or that I took advantage of his love for me to force myself
upon a noble and distinguished family; no, monsieur, no one shall ever
say that of me, my pride will not permit it."

As she uttered these words Herminie was truly superb in her sadness and
dignity.

Olivier had too keen a sense of honour himself not to share the young
girl's scruples--the same scruples which Gerald, too, had feared, for
both the young men knew Herminie's indomitable pride.

Nevertheless, Olivier, resolved to make a last effort, said:

"But consider well, Mlle. Herminie, I entreat you. Gerald does all that
any man of honour can do in offering you his hand. What more do you
desire?"

"What I desire, monsieur, as I have told you, is to be treated with the
consideration which is due me, and which I have a right to expect from
M. de Senneterre's family."

"But Gerald can be responsible only for himself, mademoiselle. Any
attempt to exact more would--"

"Say no more, M. Olivier," said Herminie, interrupting him; "you know
me, and you know that I have a firm will."

"I do, mademoiselle."

"Very well. I will never willingly see Gerald again while I live, unless
Madame de Senneterre, his mother, comes here--"

"Here?" exclaimed Olivier, in astonishment.

"Yes, unless Madame la Duchesse de Senneterre comes here and tells me
that she consents to my marriage with her son. Then, no one can ever say
that I forced myself upon this noble family."

This demand--which seemed and which was, in fact, merely the natural
outcome of an intense but laudable pride--Herminie uttered simply and
naturally, because, filled with a justly high respect for herself, the
young girl felt that she asked only what was her just due.

But at the first thought, this demand seemed to Olivier so exorbitant
that, in his astonishment, he could not help saying:

"Madame de Senneterre--come here--to tell you that she consents to your
marriage with her son,--why, what are you thinking of, Mlle. Herminie?
That exceeds the bounds of possibility!"

"And why, monsieur?" asked the young girl, with such ingenuous pride
that Olivier, remembering how generous and noble Herminie's character
and love were, replied, with no little embarrassment:

"You ask why Madame de Senneterre can not come here to tell you that she
consents to your marriage with her son?"

"Yes, monsieur."

"But, mademoiselle, even ignoring the convenances of the fashionable
world, the overtures you ask from a lady of Madame de Senneterre's
age--"

But again interrupting Olivier, the girl said, with a bitter smile:

"If I belonged to the fashionable world of which you speak,
monsieur,--if I had a mother and relatives, instead of being a poor
orphan,--and M. de Senneterre desired my hand in marriage, would it not
be according to the rules of propriety you spoke of just now that Madame
de Senneterre should be the first to approach my mother or my relatives
in her son's behalf?"

"Certainly, mademoiselle, but--"

"I have no mother, and I have no relatives," continued Herminie, sadly.
"To whom, then, if not to me, should Madame de Senneterre address
herself in relation to my marriage?"

"One word, mademoiselle, Madame de Senneterre might do this if she
approved of the marriage."

"And that is precisely why I ask it, M. Olivier."

"But Gerald's mother does not even know you, mademoiselle."

"If Madame de Senneterre has such a poor opinion of her son as to
believe him capable of choosing a wife unworthy of him, she can make all
needful inquiries in relation to me. Thank God, I have nothing to fear."

"That is true," said Olivier, who had exhausted all his arguments.

"So this is my last word, M. Olivier," continued Herminie. "If Madame de
Senneterre is not opposed to my marriage with her son, she will prove it
by making the kindly overtures I ask; if she does not, she will consider
me unworthy to enter her family, and in that case I will never see M. de
Senneterre again."

"Oh, Mlle. Herminie, if only out of compassion for Gerald--"

"Believe me, I am much more in need of pity than M. de Senneterre," said
the girl, and, no longer able to restrain her tears, she buried her face
in her hands. "I may die of grief, I do not know, but to the last I will
at least be worthy of Gerald and of his love."

Olivier was in despair, but he could not help admiring this noble pride,
though he deeply deplored the consequences so far as Gerald was
concerned.

Suddenly a loud ring of the door-bell resounded through the room.
Herminie sprang up and hastily dried her tears; then, remembering Mlle.
de Beaumesnil's note, she said to Olivier:

"It must be Ernestine. Poor child, I had forgotten all about her. M.
Olivier, will you have the goodness to open the door for me?"

"One word more," said Olivier, in earnest, almost solemn tones; "you
have no conception of the intensity of Gerald's love for you. You know I
am not prone to exaggeration, yet I am afraid, do you hear me,
positively afraid, when I think of the possible consequences of your
refusal."

Herminie trembled at Olivier's ominous words. For a moment she seemed to
be torn by conflicting doubts and fears; but she finally triumphed,
though the poor girl, exhausted by this mental conflict, answered in
tones that were barely audible:

"The thought of causing Gerald suffering is terrible to me, for I can
judge of his love by my own. My own sorrow, too, enables me to judge
what his must be. Nevertheless, I will never sacrifice my dignity, for
that is Gerald's as much as mine."

"I entreat you, mademoiselle, do not--"

"You have heard my resolve, M. Olivier. I shall not say another word.
Have pity on me. Can you not see that this interview is killing me?"

Olivier, seeing that it was useless to expostulate further, bowed to
Herminie in silence, and then walked towards the door; but he had
scarcely opened it when he exclaimed:

"My uncle, and you, Mlle. Ernestine! Great Heavens! This pallor--and
this blood on your forehead! What has happened?"

On hearing Olivier's words, Herminie rushed out of her room into the
little hallway.



CHAPTER VII.

GOOD NEWS.


The cause of Olivier's surprise and alarm was only too apparent.

Commander Bernard, pale as death and greatly agitated, was clinging to
Mlle. de Beaumesnil's arm as if for support; while the young girl, quite
as pale as the old officer, and clad in a simple lawn dress, had several
blood-stains on her forehead and cheek.

"What is the matter, uncle?" cried Olivier, scrutinising the veteran's
face with deep anxiety. "What has happened?"

"Great Heavens! Ernestine, are you hurt?" cried Herminie, almost
simultaneously.

"It is nothing, Herminie," replied the young girl, trying to smile,
though her voice trembled violently. "It is nothing, but excuse me for
bringing this gentleman in. Just now--I--you see--"

But the poor child could say no more. Strength and courage were alike
exhausted. Every vestige of colour fled from her lips; her eyes closed,
her head fell back, her limbs gave way under her, and she would have
fallen if Herminie had not caught her in her arms.

"She has fainted!" cried the duchess. "Help me carry her into my room,
M. Olivier."

"And I--I am the cause of all this trouble," said the commander,
following Olivier and Herminie with tottering steps as they carried
Ernestine into Herminie's room. "Poor child," he murmured; "what a kind
heart she has! What courage she displayed!"

The duchess, having placed Ernestine in the armchair, removed her hat
and pushed back from the pure white brow her beautiful chestnut hair,
which rolled down in heavy, shining waves upon her shoulders; then,
while Olivier supported the girl's unconscious head, Herminie with a
soft handkerchief staunched the blood which was flowing from a slight
wound a little way above the temple.

The old sailor stood near, watching this touching scene, his lips
trembling, and unable to utter a word, while big tears dropped slowly
down from his eyes upon his white moustache.

"Support her, M. Olivier, while I go for some cold water and a little
cologne," said Herminie.

She returned almost immediately with a handsome china basin, and a
bottle of cologne, and, after sponging the wound lightly with a mixture
of cologne and water, Herminie poured a little cologne in the palm of
her hand and made Mlle. de Beaumesnil inhale it.

Gradually Ernestine's pale lips recovered their wonted colour and a
slight flush succeeded the pallor in her cheeks.

"Heaven be praised! She is recovering consciousness," whispered
Herminie, gathering up the orphan's long tresses and securing them with
her shell comb.

Olivier, who had seemed deeply affected by the scene, now said to the
duchess, who was standing beside the armchair, supporting Mlle. de
Beaumesnil's head on her bosom:

"Mlle. Herminie, I regret very much that it should be under such
unfortunate circumstances that I have the honour of introducing to you
my uncle, Commander Bernard."

[Illustration: "'_She has fainted._'"

Original etching by Adrian Marcel.]

The young girl responded with an almost affectionate smile and bow, and
the old officer said:

"And I, mademoiselle, am doubly sorry, as I was unfortunately the cause
of this accident which distresses you so much."

"But how did it happen, uncle?" asked Olivier.

So while Herminie, seeing that, thanks to her attentions, Ernestine was
gradually regaining consciousness, made her again inhale a few drops of
cologne, Commander Bernard began his explanation by saying:

"I went out this morning while you were talking with one of your
friends, Olivier."

"Yes, uncle, Madame Barbançon told me that you had been so imprudent as
to go out in spite of your extreme weakness, but she felt less anxious
about you, I thought, from the fact that you had seemed in unusually
good spirits when you left the house."

"Yes, yes, I was unusually gay because I was happy, oh, very happy, for
this morning--"

But the commander, checking himself suddenly, gazed at Olivier with a
peculiar expression, then added, with a sigh:

"No, no, I must not tell you now. Well, as I said before, I went out--"

"It was a very imprudent thing for you to do, uncle."

"Perhaps it was, but I had my reasons for wanting to go; besides, I
thought a walk in the open air might do me good. Still, being a little
doubtful of my strength, instead of going out on the plain as usual, I
followed the broad grassy terrace that borders the railroad track in
this direction. Feeling tired after I had walked a short distance, I sat
down to rest and sun myself on the top of a bank on the side of one of
those new streets which have been graded and paved, but on which no
houses have yet been erected. I sat there a quarter of an hour, perhaps,
then, thinking myself sufficiently rested, I decided that I would get up
and start for home. But the walk, short as it was, had exhausted my
strength completely, for I had scarcely gotten upon my feet before I was
seized with vertigo, my knees trembled under me, I lost my balance; the
bank was steep--"

"And you fell?" asked Olivier, anxiously.

"I must have slidden rather than fallen to the foot of the bank, I
think, and my situation would not have been at all dangerous, I suppose,
if a big wagon, loaded with stones and drawn by horses which had been
left to guide themselves by the driver who was walking on ahead, had not
happened to come along just then."

"Great God!" exclaimed Olivier.

"How terrible!" cried Herminie.

"Ah, yes, especially to that dear young lady you see lying there
wounded, yes, wounded by risking her own life to save mine!"

"What, uncle, this wound of Mlle. Ernestine's--?"

"When I fell from the top of the bank," resumed the old man,
interrupting his nephew, who had cast a look of inexpressible gratitude
on Mlle. de Beaumesnil, "my head struck the pavement, and I lay there
unable to make the slightest movement, though I seemed to see the horses
advancing towards me through a sort of mist. My head could not have been
more than a yard from the wheel when I heard a loud cry, and dimly
perceived a woman, who was coming in the opposite direction from the
horses, rush towards me. Then consciousness deserted me entirely. When I
regained it," continued the old man, with increasing emotion, "I was
half lying, half sitting, on the bank a couple of yards from the spot
where I had fallen, and a young girl, an angel of goodness and courage,
was kneeling beside me, with clasped hands, her face still pale with
terror, and her forehead covered with blood. And it was she," exclaimed
the old officer, turning to Ernestine, who had now entirely recovered
her senses, "yes, it was you, mademoiselle, who saved my life at the
risk of your own,--you, a frail, delicate creature who listened only to
the promptings of your noble heart and indomitable courage."

"Oh, Ernestine, how proud I am of being your friend!" cried the duchess,
pressing the blushing and embarrassed girl to her heart.

"Yes, you may well be!" cried the old man, enthusiastically.

"Mademoiselle," said Olivier, in his turn, addressing Mlle. de
Beaumesnil with unmistakable agitation, "I can only say--but I feel sure
that you will understand what these words mean to me--I owe the life of
my uncle, or rather of the most tenderly loved father, to you."

"M. Olivier," replied Mlle. de Beaumesnil, averting her eyes after a
wondering glance at the young man, "what you say makes me doubly happy,
for until now I was entirely ignorant that this gentleman was that dear
relative of yours Herminie was telling me about day before yesterday."

"But how are you feeling now, mademoiselle?" inquired the old man, with
deep interest. "Don't you think it would be well to send for a
physician, Mlle. Herminie? Olivier will run and get one."

"Pray do nothing of the kind, M. Olivier," cried Ernestine, hastily. "My
head hurts me very little; the wound must be scarcely more than a
scratch, for I hardly feel it. When I fainted just now, it was more from
excitement than pain."

"That makes no difference, you must have a little rest, all the same,"
said Herminie. "I think, with you, that your wound is slight, but you
have had such a fright that I intend to keep you a few hours."

"Oh, so far as that prescription is concerned, I will take it with
pleasure, my dear Herminie," responded Mlle. de Beaumesnil, smiling;
"and I shall try to make my convalescence last as long as possible."

"And now, Olivier, if you will give me your arm, we will leave these
young ladies," said the veteran.

"M. Olivier, it will not do at all for Commander Bernard to return home
on foot, weak as he is. You had better tell our portress to call a cab
for you."

"No, no, my dear young lady, with Olivier's assistance I shall get along
nicely. The fresh air will do me a world of good, and then I can show
Olivier the place where I should have been killed but for this guardian
angel here. I am not much of a devotee, mademoiselle, but I shall often
make a sort of pilgrimage to that grassy slope to pray after my fashion
for the noble-hearted girl who saved me at a time I was so anxious to
live, for this very morning--"

And then, for the second time, to Olivier's great surprise, the veteran
seemed to check words which were almost upon his lips.

"Oh, well, never mind," he continued, "I shall pray after my fashion for
my guardian angel, for really," added the veteran, smilingly, "the world
seems to be upside down, for now it is young girls who save old
soldiers,--but fortunately the old soldiers have heart enough left for
gratitude and devotion."

Olivier, with his eyes riveted on Mlle. de Beaumesnil's sad and gentle
face, was experiencing a feeling of compassionate tenderness which was
full of charm. His heart throbbed with conflicting emotions as he gazed
at the young girl, and recalled the incidents of his first meeting with
her, her ingenuous frankness and quaint originality, and, above all,
Herminie's intimation that her friend's lot was far from being a happy
one. Olivier had long been an ardent admirer of Herminie's rare beauty,
but at this moment Ernestine seemed equally attractive in his eyes.

The young soldier was so absorbed that his uncle was obliged to take him
by the arm and say to him:

"Come, my boy, we must no longer trespass on the hospitality which
Mlle. Herminie will surely pardon me for having accepted."

"The fact is, Herminie," said Ernestine, "knowing you lived only a short
distance from the scene of the accident, I thought I might venture--"

"Surely you are not going to apologise for having acted as any friend
would have done?" the duchess exclaimed, interrupting her.

"We will bid you adieu, young ladies," said the old naval officer, then,
turning to Ernestine, he said earnestly:

"It would grieve me too much to think that I had seen you to-day for the
first and last time. Oh, have no fears, mademoiselle," exclaimed the old
man, noting a slight expression of embarrassment on the girl's tell-tale
face, "my gratitude gives me no excuse for intruding myself upon you,
but I should consider it a great favour if you and Mlle. Herminie would
occasionally permit me to call and see you,--for it is not enough to
have a heart full of gratitude, one should at least be allowed to
sometimes give expression to it."

"M. Bernard," replied Herminie, "this desire on your part is too natural
for Ernestine and me to feel any inclination to oppose it; and some
evening when Ernestine will be at liberty, we will let you know, and you
must do us the honour to come and take a cup of tea with us."

"May I really?" the veteran exclaimed, joyfully. Then he added:

"Yes, yes, the world does indeed seem to be upside down, for it is those
who are already under heavy obligations who have benefits heaped upon
them by their benefactors; but I am more than resigned, so adieu, my
dear young ladies, or, rather, _au revoir_. Are you ready, Olivier?"

But as he reached the door he paused, and seemed to hesitate, then after
a moment's reflection he came back, and said:

"I cannot do it, my dear young ladies; I cannot carry my secret away
with me."

"A secret, M. Bernard?"

"Yes; I have been on the point of telling it twice, but both times I
have checked myself, because I had promised to keep silence; but after
all, it is only right that Mlle. Ernestine, to whom I owe my life,
should at least know why I am so glad to live--"

"I, too, think you owe Ernestine this reward, M. Bernard," said
Herminie.

"I assure you that I should be very happy to be honoured with your
confidence, monsieur," added Mlle. de Beaumesnil.

"And it would be a real proof of confidence, mademoiselle, for, as I
told you, I was advised to keep the matter a secret, and I must confess,
my dear Olivier, that it was to keep it a secret from you that I went
out this morning."

"But why, uncle? I do not understand."

"Why, because in spite of all the advice in the world, in my first
transports of happiness over the good news which I had just heard, I
couldn't have helped falling upon your neck and telling you all. So I
went out, hoping to become sufficiently accustomed to my happiness to be
able to conceal it from you afterwards."

"But, uncle, what good news do you refer to?" inquired Olivier, with
increasing surprise.

"Your friend who was at the house this morning did not tell you that his
first visit was to me, did he?"

"No, uncle, when he came out into the garden to find me, I supposed he
had just arrived."

"Yes, for we had agreed to say nothing about our interview, as it was he
who brought me the good news, and Heaven knows he was pleased enough
about it, though everything else seemed to be going wrong with him. In
short, young ladies, you will understand my happiness, I think, when I
tell you that my brave Olivier has been made an officer."

"I?" exclaimed Olivier, with rapturous delight, "I an officer?"

"Oh, what happiness for you, M. Olivier," cried Herminie.

"Yes, my brave boy," exclaimed the veteran, pressing Olivier's hands
warmly, "yes, you are an officer; but I was to keep the secret from you
until the day you will receive your commission, so your happiness would
be complete, for you do not know all--"

"What more is there to tell, M. Bernard?" inquired Ernestine, who was
watching the scene with lively interest.

"It is that my dear Olivier will not have to leave me again; at least
not for a long time, for he has been appointed an officer in one of the
regiments that have just come to garrison Paris. Ah, Mlle. Ernestine,
have I not reason to love life now that Olivier and I are both so
fortunate? Do you understand now the full extent of my gratitude to
you?"

The newly made officer stood silent and thoughtful, but a strong emotion
betrayed itself in his features as he glanced at Mlle. de Beaumesnil,
with a new and very peculiar expression.

"Why, my boy," said the veteran, surprised and somewhat chagrined at the
thoughtful silence which had followed Olivier's first exclamation of joy
and astonishment, "how is this? I thought you would be so delighted to
hear of your appointment. I know very well that it is only a tardily
rendered acknowledgment of services rendered, still--"

"Pray do not think me ungrateful, uncle," replied Olivier, in a voice
that trembled with emotion. "If I am silent, it is only because my heart
is too full for utterance when I think of all the happiness this news
implies; besides, I feel sure that I owe my appointment to the
enthusiastic efforts of my best friend--an appointment, too, that is
unspeakably precious to me," added Olivier, casting still another look
at Ernestine, who blushed, though she knew not why, as she met his
earnest gaze, "because--because--it is you who announce it to me, my
dear uncle."

But it was evident that Olivier had not disclosed the real reason that
rendered his new appointment such a boon to him.

Ernestine alone seemed to read the young man's secret thoughts, for she
blushed again and a tear glittered in her eye.

"And now, Mister Officer," resumed the veteran, gaily, "as these young
ladies have heard our good news, we must no longer trespass upon their
good nature. I trust, however, that Mlle. Herminie will not forget her
promised invitation to take tea with her. You see I have a good memory,
mademoiselle."

"You need have no fears on that score, M. Bernard. I shall prove to you
that my memory is quite as good as yours," responded Herminie,
graciously.

While the commander was addressing a few more words of gratitude and of
farewell to Mlle. de Beaumesnil, Olivier, approaching Herminie, said to
her in a low, beseeching tone:

"Mlle. Herminie, this is one of those days which should incline one to
clemency. What shall I say to Gerald?"

"M. Olivier," replied Herminie, her face clouding suddenly, for the poor
child had almost forgotten her own sorrows for the time being, "you know
my resolve."

Olivier knew Herminie's remarkable firmness of character, so he
smothered a sigh as he thought of Gerald's disappointment.

"One word more, Mlle. Herminie?" he asked. "Will you have the goodness
to grant me another interview to-morrow at any hour that suits you? It
is upon a very important, but purely personal matter I wish to consult
you this time, and you will be doing me a great favour if you grant my
request."

"With pleasure, M. Olivier," replied the duchess, though she was not a
little surprised at the request. "I shall expect you to-morrow morning."

"I thank you, mademoiselle. Good-bye until to-morrow, then," said
Olivier.

He departed in company with Commander Bernard, and the two young
girls--the two sisters--were left alone together.



CHAPTER VIII.

A STARTLING REVELATION.


Olivier's parting words to Herminie had reawakened the grief and chagrin
from which her mind had been temporarily diverted by Commander Bernard's
unexpected arrival in company with Ernestine.

Ernestine, too, was silent and thoughtful for two reasons. One was the
peculiar look Olivier had bestowed on her on hearing of his
promotion,--a look whose tender and touching significance the young girl
fancied she understood; the other was the melancholy pleasure she
experienced at the recollection that this new but dearly prized friend
was the young musician who had so greatly ameliorated Madame de
Beaumesnil's sufferings towards the last.

Ernestine's silence was likewise prolonged by the difficulty she
experienced in bringing the conversation around to the subject of her
mother.

Her visit to Herminie had been easily managed. On going to church with
Mlle. de la Rochaiguë as usual, she had asked Madame Laîné to accompany
them, and on leaving church, by pretending that she had some shopping to
do, she had succeeding in getting away alone with her governess, after
which a cab had taken them to within a short distance of the Rue de
Monceau, where Madame Laîné was now awaiting, in that vehicle, the
return of her youthful employer.

Though the silence of the duchess had lasted only a few moments,
Ernestine, noticing the sad reverie into which her friend had fallen,
said to her, with mingled tenderness and timidity:

"Herminie, I do not want to be intrusive, but it seems to me you are not
in your usual good spirits this morning."

"That is true," answered the girl, frankly. "I am in great trouble."

"In great trouble, my dear Herminie?" asked Ernestine, quickly.

"Yes, and perhaps I will tell you all about it by and by, but just at
this time I am too heart-broken to talk about it, so bear with me a
little, until I can explain the cause of my grief, though I don't know
that I ever can--"

"But why this reserve, Herminie. Don't you think me worthy of your
confidence?"

"That is not the reason, my dear child, but you are so young that I
ought not to talk to you about such matters, perhaps, but by and by we
will see about it. Now, let us think about your comfort. You must lie
down on my bed; you can rest better there than in a chair."

"But, my dearest Herminie--"

Without taking any notice of her guest's protest, Herminie stepped to
the alcove and drew back the curtains, which her natural delicacy and
reserve caused her to keep always closed, and Ernestine saw a little
white iron bedstead covered with a pale pink counterpane, and surmounted
by a canopy consisting of double draperies of the pretty chintz and
fresh white muslin. The alcove, too, was hung with pale pink muslin, and
the pillow-slip, dazzling in its whiteness, was edged with lace.

In fact, nothing could be daintier and prettier than this virginal
couch, upon which Ernestine, at last yielding to the entreaties of the
duchess, laid down to rest awhile.

Drawing the armchair up to the bedside and seating herself in it,
Herminie, taking the orphan's two hands affectionately in hers, said,
with tender solicitude:

"I am sure a little rest will do you a world of good, Ernestine. How do
you feel now?"

"My head aches a little, that is all."

"What a frightful risk you ran, my dear child."

"I don't deserve so much praise, though, Herminie; I did not think of
the danger I was incurring for an instant. I saw the old gentleman fall
almost under the wheels of the wagon, it seemed to me. I shrieked, and
sprang to his assistance, and though I am not very strong, I succeeded,
I scarcely know how, in dragging M. Bernard enough out of the way to
prevent him from being crushed."

"You dear, brave child! But the wound on your head--"

"The wheel must have struck me, I suppose, for I became unconscious
almost at that same instant, and M. Bernard, on recovering his senses,
noticed that I was hurt. But don't let us talk any more about it. I was
more frightened than hurt, and my reputation for bravery was very
cheaply won."

Then casting an admiring glance around her, the young girl continued:

"You were right in saying that your room was charming, Herminie. How
pretty and dainty everything is! And those lovely engravings and
beautiful statuettes and graceful vases filled with flowers are all so
simple and inexpensive that it seems as if any one might have them, and
yet nobody has, because one must have taste to select them. And when I
think," added the girl, enthusiastically, "that it was by your own
labour that you acquired all these pretty things, I do not wonder that
you are proud and happy. How much you must have enjoyed yourself here."

"Yes, I have had a great deal of pleasure out of my home, it is true."

"But now all these pretty surroundings have lost their charm? Why, that
sounds very ungrateful in you."

"No, no, this little room is still unspeakably dear to me!" exclaimed
Herminie, quickly, recollecting that it was in this room that she had
seen Gerald for the first time, and for the last time, too, perhaps.

Ernestine had not been able to devise any way of leading the
conversation to the subject of her mother without arousing Herminie's
suspicions, but now, happening to glance at the piano, she added:

"And there is the instrument you play so divinely. How much pleasure it
would give me to hear you."

"Don't ask me just now, I beg of you, Ernestine. I should burst into
tears at the sound of the first note. When I am sad, music always makes
me weep."

"I can understand that, but you will let me hear you play and sing some
day, will you not?"

"Oh, yes, I promise you that."

"And, by the way, speaking of music," continued Ernestine, trying to
control herself, "the other night when I was at Madame Herbaut's, I
heard somebody say that a very sick lady once sent for you to play and
sing for her."

"That is true," replied Herminie, sadly, "and this lady was the one I
spoke to you about the other evening because she had a daughter whose
name was the same as yours."

"And while she was listening to you the poor lady's sufferings became
less poignant?"

"Because she forgot them, but alas! this alleviation of her sufferings
could not save her."

"Kind-hearted as you are, Herminie, what loving attentions you must have
lavished on the poor lady."

"Her situation was so interesting, so pitiable, you see, Ernestine. To
die while still so young, and deploring the absence of a beloved
daughter!"

"Did she ever speak of this daughter to you, Herminie?"

"Poor unhappy mother! Her child was the subject of her every thought.
She had a portrait of her, painted when she was a mere child, and I have
often seen her eyes fill with tears when they rested upon the picture.
She often told me, too, how richly her daughter deserved her tenderness
by the amiability and sweetness of her disposition. She spoke, too, of
letters which her daughter wrote to her every day, letters in which her
beloved child's nobility of heart showed itself in every line."

"This lady must have loved you very much to make you her confidante to
such an extent, Herminie."

"She treated me with the greatest kindness, so it was only natural I
should become deeply attached to her."

"And the daughter of this lady who was so fond of you, and whom you seem
to have loved so much in return,--have you never felt any desire to make
the acquaintance of this other Ernestine?"

"Yes, for everything her mother told me about her made me love her in
advance, as it were, but at that time she was in a foreign land. When
she returned to France, I did, for a time, have some hope of seeing and
knowing her, but I was disappointed in that."

"How did that happen, my dear Herminie?" inquired Ernestine, concealing
her curiosity, at least in part, however.

"Business took me to the house of her guardian, and while I was there
something was said about my giving the young lady music lessons."

Ernestine gave a joyous start. This idea had never occurred to her
before, but wishing to have something to justify her curiosity in
Herminie's eyes, she exclaimed, laughingly:

"You must think it strange that I ask you so many questions about this
young lady. Perhaps it is because I feel that I should be dreadfully
jealous if you should ever love her better than you do me."

"Oh, you need have no fears on that score," said Herminie, shaking her
head, sadly.

"But why should you not love her?" asked Mlle. de Beaumesnil, eagerly;
then regretting her involuntary display of anxiety, she added: "But I am
not selfish enough to wish to deprive this young lady of your affection,
of course."

"What I know of her, and the recollection of her mother's great kindness
to me, will always make me fond of her. But alas! my dear Ernestine, it
is a matter of pride with me to shun any friendship that does not seem
entirely disinterested, and this young lady is very wealthy and I am
poor."

"You must have a poor opinion of her, then, after all," said Mlle. de
Beaumesnil, bitterly.

"Oh, no, Ernestine, after all her mother told me, I can not doubt her
kindness of heart, but I am an entire stranger to her. Then, too, for
many reasons, and more particularly from a fear of arousing sad
recollections, I should not dare to speak of the circumstances which
made me so intimately acquainted with her dying mother, nor of that
mother's great kindness to me. Besides, would it not look very much as
if I were trying to ingratiate myself with her, and presuming upon an
affection to which I really have no claim?"

On hearing this admission, how earnestly Ernestine congratulated herself
upon having won Herminie's affection before her new friend knew who she,
Ernestine, really was! And what a strange coincidence! She had feared
that, because she was the richest heiress in France, she would never be
loved for herself alone; while Herminie, because she was poor, feared
that her affection would not appear disinterested.

The duchess seemed to have become more and more depressed in spirits as
the conversation proceeded. She had hoped to find in it a refuge from
her own sad thoughts, but such had not been the case, for it was this
same laudable pride which made Herminie fear that her love for Gerald
might be attributed to vanity or mercenary motives, and so had led to
the resolve which would inevitably ruin her only hope of happiness.

For how could she expect that Madame la Duchesse de Senneterre would
ever consent to make the advances required of her? But alas! though
endowed with sufficient courage to sacrifice her love to the dignity of
that love, Herminie realised none the less keenly what terrible
suffering this courageous sacrifice would entail.

So referring almost unconsciously to the anguish she felt, after a
moment's silence, she remarked, in a strangely altered voice:

"Ah, my poor Ernestine, how sad it is that the purest and noblest
affections can be thus degraded by unworthy suspicions!"

And unable to restrain her feelings any longer, she burst into tears and
hid her face upon the bosom of Ernestine, who, half rising and pressing
her friend to her heart, exclaimed:

"What is it, Herminie? What is it? I saw that you were becoming more and
more depressed, but dared not ask you the reason."

"Do not say any more about it," replied Herminie, ashamed of her tears.
"Forgive this weakness in me, but just now a host of memories--"

"Herminie, I have no right to demand your confidence, I know, but
sometimes it is a relief to talk of one's troubles--"

"Yes, yes, I know it. It is the constraint that is killing me, but oh,
the humiliation, the disgrace!"

"Humiliation and disgrace attach to you? Oh, no, Herminie, you are too
proud for that!"

"But is it not weak and humiliating to weep as I do, after having had
the courage to make a commendable and even necessary resolution?" she
sobbed.

Then, after a moment's hesitation, the duchess continued:

"Do not regard what I am about to tell you as a confidential revelation
on my part, my dear child, but rather as a useful lesson."

"A lesson?"

"Yes, for you, like myself, are an orphan; like me, you are alone in the
world; and possessed of none of the experience that might save you from
the snares and pitfalls by which poor girls like us are continually
surrounded. So listen to me, Ernestine, and may you be spared the misery
I am suffering now."

And Herminie described the scene in which, justly incensed against
Gerald, who had ventured to pay her landlord the money she owed, she had
treated him first with haughtiness and disdain, but afterwards forgiven
him, touched by the generous impulse to which he had thoughtlessly
yielded. After which, Herminie continued in words like these:

"Two days after this meeting, in the hope of diverting my mind from
thoughts which had already gained too great an ascendency over me for my
peace of mind, I went to Madame Herbaut's house. Judge of my surprise
when I met this same young man again at that entertainment. My first
feeling was one of chagrin, almost of fear, a presentiment, doubtless;
then I had the weakness to yield to the charm of this second meeting.
Never before had I seen a man who possessed, like him, manners at once
unpretending, refined and distinguished, a brilliant, versatile mind,
but never failing delicacy of feeling. I hate flattery, but his was
characterised with so much grace and delicacy that I accepted it only
too gladly, I fear. I learned that evening that his name was Gerald, and
that--"

"Gerald?" Ernestine exclaimed, hastily, recollecting that the Duc de
Senneterre, one of the suitors for her hand, was also named Gerald.

Just then a loud ring of the door-bell attracted Herminie's attention
and prevented her from noticing Mlle. de Beaumesnil's astonishment. The
latter arose from the bed at the sound, while Herminie, greatly annoyed
by this interruption, directed her steps towards the door.

An elderly serving man handed her a note containing these words:

       *       *       *       *       *

"I have not seen you for several days, my dear child, not having felt as
well as usual. Can you see me this morning?

Most affectionately yours,

"MAILLEFORT.

"P.S.--Do not take the trouble to answer in writing. If you will see
your old friend, simply say 'yes' to the bearer."

       *       *       *       *       *

Herminie, in her grief, was inclined to find some excuse for deferring
M. de Maillefort's visit, but remembering that the marquis, belonging to
the aristocracy as he did, was doubtless acquainted with Gerald, and
that she might obtain some more definite information concerning her
lover without revealing her secret, she said to the servant:

"I shall expect to see M. le Marquis de Maillefort sometime during the
day."

But as she returned to the room where Mlle. de Beaumesnil was awaiting
her, Herminie said to herself:

"What if M. de Maillefort should come while Ernestine is here? Oh, well,
it will not matter much, after all, if she does see him; besides, the
dear child is so retiring that, as soon as a stranger comes, she is sure
to leave me alone with him."

So Herminie continued her conversation with Mlle. de Beaumesnil without
making any allusion to M. de Maillefort's approaching visit, for fear
that Ernestine would leave sooner than she had intended.



CHAPTER IX.

AN UNEXPECTED MEETING.


"Forgive me for having deserted you so unceremoniously, my dear
Ernestine," Herminie remarked to her friend. "It was a letter, and I had
to send a verbal reply."

"Do pray go on with your story, Herminie," replied Ernestine. "You have
no idea how deeply interested I am."

"And it is such a relief to me to tell you my troubles."

"Yes, I was sure it would be," responded Ernestine, with ingenuous
tenderness.

"I was just telling you that I learned at Madame Herbaut's little
entertainment that this young man's name was Gerald Auvernay. It was M.
Olivier who told me so, on introducing him to me."

"What! he knows M. Olivier?"

"They are intimate friends, for Gerald was a soldier in the same
regiment as Olivier. On leaving the service, he entered the office of a
notary, so he told me, but for some time past he had given up an
employment which was so distasteful to him, and had found occupation on
the fortifications under an officer of engineers he had known in Africa.
So you see, Ernestine, that Gerald's position and mine were identical,
and free as he seemed to be, I was surely excusable for allowing myself
to yield to a fatal fondness for him."

"But why fatal, Herminie?"

"Wait and you shall know all. Two days after our meeting at Madame
Herbaut's, on my return from my lessons, I went out into the garden to
which my landlord had kindly given me the entrée. This garden, as you
can see from the window, is separated from the street in the rear only
by a hedge, and from the bench on which I had seated myself I saw Gerald
pass. Instead of being handsomely dressed as on the evening before, he
was clad in a gray blouse and a big straw hat. He gave a start of
surprise on perceiving me, but far from seeming mortified at being seen
in his working clothes, he bowed to me and, pausing, said gaily that he
was just returning from his day's work, being engaged in superintending
certain portions of the fortifications now in progress of construction
at the end of the Rue de Monceau. 'An occupation which suits me much
better than dull notary work,' he remarked. 'I am fairly well paid and I
have a crowd of rather rough but very worthy men to superintend. I like
it much better than copying stupid documents.'"

"I can understand that perfectly, my dear Herminie."

"It is more than likely that the cheerful way in which he accepted this
arduous labour, manual labour, I might almost say, touched me all the
more as Gerald had evidently received an excellent education. That
evening when he left me he smilingly remarked that it was with the hope
of sometimes meeting me within the boundaries of my park, as he often
passed through that street on his way to visit a former comrade, who
lived in a small house that could be seen from the garden. What will you
think, Ernestine, when I tell you that almost every evening about sunset
I had a chat with Gerald, and sometimes we even strolled out together to
the same grassy knolls where M. Bernard met with his accident this
morning? I found Gerald so full of frankness, generosity of heart,
talent, and charming humour, he seemed to have such a high--I was about
to say such a just--opinion of me, that when the day came that Gerald
declared his love, and told me that he could not live without me, I was
so happy, Ernestine, oh, so happy! for if Gerald had not loved me I do
not know what would have become of me. It would have been impossible for
me to do without this love, and now to love alone,--to love without
hope," added the poor girl, hardly able to restrain her tears, "oh, it
is worse than death, for it means a life for ever desolate."

Controlling her emotion, Herminie continued:

"I told Gerald my feelings with the utmost frankness. On my side there
was not only love, but almost gratitude, for without him life would have
seemed intolerable to me. 'We are both free to choose,' I said to
Gerald; 'our positions are equal. We shall both have to work every day
for our daily bread, and that gratifies my pride, for idleness imposed
upon a wife is a cruel humiliation to her. Our lot will be humble, even
precarious, perhaps, Gerald,' I added, 'but with courage, and strong in
our mutual love and trust, we can defy the worst misfortunes.'"

"What noble words, Herminie! How proud M. Gerald must have been of your
love! But as you have every chance of happiness, why these tears and
your evident despair?"

"Do you not think that I was more than justified in loving him?" asked
the poor girl, trying hard to repress her sobs. "Was not mine a true and
noble love. Oh, tell me, is it possible that any one can accuse me--"

But Herminie could not finish the sentence, for sobs choked her
utterance.

"Accuse you? _Mon Dieu!_ Accuse you of what? Are you not as free as M.
Gerald? Does he not love you as much as you love him? Are your positions
not equal?"

"No, no, our positions are not equal," replied Herminie, dejectedly.

"What is that you say?"

"No, our positions are not equal, alas! and that is my chief misfortune,
for in order to equalise our positions apparently, Gerald deceived me as
to his real station in life."

"Great Heavens! Who is he, then?"

"The Duc de Senneterre."

"The Duc de Senneterre!" exclaimed Ernestine, filled with terror for
Herminie, as she remembered that Gerald was one of the three suitors for
her--Ernestine's--hand, and that she was to meet him at the ball on the
following Thursday. Consequently, he must have deceived Herminie in the
most shameless manner, as he was, at that very time, endeavouring to
marry a rich heiress.

Herminie attributed her friend's intense dismay and astonishment
entirely to the startling revelation that had just been made, however,
and asked:

"Tell me, Ernestine, am I not, indeed, unfortunate?"

"But such a deception on his part was infamous. How did you discover
it?"

"M. de Senneterre himself, feeling unable to endure the life of deceit
his first falsehood imposed upon him, but not daring to make the
confession himself, entrusted the unpleasant task to M. Olivier."

"It should be some comfort to you that M. de Senneterre at least made
this confession of his own accord," said Ernestine.

"Yes, and, in spite of the grief it has caused me, I see in it a proof
of the loyalty I so admired in him."

"Loyalty!" exclaimed Ernestine, bitterly. "Loyalty, and yet he deserts
you!"

"Deserts me? Far from it. On the contrary, he renews his offer of his
hand."

"He, M. de Senneterre?" exclaimed Ernestine, in even greater
astonishment "But, in that case, why are you so unhappy, Herminie?" she
added.

"Because a penniless orphan like myself can make such a marriage only at
the cost of the bitterest humiliation."

Herminie could say no more, for just then the door-bell rang again.

"Forgive me, my dear Ernestine," she exclaimed, drying her tears. "I
think I know who it is that has just rung. I am obliged to see this
visitor and--"

"Then I will leave you, Herminie," said Ernestine, rising hastily. "I am
sorry, though, to leave you in such grief."

"At least wait until my visitor comes in!"

"Go and open the door, then, Herminie, while I put on my hat."

The duchess started towards the door, then, recollecting M. de
Maillefort's deformity, she returned, and said to her friend:

"My dear Ernestine, in order to spare the person I am expecting the
slight annoyance which the expression of your face, when you first
perceived his affliction, might cause him, I must warn you that this
friend of mine is a hunchback."

On hearing this, Mlle. de Beaumesnil suddenly recollected that her
governess had told her that the Marquis de Maillefort had asked for
Herminie's address, and a vague fear led her to ask:

"Who is this friend?"

"A most estimable man who made my acquaintance by the merest chance, for
he is one of the greatest of _grands seigneurs_. But I must not delay
too long in opening the door. Excuse me for one moment, my dear
Ernestine."

And Herminie disappeared, leaving Ernestine overwhelmed with
consternation.

A grim presentiment whispered that M. de Maillefort was about to enter
and find her in Herminie's home, and though Mlle. de Beaumesnil owed her
resolve to learn the truth, at any cost, to the Marquis de Maillefort's
ironical remarks, and though her feelings towards him had undergone an
entire change, she was not yet sure to what extent she could rely upon
him, and the prospect of such a meeting was most unwelcome.

Ernestine's fears were realised.

Her friend returned, accompanied by the marquis. Fortunately, Herminie,
noticing that the curtains of the alcove were open, hastened to close
them according to her habit, so, as her back was turned towards
Ernestine and M. de Maillefort for several seconds, she did not notice
the evident shock that her two friends experienced at the sight of each
other.

M. de Maillefort gave a sudden start of astonishment on recognising
Mlle. de Beaumesnil. Intense curiosity, mingled with uneasiness, was
apparent in every feature. He could not believe his eyes, and he was
about to speak, when Ernestine, pale and trembling, clasped her hands
with such a beseeching air that the words died upon his lips.

When Herminie turned, M. de Maillefort's face no longer expressed the
slightest astonishment, and, doubtless, with the intention of giving
Mlle. de Beaumesnil time to recover herself, he said to Herminie:

"I am intruding, I am sure, mademoiselle. My visit is inopportune,
perhaps."

"Believe me, monsieur, no visit of yours will ever be inopportune here,"
responded the duchess, earnestly. "I only ask your permission to show my
friend to the door."

"I beg you will do so," answered the marquis, bowing. "I should be
miserable if you stood on the slightest ceremony with me."

Mlle. de Beaumesnil was obliged to exercise all her self-control to
maintain even an appearance of calmness, but, fortunately, the little
hall-way leading to Herminie's room was dark, so the sudden alteration
in Ernestine's features escaped the notice of her friend, as she said:

"Ernestine, after all I have just confided to you, I need not tell you
how necessary your presence will be to me. Alas! I did not think I
should so soon put your friendship to the test. In pity, Ernestine, do
not leave me long alone! If you only knew how I shall suffer, for I
cannot hope to see Gerald again, or, rather, the hope is so uncertain
that I dare not even think of it, so I beseech you not to let any length
of time pass without my seeing you."

"You may rest assured that I shall return as soon as I can, and that it
will not be any fault of mine if--"

"Alas! I understand. Your time must be devoted to your work, because you
are obliged to work in order to live. It is the same with me. In spite
of my mental anguish, I shall have to begin my round of lessons one hour
from now. My lessons, great Heavens! and I scarcely know what I am
doing. But with people like us, we are not only obliged to suffer, but
also to live."

Herminie uttered these last words with such despairing bitterness that
Mlle. de Beaumesnil threw her arms around her friend's neck, and burst
into tears.

"Come, come, I will not be so weak again, Ernestine," said Herminie,
returning the embrace; "I promise you I will not. I will be content with
whatever time you can give me. I will wait and think of you," added the
duchess, forcing a smile. "Yes, to think of you, and to await your
return, will be some consolation."

"Farewell, Herminie, farewell," said Mlle. de Beaumesnil. "I shall soon
see you again,--just as soon as I possibly can, I promise you,--day
after to-morrow, if possible. Yes, I will manage it somehow," added the
orphan, resolutely, "day after to-morrow, at the same hour, you can
count upon seeing me."

"Thank you, thank you!" exclaimed Herminie, embracing Ernestine
effusively. "Ah, the compassion I showed to you your generous heart
returns in liberal measure."

"Day after to-morrow, then, it shall be, Herminie."

"Again I thank you with my whole heart."

"And now good-bye," said the orphan.

It was in a deeply agitated frame of mind that she wended her way back
to the spot where her governess was waiting for her in the cab. As she
left the house, she met a man who was walking slowly up the street,
casting furtive glances at the house in which Herminie lived.

This man was Ravil, who, as we have said before, frequently hung about
the home of the duchess, of whom he had retained a vivid and extremely
tantalising recollection ever since the day he so insolently accosted
her, when she was on her way to the Beaumesnil mansion.

De Ravil instantly recognised the richest heiress in France, who, in her
agitation, did not even glance at this man, whom she had met but once,
at the Luxembourg, where M. de la Rochaiguë had taken her.

"What does this mean?" Ravil said to himself, in the utmost
astonishment. "Here is the little Beaumesnil dressed almost like a
grisette, coming out alone, pale and evidently frightened half to death,
from a house in this miserable part of the town. I'll follow her
cautiously at a distance, and see where she goes. The more I think of
it, the more inclined I am to believe that it is the devil himself who
sends me such a piece of good luck as this! Yes, this discovery may be
the goose that lays the golden eggs for me. It rejoices my heart. The
mere thought of it awakens golden visions like those which haunt that
big ninny, Mornand."

While Ravil was following the unsuspecting Ernestine, Herminie returned
to M. de Maillefort.



CHAPTER X.

DESPAIR.


M. de Maillefort awaited Herminie's return in a state of deep
perplexity, wondering in vain what strange combination of circumstances
had brought these two young girls together. The marquis had desired this
_rapprochement_ greatly, as we shall soon discover, but the hunchback
had not yet devised any way to bring it about, so Ernestine's presence
in Herminie's home, the secrecy with which she must have gone there, the
secrecy, too, which Mlle. de Beaumesnil, by an imploring gesture, had
begged him to preserve, all combined to excite his curiosity as well as
his anxiety to the highest pitch.

So, on the return of Herminie, who apologised for having absented
herself so long, the marquis said, with the most careless air
imaginable:

"I shall be very sorry if you do not always treat me with that perfect
freedom permissible between devoted friends, my dear child, and nothing
could be more natural, I am sure, than a desire to exchange a few
parting words with one of your young acquaintances, for this young lady
is, I suppose--"

"One of my friends, monsieur, or rather my dearest friend."

"Ah, indeed," answered the marquis, smiling. "It must be a friendship of
long standing, then, I suppose?"

"Very recent, on the contrary, monsieur. In fact, this friendship,
though so true and tried, was conceived very suddenly."

"I have sufficient confidence in your powers of discernment and your
nobility of heart to feel sure that you have chosen your friend wisely,
my dear child."

"A single incident, which occurred scarcely an hour ago, monsieur, will
give convincing proof of my friend's courage and nobility of soul. At
the risk of her own life,--for she escaped serious injury only by a
hair's breadth,--she rescued an aged man from certain death."

And Herminie, proud of her friend, and anxious to see her appreciated as
she deserved to be, proceeded to describe Ernestine's courageous rescue
of Commander Bernard.

The emotion of the marquis on hearing this unexpected revelation, which
revealed Mlle. de Beaumesnil in a new and most attractive light, can be
imagined.

"She certainly displayed wonderful courage and generosity of heart!" he
cried. Then he added: "I was sure of it! You could not choose your
friends other than judiciously, my dear child. But who is this brave
young girl?"

"An orphan like myself, monsieur, who supports herself by her own
exertions. She is an embroiderer."

"Ah, an embroiderer! But as she, too, is an orphan, she lives alone, I
suppose?"

"No, monsieur, she lives with a relative, who took her, last Sunday
evening, to a small entertainment, where I met her for the first tame."

The marquis knit his brows. For an instant he was almost tempted to
believe that one of the Rochaiguës was implicated in this mystery, but
his implicit faith in Herminie caused him to reject that idea, though he
wondered how Mlle. de Beaumesnil had managed to absent herself from her
guardian's house for an entire evening, without the knowledge of the
baron or his family. He asked himself, too, with no less astonishment,
how Ernestine had managed to secure several hours of entire freedom that
very morning, but fearing he would arouse Herminie's suspicions by
questioning her further, he remarked:

"It is pleasant for me to know that you have a friend so worthy of you,
and it seems to me," added the hunchback, "that she could not have come
more opportunely."

"And why, monsieur?"

"You know you have given me the privilege of being perfectly frank with
you."

"Certainly, monsieur."

"Very well, then, it seems to me that you are not in your accustomed
good spirits. You look pale, and it is very evident that you have been
weeping, my poor child."

"I assure you, monsieur--"

"And all this is the more noticeable because you seemed so perfectly
happy the last two or three times I saw you. Yes, contentment could be
read on every feature; it even imparted to your beauty such a radiance
and expansiveness that--as you may perhaps remember, from the rarity of
the thing--I complimented you upon your radiant beauty. Think of it! I,
who am the very poorest flatterer that ever lived!" added the hunchback,
probably in the hope of bringing a smile to Herminie's lips.

But the girl, unable to conquer her sadness, replied:

"The change in my appearance which you speak of is probably due to the
fright that Ernestine's narrow escape caused me, monsieur."

The marquis, sure now that Herminie was suffering from some grief that
she wished to conceal, insisted no further, but said:

"It is as you say, doubtless, but the danger is over now, my dear child,
so I may as well tell you that my visit this morning is important, very
important. You know that I have made it a point of honour not to say
anything to you of late in relation to the grave matter that first
brought me here."

"Yes, monsieur, and I am grateful to you for not having again referred
to a subject that is so painful to me."

"I am compelled to speak again, if not of Madame de Beaumesnil, at least
of her daughter," said the marquis, casting a keen, searching look at
Herminie, in order to discover--though he was almost certain to the
contrary--if the young girl knew that her new friend was Mlle. de
Beaumesnil; but he did not feel the shadow of a doubt of Herminie's
ignorance on the subject when she promptly replied, without the
slightest embarrassment:

"You say you must speak of Madame de Beaumesnil's daughter, monsieur?"

"Yes, my dear child. I have made no attempt to conceal my devoted
friendship for Madame de Beaumesnil, nor her dying requests in relation
to the young orphan whom I have not yet discovered, in spite of the most
persistent efforts. I told you, too, of the no less urgent request of
the countess concerning her daughter, Ernestine. For divers reasons
which, believe me, do not affect you in the least, I am very desirous,
solely on Mlle. de Beaumesnil's account, understand, that you two young
girls should become acquainted."

"But how could that be brought about, monsieur?" asked Herminie,
eagerly, thinking what happiness it would give her to know her sister.

"In the easiest way imaginable--a way that was even suggested to you, I
believe, when you so nobly returned that five hundred franc note to
Madame de la Rochaiguë."

"Yes, monsieur, Madame de la Rochaiguë did give me some reason to hope
that I might be employed to give Mlle. de Beaumesnil music lessons."

"Well, my dear child, that has been arranged."

"Really, monsieur?"

"Yes, I had a talk with the baroness last evening, and either to-day or
to-morrow she is going to mention the matter to Mlle. de Beaumesnil. I
do not doubt that she will accept the proposition. As for you, my dear
child, I do not apprehend any refusal on your part."

"Far from it, monsieur."

"Besides, what I ask for this young girl, I ask in the name of the
mother to whom you were so devotedly attached," said the marquis, with
deep emotion.

"You can not doubt the interest I shall always feel in Mlle. de
Beaumesnil, monsieur, but the relations between, us will, of course, be
confined to our lessons."

"Not by any means."

"But, monsieur!"

"You must understand, my dear child, that I should not have taken all
this trouble to bring about an acquaintance between Mlle. de Beaumesnil
and yourself, if it was to be confined to the lessons given and
received."

"But, monsieur--"

"There are important interests at stake, interests which I feel can be
safely intrusted to your hands."

"Explain, monsieur, I beg of you."

"I will do that after you have seen your new scholar," replied the
marquis, thinking what a delightful surprise it would be to Herminie
when she recognised Mlle. de Beaumesnil in the poor embroideress, her
best friend.

"In any case, you may be sure that I shall consider it a sacred duty to
fulfil your instructions, monsieur, and that I shall hold myself in
readiness to go to Mlle. de Beaumesnil as soon as I am sent for."

"I will introduce you to her, myself."

"So much the better, monsieur."

"And if agreeable to you, next Saturday at this hour, I will come for
you."

"I shall expect you monsieur, and I thank you very much for sparing me
the embarrassment of presenting myself alone."

"And now a word of advice in Mlle. de Beaumesnil's interest, my dear
child. No one knows, and no one must know that her poor mother summoned
me to her in her last hours. My deep affection for the countess must
also remain a secret. You will maintain a profound silence on the
subject in case either M. or Madame de la Rochaiguë should ever speak of
me."

"I shall comply with your wishes, monsieur."

"And I will come on Saturday, that is understood," said the hunchback,
rising. "It will give me great pleasure to introduce you to Mlle. de
Beaumesnil, and I feel sure that you yourself will find a pleasure you
do not anticipate in this meeting."

"I hope so, monsieur," replied Herminie, rather absently, for, seeing
that the marquis was about to go, she did not know how to broach the
subject that had been uppermost in her mind ever since the hunchback's
arrival.

At last, endeavouring to appear perfectly calm, she said:

"Before you go, monsieur, will you have the goodness to give me a little
information if it be in your power to do it?"

"Speak, my dear child," said M. de Maillefort, reseating himself.

"M. le marquis, in the social world to which you belong, have you ever
chanced to meet Madame la Duchesse de Senneterre?"

"I was one of her deceased husband's most intimate friends, and I am
extremely fond of the present Duc de Senneterre, one of the best, most
whole-souled young men I know. I had fresh proofs of his nobility of
character only yesterday," added the hunchback, with evident emotion.

A slight flush suffused Herminie's face on hearing Gerald thus praised
by a man she esteemed as highly as M. de Maillefort.

That gentleman, evidently much surprised, continued:

"But what information do you desire in relation to Madame de
Senneterre, my dear child? Has any one proposed that you should give her
daughters lessons?"

Hastily catching at these words which helped her out of a great
difficulty by furnishing her with a pretext for her inquiries, Herminie,
in spite of her natural abhorrence of anything like deception, replied:

"Yes, monsieur, some one told me that I might possibly secure pupils in
that distinguished family, but before making any attempt in that
direction, I was anxious to know if I could expect from Madame de
Senneterre the consideration my rather too sensitive nature exacts. In
short, monsieur, I am anxious to know whether Madame de Senneterre
possesses a kindly nature or whether I am not likely to find in her that
haughtiness which sometimes characterises persons of such an exalted
position as hers."

"I understand you perfectly, and I am very glad you applied to me, for
knowing you as I know you, dear, proud child that you are, I say very
plainly, neither seek nor accept any pupils in that family. The Mlles.
de Senneterre are lovely girls--they have their brother's
disposition--but the duchess--!"

"Well, monsieur?" asked poor Herminie.

"Ah, my dear child, the duchess is more deeply in love with her title
than any other woman I ever saw--which is very strange, as she is really
extremely well born, while this ridiculous and absurd pride of rank is
generally confined to _parvenus_. In short, my dear child, I would much
rather see you brought in contact with twenty M. Bouffards than with
this insufferably arrogant woman. The Bouffards are so coarse and
ignorant that their rudeness amuses rather than wounds, but in the
Duchesse de Senneterre you will find the most polite insolence, or
rather the most insolent politeness, imaginable, so I am sure that you,
my dear child, who have such a high respect for yourself, could not
remain in Madame de Senneterre's company ten minutes without being
wounded to the quick, and resolving that you would never set foot in her
house again. That being the case, what is the use of entering it?"

"I thank you, monsieur," replied Herminie, almost crushed by this
revelation which destroyed her last hope,--a hope she had preserved in
spite of herself, that perhaps Madame de Senneterre, touched by her
son's love, would consent to make the concession that Herminie's pride
demanded.

"No, no, my dear child," continued the marquis, "Gerald de Senneterre's
filial tenderness must blind him completely for him not to lose all
patience with his mother's absurd arrogance, and for him not to see that
she is as hard-hearted as she is narrow-minded. In short, her
selfishness is only exceeded by her cupidity. I have every reason to
know this, so I am delighted to defraud her of a victim by enlightening
you in regard to her. And now good-bye. Let me be of service to you in
any matter, however small, as often as you can. It will serve to content
me while waiting for something better. And now I will again bid you
good-bye until Saturday."

"Until Saturday, monsieur."

And M. de Maillefort departed, leaving Herminie alone with her
immeasurable despair.



CHAPTER XI.

THE BALL.


The day of Madame de Mirecourt's ball had arrived.

The three suitors for Mlle. de Beaumesnil's hand were to press their
claims at this brilliant fête.

The announcement that the richest heiress in France was to make her
début that evening furnished a topic for general conversation, and made
every one forget a suicide that had plunged one of the most illustrious
houses in France into mourning.

Madame de Mirecourt did not attempt to conceal her intense gratification
that her house had been selected for Mlle. de Beaumesnil's début, and
secretly congratulated herself, too, at the thought that it would
probably be in her house that the marriage of this famous heiress with
the Duc de Senneterre would be virtually concluded, for being devoted to
Gerald's mother, Madame de Mirecourt was one of the most ardent
promoters of the scheme.

Having stationed herself as usual near the door of the main drawing-room
to welcome her guests, Madame de Mirecourt awaited the coming of the
Duchesse de Senneterre with the utmost impatience. That lady, who was to
be accompanied by her son, had promised to come early, but had not yet
arrived.

An unusually large number of guests, attracted thither by curiosity, had
crowded into the principal salon in order to be the first to see Mlle.
de Beaumesnil, whose name was upon every lip.

There was not a marriageable young man who had not bestowed an unusual
amount of care upon his toilet, not that these young men had any openly
avowed intentions, but--who knows? Heiresses are so peculiar, and who
could foresee the consequences of a brief chat, of a quadrille, or of a
first impression?

So each young man, as he cast a last complacent glance in his mirror,
recalled all sorts of romantic episodes in which wealthy damsels had
fallen in love at first sight with some stranger, whom they had finally
married against the wishes of their relatives,--for all these worthy
bachelors had but one thought in this instance, marriage, and they even
carried their honesty so far as to love marriage for the sake of
marriage itself, and the bride became little more than an accessory in
their eyes.

Each bachelor had endeavoured to make the most of himself according to
his character and appearance. The handsome ones had striven to make
themselves still more handsome and irresistible.

Those of a less attractive or even homely exterior assumed a
_spirituelle_ or melancholy air.

In short, each and every one said to himself, like the people who allow
themselves to be enticed into those lotteries that offer prizes of
several millions:

"Of course it is absurd to suppose that I shall win one of these
fabulous prizes. I have but one chance in nobody knows how many
thousand, but somebody has got to win. Why may I not be the lucky one?"

As for the persons that composed the assemblage, they were very nearly
the same who had attended the dance given by Madame de Senneterre
several months before, and who had taken a more or less prominent part
in the numerous conversations on the subject of Madame de Beaumesnil's
approaching death.

Several of these persons also recollected the curiosity that had been
expressed in regard to Mlle. de Beaumesnil, who was then in a foreign
land, and whom no one had ever seen, so a majority of Madame
Mirecourt's guests would consequently witness to-night the solution of
the problem propounded several weeks before.

Was the richest heiress in France as beautiful as a star or as hideous
as a monster? Was she glowing with health or a hopeless consumptive?

It was ten o'clock, and Madame de Mirecourt was becoming very uneasy.
Madame de Senneterre and her son had not made their appearance; Mlle. de
Beaumesnil might arrive at any moment, and it had been arranged that
Ernestine should be chaperoned by Madame de la Rochaiguë or Madame de
Senneterre the entire evening, and that Gerald should dance the first
quadrille with the heiress.

Every minute the crowd increased. Among the newcomers, M. de Mornand,
accompanied by M. de Ravil, advanced in the most disinterested air
imaginable to pay his respects to Madame de Mirecourt, who greeted him
very graciously, and innocently remarked, without the slightest
suspicion how true her words were:

"I am sure you came partially to see me, but chiefly to see the lioness
of the evening, Mlle. de Beaumesnil."

The prospective minister smiled as he replied, with truly diplomatic
guile:

"I assure you, madame, I came only to have the honour of paying my
respects to you, and to witness one of those charming fêtes you alone
know how to give."

After which M. de Mornand made his best bow and passed on, whispering to
Ravil:

"Go and see if she is in one of the other rooms. I will remain here. Try
to bring the baron to me if you see him."

De Ravil nodded an assent to his Pylades and mingled with the crowd,
saying to himself, as he thought of the meeting of the day before, which
he had carefully refrained from mentioning to M. de Mornand:

"So here is an heiress who wanders about lonely parts of the town,
grisette fashion, and then returns to that abominable Madame Laîné, who
is complacently waiting for her in a cab. This last surprises me very
little, however, as that unscrupulous female told me flatly, a week or
so ago, that I could no longer count upon her influence. But at whose
expense is she favouring this intrigue on the part of the little
Beaumesnil? for there must be an intrigue, of course. That big ninny of
a Mornand is no good. I might have known it. I must ferret out the truth
of all this, for the more I think of it, the more convinced I am that
the best thing for me to do is to drop Mornand, and devote my attention
to the goose that lays the golden eggs, and, as a preliminary measure,
I'll watch what goes on here this evening."

Just as the cynic vanished in the crowd, the Duchesse de Senneterre
entered the room, but alone--her expression indicative of the deepest
annoyance.

Madame de Mirecourt advanced a few steps to meet her, and, with the
cleverness which women of the world possess in such an eminent degree,
she found a way, though surrounded by a crowd of guests, and engaged to
all appearance in exchanging the usual commonplaces with the duchess, to
really hold the following low-toned conversation with her:

"But where is Gerald?"

"The doctor had to bleed him this evening."

"Good Heavens! what is the matter with him?"

"He has been in a terrible state ever since yesterday."

"But why did you not warn me, my dear duchess?"

"Because up to the very last minute he declared that he was coming,
though he did feel so badly."

"It is too bad! Mlle. de Beaumesnil may come at any moment, and you were
to have taken possession of her immediately upon her arrival."

"I know it, so I am in misery--nor is this all."

"Why, what else is troubling you, my dear duchess?"

"I cannot exactly explain why, but I have some doubts as to my son's
intentions."

"What an idea!"

"He has acted so strangely of late."

"But did he not assure you this very day that, though he was far from
well, he intended coming here this evening to meet Mlle. de Beaumesnil?"

"Certainly; and another thing that reassures me is that M. de
Maillefort--whom Madame de la Rochaiguë fears so much, and to whom my
son has imprudently confided our plans--M. de Maillefort is on our side,
for he knows the object of this meeting, and yet he promised to
accompany Gerald and me."

"There is no help for it, I suppose, but it certainly is a fine
opportunity lost. When Madame de la Rochaiguë arrives with Mlle. de
Beaumesnil, do not leave them for an instant, and so arrange with the
baroness that the girl shall have only unattractive men for partners."

"Yes, that is very important."

Every minute or two new guests came up to pay their respects to Madame
de Mirecourt.

Suddenly Madame de Senneterre made a hasty movement, then, in a quick
aside to her friend, exclaimed:

"Why, that is M. de Macreuse who has just come in! Can it be you receive
that creature?"

"Why, my dear duchess, I have met him at your house a hundred times;
besides, it was one of my most particular friends, the sister of the
Bishop of Ratopolis, Madame de Cheverny, who requested an invitation for
him. You know, too, that M. de Macreuse is received everywhere on
account of his St. Polycarpe Mission."

"St Polycarpe has nothing in the world to do with it. I assure you, my
dear," said the duchess, interrupting her friend impatiently, "I
received the man like everybody else, but I am sorry enough now, for I
have discovered that he is nothing more or less than a scoundrel, a man
that shouldn't be allowed in decent society. I have even heard that
valuable articles have been known to disappear during his visits," added
Madame de Senneterre, unblushingly.

"Great Heavens! is it possible that the man's a thief?" exclaimed Madame
de Mirecourt.

"No, my dear, of course not, he only borrows a diamond or some other
jewel now and then, and forgets to return it."

At that very instant M. de Macreuse, who had been watching the
expression of the ladies' faces as he slowly advanced, and who shrewdly
suspected that they were none too charitably inclined towards him, but
who nevertheless came forward to bow to the mistress of the house with
imperturbable assurance, interrupted the conversation by saying:

"I hoped, madame, to have had the honour of presenting myself here this
evening under Madame de Cheverny's auspices, but unfortunately for me
she is feeling far from well, and made me the bearer of her profound
regrets."

"I am truly inconsolable that indisposition deprives me of the pleasure
of seeing Madame de Cheverny this evening," replied Madame de Mirecourt,
dryly, still under the influence of what Madame de Senneterre had just
said to her.

But Macreuse was not easily disconcerted, for bowing low to the duchess
this time, he said, smilingly:

"I have less occasion to regret the kind protection of my friend, Madame
de Cheverny, as I may almost venture to count upon yours, madame la
duchesse."

"Justly, monsieur," responded Madame de Senneterre, with bitter hauteur,
"I was just speaking to Madame de Mirecourt of you when you came in, and
congratulating her upon having the honour of receiving you in her
house."

"I expected no less from the habitual kindness of madame la duchesse, to
whom I am indebted for many valuable acquaintances in the delightful
circle in which she moves," replied M. de Macreuse, in tones of the
utmost respect.

After which he bowed low again, and passed on.

This protégé of Abbé Ledoux, Madame de Beaumesnil's former confessor,
was much too shrewd and clear-sighted not to have felt that, in his late
interview with Madame de Senneterre (the interview in which he had
confessed that he was an aspirant for Mlle. de Beaumesnil's hand), he
had, in vulgar parlance, put his foot in it, though the duchess had
ostensibly promised him her support.

Too late Macreuse awoke to the fact that the duchess had a marriageable
son, and the haughty and sarcastic greeting she had just given him
confirmed this pious young man's suspicions; but he troubled himself
very little about this hostility, feeling sure, from Mlle. Helena de la
Rochaiguë's reports, that he was not only the first suitor in the field,
but that he had already made a deep impression upon the young heiress by
his touching melancholy and piety.

So, full of hope, M. de Macreuse first satisfied himself that Mlle. de
Beaumesnil was not in the room, and then stationed himself in a
convenient place to watch for her arrival, resolved to take advantage of
the first opportune moment to invite her to dance.

"Did any one ever see anything to equal his impudence?" exclaimed Madame
de Senneterre, as the abbé's protégé moved away.

"Really, my dear duchess, what you tell me astonishes me beyond measure.
And to think that M. de Macreuse is regarded as a model of virtue and
piety almost everywhere!"

"A fine model he is! There are plenty of other things I could tell you
about him, too--"

But interrupting herself, Madame de Senneterre exclaimed:

"Here comes Mlle. de Beaumesnil at last. Ah, what a pity it is that
Gerald is not here!"

"Oh, well, you can console yourself with the thought that Mlle. de
Beaumesnil will hear nothing but your son's praises the entire evening.
Remain here, and I will bring the dear child to you. You and the
baroness must not leave her even for a moment."

And Madame de Mirecourt advanced to meet Mlle. de Beaumesnil, who had
just come in, accompanied by M. and Madame de la Rochaiguë.

The young girl was leaning on her guardian's arm. A low buzzing sound,
produced by loud whispers of "That is Mlle. de Beaumesnil," created a
general stir in the spacious rooms, and a crowd of curious observers
soon filled the doorways of the salon in which Ernestine found herself.

It was in the midst of this eager excitement that the richest heiress in
France, lowering her eyes under the curious looks directed upon her from
every side, made her entrance into society.

The poor child was secretly comparing this eagerness and impatience to
see and to be seen by her, as well as the murmurs of admiration which
she heard as she advanced, with the entirely different reception she had
received at Madame Herbaut's house the Sunday before; and all this only
made her the more resolved to carry her attempted test as far as
possible, and thus satisfy herself once for all in regard to the honour
and sincerity of the people with whom she seemed destined to live.

Mlle. de Beaumesnil, to the utter dismay of the Rochaiguës, and with a
sudden display of obstinacy that both amazed and cowed them, had
insisted upon dressing as simply as on the occasion of Madame Herbaut's
little entertainment.

A plain white muslin gown and a blue sash, exactly like those she had
worn the Sunday before, composed the attire of the heiress, who wished
to look neither better nor worse than she did then.

The thought of attiring herself in a ridiculous manner had occurred to
her, almost certain that, even in that case, the charming originality of
her toilet would be loudly praised on every side, but the thought of
what a serious and important thing this test was to her led to a speedy
abandonment of that idea.

As had been planned in advance by Mesdames de Mirecourt, de Senneterre,
and de la Rochaiguë, Mlle. de Beaumesnil, as soon as she arrived at the
ball, and made her way through the eager crowd that blocked her passage,
was conducted by her hostess to the large and magnificent room which had
been reserved for dancing. Here, Madame de Mirecourt left Ernestine in
the care of Madame de la Rochaiguë and Madame de Senneterre, whom the
baroness had just met--by the merest chance.

Not far from the divan on which the heiress was seated were several
charming young girls, all as pretty and much more elegantly dressed than
the belles of Madame Herbaut's ball, but every eye was riveted upon
Ernestine.

"I shall not lack partners this evening," she thought, "nor shall I be
asked out of pity. All those charming girls over there will doubtless be
neglected on my account."

While Mlle. de Beaumesnil was absorbed in these observations,
recollections, and comparisons, Madame de Senneterre was telling Madame
de la Rochaiguë, in subdued tones, that, unfortunately, Gerald was so
ill that it would be impossible for him to attend the ball, and it was
therefore decided that Ernestine should be allowed to dance very little,
and then only with carefully selected partners.

To attain this end, Madame de la Rochaiguë said to Ernestine:

"My darling child, you can judge of the sensation you are creating in
spite of the unheard-of simplicity of your toilet. My predictions are
more than realised, you see. You are sure to be overwhelmed with
invitations to dance, but as it would never do for you to dance with
everybody, we will manage in this way. When I think it advisable for you
to accept an invitation, I will open my fan; if, on the contrary, I keep
it closed, you will decline on the plea that you are dancing very
little, and that you have made too many engagements already."

Madame de la Rochaiguë had scarcely addressed this remark to Ernestine
before quite a number of young people began to take their places for a
quadrille. Several young men who were dying to invite Mlle. de
Beaumesnil hesitated a little, rightly thinking that it was hardly the
thing to ask her the minute she entered the ball-room; but M. de
Macreuse, being either less scrupulous or more daring, did not hesitate
a second, but, making his way swiftly through the crowd, begged
Ernestine to do him the honour to dance the quadrille that was then
forming, with him.

Madame de Senneterre, positively stupefied by what she called such
unheard-of audacity on M. de Macreuse's part, turned to hastily implore
Madame de la Rochaiguë to give the signal for a refusal, but it was too
late.

Mlle. de Beaumesnil, anxious to find herself virtually alone with M. de
Macreuse as soon as possible, promptly accepted the invitation, without
waiting to note the movements of Madame de la Rochaiguë's fan, and, to
that lady's great astonishment, immediately rose, accepted the pious
young man's arm, and walked away.

"That scoundrel's insolence is really unbearable!" exclaimed the
duchess, wrathfully.

But checking herself suddenly, she exclaimed in an entirely different
tone:

"Why, there he is now!"

"Who?"

"Gerald."

"How fortunate! Where do you see him, my dear duchess?"

"Over there by the window. Poor boy, how pale he looks!" added the
duchess, feelingly. "How brave it was in him to come! We are saved!"

"Yes, it is, indeed, Gerald!" said Madame de la Rochaiguë, no less
delighted than her friend. "M. de Maillefort is with him. The marquis
did not deceive me, after all. He promised that he would do nothing to
interfere with my plans as soon as he found out that M. de Senneterre
was the husband I had picked out for Ernestine."

The music struck up, and just as Madame de Senneterre motioned to Gerald
that there was a vacant seat beside her, the quadrille in which M. de
Macreuse and Mlle. de Beaumesnil were to participate began.



CHAPTER XII.

M. DE MACREUSE OVERDOES THE MATTER.


Mlle. de Beaumesnil had eagerly availed herself of the first opportunity
for a conversation with M. de Macreuse, for from this conversation she
hoped to ascertain whether her distrust of him was well founded. She was
strongly inclined to think so, the abbé's protégé having assured Mlle.
Helena that he had fallen suddenly and passionately in love with Mlle.
de Beaumesnil at first sight.

And after her experience at Madame Herbaut's, the heiress knew what to
think of the sudden and irresistible impressions her beauty must
produce.

But recollecting the different things that had attracted her attention
to M. de Macreuse, recalling the profound grief he had seemed to feel at
his mother's death, the charity of which he had given such convincing
proof by his alms, and, above all, the rare virtues which Mlle. Helena
was continually lauding to the skies, Ernestine was anxious to know
exactly what to think of this so-called model young man.

"M. de Macreuse has interested me very much," she said to herself. "He
is very prepossessing in appearance, and his melancholy is extremely
touching; in fact, but for M. de Maillefort's sneering remarks, which
have made me distrust myself as well as others, I should perhaps have
taken a decided fancy to M. de Macreuse. Perhaps, captivated by the rare
virtues of which I have heard so much, I should have unconsciously
yielded to Mlle. Helena's influence, and perhaps have married M. de
Macreuse, a choice which I am told would assure my happiness for life.
Let me see, then, what kind of a choice I should have made, for I have
an infallible means of distinguishing truth from falsehood now."

M. de Macreuse, full of confidence by reason of Helena's flattering
reports, and realising the decisive nature of this interview, had long
been preparing himself to play the liar to perfection.

When Ernestine laid her hand lightly on his arm, this pious youth
pretended to give a sudden start, and the young girl was conscious of
the sort of thrill that traversed her partner's arm.

When they had taken their places, M. de Macreuse made two ineffectual
attempts to address a few words to Mlle. de Beaumesnil, but he seemed
dominated by such a powerful, though perfectly natural emotion, that
speech failed him and he could only blush deeply.

Abbé Ledoux, by the way, had taught his protégé an almost infallible
means of blushing: this was to hang one's head for several seconds,
holding one's breath all the while.

This skilfully counterfeited emotion occupied the first few minutes of
the quadrille, M. de Macreuse having addressed scarcely a word to Mlle.
de Beaumesnil.

Moreover, by a marvel of tact and cunning, the originator of the St.
Polycarpe mission not only managed to escape the ridicule to which a
profoundly melancholy man exposes himself when he undertakes to dance,
but also to preserve an interesting appearance in Mlle. de Beaumesnil's
eyes in spite of the terpsichorean evolutions he was obliged to perform.

He was aided not a little by his personal appearance, we must admit.

Dressed entirely in black, booted and gloved in the most irreproachable
manner, the cut of his coat was perfection, and his black satin cravat
extremely becoming to one with his fair complexion and regular features.
His figure, though a little too stout, was replete with an easy grace,
and as he walked through the different figures of the quadrille, keeping
perfect time to the music, he now and then cast a resigned but pathetic
look at Mlle. de Beaumesnil, a look that seemed to say:

"I am a stranger to worldly pleasures--entirely out of place at fêtes,
from which my sorrow impels me to hold myself aloof, but I submit to
this painful contrast between my grief and the gaiety around me, because
I have no other means of seeing you."

This beloved disciple of Abbé Ledoux, in short, belonged to that school
of actors that seems to make a specialty of meaning but constrained
glances, expressive but discreet sighs, all fittingly accompanied with
rollings of the eyes, and a contrite, radiant, or ingenuous expression
of countenance, as best suits the occasion.

In fact, M. de Macreuse's rendition of his rôle was so admirable that
Mlle. de Beaumesnil, in spite of her suspicions, could not help saying
to herself:

"Poor M. de Macreuse! it must be very painful for him to find himself at
a gay entertainment in which he can take so little pleasure, overwhelmed
as he is by the despair his mother's death has caused him."

But her suspicions reasserting themselves, "Then why did he come?" she
asked herself. "Very possibly he was impelled to do so solely by
avaricious motives. Is it a shameful hope of securing my wealth that
makes him forget his grief and his regret?"

M. de Macreuse having at last found a favourable opportunity for
beginning a conversation with Ernestine, summoned up another blush, then
said, in his most timid, unctuous, and ingratiating tones:

"Really, I must appear very awkward and ridiculous to you,
mademoiselle."

"And why, monsieur?"

"I have not dared to address so much as a word to you since the
beginning of the dance, mademoiselle, but--embarrassment--fear--"

"What! I frighten you, monsieur?"

"Alas! yes, mademoiselle."

"That is not a very gallant remark, monsieur."

"I make no pretentious to gallantry, mademoiselle," replied Macreuse,
sadly, but proudly. "I am only sincere--and the fear you inspire in me
is real, only too real."

"But why do I inspire you with fear?"

"Because you have unsettled my life and my reason, mademoiselle, for
from the first moment I saw you, without even knowing who you were, your
image placed itself between me and the only previous objects of my
adoration. Up to that time, I had lived only to pray to God and to
cherish or mourn for my mother, while now--"

"Good Heavens, monsieur, how tiresome all this is! What I say may
surprise you, but it is the truth, nevertheless; for you see," continued
Mlle. de Beaumesnil, assuming from this on the imperious and flippant
tone and manner of a spoiled child, "I am in the habit of saying
anything that comes into my head, unless I am absolutely compelled to
play the hypocrite."

It is needless to say that M. de Macreuse was astounded by this
interruption, and above all by the manner in which it was made, for,
from Mlle. Helena's reports, he had fully expected to find in Ernestine
an artless, but deeply religious child; so, up to this time, he had
carefully maintained a manner and a style of conversation which would be
likely to please an unsophisticated devotee.

Still, too wary to betray his astonishment, and ready to change his
character at a moment's notice if that should prove necessary to put him
in tune with the heiress, this pious young man replied, venturing a
half smile--he had preserved a melancholy gravity up to that time:

"You are right, mademoiselle, to say whatever comes into your head,
particularly as only charming thoughts can find shelter there."

"Really, monsieur, I like this kind of talk very much better. You were
not at all amusing before."

"It depends upon you, mademoiselle," responded Macreuse, risking a whole
smile this time, and so transforming his formerly grief-stricken face by
degrees, as it were, "and it will always depend upon you, mademoiselle,
to change sorrow to gladness. Nothing is impossible to you."

"Oh, as to that, there's a time for everything, I think. Now this
morning at church I seemed sad, because church is so dull any way;
besides, in order not to be outdone by Mlle. Helena I put on the most
saintly airs imaginable, but in my secret heart I am awfully fond of
gaiety and of amusing myself. By the way, what do you think of my gown?"

"It is in exquisite taste. In its charming simplicity it is a delightful
contrast to the gaudy attire of all the other young ladies; but they are
excusable, after all, and you deserve very little credit, for they have
need of outward adornments, while you can dispense with them,
mademoiselle. Perfection needs no ornamentation."

"That is exactly what I said to myself," responded Ernestine, with the
most arrogant and conceited air imaginable. "I felt sure that, even in a
plain white dress, I was pretty certain to eclipse all the other young
girls and make them turn green with envy. It is such fun to excite envy
in others and torment them."

"You must be accustomed to that pleasure, mademoiselle. It is true that
the jealousy of others does afford one a vast amount of amusement, as
you so wittily remarked a moment ago."

"Oh, I am not so wonderfully witty," responded Ernestine, with an
admirable semblance of overweening conceit; "but I am very fond of my
own way and can't bear any one to oppose or contradict me. That is why I
hate old people so. They are for ever preaching to young folks. Do you
like old people, monsieur?"

"You mean mummies, mademoiselle. The chief aim of life should be
pleasure."

And the imperious necessity of executing a figure in the quadrille
having interrupted M. de Macreuse at this point, he took advantage of
the excellent opportunity thus afforded to change the expression of his
countenance entirely, and to assume the most joyous dare-devil air
imaginable. A similar change, too, was apparent in his dancing. It was
much more lively and animated. The young man straightened himself up,
lifted his head high in the air, and whenever he found an opportunity he
bestowed upon Mlle. de Beaumesnil glances which were now as impassioned
as the former ones had been timid and discreet.

While he was assuming this new character, the abbé's protégé was all the
while saying to himself:

"How strange! the girl is an arrant hypocrite evidently, inasmuch as she
succeeded in deceiving Mlle. de la Rochaiguë so completely in regard to
her real character. I strongly suspect, though, that my excellent friend
was afraid that she would frighten me if she told me the truth about the
girl. She little knows me. I'm glad that the girl is silly and vain, and
that she thinks herself witty and beautiful and capable of out-shining
all the pretty women here to-night. Deceitfulness, ignorance, and
vanity--it must be a fool indeed that can not use three such potent
factors as these to advantage. But now to the main question! With a
simpleton like this, reserve is unnecessary, nor can one pile on the
flattery too thickly. Complaisance must extend almost to baseness, for
the girl has evidently been utterly spoiled by her wealth. She knows
perfectly well that anything is permissible in her,--that any offence
will be condoned in the richest heiress in France."

So as he returned to his place M. de Macreuse remarked to Ernestine:

"You accused me just now of being too grave, mademoiselle. You must not
suppose that I am in the most hilarious spirits now, but the happiness
of being with you intoxicates me."

"And why?"

"If Mlle. Helena, in encouraging me to hope that some day, when you
learned to know me better, you might think me worthy to consecrate my
life to you,--if Mlle. Helena was mistaken in this--"

"By the way, speaking of Mlle. Helena, you must admit that she is a
frightful bore."

"That is true, but she is so good."

"So good! Well, that did not prevent her from saying something dreadful
to me about you the other day."

"About me?"

"Yes, she made you out such a paragon of goodness that I said to myself:
'Great Heavens, how intolerable that man must be with all his virtues. A
person as perfect as that must be a frightful nuisance! And then to be
always at church or engaged in charitable works, the mere idea of it is
enough to make one die of ennui.' I did not say this to Mlle. Helena,
but I thought it all the same. Judge then, monsieur, I, who would marry
only to be as free as air and amuse myself from morning till night, to
be always on the go, to be the most fashionable woman in Paris, and
above all to be able to go to the masked ball at the Opera house! Oh,
that ball, it sets me crazy just to think of it! Mercy! what is the use
of being as rich as I am if one cannot enjoy everything and do exactly
as one pleases?"

"When one is as rich as you are," replied M. de Macreuse, with
unblushing effrontery, "one is queen everywhere, above all in one's own
home. The man you honour with your choice should, to follow out my
comparison, be the prime minister of your kingdom of pleasure,--no, your
chief courtier, and as such be ever submissive and eager to do your
bidding. His one thought should be to save you from the slightest
annoyance, and leave you only the flowers of existence. The birds of the
air should not be freer than you; and if your husband understands his
duty, your pleasures, your wishes, and even your slightest caprice,
should be sacred to him. Is he not your slave, and you his divinity?"

"Good, monsieur, that would suit me perfectly, but from what Mlle.
Helena has told me about you, and from what I myself have seen--"

"And what have you seen, mademoiselle?"

"I have seen you giving alms to the poor and even talking with them."

"Certainly, mademoiselle, and I--"

"In the first place, I have a horror of poor people,--they are so
loathsome in their rags they fairly turn one's stomach."

"They are horrible creatures, it is true, but one has to throw them a
little money now and then as one throws a bone to a starving dog to keep
him from biting you. It is merely a matter of policy."

"I understand, then, for I wondered how you could feel any interest in
such repulsive creatures."

"Good Heavens, mademoiselle," replied Macreuse, more and more earnestly,
"you must not wonder at certain apparent contradictions between the
present and the past. If any do exist you are the cause of them, so
ought you not to pardon them? What did I tell you from the very first?
Did I not confess that you had wrought a complete change in my life? Ah,
yes, I had sorrows, but I have them no longer. I was devout, but
henceforth there is only one divinity for me, yourself. As for my
virtues," added M. de Macreuse, with a cynical smile, "they need not
worry you. Only too happy to lay the others at your feet, I will retain
only such as may please you."

"How infamous!" thought Ernestine. "To attract my attention, or, rather,
to excite my interest, this man made a pretence of being charitable,
virtuous, devout, and a most devoted son; now he denies his virtues, his
charity, his mother, and even his God, to please me, and attain his
object, viz., to marry me for my money, while the detestable faults I
affect do not shock him in the least; he even praises and exalts them."

Mlle. de Beaumesnil, who was little versed in dissimulation, and who had
been obliged to exercise the greatest self-restraint in order to enact
the rôle which would assist her in unmasking M. de Macreuse, could no
longer conceal her scorn and disgust, and, in spite of all her efforts,
her face betrayed her real feelings only too plainly, as she listened to
M. de Macreuse's last words.

That gentleman, like all the disciples of his school, made a constant
study of the countenance of the person he wished to deceive or convince;
and the quick contraction of Mlle. de Beaumesnil's features, her smile
of bitter disdain, and a sort of impatient indignation that she made
little or no attempt to conceal at the moment, were a sudden and
startling revelation to M. de Macreuse.

"I am caught," he said to himself. "It was a trap. She distrusted me and
wanted to try me. She pretended to be silly, capricious, vain,
heartless, and irreligious, merely to see if I would have the courage to
censure her, and if my love would survive such a discovery. Who the
devil would have suspected such cunning in a girl of sixteen? But if she
has feigned all these objectionable proclivities, her real instincts
must be good and generous," this beloved disciple of Abbé Ledoux said to
himself. "And if she was anxious to put me to the test she must have had
some idea of marrying me. All is not lost. I must recover my lost ground
by a bold stroke."

These reflections on the part of the pious youth lasted only for an
instant, but that instant sufficed to prepare him for another
transformation.

The same brief interval had also given Mlle. de Beaumesnil time to calm
her indignation, and summon up courage to end this interview by covering
Macreuse with shame and confusion.

"So you are really willing to sacrifice all your virtues on my account?"
exclaimed Ernestine. "Few persons are as obliging as all that. But the
quadrille is ended. Instead of escorting me back to my seat, won't you
take me to that conservatory I see at the other end of the room?"

"I am all the more pleased to comply with your request, mademoiselle, as
I have a few words, very serious words they are, too, that I wish to say
to you."

M. de Macreuse's tone had changed entirely. It was grave now, even
stern.

Ernestine glanced at the pious young man in astonishment. His expression
had become as sad as at the beginning of the quadrille, but the sadness
was no longer of a melancholy, touching character, but stern, almost
wrathful.

More and more amazed at this sudden metamorphosis which Macreuse
intensified, so to speak, during their walk through the salon to the
conservatory, Mlle. de Beaumesnil asked herself what could be the cause
of this strange change in her companion.

The long gallery, enclosed in glass, which they entered, was bordered on
each side with masses of flowering plants and palms, and at the farther
end was an immense buffet loaded with the choicest viands. As nearly all
the gentlemen were engaged in escorting their partners to their seats,
there were very few people in the gallery at the time, so M. de Macreuse
had an excellent opportunity to say all he had to say.

"May I ask, monsieur," asked the orphan, flippantly, seeing that she
must not yet abandon her rôle--"may I ask what very important thing you
have to say to me. Grave is about the same thing as being tiresome, it
seems to me, and I have a horror of everything that is tiresome, you
know."

"Grave or tiresome, you will, nevertheless, have to listen to these
words, which are the last you will ever hear from my lips,
mademoiselle."

"The last during this quadrille, evidently."

"They are the last words I shall ever say to you in my life,
mademoiselle."

There was something so sad and yet so proud in the voice, face, and
bearing of this model young man that Mlle. de Beaumesnil was overwhelmed
with astonishment.

Nevertheless, she continued, still trying to smile:

"What, monsieur, I am never to see you again after all--all Mlle. Helena
has said about--about--"

"Listen, mademoiselle," said M. de Macreuse, interrupting her; "it is
impossible for me to keep up this farce any longer--or to express any
longer sentiments that are and ever will be farthest from my thoughts."

"To what farce do you allude, monsieur?"

"I came here, mademoiselle, expecting to find in you the pious,
sensible, generous, kind-hearted, honest young girl of whom Mlle. Helena
has always spoken in terms of the highest praise. It was to such a girl
that my first remarks were addressed, but the frivolous, sneering manner
in which they were received disappointed and even shocked me."

"Can I believe my ears?" thought Ernestine. "What on earth does he
mean?"

"Then a terrible doubt seized me," continued M. de Macreuse, with a
heavy sigh. "I said to myself that perhaps you did not possess those
rare virtues which I so greatly admire and which I was confident I
should find in you, but I could not and would not believe it at first,
preferring to attribute your words to the thoughtlessness of youth. But
alas! your frivolity, vanity, hardness of heart, and impiety became more
and more apparent as our conversation proceeded. I wished to convince
myself thoroughly, however, and though my heart bled each moment, I
wanted to overcome your insensibility to all that is pitiable, your
contempt for all that is sacred. I even went so far as to seem to scoff
at that which is dearest to me in life,--my religion and the memory of
my mother."

And a tear glistened on the lashes of the abbé's disciple.

"It was a test, then, in his case, as in mine," thought Ernestine.

"I feigned the most pernicious sentiments," continued M. de Macreuse,
waxing more and more indignant, "and you did not utter a word of censure
or even of surprise! At last I pushed flattery, cowardice, and baseness
to their utmost limits, and you remained calm and approving instead of
crushing me with the scorn I deserved. It has been a terrible ordeal for
me, for the blow to my hopes is as unexpected as it is overwhelming. All
is over now. Pardon a severity of language to which you are little
accustomed, mademoiselle, but understand, once for all, that I will
never devote my life to any woman, who is not worthy both of my love and
my respect."

And with a stern and dignified air M. de Macreuse bowed low to
Ernestine, and walked away, leaving her speechless with astonishment.

"I thank God that I was mistaken," thought the poor child, with a
feeling of profound relief. "Such hypocrisy, deceit, and
unscrupulousness are an impossibility. M. de Macreuse was horrified by
the sentiments I expressed, consequently he must possess a sincere and
upright soul."

The reflections of this artless girl, who was so ill fitted to cope with
the wily founder of the St. Polycarpe mission, were interrupted by
Mesdames de Rochaiguë and de Senneterre, who, having seen Mlle. de
Beaumesnil enter the gallery in company with M. de Macreuse, had
hastened after her, thinking the young girl intended to partake of some
refreshments, but the two ladies found her alone.

"Why, what are you doing here, my own dearest?" inquired Madame de la
Rochaiguë.

"I came here for a little fresh air, madame; it is so warm in the
ballroom."

"But the gallery is just as much too cool, my dear child, and you run a
great risk of taking cold. You had better come back to the ballroom at
once."

"As you please, madame," replied Mlle. de Beaumesnil.

As she reëntered the ballroom, in company with the two ladies, she saw
M. de Macreuse give her a despairing look; but he turned quickly away,
as if he feared the young girl would perceive the sorrowful emotion to
which he was a prey.



CHAPTER XIII.

AN HONEST CONFESSION IS GOOD FOR THE SOUL.


Mlle. de Beaumesnil, on reëntering the ball-room, also noticed Gerald de
Senneterre standing near one of the doorways. He was very pale, and
looked extremely sad.

The sight of him reminded Ernestine of her friend's despair, and she
asked herself why Gerald, in spite of his love for Herminie and his
desire to marry her, had come to this ball where a meeting with her,
Ernestine, had been arranged by Madame de la Rochaiguë.

As she conducted the richest heiress in France back to her seat, Madame
de la Senneterre said to her, with the utmost affability:

"Mademoiselle, I am deputised to ask a favour of you in behalf of my
son."

"What is it, madame?"

"He begs that you will give him the next quadrille, though he is not
dancing this evening, for he has been, and is still, quite indisposed,
so much so, in fact, that it required almost superhuman courage on his
part to come at all. But he hoped to have the honour of meeting you
here, mademoiselle, and such a hope as that works wonders."

"But if M. de Senneterre does not feel able to dance, madame, what is
the use of my making an engagement with him?"

"That is a secret which I will divulge when the crowds of young men that
are going to besiege you with invitations to dance are disposed of.
Merely remember that the next quadrille belongs to my son, that is, if
you are so kind as to grant him the favour he asks."

"With the greatest pleasure, madame."

"Keep my seat for me, my dear," the duchess said to Madame de la
Rochaiguë, rising as she spoke, "I must go and tell Gerald."

While awaiting M. de Senneterre's coming, Mlle. de Beaumesnil was also
reflecting with all the satisfaction of a truly honest heart that M. de
Macreuse had not deserved her distrust. The more she reflected on the
subject, the more the young man's conduct pleased her by reason of its
very rudeness. In fact, his austere frankness seemed to her almost as
noble as the sentiment she fancied she had discerned in Olivier's
breast, when he gave her such a peculiar but meaning look on so
unexpectedly hearing that he had been made an officer.

"They are both noble men," she said to herself.

But Mlle. de Beaumesnil was not allowed to enjoy these pleasant and
consoling thoughts long, for she had scarcely seated herself before she
was besieged with invitations to dance, as Madame de Senneterre had
predicted. Resolved to observe and judge for herself, as much as
possible, the heiress accepted quite a number of these invitations,
among them one from M. de Mornand.

Eager to discover M. de Senneterre's intentions, and to ascertain why he
had engaged her for a quadrille if he did not feel able to dance,
Ernestine awaited the time for Gerald's approach with no little interest
and curiosity. At last she saw him leave his place, after exchanging a
few words with M. de Maillefort, whom Ernestine had not seen since she
met him so unexpectedly at Herminie's home.

On seeing the hunchback, the orphan could not help blushing, but, as she
cast another glance at him, she was touched by the expression of tender
solicitude with which he was regarding her, and the meaning smile he
bestowed upon her reassured her completely in regard to that gentleman's
discretion.

The time for forming the quadrille having arrived, Gerald approached
Mlle. de Beaumesnil and said:

"I have come to thank you for the promise you so kindly made to my
mother."

"And I am ready to fulfil it, monsieur, as soon as I know--"

"Why I engaged you for this quadrille when I am not able to dance?"

"Yes, monsieur."

"It is an innovation, mademoiselle, that would prove very popular, I am
sure, if it were adopted," said Gerald, smiling in spite of his
melancholy.

"And this innovation, monsieur?"

"For many persons, and I confess that I am one of the number, a
quadrille is merely a pretext for a quarter of an hour's tête-à-tête.
Then why not say in so many words: 'Madame, or mademoiselle, will you do
me the honour to talk with me for the next quarter of an hour?' and as
one can talk much more comfortably sitting on a sofa than standing, why,
let us sit through this dance and talk."

"I think the idea a very happy one, monsieur."

"And you consent?"

"Certainly," replied Ernestine, moving a little closer to Madame de la
Rochaiguë, and thus making room for Gerald beside her.

The dancers having taken their places on the floor, most of the seats
were vacant; and Gerald, having no neighbour on the other side, could
talk to Ernestine without any danger of being overheard, especially as
Madame de la Rochaiguë, in order to give her ward greater freedom, moved
a little farther from Mlle. de Beaumesnil, and a little nearer to Madame
de Senneterre.

Up to this time, M. de Senneterre had been talking in a light, half
jesting tone, but as soon as he found himself virtually alone with
Mlle. de Beanmesnil, his manner changed entirely, and his features and
accents alike indicated the deepest interest and anxiety.

"Mademoiselle," he said earnestly, almost solemnly, "though I am far
from well, I came here this evening to do my duty as an honourable man."

Mlle. de Beanmesnil experienced a feeling of intense relief. Gerald had
no intention of deceiving Herminie, then, and doubtless he was about to
explain why he had not relinquished all pretensions to
her--Ernestine's--hand.

"Do you know how an heiress is married off, mademoiselle?" asked Gerald.

And as Mlle. de Beaumesnil gazed at him in surprise, without making any
reply, Gerald continued:

"I will tell you, mademoiselle, and this knowledge may serve to protect
you from many dangers. A certain mother, my mother, for example,--one of
the best women in the world,--hears that the richest heiress in France
is in the matrimonial market. My mother, dazzled by the advantages that
such a union would afford me, does not trouble herself in the least
about the character or personal appearance of this heiress. She has
never even seen her, for the rich orphan is still in a foreign land. But
that makes no difference; this enormous fortune must be secured for me
if possible, it matters not by what means. My mother, yielding to an
aberration of maternal love, hastens to the wife of this orphan's
guardian, and it is decided that, on the arrival of the heiress, an
inexperienced child of sixteen, weak and defenceless, and ignorant of
the ways of the world, she shall be so surrounded and influenced that
her choice is almost certain to fall upon me. This shameful bargain is
concluded; the way in which I am to first make her acquaintance,
apparently by chance, is decided upon, even to the more or less becoming
costume I am to wear on that occasion! Everything has been arranged,
though I hear and know nothing about it. The heiress, too, who is still
a hundred leagues from Paris, knows no more about it than I do. At last
she arrives. Then, for the first time, my mother informs me of her
plans, sure that I will accept with joy the piece of good fortune
offered me. Nevertheless, I decline it at first, saying that I have no
taste for married life, and that I should be certain to prove a bad
husband. 'What difference does that make?' says my mother. 'Marry her,
in spite of that--she is rich.' And yet my mother is as honourable and
as widely honoured as any woman. But you do not know the baneful, yes,
fatal, influence of money!"

"Can you hear what they are saying, my dear?" the duchess whispered to
Madame de la Rochaiguë as this conversation was going on.

"No," replied that lady, likewise in a whisper, "but the child seems to
be listening with a great deal of interest. I just stole a glance at her
when she was not looking, and her face was positively radiant."

"I was sure of Gerald. He can be irresistible when he chooses!"
exclaimed the delighted duchess. "The girl is ours. And to think I was
simpleton enough to fly into a passion just because that miserable
Macreuse asked her to dance!"

"As I remarked a few minutes ago, I acted the part of an honourable man
and refused to think of this marriage at first," Gerald continued; "but
unfortunately my mother's entreaties, my fear of grieving her, and last,
though not least, my indignation on hearing of the nefarious schemes of
an unscrupulous rival, and possibly my own unconscious longing for such
colossal wealth, induced me to reconsider, and I finally decided to try
to marry the heiress, even at the risk of making her the most wretched
of women, for a mercenary marriage is sure to end disastrously."

"Well, monsieur, have you kept this resolution?"

"A subsequent conversation with two dear friends of mine, high-minded,
noble-hearted men, opened my eyes. I saw that I was pursuing a course
unworthy of me and of those who loved me. It was decided, however, that,
out of consideration for my mother's wishes, I should meet the heiress,
and if, after seeing her and knowing her, I loved her as much as I would
have loved a penniless and nameless young girl, I would do my best to
win her."

"Well, monsieur, have you seen this heiress?

"Yes, mademoiselle; but when I saw her it was too late."

"Too late?"

"A love as sudden as it was honourable and sincere for a person who was
worthy of it no longer permitted me to appreciate, as she, I am sure,
deserves, the young lady my mother wished me to marry."

On hearing this honest but delicately worded confession, Mlle. de
Beaumesnil could not repress a joyous movement. Gerald loved Herminie as
she deserved to be loved, and he had just given fresh proof of his
nobility of character by the generosity of his conduct towards
Ernestine.

The orphan's joyous start had not escaped the watchful eyes of Madame de
la Rochaiguë, and that lady said, in a low tone, to the duchess:

"All is well! Look at Mlle. de Beaumesnil! See what a brilliant colour
she has, and how her eyes sparkle!"

"Yes," said the duchess, leaning slightly forward to peep at Ernestine,
"the poor little thing looks almost pretty, as she listens to Gerald."

"One of the greatest triumphs of love is its transfiguration of its
object, my dear duchess," answered Madame de la Rochaiguë, smiling, "and
I am sure your son will not be blind to this triumph."

"M. de Senneterre," said Ernestine, "I thank you most sincerely for
your frankness and your wise counsels, of which I, perhaps, stand in
greater need than you think; but though I am too glad of your presence
here to be astonished at it, I should like to know--"

"Why I am here this evening, mademoiselle, in spite of my resolution? It
is because I wished to avail myself of this opportunity--the only one I
shall have, perhaps--to talk to you alone, and perhaps put you on your
guard against schemes similar to those to which I so narrowly escaped
becoming an accomplice, for not many men, I fear, will be as scrupulous.
Your guardian and his wife will lend themselves to any scheme that will
serve their interests. They care nothing about your future happiness and
welfare. All this is hard, mademoiselle, very hard, and it would be
cruel, indeed, in me to arouse this fear and distrust in your heart, if
I could not, at the same time, offer you, as a guide and protector, a
noble-hearted man who is as much feared by the base and unscrupulous as
he is loved by men of worth. Have confidence, perfect confidence, in
this man, mademoiselle, though strenuous efforts have been, and will be,
made to prejudice you against him."

"You refer to M. de Maillefort, do you not?"

"Yes, mademoiselle. Believe me, you will never find a more faithful and
devoted friend. If doubts assail you, turn to him. He is a wonderfully
shrewd and discerning man. Guided by him, you are sure to escape the
snares and pitfalls that surround you."

"I shall not forget this advice, M. de Senneterre. A strong liking for
M. de Maillefort has succeeded the animosity I formerly felt for him, an
animosity due entirely to the shameful slanders repeated to me in regard
to him."

"Our quadrille is nearly over, mademoiselle," said Gerald, forcing a
smile. "I have profited by the only opportunity at my disposal.
To-morrow, much as it pains me to disappoint my mother, she must know
the truth."

Ernestine's heart sank at the thought that Gerald would, doubtless, also
confess his love for Herminie on the morrow. How terribly angry Madame
de Senneterre would be to hear that her son preferred a penniless and
nameless orphan to the richest heiress in France! And though she had no
suspicion of the condition Herminie had attached to her marriage with
Gerald, Mlle. de Beaumesnil realised what well-nigh insuperable
difficulties must stand in the way of such a marriage, so she sadly
replied:

"You may be sure, M. de Senneterre, that, in return for the generous
interest you have manifested in me, you shall have my most fervent
wishes for your own happiness, and that of the woman you love. Farewell,
M. de Senneterre, I hope to be able to prove some day how grateful I am
for the generosity of your conduct towards me."

The quadrille having ended, several young ladies returned to their seats
near Mlle. de Beaumesnil; so Gerald rose, bowed to the orphan, and,
feeling both ill and fatigued, immediately left the ball-room.

Madame de Senneterre, delighted by the favourable indications which she,
as well as Madame de la Rochaiguë, had observed, whispered to the
baroness:

"Try to find out what effect Gerald has produced."

So Madame de la Rochaiguë, leaning towards Mlle. de Beaumesnil, said to
her:

"Ah, my dear child, is he not charming?"

"No one could be more agreeable or evince more noble and refined
feelings."

"Then, my dear child, you are the Duchesse de Senneterre. At least, it
depends solely upon yourself. Come, say yes, here and now!"

"You embarrass me very much, madame," responded Ernestine, casting down
her eyes.

"Oh, yes, I understand," replied Madame de la Rochaiguë, thinking that
maidenly reserve alone prevented Ernestine from confessing that she
wished to marry Gerald.

"Well, my dear, he has quite turned her head, has he not?" asked Madame
de Senneterre, nudging the baroness slightly with her elbow.

"Completely, completely, my dear duchess. But give me your arm, and let
us go and find M. de Senneterre, to tell him of his success."

"The dear child is ours at last, and Gerald will be the largest
landowner in France. As for our little private compact, my dear
baroness," added Madame de Senneterre, in even more subdued tones, "I
scarcely need assure you that it shall be carried out with scrupulous
exactitude. I have said nothing to my son about it, understand, but I
will vouch for him."

"We will not talk of that now, my dear duchess; but as Madame de
Mirecourt has been so exceedingly kind, don't you think it would be in
excellent taste for him--"

"Oh, that is understood, of course," said Madame de Senneterre, hastily
interrupting the baroness. "Nothing could be more just, I am sure. But
let us make haste and find Gerald. Do you see him anywhere?"

"No, my dear duchess, but he is in the gallery, doubtless. Come, let us
look for him there."

Then turning to Ernestine, Madame de la Rochaiguë said:

"We shall leave you only for a moment, my dear child. We are merely
going to make some one as happy as a king."

And without waiting for any reply from Ernestine, Madame de la Rochaiguë
gave her arm to the duchess, and the two ladies hastened towards the
gallery.

M. de Maillefort, who seemed to have noted the departure of the two
ladies, now approached Ernestine, and, availing himself of one of the
privileges accorded a man of his years, took the seat beside the young
girl which Madame de la Rochaiguë had just vacated.



CHAPTER XIV.

VILLAINY UNMASKED.


As M. de Maillefort seated himself beside Ernestine, he remarked, with a
smile:

"So you are no longer afraid of me, I see."

"Ah, monsieur," replied the girl, "I am so thankful for this opportunity
to thank you--"

"For my discretion? That will stand any test, I assure you. I give you
my word that no one knows or ever will know that I met you at the home
of the very best and noblest young woman I know."

"Is she not, monsieur? But if I know Herminie, monsieur, it is to you
that I am indebted for the honour."

"To me?"

"You remember, perhaps, that one evening in Mlle. Helena's presence you
said some very hard, but alas! only too true things about me."

"Yes, my poor child. I knew how much you disliked me. I could never find
an opportunity to see you alone, and, though I was watching over you, it
was necessary, imperatively necessary, that your eyes should be opened,
and that you should understand the object of the fulsome flattery of
which you might eventually become the dupe."

"Ah, well, monsieur, your words did open my eyes, and I saw very plainly
that those around me were deceiving me, and that I was already on the
verge of becoming a victim to their shameful flattery. I made a resolve
then and there, and, in order to discover the truth concerning myself,
I arranged with my governess to attend a little dancing party given by
one of her friends, where I was to be introduced as a poor orphan
relative of hers."

"And at this party you met Herminie. She told me so. I understand
everything now. So you wished to know your own intrinsic worth without
your fortune, eh?"

"Yes, monsieur, and the test was a very painful though profitable one.
It has taught me among other things to appreciate the value and the
sincerity of the attentions showered upon me this evening," she added,
meaningly.

And as the hunchback, hardly able to repress his emotion, gazed at
Ernestine in silence, deeply touched by the strength of character this
young and defenceless girl had displayed, she asked, timidly:

"Can you blame me, monsieur?"

"Blame you, my poor child, no, no. The only blame attaches to the
unscrupulous persons whose baseness almost compelled you to take such a
step--a step I not only approve but admire, for you yourself do not
realise how much courage and nobility of character you evinced."

A rather elderly man, approaching the divan upon which M. de Maillefort
was seated, leaned over the back of it, and said to the hunchback, in a
low tone:

"My dear marquis, Morainville and Hauterive are at your service. They
are standing by the window opposite you."

"Very well, my dear friend. A thousand thanks for your kindness and
theirs! You have informed them of the condition of affairs, have you
not?"

"Fully."

"And they make no objection?"

"How could they in a case like this?"

"Then all is well," responded the marquis.

Then turning to Mlle. de Beaumesnil, he asked:

"For which quadrille did M. de Mornand engage you?"

"For the next, monsieur," replied Ernestine, much surprised at the
question.

"You hear, my friend," said M. de Maillefort to the gentleman who had
just spoken to him.

"Very well, my dear marquis."

And M. de Maillefort's friend, after having made quite a détour,
rejoined Messrs. Morainville and d'Hauterive, and said a few words to
which both gave a nod of assent.

"My dear child," remarked the marquis, again turning to Mlle. de
Beaumesnil, "I have been watching over you for some time past without
appearing to do so, for though you never saw me at your mother's house
during your childhood, I was one of your mother's friends--most devoted
friends."

"Ah, monsieur, I ought to have mistrusted that sooner, for you have been
so grossly maligned to me."

"That was very natural under the circumstances. Now, a word or two upon
a more important matter. M. de la Rochaiguë has often spoken of M. de
Mornand as a suitor for your hand, has he not? and has also assured you
that you could not make a better choice?"

"Yes, monsieur."

"My poor child!" said the marquis, compassionately; then he continued,
in his usual sarcastic tone:

"And Mlle. Helena, in her turn, saintly, devout creature that she is,
has said the very same thing about M. Célestin de Macreuse, another
extremely devout and saintly personage."

But the orphan, noting the bitter and cynical smile that played about
the lips of the marquis as he spoke of the saintliness of the abbé's
disciple, ventured to say:

"You have a poor opinion of M. de Macreuse, perhaps, marquis?"

"Perhaps? No, my opinion on that subject is very decided."

"I admit that I, too, distrusted M. de Macreuse," began Mlle. de
Beaumesnil.

"So much the better," interrupted the marquis, hastily. "The wretch
caused me far more anxiety than any of the others. I was so afraid that
you would be duped by his pretended melancholy and his hypocrisy, but
fortunately such persons not unfrequently excite the instinctive
distrust of the honest and ingenuous."

"But you need feel no such apprehensions, I assure you," resumed
Ernestine, triumphantly. "I must undeceive you on that point."

"Undeceive me?"

"In regard to M. de Macreuse? Yes."

"And why, pray?"

"Because there are no real grounds for any distrust. M. de Macreuse is a
sincere and honourable man, plain-spoken almost to rudeness, in fact."

"My child, you frighten me," exclaimed M. de Maillefort, in such accents
of alarm that Mlle. de Beaumesnil was thunderstruck. "Do not conceal
anything from me, I beseech you," continued the hunchback. "You can have
no conception of the diabolical cunning of a man like that. I have seen
such hypocrites deceive the shrewdest people,--and you, my poor innocent
child!"

Mlle. de Beaumesnil, impressed by M. de Maillefort's evident anxiety,
and having perfect confidence in him now, proceeded to give him the gist
of her recent conversation with the pious young man.

"He mistrusted your motive, my child," said the hunchback, after a
moment's reflection, "and, seeing that he had been caught in a trap,
audaciously resolved to turn the tables on you by pretending that he had
been putting you to a similar test. I tell you that such men positively
appall me."

"Good Heavens! is it possible, monsieur?" exclaimed the terrified girl.
"Oh, no, he cannot be so utterly base! Besides, I am sure you would
think very differently if you had seen him. Why, the tears positively
came to his eyes when he spoke of the bitter grief the loss of his
mother had caused him."

"The loss of his mother!" repeated the marquis. "Ah, you little know--"

Then suddenly checking himself, he added:

"There he is now! Ah, it was certainly Heaven that sent him here just at
this moment. Listen and judge for yourself, my poor dear child. Ah, your
innocent heart little suspects the depths of degradation to which
avarice reduces such souls as his."

Then elevating his voice loud enough to make himself distinctly heard by
those around him, he called out to Macreuse, who was just then crossing
the ballroom in order to steal another glance at Mlle. de Beaumesnil:

"M. de Macreuse, one word, if you please."

The abbé's protégé hesitated a moment before responding to the summons,
for he both hated and feared the marquis, but seeing every turned eye
upon him, and encouraged by the success of his late ruse with Ernestine,
he straightened himself up, and approaching M. de Maillefort, said
coldly:

"You did me the honour to call me, M. le marquis."

"Yes, I did you that honour, monsieur," replied the marquis,
sardonically, and without taking the trouble to rise from his seat; "and
yet you are not at all polite to me, nor to the other persons who happen
to have the pleasure of your company."

On hearing these words, quite a number of persons gathered around the
two men, for the satirical and aggressive spirit of the marquis was well
known.

"I do not understand you, M. le marquis," replied M. de Macreuse, much
annoyed, and evidently fearing; some disagreeable explanation. "So far
as I know I have not been lacking in respect towards you or any other
person present."

"I hear that you have had the misfortune to lose your mother, monsieur,"
said the marquis, in his rather shrill, penetrating voice.

"Monsieur," stammered M. de Macreuse, apparently stupefied by these
words.

"Would it be indiscreet in me to ask when you lost madame, your
mother--if you know."

"Monsieur!" faltered this model young man, blushing scarlet. "Such a
question--"

"Is very natural, it seems to me, besides being rendered almost
necessary by the lack of respect of which I complain, not only in my own
name, but in the name of all your acquaintances."

"Lack of respect?"

"Certainly. Why did you not politely inform your acquaintances of the
sad loss which you have had the misfortune to sustain, etc?"

"I do not know what you mean, M. le marquis," replied Macreuse, who had
now recovered his composure, in a measure.

"Nonsense! I, who am a great church-goer, as every one knows, heard you
ask a priest at St. Thomas d'Aquin the other day to say a certain number
of masses for the repose of your mother's soul."

"But, monsieur--"

"But, monsieur, there can be no doubt of the truth of my statement, as
you were quite overcome with grief and despair, apparently, while
praying for this beloved parent in the Chapel of the Virgin,--so
completely overcome, in fact, that your good friends, the beadles, were
obliged to carry you in a dead swoon to the sacristy,--a piece of
shameful deception on your part that would have amused if it had not
revolted me."

Staggered for a moment by this unexpected attack, the abbé's protégé
had now recovered all his native impudence.

"Every one will understand why I could not and should not answer such an
extraordinary--such a truly distressing question. The secret of one's
prayers is sacred--"

"That is true!" cried several voices, indignantly. "Such an attack is
outrageous!"

"Did any one ever hear the like of it?"

As we have remarked before, M. de Macreuse, like all persons of his
stamp, had his partisans, and these partisans very naturally had a
strong antipathy for M. de Maillefort, who hunted down everything false
and cowardly in the most pitiless fashion, so a still louder murmur of
disapproval was heard, and such expressions as: "What a distressing
scene!" "Did you ever hear anything as scandalous!" and "How brutal!"
were distinctly audible. But the marquis, no whit disconcerted, allowed
the storm to spend itself, until Macreuse, emboldened by his opponent's
silence said, boldly:

"The interest so many highly esteemed persons manifest in me makes it
unnecessary for me to prolong this interview, and--"

But the marquis, interrupting him, said, in accents of withering
contempt:

"M. de Macreuse, you have lied atrociously. You have not lost your
mother, M. de Macreuse; your sainted mother is living, as you know very
well, and your sainted father also. You see that I am sufficiently well
informed concerning your antecedents. You have played an infamous part!
You have cast odium upon a sentiment that even the most degraded
respect,--the sentiment of filial love. The object of all this duplicity
is known to me, and if I refrain from disclosing it, you may be sure
that it is only because names are involved which are so honoured that
they should not even be mentioned in the same breath with yours--if you
possess one."

M. de Macreuse's frightful pallor and utter consternation proved the
truth of these charges so conclusively that even the warmest admirers of
this model young man dared not rally to his defence, while those who had
always felt an instinctive dislike for the founder of the St. Polycarpe
Mission, loudly applauded the marquis.

"Monsieur," cried Macreuse, terrible to behold in his suppressed
rage,--for he felt that his villainy was certain to be unmasked
now,--"for such an insult as this--"

"Enough, monsieur, enough. Leave this house at once. The mere sight of
you is offensive to respectable people, and Madame de Mirecourt will be
infinitely obliged to me for punishing you as you deserve. It is
absolutely necessary that scoundrels like you should be made an example
of now and then, and, distasteful as the rôle of executioner is to me, I
have assumed it to-night, and my task is not yet ended by any means."

This announcement increased the confusion and excitement very
considerably.

The model young man, anticipating another attack, and thinking he had
had quite enough of it, straightened himself up, as a snake straightens
itself up from beneath the foot that is crushing it, and said,
insolently:

"After these gross insults, I will not remain another minute in this
house, but I venture to hope that, in spite of the difference in our
ages, M. le Marquis de Maillefort will be so kind as to accede to-morrow
to a request which I shall make through two of my friends."

"Go, monsieur, go! The night brings counsel, and after a little
reflection you will abandon your absurd and sanguinary pretensions."

"So be it, monsieur, but in that case you may rest assured that I shall
resort to other means," retorted the model youth, casting a venomous
look at the hunchback, as he turned to depart.

[Illustration: "_'Enough, monsieur, enough._'"

Original etching by Adrian Marcel.]

Madame de Mirecourt, recollecting what Madame de Senneterre had said in
relation to M. de Macreuse, was not sorry to see that gentleman's
villainy exposed, but to put an end to the excitement and confusion this
strange scene had created, she requested several men she knew very well
to form a quadrille as soon as possible.

In fact, the young men were already starting out in search of partners.

This exposure of M. de Macreuse filled Mlle. de Beaumesnil's heart with
gratitude and also with terror when she thought that she might have
yielded to the interest M. de Macreuse had at first inspired, and
perhaps married a man capable of such an infamous act--an act that
revealed an utterly depraved nature.

While engaged in these reflections, the orphan saw that Madame de
Senneterre and Madame de la Rochaiguë, who had been for a time unable to
force their way through the crowd that had gathered around the two men,
had returned and resumed their seats beside her. The marquis then rose
and stepped around back of the divan, after which he leaned over Madame
de la Rochaiguë and said, almost in a whisper:

"Ah, well, madame, you see I am not a bad auxiliary, after all. I
discover many strange and villainous things from my post of observation,
as I told you some time ago."

"I am utterly astounded, my dear marquis," replied the baroness. "I
understand everything now, however. This explains why my odious
sister-in-law has been dragging the poor dear child off to the Church of
St. Thomas d'Aquin every morning. With her apparent stupidity and her
religious zeal, Helena is a most perfidious creature. Did any one ever
hear of such deceitfulness and treachery?"

"The end is not yet, my dear baroness. You have not only been sheltering
a viper in your house, but a veritable serpent as well."

"A serpent?"

"Yes, an enormous one, with long teeth," said the marquis, with a
meaning glance at M. de la Rochaiguë, who happened to be standing in the
doorway, showing his teeth after his usual fashion.

"What! my husband?" exclaimed the baroness. "What do you mean?"

"You will soon know. Do you see that stout man advancing towards us with
such a triumphant air?"

"Of course. That is M. de Mornand."

"He is coming to ask your ward to dance."

"Oh, that doesn't matter. We can let her dance with anybody now, for we
were right in our suppositions. The dear child is charmed with M. de
Senneterre, my dear marquis."

"I am sure of it."

"So behold the Duchesse de Senneterre," said Madame de la Rochaiguë,
triumphantly, "and that without the slightest trouble."

"The Duchesse de Senneterre!" repeated the hunchback. "Not quite."

"Of course not, but the matter is virtually settled."

"So at last you are satisfied with Gerald, Mlle. de Beaumesnil, and me,
are you not, my dear baroness?"

"Delighted, my dear marquis."

"That is all I want to know. Now I can devote my attention to that stout
man and your serpent of a husband, whose coils--"

"What! M. de la Rochaiguë has dared--"

"Ah, my poor baroness, your ingenuousness rends my heart. Look, listen
and profit thereby, poor credulous woman that you are!"

As the marquis uttered these words, M. de Mornand was already bowing low
before Mlle. de Beaumesnil to remind her of the engagement she had made
to dance with him.



CHAPTER XV.

THE PROSPECTIVE MINISTER'S DEFEAT.


"Mademoiselle has not forgotten that she promised me this dance, I
trust," said M. de Mornand, complacently. "Will she do me the honour to
accept my arm?"

"That cannot be, M. de Mornand," interposed M. de Maillefort, who was
still leaning over the back of the sofa on which Ernestine was seated.

M. de Mornand straightened himself up hastily, and, perceiving the
marquis, demanded with great hauteur:

"What can not be, monsieur?"

"You can not dance with Mlle. de Beaumesnil, monsieur," answered the
hunchback, still in the same quiet tone.

M. de Mornand shrugged his shoulders disdainfully, then, turning to
Ernestine, repeated:

"Will mademoiselle do me the honour to accept my arm?"

Embarrassed and bewildered, Ernestine turned to M. de Maillefort as if
to ask his advice, and again the marquis repeated in the same quiet but
impressive tone, emphasising each word strongly:

"Mlle. de Beaumesnil can not and must not dance with M. de Mornand."

Ernestine was so impressed by M. de Maillefort's grave, almost solemn
manner that, turning to M. de Mornand, she said, casting down her eyes:

"I must beg you to excuse me, monsieur, for I feel too fatigued to keep
the promise I made you."

M. de Mornand bowed low before Ernestine without uttering a word, but as
he straightened himself up he cast a meaning glance at the hunchback.

That gentleman answered it by pointing to one of the doors of the
gallery towards which he, too, directed his steps, leaving Mlle. de
Beaumesnil in a state of great mental perturbation.

This little scene had passed unnoticed, the few words interchanged
between the marquis and M. de Mornand having been uttered in subdued
tones and in the midst of the confusion that always accompanies the
forming of a quadrille, so no one but Madame de la Rochaiguë and the
Duchesse de Senneterre had the slightest suspicion of what had occurred.

M. de Mornand on his way to the gallery was accosted successively by M.
de la Rochaiguë and M. de Ravil, who had watched with mingled wonder and
uneasiness their protégé's futile efforts to induce the heiress to keep
her engagement.

"What! you are not going to dance?" inquired De Ravil.

"What has happened, my dear M. de Mornand?" asked the baron, in his
turn. "I thought I saw you talking with that accursed hunchback, whose
insolence and audacity really exceed all bounds."

"You are right, monsieur," replied the prospective minister, his face
darkening. "M. de Maillefort seems to think he can do anything he
pleases. Such insolence as his must be put a stop to. He actually had
the impertinence to forbid your ward's dancing with me."

"And she obeyed him?" exclaimed the baron.

"What else could the poor girl do after such an injunction?"

"Why this is abominable, outrageous, inconceivable!" exclaimed the
baron. "I will go to my ward at once, and--"

"That is useless now," said M. de Mornand. Then, turning to Ravil, he
added:

"Come with me. I must have an explanation with M. de Maillefort. He is
waiting for me in the gallery."

"I, too, will accompany you," added the baron.

As the three gentlemen approached the hunchback, they saw Messrs. de
Morainville and d'Hauterive standing beside him, as well as five or six
other men who had been assembled at the request of the marquis.

"M. de Maillefort, I have a few words of explanation to ask of you,"
said M. de Mornand, in coldly polite tones.

"I am at your service, monsieur."

"Then, if agreeable to you, you and I will go to the picture-gallery.
Ask one of your friends to accompany you."

"I am not disposed to comply with your request, monsieur, for I intend
to have our explanation as public as possible."

"Monsieur?"

"I do not see why you should fear publicity if I do not."

"So be it, then," responded M. de Mornand, "so I ask you here before
these gentleman, why, when I had the honour to invite a certain young
lady to dance a few minutes ago, you took the liberty of saying to that
young lady, 'Mlle. de Beaumesnil can not and must not dance with M. de
Mornand.' Those were your very words."

"Those were my very words, monsieur. You have an excellent memory. I
hope it will not play you false, presently."

"And I wish to say to M. de Maillefort," interposed the baron, "that he
arrogates to himself an authority, a right, and a surveillance which
belong to me exclusively, for in telling my ward that--"

"My dear baron," said the marquis, smilingly, interrupting M. de la
Rochaiguë, "you are a model, paragon, and example for all guardians,
past, present and future, as I will prove to you later, but permit me
now to reply to M. de Mornand, whom I have just had the honour to
congratulate upon his excellent memory, and to ask him if he recollects
something I said to him at a certain _matinée dansante_ given by the
Duchesse de Senneterre,--something in relation to a slight scratch that
was intended to fix in his memory a date which I might have occasion to
remind him of at some future day."

"That is true, monsieur," said M. de Mornand, "but that affair has not
the slightest connection with the explanation I just demanded of you."

"On the contrary, monsieur, this explanation is the natural consequence
of that affair."

"Be more explicit, if you please, monsieur."

"I will. At that entertainment at the house of Madame de Senneterre, in
the garden, under a clump of lilacs, in the presence of several
gentlemen, and notably M. de Morainville and M. d'Hauterive here, you
had the audacity to calumniate Madame la Comtesse de Beaumesnil in the
most shameless manner."

"Monsieur!"

"Without either compassion or consideration for an unfortunate lady who
was then lying at the point of death," continued the hunchback,
interrupting M. de Mornand, indignantly, "you insulted her in the most
cowardly manner and even went so far as to say that no honourable man
would ever marry the daughter of such a mother as Madame de Beaumesnil."

And at a hasty movement on the part of M. de Mornand, who was white with
rage, the marquis, turning to Messrs. de Morainville and d'Hauterive,
asked:

"Is it not true that M. de Mornand made that remark in your presence,
gentlemen?"

"M. de Mornand did make that remark in our presence," they replied. "It
is impossible for us to deny the fact."

"And I, myself, unseen by you, heard you make it, monsieur," continued
the hunchback, "and, carried away with just indignation, I could not
help exclaiming, 'Scoundrel!'"

"So it was you!" cried Mornand, furious to see all his hopes of future
wealth thus rudely blighted.

"Yes, it was I, and that is why I just told Mlle. de Beaumesnil that she
could not and should not dance with you, monsieur,--a man who had
publicly defamed her mother; and I leave it to these gentlemen here if I
have not done perfectly right to interfere in this matter."

A silence that was anything but complimentary to M. de Mornand followed
the words of the hunchback.

De Ravil alone ventured to speak. It was in an ironical tone.

"M. le marquis must be trying to pose as a paladin or knight-errant to
inflict a wound upon a gallant gentleman, as a sort of memento, merely
to prevent him from dancing a quadrille with Mlle. de Beaumesnil some
day."

"Or rather to prevent M. de Mornand from marrying Mlle. de Beaumesnil,
monsieur," corrected the marquis, "for your friend is as mercenary as
Mlle. de Beaumesnil is rich, which is saying a good deal, and in the
conversation I overheard at Madame de Senneterre's dance, M. de Mornand
betrayed his intentions even at that early day. By defaming Madame de
Beaumesnil's character, and making the disgraceful effects of his
calumnies extend to the daughter, and even to any man who might wish to
marry her, M. de Mornand hoped to drive away all rivals. This infamous
conduct exasperated me beyond endurance. In my indignation the word
'Scoundrel!' escaped me. I subsequently devised a way to offer M. de
Mornand the reparation due him, however. Hence the wound which was to
serve as a sort of memento, and hence my resolve to prevent M. de
Mornand from marrying Mlle. de Beaumesnil, and I have succeeded, for I
defy him now to venture into the presence of the richest heiress in
France, even if he delivers a dozen more philanthropical speeches on the
cod fisheries, or even under your protection, baron,--you the most
exemplary, admirable, and high-minded of guardians, who were not only
willing, but eager, to sacrifice your ward's happiness and welfare to
your absurd ambition."

And as no one made any attempt to reply, the hunchback continued:

"Ah, gentlemen, these villainies are of such frequent occurrence in
society that it would be well to make an example of at least one
offender. Because such shameful things often occur among respectable
people, is that any reason they should go unpunished? What! there is a
prison cell for poor devils who make a few louis by cheating at cards,
and there is no pillory in which to place people who, by means of false
pretences and foul lies, endeavour to secure possession of an enormous
fortune, and plot in cold blood to enchain for ever an innocent child,
whose only crime is the possession of a colossal fortune, which,
unbeknown to her, excites the most shameless cupidity in those around
her! And when these men succeed, people praise them and envy them and
welcome them to their houses. People praise their shrewdness and go into
ecstasies over their good fortune! Yes, for thanks to the wealth
acquired by such unworthy means, they will entertain magnificently, and
their gold not only enables them to gratify their every wish, but to
attain any official position, no matter how exalted. The unfortunate
woman who has enriched them, and whom they have so basely deceived,
weeps her life away or plunges into a career of dissipation in order to
forget her misery. Ah, gentlemen, I have at least had the satisfaction
of bringing two scoundrels to grief, for M. de Macreuse, whom I drove
from this house a few minutes ago, had devised a similar scheme."

"You are outwitted like the fool that you are, and it has been very
cleverly done," De Ravil whispered in the ear of his friend, who stood
as if petrified. "I will never forgive you as long as I live for having
made me lose my percentage on that dowry."

Noble and generous sentiments exert such an irresistible influence
sometimes that, after the hunchback's scathing words, M. de Mornand felt
that he was censured by every one. Not a voice was lifted in his
defence, but fortunately the termination of the quadrille brought quite
a crowd of people into the gallery, and the prospective minister was
thus afforded an opportunity to make his escape, pale and agitated, and
without having been able to find a word to say in refutation of M. de
Maillefort's grievous charges.

The marquis then rejoined Madame de la Rochaiguë, who was as entirely in
the dark concerning what had just taken place as Ernestine.

"It is absolutely necessary that you take Mlle. de Beaumesnil away at
once," M. de Maillefort said to the baroness. "Her presence here is no
longer desirable. Yes, my dear child," added the marquis, turning to
Mlle. de Beaumesnil, "the unpleasant curiosity you excite is increasing,
instead of diminishing. To-morrow I will tell you all, but now take my
advice and go home at once."

"Oh, gladly, monsieur," replied Ernestine, "for I am in misery."

So the young girl rose and took the arm of Madame de la Rochaiguë, who
said to the hunchback, in a tone of the liveliest gratitude:

"I understand the situation now, I think. M. de Mornand had also entered
the lists, it seems."

"We will talk all this over to-morrow. Now, in Heaven's name, take Mlle.
de Beaumesnil away at once!"

"Ah, you are certainly our guardian angel, my dear marquis," whispered
Madame de la Rochaiguë. "I was wise to confide in you!"

"Yes, yes, but for pity's sake, get Mlle. de Beaumesnil away."

The orphan cast a quick glance of gratitude at the hunchback, then,
agitated and almost terrified by the exciting events of the evening, she
left the ballroom in company with Madame de la Rochaiguë; but M. de
Maillefort remained, unwilling to appear to leave under cover of the
sort of stupor his daring act had caused.

De Ravil, like a true cynic, had no sooner witnessed the ruin of his
friend Mornand's hopes than he abandoned him then and there. The future
minister had thrown himself into a cab, but Ravil wended his way
homeward on foot, reviewing the events that had just occurred, and
comparing the overthrow of M. de Mornand with that of M. de Macreuse.

As he turned the corner of the street on which Madame de Mirecourt's
house stood, De Ravil saw in the bright moonlight a man a short distance
ahead of him, walking now slowly, now with feverish haste.

The agitated bearing of this man excited the cynic's curiosity. He
quickened his pace, and soon recognised M. de Macreuse, who could not
tear himself away from the house where the marquis lingered,--the
marquis whose heart Macreuse would have torn from his breast, had he
been able to do it.

Yielding to a truly diabolical impulse, Ravil approached Macreuse, and
said:

"Good evening, M. de Macreuse."

The abbé's protégé raised his head, and the evil passions that filled
his heart could be read so plainly in his face that De Ravil
congratulated himself upon his idea.

"What do you want?" Macreuse demanded, brusquely, not recognising De
Ravil at the first glance. Then looking at him more attentively, he
said:

"Ah, it is you, M. de Ravil; excuse me."

He made a movement as if about to walk on, but De Ravil checked him by
saying:

"M. de Macreuse, I feel sure that we are likely to understand and be of
service to each other."

"In what way, monsieur?"

"We hate the same man, that is something."

"Whom?"

"M. de Maillefort."

"So you, too, hate him?"

"With a deadly hatred."

"Well, what of it, monsieur?"

"Well, having the same animosity, we may have the same interests."

"I do not understand you, M. de Ravil."

"M. de Macreuse, you are a much too gifted and energetic man to allow
yourself to be discouraged by one setback."

"What setback, monsieur?"

"So I will take you into my confidence. I had a fool of a friend, known
to you as M. de Mornand, who had designs upon the same heiress that you
did."

"M. de Mornand?"

"Yes. Unfortunately, a few minutes after your hasty departure, that d--d
marquis exposed him as he had exposed you. That is to say, he has
rendered my imbecile friend's marriage with the little Beaumesnil an
impossibility."

"But what difference does it make to you whether the heiress does or
does not marry your friend?"

"The devil! A great deal of difference! I went into the affair with the
expectation of getting a handsome percentage on the dowry, so that
accursed hunchback ruined me in ruining Mornand. Do you understand now?"

"Perfectly."

"Mornand is too much of a milksop--too blubbery, in short, to make any
attempt to recover from his setback or even to console himself by
revenge."

"Revenge? Upon whom?"

"Upon that little ninny of an heiress, and indirectly upon that d--d
hunchback. But let me assure you that I am not one of those blockheads
who thirst for revenge alone; it is a profitable revenge I am after
every time."

"Profitable?"

"Yes, very profitable, and I can furnish the materials for it, too."

"You? And what are your materials, pray?"

"Excuse me. I possess a very valuable secret."

"In relation to Mlle. de Beaumesnil?"

"The same. I can work up this valuable secret alone, however, just as
well."

"And yet you offer--"

"To go shares with you? Nothing of the kind. You would think me a
simpleton if I did, and you've no fondness for simpletons."

"Then, monsieur, to what purpose--?"

"You did not embark in such an important enterprise--as my imbecile
friend the politician would say--you did not embark in such an important
enterprise as your marriage with the greatest heiress in France without
backers, without powerful intermediaries and without strong
probabilities of success. One does not make such a blunder as that when
one is the founder of the St. Polycarpe Mission,--a work, by the way,
which has convinced me that you are a remarkably able man, and gained
you my sincere admiration. This being the case, you are too
high-spirited to submit quietly to such a setback to the atrocious
treatment you have received from M. de Maillefort. You may, perhaps,
have some means of retrieving your lost ground, or of obtaining your
object in some other way, and so long as the little Beaumesnil remains
single, a man like you does not abandon hope."

"Well, so be it, monsieur; suppose I have not given up all hope, what
then?"

"If you admit that, I will propose that we pool, you, your means of
success, and I, my secret. If your hopes are realised, we will not make
use of my secret; if they are not realised, my secret will remain a
luscious, juicy pear to quench our thirst. In short, if you marry the
heiress, you will give me a small percentage on her dowry; if you do not
marry her, I will give you a part of the money my secret will gain for
me, that is, if the aforesaid secret can not be made to render you
valuable assistance in your new attempt."

"All this is worthy of attention," answered Macreuse, after a moment's
reflection, for he, too, was beginning to think that he and De Ravil
were, indeed, congenial spirits. "But it would be well for me to know
what this secret is, and what its influence is likely to be."

"Give me your arm, my dear M. de Macreuse, I am going to state the case
plainly to you, for I have nothing to gain by deceiving you, as you will
soon see for yourself."

The two men walked on arm in arm and were soon lost in the shadow of the
tall houses that bordered one edge of the sidewalk.



CHAPTER XVI.

DISINTERESTED AFFECTION.


Mlle. de Beaumesnil had promised Herminie that she would come and see
her Friday morning, or, in other words, on the day immediately following
the ball which the richest heiress in France had attended at Madame de
Mirecourt's house, and where M. de Macreuse and M. de Mornand had seen
their villainous projects exposed by the Marquis de Maillefort.

Mlle. de Beaumesnil had left the ballroom deeply distressed and
terrified by the discoveries she made in relation to her suitors,
discoveries which had been completed by Gerald's frank confession
concerning the manner in which an heiress was married off; and feeling
quite as much contempt as aversion, now, for her guardian and his
family, the young girl realised the necessity of taking some decisive
action in the matter, her present relations with the Rochaiguës having
become intolerable.

It was consequently necessary for her to ask the protection and counsel
of some person outside of this family of sage advisers.

Ernestine knew only two persons whom she could trust,--Herminie and M.
de Maillefort.

In order to open her heart to Herminie Mlle. de Beaumesnil would be
obliged to confess who she really was, but though she had no intention
of deferring this revelation much longer, she did long to enjoy once
more the inexpressible happiness of receiving those evidences of tender
friendship which the duchess supposed she was lavishing upon a poor
orphan girl who had to work for her living.

"Heaven grant that she will love me just as much when she knows that I
am rich!" thought the heiress, anxiously. "Heaven grant that this
discovery may not impair the friendship that a person of Herminie's
proud and sensitive nature feels for me!"

Faithful to her promise, and rejoiced to know how entirely worthy Gerald
was of Herminie's love, Mlle. de Beaumesnil, accompanied by Madame
Laîné, who was to wait for her in the cab, as usual, started early
Friday morning for the home of the duchess, for it is needless to say
that, after M. de Macreuse's humiliation of the evening before, Mlle.
Helena did not come to take her brother's ward to church as usual.

As she neared her friend's home, Ernestine became very uneasy, for
though, since her conversation with M. de Senneterre the evening before,
the young girl knew for a certainty how perfectly honourable Gerald's
intentions were, and how passionately he loved Herminie, Mlle. de
Beaumesnil foresaw only too plainly the many difficulties to be overcome
before a marriage between the young duke and a penniless music teacher
could be brought about.

When Ernestine reached her friend's house, Herminie sprang forward to
meet her and embraced her tenderly.

"Ah, I was sure you would not forget your promise, Ernestine," she
cried, "for did I not tell you what a comfort your coming would be to
me?"

"I trust it may prove so, indeed, my dear Herminie. Have you regained a
little of your wonted courage? Are you not more hopeful?"

The duchess shook her head sadly.

"Alas! I can not say that I see any reason to hope," she replied, "but
don't let us talk of my troubles now, Ernestine. We will discuss them
again when the subject that is now on my mind has ceased to divert my
thoughts from them."

"To what subject do you refer?"

"It is a matter that concerns you, Ernestine."

"Me?"

"It is a matter that may exert a very happy influence over your future,
my poor, lonely child."

"What do you mean, Herminie?"

"I am not the proper person to explain this mystery to you. I was asked
to do so, but fearing I might influence you by the manner in which I
presented the case, I refused, wishing your decision to be unbiased by
any outside influence, though I will express my opinion afterwards if
you wish."

"Good Heavens! What you say, Herminie, mystifies me more and more. What
is this very important project?"

"The last time you were here, and while Commander Bernard was again
expressing his fervent gratitude to you, M. Olivier begged me to see him
the next day on a very important matter, he said. I complied with his
request, and the matter was indeed one of grave importance, so grave, in
fact, that he asked me to act as his intermediary with you, which I
refused to do for reasons I have already explained."

"Ah, then the matter has some connection with M. Olivier?"

"Yes, and I thought it would be better for him to make his wishes known
himself, in my presence, if you have no objection."

"And you advise me to grant M. Olivier a hearing, my dear Herminie?"

"I do, Ernestine, because whatever happens and whatever your decision
may be, you will, I am sure, be both proud and happy to have heard what
he has to tell you."

"Then I am to see M. Olivier. But when, Herminie?"

"To-day, now, if you desire it."

"Where is he?"

"Out in the garden. Counting upon a visit from you this morning, I said
to him: 'Come Friday morning. You will not mind waiting in the garden
awhile, and if Ernestine consents to see you, I will send for you.'"

"Very well, then, Herminie, have the goodness to send M. Olivier word
that I should be pleased to see him."

A moment afterwards M. Olivier Raymond was ushered into the room by
Madame Moufflon, the concierge.

"M. Olivier," said Herminie, "Ernestine is ready to listen to you. You
know my friendship for her. You know, too, how highly I esteem you, so I
trust my presence will prove no restraint."

"I particularly desire your presence, Mlle. Herminie, as I shall,
perhaps, find it necessary to appeal to your memory in support of some
of my statements," replied Olivier. Then, turning to Mlle. de
Beaumesnil, he continued, without making any attempt to conceal his
emotion:

"Mademoiselle, permit me to say, first of all, that I must have perfect
confidence in the rectitude of my intentions to venture upon the rather
peculiar step I am about to take."

"I am certain, in advance, M. Olivier, that this step is worthy of you,
of me, and of the friend that is listening to us."

"I think so, too, mademoiselle, so I am going to speak to you in all
sincerity, for you may recollect that once before you expressed yourself
as grateful to me for my frankness."

"I was certainly deeply touched by it, as Herminie will tell you, M.
Olivier."

"Mlle. Herminie can also testify to the deep interest you inspired in my
heart, mademoiselle, I will not say from the time of the charity dance,"
added Olivier, with a faint smile, "but rather from the time of the
conversation I had with you that evening."

"It is perfectly true, my dear Ernestine," said Herminie, "that, after
your departure, M. Olivier seemed to be deeply touched by the strange
mixture of melancholy, frankness, and originality, that he had noticed
in your conversation, and his interest seemed to be greatly increased
when I told him, without committing any breach of confidence, I trust,
that I felt sure your life was far from happy."

"The truth is never a breach of confidence, my dear Herminie. Though one
ought, of course, to conceal one's unhappiness from the indifferent, one
should at least have the consolation of confessing it to one's friends."

"Then you may be able to understand, mademoiselle," said Olivier, "that,
by reason of the very peculiar circumstances of our first interview,
there sprang up in my heart, not one of those sudden and violent
emotions one sometimes experiences,--I should be uttering an untruth if
I asserted this,--but an emotion full of sweetness and charm, together
with a lively solicitude for you, a solicitude which memory and
reflection rendered more and more keen. Such were my feelings,
mademoiselle, when you, at the risk of your own life, saved the uncle
whom I love as a father from a horrible death. Then, gratitude and the
admiration which so noble an act richly merited were added to the
sentiments I already entertained for you, but I should, probably, never
have dared to give expression to these feelings had it not been for the
unexpected good fortune that has befallen me."

After pausing an instant, as if uncertain whether he had better go on,
Olivier added:

"And now, mademoiselle, I find myself again obliged to remind myself and
to remind you that you love sincerity above all things."

"Yes, M. Olivier, I do both love and appreciate sincerity above all
things."

"Well, mademoiselle, to speak frankly, you are not happy, and the
persons with whom you live are not congenial to you. Is this not so?"

"Yes, M. Olivier. The only happiness I have known since my parents'
death dates from the hour of my entrance into Madame Herbaut's house."

"I do not wish to sadden you, mademoiselle," continued Olivier, kindly,
even tenderly. "I am loath, too, to remind you how hard and precarious
the life of a young girl who is dependent upon her own exertions is, and
yet, mademoiselle, however courageous and industrious you may be, you
cannot forget that you are an orphan, surrounded by selfish,
hard-hearted persons, who would cruelly desert you, perhaps, if want or
sickness should be your portion, or manifest a humiliating pity towards
you which would be even more hard to bear than heartless desertion."

"You are perfectly right, monsieur. Privations, disdain, desertion,
these are all I have to expect from the persons around me if I should
become really destitute."

"You exposed to disdain and privations, never!" exclaimed Olivier. "No,
you must not, you shall not, be treated thus," he continued. "I know
that you can count upon Mlle. Herminie's devoted friendship; but poor
and honest people like ourselves must not deceive ourselves. Mlle.
Herminie may need your aid herself some day. Besides, two devoted
friends are better than one, so I would gladly offer myself as well, if
I only knew that you had half as much confidence in me as I have true
and faithful affection for you."

"Monsieur," said Ernestine, trembling, and casting down her eyes, "I do
not know--I am not sure that I ought--"

"Listen one moment, mademoiselle. If I were still a common soldier, for
to be a common soldier and a non-commissioned officer really amount to
the same thing, I should not have spoken to you on this subject. I
should have tried to forget, not my gratitude, but the sentiment that
renders it doubly dear to me. Whether I should have succeeded or not, I
cannot say. But now I am an officer, and that means a competence to me.
Will you allow me to offer this competence to you?"

"Such a future far exceeds my wildest hopes," replied Ernestine, only
partially concealing the intense joy Olivier's words caused her.

"Ah, mademoiselle, if you should make me happy by an acceptance of this
offer, far from feeling that I was released from a sacred obligation, I
should realise that I had only contracted another,--for I should owe the
happiness of my life to you, though this debt, at least, I should be
certain to pay by my love and devotion. Yes, for why should I not say
it, there can be no love deeper or more honourable than mine. There is
no cause more holy and generous than that which lies so near my heart."

On hearing Olivier utter these words, in tones of intense earnestness
and profound sincerity, Mlle. de Beaumesnil experienced a rapturous
emotion hitherto unknown to her, and a vivid blush dyed her throat and
brow as she cast a timid glance at Olivier's handsome, manly face, now
radiant with love and hope.

So Ernestine had not been mistaken as to the meaning of Olivier's look
when he heard, in her presence, of his promotion. The girl saw and felt
that she was loved, ardently loved. The proofs of it were so
unmistakable, the causes that had produced it were so noble, that she
could not doubt its reality.

And to believe, understand, and appreciate all that is noble, tender,
and charming in such a love, is that not equivalent to sharing it, above
all when one has lived, like Mlle. de Beaumesnil, a prey to
apprehensions which recent events had more than justified, and to a
distrust which had threatened to destroy all her hopes of future
happiness?

And what inexpressible joy it was for her to be able to say to herself:

"It is I, the poor, nameless, penniless orphan, that he loves, because I
have proved myself to be sincere, brave, and generous. And I am so truly
loved that he offers a life of comparative ease, and an honourable
position to me, who seemed destined to a life of poverty, if not
absolute want."

And Mlle. de Beaumesnil, agitated by a thousand new emotions, blushing
and smiling at the same time, seized the hand of Herminie, by whom she
was sitting, and, thus avoiding the necessity of any direct reply to
Olivier's proposal, exclaimed:

"You were right, Herminie; I have, indeed, good reason to be proud of M.
Olivier's offer."

"And do you accept this offer, Ernestine?" asked Herminie, certain what
her friend's reply would be.

Mlle. de Beaumesnil, with a graceful, almost childish movement, threw
her arms around the neck of the duchess, kissed her tenderly, and said,
almost in a whisper:

"Yes--I accept it."

But she still kept her face almost hidden on her friend's bosom, while
Herminie, scarcely able to restrain her tears of sympathetic emotion,
turned to the young officer, who was himself deeply moved by this
charming scene, and said:

"Ernestine accepts, M. Olivier. I am delighted both on your account and
hers, for from this time I feel that her happiness is certain."

"Ah, yes, mademoiselle," cried Olivier, his face radiant with joy, "for
from this moment I have the right to devote my life to Mlle. Ernestine."

"I believe in you, and in my future happiness, M. Olivier," said
mademoiselle, shyly, raising her head until it rested on Herminie's
shoulder. Then, with cheeks slightly flushed, and her beautiful eyes
sparkling with purest joy, the girl timidly extended her little hand to
the young man.

Olivier trembled, as he touched this hand which he dared not carry to
his lips, but he pressed it tenderly with mingled love and deference.

Then, without trying to conceal the tears that filled his eyes, he said:

"By this dear hand so generously given, mademoiselle, I swear to you,
and ask your friend to bear witness to my vow, I swear that my life
shall be consecrated to your happiness."



CHAPTER XVII.

A FRIEND IN NEED.


After the vows thus plighted by Mlle. de Beaumesnil and Olivier Raymond
in Herminie's presence, the three actors in the scene maintained an
almost solemn silence for several minutes.

All three fully realised the gravity of the obligation assumed.

"How delightful it is to be rich," thought Olivier, "for I am rich in
comparison with this dear child who has only her own labour to depend
upon. What happiness it gives me to be able to assure her an existence
superior even to her wildest dreams."

His features were radiant with the delight of this thought, as he broke
the silence by saying to Mlle. de Beaumesnil:

"Until I became sure of your consent, mademoiselle, I did not care to
broach the subject to your relative, though I have every reason to hope
she will accede to my request. Do you not think so? As for my uncle,
need I tell you that his joy will almost equal mine, when he knows that
he can call you his daughter? If you think proper, mademoiselle, he had
better be the one, perhaps, to go to your relative and make known my
request."

This proposal threw Ernestine into a state of deep perplexity. Yielding
to an outburst of irresistible confidence, that told her that every
possible guarantee of safety and happiness would be found in Olivier,
she had never once thought of the many difficulties that were sure to
arise from the maintenance of the incognito which she dared not throw
off at once, however.

But already somewhat familiar with the sudden dilemmas resulting from
the position in which she had placed herself, Mlle. de Beaumesnil
replied, after a moment's reflection:

"I am hardly able to say to-day whether it had better be M. Bernard or
Herminie who goes to my relative to inform her of your intentions--and
of my consent. I will think the matter over, and let you know my
decision the next time I see you."

"Ernestine is right, M. Olivier," remarked Herminie; "from what I have
heard of her relative's disposition, it would be advisable to act with
prudence, as--as the consent of this parent is indispensable to
Ernestine's marriage."

"I shall be guided entirely by Mlle. Ernestine and by you, Mlle.
Herminie, in this matter. Sure of Mlle. Ernestine's consent, I can wait
with patience. If you knew with what happiness I think of the
future--our future, I can say now! And my brave, kind uncle, how happy
he will be surrounded by our care, for it will not be at all unpleasant
to you to live with him, will it, Mlle. Ernestine? He is so good and
kind, and it would make him so happy to have us with him!"

"Did you not tell me that he would call me his daughter, M. Olivier? I
shall be very proud of that title and try to deserve it."

"Tell me, Mlle. Herminie," asked Olivier, addressing the duchess, "after
such a reply, can there be a happier man in the world than I?"

"No, M. Olivier," replied the duchess, smothering a sigh as she thought
how she, too, might have enjoyed the same felicity if Gerald's position
had been as modest as Olivier's; "no, I do not believe there can be any
greater happiness than yours, nor any that is more richly deserved."

"We shall not be high and mighty seigneurs, Mlle. Ernestine," said
Olivier, smiling, "for a second lieutenant is no great things, but even
a single epaulette honourably worn levels all conditions. Besides, I am
young, and I shall soon have two epaulettes instead of one, some day I
shall become a major, perhaps even a colonel."

"Beware of ambition, M. Olivier," said Ernestine, smiling in her turn.

"That is true. It seems to me that I am devoured with ambition now. It
would give me such happiness to see you enjoy the consideration with
which the wife of a colonel is surrounded! My poor uncle, too, how proud
he would be to see me hold that rank. Then, think of it, Mlle.
Ernestine, we should be millionaires on a colonel's pay. And what
pleasure it would give me to surround you with comforts and even
luxuries enough to make you forget the hardships of your youth, and to
at last see my poor uncle placed above the reach of want, for he is
sometimes subjected to great privations!"

"Yes, in spite of your generous assistance, M. Olivier," said Ernestine,
with deep emotion, "and in spite of the hard work you have been doing
all through your furlough."

"Ah, you have been tattling, Mlle. Herminie," said Olivier, gaily.

"At all events, I was entirely disinterested," she retorted; "for when I
told Ernestine all the good I knew of you, M. Olivier, I was far from
suspecting that you would corroborate my statements so soon."

"And I must tell M. Olivier, with that frankness on which he sets such
store, that he misjudges me very much if he thinks I am pining for the
luxury he promises me," said Ernestine, smiling.

"And I," said Olivier, "shall reply with equal frankness that I am
terribly selfish, and that, in hoping to be able to surround Mlle.
Ernestine with luxury, I am thinking only of the pleasure it will give
me."

"And I, who am Reason personified," said Herminie, with a melancholy
smile, "I shall tell Mlle. Ernestine and M. Olivier that they are two
foolish children to indulge in these golden visions. The present should
content them."

"Yes, I admit it is wrong," responded Olivier, gaily. "Just see where
ambition leads one! I am dreaming of becoming a colonel, instead of
saying to myself that my worthy uncle and myself--thanks to my pay as a
second lieutenant--have never been so rich before. Think of it, nearly
six thousand francs a year--for us two. What happiness to be able to
say, 'For us three, Mlle. Ernestine!'"

"Six thousand francs a year? Why, that is an enormous amount," exclaimed
the richest heiress in France. "How can any one spend all that money?"

"Poor child!" Olivier said to himself, exulting in his new-found
prosperity, "I thought as much. She has been so poor up to this time,
that it seems an immense fortune to her."

But he said aloud:

"We shall manage to spend our three thousand francs, all the same, I
expect, Mlle. Ernestine. In the first place, I shall always insist upon
your being nicely dressed, in simple but elegant toilets. Our rank
requires it, you know, mademoiselle. An officer's wife--why, the army
regulations require her to be well dressed, you understand."

"If the dignity of your rank is at stake, why, I submit, of course,"
replied Mlle. de Beaumesnil, laughing, "but only on condition that your
dear uncle shall have a pretty garden, as he is so fond of flowers."

"That is understood, Mlle. Ernestine. We can easily find a snug little
apartment with a garden in a quiet part of the town, for as I shall
belong to the garrison we can not live in the Batignolles any longer.
But--great Heavens--"

"What is the matter, M. Olivier?"

"Are you a Bonapartist, Mlle. Ernestine?" inquired the young officer,
with comical seriousness.

"Why certainly, M. Olivier. I admire the emperor very much. But why do
you ask that question?"

"Then we are lost, mademoiselle, for my poor uncle shelters beneath his
roof the most implacable enemy of the great Napoleon that ever lived."

"Indeed!"

"You will shudder to hear her frightful stories of his atrocities; but
seriously, Mlle. Ernestine, I shall be obliged to ask your indulgence,
and your affection as well, for a very worthy woman, my uncle's
housekeeper, who during the ten years she has been in his employ has
never allowed a day to pass without lavishing every attention upon him,
and without quarrelling with him in the most outrageous manner on the
subject of the Corsican ogre."

"Very well, M. Olivier, I will disclose my admiration for the great
emperor only to your dear uncle, and play the hypocrite before this
worthy woman. Oh, you shall see; I am very politic, and she will love me
in spite of my Bonapartism."

Madame Moufflon, the concierge, having rapped at the door, interrupted
the conversation by handing a letter to Herminie, who, recognising the
handwriting as that of M. de Maillefort, told the portress to ask the
messenger to wait, as there might be an answer required.

So Olivier, fearing that a longer stay would be indiscreet, and being
also in a hurry to find Commander Bernard, and report the success of his
wooing, said to Mlle. de Beaumesnil:

"I came here in a very anxious frame of mind, Mlle. Ernestine. Thanks to
you, I am going away the happiest and most contented of men. I need not
tell you how impatiently I shall await your decision in regard to your
relative. If you think it advisable for my uncle to approach her on the
subject, please let me know as soon as possible."

"I will do so at our next interview, which had better take place here,
M. Olivier."

"May I not be permitted to bring my uncle?" asked Olivier. "There is so
much that he wishes to say to you. He will be so anxious to see you,
too, that it would hardly be fair to deny him the favour, for there is
nothing he wouldn't be capable of doing in order to reach you, and tell
you of his joy and gratitude."

"Herminie and I will not force your dear uncle to any extreme measures,
for I, myself, am very impatient to see him again, so _à bientôt_, M.
Olivier."

"_A bientôt_, mademoiselle."

And Olivier departed, leaving the two girls alone together.

Herminie then opened M. de Maillefort's letter. It read as follows:

       *       *       *       *       *

"It is still to-morrow, Saturday, my dear child, that I shall call to
take you to Mlle. de Beaumesnil, only, if agreeable to you, I will come
at three in the afternoon, instead of at noon as we agreed.

"A cousin-germain of mine, the Prince Duc de Haut-Martel, the head of
our house, has just died in Hungary.

"I received this news through the Austrian ambassador, upon whom I must
call early to-morrow morning for some necessary formalities, which, to
my great regret, will prevent me from fulfilling my engagement with you
as early as I promised.

"I shall see you, then, to-morrow, my dear child,

"Affectionately,

"MAILLEFORT."

       *       *       *       *       *

"Ernestine, you will excuse me to write a few words in answer to this
letter, will you not?" asked Herminie, seating herself at the table.

So, while the duchess was writing to M. de Maillefort, Mlle. de
Beaumesnil reflected with growing satisfaction upon the engagement she
had just contracted with Olivier.

The duchess wrote M. de Maillefort that she would expect him at three
the following afternoon, then rang for Madame Moufflon, and asked her to
deliver the note to the messenger.

When the portress had left the room, Herminie returned to Mlle. de
Beaumesnil, and, kissing her affectionately, asked:

"You are very happy, are you not, Ernestine?"

"Yes, very happy, Herminie," replied Mlle. de Beaumesnil, "and it was
here in your home that this happiness came to me, my dear friend. How
generous M. Olivier is! How much he must esteem and love me for him to
desire to marry me, when his position is so superior to mine! That, in
itself, is enough to make me adore him, and to make me place implicit
faith in his promises. With what a feeling of security I can now face
the future, however trying may be the circumstances in which I find
myself to-day!"

"Yes, Ernestine, you are indeed certain of happiness. Your life cannot
fail to be pleasant and fortunate. To love and to be loved worthily is,
indeed, a fate to be envied."

And as the contrast between her own future and that of her friend struck
her, the poor duchess could not help bursting into tears.

"It is, indeed, true that happiness is always selfish!" cried Ernestine.
"Oh, Herminie, forgive me, forgive me! How much you must have suffered!
Every word of our conversation with M. Olivier must have pierced your
soul! You heard us talk of our mutual love, of our hope of a blissful
future, and all the while you felt that you, perhaps, would have to
renounce all such joys. Ah, our thoughtlessness must have pained you
deeply, my dear Herminie."

"No, no, Ernestine," said the poor duchess, drying her eyes, "on the
contrary, your happiness has been a great consolation to me. Has it not
enabled me to forget my own grief and despair all the morning?"

"Despair? But why do you say that? M. de Senneterre is worthy of you,"
cried Ernestine, thoughtlessly, remembering only her conversation with
the young duke the evening before. "He loves you as you deserve to be
loved, I know it."

"You know it, Ernestine? How do you know it?"

"I mean that--that I am sure of it, Herminie," replied Ernestine, much
embarrassed. "All you have told me about him convinces me that you could
not have placed your affections more wisely. The obstacles to your union
are great, I admit, but by no means insurmountable."

"But they are, Ernestine. I have never told you before, but my own sense
of dignity will not permit me to marry M. de Senneterre, unless his
mother comes here and tells me that she consents to my marriage with her
son. Without that, nothing could induce me to enter this aristocratic
family."

"Oh, Herminie, how much I admire your pride!" exclaimed Ernestine. "And
what does M. de Senneterre say?"

"When M. Olivier told him my resolution, far from appearing either
surprised or shocked, Gerald replied: 'What Herminie asks is only just.
Her dignity, as well as mine, requires it. Despair is cowardly and
foolish. It is for me to find the means of compelling my mother to
acknowledge the worth of the woman to whom I shall be proud to give my
name.' Noble and touching words, were they not, Ernestine?"

"You are right, Herminie."

"My mother loves me devotedly,' added M. de Senneterre, 'and nothing is
impossible to an ardent lover. I shall find a way to convince my mother
of the wisdom of my choice, and to induce her to make the advances
Herminie has a right to expect. How I shall do it, I cannot say, but I
shall do it, for Herminie's happiness and mine are at stake.'

"And does not this courageous resolve inspire you with some hope?" asked
Ernestine.

The duchess shook her head sadly as she replied:

"Gerald is sincere in his determination, but he deceives himself. All I
have heard of his mother convinces me that this haughty woman will
never--"

"Never! why do you say never?" cried Ernestine, interrupting her friend.
"Ah, Herminie, you have no idea how much the love of a man like M. de
Senneterre can accomplish. His mother is a very proud woman, you say; so
much the better. She would show herself pitiless to any cowardly
humility, while your eminently proper pride will be sure to impress her,
as she, too, is proud; so she will at least be obliged to esteem and
respect you. That will be one great advantage gained; her love for her
son will do the rest, for you do not know how she idolises him. She
loves him so devotedly, in fact, that she has so far forgotten herself
as to mix herself up in a shameful conspiracy in order to secure him an
immense fortune by an act unworthy of him. Why, then, is her maternal
love likely to fail when a worthy, commendable act on her part is alone
needed to assure her son's happiness? Believe me, Herminie, no one ever
need despair when there is a mother's heart to appeal to."

"Really, Ernestine, you amaze me. You speak of M. de Senneterre and his
family as if you knew them."

"Well, I may as well admit, my dear Herminie," said Mlle. de Beaumesnil,
unable to resist her desire to allay her friend's fears and to encourage
her to hope, "that, knowing how unhappy you were, I managed to make some
inquiries about the Senneterre family through my relative."

"But how?"

"She knows one of Mlle. de Beaumesnil's servants."

"Your relative does?"

"Yes, and she discovered in this way that Madame de Senneterre has been
mixed up in an unfortunate scheme to bring about a marriage between her
son and Mlle. de Beaumesnil, that rich heiress."

"Gerald was to marry Mlle. de Beaumesnil?" exclaimed Herminie.

"Yes, but he nobly refused. Her immense fortune has no attraction for
him, because he loves you,--loves you devotedly, Herminie."

"Is this true?" exclaimed the duchess, delightedly. "Are you sure of
what you say, Ernestine?"

"Perfectly sure."

"It is not so much that this disinterestedness on Gerald's part
astonishes me," said Herminie, "as that--"

"That you are proud of this new proof of his love. Am I not right?"

"Yes, yes," exclaimed the duchess, her hopes reviving in spite of
herself. "But once more, I can not help asking if you are perfectly sure
of what you say? My poor child, you are so anxious to see me happy that
I am afraid you have lent too ready an ear to these reports, for
servants' gossip, you know, is proverbially unreliable. Do you know
whether Gerald has ever met Mlle. de Beaumesnil?"

"Once or twice, I think my relative told me. But why do you ask that
question, Herminie?"

"Because it seems to me that I shall feel very uncomfortable to-morrow,
knowing that there has been some talk of a marriage between Gerald and
Mlle. de Beaumesnil."

"Why, what is to happen to-morrow, Herminie?"

"I am to give Mlle. de Beaumesnil her first music lesson."

"To-morrow?" exclaimed Ernestine, without concealing her surprise.

"Read this letter, my dear," replied the duchess. "It is from that
gentleman, the hunchback, you remember, that you once met here."

"M. de Maillefort probably had his reasons for not warning me of his
intentions," Ernestine said to herself, as she perused the missive. "I
am glad that he is hastening the dénouement, however, for my powers of
dissimulation are nearly exhausted. What a relief it will be to confess
all!"

As she returned the letter, Ernestine asked:

"What difference does it make to you, Herminie, if there has been some
talk of a marriage between M. de Senneterre and Mlle. de Beaumesnil?"

"I do not know, but I somehow feel that it places me in a false, almost
painful position towards that young lady, and if I had not promised M.
de Maillefort--"

"What would you do?"

"I would abandon this visit, which now causes me a sort of vague
uneasiness."

"But you have promised, Herminie, and you can not break your word.
Besides, is not Mlle. de Beaumesnil the child of the lady whom you loved
so much, and who so often talked to you about her dear daughter? Think
of it, Herminie; would it not be wrong to give up going to see her? Do
you not at least owe that to her mother's memory?"

"You are right, Ernestine. I shall have to go, and yet--"

"Who knows, Herminie, but your acquaintance with this young girl will
prove of benefit to both of you. I scarcely know why, but I prophesy
good from this visit, and I certainly prove my disinterestedness by
doing so, for devoted friendship is naturally jealous. But it is growing
late, my friend, and I must go. I will write to you to-morrow."

The duchess sat silent and evidently absorbed in thought for a moment.

"Ah, Ernestine," she exclaimed at last, "I can not tell you all the
strange thoughts that are passing through my mind. Gerald's noble
disinterestedness, my approaching interview with Mlle. de Beaumesnil,
your disclosures in relation to the character of Madame de Senneterre,
who, being proud herself, can, perhaps, better understand the demands of
my pride,--all this agitates me deeply. Nevertheless, though I was so
full of despair a few minutes ago, I now hope, in spite of myself, and
thanks to you, my dear friend, my heart is much less heavy than when you
came."

Consideration for M. de Maillefort's plans alone prevented Ernestine
from putting an end to her friend's anxiety and increasing her hope by
giving her further proofs of Gerald's love as well as of his nobility of
character, but remembering that all this mystery would soon be cleared
up, she carried her secret away with her when she parted from Herminie.

The following afternoon, according to promise, M. de Maillefort called
for the duchess, and the two immediately started for Mlle. de
Beaumesnil's residence.



CHAPTER XVIII.

A QUESTION OF IDENTITY.


Before going to Herminie's, Friday morning, Mlle. de Beaumesnil had had
no conversation with M. de la Rochaiguë and Mlle. Helena on the subject
of M. de Macreuse and M. de Mornand.

On her return from the ball the night before, Ernestine had pleaded
fatigue as an excuse for at once retiring to her room, and she had left
the house early the next morning, in company with Madame Laîné.

One can easily imagine the bitter reproaches and recriminations that
were interchanged between the baron and his wife and sister after
returning from the entertainment, where their secret plans had been so
ruthlessly unveiled.

Madame de la Rochaiguë, still confident of the speedy marriage of M. de
Senneterre and Mlle. de Beaumesnil, was pitiless in her triumph, which
she scarcely took the pains to conceal now, and quite overwhelmed the
baron and his sister by her reproaches and sarcasms.

The devotee replied, sweetly and patiently, that "the success of the
proud and the wicked was fleeting, but that the just, though laid low
for a time, would soon rise again, radiant in glory."

The baron, who was less versed in Biblical diction, declared that his
wife did not know him yet, and that, though he could not compel Mlle. de
Beaumesnil to marry M. de Mornand, after the deplorable scene of the
evening before, he should nevertheless completely, absolutely, and
irrevocably refuse his consent to any other marriage until mademoiselle
attained her majority.

Ernestine, on her return from Herminie's, had been tenderly welcomed by
Madame de la Rochaiguë, who informed her that the baron had declared his
intention of opposing any marriage whatever until his ward became of
age, but that all this did not make the slightest difference, as he
would change his mind within twenty-four hours if he discovered that
there was any possibility of Mlle. de Beaumesnil's marriage with M. de
Senneterre.

But when the baroness added that it would be advisable for Ernestine to
receive Gerald's mother on the following day, as that lady wished to
come to some definite understanding in relation to her son's marriage
with the heiress, the young girl replied that, while she fully
appreciated M. de Senneterre's merits, she would like to have a few days
longer for reflection, hoping in this way to secure time to consult with
M. de Maillefort and Herminie concerning her plans for the future. The
baroness tried in vain to change Ernestine's decision, but the young
girl was obdurate.

Considerably surprised, and not a little irritated by this refusal, the
baroness remarked to the orphan, as she was leaving her:

"I forgot to inform you yesterday, my dear child, that after a talk with
M. de Maillefort, who is now one of my best friends, and yours as well
(you know how highly he speaks of M. de Senneterre), we decided to give
you an opportunity to perform a truly charitable act. The idea
originated with me, even prior to your arrival in Paris. There is a
poor, but honest young girl, who was employed to play and sing to your
poor dear mother during her last illness. This young girl is very proud,
in spite of her poverty; so we thought you might assist her pecuniarily
under the pretext of taking a few music lessons, and if you are willing
to do so, the marquis will bring her to you to-morrow."

The reader can imagine Ernestine's response, and the impatience with
which she awaited the coming of Herminie and her escort.

At last the long-looked-for hour arrived.

Mlle. de Beaumesnil had put on the same dress she had worn on her first
visit to her friend's house,--a simply made gown of inexpensive lawn.

Soon a footman threw open the folding doors that led into the small
drawing-room where the heiress usually sat, and announced, in a loud
voice:

"M. le Marquis de Maillefort."

Herminie was with the hunchback, and for some reason or other seemed to
be greatly agitated by the prospect of this meeting with Mlle. de
Beaumesnil, and as the duchess, whose bosom was heaving visibly, kept
her eyes fixed upon the floor, the footman had time to close the door
and make his escape before Herminie recognised Ernestine.

The marquis, who was enjoying this little scene immensely, gave Mlle. de
Beaumesnil a meaning glance just as Herminie, surprised at the long
silence, ventured to raise her eyes.

"Ernestine, you here!" she exclaimed, taking a step towards her friend,
then, intensely surprised, looked wonderingly at the marquis, as Mlle.
de Beaumesnil, throwing herself upon Herminie's neck, embraced her
tenderly, while tears of joy rolled down her cheeks.

"You are weeping, Ernestine!" said Herminie, more and more astonished,
but still without the slightest suspicion of the truth, though her heart
was throbbing with unwonted violence. "What is the matter with you,
Ernestine?" she continued. "How do you happen to be here? You do not
answer me. Good Heavens! I cannot imagine why I tremble so!"

And again the duchess turned inquiringly to the hunchback, whose eyes
were dim with tears.

"I do not know, but it seems to me something extraordinary is going on
here, M. le marquis; tell me what all this means, I beseech you."

"It means, my dear child, that I was a true prophet when, in talking
with you about your approaching interview with Mlle. de Beaumesnil, I
told you that I felt sure this meeting would afford you much more
pleasure than you anticipated."

"Then you knew that I would find Ernestine here, monsieur?"

"I was certain of it."

"You were certain of it?"

"Yes, there could be no doubt of it."

"Why do you say that?"

"For the simple reason that--"

"That what, monsieur?"

"Is it possible you don't suspect?"

"No, monsieur."

"That the two Ernestines are one and the same person."

The duchess was so far from suspecting the truth that she utterly failed
to understand the import of the hunchback's reply at first, and repeated
mechanically, gazing at him wonderingly all the while:

"The two Ernestines are one and the same person?"

Then seeing her friend gazing at her with an expression of ineffable joy
and happiness, and with arms outstretched as if to embrace her, she
exclaimed, overwhelmed with astonishment, and almost terror:

"Mlle. de Beaumesnil! Can it be--my God! can it be that you are Mlle. de
Beaumesnil?"

"Yes," exclaimed the hunchback, "she is Mlle. de Beaumesnil, the
daughter of the lady who loved you so much, and to whom you were so
deeply attached."

"Ernestine is my sister," thought the duchess.

This startling revelation, and the recollection of the strange way in
which she had made Mlle. de Beaumesnil's acquaintance, as well as of the
events which had occurred since their first meeting, gave Herminie a
sort of vertigo. Her brain seemed to whirl; she turned pale, and
trembled so violently, that Ernestine was obliged to assist her to a
neighbouring armchair.

There, kneeling beside her, and gazing up in her face with all a
sister's tenderness, Mlle. de Beaumesnil took Herminie's hands in hers,
and kissed them almost reverently, while the marquis stood contemplating
this touching scene in silence.

"Pardon me," faltered Herminie, "but the surprise,--the trying position
in which I find myself, mademoiselle--"

"Mademoiselle! Oh, do not call me that," exclaimed Mlle. de Beaumesnil.
"Am I no longer your Ernestine, the orphan to whom you promised your
friendship because you thought she was so unhappy? Alas! M. de
Maillefort, your friend and mine, will tell you that I am indeed very
unhappy, and that I am in even greater need of your tender affection
than ever. What if I am no longer the poor little embroideress! The rich
have their sorrows as well as the poor. In pity remember the words of my
dying mother, who so often talked to you of me, and continue to love me
for her sake."

"Have no fears on that score. You will always be dear, doubly dear to
me," replied Herminie; "but you see I have scarcely recovered from my
bewilderment. It seems like a dream to me, and when I think of the way
in which I became acquainted with you, Ernestine, and of a thousand
other things, I have to see you here close beside me, to believe that it
is not really all a dream."

"Your surprise is very natural, my dear child," remarked the marquis,
"and I myself, when I met Mlle. de Beaumesnil at your home a few days
ago, was so overwhelmed with astonishment that, if something had not
diverted your attention for a moment, you would have perceived my
amazement; but Ernestine begged me to keep her secret, and I did."

When Herminie had recovered from the shock sufficiently for her mind to
become clear again, the first words she uttered were:

"But, Ernestine, how did you happen to come to Madame Herbaut's? What is
the meaning of all this mystery? Why did you wish to attend that
reunion?"

Ernestine, smiling sadly, took from a table the journal she had been
writing, the journal dedicated to the memory of her mother, and, handing
it to Herminie open at the page where were enumerated the divers reasons
which had forced the richest heiress in France to resort to the painful
test she had endured so heroically, the young girl said to the duchess:

"I anticipated these questions, Herminie, and, as I am anxious that you
should deem me worthy of your affection, I beg you to read these pages.
They speak the truth, for it is to the memory of my mother that they are
dedicated. M. de Maillefort, I would like you to peruse their contents
at the same time, so you can see that, though I unfortunately believed,
for a time, the base slanders told me concerning you, your wise, though
severe, lesson was not lost upon me, but gave me the courage to resort
to a test that may, perhaps, seem strange to you, my dear Herminie."

The duchess took the book from Ernestine's hands. It was an interesting
scene to see Herminie holding the open journal, while the marquis,
leaning over the back of the armchair in which she was seated, read with
her and like her, in silence, Mlle. de Beaumesnil's artless story.

That young girl watched both Herminie and the hunchback intently during
the reading, evidently anxious to know if they would approve her
motives.

All doubts on this subject were soon allayed, however, for touching and
sympathetic exclamations speedily testified to the approval of both.

When the perusal was ended, the duchess, her eyes filled with tears of
love and compassion, exclaimed:

"Ah, it is not friendship alone that I feel for you now, Ernestine, but
respect and admiration. Great Heavens! how these frightful doubts must
have tortured you! What an immense amount of courage it must have
required to take such an important step alone--to face an ordeal from
which even the bravest heart would have shrunk! Ah, I can at least offer
you an affection which has been proved as disinterested as it is
sincere. Thank God, I have been able to convince you beyond a doubt that
you can and should be loved for yourself alone."

"Ah, yes, and it is this fact that makes your affection so precious to
me," replied Ernestine, with effusion.

"Herminie is right. Your conduct has been worthy of all praise," said
the marquis, who seemed deeply moved. "The few words you let drop on
this subject night before last, at the ball, only partially enlightened
me in regard to the real facts of the case. You are a noble girl."

But suddenly the duchess, remembering the promise Ernestine had made
Olivier, exclaimed anxiously:

"But, Ernestine,--the promise you made M. Olivier yesterday, in my
presence!"

"That promise I shall keep," replied Mlle. de Beaumesnil, quietly.



CHAPTER XIX.

ERNESTINE'S APPEAL.


On hearing Mlle. de Beaumesnil speak of a promise which she had made to
M. Olivier, and which she intended to keep, M. de Maillefort seemed both
surprised and uneasy, especially when the duchess repeated:

"What! the promise made to M. Olivier--"

"Yes, this promise, I repeat, I intend to keep, my dear Herminie. Did
you not approve my acceptance of M. Olivier's offer? Did you not regard
it as a sure guarantee of happiness to come? Did you not appreciate the
great generosity of his offer as much as I did?"

"Yes, Ernestine, but it was to the little embroideress that this offer
was made."

"Ah, well, why should M. Olivier's generosity seem less great and less
noble now, my dear Herminie? Why should not the guarantee of happiness
to come be just as certain?"

"I do not know how to answer you, Ernestine. I feel that you are right,
and yet I am conscious of a vague uneasiness in spite of myself. But you
must have no secrets from M. de Maillefort. You must tell him all."

"I will, and I am sure that M. de Maillefort will approve my decision."

The marquis had been listening silently but thoughtfully.

"Is this M. Olivier the young man who invited you to dance out of
charity, and to whom frequent allusion is made in your journal?"

"Yes, M. de Maillefort."

"And it was M. Olivier's uncle that Ernestine saved from almost certain
death the other day," added Herminie.

"His uncle?" exclaimed the hunchback, quickly.

Then, after a moment's reflection, he added:

"I understand. Gratitude, combined with another and more tender
sentiment which had its birth at her first meeting with this young man
at Madame Herbaut's house, led him to propose to Ernestine when he
believed her to be poor and unprotected."

"And a brilliant match it seemed for one of my supposed position,"
remarked Mlle. de Beaumesnil, "for M. Olivier had just been made an
officer, so it was an enviable social position as well as comparative
affluence that he offered a penniless and obscure girl who laboured for
her daily bread."

"Is his name Olivier Raymond?" exclaimed the hunchback, as if a new idea
had suddenly occurred to him.

"That is his name. Do you know him, monsieur?" asked Ernestine.

"Olivier Raymond, formerly a non-commissioned officer of hussars,
decorated in Africa, is it not?" continued the marquis.

"The same."

"Then it was for him, though not at his request, nor even with his
knowledge, that I requested his promotion the other day in company with
my dear young friend, Gerald de Senneterre, who loves the young man like
a brother," added the hunchback, thoughtfully.

Then, turning to Ernestine, he continued:

"My child, it is your mother's devoted friend, almost a father, that
speaks. All this seems very serious to me, and I tremble lest the
natural generosity of your character should cause you to go too far.
Have you engaged yourself to Olivier Raymond?"

"Yes, monsieur."

"And do you love him?"

"As profoundly as I esteem him, my dear M. de Maillefort."

"I can very well understand, my dear child, why, after the shocking
revelations at the ball, night before last, you should have felt the
need of sincere and disinterested affection more than ever. I can
understand, too, why you should find a wonderful charm, and even see a
certain guarantee of future happiness, in M. Olivier Raymond's generous
offer, but this should not have prevented you from exercising more
prudence. Remember how short your acquaintance with M. Olivier has
been!"

"That is true, monsieur, but it did not take me long, when my eyes had
once been opened, to realise the fact that your heart was full of the
tenderest solicitude for me, and that Herminie was the noblest creature
that ever lived, so you may be sure that I am no more deceived in M.
Olivier."

"I hope you are right, my child, Heaven knows! This young man is Gerald
de Senneterre's most intimate friend, which is a very strong
recommendation, I must admit. Besides, before interesting myself in
Gerald's protégé, as I feared his affection for a former comrade might
have blinded him somewhat, I made numerous inquiries about M. Olivier."

"Well?" exclaimed Ernestine and Herminie, in the same breath.

"Well, the best proof of my satisfaction at the result of these
inquiries was the fact that I brought the full force of an influence I
rarely exert to bear on M. Olivier's advancement."

"Then why should you feel any apprehensions, M. de Maillefort?" urged
Ernestine. "How could I have made a better choice? M. Olivier's birth
is honourable, his profession honoured. He is poor, but am I not, alas!
only too rich? And then think of my position as an heiress continually
exposed to machinations like those you exposed and punished, night
before last! Remember, too, that, in order to protect me from such
shameless cupidity, you yourself aroused in me a distrust which has
become well-nigh incurable. A prey henceforth to the dreadful thought
that I am sought only for my wealth, whom can I trust? Is it strange
that, under circumstances like these, I should appreciate
disinterestedness and unselfishness? And where could I ever find greater
disinterestedness than that of which M. Olivier has given convincing
proof? For in the offer that he made me, when he believed me to be poor
and unprotected, was it not he who had everything to give?"

There was a half smile on the lips of the marquis as he turned to
Herminie and said:

"Your friend, the little embroideress, has quick wit and a ready tongue.
There is a good deal of sense and justice in what she says, I must
admit, and I should find it very difficult to prove that she is wrong."

"I think so, too," replied Herminie, "for though I have been trying to
discover some objections to her keeping her promise, I can find none."

"Nor can I, my dear children," said the hunchback; "but, unfortunately,
human reason is not infallible, neither does right always make might;
besides, even if this should prove to be a suitable marriage for
Ernestine, the consent of her guardian is necessary to this marriage,
and with ideas like his, it is not at all likely that he will ever
consent to such a union. Ernestine would consequently be obliged to wait
several years. Nor is this all. M. Olivier will discover sooner or later
that his little embroideress is the richest heiress in France, and from
what you have said of him, as well as from what Gerald himself has told
me of his friend's extreme sensitiveness in money matters, there is
good reason to fear that M. Olivier will shrink from the possibility of
being accused of mercenary motives in wedding so rich an heiress when he
himself is poor; so, in spite of his love and gratitude, he may be
capable of sacrificing everything to his scruples."

On hearing these words, which she felt were only too true, mademoiselle
shuddered. A pang of real anguish pierced her heart, and she exclaimed,
bitterly:

"Ah, my accursed wealth! Shall I never escape the torments it causes
me!"

Then, in an entreating voice, and gazing at the hunchback with eyes
swimming in tears, she added:

"Ah, M. de Maillefort, you were my mother's devoted friend, you love
Herminie devotedly,--save me and save her! Come to our assistance. Be
our guardian angel, for I feel that my life will be blighted for ever by
the suspicions and the distrust you have awakened in my heart. The only
chance of happiness left for me is to marry M. Olivier, and Herminie
will die of grief if she does not marry M. de Senneterre, so once more I
beseech you, my dear M. Maillefort, to take pity on us."

"Oh, Ernestine," cried the duchess, reproachfully, blushing scarlet in
her confusion, "that secret was confided to you alone!"

"Gerald!" exclaimed the marquis, in his turn astounded by this
revelation. "Gerald! is it possible that you love Gerald?" he continued,
with a searching look at Herminie. "Then it was to this irresistible
passion that he alluded when I was praising him yesterday for his
generous conduct towards Mlle. de Beaumesnil. He told me, then, that he
lived only for a young girl who was worthy of his adoration. Yes, I
understand everything now, my poor, dear children, and I tremble for
your future."

"Forgive me, oh, forgive me, Herminie," pleaded Ernestine, for her
friend's tears were flowing fast. "Do not be angry with me for having
betrayed your confidence. But in whom can we have any hope and
confidence if not in M. de Maillefort? Who else can guide and comfort
and sustain us in these trying hours? Alas! as he himself remarked just
now, right does not make might. He admits that, in the trying position
in which my accursed wealth places me, I could not have given my
affections more wisely, and yet there are great, if not insurmountable,
difficulties in the way of my marriage. It is the same with you,
Herminie. M. de Maillefort is certainly convinced that there can be no
happiness for you and for M. de Senneterre save in your union, which
seems even more uncertain than mine."

"Ah, my children, if you knew what kind of a woman the Duchesse de
Senneterre is! I told you the other day, Herminie, when you asked me
about her. I understand your motive now. But I tell you now, as I told
you then, that no woman ever lived who was more absurdly vain of her
rank."

"And yet Herminie says she will never marry Gerald unless Madame de
Senneterre comes and tells her that she consents to this marriage. This
only shows a proper pride in Herminie, though. You think so, too, do you
not, M. de Maillefort?"

"She has made that resolve? Ah, what a brave and noble-hearted girl she
is!" exclaimed the marquis. "This is still another proof of the laudable
pride that makes me love her so much. Most assuredly I approve her
decision. I admire it, too, for such a resolve could be born only of a
noble soul. I no longer wonder at Gerald's ardent devotion."

"You hear what M. de Maillefort says, Herminie," said Ernestine. "Are
you angry with me now for having betrayed your secret?"

"No, Ernestine," replied the duchess, gently. "I blame you only for one
thing, and that is for grieving M. de Maillefort by telling him of
misfortunes which he cannot remedy."

"But why may he not be able to remedy them?" retorted Ernestine. "You do
not know him. You do not know the great influence he exerts in the
world,--how much noble-hearted people love and admire him, and how
abjectly afraid cowards and evil-doers are of him. And, then, he is so
good, so kind to all who are in trouble; he loved my mother so dearly!"

And as M. de Maillefort, overwhelmed with emotion, averted his face to
conceal his tears, Mlle. de Beaumesnil continued, in even more
beseeching tones:

"Oh, is it not true that you feel all a father's solicitude for us, M.
de Maillefort? Are we not sisters in your eyes, and in the tenderness
and attachment we feel for you? Oh, do not, I beseech you, in mercy, do
not desert us!"

And Ernestine seized one of the hunchback's hands, while Herminie,
involuntarily following her friend's example, possessed herself of the
other, saying, in entreating tones:

"Ah, M. de Maillefort, you are our only hope!"

The hunchback was deeply affected. One of these young girls was the
child of a woman he had loved devotedly, though secretly, for years.

The other, too, was, perhaps, her child, for very frequently the
conviction that Herminie was Madame de Beaumesnil's daughter returned.

But however that might be, M. de Maillefort had received from this dying
mother the sacred trust of watching over and protecting Ernestine and
Herminie. He had sworn to fulfil this trust, and, unable to make even a
pretence of concealing his emotion any longer, he clasped both the young
girls passionately to his breast, and, in a voice broken with sobs,
exclaimed:

"Yes, yes, my poor, dear children. I will do all the most loving of
fathers could do for you!"

It is impossible to describe the touching scene and the eloquent silence
that followed, which Ernestine, now radiant with hope, was the first to
break, by exclaiming:

"Herminie, we are saved! You will marry M. Gerald, and I, M. Olivier!"



CHAPTER XX.

AN ALLIANCE OFFENSIVE AND DEFENSIVE.


On hearing Ernestine's joyful exclamation, M. de Maillefort shook his
head, and said, with a faint smile:

"One moment, young ladies, don't go and indulge in all sorts of wild
hopes that will worry me almost as much as your despair. Let us look at
the situation calmly and sensibly. All this excitement is not going to
help matters; on the contrary, it unnerves one. One weeps and laments,
or exults, as the case may be, and that is all it amounts to."

"But, M. de Maillefort, these are tears of happiness," replied
Ernestine, wiping her eyes. "I have no reason to regret them."

"No, but they should not be indulged in again. They impair one's vision,
and it is necessary to see our situation clearly, very clearly."

"M. de Maillefort is right," said Herminie. "Let us be calm and
sensible."

"Yes, yes, we will!" cried Ernestine. "Sit down here between us, M. de
Maillefort, and let us talk the matter over calmly and sensibly, as you
say."

"Very well," replied the hunchback, seating himself on the sofa between
the two girls, and taking a hand of each in his. "Which one of you shall
we consider first?"

"Herminie," replied Ernestine, promptly.

"So be it," responded the marquis. "Very well, Herminie and Gerald love
each other devotedly, and are worthy of each other, that is understood;
but, with a pride that I both admire and approve,--because there is no
possibility of either love or happiness without dignity,--Herminie will
not consent to marry Gerald unless the Duchesse de Senneterre calls on
her and gives her consent to this marriage. The question is, therefore,
to devise a means of compelling this haughtiest of duchesses to make
these overtures."

"But nothing is impossible to you, M. de Maillefort," said Ernestine,
naïvely.

"Just hear this wheedler with her 'Nothing is impossible to you, M. de
Maillefort,'" said the marquis, smiling. Then he added with a sigh: "Ah,
my dear child, if you knew what hard things vanity and selfishness are
to fight! And those two words describe Madame de Senneterre exactly. But
though I am not the great necromancer you say, I shall have to devise
some way of taming this two-headed monster, I suppose."

"Ah, if you can ever accomplish that feat, monsieur," said Herminie, "my
whole life--"

"I count upon that, my child. Yes, I hope and trust that you will love
me during your whole life, even if I should fail in what I am about to
undertake, for in that case I believe I should be quite as unhappy as
you are, and stand in almost equal need of consolation. Now it is your
turn, my dear Ernestine!"

"It seems to me that my prospects are even gloomier than Herminie's,"
said Mlle. de Beaumesnil, sadly.

"I don't know about that, but I must warn you, my poor child, that I can
do nothing for you until after I have satisfied myself beyond a doubt of
M. Olivier Raymond's worth."

"Why, doesn't what you already know satisfy you, M. de Maillefort?"

"It is perfectly satisfactory so far as his life as a soldier is
concerned, but as a man can be a very brave officer and a very bad
husband, I shall make some further inquiries concerning him."

"But M. de Senneterre speaks very highly of M. Olivier, you say."

"Yes, my dear child, but a man may be an admirable friend and an
excellent comrade, and yet make his wife very unhappy."

"How suspicious you are! You forget that M. Olivier thinks me a poor
girl--and that--"

"That his gratitude, generosity, and love impelled him to offer you a
more brilliant future than one in your supposed position had a right to
expect, perhaps. It was a very generous and noble impulse, I admit, and
a little while ago I was so touched by it that I allowed myself to
become almost as enthusiastic as you and Herminie."

"And has your opinion changed, now?" asked Ernestine, anxiously.

"Now, my child, I judge not only with my heart but with my head; and
reason tells me that, though M. Olivier's impulse was highly
commendable, it was only an impulse. I do not doubt for an instant that
M. Olivier will keep the promise he made you, and that he will act
honourably in the matter, but I want to be sure--that is, as sure as one
can be of anything in this world--that, in case M. Olivier married you,
his whole life would harmonise with the impulse which I admire as much
as you do."

Ernestine could not conceal a sort of sorrowful impatience as she
listened to these wise and prudent words, and noting this fact, the
marquis continued, in a tone that was both grave and affectionate:

"My poor child, the confidence you have in me, the affection I felt for
your mother, the very interest I take in your future, all compel me to
say this, though it may disappoint and grieve you. But I promise you
that, if I find M. Olivier is worthy of you, I will devote myself body
and soul to overcoming the obstacles that stand in the way of your
marriage."

"Ernestine, we must trust M. de Maillefort implicitly, blindly,"
Herminie said to her friend. "The responsibility he assumes is so great,
we must not hamper him in any way. Besides, instead of opposing the
inquiries he intends to make, you should urge him to make them as
searching as possible, for, believe me, they will only prove still more
conclusively that M. Olivier is worthy of you."

"That is true, Herminie; and you, M. de Maillefort, will forgive me, I
trust," said Mlle. de Beaumesnil. "I was wrong, but, alas! with my only
chance of happiness at stake, you can perhaps understand my terror and
my wretchedness at the thought that I may lose it."

"On the contrary, it is to make your chance of happiness more certain
that I speak as I do. But even supposing that M. Olivier should be found
to possess all the attributes we desire, it will, first of all, be
necessary to persuade your guardian to consent to this marriage; then,
what will prove an even more difficult task, I fear, we shall have to
convince M. Olivier that he can, with honour, marry the richest heiress
in France, inasmuch as he loved her when he thought her penniless and
unprotected."

"In this, alas! I agree with you, M. de Maillefort," said Ernestine,
despondently. "I, too, am afraid that M. Olivier will refuse to marry
me. And yet this refusal would show such nobility of soul that, even
though it made me miserable, I could not help admiring it. Alas, alas!
what are we to do, M. de Maillefort?"

"I do not know, my dear child. I will think the matter over to-night,
and try to devise some means of accomplishing our object. I have a
vague, shadowy idea of one expedient," added the hunchback,
thoughtfully. "Yes, why not? But I must reduce this chaotic mass of
ideas to a little order first, and, above all, don't let us give way to
despair."

"Do you think Ernestine might see M. Olivier again soon?" inquired
Herminie.

"Not for several days."

"Oh, dear, what will he think of me?" sighed Mlle. de Beaumesnil.

"So far as that is concerned, Ernestine, you remember you told him that
the relative with whom you were living was so peculiar that you would
need several days to decide whether it had better be M. Olivier or
Commander Bernard who should go to her to ask your hand in marriage."

"That is true."

"And this pretended relative is your governess, I suppose, my dear
child?" said the marquis.

"Yes, monsieur."

"Can you rely upon her discretion?"

"Self-interest ensures that."

"That is a very important point, for there can be little or no chance of
success in our undertaking without absolute secrecy," remarked the
hunchback; "and I need not say, my dear Herminie, that even Gerald
himself must not know that the little embroideress, about whom M.
Olivier has often talked to him, is Mlle. de Beaumesnil."

"Alas! monsieur, it will be an easy matter for me to promise that, for I
shall not see Gerald again until his mother comes to me, or, in other
words, I shall never see him again."

"Courage, my child, courage!" said the hunchback. "I am not a very
devout man, but I do believe in the God of good people, and that virtue
is rewarded, even in this world. Courage, then! But to return to the
subject of M. Olivier; my dear Herminie, if you see him, as you probably
will, you must tell him that Ernestine is not very well. This will give
me time to form my plans, for I only ask that you will give me one
week, my dear children. If I have not brought these matters to a
successful termination in one week, I never shall. Then it will be time
to think of resignation and consolation, and you, my children, must
admit, I think, that if you are obliged to give up all idea of these
much desired marriages, your grief and disappointment will be much more
endurable if you are together, than alone. Besides, I shall be left to
you, and we three, together, can surely make a brave stand against
misfortune."

"Ah, if I had to endure such a sorrow, deprived of Ernestine's
friendship and yours, I believe it would kill me," murmured Herminie.

"Alas! my dear Herminie, how fraught with fears and anxiety this coming
week will be!" exclaimed Ernestine. "But we shall at least see each
other every day, shall we not? Or what is far better," exclaimed Mlle.
de Beaumesnil, starting violently as a new idea suddenly occurred to
her, "we need not be separated any more."

"What do you mean, Ernestine?"

"You must stay here with me from now on. Must she not, M. de
Maillefort?"

"It would be a great happiness for me," answered Herminie, blushing,
"but I cannot accept it."

The hunchback understood Herminie's feelings. She felt that it would be
humiliating to accept an idle and luxurious life from the rich heiress;
besides, Ernestine's proposal, even if it were accepted by the duchess,
might injure M. de Maillefort's plans, and he said as much to Mlle. de
Beaumesnil, who was as greatly surprised as chagrined by her friend's
refusal.

"I think it might seriously interfere with my plans, my dear child, if
your guardian and his family should discover your fondness for Herminie,
for they would immediately institute an inquiry into the cause of this
sudden intimacy with the young girl you had apparently met to-day for
the first time, and the suspicious distrusts thus aroused might give me
a great deal of trouble."

"We shall be obliged to resign ourselves to a separation, then, I
suppose," said Ernestine, sadly; "but it would have been such a comfort
to spend this week of anxiety and suspense with Herminie."

"I share your regret, Ernestine," said the duchess, "but M. de
Maillefort knows what will further our interests better than we do;
besides, my sudden disappearance would, perhaps, arouse M. Olivier's
suspicions. It would be utterly impossible to give him any news of you,
and last, but not least, my dear Ernestine, it will not do to forget
that I support myself by my music lessons, and I could not remain idle
for a whole week."

For an instant, Mlle. de Beaumesnil gazed at the duchess in a sort of
bewilderment, not understanding how Herminie could think of working for
her living now she had the richest heiress in France for an intimate
friend; but remembering the young musician's delicacy and pride, Mlle.
de Beaumesnil shuddered at the thought that she had, perhaps, been in
danger of alienating her friend for ever by her thoughtless, though
kindly meant proposal.

"True, my dear Herminie, I forgot all about your lessons," she replied.
"You must not miss them, of course; but you will at least number me
among your favourite pupils, and not let a day pass without coming.
Won't you promise me that?"

"Oh, yes," replied Herminie, greatly relieved, for, as Ernestine had
suspected, the duchess had trembled lest her friend should insist upon
her acceptance of a hospitality which she regarded as humiliating.

"And now we can only hope that fate will prove propitious, my children,"
said the marquis, rising. "As for your manner towards your guardian, my
dear Ernestine, let it be slightly cold and reserved. Remain in your own
room as much as possible, but do not manifest any very bitter
resentment towards these people. A quarrel might injure us deeply. Later
we will see."

"By the way, M. de Maillefort," said Ernestine, "I think it might be
well to inform you that Madame de la Rochaiguë, who is still under the
impression that I intend to marry M. Gerald, wanted me to promise that I
would see Madame de Senneterre to-morrow, but I asked for a few days for
reflection."

"You did wisely, my child, but to-morrow you must formally announce to
Madame de la Rochaiguë that you have decided not to marry Gerald. You
need not give any explanation whatever. I will attend to the rest."

"I will follow your advice, monsieur. To-morrow, Herminie, I will make
you both proud and happy by telling you how nobly and frankly M. de
Senneterre behaved towards me. Did he not, M. de Maillefort?"

"His conduct was admirable. Gerald warned me in advance of his plan, and
he kept his promise. But now you girls will be obliged to separate for
awhile."

"Already!" cried Ernestine. "Let me at least keep Herminie until
evening, M. de Maillefort."

"I can not remain any longer, unfortunately, Ernestine," said the
duchess, trying to smile. "At five o'clock I have to give a lesson at
the house of a M. Bouffard, whom M. de Maillefort knows, and I am
obliged to be very punctual."

"I must submit then, I suppose," replied Mlle. de Beaumesnil, with a
sigh, thinking what a drawback Herminie's occupation was to the
pleasures of life; "but you will at least promise to come and see me
to-morrow, will you not, Herminie?"

"Yes, yes," replied the duchess. "I shall await the morrow with quite as
much impatience as you will, I assure you."

"Herminie," asked Mlle. de Beaumesnil, suddenly, "do you love me as much
as when you believed me to be Ernestine, the little embroideress?"

"I love you even more, perhaps," replied the duchess, earnestly, "for
Mlle. de Beaumesnil has retained the heart of Ernestine, the little
embroideress."

The two girls embraced each other affectionately once again and then
separated.



CHAPTER XXI.

"DIAMOND CUT DIAMOND."


Two days after this conversation with Herminie and Ernestine, M. de
Maillefort, after two long and serious consultations with Gerald, wrote
to the Duchesse de Senneterre, asking her to see him that afternoon,
and, his request being granted, the marquis presented himself at the
appointed hour.

The marquis, warned by Gerald, was not surprised at the expression of
bitter anger and chagrin on the face of Madame de Senneterre, for that
very morning Madame de la Rochaiguë had informed the duchess that Mlle.
de Beaumesnil, though she liked and admired M. de Senneterre very much,
had no intention of marrying him.

At the sight of the hunchback, Madame de Senneterre's wrath blazed up
still more fiercely, and she exclaimed, bitterly:

"You must confess, monsieur, that I am wonderfully generous!"

"In what way?"

"Am I not giving you the pleasure of coming to exult over the misery you
have caused?"

"To what misery do you allude?"

"What misery?" exclaimed the duchess, wrathfully. "Is it not your fault
that my son's marriage with Mlle. de Beaumesnil is broken off?"

"My fault?"

"Oh, I am not your dupe, monsieur, and it is to assure you of that fact
that I consented to the interview you had the audacity to ask of me. I
did not want to miss this opportunity to tell you face to face how much
I hate and despise you."

"So be it, madame. It affords just as good a topic of conversation as
any other, and you excel in this kind of discourse, I believe."

"M. de Maillefort will oblige me by reserving his insulting irony for
some other occasion," retorted Madame de Senneterre, haughtily. "He
would also do well to remember that he has the honour of speaking to the
Duchesse de Senneterre."

"Madame la Duchesse de Senneterre will do me the honour to treat me with
the consideration due me," replied the hunchback, sternly; "if not, I
shall govern my words exactly by Madame de Senneterre's."

"Is that intended as a threat, monsieur?"

"As a lesson, madame."

"A lesson, to me?"

"And why not, may I ask? What, I who was your husband's oldest and most
trusted friend, I who love Gerald as a son, I who have a right to the
respect and esteem of every one,--do you understand, madame? to the
respect of every one,--I whose birth is at least equal to yours (it is
well to remind you of that, as you attach such an absurd importance to
such trifles), I am to be greeted with insulting words and eyes flashing
with anger; and yet I am not to remind you of what you owe to me and
what you owe to yourself?"

Like all vain and arrogant persons who are not accustomed to the
slightest contradiction, Madame de Senneterre was at first surprised and
irritated, but afterwards, awed by this stern and sensible language, her
anger giving place to a profound despondency, she replied:

"Ah, monsieur, you should at least make some allowance for the despair a
mother naturally feels on seeing her son ruined for ever."

"Ruined?"

"Yes, and through you."

"Will you have the goodness to prove that?"

"I have heard of the wonderful influence you have recently acquired over
Mlle. de Beaumesnil. My son, too, has more confidence in you than he has
in his mother, and if you had been favourably disposed, this marriage,
which had been virtually decided upon, would not have been suddenly
broken off for no apparent reason. Yes, there is a mystery about all
this which you only can solve. And when I think that Gerald, with his
illustrious name, might be the richest landed proprietor in France, but
for you, I am,--well, yes, I am,--the most wretched of women and
mothers, and I positively weep with rage and chagrin, as you see,
monsieur. You are satisfied now, are you not?"

For the proud Duchesse de Senneterre was indeed weeping bitterly.

Had it not been for the deep interest he felt in Gerald and Herminie, M.
de Maillefort, not in the least affected by these absurd tears, would
have turned his back on this haughty and avaricious woman, who naïvely
believed herself the tenderest and most unfortunate of mothers simply
because she had left no means untried to secure her son an immense
fortune and because this scheme of hers had failed; but desiring above
all things to ensure the successful termination of the undertaking
entrusted to him, the marquis allowed this ebullition of grief, which
did not touch him in the least, to pass unnoticed.

"The mystery you speak of is very simple, it seems to me. Gerald and
Mlle. de Beaumesnil like and appreciate each other, but are not the
least bit in love, that is all."

"What has love to do with the matter? Are there not plenty of marriages,
besides those in royal families, made without love?"

"You must know that I have not requested an important interview with you
merely to discuss a question which has been a matter of contention ever
since the world began, viz., which is better, a marriage of convenience
or a love match. We should never come to any agreement; besides, we have
to deal with an accomplished fact: Gerald's marriage with Mlle. de
Beaumesnil is now an impossibility, and you may as well make the best of
it. That young lady's millions will never belong to your son, who, fine
fellow that he is, cares nothing whatever about them."

"Yes, and thanks to such idiotic disinterestedness, or rather such
shameful indifference to enhancing the splendour of their name, the
scions of our most illustrious houses are lapsing into a disgraceful
mediocrity. It was for this very reason that my father and my
husband--by neglecting the means of reestablishing the fortune of which
that infamous revolution stripped us--left my son and my daughters
almost penniless. In the present condition of affairs, I have little
chance of marrying off my daughters, while Gerald, if he were rich,
could help his sisters pecuniarily, and they would thus be able to
secure eligible partis. And you wonder that I am overwhelmed with
despair at the ruin of my plans,--at the destruction of my hope of
securing for my son a fortune suited to his rank!"

"I suppose that you love Gerald after your fashion. It is not a very
commendable fashion, still you do love him, I suppose."

"Yes, I do love him--I love him as I ought to love him, too."

"We will see about that."

"What do you mean, monsieur?"

"In the first place, it is my duty to tell you that Gerald is deeply in
love, and that--"

Madame de Senneterre sprang up out of her armchair, fairly purple with
anger, and, interrupting the hunchback, exclaimed, vehemently:

"It is outrageous! I have suspected it all along! The mystery is cleared
up now. It is my son who has refused, for that little Beaumesnil was
wild about him. I could see that at the ball, and it is you, you,
monsieur, who have had a hand in this abominable intrigue. I will never
see my son again. He has no heart, no soul!"

The marquis had anticipated this explosion, and, without taking the
slightest notice of it, continued:

"You interrupted me, madame. I was about to say that Mlle. de
Beaumesnil, far from being in love with Gerald, entertains a very ardent
affection for another man."

"The bold-faced hussy!" exclaimed the duchess with such naïveté that the
marquis could not help smiling slightly, in spite of his anxiety.

"I also feel it my duty to inform you, madame, that Gerald is in love
with a young girl who is in every respect worthy of his love."

"I beg, monsieur, that you will not say another word to me on the
subject," said Madame de Senneterre, feigning a calmness which the
trembling of her voice grievously belied. "All is ended between my son
and me. He can love whom he pleases and marry whom he pleases, as he is
old enough to dispense with my consent. Let him drag his name through
the mire if he likes. From this day I shall resume my maiden name, and I
shall proclaim high and low and everywhere why I blush to bear a name so
dishonoured and degraded. It is to be hoped that I shall, at least, find
some consolation in my daughters."

To these senseless ravings the marquis replied, quietly and gravely:

"Your son understands his duty towards you very differently from what
you understand yours towards him. He will not even make the formal
request for parental consent on the part of a person who is of legal
age, which is usual in such cases. He will both honour and respect your
wishes to this extent: he will not marry without your consent."

"Indeed!" exclaimed Madame de Senneterre, with a sardonic laugh. "He
really does me this honour?"

"And, in spite of the profound love she cherishes for him, the young
lady he loves will consent to marry him only upon one condition: that
you, madame, go and tell this young lady that you consent to her
marriage with your son."

"This, M. de Maillefort, must be only a jest."

"It is a matter of life or death for your son, madame."

The voice of the marquis and the expression of his face were so full of
earnestness and authority, that Madame de Senneterre, impressed in spite
of herself, cried in alarm:

"What do you mean, monsieur?"

"I mean that you must be a hard-hearted mother if you have not noticed
your son's pallor and almost prostrated condition for several days past.
On the day of the ball at which your son behaved so nobly, did not your
physician tell you that, but for the heroic treatment to which he had
resorted, you would have been in great danger of losing your son by
brain fever?"

Gradually recovering from her alarm, and regretting that she had allowed
herself to display even a momentary solicitude, Madame de Senneterre
retorted, disdainfully:

"Nonsense! A brain fever can be cured by a few bleedings, monsieur, and
one dies of love only in novels, and in very poor novels."

"That is a kind and motherly remark, madame, and to keep it company I
will say to you, with equal coolness, that if, after you have had time
to make proper inquiries and obtain all needful information concerning
the young lady of whom I have spoken, you do not take the step expected
of you--"

"Well, monsieur?"

"Well, madame, your son will kill himself--"

"Yes, as the disappointed lover does in all the thrilling melodramas,"
retorted Madame de Senneterre, with an even shriller laugh.

"I tell you that your son will kill himself, you poor fool!" exclaimed
the marquis, terrible in his earnestness. "I tell you the last Duc de
Senneterre will perish by his own hand like the last Duc de Bretigny!"

This allusion to a recent tragical event, which had been one of the
chief topics of conversation at Madame de Mirecourt's ball, gave the
duchess a severe shock. She knew Gerald's remarkable energy and
determination of character, and consequently knew how much he must
suffer from this hidden grief; besides, she had such a profound respect
for M. de Maillefort, much as she disliked him personally, that she knew
he would be incapable of threatening her with the possibility of
Gerald's suicide if he was not really convinced that such a danger was
imminent, so the now thoroughly frightened woman cried:

"What you say is terrible, monsieur. The house of De Senneterre become
extinct by a suicide!"

The blind pride of race spoke more loudly than maternal love in this
cry.

The proud woman shuddered first chiefly at the thought that the name of
the Senneterres, of that great and illustrious house, might become
extinct through an act that the society in which she moved considered a
crime.

The marquis understood Madame de Senneterre's real feelings so well that
he exclaimed:

"Yes; if you are as blind as you are pitiless, this illustrious name of
Senneterre, often famous and always honoured, will be blotted out for
ever in tears and in blood."

"M. de Maillefort, such an idea is horrible! I know my son is capable of
going to almost any extreme--but no, no, I will not believe that. You
make me shudder! And when I think of the grief and despair and shame of
a family that sees its head end his life by his own rash
act--hold--enough--enough--I should go mad!"

And passing her hand hastily across her brow, covered with big drops of
cold sweat, Madame de Senneterre continued:

"I tell you, monsieur, that I cannot and will not think of such a thing.
But who is this young woman you speak of? Though I am in mortal dread as
to the choice Gerald has made, there is one thing that reassures me a
little. It is that the young woman insists that I shall come and tell
her that I consent to her marriage with my son. For her to dare expect
such a concession from me, she must hold such a social position that I,
at least, have no cause to fear an unworthy love on the part of my son."

"Gerald has placed his affections creditably, even nobly, madame. I have
already had the honour of assuring you of this fact," responded the
marquis, severely, "and usually what I say can be believed."

"That is true, monsieur. Your assurance should satisfy me on that point.
It is not likely that I shall ever have another opportunity to make such
a match as that which I dreamed of for my son; but if the birth and
fortune of the young lady in question are satisfactory, and--"

But here the hunchback interrupted Madame de Senneterre by saying:

"The young lady in question is an orphan. She is a music teacher, and
supports herself by giving lessons."

It is impossible to describe the expression of Madame de Senneterre's
face as the words of the marquis fell upon her ear. Had she experienced
an electric shock, the movement she made could not have been more
convulsive.

"An adventuress, then! The wretched boy, to degrade himself like this!"
she cried. "What a humiliation for me and my daughters!"

And as M. de Maillefort sprang up no less hastily to reply to Madame de
Senneterre, the latter interrupted him by adding:

"And such a creature has the audacity to ask me--me to so degrade myself
as to go to her, the--"

But Madame de Senneterre did not complete the sentence. She had fully
intended to add an opprobrious epithet, but she burst into a shrill,
almost frenzied, laugh instead.

A cold silence following this ebullition of rage, Madame de Senneterre
placed a trembling hand on M. de Maillefort's arm, and said:

"My dear marquis, listen to me. If my unworthy son should come and stand
there,--right before me, do you understand?--and say to me,'I will kill
myself before your very eyes if you refuse your consent,' I should say,
'Kill yourself, then. I would rather see you dead than disgraced. I
would rather your name should die out, than to see it perpetuated to
your dishonour, mine, and that of your sisters.'"

Then seeing the marquis was about to protest, she added:

"M. de Maillefort, I am not in a passion, I am calm, and I am saying
exactly what I mean. I am telling you exactly what I should do, and
after the insulting demand of my son and his accomplice, it is no longer
maternal love or even indifference I feel for him; it is contempt, it is
hatred, yes, hatred, do you hear? Tell him so. All the affection I once
felt for this scoundrel I shall now bestow upon my daughters."

"This woman would do what she says," thought the marquis, with a feeling
of horror. "It is useless to insist further. Reason is no match for such
blind obstinacy as this. This woman, as she says, would watch her son
kill himself before her very eyes unmoved. This is a pride of race that
amounts to the stupid ferocity of the brute. Poor Gerald! Poor
Herminie!"



CHAPTER XXII.

A FINAL VICTORY.


After a moment's silence, during which Madame de Senneterre sat
positively panting with rage at this odious revelation which she could
not yet fully make up her mind to believe, viz., that her son wished to
marry a music teacher who supported herself by her own exertions, M. de
Maillefort said, coldly, and exactly as if the foregoing conversation
had never taken place:

"Madame, what do you think of the nobility and illustriousness of the
house of Haut-Martel?"

At first Madame de Senneterre gazed at the hunchback with evident
surprise, then she said:

"Really, monsieur, this question is most extraordinary."

"And why, madame?"

"What, monsieur, you see me crushed under the blow that has just struck
me, or, rather, that you have just dealt me, unintentionally, no doubt,"
she added, with bitter irony, "and then ask me without rhyme or reason
what I think of the illustriousness of the house of Haut-Martel."

"My question is less extraordinary, as you do not seem to think there
can be the slightest ameliorating circumstance in the blow that has just
overtaken you. So once more I ask, what do you think of the house of
Haut-Martel?"

"There is not an older or more illustrious family in France, you most
know very well, as you are closely connected with it on your father's
side."

"I am now the head of that house, madame."

"You?" exclaimed Madame de Senneterre.

And strange to say the lady's acerbity of manner gave place to a sort of
envious deference for the new representative of this powerful family.

"But I thought that the Prince Duc de Haut-Martel, who has resided on
his estates in Germany since that idiotic revolution of 1830--"

"That Prince Duc de Haut-Martel is dead, madame, and as he had neither
brothers nor children, and as I am his cousin-germain, I inherit his
estates and title."

"Then this event must have occurred very recently."

"I received the first intimation of it through the Austrian ambassador,
and last night I had an official confirmation of the fact."

"So you are now the Marquis de Maillefort, Prince Duc de Haut-Martel?"
said Madame de Senneterre, with mingled admiration and envy.

"Precisely, and without troubling myself very much about it, as you
see."

"But your position is magnificent," exclaimed this monomaniac, quite
forgetting the son whose despair might end in suicide. "Why, you are now
one of the greatest noblemen in France."

"Good Heavens! yes. My newly acquired dignities enable me to aspire to
anything, do they not? And to think that only yesterday I was but a
simple marquis! What a change to-day, is there not? Don't you find my
hump a little smaller since you have heard that I am so great a
nobleman?"

"One should no more sneer at rank than at religion, monsieur."

"Certainly not. There are plenty of other subjects for ridicule. But I
forgot to tell you that the Prince Duc de Haut-Martel left me estates in
Hungary which yield a yearly income of about fifty thousand crowns,
free of all incumbrances."

"One hundred and fifty thousand francs! Why, though no one knows the
exact amount of your fortune, you are supposed to be very rich already,
monsieur," replied Madame de Senneterre, with a sort of jealous envy.

"I scarcely know the exact amount of my income, myself," said the
hunchback, "for my tenants, poor souls! pay me only when they can do so
without too great an effort; but even in the worst of times I can
generally count upon at least sixty thousand francs a year, to say
nothing of the fact--of course, this is little more than an empty
honour--that the electors of the arrondissement in which my estates are
located propose to do me the honour of making me their deputy, their
former representative having recently died; so you see that wealth and
honours are falling upon me thick as hail."

"Then you have an income of more than two hundred thousand francs, and
are Prince Duc de Haut-Martel and--"

"Prospective deputy, besides. Don't forget that."

"Your position is certainly a very enviable one."

"Yes, and with my figure and appearance I can aspire to the most
beautiful woman in the land, can I not? Say, what a pity it is that
Mlle. de Beaumesnil is in love with a handsome young man! But for that,
I might have married her myself."

A new thought suddenly occurred to Madame de Senneterre, and after a
moment's reflection the avaricious creature, casting a keen glance at M.
de Maillefort, said:

"I think I understand you, M. le marquis."

"Let me see if you do."

"The question you asked me just now as to what I thought of the house of
Haut-Martel was intended to suggest a sort of compensation for the
terrible disappointment my unworthy son has caused me."

"You are right, madame."

"And as you have unexpectedly become the head of an illustrious house,
you do not want it to become extinct."

"There is some truth in that, also," replied the hunchback, not a little
surprised at Madame de Senneterre's penetration, though he was far from
suspecting the lady's real thought.

"Yes, I admit that I would not like the name to die out, madame," he
added, after a slight pause.

"And as you know that only a carefully reared girl of noble birth would
be capable of bearing this noble name as it should be borne, and of
understanding the sacred obligations she would have to fulfil towards
the man to whom she owed such a magnificent position, you are thinking
of my eldest daughter,--and believe you can thus offer me an adequate
compensation for the misery my son's insubordination has caused me."

"I! marry?" exclaimed the hunchback, even more revolted than surprised
by Madame de Senneterre's heartless proposal.

But anxious to see how far the blindness, hardness of heart, and love of
greed would carry this cruel parent, he responded with one of those half
way refusals that seem to be made only in the hope of seeing them
overcome.

"I think of such a marriage! Besides, even if I did, would there be any
possibility of compassing it? Think of it, madame, at my age and
deformed as I am, while your daughter Bertha is a charming girl of
barely twenty. She would laugh in my face and she would do perfectly
right."

"You are mistaken, monsieur," replied this incomparable parent, gravely.
"In the first place, Mlle. de Senneterre has been reared in habits of
respect and submission from which I feel sure she will never depart.
Besides, she knows that she is poor, and that she would never be likely
to attain another position to be compared with that you offer her."

"But again let me remind you that I am old and ugly and a hunchback
besides."

"M. le marquis, my daughters have been brought up in such a way that
they would not dare to so much as look at the husband I select for them
until the marriage ceremony is over."

"A pleasant surprise you would give the poor child that married me!"

"I repeat, M. le marquis, that my daughters have not those lewd
imaginations that are capable only of a carnal appreciation of a
husband. If I tell my daughter my wishes, that will suffice."

"I am strongly inclined to tell this heartless, unscrupulous woman what
I think of her," the hunchback said to himself; "but what should I gain
by it? She is an egregious fool, and there is nothing for me to do but
answer the fool according to her folly."

So seeing that Madame de Senneterre was awaiting his reply with keen
anxiety, the marquis said:

"You said a few minutes ago, and very sensibly, I think, that one should
no more speak lightly of rank than of religion, did you not?"

"Yes, M. le marquis."

"You will admit, too, probably, that it is equally wrong to treat
marriage lightly."

"Certainly, M. le marquis."

"Then allow me to say that your desire to see your daughter Bertha
Princesse de Haut-Martel would result in nothing more or less than a
cruel mockery of religion, nobility of rank, and marriage,--three sacred
things, as you call them."

"How is that, monsieur?"

"Mlle. de Senneterre would outrage all the laws of marriage and
religion, or rather of nature and the Creator, which is even worse, by
pledging love and fidelity to an old hunchback like me; and I, in turn,
would bring disgrace and ridicule upon the nobility in general, and upon
the houses of Senneterre and Haut-Martel in particular, by running any
risk of perpetuating their illustrious line with a set of hideous little
hunchbacks made in my image. They might serve as convincing proof of my
wife's resignation and faithfulness, but they would certainly give the
world a droll opinion of our great historic races."

"Really, M. le marquis--I--"

"You are going to cite Prince Eugène, possibly, as an example for me,
and I ought, perhaps, to feel greatly flattered by the comparison, but
it would not be well to impair the lustre of such rarities by
multiplying them. I am extremely grateful to you for your kind offer,
and Mlle. Bertha, believe me, will be equally grateful to me for having
declined it. It depends entirely upon you, however, whether a union of
our two powerful houses is realised or not, and also whether this income
of two hundred thousand francs is allowed to go out of your family. I
make haste to assure you that I am too thoroughly convinced of my own
unworthiness to venture to lift my eyes to you, madame la duchesse,"
added the hunchback, with a low, though decidedly ironical bow. "In the
first place I should make you the most detestable husband in the world,
and then I have no inclination for marriage."

"It is hardly necessary to decline with such alacrity a proposition that
has never been made to you," replied the Duchesse de Senneterre, rather
spitefully. "You would oblige me by explaining yourself more clearly,
however, for I never was good at solving enigmas. You are kind enough to
speak of a union of our two houses, and of preventing your fortune from
going out of my family, but I haven't the slightest idea how you propose
to bring these things about."

"First permit me to say--not at all by way of reproach, understand--that
you were not so very difficult to please in regard to lineage when
Gerald's marriage with Mlle. de Beaumesnil was under consideration.
Beaumesnil is not an aristocratic name by any means,--the grandfather of
the late count, though a highly respected man, was simply M. Joseph
Vert-Puis, a very wealthy banker."

"I know perfectly well that Mlle. Vert-Puis de Beaumesnil is a mere
nobody, so far as birth is concerned, but--"

"But the numerous millions gild this recently ennobled plebeian, do they
not? Very well, though that number of millions may have to be divided by
four or five, what would you say to a notice couched in the following
terms:

"M. le Marquis de Maillefort, Prince Duc de Haut-Martel, etc., etc., has
the honour to inform you of the marriage of Mlle. Herminie de
Haut-Martel, with M. le Duc de Senneterre."

Madame de Senneterre, surprised beyond expression, gazed wonderingly at
the hunchback, who continued:

"The marriage contract stipulates that all male children that may be
born of this marriage shall take the name of Senneterre-Haut-Martel,
which I fancy will sound quite as well as Noailles-Noailles,
Rohan-Rochefort, or Montmorency-Luxembourg, and as Mlle. Herminie
Haut-Martel is an only child, and I am very frugal in my tastes, the
young couple will have, up to the time of my death, one hundred and
fifty thousand francs a year to sustain their exalted rank in a suitable
manner."

"I really do not understand you at all, M. de Maillefort. You have never
been married, and you have no daughter."

"No, but what is there to prevent me from adopting one, and thus giving
her my name and fortune?"

"Nothing, of course. But who are the parents of this girl you
contemplate adopting?"

"She is an orphan, and, as I told you before, she is a music teacher,
and supports herself by giving lessons."

"What!" exclaimed Madame de Senneterre, "that same creature Gerald is
crazy about?"

"Enough, madame," said the marquis, sternly. "I will not permit any one
to speak in that way in my presence of a young lady whom I love and
esteem sufficiently to give her my name."

"But what you say is so strange--"

"Strange or not, do you accept my proposal, yes or no?"

"Accept--monsieur? Accept for a daughter-in-law--a--a person who has
given music lessons for a living?"

"Such sensitiveness on your part is truly heroic, doubtless, but I must
call your attention to the fact that your son has little or nothing, and
that Mlle. Herminie de Maillefort, though she has done such a scandalous
thing as to earn an honest living, would bring M. de Senneterre two
hundred thousand francs a year, and an alliance with the Haut-Martel
family. I also take the liberty of reminding you that your son will
probably kill himself if he does not marry this young lady. I know you
would rather see him dead than married to some one beneath him, for the
mother of the Gracchi is not to be compared with you, so far as stoicism
is concerned, but it is none the less certain that the extinction of the
house of Senneterre in such a fashion would cause a frightful scandal,
which would, I think, be even worse than a _mésalliance_, especially
when a Senneterre makes a _mésalliance_ with a Maillefort de
Haut-Martel."

"But, monsieur, every one will know that this young person is only your
adopted child."

"All I can say in reply to that objection, madame, is that I, myself,
could never have had so beautiful, so affectionate, and so truly noble a
child."

"You know her well, then?"

"You certainly ask a singular question, madame. What! can you believe
that I--being the man you know me to be--would give my name to a person
who would not be an honour to that name?"

"But, monsieur," exclaimed Madame de Senneterre, in a tone of sorrowful
reproach, "there can be no denying the fact that your adopted daughter
has been a--a professional artiste."

"My adopted daughter, will, indeed, have the terrible misfortune to be
and to have been a musical artiste of a high order. This is truly
deplorable. I weep--I mourn--I bewail the fact. But, alas! you know the
proverb, 'The prettiest girl in the world has some fault.'"

"And her patrons, do they belong to our set?"

"No, she is too proud for that."

"_Mon Dieu!_ marquis, you place me in a very embarrassing position."

"I shall be able to put an end to this perplexity, I think. Listen
attentively," continued M. de Maillefort, no longer in an ironical
manner, but in firm, even stern tones. "I tell you plainly, once for
all, that, if you refuse your consent, I shall go straight to Herminie,
tell her exactly, what I intend to do for her, and prove to her that
though, as a nameless and penniless girl, her dignity demanded the
advances she asked from you, lest it might be said that she had forced
herself upon the Senneterre family from ambitious or mercenary motives,
as the adopted child of M. de Maillefort, who brings an illustrious name
and a fortune of two hundred thousand francs a year to her husband, she
need feel no such scruples. As Herminie adores Gerald, and my reasoning
is perfectly just and sensible, I think, in fact I am sure, that she
will be guided by me. Your son will make the usual formal application
for your consent, and then there is nothing more to be said."

"Monsieur--"

"It will pain Gerald a good deal, I am sure, to have to dispense with
your consent, for he loves you--blindly--that is the proper word to use
in this connection; but in order to spare him all remorse, I shall
repeat your words to him, madame: 'I had rather see him dead, than
married to one beneath him.' Atrocious, or, rather, senseless words,
when I, myself, assured you that Gerald could not find a wife more
worthy of him than the one he has chosen!"

"You surely would not create discord between my son and me, monsieur."

"I shall certainly do everything in my power to ensure Gerald's peace of
mind and happiness, since you are so stubborn and opinionated as to be
willing to sacrifice both to your absurd prejudices--"

"That expression, monsieur--"

"These prejudices are not only absurd, madame, but after the adoption I
propose, there is no longer even an excuse for them. One word more. If
you have the good sense to prefer to live in peace and on affectionate
terms with your son, and spare yourself, as well as him, a most
deplorable scandal, you will go to Herminie's home to-morrow--any
further inquiries being entirely unnecessary after what I have told you
about her."

"I--monsieur--I, go first to the home of this young person?"

"You will be obliged to degrade yourself to that extent, the degradation
being the more terrible, as Herminie, for certain reasons, must remain
ignorant of my intention of adopting her until after your visit. So it
will be to Mlle. Herminie, the poor music teacher, that you will go to
give your consent to her marriage with your son."

"Never, monsieur, never will I so lower myself as to do this thing."

"But remember that there is nothing really humiliating about this step,
and that no one will witness it but me, for I shall be there at the
time."

"I tell you that it is impossible, monsieur. Never will I subject myself
to such a humiliation."

"Then, instead of making your son adore you by consenting to a thing you
cannot prevent, Gerald will know exactly what your affection is worth,
and dispense with your consent entirely."

"But you cannot expect me to come to such an important decision in a
moment, as it were."

"So be it, madame. I will give you until to-morrow noon. I will call
then to hear your decision, and, if it conforms alike to the dictates of
common sense and maternal love, I will precede you by a few moments to
Herminie's home, in order that I may be there when you arrive. If you do
not agree to this, I declare to you that your son will be married in
less than six weeks."

Having said this, the marquis bowed low to Madame de Senneterre, and
walked straight out of the room.

"I am satisfied that the egregious simpleton will do what I ask," he
said to himself, "for her ambition and her avarice will both be so
thoroughly gratified by this marriage that she will forget that
objectionable feature,--the adoption. Besides, by one of those strange
contradictions we so often see in poor, frail human nature, this woman,
who in her obstinacy would drive her son to suicide, is as jealous of
his affection as if she were the tenderest and most devoted of mothers;
and, understanding how Gerald will adore her if she pretends to give a
free consent to his marriage, she will go to Herminie, I am sure of it.

"But, alas! the game is only half won so far as I am concerned," mused
the hunchback. "Will Herminie, who is so proud, consent to become my
adopted child, when she knows the advantages which this adoption will
give her, and which alone decided Madame de Senneterre to take the
initiative? I am very much afraid that she will not. Did I not see how
uncomfortable she felt when Ernestine insisted, not that she should
share her wealth, but merely give up her lessons and remain with her?
And yet, she perhaps knows that Ernestine is her sister, for I can doubt
it no longer,--Herminie is, and knows she is, the daughter of Madame de
Beaumesnil.

"Under these circumstances will Herminie, proud and sensitive as she is,
accept my offer? I am by no means certain of it, though I told Gerald's
mother so in order to frighten her. That, too, is the reason I desired
that the marriage should be definitely arranged before I broached the
subject of adoption at all. But I found that could not be managed.
Madame de Senneterre would have seen her son kill himself in her
presence rather than consent to a _mésalliance_ with a poor girl without
name or fortune. All I have been able to do is, perhaps, to induce
Madame de Senneterre to make the desired advances to Herminie,--the poor
orphan and music teacher. Afterwards we will see."

"I shall now go straight to M. de la Rochaiguë. Having done all I can
for Herminie, I must now see what I can do for Ernestine. I shall have
to take the baron unawares, for, in his exasperation against me as the
fell destroyer of his hopes of a seat in the Senate, he will refuse to
see me, but, with Ernestine's aid, I shall be able to surprise him, I
think, and, fortunately for my plans, he is much more stupid than
wicked."

And M. de Maillefort, reëntering his carriage, was driven to M. de la
Rochaiguë's house.



CHAPTER XXIII.

A TEMPTING BAIT.


M. de Maillefort, having asked to see Mlle. de Beaumesnil, was conducted
straight to Ernestine's apartments.

"Have you some good news for Herminie?" cried Ernestine, hastening
forward to meet him.

"A little, I think."

"How glad I am! Can I tell Herminie when I see her what you have just
told me?"

"Yes; tell her to hope, and yet not to expect too much. And now, as you
seem to have forgotten all about yourself, I will add that the result of
my inquiries concerning M. Olivier has been eminently satisfactory."

"I was sure it would be."

"I even discovered one rather strange fact. It is that, while he was
working during his leave so he might be able to assist his uncle, he
went down to Beaumesnil, your estate near Luzarches, to help a
contractor with his estimates there."

"M. Olivier? That was, indeed, strange."

"And this circumstance suggested a plan which I think may prove a good
one, for now I think, with you, that you could not have made a wiser
choice, but--"

"But what?"

"It is such an important matter that I have thought one more test might
be advisable. What is your opinion on the subject?"

"Try it; I have no fears."

"Besides, you shall witness it yourself, my dear child. If M. Olivier
withstands it, you will be the proudest and happiest of women, and there
can be no further doubt of your future happiness. If, on the contrary,
he succumbs, it will, alas! only be a fresh proof that the noblest
natures sometimes yield to certain temptations. This test, too, will
have another and very important result."

"And what is that?"

"After this test M. Olivier can not feel the slightest scruples about
marrying the richest heiress in France, and you know, my dear child,
that you have some very grave apprehensions on that score."

"Ah, monsieur, you are, indeed, our good angel!"

"Wait a little, my child. Don't praise me too soon. Now, one thing more.
Didn't you tell me that there was a back stairway that led up to your
guardian's rooms?"

"Yes, monsieur, several of his intimate friends, who are never formally
announced, always make use of it mornings."

"Very well; I propose to play the part of an intimate friend myself,
then, and give the baron a surprise. Show me the way, my child."

As they were passing through Madame Laîné's room, Ernestine paused and
said to the hunchback:

"I have always forgotten to tell you how I managed to leave the house
unobserved the night I went to Madame Herbaut's party, M. de Maillefort.
That door you see over there opens upon another back stairway that leads
down to the street. The door at the foot of it was nailed up a long time
ago, but my governess succeeded in opening it, and it was through that
door we left the house and entered it."

"Has this door been securely nailed up again?" inquired the hunchback,
thoughtfully.

"My governess told me that she had fastened it securely on the inside."

"My dear child, your governess is an unprincipled woman. She assisted
you in making your escape from the house and also favoured your long
visits to Herminie. No matter how reprehensible your motives had been,
she would have obeyed you just the same, so she is not to be trusted."

"I have no confidence in her, of course, M. de Maillefort, and, as soon
as I can, I intend to pay her liberally, as I promised, and send her
away."

"This door, which affords such easy access to your apartments and which
is so entirely at this woman's disposal, seems to me a very bad thing,"
remarked the hunchback. "You had better tell your guardian to-day that
you have discovered this door, and ask him to have it walled up as soon
as possible, or else give you some other room."

"I will do as you say, monsieur, but what fears can you have on the
subject?"

"I have no well-founded fears at all, my dear child. I consider the
walling up of this door as, first, a matter of propriety, and
subsequently as a matter of prudence. There is nothing in this to alarm
you in the least. Now, au revoir. I am going to have a bout with your
guardian, and hope to have some good news for you on my return."

A moment afterwards M. de Maillefort had reached the floor above. Seeing
a key in the lock of the door in front of him, he opened this door, and,
finding himself in a narrow passage, he followed this passage until he
came to a second door, which he opened like the first and found himself
in M. de la Rochaiguë's study.

That gentleman was seated with his back to the door, reading, in the
morning paper, an account of the proceedings during the session of the
Chamber of Peers the day before. Hearing the door open, he turned his
head and saw the hunchback, who came briskly, even gaily, forward, and,
giving him a friendly nod of the head, exclaimed, blithely:

"Good morning, my dear baron, good morning!"

M. de la Rochaiguë was too much astounded to utter a word.

Leaning back in his armchair, his hands still clutching the paper, he
sat like one petrified, though his eyes were full of surprise and anger.

"You see, my dear baron, I am assuming all the privileges of an intimate
friend and making myself quite at home," continued the hunchback, in the
same jovial, almost affectionate tone, as he seated himself in an
armchair near the fireplace.

M. de la Rochaiguë was fairly purple with rage by this time, but, having
a wholesome fear of the marquis, he controlled his wrath as best he
could, and said, rising abruptly:

"It seems incredible, unheard of, outrageous, that--that I should have
your presence thus forced upon me, monsieur, after that scene the other
evening, and--and--"

"My dear baron, excuse me, but if I had requested the honour of an
interview, you would have refused it, would you not?"

"Most assuredly I should, monsieur, for--"

"So I very wisely decided to take you by surprise. Now do me the favour
to sit down, and let us talk this matter over like a couple of friends."

"Friends? You have the audacity to say that, monsieur; you, who ever
since I first had the misfortune to know you, have fairly hounded me
with sneers and sarcasms which--which I have returned in kind," added
the baron, with true parliamentary aplomb. "A friend? you, monsieur, who
have just outdone yourself by--"

"My dear baron," said the hunchback, interrupting M. de la Rochaiguë
afresh, "did you ever see an amusing comedy by Scribe, called 'A Woman's
Hatred'?"

"I am unable to see any connection--"

"But you will, my dear baron. In this little play, a young and pretty
woman seems to pursue with the bitterest animosity a young man, whom in
her secret heart she adores."

"And what of that, may I ask?"

"Well, my dear baron, with this slight difference, viz., that you are
not a young man, and I am not a pretty woman who adores you, our
relative positions are exactly the same as those of the hero and heroine
in Scribe's little comedy."

"Once more, monsieur, I--"

"My dear baron, one question, if you please. Have you political
aspirations,--yes, or no?"

"Monsieur--"

"Oh, put all false modesty aside and answer me frankly. Do you consider
yourself a politician or not?"

On hearing this allusion to his pet hobby, the poor baron, forgetting
his resentment, puffed out his cheeks, and, slipping his left hand in
the bosom of his dressing-gown while he gesticulated with his right,
assumed a parliamentary attitude and majestically responded:

"If a most profound, extended, and conscientious study of the internal
and external condition of France, if a certain aptitude for public
speaking, and a devoted love of country constitute a politician, I might
reasonably aspire to that rôle. Yes, and but for you, monsieur,--but for
your outrageous attack upon M. de Mornand,--I might not only aspire to,
but assume that rôle at an early day."

"True, my dear baron, and I must confess that it was with unutterable
satisfaction that I killed two birds with one stone by preventing a base
and corrupt man like M. de Mornand from marrying your ward, and at the
same time preventing you from becoming a peer of France."

"Yes, from satisfying my ridiculous ambition, as you have told me to my
face more than once, monsieur, and I repel the insulting aspersion with
scorn and disdain. There is nothing ridiculous about my ambition,
monsieur."

"It is ridiculous in every respect, my dear baron."

"Have you come here to insult me, monsieur?"

"Do you know why your ambition is ridiculous and out of place, my dear
baron? It is because you long for a field of labour in which your
political talents will be entirely wasted, completely swallowed up, so
to speak."

"What, monsieur, can it be you that I hear speaking of my political
talents when you have never neglected an opportunity to sneer at them?"

"A 'Woman's Hatred,' my dear baron, a 'Woman's Hatred'!"

And as M. de la Rochaiguë gazed at the hunchback with a bewildered air,
the latter gentleman continued:

"You know, of course, that you and I belong to the same political party,
my dear baron."

"I was not aware of that fact, monsieur; still, it should not surprise
me. Persons of exalted rank are inevitably the born, immutable, and
unwavering advocates, champions, and representatives of the traditions
of the past."

"And it is for this very reason that I am so bitterly opposed to your
holding a seat in the Chamber of Peers, my dear baron."

"You amaze me greatly, infinitely, prodigiously, monsieur," said the
baron, hanging upon his visitor's words with breathless eagerness now.

"Can it be that M. de la Rochaiguë is really so blind, or that this
mistake is due to bad advisers? I have said to myself again and again.
He must, with reason, desire to bring about a return to the traditions
of the past, and there cannot be the slightest doubt that he possesses
many of the requisites to effect such a consummation: birth, talents, an
extended knowledge of political affairs, and antecedents entirely free
of any troublesome entanglements--"

When this enumeration of his political qualifications began, M. de la
Rochaiguë might have been seen to smile almost imperceptibly, but when
the hunchback paused to take breath, the baron's long teeth were exposed
to view.

Noting this sure sign of internal satisfaction, the marquis continued:

"And where does the baron propose to bury all these talents? In the
Upper Chamber, which is already filled to overflowing with members of
the aristocracy. What will be the result? Why, in spite of his talents,
this unfortunate baron will be completely swallowed up in this
overwhelming majority. He will necessarily, too, be regarded as a mere
dummy or tool, as he will owe his political position to party favour,
and his energetic plainness of speech as well as the--the--pray give me
the word, baron--the ardour of his impassioned oratory will be hampered
by personal obligations."

"But why do you tell me all this at this late day, monsieur?" exclaimed
the baron, in tones of heartfelt reproach.

But the marquis, without giving any sign of having heard the baron's
question, continued:

"How different it would be if this unfortunate baron began his political
career in the Chamber of Deputies! He would not enter that body by
favour, but by a public election--by the will of the people. Under these
circumstances, how forcible the words of this energetic and faithful
representative of the traditions of the past would become! It could not
be said of him: 'Your opinion is that of the favoured class to which you
belong.' Far from it, for the baron could reply, and justly: 'No, my
views are the views of the nation, as it is the nation that sent me
here.'"

"What you say is true, perfectly true, monsieur, but why did you defer
telling me so long?"

"Why, baron? Why, because you manifested such a deep distrust and such
an intense antipathy to me."

"On the contrary, it was you, marquis, who seemed to pursue me with
relentless cruelty."

"Very possibly, for I was continually saying to myself: 'Ah, if the
baron is so blind as to neglect the opportunity to play such a
magnificent rôle, he shall bear the penalty of it. I will give him no
peace.' Nor have I; but when the time came to prevent you from
committing such a fatal blunder--I did it."

"But marquis, permit me to say--"

"You do not belong to yourself, monsieur, you belong to your party, and
the injury you do yourself will reflect upon the other members of your
party. You are consequently an egotist, a heartless--"

"One word, monsieur, one word."

"Ambitious man who prefers to owe his position to political favour
rather than to a public election."

"You talk very lightly of a public election, monsieur. Do you believe
that a seat in either political body can be secured so easily, no matter
how well fitted the person may be to fill such a position? (In speaking
in this way of myself, I am only repeating your words, remember.) You
may not be aware that I have been trying to secure a seat in the Chamber
of Peers ten years, monsieur."

"Nonsense! You could be a deputy in less than a month if you chose."

"I?"

"Yes, you, Baron de la Rochaiguë."

"I, a deputy! That would be magnificent, marquis, for you have opened my
eyes to the vast, immense, infinite field of labour that would lie
before me. But how could I secure an election?"

"It so happens that the electors of the district where my estates are
situated desire to confer the honour of representing them upon me."

"You, M. le marquis?"

"Yes, I! Just imagine what an idea people will form of those worthy
fellows down there from their representative. People will fancy when
they see me that I am the envoy of a colony founded by Punchinello."

This lively sally excited considerable hilarity on the part of the
baron, who manifested it as usual by displaying his long teeth several
times.

"If my district was located in a mountainous country, there might be
some sense in my election," continued the marquis, indicating his hump
by a laughing gesture, to keep the baron in good humour, doubtless.

"Really, marquis," exclaimed M. de la Rochaiguë, much amused, "you
certainly do the honours of yourself with wonderful grace and wit."

"Then shout, 'Long live my hump!' my dear baron, for you little know
what you--no, our party--will perhaps owe to it!"

"I--our party--owe anything to your--" the baron hesitated--"to your--to
your gibbosity."

"Gibbosity is a remarkably well chosen word, baron. You were evidently
born for the tribune, and, as I said before, you can be a deputy in less
than a month if you choose."

"Once more may I beg you to explain, marquis."

"Nothing could be simpler. Be a deputy in my stead."

"You are jesting."

"Not at all. I should only make the Chamber laugh. You will hold it
captive by your eloquence, and our party will consequently be much the
gainer by the change. I will introduce you to three or four delegates
who have been chosen by my constituents, and who really control the
elections down there, and I am sure I shall have little or no difficulty
in persuading them to accept you in my stead. I will write to them this
afternoon; day after to-morrow they will be here, and by the following
day everything will be settled."

"Really, marquis, I scarcely know whether I am awake or dreaming. You,
whom I have hitherto regarded as a bitter enemy--"

"Only a 'Woman's Hatred,' you know--or, if you like it better, the
'Hatred of a Political Friend.'"

"It seems inconceivable."

"So even as I ruined your absurd plans for securing a peerage at the
same time that I prevented you from marrying your ward to an
unprincipled scoundrel, I now propose to make you a deputy, and at the
same time secure your consent to her marriage with a worthy young man
who loves her, and whom she loves in return."

On hearing this announcement, M. de la Rochaiguë moved uneasily in his
chair, cast a suspicious look at the marquis, and answered, coldly:

"I have been your dupe, I see, M. le marquis; I fell into the trap like
a fool."

"What trap, my dear baron?"

"Your pretended anger at the course my political aspirations had taken,
your flattery, your proposal to make me a deputy in your stead, all
conceal an ulterior motive. Fortunately, I divine it--I unmask it--I
unveil it."

"You are sure to become Minister of Foreign Affairs, baron, if you
manifest like perspicuity in political matters."

"A truce to pleasantries, monsieur."

"So be it, monsieur. You must believe one of two things: I am either
mocking you by pretending to take your political aspirations seriously,
or else I really see in you the stuff from which statesmen are made. It
is for you to decide which of these hypotheses is the correct one. Now,
to state the case simply but clearly, your ward has made an admirable
choice, as I will prove to you. Consent to this marriage, and I will
have you elected deputy. That is the bright side of the medal."

"Ah, there are two sides?" sneered the baron.

"Naturally. I have shown you the good side; this is the bad: You and
your wife and sister have grossly abused the trust confided to you--"

"Monsieur--"

"Oh, I can prove it. All three of you have either favoured or been
personally mixed up in the most abominable intrigues, of which Mlle. de
Beaumesnil was to be the victim. I repeat that I have abundant proofs of
this fact, and Mlle. de Beaumesnil herself will unite with me in
exposing these nefarious schemes."

"And to whom do you propose to denounce us, if you please?"

"To the members of the family council which Mlle. de Beaumesnil will
convoke at once. You can guess what the result of such a proceeding will
be. Your appointment as guardian will be annulled, forthwith."

"We will see about that! We will see about that, monsieur!"

"You will certainly have an admirable chance to see about it. Now
choose. Consent to this marriage and you are a deputy. Refuse your
consent, there will be a frightful scandal; you will be deprived of your
guardianship, and all your ambitious hopes will be blighted for ever!"

"Ah, you censure me for having desired to marry my ward in a way that
might benefit me personally, and yet you--you propose to do the same
thing you censure me for, yourself."

"There is not the slightest justice in your comparison, my dear sir. You
were trying to marry your ward to a scoundrel; I want to marry her to an
honourable man, and I offer you a certain price for your consent,
because you have proved to me that it is necessary to give a certain
price for your consent."

"And why, if the person you have selected for Mlle. de Beaumesnil is a
suitable person?"

"The husband I have suggested, and that Mlle. de Beaumesnil desires, is
a perfectly honourable man--"

"And his fortune, social position, etc.,--these are all that can be
desired, I suppose."

"He is a lieutenant in the army, without either name or fortune, but he
is one of the bravest and most honest men I know. He loves Ernestine,
and she loves him in return. What objection have you to offer?"

"What objection have I to offer? A mere nobody, whose only possessions
are his cloak and sword, marry the richest heiress in France! Never. Do
you hear me? Never will I consent to such an unequal marriage! M. de
Mornand at least had a fair prospect of becoming a minister, an
ambassador, or president of the Chamber, monsieur."

"So you see, baron, I was very wise to offer you a handsome price for
your consent."

"But according to you, monsieur, in thus allowing myself to be
influenced by motives of personal aggrandisement, I should be acting
very--"

"Disgracefully. Still, that does not matter, provided Ernestine's
happiness can be assured."

"And it is a person capable of an act you consider so dishonourable that
you dare to propose to the electors of your district as their
representative!" exclaimed the baron, triumphantly. "You would so abuse
their confidence as to give them, as a representative of our party, a
man who--"

"In the first place, the electors in question are a parcel of fools, my
dear sir; besides, I do not interfere with their right of suffrage in
the least. They imagine, because I am a marquis, that I should be just
as fanatical a partisan of church and throne as their late deputy. They
even told me that, in case of my refusal, they should consider it a
favour if I would designate some other suitable person. I offer them as
a candidate a man of their own party, perfectly capable of representing
them. (It is not very high praise, my dear baron, to say that you are
at least as gifted a man as their deceased deputy.) The rest is for you
to decide, for I need not tell you that I was only jesting a few minutes
ago when I said that your political sentiments and mine were identical.
It was merely a means of paving the way to the offer which I have made,
and which I reiterate. And now, you will, perhaps, ask me why, if I feel
confident of my ability to compel you to resign your guardianship of
Mlle. de Beaumesnil, I do not do it."

"I should like to ask you that very plain question, monsieur," responded
the baron.

"My explanation will be very simple, my dear sir. It is because I do not
believe there is, among the other persons to whom this guardianship is
likely to be entrusted, any man with sense and heart enough to
understand why the richest heiress in France might be permitted to marry
a brave and honourable man without either rank or fortune. So, as I
should have the same difficulty to contend with in another guardian, but
not have the same effectual means of coercing him, perhaps, such a
change might injure rather than aid my plans, besides ruining you
irretrievably. Now reflect, and make your choice. I shall expect to see
you at my house to-morrow morning, not later than ten o'clock."

And the marquis departed, leaving M. de la Rochaiguë in a state of
painful perplexity.



CHAPTER XXIV.

AN UNCONDITIONAL SURRENDER.


Three days had elapsed since M. de Maillefort's interviews with Madame
de Senneterre and M. de la Rochaiguë, and Herminie, alone in her pretty
room, seemed a prey to the keenest anxiety; for every now and then she
cast an impatient glance at the clock, or started at the slightest
sound, or turned hastily towards the door.

In fact, one could discern in the face of the duchess an anxiety fully
equal to that which she had experienced some time before, while in
momentary expectation of the much dreaded M. Bouffard's coming.

And yet it was not a visit from M. Bouffard, but from M. de Maillefort,
that caused the girl's agitation.

The flowers in the pretty little room had just been renewed, and the
muslin curtains at the windows that overlooked the garden had been
freshly laundered. These windows were open, but the green outside
shutters were closed to keep out the glare.

After setting her house in order with scrupulous care, the duchess had
evidently made an unusually careful toilet, for she had donned her best
dress, a high-necked, black levantine, with chemisette and sleeves of
dazzling whiteness. Her sole ornament was her magnificent hair, which
gleamed like burnished gold in the sun-light, but never had her beauty
seemed more noble and touching in its character, for, for some time
past, her face had been paler, though her complexion had lost none of
its dazzling clearness.

The duchess had just given another quick glance at the door, when she
fancied she heard a footstep outside, near the window that overlooked
the garden, and she was about to rise and satisfy her doubts, when the
door opened, and Madame Moufflon ushered in M. de Maillefort.

That gentleman was hardly in the room, however, before he turned and
said to the portress:

"A lady will come and ask to see Mlle. Herminie, in a few moments--you
will admit her."

"Yes, monsieur," replied Madame Moufflon, deferentially, as she took her
departure.

On hearing the words, "A lady will come and ask to see Mlle. Herminie,"
the girl sprang forward hastily, exclaiming:

"_Mon Dieu!_ M. le marquis,--this lady--whom you expect--?"

"Is she!" replied the marquis, radiant with joy and hope. "Yes, she is
coming at last!"

Then, seeing Herminie turn as pale as death and tremble violently in
every limb, the hunchback cried:

"What is the matter, my child? Tell me, what is the matter?"

"Ah, monsieur," said the duchess, faintly, "I don't know why, but now,
oh, I feel so afraid!"

"Afraid! when Madame de Senneterre has pledged herself to make the
concession which you were very right to ask, but which you had little
hope that she would ever grant!"

"Alas! monsieur, now, for the first time, I seem to understand the
temerity, the impropriety, perhaps, of my demand."

"My dear child," exclaimed the hunchback, anxiously, "no weakness, I
beg, or you will lose all. Be your own noble, charming self, the
personification of modesty without humility, and of dignity without
arrogance, and all will be well,--I trust."

"Ah, monsieur, when you told me yesterday that there was a possibility
of this visit from Madame de Senneterre, I thought my cup of joy would
be filled to overflowing, if this hope should be realised, and now I
feel only the most abject terror and alarm."

"Here she comes! Summon up all your courage, my child, for God's sake,
and think of Gerald!" exclaimed the hunchback, hearing a carriage stop
at the door.

"Oh, monsieur, have pity on me," murmured the duchess, clutching M. de
Maillefort's hand convulsively. "Oh, I shall never dare--"

"Poor child! she is going to ruin her prospects, I fear," thought the
marquis.

Almost at that very instant the door opened, and Madame de Senneterre
entered.

She was a tall and slender woman, with an exceedingly haughty manner,
and she came into the room with head high in the air, an insolent gleam
in her eyes, and a disdainful smile upon her lips. She had an unusually
high colour, and seemed to find it difficult to control her feelings.

The fact is, Madame de Senneterre was violently agitated by conflicting
emotions. This ridiculously proud and arrogant woman had left her home
firmly resolved to make the concession towards Herminie which M. de
Maillefort demanded, and in return for which he had promised to adopt
the young girl.

Madame de Senneterre had consequently resolved that during this visit,
which cost her pride so much, her demeanour should be scrupulously,
though coldly, polite; but as the moment for the interview approached,
and as this arrogant woman reflected that she, the Duchesse de
Senneterre, was about to present herself as a petitioner at the home of
an obscure young girl, who worked for her living, the implacable pride
of the grande dame revolted at the thought. Anger filled her heart, she
lost her head, and, forgetting the advantages her son would derive from
this marriage, forgetting that, after all, it was the adopted daughter
of the Prince Duc de Haut-Martel she was about to visit, and not the
poor music teacher, Madame de Senneterre reached Herminie's home with no
intention of adopting any conciliatory measures, but resolved to treat
this insolent creature, who had been so audacious in her pretensions, as
she deserved to be treated.

On seeing the haughtiness, aggressiveness, and anger so legibly
imprinted on Madame de Senneterre's features, the marquis, no less
surprised than alarmed, understood the sudden change which had taken
place in the intentions of Gerald's mother, and said to himself,
despairingly:

"All is lost!"

As for Herminie, she did not seem to have a drop of blood in her veins.
Her beautiful face had become frightfully pale; her lips, which were
almost blue, trembled convulsively; it seemed impossible for her to
raise her eyes--in fact, she seemed unable to make the slightest
movement, or even to utter a word.

In spite of the high terms in which M. de Maillefort had spoken of this
young girl whom he esteemed so highly as to be willing to give her his
name, Madame de Senneterre, too insufferably proud as well as
opinionated to concede that Herminie's conduct might have been prompted
solely by a sense of dignity, had expected to find herself confronted by
a vain, pert, rather coarse, ill-bred girl, proud of her conquest, and
resolved to make the most of it; so, as Gerald's mother, she had armed
herself with the most insulting disdain and arrogance of manner.

She was consequently both astonished and discomfited at the sight of
this charming but timid creature, of such rare loveliness and wonderful
distinction of manner, who, instead of giving herself any impertinent
airs, did not even dare to raise her eyes, and seemed more dead than
alive in the presence of the great lady from whom she had exacted this
visit.

"Good Heavens, how beautiful she is!" Madame de Senneterre said to
herself, with a strange mixture of spitefulness and involuntary
admiration. "What a refined and distinguished looking young woman this
poor, obscure music teacher is! It is simply marvellous! My own
daughters are not to be compared with her."

Though it has taken some time to describe these conflicting sentiments
in the heart of Madame de Senneterre, their coming and going had been
well-nigh simultaneous, and only a few seconds had elapsed after her
entrance into the room before, blushing for the sort of embarrassment
and dismay that she had at first experienced, she broke the silence by
demanding in haughty, supercilious tones:

"Mlle. Herminie, is she here?"

"I am she, madame la duchesse," faltered Herminie, while M. de
Maillefort stood watching the scene with growing anxiety.

"Mlle. Herminie--the music teacher?" repeated Madame de Senneterre, with
a contemptuous emphasis on the last word. "You are that young person, I
suppose."

"Yes, madame la duchesse," replied the poor girl, trembling like a leaf,
and without venturing to raise her eyes.

"Well, mademoiselle, you are satisfied, I trust? You have had the
audacity to insist that I should come here, and here I am."

"I felt constrained--madame la duchesse--to solicit the
honour--that--that--"

"Indeed! And what right have you to presume to make this insolent
demand?"

"Madame!" exclaimed the hunchback, threateningly.

But as Madame de Senneterre uttered these last insulting words,
Herminie, who had seemed so terrified, so utterly crushed until then,
lifted her head proudly, a slight tinge of colour suffused her cheeks,
and, raising her large blue eyes for the first time to the face of
Gerald's mother, she replied in firm though gentle tones:

"I have never felt that I had the right to expect even the slightest
mark of deference from you, madame. On the contrary, I only desired
to--to testify the respect that I felt for your authority, madame, by
declaring to M. de Senneterre that I could not and would not accept his
hand without his mother's consent."

"And I--a person of my age and position--must humiliate myself by making
the first advances to mademoiselle?"

"I am an orphan, madame, without a relative in the world. I could
designate no one else for you to approach on the subject, and my dignity
would not permit me to go to you and solicit--"

"Your dignity,--this is really very amusing!" exclaimed Madame de
Senneterre, infuriated at finding herself obliged to acknowledge the
charming reserve and perfect dignity of the girl's demeanour under such
very trying circumstances. "Could anything be more extraordinary?" she
continued, with a sarcastic laugh. "Mademoiselle has her dignity."

"I have the dignity of virtue, poverty, and honest toil, madame la
duchesse," replied Herminie, looking Madame de Senneterre full in the
face, this time with such an unflinching, noble air that Gerald's mother
became embarrassed and was obliged to avert her eyes.

For several minutes the marquis had found it very difficult to restrain
his desire to punish Madame de Senneterre for her insolence to his
protégée, but on hearing Herminie's simple but noble reply, he thought
her sufficiently avenged.

"So be it, then," responded Madame de Senneterre, in a rather less
bitter tone. "You have your dignity, but you can hardly think that for a
person to be able to enter one of the most illustrious families in
France it is enough for that person to be honest, virtuous and
industrious."

"But I do think so, madame."

"You are not lacking in pride, I must say," exclaimed Madame de
Senneterre, thoroughly exasperated. "Mademoiselle doubtless supposes
that by marrying M. le Duc de Senneterre she will confer a great honour
upon him, as well as upon his family."

"In responding to M. de Senneterre's affection with an affection equal
to his own, I feel that I do honour him by my preference as much as he
has honoured me. As for M. de Senneterre's family, I know, madame, that
they will never be proud of me, but I shall have the consciousness of
being worthy of them."

"Good!" exclaimed the hunchback, "good, my brave and noble child!"

Though Madame de Senneterre was making every effort to resist the
influence of Herminie's charms, she found herself gradually yielding to
it in spite of herself.

The beauty, grace, and exquisite tact of this charming creature exerted
a sort of fascination over Gerald's mother, so, fearing she might
succumb to it, she resolved to end all temptation to do so by burning
her ships behind her, or, in other words, by again resorting to
vituperation, so she exclaimed, wrathfully:

"No, no, it shall never be said that I allowed myself to be cajoled by
the charms and perfidious words of a mere adventuress, and that I was
fool enough to give my consent to her marriage with my son."

The hunchback sprang forward with a terrible look at Madame de
Senneterre, but, before he could utter a word, Herminie replied, in
faltering tones, while big tears rolled slowly down her cheeks:

"Pardon me, madame. Insult finds me speechless and defenceless,
especially when it is M. de Senneterre's mother that insults. I have but
one favour to ask of you, madame. It is to remember that I not only
anticipated this refusal, but accepted it in advance, so it would have
been more generous in you not to have come here to crush me with it.
What was my crime, madame? Simply to have believed that M. de
Senneterre's station in life was as obscure and laborious as my own. But
for that, I would have died rather than yielded to such a love."

"What!" exclaimed Madame de Senneterre, "you did not know that my son--"

"M. de Senneterre represented himself to be a man who was obliged to
labour hard for his daily bread. I believed him; I loved him,--loved him
truly and disinterestedly. When I discovered who he really was, I
refused to see him again, for I was resolved that I would never marry
him against the wishes of his family. That, madame, is the truth, and
the whole truth," added Herminie, in a voice broken with sobs. "This
love, for which, thank God, I shall never have to blush, must be
sacrificed. I expected it, but I believed I had the right to suffer
without the presence of witnesses. I forgive your cruel words, madame.
You are a mother, you did not know, perhaps, that I was worthy of your
son,--and maternal love is sacred, even if it be in the wrong."

Herminie dried the tears that were streaming down her pale face, then
continued, in a weak and faltering voice, for, overcome by this painful
scene, she felt that her strength was fast failing her:

"Will you have the goodness to say to M. de Senneterre, madame, that I
forgive him the wrong he has, unconsciously, done me. Here, before
you--you--his mother--I swear that--I will never see him again,--and you
need have no fear of my breaking my word. So, madame, you can leave here
reassured and content,--but--but I feel so strangely--M. de
Maillefort--come to me--I beg--come--I--"

The poor girl could say no more. Her lips fluttered feebly, and she
cast a despairing look at the hunchback, who sprang forward only just in
time to receive her almost lifeless form in his arms. He placed her
tenderly in an armchair, then, turning to Madame de Senneterre, with a
terrible expression on his face, he cried:

"Ah, you shall weep tears of blood for your cruelty here, madame. Go,
go, I tell you. Don't you see that she is dying!"

Herminie did, indeed, look as if death had claimed her for his own, with
her marble white face, and her head hanging inertly down upon one
shoulder. Her forehead, bathed in a cold sweat, was half covered with
some soft ringlets of golden hair which had escaped from their
confinement, and an occasional tear forced its way through her half
closed eyelids, while ever and anon a convulsive shudder shook her
entire body.

M. de Maillefort could not restrain his tears, and, turning to Madame de
Senneterre, he exclaimed, bitterly, in a voice hoarse with emotion: "You
are gloating over your work, are you not?"

What was the hunchback's astonishment to see compassionate grief and
keen remorse plainly imprinted upon this haughty woman's face, for,
conquered at last by Herminie's noble and touching resignation, she, in
turn, burst into tears, and said to the marquis, in beseeching tones:

"Have pity on me, M. de Maillefort I came here resolved to keep my
promise, but--but my pride revolted in spite of me. I lost my head. Now,
I repent, oh, how bitterly! I am ashamed, I am horrified at my heartless
conduct."

And, running to Herminie, the duchess tenderly lifted her head and
kissed her upon the forehead; then, twining her arms around her to
support her, said, in a voice faltering with emotion:

"Poor child! Will she ever forgive me? M. de Maillefort, ring for
assistance, call some one, her pallor terrifies me."

Just then hurried steps were heard in the hall. The door flew open, and
Gerald rushed in like one distracted, his eyes wild, his manner
threatening, for, from the garden in which he had concealed himself
without the knowledge of either Herminie or M. de Maillefort, he had
heard his mother's cruel words.

"Gerald!" cried the astonished marquis.

"I was there," the young man exclaimed, pointing to the window. "I heard
all, and--"

But the young duke did not complete the sentence, so amazed was he to
see his mother supporting Herminie's head upon her bosom.

"My son," exclaimed Madame de Senneterre, "I am truly horrified at what
I have done. I consent to everything. She is an angel. May Heaven
forgive me!"

"Oh, mother, mother," murmured Gerald, in accents of ineffable
gratitude, as he fell upon his knees beside Herminie, and covered her
cold hands with tears and kisses.

"You have done wisely," the marquis said, in low tones, to Madame de
Senneterre. "It is adoration that your son will feel for you now."

That same instant, seeing Herminie make a slight movement, Gerald
exclaimed, joyfully:

"She is recovering consciousness!"

Then, in a thrilling voice, he cried:

"Herminie, it is I. It is Gerald!"

On hearing M. de Senneterre's voice, Herminie gave a slight start, then
slowly opened her eyes, which seemed at first fixed and troubled, like
the eyes of one awaking from a dream.

Then the sort of mist which seemed to obscure her mental faculties faded
away, and the girl slowly raised her head, which had been reposing on
Madame de Senneterre's bosom, and looked around her.

To her intense astonishment, she saw that Gerald's mother was supporting
her in her arms and watching her with the tenderest solicitude.

Believing she was still in a dream, Herminie hastily raised herself, and
passed her burning hands over her eyes, after which her gaze, as it
became more and more assured, was directed, first upon M. de Maillefort,
who was gazing at her with ineffable delight, and then upon Gerald, who
was still kneeling before her.

"Gerald!" she cried, rapturously.

Then, with an expression of mingled hope and fear, she hastily glanced
around at Madame de Senneterre, as if to satisfy herself that it was
indeed from Gerald's mother that she was receiving these marks of
touching interest.

Gerald, noticing the girl's movement, hastily exclaimed:

"Herminie, my mother consents to everything."

"Yes, yes, mademoiselle," exclaimed Madame de Senneterre, effusively. "I
consent to everything. There are many wrongs for which I must ask
forgiveness,--but my love and tenderness will enable me to gain it at
last."

"Can this be true, madame?" cried Herminie, clasping her hands. "Oh,
God, can it be possible! You really consent? All this is not a dream?"

"No, Herminie, it is not a dream," exclaimed Gerald, rapturously. "We
belong to each other now! You shall soon be my wife."

"No, my noble child, it is not a dream," said M. de Maillefort, "It is a
fitting reward for a life of toil and virtue."

"No, mademoiselle, it is not a dream," said Madame de Senneterre, "for
it is you," she added, casting a meaning glance at the marquis, "you,
Mlle. Herminie, who nobly support yourself by your own exertions, that I
joyfully accept as my daughter-in-law in M. de Maillefort's presence,
for I am satisfied that my son could not make a choice more worthy of
him, of me, and of his family."

       *       *       *       *       *

Half an hour afterwards Madame de Senneterre and her son took an
affectionate leave of Herminie, who, in company with M. de Maillefort,
forthwith repaired to the house of Mlle. de Beaumesnil to tell her the
good news, and sustain the courage of the richest heiress in France, for
a final and formidable ordeal was in store for her, or, rather, for
Olivier.



CHAPTER XXV.

A SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCE.


While M. de Senneterre was taking his mother home, Herminie and M. de
Maillefort were bowling swiftly along in the marquis's carriage on their
way to Mlle. de Beaumesnil.

The delight of the marquis and his youthful protégée, whose happiness
was now assured, can be imagined.

The marquis knew Madame de Senneterre well enough to feel sure that she
was incapable of retracting the solemn consent she had given to the
marriage of Gerald and Herminie.

Nevertheless, M. de Maillefort resolved to call on Madame de Senneterre
the following morning, and assure her that he had not changed his
intention of adopting Herminie, who was dearer to him than ever, if that
were possible, since he had witnessed her noble and touching behaviour
during her interview with the haughty Duchesse de Senneterre.

M. de Maillefort's only fear now was that the proud and sensitive girl
might refuse to accept the advantages he was so anxious to confer upon
her; but almost sure that he would succeed in overcoming her scruples
eventually, he resolved to maintain an absolute silence concerning his
intentions for the present.

M. de Maillefort and his companion had been driving along for several
minutes, when a block of vehicles at the corner of the Rue de Courcelles
obliged their driver to check his horses for an instant.

There was a locksmith's shop on the corner of this street, and the
hunchback, who had put his head out of the carriage window to ascertain
the cause of the sudden stop, uttered an exclamation of surprise, and,
hastily drawing in his head, muttered:

"What can that man be doing there?"

As was natural, Herminie's eyes quickly followed those of the hunchback,
and she could not repress a movement of disgust and aversion which M. de
Maillefort failed to notice, however, for almost at the same instant he
lowered the curtain of the window nearest him.

By drawing this small silken curtain a little aside, the marquis could
see without being seen, and through the tiny opening he seemed to be
watching something or somebody with considerable uneasiness, while
Herminie, not daring to question him, gazed at him wonderingly.

The marquis had caught sight of M. de Ravil in the locksmith's shop, and
he could still see him talking with the locksmith,--a man with a kind,
honest face. He was showing him a key, and evidently giving him some
instructions in regard to it, for, taking the key, the locksmith placed
it in his vice just as M. de Maillefort's carriage again started on its
way towards the Faubourg St. Germain, and M. de Macreuse's new friend,
or, rather, his new accomplice, was lost to sight.

"What is the matter, monsieur?" inquired Herminie, seeing that the
hunchback had suddenly become thoughtful.

"I just observed an apparently insignificant thing, my dear child, but
it makes me a trifle uneasy. I saw a man in a locksmith's shop just now,
showing the locksmith a key. I should not even have noticed the fact,
though, if I did not know that the man who had the key was a scoundrel,
capable of anything, and under certain circumstances the slightest act
of a man like that furnishes food for reflection."

"Is the man you refer to unusually tall, and has he a bad, hard face?"

"So you, too, noticed him?"

"I have had only too much cause to do so, monsieur."

"Explain, my dear child."

So Herminie briefly related Ravil's many futile attempts to obtain
access to her since the evening he so grossly insulted her while on her
way to Madame de Beaumesnil's.

"If the scoundrel is in the habit of hanging around your house, my dear
child, it is not so surprising that we should have seen him in a shop in
this part of the town. Still, what can have taken him to this
locksmith's?" asked the hunchback, thoughtfully. "Since he became so
intimate with that rascal, Macreuse, I have been keeping a close watch
on both of them. One of my men is shadowing them, for such creatures as
they are are never more dangerous than when they are playing dead,--not
that I fear them myself; oh, no, but I do fear for Ernestine."

"For Ernestine?" asked the duchess, with quite as much surprise as
uneasiness. "What can she have to fear from creatures like these?"

"You do not know, my dear child, that this Ravil was the most zealous
aider and abettor of one of the suitors for Ernestine's hand. Macreuse,
too, made equally nefarious attempts to secure this tempting prey. As I
unmasked them both in public, I fear that their resentment will fall
upon Ernestine, especially as their rage, on finding that they will not
be able to make the poor child their victim, is so venomous; but I am
watching them closely, and this visit of Ravil to the locksmith--though
I cannot imagine the motive of it now--will make me redouble my
vigilance."

"But you can hardly imagine that this visit would affect Ernestine in
any way."

"I am not at all sure that it does, my dear child, but I think it
strange that De Ravil should take the trouble to seek out a locksmith in
this remote part of the town. But let us say no more about it. Such
scoundrels as those two men are should not be allowed to mar pure and
richly deserved happiness. My task is only half completed. Your
happiness is assured, my child, and now I trust this may prove an
equally fortunate day for Ernestine. Here we are at last. Find her and
tell her of your happiness while I go up to the baron's apartments. I
have a few words to say to him, after which I will rejoin you in
Ernestine's rooms."

"Did I not hear you say something in regard to a final test?"

"Yes, my dear child."

"Does it relate to M. Olivier?"

"Yes, and if he sustains the ordeal bravely and nobly, as I am sure he
will, Ernestine will have no cause to envy you your felicity."

"And did Ernestine consent to this test, monsieur?"

"Yes, my child, for it would not only serve to establish the nobility of
Olivier's sentiments beyond a doubt, but also remove any scruples he
might feel about marrying Ernestine when he discovers that the little
embroideress is the richest heiress in France."

"Alas! monsieur, it is on that point I feel the greatest misgivings. M.
Olivier is so extremely sensitive in regard to all money matters, Gerald
says."

"And for that very reason I gave my poor brain no rest until I had
found, or at least fancied I had found, a means of escape from this
danger. I can not explain any further now, but you will soon know all."

Meanwhile the carriage had paused in front of the Rochaiguë mansion. The
footman opened the door, and while Herminie hastened to Mlle. de
Beaumesnil's apartments the hunchback went up to the baron's study,
where he found that gentleman evidently expecting him, for he promptly
advanced to meet him, displaying his long teeth with the most satisfied
air imaginable.

The fact is, M. de la Rochaiguë, after reflecting on the marquis's
offers,--and threats,--had decided to accept a proposal that would
enable him to gratify his political ambition at last, and had
consequently given his consent to this marriage under certain conditions
that seemed incomprehensible to him,--M. de Maillefort not having deemed
it advisable to inform the baron of the double character Mlle. de
Beaumesnil had been playing.

"Well, my dear baron, has everything been satisfactorily arranged?"
inquired the hunchback.

"Yes, my dear marquis. The interview is to take place here in my study,
and, as this room is separated from the adjoining room only by a
portière, everything that is said can be distinctly heard in there."

The marquis examined the two rooms for himself and then returned to M.
de la Rochaiguë.

"This arrangement will suit perfectly, my dear baron. But tell me, did
the inquiries you made in relation to M. Olivier Raymond prove entirely
satisfactory?"

"I called on his old colonel in the African army this morning, and M. de
Berville spoke of him in the highest possible terms."

"I was sure that he would, my dear baron, but I wished you to satisfy
yourself, and from several different sources, of my protégé's
irreproachable character."

"He possesses neither wealth nor rank, unfortunately," responded the
baron, with a sigh, "but there doesn't seem to be the slightest doubt
that he is an exceedingly honest and worthy young man."

"And what you have heard about him is nothing in comparison with what
you will soon discover for yourself."

"What! is there still another mystery in store for me, my dear marquis?"

"Have a little patience, and an hour from now you will know all. By the
way, I hope you haven't said a word to your wife or sister in regard to
our plans?"

"How can you ask me such a question, my dear marquis? Am I not longing
to have my revenge upon Helena and the baroness? Think of their
deceiving me as they did! Each of them plotting to bring about a
marriage between my ward and one of their protégés, and making me play
the most ridiculous rôle. Ah, it will at least be some consolation to
outwit them in my turn."

"No weakness, though, baron. Your wife openly boasts that she can make
you do exactly as she pleases,--that she leads you around by the nose,
in short,--excuse the expression."

"Well, well, we shall see! So she leads me around by the nose, does
she?"

"I think we shall have to admit that she has, in days gone by."

"I admit nothing of the kind."

"But now you are a statesman, any such weakness would be unpardonable,
for you no longer belong to yourself, and, apropos of this, did you see
our delegates again?"

"We had another conference last evening. I talked to them two hours on
the subject of an alliance with England."

The baron rose, and slipping his left hand in the bosom of his coat, and
assuming his usual oratorical attitude, continued:

"I subsequently gave them my views upon the importation of horned
cattle, and briefly expounded the principles of religious liberty as
practised in Belgium; and I must admit that your electors seemed much
pleased, to say the least."

"I don't doubt it. You must suit them wonderfully well. I am doing them
a signal service, for they will find in you--all that is lacking in
me."

"You are entirely too modest, my dear marquis."

"Quite the contrary, my dear baron; so as soon as Olivier's and
Ernestine's marriage contract is signed, I shall resign my candidacy in
your favour."

A servant, entering at this moment, announced that M. Olivier Raymond
wished to see M. de la Rochaiguë.

"Ask M. Raymond to wait a moment," replied the baron, and the servant
left the room.

"Now, baron, remember that this is a very important, as well as
delicate, matter," said the marquis. "Do not forget any of my
instructions, and, above all, do not evince any surprise at M. Raymond's
answers, no matter how extraordinary they may appear. I will explain
everything after your interview with him is over."

"It will be comparatively easy for me to show no surprise at anything I
see or hear, marquis, inasmuch as I am very much in the dark with regard
to the whole affair myself."

"You will be thoroughly enlightened soon, I tell you. But, by the way,
be sure not to forget about the work M. Olivier did for the steward of
the Château de Beaumesnil, near Luzarches."

"I shall not forget that, for I intend to introduce the subject in that
way; and permit me to say that I am to start out with a colossal lie, my
dear marquis."

"But, as this colossal lie is sure to bring out the truth in the most
incontrovertible fashion, you need feel no scruples! You will certainly
have no cause to regret it, either, for what is about to occur will be
quite as much to your advantage as to that of Mlle. de Beaumesnil,
perhaps. I am going to summon her now, and do not have M. Olivier
ushered in until after you know that we are in the next room, remember."

"Oh, I understand all about that. Go at once, my dear marquis, and use
the back stairs. It is the shortest way, and M. Olivier, who is waiting
in the library, will not see you."

The marquis complied with these instructions, and soon found himself in
Mlle. de Beaumesnil's apartments.

"Ah, M. de Maillefort," exclaimed Ernestine, her face radiant, and her
eyes still filled with tears of joy, "Herminie has told me all. Her
happiness seems certain to equal mine,--if mine is realised."

"Come quick, my child," exclaimed the hunchback. "M. Olivier is
up-stairs now."

"Herminie can accompany me, can she not, M. de Maillefort? She will be
near me to keep up my courage--"

"Your courage?"

"Yes, for now I confess that, in spite of myself, I am sorry that I
consented to this test."

"But was not this test necessary to overcome Olivier's scruples, my dear
child? Remember, too, that these scruples are probably the most
dangerous obstacles you will have to overcome now."

"Alas! that is only too true," said Mlle. de Beaumesnil, sadly.

"Then come, my child, come at once. Herminie shall accompany you. She
must be the first to congratulate you."

"Or to console me," added Ernestine, unable to conquer her fears. "But
it is better I should know my fate as soon as possible," she continued,
resolutely. "Let us go up to my guardian's apartments at once, M. de
Maillefort."

Three minutes afterwards, Ernestine, Herminie, and M. de Maillefort were
in the baron's parlour, which was separated from his study only by a
closely drawn portière, which the hunchback opened a little way in order
to inform M. de la Rochaiguë that they were there.

"Very well," replied the baron.

He rang the bell.

"Show M. Olivier Raymond in," he said to the servant who answered the
summons, and who almost immediately announced:

"M. Olivier Raymond, sir."

On hearing Olivier enter the adjoining room, Ernestine turned as pale as
death, and, seizing with one hand the hand of Herminie, and with the
other the hand of M. de Maillefort, she whispered, tremblingly:

"Oh, stay close by me, I entreat you. Do not leave me. Oh, my God, what
a solemn moment this is!"

"Hush! Olivier is speaking," whispered M. de Maillefort; "let us listen.
We must not miss a word."

And all three listened, with breathless anxiety, to the following
conversation between Olivier and M. de la Rochaiguë.



CHAPTER XXVI.

A CRUCIAL MOMENT.


When Olivier Raymond entered M. de la Rochaiguë's study, his face
expressed astonishment, mingled with a lively curiosity.

The baron bowed courteously, and, after having motioned his visitor to a
seat, inquired:

"Is it to M. Olivier Raymond that I have the honour of speaking?"

"Yes, monsieur."

"A second lieutenant in the Third Hussars?"

"The same, monsieur."

"From the letter I had the honour to write you, monsieur, you know that
I am--"

"M. le Baron de la Rochaiguë, monsieur, though I have not the honour of
your acquaintance. May I now inquire to what important personal matter
you referred in your recent letter?"

"Certainly, monsieur. Pray be kind enough to give me your close
attention, and, above all, not to be surprised at any singular, strange,
and extraordinary facts which I may have the honour to communicate."

Olivier gazed at the baron with such evident astonishment that Mlle. de
Beaumesnil's guardian cast an involuntary glance towards the portière,
behind which Herminie, Ernestine, and M. de Maillefort were listening to
the conversation.

"Monsieur," continued the baron, again turning to Olivier, "a few weeks
ago you were at a château, near Luzarches, assisting a master mason,
who had undertaken some repairs upon this property, in making his
estimates."

"That is true, monsieur," replied Olivier, little suspecting the import
of all this.

"After these estimates were finished, you remained several days to
assist the steward in straightening up his accounts, did you not?"

"That is also true, monsieur."

"This château," resumed the baron, with an air of great importance,
"belongs to Mlle. de Beaumesnil, the richest heiress in France."

"I was so informed during my stay there. But may I know the object of
these questions?"

"In one moment, monsieur; but will you first oblige me by glancing over
this document?"

And the baron took from his desk a folded paper and handed it to
Olivier.

While the young man was hastily perusing this document, the baron said:

"You will see by this document, which is a certified copy of the
deliberations of the family council, convoked after the death of the
late Comtesse de Beaumesnil, you will see, I repeat, from this document,
that I am the legally appointed guardian and trustee of Mlle. de
Beaumesnil."

"I perceive so," replied Olivier, returning the document, "but I fail to
see that this fact interests me in any way."

"It was of the utmost importance that you should be enlightened as to my
legal, official, and judicial connection with Mlle. de Beaumesnil, in
order that what I may have the honour to say to you on the subject of my
ward will be invested with irresistible, unmistakable, and incontestable
authority in your eyes."

This flow of words, monotonous and measured as the movements of a
pendulum, was beginning to make Olivier all the more impatient, as he
could not imagine whither all these grave preliminaries were tending.

In fact, he gazed at the baron with such a bewildered air that M. de la
Rochaiguë said to himself:

"One might really suppose that I was talking Hebrew to him. He evinces
so little emotion on hearing the name of Mlle. de Beaumesnil that one
would suppose he did not even know her. What does all this mean? That
cunning devil of a marquis was right when he told me that I must be
prepared for very surprising developments."

"May I again inquire in what possible way the fact that you are, or are
not, Mlle. de Beaumesnil's guardian interests me?" said Olivier, with
ill-suppressed impatience.

"Now for the lie," the baron said to himself. "Let us see what effect it
will have."

Then he added aloud:

"You made quite a long stay at the Château de Beaumesnil?"

"I did, as I told you some time ago," responded Olivier, with growing
impatience.

"You probably were not aware that Mlle. de Beaumesnil was at the château
at the same time that you were."

"Mlle. de Beaumesnil?"

"Yes, monsieur," replied the baron, imperturbably, satisfied that he was
lying with true diplomatic ease and assurance; "yes, monsieur, Mlle. de
Beaumesnil was at the château while you were there."

"But I was told that the young lady was in a foreign country, monsieur;
besides, I saw no one at the château."

"That does not surprise me at all, monsieur. The fact is, Mlle. de
Beaumesnil wished to spend the early days of her mourning for her mother
at this château, and as she desired complete solitude, every one on the
estate was requested to keep her arrival a profound secret."

"Then it is not strange that I should have been ignorant of it,
particularly as I stayed in the house of the steward, quite a little
distance from the château. But once more, let me ask--"

"I beg you will not be impatient, monsieur, but listen to me with the
closest attention, for the matter to be considered is, I repeat, of the
greatest, gravest, and highest importance to you."

"The man nearly drives me mad by his absurd and senseless repetitions!"
Olivier mentally exclaimed. "What on earth is he driving at? What
possible interest have I in Mlle. de Beaumesnil and her château?"

"The master mason by whom you were employed," continued the baron,
suavely, "told our steward that the proceeds of the labour you imposed
upon yourself during your leave were to be devoted to aiding your uncle,
for whom you felt an almost filial affection."

"Good Heavens, monsieur, why should any importance be attached to such a
trivial thing as that? Let us get at the facts of the case."

"The fact is just this, monsieur," resumed the baron, impressively, and
with an almost solemn gesture, "your generous conduct towards your uncle
was reported to Mlle. de Beaumesnil by her steward."

"Well, what if it was!" exclaimed Olivier, whose patience was now
completely exhausted. "What is your object in apprising me of the fact?"

"My object is to let you know that mademoiselle is one of the noblest,
best-hearted young ladies in the world, and, being such, is more keenly
appreciative of generous acts in others than the majority of people; so
when she heard of your devotion to your uncle, she was so touched by it
that she desired to see you."

"See me?" repeated Olivier, incredulously.

"Yes, monsieur, my ward wished to see you, but without being seen by
you; she was anxious, too, to hear you talk, and, with the aid of her
steward, managed to act the part of an unseen auditor at several of your
conversations, both with the steward and the master mason by whom you
were employed. The strict integrity and nobility of your sentiments were
so clearly revealed in these conversations, that my ward was as deeply
impressed by your nobility of character as by your pleasing personal
attributes, and--"

"Monsieur," interrupted Olivier, turning crimson, "I can scarcely
believe that a man of your age and position could find any amusement in
such unseemly jesting, and yet I do not suppose for one moment that you
are speaking seriously."

"I had the honour, monsieur, to submit for your inspection the
documentary evidence that I am Mlle. de Beaumesnil's legally appointed
guardian in order that you might give full credence to my words. I
subsequently warned you that what I had to say might appear singular,
strange, even extraordinary to you, and you surely can not suppose that
a man of my age, position, and social prominence would feel any
inclination to trifle with the sacred interests entrusted to him or to
make as honourable a young man as yourself the victim of a practical
joke."

"So be it, monsieur," replied Olivier, pacified by this assurance on the
part of the baron, "I confess I was wrong to suppose, even for an
instant, that you were capable of such a thing, and yet--"

"Once again will you kindly allow me to remind you of my warning that I
had some very extraordinary things to impart," said the baron, again
interrupting Olivier. "Now, with your permission, I will proceed with my
explanation. Mlle. de Beaumesnil is sixteen years of age. She is the
richest heiress in France, consequently," added the baron, emphasising
the words strongly and giving Olivier a meaning look, "consequently she
need not trouble herself in the least about the pecuniary condition of
the man she will choose for a husband. She desires, above all, to marry
a man who pleases her, and who she feels will assure her future
happiness. As regards his name and social position, provided his name
and social position are honourable and honoured, Mlle. de Beaumesnil is
content. Do you understand me at last, monsieur?"

"I have listened to you with the closest attention, M. le baron. I
understand perfectly that Mlle. de Beaumesnil intends to marry to her
own liking, without much, or, indeed, any regard to the rank and
pecuniary condition of the man of her choice. She is perfectly right, I
think; but why should I be told all this,--I, who have never met Mlle.
de Beaumesnil in my life, and who probably never shall?"

"I have told you this, M. Olivier Raymond, because Mlle. de Beaumesnil
is persuaded that in you are united all the attributes she most desires
in a husband; so, after having made the most careful inquiries
concerning you,--with results which were most flattering to yourself, I
must admit,--I, as the guardian of Mlle. de Beaumesnil, am deputised,
authorised, and commissioned to offer you her hand in marriage."

The baron might have gone on a good while longer without any
interruption from Olivier.

Though the latter was astounded by what he had just heard, he could no
longer suppose that this was a hoax on the part of M. de la Rochaiguë,
who, in spite of his absurd flights of oratory, was really a grave,
dignified man, with perfect manners.

On the other hand, how could he believe,--without an immense amount of
conceit, and conceit was not one of Olivier's besetting sins, by any
means,--how could he believe that the richest heiress in France had so
suddenly lost her heart to him?

A minute or two passed before Olivier spoke. When he did, it was to say:

"I am sure you will excuse my silence and my bewilderment, monsieur, as
you, yourself, fully realised that you had some very extraordinary
revelations to make--"

"Do not hurry yourself in the least, monsieur. Take plenty of time to
recover yourself, for I can very easily understand the mental agitation
such a proposition must excite. I should add, however, that Mlle. de
Beaumesnil knows perfectly well that you cannot accept her offer until
after you have seen her and made her acquaintance. So, if you desire it,
I will present you to my ward, and it is my earnest desire that you will
both find in your mutual acquaintance a guaranty, hope, and certainty of
future happiness."

After which peroration, the baron said to himself:

"Thank Heaven, that is over! Now, I shall discover the answer to this
enigma which seems more and more incomprehensible every minute."

Up to this time, Mlle. de Beaumesnil, Herminie, and the hunchback had
listened to the conversation in breathless silence. Herminie now
understood for the first time the twofold object of the test to which M.
de Maillefort had felt it necessary to subject Olivier; but Ernestine,
in spite of her confidence in the nobility of the young officer's
character, was in torture, as she awaited Olivier's reply to the baron's
dazzling offer. The temptation, alas! was so great. How few persons
would be able to resist it! Was there any living man who would not
forget or ignore a promise made to an unattractive, penniless, and
friendless girl, and eagerly embrace the opportunity to acquire colossal
wealth?

"_Mon Dieu!_ I tremble, in spite of myself," murmured Ernestine. "The
renunciation we expect of M. Olivier is above human strength, perhaps.
Alas! alas! why did I consent to this test?"

"Courage, my child," whispered the hunchback, "think only of the
happiness and admiration you will feel if Olivier realises our
expectations. But hush, he is going to reply."

With a half frenzied movement, Ernestine threw herself into Herminie's
arms, and it was thus that the two girls, trembling with fear and hope,
awaited Olivier's answer.

The young man could no longer doubt that this most remarkable offer had
been made in all seriousness; but unable to explain it on the ground of
personal merit,--for Olivier was an extremely modest man,--he attributed
it to one of those caprices not uncommon in romantic young persons whose
exorbitant wealth places them in an exceptional position,--caprices
which in many cases amount to positive eccentricity.

"Monsieur," Olivier began, in a firm voice, after quite a long silence,
"though the proposition you have just made to me is so strange, so
entirely beyond the bounds of possibility, I might almost say, I give
you my word of honour that, inexplicable as it seems to me, I believe in
its sincerity."

"You can, monsieur, that is the important thing; that is all I ask of
you."

"I do, and I shall make no attempt to fathom the incomprehensible
reasons which led Mlle. de Beaumesnil to think of me even for an
instant."

"Pardon me, but I have already explained these reasons, monsieur."

"Though I am not particularly modest, these reasons seem to me far from
adequate; besides, I have no right to avail myself of this too
flattering offer, for--for it is impossible for me--I will not say to
accept Mlle. de Beaumesnil's hand--such an important act must
necessarily depend upon a thousand unforeseen contingencies, but to--"

"I give you my word of honour, monsieur, that it depends only upon
yourself," said the baron, in such grave tones that Olivier could not
fail to be deeply impressed, "understand me, upon yourself, absolutely
and entirely. And, if you desire it, I will introduce you to the young
lady before an hour has elapsed. It will then be impossible for you to
feel the slightest doubt in regard to--to the sincerity of the offer I
have just made you."

"I believe you, monsieur, as I said before. I only wish to say that it
is impossible for me to even consider the proposition you have been so
kind as to make to me."

The baron was astounded now in his turn.

"What, monsieur, you refuse?" he exclaimed. "But no, I cannot have heard
you aright. It is impossible that you should be so blind as not to see
the immense advantages of such a marriage."

"Then I must endeavour to be more explicit, monsieur. I positively
decline your offer, while acknowledging that Mlle. de Beaumesnil's kind
intentions are entirely too flattering to me."

"You decline--the richest heiress in France. You treat Mlle. de
Beaumesnil's unheard-of concessions with disdain."

"Pardon me," exclaimed Olivier, hastily interrupting him. "I told you
just now how deeply honoured I felt by your proposition, so I should be
truly inconsolable if you interpreted my refusal as in any respect
uncomplimentary to Mlle. de Beaumesnil, whom I have not the honour of
knowing."

"But I have offered you an opportunity to make her acquaintance."

"That would be useless, monsieur. I do not doubt Mlle. de Beaumesnil's
merits in the least, but as I should tell you all under the
circumstances, I am not free. My heart and my honour are alike pledged."

"You are betrothed already?"

"In short, monsieur, I am about to marry a young lady whom I both love
and esteem."

"Great God! What are you telling me, monsieur?" exclaimed the
unfortunate baron, fairly gasping for breath, so great was his
consternation.

"The truth, monsieur, and such an announcement will suffice, I am sure,
to convince you that--without the slightest intended disparagement of
Mlle. de Beaumesnil--I cannot even consider the proposition you have
made to me."

"But if this marriage doesn't come off, I shall lose my deputyship,"
thought the baron, despairingly. "Why the devil did the marquis insist
upon my giving my consent if this young idiot was going to be fool
enough to refuse such a colossal fortune? And there is my ward who
declared to me this very morning that she would never marry anybody but
Olivier Raymond. The marquis told me that I would find this an enigma,
but all enigmas have their answers, and this can be no exception to the
rule!"

So the baron, unwilling to renounce his hope of political preferment,
added aloud:

"My dear sir, I implore you to reflect. Do not decide hastily. You have
plighted your troth,--well and good! You love a young girl, you say,--so
be it, but thank Heaven, you are still free, and there are sacrifices
which one should have the courage to make for the sake of his future.
Think, monsieur, an income of more than three million francs a year from
landed property! Why, nobody on earth could be expected to refuse such a
fortune as that! And the young girl who loves you--if she really loves
you for yourself alone--will be the first, if she is not frightfully
selfish, to advise you to accept this unexpected good fortune with
resignation. An income of over three million francs, my dear sir, and
from real estate, remember."

"I have told you that my heart and honour are alike pledged, monsieur,
so it pains me to see that, in spite of the favourable reports you have
heard concerning me, you still believe me capable of a base and
cowardly act," added Olivier, severely.

"Heaven forbid, my dear sir! I believe you to be the most honourable man
in the world, but--"

"Will you do me the favour, monsieur," said Olivier, rising, "to inform
Mlle. de Beaumesnil of the reasons that prompted my decision. I feel
sure that when she hears them she will consider me worthy of her esteem,
though--"

"But you are worthy of something more than esteem, my dear sir. Such
disinterestedness is marvellous, admirable, sublime."

"Such disinterestedness on my part is a very simple thing, monsieur. I
love and I am loved in return. The happiness of my life depends upon my
approaching marriage."

And Olivier started towards the door.

"But take a few days for reflection, I beseech you, monsieur. Do not be
guided by this first rash impulse. Again let me venture to remind you
that it means an income of over three million francs from--"

"There is nothing more that you wish to say to me, I suppose, monsieur,"
said Olivier, interrupting the baron, and bowing, as if to take leave of
him.

"Monsieur," exclaimed the baron, desperately, "consider, I beg of you,
that this refusal on your part is sure to make Mlle. de Beaumesnil very
unhappy; for you must realise that a guardian, a grave, conscientious
man like myself, would not have taken the step I have, if he had not
been absolutely compelled to do so. In other words, my ward will be made
miserable by your refusal,--she will die, perhaps--"

"Monsieur, I beseech you, in my turn, to remember the exceedingly
painful position in which you are placing me, a position, in fact, that
it is impossible for me to endure longer after the announcement of my
approaching marriage, which I have felt it my duty to make."

Again Olivier bowed respectfully to the baron, and again he started
towards the door, adding, as he opened it:

"I should have been glad to end this interview less abruptly, monsieur.
Will you, therefore, be kind enough to excuse me, and to attribute my
hasty retreat to an insistence on your part which places me in the most
disagreeable, I was about to say the most ridiculous, position
imaginable."

And having uttered these words, Olivier walked out of the room, in spite
of the baron's despairing protests.

That gentleman, half frantic with disappointment and anger, rushed
towards the door leading into the room where the hunchback and the two
young girls were standing, and pulling aside the portière, exclaimed:

"And now will you be good enough to explain the meaning of all this? Why
have you made such a fool of me? And why does this M. Olivier refuse
Mlle. de Beaumesnil's hand, and declare he has never seen her in his
life when you assure me that he and my ward are desperately in love with
each other?"



CHAPTER XXVII.

THE MYSTERY DEEPENS.


But M. de la Rochaiguë's bewilderment was by no means at an end.

The baron had fully expected to find the unseen auditors of the
foregoing conversation in a state of intense consternation over M.
Olivier's refusal.

Far from it.

Mlle. de Beaumesnil and Herminie, clasped in each other's arms, were
laughing and crying and kissing each other in a transport of half
delirious joy.

"He refused me! He refused me!" exclaimed Ernestine, in accents of
ineffable delight.

"Ah, I told you that M. Olivier would not disappoint our expectations,
my dear Ernestine," added Herminie.

"Wasn't I right? Didn't I tell you that he would refuse?" cried the
marquis, no less delighted.

"Then why the devil did you make such a fuss about gaining my consent?"
demanded the baron, forgetting his dignity in his thorough exasperation.
"Why did both of you insist upon my making that young idiot such an
unheard-of proposal, if you wanted him to refuse it?"

These words seemed to recall Ernestine to the fact of the baron's
existence, for, releasing herself from her friend's arms, she turned a
radiant face towards her guardian, and exclaimed, in tones of the most
profound gratitude:

"Oh, thank you, monsieur, thank you! I shall owe the happiness of my
whole life to you, and I assure you, I shall never prove ungrateful."

"But you must have misunderstood him," cried the baron, "he refuses, he
refuses, he refuses, I tell you."

"Yes, he refuses," exclaimed Ernestine, ecstatically. "Ah, has he not
the noblest of hearts!"

"They have certainly gone mad, every one of them," murmured the poor
baron, in despair.

"But this young man is as good as married,--he won't have you! He says
nothing would induce him to have you!" he fairly shouted in Ernestine's
ear. "His marriage is to take place very shortly."

"Yes, thank God, there is no further obstacle to that marriage now,"
cried Ernestine, "so I thank you once again, M. de la Rochaiguë. I thank
you with all my heart, and I shall never, never forget what you have
done for me."

Fortunately the hunchback now came to the rescue of the unfortunate
baron, who really felt as if his poor brain was about to burst.

"I promised you the answer to the enigma, you remember, my dear baron,"
said M. de Maillefort.

"I think it is time, quite time for you to give it, then, marquis. If
you do not, I believe I shall go mad. There is a strange buzzing in my
ears, my head feels as if it would split, there are specks floating
before my eyes--and--"

"Well, then, listen to me. This morning your ward declared that she
would not marry anybody but M. Olivier Raymond, and that the happiness
of her life depended upon it, did she not?"

"You certainly are not going to begin that all over again?" exclaimed M.
de la Rochaiguë, stamping his foot angrily.

"Have a little patience, baron. I told you afterwards that all the good
you had heard in relation to M. Olivier Raymond was nothing in
comparison with what you would soon discover for yourself."

"Well, what have I discovered?"

"Is the disinterestedness which you yourself were obliged to admire
nothing? To refuse the richest heiress in France to fulfil a promise of
marriage previously made to a penniless young girl--is not such conduct
as that--?"

"Admirable, commendable, worthy of all praise," exclaimed the baron. "I
know all that! But I repeat that I shall go stark staring mad if you
don't explain why this refusal, which should fill you and my ward with
dismay and consternation, seems to delight you beyond measure,--that is,
if you are still anxious for Ernestine to marry Olivier."

"I certainly am."

"Well, I'd like to know how you are going to bring it about, for his
heart seems to be set upon marrying the other girl."

"And that is precisely what pleases us so much," said the hunchback.

"Delights us, you mean," corrected Ernestine.

"It delights you because he is determined to marry another girl?"
exclaimed the baron, positively furious now.

"Yes, but you see this other girl is she!" explained the marquis.

"She--and who is she?" shouted the baron.

"Your ward."

"But the other girl is my ward."

"Certainly," replied Ernestine, triumphantly, "I am the other girl."

"Yes, baron, the other girl, I tell you, is she, your ward."

"Yes, she is Ernestine," added Herminie.

"It is all perfectly clear now, you see," remarked the marquis.

On hearing this explanation, which was even more incomprehensible to him
than what had gone before, the unfortunate baron cast a half frantic
glance around him, then, closing his eyes, said to the hunchback, in
despairing tones:

"M. de Maillefort, you seem to be absolutely pitiless. I have as strong
a mind as anybody else, I think, but it is incapable of unravelling such
a mystery as this. You promised to give me the answer to this beastly
enigma, but the answer is even more incomprehensible than the enigma
itself."

"Come, come, my dear baron, calm yourself, and listen to me."

"I have been listening to you for a quarter of an hour or more," groaned
the baron, "and yet I am very much worse off than I was in the
beginning."

"Well, well, everything shall be made plain now," said the marquis,
soothingly.

"Proceed, then, I beg of you."

"Very well, then, these are the facts of the case: Through a combination
of circumstances which will be explained later on, and which have no
special bearing on the subject now under consideration, your ward met M.
Olivier and passed herself off to him as a poor orphan girl, who was
supporting herself by her needle. Do you understand thus far, baron?"

"Yes, I understand thus far. What next?"

"Well, by reason of other circumstances with which you will soon be made
conversant, your ward and M. Olivier fell in love with each other, he
still supposing Mlle. de Beaumesnil to be a friendless and penniless
orphan, and so unhappy in her home relations that he felt that he was,
and in fact was, exceedingly generous in offering to marry her when he
was made an officer."

"In short," exclaimed the baron, straightening himself up to his full
height, and speaking in triumphant tones,--"in short, Ernestine and the
other young girl are simply one and the same person."

"Precisely," responded the hunchback.

"And so," continued the baron, wiping the perspiration which his
Herculean mental efforts had produced from his brow,--"and so you wished
to find out if Olivier loved the other, the poor girl, enough to resist,
for her sake, the temptation to marry the richest heiress in France?"

"Exactly, baron."

"Hence your romantic story that Mlle. de Beaumesnil had seen Olivier
during his stay at the château and had fallen in love with him."

"It was necessary to find some plausible excuse for the proposal you
were commissioned to make to him. This story furnished it, and I must
say that you played your part admirably. And M. Olivier,--well, was I
wrong in assuring you that M. Olivier Raymond was the soul of honour?"

"He is, indeed!" exclaimed the baron. "Listen, marquis. I am not
inclined to revert to the past, but I admit that I considered this a
very unsuitable marriage for my ward. Ah, well, now I distinctly assert,
affirm, and declare that, after what I have just seen and heard, if my
ward were my own daughter, I should say to her: 'Marry M. Raymond, by
all means. You could not make a better choice.'"

"Ah, monsieur, I shall never forget those words!" cried Ernestine.

"But this is not all, my dear baron."

"What else can there be, pray?" demanded M. de la Rochaiguë, uneasily,
evidently fearing a fresh imbroglio.

"This test had a twofold object. M. Olivier's extreme sensitiveness in
pecuniary matters is so well known to his friends that we feared when he
discovered that the young girl whom he thought so poor was really Mlle.
de Beaumesnil, he, being only a young lieutenant without either rank or
fortune, would absolutely refuse to marry the richest heiress in France,
though he had loved her and asked her to be his wife, when he believed
her absolutely penniless."

"Such scruples on his part would not surprise me in the least," said the
baron. "The fellow is so proud, the slightest hint that he might be
considered a fortune-hunter would infuriate him. And now I think of it,
the obstacle you fear still exists."

"No, my dear baron."

"But why not?"

"Why, can't you see?" exclaimed Ernestine, joyously. "M. Olivier has
positively refused to marry Mlle. de Beaumesnil, the rich heiress, has
he not?"

"Unquestionably," said the baron; "still, I don't understand--"

"But when M. Olivier discovers who I really am, how can he feel any fear
of being accused of mercenary motives in marrying me, when he had
positively refused to accept the proffered hand of the richest heiress
in France?"

"Or, in other words, an income of over three million francs," exclaimed
the baron, interrupting his ward. "That is true. The idea is an
excellent one. I congratulate you upon it, M. le marquis, and I say,
with you, that even if M. Olivier were a thousand times more proud and
sensitive, he could not hold out against this argument, viz.: 'You
positively refused to accept the three million francs when they were
offered you, so your motives are necessarily above suspicion.'"

"And it is impossible for M. Olivier to feel any scruples under these
circumstances, do you not think so, monsieur?"

"Most assuredly I do, my dear ward. But this revelation will have to be
made to M. Olivier sooner or later, I suppose."

"Of course, and I will attend to it," replied the marquis. "I have a
plan. We will talk that over together, by and by, baron, that and
certain business matters which young girls understand very little about.
Am I not right, my child?" added the marquis, with a smile, turning to
Ernestine.

"Perfectly right," answered Mlle. de Beanmesnil, "and whatever you and
my guardian may decide, I agree to in advance."

"I need not say, my dear baron, that we must maintain the utmost secrecy
in relation to all this until the signing of the marriage contract,
which I have my reasons for desiring should precede the publishing of
the banns. Day after to-morrow will not be too soon, I suppose. What do
you think about it, Ernestine?"

"You can guess my reply, monsieur," answered the young girl, blushing
and smiling.

Then she added, hastily:

"But mine will not be the only contract to sign. There is another, isn't
there, Herminie?"

"That is for M. de Maillefort to decide," replied Herminie, blushingly.

"I approve most decidedly; but who is to attend to all this rather
troublesome business?"

"You, of course, M. de Maillefort. You are so good and kind!" cried
Ernestine.

"Besides, have you not proved that nothing is impossible to you?" added
Herminie.

"Oh, as for the impossibilities achieved, when I think of the scene at
your home this morning, you, my dear child, are the one who deserves
praise, not I."

On hearing these words, M. de la Rochaiguë, who had seemed to be hardly
aware of Herminie's presence before, turned to her, and said:

"Pardon me, my dear young lady; my attention has been so engrossed by
what has just occurred that--"

"M. de la Rochaiguë," said Ernestine, taking Herminie by the hand, "I
wish to present to you my dearest friend, or, rather, my sister, for no
two sisters could love each other more devotedly than we do."

"But," said the baron, greatly surprised, "if I am not very much
mistaken, mademoiselle--mademoiselle is the music teacher we selected
for you on account of the extreme delicacy of her conduct in relation to
a perfectly just claim upon the Beaumesnil estate."

"You still have some very remarkable things to learn in relation to
Mlle. Herminie, my dear baron," said the marquis.

"Indeed? And what are they, may I ask?"

"In the conversation which you and I must have, presently, I will answer
your question fully; but now I am sure it will suffice you to know that
your ward has placed her friendship as wisely as her love; for I can
truly say that the person who would select M. Olivier Raymond for a
husband would be certain to select Mlle. Herminie for a friend."

"M. de Maillefort is right," said Mlle. de Beaumesnil, twining her arm
affectionately about her friend's waist; "both these greatest blessings
came to me the same evening at Madame Herbaut's little party."

"Madame Herbaut's little party!" repeated the baron, opening his eyes
wide, in astonishment, "What Madame Herbaut?"

"My dear child, you should be generous, and not give M. de la Rochaiguë
any more enigmas to solve this evening," said the hunchback.

"I declare myself utterly incapable of solving them," exclaimed the
baron. "My poor brain feels as confused and bewildered as if I had just
made a balloon ascension."

"Don't be alarmed, baron," said M. de Maillefort, laughing. "I shall
spare your imagination any further flights by soon telling you all there
is to tell."

"In that case we will leave you," said Ernestine, smiling. Then she
added:

"But I feel it my duty to warn you before I go that Herminie and I have
entered into a conspiracy, M. de la Rochaiguë."

"And what is this conspiracy, young ladies?"

"As it is so late, and as I should certainly become quite crazed with
joy if I were left entirely alone with my happiness, Herminie has
consented to remain with me until to-morrow morning. We shall dine
tête-à-tête, and in the happiest of moods, as you may imagine."

"An admirable arrangement, young ladies, for Madame de la Rochaiguë and
I have an engagement to dine out this evening," said the baron; "so a
pleasant evening to you."

"I shall see you both again to-morrow," said M. de Maillefort. "There
are some details which I am sure you will enjoy, that we must discuss
together."

The two girls, radiant with delight, returned to Ernestine's apartments,
and, after a daintily served dinner,--which they scarcely touched, so
absorbed were they in their new-found joy and happiness,--they retired
to Ernestine's chamber, to again talk over the strange vicissitudes of
their love affairs and of their friendship.

In about a quarter of an hour they were, to their great regret,
interrupted by Madame Laîné, who entered the room after having rapped in
a deprecating manner.

"What do you want, my dear Laîné?" asked Ernestine, a trifle
impatiently.

"I have a favour to ask of mademoiselle."

"What is it?"

"Mademoiselle is perhaps aware that M. le baron and madame are dining
out this evening, and that they will not return home until late."

"Yes, what of it?"

"Mlle. Helena, wishing the servants to profit by the leisure evening
monsieur's and madame's absence affords them, secured three loges at the
Gaîté Theatre this morning, where they are playing 'The Maccabees,' a
drama founded on an episode in Bible history."

"And you, too, wish to go, I suppose, my dear Laîné?"

"If mademoiselle will not need me until it is time for her to retire."

"You can have the entire evening, my dear Laîné, and take Thérèse with
you, if you choose."

"But what if mademoiselle should need something before our return?"

"Oh, I shall not need anything. Mlle. Herminie and I will wait on each
other. Go, and enjoy yourself, by all means, my dear Laîné, and be sure
to take Thérèse with you."

"Mademoiselle is very kind. I thank her a thousand times. If
mademoiselle should need anything, she has only to ring, however, for
Mlle. Helena told Placide to come down so as to be ready to answer
mademoiselle's bell if she rang."

"Very well, I will ring for her if I want anything. Good night, my dear
Laîné."

The governess bowed and retired, and the two young girls were left
almost alone in the big house, all the other inmates of the dwelling
having gone out, with the exception of Mlle. Helena de la Rochaiguë and
Placide, that lady's personal attendant, who had been instructed to
respond to the summons should Mlle. de Beaumesnil ring.



CHAPTER XXVIII.

FOILED!


The clock had just struck ten.

It was a dark and stormy night, and the howling of the wind was the only
sound that broke the profound silence which pervaded the spacious
mansion.

The young girls had been talking for two hours of their sad past and
their radiant future, though it seemed to them that the interchange of
confidence had scarcely begun.

But suddenly Ernestine paused in the middle of a sentence, and, turning
her head in the direction of Madame Laîné's room, seemed to listen
attentively.

"What is the matter, Ernestine?" inquired Herminie.

"Nothing, my dear, nothing," replied Mlle. de Beaumesnil, "I was
mistaken, of course."

"But what was it?"

"It seemed to me I heard a sound in Madame Laîné's room."

"What a timid little thing you are!" said Herminie. "It was probably
some outside shutter rattling in the wind you heard and--"

But Herminie, making a sudden movement of surprise in her turn, quickly
turned her head towards the door that separated Ernestine's bedroom from
the adjoining parlour, and said:

"How strange, Ernestine! Did you notice--?"

"That some one turned the key in that door."

Without replying, Herminie ran to the door and turned the knob.

Further doubt was impossible. Some one had, indeed, locked the door on
the outside.

"Great Heavens! what does this mean?" whispered Ernestine, really
frightened now. "And all the servants are out. Ah, fortunately, Placide,
one of Mlle. Helena's maids remained at home."

And rushing to the bell-rope, Mlle. de Beaumesnil pulled it violently
several times.

Meanwhile Herminie had recalled the vague uneasiness the marquis had
shown that afternoon when he alluded to the intimacy between Ravil and
Macreuse, but though she was considerably alarmed herself she did not
wish to increase Ernestine's terror, so she said:

"Don't be frightened, my dear; the person you rang for can explain what
surprises you so much, probably."

"But she doesn't come, and this is the third time I have rung for her!"
exclaimed Mlle. de Beaumesnil.

Then, trembling like a leaf, she added, in a whisper, pointing this time
to the door which separated her chamber from Madame Laîné's':

"Listen. Oh, my God! don't you hear somebody walking about in there?"

Herminie made her a reassuring gesture, but Mlle. de Beaumesnil, after
listening again for an instant, exclaimed with even greater terror:

"Herminie, I tell you I hear some one moving about! They are coming
towards the door. Listen!"

"We'll push the bolt and fasten ourselves in," said Herminie, promptly,
hastening towards the door.

But just as the young girl was about to place her hand on the bolt, the
door suddenly opened, and M. de Macreuse entered the room.

On seeing him, Herminie uttered a cry and sprang back, while this model
young man, turning towards some one who had remained in the next room,
exclaimed, in accents of amazement and baffled rage:

"Hell! she is not alone! All is lost!"

On hearing these words, a second intruder appeared.

It was Ravil.

And at the sight of Herminie, he cried, in a no less surprised and angry
tone:

"Damnation! that girl here!"

Herminie and Ernestine had retreated to the farther end of the room, and
there, clasped in each other's arms as if to afford each other mutual
support, they stood, paralysed with fright, and unable to utter a word.

Macreuse and Ravil, at first astounded, and then infuriated by the
unexpected presence of Herminie, which seemed likely to ruin their
plans, also stood silent and motionless for a moment, gazing inquiringly
at each other as if to read in each other's faces what they had better
do under such unforeseen circumstances.

The two girls, in spite of their terror, had noted the exclamations of
astonishment and dismay which had escaped both Macreuse and his
accomplice on finding that Mlle. de Beaumesnil was not alone, as they
had anticipated.

The two girls had also noticed the state of consternation in which the
founder of the St. Polycarpe mission and his accomplice had been
momentarily plunged.

Both these observations served to restore a little courage to the
sisters, and, reason coming to their aid, they finally came to the
conclusion that together they were as strong as they would have been
helpless had either of them found herself at the mercy of these
wretches, alone.

So Mlle. de Beaumesnil, realising how great was the danger from which
Herminie's presence had saved her, exclaimed, with a tenderness and
gratitude which proved the intensity of her anxiety and dread:

"See, Herminie, Heaven has again sent you to act as my protector! But
for you I should be lost."

"Courage, my dear, courage!" whispered the duchess. "See how
disconcerted the scoundrels look!"

"You are right, Herminie! Such a blissful day as this has been to us can
not be spoiled! I have a blind confidence in our star now."

Cheered by this brief interchange of whispered words, the orphans,
strengthened, too, by the thought of the radiant future before them,
gradually recovered their composure, and at last Ernestine, addressing
Macreuse and his accomplice, said, bravely:

"You will not succeed in terrifying us. The first shock is over and your
audacity arouses only disdain. In a short time the servants will return,
and you will be put out of the house as disgracefully as you entered
it."

"It is true we may be compelled to endure your presence for awhile,"
added Herminie, with bitter scorn; "but in spite of our contempt and
aversion, Mlle. de Beaumesnil and I have both been subjected to more
severe ordeals."

"What a courageous man you are, M. de Macreuse, to steal at night, with
an accomplice, into the room of a young girl you believe to be alone, in
order to secure a cowardly revenge for the humiliation that M. de
Maillefort, who knows you, inflicted upon you in public!" added
Ernestine.

Macreuse and Ravil listened to these sarcasms in silence, interchanging
wrathful looks the while.

"My dear Herminie," resumed Mlle. de Beaumesnil, whose countenance was
gradually regaining its accustomed serenity, "I may seem very silly to
you, and it may be that the great happiness we have experienced to-day
has upset me a little, but really all this seems so utterly absurd and
ridiculous to me that I can scarcely help laughing."

"I, too, must admit that it seems ridiculous, and even grotesque, to
me."

"The discomfiture of these scoundrels is really pitiable," remarked
Mlle. de Beaumesnil, bursting into a hearty laugh this time.

"The impotent rage of these conspirators, who excite mirth rather than
fear, is extremely amusing," chimed in Herminie, no less gaily.

In fact, the bewilderment of these two scoundrels, who did not consider
themselves in the least subjects for mirth, was so ludicrous that the
orphans, either because their happiness had, indeed, made them bold, or
because they were really brave enough to face this danger unflinchingly,
gave way to another burst of feverish, vindictive gaiety,--feverish,
because the two girls were naturally excited by the very strangeness of
the situation, vindictive, because they were fully conscious of the
disappointment and exasperation they were causing Macreuse and Ravil.

The intruders, momentarily disconcerted by the unexpected presence of
Herminie, and by the strange hilarity of the young girls, soon began to
recover their assurance.

Macreuse, whose drawn features were assuming a more and more threatening
expression, whispered a few words in Ravil's ear, whereupon that worthy
hastily stepped to the only window in the room, and slipped a small
steel chain around the fastening, thus effectually closing the window as
well as the inside shutters, and then united the two ends of the chain
with a padlock.

This done, it was impossible, of course, to open either the window or
shutters from the inside and call for help.

The two girls thus found themselves at the mercy of Macreuse and De
Ravil.

The door leading into the sitting-room had been locked on the other side
by Mlle. Helena's maid, for it is needless to say that this saintly
creature and her attendant were Macreuse's accomplices, but both were
ignorant that Herminie was still with Mlle. de Beaumesnil.

While Ravil was thus engaged, Macreuse, whose countenance expressed the
most execrable sentiments, folded his arms upon his breast, and said,
with portentous calmness:

"My first plan has failed by reason of the presence of this accursed
creature (indicating Herminie by a gesture). I am frank, you see. But I
have ingenuity in plenty, and a devoted friend. You are both in our
power. We have two hours at our disposal, and I will convince you that I
am not a person to be laughed at long."

These threats, as well as the tone and expression of the man that made
them, were rendered even more terrifying by the solitude and entirely
defenceless position in which the two girls found themselves; but if
tragical things are once viewed in a ridiculous light, anything that
increases the horror of them likewise seems to increase the laughter of
the beholder, which soon becomes irrepressible.

Macreuse's threats produced this very effect upon the two young girls,
for, unfortunately, as he spoke he made an involuntary movement that
caused his hat to slip far back on his head, and this, in spite of his
threatening, almost ferocious expression, gave such an odd appearance to
his rather broad face that the two girls burst into a fresh fit of
merriment.

Then came the accomplice's turn.

The girls had watched Ravil's manoeuvre with even more curiosity than
alarm, but when the time came to pass the hasp of the padlock through
the last links of the chain, Ravil, who was a little near-sighted, did
not succeed at first, and stamped his foot violently in his anger and
impatience.

This elicited another such paroxysm of nervous laughter from the two
girls that Macreuse and his accomplice, amazed, then as deeply
exasperated as if they had been slapped in the face, in the presence of
a hundred witnesses, lost their heads, and, quite carried away with
ferocious rage, sprang towards the young girls, and seized them savagely
by the arm.

As they did so, Macreuse, his face livid, his eyes haggard, and
positively foaming at the mouth with rage, but with his unfortunate hat
still on the back of his head, exclaimed:

"Have we got to kill you to frighten you?"

"Alas! it is not our fault," said Ernestine, bursting into another fit
of laughter at the sight of this alike terrible and grotesque figure.
"You can only kill us--with laughter."

And Herminie chimed in.

Infuriated beyond expression, there is no knowing to what violence the
two villains might have resorted, but at that very instant the door
leading into the sitting-room--the door which had been locked on the
outside--was suddenly opened, and M. de Maillefort, accompanied by
Gerald, burst into the room, exclaiming, in a voice full of anxiety and
alarm:

"Have no fears, my children; here we are!"

But judge of the newcomers' astonishment. Both had rushed in, pale and
terrified, like persons who had come to rescue a friend from some great
danger. And what did they behold?

Two young girls with brilliant colour, sparkling eyes, and bosoms
heaving with laughter, while Macreuse and Ravil stood pale with rage and
motionless with terror at this unexpected interference.

For an instant the marquis attributed this strange hilarity on the part
of the two girls to hysteria, caused by intense fright, but he was
speedily reassured by Ernestine, who said:

"Forgive this extraordinary gaiety, my dear M. de Maillefort, but such a
strange thing has happened. These two men entered the house by that
back stairway I told you about--"

[Illustration: _"M. de Maillefort, accompanied by Gerald, burst into the
room."_

Original etching by Adrian Marcel.]

"Yes," said the marquis, turning to Herminie; "the key--this
morning--you remember, my child. My presentiments did not deceive me, it
seems."

"I must admit that we were terribly frightened at first," replied
Herminie, "but when we saw the rage and disappointment of these men, who
had expected to find Ernestine alone--"

"And their consternation was so ludicrous," added Mlle. de Beaumesnil,
"and we felt so perfectly safe, being together, that what had seemed so
terrible at first began--"

"To appear positively ludicrous," added Herminie.

"But just as you came in M. de Macreuse was talking of killing us to
cure us of our inclination to laugh," remarked Ernestine.

"Did any one ever see the like of them?" the marquis exclaimed,
admiringly, turning to Gerald. "Are they not as brave as they are
charming?"

"I admire their courage as much as you do," replied Gerald, "but when I
think of the shameful audacity of these scoundrels, whom I hardly dare
to look at for fear I shall not be able to control myself and so trample
them under my feet, I--"

"Nonsense, my dear Gerald, nonsense!" exclaimed the marquis. "Gentlemen
do not touch carrion like that even with their feet. The criminal court
will attend to them now."

And turning to the model young man and to Ravil, who had summoned up all
their assurance with the evident intention of braving the storm, the
hunchback said:

"M. de Macreuse, since your sudden intimacy with M. de Ravil began,
knowing what you were both capable of, I have had you closely watched."

"A system of espionage, eh?" said Macreuse, with a haughty smile. "I am
not surprised."

"Yes, of espionage," retorted the hunchback. "This morning I happened to
see you in a locksmith's. You were showing a key to him, and this
excited my suspicions. I consequently redoubled my vigilance, and this
evening you and your companion were followed here by two of my men. One
of those men remained by the door which he had just seen you open with a
false key. The other ran to inform me, and I, in turn, sent him to
summon the police, who must be waiting for you this very minute at the
foot of the stairway by which you effected an entrance here. They will
speedily give you and your worthy friend some idea of the annoyance to
which persons who enter an occupied house at night by the aid of false
keys expose themselves."

On hearing this announcement, Macreuse and Ravil gave a violent start,
and looked at each other, their faces livid with fear.

"You are pretty certain to be sent to the galleys, I think," continued
the hunchback, coolly. "But M. de Macreuse can play the part of St.
Vincent de Paul there, and excite the admiration of his red-capped
colleagues by his Christian virtues."

The sound of footsteps was heard in the room of Mlle. de Beaumesnil's
governess.

"The commissioner of police has taken the trouble to come for you, as
you don't seem inclined to go down," remarked the marquis. "It is
certainly very kind in him."

The door opened almost at that very instant, and a commissioner of
police, followed by several members of the force, entered, and said to
Macreuse and Ravil:

"I arrest you in the name of the law, and I shall now proceed in your
presence to draw up an official report of the criminating facts in the
case."

"Come, my dear children," said the marquis to Ernestine and Herminie,
"let us leave these gentlemen to attend to their own affairs while we go
up to Madame de la Rochaiguë's apartments to await the return of your
guardian."

"The testimony of these young ladies will be indispensable, M. le
marquis," said the commissioner, "and I shall do myself the honour to
call upon them for it presently."

       *       *       *       *       *

An hour afterwards, the founder of the St. Polycarpe Mission and his
accomplice were both placed in prison, to answer to the charge of having
entered an occupied house at night by means of false keys, and of having
attempted to intimidate the inmates by threats and violence.

On the return of the baron and baroness, it was decided that Ernestine
and Herminie should share Madame de la Rochaiguë's room the rest of the
night.

As the hunchback took leave of the young girls, he smilingly remarked to
them:

"I have accomplished a good deal since I last saw you. The marriage
contracts are drawn up, and they will be signed at Herminie's home at
seven o'clock to-morrow evening."

"At my home? How glad I am!" said the duchess.

"Is it not always customary to sign the contract at the house of the
bride?" asked the marquis. "And as you and Ernestine are so devoted to
each other that you are almost the same as sisters--"

"Exactly the same as sisters, you mean."

"It is only proper that Ernestine's marriage contract should be signed
at the home of her elder sister."

       *       *       *       *       *

So all the next day, Herminie, radiant with happiness, was making
important preparations in her pretty, dainty room for the signing of the
marriage contracts of the richest heiress in France, and of the adopted
daughter of M. le Marquis de Maillefort, Prince Duc de Haut-Martel,--an
adoption of which the poor musician had not as yet the slightest
suspicion.



CHAPTER XXIX.

AN EVENTFUL DAY.


Herminie was not the only person who was busily engaged in preparations
for the signing of these contracts.

A joyous excitement pervaded a modest little home in the Batignolles,
also.

Commander Bernard, Gerald, and Olivier had insisted upon dining together
that evening under the same arbour where the opening scene of this story
had occurred several months before.

At the conclusion of the repast all three were to repair to Herminie's
for the signing of the marriage contract.

A superb autumn afternoon had favoured the realisation of this project,
and Madame Barbançon had surpassed herself in her culinary achievements.

Notified in advance this time, she had tended with the utmost solicitude
a triumphant _pot au feu_, which was to be followed by some juicy
cutlets, a fine roast chicken, and a boiled custard, where the snowy
whites of the eggs floated in immaculate whiteness upon a rich vanilla
cream.

Poor Madame Barbançon considered this decidedly commonplace menu the _ne
plus ultra_ of culinary magnificence.

But, alas! in spite of the excellence of the repast, the three guests
did little honour to it. Joy had deprived them of their appetites, and
the worthy housekeeper, in her disappointment, could not help comparing
this disheartening indifference with the zest with which Gerald and
Olivier had devoured two helpings of her hastily improvised vinaigrette
several months before.

Madame Barbançon had just removed the fowl almost untouched, and as she
placed the snow custard on the table, she muttered between her teeth:

"They'll clean this dish sure. One doesn't have to be hungry to eat
this. It is the very food for lovers."

"The devil! Mother Barbançon," said the commander, gaily, "here's a dish
that reminds me of the snow-banks of Newfoundland. What a pity it is
that none of us are the least bit hungry!"

"It is, indeed, for Madame Barbançon has proved herself to be a
veritable _cordon bleu_ to-day," remarked Gerald.

"It is the finest snow custard that was ever concocted," added Olivier.
"We can at least devour it with our eyes."

The housekeeper, who could not believe that she was to be subjected to
this last cruel affront, said, in constrained tones:

"You gentlemen must be jesting."

"Jesting about such a sacred thing as your snow custard, Mother
Barbançon? The devil take me if I should dare to be as sacrilegious as
all that," said the commander. "But as we're not in the least hungry, it
is impossible for us to taste your _chef-d'oeuvre_."

"Yes, absolutely impossible," repeated the two young men.

The housekeeper did not utter a word, but a sudden contraction of her
features betrayed the violence of her resentment plainly enough.

Seizing a soup plate, she emptied nearly half the contents of the dish
into it; then, placing it in front of the astonished commander, said, in
tones of authority:

"You--you will eat it, monsieur."

"But listen, Mother Barbançon--"

"It is no use to 'Mother Barbançon' me. This is only the second time in
ten years that I have had occasion to make a snow custard. I made this
in honour of M. Olivier's and M. Gerald's marriages. There are no 'ifs'
and 'buts' about it; you are going to eat it."

The unfortunate veteran, seeing only hostile faces around him,--for
Gerald and Olivier, the traitors, pretended to uphold the
housekeeper,--attempted a compromise.

"All right. I will eat it to-morrow, Mother Barbançon," he said.

"As if a snow custard would keep until to-morrow!" retorted the
housekeeper, shrugging her shoulders. "You're going to eat it now, this
minute."

"I won't do anything of the kind," exclaimed the veteran, testily. "I'm
not going to kill myself for anybody."

"Kill yourself with a snow custard made by me!" exclaimed the
housekeeper, as sadly and reproachfully as if her employer had mortally
insulted her. "Ah, me! I little expected--after ten years of faithful
service--and on such--such a happy day--the day when M. Olivier is to
take a wife--to find myself--treated--like--this."

And the worthy woman began to sob violently.

"What on earth is the woman crying about?" exclaimed the veteran, in
despair. "You are crazy, my dear woman! Upon my word of honour, you must
be crazy!"

"Kill you! Ah, I shall not forget those words for many a long year, I
can tell you."

"Oh, come, come now! I'll eat the--Look, don't you see that I am eating
it now?" said the unfortunate commander, hastily swallowing a few
spoonfuls. "It is delicious, divine, this custard of yours. Are you
satisfied now?"

"Yes, monsieur; yes, that satisfies me," said the housekeeper, drying
her tears. "It was a nice custard. I said to myself while I was stirring
it, 'I certainly must give my recipe to M. Olivier's little wife.' I
must, mustn't I, M. Olivier?"

"Of course you must, Madame Barbançon, for Mlle. Ernestine is going to
prove a model housekeeper, I'm sure."

"And the grand pickles I'll teach her to make,--green as grass and crisp
as hazelnuts. Oh, you shall see what nice little dishes we will fix up
for you, your little wife and I."

Gerald, to whom M. de Maillefort had been obliged to confide the secret
of Mlle. de Beaumesnil's masquerade, could not help laughing heartily at
the idea of Madame Barbançon giving her cooking recipes to the richest
heiress in France.

"What are you laughing at, M. Gerald?" asked the housekeeper. "Have you
no confidence in my recipes?"

"I believe in them as I believe in the gospels. I am laughing just
because I am so happy, I suppose. That is only natural, I imagine, on
one's marriage day."

"There have been monsters who were more ferocious than ever on their
marriage day," responded Madame Barbançon, with a gloomy and profoundly
mysterious air.

"Nonsense!"

"Think, M. Gerald. Don't you recollect how he conducted himself on the
day of his marriage with Marie Louise?--the scoundrel!"

Madame Barbançon evidently thought it entirely superfluous to mention
the object of her execration by name.

"Come, Mother Barbançon, you had better give us our coffee now,"
interposed the commander. "It is nearly six o'clock."

"Well, monsieur, that wretch whom you admire so much, on the day of his
marriage with Marie Louise, behaved more cruelly than any tiger to that
darling little King of Rome, who, clasping his tiny hands, pleaded in
his fresh, sweet voice: 'Papa Emperor, do not desert poor Mamma
Josephine.'"

"Oh, yes, yes; I remember it very well," replied Gerald, with wonderful
_sang-froid_. "You are speaking of the King of Rome, Josephine's son."

"Certainly, M. Gerald; there were no other children. But, after all,
that is nothing in comparison to what the wretch had the audacity to do
to the Holy Father, on the very steps of the altar at Notre-Dame."

"What was it he did? I have forgotten."

"It seems," began Madame Barbançon, sententiously, "it seems that at
coronations the Pope always takes the crown and places it on the head of
the monarch he is crowning. You can imagine how much this must have
angered your Bû-û-onaparte, who was already in a huff because he had had
to kiss the Pope's toe in the middle of the Carrousel, before those
swaggering guards of his. But he kissed it, the scoundrel! He had to. If
he hadn't, the _petit homme rouge_, who was against Roustan, and for the
pope, would have wrung his neck that very night."

"The Pope's?" asked Gerald.

"Roustan's?" inquired Olivier.

"No, no, gentlemen, not theirs, but Bû-û-onaparte's. Still, no matter
about that. What I was going to say was that when the Holy Father was
about to crown him, what did that Corsican ogre you are so fond of
do--like the low common grocer that he was--but grab the crown from the
hands of the poor Holy Father and put it on his head with one hand,
while with the other he gave the Holy Father a sound rap on the skull,
as if to say to the French people: 'Down with religion, the clergy, and
all! It is only to me you must bow the knee.' It was such a blow that he
gave the poor Holy Father that he reeled and fell headlong on the steps
of the altar with his cap down over his eyes, and there he gave thanks
in Latin, that angel of a man! This goes to prove, M. Olivier," added
the housekeeper, as a sort of conclusion and moral, "that marriage only
renders Corsican ogres still more ferocious, while I am sure your and M.
Gerald's marriage to such dear girls as your sweethearts must be will
only make you still more kind and amiable."

And the worthy woman hurried off to bring the coffee and serve it while
Commander Bernard filled his big Kummer pipe.

The hilarity caused by Madame Barbançon's story soon gave place to
graver and nobler thoughts.

"In spite of her peculiarities, this good woman is right in reminding us
that our marriage ought to increase whatever good we have in us,"
remarked Gerald. "I hardly see how it can fail to do so, do you,
Olivier?"

Then perceiving that his friend had fallen into a sort of reverie,
Gerald laid a hand affectionately on his shoulder and asked:

"What are you thinking about, Olivier?"

"I was thinking, my dear Gerald, that it was while we were seated at
this table, just six months ago, that I spoke to you for the first time
about the charming girl everybody here called the duchess, and that you
replied: 'Duchesses, don't talk to me of duchesses. I've had enough of
them!' and now, thanks to you, she is a real duchess, the Duchesse de
Senneterre. How strangely things come about in this world of ours!"

"You are right, my dear boys," said the old naval officer, "and when the
present is all that one can desire, it is very pleasant to look back
upon the past. Six months ago, for example, who would have guessed that
my brave Olivier would now be on the eve of marrying a dear, sweet girl
who had saved my life at the risk of her own?"

"And who ever would have supposed that the Mlle. de Beaumesnil we
talked so much about, and upon whom I had matrimonial designs myself,
would ever have fallen in love with Olivier?" added Gerald, with a keen
look at his friend.

"Oh, don't say any more about that foolish affair, Gerald. It was a mere
whim on the part of a spoiled child,--a whim that is probably forgotten
even now."

"You are mistaken, Olivier," replied Gerald, gravely. "I have seen Mlle.
de Beaumesnil and talked with her, and though she is no older than your
Ernestine, she is not a spoiled or capricious child by any means, but a
young woman full of good sense and discernment."

"My opinion is that Mlle. de Beaumesnil is at least a young lady of
excellent taste, as she was so much pleased with my Olivier," exclaimed
the commander, gaily. "But it was too late; the fortress had already
surrendered to our dear little Ernestine, who isn't overburdened with
money, it is true, but who has the very bravest and noblest heart in the
world."

"You are right, uncle," replied Olivier. "The fortress had surrendered,
surrendered unconditionally, but even if I had not--"

"What do you mean?" asked Gerald, looking at his friend rather
anxiously. "If your affections had been fancy free, wouldn't you have
married Mlle. de Beaumesnil?"

"You're mad, Gerald; of course I wouldn't."

"But why?"

"Do you remember what you said here, at this very table, a few months
ago: that when an immensely wealthy man marries an attractive girl
because she is charming and worthy of him nobody disapproves of it; but
that when a man who has nothing, marries a woman who brings him an
enormous fortune, it is disgraceful. Those were almost his very words,
were they not, uncle?"

"Undoubtedly."

"One moment," exclaimed Gerald, unable to control his growing anxiety,
"you should also recall the arguments you yourself used, Olivier, to
overcome my scruples on the subject of Mlle. de Beaumesnil: if, in spite
of her immense fortune, it is evident that you love this young lady as
much as you would have loved her had she been poor and obscure, the most
suspicious person could not disapprove of such a marriage. Wasn't that
what Olivier said, commander, and didn't you agree with him?"

"That is true, M. Gerald; and I am sure nothing could be more just and
reasonable, but, thank Heaven, we have no such delicate question to deal
with in this instance. Olivier only acted like any other honourable man
in refusing to make a wealthy marriage because he loved elsewhere; it
was all perfectly natural, it seems to me. I am sure neither you nor I
ought to be at all surprised, for you are making a love match as well as
Olivier."

"A love match! That is the very word for it!" exclaimed the young
officer, enthusiastically. "Ernestine is as gentle and kind as she is
ingenuous; and then the dear girl is so grateful that a fine gentleman
like myself should be generous enough to marry her!" added Olivier,
smiling. "Ah, if you only knew what a charming letter she wrote me
yesterday, telling me that her relative consented to everything, and
that, if my intentions had not changed, the marriage contract could be
signed to-day. You cannot imagine anything more artless, and yet more
exquisitely modest and touching than this letter. It proves Ernestine to
be the very person I judged her to be from her countenance."

"I have never seen a more attractive face according to my ideas," said
the old officer.

"Is it not, my dear uncle? Her features are not so remarkably regular,
it is true, but what a gentle expression she has, and what a charming
smile, with her little white teeth. And then what superb chestnut hair
she has, and such a slender waist and such a pretty little hand, and
the tiniest foot imaginable!"

"Olivier, my boy," said the old officer, pulling out his watch, "you are
so engaged in enumerating your sweetheart's charms, that you forget it
is almost time to join her, to say nothing of the fact that M. Gerald
must have time to go home for his mother so as to take her with him to
Mlle. Herminie's house."

"We shall have plenty of time, commander," said Gerald, "but I cannot
tell you how delighted I am to see Olivier so deeply in love with his
Ernestine."

"Deeply in love, unquestionably, my dear Gerald, to say nothing of the
fact that I love her all the more devotedly because she is your dear
Herminie's most intimate friend."

"Really, Olivier, it is enough to turn one's head completely, to think
of so much happiness and felicity, after so many obstacles and
difficulties! Come, my friend, my brother,--for is it not almost as if
we were marrying two sisters, or they were marrying two brothers; upon
my word, the tears come to my eyes in spite of me, when I think of
it!--come, embrace me here before we start. We should look too absurd
doing it before all the grand relatives!"

And the two young men embraced each other with fraternal tenderness,
while Commander Bernard, anxious to maintain his dignity as a grand
relative, tried to conceal his emotion by puffing away lustily at his
pipe; after which, Gerald left in hot haste to escort his mother to
Herminie's.

Olivier and his uncle were about to start themselves, when they were
stopped by Madame Barbançon, who advanced towards them with measured
steps, holding on the palms of her extended hands, for fear of soiling
it, a superb white cravat starched to the last degree of stiffness and
folded ready for wear.

"What the deuce is that, Mother Barbançon?" asked the veteran, who had
already picked up his hat and cane, preparatory to departure.

"It is a cravat I have made for you, monsieur," said the worthy
housekeeper,--"a little surprise I ventured upon, as you have nothing
but your black cravat to wear on this happy day--and--I--I thought
that--"

And the worthy woman, quite overcome with excitement and emotion, burst
into tears, unable to finish the sentence.

The old officer, though he positively loathed the idea of swathing his
neck in this uncomfortable affair, was so deeply touched by this
attention on the part of his housekeeper that his voice trembled with
emotion, as he replied:

"Why, Mother Barbançon, Mother Barbançon, what extravagance! I really
ought to scold you well."

"See, there is a J and a B for Jacques Bernard, embroidered in each
corner," said the housekeeper, calling attention to this decoration with
manifest pride.

"True, there are my initials. See, Olivier!" said the good man,
delighted with this attention.

"Why, my dear, good woman, you have no idea what pleasure, what great
pleasure you have given me!" he added.

"Oh, thank you, monsieur," replied Madame Barbançon, as deeply touched
and as joyfully as if she had received the most generous reward.

"But it is getting late," she added. "Look, it is half past six. Quick,
monsieur, let me put it on for you."

"Put what on, Mother Barbançon?"

"Why, the cravat, monsieur."

"On me? The deuce take me, if--"

But a meaning look from Olivier made the old officer realise how much
chagrin he would cause the worthy housekeeper by refusing to don her
gift.

On the other hand, the good man had never worn a white cravat in his
life, and fairly shuddered at the idea of such a piece of neck-gear.

But his natural kindness of heart conquered, and, smothering a sigh, he
yielded his neck to Madame Barbançon, saying, in order to complete his
exclamation in a manner that would be more flattering to his
housekeeper:

"I meant to say, the deuce take me if I refuse, Mother Barbançon, but it
is much too fine for me."

"Nothing can be too fine for such an occasion as this, monsieur," said
the housekeeper, carefully adjusting the cravat. "It is a great pity
that you haven't something better to wear than that old blue coat you've
had at least seven years, but with your cross of the Legion of Honour
and this handsome cravat,"--pulling out the ends of the cravat until
they looked like two immense rabbits' ears, and then eying her work
complacently,--"you have no cause to blush for your appearance. Ah,
monsieur," she added, stepping back a little to see the effect better,
"it makes you look twenty years younger, doesn't it, M. Olivier?
Besides, it is so--so stylish--it makes you look like a notary, indeed
it does."

The poor commander, with his neck imprisoned in the huge cravat that
reached up to the middle of his cheeks, turned and looked in the little
mirror that hung over the mantel in his bedroom, and it must be
confessed that the effect was really very becoming.

"It's a pity it prevents me from turning my head," he said to himself,
"but, as Mother Barbançon says, it is rather becoming--and decidedly
professional looking," he added, with just the least bit of foppishness.

And the old officer passed his hand rather complacently through his
thick white hair.

"Come, uncle, it is quarter of seven," said Olivier, with all a lover's
impatience, "and quite time we were off."

"Very well, my boy, we will start at once. Give me my hat and cane,
Mother Barbançon," said the old officer, not daring to look either to
the right or left, for fear of disarranging the wonderful rabbit-eared
bow.

The evening was superb, and the distance from the Batignolles to the Rue
de Monceau very short, so the commander and Olivier proceeded modestly
on foot to Herminie's home.

Fortunately the exercise this involved softened the rigid folds of the
commander's cravat a little, and though he may have looked a little less
imposing when he reached his destination, this fact did not impair in
the least the noble expression of his honest, manly face.



CHAPTER XXX.

THE SIGNING OF THE MARRIAGE CONTRACTS.


On the very evening that the two marriage contracts were to be signed,
M. Bouffard, the owner of the house that sheltered Herminie, his
pianist, as he had styled her ever since the young girl began giving
lessons to his daughter,--M. Bouffard came after dinner to make his
usual tour of inspection, for rent day was close at hand.

He reached the house about half-past six in the evening, and seated
himself in Madame Moufflon's room to question her in regard to the
supposed financial condition of the tenants, and to ascertain if any of
them showed signs of uneasiness as the dread moment approached.

"Why, no, M. Bouffard. I can't say that any of them do," replied Madame
Moufflon, "that is, except the new tenant on the third floor."

"Well, what about him?" inquired M. Bouffard, anxiously.

"When he came here, three months ago, he was as pompous as a lord, but
in proportion as rent day approaches, he is becoming polite,
distressingly polite to me."

"I shall have to watch the fellow closely, then, Madame Moufflon, that
is a very bad sign. Ah, what a pity it is that that handsome young
fellow who paid my pianist's rent didn't take to those rooms on the
third floor. He wouldn't have--"

M. Bouffard never finished the sentence, for there came two or three
such violent knocks at the porte-cochère that Madame Moufflon and her
employer both bounded out of their chairs.

"Well, well, who is it that knocks as I, the owner of the house, would
not think of knocking?" exclaimed M. Bouffard. "Let me see who this
ill-mannered fellow is," added M. Bouffard, stepping to the door, as the
portress pulled the rope.

"The doors, please!" cried a stentorian voice, thus announcing that both
doors of the porte-cochère must be opened to admit a carriage.

M. Bouffard and the portress, amazed at this unheard-of demand, stood as
if petrified on seeing a tall powdered footman, attired in a bright blue
livery trimmed with silver braid, emerge from the shadow.

"Open both doors, quick!" said this liveried giant, authoritatively.

M. Bouffard was so overcome that he bowed low to the lackey.

"Will you never get the doors open? This is outrageous! The prince is
waiting--"

"The prince!" gasped M. Bouffard, with another even more profound bow to
the footman.

Just then another no less imperious blow of the knocker resounded.

Madame Moufflon drew the cord with an automatic movement exactly as
before, and again a voice cried from under the archway:

"Both doors, please!"

And another footman, clad in green and gold livery this time, stepped up
to the door of the porter's lodge, at which an acquaintance must have
been standing, for he exclaimed:

"What, Lorrain, is that you? I just saw your master's carriage. What's
the matter here? Why don't they open the doors? Are the porter and
portress asleep?"

"One would think they had glass eyes. Look at them, they don't move."

"And it is madame la duchesse they're keeping waiting. She never gets
impatient, oh, no!"

"Madame la duchesse!" repeated M. Bouffard, more and more astounded, but
still motionless.

"_Mille tonnerres!_ will you open the doors sometime to-night?" demanded
one of the footmen.

"But who do you wish to see?" asked M. Bouffard, awakening from his
stupor.

"Mlle. Herminie," said the tallest lackey, with an evident respect for
the person his master was about to visit.

"Yes, Mlle. Herminie," replied the other.

"The small door to the left, under the archway," said the portress, more
and more amazed. "I'll open the doors at once."

"A prince and a duchess, visiting my pianist!" gasped M. Bouffard.

Soon came another knocking, much more gentle this time, and another
footman in brown livery, with blue trimmings, came to complete the
assemblage of lackeys, exclaiming:

"Is everybody stone-deaf here? The doors, why don't you open the doors,
I say?"

M. Bouffard, desperate now, resolved to play a heroic part, so, while
the portress was tidying herself up a little so as to usher in
Herminie's aristocratic visitors, the ex-grocer rushed out to open the
double doors of the porte-cochère. This menial task performed, he had
barely time to draw back close to the wall to prevent himself from being
crushed by the broad breasts of two superb gray horses attached to an
elegant dark blue coupé that dashed in, and, skilfully guided by a tall
coachman, stopped short at a sign from one of the footmen, who had
stationed himself at Herminie's door.

A hunchback and a stout man, both dressed in black, alighted from this
handsome equipage, and Madame Moufflon made haste to announce to M.
Bouffard's pianist:

"M. le Prince Duc de Haut-Martel."

"M. Leroi, notary."

The first carriage had hardly left the door before a handsome landau
drove up.

Two ladies and a young man descended from this vehicle, and Madame
Moufflon, who thought she must be dreaming, announced to M. Bouffard's
pianist:

"Madame la Duchesse de Senneterre."

"Mlle. Berthe de Senneterre."

"M. le Duc de Senneterre."

An elegant brougham having followed these carriages, another guest
alighted, and Madame Moufflon announced:

"M. le Baron de la Rochaiguë."

A few minutes afterwards the portress ushered into Mlle. Herminie's
apartment the following less pretentious personages:

"Commander Bernard."

"M. Olivier Raymond."

"Mlle. Ernestine Vert-Puis."

"Madame Laîné."

These last two persons had come in a modest cab.

These duties performed, Madame Moufflon rejoined her employer, who was
pacing vehemently to and fro, under the porte-cochère,--his forehead
covered with big drops of sweat, so intense was his excitement,--saying
to himself:

"_Mon Dieu! Mon Dieu!_ What can these great lords and ladies be doing in
my pianist's room? What do you suppose all this means, Mother Moufflon?"

"I don't know what to think,--my brain fairly whirls. I see stars, and
I'm so afraid of a stroke of apoplexy, I'm going to put my head under
the water spigot to cool it off."

"I have it!" suddenly exclaimed the ex-grocer, triumphantly. "My pianist
is giving a concert."

"I don't think so, for the last time I looked in I saw the ladies had
laid their wraps on the piano, which was closed, and the entire company
was standing in a row, while a notary--"

"What notary? Is there a notary here?"

"Yes, monsieur, the tall, stout man,--with a stomach twice as big as
yours. I announced him as 'M. Leroi, notary.' Well, he was seated at
Mlle. Herminie's table, with a pile of papers in front of him, and a
candle on each side--like a juggler."

"Perhaps he is one," exclaimed M. Bouffard, "or, possibly, a fortune
teller."

"But, as I told you just now, I announced him as a notary."

"True, true! Oh, well, I will stay awhile, and perhaps I shall be able
to find out something when they leave."

Such a brilliant assemblage had never honoured Herminie's modest little
home before, and the young girl experienced the liveliest satisfaction
and happiness at this unexpected dénouement of a love that had seemed so
hopeless. But the pleasure of welcoming Mlle. Berthe de Senneterre,
Gerald's sister, and the eldest daughter of the duchess, filled her cup
of joy to overflowing.

"Ah, madame," Herminie had said to the duchess, in a voice trembling
with emotion,--for she appreciated the delicacy of this proceeding on
the part of Gerald's mother, and felt that it was intended to serve as
some reparation for the cruel words of the evening before,--"ah, madame,
if I had been asked my most earnest desire, it would have been to see
Mlle. de Senneterre here,--that is, if I had dared to hope for the
honour."

"Berthe takes too deep an interest in her brother's happiness not to
wish to be the first to welcome her new sister-in-law," replied Madame
de Senneterre, in gracious, even affectionate tones.

Then Mlle. de Senneterre, a charming girl, for she strongly resembled
Gerald both in appearance and character, had said to Herminie, with
delightful affability:

"Yes, mademoiselle, I was anxious to be the first to thank you, for my
brother is so happy, and I feel and know that he has a thousand reasons
to be."

"I wish I were more worthy to offer M. de Senneterre the only family
happiness he can lack," replied Herminie, gently.

And while the two young girls continued this interchange of affectionate
words, thus prolonging a little scene in which Herminie gave convincing
proof of perfect tact, rare distinction of manner, and a modest and
graceful dignity, the hunchback, more and more charmed with his adopted
daughter, said, in a whispered aside to Madame de Senneterre:

"Tell me frankly; do you think it would be possible for any person to do
better under the circumstances?"

"It is really wonderful. She has an air of the most perfect breeding,
combined with marvellous tact, and an apparent familiarity with all the
rules and customs of the very best society. In short, she is a born
duchess; that is all there is about it."

"And what do you think of Mlle. de Beaumesnil's betrothed,--Gerald's
friend and former comrade?"

"You are subjecting me to a hard test, marquis," replied Madame de
Senneterre, smothering a sigh, "but I am forced to admit that he is a
charming and exceedingly distinguished-looking man, and that I can see
little, if any, difference between this gentleman and a member of our
own set in manner and bearing. It seems inconceivable to me that people
of this class can be so polished and refined. Ah, marquis, marquis, what
are we coming to?"

"We are coming to the signing of the contracts, my dear duchess; but I
beg of you," added the hunchback, in a low tone, "not a word that would
lead Gerald's friend to suppose that that simply dressed girl is Mlle.
de Beaumesnil."

"You need feel no fears on that score, marquis. Incomprehensible as this
mystery seems to me, I shall not say a word. Have I not maintained the
strictest secrecy on the subject of Herminie's adoption? My son is still
ignorant of your intentions, but all these mysteries will necessarily be
cleared up when the marriage contracts are read."

"I will attend to that, my dear duchess," replied the hunchback. "All I
ask of you is that you will keep the secret until I authorise you to
speak."

"Oh, I promise you I will do that."

Leaving Madame de Senneterre, who had seated herself beside her
daughter, and near Herminie, the hunchback rejoined the notary, and said
a few words, to which that official replied with a smile of assent;
after which, the marquis said aloud:

"We should now give our attention to the reading of the contracts, I
think."

"Undoubtedly," replied Madame de Senneterre.

The different actors in the scene were grouped as follows:

Herminie and Ernestine were seated side by side. On Herminie's right sat
Madame and Mlle. de Senneterre, while to the left of Ernestine sat
Madame Laîné, who was playing her modest rôle in a very satisfactory
fashion.

Standing behind Herminie and Ernestine were Gerald, Olivier, Commander
Bernard, and Baron de la Rochaiguë, whose presence astonished Olivier
very much, and caused him no little vague uneasiness, though he was
still far from suspecting that Ernestine, the little embroideress, and
Mlle. de Beaumesnil were one and the same person.

M. de Maillefort had remained at the other end of the room, seated
beside the notary, who, taking up one of the documents, said to the
hunchback:

"We will begin, if agreeable to you, M. le marquis, with M. le Duc de
Senneterre's contract."

"Certainly," replied the hunchback, smiling. "Mlle. Herminie is older
than Mlle. Ernestine, so she is entitled to this honour."

Whereupon the notary, bowing slightly to his auditors, was about to
begin the reading of Herminie's marriage contract, when M. de le
Rochaiguë, assuming one of his most imposing parliamentary attitudes,
said, impressively:

"I ask this honourable assembly's permission to make a few remarks prior
to the reading of these contracts."



CHAPTER XXXI.

THE BARON HAS HIS REVENGE.


Olivier Raymond, who had marvelled greatly at the baron's presence
before, became decidedly uneasy on hearing this request.

"M. le Baron de la Rochaiguë has the floor," responded M. de Maillefort,
smiling.

"In heaven's name, what business has that man here?" Olivier whispered
to his friend.

"I haven't the slightest idea, upon my word," replied the young duke,
with the most innocent air imaginable, "but if we listen we shall soon
find out, I suppose."

The baron cleared his throat, slipped his left hand in the bosom of his
coat, and said, in his most impressive tones:

"In behalf of certain interests that have been entrusted to me, I beg M.
Olivier Raymond to be good enough to answer a few questions I should
like to put to him."

"I am at your orders, monsieur," replied Olivier, more and more
astonished.

"In that case, I have the honour to ask M. Olivier Raymond if I did not
recently offer him,--being empowered, authorised, and commissioned to do
so in the capacity of Mlle. de Beaumesnil's guardian,--if I did not
offer him, I repeat, the hand of my ward, Mlle. de Beaumesnil?"

"Monsieur," replied Olivier, who was evidently quite as much incensed as
embarrassed by this question put to him in the presence of several
entire strangers,--"monsieur, I fail to see either the necessity or the
propriety of the question you just addressed to me."

"I am, nevertheless, obliged to appeal to the well-known honesty,
frankness, and sincerity of the honourable witness," said the marquis,
solemnly, "and adjure him to answer this question: Did I, or did I not,
offer him the hand of my ward, Mlle. de Beaumesnil?"

"Well, yes, monsieur," answered Olivier, impatiently, "you did."

"And did not M. Olivier Raymond clearly, positively, and categorically
decline this offer?"

"Yes, monsieur."

"Did not the honourable witness state, as the reason for this refusal,
the fact that his heart and honour were alike bound by an engagement
that would assure his happiness for life? Were these not, in substance,
this honourable gentleman's own words?"

"It is true, monsieur, and, thanks be to God! what was then my dearest
hope becomes a reality to-day," added the young man with an eloquent
look at Ernestine.

"Such disinterestedness is positively inconceivable," said the Duchesse
de Senneterre to her daughter, _sotto voce_. "It was associating with
such people that spoiled our poor Gerald so."

Mlle. de Senneterre cast down her eyes and dared not answer her mother,
who continued:

"But I fail to understand the situation. If this heroic gentleman
declined Mlle. de Beaumesnil, what are she and that idiotic guardian of
hers doing here? It is too much of a puzzle for me. Let us wait and
see."

In spite of the pride and delight that this public exposition of
Olivier's noble conduct excited in Ernestine's heart, she was by no
means entirely reassured in regard to the scruples he might feel when he
discovered that his little embroideress was Mlle. de Beaumesnil.

"I have now only to thank M. Olivier Raymond for the very honest,
explicit, and straightforward manner in which he has answered the
questions that have been addressed to him," said the baron, reseating
himself, "and to request this honourable assemblage to kindly take full
cognisance of my young friend's noble words."

"Why the devil does that long-toothed, pompous creature have to put in
his oar?" whispered Commander Bernard to Olivier, who was standing
beside him.

"I haven't the slightest idea, uncle. I am quite as much surprised to
find the man here as you are, and why he should desire to refer to the
offer he made me now, I cannot imagine."

"Oh, well, it can have no other ill effect than to make your dear
Ernestine still more fond of you on learning that you sacrificed a
colossal fortune on account of your love for her."

"It is just this sort of publicity given to a very natural act that so
annoys me," replied Olivier.

"You are right, my boy," chimed in the old officer. "One does such
things as that for one's own approval, not for the approval of others."

Then, turning to the Duc de Senneterre, he added:

"Say, M. Gerald, that little hunchback seated beside the notary is the
marquis you were telling us about, is it not?"

"Yes, commander."

"It is very odd. Sometimes he looks as cunning as a fox, and sometimes
as kind and gentle as a child. See how tenderly he is gazing at Mlle.
Herminie now."

"M. de Maillefort has as noble a heart as yours, commander. That means
everything."

"Hush, Gerald," whispered Olivier, "the notary is rising. He is about to
read your contract."

"It is a mere form," said Gerald. "The contract is of very little
consequence; the real conditions Herminie and I long since settled
between ourselves."

The excitement created by M. de la Rochaiguë's interruption having
subsided, the notary began to read Herminie's and Gerald's marriage
contract; but when, after the customary preliminaries, the notary came
to the names and occupations of the parties, M. de Maillefort remarked
to him, smiling:

"Skip all that, monsieur, if you please; we know the names. Let us get
to the important point, the settlement of pecuniary interests between
the parties."

"Very well, M. le marquis," replied the notary.

So he continued:

"'It is agreed by this contract that any property which either of the
aforesaid parties now possesses, or may possess at any future time,
belongs, and shall belong absolutely to that party, entirely independent
of the other contracting party.'"

"It was you, my dear child," the marquis said to Herminie, interrupting
the notary, "who, when I explained to you, yesterday, the various
methods of settling questions of pecuniary interest between husband and
wife, insisted, from motives of delicacy, that each party should hold
his or her property absolutely independent of the other, for possessing
nothing yourself except the talent by which you have so honourably
maintained yourself up to the present time, you refused absolutely the
community of interests and property which M. de Senneterre is so anxious
to have you accept."

Herminie's eyes drooped, and she blushed deeply, as she replied:

"I am almost certain that M. de Senneterre will excuse and understand my
refusal, monsieur."

Gerald bowed respectfully, and Berthe, his pretty sister, whispered
delightedly to her mother:

"Mlle. Herminie's sentiments certainly harmonise with her charming and
noble face, do they not, mamma?"

"Certainly, oh, certainly," replied Madame de Senneterre, absently; for
she was saying to herself all the while: "By this delicacy of feeling,
my daughter-in-law, little suspecting that the marquis intends to make
her so rich, has virtually settled all her property upon herself,
entirely independent of my son; but she loves him so much that, when she
finds that she is rich, she is sure to change this state of affairs."

The notary continued: "'It is also hereby agreed that any male offspring
that may result from this marriage shall add to their name of Senneterre
that of Haut-Martel. This clause has been consented to by the parties
aforesaid, at the request of Louis Auguste, Marquis de Maillefort,
Prince Duc de Haut-Martel.'"

Herminie having made a slight movement as if of surprise, the hunchback
said to her, glancing at Gerald:

"My dear child, this is a slight concession to ancestral pride, to which
Gerald has given his consent, certain that you would have no objection
to seeing your son bear, in addition to his own illustrious name, the
name of a man who regards you and loves you as his own daughter."

A look of respectful tenderness and gratitude from Herminie was
sufficient answer, and the hunchback, turning to the notary, said:

"That is the concluding clause of the contract, is it not?"

"Yes, M. le marquis."

"Then we can now proceed with the reading of Mlle. Ernestine's contract,
can we not," asked the hunchback, "and sign both contracts at the same
time, afterwards."

"Certainly, M. le marquis," replied the notary.

"Now comes our turn, my boy," whispered the commander to his nephew.
"What a pity it is that I haven't a snug little fortune to settle upon
you and that dear child in the contract. But alas! all I shall be able
to bequeath to you, I'm afraid, is good old Mother Barbançon," added the
old officer, half sadly, half smilingly. "A queer wedding present she
would be! I did think of selling our six tablespoons so I could make
Ernestine a little present, but Mother Barbançon wouldn't listen to it.
Your wife would rather have the silver than jewelry, she said."

"And Mother Barbançon was right, uncle. But hush. He is beginning to
read our contract now," for the notary, picking up the second contract,
said aloud:

"Shall we also skip the names in this contract?"

"Yes, yes; go on," responded the marquis.

"In that case, I come at once to the first and only clause relative to
financial matters in this contract."

"It is not likely to be a lengthy one," whispered Commander Bernard.

"Permit me to interrupt you a moment, monsieur," said Olivier, smiling.
"This clause of the contract seems entirely superfluous to me, for, as I
had the honour to tell you yesterday, I have nothing but my pay, and
Mlle. Ernestine Vert-Puis possesses nothing, save her skill as an
embroideress."

"True, monsieur," replied the notary, smiling in his turn, "but as one
has to be married under some régime or other, I thought it advisable to
adopt this one, and state in the contract that you married Mlle.
Ernestine Vert-Puis under the community of goods régime, which
stipulates that the husband and wife shall hold and enjoy their property
in common."

"It would be more correct to say that we married under the community of
no-goods régime," responded Olivier, gaily, "but it makes no difference.
As it is customary, we accept the clause, do we not, Mlle. Ernestine?"

"Very willingly, M. Olivier," replied Mlle. de Beaumesnil.

"So, monsieur," continued the young man, laughing, "it is agreed that
Mlle. Ernestine and I each turn our entire property into one common
fund,--everything, from my one epaulette to her embroidery needle,--a
complete mutual renunciation, as it were."

"There will be only burdens to share," muttered the commander, with a
sigh. "Ah, I never before longed to be rich as I do to-day!"

"It is decided, then, that the clause stipulating for a community of
property shall remain; so I will proceed," said the notary.

"'The parties aforesaid marry under the community of property régime,
and, consequently, agree to share, hold, and enjoy in common all
property, real or personal, of any value whatsoever, of which they may
now or at any future time be possessed, in their own right, or by
inheritance.'"

"By inheritance! Poor things! My cross and my old sword are all they
have to expect from me, M. Gerald," whispered the veteran.

"Oh, nonsense, commander," replied Gerald, gaily. "Who knows but you may
die a millionaire?"

But as the old officer, not sharing this hope, shook his head, the
notary, turning to Ernestine and Olivier, asked:

"This provision is perfectly satisfactory to you, mademoiselle, and to
you, monsieur?"

"Whatever is satisfactory to M. Olivier is satisfactory to me," replied
Mlle. de Beaumesnil.

"I think the arrangement perfect," answered Olivier, gaily; "and I
assure you that never in your life did you insert in any contract a
clause that is less likely to excite controversy than this."

"We will now proceed with the signing of the contracts," said the
notary, gravely, rising as he spoke.

Madame de Senneterre, having taken advantage of the general movement, to
approach M. de la Rochaiguë, now said, like one completely bewildered:

"My dear baron, will you be kind enough to tell me what all this
means?"

"What, madame la duchesse?"

"Why, all this mystery that is going on here."

"It is one that brought me nearly to the verge of madness a few days
ago, madame la duchesse."

"But does M. Olivier really believe that Mlle. de Beaumesnil is a poor
little embroideress?"

"Yes, madame."

"But why did he refuse the offer you made him?"

"Because he loved another, madame."

"And that other?"

"Was my ward."

"What ward?"

"Why, Mlle. de Beaumesnil," replied the baron, with a sort of fe