Gilberte Favoral had just completed her eighteenth year. Rather
tall, slender, her every motion betrayed the admirable proportions
of her figure, and had that grace which results from the harmonious
blending of litheness and strength. She did not strike at first
sight; but soon a penetrating and indefinable charm arose from her
whole person; and one knew not which to admire most, - the exquisite
perfections of her figure, the divine roundness of her neck, her
aerial carriage, or the placid ingenuousness of her attitudes. She
could not be called beautiful, inasmuch as her features lacked
regularity; but the extreme mobility of her countenance, upon which
could be read all the emotions of her soul, had an irresistible
seduction. Her large eyes, of velvety blue; had untold depths and
an incredible intensity of expression; the imperceptible quiver of
her rosy nostrils revealed an untamable pride; and the smile that
played upon her lips told her immense contempt for every thing mean
and small. But her real beauty was her hair, - of a blonde so
luminous that it seemed powdered with diamond-dust; so thick and
so long, that to be able to twist and confine it, she had to cut off
heavy locks of it to the very root.
Alone, in the house, she did not tremble at her father's voice. The
studied despotism which had subdued Mme. Favoral had revolted her,
and her energy had become tempered under the same system of
oppression which had unnerved Maxence.
Whilst her mother and her brother lied with that quiet impudence of
the slave, whose sole weapon is duplicity, Gilberte preserved a
sullen silence. And if complicity was imposed upon her by
circumstances, if she had to maintain a falsehood, each word cost
her such a painful effort, that her features became visibly altered.
Never, when her own interests were alone at stake, had she stooped
to an untruth. Fearlessly, and whatever might be the result,
"That is the fact," she would say.
Accordingly, M. Favoral could not help respecting her to a degree;
and, when he was in fine humor, he called her the Empress Gilberte.
For her alone he had some deference and some attentions. He
moderated, when she looked at him, the brutality of his language.
He brought her a few flowers every Saturday.
He had even allowed her a professor of music; though he was wont to
declare that a woman needs but two accomplishments, - to cook and
to sew. But she had insisted so much, that he had at last
discovered for her, in an attic of the Rue du Pas-de-la-Mule, an
old Italian master, the Signor Gismondo Pulei, a sort of unknown
genius, for whom thirty francs a month were a fortune, and who
conceived a sort of religious fanaticism for his pupil.
Though be had always refused to write a note, he consented, for her
sake, to fix the melodies that buzzed in his cracked brain; and some
of them proved to be admirable. He dreamed to compose for her an
opera that would transmit to the most remote generations the name
of Gismondo Pulei.
"The Signora Gilberte is the very goddess of music," he said to M.
Favoral, with transports of enthusiasm, which intensified still his
The cashier of the Mutual Credit Society shrugged his shoulders,
answering that there is no harmony for a man who spends his days
listening to the exciting music of golden coins. In spite of which
his vanity seemed highly gratified, when on Saturday evenings, after
dinner, Mlle. Gilberte sat at the piano, and Mme. Desclavettes,
suppressing a yawn, would exclaim,
"What remarkable talent the dear child has!"
The young girl had, then, a positive influence; and it was to her
entreaties alone, and not to those of his wife, that he had several
times forgiven Maxence. He would have done much more for her, had
she wished it; but she would have been compelled to ask, to insist,
"And it's humiliating," she used to say.
Sometimes Mme. Favoral scolded her gently, saying that her father
would certainly not refuse her one of those pretty toilets which are
the ambition and the joy of young girls.
"It is much less mortification to me to wear these rags than to meet
with a refusal," she replied. "I am satisfied with my dresses."
With such a character, surrounded, however, by a meek resignation,
and an unalterable sang-froid, she inspired a certain respect to
both her mother and her brother, who admired in her an energy of
which they felt themselves incapable.
And when she appeared, and commenced reproaching him in an indignant
tone of voice, with the baseness of his conduct, and his insatiate
demands, Maxence was almost stunned.
"I did not know," he commenced, turning as red as fire.
She crushed him with a look of mingled contempt and pity; and, in
an accent of haughty irony:
"Indeed," she said, "you do not know whence the money comes that
you extort from our mother!"
And holding up her hand, still remarkably handsome, though slightly
deformed by the constant handling of the needle; the fourth finger
of the right hand bent by the thread, and the fore-finger of the
left tattooed and lacerated by the needle:
"Indeed," she repeated, "you do not know that my mother and myself,
we spend all our days, and the greater part of our nights, working?"
Hanging his head, he said nothing.
"If it were for myself alone," she continued, "I would not speak to
you thus. But look at our mother! See her poor eyes, red and weak
from her ceaseless labor! If I have said nothing until now, it is
because I did not as yet despair of your heart; because I hoped that
you would recover some feeling of decency. But no, nothing. With
time, your last scruples seem to have vanished. Once you begged
humbly; now you demand rudely. How soon will you resort to blows?"
"Gilberte!" stammered the poor fellow, "Gilberte!"
She interrupted him:
"Money!' she went on, "always, and without time, you must have money;
no matter whence it comes, nor what it costs. If, at least, you
had to justify your expenses, the excuse of some great passion, or
of some object, were it absurd, ardently pursued! But I defy you
to confess upon what degrading pleasures you lavish our humble
economies. I defy you to tell us what you mean to do with the sum
that you demand to-night, - that sum for which you would have our
mother stoop to beg the assistance of a shop-keeper, to whom we
would be compelled to reveal the secret of our shame."
Touched by the frightful humiliation of her son:
"He is so unhappy!" stammered Mme. Favoral.
"He unhappy!" she exclaimed. "What, then, shall
we say of us? and, above all, what shall you say of yourself, mother?
Unhappy! - he, a man, who has liberty and strength, who may undertake
every thing, attempt any thing, dare any thing. Ah, I wish I were
a man! I! I would be a man as there are some, as I know some; and
I would have avenged you, 0 beloved mother! long, long ago, from
father; and I would have begun to repay you all the good you have
Mme. Favoral was sobbing.
"I beg of you," she murmured, "spare him."
"Be it so," said the young girl. "But you must allow me to tell him
that it is not for his sake that I devote my youth to a mercenary
labor. It is for you, adored mother, that you may have the joy to
give him what he asks, since it is your only joy."
Maxence shuddered under the breath of that superb indignation. That
frightful humiliation, he felt that he deserved it only too much.
He understood the justice of these cruel reproaches. And, as his
heart had not yet spoiled with the contact of his boon companions,
as he was weak, rather than wicked, as the sentiments which are the
honor and pride of a man were not dead within him.
"Ah! you are a brave sister, Gilberte," he exclaimed; "and what you
have just done is well. You have been harsh, but not as much as I
deserve. Thanks for your courage, which will give me back mine.
Yes, it is a shame for me to have thus cowardly abused you both."
And, raising his mother's hand to his lips:
"Forgive, mother," he continued, his eyes overflowing with tears;
"forgive him who swears to you to redeem his past, and to become
your support, instead of being a crushing burden -"
He was interrupted by the noise of steps on the stairs, and the
shrill sound of a whistle.
"My husband!" exclaimed Mme. Favoral, - "your father, my children!"
"Well," said Mlle. Gilberte coldly.
"Don't you hear that he is whistling? and do you forget that it is
a proof that he is furious? What new trial threatens us again?"