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XIV

Yes, Mlle. Gilberte had her secret - a very simple one, though,
chaste, like herself, and one of those which, as the old women say,
must cause the angels to rejoice.

The spring of that year having been unusually mild, Mlle. Favoral
and her daughter had taken the habit of going daily to breathe the
fresh air in the Place Royale. They took their work with them,
crotchet or knitting; so that this salutary exercise did not in any
way diminish the earnings of the week. It was during these walks
that Mlle. Gilberte had at last noticed a young man, unknown to her,
whom she met every day at the same place.

Tall and robust, he had a grand look, notwithstanding his modest
clothes, the exquisite neatness of which betrayed a sort of
respectable poverty. He wore his full beard; and his proud and
intelligent features were lighted up by a pair of large black eyes,
of those eyes whose straight and clear look disconcerts hypocrites
and knaves.

He never failed, as he passed by Mlle. Gilberte, to look down, or
turn his head slightly away; and in spite of this, in spite of the
expression of respect which she had detected upon his face, she
could not help blushing.

"Which is absurd," she thought; "for after all, what on earth do I
care for that young man?"

The infallible instinct, which is the experience of inexperienced
young girls, told her that it was not chance alone that brought
this stranger in her way. But she wished to make sure of it. She
managed so well, that each day of the following week, the hour of
their walk was changed. Sometimes they went out at noon, sometimes
after four o'clock.

But, whatever the hour, Mlle. Gilberte, as she turned the corner of
the Rue des Minimes, noticed her unknown admirer under the arcades,
looking in some shop-window, and watching out of the corner of his
eye. As soon as she appeared, he left his post, and hurried fast
enough to meet her at the gate of the Place.

"It is a persecution," thought Mlle. Gilberte.

How, then, had she not spoken of it to her mother? Why had she not
said any thing to her the day, when, happening, to look out of the
window, she saw her "persecutor" passing before the house, or,
evidently looking in her direction?

"Am I losing my mind?" she thought, seriously irritated against
herself. "I will not think of him any more."

And yet she was thinking of him, when one afternoon, as her mother
and herself were working, sitting upon a bench, she saw the stranger
come and sit down not far from them. He was accompanied by an
elderly man with long white mustaches, and wearing the rosette
of the Legion of Honor.

"This is an insolence," thought the young girl, whilst seeking a
pretext to ask her mother to change their seats.

But already had the young man and his elderly friend seated
themselves, and so arranged their chairs, that Mlle. Gilberte could
not miss a word of what they were about to say. It was the young
man who spoke first.

"You know me as well as I know myself, my dear count," he commenced
- "you who were my poor father's best friend, you who dandled me
upon your knees when I was a child, and who has never lost sight of
me."

"Which is to say, my boy, that I answer for you as for myself," put
in the old man. "But go on."

"I am twenty-six years old. My name is Yves-Marius-Genost de Tregars.
My family, which is one of the oldest of Brittany, is allied to all
the great families."

"Perfectly exact," remarked the old gentleman.

"Unfortunately, my fortune is not on a par with my nobility. When
my mother died, in 1856, my father, who worshiped her, could no
longer bear, in the intensity of his grief, to remain at the Chateau
de Tregars where he had spent his whole life. He came to Paris,
which he could well afford, since we were rich then, but
unfortunately, made acquaintances who soon inoculated him with the
fever of the age. They proved to him that he was mad to keep lands
which barely yielded him forty thousand francs a year, and which he
could easily sell for two millions; which amount, invested merely
at five per cent, would yield him an income of one hundred thousand
francs. He therefore sold every thing, except our patrimonial
homestead on the road from Quimper to Audierne, and rushed into
speculations. He was rather lucky at first. But he was too honest
and too loyal to be lucky long. An operation in which he became
interested early in 1869 turned out badly. His associates became
rich; but he, I know not how, was ruined, and came near being
compromised. He died of grief a month later."

The old soldier was nodding his assent.

"Very well, my boy," he said. "But you are too modest; and there's
a circumstance which you neglect. You had a right, when your father
became involved in these troubles, to claim and retain your mother's
fortune; that is, some thirty thousand francs a year. Not only you
did not do so; but you gave up every thing to his creditors. You
sold the domain of Tregars, except the old castle and its park, and
paid over the proceeds to them; so that, if your father did die
ruined, at least he did not owe a cent. And yet you knew, as well
as myself, that your father had been deceived and swindled by a lot
of scoundrels who drive their carriages now, and who, perhaps, if
the courts were applied to, might still be made to disgorge their
ill-gotten plunder."

Her head bent upon her tapestry, Mlle. Gilberte seemed to be working
with incomparable zeal. The truth is, she knew not how to conceal
the blushes on her cheeks, and the trembling of her hands. She had
something like a cloud before her eyes; and she drove her needle at
random. She scarcely preserved enough presence of mind to reply to
Mme. Favoral, who, not noticing any thing, spoke to her from time to
time.

Indeed, the meaning of this scene was too clear to escape her.

"They have had an understanding," she thought, "and it is for me
alone that they are speaking."

Meantime, Marius de Tregars was going on:

"I should lie, my old friend, were I to say that I was indifferent
to our ruin. Philosopher though one may be, it is not without some
pangs that one passes from a sumptuous hotel to a gloomy garret.
But what grieved me most of all was that I saw myself compelled
to give up the labors which had been the joy of my life, and upon
which I had founded the most magnificent hopes. A positive vocation,
stimulated further by the accidents of my education, had led me to
the study of physical sciences. For several years, I had applied all
I have of intelligence and energy to certain investigations in
electricity. To convert electricity into an incomparable
motive-power which would supersede steam, - such was the object I
pursued without pause. Already, as you know, although quite young,
I had obtained results which had attracted some attention in the
scientific world. I thought I could see the last of a problem, the
solution of which would change the face of the globe. Ruin was the
death of my hopes, the total loss of the fruits of my labors; for
my experiments were costly, and it required money, much money, to
purchase the products which were indispensable to me, and to
construct the machines which I contrived.

"And I was about being compelled to earn my daily bread.

"I was on the verge of despair, when I met a man whom I had formerly
seen at my father's, and who had seemed to take some interest in my
researches, a speculator named Marcolet. But it is not at the bourse
that he operates. Industry is the field of his labors. Ever on the
lookout for those obstinate inventors who are starving to death in
their garrets, he appears to them at the hour of supreme crisis: he
pities them, encourages them, consoles them, helps them, and almost
always succeeds in becoming the owner of their discovery. Sometimes
he makes a mistake; and then all he has to do is to put a few
thousand francs to the debit of profit or loss. But, if he has
judged right, then he counts his profits by hundreds of thousands;
and how many patents does he work thus! Of how many inventions does
he reap the results which are a fortune, and the inventors of
which have no shoes to wear! Every thing is good to him; and he
defends with the same avidity a cough - sirup, the formula of
which he has purchased of some poor devil of a druggist, and an
improvement to the steam-engine, the patent for which has been sold
to him by an engineer of genius. And yet Marcolet is not a bad man.
Seeing my situation, he offered me a certain yearly sum to undertake
some studies of industrial chemistry which he indicated to me. I
accepted; and the very next day I hired a small basement in the Rue
des Tournelles, where I set up my laboratory, and went to work at
once. That was a year ago. Marcolet must be satisfied. I have
already found for him a new shade for dyeing silk, the cost price
of which is almost nothing. As to me, I have lived with the
strictest economy, devoting all my surplus earnings to the
prosecution of the problem, the solution of which would give me
both glory and fortune."

Palpitating with inexpressible emotion, Mlle. Gilberte was listening
to this young man, unknown to her a few moments since, and whose
whole history she now knew as well as if she had always lived near
him; for it never occurred to her to suspect his sincerity.

No voice had ever vibrated to her ear like this voice, whose grave
sonorousness stirred within her strange sensations, and legions of
thoughts which she had never suspected. She was surprised at the
accent of simplicity with which he spoke of the illustriousness of
his family, of his past opulence, of his obscure labors, and of his
exalted hopes.

She admired the superb disregard for money which beamed forth in his
every word. Here was then one man, at least, who despised that
money before which she had hitherto seen all the people she knew
prostrated in abject worship.

After a pause of a few moments, Marius de Tregars, still addressing
himself apparently to his aged companion, went on:

"I repeat it, because it is the truth, my old friend, this life of
labor and privation, so new to me, was not a burden. Calm, silence,
the constant exercise of all the faculties of the intellect, have
charms which the vulgar can never suspect. I was happy to think,
that, if I was ruined, it was through an act of my own will. I found
a positive pleasure in the fact that I, the Marquis de Tregars, who
had had a hundred thousand a year - I must the next moment go out in
person to the baker's and the green-grocer's to purchase my supplies
for the day. I was proud to think that it was to my labor alone, to
the work for which I was paid by Marcolet, that I owed the means of
prosecuting my task. And, from the summits where I was carried on
the wings of science, I took pity on your modern existence, on that
ridiculous and tragical medley of passions, interests, and cravings;
that struggle without truce or mercy, whose law is, woe to the weak,
in which whosoever falls is trampled under feet.

"Sometimes, however, like a fire that has been smouldering under
the ashes, the flame of youthful passions blazed up within me. I
had hours of madness, of discouragement, of distress, during which
solitude was loathsome to me. But I had the faith which raises
mountains - faith in myself and my work. And soon, tranquilized, I
would go to sleep in the purple of hope, beholding in the vista of
the distant future the triumphal arches erected to my success.

"Such was my situation, when, one afternoon in the month of February
last, after an experiment upon which I had founded great hopes, and
which had just miserably failed, I came here to breathe a little
fresh air.

"It was a beautiful spring day, warm and sunny. The sparrows were
chirping on the branches, swelled with sap: bands of children were
running along the alleys, filling the air with their joyous screams.

"I was sitting upon a bench, ruminating over the causes of my failure,
when two ladies passed by me; one somewhat aged, the other quite
young. They were walking so rapidly, that I hardly had time to
see them.

"But the young lady's step, the noble simplicity of her carriage,
had struck me so much, that I rose to follow her with the intention
of passing her, and then walking back to have a good view of her
face. I did so; and I was fairly dazzled. At the moment when my
eyes met hers, a voice rose within me, crying that it was all over
now, and that my destiny was fixed."

"I remember, my dear boy," remarked the old soldier in a tone of
friendly raillery; "for you came to see me that night, and I had
not seen you for months before."

Marius proceeded without heeding the remark.

"And yet you know that I am not the man to yield to first impression.
I struggled: with determined energy I strove to drive off that
radiant image which I carried within my soul, which left me no more,
which haunted me in the midst of my studies.

"Vain efforts. My thoughts obeyed me no longer - my will escaped
my control. It was indeed one of those passions that fill the whole
being, overpower all, and which make of life an ineffable felicity
or a nameless torture, according that they are reciprocated, or not.
How many days I spent there, waiting and watching for her of whom I
had thus had a glimpse, and who ignored my very existence! And what
insane palpitations, when, after hours of consuming anxiety, I saw
at the corner of the street the undulating folds of her dress! I
saw her thus often, and always with the same elderly person, her
mother. They had adopted in this square a particular bench, where
they sat daily, working at their sewing with an assiduity and zeal
which made me think that they lived upon the product of their labor."

Here he was suddenly interrupted by his companion. The old gentleman
feared that Mme. Favoral's attention might at last be attracted by
too direct allusions.

"Take care, boy!" he whispered, not so low, however, but what
Gilberte overheard him.

But it would have required much more than this to draw Mme. Favoral
from her sad thoughts. She had just finished her band of tapestry;
and, grieving to lose a moment:

"It is perhaps time to go home," she said to her daughter. "I have
nothing more to do."

Mlle. Gilberte drew from her basket a piece of canvas, and, handing
it to her mother:

Here is enough to go on with, mamma," she said in a troubled voice.
"Let us stay a little while longer."

And, Mme. Favoral having resumed her work, Marius proceeded:

"The thought that she whom I loved was poor delighted me. Was not
this similarity of positions a link between us? I felt a childish
joy to think that I would work for her and for her mother, and that
they would be indebted to me for their ease and comfort in life.

"But I am not one of those dreamers who confide their destiny to the
wings of a chimera. Before undertaking any thing, I resolved to
inform myself. Alas! at the first words that I heard, all my fine
dreams took wings. I heard that she was rich, very rich. I was
told that her father was one of those men whose rigid probity
surrounds itself with austere and harsh forms. He owed his fortune,
I was assured, to his sole labor, but also to prodigies of economy
and the most severe privations. He professed a worship, they said,
for that gold that had cost him so much; and he would never give the
hand of his daughter to a man who had no money. This last comment
was useless. Above my actions, my thoughts, my hopes, higher than
all, soars my pride. Instantly I saw an abyss opening between me
and her whom I love more than my life, but less than my dignity.
When a man's name is Genost de Tregars, he must support his wife,
were it by breaking stones. And the thought that I owed my fortune
to the woman I married would make me execrate her.

"You must remember, my old friend, that I told you all this at the
time. You thought, too, that it was singularly impertinent, on my
part, thus to flare up in advance, because, certainly a millionaire
does not give his daughter to a ruined nobleman in the pay of
Marcolet, the patent-broker, to a poor devil of an inventor, who is
building the castles of his future upon the solution of a problem
which has been given up by the most brilliant minds.

"It was then that I determined upon an extreme resolution, a
foolish one, no doubt, and yet to which you, the Count de Villegre,
my father's old friend, you have consented to lend yourself.

"I thought that I would address myself to her, to her alone, and
that she would at least know what great, what immense love she had
inspired. I thought I would go to her and tell her, 'This is who
I am, and what I am. For mercy's sake, grant me a respite of three
years. To a love such as mine there is nothing impossible. In
three years I shall be dead, or rich enough to ask your hand. From
this day forth, I give up my task for work of more immediate profit.
The arts of industry have treasures for successful inventors. If
you could only read in my soul, you would not refuse me the delay I
am asking. Forgive me! One word, for mercy's sake, only one! It
is my sentence that I am awaiting.'"

Mlle. Gilberte's thoughts were in too great a state of confusion
to permit her to think of being offended at this extraordinary
proceeding. She rose, quivering, and addressing herself to Mme.
Favoral:

"Come, mother," she said, "come: I feel that I have taken cold.
I must go home and think. To-morrow, yes, to-morrow, we will come
again.

Deep as Mme. Favoral was plunged in her meditations, and a thousand
miles as she was from the actual situation, it was impossible that
she should not notice the intense excitement under which her daughter
labored, the alteration of her features, and the incoherence of her
words.

"What is the matter?" she asked, somewhat alarmed. "What are you
saying?"

"I feel unwell," answered her daughter in a scarcely audible voice,
"quite unwell. Come, let us go home."

As soon as they reached home, Mlle. Gilberte took refuge in her own
room. She was in haste to be alone, to recover her self-possession,
to collect her thoughts, more scattered than dry leaves by a storm
wind.

It was a momentous event which had just suddenly fallen in her life
so monotonous and so calm - an inconceivable, startling event, the
consequences of which were to weigh heavily upon her entire future.

Staggering still, she was asking herself if she was not the victim
of an hallucination, and if really there was a man who had dared to
conceive and execute the audacious project of coming thus under the
eyes of her mother, of declaring his love, and of asking her in
return a solemn engagement. But what stupefied her more still, what
confused her, was that she had actually endured such an attempt.

Under what despotic influence had she, then, fallen? To what
undefinable sentiments had she obeyed? And if she had only
tolerated! But she had done more: she had actually encouraged.
By detaining her mother when she wished to go home (and she had
detained her), had she not said to this unknown? - "Go on, I allow
it: I am listening."

And he had gone on. And she, at the moment of returning home, she
had engaged herself formally to reflect, and to return the next day
at a stated hour to give an answer. In a word, she had made an
appointment with him.

It was enough to make her die of shame. And, as if she had needed
the sound of her own words to convince herself of the reality of the
fact, she kept repeating loud,

"I have made an appointment - I, Gilberte, with a man whom my parents
do not know, and of whose name I was still ignorant yesterday."

And yet she could not take upon herself to be indignant at the
imprudent boldness of her conduct. The bitterness of the reproaches
which she was addressing to herself was not sincere. She felt it so
well, that at last:

"Such hypocrisy is unworthy of me." she exclaimed, "since now,
still, and without the excuse of being taken by surprise, I would
not act otherwise."

The fact is, the more she pondered, the less she could succeed in
discovering even the shadow of any offensive intention in all that
Marius de Tregars had said. By the choice of his confidant, an old
man, a friend of his family, a man of the highest respectability,
he had done all in his power to make his step excusable. It was
impossible to doubt his sincerity, to suspect the fairness of
his intentions.

Mlle. Gilberte, better than, almost any other young girl, could
understand the extreme measure resorted to by M. de Tregars. By her
own pride she could understand his. No more than he, in his place,
would she have been willing to expose herself to a certain refusal.
What was there, then, so extraordinary in the fact of his coming
directly to her, in his exposing to her frankly and loyally his
situation, his projects, and his hopes?

"Good heavens!" she thought, horrified at the sentiments which she
discovered in the deep recesses of her soul, "good heavens! I
hardly know myself any more. Here I am actually approving what he
has done!"

Well, yes, she did approve him, attracted, fascinated, by the very
strangeness of the situation. Nothing seemed to her more admirable
than the conduct of Marius de Tregars sacrificing his fortune and
his most legitimate aspirations to the honor of his name, and
condemning himself to work for his living.

"That one," she thought, "is a man; and his wife will have just
cause to be proud of him."

Involuntarily she compared him to the only men she knew: to M.
Favoral, whose miserly parsimony had made his whole family wretched;
to Maxence, who did not blush to feed his disorders with the fruits
of his mother's and his sister's labor.

How different was Marius! If he was poor, it was of his own will.
Had she not seen what confidence he had in himself. She shared it
fully. She felt certain, that, within the required delay, he would
conquer that indispensable fortune. Then he might present himself
boldly. He would take her, away from the miserable surroundings
among which she seemed fated to live: she would become the
Marchioness de Tregars.

"Why, then, not answer, Yes!" thought she, with the harrowing
emotions of the gambler who is about to stake his all upon one card.
And what a game for Mlle. Gilberte, and what a stake!

Suppose she had been mistaken. Suppose that Marius should be one
of those villains who make of seduction a science. Would she still
be her own mistress, after answering? Did she know to what hazards
such an engagement would expose her? Was she not about rushing
blindfolded towards those deceiving perils where a young girl
leaves her reputation, even when she saves her honor?

She thought, for a moment, of consulting her mother. But she knew
Mme. Favoral's shrinking timidity, and that she was as incapable
of giving any advice as to make her will prevail. She would be
frightened; she would approve all; and, at the first alarm, she
would confess all.

"Am I, then, so weak and so foolish," she thought, "that I cannot
take a determination which affects me personally.

She could not close her eyes all night; but in the morning her
resolution was settled.

And toward one o'clock:

"Are we not going out mother?" she said.

Mme. Favoral was hesitating.

"These early spring days are treacherous," she objected: "you
caught cold yesterday."

"My dress was too thin. To-day I have taken my precautions."

They started, taking their work with them, and came to occupy their
accustomed seats.

Before they had even passed the gates, Mlle. Gilberte had recognized
Marius de Tregars and the Count de Villegre, walking in one of the
side alleys. Soon, as on the day before, they took two chairs, and
settled themselves within hearing.

Never had the young girl's heart beat with such violence. It is
easy enough to take a resolution; but it is not always quite so easy
to execute it, and she was asking herself if she would have strength
enough to articulate a word. At last, gathering her whole courage:

"You don't believe in dreams, do you mother?" she asked.

Upon this subject, as well as upon many others, Mme. Favoral had no
particular opinion.

"Why do you ask the question?" said she.

"Because I have had such a strange one."

"Oh!"

"It seemed to me that suddenly a young man, whom I did not know,
stood before me. He would have been most happy, said he to me, to
ask my hand, but he dared not, being very poor. And he begged me
to wait three years, during which he would make his fortune."

Mme. Favoral smiled.

"Why it's quite a romance," said she.

"But it wasn't a romance in my dream," interrupted Mlle. Gilberte.
"This young man spoke in a tone of such profound conviction, that
it was impossible for me, as it were, to doubt him. I thought to
myself that he would be incapable of such an odious villainy as to
abuse the confiding credulity of a poor girl."

"And what did you answer him?"

Moving her seat almost imperceptibly, Mlle. Gilberte could, from
the corner of her eye, have a glimpse of M. de Tregars. Evidently
he was not missing a single one of the words which she was addressing
to her mother. He was whiter than a sheet; and his face betrayed the
most intense anxiety.

This gave her the energy to curb the last revolts of her conscience.

"To answer was painful," she uttered; "and yet I - dared to answer
him. I said to him, 'I believe you, and I have faith in you.
Loyally and faithfully I shall await your success; but until then
we must be strangers to one another. To resort to ruse, deceit,
and falsehood would be unworthy of us. You surely would not expose
to a suspicion her who is to be your wife.'"

"Very well," approved Mme. Favoral; "only I did not know you were
so romantic."

She was laughing, the good lady, but not loud enough to prevent
Gilberte from hearing M. de Tregar's answer.

"Count de Villegre," said he, "my old friend, receive the oath which
I take to devote my life to her who has not doubted me. It is to-day
the 4th of May, 1870 - on the 4th of May, 1873, I shall have
succeeded: I feel it, I will it, it must be!"





Other People's Money by Emile Gaboriau
Category:
General Fiction
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