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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Deputy Of Arcis - Part 3. Monsieur De Sallenauve - Chapter 6. Curiosity That Came Within An Ace Of Being Fatal
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The Deputy Of Arcis - Part 3. Monsieur De Sallenauve - Chapter 6. Curiosity That Came Within An Ace Of Being Fatal Post by :AussieWebmaster Category :Long Stories Author :Honore De Balzac Date :May 2012 Read :1117

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The Deputy Of Arcis - Part 3. Monsieur De Sallenauve - Chapter 6. Curiosity That Came Within An Ace Of Being Fatal


On returning to Ville d'Avray, Sallenauve was confronted by a singular event. Who does not know how sudden events upset the whole course of our lives, and place us, without our will, in compromising positions?

Sallenauve was not mistaken in feeling serious anxiety as to the mental state of his friend Marie-Gaston.

When that unfortunate man had left the scene of his cruel loss immediately after the death of his wife, he would have done a wiser thing had he then resolved never to revisit it. Nature, providentially ordered, provides that if those whose nearest and dearest are struck by the hand of death accept the decree with the resignation which ought to follow the execution of all necessary law, they will not remain too long under the influence of their grief. Rousseau has said, in his famous letter against suicide: "Sadness, weariness of spirit, regret, despair are not lasting sorrows, rooted forever in the soul; experience will always cast out that feeling of bitterness which makes us at first believe our grief eternal."

But this truth ceases to be true for imprudent and wilful persons, who seek to escape the first anguish of sorrow by flight or some violent distraction. All mental and moral suffering is a species of illness which, taking time for its specific, will gradually wear out, in the long run, of itself. If, on the contrary, it is not allowed to consume itself slowly on the scene of its trouble, if it is fanned into flame by motion or violent remedies, we hinder the action of nature; we deprive ourselves of the blessed relief of comparative forgetfulness, promised to those who will accept their suffering, and so transform it into a chronic affection, the memories of which, though hidden, are none the less true and deep.

If we violently oppose this salutary process, we produce an acute evil, in which the imagination acts upon the heart; and as the latter from its nature is limited, while the former is infinite, it is impossible to calculate the violence of the impressions to which a man may yield himself.

When Marie-Gaston returned to the house at Ville d'Avray, after two years' absence, he fancied that only a tender if melancholy memory awaited him; but not a step could he make without recalling his lost joys and the agony of losing them. The flowers that his wife had loved, the lawns, the trees just budding into greenness under the warm breath of May,--they were here before his eyes; but she who had created this beauteous nature was lying cold in the earth. Amid all the charms and elegances gathered to adorn this nest of their love, there was nothing for the man who rashly returned to that dangerous atmosphere but sounds of lamentation, the moans of a renewed and now ever-living grief. Alarmed himself at the vertigo of sorrow which seized him, Marie-Gaston shrank, as Sallenauve had said, from taking the last step in his ordeal; he had calmly discussed with his friend the details of the mausoleum he wished to raise above the mortal remains of his beloved Louise, but he had not yet brought himself to visit her grave in the village cemetery where he had laid them. There was everything, therefore, to fear from a grief which time had not only not assuaged, but, on the contrary, had increased by duration, until it was sharper and more intolerable than before.

The gates were opened by Philippe, the old servant, who had been constituted by Madame Gaston majordomo of the establishment.

"How is your master?" asked Sallenauve.

"He has gone away, monsieur," replied Philippe.

"Gone away!"

"Yes, monsieur; with that English gentleman whom monsieur left here with him."

"But without a word to me! Do you know where they have gone?"

"After dinner, which went off very well, monsieur suddenly gave orders to pack his travelling-trunk; he did part of it himself. During that time the Englishman, who said he would go into the park and smoke, asked me privately where he could go to write a letter without monsieur seeing him. I took him to my room; but I did not dare question him about this journey, for I never saw any one with such forbidding and uncommunicative manners. By the time the letter was written monsieur was ready, and without giving me any explanation they both got into the Englishman's carriage, and I heard one of them say to the coachman, 'Paris.'"

"What became of the letter?" asked Sallenauve.

"It is there in my room, where the Englishman gave it me secretly. It is addressed to monsieur."

"Fetch it at once, my dear man," cried Sallenauve.

After reading the letter, his face seemed to Philippe convulsed.

"Tell them not to unharness," he said; and he read the letter through a second time.

When the old servant returned after executing the order, Sallenauve asked him at what hour they had started.

"About nine," answered Philippe.

"Three hours in advance!" muttered the deputy, looking at his watch, and returning to the carriage which had brought him. As he was getting into it, the old majordomo forced himself to say,--

"Monsieur found no bad news in that letter, did he?"

"No; but your master may be absent for some time; keep the house in good order." Then he said to the coachman, "Paris!"

The next day, quite early in the morning, Monsieur de l'Estorade was in his study, employed in a rather singular manner. It will be remembered that on the day when Sallenauve, then Dorlange the sculptor, had sent him the bust of Madame de l'Estorade, he had not found a place where, as he thought, the little masterpiece had a proper light. From the moment that Rastignac hinted to him that his intercourse with the sculptor, now deputy, might injure him at court, he had agreed with his son Armand that the artist had given to Madame de l'Estorade the air of a grisette; but now that Sallenauve, by his resistance to ministerial blandishments, had taken an openly hostile attitude to the government, that bust seemed to the peer of France no longer worthy of exhibition, and the worthy man was now engaged in finding some dark corner where, without recourse to the absurdity of actually hiding it, it would be out of range to the eyes of visitors, whose questions as to its maker he should no longer be forced to answer. He was therefore perched on the highest step of his library ladder, holding in his hands the gift of the sculptor, and preparing to relegate it to the top of a bookcase, where it was destined to keep company with an owl and a cormorant shot by Armand during the recent holidays and stuffed by paternal pride, when the door of the study opened and Lucas announced,--

"Monsieur Philippe."

The age of the old majordomo and the confidential post he occupied in Marie-Gaston's establishment seemed to the factotum of the house of l'Estorade to authorize the designation of "monsieur,"--a civility expectant of return, be it understood.

Descending from his eminence, the peer of France asked Philippe what brought him, and whether anything had happened at Ville d'Avray. The old servant related the singular departure of his master, and the no less singular departure of Sallenauve without a word of explanation; then he added,--

"This morning, while putting monsieur's room in order, a letter addressed to Madame le comtesse fell out of a book. As the letter was sealed and all ready to be sent, I supposed that monsieur, in the hurry of departure, had forgotten to tell me to put it in the post. I thought therefore I had better bring it here myself. Perhaps Madame la comtesse will find in it some explanation of this sudden journey, about which I have dreamed all night."

Monsieur de l'Estorade took the letter.

"Three black seals!" he said.

"The color doesn't surprise me," replied Philippe; "for since Madame's death monsieur has not laid off his mourning; but I do think three seals are rather strange."

"Very well," said Monsieur de l'Estorade; "I will give the letter to my wife."

"If there should be anything in it to ease my mind about monsieur, would Monsieur le comte be so kind as to let me know?" said Philippe.

"You can rely on that, my good fellow. _Au revoir_."

"I beg Monsieur le comte's pardon for offering an opinion," said the majordomo, not accepting the leave just given him to depart; "but in case the letter contained some bad news, doesn't Monsieur le comte think that it would be best for him to know of it, in order to prepare Madame la comtesse for the shock?"

"What! Do you suppose--" said Monsieur de l'Estorade, not finishing his idea.

"I don't know; but monsieur has been very gloomy the last few days."

"To break the seal of a letter not addressed to us is always a serious thing to do," remarked the peer of France. "This bears my wife's address, but--in point of fact--it was never sent to her; in short, it is most embarrassing."

"But if by reading it some misfortune might be averted?"

"Yes, yes; that is just what keeps me in doubt."

Here Madame de l'Estorade cut the matter short by entering the room. Lucas had told her of the unexpected arrival of Philippe.

"Is anything the matter?" she asked with anxious curiosity.

The apprehensions Sallenauve had expressed the night before as to Marie-Gaston's condition returned to her mind. As soon as Philippe had repeated the explanations he had already given to her husband, she broke the seals of the letter.

Whatever may have been the contents of that disquieting epistle, nothing was reflected on Madame de l'Estorade's face.

"You say that your master left Ville d'Avray in company with an English gentleman," she said to Philippe. "Did he seem to go unwillingly, as if yielding to violence?"

"No, far from that, madame; he seemed to be rather cheerful."

"Well, there is nothing that need make us uneasy. This letter was written some days ago, and, in spite of its three black seals, it has no reference to anything that has happened since."

Philippe bowed and went away. As soon as husband and wife were alone together, Monsieur de l'Estorade said, stretching out his hand for the letter,--

"What did he write about?"

"No, don't read it," said the countess, not giving him the letter.

"Why not?"

"It would pain you. It is enough for me to have had the shock; I could scarcely control myself before that old servant."

"Does it refer to suicide?"

Madame de l'Estorade nodded her head in affirmation.

"A real, immediate intention?"

"The letter is dated yesterday morning; and apparently, if it had not been for the providential arrival of that Englishman, the poor fellow would have taken advantage of Monsieur de Sallenauve's absence last night to kill himself."

"The Englishman must have suspected his intention, and carried him off to divert him from it. If that is so, he won't let him out of his sight."

"And we may also count on Monsieur Sallenauve, who has probably joined them by this time."

"Then I don't see that there is anything so terrible in the letter"; and again he offered to take it.

"No," said Madame de l'Estorade, drawing back, "if I ask you not to read it. Why give yourself painful emotions? The letter not only expresses the intention of suicide, but it shows that our poor friend is completely out of his mind."

At this instant piercing screams from Rene, her youngest child, put Madame de l'Estorade into one of those material agitations which she less than any other woman was able to control.

"My God!" she cried, as she rushed from the study, "what has happened?"

Less ready to be alarmed, Monsieur de l'Estorade contented himself by going to the door and asking a servant what was the matter.

"Oh, nothing, Monsieur le comte," replied the man. "Monsieur Rene in shutting a drawer pinched his finger; that is all."

The peer of France thought it unnecessary to convey himself to the scene of action; he knew, by experience in like cases, that he must let his wife's exaggerated maternal solicitude have free course, on pain of being sharply snubbed himself. As he returned to his desk, he noticed lying on the ground the famous letter, which Madame de l'Estorade had evidently dropped in her hasty flight. Opportunity and a certain fatality which appears to preside over the conduct of all human affairs, impelled Monsieur de l'Estorade, who thought little of the shock his wife had dreaded for him, to satisfy his curiosity by reading the letter.

Marie-Gaston wrote as follows:--

Madame,--This letter will seem to you less amusing than those I addressed to you from Arcis-sur-Aube. But I trust you will not be alarmed by the decision which I now announce. I am going to rejoin my wife, from whom I have been too long separated; and this evening, shortly after midnight, I shall be with her, never to part again.

You have, no doubt, said to yourselves--you and Sallenauve--that I was acting strangely in not visiting her grave; that is a remark that two of my servants made the other day, not being aware that I overheard them. I should certainly be a great fool to go and look at a stone in the cemetery which can make me no response, when every night, at twelve o'clock, I hear a little rap on the door of my room, and our dear Louise comes in, not changed at all, except, as I think, more plump and beautiful. She has had great trouble in obtaining permission from Marie, queen of angels, to withdraw me from earth. But last night she brought me formal leave, sealed with green wax; and she also gave me a tiny vial of hydrocyanic acid. A single drop of that acid puts us to sleep, and on waking up we find ourselves on the other side.

Louise desired me to give you a message from her. I am to tell you that Monsieur de l'Estorade has a disease of the liver and will not live long, and that after his death you are to marry Sallenauve, because, on the _other side_, husbands and wives who really love each other are reunited; and she thinks we shall all four--she and I and you and Sallenauve--be much happier together than if we had your present husband, who is very dull, and whom you married reluctantly.

My message given, nothing remains for me, madame, but to wish you all the patience you need to continue for your allotted time in this low world, and to subscribe myself

Your very affectionately devoted


If, after reading this letter, it had occurred to Monsieur de l'Estorade to look at himself in the glass, he would have seen, in the sudden convulsion and discoloration of his face, the outward and visible signs of the terrible blow which his unfortunate curiosity had brought down upon him. His heart, his mind, his self-respect staggered under one and the same shock; the madness evident in the sort of prediction made about him only added to his sense of its horror. Presently convincing himself, like a mussulman, that madmen have the gift of second sight, he believed he was a lost man, and instantly a stabbing pain began on his liver side, while in the direction of Sallenauve, his predicted successor, an awful hatred succeeded to his mild good-will. But at the same time, conscious of the total want of reason and even of the absurdity of the impression which had suddenly surged into his mind, he was afraid lest its existence should be suspected, and he looked about him to see in what way he could conceal from his wife his fatal indiscretion, the consequences of which must forever weigh upon his life. It was certain, he thought, that if she found the paper in his study she would deduce therefrom the fact that he had read it. Rising from his desk, he softly opened the door leading from the study to the salon, crossed the latter room on tiptoe, and dropped the letter at the farther end of it, as Madame de l'Estorade might suppose she had herself done in her hasty departure. Then returning to his study, he scattered his papers over his desk, like a school-boy up to mischief, who wants to mislead his master by a show of application, intending to appear absorbed in his accounts when his wife returned. Useless to add that he listened with keen anxiety lest some other person than she should come into the salon; in which case he determined to rush out and prevent other eyes from reading the dreadful secrets contained in that paper.

Presently, however, the voice of Madame de l'Estorade, speaking to some one at the door of the salon, reassured him as to the success of his trick, and a moment later she entered the study accompanied by Monsieur Octave de Camps. Going forward to receive his visitor, he was able to see through the half-opened door the place where he had thrown the letter. Not only had it disappeared, but he detected a movement which assured him that Madame de l'Estorade had tucked it away in that part of her gown where Louis XIV. did not dare to search for the secrets of Mademoiselle d'Hautefort.

"I have come, my dear friend," said Monsieur de Camps, "to get you to go with me to Rastignac's, as agreed on last night."

"Very good," said the peer, putting away his papers with a feverish haste that plainly indicated he was not in his usual state of mind.

"Don't you feel well?" asked Madame de l'Estorade, who knew her husband by heart too well not to be struck by the singular stupefaction of his manner, while at the same time, looking in his face, she saw the signs of internal convulsion.

"True," said Monsieur de Camps, "you certainly do not look so well as usual. If you prefer it, we will put off this visit."

"No, not at all," replied Monsieur de l'Estorade. "I have tired myself with this work, and I need the air. But what was the matter with Rene?" he inquired of his wife, whose attention he felt was unpleasantly fixed upon him. "What made him cry like that?"

"Oh, a mere nothing!" she replied, not relaxing her attention.

"Well, my dear fellow," said the peer, trying to take an easy tone, "just let me change my coat and I'll be with you."

When the countess was alone with Monsieur de Camps, she said, rather anxiously,--

"Don't you think Monsieur de l'Estorade seems very much upset?"

"Yes; as I said just now, he does not look like himself. But the explanation he gave seems sufficient. This office life is bad for the health. I have never been as well as since I am actively engaged about my iron-works."

"Yes, certainly," said Madame de l'Estorade, with a heavy sigh; "he ought to have a more active life. It seems plain that there is something amiss with his liver."

"What! because he is so yellow? He has been so ever since I have known him."

"Oh, monsieur, I can't be mistaken! There is something seriously the matter with him; and if you would kindly do me a service--"

"Madame, I am always at your orders."

"When Monsieur de l'Estorade returns, speak of the injury to Rene's finger, and tell me that little wounds like that sometimes have serious consequences if not attended to at once, and that will give me an excuse to send for Doctor Bianchon."

"Certainly," replied Monsieur de Camps; "but I really don't think a physician is necessary. Still, if it reassures you--"

At this moment Monsieur de l'Estorade reappeared. He had almost recovered his usual expression of face, but he exhaled a strong odor of _melisse des Carmes_, which indicated that he had felt the need of that tonic. Monsieur de Camps played his part admirably, and as for Madame de l'Estorade it did not cost her much trouble to simulate maternal anxiety.

"My dear," she said to her husband, when Monsieur de Camps had delivered himself of his medical opinion, "as you return from Monsieur de Rastignac's, please call on Doctor Bianchon and ask him to come here."

"Pooh!" said Monsieur de l'Estorade, shrugging his shoulders, "the idea of disturbing a busy man like him for what you yourself said was a mere nothing!"

"If you won't go, I shall send Lucas; Monsieur de Camps' opinion has completely upset me."

"If it pleases you to be ridiculous," said the peer of France, crossly, "I have no means of preventing it; but I beg you to remark one thing: if people disturb physicians for mere nonsense, they often can't get them when they are really wanted."

"Then you won't go for the doctor?"

"Not I," replied Monsieur de l'Estorade; "and if I had the honor of being anything in my own house, I should forbid you to send anybody in my place."

"My dear, you are the master here, and since you put so much feeling into your refusal, let us say no more; I will bear my anxiety as best I can."

"Come, de Camps," said Monsieur de l'Estorade; "for if this goes on, I shall be sent to order that child's funeral."

"But, my dear husband," said the countess, taking his hand, "you must be ill, to say such dreadful things in that cool way. Where is your usual patience with my little maternal worries, or your exquisite politeness for every one, your wife included?"

"But," said Monsieur de l'Estorade, getting more excited instead of calmer, under this form of studied though friendly reproach, "your maternal feelings are turning into monomania, and you make life intolerable to every one but your children. The devil! suppose they are your children; I am their father, and, though I am not adored as they are, I have the right to request that my house be not made uninhabitable!"

While Monsieur de l'Estorade, striding about the room, delivered himself of this philippic, the countess made a despairing sign to Monsieur de Camps, as if to ask him whether he did not see most alarming symptoms in such a scene. In order to cut short the quarrel of which he had been the involuntary cause, the latter said, as if hurried,--

"Come, let us go!"

"Yes," replied Monsieur de l'Estorade, passing out first and neglecting to say good-bye to his wife.

"Ah! stay; I have forgotten a message my wife gave me," said Monsieur de Camps, turning back to Madame de l'Estorade. "She told me to say she would come for you at two o'clock to go and see the spring things at the 'Jean de Paris,' and she has arranged that after that we shall all four go to the flower-show. When we leave Rastignac, l'Estorade and I will come back here, and wait for you if you have not returned before us."

Madame de l'Estorade paid little attention to this programme, for a flash of light had illumined her mind. As soon as she was alone, she took Marie-Gaston's letter from her gown, and, finding it folded in the proper manner, she exclaimed,--

"Not a doubt of it! I remember perfectly that I folded it with the writing outside, as I put it back into the envelope; he must have read it!"

An hour later, Madame de l'Estorade and Madame de Camps met in the same salon where they had talked of Sallenauve a few days earlier.

"Good heavens! what is the matter with you?" cried Madame de Camps, seeing tears on the face of her friend, who was finishing a letter she had written.

Madame de l'Estorade told her all that had happened, and showed her Marie-Gaston's letter.

"Are you very sure," asked Madame de Camps, "that your husband has read the luckless scrawl?"

"How can I doubt it?" returned Madame de l'Estorade. "The paper can't have turned of itself; besides, in recalling the circumstances, I have a dim recollection that at the moment when I started to run to Rene I felt something drop,--fate willed that I should not stop to pick it up."

"Often, when people strain their memories in that way they fasten on some false indication."

"But, my dear friend, the extraordinary change in the face and behavior of Monsieur de l'Estorade, coming so suddenly as it did, must have been the result of some sudden shock. He looked like a man struck by lightning."

"But if you account for the change in his appearance in that way, why look for symptoms of something wrong with his liver?"

"Ah! this is not the first time I have seen symptoms of that," replied Madame de l'Estorade. "But you know when sick people don't complain, we forget about their illness. See," and she pointed to a volume lying open beside her; "just before you came in, I found in this medical dictionary that persons who suffer from diseases of the liver are apt to be morose, irritable, impatient. Well, for some time past, I have noticed a great change in my husband's disposition. You yourself mentioned it to me the other day. Besides, the scene Monsieur de Camps has just witnessed--which is, I may truly say, unprecedented in our household--is enough to prove it."

"My dear love, you are like those unpleasant persons who are resolved to torture themselves. In the first place, you have looked into medical books, which is the very height of imprudence. I defy you to read a description of any sort of disease without fancying that either you or some friends of yours have the symptoms of it. In the next place, you are mixing up things; the effects of fear and of a chronic malady are totally different."

"No, I am not mixing them up; I know what I am talking about. You don't need to be told that if in our poor human machine some one part gets out of order, it is on _that that any strong emotion will strike."

"Well," said Madame de Camps, not pursuing the medical discussion, "if the letter of that unhappy madman has really fallen into the hands of your husband, the peace of your home is seriously endangered; that is the point to be discussed."

"There are not two ways to be followed as to that," said Madame de l'Estorade. "Monsieur de Sallenauve must never set foot in this house again."

"That is precisely what I came to speak about to-day. Do you know that last night I did not think you showed the composure which is so marked a trait in your character?"

"When?" asked Madame de l'Estorade.

"Why, when you expressed so effusively your gratitude to Monsieur de Sallenauve. When I advised you not to avoid him, for fear it would induce him to keep at your heels, I never intended that you should shower your regard upon his head in a way to turn it. The wife of so zealous a dynastic partisan as Monsieur de l'Estorade ought to know what the _juste milieu is by this time."

"Ah! my dear, I entreat you, don't make fun of my poor husband."

"I am not talking of your husband, I am talking of you. Last night you so surprised me that I have come here to take back my words. I like people to follow my advice, but I don't like them to go beyond it."

"At any other time I should make you explain what horrible impropriety I have committed under your counsel; but fate has interposed and settled everything. Monsieur de Sallenauve will, at any cost, disappear from our path, and therefore why discuss the degree of kindness one might have shown him?"

"But," said Madame de Camps, "since I must tell you all, I have come to think him a dangerous acquaintance,--less for you than for some one else."

"Who?" asked Madame de l'Estorade.

"Nais. That child, with her passion for her 'preserver,' makes me really uneasy."

"Oh!" said the countess, smiling rather sadly, "are you not giving too much importance to childish nonsense?"

"Nais is, of course, a child, but a child who will ripen quickly into a woman. Did you not tell me yourself that you were sometimes frightened at the intuition she showed in matters beyond her years?"

"That is true. But what you call her passion for Monsieur de Sallenauve, besides being perfectly natural, is expressed by the dear little thing with such freedom and publicity that the sentiment is, it seems to me, obviously childlike."

"Well, don't trust to that; especially not after this troublesome being ceases to come to your house. Suppose that when the time comes to marry your daughter, this fancy should have smouldered in her heart and increased; imagine your difficulty!"

"Oh! between now and then, thank Heaven! there's time enough," replied Madame de l'Estorade, in a tone of incredulity.

"Between now and then," said Madame de Camps, "Monsieur de Sallenauve may have reached a distinction which will put his name on every lip; and Nais, with her lively imagination, is more likely than other girls to be dazzled by it."

"But, my dear love, look at the disproportion in their ages."

"Monsieur de Sallenauve is thirty, and Nais will soon be fourteen; that is precisely the difference between you and Monsieur de l'Estorade."

"Well, you may be right," said Madame de l'Estorade, "and the sort of marriage I made from reason Nais may want to make from folly. But you needn't be afraid; I will ruin that idol in her estimation."

"But there again, as in the comedy of hatred you mean to play for Monsieur de l'Estorade's benefit, you need moderation. If you do not manage it by careful transitions, you may miss your end. Never allow the influence of circumstances to appear when it is desirable than an impulse or an action should seem spontaneous."

"But," said Madame de l'Estorade, excitedly, "do you think that my hatred, as you call it, will be acted? I do hate him, that man; he is our evil genius!"

"Come, come, my dear, be calm! I don't know you--you, you have always been Reason incarnate."

At this moment Lucas entered the room and asked his mistress if she would receive _a Monsieur Jacques Bricheteau. Madame de l'Estorade looked at her friend, as if to consult her.

"He is that organist who was so useful to Monsieur de Sallenauve during the election. I don't know what he can want of me."

"Never mind," said Madame de Camps, "receive him. Before beginning hostilities it is always well to know what is going on in the enemy's camp."

"Show him in," said the countess.

Jacques Bricheteau entered. Expecting to be received in a friendly country, he had not taken any particular pains with his dress. An old maroon frock-coat to the cut of which it would have been difficult to assign a date, a plaid waistcoat buttoned to the throat, surmounted by a black cravat worn without a collar and twisted round the neck, yellowish trousers, gray stockings, and laced shoes,--such was the more than negligent costume in which the organist allowed himself to appear in a countess's salon.

Requested briefly to sit down, he said,--

"Madame, I hope I am not indiscreet in thus presenting myself without having the honor of being known to you, but Monsieur Marie-Gaston told me of your desire that I should give music-lessons to your daughter. At first I replied that it was impossible, for all my time was occupied; but the prefect of police has just afforded me some leisure by dismissing me from a place I filled in his department; therefore I am now happy to place myself at your disposal."

"Your dismissal, monsieur, was caused by your activity in Monsieur de Sallenauve's election, was it not?" asked Madame de Camps.

"As no reason was assigned for it, I think your conjecture is probably correct; especially as in twenty years I have had no trouble whatever with my chiefs."

"It can't be denied," said Madame de l'Estorade, sharply, "that you have opposed the views of the government by this proceeding."

"Consequently, madame, I have accepted this dismissal as an expected evil. What interest, after all, had I in retaining my paltry post, compared to that of Monsieur de Sallenauve's election?"

"I am very sorry," resumed Madame de l'Estorade, "to be unable to accept the offer you are good enough to make me. But I have not yet considered the question of a music-master for my daughter; and, in any case, I fear that, in view of your great and recognized talent, your instruction would be too advanced for a little girl of fourteen."

"Well," said Jacques Bricheteau, smiling, "no one has recognized my talent, madame. Monsieur de Sallenauve and Monsieur Marie-Gaston have only heard me once or twice. Apart from that I am the most obscure of professors, and perhaps the dullest. But setting aside the question of your daughter's master, I wish to speak of a far more important interest, which has, in fact, brought me here. I mean Monsieur de Sallenauve."

"Has Monsieur de Sallenauve," said Madame de l'Estorade, with marked coldness of manner, "sent you here with a message to my husband?"

"No, madame," replied Jacques Bricheteau, "he has unfortunately given me no message. I cannot find him. I went to Ville d'Avray this morning, and was told that he had started on a journey with Monsieur Marie-Gaston. The servant having told me that the object and direction of this journey were probably known to you--"

"Not in any way," interrupted Madame de l'Estorade.

Not as yet perceiving that his visit was unacceptable and that no explanation was desired, Jacques Bricheteau persisted in his statement:--

"This morning, I received a letter from the notary at Arcis-sur-Aube, who informs me that my aunt, Mother Marie-des-Anges, desires me to be told of a scandalous intrigue now being organized for the purpose of ousting Monsieur de Sallenauve from his post as deputy. The absence of our friend will seriously complicate the matter. We can take no steps without him; and I cannot understand why he should disappear without informing those who take the deepest interest in him."

"That he has not informed you is certainly singular," replied Madame de l'Estorade, in the same freezing tone; "but as for my husband or me, there is nothing to be surprised about."

The meaning of this discourteous answer was too plain for Jacques Bricheteau not to perceive it. He looked straight at the countess, who lowered her eyes; but the whole expression of her countenance, due north, confirmed the meaning he could no longer mistake in her words.

"Pardon me, madame," he said, rising. "I was not aware that the future and the reputation of Monsieur de Sallenauve had become indifferent to you. Only a moment ago, in your antechamber, when your servant hesitated to take in my name, Mademoiselle, your daughter, as soon as she heard I was the friend of Monsieur de Sallenauve, took my part warmly; and I had the stupidity to suppose that such friendliness was the tone of the family."

After this remark, which gave Madame de l'Estorade the full change for her coin, Jacques Bricheteau bowed ceremoniously and was about to leave the room, when a sudden contradiction of the countess's comedy of indifference appeared in the person of Nais, who rushed in exclaiming triumphantly,--

"Mamma, a letter from Monsieur de Sallenauve!"

The countess turned crimson.

"What do you mean by running in here like a crazy girl?" she said sternly; "and how do you know that this letter is from the person you mention?"

"Oh!" replied Nais, twisting the knife in the wound, "when he wrote you those letters from Arcis-sur-Aube, I saw his handwriting."

"You are a silly, inquisitive little girl," said her mother, driven by these aggravating circumstances quite outside of her usual habits of indulgence. "Go to your room." Then she added to Jacques Bricheteau, who lingered after the arrival of the letter,--

"Permit me, monsieur."

"It is for me, madame, to ask permission to remain until you have read that letter. If _by chance Monsieur de Sallenauve gives you any particulars about his journey, you will, perhaps, allow me to profit by them."

"Monsieur de Sallenauve," said the countess, after reading the letter, "requests me to inform my husband that he has gone to Hanwell, county of Middlesex, England. You can address him there, monsieur, to the care of Doctor Ellis."

Jacques Bricheteau made a second ceremonious bow and left the room.

"Nais has just given you a taste of her quality," said Madame de Camps; "but you deserved it,--you really treated that poor man too harshly."

"I could not help it," replied Madame de l'Estorade; "the day began wrong, and all the rest follows suit."

"Well, about the letter?"

"It is dreadful; read it yourself."

Madame,--I was able to overtake Lord Lewin, the Englishman of whom I spoke to you, a few miles out of Paris. Providence sent him to Ville d'Avray to save us from an awful misfortune. Possessing an immense fortune, he is, like so many of his countrymen, a victim to _spleen_, and it is only his natural force of character which has saved him from the worst results of that malady. His indifference to life and the perfect coolness with which he spoke of suicide won him Marie-Gaston's friendship in Florence. Lord Lewin, having studied the subject of violent emotions, is very intimate with Doctor Ellis, a noted alienist, and it not infrequently happens that he spends two or three weeks with him at Hanwell, Middlesex Co., one of the best-managed lunatic asylums in England,--Doctor Ellis being in charge of it.

When he arrived at Ville d'Avray, Lord Lewin saw at once that Marie-Gaston had all the symptoms of incipient mania. Invisible to other eyes, they were apparent to those of Lord Lewin. In speaking to me of our poor friend, he used the word _chiffonait_,--meaning that he picked up rubbish as he walked, bits of straw, scraps of paper, rusty nails, and put them carefully into his pocket. That, he informed me, is a marked symptom well known to those who study the first stages of insanity. Enticing him to the subject of their conversations in Florence, he obtained the fact that the poor fellow meditated suicide, and the reason for it. Every night, Gaston told him, his wife appeared to him, and he had now resolved to _rejoin her, to use his own expression. Instead of opposing this idea, Lord Lewin took a tone of approval. "But," he said, "men such as we ought not to die in a common way. I myself have always had the idea of going to South America, where, not far from Paraguay, there is one of the greatest cataracts in the world, --the Saut de Gayra. The mists rising from it can be seen at a distance of many miles. An enormous volume of water is suddenly forced through a narrow channel, and rushes with terrific force and the noise of a hundred thunder-claps into the gulf below. There, indeed, one could find a noble death."

"Let us go there," said Gaston.

"Yes," said Lord Lewin, "I am ready to go at once; we must sail from England; it will take a few weeks to get there."

In this way, madame, he enticed our poor friend to England, where, as you will already have supposed, he has placed him in charge of Doctor Ellis, who, they say, has not his equal in Europe for the treatment of this particular form of mental aberration.

I joined them at Beauvais, and have followed them to Hanwell, taking care not to be seen by Marie-Gaston. Here I shall be detained until the doctor is able to give a decided opinion as to the probable results of our friend's condition. I greatly fear, however, that I cannot possibly return to Paris in time for the opening of the session. But I shall write to the president of the Chamber, and in case any questions regarding my absence should arise, may I ask Monsieur de l'Estorade to do me the favor of stating that, to his knowledge, I have been absolutely forced by sufficient reasons to absent myself? He will, of course, understand that I ought not to explain under any circumstances the nature of the affair which has taken me out of the country at this unlucky time; but I am certain it will be all-sufficient if a man of Monsieur de l'Estorade's position and character guarantees the necessity of my absence.

I beg you to accept, madame, etc., etc.

As Madame de Camps finished reading the letter, the sound of a carriage entering the courtyard was heard.

"There are the gentlemen," said the countess. "Now, had I better show this letter to my husband or not?"

"You can't avoid doing so," replied Madame de Camps. "In the first place, Nais will chatter about it. Besides, Monsieur de Sallenauve addresses you in a most respectful manner, and there is nothing in the letter to feed your husband's notion."

"Who is that common-looking man I met on the stairs talking with Nais?" said Monsieur de l'Estorade to his wife, as he entered the salon.

As Madame de l'Estorade did not seem to understand him, he added,--

"He is pitted with the small-pox, and wears a maroon coat and shabby hat."

"Oh!" said Madame de Camps, addressing her friend; "it must be the man who was here just now. Nais has seized the occasion to inquire about her idol."

"But who is he?" repeated Monsieur de l'Estorade.

"I think his name is Bricheteau; he is a friend of Monsieur de Sallenauve," replied Madame de Camps.

Seeing the cloud on her husband's brow, Madame de l'Estorade hastened to explain the double object of the organist's visit, and she gave him the letter of the new deputy. While he was reading it, Madame de l'Estorade said, aside, to Monsieur de Camps,--

"He seems to me much better, don't you think so?"

"Yes; there's scarcely a trace left of what we saw this morning. He was too wrought up about his work. Going out did him good; and yet he met with a rather unpleasant surprise at Rastignac's."

"What was it?" asked Madame de l'Estorade, anxiously.

"It seems that the affairs of your friend Sallenauve are going wrong."

"Thanks for the commission!" said Monsieur de l'Estorade, returning the letter to his wife. "I shall take very good care not to guarantee his conduct in any respect."

"Have you heard anything disagreeable about him?" asked Madame de l'Estorade, endeavoring to give a tone of indifference to her question.

"Yes; Rastignac has just told me of letters received from Arcis, where they have made the most compromising discoveries."

"Well, what did I tell you?" cried Madame de l'Estorade.

"How do you mean? What _did you tell me?"

"I told you some time ago that the acquaintance was one that had better be allowed to die out. I remember using that very expression."

"But _I didn't draw him here."

"Well, you can't say that I did; and just now, before I knew of these discoveries you speak of, I was telling Madame de Camps of another reason why it was desirable to put an end to the acquaintance."

"Yes," said Madame de Camps, "your wife and I were just discussing, as you came in, the sort of frenzy Nais has taken for what she calls her 'preserver.' We agreed in thinking there might be future danger in that direction."

"From all points of view," said Monsieur de l'Estorade, "it is an unwholesome acquaintance."

"It seems to me," said Monsieur de Camps, who was not in the secret of these opinions, "that you go too fast. They may have made what they call compromising discoveries about Monsieur de Sallenauve; but what is the value of those discoveries? Don't hang him till a verdict has been rendered."

"My husband can do as he likes," said Madame de l'Estorade; "but as for me, I shall drop the acquaintance at once. I want my friends to be, like Caesar's wife, beyond suspicion."

"Unfortunately," said Monsieur de l'Estorade, "there's that unfortunate obligation--"

"But, my dear," cried Madame de l'Estorade, "if a galley-slave saved my life, must I admit him to my salon?"

"Oh! dearest," exclaimed Madame de Camps, "you are going too far."

"At any rate," said the peer of France, "there is no need to make an open rupture; let things end quietly between us. The dear man is now in foreign parts, and who knows if he means to return?"

"What!" exclaimed Monsieur de Camps, "has he left the country for a mere rumor?"

"Not precisely for that reason," said Monsieur de l'Estorade; "he found a pretext. But once out of France, you know--"

"I don't believe in that conclusion," said Madame de l'Estorade; "I think he will return, and if so, my dear, you really must take your courage in both hands and cut short his acquaintance."

"Is that," said Monsieur de l'Estorade, looking attentively at his wife, "your actual desire?"

"Mine?" she replied; "if I had my way, I should write to him and say that he would do us a favor by not reappearing in our house. As that would be rather a difficult letter to write, let us write it together, if you are willing."

"We will see about it," said Monsieur de l'Estorade, brightening up under this suggestion; "there's no danger in going slow. The most pressing thing at this moment is the flower-show; I think it closes at four o'clock; if so, we have only an hour before us."

Madame de l'Estorade, who had dressed before the arrival of Madame de Camps, rang for her maid to bring her a bonnet and shawl. While she was putting them on before a mirror, her husband came up behind her and whispered in her ear,--

"Then you really love me, Renee?"

"Are you crazy, to ask me such a question as that?" she answered, looking at him affectionately.

"Well, then, I must make a confession: that letter, which Philippe brought--I read it."

"Then I am not surprised at the change in your looks and manner," said his wife. "I, too, will make you a confession: that letter to Monsieur de Sallenauve, giving him his dismissal,--I have written it; you will find it in my blotting-book. If you think it will do, send it."

Quite beside himself with delight at finding his proposed successor so readily sacrificed, Monsieur de l'Estorade did not control his joy; taking his wife in his arms, he kissed her effusively.

"Well done!" cried Monsieur de Camps, laughing; "you have improved since morning."

"This morning I was a fool," said the peer of France, hunting in the blotting-book for the letter, which he might have had the grace to believe in without seeing.

"Hush!" said Madame de Camps, in a low voice to her husband, to prevent further remarks. "I'll explain this queer performance to you by and by."

Rejuvenated by ten years at least, the peer of France offered his arm to Madame de Camps, while the amateur iron-master offered his to the countess.

"But Nais!" said Monsieur de l'Estorade, noticing the melancholy face of his daughter, who was looking over the stairs at the party. "Isn't she going too?"

"No," said the countess; "I am displeased with her."

"Ah, bah!" said the father, "I proclaim an amnesty. Get your hat," he added, addressing his daughter.

Nais looked at her mother to obtain a ratification, which her knowledge of the hierarchy of power in that establishment made her judge to be necessary.

"You can come," said her mother, "if your father wishes it."

While they waited in the antechamber for the child, Monsieur de l'Estorade noticed that Lucas was standing up beside a half-finished letter.

"Whom are you writing to?" he said to his old servant.

"To my son," replied Lucas, "who is very impatient to get his sergeant's stripes. I am telling him that Monsieur le comte has promised to speak to his colonel for him."

"True, true," said the peer of France; "it slipped my memory. Remind me of it to-morrow morning, and I'll do it the first thing after I am up."

"Monsieur le comte is very good--"

"And here," continued his master, feeling in his waistcoat pocket, and producing three gold pieces, "send that to the corporal, and tell him to drink a welcome to the stripes."

Lucas was stupefied. Never had he seen his master so expansive or so generous.

When Nais returned, Madame de l'Estorade, who had been admiring herself for her courage in showing displeasure to her daughter for half an hour, embraced her as if they were meeting after an absence of two years; after which they started for the Luxembourg, where in those days the Horticultural Society held its exhibitions.

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