Some seventy years ago no name stood higher in commercial repute at Havre than that of Duravel. The founder of the house had just died at the time when we commence the story; but though the designation was altered from “Claude Duravel and Sons” to “Duravel Brothers,” public trust was unshaken even by envious conjecture. For Claude, the elder of the two sons, had for some years managed the business, and nothing could exceed the caution and withal enterprise of the transactions of the house under his direction, save the uniform and splendid fortune which illustrated them. The Duravels, in short, were a proverb for their sterling character, their munificent liberality, and their rare luck. In this last regard, indeed, they might be said to bear a charmed life. If their vessels were attacked by English privateers, some opportune fog or friendly sail was certain to deliver them. If they suffered shipwreck it was sure to be on the outward voyage, and owing to their ample insurance the underwriters were ever the greatest sufferers. They weathered panics bravely. No fraudulent clerks undermined them, and failure seemed to be averted from the houses they trusted. But though the vessel was launched so auspiciously, and observers saw no change, all was not as of old in that responsible-looking counting-house. Between the two brothers, Claude and Jerome, there was a great disparity of years, and though the special characteristics of the younger were not developed in his father’s life-time, the two were widely different in disposition. Claude seemed never to have been young. The closest observer could recal no lapse into frivolity, no wild-oat-sowing in his grave and regular progress through a series of inferior posts to the headship of the house. In person, too, he was the counterpart of his father, whose portrait, with its thin lips, sharp profile, projecting forehead, and iron-grey hair, might have been easily mistaken for a representation of his namesake and successor, as was likely, Jerome, who had been brought up entirely with his father and brother, bore a family likeness to them; but there were every now and then discernible traces of a fiery and passionate temper, venting itself in vehement outbursts of wilfulness. Inconsistent and irresolute, however, he usually abandoned of his own accord the object for which a short time previously he had been eagerly battling. The face of Jerome, too, belied the character of a man of routine; for though he had the pointed features of the two Claudes, his mouth was full and sensuous, and his eyebrows were connected or met—a peculiarity of which Goethe, in his description of the profligate Meyer, has rightly noted the effect.
The two brothers resided in the same house, a large and grandiose hotel, situated in a garden profusely adorned with statues, bath-houses, balustrades, and fountains, in the Italian style, and called after their name. For four years after the father’s death they continued unmarried. No differences were ever reported to have taken place between them. But things were not destined to flow long in this quiet course. One evening at a public ball given to celebrate the most brilliant victory of the First Consul, Jerome was introduced to a certain Madame Corisande de Cardillac, who had lately appeared in the gay circles of Havre. Rumour, “painted full of tongues,” told strange stories of the lady’s career in the capital. Certain it was she dressed magnificently, coquetted mercilessly, played extravagantly, and consequently was the last person with whom a prudent man of business should have connected himself; but no less certain was the fact, that within six weeks from the Marengo ball she was married, with the consent and approbation of Claude, to Jerome Duravel. . . . . The explanation of the puzzling words which we have put in italics is short and simple. The elder brother “consented and approved,” because he could not help himself, for Jerome had no sooner made the acquaintance of the all-fascinating Corisande, than he began to play largely. The circle into which he was introduced consisted of reckless men of pleasure. He was elated with the lavish flattery which they bestowed upon him, and tempted to stake enormous sums on the spinning of the roulette ball, or the hazard of the cards at lansquenet. At first the result was invariably the same. The friends of Corisande always lost, and the merchant always won. After awhile the luck changed, and after the change it set in so uniformly against the merchant that he grew desperate. Then the lady herself came to the rescue, and undertook to play for him. As if by magic, the rouleaux of gold and the piles of notes passed over to her side of the table. In short, the conflict was the old one of practice and craft against ignorance and simplicity, and the former as usual won. Though she had at first, however, undertaken to play for him, the merchant was not richer for his handsome partner's gains. His petitions for his own winnings were of necessity made with a smile, and were adroitly laughed off as jests. The appetite of the Parisian for costly presents was insatiable, and Jerome found himself hopelessly involved, and after a little equivocation and evasion confessed the whole truth to Claude. At that moment, for the first time for thirty years, the house was in a critical position. Money was of great importance. One plan alone appeared feasible. The lost wealth might be regained by an alliance with the winner of it, so Corisande was married "with the consent and approbation" of Claude to Jerome Duravel.
But the partner who had once tasted of the rapture of hazard was not to be bound down again to the comparatively tardy work of legitimate traffic. The elder brother had exacted a pledge from him that he should never enter a gambling house, or stake more than a certain conventional number of francs on a game of cards; but all this foresight was in vain; the wily Madame Duravel acquiesced readily enough in these arrangements, and even advised the elder brother to insist on taking from the younger the security of the promise, but the subject matter of their operations only was changed. The funds were substituted for the cards. Instead of gambling they speculated . . . .
To the cold and calculating temper of the wife, the most monstrous risks hardly gave any excitement. The agonies of expectation, the reactions of wild hope and profound despair, inflamed the impetuous temper of the husband like fiery wine. Under false names and through numerous agents, they bought in and sold out of the funds, and for some time the star of Corisande was in the ascendant; but, after a while, the narrow and scarcely perceptible which separates enterprise from rashness was crossed. They ventured more and more recklessly. Failure succeeded failure. The politics of the day were full of surprises. A superstitious trust in the fortune of Napoleon had been almost the only guiding principle in Corisande's creed, but long after this was proved fallacious the devotee clung to her faith. Meanwhile, entirely ignorant of the events which were happening under his eyes, Claude Duravel continued to attend regularly at his office, to direct the legitimate transactions of the firm; to dictate its foreign correspondence, and to watch the fidelity of its servants. Since the sudden marriage the brothers had lived much apart. Jerome and Corisande still occupied a suite of apartments in the Hotel Duravel, but they seldom saw the head of the house, save at stated times. It had been an important point in Madame's policy to secure the good opinion of Claude, and considering that she had to overcome almost the strongest prejudices of his nature, she succeeded amazingly. He had viewed the alliance at first with horror, but when such large accessions of wealth were offered to the firm thereby, he was a little softened. His life was too secluded for him to hear the shameful rumours which were afloat about his sister-in-law. He held gamblers in sovereign contempt, but then those were gamblers who lost. He could not choose but honour luck so brilliant and conspicuous as that of Corisande. These things being so, the hostility between the two took the gentler form of wary neutrality, and wary neutrality insensibly glided into a courteous, if not a cordial relation before many months were over. Madame Corisande was fascinating enough to all; how can one wonder then that when she set her mind on pleasing the attempt was successful?
So things slipped on for five years, all externally calm and secure, but in that time none can tell the strange vicissitudes of anxiety and exultation through which Jerome passed!
Suddenly, one morning, in the October of 1804, a strange and startling report spread over Havre! It was caught up, and passed like lightning from lip to lip. Amongst the merchants and people of leisure alike it was the theme of the hour. They had had political subjects enough to discuss that year, but neither the murder of D'Enghien, nor the change of English policy under Pitt, nor the assumption of the title of Emperor by him who had long wielded imperial power, created half so lively an interest in the good town of Havre, as these tidings about their great merchant. They were so romantic, so contradictory, so mysterious! Sometimes people shuddered over the report as that of a murder; at other times they quaked lest their Croesus should prove a fraudulent absconder. Again, some deplored it as a suicide, while a fourth party settled the merchant's fate by whispering the magic name of Fouche. All was uncertainty and conjecture, but one fact—Monsieur Claude Duravel had disappeared, and was nowhere to be found. The authorities, and the missing man's relatives who investigated the affair, could only glean very scanty particulars. On the morning of the 18th of October, the unfortunate man had been at the counting-house, as usual. He had looked exactly as he generally looked, and had done his work in precisely the accustomed manner. About four o'clock he went home, dined alone, as his brother and his wife were out of town, after dinner sat reading for an hour or so. Later than this there was no decided information. One of the servants, an under-gardener, thought he had observed him pass through the orangery, but was not positive. It was certain he rang the bell for the dessert to be removed, and the footman who answered the summons was the last person who swore to seeing him. Jerome and his wife made every effort to find the lost. Large rewards were offered to the person who should discover any clue, however slender. The lake in the grounds was dragged. The vessels leaving the port were searched. The haunts of desperadoes in the city thoroughly scoured. But money, time, and diligence were all wasted. The police left the matter as they found it, an unsolved enigma!
And so, after the usual time, public interest cooled. The house of Duravel stood as firm as ever, so the idea that pecuniary embarrassment had anything to do with Claude's disappearance was proved to be baseless, but after a time it was given out that Jerome's health would not allow him to take an active part in the management. Personal friends hinted that his illness, a nervous complaint, was principally caused by domestic chagrins. From some cause or other, he aged rapidly. At last he withdrew from the business entirely, and left Havre with his wife. The first news of them was that they were at the baths of Lucca, since, as his physicians prescribed a warm air, and Jerome was both a connoisseur and an artist, Italy had two recommendations. A second report stated that the husband and wife had separated by mutual consent. This story caused a little gossip amongst their old friends, but the absent are soon forgotten, and their names were hardly ever mentioned.
Twenty years are passed, and we stand in one of the best private-boxes in the grand opera at Paris. The performances are under the patronage of royalty, and the house is in a blaze of costly jewels and gay uniforms. It is a bewildering thing to know to what quarter to look, for everywhere there are distinguished men and beautiful women. Here a bronzed veteran, newly invested with a marshal's baton;—here, his breast glittering with stars and cordons, a renowned diplomatist; ambassadors from St. James's, Vienna, Madrid, and fifty other courts; beauties from all the salons of Europe. Quaintly attired envoys from barbarous states. As ever, the house is the great spectacle, and the box wherein we have taken our stand a special focus of attraction. Not from the splendid rank and dazzling beauty of its occupant, but from her extraordinary reputation for wealth and political influences. Time has worked great changes in the face, yet those who were present at the Marengo ball, at Havre, would recognise in the painted, and powdered, and essenced dowager the features of Corisande de Cardillac. Two or three special favourites only are admitted into her society, but with these she exchanges repartees, jests, satire, criticism. She is one of the autocrats of the world of art; her bouquet is anxiously looked for by the debutante, for thirty more will follow it. Tonight all notice that she is in unusually good spirits.
"Look at old Madam Duravel! How many modern ladies will look as she does at seventy?" is one of the staple remarks of the evening.
We said "the house is the attraction;" but it so happens that, on this particular night, the stage is also watched with unusual interest, for it is the first night of a new opera and a new singer. The success of the piece has been decided. A duet in the first act would have secured the acceptance of the work if nothing had remained behind, but the maestro has been prodigal of his resources, and each scene supplies some new gem. The new singer is as great a success as the new opera, and old favourites are called before the curtain to receive new ovations.
"Everybody seems bent on surpassing themselves to-night. V——, X——. All magnificent."
"Yes! I have been amusing myself by watching the faces of the audience. Nobody looks critical."
"Except that sour-visaged man holding a lady's fan in the next box."
"Yes! What an unhappy—— But there is the bell."
The curtain rises. One of the veterans of the lyric stage opens the act with a song. It is a marvel of correct vocalisation. The house is in a new excitement. The dowager is in an unusual difficulty;—she has flung away all her bouquets.
"That rose out of your neck, Eugenie," said the lady to a lovely girl who sits next her. "I never heard Z—— in such voice; and, for the first time in his life, he acts as well as he sings. Quick,—that rose, child! He will value it more than all the bracelets from his Majesty's box, I know."
The girl blushed and hesitated. Madame Duravel in an instant divined the cause; "O, somebody put the rose there, did he? How naughty of me not to remember it. Well, I suppose a bracelet must go. Why,—Mon Dieu! I have given that little rogue of a danseuse my emeralds already."
"You must tell Z—— to-morrow, Aunt; that will do as well."
"O, no! He must have something from the Duravel. What! No bouquets, ladies !—no bouquets, gentlemen! I shall have to throw my fan at him, I protest. Where is it, child? It has 'Alexander's Feast' painted on it, and he will fancy the compliment intentional!"
The looked-for fan, however, could not be found at the moment. The compliant cavaliers sought in vain under play-bills and opera-cloaks.
Suddenly a strangely deep voice, close in the lady's car, uttered the sentence:
"Will this fan serve the purpose, madame?"
The speaker was the grave-looking man, whose grave face and persistent gaze had annoyed the dowager a moment before.
He leant over from the next box and presented an open fan. Madame Duravel gazed at the toy he tendered her for a space, wherein you might perhaps have counted sixty; then her face grew too ashy white, for the artificial glow on her cheek to be of any avail. Her eyes stared with a hideous fixity of gaze, her jewelled fingers clutched her dress like the hands of one in the death-struggle. She uttered a strange harsh shriek and fell down senseless on the floor. All crowded round her. The gentlemen would have made way for Eugenie and the attendants, but the dark man kept close to the insensible body of Corisande. There was a few hurried cries of alarm. Some fancied a subtle poison had been administered in the fan, and called out for the arrest of the person who had presented it. Cries of "silence!" arose from all parts of the theatre. The actors stopped, and at last—though not till some time had passed—the group of people in the Duravel box succeeded in bearing the dowager to a lobby. There strong convulsive fits seized her; and after in vain trying all the means of recovery, which the ability of half a dozen of the first Parisian physicians who chanced to be amongst the audience could suggest, she was carried to her hotel . . . . Directly the stiff fingers of the prostrate woman released it, a gentleman, whose curiosity overmastered his fears, picked up and examined the fatal fan. Its handle was ivory, of curious workmanship, and on it was a picture of an Italian looking bath-house in a garden. Beneath the landscape were inscribed the initials "C. D.," and the date "October 18th, 1810." There was nothing about the gift, apparently to excite the extraordinary emotion which it had been the means of evoking!
All Paris next morning was busy with various versions of the accident to the autocrat of the fashionable world. As twenty years before in Havre, rumour, romance, and exaggeration, fastened themselves on the name of Duravel. Some said the veteran coquette had fainted at the sight of an old lover. Some attached themselves to the first theory of a mysterious poison, and saw in the affair a tragedy worthy of Brinvilliers or Borgia. Others hinted that the celebrated gambler had been arrested for debt. These and a dozen other fictions occupied the salons during the mornings, but, about noon, truth began to rise to the surface from the bottom of the well, and it became known that the gentleman with the harsh voice—the giver of the fan—was an officer of justice acting under instructions, and that Madame Corisande Duravel, who had partially recovered her senses, was, at that moment, under examination at the Bureau of the superintendent of police, and that the charge against her was murder!
The sequel must be stated in a few words. The day before the scene at the Grand Opera a poor man miserably dressed and apparently worn out with a long journey on foot arrived at a low cabaret in the Faubourg St. Antoine. He engaged a bed for a few sous. In the night he was taken dangerously ill, and raved in such a wild and incoherent manner that the other lodgers demanded that he should be turned out. The land lady, however, was more humane, and sent for a priest. There was some delay in procuring one, and in the meantime an officer of police called at the cabaret to see after some other lodger. The person he wanted was hiding in the same room as the delirious man, and the officer when engaged in securing the one overheard the outcries of the other. He was struck by some few words which the poor wretch repeated over and over again, especially by his mention of a fan which he wanted to present to Madame Duravel, for the name of the Dowager had been mixed up with more than one plot, and she was herself, though perfectly unconscious of it, under strict surveillance. Though the ravings of the old man were vague and contradictory in the extreme, the practised detective contrived to elicit that it was the dearest wish of the dying man's heart to present the fan which was wrapped up in his ragged little valise to the celebrated queen of fashion. The officer reported what he had heard to his chief, and by his instructions took the fan from the old man, dressed himself in evening costume, secured a box next to the Duravel, and in the manner we have described carried out the old man's wish. Very different from that which was anticipated was the discovery thereby elicited. They expected to detect some semi-political, semi-mercantile intrigue, and fancied the presentation of the fan a signal for some experiment on the funds. It really was the spell to give voice to a conscience long dumb —the key to unlock a fearful mystery! It had been proposed to confront the lodger at the cabaret with Corisande, but he breathed his last an hour before the examination was to have come on. His pocket-book, in the front page of which was written the name "Claude Duravel," contained a diary, partly written, partly expressed in symbols. But from a few intelligible sentences the superintendent was enabled to put such questions to Madame Duravel as made her imagine him in possession of the whole truth, and led to a full confession of her guilt. Soon after her marriage she had speculated, as we know, most recklessly. There was no way to meet the claims upon her husband save to appropriate the money of the firm; this could not be done without Claude being a party to it, and Jerome, always a coward, was afraid to confess the truth to him. The demands for money grew each day more and more pressing. A fiendish idea possessed the adventuress, and the execution followed quick on the conception. She and her husband left Havre for a neighbouring watering-place, but returned secretly after proceeding half-way: they knew the habits of Claude, and timed their return so as to meet him in a secluded corner of the shrubbery. His brother struck him down with a heavy iron bar, and the wife buried a knife in his breast. They concealed the body in the disused bath-house near the orangery.
After the crime the two had lived a wretched life, the woman perpetually dreading lest her husband's conscience should prompt him to some rash revelation. She had therefore laboured to get rid of him, and had succeeded in her object. He had for a while depended on the supplies of money liberally forwarded on the condition of his keeping out of France; but at last he had become superstitiously fearful of receiving the wages of guilt, and had professed to toil for his bread. He had possessed, as we know, some talent as a painter, and had sustained himself by ornamenting handscreens and fans. As a self-imposed penance he had painted one with the scene which was charactered in his memory in indelible lines, and he had hoped that he might by suddenly presenting this to his more hardened accomplice, alarm her into confession and repentance. It was, however, ordered that this new Clytemnestra should not escape with the punishment of conscience and the penances of religion. Public indignation, indeed, scarcely allowed the authorities to go through the forms of justice. Strong guards of chasseurs and gendarmes were required to restrain the mob from tearing the prisoner to pieces as she proceeded to and from the place of trial. The people waited in breathless excitement the answer to the message sent to the authorities at Havre. At last it came with all its fulness of confirmation. The stones of the bath-house had been removed, and beneath a mass of rubbish since accumulated were found the mouldering bones of a human skeleton.
Two days after the receipt of the message, Corisande Duravel was guillotined.