THE HUNGER OF FERDINAND DAUBERVAL
It wanted about an hour to sunset when Ferdinand Dauberval, sick with hunger and fatigue, passed through the Porte St. Denis and asked of the guard there the way to the Rue St. Paul.
“I am from Avranches, monsieur,” said he, “and though you may not think it from my appearance, this is the first time that I have set eyes upon the city of Paris.”
The guard thus addressed was a tall, good-humoured fellow, mounted upon a great black horse. He looked down, half in pity, half in amusement, at the dust-begrimed young man, who now clung to his stirrup-leather, if possible to rest his weary legs for a moment.
“Sang bleu!” said the guard. “If I took note of your appearance, my friend, I should think a good many things. You are from Avranches, you say? Then what have you to do in the Rue St. Paul?”
“That is my business,” replied Dauberval, sulkily; but correcting himself in a moment, he added, “though I don't know why I should not tell you. I seek Mademoiselle de Montesson at the Hôtel Beautreillis. You know her house?”
The guard answered with a merry sneer.
“Oh,” cried he, “I should know that house pretty well—all the beggars in Paris go there. Follow the first blind man from the Quinze-Vingts Infirmary and he will lead you to the door like a dog at the end of a string.”
Dauberval, weak as he was, flushed with anger at the insult.
“Do you think that I ask alms?” he exclaimed.
“I am sure of it,” answered the guard, smiling maliciously; “Dame! you look as though you had not seen a crown for a twelvemonth. I should advise you to make haste. They close the gate at curfew, and then there is no more bread nor hot bean soup. You would not like to hear that, eh?”
Dauberval swore a big oath.
“If I had you upon the stones,” he snarled, “I would knock some sense into your silly head. Do you not see to whom you are talking? Oh, this Paris is a pretty place for a gentleman!”
He could have cried with his vexation, for pride, and pride alone, had brought him to the capital. It was true that his boots were in holes, while his clothes were so covered with the dust that their quality was not to be discerned; but still he plumed himself that his bearing and his manner of speaking were such as became the son of the advocate of Avranches, and it was galling to the point of madness that the first Parisian he met should talk to him as one would talk to a leper upon the steps of a parish church.
“To-morrow,” cried he, shaking his fist at the little group of idlers who had gathered about the horseman,—“to-morrow, I will return with my friends.”
“Hark to that,” roared a bellman, who was one of the first to come up, “the dusty gentleman has friends. He will return with them to-morrow. Let the Grand Chamberlain be informed, and the pages provided. Where is his excellency's horse?”
“Do we know to whom we are talking?” chimed in a merry cooper, who stood with his hoops flung over his shoulder,—“well, it's my belief that we talk to our Lord the Pope—”
“Or to the Captain of the Gate,” suggested a laughing hussy.
“Or to both,” said a rat-catcher.
Dauberval answered them with a word hissed out between his teeth. If he had not been so weak from hunger and fatigue, he would have run away from them, but as it was, he only walked on down the Rue St. Denis, cursing the day which had carried him to Paris; and that other day when he staked his last crown on a throw of the dice at Couches—and had lost it. Never had he thought that he, whose younger brother was high in the service of the Grand Equerry, would come to look with hungry eyes upon the bread which the very beggars ate,—much less that he himself would be mistaken for a beggar.
“Pah!” he muttered, while he fought the phantoms of hunger who seemed to dance up from the dirty gutters bearing loaves of sweet white bread in their hands, “why should I despair? The Rue St. Paul cannot be far from here, and Mademoiselle Corinne will know how to cure my troubles. Did she not find a place for Armand, my brother—and what a place! It is true that he has told her lies about me—but I shall answer them. And she will believe me. A pretty woman always believes a man when he is young and—”
He added in his heart “good-looking;” although it did occur to him that he would need a great deal of brushing and mending before he could appear without shame in Mademoiselle Corinne's presence. He consoled himself, however, with the thought that her lacqueys would do this for him while their mistress was causing a good hot dinner to be prepared; and so keen was his imagination that the warmth of the food he awaited seemed already to fill his body with a delicious glow of heat. He began, in his fancy, to smell the pungent odour of spices; he said that he would arrive in the Rue St. Paul about the hour of supper, and that a fat capon might possibly be set before him. The horrible overpowering nausea, which was the result of his hunger, almost left him in the presence of these suggestions. He moved his mouth with the action of a man eating heartily, and a momentary return of his bodily strength enabled him to run straight on until he came out upon the Quai de l'Hôtel de Ville, and beheld the spires of Notre Dame stand up before him.
Paris was beginning to wake to the pleasures of her night then; and although it was early in the month of April in the year 1760, many people were abroad in the streets, sitting before the doors of their houses, or returning from their walk upon the ramparts. The great river itself was alive with boats; some filled by noisy students who played upon horns and drums; others with more orderly citizens bound for the wine-gardens and taverns of Passy. Dauberval stood a minute upon the quay to let the cool breeze play upon his burning face, and to watch the many strange figures and the many strange sights about him. He saw that he had never thought Paris could be so big. What a maze of threatening, cramped, yet picturesque houses was that upon the great island before him! How the cathedral dominated it all. Were there ever such fine fellows as these bucks and gallants on their way to dance with the butter-girls at the Quai de Gesvreo! Did any one ever hear such gibberish as these German mountebanks were talking! How the professional psalm-singers drawled! And there was a puppet-show too; and an acrobat from Italy, and a peoples' letter-writer, and a hundred others; all merry, and busy, and withal good-humoured, because the day was done with and the lights had begun to twinkle in the city.
Dauberval would have been content at any other time to have spent a day upon this busy quay, but the hunger tearing at his vitals quickly made him remember his errand. He asked of a petty wench who was selling cocoa—“two goes for a liard”—the way to the Rue St. Paul, and she answered him with a saucy laugh.
“Ventrebleu!” she cried, “that you should be so blind—yonder it stands as close to your feet as a fool's cap to his head. Oh, all the world can see where you come from.”
“And the Hôtel Beautreillis?” asked Dauberval, too weak to argue with her.
“At the corner past the Rue Charlemagne. Stop under the great bronze lamp and tell the concierge that you are a simple young man from the country. He will give you five sous to buy your supper with, and I will give you a drink of cocoa for nothing.”
She held out her can to him, and he took a little sup of the cocoa; but so great was his impatience to get to Mademoiselle Corinne's house that he would not wait for the boiling stuff to cool, but ran on when he had gulped down a few drops of it. A minute later, he found himself under the shadow of the great walls of the Hôtel Beautreillis; and he saw the bronze lamp which the hussy had named. But it was unlighted, and the forbidding iron-sheathed door in the quaint Norman tower at the corner of the street offered to him a heart- breaking welcome. How, he asked, if the pretty philanthropist whom he had walked all the way from Avranches to see, were at her country house near Gros Bois? His brain went whirling round at the thought! He prayed to God—and it was many a year since a prayer had come to his lips—that his burden of suffering might not have this new evil added to it.
The Rue St. Paul was almost deserted at that hour. Long black shadows were stealing over the muddy flags of the wretched street. A few flickering lanterns cast a dull gleam of yellow light upon the dirty water of the open gutter. In the great house itself a dreadful silence reigned. Not a lamp shone in any of the narrow windows; not a footfall was to be heard in any of the courts. Dauberval beat with his fists upon the heavy oaken door, but he might as well have struck at the wall of the Bastille. No one answered to his puny knocking. He picked up a flag from the gutter and hurled it at the iron armour of the gate, but got for his pains only the weird echoes which went booming from cloister to cloister, and from tower to tower. And his hunger was now irresistible, horrible. His whole body seemed to be wasting away as he stood.
“Oh, mon Dieu!” he wailed, wringing his hands, and sobbing for very weakness, “have pity, have pity—one little drink of milk, oh, for Christ's sake.”
He thought surely that he was dying; and it was cruel, he said, that he must perish of hunger at the very gate of his fortunes. The possibility that pretty Mademoiselle Corinne, who had done so much for his younger brother, Armand, might be at her château near Gros Bois, had not come into his reckoning until that moment. Never before in all his life had he known the meaning of hunger. He sat upon the stone steps before the unyielding door, and it seemed to him that a hundred demons were dancing round him, each bearing a tempting dish or a goblet of rich red wine. He beat them off with his fists, and others arose to caress him with visions of splendid feasts and tables groaning. His greedy eyes searched the gutters in the vain hope that an untrodden crust might lie there. He dipped his hands in the water of a shining puddle and bathed his burning forehead; but it only burned the more. He muttered a new prayer; and it was this—that his death might come quickly, and that he might suffer such agony no longer. And this was a prayer to which an answer was vouchsafed—but not such an answer as he had looked for.
Truth to tell, it all came upon him very suddenly. He had sunk down upon the step then, and his cheek was resting upon a slab of marble. Pain had begun to give way to unconsciousness; the turbid dreams to utter darkness of the mind. But from such a state of trance he awoke presently to find that the rays of a lantern were flashing in his eyes, and that a man dressed from head to foot in black had gripped him firmly by the arm. He had heard strange tales of the footpads of Paris; and his yawning imagination convinced him, for an awakening idea, that one such rogue sought to rob him. At any other time he would have laughed loudly at the notion; but now he was too weak to laugh—too weak almost to stand.
“Pardieu!” he snarled, “what the devil do you want with me? Can't you see—?”
The man answered him with a word spoken to another at his elbow.
“Aubin,” said he, “take the right arm of Monsieur Dauberval, and let Joseph bring another lantern.”
Dauberval started up when he heard his name. The dazzling rays no longer blinded his eyes. He saw that the stranger's black vest was richly embroidered with silver, and that diamonds sparkled upon the hilt of his sword. Beyond this, the great door of the Hôtel Beautreillis was now wide open, and servants were busy in its courtyard. Dauberval, who had been ready to declare that the apparition was a new cheat of his fancy, doubted no longer. Mademoiselle Corinne was in Paris. What was more, she knew that he was hungering at her gates. Never did a man's fortune seem to be made so readily.
“Monsieur,” said he to the unknown, as they passed the lodge of the concierge, and so entered the vast central courtyard, “you have my name!”
“Assuredly,” said the other. “Your name is Ferdinand Dauberval, and you are the son of the advocate of Avranches. Five days ago, you left your home to walk to this house—having first robbed your father of a hundred crowns, the last of which you lost over the dice at Couches two days ago. I speak rightly, monsieur?”
Dauberval stood still with his astonishment.
“Ciel!” he cried, “you insult me, monsieur?”
“Oh, not at all,” replied the unknown. “You put a question to me, and I answer it. Is that an insult?”
“You say that I robbed?—” expostulated Dauberval.
“Come, come,” said the other, a little severely. “I really cannot argue with you, Monsieur Dauberval. While we wait in this draughty courtyard, your supper is getting cold. Remember how hungry you are.”
Dauberval, trembling with excitement, permitted himself to be led across the court and so to the smaller pavilion upon the left-hand side of it.
“I shall make up some tale,” he thought, “and she will believe me. Meanwhile, there will be food to eat and wine to drink. Dieu, how I could drink a cup of Burgundy! It will be time after that to remember my misfortunes.”
Like all rogues, he was easily elated. And the things which he saw about him were of a quality to satisfy any man. No sooner had he entered the pavilion than lacqueys came unbidden to brush his clothes and to bring a golden basin for his hands. While one fellow begged him to be seated and to remove his dirty shoes, another offered him a coat of velvet heavily laced with silver braid. Everything that greed of show and of wealth could prompt him to wish for was now thrust upon him unasked. Silk stockings took the place of his dusty woollen ones; the perfume of attar of roses exuded from the cooling water in which he washed the dust from his face; the lacqueys waited upon him with a homage which might have served a king. And this was the mystery of it all—that they did these things for one whom their mistress knew to be a thief.
Dauberval was too hungry at the first to debate upon such a nice problem. He did observe that the unknown man in black watched him with a curious smile—the smile of one who enjoyed some secret, but did not wish to share it. Yet this, he said, was the man's satisfaction at his new appearance. Indeed, the stranger told him so presently, when he rose to conduct him to his supper.
“Ma foi, Monsieur Dauberval,” said he, “you will break some hearts in Paris. I never saw a coat sit so well upon a man. And you know how to carry it, too. Saint Denis, we must find you a sword presently, when the perruquier has done with you. You can use a sword, I will wager?”
Dauberval, who was the greatest coward in Normandy, drew himself up and bowed at the compliment.
“Sir,” said he, “if I were not so hungry—”
“Exactly, my friend. And since you are very hungry—come, supper is prepared for you.”
He opened a door in the ante-chamber to which they had first come, and motioned the other to go forward. Dauberval could scarce suppress a cry of delight when he saw that a table was spread in an exquisitely furnished cabinet; and that other lacqueys waited to serve him with all those good things of which he had lately dreamed. Nay, he was not sure that he did not dream still, for this room, he said, must surely be one in which kings supped. Such divinely wrought candelabra, such a painted ceiling, such a profusion of wax tapers, so soft a carpet, were not to be looked for except at the palace of the Tuilleries or at Versailles. Dauberval declared that the owner of it all must be rich beyond any woman in Paris. “And,” he said, “she means well to me or I should not be here.”
This self-assurance brought him to the table in wondrous good spirits. Although he had suffered much from his hunger, he was not so far gone that eating would be a danger to him; and when a lacquey put a little bowl of soup before him, he drank it down in great gulps. The warmth of it seemed to fill his body to the very toes.
“Oh,” he said, “how good it is—how good! Surely it is well to have suffered, monsieur, if one may—”
At this moment he turned round to find himself alone with the lacquey in the cabinet. The unknown had left him at the door; and Dauberval really was not sorry to be quit of his company.
“One can do nothing with a man,” he thought; “and he is gone to tell pretty Mademoiselle Corinne that I am here. She will come to see me presently, and I shall persuade her that I am a very honest fellow. After that, she will find me some place in Paris, and I shall have lacqueys of my own, and wine like this Burgundy. Saint John, how it warms my heart! And I have yet the half of a bottle to drink! Oh, it was a great day that took me from Avranches to my fortune at the Hôtel Beautreillis!”
Hopes like these, with a hundred others, filled his brain, while he helped himself to a dish of artichokes fried in marmalade, and afterwards to the breast of a well-boiled capon. He was careful to eat sparingly of the food, remembering how long he had fasted; but of the wine he drank abundantly. Nor did the lacqueys once speak to him while he ate. They might have been machines answering to some invisible wires. Dauberval, warmed with the Burgundy, began to assume lofty and patronising airs. He even attempted to enter into conversation with one of those who waited upon him.
“My good fellow,” said he, “is your mistress in Paris?”
The man bowed, but that was all his answer. Dauberval, more than ever anxious to play the part of the fine gentleman, pushed his chair away from the table and leant back in it posingly.
“Have the goodness,” he cried, “to inform Mademoiselle de Montesson that I crave a word with her so soon as it may please her to give me audience.”
The lacquey bowed again, and left the room with his fellows. He was careful not to laugh until he had shut the door upon his mistress's guest; but then he laughed very heartily. Dauberval, meanwhile, was leaning back in his chair, and telling himself that this for a surety was the day of his life.
“She cannot mean to punish me for borrowing two hundred crowns of my father,” he said to himself, “or she would not have treated me like this. No doubt she has heard some slander; but I shall correct all that. And then she will give me a place. Possibly it will be with the Grand Equerry, where my brother is; or should there be no vacancy there, I would even submit to serve for a while as page to his highness the Duke of Nevers. In any case she will make my fortunes. Who knows, she might even think me handsome, as the girls of Avranches did. And then—pardieu!—and then—”
To his utter confusion, a voice of singular sweetness answered his question, which he had intended for no other ears than his own.
“And then, Monsieur Dauberval?”
“Diable!” cried the man, as he sprang up from his chair and turned round to face the intruder. But the other words he would have spoken died away upon his lips; for there, standing behind him, with the merriest laugh possible upon her pretty face, was Mademoiselle Corinne. And so great was the shame of the fellow because his silly talk was overheard that he would have thanked God if the earth had opened and swallowed him up.
“Mademoiselle,” he stammered, and he was sure that he had never seen a more exquisite vision than this of the owner of all these riches,—“mademoiselle, I do not—indeed.”
“Oh,” she said, laughing more than ever at his confusion, “but you did. And let me tell you, monsieur, that I think the girls of Avranches showed exceedingly good taste.”
Dauberval, like most rogues, could bear himself well in ordinary circumstances before a woman. He had looked to find a grand dame, haughty, imperious, exacting; but now that Mademoiselle Corinne really stood before him, and he saw that she was an exceedingly beautiful girl, whose face wore the kindliest smile he had ever beheld, he took new courage and began to look up.
“Mademoiselle,” he exclaimed, “you overheard me just now saying some very foolish things. I thought that I was alone or I should not have uttered them. I beg you to forgive me.”
“Indeed, monsieur,” she answered, still smiling, “I shall do nothing of the sort. You have yet to answer my question. Here am I agreeing with the young ladies you speak of, and dying to know what next—yet you tell me nothing. For shame, monsieur, to leave a lady ailing with her curiosity.”
“Misfortune overtake me if I do any such thing,” cried Dauberval, bowing gallantly, “yet, for the life of me, mademoiselle, I cannot remember what I was saying.”
“Oh, but I remember it perfectly, Monsieur Dauberval,” she answered; “you were saying 'and then—' I want to know what comes after 'and then'—”
A quick thought passed like an inspiration through the man's mind.
“Mademoiselle,” he cried, “you insist?”
“Certainly I do.”
“Then I will tell you in a word. I was saying to myself as you came in that if I should be happy enough to merit your favor, you would find me some place in Paris.”
He stood watching her keenly to see how his boldness would be repaid; but her immediate answer was only a command.
“Sit, mon ami,” she said, “and then we will talk of things.”
Dauberval took a chair and drew it near to the little couch upon which she was resting. He was so close to her now that he could count the diamonds which made a rope about her lovely neck. He said that he had never seen such surpassing loveliness of skin or face; never a woman worthy to sit at the feet of Corinne de Montesson. The very air about her was laden with the breath of roses. Her girlish face was like the face of one of the Madonnas which the great masters had painted. Her voice was like the note of a silver bell.
“You wish me to find you a place in Paris, Monsieur Dauberval,” she said, when they were seated. “Well, that is already done—”
“What,” cried Dauberval, forgetting himself in his surprise,—at the same time he said to himself, “My fortune is made.”
“Yes,” she continued, “after making all inquiries about you, I am willing to take you into my service.”
Dauberval's expectation became tremendous. “She knows nothing,” he thought.
“You will consent, I am sure, monsieur,” Corinne went on, “to do as my other servants have done, and to attain promotion by your diligence and fidelity. Yet I do not forget that you were educated by the curé of Avranches, and are a man of some learning. On that account, I have determined to overlook all that I might remember about you, and to make you an usher of the table.”
Dauberval listened no more, but sprang from his chair. He was white with passion when he answered her.
“Dieu! mademoiselle,” he cried, “would you make a lacquey of me?”
“Exactly,” she replied, without so much as noticing his temper; “an usher of my table to begin with, and after that clerk to my household, if your service in the first employment warrants it. It is even possible, should you seek by the future to blot out the sins of your past, that I may remember you as the brother of Armand Dauberval—whom you drove from his home after accusing him falsely of a robbery.”
“It is a lie!” stammered Dauberval, hoarse with his anger. “I am the victim of—”
Corinne de Montesson rose from her seat, and touched a gong at her side.
“Monsieur,” she said very quietly, “to-night you remain here as my guest. If you are willing to accept the post which I offer you, hold yourself ready to begin your work at ten o'clock to-morrow morning. But I warn you that should you speak to me again as you spoke just now, my servants shall flog you at the tail of a cart. You understand me?”
There was laughter in her eyes no longer, and her cheek was warmed with a red flush. Dauberval realised for the first time what a great gulf lay between them. His hopes had gone tumbling down already pell-mell, like stones into a pit. He was cowed, and he trembled with rage and disappointment.
“Ciel!” said he, wringing his hands, “that you should wish to make a lacquey of me! Oh, mademoiselle, have pity—you know what I have suffered.”
“Say rather, that I remember what your brother suffered at your hands,” she replied. “Indeed, Monsieur Dauberval, you reap that which you have sown. Have a care, then, to treasure in the future the seeds of honesty and of love. I wish you good-night, monsieur.”
She retired with a gentle grace, a lacquey holding the door as she passed to her own apartments. Dauberval followed her with eyes in which the tears of shame and cowardice welled up plenteously. Her words had stung him like a whip; yet, he said, he could have forgotten them quickly enough had she not sought to put this insult upon him. But to make a lacquey of him! Better by far to have remained in Avranches, he thought, and to have extorted money from his father. There, at any rate, people did not forget that he was born a gentleman. But here, in this unpitying Paris—to make a menial of him, he who had dreamed that he was soon to have lacqueys of his own! Oh, it was not to be tolerated!
He had been pacing the room for some little time, gathering the threads of his anger, when the servant returned to tell him that his bed-chamber was prepared. He followed the fellow sullenly, determined already in his own heart that he would never submit to the proposed degradation. After all, he could still return to his home and say, “Father, I have sinned.” It would be a terrible humiliation; but he preferred the thought of facing it to that of remaining in the Hôtel Beautreillis. As for his brother Armand—it would be no use to beg of him. Dauberval knew well enough that he had driven his brother from their home, caring nothing if he lived or died. How then should that brother pity him?
The lacquey, meanwhile, had conducted him down a long stone corridor; thence across a little garden, and through a second passage, which terminated in a small circular hall off which five doors opened. Dauberval scarce took notice of anything that he passed; but when the lacquey opened the third of the five doors and informed him that here was his bed-chamber, a new interest occupied him. None of Mademoiselle Corinne's reproaches seemed to fit in with the elegance of the room to which he had been conducted. It was a room for the king, he said for the second time, while the man lighted the candles in the gilt sconces and set a cup of wine upon the table. The great bed with the canopy of gold above it; the superb tapestries hung upon the wall; the many candelabra of solid silver; the luxurious carpet beneath his feet,—all these things should have been at Versailles, he thought, and not at the Hôtel Beautreillis. And it was maddening to him to remember that he was to enjoy such splendours for one night, and only for one night.
“To-morrow,” he snarled, for the servant had left him then,—“to-morrow they will make a lacquey of me! Oh, that shall never be! I swear it on the cross. She shall listen to me in the morning—I will go on my knees to her—I will humble myself—she will surely relent then. She must relent.”
He repeated these words again and again, and they were still upon his lips when he climbed into the high bed and stretched himself luxuriously upon the downy cushions. The candle was out now, and the moon's beams flooded the room picturesquely, seeming to magnify its size and beauty. Indeed, the very splendours of the apartment awed the man. He lay for a long while unable to sleep, or to do anything but contemplate the things he would plan and say when morning came. When he had settled those to his satisfaction, and sleep still refused her friendship, he began to follow the path of the pale yellow rays and to observe the beauty of the things they touched with their caressing light. He remarked then for the first time a little picture of a Madonna hung near the wall by his bed; and when he had looked at this for some moments, he saw that it was the central piece of a shrine upon which there was a cross with a great diamond blazing in the centre of it. So beautiful were the lights which the jewel scattered, so large was it, that Dauberval asked himself why he had not seen it before. Then he sat up in bed the better to observe it, but lay down again quickly lest the thought which came to him so powerfully should remain and prevail.
“She must be very rich,” he said, as he drew the clothes over his head and fought anew for sleep. “That diamond alone would keep a man in food and wine for life. She has many more like it, I am sure, and would never miss it. If a rogue were sleeping here, he would put that cross in his pocket and she would never know its loss. Besides, she is going to make a lacquey of me. Saint John—I could be even with her if I had the mind to!”
He lay for some moments trembling with the excitement of the thought. He knew that such a diamond as the one which lay within reach of his hand would enrich him for life. He had but to slip the cross into his pocket and to climb the wall of the garden through which he had passed to his room, and he need think of being a lacquey no more. What a revenge that would be, he said. And why did he owe her any mercy? She had shown him none. Nay, she had threatened to have him beaten at a cart's tail. “We shall see about that,” he muttered—and then he sat up in bed again. The diamond shone now with a finer, richer lustre. All the loveliest hues seemed to be commingled, and to be poured out together from its sparkling wells of light. Dauberval had not dreamed that there was such a jewel in all the world. The sight of it was to him like a cup of wine to a drunkard. “Heaven!” he muttered, “it is a prince's ransom—and I am alone.”
He was out of bed now, and his teeth were chattering with dread of his determination. While he said all the time that he was not going to steal the diamond, he knew perfectly well that he had made up his mind to do so. Quickly and with trembling hand he drew on his boots and his fine new coat. He opened his bedroom door, and found to his satisfaction that the little hall outside was in darkness and as silent as the grave. Everything drove him on to the crime which he declared that he would never commit, but which he was even then committing. Twice he touched the diamond, and drew back his hand as though it had been burned by fire.
“Coward,” he cried, “coward, coward—to turn your back on a fortune which lies there before your eyes. Ten steps and you are in the garden; you leave Paris at dawn and set out for England—a little hiding by the way, perhaps, a little privation—and then, and then—!”
Visions of luxury, of ease, even of vice, passed before his burning eyes. A new hunger, the hunger of wealth, was upon him now. The agonies of the temptation were like the agonies of a burning fever. He stood rocking on his heels before the shrine, saying, “I will not, I will not.” He covered his face with his hands, yet the lights from the sparkling jewel seemed to flash into his very brain. When at last he grasped the stone with trembling fingers, and thrust it deep down into his bosom, phantoms of the night gathered about him in his fancy and cried, “We see, we see.”
With possession, the fever abated a little. He was in a cold sweat now; but his ideas were less confusing. When he opened his bedroom door to pass into the circular hall, he knew well enough what plan to follow. The garden, he was sure, lay not more than twenty yards from him. He had seen, while they had conducted him to his room, great trees growing against the walls of it, and he determined to climb this wall by their help and so to gain the street.
He opened his door, and stood for a moment to listen if there were any sound about the house. A little whisper of the wind sighing in the dome of the hall was the only answer to his silent question. Encouraged by the stillness, he stepped from his chamber and began to creep towards that door of the five through which he believed that he had passed to his bedroom. And here a difficulty which he had not foreseen suddenly presented itself and demanded consideration. The five doors in the hall were as alike as five drops of water. How if he opened the wrong one, and found himself, not in the garden, but in the bed-chamber of some lacquey or page? That, he declared, would mean the galleys at the least. And he blamed himself now that he had not tried the doors before leaving his bedroom. To be taken with the jewel in his possession were a folly indeed.
Dauberval was a cunning rogue at all times; but he did not know what forces of cunning and trickery were being pitted against him as he stood debating the puzzle of the doors. At the very moment when he thought he was alone, six pairs of eyes were watching him with interest and not a little amusement. True, there was a moment when he had an instinctive warning of peril hovering about him, and that was the moment when the door of the bedroom he had just quitted shut suddenly and the key grated ominously in the lock.
“Mort Christ!” he muttered, “my door has locked itself—I heard the key turn—what a thing to happen!”
There was no doubt about it at all. The door had shut and the key had turned. Dauberval stood like one petrified, pressing the jewel to his breast with both his hands, and telling himself that the wind had done the work. So unnerved was he that he did not lift a foot until minutes had passed and no other sound had come to break the whispers of the night. The vision of the galleys and the whip was ever before his eyes. When at length he moved again, it was this vision which gave him strength.
“Bah!” he said, “am I a woman to start at the fall of a pebble? If I stand here much longer I shall go to sleep, and a lacquey will find me at daybreak. Courage, then—a little courage and all is well.”
The idea put new life into him. He tried the first of the doors, but it was locked; and the second, in like manner, refused to yield to his hand. Only when he came to the fourth door did he take heart and say that success was near to him. For that door opened readily at his touch; and when he had hesitated a moment lest it should lead him to a room and not to a passage, he pushed it back inch by inch that the little light in the hall might break the darkness which now blinded him. He would have given half he possessed to hold a lantern for a minute then, so dark was the place in which he found himself; but he knew that he could not work miracles, and so he nerved himself for a last effort and boldly passed the door. In the same instant, the place was flooded by a soft yellow light, and Mademoiselle Corinne stood face to face with him.
She was dressed in a loose gown of muslin, spotlessly white and unornamented, and she held a golden candlestick high above her head that the light might fall upon the face of the man. Dauberval, staggering with terror, observed that a small diamond cross glittered upon her white neck, and that a great Russian hound crouched by her side and pressed his nose into her hand. She had entered the little cabinet through a panel opening in the wall at a spot exactly opposite to the door which led the rogue to this trap; but she appeared to be quite alone, and to know the purpose of her coming.
“Well, Monsieur Dauberval,” she cried, and there was merriment in her voice,—“well, Monsieur Dauberval, are you not pleased to see me?”
Deceived by her manner, the robber looked up. “She is alone,” he thought, “and she is a woman.” But he made no attempt to answer her, seeking rather to escape from the room into the hall behind him. And at this she laughed aloud.
“For a truth, you are a bold fellow,” she continued, as the man backed towards the door, “and I am very glad that you did not die at my gate to-night. Have a care to your steps, I beg of you, Monsieur Dauberval, or you will be of little service to the galleys. Shall I summon a lacquey to carry your plunder? How unfortunate that you should awake me at the very moment you were robbing my house!”
Something in the tone of her voice, a note of scorn mingling with the chord of her laughter, compelled the man to stand. It occurred to him that he must deal with her before he left the room, or assuredly she would awake the house, and he would be taken in the gardens of it. He determined to play first upon her pity.
“Mademoiselle,” he exclaimed, coming a little nearer to her, and speaking with an effort, “you are very cruel to me—I could not sleep—I wished to walk a little way in your gardens—do you think that I am a robber? God forbid—I swear it on the cross.”
“On the cross which you carry at your breast, Monsieur Dauberval?”
“Ciel!” he gasped, drawing back again, “you know about that?”
“You hear that I do; and since I know about it my servants are now going to carry you to the Palais de Justice, where you will have leisure to regret that you did not become a lacquey.”
She said this, and with the words she took up a padded stick and raised it as though to beat upon the gong by which she stood. For a moment, however, she held her hand; and forgetting that she had laughed, she went on to remind the man of that which he had lost.
“When you came to my house to-night,” she said, “I was content to forget the life you have lived and the crimes you have committed. For your brother's sake, I thought to give you one more opportunity of becoming that which you will never be—an honest man. To-morrow, had you submitted for a day to the test which I chose for you, I would have remembered again that you were the son of the advocate of Avranches. You will not ask me to do that now, Monsieur Dauberval?”
Dauberval listened to her with burning ears. He watched the upraised stick as he would have watched a tiger about to leap upon him. He knew that if the gong were struck, his hope of life would die away with the echoes of the note.
“Mademoiselle,” he wailed, “for God's sake spare me—you will never regret it—I swear it on my knees—hear me—you will not summon your servants?”
He fell upon his knees before her and raised his hands in cowardly entreaty. But her answer was unpitying.
“Nay,” she said, “I am about to summon my servants now.”
“Dieu! mademoiselle,” muttered the man, springing to his feet, “you shall do nothing of the sort.” But to himself he said again—“She is a woman, and she is alone.”
All the devils of evil were spurring him on now. He knew that it was his life or hers—the life of a helpless girl or of a man with one foot already upon the scaffold. And he was going to plead with her no more. When he rose from the floor, he told himself that he would kill her. The madness of his mood magnified and became uncontrollable. He raised his hand to strike her down, shutting his eyes that he might not see the exquisite beauty of her face.
“You shall not do it,” he cried savagely. “By Heaven, I will prevent you.”
“Indeed,” she cried, stepping back quickly, “it is already done;” and even as she spoke the blows fell,—that of the man in the air, that of the woman upon the silver gong.
Dauberval had struck wildly; but he struck no second blow. He had said “She is alone;” but never was she less alone. The great dog at her side, who had curled himself up to sleep while his mistress had no need of him, awoke at the booming of the gong, and was at the throat of the man, even while he reeled back for a new attack. With a low warning roar, the beast sprang at the robber, and felled him as an ox is felled by a butcher's axe. Over and over upon the wooden floor the two rolled; the dog growling ferociously, the man imploring, screaming, fighting. Death seemed to breathe into his very face now. He had his arm across his throat, and the hound's fangs touched the bone of it. He struck the brute again and again with his clenched fist; and for every blow his whole body was shaken until his teeth gnashed like the teeth of a madman.
“Kill me, kill me,” he screamed, “for God's sake!—oh, he is tearing me limb for limb! Heaven!—what suffering!”
He had rolled now almost to the door of the room, and there the hound drew back for a moment, hearing his mistress's voice. Dauberval, mad with fear and pain, scrambled to his feet and staggered out into the hall of the unyielding doors. A light was there now; and one of the five doors stood wide open before him; but he had no thought of asking how or for what reason. Dread of the dog drove him onward recklessly. “Anything, anything but that,” he cried; and reeling, staggering, sobbing, he passed through the door and down the long passage to which it gave access. Whither he was going or to what end, he knew not nor cared to think. One idea dominated him to the exclusion of all others—it was the idea of flight—flight to any refuge, even the refuge of the scaffold.
There was very little light in the corridor where he now found himself, and when he had run perhaps twenty yards he turned a sharp corner and was then in utter darkness. So black was it that he could not see the ground at his feet. He guided himself only by touching the wall with his fingers. It was a smooth wall, a panelled one, he saw at first; and though he knew that he might go tumbling headlong down a staircase, or crashing against a door at any step, so great was his terror that he ran heedlessly, believing ever to hear the patter of the hound's paws upon the ground behind him, even to feel his wet and frothing lips against his hand. And he was becoming exhausted now. Often he reeled against the wall and thought that he was fainting. Would he never come into the garden, he asked? He had been running for long minutes now, and still the dreadful wall guided him onward, onward. Once he paused, panting for his breath, but his ear told him plainly that the hound had followed him. There was no mistaking that haunting “pat, pat, pat,” behind him. “God have mercy—he will tear me limb from limb,” he cried, and so wailing he began to run again.
Dauberval was a man who had known few hardships in life; but just as the past two days had taught him what it is to hunger, so did this night of agony teach him the meaning both of fear and fatigue. He had not dreamed that a man could conceive so great a horror and loathing as this horror and loathing of the hound which now possessed him. As to his fatigue, there were no words to tell of that. His life seemed to exude from his body drop by drop. Every step was a torture to him. The tears ran down his face like rain; a spasm gripped his heart and seemed to hold it still; his legs were so weary that he could scarce lift them from the ground. And to his terror of the seen, the terror of the unseen was now added. He had run for the third part of an hour by this time; and still the terrible wall led him on. He began to say that fiends were cheating him—for how could the Hôtel Beautreillis possess a corridor down which a man might run for twenty minutes? That would carry him half across Paris. Under any other circumstances he would have tried to reason with the situation, but the ominous patter of the hound banished reason from his head. More than this, he heard the soft tread of other hounds now before him, now behind him. He shrieked aloud with his fear, and fled again like a madman.
There is an end to the endurance of terror and of the false strength which it inspires. Dauberval kept his legs to the ultimate moment, for he told himself that if he fell, the hounds would tear him as they would tear a deer. But at last pitying nature came to his aid. He remembered only that he stretched out his hands before him, staggering blindly into the darkness. Then, with a terrible cry, for he heard the dogs at his very feet, he fell senseless to the floor and lay like a dead man.
When he opened his eyes, hours had passed. The ghostly dawn light streaming through a lantern tower above him told him that day had broken; but he lay motionless for long minutes, unable to remember how he had come into the place where now he was, or why he slept upon a wooden floor. He was still very weak, and his limbs were cold and stiff and painful, his brain burnt, and would shape no story for him. When at last he began to remember the events of the dreadful night, he thought first of the diamond, and pressed his hands to his breast instinctively; but the jewel was gone; nor could he recollect how he had lost it. By and by he recalled the moment when he had left his bed-chamber; and that other moment when pretty Mademoiselle Corinne stood before him and he had struck her, and from that thought he passed to memory of the hound. So potent was this in terror, that it compelled him to stagger to his feet. Half awake as he was, the whole dread of the night came rushing back to him. He could hear the hound still—that he would swear; and even when he stood up and asked himself, “Where am I?” the haunting “pit, pat” still sang in his ears.
“Oh, mon Dieu!” he wailed, “have I lost my reason? Where am I? What do I hear? Oh, pity me, pity me!”
He looked all about him and could make nothing of his environment. He was in a great building, certainly,—a building which looked like a riding-school, and was in the shape of an oval. He observed clearly that a high wall ran round this building, and that he had been lying upon a wooden corridor which made a little platform beneath the wall. Dense as he was, it began to dawn upon him that he had been running round and round this corridor; and at this thought he trembled with passion.
“Heaven!” he cried, “that I should have run round and round like a horse which amuses the people—oh, what cruelty to play me such a trick—what cruelty—”
His distress was so great that he began to wring his hands and to pace the corridor distractedly. And he had been engaged in this employment for the space of a minute, when the second of his delusions was taken from him. For, suddenly, he came upon a little fountain built into the wall of the riding-school; and as he stood a minute to bathe his hands and forehead at it, it occurred to him that the music of it was familiar; and that its “drip, drip, drip” was just like the pat of a dog's paw upon the ground. “Holy Saints!” he cried with a sob, “that I should have run away from a basin of water. There is the patter of my hound. Oh, God! what a night of agony!”
A mocking laugh was the answer to his word of ultimate distress. He turned round to find himself in the presence of the man in black, who had met him at the gate yesterday; and he saw that a lacquey awaited the orders of the unknown.
At sunset that evening, Ferdinand Dauberval passed through the Porte St. Denis on his way to his father at Avranches.
“Halloa,” cries the bellman, “here is the dusty gentleman who has friends. Bon soir, monsieur—was the king well when your excellency dined with him?”
“It is my belief that we talk to our Lord the Pope,” exclaimed the cooper.
“Or to the Captain of the Gate,” said the saucy wench.
“Or to both,” shouted the rat-catcher.
But the mounted guard laughed heartily, and cried:—
“Good-day, little fire-eater! Did they give you alms at the Hôtel Beautreillis. Saint John, what an honest face you have! Oh, it is plain that you are a loss to Paris!”
Dauberval stood for a moment to shake his fist at them. Then he passed the gate, and Paris knew him no more.