In addition to making money on the Internet

In addition to making money on the Internet

'Then, madame, there is nothing left for us but to retire,' said the Jew.

Yet he did not retire, but on the contrary repeated the whole story, in terms more shameful still, as if to further humiliate the Countess in presence of the new-comer—this lady whom he pretended not to recognise, according to his custom when he was engaged in business.

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'Good-bye, madame,' he said at last, 'we are going to the office of the Public Prosecutor at once. The whole story will be in the newspapers within three days from now. And for that you will only have to thank yourself.'

In the newspapers! This horrible scandal upon the very ruins of her house! It was not enough, then, that the ancient fortune should have crumbled to dust; everything must roll in the mud as well. Ah! might not the honour of the name at least be saved? And with a mechanical movement she opened the casket. The ear-rings, the bracelet, three rings appeared, brilliants and rubies, in old-fashioned settings.

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Busch had eagerly drawn near. His eyes softened with a caressing gentleness. 'Oh!' said he, 'these are not worth ten thousand francs. Let me look at them.'

His sensual passion for precious stones had burst forth, and he was already taking the jewels up one by one, turning[Pg 398] them over, holding them in the air, with his fat, trembling, loving fingers. The purity of the rubies especially seemed to throw him into an ecstasy; and those old brilliants, although their cutting was sometimes unskilful, of what a marvellous water they were!

'Six thousand francs!' said he, in the hard voice of an auctioneer, hiding his emotion under this estimate. 'I only count the stones; the settings are merely fit for the melting pot. Well, we will be satisfied with six thousand francs.'

But it was too severe a sacrifice for the Countess. Her violence revived; she took the jewels away from him and held them tight in her convulsed hands. No, no! it was too much to require that she should also throw into the gulf those few stones, which her mother had worn, and which her daughter was to have worn on her wedding day. Burning tears started from her eyes, and streamed down her cheeks, in such tragic grief that Léonie, her heart touched, distracted with pity, began tugging at Busch's coat to force him to go off. She herself wished to leave, feeling that it was not right to give so much pain to that poor old lady, who seemed so good. Busch, however, watched the scene very coldly, now confident that he would carry the jewels off with him, knowing, as he did, by long experience that fits of crying, with women, betoken the collapse of the will; and so he waited.

Perhaps the frightful scene would have been prolonged if at that moment a distant, stifled voice had not burst into sobs. It was Alice, calling from the alcove: 'Oh! mamma, they are killing me! Give them everything, let them take everything away! Oh! mamma, let them go away! They are killing me, they are killing me!'

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Then the Countess made a gesture of desperate abandonment, the gesture of one who would have given her very life. Her daughter had heard; her daughter was dying of shame. That sufficed, and she flung the jewels at Busch, and hardly gave him time to lay the Count's acknowledgment upon the table in exchange, but pushed him out of the room, after Léonie, who had already disappeared. Then the unhappy woman again opened the alcove, and let her head fall upon[Pg 399] Alice's pillow; and there they remained, both exhausted, overwhelmed, mingling their tears.

Swayed by a feeling of revolt, Madame Caroline had been for a moment on the point of intervening. Could she allow that wretch to strip those two poor women in that fashion? But she had just heard the shameful story, and what could be done to avoid the scandal? For she knew him to be a man to carry out his threats. She herself felt ashamed in his presence, in the complicity of the secrets which they shared. Ah! what suffering, what filth! A feeling of embarrassment came over her; why had she hastened to this room, since she could find neither words to say nor help to offer? All the phrases that came to her lips, questions, mere allusions with regard to the terrible event of the day before, seemed to her out of place, cruel in presence of the suffering victim. And what help could she have offered which would not have seemed like derisive charity, she who was also ruined, already embarrassed as to how she might contrive to live pending the issue of the trial? At last she advanced, with eyes full of tears and arms open, overcome by infinite compassion, wild emotion which made her whole being tremble.

Those two miserable, fallen, hopeless creatures in that vulgar lodging-house alcove were all that remained of the ancient race of the Beauvilliers, formerly so powerful, exercising sovereign sway. That race had owned estates as large as a kingdom; twenty leagues along the Loire had belonged to it—castles, meadows, arable land, forests. But this immense landed fortune had gradually dwindled with the progress of the centuries, and the Countess had just engulfed the last shreds of it in one of those tempests of modern speculation of which she had no comprehension: at first the twenty thousand francs which she had saved, accumulated for her daughter sou by sou, then the sixty thousand francs borrowed on Les Aublets, and then the farm itself. The mansion in the Rue Saint-Lazare would not pay her creditors. Her son had died far from her and ingloriously. Her daughter had been brought home to her in a pitiable condition, perhaps also[Pg 400] destined soon to die. And the Countess, formerly so noble, tall, and slender, perfectly white, with her grand past-century air; was now nothing but a poor old woman, destroyed, shattered by all this devastation; while Alice, without beauty or youth, displaying her elongated scarecrow neck, had a gleam of madness in her eyes—madness mingled with mortal grief as she mourned over the irreparable. And they both sobbed, sobbed on, without a pause.

Then Madame Caroline did not say a word, but simply took hold of them and pressed them tightly to her heart. It was the only thing that she could do; she wept with them. And the two unfortunates understood her; their tears began to course more gently. Though no consolation was possible, would it not still be necessary to live, to live on in spite of everything?

When Madame Caroline was again in the street she caught sight of Busch conferring with La Méchain. He hailed a cab, pushed Léonie into it, and then disappeared. But, as Madame Caroline was hurrying away, La Méchain marched straight up to her. She had no doubt been waiting for her, for she immediately began to talk of Victor, like one who already knew what had happened on the previous day at the Institute of Work. Since Saccard's refusal to pay the four thousand francs she had been living in a perfect rage, ever exerting her ingenuity in search of some means by which she might further exploit the affair; and thus she had just learnt the story at the Boulevard Bineau, where she frequently went, in the hope of hearing something to her advantage. Her plan must have been settled upon, for she declared to Madame Caroline that she should immediately begin searching for Victor. The poor child! she said, it was too terrible to abandon him in this way to his evil instincts; he must be found again, if they did not wish to see him some fine morning in the dock. And as she spoke, her little eyes, peeping out of her fat face, searchingly scrutinised the good lady, whom she was happy to find in such distress, for she reflected that, after she had found the boy, she would be able to get some more five-franc pieces out of her.

'So it is agreed, madame,' she said. 'I am going to look after the matter. In case you should desire any news, don't take the trouble to go all the way to the Rue Marcadet, but call at Monsieur Busch's office, in the Rue Feydeau, where you are certain to find me every day at about four o'clock.'

Madame Caroline returned to the Rue Saint-Lazare, tormented by a new anxiety. There was that young monster free, roaming the world; and who could tell what evil hereditary instincts he might not seek to satisfy, like some devouring wolf? She made a hasty meal, and then took a cab, consumed by her desire to obtain some information at once, and having time, she found, to go to the Boulevard Bineau before her visit to the Conciergerie. On the way, amidst the agitation of her fever, an idea seized hold of her and mastered her: to call on Maxime first of all, take him to the Institute, and force him to concern himself about Victor, who was his brother after all. He, Maxime, alone remained rich; he alone could intervene and deal with the matter to some purpose.

But Madame Caroline had no sooner entered the hall of the luxurious little residence in the Avenue de l'Impératrice than she felt a chill. Upholsterers were removing the hangings and carpets, servants were covering the chairs and chandeliers; while from all the pretty trifles which were being moved about came a dying perfume, like that of a bouquet thrown away on the morrow of a ball. And in the bedroom she found Maxime between two huge trunks in which his valet was packing a marvellous outfit, as rich and delicate as a bride's.

As soon as he perceived her the young man spoke, in a dry, frigid voice. 'Ah! is it you? Your visit is well timed. It will save me from writing to you. I have had enough of it all, and I am going away.'