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The Princess d'Orviedo was at that time one of the most curious notabilities of Paris. Fifteen years previously she had resignedly married the Prince, whom she did not love, in obedience to the formal command of her mother, the Duchess de Combeville. At that period this young girl of twenty had been famous for her beauty and exemplary conduct, being very religious, and perhaps a little too serious, although loving society passionately. She was ignorant of the singular stories current regarding the Prince, the sources of his regal fortune estimated at three hundred millions of francs—his whole life of frightful robberies, perpetrated, not on the skirts of a wood and weapon in hand, after the fashion of the noble adventurers of former days, but according to the system of the correct modern bandit, in the broad sunlight of the Bourse, where amidst death and ruin he had emptied the pockets of poor credulous folks. Over there in Spain, and here in France, the Prince for twenty years had appropriated the lion's share in every great legendary piece of rascality. Although suspecting nothing of the mire and blood in which he had just picked up[Pg 48] so many millions, his wife at their first meeting had felt a repugnance towards him, which even her religious sentiments were powerless to overcome; and to this antipathy was soon added a secret, growing rancour at having no child by this marriage, to which she had submitted for obedience' sake. Maternity would have sufficed her, for she adored children; and thus she came to hate this man, who, after taking from her all hope of love, had even been unable to satisfy her maternal longings. It was then that the Princess was seen to precipitate herself into a life of unheard-of luxury, dazzling Paris with the brilliancy of her fêtes, and displaying in all things such magnificence that even the Tuileries were said to be jealous. Then suddenly, on the day after the Prince died from a stroke of apoplexy, the mansion in the Rue Saint-Lazare fell into absolute silence, complete darkness. Not a light, not a sound; doors and windows alike remained closed; and the rumour spread that the Princess, after violently stripping the lower part of the house, had withdrawn, like a recluse, into three little rooms on the second floor, with old Sophie, her mother's former maid, who had brought her up. When she reappeared in public, she wore a simple black woollen dress, with a lace fichu concealing her hair. Short and still plump, with her narrow forehead and her pretty round face with pearly teeth hidden by tightly-set lips, she already had a yellow complexion, with the silent countenance of a woman who has but one desire, one purpose in life, like a nun long immured in the cloister. She had just reached thirty, and lived henceforth solely for deeds of charity on a colossal scale.

The surprise of Paris was very great, and all sorts of extraordinary stories began to circulate. The Princess had inherited her husband's entire fortune, the famous three hundred millions of francs,[10] which the newspapers were always talking about. And the legend which finally sprang up was a romantic one. A man, a mysterious stranger dressed in black, it was said, had suddenly appeared one evening in the Princess's chamber just as she was going to[Pg 49] bed, without her ever understanding by what secret door he had gained admission; and what this man had told her no one in the world knew; but he must have revealed to her the abominable origin of those three hundred millions, and perhaps have exacted from her an oath to offer reparation for so many iniquities, if she wished to avoid the most frightful catastrophes. Then the man had disappeared; and now during the five years that she had been a widow, either in obedience to an order received from the realms beyond, or through a simple revolt of honesty when the record of her fortune had fallen into her hands, she had lived in a burning fever of renunciation and reparation. All the pent-up feelings of this woman, who had not known love, and who had not succeeded in becoming a mother, and especially her unsatisfied affection for children, blossomed forth in a veritable passion for the poor, the weak, the disinherited, the suffering, from whom she believed the stolen millions to be withheld, to whom she swore to restore them royally in a rain of alms. A fixed idea took possession of her, a thought she could not get rid of had been driven into her brain; she henceforth simply looked upon herself as a banker with whom the poor had deposited those millions, in order that they might be employed for their benefit in the most advantageous way. She herself was but an accountant, a business agent, living in a realm to figures, amidst a population of notaries, architects, and workmen. She had established a vast office in town, where a score of employees worked. In her three small rooms at home she only received four or five intermediaries, her lieutenants; and there she passed her days, at a desk, like the director of some great enterprise, cloistered far away from the importunate among a growing heap of papers spread out all around her. It was a dream to relieve every misery, from that of the child who suffers from being born, to that of the old man who cannot die without suffering. During those five years, scattering gold by the handful, she had founded the St. Mary's Infant Asylum at La Villette—an asylum with white cradles for the very little and blue beds for the bigger ones—a vast, well-lighted establishment, already occupied by three hundred[Pg 50] children; then had come the St. Joseph's Orphan Asylum at Saint Mandé, where a hundred boys and a hundred girls received such education and training as are given in bourgeois families; next an asylum for the aged at Chatillon, capable of accommodating fifty men and fifty women, and finally a hospital—the St. Marceau Hospital it was called—in one of the suburbs of Paris. Here the wards, containing a couple of hundred beds, had only just been opened. But her favourite foundation, that which at this moment absorbed her whole heart, was the Institute of Work,[11] a creation of her own, which was to take the place of the House of Correction, and where three hundred children, one hundred and fifty girls and one hundred and fifty boys, rescued from crime and debauchery on the pavements of Paris, were to be regenerated by good care and apprenticeship at a trade. These various foundations, with large donations to public establishments and a reckless prodigality in private charity, had in five years devoured almost a hundred millions of francs. At this rate, in a few years more she would be ruined, without having reserved even a small income to buy the bread and milk upon which she now lived. When her old servant Sophie, breaking her accustomed silence, scolded her with a harsh word, prophesying that she would die a beggar, she gave a feeble smile, now the only one that ever appeared on her colourless lips, a divine smile of hope.

It was precisely in connection with the Institute of Work that Saccard made Princess d'Orviedo's acquaintance. He was one of the owners of the land which she bought for this institution, an old garden planted with beautiful trees reaching to the Park of Neuilly, and skirting the Boulevard Bineau. He had attracted her by his brisk way of doing business; and, certain difficulties arising with her contractors, she wished to see him again. He himself had become greatly interested in what she was doing—struck, charmed by the grand plan which she had imposed upon the architect: two monumental wings, one for the boys, the other for the girls, connected with each other by a main building containing the chapel, the[Pg 51] common departments, the offices, and various services; and each wing with its spacious yard, its workshops, its outbuildings of all sorts. But what particularly fired his enthusiasm, given his own taste for the grand and the gorgeous, was the luxury displayed, the very vastness of the edifice, the materials employed in building it—materials which would defy the centuries—the marble lavished upon all sides, the kitchen walled and floored with fa?ence, and with sufficient accommodation for the roasting of an ox, the gigantic dining-halls with rich oak panellings and ceilings, the dormitories flooded with light and enlivened with bright paintings, the linen room, the bath room, and the infirmary, where all the appointments bespoke extreme refinement; and on all sides there were broad entrances, stairways, corridors, ventilated in summer and heated in winter; and the entire house, bathed in the sunlight, had the gaiety of youth, the complete comfort which only immense wealth can procure. When the anxious architect, considering all this magnificence useless, spoke to the Princess of the expense, she stopped him with a word: she had enjoyed luxury; she wished to give it to the poor, that they might enjoy it in their turn—they who create the luxury of the rich. Her fixed idea centred in this dream; to gratify every desire of the wretched, to provide them with the same beds, the same fare, as the fortunate ones of this world.

There was to be no question of a crust of bread, or a chance pallet by way of alms; but life on a large scale within this palace, where they would be at home, taking their revenge, tasting the enjoyment of conquerors. Only, amidst all this squandering, all these enormous estimates, she was abominably robbed; a swarm of contractors lived upon her, to say nothing of the losses due to inadequate superintendence; the property of the poor was being wasted. And it was Saccard who opened her eyes to this, begging her to let him set her accounts straight. And he did this in a thoroughly disinterested way, solely for the pleasure of regulating this mad dance of millions which aroused his enthusiasm. Never before had he shown himself so scrupulously honest. In this colossal, complicated affair he proved the most active, most upright of[Pg 52] helpers, giving his time and even his money, taking his reward simply in the delight which he felt at such large sums passing through his hands. Scarcely anyone but himself was known at the Institute of Work, whither the Princess never went, any more than she visited her other establishments, preferring to remain hidden within her three little rooms, like some invisible good fairy, whilst he was adored, blessed, overwhelmed with all the gratitude which she did not seem to desire.

It was at this time undoubtedly that Saccard began nursing the indefinite project, which, when once he was installed as a tenant in the Orviedo mansion, became transformed into a sharp, well-defined desire. Why should he not devote himself entirely to the management of the Princess's charitable enterprises? In the period of doubt in which he found himself, vanquished on the field of speculation, not knowing how to rebuild his fortune, this course appeared to him like a new incarnation, a sudden deifical ascent. To become the dispenser of that royal charity, the channel through which would roll that flood of gold that was pouring upon Paris! There were two hundred millions left; what works might still be created, what a city of miracle might be made to spring from the soil! To say nothing of the fact that he would make those millions fruitful, double, triple them, know so well how to employ them that he would make them yield a world. Then, in his passionate fever, his ideas broadened; he lived in this one intoxicating thought of scattering those millions broadcast in endless alms, of drowning all happy France with them; and he grew sentimental, for his probity was without a reproach—not a sou stuck to his fingers. In his brain—the brain of a visionary—a giant idyl took shape, the idyl of one free from all self-consciousness, an idyl in no wise due to any desire to atone for his old financial brigandage. There was the less cause for any such desire, as at the end there still lay the dream of his entire life, the conquest of Paris. To be the king of charity, the adored God of the multitude of the poor, to become unique and popular, to occupy the attention of the world—it even surpassed his ambition. What prodigies[Pg 53] could he not realize, should he employ in goodness his business faculties, his strategy, obstinacy, and utter freedom from prejudice! And he would have the irresistible power which wins battles, money, coffers full of money, which often does so much harm, and which would do so much good as soon as it should be used to satisfy his pride and pleasure.

Then, enlarging his project still further, Saccard came to the point of asking himself why he should not marry the Princess d'Orviedo. That would determine their mutual position, and prevent all evil interpretations. For a month he man?uvred adroitly, disclosed superb plans, sought to make himself indispensable; and one day, in a tranquil voice, again becoming ingenuous, he made his proposal, developed his great project. It was a veritable partnership that he proposed; he offered himself as the liquidator of the sums stolen by the Prince; pledged himself to return them to the poor tenfold. The Princess, in her eternal black dress, with her lace fichu on her head, listened to him attentively, no emotion whatever animating her sallow face. She was very much struck with the advantages that such an association might offer, and quite indifferent to the other considerations. However, having postponed her answer till the next day, she finally refused; she had upon reflection doubtless realized that she would no longer be sole mistress of her charities, and these she meant to dispense with absolute sovereignty, even if she did so madly. However, she explained that she would be happy to retain him as a counsellor; and showed how precious she considered his collaboration by begging him to continue to attend to the Institute of Work, of which he was the real director.

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For a whole week Saccard experienced violent chagrin, as one does at the loss of a cherished idea; not that he felt himself falling back into the abyss of brigandage; but, just as a sentimental song will bring tears to the eyes of the most abject drunkard, so this colossal idyl of good accomplished by dint of millions had moved his corsair soul. Once more he fell, and from a great height: it seemed to him that he was dethroned. From money he had always sought to derive, in[Pg 54] addition to the satisfaction of his appetites, the magnificence of a princely life, and never had he sufficiently achieved it. He grew enraged as one by one his tumbles carried away his hopes. And thus, when his project was destroyed by the Princess's quiet, precise refusal, he was thrown back into a furious desire for battle. To fight, to prove the strongest in the stern war of speculation, to eat up others in order to keep them from eating him, was, after his thirst for splendour and enjoyment, the one great motive of his passion for business. Though he did not heap up treasure, he had another joy, the delight attending on the struggle between vast amounts of money pitted against one another—fortunes set in battle array, like contending army corps, the clash of conflicting millions, with defeats and victories that intoxicated him. And forthwith there returned his hatred of Gundermann, his ungovernable longing for revenge. To conquer Gundermann was the chimerical desire that haunted him, each time that he found himself prostrate, vanquished. Though he felt the childish folly attaching to such an attempt, might he not at least cut into him, make a place for himself opposite him, force him to share, like those monarchs of neighbouring countries and equal power who treat each other as cousins? Then it was that the Bourse again attracted him; his head once more became full of schemes that he might launch; conflicting projects claimed him in all directions, putting him in such a fever that he knew not what to decide until the day came when a supreme, stupendous idea evolved itself from amidst all the others, and gradually gained entire possession of him.

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Since he had been living in the Orviedo mansion, Saccard had occasionally seen the sister of the engineer Hamelin, who lived in the little suite of rooms on the second floor, a woman with an admirable figure—Madame Caroline she was familiarly called. What had especially struck him, at their first meeting, was her superb white hair, a royal crown of white hair, which had a most singular effect on the brow of this woman, who was still young, scarcely thirty-six years old. At the age of five and twenty her hair had thus[Pg 55] turned completely white. Her eyebrows, which had remained black and very thick, imparted an expression of youth, and of extreme oddity, to her ermine-girt countenance. She had never been pretty, for her nose and chin were too pronounced, and her mouth large with thick lips expressive of exquisite kindliness. But certainly that white fleece, that wavy whiteness of fine silken hair, softened her rather stern physiognomy, and added a grandmother's smiling charm to the freshness and vigour of a beautiful, passionate woman. She was tall and strongly built, with a free and very noble carriage.

Every time he met her, Saccard, shorter than she was, followed her with his eyes, in an interested way, secretly envying her tall figure, her healthy breadth of shoulders. And gradually, through the servants, he became acquainted with the whole history of the Hamelins, Caroline and George. They were the children of a Montpellier physician, a remarkable savant, an enthusiastic Catholic, who had died poor. At the time of their father's death the girl was eighteen and the boy nineteen; and, the latter having just entered the Polytechnic School, his sister followed him to Paris, where she secured a place as governess. It was she who slipped five-franc pieces into his hand, and kept him in pocket-money during his two years' course; later, when, having graduated with a low rank, he had to tramp the pavements, it was still she who supported him until he found employment. They adored each other, and it was their dream never to separate. Nevertheless, an unhoped-for marriage offering itself—the good grace and keen intelligence of the young girl having made the conquest of a millionaire brewer in the house where she was employed—George wished her to accept; a thing which he cruelly repented of, for, after a few years of married life, Caroline was obliged to apply for a separation in order to avoid being killed by her husband, who drank and pursued her with a knife in fits of imbecile jealousy. She was then twenty-six years old, and again found herself poor, obstinately refusing to claim any alimony from the man whom she left. But her brother had at last, after many attempts, put his[Pg 56] hand upon a work that pleased him: he was about to start for Egypt, with the Commission appointed to prosecute the first investigations connected with the Suez Canal, and he took his sister with him. She bravely established herself at Alexandria, and again began giving lessons, while he travelled about the country. Thus they remained in Egypt until 1859, and saw the first blows of the pick struck upon the shore at Port Said by a meagre gang of barely a hundred and fifty navvies, lost amid the sands, and commanded by a handful of engineers. Then Hamelin, having been sent to Syria to ensure a constant supply of provisions, remained there, in consequence of a quarrel with his chiefs. He made Caroline come to Beyrout, where other pupils awaited her, and launched out into a big enterprise, under the patronage of a French company—the laying out of a carriage road from Beyrout to Damascus, the first, the only route opened through the passes of the Lebanon range. And thus they lived there three years longer, until the road was finished; he visiting the mountains, absenting himself for two months to make a trip to Constantinople through the Taurus, she following him as soon as she could escape, and fully sharing the revivalist projects which he formed, whilst tramping about this old land, slumbering beneath the ashes of dead and vanished civilisations. He had a portfolio full of ideas and plans, and felt the imperative necessity of returning to France if he was to give shape to all his vast schemes, establish companies, and find the necessary capital. And so, after nine years' residence in the East, they started off, and curiosity prompted them to return by way of Egypt, where the progress made with the works of the Suez Canal filled them with enthusiasm. In four years a city had grown up on the strand at Port Said; an entire people was swarming there; the human ants were multiplying, changing the face of the earth. In Paris, however, dire ill-luck awaited Hamelin. For fifteen months he struggled on with his projects, unable to impart his faith to anyone, too modest as he was, too taciturn, stranded on that second floor of the Orviedo mansion, in a little suite of five rooms, for which he paid twelve hundred francs a year, farther[Pg 57] from success than he had even been when roaming over the mountains and plains of Asia. Their savings rapidly decreased, and brother and sister came at last to a position of great embarrassment.

In fact, it was this that interested Saccard—the growing sadness of Madame Caroline, whose hearty gaiety was dimmed by the discouragement into which she saw her brother falling. She was to some extent the man of the household; George, who greatly resembled her physically, though of slighter build, had a rare faculty for work, but he became absorbed in his studies, and did not like to be roused from them. Never had he cared to marry, not feeling the need of doing so, his adoration of his sister sufficing him. This whilom student of the Polytechnic School, whose conceptions were so vast, whose zeal was so ardent in everything he undertook, at times evinced such simplicity that one would have deemed him rather stupid. Brought up, too, in the narrowest Romanism he had kept the religious faith of a child, careful in his observance of all rites and ceremonies like a thorough believer; whereas his sister had regained possession of herself by dint of reading and learning during the long hours when he was plunged in his technical tasks. She spoke four languages; she had read the economists and the philosophers, and had for a time been moved to enthusiasm by socialistic and evolutionary theories. Subsequently, however, she had quieted down, acquiring—notably by her travels, her long residence among far-off civilisations—a broad spirit of tolerance and well-balanced common-sense. Though she herself no longer believed, she retained great respect for her brother's faith. There had been one explanation between them, after which they had never referred to the matter again. She, with her simplicity and good-nature, was a woman of real intelligence; and, facing life with extraordinary courage, with a gay bravery which withstood the cruel blows of fate, she was in the habit of saying that a single sorrow alone remained within her—that of never having had a child.

Saccard was able to render Hamelin a service—some little work which he secured for him from some investors who[Pg 58] needed an engineer to report upon the output of a new machine, and thus he forced an intimacy with the brother and sister, and frequently went up to spend an hour with them in their salon, their only large room, which they had transformed into a work room. This room remained virtually bare, for its only furniture consisted of a long designing table, a smaller table covered with papers, and half a dozen chairs. Books were heaped up on the mantel-shelf, whilst on the walls an improvised decoration enlivened the blank space—a series of plans, of bright water-colour drawings, each held in place by four tacks. The plans were those which Hamelin had gathered together in his portfolio of projects; they were the notes he had taken in Syria, the bases on which he hoped to build up all his future fortune; whereas the water-colours were the work of Madame Caroline—Eastern views, types, and costumes which she had noted while accompanying her brother about, which she had sketched with keen insight into the laws of colour, though in a very unpretending way. Two larger windows overlooking the garden of the Beauvilliers mansion admitted a bright light to illumine these straggling designs, typical of another life, of an ancient society sinking into dust, which the plans, firmly and mathematically outlined, seemed about to put upon its feet again, supported, as it were, by the solid scaffolding of modern science. And Saccard, when he had rendered himself useful, with that display of activity which made him so charming, would often linger before the plans and water-colours, seduced, and continually asking for fresh explanations. Vast schemes were already germinating in his brain.

One morning he found Madame Caroline seated alone at the little table which she used as her desk. She was dreadfully sad, her hands resting among her papers.

'What can you expect?' said she, 'things are turning out very badly. I am brave, but everything seems about to fail us at once; and what distresses me is the powerlessness to which misfortune reduces my poor brother, for he is not valiant, he has no strength except for work. I thought of getting another situation as governess, that I might at least help him.[Pg 59] But I have sought, and found nothing. Yet I cannot go out working as a charwoman.'

Never had Saccard seen her so upset, so dejected. 'The devil! you have not come to that!' he cried.

She shook her head, and evinced great bitterness against life, which she usually accepted so jovially, even when at its worst. And Hamelin just then coming in with the news of a fresh disappointment, big tears ran slowly down her cheeks. She spoke no further, but sat there, her hands clenched on the table, her eyes wandering away into space.