CHAPTER XVIII - A TWO-FOLD VENGEANCE
Impunity, secrecy, and success increased Goupil's audacity. He made Massin, who was completely his dupe, sue the Marquis du Rouvre for his notes, so as to force him to sell the remainder of his property to Minoret. Thus prepared, he opened negotiations for a practice at Sens, and then resolved to strike a last blow to obtain Ursula. He meant to imitate certain young men in Paris who owed their wives and their fortunes to abduction. He knew that the services he had rendered to Minoret, to Massin, and to Cremiere, and the protection of Dionis and the mayor of Nemours would enable him to hush up the affair. He resolved to throw off the mask, believing Ursula too feeble in the condition to which he had reduced her to make any resistance. But before risking this last throw in the game he thought it best to have an explanation with Minoret, and he chose his opportunity at Rouvre, where he went with his patron for the first time after the deeds were signed.
Minoret had that morning received a confidential letter from his son asking him for information as to what was happening in connection with Ursula, information that he desired to obtain before going to Nemours with the procureur du roi to place her under shelter from these atrocities in the convent of the Adoration. Desire exhorted his father, in case this persecution should be the work of any of their friends, to give to whoever it might be warning and good advice; for even if the law could not punish this crime it would certainly discover the truth and hold it over the delinquent's head. Minoret had now attained a great object. Owner of the chateau du Rouvre, one of the finest estates in the Gatinais, he had also a rent-roll of some forty odd thousand francs a year from the rich domains which surrounded the park. He could well afford to snap his fingers at Goupil. Besides, he intended to live on the estate, where the sight of Ursula would no longer trouble him.
"My boy," he said to Goupil, as they walked along the terrace, "let my young cousin alone, now."
"Pooh!" said the clerk, unable to imagine what capricious conduct meant.
"Oh! I'm not ungrateful; you have enabled me to get this fine brick chateau with the stone copings (which couldn't be built now for two hundred thousand francs) and those farms and preserves and the park and gardens and woods, all for two hundred and eighty thousand francs. No, I'm not ungrateful; I'll give you ten per cent, twenty thousand francs, for your services, and you can buy a sheriff's practice in Nemours. I'll guarantee you a marriage with one of Cremiere's daughters, the eldest."
"The one who talks piston!" cried Goupil.
"She'll have thirty thousand francs," replied Minoret. "Don't you see, my dear boy, that you are cut out for a sheriff, just as I was to be a post master? People should keep to their vocation."
"Very well, then," said Goupil, falling from the pinnacle of his hopes; "here's a stamped cheque; write me an order for twenty thousand francs; I want the money in hand at once."
Minoret had eighteen thousand francs by him at that moment of which his wife knew nothing. He thought the best way to get rid of Goupil was to sign the draft. The clerk, seeing the flush of seigniorial fever on the face of the imbecile and colossal Machiavelli, threw him an "au revoir," by way of farewell, accompanied with a glance which would have made any one but an idiotic parvenu, lost in contemplation of the magnificent chateau built in the style in vogue under Louis XIII., tremble in his shoes.
"Are you not going to wait for me?" he cried, observing that Goupil was going away on foot.
"You'll find me on our path, never fear, papa Minoret," replied Goupil, athirst for vengeance and resolved to know the meaning of the zigzags of Minoret's strange conduct.
Since the day when the last vile calumny had sullied her life Ursula, a prey to one of those inexplicable maladies the seat of which is in the soul, seemed to be rapidly nearing death. She was deathly pale, speaking only at rare intervals and then in slow and feeble words; everything about her, her glance of gentle indifference, even the expression of her forehead, all revealed the presence of some consuming thought. She was thinking how the ideal wreath of chastity, with which throughout all ages the Peoples crowned their virgins, had fallen from her brow. She heard in the void and in the silence the dishonoring words, the malicious comments, the laughter of the little town. The trial was too heavy, her innocence was too delicate to allow her to survive the murderous blow. She complained no more; a sorrowful smile was on her lips; her eyes appealed to heaven, to the Sovereign of angels, against man's injustice.
When Goupil reached Nemours, Ursula had just been carried down from her chamber to the ground-floor in the arms of La Bougival and the doctor. A great event was about to take place. When Madame de Portenduere became really aware that the girl was dying like an ermine, though less injured in her honor than Clarissa Harlowe, she resolved to go to her and comfort her. The sight of her son's anguish, who during the whole preceding night had seemed beside himself, made the Breton soul of the old woman yield. Moreover, it seemed worthy of her own dignity to revive the courage of a girl so pure, and she saw in her visit a counterpoise to all the evil done by the little town. Her opinion, surely more powerful than that of the crowd, ought to carry with it, she thought, the influence of race. This step, which the abbe came to announce, made so great a change in Ursula that the doctor, who was about to ask for a consultation of Parisian doctors, recovered hope. They placed her on her uncle's sofa, and such was the character of her beauty that she lay there in her mourning garments, pale from suffering, she was more exquisitely lovely than in the happiest hours of her life. When Savinien, with his mother on his arm, entered the room she colored vividly.
"Do not rise, my child," said the old lady imperatively; "weak and ill as I am myself, I wished to come and tell you my feelings about what is happening. I respect you as the purest, the most religious and excellent girl in the Gatinais; and I think you worthy to make the happiness of a gentleman."
At first poor Ursula was unable to answer; she took the withered hands of Savinien's mother and kissed them.
"Ah, madame," she said in a faltering voice, "I should never have had the boldness to think of rising above my condition if I had not been encouraged by promises; my only claim was that of an affection without bounds; but now they have found the means to separate me from him I love,--they have made me unworthy of him. Never!" she cried, with a ring in her voice which painfully affected those about her, "never will I consent to give to any man a degraded hand, a stained reputation. I loved too well,--yes, I can admit it in my present condition,--I love a creature almost as I love God, and God--"
"Hush, my child! do not calumniate God. Come, my daughter," said the old lady, making an effort, "do not exaggerate the harm done by an infamous joke in which no one believes. I give you my word, you will live and you shall be happy."
"We shall be happy!" cried Savinien, kneeling beside Ursula and kissing her hand; "my mother has called you her daughter."
"Enough, enough," said the doctor feeling his patient's pulse; "do not kill her with joy."
At that moment Goupil, who found the street door ajar, opened that of the little salon, and showed his hideous face blazing with thoughts of vengeance which had crowded into his mind as he hurried along.
"Monsieur de Portenduere," he said, in a voice like the hissing of a viper forced from its hole.
"What do you want?" said Savinien, rising from his knees.
"I have a word to say to you."
Savinien left the room, and Goupil took him into the little courtyard.
"Swear to me by Ursula's life, by your honor as a gentleman, to do by me as if I had never told you what I am about to tell. Do this, and I will reveal to you the cause of the persecutions directed against Mademoiselle Mirouet."
"Can I put a stop to them?"
"Can I avenge them?"
"On their author, yes--on his tool, no."
"Because--I am the tool."
Savinien turned pale.
"I have just seen Ursula--" said Goupil.
"Ursula?" said the lover, looking fixedly at the clerk.
"Mademoiselle Mirouet," continued Goupil, made respectful by Savinien's tone; "and I would undo with my blood the wrong that has been done; I repent of it. If you were to kill me, in a duel or otherwise, what good would my blood do you? can you drink it? At this moment it would poison you."
The cold reasoning of the man, together with a feeling of eager curiosity, calmed Savinien's anger. He fixed his eyes on Goupil with a look which made that moral deformity writhe.
"Who set you at this work?" said the young man.
"Will you swear?"
"What,--to do you no harm?"
"I wish that you and Mademoiselle Mirouet should not forgive me."
"She will forgive you,--I, never!"
"But at least you will forget?"
What terrible power the reason has when it is used to further self- interest. Here were two men, longing to tear one another in pieces, standing in that courtyard within two inches of each other, compelled to talk together and united by a single sentiment.
"I will forgive you, but I shall not forget."
"The agreement is off," said Goupil coldly. Savinien lost patience. He applied a blow upon the man's face which echoed through the courtyard and nearly knocked him down, making Savinien himself stagger.
"It is only what I deserve," said Goupil, "for committing such a folly. I thought you more noble than you are. You have abused the advantage I gave you. You are in my power now," he added with a look of hatred.
"You are a murderer!" said Savinien.
"No more than a dagger is a murderer."
"I beg your pardon," said Savinien.
"Are you revenged enough?" said Goupil, with ferocious irony; "will you stop here?"
"Reciprocal pardon and forgetfulness," replied Savinien.
"Give me your hand," said the clerk, holding out his own.
"It is yours," said Savinien, swallowing the shame for Ursula's sake. "Now speak; who made you do this thing?"
Goupil looked into the scales as it were; on one side was Savinien's blow, on the other his hatred against Minoret. For a second he was undecided; then a voice said to him: "You will be notary!" and he answered:--
"Pardon and forgetfulness? Yes, on both sides, monsieur--"
"Who is persecuting Ursula?" persisted Savinien.
"Minoret. He would have liked to see her buried. Why? I can't tell you that; but we might find out the reason. Don't mix me up in all this; I could do nothing to help you if the others distrusted me. Instead of annoying Ursula I will defend her; instead of serving Minoret I will try to defeat his schemes. I live only to ruin him, to destroy him-- I'll crush him under foot, I'll dance on his carcass, I'll make his bones into dominoes! To-morrow, every wall in Nemours and Fontainebleau and Rouvre shall blaze with the letters, 'Minoret is a thief!' Yes, I'll burst him like a gun--There! we're allies now by the imprudence of that outbreak! If you choose I'll beg Mademoiselle Mirouet's pardon and tell her I curse the madness which impelled me to injure her. It may do her good; the abbe and the justice are both there; but Monsieur Bongrand must promise on his honor not to injure my career. I have a career now."
"Wait a minute;" said Savinien, bewildered by the revelation.
"Ursula, my child," he said, returning to the salon, "the author of all your troubles is ashamed of his work; he repents and wishes to ask your pardon in presence of these gentlemen, on condition that all be forgotten."
"What! Goupil?" cried the abbe, the justice, and the doctor, all together.
"Keep his secret," said Ursula, putting a finger on her lips.
Goupil heard the words, saw the gesture, and was touched.
"Mademoiselle," he said in a troubled voice, "I wish that all Nemours could hear me tell you that a fatal passion has bewildered my brain and led me to commit a crime punishable by the blame of honest men. What I say now I would be willing to say everywhere, deploring the harm done by such miserable tricks--which may have hastened your happiness," he added, rather maliciously, "for I see that Madame de Portenduere is with you."
"That is all very well, Goupil," said the abbe, "Mademoiselle forgives you; but you must not forget that you came near being her murderer."
"Monsieur Bongrand," said Goupil, addressing the justice of peace. "I shall negotiate to-night for Lecoeur's practice; I hope the reparation I have now made will not injure me with you, and that you will back my petition to the bar and the ministry."
Bongrand made a thoughtful inclination of his head; and Goupil left the house to negotiate on the best terms he could for the sheriff's practice. The others remained with Ursula and did their best to restore the peace and tranquillity of her mind, already much relieved by Goupil's confession.
"You see, my child, that God was not against you," said the abbe.
Minoret came home late from Rouvre. About nine o'clock he was sitting in the Chinese pagoda digesting his dinner beside his wife, with whom he was making plans for Desire's future. Desire had become very sedate since entering the magistracy; he worked hard, and it was not unlikely that he would succeed the present procureur du roi at Fontainebleau, who, they said, was to be advanced to Melun. His parents felt that they must find him a wife,--some poor girl belonging to an old and noble family; he would then make his way to the magistracy of Paris. Perhaps they could get him elected deputy from Fontainebleau, where Zelie was proposing to pass the winter after living at Rouvre for the summer season. Minoret, inwardly congratulating himself for having managed his affairs so well, no longer thought or cared about Ursula, at the very moment when the drama so heedlessly begun by him was closing down upon him in a terrible manner.
"Monsieur de Portenduere is here and wishes to speak to you," said Cabirolle.
"Show him in," answered Zelie.
The twilight shadows prevented Madame Minoret from noticing the sudden pallor of her husband, who shuddered as he heard Savinien's boots on the floor of the gallery, where the doctor's library used to be. A vague presentiment of danger ran through the robber's veins. Savinien entered and remaining standing, with his hat on his head, his cane in his hand, and both hands crossed in front of him, motionless before the husband and wife.
"I have come to ascertain, Monsieur and Madame Minoret," he said, "your reasons for tormenting in an infamous manner a young lady who, as the whole town knows, is to be my wife. Why have you endeavored to tarnish her honor? why have you wished to kill her? why did you deliver her over to Goupil's insults?--Answer!"
"How absurd you are, Monsieur Savinien," said Zelie, "to come and ask us the meaning of a thing we think inexplicable. I bother myself as little about Ursula as I do about the year one. Since Uncle Minoret died I've not thought of her more than I do of my first tooth. I've never said one word about her to Goupil, who is, moreover, a queer rogue whom I wouldn't think of consulting about even a dog. Why don't you speak up, Minoret? Are you going to let monsieur box your ears in that way and accuse you of wickedness that's beneath you? As if a man with forty-eight thousand francs a year from landed property, and a castle fit for a prince, would stoop to such things! Get up, and don't sit there like a wet rag!"
"I don't know what monsieur means," said Minoret in his squeaking voice, the trembling of which was all the more noticeable because the voice was clear. "What object could I have in persecuting the girl? I may have said to Goupil how annoyed I was at seeing her in Nemours. My son Desire fell in love with her, and I didn't want him to marry her, that's all."
"Goupil has confessed everything, Monsieur Minoret."
There was a moment's silence, but it was terrible, when all three persons examined one another. Zelie saw a nervous quiver on the heavy face of her colossus.
"Though you are only insects," said the young nobleman, "I will make you feel my vengeance. It is not from you, Monsieur Minoret, a man sixty-eight years of age, but from your son that I shall seek satisfaction for the insults offered to Mademoiselle Mirouet. The first time he sets his foot in Nemours we shall meet. He must fight me; he will do so, or be dishonored and never dare to show his face again. If he does not come to Nemours I shall go to Fontainebleau, for I will have satisfaction. It shall never be said that you were tamely allowed to dishonor a defenceless young girl--"
"But the calumnies of a Goupil--are--not--" began Minoret.
"Do you wish me to bring him face to face with you? Believe me, you had better hush up this affair; it lies between you and Goupil and me. Leave it as it is; God will decide between us and when I meet your son."
"But this sha'n't go one!" cried Zelie. "Do you suppose I'll stand by and let Desire fight you,--a sailor whose business it is to handle swords and guns? If you've got any cause of complaint against Minoret, there's Minoret; take Minoret, fight Minoret! But do you think my boy, who, by your own account, knew nothing of all this, is going to bear the brunt of it? No, my little gentleman! somebody's teeth will pin your legs first! Come, Minoret, don't stand staring there like a big canary; you are in your own house, and you allow a man to keep his hat on before your wife! I say he shall go. Now, monsieur, be off! a man's house is his castle. I don't know what you mean with your nonsense, but show me your heels, and if you dare touch Desire you'll have to answer to ME,--you and your minx Ursula."
She rang the bell violently and called to the servants.
"Remember what I have said to you," repeated Savinien to Minoret, paying no attention to Zelie's tirade. Suspending the sword of Damocles over their heads, he left the room.
"Now, then, Minoret," said Zelie, "you will explain to me what this all means. A young man doesn't rush into a house and make an uproar like that and demand the blood of a family for nothing."
"It's some mischief of that vile Goupil," said the colossus. "I promised to help him buy a practice if he would get me the Rouvre property cheap. I gave him ten per cent on the cost, twenty thousand francs in a note, and I suppose he isn't satisfied."
"Yes, but why did he get up those serenades and the scandals against Ursula?"
"He wanted to marry her."
"A girl without a penny! the sly thing! Now Minoret, you are telling me lies, and you are too much of a fool, my son, to make me believe them. There is something under all this, and you are going to tell me what it is."
"Nothing? I tell you you lie, and I shall find it out."
"Do let me alone!"
"I'll turn the faucet of that fountain of venom, Goupil--whom you're afraid of--and we'll see who gets the best of it then."
"Just as you choose."
"I know very well it will be as I choose! and what I choose first and foremost is that no harm shall come to Desire. If anything happens to him, mark you, I'll do something that may send me to the scaffold--and you, you haven't any feeling about him--"
A quarrel thus begun between Minoret and his wife was sure not to end without a long and angry strife. So at the moment of his self- satisfaction the foolish robber found his inward struggle against himself and against Ursula revived by his own fault, and complicated with a new and terrible adversary. The next day, when he left the house early to find Goupil and try to appease him with additional money, the walls were already placarded with the words: "Minoret is a thief." All those whom he met commiserated him and asked him who was the author of the anonymous placard. Fortunately for him, everybody made allowance for his equivocal replies by reflecting on his utter stupidity; fools get more advantage from their weakness than able men from their strength. The world looks on at a great man battling against fate, and does not help him, but it supplies the capital of a grocer who may fail and lose all. Why? Because men like to feel superior in protecting an incapable, and are displeased at not feeling themselves the equal of a man of genius. A clever man would have been lost in public estimation had he stammered, as Minoret did, evasive and foolish answers with a frightened air. Zelie sent her servants to efface the vindictive words wherever they were found; but the effect of them on Minoret's conscience still remained.
The result of his interview with his assailant was soon apparent. Though Goupil had concluded his bargain with the sheriff the night before, he now impudently refused to fulfil it.
"My dear Lecoeur," he said, "I am unexpectedly enabled to buy up Monsieur Dionis's practice; I am therefore in a position to help you to sell to others. Tear up the agreement; it's only the loss of two stamps,--here are seventy centimes."
Lecoeur was too much afraid of Goupil to complain. All Nemours knew before night that Minoret had given Dionis security to enable Goupil to buy his practice. The latter wrote to Savinien denying his charges against Minoret, and telling the young nobleman that in his new position he was forbidden by the rules of the supreme court, and also by his respect for law, to fight a duel. But he warned Savinien to treat him well in future; assuring him he was a capital boxer, and would break his leg at the first offence.
The walls of Nemours were cleared of the inscription; but the quarrel between Minoret and his wife went on; and Savinien maintained a threatening silence. Ten days after these events the marriage of Mademoiselle Massin, the elder, to the future notary was bruited about the town. Mademoiselle Massin had a dowry of eighty thousand francs and her own peculiar ugliness; Goupil had his deformities and his practice; the union therefore seemed suitable and probable. One evening, towards midnight, two unknown men seized Goupil in the street as he was leaving Massin's house, gave him a sound beating, and disappeared. The notary kept the matter a profound secret, and even contradicted an old woman who saw the scene from her window and thought that she recognized him.
These great little events were carefully studied by Bongrand, who became convinced that Goupil held some mysterious power over Minoret, and he determined to find out its cause.