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- Within an Inch of His Life - 50/111 -
Jacques de Boiscoran, who had been almost livid, became crimson with anger. His eyes flashed wrath. That he, he should be treated thus! Never had all the haughtiness of M. Galpin offended him half as much as this cool, disdainful condescension on the part of M. Magloire. It occurred to him to order him out of his room. But what then? He was condemned to drain the bitter cup to the very dregs: for he must save himself; he must get out of this abyss.
"You are cruel, Magloire," he said in a voice of ill-suppressed indignation, "and you make me feel all the horrors of my situation to the full. Ah, do not apologize! It does not matter. Let me speak."
He walked up and down a few times in his cell, passing his hand repeatedly over his brow, as if to recall his memory. Then he began, in a calmer tone of voice,--
"It was in the first days of the month of August, in 1866, and at Boiscoran, where I was on a visit to my uncle, that I saw the Countess Claudieuse for the first time. Count Claudieuse and my uncle were, at that time, on very bad terms with each other, thanks to that unlucky little stream which crosses our estates; and a common friend, M. de Besson, had undertaken to reconcile them at a dinner to which he had invited both. My uncle had taken me with him. The countess had come with her husband. I was just twenty years old; she was twenty-six. When I saw her, I was overcome. It seemed to me that I had never in all my life met a woman so perfectly beautiful and graceful; that I had never seen so charming a face, such beautiful eyes, and such a sweet smile.
"She did not seem to notice me. I did not speak to her; and still I felt within me a kind of presentiment that this woman would play a great, a fatal part in my life.
"This impression was so strong, that, as we left the house, I could not keep from mentioning it to my uncle. He only laughed, and said that I was a fool, and that, if my existence should ever be troubled by a woman, it would certainly not be by the Countess Claudieuse.
"He was apparently right. It was hard to imagine that any thing should ever again bring me in contact with the countess. M. de Besson's attempt at reconciliation had utterly failed; the countess lived at Valpinson; and I went back to Paris.
"Still I was unable to shake off the impression; and the memory of the dinner at M. de Besson's house was still in my mind, when a month later, at a party at my mother's brother's, M. de Chalusse, I thought I recognized the Countess Claudieuse. It was she. I bowed, and, seeing that she recognized me, I went up to her, trembling, and she allowed me to sit down by her.
"She told me then that she had come up to Paris for a month, as she did every year, and that she was staying at her father's, the Marquis de Tassar. She had come to this party much against her inclination, as she disliked going out. She did not dance; and thus I talked to her till the moment when she left.
"I was madly in love when we parted; and still I made no effort to see her again. It was mere chance again which brought us together.
"One day I had business at Melun, and, reaching the station rather late, I had but just time to jump into the nearest car. In the compartment was the countess. She told me--and that is all I ever recollected of the conversation--that she was on her way to Fontainebleau to see a friend, with whom she spent every Tuesday and Saturday. Usually she took the nine o'clock train.
"This was on a Tuesday; and during the next three days a great struggle went on in my heart. I was desperately in love with the countess, and still I was afraid of her. But my evil star conquered; and the next Saturday, at nine o'clock, I was at the station again.
"The countess has since confessed to me that she expected me. When she saw me, she made a sign; and, when they opened the doors, I managed to find a place by her side."
M. Magloire had for some minutes given signs of great impatience; now he broke forth,--
"This is too improbable!"
At first Jacques de Boiscoran made no reply. It was no easy task for a man, tried as he had been of late, to stir up thus the ashes of the past; and it made him shudder. He was amazed at seeing on his lips this secret which he had so long buried in his innermost heart. Besides, he had loved, loved in good earnest; and his love had been returned. And there are certain sensations which come to us only once in life, and which can never again be effaced. He was moved to tears. But as the eminent advocate of Sauveterre repeated his words, and even added,--
"No, it is not credible!"
"I do not ask you to believe me," he said gently: "I only ask you to hear me."
And, overcoming with all his energy the kind of torpor which was mastering him, he continued,--
"This trip to Fontainebleau decided our fate. Other trips followed. The countess spent her days with her friend, and I passed the long hours in roaming through the woods. But in the evening we met again at the station. We took a /coupe/, which I had engaged beforehand, and I accompanied her in a carriage to her father's house.
"Finally, one evening, she left her friend's house at the usual hour; but she did not return to her father's house till the day after."
"Jacques!" broke in M. Magloire, shocked, as if he had heard a curse, --"Jacques!"
M. de Boiscoran remained unmoved.
"Oh!" he said, "I know you must think it strange. You fancy that there is no excuse for the man who betrays the confidence of a woman who has once given herself to him. Wait, before you judge me."
And he went on, in a firmer tone of voice,--
"At that time I thought I was the happiest man on earth; and my heart was full of the most absurd vanity at the thought that she was mine, this beautiful woman, whose purity was high above all calumny. I had tied around my neck one of those fatal ropes which death alone can sever, and, fool that I was, I considered myself happy.
"Perhaps she really loved me at that time. At least she did not hesitate, and, overcome by the only real great passion of her life, she told me all that was in her innermost heart. At that time she did not think yet of protecting herself against me, and of making me her slave. She told me the secret of her marriage, which had at one time created such a sensation in the whole country.
"When her father, the Marquis de Brissac, had given up his place, he had soon begun to feel his inactivity weigh upon him, and at the same time he had become impatient at the narrowness of his means. He had ventured upon hazardous speculations. He had lost every thing he had; and even his honor was at stake. In his despair he was thinking of suicide, when chance brought to his house a former comrade, Count Claudieuse. In a moment of confidence, the marquis confessed every thing; and the other had promised to rescue him, and save him from disgrace. That was noble and grand. It must have cost an immense sum. And the friends of our youth who are capable of rendering us such services are rare in our day. Unfortunately, Count Claudieuse could not all the time be the hero he had been at first. He saw Genevieve de Tassar. He was struck with her beauty; and overcome by a sudden passion--forgetting that she was twenty, while he was nearly fifty--he made his friend aware that he was still willing to render him all the services in his power, but that he desired to obtain Genevieve's hand in return.
"That very evening the ruined nobleman entered his daughter's room, and, with tears in his eyes, explained to her his terrible situation. She did not hesitate a moment.
" 'Above all,' she said to her father, 'let us save our honor, which even your death would not restore. Count Claudieuse is cruel to forget that he is thirty years older than I am. From this moment I hate and despise him. Tell him I am willing to be his wife.'
"And when her father, overcome with grief, told her that the count would never accept her hand in this form, she replied,--
" 'Oh, do not trouble yourself about that! I shall do the thing handsomely, and your friend shall have no right to complain. But I know what I am worth; and you must remember hereafter, that, whatever service he may render you, you owe him nothing.'
"Less than a fortnight after this scene, Genevieve had allowed the count to perceive that he was not indifferent to her and a month later she became his wife.
"The count, on his side, had acted with the utmost delicacy and tact; so that no one suspected the cruel position of the Marquis de Tassar. He had placed two hundred thousand francs in his hands to settle his most pressing debts. In his marriage-contract he had acknowledged having received with his wife a dower of the same amount; and finally, he had bound himself to pay to his father-in-law and his wife an annual income of ten thousand francs. This had absorbed more than half of all he possessed."
M. Magloire no longer thought of protesting. Sitting stiffly on his chair, his eyes wide open, like a man who asks himself whether he is asleep or awake, he murmured,--
"That is incomprehensible! That is unheard of!"
Jacques was becoming gradually excited. He went on,--
"This is, at least, what the countess told me in her first hours of enthusiasm. But she told it to me calmly, coldly, like a thing that was perfectly natural. 'Certainly,' she said, 'Count Claudieuse has never had to regret the bargain he made. If he has been generous, I have been faithful. My father owes his life to him; but I have given him years of happiness to which he was not entitled. If he has received no love, he has had all the appearance of it, and an appearance far more pleasant than the reality.'
"When I could not conceal my astonishment, she added, laughing heartily,--
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