Page images

'I thought so. I am right after all!' cried Mina, clapping her


'But,' continued her mother, I should not have been really happy; for all this would have been the price of falsehood and treachery; and while there is now in my heart only sorrow, there would have been despair.'


'Tell me how this can be?' said Mina despondingly.

And Madame Block related her story, which we can only give in outline. She was the daughter of a humble tradesman of Paris; her beauty made her a celebrity in her quarter; and many offers of marriage came both direct to her and through her father. But she refused them all, not from caprice or ambition, but, she said, from the sordid, or vulgar, or disreputable characters of those who made them. Like Mina, she believed in herself, and thought that she was too fair a prize for the first reformed rake who chose to settle down into matrimony. Thus time wore on, and the early bloom of youth paled into the more steady tints of womanhood. Then a bright vision appeared to her, endowed with a name which seemed at first to her unpicturesque and even ridiculous. Casimir Block, whom she supposed to be a Pole, residing in Paris as a student, came to live in the same house. He no sooner beheld her, than he gave testimonies of unequivocal admiration, and soon contrived to make himself agreeable to her father, Paul Sismond. The courtship that took place was rapid; and Adelaide even confessed that in a week her heart was won. The stranger was evidently well supplied with money, so that there was no objection on that score. In three months, they were affianced, and would have been immediately married, but for the absence of some necessary papers on Casimir's part. When asked to produce these, he became much agitated; but suddenly recovering his selfpossession, said he would go and fetch them himself, and return in two months. Parents and neighbours began to suspect that all was not well, but Adelaide remained unshaken. In an interview with her lover, she promised, in her enthusiasm, to wait, not only two months, but all her life, rather than marry any one else. Casimir departed, and gave no sign for more than a year. Public opinion laughed at her as a jilted one; but she patiently bore everything, and was at length rewarded by the arrival of her lover. He explained his absence and his silence in the most satisfactory manner, and produced every necessary document. The marriage was celebrated, and two years of uninterrupted happiness followed.


The only thing that troubled me,' said Madame Block, was that I was aware of the presence of some mystery, both in the previous and actual life of my husband. I felt persuaded that he had never told me the whole truth as to who he was; and I did not even know with certainty to what nation he belonged. Once only I ventured to question him, but my curiosity was repressed with firmness, almost with sternness; and although some meddling

friends tried to incite me to constant inquisitiveness, I resolved not to peril my happiness by searching for a flower in the grass where I might find a serpent. Besides, you, my dear Mina, were born to us; and how could I doubt my husband, or feel uneasiness about the future, when I beheld your golden smiles reflected in delight upon his face?

We lived in a handsome apartment in the Marais, but saw little company. My father, who had long been a widower, died shortly after you were born, leaving very little property, which he did not think it worth while to invest for me, considering me to be most brilliantly married. At the end of the time I have mentioned, my husband, who had already made several brief absences, announced that it was necessary for him to undertake a somewhat prolonged journey. As usual, he entered into no explanations whatever, merely promising to write as often as he was able. He seemed much excited during the days that preceded his departure; and once or twice I caught his large eyes dwelling upon my countenance with a most sorrowful expression. His manner was not exactly that of a fond husband about to undergo a temporary separation from his wife, but of one about to bid a friend an eternal adieu. Perhaps I ought then to have flung myself into his arms, and wrung the secret from him by tears and entreaties; and I was several times on the point of doing so: but pride and prudence combined to repress the impulse, and I suffered him to go away in the belief that I was a humble, dutiful, stupid wife, who conceived herself to have no right to pry into the secrets of her lord. He went, I say, wrote one letter from Berlin, and one from the grand duchy of Posen; but from that time to this I have never had any direct information as to his fate.'

'My poor father!' exclaimed Mina. Perhaps he died on the journey.

'No,' replied Madame Block. He did not die, at least immediately; but two long years passed, during which I received no news whatever. He had left a considerable sum of money at my disposal; but I believed so firmly in his return at first, that I did not consider it necessary to economise, and when I at length began to fear I was deserted, the greater part was already gone. I retrenched, then, somewhat too late; discharged first one servant, then another; left my spacious apartment, and chose one more suitable to my means, selling a great part of the furniture, but keeping all my plate and jewels. This, however, is anticipation. Above two years after my husband's departure, a stranger came to the house, announcing himself as Monsieur Block. This man, who in height and appearance bore a general resemblance to my husband, coldly disclosed the fact, that I had been married under a false name to a Russian nobleman, whose real title he refused to tell. All the papers used for our marriage belonged to this stranger, who was in the secret of the whole transaction. He


[ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]


pretended that my husband had always intended to deceive me, that he had returned joyfully to Russia when recalled by the czar, and that he had since died. I believed all this at the time, and, as you may guess, wept bitterly. Monsieur Block affected sympathy with my sorrow, and often came to see me, giving particulars more or less true of my husband's history. When changed my lodgings, and it was evident that my circumstances were changed likewise, his visits became more frequent; and, as if to contrast with the poverty that was approaching me, boasted loudly of his wealth. He was indeed a very rich man, and occupied a splendid hotel in the Rue de Provence, I was told. Seeing at length that I appeared almost in distress, he had the courage to hint that, as was married under his name, it might be assumed that I was his wife. His proposals were splendid; and it was then that I had the prospect of affluence held out to me. had ceased to consult my mirror over the chimney-piece, for I had a living mirror-not of what I was, but of what I had beengrowing up by my side in you, my own dear Mina. But then I looked attentively to discover what there was in my countenance to justify so insulting a proposal. I saw that I was still beautiful; but instead of basing thereon, as you do, any hopes of wealth or position, I almost blamed myself for remaining attractive when he was gone whom alone I cared to attract. I felt, too, that a deserted mother cannot remain lovely with impunity in that horrid city whose moral atmosphere is pestilential. My resolution was soon formed. I opened the chest in which I had deposited the plate and jewels that had before been looked upon as mere household utensils, and found that they were worth what then appeared to me a little fortune. I disposed of them for the sum of ten thousand francs, which I placed in the hands of a notary, and it is on their produce that we have lived these ten long years that we have spent at Blois-on their produce, and on that of the work these rapidly enfeebling hands have been able to do.'

'Then you came to Blois to avoid that wicked Monsieur Block?' inquired Mina, who scarcely understood the gist of this story, although, of course, she felt that the moral of it was, that beauty is no preservative against misery, unless with the sacrifice of rectitude, or, at any rate, of that delicacy which she had been taught to consider as the perfume of beauty, without which it is a mere weed. 'Have you ever thought,' said she, after some reflection, has it ever occurred to you that, if Monsieur Block was a bad man, he might have falsely related the whole story, so that my father may not be dead after all?'

'I have thought of that, child; but have always dismissed the idea, as it would imply that your father has willingly remained estranged from me for fourteen years.'

"True,' said Mina; and the lovely girl, turning instinctively away from the mirror, leaned over her embroidery; but her fingers moved slowly as she thought that by this work, or some such

precarious means, she was painfully to gain her living. The ocean is not more boundless than the desires and hopes of youth; and one of the lessons most difficult to learn is, that we must bridle ourselves within the limits of the moderate and the possible.


Madame Block and her daughter occupied, as lodgers, a single room in the house of a tailor, in the suburbs of Blois, on the road to Vendôme. They both now and then got a little work from their landlord, when he had some large orders to execute; and in this way contrived to eke out their modest income. The mother had of late, however, been suffering from ill health, and six months after the period at which our narrative opens, became so weak as scarcely to be able to move out of the house. Sometimes on fine days, however, she would go out into the fields, and sit upon her camp-stool, whilst Mina, still in manners and appearance a mere child, would run hither and thither and collect flowers, with which she made garlands to deck her hair. She looked so beautiful when excited by exercise and the free air, that not a peasant passed without casting a wondering glance towards her; and a Parisian shop-boy, on a country excursion, catching a glimpse of her as he cantered by, holding on to the mane of an unruly cart-horse that had been decorated with a saddle, conceived what he called a 'great passion' for her; and when he succeeded in turning round several miles down the road, galloped furiously back to make a declaration. Even the horse, he declared, seemed attracted by the power of beauty, and absolutely flew along. His efforts, however, to pull up only served to create a ridiculous scene, at which Mina laughed most heartily; and in five minutes he was roughly jolting down the steep streets on his way to the stables of the Tête Noire. He would certainly have returned to the charge an admirable instance of constancy-but he conceived another great passion' for an English lady, on her way to Chambord, and starting off by diligence, poor Mina was forgotten.

The Orientals have a tradition, that in paradise exists a tree of enormous dimensions, bearing leaves, one for every human soul that has been, is, or is to be. On these leaves are inscribed the names of the persons they represent; and once a year a blast shakes down a certain number, the labels of those that are to perish within the coming twelve months. The leaf on which the name of Madame Block was written had already been blown from the bough, and lay withering on the vast plain beneath. She was to die within that year; and accordingly, when midwinter came, she swooned out of this life, leaving Mina absolutely alone in the wide world.

There is some consolation to be found even in the bitterest moments by the good. When the first convulsions of grief had

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

passed, Mina looked around with surprise, and found herself surrounded by humble but kind friends. Charron the tailor, with his wife and two daughters, whispered to her wondering ears that she had been an exemplary child-who would not have been, she thought, to such a mother?-and told her that there was another family ready to receive her in that very house. Malicious neighbours at once said, that they looked to the little income which would still come to Mina from the 10,000 francs invested; but as if to protect the reputation of these good people, the news soon came that the money had been squandered in speculations by the person intrusted with it, and that there was nothing more to expect from that quarter. Charron, who, without seeming a very clever man, had made his observations on the character of Mina, quietly told her of this accident, and said: There is no reason to be very sorrowful after all. It is a misfortune that must be borne patiently; and perhaps you will never repent, that at the outset of life, you have nothing to look to but the product of your own labour. Now, do not cry; and let me have that waistcoat finished by this evening.'

Mina worked cheerfully with her new protectors, and tried to settle down into the condition of life to which she seemed destined; yet it was difficult for her to do so. The history of her mother's misfortunes, every word of which she remembered, acted—now that the narrator was not there to draw deductions and improve a moral-as a dangerous stimulus to her imagination. She was the daughter of a Russian nobleman, and had been born in the sphere which she ardently longed to occupy. Without exactly repining at her fate, she could not help, whilst bending over her work late at night, with aching eyes, reflecting on what might have occurred, and how it was mere accident, that instead of being almost a princess, she was now the adopted daughter of a provincial tailor. Then she took again to consulting her mirror, and saw with affright that her eyes were becoming excited by candle-light work, and beginning to be darkly circled; that her cheeks were a shade paler and less plump than of yore; and that, in fact, the first inroads had already been made on the beauty which she had herself almost worshipped but recently.

'In a little time,' she exclaimed once in a peevish tone, 'I shall be as ugly as Caroline.'

"Thank you,' said a sharp voice; and Caroline herself, the eldest daughter of the tailor, appeared looking over her shoulder.

Mina blushed, stammered, and endeavoured to explain away her words; but they had produced their effect. Caroline was indeed ugly, of an ugliness almost remarkable, and she felt that Mina had spoken from her heart. A sharp dialogue ensued, in which the words 'beggar' and 'outcast' were used on one side, and every one says you are a fright' on the other. Caroline, though worked up into a towering passion, kept her great stroke for the last.

« PreviousContinue »