The Secret by Paul De Kock

TRANSLATED FROM THE FRENCH OF M. PAUL DE KOCK.

Nathalie de Hauteville at the age of twenty-two had been for three years a widow. She was one of the most beautiful women in Paris; a brunette, with large black eyes, and one of those fascinating faces whose charm consists more in expression than in regularity of features, and in which are portrayed at once all the elegance of the Frenchwoman, all the vivacity of the Italian, and all the fire of a daughter of Spain.

When she married, at eighteen, a man of nearly three times her age, Nathalie, a mere child in character, had not bestowed a thought on any thing beyond her wedding dresses, her marriage presents, and the delight of being called Madame. Her husband was as generous to her as he was rich. Twelve months had passed in a continued round of gaiety and amusement, when M. de Hauteville was suddenly attacked by a disease which carried him off in a few days, and left his young widow to mourn for a husband as she would have mourned for the loss of a friend and protector.

But, at eighteen, sorrow soon passes away; the heart is so new to every feeling, to every illusion. Madame de Hauteville found that she was courted by the world; that she was invited everywhere; and that, by her fortune and her position, she was called upon to become an ornament of society. Yet she felt that she was too young to live without a mentor, and to go out alone; so she asked her uncle, M. d'Ablaincourt, to come and live with her.

M. d'Ablaincourt was an old bachelor: one love only, had he ever known, and the object of that was—himself. His love for himself was paramount; and, if ever he went so far as to show any liking for any other individual, he must have received from that individual such attention as to make him a gainer by their intimacy. M. d'Ablaincourt was an egotist; but, at the same time, a well-bred, a well-mannered egotist. He had all the air of devoting himself to the wishes of others, whilst he was exclusively occupied in compassing his own; he would appear to be taking a lively interest in those around him, whilst, in reality, he never felt any interest in anybody but himself. Too thoughtless to do harm, he was as little disposed to do good, unless it were for his own advantage. In short, he liked to be at his ease, and to be surrounded with all the enjoyments which luxury could invent. Such was the character of M. d'Ablaincourt, who readily acceded to his niece's proposal, because Nathalie, though a little giddy, had a good and affectionate heart, and would load him with kindnesses and attentions.

M. d'Ablaincourt went out into the world with his niece, because he had not yet lost his relish for its pleasures; but, if an invitation came for any party which he thought held out no amusement for him, he would turn to her, and say, "I am afraid, my dear, you will not like this party; there will be nothing at all but play. I shall be very happy to take you; you know I always do exactly as you wish, but I think you will find it dull." And Nathalie, who was all confidence in her uncle, never failed to answer, "You are quite right, uncle; it will be much better for us not to go."

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The Secret

So it was with everything else. M. d'Ablaincourt, who, without wishing to be thought so, was an excessive gourmand, said one day to his niece, "You know, my dear, I am no gourmand; I care very little myself how things are served up, and am always satisfied with what is laid before me; but your cook puts too much salt in everything, which is not wholesome for a young woman; and then, she sends up her dishes in a careless, slovenly way, which is very annoying to me on your account, as you often give dinners. The other day there were six people at table, and the spinage was badly dressed. You must consider what people will say of your management when they see such neglect. They will say that Madame de Hauteville has no idea of having things as they ought to be; and this may do you harm, as there are persons who notice everything."

"What you say is very true, dear uncle; will you take the trouble of looking out for a good cook for me?"

"To be sure, my love; you know I think nothing of trouble when I can be of service to you."

"How lucky I am in having you always by me to tell me of all these little things, which I should never think of!" said Nathalie, kissing her uncle; and he, good old man, forthwith discharged the cook who dressed the spinage badly, to make way for one who shone particularly in all his favourite dishes.

Another time some improvements were to be made in the garden; for instance, the trees in front of the old gentleman's windows were to be felled, because they might occasion a dampness which would be dangerous for Nathalie. And then, the elegant calash was to be exchanged for a landau, as being a carriage in which a young lady could be much more at her ease. So minutely attentive was M. d'Ablaincourt to the comforts and enjoyments of his niece!

Nathalie was somewhat of a coquette: accustomed to conquest, she used to listen with a smile to the numerous proposals which were made to her, and sent off all suitors to her uncle, telling them, "Before I can give you any hope, I must know what M. d'Ablaincourt thinks of you."

Had her heart favoured any individual, it is probable that the answer of Nathalie would have been different; but, as it was, she thought nothing could be more agreeable than to please all, and be the slave of none.

The old gentleman, for his part, being master in his niece's house, was not at all anxious that she should marry again. A nephew might be less inclined to give way, less indulgent to him than Nathalie, so that he never failed to find some serious fault in every fresh aspirant to the hand of the pretty widow, and, as in every other case, he seemed to be thinking of nothing but her happiness.

In addition to his egotism, and his fondness for good living, M. d'Ablaincourt had of late years been seized with a violent passion for tric-trac. His favourite pastime, his highest delight, was this game; but, unfortunately for him, it was one very little played. The ladies do not like it in a room, because it is noisy; the gentlemen prefer bouillotte or écarté; so that the old gentleman very seldom found an opportunity of indulging his propensity. If any of his niece's visitors did happen to play, he seized upon them for the whole evening;—there was no possibility of escape. But, as they did not come to the pretty widow's for the sake of a game at tric-trac with the old uncle, many were the nights he sighed in vain for somebody to play with.

To please her uncle, Nathalie attempted to learn; but in vain. She was too giddy to give the necessary attention, and was continually making mistakes: the uncle scolded; and at last, Nathalie, throwing away dice and dice-box, said, "It is no use,—I never can learn this game."

"I am sorry for it," answered M. d'Ablaincourt, "very sorry; it would have given you so much pleasure. I only wished to teach it you for your own amusement."

Such was the state of affairs, when, at a very large party, where Nathalie was allowed to stand unrivalled for personal beauty and elegance of dress, was announced M. d'Apremont, a captain in the navy.

Nathalie expected to see a blunt, gruff old sailor, with a wooden leg, and a black patch on his eye. To her great astonishment there entered a tall, handsome young man, with a graceful figure and commanding air, and without either a wooden leg or a black patch.

Armand d'Apremont had entered the service very early in life; his whole soul was in his profession; and, though only thirty, he had risen to the rank of captain. His family property was considerable, and he had increased his fortune by his own exertions. Under these circumstances it is not surprising that, after fifteen years spent at sea, he should have yielded to a longing for repose; yet he never could be persuaded to listen to the solicitations of his friends, who urged him to marry: hitherto he had only laughed at love as a passion unworthy of a sailor.

The sight of Nathalie changed all his ideas,—the whole man underwent a sudden revolution. He watched her dancing, and could look nowhere else. All the other beauties in the room passed before him but as vain shadows, so busy were his eyes in following the graceful movements of the young widow.

"Who is that lovely creature who dances so beautifully?" at last he exclaimed to a person next him.

"That is Madame de Hauteville, a young widow. You admire her, captain?"

"I think her enchanting."

"She is very beautiful! And her mental qualifications are at least equal to her personal charms. But you must ask her to dance, and then you will be able to judge for yourself."

"I ask her to dance! I never danced in my life!" and for the first time Armand felt that this was a deficiency in his education. However, he went and stood close to the beauty, watching an opportunity of entering into conversation with her. Once he was on the very point of succeeding, when a young man came up, and led her away to the quadrille. Poor Armand bit his lips, and was obliged again to content himself with admiring her dancing. This whole evening he made no further advances, but he did not lose sight of his enchantress for an instant.

The captain's behaviour did not pass unobserved by Nathalie,—so soon do women see what effect they produce,—and, although she did not appear to notice it, she felt secretly not a little flattered; for D'Apremont had been described to her as a man who was far from agreeable in the society of ladies, and who had never been known to pay a single compliment. And Nathalie said to herself, "What fun it would be to hear him make love!"

D'Apremont, who, before he had seen Nathalie, went very little into society, particularly to balls, from henceforth never missed going wherever he had a chance of meeting his fair widow. He had succeeded in speaking to her, and had done his utmost to render himself agreeable. His behaviour was entirely changed, and the world was not more slow than usual in discovering the cause, or in commenting upon the marked attention which he paid to Nathalie.

"Mind you are not caught, captain!" a good-natured friend would say. "Madame de Hauteville is a coquette, who will but make a toy of your love, and a joke of your sighs." And to Nathalie some equally kind friend would say, "The captain is an original, a bear, with every fault that a sailor can possess. He is passionate, he is obstinate, he swears, he smokes. You will never make anything of him."

In spite of these charitable warnings,—the result, perhaps, of envy and jealousy,—the sailor and the coquette enjoyed a mutual pleasure in each other's society. Whenever D'Apremont was on the point of forgetting himself, and letting out an expression a little too nautical, Nathalie looked at him with a slight frown. He stopped short, stammered, and dared not finish his sentence, so afraid was he of seeing a harsh look on that pretty face. Nor is it a slight proof of the mighty power of love that it can thus implant fear in the breast of a sailor.

Some rumours of his niece's new conquest had reached the ears of M. d'Ablaincourt; but he had paid but little attention to them, thinking that this new admirer would share the fate of all the others, and that it would be very easy to get him dismissed. Yet the report had so far increased, that when Nathalie one day told her uncle that she had asked the captain to her house, the old gentleman almost flew into a passion, and said, with a vehemence quite uncommon to him, "You have acted very wrong, Nathalie; you do not consult me as you ought. I am told that Captain d'Apremont is a blunt, unpolished, quarrelsome——. He is always behind your chair, and he has never even asked me how I did. There was no necessity at all for you to ask him. You know, my dear," added he, softening his tone, "all I say is for your good; but indeed you are too thoughtless."

Nathalie, quite afraid that she had acted very inconsiderately, was going to put off the captain; but this the uncle did not require:—he thought he should be able to prevent too frequent a repetition of his visits.

It is a trite observation, that the most important events in life are frequently the result of the most trivial incidents,—that on a mere thread, which chance has flung in our way, may hang our whole future destiny. Such was the case in the present instance: to the game of tric-trac it was owing that Madame de Hauteville became Madame d'Apremont. The captain was an excellent player; and happening in the course of conversation to broach the subject, M. d'Ablaincourt caught at him immediately, and proposed a game. D'Apremont consented; and, having understood that it was necessary to play the agreeable to the old uncle, spent the whole evening at tric-trac.

When everybody was gone, Nathalie complained of the captain's want of gallantry,—that he had hardly paid her any attention at all.

"You were quite right," said she pettishly to her uncle; "sailors are very disagreeable people. I am very sorry I ever asked M. d'Apremont."

"On the contrary, my dear," replied the old bachelor, "we had formed quite an erroneous opinion of M. d'Apremont. I found him so agreeable and so well-bred, that I have asked him to come very often to play with me,—I mean, to pay his court to you. He is a very clever, gentlemanlike young man."

Nathalie, seeing that the captain had won the heart of her uncle, pardoned his want of attention to her. Thanks to tric-trac, and to his being necessary to M. d'Ablaincourt's amusement, he came very often to the house, and at last succeeded in winning the heart of the young widow. One morning she came, her face covered with blushes, to tell her uncle that M. d'Apremont had proposed to her, and to ask his advice.

The old gentleman thought for a few minutes, and he said to himself, "If she refuses him, there will be an end to his visits here; no more tric-trac. If she accepts him, he will be one of the family; I shall always be able to nail him for a game;" and the answer was, "You cannot do better than accept him."

The happiness of Nathalie was complete, for she really loved Armand; but, as a woman never should seem to yield too easily, she sent for the captain to dictate her conditions.

"If it is true that you love me," she began.

"If it is true! Oh, madame, I swear by all——"

"Allow me to speak first. If you love me, you will not hesitate to give me the proofs I demand."

"Whatever you ask, I——"

"In the first place, you must no longer swear as you do occasionally; it is a shocking habit before a lady: secondly,—and on this point I insist more particularly,—you must give up smoking, for I hate the smell of a pipe of tobacco; in short, I never will have a husband who smokes."

Armand heaved a sigh, and answered, "To please you I will submit to anything,—I will give up smoking."

Her conditions being thus acceded to, the fair widow could no longer withhold her hand, and in a short time Armand and Nathalie reappeared in the world as a newly-married and happy couple. Yet the world was not satisfied. "How could that affected flirt marry a sailor?" said one. "So, the rough captain has let himself be caught by the pretty widow's coquetry," said another. "This is a couple ill-matched enough."

Poor judges of the human heart are they who imagine a resemblance of disposition to be essential to love! On the contrary, the most happy effects are produced by contrast: mark but the union of light and shade; and is not strength wanting to uphold weakness:—the wild bursts of mirth to dispel melancholy? You join together two kindred tempers, two similar organisations, and what is the result? 'Tis as the blind leading the blind.

Our young couple passed the first few months after their marriage in undisturbed happiness. Yet in the midst of the rapture he experienced in the society of his lovely bride, Armand sometimes became pensive, his brow was contracted, and his eyes betrayed a secret uneasiness: but this lasted not; it was but as a fleeting cloud, which passes without leaving a trace. Nathalie had not hitherto perceived it. After some time, however, these moments of restlessness and gloom recurred so frequently as no longer to escape her observation.

"What is the matter, my love?" said she to her husband one day when she saw him stamping his foot with impatience; "what makes you so cross?"

"Nothing, nothing at all!" answered the captain, as if ashamed of having lost his self-possession. "With whom do you think I should be cross?"

"Indeed, my dear, I know not; but I have fancied several times that I perceived a something impatient in your manner. If I have unconsciously done anything to vex you, do tell me, that it may never happen again."

The captain kissed his wife affectionately, and again assured her that she was mistaken. For some days he manifested none of those emotions which had so disturbed Nathalie; but at length the same thing occurred again: Armand forgot himself once more, and she racked her brain to guess what cause her husband could have for this uneasiness. Not being satisfied with her own solution of the problem, she communicated her thoughts to her uncle, who replied immediately, "Yes, my dear, you are quite right; I am sure something must be the matter with D'Apremont; for several times lately, at tric-trac he has looked round with an abstracted air, passed his hand across his temples, and finished by making an egregious blunder."

"But, my good uncle, what can the mystery be? My husband must have some secret which preys upon his mind, and he does not choose to trust me with it."

"Very likely; there are many things which a man cannot tell his wife."

"Which a man cannot tell his wife! That is a thing I do not understand. I expect my husband to tell me everything, to have no mysteries with me, as I have none with him. I can never be happy so long as he on whom I have bestowed my heart, keeps any secret from me."

M. d'Ablaincourt, to comfort his niece, or rather, perhaps, to cut short a conversation which began to bore him, promised to do his utmost to discover the cause of his nephew's uneasiness; but he went no further than trying to make him play oftener at tric-trac, as being an excellent method of keeping him in good humour.

Early in the summer they left Paris for a beautiful property belonging to the captain in the neighbourhood of Fontainebleau. He appeared still as fond of his wife as ever; to afford her pleasure was his delight, to anticipate her wishes his study; but, as she was not fond of walking, he begged to be allowed to take a stroll into the country every day after dinner. This was too natural a request to be denied; and after dinner, whether they were alone or not, out went Armand, and returned in the best humour imaginable. Still Nathalie was far from being satisfied; her suspicions returned, and she said to herself, "My husband has no longer the serious, gloomy look he used to wear in Paris; but it is only since he has gone out every evening after dinner. Sometimes he is away two hours,—where can he go?—and he always likes to be alone. There is some mystery in his conduct, and I shall never be happy until I have found it out."

Sometimes Nathalie thought of having her husband followed; but this was a step too repugnant to her feelings. To take a servant into her confidence, to place a spy on the path of a man the business of whose life seemed to be to give her pleasure, she felt would be wrong, and she gave up the idea. To her uncle alone she ventured to disclose her anxiety, and he simply answered, "True, your husband plays less at tric-trac, but still he does play; and as to my following him in his walks, it is out of the question, for he has very good legs, and I have very bad ones;—I should be fatiguing myself to no purpose."

One day that Madame d'Apremont gave a party, a young man present said, laughing, to the master of the house,

"What were you doing yesterday, Armand, in the disguise of a peasant at the window of a little cottage about half a mile from hence? If my horse had not started, I was coming to ask if you were feeding your sheep."

"My husband in the disguise of a peasant!" exclaimed Nathalie, fixing her eyes upon Armand in amazement.

"Oh! Edward has made a mistake," replied the captain, endeavouring to conceal a visible embarrassment; "he must have taken somebody else for me."

"Very likely," said the young man, hurt at the impression which his words had made upon Nathalie, and perceiving that he had been guilty of an indiscretion; "I must have been deceived."

"How was the man dressed?" asked Nathalie. "Where was the cottage?"

"Really I know the country so little, I should have some difficulty in finding the spot. As for the man, he had on a blue smock-frock, with a sort of cap on his head. I don't know what could have put it into my head that it was the captain, as it is not the carnival."

Madame d'Apremont said no more on the subject, but remained persuaded that it was her husband. The assumption of a disguise proved that he was engaged in some extraordinary intrigue, and in a flood of tears poor Nathalie complained of the bitterness of her lot in having married a man of mysteries.

Whether secrets of this nature are the only ones which women can keep, far be it from me to decide; but certain it is that they always connect some infidelity with those of our sex. Madame d'Apremont did not form an exception to this general observation, and in a fit of jealousy she begged to return to town. Her husband consented immediately, and in a few days they were in Paris. Here the captain again betrayed the same symptoms of discontent, until one day he said to his wife, "My dear, a walk after dinner does me a great deal of good. During the latter part of our stay in the country I was quite well in consequence. You can easily conceive that an old sailor wants exercise, and that he cannot remain cooped up in a room or a theatre all the evening."

"Oh! very easily," replied Nathalie, biting her lips with spleen; "go and take your walk, if it does you good."

"But, my love, if it annoys you——"

"Oh! not in the least; take your walk; I have no objection."

So the husband took his evening walk, returned in excellent spirits, and again every sign of impatience had vanished.

"My husband is carrying on some intrigue: he loves another, and cannot live without seeing her," said poor Nathalie to herself. "This is the secret of his strange conduct, of his ill-humour, and of his walks. I am very, very wretched; and the more so that when he is with me he is all kindness, all attention! I know not how I can tell him that he is a monster, a traitor! But tell him I must, or my heart will burst! Yet if I could but get some undeniable proof of his faithlessness. Oh! yes, I will have some proof." And with a swelling heart, and eyes full of tears, she rushed into her uncle's room, crying that "she was the most miserable woman alive!"

"What is the matter?" said the old gentleman, burying himself in his arm-chair. "What has happened?"

"Every day after dinner," answered his niece, sobbing, "my husband goes out to walk, as he did in the country, and stays away two hours. When he returns, he is always cheerful and gay, gives me a thousand little marks of his attention, and swears that he adores me as he did the day of our marriage. Oh! my good uncle, I can bear it no longer!—You must see that this is all treachery and deceit. Armand is playing me false."

"He plays less with me at tric-trac," was the answer of the imperturbable uncle; "but still——"

"My dear uncle, if you do not help me to discover this mystery, I shall die of grief—I shall commit some rash act—I shall get separated from my husband. Oh! my good uncle, you who are so kind, so ready to oblige, do render me this service,—do find out where my husband goes every evening."

"There can be no doubt about my readiness to oblige, seeing that it has been the business of my life; but really I do not know how I can serve you."

"Again I repeat, that, if this mystery is not cleared up, you will lose your niece."

M. d'Ablaincourt had no wish to lose his niece, or, for the matter of that, his nephew either. He felt that any rupture between the young couple would disturb the quiet, easy life he was now enjoying, and he therefore decided upon taking some steps to restore peace. He pretended to follow the captain; but, finding this fatiguing, he returned slowly home after a certain time, and said to his niece, "I have followed your husband more than six times, and he walks very quietly alone."

"Where, where, my dear uncle?"

"Sometimes one way, and sometimes another; so that all your suspicions are entirely without foundation."

Nathalie was not duped by this answer, though she pretended to place implicit confidence in her uncle's words. Determined on discovering the truth, she sent for a little errand-boy, who stood always at the corner of their house, and whom she had heard more than once praised for his quickness and intelligence. Having ascertained that he knew her husband by sight, she said to him, "M. d'Apremont goes out every evening. To-morrow you must follow him, watch where he goes, and bring me back word immediately. And take care not to be seen."

The boy promised to execute her orders faithfully, and Nathalie awaited the morrow with that impatience of which the jealous alone can form any idea. At length the moment arrived, the captain went out, and the little messenger was on his track. Trembling, and in a fever of agitation, Nathalie sat counting the minutes and seconds as they passed until the return of the boy. Three quarters of an hour had elapsed when he made his appearance, covered with dust, and in a violent perspiration.

"Well," said Nathalie in an altered tone of voice, "what have you seen? Tell me everything."

"Why, ma'am, I followed the master, taking care he shouldn't see me—and a long chase it was—to the Vieille Rue du Temple in the Marais. There he went into a queer-looking sort of a house,—I forget the number, but I should know it again,—in an alley, and there was no porter."

"No porter!—in an alley!—Oh, the wretch!"

"As soon as the master had gone in," continued the boy, "I went in too. He kept on going up stairs till he got to the third floor, and then he took out a key and opened the door."

"The monster!—he opened the door himself,—he has a key,—and my uncle to take his part! You are quite sure he opened the door himself,—that he did not knock?"

"Quite sure, ma'am; and, when I heard him shut the door, I went up softly and peeped in at the keyhole: as there were only two doors, I soon found the right one; and there I saw the master dragging a great wooden chest across the room, and then he began to undress himself."

"To undress himself!—O Heavens!—Go on."

"I couldn't see into the corner of the room where he was; but presently he came out dressed in a grey smock, with a Greek cap on his head. And so, ma'am, I thought you'd like to know all I'd seen, and I ran with all my might to tell you."

"You are a very good boy. You must now go and fetch a coach directly, get up with the coachman, and direct him to the house."

Nathalie, meanwhile, flew to her room, put on a bonnet and shawl, rushed down to her uncle crying out, "My husband has betrayed me,—I am going to catch him;" and before the old gentleman could extract another word from her, she was out of the house, in the coach, and gone. In the Vieille Rue du Temple the coach stopped; Nathalie got out, pale, trembling, and scarcely able to support herself. The boy showed her the entrance, and she declined his further attendance. With the help of the hand-rail she ascended a dark narrow staircase till she reached the third story, when she had just force enough left to throw herself against the door, and cry out,

"Let me in, or I shall die!"

The door opened, the captain received her in his arms, and she saw nothing but her husband alone, in a smock and a Greek cap, smoking a superb Turkish pipe.

"My wife!" exclaimed Armand in utter amazement.

"Yes, sir," replied Nathalie, resuming her self-command,—"your injured wife, who has discovered your perfidy, and has been made acquainted with your disguise, and who has come in person to unravel the mystery of your conduct."

"What, Nathalie!—could you, then, suppose that I loved another? You wish to fathom the mystery,—here it is;" and he showed her the pipe. "Before our marriage you forbade me to smoke, and I promised to obey. For some months I kept my promise most faithfully. Oh! Nathalie, if you did but know what I suffered in consequence,—the fretfulness, the depression of spirits under which I laboured for hours together!—it was my old friend that I missed, my darling pipe that I sighed for in vain! At last I could hold out no longer; and, when we were in the country, happening to go into a cottage where an old man was smoking, I asked him if he could afford me a place of refuge, and at the same time lend me a smock and a hat; for I was afraid that my clothes might betray me. Our arrangements were soon made; and, thanks to this precaution, you had not the slightest suspicion of the real cause of my daily absence. Shortly afterwards you determined upon returning to Paris; and, being obliged to find a new way of indulging myself with my pipe, I took this little garret, and brought hither my old dress. You are now, my love, in possession of the whole mystery, and I trust you will pardon my disobedience. You see I have done everything in my power to conceal it from you."

Nathalie threw herself into her husband's arms, and cried out in an ecstasy of delight,

"So this is really all!—how happy I am! From henceforth, dearest, you shall smoke as much as you like at home; you shall not have to hide yourself for that!" and away she went to her uncle with a face all beaming with joy, to tell him that Armand loved her, adored her still,—it was only that he smoked. "But now," added she, "I am so happy, that he shall smoke as much as he likes."

"The best plan will be," said M. d'Ablaincourt, "for your husband to smoke as he plays at tric-trac; and so," thought the old gentleman, "I shall be sure of my game every evening."

"My dear Nathalie," said the captain, "though I shall take advantage of the permission you so kindly give me, still I shall be equally careful not to annoy you, and shall take the same precautions as before."

"Oh! Armand, you are really too good; but I am so happy at being undeceived in my suspicions, that I think now, I quite like the smell of a pipe."