Jewel Mysteries I have Known/The Pursuit of the Topaz
THE PURSUIT OF THE TOPAZ
THE PURSUIT OF THE TOPAZ
I WAS struggling heroically to force my arms through the sleeves of a well-starched shirt, when the man knocked upon the door of my bedroom for the second time. I had heard him faintly five minutes before, when my head was as far in a basin as the limitations of Parisian toilet-ware would allow it to go; but now he knocked imperiously, and when I opened to him he stood hesitatingly with a foolish leer upon his face, and that which he meant for discretion upon his lips.
"Well," said I, "what the devil do you want? Can't you see I'm dressing?"
At this he looked with obvious pity for me towards the basin, but quickly recovered himself.
"Dame," said he, with a fine Gascon accent, "there is a lady waiting for monsieur in the salon."
"A lady!" cried I with surprise; "who is she?"
"I am but three days in Paris," replied he, "and she is a stranger to me. If monsieur prefers it, I will ask her some questions."
"You will please do nothing of the sort; did she give her name?"
"I seem to remember that she did, but it has escaped me. I shall say that you are engaged, and will see her to-morrow; monsieur leaves Paris at nine o'clock hein?"
He said this with another vulgar leer, but I turned round upon him fiercely, for I had begun to brush what is left of my hair.
"You impudent poltroon!" exclaimed I; "leave the room instantly, and tell the lady that I will be with her in five minutes."
"Ah," said he, "it is like that then? Very good; I shall safeguard your interests; trust in me. May I be permitted to light the candles?"
He said this with a fine eye to the bill; but I sent him away after some display of temper, and finished my dressing quickly, wondering all the time who the woman was, and what she wanted of me. Although I have lived in Paris nigh as much as in London, I have cultivated few acquaintances there other than those arising in the path of business. The domestic side of Parisian life has never appealed to me; I am equally callous to the vaunted attractions of the dismal halls of light and twaddle with which the foreigner usually boasts acquaintance. It was, therefore, not only with profound surprise, but also with a piquant curiosity, that I fell to speculating upon the identity of my visitor, and the mission which brought her to me.
At the time of this occurrence I had been in the French capital for one week, being carried there by the announcement of the sale of the Countess Boccalini's jewels. After my usual custom, I had engaged rooms in the little Hôtel de Bard, which is almost the neighbour of the Grand Hotel, and had passed the week in the haggling and disputation which are the salt of life to a jeweller. The result was the purchase of a superb necklace of brilliants, which subsequently I sold here for nine thousand pounds, and of a quantity of smaller stones, and of chrysoprase, the gem which is now becoming exceedingly fashionable in London. But on the night of which I am writing, my trading was done, and a ridiculous promise to go to the Opera Ball alone kept me in Paris. How the promise came to be given to my friend Tussal I cannot remember; but he had assured me that the ball was the event of April, and that my education would remain imperfect until I had gazed upon the spectacle of calicots and flaneurs rioting in the great house which Garnier designed and Delaunay painted. And so pressing was he, and so largely did I trade with him, that I yielded at last to his solicitations, and agreed to accept a seat in his box.
By the terms of his invitation I was to meet him at the Grand Café at midnight, and thence was to proceed to the Opera House at half-past twelve. I had determined to dine quietly at my own hotel, and afterwards to spend the intervening hours at the Théâtre de la Porte St. Martin; for which purpose I dressed at a comparatively early hour; and dressing, received the stiff-necked Gascon's message that a lady wished to see me. Yet for what purpose she came, or who she might be, I had not an idea; and I turned over a hundred theories in my mind as I descended to the little reception room of the hotel, and there found her sitting by the uncovered table with a railway guide before her, but obviously agitated, and as obviously pretty.
When looking back upon the extraordinary mystery of which this childish girl was for me the centre, I have often remembered that she was one of the few Frenchwomen I have met who had a thoroughly English face. Her skin was white and pink, untouched by that olive tint which is so prevalent in Paris; her eyes were wondrously blue; she had rich brown hair shot with golden tresses, which gave to the whole a magnificent lustre; she was entirely free of that restless gesture which is the despair of a man of nerves. As I first saw her, she wore a captivating apology for a bonnet, which seemed to consist of a spray of jet and a hairpin; but her hands were gloved as only a Frenchwoman's hands are, and a long cloak of steel-gray cloth edged with fur, fell about her shoulders, yet permitted one to see an exquisite outline of figure beneath. Indeed, she made a perfect little picture, and her exceeding prettiness lost nothing for the rush of colour to her cheeks when I spoke to her.
"I am Bernard Sutton," said I; "if it is possible that I can be of any service to you, the privilege is mine——"
"Thank you, a thousand times," said she, speaking with an accent which added to the charm of her English. "I have heard of you often from Madame Carmalovitch, whose husband owned the famous opal; you were very kind to her——"
"I was exceedingly sorry for her," I replied; "are you a relation of hers?"
"Oh, no!" she exclaimed; "I am Mademoiselle Edile Bernier, and I live with my mother at 32, Rue Boissière. You will laugh to hear why I come to you. It is about something you alone can advise me upon, and, of course, you will guess it at once."
"I won't waste your time by being ambiguous," said I; "you have come to consult me about some jewels; pray let me see them."
There was no one else in the salon at that time, the few people in the hotel being at dinner. The girl had, therefore, no hesitation in opening a bracelet case, which she had carried under her cloak, and showing me a plain band of gold which served as a mount for a small circle of turquoise and an exceedingly large rose-pink topaz, which possessed all the lustre of a diamond. I saw at once that the gem was from Brazil, and was large enough and rich enough to be worth a considerable sum, but I have never known hunger for the topaz myself, and when I had taken one look at the bracelet I handed it back to her.
"It's exceedingly pretty," said I, "and your stones are very good. There is a little green at the base of the larger turquoises, but you will hardly match the topaz in Paris. Are you seeking to know the value of it?"
"I would never ask that," she answered quickly; "it was a gift from my, Monsieur Georges Barré, whom you may know by name."
I vow it was very bewitching to watch the rosy blush which suffused her cheek when she made this confession. Yet she spoke with the ring of pride in her voice, and I replied to her encouragingly while she put her treasure beneath her cloak, as though she feared that other eyes than hers should rest even upon the case of it.
"Monsieur Barré is well known to me by name," said I; "his bust of Victor Hugo from last year's salon is at this moment the chief ornament of my library. I must now congratulate him for the second time."
At this she laughed, but the ripples died away quickly upon her face, and the look of haunting fear again troubled her eyes. I observed that she was reticent in speaking plainly to me, and did my best to help her out with it.
"You have not yet put to me," said I, "the precise question which brought you here. It concerns the bracelet, of course?"
"Ye—yes," said she; "but I am very much afraid you will laugh at me. I wanted to ask you if, in your judgment—that is, with your experience—there is any reason why I should not wear my present at the Opera Ball to-night?"
Her confusion, when thus she had unburdened herself, was overwhelming. She scarce dared to lift her eyes to mine as she spoke, and one of her hands played restlessly with the railway guide, while the other was closed firmly about her bracelet. Nor did I, who know the potency of woman's superstition in the matter of their jewels, feel the touch of a desire to draw amusement from her dilemma.
"Come," said I, with all the gentleness of voice I could command; "you have been reading something silly. The topaz is the emblem of fidelity, it is also a traditional cure for indigestion. In other words, the ancients were wise enough to know that love and good cooking are not so far apart after all. Wear your jewel at the opera by all means, and regard it as an antidote to the confetti you will consume."
She heard me thus far with a restrained smile upon her face, and indeed, she half rose as though to end the interview; but the evidence of fear was still about her eyes, and there was the note of unsatisfied questioning in her voice when she said,—
"I was sure you would tell me that—but I am keeping you from your dinner, and have already troubled you too much I fear."
My answer to this appeal was to close the door of the salon, which had been open during our interview, and to draw a chair close to hers.
"Mademoiselle Bernier," said I, "the most important part of the intelligence you meant to bring to me remains unspoken. Let me encourage you to tell me everything freely, and be assured that without your express permission nothing you may say will be remembered by me."
"Thank you, very much," she said quietly, evidently regaining complete confidence; "but I have nothing to conceal. A week ago, Monsieur Barré gave me this bracelet with the stipulation that I should wear it at the ball to-night. Two days ago, I received this letter, which I hesitated to show even to you, lest it should be an injustice to the man I love."
She passed, with her words, a dirty scrap of a note to me, the leaf of a sheet of the commonest lined scribbling paper; and I read upon it, written in very bad French, the warning—
"Mademoiselle. If you wear the topaz bracelet at the Opera Ball to-night you carry death upon your arm."
Thrice I read this; and as I repeated the words, the third time aloud, I saw, shaping about the simplicity of the girl, a mystery which seemed as deep, and at first sight as unfathomable, as any as I had known. As for the momentary victim of it she sat watching me while I, all amazed, held the paper still in my hand, and did not hide my surprise, or, indeed, attempt to.
"Mademoiselle," said I, "you speak to me of very deep matters, I fear. But, of course, you have shown this letter to your relatives?"
"I have but one relative in the world," said she, "my mother, who is a paralytic. I dare not mention such a thing to her; she would die of fear."
"And you yourself have no suspicion, no faint idea of the cause of such a letter as that?"
"I cannot even attempt to guess at it."
"There are none of your lady friends who would hazard a joke with you?"
"Oh, no; they could not think of such a joke as that, and my few friends love me, I believe."
I had now begun to pace up and down the room, being in a very whirl of theory and conjecture. And, in truth, the problem presented so many possibilities that it might well have troubled a man whose whole occupation was the solution of mysteries. Not that I lacked any clue, for my knowledge, such as it is, of the heartburnings, the jealousies, and the crimes which hover over the possession of precious stones at once compelled me to the conclusion, either that M. Georges Barré had been the victim of a previous affaire du cœur, or that his fiancée had been won only over trampled hopes and vain rivalries. In either case (the case of the woman who resented the man's marriage, or the man who resented the woman's) was there ample warranty for such a letter as Mademoiselle Bernier had received. Yet was I too slow to venture the question with her, and did so at last in sheer pity for her childishness.
"Tell me," said I, stopping of a sudden before her, "what led you to me?"
"Madame Carmalovitch," said she. "I went to her first, but she knew you were in Paris, and would not rest until I had consented to see you. She would have come with me, but is latterly almost always unable to face the night air."
"You have no one else you would care to consult in such a case?"
"No one," said she.
"And if you go to the ball to-night without your bracelet——?"
She looked up at me with tears in her eyes when she answered,—
"Georges would never forgive me."
"Could you make no excuse to remain at home?"
"Oh, don't ask me to do that," she exclaimed pitifully, "I have lived for the ball since the beginning of the year!"
It was a woman's plea, and not to be resisted. I saw at once that she would go to the dance whatever words fell from me, and I turned from the subject to one more important.
"Since you are determined to be there to night," said I, "perhaps you will give me Monsieur Georges Barré's address?"
"Oh, for the love of God, don't tell him!" she cried; "he would never forgive me if I distrusted his present."
"My dear lady, I quite understand that. Really, you credit me with being a very poor diplomatist. When I see him I doubt if I shall even mention your name to him."
"You promise me that?"
"I promise you, at least, that he shall never know of your coming to me. But I must exact another promise from you—it is that you will not wear the topaz until you have my permission."
"But Georges expects me to wear it at the ball."
"He would not expect you to risk your life. And there is no reason, so far as I can see, why I should not be able to give you permission, or to refuse it, by eleven o'clock. You do not go to the opera until midnight, I presume?"
"Monsieur Barré has promised to call in the Rue Boissière at a quarter past twelve. He has an appartement in the Hôtel Scribe. I can scarce go with him and leave his gift at home."
"Of course you can't, but I would suggest that, unless you hear from me by midnight, you carry it beneath your cloak as you do now. I shall meet you in the Opera House, at any rate. Meanwhile, I have one more question to put to you, forgive it from a man who is nearly old enough to be your father. Before you became the fiancée of Monsieur Barré was there—well, was there any other in your thoughts?"
She looked at me with frankness shining clearly from her eyes, when she said,—
"Never for a moment. I was in a convent until last year, and I have not spoken to six men since I left."
"That is all I want to know. We will both dine now; but first let me look at your bracelet once more."
She handed me the case again; and I, leaving her for a moment to fetch my glass, put the jewel under the strong light of the chandelier, and examined every inch of it within and without. I discovered then that which had escaped me upon first acquaintance with it. In one of the crevices of the clasp there was a blood-stain, unmistakable, even fresh, yet so concealed by the embossment of the jewels that I did not wonder she had remained in ignorance of it. But when I gave it to her again I doubt not that I was very serious, and this she observed, and made comment upon.
"You see something now which you did not see ten minutes ago," she cried; "you will surely tell me?"
"I see a very pretty pink topaz," said I, forcing a smile, "and a young lady who is missing her dinner. Come, have some confidence in me, and put all these thoughts out of your mind until I ask you to remember them again."
"I will," said she, "and can never thank you enough; you do not know what a trouble you have taken from my mind."
Here was the end of our interview, for we had come to the door of the courtyard as we spoke, and I put her at once into the neat little brougham which was waiting for her. There were but two other men, the concierge, and a short, exceedingly dark man in evening dress, about the place at that time; and as the brougham drove away it occurred to me that the latter fellow was watching me rather closely, upon which I had a good look at him; but he turned away sharply to the coffee-room, while I went to my dinner in as fine a state of bewilderment as I have known. Never in my long years' work had I come across such a case, or one to which a clue, save on the hypothesis of jealousy, was so completely wanting. Yet if jealousy were the motive of the warning, how, I asked, came the bloodstains upon the bracelet? And if the gem had any connection with a previous affair of Barré's why did he give it to his fiancée? The latter supposition seemed, in itself, sufficient to upset the whole suggestion; nor could I find another; but I determined to call upon the sculptor at once, and to use every device at my command in the interests of the helpless girl who had called upon me.
It was now near to ten o'clock, and, having dined hastily, I passed through the courtyard on my way to the Hôtel Scribe. There I saw, to my surprise, that the ill-visaged Italian—for so I judged he was—still loitered about the place; but again appeared to avoid scrutiny. This second appearance of his seemed to me—I knew not why—as the shaping of a story from the air; but I had no courage then to speak to him, and I walked on down the boulevard, perceiving as I went that flambeaus already lighted the great Opera House, and that the canaille were preparing for the riot. When at last I came to the hotel, and sent up my card, the answer was that Monsieur Barré had just left, and was not expected to return until the next morning.
How completely this answer undid my purpose I could never set down. The man was my only possible hope. In the haste of my conclusions I had never found time to remember that I might not catch him; that every flaneur was hither and thither like a will-o'-the-wisp on such a night. In vain I asked, nay, implored, for information—they could give me none; and when further importunity was plainly a farce, I had no alternative but to go to the Rue Boissière, in the ultimate hope that Barré's destination was there, and that he had called upon his fiancée before the hour of the appointment. But upon this I was determined, that until I had found him Mademoiselle Bernier should not wear the bracelet, though I stood at her side from that hour to midnight.
My first attempt culminating unfruitfully, I quitted the passage of the hotel, being still bent upon the journey to the Rue Boissière, and was again upon the pavement before the café, when I saw the Italian for the third time. He stood upon the very edge of the curbstone, undisguisedly waiting for me, so that upon a sudden impulse, which had wisdom in it, I walked over to him, and this time he did not turn away.
"Forgive the question," said I, in my miserable French, "but you are betraying an interest in my movements which is unusual; in fact, you have followed me from my hotel, I think?"
"Exactly," he replied, having even less of the tongue than I had, though I make no attempt to reproduce the vagaries of his idiom. "I followed you here, as you say——"
"For what purpose, may I ask?"
"To warn you!"
"To warn me!"
"Certainly, since you carry in your pocket the topaz bracelet."
"Oh," said I, taken aback at his false conclusion, "it is that, is it? I am much obliged to you, but I don't happen to possess such a thing."
"Mon Dieu!" said he; "then she did not sell it to you?"
"She certainly did not!"
"And she will wear it at the ball to-night?"
"Mother of God! she is a dead woman then."
It is often possible to tell from the chord of voice a man strikes in conversation whether he be friend or enemy. I knew from the sympathetic note in this earnest exclamation that I had to do with one who wished well to Mademoiselle Bernier; but the very sorrow of the words struck me chill with fear. It was plain that I must shape a bold course if I would learn the whole moment of the mystery, and observing that the stranger was a man of much shabbiness and undoubted poverty—if that might be judged by his dress—I played the only possible card at once.
"Look here," said I, "this is no time for words like this. Come into the café with me, and I will pay you fifty pounds for what you know. It shall be worth a hundred if you convince me that you have done a substantial kindness to Mademoiselle Bernier."
He looked at his watch before he made answer. Then he said,—
"The offer is a fair one, but I do not seek your money. We have two hours in which to save her, but before I go with you, you shall swear to me that anything I may tell you will never be used against me here or in any other country."
"Of course," said I; "you don't think I am a policeman, do you? I have no other interest but that of the lady."
"Nor I," said he; and he followed me into the café, but the place was so intolerably full that I bade him come with me to a little wine-shop in the Rue Lafayette, and there we found a vacant table, and I ordered his absinthe and a glass of coffee for myself. Scarcely, however, had he lighted his cigarette before he began to talk of the matter we had come upon.
"First," said he, "tell me, did Mademoiselle speak of a letter she had received?"
"She not only spoke of it, but she gave it to me to read," I replied.
"Well," said he, "I wrote it."
"I gathered that from your words," said I next; "and of course you wrote it for very good reasons?"
"You shall hear them," said he, sipping freely of his drink. "That bracelet was last worn at the Mi-Carême Ball in Marseilles by a girl named Berthe Duval. She was carried from the ball-room stabbed horribly, at one o'clock in the morning. She died in my arms, for in one week she was to have been my wife."
"And the assassin?" I asked.
"Was hunted for by the police in vain," he continued. "I myself offered every shilling that I had to find him, but, despite the activity of us all, he was never so much as named. Let us go back another year—it is painful enough for me because such a retrogression recalls to me the one passion of my life—a passion beside which the affair at Marseilles is not to be spoken of. God knows that the memory of the woman I refer to is at this moment eating out my heart. She was an Italian girl, sixteen years old when she died, and I think—why should I not?—that the world has never held a more beautiful creature. Well, she wore the bracelet, now about twenty-six months ago, at the Mardi Gras Ball in Savona, and she fell dead before my very eyes ten minutes after she had entered the ball-room. She had drunk of poisoned coffee, and no man but one knew by whose hand the death had come to her."
"You say no man but one; that one was——"
"Then you knew who killed the other victim at Marseilles?"
"I knew, as you say; but to know and to arrest are different things."
"Have you any idea as to the man's whereabouts now?"
"Every idea; he was in Paris three days ago—he was in Paris to-day. I should judge it more than likely that he will be at the Opera Ball to-night."
Before he could say more I rose from my chair and summoned the head waiter of the place to me. Then I wrote an urgent message upon a leaf of my note-book, and despatched it by a cab to 32, Rue Boissière. The message implored Mademoiselle Bernier, as she valued her life, to leave the bracelet at home for this night at any rate.
"Now," said I, "we can talk still at our leisure. You have taken me back to Marseilles fourteen months ago; let us have the chapter in your life which precedes that one."
He finished off his absinthe, and called for another glass before he would answer me. At last he said,—
"You ask me to speak of things which I would well forget. I have sufficient confidence in you, however, to trust my safety in your hands. The story is not a long one. Three years ago I was a struggling painter in Savona, giving half my life to a study of the pictures in the cathedral—you may know the work of Antonio Semini there—and the other half to the worship of Pauline di Chigi, the daughter of a silversmith who lives over against the Hotel Royal. Needless to tell you of my poverty, or of my belief in myself. I lived then in the day-dreams which come at the seed-time of art; they were broken only by the waywardness of the girl, by her womanly fickleness, by the riches of the men who sought her. It would weary you to hear of my long nights of agony following the momentary success of this man or that who wooed her, of my curses upon my own poverty, of my bitterness, and sometimes even of my hopelessness. There is something of this sort in the life of every poor man, but the romance will scarce bear the light of other eyes; it has a place in my story only in so far as it prompted me to steal the topaz, if stealing is the word for the act which gave me its possession.
"But arrivons! In the end of the January of last year, I, struggling to embrace a career in which I have failed because I have genius and no talent, obtained a commission from the Dominican monks to go to the Valley of San Bernardo, and to take up my residence there while I retouched some of the more modern and more faded pictures in the sanctuary of Nostra Signora di Misericordia. The shrine and village lie in the mountains five miles above Savona. The former is now regaining its splendour, though grievously pillaged by the French and by later vandals. The work would have been recreation to me had it not been for Pauline, whom I left to the persecution of a fat and soulless trader, and to the solicitations of her father that she would marry him. The new lover loaded her with presents and with the follies of speech which a middle-aged man who is amorous can be guilty of. I could give her nothing but the promise of a future, and that being without market value did not convince her. While she would make pretence of affection for me when we were alone, she did nothing to repulse the other. Thus I left Savona with her kisses on my lips, and rage of her wantonness in my heart; and for three weeks I laboured patiently in the mountain village; and my art lifted me even beyond the spell of the girl.
"It was at the end of the third week that my thoughts were ardently recalled to her by a circumstance which cannot fail to appear remarkable to you. I was walking in the late afternoon of the Sunday in the path which leads one high amongst the mountains, here rising green and purple, and afar with snowcaps above this lovely spot; and, chancing to turn aside from the road and to plunge into a shrubbery, I sat at last upon the log of a tree perched at the side of as wild a glen as I have seen in Italy. Below me were rocks of marble-black, yellow, red—all colours; aloe trees flourished abundantly, springing from every cranny of the dell; and though the reign of winter was not done, flowers blossomed everywhere, and multitudinous shrubs were rich in green and buds. Here I sat for an hour buried in my musings, and when at last I left it was by an overgrown path across the dingle. I found then that the opposite side of the place was vastly steeper than the one by which I had descended; in fact, I mounted it with difficulty; and when near to the summit, I clung to the saplings and the branches for sheer foothold. This action brought all my trouble, for of a sudden, just as I had come to the top, a shrub to which I was holding gave at the roots, and giving, sent me rolling to the bottom again with a great quantity of soft earth all about me and my bones aching indescribably.
"For some minutes I sat, being dizzy and shaken, on the soft grass. When I could look around me I saw a strange thing. In a mound of the mould which had fallen there was a crucifix of gold. Thickly covered with the clammy earth as it was, dulled and tarnished with long burial, the value of the thing was unmistakable. Rubies were set in the hands for blood, there was a crown of diamonds for thorns; the whole was ornamented with a sprinkling of jewels, whose fire was brilliant even through the pasty clay which clung upon the cross. I need scarce tell you that all the curiosity which is a part of me was whetted at this unexpected sight; and believing that I had come upon a very mine of treasure, I shook the mould off me, and went quickly by the easier path to the hill-top and the place of the landslip.
"Twilight was now rushing through the mountains, and a steely light, soon to turn into darkness, fell upon the ravine; yet I was able still to see clearly enough for my purpose—and for my disappointment. It is true that the slip of the earth from the hillside disclosed a cavernous hole which had been dug, no doubt, many years ago; but of the kind of treasure whose image had leaped into my mind I saw little. The few bright things that lay about in the part of the trough which remained were entirely such vessels as serve priests in the Mass. There was a pyx in silver, a paten in gold, and two smaller ones; a monstrance with some exceedingly fine diamonds and the topaz in it, and a gold chalice much indented. I judged at once that these things had been buried either when the French plunderers came to Italy, or after the trouble of '70. It was equally clear that they were the property of the Dominicans whose house was hard by; and either that their present hiding-place was unknown, or that they had been left in concealment for some reason of diplomacy. In any case, the value of the stones in the monstrance was unquestionable; but I am an Italian, as you see, and I believed then, as now, in nothing but omens. For a long while no thought of touching these things, scarce even of handling them—so strong in human flesh is the grain of early superstition—came to me. I sat there gazing at them and watching the light of the topaz sparkling even above the radiance of the smaller diamonds—sat, in fact, until it was quite dark and the miasma rose from the valley. Then, in one of those flashes of thought which often mean much to a man, I had it in my mind that both the diamonds and the topaz above them would sit well upon the arms of Pauline; I even saw her in my fancy coquetting to me for the present. I began to laugh aloud at the other thoughts, to call them echoes of childish schooling, to handle the chalice and the ring of jewels, and to tell myself that there would be no bigger fool in Europe if I did not take them. Need I tell you that the reasoning convinced me? and quickly, as the cold of the mist grew more intense, I took the baubles in my hand, still lacking the courage to secure the chalice and the crucifix, and rose to leave the place.
"Now, for the first time, I think, you are beginning to see the point of my story. The strangest part of it yet remains. I have told you that dark had fallen upon the ravine as I rose up to quit it, and that mists rose thick from the valley with the early night. You will, therefore, easily understand my discomfiture when, reflected upon the white curtain of fog, I saw the dancing light of a lantern. In the next moment a man, young but ragged, with a full-bearded face, and the cape of a priest about his shoulders, stood swinging his lantern before me, and looking down at the tomb of the jewels by our feet. I know not why, but there was something of such power and command writ upon the monk's face that I have never called him by any other name than the Christ. With what feelings he inspired me I cannot tell you. Terror, human terror, is no word for my experience; my whole being seemed stricken with an apprehension which tortured me and made my brain burn. God! the memory shakes me even now, and I have seen him thrice since, and the fear is greater every time I look upon his face.
"Thus I stood facing the man when he opened his lips to curse me. I believe now, and shall always believe, that he is nothing but a madman, whose brain has failed from long fasting. Be that as it may, his words ring yet in my ears. If you search the world through, read the curse upon Barbarossa, and all the volumes of anathema, you will never find such a blasting accusation as the man spoke when he saw the monstrance in my hand. So dreadful was it that I reeled before him; and, losing all command, I struck him down with my stick and fled the place. The next day I quitted the valley of San Bernardo, and in a week Pauline was wearing the topaz, set by her father as a bracelet, and the diamonds sparkled upon her fingers. She covered me with kisses for the gift, and in her embraces I forgot the madman of the hills, and my melancholy passed.
"The rest of my story you know. Pauline wore the topaz at the Mardi Gras Ball, and died ten minutes after she had entered the room. A year later, having fled from Italy, I became engaged pour passer le temps to Berthe Duval, at Marseilles. A man has many love affairs, but only one passion. I was not in love with her, but she was rich, and troubled herself to get a smattering of art-talk, which amused me. One day she found the topaz in my studio and begged it of me. She died as you have heard; and I, poor as always, and now pursued by the damning curse, came to Paris, selling the topaz on my way here to M. Georges Barré. I have never ceased to regret that which I did; I have lamented it the most since I saw the exquisite creature who is to be his wife. And when, three days ago, I discovered the madman who had cursed me at San Bernardo in the very Rue Boissière where Mademoiselle Bernier lives, I determined to save her though the deed cost me a confession and my liberty."
He had ceased to speak, and had drunk off the remainder of his absinthe, while his amazing story, which I could in no way believe, went whirling through my brain, and yet gave to me no shape of reality. At the first I was led to think that he was the madman, and I cracked for sitting there and hearing the extraordinary narration he had contrived; but there was something in his manner which forbade any long continuance of the assumption; and while I had no leisure to bring critical scrutiny upon his tale, it yet impressed me to immediate action.
"Come," said I, "presuming that your picture is not highly coloured, it is quite time we were at the opera; it is striking half-past twelve now. You know what women are. Mademoiselle Bernier may wear the bracelet in the face of everything I have said; and I am inclined to think with you that it is not wise for her to do so."
"God forbid that she should," said he; and with that we went out together.
The weather at that time was cold and cheerless; a bleak wind swept round the corners of the streets; and the lights which illumined the peristyle of the great building swayed and flickered with lapping tongues of red and yellow. But once inside, the glow of light and colour passed description. Here, whirling, shouting, dancing, leaping, the maskers rioted, almost drowning with their clamour the blare of the band; the superb entrance hall was ablaze with the flash of tawdry jewels and shining raiment; kings and queens, knights and courtiers, calicots and clowns, swarmed up the massive staircase, struggling, screaming, pushing, regardless of everything but the madness of the scene within. It was with the greatest difficulty that I reached Tussal's box, and therefrom looking down upon the wild carnival, seeing at the first but a medley of form and colour, a reckless horde of dancers, grisettes, shepherdesses, over whose heads confetti hurtled, or the spirales which the youths love. What with the dust and the scream of voices, and the chatter of the thousand tongues, and the heroic efforts of the fiddlers, it was almost impossible to locate anything or any one; but the Italian, readier than I, pointed out to me at last the one we sought; and I observed her sitting in a box quite close to us, where she seemed to talk with all a girl's esprit to the young sculptor at her side. A fairer spectacle never was than that of this childish creature, quaintly dressed in a simple gown of white and black, with a necklace of pearls about her throat, and a bouquet of roses in her hand; but the very sight of her turned me sick with fear, for she wore upon her arm the cursed topaz, and you could see the light of it half over the house.
The Italian and I perceived the thing at the one time; indeed, we rose from our seats together.
"For the love of Heaven go to her!" said he; "tell the whole story to both of them; she may not have ten minutes to live."
He had need to say no more, for I was in the foyer as he spoke; but scarce had I opened the door of Barré's box—which was upon the ground floor, almost at the level of the dancers—when an appalling scream rose up even above the clamor of the throng. For one moment, as I stood quaking with my fears, and sore tempted to draw back, I saw nothing but a haze of white smoke, a vision of lurid faces and black forms, and sharper than them all, the figure of Barré himself bending over the body of the insensible girl. Then, amidst the babbling of voices, and the sobbing of women, and the cry of the man, which was the most bitter cry imaginable, I heard the words, "Stop the student in the black cloak—he has shot Mademoiselle!"
But the girl lay dead, with a bullet through her heart.
The tragedy at the Opera House was talk for many days in Paris; but the assassin was never taken, nor indeed, heard of. The police inclined to the theory that some masquerader had discharged a pistol by accident in the heat of the riot; and to this theory most people inclined. But there was a large sympathy for M. Georges Barré, who lay near to death for many weeks after the shock, and who quitted the capital subsequently to take up his residence in London. I told him the story the Italian had narrated to me so soon as he was well enough to hear it; but, like the police of Paris who had it also, I could see that he did not believe a word of it. He sold me the topaz bracelet, however, and I have it to this day, for I want the courage to sell it.
Of the Italian I never heard again. I saw him last immediately after the drama of the ball, when he lurched away from me, wringing his hands pitifully, begging me to tell his story to the police, and crying that a curse was upon him. But I take it, in conjunction with his confession, as a little curious that a madman, described as an ecclesiastic of Savona, should have thrown himself before a train in the Gare du Nord two days after the death of Mademoiselle Bernier.