Count Claudieuse and his wife had installed themselves, the day after the fire, in Mautrec Street. The house which the mayor had taken for them had been for more than a century in the possession of the great Julias family, and is still considered one of the finest and most magnificent mansions in Sauveterre.
In less than ten minutes Dr. Seignebos and M. Folgat had reached the house. From the street, nothing was visible but a tall wall, as old as the castle, according to the claims of archaeologists, and covered all over with a mass of wild flowers. In this wall there is a huge entrance-gate with folding-doors. During the day one-half is opened, and a light, low open-work railing put in, which rings a bell as soon as it is pushed open.
You then cross a large garden, in which a dozen statues, covered with green moss, are falling to pieces on their pedestals, overshadowed by magnificent old linden-trees. The house has only two stories. A large hall extends from end to end of the lower story; and at the end a wide staircase with stone steps and a superb iron railing leads up stairs. When they entered the hall, Dr. Seignebos opened a door on the right hand.
“Step in here and wait,” he said to M. Folgat. “I will go up stairs and see the count, whose room is in the second story, and I will send you the countess.”
The young advocate did as he was bid, and found himself in a large room, brilliantly lighted up by three tall windows that went down to the ground, and looked out upon the garden. This room must have been superb formerly. The walls were wainscoted with arabesques and lines in gold. The ceiling was painted, and represented a number of fat little angels sporting in a sky full of golden stars.
But time had passed its destroying hand over all this splendor of the past age, had half effaced the paintings, tarnished the gold of the arabesques, and faded the blue of the ceiling and the rosy little loves. Nor was the furniture calculated to make compensation for this decay. The windows had no curtains. On the mantelpiece stood a worn-out clock and half-broken candelabra; then, here and there, pieces of furniture that would not match, such as had been rescued from the fire at Valpinson,—chairs, sofas, arm-chairs, and a round table, all battered and blackened by the flames.
But M. Folgat paid little attention to these details. He only thought of the grave step on which he was venturing, and which he now only looked at in its full strangeness and extreme boldness. Perhaps he would have fled at the last moment if he could have done so; and he was only able by a supreme effort to control his excitement.
At last he heard a rapid, light step in the hall; and almost immediately the Countess Claudieuse appeared. He recognized her at once, such as Jacques had described her to him, calm, serious, and serene, as if her soul were soaring high above all human passions. Far from diminishing her exquisite beauty, the terrible events of the last months had only surrounded her, as it were, with a divine halo. She had fallen off a little, however. And the dark semicircle under her eyes, and the disorder of her hair, betrayed the fatigue and the anxiety of the long nights which she had spent by her husband’s bedside.