“Never mind!” she went on. “That which he dared not do while living, I set myself to do after his death. When I came to Paris to inquire what had become of the Marquis de Prerolles, your glorious career answered for you; but even before I knew you I had become the possessor of these divided estates, which, reunited by me, must be restored to your hands. You are proud, Henri,” she added, with animation, “but I am none less proud than you. Judge, then, what I have suffered in realizing our situation: I, overwhelmed with riches, you, reduced to your officer’s pay. Is that a satisfaction to your pride? Very well! But to my own, it is the original stain, which only a restitution, nobly accepted by you, ever can efface!”
She paused, looking at him supplicatingly, her hands clasped. As he remained silent, she understood that he still hesitated, and continued:
“To plead my cause, to vanquish your resistance, as I am trying now to triumph over it, could be attempted with any chance of success only by a dear and tender friend; that is the reason why I sought to establish relations with—”
“With Eugenie Gontier?”
“But she would not consent to it—all the worse for her! For, since then, you and I have come to know each other well. Your prejudices have been overcome one by one. I have observed it well. I am a woman, and even your harshness has not changed my feelings, nor prevented me from believing that, in spite of yourself, you were beginning to love me. Have I been deceiving myself?—tell me!”
“You know that you have not, since, as I look at you and listen to you, I know not which I admire more-your beauty or the treasures of your heart!”
“To Prerolles, where all is ready to receive you.”
“Well, since this is a tale from the Arabian Nights, let us follow it to the end! I will go!” said Henri.
Browsing beside the road, the pony, left to himself, had advanced toward them, step by step, whinnying to his mistress. Valentine and Henri remounted the cart; which soon drew up before the gates of the chateau, where, awaiting them, reinstated in his former office, stood the old steward, bent and white with years.
The borders of the broad driveway were of a rich, deep green. Rose-bushes in full bloom adorned the smooth lawns. The birds trilled a welcome in jumping from branch to branch, and across the facade of the chateau the open windows announced to the surrounding peasantry the return of the prodigal master.
At the top of the flight of steps Valentine stepped back to allow Henri to pass before her; then, changing her mind, she advanced again.
“No, you are at home,” she said. “It is I that must enter first!”
He followed her docilely, caring no longer to yield to any other will than hers.
Within the chateau, thanks to the complicity of the Duchess, the furnishings resembled as closely as possible those of former days. The good fairy had completed successfully two great works: the restoration of the chateau and the building of the asylum. The inhabitants of the one would be so much the better able to foresee the needs of the other.