“I will do what you wish me to do, sir.”
The old gentleman uttered a low cry of delight, as if he had been relieved of an overwhelming anxiety.
“Then,” he said, “we will begin the campaign tomorrow morning. But we must know exactly who the enemies are whom we have to meet. Listen, therefore!”
It struck midnight; but the poor people in the little parlor in the Hotel du Louvre hardly thought of sleep. How could they have become aware of the flight of time, as long as all their faculties were bent upon the immense interests that were at stake? On the struggle which they were about to undertake depended Count Ville-Handry’s life and honor, and the happiness and whole future life of Daniel and Henrietta.
And Papa Ravinet and his sister had said,—“As for us, even more than that depends upon it.” The old dealer, therefore, drew up an easy-chair, sat down, and began in a somewhat husky voice,—
“The Countess Sarah is not Sarah Brandon, and is not an American. Her real name, by which she was known up to her sixteenth year, is Ernestine Bergot; and she was born in Paris, in the suburb of Saint Martin, just on the line of the corporation. To tell you in detail what the first years of Sarah were like would be difficult indeed. There are things of that kind which do not bear being mentioned. Her childhood might be her excuse, if she could be excused at all.
“Her mother was one of those unfortunate women of whom Paris devours every year several thousands; who come from the provinces in wooden shoes, and are seen, six months later, dressed in all the fashion; and who live a short, gay life, which invariably ends in the hospital.
“Her mother was neither better nor worse than the rest. When her daughter came, she had neither the sense to part with her, nor the courage—perhaps (who knows?) she had not the means—to mend her ways. Thus the little one grew up by God’s mercy, but at the Devil’s bidding, living by chance, now stuffed with sweet things, and now half-killed by blows, fed by the charity of neighbors, while her mother remained for weeks absent from her lodgings.
“Four years old, she wandered through the neighborhood dressed in fragments of silk or velvet, with a faded ribbon in her hair, but with bare feet in her torn shoes, hoarse, and shivering with severe colds,—very much after the fashion of lost dogs, who rove around open-air cooking-shops,—and looking in the gutters for cents with which to buy fried potatoes or spoilt fruit.