Read CHAPTER XXX - THE VEILED PORTRAIT of The Champdoce Mystery , free online book, by Emile Gaboriau, on ReadCentral.com.

The danger with which Andre was menaced was most terrible, and the importance of the game he was playing made him feel that he had everything to fear from the boldness and audacity of his enemies.  He knew this, and he also knew that spies dogged all his movements.  What could be wanted but a favorable opportunity to assassinate him.  But even this knowledge did not make him hesitate for an instant, and all his caution was fully exercised, for he felt that should he perish, Sabine would be inevitably lost.  On her account he acted with a prudence which was certainly not one of his general characteristics.  He was quite aware that he might put himself under the protection of the police, but this he knew would be to imperil the honor of the Mussidan family.  He was sure that with time and patience he should be able to unravel the plots of the villains who were at work.  But he had not time to do so by degrees.  No, he must make a bold dash at once.  The hideous sacrifice of which Sabine was to be the victim was being hurried on, and it seemed to him as if his very existence was being carried away by the hours as they flitted by.  He went over recent events carefully one by one, and he strove to piece them together as a child does the portions of a dissected map.  He wanted to find out the one common interest that bound all these plotters together — Verminet, Van Klopen, Mascarin, Hortebise, and Martin Rigal.  As he submitted all this strange combination of persons to the test, the thought of Gaston de Gandelu came across his mind.

“Is it not curious,” thought he, “that this unhappy boy should be the victim of the cruel band of miscreants who are trying to destroy us?  It is strange, very strange.”

Suddenly he started to his feet, for a fresh idea had flashed across his brain — a thought that was as yet but crude and undefined, but which seemed to bear the promise of hope and deliverance.  It seemed to him that the affair of young Gandelu was closely connected with his own, that they were part and parcel of the same dark plot, and that these bills with their forged acceptance had more to do with him than he had ever imagined.  How it was that he and Gaston could be connected he could not for a moment guess; yet now he would have cheerfully sworn that such was the case.  Who was it that had informed the father of the son’s conduct?  Why, Catenac.  Who had advised that proceedings should be taken against Rose, alias Zora?  Why, Catenac again; and this same man, in addition to acting for Gandelu, it seems, was also the confidential solicitor of the Marquis de Croisenois and Verminet.  Perhaps he had only obeyed their instructions.  All this was very vague and unsatisfactory, but it might be something to go upon, and who could say what conclusion careful inquiry might not lead him to? and Andre determined to carry on his investigations, and endeavor to find the hidden links that connected this chain of rascality together.  He had taken up a pencil with the view of making a few notes, when he heard a knock at his door.  He glanced at the clock; it was not yet nine.

“Come in,” cried he as he rose.

The door was thrown open, and the young artist started as he recognized in his early visitor the father of Sabine.  It was after a sleepless night that the Count had decided to take the present step.  He was terribly agitated, but had had time to prepare himself for this all-important interview.

“You will, I trust, pardon me, sir,” said he, “for making such an early call upon you, but I thought that I should be sure to find you at this hour, and much wanted to see you.”

Andre bowed.

In the space of one brief instant a thousand suppositions, each one more unlikely than the other, coursed through his brain.  Why had the Count called?  Who could have given him his address?  And was the visit friendly or hostile?

“I am a great admirer of paintings,” began the Count, “and one of my friends upon whose taste I can rely has spoken to me in the warmest terms of your talent.  This I trust will explain the liberty I have taken.  Curiosity drove me to — ”

He paused for a moment, and then added, —

“My name is the Marquis de Bevron.”

The concealment of the Count’s real name showed Andre that the visit was not entirely a friendly one, and Andre replied, —

“I am only too pleased to receive your visit.  Unfortunately just now I have nothing ready, only a few rough sketches in short.  Would you like to see them?”

The Count replied eagerly in the affirmative.  He was terribly embarrassed under his fictitious name, and shrank before the honest, open gaze of the young artist, and his mental disturbance was completed by seeing in one corner of the room the picture covered with a green cloth, which Tantaine had alluded to.  It was evident that the old villain had told the truth, and that his daughter’s portrait was concealed behind this wrapper.  She had evidently been here — had spent hours here, and whose fault was it?  She had but listened to the voice of her heart, and had sought that affection abroad which she was unable to obtain at home.  As the Count gazed upon the young man before him, he was forced to admit that Mademoiselle Sabine had not fixed her affections on an unworthy object, for at the very first glance he had been struck with the manly beauty of the young artist, and the clear intelligence of his face.

“Ah,” thought Andre, “you come to me under a name that is not your own, and I will respect your wish to remain unknown, but I will take advantage of it by letting you know things which I should not dare say to your face.”

Great as was Andre’s preoccupation, he could not fail to notice that his visitor’s eyes sought the veiled picture with strange persistency.  While M. de Mussidan was looking at the various sketches on the walls, Andre had time to recover all his self-command.

“Let me congratulate you, sir,” remarked the Count, as he returned to the spot where the painter was standing.  “My friend’s admiration was well founded.  I am sorry, however, that you have nothing finished to show me.  You say that you have nothing, I believe?”

“Nothing, Marquis.”

“Not even that picture whose frame I can distinguish through the serge curtain that covers it?”

Andre blushed, though he had been expecting the question from the commencement.

“Excuse me,” answered he; “that picture is certainly finished, but it is not on view.”

The Count was now sure that Tantaine’s statement was correct.

“I suppose that it is some woman’s portrait,” remarked the false Marquis.

“You are quite correct.”

Both men were much agitated at this moment, and avoided meeting each other’s eyes.

The Count, however, had made up his mind that he would go on to the end.

“Ah, you are in love, I see!” remarked he with a forced laugh.  “All great artists have depicted the charms of their mistresses on canvas.”

“Stop,” cried Andre with an angry glance in his eyes.  “The picture you refer to is the portrait of the purest and most innocent girl in the world.  I shall love her all my life; but, if possible, my respect for her is greater than my love.  I should consider myself a most degraded wretch, had I ever whispered in her ear a word that her mother might not have listened to.”

A feeling of the most instantaneous relief thrilled through M. de Mussidan’s heart.

“You will pardon me,” suggested he blandly, “but when one sees a portrait in a studio, the inference is that a sitting or two has taken place?”

“You are right.  She came here secretly, and without the knowledge of her family, at the risk of her honor and reputation, thus affording me the strongest proof of her love.  It was cruel of me,” continued the young artist, “to accept this proof of her entire devotion, and yet not only did I accept it, but I pleaded for it on my bended knee, for how else was I to hear the music of her voice, or gladden my eyes with her beauty?  We love each other, but a gulf wider than the stormy sea divides us.  She is an heiress, come of a proud and haughty line of nobles, while I — ”

Andre paused, waiting for some words wither of encouragement or censure; but the Count remained silent, and the young man continued, —

“Do you know who I am?  A poor foundling, placed in the Hospital of Vendome, the illicit offspring of some poor betrayed girl.  I started in the world with twenty francs in my pocket, and found my way to Paris; since then I have earned my bread by my daily work.  You only see here the more brilliant side of my life; for an artist here — I am a common work-man elsewhere.”

If M. de Mussidan remained silent, it was from extreme admiration of the noble character, which was so unexpectedly revealed to him, and he was endeavoring to conceal it.

“She knows all this,” pursued Andre, “and yet she loves me.  It was here, in this very room, that she vowed that she could never be the wife of another.  Not a month ago, a gentleman, well born, wealthy, and fascinating, with every characteristic that a woman could love, was a suitor for her hand.  She went boldly to him, told him the story of our love, and, like a noble-hearted gentleman, he withdrew at once, and to-day is my best and kindest friend.  Now, Marquis, would you like to see this young girl’s picture?”

“Yes,” answered the Count, “and I shall feel deeply grateful to you for such a mark of confidence.”

Andre went to the picture, but as he touched the curtain he turned quickly towards his visitor.

“No,” said he, “I can no longer continue this farce; it is unworthy of me.”

M. de Mussidan turned pale.

“I am about to see Sabine de Mussidan’s portrait.  Draw the curtain.”

Andre obeyed, and for a moment the Count stood entranced before the work of genius that met his eyes.

“It is she!” said the father.  “Her very smile; the same soft light in her eyes.  It is exquisite!”

Misfortune is a harsh teacher; some weeks ago he would have smiled superciliously at the mere idea of granting his daughter’s hand to a struggling artist, for then he thought only of M. de Breulh, but now he would have esteemed it a precious boon had he been allowed to choose Andre as Sabine’s husband.  But Henri de Croisenois stood in the way, and as this idea flashed across the Count’s mind he gave a perceptible start.  He was sure from the excessive calmness of the young man that he must be well acquainted with all recent events.  He asked the question, and Andre, in the most open manner, told him all he knew.  The generosity of M. de Breulh, the kindness of Madame Bois Arden, his suspicions, his inquiries, his projects, and his hopes.  M. de Mussidan gazed once more upon his daughter’s portrait, and then taking the hand of the young painter, said, —

“M.  Andre, if ever we can free ourselves from those miscreants, whose daggers are pointed at our hearts, Sabine shall be your wife.”