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'Madame, here is my client, and this matter must now be settled,' said the Jew.

At sight of Léonie, Madame de Beauvilliers shuddered. She looked at her, and saw her clad in crude colours, with coarse black hair falling over her eyebrows, her face broad and flabby, her whole person sordid and vile; and the Countess's heart was tortured, her woman's pride bled afresh after so many years of forgiveness and forgetfulness. O God of Heaven, to think it was for such creatures as this woman that her husband, the Count, had betrayed her!

The interview began. Neither Busch nor Léonie sought to mince matters, but spoke out plumply, crudely, with brazen faces. The woman was already telling her ignoble tale in a hoarse voice, spoilt by dram-drinking, whilst Busch unfolded and displayed the Count's promise to pay her ten thousand francs, when a moan came from the alcove, and Alice began stirring under her coverlet. Only one of the folding-doors was closed, and the Countess, with a gesture of anguish, hastened to shut the other one. Ah, that only her daughter might get to sleep again, see nothing, hear nothing, of all this abomination!

Léonie, however, was fairly launched, and went on with her narrative, speaking at last so impudently, so coarsely, that Madame de Beauvilliers, in furious exasperation, raised her hand to strike her.

'Be quiet! be quiet!' cried the Countess; whilst Léonie,[Pg 396] in a fright, instinctively raised her elbow to shield her face, like one accustomed to be beaten.

And then a fearful silence fell, soon broken, however, by a fresh plaint from the alcove, a low sound like that of stifled sobbing. The Countess heard it. 'Well, what do you want?' she asked, trembling and lowering her voice.

Busch thereupon intervened: 'Why, madame, this girl wants to be paid, and she is right. Your husband signed that paper, and it ought to be honoured.'

'Never will I pay such a debt.'

'Then we shall take a cab on leaving here and go to the Palais de Justice, where I shall lodge the complaint which I have already drafted, and which you can see here. In it are related all the facts which Mademoiselle has just told you.'

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'But this is abominable blackmailing; you will not do such a thing.'

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'I beg your pardon, madame, I shall do it at once. Business is business.'

Intense weariness, utter discouragement, took possession of the Countess. The last flash of pride, which had kept her up, had just given way, and all her violence, all her strength, fell with it. She clasped her hands and stammered: 'But you see to what we are reduced. Look at this room. We have nothing left; to-morrow, perhaps, we shall even lack bread to eat. Where do you expect me to get the money? Ten thousand francs, my God!'

Busch smiled, like a man accustomed to fish in such ruins. 'Oh, ladies like you always have resources! You will find the needful if you look carefully.'

For a moment he had been watching an old jewel-casket, which the Countess had left on the mantel-shelf that morning after emptying a trunk, and he scented the precious stones within it with unfailing instinct. His eyes shone indeed with such a flame that Madame de Beauvilliers followed the direction of his glance, and understood. 'No, no!' she cried: 'the jewels, never!'

She seized hold of the casket as if to defend it. Those last jewels which had so long been in the family, those few[Pg 397] jewels which she had kept through periods of the greatest embarrassment as her daughter's only dowry, and which now were her final resource! Part with them? 'Never! I would rather give my flesh,' she cried.

But just then there was a diversion; Madame Caroline knocked and entered. She arrived in a distracted state, and stopped short in astonishment at the scene upon which she had fallen. In a few words she asked the Countess not to disturb herself, and would have gone away but for a supplicating gesture from the poor woman, which she thought she could understand. So she remained there, motionless, apart from the others, at the further end of the room.

Busch had just put on his hat again, while Léonie, more and more ill at ease, went towards the door.

'Then, madame, there is nothing left for us but to retire,' said the Jew.