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However this might be, one brother alternately remained at home, whilst the other bent his way to the bridge that used to cross the Rue de la Mer when a canal ran through it—on this bridge to post himself indifferently in the summer or more inclement seasons, to ask alms from every decent passenger, plying a thankless trade from break of day until the waters reflected dimly the decaying light.
The appearance of these two misers,—though wretched in the extreme, half clothed and fed, the hungry look of their tribe upon them, the compressed and indrawn life, the clutching grasp of the long, lean, withered hand closing on every cent with all the strength left in the attenuated body,—had nevertheless in it an air of decayed gentility, which, despite the offensive whine of mendicity, induced most passengers to drop a little solid charity into the eager palm of either beggar—I say their appearance, for in the gaunt famine-struck form, in features, voice, even in the pace of person, one could not be identified apart from the other, save after close and minute observation.
It might have been a curious spectacle to have watched these two wretched old men after the entrance of him who had been plying his productive trade upon the bridge; the quiet grim smile with which he counted his day's gain into the other's hand; the mutual satisfaction with which it was added to the contents of the wooden trunk already so weighty with copper coin, that no single man could raise it. Then would they silently sit down to the supper which he at home had prepared. Stale fish, the refuse of some neighbour's dinner; or, as a luxury on fete days, a boiled morsel of hall-dried pork, of which they previously devoured the fat and fragrant soup, formed the materials of this repast. With such dainty fare, their equanimity of temper was unlikely to be disturbed by the intrusion of visitors; nor were they ever known to ask a neighbour into their room. It was a curious fact, that even a hungry dog never whined to them for food; it would seem the wretched curs were disciples of Lavater, that they looked in the pinched faces of the brothers, and felt an appeal to their compassion would be vain. Their affection for each other, which appeared their strongest feeling after their love of hoarding money, was not unmingled with suspicion, for each never failed to count their valueless treasure after the other. After supper, however, came their hour of delight; then were the cold and pain and tauntings of the day forgotten; then did the bitter revilings of those without charity seem music to their very souls; a genial heat warmed the lagging blood in their shrunk veins; the triumph, not less delicious because untold, was theirs. A turbaned monarch of a land of slaves has less his soul's desire gratified, than our two humble, despised, and solitary men, when, after renewed examination of the well-secured door and windows, first by one and then another pair of peering grey eyes, the coffer before mentioned was placed on the table. Then with their stools touching each other in exquisitely delicious approximation, the iron box was opened, and the misers began to count their gold; the feeble glimmer of an ill-fed lamp lighting a board spread with golden treasure.
Curiosity had wholly died away respecting these men, when new food was given to the gossips of the neighbourhood by the sudden introduction of a beautiful high-spirited girl, the newly acknowledged daughter of the younger of the misers. Of all the possible additions to this confined family circle,none could seem so utterly inappropriate.
It appeared from the unwary prattle of the girl to the neighbours that she had been placed at school from her earliest recollections by an old childless lady, whose companion her mother had been, who had died in giving her birth. Whatever, in other respects, the conduct of her father, it was known after the old lady's death, that at least he had so far acted honourably as to have made the young woman his wife. The property of her benefactress died with her; and thus the child of her adoption became, from a free, gay, petted girl, delighting in the sunshiny air, the inmate of a dwelling far more gloomy than a cloister, for there the mind may make its own creations of delight; whereas the moral gloom that invests the covetous and niggardly mind poisons every healthful spring of existence, nor fails to exercise its pestilential and restrictive power over the brightest natures subject to its influence.
At first the young girl wept and prayed, entreated with soft, childish pleadings, and then stamped with passion, haughtily demanding as a right, sufficient food and clothing, and free egress, in lieu of wretched fare and rags, and unwholesome confinement; but when she found that neither passionate nor gentle sorrow moved either father or uncle to the slightest variation of expression in speech or feature, a sort of numbness fell upon her mind. A " go to, child, you cost enough already, you are no offspring of mine to love such wanton waste, but you will learn better;" then a feeble falling back upon his seat, and a murmur, was all the reply she usually received, "Why did the old fool die, to send this plague upon me in mine old age," was the most sensible impression Rebecca ever contrived to make. Finding that her own more ductile and youthful mind must bend or break against the stony coffer of a miser's heart, the girl suddenly seemed to change her character; and from haughty sullenness and violent reproaches, to sink into no ungentle if enforced acquiescence. Famished with hunger, she at length learned to partake of their distasteful meal, and sought on every occasion to exert thewisdom of the weak against the strong. The contest might in the end have proved unequal; but as her years ripened, a woman's intelligence, that precocious tact by which she supplies and sometimes outstrips the stronger judgment of the other sex, assisted her with its availing power. It is true that cunning and subterfuge were her only weapons; but as she was of an unshrinking temper, and as firm and implacable, in her own way, as her sire, she only disguised her hatred of home and its inmates, to find a fitting occasion to prove it. It was not singular that a temper by nature unconciliatory should be driven to cunning for its defence, and to hate those who made such defence necessary; but it was, indeed, singular that the misers never sought to send her from them to earn subsistence for herself, a boon she ardently implored. She thought it was cruelty that denied this to her, but it might be that these rigid and penurious men found a kind of satisfaction in gazing on the faultless face of their young relation, in watching the movements that perfect formation rather than early instruction rendered purely graceful; and they might derive an affectionate and pleasurable pride from the sensation that their blood flowed in the veins of so fair a creature. Fair, indeed, was the appropriate term to apply to her, for the bloom that almost dyed her cheek on her first arrival soon disappeared with hard fare and confinement; and though her spirit ultimately rose from its first depression, the bloom had departed for ever. Still no one could look upon a countenance moulded to the most delicate and purest beauty, though unsmiling and condensed in its expression, without admiration, and that sort of delight which the initiated feel on examining a fine picture. Little as Rebecca was suffered to quit her home, it was nevertheless sometimes necessary to allow her to go to mass; and as it would have interfered with the daily monotonous employments of the misers to accompany her, it was usual to suffer her on such occasions to depart alone, with injunctions somewhat similar to those which Shylock addresses to Jessica: and they were as admirably obeyed. Instead of going to mass, Rebecca sought in every casual acquaintance some relief from the disease-like oppression that at home was her constant suffering. At home she was her own centre, all her thoughts revolved round herself to harden her to the most callous selfishness. Sympathy with the misers was impossible; but it was no worse an evil to love the accumulation of gold than to lose all power of sympathy with the joy and grief of others. Rebecca possessed no youthful feelings, compression had killed them, and the result was fatal to her character and happiness. The temptations she encountered to change her mode of life for one more luxurious were not unfrequent; it was not the vice of the life offered to her choice, nor its shame and loneliness, nor its corruption and induration of the heart, that deterred her from adopting it; for she felt so utterly degraded by her present state and occupation, that she thought it impossible to sink lower in the scale of humanity. But she was guarded by that passion which alike leads to crime and guards from evil, in its various power too often omnipotent, especially with women. It would have been ahappy accident had the man she loved proved worthy of her affection—he might have exerted a beneficial influence over her destiny. The chances were not, however, in this unhappy girl's favour.
Struck with her beauty, a young man, of open and prepossessing appearance, followed her home. An acquaintance commenced under such circumstances could scarcely prove fortunate in its results. It was but natural that one unused to even words of kindness, the common coin of affection, should affix an undue value to passionate love and admiration—il seemed to raise her to herself, and for this fanciful elevation she felt deeply grateful. From her childhood the fountain of affection had been closed, but the weight that had kept down its waters was suddenly removed, and they bubbled up, threatening to overwhelm and astonish by their lavish waste. The mixture of pain, however, always associated with the pleasure of a maiden's first affection, added to her habit of suppressing the outward expression of her most innocent thoughts, restrained her for a length of time from the confession of her love, and thus probably increased the passion of her lawless and abandoned lover.
We will not pursue the history of their unholy loves, but come at once to its result and the conclusion of our tale.
One stormy night, when the raging winds that howled through the air, the roaring thunder and beating rain, made such a confusion of noise as to render all other sound inaudible, Rebecca opened the casement of the closet within the room where the misers slept with their treasure, and silently admitted her lover through this entrance. It was the dead hour of night; the storm that raged without, alone might have appalled the hardiest; yet Rebecca's stern pale face, just discernible by the light of a lantern her lover held, exhibited no fear of the elemental war, her whole anxiety appeared lest Albert should be heard by the sleepers within. Of this there was little chance ; and after closing the window, she stole softly to her lover's side. "Are you determined ?" she asked inquiringly. "Resolved," was hiscold reply; and placing the dark lantern in her hand, he commanded her instantly to lead the way. The door that separated her closet from the misers' room was shut, and she opened it slowly and with difficulty. "Shall I go alone?" said Albert, who fancied her hand trembled. "Incur danger alone?" said Rebecca, reproachfully— "no, no, no, I have courage—fear me not.'' They entered the chamber.
It now became evident they meditated a deed of blood, for Albert
produced a hammer, and advanced to the head of the wretched bed on which the brothers slept. The woman held the lantern, turning away her face with something of the look of that exquisite painting in the Louvre, which represents Herodias' daughter bearing St John's head on a charger ; the same disgust, not of the deed, but of the object before her; the same firmness of expression, so remarkably conjoined with feminine delicacy of outline and small accurately defined features. She heard a blow—a dead cold sound—a groan—another, and her old father was dead. A slight shudder passed through her frame, but did not disturb the pale, pure marble of her face; no other evidence did she give of emotion. In the meantime the other misei had awakened. Alarm for his gold was evidently strong as his love of life. "I have no money," he said, " I am a beggar, a poor old beggar, ninety years old—ninety years old and upwards—not a cent to bury me." Almost a smile curved Rebecca's beautiful lip. A laugh of scorn burst from the murderer as his heavy iron-armed hand fell upon the hoary head of the aged miser. But he struggled fearfully for his life and his treasure; he forced Albert's hand from his mouth, and cried for succour. One quickly stifled shriek, and the unequal struggle was over—it was the wailing of an infant in the grasp of a giant. Rebecca, during this dreadful scene, trembled violently, yet felt forced to look upon the deed ; the struggle, brief as it was, seemed to her more appalling than the silent, painless death of her own father. There were the few and difficult tears of age— the cry for help, faint and unavailing, but never unfelt, unheard, in the secret heart of the veriest ruffian trained to a trade of blood. And now all was silent, yet the guilty pair stood face to face, without power to move. The clock of the cathedral struck; the subsided storm made now every stroke distinctly toned upon the silent night. Rebecca felt appalled by this natural circumstance. One little hour since that she had counted in trembling expectation of the murderer, and she was yet guiltless of any actual crime. Now the leprosy ot guilt had spotted her sinful soul, and no hour could strike and find her innocent But a softer feeling stole upon her mind, even in this first hour of remorse; for Albert, not for self, she had surpassed her sex in strength and courage, and alas! in crime. But his love would sometimes soothe her unexpressed agony; and sometimes bright brief passages of passionate love would lend a charm even to her parricidal existence. A tear trembled on her eyelids, and hung on her dark lashes, a tear that neither filial affection nor remorse could have won from her; and she turned the full expression of her softened eyes upon Albert—his refused to meet that glance; he pointed to the bed's head, that she might take the key of the coffer from under the pillow of her murdered relatives. She silently obeyed the motion of his iv. 2 i