M. Lantin had met the young woman at a soiree, at the home of the assistant chief of his bureau, and at first sight had fallen madly in love with her.
She was the daughter of a country physician who had died some months previously. She had come to live in Paris, with her mother, who visited much among her acquaintances, in the hope of making a favorable marriage for her daughter. They were poor and honest, quiet and unaffected.
The young girl was a perfect type of the virtuous woman whom every sensible young man dreams of one day winning for life. Her simple beauty had the charm of angelic modesty, and the imperceptible smile which constantly hovered about her lips seemed to be the reflection of a pure and lovely soul. Her praises resounded on every side. People were never tired of saying: "Happy the man who wins her love! He could not find a better wife."
Now M. Lantin enjoyed a snug little income of $700, and, thinking he could safely assume the responsibilities of matrimony, proposed to this model young girl and was accepted.
He was unspeakably happy with her; she governed his household so cleverly and economically that they seemed to live in luxury. She lavished the most delicate attentions on her husband, coaxed and fondled him, and the charm of her presence was so great that six years after their marriage M. Lantin discovered that he loved his wife even more than during the first days of their honeymoon.
He only felt inclined to blame her for two things: her love of the theater, and a taste for false jewelry. Her friends (she was acquainted with some officers' wives) frequently procured for her a box at the theater, often for the first representations of the new plays; and her husband was obliged to accompany her, whether he willed or not, to these amusements, though they bored him excessively after a day's labor at the office.
After a time, M. Lantin begged his wife to get some lady of her acquaintance to accompany her. She was at first opposed to such an arrangement; but, after much persuasion on his part, she finally consented--to the infinite delight of her husband.
Now, with her love for the theater came also the desire to adorn her person. True, her costumes remained as before, simple, and in the most correct taste; but she soon began to ornament her ears with huge rhinestones which glittered and sparkled like real diamonds. Around her neck she wore strings of false pearls, and on her arms bracelets of imitation gold.
Her husband frequently remonstrated with her, saying:
"My dear, as you cannot afford to buy real diamonds, you ought to appear adorned with your beauty and modesty alone, which are the rarest ornaments of your sex."
But she would smile sweetly, and say:
"What can I do? I am so fond of jewelry. It is my only weakness. We cannot change our natures."
Then she would roll the pearl necklaces around her fingers, and hold up the bright gems for her husband's admiration, gently coaxing him:
"Look! are they not lovely? One would swear they were real."
M. Lantin would then answer, smilingly:
"You have Bohemian tastes, my dear."
Often of an evening, when they were enjoying a tete-a-tete by the fireside, she would place on the tea table the leather box containing the "trash," as M. Lantin called it. She would examine the false gems with a passionate attention as though they were in some way connected with a deep and secret joy; and she often insisted on passing a necklace around her husband's neck, and laughing heartily would exclaim: "How droll you look!" Then she would throw herself into his arms and kiss him affectionately.
One evening in winter she attended the opera, and on her return was chilled through and through. The next morning she coughed, and eight days later she died of inflammation of the lungs.
M. Lantin's despair was so great that his hair became white in one month. He wept unceasingly; his heart was torn with grief, and his mind was haunted by the remembrance, the smile, the voice--by every charm of his beautiful, dead wife.
Time, the healer, did not assuage his grief. Often during office hours, while his colleagues were discussing the topics of the day, his eyes would suddenly fill with tears, and he would give vent to his grief in heartrending sobs. Everything in his wife's room remained as before her decease; and here he was wont to seclude himself daily and think of her who had been his treasure--the joy of his existence.
But life soon became a struggle. His income, which in the hands of his wife had covered all household expenses, was now no longer sufficient for his own immediate wants; and he wondered how she could have managed to buy such excellent wines, and such rare delicacies, things which he could no longer procure with his modest resources.
He incurred some debts and was soon reduced to absolute poverty. One morning, finding himself without a cent in his pocket, he resolved to sell something, and, immediately, the thought occurred to him of disposing of his wife's paste jewels. He cherished in his heart a sort of rancor against the false gems. They had always irritated him in the past, and the very sight of them spoiled somewhat the memory of his lost darling.
To the last days of her life, she had continued to make purchases; bringing home new gems almost every evening. He decided to sell the heavy necklace which she seemed to prefer, and which, he thought, ought to be worth about six or seven francs; for although paste it was, nevertheless, of very fine workmanship.
He put it in his pocket and started out in search of a jeweler's shop. He entered the first one he saw--feeling a little ashamed to expose his misery, and also to offer such a worthless article for sale.
"Sir," said he to the merchant, "I would like to know what this is worth."
The man took the necklace, examined it, called his clerk and made some remarks in an undertone; then he put the ornament back on the counter, and looked at it from a distance to judge of the effect.
M. Lantin was annoyed by all this detail and was on the point of saying: "Oh! I know well enough it is not worth anything," when the jeweler said: "Sir, that necklace is worth from twelve to fifteen thousand francs; but I could not buy it unless you tell me now whence it comes."
The widower opened his eyes wide and remained gaping, not comprehending the merchant's meaning. Finally he stammered:. "You say--are you sure?" The other replied dryly: "You can search elsewhere and see if anyone will offer you more. I consider it worth fifteen thousand at the most. Come back here if you cannot do better."
M. Lantin, beside himself with astonishment, took up the necklace and left the store. He wished time for reflection.
Once outside, he felt inclined to laugh, and said to himself: "The fool! Had I only taken him at his word! That jeweler cannot distinguish real diamonds from paste."
A few minutes after, he entered another store in the Rue de la Paix. As soon as the proprietor glanced at the necklace, he cried out:
"Ah, parbleu! I know it well; it was bought here."
M. Lantin was disturbed, and asked:
"How much is it worth?"
"Well, I sold it for twenty thousand francs. I am willing to take it back for eighteen thousand when you inform me, according to our legal formality, how it comes to be in your possession."
This time M. Lantin was dumfounded. He replied:
"But--but--examine it well. Until this moment I was under the impression that it was paste."
Said the jeweler:
"What is your name, sir?"
"Lantin--I am in the employ of the Minister of the Interior. I live at No. 16 Rue des Martyrs."
The merchant looked through his books, found the entry, and said: "That necklace was sent to Mme. Lantin's address, 16 Rue des Martyrs, July 20, 1876."
The two men looked into each other's eyes--the widower speechless with astonishment, the jeweler scenting a thief. The latter broke the silence by saying:
"Will you leave this necklace here for twenty-four hours? I will give you a receipt."
"Certainly," answered M. Lantin, hastily. Then, putting the ticket in his pocket, he left the store.
He wandered aimlessly through the streets, his mind in a state of dreadful confusion. He tried to reason, to understand. His wife could not afford to purchase such a costly ornament. Certainly not. But, then, it must have been a present!--a present!--a present from whom? Why was it given her?
He stopped and remained standing in the middle of the street. A horrible doubt entered his mind--she? Then all the other gems must have been presents, too! The earth seemed to tremble beneath him,--the tree before him was falling--throwing up his arms, he fell to the ground, unconscious. He recovered his senses in a pharmacy into which the passers-by had taken him, and was then taken to his home. When he arrived he shut himself up in his room and wept until nightfall. Finally, overcome with fatigue, he threw himself on the bed, where he passed an uneasy, restless night.
The following morning he arose and prepared to go to the office. It was hard to work after such a, shock. He sent a letter to his employer requesting to be excused. Then he remembered that he had to return to the jeweler's. He did not like the idea; but he could not leave the necklace with that man. So he dressed and went out.
It was a lovely day; a clear blue sky smiled on the busy city below, and men of leisure were strolling about with their hands in their pockets.
Observing them, M. Lantin said to himself: "The rich, indeed, are happy. With money it is possible to forget even the deepest sorrow. One can go where one pleases, and in travel find that distraction which is the surest cure for grief. Oh! if I were only rich!"
He began to feel hungry, but his pocket was empty. He again remembered the necklace. Eighteen thousand francs! Eighteen thousand francs! What a sum!
He soon arrived in the Rue de la Paix, opposite the jeweler's. Eighteen thousand francs! Twenty times he resolved to go in, but shame kept him back. He was hungry, however,--very hungry, and had not a cent in his pocket. He decided quickly, ran across the street in order not to have time for reflection, and entered the store.
The proprietor immediately came forward, and politely offered him a chair; the clerks glanced at him knowingly.
"I have made inquiries, M. Lantin," said the jeweler, "and if you are still resolved to dispose of the gems, I am ready to pay you the price I offered."
"Certainly, sir," stammered M. Lantin.
Whereupon the proprietor took from a drawer eighteen large bills, counted and handed them to M. Lantin, who signed a receipt and with a trembling hand put the money into his pocket.
As he was about to leave the store, he turned toward the merchant, who still wore the same knowing smile, and lowering his eyes, said:
"I have--I have other gems which I have received from the same source. Will you buy them also?"
The merchant bowed: "Certainly, sir."
M. Lantin said gravely: "I will bring them to you." An hour later he returned with the gems.
The large diamond earrings were worth twenty thousand francs; the bracelets thirty-five thousand; the rings, sixteen thousand; a set of emeralds and sapphires, fourteen thousand; a gold chain with solitaire pendant, forty thousand--making the sum of one hundred and forty-three thousand francs.
The jeweler remarked, jokingly:
"There was a person who invested all her earnings in precious stones."
M. Lantin replied, seriously:
"It is only another way of investing one's money."
That day he lunched at Voisin's and drank wine worth twenty francs a bottle. Then he hired a carriage and made a tour of the Bois, and as he scanned the various turn-outs with a contemptuous air he could hardly refrain from crying out to the occupants:
"I, too, am rich!--I am worth two hundred thousand francs."
Suddenly he thought of his employer. He drove up to the office, and entered gaily, saying:
"Sir, I have come to resign my position. I have just inherited three hundred thousand francs."
He shook hands with his former colleagues and confided to them some of his projects for the future; then he went off to dine at the Cafe Anglais.
He seated himself beside a gentleman of aristocratic bearing, and during the meal informed the latter confidentially that he had just inherited a fortune of four hundred thousand francs.
For the first time in his life he was not bored at the theater, and spent the remainder of the night in a gay frolic.
Six months afterward he married again. His second wife was a very virtuous woman, with a violent temper. She caused him much sorrow.