"I shall never know, then," thought Marguerite; "no, I shall never know. But I must know--and I will!" she added vehemently.
From that moment a firm determination to obtain that letter took possession of her mind; and so deeply was she occupied in seeking for some means to surmount the difficulties which stood in her way that she did not say a dozen words during breakfast. "I must be a fool if I can't find some way of gaining possession of that letter," she said to herself again and again. "I'm sure I could find in it the explanation of the abominable intrigue which Pascal and I are the victims of."
Happily, her preoccupation was not remarked. Each person present was too deeply engrossed in his or her own concerns to notice the behavior of the others. Madame Leon's mind was occupied with the news she had just received; and, besides, her attention was considerably attracted by some partridges garnished with truffles, and a bottle of Chateau-Laroze. For she was rather fond of good living, the dear lady, as she confessed herself, adding that no one is perfect. The General talked of nothing but a certain pair of horses which he was to look at that afternoon, and which he thought of buying--being quite disgusted with job-masters, so he declared. Besides, he expected to get the animals at a bargain, as they were the property of a young gentleman who had been led to commit certain misdemeanors by his love of gambling and his passion for a notorious woman who was addicted with an insatiable desire for jewelry.
As for Madame de Fondege, her head seemed to have been completely turned by the prospect of the approaching fete at the Countess de Commarin's. She had only a fortnight left to make her preparations. All the evening before, through part of the night, and ever since she had been awake that morning, she had been racking her brain to arrive at an effective combination of colors and materials. And at the cost of a terrible headache, she had at last conceived one of those toilettes which are sure to make a sensation, and which the newspaper reporters will mention as noticeable for its "chic." "Picture to yourself," she said, all ablaze with enthusiasm, "picture to yourself a robe of tea-flower silk, trimmed with bands of heavy holland-tinted satin, thickly embroidered with flowers. A wide flounce of Valenciennes at the bottom of the skirt. Over this, I shall wear a tunic of pearl- gray crepe, edged with a fringe of the various shades in the dress, and forming a panier behind."
But how much trouble, time and labor must be expended before such an elaborate chef-d'oeuvre could be completed! How many conferences with the dressmaker, with the florist, and the embroiderer! How many doubts, how many inevitable mistakes! Ah! there was not a moment to lose! Madame de Fondege, who was dressed to go out, and who had already sent for a carriage, insisted that Mademoiselle Marguerite should accompany her. And certainly, the General's wife deemed the proposal a seductive one. It is a very fashionable amusement to run from one shop to another, even when one cannot, or will not, buy. It is a custom, which some noble ladies have imported from America, to the despair of the poor shopkeepers. And thus every fine afternoon, the swell shops are filled to overflowing with richly-attired dames and damsels, who ask to see all the new goods. It is far more amusing than remaining at home. And when they return to dinner in the evening, after inspecting hundreds of yards of silk and satin, they are very well pleased with themselves, for they have not lost the day. Nor do the shrewdest always return from these expeditions empty- handed. A dozen gloves or a piece of lace can be hidden so easily in the folds of a mantle!
And yet, to Madame de Fondege's great surprise, Marguerite declined the invitation. "I have so many things to put in order," she added, feeling that an excuse was indispensable.
But Madame Leon, who had not the same reasons as her dear child for wishing to remain at home, kindly offered her services. She was acquainted with several of the best shops, she declared, particularly with the establishment of a dealer in laces, in the Rue de Mulhouse, and thanks to an introduction from her, Madame de Fondege could not fail to conclude a very advantageous bargain there. "Very well," replied Madame de Fondege, "I will take you with me, then; but make haste and dress while I put on my bonnet."
They left the breakfast-room at the same time, closely followed by Mademoiselle Marguerite, who was disturbed by a hope which she scarcely dared confess to herself. With her forehead resting against the wall, and her eye peering through the tiny crack, she watched her governess change her dress, throw a shawl over her shoulders, put on her best bonnet, and, after a glance at the looking-glass, rush from the room, exclaiming: "Here I am, my dear countess. I'm ready."