"I can't believe it," said I, "for I know the two last noblemen to be both rich and generous. There must be some good reason for their conduct, since you are beautiful; and for these gentlemen beauty is a bill to be honoured on sight."
"Yes, there is a reason. These rich noblemen abandon us with contempt. They refuse to take pity on us because we refuse to yield to their guilty passion."
"That is to say, they have taken a fancy to you, and as you will not have pity on them they refuse to have pity on you. Is it not so?"
"That is exactly the situation."
"Then I think they are in the right."
"In the right?"
"Yes, I am quite of their opinion. We leave you to enjoy your sense of virtue, and we spend our money in procuring those favours which you refuse us. Your misfortune really is your prettiness, if you were ugly you would get twenty guineas fast enough. I would give you the money myself, and the action would be put down to benevolence; whereas, as the case stands, if I were to give you anything it would be thought that I was actuated by the hope of favours to come, and I should be laughed at, and deservedly, as a dupe."
I felt that this was the proper way to speak to the girl, whose eloquence in pleading her cause was simply wonderful.
She did not reply to my oration, and I asked her how she came to know me.
"I saw you at Richmond with the Charpillon."
"She cost me two thousand guineas, and I got nothing for my money; but I have profited by the lesson, and in future I shall never pay in advance."
Just then her mother called her, and, begging me to wait a moment, she went into her room, and returned almost directly with the request that I would come and speak to the invalid.
I found her sitting up in her bed; she looked about forty-five, and still preserved traces of her former beauty; her countenance bore the imprint of sadness, but had no marks of sickness whatsoever. Her brilliant and expressive eyes, her intellectual face, and a suggestion of craft about her, all bade me be on my guard, and a sort of false likeness to the Charpillon's mother made me still more cautious, and fortified me in my resolution to give no heed to the appeals of pity.
"Madam," I began, "what can I do for you?"
"Sir," she replied, "I have heard the whole of your conversations with my daughters, and you must confess that you have not talked to them in a very fatherly manner."
"Quite so, but the only part which I desire to play with them is that of lover, and a fatherly style would not have been suitable to the part. If I had the happiness of being their father, the case would be altered. What I have said to your daughters is what I feel, and what I think most likely to bring about the end I have in view. I have not the slightest pretence to virtue, but I adore the fair sex, and now you and they know the road to my purse. If they wish to preserve their virtue, why let them; nobody will trouble them, and they, on their side, must not expect anything from men. Good-bye, madam; you may reckon on my never addressing your daughters again."
"Wait a moment, sir. My husband was the Count of ----, and you see that my daughters are of respectable birth."
"Have you not pity for our situation?"
"I pity you extremely, and I would relieve you in an instant if your daughters were ugly, but as it is they are pretty, and that alters the case."
"What an argument!"
"It is a very strong one with me, and I think I am the best judge of arguments which apply to myself. You want twenty guineas; well, you shall have them after one of your five countesses has spent a joyous night with me."
"What language to a woman of my station! Nobody has ever dared to speak to me in such a way before."
"Pardon me, but what use is rank without a halfpenny? Allow me to retire.
"To-day we have only bread to eat."
"Well, certainly that is rather hard on countesses."
"You are laughing at the title, apparently."
"Yes, I am; but I don't want to offend you.