Then one day our eyes met: not in a fashionable restaurant, I may tell you, but in a discreet one situated on the slopes of Montmartre. I was there alone, sipping a cup of coffee after a frugal dinner. I had drifted in there chiefly because I had quite accidentally caught sight of M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour walking arm-in-arm up the Rue Lepic with a lady who was both youthful and charming—a well-known dancer at the opera. Presently I saw him turn into that discreet little restaurant, where, in very truth, it was not likely that Mme. la Marquise would follow him. But I did. What made me do it, I cannot say; but for some time now it had been my wish to make the personal acquaintance of M. de Firmin-Latour, and I lost no opportunity which might help me to attain this desire.
Somehow the man interested me. His social and financial position was peculiar, you will admit, and here, methought, was the beginning of an adventure which might prove the turning-point in his career and . . . my opportunity. I was not wrong, as you will presently see. Whilst silently eating my simple dinner, I watched M. de Firmin-Latour.
He had started the evening by being very gay; he had ordered champagne and a succulent meal, and chatted light-heartedly with his companion, until presently three young women, flashily dressed, made noisy irruption into the restaurant.
M. de Firmin-Latour's friend hailed them, introduced them to him, and soon he was host, not to one lady, but to four, and instead of two dinners he had to order five, and more champagne, and then dessert—peaches, strawberries, bonbons, liqueurs, flowers, and what not, until I could see that the bill which presently he would be called upon to pay would amount to far more than his quarterly allowance from Mme. la Marquise, far more, presumably, than he had in his pocket at the present moment.
My brain works with marvellous rapidity, as you know. Already I had made up my mind to see the little comedy through to the end, and I watched with a good deal of interest and some pity the clouds of anxiety gathering over M. de Firmin-Latour's brow.
The dinner party lasted some considerable time; then the inevitable cataclysm occurred. The ladies were busy chattering and rouging their lips when the bill was presented. They affected to see and hear nothing: it is a way ladies have when dinner has to be paid for; but I saw and heard everything. The waiter stood by, silent and obsequious at first, whilst M. le Marquis hunted through all his pockets. Then there was some whispered colloquy, and the waiter's attitude lost something of its correct dignity. After that the proprietor was called, and the whispered colloquy degenerated into altercation, whilst the ladies—not at all unaware of the situation—giggled amongst themselves. Finally, M. le Marquis offered a promissory note, which was refused.
Then it was that our eyes met. M. de Firmin-Latour had flushed to the roots of his hair. His situation was indeed desperate, and my opportunity had come. With consummate sang-froid, I advanced towards the agitated group composed of M. le Marquis, the proprietor, and the head waiter. I glanced at the bill, the cause of all this turmoil, which reposed on a metal salver in the head waiter's hand, and with a brief:
"If M. le Marquis will allow me . . ." I produced my pocket-book.
The bill was for nine hundred francs.
At first M. le Marquis thought that I was about to pay it—and so did the proprietor of the establishment, who made a movement as if he would lie down on the floor and lick my boots. But not so. To begin with, I did not happen to possess nine hundred francs, and if I did, I should not Have been fool enough to lend them to this young scapegrace. No! What I did was to extract from my notebook a card, one of a series which I always keep by me in case of an emergency like the present one. It bore the legend: "Comte Hercule de Montjoie, secretaire particulier de M. le Duc d'Otrante," and below it the address, "Palais du Commissariat de Police, 12 Quai d'Orsay." This card I presented with a graceful flourish of the arm to the proprietor of the establishment, whilst I said with that lofty self-assurance which is one of my finest attributes and which I have never seen equalled:
"M. le Marquis is my friend. I will be guarantee for this trifling amount."
The proprietor and head waiter stammered excuses. Private secretary of M. le Duc d'Otrante! Think of it! It is not often that such personages deign to frequent the .restaurants of Montmartre. M. le Marquis, on the other hand, looked completely bewildered, whilst I, taking advantage of the situation, seized him familiarly by the arm, and leading him toward the door, I said with condescending urbanity:
"One word with you, my dear Marquis. It is so long since we have met."
I bowed to the ladies.
"Mesdames," I said, and was gratified to see that they followed my dramatic exit with eyes of appreciation and of wonder. The proprietor himself offered me my hat, and a moment or two later M. de Firmin-Latour and I were out together in the Rue Lepic.
"My dear Comte," he said as soon as he had recovered his breath, "how can I think you? . . ."
"Not now, Monsieur, not now," I replied. "You have only just time to make your way as quickly as you can back to your palace in the Rue de Grammont before our friend the proprietor discovers the several mistakes which he has made in the past few minutes and vents his wrath upon your fair guests."
"You are right," he rejoined lightly. "But I will have the pleasure to call on you to-morrow at the Palais du Commissariat."
"Do no such thing, Monsieur le Marquis," I retorted with a pleasant laugh. "You would not find me there."
"But—" he stammered.
"But," I broke in with my wonted business-like and persuasive manner, "if you think that I have conducted this delicate affair for you with tact and discretion, then, in your own interest I should advise you to call on me at my private office, No. 96 Rue Daunou. Hector Ratichon, at your service."
He appeared more bewildered than ever.
"Rue Daunou," he murmured. "Ratichon!"
"Private inquiry and confidential agent," I rejoined. "My brains are at your service should you desire to extricate yourself from the humiliating financial position in which it has been my good luck to find you, and yours to meet with me."
With that I left him, Sir, to walk away or stay as he pleased. As for me, I went quickly down the street. I felt that the situation was absolutely perfect; to have spoken another word might have spoilt it. Moreover, there was no knowing how soon the proprietor of that humble hostelry would begin to have doubts as to the identity of the private secretary of M. le Duc d'Otrante. So I was best out of the way.
The very next day M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour called upon me at my office in the Rue Daunou. Theodore let him in, and the first thing that struck me about him was his curt, haughty manner and the look of disdain wherewith he regarded the humble appointments of my business premises. He himself was magnificently dressed, I may tell you. His bottle-green coat was of the finest cloth and the most perfect cut I had ever seen. His kerseymere pantaloons fitted him without a wrinkle. He wore gloves, he carried a muff of priceless zibeline, and in his cravat there was a diamond the size of a broad bean.
He also carried a malacca cane, which he deposited upon my desk, and a gold-rimmed spy-glass which, with a gesture of supreme affectation, he raised to his eye.
"Now, M. Hector Ratichon," he said abruptly, "perhaps you will be good enough to explain."
I had risen when he entered. But now I sat down again and coolly pointed to the best chair in the room.
"Will you give yourself the trouble to sit down, M. le Marquis?" I riposted blandly.
He called me names—rude names! but I took no notice of that . . . and he sat down.
"Now!" he said once more.
"What is it you desire to know, M. le Marquis?" I queried.
"Why you interfered in my affairs last night?"
"Do you complain?" I asked.
"No," he admitted reluctantly, "but I don't understand your object."
"My object was to serve you then," I rejoined quietly, "and later."
"What do you mean by 'later'?"
"To-day," I replied, "to-morrow; whenever your present position becomes absolutely unendurable."
"It is that now," he said with a savage oath.
"I thought as much," was my curt comment.
"And do you mean to assert," he went on more earnestly, "that you can find a way out of it?"
"If you desire it—yes!" I said.
He drew his chair nearer to my desk, and I leaned forward, with my elbows on the table, the finger-tips of one hand in contact with those of the other.
"Let us begin by reviewing the situation, shall we, Monsieur?" I began.
"If you wish," he said curtly.
"You are a gentleman of refined, not to say luxurious tastes, who finds himself absolutely without means to gratify them. Is that so?"
"You have a wife and a father-in-law who, whilst lavishing costly treasures upon you, leave you in a humiliating dependence on them for actual money."
Again he nodded approvingly.
"Human nature," I continued with gentle indulgence, "being what it is, you pine after what you do not possess—namely, money. Houses, equipages, servants, even good food and wine, are nothing to you beside that earnest desire for money that you can call your own, and which, if only you had it, you could spend at your pleasure."
"To the point, man, to the point!" he broke in impatiently.
"One moment, M. le Marquis, and I have done. But first of all, with your permission, shall we also review the assets in your life which we will have to use in order to arrive at the gratification of your earnest wish?"
"Assets? What do you mean?"
"The means to our end. You want money; we must find the means to get it for you."
"I begin to understand," he said, and drew his chair another inch or two closer to me.
"Firstly, M. le Marquis," I resumed, and now my voice had become earnest and incisive, "firstly you have a wife, then you have a father-in-law whose wealth is beyond the dreams of humble people like myself, and whose one great passion in life is the social position of the daughter whom he worships. Now," I added, and with the tip of my little finger I touched the sleeve of my aristocratic client, "here at once is your first asset. Get at the money-bags of papa by threatening the social position of his daughter."
Whereupon my young gentleman jumped to his feet and swore and abused me for a mudlark and a muckworm and I don't know what. He seized his malacca cane and threatened me with it, and asked me how the devil I dared thus to speak of Mme. la Marquise de Firmin-Latour. He cursed, and he stormed and he raved of his sixteen quarterings and of my loutishness. He did everything in fact except walk out of the room.
I let him go on quite quietly. It was part of his programme, and we had to go through the performance. As soon as he gave me the chance of putting in a word edgeways I rejoined quietly:
"We are not going to hurt Madame la Marquise, Monsieur; and if you do not want the money, let us say no more about it."
Whereupon he calmed down; after a while he sat down again, this time with his cane between his knees and its ivory knob between his teeth.
"Go on," he said curtly.
Nor did he interrupt me again whilst I expounded my scheme to him—one that, mind you, I had evolved during the night, knowing well that I should receive his visit during the day; and I flatter myself that no finer scheme for the bleeding of a parsimonious usurer was ever devised by any man.
If it succeeded—and there was no reason why it should not—M. de Firmin-Latour would pocket a cool half-million, whilst I, sir, the brain that had devised the whole scheme, pronounced myself satisfied with the paltry emolument of one hundred thousand francs, out of which, remember, I should have to give Theodore a considerable sum.
We talked it all over, M. le Marquis and I, the whole afternoon. I may tell you at once that he was positively delighted with the plan, and then and there gave me one hundred francs out of his own meagre purse for my preliminary expenses.
The next morning we began work.
I had begged M. le Marquis to find the means of bringing me a few scraps of the late M. le Comte de Naquet's—Madame la Marquise's first husband—handwriting. This, fortunately, he was able to do. They were a few valueless notes penned at different times by the deceased gentleman and which, luckily for us all, Madame had not thought it worth while to keep under lock and key.
I think I told you before, did I not? what a marvellous expert I am in every kind of calligraphy, and soon I had a letter ready which was to represent the first fire in the exciting war which we were about to wage against an obstinate lady and a parsimonious usurer.
My identity securely hidden under the disguise of a commissionnaire, I took that letter to Mme. la Marquise de Firmin-Latour's sumptuous abode in the Rue de Grammont.
M. le Marquis, you understand, had in the meanwhile been thoroughly primed in the role which he was to play; as for Theodore, I thought it best for the moment to dispense with his aid.
The success of our first skirmish surpassed our expectations.
Ten minutes after the letter had been taken upstairs to Mme. la Marquise, one of the maids, on going past her mistress's door, was startled to hear cries and moans proceeding from Madame's room. She entered and found Madame lying on the sofa, her face buried in the cushions, and sobbing and screaming in a truly terrifying manner. The maid applied the usual restoratives, and after a while Madame became more calm and at once very curtly ordered the maid out of the room.
M. le Marquis, on being apprised of this mysterious happening, was much distressed; he hurried to his wife's apartments, and was as gentle and loving with her as he had been in the early days of their honeymoon. But throughout the whole of that evening, and, indeed, for the next two days, all the explanation that he could get from Madame herself was that she had a headache and that the letter which she had received that afternoon was of no consequence and had nothing to do with her migraine.
But clearly the beautiful Rachel was extraordinarily agitated. At night she did not sleep, but would pace up and down her apartments in a state bordering on frenzy, which of course caused M. le Marquis a great deal of anxiety and of sorrow.
Finally, on the Friday morning it seemed as if Madame could contain herself no longer. She threw herself into her husband's arms and blurted out the whole truth. M. le Comte de Naquet, her first husband, who had been declared drowned at sea, and therefore officially deceased by Royal decree, was not dead at all. Madame had received a letter from him wherein he told her that he had indeed suffered shipwreck, then untold misery on a desert island for three years, until he had been rescued by a passing vessel, and finally been able, since he was destitute, to work his way back to France and to Paris. Here he had lived for the past few months as best he could, trying to collect together a little money so as to render himself presentable before his wife, whom he had never ceased to love.
Inquiries discreetly conducted had revealed the terrible truth, that Madame had been faithless to him, had light-heartedly assumed the death of her husband, and had contracted what was nothing less than a bigamous marriage. Now he, M. de Naquet, standing on his rights as Rachel Mosenstein's only lawful husband, demanded that she should return to him, and as a prelude to a permanent and amicable understanding, she was to call at three o'clock precisely on the following Friday at No. 96 Rue Daunou, where their reconciliation and reunion was to take place.
The letter announcing this terrible news and making this preposterous demand she now placed in the hands of M. le Marquis, who at first was horrified and thunderstruck, and appeared quite unable to deal with the situation or to tender advice. For Madame it meant complete social ruin, of course, and she herself declared that she would never survive such a scandal. Her tears and her misery made the loving heart of M. le Marquis bleed in sympathy. He did all he could to console and comfort the lady, whom, alas! he could no longer look upon as his wife. Then, gradually, both he and she became more composed. It was necessary above all things to make sure that Madame was not being victimized by an impostor, and for this purpose M. le Marquis generously offered himself as a disinterested friend and adviser. He offered to go himself to the Rue Daunou at the hour appointed and to do his best to induce M. le Comte de Naquet—if indeed he existed—to forgo his rights on the lady who had so innocently taken on the name and hand of M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour. Somewhat more calm, but still unconsoled, the beautiful Rachel accepted this generous offer. I believe that she even found five thousand francs in her privy purse which was to be offered to M. de Naquet in exchange for a promise never to worry Mme. la Marquise again with his presence. But this I have never been able to ascertain with any finality. Certain it is that when at three o'clock on that same afternoon M. de Firmin-Latour presented himself at my office, he did not offer me a share in any five thousand francs, though he spoke to me about the money, adding that he thought it would look well if he were to give it back to Madame, and to tell her that M. de Naquet had rejected so paltry a sum with disdain.
I thought such a move unnecessary, and we argued about it rather warmly, and in the end he went away, as I say, without offering me any share in the emolument. Whether he did put his project into execution or not I never knew. He told me that he did. After that there followed for me, Sir, many days, nay, weeks, of anxiety and of strenuous work. Mme. la Marquise received several more letters from the supposititious M. de Naquet, any one of which would have landed me, Sir, in a vessel bound for New Caledonia. The discarded husband became more and more insistent as time went on, and finally sent an ultimatum to Madame saying that he was tired of perpetual interviews with M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour, whose right to interfere in the matter he now wholly denied, and that he was quite determined to claim his lawful wife before the whole world.
Madame la Marquise, in the meanwhile, had passed from one fit of hysterics into another. She denied her door to everyone and lived in the strictest seclusion in her beautiful apartment of the Rue de Grammont. Fortunately this all occurred in the early autumn, when the absence of such a society star from fashionable gatherings was not as noticeable as it otherwise would have been. But clearly we were working up for the climax, which occurred in the way I am about to relate.
Ah, my dear Sir, when after all these years I think of my adventure with that abominable Marquis, righteous and noble indignation almost strikes me dumb. To think that with my own hands and brains I literally put half a million into that man's pocket, and that he repaid me with the basest ingratitude, almost makes me lose my faith in human nature. Theodore, of course, I could punish, and did so adequately; and where my chastisement failed, Fate herself put the finishing touch.
But M. de Firmin-Latour . . .!
However, you shall judge for yourself.
As I told you, we now made ready for the climax; and that climax, Sir, I can only describe as positively gorgeous. We began by presuming that Mme. la Marquise had now grown tired of incessant demands for interviews and small doles of money, and that she would be willing to offer a considerable sum to her first and only lawful husband in exchange for a firm guarantee that he would never trouble her again as long as she lived.
We fixed the sum at half a million francs, and the guarantee was to take the form of a deed duly executed by a notary of repute and signed by the supposititious Comte de Naquet. A letter embodying the demand and offering the guarantee was thereupon duly sent to Mme. la Marquise, and she, after the usual attack of hysterics, duly confided the matter to M. de Firmin-Latour.
The consultation between husband and wife on the deplorable subject was touching in the extreme; and I will give that abominable Marquis credit for playing his role in a masterly manner. At first he declared to his dear Rachel that he did not know what to suggest, for in truth she had nothing like half a million on which she could lay her hands. To speak of this awful pending scandal to Papa Mosenstein was not to be thought of. He was capable of repudiating the daughter altogether who was bringing such obloquy upon herself and would henceforth be of no use to him as a society star.
As for himself in this terrible emergency, he, of course, had less than nothing, or his entire fortune would be placed—if he had one—at the feet of his beloved Rachel. To think that he was on the point of losing her was more than he could bear, and the idea that she would soon become the talk of every gossip-monger in society, and mayhap be put in prison for bigamy, wellnigh drove him crazy.
What could be done in this awful perplexity he for one could not think, unless indeed his dear Rachel were willing to part with some of her jewellery; but no! he could not think of allowing her to make such a sacrifice.
Whereupon Madame, like a drowning man, or rather woman, catching at a straw, bethought her of her emeralds. They were historic gems, once the property of the Empress Marie-Therese, and had been given to her on her second marriage by her adoring father. No, no! she would never miss them; she seldom wore them, for they were heavy and more valuable than elegant, and she was quite sure that at the Mont de Piete they would lend her five hundred thousand francs on them. Then gradually they could be redeemed before papa had become aware of their temporary disappearance. Madame would save the money out of the liberal allowance she received from him for pin-money. Anything, anything was preferable to this awful doom which hung over her head.
But even so M. le Marquis demurred. The thought of his proud and fashionable Rachel going to the Mont de Piete to pawn her own jewels was not to be thought of. She would be seen, recognized, and the scandal would be as bad and worse than anything that loomed on the black horizon of her fate at this hour.
What was to be done? What was to be done?
Then M. le Marquis had a brilliant idea. He knew of a man, a very reliable, trustworthy man, attorney-at-law by profession, and therefore a man of repute, who was often obliged in the exercise of his profession to don various disguises when tracking criminals in the outlying quarters of Paris. M. le Marquis, putting all pride and dignity nobly aside in the interests of his adored Rachel, would borrow one of these disguises and himself go to the Mont de Piete with the emeralds, obtain the five hundred thousand francs, and remit them to the man whom he hated most in all the world, in exchange for the aforementioned guarantee.
Madame la Marquise, overcome with gratitude, threw herself, in the midst of a flood of tears, into the arms of the man whom she no longer dared to call her husband, and so the matter was settled for the moment. M. le Marquis undertook to have the deed of guarantee drafted by the same notary of repute whom he knew, and, if Madame approved of it, the emeralds would then be converted into money, and the interview with M. le Comte de Naquet fixed for Wednesday, October 10th, at some convenient place, subsequently to be determined on—in all probability at the bureau of that same ubiquitous attorney-at-law, M. Hector Ratichon, at 96 Rue Daunon.
All was going on excellently well, as you observe. I duly drafted the deed, and M. de Firmin-Latour showed it to Madame for her approval. It was so simply and so comprehensively worded that she expressed herself thoroughly satisfied with it, whereupon M. le Marquis asked her to write to her shameful persecutor in order to fix the date and hour for the exchange of the money against the deed duly signed and witnessed. M. le Marquis had always been the intermediary for her letters, you understand, and for the small sums of money which she had sent from time to time to the factitious M. de Naquet; now he was to be entrusted with the final negotiations which, though at a heavy cost, would bring security and happiness once more in the sumptuous palace of the Rue de Grammont.
Then it was that the first little hitch occurred. Mme. la Marquise—whether prompted thereto by a faint breath of suspicion, or merely by natural curiosity—altered her mind about the appointment. She decided that M. le Marquis, having pledged the emeralds, should bring the money to her, and she herself would go to the bureau of M. Hector Ratichon in the Rue Daunou, there to meet M. de Naquet, whom she had not seen for seven years, but who had once been very dear to her, and herself fling in his face the five hundred thousand francs, the price of his silence and of her peace of mind.
At once, as you perceive, the situation became delicate. To have demurred, or uttered more than a casual word of objection, would in the case of M. le Marquis have been highly impolitic. He felt that at once, the moment he raised his voice in protest: and when Madame declared herself determined he immediately gave up arguing the point.
The trouble was that we had so very little time wherein to formulate new plans. Monsieur was to go the very next morning to the Mont de Piete to negotiate the emeralds, and the interview with the fabulous M. de Naquet was to take place a couple of hours later; and it was now three o'clock in the afternoon.
As soon as M. de Firmin-Latour was able to leave his wife, he came round to my office. He appeared completely at his wits' end, not knowing what to do.
"If my wife," he said, "insists on a personal interview with de Naquet, who does not exist, our entire scheme falls to the ground. Nay, worse! for I shall be driven to concoct some impossible explanation for the non-appearance of that worthy, and heaven only knows if I shall succeed in wholly allaying my wife's suspicions.
"Ah!" he added with a sigh, "it is doubly hard to have seen fortune so near one's reach and then to see it dashed away at one fell swoop by the relentless hand of Fate."
Not one word, you observe, of gratitude to me or of recognition of the subtle mind that had planned and devised the whole scheme.
But, Sir, it is at the hour of supreme crises like the present one that Hector Ratichon's genius soars up to the empyrean. It became great, Sir; nothing short of great; and even the marvellous schemes of the Italian Macchiavelli paled before the ingenuity which I now displayed.
Half an hour's reflection had sufficed. I had made my plans, and I had measured the full length of the terrible risks which I ran. Among these New Caledonia was the least. But I chose to take the risks, Sir; my genius could not stoop to measuring the costs of its flight. While M. de Firmin-Latour alternately raved and lamented I had already planned and contrived. As I say, we had very little time: a few hours wherein to render ourselves worthy of Fortune's smiles. And this is what I planned.
You tell me that you were not in Paris during the year 1816 of which I speak. If you had been, you would surely recollect the sensation caused throughout the entire city by the disappearance of M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour, one of the most dashing young officers in society and one of its acknowledged leaders. It was the 10th day of October. M. le Marquis had breakfasted in the company of Madame at nine o'clock. A couple of hours later he went out, saying he would be home for dejeuner. Madame clearly expected him, for his place was laid, and she ordered the dejeuner to be kept back over an hour in anticipation of his return. But he did not come. The afternoon wore on and he did not come. Madame sat down at two o'clock to dejeuner alone. She told the major-domo that M. le Marquis was detained in town and might not be home for some time. But the major-domo declared that Madame's voice, as she told him this, sounded tearful and forced, and that she ate practically nothing, refusing one succulent dish after another.
The staff of servants was thus kept on tenterhooks all day, and when the shadows of evening began to draw in, the theory was started in the kitchen that M. le Marquis had either met with an accident or been foully murdered. No one, however, dared speak of this to Madame la Marquise, who had locked herself up in her room in the early part of the afternoon, and since then had refused to see anyone. The major-domo was now at his wits' end. He felt that in a measure the responsibility of the household rested upon his shoulders. Indeed he would have taken it upon himself to apprise M. Mauruss Mosenstein of the terrible happenings, only that the worthy gentleman was absent from Paris just then.
Mme. la Marquise remained shut up in her room until past eight o'clock. Then she ordered dinner to be served and made pretence of sitting down to it; but again the major-domo declared that she ate nothing, whilst subsequently the confidential maid who had undressed her vowed that Madame had spent the whole night walking up and down the room.
Thus two agonizing days went by; agonizing they were to everybody. Madame la Marquise became more and more agitated, more and more hysterical as time went on, and the servants could not help but notice this, even though she made light of the whole affair, and desperate efforts to control herself. The heads of her household, the major-domo, the confidential maid, the chef de cuisine, did venture to drop a hint or two as to the possibility of an accident or of foul play, and the desirability of consulting the police; but Madame would not hear a word of it; she became very angry at the suggestion, and declared that she was perfectly well aware of M. le Marquis's whereabouts, that he was well and would return home almost immediately.
As was only natural, tongues presently began to wag. Soon it was common talk in Paris that M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour had disappeared from his home and that Madame was trying to put a bold face upon the occurrence. There were surmises and there was gossip— oh! interminable and long-winded gossip! Minute circumstances in connexion with M. le Marquis's private life and Mme. la Marquise's affairs were freely discussed in the cafes, the clubs and restaurants, and as no one knew the facts of the case, surmises soon became very wild.
On the third day of M. le Marquis's disappearance Papa Mosenstein returned to Paris from Vichy, where he had just completed his annual cure. He arrived at Rue de Grammont at three o'clock in the afternoon, demanded to see Mme. la Marquise at once, and then remained closeted with her in her apartment for over an hour. After which he sent for the inspector of police of the section, with the result that that very same evening M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour was found locked up in an humble apartment on the top floor of a house in the Rue Daunou, not ten minutes' walk from his own house. When the police—acting on information supplied to them by M. Mauruss Mosenstein—forced their way into that apartment, they were horrified to find M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour there, tied hand and foot with cords to a chair, his likely calls for help smothered by a woollen shawl wound loosely round the lower part of his face.
He was half dead with inanition, and was conveyed speechless and helpless to his home in the Rue de Grammont, there, presumably, to be nursed back to health by Madame his wife.
Now in all this matter, I ask you, Sir, who ran the greatest risk? Why, I—Hector Ratichon, of course—Hector Ratichon, in whose apartment M. de Firmin-Latour was discovered in a position bordering on absolute inanition. And the proof of this is, that that selfsame night I was arrested at my lodgings at Passy, and charged with robbery and attempted murder.
It was a terrible predicament for a respectable citizen, a man of integrity and reputation, in which to find himself; but Papa Mosenstein was both tenacious and vindictive. His daughter, driven to desperation at last, and terrified that M. le Marquis had indeed been foully murdered by M. de Naquet, had made a clean breast of the whole affair to her father, and he in his turn had put the minions of the law in full possession of all the facts; and since M. le Comte de Naquet had vanished, leaving no manner of trace or clue of his person behind him, the police, needing a victim, fell back on an innocent man. Fortunately, Sir, that innocence clear as crystal soon shines through every calumny. But this was not before I had suffered terrible indignities and all the tortures which base ingratitude can inflict upon a sensitive heart.
Such ingratitude as I am about to relate to you has never been equalled on this earth, and even after all these years, Sir, you see me overcome with emotion at the remembrance of it all. I was under arrest, remember, on a terribly serious charge, but, conscious of mine own innocence and of my unanswerable system of defence, I bore the preliminary examination by the juge d'instruc-tion with exemplary dignity and patience. I knew, you see, that at my very first confrontation with my supposed victim the latter would at once say:
"Ah! but no! This is not the man who assaulted me."
Our plan, which so far had been overwhelmingly successful, had been this.
On the morning of the tenth, M. de Firmin-Latour having pawned the emeralds, and obtained the money for them, was to deposit that money in his own name at the bank of Raynal Freres and then at once go to the office in the Rue Daunou.
There he would be met by Theodore, who would bind him comfortably but securely to a chair, put a shawl around his mouth and finally lock the door on him. Theodore would then go to his mother's and there remain quietly until I needed his services again.
It had been thought inadvisable for me to be seen that morning anywhere in the neighbourhood of the Rue Daunou, but that perfidious reptile Theodore ran no risks in doing what he was told. To begin with he is a past master in the art of worming himself in and out of a house without being seen, and in this case it was his business to exercise a double measure of caution. And secondly, if by some unlucky chance the police did subsequently connect him with the crime, there was I, his employer, a man of integrity and repute, prepared to swear that the man had been in my company at the other end of Paris all the while that M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour was, by special arrangement, making use of my office in the Rue Daunou, which I had lent him for purposes of business.
Finally it was agreed between us that when M. le Marquis would presently be questioned by the police as to the appearance of the man who had assaulted and robbed him, he would describe him as tall and blond, almost like an Angliche in countenance. Now I possess—as you see, Sir—all the finest characteristics of the Latin race, whilst Theodore looks like nothing on earth, save perhaps a cross between a rat and a monkey.
I wish you to realize, therefore, that no one ran any risks in this affair excepting myself. I, as the proprietor of the apartment where the assault was actually supposed to have taken place, did run a very grave risk, because I could never have proved an alibi. Theodore was such a disreputable mudlark that his testimony on my behalf would have been valueless. But with sublime sacrifice I accepted these risks, and you will presently see, Sir, how I was repaid for my selflessness. I pined in a lonely prison-cell while these two limbs of Satan concocted a plot to rob me of my share in our mutual undertaking.
Well, Sir, the day came when I was taken from my prison-cell for the purpose of being confronted with the man whom I was accused of having assaulted. As you will imagine, I was perfectly calm. According to our plan the confrontation would be the means of setting me free at once. I was conveyed to the house in the Rue de Grammont, and here I was kept waiting for some little time while the juge d'instruction went in to prepare M. le Marquis, who was still far from well. Then I was introduced into the sick-room. I looked about me with the perfect composure of an innocent man about to be vindicated, and calmly gazed on the face of the sick man who was sitting up in his magnificent bed, propped up with pillows.
I met his glance firmly whilst M. le Juge d'instruction placed the question to him in a solemn and earnest tone:
"M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour, will you look at the prisoner before you and tell us whether you recognize in him the man who assaulted you?"
And that perfidious Marquis, Sir, raised his eyes and looked me squarely—yes! squarely—in the face and said with incredible assurance:
"Yes, Monsieur le Juge, that is the man! I recognize him."
To me it seemed then as if a thunderbolt had crashed through the ceiling and exploded at my feet. I was like one stunned and dazed; the black ingratitude, the abominable treachery, completely deprived me of speech. I felt choked, as if some poisonous effluvia—the poison, Sir, of that man's infamy—had got into my throat. That state of inertia lasted, I believe, less than a second; the next I had uttered a hoarse cry of noble indignation.
"You vampire, you!" I exclaimed. "You viper! You . . ."
I would have thrown myself on him and strangled him with glee, but that the minions of the law had me by the arms and dragged me away out of the hateful presence of that traitor, despite my objurgations and my protestations of innocence. Imagine my feelings when I found myself once more in a prison-cell, my heart filled with unspeakable bitterness against that perfidious Judas. Can you wonder that it took me some time before I could collect my thoughts sufficiently to review my situation, which no doubt to the villain himself who had just played me this abominable trick must have seemed desperate indeed? Ah! I could see it all, of course! He wanted to> see me sent to New Caledonia, whilst he enjoyed the fruits of his unpardonable backsliding. In order to retain the miserable hundred thousand francs which he had promised me he did not hesitate to plunge up to the neck in this heinous conspiracy.
Yes, conspiracy! for the very next day, when I was once more hailed before the juge d'instruction, another confrontation awaited me: this time with that scurvy rogue Theodore. He had been suborned by M. le Marquis to turn against the hand that fed him. What price he was paid for this Judas trick I shall never know, and all that I do know is that he actually swore before the juge d'instruction that M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour called at my office in the late forenoon of the tenth of October; that I then ordered him—Theodore—to go out to get his dinner first, and then to go all the way over to Neuilly with a message to someone who turned out to be non-existent. He went on to assert that when he returned at six o'clock in the afternoon he found the office door locked, and I—his employer—presumably gone. This at first greatly upset him, because he was supposed to sleep on the premises, but seeing that there was nothing for it but to accept the inevitable, he went round to his mother's rooms at the back of the fish-market and remained there ever since, waiting to hear from me.
That, Sir, was the tissue of lies which that jailbird had concocted for my undoing, knowing well that I could not disprove them because it had been my task on that eventful morning to keep an eye on M. le Marquis whilst he went to the Mont de Piete first, and then to MM. Raynal Freres, the bankers where he deposited the money. For this purpose I had been obliged to don a disguise, which I had not discarded till later in the day, and thus was unable to disprove satisfactorily the monstrous lies told by that perjurer.
Ah! I can see that sympathy for my unmerited misfortunes has filled your eyes with tears. No doubt in your heart you feel that my situation at that hour was indeed desperate, and that I—Hector Ratichon, the confidant of kings, the benefactor of the oppressed—did spend the next few years of my life in a penal settlement, where those arch-malefactors themselves should have been. But no, Sir! Fate may be a fickle jade, rogues may appear triumphant, but not for long, Sir, not for long! It is brains that conquer in the end . . . brains backed by righteousness and by justice.
Whether I had actually foreseen the treachery of those two rattlesnakes, or whether my habitual caution and acumen alone prompted me to take those measures of precaution of which I am about to tell you, I cannot truthfully remember. Certain it is that I did take those precautions which ultimately proved to be the means of compensating me for most that I had suffered.
It had been a part of the original plan that, on the day immediately following the tenth of October, I, in my own capacity as Hector Ratichon, who had been absent from my office for twenty-four hours, would arrive there in the morning, find the place locked, force an entrance into the apartment, and there find M. le Marquis in his pitiable plight. After which I would, of course, immediately notify the police of the mysterious occurrence.
That had been the role which I had intended to play. M. le Marquis approved of it and had professed himself quite willing to endure a twenty-four-hours' martyrdom for the sake of half a million francs. But, as I have just had the honour to tell you, something which I will not attempt to explain prompted me at the last moment to modify my plan in one little respect. I thought it too soon to go back to the Rue Daunou within twenty-four hours of our well-contrived coup, and I did not altogether care for the idea of going myself to the police in order to explain to them that I had found a man gagged and bound in my office. The less one has to do with these minions of the law the better. Mind you, I had envisaged the possibility of being accused of assault and robbery, but I did not wish to take, as it were, the very first steps myself in that direction. You might call this a matter of sentiment or of prudence, as you wish.
So I waited until the evening of the second day before I got the key from Theodore. Then before the concierge at 96 Rue Daunou had closed the porte-cochere for the night, I slipped into the house unobserved, ran up the stairs to my office and entered the apartment. I struck a light and made my way to the inner room where the wretched Marquis hung in the chair like a bundle of rags. I called to him, but he made no movement. As I had anticipated, he had fainted for want of food. Of course, I was very sorry for him, for his plight was pitiable, but he was playing for high stakes, and a little starvation does no man any harm. In his case there was half a million at the end of his brief martyrdom, which could, at worst, only last another twenty-four hours. I reckoned that Mme. la Marquise could not keep the secret of her husband's possible whereabouts longer than that, and in any event I was determined that, despite all risks, I would go myself to the police on the following day.
In the meanwhile, since I was here and since M. le Marquis was unconscious, I proceeded then and there to take the precaution which prudence had dictated, and without which, seeing this man's treachery and Theodore's villainy, I should undoubtedly have ended my days as a convict. What I did was to search M. le Marquis's pockets for anything that might subsequently prove useful to me.
I had no definite idea in the matter, you understand; but I had vague notions of finding the bankers' receipt for the half-million francs.
Well, I did not find that, but I did find the receipt from the Mont de Piete for a parure of emeralds on which half a million francs had been lent. This I carefully put away in my waistcoat pocket, but as there was nothing else I wished to do just then I extinguished the light and made my way cautiously out of the apartment and out of the house. No one had seen me enter or go out, and M. le Marquis had not stirred while I went through his pockets.
That, Sir, was the precaution which I had taken in order to safeguard myself against the machinations of traitors. And see how right I was; see how hopeless would have been my plight at this hour when Theodore, too, turned against me like the veritable viper that he was. I never really knew when and under what conditions the infamous bargain was struck which was intended to deprive me of my honour and of my liberty, nor do I know what emolument Theodore was to receive for his treachery. Presumably the two miscreants arranged it all some time during that memorable morning of the tenth even whilst I was risking my life in their service.
As for M. de Firmin-Latour, that worker of iniquity who, in order to save a paltry hundred thousand francs from the hoard which I had helped him to acquire, did not hesitate to commit such an abominable crime, he did not long remain in the enjoyment of his wealth or of his peace of mind.
The very next day I made certain statements before M. le Juge d'instruction with regard to M. Mauruss Mosenstein, which caused the former to summon the worthy Israelite to his bureau, there to be confronted with me. I had nothing more to lose, since those execrable rogues had already, as it were, tightened the rope about my neck, but I had a great deal to gain—revenge above all, and perhaps the gratitude of M. Mosenstein for opening his eyes to the rascality of his son-in-law.
In a stream of eloquent words which could not fail to carry conviction, I gave then and there in the bureau of the juge d'instruction my version of the events of the past few weeks, from the moment when M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour came to consult me on the subject of his wife's first husband, until the hour when he tried to fasten an abominable crime upon me. I told how I had been deceived by my own employe, Theodore, a man whom I had rescued out of the gutter and loaded with gifts, how by dint of a clever disguise which would have deceived his own mother he had assumed the appearance and personality of M. le Comte de Naquet, first and only lawful lord of the beautiful Rachel Mosenstein. I told of the interviews in my office, my earnest desire to put an end to this abominable blackmailing by informing the police of the whole affair. I told of the false M. de Naquet's threats to create a gigantic scandal which would forever ruin the social position of the so-called Marquis de Firmin-Latour. I told of M. le Marquis's agonized entreaties, his prayers, supplications, that I would do nothing in the matter for the sake of an innocent lady who had already grievously suffered. I spoke of my doubts, my scruples, my desire to do what was just and what was right.
A noble expose of the situation, Sir, you will admit. It left me hot and breathless. I mopped my head with a handkerchief and sank back, gasping, in the arms of the minions of the law. The juge d'instruction ordered my removal, not back to my prison-cell but into his own ante-room, where I presently collapsed upon a very uncomfortable bench and endured the additional humiliation of having a glass of water held to my lips. Water! when I had asked for a drink of wine as my throat felt parched after that lengthy effort at oratory.
However, there I sat and waited patiently whilst, no doubt, M. le Juge d'Instruction and the noble Israelite were comparing notes as to their impression of my marvellous speech. I had not long to wait. Less than ten minutes later I was once more summoned into the presence of M. le Juge; and this time the minions of the law were ordered to remain in the antechamber. I thought this was of good augury; and I waited to hear M. le Juge give forth the order that would at once set me free. But it was M. Mosenstein who first addressed me, and in very truth surprise rendered me momentarily dumb when he did it thus:
"Now then, you consummate rascal, when you have given up the receipt of the Mont de Piete which you stole out of M. le Marquis's pocket you may go and carry on your rogueries elsewhere and call yourself mightily lucky to have escaped so lightly."
I assure you, Sir, that a feather would have knocked me down. The coarse insult, the wanton injustice, had deprived me of the use of my limbs and of my speech. Then the juge d'instruction proceeded dryly:
"Now then, Ratichon, you have heard what M. Mauruss Mosenstein has been good enough to say to you. He did it with my approval and consent. I am prepared to give an ordonnance de non-lieu in your favour which will have the effect of at once setting you free if you will restore to this gentleman here the Mont de Piete receipt which you appear to have stolen."
"Sir," I said with consummate dignity in the face of this reiterated taunt, "I have stolen nothing—"
M. le Juge's hand was already on the bell-pull.
"Then," he said coolly, "I can ring for the gendarmes to take you back to the cells, and you will stand your trial for blackmail, theft, assault and robbery."
I put up my hand with an elegant and perfectly calm gesture.
"Your pardon, M. le Juge," I said with the gentle resignation of undeserved martyrdom, "I was about to say that when I re-visited my rooms in the Rue Daunou after a three days' absence, and found the police in possession, I picked up on the floor of my private room a white paper which on subsequent examination proved to be a receipt from the Mont de Piete for some valuable gems, and made out in the name of M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour."
"What have you done with it, you abominable knave?" the irascible old usurer rejoined roughly, and I regret to say that he grasped his malacca cane with ominous violence.
But I was not to be thus easily intimidated.
"Ah! voila, M. le Juge," I said with a shrug of the shoulders. "I have mislaid it. I do not know where it is."
"If you do not find it," Mosenstein went on savagely, "you will find yourself on a convict ship before long."
"In which case, no doubt," I retorted with suave urbanity, "the police will search my rooms where I lodge, and they will find the receipt from the Mont de Piete, which I had mislaid. And then the gossip will be all over Paris that Mme. la Marquise de Firmin-Latour had to pawn her jewels in order to satisfy the exigencies of her first and only lawful husband who has since mysteriously disappeared; and some people will vow that he never came back from the Antipodes, whilst others—by far the most numerous—will shrug their shoulders and sigh: 'One never knows!' which will be exceedingly unpleasant for Mme. la Marquise."
Both M. Mauruss Mosenstein and the juge d'instruc-tion said a great deal more that afternoon. I may say that their attitude towards me and the language that they used were positively scandalous. But I had become now the master of the situation and I could afford to ignore their insults. In the end everything was settled quite amicably. I agreed to dispose of the receipt from the Mont de Piete to M. Mauruss Mosenstein for the sum of two hundred francs, and for another hundred I would indicate to him the banking house where his precious son-in-law had deposited the half-million francs obtained for the emeralds. This latter information I would indeed have offered him gratuitously had he but known with what immense pleasure I thus put a spoke in that knavish Marquis's wheel of fortune.
The worthy Israelite further agreed to pay me an annuity of two hundred francs so long as I kept silent upon the entire subject of Mme. la Marquise's first husband and of M. le Marquis's role in the mysterious affair of the Rue Daunou. For thus was the affair classed amongst the police records. No one outside the chief actors of the drama and M. le Juge d'Instruction ever knew the true history of how a dashing young cavalry officer came to be assaulted and left to starve for three days in the humble apartment of an attorney-at-law of undisputed repute. And no one outside the private bureau of M. le Juge d'Instruction ever knew what it cost the wealthy M. Mosenstein to have the whole affair "classed" and hushed up.
As for me, I had three hundred francs as payment for work which I had risked my neck and my reputation to accomplish. Three hundred instead of the hundred thousand which I had so richly deserved: that, and a paltry two hundred francs a year, which was to cease the moment that as much as a rumour of the whole affair was breathed in public. As if I could help people talking!
But M. le Marquis did not enjoy the fruits of his villainy, and I had again the satisfaction of seeing him gnaw his finger-nails with rage whenever the lovely Rachel paid for his dinner at fashionable restaurants. Indeed Papa Mosenstein tightened the strings of his money-bags even more securely than he had done in the past. Under threats of prosecution for theft and I know not what, he forced his son-in-law to disgorge that half-million which he had so pleasantly tucked away in the banking house of Raynal Freres, and I was indeed thankful that prudence had, on that memorable morning, suggested to me the advisability of dogging the Marquis's footsteps. I doubt not but what he knew whence had come the thunderbolt which had crushed his last hopes of an independent fortune, and no doubt too he does not cherish feelings of good will towards me.
But this eventuality leaves me cold. He has only himself to thank for his misfortune. Everything would have gone well but for his treachery. We would have become affluent, he and I and Theodore. Theodore has gone to live with his mother, who has a fish-stall in the Halles; she gives him three sous a day for washing down the stall and selling the fish when it has become too odorous for the ordinary customers.
And he might have had five hundred francs for himself and remained my confidential clerk.
You must not think for a moment, my dear Sir, that I was ever actually deceived in Theodore. Was it likely that I, who am by temperament and habit accustomed to read human visages like a book, was it likely, I say, that I would fail to see craftiness in those pale, shifty eyes, deceit in the weak, slobbering mouth, intemperance in the whole aspect of the shrunken, slouchy figure which I had, for my subsequent sorrow, so generously rescued from starvation?
Generous? I was more than generous to him. They say that the poor are the friends of the poor, and I told you how poor we were in those days! Ah! but poor! my dear Sir, you have no conception! Meat in Paris in the autumn of 1816 was 24 francs the kilo, and milk 1 franc the quarter litre, not to mention eggs and butter, which were delicacies far beyond the reach of cultured, well-born people like myself.
And yet throughout that trying year I fed Theodore—yes, I fed him. He used to share onion pie with me whenever I partook of it, and he had haricot soup every day, into which I allowed him to boil the skins of all the sausages and the luscious bones of all the cutlets of which I happened to partake. Then think what he cost me in drink! Never could I leave a half or quarter bottle of wine but he would finish it; his impudent fingers made light of every lock and key. I dared not allow as much as a sou to rest in the pocket of my coat but he would ferret it out the moment I hung the coat up in the outer room and my back was turned for a few seconds. After a while I was forced—yes, I, Sir, who have spoken on terms of equality with kings—I was forced to go out and make my own purchases in the neighbouring provision shops. And why? Because if I sent Theodore and gave him a few sous wherewith to make these purchases, he would spend the money at the nearest cabaret in getting drunk on absinthe.
He robbed me, Sir, shamefully, despite the fact that he had ten per cent, commission on all the profits of the firm. I gave him twenty francs out of the money which I had earned at the sweat of my brow in the service of Estelle Bachelier. Twenty francs, Sir! Reckoning two hundred francs as business profit on the affair, a generous provision you will admit! And yet he taunted me with having received a thousand. This was mere guesswork, of course, and I took no notice of his taunts: did the brains that conceived the business deserve no payment? Was my labour to be counted as dross?—the humiliation, the blows which I had to endure while he sat in hoggish content, eating and sleeping without thought for the morrow? After which he calmly pocketed the twenty francs to earn which he had not raised one finger, and then demanded more.
No, no, my dear Sir, you will believe me or not, that man could not go straight. Times out of count he would try and deceive me, despite the fact that, once or twice, he very nearly came hopelessly to grief in the attempt.
Now, just to give you an instance. About this time Paris was in the grip of a gang of dog-thieves as unscrupulous and heartless as they were daring. Can you wonder at it? with that awful penury about and a number of expensive "tou-tous" running about the streets under the very noses of the indigent proletariat? The ladies of the aristocracy and of the wealthy bourgeoisie had imbibed this craze for lap-dogs during their sojourn in England at the time of the emigration, and being women of the Latin race and of undisciplined temperament, they were just then carrying their craze to excess.
As I was saying, this indulgence led to wholesale thieving. Tou-tous were abstracted from their adoring mistresses with marvellous adroitness; whereupon two or three days would elapse while the adoring mistress wept buckets full of tears and set the police of M. Fouche, Duc d'Otrante, by the ears in search of her pet. The next act in the tragi-comedy would be an anonymous demand for money—varying in amount in accordance with the known or supposed wealth of the lady—and an equally anonymous threat of dire vengeance upon the tou-tou if the police were put upon the track of the thieves.
You will ask me, no doubt, what all this had to do with Theodore. Well! I will tell you.
You must know that of late he had become extraordinarily haughty and independent. I could not keep him to his work. His duties were to sweep the office—he did not do it; to light the fires—I had to light them myself every morning; to remain in the anteroom and show clients in—he was never at his post. In fact he was never there when I did want him: morning, noon and night he was out—gadding about and coming home, Sir, only to eat and sleep. I was seriously thinking of giving him the sack. And then one day he disappeared! Yes, Sir, disappeared completely as if the earth had swallowed him up. One morning—it was in the beginning of December and the cold was biting—I arrived at the office and found that his chair-bed which stood in the antechamber had not been slept in; in fact that it had not been made up overnight. In the cupboard I found the remnants of an onion pie, half a sausage, and a quarter of a litre of wine, which proved conclusively that he had not been in to supper.
At first I was not greatly disturbed in my mind. I had found out quite recently that Theodore had some sort of a squalid home of his own somewhere behind the fish-market, together with an old and wholly disreputable mother who plied him with drink whenever he spent an evening with her and either he or she had a franc in their pocket. Still, after these bouts spent in the bosom of his family he usually returned to sleep them off at my expense in my office.
I had unfortunately very little to do that day, so in the late afternoon, not having seen anything of Theodore all day, I turned my steps toward the house behind the fish-market where lived the mother of that ungrateful wretch.
The woman's surprise when I inquired after her precious son was undoubtedly genuine. Her lamentations and crocodile tears certainly were not. She reeked of alcohol, and the one room which she inhabited was indescribably filthy. I offered her half a franc if she gave me authentic news of Theodore, knowing well that for that sum she would have sold him to the devil. But very obviously she knew nothing of his whereabouts, and I soon made haste to shake the dirt of her abode from my heels.
I had become vaguely anxious.
I wondered if he had been murdered somewhere down a back street, and if I should miss him very much.
I did not think that I would.
Moreover, no one could have any object in murdering Theodore. In his own stupid way he was harmless enough, and he certainly was not possessed of anything worth stealing. I myself was not over-fond of the man—but I should not have bothered to murder him.
Still, I was undoubtedly anxious, and slept but little that night thinking of the wretch. When the following morning I arrived at my office and still could see no trace of him, I had serious thoughts of putting the law in motion on his behalf.
Just then, however, an incident occurred which drove all thoughts of such an insignificant personage as Theodore from my mind.
I had just finished tidying up the office when there came a peremptory ring at the outer door, repeated at intervals of twenty seconds or so. It meant giving a hasty glance all round to see that no fragments of onion pie or of cheap claret lingered in unsuspected places, and it meant my going, myself, to open the door to my impatient visitor.
I did it, Sir, and then at the door I stood transfixed. I had seen many beautiful women in my day—great ladies of the Court, brilliant ladies of the Consulate, the Directorate and the Empire—but never in my life had I seen such an exquisite and resplendent apparition as the one which now sailed through the antechamber of my humble abode.
Sir, Hector Ratichon's heart has ever been susceptible to the charms of beauty in distress. This lovely being, Sir, who now at my invitation entered my office and sank with perfect grace into the arm-chair, was in obvious distress. Tears hung on the fringe of her dark lashes, and the gossamer-like handkerchief which she held in her dainty hand was nothing but a wet rag. She gave herself exactly two minutes wherein to compose herself, after which she dried her eyes and turned the full artillery of her bewitching glance upon me.
"Monsieur Ratichon," she began, even before I had taken my accustomed place at my desk and assumed that engaging smile which inspires confidence even in the most timorous; "Monsieur Ratichon, they tell me that you are so clever, and—oh! I am in such trouble."
"Madame," I rejoined with noble simplicity, "you may trust me to do the impossible in order to be of service to you."
Admirably put, you will admit. I have always been counted a master of appropriate diction, and I had been quick enough to note the plain band of gold which encircled the third finger of her dainty left hand, flanked though it was by a multiplicity of diamond, pearl and other jewelled rings.
"You are kind, Monsieur Ratichon," resumed the beauteous creature more calmly. "But indeed you will require all the ingenuity of your resourceful brain in order to help me in this matter. I am struggling in the grip of a relentless fate which, if you do not help me, will leave me broken-hearted."
"Command me, Madame," I riposted quietly.
From out the daintiest of reticules the fair lady now extracted a very greasy and very dirty bit of paper, and handed it to me with the brief request: "Read this, I pray you, my good M. Ratichon." I took the paper. It was a clumsily worded, ill-written, ill-spelt demand for five thousand francs, failing which sum the thing which Madame had lost would forthwith be destroyed.
I looked up, puzzled, at my fair client.
"My darling Carissimo, my dear M. Ratichon," she said in reply to my mute query.
"Carissimo?" I stammered, yet further intrigued.
"My darling pet, a valuable creature, the companion of my lonely hours," she rejoined, once more bursting into tears. "If I lose him, my heart will inevitably break."
I understood at last.
"Madame has lost her dog?" I asked.
"It has been stolen by one of those expert dog thieves, who then levy blackmail on the unfortunate owner?"
Again she nodded in assent.
I read the dirty, almost illegible scrawl through more carefully this time. It was a clumsy notification addressed to Mme. la Comtesse de Nole de St. Pris to the effect that her tou-tou was for the moment safe, and would be restored to the arms of his fond mistress provided the sum of five thousand francs was deposited in the hands of the bearer of the missive.
Minute directions were then given as to where and how the money was to be deposited. Mme. la Comtesse de Nole was, on the third day from this at six o'clock in the evening precisely, to go in person and alone to the angle of the Rue Guenegaud and the Rue Mazarine, at the rear of the Institut.
There two men would meet her, one of whom would have Carissimo in his arms; to the other she must hand over the money, whereupon the pet would at once be handed back to her. But if she failed to keep this appointment, or if in the meanwhile she made the slightest attempt to trace the writer of the missive or to lay a trap for his capture by the police, Carissimo would at once meet with a summary death.
These were the usual tactics of experienced dog thieves, only that in this case the demand was certainly exorbitant. Five thousand francs! But even so . . . I cast a rapid and comprehensive glance on the brilliant apparition before me—the jewelled rings, the diamonds in the shell-like ears, the priceless fur coat—and with an expressive shrug of the shoulders I handed the dirty scrap of paper back to its fair recipient.
"Alas, Madame," I said, taking care that she should not guess how much it cost me to give her such advice, "I am afraid that in such cases there is nothing to be done. If you wish to save your pet you will have to pay. . ."
"Ah! but, Monsieur," she exclaimed tearfully, "you don't understand. Carissimo is all the world to me, and this is not the first time, nor yet the second, that he has been stolen from me. Three times, my good M. Ratichon, three times has he been stolen, and three times have I received such peremptory demands for money for his safe return; and every time the demand has been more and more exorbitant. Less than a month ago M. le Comte paid three thousand francs for his recovery."
"Monsieur le Comte?" I queried.
"My husband, Sir," she replied, with an exquisite air of hauteur. "M. le Comte de Nole de St. Pris."
"Ah, then," I continued calmly, "I fear me that Monsieur de Nole de St. Pris will have to pay again."
"But he won't!" she now cried out in a voice broken with sobs, and incontinently once more saturated her gossamer handkerchief with her tears.
"Then I see nothing for it, Madame," I rejoined, much against my will with a slight touch of impatience, "I see nothing for it but that yourself . . ."
"Ah! but, Monsieur," she retorted, with a sigh that would have melted a heart of stone, "that is just my difficulty. I cannot pay . . ."
"Madame," I protested.
"Oh! if I had money of my own," she continued, with an adorable gesture of impatience, "I would not worry. Mais voila: I have not a silver franc of my own to bless myself with. M. le Comte is over generous. He pays all my bills without a murmur—he pays my dressmaker, my furrier; he loads me with gifts and dispenses charity on a lavish scale in my name. I have horses, carriages, servants—everything I can possibly want and more, but I never have more than a few hundred francs to dispose of. Up to now I have never for a moment felt the want of money. To-day, when Carissimo is being lost to me, I feel the entire horror of my position."
"But surely, Madame," I urged, "M. le Comte . . ."
"No, Monsieur," she replied. "M. le Comte has flatly refused this time to pay these abominable thieves for the recovery of Carissimo. He upbraids himself for having yielded to their demands on the three previous occasions. He calls these demands blackmailing, and vows that to give them money again is to encourage them in their nefarious practices. Oh! he has been cruel to me, cruel!—for the first time in my life, Monsieur, my husband has made me unhappy, and if I lose my darling now I shall indeed be broken-hearted."
I was silent for a moment or two. I was beginning to wonder what part I should be expected to play in the tragedy which was being unfolded before me by this lovely and impecunious creature.
"Madame la Comtesse," I suggested tentatively, after a while, "your jewellery . . . you must have a vast number which you seldom wear . . . five thousand francs is soon made up. . . ."
You see, Sir, my hopes of a really good remunerative business had by now dwindled down to vanishing point. All that was left of them was a vague idea that the beautiful Comtesse would perhaps employ me as an intermediary for the sale of some of her jewellery, in which case . . . But already her next words disillusioned me even on that point.
"No, Monsieur," she said; "what would be the use? Through one of the usual perverse tricks of fate, M. le Comte would be sure to inquire after the very piece of jewellery of which I had so disposed, and moreover . . ."
"Moreover—yes, Mme. la Comtesse?"
"Moreover, my husband is right," she concluded decisively. "If I give in to those thieves to-day and pay them five thousand francs, they would only set to work to steal Carissimo again and demand ten thousand francs from me another time."
I was silent. What could I say? Her argument was indeed unanswerable.
"No, my good M. Ratichon," she said very determinedly after a while. "I have quite decided that you must confound those thieves. They have given me three days' grace, as you see in their abominable letter. If after three days the money is not forthcoming, and if in the meanwhile I dare to set a trap for them or in any way communicate with the police, my darling Carissimo will be killed and my heart be broken."
"Madame la Comtesse," I entreated, for of a truth I could not bear to see her cry again.
"You must bring Carissimo back to me, M. Ratichon," she continued peremptorily, "before those awful three days have elapsed."
"I swear that I will," I rejoined solemnly; but I must admit that I did it entirely on the spur of the moment, for of a truth I saw no prospect whatever of being able to accomplish what she desired.
"Without my paying a single louis to those execrable thieves," the exquisite creature went on peremptorily,
"It shall be done, Madame la Comtesse."
"And let me tell you," she now added, with the sweetest and archest of smiles, "that if you succeed in this, M. le Comte de Nole de St. Pris will gladly pay you the five thousand francs which he refuses to give to those miscreants."
Five thousand francs! A mist swam before my eyes,
"Mais, Madame la Comtesse . . ." I stammered.
"Oh!" she added, with an adorable uptilting of her little chin, "I am not promising what I cannot fulfil. M. le Comte de Nole only said this morning, apropos of dog thieves, that he would gladly give ten thousand francs to anyone who succeeded in ridding society of such pests."
I could have knelt down on the hard floor, Sir, and . . .
"Well then, Madame," was my ready rejoinder, "why not ten thousand francs to me?"
She bit her coral lips . . . but she also smiled. I could see that my personality and my manners had greatly impressed her.
"I will only be responsible for the first five thousand," she said lightly. "But, for the rest, I can confidently assure you that you will not find a miser in M. le Comte de Nole de St. Pris."
I could have knelt down on the hard floor, Sir, and kissed her exquisitely shod feet. Five thousand francs certain! Perhaps ten! A fortune, Sir, in those days! One that would keep me in comfort—nay, affluence, until something else turned up. I was swimming in the empyrean and only came rudely to earth when I recollected that I should have to give Theodore something for his share of the business. Ah! fortunately that for the moment he was comfortably out of the way! Thoughts that perhaps he had been murdered after all once more coursed through my brain: not unpleasantly, I'll admit. I would not have raised a finger to hurt the fellow, even though he had treated me with the basest ingratitude and treachery; but if someone else took the trouble to remove him, why indeed should I quarrel with fate?
Back I came swiftly to the happy present. The lovely creature was showing me a beautifully painted miniature of Carissimo, a King Charles spaniel of no common type. This she suggested that I should keep by me for the present for purposes of identification. After this we had to go into the details of the circumstances under which she had lost her pet. She had been for a walk with him, it seems, along the Quai Voltaire, and was returning home by the side of the river, when suddenly a number of workmen in blouses and peaked caps came trooping out of a side street and obstructed her progress. She had Carissimo on the lead, and she at once admitted to me that at first she never thought of connecting this pushing and jostling rabble with any possible theft. She held her ground for awhile, facing the crowd: for a few moments she was right in the midst of it, and just then she felt the dog straining at the lead. She turned round at once with the intention of picking him up, when to her horror she saw that there was only a bundle of something weighty at the end of the lead, and that the dog had disappeared.
The whole incident occurred, the lovely creature declared, within the space of thirty seconds; the next instant the crowd had scattered in several directions, the men running and laughing as they went. Mme. la Comtesse was left standing alone on the quay. Not a passer-by in sight, and the only gendarme visible, a long way down the Quai, had his back turned toward her. Nevertheless she ran and hied him, and presently he turned and, realizing that something was amiss, he too ran to meet her. He listened to her story, swore lustily, but shrugged his shoulders in token that the tale did not surprise him and that but little could be done. Nevertheless he at once summoned those of his colleagues who were on duty in the neighbourhood, and one of them went off immediately to notify the theft at the nearest commissariat of police. After which they all proceeded to a comprehensive scouring of the many tortuous sidestreets of the quartier; but, needless to say, there was no sign of Carissimo or of his abductors.
That night my lovely client went home distracted.
The following evening, when, broken-hearted, she wandered down the quays living over again the agonizing moments during which she lost her pet, a workman in a blue blouse, with a peaked cap pulled well over his eyes, lurched up against her and thrust into her hand the missive which she had just shown me. He then disappeared into the night, and she had only the vaguest possible recollection of his appearance.
That, Sir, was the substance of the story which the lovely creature told me in a voice oft choked with tears. I questioned her very closely and in my most impressive professional manner as to the identity of any one man among the crowd who might have attracted her attention, but all that she could tell me was that she had a vague impression of a wizened hunchback with evil face, shaggy red beard and hair, and a black patch covering the left eye.
Not much data to go on, you will, I think, admit, and I Can assure you, Sir, that had I not possessed that unbounded belief in myself which is the true hall-mark of genius, I would at the outset have felt profoundly discouraged.
As it was, I found just the right words of consolation and of hope wherewith to bow my brilliant client out of my humble apartments, and then to settle down to deep and considered meditation. Nothing, Sir, is so conducive to thought as a long, brisk walk through the crowded streets of Paris. So I brushed my coat, put on my hat at a becoming angle, and started on my way.
I walked as far as Suresnes, and I thought. After that, feeling fatigued, I sat on the terrace of the Cafe Bourbon, overlooking the river. There I sipped my coffee and thought. I walked back into Paris in the evening, and still thought, and thought, and thought. After that I had some dinner, washed down by an agreeable bottle of wine—did I mention that the lovely creature had given me a hundred francs on account?—then I went for a stroll along the Quai Voltaire, and I may safely say that there is not a single side and tortuous street in its vicinity that I did not explore from end to end during the course of that never to be forgotten evening.
But still my mind remained in a chaotic condition. I had not succeeded in forming any plan. What a quandary, Sir! Oh! what a quandary! Here was I, Hector Ratichon, the confidant of kings, the right hand of two emperors, set to the task of stealing a dog—for that is what I should have to do—from an unscrupulous gang of thieves whose identity, abode and methods were alike unknown to me. Truly, Sir, you will own that this was a herculean task.
Vaguely my thoughts reverted to Theodore. He might have been of good counsel, for he knew more about thieves than I did, but the ungrateful wretch was out of the way on the one occasion when he might have been of use to me who had done so much for him. Indeed, my reason told me that I need not trouble my head about Theodore. He had vanished; that he would come back presently was, of course, an indubitable fact; people like Theodore never vanish completely. He would come back and demand I know not what, his share, perhaps, in a business which was so promising even if it was still so vague.
Five thousand francs! A round sum! If I gave Theodore five hundred the sum would at once appear meagre, unimportant. Four thousand five hundred francs!—it did not even sound well to my mind.
So I took care that Theodore vanished from my mental vision as completely as he had done for the last two days from my ken, and as there was nothing more that could be done that evening, I turned my weary footsteps toward my lodgings at Passy.
All that night, Sir, I lay wakeful and tossing in my bed, alternately fuming and rejecting plans for the attainment of that golden goal—the recovery of Mme. de Nole's pet dog. And the whole of the next day I spent in vain quest. I visited every haunt of ill-fame known to me within the city. I walked about with a pistol in my belt, a hunk of bread and cheese in my pocket, and slowly growing despair in my heart.
In the evening Mme. la Comtesse de Nole called for news of Carissimo, and I could give her none. She cried, Sir, and implored, and her tears and entreaties got on to my nerves until I felt ready to fall into hysterics. One more day and all my chances of a bright and wealthy future would have vanished. Unless the money was forthcoming on the morrow, the dog would be destroyed, and with him my every hope of that five thousand francs. And though she still irradiated charm and luxury from her entire lovely person, I begged her not to come to the office again, and promised that as soon as I had any news to impart I would at once present myself at her house in the Faubourg St. Germain.
That night I never slept one wink. Think of it, Sir! The next few hours were destined to see me either a prosperous man for many days to come, or a miserable, helpless, disappointed wretch. At eight o'clock I was at my office. Still no news of Theodore. I could now no longer dismiss him from my mind. Something had happened to him, I could have no doubt. This anxiety, added to the other more serious one, drove me to a state bordering on frenzy. I hardly knew what I was doing. I wandered all day up and down the Quai Voltaire, and the Quai des Grands Augustins, and in and around the tortuous streets till I was dog-tired, distracted, half crazy.
I went to the Morgue, thinking to find there Theodore's dead body, and found myself vaguely looking for the mutilated corpse of Carissimo. Indeed, after a while Theodore and Carissimo became so inextricably mixed up in my mind that I could not have told you if I was seeking for the one or for the other and if Mme. la Comtesse de Nole was now waiting to clasp her pet dog or my man-of-all-work to her exquisite bosom.
She in the meanwhile had received a second, yet more peremptory, missive through the same channel as the previous one. A grimy deformed man, with ginger-coloured hair, and wearing a black patch over one eye, had been seen by one of the servants lolling down the street where Madame lived, and subsequently the concierge discovered that an exceedingly dirty scrap of paper had been thrust under the door of his lodge. The writer of the epistle demanded that Mme. la Comtesse should stand in person at six o'clock that same evening at the corner of the Rue Guenegaud, behind the Institut de France. Two men, each wearing a blue blouse and peaked cap, would meet her there. She must hand over the money to one of them, whilst the other would have Carissimo in his arms. The missive closed with the usual threats that if the police were mixed up in the affair, or the money not forthcoming, Carissimo would be destroyed.
Six o'clock was the hour fixed by these abominable thieves for the final doom of Carissimo. It was now close on five. In a little more than an hour my last hope of five or ten thousand francs and a smile of gratitude from a pair of lovely lips would have gone, never again to return. A great access of righteous rage seized upon me. I determined that those miserable thieves, whoever they were, should suffer for the disappointment which I was now enduring. If I was to lose five thousand francs, they at least should not be left free to pursue their evil ways. I would communicate with the police; the police should meet the miscreants at the corner of the Rue Guenegaud. Carissimo would die; his lovely mistress would be brokenhearted. I would be left to mourn yet another illusion of a possible fortune, but they would suffer in gaol or in New Caledonia the consequences of all their misdeeds.
Fortified by this resolution, I turned my weary footsteps in the direction of the gendarmerie where I intended to lodge my denunciation of those abominable thieves and blackmailers. The night was dark, the streets ill-lighted, the air bitterly cold. A thin drizzle, half rain, half snow, was descending, chilling me to the bone.
I was walking rapidly along the river bank with my coat collar pulled up to my ears, and still instinctively peering up every narrow street which debouches on the quay. Then suddenly I spied Theodore. He was coming down the Rue Beaune, slouching along with head bent in his usual way. He appeared to be carrying something, not exactly heavy, but cumbersome, under his left arm. Within the next few minutes he would have been face to face with me, for I had come to a halt at the angle of the street, determined to have it out with the rascal then and there in spite of the cold and in spite of my anxiety about Carissimo.
All of a sudden he raised his head and saw me, and in a second he turned on his heel and began to run up the street in the direction whence he had come. At once I gave chase. I ran after him—and then, Sir, he came for a second within the circle of light projected by a street lanthorn. But in that one second I had seen that which turned my frozen blood into liquid lava—a tail, Sir!—a dog's tail, fluffy and curly, projecting from beneath that recreant's left arm.
A dog, Sir! a dog! Carissimo! the darling of Mme. la Comtesse de Nole's heart! Carissimo, the recovery of whom would mean five thousand francs into my pocket! Carissimo! I knew it! For me there existed but one dog in all the world; one dog and one spawn of the devil, one arch-traitor, one limb of Satan! Theodore!
How he had come by Carissimo I had not time to con-conjecture. I called to him. I called his accursed name, using appellations which fell far short of those which he deserved. But the louder I called the faster he ran, and I, breathless, panting, ran after him, determined to run him to earth, fearful lest I should lose him in the darkness of the night. All down the Rue Beaune we ran, and already I could hear behind me the heavy and more leisured tramp of a couple of gendarmes who in their turn had started to give chase.
I tell you, Sir, the sound lent wings to my feet. A chance—a last chance—was being offered me by a benevolent Fate to earn that five thousand francs, the keystone to my future fortune. If I had the strength to seize and hold Theodore until the gendarmes came up, and before he had time to do away with the dog, the five thousand francs could still be mine.
So I ran, Sir, as I had never run before; the beads of perspiration poured down from my forehead; the breath came stertorous and hot from my heaving breast.
Then suddenly Theodore disappeared!
Disappeared, Sir, as if the earth had swallowed him up! A second ago I had seen him dimly, yet distinctly through the veil of snow and rain ahead of me, running with that unmistakable shuffling gait of his, hugging the dog closely under his arm. I had seen him—another effort and I might have touched him!—now the long and deserted street lay dark and mysterious before me, and behind me I could hear the measured tramp of the gendarmes and their peremptory call of "Halt, in the name of the King!"
But not in vain, Sir, am I called Hector Ratichon; not in vain have kings and emperors reposed confidence in my valour and my presence of mind. In less time than it takes to relate I had already marked with my eye the very spot—down the street—where I had last seen Theodore. I hurried forward and saw at once that my surmise had been correct. At that very spot, Sir, there was a low doorway which gave on a dark and dank passage. The door itself was open. I did not hesitate. My life stood in the balance but I did not falter. I might be affronting within the next second or two a gang of desperate thieves, but I did not quake.
I turned into that doorway, Sir; the next moment I felt a stunning blow between my eyes. I just remember calling out with all the strength of my lungs: "Police! Gendarmes! A moi!" Then nothing more.
I woke with the consciousness of violent wordy warfare carried on around me. I was lying on the ground, and the first things I saw were three or four pairs of feet standing close together. Gradually out of the confused hubbub a few sentences struck my reawakened senses.
"The man is drunk."
"I won't have him inside the house."
"I tell you this is a respectable house." This from a shrill feminine voice. "We've never had the law inside our doors before."
By this time I had succeeded in raising myself on my elbow, and, by the dim light of a hanging lamp somewhere down the passage, I was pretty well able to take stock of my surroundings.
The half-dozen bedroom candlesticks on a table up against the wall, the row of keys hanging on hooks fixed to a board above, the glass partition with the words "Concierge" and "Reception" painted across it, all told me that this was one of those small, mostly squalid and disreputable lodging houses or hotels in which this quarter of Paris still abounds.
The two gendarmes who had been running after me were arguing the matter of my presence here with the proprietor of the place and with the concierge.
I struggled to my feet. Whereupon for the space of a solid two minutes I had to bear as calmly as I could the abuse and vituperation which the feminine proprietor of this "respectable house" chose to hurl at my unfortunate head. After which I obtained a hearing from the bewildered minions of the law. To them I gave as brief and succinct a narrative as I could of the events of the past three days. The theft of Carissimo—the disappearance of Theodore—my meeting him a while ago, with the dog under his arm—his second disappearance, this time within the doorway of this "respectable abode," and finally the blow which alone had prevented me from running the abominable thief to earth.
The gendarmes at first were incredulous. I could see that they were still under the belief that my excitement was due to over-indulgence in alcoholic liquor, whilst Madame the proprietress called me an abominable liar for daring to suggest that she harboured thieves within her doors. Then suddenly, as if in vindication of my character, there came from a floor above the sound of a loud, shrill bark.
"Carissimo!" I cried triumphantly. Then I added in a rapid whisper, "Mme. la Comtesse de Nole is rich. She spoke of a big reward for the recovery of her pet."
These happy words had the effect of stimulating the zeal of the gendarmes. Madame the proprietress grew somewhat confused and incoherent, and finally blurted it out that one of her lodgers—a highly respectable gentleman—did keep a dog, but that there was no crime in that surely.
"One of your lodgers?" queried the representative of the law. "When did he come?"
"About three days ago," she replied sullenly.
"What room does he occupy?"
"Number twenty-five on the third floor."
"He came with his dog?" I interposed quickly, "a spaniel?"
"And your lodger, is he an ugly, slouchy creature—with hooked nose, bleary eyes and shaggy yellow hair?"
But to this she vouchsafed no reply.
Already the matter had passed out of my hands. One of the gendarmes prepared to go upstairs and bade me follow him, whilst he ordered his comrade to remain below and on no account to allow anyone to enter or leave the house. The proprietress and concierge were warned that if they interfered with the due execution of the law they would be severely dealt with; after which we went upstairs.
For a while, as we ascended, we could hear the dog barking furiously, then, presently, just as we reached the upper landing, we heard a loud curse, a scramble, and then a piteous whine quickly smothered.
My very heart stood still. The next moment, however, the gendarme had kicked open the door of No. 25, and I followed him into the room. The place looked dirty and squalid in the extreme—just the sort of place I should have expected Theodore to haunt. It was almost bare save for a table in the centre, a couple of rickety chairs, a broken-down bedstead and an iron stove in the corner. On the table a tallow candle was spluttering and throwing a very feeble circle of light around.
At first glance I thought that the room was empty, then suddenly I heard another violent expletive and became aware of a man sitting close beside the iron stove. He turned to stare at us as we entered, but to my surprise it was not Theodore's ugly face which confronted us. The man sitting there alone in the room where I had expected to see Theodore and Carissimo had a shaggy beard of an undoubted ginger hue. He had on a blue blouse and a peaked cap; beneath his cap his lank hair protruded more decided in colour even than his beard. His head was sunk between his shoulders, and right across his face, from the left eyebrow over the cheek and as far as his ear, he had a hideous crimson scar, which told up vividly against the ghastly pallor of his face.