But there was no sign of Theodore!
At first my friend the gendarme was quite urbane. He asked very politely to see Monsieur's pet dog. Monsieur denied all knowledge of a dog, which denial only tended to establish his own guilt and the veracity of mine own narrative. The gendarme thereupon became more peremptory and the man promptly lost his temper.
I, in the meanwhile, was glancing round the room and soon spied a wall cupboard which had obviously been deliberately screened by the bedstead. While my companion was bringing the whole majesty of the law to bear upon the miscreant's denegations I calmly dragged the bedstead aside and opened the cupboard door.
An ejaculation from my quivering throat brought the gendarme to my side. Crouching in the dark recess of the wall cupboard was Carissimo—not dead, thank goodness! but literally shaking with terror. I pulled him out as gently as I could, for he was so frightened that he growled and snapped viciously at me. I handed him to the gendarme, for by the side of Carissimo I had seen something which literally froze my blood within my veins. It was Theodore's hat and coat, which he had been wearing when I chased him to this house of mystery and of ill-fame, and wrapped together with it was a rag all smeared with blood, whilst the same hideous stains were now distinctly visible on the door of the cupboard itself.
I turned to the gendarme, who at once confronted the abominable malefactor with the obvious proofs of a horrible crime. But the depraved wretch stood by, Sir, perfectly calm and with a cynicism in his whole bearing which I had never before seen equalled!
"I know nothing about that coat," he asserted with a shrug of the shoulders, "nor about the dog."
The gendarme by this time was purple with fury.
"Not know anything about the dog?" he exclaimed in a voice choked with righteous indignation. "Why, he . . . he barked!"
But this indisputable fact in no way disconcerted the miscreant.
"I heard a dog yapping," he said with consummate impudence, "but I thought he was in the next room. No wonder," he added coolly, "since he was in a wall cupboard."
"A wall cupboard," the gendarme rejoined triumphantly, "situated in the very room which you occupy at this moment."
"That is a mistake, my friend," the cynical wretch retorted, undaunted. "I do not occupy this room. I do not lodge in this hotel at all."
"Then how came you to be here?"
"I came on a visit to a friend who happened to be out when I arrived. I found a pleasant fire here, and I sat down to warm myself. Your noisy and unwarranted irruption into this room has so bewildered me that I no longer know whether I am standing on my head or on my heels."
"We'll show you soon enough what you are standing on, my fine fellow," the gendarme riposted with breezy, cheerfulness. "Allons!"
I must say that the pampered minion of the law arose splendidly to the occasion. He seized the miscreant by the arm and took him downstairs, there to confront him with the proprietress of the establishment, while I—with marvellous presence of mind—took possession of Carissimo and hid him as best I could beneath my coat.
In the hall below a surprise and a disappointment were in store for me. I had reached the bottom of the stairs when the shrill feminine accents of Mme. the proprietress struck unpleasantly on my ear.
"No! no! I tell you!" she was saying. "This man is not my lodger. He never came here with a dog. There," she added volubly, and pointing an unwashed finger at Carissimo who was struggling and growling in my arms, "there is the dog. A gentleman brought him with him last Wednesday, when he inquired if he could have a room here for a few nights. Number twenty-five happened to be vacant, and I have no objection to dogs. I let the gentleman have the room, and he paid me twenty sous in advance when he took possession and told me he would keep the room three nights."
"The gentleman? What gentleman?" the gendarme queried, rather inanely I thought.
"My lodger," the woman replied. "He is out for the moment, but he will be back presently I make no doubt. The dog is his. . . ."
"What is he like?" the minion of the law queried abruptly.
"Who? the dog?" she retorted impudently.
"No, no! Your lodger."
Once more the unwashed finger went up and pointed straight at me.
"He described him well enough just now; thin and slouchy in his ways. He has lank, yellow hair, a nose perpetually crimson—with the cold no doubt—and pale, watery eyes. . . ."
"Theodore," I exclaimed mentally.
Bewildered, the gendarme pointed to his prisoner.
"But this man . . . ?" he queried.
"Why," the proprietress replied. "I have seen Monsieur twice, or was it three times? He would visit number twenty-five now and then."
I will not weary you with further accounts of the close examination to which the representative of the law subjected the personnel of the squalid hotel. The concierge and the man of all work did indeed confirm what the proprietress said, and whilst my friend the gendarme —puzzled and floundering—was scratching his head in complete bewilderment, I thought that the opportunity had come for me to slip quietly out by the still open door and make my way as fast as I could to the sumptuous abode in the Faubourg St. Germain, where the gratitude of Mme. de Nole, together with five thousand francs, were even now awaiting me.
After Madame the proprietress had identified Carissimo, I had once more carefully concealed him under my coat. I was ready to seize my opportunity, after which I would be free to deal with the matter of Theodore's amazing disappearance. Unfortunately just at this moment the little brute gave a yap, and the minion of the law at once interposed and took possession of him.
"The dog belongs to the police now, Sir," he said sternly.
The fatuous jobbernowl wanted his share of the reward, you see.
Having been forced thus to give up Carissimo, and with him all my hopes of a really substantial fortune, I was determined to make the red-polled miscreant suffer for my disappointment, and the minions of the law sweat in the exercise of their duty.
I demanded Theodore! My friend, my comrade, my right hand! I had seen him not ten minutes ago, carrying in his arms this very dog, whom I had subsequently found inside a wall cupboard beside a blood-stained coat. Where was Theodore? Pointing an avenging finger at the red-headed reprobate, I boldly accused him of having murdered my friend with a view to robbing him of the reward offered for the recovery of the dog.
This brought a new train of thought into the wooden pates of the gendarmes. A quartet of them had by this time assembled within the respectable precincts of the Hotel des Cadets. One of them—senior to the others—at once dispatched a younger comrade to the nearest commissary of police for advice and assistance.
Then he ordered us all into the room pompously labelled "Reception," and there proceeded once more to interrogate us all, making copious notes in his leather-bound book all the time, whilst I, moaning and lamenting the loss of my faithful friend and man of all work, loudly demanded the punishment of his assassin.
Theodore's coat, his hat, the blood-stained rag, had all been brought down from No. 25 and laid out upon the table ready for the inspection of M. the Commissary of Police.
That gentleman arrived with two private agents, armed with full powers and wrapped in the magnificent imperturbability of the law. The gendarme had already put him au fait of the events, and as soon as he was seated behind the table upon which reposed the "pieces de conviction," he in his turn proceeded to interrogate the ginger-pated miscreant.
But strive how he might, M. the Commissary elicited no further information from him than that which we all already possessed. The man gave his name as Aristide Nicolet. He had no fixed abode. He had come to visit his friend who lodged in No. 25 in the Hotel des Cadets. Not finding him at home he had sat by the fire and had waited for him. He knew absolutely nothing of the dog and absolutely nothing of the whereabouts of Theodore.
"We'll soon see about that!" asserted M. the Commissary.
He ordered a perquisition of every room and every corner of the hotel, Madame the proprietress loudly lamenting that she and her respectable house would henceforth be disgraced for ever. But the thieves—whoever they were—were clever. Not a trace of any illicit practice was found on the premises—and not a trace of Theodore.
Had he indeed been murdered? The thought now had taken root in my mind. For the moment I had even forgotten Carissimo and my vanished five thousand francs.
Well, Sir! Aristide Nicolet was marched off to the depot—still protesting his innocence. The next day he was confronted with Mme. la Comtesse de Nole, who could not say more than that he might have formed part of the gang who had jostled her on the Quai Voltaire, whilst the servant who had taken the missive from him failed to recognize him.
Carissimo was restored to the arms of his loving mistress, but the reward for his recovery had to be shared between the police and myself: three thousand francs going to the police who apprehended the thief, and two thousand to me who had put them on the track.
It was not a fortune, Sir, but I had to be satisfied. But in the meanwhile the disappearance of Theodore had remained an unfathomable mystery. No amount of questionings and cross-questionings, no amount of confrontations and perquisitions, had brought any new matter to light. Aristide Nicolet persisted in his statements, as did the proprietress and the concierge of the Hotel des Cadets in theirs. Theodore had undoubtedly occupied room No. 25 in the hotel during the three days while I was racking my brain as to what had become of him. I equally undoubtedly saw him for a few moments running up the Rue Beaune with Carissimo's tail projecting beneath his coat. Then he entered the open doorway of the hotel, and henceforth his whereabouts remained a baffling mystery.
Beyond his coat and hat, the stained rag and the dog himself, there was not the faintest indication of what became of him after that. The concierge vowed that he did not enter the hotel—Aristide Nicolet vowed that he did not enter No. 25. But then the dog was in the cupboard, and so were the hat and coat; and even the police were bound to admit that in the short space of time between my last glimpse of Theodore and the gendarme's entry into room 25 it would be impossible for the most experienced criminal on earth to murder a man, conceal every trace of the crime, and so to dispose of the body as to baffle the most minute inquiry and the most exhaustive search.
Sometimes when I thought the whole matter out I felt that I was growing crazy.
Thus about a week or ten days went by and I had just come reluctantly to the conclusion that there must be some truth in the old mediaeval legends which tell us that the devil runs away with his elect from time to time, when I received a summons from M. the Commissary of Police to present myself at his bureau.
He was pleasant and urbane as usual, but to my anxious query after Theodore he only gave me the old reply: "No trace of him can be found."
Then he added: "We must therefore take it for granted, my good M. Ratichon, that your man of all work is—of his own free will—keeping out of the way. The murder theory is untenable; we have had to abandon it. The total disappearance of the body is an unanswerable argument against it. Would you care to offer a reward for information leading to the recovery of your missing friend?"
I hesitated. I certainly was not prepared to pay anyone for finding Theodore.
"Think it over, my good M. Ratichon," rejoined M. le Commissaire pleasantly. "But in the meanwhile I must tell you that we have decided to set Aristide Nicolet free. There is not a particle of evidence against him either in the matter of the dog or of that of your friend. Mme. de Nole's servants cannot swear to his identity, whilst you have sworn that you last saw the dog in your man's arms. That being so, I feel that we have no right to detain an innocent man."
Well, Sir, what could I say? I knew well enough that there was not a tittle of solid evidence against the man Nicolet, nor had I the power to move the police of His Majesty the King from their decision. In my heart of hearts I had the firm conviction that the ginger-polled ruffian knew all about Carissimo and all about the present whereabouts of that rascal Theodore. But what could I say, Sir? What could I do?
I went home that night to my lodgings at Passy more perplexed than ever I had been in my life before.
The next morning I arrived at my office soon after nine. The problem had presented itself to me during the night of finding a new man of all work who would serve me on the same terms as that ungrateful wretch Theodore.
I mounted the stairs with a heavy step and opened the outer door of my apartment with my private key; and then, Sir, I assure you that for one brief moment I felt that my knees were giving way under me and that I should presently measure my full length on the floor.
There, sitting at the table in my private room, was Theodore. He had donned one of the many suits of clothes which I always kept at the office for purposes of my business, and he was calmly consuming a luscious sausage which was to have been part of my dinner today, and finishing a half-bottle of my best Bordeaux.
He appeared wholly unconscious of his enormities, and when I taxed him with his villainies and plied him with peremptory questions he met me with a dogged silence and a sulky attitude which I have never seen equalled in all my life. He flatly denied that he had ever walked the streets of Paris with a dog under his arm, or that I had ever chased him up the Rue Beaune. He denied ever having lodged in the Hotel des Cadets, or been acquainted with its proprietress, or with a red-polled, hunchback miscreant named Aristide Nicolet. He denied that the coat and hat found in room No. 25 were his; in fact, he denied everything, and with an impudence, Sir, which was past belief.
But he put the crown to his insolence when he finally demanded two hundred francs from me: his share in the sum paid to me by Mme. de Nole for the recovery of her dog. He demanded this, Sir, in the name of justice and of equity, and even brandished our partnership contract in my face.
I was so irate at his audacity, so disgusted that presently I felt that I could not bear the sight of him any longer. I turned my back on him and walked out of my own private room, leaving him there still munching my sausage and drinking my Bordeaux.
I was going through the antechamber with a view to going out into the street for a little fresh air when something in the aspect of the chair-bedstead on which that abominable brute Theodore had apparently spent the night attracted my attention. I turned over one of the cushions, and with a cry of rage which I took no pains to suppress I seized upon what I found lying beneath: a blue linen blouse, Sir, a peaked cap, a ginger-coloured wig and beard!
The villain! The abominable mountebank! The wretch! The . . . I was wellnigh choking with wrath.
With the damning pieces of conviction in my hand, I rushed back into the inner room. Already my cry of indignation had aroused the vampire from his orgy. He stood before me sheepish, grinning, and taunted me, Sir—taunted me for my blindness in not recognizing him under the disguise of the so-called Aristide Nicolet.
It was a disguise which he had kept by him in case of an emergency when first he decided to start business as a dog thief. Carissimo had been his first serious venture and but for my interference it would have been a wholly successful one. He had worked the whole thing out with marvellous cleverness, being greatly assisted by Madame Sand, the proprietress of the Hotel des Cadets, who was a friend of his mother's. The lady, it seems, carried on a lucrative business of the same sort herself, and she undertook to furnish him with the necessary confederates for the carrying out of his plan. The proceeds of the affair were to be shared equally between himself and Madame; the confederates, who helped to jostle Mme. de Nole whilst her dog was being stolen, were to receive five francs each for their trouble.
When he met me at the corner of the Rue Beaune he was on his way to the Rue Guenegaud, hoping to exchange Carissimo for five thousand francs. When he met me, however, he felt that the best thing to do for the moment was to seek safety in flight. He had only just time to run back to the hotel to warn Mme. Sand of my approach and beg her to detain me at any cost. Then he flew up the stairs, changed into his disguise, Carissimo barking all the time furiously. Whilst he was trying to pacify the dog, the latter bit him severely in the arm, drawing a good deal of blood—the crimson scar across his face was a last happy inspiration which put the finishing touch to his disguise and to the hoodwinking of the police and of me. He had only just time to staunch the blood from his arm and to thrust his own clothes and Carissimo into the wall cupboard when the gendarme and I burst in upon him.
I could only gasp. For one brief moment the thought rushed through my mind that I would denounce him to the police for . . . for . . .
But that was just the trouble. Of what could I accuse him? Of murdering himself or of stealing Mme. de Nole's dog? The commissary would hardly listen to such a tale . . . and it would make me seem ridiculous. . . .
So I gave Theodore the soundest thrashing he ever had in his life, and fifty francs to keep his mouth shut.
But did I not tell you that he was a monster of ingratitude?
You are right, Sir, I very seldom speak of my halcyon days—those days when the greatest monarch the world has ever known honoured me with his intimacy and confidence. I had my office in the Rue St. Roch then, at the top of a house just by the church, and not a stone's throw from the palace, and I can tell you, Sir, that in those days ministers of state, foreign ambassadors, aye! and members of His Majesty's household, were up and down my staircase at all hours of the day. I had not yet met Theodore then, and fate was wont to smile on me.
As for M. le Duc d'Otrante, Minister of Police, he would send to me or for me whenever an intricate case required special acumen, resourcefulness and secrecy. Thus in the matter of the English files—have I told you of it before? No? Well, then, you shall hear.
Those were the days, Sir, when the Emperor's Berlin Decrees were going to sweep the world clear of English commerce and of English enterprise. It was not a case of paying heavy duty on English goods, or a still heavier fine if you smuggled; it was total prohibition, and hanging if you were caught bringing so much as a metre of Bradford cloth or half a dozen Sheffield files into the country. But you know how it is, Sir: the more strict the law the more ready are certain lawless human creatures to break it. Never was smuggling so rife as it was in those days—I am speaking now of 1810 or 11—never was it so daring or smugglers so reckless.
M. le Duc d'Otrante had his hands full, I can tell you. It had become a matter for the secret police; the coastguard or customs officials were no longer able to deal with it.
Then one day Hypolite Leroux came to see me. I knew the man well—a keen sleuthhound if ever there was one—and well did he deserve his name, for he was as red as a fox.
"Ratichon," he said to me, without preamble, as soon as he had seated himself opposite to me, and I had placed half a bottle of good Bordeaux and a couple of glasses on the table. "I want your help in the matter of these English files. We have done all that we can in our department. M. le Duc has doubled the customs personnel on the Swiss frontier, the coastguard is both keen and efficient, and yet we know that at the present moment there are thousands of English files used in this country, even inside His Majesty's own armament works. M. le Duc d'Otrante is determined to put an end to the scandal. He has offered a big reward for information which will lead to the conviction of one or more of the chief culprits, and I am determined to get that reward—with your help, if you will give it."
"What is the reward?" I asked simply.
"Five thousand francs," he replied. "Your knowledge of English and Italian is what caused me to offer you a share in this splendid enterprise—"
"It's no good lying to me, Leroux," I broke in quietly, "if we are going to work amicably together."
"The reward is ten thousand francs." I made the shot at a venture, knowing my man well.
"I swear that it is not," he asserted hotly.
"Swear again," I retorted, "for I'll not deal with you for less than five thousand."
He did swear again and protested loudly. But I was firm.
"Have another glass of wine," I said.
After which he gave in.
The affair was bound to be risky. Smugglers of English goods were determined and desperate men who were playing for high stakes and risking their necks on the board. In all matters of smuggling a knowledge of foreign languages was an invaluable asset. I spoke Italian well and knew some English. I knew my worth. We both drank a glass of cognac and sealed our bond then and there.
After which Leroux drew his chair closer to my desk.
"Listen, then," he said. "You know the firm of Fournier Freres, in the Rue Colbert?"
"By name, of course. Cutlers and surgical instrument makers by appointment to His Majesty. What about them?"
"M. le Duc has had his eyes on them for some time."
"Fournier Freres!" I ejaculated. "Impossible! A more reputable firm does not exist in France."
"I know, I know," he rejoined impatiently. "And yet it is a curious fact that M. Aristide Fournier, the junior partner, has lately bought for himself a house at St. Claude."
"At St. Claude?" I ejaculated.
"Yes," he responded dryly. "Very near to Gex, what?"
I shrugged my shoulders, for indeed the circumstances did appear somewhat strange.
Do you know Gex, my dear Sir? Ah, it is a curious and romantic spot. It has possibilities, both natural and political, which appear to have been expressly devised for the benefit of the smuggling fraternity. Nestling in the midst of the Jura mountains, it is outside the customs zone of the Empire. So you see the possibilities, do you not? Gex soon became the picturesque warehouse of every conceivable kind of contraband goods. On one side of it there was the Swiss frontier, and the Swiss Government was always willing to close one eye in the matter of customs provided its palm was sufficiently greased by the light-fingered gentry. No difficulty, therefore, as you see, in getting contraband goods—even English ones—as far as Gex.
Here they could be kept hidden until a fitting opportunity occurred for smuggling them into France, opportunities for which the Jura, with their narrow defiles and difficult mountain paths, afforded magnificent scope. St. Claude, of which Leroux had just spoken as the place where M. Aristide Fournier had recently bought himself a house, is in France, only a few kilometres from the neutral zone of Gex. It seemed a strange spot to choose for a wealthy and fashionable member of Parisian bourgeois society, I was bound to admit.
"But," I mused, "one cannot go to Gex without a permit from the police."
"Not by road," Leroux assented. "But you will own that there are means available to men who are young and vigorous like M. Fournier, who moreover, I understand, is an accomplished mountaineer. You know Gex, of course?"
I had crossed the Jura once, in my youth, but was not very intimately familiar with the district. Leroux had a carefully drawn-out map of it in his pocket; this he laid out before me.
"These two roads," he began, tracing the windings of a couple of thin red lines on the map with the point of his finger, "are the only two made ones that lead in and out of the district. Here is the Valserine," he went on, pointing to a blue line, "which flows from north to south, and both the roads wind over bridges that span the river close to our frontier. The French customs stations are on our side of those bridges. But, besides those two roads, the frontier can, of course, be crossed by one or other of the innumerable mountain tracks which are only accessible to pedestrians or mules. That is where our customs officials are powerless, for the tracks are precipitous and offer unlimited cover to those who know every inch of the ground. Several of them lead directly into St. Claude, at some considerable distance from the customs stations, and it is these tracks which are being used by M. Aristide Fournier for the felonious purpose of trading with the enemy—on this I would stake my life. But I mean to be even with him, and if I get the help which I require from you, I am convinced that I can lay him by the heels."
"I am your man," I concluded simply.
"Very well," he resumed. "Are you prepared to journey with me to Gex?"
"When do you start?"
"I shall be ready."
He gave a deep sigh of satisfaction.
"Then listen to my plan," he said. "We'll journey together as far as St. Claude; from there you will push on to Gex, and take up your abode in the city, styling yourself an interpreter. This will give you the opportunity of mixing with some of the smuggling fraternity, and it will be your duty to keep both your eyes and ears open. I, on the other hand, will take up my quarters at Mijoux, the French customs station, which is on the frontier, about half a dozen kilometres from Gex. Every day I'll arrange to meet you, either at the latter place or somewhere half-way, and hear what news you may have to tell me. And mind, Ratichon," he added sternly, "it means running straight, or the reward will slip through our fingers."
I chose to ignore the coarse insinuation, and only riposted quietly:
"I must have money on account. I am a poor man, and will be out of pocket by the transaction from the hour I start for Gex to that when you pay me my fair share of the reward."
By way of a reply he took out a case from his pocket. I saw that it was bulging over with banknotes, which confirmed me in my conviction both that he was actually an emissary of the Minister of Police and that I could have demanded an additional thousand francs without fear of losing the business.
"I'll give you five hundred on account," he said as he licked his ugly thumb preparatory to counting out the money before me.
"Make it a thousand," I retorted; "and call it 'additional,' not 'on account.'"
He tried to argue.
"I am not keen on the business," I said with calm dignity, "so if you think that I am asking too much—there are others, no doubt, who would do the work for less."
It was a bold move. But it succeeded. Leroux laughed and shrugged his shoulders. Then he counted out ten hundred-franc notes and laid them out upon the desk. But before I could touch them he laid his large bony hands over the lot and, looking me straight between the eyes, he said with earnest significance:
"English files are worth as much as twenty francs apiece in the market."
"Fournier Freres would not take the risks which they are doing for a consignment of less than ten thousand."
"I doubt if they would," I rejoined blandly.
"It will be your business to find out how and when the smugglers propose to get their next consignment over the frontier."
"And to communicate any information you may have obtained to me."
"And to keep an eye on the valuable cargo, of course?" I concluded.
"Yes," he said roughly, "an eye. But hands off, understand, my good Ratichon, or there'll be trouble."
He did not wait to hear my indignant protest. He had risen to his feet, and had already turned to go. Now he stretched his great coarse hand out to me.
"All in good part, eh?"
I took his hand. He meant no harm, did old Leroux. He was just a common, vulgar fellow who did not know a gentleman when he saw one.
And we parted the best of friends.
A week later I was at Gex. At St. Claude I had parted from Leroux, and then hired a chaise to take me to my destination. It was a matter of fifteen kilometres by road over the frontier of the customs zone and through the most superb scenery I had ever seen in my life. We drove through narrow gorges, on each side of which the mountain heights rose rugged and precipitous to incalculable altitudes above. From time to time only did I get peeps of almost imperceptible tracks along the declivities, tracks on which it seemed as if goats alone could obtain a footing. Once—hundreds of feet above me—I spied a couple of mules descending what seemed like a sheer perpendicular path down the mountain side. The animals appeared to be heavily laden, and I marvelled what forbidden goods lay hidden within their packs and whether in the days that were to come I too should be called upon to risk my life on those declivities following in the footsteps of the reckless and desperate criminals whom it was my duty to pursue.
I confess that at the thought, and with those pictures of grim nature before me, I felt an unpleasant shiver coursing down my spine.
Nothing of importance occurred during the first fortnight of my sojourn at Gex. I was installed in moderately comfortable, furnished rooms in the heart of the city, close to the church and market square. In one of my front windows, situated on the ground floor, I had placed a card bearing the inscription: "Aristide Barrot, Interpreter," and below, "Anglais, Allemand, Italien." I had even had a few clients—conversations between the local police and some poor wretches caught in the act of smuggling a few yards of Swiss silk or a couple of cream cheeses over the French frontier, and sent back to Gex to be dealt with by the local authorities.
Leroux had found lodgings at Mijoux, and twice daily he walked over to Gex to consult with me. We met, mornings and evenings, at the cafe restaurant of the Crane Chauve, an obscure little tavern situated on the outskirts of the city. He was waxing impatient at what he called my supineness, for indeed so far I had had nothing to report.
There was no sign of M. Aristide Fournier. No one in Gex appeared to know anything about him, though the proprietor of the principal hotel in the town did recollect having had a visitor of that name once or twice during the past year. But, of course, during this early stage of my stay in the town it was impossible for me to believe anything that I was told. I had not yet succeeded in winning the confidence of the inhabitants, and it was soon pretty evident to me that the whole countryside was engaged in the perilous industry of smuggling. Everyone from the mayor downwards did a bit of a deal now and again in contraband goods. In ordinary cases it only meant fines if one was caught, or perhaps imprisonment for repeated offenses.
But four or five days after my arrival at Gex I saw three fellows handed over to the police of the department. They had been caught in the act of trying to ford the Valserine with half a dozen pack-mules laden with English cloth. They were hanged at St. Claude two days later.
I can assure you, Sir, that the news of this summary administration of justice sent another cold shiver down my spine, and I marvelled if indeed Leroux's surmises were correct and if a respectable tradesman like Aristide Fournier would take such terrible risks even for the sake of heavy gains.
I had been in Gex just a fortnight when the weather, which hitherto had been splendid, turned to squalls and storms. We were then in the second week of September. A torrential rain had fallen the whole of one day, during which I had only been out in order to meet Leroux, as usual, at the Cafe du Crane Chauve. I had just come home from our evening meeting—it was then ten o'clock—and I was preparing to go comfortably to bed, when I was startled by a violent ring at the front-door bell.
I had only just time to wonder if this belated visitor desired to see me or my worthy landlady, Mme. Bournon, when her heavy footsteps resounded along the passage. The next moment I heard my name spoken peremptorily by a harsh voice, and Mme. Bournon's reply that M. Aristide Barrot was indeed within. A few seconds later she ushered my nocturnal visitor into my room.
He was wrapped in a dark mantle from head to foot, and he wore a wide-brimmed hat pulled right over his eyes. He did not remove either as he addressed me without further preamble.
"You are an interpreter, Sir?" he queried, speaking very rapidly and in sharp commanding tones.
"At your service," I replied.
"My name is Ernest Berty. I want you to come with me at once to my house. I require your services as intermediary between myself and some men who have come to see me on business. These men whom I wish you to see are Russians," he added, I fancied as an afterthought, "but they speak English fluently."
I suppose that I looked just as I felt—somewhat dubious owing to the lateness of the hour and the darkness of the night, not to speak of the abominable weather, for he continued with marked impatience:
"It is imperative that you should come at once. Though my house is at some little distance from here, I have a chaise outside which will also bring you back, and," he added significantly, "I will pay you whatever you demand."
"It is very late," I demurred, "the weather—"
"Your fee, man!" he broke in roughly, "and let's get on!"
"Five hundred francs," I said at a venture.
"Come!" was his curt reply. "I will give you the money as we drive along."
I wished I had made it a thousand; apparently my services were worth a great deal to him. However, I picked up my mantle and my hat, and within a few seconds was ready to go. I shouted up to Mme. Bournon that I would not be home for a couple of hours, but that as I had my key I need not disturb her when I returned.
Once outside the door I almost regretted my ready acquiescence in this nocturnal adventure. The rain was beating down unmercifully, and at first I saw no sign of a vehicle; but in answer to my visitor's sharp command I followed him down the street as far as the market square, at the corner of which I spied the dim outline of a carriage and a couple of horses.
Without wasting too many words, M. Ernest Berty bundled me into the carriage, and very soon we were on the way. The night was impenetrably dark and the chaise more than ordinarily rickety. I had but little opportunity to ascertain which way we were going. A small lanthorn fixed opposite to me in the interior of the carriage, and flickering incessantly before my eyes, made it still more impossible for me to see anything outside the narrow window. My companion sat beside me, silent and absorbed. After a while I ventured to ask him which way we were driving.
"Through the town," he replied curtly. "My house is just outside Divonne."
Now, Divonne is, as I knew, quite close to the Swiss frontier. It is a matter of seven or eight kilometres—an hour's drive at the very least in this supremely uncomfortable vehicle. I tried to induce further conversation, but made no headway against my companion's taciturnity. However, I had little cause for complaint in another direction. After the first quarter of an hour, and when we had left the cobblestones of the city behind us, he drew a bundle of notes from his pocket, and by the flickering light of the lanthorn he counted out ten fifty-franc notes and handed them without another word to me.
The drive was unspeakably wearisome; but after a while I suppose that the monotonous rumbling of the wheels and the incessant patter of the rain against the window-panes lulled me into a kind of torpor. Certain it is that presently—much sooner than I had anticipated—the chaise drew up with a jerk, and I was roused to full consciousness by hearing M. Berty's voice saying curtly:
"Here we are! Come with me!"
I was stiff, Sir, and I was shivering—not so much with cold as with excitement. You will readily understand that all my faculties were now on the qui vive. Somehow or other during the wearisome drive by the side of my close-tongued companion my mind had fastened on the certitude that my adventure of this night bore a close connexion to the firm of Fournier Freres and to the English files which were causing so many sleepless nights to M. le Duc d'Otrante, Minister of Police.
But nothing in my manner, as I stepped out of the carriage under the porch of the house which loomed dark and massive out of the surrounding gloom, betrayed anything of what I felt. Outwardly I was just a worthy bourgeois, an interpreter by profession, and delighted at the remunerative work so opportunely put in my way.
The house itself appeared lonely as well as dark. M. Berty led the way across a narrow passage, at the end of which there was a door which he pushed open, saying in his usual abrupt manner: "Go in there and wait. I'll send for you directly."
Then he closed the door on me, and I heard his footsteps recrossing the corridor and presently ascending some stairs. I was left alone in a small, sparsely furnished room, dimly lighted by an oil lamp which hung down from the ceiling. There was a table in the middle of the room, a square of carpet on the floor, and a couple of chairs beside a small iron stove. I noticed that the single window was closely shuttered and barred. I sat down and waited. At first the silence around me was only broken by the pattering of the rain against the shutters and the soughing of the wind down the iron chimney pipe, but after a little while my senses, which by this time had become super-acute, were conscious of various noises within the house itself: footsteps overhead, a confused murmur of voices, and anon the unmistakable sound of a female voice raised as if in entreaty or in complaint.
Somehow a vague feeling of alarm possessed itself of my nervous system. I began to realise my position—alone, a stranger in a house as to whose situation I had not the remotest idea, and among a set of men who, if my surmises were correct, were nothing less than a gang of determined and dangerous criminals. The voices, especially the female one, were now sounding more clear. I tiptoed to the door, and very gently opened it. There was indeed no mistaking the tone of desperate pleading which came from some room above and through & woman's lips. I even caught the words: "Oh, don't! Oh, don't! Not again!" repeated at intervals with pitiable insistence.
Mastering my not unnatural anxiety, I opened the door a little farther and slipped out into the passage, all my instincts of chivalry towards beauty in distress aroused by those piteous cries. Forgetful of every possible danger and of all prudence, I had already darted down the corridor, determined to do my duty as a gentleman as soon as I had ascertained whence had come those cries of anguish, when I heard the frou-frou of skirts and a rapid patter of small feet down the stairs. The next moment a radiant vision, all white muslin, fair curls and the scent of violets, descended on me from above, a soft hand closed over mine and drew me, unresisting, back into the room from whence I had just come.
Bewildered, I gazed on the winsome apparition before me, and beheld a young girl, slender as a lily, dressed in a soft, clinging gown which made her appear more slender still, her fair hair arranged in a tangle of unruly curls round the dainty oval of her face.
She was exquisite, Sir! And the slenderness of her! You cannot imagine it! She looked like a young sapling bending to the gale. But what cut me to the heart was the look of terror and of misery in her face. She clasped her hands together and the tears gathered in her eyes.
"Go, Sir, go at once!" she murmured under her breath, speaking very rapidly. "Do not waste a minute, I beg of you! As you value your life, go before it is too late!"
"But, Mademoiselle," I stammered; for indeed her words and appearance had roused all my worst fears, but also all my instincts of the sleuth-hound scenting his quarry.
"Don't argue, I beg of you," continued the lovely creature, who indeed seemed the prey of overwhelming emotions—fear, horror, pity. "When he comes back do not let him find you here. I'll explain, I'll know what to say, only I entreat you—go!"
Sir, I have many faults, but cowardice does not happen to be one of them, and the more the angel pleaded the more determined was I to see this business through. I was, of course, quite convinced by now that I was on the track of M. Aristide Fournier and the English files, and I was not going to let five thousand francs and the gratitude of the Minister of Police slip through my fingers so easily.
"Mademoiselle," I rejoined as calmly as I could, "let me assure you that though your anxiety for me is like manna to a starving man, I have no fears for my own safety. I have come here in the capacity of a humble interpreter; I certainly am not worth putting out of the way. Moreover, I have been paid for my services, and these I will render to my employer to the best of my capabilities."
"Ah, but you don't know," she retorted, not departing one jot from her attitude of terror and of entreaty, "you don't understand. This house, Monsieur," she added in a hoarse whisper, "is nothing but a den of criminals wherein no honest man or woman is safe."
"Pardon, Mademoiselle," I riposted as lightly and as gallantly as I could, "I see before me the living proof that angels, at any rate, dwell therein."
"Alas! Sir," she rejoined, with a heart-rending sigh, "if you mean me, I am only to be pitied. My dear mother and I are naught but slaves to the will of my brother, who uses us as tools for his nefarious ends."
"But . . ." I stammered, horrified beyond speech at the vista of villainy which her words had opened up before me.
"My mother, Sir," she said simply, "is old and ailing; she is dying of anguish at sight of her son's misdeeds. I would not, could not leave her, yet I would give my life to see her free from that miscreant's clutches!"
My whole soul was stirred to its depths by the intensity of passion which rang through this delicate creature's words. What weird and awesome mystery of iniquity and of crime lay hid, I wondered, between these walls? In what tragedy had I thus accidentally become involved while fulfilling my prosaic duty in the interest of His Majesty's exchequer? As in a flash it suddenly came to me that perhaps I could serve both this lovely creature and the Emperor better by going out of the house now, and lying hidden all the night through somewhere in its vicinity until in daylight I could locate its exact situation. Then I could communicate with Leroux at once and procure the apprehension of this Berty—or Fournier—who apparently was a desperate criminal. Already a bold plan was taking shape in my brain, and with my mind's eye I had measured the distance which separated me from the front door and safety when, in the distance, I heard heavy footsteps slowly descending the stairs. I looked at my lovely companion, and saw her eyes gradually dilating with increased horror. She gave a smothered cry, pressed her handkerchief to her lips, then she murmured hoarsely, "Too late!" and fled precipitately from the room, leaving me a prey to mingled emotions such as I had never experienced before.
A moment or two later M. Ernest Berty, or whatever his real name may have been, entered the room. Whether he had encountered his exquisite sister on the corridor or the stairs, I could not tell; his face, in the dim light of the hanging lamp, looked impenetrable and sinister.
"This way, M. Barrot," he said curtly.
Just for one brief moment the thought occurred to me to throw myself upon him with my whole weight—which was considerable—and make a wild dash for the front door. But it was more than probable that I should be intercepted and brought back, after which no doubt I would be an object of suspicion to these rascals and my life would not be worth an hour's purchase. With the young girl's warnings ringing in my ears, I felt that my one chance of safety and of circumventing these criminals lay in my seeming ingenuousness and complete guileless-ness.
I assumed a perfect professional manner and followed my companion up the stairs. He ushered me into a room just above the one where I had been waiting up to now. Three men dressed in rough clothes were sitting at a table on which stood a couple of tankards and four empty pewter mugs. My employer offered me a glass of ale, which I declined. Then we got to work.
At the first words which M. Berty uttered I knew that all my surmises had been correct. Whether he himself was M. Aristide Fournier, or another partner of that firm, or some other rascal engaged in nefarious doings, I could not know; certain it was that through the medium of cipher words and phrases which he thought were unintelligible to me, and which he ordered me to interpret into English, he was giving directions to the three men with regard to the convoying of contraband cargo over the frontier.
There was much talk of "toys" and "babies"—the latter were to take a walk in the mountains and to avoid the "thorns"; the "toys" were to be securely fastened and well protected against water. It was obviously a case of mules and of the goods, the "thorns" being the customs officials. By the time that we had finished I was absolutely convinced in my mind that the cargo was one of English files or razors, for it was evidently extraordinarily valuable and not at all bulky, seeing that two "babies" were to carry all the "toys" for a considerable distance. The men, too, were obviously English. I tried the few words of Russian that I knew on them, and their faces remained perfectly blank.
Yes, indeed, I was on the track of M. Aristide Fournier, and of one of the most important hauls of enemy goods which had ever been made in France. Not only that. I had also before me one of the most brutish criminals it had ever been my misfortune to come across. A bully, a fiend of cruelty. In very truth my fertile brain was seething with plans for eventually laying that abominable ruffian by the heels: hanging would be a merciful punishment for such a miscreant. Yes, indeed, five thousand francs—a goodly sum in those days, Sir—was practically assured me. But over and above mere lucre there was the certainty that in a few days' time I should see the light of gratitude shining out of a pair of lustrous blue eyes, and a winning smile chasing away the look of fear and of sorrow from the sweetest face I had seen for many a day.
Despite the turmoil that was raging in my brain, however, I flatter myself that my manner with the rascals remained consistently calm, businesslike, indifferent to all save to the work in hand. The soi-disant Ernest Berty spoke invariably in French, either dictating his orders or seeking information, and I made verbal translation into English of all that he said. The seance lasted close upon an hour, and presently I gathered that the affair was terminated and that I could consider myself dismissed.
I was about to take my leave, having apparently completed my work, when M. Ernest Berty called me back with a curt command.
"One moment, M. Barrot," he said.
"At Monsieur's service," I responded blandly.
"As you see," he continued, "these fellows do not know a word of French. All along the way which they will have to traverse they will meet friendly outposts, who will report to them on the condition of the roads and warn them of any danger that might be ahead. Their ignorance of our language may be a source of infinite peril to them. They need an interpreter to accompany them over the mountains."
He paused for a moment or two, then added abruptly:
"Would you care to go? The matter is important," he went on quietly, "and I am willing to pay you. It means a couple of nights' journey—a halt in the mountains during the day—and there will be ten thousand francs for you if the 'toys' reach St. Claude safely."
I suppose that something in my face betrayed the eagerness which I felt. Here was indeed the finger of Providence pointing to the best means of undoing this abominable criminal. Not that I intended to risk my neck for any ten thousand francs he chose to offer me, but as the trusted guide of his ingenuous "babies" I could convoy them—not to St. Claude, as he blandly believed, but straight into the arms of Leroux and the customs officials.
"Then that is understood," he said in his usual dictatorial manner, taking my consent for granted. "Ten thousand francs. And you will accompany these gentlemen and their 'babies' as far as St. Claude?"
"I am a poor man, Sir," I responded meekly.
"Of course you are," he broke in roughly.
Then from a number of papers which lay upon the table, he selected one which he held out to me.
"Do you know St. Cergues?" he asked.
"Yes," I replied. "It is a short walk from Gex."
"This," he added, pointing to a paper which I had taken from him, "is a plan of the village and of the Pass of Cergues close by. Study it carefully. At some point some way up the pass, which I have marked with a cross, I and my men with the 'babies' will be waiting for you to-morrow evening at eight o'clock. You cannot possibly fail to find the spot, for the plan is very accurate and very minute, and it is less than five hundred metres from the last house at the entrance of the pass. I shall escort the men until then, and hand them over into your charge for the mountain journey. Is that clear?"
"Very well, then; you may go. The carriage is outside the door. You know your way."
He dismissed me with a curt nod, and the next two minutes saw me outside this house of mystery and installed inside the ramshackle vehicle on my way back to my lodgings.
I was worn out with fatigue and excitement, and I imagine that I slept most of the way. Certain it is that the journey home was not nearly so long as the outward one had been. The rain was still coming down heavily, but I cared nothing about the weather, nothing about fatigue. My path to fame and fortune had been made easier for me than in my wildest dreams I would have dared to hope. In the morning I would see Leroux and make final arrangements for the capture of those impudent smugglers, and I thought the best way would be for him to meet me and the "babies" and the "toys" at the very outset of our journey, as I did not greatly relish the idea of crossing lonely and dangerous mountain paths in the company of these ruffians.
I reached home without adventure. The vehicle drew up just outside my lodgings, and I was about to alight when my eyes were attracted by something white which lay on the front seat of the carriage, conspicuously placed so that the light from the inside lanthorn fell full upon it. I had been too tired and too dazed, I suppose, to notice the thing before, but now, on closer inspection, I saw that it was a note, and that it was addressed to me: "M. Aristide Barrot, Interpreter," and below my name were the words: "Very urgent."
I took the note feeling a thrill of excitement running through my veins at its touch. I alighted, and the vehicle immediately disappeared into the night. I had only caught one glimpse of the horses, and none at all of the coachman. Then I went straight into my room, and by the light of the table lamp I unfolded and read the mysterious note. It bore no signature, but at the first words I knew that the writer was none other than the lovely young creature who had appeared to me like an angel of innocence in the midst of that den of thieves.
* * * * *
"Monsieur," she had written in a hand which had clearly been trembling with agitation, "you are good, you are kind; I entreat you to be merciful. My dear mother, whom I worship, is sick with terror and misery. She will die if she remains any longer under the sway of that inhuman monster who, alas! is my own brother. And if I lose her I shall die, too, for I should no longer have anyone to stand between me and his cruelties.
"My dear mother has some relations living at St. Claude. She would have gone to them before now, but my brother keeps us both virtual prisoners here, and we have no means of arranging for such a perilous journey for ourselves. Now, by the most extraordinary stroke of good fortune, my brother will be absent all day to-morrow and the following night. My dear mother and I feel that God Himself is showing us the way to our release.
"Will you, can you help us, dear M. Barrot? Mother and I will be at Gex to-morrow at one hour after sundown. We will lie perdu in the little Taverne du Roi de Rome, where, if you come to us, you will find us waiting anxiously. If you can do nothing to help us, we must return broken-hearted to our hated prison; but something in my heart tells me that you can help us. All that we want is a vehicle of some sort and the escort of a brave man like yourself as far as St. Claude, where our relatives will thank you on their knees for your kindness and generosity to two helpless, miserable, unprotected women, and I will kiss your hands in unbounded gratitude and devotion."
* * * * *
It were impossible, Monsieur, to tell you of the varied emotions which filled my heart when I had perused that heart-rending appeal. All my instincts of chivalry were aroused. I was determined to do my duty to these helpless ladies as a man and as a gallant knight. Even before I finally went to bed I had settled in my mind what I meant to do. Fortunately it was quite possible for me to reconcile my duties to my Emperor and those which I owed to myself in the matter of the reward for the apprehension of the smugglers, with my burning desire to be the saviour and protector of the lovely creature whose beauty had inflamed my impressionable heart, and to have my hands kissed by her in gratitude and devotion.
The next morning Leroux and I were deep in our plans, whilst we sipped our coffee outside the Crane Chauve. He was beside himself with joy and excitement at the prospective haul, which would, of course, redound enormously to his credit, even though the success of the whole undertaking would be due to my acumen, my resourcefulness and my pluck. Fortunately I found him not only ready but eager to render me what assistance he could in the matter of the two ladies who had thrown themselves so entirely on my protection.
"We might get valuable information out of them," he remarked. "In the excess of their gratitude they may betray many more secrets and nefarious doings of the firm of Fournier Freres."
"Which further proves," I remarked, "how deeply you and Monsieur le Ministre of Police are indebted to me over this affair."
He did not argue the point. Indeed, we were both of us far too much excited to waste words in useless bickerings. Our plans for the evening were fairly simple. We both pored over the map which Fournier-Berty had given me, until we felt that we could reach blindfolded the spot which had been marked with a cross. We then arranged that Leroux should betake himself thither with a strong posse of gendarmes during the day, and lie hidden in the vicinity until such time as I myself appeared upon the scene, identified my friends of the night before, parleyed with them for a minute or two, and finally retired, leaving the law in all its majesty, as represented by Leroux, to deal with the rascals.
In the meantime I also mapped out for myself my own share in this night's adventurous work. I had hired a vehicle to take me as far as St. Cergues; here I intended to leave it at the local inn, and then proceed on foot up the mountain pass to the appointed spot. As soon as I had seen the smugglers safely in the hands of Leroux and the gendarmes, I would make my way back to St. Cergues as rapidly as I could, step into my vehicle, drive like the wind back to Gex, and place myself at the disposal of my fair angel and her afflicted mother.
Leroux promised me that at the customs station on the French frontier the officials would look after me and the ladies, and that a pair of fresh horses would be ready to take us straight on to St. Claude, which, if all was well, we could then reach by daybreak.
Having settled all these matters we parted company, he to arrange his own affairs with the Commissary of Police and the customs officials, and I to await with as much patience as I could the hour when I could start for St. Cergues.
The night—just as I anticipated—promised to be very dark. A thin drizzle, which wetted the unfortunate pedestrian to the marrow, had replaced the torrential rain of the previous day.
Twilight was closing in very fast. In the late autumn afternoon I drove to St. Cergues, after which I left the chaise in the village and boldly started to walk up the mountain pass. I had studied the map so carefully that I was quite sure of my way, but though my appointment with the rascals was for eight o'clock, I wished to reach the appointed spot before the last flicker of grey light had disappeared from the sky.
Soon I had left the last house well behind me. Boldly I plunged into the narrow path. The loneliness of the place was indescribable. Every step which I took on the stony track seemed to rouse the echoes of the grim heights which rose precipitously on either side of me, and in my mind I felt aghast at the extraordinary courage of those men who—like Aristide Fournier and his gang—chose to affront such obvious and manifold dangers as these frowning mountain regions held for them for the sake of paltry lucre.
I had walked, according to my reckoning, just upon five hundred metres through the gorge, when on ahead I perceived the flicker of lights which appeared to be moving to and fro. The silence and loneliness no longer seemed to be absolute. A few metres from where I was men were living and breathing, plotting and planning, unconscious of the net which the unerring hand of a skilful fowler had drawn round them and their misdeeds.
The next moment I was challenged by a peremptory "Halt!" Recognition followed. M. Ernest Berty, or Aristide Fournier, whichever he was, acknowledged with a few words my punctuality, whilst through the gloom I took rapid stock of his little party. I saw the vague outline of three men and a couple of mules which appeared to be heavily laden. They were assembled on a flat piece of ground which appeared like a roofless cavern carved out of the mountain side. The walls of rock around them afforded them both cover and refuge. They seemed in no hurry to start. They had the long night before them, so one of them remarked in English.
However, presently M. Fournier-Berty gave the signal for the start to be made, he himself preparing to take leave of his men. Just at that moment my ears caught the welcome sound of the tramping of feet, and before any of the rascals there could realise what was happening, their way was barred by Leroux and his gendarmes, who loudly gave the order, "Hands up, in the name of the Emperor!"
I was only conscious of a confused murmur of voices, of the click of firearms, of words of command passing to and fro, and of several violent oaths uttered in the not unfamiliar voice of M. Aristide Fournier. But already I had spied Leroux. I only exchanged a few words with him, for indeed my share of the evening's work was done as far as he was concerned, and I made haste to retrace my steps through the darkness and the rain along the lonely mountain path toward the goal where chivalry and manly ardour beckoned to me from afar.
I found my vehicle waiting for me at St. Cergues, and by the promise of an additional pourboire, I succeeded in making the driver whip up his horses to some purpose. Less than an hour later we drew up at Gex outside the little inn, pretentiously called Le Roi de Rome. On alighting I was met by the proprietress who, in answer to my inquiry after two ladies who had arrived that afternoon, at once conducted me upstairs.
Already my mind was busy conjuring up visions of the fair lady of yester-eve. The landlady threw open a door and ushered me into a small room which reeked of stale food and damp clothes. I stepped in and found myself face to face with a large and exceedingly ugly old woman who rose with difficulty from the sofa as I entered.
"M. Aristide Barrot," she said as soon as the landlady had closed the door behind me.
"At your service, Madame," I stammered. "But—"
I was indeed almost aghast. Never in my life had I seen anything so grotesque as this woman. To begin with she was more than ordinarily stout and unwieldy—indeed, she appeared like a veritable mountain of flesh; but what was so disturbing to my mind was that she was nothing but a hideous caricature of her lovely daughter, whose dainty features she grotesquely recalled. Her face was seamed and wrinkled, her white hair was plastered down above her yellow forehead. She wore an old-fashioned bonnet tied under her chin, and her huge bulk was draped in a large-patterned cashmere shawl.
"You expected to see my dear daughter beside me, my good M. Barrot," she said after a while speaking with remarkable gentleness and dignity.
"I confess, Madame—" I murmured.
"Ah! the darling has sacrificed herself for my sake. We found to-day that though my son was out of the way, he had set his abominable servants to watch over us. Soon we realized that we could not both get away. It meant one of us staying behind to act the part of unconcern and to throw dust in the eyes of our jailers. My daughter—ah! she is an angel, Monsieur—feared that the disappointment and my son's cruelty, when he returned on the morrow and found that he had been tricked, would seriously endanger my life. She decided that I must go and that she would remain."
"But, Madame—" I protested.
"I know, Monsieur," she rejoined with the same calm dignity which already had commanded my respect, "I know that you think me a selfish old woman; but my Angele—she is an angel, of a truth!—made all the arrangements, and I could not help but obey her. But have no fears for her safety, Monsieur. My son would not dare lay hands on her as often as he has done on me. Angele will be brave, and our relations at St. Claude will, directly we arrive, make arrangements to go and fetch her and bring her back to me. My brother is an influential man; he would never have allowed my son to martyrize me and Angele had he known what we have had to endure."
Of course I could not then tell her that all her fears for herself and the lovely Angele could now be laid to rest. Her ruffianly son was even now being conveyed by Leroux and his gendarmes to the frontier, where the law would take its course. I was indeed not sorry for him. I was not sorry to think that he would end his evil life upon the guillotine or the gallows. I was only grieved for Angele who would spend a night and a day, perhaps more, in agonized suspense, knowing nothing of the events which at one great swoop would free her and her beloved mother from the tyranny of a hated brother and send him to expiate his crimes. Not only did I grieve, Sir, for the tender victim of that man's brutality, but I trembled for her safety. I did not know what minions or confederates Fournier-Berty had left in the lonely house yonder, or under what orders they were in case he did not return from his nocturnal expedition.
Indeed for the moment I felt so agitated at thought of that beautiful angel's peril that I looked down with anger and scorn at the fat old woman who ought to have remained beside her daughter to comfort and to shield her.
I was on the point of telling her everything, and dragging her back to her post of duty which she should never have relinquished. Fortunately my sense of what I owed to my own professional dignity prevented my taking such a step. It was clearly not for me to argue. My first duty was to stand by this helpless woman in distress, who had been committed to my charge, and to convey her safely to St. Claude. After which I could see to it that Mademoiselle Angele was brought along too as quickly as influential relatives could contrive.
In the meanwhile I derived some consolation from the thought that at any rate for the next four and twenty hours the lovely creature would be safe. No news of the arrest of Aristide Fournier could possibly reach the lonely house until I myself could return thither and take her under my protection.
So I said nothing; but with perfect gallantry, just as if fat Mme. Fournier had been a young and beautiful woman, I begged her to give herself the trouble of mounting into the carriage which was waiting for her.
It took time and trouble, Sir, to hoist that mass of solid flesh into the vehicle, and the driver grumbled not a little at the unexpected weight. However, his horses were powerful, wiry, mountain ponies, and we made headway through the darkness and along the smooth, departmental road at moderate speed. I may say that it was a miserably uncomfortable journey for me, sitting, as I was forced to do, on the narrow front seat of the carriage, without support for my head or room for my legs. But Madame's bulk filled the whole of the back seat, and it never seemed to enter her head that I too might like the use of a cushion. However, even the worst moments and the weariest journeys must come to an end, and we reached the frontier in the small hours of the morning. Here we found the customs officials ready to render us any service we might require. Leroux had not failed to order the fresh relay of horses, and whilst these were being put to, the polite officers of the station gave Madame and myself some excellent coffee. Beyond the formal: "Madame has nothing to declare for His Majesty's customs?" and my companion's equally formal: "Nothing, Monsieur, except my personal belongings," they did not ply us with questions, and after half an hour's halt we again proceeded on our way.
We reached St. Claude at daybreak, and following Madame's directions, the driver pulled up in front of a large house in the Avenue du Jura. Again there was the same difficulty in hoisting the unwieldy lady out of the vehicle, but this time, in response to my vigorous pull at the outside bell, the concierge and another man came out of the house, and very respectfully they approached Madame and conveyed her into the house.
While they did so she apparently gave them some directions about myself, for anon the concierge returned, and with extreme politeness told me that Madame Fournier greatly hoped that I would stay in St. Claude a day or two as she had the desire to see me again very soon. She also honoured me with an invitation to dine with her that same evening at seven of the clock. This was the first time, I noticed, that the name Fournier was actually used in connexion with any of the people with whom I had become so dramatically involved. Not that I had ever doubted the identity of the ruffianly Ernest Berty; still it was very satisfactory to have my surmises confirmed. I concluded that the fine house in the Avenue du Jura belonged to Mme. Fournier's brother, and I vaguely wondered who he was. The invitation to dinner had certainly been given in her name, and the servants had received her with a show of respect which suggested that she was more than a guest in her brother's house.
Be that as it may, I betook myself for the nonce to the Hotel des Moines in the centre of the town and killed time for the rest of the day as best I could. For one thing I needed rest after the emotions and the fatigue of the past forty-eight hours. Remember, Sir, I had not slept for two nights and had spent the last eight hours on the narrow front seat of a jolting chaise. So I had a good rest in the afternoon, and at seven o'clock I presented myself once more at the house in the Avenue du Jura.
My intention was to retire early to bed after spending an agreeable evening with the family, who would no doubt overwhelm me with their gratitude, and at daybreak I would drive back to Gex after I had heard all the latest news from Leroux.
I confess that it was with a pardonable feeling of agitation that I tugged at the wrought-iron bell-pull on the perron of the magnificent mansion in the Avenue du Jura. To begin with I felt somewhat rueful at having to appear before ladies at this hour in my travelling clothes, and then, you will admit, Sir, that it was a somewhat awkward predicament for a man of highly sensitive temperament to meet on terms of equality a refined if stout lady whose son he had just helped to send to the gallows. Fortunately there was no likelihood of Mme. Fournier being as yet aware of this unpleasant fact: even if she did know at this hour that her son's illicit adventure had come to grief, she could not possibly in her mind connect me with his ill-fortune. So I allowed the sumptuous valet to take my hat and coat and I followed him with as calm a demeanour as I could assume up the richly carpeted stairs. Obviously the relatives of Mme. Fournier were more than well to do. Everything in the house showed evidences of luxury, not to say wealth. I was ushered into an elegant salon wherein every corner showed traces of dainty feminine hands. There were embroidered silk cushions upon the sofa, lace covers upon the tables, whilst a work basket, filled with a riot of many coloured silks, stood invitingly open. And through the apartment, Sir, a scent of violets lingered and caressed my nostrils, reminding me of a beauteous creature in distress whom it had been my good fortune to succour.
I had waited less than five minutes when I heard a swift, elastic step approaching through the next room, and a second or so later, before I had time to take up an appropriate posture, the door was thrown open and the exquisite vision of my waking dreams—the beautiful Angele— stood smiling before me.
"Mademoiselle," I stammered somewhat clumsily, for of a truth I was hardly able to recover my breath, and surprise had well nigh robbed me of speech, "how comes it that you are here?"
She only smiled in reply, the most adorable smile I had ever seen on any human face, so full of joy, of mischief—aye, of triumph, was it. I asked after Madame. Again she smiled, and said Madame was in her room, resting from the fatigues of her journey. I had scarce recovered from my initial surprise when another—more complete still—confronted me. This was the appearance of Monsieur Aristide Fournier, whom I had fondly imagined already expiating his crimes in a frontier prison, but who now entered, also smiling, also extremely pleasant, who greeted me as if we were lifelong friends, and who then—I scarce could believe my eyes—placed his arm affectionately round his sister's waist, while she turned her sweet face up to his and gave him a fond—nay, a loving look. A loving look to him who was a brute and a bully and a miscreant amenable to the gallows! True his appearance was completely changed: his eyes were bright and kindly, his mouth continued to smile, his manner was urbane in the extreme when he finally introduced himself to me as: "Aristide Fournier, my dear Monsieur Ratichon, at your service."
He knew my name, he knew who I was! whilst I . . . I had to pass my hand once or twice over my forehead and to close and reopen my eyes several times, for, of a truth, it all seemed like a dream. I tried to stammer out a question or two, but I could only gasp, and the lovely Angele appeared highly amused at my distress.
"Let us dine," she said gaily, "after which you may ask as many questions as you like."
In very truth I was in no mood for dinner. Puzzlement and anxiety appeared to grip me by the throat and to choke me. It was all very well for the beautiful creature to laugh and to make merry. She had cruelly deceived me, played upon the chords of my sensitive heart for purposes which no doubt would presently be made clear, but in the meanwhile since the smuggling of the English files had been successful—as it apparently was—what had become of Leroux and his gendarmes?
What tragedy had been enacted in the narrow gorge of St. Cergues, and what, oh! what had become of my hopes of that five thousand francs for the apprehension of the smugglers, promised me by Leroux? Can you wonder that for the moment the very thought of dinner was abhorrent to me? But only for the moment. The next a sumptuous valet had thrown open the folding-doors, and down the vista of the stately apartment I perceived a table richly laden with china and glass and silver, whilst a distinctly savoury odour was wafted to my nostrils.
"We will not answer a single question," the fair Angele reiterated with adorable determination, "until after we have dined."
What, Sir, would you have done in my place? I believe that never until this hour had Hector Ratichon reached to such a sublimity of manner. I bowed with perfect dignity in token of obedience to the fair creature, Sir; then without a word I offered her my arm. She placed her hand upon it, and I conducted her to the dining-room, whilst Aristide Fournier, who at this hour should have been on a fair way to being hanged, followed in our wake.
Ah! it seemed indeed a lovely dream: one that lasted through an excellent and copious dinner, and which turned to delightful reality when, over a final glass of succulent Madeira, Monsieur Aristide Fournier slowly counted out one hundred notes, worth one hundred francs each, and presented these to me with a gracious nod.
"Your fee, Monsieur," he said, "and allow me to say that never have I paid out so large a sum with such a willing hand."
"But I have done nothing," I murmured from out the depths of my bewilderment.
Mademoiselle Angele and Monsieur Fournier looked at one another, and, no doubt, I presented a very comical spectacle; for both of them burst into an uncontrollable fit of laughter.
"Indeed, Monsieur," quoth Monsieur Fournier as soon as he could speak coherently, "you have done everything that you set out to do and done it with perfect chivalry. You conveyed 'the toys' safely over the frontier as far as St. Claude."
"But how?" I stammered, "how?"
Again Mademoiselle Angele laughed, and through the ripples of her laughter came her merry words:
"Maman was very fat, was she not, my good Monsieur Ratichon? Did you not think she was extraordinarily like me?"
I caught the glance in her eyes, and they were literally glowing with mischief. Then all of a sudden I understood. She had impersonated a fat mother, covered her lovely face with lines, worn a disfiguring wig and an antiquated bonnet, and round her slender figure she had tucked away thousands of packages of English files. I could only gasp. Astonishment, not to say admiration, at her pluck literally took my breath away.
"But, Monsieur Berty?" I murmured, my mind in a turmoil, my thoughts running riot through my brain. "The Englishmen, the mules, the packs?"
"Monsieur Berty, as you see, stands before you now in the person of Monsieur Fournier," she replied. "The Englishmen were three faithful servants who threw dust not only in your eyes, my dear M. Ratichon, but in those of the customs officials, while the packs contained harmless personal luggage which was taken by your friend and his gendarmes to the customs station at Mijoux, and there, after much swearing, equally solemnly released with many apologies to M. Fournier, who was allowed to proceed unmolested on his way, and who arrived here safely this afternoon, whilst Maman divested herself of her fat and once more became the slender Mme. Aristide Fournier, at your service."
She bobbed me a dainty curtsy, and I could only try and hide the pain which this last cruel stab had inflicted on my heart. So she was not "Mademoiselle" after all, and henceforth it would even be wrong to indulge in dreams of her.
But the ten thousand francs crackled pleasantly in my breast pocket, and when I finally took leave of Monsieur Aristide Fournier and his charming wife, I was an exceedingly happy man.
But Leroux never forgave me. Of what he suspected me I do not know, or if he suspected me at all. He certainly must have known about fat Maman from the customs officials who had given us coffee at Mijoux.
But he never mentioned the subject to me at all, nor has he spoken to me since that memorable night. To one of his colleagues he once said that no words in his vocabulary could possibly be adequate to express his feelings.
HONOUR AMONG ———
Ah, my dear Sir, it is easy enough to despise our profession, but believe me that all the finer qualities—those of loyalty and of truth—are essential, not only to us, but to our subordinates, if we are to succeed in making even a small competence out of it.
Now let me give you an instance. Here was I, Hector Ratichon, settled in Paris in that eventful year 1816 which saw the new order of things finally swept aside and the old order resume its triumphant sway, which saw us all, including our God-given King Louis XVIII, as poor as the proverbial church mice and as eager for a bit of comfort and luxury as a hungry dog is for a bone; the year which saw the army disbanded and hordes of unemployed and unemployable men wandering disconsolate and half starved through the country seeking in vain for some means of livelihood, while the Allied troops, well fed and well clothed, stalked about as if the sacred soil of France was so much dirt under their feet; the year, my dear Sir, during which more intrigues were hatched and more plots concocted than in any previous century in the whole history of France. We were all trying to make money, since there was so precious little of it about. Those of us who had brains succeeded, and then not always.
Now, I had brains—I do not boast of them; they are a gift from Heaven—but I had them, and good looks, too, and a general air of strength, coupled with refinement, which was bound to appeal to anyone needing help and advice, and willing to pay for both, and yet—but you shall judge.
You know my office in the Rue Daunou, you have been in it—plainly furnished; but, as I said, these were not days of luxury. There was an antechamber, too, where that traitor, blackmailer and thief, Theodore, my confidential clerk in those days, lodged at my expense and kept importunate clients at bay for what was undoubtedly a liberal salary—ten per cent, on all the profits of the business—and yet he was always complaining, the ungrateful, avaricious brute!
Well, Sir, on that day in September—it was the tenth, I remember—1816, I must confess that I was feeling exceedingly dejected. Not one client for the last three weeks, half a franc in my pocket, and nothing but a small quarter of Strasburg patty in the larder. Theodore had eaten most of it, and I had just sent him out to buy two sous' worth of stale bread wherewith to finish the remainder. But after that? You will admit, Sir, that a less buoyant spirit would not have remained so long undaunted.
I was just cursing that lout Theodore inwardly, for he had been gone half an hour, and I strongly suspected him of having spent my two sous on a glass of absinthe, when there was a ring at the door, and I, Hector Ratichon, the confidant of kings and intimate counsellor of half the aristocracy in the kingdom, was forced to go and open the door just like a common lackey.
But here the sight which greeted my eyes fully compensated me for the temporary humiliation, for on the threshold stood a gentleman who had wealth written plainly upon his fine clothes, upon the dainty linen at his throat and wrists, upon the quality of his rich satin necktie and the perfect set of his fine cloth pantaloons, which were of an exquisite shade of dove-grey. When, then, the apparition spoke, inquiring with just a sufficiency of aristocratic hauteur whether M. Hector Ratichon were in, you cannot be surprised, my dear Sir, that my dejection fell from me like a cast-off mantle and that all my usual urbanity of manner returned to me as I informed the elegant gentleman that M. Ratichon was even now standing before him, and begged him to take the trouble to pass through into my office.
This he did, and I placed a chair in position for him. He sat down, having previously dusted the chair with a graceful sweep of his lace-edged handkerchief. Then he raised a gold-rimmed eyeglass to his right eye with a superlatively elegant gesture, and surveyed me critically for a moment or two ere he said:
"I am told, my good M. Ratichon, that you are a trustworthy fellow, and one who is willing to undertake a delicate piece of business for a moderate honorarium."
Except for the fact that I did not like the word "moderate," I was enchanted with him.
"Rumour for once has not lied, Monsieur," I replied in my most attractive manner.
"Well," he rejoined—I won't say curtly, but with businesslike brevity, "for all purposes connected with the affair which I desire to treat with you my name, as far as you are concerned, shall be Jean Duval. Understand?"
"Perfectly, Monsieur le Marquis," I replied with a bland smile.
It was a wild guess, but I don't think that I underestimated my new client's rank, for he did not wince.
"You know Mlle. Mars?" he queried.
"The actress?" I replied. "Perfectly."
"She is playing in Le Reve at the Theatre Royal just now."
"In the first and third acts of the play she wears a gold bracelet set with large green stones."
"I noticed it the other night. I had a seat in the parterre, I may say."
"I want that bracelet," broke in the soi-disant Jean Duval unceremoniously. "The stones are false, the gold strass. I admire Mlle. Mars immensely. I dislike seeing her wearing false jewellery. I wish to have the bracelet copied in real stones, and to present it to her as a surprise on the occasion of the twenty-fifth performance of Le Reve. It will cost me a king's ransom, and her, for the time being, an infinite amount of anxiety. She sets great store by the valueless trinket solely because of the merit of its design, and I want its disappearance to have every semblance of a theft. All the greater will be the lovely creature's pleasure when, at my hands, she will receive an infinitely precious jewel the exact counterpart in all save its intrinsic value of the trifle which she had thought lost."
It all sounded deliciously romantic. A flavour of the past century—before the endless war and abysmal poverty had killed all chivalry in us—clung to this proposed transaction. There was nothing of the roturier, nothing of a Jean Duval, in this polished man of the world who had thought out this subtle scheme for ingratiating himself in the eyes of his lady fair.
I murmured an appropriate phrase, placing my services entirely at M. le Marquis's disposal, and once more he broke in on my polished diction with that brusquerie which betrayed the man accustomed to be silently obeyed.
"Mlle. Mars wears the bracelet," he said, "during the third act of Le Reve. At the end of the act she enters her dressing-room, and her maid helps her to change her dress. During this entr'acte Mademoiselle with her own hands puts by all the jewellery which she has to wear during the more gorgeous scenes of the play. In the last act—the finale of the tragedy—she appears in a plain stuff gown, whilst all her jewellery reposes in the small iron safe in her dressing-room. It is while Mademoiselle is on the stage during the last act that I want you to enter her dressing-room and to extract the bracelet out of the safe for me."
"I, M. le Marquis?" I stammered. "I, to steal a—"
"Firstly, M.—er—er—Ratichon, or whatever your confounded name may be," interposed my client with inimitable hauteur, "understand that my name is Jean Duval, and if you forget this again I shall be under the necessity of laying my cane across your shoulders and incidentally to take my business elsewhere. Secondly, let me tell you that your affectations of outraged probity are lost on me, seeing that I know all about the stolen treaty which—"
"Enough, M. Jean Duval," I said with a dignity equal, if not greater, than his own; "do not, I pray you, misunderstand me. I am ready to do you service. But if you will deign to explain how I am to break open an iron safe inside a crowded building and extract therefrom a trinket, without being caught in the act and locked up for house-breaking and theft, I shall be eternally your debtor."
"The extracting of the trinket is your affair," he rejoined dryly. "I will give you five hundred francs if you bring the bracelet to me within fourteen days."
"But—" I stammered again.
"Your task will not be such a difficult one after all. I will give you the duplicate key of the safe."
He dived into the breast pocket of his coat, and drew from it a somewhat large and clumsy key, which he placed upon my desk.
"I managed to get that easily enough," he said nonchalantly, "a couple of nights ago, when I had the honour of visiting Mademoiselle in her dressing-room. A piece of wax in my hand, Mademoiselle's momentary absorption in her reflection while her maid was doing her hair, and the impression of the original key was in my possession. But between taking a model of the key and the actual theft of the bracelet out of the safe there is a wide gulf which a gentleman cannot bridge over. Therefore, I choose to employ you, M.—er—er—Ratichon, to complete the transaction for me."
"For five hundred francs?" I queried blandly.
"It is a fair sum," he argued.
"Make it a thousand," I rejoined firmly, "and you shall have the bracelet within fourteen days."
He paused a moment in order to reflect; his steel-grey eyes, cool and disdainful, were fixed searchingly on my face. I pride myself on the way that I bear that kind of scrutiny, so even now I looked bland and withal purposeful and capable.
"Very well," he said, after a few moments, and he rose from his chair as he spoke; "it shall be a thousand francs, M.—er—er—Ratichon, and I will hand over the money to you in exchange for the bracelet—but it must be done within fourteen days, remember."
I tried to induce him to give me a small sum on account. I was about to take terrible risks, remember; housebreaking, larceny, theft—call it what you will, it meant the police correctionelle and a couple of years in New Orleans for sure. He finally gave me fifty francs, and once more threatened to take his business elsewhere, so I had to accept and to look as urbane and dignified as I could.
He was out of the office and about to descend the stairs when a thought struck me.
"Where and how can I communicate with M. Jean Duval," I asked, "when my work is done?"
"I will call here," he replied, "at ten o'clock of every morning that follows a performance of Le Reve. We can complete our transaction then across your office desk."
The next moment he was gone. Theodore passed him on the stairs and asked me, with one of his impertinent leers, whether we had a new client and what we might expect from him. I shrugged my shoulders. "A new client!" I said disdainfully. "Bah! Vague promises of a couple of louis for finding out if Madame his wife sees more of a certain captain of the guards than Monsieur the husband cares about."
Theodore sniffed. He always sniffs when financial matters are on the tapis.
"Anything on account?" he queried.
"A paltry ten francs," I replied, "and I may as well give you your share of it now."
I tossed a franc to him across the desk. By the terms of my contract with him, you understand, he was entitled to ten per cent, of every profit accruing from the business in lieu of wages, but in this instance do you not think that I was justified in looking on one franc now, and perhaps twenty when the transaction was completed, as a more than just honorarium for his share in it? Was I not taking all the risks in this delicate business? Would it be fair for me to give him a hundred francs for sitting quietly in the office or sipping absinthe at a neighbouring bar whilst I risked New Orleans—not to speak of the gallows?
He gave me a strange look as he picked up the silver franc, spat on it for luck, bit it with his great yellow teeth to ascertain if it were counterfeit or genuine, and finally slipped it into his pocket, and shuffled out of the office whistling through his teeth.
An abominably low, deceitful creature, that Theodore, you will see anon. But I won't anticipate.
The next performance of Le Reve was announced for the following evening, and I started on my campaign. As you may imagine, it did not prove an easy matter. To obtain access through the stage-door to the back of the theatre was one thing—a franc to the doorkeeper had done the trick—to mingle with the scene-shifters, to talk with the supers, to take off my hat with every form of deep respect to the principals had been equally simple.
I had even succeeded in placing a bouquet on the dressing-table of the great tragedienne on my second visit to the theatre. Her dressing-room door had been left ajar during that memorable fourth act which was to see the consummation of my labours. I had the bouquet in my hand, having brought it expressly for that purpose. I pushed open the door, and found myself face to face with a young though somewhat forbidding damsel, who peremptorily demanded what my business might be.
In order to minimise the risk of subsequent trouble, I had assumed the disguise of a middle-aged Angliche—red side-whiskers, florid complexion, a ginger-coloured wig plastered rigidly over the ears towards the temples, high stock collar, nankeen pantaloons, a patch over one eye and an eyeglass fixed in the other. My own sainted mother would never have known me.
With becoming diffidence I explained in broken French that my deep though respectful admiration of Mlle. Mars had prompted me to lay a floral tribute at her feet. I desired nothing more.
The damsel eyed me coldly, though at the moment I was looking quite my best, diffident yet courteous, a perfect gentleman of the old regime. Then she took the bouquet from me and put it down on the dressing-table.
I fancied that she smiled, not unkindly, and I ventured to pass the time of day. She replied not altogether disapprovingly. She sat down by the dressing-table and took up some needlework which she had obviously thrown aside on my arrival. Close by, on the floor, was a solid iron chest with huge ornamental hinges and a large escutcheon over the lock. It stood about a foot high and perhaps a couple of feet long.
There was nothing else in the room that suggested a receptacle for jewellery; this, therefore, was obviously the safe which contained the bracelet. At the self-same second my eyes alighted on a large and clumsy-looking key which lay upon the dressing-table, and my hand at once wandered instinctively to the pocket of my coat and closed convulsively on the duplicate one which the soi-disant Jean Duval had given me.
I talked eloquently for a while. The damsel answered in monosyllables, but she sat unmoved at needlework, and after ten minutes or so I was forced to beat a retreat.
I returned to the charge at the next performance of Le Reve, this time with a box of bonbons for the maid instead of the bouquet for the mistress. The damsel was quite amenable to a little conversation, quite willing that I should dally in her company. She munched the bonbons and coquetted a little with me. But she went on stolidly with her needlework, and I could see that nothing would move her out of that room, where she had obviously been left in charge.
Then I bethought me of Theodore. I realised that I could not carry this affair through successfully without his help. So I gave him a further five francs—as I said to him it was out of my own savings—and I assured him that a certain M. Jean Duval had promised me a couple of hundred francs when the business which he had entrusted to me was satisfactorily concluded. It was for this business—so I explained—that I required his help, and he seemed quite satisfied.
His task was, of course, a very easy one. What a contrast to the risk I was about to run! Twenty-five francs, my dear Sir, just for knocking at the door of Mlle. Mars' dressing-room during the fourth act, whilst I was engaged in conversation with the attractive guardian of the iron safe, and to say in well-assumed, breathless tones:
"Mademoiselle Mars has been taken suddenly unwell on the stage. Will her maid go to her at once?"
It was some little distance from the dressing-room to the wings—down a flight of ill-lighted stone stairs which demanded cautious ascent and descent. Theodore had orders to obstruct the maid during her progress as much as he could without rousing her suspicions.
I reckoned that she would be fully three minutes going, questioning, finding out that the whole thing was a hoax, and running back to the dressing-room—three minutes in which to open the chest, extract the bracelet and, incidentally, anything else of value there might be close to my hand. Well, I had thought of that eventuality, too; one must think of everything, you know—that is where genius comes in. Then, if possible, relock the safe, so that the maid, on her return, would find everything apparently in order and would not, perhaps, raise the alarm until I was safely out of the theatre.
It could be done—oh, yes, it could be done—with a minute to spare! And to-morrow at ten o'clock M. Jean Duval would appear, and I would not part with the bracelet until a thousand francs had passed from his pocket into mine. I must get Theodore out of the house, by the way, before the arrival of M. Duval.
A thousand francs! I had not seen a thousand francs all at once for years. What a dinner I would have tomorrow! There was a certain little restaurant in the Rue des Pipots where they concocted a cassolette of goose liver and pork chops with haricot beans which . . . ! I only tell you that.
How I got through the rest of that day I cannot tell you. The evening found me—quite an habitue now—behind the stage of the Theatre Royal, nodding to one or two acquaintances, most of the people looking on me with grave respect and talking of me as the eccentric milor. I was supposed to be pining for an introduction to the great tragedienne, who, very exclusive as usual, had so far given me the cold shoulder.