"Well," cried M. Verduret, "what is the matter?"
With laudable emulation, the four men rushed forward to report to their superior officer.
"Patron," they all began at once.
"Silence!" said the fat man with an oath; "one at a time. Quick! what is the matter?"
"The matter is this, patron," said Fanferlot dejectedly. "I am doomed to ill luck. You see how it is; this is the only chance I ever had of working out a beautiful case, and, paf! my criminal must go and fizzle! A regular case of bankruptcy!"
"Then it is Clameran who—"
"Of course it is. When the rascal saw me this morning, he scampered off like a hare. You should have seen him run; I thought he would never stop this side of Ivry: but not at all. On reaching the Boulevard des Ecoles, a sudden idea seemed to strike him, and he made a bee-line for his hotel; I suppose, to get his pile of money. Directly he gets here, what does he see? these three friends of mine. The sight of these gentlemen had the effect of a sunstroke upon him; he went raving mad on the spot. The idea of serving me such a low trick at the very moment I was sure of success!"
"Where is he now?"
"At the prefecture, I suppose. Some policemen handcuffed him, and drove off with him in a cab."
"Come with me."
M. Verduret and Fanferlot found Clameran in one of the private cells reserved for dangerous prisoners.
He had on a strait-jacket, and was struggling violently against three men, who were striving to hold him, while a physician tried to force him to swallow a potion.
"Help!" he shrieked; "help, for God's sake! Do you not see my brother coming after me? Look! he wants to poison me!"
M. Verduret took the physician aside, and questioned him about the maniac.
"The wretched man is in a hopeless state," replied the doctor; "this species of insanity is incurable. He thinks someone is trying to poison him, and nothing will persuade him to eat or drink anything; and, as it is impossible to force anything down his throat, he will die of starvation, after having suffered all the tortures of poison."
M. Verduret, with a shudder, turned to leave the prefecture, saying to Fanferlot:
"Mme. Fauvel is saved, and by the interposition of God, who has himself punished Clameran!"
"That don't help me in the least," grumbled Fanferlot. "The idea of all my trouble and labor ending in this flat, quiet way! I seem to be born for ill-luck!"
"Don't take your blighted hopes of glory so much to heart," replied M. Verduret. "It is a melancholy fact for you that File No. 113 will never leave the record-office; but you must bear your disappointment gracefully and heroically. I will console you by sending you as bearer of despatches to a friend of mine, and what you have lost in fame will be gained in gold."
Four days had passed since the events just narrated, when one morning M. Lecoq—the official Lecoq, who resembled the dignified head of a bureau—was walking up and down his private office, at each turn nervously looking at the clock, which slowly ticked on the mantel, as if it had no intention of striking any sooner than usual, to gratify the man so anxiously watching its placid face.
At last, however, the clock did strike; and just then the faithful Janouille opened the door, and ushered in Mme. Nina and Prosper Bertomy.
"Ah," said M. Lecoq, "you are punctual; lovers are generally so."
"We are not lovers, monsieur," replied Mme. Gypsy. "M. Verduret gave us express orders to meet here in your office this morning, and we have obeyed."
"Very good," said the celebrated detective: "then be kind enough to wait a few minutes; I will tell him you are here."
During the quarter of an hour that Nina and Prosper remained alone together, they did not exchange a word. Finally a door opened, and M. Verduret appeared.
Nina and Prosper eagerly started toward him; but he checked them by one of those peculiar looks which no one ever dared resist.
"You have come," he said severely, "to hear the secret of my conduct. I have promised, and will keep my word, however painful it may be to my feelings. Listen, then. My best friend is a loyal, honest man, named Caldas. Eighteen months ago this friend was the happiest of men. Infatuated by a woman, he lived for her alone, and, fool that he was, imagined that she felt the same love for him."
"She did!" cried Gypsy, "yes, she always loved him."
"She showed her love in a peculiar way. She loved him so much, that one fine day she left him, and ran off with another man. In his first moments of despair, Caldas wished to kill himself. Then he reflected that it would be wiser to live, and avenge himself."
"And then," faltered Prosper.
"Then Caldas avenged himself in his own way. He made the woman who deserted him recognize his immense superiority over his rival. Weak, timid, and helpless, the rival was disgraced, and falling over the verge of a precipice, when the powerful hand of Caldas reached forth and saved him. You understand all now, do you not? The woman is Nina; the rival is yourself; and Caldas is—"
With a quick, dexterous movement, he threw off his wig and whiskers, and stood before them the real, intelligent, proud Lecoq.
"Caldas!" cried Nina.
"No, not Caldas, not Verduret any longer: but Lecoq, the detective!"
M. Lecoq broke the stupefied silence of his listeners by saying to Prosper:
"It is not to me alone that you owe your salvation. A noble girl confided to me the difficult task of clearing your reputation. I promised her that M. Fauvel should never know the shameful secrets concerning his domestic happiness. Your letter thwarted all my plans, and made it impossible for me to keep my promise. I have nothing more to say."
He turned to leave the room, but Nina barred his exit.
"Caldas," she murmured, "I implore you to have pity on me! I am so miserable! Ah, if you only knew! Be forgiving to one who has always loved you, Caldas! Listen."
Prosper departed from M. Lecoq's office alone.
On the 15th of last month, was celebrated, at the church of Notre Dame de Lorette, the marriage of M. Prosper Bertomy and Mlle. Madeleine Fauvel.
The banking-house is still on the Rue de Provence; but as M. Fauvel has decided to retire from business, and live in the country, the name of the firm has been changed, and is now—
"Prosper Bertomy & Co."