"I have not finished. Do you know how to drive a carriage and manage horses?"
"Why, patron, can you ask this of a man who used to be a rider in the Bouthor Circus?"
"Very well. As soon as the judge dismisses you, return home immediately, make yourself a wig and the complete dress of a valet; and, having dressed yourself, take this letter to the Agency on Delorme Street."
"There must be no but, my friend; the agent will send you to M. de Clameran, who is looking for a valet, his man having left him yesterday."
"Excuse me if I venture to suggest that you are making a mistake. This Clameran is not the cashier's friend."
"Why do you always interrupt me?" said M. Lecoq imperiously. "Do what I tell you, and don't disturb your mind about the rest. Clameran is not a friend of Prosper's, I know; but he is the friend and protector of Raoul de Lagors. Why so? Whence the intimacy of these two men of such different ages? That is what I must find out. I must also find out who this forge-master is who lives in Paris, and never goes to attend to his furnaces. A jolly fellow, who takes it into his head to live at the Hotel du Louvre, in the midst of a tumultuous, ever-changing crowd, is a fellow difficult to watch. Through you I will have an eye upon him. He has a carriage, you are to drive it; and you will soon be able to give me an account of his manner of life, and of the sort of people with whom he associates."
"You shall be obeyed, patron."
"Another thing. M. de Clameran is irritable and suspicious. You will be presented to him under the name of Joseph Dubois. He will demand your certificate of good character. Here are three, which state that you have lived with the Marquis de Sairmeuse and the Count de Commarin, and that you have just left the Baron de Wortschen, who went to Germany the other day. Now keep your eyes open; be careful of your dress and manners. Be polite, but not excessively so. And, above all things, don't be obsequious; it might arouse suspicion."
"I understand, patron. Where shall I report to you?"
"I will call on you every day. Until I tell you differently, don't step foot in this house; you might be followed. If anything important should happen, send a note to your wife, and she will inform me. Go, and be prudent."
The door closed on Fanferlot as M. Lecoq passed into his bedroom.
In the twinkling of an eye he had divested himself of the appearance of a police officer. He took off his stiff cravat and gold spectacles, and removed the close wig from his thick black hair. The official Lecoq had disappeared, leaving in his place the genuine Lecoq whom nobody knew—a handsome young man, with a bold, determined manner, and brilliant, piercing eyes.
But he only remained himself for an instant. Seated before a dressing-table covered with more cosmetics, paints, perfumes, false hair, and other unmentionable shams, than are to be found on the toilet-tables of our modern belles, he began to undo the work of nature, and make himself a new face.
He worked slowly, handling his brushes with great care. But in an hour he had accomplished one of his daily masterpieces. When he had finished, he was no longer Lecoq: he was the large gentleman with red whiskers, whom Fanferlot had failed to recognize.
"Well," he said, casting a last look in the mirror, "I have forgotten nothing: I have left nothing to chance. All my plans are fixed; and I shall make some progress to-day, provided the Squirrel does not waste time."
But Fanferlot was too happy to waste a minute. He did not run, he flew, toward the Palais de Justice.
At last he was now able to convince someone that he, Fanferlot, was a man of wonderful perspicacity.
As to acknowledging that he was about to obtain a triumph with the ideas of another man, he never thought of it. It is generally in perfect good faith that the jackdaw struts in the peacock's feathers.
His hopes were not deceived. If the judge was not absolutely and fully convinced, he admired the ingenuity and shrewdness of the whole proceeding, and complimented the proud jackdaw upon his brilliancy.
"This decides me," he said, as he dismissed Fanferlot. "I will make out a favorable report to-day; and it is highly probable that the accused will be released to-morrow."
He began at once to write out one of these terrible decisions of "Not proven," which restores liberty, but not honor, to the accused man; which says that he is not guilty, but does not say he is innocent.
"Whereas there do not exist sufficient charges against the accused, Prosper Bertomy, in pursuance of Article 128 of the Criminal Code, we hereby declare that we find no grounds for prosecution against the aforesaid prisoner at this present time; and we order that he shall be released from the prison where he is confined, and set at liberty by the jailer," etc.
"Well," he said to the clerk, "here is another one of those crimes which justice cannot clear up. The mystery remains to be solved. This is another file to be stowed away among the archives of the record-office."
And with his own hand he wrote on the cover of the bundle of papers relating to Prosper's case, the number of the package, File No. 113.
Prosper had been languishing in his private cell for nine days, when on Thursday morning the jailer came to inform him of the judge's decision. He was conducted before the officer who had searched him when he was arrested; and the contents of his pocket, his watch, penknife, and several little pieces of jewelry, were restored to him; then he was told to sign a large sheet of paper, which he did.
He was next led across a dark passage, and almost pushed through a door, which was abruptly shut upon him.
He found himself on the quay: he was alone; he was free.
Free! Justice had confessed her inability to convict him of the crime of which he was accused.
Free! He could walk about, he could breathe the pure air; but every door would be closed against him.
Only acquittal after due trial would restore him to his former position among men.
A decision of "Not proven" had left him covered with suspicion.
The torments inflicted by public opinion are more fearful than those suffered in a prison cell.
At the moment of his restoration to liberty, Prosper so cruelly suffered from the horror of his situation, that he could not repress a cry of rage and despair.
"I am innocent! God knows I am innocent!" he cried out. But of what use was his anger?
Two strangers, who were passing, stopped to look at him, and said, pityingly, "He is crazy."
The Seine was at his feet. A thought of suicide crossed his mind.
"No," he said, "no! I have not even the right to kill myself. No: I will not die until I have vindicated my innocence!"
Often, day and night, had Prosper repeated these words, as he walked his cell. With a heart filled with a bitter, determined thirst for vengeance, which gives a man the force and patience to destroy or wear out all obstacles in his way, he would say, "Oh! why am I not at liberty? I am helpless, caged up; but let me once be free!"
Now he was free; and, for the first time, he saw the difficulties of the task before him. For each crime, justice requires a criminal: he could not establish his own innocence without producing the guilty man; how find the thief so as to hand him over to the law?
Discouraged, but not despondent, he turned in the direction of his apartments. He was beset by a thousand anxieties. What had taken place during the nine days that he had been cut off from all intercourse with his friends? No news of them had reached him. He had heard no more of what was going on in the outside world, than if his secret cell had been a grave.
He slowly walked along the streets, with his eyes cast down dreading to meet some familiar face. He, who had always been so haughty, would now be pointed at with the finger of scorn. He would be greeted with cold looks and averted faces. Men would refuse to shake hands with him. He would be shunned by honest people, who have no patience with a thief.
Still, if he could count on only one true friend! Yes: he was sure of one. But what friend would believe him when his father, who should have been the last to suspect him, had refused to believe him?
In the midst of his sufferings, when he felt almost overwhelmed by the sense of his wretched, lonely condition, he thought of Gypsy.
He had never loved the poor girl: indeed, at times he almost hated her; but now he felt a longing to see her. He wished to be with her, because he knew that she loved him, and that nothing would make her believe him guilty; because he knew that a woman remains true and firm in her faith, and is always faithful in the hour of adversity, although she sometimes fails in prosperity.
On entering the Rue Chaptal, Prosper saw his own door, but hesitated to enter it.
He suffered from the timidity which an honest man always feels when he knows he is viewed with suspicion.
He dreaded meeting anyone whom he knew; yet he could not remain in the street. He entered.
When the porter saw him, he uttered an exclamation of glad surprise, and said:
"Ah, here you are at last, monsieur. I told everyone you would come out as white as snow; and, when I read in the papers that you were arrested for robbery, I said, 'My third-floor lodger a thief! Never would I believe such a thing, never!'"
The congratulations of this ignorant man were sincere, and offered from pure kindness of heart; but they impressed Prosper painfully, and he cut them short by abruptly asking:
"Madame of course has left: can you tell me where she has gone?"
"Dear me, no, monsieur. The day of your arrest, she sent for a hack, got into it with her trunks, and disappeared; and no one has seen or heard of her since."
This was another blow to the unhappy cashier.
"And where are my servants?"
"Gone, monsieur; your father paid and discharged them."
"I suppose you have my keys?"
"No, monsieur; when your father left here this morning at eight o'clock, he told me that a friend of his would take charge of your rooms until you should return. Of course you know who he is—a stout gentleman with red whiskers."
Prosper was stupefied. What could be the meaning of one of his father's friends being in his rooms? He did not, however, betray any surprise, but quietly said:
"Yes: I know who it is."
He quickly ran up the stairs, and knocked at his door.
It was opened by his father's friend.
He had been accurately described by the porter. A fat man, with a red face, sensual lips, brilliant eyes, and of rather coarse manners, stood bowing to Prosper, who had never seen him before.
"Delighted to make your acquaintance, monsieur," said he to Prosper.
He seemed to be perfectly at home. On the table lay a book, which he had taken from the bookcase; and he appeared ready to do the honors of the house.
"I must say, monsieur," began Prosper.
"That you are surprised to find me here? So I suppose. Your father intended introducing me to you; but he was compelled to return to Beaucaire this morning; and let me add that he departed thoroughly convinced, as I myself am, that you never took a cent from M. Fauvel."
At this unexpected good news, Prosper's face lit up with pleasure.
"Here is a letter from your father, which I hope will serve as an introduction between us."
Prosper opened the letter; and as he read his eyes grew brighter, and a slight color returned to his pale face.
When he had finished, he held out his hand to the large gentleman, and said:
"My father, monsieur, tells me you are his best friend; he advises me to have absolute confidence in you, and follow your counsel."
"Exactly. This morning your father said to me, 'Verduret'—that is my name—'Verduret, my son is in great trouble, he must be helped out.' I replied, 'I am ready,' and here I am to help you. Now the ice is broken, is it not? Then let us go to work at once. What do you intend to do?"
This question revived Prosper's slumbering rage. His eyes flashed.
"What do I intend to do?" he said, angrily: "what should I do but seek the villain who has ruined me?"
"So I supposed; but have you any hopes of success?"
"None; yet I shall succeed, because, when a man devotes his whole life to the accomplishment of an object, he is certain to achieve it."
"Well said, M. Prosper; and, to be frank, I fully expected that this would be your purpose. I have therefore already begun to think and act for you. I have a plan. In the first place, you will sell this furniture, and disappear from the neighborhood."
"Disappear!" cried Prosper, indignantly, "disappear! Why, monsieur? Do you not see that such a step would be a confession of guilt, would authorize the world to say that I am hiding so as to enjoy undisturbed the stolen fortune?"
"Well, what then?" said the man with the red whiskers; "did you not say just now the sacrifice of your life is made? The skilful swimmer thrown into the river by malefactors is careful not to rise to the surface immediately: on the contrary, he plunges beneath, and remains there as long as his breath holds out. He comes up again at a great distance, and lands out of sight; then, when he is supposed to be dead, lost forever to the sight of man, he rises up and has his vengeance. You have an enemy? Some petty imprudence will betray him. But, while he sees you standing by on the watch, he will be on his guard."
It was with a sort of amazed submission that Prosper listened to this man, who, though a friend of his father, was an utter stranger to himself.
He submitted unconsciously to the ascendency of a nature so much more energetic and forcible than his own. In his helpless condition he was grateful for friendly assistance, and said:
"I will follow your advice, monsieur."
"I was sure you would, my dear friend. Let us reflect upon the course you should pursue. And remember that you will need every cent of the proceeds of the sale. Have you any ready money? no, but you must have some. Knowing that you would need it at once, I brought an upholsterer here; and he will give twelve thousand francs for everything excepting the pictures."
The cashier could not refrain from shrugging his shoulders, which M. Verduret observed.
"Well," said he, "it is rather hard, I admit, but it is a necessity. Now listen: you are the invalid, and I am the doctor charged to cure you; if I cut to the quick, you will have to endure it. It is the only way to save you."
"Cut away then, monsieur," answered Prosper.
"Well, we will hurry, for time passes. You have a friend, M. de Lagors?"
"Raoul? Yes, monsieur, he is an intimate friend."
"Now tell me, who is this fellow?"
The term "fellow" seemed to offend Prosper.
"M. de Lagors, monsieur," he said, haughtily, "is M. Fauvel's nephew; he is a wealthy young man, handsome, intelligent, cultivated, and the best friend I have."
"Hum!" said M. Verduret, "I shall be delighted to make the acquaintance of one adorned by so many charming qualities. I must let you know that I wrote him a note in your name asking him to come here, and he sent word that he would be here directly."
"What! do you suppose—"
"Oh, I suppose nothing! Only I must see this young man. Also, I have arranged and will submit to you a little plan of conversation—"
A ring at the front door interrupted M. Verduret.
"Sacrebleu! adieu to my plan; here he is! Where can I hide so as to hear and see?"
"There, in my bedroom; leave the door open and the curtain down."
A second ring was heard.
"Now remember, Prosper," said M. Verduret in a warning tone, "not one word to this man about your plans, or about me. Pretend to be discouraged, helpless, and undecided what to do."
And he disappeared behind the curtain, as Prosper ran to open the door.
Prosper's portrait of M. de Lagors had not been an exaggerated one. So handsome a face and manly a figure could belong only to a noble character.
Although Raoul said that he was twenty-four, he appeared to be not more than twenty. He had a superb figure, well knit and supple; a beautiful white brow, shaded by soft chestnut curly hair, soft blue eyes which beamed with frankness.
His first impulse was to throw himself into Prosper's arms.
"My poor, dear friend!" he said, "my poor Prosper!"
But beneath these affectionate demonstrations there was a certain constraint, which, if it escaped the cashier, was noticed by M. Verduret.
"Your letter, my dear Prosper," said Raoul, "made me almost ill, I was so frightened by it. I asked myself if you could have lost your mind. Then I left everything, to fly to your assistance; and here I am."
Prosper did not seem to hear him; he was pre-occupied about the letter which he had not written. What were its contents? Who was this stranger whose assistance he had accepted?
"You must not feel discouraged," continued M. de Lagors: "you are young enough to commence life anew. Your friends are still left to you. I have come to say to you, Rely upon me; I am rich, half of my fortune is at your disposal."
This generous offer, made at a moment like this with such frank simplicity, deeply touched Prosper.
"Thanks, Raoul," he said with emotion, "thank you! But unfortunately all the money in the world would be of no use now."
"Why so? What are you going to do? Do you propose to remain in Paris?"
"I know not, Raoul. I have made no plans yet. My mind is too confused for me to think."
"I will tell you what to do," replied Raoul quickly, "you must start afresh; until this mysterious robbery is explained you must keep away from Paris. It will never do for you to remain here."
"And suppose it never should be explained?"
"Only the more reason for your remaining in oblivion. I have been talking about you to Clameran. 'If I were in Prosper's place,' he said, 'I would turn everything into money, and embark for America; there I would make a fortune, and return to crush with my millions those who have suspected me.'"
This advice offended Prosper's pride, but he said nothing. He was thinking of what the stranger had said to him.
"I will think it over," he finally forced himself to say. "I will see. I would like to know what M. Fauvel says."
"My uncle? I suppose you know that I have declined the offer he made me to enter his banking-house, and we have almost quarrelled. I have not set foot in his house for over a month; but I hear of him occasionally."
"Through your friend Cavaillon. My uncle, they say, is more distressed by this affair than you are. He does not attend to his business, and wanders about as if he had lost every friend on earth."
"And Mme. Fauvel, and"—Prosper hesitated—"and Mlle. Madeleine, how are they?"
"Oh," said Raoul lightly, "my aunt is as pious as ever; she has mass said for the benefit of the sinner. As to my handsome, icy cousin, she cannot bring herself down to common matters, because she is entirely absorbed in preparing for the fancy ball to be given day after to-morrow by MM. Jandidier. She has discovered, so one of her friends told me, a wonderful dressmaker, a stranger who has suddenly appeared from no one knows where, who is making a costume of Catherine de Medici's maid of honor; and it is to be a marvel of beauty."
Excessive suffering brings with it a sort of dull insensibility and stupor; and Prosper thought that there was nothing left to be inflicted upon him, and had reached that state of impassibility from which he never expected to be aroused, when this last remark of M. de Lagors made him cry out with pain:
"Madeleine! Oh, Madeleine!"
M. de Lagors, pretending not to have heard him, rose from his chair, and said:
"I must leave you now, my dear Prosper; on Saturday I will see these ladies at the ball, and will bring you news of them. Now, do have courage, and remember that, whatever happens, you have a friend in me."
Raoul shook Prosper's hand, closed the door after him, and hurried up the street, leaving Prosper standing immovable and overcome by disappointment.
He was aroused from his gloomy revery by hearing the red-whiskered man say, in a bantering tone:
"So these are your friends."
"Yes," said Prosper with bitterness. "You heard him offer me half his fortune?"
M. Verduret shrugged his shoulders with an air of compassion.
"That was very stingy on his part," he said, "why did he not offer the whole? Offers cost nothing; although I have no doubt that this sweet youth would cheerfully give ten thousand francs to put the ocean between you and him."
"Monsieur! what reason?"
"Who knows? Perhaps for the same reason that he had not set foot in his uncle's house for a month."
"But that is the truth, monsieur, I am sure of it."
"Naturally," said M. Verduret with a provoking smile. "But," he continued with a serious air, "we have devoted enough time to this Adonis. Now, be good enough to change your dress, and we will go and call on M. Fauvel."
This proposal seemed to stir up all of Prosper's anger.
"Never!" he exclaimed with excitement, "no, never will I voluntarily set eyes on that wretch!"
This resistance did not surprise M. Verduret.
"I can understand your feelings toward him," said he, "but at the same time I hope you will change your mind. For the same reason that I wished to see M. de Lagors, do I wish to see M. Fauvel; it is necessary, you understand. Are you so very weak that you cannot put a constraint upon yourself for five minutes? I shall introduce myself as one of your relatives, and you need not open your lips."
"If it is positively necessary," said Prosper, "if—"
"It is necessary; so come on. You must have confidence, put on a brave face. Hurry and fix yourself up a little; it is getting late, and I am hungry. We will breakfast on our way there."
Prosper had hardly passed into his bedroom when the bell rang again. M. Verduret opened the door. It was the porter, who handed him a thick letter, and said:
"This letter was left this morning for M. Bertomy; I was so flustered when he came that I forgot to hand it to him. It is a very odd-looking letter; is it not, monsieur?"
It was indeed a most peculiar missive. The address was not written, but formed of printed letters, carefully cut from a book, and pasted on the envelope.
"Oh, ho! what is this?" cried M. Verduret; then turning toward the porter he cried, "Wait."
He went into the next room, and closed the door behind him; there he found Prosper, anxious to know what was going on.
"Here is a letter for you," said M. Verduret.
He at once tore open the envelope.
Some bank-notes dropped out; he counted them; there were ten.
Prosper's face turned purple.
"What does this mean?" he asked.
"We will read the letter and find out," replied M. Verduret.
The letter, like the address, was composed of printed words cut out and pasted on a sheet of paper.
It was short but explicit:
"MY DEAR PROSPER—A friend, who knows the horror of your situation, sends you this succor. There is one heart, be assured, that shares your sufferings. Go away; leave France; you are young; the future is before you. Go, and may this money bring you happiness!"
As M. Verduret read the note, Prosper's rage increased. He was angry and perplexed, for he could not explain the rapidly succeeding events which were so calculated to mystify his already confused brain.
"Everybody wishes me to go away," he cried; "then there must be a conspiracy against me."
M. Verduret smiled with satisfaction.
"At last you begin to open your eyes, you begin to understand. Yes, there are people who hate you because of the wrong they have done you; there are people to whom your presence in Paris is a constant danger, and who will not feel safe till they are rid of you."
"But who are these people, monsieur? Tell me, who dares send this money?"
"If I knew, my dear Prosper, my task would be at an end, for then I would know who committed the robbery. But we will continue our searches. I have finally procured evidence which will sooner or later become convincing proof. I have heretofore only made deductions more or less probable; I now possess knowledge which proves that I was not mistaken. I walked in darkness: now I have a light to guide me."
As Prosper listened to M. Verduret's reassuring words, he felt hope arising in his breast.
"Now," said M. Verduret, "we must take advantage of this evidence, gained by the imprudence of our enemies, without delay. We will begin with the porter."
He opened the door and called out:
"I say, my good man, step here a moment."
The porter entered, looking very much surprised at the authority exercised over his lodger by this stranger.
"Who gave you this letter?" said M. Verduret.
"A messenger, who said he was paid for bringing it."
"Do you know him?"
"I know him well; he is the errand-runner who keeps his cart at the corner of the Rue Pigalle."
"Go and bring him here."
After the porter had gone, M. Verduret drew from his pocket his diary, and compared a page of it with the notes which he had spread over the table.
"These notes were not sent by the thief," he said, after an attentive examination of them.
"Do you think so, monsieur?"
"I am certain of it; that is, unless the thief is endowed with extraordinary penetration and forethought. One thing is certain: these ten thousand francs are not part of the three hundred and fifty thousand which were stolen from the safe."
"Yet," said Prosper, who could not account for this certainty on the part of his protector, "yet——"
"There is no doubt about it: I have the numbers of all the stolen notes."
"What! When even I did not have them?"
"But the bank did, fortunately. When we undertake an affair we must anticipate everything, and forget nothing. It is a poor excuse for a man to say, 'I did not think of it' when he commits some oversight. I thought of the bank."
If, in the beginning, Prosper had felt some repugnance about confiding in his father's friend, the feeling had now disappeared.
He understood that alone, scarcely master of himself, governed only by the inspirations of inexperience, never would he have the patient perspicacity of this singular man.
Verduret continued talking to himself, as if he had absolutely forgotten Prosper's presence:
"Then, as this package did not come from the thief, it can only come from the other person, who was near the safe at the time of the robbery, but could not prevent it, and now feels remorse. The probability of two persons assisting at the robbery, a probability suggested by the scratch, is now converted into undeniable certainty. Ergo, I was right."
Prosper listening attentively tried hard to comprehend this monologue, which he dared not interrupt.
"Let us seek," went on the fat man, "this second person, whose conscience pricks him, and yet who dares not reveal anything."
He read the letter over several times, scanning the sentences, and weighing every word.
"Evidently this letter was composed by a woman," he finally said. "Never would one man doing another man a service, and sending him money, use the word 'succor.' A man would have said, loan, money, or some other equivalent, but succor, never. No one but a woman, ignorant of masculine susceptibilities, would have naturally made use of this word to express the idea it represents. As to the sentence, 'There is one heart,' and so on, it could only have been written by a woman."
"You are mistaken, monsieur," said Prosper: "no woman is mixed up in this affair."
M. Verduret paid no attention to this interruption, perhaps he did not hear it; perhaps he did not care to argue the matter.
"Now, let us see if we can discover whence the printed words were taken to compose this letter."
He approached the window, and began to study the pasted words with all the scrupulous attention which an antiquarian would devote to an old, half-effaced manuscript.
"Small type," he said, "very slender and clear; the paper is thin and glossy. Consequently, these words have not been cut from a newspaper, magazine, or even a novel. I have seen type like this, I recognize it at once; Didot often uses it, so does Mme. de Tours."
He stopped with his mouth open, and eyes fixed, appealing laboriously to his memory.
Suddenly he struck his forehead exultantly.
"Now I have it!" he cried; "now I have it! Why did I not see it at once? These words have all been cut from a prayer-book. We will look, at least, and then we shall be certain."
He moistened one of the words pasted on the paper with his tongue, and, when it was sufficiently softened, he detached it with a pin. On the other side of this word was printed a Latin word, Deus.
"Ah, ha," he said with a little laugh of satisfaction. "I knew it. Father Taberet would be pleased to see this. But what has become of the mutilated prayer-book? Can it have been burned? No, because a heavy-bound book is not easily burned. It is thrown in some corner."
M. Verduret was interrupted by the porter, who returned with the messenger from the Rue Pigalle.
"Ah, here you are," he said encouragingly. Then he showed the envelope of the letter, and said:
"Do you remember bringing this letter here this morning?"
"Perfectly, monsieur. I took particular notice of the direction; we don't often see anything like it."
"Who told you to bring it? a gentleman, or a lady?"
"Neither, monsieur; it was a porter."
This reply made the porter laugh very much, but not a muscle of M. Verduret's face moved.
"A porter? Well, do you know this colleague of yours."
"I never even saw him before."
"How does he look?"
"He was neither tall nor short; he wore a green vest, and his medal."
"Your description is so vague that it would suit every porter in the city; but did your colleague tell you who sent the letter?"
"No, monsieur. He only put ten sous in my hand, and said, 'Here, carry this to No. 39, Rue Chaptal: a coachman on the boulevard handed it to me.' Ten sous! I warrant you he made more than that by it."
This answer seemed to disconcert M. Verduret. So many precautions taken in sending the letter disturbed him, and disarranged his plans.
"Do you think you would recognize the porter again?"
"Yes, monsieur, if I saw him."
"How much do you gain a day as a porter?"
"I can't tell exactly; but my corner is a good stand, and I am busy doing errands nearly all day. I suppose I make from eight to ten francs."
"Very well; I will give you ten francs a day if you will walk about the streets, and look for the porter who brought this letter. Every evening, at eight o'clock, come to the Archangel, on the Quai Saint Michel, give me a report of your search, and receive your pay. Ask for M. Verduret. If you find the man I will give you fifty francs. Do you accept?"
"I rather think I will, monsieur."
"Then don't lose a minute. Start off!"
Although ignorant of M. Verduret's plans, Prosper began to comprehend the sense of his investigations. His fate depended upon their success, and yet he almost forgot this fact in his admiration of this singular man; for his energy, his bantering coolness when he wished to discover anything, the surety of his deductions, the fertility of his expedients, and the rapidity of his movements, were astonishing.
"Monsieur," said Prosper when the porter had left the room, "do you still think you see a woman's hand in this affair?"
"More than ever; and a pious woman too, and a woman who has two prayer-books, since she could cut up one to write to you."
"And you hope to find the mutilated book?"
"I do, thanks to the opportunity I have of making an immediate search; which I will set about at once."
Saying this, he sat down, and rapidly scratched off a few lines on a slip of paper, which he folded up, and put in his vest-pocket.
"Are you ready to go to M. Fauvel's? Yes? Come on, then; we have certainly earned our breakfast to-day."
When Raoul de Lagors spoke of M. Fauvel's extraordinary dejection, he had not exaggerated.
Since the fatal day when, upon his denunciation, his cashier had been arrested, the banker, this active, energetic man of business, had been a prey to the most gloomy melancholy, and absolutely refused to take any interest in his affairs, seldom entering the banking-house.
He, who had always been so domestic, never came near his family except at meals, when he would swallow a few mouthfuls, and hastily leave the room.
Shut up in his study, he would deny himself to visitors. His anxious countenance, his indifference to everybody and everything, his constant reveries and fits of abstraction, betrayed the preoccupation of some fixed idea, or the tyrannical empire of some hidden sorrow.
The day of Prosper's release, about three o'clock, M. Fauvel was, as usual, seated in his study, with his elbows resting on the table, and his face buried in his hands, when his office-boy rushed in, and with a frightened look said:
"Monsieur, the former cashier, M. Bertomy, is here with one of his relatives; he says he must see you on business."
The banker at these words started up as if he had been shot.
"Prosper!" he cried in a voice choked by anger, "what! does he dare—"
Then remembering that he ought to control himself before his servant, he waited a few moments, and then said, in a tone of forced calmness:
"Ask them to walk in."
If M. Verduret had counted upon witnessing a strange and affecting sight, he was not disappointed.
Nothing could be more terrible than the attitude of these two men as they stood confronting each other. The banker's face was almost purple with suppressed anger, and he looked as if about to be struck by apoplexy. Prosper was as pale and motionless as a corpse.
Silent and immovable, they stood glaring at each other with mortal hatred.
M. Verduret curiously watched these two enemies, with the indifference and coolness of a philosopher, who, in the most violent outbursts of human passion, merely sees subjects for meditation and study.
Finally, the silence becoming more and more threatening, he decided to break it by speaking to the banker:
"I suppose you know, monsieur, that my young relative has just been released from prison."
"Yes," replied M. Fauvel, making an effort to control himself, "yes, for want of sufficient proof."
"Exactly so, monsieur, and this want of proof, as stated in the decision of 'Not proven,' ruins the prospects of my relative, and compels him to leave here at once for America."
M. Fauvel's features relaxed as if he had been relieved of some fearful agony.
"Ah, he is going away," he said, "he is going abroad."
There was no mistaking the resentful, almost insulting intonation of the words, "going away!"
M. Verduret took no notice of M. Fauvel's manner.
"It appears to me," he continued, in an easy tone, "that Prosper's determination is a wise one. I merely wished him, before leaving Paris, to come and pay his respects to his former chief."
The banker smiled bitterly.
"M. Bertomy might have spared us both this painful meeting. I have nothing to say to him, and of course he can have nothing to tell me."
This was a formal dismissal; and M. Verduret, understanding it thus, bowed to M. Fauvel, and left the room, accompanied by Prosper, who had not opened his lips.
They had reached the street before Prosper recovered the use of his tongue.
"I hope you are satisfied, monsieur," he said, in a gloomy tone; "you exacted this painful step, and I could only acquiesce. Have I gained anything by adding this humiliation to the others which I have suffered?"
"You have not, but I have," replied M. Verduret. "I could find no way of gaining access to M. Fauvel, save through you; and now I have found out what I wanted to know. I am convinced that M. Fauvel had nothing to do with the robbery."
"Oh, monsieur!" objected Prosper, "innocence can be feigned."
"Certainly, but not to this extent. And this is not all. I wished to find out if M. Fauvel would be accessible to certain suspicions. I am now confident that he is."
Prosper and his companion had stopped to talk more at their ease, near the corner of the Rue Lafitte, in the middle of a large space which had lately been cleared by pulling down an old house.
M. Verduret seemed to be anxious, and was constantly looking around as if he expected someone.
He soon uttered an exclamation of satisfaction.
At the other end of the vacant space, he saw Cavaillon, who was bareheaded and running.
He was so excited that he did not even stop to shake hands with Prosper, but darted up to M. Verduret, and said:
"They have gone, monsieur!"
"How long since?"
"They went about a quarter of an hour ago."
"The deuce they did! Then we have not an instant to lose."
He handed Cavaillon the note he had written some hours before at Prosper's house.
"Here, send him this, and then return at once to your desk; you might be missed. It was very imprudent in you to come out without your hat."
Cavaillon ran off as quickly as he had come. Prosper was stupefied.
"What!" he exclaimed. "You know Cavaillon?"
"So it seems," answered M. Verduret with a smile, "but we have no time to talk; come on, hurry!"
"Where are we gong now?"
"You will soon know; walk fast!"
And he set the example by striding rapidly toward the Rue Lafayette. As they went along he continued talking more to himself than to Prosper.
"Ah," said he, "it is not by putting both feet in one shoe, that one wins a race. The track once found, we should never rest an instant. When the savage discovers the footprints of an enemy, he follows it persistently, knowing that falling rain or a gust of wind may efface the footprints at any moment. It is the same with us: the most trifling incident may destroy the traces we are following up."
M. Verduret suddenly stopped before a door bearing the number 81.
"We are going in here," he said to Prosper; "come."
They went up the steps, and stopped on the second floor, before a door over which was a large sign, "Fashionable Dressmaker."
A handsome bell-rope hung on the wall, but M. Verduret did not touch it. He tapped with the ends of his fingers in a peculiar way, and the door instantly opened as if someone had been watching for his signal on the other side.
The door was opened by a neatly dressed woman of about forty. She quietly ushered M. Verduret and Prosper into a neat dining-room with several doors opening into it.
This woman bowed humbly to M. Verduret, as if he were some superior being.
He scarcely noticed her salutation, but questioned her with a look. His look said:
She bowed affirmatively:
"In there?" asked M. Verduret in a low tone, pointing to one of the doors.
"No," said the woman in the same tone, "over there, in the little parlor."
M. Verduret opened the door pointed out, and pushed Prosper into the little parlor, whispering, as he did so:
"Go in, and keep your presence of mind."
But his injunction was useless. The instant he cast his eyes around the room into which he had so unceremoniously been pushed without any warning, Prosper exclaimed, in a startled voice:
It was indeed M. Fauvel's niece, looking more beautiful than ever. Hers was that calm, dignified beauty which imposes admiration and respect.
Standing in the middle of the room, near a table covered with silks and satins, she was arranging a skirt of red velvet embroidered in gold; probably the dress she was to wear as maid of honor to Catherine de Medicis.
At sight of Prosper, all the blood rushed to her face, and her beautiful eyes half closed, as if she were about to faint; she clung to the table to prevent herself from falling.
Prosper well knew that Madeleine was not one of those cold-hearted women whom nothing could disturb, and who feel sensations, but never a true sentiment.
Of a tender, dreamy nature, she betrayed in the minute details of her life the most exquisite delicacy. But she was also proud, and incapable of in any way violating her conscience. When duty spoke, she obeyed.
She recovered from her momentary weakness, and the soft expression of her eyes changed to one of haughty resentment. In an offended tone she said:
"What has emboldened you, monsieur, to be watching my movements? Who gave you permission to follow me, to enter this house?"
Prosper was certainly innocent. He would have given worlds to explain what had just happened, but he was powerless, and could only remain silent.
"You promised me upon your honor, monsieur," continued Madeleine, "that you would never again seek my presence. Is this the way you keep your word?"
"I did promise, mademoiselle, but——"
"So many things have happened since that terrible day, that I think I am excusable in forgetting, for one hour, an oath torn from me in a moment of blind weakness. It is to chance, at least to another will than my own, that I am indebted for the happiness of once more finding myself near you. Alas! the instant I saw you my heart bounded with joy. I did not think, no I could not think, that you would prove more pitiless than strangers have been, that you would cast me off when I am so miserable and heart-broken."
Had not Prosper been so agitated he could have read in the eyes of Madeleine—those beautiful eyes which had so long been the arbiters of his destiny—the signs of a great inward struggle.
It was, however, in a firm voice that she replied:
"You know me well enough, Prosper, to be sure than no blow can strike you without reaching me at the same time. You suffer, I suffer with you: I pity you as a sister would pity a beloved brother."
"A sister!" said Prosper, bitterly. "Yes, that was the word you used the day you banished me from your presence. A sister! Then why during three years did you delude me with vain hopes? Was I a brother to you the day we went to Notre Dame de Fourvieres, that day when, at the foot of the altar, we swore to love each other for ever and ever, and you fastened around my neck a holy relic and said, 'Wear this always for my sake, never part from it, and it will bring you good fortune'?"
Madeleine attempted to interrupt him by a supplicating gesture: he would not heed it, but continued with increased bitterness:
"One month after that happy day—a year ago—you gave me back my promise, told me to consider myself free from any engagement, and never to come near you again. If I could have discovered in what way I had offended you—But no, you refused to explain. You drove me away, and to obey you I told everyone that I had left you of my own accord. You told me that an invincible obstacle had arisen between us, and I believed you, fool that I was! The obstacle was your own heart, Madeleine. I have always worn the medal; but it has not brought me happiness or good fortune."
As white and motionless as a statue, Madeleine stood with bowed head before this storm of passionate reproach.
"I told you to forget me," she murmured.
"Forget!" exclaimed Prosper, excitedly, "forget! Can I forget! Is it in my power to stop, by an effort of will, the circulation of my blood? Ah, you have never loved! To forget, as to stop the beatings of the heart, there is but one means—death!"
This word, uttered with the fixed determination of a desperate, reckless man, caused Madeleine to shudder.
"Miserable man!" she exclaimed.
"Yes, miserable man, and a thousand times more miserable than you can imagine! You can never understand the tortures I have suffered, when for a year I would awake every morning, and say to myself, 'It is all over, she has ceased to love me!' This great sorrow stared me in the face day and night in spite of all my efforts to dispel it. And you speak of forgetfulness! I sought it at the bottom of poisoned cups, but found it not. I tried to extinguish this memory of the past, that tears my heart to shreds like a devouring flame; in vain. When the body succumbed, the pitiless heart kept watch. With this corroding torture making life a burden, do you wonder that I should seek rest which can only be obtained by suicide?"
"I forbid you to utter that word."
"You forget, Madeleine, that you have no right to forbid me, unless you love me. Love would make you all powerful, and me obedient."
With an imperious gesture Madeleine interrupted him as if she wished to speak, and perhaps to explain all, to exculpate herself.
But a sudden thought stopped her; she clasped her hands despairingly, and cried:
"My God! this suffering is beyond endurance!"
Prosper seemed to misconstrue her words.
"Your pity comes too late," he said. "There is no happiness in store for one like myself, who has had a glimpse of divine felicity, had the cup of bliss held to his lips, and then dashed to the ground. There is nothing left to attach me to life. You have destroyed my holiest beliefs; I came forth from prison disgraced by my enemies; what is to become of me? Vainly do I question the future; for me there is no hope of happiness. I look around me to see nothing but abandonment, ignominy, and despair!"
"Prosper, my brother, my friend, if you only knew——"
"I know but one thing, Madeleine, and that is, that you no longer love me, and that I love you more madly than ever. Oh, Madeleine, God only knows how I love you!"
He was silent. He hoped for an answer. None came.
But suddenly the silence was broken by a stifled sob.
It was Madeleine's maid, who, seated in a corner, was weeping bitterly.
Madeleine had forgotten her presence.
Prosper had been so surprised at finding Madeleine when he entered the room, that he kept his eyes fastened upon her face, and never once looked about him to see if anyone else were present.
He turned in surprise and looked at the weeping woman.
He was not mistaken: this neatly dressed waiting-maid was Nina Gypsy.
Prosper was so startled that he became perfectly dumb. He stood there with ashy lips, and a chilly sensation creeping through his veins.
The horror of the situation terrified him. He was there, between the two women who had ruled his fate; between Madeleine, the proud heiress who spurned his love, and Nina Gypsy, the poor girl whose devotion to himself he had so disdainfully rejected.
And she had heard all; poor Gypsy had witnessed the passionate avowal of her lover, had heard him swear that he could never love any woman but Madeleine, that if his love were not reciprocated he would kill himself, as he had nothing else to live for.
Prosper could judge of her sufferings by his own. For she was wounded not only in the present, but in the past. What must be her humiliation and danger on hearing the miserable part which Prosper, in his disappointed love, had imposed upon her?
He was astonished that Gypsy—violence itself—remained silently weeping, instead of rising and bitterly denouncing him.
Meanwhile Madeleine had succeeded in recovering her usual calmness.
Slowly and almost unconsciously she had put on her bonnet and shawl, which were lying on the sofa.
Then she approached Prosper, and said:
"Why did you come here? We both have need of all the courage we can command. You are unhappy, Prosper; I am more than unhappy, I am most wretched. You have a right to complain: I have not the right to shed a tear. While my heart is slowly breaking, I must wear a smiling face. You can seek consolation in the bosom of a friend: I can have no confidant but God."
Prosper tried to murmur a reply, but his pale lips refused to articulate; he was stifling.
"I wish to tell you," continued Madeleine, "that I have forgotten nothing. But oh! let not this knowledge give you any hope; the future is blank for us, but if you love me you will live. You will not, I know, add to my already heavy burden of sorrow, the agony of mourning your death. For my sake, live; live the life of a good man, and perhaps the day will come when I can justify myself in your eyes. And now, oh, my brother, oh, my only friend, adieu! adieu!"
She pressed a kiss upon his brow, and rushed from the room, followed by Nina Gypsy.
Prosper was alone. He seemed to be awaking from a troubled dream. He tried to think over what had just happened, and asked himself if he were losing his mind, or whether he had really spoken to Madeleine and seen Gypsy?
He was obliged to attribute all this to the mysterious power of the strange man whom he had seen for the first time that very morning.
How did he gain this wonderful power of controlling events to suit his own purposes?
He seemed to have anticipated everything, to know everything. He was acquainted with Cavaillon, he knew all Madeleine's movements; he had made even Gypsy become humble and submissive.
Thinking all this, Prosper had reached such a degree of exasperation, that when M. Verduret entered the little parlor, he strode toward him white with rage, and in a harsh, threatening voice, said to him:
"Who are you?"
The stout man did not show any surprise at this burst of anger, but quietly answered:
"A friend of your father's; did you not know it?"
"That is no answer, monsieur; I have been surprised into being influenced by a stranger, and now—"
"Do you want my biography, what I have been, what I am, and what I may be? What difference does it make to you? I told you that I would save you; the main point is that I am saving you."
"Still I have the right to ask by what means you are saving me."
"What good will it do you to know what my plans are?"
"In order to decide whether I will accept or reject them?"
"But suppose I guarantee success?"
"That is not sufficient, monsieur. I do not choose to be any longer deprived of my own free will, to be exposed without warning to trials like those I have undergone to-day. A man of my age must know what he is doing."
"A man of your age, Prosper, when he is blind, takes a guide, and does not undertake to point out the way to his leader."
The half-bantering, half-commiserating tone of M. Verduret was not calculated to calm Prosper's irritation.
"That being the case, monsieur," he cried, "I will thank you for your past services, and decline them for the future, as I have no need of them. If I attempted to defend my honor and my life, it was because I hoped that Madeleine would be restored to me. I have been convinced to-day that all is at an end between us; I retire from the struggle, and care not what becomes of me now."
Prosper was so decided, that M. Verduret seemed alarmed.
"You must be mad," he finally said.
"No, unfortunately I am not. Madeleine has ceased to love me, and of what importance is anything else?"
His heart-broken tone aroused M. Verduret's sympathy, and he said, in a kind, soothing tone:
"Then you suspect nothing? You did not fathom the meaning of what she said?"
"You were listening," cried Prosper fiercely.
"I certainly was."
"Yes. It was a presumptuous thing to do, perhaps; but the end justified the means in this instance. I am glad I did listen, because it has enabled me to say to you, Take courage, Prosper: Mlle. Madeleine loves you; she has never ceased to love you."
Like a dying man who eagerly listens to deceitful promises of recovery, although he feels himself sinking into the grave, did Prosper feel his sad heart cheered by M. Verduret's assertion.
"Oh," he murmured, suddenly calmed, "if only I could hope!"
"Rely upon me, I am not mistaken. Ah, I could see the torture endured by this generous girl, while she struggled between her love, and what she believed to be her duty. Were you not convinced of her love when she bade you farewell?"
"She loves me, she is free, and yet she shuns me."
"No, she is not free! In breaking off her engagement with you, she was governed by some powerful, irrepressible event. She is sacrificing herself—for whom? We shall soon know; and the secret of her self-sacrifice will discover to us the secret of her plot against you."
As M. Verduret spoke, Prosper felt all his resolutions of revolt slowly melting away, and their place taken by confidence and hope.
"If what you say were true!" he mournfully said.
"Foolish young man! Why do you persist in obstinately shutting your eyes to the proof I place before you? Can you not see that Mlle. Madeleine knows who the thief is? Yes, you need not look so shocked; she knows the thief, but no human power can tear it from her. She sacrifices you, but then she almost has the right, since she first sacrificed herself."
Prosper was almost convinced; and it nearly broke his heart to leave this little parlor where he had seen Madeleine.
"Alas!" he said, pressing M. Verduret's hand, "you must think me a ridiculous fool! but you don't know how I suffer."
The man with the red whiskers sadly shook his head, and his voice sounded very unsteady as he replied, in a low tone:
"What you suffer, I have suffered. Like you, I loved, not a pure, noble girl, yet a girl fair to look upon. For three years I was at her feet, a slave to her every whim; when, one day she suddenly deserted me who adored her, to throw herself in the arms of a man who despised her. Then, like you, I wished to die. Neither threats nor entreaties could induce her to return to me. Passion never reasons, and she loved my rival."
"And did you know this rival?"
"I knew him."
"And you did not seek revenge?"
"No," replied M. Verduret with a singular expression, "no: fate took charge of my vengeance."
For a minute Prosper was silent; then he said:
"I have finally decided, monsieur. My honor is a sacred trust for which I must account to my family. I am ready to follow you to the end of the world; dispose of me as you judge proper."
That same day Prosper, faithful to his promise, sold his furniture, and wrote a letter to his friends announcing his intended departure to San Francisco.
In the evening he and M. Verduret installed themselves in the "Archangel."
Mme. Alexandre gave Prosper her prettiest room, but it was very ugly compared with the coquettish little parlor on the Rue Chaptal. His state of mind did not permit him, however, to notice the difference between his former and present quarters. He lay on an old sofa, meditating upon the events of the day, and feeling a bitter satisfaction in his isolated condition.
About eleven o'clock he thought he would raise the window, and let the cool air fan his burning brow; as he did so a piece of paper was blown from among the folds of the window-curtain, and lay at his feet on the floor.
Prosper mechanically picked it up, and looked at it.
It was covered with writing, the handwriting of Nina Gypsy; he could not be mistaken about that.
It was the fragment of a torn letter; and, if the half sentences did not convey any clear meaning, they were sufficient to lead the mind into all sorts of conjectures.
The fragment read as follows:
"of M. Raoul, I have been very im . . . plotted against him, of whom never . . . warn Prosper, and then . . . best friend. he . . . hand of Mlle. Ma . . ."
Prosper never closed his eyes during that night.
Not far from the Palais Royal, in the Rue St. Honore, is the sign of "La Bonne Foi," a small establishment, half cafe and half shop, extensively patronized by the people of the neighborhood.
It was in the smoking-room of this modest cafe that Prosper, the day after his release, awaited M. Verduret, who had promised to meet him at four o'clock.
The clock struck four; M. Verduret, who was punctuality itself, appeared. He was more red-faced and self-satisfied, if possible, than the day before.
As soon as the servant had left the room to obey his orders, he said to Prosper:
"Well, are our commissions executed?"
"Have you seen the costumer?"
"I gave him your letter, and everything you ordered will be sent to the Archangel to-morrow."
"Very good; you have not lost time, neither have I. I have good news for you."
The "Bonne Foi" is almost deserted at four o'clock. The hour for coffee is passed, and the hour for absinthe has not yet come. M. Verduret and Prosper could talk at their ease without fear of being overheard by gossiping neighbors.
M. Verduret drew forth his memorandum-book, the precious diary which, like the enchanted book in the fairy-tale, had an answer for every question.
"While awaiting our emissaries whom I appointed to meet here, let us devote a little time to M. de Lagors."
At this name Prosper did not protest, as he had done the night previous. Like those imperceptible insects which, having once penetrated the root of a tree, devour it in a single night, suspicion, when it invades our mind, soon develops itself, and destroys our firmest beliefs.
The visit of Lagors, and Gypsy's torn letter, had filled Prosper with suspicions which had grown stronger and more settled as time passed.
"Do you know, my dear friend," said M. Verduret, "what part of France this devoted friend of yours comes from?"
"He was born at St. Remy, which is also Mme. Fauvel's native town."
"Are you certain of that?"
"Oh, perfectly so, monsieur! He has not only often told me so, but I have heard him tell M. Fauvel; and he would talk to Mme. Fauvel by the hour about his mother, who was cousin to Mme. Fauvel, and dearly beloved by her."
"Then you think there is no possible mistake or falsehood about this part of his story?"
"None in the least, monsieur."
"Well, things are assuming a queer look."
And he began to whistle between his teeth; which, with M. Verduret, was a sign of intense inward satisfaction.
"What seems so, monsieur?" inquired Prosper.
"What has just happened; what I have been tracing. Parbleu!" he exclaimed, imitating the manner of a showman at a fair, "here is a lovely town, called St. Remy, six thousand inhabitants; charming boulevards on the site of the old fortifications; handsome hotel; numerous fountains; large charcoal market, silk factories, famous hospital, and so on."
Prosper was on thorns.
"Please be so good, monsieur, as to explain what you——"
"It also contains," continued M. Verduret, "a Roman triumphal arch, which is of unparalleled beauty, and a Greek mausoleum; but no Lagors. St. Remy is the native town of Nostradamus, but not of your friend."
"Yet I have proofs."
"Naturally. But proofs can be fabricated; relatives can be improvised. Your evidence is open to suspicion. My proofs are undeniable, perfectly authenticated. While you were pining in prison, I was preparing my batteries and collecting munition to open fire. I wrote to St. Remy, and received answers to my questions."
"Will you let me know what they were?"
"Have patience," said M. Verduret as he turned over the leaves of his memoranda. "Ah, here is number one. Bow respectfully to it, 'tis official."
He then read:
"'LAGORS.—Very old family, originally from Maillane, settled at St. Remy about a century ago.'"
"I told you so," cried Prosper.
"Pray allow me to finish," said M. Verduret.
"'The last of the Lagors (Jules-Rene-Henri) bearing without warrant the title of count, married in 1829 Mlle. Rosalie-Clarisse Fontanet, of Tarascon; died December 1848, leaving no male heir, but left two daughters. The registers make no mention of any person in the district bearing the name of Lagors.'
"Now what do you think of this information?" queried the fat man with a triumphant smile.
Prosper looked amazed.
"But why did M. Fauvel treat Raoul as his nephew?"
"Ah, you mean as his wife's nephew! Let us examine note number two: it is not official, but it throws a valuable light upon the twenty thousand livres income of your friend."
"'Jules-Rene-Henri de Lagors, last of his name, died at St. Remy on the 29th of December, 1848, in a state of great poverty. He at one time was possessed of a moderate fortune, but invested it in a silk-worm nursery, and lost it all.
"'He had no son, but left two daughters, one of whom is a teacher at Aix, and the other married a retail merchant at Orgon. His widow, who lives at Montagnette, is supported entirely by one of her relatives, the wife of a rich banker in Paris. No person of the name of Lagors lives in the district of Arles.'
"That is all," said M. Verduret; "don't you think it enough?"
"Really, monsieur, I don't know whether I am awake or dreaming."
"You will be awake after a while. Now I wish to remark one thing. Some people may assert that the widow Lagors had a child born after her husband's death. This objection has been destroyed by the age of your friend. Raoul is twenty-four, and M. de Lagors has not been dead twenty years."
"But," said Prosper thoughtfully, "who can Raoul be?"
"I don't know. The fact is, I am more perplexed to find out who he is, than to know whom he is not. There is one man who could give us all the information we seek, but he will take good care to keep his mouth shut."
"You mean M. de Clameran?"
"Him, and no one else."
"I have always felt the most inexplicable aversion toward him. Ah, if we could only get his account in addition to what you already have!"
"I have been furnished with a few notes concerning the Clameran family by your father, who knew them well; they are brief, but I expect more."
"What did my father tell you?"
"Nothing favorable, you may be sure. I will read you the synopsis of this information:
"'Louis de Clameran was born at the Chateau de Clameran, near Tarascon. He had an elder brother named Gaston, who, in consequence of an affray in which he had the misfortune to kill one man and badly wound another, was compelled to fly the country in 1842. Gaston was an honest, noble youth, universally beloved. Louis, on the contrary, was a wicked, despicable fellow, detested by all who knew him.
"'Upon the death of his father, Louis came to Paris, and in less than two years had squandered not only his own patrimony, but also the share of his exiled brother.
"'Ruined and harassed by debt, Louis entered the army, but behaved so disgracefully that he was dismissed.
"'After leaving the army we lose sight of him; all we can discover is, that he went to England, and thence to a German gambling resort, where he became notorious for his scandalous conduct.
"'In 1865 we find him again at Paris. He was in great poverty, and his associates were among the most depraved classes.
"'But he suddenly heard of the return of his brother Gaston to Paris. Gaston had made a fortune in Mexico; but being still a young man, and accustomed to a very active life, he purchased, near Orloron, an iron-mill, intending to spend the remainder of his life in working at it. Six months ago he died in the arms of his brother Louis. His death provided our De Clameran an immense fortune, and the title of marquis.'"
"Then," said Prosper, "from all this I judge that M. de Clameran was very poor when I met him for the first time at M. Fauvel's?"
"And about that time Lagors arrived from the country?"
"And about a month after his appearance Madeleine suddenly banished me?"
"Well," exclaimed M. Verduret, "I am glad you are beginning to understand the state of affairs."
He was interrupted by the entrance of a stranger.
The new-comer was a dandified-looking coachman, with elegant black whiskers, shining boots with fancy tops; buff breeches, and a yellow waistcoat with red and black stripes.
After cautiously looking around the room, he walked straight up to the table where M. Verduret sat.
"What is the news, Master Joseph Dubois?" said the stout man eagerly.
"Ah, patron, don't speak of it!" answered the servant: "things are getting warm."
Prosper concentrated all his attention upon this superb domestic. He thought he recognized his face. He had certainly somewhere seen that retreating forehead and those little restless black eyes, but where and when he could not remember.
Meanwhile, Master Joseph had taken a seat at a table adjoining the one occupied by M. Verduret and Prosper; and, having called for some absinthe, was preparing it by holding the water aloft and slowly dropping it in the glass.
"Speak!" said M. Verduret.
"In the first place, patron, I must say that the position of valet and coachman to M. de Clameran is not a bed of roses."
"Go on: come to the point. You can complain to-morrow."
"Very good. Yesterday my master walked out at two o'clock. I, of course, followed him. Do you know where he went? The thing was as good as a farce. He went to the Archangel to keep the appointment made by 'Nina Gypsy.'"
"Well, make haste. They told him she was gone. Then?"
"Then? Ah! he was not at all pleased, I can tell you. He hurried back to the hotel where the other, M. de Lagors, awaited him. And, upon my soul, I have never heard so much swearing in my life! M. Raoul asked him what had happened to put him in such a bad humor. 'Nothing,' replied my master, 'except that little devil has run off, and no one knows where she is; she has slipped through our fingers.' Then they both appeared to be vexed and uneasy. Lagors asked if she knew anything serious. 'She knows nothing but what I told you,' replied Clameran; 'but this nothing, falling in the ear of a man with any suspicions, will be more than enough to work on.'"
M. Verduret smiled like a man who had his reasons for appreciating at their just value De Clameran's fears.
"Well, your master is not without sense, after all; don't you think he showed it by saying that?"
"Yes, patron. Then Lagors exclaimed, 'If it is as serious as that, we must get rid of this little serpent!' But my master shrugged his shoulders, and laughing loudly said, 'You talk like an idiot; when one is annoyed by a woman of this sort, one must take measures to get rid of her administratively.' This idea seemed to amuse them both very much."
"I can understand their being entertained by it," said M. Verduret; "it is an excellent idea; but the misfortune is, it is too late to carry it out. The nothing which made Clameran uneasy has already fallen into a knowing ear."
With breathless curiosity, Prosper listened to this report, every word of which seemed to throw light upon past events. Now, he thought, he understood the fragment of Gypsy's letter. He saw that this Raoul, in whom he had confided so deeply, was nothing more than a scoundrel. A thousand little circumstances, unnoticed at the time, now recurred to his mind, and made him wonder how he could have been so blind so long.
Master Joseph Dubois continued his report:
"Yesterday, after dinner, my master decked himself out like a bridegroom. I shaved him, curled his hair, and perfumed him with special care, after which I drove him to the Rue de Provence to call on Mme. Fauvel."
"What!" exclaimed Prosper, "after the insulting language he used the day of the robbery, did he dare to visit the house?"
"Yes, monsieur, he not only dared this, but he also stayed there until midnight, to my great discomfort; for I got as wet as a rat, waiting for him."
"How did he look when he came out?" asked M. Verduret.
"Well, he certainly looked less pleased then when he went in. After putting away my carriage, and rubbing down my horses, I went to see if he wanted anything; I found the door locked, and he swore at me like a trooper, through the key-hole."
And, to assist the digestion of this insult, Master Joseph here gulped down a glass of absinthe.
"Is that all?" questioned M. Verduret.
"All that occurred yesterday, patron; but this morning my master rose late, still in a horrible bad humor. At noon Raoul arrived, also in a rage. They at once began to dispute, and such a row! why, the most abandoned housebreakers and pickpockets would have blushed to hear such Billingsgate. At one time my master seized the other by the throat and shook him like a reed. But Raoul was too quick for him; he saved himself from strangulation by drawing out a sharp-pointed knife, the sight of which made my master drop him in a hurry, I can tell you."
"But what did they say?"
"Ah, there is the rub, patron," said Joseph in a piteous tone; "the scamps spoke English, so I could not understand them. But I am sure they were disputing about money."
"How do you know that?"
"Because I learned at the Exposition that the word 'argent' means money in every language in Europe; and this word they constantly used in their conversation."
M. Verduret sat with knit brows, talking in an undertone to himself; and Prosper, who was watching him, wondered if he was trying to understand and construct the dispute by mere force of reflection.
"When they had done fighting," continued Joseph, "the rascals began to talk in French again; but they only spoke of a fancy ball which is to be given by some banker. When Raoul was leaving, my master said, 'Since this thing is inevitable, and it must take place to-day, you had better remain at home, at Vesinet, this evening.' Raoul replied, 'Of course.'"
Night was approaching, and the smoking-room was gradually filling with men who called for absinthe or bitters, and youths who perched themselves up on high stools, and smoked their pipes.
"It is time to go," said M. Verduret; "your master will want you, Joseph; besides, here is someone come for me. I will see you to-morrow."
The new-comer was no other than Cavaillon, more troubled and frightened than ever. He looked uneasily around the room, as if he expected the whole police force to appear, and carry him off to prison.
He did not sit down at M. Verduret's table, but stealthily gave his hand to Prosper, and, after assuring himself that no one was observing them, handed M. Verduret a package, saying:
"She found this in a cupboard."
It was a handsomely bound prayer-book. M. Verduret rapidly turned over the leaves, and soon found the pages from which the words pasted on Prosper's letter had been cut.
"I had moral proofs," he said, handing the book to Prosper, "but here is material proof sufficient in itself to save you."
When Prosper looked at the book he turned pale as a ghost. He recognized this prayer-book instantly. He had given it to Madeleine in exchange for the medal.
He opened it, and on the fly-leaf Madeleine had written, "Souvenir of Notre Dame de Fourvieres, 17 January, 1866."
"This book belongs to Madeleine," he cried.
M. Verduret did not reply, but walked toward a young man dressed like a brewer, who had just entered the room.
He glanced at the note which this person handed to him, and hastened back to the table, and said, in an agitated tone:
"I think we have got them now!"
Throwing a five-franc piece on the table, and without saying a word to Cavaillon, he seized Prosper's arm, and hurried from the room.
"What a fatality!" he said, as he hastened along the street: "we may miss them. We shall certainly reach the St. Lazare station too late for the St. Germain train."
"For Heaven's sake, where are you going?" asked Prosper.
"Never mind, we can talk after we start. Hurry!"
Reaching Palais Royal Place, M. Verduret stopped before one of the hacks belonging to the railway station, and examined the horses at a glance.
"How much for driving us to Vesinet?" he asked of the driver.
"I don't know the road very well that way."
The name of Vesinet was enough for Prosper.
"Well," said the driver, "at this time of night, in such dreadful weather, it ought to be—twenty-five francs."
"And how much more for driving very rapidly?"
"Bless my soul! Why, monsieur, I leave that to your generosity; but if you put it at thirty-five francs—"
"You shall have a hundred," interrupted M. Verduret, "if you overtake a carriage which has half an hour's start of us."
"Tonnerre de Brest!" cried the delighted driver; "jump in quick: we are losing time!"
And, whipping up his lean horses, he galloped them down the Rue de Valois at lightning speed.
Leaving the little station of Vesinet, we come upon two roads. One, to the left, macadamized and kept in perfect repair, leads to the village, of which there are glimpses here and there through the trees. The other, newly laid out, and just covered with gravel, leads through the woods.
Along the latter, which before the lapse of five years will be a busy street, are built a few houses, hideous in design, and at some distance apart; rural summer retreats of city merchants, but unoccupied during the winter.
It was at the junction of these two roads that Prosper stopped the hack.
The driver had gained his hundred francs. The horses were completely worn out, but they had accomplished all that was expected of them; M. Verduret could distinguish the lamps of a hack similar to the one he occupied, about fifty yards ahead of him.
M. Verduret jumped out, and, handing the driver a bank-note, said:
"Here is what I promised you. Go to the first tavern you find on the right-hand side of the road as you enter the village. If we do not meet you there in an hour, you are at liberty to return to Paris."
The driver was overwhelming in his thanks; but neither Prosper nor his friend heard them. They had already started up the new road.
The weather, which had been inclement when they set out, was now fearful. The rain fell in torrents, and a furious wind howled dismally through the dense woods.
The intense darkness was rendered more dreary by the occasional glimmer of the lamps at the distant station, which seemed about to be extinguished by every new gust of wind.
M. Verduret and Prosper had been running along the muddy road for about five minutes, when suddenly the latter stopped and said:
"This is Raoul's house."
Before the gate of an isolated house stood the hack which M. Verduret had followed. Reclining on his seat, wrapped in a thick cloak, was the driver, who, in spite of the pouring rain, was already asleep, evidently waiting for the person whom he had brought to this house a few minutes ago.
M. Verduret pulled his cloak, and said, in a low voice:
"Wake up, my good man."
The driver started, and, mechanically gathering his reins, yawned out:
"I am ready: come on!"
But when, by the light of the carriage-lamps, he saw two men in this lonely spot, he imagined that they wanted his purse, and perhaps his life.
"I am engaged!" he cried out, as he cracked his whip in the air; "I am waiting here for someone."
"I know that, you fool," replied M. Verduret, "and only wish to ask you a question, which you can gain five francs by answering. Did you not bring a middle-aged lady here?"
This question, this promise of five francs, instead of reassuring the coachman, increased his alarm.
"I have already told you I am waiting for someone," he said, "and, if you don't go away and leave me alone, I will call for help."
M. Verduret drew back quickly.
"Come away," he whispered to Prosper, "the cur will do as he says; and, alarm once given, farewell to our projects. We must find some other entrance than by this gate."
They then went along the wall surrounding the garden, in search of a place where it was possible to climb up.
This was difficult to discover, the wall being twelve feet high, and the night very dark. Fortunately, M. Verduret was very agile; and, having decided upon the spot to be scaled, he drew back a few feet, and making a sudden spring, seized one of the projecting stones above him, and, drawing himself up by aid of his hands and feet, soon found himself on top of the wall.
It was now Prosper's turn to climb up; but, though much younger than his companion, he had not his agility and strength, and would never have succeeded if M. Verduret had not pulled him up, and then helped him down on the other side.
Once in the garden, M. Verduret looked about him to study the situation.
The house occupied by M. de Lagors was built in the middle of an immense garden. It was narrow, two stories high, and with garrets.
Only one window, in the second story, was lighted.
"As you have often been here," said M. Verduret, "you must know all about the arrangement of the house: what room is that where we see the light?"
"That is Raoul's bed-chamber."
"Very good. What rooms are on the first floor?"
"The kitchen, pantry, billiard-room, and dining-room."
"And on the floor above?"
"Two drawing-rooms separated by folding doors, and a library."
"Where do the servants sleep?"
"Raoul has none at present. He is waited on by a man and his wife, who live at Vesinet; they come in the morning, and leave after dinner."
M. Verduret rubbed his hands gleefully.
"That suits our plans exactly," he said; "there is nothing to prevent our hearing what Raoul has to say to this person who has come from Paris at ten o'clock at night, to see him. Let us go in."
Prosper seemed averse to this, and said:
"It is a serious thing for us to do, monsieur."
"Bless my soul! what else did we come here for? Did you think it was a pleasure-trip, merely to enjoy this lovely weather?" he said in a bantering tone.
"But we might be discovered."
"Suppose we are? If the least noise betrays our presence, you have only to advance boldly as a friend come to visit a friend, and, finding the door open walked in."
But unfortunately the heavy oak door was locked. M. Verduret shook it in vain.
"How foolish!" he said with vexation, "I ought to have brought my instruments with me. A common lock which could be opened with a nail, and I have not even a piece of wire!"
Thinking it useless to attempt the door, he tried successively every window on the ground-floor. Alas! each blind was securely fastened on the inside.
M. Verduret was provoked. He prowled around the house like a fox around a hen-coop, seeking an entrance, but finding none. Despairingly he came back to the spot in front of the house, whence he had the best view of the lighted window.
"If I could only look in," he cried. "Just to think that in there," and he pointed to the window, "is the solution of the mystery; and we are cut off from it by thirty or forty feet of cursed blank wall!"
Prosper was more surprised than ever at his companion's strange behavior. He seemed perfectly at home in this garden; he ran about without any precaution; so that one would have supposed him accustomed to such expeditions, especially when he spoke of picking the lock of an occupied house, as if he were talking of opening a snuff-box. He was utterly indifferent to the rain and sleet driven in his face by the gusts of wind as he splashed about in the mud trying to find some way of entrance.
"I must get a peep into that window," he said, "and I will, cost what it may!"
Prosper seemed to suddenly remember something.
"There is a ladder here," he cried.
"Why did you not tell me that before? Where is it?"
"At the end of the garden, under the trees."
They ran to the spot, and in a few minutes had the ladder standing against the wall.
But to their chagrin they found the ladder six feet too short. Six long feet of wall between the top of the ladder and the lighted window was a very discouraging sight to Prosper; he exclaimed:
"We cannot reach it."
"We can reach it," cried M. Verduret triumphantly.
And he quickly placed himself a yard off from the house, and, seizing the ladder, cautiously raised it and rested the bottom round on his shoulders, at the same time holding the two uprights firmly and steadily with his hands. The obstacle was overcome.
"Now mount," he said to his companion.
Prosper did not hesitate. The enthusiasm of difficulties so skilfully conquered, and the hope of triumph, gave him a strength and agility which he had never imagined he possessed. He made a sudden spring, and, seizing the lower rounds, quickly climbed up the ladder, which swayed and trembled beneath his weight.
But he had scarcely looked in the lighted window when he uttered a cry which was drowned in the roaring tempest, and dropped like a log down on the wet grass, exclaiming:
"The villain! the villain!"
With wonderful promptness and vigor M. Verduret laid the ladder on the ground, and ran toward Prosper, fearing that he was dead or dangerously injured.
"What did you see? Are you hurt?" he whispered.
But Prosper had already risen. Although he had had a violent fall, he was unhurt; he was in a state when mind governs matter so absolutely that the body is insensible to pain.
"I saw," he answered in a hoarse voice, "I saw Madeleine—do you understand, Madeleine—in that room, alone with Raoul!"
M. Verduret was confounded. Was it possible that he, the infallible expert, had been mistaken in his deductions?
He well knew that M. de Lagors's visitor was a woman; but his own conjectures, and the note which Mme. Gypsy had sent to him at the tavern, had fully assured him that this woman was Mme. Fauvel.
"You must be mistaken," he said to Prosper.
"No, monsieur, no. Never could I mistake another for Madeleine. Ah! you who heard what she said to me yesterday, answer me: was I to expect such infamous treason as this? You said to me then, 'She loves you, she loves you!' Now do you think she loves me? speak!"
M. Verduret did not answer. He had first been stupefied by his mistake, and was now racking his brain to discover the cause of it, which was soon discerned by his penetrating mind.
"This is the secret discovered by Nina," continued Prosper. "Madeleine, this pure and noble Madeleine, whom I believed to be as immaculate as an angel, is in love with this thief, who has even stolen the name he bears; and I, trusting fool that I was, made this scoundrel my best friend. I confided to him all my hopes and fears; and he was her lover! Of course they amused themselves by ridiculing my silly devotion and blind confidence!"
He stopped, overcome by his violent emotions. Wounded vanity is the worst of miseries. The certainty of having been so shamefully deceived and betrayed made Prosper almost insane with rage.
"This is the last humiliation I shall submit to," he fiercely cried. "It shall not be said that I was coward enough to stand by and let an insult like this go unpunished."
He started toward the house; but M. Verduret seized his arm and said:
"What are you going to do?"
"Have my revenge! I will break down the door; what do I care for the noise and scandal, now that I have nothing to lose? I shall not attempt to creep into the house like a thief, but as a master, as one who has a right to enter; as a man who, having received an insult which can only be washed out with blood, comes to demand satisfaction."
"You will do nothing of the sort, Prosper."
"Who will prevent me?"
"You? do not hope that you will be able to deter me. I will appear before them, put them to the blush, kill them both, then put an end to my own wretched existence. That is what I intend to do, and nothing shall stop me!"
If M. Verduret had not held Prosper with a vice-like grip, he would have escaped, and carried out his threat.
"If you make any noise, Prosper, or raise an alarm, all your hopes are ruined."
"I have no hopes now."
"Raoul, put on his guard, will escape us, and you will remain dishonored forever."
"What difference is it to me?"
"It makes a great difference to me. I have sworn to prove your innocence. A man of your age can easily find a wife, but can never restore lustre to a tarnished name. Let nothing interfere with the establishing of your innocence."
Genuine passion is uninfluenced by surrounding circumstances. M. Verduret and Prosper stood foot-deep in mud, wet to the skin, the rain pouring down on their heads, and yet seemed in no hurry to end their dispute.
"I will be avenged," repeated Prosper with the persistency of a fixed idea, "I will avenge myself."
"Well, avenge yourself like a man, and not like a child!" said M. Verduret angrily.
"Yes, I repeat it, like a child. What will you do after you get into the house? Have you any arms? No. You rush upon Raoul, and a struggle ensues; while you two are fighting, Madeleine jumps in her carriage, and drives off. What then? Which is the stronger, you or Raoul?"
Overcome by the sense of his powerlessness, Prosper was silent.
"And arms would be of no use," continued M. Verduret: "it is fortunate you have none with you, for it would be very foolish to shoot a man whom you can send to the galleys."
"What must I do?"
"Wait. Vengeance is a delicious fruit, that must ripen in order that we may fully enjoy it."
Prosper was unsettled in his resolution; M. Verduret seeing this brought forth his last and strongest argument.
"How do we know," he said, "that Mlle. Madeleine is here on her own account? Did we not come to the conclusion that she was sacrificing herself for the benefit of someone else? That superior will which compelled her to banish you may have constrained this step to-night."
That which coincides with our secret wishes is always eagerly welcomed. This supposition, apparently improbable, struck Prosper as possibly true.
"That might be the case," he murmured, "who knows?"
"I would soon know," said M. Verduret, "if I could see them together in that room."
"Will you promise me, monsieur, to tell me the exact truth, all that you see and hear, no matter how painful it may be for me?"
"I swear it, upon my word of honor."
Then, with a strength of which a few minutes before he would not have believed himself possessed, Prosper raised the ladder, placed the last round on his shoulders, and said to M. Verduret:
M. Verduret rapidly ascended the ladder without even shaking it, and had his head on a level with the window.
Prosper had seen but too well. There was Madeleine at this hour of the night, alone with Raoul de Lagors in his room!
M. Verduret observed that she still wore her shawl and bonnet.
She was standing in the middle of the room, talking with great animation. Her look and gestures betrayed indignant scorn. There was an expression of ill-disguised loathing upon her beautiful face.
Raoul was seated by the fire, stirring up the coals with a pair of tongs. Every now and then, he would shrug his shoulders, like a man resigned to everything he heard, and had no answer, except, "I cannot help it. I can do nothing for you."
M. Verdure would willingly have given the diamond ring on his finger to be able to hear what was said; but the roaring wind completely drowned their voices.
"They are evidently quarrelling," he thought; "but it is not a lovers' quarrel."
Madeleine continued talking; and it was by closely watching the face of Lagors, clearly revealed by the lamp on the mantel, that M. Verduret hoped to discover the meaning of the scene before him.
At one moment Lagors would start and tremble in spite of his apparent indifference; the next, he would strike at the fire with the tongs, as if giving vent to his rage at some reproach uttered by Madeleine.
Finally Madeleine changed her threats into entreaties, and, clasping her hands, almost fell at his knees.
He turned away his head, and refused to answer save in monosyllables.
Several times she turned to leave the room, but each time returned, as if asking a favor, and unable to make up her mind to leave the house till she had obtained it.
At last she seemed to have uttered something decisive; for Raoul quickly rose and opened a desk near the fireplace, from which he took a bundle of papers, and handed them to her.
"Well," thought M. Verduret, "this looks bad. Can it be a compromising correspondence which the fair one wants to secure?"
Madeleine took the papers, but was apparently still dissatisfied. She again entreated him to give her something else. Raoul refused; and then she threw the papers on the table.
The papers seemed to puzzle M. Verduret very much, as he gazed at them through the window.
"I am not blind," he said, "and I certainly am not mistaken; those papers, red, green, and yellow, are pawnbroker's tickets!"
Madeleine turned over the papers as if looking for some particular ones. She selected three, which she put in her pocket, disdainfully pushing the others aside.
She was evidently preparing to take her departure, for she said a few words to Raoul, who took up the lamp as if to escort her downstairs.
There was nothing more for M. Verduret to see. He carefully descended the ladder, muttering to himself. "Pawnbroker's tickets! What infamous mystery lies at the bottom of all this?"
The first thing he did was to remove the ladder.
Raoul might take it into his head to look around the garden, when he came to the door with Madeleine, and if he did so the ladder could scarcely fail to attract his attention.
M. Verduret and Prosper hastily laid it on the ground, regardless of the shrubs and vines they destroyed in doing so, and then concealed themselves among the trees, whence they could watch at once the front door and the outer gate.
Madeleine and Raoul appeared in the doorway. Raoul set the lamp on the bottom step, and offered his hand to the girl; but she refused it with haughty contempt, which somewhat soothed Prosper's lacerated heart.
This scornful behavior did not, however, seem to surprise or hurt Raoul. He simply answered by an ironical gesture which implied, "As you please!"