Two hours later, Clameran was on the road to Vesinet with Raoul, explaining to him his plans.
"It is my precious brother, and no mistake," he said. "But that need not alarm you so easily, my lovely nephew."
"Merciful powers! Doesn't the banker expect to see him any day? Is he not liable to pounce down on me to-morrow?"
"Don't be an idiot!" interrupted Clameran. "Does he know that Fauvel is Valentine's husband? That is what we must find out. If he knows that little fact, we must take to our heels; if he is ignorant of it, our case is not desperate."
"How will you find out?"
"By simply asking him."
Raoul exclaimed at his ally's cunning:
"That is a dangerous thing to do," he said.
"'Tis not as dangerous as sitting down with our hands folded. And, as to running away at the first suspicion of alarm, it would be imbecility."
"Who is going to look for him?"
"Oh, oh, oh!" exclaimed Raoul in three different tones. Clameran's audacity confounded him.
"But what am I going to do?" he inquired after a moment's silence.
"You will oblige me by remaining here and keeping quiet. I will send you a despatch if there is danger; and then you can decamp."
As they parted at Raoul's door, Clameran said:
"Now, remember. Stay here, and during my absence be very intimate at your devoted mother's. Be the most dutiful of sons. Abuse me as much as you please to her; and, above all, don't indulge in any folly; make no demands for money; keep your eyes open. Good-by. To-morrow evening I will be at Oloron talking with this new Clameran."
After leaving Valentine de la Verberie, Gaston underwent great peril and difficulty in effecting his escape.
But for the experienced and faithful Menoul, he never would have succeeded in embarking.
Having left his mother's jewels with Valentine, his sole fortune consisted of not quite a thousand francs; and with this paltry sum in his pocket, the murderer of two men, a fugitive from justice, and with no prospect of earning a livelihood, he took passage for Valparaiso.
But Menoul was a bold and experienced sailor.
While Gaston remained concealed in a farm-house at Camargue, Menoul went to Marseilles, and that very evening discovered, from some of his sailor friends, that a three-masted American vessel was in the roadstead, whose commander, Captain Warth, a not over-scrupulous Yankee, would be glad to welcome on board an able-bodied man who would be of assistance to him at sea.
After visiting the vessel, and finding, during a conversation over a glass of rum with the captain, that he was quite willing to take a sailor without disturbing himself about his antecedents, Menoul returned to Gaston.
"Left to my own choice, monsieur," he said, "I should have settled this matter on the spot; but you might object to it."
"What suits you, suits me," interrupted Gaston.
"You see, the fact is, you will be obliged to work very hard. A sailor's life is not boy's play. You will not find much pleasure in it. And I must confess that the ship's company is not the most moral one I ever saw. You never would imagine yourself in a Christian company. And the captain is a regular swaggering bully."
"I have no choice," said Gaston. "Let us go on board at once."
Old Menoul's suspicions were correct.
Before Gaston had been on board the Tom Jones forty-eight hours, he saw that chance had cast him among a collection of the most depraved bandits and cut-throats.
The vessel, which seemed to have recruited at all points of the compass, possessed a crew composed of every variety of thievish knaves; each country had contributed a specimen.
But Gaston's mind was undisturbed as to the character of the people with whom his lot was cast for several months.
It was only his miserable wounded body, that the vessel was carrying to a new country. His heart and soul rested in the shady park of La Verberie, beside his lovely Valentine. He took no note of the men around him, but lived over again those precious hours of bliss beneath the old tree on the banks of the Rhone, where his beloved had confided her heart to his keeping, and sworn to love him forever.
And what would become of her now, poor child, when he was no longer there to love, console, and defend her?
Happily, he had no time for sad reflections.
His every moment was occupied in learning the rough apprenticeship of a sailor's life. All his energies were spent in bearing up under the heavy burden of labor allotted to him. Being totally unaccustomed to manual work, he found it difficult to keep pace with the other sailors, and for the first week or two he was often near fainting at his post, from sheer fatigue; but indomitable energy kept him up.
This was his salvation. Physical suffering calmed and deadened his mental agony. The few hours relaxation granted him were spent in heavy sleep; the instant his weary body touched his bunk, his eyes closed, and no moment did he have to mourn over the past.
At rare intervals, when the weather was calm, and he was relieved from his constant occupation of trimming the sails, he would anxiously question the future, and wonder what he should do when this irksome voyage was ended.
He had sworn that he would return before the end of three years, rich enough to satisfy the exactions of Mme. de la Verberie. How should he be able to keep this boastful promise? Stern reality had convinced him that his projects could never be realized, except by hard work and long waiting. What he hoped to accomplish in three years was likely to require a lifetime.
Judging from the conversation of his companions, he was not now on the road to fortune.
The Tom Jones set sail for Valparaiso, but certainly went in a roundabout way to reach her destination.
The real fact was, that Captain Warth proposed visiting the Gulf of Guinea.
A friend of his, the "Black Prince," he said, with a loud laugh, was waiting for him at Badagri, to exchange a cargo of "ebony" for some pipes of rum, and a hundred flint-lock muskets which were on board the Tom Jones.
Gaston soon saw that he was serving his apprenticeship on a slaver, one of the many ships sent yearly by the free and philanthropic Americans, who made immense fortunes by carrying on the slave-trade.
Although this discovery filled Gaston with indignation and shame, he was prudent enough to conceal his impressions.
His remonstrances, no matter how eloquent, would have made no change in the opinions of Captain Warth regarding a traffic which brought him in more than a hundred per cent, in spite of the French and English cruisers, the damages, sometimes entire loss of cargoes, and many other risks.
The crew admired Gaston when they learned that he had cut two men into mince-meat when they were insolent to him; this was the account of Gaston's affair, as reported to the captain by old Menoul.
Gaston wisely determined to keep on friendly terms with the villains, as long as he was in their power. To express disapproval of their conduct would have incurred the enmity of the whole crew, without bettering his own situation.
He therefore kept quiet, but swore mentally that he would desert on the first opportunity.
This opportunity, like everything impatiently longed for, came not.
By the end of three months, Gaston had become so useful and popular that Captain Warth found him indispensable.
Seeing him so intelligent and agreeable, he liked to have him at his own table, and would spend hours at cards with him or consulting about his business matters. The mate of the ship dying, Gaston was chosen to replace him. In this capacity he made two successful voyages to Guinea, bringing back a thousand blacks, whom he superintended during a trip of fifteen hundred leagues, and finally landed them on the coast of Brazil.
When Gaston had been with Captain Warth about three years, the Tom Jones stopped at Rio Janeiro for a month, to lay in supplies. He now decided to leave the ship, although he had become somewhat attached to the friendly captain, who was after all a worthy man, and never would have engaged in the diabolical traffic of human beings, but for his little angel daughter's sake. He said that his child was so good and beautiful, that she deserved a large fortune. Each time that he sold a black, he would quiet any faint qualms of conscience by saying, "It is for little Mary's good."
Gaston possessed twelve thousand francs, as his share of the profits, when he landed at Brazil.
As a proof that the slave-trade was repugnant to his nature, he left the slaver the moment he possessed a little capital with which to enter some honest business.
But he was no longer the high-minded, pure-hearted Gaston, who had so devotedly loved and perilled his life for the little fairy of La Verberie.
It is useless to deny that evil examples are pernicious to morals. The most upright characters are unconsciously influenced by bad surroundings. As the exposure to rain, sun, and sea-air first darkened and then hardened his skin, so did wicked associates first shock and then destroy the refinement and purity of Gaston's mind. His heart had become as hard and coarse as his sailor hands. He still remembered Valentine, and sighed for her presence; but she was no longer the sole object of affection, the one woman in the world to him. Contact with sin had lowered his standard of women.
The three years, after which he had pledged himself to return, had passed; perhaps Valentine was expecting him. Before deciding on any definite project, he wrote to an intimate friend at Beaucaire to learn what had happened during his long absence. He expressed great anxiety about his family and neighbors.
He also wrote to his father, asking why he had never answered the many letters which he had sent to him by returning sailors, who would have safely forwarded the replies.
At the end of a year, he received an answer from his friend.
The letter almost drove him mad.
It told him that his father was dead; that his brother had left France, Valentine was lately married, and that he, Gaston, had been sentenced to ten years' imprisonment for murder.
Henceforth he was alone in the world; with no country, no family, no home, and disgraced by a public sentence.
Valentine was married, and he had no object in life! He would hereafter have faith in no one, since she, Valentine, had cast him off, forgotten him. What could he expect of others, when she had broken her troth, had lacked the courage to keep her promise and wait for him?—she, whom he had so trusted.
In his despair, he almost regretted the Tom Jones. Yes, he sighed for the wicked slaver crew, his life of excitement and peril. The dangers and triumphs of those bold pirates whose only care was to heap up money would have been preferable to his present wretchedness.
But Gaston was not a man to be long cast down.
"Money is the cause of it all!" he said with rage. "If the lack of money can bring such misery, its possession must bestow intense happiness. Henceforth I will devote all my energies to getting money."
He set to work with a greedy activity, which increased each day. He tried all the many speculations open to adventurers. Alternately he traded in furs, worked in a mine, and cultivated lands.
Five times he went to bed rich, and waked up ruined; five times, with the patience of the castor, whose hut is swept away by each returning tide, he recommenced the foundation of his fortune.
Finally, after long weary years of toil and struggle, he was worth a million in gold, besides immense tracts of land.
He had often said that he would never leave Brazil, that he wanted to end his days in Rio. He had forgotten that love for his native land never dies in the heart of a Frenchman. Now that he was rich, he wished to die in France.
He made inquiries, and found that the law of limitations would permit him to return without being disturbed by the authorities. He left his property in charge of an agent, and embarked for France, taking a large portion of his fortune with him.
Twenty-three years and four months had elapsed since he fled from home.
On a bright, crisp day in January, 1866, he once again stepped on French soil. With a sad heart, he stood upon the quays at Bordeaux, and compared the past with the present.
He had departed a young man, ambitious, hopeful, and beloved; he returned gray-haired, disappointed, trusting no one.
Gold could not supply the place of affection. He had said that riches would bring happiness: his wealth was immense, and he was miserable.
His health, too, began to suffer from this sudden change of climate. Rheumatism confined him to his bed for several months. As soon as he could sit up, the physicians sent him to the warm baths, where he recovered his health, but not his spirits. He felt his lonely condition more terribly in his own country than when in a foreign land.
He determined to divert his mind by engaging in some occupation which would keep him too busy to think of himself and his disappointment. Charmed with the beauty of the Pyrenees, and the lovely valley of Aspe, he resolved to take up his abode there.
An iron-mill was for sale near Oloron, on the borders of the Gara; he bought it with the intention of utilizing the immense quantity of wood, which, for want of means of transportation, was being wasted in the mountains.
He was soon settled comfortably in his new home, and enjoying a busy, active life.
One evening, as he was ruminating over the past, his servant brought him a card, and said the gentleman was waiting to see him.
He read the name on the card: Louis de Clameran.
Many years had passed since Gaston had experienced such violent agitation. His blood rushed to his face, and he trembled like a leaf.
The old home affections which he thought dead now sprung up anew in his heart. A thousand confused memories rushed through his mind. Like one in a dream, he tottered toward the door, gasping, in a smothered, broken voice:
"My brother! oh, my brother!"
Hurriedly passing by the frightened servant, he ran downstairs.
In the passage stood a man: it was Louis de Clameran.
Gaston threw his arms around his neck and held him in a close embrace for some minutes, and then drew him into the room.
Seated close beside him, with his two hands tightly clasped in those of Louis, Gaston gazed at his brother as a fond mother would gaze at her son just returned from the battle-field.
There was scarcely any danger and excitement which the mate of the redoubtable Captain Warth had not experienced; nothing had ever before caused him to lose his calm presence of mind, to force him to betray that he had a heart. The sight of this long unseen brother seemed to have changed his nature; he was like a woman, weeping and laughing at once.
"And is this really Louis?" he cried. "My dear brother! Why, I should have recognized you among a thousand; the expression of your face is just the same; your smile takes me back twenty-three years."
Louis did indeed smile, just as he smiled on that fatal night when his horse stumbled, and prevented Gaston's escape.
He smiled now as if he was perfectly happy at meeting his brother.
And he was much more at ease than he had been a few moments before. He had exerted all the courage he possessed to venture upon this meeting. Nothing but pressing necessity would have induced him to face this brother, who seemed to have risen from the dead to reproach him for his crimes.
His teeth chattered and he trembled in every limb when he rang Gaston's bell, and handed the servant his card, saying:
"Take this to your master."
The few moments before Gaston's appearance seemed to be centuries. He said to himself:
"Perhaps it is not he; if it is he, does he know? Does he suspect anything? How will he receive me?"
He was so anxious, that when he saw Gaston running downstairs, he felt like fleeing from the house without speaking to him.
Not knowing the nature of Gaston's feelings, whether he was hastening toward him in anger or brotherly love, he stood perfectly motionless. But one glance at his brother's face convinced him that he was the same affectionate, credulous, trusting Gaston of old; and, now that he was certain that his brother harbored no suspicions, he smilingly received the demonstrations lavished upon him.
"After all," continued Gaston, "I am not alone in the world; I shall have someone to love, someone to care for me."
Then, as if suddenly struck by a thought, he said:
"Are you married, Louis?"
"That is a pity, a great pity. It would so add to my happiness to see you the husband of a good, affectionate woman, the father of bright, lovely children! It would be a comfort to have a happy family about me. I should look upon them all as my own. To live alone, without a loving wife to share one's joys and sorrows, is not living at all: it is a sort of living death. There is no joy equal to having the affection of a true woman whose happiness is in your keeping. Oh the sadness of having only one's self to care for! But what am I saying? Louis, forgive me. I have you now, and ought not that to be enough? I have a brother, a kind friend who will be interested in me, and afford me company, instead of the weariness of solitude."
"Yes, Gaston, yes: I am your best friend."
"Of course you are. Being my brother, you are naturally my true friend. You are not married, you say. Then we will have to do the best we can, and keep house for ourselves. We will live together like two old bachelors, as we are, and be as happy as kings; we will lead a gay life, and enjoy everything that can be enjoyed. I feel twenty years younger already. The sight of your face renews my youth, and I feel as active and strong as I did the night I swam across the swollen Rhone. And that was long, long ago. The struggles, privations, and anxieties endured since, have been enough to age any man. I feel old, older than my years."
"What an idea!" interrupted Louis: "why, you look younger than I do."
"You are jesting."
"I swear I think you look the younger."
"Would you have recognized me?"
"Instantly. You are very little changed."
And Louis was right. He himself had an old, worn-out, used-up appearance; while Gaston, in spite of his gray hair and weather-beaten face, was a robust man, in the full maturity of his prime.
It was a relief to turn from Louis's restless eyes and crafty smile to Gaston's frank, honest face.
"But," said Gaston, "how did you know that I was living? What kind chance guided you to my house?"
Louis was prepared for this question. During his eighteen hours' ride by the railway, he had arranged all his answers, and had his story ready.
"We must thank Providence for this happy meeting," he replied. "Three days ago, a friend of mine returned from the baths, and mentioned that he had heard that a Marquis of Clameran was near there, in the Pyrenees. You can imagine my surprise. I instantly supposed that some impostor had assumed our name. I took the next train, and finally found my way here."
"Then you did not expect to see me?"
"My dear brother, how could I hope for that? I thought that you were drowned twenty-three years ago."
"Drowned! Mlle. de la Verberie certainly told you of my escape? She promised that she would go herself, the next day, and tell my father of my safety."
Louis assumed a distressed look, as if he hesitated to tell a sad truth, and said, in a regretful tone:
"Alas! she never told us."
Gaston's eyes flashed with indignation. He thought that perhaps Valentine had been glad to get rid of him.
"She did not tell you?" he exclaimed. "Did she have the cruelty to let you mourn my death? to let my old father die of a broken heart? Ah, she must have been very fearful of what the world says. She sacrificed me, then, for the sake of her reputation."
"But why did you not write to us?" asked Louis.
"I did write as soon as I had an opportunity; and Lafourcade wrote back, saying that my father was dead, and that you had left the country."
"I left Clameran because I believed you to be dead."
After a long silence, Gaston arose, and walked up and down the room as if to shake off a feeling of sadness; then he said, cheerfully:
"Well, it is of no use to mourn over the past. All the memories in the world, good or bad, are not worth one slender hope for the future; and thank God, we have a bright future before us. Let us bury the past, and enjoy life together."
Louis was silent. His footing was not sure enough to risk any questions.
"But here I have been talking incessantly for an hour," said Gaston, "and I dare say that you have not dined."
"No, I have not, I confess."
"Why did you not say so before? I forgot that I had not dined myself. I will not let you starve, the first day of your arrival. I will make amends by giving you some splendid old Cape wine."
He pulled the bell, and ordered the servant to hasten dinner, adding that it must be an excellent one; and within an hour the two brothers were seated at a sumptuous repast.
Gaston kept up an uninterrupted stream of questions. He wished to know all that had happened during his absence.
"What about Clameran?" he abruptly asked.
Louis hesitated a moment. Should he tell the truth, or not?
"I have sold Clameran," he finally said.
"The chateau too?"
"You acted as you thought best," said Gaston sadly; "but it seems to me that, if I had been in your place, I should have kept the old homestead. Our ancestors lived there for many generations, and our father lies buried there."
Then seeing Louis appear sad and distressed, he quickly added:
"However, it is just as well; it is in the heart that memory dwells, and not in a pile of old stones. I myself had not the courage to return to Provence. I could not trust myself to go to Clameran, where I would have to look into the park of La Verberie. Alas, the only happy moments of my life were spent there!"
Louis's countenance immediately cleared. The certainty that Gaston had not been to Provence relieved his mind of an immense weight.
The next day Louis telegraphed to Raoul:
"Wisdom and prudence. Follow my directions. All goes well. Be sanguine."
All was going well; and yet Louis, in spite of his skilfully applied questions, had obtained none of the information which he had come to obtain.
Gaston was communicative on every subject except the one in which Louis was interested. Was this silence premeditated, or simply unconscious? Louis, like all villains, was ever ready to attribute to others the bad motives by which he himself would be influenced.
Anything was better than this uncertainty; he determined to ask his brother plainly what his intentions were in regard to money matters.
He thought the dinner-table a favorable opportunity, and began by saying:
"Do you know, my dear Gaston, that thus far we have discussed every topic except the most important one?"
"Why do you look so solemn, Louis? What is the grave subject of which you speak?"
"Our father's estate. Supposing you to be dead, I inherited, and have disposed of it."
"Is that what you call a serious matter?" said Gaston with an amused smile.
"It certainly is very serious to me; as you have a right to half of the estate, I must account to you for it. You have—"
"I have," interrupted Gaston, "a right to ask you never to allude to the subject again. It is yours by limitation."
"I cannot accept it upon those terms."
"But you must. My father only wished to have one of us inherit his property; we will be carrying out his wishes by not dividing it."
Seeing that Louis's face still remained clouded, he went on:
"Ah, I see what annoys you, my dear Louis; you are rich, and think that I am poor, and too proud to accept anything from you. Is it not so?"
Louis started at this question. How could he reply so as not to commit himself?
"I am not rich," he finally said.
"I am delighted to hear it," cried Gaston. "I wish you were as poor as Job, so that I might share what I have with you."
Dinner over, Gaston rose and said:
"Come, I want to visit with you, my—that is, our property. You must see everything about the place."
Louis uneasily followed his brother. It seemed to him that Gaston obstinately shunned anything like an explanation.
Could all this brotherly confidence be assumed to blind him as to his real plans? Why did Gaston inquire into his brother's past and future, without revealing his own? Louis's suspicions were aroused, and he regretted his over-hasty seeking of Gaston.
But his calm, smiling face betrayed none of the anxious thoughts which filled his mind.
He was called upon to praise everything. First he was taken over the house and servants' quarters, then to the stable, kennels, and the vast, beautifully laid-out garden. Across a pretty meadow was the iron-foundery in full operation. Gaston, with all the enthusiasm of a new proprietor, explained everything, down to the smallest file and hammer.
He detailed all his projects; how he intended substituting wood for coal, and how, besides having plenty to work the forge, he could make immense profits by felling the forest trees, which had hitherto been considered impracticable. He would cut a hundred cords of wood that year.
Louis approved of everything; but only answered in monosyllables, "Ah, indeed! excellent idea; quite a success."
His mind was tortured by a new pain; he was paying no attention to Gaston's remarks, but enviously comparing all this wealth and prosperity with his own poverty.
He found Gaston rich, respected, and happy, enjoying the price of his own labor and industry; whilst he—Never had he so cruelly felt the misery of his own condition; and he had brought it on himself, which only made it more aggravating.
After a lapse of twenty-three years, all the envy and hate he had felt toward Gaston, when they were boys together, revived.
"What do you think of my purchase?" asked Gaston, when the inspection was over.
"I think you possess, my dear brother, a most splendid piece of property, and on the loveliest spot in the world. It is enough to excite the envy of any poor Parisian."
"Do you really think so?"
"Then, my dear Louis," said Gaston joyfully, "this property is yours, as well as mine. You like this lovely Bearn more than the dusty streets of Paris? I am very glad that you prefer the comforts of living on your own estate, to the glitter and show of a city life. Everything you can possibly want is here, at your command. And, to employ our time, there is the foundery. Does my plan suit you?"
Louis was silent. A year ago this proposal would have been eagerly welcomed. How gladly he would have seized this offer of a comfortable, luxurious home, after having been buffeted about the world so long! How delightful it would have been to turn over a new leaf, and become an honest man!
But he saw with disappointment and rage that he would now be compelled to decline it.
He was no longer free. He could not leave Paris.
He had become entangled in one of those hazardous plots which are fatal if neglected, and whose failure generally leads the projector to the galleys.
Alone, he could easily remain where he was: but he was trammelled with an accomplice.
"You do not answer me," said Gaston with surprise; "are there any obstacles to my plans?"
"What is the matter, then?"
"The matter is, my dear brother, that the salary of an office which I hold in Paris is all that I have to support me."
"Is that your only objection? Yet you just now wanted to pay me back half of the family inheritance! Louis, that is unkind; you are not acting as a brother should."
Louis hung his head. Gaston was unconsciously telling the truth.
"I should be a burden to you, Gaston."
"A burden! Why, Louis, you must be mad! Did I not tell you I am very rich? Do you suppose that you have seen all I possess? This house and the iron-works do not constitute a fourth of my fortune. Do you think that I would have risked my twenty years' savings in an experiment of this sort? The forge may be a failure; and then what would become of me, if I had nothing else?
"I have invested money which yields me an income of eighty thousand francs. Besides, my grants in Brazil have been sold, and my agent has already deposited four hundred thousand francs to my credit as part payment."
Louis trembled with pleasure. He was, at last, to know the extent of the danger hanging over him. Gaston had finally broached the subject which had caused him so much anxiety, and he determined that it should now be explained before their conversation ended.
"Who is your agent?" he asked with assumed indifference.
"My old partner at Rio. He deposited the money at my Paris banker's."
"Is this banker a friend of yours?"
"No; I never heard of him until my banker at Pau recommended him to me as an honest, reliable man; he is immensely wealthy, and stands at the head of the financiers in Paris. His name is Fauvel, and he lives on the Rue de Provence."
Although prepared for hearing almost anything, and determined to betray no agitation, Louis turned deadly pale.
"Do you know this banker?" asked Gaston.
"Only by reputation."
"Then we can make his acquaintance together; for I intend accompanying you to Paris, when you return there to settle up your affairs before establishing yourself here to superintend the forge."
At this unexpected announcement of a step which would prove his utter ruin, Louis was stupefied. In answer to his brother's questioning look, he gasped out.
"You are going to Paris?"
"Certainly I am. Why should I not go?"
"There is no reason why."
"I hate Paris, although I have never been there. But I am called there by interest, by sacred duties," he hesitatingly said. "The truth is, I understand that Mlle. de la Verberie lives in Paris, and I wish to see her."
Gaston was silent and thoughtful for some moments, and then said, nervously:
"I will tell you, Louis, why I wish to see her. I left our family jewels in her charge, and I wish to recover them."
"Do you intend, after a lapse of twenty-three years, to claim these jewels?"
"Yes—or rather no. I only make the jewels an excuse for seeing her. I must see her because—because—she is the only woman I ever really loved!"
"But how will you find her?"
"Oh! that is easy enough. Anyone can tell me the name of her husband, and then I will go to see her. Perhaps the shortest way to find out, would be to write to Beaucaire. I will do so to-morrow."
Louis made no reply.
Men of his character, when brought face to face with imminent danger, always weigh their words, and say as little as possible, for fear of committing themselves by some indiscreet remark.
Above all things, Louis was careful to avoid raising any objections to his brother's proposed trip to Paris. To oppose the wishes of a determined man has the effect of making him adhere more closely to them. Each argument is like striking a nail with a hammer. Knowing this, Louis changed the conversation, and nothing more during the day was said of Valentine or Paris.
At night, alone in his room, he brought his cunning mind to bear upon the difficulties of his situation, and wondered by what means he could extricate himself.
At first the case seemed hopeless, desperate. During twenty years, Louis had been at war with society, trusted by none, living upon his wits, and the credulity of foolish men enabling him to gain an income without labor; and, though he generally attained his ends, it was not without great danger and constant dread of detection.
He had been caught at the gaming-table with his hands full of duplicate cards; he had been tracked all over Europe by the police, and obliged to fly from city to city under an assumed name; he had sold to cowards his skilful handling of the sword and pistol; he had been repeatedly thrown into prison, and always made his escape. He had braved everything, and feared nothing. He had often conceived and carried out the most criminal plans, without the slightest hesitation or remorse. And now here he sat, utterly bewildered, unable to think clearly; his usual impudence and ready cunning seemed to have deserted him.
Thus driven to the wall, he saw no means of escape, and was almost tempted to confess all, and throw himself upon his brother's clemency. Then he thought that it would be wiser to borrow a large sum from Gaston, and fly the country.
Vainly did he think over the wicked experiences of the past: none of the former successful stratagems could be resorted to in the present case.
Fatally, inevitably, he was about to be caught in a trap laid by himself.
The future was fraught with danger, worse than danger—ruin and disgrace.
He had to fear the wrath of M. Fauvel, his wife and niece. Gaston would have speedy vengeance the moment he discovered the truth; and Raoul, his accomplice, would certainly turn against him, and become his most implacable enemy.
Was there no possible way of preventing a meeting between Valentine and Gaston?
None that he could think of.
Their meeting would be his destruction.
Lost in reflection, he paid no attention to the flight of time. Daybreak still found him sitting at the window with his face buried in his hands, trying to come to some definite conclusion what he should say and do to keep Gaston away from Paris.
"It is vain for me to think," he muttered. "The more I rack my brain, the more confused it becomes. There is nothing to be done but gain time, and wait for an opportunity."
The fall of the horse at Clameran was what Louis called "an opportunity."
He closed the window, and, throwing himself upon the bed, was soon in a sound sleep; being accustomed to danger, it never kept him awake.
At the breakfast-table, his calm, smiling face bore no traces of a wakeful, anxious night.
He was in a gayer, more talkative mood than usual, and said he would like to ride over the country, and visit the neighboring towns. Before leaving the table, he had planned several excursions which were to take place during the week.
He hoped to keep Gaston so amused and occupied, that he would forget all about going to Paris in search of Valentine.
He thought that with time, and skilfully put objections, he could dissuade his brother from seeking out his former love. He relied upon being able to convince him that this absolutely unnecessary interview would be painful to both, embarrassing to him, and dangerous to her.
As to the jewels, if Gaston persisted in claiming them, Louis could safely offer to go and get them for him, as he had only to redeem them from the pawnbroker.
But his hopes and plans were soon scattered to the winds.
"You know," said Gaston, "I have written."
Louis knew well enough to what he alluded, but pretended to be very much surprised, and said:
"Written? To whom? Where? For what?"
"To Beaucaire, to ask Lafourcade the name of Valentine's husband."
"You are still thinking of her?"
"She is never absent from my thoughts."
"You have not given up your idea of going to see her?"
"Of course not."
"Alas, Gaston! you forget that she whom you once loved is now the wife of another, and possibly the mother of a large family. How do you know that she will consent to see you? Why run the risk of destroying her domestic happiness, and planting seeds of remorse in your own bosom?"
"I know I am a fool; but my folly is dear to me, and I would not cure it if I could."
The quiet determination of Gaston's tone convinced Louis that all remonstrances would be unavailing.
Yet he remained the same in his manner and behavior, apparently engrossed in pleasure parties; but, in reality, his only thought was the mail. He always managed to be at the door when the postman came, so that he was the first to receive his brother's letters.
When he and Gaston were out together at the time of the postman's visit, he would hurry into the house first, so as to look over the letters which were always laid in a card-basket on the hall table.
His watchfulness was at last rewarded.
The following Sunday, among the letters handed to him by the postman, was one bearing the postmark of Beaucaire.
He quickly slipped it into his pocket; and, although he was on the point of mounting his horse to ride with Gaston, he said that he must run up to his room to get something he had forgotten; this was to gratify his impatient desire to read the letter.
He tore it open, and, seeing "Lafourcade" signed at the bottom of three closely written pages, hastily devoured the contents.
After reading a detailed account of events entirely uninteresting to him, Louis came to the following passage relating to Valentine:
"Mlle. de la Verberie's husband is an eminent banker named Andre Fauvel. I have not the honor of his acquaintance, but I intend going to see him shortly. I am anxious to submit to him a project that I have conceived for the benefit of this part of the country. If he approves of it, I shall ask him to invest in it, as his name will be of great assistance to the scheme. I suppose you have no objections to my referring him to you, should he ask for my indorsers."
Louis trembled like a man who had just made a narrow escape from death. He well knew that he would have to fly the country if Gaston received this letter.
But though the danger was warded off for the while, it might return and destroy him at any moment.
Gaston would wait a week for an answer, then he would write again; Lafourcade would instantly reply to express surprise that his first letter had not been received; all of this correspondence would occupy about twelve days. In those twelve days Louis would have to think over some plan for preventing Lafourcade's visit to Paris; since, the instant he mentioned the name of Clameran to the banker, everything would be discovered.
Louis's meditations were interrupted by Gaston, who called from the lower passage:
"What are you doing, Louis? I am waiting for you."
"I am coming now," he replied.
Hastily thrusting Lafourcade's letter into his trunk, Louis ran down to his brother.
He had made up his mind to borrow a large sum from Gaston, and go off to America; and Raoul might get out of the scrape as best he could.
The only thing which now disturbed him was the sudden failure of the most skilful combination he had ever conceived; but he was not a man to fight against destiny, and determined to make the best of the emergency, and hope for better fortune in his next scheme.
The next day about dusk, while walking along the pretty road leading from the foundery to Oloron, he commenced a little story which was to conclude by asking Gaston to lend him two hundred thousand francs.
As they slowly went along arm in arm, about half a mile from the foundery they met a young laborer who bowed as he passed them.
Louis dropped his brother's arm, and started back as if he had seen a ghost.
"What is the matter?" asked Gaston, with astonishment.
"Nothing, except I struck my foot against a stone, and it is very painful."
Gaston might have known by the tremulous tones of Louis's voice that this was a lie. Louis de Clameran had reason to tremble; in this workman he recognized Raoul de Lagors.
Instinctive fear paralyzed and overwhelmed him.
The story he had planned for the purpose of obtaining the two hundred thousand francs was forgotten; his volubility was gone; and he silently walked along by his brother's side, like an automaton, totally incapable of thinking or acting for himself.
He seemed to listen, he did listen; but the words fell upon his ear unmeaningly; he could not understand what Gaston was saying, and mechanically answered "yes" or "no," like one in a dream.
Whilst necessity, absolute necessity, kept him here at Gaston's side, his thoughts were all with the young man who had just passed by.
What had brought Raoul to Oloron? What plot was he hatching? Why was he disguised as a laborer? Why had he not answered the many letters which Louis had written him from Oloron? He had ascribed this silence to Raoul's carelessness, but now he saw it was premeditated. Something disastrous must have happened at Paris; and Raoul, afraid to commit himself by writing, had come himself to bring the bad news. Had he come to say that the game was up, and they must fly?
But, after all, perhaps he was mistaken in supposing this to be his accomplice. It might be some honest workman bearing a strong resemblance to Raoul.
If he could only run after this stranger, and speak to him! But no, he must walk on up to the house with Gaston, quietly, as if nothing had happened to arouse his anxiety. He felt as if he would go mad if his brother did not move faster; the uncertainty was becoming intolerable.
His mind filled with these perplexing thoughts, Louis at last reached the house; and Gaston, to his great relief, said that he was so tired that he was going directly to bed.
At last he was free!
He lit a cigar, and, telling the servant not to sit up for him, went out.
He knew that Raoul, if it was Raoul, would be prowling near the house, waiting for him.
His suspicions were well founded.
He had barely proceeded thirty yards, when a man suddenly sprang from behind a tree, and stood before him.
The night was clear, and Louis recognized Raoul.
"What is the matter?" he impatiently demanded; "what has happened?"
"What! Do you mean to say that nothing has gone wrong in Paris—that no one is on our track?"
"Not the slightest danger of any sort. And moreover, but for your inordinate greed of gain, everything would have succeeded admirably; all was going on well when I left Paris."
"Then why have you come here?" cried Louis fiercely. "Who gave you permission to desert your post, when your absence might bring ruin upon us? What brought you here?"
"That is my business," said Raoul with cool impertinence.
Louis seized the young man's wrists, and almost crushed them in his vicelike grasp.
"Explain this strange conduct of yours," he said, in a tone of suppressed rage. "What do you mean by it?"
Without apparent effort Raoul released his hands from their imprisonment, and jeeringly said:
"Hein! Gently, my friend! I don't like being roughly treated; and, if you don't know how to behave yourself, I have the means of teaching you."
At the same time he drew a revolver from his pocket.
"You must and shall explain yourself," insisted Louis: "if you don't——"
"Well, if I don't? Now, you might just as well spare yourself the trouble of trying to frighten me. I intend to answer your questions when I choose; but it certainly won't be here, in the middle of the road, with the bright moonlight showing us off to advantage. How do you know people are not watching us this very minute? Come this way."
They strode through the fields, regardless of Gaston's plants, which were trampled under foot in order to take a short cut.
"Now," began Raoul, when they were at a safe distance from the road, "now, my dear uncle, I will tell you what brings me here. I have received and carefully read your letters. I read them over again. You wished to be prudent; and the consequence was, that your letters were unintelligible. Only one thing did I understand clearly: we are in danger."
"Only the more reason for your watchfulness and obedience."
"Very well put: only, before braving danger, my venerable and beloved uncle, I want to know its extent. I am not a man to retreat in the hour of peril, but I want to know exactly how much risk I am running."
"I told you to keep quiet, and follow my directions."
"But to do this would imply that I have perfect confidence in you, my dear uncle," said Raoul, sneeringly.
"And why should you not? What reasons for distrust have you after all that I have done for you? Who went to London, and rescued you from a state of privation and ignominy? I did. Who gave you a name and position when you had neither? I did. And who is working now to maintain your present life of ease, and insure you a splendid future? I am. And how do you repay me?"
"Superb, magnificent, inimitable!" said Raoul, with mocking derision. "But, while on the subject, why don't you prove that you have sacrificed yourself for my sake? You did not need me as a tool for carrying out plans for your own benefit; did you? oh no, not at all! Dear, kind, generous, disinterested uncle! You ought to have the Montyon prize; I think I must recommend you as the most deserving person I have ever met!"
Clameran was so angry at these jeering words that he feared to trust himself to speak.
"Now, my good uncle," continued Raoul more seriously, "we had better end this child's play, and come to a clear understanding. I follow you here, because I thoroughly understand your character, and have just as much confidence in you as you deserve, and not a particle more. If it were for your advantage to ruin me, you would not hesitate one instant. If danger threatened us, you would fly alone, and leave your dutiful nephew to make his escape the best way he could. Oh! don't look shocked, and pretend to deny it; your conduct is perfectly natural, and in your place I would act the same way. Only remember this, that I am not a man to be trifled with. Now let us cease these unnecessary recriminations, and come to the point: what is your present plan?"
Louis saw that his accomplice was too shrewd to be deceived, and that the safest course was to trust all to him, and to pretend that he had intended doing so all along.
Without any show of anger, he briefly and clearly related all that had occurred at his brother's.
He told the truth about everything except the amount of his brother's fortune, the importance of which he lessened as much as possible.
"Well," said Raoul, when the report was ended, "we are in a nice fix. And do you expect to get out of it?"
"Yes, if you don't betray me."
"I wish you to understand, marquis, that I have never betrayed anyone yet; don't judge me by yourself, I beg. What steps will you take to get free of this entanglement?"
"I don't know; but something will turn up. Oh, don't be alarmed; I'll find some means of escape: so you can return home with your mind at rest. You run no risk in Paris, and 'tis the best place for you. I will stay here to watch Gaston."
Raoul reflected for some moments, and then said:
"Are you sure I am not in danger at Paris?"
"What are you afraid of? We have Mme. Fauvel so completely in our power that she would not dare speak a word against you; even if she knew the whole truth, what no one but you and I know, she would not open her lips, but be only too glad to hush up matters so as to escape punishment for her fault from her deceived husband and a censuring world."
"I know we have a secure hold on her," said Raoul. "I am not afraid of her giving any trouble."
"An enemy of your own making, my respected uncle; a most implacable enemy—Madeleine."
"Fiddlesticks!" replied Clameran, disdainfully.
"It is very well for you to treat her with contempt," said Raoul, gravely; "but I can tell you, you are much mistaken in your estimate of her character. I have studied her lately, and see that she is devoted to her aunt, and ready to make any sacrifice to insure her happiness. But she has no idea of doing anything blindly, of throwing herself away if she can avoid it. She has promised to marry you. Prosper is broken-hearted at being discarded, it is true; but he has not given up hope. You imagine her to be weak and yielding, easily frightened? It's a great mistake. She is self-reliant and fearless. More than that, she is in love, my good uncle; and a woman will defend her lover as a tigress defends her young. She will fight to the bitter end before marrying anyone save Prosper."
"She is worth five hundred thousand francs."
"So she is; and at five per cent we would each have an income of twelve thousand five hundred francs. But, for all that, you had better take my advice, and give up Madeleine."
"Never; I swear by Heaven!" exclaimed Clameran. "Rich or poor, she shall be mine! I first wanted her money, but now I want her; I love her for herself, Raoul!"
Raoul seemed to be amazed at this declaration of his uncle.
He raised his hands, and started back with astonishment.
"Is it possible," he said, "that you are in love with Madeleine?—you!"
"Yes," replied Louis, sullenly. "Is there anything so very extraordinary in it?"
"Oh, no, certainly not! only this sentimental view of the matter explains your strange behavior. Alas, you love Madeleine! Then, my venerable uncle, we might as well surrender at once."
"Because you know the axiom, 'When the heart is interested the head is lost.' Generals in love always lose their battles. The day is not far off when your infatuation of Madeleine will make you sell us both for a smile. And, mark my words, she is shrewd, and watching us as only an enemy can watch."
With a forced laugh Clameran interrupted his nephew.
"Just see how you fire up for no cause," he said; "you must dislike the charming Madeleine very much, if you abuse her in this way."
"She will prove to be our ruin: that is all."
"You might as well be frank, and say you are in love with her yourself."
"I am only in love with her money," replied Raoul, with an angry frown.
"Then what are you complaining of? I shall give you half her fortune. You will have the money without being troubled with the wife; the profit without the burden."
"I am not over fifty years old," said Raoul conceitedly. "I can appreciate a pretty woman better than you."
"Enough of that," interrupted Louis angrily. "The day I relieved your pressing wants, and brought you to Paris, you promised to follow my directions, to help me carry out my plan; did you not?"
"Yes; but not the plot you are hatching now! You forget that my liberty, perhaps my life, is at stake. You may hold the cards, but I must have the right of advising you."
It was midnight before the accomplices separated.
"I won't stand idle," said Louis. "I agree with you that something must be done at once. But I can't decide what it shall be on the spur of the moment. Meet me here at this hour to-morrow night, and I will have some plan ready for you."
"Very good. I will be here."
"And remember, don't be imprudent!"
"My costume ought to convince you that I am not anxious to be recognized by anyone. I left such an ingenious alibi, that I defy anybody to prove that I have been absent from my house at Vesinet. I even took the precaution to travel in a third-class car. Well, good-night. I am going to the inn."
Raoul went off after these words, apparently unconscious of having aroused suspicion in the breast of his accomplice.
During his adventurous life, Clameran had transacted "business" with too many scamps not to know the precise amount of confidence to place in a man like Raoul.
The old adage, "Honor among thieves," seldom holds good after the "stroke." There is always a quarrel over the division of the spoils.
This distrustful Clameran foresaw a thousand difficulties and counter-plots to be guarded against in his dealings with Raoul.
"Why," he pondered, "did the villain assume this disguise? Why this alibi at Paris? Can he be laying a trap for me? It is true that I have a hold upon him; but then I am completely at his mercy. Those accursed letters which I have written to him, while here, are so many proofs against me. Can he be thinking of cutting loose from me, and making off with all the profits of our enterprise?"
Louis never once during the night closed his eyes; but by daybreak he had fully made up his mind how to act, and with feverish impatience waited for evening to come, to communicate his views with Raoul.
His anxiety made him so restless that the unobserving Gaston finally noticed it, and asked him what the matter was; if he was sick, or troubled about anything.
At last evening came, and, at the appointed hour, Louis went to the field where they had met the night previous, and found Raoul lying on the grass smoking a fragrant cigar, as if he had no other object in life except to blow little clouds of smoke in the air, and count the stars in the clear sky above him.
"Well?" he carelessly said, as Louis approached, "have you decided upon anything?"
"Yes. I have two projects, either of which would probably accomplish our object."
"I am listening."
Louis was silently thoughtful for a minute, as if arranging his thoughts so as to present them as clearly and briefly as possible.
"My first plan," he began, "depends upon your approval. What would you say, if I proposed to you to renounce the affair altogether?"
"Would you consent to disappear, leave France, and return to London, if I paid you a good round sum?"
"What do you call a good round sum?"
"I will give you a hundred and fifty thousand francs."
"My respected uncle," said Raoul with a contemptuous shrug, "I am distressed to see how little you know me! You try to deceive me, to outwit me, which is ungenerous and foolish on your part; ungenerous, because it fails to carry out our agreement; foolish, because as you know well enough, my power equals yours."
"I don't understand you."
"I am sorry for it. I understand myself, and that is sufficient. Oh! I understand you, my dear uncle. I have watched you with careful eyes, which are not to be deceived; I see through you clearly. If you offer me one hundred and fifty thousand francs, it is because you intend to walk off with half a million for yourself."
"You are talking like a fool," said Clameran with virtuous indignation.
"Not at all; I only judge the future by the past. Of all the large sums extorted from Mme. Fauvel, often against my wishes, I never received a tenth part."
"But you know we have a reserve fund."
"All very good; but you have the keeping of it, my good uncle. It is very nice for you, but not so funny for me. If our little plot were to be discovered to-morrow, you would walk off with the money-box, and leave your devoted nephew to be sent to prison."
"Ingrate!" muttered Louis, as if distressed at these undeserved reproaches of his protege.
"You have hit on the very word I was trying to remember," cried Raoul: "'ingrate' is the name that just suits you. But we have not time for this nonsense. I will end the matter by proving how you have been trying to deceive me."
"I would like to hear you do so if you can."
"Very good. In the first place, you told me that your brother only possessed a modest competency. Now, I learn that Gaston has an income of at least sixty thousand francs. It is useless for you to deny it; and how much is this property worth? A hundred thousand crowns. He had four hundred thousand francs deposited in M. Fauvel's bank. Total, seven hundred thousand francs. And, besides all this, the broker in Oloron has orders to buy up a large amount of stocks and railroad shares, which will require large cash payments. I have not wasted my day, you see, and have obtained all the information I came for."
Raoul's information was too concise and exact for Louis to deny it.
"You might have sense enough," Raoul went on, "to know how to manage your forces if you undertake to be a commander. We had a splendid game in our hands; and you, who held the cards, have made a perfect muddle of it."
"That the game is lost? That is my opinion too, and all through you. You have no one to blame but yourself."
"I could not control events."
"Yes, you could, if you had been shrewd. Fools sit down and wait for an opportunity; sensible men make one. What did we agree upon in London? We were to implore my good mother to assist us a little, and, if she complied with our wishes, we were to be flattering and affectionate in our devotion to her. And what was the result? At the risk of killing the golden goose, you have made me torment the poor woman until she is almost crazy."
"It was prudent to hasten matters."
"You think so, do you? Was it also to hasten matters that you took it into your head to marry Madeleine? That made it necessary to let her into the secret; and, ever since, she has advised and set her aunt against us. I would not be surprised if she makes her confess everything to M. Fauvel, or even inform against us at the police-office."
"I love Madeleine!"
"You told me that before. And suppose you do love her. You led me into this piece of business without having studied its various bearings, without knowing what you were about. No one but an idiot, my beloved uncle, would go and put his foot into a trap, and then say, 'If I had only known about it!' You should have made it your business to know everything. You came to me, and said, 'Your father is dead,' which was a lie to start with; perhaps you call it a mistake. He is living; and, after what we have done, I dare not appear before him. He would have left me a million, and now I shall not get a sou. He will find his Valentine, and then good-by."
"Enough!" angrily interrupted Louis. "If I have made a mistake, I know how to redeem it. I can save everything yet."
"You can? How so?"
"That is my secret," said Louis gloomily.
Louis and Raoul were silent for a minute. And this silence between them, in this lonely spot, at dead of night, was so horribly significant that both of them shuddered.
An abominable thought had flashed across their evil minds, and without a word or look they understood each other.
Louis broke the ominous silence, by abruptly saying:
"Then you refuse to disappear if I pay you a hundred and fifty thousand francs? Think it over before deciding: it is not too late yet."
"I have fully thought it over. I know you will not attempt to deceive me any more. Between certain ease, and the probability of an immense fortune, I choose the latter at all risks. I will share your success or your failure. We will swim or sink together."
"And you will follow my instructions?"
Raoul must have been very certain of Louis's intentions of resorting to the most dangerous extremities, must have known exactly what he intended to do; for he did not ask him a single question. Perhaps he dared not. Perhaps he preferred doubt to shocking certainty, as if he could thus escape the remorse attendant upon criminal complicity.
"In the first place," said Louis, "you must at once return to Paris."
"I will be there in forty-eight hours."
"You must be very intimate at Mme. Fauvel's, and keep me informed of everything that takes place in the family."
Louis laid his hand upon Raoul's shoulder, as if to impress upon his mind what he was about to say.
"You have a sure means of being restored to your mother's confidence and affection, by blaming me for everything that has happened to distress her. Abuse me constantly. The more odious you render me in her eyes and those of Madeleine, the better you will serve me. Nothing would please me more than to be denied admittance to the house when I return to Paris. You must say that you have quarrelled with me, and that, if I still come to see you, it is because you cannot prevent it, and you will never voluntarily have any intercourse with me. That is the scheme; you can develop it."
Raoul listened to these strange instructions with astonishment.
"What!" he cried: "you adore Madeleine, and take this means of showing it? An odd way of carrying on a courtship, I must confess. I will be shot if I can comprehend."
"There is no necessity for your comprehending."
"All right," said Raoul submissively; "if you say so."
Then Louis reflected that no one could properly execute a commission without having at least an idea of its nature.
"Did you ever hear," he asked Raoul, "of the man who burnt down his lady-love's house so as to have the bliss of carrying her out in his arms?"
"Yes: what of it?"
"At the proper time, I will charge you to set fire, morally, to Mme. Fauvel's house; and I will rush in, and save her and her niece. Now, in the eyes of those women my conduct will appear more magnanimous and noble in proportion to the contempt and abuse they have heaped upon me. I gain nothing by patient devotion: I have everything to hope from a sudden change of tactics. A well-managed stroke will transform a demon into an angel."
"Very well, a good idea!" said Raoul approvingly, when his uncle had finished.
"Then you understand what is to be done?"
"Yes, but will you write to me?"
"Of course; and if anything should happen at Paris——"
"I will telegraph to you."
"And never lose sight of my rival, the cashier."
"Prosper? not much danger of our being troubled by him, poor boy! He is just now my most devoted friend. Trouble has driven him into a path of life which will soon prove his destruction. Every now and then I pity him from the bottom of my soul."
"Pity him as much as you like; but don't interfere with his dissipation."
The two men shook hands, and separated apparently the best friends in the world; in reality the bitterest enemies.
Raoul would not forgive Louis for having attempted to appropriate all the booty, and leave him in the lurch, when it was he who had risked the greatest dangers.
Louis, on his part, was alarmed at the attitude taken by Raoul. Thus far he had found his nephew tractable, and even blindly obedient; and now he had suddenly become rebellious and threatening. Instead of ordering Raoul, he was forced to consult and bargain with him.
What could be more wounding to his vanity and self-conceit than the reproaches, well founded though they were, to which he had been obliged to listen, from a mere youth?
As he walked back to his brother's house, thinking over what had just occurred, Louis swore that sooner or later he would be revenged, and that, as soon as he could get rid of Raoul he would do so, and would do him some great injury.
But, for the present, he was so afraid lest the young villain should betray him, or thwart his plans in some way, that he wrote to him the next day, and every succeeding day, full particulars of everything that happened. Seeing how important it was to restore his shaken confidence, Louis entered into the most minute details of his plans, and asked Raoul's advice about every step he took.
The situation remained the same. The dark cloud remained threateningly near, but grew no larger.
Gaston seemed to have forgotten that he had written to Beaucaire, and never mentioned Valentine's name once.
Like all men accustomed to a busy life, Gaston was miserable except when occupied, and spent his whole time in the foundery, which seemed to absorb him entirely.
When he began the experiment of felling the woods, his losses had been heavy; but he determined to continue the work until it should be equally beneficial to himself and the neighboring land-owners.
He engaged the services of an intelligent engineer, and thanks to untiring energy, and the new improvements in machinery, his profits soon more than equalled his expenses.
"Now that we are doing so well," said Gaston joyously, "we shall certainly make twenty-five thousand francs next year."
Next year! Alas, poor Gaston!
Five days after Raoul's departure, one Saturday afternoon, Gaston was suddenly taken ill.
He had a sort of vertigo, and was so dizzy that he was forced to lie down.
"I know what is the matter," he said. "I have often been ill in this way at Rio. A couple of hours' sleep will cure me. I will go to bed, and you can send someone to awaken me when dinner is ready, Louis; I shall be all right by that time."
But, when the servant came to announce dinner, he found Gaston much worse. He had a violent headache, a choking sensation in his throat, and dimness of vision. But his worst symptom was dysphonia; he would try to articulate one word, and find himself using another. His jaw-bones became so stiff that it was with the greatest difficulty that he opened his mouth.
Louis came up to his brother's room, and urged him to send for the physician.
"No," said Gaston, "I won't have any doctor to make me ill with all sorts of medicines; I know what is the matter with me, and my indisposition will be cured by a simple remedy which I have always used."
At the same time he ordered Manuel, his old Spanish servant, who had lived with him for ten years, to prepare him some lemonade.
The next day Gaston appeared to be much better. He ate his breakfast, and was about to take a walk, when the pains of the previous day suddenly returned, in a more violent form.
Without consulting his brother, Louis sent to Oloron for Dr. C——, whose wonderful cures at Eaux Bonnes had won him a wide reputation.
The doctor declared that there was no danger, and merely prescribed a dose of valerian, and a blister with some grains of morphine sprinkled on it.
But in the middle of the night, all the symptoms suddenly changed for the worse. The pain in the head was succeeded by a fearful oppression, and the sick man suffered torture in trying to get his breath; daybreak found him still tossing restlessly from pillow to pillow.
When Dr. C—— came early in the morning, he appeared very much surprised at this change for the worse. He inquired if they had not administered an overdose of morphine. Manuel said that he had put the blister on his master, and the doctor's directions had been accurately followed.
The doctor, after having examined Gaston, and found his breathing heavy and irregular, prescribed a heavy dose of sulphate of quinine; he then retired, saying he would return the next day.
As soon as the doctor had gone, Gaston sent for a friend of his, a lawyer, to come to him as soon as possible.
"For Heaven's sake, what do you want with a lawyer?" inquired Louis.
"I want his advice, brother. It is useless to try and deceive ourselves; I know I am extremely ill. Only timid fools are superstitious about making their wills; if I defer it any longer, I may be suddenly taken without having arranged my affairs. I would rather have the lawyer at once, and then my mind will be at rest."
Gaston did not think he was about to die, but, knowing the uncertainty of life, determined to be prepared for the worst; he had too often imperilled his life, and been face to face with death, to feel any fear now.
He had made his will while ill at Bordeaux; but, now that he had found Louis, he wished to leave him all his property, and sent for his business man to advise as to the best means of disposing of his wealth for his benefit.
The lawyer was a shrewd, wiry little man, very popular because he had a faculty for always gaining suits which other attorneys had lost, or declined to try, because of their groundlessness. Being perfectly familiar with all the intricacies of the law, nothing delighted him more than to succeed in eluding some stringent article of the code; and often he sacrificed large fees for the sake of outwitting his opponent, and controverting the justness of a decision.
Once aware of his client's wishes and intentions, he had but one idea: and that was, to carry them out as inexpensively as possible, by skilfully evading the heavy costs to be paid by the inheritor of an estate.
He explained to Gaston that he could, by an act of partnership, associate Louis in his business enterprises, by signing an acknowledgment that half of the money invested in these various concerns, belonged to and had been advanced by his brother; so that, in the event of Gaston's death, Louis would only have to pay taxes on half the fortune.
Gaston eagerly took advantage of this fiction; not that he thought of the money saved by the transaction if he died, but this would be a favorable opportunity for sharing his riches with Louis, without wounding his delicate sensibility.
A deed of partnership between Gaston and Louis de Clameran, for the working of a cast-iron mill, was drawn up; this deed acknowledged Louis to have invested five hundred thousand francs as his share of the capital; therefore half of the iron-works was his in his own right.
When Louis was called in to sign the paper, he violently opposed his brother's project.
"Why do you distress me by making these preparations for death, merely because you are suffering from a slight indisposition? Do you think that I would consent to accept your wealth during your lifetime? If you die, I am your heir; if you live, I enjoy your property as if it were my own. What more can you wish? Pray do not draw up any papers; let things remain as they are, and turn all your attention to getting well."
Vain remonstrances. Gaston was not a man to be persuaded from accomplishing a purpose upon which he had fully set his heart. When, after mature deliberation, he made a resolution, he always carried it out in spite of all opposition.
After a long and heroic resistance, which betrayed great nobleness of character and rare disinterestedness, Louis, urged by the physician, finally yielded, and signed his name to the papers drawn up by the lawyer.
It was done. Now he was legally Gaston's partner, and possessor of half his fortune. No court of law could deprive him of what had been deeded with all the legal formalities, even if his brother should change his mind and try to get back his property.
The strangest sensations now filled Louis's breast.
He was in a state of delirious excitement often felt by persons suddenly raised from poverty to affluence.
Whether Gaston lived or died, Louis was the lawful possessor of an income of twenty-five thousand francs, without counting the eventual profits of the iron-works.
At no time in his life had he hoped for or dreamed of such wealth. His wildest wishes were surpassed. What more could he want?
Alas! he wanted the power of enjoying these riches; they had come too late.
This fortune, fallen from the skies, should have filled his heart with joy; whereas it only made him melancholy and angry.
This unlooked-for happiness seemed to have been sent by cruel fate as a punishment for his past sins. What could be more terrible than seeing this haven of rest open to him, and to be prevented from enjoying it because of his own vile plottings?
Although his conscience told him that he deserved this misery, he blamed Gaston entirely for his present torture. Yes, he held Gaston responsible for the horrible situation in which he found himself.
His letters to Raoul for several days expressed all the fluctuations of his mind, and revealed glimpses of coming evil.
"I have twenty-five thousand livres a year," he wrote to him, a few hours after signing the agreement of partnership; "and I possess in my own right five hundred thousand francs. One-fourth of this sum would have made me the happiest of men a year ago. Now it is of no use to me. All the gold on earth could not remove one of the difficulties of our situation. Yes, you were right. I have been imprudent; but I pay dear for my precipitation. We are now going down hill so rapidly that nothing can save us; we must fall to the very bottom. To attempt stopping half way would be madness. Rich or poor, I have cause to tremble as long as there is any risk of a meeting between Gaston and Valentine. How can they be kept apart? Will my brother renounce his plan of discovering the whereabouts of this woman whom he so loved?"
No; Gaston would never be turned from his search for his first love, as he proved by calling for her in the most beseeching tones when he was suffering his worst paroxysms of pain.
He grew no better. In spite of the most careful nursing his symptoms changed, but showed no improvement.
Each attack was more violent than the preceding.
Toward the end of the week the pains left his head, and he felt well enough to get up and partake of a slight nourishment.
But poor Gaston was a mere shadow of his former self. In one week he had aged ten years. His strong constitution was broken. He, who ten days ago was boasting of his vigorous health, was now weak and bent like an old man. He could hardly drag himself along, and shivered in the warm sun as if he were bloodless.
Leaning on Louis's arm, he slowly walked down to look at the forge, and, seating himself before a furnace at full blast, he declared that he felt very much better, that this intense heat revived him.
His pains were all gone, and he could breathe without difficulty.
His spirits rose, and he turned to the workmen gathered around, and said cheerfully:
"I was not blessed with a good constitution for nothing, my friends, and I shall soon be well again."
When the neighbors called to see him, and insisted that this illness was entirely owing to change of climate, Gaston replied that he supposed they were right, and that he would return to Rio as soon as he was well enough to travel.
What hope this answer roused in Louis's breast!
"Yes," he eagerly said, "I will go with you; a trip to Brazil would be charming! Let us start at once."
But the next day Gaston had changed his mind.
He told Louis that he felt almost well, and was determined not to leave France. He proposed going to Paris to consult the best physicians; and then he would see Valentine.
That night he grew worse.
As his illness increased, he became more surprised and troubled at not hearing from Beaucaire.
He wrote again in the most pressing terms, and sent the letter by a courier who was to wait for the answer.
This letter was never received by Lafourcade.
At midnight, Gaston's sufferings returned with renewed violence, and for the first time Dr. C—— was uneasy.
A fatal termination seemed inevitable. Gaston's pain left him in a measure, but he was growing weaker every moment. His mind wandered, and his feet were as cold as ice. On the fourteenth day of his illness, after lying in a stupor for several hours, he revived sufficiently to ask for a priest, saying that he would follow the example of his ancestors, and die like a Christian.
The priest left him after half an hour's interview, and all the workmen were summoned to receive the farewell greeting of their master.
Gaston spoke a few kind words to them all, saying that he had provided for them in his will.
After they had gone, he made Louis promise to carry on the iron-works, embraced him for the last time, and sank back on his pillow in a dying state.
As the bell tolled for noon he quietly breathed his last, murmuring, softly, "In three years, Valentine; wait for me."
Now Louis was in reality Marquis of Clameran, and besides he was a millionaire.
Two weeks later, having made arrangements with the engineer in charge of the iron-works to attend to everything during his absence, he took his seat in the train for Paris.
He had sent the following significant telegram to Raoul the night previous: "I will see you to-morrow."
Faithful to the programme laid down by his accomplice, while Louis watched at Oloron, Raoul remained in Paris with the purpose of recovering the confidence and affection of Mme. Fauvel, and of lulling any suspicions which might arise in her breast.
The task was difficult, but not impossible.
Mme. Fauvel had been distressed by Raoul's wild extravagance, but had never ceased to love him.
Whatever faults he had committed, whatever future follies he might indulge in, he would always remain her best-loved child, her first-born, the living image of her noble, handsome Gaston, the lover of her youth.
She adored her two sons, Lucien and Abel; but she could not overcome an indulgent weakness for the unfortunate child, torn from her arms the day of his birth, abandoned to the mercies of hired strangers, and for twenty years deprived of home influences and a mother's love.
She blamed herself for Raoul's misconduct, and accepted the responsibility of his sins, saying to herself, "It is my fault. But for me, he would not have been exposed to the temptations of the world."
Knowing these to be her sentiments, Raoul did not hesitate to take advantage of them.
Never were more irresistible fascinations employed for the accomplishment of a wicked object. Beneath an air of innocent frankness, this precocious scoundrel concealed wonderful astuteness and penetration. He could at will adorn himself with the confiding artlessness of youth, so that angels might have yielded to the soft look of his large dark eyes. There were few women living who could have resisted the thrilling tones of his sympathetic voice.
During the month of Louis's absence, Mme. Fauvel was in a state of comparative happiness.
Never had this mother and wife—this pure, innocent woman, in spite of her first and only fault—enjoyed such tranquillity. She felt as one under the influence of enchantment, while revelling in the sunshine of filial love, which almost bore the character of a lover's passion; for Raoul's devotion was ardent and constant, his manner so tender and winning, that anyone would have taken him for Mme. Fauvel's suitor.
As she was still at her country-seat, and M. Fauvel went into the city every morning at nine o'clock, and did not return till six, she had the whole of her time to devote to Raoul. When she had spent the morning with him at his house in Vesinet, she would often bring him home to dine and spend the evening with her.
All his past faults were forgiven, or rather the whole blame of them was laid upon Clameran; for, now that he was absent, had not Raoul once more become her noble, generous, affectionate son, the pride and consolation of her life?
Raoul enjoyed the life he was leading, and took such an interest in the part that he was playing, that his acting was perfect. He possessed the faculty which makes cheats successful, faith in his own impostures. Sometimes he would stop to think whether he was telling the truth, or acting a shameful comedy.
His success was wonderful. Even Madeleine, the prudent, distrustful Madeleine, without being able to shake off her prejudice against the young adventurer, confessed that perhaps she had been influenced by appearances, and had judged unjustly.
Raoul not only never asked for money, but even refused it when offered; saying that, now that his uncle was away, his expenses were but trifling.
Affairs were in this happy state when Louis arrived from Oloron.
Although now immensely rich, he resolved to make no change in his style of living, but returned to his apartments at the Hotel du Louvre.
His only outlay was the purchase of a handsome carriage; and this was driven by Manuel, who consented to enter his service, although Gaston had left him a handsome little fortune, more than sufficient to support him comfortably.
Louis's dream, the height of his ambition, was to be ranked among the great manufacturers of France.
He was prouder of being called "iron-founder" than of his marquisate.
During his adventurous life, he had met with so many titled gamblers and cut-throats, that he no longer believed in the prestige of nobility. It was impossible to distinguish the counterfeit from the genuine. He thought what was so easily imitated was not worth the having.
Dearly bought experience had taught him that our unromantic century attaches no value to armorial bearings, unless their possessor is rich enough to display them upon a splendid coach.
One can be a marquis without a marquisate, but it is impossible to be a forge-master without owning iron-works.
Louis now thirsted for the homage of the world. All the badly digested humiliations of the past weighed upon him.
He had suffered so much contempt and scorn from his fellow-men, that he burned to avenge himself. After a disgraceful youth, he longed to live a respected and honored old age.
His past career disturbed him little. He was sufficiently acquainted with the world to know that the noise of his coach-wheels would silence the jeers of those who knew his former life.
These thoughts fermented in Louis's brain as he journeyed from Pau to Paris. He troubled his mind not in the least about Raoul, determined to use him as a tool so long as he needed his services, and then pay him a large sum if he would go back to England.
All these plans and thoughts were afterward found noted down in the diary which he had in his pocket at the time of the journey.
The first interview between the accomplices took place at the Hotel du Louvre.
Raoul, having a practical turn of mind, said he thought that they both ought to be contented with the result already obtained, and that it would be folly to try and grasp anything more.
"What more do we want?" he asked his uncle. "We now possess over a million; let us divide it and keep quiet. We had better be satisfied with our good luck, and not tempt Providence."
But this moderation did not suit Louis.
"I am rich," he replied, "but I desire more than wealth. I am determined to marry Madeleine: I swear she shall be my wife! In the first place, I madly love her, and then, as the nephew of the most eminent banker in Paris, I at once gain high position and public consideration."
"I tell you, uncle, your courtship will involve you in great risks."
"I don't care if it does. I choose to run them. My intention is to share my fortune with you; but I will not do so till the day after my wedding. Madeleine's fortune will then be yours."
Raoul was silent. Clameran held the money, and was therefore master of the situation.
"You don't seem to anticipate any difficulty in carrying out your wishes," he said discontentedly; "how are you to account for your suddenly acquired fortune? M. Fauvel knows that a Clameran lived at Oloron, and had money in his bank. You tell him that you never heard of this person bearing your name, and then, at the end of the month, you come and say that you have inherited his fortune. People don't inherit fortunes from perfect strangers; so you had better trump up some relationship."
"You are an innocent youth, nephew; your ingenuousness is amusing."
"Certainly. The banker, his wife, and Madeleine must be informed that the Clameran of Oloron was a natural son of my father, consequently my brother, born at Hamburg, and recognized during the emigration. Of course, he wished to leave his fortune to his own family. This is the story which you must tell Mme. Fauvel to-morrow."
"That is a bold step to take."
"Inquiries might be made."
"Who would make them? The banker would not trouble himself to do so. What difference is it to him whether I had a brother or not? My title as heir is legally authenticated; and all he has to do is to pay the money he holds, and there his business ends."
"I am not afraid of his giving trouble."
"Do you think that Mme. Fauvel and her niece will ask any questions? Why should they? They have no grounds for suspicion. Besides, they cannot take a step without compromising themselves. If they knew all our secrets I would not have the least fear of their making revelations. They have sense enough to know that they had best keep quiet."
Not finding any other objections to make, Raoul said:
"Very well, then, I obey you; but I am not to call upon Mme. Fauvel for any more money, am I?"
"And why not, pray?"
"Because, my uncle, you are rich now."
"Suppose I am rich," replied Louis, triumphantly; "what is that to you? Have we not quarrelled about the means of making this money? and did you not heap abuse upon me until I consider myself justified in refusing you any assistance whatever? However, I will overlook the past. And, when I explain my present plan, you will feel ashamed of your former doubts and suspicion. You will say with me, 'Success is certain.'"
Louis de Clameran's scheme was very simple, and therefore unfortunately presented the strongest chances of success.
"We will go back and look at our balance-sheet. As heretofore, my brilliant nephew, you seem to have misunderstood my management of this affair; I will now explain it to you."
"I am listening."
"In the first place, I presented myself to Mme. Fauvel, and said not, 'Your money or your life,' but 'Your money or your reputation!' It was a rude blow to strike, but effective. As I expected, she was frightened, and regarded me with the greatest aversion."
"Aversion is a mild term, uncle."
"I know that. Then I brought you upon the scene; and, without flattering you in the least, I must say that your opening act was a perfect success. I was concealed behind the curtain, and saw your first interview; it was sublime! She saw you, and loved you: you spoke a few words and won her heart."
"And but for you?"
"Let me finish. This was the first act of our comedy. Let us pass to the second. Your extravagant follies—your grandfather would have said, your dissoluteness—soon changed our respective situations. Mme. Fauvel, without ceasing to worship you—you resemble Gaston so closely—was uneasy about you. She was so frightened that she was forced to come to me for assistance."
"I acted my part very well, as you must confess. I was grave, cold, indignant, and represented the distressed uncle to perfection. I spoke of the old probity of the Clamerans, and bemoaned that the family honor should be dragged in the dust by a degenerate descendant. For a short time I triumphed at your expense; Mme. Fauvel forgot her former prejudice against me, and soon showed that she esteemed and liked me."
"That must have been a long time ago."
Louis paid no attention to this ironical interruption.
"Now we come to the third scene," he went on to say, "the time when Mme. Fauvel, having Madeleine for an adviser, judged us at our true value. Oh! you need not flatter yourself that she did not fear and despise us both. If she did not hate you, Raoul, it was because a mother's heart always forgives a sinful child. A mother can despise and worship her son at the same time."
"She has proved it to me in so many touching ways, that!—yes, even I, hardened as I am—was moved, and felt remorse."
"Parbleu! I have felt some pangs myself. Where did I leave off? Oh, yes! Mme. Fauvel was frightened, and Madeleine, bent on sacrificing herself, had discarded Prosper, and consented to marry me, when the existence of Gaston was suddenly revealed. And what has happened since? You have succeeded in convincing Mme. Fauvel that you are pure, and that I am blacker than hell. She is blinded by your noble qualities, and she and Madeleine regard me as your evil genius, whose pernicious influence led you astray."
"You are right, my venerated uncle; that is precisely the position you occupy."
"Very good. Now we come to the fifth act, and our comedy needs entire change of scenery. We must veer around."
"Change our tactics?"
"You think it difficult, I suppose? Nothing easier. Listen attentively, for the future depends upon your skilfulness."
Raoul leaned back in his chair, with folded arms, as if prepared for anything, and said:
"I am ready."
"The first thing for you to do," said Louis, "is to go to Mme. Fauvel to-morrow, and tell her the story about my natural brother. She will not believe you, but that makes no difference. The important thing is, for you to appear convinced of the truth of what you tell her."
"Consider me convinced."
"Five days hence, I will call on M. Fauvel, and confirm the notification sent him by my notary at Oloron, that the money deposited in the bank now belongs to me. I will repeat, for his benefit, the story of the natural brother, and ask him to keep the money until I call for it, as I have no occasion for it at present. You, who are so distrustful, my good nephew, may regard this deposit as a guarantee of my sincerity."
"We will talk of that another time. Go on."
"Then I will go to Mme. Fauvel, and say, 'Being very poor, my dear madame, necessity compelled me to claim your assistance in the support of my brother's son, who is also yours. This youth is worthless and extravagant.'"
"Thanks, my good uncle."
"'He has poisoned your life when he should have added to your happiness; he is a constant anxiety and sorrow to your maternal heart. I have come to offer my regrets for your past trouble, and to assure you that you will have no annoyance in the future. I am now rich, and henceforth take the whole responsibility of Raoul upon myself. I will provide handsomely for him.'"
"Is that what you call a scheme?"
"Parbleu, you will soon see whether it is. After listening to this speech, Mme. Fauvel will feel inclined to throw herself in my arms, by way of expressing her gratitude and joy. She will refrain, however, on account of her niece. She will ask me to relinquish my claim on Madeleine's hand, now that I am rich. I will roundly tell her, No. I will make this an opportunity for an edifying display of magnanimity and disinterestedness. I will say, 'Madame, you have accused me of cupidity. I am now able to prove your injustice. I have been infatuated, as every man must be, by the beauty, grace, and intelligence of Mlle. Madeleine; and—I love her. If she were penniless, my devotion would only be the more ardent. She has been promised to me, and I must insist upon this one article of our agreement. This must be the price of my silence. And, to prove that I am not influenced by her fortune, I give you my sacred promise, that, the day after the wedding, I will send Raoul a stock receipt of twenty-five thousand livres per annum."
Louis expressed himself with such convincing candor, that Raoul, an artist in knavery, was charmed and astonished.
"Beautifully done," he cried, clapping his hands with glee. "That last sentence will create a chasm between Mme. Fauvel and her niece. The promise of a fortune for me will certainly bring my mother over to our side."
"I hope so," said Louis with pretended modesty. "And I have strong reasons for hoping so, as I shall be able to furnish the good lady with excellent arguments for excusing herself in her own eyes. You know when someone proposes some little—what shall we call it?—transaction to an honest person, it must be accompanied by justifications sufficient to quiet all qualms of conscience. I shall prove to Mme. Fauvel and her niece that Prosper has shamefully deceived them. I shall prove to them that he is cramped by debts, dissipated, and a reckless gambler, openly associating with a woman of no character."
"And very pretty, besides, by Jove! You must not neglect to expatiate upon the beauty and fascinations of the adorable Gypsy; that will be your strongest point."
"Don't be alarmed; I shall be more eloquent than a popular divine. Then I will explain to Mme. Fauvel that if she really loves her niece, she will persuade her to marry, not an insignificant cashier, but a man of position, a great manufacturer, a marquis, and, more than this, one rich enough to establish you in the world."
Raoul was dazzled by this brilliant prospect.
"If you don't decide her, you will make her waver," he said.
"Oh! I don't expect a sudden change. I only intend planting the germ in her mind; thanks to you, it will develop, flourish, and bear fruit."
"Thanks to me?"
"Allow me to finish. After making my speeches I shall disappear from the scene, and your role will commence. Of course your mother will repeat the conversation to you, and then we can judge of the effect produced. But remember, you must scorn to receive any assistance from me. You must swear that you will brave all privation, want, famine even, rather than accept a cent from a base man whom you hate and despise; a man who—But you know exactly what you are to say. I can rely upon you for good acting."
"No one can surpass me when I am interested in my part. In pathetic roles I am always a success, when I have had time to prepare myself."
"I know you are. But this disinterestedness need not prevent you from resuming your dissipations. You must gamble, bet, and lose more money than you ever did before. You must increase your demands, and say that you must have money at all costs. You need not account to me for any money you can extort from her. All you get is your own to spend as you please."
"You don't say so! If you mean that—"
"You will hurry up matters, I'll be bound."
"I can promise you, no time shall be wasted."
"Now listen to what you are to do, Raoul. Before the end of three months, you must have exhausted the resources of these two women. You must force from them every franc they can raise, so that they will be wholly unable to procure money to supply your increasing demands. In three months I must find them penniless, absolutely ruined, without even a jewel left."
Raoul was startled at the passionate, vindictive tone of Louis's voice as he uttered these last words.
"You must hate these women, if you are so determined to make them miserable," he said.
"I hate them?" cried Louis. "Can't you see that I madly love Madeleine, love her as only a man of my age can love? Is not her image ever in my mind? Does not the very mention of her name fire my heart, and make me tremble like a school-boy?"
"Your great devotion does not prevent you planning the destruction of her present happiness."
"Necessity compels me to do so. Nothing but the most cruel deceptions and the bitterest suffering would ever induce her to become my wife, to take me as the lesser of two evils. The day on which you have led Mme. Fauvel and her niece to the extreme edge of the precipice, pointed out its dark depths, and convinced them that they are irretrievably lost, I shall appear, and rescue them. I will play my part with such grandeur, such lofty magnanimity, that Madeleine will be touched, will forget her past enmity, and regard me with favorable eyes. When she finds that it is her sweet self, and not her money, that I want, she will soften, and in time yield to my entreaties. No true woman can be indifferent to a grand passion. I don't pretend to say that she will love me at first; but, if she will only consent to be mine, I ask for nothing more; time will do much, even for a poor devil like myself."
Raoul was shocked at this cold-blooded perversity of his uncle; but Clameran showed his immense superiority in wickedness, and the apprentice admired the master.
"You would certainly succeed, uncle," he said, "were it not for the cashier. Between you and Madeleine, Prosper will always stand; if not in person, certainly in memory."
Louis smiled scornfully, and, throwing away his cigar, which had died out, said:
"I don't mind Prosper, or attach any more importance to him than to that cigar."
"But she loves him."
"So much the worse for him. Six months hence, she will despise him; he is already morally ruined, and at the proper time I will make an end of him socially. Do you know whither the road of dissipation leads, my good nephew? Prosper supports Gypsy, who is extravagant; he gambles, keeps fast horses, and gives suppers. Now, you gamble yourself, and know how much money can be squandered in one night; the losses of baccarat must be paid within twenty-four hours. He has lost heavily, must pay, and—has charge of a money-safe."
Raoul protested against this insinuation.
"It is useless to tell me that he is honest, that nothing would induce him to touch money that does not belong to him. I know better. Parbleu! I was honest myself until I learned to gamble. Any man with a grain of sense would have married Madeleine long ago, and sent us flying bag and baggage. You say she loves him! No one but a coward would be defrauded of the woman he loved and who loved him. Ah, if I had once felt Madeleine's hand tremble in mine, if her rosy lips had once pressed a kiss upon my brow, the whole world could not take her from me. Woe to him who dared stand in my path! As it is, Prosper annoys me, and I intend to suppress him. With your aid I will so cover him with disgrace and infamy, that Madeleine will drive every thought of him from her mind, and her love will turn to hate."
Louis's tone of rage and vengeance startled Raoul, and made him regard the affair in a worse light than ever.
"You have given me a shameful, dastardly role to play," he said after a long pause.
"My honorable nephew has scruples, I suppose," said Clameran sneeringly.
"Not exactly scruples; yet I confess—"
"That you want to retreat? Rather too late to sing that tune, my friend. You wish to enjoy every luxury, have your pockets filled with gold, cut a fine figure in high society, and remain virtuous. Are you fool enough to suppose a poor man can be honest? 'Tis a luxury pertaining to the wealthy. Did you ever see people such as we draw money from the pure fount of virtue? We must fish in muddy waters, and then wash ourselves clean, and enjoy the result of our labor."
"I have never been rich enough to be honest," said Raoul humbly; "but I must say it goes hard with me to torture two defenceless, frightened women, and ruin the character of a poor devil who regards me as his best friend. It is a low business!"