This resistance exasperated Louis to the last degree.
"You are the most absurd, ridiculous fool I ever met," he cried. "An opportunity occurs for us to make an immense fortune. All we have to do is to stretch out our hands and take it; when you must needs prove refractory, like a whimpering baby. Nobody but an ass would refuse to drink when he is thirsty, because he sees a little mud at the bottom of the bucket. I suppose you prefer theft on a small scale, stealing by driblets. And where will your system lead you? To the poor-house or the police-station. You prefer living from hand to mouth, supported by Mme. Fauvel, having small sums doled out to you to pay your little gambling debts."
"I am neither ambitious nor cruel."
"And suppose Mme. Fauvel dies to-morrow: what will become of you? Will you go cringing up to the widower, and implore him to continue your allowance?"
"Enough said," cried Raoul, angrily interrupting his uncle. "I never had any idea of retreating. I made these objections to show you what infamous work you expect of me, and at the same time prove to you that without my assistance you can do nothing."
"I never pretended to the contrary."
"Then, my noble uncle, we might as well settle what my share is to be. Oh! it is not worth while for you to indulge in idle protestations. What will you give me in case of success? and what if we fail?"
"I told you before. I will give you twenty-five thousand livres a year, and all you can secure between now and my wedding-day."
"This arrangement suits me very well; but where are your securities?"
This question was discussed a long time before it was satisfactorily settled by the accomplices, who had every reason to distrust each other.
"What are you afraid of?" asked Clameran.
"Everything," replied Raoul. "Where am I to obtain justice, if you deceive me? From this pretty little poniard? No, thank you. I would be made to pay as dear for your hide, as for that of an honest man."
Finally, after long debate and much recrimination, the matter was arranged, and they shook hands before separating.
Alas! Mme. Fauvel and her niece soon felt the evil effects of the understanding between the villains.
Everything happened as Louis had arranged.
Once more, when Mme. Fauvel had begun to breathe freely, and to hope that her troubles were over, Raoul's conduct suddenly changed; he became more extravagant and dissipated than ever.
Formerly, Mme. Fauvel would have said, "I wonder what he does with all the money I give him?" Now she saw where it went.
Raoul was reckless in his wickedness; he was intimate with actresses, openly lavishing money and jewelry upon them; he drove about with four horses, and bet heavily on every race. Never had he been so exacting and exorbitant in his demands for money; Mme. Fauvel had the greatest difficulty in supplying his wants.
He no longer made excuses and apologies for spending so much; instead of coaxingly entreating, he demanded money as a right, threatening to betray Mme. Fauvel to her husband if she refused him.
At this rate, all the possessions of Mme. Fauvel and Madeleine soon disappeared. In one month, all their money had been squandered. Then they were compelled to resort to the most shameful expedients in the household expenses. They economized in every possible way, making purchases on credit, and making tradesmen wait; then they changed figures in the bills, and even invented accounts of things never bought.
These imaginary costly whims increased so rapidly, that M. Fauvel one day said, as he signed a large check, "Upon my word, ladies, you will buy out all the stores, if you keep on this way. But nothing pleases me better than to see you gratify every wish."
Poor women! For months they had bought nothing, but had lived upon the remains of their former splendor, having all their old dresses made over, to keep up appearances in society.
More clear-sighted than her aunt, Madeleine saw plainly that the day would soon come when everything would have to be explained.
Although she knew that the sacrifices of the present would avail nothing in the future, that all this money was being thrown away without securing her aunt's peace of mind, yet she was silent. A high-minded delicacy made her conceal her apprehensions beneath an assumed calmness.
The fact of her sacrificing herself made her refrain from uttering anything like a complaint or censure. She seemed to forget herself entirely in her efforts to comfort her aunt.
"As soon as Raoul sees we have nothing more to give," she would say, "he will come to his senses, and stop all this extravagance."
The day came when Mme. Fauvel and Madeleine found it impossible to give another franc.
The evening previous, Mme. Fauvel had a dinner-party, and with difficulty scraped together enough money to defray the expenses.
Raoul appeared, and said that he was in the greatest need of money, being forced to pay a debt of two thousand francs at once.
In vain they implored him to wait a few days, until they could with propriety ask M. Fauvel for money. He declared that he must have it now, and that he would not leave the house without it.
"But I have no way of getting it for you," said Mme. Fauvel desperately; "you have taken everything from me. I have nothing left but my diamonds: do you want them? If they can be of use, take them."
Hardened as the young villain was, he blushed at these words.
He felt pity for this unfortunate woman, who had always been so kind and indulgent to him, who had so often lavished upon him her maternal caresses. He felt for the noble girl who was the innocent victim of a vile plot.
But he was bound by an oath; he knew that a powerful hand would save these women at the brink of the precipice. More than this, he saw an immense fortune at the end of his road of crime, and quieted his conscience by saying that he would redeem his present cruelty by honest kindness in the future. Once out of the clutches of Clameran, he would be a better man, and try to return some of the kind affection shown him by these poor women.
Stifling his better impulses, he said harshly to Mme. Fauvel, "Give me the jewels; I will take them to the pawnbroker's." Mme. Fauvel handed him a box containing a set of diamonds. It was a present from her husband the day he became worth a million.
And so pressing was the want of these women who were surrounded by princely luxury, with their ten servants, beautiful blooded horses, and jewels which were the admiration of Paris, that they implored him to bring them some of the money which he would procure on the diamonds, to meet their daily wants.
He promised, and kept his word.
But they had revealed a new source, a mine to be worked; he took advantage of it.
One by one, all Mme. Fauvel's jewels followed the way of the diamonds; and, when hers were all gone, those of Madeleine were given up.
A recent law-suit, which showed how a young and beautiful woman had been kept in a state of terror and almost poverty, by a rascal who had possession of her letters, a sad case which no honest man could read without blushing for his sex, has revealed to what depths human infamy can descend.
And such abominable crimes are not so rare as people suppose.
How many men are supported entirely by stolen secrets, from the coachman who claims ten louis every month of the foolish girl whom he drove to a rendezvous, to the elegant dandy in light kids, who discovered a financial swindle, and makes the parties interested buy his silence, cannot be known.
This is called the extortion of hush-money, the most cowardly and infamous of crimes, which the law, unfortunately, can rarely overtake and punish.
"Extortion of hush-money," said an old prefect of police, "is a trade which supports at least a thousand scamps in Paris alone. Sometimes we know the black-mailer and his victim, and yet we can do nothing. Moreover, if we were to catch the villain in the very act, and hand him over to justice, the victim, in her fright at the chance of her secret being discovered, would turn against us."
It is true, extortion has become a business. Very often it is the business of loafers, who spend plenty of money, when everyone knows they have no visible means of support, and of whom people ask, "What do they live upon?"
The poor victims do not know how easy it would be to rid themselves of their tyrants. The police are fully capable of faithfully keeping secrets confided to them. A visit to the Rue de Jerusalem, a confidential communication with a head of the bureau, who is as silent as a father confessor, and the affair is arranged, without noise, without publicity, without anyone ever being the wiser. There are traps for "master extortioners," which work well in the hands of the police.
Mme. Fauvel had no defence against the scoundrels who were torturing her, save prayers and tears; these availed her little.
Sometimes Mme. Fauvel betrayed such heart-broken suffering when Raoul begged her for money which she had no means of obtaining, that he would hurry away disgusted at his own brutal conduct, and say to Clameran:
"You must end this dirty business; I cannot stand it any longer. I will blow any man's brains out, or fight a crowd of cut-throats, if you choose; but as to killing by agony and fright these two poor miserable women, whom I am really fond of, I am not going to do it. You ask for more than I can do. I am not quite the cowardly hound you take me for."
Clameran paid no attention to these remonstrances: indeed, he was prepared for them.
"It is not pleasant, I know," he replied; "but necessity knows no law. Have a little more perseverance and patience; we have almost got to the end."
The end was nearer than Clameran supposed. Toward the latter part of November, Mme. Fauvel saw that it was impossible to postpone the catastrophe any longer, and as a last effort determined to apply to the marquis for assistance.
She had not seen him since his return from Oloron, except once, when he came to announce his accession to wealth. At that time, persuaded that he was the evil genius of Raoul, she had received him very coldly, and did not invite him to repeat his visit.
She hesitated about speaking to her niece of the step she intended taking, because she feared violent opposition.
To her great surprise Madeleine warmly approved of it.
Trouble had made her keen-sighted and suspicious. Reflecting on past events, comparing and weighing every act and speech of Raoul, she was now convinced that he was Clameran's tool.
She thought that Raoul was too shrewd to be acting in this shameful way, ruinously to his own interests, if there were not some secret motive at the bottom of it all. She saw that this persecution was more feigned than real.
So thoroughly was she convinced of this, that, had it only concerned herself alone, she would have firmly resisted the oppression, certain that the threatened exposure would never take place.
Recalling, with a shudder, certain looks of Clameran, she guessed the truth, that the object of all this underhand work was to force her to become his wife.
Determined on making the sacrifice, in spite of her repugnance toward the man, she wished to have the deed done at once; anything was preferable to this terrible anxiety, to the life of torture which Raoul made her lead. She felt that her courage might fail if she waited and suffered much longer.
"The sooner you see M. de Clameran the better for us, aunt," she said, after talking the project over.
The next day Mme. Fauvel called on the marquis at the Hotel du Louvre, having sent him a note announcing her intended visit.
He received her with cold, studied politeness, like a man who had been misunderstood and had been unjustly wounded.
After listening to her report of Raoul's scandalous behavior, he became very indignant, and swore that he would soon make him repent of his heartlessness.
But when Mme. Fauvel told of the immense sums of money forced from her, Clameran seemed confounded, as if he could not believe it.
"The worthless rascal!" he exclaimed, "the idea of his audacity! Why, during the last four months, I have given him more than twenty thousand francs, which I would not have done except to prevent him from applying to you, as he constantly threatened to do."
Seeing an expression of doubtful surprise upon Mme. Fauvel's face, Louis arose, and took from his desk some receipts signed by Raoul. The total amount was twenty-three thousand five hundred francs.
Mme. Fauvel was shocked and amazed.
"He has obtained forty thousand francs from me," she faintly said, "so that altogether he has spent sixty thousand francs in four months."
"I can't imagine what he does with it," said Clameran, "unless he spends it on actresses."
"Good heavens! what can these creatures do with all the money lavished on them?"
"That is a question I cannot answer, madame."
He appeared to pity Mme. Fauvel sincerely; he promised that he would at once see Raoul, and reason with him about the shameful life he was leading; perhaps he could be persuaded to reform. Finally, after many protestations of friendship, he wound up by placing his fortune at her disposal.
Although Mme. Fauvel refused his offer, she appreciated the kindness of it, and on returning home said to Madeleine:
"Perhaps we have mistaken his character; he may be a good man after all."
Madeleine sadly shook her head. She had anticipated just what happened. Clameran's magnanimity and generosity confirmed her presentiments.
Raoul came to see his uncle, and found him radiant.
"Everything is going on swimmingly, my smart nephew," said Clameran; "your receipts acted like a charm. Ah, you are a partner worth having. I congratulate you upon your success. Forty thousand francs in four months!"
"Yes," said Raoul carelessly. "I got about that much from pawnbrokers."
"Pests! Then you must have a nice little sum laid by."
"That is my business, uncle, and not yours. Remember our agreement. I will tell you this much: Mme. Fauvel and Madeleine have turned everything they could into money; they have nothing left, and I have had enough of my role."
"Your role is ended. I forbid you to hereafter ask for a single centime."
"What are you about to do? What has happened?"
"The mine is loaded, nephew, and I am awaiting an opportunity to set fire to it."
Louis de Clameran relied upon making his rival, Prosper Bertomy, furnish him this ardently desired opportunity.
He loved Madeleine too passionately to feel aught save the bitterest hate toward the man whom she had freely chosen, and who still possessed her heart.
Clameran knew that he could marry her at once if he chose; but in what way? By holding a sword of terror over her head, and forcing her to be his. He became frenzied at the idea of possessing her person, while her heart and soul would always be with Prosper.
Thus he swore that, before marrying, he would so cover Prosper with shame and ignominy that no honest person would speak to him. He had first thought of killing him, but, fearing that Madeleine would enshrine and worship his memory, he determined to disgrace him.
He imagined that there would be no difficulty in ruining the unfortunate young man. He soon found himself mistaken.
Though Prosper led a life of reckless dissipation, he preserved order in his disorder. If in a state of miserable entanglement, and obliged to resort to all sorts of make-shifts to escape his creditors, his caution prevented the world from knowing it.
Vainly did Raoul, with his pockets full of gold, try to tempt him to play high; every effort to hasten his ruin failed.
When he played he did not seem to care whether he lost or won; nothing aroused him from his cold indifference.
His friend Nina Gypsy was extravagant, but her devotion to Prosper restrained her from going beyond certain limits.
Raoul's great intimacy with Prosper enabled him to fully understand the state of his mind; that he was trying to drown his disappointment in excitement, but had not given up all hope.
"You need not hope to beguile Prosper into committing any piece of folly," said Raoul to his uncle; "his head is as cool as a usurer's. He never goes beyond a certain degree of dissipation. What object he has in view I know not. Perhaps, when he has spent his last napoleon, he will blow his brains out; he certainly never will descend to any dishonorable act. As to tampering with the money-safe intrusted to his keeping——"
"We must force him on," replied Clameran, "lead him into extravagances, make Gypsy call on him for costly finery, lend him plenty of money."
Raoul shook his head, as if convinced that his efforts would be vain.
"You don't know Prosper, uncle: we can't galvanize a dead man. Madeleine killed him the day she discarded him. He takes no interest in anything on the face of the earth."
"We can wait and see."
They did wait; and, to the great surprise of Mme. Fauvel, Raoul once more became an affectionate and dutiful son, as he had been during Clameran's absence. From reckless extravagance he changed to great economy. Under pretext of saving money, he remained at Vesinet, although it was very uncomfortable and disagreeable there in the winter. He said he wished to expiate his sins in solitude. The truth was, that, by remaining in the country, he insured his liberty, and escaped his mother's visits.
It was about this time that Mme. Fauvel, charmed with the improvement in Raoul, asked her husband to give him some employment.
M. Fauvel was delighted to please his wife, and at once offered Raoul the place of corresponding clerk with a salary of five hundred francs a month.
The appointment pleased Raoul; but, in obedience to Clameran's command, he refused it, saying his vocation was not banking.
This refusal so provoked the banker, that he told Raoul, if he was so idle and lazy, not to call on him for money again, or expect him to do anything to assist him. Raoul seized this pretext for ostensibly ceasing his visits.
When he wanted to see his mother, he would come in the afternoon, when he knew that M. Fauvel would be from home; and he only came often enough to keep informed of what was going on in the household.
This sudden lull after so many storms appeared ominous to Madeleine. She was more certain that ever that the plot was now ripe, and would suddenly burst upon them, without warning. She did not impart her presentiment to her aunt, but prepared herself for the worst.
"What can they be doing?" Mme. Fauvel would say; "can they have ceased to persecute us?"
"Yes: what can they be doing?" Madeleine would murmur.
Louis and Raoul gave no signs of life, because, like expert hunters, they were silently hiding, and watching for a favorable opportunity of pouncing upon their victims.
Never losing sight of Prosper for a day, Raoul had exhausted every effort of his fertile mind to compromise his honor, to insnare him into some inextricable entanglement. But, as he had foreseen, the cashier's indifference offered little hope of success.
Clameran began to grow impatient at this delay, and had fully determined to bring matters to a crisis himself, when one morning, about three o'clock, he was aroused by Raoul.
He knew that some event of great importance must have happened, to make his nephew come to his house at this hour of the morning.
"What is the matter?" he anxiously inquired.
"Perhaps nothing; perhaps everything. I have just left Prosper."
"I had him, Mme. Gypsy, and three other friends to dine with me. After dinner, I made up a game of baccarat, but Prosper took no interest in it, although he was quite tipsy."
"You must be drunk yourself to come here waking me up in the middle of the night, to hear this idle gabble," said Louis angrily. "What the devil do you mean by it?"
"Now, don't be in a hurry; wait until you hear the rest."
"Morbleu! speak, then!"
"After the game was over, we went to supper; Prosper became intoxicated, and betrayed the secret name with which he closes the money-safe."
At these words Clameran uttered a cry of triumph.
"What was the word?"
"The name of his friend."
"Gypsy! Yes, that would be five letters."
Louis was so excited that he jumped out of bed, slipped on his dressing-gown, and began to stride up and down the chamber.
"Now we have got him!" he said with vindictive satisfaction. "There's no chance of escape for him now! Ah, the virtuous cashier won't touch the money confided to him: so we must touch it for him. The disgrace will be just as great, no matter who opens the safe. We have the word; you know where the key is kept."
"Yes; when M. Fauvel goes out he always leaves the key in the drawer of his secretary, in his chamber."
"Very good. Go and get this key from Mme. Fauvel. If she does not give it up willingly, use force: so that you get it, that is the point; then open the safe, and take out every franc it contains. Ah, Master Bertomy, you shall pay dear for being loved by the woman whom I love!"
For five minutes Clameran indulged in such a tirade of abuse against Prosper, mingled with rhapsodies of love for Madeleine, that Raoul thought him almost out of his mind.
"Before crying victory," he said, "you had better consider the drawbacks and difficulties. Prosper might change the word to-morrow."
"Yes, he might; but it is not probable he will; he will forget what he said while drunk; besides, we can hasten matters."
"That is not all. M. Fauvel has given orders that no large sum shall be kept in the safe over-night; before closing the bank everything is sent to the Bank of France."
"A large sum will be kept there the night I choose."
"You think so?"
"I think this: I have a hundred thousand crowns deposited with M. Fauvel: and if I desire the money to be paid over to me early some morning, directly the bank is opened, of course the money will be kept in the safe the previous night."
"A splendid idea!" cried Raoul admiringly.
It was a good idea; and the plotters spent several hours in studying its strong and weak points.
Raoul feared that he would never be able to overcome Mme. Fauvel's resistance. And, even if she yielded the key, would she not go directly and confess everything to her husband? She was fond of Prosper, and would hesitate a long time before sacrificing him.
But Louis felt no uneasiness on this score.
"One sacrifice necessitates another," he said: "she has made too many to draw back at the last one. She sacrificed her adopted daughter; therefore she will sacrifice a young man, who is, after all, a comparative stranger to her."
"But madame will never believe any harm of Prosper; she will always have faith in his honor; therefore—"
"You talk like an idiot, my verdant nephew!"
Before the conversation had ended, the plan seemed feasible. The scoundrels made all their arrangements, and fixed the day for committing the crime.
They selected the evening of the 7th of February, because Raoul knew that M. Fauvel would be at a bank-director's dinner, and Madeleine was invited to a party on that evening.
Unless something unforeseen should occur, Raoul knew that he would find Mme. Fauvel alone at half-past eight o'clock.
"I will ask M. Fauvel this very day," said Clameran, "to have my money on hand for Tuesday."
"That is a very short notice, uncle," objected Raoul. "You know there are certain forms to be gone through, and he can claim a longer time wherein to pay it over."
"That is true, but our banker is proud of always being prepared to pay any amount of money, no matter how large; and if I say I am pressed, and would like to be accommodated on Tuesday, he will make a point of having it ready for me. Now, you must ask Prosper, as a personal favor to you, to have the money on hand at the opening of the bank."
Raoul once more examined the situation, to discover if possible a grain of sand which might be converted into a mountain at the last moment.
"Prosper and Gypsy are to be at Vesinet this evening," he said, "but I cannot ask them anything until I know the banker's answer. As soon as you arrange matters with him, send me word by Manuel."
"I can't send Manuel, for an excellent reason; he has left me; but I can send another messenger."
Louis spoke the truth; Manuel was gone. He had insisted on keeping Gaston's old servant in his service, because he thought it imprudent to leave him at Oloron, where his gossiping might cause trouble.
He soon became annoyed by Manuel's loyalty, who had shared the perils and good fortunes of an excellent master for many years; and determined to rid himself of this last link which constantly reminded him of Gaston. The evening before, he had persuaded Manuel to return to Arenys-de-mer, a little port of Catalonia, his native place; and Louis was looking for another servant.
After breakfasting together, they separated.
Clameran was so elated by the prospect of success, that he lost sight of the great crime intervening. Raoul was calm, but resolute. The shameful deed he was about to commit would give him riches, and release him from a hateful servitude. His one thought was liberty, as Louis's was Madeleine.
Everything seemed to progress finely. The banker did not ask for the notice of time, but promised to pay the money at the specified hour. Prosper said he would have it ready early in the morning.
The certainty of success made Louis almost wild with joy. He counted the hours, and the minutes, which passed but too slowly.
"When this affair is ended," he said to Raoul, "I will reform and be a model of virtue. No one will dare hint that I have ever indulged in any sins, great or small."
But Raoul became more and more sad as the time approached. Reflection gradually betrayed the blackness of the contemplated crime.
Raoul was bold and determined in the pursuit of his own gratifications and wickedness; he could smile in the face of his best friend, while cheating him of his last napoleon at cards; and he could sleep well after stabbing his enemy in the heart; but he was young.
He was young in sin. Vice had not yet penetrated to his marrow-bones: corruption had not yet crowded into his soul enough to uproot and destroy every generous sentiment.
It had not been so very long since he had cherished a few holy beliefs. The good intentions of his boyhood were not quite obliterated from his sometimes reproachful memory.
Possessing the daring courage natural to youth, he despised the cowardly part forced upon him; this dark plot, laid for the destruction of two helpless women, filled him with horror and disgust. His heart revolted at the idea of acting the part of Judas toward his mother to betray her between two kisses.
Disgusted by the cool villainy of Louis, he longed for some unexpected danger to spring up, some great peril to be braved, so as to excuse himself in his own eyes, to give him the spirit to carry through the scheme; for he would like to reap the benefits without doing the revolting work.
But no; he well knew that he ran no risk, not even that of being arrested and sent to the galleys. For he was certain that, if M. Fauvel discovered everything, he would do his best to hush it up, to conceal every fact connected with the disgraceful story which would implicate his wife. Although he was careful not to breathe it to Clameran, he felt a sincere affection for Mme. Fauvel, and was touched by the indulgent fondness which she so unchangingly lavished upon him. He had been happy at Vesinet, while his accomplice, or rather his master, was at Oloron. He would have been glad to lead an honest life, and could not see the sense of committing a crime when there was no necessity for it. He hated Clameran for not consenting to let the matter drop, now that he was rich enough to live in affluence the rest of his life, and who, for the sake of gratifying a selfish passion, was abusing his power, and endangering the safety and happiness of so many people. He longed for an opportunity of thwarting his plots, if it could be done without also ruining himself.
His resolution, which had been so firm in the beginning, was growing weaker and weaker as the hours rolled on: as the crisis approached, his horror of the deed increased.
Seeing this uncertain state of Raoul's mind, Louis never left him, but continued to paint for him a dazzling future, position, wealth, and freedom. Possessing a large fortune, he would be his own master, gratify his every wish, and make amends to his mother for his present undutiful conduct. He urged him to take pride in acting his part in this little comedy, which would soon be over without doing harm to anyone.
He prepared, and forced his accomplice to rehearse, the scene which was to be enacted at Mme. Fauvel's, with as much coolness and precision as if it were to be performed at a public theatre. Louis said that no piece could be well acted unless the actor was interested and imbued with the spirit of his role.
But the more urgently Louis pressed upon him the advantages to be derived from success, the oftener he sounded in his ears the magic words, "five hundred thousand francs," the more loudly did Raoul's conscience cry out against the sinful deed.
On Monday evening, about six o'clock, Raoul felt so depressed and miserable, that he had almost made up his mind to refuse to move another step, and to tell Louis that he must find another tool to carry out his abominable plot.
"Are you afraid?" asked Clameran, who had anxiously watched these inward struggles.
"Yes, I am afraid. I am not cursed with your ferocious nature and iron will. I am the most miserable dog living!"
"Come, cheer up, my boy! You are not yourself to-day. Don't fail me at the last minute, when everything depends upon you. Just think that we have almost finished; one more stroke of our oars, and we are in port. You are only nervous: come to dinner, and a bottle of Burgundy will soon set you right."
They were walking along the boulevard. Clameran insisted upon their entering a restaurant, and having dinner in a private room.
Vainly did he strive, however, to chase the gloom from Raoul's pale face; he sat listening, with a sullen frown, to his friend's jests about "swallowing the bitter pill gracefully."
Urged by Louis, he drank two bottles of wine, in hopes that intoxication would inspire him with courage to do the deed, which Clameran impressed upon his mind must and should be done before many more hours had passed over his head.
But the drunkenness he sought came not; the wine proved false; at the bottom of the last bottle he found disgust and rage.
The clock struck eight.
"The time has come," said Louis firmly.
Raoul turned livid; his teeth chattered, and his limbs trembled so that he was unable to stand on his feet.
"Oh, I cannot do it!" he cried in an agony of terror and rage.
Clameran's eyes flashed with angry excitement at the prospect of all his plans being ruined at the last moment. But he dared not give way to his anger, for fear of exasperating Raoul, whom he knew to be anxious for an excuse to quarrel; so he quietly pulled the bell-rope. A boy appeared.
"A bottle of port," he said, "and a bottle of rum."
When the boy returned with the bottles, Louis filled a goblet with the two liquors mixed, and handed it to Raoul.
"Drink this," he said in a tone of command.
Raoul emptied the glass at one draught, and a faint color returned to his ashy cheeks. He arose, and snatching up his hat, cried fiercely:
But before he had walked half a square, the factitious energy inspired by drink deserted him.
He clung to Clameran's arm, and was almost dragged along in the direction of the banker's house, trembling like a criminal on his way to the scaffold.
"If I can once get him in the house," thought Louis, "and make him begin, the excitement of his mother's opposition will make him carry it through successfully. The cowardly baby! I would like to wring his neck!"
Although his breast was filled with these thoughts and fears, he was careful to conceal them from Raoul, and said soothingly:
"Now, don't forget our arrangement, and be careful how you enter the house; everything depends upon your being unconcerned and cool, to avoid arousing suspicion in the eyes of anyone you may meet. Have you a pistol in your pocket?"
"Yes, yes! Let me alone!"
It was well that Clameran had accompanied Raoul; for, when he got in sight of the door, his courage gave way, and he longed to retreat.
"A poor, helpless woman!" he groaned, "and an honest man who pressed my hand in friendship yesterday, to be cowardly ruined, betrayed by me! Ah, it is too base! I cannot!"
"Come, don't be a coward! I thought you had more nerve. Why, you might as well have remained virtuous and honest; you will never earn your salt in this sort of business."
Raoul overcame his weakness, and, silencing the clamors of his conscience, rushed up the steps, and pulled the bell furiously.
"Is Mme. Fauvel at home?" he inquired of the servant who opened the door.
"Madame is alone in the sitting-room adjoining her chamber," was the reply.
Raoul went upstairs.
Clameran's last injunction to Raoul was:
"Be very cautious when you enter the room; your appearance must tell everything, so you can avoid preliminary explanations."
The recommendation was useless.
The instant that Raoul went into the little salon, the sight of his pale, haggard face and wild eyes caused Mme. Fauvel to spring up with clasped hands, and cry out:
"Raoul! What has happened? Speak, my son!"
The sound of her tender, affectionate voice acted like an electric shock upon the young bandit. He shook like a leaf. But at the same time his mind seemed to change. Louis was not mistaken in his estimate of his companion's character. Raoul was on the stage, his part was to be played; his assurance returned to him; his cheating, lying nature assumed the ascendant, and stifled any better feeling in his heart.
"This misfortune is the last I shall ever suffer, mother!"
Mme. Fauvel rushed toward him, and, seizing his hand, gazed searchingly into his eyes, as if to read his very soul.
"What is the matter? Raoul, my dear son, do tell me what troubles you."
He gently pushed her from him.
"The matter is, my mother," he said in a voice of heart-broken despair, "that I am an unworthy, degenerate son! Unworthy of you, unworthy of my noble father!"
She tried to comfort him by saying that his errors were all her fault, and that he was, in spite of all, the pride of her heart.
"Alas!" he said, "I know and judge myself. No one can reproach me for my infamous conduct more bitterly than does my own conscience. I am not naturally wicked, but only a miserable fool. At times I am like an insane man, and am not responsible for my actions. Ah, my dear mother, I would not be what I am, if you had watched over my childhood. But brought up among strangers, with no guide but my own evil passions, nothing to restrain me, no one to advise me, no one to love me, owning nothing, not even my stolen name, I am cursed with vanity and unbounded ambition. Poor, with no one to assist me but you, I have the tastes and vices of a millionnaire's son.
"Alas for me! When I found you, the evil was done. Your affection, your maternal love, the only true happiness of my life, could not save me. I, who had suffered so much, endured so many privations, even the pangs of hunger, became spoiled by this new life of luxury and pleasure which you opened before me. I rushed headlong into extravagance, as a drunkard long deprived of liquor seizes and drains to the dregs the first bottle in his reach."
Mme. Fauvel listened, silent and terrified, to these words of despair and remorse, which Raoul uttered with vehemence.
She dared not interrupt him, but felt certain some dreadful piece of news was coming.
Raoul continued in a sad, hopeless tone:
"Yes, I have been a weak fool. Happiness was within my reach, and I had not the sense to stretch forth my hand and grab it. I rejected a heavenly reality to eagerly pursue a vain phantom. I, who ought to have spent my life at your feet, and daily striven to express my gratitude for your lavish kindness, have made you unhappy, destroyed your peace of mind, and, instead of being a blessing, I have been a curse ever since the first fatal day you welcomed me to your kind heart. Ah, unfeeling brute that I was, to squander upon creatures whom I despised, a fortune, of which each gold piece must have cost you a tear! Too late, too late! With you I might have been a good and happy man!"
He stopped, as if overcome by the conviction of his evil deeds, and seemed about to burst into tears.
"It is never too late to repent, my son," murmured Mme. Fauvel in comforting tones.
"Ah, if I only could!" cried Raoul; "but no, it is too late! Besides, can I tell how long my good resolutions will last? This is not the first time that I have condemned myself pitilessly. Stinging remorse for each new fault made me swear to lead a better life, to sin no more. What was the result of these periodical repentances? At the first temptation I forgot my remorse and good resolutions. I am weak and mean-spirited, and you are not firm enough to govern my vacillating nature. While my intentions are good, my actions are villainous. The disproportion between my extravagant desires, and the means of gratifying them, is too great for me to endure any longer. Who knows to what fearful lengths my unfortunate disposition may lead me? However, I will take my fate in my own hands!" he finally said with a reckless laugh.
"Oh, Raoul, my dear son," cried Mme. Fauvel in an agony of terror, "explain these dreadful words; am I not your mother? Tell me what distresses you; I am ready to hear the worst."
He appeared to hesitate, as if afraid to crush his mother's heart by the terrible blow he was about to inflict. Then in a voice of gloomy despair he replied:
"I am ruined."
"Yes, ruined; and I have nothing more to expect or hope for. I am dishonored, and all through my own fault; no one is to be blamed but myself."
"It is the sad truth, my poor mother; but fear nothing: I shall not trail in the dust the name which you bestowed upon me. I will at least have the courage not to survive my dishonor. Come, mother, don't pity me, or distress yourself; I am one of those miserable beings fated to find no peace save in the arms of death. I came into the world with misfortune stamped upon my brow. Was not my birth a shame and disgrace to you? Did not the memory of my existence haunt you day and night, filling your soul with remorse? And now, when I am restored to you after many years' separation, do I not prove to be a bitter curse instead of a blessing?"
"Ungrateful boy! Have I ever reproached you?"
"Never! Your poor Raoul will die with your beloved name on his lips; his last words a prayer to Heaven to heap blessings upon your head, and reward your long-suffering devotion."
"Die? You die, my son!"
"It must be, my dear mother; honor compels it. I am condemned by judges from whose decision no appeal can be taken—my conscience and my will."
An hour ago, Mme. Fauvel would have sworn that Raoul had made her suffer all the torments that a woman could endure; but now she felt that all her former troubles were nothing compared with her present agony.
"My God! Raoul, what have you been doing?"
"Money was intrusted to me: I gambled and lost it."
"Was it a large sum?"
"No; but more than I can replace. My poor mother, have I not taken everything from you? Did you not give me your last jewel?"
"But M. de Clameran is rich. He placed his fortune at my disposal. I will order the carriage, and go to him."
"But M. de Clameran is absent, and will not return to Paris until next week; and if I do not have the money this evening, I am lost. Alas! I have thought deeply, and, although it is hard to die so young, still fate wills it so."
He pulled a pistol from his pocket, and, with a forced smile, said:
"This will settle everything."
Mme. Fauvel was too excited and frightened to reflect upon the horror of Raoul's behavior, and that these wild threats were a last resort for obtaining money. Forgetful of the past, careless of the future, her every thought concentrated upon the present, she comprehended but one fact: that her son was about to commit suicide, and that she was powerless to prevent the fearful deed.
"Oh, wait a little while my son!" she cried. "Andre will soon return home, and I will ask him to give me—How much did you lose?"
"Thirty thousand francs."
"You shall have them to-morrow."
"But I must have the money to-night."
Mme. Fauvel wrung her hands in despair.
"Oh! why did you not come to me sooner, my son? Why did you not have confidence enough in me to come at once for help? This evening! There is no one in the house to open the money-safe; if it were not for that—if you had only come before Andre went out—"
"The safe!" cried Raoul, with sudden joy, as if this magic word had thrown a ray of light upon his dark despair; "do you know where the key is kept?"
"Yes: it is in the next room."
"Well!" he exclaimed, with a bold look that caused Mme. Fauvel to lower her eyes, and keep silent.
"Give me the key, mother," he said in a tone of entreaty.
"Oh, Raoul, Raoul!"
"It is my life I am asking of you."
These words decided her; she snatched up a candle, rushed into her chamber, opened the secretary, and took out M. Fauvel's key.
But, when about to hand it to Raoul, she seemed to suddenly see the enormity of what she was doing.
"Oh, Raoul! my son," she murmured, "I cannot! Do not ask me to commit such a dreadful deed!"
He said nothing, but sadly turned to leave the room; then coming back to his mother said:
"Ah, well; it makes but little difference in the end! At least, you will give me one last kiss, before we part forever, my darling mother!"
"What could you do with the key, Raoul?" interrupted Mme. Fauvel. "You do not know the secret word of the buttons."
"No; but I can try to open it without moving the buttons."
"You know that money is never kept in the safe over-night."
"Nevertheless, I can make the attempt. If I open the safe, and find money in it, it will be a miracle, showing that Heaven has pitied my misfortune, and provided relief."
"And if you are not successful, will you promise me to wait until to-morrow, to do nothing rash to-night?"
"I swear it, by my father's memory."
"Then take the key and follow me."
Pale and trembling, Raoul and Mme. Fauvel passed through the banker's study, and down the narrow staircase leading to the offices and cash-room below.
Raoul walked in front, holding the light, and the key of the safe.
Mme. Fauvel was convinced that it would be utterly impossible to open the safe, as the key was useless without the secret word, and of course Raoul had no way of discovering what that was.
Even granting that some chance had revealed the secret to him, he would find but little in the safe, since everything was deposited in the Bank of France. Everyone knew that no large sum was ever kept in the safe after banking hours.
The only anxiety she felt was, how Raoul would bear the disappointment, and how she could calm his despair.
She thought that she would gain time by letting Raoul try the key; and then, when he could not open the safe, he would keep his promise, and wait until the next day. There was surely no harm in letting him try the lock, when he could not touch the money.
"When he sees there is no chance of success," she thought, "he will listen to my entreaties; and to-morrow—to-morrow——"
What she could do to-morrow she knew not, she did not even ask herself. But in extreme situations the least delay inspires hope, as if a short respite meant sure salvation.
The condemned man, at the last moment, begs for a reprieve of a day, an hour, a few seconds. Raoul was about to kill himself: his mother prayed to God to grant her one day, not even a day, one night; as if in this space of time some unexpected relief would come to end her misery.
They reached Prosper's office, and Raoul placed the light on a high stool so that it lighted the whole room.
He then summoned up all his coolness, or rather that mechanical precision of movement, almost independent of will, of which men accustomed to peril avail themselves in time of need.
Rapidly, with the dexterity of experience, he slipped the buttons on the five letters composing the name of G, y, p, s, y.
His features, during this short operation, expressed the most intense anxiety. He was fearful that his nervous energy might give out; of not being able to open the safe; of not finding the money there when he opened it; of Prosper having changed the word; or perhaps having neglected to leave the money in the safe.
Mme. Fauvel saw these visible apprehensions with alarm. She read in his eyes that wild hope of a man who, passionately desiring an object, ends by persuading himself that his own will suffices to overcome all obstacles.
Having often been present when Prosper was preparing to leave his office, Raoul had fifty times seen him move the buttons, and lock the safe, just before leaving the bank. Indeed, having a practical turn of mind, and an eye to the future, he had even tried to lock the safe himself on several occasions, while waiting for Prosper.
He inserted the key softly, turned it around, pushed it farther in, and turned it a second time; then thrust it in suddenly, and turned it again. His heart beat so loudly that Mme. Fauvel could hear its throbs.
The word had not been changed; the safe opened.
Raoul and his mother simultaneously uttered a cry; she of terror, he of triumph.
"Shut it again!" cried Mme. Fauvel, frightened at the incomprehensible result of Raoul's attempt: "Come away! Don't touch anything, for Heaven's sake! Raoul!"
And, half frenzied, she clung to Raoul's arm, and pulled him away so abruptly, that the key was dragged from the lock, and, slipping along the glossy varnish of the safe-door, made a deep scratch some inches long.
But at a glance Raoul discovered, on the upper shelf of the safe, three bundles of bank-notes. He snatched them up with his left hand, and slipped them inside his vest.
Exhausted by the effort she had just made, Mme. Fauvel dropped Raoul's arm, and, almost fainting with emotion, clung to the back of a chair.
"Have mercy, Raoul!" she moaned. "I implore you to put back that money and I solemnly swear that I will give you twice as much to-morrow. Oh, my son, have pity upon your unhappy mother!"
He paid no attention to these words of entreaty, but carefully examined the scratch on the safe. He was alarmed at this trace of the robbery, which it was impossible for him to cover up.
"At least you will not take all," said Mme. Fauvel; "just keep enough to save yourself, and put back the rest."
"What good would that do? The discovery will be made that the safe has been opened; so I might as well take all as a part."
"Oh, no! not at all. I can account to Andre; I will tell him I had a pressing need for a certain sum, and opened the safe to get it."
In the meantime Raoul had carefully closed the safe.
"Come, mother, let us go back to the sitting-room. A servant might go there to look for you, and be astonished at our absence."
Raoul's cruel indifference and cold calculations at such a moment filled Mme. Fauvel with indignation. She saw that she had no influence over her son, that her prayers and tears had no effect upon his hard heart.
"Let them be astonished," she cried: "let them come here and find us! I will be relieved to put an end to this tissue of crime. Then Andre will know all, and drive me from his house. Let come what will, I shall not sacrifice another victim. Prosper will be accused of this theft to-morrow. Clameran defrauded him of the woman he loved, and now you would deprive him of his honor! I will have nothing to do with so base a crime."
She spoke so loud and angrily that Raoul was alarmed. He knew that the errand-boy slept in a room close by, and might be in bed listening to her, although it was early in the evening.
"Come upstairs!" he said, seizing Mme. Fauvel's arm.
But she clung to a table and refused to move a step.
"I have been cowardly enough to sacrifice Madeleine," she said, "but I will not ruin Prosper."
Raoul had an argument in reserve which he knew would make Mme. Fauvel submit to his will.
"Now, really," he said with a cynical laugh, "do you pretend that you do not know Prosper and I arranged this little affair together, and that he is to have half the booty?"
"Impossible! I never will believe such a thing of Prosper!"
"Why, how do you suppose I discovered the secret word? Who do you suppose disobeyed orders, and left the money in the safe?"
"Prosper is honest."
"Of course he is, and so am I too. The only thing is, that we both need money."
"You are telling a falsehood, Raoul!"
"Upon my soul, I am not. Madeleine rejected Prosper, and the poor fellow has to console himself for her cruelty; and these sorts of consolations are expensive, my good mother."
He took up the candle, and gently but firmly led Mme. Fauvel toward the staircase.
She mechanically suffered herself to be led along, more bewildered by what she had just heard than she was at the opening of the safe-door.
"What!" she gasped, "can Prosper be a thief?"
She began to think herself the victim of a terrible nightmare, and that, when she waked, her mind would be relieved of this intolerable torture. She helplessly clung to Raoul's arm as he helped her up the narrow little staircase.
"You must put the key back in the secretary," said Raoul, as soon as they were in the chamber again.
But she did not seem to hear him; so he went and replaced the safe-key in the place from which he had seen her take it.
He then led, or rather carried, Mme. Fauvel into the little sitting-room, and placed her in an easy-chair.
The set, expressionless look of the wretched woman's eyes, and her dazed manner, frightened Raoul, who thought that she had lost her mind, that her reason had finally given way beneath this last terrible shock.
"Come, cheer up, my dear mother," he said in coaxing tones as he rubbed her icy hands; "you have saved my life, and rendered an immense service to Prosper. Don't be alarmed; everything will come out right in the end. Prosper will be accused, perhaps arrested; he expects that, and is prepared for it; he will deny his culpability; and, as there is no proof against him, he will be set at liberty immediately."
But these falsehoods were wasted on Mme. Fauvel, who was incapable of understanding anything said to her.
"Raoul," she moaned in a broken-hearted tone, "Raoul, my son, you have killed me."
Her gentle voice, kind even in its despairing accents, touched the very bottom of Raoul's perverted heart, and once more his soul was wrung by remorse; so that he felt inclined to put back the stolen money, and comfort the despairing woman whose life and reason he was destroying. The thought of Clameran restrained him.
Finding his efforts to restore Mme. Fauvel fruitless, that, in spite of all his affectionate regrets and promises, she still sat silent, motionless, and death-like; and fearing that M. Fauvel or Madeleine might enter at any moment, and demand an explanation, he hastily pressed a kiss upon his mother's brow, and hurried from the house.
At the restaurant, in the room where they had dined, Clameran, tortured by anxiety, awaited his accomplice.
He wondered if at the last moment, when he was not near to sustain him, Raoul would prove a coward, and retreat; if any unforeseen trifle had prevented his finding the key; if any visitors were there; and, if so, would they depart before M. Fauvel's return from the dinner-party?
He had worked himself into such a state of excitement, that, when Raoul returned, he flew to him with ashy face and trembling all over, and could scarcely gasp out:
"The deed is done, uncle, thanks to you; and I am now the most miserable, abject villain on the face of the earth."
He unbuttoned his vest, and, pulling out the four bundles of bank-notes, angrily dashed them upon the table, saying, in a tone of scorn and disgust:
"Now I hope you are satisfied. This is the price of the happiness, honor, and perhaps the life of three people."
Clameran paid no attention to these angry words. With feverish eagerness he seized the notes, and rattled them in his hand as if to convince himself of the reality of success.
"Now Madeleine is mine!" he cried excitedly.
Raoul looked at Clameran in silent disgust. This exhibition of joy was a shocking contrast to the scene in which he had just been an actor. He was humiliated at being the tool of such a heartless scoundrel as he now knew Clameran to be.
Louis misinterpreted this silence, and said gayly:
"Did you have much difficulty?"
"I forbid you ever to allude to this evening's work," cried Raoul fiercely. "Do you hear me? I wish to forget it."
Clameran shrugged his shoulders at this outburst of anger, and said in a bantering tone:
"Just as you please, my handsome nephew: I rather think you will want to remember it though, when I offer you these three hundred and fifty thousand francs. You will not, I am sure, refuse to accept them as a slight souvenir. Take them: they are yours."
This generosity seemed neither to surprise nor satisfy Raoul.
"According to our agreement," he said sullenly, "I was to have more than this."
"Of course: this is only part of your share."
"And when am I to have the rest, if you please?"
"The day I marry Madeleine, and not before, my boy. You are too valuable an assistant to lose at present; and you know that, though I don't mistrust you, I am not altogether sure of your sincere affection for me."
Raoul reflected that to commit a crime, and not profit by it, would be the height of absurdity. He had come with the intention of breaking off all connection with Clameran; but he now determined that he would not abandon his accomplice until he had been well paid for his services.
"Very well," he said, "I accept this on account; but remember, I will never do another piece of work like this to-night. You can do what you please; I shall flatly refuse."
Clameran burst into a loud laugh, and said:
"That is sensible: now that you are rich, you can afford to be honest. Set your conscience at rest, for I promise you I will require nothing more of you save a few trifling services. You can retire behind the scenes now, while I appear upon the stage; my role begins."
For more than an hour after Raoul's departure, Mme. Fauvel remained in a state of stupor bordering upon unconsciousness.
Gradually, however, she recovered her senses sufficiently to comprehend the horrors of her present situation; and, with the faculty of thought, that of suffering returned.
The dreadful scene in which she had taken part was still before her affrighted vision; all the attending circumstances, unnoticed at the time, now struck her forcibly.
She saw that she had been the dupe of a shameful conspiracy: that Raoul had tortured her with cold-blooded cruelty, had taken advantage of her tenderness, and had speculated upon her fright.
But had Prosper anything to do with the robbery? This Mme. Fauvel had no way of finding out. Ah, Raoul knew how the blow would strike when he accused Prosper. He knew that Mme. Fauvel would end by believing in the cashier's complicity.
The unhappy woman sat and thought over every possible way in which Raoul could find out the secret word without Prosper's knowledge. She rejected with horror the idea that the cashier was the instigator of the crime; but, in spite of herself, it constantly recurred. And finally she felt convinced that what Raoul said must be true; for who but Prosper could have betrayed the word? And who but Prosper could have left so large an amount of money in the safe, which, by order of the banker, was to be always left empty at night?
Knowing that Prosper was leading a life of extravagance and dissipation, she thought it very likely that he had, from sheer desperation, resorted to this bold step to pay his debts; her blind affection, moreover, made her anxious to attribute the crime to anyone, rather than to her darling son.
She had heard that Prosper was supporting one of those worthless creatures whose extravagance impoverishes men, and whose evil influence perverts their natures. When a young man is thus degraded, will he stop at any sin or crime? Alas! Mme. Fauvel knew, from her own sad experience, to what depths even one fault can lead. Although she believed Prosper guilty, she did not blame him, but considered herself responsible for his sins.
Had she not herself banished the poor young man from the fireside which he had begun to regard as his own? Had she not destroyed his hopes of happiness, by crushing his pure love for a noble girl, whom he looked upon as his future wife, and thus driven him into a life of dissipation and sin?
She was undecided whether to confide in Madeleine, or bury the secret in her own breast.
Fatally inspired, she decided to keep silent.
When Madeleine returned home at eleven o'clock, Mme. Fauvel not only was silent as to what had occurred, but even succeeded in so concealing all traces of her agitation, that she escaped any questions from her niece.
Her calmness never left her when M. Fauvel and Lucien returned, although she was in terror lest her husband should go down to the cash-room to see that everything was safely locked up. It was not his habit to open the money-safe at night, but he sometimes did.
As fate would have it, the banker, as soon as he entered the room, began to speak of Prosper, saying how distressing it was that so interesting a young man should be thus throwing himself away, and wondering what could have happened to make him suddenly cease his visits at the house, and resort to bad company.
If M. Fauvel had looked at the faces of his wife and niece while he harshly blamed the cashier, he would have been puzzled at their strange expressions.
All night long Mme. Fauvel suffered the most intolerable agony. She counted each stroke of the town-clock, as the hours dragged on.
"In six hours," she said to herself, "in five hours—in four hours—in three hours—in one hour—all will be discovered; and then what will happen? Heaven help me!"
At sunrise she heard the servants moving about the house. Then the office-shutters opened; then, later, she heard the clerks going into the bank.
She attempted to get up, but felt so ill and weak that she sank back on her pillow; and lying there, trembling like a leaf, bathed in cold perspiration, she awaited the discovery of the robbery.
She was leaning over the side of the bed, straining her ear to catch a sound from the cash-room, when Madeleine, who had just left her, rushed into the room.
The white face and wild eyes of the poor girl told Mme. Fauvel that the crime was discovered.
"Do you know what has happened, aunt?" cried Madeleine, in a shrill, horrified tone. "Prosper is accused of robbery, and the police have come to take him to prison!"
A groan was Mme. Fauvel's only answer.
"Raoul or the marquis is at the bottom of this," continued Madeleine excitedly.
"How can they be concerned in it, my child?"
"I can't tell yet; but I only know that Prosper is innocent. I have just seen him, spoken to him. He would never have looked me in the face had he been guilty."
Mme. Fauvel opened her lips to confess all: fear kept her silent.
"What can these wretches want?" said Madeleine: "what new sacrifice do they demand? Dishonor Prosper! Good heavens! Why did they not kill him at once? He would rather be dead than disgraced!"
Here the entrance of M. Fauvel interrupted Madeleine. The banker was so angry that he could scarcely speak.
"The worthless scoundrel!" he cried; "to think of his daring to accuse me! To insinuate that I robbed my own safe! And that Marquis de Clameran must needs doubt my good faith in keeping my engagement to pay his money!"
Then, without noticing the effect of his story upon the two women, he proceeded to relate all that had occurred downstairs.
"I was afraid this extravagance would lead to something terrible," he said in conclusion; "you know I told you last night that Prosper was growing worse in his conduct, and that he would get into trouble."
Throughout the day Madeleine's devotion to her aunt was severely tried.
The generous girl saw disgrace heaped upon the man she loved. She had perfect faith in his innocence; she felt sure she knew who had laid the trap to ruin him; and yet she could not say a word in his defence.
Fearing that Madeleine would suspect her of complicity in the theft, if she remained in bed and betrayed so much agitation, Mme. Fauvel arose and dressed for breakfast.
It was a dreary meal. No one tasted a morsel. The servants moved about on their tiptoes, as silently as if a death had occurred in the family.
About two o'clock, a servant came to M. Fauvel's study, and said that the Marquis de Clameran desired to see him.
"What!" cried the banker; "does he dare——"
Then, after a moment's reflection, he added:
"Ask him to walk up."
The very name of Clameran had sufficed to arouse all the slumbering wrath of M. Fauvel. The victim of a robbery, finding his safe empty at the moment that he was called upon to make a heavy payment, he had been constrained to conceal his anger and resentment; but now he determined to have his revenge upon his insolent visitor.
But the marquis declined to come upstairs. The messenger returned with the answer that the gentleman had a particular reason for seeing M. Fauvel in the office below, where the clerks were.
"What does this fresh impertinence mean?" cried the banker, as he angrily jumped up and hastened downstairs.
M. de Clameran was standing in the middle of the room adjoining the cash-room; M. Fauvel walked up to him, and said bluntly:
"What do you want now, monsieur? You have been paid your money, and I have your receipt."
To the surprise of all the clerks, and the banker himself, the marquis seemed not in the least offended at this rude greeting, but answered in a deferential but not at all humble manner:
"You are hard upon me, monsieur; but I deserve it, and that is why I am here. A gentleman always acknowledges when he is in the wrong: in this instance I am the offender; and I flatter myself that my past will permit me to say so without being accused of cowardice or lack of self-respect. I insisted upon seeing you here instead of in your study, because, having been rude to you in the presence of your clerks, I wished them to hear me apologize for my behavior of this morning."
Clameran's speech was so different from his usual overbearing, haughty conduct, that surprise almost stupefied the banker, and he could only answer:
"I must say that I was hurt by your doubts, insinuations, suspicions of my honor——"
"This morning," continued the marquis, "I was irritated, and thoughtlessly gave way to my temper. Although I am gray-headed, my disposition is as excitable as that of a fiery young man of twenty years; and I hope you will forget words uttered in a moment of excitement, and now deeply regretted."
M. Fauvel, being a kind-hearted though quick-tempered man, could appreciate Clameran's feelings; and, knowing that his own high reputation for scrupulous honesty could not be affected by any hasty or abusive language uttered by a creditor, at once calmed down before so frank an apology; and, holding out his hand to Clameran, said:
"Let us forget what happened, monsieur."
They conversed in a friendly manner for some minutes; and, after Clameran had explained why he had such pressing need of the money at that particular hour of the morning, turned to leave, saying that he would do himself the honor of calling upon Mme. Fauvel during the day.
"That is, if a visit from me would not be considered intrusive," he said with a shade of hesitation. "Perhaps, after the trouble of this morning, she does not wish to be disturbed."
"Oh, no!" said the banker; "come, by all means; I think a visit from you would cheer her mind. I shall be from home all day, trying to trace this unfortunate affair."
Mme. Fauvel was in the same room where Raoul had threatened to kill himself the night previous; she looked very pale and ill as she lay on a sofa. Madeleine was bathing her forehead.
When M. de Clameran was announced, they both started up as if a phantom had appeared before them.
Although Louis had been gay and smiling when he parted from M. Fauvel downstairs, he now wore a melancholy aspect, as he gravely bowed, and refused to seat himself in the chair which Mme. Fauvel motioned him to take.
"You will excuse me, ladies, for intruding at this time of your affliction; but I have a duty to fulfil."
The two women were silent; they seemed to be waiting for him to explain. He added in an undertone:
"I know all."
By an imploring gesture, Mme. Fauvel tried to stop him. She saw that he was about to reveal her secret to Madeleine.
But Louis would not see this gesture; he turned his whole attention to Madeleine, who haughtily said:
"Explain yourself, monsieur."
"Only one hour ago," he replied, "I discovered that Raoul last night forced from his mother the key of the money-safe, and stole three hundred and fifty thousand francs."
Madeleine crimsoned with shame and indignation; she leaned over the sofa, and seizing her aunt's wrist shook it violently, and in a hollow voice cried:
"It is false, is it not, aunt? speak!"
"Alas! alas!" groaned Mme. Fauvel. "What have I done?"
"You have allowed Prosper to be accused," cried Madeleine; "you have suffered him to be arrested, and disgraced for life."
"Forgive me," sighed Mme. Fauvel. "He was about to kill himself; I was so frightened! Then you know—Prosper was to share the money: he gave Raoul the secret word—"
"Good Heavens! Aunt, how could you believe such a falsehood as that?"
Clameran interrupted them.
"Unfortunately, what your aunt says of M. Bertomy is the truth," he said in a sad tone.
"Your proofs, monsieur; where are your proofs?"
"Raoul is false."
"That is only too true: but how did he find out the word, if M. Bertomy did not reveal it? And who left the money in the safe but M. Bertomy?"
These arguments had no effect upon Madeleine.
"And now tell me," she said scornfully, "what became of the money?"
There was no mistaking the significance of these words: they meant:
"You are the instigator of the robbery, and of course you have taken possession of the money."
This harsh accusation from a girl whom he so passionately loved, when, grasping bandit as he was, he gave up for her sake all the money gained by his crime, so cruelly hurt Clameran that he turned livid. But his mortification and anger did not prevent him from pursuing the part he had prepared and studied.
"A day will come, mademoiselle," he said, "when you will deeply regret having treated me so cruelly. I understand your insinuation; you need not attempt to deny it."
"I have no idea of denying anything, monsieur."
"Madeleine!" remonstrated Mme. Fauvel, who trembled at the rising anger of the man who held her fate in his hands, "Madeleine, be careful!"
"Mademoiselle is pitiless," said Clameran sadly; "she cruelly punishes an honorable man whose only fault is having obeyed his brother's dying injunctions. And I am here now, because I believe in the joint responsibility of all the members of a family."
Here he slowly drew from his pocket several bundles of bank-notes, and laid them on the mantel-piece.
"Raoul stole three hundred and fifty thousand francs," he said: "I return the same amount. It is more than half my fortune. Willingly would I give the rest to insure this being the last crime committed by him."
Too inexperienced to penetrate this bold, and yet simple plan of Clameran's, Madeleine was dumb with astonishment; all her calculations were upset.
Mme. Fauvel, on the contrary, accepted this restitution as salvation sent from heaven.
"Oh, thanks, monsieur, thanks!" she cried, gratefully clasping Clameran's hand in hers; "you are goodness itself!"
Louis's eye lit up with pleasure. But he rejoiced too soon. A minute's reflection brought back all of Madeleine's distrust. She thought this magnanimity and generosity unnatural in a man whom she considered incapable of a noble sentiment, and at once concluded that it must conceal some snare beneath.
"What are we to do with the money?" she demanded.
"Restore it to M. Fauvel, mademoiselle."
"We restore it, monsieur, and how? Restoring the money is denouncing Raoul, and ruining my aunt. Take back your money, monsieur. We will not touch it."
Clameran was too shrewd to insist; he took up the money, and prepared to leave.
"I comprehend your refusal, mademoiselle, and must find another way of accomplishing my wish. But, before retiring, let me say that your injustice pains me deeply. After the promise you made to me, I had reason to hope for a kinder welcome."
"I will keep my promise, monsieur; but not until you have furnished security."
"Security! And for what? Pray, explain yourself."
"Something to protect my aunt against the molestations of Raoul after my—marriage. What is to prevent his coming to extort money from his mother after he has squandered my dowry? A man who spends a hundred thousand francs in four months will soon run through my little fortune. We are making a bargain; I give you my hand in exchange for the honor and life of my aunt; and of course you must give me some guarantee to secure the performance of your promise."
"Oh! I will give you ample securities," cried Clameran, "such as will quiet all your suspicious doubts of my good faith. Alas! you will not believe in my devotion; what shall I do to convince you of its sincerity? Shall I try to save M. Bertomy?"
"Thanks for the offer, monsieur," replied Madeleine disdainfully; "if Prosper is guilty, let him be punished by the law; if he is innocent, God will protect him."
Here Madeleine stood up, to signify that the interview was over.
Clameran bowed, and left the room.
"What pride! What determination! The idea of her demanding securities of me!" he said to himself as he slowly walked away. "But the proud girl shall be humbled yet. She is so beautiful! and, if I did not so madly love her, I would kill her on the spot!"
Never had Clameran been so irritated.
Madeleine's quiet determination and forethought had unexpectedly thrown him off his well-laid track; not anticipating any such self assertion on her part, he was disconcerted, and at a loss how to proceed.
He knew that it would be useless to attempt deceiving a girl of Madeleine's character a second time; he saw that she had penetrated his motives sufficiently to put her on the defensive, and prepare her for any new surprise. Moreover, she would prevent Mme. Fauvel from being frightened and forced into submission any longer.
With mortification and rage, Louis saw that after all his plotting, when success was in his reach, when his hopes were almost crowned, he had been foiled and scornfully set at defiance by a girl: the whole thing would have to be gone over again.
Although Madeleine had resigned herself to sacrifice, it was still evident that she had no idea of doing so blindly, and would not hazard her aunt's and her own happiness upon the uncertainty of a verbal promise.
Clameran racked his brain to furnish guarantees; how could he convince her that Raoul had no idea or desire of annoying Mme. Fauvel in the future?
He could not tell Madeleine that her dowry was to be the bribe received by Raoul for his future good behavior and past crimes.
The knowledge of all the circumstances of this shameful criminal intrigue would have reassured her upon her aunt's peace of mind; but then it would never do to inform her of these details, certainly not before the marriage.
What securities could he give? Not one could he think of.
But Clameran was not one of those slow-minded men who take weeks to consider a difficulty. When he could not untie a knot, he would cut it.
Raoul was a stumbling-block to his wishes, and he swore to rid himself of his troublesome accomplice as soon as possible.
Although it was not an easy matter to dispose of so cunning a knave, Clameran felt no hesitation in undertaking to accomplish his purpose. He was incited by one of those passions which age renders terrible.
The more certain he was of Madeleine's contempt and dislike, the more determined he was to marry her. His love seemed to be a sort of insane desire to possess and call his own the one being whom he recognized as his superior in every way.
But he had sense enough to see that he might ruin his prospects by undue haste, and that the safest course would be to await the result of the robbery and its effect upon Prosper.
He waited in anxious expectation of a summons from Mme. Fauvel. At last he concluded that Madeleine was waiting for him to make the next move in the direction of yielding.
He was right; Madeleine knew that after the last bold step the accomplices would remain quiet for a while; she knew resistance could have no worse results than would cowardly submission; and therefore assumed the entire responsibility of managing the affair so as to keep at bay both Raoul and Clameran.
She knew that Mme. Fauvel would be anxious to accept any terms of peace, but she determined to use all her influence to prevent her doing this, and to force upon her the necessity of preserving a dignified silence.
This accounted for the silence of the two women, who were quietly waiting for their adversaries to renew hostilities.
They even succeeded in concealing their anxiety beneath assumed indifference; never asking any questions about the robbery, or those in any way connected with it.
M. Fauvel brought them an account of Prosper's examination, the many charges brought against him, his obstinate denial of having stolen the money; and finally how, after great perplexity and close study of the case by the judge of instruction, the cashier had been discharged for want of sufficient proof against him.
Since Clameran's offer to restore the notes, Mme. Fauvel had not doubted Prosper's guilt. She said nothing, but inwardly accused him of having seduced her son from the path of virtue, and enticed him into crime—her son whom she would never cease to love, no matter how great his faults.
Madeleine had perfect faith in Prosper's innocence.
She was so confident of his being restored to liberty that she ventured to ask her uncle, under pretext of some charitable object, to give her ten thousand francs, which she sent to the unfortunate victim of circumstantial evidence; who, from what she had heard of his poverty, must be in need of assistance.
In the letter—cut from her prayer-book to avoid detection by writing—accompanying the money, she advised Prosper to leave France, because she knew that it would be impossible for a man of his proud nature to remain on the scene of his disgrace; the greater his innocence, the more intolerable his suffering.
Besides, Madeleine, at that time feeling that she would be obliged to marry Clameran, was anxious to have the man she loved far, far away from her.
On the day that this anonymous present was sent, in opposition to the wishes of Mme. Fauvel, the two poor women were entangled fearfully in pecuniary difficulties.
The tradesmen whose money had been squandered by Raoul refused to give credit any longer, and insisted upon their bills being paid at once; saying they could not understand how a man of M. Fauvel's wealth and position could keep them waiting for such insignificant sums.
The butcher, grocer, and wine-merchant had bills of one, two, and five hundred francs only; but, not having even that small amount, Mme. Fauvel had difficulty in prevailing upon them to receive a part on account, and wait a little longer for the residue.
Some of the store-keepers threatened to ask the banker for their money, if everything was not settled before the end of the week.
Alas! Mme. Fauvel's indebtedness amounted to fifteen thousand francs.
Madeleine and her aunt had declined all invitations during the winter, to avoid purchasing evening dresses; having always been remarkable for their superb toilets, seldom appearing in the same ball-dress twice, they dared not give rise to comment by wearing their old dresses, and knowing that M. Fauvel would be the first to ask the cause of this sudden change, as he liked to see them always the best-dressed women in the room.
But at last they were obliged to appear in public. M. Fauvel's most intimate friends, the Messrs. Jandidier, were about to give a splendid ball, and, as fate would have it, a fancy ball, which would require the purchasing of costumes.
Where would the money come from?
They had been owing a large bill to their dressmaker for over a year. Would she consent to furnish them dresses on credit? They were ashamed to ask her.
Madeleine's new maid, Palmyre Chocareille, extricated them from this difficulty.
This girl, who seemed to have suffered all the minor ills of life—which, after all, are the hardest to bear—seemed to have divined her mistress's anxiety.
At any rate, she voluntarily informed Madeleine that a friend of hers, a first-class dressmaker, had just set up for herself, and would be glad to furnish materials and make the dresses on credit, for the sake of obtaining the patronage of Mme. Fauvel and her niece, which would at once bring her plenty of fashionable customers.
But, after this dilemma was settled, a still greater one presented itself.
Mme. Fauvel and her niece could not appear at a ball without jewelry; and every jewel they owned had been taken by Raoul, and pawned.
After thinking the matter over, Madeleine decided to ask Raoul to take some of the stolen money, and redeem the last set of jewels he had forced from his mother. She informed her aunt of her intention, and said, in a tone that admitted of no contradiction:
"Appoint an interview with Raoul: he will not dare to refuse you; and I will go in your stead."
The next day, the courageous girl took a cab, and, regardless of the inclement weather, went to Vesinet.
She would have been filled with consternation had she known that M. Verduret and Prosper were following close behind, and witnessed her interview from the top of a ladder.
Her bold step was fruitless. Raoul swore that he had divided with Prosper; that his own half of the money was spent, and that he had not a napoleon wherewith to redeem anything.
He even refused to give up the pledges; and Madeleine had to resort to threats of exposure, before she could induce him to surrender the tickets of four or five trifling articles that were indispensable to their toilet.
Clameran had ordered him to refuse positively to give up a single ticket, because he hoped that in their distress they would call upon him for relief.
The violent altercation witnessed by Clameran's new valet, Joseph Dubois, had been caused by the exaction of this promise.
The accomplices were at that time on very bad terms. Clameran was seeking a safe means of getting rid of Raoul; and the young scamp, having a presentiment of his uncle's intentions, was determined to outwit him.
Nothing but the certainty of impending danger could reconcile them. The danger was revealed to them both at the Jandidier ball.
Who was the mysterious mountebank that indulged in such transparent allusions to Mme. Fauvel's private troubles, and then said, with threatening significance to Louis: "I was the best friend of your brother Gaston?"
Who he was, where he came from, they could not imagine; but they clearly saw that he was a dangerous enemy, and forthwith attempted to assassinate him upon his leaving the ball.
Having been followed and watched by their would-be victim, they became alarmed—especially when he suddenly disappeared—and wisely decided that the safest thing they then could do was to return quietly to their hotel.
"We cannot be too guarded in our conduct," whispered Clameran; "we must discover who he is before taking any further steps in this matter."
Once more, Raoul tried to induce him to give up his project of marrying Madeleine.
"Never!" he exclaimed fiercely, "I will marry her or perish in the attempt!"
He thought that, now they were warned, the danger of being caught was lessened; when on his guard, few people could entrap so experienced and skilful a rogue.
Little did Clameran know that a man who was a hundred-fold more skilful than he was closely pursuing him.
Such are the facts that, with an almost incredible talent for investigation, had been collected and prepared by the stout man with the jovial face who had taken Prosper under his protection, M. Verduret.
Reaching Paris at nine o'clock in the evening, not by the Lyons road as he had said, but by the Orleans train, M. Verduret hurried up to the Archangel, where he found the cashier impatiently expecting him.
"You are about to hear some rich developments," he said to Prosper, "and see how far back into the past one has to seek for the primary cause of a crime. All things are linked together and dependent upon each other in this world of ours. If Gaston de Clameran had not entered a little cafe at Tarascon to play a game of billiards twenty years ago, your money-safe would not have been robbed three weeks ago.
"Valentine de la Verberie is punished in 1866 for the murder committed for her sake in 1840. Nothing is neglected or forgotten, when stern Retribution asserts her sway. Listen."
And he forthwith related all that he had discovered, referring, as he went along, to a voluminous manuscript which he had prepared, with many notes and authenticated proofs attached.
During the last week M. Verduret had not had twenty-four hours' rest, but he bore no traces of fatigue. His iron muscles braved any amount of labor, and his elastic nature was too well tempered to give way beneath such pressure.
While any other man would have sunk exhausted in a chair, he stood up and described, with the enthusiasm and captivating animation peculiar to him, the minutest details and intricacies of the plot that he had devoted his whole energy to unravelling; personating every character he brought upon the scene to take part in the strange drama, so that his listener was bewildered and dazzled by his brilliant acting.
As Prosper listened to this narrative of events happening twenty years back, the secret conversations as minutely related as if overheard the moment they took place, it sounded more like a romance than a statement of plain facts.
All these ingenious explanations might be logical, but what foundation did they possess? Might they not be the dreams of an excited imagination?
M. Verduret did not finish his report until four o'clock in the morning; then he cried, with an accent of triumph:
"And now they are on their guard, and sharp, wary rascals too: but they won't escape me; I have cornered them beautifully. Before a week is over, Prosper, you will be publicly exonerated, and will come out of this scrape with flying colors. I have promised your father you shall."
"Impossible!" said Prosper in a dazed way, "it cannot be!"
"All this you have just told me."
M. Verduret opened wide his eyes, as if he could not understand anyone having the audacity to doubt the accuracy of his report.
"Impossible, indeed!" he cried. "What! have you not sense enough to see the plain truth written all over every fact, and attested by the best authority? Your thick-headedness exasperates me to the last degree."