"But how can such rascalities take place in Paris, in our very midst, without——"
"Parbleu!" interrupted the fat man, "you are young, my friend! Are you innocent enough to suppose that crimes, forty times worse than this, don't occur every day? You think the horrors of the police-court are the only ones. Pooh! You only read in the Gazette des Tribunaux of the cruel melodramas of life, where the actors are as cowardly as the knife, and as treacherous as the poison they use. It is at the family fireside, often under shelter of the law itself, that the real tragedies of life are acted; in modern crimes the traitors wear gloves, and cloak themselves with public position; the victims die, smiling to the last, without revealing the torture they have endured to the end. Why, what I have just related to you is an everyday occurrence; and you profess astonishment."
"I can't help wondering how you discovered all this tissue of crime."
"Ah, that is the point!" said the fat man with a self-satisfied smile. "When I undertake a task, I devote my whole attention to it. Now, make a note of this: When a man of ordinary intelligence concentrates his thoughts and energies upon the attainment of an object, he is certain to obtain ultimate success. Besides that, I have my own method of working up a case."
"Still I don't see what grounds you had to go upon."
"To be sure, one needs some light to guide one in a dark affair like this. But the fire in Clameran's eye at the mention of Gaston's name ignited my lantern. From that moment I walked straight to the solution of the mystery, as I would walk to a beacon-light on a dark night."
The eager, questioning look of Prosper showed that he would like to know the secret of his protector's wonderful penetration, and at the same time be more thoroughly convinced that what he had heard was all true—that his innocence would be more clearly proved.
"Now confess," cried M. Verduret, "you would give anything in the world to find out how I discovered the truth?"
"I certainly would, for it is the darkest of mysteries, marvellous!"
M. Verduret enjoyed Prosper's bewilderment. To be sure, he was neither a good judge nor a distinguished amateur; but he was an astonished admirer, and sincere admiration is always flattering, no matter whence it comes.
"Well," he replied, "I will explain my system. There is nothing marvellous about it as you will soon see. We worked together to find the solution of the problem, so you know my reasons for suspecting Clameran as the prime mover in the robbery. As soon as I had acquired this certainty, my task was easy. You want to know what I did? I placed trustworthy people to watch the parties in whom I was most interested. Joseph Dubois took charge of Clameran, and Nina Gypsy never lost sight of Mme. Fauvel and her niece."
"I cannot comprehend how Nina ever consented to this service."
"That is my secret," replied M. Verduret. "Having the assistance of good eyes and quick ears on the spot, I went to Beaucaire to inquire into the past, so as to link it with what I knew of the present. The next day I was at Clameran; and the first step I took was to find the son of St. Jean, the old valet. An honest man he was, too; open and simple as nature herself; and he made a good bargain in selling me his madder."
"Madder?" said Prosper with a puzzled look; "what did you——"
"Of course I wanted to buy his madder. Of course I did not appear to him as I do to you now. I was a countryman wanting to buy madder; he had madder for sale; so we began to bargain about the price. The debate lasted almost all day, during which time we drank a dozen bottles of wine. About supper-time, St. Jean was as drunk as a bunghole, and I had purchased nine hundred francs' worth of madder which your father will sell to-morrow."
Prosper's astonished countenance made M. Verduret laugh heartily.
"I risked nine hundred francs," he continued, "but thread by thread I gathered the whole history of the Clamerans, Gaston's love-affair, his flight, and the stumbling of the horse ridden by Louis. I found also that about a year ago Louis returned, sold the chateau to a man named Fougeroux, whose wife, Mihonne, had a secret interview with Louis the day of the purchase. I went to see Mihonne. Poor woman! her rascally husband has pounded all the sense out of her; she is almost idiotic. I told her I came from the Clameran family, and she at once related to me everything she knew."
The apparent simplicity of this mode of investigation confounded Prosper. He wondered it had not occurred to him before.
"From that time," continued M. Verduret, "the skein began to disentangle; I held the principal thread. I now set about finding out what had become of Gaston. Lafourcade, who is a friend of your father, informed me that he had bought a foundery, and settled in Oloron, where he soon after suddenly died. Thirty-six hours later I was at Oloron."
"You are certainly indefatigable!" said Prosper.
"No, but I always strike while the iron is hot. At Oloron I met Manuel, who had gone there to make a little visit before returning to Spain. From him I obtained a complete history of Gaston's life, and all the particulars of his death. Manuel also told me of Louis's visit; and the inn-keeper described a young workman who was there at the same time, whom I at once recognized as Raoul."
"But how did you know of all the conversations between the villains?" said Prosper. "You seem to be aware of their secret thoughts."
"You evidently think I have been drawing upon my imagination. You will soon see to the contrary," said Verduret good-humoredly. "While I was at work down there, my aids did not sit with their hands tied together. Mutually distrustful, Clameran and Raoul preserved all the letters received from each other. Joseph Dubois copied them, or the important portions of them, and forwarded them to me. Nina spent her time listening at all doors under her supervision, and sent me a faithful report. Finally, I have at the Fauvels another means of investigation which I will reveal to you later."
"I understand it all now," murmured Prosper.
"And what have you been doing during my absence, my young friend?" asked M. Verduret; "have you heard any news?"
At this question Prosper turned crimson. But he knew that it would never do to keep silent about his imprudent step.
"Alas!" he stammered, "I read in a newspaper that Clameran was about to marry Madeleine; and I acted like a fool."
"What did you do?" inquired Verduret anxiously.
"I wrote an anonymous letter to M. Fauvel, informing him that his wife was in love with Raoul—"
M. Verduret here brought his clinched fist down upon the little table near by, with such violence that the thin plank was shivered. His cheerful face in an instant clouded over.
"What folly!" he exclaimed, "how could you go and ruin everything?"
He arose from his seat, and strode up and down the room, oblivious of the lodgers below, whose windows shook with every angry stamp of his foot.
"What made you act so like a child, an idiot, a fool?" he said indignantly to Prosper.
"Here you are, drowning; an honest man springs into the water to save you, and just as he approaches the shore you entangle his feet to prevent him from swimming! What was my last order to you when I left here?"
"To keep quiet, and not go out of the hotel."
The consciousness of having done a foolish thing made Prosper appear like a frightened school-boy, accused by his teacher of playing truant.
"It was night, monsieur," he hesitatingly said, "and, having a violent headache, I took a walk along the quay thinking there was no risk in my entering a cafe; there I picked up a paper, and read the dreadful announcement."
"Did you not promise to trust everything to me?"
"You were absent, monsieur; and you yourself might have been surprised by an unexpected—"
"Only fools are ever surprised into committing a piece of folly," cried M. Verduret impatiently. "To write an anonymous letter! Do you know to what you expose me? Breaking a sacred promise made to one of the few persons whom I highly esteem among my fellow-beings. I shall be looked upon as a liar, a cheat—I who—"
He abruptly stopped, as if afraid to trust himself to speak further; after calming down a little, he turned to Prosper, and said:
"The best thing we can do is to try and repair the harm you have done. When and where did you post this idiotic letter?"
"Yesterday evening, at the Rue du Cardinal Lemoine. It hardly reached the bottom of the box before I regretted having written it."
"You had better have regretted it before dropping it in. What time was it?"
"About ten o'clock."
"Then your sweet little letter must have reached M. Fauvel with his early mail; probably he was alone in his study when he read it."
"I know he was: he never goes down to the bank until he has opened his letters."
"Can you recall the exact terms of your letter? Stop and think, for it is very important that I should know."
"Oh, it is unnecessary for me to reflect. I remember the letter as if I had just written it."
And almost verbatim he repeated what he had written.
After attentively listening, M. Verduret sat with a perplexed frown upon his face, as if trying to discover some means of repairing the harm done.
"That is an awkward letter," he finally said, "to come from a person who does not deal in such things. It leaves everything to be understood without specifying anything; it is vague, jeering, insidious. Repeat it to me."
Prosper obeyed, and his second version did not vary from the first in a single word.
"Nothing could be more alarming than that allusion to the cashier," said the fat man, repeating the words after Prosper. "The question, 'Was it also he who stole Mme. Fauvel's diamonds?' is simply fearful. What could be more exasperating than the sarcastic advice, 'In your place, I would not have any public scandal, but would watch my wife?' The effect of your letter must have been terrible," he added thoughtfully as he stood with folded arms looking at poor Prosper. "M. Fauvel is quick-tempered, is he not?"
"He has a violent temper, when aroused."
"Then the mischief is not irreparable."
"What! do you suppose—"
"I think that an impulsive man is afraid of himself, and seldom carries out his first angry intentions. That is our chance of salvation. If, upon the receipt of your bomb-shell, M. Fauvel, unable to restrain himself, rushed into his wife's room, and cried, 'Where are your diamonds?' Mme. Fauvel will confess all; and then good-by to our hopes."
"Why would this be disastrous?"
"Because, the moment Mme. Fauvel opens her lips to her husband, our birds will take flight."
Prosper had never thought of this eventuality.
"Then, again," continued M. Verduret, "it would deeply distress another person."
"Anyone whom I know?"
"Yes, my friend, and very well too. I should certainly be chagrined to the last degree, if these two rascals escape, without having obtained complete satisfaction from them."
"It seems to me that you know how to take care of yourself, and can do anything you please."
M. Verduret shrugged his shoulders, and said:
"Did you not perceive the gaps in my narrative?"
"I did not."
"That is because you don't know how to listen. In the first place, did Louis de Clameran poison his brother, or not?"
"Yes; I am sure of it, from what you tell me."
"There you are! You are much more certain, young man, than I am. Your opinion is mine; but what proof have we? None. I skilfully questioned Dr. C——. He has not the shadow of suspicion; and Dr. C—— is no quack; he is a cultivated, observing man of high standing. What poisons produce the effects described? I know of none; and yet I have studied up on poisons from Pomerania digitalis to Sauvresy aconite."
"The death took place so opportunely——"
"That anybody would be convinced of foul play. That is true; but chance is sometimes a wonderful accomplice in crime. In the second place, I know nothing of Raoul's antecedents."
"Is information on that point necessary?"
"Indispensable, my friend; but we will soon know something. I have sent off one of my men—excuse me, I mean one of my friends—who is very expert and adroit, M. Palot; and he writes that he is on the track. I am interested in the history of this sentimental, sceptical young rascal. I have an idea that he must have been a brave, honest sort of youth before Clameran ruined him."
Prosper was no longer listening.
M. Verduret's words had inspired him with confidence. Already he saw the guilty men arraigned before the bar of justice; and enjoyed, in anticipation, this assize-court drama, where he would be publicly exonerated and restored to position.
Then he would seek Madeleine; for now he understood her strange conduct at the dressmaker's, and knew that she had never ceased to love him.
This certainty of future happiness restored all the self-possession that had deserted him the day he found the safe robbed. For the first time he was astonished at the peculiarity of his situation.
Prosper had at first only been surprised at the protection of M. Verduret and the extent of his investigations: now he asked himself, what could have been his motives for acting thus?
What price did he expect for this sacrifice of time and labor?
His anxiety made him say nervously:
"It is unjust to us both, monsieur, for you to preserve your incognito any longer. When you have saved the honor and life of a man, you should at least let him know whom he is to thank for it."
"Oh!" said M. Verduret smilingly, "you are not out of the woods yet. You are not married either: so you must wait a little longer; patience and faith."
The clock struck six.
"Good heavens!" exclaimed M. Verduret. "Can it be six o'clock? I did hope to have a good night's rest, but I must keep on moving. This is no time to be asleep."
He went into the passage, and, leaning over the balusters, called, "Mme. Alexandre! I say, Mme. Alexandre!"
The hostess of the Archangel, the portly wife of Fanferlot the Squirrel, evidently had not been to bed. This fact struck Prosper.
She appeared, obsequious, smiling, and eager to please.
"What can I do for you, gentlemen?" she inquired.
"You can send your—Joseph Dubois and Palmyre to me as soon as possible. Let me know when they arrive. I will rest a few minutes, and you can awake me when they come."
As soon as Mme. Alexandre left the room, the fat man unceremoniously threw himself on the bed.
"You have no objections, I suppose?" he said to Prosper.
In five minutes he was fast asleep; and Prosper sat by the bed watching him with a perplexed gaze, wondering who this strange man could be.
About nine o'clock someone tapped timidly at the door.
Slight as the noise was, it aroused M. Verduret, who sprang up, and called out:
"Who is it?"
Prosper arose and opened the door.
Joseph Dubois, the valet of the Marquis of Clameran, entered.
This important assistant of M. Verduret was breathless from fast running; and his little rat eyes were more restless than ever.
"Well, patron, I am glad to see you once more," he cried. "Now you can tell me what to do; I have been perfectly lost during your absence, and have felt like a jumping monkey with a broken string.
"What! did you get frightened too?"
"Bless me! I think I had cause for alarm when I could not find you anywhere. Yesterday afternoon I sent you three despatches, to the addresses you gave me, Lyons, Beaucaire, and Oloron, but received no answer. I was almost crazy with anxiety when your message reached me just now."
"Things are getting hot, then."
"Hot! They are burning! The place is too warm to hold me any longer; upon my soul, I can't stand it!"
M. Verduret occupied himself in repairing his toilet, become disarranged by lying down.
When he had finished, he threw himself in an easy-chair, and said to Joseph Dubois, who remained respectfully standing, cap in hand, like a soldier awaiting orders:
"Explain yourself, my boy, and quickly, if you please; no circumlocution."
"It is just this, patron. I don't know what your plans are, or what line you are taking now; but I can just tell you this: that you will have to wind up the affair pretty quickly."
"That is your opinion, Master Joseph?"
"Yes, patron, because if you wait any longer, good-by to our covey: you will certainly find an empty cage, and the birds flown. You smile? Yes, I know you are clever, and can accomplish anything; but they are cunning blades, and as slippery as eels. They know that they are watched, too."
"The devil they do!" cried M. Verduret. "Who has been committing blunders?"
"Oh! nobody has done anything wrong," replied Joseph. "You know, patron, that they suspected something long ago. They gave you a proof of it, the night of the fancy ball; that ugly cut on your arm was the beginning. Ever since, they have had one eye open all the time. They had begun to feel easier, when all of a sudden, yesterday, ma foi, they began to smell a rat!"
"Was that the cause of your telegrams?"
"Of course. Now listen: yesterday morning when my master got up, about ten o'clock, he took it into his head to arrange the papers in his desk; which, by the way, has a disgusting lock which has given me a deal of trouble. Meanwhile, I pretended to be fixing the fire, so as to remain in the room to watch him. Patron, the man has an eye like a Yankee! At the first glance he saw, or rather divined, that his papers had been meddled with, he turned livid, and swore an oath; Lord, what an oath!"
"Never mind the oath; go on."
"Well, how he discovered the little attentions I had devoted to his letters, I can't imagine. You know how careful I am. I had put everything in perfect order; just as I found things I left them, when, lo and behold! my noble marquis picks up each paper, one at a time, turns it over, and smells it. I was just thinking I would offer him a magnifying-glass, when all of a sudden he sprang up, and with one kick sent his chair across the room, and flew at me with his eyes flashing like two pistols. 'Somebody has been at my papers,' he shrieked; 'this letter has been photographed!' B-r-r-r! I am not a coward, but I can tell you that my heart stood perfectly still; I saw myself as dead as Caesar, cut into mince-meat; and says I to myself, 'Fanfer—excuse me—Dubois, my friend, you are lost, dead;' and I thought of Mme. Alexandre."
M. Verduret was buried in thought, and paid no attention to the worthy Joseph's analysis of his personal sensations.
"What happened next?" said Verduret after a few minutes.
"Why, he was just as frightened as I was, patron. The rascal did not even dare to touch me. To be sure, I had taken the precaution to get out of his reach; we talked with a large table between us. While wondering what could have enabled him to discover the secret, I defended myself with virtuous indignation. I said:
"'It cannot be; M. le marquis is mistaken. Who would dare touch his papers?'
"Bast! Instead of listening to me, he flourished an open letter, and said:
"'This letter has been photographed! here is proof of it!' and he pointed to a little yellow spot on the paper, shrieking out, 'Look! Smell! Smell it, you devil! It is—' I forget the name he called it, but some acid used by photographers."
"I know, I know," said M. Verduret; "go on; what next?"
"Then, patron, we had a scene; what a scene! He ended by seizing me by the throat, and shaking me like a plum-tree, saying he would shake me until I told him who I was, what I knew, and where I came from. As if I knew, myself! I was obliged to account for every minute of my time since I had been in his service. The devil was worse than a judge of instruction, in his questions. Then he sent for the hotel porter, who had charge of the front door, and questioned him closely, but in English, so that I could not understand. After a while, he cooled down, and when the boy was gone, presented me with twenty francs, saying, 'I am sorry I was so sharp with you; you are too stupid to have been guilty of the offence.'"
"He said that, did he?"
"He used those very words to my face, patron."
"And you think he meant what he said?"
"Certainly I do."
The fat man smiled, and whistled a little tune expressive of contempt.
"If you think that," he said, "Clameran was right in his estimate of your brilliancy."
It was easy to see that Joseph Dubois was anxious to hear his patron's grounds for considering him stupid, but dared not ask.
"I suppose I am stupid, if you think so," said poor Fanferlot humbly. "Well, after he had done blustering about the letters, M. le marquis dressed, and went out. He did not want his carriage, but I saw him hire a cab at the hotel door. I thought he had perhaps disappeared forever; but I was mistaken. About five o'clock he returned as gay as a bull-finch. During his absence, I had telegraphed to you."
"What! did you not follow him?"
"I stayed on the spot in case of his return; but one of our friends kept watch on him, and this friend gave me a report of my dandy's movements. First he went to a broker's, then to the bank and discount office: so he must be collecting his money to take a little trip."
"Is that all he did?"
"That is all, patron. But I must tell you how the rascals tried to shut up, 'administratively,' you understand, Mlle. Palmyre. Fortunately you had anticipated something of the kind, and given orders to watch over her safety. But for you, she would now be in prison."
Joseph looked up to the ceiling by way of trying to remember something more. Finding nothing there, he said:
"That is all. I rather think M. Patrigent will rub his hands with delight when I carry him my report. He did not expect to see me any more, and has no idea of the facts I have collected to swell the size of his FILE 113."
There was a long silence. Joseph was right in supposing that the crisis had come. M. Verduret was arranging his plan of battle while waiting for the report of Nina—now Palmyre, upon which depended his point of attack.
But Joseph Dubois began to grow restless and uneasy.
"What must I do now, patron?" he asked.
"Return to the hotel; probably your master had noticed your absence; but he will say nothing about it, so continue—"
Here M. Verduret was interrupted by an exclamation from Prosper, who was standing near a window.
"What is the matter?" he inquired.
"There is Clameran!" cried Prosper, "over there."
M. Verduret and Joseph ran to the window.
"Where is he?" said Joseph, "I don't see him."
"There, at the corner of the bridge, behind that orange-woman's stall."
Prosper was right. It was the noble Marquis of Clameran, who, hid behind the stall, was watching for his servant to come out of the Archangel.
At first the quick-sighted Verduret had some doubts whether it was the marquis, who, being skilled in these hazardous expeditions, managed to conceal himself behind a pillar so as to elude detection.
But a moment came, when, elbowed by the pressing crowd, he was obliged to come out on the pavement in full view of the window.
"Now don't you see I was right!" cried the cashier.
"Well," said the amazed Joseph, "I am amazed!"
M. Verduret seemed not in the least surprised, but quietly said:
"The game needs hunting. Well, Joseph, my boy, do you still think that your noble master was duped by your acting injured innocence?"
"You assured me to the contrary, patron," said Joseph in an humble tone; "and your opinion is more convincing than all the proofs in the world."
"This pretended outburst of rage was premeditated on the part of your noble master. Knowing that he is being tracked, he naturally wishes to discover who his adversaries are. You can imagine how uncomfortable he must be at this uncertainty. Perhaps he thinks his pursuers are some of his old accomplices, who, being starved, want a piece of his cake. He will remain there until you come out: then he will come in to find out who you are."
"But, patron, I can go home without his seeing me."
"Yes, I know. You will climb the little wall separating the Archangel from the wine-merchant's yard, and keep along the stationer's area, until you reach the Rue de la Huchette."
Poor Joseph looked as if he had just received a bucket of ice-water upon his head.
"Exactly the way I was going, patron," he gasped out. "I heard that you knew every plank and door of all the houses in Paris, and it certainly must be so."
The fat man made no reply to Joseph's admiring remarks. He was thinking how he could catch Clameran.
As to the cashier, he listened wonderingly, watching these strangers, who seemed determined to reinstate him in public opinion, and punish his enemies, while he himself stood by powerless and bewildered. What their motives for befriending him could be, he vainly tried to discover.
"I will tell you what I can do," said Joseph after deep thought.
"What is it?"
"I can innocently walk out of the front door, and loaf along the street until I reach the Hotel du Louvre."
"Dame! Clameran will come in and question Mme. Alexandre, whom you can instruct beforehand; and she is smart enough to put any sharper off the track."
"Bad plan!" pronounced M. Verduret decidedly; "a scamp so compromised as Clameran is not easily put off the track; now his eyes are opened, he will be pretty hard to catch."
Suddenly, in a brief tone of authority which admitted of no contradiction, the fat man said:
"I have a way. Has Clameran, since he found that his papers had been searched, seen Lagors?"
"Perhaps he has written to him?"
"I'll bet you my head he has not. Having your orders to watch his correspondence, I invented a little system which informs me every time he touches a pen; during the last twenty-four hours the pens have not been touched."
"Clameran went out yesterday."
"But the man who followed him says he wrote nothing on the way."
"Then we have time yet!" cried Verduret. "Hurry! Hurry! I give you fifteen minutes to make yourself a head; you know the sort; I will watch the rascal until you come up."
The delighted Joseph disappeared in a twinkling; while Prosper and M. Verduret remained at the window observing Clameran, who, according to the movements of the crowd, was sometimes lost to sight, and sometimes just in front of the window, but was evidently determined not to quit his post until he had obtained the information he sought.
"Why do you devote yourself exclusively to the marquis?" asked Prosper.
"Because, my friend," replied M. Verduret, "because—that is my business, and not yours."
Joseph Dubois had been granted a quarter of an hour in which to metamorphose himself; before ten minutes had elapsed he reappeared.
The dandified coachman with Bergami whiskers, red vest, and foppish manners, was replaced by a sinister-looking individual, whose very appearance was enough to scare any rogue.
His black cravat twisted around a paper collar, and ornamented by an imitation diamond pin; his long-tailed black boots and heavy cane, revealed the employee of the Rue de Jerusalem, as plainly as the shoulder-straps mark a soldier.
Joseph Dubois had vanished forever; and from his livery, phoenix-like and triumphant, arose the radiant Fanferlot, surnamed the Squirrel.
When Fanferlot entered the room, Prosper uttered a cry of surprise and almost fright.
He recognized the man who had assisted the commissary of police to examine the bank on the day of the robbery.
M. Verduret examined his aide with a satisfied look, and said:
"Not bad! There is enough of the police-court air about you to alarm even an honest man. You understood me perfectly this time."
Fanferlot was transported with delight at this compliment.
"What must I do now, patron?" he inquired.
"Nothing difficult for an adroit man: but remember, upon the precision of our movements depends the success of my plan. Before arresting Lagors, I wish to dispose of Clameran. Now that the rascals are separated, the first thing to do is to prevent their coming together."
"I understand," said Fanferlot, snapping his little rat-like eyes; "I am to create a diversion."
"Exactly. Go out by the Rue de la Huchette, and hasten to St. Michel's bridge; loaf along the bank, and finally sit on the steps of the quay, so that Clameran may know he is being watched. If he doesn't see you, do something to attract his attention."
"Parbleu! I will throw a stone into the water," said Fanferlot, rubbing his hands with delight at his own brilliant idea.
"As soon as Clameran has seen you," continued M. Verduret, "he will be alarmed, and instantly decamp. Knowing there are reasons why the police should be after him, he will hasten to escape you; then comes the time for you to keep wide awake; he is a slippery eel, and cunning as a rat."
"I know all that; I was not born yesterday."
"So much the better. You can convince him of that. Well, knowing you are at his heels, he will not dare to return to the Hotel du Louvre, for fear of being called on by troublesome visitors. Now, it is very important that he should not return to the hotel."
"But suppose he does?" said Fanferlot.
M. Verduret thought for a minute, and then said:
"It is not probable that he will do so; but if he should, you must wait until he comes out again, and continue to follow him. But he won't enter the hotel; very likely he will take the cars: but in that event don't lose sight of him, no matter if you have to follow him to Siberia. Have you money with you?"
"I will get some from Mme. Alexandre."
"Very good. Ah! one more word. If the rascal takes the cars, send me word. If he beats about the bush until night, be on your guard, especially in lonely places; the desperado is capable of any enormity."
"If necessary, must I fire?"
"Don't be rash; but, if he attacks you, of course defend yourself. Come, 'tis time you were gone."
Dubois-Fanferlot went out. Verduret and Prosper resumed their post of observation.
"Why all this secrecy?" inquired Prosper. "Clameran is charged with ten times worse crimes than I was ever accused of, and yet my disgrace was made as public as possible."
"Don't you understand," replied the fat man, "that I wish to separate the cause of Raoul from that of the marquis? But, sh! look!"
Clameran had left his place near the orange-woman's stand, and approached the bridge, where he seemed to be trying to make out some unexpected object.
"Ah!" said M. Verduret; "he has just discovered our man."
Clameran's uneasiness was quite apparent; he walked forward a few steps, as if intending to cross the bridge; then, suddenly turning around, rapidly walked in the direction of the Rue St. Jacques.
"He is caught!" cried M. Verduret with delight.
At that moment the door opened, and Mme. Nina Gypsy, alias Palmyre Chocareille, entered.
Poor Nina! Each day spent in the service of Madeleine seemed to have aged her a year.
Tears had dimmed the brilliancy of her beautiful black eyes; her rosy cheeks were pale and hollow, and her merry smile was quite gone.
Poor Gypsy, once so gay and spirited, now crushed beneath the burden of her sorrows, was the picture of misery.
Prosper thought that, wild with joy at seeing him, and proud of having so nobly devoted herself to his interest, Nina would throw her arms around his neck, and say how much she loved him. To his surprise, Nina scarcely spoke to him. Although his every thought had been devoted to Madeleine since he discovered the reasons for her cruelty, he was hurt by Nina's cold manner.
The girl stood looking at M. Verduret with a mixture of fear and devotion, like a poor dog that has been cruelly treated by its master.
He, however, was kind and gentle in his manner toward her.
"Well, my dear," he said encouragingly, "what news do you bring me?"
"Something is going on at the house, monsieur, and I have been trying to get here to tell you; at last, Mlle. Madeleine made an excuse for sending me out."
"You must thank Mlle. Madeleine for her confidence in me. I suppose she carried out the plan we decided upon?"
"She receives the Marquis of Clameran's visits?"
"Since the marriage has been decided upon, he comes every day, and mademoiselle receives him with kindness. He seems to be delighted."
These answers filled Prosper with anger and alarm. The poor young man, not comprehending the intricate moves of M. Verduret, felt as if he were being tossed about from pillar to post, and made the tool and laughing-stock of everybody.
"What!" he cried; "this worthless Marquis of Clameran, an assassin and a thief, allowed to visit at M. Fauvel's, and pay his addresses to Madeleine? Where are the promises, monsieur, which you have made? Have you merely been amusing yourself by raising my hopes, to dash them—"
"Enough!" interrupted M. Verduret harshly; "you are too green to understand anything, my friend. If you are incapable of helping yourself, at least have sense enough to refrain from importuning those who are working for you. Do you not think you have already done sufficient mischief?"
Having administered this rebuke, he turned to Gypsy, and said in softer tones:
"Go on, my child: what have you discovered?"
"Nothing positive, monsieur; but enough to make me nervous, and fearful of impending danger. I am not certain, but suspect from appearances, that some dreadful catastrophe is about to happen. It may only be a presentiment. I cannot get any information from Mme. Fauvel; she refuses to answer any hints, and moves about like a ghost, never opening her lips. She seems to be afraid of her niece, and to be trying to conceal something from her."
"What about M. Fauvel?"
"I was just about to tell you, monsieur. Some fearful misfortune has happened to him, you may depend upon it. He wanders about as if he had lost his mind. Something certainly occurred yesterday; his voice even is changed. He is so harsh and irritable that mademoiselle and M. Lucien were wondering what could be the matter with him. He seems to be on the eve of giving way to a burst of anger; and there is a wild, strange look about his eyes, especially when he looks at madame. Yesterday evening, when M. de Clameran was announced, he jumped up, and hurried out of the room, saying that he had some work to do in his study."
A triumphant exclamation from M. Verduret interrupted Mme. Gypsy. He was radiant.
"Hein!" he said to Prosper, forgetting his bad humor of a few minutes before; "Hein! What did I tell you?"
"He has evidently——"
"Been afraid to give way to his first impulse; of course he has. He is now seeking for proofs of your assertions. He must have them by this time. Did the ladies go out yesterday?"
"Yes, a part of the day."
"What became of M. Fauvel?"
"The ladies took me with them; we left M. Fauvel at home."
"Not a doubt of it!" cried the fat man; "he looked for proofs, and found them, too! Your letter told him exactly where to go. Ah, Prosper, that unfortunate letter gives more trouble than everything else together."
These words seemed to throw a sudden light on Mme. Gypsy's mind.
"I understand it now!" she exclaimed. "M. Fauvel knows everything."
"That is, he thinks he knows everything; and what he has been led to fear, and thinks he has discovered, is worse than the true state of affairs."
"That accounts for the order which M. Cavaillon overheard him give to his servant-man, Evariste."
"He told Evariste to bring every letter that came to the house, no matter to whom addressed, into his study, and hand them to him; saying that, if this order was disobeyed, he should be instantly discharged."
"At what time was this order given?" asked M. Verduret.
"That is what I was afraid of," cried M. Verduret. "He has clearly made up his mind what course to pursue, and is keeping quiet so as to make his vengeance more sure. The question is, Have we still time to counteract his projects? Have we time to convince him that the anonymous letter was incorrect in some of its assertions?"
He tried to hit upon some plan for repairing the damage done by Prosper's foolish letter.
"Thank you for your information, my dear child," he said after a long silence. "I will decide at once what steps to take, for it will never do to sit quietly and let things go on in this way. Return home without delay, and be careful of everything you say and do; for M. Fauvel suspects you of being in the plot. Send me word of anything that happens, no matter how insignificant it may be."
Nina, thus dismissed, did not move, but said timidly:
"What about Caldas, monsieur?"
This was the third time during the last fortnight that Prosper had heard this name, Caldas.
The first time it had been whispered in his ear by a respectable-looking, middle-aged man, who offered his protection one day, when passing through the police-office passage.
The second time, the judge of instruction had mentioned it in connection with Gypsy's history.
Prosper thought over all the men he had ever been connected with, but could recall none named Caldas.
The impassable M. Verduret started and trembled at the mention of this name, but, quickly recovering himself, said:
"I promised to find him for you, and I will keep my promise. Now you must go; good-morning."
It was twelve o'clock, and M. Verduret suddenly remembered that he was hungry. He called Mme. Alexandre, and the beaming hostess of the Archangel soon placed a tempting breakfast before Prosper and his friend.
But the savory broiled oysters and flaky biscuit failed to smooth the perplexed brow of M. Verduret.
To the eager questions and complimentary remarks of Mme. Alexandre, he answered:
"Chut, chut! let me alone; keep quiet."
For the first time since he had known the fat man, Prosper saw him betray anxiety and hesitation.
He remained silent as long as he could, and then uneasily said:
"I am afraid I have embarrassed you very much, monsieur."
"Yes, you have dreadfully embarrassed me," replied M. Verduret. "What on earth to do now, I don't know! Shall I hasten matters, or keep quiet and wait for the next move? And I am bound by a sacred promise. Come, we had better go and advise with the judge of instruction. He can assist me. Come with me; let us hurry."
As M. Verduret had anticipated, Prosper's letter had a terrible effect upon M. Fauvel.
It was toward nine o'clock in the morning, and M. Fauvel had just entered his study when his mail was brought in.
After opening a dozen business letters, his eyes fell on the fatal missive sent by Prosper.
Something about the writing struck him as peculiar.
It was evidently a disguised hand, and although, owing to the fact of his being a millionnaire, he was in the habit of receiving anonymous communications, sometimes abusive, but generally begging him for money, this particular letter filled him with an indefinite presentiment of evil. A cold chill ran through his heart, and he dreaded to open it.
With absolute certainty that he was about to learn of a new calamity, he broke the seal, and opening the coarse cafe paper, was shocked by the following words:
"DEAR SIR—You have handed your cashier over to the law, and you acted properly, convinced as you were of his dishonesty.
"But if it was he who took three hundred and fifty thousand francs from your safe, was it he also who took Mme. Fauvel's diamonds?"
This was a terrible blow to a man whose life hitherto had been an unbroken chain of prosperity, who could recall the past without one bitter regret, without remembering any sorrow deep enough to bring forth a tear.
What! His wife deceive him! And among all men, to choose one vile enough to rob her of her jewels, and force her to be his accomplice in the ruin of an innocent young man!
For did not the letter before him assert this to be a fact, and tell him how to convince himself of its truth?
M. Fauvel was as bewildered as if he had been knocked on the head with a club. It was impossible for his scattered ideas to take in the enormity of what these dreadful words intimated. He seemed to be mentally and physically paralyzed, as he sat there staring blankly at the letter.
But this stupefaction suddenly changed to indignant rage.
"What a fool I am!" he cried, "to listen to such base lies, such malicious charges against the purest woman whom God ever sent to bless a man!"
And he angrily crumpled up the letter, and threw it into the empty fireplace, saying:
"I will forget having read it. I will not soil my mind by letting it dwell upon such turpitude!"
He said this, and he thought it; but, for all that, he could not open the rest of his letters. The anonymous missive stood before his eyes in letters of fire, and drove every other thought from his mind.
That penetrating, clinging, all-corroding worm, suspicion, had taken possession of his soul; and as he leaned over his desk, with his face buried in his hands, thinking over many things which had lately occurred, insignificant at the time, but fearfully ominous now, this unwillingly admitted germ of suspicion grew and expanded until it became certainty.
But, resolved that he would not think of his wife in connection with so vile a deed, he imagined a thousand wild excuses for the mischief-maker who took this mode of annoying him; of course there was no truth in his assertions, but from curiosity he would like to know who had written it. And yet suppose——
"Merciful God! can it be true?" he wildly cried, as the idea of his wife's guilt would obstinately return to his troubled mind.
Thinking that the writing might throw some light on the mystery, he started up and tremblingly picked the fatal letter out of the ashes. Carefully smoothing it out, he laid it on his desk, and studied the heavy strokes, light strokes, and capitals of every word.
"It must be from some of my clerks," he finally said, "someone who is angry with me for refusing to raise his salary; or perhaps it is the one that I dismissed the other day."
Clinging to this idea, he thought over all the young men in his bank; but not one could he believe capable of resorting to so base a vengeance.
Then he wondered where the letter had been posted, thinking this might throw some light upon the mystery. He looked at the envelope, and read the post-mark:
"Rue du Cardinal Lemoine."
This fact told him nothing.
Once more he read the letter, spelling over each word, and trying to put a different construction on the horrible phrases that stared him in the face.
It is generally agreed that an anonymous letter should be treated with silent contempt, and cast aside as the malicious lies of a coward who dares not say to a man's face what he secretly commits to paper, and forces upon him.
This is all very well in theory, but is difficult to practise when the anonymous letter comes. You throw it in the fire, it burns; but, although the paper is destroyed by the flames, doubt remains. Suspicion arises from its ashes, like a subtle poison penetrates the inmost recesses of the mind, weakens its holiest beliefs, and destroys its faith.
The trail of the serpent is left.
The wife suspected, no matter how unjustly, is no longer the wife in whom her husband trusted as he would trust himself: the pure being who was above suspicion no longer exists. Suspicion, no matter whence the source, has irrevocably tarnished the brightness of his idol.
Unable to struggle any longer against these conflicting doubts, M. Fauvel determined to resolve them by showing the letter to his wife; but a torturing thought, more terrible than any he had yet suffered, made him sink back in his chair in despair.
"Suppose it be true!" he muttered to himself; "suppose I have been miserably duped! By confiding in my wife, I shall put her on her guard, and lose all chance of discovering the truth."
Thus were realized all Verduret's presumptions.
He had said, "If M. Fauvel does not yield to his first impulse, if he stops to reflect, we have time to repair the harm done."
After long and painful meditation, the banker finally decided to wait, and watch his wife.
It was a hard struggle for a man of his frank, upright nature, to play the part of a domestic spy, and jealous husband.
Accustomed to give way to sudden bursts of anger, but quickly mastering them, he would find it difficult to be compelled to preserve his self-restraint, no matter how dreadful the discoveries might be. When he collected the proofs of guilt one by one, he must impose silence upon his resentment, until fully assured of possessing certain evidence.
There was one simple means of ascertaining whether the diamonds had been pawned.
If the letter lied in this instance, he would treat it with the scorn it deserved. If, on the other hand, it should prove to be true!
At this moment, the servant announced breakfast; and M. Fauvel looked in the glass before leaving his study, to see if his face betrayed the emotion he felt. He was shocked at the haggard features which it reflected.
"Have I no nerve?" he said to himself: "oh! I must and shall control my feelings until I find out the truth."
At table he talked incessantly, so as to escape any questions from his wife, who, he saw, was uneasy at the sight of his pale face.
But, all the time he was talking, he was casting over in his mind expedients of getting his wife out of the house long enough for him to search her bureau.
At last he asked Mme. Fauvel if she were going out before dinner.
"Yes," said she: "the weather is dreadful, but Madeleine and I must do some shopping."
"At what time shall you go?"
"Immediately after breakfast."
He drew a long breath as if relieved of a great weight.
In a short time he would know the truth.
His uncertainty was so torturing to the unhappy man that he preferred the most dreadful reality to his present agony.
Breakfast over, he lighted a cigar, but did not remain in the dining-room to smoke it, as was his habit. He went into his study to try and compose his nerves.
He took the precaution to send Lucien on a message so as to be alone in the house.
After the lapse of half an hour, he heard the carriage roll away with his wife and niece.
Hurrying into Mme. Fauvel's room, he opened the drawer of the chiffonnier, where she kept her jewels.
The last dozen or more leather and velvet boxes, containing superb sets of jewelry which he had presented to her, were gone!
Twelve boxes remained. He nervously opened them.
They were all empty!
The anonymous letter had told the truth.
"Oh, it cannot be!" he gasped in broken tones. "Oh, no, no!"
He wildly pulled open every drawer in the vain hope of finding them packed away. Perhaps she kept them elsewhere.
He tried to hope that she had sent them to be reset; but no, they were all superbly set in the latest fashion; and, moreover, she never would have sent them all at once. He looked again.
Nothing! not one jewel could he find.
He remembered that he had asked his wife at the Jandidier ball why she did not wear her diamonds; and she had replied with a smile:
"Oh! what is the use? Everybody knows them so well; and, besides, they don't suit my costume."
Yes, she had made the answer without blushing, without showing the slightest sign of agitation or shame.
What hardened impudence! What base hypocrisy concealed beneath an innocent, confiding manner!
And she had been thus deceiving him for twenty years! But suddenly a gleam of hope penetrated his confused mind—slight, barely possible; still a straw to cling to:
"Perhaps Valentine has put her diamonds in Madeleine's room."
Without stopping to consider the indelicacy of what he was about to do, he hurried into the young girl's room, and pulled open one drawer after another. What did he find?
Not Mme. Fauvel's diamonds; but Madeleine's seven or eight boxes also empty.
Great heavens! Was this gentle girl, whom he had treated as a daughter, an accomplice in this deed of shame? Had she contributed her jewelry to add to the disgrace of the roof that sheltered her?
This last blow was almost too much for the miserable man. He sank almost lifeless into a chair, and wringing his hands, groaned over the wreck of his happiness. Was this the happy future to which he had looked forward? Was the fabric of his honor, well-being, and domestic bliss, to be dashed to the earth and forever lost in a day? Were his twenty years' labor and high-standing to end thus in shame and sorrow?
Apparently nothing was changed in his existence; he was not materially injured; he could not reach forth his hand, and heal or revenge the smarting wound; the objects around him were unchanged; everything went on in the outside world just as it had gone on during the last twenty years; and yet what a horrible change had taken place in his own heart! While the world envied his prosperity and happiness, here he sat, more heartsore and wearied of life than the worst criminal that ever stood before the inquisition.
What! Valentine, the pure young girl whom he had loved and married in spite of her poverty, in spite of her cold offering of calm affection in return for his passionate devotion; Valentine, the tender, loving wife, who, before a year of married life had rolled by, so often assured him that her affection had grown into a deep, confiding love, that her devotion had grown stronger every day, and that her only prayer was that God would take them both together, since life would be a burden without her noble husband to shield and cherish her—could she have been acting a lie for twenty years?
She, the darling wife, the mother of his sons!
His sons? Good God! Were they his sons?
If she could deceive him now when she was silver-haired, had she not deceived him when she was young?
Not only did he suffer in the present, but the uncertainty of the past tortured his soul.
He was like a man who is told that the exquisite wine he has drank contains poison.
Confidence is never half-way: it is, or it is not. His confidence was gone. His faith was dead.
The wretched banker had rested his every hope and happiness on the love of his wife. Believing that she had proved faithless, that she had played him false, and was unworthy of trust, he admitted no possibility of peaceful joy, and felt tempted to seek consolation from self-destruction. What had he to live for now, save to mourn over the ashes of the past?
But this dejection did not last long. Indignant anger, and thirst for vengeance, made him start up and swear that he would lose no time in vain regrets.
M. Fauvel well knew that the fact of the diamonds being stolen was not sufficient ground upon which to bring an accusation against any of the accomplices.
He must possess overwhelming proofs before taking any active steps. Success depended upon present secrecy.
He began by calling his valet, and ordering him to bring to him every letter that should come to the house.
He then wrote to a notary at St. Remy, for minute and authentic information about the Lagors family, and especially about Raoul.
Finally, following the advice of the anonymous letter, he went to the Prefecture of Police, hoping to obtain a biography of Clameran.
But the police, fortunately for many people, are as discreetly silent as the grave. They guard their secrets as a miser his treasure.
Nothing but an order from the chief judge could open those formidable green boxes, and reveal their secrets.
M. Fauvel was politely asked what motives urged him to inquire into the past life of a French citizen; and, as he declined to state his reasons, the chief of police told him he had better apply to the Procureur for the desired information.
This advice he could not follow. He had sworn that the secret of his wrongs should be confined to the three persons interested. He chose to avenge his own injuries, to be alone the judge and executioner.
He returned home more angry than ever; there he found the despatch answering the one which he had sent to St. Remy. It was as follows:
"The Lagors are very poor, and there has never been any member of the family named Raoul. Mme. Lagors had no son, only two daughters."
This information dashed his last hope.
The banker thought, when he discovered his wife's infamy, that she had sinned as deeply as a woman could sin; but he now saw that she had practised a system more shocking than the crime itself.
"Wretched creature!" he cried with anguish; "in order to see her lover constantly, she dared introduce him to me under the name of a nephew who never existed. She had the shameless courage to bring him beneath her husband's roof, and seat him at my fireside, between my sons; and I, confiding fool that I was, welcomed the villain, and lent him money."
Nothing could equal the pain of wounded pride and mortification which he suffered at the thought that Raoul and Mme. Fauvel had amused themselves with his good-natured credulity and obtuseness.
Nothing but death could wipe out an injury of this nature. But the very bitterness of his resentment enabled him to restrain himself until the time for punishment came. With grim satisfaction he promised himself that his acting would be as successful as theirs.
That day he succeeded in concealing his agitation, and kept up a flow of talk at dinner; but at about nine o'clock, when Clameran called on the ladies, he rushed from the house, for fear that he would be unable to control his indignation at the sight of this destroyer of his happiness; and did not return home until late in the night.
The next day he reaped the fruit of his prudence.
Among the letters which his valet brought him at noon, was one bearing the post-mark of Vesinet.
He carefully opened the envelope, and read:
"DEAR AUNT—It is imperatively necessary for me to see you to-day; so do not fail to come to Vesinet.
"I will explain why I give you this trouble, instead of calling at your house.
"I have them now!" cried M. Fauvel trembling with satisfaction at the near prospect of vengeance.
Eager to lose no time, he opened a drawer, took out a revolver, and examined the hammer to see if it worked easily.
He imagined himself alone, but a vigilant eye was watching his movements. Gypsy, immediately upon her return from the Archangel, stationed herself at the key-hole of the study-door, and saw all that occurred.
M. Fauvel laid the pistol on the mantel-piece, and nervously resealed the letter, which he then took to the box where the letters were usually left, not wishing anyone to know that Raoul's letter had passed through his hands.
He was only absent two minutes, but, inspired by the imminence of the danger, Gypsy darted into the study, and rapidly extracted the balls from the revolver.
"Thank Heaven!" she murmured: "this peril is averted, and M. Verduret will now perhaps have time to prevent a murder. I must send Cavaillon to tell him."
She hurried into the bank, and sent the clerk with a message, telling him to leave it with Mme. Alexandre, if M. Verduret had left the hotel.
An hour later, Mme. Fauvel ordered her carriage, and went out.
M. Fauvel jumped into a hackney-coach, and followed her.
"God grant that M. Verduret may reach there in time!" cried Nina to herself, "otherwise Mme. Fauvel and Raoul are lost."
The moment that the Marquis of Clameran perceived that Raoul de Lagors was the only obstacle between him and Madeleine, he swore that the obstacle should soon be removed.
That very day he took steps for the accomplishment of his purpose. As Raoul was walking out to Vesinet about midnight, he was stopped at a lonely spot, by three men, who asked him what o'clock it was; while looking at his watch, the ruffians fell upon him suddenly, and but for Raoul's wonderful strength and agility, would have left him dead on the spot.
As it was, he soon, by his skilfully plied blows (for he had become a proficient in fencing and boxing in England), made his enemies take to their heels.
He quietly continued his walk home, fully determined to be hereafter well armed when he went out at night.
He never for an instant suspected his accomplice of having instigated the assault.
But two days afterward, while sitting in a cafe, a burly, vulgar-looking man, a stranger to him, interrupted him several times while talking, and, after making several rough speeches as if trying to provoke a quarrel, finally threw a card in his face, saying its owner was ready to grant him satisfaction when and where he pleased.
Raoul rushed toward the man to chastise him on the spot; but his friends held him back, telling him that it would be much more gentlemanly to run a sword through his vulgar hide, than have a scuffle in a public place.
"Very well, then: you will hear from me to-morrow," he said scornfully to his assailant. "Wait at your hotel until I send two friends to arrange the matter with you."
As soon as the stranger had left, Raoul recovered from his excitement, and began to wonder what could have been the motive for this evidently premeditated insult.
Picking up the card of the bully, he read:
W. H. B. JACOBSON. Formerly Garibaldian volunteer, Ex-officer of the army of the South. (Italy, America.)
30, Rue Leonie.
Raoul had seen enough of the world to know that these heroes who cover their visiting-cards with titles have very little glory elsewhere than in their own conceit.
Still the insult had been offered in the presence of others; and, no matter who the offender was, it must be noticed. Early the next morning Raoul sent two of his friends to make arrangements for a duel. He gave them M. Jacobson's address, and told them to report at the Hotel du Louvre, where he would wait for them.
Having dismissed his friends, Raoul went to find out something about M. Jacobson; and, being an expert at the business of unravelling plots and snares, he determined to discover who was at the bottom of this duel into which he had been decoyed.
The information obtained was not very promising.
M. Jacobson, who lived in a very suspicious-looking little hotel whose inmates were chiefly women of light character, was described to him as an eccentric gentleman, whose mode of life was a problem difficult to solve. No one knew his means of support.
He reigned despotically in the hotel, went out a great deal, never came in until midnight, and seemed to have no capital to live upon, save his military titles, and a talent for carrying out whatever was undertaken for his own benefit.
"That being his character," thought Raoul, "I cannot see what object he can have in picking a quarrel with me. What good will it do him to run a sword through my body? Not the slightest; and, moreover, his pugnacious conduct is apt to draw the attention of the police, who, from what I hear, are the last people this warrior would like to have after him. Therefore he must have some reason for pursuing me; and I must find out what it is."
The result of his meditations was, that Raoul, upon his return to the Hotel du Louvre, did not mention a word of his adventure to Clameran, whom he found already up.
At half-past eight his seconds arrived.
M. Jacobson had selected the sword, and would fight that very hour, in the woods of Vincennes.
"Well, come along," cried Raoul gayly. "I accept the gentleman's conditions."
They found the Garibaldian waiting; and after an interchange of a few thrusts Raoul was slightly wounded in the right shoulder.
The "Ex-superior officer of the South" wished to continue the combat; but Raoul's seconds—brave young men—declared that honor was satisfied, and that they had no intention of subjecting their friend's life to unnecessary hazards.
The ex-officer was forced to admit that this was but fair, and unwillingly retired from the field. Raoul went home delighted at having escaped with nothing more serious than a little loss of blood, and resolved to keep clear of all so-called Garibaldians in the future.
In fact, a night's reflection had convinced him that Clameran was the instigator of the two attempts to kill him. Mme. Fauvel having told him what conditions Madeleine placed on her consent to marriage, Raoul instantly saw how necessary his removal would be, now that he was an impediment in the way of Clameran's success. He recalled a thousand little remarks and events of the last few days, and, on skilfully questioning the marquis, had his suspicions changed into certainty.
This conviction that the man whom he had so materially assisted in his criminal plans was so basely ungrateful as to turn against him, and hire assassins to murder him in cold blood, inspired in Raoul a resolution to take speedy vengeance upon his treacherous accomplice, and at the same time insure his own safety.
This treason seemed monstrous to Raoul. He was as yet not sufficiently experienced in ruffianism to know that one villain always sacrifices another to advance his own projects; he was credulous enough to believe in the adage, "there's honor among thieves."
His rage was naturally mingled with fright, well knowing that his life hung by a thread, when it was threatened by a daring scoundrel like Clameran.
He had twice miraculously escaped; a third attempt would more than likely prove fatal.
Knowing his accomplice's nature, Raoul saw himself surrounded by snares; he saw death before him in every form; he was equally afraid of going out, and of remaining at home. He only ventured with the most suspicious caution into the most public places; he feared poison more than the assassin's knife, and imagined that every dish placed before him tasted of strychnine.
As this life of torture was intolerable, he determined to anticipate a struggle which he felt must terminate in the death of either Clameran or himself; and, if he were doomed to die, to be first revenged. If he went down, Clameran should go too; better kill the devil than be killed by him.
In his days of poverty, Raoul had often risked his life to obtain a few guineas, and would not have hesitated to make short work of a person like Clameran.
But with money prudence had come. He wished to enjoy his four hundred thousand francs without being compromised by committing a murder which might be discovered; he therefore began to devise some other means of getting rid of his dreaded accomplice. Meanwhile, he devoted his thoughts to some discreet way of thwarting Clameran's marriage with Madeleine. He was sure that he would thus strike him to the heart, and this was at least a satisfaction.
Raoul was persuaded that, by openly siding with Madeleine and her aims, he could save them from Clameran's clutches. Having fully resolved upon this course, he wrote a note to Mme. Fauvel asking for an interview.
The poor woman hastened to Vesinet convinced that some new misfortune was in store for her.
Her alarm was groundless. She found Raoul more tender and affectionate than he had ever been. He saw the necessity of reassuring her, and winning his old place in her forgiving heart, before making his disclosures.
He succeeded. The poor lady had a smiling and happy air as she sat in an arm-chair, with Raoul kneeling beside her.
"I have distressed you too long, my dear mother," he said in his softest tones, "but I repent sincerely: now listen to my—"
He had not time to say more; the door was violently thrown open, and Raoul, springing to his feet, was confronted by M. Fauvel.
The banker had a revolver in his hand, and was deadly pale.
It was evident that he was making superhuman efforts to remain calm, like a judge whose duty it is to justly punish crime.
"Ah," he said with a horrible laugh, "you look surprised. You did not expect me? You thought that my imbecile credulity insured your safety."
Raoul had the courage to place himself before Mme. Fauvel, and to stand prepared to receive the expected bullet.
"I assure you, uncle," he began.
"Enough!" interrupted the banker with an angry gesture, "let me hear no more infamous falsehoods! End this acting, of which I am no longer the dupe."
"I swear to you—"
"Spare yourself the trouble of denying anything. I know all. I know who pawned my wife's diamonds. I know who committed the robbery for which an innocent man was arrested and imprisoned."
Mme. Fauvel, white with terror, fell upon her knees.
At last it had come—the dreadful day had come. Vainly had she added falsehood to falsehood; vainly had she sacrificed herself and others: all was discovered.
She saw that all was lost, and wringing her hands she tearfully moaned:
"Pardon, Andre! I beg you, forgive me!"
At these heart-broken tones, the banker shook like a leaf. This voice brought before him the twenty years of happiness which he had owed to this woman, who had always been the mistress of his heart, whose slightest wish had been his law, and who, by a smile or a frown, could make him the happiest or the most miserable of men. Alas! those days were over now.
Could this wretched woman crouching at his feet be his beloved Valentine, the pure, innocent girl whom he had found secluded in the chateau of La Verberie, who had never loved any other than himself? Could this be the cherished wife whom he had worshipped for so many years?
The memory of his lost happiness was too much for the stricken man. He forgot the present in the past, and was almost melted to forgiveness.
"Unhappy woman," he murmured, "unhappy woman! What have I done that you should thus betray me? Ah, my only fault was loving you too deeply, and letting you see it. One wearies of everything in this world, even happiness. Did pure domestic joys pall upon you, and weary you, driving you to seek the excitement of a sinful passion? Were you so tired of the atmosphere of respect and affection which surrounded you, that you must needs risk your honor and mine by braving public opinion? Oh, into what an abyss you have fallen, Valentine! and, oh, my God! if you were wearied by my constant devotion, had the thought of your children no power to restrain your evil passions; could you not remain untarnished for their sake?"
M. Fauvel spoke slowly, with painful effort, as if each word choked him.
Raoul, who listened with attention, saw that if the banker knew some things, he certainly did not know all.
He saw that erroneous information had misled the unhappy man, and that he was still a victim of false appearances.
He determined to convince him of the mistake under which he was laboring, and said:
"Monsieur, I hope you will listen."
But the sound of Raoul's voice was sufficient to break the charm.
"Silence!" cried the banker with an angry oath, "silence!"
For some moments nothing was heard but the sobs of Mme. Fauvel.
"I came here," continued the banker, "with the intention of killing you both. But I cannot kill a woman, and I will not kill an unarmed man."
Raoul once more tried to speak.
"Let me finish!" interrupted M. Fauvel. "Your life is in my hands; the law excuses the vengeance of an injured husband; but I refuse to take advantage of it. I see on your mantel a revolver similar to mine; take it, and defend yourself."
"Defend yourself!" cried the banker raising his arm, "if you do not—"
Feeling the barrel of M. Fauvel's revolver touch his breast, Raoul in self-defence seized his own pistol, and prepared to fire.
"Stand in that corner of the room, and I will stand in this," continued the banker; "and when the clock strikes, which will be in a few seconds, we will both fire."
They took the places designated, and stood perfectly still.
But the horror of the scene was too much for Mme. Fauvel to witness any longer without interposing. She understood but one thing: her son and her husband were about to kill each other before her very eyes. Fright and horror gave her strength to start up and rush between the two men.
"For God's sake, have mercy, Andre!" she cried, wringing her hands with anguish, "let me tell you everything; don't kill—"
This burst of maternal love, M. Fauvel thought the pleadings of a criminal woman defending her lover.
He roughly seized his wife by the arm, and thrust her aside, saying with indignant scorn:
"Get out of the way!"
But she would not be repulsed; rushing up to Raoul, she threw her arms around him, and said to her husband:
"Kill me, and me alone; for I am the guilty one."
At these words M. Fauvel glared at the guilty pair, and, deliberately taking aim, fired.
Neither Raoul nor Mme. Fauvel moved. The banker fired a second time; then a third.
He cocked the pistol for a fourth shot, when a man rushed into the room, snatched the pistol from the banker's hand, and, throwing him on the sofa, ran toward Mme. Fauvel.
This man was M. Verduret, who had been warned by Cavaillon, but did not know that Mme. Gypsy had extracted the balls from M. Fauvel's revolver.
"Thank Heaven!" he cried, "she is unhurt."
"How dare you interfere?" cried the banker, who by this time had joined the group. "I have the right to avenge my honor when it has been degraded; the villain shall die!"
M. Verduret seized the banker's wrists in a vice-like grasp, and whispered in his ear:
"Thank God you are saved from committing a terrible crime; the anonymous letter deceived you."
In violent situations like this, all the untoward, strange attending circumstances appear perfectly natural to the participators, whose passions have already carried them beyond the limits of social propriety.
Thus M. Fauvel never once thought of asking this stranger who he was and where he came from.
He heard and understood but one fact: the anonymous letter had lied.
"But my wife confesses she is guilty," he stammered.
"So she is," replied M. Verduret, "but not of the crime you imagine. Do you know who that man is, that you attempted to kill?"
"No: her son!"
The words of this stranger, showing his intimate knowledge of the private affairs of all present, seemed to confound and frighten Raoul more than M. Fauvel's threats had done. Yet he had sufficient presence of mind to say:
"It is the truth!"
The banker looked wildly from Raoul to M. Verduret; then, fastening his haggard eyes on his wife, exclaimed:
"It is false! you are all conspiring to deceive me! Proofs!"
"You shall have proofs," replied M. Verduret, "but first listen."
And rapidly, with his wonderful talent for exposition, he related the principal points of the plot he had discovered.
The true state of the case was terribly distressing to M. Fauvel, but nothing compared with what he had suspected.
His throbbing, yearning heart told him that he still loved his wife. Why should he punish a fault committed so many years ago, and atoned for by twenty years of devotion and suffering?
For some moments after M. Verduret had finished his explanation, M. Fauvel remained silent.
So many strange events had happened, rapidly following each other in succession, and culminating in the shocking scene which had just taken place, that M. Fauvel seemed to be too bewildered to think clearly.
If his heart counselled pardon and forgetfulness, wounded pride and self-respect demanded vengeance.
If Raoul, the baleful witness, the living proof of a far-off sin, were not in existence, M. Fauvel would not have hesitated. Gaston de Clameran was dead; he would have held out his arms to his wife, and said:
"Come to my heart! your sacrifices for my honor shall be your absolution; let the sad past be forgotten."
But the sight of Raoul froze the words upon his lips.
"So this is your son," he said to his wife—"this man, who has plundered you and robbed me!"
Mme. Fauvel was unable to utter a word in reply to these reproachful words.
"Oh!" said M. Verduret, "madame will tell you that this young man is the son of Gaston de Clameran; she has never doubted it. But the truth is—"
"That, in order to swindle her, he has perpetrated a gross imposture."
During the last few minutes Raoul had been quietly creeping toward the door, hoping to escape while no one was thinking of him.
But M. Verduret, who anticipated his intentions, was watching him out of the corner of one eye, and stopped him just as he was about leaving the room.
"Not so fast, my pretty youth," he said, dragging him into the middle of the room; "it is not polite to leave us so unceremoniously. Let us have a little conversation before parting; a little explanation will be edifying!"
The jeering words and mocking manner of M. Verduret made Raoul turn deadly pale, and start back as if confronted by a phantom.
"The clown!" he gasped.
"The same, friend," said the fat man. "Ah, now that you recognize me, I confess that the clown and myself are one and the same. Yes, I am the mountebank of the Jandidier ball; here is proof of it."
And turning up his sleeve he showed a deep cut on his arm.
"I think that this recent wound will convince you of my identity," he continued. "I imagine you know the villain that gave me this little decoration, that night I was walking along the Rue Bourdaloue. That being the case, you know, I have a slight claim upon you, and shall expect you to relate to us your little story."
But Raoul was so terrified that he could not utter a word.
"Your modesty keeps you silent," said M. Verduret. "Bravo! modesty becomes talent, and for one of your age you certainly have displayed a talent for knavery."
M. Fauvel listened without understanding a word of what was said.
"Into what dark depths of shame have we fallen!" he groaned.
"Reassure yourself, monsieur," replied M. Verduret with great respect. "After what I have been constrained to tell you, what remains to be said is a mere trifle. I will finish the story.
"On leaving Mihonne, who had given him a full account of the misfortunes of Mlle. Valentine de la Verberie, Clameran hastened to London.
"He had no difficulty in finding the farmer's wife to whom the old countess had intrusted Gaston's son.
"But here an unexpected disappointment greeted him.
"He learned that the child, whose name was registered on the parish books as Raoul-Valentin Wilson, had died of the croup when eighteen months old."
"Did anyone state such a fact as that?" interrupted Raoul: "it is false."
"It was not only stated, but proved, my pretty youth," replied M. Verduret. "You don't suppose I am a man to trust to verbal testimony; do you?"
He drew from his pocket several officially stamped documents, with red seals attached, and laid them on the table.
"These are declarations of the nurse, her husband, and four witnesses. Here is an extract from the register of births; this is a certificate of registry of his death; and all these are authenticated at the French Embassy. Now are you satisfied, young man?"
"What next?" inquired M. Fauvel.
"The next step was this," replied M. Verduret. "Clameran, finding that the child was dead, supposed that he could, in spite of this disappointment, obtain money from Mme. Fauvel; he was mistaken. His first attempt failed. Having an inventive turn of mind, he determined that the child should come to life. Among his large circle of rascally acquaintances, he selected a young fellow to impersonate Raoul-Valentin Wilson; and the chosen one stands before you."
Mme. Fauvel was in a pitiable state. And yet she began to feel a ray of hope; her acute anxiety had so long tortured her, that the truth was a relief; she would thank Heaven if this wicked man was proved to be no son of hers.
"Can this be possible?" she murmured, "can it be?"
"Impossible!" cried the banker: "an infamous plot like this could not be executed in our midst!"
"All this is false!" said Raoul boldly. "It is a lie!"
M. Verduret turned to Raoul, and, bowing with ironical respect, said:
"Monsieur desires proofs, does he? Monsieur shall certainly have convincing ones. I have just left a friend of mine, M. Palot, who brought me valuable information from London. Now, my young gentleman, I will tell you the little story he told me, and then you can give your opinion of it.
"In 1847 Lord Murray, a wealthy and generous nobleman, had a jockey named Spencer, of whom he was very fond. At the Epsom races, this jockey was thrown from his horse, and killed. Lord Murray grieved over the loss of his favorite, and, having no children of his own, declared his intention of adopting Spencer's son, who was then but four years old.
"Thus James Spencer was brought up in affluence, as heir to the immense wealth of the noble lord. He was a handsome, intelligent boy, and gave satisfaction to his protector until he was sixteen years of age; when he became intimate with a worthless set of people, and turned out badly.
"Lord Murray, who was very indulgent, pardoned many grave faults; but one fine morning he discovered that his adopted son had been imitating his signature upon some checks. He indignantly dismissed him from the house, and told him never to show his face again.
"James Spencer had been living in London about four years, managing to support himself by gambling and swindling, when he met Clameran, who offered him twenty-five thousand francs to play a part in a little comedy which he had arranged to suit the actors."
"You are a detective!" interrupted Raoul.
The fat man smiled grimly.
"At present," he replied, "I am merely a friend of Prosper Bertomy. It depends entirely upon your behavior which character I appear in while settling up this little affair."
"What do you expect me to do?"
"Restore the three hundred and fifty thousand francs which you have stolen."
The young rascal hesitated a moment, and then said:
"The money is in this room."
"Very good. This frankness is creditable, and will benefit you. I know that the money is in this room, and also exactly where it is to be found. Be kind enough to look behind that cupboard, and you will find the three hundred and fifty thousand francs."
Raoul saw that his game was lost. He tremblingly went to the cupboard, and pulled out several bundles of bank-notes, and an enormous package of pawn-broker's tickets.
"Very well done," said M. Verduret, as he carefully examined the money and papers: "this is the most sensible step you ever took."
Raoul relied on this moment, when everybody's attention would be absorbed by the money, to make his escape. He slid toward the door, gently opened it, slipped out, and locked it on the outside; the key being still in the lock.
"He has escaped!" cried M. Fauvel.
"Naturally," replied M. Verduret, without even looking up: "I thought he would have sense enough to do that."
"But is he to go unpunished?"
"My dear sir, would you have this affair become a public scandal? Do you wish your wife's name to be brought into a case of this nature before the police-court?"
"Then the best thing you can do, is to let the rascal go scot free. Here are receipts for all the articles which he has pawned, so that we should consider ourselves fortunate. He has kept fifty thousand francs, but that is all the better for you. This sum will enable him to leave France, and we shall never see him again."
Like everyone else, M. Fauvel yielded to the ascendancy of M. Verduret.
Gradually he had awakened to the true state of affairs; prospective happiness no longer seemed impossible, and he felt that he was indebted to the man before him for more than life. But for M. Verduret, where would have been his honor and domestic peace?
With earnest gratitude he seized M. Verduret's hand as if to carry it to his lips, and said, in broken tones:
"Oh, monsieur! how can I ever find words to express how deeply I appreciate your kindness? How can I ever repay the great service you have rendered me?"
M. Verduret reflected a moment, and then said:
"If you feel under any significant obligations to me, monsieur, you have it in your power to return them. I have a favor to ask of you."
"A favor? you ask of me? Speak, monsieur, you have but to name it. My fortune and life are at your disposal."
"I will not hesitate, then, to explain myself. I am Prosper's friend, and deeply interested in his future. You can exonerate him from this infamous charge of robbery; you can restore him to his honorable position. You can do more than this, monsieur. He loves Mlle. Madeleine."
"Madeleine shall be his wife, monsieur," interrupted the banker: "I give you my word of honor. And I will so publicly exonerate him, that not a shadow of suspicion will rest upon his name. I will place him in a position which will prevent slander from reproaching him with the painful remembrance of my fatal error."
The fat man quietly took up his hat and cane, as if he had been paying an ordinary morning call, and turned to leave the room, after saying, "Good-morning." But, seeing the weeping woman raise her clasped hands appealingly toward him, he said hesitatingly:
"Monsieur, excuse my intruding any advice; but Mme. Fauvel—"
"Andre!" murmured the wretched wife, "Andre!"
The banker hesitated a moment; then, following the impulse of his heart, ran to his wife, and, clasping her in his arms, said tenderly:
"No, I will not be foolish enough to struggle against my deep-rooted love. I do not pardon, Valentine: I forget; I forget all!"
M. Verduret had nothing more to do at Vesinet.
Without taking leave of the banker, he quietly left the room, and, jumping into his cab, ordered the driver to return to Paris, and drive to the Hotel du Louvre as rapidly as possible.
His mind was filled with anxiety about Clameran. He knew that Raoul would give him no more trouble; the young rogue was probably taking his passage for some foreign land at that very moment. But Clameran should not escape unpunished; and how this punishment could be brought about without compromising Mme. Fauvel, was the problem to be solved.
M. Verduret thought over the various cases similar to this, but not one of his former expedients could be applied to the present circumstances. He could not deliver the villain over to justice without involving Mme. Fauvel.
After long thought, he decided that an accusation of poisoning must come from Oloron. He would go there and work upon "public opinion," so that, to satisfy the townspeople, the authorities would order a post-mortem examination of Gaston. But this mode of proceeding required time; and Clameran would certainly escape before another day passed over his head. He was too experienced a knave to remain on slippery ground, now that his eyes were open to the danger which menaced him. It was almost dark when the carriage stopped in front of the Hotel du Louvre; M. Verduret noticed a crowd of people collected together in groups, eagerly discussing some exciting event which seemed to have just taken place. Although the policeman attempted to disperse the crowd by authoritatively ordering them to "Move on! Move on!" they would merely separate in one spot to join a more clamorous group a few yards off.
"What has happened?" demanded M. Verduret of a lounger near by.
"The strangest thing you ever heard of," replied the man; "yes, I saw him with my own eyes. He first appeared at that seventh-story window; he was only half-dressed. Some men tried to seize him; but, bast! with the agility of a squirrel, he jumped out upon the roof, shrieking, 'Murder! murder!' The recklessness of his conduct led me to suppose—"
The gossip stopped short in his narrative, very much surprised and vexed; his questioner had vanished.
"If it should be Clameran!" thought M. Verduret; "if terror has deranged that brain, so capable of working out great crimes! Fate must have interposed——"
While thus talking to himself, he elbowed his way through the crowded court-yard of the hotel.
At the foot of the staircase he found M. Fanferlot and three peculiar-looking individuals standing together, as if waiting for someone.