Such, indeed, was the figure at which the most moderate estimated M. Favoral's fortune. M. Chapelain, who was supposed to be well informed, insinuated freely that his friend Vincent, besides being the cashier of the Mutual Credit, must also be one of its principal stock-holders. Now, judging from the dividend which had just been paid, the Mutual Credit must, since the war, have realized enormous profits. All its enterprises were successful; and it was on the point of negotiating a foreign loan which would infallibly fill its exchequer to overflowing.
M. Favoral, moreover, defended himself feebly from these accusations of concealed opulence. When M. Desormeaux told him, "Come, now, between us, candidly, how many millions have you?" he had such a strange way of affirming that people were very much mistaken, that his friends' convictions became only the more settled. And, as soon as they had a few thousand francs of savings, they promptly brought them to him, imitated in this by a goodly number of the small capitalists of the neighborhood, who were wont to remark among themselves,
"That man is safer than the bank!"
Millionaire or otherwise, the cashier of the Mutual Credit became daily more difficult to live with. If strangers, those who had with him but a superficial intercourse, if the Saturday guests themselves, discovered in him no appreciable change, his wife and his children followed with anxious surprise the modifications of his humor.
If outwardly he still appeared the same impassible, precise, and grave man, he showed himself at home more fretful than an old maid, —nervous, agitated, and subject to the oddest whims. After remaining three or four days without opening his lips, he would begin to speak upon all sorts of subjects with amazing volubility. Instead of watering his wine freely, as formerly, he had begun to drink it pure; and he often took two bottles at his meal, excusing himself upon the necessity that he felt the need of stimulating himself a little after his excessive labors.
Then he would be taken with fits of coarse gayety; and he related singular anecdotes, intermingled with slang expressions, which Maxence alone could understand.
On the morning of the first day of January, 1872, as he sat down to breakfast, he threw upon the table a roll of fifty napoleons, saying to his children,
"Here is your New Year's gift! Divide, and buy anything you like."
And as they were looking at him, staring, stupid with astonishment,
"Well, what of it?" he added with an oath. "Isn't it well, once in a while, to scatter the coins a little?"
Those unexpected thousand francs Maxence and Mlle. Gilberte applied to the purchase of a shawl, which their mother had wished for ten years.
She laughed and she cried with pleasure and emotion, the poor woman; and, whilst draping it over her shoulders,
"Well, well, my dear children," she said: "your father, after all, is not such a bad man."
Of which they did not seem very well convinced. "One thing is sure," remarked Mlle. Gilberte: "to permit himself such liberality, papa must be awfully rich."
M. Favoral was not present at this scene. The yearly accounts kept him so closely confined to his office, that he remained forty-eight hours without coming home. A journey which he was compelled to undertake for M. de Thaller consumed the balance of the week.
But on his return he seemed satisfied and quiet. Without giving up his situation at the Mutual Credit, he was about, he stated, to associate himself with the Messrs. Jottras, M. Saint Pavin of "The Financial Pilot," and M. Costeclar, to undertake the construction of a foreign railway.
M. Costeclar was at the head of this enterprise, the enormous profits of which were so certain and so clear; that they could be figured in advance.
And whilst on this same subject,
"You were very wrong," he said to Mlle. Gilberte, "not to make haste and marry Costeclar when he was willing to have you. You will never find another such match,—a man who, before ten years, will be a financial power."
The very name of M. Costeclar had the effect of irritating the young girl.
"I thought you had fallen out?" she said to her father.
"So we had," he replied with some embarrassment, "because he has never been willing to tell me why he had withdrawn; but people always make up again when they have interests in common."
Formerly, before the war, M. Favoral would certainly never have condescended to enter into all these details. But he was becoming almost communicative. Mlle. Gilberte, who was observing him with interested attention, fancied she could see that he was yielding to that necessity of expansion, more powerful than the will itself, which besets the man who carries within him a weighty secret.
Whilst for twenty years he had, so to speak, never breathed a word on the subject of the Thaller family, now he was continually speaking of them. He told his Saturday friends all about the princely style of the baron, the number of his servants and horses, the color of his liveries, the parties that he gave, what he spent for pictures and objects of art, and even the very names of his mistresses; for the baron had too much respect for himself not to lay every year a few thousand napoleons at the feet of some young lady sufficiently conspicuous to be mentioned in the society newspapers.
M. Favoral confessed that he did not approve the baron; but it was with a sort of bitter hatred that he spoke of the baroness. It was impossible, he affirmed to his guests, to estimate even approximately the fabulous sums squandered by her, scattered, thrown to the four winds. For she was not prodigal, she was prodigality itself,—that idiotic, absurd, unconscious prodigality which melts a fortune in a turn of the hand; which cannot even obtain from money the satisfaction of a want, a wish, or a fancy.
He said incredible things of her,—things which made Mme. Desclavettes jump upon her seat, explaining that he learned all these details from M. de Thaller, who had often commissioned him to pay his wife's debts, and also from the baroness herself, who did not hesitate to call sometimes at the office for twenty francs; for such was her want of order, that, after borrowing all the savings of her servants, she frequently had not two cents to throw to a beggar.
Neither did the cashier of the Mutual Credit seem to have a very good opinion of Mademoiselle de Thaller.
Brought up at hap-hazard, in the kitchen much more than in the parlor, until she was twelve, and, later, dragged by her mother anywhere,—to the races, to the first representations, to the watering-places, always escorted by a squadron of the young men of the bourse, Mlle. de Thaller had adopted a style which would have been deemed detestable in a man. As soon as some questionable fashion appeared, she appropriated it at once, never finding any thing eccentric enough to make herself conspicuous. She rode on horseback, fenced, frequented pigeon-shooting matches, spoke slang, sang Theresa's songs, emptied neatly her glass of champagne, and smoked her cigarette.
The guests were struck dumb with astonishment.
"But those people must spend millions!" interrupted M. Chapelain.
M. Favoral started as if he had been slapped on the back.
"Bash!" he answered. "They are so rich, so awfully rich!"
He changed the conversation that evening; but on the following Saturday, from the very beginning of the dinner,
"I believe," he said, "that M. de Thaller has just discovered a husband for his daughter."
"My compliments!" exclaimed M. Desormeaux. "And who may this bold fellow be?"
"A nobleman, of course," he replied. "Isn't that the tradition? As soon as a financier has made his little million, he starts in quest of a nobleman to give him his daughter."
One of those painful presentiments, such as arise in the inmost recesses of the soul, made Mlle. Gilberte turn pale. This presentiment suggested to her an absurd, ridiculous, unlikely thing; and yet she was sure that it would not deceive her,—so sure, indeed, that she rose under the pretext of looking for something in the side-board, but in reality to conceal the terrible emotion which she anticipated.
"And this gentleman?" inquired M. Chapelain.
"Is a marquis, if you please,—the Marquis de Tregars."
Well, yes, it was this very name that Mlle. Gilberte was expecting, and well that she did; for she was thus able to command enough control over herself to check the cry that rose to her throat.
"But this marriage is not made yet," pursued M. Favoral. "This marquis is not yet so completely ruined, that he can be made to do any thing they please. Sure, the baroness has set her heart upon it, oh! but with all her might!"
A discussion which now arose prevented Gilberte from learning any more; and as soon as the dinner, which seemed eternal to her, was over, she complained of a violent headache, and withdrew to her room.
She shook with fever; her teeth chattered. And yet she could not believe that Marius was betraying her, nor that he could have the thought of marrying such a girl as M. Favoral had described, and for money too! Poor, ah! No, that was not admissible. Although she remembered well that Marius had made her swear to believe nothing that might be said of him, she spent a horrible Sunday, and she felt like throwing herself in the Signor Gismondo's arms, when, in giving her his lesson the following Monday,
"My poor pupil," he said, "feels miserable. A marriage has been spoken of for him, for which he has a perfect horror; and he trembles lest the rumor may reach his intended, whom he loves exclusively."
Mlle. Gilberte felt re-assured after that. And yet there remained in her heart an invincible sadness. She could hardly doubt that this matrimonial scheme was a part of the plan planned by Marius to recover his fortune. But why, then, had he applied to M. de Thaller? Who could be the man who had despoiled the Marquis de Tregars?
Such were the thoughts which occupied her mind on that Saturday evening when the commissary of police presented himself in the Rue St. Gilles to arrest M. Favoral, charged with embezzling ten or twelve millions.
The hour had now come for the denouement of that home tragedy which was being enacted in the Rue St. Gilles.
The reader will remember the incidents narrated at the beginning of this story,—M. de Thaller's visit and angry words with M. Favoral, his departure after leaving a package of bank-notes in Mlle. Gilberte's hands, the advent of the commissary of police, M. Favoral's escape, and finally the departure of the Saturday evening guests.
The disaster which struck Mme. Favoral and her children had been so sudden and so crushing, that they had been, on the moment, too stupefied to realize it. What had happened went so far beyond the limits of the probable, of the possible even, that they could not believe it. The too cruel scenes which had just taken place were to them like the absurd incidents of a horrible nightmare.
But when their guests had retired after a few commonplace protestations, when they found themselves alone, all three, in that house whose master had just fled, tracked by the police,—then only, as the disturbed equilibrium of their minds became somewhat restored, did they fully realize the extent of the disaster, and the horror of the situation.
Whilst Mme. Favoral lay apparently lifeless on an arm-chair, Gilberte kneeling at her feet, Maxence was walking up and down the parlor with furious steps. He was whiter than the plaster on the halls; and a cold perspiration glued his tangled hair to his temples.
His eyes glistening, and his fists clinched,
"Our father a thief!" he kept repeating in a hoarse voice, "a forger!"
And in fact never had the slightest suspicion arisen in his mind. In these days of doubtful reputations, he had been proud indeed of M. Favoral's reputation of austere integrity. And he had endured many a cruel reproach, saying to himself that his father had, by his own spotless conduct, acquired the right to be harsh and exacting.
"And he has stolen twelve millions!" he exclaimed.
And he went on, trying to calculate all the luxury and splendor which such a sum represents, all the cravings gratified, all the dreams realized, all it can procure of things that may be bought. And what things are not for sale for twelve millions!
Then he examined the gloomy home in the Rue St. Gilles,—the contracted dwelling, the faded furniture, the prodigies of a parsimonious industry, his mother's privations, his sister's penury, and his own distress. And he exclaimed again,
"It is a monstrous infamy!"
The words of the commissary of police had opened his eyes; and he now fancied the most wonderful things. M. Favoral, in his mind, assumed fabulous proportions. By what miracles of hypocrisy and dissimulation had he succeeded in making himself ubiquitous as it were, and, without awaking a suspicion, living two lives so distinct and so different,—here, in the midst of his family, parsimonious, methodic, and severe; elsewhere, in some illicit household, doubtless facile, smiling, and generous, like a successful thief.
For Maxence considered the bills found in the secretary as a flagrant, irrefutable and material proof.
Upon the brink of that abyss of shame into which his father had just tumbled, he thought he could see, not the inevitable woman, that incentive of all human actions, but the entire legion of those bewitching courtesans who possess unknown crucibles wherein to swell fortunes, and who have secret filtres to stupefy their dupes, and strip them of their honor, after robbing them of their last cent.
"And I," said Maxence,—"I, because at twenty I was fond of pleasure, I was called a bad son! Because I had made some three hundred francs of debts, I was deemed a swindler! Because I love a poor girl who has for me the most disinterested affection, I am one of those rascals whom their family disown, and from whom nothing can be expected but shame and disgrace!"
He filled the parlor with the sound of his voice, which rose like his wrath.
And at the thought of all the bitter reproaches which had been addressed to him by his father, and of all the humiliations that had been heaped upon him,
"Ah, the wretch!" he fairly shrieked, "—the coward!"
As pale as her brother, her face bathed in tears, and her beautiful hair hanging undone, Mlle. Gilberte drew herself up.
"He is our father, Maxence," she said gently.
But he interrupted her with a wild burst of laughter. "True," he answered; "and, by virtue of the law which is written in the code, we owe him affection and respect."
"Maxence!" murmured the girl in a beseeching tone. But he went on, nevertheless,
"Yes, he is our father, unfortunately. But I should like to know his titles to our respect and our affection. After making our mother the most miserable of creatures, he has embittered our existence, withered our youth, ruined my future, and done his best to spoil yours by compelling you to marry Costeclar. And, to crown all these deeds of kindness, he runs away now, after stealing twelve millions, leaving us nothing but misery and a disgraced name.
"And yet," he added, "is it possible that a cashier should take twelve millions, and his employer know nothing of it? And is our father really the only man who benefitted by these millions?"
Then came back to the mind of Maxence and Mlle. Gilberte the last words of their father at the moment of his flight,
"I have been betrayed; and I must suffer for all!"
And his sincerity could hardly be called in question; for he was then in one of those moments of decisive crisis in which the truth forces itself out in spite of all calculation.
"He must have accomplices then," murmured Maxence.
Although he had spoken very low, Mme. Favoral overheard him. To defend her husband, she found a remnant of energy, and, straightening herself on her seat,
"Ah! do not doubt it," she stammered out. "Of his own inspiration, Vincent could never have committed an evil act. He has been circumvented, led away, duped!"
"Very well; but by whom?"
"By Costeclar," affirmed Mlle. Gilberte.
"By the Messrs. Jottras, the bankers," said Mme. Favoral, "and also by M. Saint Pavin, the editor of 'the Financial Pilot.'"
"By all of them, evidently," interrupted Maxence, "even by his manager, M. de Thaller."
When a man is at the bottom of a precipice, what is the use of finding out how he has got there,—whether by stumbling over a stone, or slipping on a tuft of grass! And yet it is always our foremost thought. It was with an eager obstinacy that Mme. Favoral and her children ascended the course of their existence, seeking in the past the incidents and the merest words which might throw some light upon their disaster; for it was quite manifest that it was not in one day and at the same time that twelve millions had been subtracted from the Mutual Credit. This enormous deficit must have been, as usual, made gradually, with infinite caution at first, whilst there was a desire, and some hope, to make it good again, then with mad recklessness towards the end when the catastrophe had become inevitable.
"Alas!" murmured Mme. Favoral, "why did not Vincent listen to my presentiments on that ever fatal day when he brought M. de Thaller, M. Jottras, and M. Saint Pavin to dine here? They promised him a fortune."
Maxence and Mlle. Gilberte were too young at the time of that dinner to have preserved any remembrance of it; but they remembered many other circumstances, which, at the time they had taken place, had not struck them. They understood now the temper of their father, his perpetual irritation, and the spasms of his humor. When his friends were heaping insults upon him, he had exclaimed,
"Be it so! let them arrest me; and to-night, for the first time in many years, I shall sleep in peace."
There were years, then, that he lived, as it were upon burning coals, trembling at the fear of discovery, and wondering, as he went to sleep each night, whether he would not be awakened by the rude hand of the police tapping him on the shoulder. No one better than Mme. Favoral could affirm it.
"Your father, my children," she said, "had long since lost his sleep. There was hardly ever a night that he did not get up and walk the room for hours."
They understood, now, his efforts to compel Mlle. Gilberte to marry M. Costeclar.
"He thought that Costeclar would help him out of the scrape," suggested Maxence to his sister.
The poor girl shuddered at the thought, and she could not help feeling thankful to her father for not having told her his situation; for would she have had the sublime courage to refuse the sacrifice, if her father had told her?
"I have stolen! I am lost! Costeclar alone can save me; and he will save me if you become his wife."
M. Favoral's pleasant behavior during the siege was quite natural. Then he had no fears; and one could understand how in the most critical hours of the Commune, when Paris was in flames, he could have exclaimed almost cheerfully,
"Ah! this time it is indeed the final liquidation."
Doubtless, in the bottom of his heart, he wished that Paris might be destroyed, and, with it, the evidences of his crime. And perhaps he was not the only one to form that impious wish.
"That's why, then," exclaimed Maxence,—"that's why my father treated me so rudely: that's why he so obstinately persisted in closing the offices of the Mutual Credit against me."
He was interrupted by a violent ringing of the door-bell. He looked at the clock: ten o'clock was about to strike.
"Who can call so late?" said Mme. Favoral.
Something like a discussion was heard in the hall,—a voice hoarse with anger, and the servant's voice.
"Go and see who's there," said Gilberte to her brother.
It was useless; the servant appeared.
"It's M. Bertan," she commenced, "the baker—" He had followed her, and, pushing her aside with his robust arm, he appeared himself. He was a man about forty years of age, tall, thin, already bald, and wearing his beard trimmed close.
"M. Favoral?" he inquired.
"My father is not at home," replied Maxence.
"It's true, then, what I have just been told?"
"That the police came to arrest him, and he escaped through a window."
"It's true," replied Maxence gently.
The baker seemed prostrated.
"And my money?" he asked.
"Why, my ten thousand francs! Ten thousand francs which I brought to M. Favoral, in gold, you hear? in ten rolls, which I placed there, on that very table, and for which he gave me a receipt. Here it is,—his receipt."
He held out a paper; but Maxence did not take it.
"I do not doubt your word, sir," he replied; "but my father's business is not ours."
"You refuse to give me back my money?"
"Neither my mother, my sister, nor myself, have any thing."
The blood rushed to the man's face, and, with a tongue made thick by anger,
"And you think you are going to pay me off in that way?" he exclaimed. "You have nothing! Poor little fellow! And will you tell me, then, what has become of the twenty millions your father has stolen? for he has stolen twenty millions. I know it: I have been told so. Where are they?"
"The police, sir, has placed the seals over my fathers papers."
"The police?" interrupted the baker, "the seals? What do I care for that? It's my money I want: do you hear? Justice is going to take a hand in it, is it? Arrest your father, try him? What good will that do me? He will be condemned to two or three years' imprisonment. Will that give me a cent? He will serve out his time quietly; and, when he gets out of prison, he'll get hold of the pile that he's got hidden somewhere; and while I starve, he'll spend my money under my very nose. No, no! Things won't suit me that way. It's at once that I want to be paid."
And throwing himself upon a chair his head back, and his legs stretched forward—
"And what's more," he declared, "I am not going out of here until I am paid."
It was not without the greatest efforts that Maxence managed to keep his temper.
"Your insults are useless, sir," he commenced.
The man jumped up from his seat.
"Insults!" he cried in a voice that could have been heard all through the house. "Do you call it an insult when a man claims his own? If you think you can make me hush, you are mistaken in your man, M. Favoral, Jun. I am not rich myself: my father has not stolen to leave me an income. It is not in gambling at the bourse that I made these ten thousand francs. It is by the sweat of my body, by working hard night and day for years, by depriving myself of a glass of wine when I was thirsty. And I am to lose them? By the holy name of heaven, we'll have to see about that! If everybody was like me, there would not be so many scoundrels going about, their pockets filled with other people's money, and from the top of their carriage laughing at the poor fools they have ruined. Come, my ten thousand francs, canaille, or I take my pay on your back."
Maxence, enraged, was about to throw himself upon the man, and a disgusting struggle was about to begin, when Mlle. Gilberte stepped between them.
"Your threats are as cowardly as your insults, Monsieur Bertan," she uttered in a quivering voice. "You have known us long enough to be aware that we know nothing of our father's business, and that we have nothing ourselves. All we can do is to give up to our creditors our very last crumb. Thus it shall be done. And now, sir, please retire."
There was so much dignity in her sorrow, and so imposing was her attitude, that the baker stood abashed.
"Ah! if that's the way," he stammered awkwardly; "and since you meddle with it, mademoiselle—" And he retreated precipitately, growling at the same time threats and excuses, and slamming the doors after him hard enough to break the partitions.
"What a disgrace!" murmured Mme. Favoral. Crushed by this last scene, she was choking; and her children had to carry her to the open window. She recovered almost at once; but thus, through the darkness, bleak and cold, she had like a vision of her husband; and, throwing herself back,
"O great heavens!" she uttered, "where did he go when he left us? Where is he now? What is he doing? What has become of him?"
Her married life had been for Mme. Favoral but a slow torture. It was in vain that she would have looked back through her past life for some of those happy days which leave their luminous track in life, and towards which the mind turns in the hours of grief. Vincent Favoral had never been aught but a brutal despot, abusing the resignation of his victim. And yet, had he died, she would have wept bitterly over him in all the sincerity of her honest and simple soul. Habit! Prisoners have been known to shed tears over the grave of their jailer. Then he was her husband, after all, the father of her children, the only man who existed for her. For twenty-six years they had never been separated: they had sat at the same table: they had slept side by side.
Yes, she would have wept over him. But how much less poignant would her grief have been than at this moment, when it was complicated by all the torments of uncertainty, and by the most frightful apprehensions!
Fearing lest she might take cold, her children had removed her to the sofa, and there, all shivering,
"Isn't it horrible," she said, "not to know any thing of your father? —to think that at this very moment, perhaps, pursued by the police, he is wandering in despair through the streets, without daring to ask anywhere for shelter."
Her children had no time to answer and comfort her; for at this moment the door-bell rang again.
"Who can it be now?" said Mme. Favoral with a start.
This time there was no discussion in the hall. Steps sounded on the floor of the dining-room; the door opened; and M. Desclavettes, the old bronze-merchant, walked, or rather slipped into the parlor.
Hope, fear, anger, all the sentiments which agitated his soul, could be read on his pale and cat-like face.
"It is I," he commenced.
Maxence stepped forward.
"Have you heard any thing from my father, sir?"
"No," answered the old merchant, "I confess I have not; and I was just coming to see if you had yourselves. Oh, I know very well that this is not exactly the hour to call at a house; but I thought, that, after what took place this evening, you would not be in bed yet. I could not sleep myself. You understand a friendship of twenty years' standing! So I took Mme. Desclavettes home, and here I am."
"We feel very thankful for your kindness," murmured Mme. Favoral.
"I am glad you do. The fact is, you see, I take a good deal of interest in the misfortune that strikes you,—a greater interest than any one else. For, after all, I, too, am a victim. I had intrusted one hundred and twenty thousand francs to our dear Vincent."
"Alas, sir!" said Mlle. Gilberte.
But the worthy man did not allow her to proceed. "I have no fault to find with him," he went on—"absolutely none. Why, dear me! haven't I been in business myself? and don't I know what it is? First, we borrow a thousand francs or so from the cash account, then ten thousand, then a hundred thousand. Oh! without any bad intention, to be sure, and with the firm resolution to return them. But we don't always do what we wish to do. Circumstances sometimes work against us, if we operate at the bourse to make up the deficit we lose. Then we must borrow again, draw from Peter to pay Paul. We are afraid of being caught: we are compelled, reluctantly of course, to alter the books. At last a day comes when we find that millions are gone, and the bomb-shell bursts. Does it follow from this that a man is dishonest? Not the least in the world: he is simply unlucky."
He stopped, as if awaiting an answer; but, as none came, he resumed,
"I repeat, I have no fault to find with Favoral. Only then, now, between us, to lose these hundred and twenty thousand francs would simply be a disaster for me. I know very well that both Chapelain and Desormeaux had also deposited funds with Favoral. But they are rich: one of them owns three houses in Paris, and the other has a good situation; whereas I, these hundred and twenty thousand francs gone, I'd have nothing left but my eyes to weep with. My wife is dying about it. I assure you our position is a terrible one."
To M. Desclavettes,—as to the baker a few moments before,
"We have nothing," said Maxence.
"I know it," exclaimed the old merchant. "I know it as well as you do yourself. And so I have come to beg a little favor of you, which will cost you nothing. When you see Favoral, remember me to him, explain my situation to him, and try to make him give me back my money. He is a hard one to fetch, that's a fact. But if you go right about it, above all, if our dear Gilberte will take the matter in hand."
"Oh! I swear I sha'n't say a word about it, either to Desormeaux or Chapelain, nor to any one else. Although reimbursed, I'll make as much noise as the rest,—more noise, even. Come, now, my dear friends, what do you say?"
He was almost crying.
"And where the deuse," exclaimed Maxence, "do you expect my father to take a hundred and twenty thousand francs? Didn't you see him go without even taking the money that M. de Thaller had brought?"
A smile appeared upon M. Desclavettes' pale lips.
"That will do very well to say, my dear Maxence;" he said, "and some people may believe it. But don't say it to your old friend, who knows too much about business for that. When a man puts off, after borrowing twelve millions from his employers, he would be a great fool if he had not put away two or three in safety. Now, Favoral is not a fool."
Tears of shame and anger started from Mlle. Gilberte's eyes.
"What you are saying is abominable, sir!" she exclaimed.
He seemed much surprised at this outburst of violence.
"Why so?" he answered. "In Vincent's place, I should not have hesitated to do what he has certainly done. And I am an honest man too. I was in business for twenty years; and I dare any one to prove that a note signed Desclavettes ever went to protest. And so, my dear friends, I beseech you, consent to serve your old friend, and, when you see your father—"
The old man's tone of voice exasperated even Mme. Favoral herself.
"We never expect to see my husband again," she uttered.
He shrugged his shoulders, and, in a tone of paternal reproach,
"You just give up all such ugly ideas," he said. "You will see him again, that dear Vincent; for he is much too sharp to allow himself to be caught. Of course, he'll stay away as long as it may be necessary; but, as soon as he can return without danger, he will do so. The Statute of Limitations has not been invented for the Grand Turk. Why, the Boulevard is crowded with people who have all had their little difficulty, and who have spent five or ten years abroad for their health. Does any one think any thing of it? Not in the least; and no one hesitates to shake hands with them. Besides, those things are so soon forgotten."
He kept on as if he never intended to stop; and it was not without trouble that Maxence and Gilberte succeeded in sending him off, very much dissatisfied to see his request so ill received. It was after twelve o'clock. Maxence was anxious to return to his own home; but, at the pressing instances of his mother, he consented to remain, and threw himself, without undressing, on the bed in his old room.
"What will the morrow bring forth?" he thought.
After a few hours of that leaden sleep which follows great catastrophes, Mme. Favoral and her children were awakened on the morning of the next day, which was Sunday, by the furious clamors of an exasperated crowd. Each one, from his own room, understood that the apartment had just been invaded. Loud blows upon the door were mingled with the noise of feet, the oaths of men, and the screams of women. And, above this confused and continuous tumult, such vociferations as these could be heard:
"I tell you they must be at home!"
"Canailles, swindlers, thieves!"
"We want to go in: we will go in!"
"Let the woman come, then: we want to see her, to speak to her!"
Occasionally there were moments of silence, during which the plaintive voice of the servant could be heard; but almost at once the cries and the threats commenced again, louder than ever. Maxence, being ready first, ran to the parlor, where his mother and sister joined him directly, their eyes swollen by sleep and by tears. Mme. Favoral was trembling so much that she could not succeed in fastening her dress.
"Do you hear?" she said in a choking voice.
From the parlor, which was divided from the dining-room by folding-doors, they did not miss a single insult.
"Well," said Mlle. Gilberte coldly, "what else could we expect? If Bertan came alone last night, it is because he alone had been notified. Here are the others now."
And, turning to her brother,
"You must see them," she added, "speak to them."
But Maxence did not stir. The idea of facing the insults and the curses of these enraged creditors was too repugnant to him.
"Would you rather let them break in the door?" said Mlle. Gilberte. "That won't take long."
He hesitated no more. Gathering all his courage, he stepped into the dining-room. The disorder was beyond limits. The table had been pushed towards one of the corners, the chairs were upset. They were there some thirty men and women,—concierges, shop-keepers, and retired bourgeois of the neighborhood, their cheeks flushed, their eyes staring, gesticulating as if they had a fit, shaking their clinched fists at the ceiling.
"Gentlemen," commenced Maxence.
But his voice was drowned by the most frightful shouts. He had hardly got in, when he was so closely surrounded, that he had been unable to close the parlor-door after him, and had been driven and backed against the embrasure of a window.
"My father, gentlemen," he resumed.
Again he was interrupted. There were three or four before him, who were endeavoring before all to establish their own claims clearly.
They were speaking all at once, each one raising his own voice so as to drown that of the others. And yet, through their confused explanations, it was easy to understand the way in which the cashier of the Mutual Credit had managed things.
Formerly it was only with great reluctance that he consented to take charge of the funds which were offered to him; and then he never accepted sums less than ten thousand francs, being always careful to say, that, not being a prophet, he could not answer for any thing, and might be mistaken, like any one else. Since the Commune, on the contrary, and with a duplicity, that could never have been suspected, he had used all his ingenuity to attract deposits. Under some pretext or other, he would call among the neighbors, the shop-keepers; and, after lamenting with them about the hard times and the difficulty of making money, he always ended by holding up to them the dazzling profits which are yielded by certain investments unknown to the public.
If these very proceedings had not betrayed him, it is because he recommended to each the most inviolable secrecy, saying, that, at the slightest indiscretion, he would be assailed with demands, and that it would be impossible for him to do for all what he did for one.
At any rate, he took every thing that was offered, even the most insignificant sums, affirming, with the most imperturbable assurance, that he could double or treble them without the slightest risk.
The catastrophe having come, the smaller creditors showed themselves, as usual, the most angry and the most intractable. The less money one has, the more anxious one is to keep it. There was there an old newspaper-vender, who had placed in M. Favoral's hands all she had in the world, the savings of her entire life,—five hundred francs. Clinging desperately to Maxence's garments, she begged him to give them back to her, swearing, that, if he did not, there was nothing left for her to do, except to throw herself in the river. Her groans and her cries of distress exasperated the other creditors.
That the cashier of the Mutual Credit should have embezzled millions, they could well understand, they said. But that he could have robbed this poor woman of her five hundred francs,—nothing more low, more cowardly, and more vile could be imagined; and the law had no chastisement severe enough for such a crime.
"Give her back her five hundred francs;" they cried. For there was not one of them but would have wagered his head that M. Favoral had lots of money put away; and some went even so far as to say that he must have hid it in the house, and, if they looked well, they would find it.
Maxence, bewildered, was at a loss what to do, when, in the midst of this hostile crowd, he perceived M. Chapelain's friendly face.
Driven from his bed at daylight by the bitter regrets at the heavy loss he had just sustained, the old lawyer had arrived in the Rue St. Gilles at the very moment when the creditors invaded M. Favoral's apartment. Standing behind the crowd, he had seen and heard every thing without breathing a word; and, if he interfered now, it was because he thought things were about to take an ugly turn. He was well known; and, as soon as he showed himself,
"He is a friend of the rascal!" they shouted on all sides.
But he was not the man to be so easily frightened. He had seen many a worse case during twenty years that he had practised law, and had witnessed all the sinister comedies and all the grotesque dramas of money. He knew how to speak to infuriated creditors, how to handle them, and what strings can be made to vibrate within them. In the most quiet tone,
"Certainly," he answered, "I was Favoral's intimate friend; and the proof of it is, that he has treated me more friendly than the rest. I am in for a hundred and sixty thousand francs."
By this mere declaration he conquered the sympathies of the crowd. He was a brother in misfortune; they respected him: he was a skilful business-man; they stopped to listen to him.
At once, and in a short and trenchant tone, he asked these invaders what they were doing there, and what they wanted. Did they not know to what they exposed themselves in violating a domicile? What would have happened, if, instead of stopping to parley, Maxence had sent for the commissary of police? Was it to Mme. Favoral and her children that they had intrusted their funds? No! What did they want with them then? Was there by chance among them some of those shrewd fellows who always try to get themselves paid in full, to the detriment of the others?
This last insinuation proved sufficient to break up the perfect accord that had hitherto existed among all the creditors. Distrust arose; suspicious glances were exchanged; and, as the old newspaper woman was keeping up her groans,
"I should like to know why you should be paid before us," two women told her roughly. "Our rights are just as good as yours!"
Prompt to avail himself of the dispositions of the crowd,
"And, moreover," resumed the old lawyer, "in whom did we place our confidence? Was it in Favoral the private individual? To a certain extent, yes; but it was much more to the cashier of the Mutual Credit. Therefore that establishment owes us, at least, some explanations. And this is not all. Are we really so badly burned, that we should scream so loud? What do we know about it? That Favoral is charged with embezzlement, that they came to arrest him, and that he has run away. Is that any reason why our money should be lost? I hope not. And so what should we do? Act prudently, and wait patiently for the work of justice."
Already, by this time, the creditors had slipped out one by one; and soon the servant closed the door on the last of them.
Then Mme. Favoral, Maxence, and Mlle. Gilberte surrounded M. Chapelain, and, pressing his hands,
"How thankful we feel, sir, for the service you have just rendered us!"
But the old lawyer seemed in no wise proud of his victory.
"Do not thank me," he said. "I have only done my duty,—what any honest man would have done in my place."
And yet, under the appearance of impassible coldness, which he owed to the long practice of a profession which leaves no illusions, he evidently felt a real emotion.
"It is you whom I pity," he added, "and with all my soul,—you, madame, you, my dear Gilberte, and you, too, Maxence. Never had I so well understood to what degree is guilty the head of a family who leaves his wife and children exposed to the consequences of his crimes."
He stopped. The servant was trying her best to put the dining-room in some sort of order wheeling the table to the centre of the room, and lifting up the chairs from the floor.
"What pillage!" she grumbled. "Neighbors too,—people from whom we bought our things! But they were worse than savages; impossible to do any thing with them."
"Don't trouble yourself, my good girl," said M. Chapelain: "they won't come back any more!"
Mme. Favoral looked as if she wished to drop on her knees before the old lawyer.
"How, very kind you are!" she murmured: "you are not too angry with my poor Vincent!"
With the look of a man who has made up his mind to make the best of a disaster that he cannot help, M. Chapelain shrugged his shoulders.
"I am angry with no one but myself," he uttered in a bluff tone. "An old bird like me should not have allowed himself to be caught in a pigeon-trap. I am inexcusable. But we want to get rich. It's slow work getting rich by working, and it's so much easier to get the money already made out of our neighbor's pockets! I have been unable to resist the temptation myself. It's my own fault; and I should say it was a good lesson, if it did not cost so dear."
So much philosophy could hardly have been expected of him.
"All my father's friends are not as indulgent as you are," said Maxence,—"M. Desclavettes, for instance."
"Have you seen him?"
"Yes, last night, about twelve o'clock. He came to ask us to get father to pay him back, if we should ever see him again."
"That might be an idea!"
Mlle. Gilberte started.
"What!" said she, "you, too, sir, can imagine that my father has run away with millions?"
The old lawyer shook his head.
"I believe nothing," he answered. "Favoral has taken me in so completely,—me, who had the pretension of being a judge of men, —that nothing from him, either for good or for evil, could surprise me hereafter."
Mme. Favoral was about to offer some objection; but he stopped her with a gesture.
"And yet," he went on, "I'd bet that he has gone off with empty pockets. His recent operations reveal a frightful distress. Had he had a few thousand francs at his command, would he have extorted five hundred francs from a poor old woman, a newspaper-vender? What did he want with the money? Try his luck once more, no doubt."
He was seated, his elbow upon the arm of the chair, his head resting upon his hands, thinking; and the contraction of his features indicated an extraordinary tension of mind.
Suddenly he drew himself up.
"But why," he exclaimed, "why wander in idle conjectures? What do we know about Favoral? Nothing. One entire side of his existence escapes us,—that fantastic side, of which the insane prodigalities and inconceivable disorders have been revealed to us by the bills found in his desk. He is certainly guilty; but is he as guilty as we think? and, above all, is he alone guilty? Was it for himself alone that he drew all this money? Are the missing millions really lost? and wouldn't it be possible to find the biggest share of them in the pockets of some accomplice? Skilful men do not expose themselves. They have at their command poor wretches, sacrificed in advance, and who, in exchange for a few crumbs that are thrown to them, risk the criminal court, are condemned, and go to prison."
"That's just what I was telling my mother and sister, sir," interrupted Maxence.
"And that's what I am telling myself," continued the old lawyer. "I have been thinking over and over again of last evening's scene; and strange doubts have occurred to my mind. For a man who has been robbed of a dozen millions, M. de Thaller was remarkably quiet and self-possessed. Favoral appeared to me singularly calm for a man charged with embezzlement and forgery. M. de Thaller, as manager of the Mutual Credit, is really responsible for the stolen funds, and, as such, should have been anxious to secure the guilty party, and to produce him. Instead of that, he wished him to go, and actually brought him the money to enable him to leave. Was he in hopes of hushing up the affair? Evidently not, since the police had been notified. On the other hand, Favoral seemed much more angry than surprised by the occurrence. It was only on the appearance of the commissary of police that he seems to have lost his head; and then some very strange things escaped him, which I cannot understand."
He was walking at random through the parlor, apparently rather answering the objections of his own mind than addressing himself to his interlocutors, who were listening, nevertheless, with all the attention of which they were capable.
"I don't know," he went on. "An old traveler like me to be taken in thus! Evidently there is under all this one of those diabolical combinations which time even fails to unravel. We ought to see, to inquire—"
And then, suddenly stopping in front of Maxence,
"How much did M. de Thaller bring to your father last evening?" he asked.
"Fifteen thousand francs."
"Where are they?"
"Put away in mother's room."
"When do you expect to take them back to M. de Thaller?"
"Why not to-day?"
"This is Sunday. The offices of the Mutual Credit must be closed."
"After the occurrences of yesterday, M. de Thaller must be at his office. Besides, haven't you his private address?"
"I beg your pardon, I have."
The old lawyer's small eyes were shining with unusual brilliancy. He certainly felt deeply the loss of his money; but the idea that he had been swindled for the benefit of some clever rascal was absolutely insupportable to him.
"If we were wise," he said again, "we'd do this. Mme. Favoral would take these fifteen thousand francs, and we would go together, she and I, to see M. de Thaller."
It was an unexpected good-fortune for Mme. Favoral, that M. Chapelain should consent to assist her. So, without hesitating,
"The time to dress, sir," she said, "and I am ready." She left the parlor; but as she reached her room, her son joined her.
"I am obliged to go out, dear mother," he said; "and I shall probably not be home to breakfast."
She looked at him with an air of painful surprise. "What," she said, "at such a moment!"
"I am expected home."
"By whom? A woman?" she murmured.
"And it is for that woman's sake that you want to leave your sister alone at home?"
"I must, mother, I assure you; and, if you only knew—"
"I do not wish to know, any thing."
But his resolution had been taken. He went off; and a few moments later Mme. Favoral and M. Chapelain entered a cab which had been sent for, and drove to M. de Thaller's.
Left alone, Mlle. Gilberte had but one thought,—to notify M. de Tregars, and obtain word from him. Any thing seemed preferable to the horrible anxiety which oppressed her. She had just commenced a letter, which she intended to have taken to the Count de Villegre, when a violent ring of the bell made her start; and almost immediately the servant came in, saying,
"It is a gentleman who wishes to see you, a friend of monsieur's, —M. Costeclar, you know."
Mlle. Gilberte started to her feet, trembling with excitement.
"That's too much impudence!" she exclaimed. She was hesitating whether to refuse him the door, or to see him, and dismiss him shamefully herself, when she had a sudden inspiration. "What does he want?" she thought. "Why not see him, and try and find out what he knows? For he certainly must know the truth."
But it was no longer time to deliberate. Above the servant's shoulder M. Costeclar's pale and impudent face showed itself.
The girl having stepped to one side, he appeared, hat in hand. Although it was not yet nine o'clock, his morning toilet was irreproachably correct. He had already passed through the hair-dresser's hands; and his scanty hair was brought forward over his low fore-head with the usual elaborate care.
He wore a pair of those ridiculous trousers which grow wide from the knee down, and which were invented by Prussian tailors to hide their customers' ugly feet. Under his light-colored overcoat could be seen a velvet-faced jacket, with a rose in its buttonhole.
Meantime, he remained motionless on the threshold of the door, trying to smile, and muttering one of those sentences which are never intended to be finished.
"I beg you to believe, mademoiselle—your mother's absence—my most respectful admiration—"
In fact, he was taken aback by the disorder of the girl's toilet, —disorder which she had had no time to repair since the clamors of the creditors had started her from her bed.
She wore a long brown cashmere wrapper, fitting quite close over the hips setting off the vigorous elegance of her figure, the maidenly perfections of her waist, and the exquisite contour of her neck. Gathered up in haste, her thick blonde hair escaped from beneath the pins, and spread over her shoulders in luminous cascades. Never had she appeared to M. Costeclar as lovely as at this moment, when her whole frame was vibrating with suppressed indignation, her cheeks flushed, her eyes flashing.
"Please come in, sir," she uttered.
He stepped forward, no longer bowing humbly as formerly, but with legs outstretched, chest thrown out, with an ill-concealed look of gratified vanity. "I did not expect the honor of your visit, sir," said the young girl.
Passing rapidly his hat and his cane from the right hand into the left, and then the right hand upon his heart, his eyes raised to the ceiling, and with all the depth of expression of which he was capable,
"It is in times of adversity that we know our real friends, mademoiselle," he uttered. "Those upon whom we thought we could rely the most, often, at the first reverse, take flight forever!"
She felt a shiver pass over her. Was this an allusion to Marius?
The other, changing his tone, went on,
"It's only last night that I heard of poor Favoral's discomfiture, at the bourse where I had gone for news. It was the general topic of conversation. Twelve millions! That's pretty hard. The Mutual Credit Society might not be able to stand it. From 580, at which it was selling before the news, it dropped at once to 300. At nine o'clock, there were no takers at 180. And yet, if there is nothing beyond what they say, at 180, I am in."
Was he forgetting himself, or pretending to?
"But please excuse me, mademoiselle," he resumed: "that's not what I came to tell you. I came to ask if you had any news of our poor Favoral."
"We have none, sir."
"Then it is true: he succeeded in getting away through this window?"
"And he did not tell you where he meant to take refuge?"
Observing M. Costeclar with all her power of penetration, Mlle. Gilberte fancied she discovered in him something like a certain surprise mingled with joy.
"Then Favoral must have left without a sou!"
"They accuse him of having carried away millions, sir; but I would swear that it is not so."
M. Costeclar approved with a nod.
"I am of the same opinion," he declared, "unless—but no, he was not the man to try such a game. And yet—but again no, he was too closely watched. Besides, he was carrying a very heavy load, a load that exhausted all his resources."
Mlle. Gilberte, hoping that she was going to learn something, made an effort to preserve her indifference.
"What do you mean?" she inquired.
He looked at her, smiled, and, in a light tone,
"Nothing," he answered, "only some conjectures of my own."
And throwing himself upon a chair, his head leaning upon its back,
"That is not the object of my visit either," he uttered. "Favoral is overboard: don't let us say any thing more about him. Whether he has got 'the bag' or not, you'll never see him again: he is as good as dead. Let us, therefore, talk of the living, of yourself. What's going to become of you?"
"I do not understand your question, sir."
"It is perfectly limpid, nevertheless. I am asking myself how you are going to live, your mother and yourself?"
"Providence will not abandon us, sir."
M. Costeclar had crossed his legs, and with the end of his cane he was negligently tapping his immaculate boot.
"Providence!" he giggled; "that's very good on the stage, in a play, with low music in the orchestra. I can just see it. In real life, unfortunately, the life which we both live, you and I, it is not with words, were they a yard long, that the baker, the grocer, and those rascally landlords, can be paid, or that dresses and shoes can be bought."
She made no answer.
"Now, then," he went on, "here you are without a penny. Is it Maxence who will supply you with money? Poor fellow! Where would he get it? He has hardly enough for himself. Therefore, what are you going to do?"
"I shall work, sir."
He got up, bowed low, and, resuming his seat,
"My sincere compliments," he said. "There is but one obstacle to that fine resolution: it is impossible for a woman to live by her labor alone. Servants are about the only ones who ever get their full to eat."
"I'll be a servant, if necessary."
For two or three seconds he remained taken aback, but, recovering himself,
"How different things would be," he resumed in an insinuating tone, "if you had not rejected me when I wanted to become your husband! But you couldn't bear the sight of me. And yet, 'pon my word, I was in love with you, oh, but for good and earnest! You see, I am a judge of women; and I saw very well how you would look, handsomely dressed and got up, leaning back in a fine carriage in the Bois—"
Stronger than her will, disgust rose to her lips.
"Ah, sir!" she said.
He mistook her meaning.
"You are regretting all that," he continued. "I see it. Formerly, eh, you would never have consented to receive me thus, alone with you, which proves that girls should not be headstrong, my dear child."
He, Costeclar, he dared to call her, "My dear child." Indignant and insulted, "Oh!" she exclaimed. But he had started, and kept on,
"Well, such as I was, I am still. To be sure, there probably would be nothing further said about marriage between us; but, frankly, what would you care if the conditions were the same,—a fine house, carriages, horses, servants—"
Up to this moment, she had not fully understood him. Drawing herself up to her fullest height, and pointing to the door,
"Leave this moment," she ordered.
But he seemed in no wise disposed to do so: on the contrary, paler than usual, his eyes bloodshot, his lips trembling, and smiling a strange smile, he advanced towards Mlle. Gilberte.
"What!" said he. "You are in trouble, I kindly come to offer my services, and this is the way you receive me! You prefer to work, do you? Go ahead then, my lovely one, prick your pretty fingers, and redden your eyes. My time will come. Fatigue and want, cold in the winter, hunger in all seasons, will speak to your little heart of that kind Costeclar who adores you, like a big fool that he is, who is a serious man and who has money,—much money."
"Wretch!" cried the girl, "leave, leave at once."
"One moment," said a strong voice.
M. Costeclar looked around.
Marius de Tregars stood within the frame of the open door.
"Marius!" murmured Mlle. Gilberte, rooted to the spot by a surprise hardly less immense than her joy.
To behold him thus suddenly, when she was wondering whether she would ever see him again; to see him appear at the very moment when she found herself alone, and exposed to the basest outrages, —it was one of those fortunate occurrences which one can scarcely realize; and from the depth of her soul rose something like a hymn of thanks.
Nevertheless, she was confounded at M. Costeclar's attitude. According to her, and from what she thought she knew, he should have been petrified at the sight of M. de Tregars.
And he did not even seem to know him. He seemed shocked, annoyed at being interrupted, slightly surprised, but in no wise moved or frightened. Knitting his brows,
"What do you wish?" he inquired in his most impertinent tone.
M. de Tregars stepped forward. He was somewhat pale, but unnaturally calm, cool, and collected. Bowing to Mlle. Gilberte,
"If I have thus ventured to enter your apartment, mademoiselle," he uttered gently, "it is because, as I was going by the door, I thought I recognized this gentleman's carriage."
And, with his finger over his shoulder, he was pointing to M. Costeclar.
"Now," he went on, "I had reason to be somewhat astonished at this, after the positive orders I had given him never to set his feet, not only in this house, but in this part of the city. I wished to find out exactly. I came up: I heard—"
All this was said in a tone of such crushing contempt, that a slap on the face would have been less cruel. All the blood in M. Costeclar's veins rushed to his face.
"You!" he interrupted insolently: "I do not know you."
Imperturbable, M. de Tregars was drawing off his gloves.
"Are you quite certain of that?" he replied. "Come, you certainly know my old friend, M. de Villegre?"
An evident feeling of anxiety appeared on M. Costeclar's countenance.
"I do," he stammered.
"Did not M. Villegre call upon you before the war?"
"Well, 'twas I who sent him to you; and the commands which he delivered to you were mine."
"Mine. I am Marius de Tregars."
A nervous shudder shook M. Costeclar's lean frame. Instinctively his eye turned towards the door.
"You see," Marius went on with the same gentleness, "we are, you and I, old acquaintances. For you quite remember me now, don't you? I am the son of that poor Marquis de Tregars who came to Paris, all the way from his old Brittany with his whole fortune, —two millions."
"I remember," said the stock-broker: "I remember perfectly well."
"On the advice of certain clever people, the Marquis de Tregars ventured into business. Poor old man! He was not very sharp. He was firmly persuaded that he had already more than doubled his capital, when his honorable partners demonstrated to him that he was ruined, and, besides, compromised by certain signatures imprudently given."
Mlle. Gilberte was listening, her mouth open, and wondering what Marius was aiming at, and how he could remain so calm.
"That disaster," he went on, "was at the time the subject of an enormous number of very witty jokes. The people of the bourse could hardly admire enough these bold financiers who had so deftly relieved that candid marquis of his money. That was well done for him; what was he meddling with? As to myself, to stop the prosecutions with which my father was threatened, I gave up all I had. I was quite young, and, as you see, quite what you call, I believe, 'green.' I am no longer so now. Were such a thing to happen to me to-day, I should want to know at once what had become of the millions: I would feel all the pockets around me. I would say, 'Stop thief!'"
At every word, as it were, M. Costeclar's uneasiness became more manifest.
"It was not I," he said, "who received the benefit of M. de Tregars' fortune."
Marius nodded approvingly.
"I know now," he replied, "among whom the spoils were divided. You, M. Costeclar, you took what you could get, timidly, and according to your means. Sharks are always accompanied by small fishes, to which they abandon the crumbs they disdain. You were but a small fish then: you accommodated yourself with what your patrons, the sharks, did not care about. But, when you tried to operate alone, you were not shrewd enough: you left proofs of your excessive appetite for other people's money. Those proofs I have in my possession."
M. Costeclar was now undergoing perfect torture.
"I am caught," he said, "I know it: I told M. de Villegre so."
"Why are you here, then?"
"How did I know that the count had been sent by you?"
"That's a poor reason, sir."
"Besides, after what has occurred, after Favoral's flight, I thought myself relieved of my engagement."
"Well, if you insist upon it, I am wrong, I suppose."
"Not only you are wrong," uttered Marius still perfectly cool, "but you have committed a great imprudence. By failing to keep your engagements, you have relieved me of mine. The pact is broken. According to the agreement, I have the right, as I leave here, to go straight to the police."
M. Costeclar's dull eye was vacillating.
"I did not think I was doing wrong," he muttered. "Favoral was my friend."
"And that's the reason why you were coming to propose to Mlle. Favoral to become your mistress? There she is, you thought, without resources, literally without bread, without relatives, without friends to protect her: this is the time to come forward. And thinking you could be cowardly, vile, and infamous with impunity, you came."
To be thus treated, he, the successful man, in presence of this young girl, whom, a moment before, he was crushing with his impudent opulence, no, M. Costeclar could not stand it. Losing completely his head,
"You should have let me know, then," he exclaimed, "that she was your mistress."
Something like a flame passed over M. de Tregars' face. His eyes flashed. Rising in all the height of his wrath, which broke out terrible at last,
"Ah, you scoundrel!" he exclaimed.
M. Costeclar threw himself suddenly to one side.
But at one bound M. de Tregars had caught him.
"On your knees!" he cried.
And, seizing him by the collar with an iron grip, he lifted him clear off the floor, and then threw him down violently upon both knees.
"Speak!" he commanded. "Repeat,—'Mademoiselle'"
M. Costeclar had expected worse from M. de Tregars' look. A horrible fear had instantly crushed within him all idea of resistance.
"Mademoiselle," he stuttered in a choking voice. "I am the vilest of wretches," continued Marius. M. Costeclar's livid face was oscillating like an inert object.
"I am," he repeated, "the vilest of wretches."
"And I beg of you—"
But Mlle. Gilberte was sick of the sight.
"Enough," she interrupted, "enough!"
Feeling no longer upon his shoulders the heavy hand of M. de Tregars, the stock-broker rose with difficulty to his feet. So livid was his face, that one might have thought that his whole blood had turned to gall.
Dusting with the end of his glove the knees of his trousers, and restoring as best he could the harmony of his toilet, which had been seriously disturbed,
"Is it showing any courage," he grumbled, "to abuse one's physical strength?"
M. de Tregars had already recovered his self-possession; and Mlle. Gilberte thought she could read upon his face regret for his violence.
"Would it be better to make use of what you know?" M. Costeclar joined his hands.
"You would not do that," he said. "What good would it do you to ruin me?"
"None," answered M. de Tregars: "you are right. But yourself?"
And, looking straight into M. Costeclar's eyes,—"If you could be of service to me," he inquired, "would you be willing?"
"Perhaps. That I might recover possession of the papers you have."
M. de Tregars was thinking.
"After what has just taken place," he said at last, "an explanation is necessary between us. I will be at your house in an hour. Wait for me."
M. Costeclar had become more pliable than his own lavender kid gloves: in fact, alarmingly pliable.
"I am at your command, sir," he replied to M. de Tregars.
And, bowing to the ground before Mlle. Gilberte, he left the parlor; and, a few moments after, the street-door was heard to close upon him.
"Ah, what a wretch!" exclaimed the girl, dreadfully agitated. "Marius, did you see what a look he gave us as he went out?"
"I saw it," replied M. de Tregars.
"That man hates us: he will not hesitate to commit a crime to avenge the atrocious humiliation you have just inflicted upon him."
"I believe it too."
Mlle. Gilberte made a gesture of distress.
"Why did you treat him so harshly?" she murmured.
"I had intended to remain calm, and it would have been politic to have done so. But there are some insults which a man of heart cannot endure. I do not regret what I have done."
A long pause followed; and they remained standing, facing each other, somewhat embarrassed. Mlle. Gilberte felt ashamed of the disorder of her dress. M. de Tregars wondered how he could have been bold enough to enter this house.
"You have heard of our misfortune," said the young girl at last.
"I read about it this morning, in the papers."
"What! the papers know already?"
"And our name is printed in them?"
She covered her face with her two hands.
"What disgrace!" she said.
"At first," went on M. de Tregars, "I could hardly believe what I read. I hastened to come; and the first shopkeeper I questioned confirmed only too well what I had seen in the papers. From that moment, I had but one wish,—to see and speak to you. When I reached the door, I recognized M. Costeclar's equipage, and I had a presentiment of the truth. I inquired from the concierge for your mother or your brother, and heard that Maxence had gone out a few moments before, and that Mme. Favoral had just left in a carriage with M. Chapelain, the old lawyer. At the idea that you were alone with Costeclar, I hesitated no longer. I ran up stairs, and, finding the door open, had no occasion to ring."
Mlle. Gilberte could hardly repress the sobs that rose to her throat.
"I never hoped to see you again," she stammered; "and you'll find there on the table the letter I had just commenced for you when M. Costeclar interrupted me."
M. de Tregars took it up quickly. Two lines only were written. He read: "I release you from your engagement, Marius. Henceforth you are free."
He became whiter than his shirt.
"You wish to release me from my engagement!" he exclaimed. "You—"
"Is it not my duty? Ah! if it had only been our fortune, I should perhaps have rejoiced to lose it. I know your heart. Poverty would have brought us nearer together. But it's honor, Marius, honor that is lost too! The name I bear is forever stained. Whether my father is caught, or whether he escapes, he will be tried all the same, condemned, and sentenced to a degrading penalty for embezzlement and forgery."
If M. de Tregars was allowing her to proceed thus, it was because he felt all his thoughts whirling in his brain; because she looked so beautiful thus, all in tears, and her hair loose; because there arose from her person so subtle a charm, that words failed him to express the sensations that agitated him.
"Can you," she went on, "take for your wife the daughter of a dishonored man? No, you cannot. Forgive me, then, for having for a moment turned away your life from its object; forgive the sorrow which I have caused you; leave me to the misery of my fate; forget me!"
She was suffocating.
"Ah, you have never loved me!" exclaimed Marius.
Raising her hands to heaven,
"Thou hearest him, great God!" she uttered, as if shocked by a blasphemy.
"Would it be easy for you to forget me then? Were I to be struck by misfortune, would you break our engagement, cease to love me?"
She ventured to take his hands, and, pressing them between hers,
"To cease loving you no longer depends on my will," she murmured with quivering lips. "Poor, abandoned of all, disgraced, criminal even, I should love you still and always."
With a passionate gesture, Marius threw his arm around her waist, and, drawing her to his breast, covered her blonde hair with burning kisses.
"Well, 'tis thus that I love you too!" he exclaimed, "and with all my soul, exclusively, and for life! What do I care for your parents? Do I know them? Your father—does he exist? Your name —it is mine, the spotless name of the Tregars. You are my wife! mine, mine!"
She was struggling feebly: an almost invincible stupor was creeping over her. She felt her reason disturbed, her energy giving way, a film before her eyes, the air failing to her heaving chest.
A great effort of her will restored her to consciousness. She withdrew gently, and sank upon a chair, less strong against joy than she had been against sorrow.
"Pardon me," she stammered, "pardon me for having doubted you!"
M. de Tregars was not much less agitated than Mlle. Gilberte: but he was a man; and the springs of his energy were of a superior temper. In less than a minute he had fully recovered his self-possession and imposed upon his features their accustomed expression. Drawing a chair by the side of Mlle. Gilberte,
"Permit me, my friend," he said, "to remind you that our moments are numbered, and that there are many details which it is urgent that I should know."
"What details?" she asked, raising her head.
"About your father."
She looked at him with an air of profound surprise.
"Do you not know more about it than I do?" she replied, "more than my mother, more than any of us? Did you not, whilst following up the people who robbed your father, strike mine unwittingly? And 'tis I, wretch that I am, who inspired you to that fatal resolution; and I have not the heart to regret it."
M. de Tregars had blushed imperceptibly. "How did you know?" he began.
"Was it not said that you were about to marry Mlle. de Thaller?"
He drew up suddenly.
"Never," he exclaimed, "has this marriage existed, except in the brain of M. de Thaller, and, more still, of the Baroness de Thaller. That ridiculous idea occurred to her because she likes my name, and would be delighted to see her daughter Marquise de Tregars. She has never breathed a word of it to me; but she has spoken of it everywhere, with just enough secrecy to give rise to a good piece of parlor gossip. She went so far as to confide to several persons of my acquaintance the amount of the dowry, thinking thus to encourage me. As far as I could, I warned you against this false news through the Signor Gismondo."
"The Signor Gismondo relieved me of cruel anxieties," she replied; "but I had suspected the truth from the first. Was I not the confidante of your hopes? Did I not know your projects? I had taken for granted that all this talk about a marriage was but a means to advance yourself in M. de Thaller's intimacy without awaking his suspicions."
M. de Tregars was not the man to deny a true fact.
"Perhaps, indeed, I have not been wholly foreign to M. Favoral's disaster. At least I may have hastened it a few months, a few days only, perhaps; for it was inevitable, fatal. Nevertheless, had I suspected the real facts, I would have given up my designs —Gilberte, I swear it—rather than risk injuring your father. There is no undoing what is done; but the evil may, perhaps, be somewhat lessened."
Mlle. Gilberte started.
"Great heavens!" she exclaimed, "do you, then, believe my father innocent?"
Better than any one else, Mlle. Gilberte must have been convinced of her father's guilt. Had she not seen him humiliated and trembling before M. de Thaller? Had she not heard him, as it were, acknowledge the truth of the charge that was brought against him? But at twenty hope never forsakes us, even in presence of facts.
And when she understood by M. de Tregars' silence that she was mistaken,
"It's madness," she murmured, dropping her head:
"I feel it but too well. But the heart speaks louder than reason. It is so cruel to be driven to despise one's father!"
She wiped the tears which filled her eyes, and, in a firmer voice,
"What happened is so incomprehensible!" she went on. "How can I help imagining some one of those mysteries which time alone unravels. For twenty-four hours we have been losing ourselves in idle conjectures, and, always and fatally, we come to this conclusion, that my father must be the victim of some mysterious intrigue.
"M. Chapelain, whom a loss of a hundred and sixty thousand francs has not made particularly indulgent, is of that opinion."
"And so am I," exclaimed Marius.
"You see, then—"
But without allowing her to proceed and taking gently her hand,
"Let me tell you all," he interrupted, "and try with you to find an issue to this horrible situation. Strange rumors are afloat about M. Favoral. It is said that his austerity was but a mask, his sordid economy a means of gaining confidence. It is affirmed that in fact he abandoned himself to all sorts of disorders; that he had, somewhere in Paris, an establishment, where he lavished the money of which he was so sparing here. Is it so? The same thing is said of all those in whose hands large fortunes have melted."
The young girl had become quite red.
"I believe that is true," she replied. "The commissary of police stated so to us. He found among my father's papers receipted bills for a number of costly articles, which could only have been intended for a woman."
M. de Tregars looked perplexed.
"And does any one know who this woman is?" he asked.
"Whoever she may be, I admit that she may have cost M. Favoral considerable sums. But can she have cost him twelve millions?"
"Precisely the remark which M. Chapelain made."
"And which every sensible man must also make. I know very well that to conceal for years a considerable deficit is a costly operation, requiring purchases and sales, the handling and shifting of funds, all of which is ruinous in the extreme. But, on the other hand, M. Favoral was making money, a great deal of money. He was rich: he was supposed to be worth millions. Otherwise, Costeclar would never have asked your hand."
"M. Chapelain pretends that at a certain time my father had at least fifty thousand francs a year."
For two or three minutes M. de Tregars remained silent, reviewing in his mind every imaginable eventuality, and then,
"But no matter," he resumed. "As soon as I heard this morning the amount of the deficit, doubts came to my mind. And it is for that reason, dear friend, that I was so anxious to see you and speak to you. It would be necessary for me to know exactly what occurred here last night."
Rapidly, but without omitting a single useful detail, Mlle. Gilberte narrated the scenes of the previous night—the sudden appearance of M. de Thaller, the arrival of the commissary of police, M. Favoral's escape, thanks to Maxence's presence of mind. Every one of her father's words had remained present to her mind; and it was almost literally that she repeated his strange speeches to his indignant friends, and his incoherent remarks at the moment of flight, when, whilst acknowledging his fault, he said that he was not as guilty as they thought; that, at any rate, he was not alone guilty; and that he had been shamefully sacrificed. When she had finished,
"That's exactly what I thought," said M. de Tregars.
"M. Favoral accepted a role in one of those terrible financial dramas which ruin a thousand poor dupes to the benefit of two or three clever rascals. Your father wanted to be rich: he needed money to carry on his intrigues. He allowed himself to be tempted. But whilst he believed himself one of the managers, called upon to divide the receipts, he was but a scene-shifter with a stated salary. The moment of this denouement having come, his so-called partners disappeared through a trap-door with the cash, leaving him alone, as they say, to face the music."
"If that's the case," replied the young girl, "why didn't my father speak?"
"What was he to say?"
"Name his accomplices."
"And suppose he had no proofs of their complicity to offer? He was the cashier of the Mutual Credit; and it is from his cash that the millions are gone."
Mlle. Gilberte's conjectures had run far ahead of that sentence. Looking straight at Marius,
"Then," she said, "you believe, as M. Chapelain does, that M. de Thaller—"
"Ah! M. Chapelain thinks—"
"That the manager of the Mutual Credit must have known the fact of the frauds."
"And that he had his share of them?"
"A larger share than his cashier, yes."
A singular smile curled M. de Tregars' lips. "Quite possible," he replied: "that's quite possible."
For the past few moments Mlle. Gilberte's embarrassment was quite evident in her look. At last, overcoming her hesitation,
"Pardon me," said she, "I had imagined that M. de Thaller was one of those men whom you wished to strike; and I had indulged in the hope, that, whilst having justice done to your father, you were thinking, perhaps, of avenging mine."
M. de Tregars stood up, as if moved by a spring. "Well, yes!" he exclaimed. "Yes, you have correctly guessed. But how can we obtain this double result? A single misstep at this moment might lose all. Ah, if I only knew your father's real situation; if I could only see him and speak to him! In one word he might, perhaps, place in my hands a sure weapon,—the weapon that I have as yet been unable to find."
"Unfortunately," replied Mlle. Gilberte with a gesture of despair, "we are without news of my father; and he even refused to tell us where he expected to take refuge."
"But he will write, perhaps. Besides, we might look for him, quietly, so as not to excite the suspicions of the police; and if your brother Maxence was only willing to help me—"
"Alas! I fear that Maxence may have other cares. He insisted upon going out this morning, in spite of mother's request to the contrary."
But Marius stopped her, and, in the tone of a man who knows much more than he is willing to say,—"Do not calumniate Maxence," he said: "it is through him, perhaps, that we will receive the help that we need."
Eleven o'clock struck. Mlle. Gilberte started.
"Dear me!" she exclaimed, "mother will be home directly."
M. de Tregars might as well have waited for her. Henceforth he had nothing to conceal. Yet, after duly deliberating with the young girl, they decided that he should withdraw, and that he would send M. de Villegre to declare his intentions. He then left, and, five minutes later, Mme. Favoral and M. Chapelain appeared.
The ex-attorney was furious; and he threw the package of bank-notes upon the table with a movement of rage.
"In order to return them to M. de Thaller," he exclaimed, "it was at least necessary to see him. But the gentleman is invisible; keeps himself under lock and key, guarded by a perfect cloud of servants in livery."
Meantime, Mme. Favoral had approached her daughter.
"Your brother?" she asked in a whisper.
"He has not yet come home."
"Dear me!" sighed the poor mother: "at such a time he forsakes us, and for whose sake?"
Mme. Favoral, usually so indulgent, was too severe this time; and it was very unjustly that she accused her son. She forgot, and what mother does not forget, that he was twenty-five years of age, that he was a man, and that, outside of the family and of herself, he must have his own interests and his passions, his affections and his duties. Because he happened to leave the house for a few hours, Maxence was surely not forsaking either his mother or his sister. It was not without a severe internal struggle that he had made up his mind to go out, and, as he was going down the steps,
"Poor mother," he thought. "I am sure I am making her very unhappy; but how can I help it?"
This was the first time that he had been in the street since his farther's disaster had been known; and the impression produced upon him was painful in the extreme. Formerly, when he walked through the Rue St. Gilles, that street where he was born, and where he used to play as a boy, every one met him with a friendly nod or a familiar smile. True he was then the son of a man rich and highly esteemed; whereas this morning not a hand was extended, not a hat raised, on his passage. People whispered among themselves, and pointed him out with looks of hatred and irony. That was because he was now the son of the dishonest cashier tracked by the police, of the man whose crime brought disaster upon so many innocent parties.
Mortified and ashamed, Maxence was hurrying on, his head down, his cheek burning, his throat parched, when, in front of a wine-shop,
"Halloo!" said a man; "that's the son. What cheek!"
And farther on, in front of the grocer's.
"I tell you what," said a woman in the midst of a group, "they still have more than we have."
Then, for the first time, he understood with what crushing weight his father's crime would weigh upon his whole life; and, whilst going up the Rue Turenne:
"It's all over," he thought: "I can never get over it." And he was thinking of changing his name, of emigrating to America, and hiding himself in the deserts of the Far West, when, a little farther on, he noticed a group of some thirty persons in front of a newspaper-stand. The vender, a fat little man with a red face and an impudent look, was crying in a hoarse voice,
"Here are the morning papers! The last editions! All about the robbery of twelve millions by a poor cashier. Buy the morning papers!"
And, to stimulate the sale of his wares, he added all sorts of jokes of his own invention, saying that the thief belonged to the neighborhood; that it was quite flattering, etc.
The crowd laughed; and he went on,
"The cashier Favoral's robbery! twelve millions! Buy the paper, and see how it's done."
And so the scandal was public, irreparable. Maxence was listening a few steps off. He felt like going; but an imperative feeling, stronger than his will, made him anxious to see what the papers said.
Suddenly he made up his mind, and, stepping up briskly, he threw down three sous, seized a paper, and ran as if they had all known him.
"Not very polite, the gentleman," remarked two idlers whom he had pushed a little roughly.
Quick as he had been, a shopkeeper of the Rue Turenne had had time to recognize him.
"Why, that's the cashier's son!" he exclaimed. "Is it possible?"
"Why don't they arrest him?"
Half a dozen curious fellows, more eager than the rest, ran after him to try and see his face. But he was already far off.
Leaning against a gas-lamp on the Boulevard, he unfolded the paper he had just bought. He had no trouble looking for the article. In the middle of the first page, in the most prominent position, he read in large letters,
"At the moment of going to press, the greatest agitation prevails among the stock-brokers and operators at the bourse generally, owing to the news that one of our great banking establishments has just been the victim of a theft of unusual magnitude.
"At about five o'clock in the afternoon, the manager of the Mutual Credit Society, having need of some documents, went to look for them in the office of the head cashier, who was then absent. A memorandum forgotten on the table excited his suspicions. Sending at once for a locksmith, he had all the drawers broken open, and soon acquired the irrefutable evidence that the Mutual Credit had been defrauded of sums, which, as far as now known, amount to upwards of twelve millions.
"At once the police was notified; and M. Brosse, commissary of police, duly provided with a warrant, called at the guilty cashier's house.
"That cashier, named Favoral,—we do not hesitate to name him, since his name has already been made public,—had just sat down to dinner with some friends. Warned, no one knows how, he succeeded in escaping through a window into the yard of the adjoining house, and up to this hour has succeeded in eluding all search.
"It seems that these embezzlements had been going on for years, but had been skillfully concealed by false entries.
"M. Favoral had managed to secure the esteem of all who knew him. He led at home a more than modest existence. But that was only, as it were, his official life. Elsewhere, and under another name, he indulged in the most reckless expenses for the benefit of a woman with whom he was madly in love.
"Who this woman is, is not yet exactly known.
"Some mention a very fascinating young actress, who performs at a theatre not a hundred miles from the Rue Vivienne; others, a lady of the financial high life, whose equipages, diamonds, and dresses are justly famed.
"We might easily, in this respect, give particulars which would astonish many people; for we know all; but, at the risk of seeming less well informed than some others of our morning contemporaries, we will observe a silence which our readers will surely appreciate. We do not wish to add, by a premature indiscretion, any thing to the grief of a family already so cruelly stricken; for M. Favoral leaves behind him in the deepest sorrow a wife and two children,—a son of twenty-five, employed in a railroad office, and a daughter of twenty, remarkably handsome, who, a few months ago, came very near marrying M. C. ——.
Tears of rage obscured Maxence's sight whilst reading the last few lines of this terrible article. To find himself thus held up to public curiosity, though innocent, was more than he could bear.
And yet he was, perhaps, still more surprised than indignant. He had just learned in that paper more than his father's most intimate friends knew, more than he knew himself. Where had it got its information? And what could be these other details which the writer pretended to know, but did not wish to publish as yet? Maxence felt like running to the office of the paper, fancying that they could tell him there exactly where and under what name M. Favoral led that existence of pleasure and luxury, and who the woman was to whom the article alluded.
But in the mean time he had reached his hotel,—the Hotel des Folies. After a moment of hesitation,
"Bash!" he thought, "I have the whole day to call at the office of the paper."
And he started in the corridor of the hotel, a corridor that was so long, so dark, and so narrow, that it gave an idea of the shaft of a mine, and that it was prudent, before entering it, to make sure that no one was coming in the opposite direction. It was from the neighboring theatre, des Folies-Nouvelles (now the Theatre Dejazet), that the hotel had taken its name.
It consists of the rear building of a large old house, and has no frontage on the Boulevard, where nothing betrays its existence, except a lantern hung over a low and narrow door, between a cafe and a confectionery-shop. It is one of those hotels, as there are a good many in Paris, somewhat mysterious and suspicious, ill-kept, and whose profits remain a mystery for simple-minded folks. Who occupy the apartments of the first and second story? No one knows. Never have the most curious of the neighbors discovered the face of a tenant. And yet they are occupied; for often, in the afternoon, a curtain is drawn aside, and a shadow is seen to move. In the evening, lights are noticed within; and sometimes the sound of a cracked old piano is heard.