"Then whenever a customer comes who wants a cloak, a mantle, or some other 'wrapping,' I step up and put on the garment, that the purchaser may see how it looks. I have to walk, to turn around, sit down, etc. It is absurdly ridiculous, often humiliating; and many a time, during the first days, I felt tempted to give back to M. Van Klopen his black silk dress.
"But the conjectures of my friend the peace-officer were constantly agitating my brain. Since I thought I had discovered a mystery in my existence, I indulged in all sorts of fancies, and was momentarily expecting some extraordinary occurrence, some compensation of destiny, and I remained.
"But I was not yet at the end of my troubles."
Since she had been speaking of M. Van Klopen, Mlle. Lucienne seemed to have lost her tone of haughty assurance and imperturbable coolness; and it was with a look of mingled confusion and sadness that she went on.
"What I was doing at Van Klopen's was exceedingly painful to me; and yet he very soon asked me to do something more painful still. Gradually Paris was filling up again. The hotels had re-opened; foreigners were pouring in; and the Bois Boulogne was resuming its wonted animation. Still but few orders came in, and those for dresses of the utmost simplicity, of dark color and plain material, on which it was hard to make twenty-five per cent profit. Van Klopen was disconsolate. He kept speaking to me of the good old days, when some of his customers spent as much as thirty thousand francs a month for dresses and trifles, until one day,
"'You are the only one,' he told me, 'who can help me out just now. You are really good looking; and I am sure that in full dress, spread over the cushions of a handsome carriage, you would create quite a sensation, and that all the rest of the women would be jealous of you, and would wish to look like you. There needs but one, you know, to give the good example.'"
Maxence started up suddenly, and, striking his head with hand,
"Ah, I understand now!" he exclaimed.
"I thought that Van Klopen was jesting," went on the young girl. "But he had never been more in earnest; and, to prove it, he commenced explaining to me what he wanted. He proposed to get up for me some of those costumes which are sure to attract attention; and two or three times a week he would send me a fine carriage, and I would go and show myself in the Bois.
"I felt disgusted at the proposition.
"'Never!' I said.
"'Because I respect myself too much to make a living advertisement of myself.'
"He shrugged his shoulders.
"'You are wrong,' he said. 'You are not rich, and I would give you twenty francs for each ride. At the rate of eight rides a month, it would be one hundred and sixty francs added to your wages. Besides,' he added with a wink, 'it would be an excellent opportunity to make your fortune. Pretty as you are, who knows but what some millionaire might take a fancy to you!'
"I felt indignant.
"'For that reason alone, if for no other,' I exclaimed, 'I refuse.'
"'You are a little fool,' he replied. 'If you do not accept, you cease being in my employment. Reflect!'
"My mind was already made up, and I was thinking of looking out for some other occupation, when I received a note from my friend the peace-officer, requesting me to call at his office.
"I did so, and, after kindly inviting me to a seat,
"'Well,' he said, 'what is there new?'
"'Nothing. I have noticed no one watching me.'
"He looked annoyed.
"'My agents have not detected any thing, either,' he grumbled. 'And yet it is evident that your enemies cannot have given it up so. They are sharp ones: if they keep quiet, it is because they are preparing some good trick. What it is I must and shall find out. Already I have an idea which would be an excellent one, if I could discover some way of throwing you among what is called good society.'
"I explained to him, that, being employed at Van Klopen's, I had an opportunity to see there many ladies of the best society.
"'That is not enough,' he said.
"Then M. Van Klopen's propositions came back to my mind, and I stated them to him.
"'Just the thing!' he exclaimed, starting upon his chair: 'a manifest proof that luck is with us. You must accept.'
"I felt bound to tell him my objections, which reflection had much increased.
"'I know but too well,' I said, 'what must happen if I accept this odious duty. Before I have been four times to the Bois, I shall be noticed, and every one will imagine that they know for what purpose I come there. I shall be assailed with vile offers. True, I have no fears for myself. I shall always be better guarded by my pride than by the most watchful of parents. But my reputation will be lost.'
"I failed to convince him.
"'I know very well that you are an honest girl,' he said to me; 'but, for that very reason, what do you care what all these people will think, whom you do not know? Your future is at stake. I repeat it, you must accept.'
"'If you command me to do so,' I said.
"'Yes, I command you; and I'll explain to you why.'"
For the first time, Mlle. Lucienne manifested some reticence, and omitted to repeat the explanations of the peace-officer. And, after a few moments' pause,
"You know the rest, neighbor," she said, "since you have seen me yourself in that inept and ridiculous role of living advertisement, of fashionable lay-figure; and the result has been just as I expected. Can you find any one who believes in my honesty of purpose? You have heard Mme. Fortin to-night? Yourself, neighbor —what did you take me for? And yet you should have noticed something of my suffering and my humiliation the day that you were watching me so closely in the Bois de Boulogne."
"What!" exclaimed Maxence with a start, "you know?"
"Have I not just told you that I always fear being watched and followed, and that I am always on the lookout? Yes, I know that you tried to discover the secret of my rides."
Maxence tried to excuse himself.
"That will do for the present," she uttered. "You wish to be my friend, you say? Now that you know my whole life almost as well as I do myself, reflect, and to-morrow you will tell me the result of your thoughts."
Whereupon she went out.
For about a minute Maxence remained stupefied at this sudden denouement; and, when he had recovered his presence of mind and his voice, Mlle. Lucienne had disappeared, and he could hear her bolting her door, and striking a match against the wall.
He might also have thought that he was awaking from a dream, had he not had, to attest the reality, the vague perfume which filled his room, and the light shawl, which Mlle. Lucienne wore as she came in, and which she had forgotten, on a chair.
The night was almost ended: six o'clock had just struck. Still he did not feel in the least sleepy. His head was heavy, his temples throbbing, his eyes smarting. Opening his window, he leaned out to breathe the morning air. The day was dawning pale and cold. A furtive and livid light glanced along the damp walls of the narrow court of the Hotel des Folies, as at the bottom of a well. Already arose those confused noises which announce the waking of Paris, and above which can be heard the sonorous rolling of the milkmen's carts, the loud slamming of doors, and the sharp sound of hurrying steps on the hard pavement.
But soon Maxence felt a chill coming over him. He closed the window, threw some wood in the chimney, and stretched himself on his chair, his feet towards the fire. It was a most serious event which had just occurred in his existence; and, as much as he could, he endeavored to measure its bearings, and to calculate its consequences in the future.
He kept thinking of the story of that strange girl, her haughty frankness when unrolling certain phases of her life, of her wonderful impassibility, and of the implacable contempt for humanity which her every word betrayed. Where had she learned that dignity, so simple and so noble, that measured speech, that admirable respect of herself, which had enabled her to pass through so much filth without receiving a stain?
"What a woman!" he thought.
Before knowing her, he loved her. Now he was convulsed by one of those exclusive passions which master the whole being. Already he felt himself so much under the charm, subjugated, dominated, fascinated; he understood so well that he was going to cease being his own master; that his free will was about escaping from him; that he would be in Mlle. Lucienne's hands like wax under the modeler's fingers; he saw himself so thoroughly at the discretion of an energy superior to his own, that he was almost frightened.
"It's my whole future that I am going to risk," he thought.
And there was no middle path. Either he must fly at once, without waiting for Mlle. Lucienne to awake, fly without looking behind, or else stay, and then accept all the chances of an incurable passion for a woman who, perhaps, might never care for him. And he remained wavering, like the traveler who finds himself at the intersection of two roads, and, knowing that one leads to the goal, and the other to an abyss, hesitates which to take.
With this difference, however, that if the traveler errs, and discovers his error, he is always free to retrace his steps; whereas man, in life, can never return to his starting-point. Every step he takes is final; and if he has erred, if he has taken the fatal road, there is no remedy.
"Well, no matter!" exclaimed Maxence. "It shall not be said that through cowardice I have allowed that happiness to escape which passes within my reach. I shall stay." And at once he began to examine what reasonably he might expect; for there was no mistaking Mlle. Lucienne's intentions. When she had said, "Do you wish to be friends?" she had meant exactly that, and nothing else,—friends, and only friends.
"And yet," thought Maxence, "if I had not inspired her with a real interest, would she have so wholly confided unto me? She is not ignorant of the fact that I love her; and she knows life too well to suppose that I will cease to love her when she has allowed me a certain amount of intimacy."
His heart filled with hope at the idea.
"My mistress," he thought, "never, evidently, but my wife. Why not?"
But the very next moment he became a prey to the bitterest discouragement. He thought that perhaps Mlle. Lucienne might have some capital interest in thus making a confidant of him. She had not told him the explanation given her by the peace-officer. Had she not, perhaps, succeeded in lifting a corner of the veil which covered the secret of her birth? Was she on the track of her enemies? and had she discovered the motive of their animosity?
"Is it possible," thought Maxence, "that I should be but one of the powers in the game she is playing? How do I know, that, if she wins, she will not cast me off?"
In the midst of these thoughts, he had gradually fallen asleep, murmuring to the last the name of Lucienne.
The creaking of his opening door woke him up suddenly. He started to his feet, and met Mlle. Lucienne coming in.
"How is this?" said she. "You did not go to bed?"
"You recommended me to reflect," he replied. "I've been reflecting."
He looked at his watch: it was twelve o'clock.
"Which, however," he added, "did not keep me from going to sleep."
All the doubts that besieged him at the moment when he had been overcome by sleep now came back to his mind with painful vividness.
"And not only have I been sleeping," he went on, "but I have been dreaming too."
Mlle. Lucienne fixed upon him her great black eyes.
"Can you tell me your dream?" she asked.
He hesitated. Had he had but one minute to reflect, perhaps he would not have spoken; but he was taken unawares.
"I dreamed," he replied, "that we were friends in the noblest and purest acceptance of that word. Intelligence, heart, will, all that I am, and all that I can,—I laid every thing at your feet. You accepted the most entire devotion, the most respectful and the most tender that man is capable of. Yes, we were friends indeed; and upon a glimpse of love, never expressed, I planned a whole future of love." He stopped.
"Well?" she asked.
"Well, when my hopes seemed on the point of being realized, it happened that the mystery of your birth was suddenly revealed to you. You found a noble, powerful, and wealthy family. You resumed the illustrious name of which you had been robbed; your enemies were crushed; and your rights were restored to you. It was no longer Van Klopen's hired carriage that stopped in front of the Hotel des Folies, but a carriage bearing a gorgeous coat of arms. That carriage was yours; and it came to take you to your own residence in the Faubourg St. Germain, or to your ancestral manor."
"And yourself?" inquired the girl.
Maxence repressed one of those nervous spasms which frequently break out in tears, and, with a gloomy look,
"I," he answered, "standing on the edge of the pavement, I waited for a word or a look from you. You had forgotten my very existence. Your coachman whipped his horses; they started at a gallop; and soon I lost sight of you. And then a voice, the inexorable voice of fate, cried to me, 'Never more shalt thou see her!'"
With a superb gesture Mlle. Lucienne drew herself up.
"It is not with your heart, I trust, that you judge me, M. Maxence Favoral," she uttered.
He trembled lest he had offended her.
"I beseech you," he began.
But she went on in a voice vibrating with emotion,
"I am not of those who basely deny their past. Your dream will never be realized. Those things are only seen on the stage. If it did realize itself, however, if the carriage with the coat-of-arms did come to the door, the companion of the evil days, the friend who offered me his month's salary to pay my debt, would have a seat by my side."
That was more happiness than Maxence would have dared to hope for. He tried, in order to express his gratitude, to find some of those words which always seem to be lacking at the most critical moments. But he was suffocating; and the tears, accumulated by so many successive emotions, were rising to his eyes.
With a passionate impulse, he seized Mlle. Lucienne's hand, and, taking it to his lips, he covered it with kisses. Gently but resolutely she withdrew her hand, and, fixing upon him her beautiful clear gaze,
"Friends," she uttered.
Her accent alone would have been sufficient to dissipate the presumptuous illusions of Maxence, had he had any. But he had none.
"Friends only," he replied, "until the day when you shall be my wife. You cannot forbid me to hope. You love no one?"
"Well since we are going to tread the path of life, let me think that we may find love at some turn of the road."
She made no answer. And thus was sealed between them a treaty of friendship, to which they were to remain so strictly faithful, that the word "love" never once rose to their lips.
In appearance there was no change in their mode of life.
Every morning, at seven o'clock, Mlle. Lucienne went to M. Van Klopen's, and an hour later Maxence started for his office. They returned home at night, and spent their evenings together by the fireside.
But what was easy to foresee now took place.
Weak and undecided by nature, Maxence began very soon to feel the influence of the obstinate and energetic character of the girl. She infused, as it were, in his veins, a warmer and more generous blood. Gradually she imbued him with her ideas, and from her own will gave him one.
He had told her in all sincerity his history, the miseries of his home, M. Favoral's parsimony and exaggerated severity, his mother's resigned timidity, and Mlle. Gilberte's resolute nature.
He had concealed nothing of his past life, of his errors and his follies, confessing even the worst of his actions; as, for instance, having abused his mother's and sister's affection to extort from them all the money they earned.
He had admitted to her that it was only with great reluctance and under pressure of necessity, that he worked at all; that he was far from being rich; that although he took his dinner with his parents, his salary barely sufficed for his wants; and that he had debts.
He hoped, however, he added, that it would not be always thus, and that, sooner or later, he would see the termination of all this misery and privation; for his father had at least fifty thousand francs a year and some day he must be rich.
Far from smiling, Mlle. Lucienne frowned at such a prospect.
"Ah! your father is a millionaire, is he?" she interrupted. "Well, I understand now how, at twenty-five, after refusing all the positions which have been offered to you, you have no position. You relied on your father, instead of relying on yourself. Judging that he worked hard enough for two, you bravely folded your arms, waiting for the fortune which he is amassing, and which you seem to consider yours."
Such morality seemed a little steep to Maxence. "I think," he began, "that, if one is the son of a rich man—"
"One has the right to be useless, I suppose?" added the girl.
"I do not mean that; but—"
"There is no but about it. And the proof that your views are wrong, is that they have brought you where you are, and deprived you of your own free will. To place one's self at the mercy of another, be that other your own father, is always silly; and one is always at the mercy of the man from whom he expects money that he has not earned. Your father would never have been so harsh, had he not believed that you could not do without him."
He wanted to discuss: she stopped him.
"Do you wish the proof that you are at M. Favoral's mercy?" she said. "Very well. You spoke of marrying me."
"Ah, if you were willing!"
"Very well. Go and speak of it to your father."
"You don't suppose any thing at all: you are absolutely certain that he will refuse you his consent."
"I could do without it."
"I admit that you could. But do you know what he would do then? He would arrange things in such a way that you would never get a centime of his fortune."
Maxence had never thought of that.
"Therefore," the young girl went on gayly, "though there is as yet no question of marriage, learn to secure your independence; that is, the means of living. And to that effect let us work."
It was from that moment, that Mme. Favoral had noticed in her son the change that had surprised her so much.
Under the inspiration, under the impulsion, of Mlle. Lucienne, Maxence had been suddenly taken with a zeal for work, and a desire to earn money, of which he could not have been suspected.
He was no longer late at his office, and had not, at the end of each month, ten or fifteen francs' fines to pay.
Every morning, as soon as she was up, Mlle. Lucienne came to knock at his door. "Come, get up!" she cried to him.
And quick he jumped out of bed and dressed, so that he might bid her good-morning before she left.
In the evening, the last mouthful of his dinner was hardly swallowed, before he began copying the documents which he procured from M. Chapelain's successor.
And often he worked quite late in the night whilst by his side Mlle. Lucienne applied herself to some work of embroidery.
The girl was the cashier of the association; and she administered the common capital with such skillful and such scrupulous economy, that Maxence soon succeeded in paying off his creditors.
"Do you know," she was saying at the end of December, "that, between us, we have earned over six hundred francs this month?"
On Sundays only, after a week of which not a minute had been lost, they indulged in some little recreation.
If the weather was not too bad, they went out together, dined in some modest restaurant, and finished the day at the theatre.
Having thus a common existence, both young, free, and having their rooms divided only by a narrow passage it was difficult that people should believe in the innocence of their intercourse. The proprietors of the Hotel des Folies believed nothing of the kind; and they were not alone in that opinion.
Mlle. Lucienne having continued to show herself in the Bois on the afternoons when the weather was fine, the number of fools who annoyed her with their attentions had greatly increased. Among the most obstinate could be numbered M. Costeclar, who was pleased to declare, upon his word of honor, that he had lost his sleep, and his taste for business, since the day when, together with M. Saint Pavin, he had first seen Mlle. Lucienne.
The efforts of his valet, and the letters which he had written, having proved useless, M. Costeclar had made up his mind to act in person; and gallantly he had come to put himself on guard in front of the Hotel des Folies.
Great was his surprise, when he saw Mlle. Lucienne coming out arm in arm with Maxence; and greater still was his spite.
"That girl is a fool," he thought, "to prefer to me a fellow who has not two hundred francs a month to spend. But never mind! He laughs best who laughs last."
And, as he was a man fertile in expedients, he went the next day to take a walk in the neighborhood of the Mutual Credit; and, having met M. Favoral by chance, he told him how his son Maxence was ruining himself for a young lady whose toilets were a scandal, insinuating delicately that it was his duty, as the head of the family, to put a stop to such a thing.
This was precisely the time when Maxence was endeavoring to obtain a situation in the office of the Mutual Credit.
It is true that the idea was not original with him, and that he had even vehemently rejected it, when, for the first time, Mlle. Lucienne had suggested it.
"What!" had he exclaimed, "be employed in the same establishment as my father? Suffer at the office the same intolerable despotism as at home? I'd rather break stones on the roads."
But Mlle. Lucienne was not the girl to give up so easily a project conceived and carefully matured by herself.
She returned to the charge with that infinite art of women, who understand so marvelously well how to turn a position which they cannot carry in front. She kept the matter so well before him, she spoke of it so often and so much, on every occasion, and under all pretexts, that he ended by persuading himself that it was the only reasonable and practical thing he could do, the only way in which he had any chance of making his fortune; and so, one evening overcoming his last hesitations,
"I am going to speak about it to my father," he said to Mlle. Lucienne.
But whether he had been influenced by M. Costeclar's insinuations, or for some other reason, M. Favoral had rejected indignantly his son's request, saying that it was impossible to trust a young man who was ruining himself for the sake of a miserable creature.
Maxence had become crimson with rage on hearing the woman spoken of thus, whom he loved to madness, and who, far from ruining him, was making him.
He returned to the Hotel des Folies in an indescribable state of exasperation.
"There's the result," he said to Mlle. Lucienne, "of the step which you have urged me so strongly to take."
She seemed neither surprised nor irritated.
"Very well," she replied simply.
But Maxence could not resign himself so quietly to such a cruel disappointment; and, not having the slightest suspicion of Costeclar's doings,
"And such is," he added, "the result of all the gossip of these stupid shop-keepers who run to see you every time you go out in the carriage."
The girl shrugged her shoulders contemptuously. "I expected it," she said, "the day when I accepted M. Van Klopen's offers."
"Everybody believes that you are my mistress."
"What matters it, since it is not so?"
Maxence did not dare to confess that this was precisely what made him doubly angry; and he shuddered at the thought of the ridicule that would certainly be heaped upon him, if the true state of the case was known.
"We ought to move," he suggested.
"What's the use? Wherever we should go, it would be the same thing. Besides, I don't want to leave this neighborhood."
"And I am too much your friend not to tell you, that your reputation in it is absolutely lost."
"I have no accounts to render to any one."
"Except to your friend the commissary of police, however."
A pale smile flitted upon her lips. "Ah!" she uttered, "he knows the truth."
"You have seen him again, then?"
"Since we have known each other?"
"And you never told me anything about it?"
"I did not think it necessary."
Maxence insisted no more; but, by the sharp pang that he felt, he realized how dear Mlle. Lucienne had become to him.
"She has secrets from me," thought he,—"from me who would deem it a crime to have any from her."
What secrets? Had she concealed from him that she was pursuing an object which had become, as it were, that of her whole life. Had she not told him, that with the assistance of her friend the peace-officer, who had now become commissary of police of the district, she hoped to penetrate the mystery of her birth, and to revenge herself on the villains, who, three times, had attempted to do away with her?
She had never mentioned her projects again; but it was evident that she had not abandoned them, for she would at the same time have given up her rides to the bois, which were to her an abominable torment.
But passion can neither reason nor discuss.
"She mistrusts me, who would give my life for hers," repeated Maxence.
And the idea was so painful to him, that he resolved to clear his doubts at any cost, preferring the worst misery to the anxiety which was gnawing at his heart.
And as soon as he found himself alone with Mlle. Lucienne, arming himself with all his courage, and looking her straight in the eyes,
"You never speak to me any more of your enemies?" he said.
She doubtless understood what was passing within him.
"It's because I don't hear any thing of them myself," she answered gently.
"Then you have given up your purpose?"
"Not at all."
"What are your hopes, then, and what are your prospects?"
"Extraordinary as it may seem to you, I must confess that I know nothing about it. My friend the commissary has his plan, I am certain; and he is following it with an indefatigable obstinacy. I am but an instrument in his hands. I never do any thing without consulting him; and what he advises me to do I do."
Maxence started upon his chair.
"Was it he, then," he said in a tone of bitter irony, "who suggested to you the idea of our fraternal association?"
A frown appeared upon the girl's countenance. She evidently felt hurt by the tone of this species of interrogatory.
"At least he did not disapprove of it," she replied.
But that answer was just evasive enough to excite Maxence's anxiety.
"Was it from him too," he went on, "that came the lovely idea of having me enter the Mutual Credit?"
"Yes, it was from him."
"For what purpose?"
"He did not explain."
"Why did you not tell me?"
"Because he requested me not to do so."
From being red at the start, Maxence had now become very pale.
"And so," he resumed, "it is that man, that police-agent, who is the real arbiter of my fate; and if to-morrow he commanded you to break off with me—"
Mlle. Lucienne drew herself up.
"Enough!" she interrupted in a brief tone, "enough! There is not in my whole existence a single act which would give to my bitterest enemy the right to suspect my loyalty; and now you accuse me of the basest treason. What have you to reproach me with? Have I not been faithful to the pact sworn between us. Have I not always been for you the best of comrades and the most devoted of friends? I remained silent, because the man in whom I have the fullest confidence requested me to do so; but he knew, that, if you questioned me, I would speak. Did you question me? And now what more do you want? That I should stoop to quiet the suspicions of your morbid mind? That I do not mean to do."
She was not, perhaps, entirely right; but Maxence was certainly wrong. He acknowledged it, wept, implored her pardon, which was granted; and this explanation only served to rivet more closely the fetters that bound him.
It is true, that, availing himself of the permission that had been granted him, he kept himself constantly informed of Mlle. Lucienne's doings. He learnt from her that her friend the commissary had held a most minute investigation at Louveciennes, and that the footman who went to the bois with her was now, in reality, a detective. And at last, one day,
"My friend the commissary," she said, "thinks he is on the right track now."
Such was the exact situation of Maxence and Mlle. Lucienne on that eventful Saturday evening in the month of April, 1872, when the police came to arrest M. Vincent Favoral, on the charge of embezzlement and forgery.
It will be remembered, how, at his mother's request, Maxence had spent that night in the Rue St. Gilles, and how, the next morning, unable any longer to resist his eager desire to see Mlle. Lucienne, he had started for the Hotel des Folies, leaving his sister alone at home.
He retired to his room, as she had requested him, and, sinking upon his old arm-chair in a fit of the deepest distress,
"She is singing," he murmured: "Mme. Fortin has not told her any thing."
And at the same moment Mlle. Lucienne had resumed her song, the words of which reached him like a bitter raillery,
"Hope! O sweet, deceiving word! Mad indeed is he, Who does think he can trust thee, And take thy coin can afford. Over his door every one Will hang thee to his sorrow, Then saying of days begone, 'Cash to-day, credit to-morrow!' 'Tis very nice to run; But to have is better fun!"
"What will she say," thought Maxence, "when she learns the horrible truth?"
And he felt a cold perspiration starting on his temples when he remembered Mlle. Lucienne's pride, and that honor has her only faith, the safety-plank to which she had desperately clung in the midst of the storms of her life. What if she should leave him, now that the name he bore was disgraced!
A rapid and light step on the landing drew him from his gloomy thoughts. Almost immediately, the door opened, and Mlle. Lucienne came in.
She must have dressed in haste; for she was just finishing hooking her dress, the simplicity of which seemed studied, so marvelously did it set off the elegance of her figure, the splendors of her waist, and the rare perfections of her shoulders and of her neck.
A look of intense dissatisfaction could be read upon her lovely features; but, as soon as she had seen Maxence, her countenance changed.
And, in fact, his look of utter distress, the disorder of his garments, his livid paleness, and the sinister look of his eyes, showed plainly enough that a great misfortune had befallen him. In a voice whose agitation betrayed something more than the anxiety and the sympathy of a friend,
"What is the matter? What has happened?" inquired the girl.
"A terrible misfortune," he replied.
He was hesitating: he wished to tell every thing at once, and knew not how to begin.
"I have told you," he said, "that my family was very rich."
"Well, we have nothing left, absolutely nothing!" She seemed to breathe more freely, and, in a tone of friendly irony,
"And it is the loss of your fortune," she said, "that distresses you thus?"
He raised himself painfully to his feet, and, in a low hoarse voice,
"Honor is lost too," he uttered.
"Yes. My father has stolen: my father has forged!"
She had become whiter than her collar.
"Your father!" she stammered.
"Yes. For years he has been using the money that was intrusted to him, until the deficit now amounts to twelve millions."
"And, notwithstanding the enormity of that sum, he was reduced, during the latter months, to the most miserable expedients,—going from door to door in the neighborhood, soliciting deposits, until he actually basely swindled a poor newspaper-vender out of five hundred francs."
"Why, this is madness! And how did you find out?"
"Last night they came to arrest him. Fortunately we had been notified; and I helped him to escape through a window of my sister's room, which opens on the yard of an adjoining house."
"And where is he now?"
"Had he any money?"
"Everybody thinks that he carries off millions. I do not believe it. He even refused to take the few thousand francs which M. de Thaller had brought him to facilitate his flight."
Mlle. Lucienne shuddered.
"Did you see M. de Thaller?" she asked.
"He got to the house a few moments in advance of the commissary of police; and a terrible scene took place between him and my father."
"What was he saying?"
"That my father had ruined him."
"And your father?"
"He stammered incoherent phrases. He was like a man who has received a stunning blow. But we have discovered incredible things. My father, so austere and so parsimonious at home, led a merry life elsewhere, spending money without stint. It was for a woman that he robbed."
"And—do you know who that woman is?"
"No. But I can find out from the writer of the article in this paper, who says that he knows her. See!"
Mlle. Lucienne took the paper which Maxence was holding out to her: but she hardly condescended to look at it.
"But what's your idea now?"
"I do not believe that my father is innocent; but I believe that there are people more guilty than he,—skillful and prudent knaves, who have made use of him as a man of straw,—villains who will quietly digest their share of the millions (the biggest one, of course), while he will be sent to prison."
A fugitive blush colored Mlle. Lucienne's cheeks.
"That being the case," she interrupted, "what do you expect to do?"
"Avenge my father, if possible, and discover his accomplices, if he has any."
She held out her hand to him.
"That's right," she said. "But how will you go about it?"
"I don't know yet. At any rate, I must first of all run to the newspaper office, and get that woman's address."
But Mlle. Lucienne stopped him.
"No," she uttered: "it isn't there that you must go. You must come with me to see my friend the commissary."
Maxence received this suggestion with a gesture of surprise, almost of terror.
"Why, how can you think of such a thing?" he exclaimed. "My father is fleeing from justice; and you want me to take for my confidant a commissary of police,—the very man whose duty it is to arrest him, if he can find him!"
But he interrupted himself for a moment, staring and gaping, as if the truth had suddenly flashed upon his mind in dazzling evidence.
"For my father has not gone abroad," he went on. "It is in Paris that he is hiding: I am sure of it. You have seen him?"
Mlle. Lucienne really thought that Maxence was losing his mind.
"I have seen your father—I?" she said.
"Yes, last evening. How could I have forgotten it? While you were waiting for me down stairs, between eleven and half-past eleven a middle-aged man, thin, wearing a long overcoat, came and asked for me."
"Yes, I remember."
"He spoke to you in the yard."
"That's a fact."
"What did he tell you?"
She hesitated for a moment, evidently trying to tax her memory; then,
"Nothing," she replied, "that he had not already said before the Fortins; that he wanted to see you on important business, and was sorry not to find you in. What surprised me, though, is, that he was speaking as if he knew me, and knew that I was a friend of yours." Then, striking her forehead,
"Perhaps you are right," she went on. "Perhaps that man was indeed your father. Wait a minute. Yes, he seemed quite excited, and at every moment he looked around towards the door. He said it would be impossible for him to return, but that he would write to you, and that probably he would require your assistance and your services."
"You see," exclaimed Maxence, almost crazy with subdued excitement, "it was my father. He is going to write; to return, perhaps; and, under the circumstances, to apply to a commissary of police would be sheer folly, almost treason."
She shook her head.
"So much the more reason," she uttered, "why you should follow my advice. Have you ever had occasion to repent doing so?"
"No, but you may be mistaken."
"I am not mistaken."
She expressed herself in a tone of such absolute certainty, that Maxence, in the disorder of his mind, was at a loss to know what to imagine, what to believe.
"You must have some reason to urge me thus," he said.
"Why not tell it to me then?"
"Because I should have no proofs to furnish you of my assertions. Because I should have to go into details which you would not understand. Because, above all, I am following one of those inexplicable presentiments which never deceive."
It was evident that she was not willing to unveil her whole mind; and yet Maxence felt himself terribly staggered.
"Think of my agony," he said, "if I were to cause my father's arrest."
"Would my own be less? Can any misfortune strike you without reaching me? Let us reason a little. What were you saying a moment since? That certainly your father is not as guilty as people think; at any rate, that he is not alone guilty; that he has been but the instrument of rascals more skillful and more powerful than himself; and that he has had but a small share of the twelve millions?"
"Such is my absolute conviction."
"And that you would like to deliver up to justice the villains who have benefitted by your father's crime, and who think themselves sure of impunity?"
Tears of anger fell from Maxence's eyes.
"Do you wish to take away all my courage?" he murmured.
"No; but I wish to demonstrate to you the necessity of the step which I advise you to take. The end justifies the means; and we have not the choice of means. Come, 'tis to an honest man and a tried friend that I shall take you. Fear nothing. If he remembers that he is commissary of police, it will be to serve us, not to injure you. You hesitate? Perhaps at this moment he already knows more than we do ourselves."
Maxence took a sudden resolution.
"Very well," he said: "let us go."
In less than five minutes they were off; and, as they went out, they had to disturb Mme. Fortin, who stood at the door, gossiping with two or three of the neighboring shop-keepers.
As soon as Maxence and Mlle. Lucienne were out of hearing,
"You see that young man," said the honorable proprietress of the Hotel des Folies to her interlocutors. "Well, he is the son of that famous cashier who has just run off with twelve millions, after ruining a thousand families. It don't seem to trouble him, either; for there he is, going out to spend a pleasant day with his mistress, and to treat her to a fine dinner with the old man's money."
Meantime, Maxence and Lucienne reached the commissary's house. He was at home; they walked in. And, as soon as they appeared,
"I expected you," he said.
He was a man already past middle age, but active and vigorous still. With his white cravat and long frock-coat, he looked like a notary. Benign was the expression of his countenance; but the lustre of his little gray eyes, and the mobility of his nostrils, showed that it should not be trusted too far.
"Yes, I expected you," he repeated, addressing himself as much to Maxence as to Mlle. Lucienne. "It is the Mutual Credit matter which brings you here?"
Maxence stepped forward,
"I am Vincent Favoral's son, sir," he replied. "I have still my mother and a sister. Our situation is horrible. Mlle. Lucienne suggested that you might be willing to give me some advice; and here we are."
The commissary rang, and, on the bell being answered,
"I am at home for no one," he said.
And then turning to Maxence,
"Mlle. Lucienne did well to bring you," he said; "for it may be, that, whilst rendering her an important service, I may also render you one. But I have no time to lose. Sit down, and tell me all about it." With the most scrupulous exactness Maxence told the history of his family, and the events of the past twenty-four hours.
Not once did the commissary interrupt him; but, when he had done,
"Tell me your father's interview with M. de Thaller all over again," he requested, "and, especially, do not omit any thing that you have heard or seen, not a word, not a gesture, not a look."
And, Maxence having complied,
"Now," said the commissary, "repeat every thing your father said at the moment of going."
He did so. The commissary took a few notes, and then,
"What were," he inquired, "the relations of your family with the Thaller family?"
"There were none."
"What! Neither Mme. nor Mlle. de Thaller ever visited you?"
"Do you know the Marquis de Tregars?"
Maxence stared in surprise.
"Tregars!" he repeated. "It's the first time that I hear that name."
The usual clients of the commissary would have hesitated to recognize him, so completely had he set aside his professional stiffness, so much had his freezing reserve given way to the most encouraging kindness.
"Now, then," he resumed, "never mind M. de Tregars: let us talk of the woman, who, you seem to think, has been the cause of M. Favoral's ruin."
On the table before him lay the paper in which Maxence had read in the morning the terrible article headed: "Another Financial Disaster."
"I know nothing of that woman," he replied; "but it must be easy to find out, since the writer of this article pretends to know."
The commissary smiled, not having quite as much faith in newspapers as Maxence seemed to have.
"Yes, I read that," he said.
"We might send to the office of that paper," suggested Mlle. Lucienne.
"I have already sent, my child."
And, without noticing the surprise of Maxence and of the young girl, he rang the bell, and asked whether his secretary had returned. The secretary answered by appearing in person.
"Well?" inquired the commissary.
"I have attended to the matter, sir," he replied. "I saw the reporter who wrote the article in question; and, after beating about the bush for some time, he finally confessed that he knew nothing more than had been published, and that he had obtained his information from two intimate friends of the cashier, M. Costeclar and M. Saint Pavin."
"You should have gone to see those gentlemen."
"Very well. What then?"
"Unfortunately, M. Costeclar had just gone out. As to M. Saint Pavin, I found him at the office of his paper, 'The Financial Pilot.' He is a coarse and vulgar personage, and received me like a pickpocket. I had even a notion to—"
"Never mind that! Go on."
"He was closeted with another gentleman, a banker, named Jottras, of the house of Jottras and Brother. They were both in a terrible rage, swearing like troopers, and saying that the Favoral defalcation would ruin them; that they had been taken in like fools, but that they were not going to take things so easy, and they were preparing a crushing article."
But he stopped, winking, and pointing to Maxence and Mlle. Lucienne, who were listening as attentively as they could.
"Speak, speak!" said the commissary. "Fear nothing."
"Well," he went on, "M. Saint Pavin and M. Jottras were saying that M. Favoral was only a poor dupe, but that they would know how to find the others."
"Ah! they didn't say."
The commissary shrugged his shoulders.
"What!" he exclaimed, "you find yourself in presence of two men furious to have been duped, who swear and threaten, and you can't get from them a name that you want? You are not very smart, my dear!"
And as the poor secretary, somewhat put out of countenance, looked down, and said nothing,
"Did you at least ask them," he resumed, "who the woman is to whom the article refers, and whose existence they have revealed to the reporter?"
"Of course I did, sir."
"And what did they answer?"
"That they were not spies, and had nothing to say. M. Saint Pavin added, however, that he had said it without much thought, and only because he had once seen M. Favoral buying a three thousand francs bracelet, and also because it seemed impossible to him that a man should do away with millions without the aid of a woman."
The commissary could not conceal his ill humor.
"Of course!" he grumbled. "Since Solomon said, 'Look for the woman' (for it was King Solomon who first said it), every fool thinks it smart to repeat with a cunning look that most obvious of truths. What next?"
"M. Saint Pavin politely invited me to go to—well, not here."
The commissary wrote rapidly a few lines, put them in an envelope, which he sealed with his private seal, and handed it to his secretary, saying,
"That will do. Take this to the prefecture yourself." And, after the secretary had gone out,
"Well, M. Maxence," he said, "you have heard?" Of course he had. Only Maxence was thinking much less of what he had just heard than of the strange interest this commissary had taken in his affairs, even before he had seen him.
"I think," he stammered, "that it is very unfortunate the woman cannot be found."
With a gesture full of confidence,
"Be easy," said the commissary: "she shall be found. A woman cannot swallow millions at that rate, without attracting attention. Believe me, we shall find her, unless—"
He paused for a moment, and, speaking slowly and emphatically,
"Unless," he added, "she should have behind her a very skillful and very prudent man. Or else that she should be in a situation where her extravagance could not have created any scandal."
Mlle. Lucienne started. She fancied she understood the commissary's idea, and could catch a glimpse of the truth.
"Good heavens!" she murmured.
But Maxence didn't notice any thing, his mind being wholly bent upon following the commissary's deductions.
"Or unless," he said, "my father should have received almost nothing for his share of the enormous sums subtracted from the Mutual Credit, in which case he could have given relatively but little to that woman. M. Saint Pavin himself acknowledges that my father has been egregiously taken in."
Maxence hesitated for a moment.
"I think," he said at last, "and several friends of my family (among whom M. Chapelain, an old lawyer) think as I do, that it is very strange that my father should have drawn millions from the Mutual Credit without any knowledge of the fact on the part of the manager."
"Then, according to you, M. de Thaller must be an accomplice."
Maxence made no answer.
"Be it so," insisted the commissary. "I admit M. de Thaller's complicity; but then we must suppose that he had over your father some powerful means of action."
"An employer always has a great deal of influence over his subordinates."
"An influence sufficiently powerful to make them run the risk of the galleys for his benefit! That is not likely. We must try and imagine something else."
"I am trying; but I don't find any thing."
"And yet it is not all. How do you explain your father's silence when M. de Thaller was heaping upon him the most outrageous insults?"
"My father was stunned, as it were."
"And at the moment of escaping, if he did have any accomplices, how is it that he did not mention their names to you, to your mother, or to your sister?"
"Because, doubtless, he had no proofs of their complicity to offer."
"Would you have asked him for any?"
"Therefore such is not evidently the motive of his silence; and it might better be attributed to some secret hope that he still had left."
The commissary now had all the information, which, voluntarily or otherwise, Maxence was able to give him. He rose, and in the kindest tone,
"You have come," he said to him, "to ask me for advice. Here it is: say nothing, and wait. Allow justice and the police to pursue their work. Whatever may be your suspicions, hide them. I shall do for you as I would for Lucienne, whom I love as if she were my own child; for it so happens, that, in helping you, I shall help her."
He could not help laughing at the astonishment, which at those words depicted itself upon Maxence's face; and gayly,
"You don't understand," he added. "Well, never mind. It is not necessary that you should."
Two o'clock struck as Mlle. Lucienne and Maxence left the office of the commissary of police, she pensive and agitated, he gloomy and irritated. They reached the Hotel des Folies without exchanging a word. Mme. Fortin was again at the door, speechifying in the midst of a group with indefatigable volubility. Indeed, it was a perfect godsend for her, the fact of lodging the son of that cashier who had stolen twelve millions, and had thus suddenly become a celebrity. Seeing Maxence and Mlle. Lucienne coming, she stepped toward them, and, with her most obsequious smile,
"Back already?" she said.
But they made no answer; and, entering the narrow corridor, they hurried to their fourth story. As he entered his room, Maxence threw his hat upon his bed with a gesture of impatience; and, after walking up and down for a moment, he returned to plant himself in front of Mlle. Lucienne.
"Well," he said, "are you satisfied now?"
She looked at him with an air of profound commiseration, knowing his weakness too well to be angry at his injustice.
"Of what should I be satisfied?" she asked gently.
"I have done what you wished me to."
"You did what reason dictated, my friend."
"Very well: we won't quarrel about words. I have seen your friend the commissary. Am I any better off?"
She shrugged her shoulders almost imperceptibly.
"What did you expect of him, then?" she asked. "Did you think that he could undo what is done? Did you suppose, that, by the sole power of his will, he would make up the deficit in the Mutual Credit's cash, and rehabilitate your father?"
"No, I am not quite mad yet."
"Well, then, could he do more than promise you his most ardent and devoted co-operation?"
But he did not allow her to proceed.
"And how do I know," he exclaimed, "that he is not trifling with me? If he was sincere, why his reticence and his enigmas? He pretends that I may rely on him, because to serve me is to serve you. What does that mean? What connection is there between your situation and mine, between your enemies and those of my father? And I—I replied to all his questions like a simpleton. Poor fool! But the man who drowns catches at straws; and I am drowning, I am sinking, I am foundering."
He sank upon a chair, and, hiding his face in his hands,
"Ah, how I do suffer!" he groaned.
Mlle. Lucienne approached him, and in a severe tone, despite her emotion,
"Are you, then, such a coward?" she uttered. "What! at the first misfortune that strikes you,—and this is the first real misfortune of your life, Maxence,—you despair. An obstacle rises, and, instead of gathering all your energy to overcome it, you sit down and weep like a woman. Who, then, is to inspire courage in your mother and in your sister, if you give up so?"
At the sound of these words, uttered by that voice which was all-powerful over his soul, Maxence looked up.
"I thank you, my friend," he said. "I thank you for reminding me of what I owe to my mother and sister. Poor women! They are wondering, doubtless, what has become of me."
"You must return to them," interrupted the girl.
He got up resolutely.
"I will," he replied. "I should be unworthy of you if I could not raise my own energy to the level of yours."
And, having pressed her hand, he left. But it was not by the usual route that he reached the Rue St. Gilles. He made a long detour, so as not to meet any of his acquaintances.
"Here you are at last," said the servant as she opened the door. "Madame was getting very uneasy, I can tell you. She is in the parlor, with Mlle. Gilberte and M. Chapelain."
It was so. After his fruitless attempt to reach M. de Thaller, M. Chapelain had breakfasted there, and had remained, wishing, he said, to see Maxence. And so, as soon as the young man appeared, availing himself of the privileges of his age and his old intimacy,
"How," said he, "dare you leave your mother and sister alone in a house where some brutal creditor may come in at any moment?"
"I was wrong," said Maxence, who preferred to plead guilty rather than attempt an explanation.
"Don't do it again then," resumed M. Chapelain. "I was waiting for you to say that I was unable to see M. de Thaller, and that I do not care to face once more the impudence of his valets. You will, therefore, have to take back the fifteen thousand francs he had brought to your father. Place them in his own hands; and don't give them up without a receipt."
After some further recommendations, he went off, leaving Mme. Favoral alone at last with her children. She was about to call Maxence to account for his absence, when Mlle. Gilberte interrupted her.
"I have to speak to you, mother," she said with a singular precipitation, "and to you also, brother."
And at once she began telling them of M. Costeclar's strange visit, his inconceivable audacity, and his offensive declarations.
Maxence was fairly stamping with rage.
"And I was not here," he exclaimed, "to put him out of the house!"
But another was there; and this was just what Mlle. Gilberte wished to come to. But the avowal was difficult, painful even; and it was not without some degree of confusion that she resumed at last,
"You have suspected for a long time, mother, that I was hiding something from you. When you questioned me, I lied; not that I had any thing to blush for, but because I feared for you my father's anger."
Her mother and her brother were gazing at her with a look of blank amazement.
"Yes, I had a secret," she continued. "Boldly, without consulting any one, trusting the sole inspirations of my heart, I had engaged my life to a stranger: I had selected the man whose wife I wished to be."
Mme. Favoral raised her hands to heaven.
"But this is sheer madness!" she said.
"Unfortunately," went on the girl, "between that man, my affianced husband before God, and myself, rose a terrible obstacle. He was poor: he thought my father very rich; and he had asked me a delay of three years to conquer a fortune which might enable him to aspire to my hand."
She stopped: all the blood in her veins was rushing to her face.
"This morning," she said, "at the news of our disaster, he came . . ."
"Here?" interrupted Maxence.
"Yes, brother, here. He arrived at the very moment, when, basely insulted by M. Costeclar, I commanded him to withdraw, and, instead of going, he was walking towards me with outstretched arms."
"He dared to penetrate here!" murmured Mme. Favoral.
"Yes, mother: he came in just in time to seize M. Costeclar by his coat-collar, and to throw him at my feet, livid with fear, and begging for mercy. He came, notwithstanding the terrible calamity that has befallen us. Notwithstanding ruin, and notwithstanding shame, he came to offer me his name, and to tell me, that, in the course of the day, he would send a friend of his family to apprise you of his intentions."
Here she was interrupted by the servant, who, throwing open the parlor-door, announced,
"The Count de Villegre."
If it had occurred to the mind of Mme. Favoral or Maxence that Mlle. Gilberte might have been the victim of some base intrigue, the mere appearance of the man who now walked in must have been enough to disabuse them.
He was of a rather formidable aspect, with his military bearing, his bluff manners, his huge white mustache, and the deep scar across his forehead.
But in order to be re-assured, and to feel confident, it was enough to look at his broad face, at once energetic and debonair, his clear eye, in which shone the loyalty of his soul, and his thick red lips, which had never opened to utter an untruth.
At this moment, however, he was hardly in possession of all his faculties.
That valiant man, that old soldier, was timid; and he would have felt much more at ease under the fire of a battery than in that humble parlor in the Rue St. Gilles, under the uneasy glance of Maxence and Mme. Favoral.
Having bowed, having made a little friendly sign to Mlle. Gilberte, he had stopped short, two steps from the door, his hat in his hand.
Eloquence was not his forte. He had prepared himself well in advance; but though he kept coughing: hum! broum! though he kept running his finger around his shirt-collar to facilitate his delivery, the beginning of his speech stuck in his throat.
Seeing how urgent it was to come to his assistance,
"I was expecting you, sir," said Mlle. Gilberte. With this encouragement, he advanced towards Mme. Favoral, and, bowing low,
"I see that my presence surprises you, madame," he began; "and I must confess that—hum!—it does not surprise me less than it does you. But extraordinary circumstances require exceptional action. On any other occasion, I would not fall upon you like a bombshell. But we had no time to waste in ceremonious formalities. I will, therefore, ask your leave to introduce myself: I am General Count de Villegre."
Maxence had brought him a chair.
"I am ready to hear you, sir," said Mme. Favoral. He sat down, and, with a further effort,
"I suppose, madame," he resumed, "that your daughter has explained to you our singular situation, which, as I had the honor of telling you—hum!—is not strictly in accordance with social usage."
Mlle. Gilberte interrupted him.
"When you came in, general, I was only just beginning to explain the facts to my mother and brother."
The old soldier made a gesture, and a face which showed plainly that he did not much relish the prospect of a somewhat difficult explanation—broum! Nevertheless, making up his mind bravely,
"It is very simple," he said: "I come in behalf of M. de Tregars."
Maxence fairly bounced upon his chair. That was the very name which he had just heard mentioned by the commissary of police.
"Tregars!" he repeated in a tone of immense surprise.
"Yes," said M. de Villegre. "Do you know him, by chance?"
"No, sir, no!"
"Marius de Tregars is the son of the most honest man I ever knew, of the best friend I ever had,—of the Marquis de Tregars, in a word, who died of grief a few years ago, after—hum!—some quite inexplicable—broum!—reverses of fortune. Marius could not be dearer to me, if he were my own son. He has lost his parents: I have no relatives; and I have transferred to him all the feelings of affection which still remained at the bottom of my old heart.
"And I can say that never was a man more worthy of affection. I know him. To the most legitimate pride and the most scrupulous integrity, he unites a keen and supple mind, and wit enough to get the better of the toughest rascal. He has no fortune for the reason that—hum!—he gave up all he had to certain pretended creditors of his father. But whenever he wishes to be rich, he shall be; and —broum!—he may be so before long. I know his projects, his hopes, his resources."
But, as if feeling that he was treading on dangerous ground, the Count de Villegre stopped short, and, after taking breath for a moment,
"In short," he went on, "Marius has been unable to see Mlle. Gilberte, and to appreciate the rare qualities of her heart, without falling desperately in love with her."
Mme. Favoral made a gesture of protest,
"Allow me, sir," she began.
But he interrupted her.
"I understand you, madame," he resumed. "You wonder how M. de Tregars can have seen your daughter, have known her, and have appreciated her, without your seeing or hearing any thing of it. Nothing is more simple, and, if I may venture to say—hum!—more natural."
And the worthy old soldier began to explain to Mme. Favoral the meetings in the Place-Royale, his conversations with Marius, intended really for Mlle. Gilberte, and the part he had consented to play in this little comedy. But he became embarrassed in his sentences, he multiplied his hum! and his broum! in the most alarming manner; and his explanations explained nothing.
Mlle. Gilberte took pity on him; and, kindly interrupting him, she herself told her story, and that of Marius.
She told the pledge they had exchanged, how they had seen each other twice, and how they constantly heard of each other through the very innocent and very unconscious Signor Gismondo Pulei.
Maxence and Mme. Favoral were dumbfounded. They would have absolutely refused to believe such a story, had it not been told by Mlle. Gilberte herself.
"Ah, my dear sister!" thought Maxence, "who could have suspected such a thing, seeing you always so calm and so meek!"
"Is it possible," Mme. Favoral was saying to herself; "that I can have been so blind and so deaf?"
As to the Count de Villegre, he would have tried in vain to express the gratitude he felt towards Mlle. Gilberte for having spared him these difficult explanations.
"I could not have done half as well myself, by the eternal!" he thought, like a man who has no illusions on his own account.
But, as soon as she had done, addressing himself to Mme. Favoral,
"Now, madame," he said, "you know all; and you will understand that the irreparable disaster that strikes you has removed the only obstacle which had hitherto stood in the way of Marius."
He rose, and in a solemn tone, without any hum or broum, this time,
"I have the honor, madame," he uttered, "to solicit the hand of Mlle. Gilberte, your daughter, for my friend Yves-Marius de Genost, Marquis de Tregars."
A profound silence followed this speech. But this silence the Count de Villegre doubtless interpreted in his own favor; for, stepping to the parlor-door, he opened it, and called, "Marius!"
Marius de Tregars had foreseen all that had just taken place, and had so informed the Count de Villegre in advance.
Being given Mme. Favoral's disposition, he knew what could be expected of her; and he had his own reasons to fear nothing from Maxence. And, if he mistrusted somewhat the diplomatic talents of his ambassador, he relied absolutely upon Mlle. Gilberte's energy.
And so confident was he of the correctness of his calculations, that he had insisted upon accompanying his old friend, so as to be on hand at the critical moment.
When the servant had opened the door to them, he had ordered her to introduce M. de Villegre, stating that he would himself wait in the dining-room. This arrangement had not seemed entirely natural to the girl; but so many strange things had happened in the house for the past twenty-four hours, that she was prepared for any thing.
Besides recognizing Marius as the gentleman who had had a violent altercation in the morning with M. Costeclar, she did as he requested, and, leaving him alone in the dining-room, went to attend to her duties.
He had taken a seat, impassive in appearance, but in reality agitated by that internal trepidation of which the strongest men cannot free themselves in the decisive moments of their life.
To a certain extent, the prospects of his whole life were to be decided on the other side of that door which had just closed behind the Count de Villegre. To the success of his love, other interests were united, which required immediate success.
And, counting the seconds by the beatings of his heart,
"How very slow they are!" he thought.
And so, when the door opened at last, and his old friend called him, he jumped to his feet, and collecting all his coolness and self-possession, he walked in.
Maxence had risen to receive him; but, when he saw him, he stepped back, his eyes glaring in utter surprise.
"Ah, great heavens!" he muttered in a smothered voice.
But M. de Tregars seemed not to notice his stupor. Quite self-possessed, notwithstanding his emotion, he cast a rapid glance over the Count de Villegre, Mme. Favoral and Mlle. Gilberte. At their attitude, and at the expression of their countenance, he easily guessed the point to which things had come.
And, advancing towards Mme. Favoral, he bowed with an amount of respect which was certainly not put on.
"You have heard the Count de Villegre, madame," he said in a slightly altered tone of voice. "I am awaiting my fate."
The poor woman had never before in all her life been so fearfully perplexed. All these events, which succeeded each other so rapidly, had broken the feeble springs of her soul. She was utterly incapable of collecting her thoughts, or of taking a determination.
"At this moment, sir," she stammered, taken unawares, "it would be impossible for me to answer you. Grant me a few days for reflection. We have some old friends whom I ought to consult."
But Maxence, who had got over his stupor, interrupted her.
"Friends, mother!" he exclaimed. "And who are they? People in our position have no friends. What! when we are perishing, a man of heart holds out his hand to us, and you ask to reflect? To my sister, who bears a name henceforth disgraced, the Marquis de Tregars offers his name, and you think of consulting."
The poor woman was shaking her head.
"I am not the mistress, my son," she murmured; "and your father—"
"My father!" interrupted the young man,—"my father! What rights can he have over us hereafter?" And without further discussion, without awaiting an answer, he took his sister's hand, and, placing it in M. de Tregars' hand,
"Ah! take her, sir," he uttered. "Never, whatever she may do, will she acquit the debt of eternal gratitude which we this day contract towards you."
A tremor that shook their frames, a long look which they exchanged, betrayed alone the feelings of Marius and Mlle. Gilberte. They had of life a too cruel experience not to mistrust their joy.
Returning to Mme. Favoral,
"You do not understand, madame," he went on, "why I should have selected for such a step the very moment when an irreparable calamity befalls you. One word will explain all. Being in a position to serve you, I wished to acquire the right of doing so."
Fixing upon him a look in which the gloomiest despair could be read,
"Alas!" stammered the poor woman, "what can you do for me, sir? My life is ended. I have but one wish left,—that of knowing where my husband is hid. It is not for me to judge him. He has not given me the happiness which I had, perhaps, the right to expect; but he is my husband, he is unhappy: my duty is to join him wherever he may be, and to share his sufferings."
She was interrupted by the servant, who was calling her at the parlor-door, "Madame, madame!"
"What is the matter?" inquired Maxence.
"I must speak to madame at once."
Making an effort to rise and walk, Mme. Favoral went out. She was gone but a minute; and, when she returned, her agitation had further increased. "It is the hand of Providence, perhaps," she said. The others were all looking at her anxiously. She took a seat, and, addressing herself more especially to M. de Tregars,
"This is what happens," she said in a feeble voice. "M. Favoral was in the habit of always changing his coat as soon as he came home. As usual, he did so last evening. When they came to arrest him, he forgot to change again, and went off with the coat he had on. The other remained hanging in the room, where the girl took it just now to brush it, and put it away; and this portfolio, which my husband always carries with him, fell from its pocket."
It was an old Russia leather portfolio, which had once been red, but which time and use had turned black. It was full of papers.
"Perhaps, indeed," exclaimed Maxence, "we may find some information there."
He opened it, and had already taken out three-fourths of its contents without finding any thing of any consequence, when suddenly he uttered an exclamation. He had just opened an anonymous note, evidently written in a disguised hand, and at one glance had read,
"I cannot understand your negligence. You should get through that Van Klopen matter. There is the danger."
"What is that note?" inquired M. de Tregars.
Maxence handed it to him.
"See!" said he, "but you will not understand the immense interest it has for me."
But having read it,
"You are mistaken," said Marius. "I understand perfectly; and I'll prove it to you."
The next moment, Maxence took out of the portfolio, and read aloud, the following bill, dated two days before.
"Sold to —— two leather trunks with safety locks at 220 francs each; say, francs 440."
M. de Tregars started.
"At last," he said, "here is doubtless one end of the thread which will guide us to the truth through this labyrinth of iniquities."
And, tapping gently on Maxence's shoulders,
"We must talk," he said, "and at length. To-morrow, before you go to M. de Thaller's with his fifteen thousand francs, call and see me: I shall expect you. We are now engaged upon a common work; and something tells me, that, before long, we shall know what has become of the Mutual Credit's millions."
PART II. FISHING IN TROUBLED WATERS.
"When I think," said Coleridge, "that every morning, in Paris alone, thirty thousand fellows wake up, and rise with the fixed and settled idea of appropriating other people's money, it is with renewed wonder that every night, when I go home, I find my purse still in my pocket."
And yet it is not those who simply aim to steal your portemonnaie who are either the most dishonest or the most formidable.
To stand at the corner of some dark street, and rush upon the first man that comes along, demanding, "Your money or your life," is but a poor business, devoid of all prestige, and long since given up to chivalrous natures.
A man must be something worse than a simpleton to still ply his trade on the high-roads, exposed to all sorts of annoyances on the part of the gendarmes, when manufacturing and financial enterprises offer such a magnificently fertile field to the activity of imaginative people.
And, in order to thoroughly understand the mode of proceeding in this particular field, it is sufficient to open from time to time a copy of "The Police Gazette," and to read some trial, like that, for instance, of one Lefurteux, ex-president of the Company for the Drainage and Improvement of the Orne Swamps.
This took place less than a month ago in one of the police-courts.
The Judge to the Accused—Your profession?
M. Lefurteux—President of the company.
Question—Before that what were you doing?
Answer—I speculated at the bourse.
Q—You had no means?
A—I beg your pardon: I was making money.
Q—And it was under such circumstances that you had the audacity to organize a company with a capital stock of three million of francs, divided in shares of five hundred francs?
A—Having discovered an idea, I did not suppose that I was forbidden to work it up.
Q—What do you call an idea?
A—The idea of draining swamps, and making them productive.
Q—What swamps? Yours never had any existence, except in your prospectus.
A—I expected to buy them as soon as my capital was paid in.
Q—And in the mean time you promised ten per cent to your stockholders.
A—That's the least that draining operations ever pay.
Q—You have advertised?
Q—To what extent?
A—To the extent of about sixty thousand francs.
Q—Where did you get the money?
A—I commenced with ten thousand francs, which a friend of mine had lent me; then I used the funds as they came in.
Q—In other words, you made use of the money of your first dupes to attract others?
A—Many people thought it was a good thing.
Q—Who? Those to whom you sent your prospectus with a plan of your pretended swamps?
A—Excuse me. Others too.
Q—How much money did you ever receive?
A—About six hundred thousand francs, as the expert has stated.
Q—And you have spent the whole of the money?
A—Permit me? I have never applied to my personal wants anything beyond the salary which was allowed me by the By-laws.
Q—How is it, then, that, when you were arrested, there were only twelve hundred and fifty francs found in your safe, and that amount had been sent you through the post-office that very morning? What has become of the rest?
A—The rest has been spent for the good of the company.
Q—Of course! You had a carriage?
A—It was allowed to me by Article 27 of the By-laws.
Q—For the good of the company too, I suppose.
A—Certainly. I was compelled to make a certain display. The head of an important company must endeavor to inspire confidence.
The Judge, with an Ironical Look—Was it also to inspire confidence that you had a mistress, for whom you spent considerable sums of money?
The Accused, in a Tone of Perfect Candor—Yes, sir.
After a pause of a few moments, the judge resumes,
Q—Your offices were magnificent. They must have cost you a great deal to furnish.
A—On the contrary, sir, almost nothing. The furniture was all hired. You can examine the upholsterer.
The upholsterer is sent for, and in answer to the judge's questions,
"What M. Lefurteux has stated," he says, "is true. My specialty is to hire office-fixtures for financial and other companies. I furnish every thing, from the book-keepers' desks to the furniture for the president's private room: from the iron safe to the servant's livery. In twenty-four hours, every thing is ready, and the subscribers can come. As soon as a company is organized, like the one in question, the officers call on me, and, according to the magnitude of the capital required, I furnish a more or less costly establishment. I have a good deal of experience, and I know just what's wanted. When M. Lefurteux came to see me, I gauged his operation at a glance. Three millions of capital, swamps in the Orne, shares of five hundred francs, small subscribers, anxious and noisy.
"'Very well,' I said to him, 'it's a six-months' job. Don't go into useless expenses. Take reps for your private office: that's good enough.'"
The Judge, in a tone of Profound Surprise—You told him that?
The Upholsterer, in the Simple Accent of an Honest Man—Exactly as I am telling your Honor. He followed my advice; and I sent him red hot the furniture and fixtures which had been used by the River Fishery Company, whose president had just been sent to prison for three years.
When, after such revelations, renewed from week to week, with instructive variations, purchasers may still be found for the shares of the Tiffla Mines, the Bretoneche Lands, and the Forests of Formanoid, is it to be wondered that the Mutual Credit Company found numerous subscribers?
It had been admirably started at that propitious hour of the December Coup d'Etat, when the first ideas of mutuality were beginning to penetrate the financial world.
It had lacked neither capital nor powerful patronage at the start, and had been at once admitted to the honor of being quoted at the bourse.
Beginning business ostensibly as an accommodation bank for manufacturers and merchants, the Mutual Credit had had, for a number of years, a well-determined specialty.
But gradually it had enlarged the circle of its operations, altered its by-laws, changed its board of directors; and at the end the original subscribers would have been not a little embarrassed to tell what was the nature of its business, and from what sources it drew its profits.
All they knew was, that it always paid respectable dividends; that their manager, M. de Thaller, was personally very rich; and that they were willing to trust him to steer clear of the code.
There were some, of course, who did not view things in quite so favorable a light; who suggested that the dividends were suspiciously large; that M. de Thaller spent too much money on his house, his wife, his daughter, and his mistress.
One thing is certain, that the shares of the Mutual Credit Society were much above par, and were quoted at 580 francs on that Saturday, when, after the closing of the bourse, the rumor had spread that the cashier, Vincent Favoral, had run off with twelve millions.
"What a haul!" thought, not without a feeling of envy, more than one broker, who, for merely one-twelfth of that amount would have gayly crossed the frontier. It was almost an event in Paris.
Although such adventures are frequent enough, and not taken much notice of, in the present instance, the magnitude of the amount more than made up for the vulgarity of the act.
Favoral was generally pronounced a very smart man; and some persons declared, that to take twelve millions could hardly be called stealing.
The first question asked was,
"Is Thaller in the operation? Was he in collusion with his cashier?"
"That's the whole question."
"If he was, then the Mutual Credit is better off than ever: otherwise, it is gone under."
"Thaller is pretty smart."
"That Favoral was perhaps more so still."
This uncertainty kept up the price for about half an hour. But soon the most disastrous news began to spread, brought, no one knew whence or by whom; and there was an irresistible panic.
From 425, at which price it had maintained itself for a time, the Mutual Credit fell suddenly to 300, then 200, and finally to 150 francs.
Some friends of M. de Thaller, M. Costeclar, for instance, had endeavored to keep up the market; but they had soon recognized the futility of their efforts, and then they had bravely commenced doing like the rest.
The next day was Sunday. From the early morning, it was reported, with the most circumstantial details, that the Baron de Thaller had been arrested.
But in the evening this had been contradicted by people who had gone to the races, and who had met there Mme. de Thaller and her daughter, more brilliant than ever, very lively, and very talkative. To the persons who went to speak to them,
"My husband was unable to come," said the baroness. "He is busy with two of his clerks, looking over that poor Favoral's accounts. It seems that they are in the most inconceivable confusion. Who would ever have thought such a thing of a man who lived on bread and nuts? But he operated at the bourse; and he had organized, under a false name, a sort of bank, in which he has very foolishly sunk large sums of money."
And with a smile, as if all danger had been luckily averted,
"Fortunately," she added, "the damage is not as great as has been reported, and this time, again, we shall get off with a good fright."
But the speeches of the baroness were hardly sufficient to quiet the anxiety of the people who felt in their coat-pockets the worthless certificates of Mutual Credit stock.
And the next day, Monday, as early as eight o'clock, they began to arrive in crowds to demand of M. de Thaller some sort of an explanation.
They were there, at least a hundred, huddled together in the vestibule, on the stairs, and on the first landing, a prey to the most painful emotion and the most violent excitement; for they had been refused admittance.
To all those who insisted upon going in, a tall servant in livery, standing before the door, replied invariably, "The office is not open, M. de Thaller has not yet come."
Whereupon they uttered such terrible threats and such loud imprecations, that the frightened concierge had run, and hid himself at the very bottom of his lodge.
No one can imagine to what epileptic contortions the loss of money can drive an assemblage of men, who has not seen a meeting of shareholders on the morrow of a great disaster, with their clinched fists, their convulsed faces, their glaring eyes, and foaming lips.
They felt indignant at what had once been their delight. They laid the blame of their ruin upon the splendor of the house, the sumptuousness of the stairs, the candelabras of the vestibule, the carpets, the chairs, every thing.
"And it is our money too," they cried, "that has paid for all that!"
Standing upon a bench, a little short man was exciting transports of indignation by describing the magnificence of the Baron de Thaller's residence, where he had once had some dealings.
He had counted five carriages in the carriage-house, fifteen horses in the stables, and Heaven knows how many servants.
He had never been inside the apartments, but he had visited the kitchen; and he declared that he had been dazzled by the number and brightness of the saucepans, ranged in order of size over the furnace.
Gathered in a group under the vestibule, the most sensible deplored their rash confidence.
"That's the way," concluded one, "with all these adventurous affairs."
"That's a fact. There's nothing, after all, like government bonds."
"Or a first mortgage on good property, with subrogation of the wife's rights."
But what exasperated them all was not to be admitted to the presence of M. de Thaller, and to see that servant mounting guard before the door.
"What impudence," they growled, "to leave us on the stairs!—we who are the masters, after all."
"Who knows where M. de Thaller may be?"
"He is hiding, of course."
"No matter: I will see him," clamored a big fat man, with a brick-colored face, "if I shouldn't stir from here for a week."
"You'll see nothing at all," giggled his neighbor. "Do you suppose they don't have back-stairs and private entrances in this infernal shop?"
"Ah! if I believed any thing of the kind," exclaimed the big man in a voice trembling with passion. "I'd soon break in some of these doors: it isn't so hard, after all."
Already he was gazing at the servant with an alarming air, when an old gentleman with a discreet look, stepped up to him, and inquired,
"Excuse me, sir: how many shares have you?"
"Three," answered the man with the brick-colored face.
The other sighed.
"I have two hundred and fifty," he said. "That's why, being at least as interested as yourself in not losing every thing, I beg of you to indulge in no violent proceedings."
There was no need of further speaking.
The door which the servant was guarding flew open. A clerk appeared, and made sign that he wished to speak.
"Gentlemen," he began, "M. de Thaller has just come; but he is just now engaged with the examining judge."
Shouts having drowned his voice, he withdrew precipitately.
"If the law gets its finger in," murmured the discreet gentleman, "good-by!"
"That's a fact," said another. "But we will have the precious advantage of hearing that dear baron condemned to one year's imprisonment, and a fine of fifty francs. That's the regular rate. He wouldn't get off so cheap, if he had stolen a loaf of bread from a baker."
"Do you believe that story about the judge?" interrupted rudely the big man.
They had to believe it, when they saw him appear, followed by a commissary of police and a porter, carrying on his back a load of books and papers. They stood aside to let them pass; but there was no time to make any comments, as another clerk appeared immediately who said,
"M. de Thaller is at your command, gentlemen. Please walk in."
There was then a terrible jamming and pushing to see who would get first into the directors' room, which stood wide open.
M. de Thaller was standing against the mantel-piece, neither paler nor more excited than usual, but like a man who feels sure of himself and of his means of action. As soon as silence was restored,
"First of all, gentlemen," he began, "I must tell you that the board of directors is about to meet, and that a general meeting of the stockholders will be called."
Not a murmur. As at the touch of a magician's wand, the dispositions of the shareholders seemed to have changed.
"I have nothing new to inform you of," he went on. "What happened is a misfortune, but not a disaster. The thing to do was to save the company; and I had first thought of calling for funds."
"Well," said two or three timid voices, "If it was absolutely necessary—"
"But there is no need of it."
"And I can manage to carry every thing through by adding to our reserve fund my own personal fortune."
This time the hurrahs and the bravos drowned the voice.
M. de Thaller received them like a man who deserves them, and, more slowly,
"Honor commanded it," he continued. "I confess it, gentlemen, the wretch who has so basely deceived us had my entire confidence. You will understand my apparent blindness when you know with what infernal skill he managed."
Loud imprecations burst on all sides against Vincent Favoral. But the president of the Mutual Credit proceeded,
"For the present, all I have to ask of you is to keep cool, and continue to give me your confidence."
"The panic of night before last was but a stock-gambling manoeuvre, organized by rival establishments, who were in hopes of taking our clients away from us. They will be disappointed, gentlemen. We will triumphantly demonstrate our soundness; and we shall come out of this trial more powerful than ever."
It was all over. M. de Thaller understood his business. They offered him a vote of thanks. A smile was beaming upon the same faces that were a moment before contracted with rage.
One stockholder alone did not seem to share the general enthusiasm: he was no other than our old friend, M. Chapelain, the ex-lawyer.
"That fellow, Thaller, is just capable of getting himself out of the scrape," he grumbled. "I must tell Maxence."
We have every species of courage in France, and to a superior degree, except that of braving public opinion. Few men would have dared, like Marius de Tregars, to offer their name to the daughter of a wretch charged with embezzlement and forgery, and that at the very moment when the scandal of the crime was at its height. But, when Marius judged a thing good and just, he did it without troubling himself in the least about what others would think. And so his mere presence in the Rue. St. Gilles had brought back hope to its inmates. Of his designs he had said but a word,—"I have the means of helping you: I mean, by marrying Gilberte, to acquire the right of doing so."