But that word had been enough. Mme. Favoral and Maxence had understood that the man who spoke thus was one of those cool and resolute men whom nothing disconcerts or discourages, and who knows how to make the best of the most perilous situations.
And, when he had retired with the Count de Villegre,
"I don't know what he will do," said Mlle. Gilberte to her mother and her brother: "but he will certainly do something; and, if it is humanly possible to succeed, he will succeed."
And how proudly she spoke thus! The assistance of Marius was the justification of her conduct. She trembled with joy at the thought that it would, perhaps, be to the man whom she had alone and boldly selected, that her family would owe their salvation. Shaking his head, and making allusion to events of which he kept the secret,
"I really believe," approved Maxence, "that, to reach the enemies of our father, M. de Tregars possesses some powerful means; and what they are we will doubtless soon know, since I have an appointment with him for to-morrow morning."
It came at last, that morrow, which he had awaited with an impatience that neither his mother nor his sister could suspect. And towards half-past nine he was ready to go out, when M. Chapelain came in. Still irritated by the scenes he had just witnessed at the Mutual Credit office, the old lawyer had a most lugubrious countenance.
"I bring bad news," he began. "I have just seen the Baron de Thaller."
He had said so much the day before about having nothing more to do with it, that Maxence could not repress a gesture of surprise.
"Oh! it isn't alone that I saw him," added M. Chapelain, "but together with at least a hundred stockholders of the Mutual Credit."
"They are going to do something, then?"
"No: they only came near doing something. You should have seen them this morning! They were furious; they threatened to break every thing; they wanted M. de Thaller's blood. It was terrible. But M. de Thaller condescended to receive them; and they became at once as meek as lambs. It is perfectly simple. What do you suppose stockholders can do, no matter how exasperated they may be, when their manager tells them?
"'Well, yes, it's a fact you have been robbed, and your money is in great jeopardy; but if you make any fuss, if you complain thus, all is sure to be lost.' Of course, the stockholders keep quiet. It is a well-known fact that a business which has to be liquidated through the courts is gone; and swindled stockholders fear the law almost as much as the swindling manager. A single fact will make the situation clearer to you. Less than an hour ago, M. de Thaller's stockholders, offered him money to make up the loss."
And, after a moment of silence,
"But this is not all. Justice has interfered; and M. de Thaller spent the morning with an examining-magistrate."
"Well, I have enough experience to affirm that you must not rely any more upon justice than upon the stockholders. Unless there are proofs so evident that they are not likely to exist, M. de Thaller will not be disturbed."
"Why? Because, my dear, in all those big financial operations, justice, as much as possible, remains blind. Not through corruption or any guilty connivance, but through considerations of public interest. If the manager was prosecuted he would be condemned to a few years' imprisonment; but his stockholders would at the same time be condemned to lose what they have left; so that the victims would be more severely punished than the swindler. And so, powerless, justice does not interfere. And that's what accounts for the impudence and impunity of all these high-flown rascals who go about with their heads high, their pockets filled with other people's money, and half a dozen decorations at their button-hole."
"And what then?" asked Maxence.
"Then it is evident that your father is lost. Whether or not he did have accomplices, he will be alone sacrificed. A scapegoat is needed to be slaughtered on the altar of credit. Well, they will give that much satisfaction to the swindled stockholders. The twelve millions will be lost; but the shares of the Mutual Credit will go up, and public morality will be safe."
Somewhat moved by the old lawyer's tone,
"What do you advise me to do, then?" inquired Maxence.
"The very reverse of what, on the first impulse, I advised you to do. That's why I have come. I told you yesterday, 'Make a row, act, scream. It is impossible that your father be alone guilty; attack M. de Thaller.' To-day, after mature deliberation, I say, 'Keep quiet, hide yourself, let the scandal drop.'"
A bitter smile contracted Maxence's lips.
"It is not very brave advice you are giving me there," he said.
"It is a friend's advice,—the advice of a man who knows life better than yourself. Poor young man, you are not aware of the peril of certain struggles. All knaves are in league and sustain each other. To attack one is to attack them all. You have no idea of the occult influences of which a man can dispose who handles millions, and who, in exchange for a favor, has always a bonus to offer, or a good operation to propose. If at least I could see any chance of success! But you have not one. You never can reach M. de Thaller, henceforth backed by his stockholders. You will only succeed in making an enemy whose hostility will weigh upon your whole life."
"What does it matter?"
M. Chapelain shrugged his shoulders.
"If you were alone," he went on, "I would say as you do, 'What does it matter?' But you are no longer alone: you have your mother and sister to take care of. You must think of food before thinking of vengeance. How much a month do you earn? Two hundred francs! It is not much for three persons. I would never suggest that you should solicit M. de Thaller's protection; but it would be well, perhaps, to let him know that he has nothing to fear from you. Why shouldn't you do so when you take his fifteen thousand francs back to him? If, as every thing indicates, he has been your father's accomplice, he will certainly be touched by the distress of your family, and, if he has any heart left, he will manage to make you find, without appearing to have any thing to do with it, a situation better suited to your wants. I know that such a step must be very painful; but I repeat it, my dear child, you can no longer think of yourself alone; and what one would not do for himself, one does for a mother and a sister."
Maxence said nothing. Not that he was in any way affected by the worthy old lawyer's speech; but he was asking himself whether or not he should confide to him the events which in the past twenty-four hours had so suddenly modified the situation. He did not feel authorized to do so.
Marius de Tregars had not bound him to secrecy; but an indiscretion might have fatal consequences. And, after a moment of thought,
"I am obliged to you, sir," he replied evasively, "for the interest you have manifested in our welfare; and we shall always greatly prize your advice. But for the present you must allow me to leave you with my mother and sister. I have an appointment with—a friend."
And, without waiting for an answer, he slipped M. de Thaller's fifteen thousand francs in his pocket, and hurried out. It was not to M. de Tregars that he went first, however, but to the Hotel des Folies.
"Mlle. Lucienne has just come home with a big bundle," said Mme. Fortin to Maxence, with her pleasantest smile, as soon as she had seen him emerge from the shades of the corridor.
For the past twenty-four hours, the worthy hostess had been watching for her guest, in the hopes of obtaining some information which she might communicate to the neighbors. Without even condescending to answer, a piece of rudeness at which she felt much hurt, he crossed the narrow court of the hotel at a bound, and started up stairs.
Mlle. Lucienne's room was open. He walked in, and, still out of breath from his rapid ascension,
"I am glad to find you in," he exclaimed. The young girl was busy, arranging upon her bed a dress of very light colored silk, trimmed with ruches and lace, an overdress to match, and a bonnet of wonderful shape, loaded with the most brilliant feathers and flowers.
"You see what brings me here," she replied. "I came home to dress. At two o'clock the carriage is coming to take me to the bois, where I am to exhibit this costume, certainly the most ridiculous that Van Klopen has yet made me wear."
A smile flitted upon Maxence's lips.
"Who knows," said he, "if this is not the last time you will have to perform this odious task? Ah, my friend! what events have taken place since I last saw you!"
"You will judge for yourself."
He closed the door carefully, and, returning to Mlle. Lucienne,
"Do you know the Marquis de Tregars?" he asked.
"No more than you do. It was yesterday, at the commissary of police, that I first heard his name."
"Well, before a month, M. de Tregars will be Mlle. Gilberte Favoral's husband."
"Is it possible?" exclaimed Mlle. Lucienne with a look of extreme surprise.
But, instead of answering,
"You told me," resumed Maxence, "that once, in a day of supreme distress, you had applied to Mme. de Thaller for assistance, whereas you were actually entitled to an indemnity for having been run over and seriously hurt by her carriage."
"That is true."
"Whilst you were in the vestibule, waiting for an answer to your letter, which a servant had taken up stairs, M. de Thaller came in; and, when he saw you, he could not repress a gesture of surprise, almost of terror."
"That is true too."
"This behavior of M. de Thaller always remained an enigma to you."
"An inexplicable one."
"Well, I think that I can explain it to you now."
Lowering his voice; for he knew that at the Hotel des Folies there was always to fear some indiscreet ear.
"Yes, I," he answered; "and for the reason that yesterday, when M. de Tregars appeared in my mother's parlor, I could not suppress an exclamation of surprise, for the reason, Lucienne, that, between Marius de Tregars and yourself, there is a resemblance with which it is impossible not to be struck."
Mlle. Lucienne had become very pale.
"What do you suppose, then?" she asked.
"I believe, my friend, that we are very near penetrating at once the mystery of your birth and the secret of the hatred that has pursued you since the day when you first set your foot in M. de Thaller's house."
Admirably self-possessed as Mlle. Lucienne usually was, the quivering of her lips betrayed at this moment the intensity of her emotion.
After more than a minute of profound meditation,
"The commissary of police," she said, "has never told me his hopes, except in vague terms. He has told me enough, however, to make me think that he has already had suspicions similar to yours."
"Of course! Would he otherwise have questioned me on the subject of M. de Tregars?"
Mlle. Lucienne shook her head.
"And yet," she said, "even after your explanation, it is in vain that I seek why and how I can so far disturb M. de Thaller's security that he wishes to do away with me."
Maxence made a gesture of superb indifference. "I confess," he said, "that I don't see it either. But what matters it? Without being able to explain why, I feel that the Baron de Thaller is the common enemy, yours, mine, my father's, and M. de Tregars'. And something tells me, that, with M. de Tregars' help, we shall triumph. You would share my confidence, Lucienne, if you knew him. There is a man! and my sister has made no vulgar choice. If he has told my mother that he has the means of serving her, it is because he certainly has."
He stopped, and, after a moment of silence, "Perhaps," he went on, "the commissary of police might readily understand what I only dimly suspect; but, until further orders, we are forbidden to have recourse to him. It is not my own secret that I have just told you; and, if I have confided it to you, it is because I feel that it is a great piece of good fortune for us; and there is no joy for me, that you do not share."
Mlle. Lucienne wanted to ask many more particulars. But, looking at his watch,
"Half-past ten!" he exclaimed, "and M. de Tregars waiting for me."
And he started off, repeating once more to the young girl,
"I will see you to-night: until then, good hope and good courage."
In the court, two ill-looking men were talking with the Fortins. But it happened often to the Fortins to talk with ill-looking men: so he took no notice of them, ran out to the Boulevard, and jumping into a cab,
"Rue Lafitte 70," he cried to the driver, "I pay the trip,—three francs."
When Marius de Tregars had finally determined to compel the bold rascals who had swindled his father to disgorge, he had taken in the Rue Lafitte a small, plainly-furnished apartment on the entresol, a fit dwelling for the man of action, the tent in which he takes shelter on the eve of battle; and he had to wait upon him an old family servant, whom he had found out of place, and who had for him that unquestioning and obstinate devotion peculiar to Breton servants.
It was this excellent man who came at the first stroke of the bell to open the door. And, as soon as Maxence had told him his name,
"Ah!" he exclaimed, "my master has been expecting you with a terrible impatience."
It was so true, that M. de Tregars himself appeared at the same moment, and, leading Maxence into the little room which he used as a study,
"Do you know," he said whilst shaking him cordially by the hand, "that you are almost an hour behind time?"
Maxence had, among others the detestable fault, sure indication of a weak nature, of being never willing to be in the wrong, and of having always an excuse ready. On this occasion, the excuse was too tempting to allow it to escape; and quick he began telling how he had been detained by M. Chapelain, and how he had heard from the old lawyer what had taken place at the Mutual Credit office.
"I know the scene already," said M. de Tregars. And, fixing upon Maxence a look of friendly raillery,
"Only," he added, "I attributed your want of punctuality to another reason, a very pretty one this time, a brunette."
A purple cloud spread over Maxence's cheeks.
"What!" he stammered, "you know?"
"I thought you must have been in haste to go and tell a person of your acquaintance why, when you saw me yesterday, you uttered an exclamation of surprise."
This time Maxence lost all countenance.
"What," he said, "you know too?"
M. de Tregars smiled.
"I know a great many things, my dear M. Maxence," he replied; "and yet, as I do not wish to be suspected of witchcraft, I will tell you where all my science comes from. At the time when your house was closed to me, after seeking for a long time some means of hearing from your sister, I discovered at last that she had for her music-teacher an old Italian, the Signor Gismondo Pulei. I applied to him for lessons, and became his pupil. But, in the beginning, he kept looking at me with singular persistence. I inquired the reason; and he told me that he had once had for a neighbor, at the Batignolles, a young working-girl, who resembled me prodigiously. I paid no attention to this circumstance, and had, in fact, completely forgotten it; when, quite lately, Gismondo told me that he had just seen his former neighbor again, and, what's more, arm in arm with you, and that you both entered together the Hotel des Folies. As he insisted again upon that famous resemblance, I determined to see for myself. I watched, and I stated, de visa, that my old Italian was not quite wrong, and that I had, perhaps, just found the weapon I was looking for."
His eyes staring, and his mouth gaping, Maxence looked like a man fallen from the clouds.
"Ah, you did watch!" he said.
M. de Tregars snapped his fingers with a gesture of indifference.
"It is certain," he replied, "that, for a month past, I have been doing a singular business. But it is not by remaining on my chair, preaching against the corruption of the age, that I can attain my object. The end justifies the means. Honest men are very silly, I think, to allow the rascals to get the better of them under the sentimental pretext that they cannot condescend to make use of their weapons."
But an honorable scruple was tormenting Maxence.
"And you think yourself well-informed, sir?" he inquired. "You know Lucienne?"
"Enough to know that she is not what she seems to be, and what almost any other would have been in her place; enough to be certain, that, if she shows herself two or three times a week riding around the lake, it is not for her pleasure; enough, also, to be persuaded, that, despite appearances, she is not your mistress, and that, far from having disturbed your life, and compromised your prospects, she set you back into the right road, at the moment, perhaps, when you were about to branch off into the wrong path."
Marius de Tregars was assuming fantastic proportions in the mind of Maxence.
"How did you manage," he stammered, "thus to find out the truth?"
"With time and money, every thing is possible."
"But you must have had grave reasons to take so much trouble about Lucienne."
"Very grave ones, indeed."
"You know that she was basely forsaken when quite a child?"
"And that she was brought up through charity?"
"By some poor gardeners at Louveciennes: yes, I know all that."
Maxence was trembling with joy. It seemed to him that his most dazzling hopes were about to be realized. Seizing the hands of Marius de Tregars,
"Ah, you know Lucienne's family!" he exclaimed. But M. de Tregars shook his head.
"I have suspicions," he answered; "but, up to this time, I have suspicions only, I assure you."
"But that family does exist; since they have already, at three different times, attempted to get rid of the poor girl."
"I think as you do; but we must have proofs: and we shall find some. You may rest assured of that."
Here he was interrupted by the noise of the opening door.
The old servant came in, and advancing to the centre of the room with a mysterious look,
"Madame la Baronne de Thaller," he said in a low voice.
Marius de Tregars started violently.
"Where?" he asked.
"She is down stairs in her carriage," replied the servant. "Her footman is here, asking whether monsieur is at home, and whether she can come up."
"Can she possibly have heard any thing?" murmured M. de Tregars with a deep frown. And, after a moment of reflection,
"So much the more reason to see her," he added quickly. "Let her come. Request her to do me the honor of coming up stairs."
This last incident completely upset all Maxence's ideas. He no longer knew what to imagine.
"Quick," said M. de Tregars to him: "quick, disappear; and, whatever you may hear, not a word!"
And he pushed him into his bedroom, which was divided from the study by a mere tapestry curtain. It was time; for already in the next room could be heard a great rustling of silk and starched petticoats. Mme. de Thaller appeared.
She was still the same coarsely beautiful woman, who, sixteen years before, had sat at Mme. Favoral's table. Time had passed without scarcely touching her with the tip of his wing. Her flesh had retained its dazzling whiteness; her hair, of a bluish black, its marvelous opulence; her lips, their carmine hue; her eyes, their lustre. Her figure only had become heavier, her features less delicate; and her neck and throat had lost their undulations, and the purity of their outlines.
But neither the years, nor the millions, nor the intimacy of the most fashionable women, had been able to give her those qualities which cannot be acquired,—grace, distinction, and taste.
If there was a woman accustomed to dress, it was she: a splendid dry-goods store could have been set up with the silks and the velvets, the satins and cashmeres, the muslins, the laces, and all the known tissues, that had passed over her shoulders.
Her elegance was quoted and copied. And yet there was about her always and under all circumstances, an indescribable flavor of the parvenue. Her gestures had remained trivial; her voice, common and vulgar.
Throwing herself into an arm-chair, and bursting into a loud laugh,
"Confess, my dear marquis," she said, "that you are terribly astonished to see me thus drop upon you, without warning, at eleven o'clock in the morning."
"I feel, above all, terribly flattered," replied M. de Tregars, smiling.
With a rapid glance she was surveying the little study, the modest furniture, the papers piled on the desk, as if she had hoped that the dwelling would reveal to her something of the master's ideas and projects.
"I was just coming from Van Klopen's," she resumed; "and passing before your house, I took a fancy to come in and stir you up; and here I am."
M. de Tregars was too much a man of the world, and of the best world, to allow his features to betray the secret of his impressions; and yet, to any one who had known him well, a certain contraction of the eyelids would have revealed a serious annoyance and an intense anxiety.
"How is the baron?" he inquired.
"As sound as an oak," answered Mme. de Thaller, "notwithstanding all the cares and the troubles, which you can well imagine. By the way, you know what has happened to us?"
"I read in the papers that the cashier of the Mutual Credit had disappeared."
"And it is but too true. That wretch Favoral has gone off with an enormous amount of money."
"Twelve millions, I heard."
"Something like it. A man who had the reputation of a saint too; a puritan. Trust people's faces after that! I never liked him, I confess. But M. de Thaller had a perfect fancy for him; and, when he had spoken of his Favoral, there was nothing more to say. Any way, he has cleared out, leaving his family without means. A very interesting family, it seems, too,—a wife who is goodness itself, and a charming daughter: at least, so says Costeclar, who is very much in love with her."
M. de Tregars' countenance remained perfectly indifferent, like that of a man who is hearing about persons and things in which he does not take the slightest interest.
Mme. de Thaller noticed this.
"But it isn't to tell you all this," she went on, "that I came up. It is an interested motive brought me. We have, some of my friends and myself, organized a lottery—a work of charity, my dear marquis, and quite patriotic—for the benefit of the Alsatians, I have lots of tickets to dispose of; and I've thought of you to help me out."
More smiling than ever,
"I am at your orders, madame," answered Marius, "but, in mercy, spare me."
She took out some tickets from a small shell pocket-book.
"Twenty, at ten francs," she said. "It isn't too much, is it?"
"It is a great deal for my modest resources."
She pocketed the ten napoleons which he handed her, and, in a tone of ironical compassion,
"Are you so very poor, then?" she asked.
"Why, I am neither banker nor broker, you know."
She had risen, and was smoothing the folds of her dress.
"Well, my dear marquis," she resumed, "it is certainly not me who will pity you. When a man of your age, and with your name, remains poor, it is his own fault. Are there no rich heiresses?"
"I confess that I haven't tried to find one yet." She looked at him straight in the eyes, and then suddenly bursting out laughing,
"Look around you," she said, "and I am sure you'll not be long discovering a beautiful young girl, very blonde, who would be delighted to become Marquise de Tregars, and who would bring in her apron a dowry of twelve or fifteen hundred thousand francs in good securities,—securities which the Favorals can't carry off. Think well, and then come to see us. You know that M. de Thaller is very fond of you; and, after all the trouble we have been having, you owe us a visit."
Whereupon she went out, M. de Tregars going down to escort her to her carriage. But as he came up,
"Attention!" he cried to Maxence; "for it's very evident that the Thallers have wind of something."
It was a revelation, that visit of Mme. de Thaller's; and there was no need of very much perspicacity to guess her anxiety beneath her bursts of laughter, and to understand that it was a bargain she had come to propose. It was evident, therefore, that Marius de Tregars held within his hands the principal threads of that complicated intrigue which had just culminated in that robbery of twelve millions. But would he be able to make use of them? What were his designs, and his means of action? That is what Maxence could not in any way conjecture.
He had no time to ask questions.
"Come," said M. Tregars, whose agitation was manifest,—"come, let us breakfast: we have not a moment to lose."
And, whilst his servant was bringing in his modest meal,
"I am expecting M. d'Escajoul," he said. "Show him in as soon as he comes."
Retired as he had lived from the financial world, Maxence had yet heard the name of Octave d'Escajoul.
Who has not seen him, happy and smiling, his eye bright, and his lip ruddy, notwithstanding his fifty years, walking on the sunny side of the Boulevard, with his royal blue jacket and his eternal white vest? He is passionately fond of everything that tends to make life pleasant and easy; dines at Bignon's, or the Cafe Anglais; plays baccarat at the club with extraordinary luck; has the most comfortable apartment and the most elegant coupe in all Paris. With all this, he is pleased to declare that he is the happiest of men, and is certainly one of the most popular; for he cannot walk three blocks on the Boulevard without lifting his hat at least fifty times, and shaking hands twice as often.
And when any one asks, "What does he do?" the invariable answer is, "Why he operates."
To explain what sort of operations, would not be, perhaps, very easy. In the world of rogues, there are some rogues more formidable and more skillful than the rest, who always manage to escape the hand of the law. They are not such fools as to operate in person,—not they! They content themselves with watching their friends and comrades. If a good haul is made, at once they appear and claim their share. And, as they always threaten to inform, there is no help for it but to let them pocket the clearest of the profit.
Well, in a more elevated sphere, in the world of speculation, it is precisely that lucrative and honorable industry which M. d'Escajoul carries on. Thoroughly master of his ground, possessing a superior scent and an imperturbable patience, always awake, and continually on the watch, he never operates unless he is sure to win.
And the day when the manager of some company has violated his charter or stretched the law a little too far, he may be sure to see M. d'Escajoul appear, and ask for some little—advantages, and proffer, in exchange, the most thorough discretion, and even his kind offices.
Two or three of his friends have heard him say,
"Who would dare to blame me? It's very moral, what I am doing."
Such is the man who came in, smiling, just as Maxence and Marius de Tregars had sat down at the table. M. de Tregars rose to receive him.
"You will breakfast with us?" he said.
"Thank you," answered M. d'Escajoul. "I breakfasted precisely at eleven, as usual. Punctuality is a politeness which a man owes to his stomach. But I will accept with pleasure a drop of that old Cognac which you offered me the other evening."
He took a seat; and the valet brought him a glass, which he set on the edge of the table. Then,
"I have just seen our man," he said.
Maxence understood that he was referring to M. de Thaller.
"Well?" inquired M. de Tregars.
"Impossible to get any thing out of him. I turned him over and over, every way. Nothing!"
"It's so; and you know if I understand the business. But what can you say to a man who answers you all the time, 'The matter is in the hands of the law; experts have been named; I have nothing to fear from the most minute investigations'?"
By the look which Marius de Tregars kept riveted upon M. d'Escajoul, it was easy to see that his confidence in him was not without limits. He felt it, and, with an air of injured innocence,
"Do you suspect me, by chance," he said, "to have allowed myself to be hoodwinked by Thaller?"
And as M. de Tregars said nothing, which was the most eloquent of answers,
"Upon my word," he insisted, "you are wrong to doubt me. Was it you who came after me? No. It was I, who, hearing through Marcolet the history of your fortune, came to tell you, 'Do you want to know a way of swamping Thaller?' And the reasons I had to wish that Thaller might be swamped: I have them still. He trifled with me, he 'sold' me, and he must suffer for it; for, if it came to be known that I could be taken in with impunity, it would be all over with my credit."
After a moment of silence,
"Do you believe, then," asked M. de Tregars, "that M. de Thaller is innocent?"
"That would be curious."
"Or else his measures are so well taken that he has absolutely nothing to fear. If Favoral takes everything upon himself, what can they say to the other? If they have acted in collusion, the thing has been prepared for a long time; and, before commencing to fish, they must have troubled the water so well, that justice will be unable to see anything in it."
"And you see no one who could help us?"
To Maxence's great surprise, M. de Tregars shrugged his shoulders.
"That one is gone," he said; "and, were he at hand, it is quite evident that if he was in collusion with M. de Thaller, he would not speak."
"That being the case, what can we do?"
M. de Tregars made a gesture of discouragement.
"I might as well give up the fight, then," he said, "and try to compromise."
"Why so? We don't know what may happen. Keep quiet, be patient; I am here, and I am looking out for squalls."
He got up and prepared to leave.
"You have more experience than I have," said M. de Tregars; "and, since that's your opinion——"
M. d'Escajoul had resumed all his good humor.
"Very well, then, it's understood," he said, pressing M. de Tregars' hand. "I am watching for both of us; and if I see a chance, I come at once, and you act."
But the outer door had hardly closed, when suddenly the countenance of Marius de Tregars changed. Shaking the hand which M. d'Escajoul had just touched,—"Pouah!" he said with a look of thorough disgust,—"pouah!"
And noticing Maxence's look of utter surprise,
"Don't you understand," he said, "that this old rascal has been sent to me by Thaller to feel my intentions, and mislead me by false information? I had scented him, fortunately; and, if either one of us is dupe of the other, I have every reason to believe that it will not be me."
They had finished their breakfast. M. de Tregars called his servant.
"Have you been for a carriage?" he asked.
"It is at the door, sir."
"Well, then, come along."
Maxence had the good sense not to over-estimate himself. Perfectly convinced that he could accomplish nothing alone, he was firmly resolved to trust blindly to Marius de Tregars.
He followed him, therefore; and it was only after the carriage had started, that he ventured to ask,
"Where are we going?"
"Didn't you hear me," replied M. de Tregars, "order the driver to take us to the court-house?"
"I beg your pardon; but what I wish to know is, what we are going to do there?"
"You are going, my dear friend, to ask an audience of the judge who has your father's case in charge, and deposit into his hands the fifteen thousand francs you have in your pocket."
"What! You wish me to—"
"I think it better to place that money into the hands of justice, which will appreciate the step, than into those of M. de Thaller, who would not breathe a word about it. We are in a position where nothing should be neglected; and that money may prove an indication."
But they had arrived. M. de Tregars guided Maxence through the labyrinth of corridors of the building, until he came to a long gallery, at the entrance of which an usher was seated reading a newspaper.
"M. Barban d'Avranchel?" inquired M. de Tregars.
"He is in his office," replied the usher.
"Please ask him if he would receive an important deposition in the Favoral case."
The usher rose somewhat reluctantly, and, while he was gone,
"You will go in alone," said M. de Tregars to Maxence. "I shall not appear; and it is important that my name should not even be pronounced. But, above all, try and remember even the most insignificant words of the judge; for, upon what he tells you, I shall regulate my conduct."
The usher returned.
"M. d'Avranchel will receive you," he said. And, leading Maxence to the extremity of the gallery, he opened a small door, and pushed him in, saying at the same time,
"That is it, sir: walk in."
It was a small room, with a low ceiling, and poorly furnished. The faded curtains and threadbare carpet showed plainly that more than one judge had occupied it, and that legions of accused criminals had passed through it. In front of a table, two men—one old, the judge; the other young, the clerk—were signing and classifying papers. These papers related to the Favoral case, and were all indorsed in large letters: Mutual Credit Company.
As soon as Maxence appeared, the judge rose, and, after measuring him with a clear and cold look:
"Who are you?" he interrogated.
In a somewhat husky voice, Maxence stated his name and surname.
"Ah! you are Vincent Favoral's son," interrupted the judge. "And it was you who helped him escape through the window? I was going to send you a summons this very day; but, since you are here, so much the better. You have something important to communicate, I have been told."
Very few people, even among the most strictly honest, can overcome a certain unpleasant feeling when, having crossed the threshold of the palace of justice, they find themselves in presence of a judge. More than almost any one else, Maxence was likely to be accessible to that vague and inexplicable feeling; and it was with an effort that he answered,
"On Saturday evening, the Baron de Thaller called at our house a few minutes before the commissary. After loading my father with reproaches, he invited him to leave the country; and, in order to facilitate his flight, he handed him these fifteen thousand francs. My father declined to accept them; and, at the moment of parting, he recommended to me particularly to return them to M. de Thaller. I thought it best to return them to you, sir."
"Because I wished the fact known to you of the money having been offered and refused."
M. Barban d'Avranchel was quietly stroking his whiskers, once of a bright red, but now almost entirely white.
"Is this an insinuation against the manager of the Mutual Credit?" he asked.
Maxence looked straight at him; and, in a tone which affirmed precisely the reverse,
"I accuse no one," he said.
"I must tell you," resumed the judge, "that M. de Thaller has himself informed me of this circumstance. When he called at your house, he was ignorant, as yet, of the extent of the embezzlements, and was in hopes of being able to hush up the affair. That's why he wished his cashier to start for Belgium. This system of helping criminals to escape the just punishment of their crimes is to be bitterly deplored; but it is quite the habit of your financial magnates, who prefer sending some poor devil of an employe to hang himself abroad than run the risk of compromising their credit by confessing that they have been robbed."
Maxence might have had a great deal to say; but M. de Tregars had recommended him the most extreme reserve. He remained silent.
"On the other hand," resumed the judge, "the refusal to accept the money so generously offered does not speak in favor of Vincent Favoral. He was well aware, when he left, that it would require a great deal of money to reach the frontier, escape pursuit, and hide himself abroad; and, if he refused the fifteen thousand francs, it must have been because he was well provided for already."
Tears of shame and rage started from Maxence's eyes. "I am certain, sir," he exclaimed, "that my father went off without a sou."
"What has become of the millions, then?" he asked coldly.
Maxence hesitated. Why not mention his suspicions? He dared not.
"My father speculated at the bourse," he stammered. "And he led a scandalous conduct, keeping up, away from home, a style of living which must have absorbed immense sums."
"We knew nothing of it, sir; and our first suspicions were aroused by what the commissary of police told us."
The judge insisted no more; and in a tone which indicated that his question was a mere matter of form, and he attached but little importance to the answer,
"You have no news from your father?" he asked.
"And you have no idea where he has gone?"
"None in the least."
M. d'Avranchel had already resumed his seat at the table, and was again busy with his papers.
"You may retire," he said. "You will be notified if I need you."
Maxence felt much discouraged when he joined M. de Tregars at the entrance of the gallery.
"The judge is convinced of M. de Thaller's entire innocence," he said.
But as soon as he had narrated, with a fidelity that did honor to his memory, all that had just occurred,
"Nothing is lost yet," declared M. de Tregars. And, taking from his pocket the bill for two trunks, which had been found in M. Favoral's portfolio,
"There," he said, "we shall know our fate."
M. de Tregars and Maxence were in luck. They had a good driver and a fair horse; and in twenty minutes they were at the trunk store. As soon as the cab stopped,
"Well," exclaimed M. de Tregars, "I suppose it has to be done."
And, with the look of a man who has made up his mind to do something which is extremely repugnant to him, he jumped out, and, followed by Maxence, entered the shop.
It was a modest establishment; and the people who kept it, husband and wife, seeing two customers coming in, rushed to meet them, with that welcoming smile which blossoms upon the lips of every Parisian shopkeeper.
"What will you have, gentlemen?"
And, with wonderful volubility, they went on enumerating every article which they had for sale in their shop,—from the "indispensable-necessary," containing seventy-seven pieces of solid silver, and costing four thousand francs, down to the humblest carpet-bag at thirty-nine cents.
But Marius de Tregars interrupted them as soon as he could get an opportunity, and, showing them their bill,
"It was here, wasn't it," he inquired, "that the two trunks were bought which are charged in this bill?"
"Yes, sir," answered simultaneously both husband and wife.
"When were they delivered?"
"Our porter went to deliver them, less than two hours after they were bought."
By this time the shopkeepers were beginning to exchange uneasy looks.
"Why do you ask?" inquired the woman in a tone which indicated that she had the settled intention not to answer, unless for good and valid reason.
To obtain the simplest information is not always as easy as might be supposed. The suspicion of the Parisian tradesman is easily aroused; and, as his head is stuffed with stories of spies and robbers, as soon as he is questioned he becomes as dumb as an oyster.
But M. de Tregars had foreseen the difficulty:
"I beg you to believe, madame," he went on, "that my questions are not dictated by an idle curiosity. Here are the facts. A relative of ours, a man of a certain age, of whom we are very fond, and whose head is a little weak, left his home some forty-eight hours since. We are looking for him, and we are in hopes, if we find these trunks, to find him at the same time."
With furtive glances, the husband and wife were tacitly consulting each other.
"The fact is," they said, "we wouldn't like, under any consideration, to commit an indiscretion which might result to the prejudice of a customer."
"Fear nothing," said M. de Tregars with a reassuring gesture. "If we have not had recourse to the police, it's because, you know, it isn't pleasant to have the police interfere in one's affairs. If you have any objections to answer me, however, I must, of course, apply to the commissary."
The argument proved decisive.
"If that's the case," replied the woman, "I am ready to tell all I know."
"Well, then, madame, what do you know?"
"These two trunks were bought on Friday afternoon last, by a man of a certain age, tall, very thin, with a stern countenance, and wearing a long frock coat."
"No more doubt," murmured Maxence. "It was he."
"And now," the woman went on, "that you have just told me that your relative was a little weak in the head, I remember that this gentleman had a strange sort of way about him, and that he kept walking about the store as if he had fleas on his legs. And awful particular he was too! Nothing was handsome enough and strong enough for him; and he was anxious about the safety-locks, as he had, he said, many objects of value, papers, and securities, to put away."
"And where did he tell you to send the two trunks?"
"Rue du Cirque, to Mme.—wait a minute, I have the name at the end of my tongue."
"You must have it on your books, too," remarked M. de Tregars.
The husband was already looking over his blotter.
"April 26, 1872," he said. "26, here it is: 'Two leather trunks, patent safety-locks: Mme. Zelie Cadelle, 49 Rue du Cirque.'"
Without too much affectation, M. de Tregars had drawn near to the shopkeeper, and was looking over his shoulder.
"What is that," he asked, "written there, below the address?"
"That, sir, is the direction left by the customer 'Mark on each end of the trunks, in large letters, "Rio de Janeiro."'"
Maxence could not suppress an exclamation. "Oh!"
But the tradesman mistook him; and, seizing this magnificent opportunity to display his knowledge,
"Rio de Janeiro is the capital of Brazil," he said in a tone of importance. "And your relative evidently intended to go there; and, if he has not changed his mind, I doubt whether you can overtake him; for the Brazilian steamer was to have sailed yesterday from Havre."
Whatever may have been his intentions, M. de Tregars remained perfectly calm.
"If that's the case," he said to the shopkeepers, "I think I had better give up the chase. I am much obliged to you, however, for your information."
But, once out again,
"Do you really believe," inquired Maxence, "that my father has left France?"
M. de Tregars shook his head.
"I will give you my opinion," he uttered, "after I have investigated matters in the Rue du Cirque."
They drove there in a few minutes; and, the cab having stopped at the entrance of the street, they walked on foot in front of No. 49. It was a small cottage, only one story in height, built between a sanded court-yard and a garden, whose tall trees showed above the roof. At the windows could be seen curtains of light-colored silk, —a sure indication of the presence of a young and pretty woman.
For a few minutes Marius de Tregars remained in observation; but, as nothing stirred,
"We must find out something, somehow," he exclaimed impatiently.
And noticing a large grocery store bearing No. 62, he directed his steps towards it, still accompanied by Maxence.
It was the hour of the day when customers are rare. Standing in the centre of the shop, the grocer, a big fat man with an air of importance, was overseeing his men, who were busy putting things in order.
M. de Tregars took him aside, and with an accent of mystery,
"I am," he said, "a clerk with M. Drayton, the jeweler in the Rue de la Paix; and I come to ask you one of those little favors which tradespeople owe to each other."
A frown appeared on the fat man's countenance. He thought, perhaps, that M. Drayton's clerks were rather too stylish-looking; or else, perhaps, he felt apprehensive of one of those numerous petty swindles of which shopkeepers are constantly the victims.
"What is it?" said he. "Speak!"
"I am on my way," spoke M. de Tregars, "to deliver a ring which a lady purchased of us yesterday. She is not a regular customer, and has given us no references. If she doesn't pay, shall I leave the ring? My employer told me, 'Consult some prominent tradesman of the neighborhood, and follow his advice.'"
Prominent tradesman! Delicately tickled vanity was dancing in the grocer's eyes.
"What is the name of the lady?" he inquired.
"Mme. Zelie Cadelle."
The grocer burst out laughing.
"In that case, my boy," he said, tapping familiarly the shoulder of the so-called clerk, "whether she pays or not, you can deliver the article."
The familiarity was not, perhaps, very much to the taste of the Marquis de Tregars. No matter.
"She is rich, then, that lady?" he said.
"Personally no. But she is protected by an old fool, who allows her all her fancies."
"It is scandalous; and you cannot form an idea of the amount of money that is spent in that house. Horses, carriages, servants, dresses, balls, dinners, card-playing all night, a perpetual carnival: it must be ruinous!"
M. de Tregars never winced.
"And the old man who pays?" he asked; "do you know him?"
"I have seen him pass,—a tall, lean, old fellow, who doesn't look very rich, either. But excuse me: here is a customer I must wait upon."
Having walked out into the street,
"We must separate now," declared M. de Tregars to Maxence.
"What! You wish to—"
"Go and wait for me in that cafe yonder, at the corner of the street. I must see that Zelie Cadelle and speak to her."
And without suffering an objection on the part of Maxence, he walked resolutely up to the cottage-gate, and rang vigorously.
At the sound of the bell, one of those servants stepped out into the yard, who seem manufactured on purpose, heaven knows where, for the special service of young ladies who keep house,—a tall rascal with sallow complexion and straight hair, a cynical eye, and a low, impudent smile.
"What do you wish, sir?" he inquired through the grating.
"That you should open the door, first," uttered M. de Tregars, with such a look and such an accent, that the other obeyed at once.
"And now," he added, "go and announce me to Mme. Zelie Cadelle."
"Madame is out," replied the valet.
And noticing that M. de Tregars shrugged his shoulders,
"Upon my word," he said, "she has gone to the bois with one of her friends. If you won't believe me, ask my comrades there."
And he pointed out two other servants of the same pattern as himself, who were silting at a table in the carriage-house, playing cards, and drinking.
But M. de Tregars did not mean to be imposed upon. He felt certain that the man was lying. Instead, therefore, of discussing,
"I want you to take me to your mistress," he ordered, in a tone that admitted of no objection; "or else I'll find my way to her alone."
It was evident that he would do just as he said, by force if needs be. The valet saw this, and, after hesitating a moment longer,
"Come along, then," he said, "since you insist so much. We'll talk to the chambermaid."
And, having led M. de Tregars into the vestibule, he called out, "Mam'selle Amanda!"
A woman at once made her appearance who was a worthy mate for the valet. She must have been about forty, and the most alarming duplicity could be read upon her features, deeply pitted by the small-pox. She wore a pretentious dress, an apron like a stage-servant, and a cap profusely decorated with flowers and ribbons.
"Here is a gentleman," said the valet, "who insists upon seeing madame. You fix it with him."
Better than her fellow servant, Mlle. Amanda could judge with whom she had to deal. A single glance at this obstinate visitor convinced her that he was not one who can be easily turned off.
Putting on, therefore, her pleasantest smile, thus displaying at the same time her decayed teeth,
"The fact is that monsieur will very much disturb madame," she observed.
"I shall excuse myself."
"But I'll be scolded."
Instead of answering, M. de Tregars took a couple of twenty-franc-notes out of his pocket, and slipped them into her hand.
"Please follow me to the parlor, then," she said with a heavy sigh.
M. de Tregars did so, whilst observing everything around him with the attentive perspicacity of a deputy sheriff preparing to make out an inventory.
Being double, the house was much more spacious than could have been thought from the street, and arranged with that science of comfort which is the genius of modern architects.
The most lavish luxury was displayed on all sides; not that solid, quiet, and harmonious luxury which is the result of long years of opulence, but the coarse, loud, and superficial luxury of the parvenu, who is eager to enjoy quick, and to possess all that he has craved from others.
The vestibule was a folly, with its exotic plants climbing along crystal trellises, and its Sevres and China jardinieres filled with gigantic azaleas. And along the gilt railing of the stairs marble and bronze statuary was intermingled with masses of growing flowers.
"It must take twenty thousand francs a year to keep up this conservatory alone," thought M. de Tregars.
Meantime the old chambermaid opened a satinwood door with silver lock.
"That's the parlor," she said. "Take a seat whilst I go and tell madame."
In this parlor everything had been combined to dazzle. Furniture, carpets, hangings, every thing, was rich, too rich, furiously, incontestably, obviously rich. The chandelier was a masterpiece, the clock an original and unique piece of work. The pictures hanging upon the wall were all signed with the most famous names.
"To judge of the rest by what I have seen," thought M. de Tregars, "there must have been at least four or five hundred thousand francs spent on this house."
And, although he was shocked by a quantity of details which betrayed the most absolute lack of taste, he could hardly persuade himself that the cashier of the Mutual Credit could be the master of this sumptuous dwelling; and he was asking himself whether he had not followed the wrong scent, when a circumstance came to put an end to all his doubts.
Upon the mantlepiece, in a small velvet frame, was Vincent Favoral's portrait.
M. de Tregars had been seated for a few minutes, and was collecting his somewhat scattered thoughts, when a slight grating sound, and a rustling noise, made him turn around.
Mme. Zelie Cadelle was coming in.
She was a woman of some twenty-five or six, rather tall, lithe, and well made. Her face was pale and worn; and her heavy dark hair was scattered over her neck and shoulders. She looked at once sarcastic and good-natured, impudent and naive, with her sparkling eyes, her turned-up nose, and wide mouth furnished with teeth, sound and white, like those of a young dog. She had wasted no time upon her dress; for she wore a plain blue cashmere wrapper, fastened at the waist with a sort of silk scarf of similar color.
From the very threshold,
"Dear me!" she exclaimed, "how very singular!"
M. de Tregars stepped forward.
"What?" he inquired.
"Oh, nothing!" she replied,—"nothing at all!"
And without ceasing to look at him with a wondering eye, but suddenly changing her tone of voice,
"And so, sir," she said, "my servants have been unable to keep you from forcing yourself into my house!"
"I hope, madame," said M. de Tregars with a polite bow, "that you will excuse my persistence. I come for a matter which can suffer no delay."
She was still looking at him obstinately. "Who are you?" she asked.
"My name will not afford you any information. I am the Marquis de Tregars."
"Tregars!" she repeated, looking up at the ceiling, as if in search of an inspiration. "Tregars! Never heard of it!"
And throwing herself into an arm chair,
"Well, sir, what do you wish with me, then? Speak!"
He had taken a seat near her, and kept his eyes riveted upon hers.
"I have come, madame," he replied, "to ask you to put me in the way to see and speak to the man whose photograph is there on the mantlepiece."
He expected to take her by surprise, and that by a shudder, a cry, a gesture, she might betray her secret. Not at all.
"Are you, then, one of M. Vincent's friends?" she asked quietly.
M. de Tregars understood, and this was subsequently confirmed, that it was under his Christian name of Vincent alone, that the cashier of the Mutual Credit was known in the Rue du Cirque.
"Yes, I am a friend of his," he replied; "and if I could see him, I could probably render him an important service."
"Well, you are too late."
"Because M. Vincent put off more than twenty-four hours since?"
"Are you sure of that?"
"As sure as a person can be who went to the railway station yesterday with him and all his baggage."
"You saw him leave?"
"As I see you."
"Where was he going?"
"To Havre, to take the steamer for Brazil, which was to sail on the same day; so that, by this time, he must be awfully seasick."
"And you really think that it was his intention to go to Brazil?"
"He said so. It was written on his thirty-six trunks in letters half a foot high. Besides, he showed me his ticket."
"Have you any idea what could have induced him to expatriate himself thus, at his age?"
"He told me he had spent all his money, and also some of other people's; that he was afraid of being arrested; and that he was going yonder to be quiet, and try to make another fortune."
Was Mme. Zelie speaking in good faith? To ask the question would have been rather naive; but an effort might be made to find out. Carefully concealing his own impressions, and the importance he attached to this conversation,
"I pity you sincerely, madame," resumed M. de Tregars; "for you must be sorely grieved by this sudden departure."
"Me!" she said in a voice that came from the heart. "I don't care a straw."
Marquis de Tregars knew well enough the ladies of the class to which he supposed that Mme. Zelie Cadelle must belong, not to be surprised at this frank declaration.
"And yet," he said, "you are indebted to him for the princely magnificence that surrounds you here."
"He being gone, as you say, will you be able to keep up your style of living?"
Half raising herself from her seat,
"I haven't the slightest idea of doing so," she exclaimed. "Never in the whole world have I had such a stupid time as for the last five months that I have spent in this gilded cage. What a bore, my beloved brethren! I am yawning still at the mere thought of the number of times I have yawned in it."
M. de Tregars' gesture of surprise was the more natural, that his surprise was immense.
"You are tired being here?" he said.
"And you have only been here five months?"
"Dear me; yes! and by the merest chance, too, you'll see. One day at the beginning of last December, I was coming from—but no matter where I was coming from. At any rate, I hadn't a cent in my pocket, and nothing but an old calico dress on my back; and I was going along, not in the best of humor, as you may imagine, when I feel that some one is following me. Without looking around, and from the corner of my eye, I look over my shoulder, and I see a respectable-looking old gentleman, wearing a long frock-coat."
"In his own natural person, and who was walking, walking. I quietly begin to walk slower; and, as soon as we come to a place where there was hardly any one, he comes up alongside of me."
Something comical must have happened at this moment, which Mme. Zelie Cadelle said nothing about; for she was laughing most heartily, —a frank and sonorous laughter.
"Then," she resumed, "he begins at once to explain that I remind him of a person whom he loved tenderly, and whom he has just had the misfortune to lose, adding, that he would deem himself the happiest of men if I would allow him to take care of me, and insure me a brilliant position."
"You see! That rascally Vincent!" said M. de Tregars, just to be saying something.
Mme. Zelie shook her head.
"You know him," she resumed. "He is not young; he is not handsome; he is not funny. I did not fancy him one bit; and, if I had only known where to find shelter for the night, I'd soon have sent him to the old Nick,—him and his brilliant position. But, not having enough money to buy myself a penny-loaf, it wasn't the time to put on any airs. So I tell him that I accept. He goes for a cab; we get into it; and he brings me right straight here."
Positively M. de Tregars required his entire self-control to conceal the intensity of his curiosity.
"Was this house, then, already as it is now?" he interrogated.
"Precisely, except that there were no servants in it, except the chambermaid Amanda, who is M. Favoral's confidante. All the others had been dismissed; and it was a hostler from a stable near by who came to take care of the horses."
"And what then?"
"Then you may imagine what I looked like in the midst of all this magnificence, with my old shoes and my fourpenny skirt. Something like a grease-spot on a satin dress. M. Vincent seemed delighted, nevertheless. He had sent Amanda out to get me some under-clothing and a ready-made wrapper; and, whilst waiting, he took me all through the house, from the cellar to the garret, saying that everything was at my command, and that the next day I would have a battalion of servants to wait on me."
It was evidently with perfect frankness that she was speaking, and with the pleasure one feels in telling an extraordinary adventure. But suddenly she stopped short, as if discovering that she was forgetting herself, and going farther than was proper.
And it was only after a moment of reflection that she went on,
"It was like fairyland to me. I had never tasted the opulence of the great, you see, and I had never had any money except that which I earned. So, during the first days, I did nothing but run up and down stairs, admiring everything, feeling everything with my own hands, and looking at myself in the glass to make sure that I was not dreaming. I rang the bell just to make the servants come up; I spent hours trying dresses; then I'd have the horses put to the carriage, and either ride to the bois, or go out shopping. M. Vincent gave me as much money as I wanted; and it seemed as though I never spent enough. I shout, I was like a mad woman."
A cloud appeared upon Mme. Zelie's countenance, and, changing suddenly her tone and her manner,
"Unfortunately," she went on, "one gets tired of every thing. At the end of two weeks I knew the house from top to bottom, and after a month I was sick of the whole thing; so that one night I began dressing.
"'Where do you want to go?' Amanda asked me. 'Why, to Mabille, to dance a quadrille, or two.' 'Impossible!' 'Why?' 'Because M. Vincent does not wish you to go out at night.' 'We'll see about that!'
"The next day, I tell all this to M. Vincent; and he says that Amanda is right; that it is not proper for a woman in my position to frequent balls; and that, if I want to go out at night, I can stay. Get out! I tell you what, if it hadn't been for the fine carriage, and all that, I would have cleared out that minute. Any way, I became disgusted from that moment, and have been more and more ever since; and, if M. Vincent had not himself left, I certainly would."
"To go where?"
"Anywhere. Look here, now! do you suppose I need a man to support me! No, thank Heaven! Little Zelie, here present, has only to apply to any dressmaker, and she'll be glad to give her four francs a day to run the machine. And she'll be free, at least; and she can laugh and dance as much as she likes."
M. de Tregars had made a mistake: he had just discovered it.
Mme. Zelie Cadelle was certainly not particularly virtuous; but she was far from being the woman he expected to meet.
"At any rate," he said, "you did well to wait patiently."
"I do not regret it."
"If you can keep this house—"
She interrupted him with a great burst of laughter.
"This house!" she exclaimed. "Why, it was sold long ago, with every thing in it,—furniture, horses, carriages, every thing except me. A young gentleman, very well dressed, bought it for a tall girl, who looks like a goose, and has far over a thousand francs of red hair on her head."
"Are you sure of that?"
"Sure as I live, having seen with my own eyes the young swell and his red-headed friend counting heaps of bank-notes to M. Vincent. They are to move in day after to-morrow; and they have invited me to the house-warming. But no more of it for me, I thank you! I am sick and tired of all these people. And the proof of it is, I am busy packing my things; and lots of them I have too,—dresses, underclothes, jewelry. He was a good-natured fellow, old Vincent was, anyhow. He gave me money enough to buy some furniture. I have hired a small apartment; and I am going to set up dress-making on my own hook. And won't we laugh then! and won't we have some fun to make up for lost time! Come, my children, take your places for a quadrille. Forward two!"
And, bouncing out of her chair, she began sketching out one of those bold cancan steps which astound the policemen on duty in the ball-rooms.
"Bravo!" said M. de Tregars, forcing himself to smile,—"bravo!"
He saw clearly now what sort of woman was Mme. Zelie Cadelle; how he should speak to her, and what cords he might yet cause to vibrate within her. He recognized the true daughter of Paris, wayward and nervous, who in the midst of her disorders preserves an instinctive pride; who places her independence far above all the money in the world; who gives, rather than sells, herself; who knows no law but her caprice, no morality but the policeman, no religion but pleasure.
As soon as she had returned to her seat,
"There you are dancing gayly," he said, "and poor Vincent is doubtless groaning at this moment over his separation from you."
"Ah! I'd pity him if I had time," she said.
"He was fond of you?"
"Don't speak of it."
"If he had not been fond of you, he would not have put you here."
Mme. Zelie made a little face of equivocal meaning.
"What proof is that?" she murmured.
"He would not have spent so much money for you."
"For me!" she interrupted,—"for me! What have I cost him of any consequence? Is it for me that he bought, furnished, and fitted out this house? No, no! He had the cage; and he put in the bird, —the first he happened to find. He brought me here as he might have brought any other woman, young or old, pretty or ugly, blonde or brunette. As to what I spent here, it was a mere bagatelle compared with what the other did,—the one before me. Amanda kept telling me all the time I was a fool. You may believe me, then, when I tell you that M. Vincent will not wet many handkerchiefs with the tears he'll shed over me."
"But do you know what became of the one before you, as you call her, —whether she is alive or dead, and owing to what circumstances the cage became empty?"
But, instead of answering, Mme. Zelie was fixing upon Marius de Tregars a suspicious glance. And, after a moment only,
"Why do you ask me that?" she said.
"I would like to know."
She did not permit him to proceed. Rising from her seat, and stepping briskly up to him,
"Do you belong to the police, by chance?" she asked in a tone of mistrust.
If she was anxious, it was evidently because she had motives of anxiety which she had concealed. If, two or three times she had interrupted herself, it was because, manifestly, she had a secret to keep. If the idea of police had come into her mind, it is because, very probably, they had recommended her to be on her guard.
M. de Tregars understood all this, and, also, that he had tried to go too fast.
"Do I look like a secret police-agent?" he asked.
She was examining him with all her power of penetration.
"Not at all, I confess," she replied. "But, if you are not one, how is it that you come to my house, without knowing me from this side of sole leather, to ask me a whole lot of questions, which I am fool enough to answer?"
"I told you I was a friend of M. Favoral."
"Who's that Favoral?"
"That's M. Vincent's real name, madame."
She opened her eyes wide.
"You must be mistaken. I never heard him called any thing but Vincent."
"It is because he had especial motives for concealing his personality. The money he spent here did not belong to him: he took it, he stole it, from the Mutual Credit Company where he was cashier, and where he left a deficit of twelve millions."
Mme. Zelie stepped back as though she had trodden on a snake.
"It's impossible!" she cried.
"It is the exact truth. Haven't you seen in the papers the case of Vincent Favoral, cashier of the Mutual Credit?"
And, taking a paper from his pocket, he handed it to the young woman, saying, "Read."
But she pushed it back, not without a slight blush. "Oh, I believe you!" she said.
The fact is, and Marius understood it, she did not read very fluently.
"The worst of M. Vincent Favoral's conduct," he resumed, "is, that, while he was throwing away money here by the handful, he subjected his family to the most cruel privations."
"He refused the necessaries of life to his wife, the best and the worthiest of women; he never gave a cent to his son; and he deprived his daughter of every thing."
"Ah, if I could have suspected such a thing!" murmured Mme. Zelie.
"Finally, and to cap the—climax, he has gone, leaving his wife and children literally without bread."
Transported with indignation,
"Why, that man must have been a horrible old scoundrel!" exclaimed the young woman.
This is just the point to which M. de Tregars wished to bring her.
"And now," he resumed, "you must understand the enormous interest we have in knowing what has become of him."
"I have already told you."
M. de Tregars had risen, in his turn. Taking Mme. Zelie's hands, and fixing upon her one of those acute looks, which search for the truth down to the innermost recesses of the conscience,
"Come, my dear child," he began in a penetrating voice, "you are a worthy and honest girl. Will you leave in the most frightful despair a family who appeal to your heart? Be sure that no harm will ever happen through us to Vincent Favoral."
She raised her hand, as they do to take an oath in a court of justice, and, in a solemn tone,
"I swear," she uttered, "that I went to the station with M. Vincent; that he assured me that he was going to Brazil; that he had his passage-ticket; and that all his baggage was marked, 'Rio de Janeiro.'"
The disappointment was great: and M. de Tregars manifested it by a gesture.
"At least," he insisted, "tell me who the woman was whose place you took here."
But already had the young woman returned to her feeling of mistrust.
"How in the world do you expect me to know?" she replied. "Go and ask Amanda. I have no accounts to give you. Besides, I have to go and finish packing my trunks. So good-by, and enjoy yourself."
And she went out so quick, that she caught Amanda, the chambermaid, kneeling behind the door.
"So that woman was listening," thought M. de Tregars, anxious and dissatisfied.
But it was in vain that he begged Mme. Zelie to return, and to hear a single word more. She disappeared; and he had to resign himself to leave the house without learning any thing more for the present.
He had remained there very long; and he was wondering, as he walked out, whether Maxence had not got tired waiting for him in the little cafe where he had sent him.
But Maxence had remained faithfully at his post. And when Marius de Tregars came to sit by him, whilst exclaiming, "Here you are at last!" he called his attention at the same time with a gesture, and a wink from the corner of his eye, to two men sitting at the adjoining table before a bowl of punch.
Certain, now, that M. de Tregars would remain on the lookout, Maxence was knocking on the table with his fist, to call the waiter, who was busy playing billiards with a customer.
And when he came at last, justly annoyed at being disturbed,
"Give us two mugs of beer," Maxence ordered, "and bring us a pack of cards."
M. de Tregars understood very well that something extraordinary had happened; but, unable to guess what, he leaned over towards his companion.
"What is it?" he whispered.
"We must hear what these two men are saying; and we'll play a game of piquet for a subterfuge."
The waiter returned, bringing two glasses of a muddy liquid, a piece of cloth, the color of which was concealed under a layer of dirt, and a pack of cards horribly soft and greasy.
"My deal," said Maxence.
And he began shuffling, and giving the cards, whilst M. de Tregars was examining the punch-drinkers at the next table.
In one of the two, a man still young, wearing a striped vest with alpaca sleeves, he thought he recognized one of the rascally-looking fellows he had caught a glimpse of in Mme. Zelie Cadelle's carriage-house.
The other, an old man, whose inflamed complexion and blossoming nose betrayed old habits of drunkenness, looked very much like a coachman out of place. Baseness and duplicity bloomed upon his countenance; and the brightness of his small eyes rendered still more alarming the slyly obsequious smile that was stereotyped upon his thin and pale lips.
They were so completely absorbed in their conversation, that they paid no attention whatever to what was going on around them.
"Then," the old one was saying, "it's all over."
"Entirely. The house is sold."
"And the boss?"
"Gone to America."
"What! Suddenly, that way?"
"No. We supposed he was going on some journey, because, every day since the beginning of the week, they were bringing in trunks and boxes; but no one knew exactly when he would go. Now, in the night of Saturday to Sunday, he drops in the house like a bombshell, wakes up everybody, and says he must leave immediately. At once we harness up, we load the baggage up, we drive him to the Western Railway Station, and good-by, Vincent!"
"And the young lady?"
"She's got to get out in the next twenty-four hours; but she don't seem to mind it one bit. The fact is we are the ones who grieve the most, after all."
"Is it possible?"
"It is so. She was a good girl; and we won't soon find one like her."
The old man seemed distressed.
"Bad luck!" he growled. "I would have liked that house myself."
"Oh, I dare say you would!"
"And there is no way to get in?"
"Can't tell. It will be well to see the others, those who have bought. But I mistrust them: they look too stupid not to be mean."
Listening intently to the conversation of these two men, it was mechanically and at random that M. de Tregars and Maxence threw their cards on the table, and uttered the common terms of the game of piquet,
"Five cards! Tierce, major! Three aces."
Meantime the old man was going on,
"Who knows but what M. Vincent may come back?"
"No danger of that!"
The other looked carefully around, and, seeing only two players absorbed in their game,
"Because," he replied, "M. Vincent is completely ruined, it seems. He spent all his money, and a good deal of other people's money besides. Amanda, the chambermaid, told me; and I guess she knows."
"You thought he was so rich!"
"He was. But no matter how big a bag is: if you keep taking out of it, you must get to the bottom."
"Then he spent a great deal?"
"It's incredible! I have been in extravagant houses; but nowhere have I ever seen money fly as it has during the five months that I have been in that house. A regular pillage! Everybody helped themselves; and what was not in the house, they could get from the tradespeople, have it charged on the bill; and it was all paid without a word."
"Then, yes, indeed, the money must have gone pretty lively," said the old one in a convinced tone.
"Well," replied the other, "that was nothing yet. Amanda the chambermaid who has been in the house fifteen years, told us some stories that would make you jump. She was not much for spending, Zelie; but some of the others, it seems . . ."
It required the greatest effort on the part of Maxence and M. de Tregars not to play, but only to pretend to play, and to continue to count imaginary points,—"One, two, three, four."
Fortunately the coachman with the red nose seemed much interested.
"What others?" he asked.
"That I don't know any thing about," replied the younger valet. "But you may imagine that there must have been more than one in that little house during the many years that M. Vincent owned it,—a man who hadn't his equal for women, and who was worth millions."
"And what was his business?"
"Don't know that, either."
"What! there were ten of you in the house, and you didn't know the profession of the man who paid you all?"
"We were all new."
"The chambermaid, Amanda, must have known."
"When she was asked, she said that he was a merchant. One thing is sure, he was a queer old chap."
So interested was the old coachman, that, seeing the punch-bowl empty, he called for another. His comrade could not fail to show his appreciation of such politeness.
"Ah, yes!" he went on, "old Vincent was an eccentric fellow; and never, to see him, could you have suspected that he cut up such capers, and that he threw money away by the handful."
"Imagine a man about fifty years old, stiff as a post, with a face about as pleasant as a prison-gate. That's the boss! Summer and winter, he wore laced shoes, blue stockings, gray pantaloons that were too short, a cotton necktie, and a frock-coat that came down to his ankles. In the street, you would have taken him for a hosier who had retired before his fortune was made."
"You don't say so!"
"No, never have I seen a man look so much like an old miser. You think, perhaps, that he came in a carriage. Not a bit of it! He came in the omnibus, my boy, and outside too, for three sous; and when it rained he opened his umbrella. But the moment he had crossed the threshold of the house, presto, pass! complete change of scene. The miser became pacha. He took off his old duds, put on a blue velvet robe; and then there was nothing handsome enough, nothing good enough, nothing expensive enough for him. And, when he had acted the my lord to his heart's content, he put on his old traps again, resumed his prison-gate face, climbed up on top of the omnibus, and went off as he came."
"And you were not surprised, all of you, at such a life?"
"Very much so."
"And you did not think that these singular whims must conceal something?"
"Oh, but we did!"
"And you didn't try to find out what that something was?"
"How could we?"
"Was it very difficult to follow your boss, and ascertain where he went, after leaving the house?"
"Certainly not; but what then?"
"Why," he replied, "you would have found out his secret in the end; and then you would have gone to him and told him, 'Give me so much, or I peach.'"
This story of M. Vincent, as told by these two honest companions, was something like the vulgar legend of other people's money, so eagerly craved, and so madly dissipated. Easily-gotten wealth is easily gotten rid of. Stolen money has fatal tendencies, and turns irresistibly to gambling, horse-jockeys, fast women, all the ruinous fancies, all the unwholesome gratifications.
They are rare indeed, among the daring cut-throats of speculation, those to whom their ill-gotten gain proves of real service,—so rare, that they are pointed out, and are as easily numbered as the girls who leap some night from the street to a ten-thousand-franc apartment, and manage to remain there.
Seized with the intoxication of sudden wealth, they lose all measure and all prudence. Whether they believe their luck inexhaustible, or fear a sudden turn of fortune, they make haste to enjoy themselves, and they fill the noted restaurants, the leading cafes, the theatres, the clubs, the race-courses, with their impudent personality, the clash of their voice, the extravagance of their mistresses, the noise of their expenses, and the absurdity of their vanity. And they go on and on, lavishing other people's money, until the fatal hour of one of those disastrous liquidations which terrify the courts and the exchange, and cause pallid faces and a gnashing of teeth in the "street," until the moment when they have the choice between a pistol-shot, which they never choose, the criminal court, which they do their best to avoid, and a trip abroad.
What becomes of them afterwards? To what gutters do they tumble from fall to fall? Does any one know what becomes of the women who disappear suddenly after two or three years of follies and of splendors?
But it happens sometimes, as you step out of a carriage in front of some theatre, that you wonder where you have already seen the face of the wretched beggar who opens the door for you, and in a husky voice claims his two sous. You saw him at the Cafe Riche, during the six months that he was a big financier.
Some other time you may catch, in the crowd, snatches of a strange conversation between two crapulous rascals.
"It was at the time," says one, "when I drove that bright chestnut team that I had bought for twenty thousand francs of the eldest son of the Duke de Sermeuse."
"I remember," replies the other; "for at that moment I gave six thousand francs a month to little Cabriole of the Varieties."
And, improbable as this may seem, it is the exact truth; for one was manager of a manufacturing enterprise that sank ten millions; and the other was at the head of a financial operation that ruined five hundred families. They had houses like the one in the Rue du Cirque, mistresses more expensive than Mme. Zelie Cadelle, and servants like those who were now talking within a step of Maxence and Marius de Tregars. The latter had resumed their conversation; and the oldest one, the coachman with the red nose, was saying to his younger comrade,
"This Vincent affair must be a lesson to you. If ever you find yourself again in a house where so much money is spent, remember that it hasn't cost much trouble to make it, and manage somehow to get as big a share of it as you can."
"That's what I've always done wherever I have been."
"And, above all, make haste to fill your bag, because, you see, in houses like that, one is never sure, one day, whether, the next, the gentleman will not be at Mazas, and the lady at St. Lazares."
They had done their second bowl of punch, and finished their conversation. They paid, and left.
And Maxence and M. de Tregars were able, at last, to throw down their cards.
Maxence was very pale; and big tears were rolling down his cheeks.
"What disgrace!" he murmured: "This, then, is the other side of my father's existence! This is the way in which he spent the millions which he stole; whilst, in the Rue St. Gilles, he deprived his family of the necessaries of life!"
And, in a tone of utter discouragement,
"Now it is indeed all over, and it is useless to continue our search. My father is certainly guilty."
But M. de Tregars was not the man thus to give up the game.
"Guilty? Yes," he said, "but dupe also."
"That's what we'll find out, you may depend upon it."
"What! after what we have just heard?"
"I have more hope than ever."
"Did you learn any thing from Mme. Zelie Cadelle, then?"
"Nothing more than you know by those two rascals' conversation."
A dozen questions were pressing upon Maxence's lips; but M. de Tregars interrupted him.
"In this case, my friend, less than ever must we trust appearances. Let me speak. Was your father a simpleton? No! His ability to dissimulate, for years, his double existence, proves, on the contrary, a wonderful amount of duplicity. How is it, then, that latterly his conduct has been so extraordinary and so absurd? But you will doubtless say it was always such. In that case, I answer you, No; for then his secret could not have been kept for a year. We hear that other women lived in that house before Mme. Zelie Cadelle. But who were they? What has become of them? Is there any certainty that they have ever existed? Nothing proves it.
"The servants having been all changed, Amanda, the chambermaid, is the only one who knows the truth; and she will be very careful to say nothing about it. Therefore, all our positive information goes back no farther than five months. And what do we hear? That your father seemed to try and make his extravagant expenditures as conspicuous as possible. That he did not even take the trouble to conceal the source of the money he spent so profusely; for he told Mme. Zelie that he was at the end of his tether, and that, after having spent his own fortune, he was spending other people's money. He had announced his intended departure; he had sold the house, and received its price. Finally, at the last moment, what does he do?
"Instead of going off quietly and secretly, like a man who is running away, and who knows that he is pursued, he tells every one where he intends to go; he writes it on all his trunks, in letters half a foot high; and then rides in great display to the railway station, with a woman, several carriages, servants, etc. What is the object of all this? To get caught? No, but to start a false scent. Therefore, in his mind, every thing must have been arranged in advance, and the catastrophe was far from taking him by surprise; therefore the scene with M. de Thaller must have been prepared; therefore, it must have been on purpose that he left his pocketbook behind, with the bill in it that was to lead us straight here; therefore all we have seen is but a transparent comedy, got up for our special benefit, and intended to cover up the truth, and mislead the law."
But Maxence was not entirely convinced.
"Still," he remarked, "those enormous expenses."
M. de Tregars shrugged his shoulders.
"Have you any idea," he said, "what display can be made with a million? Let us admit that your father spent two, four millions even. The loss of the Mutual Credit is twelve millions. What has become of the other eight?"
And, as Maxence made no answer,
"It is those eight millions," he added, "that I want, and that I shall have. It is in Paris that your father is hid, I feel certain. We must find him; and we must make him tell the truth, which I already more than suspect."
Whereupon, throwing on the table the pint of beer which he had not drunk, he walked out of the cafe with Maxence.
"Here you are at last!" exclaimed the coachman, who had been waiting at the corner for over three hours, a prey to the utmost anxiety.
But M. de Tregars had no time for explanations; and, pushing Maxence into the cab, he jumped in after him, crying to the coachman,
"24 Rue Joquelet. Five francs extra for yourself." A driver who expects an extra five francs, always has, for five minutes at least, a horse as fast as Gladiateur.
Whilst the cab was speeding on to its destination,
"What is most important for us now," said M. de Tregars to Maxence, "is to ascertain how far the Mutual Credit crisis has progressed; and M. Latterman of the Rue Joquelet is the man in all Paris who can best inform us."
Whoever has made or lost five hundred francs at the bourse knows M. Latterman, who, since the war, calls himself an Alsatian and curses with a fearful accent those "parparous Broossians." This worthy speculator modestly calls himself a money-changer; but he would be a simpleton who should ask him for change: and it is certainly not that sort of business which gives him the three hundred thousand francs' profits which he pockets every year.
When a company has failed, when it has been wound up, and the defrauded stockholders have received two or three per cent in all on their original investment, there is a prevailing idea that the certificates of its stocks are no longer good for any thing, except to light the fire. That's a mistake. Long after the company has foundered, its shares float, like the shattered debris which the sea casts upon the beach months after the ship has been wrecked. These shares M. Latterman collects, and carefully stores away; and upon the shelves of his office you may see numberless shares and bonds of those numerous companies which have absorbed, in the past twenty years, according to some statistics, twelve hundred millions, and, according to others, two thousand millions, of the public fortune.
Say but a word, and his clerks will offer you some "Franco-American Company," some "Steam Navigation Company of Marseilles," some "Coal and Metal Company of the Asturias," some "Transcontinental Memphis and El Paso" (of the United States), some "Caumart Slate Works," and hundreds of others, which, for the general public, have no value, save that of old paper, that is from three to five cents a pound. And yet speculators are found who buy and sell these rags.
In an obscure corner of the bourse may be seen a miscellaneous population of old men with pointed beards, and overdressed young men, who deal in every thing salable, and other things besides. There are found foreign merchants, who will offer you stocks of merchandise, goods from auction, good claims to recover, and who at last will take out of their pockets an opera-glass, a Geneva watch (smuggled in), a revolver, or a bottle of patent hair-restorer.
Such is the market to which drift those shares which were once issued to represent millions, and which now represent nothing but a palpable proof of the audacity of swindlers, and the credulity of their dupes. And there are actually buyers for these shares, and they go up or down, according to the ordinary laws of supply and demand; for there is a demand for them, and here comes in the usefulness of M. Latterman's business.
Does a tradesman, on the eve of declaring himself bankrupt, wish to defraud his creditors of a part of his assets, to conceal excessive expenses, or cover up some embezzlement, at once he goes to the Rue Joquelet, procures a select assortment of "Cantonal Credit," "Rossdorif Mines," or "Maumusson Salt Works," and puts them carefully away in his safe.
And, when the receiver arrives,
"There are my assets," he says. "I have there some twenty, fifty, or a hundred thousand francs of stocks, the whole of which is not worth five francs to-day; but it isn't my fault. I thought it a good investment; and I didn't sell, because I always thought the price would come up again."
And he gets his discharge, because it would really be too cruel to punish a man because he has made unfortunate investments.
Better than any one, M. Latterman knows for what purpose are purchased the valueless securities which he sells; and he actually advises his customers which to take in preference, in order that their purchase at the time of their issue may appear more natural, and more likely. Nevertheless, he claims to be a perfectly honest man, and declares that he is no more responsible for the swindles that are committed by means of his stocks than a gunsmith for a murder committed with a gun that he has sold.
"But he will surely be able to tell us all about the Mutual Credit," repeated Maxence to M. de Tregars.
Four o'clock struck when the carriage stopped in the Rue Joquelet. The bourse had just closed; and a few groups were still standing in the square, or along the railings.
"I hope we shall find this Latterman at home," said Maxence.
They started up the stairs (for it is up on the second floor that this worthy operator has his offices); and, having inquired,
"M. Latterman is engaged with a customer," answered a clerk. "Please sit down and wait."
M. Latterman's office was like all other caverns of the same kind. A very narrow space was reserved to the public; and all around, behind a heavy wire screen, the clerks could be seen busy with figures, or handling coupons. On the right, over a small window, appeared the word, "CASHIER." A small door on the left led to the private office.
M. de Tregars and Maxence had patiently taken a seat on a hard leather bench, once red; and they were listening and looking on.
There was considerable animation about the place. Every few minutes, well-dressed young men came in with a hurried and important look, and, taking out of their pocket a memorandum-book, they would speak a few sentences of that peculiar dialect, bristling with figures, which is the language of the bourse. At the end of fifteen or twenty minutes,
"Will M. Latterman be engaged much longer?" inquired M. de Tregars.
"I do not know," replied a clerk.
At that very moment, the little door on the left opened, and the customer came out who had detained M. Latterman so long. This customer was no other than M. Costeclar. Noticing M. de Tregars and Maxence, who had risen at the noise of the door, he appeared most disagreeably surprised. He even turned slightly pale, and took a step backwards, as if intending to return precipitately into the room that he was leaving; for M. Latterman's office, like that of all other large operators, had several doors, without counting the one that leads to the police-court. But M. de Tregars gave him no time to effect this retreat. Stepping suddenly forward,
"Well?" he asked him in a tone that was almost threatening.
The brilliant financier had condescended to take off his hat, usually riveted upon his head, and, with the smile of a knave caught in the act,
"I did not expect to meet you here, my lord-marquis," he said.
At the title of "marquis," everybody looked up. "I believe you, indeed," said M. de Tregars. "But what I want to know is, how is the matter progressing?"
"The plot is thickening. Justice is acting."
"It is a fact. Jules Jottras, of the house of Jottras and Brother, was arrested this morning, just as he arrived at the bourse."
"Because, it seems, he was an accomplice of Favoral; and it was he who sold the bonds stolen from the Mutual Credit."
Maxence had started at the mention of his father's name but, with a significant glance, M. de Tregars bid him remain silent, and, in a sarcastic tone,
"Famous capture!" he murmured. "And which proves the clear-sightedness of justice."
"But this is not all," resumed M. Costeclar. "Saint Pavin, the editor of 'The Financial Pilot,' you know, is thought to be seriously compromised. There was a rumor, at the close of the market, that a warrant either had been, or was about to be, issued against him."
"And the Baron de Thaller?"
The employes of the office could not help admiring M. Costeclar's extraordinary amount of patience.
"The baron," he replied, "made his appearance at the bourse this afternoon, and was the object of a veritable ovation."
"That is admirable! And what did he say?"
"That the damage was already repaired."
"Then the shares of the Mutual Credit must have advanced."
"Unfortunately, not. They did not go above one hundred and ten francs."
"Were you not astonished at that?"
"Not much, because, you see, I am a business-man, I am; and I know pretty well how things work. When they left M. de Thaller this morning, the stockholders of the Mutual Credit had a meeting; and they pledged themselves, upon honor, not to sell, so as not to break the market. As soon as they had separated, each one said to himself, 'Since the others are going to keep their stock, like fools, I am going to sell mine.' Now, as there were three or four hundred of them who argued the same way, the market was flooded with shares."
Looking the brilliant financier straight in the eyes,
"And yourself?" interrupted M. de Tregars.
"I!" stammered M. Costeclar, so visibly agitated, that the clerks could not help laughing.
"Yes. I wish to know if you have been more faithful to your word than the stockholders of whom you are speaking, and whether you have done as we had agreed."
"Certainly; and, if you find me here—"
But M. de Tregars, placing his own hand over his shoulder, stopped him short.
"I think I know what brought you here," he uttered; "and in a few moments I shall have ascertained."
"I swear to you."
"Don't swear. If I am mistaken, so much the better for you. If I am not mistaken, I'll prove to you that it is dangerous to try any sharp game on me, though I am not a business-man."
Meantime M. Latterman, seeing no customer coming to take the place of the one who had left, became impatient at last, and appeared upon the threshold of his private office.
He was a man still young, small, thick-set, and vulgar. At the first glance, nothing of him could be seen but his abdomen,—a big, great, and ponderous abdomen, seat of his thoughts, and tabernacle of his aspirations, over which dangled a double gold chain, loaded with trinkets. Above an apoplectic neck, red as that of a turkey-cock, stood his little head, covered with coarse red hair, cut very short. He wore a heavy beard, trimmed in the form of a fan. His large, full-moon face was divided in two by a nose as flat as a Kalmuck's, and illuminated by two small eyes, in which could be read the most thorough duplicity.
Seeing M. de Tregars and M. Costeclar engaged in conversation,
"Why! you know each other?" he said.
M. de Tregars advanced a step,
"We are even intimate friends," he replied. "And it is very lucky that we should have met. I am brought here by the same matter as our dear Costeclar; and I was just explaining to him that he has been too hasty, and that it would be best to wait three or four days longer."
"That's just what I told him," echoed the honorable financier.
Maxence understood only one thing,—that M. de Tregars had penetrated M. Costeclar's designs; and he could not sufficiently admire his presence of mind, and his skill in grasping an unexpected opportunity.
"Fortunately there is nothing done yet," added M. Latterman.
"And it is yet time to alter what has been agreed on," said M. de Tregars. And, addressing himself to Costeclar,