"Come," he added, "we'll fix things with M. Latterman."
But the other, who remembered the scene in the Rue St. Gilles, and who had his own reasons to be alarmed, would sooner have jumped out of the window.
"I am expected," he stammered. "Arrange matters without me."
"Then you give me carte blanche?"
Ah, if the brilliant financier had dared! But he felt upon him such threatening eyes, that he dared not even make a gesture of denial.
"Whatever you do will be satisfactory," he said in the tone of a man who sees himself lost.
And, as he was going out of the door, M. de Tregars stepped into M. Latterman's private office. He remained only five minutes; and when he joined Maxence, whom he had begged to wait for him,
"I think that we have got them," he said as they walked off.
Their next visit was to M. Saint Pavin, at the office of "The Financial Pilot." Every one must have seen at least one copy of that paper with its ingenious vignette, representing a bold mariner steering a boat, filled with timid passengers, towards the harbor of Million, over a stormy sea, bristling with the rocks of failure and the shoals of ruin. The office of "The Pilot" is, in fact, less a newspaper office than a sort of general business agency.
As at M. Latterman's, there are clerks scribbling behind wire screens, small windows, a cashier, and an immense blackboard, on which the latest quotations of the Rente, and other French and foreign securities, are written in chalk.
As "The Pilot" spends some hundred thousand francs a year in advertising, in order to obtain subscribers; as, on the other hand, it only costs three francs a year,—it is clear that it is not on its subscriptions that it realizes any profits. It has other sources of income: its brokerages first; for it buys, sells, and executes, as the prospectus says, all orders for stocks, bonds, or other securities, for the best interests of the client. And it has plenty of business.
To the opulent brokerages, must be added advertising and puffing, —another mine. Six times out of ten, when a new enterprise is set on foot, the organizers send for Saint Pavin. Honest men, or knaves, they must all pass through his hands. They know it, and are resigned in advance.
"We rely upon you," they say to him.
"What advantages have you to offer?" he replies.
Then they discuss the operation, the expected profits of the new company, and M. Saint Pavin's demands. For a hundred thousand francs he promises bursts of lyrism; for fifty thousand he will be enthusiastic only. Twenty thousand francs will secure a moderate praise of the affair; ten thousand, a friendly neutrality. And, if the said company refuses any advantages to "The Pilot"—
"Ah, you must beware!" says Saint Pavin.
And from the very next number he commences his campaign. He is moderate at first, and leaves a door open for his retreat. He puts forth doubts only. He does not know much about it. "It may be an excellent thing; it may be a wretched one: the safest is to wait and see."
That's the first hint. If it remains without result, he takes up his pen again, and makes his doubts more pointed.
He knows how to steer clear of libel suits, how to handle figures so as to demonstrate, according to the requirements of the case, that two and two make three, or make five. It is seldom, that, before the third article, the company does not surrender at discretion.
All Paris knows him; and he has many friends. When M. de Tregars and Maxence arrived, they found the office full of people —speculators, brokers, go-betweens—come there to discuss the fluctuations of the day and the probabilities of the evening market.
"M. Saint Pavin is engaged," one of the clerks told them.
Indeed, his coarse voice could be distinctly heard behind the screen. Soon he appeared, showing out an old gentleman, who seemed utterly confused at the scene, and to whom he was screaming,
"No, sir, no! 'The Financial Pilot' does not take that sort of business; and I find you very bold to come and propose to me a twopenny rascality." But, noticing Maxence,
"M. Favoral!" he said. "By Jove! it is your good star that has brought you here. Come into the private office, my dear sir: come, we'll have some fun now."
Many of the people who were in the office had a word to say to M. Saint Pavin, some advice to ask him, an order to transmit, or some news to communicate. They had all stepped forward, and were holding out their hands with a friendly smile. He set them aside with his usual rudeness.
"By and by. I am busy now: leave me alone."
And pushing Maxence towards the office-door, which he had just opened,
"Come in, come in!" he said in a tone of extraordinary impatience.
But M. de Tregars was coming in too; and, as he did not know him,
"What do you want, you?" he asked roughly.
"The gentleman is my best friend," said Maxence, turning to him; "and I have no secret from him."
"Let him walk in, then; but, by Heaven, let us hurry!"
Once very sumptuous, the private office of the editor of "The Financial Pilot" had fallen into a state of sordid dilapidation. If the janitor had received orders never to use a broom or a duster there, he obeyed them strictly. Disorder and dirt reigned supreme. Papers and manuscripts lay in all directions; and on the broad sofas the mud from the boots of all those who had lounged upon them had been drying for months. On the mantel-piece, in the midst of some half-dozen dirty glasses, stood a bottle of Madeira, half empty. Finally, before the fireplace, on the carpet, and along the furniture, cigar and cigarette stumps were heaped in profusion.
As soon as he had bolted the door, coming straight to Maxence,
"What has become of your father?" inquired M. Saint Pavin rudely.
Maxence started. That was the last question he expected to hear.
"I do not know," he replied.
The manager of "The Pilot" shrugged his shoulders. "That you should say so to the commissary of police, to the judges, and to all Favoral's enemies, I understand: it is your duty. That they should believe you, I understand too; for, after all, what do they care? But to me, a friend, though you may not think so, and who has reasons not to be credulous——"
"I swear to you that we have no idea where he has taken refuge."
Maxence said this with such an accent of sincerity, that doubt was no longer possible. M. Saint Pavin's features expressed the utmost surprise.
"What!" he exclaimed, "your father has gone without securing the means of hearing from his family?"
"Without saying a word of his intentions to your mother, or your sister, or yourself?"
"Without one word."
"Without leaving any money, perhaps?"
"We found only an insignificant sum after he left." The editor of "The Pilot" made a gesture of ironical admiration. "Well, the thing is complete," he said; "and Vincent is a smarter fellow than I gave him credit for; or else he must have cared more for those infernal women of his than any one supposed."
M. de Tregars, who had remained hitherto silent, now stepped forward.
"What women?" he asked.
"How do I know?" he replied roughly. "How could any one ever find out any thing about a man who was more hermetically shut up in his coat than a Jesuit in his gown?"
"That's another nice bird! Still he may possibly have discovered something of Vincent's life; for he led him a pretty dance. Wasn't he about to marry Mlle. Favoral once?"
"Yes, in spite of herself even."
"Then you are right: he had discovered something. But, if you rely on him to tell you anything whatever, you are reckoning without your host."
"Who knows?" murmured M. de Tregars.
But M. Saint Pavin heard him not. Prey to a violent agitation, he was pacing up and down the room.
"Ah, those men of cold appearance," he growled, "those men with discreet countenance, those close-shaving calculators, those moralists! What fools they do make of themselves when once started! Who can imagine to what insane extremities this one may have been driven under the spur of some mad passion!"
And stamping violently his foot upon the carpet, from which arose clouds of dust,
"And yet," he swore, "I must find him. And, by thunder! wherever he may be hid, I shall find him."
M. de Tregars was watching M. Saint Pavin with a scrutinizing eye.
"You have a great interest in finding him, then?" he said.
The other stopped short.
"I have the interest," he replied, "of a man who thought himself shrewd, and who has been taken in like a child,—of a man to whom they had promised wonders, and who finds his situation imperilled, —of a man who is tired of working for a band of brigands who heap millions upon millions, and to whom, for all reward, they offer the police-court and a retreat in the State Prison for his old age, —in a word, the interests of a man who will and shall have revenge, by all that is holy!"
"On the Baron de Thaller, sir! How, in the world, has he been able to compel Favoral to assume the responsibility of all, and to disappear? What enormous sum has he given to him?"
"Sir," interrupted Maxence, "my father went off without a sou."
M. Saint Pavin burst out in a loud laugh.
"And the twelve millions?" he asked. "What has become of them? Do you suppose they have been distributed in deeds of charity?"
And without waiting for any further objections,
"And yet," he went on, "it is not with money alone that a man can be induced to disgrace himself, to confess himself a thief and a forger, to brave the galleys, to give up everything,—country, family, friends. Evidently the Baron de Thaller must have had other means of action, some hold on Favoral—"
M. de Tregars interrupted him.
"You speak," he said, "as if you were absolutely certain of M. de Thaller's complicity."
"Why don't you inform on him, then?"
The editor of "The Pilot" started back. "What!" he exclaimed, "draw the fingers of the law into my own business! You don't think of it! Besides, what good would that do me? I have no proofs of my allegations. Do you suppose that Thaller has not taken his precautions, and tied my hands? No, no! without Favoral there is nothing to be done."
"Do you suppose, then, that you could induce him to surrender himself?"
"No, but to furnish me the proofs I need, to send Thaller where they have already sent that poor Jottras."
And, becoming more and more excited,
"But it is not in a month that I should want those proofs," he went on, "nor even in two weeks, but to-morrow, but at this very moment. Before the end of the week, Thaller will have wound up the operation, realized, Heaven knows how many millions, and put every thing in such nice order, that justice, who in financial matters is not of the first capacity, will discover nothing wrong. If he can do that, he is safe, he is beyond reach, and will be dubbed a first-class financier. Then to what may he not aspire! Already he talks of having himself elected deputy; and he says everywhere that he has found, to marry his daughter, a gentleman who bears one of the oldest names in France,—the Marquis de Tregars."
"Why, this is the Marquis de Tregars!" exclaimed Maxence, pointing to Marius.
For the first time, M. Saint Pavin took the trouble to examine his visitor; and he, who knew life too well not to be a judge of men, he seemed surprised.
"Please excuse me, sir," he uttered with a politeness very different from his usual manner, "and permit me to ask you if you know the reasons why M. de Thaller is so prodigiously anxious to have you for a son-in-law."
"I think," replied M. de Tregars coldly, "that M. de Thaller would not be sorry to deprive me of the right to seek the causes of my father's ruin."
But he was interrupted by a great noise of voices in the adjoining room; and almost at once there was a loud knock at the door, and a voice called,
"In the name of the law!"
The editor of "The Pilot" had become whiter than his shirt.
"That's what I was afraid of," he said. "Thaller has got ahead of me; and perhaps I may be lost."
Meantime he did not lose his wits. Quick as thought he took out of a drawer a package of letters, threw them into the fireplace, and set fire to them, saying, in a voice made hoarse by emotion and anger,
"No one shall come in until they are burnt."
But it required an incredibly long time to make them catch fire; and M. Saint Pavin, kneeling before the hearth, was stirring them up, and scattering them, to make them burn faster.
"And now," said M. de Tregars, "will you hesitate to deliver up the Baron de Thaller into the hands of justice?"
He turned around with flashing eyes.
"Now," he replied, "if I wish to save myself, I must save him too. Don't you understand that he holds me?"
And, seeing that the last sheets of his correspondence were consumed,
"You may open now," he said to Maxence.
Maxence obeyed; and a commissary of police, wearing his scarf of office, rushed into the room; whilst his men, not without difficulty, kept back the crowd in the outer office.
The commissary, who was an old hand, and had perhaps been on a hundred expeditions of this kind, had surveyed the scene at a glance. Noticing in the fireplace the carbonized debris, upon which still fluttered an expiring flame,
"That's the reason, then," he said, "why you were so long opening the door?"
A sarcastic smile appeared upon the lips of the editor of "The Pilot."
"Private matters," he replied; "women's letters."
"This will be moral evidence against you, sir."
"I prefer it to material evidence."
Without condescending to notice the impertinence, the commissary was casting a suspicious glance on Maxence and M. de Tregars.
"Who are these gentlemen who were closeted with you?" he asked.
"Visitors, sir. This is M. Favoral."
"The son of the cashier of the Mutual Credit?"
"Exactly; and this gentleman is the Marquis de Tregars."
"You should have opened the door when you heard a knocking in the name of the law," grumbled the commissary.
But he did not insist. Taking a paper from his pocket, he opened it, and, handing it to M. Saint Pavin,
"I have orders to arrest you," he said. "Here is the warrant."
With a careless gesture, the other pushed it back. "What's the use of reading?" he said. "When I heard of the arrest of that poor Jottras, I guessed at once what was in store for me. It is about the Mutual Credit swindle, I imagine."
"I have no more to do with it than yourself, sir; and I shall have very little trouble in proving it. But that is not your business. And you are going, I suppose, to put the seals on my papers?"
"Except on those that you have burnt."
M. Saint Pavin burst out laughing. He had recovered his coolness and his impudence, and seemed as much at ease as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
"Shall I be allowed to speak to my clerks," he asked, "and to give them my instructions?"
"Yes," replied the commissary, "but in my presence."
The clerks, being called, appeared, consternation depicted upon their countenances, but joy sparkling in their eyes. In reality they were delighted at the misfortune which befell their employer.
"You see what happens to me, my boys," he said. "But don't be uneasy. In less than forty-eight hours, the error of which I am the victim will be recognized, and I shall be liberated on bail. At any rate, I can rely upon you, can't I?"
They all swore that they would be more attentive and more zealous than ever.
And then addressing himself to his cashier, who was his confidential and right-hand man,
"As to you, Bernard," he said, "you will run to M. de Thaller's, and advise him of what's going on. Let him have funds ready; for all our depositors will want to draw out their money at once. You will then call at the printing-office: have my article on the Mutual Credit kept out, and insert in its place some financial news cut out from other papers. Above all, don't mention my arrest, unless M. de Thaller should demand it. Go ahead, and let 'The Pilot' appear as usual: that's important."
He had, whilst speaking, lighted a cigar. The honest man, victim of human iniquity, has not a firmer and more tranquil countenance.
"Justice does not know," he said to the commissary, who was fumbling in all the drawers of the desk, "what irreparable damage she may cause by arresting so hastily a man who has charge of immense interests like me. It is the fortune of ten or twelve small capitalists that is put in jeopardy."
Already the witnesses of the arrest had retired, one by one, to go and scatter the news along the Boulevard, and also to see what could be made out of it; for, at the bourse, news is money.
M. de Tregars and Maxence left also. As they passed the door,
"Don't you say any thing about what I told you," M. Saint Pavin recommended to them.
M. de Tregars made no answer. He had the contracted features and tightly-drawn lips of a man who is maturing a grave determination, which, once taken, will be irrevocable.
Once in the street, and when Maxence had opened the carriage-door,
"We are going to separate here," he told him in that brief tone of voice which reveals a settled plan. "I know enough now to venture to call at M. de Thaller's. There only shall I be able to see how to strike the decisive blow. Return to the Rue St. Gilles, and relieve your mother's and sister's anxiety. You shall see me during the evening, I promise you."
And, without waiting for an answer, he jumped into the cab, which started off.
But it was not to the Rue St. Gilles that Maxence went. He was anxious, first, to see Mlle. Lucienne, to tell her the events of that day, the busiest of his existence; to tell her his discoveries, his surprises, his anxieties, and his hopes.
To his great surprise, he failed to find her at the Hotel des Folies. She had gone riding at three o'clock, M. Fortin told him, and had not yet returned; but she could not be much longer, as it was already getting dark. Maxence went out again then, to see if he could not meet her. He had walked a little way along the Boulevard, when, at some distance off, on the Place du Chateau d'Eau, he thought he noticed an unusual bustle. Almost immediately he heard shouts of terror. Frightened people were running in all directions; and right before him a carriage, going at full gallop, passed like a flash.
But, quick as it had passed, he had time to recognize Mlle. Lucienne, pale, and clinging desperately to the seat. Wild with fear, he started after it as fast as he could run. It was clear that the driver had no control over his horses. A policeman who tried to stop them was knocked down. Ten steps farther, the hind-wheel of the carriage, catching the wheel of a heavy wagon, broke to splinters; and Mlle. Lucienne was thrown into the street, whilst the driver fell over on the sidewalk.
The Baron de Thaller was too practical a man to live in the same house, or even in the same district, where his offices were located. To dwell in the midst of his business; to be constantly subjected to the contact of his employes, to the unkindly comments of a crowd of subordinates; to expose himself to hourly annoyances, to sickening solicitations, to the reclamations and eternal complaints of his stockholders and his clients! Pouah! He'd have given up the business first. And so, on the very days when he had established the offices of the Mutual Credit in the Rue de Quatre-Septembre, he had purchased a house in the Rue de la Pepiniere within a step of the Faubourg St. Honore.
It was a brand-new house, which had never yet been occupied, and which had just been erected by a contractor who was almost celebrated, towards 1866, at the moment of the great transformations of Paris, when whole blocks were leveled to the ground, and rose again so rapidly, that one might well wonder whether the masons, instead of a trowel, did not make use of a magician's wand.
This contractor, named Parcimieux, had come from the Limousin in 1860 with his carpenter's tools for all fortune, and, in less than six years, had accumulated, at the lowest estimate, six millions of francs. Only he was a modest man, and took as much pains to conceal his fortune, and offend no one, as most parvenus do to display their wealth, and insult the public.
Though he could hardly sign his name, yet he knew and practised the maxim of the Greek philosopher, which is, perhaps, the true secret of happiness,—hide thy life. And there were no expedients to which he did not resort to hide it. At the time of his greatest prosperity, for instance, having need of a carriage, he had applied to the manager of the Petites Voitures Company, and had had built for himself two cabs, outwardly similar in every respect to those used by the company, but within, most luxuriously upholstered, and drawn by horses of common appearance, but who could go their twenty-five miles in two hours any day. And these he had hired by the year.
Having his carriage, the worthy builder determined to have, also, his house, his own house, built by himself. But this required infinitely greater precautions still.
"For, as you may imagine," he explained to his friends, "a man does not make as much money as I have, without also making many cruel, bitter, and irreconcilable enemies. I have against me all the builders who have not succeeded, all the sub-contractors I employ, and who say that I speculate on their poverty, and the thousands of workmen who work for me, and swear that I grind them down to the dust. Already they call me brigand, slaver, thief, leech. What would it be, if they saw me living in a beautiful house of my own? They'd swear that I could not possibly have got so rich honestly, and that I must have committed some crimes. Besides, to build me a handsome house on the street would be, in case of a mob, setting up windows for the stones of all the rascals who have been in my employment."
Such were M. Parcimieux's thoughts, when, as he expressed it, he resolved to build.
A lot was for sale in the Rue de la Pepiniere. He bought it, and at the same time purchased the adjoining house, which he immediately caused to be torn down. This operation placed in his possession a vast piece of ground, not very wide, but of great depth, stretching, as it did, back to the Rue Labaume. At once work was begun according to a plan which his architect and himself had spent six months in maturing. On the line of the street arose a house of the most modest appearance, two stories in height only, with a very high and very wide carriage-door for the passage of vehicles. This was to deceive the vulgar eye,—the outside of the cab, as it were. Behind this house, between a spacious court and a vast garden was built the residence of which M. Parcimieux had dreamed; and it really was an exceptional building both by the excellence of the materials used, and by the infinite care which presided over the minutest details. The marbles for the vestibule and the stairs were brought from Africa, Italy, and Corsica. He sent to Rome for workmen for the mosaics. The joiner and locksmithing work was intrusted to real artists.
Repeating to every one that he was working for a great foreign lord, whose orders he went to take every morning, he was free to indulge his most extravagant fancies, without fearing jests or unpleasant remarks.
Poor old man! The day when the last workman had driven in the last nail, an attack of apoplexy carried him off, without giving him time to say, "Oh!" Two days after, all his relatives from the Limousin were swooping into Paris like a pack of wolves. Six millions to divide: what a godsend! Litigation followed, as a matter of course; and the house was offered for sale under a judgment.
M. de Thaller bought it for two hundred and seventy-five thousand francs,—about one-third what it had cost to build.
A month later he had moved into it; and the expenses which he incurred to furnish it in a style worthy of the building itself was the talk of the town. And yet he was not fully satisfied with his purchase.
Unlike M. Parcimieux, he had no wish whatever to conceal his wealth.
What! he owned one of those exquisite houses which excite at once the wonder and the envy of passers-by, and that house was hid behind such a common-looking building!
"I must have that shanty pulled down," he said from time to time.
And then he thought of something else; and the "shanty" was still standing on that evening, when, after leaving Maxence, M. de Tregars presented himself at M. de Thaller's.
The servants had, doubtless, received their instructions; for, as soon as Marius emerged from the porch of the front-house, the porter advanced from his lodge, bent double, his mouth open to his very ears by the most obsequious smile.
Without waiting for a question,
"The baron has not yet come home—," he said. "But he cannot be much longer away; and certainly the baroness is at home for my lord-marquis. Please, then, give yourself the trouble to pass."
And, standing aside, he struck upon the enormous gong that stood near his lodge a single sharp blow, intended to wake up the footman on duty in the vestibule, and to announce a visitor of note. Slowly, but not without quietly observing every thing, M. de Tregars crossed the courtyard, covered with fine sand,—they would have powdered it with golden dust, if they had dared,—and surrounded on all sides with bronze baskets, in which beautiful rhododendrons were blossoming.
It was nearly six o'clock. The manager of the Mutual Credit dined at seven; and the preparations for this important event were everywhere apparent. Through the large windows of the dining-room the steward could be seen presiding over the setting of the table. The butler was coming up from the cellar, loaded with bottles. Finally, through the apertures of the basement arose the appetizing perfumes of the kitchen.
What enormous business it required to support such a style, to display this luxury, which would shame one of those German princelings, who exchanged the crown of their ancestors for a Prussian livery gilded with French gold!—other people's money.
Meantime, the blow struck by the porter on the gong had produced the desired effect; and the gates of the vestibule seemed to open of their own accord before M. de Tregars as he ascended the stoop.
This vestibule with the splendor of which Mlle. Lucienne had been so deeply impressed, would, indeed, have been worthy the attention of an artist, had it been allowed to retain the simple grandeur and the severe harmony which M. Parcimieux's architect had imparted to it.
But M. de Thaller, as he was proud of boasting, had a perfect horror of simplicity; and, wherever he discovered a vacant space as big as his hand, he hung a picture, a bronze, or a piece of china, any thing and anyhow.
The two footmen were standing when M. de Tregars came in. Without asking any question, "Will M. le Marquis please follow me?" said the youngest.
And, opening the broad glass doors, he began walking in front of M. de Tregars, along a staircase with marble railing, the elegant proportions of which were absolutely ruined by a ridiculous profusion of "objects of art" of all nature, and from all sources. This staircase led to a vast semicircular landing, upon which, between columns of precious marble, opened three wide doors. The footman opened the middle one, which led to M. de Thaller's picture-gallery, a celebrated one in the financial world, and which had acquired for him the reputation of an enlightened amateur.
But M. de Tregars had no time to examine this gallery, which, moreover, he already knew well enough. The footman showed him into the small drawing-room of the baroness, a bijou of a room, furnished in gilt and crimson satin.
"Will M. le Marquis be kind enough to take a seat?" he said. "I run to notify Mme. le Baronne of M. le Marquis's visit."
The footman uttered these titles of nobility with a singular pomp, and as if some of their lustre was reflected upon himself. Nevertheless, it was evident that "Marquis" jingled to his ear much more pleasantly than "Baronne."
Remaining alone, M. de Tregars threw himself upon a seat. Worn out by the emotions of the day, and by an extraordinary contention of mind, he felt thankful for this moment of respite, which permitted him, at the moment of a decisive step, to collect all his energy and all his presence of mind.
And after two minutes he was so deeply absorbed in his thoughts, that he started, like a man suddenly aroused from his sleep, at the sound of an opening door. At the same moment he heard a slight exclamation of surprise, "Ah!"
Instead of the Baroness de Thaller, it was her daughter, Mlle. Cesarine, who had come in.
Stepping forward to the centre of the room, and acknowledging by a familiar gesture M. de Tregars' most respectful bow,
"You should warn people," she said. "I came here to look for my mother, and it is you I find. Why, you scared me to death. What a crack! Princess dear!"
And taking the young man's hand, and pressing it to her breast,
"Feel," she added, "how my heart beats."
Younger than Mlle. Gilberte, Mlle. Cesarine de Thaller had a reputation for beauty so thoroughly established, that to call it in question would have seemed a crime to her numerous admirers. And really she was a handsome person. Rather tall and well made, she had broad hips, the waist round and supple as a steel rod, and a magnificent throat. Her neck was, perhaps, a little too thick and too short; but upon her robust shoulders was scattered in wild ringlets the rebellious hair that escaped from her comb. She was a blonde, but of that reddish blonde, almost as dark as mahogany, which Titian admired, and which the handsome Venetians obtained by means of rather repulsive practices, and by exposing themselves to the noonday sun on the terraces of their palaces. Her complexion had the gilded hues of amber. Her lips, red as blood, displayed as they opened, teeth of dazzling whiteness. In her large prominent eyes, of a milky blue, like the Northern skies, laughed the eternal irony of a soul that no longer has faith in any thing. More anxious of her fame than of good taste, she wore a dress of doubtful shade, puffed up by means of an extravagant pannier, and buttoned obliquely across the chest, according to that ridiculous and ungraceful style invented by flat or humped women.
Throwing herself upon a chair, and placing cavalierly one foot upon another, so as to display her leg, which was admirable,
"Do you know that it's perfectly stunning to see you here?" she said to M. de Tregars. "Just imagine, for a moment, what a face the Baron Three Francs Sixty-eight will make when he sees you!"
It was her father whom she called thus, since the day when she had discovered that there was a German coin called thaler, which represents three francs and sixty-eight centimes in French currency.
"You know, I suppose," she went on, "that papa has just been badly stuck?"
M. de Tregars was excusing himself in vague terms; but it was one of Mlle. Cesarine's habits never to listen to the answers which were made to her questions.
"Favoral," she continued, "papa's cashier, has just started on an international picnic. Did you know him?"
"An old fellow, always dressed like a country sexton, and with a face like an undertaker. And the Baron Three Francs Sixty-eight, an old bird, was fool enough to be taken in by him! For he was taken in. He had a face like a man whose chimney is on fire, when he came to tell us, mamma and myself, that Favoral had gone off with twelve millions."
"And has he really carried off that enormous sum?"
"Not entire, of course, because it was not since day before yesterday only that he began digging into the Mutual Credit's pile. There were years that this venerable old swell was leading a somewhat-variegated existence, in company with rather-funny ladies, you know. And as he was not exactly calculated to be adored at par, why, it cost papa's stockholders a pretty lively premium. But, anyhow, he must have carried off a handsome nugget."
And, bouncing to the piano, she began an accompaniment loud enough to crack the window-panes, singing at the same time the popular refrain of the "Young Ladies of Pautin":
Cashier, you've got the bag; Quick on your little nag, And then, ho, ho, for Belgium!
Any one but Marius de Tregars would have been doubtless strangely surprised at Mlle. de Thaller's manners. But he had known her for some time already: he was familiar with her past life, her habits, her tastes, and her pretensions. Until the age of fifteen, Mlle. Cesarine had remained shut up in one of those pleasant Parisian boarding-schools, where young ladies are initiated into the great art of the toilet, and from which they emerge armed with the gayest theories, knowing how to see without seeming to look, and to lie boldly without blushing; in a word, ripe for society. The directress of the boarding-school, a lady of the ton, who had met with reverses, and who was a good deal more of a dressmaker than a teacher, said of Mlle. Cesarine, who paid her three thousand five hundred francs a year,
"She gives the greatest hopes for the future; and I shall certainly make a superior woman of her."
But the opportunity was not allowed her. The Baroness de Thaller discovered, one morning, that it was impossible for her to live without her daughter, and that her maternal heart was lacerated by a separation which was against the sacred laws of nature. She took her home, therefore, declaring that nothing, henceforth, not even her marriage, should separate them, and that she should finish herself the education of the dear child. From that moment, in fact, whoever saw the Baroness de Thaller would also see Mlle. Cesarine following in her wake.
A girl of fifteen, discreet and well-trained, is a convenient chaperon; a chaperon which enables a woman to show herself boldly where she might not have dared to venture alone. In presence of a mother followed by her daughter, disconcerted slander hesitates, and dares not speak.
Under the pretext that Cesarine was still but a child and of no consequence, Mme. de Thaller dragged her everywhere,—to the bois and to the races, visiting and shopping, to balls and parties, to the watering-places and the seashore, to the restaurant, and to all the "first nights" at the Palais Royal, the Bouffes, the Varietes, and the Delassements. It was, therefore, especially at the theatre, that the education of Mlle. de Thaller, so happily commenced, had received the finishing touch. At sixteen she was thoroughly familiar with the repertoire of the genre theatres, imitated Schneider far better than ever did Silly, and sang with surprising intonations and astonishing gestures Blanche d'Autigny's successful moods, and Theresa's most wanton verses.
Between times, she studied the fashion papers, and formed her style in reading the "Vie Parisienne," whose most enigmatic articles had no allusions sufficiently obscure to escape her penetration.
She learned to ride on horseback, to fence and to shoot, and distinguished herself at pigeon-matches. She kept a betting-book, played Trente et Quarante at Monaco; and Baccarat had no secrets for her. At Trouville she astonished the natives with the startling novelty of her bathing-costumes; and, when she found herself the centre of a reasonable circle of lookers-on, she threw herself in the water with a pluck that drew upon her the applause of the bathing-masters. She could smoke a cigarette, empty nearly a glass of champagne; and once her mother was obliged to bring her home, and put her quick to bed, because she had insisted upon trying absinthe, and her conversation had become somewhat too eccentric.
Leading such a life, it was difficult that public opinion should always spare Mme. and Mlle. de Thaller. There were sceptics who insinuated that this steadfast friendship between mother and daughter had very much the appearance of the association of two women bound together by the complicity of a common secret. A broker told how, one evening, or one night rather, for it was nearly two o'clock, happening to pass in front of the Moulin-Rouge, he had seen the Baroness and Mlle. Cesarine coming out, accompanied by a gentleman, to him unknown, but who, he was quite sure, was not the Baron de Thaller.
A certain journey which mother and daughter had undertaken in the heart of the winter, and which had lasted not less than two months, had been generally attributed to an imprudence, the consequences of which it had become impossible to conceal. They had been in Italy, they said when they returned; but no one had seen them there. Yet, as Mme. and Mlle. de Thaller's mode of life was, after all, the same as that of a great many women who passed for being perfectly proper, as there was no positive or palpable fact brought against them, as no name was mentioned, many people shrugged their shoulders, and replied,
And why not, since the Baron de Thaller, the most interested party, held himself satisfied?
To the ill-advised friends who ventured some allusions to the public rumors, he replied, according to his humor,
"My daughter can play the mischief generally, if she sees fit. As I shall give a dowry of a million, she will always find a husband."
Or else, "And what of it? Do not American young ladies enjoy unlimited freedom? Are they not constantly seen going out with young gentlemen, or walking or traveling alone? Are they, for all that, less virtuous than our girls, who are kept under such close watch? Do they make less faithful wives, or less excellent mothers? Hypocrisy is not virtue."
To a certain extent, the Manager of the Mutual Credit was right.
Already Mlle. de Thaller had had to decide upon several quite suitable offers of marriage and she had squarely refused them all.
"A husband!" she had answered each time. "Thank you, none for me. I have good enough teeth to eat up my dowry myself. Later, we'll see,—when I've cut my wisdom teeth, and I am tired of my bachelor life."
She did not seem near getting tired of it, though she pretended that she had no more illusions, was thoroughly blasee, had exhausted every sensation, and that life henceforth had no surprise in reserve for her. Her reception of M. de Tregars was, therefore, one of Mlle. Cesarine's least eccentricities, as was also that sudden fancy; to apply to the situation one of the most idiotic rondos of her repertoires:
"Cashier, you've got the bag; Quick on your little nag"
Neither did she spare him a single verse: and, when she stopped,
"I see with pleasure," said M. de Tregars, "that the embezzlement of which your father has just been the victim does not in any way offend your good humor."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"Would you have me cry," she said, "because the stockholders of the Baron Three Francs Sixty-eight have been swindled? Console yourself: they are accustomed to it."
And, as M. de Tregars made no answer,
"And in all that," she went on, "I see no one to pity except the wife and daughter of that old stick Favoral."
"They are, indeed, much to be pitied."
"They say that the mother is a good old thing."
"She is an excellent person."
"And the daughter? Costeclar was crazy about her once. He made eyes like a carp in love, as he told us, to mamma and myself, 'She is an angel, mesdames, an angel! And when I have given her a little chic!' Now tell me, is she really as good looking as all that?"
"She is quite good looking."
"Better looking than me?"
"It is not the same style, mademoiselle."
Mlle. de Thaller had stopped singing; but she had not left the piano. Half turned towards M. de Tregars, she ran her fingers listlessly over the keys, striking a note here and there, as if to punctuate her sentences.
"Ah, how nice!" she exclaimed, "and, above all, how gallant! Really, if you venture often on such declarations, mothers would be very wrong to trust you alone with their daughters."
"You did not understand me right, mademoiselle."
"Perfectly right, on the contrary. I asked you if I was better looking than Mlle. Favoral; and you replied to me, that it was not the same style."
"It is because, mademoiselle, there is indeed no possible comparison between you, who are a wealthy heiress, and whose life is a perpetual enchantment, and a poor girl, very humble, and very modest, who rides in the omnibus, and who makes her dresses herself."
A contemptuous smile contracted Mlle. Cesarine's lips.
"Why not?" she interrupted. "Men have such funny tastes!"
And, turning around suddenly, she began another rondo, no less famous than the first, and borrowed, this time, from the third act of the Petites-Blanchisseuses:
"What matters the quality? Beauty alone takes the prize Women before man must rise, And claim perfect equality."
Very attentively M. de Tregars was observing her. He had not been the dupe of the great surprise she had manifested when she found him in the little parlor.
"She knew I was here," he thought; "and it is her mother who has sent her to me. But why? and for what purpose?"
"With all that," she resumed, "I see the sweet Mme. Favoral and her modest daughter in a terribly tight place. What a 'bust,' marquis!"
"They have a great deal of courage, mademoiselle."
"Naturally. But, what is better, the daughter has a splendid voice: at least, so her professor told Costeclar. Why should she not go on the stage? Actresses make lots of money, you know. Papa'll help her, if she wishes. He has a great deal of influence in the theatres, papa has."
"Mme. and Mlle. Favoral have friends."
"Ah, yes! Costeclar."
"I beg your pardon; but it seems to me that this one will do to begin with. He is gallant, Costeclar, extremely gallant, and, moreover, generous as a lord. Why should he not offer to that youthful and timid damsel a nice little position in mahogany and rosewood? That way, we should have the pleasure of meeting her around the lake."
And she began singing again, with a slight variation,
"Manon, who, before the war, Carried clothes for a living, Now for her gains is trusting To that insane Costeclar."
"Ah, that big red-headed girl is terribly provoking!" thought M. de Tregars.
But, as he did not as yet understand very clearly what she wished to come to, he kept on his guard, and remained cold as marble.
Already she had again turned towards him.
"What a face you are making!" she said. "Are you jealous of the fiery Costeclar, by chance?"
"No, mademoiselle, no!"
"Then, why don't you want him to succeed in his love? But he will, you'll see! Five hundred francs on Costeclar! Do you take it? No? I am sorry. It's twenty-five napoleons lost for me. I know very well that Mlle.—what's her name?"
"Hallo! a nice name for a cashier's daughter! I am aware that she once sent that poor Costeclar and his offer to—Chaillot. But she had resources then; whilst now—It's stupid as it can be; but people have to eat!"
"There are still women, mademoiselle, capable of starving to death."
M. de Tregars now felt satisfied. It seemed evident to him that they had somehow got wind of his intentions; that Mlle. de Thaller had been sent to feel the ground; and that she only attacked Mlle. Gilberte in order to irritate him, and compel him, in a moment of anger, to declare himself.
"Bash!" she said, "Mlle. Favoral is like all the others. If she had to select between the amiable Costeclar and a charcoal furnace, it is not the furnace she would take."
At all times, Marius de Tregars disliked Mlle. Cesarine to a supreme degree; but at this moment, without the pressing desire he had to see the Baron and Baroness de Thaller, he would have withdrawn.
"Believe me, mademoiselle," he uttered coldly. "Spare a poor girl stricken by a most cruel misfortune. Worse might happen to you."
"To me! And what the mischief do you suppose can happen me?"
She started to her feet so violently, that she upset the piano-stool.
"Whatever it may be," she exclaimed, "I say in advance, I am glad!"
And as M. de Tregars turned his head in some surprise,
"Yes, I am glad!" she repeated, "because it would be a change; and I am sick of the life I lead. Yes, sick to be eternally and invariably happy of that same dreary happiness. And to think that there are idiots who believe that I amuse myself, and who envy my fate! To think, that, when I ride through the streets, I hear girls exclaim, whilst looking at me, 'Isn't she lucky?' Little fools! I'd like to see them in my place. They live, they do. Their pleasures are not all alike. They have anxieties and hopes, ups and downs, hours of rain and hours of sunshine; whilst I—always dead calm! the barometer always at 'Set fair.' What a bore! Do you know what I did to-day? Exactly the same thing as yesterday; and to-morrow I'll do the same thing as to-day.
"A good dinner is a good thing; but always the same dinner, without extras or additions—pouah! Too many truffles. I want some corned beef and cabbage. I know the bill of fare by heart, you see. In winter, theatres and balls; in summer, races and the seashore; summer and winter, shopping, rides to the bois, calls, trying dresses, perpetual adoration by mother's friends, all of them brilliant and gallant fellows to whom the mere thought of my dowry gives the jaundice. Excuse me, if I yawn: I am thinking of their conversations.
"And to think," she went on, "that such will be my existence until I make up my mind to take a husband! For I'll have to come to it too. The Baron Three Sixty-eight will present to me some sort of a swell, attracted by my money. I'll answer, 'I'd just as soon have him as any other,' and he will be admitted to the honor of paying his attentions to me. Every morning he will send me a splendid bouquet: every evening, after bank-hours, he'll come along with fresh kid gloves and a white vest. During the afternoon, he and papa will pull each other's hair out on the subject of the dowry. At last the happy day will arrive. Can't you see it from here? Mass with music, dinner, ball. The Baron Three Sixty-eight will not spare me a single ceremony. The marriage of the manager of the Mutual Credit must certainly be an advertisement. The papers will publish the names of the bridesmaids and of the guests.
"To be sure, papa will have a face a yard long; because he will have been compelled to pay the dowry the day before. Mamma will be all upset at the idea of becoming a grandmother. The bridegroom will be in a wretched humor, because his boots will be too tight; and I'll look like a goose, because I'll be dressed in white; and white is a stupid color, which is not at all becoming to me. Charming family gathering, isn't it? Two weeks later, my husband will be sick of me, and I'll be disgusted with him. After a month, we'll be at daggers' points. He'll go back to his club and his mistresses; and I—I shall have conquered the right to go out alone; and I'll begin again going to the bois, to balls, to races, wherever my mother goes. I'll spend an enormous amount of money on my dress, and I'll make debts which papa will pay."
Though any thing might be expected of Mlle. Cesarine, still M. de Tregars seemed visibly astonished. And she, laughing at his surprise,
"That's the invariable programme," she went on; "and that's why I say I'm glad at the idea of a change, whatever it may be. You find fault with me for not pitying Mlle. Gilberte. How could I, since I envy her? She is happy, because her future is not settled, laid out, fixed in advance. She is poor; but she is free. She is twenty; she is pretty; she has an admirable voice; she can go on the stage to-morrow, and be, before six months, one of the pet actresses of Paris. What a life then! Ah, that is the one I dream, the one I would have selected, had I been mistress of my destiny."
But she was interrupted by the noise of the opening door.
The Baroness de Thaller appeared. As she was, immediately after dinner, to go to the opera, and afterwards to a party given by the Viscountess de Bois d'Ardon, she was in full dress. She wore a dress, cut audaciously low in the neck, of very light gray satin, trimmed with bands of cherry-colored silk edged with lace. In her hair, worn high over her head, she had a bunch of fuchsias, the flexible stems of which, fastened by a large diamond star, trailed down to her very shoulders, white and smooth as marble.
But, though she forced herself to smile, her countenance was not that of festive days; and the glance which she cast upon her daughter and Marius de Tregars was laden with threats. In a voice of which she tried in vain to control the emotion,
"How very kind of you, marquis," she began, "to respond so soon to my invitation of this morning! I am really distressed to have kept you waiting; but I was dressing. After what has happened to M. de Thaller, it is absolutely indispensable that I should go out, show myself: otherwise our enemies will be going around to-morrow, saying everywhere that I am in Belgium, preparing lodgings for my husband."
And, suddenly changing her tone,
"But what was that madcap Cesarine telling you?" she asked.
It was with a profound surprise that M. de Tregars discovered that the entente cordiale which he suspected between the mother and daughter did not exist, at least at this moment.
Veiling under a jesting tone the strange conjectures which the unexpected discovery aroused within him,
"Mlle. Cesarine," he replied, "who is much to be pitied, was telling me all her troubles."
She interrupted him.
"Do not take the trouble to tell a story, M. le Marquis," she said. "Mamma knows it as well as yourself; for she was listening at the door."
"Cesarine!" exclaimed Mme. de Thaller.
"And, if she came in so suddenly, it is because she thought it was fully time to cut short my confidences."
The face of the baroness became crimson.
"The child is mad!" she said.
The child burst out laughing.
"That's my way," she went on. "You should not have sent me here by chance, and against my wish. You made me do it: don't complain. You were sure that I had but to appear, and M. de Tregars would fall at my feet. I appeared, and—you saw the effect through the keyhole, didn't you?"
Her features contracted, her eyes flashing, twisting her lace handkerchief between her fingers loaded with rings,
"It is unheard of," said Mme. de Thaller. "She has certainly lost her head."
Dropping her mother an ironical courtesy,
"Thanks for the compliment!" said the young lady. "Unfortunately, I never was more completely in possession of all the good sense I may boast of than I am now, dear mamma. What were you telling me a moment since? 'Run, the Marquis de Tregars is coming to ask your hand: it's all settled.' And what did I answer? 'No use to trouble myself: if, instead of one million, papa were to give me two, four millions, indeed all the millions paid by France to Prussia, M. de Tregars would not have me for a wife.'"
And, looking Marius straight in the face,
"Am I not right, M. le Marquis?" she asked. "And isn't it a fact that you wouldn't have me at any price? Come, now, your hand upon your heart, answer."
M. de Tregars' situation was somewhat embarrassing between these two women, whose anger was equal, though it manifested itself in a different way. Evidently it was a discussion begun before, which was now continued in his presence.
"I think, mademoiselle," he began, "that you have been slandering yourself gratuitously."
"Oh, no! I swear it to you," she replied; "and, if mamma had not happened in, you would have heard much more. But that was not an answer."
And, as M. de Tregars said nothing, she turned towards the baroness,
"Ah, ah! you see," she said. "Who was crazy,—you, or I? Ah! you imagine here that money is everything, that every thing is for sale, and that every thing can be bought. Well, no! There are still men, who, for all the gold in the world, would not give their name to Cesarine de Thaller. It is strange; but it is so, dear mamma, and we must make up our mind to it."
Then turning towards Marius, and bearing upon each syllable, as if afraid that the allusion might escape him,
"The men of whom I speak," she added, "marry the girls who can starve to death."
Knowing her daughter well enough to be aware that she could not impose silence upon her, the Baroness de Thaller had dropped upon a chair. She was trying hard to appear indifferent to what her daughter was saying; but at every moment a threatening gesture, or a hoarse exclamation, betrayed the storm that raged within her.
"Go on, poor foolish child!" she said,—"go on!"
And she did go on.
"Finally, were M. de Tregars willing to have me, I would refuse him myself, because, then—"
A fugitive blush colored her cheeks, her bold eyes vacillated, and, dropping her voice,
"Because, then," she added, "he would no longer be what he is; because I feel that fatally I shall despise the husband whom papa will buy for me. And, if I came here to expose myself to an affront which I foresaw, it is because I wanted to make sure of a fact of which a word of Costeclar, a few days ago, had given me an idea, —of a fact which you do not, perhaps, suspect, dear mother, despite your astonishing perspicacity. I wanted to find out M. de Tregars' secret; and I have found it out."
M. de Tregars had come to the Thaller mansion with a plan well settled in advance. He had pondered long before deciding what he would do, and what he would say, and how he would begin the decisive struggle. What had taken place showed him the idleness of his conjectures, and, as a natural consequence, upset his plans. To abandon himself to the chances of the hour, and to make the best possible use of them, was now the wisest thing to do.
"Give me credit, mademoiselle," he uttered, "for sufficient penetration to have perfectly well discerned your intentions. There was no need of artifice, because I have nothing to conceal. You had but to question me, I would have answered you frankly, 'Yes, it is true I love Mlle. Gilberte; and before a month she will be Marquise de Tregars.'"
Mme. de Thaller, at those words, had started to her feet, pushing back her arm-chair so violently, that it rolled all the way to the wall.
"What!" she exclaimed, "you marry Gilberte Favoral,—you!"
"The daughter of a defaulting cashier, a dishonored man whom justice pursues and the galleys await!"
"Yes!" And in an accent that caused a shiver to run over the white shoulders of Mme. de Thaller,
"Whatever may have been," he uttered, "Vincent Favoral's crime; whether he has or has not stolen, the twelve millions which are wanting from the funds of the Mutual Credit; whether he is alone guilty, or has accomplices; whether he be a knave, or a fool, an impostor, or a dupe,—Mlle. Gilberte is not responsible."
"You know the Favoral family, then?"
"Enough to make their cause henceforth my own."
The agitation of the baroness was so great, that she did not even attempt to conceal it.
"A nobody's daughter!" she said.
"I love her."
"Without a sou!"
Mlle. Cesarine made a superb gesture.
"Why, that's the very reason why a man may marry her!" she exclaimed, and, holding out her hand to M. de Tregars,
"What you do here is well," she added, "very well."
There was a wild look in the eyes of the baroness.
"Mad, unhappy child!" she exclaimed. "If your father should hear!"
"And who, then, would report our conversation to him? M. de Tregars? He would not do such a thing. You? You dare not."
Drawing herself up to her fullest height, her breast swelling with anger, her head thrown back, her eyes flashing,
"Cesarine," ordered Mme. de Thaller, her arm extended towards the door—"Cesarine, leave the room; I command you."
But motionless in her place the girl cast upon her mother a look of defiance.
"Come, calm yourself," she said in a tone of crushing irony, "or you'll spoil your complexion for the rest of the evening. Do I complain? do I get excited? And yet whose fault is it, if honor makes it a duty for me to cry 'Beware!' to an honest man who wishes to marry me? That Gilberte should get married: that she should be very happy, have many children, darn her husband's stockings, and skim her pot-au-feu,—that is her part in life. Ours, dear mother,—that which you have taught me—is to laugh and have fun, all the time, night and day, till death."
A footman who came in interrupted her. Handing a card to Mme. de Thaller,
"The gentleman who gave it to me," he said, "is in the large parlor."
The baroness had become very pale.
"Oh!" she said turning the card between her fingers,—"oh!"
Then suddenly she ran out exclaiming,
"I'll be back directly."
An embarrassing, painful silence followed, as it was inevitable that it would, the Baroness de Thaller's precipitate departure.
Mlle. Cesarine had approached the mantel-piece. She was leaning her elbow upon it, her forehead on her hand, all palpitating and excited. Intimidated for, perhaps, the first time in her life, she turned away her great blue eyes, as if afraid that they should betray a reflex of her thoughts.
As to M. de Tregars, he remained at his place, not having one whit too much of that power of self-control, which is acquired by a long experience of the world, to conceal his impressions. If he had a fault, it was certainly not self-conceit; but Mlle. de Thaller had been too explicit and too clear to leave him a doubt. All she had said could be comprised in one sentence,
"My parents were in hopes that I would become your wife: I had judged you well enough to understand their error. Precisely because I love you I acknowledge myself unworthy of you and I wish you to know that if you had asked my hand,—the hand of a girl who has a dowry of a million—I would have ceased to esteem you."
That such a feeling should have budded and blossomed in Mlle. Cesarine's soul, withered as it was by vanity, and blunted by pleasure was almost a miracle. It was, at any rate, an astonishing proof of love which she gave; and Marius de Tregars would not have been a man, if he had not been deeply moved by it. Suddenly,
"What a miserable wretch I am!" she uttered.
"You mean unhappy," said M. de Tregars gently.
"What can you think of my sincerity? You must, doubtless, find it strange, impudent, grotesque."
He lifted his hand in protest; for she gave him no time to put in a word.
"And yet," she went on, "this is not the first time that I am assailed by sinister ideas, and that I feel ashamed of myself. I was convinced once that this mad existence of mine is the only enviable one, the only one that can give happiness. And now I discover that it is not the right path which I have taken, or, rather, which I have been made to take. And there is no possibility of retracing my steps."
She turned pale, and, in an accent of gloomy despair,
"Every thing fails me," she said. "It seems as though I were rolling into a bottomless abyss, without a branch or a tuft of grass to cling to. Around me, emptiness, night, chaos. I am not yet twenty and it seems to me that I have lived thousands of years, and exhausted every sensation. I have seen every thing, learned every thing, experienced every thing; and I am tired of every thing, and satiated and nauseated. You see me looking like a brainless hoyden, I sing, I jest, I talk slang. My gayety surprises everybody. In reality, I am literally tired to death. What I feel I could not express, there are no words to render absolute disgust. Sometimes I say to myself, 'It is stupid to be so sad. What do you need? Are you not young, handsome, rich?' But I must need something, or else I would not be thus agitated, nervous, anxious, unable to stay in one place, tormented by confused aspirations, and by desires which I cannot formulate. What can I do? Seek oblivion in pleasure and dissipation? I try, and I succeed for an hour or so; but the reaction comes, and the effect vanishes, like froth from champagne. The lassitude returns; and, whilst outwardly I continue to laugh, I shed within tears of blood which scald my heart. What is to become of me, without a memory in the past, or a hope in the future, upon which to rest my thought?"
And bursting into tears,
"Oh, I am wretchedly unhappy!" she exclaimed; "and I wish I was dead."
M. de Tregars rose, feeling more deeply moved than he would, perhaps, have liked to acknowledge.
"I was laughing at you only a moment since," he said in his grave and vibrating voice. "Pardon me, mademoiselle. It is with the utmost sincerity, and from the innermost depths of my soul, that I pity you."
She was looking at him with an air of timid doubt, big tears trembling between her long eyelashes.
"Honest?" she asked.
"Upon my honor."
"And you will not go with too poor an opinion of me?"
"I shall retain the firm belief that when you were yet but a child, you were spoiled by insane theories."
Gently and sadly she was passing her hand over her forehead.
"Yes, that's it," she murmured. "How could I resist examples coming from certain persons? How could I help becoming intoxicated when I saw myself, as it were, in a cloud of incense when I heard nothing but praises and applause? And then there is the money, which depraves when it comes in a certain way."
She ceased to speak; but the silence was soon again broken by a slight noise, which came from the adjoining room.
Mechanically, M. de Tregars looked around him. The little parlor in which he found himself was divided from the main drawing-room of the house by a tall and broad door, closed only by heavy curtains, which had remained partially drawn. Now, such was the disposition of the mirrors in the two rooms, that M. de Tregars could see almost the whole of the large one reflected in the mirror over the mantelpiece of the little parlor. A man of suspicious appearance, and wearing wretched clothes, was standing in it.
And, the more M. de Tregars examined him, the more it seemed to him that he had already seen somewhere that uneasy countenance, that anxious glance, that wicked smile flitting upon flat and thin lips.
But suddenly the man bowed very low. It was probable that Mme. de Thaller, who had gone around through the hall to reach the grand parlor, must be coming in; and in fact she almost immediately appeared within the range of the glass. She seemed much agitated; and, with a finger upon her lips, she was recommending to the man to be prudent, and to speak low. It was therefore in a whisper, and such a low whisper that not even a vague murmur reached the little parlor, that the man uttered a few words. They were such that the baroness started back as if she had seen a precipice yawning at her feet; and by this action it was easy to understand that she must have said,
"Is it possible?"
With the voice which still could not be heard, but with a gesture which could be seen, the man evidently replied,
"It is so, I assure you!"
And leaning towards Mme. de Thaller, who seemed in no wise shocked to feel this repulsive personage's lips almost touching her ear, he began speaking to her.
The surprise which this species of vision caused to M. de Tregars was great, but did not keep him from reflecting what could be the meaning of this scene. How came this suspicious-looking man to have obtained access, without difficulty, into the grand parlor? Why had the baroness, on receiving his card, turned whiter than the laces on her dress? What news had he brought, which had made such a deep impression? What was he saying that seemed at once to terrify and to delight Mme. de Thaller?
But soon she interrupted the man, beckoned to him to wait, disappeared for a minute; and, when she came in again, she held in her hand a package of bank-notes, which she began counting upon the parlor-table.
She counted twenty-five, which, so far as M. de Tregars could judge, must have been hundred-franc notes. The man took them, counted them over, slipped them into his pocket with a grin of satisfaction, and then seemed disposed to retire.
The baroness detained him, however; and it was she now, who, leaning towards him, commenced to explain to him, or rather, as far as her attitude showed, to ask him something. It must have been a serious matter; for he shook his head, and moved his arms, as if he meant to say, "The deuse, the deuse!"
The strangest suspicions flashed across M. de Tregars' mind. What was that bargain to which the mirror made him thus an accidental witness? For it was a bargain: there could be no mistake about it. The man, having received a mission, had fulfilled it, and had come to receive the price of it. And now a new commission was offered to him.
But M. de Tregars' attention was now called off by Mlle. Cesarine. Shaking off the torpor which for a moment had overpowered her,
"But why fret and worry?" she said, answering, rather, the objections of her own mind than addressing herself to M. de Tregars. "Things are just as they are, and I cannot undo them.
"Ah! if the mistakes of life were like soiled clothes, which are allowed to accumulate in a wardrobe, and which are all sent out at once to the wash. But nothing washes the past, not even repentance, whatever they may say. There are some ideas which should be set aside. A prisoner should not allow himself to think of freedom.
"And yet," she added, shrugging her shoulders, "a prisoner has always the hope of escaping; whereas I—" Then, making a visible effort to resume her usual manner,
"Bash!" she said, "that's enough sentiment for one day; and instead of staying here, boring you to death, I ought to go and dress; for I am going to the opera with my sweet mamma, and afterwards to the ball. You ought to come. I am going to wear a stunning dress. The ball is at Mme. de Bois d'Ardon's,—one of our friends, a progressive woman. She has a smoking-room for ladies. What do you think of that? Come, will you go? We'll drink champagne, and we'll laugh. No? Zut then, and my compliments to your family."
But, at the moment of leaving the room, her heart failed her.
"This is doubtless the last time I shall ever see you, M. de Tregars," she said. "Farewell! You know now why I, who have a dowry of a million, I envy Gilberte Favoral. Once more farewell. And, whatever happiness may fall to your lot in life, remember that Cesarine has wished it all to you."
And she went out at the very moment when the Baroness de Thaller returned.
"Cesarine!" Mme. de Thaller called, in a voice which sounded at once like a prayer and a threat.
"I am going to dress myself, mamma," she answered.
"So that you can scold me if I am not ready when you want to go? Thank you, no."
"I command you to come back, Cesarine."
No answer. She was far already.
Mme. de Thaller closed the door of the little parlor, and returning to take a seat by M. de Tregars,
"What a singular girl!" she said.
Meantime he was watching in the glass what was going on in the other room. The suspicious-looking man was there still, and alone. A servant had brought him pen, ink and paper; and he was writing rapidly.
"How is it that they leave him there alone?" wondered Marius.
And he endeavored to find upon the features of the baroness an answer to the confused presentiments which agitated his brain. But there was no longer any trace of the emotion which she had manifested when taken unawares. Having had time for reflection, she had composed for herself an impenetrable countenance. Somewhat surprised at M. de Tregars' silence,
"I was saying," she repeated, "that Cesarine is a strange girl."
Still absorbed by the scene in the grand parlor,
"Strange, indeed!" he answered.
"And such is," said the baroness with a sigh, "the result of M. de Thaller's weakness, and above all of my own.
"We have no child but Cesarine; and it was natural that we should spoil her. Her fancy has been, and is still, our only law. She has never had time to express a wish: she is obeyed before she has spoken."
She sighed again, and deeper than the first time. "You have just seen," she went on, "the results of that insane education. And yet it would not do to trust appearances. Cesarine, believe me, is not as extravagant as she seems. She possesses solid qualities,—of those which a man expects of the woman who is to be his wife."
Without taking his eyes off the glass,
"I believe you madame," said M. de Tregars.
"With her father, with me especially, she is capricious, wilful, and violent; but, in the hands of the husband of her choice, she would be like wax in the hands of the modeler."
The man in the parlor had finished his letter, and, with an equivocal smile, was reading it over.
"Believe me, madame," replied M. de Tregars, "I have perfectly understood how much naive boasting there was in all that Mlle. Cesarine told me."
"Then, really, you do not judge her too severely?"
"Your heart has not more indulgence for her than my own."
"And yet it is from you that her first real sorrow comes."
The baroness shook her head in a melancholy way, to convey an idea of her maternal affection and anxiety.
"Yes, from you, my dear marquis," she replied, "from you alone. On the very day you entered this house, Cesarine's whole nature changed."
Having read his letter over, the man in the grand parlor had folded it, and slipped it into his pocket, and, having left his seat, seemed to be waiting for something. M. de Tregars was following, in the glass, his every motion, with the most eager curiosity. And nevertheless, as he felt the absolute necessity of saying something, were it only to avoid attracting the attention of the baroness,
"What!" he said, "Mlle. Cesarine's nature did change, then?"
"In one night. Had she not met the hero of whom every girl dreams? —a man of thirty, bearing one of the oldest names in France."
She stopped, expecting an answer, a word, an exclamation. But, as M. de Tregars said nothing,
"Did you never notice any thing then?" she asked.
"And suppose I were to tell you myself, that my poor Cesarine, alas! —loves you?"
M. de Tregars started. Had he been less occupied with the personage in the grand parlor, he would certainly not have allowed the conversation to drift in this channel. He understood his mistake; and, in an icy tone,
"Permit me, madame," he said, "to believe that you are jesting."
"And suppose it were the truth."
"It would make me unhappy in the extreme."
"For the reason which I have already told you, that I love Mlle. Gilberte Favoral with the deepest and the purest love, and that for the past three years she has been, before God, my affianced bride."
Something like a flash of anger passed over Mme. de Thaller's eyes.
"And I," she exclaimed,—"I tell you that this marriage is senseless."
"I wish it were still more so, that I might the better show to Gilberte how dear she is to me."
Calm in appearance, the baroness was scratching with her nails the satin of the chair on which she was sitting.
"Then," she went on, "your resolution is settled."
"Still, now, come, between us who are no longer children, suppose M. de Thaller were to double Cesarine's dowry, to treble it?"
An expression of intense disgust contracted the manly features of Marius de Tregars.
"Ah! not another word, madame," he interrupted.
There was no hope left. Mme. de Thaller fully realized it by the tone in which he spoke. She remained pensive for over a minute, and suddenly, like a person who has finally made up her mind, she rang.
A footman appeared.
"Do what I told you!" she ordered.
And as soon as the footman had gone, turning to M. de Tregars,
"Alas!" she said, "who would have thought that I would curse the day when you first entered our house?"
But, whilst, she spoke, M. de Tregars noticed in the glass the result of the order she had just given.
The footman walked into the grand parlor, spoke a few words; and at once the man with the alarming countenance put on his hat and went out.
"This is very strange!" thought M. de Tregars. Meantime, the baroness was going on,
"If your intentions are to that point irrevocable, how is it that you are here? You have too much experience of the world not to have understood, this morning, the object of my visit and of my allusions."
Fortunately, M. de Tregars' attention was no longer drawn by the proceedings in the next room. The decisive moment had come: the success of the game he was playing would, perhaps, depend upon his coolness and self-command.
"It is because I did understand, madame, and even better than you suppose, that I am here."
"I came, expecting to deal with M. de Thaller alone. I have been compelled, by what has happened, to alter my intentions. It is to you that I must speak first."
Mme. de Thaller continued to manifest the same tranquil assurance; but she stood up. Feeling the approach of the storm, she wished to be up, and ready to meet it.
"You honor me," she said with an ironical smile.
There was, henceforth, no human power capable of turning Marius de Tregars from the object he had in view.
"It is to you I shall speak," he repeated, "because, after you have heard me, you may perhaps judge that it is your interest to join me in endeavoring to obtain from your husband what I ask, what I demand, what I must have."
With an air of surprise marvelously well simulated, if it was not real, the baroness was looking at him.
"My father," he proceeded to say, "the Marquis de Tregars, was once rich: he had several millions. And yet when I had the misfortune of losing him, three years ago, he was so thoroughly ruined, that to relieve the scruples of his honor, and to make his death easier, I gave up to his creditors all I had in the world. What had become of my father's fortune? What filter had been administered to him to induce him to launch into hazardous speculations,—he an old Breton gentleman, full, even to absurdity, of the most obstinate prejudices of the nobility? That's what I wished to ascertain.
"And now, madame, I—have ascertained."
She was a strong-minded woman, the Baroness de Thaller. She had had so many adventures in her life, she had walked on the very edge of so many precipices, concealed so many anxieties, that danger was, as it were, her element, and that, at the decisive moment of an almost desperate game, she could remain smiling like those old gamblers whose face never betrays their terrible emotion at the moment when they risk their last stake. Not a muscle of her face moved; and it was with the most imperturbable calm that she said,
"Go on, I am listening: it must be quite interesting."
That was not the way to propitiate M. de Tregars. He resumed, in a brief and harsh tone,
"When my father died, I was young. I did not know then what I have learned since,—that to contribute to insure the impunity of knaves is almost to make one's self their accomplice. And the victim who says nothing and submits, does contribute to it. The honest man, on the contrary, should speak, and point out to others the trap into which he has fallen, that they may avoid it."
The baroness was listening with the air of a person who is compelled by politeness to hear a tiresome story.
"That is a rather gloomy preamble," she said. M. de Tregars took no notice of the interruption.
"At all times," he went on, "my father seemed careless of his affairs: that affectation, he thought, was due to the name he bore. But his negligence was only apparent. I might mention things of him that would do honor to the most methodical tradesman. He had, for instance, the habit of preserving all the letters of any importance which he received. He left twelve or fifteen boxes full of such. They were carefully classified; and many bore upon their margin a few notes indicating what answer had been made to them."
Half suppressing a yawn,
"That is order," said the baroness, "if I know any thing about it."
"At the first moment, determined not to stir up the past, I attached no importance to those letters; and they would certainly have been burnt, but for an old friend of the family, the Count de Villegre, who had them carried to his own house. But later, acting under the influence of circumstances which it would be too long to explain to you, I regretted my apathy; and I thought that I should, perhaps, find in that correspondence something to either dissipate or justify certain suspicions which had occurred to me."
"So that, like a respectful son, you read it?" M. de Tregars bowed ceremoniously.
"I believe," he said, "that to avenge a father of the imposture of which he was the victim during his life, is to render homage to his memory. Yes, madame, I read the whole of that correspondence, and with an interest which you will readily understand. I had already, and without result, examined the contents of several boxes, when in the package marked 1852, a year which my father spent in Paris, certain letters attracted my attention. They were written upon coarse paper, in a very primitive handwriting and wretchedly spelt. They were signed sometimes Phrasie, sometimes Marquise de Javelle. Some gave the address, 'Rue des Bergers, No. 3, Paris-Grenelle.'
"Those letters left me no doubt upon what had taken place. My father had met a young working-girl of rare beauty: he had taken a fancy to her; and, as he was tormented by the fear of being loved for his money alone, he had passed himself off for a poor clerk in one of the departments."
"Quite a touching little love-romance," remarked the baroness.
But there was no impertinence that could affect Marius de Tregars' coolness.
"A romance, perhaps," he said, "but in that case a money-romance, not a love-romance. This Phrasie or Marquise de Javelle, announces in one of her letters, that in February, 1853, she has given birth to a daughter, whom she has confided to some relatives of hers in the south, near Toulouse. It was doubtless that event which induced my father to acknowledge who he was. He confesses that he is not a poor clerk, but the Marquis de Tregars, having an income of over a hundred thousand francs. At once the tone of the correspondence changes. The Marquise de Javelle has a stupid time where she lives; the neighbors reproach her with her fault; work spoils her pretty hands. Result: less than two weeks after the birth of her daughter, my father hires for his pretty mistress a lovely apartment, which she occupies under the name of Mme. Devil; she is allowed fifteen hundred francs a month, servants, horses, carriage."
Mme. de Thaller was giving signs of the utmost impatience. Without paying any attention to them, M. de Tregars proceeded,
"Henceforth free to see each other daily, my father and his mistress cease to write. But Mme. Devil does not waste her time. During a space of less than eight months, from February to September, she induces my father to dispose—not in her favor, she is too disinterested for that, but in favor of her daughter—of a sum exceeding five hundred thousand francs. In September, the correspondence is resumed. Mme. Devil discovers that she is not happy, and acknowledges it in a letter, which shows, by its improved writing and more correct spelling, that she has been taking lessons.
"She complains of her precarious situation: the future frightens her: she longs for respectability. Such is, for three months, the constant burden of her correspondence. She regrets the time when she was a working girl: why has she been so weak? Then, at last, in a note which betrays long debates and stormy discussions, she announces that she has an unexpected offer of marriage; a fine fellow, who, if she only had two hundred thousand francs, would give his name to herself and to her darling little daughter. For a long time my father hesitates; but she presses her point with such rare skill, she demonstrates so conclusively that this marriage will insure the happiness of their child, that my father yields at last, and resigns himself to the sacrifice. And in a memorandum on the margin of a last letter, he states that he has just given two hundred thousand francs to Mme. Devil; that he will never see her again; and that he returns to live in Brittany, where he wishes, by the most rigid economy, to repair the breach he has just made in his fortune."
"Thus end all these love-stories," said Mme. de Thaller in a jesting tone.
"I beg your pardon: this one is not ended yet. For many years, my father kept his word, and never left our homestead of Tregars. But at last he grew tired of his solitude, and returned to Paris. Did he seek to see his former mistress again? I think not. I suppose that chance brought them together; or else, that, being aware of his return, she managed to put herself in his way. He found her more fascinating than ever, and, according to what she wrote him, rich and respected; for her husband had become a personage. She would have been perfectly happy, she added, had it been possible for her to forget the man whom she had once loved so much, and to whom she owed her position.
"I have that letter. The elegant hand, the style, and the correct orthography, express better than any thing else the transformations of the Marquise de Javelle. Only it is not signed. The little working-girl has become prudent: she has much to lose, and fears to compromise herself.
"A week later, in a laconic note, apparently dictated by an irresistible passion, she begs my father to come to see her at her own house. He does so, and finds there a little girl, whom he believes to be his own child, and whom he at once begins to idolize.
"And that's all. Again he falls under the charm. He ceases to belong to himself: his former mistress can dispose, at her pleasure, of his fortune and of his fate.
"But see now what bad luck! The husband takes a notion to become jealous of my father's visits. In a letter which is a masterpiece of diplomacy, the lady explains her anxiety.
"'He has suspicions,' she writes; 'and to what extremities might he not resort, were he to discover the truth!' And with infinite art she insinuates that the best way to justify his constant presence is to associate himself with that jealous husband.
"It is with childish haste that my father jumps at the suggestion. But money is needed. He sells his lands, and everywhere announces that he has great financial ideas, and that he is going to increase his fortune tenfold.
"There he is now, partner of his former mistress's husband, engaged in speculations, director of a company. He thinks that he is doing an excellent business: he is convinced that he is making lots of money. Poor honest man! They prove to him, one morning, that he is ruined, and, what is more, compromised. And this is made to look so much like the truth, that I interfere myself, and pay the creditors. We were ruined; but honor was safe. A few weeks later, my father died broken-hearted."
Mme. de Thaller half rose from her seat with a gesture which indicated the joy of escaping at last a merciless bore. A glance from M. de Tregars riveted her to her seat, freezing upon her lips the jest she was about to utter.
"I have not done yet," he said rudely.
And, without suffering any interruption,
"From this correspondence," he resumed, "resulted the flagrant, irrefutable proof of a shameful intrigue, long since suspected by my old friend, General Count de Villegre. It became evident to me that my poor father had been most shamefully imposed upon by that mistress, so handsome and so dearly loved, and, later, despoiled by the husband of that mistress. But all this availed me nothing. Being ignorant of my father's life and connections, the letters giving neither a name nor a precise detail, I knew not whom to accuse. Besides, in order to accuse, it is necessary to have, at least, some material proof."
The baroness had resumed her seat; and every thing about her—her attitude, her gestures, the motion of her lips—seemed to say,
"You are my guest. Civility has its demands; but really you abuse your privileges."
M. de Tregars went on,
"At this moment I was still a sort of savage, wholly absorbed in my experiments, and scarcely ever setting foot outside my laboratory. I was indignant; I ardently wished to find and to punish the villains who had robbed us: but I knew not how to go about it, nor in what direction to seek information. The wretches would, perhaps, have gone unpunished, but for a good and worthy man, now a commissary of police, to whom I once rendered a slight service, one night, in a riot, when he was close pressed by some half-dozen rascals. I explained the situation to him: he took much interest in it, promised his assistance, and marked out my line of conduct."
Mme. de Thaller seemed restless upon her seat.
"I must confess," she began, "that I am not wholly mistress of my time. I am dressed, as you see: I have to go out."
If she had preserved any hope of adjourning the explanation which she felt coming, she must have lost it when she heard the tone in which M. de Tregars interrupted her.
"You can go out to-morrow."
And, without hurrying,
"Advised, as I have just told you," he continued, "and assisted by the experience of a professional man, I went first to No. 3, Rue des Bergers, in Grenelle. I found there some old people, the foreman of a neighboring factory and his wife, who had been living in the house for nearly twenty-five years. At my first question, they exchanged a glance, and commenced laughing. They remembered perfectly the Marquise de Javelle, which was but a nickname for a young and pretty laundress, whose real name was Euphrasie Taponnet. She had lived for eighteen months on the same landing as themselves: she had a lover, who passed himself off for a clerk, but who was, in fact, she had told them, a very wealthy nobleman. They added that she had given birth to a little girl, and that, two weeks later she had disappeared, and they had never heard a word from her. When I left them, they said to me, 'If you see Phrasie, ask her if she ever knew old Chandour and his wife. I am sure she'll remember us.'"
For the first time Mme. de Thaller shuddered slightly; but it was almost imperceptible.
"From Grenelle," continued M. de Tregars, "I went to the house where my father's mistress had lived under the name of Mme. Devil. I was in luck. I found there the same concierge as in 1853. As soon as I mentioned Mme. Devil, she answered me that she had not in the least forgotten her, but, on the contrary, would know her among a thousand. She was, she said, one of the prettiest little women she had ever seen, and the most generous tenant. I understood the hint, handed her a couple of napoleons, and heard from her every thing she knew on the subject. It seemed that this pretty Mme. Devil had, not one lover, but two,—the acknowledged one, who was the master, and footed the bills; and the other an anonymous one, who went out through the back-stairs, and who did not pay, on the contrary. The first was called the Marquis de Tregars: of the second, she had never known but the first name, Frederic. I tried to ascertain what had become of Mme. Devil; but the worthy concierge swore to me that she did not know.
"One morning, like a person who is going abroad, or who wishes to cover up her tracks, Mme. Devil had sent for a furniture-dealer, and a dealer in second-hand clothes, and had sold them every thing she had, going away with nothing but a little leather satchel, in which were her jewels and her money."
The Baroness de Thaller still kept a good countenance. After examining her for a moment, with a sort of eager curiosity, Marius de Tregars went on,
"When I communicated this information to my friend, the commissary of police, he shook his head. 'Two years ago,' he told me, 'I would have said, that's more than we want to find those people; for the public records would have given us at once the key of this enigma. But we have had the war and the Commune; and the books of record have been burnt up. Still we must not give up. A last hope remains; and I know the man who is capable of realizing it.'
"Two days after, he brought me an excellent fellow, named Victor Chupin, in whom I could have entire confidence; for he was recommended to me by one of the men whom I like and esteem the most, the Duke de Champdoce. Giving up all idea of applying at the various mayors' offices, Victor Chupin, with the patience and the tenacity of an Indian following a scent, began beating about the districts of Grenelle, Vargirard, and the Invalids. And not in vain; for, after a week of investigations he brought me a nurse, residing Rue de l'Universite, who remembered perfectly having once attended, on the occasion of her confinement, a remarkably pretty young woman, living in the Rue des Bergers, and nicknamed the Marquise de Javelle. And as she was a very orderly woman, who at all times had kept a very exact account of her receipts, she brought me a little book in which I read this entry: 'For attending Euphrasie Taponnet, alias the Marquise de Javelle (a girl), one hundred francs.' And this is not all. This woman informed me, moreover, that she had been requested to present the child at the mayor's office, and that she had been duly registered there under the names of Euphrasie Cesarine Taponnet, born of Euphrasie Taponnet, laundress, and an unknown father. Finally she placed at my disposal her account-book and her testimony."
Taxed beyond measure, the energy of the baroness was beginning to fail her; she was turning livid under her rice-powder. Still in the same icy tone,
"You can understand, madame," said Marius de Tregars, "that this woman's testimony, together with the letters which are in my possession, enables me to establish before the courts the exact date of the birth of a daughter whom my father had of his mistress. But that's nothing yet. With renewed zeal, Victor Chupin had resumed his investigations. He had undertaken the examination of the marriage-registers in all the parishes of Paris, and, as early as the following week, he discovered at Notre Dame des Lorettes the entry of the marriage of Euphrasie Taponnet with Frederic de Thaller."
Though she must have expected that name, the baroness started up violently and livid, and with a haggard look.
"It's false!" she began in a choking voice.
A smile of ironical pity passed over Marius' lips.
"Five minutes' reflection will prove to you that it is useless to deny," he interrupted. "But wait. In the books of that same church, Victor Chupin has found registered the baptism of a daughter of M. and Mme de Thaller, bearing the same names as the first one, —Euphrasie Cesarine."
With a convulsive motion the baroness shrugged her shoulder.
"What does all that prove?" she said.
"That proves, madame, the well-settled intention of substituting one child for another; that proves that my father was imprudently deceived when he was made to believe that the second Cesarine was his daughter, the daughter in whose favor he had formerly disposed of over five hundred thousand francs; that proves that there is somewhere in the world a poor girl who has been basely forsaken by her mother, the Marquise de Javelle, now become the Baroness de Thaller."
Beside herself with terror and anger,
"That is an infamous lie!" exclaimed the baroness. M. de Tregars bowed.
"The evidence of the truth of my statements," he said, "I shall find at Louveciennes, and at the Hotel des Folies, Boulevard du Temple, Paris."
Night had come. A footman came in carrying lamps, which he placed upon the mantelpiece. He was not all together one minute in the little parlor; but that one minute was enough to enable the Marquise de Thaller to recover her coolness, and to collect her ideas. When the footman retired, she had made up her mind, with the resolute promptness of a person accustomed to perilous situations. She gave up the discussion, and, drawing near to M. de Tregars,
"Enough allusions," she said: "let us speak frankly, and face to face now. What do you want?"
But the change was too sudden not to arouse Marius's suspicions.
"I want a great many things," he replied.
"Still you must specify."
"Well, I claim first the five hundred thousand francs which my father had settled upon his daughter,—the daughter whom you cast off."
"And what next?"
"I want besides, my own and my father's fortune, of which we have been robbed by M. de Thaller, with your assistance, madame."
"Is that all, at least?"
M. de Tregars shook his head.
"That's nothing yet," he replied.
"We have now to say something of Vincent Favoral's affairs."
An attorney who is defending the interests of a client is neither calmer nor cooler than Mme. de Thaller at this moment.
"Do the affairs of my husband's cashier concern me, then?" she said with a shade of irony.
"Yes, madame, very much."
"I am glad to hear it."
"I know it from excellent sources, because, on my return from Louveciennes, I called in the Rue du Cirque, where I saw one Zelie Cadelle."
He thought that the baroness would at least start on hearing that name. Not at all. With a look of profound astonishment,
"Rue du Cirque," she repeated, like a person who is making a prodigious effort of memory,—"Rue du Cirque! Zelie Cadelle! Really, I do not understand."
But, from the glance which M. de Tregars cast upon her, she must have understood that she would not easily draw from him the particulars which he had resolved not to tell.
"I believe, on the contrary," he uttered, "that you understand perfectly."
"Be it so, if you insist upon it. What do you ask for Favoral?"
"I demand, not for Favoral, but for the stockholders who have been impudently defrauded, the twelve millions which are missing from the funds of the Mutual Credit."
Mme. de Thaller burst out laughing.
"Only that?" she said.
"Yes, only that!"
"Well, then, it seems to me that you should present your reclamations to M. Favoral himself. You have the right to run after him."