"It is useless, for the reason that it is not he, the poor fool! who has carried off the twelve millions."
"Who is it, then?"
"M. le Baron de Thaller, no doubt."
With that accent of pity which one takes to reply to an absurd proposition,—"You are mad, my poor marquis," said Mme. de Thaller.
"You do not think so."
"But suppose I should refuse to do any thing more?"
He fixed upon her a glance in which she could read an irrevocable determination; and slowly,
"I have a perfect horror of scandal," he replied, "and, as you perceive, I am trying to arrange every thing quietly between us. But, if I do not succeed thus, I must appeal to the courts."
"Where are your proofs?"
"Don't be afraid: I have proofs to sustain all my allegations."
The baroness had stretched herself comfortably in her arm-chair.
"May we know them?" she inquired.
Marius was getting somewhat uneasy in presence of Mme. de Thaller's imperturbable assurance. What hope had she? Could she see some means of escape from a situation apparently so desperate? Determined to prove to her that all was lost, and that she had nothing to do but to surrender,
"Oh! I know, madame," he replied, "that you have taken your precautions. But, when Providence interferes, you see, human foresight does not amount to much. See, rather, what happens in regard to your first daughter,—the one you had when you were still only Marquise de Javelle."
And briefly he called to her mind the principal incidents of Mlle. Lucienne's life from the time that she had left her with the poor gardeners at Louveciennes, without giving either her name or her address,—the injury she had received by being run over by Mme. de Thaller's carriage; the long letter she had written from the hospital, begging for assistance; her visit to the house, and her meeting with the Baron de Thaller; the effort to induce her to emigrate to America; her arrest by means of false information, and her escape, thanks to the kind peace-officer; the attempt upon her as she was going home late one night; and, finally, her imprisonment after the Commune, among the petroleuses, and her release through the interference of the same honest friend.
And, charging her with the responsibility of all these infamous acts, he paused for an answer or a protest.
And, as Mme. de Thaller said nothing,
"You are looking at me, madame, and wondering how I have discovered all that. A single word will explain it all. The peace-officer who saved your daughter is precisely the same to whom it was once my good fortune to render a service. By comparing notes, we have gradually reached the truth,—reached you, madame. Will you acknowledge now that I have more proofs than are necessary to apply to the courts?"
Whether she acknowledged it or not, she did not condescend to discuss.
"What then?" she said coldly.
But M. de Tregars was too much on his guard to expose himself, by continuing to speak thus, to reveal the secret of his designs.
Besides, whilst he was thoroughly satisfied as to the manoeuvres used to defraud his father he had, as yet, but presumptions on what concerned Vincent Favoral.
"Permit me not to say another word, madame," he replied. "I have told you enough to enable you to judge of the value of my weapons."
She must have felt that she could not make him change his mind, for she rose to go.
"That is sufficient," she uttered. "I shall reflect; and to-morrow I shall give you an answer."
She started to go; but M. de Tregars threw himself quickly between her and the door.
"Excuse me," he said; "but it is not to-morrow that I want an answer: it is to-night, this instant!"
Ah, if she could have annihilated him with a look.
"Why, this is violence," she said in a voice which betrayed the incredible effort she was making to control herself.
"It is imposed upon me by circumstances, madame."
"You would be less exacting, if my husband were here."
He must have been within hearing; for suddenly the door opened, and he appeared upon the threshold. There are people for whom the unforeseen does not exist, and whom no event can disconcert. Having ventured every thing, they expect every thing. Such was the Baron de Thaller. With a sagacious glance he examined his wife and M. de Tregars; and in a cordial tone,
"We are quarreling here?" he said.
"I am glad you have come!" exclaimed the baroness.
"What is the matter?"
"The matter is, that M. de Tregars is endeavoring to take an odious advantage of some incidents of our past life."
"There's woman's exaggeration for you!" he said laughing.
And, holding out his hand to Marius,
"Let me make your peace—for you, my dear marquis," he said: "that's within the province of the husband." But, instead of taking his extended hand, M. de Tregars stepped back.
"There is no more peace possible, sir, I am an enemy."
"An enemy!" he repeated in a tone of surprise which was wonderfully well assumed, if it was not real.
"Yes," interrupted the baroness; "and I must speak to you at once, Frederic. Come: M. de Tregars will wait for you."
And she led her husband into the adjoining room, not without first casting upon Marius a look of burning and triumphant hatred.
Left alone, M. de Tregars sat down. Far from annoying him, this sudden intervention of the manager of the Mutual Credit seemed to him a stroke of fortune. It spared him an explanation more painful still than the first, and the unpleasant necessity of having to confound a villain by proving his infamy to him.
"And besides," he thought, "when the husband and the wife have consulted with each other, they will acknowledge that they cannot resist, and that it is best to surrender." The deliberation was brief. In less than ten minutes, M. de Thaller returned alone. He was pale; and his face expressed well the grief of an honest man who discovers too late that he has misplaced his confidence.
"My wife has told me all, sir," he began.
M. de Tregars had risen. "Well?" he asked.
"You see me distressed. Ah, M. le Marquis! how could I ever expect such a thing from you?—you, whom I thought I had the right to look upon as a friend. And it is you, who, when a great misfortune befalls me, attempts to give me the finishing stroke. It is you who would crush me under the weight of slanders gathered in the gutter."
M. de Tregars stopped him with a gesture.
"Mme. de Thaller cannot have correctly repeated my words to you, else you would not utter that word 'slander.'"
"She has repeated them to me without the least change."
"Then she cannot have told you the importance of the proofs I have in my hands."
But the Baron persisted, as Mlle. Cesarine would have said, to "do it up in the tender style."
"There is scarcely a family," he resumed, "in which there is not some one of those painful secrets which they try to withhold from the wickedness of the world. There is one in mine. Yes, it is true, that before our marriage, my wife had had a child, whom poverty had compelled her to abandon. We have since done everything that was humanly possible to find that child, but without success. It is a great misfortune, which has weighed upon our life; but it is not a crime. If, however, you deem it your interest to divulge our secret, and to disgrace a woman, you are free to do so: I cannot prevent you. But I declare it to you, that fact is the only thing real in your accusations. You say that your father has been duped and defrauded. From whom did you get such an idea?
"From Marcolet, doubtless, a man without character, who has become my mortal enemy since the day when he tried a sharp game on me, and came out second best. Or from Costeclar, perhaps, who does not forgive me for having refused him my daughter's hand, and who hates me because I know that he committed forgery once, and that he would be in prison but for your father's extreme indulgence. Well, Costeclar and Marcolet have deceived you. If the Marquis de Tregars ruined himself, it is because he undertook a business that he knew nothing about, and speculated right and left. It does not take long to sink a fortune, even without the assistance of thieves.
"As to pretend that I have benefitted by the embezzlements of my cashier that is simply stupid; and there can be no one to suggest such a thing, except Jottras and Saint Pavin, two scoundrels whom I have had ten times the opportunity to send to prison and who were the accomplices of Favoral. Besides, the matter is in the hands of justice; and I shall prove in the broad daylight of the court-room, as I have already done in the office of the examining judge, that, to save the Mutual Credit, I have sacrificed more than half my private fortune."
Tired of this speech, the evident object of which was to lead him to discuss, and to betray himself,
"Conclude, sir," M. de Tregars interrupted harshly. Still in the same placid tone,
"To conclude is easy enough," replied the baron. "My wife has told me that you were about to marry the daughter of my old cashier,—a very handsome girl, but without a sou. She ought to have a dowry."
"Let us show our hands. I am in a critical position: you know it, and you are trying to take advantage of it. Very well: we can still come to an understanding. What would you say, if I were to give to Mlle. Gilberte the dowry I intended for my daughter?"
All M. de Tregars' blood rushed to his face.
"Ah, not another word!" he exclaimed with a gesture of unprecedented violence. But, controlling himself almost at once,
"I demand," he added, "my father's fortune. I demand that you should restore to the Mutual Credit Company the twelve millions which have been abstracted."
"And if not?"
"Then I shall apply to the courts."
They remained for a moment face to face, looking into each other's eyes. Then,
"What have you decided?" asked M. de Tregars.
Without perhaps, suspecting that his offer was a new insult,
"I will go as far as fifteen hundred thousand francs," replied M. de Thaller, "and I pay cash."
"Is that your last word?"
"If I enter a complaint, with the proofs in my hands, you are lost."
"We'll see about that."
To insist further would have been puerile.
"Very well, we'll see, then," said M. de Tregars. But as he walked out and got into his cab, which had been waiting for him at the door, he could not help wondering what gave the Baron de Thaller so much assurance, and whether he was not mistaken in his conjectures.
It was nearly eight o'clock, and Maxence, Mme. Favoral and Mlle. Gilberte must have been waiting for him with a feverish impatience; but he had eaten nothing since morning, and he stopped in front of one of the restaurants of the Boulevard.
He had just ordered his dinner, when a gentleman of a certain age, but active and vigorous still, of military bearing, wearing a mustache, and a tan-colored ribbon at his buttonhole, came to take a seat at the adjoining table.
In less than fifteen minutes M. de Tregars had despatched a bowl of soup and a slice of beef, and was hastening out, when his foot struck his neighbor's foot, without his being able to understand how it had happened.
Though fully convinced that it was not his fault, he hastened to excuse himself. But the other began to talk angrily, and so loud, that everybody turned around.
Vexed as he was, Marius renewed his apologies.
But the other, like those cowards who think they have found a greater coward than themselves, was pouring forth a torrent of the grossest insults.
M. de Tregars was lifting his hand to administer a well-deserved correction, when suddenly the scene in the grand parlor of the Thaller mansion came back vividly to his mind. He saw again, as in the glass, the ill-looking man listening, with an anxious look, to Mme. de Thaller's propositions, and afterwards sitting down to write.
"That's it!" he exclaimed, a multitude of circumstances occurring to his mind, which had escaped him at the moment.
And, without further reflection, seizing his adversary by the throat, he threw him over on the table, holding him down with his knee.
"I am sure he must have the letter about him," he said to the people who surrounded him.
And in fact he did take from the side-pocket of the villain a letter, which he unfolded, and commenced reading aloud,
"I am waiting for you, my dear major, come quick, for the thing is pressing,—a troublesome gentleman who is to be made to keep quiet. It will be for you the matter of a sword-thrust, and for us the occasion to divide a round amount."
"And, that's why he picked a quarrel with me," added M. de Tregars.
Two waiters had taken hold of the villain, who was struggling furiously, and wanted to surrender him to the police.
"What's the use?" said Marius. "I have his letter: that's enough. The police will find him when they want him."
And, getting back into his cab,
"Rue St. Gilles," he ordered, "and lively, if possible."
In the Rue St. Gilles the hours were dragging, slow and gloomy. After Maxence had left to go and meet M. de Tregars, Mme. Favoral and her daughter had remained alone with M. Chapelain, and had been compelled to bear the brunt of his wrath, and to hear his interminable complaints.
He was certainly an excellent man, that old lawyer, and too just to hold Mlle. Gilberte or her mother responsible for Vincent Favoral's acts. He spoke the truth when he assured them that he had for them a sincere affection, and that they might rely upon his devotion. But he was losing a hundred and sixty thousand francs; and a man who loses such a large sum is naturally in bad humor, and not much disposed to optimism.
The cruellest enemies of the poor women would not have tortured them so mercilessly as this devoted friend.
He spared them not one sad detail of that meeting at the Mutual Credit office, from which he had just come. He exaggerated the proud assurance of the manager, and the confiding simplicity of the stockholders. "That Baron de Thaller," he said to them, "is certainly the most impudent scoundrel and the cleverest rascal I have ever seen. You'll see that he'll get out of it with clean hands and full pockets. Whether or not he has accomplices, Vincent will be the scapegoat. We must make up our mind to that."
His positive intention was to console Mme. Favoral and Gilberte. Had he sworn to drive them to distraction, he could not have succeeded better.
"Poor woman!" he said, "what is to become of you? Maxence is a good and honest fellow, I am sure, but so weak, so thoughtless, so fond of pleasure! He finds it difficult enough to get along by himself. Of what assistance will he be to you?"
Then came advice.
Mme. Favoral, he declared, should not hesitate to ask for a separation, which the tribunal would certainly grant. For want of this precaution, she would remain all her life under the burden of her husband's debts, and constantly exposed to the annoyances of the creditors.
And always he wound up by saying,
"Who could ever have expected such a thing from Vincent,—a friend of twenty years' standing! A hundred and sixty thousand francs! Who in the world can be trusted hereafter?"
Big tears were rolling slowly down Mme. Favoral's withered cheeks. But Mlle. Gilberte was of those for whom the pity of others is the worst misfortune and the most acute suffering.
Twenty times she was on the point of exclaiming,
"Keep your compassion, sir: we are neither so much to be pitied nor so much forsaken as you think. Our misfortune has revealed to us a true friend,—one who does not speak, but acts."
At last, as twelve o'clock struck, M. Chapelain withdrew, announcing that he would return the next day to get the news, and to bring further consolation.
"Thank Heaven, we are alone at last!" said Mlle. Gilberte.
But they had not much peace, for all that.
Great as had been the noise of Vincent Favoral's disaster, it had not reached at once all those who had intrusted their savings to him. All day long, the belated creditors kept coming in; and the scenes of the morning were renewed on a smaller scale. Then legal summonses began to pour in, three or four at a time. Mme. Favoral was losing all courage.
"What disgrace!" she groaned. "Will it always be so hereafter?"
And she exhausted herself in useless conjectures upon the causes of the catastrophe; and such was the disorder of her mind, that she knew not what to hope and what to fear, and that from one minute to another she wished for the most contradictory things.
She would have been glad to hear that her husband was safe out of the country, and yet she would have deemed herself less miserable, had she known that he was hid somewhere in Paris.
And obstinately the same questions returned to her lips,
"Where is he now? What is he doing? What is he thinking about? How can he leave us without news? Is it possible that it is a woman who has driven him into the precipice? And, if so, who is that woman?"
Very different were Mlle. Gilberte's thoughts.
The great calamity that befell her family had brought about the sudden realization of her hopes. Her father's disaster had given her an opportunity to test the man she loved; and she had found him even superior to all that she could have dared to dream. The name of Favoral was forever disgraced; but she was going to be the wife of Marius, Marquise de Tregars.
And, in the candor of her loyal soul, she accused herself of not taking enough interest in her mother's grief, and reproached herself for the quivers of joy which she felt within her.
"Where is Maxence?" asked Mme. Favoral.
"Where is M. de Tregars? Why have they told us nothing of their projects?"
"They will, no doubt, come home to dinner," replied Mlle. Gilberte.
So well was she convinced of this, that she had given orders to the servant to have a somewhat better dinner than usual; and her heart was beating at the thought of being seated near Marius, between her mother and her brother.
At about six o'clock, the bell rang violently.
"There he is!" said the young girl, rising to her feet.
But no: it was only the porter, bringing up a summons ordering Mme. Favoral, under penalty of the law, to appear the next day, at one o'clock precisely, before the examining judge, Barban d'Avranchel, at his office in the Palace of Justice.
The poor woman came near fainting.
"What can this judge want with me? It ought to be forbidden to call a wife to testify against her husband," she said.
"M. de Tregars will tell you what to answer, mamma," said Mlle. Gilberte.
Meantime, seven o'clock came, then eight, and still neither Maxence nor M. de Tregars had come.
Both mother and daughter were becoming anxious, when at last, a little before nine, they heard steps in the hall.
Marius de Tregars appeared almost immediately.
He was pale; and his face bore the trace of the crushing fatigues of the day, of the cares which oppressed him, of the reflections which had been suggested to his mind by the quarrel of which he had nearly been the victim a few moments since.
"Maxence is not here?" he asked at once.
"We have not seen him," answered Mlle. Gilberte.
He seemed so much surprised, that Mme. Favoral was frightened.
"What is the matter again, good God!" she exclaimed.
"Nothing, madame," said M. de Tregars,—"nothing that should alarm you. Compelled, about two hours ago, to part from Maxence, I was to have met him here. Since he has not come, he must have been detained. I know where; and I will ask your permission to run and join him."
He went out; but Mlle. Gilberte followed him in the hall, and, taking his hand,
"How kind of you!" she began, "and how can we ever sufficiently thank you?"
He interrupted her.
"You owe me no thanks, my beloved; for, in what I am doing, there is more selfishness than you think. It is my own cause, more than yours, that I am defending. Any way, every thing is going on well."
And, without giving any more explanations, he started again. He had no doubt that Maxence, after leaving him, had run to the Hotel des Folies to give to Mlle. Lucienne an account of the day's work. And, though somewhat annoyed that he had tarried so long, on second thought, he was not surprised.
It was, therefore, to the Hotel des Folies that he was going. Now that he had unmasked his batteries and begun the struggle, he was not sorry to meet Mlle. Lucienne.
In less than five minutes he had reached the Boulevard du Temple. In front of the Fortins' narrow corridor a dozen idlers were standing, talking.
M. de Tregars was listening as he went along.
"It is a frightful accident," said one,—"such a pretty girl, and so young too!"
"As to me," said another, "it is the driver that I pity the most; for after all, if that pretty miss was in that carriage, it was for her own pleasure; whereas, the poor coachman was only attending to his business."
A confused presentiment oppressed M. de Tregars' heart. Addressing himself to one of those worthy citizens,
"Have you heard any particulars?"
Flattered by the confidence,
"Certainly I have," he replied. "I didn't see the thing with my own proper eyes; but my wife did. It was terrible. The carriage, a magnificent private carriage too, came from the direction of the Madeleine. The horses had run away; and already there had been an accident in the Place du Chateau d'Eau, where an old woman had been knocked down. Suddenly, here, over there, opposite the toy-shop, which is mine, by the way, the wheel of the carriage catches into the wheel of an enormous truck; and at once, palata! the coachman is thrown down, and so is the lady, who was inside,—a very pretty girl, who lives in this hotel."
Leaving there the obliging narrator, M. de Tregars rushed through the narrow corridor of the Hotel des Folies. At the moment when he reached the yard, he found himself in presence of Maxence.
Pale, his head bare, his eyes wild, shaking with a nervous chill, the poor fellow looked like a madman. Noticing M. de Tregars,
"Ah, my friend!" he exclaimed, "what misfortune!"
"Dead, perhaps. The doctor will not answer for her recovery. I am going to the druggist's to get a prescription."
He was interrupted by the commissary of police, whose kind protection had hitherto preserved Mlle. Lucienne. He was coming out of the little room on the ground-floor, which the Fortins used for an office, bedroom, and dining-room.
He had recognized Marius de Tregars, and, coming up to him, he pressed his hand, saying, "Well, you know?"
"It is my fault, M. le Marquis; for we were fully notified. I knew so well that Mlle. Lucienne's existence was threatened, I was so fully expecting a new attempt upon her life, that, whenever she went out riding, it was one of my men, wearing a footman's livery, who took his seat by the side of the coachman. To-day my man was so busy, that I said to myself, 'Bash, for once!' And behold the consequences!"
It was with inexpressible astonishment that Maxence was listening. It was with a profound stupor that he discovered between Marius and the commissary that serious intimacy which is the result of long intercourse, real esteem, and common hopes.
"It is not an accident, then," remarked M. de Tregars.
"The coachman has spoken, doubtless?"
"No: the wretch was killed on the spot."
And, without waiting for another question,
"But don't let us stay here," said the commissary.
"Whilst Maxence runs to the drug-store, let us go into the Fortins' office."
The husband was alone there, the wife being at that moment with Mlle. Lucienne.
"Do me the favor to go and take a walk for about fifteen minutes," said the commissary to him. "We have to talk, this gentleman and myself."
Humbly, without a word, and like a man who does himself justice, M. Fortin slipped off.
And at once,—"It is clear, M. le Marquis, it is manifest, that a crime has been committed. Listen, and judge for yourself. I was just rising from dinner, when I was notified of what was called our poor Lucienne's accident. Without even changing my clothes, I ran. The carriage was lying in the street, broken to pieces. Two policemen were holding the horses, which had been stopped. I inquire. I learn that Lucienne, picked up by Maxence, has been able to drag herself as far as the Hotel des Folies, and that the driver has been taken to the nearest drug-store. Furious at my own negligence, and tormented by vague suspicions, it is to the druggist's that I go first, and in all haste. The driver was in a backroom, stretched on a mattress.
"His head having struck the angle of the curbstone, his skull was broken; and he had just breathed his last. It was, apparently, the annihilation of the hope which I had, of enlightening myself by questioning this man. Nevertheless, I give orders to have him searched. No paper is discovered upon him to establish his identity; but, in one of the pockets of his pantaloons, do you know what they find? Two bank-notes of a thousand francs each, carefully wrapped up in a fragment of newspaper."
M. de Tregars had shuddered.
"What a revelation!" he murmured.
It was not to the present circumstance that he applied that word. But the commissary naturally mistook him.
"Yes," he went on, "it was a revelation. To me these two thousand francs were worth a confession: they could only be the wages of a crime. So, without losing a moment, I jump into a cab, and drive to Brion's. Everybody was upside down, because the horses had just been brought back. I question; and, from the very first words, the correctness of my presumption is demonstrated to me. The wretch who had just died was not one of Brion's coachmen. This is what had happened. At two o'clock, when the carriage ordered by M. Van Klopen was ready to go for Mlle. Lucienne, they had been compelled to send for the driver and the footman, who had forgotten themselves drinking in a neighboring wine-shop, with a man who had called to see them in the morning. They were slightly under the influence of wine, but not enough so to make it imprudent to trust them with horses; and it was even probable that the fresh air would sober them completely. They had then started; but, they had not gone very far, for one of their comrades had seen them stop the carriage in front of a wine-shop, and join there the same individual with whom they had been drinking all the morning."
"And who was no other than the man who was killed?"
"Wait. Having obtained this information, I get some one to take me to the wine-shop; and I ask for the coachman and the footman from Brion's. They were there still; and they are shown to me in a private room, lying on the floor, fast asleep. I try to wake them up, but in vain. I order to water them freely; but a pitcher of water thrown on their faces has no effect, save to make them utter an inarticulate groan. I guess at once what they have taken. I send for a physician, and I call on the wine-merchant for explanations. It is his wife and his barkeeper who answer me. They tell me, that, at about two o'clock, a man came in the shop, who stated that he was employed at Brion's, and who ordered three glasses for himself and two comrades, whom he was expecting.
"A few moments later, a carriage stops at the door; and the driver and the footman leave it to come in. They were in a great hurry, they said, and only wished to take one glass. They do take three, one after another; then they order a bottle. They were evidently forgetting their horses, which they had given to hold to a commissionaire. Soon the man proposes a game. The others accept; and here they are, settled in the back-room, knocking on the table for sealed wine. The game must have lasted at least twenty minutes. At the end of that time, the man who had come in first appeared, looking very much annoyed, saying that it was very unpleasant, that his comrades were dead drunk, that they will miss their work, and that the boss, who is anxious to please his customers, will certainly dismiss them. Although he had taken as much, and more than the rest, he was perfectly steady; and, after reflecting for a moment,—'I have an idea,' he says. 'Friends should help each other, shouldn't they? I am going to take the coachman's livery, and drive in his stead. I happen to know the customer they were going after. She is a very kind old lady, and I'll tell her a story to explain the absence of the footman.'
"Convinced that the man is in Brion's employment, they have no objection to offer to this fine project.
"The brigand puts on the livery of the sleeping coachman, gets up on the box, and starts off, after stating that he will return for his comrades as soon as he has got through the job, and that doubtless they will be sober by that time."
M. de Tregars knew well enough the savoir-faire of the commissary not to be surprised at his promptness in obtaining precise information.
Already he was going on,
"Just as I was closing my examination, the doctor arrived. I show him my drunkards; and at once he recognizes that I have guessed correctly, and that these men have been put asleep by means of one of those narcotics of which certain thieves make use to rob their victims. A potion, which he administers to them by forcing their teeth open with a knife, draws them from this lethargy. They open their eyes, and soon are in condition to reply to my questions. They are furious at the trick that has been played upon them; but they do not know the man. They saw him, they swear to me, for the first time that very morning; and they are ignorant even of his name."
There was no doubt possible after such complete explanations. The commissary had seen correctly, and he proved it.
It was not of a vulgar accident that Mlle. Lucienne had just been the victim, but of a crime laboriously conceived, and executed with unheard-of audacity,—of one of those crimes such as too many are committed, whose combinations, nine times out of ten, set aside even a suspicion, and foil all the efforts of human justice.
M. de Tregars knew now what had taken place, as clearly as if he had himself received the confession of the guilty parties.
A man had been found to execute that perilous programme,—to make the horses run away, and then to run into some heavy wagon. The wretch was staking his life on that game; it being evident that the light carriage must be smashed in a thousand pieces. But he must have relied upon his skill and his presence of mind, to avoid the shock, to jump off safe and sound; whilst Mlle. Lucienne, thrown upon the pavement, would probably be killed on the spot. The event had deceived his expectations, and he had been the victim of his rascality; but his death was a misfortune.
"Because now," resumed the commissary, "the thread is broken in our hands which would infallibly have led us to the truth. Who is it that ordered the crime, and paid for it? We know it, since we know who benefits by the crime. But that is not sufficient. Justice requires something more than moral proofs. Living, this bandit would have spoken. His death insures the impunity of the wretches of whom he was but the instrument."
"Perhaps," said M. Tregars.
And at the same time he took out of his pocket, and showed the note found in Vincent Favoral's pocket-book,—that note, so obscure the day before, now so terribly clear.
"I cannot understand your negligence. You should get through with that Van Klopen affair: there is the danger."
The commissary of police cast but a glance upon it, and, replying to the objections of his old experience rather more than addressing himself to M. de Tregars,
"There can be no doubt about it," he murmured. "It is to the crime committed to-day that these pressing recommendations relate; and, directed as they are to Vincent Favoral, they attest his complicity. It was he who had charge of finishing the Van Klopen affair; in other words, to get rid of Lucienne. It was he, I'd wager my head, who had treated with the false coachman."
He remained for over a minute absorbed in his own thoughts, then,
"But who is the author of these recommendations to Vincent Favoral? Do you know that, M. le Marquis?" he said.
They looked at each other; and the same name rose to their lips,
"The Baroness de Thaller!"
This name, however, they did not utter.
The commissary had placed himself under the gasburner which gave light to the Fortin's office; and, adjusting his glasses, he was scrutinizing the note with the most minute attention, studying the grain and the transparency of the paper, the ink, and the handwriting. And at last,
"This note," he declared, "cannot constitute a proof against its author: I mean an evident, material proof, such as we require to obtain from a judge an order of arrest."
And, as Marius was protesting,
"This note," he insisted, "is written with the left hand, with common ink, on ordinary foolscap paper, such as is found everywhere. Now all left-hand writings look alike. Draw your own conclusions."
But M. de Tregars did not give it up yet.
"Wait a moment," he interrupted.
And briefly, though with the utmost exactness, he began telling his visit to the Thaller mansion, his conversation with Mlle. Cesarine, then with the baroness, and finally with the baron himself.
He described in the most graphic manner the scene which had taken place in the grand parlor between Mme. de Thaller and a worse than suspicious-looking man,—that scene, the secret of which had been revealed to him in its minutest details by the looking-glass. Its meaning was now as clear as day.
This suspicious-looking man had been one of the agents in arranging the intended murder: hence the agitation of the baroness when she had received his card, and her haste to join him. If she had started when he first spoke to her, it was because he was telling her of the successful execution of the crime. If she had afterwards made a gesture of joy, it was because he had just informed her that the coachman had been killed at the same time, and that she found herself thus rid of a dangerous accomplice.
The commissary of police shook his head.
"All this is quite probable," he murmured; "but that's all."
Again M. de Tregars stopped him.
"I have not done yet," he said.
And he went on saying how he had been suddenly and brutally assaulted by an unknown man in a restaurant; how he had collared this abject scoundrel, and taken out of his pocket a crushing letter, which left no doubt as to the nature of his mission.
The commissary's eyes were sparkling,
"That letter!" he exclaimed, "that letter!" And, as soon as he had looked over it,
"Ah! This time," he resumed, "I think that we have something tangible. 'A troublesome gentleman to keep quiet,'—the Marquis de Tregars, of course, who is on the right track. 'It will be for you the matter of a sword-thrust.' Naturally, dead men tell no tales. 'It will be for us the occasion of dividing a round amount.' An honest trade, indeed!"
The good man was rubbing his hand with all his might.
"At last we have a positive fact," he went on,—"a foundation upon which to base our accusations. Don't be uneasy. That letter is going to place into our hands the scoundrel who assaulted you,—who will make known the go-between, who himself will not fail to surrender the Baroness de Thaller. Lucienne shall be avenged. If we could only now lay our hands on Vincent Favoral! But we'll find him yet. I set two fellows after him this afternoon, who have a superior scent, and understand their business."
He was here interrupted by Maxence, who was returning all out of breath, holding in his hand the medicines which he had gone after.
"I thought that druggist would never get through," he said.
And regretting to have remained away so long, feeling uneasy, and anxious to return up stairs,
"Don't you wish to see Lucienne?" he added, addressing himself to M. de Tregars rather more than to the commissary.
For all answer, they followed him at once.
A cheerless-looking place was Mlle. Lucienne's room, without any furniture but a narrow iron bedstead, a dilapidated bureau, four straw-bottomed chairs, and a small table. Over the bed, and at the windows, were white muslin curtains, with an edging that had once been blue, but had become yellow from repeated washings.
Often Maxence had begged his friend to take a more comfortable lodging, and always she had refused.
"We must economize," she would say. "This room does well enough for me; and, besides, I am accustomed to it."
When M. de Tregars and the commissary walked in, the estimable hostess of the Hotel des Folies was kneeling in front of the fire, preparing some medicine.
Hearing the footsteps, she got up, and, with a finger upon her lips,
"Hush!" she said. "Take care not to wake her up!" The precaution was useless.
"I am not asleep," said Mlle. Lucienne in a feeble voice. "Who is there?"
"I," replied Maxence, advancing towards the bed.
It was only necessary to see the poor girl in order to understand Maxence's frightful anxiety. She was whiter than the sheet; and fever, that horrible fever which follows severe wounds, gave to her eyes a sinister lustre.
"But you are not alone," she said again.
"I am with him, my child," replied the commissary. "I come to beg your pardon for having so badly protected you."
She shook her head with a sad and gentle motion.
"It was myself who lacked prudence," she said; "for to-day, while out, I thought I noticed something wrong; but it looked so foolish to be afraid! If it had not happened to-day, it would have happened some other day. The villains who have been pursuing me for years must be satisfied now. They will soon be rid of me."
"Lucienne," said Maxence in a sorrowful tone.
M. de Tregars now stepped forward.
"You shall live, mademoiselle," he uttered in a grave voice. "You shall live to learn to love life."
And, as she was looking at him in surprise,
"You do not know me," he added.
Timidly, and as if doubting the reality,
"You," she said, "the Marquis de Tregars!"
"Yes, mademoiselle, your brother."
Had he had the control of events, Marius de Tregars would probably not have been in such haste to reveal this fact.
But how could he control himself in presence of that bed where a poor girl was, perhaps, about to die, sacrificed to the terrors and to the cravings of the miserable woman who was her mother,—to die at twenty, victim of the basest and most odious of crimes? How could he help feeling an intense pity at the sight of this unfortunate young woman who had endured every thing that a human being can suffer, whose life had been but a long and painful struggle, whose courage had risen above all the woes of adversity, and who had been able to pass without a stain through the mud and mire of Paris.
Besides, Marius was not one of those men who mistrust their first impulse, who manifest their emotion only for a purpose, who reflect and calculate before giving themselves up to the inspirations of their heart.
Lucienne was the daughter of the Marquis de Tregars: of that he was absolutely certain. He knew that the same blood flowed in his veins and in hers; and he told her so.
He told her so, above all, because he believed her in danger; and he wished, were she to die, that she should have, at least, that supreme joy. Poor Lucienne! Never had she dared to dream of such happiness. All her blood rushed to her cheeks; and, in a voice vibrating with the most intense emotion,
"Ah, now, yes," she uttered, "I would like to live."
The commissary of police, also, felt moved.
"Do not be alarmed, my child," he said in his kindest tone. "Before two weeks you will be up. M. de Tregars is a great physician."
In the mean time, she had attempted to raise herself on her pillow; and that simple effort had wrung from her a cry of anguish.
"Dear me! How I do suffer!"
"That's because you won't keep quiet, my darling," said Mme. Fortin in a tone of gentle scolding. "Have you forgotten that the doctor has expressly forbidden you to stir?"
Then taking aside the commissary, Maxence, and M. de Tregars, she explained to them how imprudent it was to disturb Mlle. Lucienne's rest. She was very ill, affirmed the worthy hostess; and her advice was, that they should send for a sick-nurse as soon as possible.
She would have been extremely happy, of course, to spend the night by the side of her dear lodger; but, unfortunately, she could not think of it, the hotel requiring all her time and attention. Fortunately, however, she knew in the neighborhood a widow, a very honest woman, and without her equal in taking care of the sick.
With an anxious and beseeching look, Maxence was consulting M. de Tregars. In his eyes could be read the proposition that was burning upon his lips,
"Shall I not go for Gilberte?"
But that proposition he had no time to express. Though they had been speaking very low, Mlle. Lucienne had heard.
"I have a friend," she said, "who would certainly be willing to sit up with me."
They all went up to her.
"What friend," inquired the commissary of police.
"You know her very well, sir. It is that poor girl who had taken me home with her at Batignolles when I left the hospital, who came to my assistance during the Commune, and whom you helped to get out of the Versailles prisons."
"Do you know what has become of her?"
"Only since yesterday, when I received a letter from her, a very friendly letter. She writes that she has found money to set up a dressmaking establishment, and that she is relying upon me to be her forewoman. She is going to open in the Rue St. Lazare; but, in the mean time, she is stopping in the Rue du Cirque."
M. de Tregars and Maxence had started slightly.
"What is your friend's name?" they inquired at once.
Not being aware of the particulars of the two young men's visit to the Rue du Cirque, the commissary of police could not understand the cause of their agitation.
"I think," he said, "that it would hardly be proper now to send for that girl."
"It is to her alone, on the contrary, that we must resort," interrupted M. de Tregars.
And, as he had good reasons to mistrust Mme. Fortin, he took the commissary outside the room, on the landing; and there, in a few words, he explained to him that this Zelie was precisely the same woman whom they had found in the Rue du Cirque, in that sumptuous mansion where Vincent Favoral, under the simple name of Vincent, had been living, according to the neighbors, in such a princely style.
The commissary of police was astounded. Why had he not known all this sooner? Better late than never, however.
"Ah! you are right, M. le Marquis, a hundred times right!" he declared. "This girl must evidently know Vincent Favoral's secret, the key of the enigma that we are vainly trying to solve. What she would not tell to you, a stranger, she will tell to Lucienne, her friend."
Maxence offered to go himself for Zelie Cadelle.
"No," answered Marius. "If she should happen to know you, she would mistrust you, and would refuse to come."
It was, therefore, M. Fortin who was despatched to the Rue du Cirque, and who went off muttering, though he had received five francs to take a carriage, and five francs for his trouble.
"And now," said the commissary of police to Maxence, "we must both of us get out of the way. I, because the fact of my being a commissary would frighten Mme. Cadelle; you because, being Vincent Favoral's son, your presence would certainly prove embarrassing to her."
And so they went out; but M. de Tregars did not remain long alone with Mlle. Lucienne. M. Fortin had had the delicacy not to tarry on the way.
Eleven o'clock struck as Zelie Cadelle rushed like a whirlwind into her friend's room.
Such had been his haste, that she had given no thought whatever to her dress. She had stuck upon her uncombed hair the first bonnet she had laid her hand upon, and thrown an old shawl over the wrapper in which she had received Marius in the afternoon.
"What, my poor Lucienne!" she exclaimed. "Are you so sick as all that?"
But she stopped short as she recognized M. de Tregars; and, in a suspicious tone,
"What a singular meeting!" she said.
"You know Lucienne?"
What she meant by that he understood perfectly. "Lucienne is my sister, madame," he said coldly.
She shrugged her shoulders. "What humbug!"
"It's the truth," affirmed Mlle. Lucienne; "and you know that I never lie."
Mme. Zelie was dumbfounded.
"If you say so," she muttered. "But no matter: that's queer."
M. de Tregars interrupted her with a gesture,
"And, what's more, it is because Lucienne is my sister that you see her there lying upon that bed. They attempted to murder her to-day!"
"It was her mother who tried to get rid of her, so as to possess herself of the fortune which my father had left her; and there is every reason to believe that the snare was contrived by Vincent Favoral."
Mme. Zelie did not understand very well; but, when Marius and Mlle. Lucienne had informed her of all that it was useful for her to know,
"Why," she exclaimed, "what a horrid rascal that old Vincent must be!"
And, as M. de Tregars remained dumb,
"This afternoon," she went on, "I didn't tell you any stories; but I didn't tell you every thing, either." She stopped; and, after a moment of deliberation,
"Well, I don't care for old Vincent," she said. "Ah! he tried to have Lucienne killed, did he? Well, then, I am going to tell every thing I know. First of all, he wasn't any thing to me. It isn't very flattering; but it is so. He has never kissed so much as the end of my finger. He used to say that he loved me, but that he respected me still more, because I looked so much like a daughter he had lost. Old humbug! And I believed him too! I did, upon my word, at least in the beginning. But I am not such a fool as I look. I found out very soon that he was making fun of me; and that he was only using me as a blind to keep suspicion away from another woman."
"From what woman?"
"Ah! now, I do not know! All I know is that she is married, that he is crazy about her, and that they are to run away together."
"Hasn't he gone, then?"
Mme. Cadelle's face had become somewhat anxious, and for over a minute she seemed to hesitate.
"Do you know," she said at last, "that my answer is going to cost me a lot? They have promised me a pile of money; but I haven't got it yet. And, if I say any thing, good-by! I sha'n't have any thing."
M. de Tregars was opening his lips to tell her that she might rest easy on that score; but she cut him short.
"Well, no," she said: "Old Vincent hasn't gone. He got up a comedy, so he told me, to throw the lady's husband off the track. He sent off a whole lot of baggage by the railroad; but he staid in Paris."
"And do you know where he is hid?"
"In the Rue St. Lazare, of course: in the apartment that I hired two weeks ago."
In a voice trembling with the excitement of almost certain success, "Would you consent to take me there?" asked M. de Tregars.
"Whenever you like,—to-morrow."
As he left Mlle. Lucienne's room,
"There is nothing more to keep me at the Hotel des Folies," said the commissary of police to Maxence. "Every thing possible will be done, and well done, by M. de Tregars. I am going home, therefore; and I am going to take you with me. I have a great deal to do and you'll help me."
That was not exactly true; but he feared, on the part of Maxence, some imprudence which might compromise the success of M. de Tregars' mission.
He was trying to think of every thing to leave as little as possible to chance; like a man who has seen the best combined plans fail for want of a trifling precaution.
Once in the yard, he opened the door of the lodge where the honorable Fortins, man and wife, were deliberating, and exchanging their conjectures, instead of going to bed. For they were wonderfully puzzled by all those events that succeeded each other, and anxious about all these goings and comings.
"I am going home," the commissary said to them; "but, before that, listen to my instructions. You will allow no one, you understand, —no one who is not known to you, to go up to Mlle. Lucienne's room. And remember that I will admit of no excuse, and that you must not come and tell me afterwards, 'It isn't our fault, we can't see everybody that comes in,' and all that sort of nonsense."
He was speaking in that harsh and imperious tone of which police-agents have the secret, when they are addressing people who have, by their conduct, placed themselves under their dependence.
"We are going to close our front-door," replied the estimable hotel-keepers. "We will comply strictly with your orders."
"I trust so; because, if you should disobey me, I should hear it, and the result would be a serious trouble to you. Besides your hotel being unmercifully closed up, you would find yourselves implicated in a very bad piece of business."
The most ardent curiosity could be read in Mme. Fortin's little eyes.
"I understood at once," she began, "that something extraordinary was going on."
But the commissary interrupted her,
"I have not done yet. It may be that to-night or to-morrow some one will call and inquire how Mlle. Lucienne is."
"You will answer that she is as bad as possible; and that she has neither spoken a word, nor recovered her senses, since the accident; and that she will certainly not live through the day."
The effort which Mme. Fortin made to remain silent gave, better than any thing else, an idea of the terror with which the commissary inspired her.
"That is not all," he went on. "As soon as the person in question has started off, you will follow him, without affectation, as far as the street-door, and you will point him out with your finger, here, like that, to one of my agents, who will happen to be on the Boulevard."
"And suppose he should not be there?"
"He shall be there. You can make yourself easy on that score."
The looks of distress which the honorable hotel-keepers were exchanging did not announce a very tranquil conscience.
"In other words, here we are under surveillance," said M. Fortin with a groan. "What have we done to be thus mistrusted?"
To reply to him would have been a task more long than difficult.
"Do as I tell you," insisted the commissary harshly, "and don't mind the rest, and, meantime, good-night."
He was right in trusting implicitly to his agent's punctuality; for, as soon as he came out of the Hotel des Folies, a man passed by him, and without seeming to address him, or even to recognize him, said in a whisper,
"Nothing," he replied, "except that the Fortins are notified. The trap is well set. Keep your eyes open now, and spot any one who comes to ask about Mlle. Lucienne."
And he hurried on, still followed by Maxence, who walked along like a body without soul, tortured by the most frightful anguish.
As he had been away the whole evening, four or five persons were waiting for him at his office on matters of current business. He despatched them in less than no time; after which, addressing himself to an agent on duty,
"This evening," he said, "at about nine o'clock, in a restaurant on the Boulevard, a quarrel took place. A person tried to pick a quarrel with another.
"You will proceed at once to that restaurant; you will get the particulars of what took place; and you will ascertain exactly who this man is, his name, his profession, and his residence."
Like a man accustomed to such errands,
"Can I have a description of him?" inquired the agent.
"Yes. He is a man past middle age, military bearing, heavy mustache, ribbons in his buttonhole."
"Yes, I see: one of your regular fighting fellows."
"Very well. Go then. I shall not retire before your return. Ah, I forgot; find out what they thought to-night on the 'street' about the Mutual Credit affair, and what they said of the arrest of one Saint Pavin, editor of 'The Financial Pilot,' and of a banker named Jottras."
"Can I take a carriage?"
The agent started; and he was not fairly out of the house, when the commissary, opening a door which gave into a small study, called, "Felix!"
It was his secretary, a man of about thirty, blonde, with a gentle and timid countenance, having, with his long coat, somewhat the appearance of a theological student. He appeared immediately.
"You call me, sir?"
"My dear Felix," replied the commissary, "I have seen you, sometimes, imitate very nicely all sorts of hand-writings."
The secretary blushed very much, no doubt on account of Maxence, who was sitting by the side of his employer. He was a very honest fellow; but there are certain little talents of which people do not like to boast; and the talent of imitating the writing of others is of the number, for the reason, that, fatally and at once, it suggests the idea of forgery.
"It was only for fun that I used to do that, sir," he stammered.
"Would you be here if it had been otherwise?" said the commissary. "Only this time it is not for fun, but to do me a favor that I wish you to try again."
And, taking out of his pocket the letter taken by M. de Tregars from the man in the restaurant,
"Examine this writing," he said, "and see whether you feel capable of imitating it tolerably well."
Spreading the letter under the full light of the lamp, the secretary spent at least two minutes examining it with the minute attention of an expert. And at the same time he was muttering,
"Not at all convenient, this. Hard writing to imitate. Not a salient feature, not a characteristic sign! Nothing to strike the eye, or attract attention. It must be some old lawyer's clerk who wrote this."
In spite of his anxiety of mind, the commissary smiled.
"I shouldn't be surprised if you had guessed right."
"At any rate," Felix declared, "I am going to try."
He took a pen, and, after trying a dozen times,
"How is this?" he asked, holding out a sheet of paper.
The commissary carefully compared the original with the copy.
"It is not perfect," he murmured; "but at night, with the imagination excited by a great peril—Besides, we must risk something."
"If I had a few hours to practise!"
"But you have not. Come, take up your pen, and write as well as you can, in that same hand, what I am going to tell you."
And after a moment's thought, he dictated as follows:
"All goes well. T. drawn into a quarrel, is to fight in the morning with swords. But our man, whom I cannot leave, refuses to go ahead, unless he is paid two thousand francs before the duel. I have not the amount. Please hand it to the bearer, who has orders to wait for you."
The commissary, leaning over his secretary's shoulder, was following his hand, and, the last word being written,
"Perfect!" he exclaimed. "Now quick, the address: Mme. la Baronne de Thaller, Rue de le Pepiniere."
There are professions which extinguish, in those who exercise them, all curiosity. It is with the most complete indifference, and without asking a question, that the secretary had done what he had been requested.
"Now, my dear Felix," resumed the commissary, "you will please get yourself up as near as possible like a restaurant-waiter, and take this letter to its address."
"At this hour!"
"Yes. The Baroness de Thaller is out to a ball. You will tell the servants that you are bringing her an answer concerning an important matter. They know nothing about it; but they will allow you to wait for their mistress in the porter's lodge. As soon as she comes in, you will hand her the letter, stating that two gentlemen who are taking supper in your restaurant are waiting for the answer. It may be that she will exclaim that you are a scoundrel, that she does not know what it means: in that case, we shall have been anticipated, and you must get away as fast as you can. But the chances are, that she will give you two thousand francs; and then you must so manage, that she will be seen plainly when she does it. Is it all understood?"
"Go ahead, then, and do not lose a minute. I shall wait."
Away from Mlle. Lucienne, Maxence had gradually been recalled to the strangeness of the situation; and it was with a mingled feeling of curiosity and surprise that he observed the commissary acting and bustling about.
The good man had found again all the activity of his youth, together with that fever of hope and that impatience of success, which usually disappear with age.
He was going over the whole of the case again,—his first meeting with Mlle. Lucienne, the various attempts upon her life; and he had just taken out of the file the letter of information which had been intrusted to him, in order to compare the writing with that of the letter taken from his adversary by M. de Tregars, when the latter came in all out of breath.
"Zelie has spoken!" he said.
And, at once addressing Maxence,
"You, my dear friend," he resumed, "you must run to the Hotel des Folies."
"Is Lucienne worse?"
"No. Lucienne is getting on well enough. Zelie has spoken; but there is no certainty, that, after due reflection, she will not repent, and go and give the alarm. You will return, therefore, and you will not lose sight of her until I call for her in the morning. If she wishes to go out, you must prevent her."
The commissary had understood the importance of the precaution.
"You must prevent her," he added, "even by force; and I authorize you, if need be, to call upon the agent whom I have placed on duty, watching the Hotel des Folies, and to whom I am going to send word immediately."
Maxence started off on a run.
"Poor fellow!" murmured Marius, "I know where your father is. What are we going to learn now?"
He had scarcely had time to communicate the information he had received from Mme. Cadelle, when the first of the commissary's emissaries made his appearance.
"The commission is done," he said, in that confident tone of a man who thinks he has successfully accomplished a difficult task.
"You know the name of the individual who sought a quarrel with M. de Tregars?"
"His name is Corvi. He is well known in all the tables d'hote, where there are women, and where they deal a healthy little game after dinner. I know him well too. He is a bad fellow, who passes himself off for a former superior officer in the Italian army."
"He lives at Rue de la Michodiere, in a furnished house. I went there. The porter told me that my man had just gone out with an ill-looking individual, and that they must be in a little cafe on the corner of the next street. I ran there, and found my two fellows drinking beer."
"Won't they give us the slip?"
"No danger of that: I have got them fixed."
"How is that?"
"It is an idea of mine. I just thought, 'Suppose they put off?' And at once I went to notify some policemen, and I returned to station myself near the cafe. It was just closing up. My two fellows came out: I picked a quarrel with them; and now they are in the station-house, well recommended."
The commissary knit his brows.
"That's almost too much zeal," he murmured. "Well, what's done is done. Did you make any inquiries about the Saint Pavin and Jottras matter?"
"I had no time, it was too late. You forget, perhaps, sir, that it is nearly two o'clock."
Just as he got through, the secretary who had been sent to the Rue de la Pepiniere came in.
"Well?" inquired the commissary, not without evident anxiety.
"I waited for Mme. de Thaller over an hour," he said. "When she came home, I gave her the letter. She read it; and, in presence of a number of her servants, she handed me these two thousand francs."
At the sight of the bank notes, the commissary jumped to his feet.
"Now we have it!" he exclaimed. "Here is the proof that we wanted."
It was after four o'clock when M. de Tregars was at last permitted to return home. He had minutely, and at length, arranged every thing with the commissary: he had endeavored to anticipate every eventuality. His line of conduct was perfectly well marked out, and he carried with him the certainty that on the day which was about to dawn the strange game that he was playing must be finally won or lost. When he reached home,
"At last, here you are, sir!" exclaimed his faithful servant.
It was doubtless anxiety that had kept up the old man all night; but so absorbed was Marius's mind, that he scarcely noticed the fact.
"Did any one call in my absence?" he asked.
"Yes, sir. A gentleman called during the evening, M. Costeclar, who appeared very much vexed not to find you in. He stated that he came on a very important matter that you would know all about: and he requested me to ask you to wait for him to-morrow, that is to-day, by twelve o'clock."
Was M. Costeclar sent by M. de Thaller? Had the manager of the Mutual Credit changed his mind? and had he decided to accept the conditions which he had at first rejected? In that case, it was too late. It was no longer in the power of any human being to suspend the action of justice. Without giving any further thought to that visit,
"I am worn out with fatigue," said M. de Tregars, "and I am going to lie down. At eight o'clock precisely you will call me."
But it was in vain that he tried to find a short respite in sleep. For forty-eight hours his mind had been taxed beyond measure, his nerves had been wrought up to an almost intolerable degree of exaltation.
As soon as he closed his eyes, it was with a merciless precision that his imagination presented to him all the events which had taken place since that afternoon in the Place-Royale when he had ventured to declare his love to Mlle. Gilberte. Who could have told him then, that he would engage in that struggle, the issue of which must certainly be some abominable scandal in which his name would be mixed? Who could have told him, that gradually, and by the very force of circumstances, he would be led to overcome his repugnance, and to rival the ruses and the tortuous combinations of the wretches he was trying to reach?
But he was not of those who, once engaged, regret, hesitate, and draw back. His conscience reproached him for nothing. It was for justice and right that he was battling; and Mlle. Gilberte was the prize that would reward him.
Eight o'clock struck; and his servant came in.
"Run for a cab," he said: "I'll be ready in a moment."
He was ready, in fact, when the old servant returned; and, as he had in his pocket some of those arguments that lend wings to the poorest cab-horses, in less than ten minutes he had reached the Hotel des Folies.
"How is Mlle. Lucienne?" he inquired first of all of the worthy hostess.
The intervention of the commissary of police had made M. Fortin and his wife more supple than gloves, and more gentle than doves.
"The poor dear child is much better," answered Mme. Fortin; "and the doctor, who has just left, now feels sure of her recovery. But there is a row up there."
"Yes. That lady whom my husband went after last night insists upon going out; and M. Maxence won't let her: so that they are quarreling up there. Just listen."
The loud noise of a violent altercation could be heard distinctly. M. de Tregars started up stairs, and on the second-story landing he found Maxence holding on obstinately to the railing, whilst Mme. Zelie Cadelle, redder than a peony, was trying to induce him to let her pass, treating him at the same time to some of the choicest epithets of her well-stocked repertory. Catching sight of Marius,
"Is it you," she cried, "who gave orders to keep me here against my wishes? By what right? Am I your prisoner?"
To irritate her would have been imprudent.
"Why did you wish to leave," said M. de Tregars gently, "at the very moment when you knew that I was to call for you?"
But she interrupted him, and, shrugging her shoulders,
"Why don't you tell the truth?" she said. "You were afraid to trust me."
"You are wrong! What I promise to do I do. I only wanted to go home to dress. Can I go in the street in this costume?"
And she was spreading out her wrapper, all faded and stained.
"I have a carriage below," said Marius. "No one will see us."
Doubtless she understood that it was useless to hesitate.
"As you please," she said.
M. de Tregars took Maxence aside, and in a hurried whisper,
"You must," said he, "go at once to the Rue St. Gilles, and in my name request your sister to accompany you. You will take a closed carriage, and you'll go and wait in the Rue St. Lazare, opposite No. 25. It may be that Mlle. Gilberte's assistance will become indispensable to me. And, as Lucienne must not be left alone, you will request Mme. Fortin to go and stay with her."
And, without waiting for an answer,
"Let us go," he said to Mme. Cadelle.
They started but the young woman was far from being in her usual spirits. It was clear that she was regretting bitterly having gone so far, and not having been able to get away at the last moment. As the carriage went on, she became paler and a frown appeared upon her face.
"No matter," she began: "it's a nasty thing I am doing there."
"Do you repent then, assisting me to punish your friend's assassins?" said M. de Tregars.
She shook her head.
"I know very well that old Vincent is a scoundrel," she said; "but he had trusted me, and I am betraying him."
"You are mistaken, madame. To furnish me the means of speaking to M. Favoral is not to betray him; and I shall do every thing in my power to enable him to escape the police, and make his way abroad."
"What a joke!"
"It is the exact truth: I give you my word of honor." She seemed to feel easier; and, when the carriage turned into the Rue St. Lazare, "Let us stop a moment," she said.
"So that I can buy old Vincent's breakfast. He can't go out to eat, of course; and so I have to take all his meals to him."
Marius's mistrust was far from being dissipated; and yet he did not think it prudent to refuse, promising himself, however, not to lose sight of Mme. Zelie. He followed her, therefore, to the baker's and the butcher's; and when she had done her marketing, he entered with her the house of modest appearance where she had her apartment.
They were already going up stairs, when the porter ran out of his lodge.
"Madame!" he said, "madame!"
Mme. Cadelle stopped.
"What is the matter?"
"A letter for you."
"Here it is. A lady brought it less than five minutes ago. Really, she looked annoyed not to find you in. But she is going to come back. She knew you were to be here this morning."
M. de Tregars had also stopped.
"What kind of a looking person was this lady?" he asked.
"Dressed all in black, with a thick veil on her face."
"All right. I thank you."
The porter returned to his lodge. Mme. Zelie broke the seal. The first envelope contained another, upon which she spelt, for she did not read very fluently, "To be handed to M. Vincent."
"Some one knows that he is hiding here," she said in a tone of utter surprise. "Who can it be?"
"Who? Why, the woman whose reputation M. Favoral was so anxious to spare when he put you in the Rue du Cirque house."
There was nothing that irritated the young woman so much as this idea.
"You are right," she said. "What a fool he made of me; the old rascal! But never mind. I am going to pay him for it now."
Nevertheless when she reached her story, the third, and at the moment of slipping the key into the keyhole, she again seemed perplexed.
"If some misfortune should happen," she sighed.
"What are you afraid of?"
"Old Vincent has got all sorts of arms in there. He has sworn to me that the first person who forced his way into the apartments, he would kill him like a dog. Suppose he should fire at us?"
She was afraid, terribly afraid: she was livid, and her teeth chattered.
"Let me go first," suggested M. de Tregars.
"No. Only, if you were a good fellow, you would do what I am going to ask you. Say, will you?"
"If it can be done."
"Oh, certainly! Here is the thing. We'll go in together; but you must not make any noise. There is a large closet with glass doors, from which every thing can be heard and seen that goes on in the large room. You'll get in there. I'll go ahead, and draw out old Vincent into the parlor and at the right moment, v'lan! you appear."
It was after all, quite reasonable.
"Agreed!" said Marius.
"Then," she said, "every thing will go on right. The entrance of the closet with the glass doors is on the right as you go in. Come along now, and walk easy."
And she opened the door.
The apartment was exactly as described by Mme. Cadelle. In the dark and narrow ante-chamber, three doors opened,—on the left, that of the dining-room; in the centre, that of a parlor and bedroom which communicated; on the right, that of the closet. M. de Tregars slipped in noiselessly through the latter, and at once recognized that Mme. Zelie had not deceived him, and that he would see and hear every thing that went on in the parlor. He saw the young woman walk into it. She laid her provisions down upon the table, and called,
The former cashier of the Mutual Credit appeared at once, coming out of the bedroom.
He was so changed, that his wife and children would have hesitated in recognizing him. He had cut off his beard, pulled out almost the whole of his thick eye-brows, and covered his rough and straight hair under a brown curly wig. He wore patent-leather boots, wide pantaloons, and one of those short jackets of rough material, and with broad sleeves which French elegance has borrowed from English stable-boys. He tried to appear calm, careless, and playful; but the contraction of his lips betrayed a horrible anguish, and his look had the strange mobility of the wild beasts' eye, when, almost at bay, they stop for a moment, listening to the barking of the hounds.
"I was beginning to fear that you would disappoint me," he said to Mme. Zelie.
"It took me some time to buy your breakfast."
"And is that all that kept you?"
"The porter detained me too, to hand me a letter, in which I found one for you. Here it is."
"A letter!" exclaimed Vincent Favoral.
And, snatching it from her, he tore off the envelope. But he had scarcely looked over it, when he crushed it in his hand, exclaiming,
"It is monstrous! It is a mean, infamous treason!" He was interrupted by a violent ringing of the door-bell.
"Who can it be?" stammered Mme. Cadelle.
"I know who it is," replied the former cashier. "Open, open quick."
She obeyed; and almost at once a woman walked into the parlor, wearing a cheap, black woolen dress. With a sudden gesture, she threw off her veil; and M. de Tregars recognized the Baroness de Thaller.
"Leave us!" she said to Mme. Zelie, in a tone which one would hardly dare to assume towards a bar-maid.
The other felt indignant.
"What, what!" she began. "I am in my own house here."
"Leave us!" repeated M. Favoral with a threatening gesture. "Go, go!"
She went out but only to take refuge by the side of M. de Tregars.
"You hear how they treat me," she said in a hoarse voice.
He made no answer. All his attention was centred upon the parlor. The Baroness de Thaller and the former cashier were standing opposite each other, like two adversaries about to fight a duel.
"I have just read your letter," began Vincent Favoral.
Coldly the baroness said, "Ah!"
"It is a joke, I suppose."
"Not at all."
"You refuse to go with me?"
"And yet it was all agreed upon. I have acted wholly under your urgent, pressing advice. How many times have you repeated to me that to live with your husband had become an intolerable torment to you! How many times have you sworn to me that you wished to be mine alone, begging me to procure a large sum of money, and to fly with you!"
"I was in earnest at the time. I have discovered, at the last moment, that it would be impossible for me thus to abandon my country, my daughter, my friends."
"We can take Cesarine with us."
"Do not insist."
He was looking at her with a stupid, gloomy gaze.
"Then," he stammered, "those tears, those prayers, those oaths!"
"I have reflected."
"It is not possible! If you spoke the truth, you would not be here."
"I am here to make you understand that we must give up projects which cannot be realized. There are some social conventionalities which cannot be torn up." As if he scarcely understood what she said, he repeated,
And suddenly falling at Mme. de Thaller's feet, his head thrown back, and his hands clasped together,
"You lie!" he said. "Confess that you lie, and that it is a final trial which you are imposing upon me. Or else have you, then, never loved me? That's impossible! I would not believe you if you were to say so. A woman who does not love a man cannot be to him what you have been to me: she does not give herself up thus so joyously and so completely. Have you, then, forgotten every thing? Is it possible that you do not remember those divine evenings in the Rue de Cirque?—those nights, the mere thought of which fires my brain, and consumes my blood."
He was horrible to look at, horrible and ridiculous at the same time. As he wished to take Mme. de Thaller's hands, she stepped back, and he followed her, dragging himself on his knees.
"Where could you find," he continued, "a man to worship you like me, with an ardent, absolute, blind, mad passion? With what can you reproach me? Have I not sacrificed to you without a murmur every thing that a man can sacrifice here below,—fortune, family, honor, —to supply your extravagance, to anticipate your slightest fancies, to give you gold to scatter by the handful? Did I not leave my own family struggling with poverty? I would have snatched bread from my children's mouths in order to purchase roses to scatter under your footsteps. And for years did ever a word from me betray the secret of our love? What have I not endured? You deceived me. I knew it, and I said nothing. Upon a word from you I stepped aside before him whom your caprice made happy for a day. You told me, 'Steal!' and I stole. You told me, 'Kill!' and I tried to kill."
"Fly. A man who has twelve hundred thousand francs in gold, bank-notes, and good securities, can always get along."
"And my wife and children?"
"Maxence is old enough to help his mother. Gilberte will find a husband: depend upon it. Besides, what's to prevent you from sending them money?"
"They would refuse it."
"You will always be a fool, my dear!"
To Vincent Favoral's first stupor and miserable weakness now succeeded a terrible passion. All the blood had left his face: his eyes was flashing.
"Then," he resumed, "all is really over?"
"Then I have been duped like the rest,—like that poor Marquis de Tregars, whom you had made mad also. But he, at least saved his honor; whereas I—And I have no excuse; for I should have known. I knew that you were but the bait which the Baron de Thaller held out to his victims."
He waited for an answer; but she maintained a contemptuous silence.
"Then you think," he said with a threatening laugh, "that it will all end that way?"
"What can you do?"
"There is such a thing as justice, I imagine, and judges too. I can give myself up, and reveal every thing."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"That would be throwing yourself into the wolf's mouth for nothing," she said. "You know better than any one else that my precautions are well enough taken to defy any thing you can do or say. I have nothing to fear."
"Are you quite sure of that?"
"Trust to me," she said with a smile of perfect security.
The former cashier of the Mutual Credit made a terrible gesture; but, checking himself at once, he seized one of the baroness's hands. She withdrew it quickly, however, and, in an accent of insurmountable disgust,
"Enough, enough!" she said.
In the adjoining closet Marius de Tregars could feel Mme. Zelie Cadelle shuddering by his side.
"What a wretch that woman is!" she murmured; "and he—what a base coward!"
The former cashier remained prostrated, striking the floor with his head.
"And you would forsake me," he groaned, "when we are united by a past such as ours! How could you replace me? Where would you find a slave so devoted to your every wish?"
The baroness was getting impatient.
"Stop!" she interrupted,—"stop these demonstrations as useless as ridiculous."
This time he did start up, as if lashed with a whip and, double locking the door which communicated with the ante-chamber, he put the key in his pocket; and, with a step as stiff and mechanical as that of an automaton, he disappeared in the sleeping-room.
"He is going for a weapon," whispered Mme. Cadelle.
It was also what Marius thought.
"Run down quick," he said to Mme. Zelie. "In a cab standing opposite No. 25, you will find Mlle. Gilberte Favoral waiting. Let her come at once."
And, rushing into the parlor,
"Fly!" he said to Mme. Thaller.
But she was as petrified by this apparition.
"M. de Tregars!"
"Yes, yes, me. But hurry and go!"
And he pushed her into the closet.
It was but time. Vincent Favoral reappeared upon the threshold of the bedroom. But, if it was a weapon he had gone for, it was not for the one which Marius and Mme. Cadelle supposed. It was a bundle of papers which he held in his hand. Seeing M. de Tregars there, instead of Mme. de Thaller, an exclamation of terror and surprise rose to his lips. He understood vaguely what must have taken place; that the man who stood there must have been concealed in the glass closet, and that he had assisted the baroness to escape.
"Ah, the miserable wretch!" he stammered with a tongue made thick by passion, "the infamous wretch! She has betrayed me; she has surrendered me. I am lost!"
Mastering the most terrible emotion he had ever felt,
"No, no! you shall not be surrendered," uttered M. de Tregars.
Collecting all the energy that the devouring passion which had blasted his existence had left him, the former cashier of the Mutual Credit took one or two steps forward.
"Who are you, then?" he asked.
"Do you not know me? I am the son of that unfortunate Marquis de Tregars of whom you spoke a moment since. I am Lucienne's brother."
Like a man who has received a stunning blow, Vincent Favoral sank heavily upon a chair.
"He knows all," he groaned.
"You must hate me mortally."
"I pity you."
The old cashier had reached that point when all the faculties, after being strained to their utmost limits, suddenly break down, when the strongest man gives up, and weeps like a child.
"Ah, I am the most wretched of villains!" he exclaimed.
He had hid his face in his hands; and in one second,—as it happens, they say, to the dying on the threshold of eternity,—he reviewed his entire existence.
"And yet," he said, "I had not the soul of a villain. I wanted to get rich; but honestly, by labor, and by rigid economy. And I should have succeeded. I had a hundred and fifty thousand francs of my own when I met the Baron de Thaller. Alas! why did I meet him? 'Twas he who first gave me to understand that it was stupid to work and save, when, at the bourse, with moderate luck, one might become a millionaire in six months."
He stopped, shook his head, and suddenly,
"Do you know the Baron de Thaller?" he asked. And, without giving Marius time to answer,
"He is a German," he went on, "a Prussian. His father was a cab-driver in Berlin, and his mother waiting-maid in a brewery. At the age of eighteen, he was compelled to leave his country, owing to some petty swindle, and came to take up his residence in Paris. He found employment in the office of a stock-broker, and was living very poorly, when he made the acquaintance of a young laundress named Affrays, who had for a lover a very wealthy gentleman, the Marquis de Tregars, whose weakness was to pass himself off for a poor clerk. Affrays and Thaller were well calculated to agree. They did agree, and formed an association,—she contributing her beauty; he, his genius for intrigue; both, their corruption and their vices. Soon after they met, she gave birth to a child, a daughter; whom she intrusted to some poor gardeners at Louveciennes, with the firm and settled intention to leave her there forever. And yet it was upon this daughter, whom they firmly hoped never to see again, that the two accomplices were building their fortune.
"It was in the name of that daughter that Affrays wrung considerable sums from the Marquis de Tregars. As soon as Thaller and she found themselves in possession of six hundred thousand francs, they dismissed the marquis, and got married. Already, at that time, Thaller had taken the title of baron, and lived in some style. But his first speculations were not successful. The revolution of 1848 finished his ruin, and he was about being expelled from the bourse, when he found me on his way,—I, poor fool, who was going about everywhere, asking how I could advantageously invest my hundred and fifty thousand francs."
He was speaking in a hoarse voice, shaking his clinched fist in the air, doubtless at the Baron de Thaller.
"Unfortunately," he resumed, "it was only much later that I discovered all this. At the moment, M. de Thaller dazzled me. His friends, Saint Pavin and the bankers Jottras, proclaimed him the smartest and the most honest man in France. Still I would not have given my money, if it had not been for the baroness. The first time that I was introduced to her, and that she fixed upon me her great black eyes, I felt myself moved to the deepest recesses of my soul. In order to see her again, I invited her, together with her husband and her husband's friends, to dine with me, by the side of my wife and children. She came. Her husband made me sign every thing he pleased; but, as she went off, she pressed my hand."
He was still shuddering at the recollection of it, the poor fellow!
"The next day," he went on, "I handed to Thaller all I had in the world; and, in exchange, he gave me the position of cashier in the Mutual Credit, which he had just founded. He treated me like an inferior, and did not admit me to visit his family. But I didn't care: the baroness had permitted me to see her again, and almost every afternoon I met her at the Tuileries; and I had made bold to tell her that I loved her to desperation. At last, one evening, she consented to make an appointment with me for the second following day, in an apartment which I had rented.
"The day before I was to meet her, and whilst I was beside myself with joy, the Baron de Thaller requested me to assist him, by means of certain irregular entries, to conceal a deficit arising from unsuccessful speculations. How could I refuse a man, whom, as I thought, I was about to deceive grossly! I did as he wished. The next day Mme. de Thaller became my mistress; and I was a lost man."
Was he trying to exculpate himself? Was he merely yielding to that imperious sentiment, more powerful than the will or the reason, which impels the criminal to reveal the secret which oppresses him?
"From that day," he went on, "began for me the torment of that double existence which I underwent for years. I had given to my mistress all I had in the world; and she was insatiable. She wanted money always, any way, and in heaps. She made me buy the house in the Rue du Cirque for our meetings; and, between the demands of the husband and those of the wife, I was almost insane. I drew from the funds of the Mutual Credit as from an inexhaustible mine; and, as I foresaw that some day must come when all would be discovered, I always carried about me a loaded revolver, with which to blow out my brains when they came to arrest me."
And he showed to Marius the handle of a revolver protruding from his pocket.
"And if only she had been faithful to me!" he continued, becoming more and more animated. "But what have I not endured! When the Marquis de Tregars returned to Paris, and they set about defrauding him of his fortune, she did not hesitate a moment to become his mistress again. She used to tell me, 'What a fool you are! all I want is his money. I love no one but you.' But after his death she took others. She made use of our house in the Rue du Cirque for purposes of dissipation for herself and her daughter Cesarine. And I—miserable coward that I was!—I suffered all, so much did I tremble to lose her, so much did I fear to be weaned from the semblance of love with which she paid my fearful sacrifices. And now she would betray me, forsake me! For every thing that has taken place was suggested by her in order to procure a sum wherewith to fly to America. It was she who imagined the wretched comedy which I played, so as to throw upon myself the whole responsibility. M. de Thaller has had millions for his share: I have only had twelve hundred thousand francs."
Violent nervous shudders shook his frame: his face became purple. He drew himself up, and, brandishing the letters which he held in his hand,
"But all is not over!" he exclaimed. "There are proofs which neither the baron nor his wife know that I have. I have the proof of the infamous swindle of which the Marquis de Tregars was the victim. I have the proof of the farce got up by M. de Thaller and myself to defraud the stockholders of the Mutual Credit!"
"What do you hope for?"
He was laughing a stupid laugh.
"I? I shall go and hide myself in some suburb of Paris, and write to Affrays to come. She knows that I have twelve hundred thousand francs. She will come; and she will keep coming as long as I have any money. And when I have no more:—"
He stopped short, starting back, his arms outstretched as if to repel a terrifying apparition. Mlle. Gilberte had just appeared at the door.
"My daughter!" stammered the wretch. "Gilberte!"
"The Marquise de Tregars," uttered Marius.
An inexpressible look of terror and anguish convulsed the features of Vincent Favoral: he guessed that it was the end.
"What do you want with me?" he stammered.
"The money that you have stolen, father," replied the girl in an inexorable tone of voice,—"the twelve hundred thousand francs which you have here, then the proofs which are in your hands, and, finally your weapons."
He was trembling from head to foot.
"Take away my money!" he said. "Why, that would be compelling me to give myself up! Do you wish to see me in prison?"
"The disgrace would fall back upon your children, sir," said M. de Tregars. "We shall, on the contrary, do every thing in the world to enable you to evade the pursuit of the police."
"Well, yes, then. But to-morrow I must write to Affrays: I must see her!"
"You have lost your mind, father," said Mlle. Gilberte. "Come, do as I ask you."
He drew himself up to his full height.
"And suppose I refuse?"