Baron Trigault's Vengeance by Emile Gaboriau
Having almost reached the goal, Chupin slackened his pace. He approached the shop very cautiously and peered inside, deeming it prudent to reconnoitre a little before he went in. And certainly there was nothing to prevent a prolonged scrutiny. The night was very dark, the quay deserted. No one was to be seen; not a sound broke the stillness. The darkness, the surroundings, and the silence were sinister enough to make even Chupin shudder, though he was usually as thoroughly at home in the loneliest and most dangerous by-ways of Paris as an honest man of the middle classes would be in the different apartments of his modest household. "That scoundrel's wife must have less than a hundred thousand a year if she takes up her abode here!" thought Chupin.
And, in fact, nothing could be more repulsive than the tenement in which Madame Paul had installed herself. It was but one story high, and built of clay, and it had fallen to ruin to such an extent that it had been found necessary to prop it up with timber, and to nail some old boards over the yawning fissures in the walls. "If I lived here, I certainly shouldn't feel quite at ease on a windy day," continued Chupin, sotto voce.
The shop itself was of a fair size, but most wretched in its appointments, and disgustingly dirty. The floor was covered with that black and glutinous coal-dust which forms the soil of the Quai de la Seine. An auctioneer would have sold the entire stock and fixtures for a few shillings. Four stone jars, and a couple of pairs of scales, a few odd tumblers, filled with pipes and packets of cigarettes, some wine-glasses, and three or four labelled bottles, five or six boxes of cigars, and as many packages of musty tobacco, constituted the entire stock in trade.
As Chupin compared this vile den with the viscount's luxurious abode, his blood fairly boiled in his veins. "He ought to be shot for this, if for nothing else," he muttered through his set teeth. "To let his wife die of starvation here!" For it was M. de Coralth's wife who kept this shop. Chupin, who had seen her years before, recognized her now as she sat behind her counter, although she was cruelly changed. "That's her," he murmured. "That's certainly Mademoiselle Flavie."
He had used her maiden name in speaking of her. Poor woman! She was undoubtedly still young--but sorrow, regret, and privations, days spent in hard work to earn a miserable subsistence, and nights spent in weeping, had made her old, haggard, and wrinkled before her time. Of her once remarkable beauty naught remained but her hair, which was still magnificent, though it was in wild disorder, and looked as if it had not been touched by a comb for weeks; and her big black eyes, which gleamed with the phosphorescent and destructive brilliancy of fever. Everything about her person bespoke terrible reverses, borne without dignity. Even if she had struggled at first, it was easy to see that she struggled no longer. Her attire--her torn and soiled silk dress, and her dirty cap--revealed thorough indolence, and that morbid indifference which at times follows great misfortunes with weak natures.
"Such is life," thought Chupin, philosophically. "Here's a girl who was brought up like a queen and allowed to have her own way in everything! If any one had predicted this in those days, how she would have sneered! I can see her now as she looked that day when I met her driving her gray ponies. If people didn't clear the road it was so much the worse for them! In those times Paris was like some great shop where she could select whatever she chose. She said: 'I want this,' and she got it. She saw a handsome young fellow and wanted him for her husband; her father, who could refuse her nothing, consented, and now behold the result!"
He had lingered longer at the window than he had meant to do, perhaps because he could see that the young woman was talking with some person in a back room, the door of which stood open. Chupin tried to find out who this person was, but he did not succeed; and he was about to go in when suddenly he saw Madame Paul rise from her seat and say a few words with an air of displeasure. And this time her eyes, instead of turning to the open door, were fixed on a part of the shop directly opposite her. "Is there some one there as well, then?" Chupin wondered.
He changed his post of observation, and, by standing on tiptoe, he succeeded in distinguishing a puny little boy, some three or four years old, and clad in rags, who was playing with the remnants of a toy-horse. The sight of this child increased Chupin's indignation. "So there's a child?" he growled. "The rascal not only deserts his wife, but he leaves his child to starve! We may as well make a note of that: and when we settle up our accounts, he shall pay dearly for his villainy." With this threat he brusquely entered the shop.
"What do you wish, sir?" asked the woman.
"Nothing; I bring you a letter, madame."
"A letter for me! You must be mistaken."
"Excuse me; aren't you Madame Paul?"
"Then this is for you." And he handed her the missive which Florent had confided to his care.
Madame Paul took hold of it with some hesitation, eying the messenger suspiciously meanwhile; but, on seeing the handwriting, she uttered a cry of surprise. And, turning toward the open door, she called, "M. Mouchon! M. Mouchon! It's from him--it's from my husband; from Paul. Come, come!"
A bald-headed, corpulent man, who looked some fifty years of age, now timidly emerged from the room behind the shop with a cap in his hand. "Ah, well! my dear child," he said, in an oily voice, "what was I telling you just now? Everything comes to those who know how to wait."
However she had already broken the seal, and she was now reading the letter eagerly, clapping her hands with delight as she finished its perusal. "He consents!" she exclaimed. "He's frightened--he begs me to wait a little--look--read!"
But M. Mouchon could not read without his spectacles, and he lost at least two minutes in searching his pockets before he found them. And when they were adjusted, the light was so dim that it took him at least three minutes more to decipher the missive. Chupin had spent this time in scrutinizing--in appraising the man, as it were. "What is this venerable gentleman doing here?" he thought. "He's a middle class man, that's evident from his linen. He's married--there's a wedding-ring on his finger; he has a daughter, for the ends of his necktie are embroidered. He lives in the neighborhood, for, well dressed as he is, he wears a cap. But what was he doing there in that back room in the dark?"
Meanwhile M. Mouchon had finished reading the letter. "What did I tell you?" he said complacently.
"Yes, you were right!" answered Madame Paul as she took up the letter and read it again with her eyes sparkling with joy. "And now what shall I do?" she asked. "Wait, shall I not?"
"No, no!" exclaimed the elderly gentleman, in evident dismay. "You must strike the iron while it's hot."
"But he promises me----"
"To promise and to keep one's promises are two different things."
"He wants a reply."
"Tell him----" But he stopped short, calling her attention with a gesture to the messenger, whose eyes were glittering with intense curiosity.
She understood. So filling a glass with some liquor, she placed it before Chupin, and offered him a cigar, saying: "Take a seat-- here's something to keep you from feeling impatient while you wait here." Thereupon she followed the old gentleman into the adjoining room, and closed the door.
Even if Chupin had not possessed the precocious penetration he owed to his life of adventure, the young woman and the old gentleman had said enough to enable him to form a correct estimate of the situation. He was certain now that he knew the contents of the letter as perfectly as if he had read it. M. de Coralth's anger, and his order to make haste, were both explained. Moreover, Chupin distinctly saw what connection there was between the letter to the baroness and the letter to Madame Paul. He understood that one was the natural consequence of the other. Deserted by her husband, Madame Paul had at last become weary of poverty and privations. She had instituted a search for her husband, and, having found him, she had written to him in this style: "I consent to abstain from interfering with you, but only on conditions that you provide means of subsistence for me, your lawfully wedded wife, and for your child. If you refuse, I shall urge my claims, and ruin you. The scandal won't be of much use to me, it's true, but at least I shall no longer be obliged to endure the torture of knowing that you are surrounded by every luxury while I am dying of starvation."
Yes, she had evidently written that. It might not be the precise text; but no doubt it was the purport of her letter. On receiving it, Coralth had become alarmed. He knew only too well that if his wife made herself known and revealed his past, it would be all over with him. But he had no money. Charming young men like the Viscount de Coralth never have any money on hand. So, in this emergency, the dashing young fellow had written to his wife imploring her to have patience, and to the baroness, entreating, or rather commanding her to advance him a certain sum at once.
This was no doubt the case, and yet there was one circumstance which puzzled Chupin exceedingly. In former years, he had heard it asserted that Mademoiselle Flavie was the very personification of pride, and that she adored her husband even to madness. Had this great love vanished? Had poverty and sorrow broken her spirit to such a degree that she was willing to stoop to such shameful concessions! If she were acquainted with her husband's present life, how did it happen that she did not prefer starvation, or the alms-house and a pauper's grave to his assistance? Chupin could understand how, in a moment of passion, she might be driven to denounce her husband in the presence of his fashionable acquaintances, how she might be impelled to ruin him so as to avenge herself; but he could not possibly understand how she could consent to profit by the ignominy of the man she loved. "The plan isn't hers," said Chupin to himself, after a moment's reflection. "It's probably the work of that stout old gentleman."
There was a means of verifying his suspicions, for on returning into the adjoining room, Madame Paul had not taken her son with her. He was still sitting on the muddy floor of the shop, playing with his dilapidated horse. Chupin called him. "Come here, my little fellow," said he.
The child rose, and timidly approached, his eyes dilating with distrust and astonishment. The poor boy's repulsive uncleanliness was a terrible charge against the mother. Did she no longer love her own offspring? The untidiness of sorrow and poverty has its bounds. A long time must have passed since the child's face and hands had been washed, and his soiled clothes were literally falling to rags. Still, he was a handsome little fellow, and seemed fairly intelligent, in spite of his bashfulness. He was very light-haired, and in features he was extremely like M. de Coralth. Chupin took him on his knees, and, after looking to see if the door communicating with the inner room were securely closed, he asked: "What's your name, little chap?"
"Do you know your father?"
"Doesn't your mother ever talk to you about him?"
"And what does she say?"
"That he's rich--very rich."
"And what else?"
The child did not reply; perhaps his mother had forbidden him to say anything on the subject--perhaps that instinct which precedes intelligence, just as the dawn precedes daylight, warned him to be prudent with a stranger. "Doesn't your papa ever come to see you?" insisted Chupin.
"Mamma is very poor."
"And wouldn't you like to go and see him?"
"I don't know. But he'll come some day, and take us away with him to a large house. We shall be all right, then; and he will give us a deal of money and pretty dresses, and I shall have plenty of toys."
Satisfied on this point, Chupin, pushed his investigations farther. "And do you know this old gentleman who is with your mamma in the other room?"
"Oh, yes!--that's Mouchon."
"And who's Mouchon?"
"He's the gentleman who owns that beautiful garden at the corner of the Rue Riquet, where there are such splendid grapes. I'm going with him to get some."
"Does he often come to see you?"
"Every evening. He always has goodies in his pocket for mamma and me."
"Why does he sit in that back room without any light?"
"Oh, he says that the customers mustn't see him."
It would have been an abominable act to continue this examination, and make this child the innocent accuser of his own mother. Chupin felt conscience-smitten even now. So he kissed the cleanest spot he could find on the boy's face, and set him on the floor again, saying, "Go and play."
The child had revealed his mother's character with cruel precision. What had she told him about his father? That he was rich, and that, in case he returned, he would give them plenty of money and fine clothes. The woman's nature stood revealed in all its deformity. Chupin had good cause to feel proud of his discernment--all his suppositions had been confirmed. He had read Mouchon's character at a glance. He had recognized him as one of those wily evil-minded men who employ their leisure to the profit of their depravity--one of those patient, cold-blooded hypocrites who make poverty their purveyor, and whose passion is prodigal only in advice. "So he's paying his court to Madame Paul," thought Chupin. "Isn't it shameful? The old villain! he might at least give her enough to eat!"
So far his preoccupation had made him forget his wine and his cigar. He emptied the glass at a single draught, but it proved far more difficult to light the cigar. "Zounds! this is a non- combustible," he growled. "When I arrive at smoking ten sous cigars, I sha'n't come here to buy them."
However, with the help of several matches and a great deal of drawing, he had almost succeeded, when the door opened, and Madame Paul reappeared with a letter in her hand. She seemed greatly agitated; her anxiety was unmistakable. "I can't decide," she was saying to Mouchon, whose figure Chupin could only dimly distinguish in the darkness. "No, I can't. If I send this letter, I must forever renounce all hope of my husband's return. Whatever happens, he will never forgive me."
"He can't treat you worse than he does now, at all events," replied the old gentleman. "Besides, a gloved cat has never caught a mouse yet."
"He'll hate me."
"The man who wants his dog to love him, beats it; and, besides, when the wine is drawn, one must drink it."
This singular logic seemed to decide her. She handed the letter to Chupin, and drawing a franc from her pocket she offered it to him. "This is for your trouble," she said.
He involuntarily held out his hand to take the money, but quickly withdrew it, exclaiming: "No, thank you; keep it. I've been paid already." And, thereupon, he left the shop.
Chupin's mother--his poor good mother, as he called her--would certainly have felt proud and delighted at her son's disinterestedness. That very morning, he had refused the ten francs a day that M. Fortunat had offered him, and this evening he declined the twenty sous proffered him by Madame Paul. This was apparently a trifle, and yet in reality it was something marvellous, unprecedented, on the part of this poor lad, who, having neither trade nor profession, was obliged to earn his daily bread through the medium of those chance opportunities which the lower classes of Paris are continually seeking. As he returned to the Rue de Flandres, he muttered: "Take twenty sous from that poor creature, who hasn't had enough to satisfy her hunger for heaven knows how long! That would be altogether unworthy of a man."
It is only just to say that money had never given him a feeling of satisfaction at all comparable with that which he now experienced. He was impressed, too, with a sense of vastly-increased importance on thinking that all the faculties, and all the energy he had once employed in the service of evil, were now consecrated to the service of good. By becoming the instrument of Pascal Ferailleur's salvation he would, in some measure, atone for the crime he had committed years before.
Chupin's mind was so busily occupied with these thoughts that he reached the Rue d'Anjou and M. de Coralth's house almost before he was aware of it. To his great surprise, the concierge and his wife were not alone. Florent was there, taking coffee with them. The valet had divested himself of his borrowed finery, and had donned his red waistcoat again. He seemed to be in a savage humor; and his anger was not at all strange under the circumstances. There was but a step from M. de Coralth's house to the baroness's residence, but fatalities may attend even a step! The baroness, on receiving the letter from her maid, had sent a message to Florent requesting him to wait, as she desired to speak with him! and she had been so inconsiderate as to keep him waiting for more than an hour, so that he had missed his appointment with the charming ladies he had spoken of. In his despair he had returned home to seek consolation in the society of his friend the concierge. "Have you the answer?" he asked.
"Yes, here it is," replied Chupin, and Florent had just slipped the letter into his pocket, and was engaged in counting out the thirty sous which he had promised his messenger, when the familiar cry, "Open, please," was heard outside.
M. de Coralth had returned. He sprang to the ground as soon as the carriage entered the courtyard, and on perceiving his servant, he exclaimed: "Have you executed my commissions?"
"They have been executed, monsieur."
"Did you see the baroness?"
"She made me wait two hours to tell me that the viscount need not be worried in the least; that she would certainly be able to comply with his request to-morrow."
M. de Coralth seemed to breathe more freely. "And the other party?" he inquired.
"Gave me this for monsieur."
The viscount seized the missive, with an eager hand, tore it open, read it at one glance, and flew into such a paroxysm of passion that he quite forgot those around him, and began to tear the letter, and utter a string of oaths which would have astonished a cab-driver. But suddenly realizing his imprudence, he mastered his rage, and exclaimed, with a forced laugh: "Ah! these women! they are enough to drive one mad!" And deeming this a sufficient explanation, he added, addressing Florent. "Come and undress me; I must be up early to-morrow morning."
This remark was not lost upon Chupin, and at seven o'clock the next morning he mounted guard at M. de Coralth's door. All through the day he followed the viscount about, first to the Marquis de Valorsay's, then to the office of a business agent, then to M. Wilkie's, then, in the afternoon, to Baroness Trigault's, and finally, in the evening, to the house of Madame d'Argeles. Here, by making himself useful to the servants, by his zeal in opening and shutting the doors of the carriages that left the house, he succeeded in gathering some information concerning the frightful scene which had taken place between the mother and the son. He perceived M. Wilkie leave the house with his clothes in disorder, and subsequently he saw the viscount emerge. He followed him, first to the house of the Marquis de Valorsay, and afterward to M. Wilkie's rooms, where he remained till nearly daybreak.
Thus, when Chupin presented himself in M. Fortunat's office at two o'clock on the Tuesday afternoon, he felt that he held every possible clue to the shameful intrigue which would ruin the viscount as soon as it was made public.
M. Fortunat knew that his agent was shrewd, but he had not done justice to his abilities; and it was, indeed, with something very like envy that he listened to Chupin's clear and circumstantial report. "I have not been as successful," he remarked, when Chupin's story was ended. But he had not time to explain how or why, for just as he was about to do so, Madame Dodelin appeared, and announced that the young lady he expected was there. "Let her come in!" exclaimed M. Fortunat, eagerly--"let her come in!"
Mademoiselle Marguerite had not been compelled to resort to any subterfuge to make her escape from Madame de Fondege's house. The General had decamped early in the morning to try his horses and his carriages, announcing, moreover, that he would breakfast at the club. And as soon as her breakfast was concluded, Madame de Fondege had hurried off to her dressmaker's, warning the household that she would not return before dinner-time. A little while later, Madame Leon had suddenly remembered that her noble relative would certainly be expecting a visit from her, and so she dressed herself in haste, and went off, first to Dr. Jodon's and thence to the Marquis de Valorsay's.
Thus, Mademoiselle Marguerite had been able to make her escape without attracting any one's attention, and she would be able to remain away as many hours as she chose, since the servants would not know how long she had been absent even if they saw her when she returned. An empty cab was passing as she left the house, so she hailed it and got in. The step she was about to take cost her a terrible effort. It was a difficult task for her, a girl naturally so reserved, to confide in a stranger, and open to him her maidenly heart, filled with love for Pascal Ferailleur! Still, she was much calmer than she had been on the previous evening, when she called on the photographer for a facsimile of M. de Valorsay's letter. Several circumstances combined to reassure her. M. Fortunat knew her already, since he was the agent whom the Count de Chalusse had employed to carry on the investigations which had resulted in her discovery at the foundling asylum. A vague presentiment told her that this man was better acquainted with her past life than she was herself, and that he could, if he chose, tell her her mother's name--the name of the woman whom the count so dreaded, and who had so pitilessly deserted her. However, her heart beat more quickly, and she felt that she was turning pale when, at Madame Dodelin's invitation, she at last entered M. Fortunat's private office. She took in the room and its occupants with a single glance. The handsome appointments of the office surprised her, for she had expected to see a den. The agent's polite manner and rather elegant appearance disconcerted her, for she had expected to meet a coarse and illiterate boor; and finally, Victor Chupin, who was standing twisting his cap near the fireplace, attired in a blouse and a pair of ragged trousers, fairly alarmed her. Still, no sign of her agitation was perceptible on her countenance. Not a muscle of her beautiful, proud face moved--her glance remained clear and haughty, and she exclaimed in a ringing voice: "I am the late Count de Chalusse's ward, Mademoiselle Marguerite. You have received my letter, I suppose?"
M. Fortunat bowed with all the grace of manner he was wont to display in the circles where he went wife-hunting, and with a somewhat pretentious gesture he advanced an arm-chair, and asked his visitor to sit down. "Your letter reached me, mademoiselle," he replied, "and I was expecting you--flattered and honored beyond expression by your confidence. My door, indeed, was closed to any one but you."
Marguerite took the proffered seat, and there was a moment's silence. M. Fortunat found it difficult to believe that this beautiful, imposing young girl could be the poor little apprentice whom he had seen in the book-bindery, years before, clad in a coarse serge frock, with dishevelled hair covered with scraps of paper. In the meantime, Marguerite was regretting the necessity of confiding in this man, for the more she looked at him, the more she was convinced that he was not an honest, straightforward person; and she would infinitely have preferred a cynical scoundrel to this plausible and polite gentleman, whom she strongly suspected of being a hypocrite. She remained silent, waiting for M. Fortunat to dismiss the young man in the blouse, whose presence she could not explain, and who stood in a sort of mute ecstasy, staring at her with eyes expressive of the most intense surprise and the liveliest admiration. But weary at last of this fruitless delay, she exclaimed: "I have come, monsieur, to confer with you respecting certain matters which require the most profound secrecy."
Chupin understood her, for he blushed to the tips of his ears, and started as if to leave the room. But his employer detained him with a gesture.
"Remain, Victor," he said kindly, and, turning to Mademoiselle Marguerite, he added: "You have no indiscretion to fear from this worthy fellow, mademoiselle. He knows everything, and he has already been actively at work--and with the best result--on your behalf."
"I don't understand you, sir," replied the girl.
M. Fortunat smiled sweetly. "I have already taken your business in hand, mademoiselle," said he. "An hour after the receipt of your letter I began the campaign."
"But I had not told you----"
"What you wished of me--that's true. But I allowed myself to suspect----"
"I fancied I might conclude that you wished the help of my experience and poor ability in clearing an innocent man who has been vilely slandered, M. Pascal Ferailleur."
Marguerite sprang to her feet, at once agitated and alarmed. "How did you know this?" she exclaimed.
M. Fortunat had left his arm-chair, and was now leaning against the mantel-shelf, in what he considered a most becoming and awe- inspiring attitude, with his thumb in the armhole of his waistcoat. "Ah! nothing could be more simple," he answered, in much the same tone as a conqueror might assume to explain his feat. "It is part of my profession to penetrate the intentions of persons who deign to honor me with their confidence. So my surmises are correct; at least you have not said the contrary?"
She had said nothing. When her first surprise was over, she vainly endeavored to find a plausible explanation of M. Fortunat's acquaintance with her affairs, for she was not at all deceived by his pretended perspicacity. Meanwhile, delighted by the supposed effect he had produced, he recklessly continued: "Reserve your amazement for what I am about to disclose, for I have made several important discoveries. It must have been your good angel who inspired you with the idea of coming to me. You would have shuddered if you had realized the dangers that threatened you. But now you have nothing to fear; I am watching. I am here, and I hold in my hand all the threads of the abominable intrigue for ruining you. For it is you, your person, and your fortune that are imperilled. It was solely on your account that M. Ferailleur was attacked. And I can tell you the names of the scoundrels who ruined him. The crime originated with the person who had the most powerful interest in the matter--the Marquis de Valorsay. His agent was a scoundrel who is generally known as the Viscount de Coralth; but Chupin here can tell you his real name and his shameful past. You preferred M. Ferailleur, hence it was necessary to put him out of the way. M. de Chalusse had promised your hand to the Marquis de Valorsay. This marriage was Valorsay's only resource--the plank that might save the drowning man. People fancy he is rich; but he is ruined. Yes, ruined completely, irretrievably. He was in such desperate straits that he had almost determined to blow his brains out before the hope of marrying you entered his mind."
"Ah!" thought Chupin, "my employer is well under way."
This was indeed the case. The name of Valorsay was quite sufficient to set all M. Fortunat's bile in motion. All thought of his ex-client irritated him beyond endurance. Unfortunately for him, however, his anger in the present instance had ruined his plans. He had intended to take Mademoiselle Marguerite by surprise, to work upon her imagination, to make her talk without saying anything himself, and to remain master of the situation. But on the contrary he had revealed everything; and he did not discover this until it was too late to retrieve his blunder. "How the Marquis de Valorsay has kept his head above water is a wonder to me," he continued. "His creditors have been threatening to sue him for more than six months. How he has been able to keep them quiet since M. de Chalusse's death, I cannot understand. However, this much is certain, mademoiselle: the marquis has not renounced his intention of becoming your husband; and to attain that object he won't hesitate to employ any means that may promise to prove effectual."
Completely mistress of herself, Mademoiselle Marguerite listened with an impassive face. "I know all this," she replied, in a frigid tone.
"What! you know----"
"Yes; but there is one thing that baffles my powers of comprehension. My dowry was the only temptation to M. de Valorsay, was it not? Why does he still wish to marry me, now that I have no fortune?"
M. Fortunat had gradually lost all his advantage. "I have asked myself the same question," he replied, "and I think I have found an answer. I believe that the marquis has in his possession a letter, or a will, or a document of some sort, written by M. de Chalusse--in fact an instrument in which the count acknowledges you as his daughter, and which consequently establishes; your right to his property."
"And the marquis could urge this claim if he became my husband?"
"Certainly he could."
M. Fortunat explained M. de Valorsay's conduct exactly as the old magistrate had done. However, Mademoiselle Marguerite discreetly refrained from committing herself. The great interest that M. Fortunat seemed to take in her affairs aroused her distrust; and she decided to do what he had attempted in vain--that is, allow him to do all the talking, and to conceal all that she knew herself. "Perhaps you are right," she remarked, "but it is necessary to prove the truth of your assertion."
"I can prove that Valorsay hasn't a shilling, and that he has lived for a year by expedients which render him liable to arrest and prosecution at any time. I can prove that he deceived M. de Chalusse as to his financial position. I can prove that he conspired with M. de Coralth to ruin your lover. Wouldn't this be something?"
She smiled in a way that was exceedingly irritating to his vanity, and in a tone of good-natured incredulity, she remarked: "It is easy to say these things."
"And to do them," rejoined M. Fortunat, quickly. "I never promise what I cannot perform. A man should never touch a pen when he is meditating any evil act. Of course, no one is fool enough to write down his infamy in detail. But a man cannot always be on the qui vive. There will be a word in one letter, a sentence in another, an allusion in a third. And by combining these words, phrases, and allusions, one may finally discover the truth."
He suddenly checked himself, warned of his fresh imprudence by the expression on Mademoiselle Marguerite's face. She drew back, and looking him full in the eyes, she exclaimed: "Then you have been in M. de Valorsay's confidence, sir? Would you be willing to swear that you never helped him in his designs?"
A silent and ignored witness of this scene, Victor Chupin was secretly delighted. "Hit!" he thought--"hit just in the bull's- eye. Zounds! there's a woman for you! She has beaten the guv'nor on every point."
M. Fortunat was so taken by surprise that he made no attempt to deny his guilt. "I confess that I acted as M. de Valorsay's adviser for some time," he replied, "and he frequently spoke to me of his intention of marrying a rich wife in order to retrieve his shattered fortunes. Upon my word, I see nothing so very bad about that! It is not a strictly honest proceeding, perhaps, but it is done every day. What is marriage in this age? Merely a business transaction, is it not? Perhaps it would be more correct to say that it is a transaction in which one person tries to cheat the other. The fathers-in-law are deceived, or the husband, or the wife, and sometimes all of them together. But when I discovered this scheme for mining M. Ferailleur, I cried 'halt!' My conscience revolted at that. Dishonor an innocent man! It was base, cowardly, outrageous! And not being able to prevent this infamous act, I swore that I would avenge it."
Would Mademoiselle Marguerite accept this explanation? Chupin feared so, and accordingly turning quickly to his employer, he remarked: "To say nothing of the fact that this fine gentleman has swindled you outrageously, shrewd as you are--cheating you out of the forty thousand francs you lent him, and which he was to pay you eighty thousand for."
M. Fortunat cast a withering look at his clerk, but the mischief was done: denial was useless. He seemed fated to blunder in this affair. "Well, yes," he declared, "it's true. Valorsay has defrauded me, and I have sworn to have my revenge. I won't rest until I see him ruined."
Mademoiselle Marguerite was partially reassured, for she understood his zeal now. Her scorn for the man was only increased; but she was convinced that he would serve her faithfully. "I like this much better," said she. "It is better to have no concealment. You desire M. de Valorsay's ruin. I desire the rehabilitation of M. Ferailleur. So our interests are in common. But before acting in this matter, we must know M. Ferailleur's wishes."
"They cannot be considered."
"Because no one knows what has become of him. When the desire for revenge first took possession of me, I at once thought of him. I procured his address, and went to the Rue d'Ulm. But he had gone away. The very day after his misfortune, M. Ferailleur sold his furniture and went away with his mother."
"I am aware of that, and I have come to ask you to search for him. To discover his hiding-place will be only child's play to you."
"Do you suppose I haven't thought of this?" replied M. Fortunat. "Why, I spent all day yesterday searching for him. By questioning the people in the neighborhood I finally succeeded in ascertaining that Madame Ferailleur left her home in a cab several hours after her son, and took a very large quantity of baggage with her. Well, do you know where she drove? To the Western railway station. I am sure of this, and I know she told a porter there that her destination was London. M. Ferailleur is now en route for America, and we shall never hear of him again!"
Mademoiselle Marguerite shook her head. "You are mistaken, sir," said she.
"There can be no mistake about what I have just told you."
"I don't question the result of your investigations, but appearances are deceitful. I thoroughly understand M. Ferailleur's character, and he is not the man to be crushed by an infamous calumny. He may seem to fly, he may disappear, he may conceal himself for a time, but it is only to make his vengeance more certain. What! Pascal, who is energy itself, who possesses an iron will, and invincible determination, would he renounce his honor, his future, and the woman he loves without a struggle? If he had felt that his case was hopeless, he would have destroyed himself, and as he has not done so, he is not without hope. He has not left Paris; I am sure of it."
M. Fortunat was not convinced. In his opinion this was only sentiment and rubbish. Still there was one person present who was deeply impressed by the confidence of this young girl, who was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen, and whose devotion and energy filled his heart with admiration, and this person was Chupin. He stepped forward with his eyes sparkling with enthusiasm, and in a feeling voice he exclaimed: "I understand your idea! Yes, M. Ferailleur is in Paris. And I shall be unworthy of the name of Chupin, if I don't find him for you in less than a fortnight!"