Baron Trigault's Vengeance by Emile Gaboriau
Mademoiselle Marguerite knew Pascal Ferailleur. Suddenly struck down in the full sunlight of happiness by a terrible misfortune, he, of course, experienced moments of frenzy and terrible depression; but he was incapable of the cowardice which M. Fortunat had accused him of.
Mademoiselle Marguerite only did him justice when she said that the sole condition on which he could consent to live was that of consecrating his life, and all his strength, intelligence and will to confounding this infamous calumny. And still she did not know the extent of Pascal's misfortune. How could she suppose that he believed himself deserted by her? How could she know the doubts and fears and the anguish that had been roused in his heart by the note which Madame Leon had given him at the garden gate? What did she know of the poignant suspicions that had rent his mind, after listening to Madame Vantrasson's disparaging insinuations?
It must be admitted that he was indebted to his mother alone for his escape from suicide--that grim madness that seizes hold of so many desperate, despairing men. And it was still to his mother-- the incomparable guardian of his honor--that he owed his resolution on the morning he applied to Baron Trigault. And his courage met with its first reward.
He was no longer the same man when he left the princely mansion which he had entered with his heart so full of anguish. He was still somewhat bewildered with the strange scenes which he had involuntarily witnessed, the secrets he had overheard, and the revelations which had been made to him; but a light gleamed on the horizon--a fitful and uncertain light, it is true, but nevertheless a hopeful gleam. At least, he would no longer have to struggle alone. An honest and experienced man, powerful by reason of his reputation, his connections and his fortune, had promised him his help. Thanks to this man whom misfortune had made a truer friend than years could have done, he would have access to the wretch who had deprived him both of his honor and of the woman he loved. He knew the weak spot in the marquis's armor now; he knew where and how to strike, and he felt sure that he should succeed in winning Valorsay's confidence, and in obtaining irrefutable proofs of his villainy.
Pascal was eager to inform his mother of the fortunate result of his visit, but certain arrangements which were needful for the success of his plans required his attention, and it was nearly five o'clock when he reached the Route de la Revolte. Madame Ferailleur was just returning home when he arrived, which surprised him considerably, for he had not known that she had intended going out. The cab she had used was still standing before the door, and she had not had time to take off her shawl and bonnet when he entered the house. She uttered a joyful cry on perceiving her son. She was so accustomed to read his secret thoughts on his face, that it was unnecessary for him to say a word; before he had even opened his lips, she cried: "So you have succeeded?"
"Yes, mother, beyond my hopes."
"I was not deceived, then, in the worthy man who came to offer us his assistance?"
"No, certainly not. Do what I may, I can never repay him for his generosity and self-denial. If you knew, my dear mother, if you only knew----"
He kissed her as if he wished to apologize for what he was about to say, and then he quickly replied: "Marguerite is the daughter of Baroness Trigault."
Madame Ferailleur started back, as if she had seen a reptile spring up in her pathway. "The daughter of the baroness!" she faltered. "Great Heavens!"
"It is the truth, mother; listen to me." And in a voice that trembled with emotion, he rapidly related all he had learned by his visit to the baron, softening the truth as much as he could without concealing it. But prevarication was useless. Madame Ferailleur's indignation and disgust were none the less evident. "That woman is a shameless creature," she said, coldly, when her son's narrative was concluded.
Pascal made no reply. He knew only too well that his mother was right, and yet it wounded him cruelly to hear her speak in this style. For the baroness was Marguerite's mother after all.
"So," continued Madame Ferailleur, with increasing indignation, "creatures do exist who are destitute even of the maternal instincts of animals. I am an honest woman myself; I don't say it in self-glorification, it's no credit to me; my mother was a saint, and I loved my husband; what some people call duty was my happiness, so I may be allowed to speak on this subject. I don't excuse infidelity, but I can understand how such a thing is possible. Yes, I can understand how a beautiful young woman, who is left alone in a city like Paris, may lose her senses, and forget the worthy man who has exiled himself for her sake, and who is braving a thousand dangers to win a fortune for her. The husband who exposes his honor and happiness to such terrible risk, is an imprudent man. But when this woman has erred, when she has given birth to a child, how she can abandon it, how she can cast it off as if it were a dog, I cannot comprehend. I could imagine infanticide more easily. No, such a woman has no heart, no bowels of compassion. There is nothing human in her! For how could she live, how could she sleep with the thought that somewhere in the world her own child, the flesh of her flesh, was exposed to all the temptations of poverty, and the horrors of shame and vice? And she, the possessor of millions, she, the inmate of a palace, thinking only of dress and pleasure! How was it that she didn't ask herself every minute, 'Where is my daughter now, and what is she doing? What is she living on? Has she shelter, clothes and food? To what depths of degradation she may have sunk? Perhaps she has so far lived by honest toil, and perhaps at this very moment this support fails her, and she is abandoning herself to a life of infamy.' Great God! how does this woman dare to step out of doors? On seeing the poor wretches who have been driven to vice by want, how can she fail to say to herself: 'That, perhaps, is my daughter!'"
Pascal turned pale, moved to the depths of his soul by his mother's extraordinary vehemence. He trembled lest she should say: "And you, my son, would you marry the child of such a mother?" For he knew his mother's prejudices, and the great importance she attached to a spotless reputation transmitted from parent to child, from generation to generation. "The baroness knew that her husband adored her, and hearing of his return she became terrified; she lost her senses," he ventured to say in extenuation.
"Would you try to defend her?" exclaimed Madame Ferailleur. "Do you really think one can atone for a fault by a crime?"
"No, certainly not, but----"
"Perhaps you would censure the baroness more severely if you knew what her daughter has suffered--if you knew the perils and miseries she has been exposed to from the moment her mother left her on a door-step, near the central markets, till the day when her father found her. It is a miracle that she did not perish."
Where had Madame Ferailleur learned these particulars? Pascal asked himself this question without being able to answer it. "I don't understand you, mother," he faltered.
"Then you know nothing of Mademoiselle Marguerite's past life. Is it possible she never told you anything about it?"
"I only know that she has been very unhappy."
"Has she never alluded to the time when she was an apprentice?"
"She has only told me that she earned her living with her own hands at one time of her life."
"Well, I am better informed on the subject."
Pascal's amazement was changed to terror. "You, mother, you!"
"Yes; I--I have been to the asylum where she was received and educated. I have had a conversation with two Sisters of Charity who remember her, and it is scarcely an hour since I left the people to whom she was formerly bound as an apprentice."
Standing opposite his mother with one hand convulsively clutching the back of the chair he was leaning on, Pascal tried to nerve himself for some terrible blow. For was not his life at stake? Did not his whole future depend upon the revelations Madame Ferailleur was about to make?" So this was your object in going out, mother?" he faltered.
"And you went without warning me?"
"Was it necessary? What! you love a young girl, you swear in my presence that she shall be your wife, and you think it strange that I should try to ascertain whether she is worthy of you or not? It would be very strange if I did not do so."
"This idea occurred to you so suddenly!"
Madame Ferailleur gave an almost imperceptible shrug of the shoulders, as if she were astonished to have to answer such puerile objections. "Have you already forgotten the disparaging remarks made by our new servant, Madame Vantrasson?"
"I understood her base insinuations as well as you did, and after your departure I questioned her, or rather I allowed her to tell her story, and I ascertained that Mademoiselle Marguerite had once been an apprentice of Vantrasson's brother-in-law, a man named Greloux, who was formerly a bookbinder in the Rue Saint-Denis, but who has now retired from business. It was there that Vantrasson met Mademoiselle Marguerite, and this is why he was so greatly surprised to see her doing the mistress at the Hotel de Chalusse."
It seemed to Pascal that the throbbing of his heart stopped his breath.
"By a little tact I obtained the Greloux's address from Madame Vantrasson," resumed his mother. "Then I sent for a cab and drove there at once."
"And you saw them?"
"Yes; thanks to a falsehood which doesn't trouble my conscience much, I succeeded in effecting an entrance, and had an hour's conversation with them." His mother's icy tones frightened Pascal. Her slowness tortured him, and still he dared not press her. "The Greloux family," she continued, "seem to be what are called worthy people, that is, incapable of committing any crime that is punishable by the code, and very proud of their income of seven thousand francs a year. They must have been very much attached to Mademoiselle Marguerite, for they were lavish in their protestations of affection when I mentioned her name. The husband in particular seemed to regard her with a feeling of something like gratitude."
"Ah! you see, mother, you see!"
"As for the wife, it was easy to see that she had sincerely regretted the loss of the best apprentice, the most honest servant, and the best worker she had ever seen in her life. And yet, from her own story, I should be willing to swear that she had abused the poor child, and had made a slave of her." Tears glittered in Pascal's eyes, but he breathed freely once more. "As for Vantrasson," resumed Madame Ferailleur, "it is certain that he took a violent fancy to his sister's apprentice. This man, who has since become an infamous scoundrel, was then only a rake, an unprincipled drunkard and libertine. He fancied the poor little apprentice--she was then but thirteen years old--would be only too glad to become the mistress of her employer's brother; but she scornfully repulsed him, and his vanity was so deeply wounded that he persecuted the poor girl to such an extent that she was obliged to complain, first to Madame Greloux, who--to her shame be it said--treated these insults as mere nonsense; and afterward to Greloux himself, who was probably delighted to have an opportunity of ridding himself of his indolent brother-in-law, for he turned him out of the house."
The thought that so vile a rascal as this man Vantrasson should have dared to insult Marguerite made Pascal frantic with indignation. "The wretch!" he exclaimed; "the wretch!" But without seeming to notice her son's anger, Madame Ferailleur continued: "They pretended they had not seen their former apprentice since she had been living in grandeur, as they expressed it. But in this they lied to me. For they saw her at least once, and that was on the day she brought them twenty thousand francs, which proved the nucleus of their fortune. They did not mention this fact, however."
"Dear Marguerite!" murmured Pascal, "dear Marguerite!" And then aloud: "But where did you learn these last details, mother?" he inquired.
"At the asylum where Mademoiselle Marguerite was brought up, and there, too, I only heard words of praise. 'Never,' said the superior, 'have I had a more gifted, sweeter-tempered or more attractive charge.' They had reproached her sometimes for being too reserved, and her self-respect had often been mistaken for inordinate pride; but she had not forgotten the asylum any more than she had forgotten her former patrons. On one occasion the superior received from her the sum of twenty-five thousand francs, and a year ago she presented the institution with one hundred thousand francs, the yearly income of which is to constitute the marriage dowry of some deserving orphan."
Pascal was greatly elated. "Well, mother!" he exclaimed, "well, is it strange that I love her?" Madame Ferailleur made no reply, and a sorrowful apprehension seized hold of him. "You are silent," said he, "and why? When the blessed day that will allow me to wed Marguerite arrives, you surely won't oppose our marriage?"
"No, my son, nothing that I have learned gives me the right to do so."
"The right! Ah, you are unjust, mother."
"Unjust! Haven't I faithfully reported all that was told me, although I knew it would only increase your passion?"
"That's true, but----"
Madame Ferailleur sadly shook her head. "Do you think," she interrupted, "that I can, without sorrow, see you choose a girl of no family, a girl who is outside the pale of social recognition? Don't you understand my disquietude when I think that the girl that you will marry is the daughter of such a woman as Baroness Trigault, an unfortunate girl whom her mother cannot even recognize, since her mother is a married woman----"
"Ah! mother, is that Marguerite's fault?"
"Did I say it was her fault? No--I only pray God that you may never have to repent of choosing a wife whose past life must ever remain an impenetrable mystery!"
Pascal had become very pale. "Mother!" he said in a quivering voice, "mother!"
"I mean that you will only know so much of Mademoiselle Marguerite's past life as she may choose to tell you," continued the obdurate old lady. "You heard Madame Vantrasson's ignoble allegations. It has been said that she was the mistress, not the daughter, of the Count de Chalusse. Who knows what vile accusations you may be forced to meet? And what is your refuge, if doubts should ever assail you? Mademoiselle Marguerite's word! Will this be sufficient? It is now, perhaps; but will it suffice in years to come? I would have my son's wife above suspicion; and she--why, there is not a single episode in her life that does not expose her to the most atrocious calumny."
"What does calumny matter? it will never shake my faith in her. The misfortunes which you reproach Marguerite for sanctify her in my eyes."
"What! Am I to scorn her because she has been unfortunate? Am I to regard her birth as a crime? Am I to despise her because her mother is a despicable woman? No--God be praised! the day when illegitimate children, the innocent victims of their mother's faults, were branded as outcasts, is past."
But Madame Ferailleur's prejudices were too deeply rooted to be shaken by these arguments. "I won't discuss this question, my son," she interrupted, "but take care. By declaring children irresponsible for their mother's faults, you will break the strongest tie that binds a woman to duty. If the son of a pure and virtuous wife, and the son of an adulterous woman meet upon equal ground, those who are held in check only by the thought of their children will finally say to themselves, what does it matter?"
It was the first time that a cloud had ever arisen between mother and son. On hearing his dearest hopes thus attacked, Pascal was tempted to rebel, and a flood of bitter words rose to his lips. However he had strength enough to control himself. "Marguerite alone can triumph over these implacable prejudices," he thought; "when my mother knows her, she will feel how unjust they are!"
And as he found it difficult to remain master of himself, he stammered some excuse, and abruptly retired to his own room, where he threw himself on his bed. He felt that it was not his place to reproach his mother or censure her for her opinions. What mother had ever been so devoted as she had been? And who knows?--it was, perhaps, from these same rigid prejudices that this simple-minded and heroic woman had derived her energy, her enthusiastic love of God, her hatred of evil, and that virility of spirit which misfortune had been powerless to daunt. Besides, had she not promised to offer no opposition to his marriage! And was not this a great concession, a sacrifice which must have cost her a severe struggle? And where can one find the mother who does not count as one of the sublime joys of maternity the task of seeking a wife for her son, of choosing from among all others the young girl who will be the companion of his life, the angel of his dark and of his prosperous days? His mind was occupied with these thoughts when his door suddenly opened, and he sprang up, exclaiming: "Who is it?"
It was Madame Vantrasson, who came to announce that dinner was ready--a dinner which she had herself prepared, for on going out Madame Ferailleur had left her in charge of the household. On seeing this woman, Pascal was overcome with rage and indignation, and felt a wild desire to annihilate her. He knew that she was only a vile slanderer, but she might meet other beings as vile as herself who would be only too glad to believe her falsehoods. And to think that he was powerless to punish her! He now realized the suffering his mother had spoken of--the most atrocious suffering which the lover can endure--powerlessness to protect the object of his affections, when she is assailed. Engrossed in these gloomy thoughts, Pascal preserved a sullen silence during the repast. He ate because his mother filled his plate; but if he had been questioned, he could scarcely have told what he was eating. And yet, the modest dinner was excellent. Madame Vantrasson was really a good cook, and in this first effort in her new situation she had surpassed herself. Her vanity as a cordon-bleu was piqued because she did not receive the compliments she expected, and which she felt she deserved. Four or five times she asked impatiently, "Isn't that good?" and as the only reply was a scarcely enthusiastic "Very good," she vowed she would never again waste so much care and talent upon such unappreciative people.
Madame Ferailleur was as silent as her son, and seemed equally anxious to finish with the repast. She evidently wanted to get rid of Madame Vantrasson, and in fact as soon as the simple dessert had been placed on the table, she turned to her, and said: "You may go home now. I will attend to the rest."
Irritated by the taciturnity of these strange folks, the landlady of the Model Lodging House withdrew, and they soon heard the street door close behind her with a loud bang as she left the house. Pascal drew a long breath as if relieved of a heavy weight. While Madame Vantrasson had been in the room he had scarcely dared to raise his eyes, so great was his dread of encountering the gaze of this woman, whose malignity was but poorly veiled by her smooth-tongued hypocrisy. He really feared he should not be able to resist his desire to strangle her. However, Madame Ferailleur must have understood her son's agitation, for as soon as they were alone, she said: "So you have not forgiven me for my plain speaking?"
"How can I be angry with you, mother, when I know that you are thinking only of my happiness? But how sorry I shall be if your prejudices----"
Madame Ferailleur checked him with a gesture. "Let us say no more on the subject," she remarked. "Mademoiselle Marguerite will be the innocent cause of one of the greatest disappointments of my life; but I have no reason to hate her--and I have always been able to show justice even to the persons I loved the least. I have done so in this instance, and I am going perhaps to give you a convincing proof of it."
She reflected for a moment and then she asked: "Did you not tell me, my son, that Mademoiselle Marguerite's education has not suffered on account of her neglected childhood?"
"And it's quite true, mother."
"She worked diligently, you said, so as to improve herself?"
"Marguerite knows all that an unusually talented girl can learn in four years, when she finds herself very unhappy, and study proves her only refuge and consolation."
"If she wrote you a note would it be written grammatically, and be free from any mistakes in spelling?"
"Oh, certainly!" exclaimed Pascal, and a sudden inspiration made him pause abruptly. He darted to his own room, and a minute later he returned with a package of letters, which he laid on the table, saying: "Here, mother, read and see for yourself."
Madame Ferailleur drew her spectacles from their case, and, after adjusting them, she began to read.
With his elbows on the table, and his head resting upon his hands, Pascal eagerly watched his mother, anxious to read her impressions on her face. She was evidently astonished. She had not expected these letters would express such nobility of sentiment, an energy no whit inferior to her own, and even an echo of her own prejudices. For this strange young girl shared Madame Ferailleur's rather bigoted opinions. Again and again she asked herself if her birth and past had not created an impassable abyss between Pascal and herself. And she had not felt satisfied on this point until the day when the gray-haired magistrate, after hearing her story, said: "If I had a son, I should be proud to have him beloved by you!"
It soon became apparent that Madame Ferailleur was deeply moved, and once she even raised her glasses to wipe away a furtive tear which made Pascal's heart leap with very joy. "These letters are admirable," she said at last; "and no young girl, reared by a virtuous mother, could have given better expression to nobler sentiments; but----" She paused, not wishing to wound her son's feelings, and as he insisted, she added:
"But, these letters have the irreparable fault of being addressed to you, Pascal!"
This, however, was the expiring cry of her intractable obstinacy. "Now," she resumed, "wait before you censure your mother." So saying, she rose, opened a drawer, and taking from it a torn and crumpled scrap of paper, she handed it to her son, exclaiming: "Read this attentively."
This proved to be the note in pencil which Madame Leon had given to Pascal, and which he had divined rather than read by the light of the street-lamp; he had handed it to his mother on his return, and she had kept it. He had scarcely been in his right mind the evening he received it, but now he was enjoying the free exercise of all his faculties. He no sooner glanced at the note than he sprang up, and in an excited voice, exclaimed, "Marguerite never wrote this!"
The strange discovery seemed to stupefy him. "I was mad, raving mad!" he muttered. "The fraud is palpable, unmistakable. How could I have failed to discover it?" And as if he felt the need of convincing himself that he was not deceived, he continued, speaking to himself rather than to his mother: "The hand-writing is not unlike Marguerite's, it's true; but it's only a clever counterfeit. And who doesn't know that all writings in pencil resemble each other more or less? Besides, it's certain that Marguerite, who is simplicity itself, would not have made use of such pretentious melodramatic phrases. How could I have been so stupid as to believe that she ever thought or wrote this: 'One cannot break a promise made to the dying; I shall keep mine even though my heart break.' And again: 'Forget, therefore, the girl who has loved you so much: she is now the betrothed of another, and honor requires she should forget even your name!'" He read these passages with an extravagant emphasis, which heightened their absurdity. "And what shall I say of these mistakes in spelling?" he resumed. "You noticed them, of course, mother?-- command is written with a single 'm,' and supplicate with one 'p.' These are certainly not mistakes that we can attribute to haste! Ignorance is proved since the blunder is always the same. The forger is evidently in the habit of omitting one of the double letters."
Madame Ferailleur listened with an impassive face. "And these mistakes are all the more inexcusable since this letter is only a copy," she observed, quietly.
"Yes; a verbatim copy. Yesterday evening, while I was examining it for the twentieth time, it occurred to me that I had read some portions of it before. Where, and under what circumstances? It was a puzzle which kept me awake most of the night. But this morning I suddenly remembered a book which I had seen in the hands of the workmen at the factory, and which I had often laughed over. So, while I was out this morning I entered a book-shop, and purchased the volume. That's it, there on the corner of the mantel-shelf. Take it and see."
Pascal obeyed, and noticed with surprise that the work was entitled, "The Indispensable and Complete Letter-writer, for Both Sexes, in Every Condition of Life."
"Now turn to the page I have marked," said Madame Ferailleur.
He did so, and read: "(Model 198). Letter from a young lady who has promised her dying father to renounce the man she loves, and to bestow her hand upon another." Doubt was no longer possible. Line for line and word for word, the mistakes in spelling excepted, the note was an exact copy of the stilted prose of the "Indispensable Letter-writer."
It seemed to Pascal as if the scales had suddenly fallen from his eyes, and that he could now understand the whole intrigue which had been planned to separate him from Marguerite. His enemies had dishonored him in the hope that she would reject and scorn him, and, disappointed in their expectations, they had planned this pretended rupture of the engagement to prevent him from making any attempt at self-justification. So, in spite of some short-lived doubts, his love had been more clear-sighted than reason, and stronger than appearances. He had been quite right, then, in saying to his mother: "I can never believe that Marguerite deserts me at a moment when I am so wretched--that she condemns me unheard, and has no greater confidence in me than in my accusers. Appearances may indicate the contrary, but I am right." Certain circumstances, which had previously seemed contradictory, now strengthened this belief. "How is it," he said to himself, "that Marguerite writes to me that her father, on his death-bed, made her promise to renounce me, while Valorsay declares the Count de Chalusse died so suddenly, that he had not even time to acknowledge his daughter or to bequeath her his immense fortune? One of these stories must be false; and which of them? The one in this note most probably. As for the letter itself, it must have been the work of Madame Leon."
If he had not already possessed irrefutable proofs of this, the "Indispensable Letter-writer" would have shown it. The housekeeper's perturbation when she met him at the garden gate was now explained. She was shuddering at the thought that she might be followed and watched, and that Marguerite might appear at any moment, and discover everything.
"I think it would be a good plan to let this poor young girl know that her companion is Valorsay's spy," remarked Madame Ferailleur.
Pascal was about to approve this suggestion, when a sudden thought deterred him. "They must be watching Marguerite very closely," he replied, "and if I attempt to see her, if I even venture to write to her, our enemies would undoubtedly discover it. And then, farewell to the success of my plans."
"Then you prefer to leave her exposed to these dangers?"
"Yes, even admitting there is danger, which is by no means certain. Owing to her past life, Marguerite's experience is far in advance of her years, and if some one told me that she had fathomed Madame Leon's character, I should not be at all surprised."
It was necessary to ascertain what had become of Marguerite; and Pascal was puzzling his brain to discover how this might be done, when suddenly he exclaimed: "Madame Vantrasson! We have her; let us make use of her. It will be easy to find some excuse for sending her to the Hotel de Chalusse: she will gossip with the servants there, and in that way we can discover the changes that have taken place."
This was a heroic resolution on Pascal's part, and one which he would have recoiled from the evening before. But it is easy to be brave when one is hopeful; and he saw his chances of success increase so rapidly that he no longer feared the obstacles that had once seemed almost insurmountable. Even his mother's opposition had ceased to alarm him. For why should he fear after the surprising proof she had given him of her love of justice, proving that the pretended letter from Mademoiselle Marguerite was really a forgery?
He slept but little that night and did not stir from the house on the following day. He was busily engaged in perfecting his plan of attack against the marquis. His advantages were considerable, thanks to Baron Trigault, who had placed a hundred thousand francs at his disposal; but the essential point was to use this amount in such a way as to win Valorsay's confidence, and induce him to betray himself. Pascal's hours of meditation were not spent in vain, and when it became time for him to repair to his enemy's house, he said to his mother: "I've found a plan; and if the baron will let me follow it out, Valorsay is mine!"