Baron Trigault's Vengeance by Emile Gaboriau
It was pure childishness on Pascal's part to doubt Baron Trigault's willingness to agree even with closed eyes to any measures he might propose. He ought to have recollected that their interests were identical, that they hated the same men with equal hatred, and that they were equally resolved upon vengeance. And certainly the events which had occurred since their last interview had not been of a nature to modify the baron's intentions. However, misfortune had rendered Pascal timid and suspicious, and it was not until he reached the baron's house that his fears vanished. The manner in which the servants received him proved that the baron greatly esteemed him: for the man must be stupid indeed who does not know that the greeting of the servants is ever in harmony with the feelings of the master of the house. "Will you be kind enough to follow me?" said the servant to whom he handed his card. "The baron is very busy, but that doesn't matter. He gave orders that monsieur should be shown up as soon as he arrived."
Pascal followed without a word. The elegance of this princely abode never varied. The same careless, prodigal, regal luxury was apparent everywhere. The servants--whose name was legion--were always passing noiselessly to and fro. A pair of horses, worth at least a thousand louis, and harnessed to the baroness's brougham, were stamping and neighing in the courtyard; and the hall was, as usual, fragrant with the perfume of rare flowers, renewed every morning.
On his first visit Pascal had only seen the apartments on the ground floor. This time his guide remarked that he would take him upstairs to the baron's private room. He was slowly ascending the broad marble staircase and admiring the bronze balustrade, the rich carpet, the magnificent frescoes, and the costly statuary, when a rustle of silk resounded near him. He had only time to step aside, and a lady passed him rapidly, without turning her head, or even deigning to look at him. She did not appear more than forty, and she was still very beautiful, with her golden hair dressed high on the back of her head. Her costume, brilliant enough in hue to frighten a cab horse, was extremely eccentric in cut; but it certainly set off her peculiar style of beauty to admirable advantage.
"That's the baroness," whispered the servant, after she had passed.
Pascal did not need to be told this. He had seen her but once, and then only for a second; but it had been under such circumstances that he should never forget her so long as he lived. And now he understood the strange and terrible impression which had been produced upon him when he saw her first. Mademoiselle Marguerite was the living prototype of this lady, save as regards the color of her hair. And there would have been no difference in this respect had the baroness allowed her locks to retain their natural tint. Her hair had been black, like Marguerite's, and black it had remained until she was thirty-five, when she bleached it to the fashionable color of the time. And every fourth day even now her hairdresser came to apply a certain compound to her head, after which she remained in the bright sunlight for several hours, so as to impart a livelier shade of gold to her dyed locks.
Pascal had scarcely regained his composure, when the servant opened the door of an immense apartment as large as a handsome suite of rooms, and magnificently furnished. Here sat the baron, surrounded by several clerks, who were busily engaged in putting a pile of papers and documents in order.
But as soon as Pascal entered, the baron rose, and cordially holding out his hand, exclaimed, "Ah! here you are at last, Monsieur Maumejan!"
So he had not forgotten the name which Pascal had assumed. This was a favorable omen. "I called, monsieur----" began the young man.
"Yes--I know--I know!" interrupted the baron. "Come, we must have a talk."
And, taking Pascal's arm, he led him into his private sanctum, separated from the large apartment by folding-doors, which had been removed, and replaced by hangings. Once there he indicated by a gesture that they could be heard in the adjoining room, and that it was necessary to speak in a low tone. "You have no doubt come," said he, "for the money I promised that dear Marquis de Valorsay--I have it all ready for you; here it is." So saying, he opened an escritoire, and took out a large roll of bank-notes, which he handed to Pascal. "Here, count it," he added, "and see if the amount is correct."
But Pascal, whose face had suddenly become as red as fire, did not utter a word in reply. On receiving this money a new but quite natural thought had entered his mind for the first time. "What is the matter?" inquired the baron, surprised by this sudden embarrassment. "What has happened to you?"
"Nothing, monsieur, nothing! Only I was asking myself--if I ought-- if I can accept this money."
"Bah! and why not?"
"Because if you lend it to M. de Valorsay, it is perhaps lost."
"Perhaps! You are polite----"
"Yes, monsieur, you are right. I ought to have said that it is sure to be lost; and hence my embarrassment. Is it not solely on my account that you sacrifice a sum which would be a fortune to many men? Yes. Very well, then. I am asking myself if it is right for me to accept such a sacrifice, when it is by no means certain that I shall ever be able to requite it. Shall I ever have a hundred thousand francs to repay you?"
"But isn't this money absolutely necessary to enable you to win Valorsay's confidence?"
"Yes, and if it belonged to me I should not hesitate."
Though the baron had formed a high estimate of Pascal's character, he was astonished and deeply touched by these scruples, and this excessive delicacy of feeling. Like most opulent men, he knew few poor people who wore their poverty with grace and dignity, and who did not snatch at a twenty-franc piece wherever they chanced to find it. "Ah, well, my dear Ferailleur," he said, kindly, "don't trouble yourself on this score. It's not at your request nor solely on your account that I make this sacrifice."
"No; I give you my word of honor it isn't. Leaving you quite out of the question, I should still have lent Valorsay this money; and if you do not wish to take it to him, I shall send it by some one else."
After that, Pascal could not demur any further. He took the baron's proffered hand and pressed it warmly, uttering only this one word, made more eloquent than any protestations by the fervor with which it was spoken: "Thanks!"
The baron shrugged his shoulders good-naturedly, like a man who fails to see that he has done anything at all meritorious, or even worthy of the slightest acknowledgment. "And you must understand, my dear sir," he resumed, "that you can employ this sum as you choose, in advancing your interests, which are identical with mine. You can give the money to Valorsay at such a time and under such conditions as will best serve your plans. Give it to him in an hour or in a month, all at once or in fifty different instalments, as you please. Only use it like the rope one ties round a dog's neck before drowning him."
The keenest penetration was concealed beneath the baron's careless good-nature. Pascal knew this, and feeling that his protector understood him, he said: "You overpower me with kindness."
"You offer me just what I came to ask for."
"So much the better."
"But you will allow me to explain my intentions?"
"It is quite unnecessary, my dear sir."
"Excuse me; if I follow my present plan, I shall be obliged to ascribe certain sentiments, words, and even acts, to you, which you might perhaps disavow, and--"
With a careless toss of the head, accompanied by a disdainful snap of the fingers, the baron interrupted him. "Set to work, and don't give yourself the slightest uneasiness about that. You may do whatever you like, if you only succeed in unmasking this dear marquis, and Coralth, his worthy acolyte. Show me up in whatever light you choose. Who will you be in Valorsay's eyes? Why, Maumejan, one of my business agents, and I can always throw the blame on you." And as if to prove that he had divined even the details of the scheme devised by his young friend, he added: "Besides, every one knows that a millionaire's business agent is anything but a pleasant person to deal with. A millionaire, who is not a fool, must always smile, and no matter how absurd the demands upon him may be, he must always answer: 'Yes, certainly, certainly--I should be only too happy!' But then he adds: 'You must arrange the matter with my agent. Confer with him.' And it is the unlucky agent who must object, declare that his employer has no money at his disposal just now, and finally say, 'No.'"
Pascal was still disposed to insist, but the baron was obdurate. "Oh! enough, enough!" he exclaimed. "Don't waste precious time in idle discussion. The days are only twenty-four hours long: and as you see, I'm very busy, so busy that I've not touched a card since the day before yesterday. I am preparing a delightful surprise for Madame Trigault, my daughter, and my son-in-law. It has been rather a delicate operation, but I flatter myself that I have succeeded finely." And he laughed a laugh that was not pleasant to hear. "You see, I've had enough of paying several hundred thousand francs a year for the privilege of being sneered at by my wife, scorned by my daughter, swindled by my son-in-law, and vilified and anathematized by all three of them. I am still willing to go on paying, but only on conditions that they give me in return for my money, if not the reality, at least a show of love, affection, and respect. I'm determined to have the semblance of these things; I'm quite resolved on that. Yes, I will have myself treated with deference. I'll be petted and coddled and made much of, or else I'll suspend payment. It was one of my old friends, a parvenu like myself--a man whose domestic happiness I have envied for many years--who gave me this receipt: 'At home,' said he, 'with my wife, my daughters, and my sons-in- law, I'm like a peer of England at an hotel. I order first-class happiness at so much a month. If I get it I pay for it; if I don't get it, I cut off the supplies. When I get extras I pay for them cheerfully, without haggling. Follow my example, my old friend, and you'll have a comfortable life.' And I shall follow his advice, M. Ferailleur, for I am convinced that his theory is sound and practicable. I have led this life long enough. I'll spend my last days in peace, or, as God hears me, I'll let my family die of starvation!"
His face was purple, and the veins on his forehead stood out like whipcords, but not so much from anger as from the constraint he imposed upon himself by speaking in a whisper. He drew a long breath, and then in a calmer tone, resumed: "But you must make haste and succeed, M. Ferailleur, if you don't want the young girl you love to be deprived of her rightful heritage. You do not know into what unworthy hands the Chalusse property is about to fall." He was on the point of telling Pascal the story of Madame d'Argeles and M. Wilkie, when he was interrupted by the sound of a lively controversy in the hall.
"Who's taking such liberty in my house?" the baron began. But the next instant he heard some one fling open the door of the large room adjoining, and then a coarse, guttural voice called out: "What! he isn't here! This is too much!"
The baron made an angry gesture. "That's Kami-Bey," said he, "the Turk whom I am playing that great game of cards with. The devil take him! He will be sure to force his way in here--so we may as well join him, M. Ferailleur."
On reentering the adjoining apartment Pascal beheld a very corpulent man, with a very red face, a straggling beard, a flat nose, small, beadlike eyes, and sensual lips. He was clad in a black frock-coat, buttoned tight to the throat, and he wore a fez. This costume gave him the appearance of a chunky bottle, sealed with red wax. Such, indeed, was Kami-Bey, a specimen of those semi-barbarians, loaded with gold who are not attracted to Paris by its splendors and glories, but rather by its corruption--people who come there persuaded that money will purchase anything and everything, and who often return home with the same conviction. Kami was no doubt more impudent, more cynical and more arrogant than others of his class. As he was more wealthy, he had more followers; he had been more toadied and flattered, and victimized to a greater extent by the host of female intriguers, who look upon every foreigner as their rightful prey.
He spoke French passably well, but with an abominable accent. "Here you are at last!" he exclaimed, as the baron entered the room. "I was becoming very anxious."
"About what, prince?"
Why Kami-Bey was called prince no one knew, not even the man himself. Perhaps it was because the lackey who opened his carriage door on his arrival at the Grand Hotel had addressed him by that title.
"About what!" he repeated. "You have won more than three hundred thousand francs from me, and I was wondering if you intended to give me the slip."
The baron frowned, and this time he omitted the title of prince altogether. "It seems to me, sir, that according to our agreement, we were to play until one of us had won five hundred thousand francs," he said haughtily.
"That's true--but we ought to play every day."
"Possibly: but I'm very busy just now. I wrote to you explaining this, did I not? If you are at all uneasy, tear up the book in which the results of our games are noted, and that shall be the end of it. You will gain considerably by the operation."
Kami-Bey felt that the baron would not tolerate his arrogance, and so with more moderation he exclaimed: "It isn't strange that I've become suspicious. I'm so victimized on every side. Because I'm a foreigner and immensely rich, everybody fancies he has a right to plunder me. Men, women, hotel-keepers and merchants, all unite in defrauding me. If I buy pictures, they sell me vile daubs at fabulous prices. They ask ridiculous amounts for horses, and then give me worthless, worn-out animals. Everybody borrows money from me--and I'm never repaid. I shall be ruined if this sort of thing goes on much longer."
He had taken a seat, and the baron saw that he was not likely to get rid of his guest very soon; so approaching Pascal he whispered: "You had better go off, or you may miss Valorsay. And be careful, mind; for he is exceedingly shrewd. Courage and good luck!"
Courage! It was not necessary to recommend that to Pascal. He who had triumphed over his despair in the terrible hours, when he had reason to suppose that Marguerite believed him guilty and had abandoned him, could scarcely lack courage. While he was condemned to inaction, his mind had no doubt been assailed by countless doubts and fears; but now that he knew whom he was to attack--now that the decisive moment had come, he was endowed with indomitable energy; he had turned to bronze, and he felt sure that nothing could disconcert or even trouble him in future. The weapons he had to use were not at all to his taste, but he had not been allowed a choice in the matter; and since his enemies had decided on a warfare of duplicity, he was resolved to surpass them in cunning, and vanquish them by deception.
So, while hastening to the Marquis de Valorsay's residence, he took stock of his chances, and recapitulated his resources, striving to foresee and remember everything. Thus if he failed-- for he admitted the possibility of defeat, without believing in it--he would have no cause to reproach himself. Only fools find consolation in saying: "Who could have foreseen that?" Great minds do foresee. And Pascal felt almost certain that he was fully prepared for any emergency.
That morning, before leaving home, he had dressed with extreme care, realizing that the shabby clothes he had worn on his first visit to the Trigault mansion would not be appropriate on such an occasion as this. The baron's agent could scarcely have a poverty-stricken appearance, for contact with millionaires is supposed to procure wealth as surely as proximity to fire insures warmth. So he arrayed himself in a suit of black, which was neither too elegant nor too much worn, and donned a broad white necktie. He could see only one immediate, decisive chance against him. M. de Valorsay might possibly recognize him. He thought not, but he was not sure; and anxious on this account, he at first decided to disguise himself. However, on reflection, he concluded not to do so. An imperfect disguise would attract attention and awaken suspicion; and could he really disguise his physiognomy? He was certain he could not. Very few men are capable of doing so successfully, even after long experience. Only two or three detectives and half a dozen actors possess the art of really changing their lineaments. Thus after weighing the pros and cons, Pascal determined to present himself as he was at the marquis's house.
On approaching M. de Valorsay's residence in the Avenue des Champs Elysees, he slackened his pace. The mansion, which stood between a courtyard and a garden, was very large and handsome. The stables and carriage-house--really elegant structures--stood on either side of the courtyard, near the half-open gate of which five or six servants were amusing themselves by teasing a large dog. Pascal was just saying to himself that the coast was clear, and that he should incur no danger by going in, when he saw the servants step aside, the gate swing back, and M. de Coralth emerged, accompanied by a young, fair-haired man, whose mustaches were waxed and turned up in the most audacious fashion. They were arm in arm, and turned in the direction of the Arc de Triomphe. Pascal's heart thrilled with joy. "Fate favors me!" he said to himself. "If it hadn't been for Kami-Bey, who detained me a full quarter of an hour at Baron Trigault's, I should have found myself face to face with that miserable viscount, and then all would have been lost. But now I'm safe!"
It was with this encouraging thought that he approached the house.
"The marquis is very busy this morning," said the servant to whom Pascal addressed himself at the gate. "I doubt if he can see you." But when Pascal handed him one of his visiting cards, bearing the name of Maumejan, with this addition in pencil: "Who calls as the representative of Baron Trigault," the valet's face changed as if by enchantment. "Oh!" said he, "that's quite a different matter. If you come from Baron Trigault, you will be received with all the respect due to the Messiah. Come in. I will announce you myself."
Everything in M. de Valorsay's house, as at the baron's residence, indicated great wealth, and yet a close observer would have detected a difference. The luxury of the Rue de la Ville-l'Eveque was of a real and substantial character, which one did not find in the Avenue des Champs Elysees. Everything in the marquis's abode bore marks of the haste which mars the merest trifle produced at the present age. "Take a seat here, and I will see where the marquis is," said the servant, as he ushered Pascal into a large drawing-room. The apartment was elegantly furnished, but had somewhat lost its freshness; the carpet, which had once been a marvel of beauty, was stained in several places, and as the servants had not always been careful to keep the shutters closed, the sunlight had perceptibly faded the curtains. The attention of visitors was at once attracted by the number of gold and silver cups, vases, and statuettes scattered about on side-tables and cheffoniers. Each of these objects bore an inscription, setting forth that it had been won at such a race, in such a year, by such a horse, belonging to the Marquis de Valorsay. These were indeed the marquis's chief claims to glory, and had cost him at least half of the immense fortune he had inherited. However, Pascal did not take much interest in these trophies, so the time of waiting seemed long. "Valorsay is playing the diplomat," he thought. "He doesn't wish to appear to be anxious. Unfortunately, his servant has betrayed him."
At last the valet returned. "The marquis will see you now, monsieur," said he.
This summons affected Pascal's heart like the first roll of a drum beating the charge. But his coolness did not desert him. "Now is the decisive moment," he thought. "Heaven grant that he may not recognize me!" And with a firm step he followed the valet.
M. de Valorsay was seated in the apartment he usually occupied when he remained at home--a little smoking-room connected with his bedroom. He was to all intents busily engaged in examining some sporting journals. A bottle of Madeira and a partially filled glass stood near him. As the servant announced "Monsieur Maumejan!" he looked up and his eyes met Pascal's. But his glance did not waver; not a muscle of his face moved; his countenance retained its usually cold and disdainful expression. Evidently he had not the slightest suspicion that the man he had tried to ruin-- his mortal enemy--was standing there before him.
"M. Maumejan," said he, "Baron Trigault's agent?"
"Pray be seated. I am just finishing here; I shall be at leisure in a moment."
Pascal took a chair. He had feared that he might not be able to retain his self-control when he found himself in the presence of the scoundrel who, after destroying his happiness, ruining his future, and depriving him of his honor--dearer than life itself-- was at that moment endeavoring, by the most infamous manoeuvres, to rob him of the woman he loved. "If my blood mounted to my brain," he had thought, "I should spring upon him and strangle him!" But no. His arteries did not throb more quickly; it was with perfect calmness--the calmness of a strong nature--that he stealthily watched M. de Valorsay. If he had seen him a week before he would have been startled by the change which the past few days had wrought in this brilliant nobleman's appearance. He was little more than a shadow of his former self. And seen at this hour, before placing himself in his valet's hands, before his premature decrepitude had been concealed by the artifices of the toilet, he was really frightful. His face was haggard, and his red and swollen eyelids betrayed a long-continued want of sleep.
The fact is, he had suffered terribly during the past week. A man may be a scapegrace and a spendthrift and may boast of it; he may have no principle and no conscience; he may be immoral, he may defy God and the devil, but it is nevertheless true that he suffers fearful anguish of mind when he is guilty, for the first time, of a positive crime, forbidden by the laws and punishable with the galleys. And who can say how many crimes the Marquis de Valorsay had committed since the day he provided his accomplice, the Viscount de Coralth, with those fatal cards? And apart from this there was something extremely appalling in the position of this ruined millionaire, who was contending desperately against his creditors for the vain appearance of splendor, with the despairing energy of a ship-wrecked mariner struggling for the possession of a floating spar. Had he not confessed to M. Fortunat that he had suffered the tortures of the damned in his struggle to maintain a show of wealth, while he was often without a penny in his pocket, and was ever subject to the pitiless surveillance of thirty servants? His agony, when he thought of his precarious condition, could only be compared to that of a miner, who, while ascending from the bowels of the earth, finds that the rope, upon which his life depends, is slowly parting strand by strand, and who asks himself, in terror, if the few threads that still remain unsevered will be strong enough to raise him to the mouth of the pit.
However, the moment which M. de Valorsay had asked for had lengthened into a quarter of an hour, and he had not yet finished his work. "What the devil is he doing?" wondered Pascal, who was following his enemy's slightest movement with eager curiosity.
Countless sporting newspapers were strewn over the table, the chairs, and the floor around the marquis, who took them up one after another, glanced rapidly through their columns, and threw them on the floor again. or placed them on a pile before him, first marking certain passages with a red pencil. At last, probably fearing that Pascal was growing impatient, he looked up and said:
"I am really very sorry to keep you waiting so long, but some one is waiting for this work to be completed."
"Oh! pray continue, Monsieur le Marquis," interrupted Pascal. "Strange to say, I have a little leisure at my command just now."
The marquis seemed to feel that it was necessary to make some remark in acknowledgment of this courtesy on his visitor's part, and so, as he continued his work, he condescended to explain its purpose. "I am playing the part of a commentator," he remarked. "I sold seven of my horses a few days ago, and the purchaser, before paying the stipulated price, naturally required an exact and authentic statement of each animal's performances. However, even this does not seem to have satisfied the gentleman, for he has now taken it into his head to ask for such copies of the sporting journals as record the victories or defeats of the animals he has purchased. A gentleman is not so exacting generally. It is true, however, that I have a foreigner to deal with--one of those half-civilized nabobs who come here every year to astonish the Parisians with their wealth and display, and who, by their idiotic prodigality, have so increased the price of everything that life has become well-nigh an impossibility to such of us as don't care to squander an entire fortune in a couple of years. These folks are the curse of Paris, for, with but few exceptions, they only use their millions to enrich notorious women, scoundrels, hotel-keepers, and jockeys."
Pascal at once thought of the foreigner, Kami-Bey, whom he had met at Baron Trigault's half an hour before, and who had complained so bitterly of having had worthless scrubs palmed off upon him when he fancied he had purchased valuable animals. "Kami-Bey must be this exacting purchaser," thought Pascal, "and it's probable that the marquis, desperately straitened as he is, has committed one of those frauds which lead their perpetrator to prison?" The surmise was by no means far-fetched, for in sporting matters, at least, there was cause to suspect Valorsay of great elasticity of conscience. Had he not already been accused of defrauding Domingo's champions by a conspiracy?
At last the marquis heaved a sigh of relief. "I've finished," he muttered, as he tied up the bundle of papers he had laid aside, and after ringing the bell, he said to the servant who answered the summons: "Here, take this package to Prince Kami at the Grand Hotel."
Pascal's presentiments had not deceived him, and he said to himself: "This is a good thing to know. Before this evening I shall look into this affair a little."
A storm was decidedly gathering over the Marquis de Valorsay's head. Did he know it? Certainly he must have expected it. Still he had sworn to stand fast until the end. Besides, he would not concede that all was lost; and, like most great gamblers, he told himself that since he had so much at stake, he might reasonably hope to succeed. He rose, stretched himself, as a man is apt to do after the conclusion of a tiresome task, and then, leaning against the mantel-shelf, he exclaimed: "Now, Monsieur Maumejan, let us speak of the business that brings you here." His negligent attitude and his careless tone were admirably assumed, but a shrewd observer would not have been deceived by them, or by the indifferent manner in which he added: "You bring me some money from Baron Trigault?"
Pascal shook his head, as he replied: "I regret to say that I don't, Monsieur le Marquis."
This response had the same effect as a heavy rock falling upon M. de Valorsay's bald pate. He turned whiter than his linen, and even tottered, as if his lame leg, which was so much affected by sudden changes in the weather, had utterly refused all service. "What! You haven't--this is undoubtedly a joke."
"It is only too serious!"
"But I had the baron's word."
"Oh! his word!"
"I had his solemn promise."
"It is sometimes impossible to keep one's promises, sir."
The consequences of this disappointment must have been terrible, for the marquis could not maintain his self-control. Still he strove valiantly to conceal his emotion. He thought to himself that if he allowed this man to see what a terrible blow this really was, he would virtually confess his absolute ruin, and have to renounce the struggle, and own himself vanquished and lost. So, summoning all his energy, he mastered his emotion in some degree, and, instead of appearing desperate, succeeded in looking only irritated and annoyed. "In short," he resumed, angrily, "you have brought no money! I counted on a hundred thousand francs this morning. Nothing! This is kind on the baron's part! But probably he doesn't understand the embarrassing position in which he places me."
"Excuse me, Monsieur le Marquis, he understands it so well that, instead of informing you by a simple note. he sent me to acquaint you with his sincere regret. When I left him an hour ago, he was really disconsolate. He was particularly anxious I should tell you that it was not his fault. He counted upon the payment of two very large amounts, and both of these have failed him."
The marquis had now recovered a little from the shock, though he was still very pale. He looked at Pascal with evident distrust, for he knew with what sweet excuses well-bred people envelope their refusals. "So the baron is disconsolate," he remarked, in a tone of perceptible irony.
"He is indeed!"
"Poor baron! Ah! I pity him--pity him deeply."
As cold and as unmoved as a statue, Pascal seemed quite unconscious of the effect of the message he had brought--quite unconscious of Valorsay's sufferings and self-constraint. "You think I am jesting, monsieur," he said, quietly, "but I assure you that the baron is very short of money just now."
"Nonsense! a man worth seven or eight millions of francs."
"I should say ten millions, at least."
"Then the excuse is all the more absurd."
Pascal shrugged his shoulders disdainfully. "It astonishes me, Monsieur le Marquis, to hear you speak in this way. It is not the magnitude of a man's income that constitutes affluence, but rather the way in which that income is spent. In this foolish age, almost all rich people are in arrears. What income does the baron derive from his ten millions of francs? Not more than five hundred thousand. A very handsome fortune, no doubt, and I should be more than content with it. But the baron gambles, and the baroness is the most elegant--in other words, the most extravagant--woman in Paris. They both of them love luxury, and their establishment is kept up in princely style. What are five hundred thousand francs under such circumstances as those? Their situation must be something like that of several millionaires of my acquaintance, who are obliged to take their silver to the pawn-broker's while waiting for their rents to fall due."
This excuse might not be true, but it was certainly a very plausible one. Had not a recent lawsuit revealed the fact that certain rich folks, who had an income of more than a hundred thousand francs a year, had kept a thieving coachman for six months, simply because, in all that time, they were not able to raise the eight hundred francs they owed him, and which must be paid before he was dismissed? M. de Valorsay knew this, but a terrible disquietude seized him. Had people begun to suspect his embarrassment? Had any rumor of it reached Baron Trigault's ears? This was what he wished to ascertain. "Let us understand each other, Monsieur Maumejan," said he; "the baron was unable to procure this money he had promised me to-day--but when will he let me have it?"
Pascal opened his eyes in pretended astonishment, and it was with an air of the utmost simplicity that he replied, "I concluded the baron would take no further action in the matter. I judged so from his parting words: 'It consoles me a little,' he said, 'to think that the Marquis de Valorsay is very rich and very well known, and that he has a dozen friends who will be delighted to do him this trifling service.'"
Until now, M. de Valorsay had cherished a hope that the loan was only delayed, and the certainty that the decision was final, crushed him. "My ruin's known," he thought, and feeling that his strength was deserting him, he poured out a brimming glass of Madeira, which he emptied at a single draught. The wine lent him fictitious energy. Fury mounted to his brain; he lost all control over himself, and springing up, with his face purple with rage, he exclaimed: "It's a shame! an infamous shame! and Trigault deserves to be severely punished. He has no business to keep a man in hot water for three days about such a trifle. If he had said 'No' in the first place, I should have made other arrangements, and I shouldn't now find myself in a dilemma from which I see no possible way of escape. No gentleman would have been guilty of such a contemptible act--no one but a shopkeeper or a thief would have stooped to such meanness! This is the result of admitting these ridiculous parvenus into society, just because they happen to have money."
It certainly hurt Pascal to hear these insults heaped upon the baron, and it hurt him all the more since they were entirely due to the course he had personally adopted.
However, a gesture, even a frown, might endanger the success of his undertaking, so he preserved an impassive countenance. "I must say that I don't understand your indignation, Monsieur le Marquis," he said, coldly. "I can see why you might feel annoyed, but why you should fly into a passion--"
"Ah! you don't know----" began M. de Valorsay, but he stopped short. It was time. The truth had almost escaped his lips.
"Know what?" inquired Pascal.
But the marquis was again upon his guard. "I have a debt that must be paid this evening, at all hazards--a sacred obligation--in short, a debt of honor."
"A debt of one hundred thousand francs?"
"No, it is only twenty-five thousand."
"Is it possible that a rich man like you can be troubled about such a trifling sum, which any one would lend you?"
M. de Valorsay interrupted him with a contemptuous sneer. "Didn't you just tell me that we were living in an age when no one has any money except those who are in business? The richest of my friends have only enough for themselves, even if they have enough. The time of old stockings, stuffed full of savings, is past! Shall I apply to a banker? He would ask two days for reflection, and he would require the names of two or three of my friends on the note. If I go to my notary, there will be endless forms to be gone through, and remonstrances without number."
For a moment or more already, Pascal had been moving about uneasily on his chair, like a man who is waiting for an opportunity to make a suggestion, and as soon as M. de Valorsay paused to take breath, he exclaimed: "Upon my word! if I dared----"
"I would offer to obtain you these twenty-five thousand francs."
"Before six o'clock this evening?"
A glass of ice-water presented to a parched traveller while journeying over the desert sands of Sahara could not impart greater relief and delight than the marquis experienced on hearing Pascal's offer. He literally felt that he was restored to life.
For ruin was inevitable if he did not succeed in obtaining twenty- five thousand francs that day. If he could procure that amount he might obtain a momentary respite, and to gain time was the main thing. Moreover, the offer was a sufficient proof that his financial difficulties were not known. "Ah! I have had a fortunate escape," he thought. "What if I had revealed the truth!"
But he was careful to conceal the secret joy that filled his heart. He feared lest he might say "Yes" too quickly, so betray his secret, and place himself at the mercy of the baron's envoy. "I would willingly accept your offer," he exclaimed, "if----"
"Would it be proper for me, after the baron has treated me in such a contemptible manner, to have any dealings with one of his subordinates?"
Pascal protested vigorously. "Allow me to say," he exclaimed, "that I am not any one's subordinate. Trigault is my client, like thirty or forty others--nothing more. He employs me in certain difficult and delicate negotiations, which I conduct to the best of my ability. He pays me, and we are each of us perfectly independent of the other."
From the look which Valorsay gave Pascal, one would have sworn that he suspected who his visitor really was. But such was not the case. It was simply this: a strange, but by no means impossible, idea had flashed through the marquis's mind--"Oh!" thought he, "this unknown party with whom Maumejan offers to negotiate the loan, is probably none other than the baron himself. That worthy gambler has invented this ingenious method of obliging me so as to extort a rate of interest which he would not dare to demand openly. And why not? There have been plenty of such instances. Isn't it a well-known fact that the N---- Brothers, the most rigidly honest financiers in the world, have never under any circumstances directly obliged one of their friends? If their own father, of whom they always speak with the greatest veneration, asked them to lend him fifty francs for a month, they would say to him as they do to every one else: 'We are rather cramped just now; but see that rascal B----.' And that rascal B----, who is the most pliable tool in existence, will, providing father N---- offers unquestionable security, lend the old gentleman his son's money at from twelve to fifteen per cent. interest, plus a small commission."
These ideas and recollections were of considerable assistance in restoring Valorsay's composure. "Enough said, then," he answered, lightly. "I accept with pleasure. But----"
"Ah! so there is a but!"
"There is always one. I must warn you that it will be difficult for me to repay this loan in less than two months."
This, then, was the time he thought necessary for the accomplishment of his designs.
"That does not matter," replied Pascal, "and even if you desire a longer delay "
"That will be unnecessary, thank you! But there is one thing more."
"What is that?"
"What will this negotiation cost me?"
Pascal had expected this question, and he had prepared a reply which was in perfect keeping with the spirit of the role he had assumed. "I shall charge you the ordinary rates," he answered, "six per cent. interest, plus one-and-a-half per cent. commission."
"Plus the remuneration for my trouble and services."
"And what remuneration will satisfy you?"
"One thousand francs. Is it too much?"
If the marquis had retained the shadow of a doubt, it vanished now. "Ah!" he sneered, "that strikes me as a very liberal compensation for your services!"
But he would gladly have recalled the sneer when he saw how the agent received it. Pascal drew up his head with a deeply injured air, and remarked in the chilling tone of a person who is strongly tempted to retract his word, "Then there is nothing more to be said, M. le Marquis; and since you find the conditions onerous----"
"I did not say so," interrupted M. de Valorsay, quickly--"I did not even think it!"
This gave Pascal an opportunity to present his programme, and he availed himself of it. "Others may pretend to oblige people merely from motives of friendship," he remarked. "But I am more honest. If I do anything in the way of business, I expect to be paid for it; and I vary my terms according to my clients' need. It would be impossible to have a fixed price for services like mine. When, on two different occasions, I saved a gentleman of your acquaintance from bankruptcy, I asked ten thousand francs the first time, and fifteen thousand the second. Was that an exaggerated estimate of my services? I might boast with truth that I once assured the marriage of a brilliant viscount by keeping his creditors quiet while his courtship was in progress. The day after the wedding he paid me twenty thousand francs. Didn't he owe them to me? If, instead of being a trifle short of money, you happened to be ruined, I should not ask you merely for a thousand francs. I should study your position, and fix my terms according to the magnitude of the peril from which I rescued you."
There was not a sentence, not a word of this cynical explanation which had not been carefully studied beforehand. There was not an expression which was not a tempting bait to the marquis's evil instincts. But M de Valorsay made no sign. "I see that you are a shrewd man, Monsieur Maumejan," said he, "and if I am ever in difficulty I shall apply to you."
Pascal bowed with an air of assumed modesty; but he was inwardly jubilant, for he felt that his enemy would certainly fall into the trap which had been set for him. "And now, when shall I have this money?" inquired the marquis.
"By four o'clock."
"And I need fear no disappointment as in the baron's case?"
"Certainly not. What interest would M. Trigault have in lending you a hundred thousand francs? None whatever. With me it is quite a different thing. The profit I'm to realize is your security. In business matters distrust your friends. Apply to usurers rather than to them. Question people who are in difficulties, and ninety-five out of a hundred will tell you that their worst troubles have been caused by those who called themselves their best friends."
He had risen to take leave, when the door of the smoking-room opened, and a servant appeared and said in an undertone: "Madame Leon is in the drawing-room with Dr. Jodon. They wish to see you, monsieur."
Though Pascal had armed himself well against any unexpected mischance, he changed color on hearing the name of the worthy housekeeper. "All is lost if this creature sees and recognizes me!" he thought.
Fortunately the Marquis was too much engrossed in his own affairs to note the momentary agitation of Baron Trigault's envoy. "It is strange that I can't have five minutes' peace and quietness," he said. "I told you that I was at home to no one."
"Enough! Let the lady and gentleman wait."
The servant withdrew.
The thought of passing out through the drawing-room filled Pascal with consternation. How could he hope to escape Madame Leon's keen eyes? Fortunately M. de Valorsay came to his relief, for as Pascal was about to open the same door by which he had entered, the marquis exclaimed: "Not that way! Pass out here--this is the shortest way."
And leading him through his bedroom the marquis conducted him to the staircase, where he even feigned to offer him his hand, saying: "A speedy return, dear M. Maumejan."
It is not at the moment of peril that people endure the worst agony; it is afterward, when they have escaped it. As he went down the staircase, Pascal wiped the cold sweat from his forehead. "Ah! it was a narrow escape!" he exclaimed, under his breath.
He felt proud of the manner in which he had sustained a part so repugnant to his nature. He was amazed to find that he could utter falsehoods with such a calm, unblushing face--he was astonished at his own audacity. And what a success he had achieved! He felt certain that he had just slipped round M. de Valorsay's neck the noose which would strangle him later on. Still he was considerably disturbed by Madame Leon's visit to the marquis. "What is she doing here with this physician?" he asked himself again and again. "Who is this man? What new piece of infamy are they plotting to require his services?" One of those presentiments which are prompted by the logic of events, told him that this physician had been, or would be, one of the actors in the vile conspiracy of which he and Mademoiselle Marguerite were the victims. But he had no leisure to devote to the solution of this enigma. Time was flying, and before returning to the marquis's house he must find out what had aroused the suspicions of the purchaser of those horses, the biographies of which had been so rigidly exacted. Through the baron, he might hope to obtain an interview with Kami-Bey--and so it was to the baron's house that Pascal directed his steps.
After the more than cordial reception which the baron had granted him that morning, it was quite natural that the servants should receive him as a friend of the household. They would scarcely allow him to explain what he desired. It was the pompous head valet in person who ushered him into one of the small reception- rooms, exclaiming: "The baron's engaged, but I'm sure he would be annoyed if he failed to see you; and I will inform him at once."
A moment later, the baron entered quite breathless from his hurried descent of the staircase. "Ah! you have been successful," he exclaimed, on seeing Pascal's face.
"Everything is progressing as favorably as I could wish, Monsieur le Baron, but I must speak with that foreigner whom I met here this morning."
"Yes." And in a few words, Pascal explained the situation.
"Providence is certainly on our side," said the baron, thoughtfully. "Kami is still here."
"Is it possible?"
"It's a fact. Did you think it would be easy to get rid of this confounded Turk! He invited himself to breakfast without the slightest ceremony, and would give me no peace until I promised to play with him for two hours. I was closeted with him, cards in hand, when they told me you were here. Come, we'll go and question him."
They found the interesting foreigner in a savage mood. He had been winning when the servant came for the baron, and he feared that an interruption would change the luck. "What the devil took you away?" he exclaimed, with that coarseness of manner which was habitual with him, and which the flatterers around him styled "form." "A man should no more be disturbed when he's playing than when he's eating."
"Come, come, prince," said the baron, good-naturedly, "don't be angry, and I'll give you three hours instead of two. But I have a favor to ask of you."
The foreigner at once thrust his hand into his pocket, with such a natural gesture, that neither the baron nor Pascal could repress a smile, and he himself understanding the cause of their merriment broke into a hearty laugh. "It's purely from force of habit," said he. "Ah! since I've been in Paris---- But what do you wish?"
The baron sat down, and gravely replied: "You told us scarcely an hour ago that you had been cheated in the purchase of some horses."
"Cheated! it was worse than highway robbery."
"Would it be indiscreet to ask you by whom you have been defrauded?"
Kami-Bey's purple cheeks became a trifle pale. "Hum!" said he, in an altered tone of voice, "that is a delicate question. My defrauder appears to be a dangerous fellow--a duellist--and if I disclose his knavery, he is quite capable of picking a quarrel with me--not that I am afraid of him, I assure you, but my principles don't allow me to fight. When a man has an income of a million, he doesn't care to expose himself to the dangers of a duel."
"But, prince, in France folks don't do a scoundrel the honor to cross swords with him."
"That's just what my steward, who is a Frenchman, told me; but no matter. Besides, I am not sufficiently sure of the man's guilt to noise it abroad. I have no positive proofs as yet."
He was evidently terribly frightened, and the first thing to be done was to reassure him. "Come," insisted the baron, "tell us the man's name. This gentleman here"--pointing to Pascal--"is one of my most esteemed friends. I will answer for him as I would for myself; and we will swear upon our honor not to reveal the secret we ask you for, without your permission."
"You have our word of honor," replied both the baron and Pascal in a breath.
After casting a half-frightened glance around him, the worthy Turk seemed to gather courage. But no! He deliberated some time, and then rejoined: "Really, I'm not sufficiently convinced of the accuracy of my suspicions to incur the risk of accusing a man who belongs in the very best society; a man who is very rich and very highly respected, and who would tolerate no imputations upon his character."
It was plain that he would not speak. The baron shrugged his shoulders, but Pascal stepped bravely forward. "Then I will tell you, prince," he said, "the name that you are determined to hide from us."
"But you must allow me to remark that the baron and myself retract the promise we made you just now."
"Then, your defrauder is the Marquis de Valorsay!"
If Kami-Bey had seen an emissary of his sovereign enter the room carrying the fatal bow-string he would not have seemed more terror-stricken. He sprang nervously on to his short, fat legs, his eyes wildly dilating and his hands fluttering despairingly. "Don't speak so loud! don't speak so loud!" he exclaimed, imploringly.
As he did not even attempt to deny it, the truth of the assertion might be taken for granted. But Pascal was not content with this. "Now that we know the fact, I hope, Prince, that you will be sufficiently obliging to tell us how it all happened," he remarked.
Poor Kami. He was in despair. "Alas!" he replied, reluctantly, "nothing could be more simple. I wanted to set up a racing stable. Not that I care much for sport. I can scarcely distinguish a horse from a mule--but morning and evening, everybody says to me: 'Prince, a man like you ought to make your name celebrated on the turf.' Besides I never open a paper without reading: 'Such a man ought to be a patron of the noblest of sports.' At last, I said to myself: 'Yes, they are right. I ought to take part in racing.' So I began to look about for some horses. I had purchased several, when the Marquis de Valorsay proposed to sell me some of his, some that were very well known, and that had--so he assured me--won at least ten times the amount they had cost him. I accepted his offer, and visited his stables, where I selected seven of his best horses and paid for them; and I paid a good round price, I assure you. Now comes the knavery. He has not given me the horses I purchased. The real animals, the valuable ones--have been sold in England under false names, and although the horses sent to me may be like the others in appearance, they are really only common animals, wanting both in blood and speed."
Pascal and the baron exchanged astonished glances. It must be confessed that frauds of every description are common enough in the racing world, and a great deal of dishonest manoeuvring results from greed for gain united with the fever of gambling. But never before had any one been accused of such an audacious and impudent piece of rascality as that which Kami-Bey imputed to Valorsay.
"How did you fail to discover this at the outset, prince?" inquired Pascal in an incredulous tone.
"Because my time was so much occupied."
"But your servants?"
"Ah! that's another thing. I shouldn't be at all surprised if it were proved that the man who has charge of my stables had been bribed by the marquis."
"Then, how were your suspicions aroused?"
"It was only by the merest chance. A jockey whom I thought of employing had often ridden one of the animals which I fancied myself the owner of. Naturally, I showed him the horse, but he had no sooner set eyes on it than he exclaimed: 'That the horse! Never! You've been cheated, prince!' Then we examined the others, and the fraud became apparent."
Knowing Kami's character better than Pascal, the baron had good reason to distrust the accuracy of these statements. For the Turkish millionaire's superb contempt of money was only affected. Vanity alone unloosed his purse-strings. He was quite capable of presenting Jenny Fancy with a necklace costing five-and-twenty thousand francs for the sake of seeing his generosity recorded in the Gaulois or the Figaro the next day; but he would refuse to give a trifle to the mother of a starving family. Besides, it was his ambition to be regarded as the most swindled man in Europe. But though he was shamefully imposed upon, it was not voluntarily-- for there was a strong dose of Arabian avarice and distrust in his composition.
"Frankly, prince," said the baron, "your story sounds like one of the wild legends of your native land. Valorsay is certainly no fool. How is it possible that he could have been guilty of so gross a fraud--a fraud which might be, which could not fail to be discovered in twenty-four hours--and which, once proven, would dishonor him forever?"
"Before perpetrating such a piece of deception upon any one else, he would have thought twice; but upon me it's different. Isn't it an established fact that a person incurs no risk in robbing Kami- Bey?"
"Had I been in your place I should have quietly instituted an investigation."
"What good would that have done? Besides, the sale was only conditional, and took place under the seal of secrecy. The marquis reserved the right to take his horses back on payment of a stipulated sum, and the time he was to have for consideration only expired on the day before yesterday."
"Eh! why didn't you tell us that at first?" cried the baron.
The marquis's rascality was now easily explained. Finding himself in a desperate strait, and feeling that his salvation was certain if he could only gain a little time, he had yielded to temptation, saying to himself, like unfaithful cashiers when they first appropriate their employers' money: "I will pay it back, and no one will ever know it!" However, when the day of settlement came he had found himself in as deplorable a plight as on the day of the robbery, and he had been compelled to yield to the force of circumstances.
"And what do you intend to do, prince?" asked Pascal.
"Ah! I am still in doubt. I have compelled the marquis to give me the papers in which the exploits of these horses are recorded. These statements will be of service in case of a law-suit. But shall I or shall I not enter a complaint against him? If it were a mere question of money I should let the matter drop; but he has defrauded and deceived me so outrageously that it annoys me. On the other hand, to confess that he has cheated me in this fashion would cover me with ridicule. Besides, the man is a dangerous enemy. And what would become of me if I happened to side against him? I should be compelled to leave Paris. Ah! I'd give ten thousand francs to any one who'd settle this cursed affair for me!"
His perplexity was so great, and his anger so intense, for that once he tore off his eternal fez and flung it on to the table, swearing like a drayman. However, controlling himself at last, he exclaimed in a tone of assumed indifference: "No matter, there's been enough said on this subject for one day--I'm here to play--so let us begin, baron. For we are wasting precious time, as you so often remark."
Pascal had nothing more to learn; so he shook hands with the baron, made an appointment with him for the same evening, and went away.
It was only half-past two; a good hour and a half remained at his disposal. "I will profit by this opportunity to eat something," he thought; a sudden faintness reminding him that he had taken nothing but a cup of chocolate that day. Thereupon perceiving a cafe near by, he entered it, ordered breakfast, and lingered there until it was time to return to the Marquis de Valorsay's. He would have gone there before the appointed time if he had merely listened to the promptings of his impatience, so thoroughly was he persuaded that this second interview would be decisive. But prudence advised him not to expose himself to the danger of an encounter with Madame Leon and Dr. Jodon.
"Well! Monsieur Maumejan," cried the marquis, as soon as Pascal made his appearance. He had been counting the seconds with intense anxiety, as his tone of voice unmistakably revealed.
In reply Pascal gravely drew from his pocket twenty-four bank- notes, of a thousand francs each, and he placed them upon the table, saying: "Here is the amount, Monsieur le Marquis. I have, of course, deducted my commission. Now, if you will write and sign a note for twenty-five thousand francs, payable to my order two months hence, our business for to-day will be concluded."
M. de Valorsay's hand trembled nervously as he penned the desired note, for, until the very last moment, he had doubted the promises of this unknown agent who had made his appearance so opportunely Then, when the document was signed, he carelessly slipped the money into a drawer and exclaimed: "So here's the needful to pay my debt of honor; but my embarrassment is none the less great. These twenty-four thousand francs won't take the place of the hundred thousand which Baron Trigault promised me."
And, as Pascal made no reply, the marquis began a desultory tramp up and down the smoking-room. He was very pale, his brows were knit; he looked like a man who was meditating a decisive step, and who was calculating the consequences. But having no time to waste in hesitation, he soon paused in front of Pascal, and exclaimed: "Since you have just lent me twenty-four thousand francs, why won't you lend me the rest?"
But Pascal shook his head. "One risks nothing by advancing twenty-five thousand francs to a person in your position, Monsieur le Marquis. Whatever happens, such a sum as that can always be gathered from the wreck. But double or triple the amount! The deuce! that requires reflection, and I must understand the situation thoroughly."
"And if I told you that I am--almost ruined, what would you reply?"
"I shouldn't be so very much surprised."
M. de Valorsay had now gone too far to draw back. "Ah, well!" he resumed, "the truth is this--my affairs are terribly involved."
"The devil! You should have told me that sooner."
"Wait; I am about to retrieve my fortune--to make it even larger than it has ever been. I am on the point of contracting a marriage which will make me one of the richest men in Paris; but I must have a little time to bring the affair to a successful termination, and I need money--and my creditors are pressing me unmercifully. You told me this morning that you once assisted a man who was in a similar position. Will you help me? You can set your own price on your services."
More easily overcome by joy than by sorrow, Pascal almost betrayed himself. He had attained his object. Still, he succeeded in conquering his emotion, and it was in a perfectly calm voice that he replied: "I can promise nothing until I understand the situation, Monsieur le Marquis. Will you explain it to me? I am listening."