Baron Trigault's Vengeance by Emile Gaboriau
Agitated and excited though he was, M. Wilkie had not once ceased to think of M. de Coralth and the Marquis de Valorsay. What would they do in such a position, and how should he act to conform himself to the probable example of these models of deportment? Manifestly he ought to assume that stolid and insolent air of boredom which is considered a sure indication of birth and breeding. Convinced of this, and seized with a laudable desire to emulate such distinguished examples, he had perched himself upon a trunk, where he still sat with his legs crossed. He now pretended to suppress a yawn, as he growled, "What! some more long phrases-- and another melodramatic display?"
Absorbed in the memories she had invoked, Madame d'Argeles paid no heed to Wilkie's impertinence. "Yes, I must talk with you," she said, "and more for your sake than for my own. I must tell you who I am, and through what strange vicissitudes I have passed. You know what family I belong to. I will tell you, however--for you may be ignorant of the fact--that our house is the equal of any in France in lineage, splendor of alliance, and fortune. When I was a child, my parents lived at the Hotel de Chalusse, in the Faubourg Saint Germain, a perfect palace, surrounded by one of those immense gardens, which are no longer seen in Paris--a real park, shaded with century-old trees. Certainly everything that money could procure, or vanity desire, was within my reach; and yet my youth was wretchedly unhappy. I scarcely knew my father, who was devoured by ambition, and had thrown himself body and soul into the vortex of politics. Either my mother did not love me, or thought it beneath her dignity to make any display of sensibility; but at all events her reserve had raised a wall of ice between herself and me. As for my brother he was too much engrossed in pleasure to think of a mere child. So I lived quite alone, too proud to accept the love and friendship of my inferiors--abandoned to the dangerous inspirations of solitude, and with no other consolation than my books--books which had been chosen for me by my mother's confessor, and which were calculated to fill my imagination with visionary and romantic fancies. The only conversation I heard dealt with the means of leaving all the family fortune to my brother, so that he might uphold the splendor of the name, and with the necessity of marrying me to some superannuated nobleman who would take me without a dowry, or of compelling me to enter one of those aristocratic convents, which are the refuge, and often the prison, of poor girls of noble birth.
"I do not pretend to justify my fault, I am only explaining it. I thought myself the most unfortunate being in the world--and such I really was, since I honestly believed it--when I happened to meet Arthur Gordon, your father. I saw him for the first time at a fete given at the house of the Comte de Commarin. How he, a mere adventurer, had succeeded in forcing his way into the most exclusive society in the world, is a point which I have never been able to explain. But, alas! it is only too true that when our glances met for the first time, my heart was stirred to its inmost depths; I felt that it was no longer mine--that I was no longer free! Ah! why does not God allow a man's face to reflect at least something of his nature? This man, who was a corrupt and audacious hypocrite, had that air of apparent nobility and frankness which inspires you with unlimited confidence, and the melancholy expression on his features seemed to indicate that he had known sorrow, and had good cause to rail at destiny. In his whole appearance there was certainly a mysterious and fatal charm. I afterward learned that this was only a natural result of the wild life he had led. He was only twenty-six, and he had already been the commander of a slave ship, and had fought in Mexico at the head of one of those guerilla bands which make politics an excuse for pillage and murder. He divined only too well the impression he had made upon my heart. I met him twice afterward in society. He did not speak to me; he even pretended to avoid me, but standing a little on one side, he watched my every movement with burning eyes in which I fancied I could read a passion as absorbing as my own. At last he ventured to write to me. The moment a letter addressed to me in an unknown hand was covertly handed me by my maid, I divined that it came from him. I was frightened, and my first impulse was to take it, not to my mother-- whom I regarded as my natural enemy--but to my father. However, he chanced to be absent; I kept the letter, I read it, I answered it--and he wrote again.
"Alas! from that moment my conduct was inexcusable. I knew that it was worse than a fault to continue this clandestine correspondence. I knew my parents would never give my hand in marriage to a man who was not of noble birth. I knew that I was risking my reputation, the spotless honor of our house, my happiness, and life! Still I persisted--I was possessed with a strange madness that made me ready to brave every danger. Besides, he gave me no time to breathe, or reflect. Everywhere, constantly, every instant, he compelled me to think of him. By some miracle of address and audacity, he had discovered a means of intruding upon my presence, even in my father's house. For instance, every morning I found the vases in my room full of choice flowers, though I was never able to discover what hands had placed them there. Ah! how can one help believing in an omnipresent passion which one inhales with the very air one breathes! How can one resist it?
"I only discovered Arthur Gordon's object when it was too late. He had come to Paris with the fixed determination of trapping some rich heiress, and forcing her family to give her to him with a large dowry, after one of those disgraceful scandals which render a marriage inevitable. At the very same time he was pursuing two other rich young girls, persuaded that one of the three would certainly become his victim.
"I was the first to yield. One of those unforeseen events which are the work of Providence, was destined to decide my fate. Several times, already, in compliance with Arthur's urgent entreaties, I had met him at night time in a little pavilion in our garden. This pavilion contained a billiard-room and a spacious gallery in which my brother practised fencing and pistol shooting with his masters and friends. There, thanks to the liberty I enjoyed, we thought ourselves perfectly secure from observation, and we were imprudent enough to light the candles. One night when I had just joined Arthur in the pavilion, I thought I heard the sound of hoarse, heavy breathing behind me. I turned round in a fright and saw my brother standing on the threshold. Oh! then I realized how guilty I had been! I felt that one or the other of these two men--my lover or my brother--would not leave that room alive.
"I tried to speak, to throw myself between them, but I found I could neither speak nor move; it was as if I had been turned to stone. Nor did they exchange a word at first. But at last my brother drew two swords from their scabbards, and throwing one at Arthur's feet, exclaimed: 'I have no wish to assassinate you. Defend yourself, and save your life if you can!' And as Arthur hesitated, and seemed to be trying to gain time instead of picking up the weapon that was lying on the floor near him, my brother struck him in the face with the flat side of his sword, and cried: 'Now will you fight, you coward! In an instant it was all over. Arthur caught up the sword, and springing upon my brother, disarmed him, and wounded him in the breast. I saw this. I saw the blood spurt out upon my lover's hands. I saw my brother stagger, beat the air wildly with his hands, and fall apparently lifeless to the floor. Then I, too, lost consciousness and fell!"
Any one who had seen Madame d'Argeles as she stood there recoiling in horror, with her features contracted, and her eyes dilated, would have realized that by strength of will she had dispelled the mists enshrouding the past, and distinctly beheld the scene she was describing. She seemed to experience anew the same agony of terror she had felt twenty years before; and this lent such poignant intensity to the interest of her narrative that if M. Wilkie's heart was not exactly touched, he was, as he afterward confessed, at least rather interested. But Madame d'Argeles seemed to have forgotten his existence. She wiped away the foam- flecked blood which had risen to her lips, and in the same mournful voice resumed her story.
"When I regained my senses it was morning, and I was lying, still dressed, on a bed in a strange room. Arthur Gordon was standing at the foot of the bed anxiously watching my movements. He did not give me time to question him. 'You are in my house,' said he. 'Your brother is dead!' Almighty God! I thought I should die as well. I hoped so. I prayed for death. But, in spite of my sobs, he pitilessly continued: 'It is a terrible misfortune which I shall never cease to regret. And yet, it was his own fault. You, who witnessed the scene. know that it was so. You can still see on my face the mark of the blow he dealt me. I only defended myself and you.' I was ignorant then of the accepted code of duelling. I did not know that by throwing himself upon my brother before he was on guard, Arthur Gordon had virtually assassinated him. He relied upon my ignorance for the success of the sinister farce he was playing. 'When I saw your brother fall,' he continued, 'I was wild with terror; and not knowing what I did, I caught you up in my arms and brought you here. But don't tremble, I know that you are not in my house of your own free will. A carriage is below and awaits your orders to convey you to your parents' home. It will be easy to find an explanation for last night's catastrophe. Slander will not venture to attack such a family as yours.' He spoke in the constrained tone, and with that air which a brave man, condemned to death, would assume in giving utterance to his last wishes. I felt as if I were going mad. 'And you!' I exclaimed, 'you! What will become of you?' He shook his head, and with a look of anguish, replied: 'Me! What does it matter about me! I am ruined undoubtedly. So much the better. Nothing matters now that I must live apart from you'! Ah! he knew my heart. He knew his power! Swayed by an emotion which was madness rather than heroism, I sprang toward him, and clasped him in my arms: 'Then I, too, am lost!' I cried. 'Since fate united us, nothing but death shall separate us. I love you. I am your accomplice. Let the curse fall upon both!'
"A keen observer would certainly have detected a gleam of fiendish joy in his eyes. But he protested, or pretended to protest. With feigned energy he refused to accept such a sacrifice. He could not link my destiny to his, for misery had ever been his lot; and now that this last and most terrible misfortune had overtaken him, he was more than ever convinced that there was a curse hanging over him! He would not suffer me to bring misery upon myself, and eternal remorse upon him. But the more he repulsed me, the more obstinately I clung to him. The more forcibly he showed the horror of the sacrifice, the more I was convinced that my honor compelled me to make it. So at last he yielded, or seemed to yield, with transports of gratitude and love. 'Well! yes, I accept your sacrifice, my darling!' he exclaimed. 'I accept it; and before the God who is looking down upon us, I swear that I will do all that is in human power to repay such sublime and marvellous devotion.' And, bending over me, he printed a kiss upon my forehead. 'But we must fly!' he resumed, quickly. 'I have my happiness to defend now! I will not suffer any one to discover us and separate us now. We must start at once, without losing a moment, and gain my native land, America. There, we shall be safe. For rest assured they will search for us. Who knows but even now the officers of the law are upon our track? Your family is all-powerful--I am a mere nobody--we should be crushed if they discover us. They would bury you in a gloomy cloister, and I should be tried as a common thief, or as a vile assassin.' My only answer was: 'Let us go! Let us go at once!'
"It had been easy for him to foresee what the result of this interview would be. A vehicle was indeed waiting at the door, but not for the purpose of conveying me to the Hotel de Chalusse--as was proved conclusively by the fact that his trunks were already strapped upon it. Besides, the coachman must have received his instructions in advance for he drove us straight to the Havre Railway station without a word. It was not until some months afterward that these trifles, which entirely escaped my notice at the time, opened my eyes to the truth. When we reached the station we found a train ready to start, and we took our places in it. I tried to quiet my conscience with miserable sophistries. Remembering that God has said to woman: To follow thy husband thou shalt abandon all else, native land, paternal home, parents and friends, I told myself that this was the husband whom my heart had instinctively chosen, and that it was my duty to follow him and share his destiny. And thus I fled with him, although I thought I left a corpse behind me--the corpse of my only brother."
M. Wilkie was actually so much interested that he forgot his anxiety concerning his attitude, and no longer thought of M. de Coralth and the Marquis de Valorsay. He even sprang up, and exclaimed: "Amazing!"
But Madame d'Argeles had already resumed: "Such was my great, inexcusable, irreparable fault. I have told you the whole truth, without trying either to conceal or justify anything. Listen to my chastisement! On our arrival at Le Havre the next day, Arthur confessed that he was greatly embarrassed financially. Owing to our precipitate flight, he had not had time to realize the property he possessed--at least so he told me--a banker, on whom he had depended, had moreover failed him, and he had not sufficient money to pay our passage to New York. This amazed me. My education had been absurd, like that of most young girls in my station. I knew nothing of real life, of its requirements and difficulties. I knew, of course, that there were rich people and poor people, that money was a necessity, and that those who did not possess it would stoop to any meanness to obtain it. But all this was not very clear in my mind, and I never suspected that a few francs more or less would be a matter of vital importance. So I was not in the least prepared for the request to which this confession served as preface, and Arthur Gordon was obliged to ask me point-blank if I did not happen to have some money about me, or some jewelry which could be converted into money. I gave him all I had, my purse containing a few louis, a ring and a necklace, with a handsome diamond cross attached to it. However, the total value was comparatively small, and such was Arthur's disappointment that he made a remark which frightened me even then, though I did not fully understand its shameful meaning until afterward: 'A woman who repairs to a rendezvous should always have all the valuables she possesses about her. One never knows what may happen.'
"Want of money was keeping us prisoners at Le Havre, when Arthur Gordon chanced to meet an old acquaintance, who was the captain of an American sailing vessel. He confided his embarrassment to his friend, and the latter, whose vessel was to sail at the end of the same week, kindly offered us a free passage. The voyage was one long torture to me, for it was then that I first served my apprenticeship in shame and disgrace. By the captain's offensive gallantry, the lower officers' familiarity of manner, and the sailors' ironical glances whenever I appeared on deck, I saw that my position was a secret for no one. Everybody knew that I was the mistress and not the wife of the man whom I called my husband: and, without being really conscious of it, perhaps, they made me cruelly expiate my fault. Moreover, reason had regained its ascendency, my eyes were gradually opening to the truth, and I was beginning to learn the real character of the scoundrel for whom I had sacrificed all that makes life desirable.
"Not that he had wholly ceased to practise dissimulation. But after the evening meal he often lingered at table smoking and drinking with his friend the captain, and when he joined me afterward, heated with alcohol, he shocked me by advocating theories which were both novel and repulsive to me. Once, after drinking more than usual, he entirely forgot his assumed part, and revealed himself in his true character. He declared he bitterly regretted that our love affair had ended so disastrously. It was deplorable to think that so happily conceived and so skilfully conducted a scheme should have terminated in bloodshed. And the blow had fallen just as he fancied he had reached the goal; just as he thought he would reap the reward of his labor. In a few weeks' more time he would undoubtedly have gained sufficient influence over me to persuade me to elope with him. This would, of course, have caused a great scandal; the next day there would have been a family conclave; a compromise would have been effected, and finally, a marriage arranged with a large dowry, to hush up the affair. 'And I should now be a rich man,' he added, 'a very rich man--I should be rolling through the streets of Paris in my carriage, instead of being on board this cursed ship, eating salt cod twice a day, and living on charity.'
"Ah! it was no longer possible to doubt. The truth was as clear as daylight. I had never been loved, not even an hour, not even a moment. The loving letters which had blinded me, the protestations of affection which had deceived me, had been addressed to my father's millions, not to myself. And not unfrequently I saw Arthur Gordon's face darken, as he talked with evident anxiety about what he could do to earn a living for himself and me in America. 'I have had trouble enough to get on alone,' he grumbled. 'What will it be now? To burden myself with a penniless wife! What egregious folly! And yet I couldn't have acted differently--I was compelled to do it.' Why had he been compelled to do it? why had he not acted differently?--that was what I vainly puzzled my brain to explain. However, his gloomy fears of poverty were not realized. A delightful surprise awaited him at New York. A relative had recently died, leaving him a legacy of fifty thousand dollars--a small fortune. I hoped that he would now cease his constant complaints, but he seemed even more displeased than before. 'Such is the irony of fate,' he repeated again and again. 'With this money, I might easily have married a wife worth a hundred thousand dollars, and then I should be rich at last!' After that, I had good reason to expect that I should soon be forsaken--but no, shortly after our arrival, he married me. Had he done so out of respect for his word? I believed so. But, alas! this marriage was the result of calculation, like everything else he did.
"We were living in New York, when one evening he came home, looking very pale and agitated. He had a French newspaper in his hand. 'Read this,' he said, handing it to me. I took the paper as he bade me, and read that my brother had not been killed, that he was improving, and that his recovery was now certain. And as I fell on my knees, bursting into tears, and thanking God for freeing me from such terrible remorse, he exclaimed: 'We are in a nice fix! I advise you to congratulate yourself! 'From that time forward, I noticed he displayed the feverish anxiety of a man who feels that he is constantly threatened with some great danger. A few days afterward, he said to me: 'I cannot endure this! Have our trunks ready to-morrow, and we will start South. Instead of calling ourselves Gordon, we'll travel under the name of Grant.' I did not venture to question him. He had quite mastered me by his cruel tyranny, and I was accustomed to obey him like a slave in terror of the lash. However, during our long journey, I learned the cause of our flight and change of name.
"'Your brother, d--n him,' he said, one day, 'is hunting for me everywhere! He wants to kill me or to deliver me up to justice, I don't know which. He pretends that I tried to murder him!' It was strange; but Arthur Gordon, who was bravery personified, and who exposed himself again and again to the most frightful dangers, felt a wild, unreasoning, inconceivable fear of my brother. It was this dread that had decided him to burden himself with me. He feared that if he left me, lying unconscious beside my brother's lifeless form, I might on recovering my senses reveal the truth, and unconsciously act as his accuser. You were born in Richmond, Wilkie, where we remained nearly a month, during which time I saw but little of your father. He had formed the acquaintance of several rich planters, and spent his time hunting and gambling with them. Unfortunately, fifty thousand dollars could not last long at this rate; and, in spite of his skill as a gambler, he returned home one morning ruined. A fortnight later when he had sold our effects, and borrowed all the money he could, we embarked again for France. It was not until we reached Paris that I discovered the reasons that had influenced him in returning to Europe. He had heard of my father and mother's death, and intended to compel me to claim my share of the property. He dared not appear in person on account of my brother. At last the hour of my vengeance had arrived; for I had taken a solemn oath that this scoundrel who had ruined me should never enjoy the fortune which had been his only object in seducing me. I had sworn to die inch by inch and by the most frightful tortures rather than give him one penny of the Chalusse millions. And I kept my word.
"When I told him that I was resolved not to assert my rights, he seemed utterly confounded. He could not understand how the down- trodden slave dared to revolt against him. And when he found that my decision was irrevocable, I thought he would have an attack of apoplexy. It made him wild with rage to think that he was only separated from this immense fortune--the dream of his life--by a single word of mine, and to find that he had not the power to extort that word from me. Then began a struggle between us, which became more and more frightful as the money he possessed gradually dwindled away. But it was in vain that he resorted to brutal treatment; in vain that he struck me, tortured me, and dragged me about the floor by the hair of my head! The thought that I was avenged, that his sufferings equalled mine, increased my courage a hundredfold, and made me almost insensible to physical pain. He would certainly have been the first to grow weary of the struggle, if a fiendish plan had not occurred to him. He said to himself that if he could not conquer the wife, he could conquer the mother and he threatened to turn his brutatity to you, Wilkie. To save you--for I knew what he was capable of--I pretended to waver, and I asked twenty-four hours for reflection. He granted them. But the next day I left him forever, flying from him with you in my arms."
M. Wilkie turned white, and a cold chill crept up his spine. However, it was not pity for his mother's sufferings, nor shame for his father's infamy that agitated him, but ever the same terrible fear of incurring the enmity of this dangerous coveter of the Chalusse millions. Would he be able to hold his father at bay even with the assistance of M. de Coralth and the Marquis de Valorsay? A thousand questions rose to his lips, for he was eager to hear the particulars of his mother's flight; but Madame d'Argeles hurried on with her story as if she feared her strength would fail before she reached the end.
"I was alone with you, Wilkie, in this great city," she resumed. "A hundred francs was all that I possessed. My first care was to find a place of shelter. For sixteen francs a month, which I was compelled to pay in advance, I found a small, meagrely furnished room in the Faubourg Saint Martin. It was badly ventilated and miserably lighted, but still it was shelter. I said to myself that we could live there together by my work, Wilkie. I was a proficient in feminine accomplishments; I was an excellent musician, and I thought I should have no difficulty in earning the four or five francs a day which I considered absolutely necessary for our subsistence. Alas! I discovered only too soon what chimerical hopes I had cherished. To give music lessons it is necessary to obtain pupils. Where should I find them? I had no one to recommend me, and I scarcely dared show myself in the streets, so great was my fear that your father would discover our hiding-place. At last, I decided to try to find some employment in needlework, and timidly offered my services at several shops. Alas! it is only those who have gone about from door to door soliciting work who know the misery of the thing. To ask alms would be scarcely more humiliating. People sneered at me, and replied (when they deigned to reply at all) that 'there was no business doing, and they had all the help they wanted.' My evident inexperience was probably the cause of many of these refusals, as well as my attire, for I still had the appearance of being a rich woman. Who knows what they took me for? Still the thought of you sustained me, Wilkie, and nothing daunted me.
"I finally succeeded in obtaining some bands of muslin to embroider, and some pieces of tapestry work to fill in. Unremunerative employment, no doubt, especially to one ignorant of the art of working quickly, rather than well. By rising with daylight, and working until late at night, I scarcely succeeded in earning twenty sous a day. And it was not long before even this scanty resource failed me. Winter came, and the cold weather with it. One morning I changed my last five-franc piece--it lasted us a week. Then I pawned and sold everything that was not absolutely indispensable until nothing was left me but my patched dress and a single skirt. And soon an evening came when the owner of our miserable den turned us into the street because I could no longer pay the rent.
"This was the final blow! I tottered away, clinging to the walls for support; too weak from lack of food to carry you. The rain was falling, and chilled us to the bones. You were crying bitterly. And all that night and all the next day, aimless and hopeless, we wandered about the streets. I must either die of want or return to your father. I preferred death. Toward evening--instinct having led me to the Seine--I sat down on one of the stone benches of the Point-Neuf, holding you on my knees and watching the flow of the dark river below. There was a strange fascination--a promise of peace in its depths--that impelled me almost irresistibly to plunge into the flood. If I had been alone in the world, I should not have stopped to consider a second, but on your account, Wilkie, I hesitated."
Moved by the thought of the danger he had escaped, M. Wilkie shuddered. "B-r-r-r!" he growled. "You did well to hesitate."
She did not even hear him, but continued: "I at last decided that it was best to put an end to this misery, and rising with difficulty, I was approaching the parapet, when a gruff voice beside us exclaimed: 'What are you doing there?' I turned, thinking some police officer had spoken, but I was mistaken. By the light of the street lamp, I perceived a man who looked some thirty years of age, and had a frank and rather genial face. Why this stranger instantly inspired me with unlimited confidence I don't know. Perhaps it was an unconscious horror of death that made me long for any token of human sympathy. However it may have been, I told him my story, but not without changing the names, and omitting many particulars. He had taken a seat beside me on the bench, and I saw big tears roll down his cheeks as I proceeded with my narrative. 'It is ever so! it is ever so!' he muttered. 'To love is to incur the risk of martyrdom. It is to offer one's self as a victim to every perfidy, to the basest treason and ingratitude.' The man who spoke in this fashion was Baron Trigault. He did not allow me to finish my story. 'Enough!' he suddenly exclaimed, 'follow me!' A cab was passing, he made us get in, and an hour later we were in a comfortable room, beside a blazing fire, with a generously spread table before us. The next day, moreover, we were installed in a pleasant home. Alas! why wasn't the baron generous to the last? You were saved, Wilkie, but at what a price!"
She paused for a moment, her face redder than fire; but soon mastering her agitation, she resumed: "There was one great cause of dissension between the baron and myself. I wished you to be educated, Wilkie, like the son of a noble family, while he desired you should receive the practical training suited to a youth who would have to make his own way in the world, and win position, fortune, and even name for himself. Ah! he was a thousand times right, as events have since proved only too well! But maternal love blinded me, and, after an angry discussion, he went away, declaring he would not see me again until I became more reasonable. He thought that reflection would cure me of my folly. Unfortunately, he was not acquainted with the fatal obstinacy which is the distinguishing characteristic of the Chalusse family. While I was wondering how I could find the means of carrying the plans I had formed for you into execution, two of the baron's acquaintances presented themselves, with the following proposal: Aware of the enormous profits derived by clandestine gambling dens, they had conceived the project of opening a public establishment on a large scale, where any Parisian or foreigner, if he seemed to be a gentleman, and possessed of means, would find no difficulty in obtaining admission. By taking certain precautions, and by establishing this gambling den in a private drawing-room, they believed the scheme practicable, and came to suggest that I should keep the drawing-room in question, and be their partner in the enterprise. Scarcely knowing what I pledged myself to, I accepted their offer, influenced--I should rather say decided--by the exalted positions which both these gentlemen occupied, by the public consideration they enjoyed, and the honored names they bore. And that same week this house was rented and furnished, and I was installed in it under the name of Lia d'Argeles.
"But this was not all. There still remained the task of creating for myself one of those scandalous reputations that attract public attention. This proved an easy task, thanks to the assistance of my silent partners, and the innocent simplicity of several of their friends and certain journalists. As for myself, I did my best to insure the success of the horrible farce which was to lend infamous notoriety to the name of Lia d'Argeles. I had magnificent equipages and superb dresses, and I made myself conspicuous at the theatres and all places of public resort. As is generally the case when one is acting contrary to conscience, I called the most absurd sophistries to my assistance. I tried to convince myself that appearances are nothing, that reality is everything, and that it did not matter if I were known as a courtesan since rumor lied, and my life was really chaste. When the baron hastened to me and tried to rescue me from the abyss into which I had flung myself. it was too late. I had discovered that the business would prove successful; and for your sake, I longed for money as passionately, as madly, as any miser. Last year my gaming-room yielded more than one hundred and fifty thousand francs clear profit, and I received as my share the thirty-five thousand francs which you squandered. Now you know me as I really am. My associates, my partners, the men whose secret I have faithfully kept, walk the streets with their heads erect. They boast of their unsullied honor, and they are respected by every one. Such is the truth, and I have no reason to make their disgrace known. Besides, if I proclaimed it from the house-tops, no one would believe me. But you are my son, and I owe you the truth, the whole truth!"
In any age but the present, Madame d'Argeles's story would have seemed absolutely incredible. Nowadays, however, such episodes are by no means rare. Two men--two men of exalted rank and highly respected, to use a common expression--associate in opening a gaming-house under the very eyes of the police, and in coining money out of a woman's supposed disgrace. 'Tis after all but an everyday occurrence.
The unhappy woman had told her story with apparent coldness, and yet, in her secret heart, she perhaps hoped that by disclosing her terrible sacrifice and long martyrdom, she would draw a burst of gratitude and tenderness from her son, calculated to repay her for all her sufferings. But the hope was vain. It would have been easier to draw water from a solid rock than to, extract a sympathetic tear from Wilkie's eyes. He was only alive to the practical side of this narrative, and what impressed him most was the impudent assurance of Madame d'Argeles's business associates. "Not a bad idea; not bad at all," he exclaimed. And, boiling over with curiosity, he continued: "I would give something handsome to know those men's names. Really you ought to tell me. It would be worth one's while to know."
Any other person than this interesting young man would have been crushed by the look his mother gave him--a look embodying the deepest disappointment and contempt. "I think you must be mad," she remarked coldly. And as he sprang up, astonished that any one should doubt his abundant supply of good sense, "Let us put an end to this," she sternly added.
Thereupon she hastily went into the adjoining room, reappearing a moment later with a roll of papers in her hand. "Here," she remarked, "is my marriage certificate, your certificate of birth, and a copy of my renunciation--a perfectly valid document, since the court has authorized it, owing to my husband's absence. All these proofs I am ready and willing to place at your disposal, but on one condition."
This last word fell like a cold shower-bath upon Wilkie's exultant joy. "What is this condition?" he anxiously inquired.
"It is that you should sign this deed, which has been drawn up by my notary--a deed by which you pledge yourself to hand me the sum of two million francs on the day you come into possession of the Chalusse property."
Two millions! The immensity of the sum struck Wilkie dumb with consternation. Nor did he forget that he would be compelled to give the Viscount de Coralth the large reward he had promised him-- a reward promised in writing, unfortunately. "I shall have nothing left," he began, piteously.
But with a disdainful gesture Madame d'Argeles interrupted him. "Set your mind at rest," said she. "You will still be immensely rich. All the estimates which have been made are far below the mark. When I was a girl I often heard my father say that his income amounted to more than eight hundred thousand francs a year. My brother inherited the whole property, and I would be willing to swear that he never spent more than half of his income."
Wilkie's nerves had never been subjected to so severe a shock. He tottered and his brain whirled. "Oh! oh!" he stammered. This was all he could say.
"Only I must warn you of a more than probable deception," pursued Madame d'Argeles. "As my brother was firmly resolved to deprive me even of my rightful portion of the estate, he concealed his fortune in every possible way. It will undoubtedly require considerable time and trouble to gain possession of the whole. However I know a man, formerly the Count de Chalusse's confidential agent, who might aid you in this task."
"And this man's name?"
"Is Isidore Fortunat. I saved his card for you. Here it is."
M. Wilkie took it up, placed it carefully in his pocket, and then exclaimed: "That being the case, I consent to sign, but after this you need not complain. Two millions at five per cent. ought to greatly alleviate one's sufferings."
Madame d'Argeles did not deign to notice this delicate irony. "I will tell you in advance to what purpose I intend to apply this sum," she said.
"I intend one of these two millions to serve as the dowry of a young girl who would have been the Count de Chalusse's sole legatee, if his death had not been so sudden and so unexpected."
"And the other one?"
"The other I intend to invest for you in such a way that you can only touch the interest of it, so that you will not want for bread after you have squandered your inheritance, even to the very last penny."
This wise precaution could not fail to shock such a brilliant young man as M. Wilkie. "Do you take me for a fool?" he exclaimed. "I may appear very generous, but I am shrewd enough, never you fear."
"Sign," interrupted Madame d'Argeles, coldly.
But he attempted to prove that he was no fool by reading and rereading the contract before he would consent to append his name to it. At last, however, he did so, and stowed away the proofs which insured him the much-coveted property.
"Now," said Madame d'Argeles, "I have one request to make of you. Whenever your father makes his appearance and lays claim to this fortune, I entreat you to avoid a lawsuit, which would only make your mother's shame and the disgrace attached to the hitherto stainless name of Chalusse still more widely known. Compromise with him. You will be rich enough to satisfy his greed without feeling it."
M. Wilkie remained silent for a moment, as if he were deliberating upon the course he ought to pursue. "If my father is reasonable, I will be the same," he said at last. "I will choose as an arbiter between us one of my friends--a man who acts on the square, like myself--the Marquis de Valorsay."
"My God! do you know him?"
"He is one of my most intimate friends."
Madame d'Argeles had become very pale. "Wretched boy!" she exclaimed. "You don't know that it's the marquis----" She paused abruptly. One word more and she would have betrayed Pascal Ferailleur's secret plans, with which she had been made acquainted by Baron Trigault. Had she a right to do this, even to put her son on his guard against a man whom she considered the greatest villain in the world?
"Well?" insisted M. Wilkie, in surprise.
But Madame d'Argeles had recovered her self-possession. "I only wished to warn you against too close a connection with the Marquis de Valorsay. He has an excellent position in society, but yours will be far more brilliant. His star is on the wane; yours is just rising. All that he is regretting, you have a right to hope for. Perhaps even now he is jealous of you, and wishes to persuade you to take some false step."
"Ah! you little know him!"
"I have warned you."
M. Wilkie took up his hat, but, though he was longing to depart, embarrassment kept him to the spot. He vaguely felt that he ought not to leave his mother in this style. "I hope I shall soon have some good news to bring you," he began.
"Before night I shall have left this house," she answered.
"Of course. But you are going to give me your new address."
She shook her head sadly, and in a scarcely audible voice responded: "It is not likely that we shall meet again."
"And the two millions that I am to turn over to you?"
"Mr. Patterson will collect the money. As for me, say to yourself that I'm dead. You have broken the only link that bound me to life, by proving the futility of the most terrible sacrifices. However, I am a mother, and I forgive you." Then as he did not move, and as she felt that her strength was deserting her, she dragged herself from the room, murmuring, "Farewell!"