Chapter XVII

Mademoiselle Marguerite had been greatly surprised on the occasion of her visit to M. Fortunat when she saw Victor Chupin suddenly step forward and eagerly exclaim: "I shall be unworthy of the name I bear if I do not find M. Ferailleur for you in less than a fortnight."

It is true that M. Fortunat's clerk did not appear to the best advantage on this occasion. In order to watch M. de Coralth, he had again arrayed himself in his cast-off clothes, and with his blouse and his worn-out shoes, his "knockers" and his glazed cap, he looked the vagabond to perfection. Still, strange as it may seem, Mademoiselle Marguerite did not once doubt the devotion of this strange auxiliary. Without an instant's hesitation she replied, "I accept your services, monsieur.

Chupin felt at least a head taller as he heard this beautiful young girl speak to him in a voice as clear and as sonorous as crystal. "Ah! you are right to trust me," he rejoined, striking his chest with his clinched hand, "for I have a heart--but----"

"But what, monsieur?"

"I am wondering if you would consent to do what I wish. It would be a very good plan, but if it displeases you, we will say no more about it."

"And what do you wish?"

"To see you every day, so as to tell you what I've done, and to obtain such directions as I may require. I'm well aware that I can't go to M. de Fondege's door and ask to speak to you; but there are other ways of seeing each other. For instance, every evening at five o-clock precisely, I might pass along the Rue Pigalle, and warn you of my presence by such a signal as this: 'Pi-ouit!'" So saying he gave vent to the peculiar call, half whistle, half ejaculation, which is familiar to the Parisian working-classes. "Then," he resumed, "you might come down and I would tell you the news; besides, I might often help you by doing errands."

Mademoiselle Marguerite reflected for a moment, and then bowing her head, she replied:

"What you suggest is quite practicable. On and after to-morrow evening I will watch for you; and if I don't come down at the end of half an hour, you will know that I am unavoidably detained."

Chupin ought to have been satisfied. But no, he had still another request to make; and instinct, supplying the lack of education, told him that it was a delicate one. Indeed, he dared not present his petition; but his embarrassment was so evident, and he twisted his poor cap so despairingly, that at last the young girl gently asked him: "Is there anything more?"

He still hesitated, but eventually, mustering all his courage, he replied: "Well, yes, mademoiselle. I've never seen Monsieur Ferailleur. Is he tall or short, light or dark, stout or thin? I do not know. I might stand face to face with him without being able to say, 'It's he.' But it would be quite a different thing if I only had a photograph of him."

A crimson flush spread over Mademoiselle Marguerite's face. Still she answered, unaffectedly, "I will give you M. Ferailleur's photograph to-morrow, monsieur."

"Then I shall be all right!" exclaimed Chupin. "Have no fears, mademoiselle, we shall outwit these scoundrels!"

So far a silent witness of this scene, M. Fortunat now felt it his duty to interfere. He was not particularly pleased by his clerk's suddenly increased importance; and yet it mattered little to him, for his only object was to revenge himself on Valorsay. "Victor is a capable and trustworthy young fellow, mademoiselle," he declared; "he has grown up under my training, and I think you will find him a faithful servant."

A "have you finished, you old liar?" rose to Chupin's lips, but respect for Mademoiselle Marguerite prevented him from uttering the words. "Then everything is decided," she said, pleasantly. And with a smile she offered her hand to Chupin as one does in concluding a bargain.

If he had yielded to his first impulse he would have thrown himself on his knees and kissed this hand of hers, the whitest and most beautiful he had ever seen. As it was, he only ventured to touch it with his finger-tips, and yet he changed color two or three times. "What a woman!" he exclaimed, when she had left them. "A perfect queen! A man would willingly allow himself to be chopped in pieces for her sake; and she's as good and as clever as she's handsome. Did you notice, monsieur, that she did not offer to pay me. She understood that I offered to work for her for my own pleasure, for my own satisfaction and honor. Heavens! how I should have chafed if she had offered me money. How provoked I should have been!"

Chupin was so fascinated that he wished no reward for his toil! This was so astonishing that M. Fortunat remained for a moment speechless with surprise. "Have you gone mad, Victor?" he inquired at last.

"Mad! I?--not at all; I'm only becoming----" He stopped short. He was going to add: "an honest man." But it is scarcely proper to talk about the rope in the hangman's house, and there are certain words which should never be pronounced in the presence of certain people. Chupin knew this, and so he quickly resumed: "When I become rich, when I'm a great banker, and have a host of clerks who spend their time in counting my gold behind a grating, I should like to have a wife of my own like that. But I must be off about my business now, so till we meet again, monsieur."

The foregoing conversation will explain how it happened that Madame Leon chanced to surprise her dear young lady in close conversation with a vagabond clad in a blouse. Victor Chupin was not a person to make promises and then leave them unfulfilled. Though he was usually unimpressionable, like all who lead a precarious existence, still, when his emotions were once aroused, they did not spend themselves in empty protestations. It became his fixed determination to find Pascal Ferailleur, and the difficulties of the task in no wise weakened his resolution. His starting point was that Pascal had lived in the Rue d'Ulm, and had suddenly gone off with his mother, with the apparent intention of sailing for America. This was all he knew positively, and everything else was mere conjecture. Still Mademoiselle Marguerite had convinced him that instead of leaving Paris, Pascal was really still there, only waiting for an opportunity to establish his innocence, and to wreak his vengeance upon M. de Coralth and the Marquis de Valorsay. On the other hand, with such a slight basis to depend upon, was it not almost madness to hope to discover a man who had such strong reasons for concealing himself? Chupin did not think so in fact, when he declared his determination to perform this feat, his plan was already perfected.

On leaving M. Fortunat's office, he hastened straight to the Rue d'Ulm, at the top of his speed. The concierge of the house where Pascal had formerly resided was by no means a polite individual. He was the very same man who had answered Mademoiselle Marguerite's questions so rudely; but Chupin had a way of conciliating even the most crabbish doorkeeper, and of drawing from him such information as he desired. He learned that at nine o'clock on the sixteenth of October Madame Ferailleur, after seeing her trunks securely strapped on to a cab had entered the vehicle, ordering the driver to take her to the Railway Station in the Place du Havre! Chupin wished to ascertain the number of the cab, but the concierge could not give it. He mentioned, however, that this cab had been procured by Madame Ferailleur's servant- woman, who lived only a few steps from the house. A moment later Chupin was knocking at this woman's door. She was a very worthy person, and bitterly regretted the misfortunes which had befallen her former employers. She confirmed the doorkeeper's story, but unfortunately she, too, had quite forgotten the number of the vehicle. All she could say was that she had hired it at the cab stand in the Rue Soufflot, and that the driver was a portly, pleasant-faced man.

Chupin repaired at once to the Rue Soufflot, where he found the man in charge of the stand in the most savage mood imaginable. He began by asking Chupin what right he had to question him, why he wished to do so, and if he took him for a spy. He added that his duty only consisted in noting the arrivals and departures of the drivers, and that he could give no information whatever. There was evidently nothing to be gained from this ferocious personage; and yet Chupin bowed none the less politely as he left the little office. "This is bad," he growled, as he walked away, for he was really at a loss what to do next; and if not discouraged, he was at least extremely disconcerted and perplexed. Ah! if he had only had a card from the prefecture of police in his pocket, or if he had been more imposing in appearance, he would have encountered no obstacles; he might then have tracked this cab through the streets of Paris as easily as he could have followed a man bearing a lighted lantern through the darkness. But poor and humble, without letters of recommendation, and with no other auxiliaries than his own shrewdness and experience, he had a great deal to contend against. Pausing in his walk, he had taken off his cap and was scratching his head furiously, when suddenly he exclaimed: "What an ass I am!" in so loud a tone that several passers-by turned to see who was applying this unflattering epithet to himself.

Chupin had just remembered one of M. Isidore Fortunat's debtors, a man whom he often visited in the hope of extorting some trifling amount from him, and who was employed in the Central office of the Paris Cab Company. "If any one can help me out of this difficulty, it must be that fellow," he said to himself. "I hope I shall find him at his desk! Come, Victor, my boy, you must look alive!"

However, he could not present himself at the office in the garb he then wore, and so, much against his will, he went home and changed his clothes. Then he took a cab at his own expense, and drove with all possible speed to the main office of the Cab Company, in the Avenue de Segur. Nevertheless it was already ten o'clock when he arrived there. He was more fortunate than he had dared to hope. The man he wanted had charge of a certain department, and was compelled to return to the office every evening after dinner. He was there now.

He was a poor devil who, while receiving a salary of fifteen hundred francs a year, spent a couple of thousand, and utilized his wits in defending his meagre salary from his creditors. On perceiving Chupin, he made a wrathful gesture, and his first words were: "I haven't got a penny."

But Chupin smiled his most genial smile. "What!" said he, "do you fancy I've come to collect money from you here, and at this hour? You don't know me. I merely came to ask a favor of you."

The clerk's clouded face brightened. "Since that is the case, pray take a seat, and tell me how I can serve you," he replied.

"Very well. At nine o'clock in the evening, on the sixteenth of October, a lady living in the Rue d'Ulm sent to the stand in the Rue Soufflot for a cab. Her baggage was placed upon it, and she went away no one knows where. However, this lady is a relative of my employer, and he so much wishes to find her that he would willingly give a hundred francs over and above the amount you owe him, to ascertain the number of the vehicle. He pretends that you can give him this number if you choose; and it isn't an impossibility, is it?"

"On the contrary, nothing could be easier," replied the clerk, glad of an opportunity to explain the ingenious mechanism of the office to an outsider. "Have you ten minutes to spare?"

"Ten days, if necessary," rejoined Chupin.

"Then you shall see." So saying the clerk rose and went into the adjoining room, whence a moment later he returned carrying a large green box. "This contains the October reports sent in every evening by the branch offices," he remarked in explanation. He next opened the box, glanced over the documents it contained, and joyfully exclaimed: "Here we have it. This is the report sent in by the superintendent of the cab-stand in the Rue Soumot on the 16th October. Here is a list of the vehicles that arrived or left from a quarter to nine o'clock till a quarter past nine. Five cabs came in, but we need not trouble ourselves about them. Three went out bearing the numbers 1781, 3025, and 2140. One of these three must have taken your employer's relative."

"Then I must question the three drivers."

The clerk shrugged his shoulders. "What is the use of doing that?" he said, disdainfully. "Ah! you don't understand the way in which we manage our business! The drivers are artful, but the company isn't a fool. By expending a hundred and fifty thousand francs on its detective force every year, it knows what each cab is doing at each hour of the day. I will now look for the reports sent in respecting these three drivers. One of the three will give us the desired information."

This time the search was a considerably longer one, and Chupin was beginning to grow impatient, when the clerk waved a soiled and crumpled sheet of paper triumphantly in the air, and cried: "What did I tell you? This is the report concerning the driver of No. 2140. Listen: Friday, at ten minutes past nine, sent to the Rue d'Ulm---- What do you think of that?"

"It's astonishing! But where can I find this driver?"

"I can't say, just at this moment; he's on duty now. But as he belongs to this division he will be back sooner or later, so you had better wait."

"I will wait then; only as I've had no dinner, I'll go out and get a mouthful to eat. I can promise you that M. Fortunat will send you back your note cancelled."

Chupin was really very hungry, and so he rushed off to a little eating-house which he had remarked on his way to the office. There for eighteen sous he dined, or rather supped, like a prince; and as he subsequently treated himself to a cup of coffee and a glass of brandy, as a reward for his toil, some little time had elapsed when he returned to the office. However, No. 2140 had not returned in his absence, so he stationed himself at the door to wait for it.

His patience was severely tried, for it was past midnight when Chupin saw the long-looked-for vehicle enter the courtyard. The driver slowly descended from his box and then went into the cashier's office to pay over his day's earnings, and hand in his report. Then he came out again evidently bound for home. As the servant-woman had said, he was a stout, jovial-faced man, and he did not hesitate to accept a glass of "no matter what" in a wine- shop that was still open. Whether he believed the story that Chupin told to excuse his questions or not, at all events he answered them very readily. He perfectly remembered having been sent to the Rue d'Ulm, and spoke of his "fare" as a respectable- looking old lady, enumerated the number of her trunks, boxes, and packages, and even described their form. He had taken her to the railway station, stopping at the entrance in the Rue d'Amsterdam; and when the porters inquired, as usual, "Where is this baggage to go?" the old lady had answered, "To London."

Chupin felt decidedly crestfallen on hearing this. He had fancied that Madame Ferailleur had merely announced her intention of driving to the Havre railway station so as to set possible spies on the wrong track, and he would have willingly wagered anything, that after going a short distance she had given the cabman different instructions. Not so, however, he had taken her straight to the station. Was Mademoiselle Marguerite deceived then? Had Pascal really fled from his enemies without an attempt at resistance? Such a course seemed impossible on his part. Thinking over all this, Chupin slept but little that night, and the next morning, before five o'clock, he was wandering about the Rue d'Amsterdam peering into the wine-shops in search of some railway porter. It did not take him long to find one, and having done so, he made him the best of friends in less than no time. Although this porter knew nothing about the matter himself, he took Chupin to a comrade who remembered handling the baggage of an old lady bound for London, on the evening of the sixteenth. However, this baggage was not put into the train after all; the old lady had left it in the cloak-room, and the next day a fat woman of unprepossessing appearance had called for the things, and had taken them away, after paying the charges for storage. This circumstance had been impressed on the porter's mind by the fact that the woman had not given him a farthing gratuity, although he had been much more obliging than the regulations required. However, when she went off, she remarked in a honeyed voice, but with an exceedingly impudent air: "I'll repay you for your kindness, my lad. I keep a wine-shop on the Route d'Asnieres, and if you ever happen to pass that way with one of your comrades, come in, and I'll reward you with a famous drink!"

What had exasperated the porter almost beyond endurance, was the certainty he felt that she was mocking him. "For she didn't give me her name or address, the old witch!" he growled. "She had better look out, if I ever get hold of her again!"

But Chupin had already gone off, unmoved by his informant's grievances. Now that he had discovered the stratagem which Madame Ferailleur had employed to elude her pursuers, his conjectures were changed into certainties. This information proved that Pascal was concealed somewhere in Paris; but where? If he could only find out this woman who had called for the trunks, it would lead to the discovery of Madame Ferailleur and her son hut how was he to ascertain the woman's whereabouts? She had said that she kept a wine-shop on the Route d'Asnieres. Was this true? Was it not more likely that this vague direction was only a fresh precaution?

This much was certain: Chupin, who knew every wine-shop on the Route d'Asnieres, did not remember any such powerful matron as the porter had described. He had not forgotten Madame Vantrasson. But to imagine any bond of interest between Pascal and such a woman as she was, seemed absurd in the extreme. However, as he found himself in such a plight and could not afford to let any chance escape, he repaired merely for form's sake to the Vantrasson establishment. It had not changed in the least since the evening he visited it in company with M. Fortunat--but seen in the full light of day, it appeared even more dingy and dilapidated. Madame Vantrasson was not in her accustomed place, behind the counter, between her black cat--her latest idol--and the bottles from which she prepared her ratafia, now her supreme consolation here below. There was no one in the shop but the landlord. Seated at a table, with a lighted candle near him, he was engaged in an occupation which would have set Chupin's mind working if he had noticed it. Vantrasson had taken some wax from a sealed bottle, and, after melting it at the flame of the candle, he let it drop slowly on to the table. He then pressed a sou upon it, and when the wax had become sufficiently cool and stiff, he removed it from the table without destroying the impression, by means of a thin bladed knife similar to those which glaziers use. However, Chupin did not remark this singular employment. He was engaged in mentally ejaculating, "Good! the old woman isn't here." And as his plan of campaign was already prepared, he entered without further hesitation.

As Vantrasson heard the door turn upon its hinges, he rose so awkwardly, or rather so skilfully, as to let all his implements, wax, knife, and impressions, fall on the floor behind the counter. "What can I do to serve you?" he asked, in a husky voice.

"Nothing. I wished to speak with your wife."

"She has gone out. She works for a family in the morning."

This was a gleam of light. Chupin had not thought of the only hypothesis that could explain what seemed inexplicable to him. However, he knew how to conceal his satisfaction, and so with an air of disappointment, he remarked: "That's too bad! I shall be obliged to call again."

"So you have a secret to tell my wife?"

"Not at all."

"Won't I do as well, then?"

"I'll tell you how it is. I'm employed in the baggage room of the western railway station, and I wanted to know if your wife didn't call there a few days ago for some trunks?"

The landlord's features betrayed the vague perturbation of a person who can count the days by his mistakes, and it was with evident hesitation that he replied:

"Yes, my wife went to the Havre station for some baggage last Sunday."

"I thought so. Well, this is my errand: either the clerk forgot to ask her for her receipt, or else he lost it. He can't find it anywhere. I came to ask your wife if she hadn't kept it. When she returns, please deliver my message; and if she has the receipt, pray send it to me through the post."

The ruse was not particularly clever, but it was sufficiently so to deceive Vantrasson. "To whom am I to send this receipt?" he asked.

"To me, Victor Chupin, Faubourg Saint Denis," was the reply.

Imprudent youth! alas, he little suspected what a liberty M. Fortunat had taken with his name on the evening he visited the Vantrassons. But on his side the landlord of the Model Lodging House had not forgotten the name mentioned by the agent. He turned pale with anger on beholding his supposed creditor, and quickly slipping between the visitor and the door, he said: "So your name is Victor Chupin?"

"Yes, certainly."

"And you are in the employment of the Railway Company?"

"As I just told you."

"That doesn't prevent you from acting as a collector, does it?"

Chupin instinctively recoiled, convinced that he had betrayed himself by some blunder, but unable to discover in what he had erred. "I did do something in that line formerly," he faltered.

Vantrasson doubted no longer. "So you confess that you are a vile scoundrel!" he exclaimed. "You confess that you purchased an old promissory note of mine for fourpence, and then sent a man here to seize my goods! Ah! you'd like to trample the poor under foot, would you! Very well. I have you now, and I'll settle your account! Take that!" And so saying, he dealt his supposed creditor a terrible blow with his clinched fist that sent him reeling to the other end of the shop.

Fortunately, Chupin was very nimble. He did not lose his footing, but sprung over a table and used it as a rampart to shield himself from his dangerous assailant. In the open field, he could easily have protected himself; but here in this narrow space, and hemmed in a corner, he felt that despite this barrier he was lost. "What a devil of a mess!" he thought, as with wonderful agility he avoided Vantrasson's fist, a fist that would have felled an ox. He had an idea of calling for assistance. But would any one hear him? Would any one reply? And if help came, would not the police be sure to hear of the broil? And if they did, would there not be an investigation which would perhaps disturb Pascal's plans? Fearing to injure those whom he wished to serve, he resolved to let himself be hacked to pieces rather than allow a cry to escape him; but he changed his tactics, and instead of attempting to parry the blows as he had done before, he now only thought of gaining the door, inch by inch.

He had almost reached it, not without suffering considerable injury, when it suddenly opened, and a young man clad in black, with a smooth shaven face, entered the shop, and sternly exclaimed: "Why! what's all this?"

The sight of the newcomer seemed to stupefy Vantrasson. "Ah! it is you, Monsieur Maumejan?" he faltered, with a crestfallen air. "It's nothing; we were only in fun."

M. Maumejan seemed perfectly satisfied with this explanation; and in the indifferent tone of a man who is delivering a message, the meaning of which he scarcely understood, he said: "A person who knows that your wife is in my employ requested me to ask you if you would be ready to attend to that little matter she spoke of."

"Certainly. I was preparing for it a moment ago."

Chupin heard no more. He had hurried out, his clothes in disorder, and himself not a little hurt; but his delight made him lose all thought of his injuries. "That's M. Ferailleur," he muttered, "I'm sure of it, and I'm going to prove it." So saying he hid himself in the doorway of a vacant house a few paces distant from the Vantrassons', and waited.

Then as soon as M. Maumejan emerged from the Model Lodging House, he followed him. The young man with the clean shaven face walked up the Route d'Asnieres, turned to the right into the Route de la Revolte, and at last paused before a house of humble aspect. At that moment Chupin darted toward him, and softly called, "M'sieur Ferailleur!"

The young man turned instinctively. Then seeing his mistake, and feeling that he had betrayed himself, he sprang upon Chupin, and caught him by the wrists: "Scoundrel! who are you?" he exclaimed. "Who has hired you to follow me! What do you want of me?"

"Not so fast, m'sieur! Don't be so rough! You hurt me. I'm sent by Mademoiselle Marguerite!"