Chapter XX
 

Money, which nowadays has taken the place of the good fairies of former times, had gratified M. Wilkie's every longing in a single night. Without any period of transition, dreamlike as it were, he had passed from what he called "straitened circumstances" to the splendid enjoyment of a princely fortune. Madame d'Argeles's renunciation had been so correctly drawn up, that as soon as he presented his claims and displayed his credentials he was placed in possession of the Chalusse estate. It is true that a few trifling difficulties presented themselves. For instance, the old justice of the peace who had affixed the seals refused to remove them from certain articles of furniture, especially from the late count's escritoire, without an order from the court, and several days were needed to obtain this. But what did that matter to M. Wilkie? The house, with its splendid reception-rooms, pictures, statuary and gardens, was at his disposal, and he installed himself therein at once. Twenty horses neighed and stamped in his stables; there were at least a dozen carriages in the coach-house. He devoted his attention exclusively to the horses and vehicles; but acting upon the advice of Casimir, who had become his valet and oracle, he retained all the former servants of the house, from Bourigeau the concierge down to the humblest scullery maid. Still, he gave them to understand that this was only a temporary arrangement. A man like himself, living in this progressive age, could scarcely be expected to content himself with what had satisfied the Count de Chalusse. "For I have my plans," he remarked to Casimir, "but let Paris wait awhile."

He repudiated his former friends. Costard and Serpillon, pretended viscounts though they were, were quite beneath the notice of a Gordon-Chalusse, as M. Wilkie styled himself on his visiting cards. However, he purchased their share of Pompier de Nanterre, feeling convinced that this remarkable steeplechaser had a brilliant future before him. He did not trouble himself to any great extent about his mother. Like every one else, he knew that she had disappeared, but nothing further. On the other hand, the thought of his father, the terrible chevalier d'industrie, hung over his joy like a pall; and each time the great entrance bell announced a visitor, he trembled, turned pale, and muttered: "Perhaps it's he!"

Tortured by this fear, he clung closely to the Marquis de Valorsay as if he felt that this distinguished friend was a powerful support. Besides, people of rank and distinction naturally exercised a powerful attraction over him, and he fancied he grew several inches taller when, in some public place, in the street, or a restaurant, he was able to call out, "I say, Valorsay, my good friend," or, "Upon my word! my dear marquis!"

M. de Valorsay received these effusions graciously enough, although, in point of fact, he was terribly bored by the platitudes of his new acquaintance. He intended to send him to Coventry later on, but just now M. Wilkie was too useful to be ignored. So he had introduced him to his club, and was seen with him everywhere--in the Bois, at the restaurants, and the theatres. At times, some of his friends inquired: "Who is that queer little fellow?" with a touch of irony in their tone, but when the marquis carelessly answered: "A poor devil who has just come into possession of a property worth twenty millions!" they became serious, and requested the pleasure and honor of an introduction to this fortunate young man.

So M. de Valorsay had invited Gordon-Chalusse to accompany him to Baron Trigault's approaching fete. It was to be an entertainment for gentlemen only, a monster card-party; but every one knew the wealthy baron, and no doubt with a view of stimulating curiosity he had declared, and the Figaro had repeated, that he had a great surprise in store for his guests. Oh! such a surprise! They could have no idea what it was! This fete was to take place on the second day after Mademoiselle Marguerite's arrest; and on the appointed evening, between nine and ten o'clock, M. de Valorsay and his friend Coralth sat together in the former's smoking-room waiting for Wilkie to call for them, as had been agreed upon. They were both in the best of spirits. The viscount's apprehensions had been entirely dispelled; and the marquis had quite forgotten the twinges of pain in his injured limb. "Marguerite will only leave prison to marry me," said M. de Valorsay, triumphantly; and he added: "What a willing tool this Wilkie is! A single word sufficed to make him give all his servants leave of absence. The Hotel de Chalusse will be deserted, and Madame Leon and Vantrasson can operate at their leisure."

It was ten o'clock when M. Wilkie made his appearance. "Come, my good friends!" said he, "my carriage is below."

They started off at once, and five minutes later they were ushered into the presence of Baron Trigault, who received M. Wilkie as if he had never seen him before. There was quite a crowd already. At least three or four hundred people had assembled in the Baron's reception-rooms, and among them were several former habitues of Madame d'Argeles's house; one could also espy M. de Fondege ferociously twirling his mustaches as usual, together with Kami- Bey, who was conspicuous by reason of his portly form and eternal red fez. However, among these men, all noticeable for their studied elegance of attire and manner, and all of them known to M. de Valorsay, there moved numerous others of very different appearance. Their waistcoats were less open, and their clothes did not fit them as perfectly; on the other hand, there was something else than a look of idiotic self-complacency on their faces. "Who can these people be?" whispered the marquis to M. de Coralth. "They look like lawyers or magistrates." But although he said this he did not really believe it, and it was without the slightest feeling of anxiety that he strolled from group to group, shaking hands with his friends and introducing M. Wilkie.

A strange rumor was in circulation among the guests. Many of them declared--where could they have heard such a thing?--that in consequence of a quarrel with her husband, Madame Trigault had left Paris the evening before. They even went so far as to repeat her parting words to the Baron: "You will never see me again," she had said. "You are amply avenged. Farewell!" However, the best informed among the guests, the folks who were thoroughly acquainted with all the scandals of the day, declared the story false, and said that if the baroness had really fled, handsome Viscount de Coralth would not appear so calm and smiling.

The report was true, however. But M. de Coralth did not trouble himself much about the baroness now. Had he not got in his pocket M. Wilkie's signature insuring him upward of half a million? Standing near one of the windows in the main reception-room, between the Marquis de Valorsay and M. Wilkie, the brilliant viscount was gayly chatting with them, when a footman, in a voice loud enough to interrupt all conversation, suddenly announced: "M. Maumejan!"

It seemed such a perfectly natural thing to M. de Valorsay that Maumejan, as one of the baron's business agents, should be received at his house, that he was not in the least disturbed. But M. de Coralth, having heard the name, wished to see the man who had aided and advised the marquius so effectually. He abruptly turned, and as he did so the words he would have spoken died upon his lips. He became livid, his eyes seemed to start from their sockets, and it was with difficulty that he ejaculated: "He!"

"Who?" inquired the astonished marquis.

"Look!"

M. de Valorsay did so, and to his utter amazement he perceived a numerous party in the rear of the man announced under the name of Maumejan. First came Mademoiselle Marguerite, leaning on the arm of the white-haired magistrate, and then Madame Ferailleur; next M. Isidore Fortunat, and finally Chupin--Victor Chupin, resplendent in a handsome, bran-new, black dress-suit.

The marquis could no longer fail to understand the truth. He realized who Maumejan really was, and the audacious comedy he had been duped by. He was so frightfully agitated that five or six persons sprang forward exclaiming: "What is the matter, marquis? Are you ill?" But he made no reply. He felt that he was caught in a trap, and he glanced wildly around him seeking for some loophole of escape.

However, the word of command had evidently been given. Suddenly all the guests scattered about the various drawing-rooms poured into the main hall, and the doors were closed. Then, with a solemnity of manner which no one had ever seen him display before, Baron Trigault took the so-called Maumejan by the hand and led him into the centre of the apartment opposite the lofty chimney-piece. "Gentlemen," he began, in a commanding tone, "this is M. Pascal Ferailleur, the honorable man who was falsely accused of cheating at cards at Madame d'Argeles's house. You owe him a hearing."

Pascal was greatly agitated. The strangeness of the situation, the certainty of speedy and startling rehabilitation, perhaps the joy of vengeance, the silence, which was so profound that he could hear his own panting breath, and the many eyes riveted upon him, all combined to unnerve him. But only for a moment. He swiftly conquered his weakness, and surveying his audience with flashing eyes, he explained, in a clear and ringing voice, the shameful conspiracy to obtain possession of the count's millions, and the abominable machinations by which Mademoiselle Marguerite and himself had been victimized. Then when he had finished his explanations he added, in a still more commanding voice, "Now look; you can read the culprits' guilt on their faces. One is the scoundrel known to you as the Viscount de Coralth, but Paul Violaine is his true name. He was formerly an accomplice of the notorious Mascarot; he is a cowardly villain, for he is married, and leaves his wife and children to die of starvation!" The Viscount de Coralth fairly bellowed with rage. But Pascal did not heed him. "The other criminal is the Marquis de Valorsay," he added, in the same ringing tone. There was, moreover, a third culprit who would have inspired mingled pity and disgust if any one had noticed him shrinking into a corner, terrified and muttering: "It wasn't my fault, my wife compelled me to do it!" This was General de Fondege.

Pascal did not mention his name. But it was not absolutely necessary he should do so, and besides, he remembered Marguerite's entreaty respecting the son.

However, while the young lawyer was speaking, the marquis had summoned all his energy and assurance to his aid. Desperate as his plight might be, he would not surrender. "This is an infamous conspiracy," he exclaimed. "Baron, you shall atone for this. The man's an impostor!--he lies!--all that he says is false!"

"Yes, it is false!" echoed M. de Coralth.

But a clamor arose, drowning these protestations, and the most opprobrious epithets could be heard on every side.

"How will you prove your assertion?" cried M. de Valorsay.

"Don't try that dodge on us!" shouted Chupin. "Vantrasson and mother Leon have confessed everything."

"Who defrauded us all with Domingo?" cried several people; and, loud above all the others, Kami-Bey bawled out: "To say nothing of the fact that the sale of your racing stud was a complete swindle!"

Meanwhile, Pascal's former friends and associates, his brother advocates and the magistrates who had listened to his first efforts at the bar, crowded round him, pressing his hands, embracing him almost to suffocation, censuring themselves for having suspected him, the very soul of honor, and pleading in self-justification the degenerate age in which we live--an age in which we daily see those whom we had considered immaculate suddenly yield to temptation. And a murmur of respectful admiration rose from the throng when the excitement had subsided a little, and the guests had an opportunity to observe Mademoiselle Marguerite, whose eyes sparkled more brightly than ever through her happy tears; and whose beauty acquired an almost sublime expression from her deep emotion.

The wretched Valorsay felt that all was over--that he was irretrievably lost. Seized by a blind fury like that which impels a hunted animal to turn and face the hounds that pursue him, and bid them defiance, he confronted the throng with his face distorted with passion, his eyes bloodshot, and foam upon his lips; he was absolutely frightful in his cynicism, hatred, and scorn. "Ah! well, yes!" he exclaimed--"yes, all that you have just heard is true. I was sinking, and I tried to save myself as best I could. Beggars cannot be choosers; I staked my all upon a single die. If I had won, you would have been at my feet; but I have lost and you spurn me. Cowards! hypocrites! that you are, insult me if you like, but tell me how many among you all are sufficiently pure and upright to have a right to despise me! Are there a hundred among you? are there even fifty?"

A tempest of hisses momentarily drowned his voice, but as soon as the uproar had ceased, he resumed, sneeringly: "Ah! the truth wounds you, my dear friends. Pray, don't pretend to be so distressingly virtuous! I was ruined--that is the long and short of it. But what man of you is not embarrassed? Who among you finds his income sufficient? Which one of you is not encroaching upon his capital? And when you have come to your last louis, you will do what I have done, or something worse. Do not deny it, for not one among you has a more uncompromising conscience, more moral firmness, or more generous aspirations than I once possessed. You are pursuing what I pursued. You desire what I desired--a life of luxury, brief if it must be, but happy--a life of gayety, wild excitement, and dissipation. You, too, have a passion for pleasure and gambling, race-horses, and notorious women, a table always bountifully spread, glasses ever overflowing with wine, all the delights of luxury, and everything that gratifies your vanity! But an abyss of shame awaits you at the end of it all. I am in it now. I await you there, for there you will surely, necessarily, inevitably come. Ah, ha! you will not then think my downfall so very strange. Let me pass! make way! if you please."

He advanced with his head haughtily erect, and would actually have made his escape if a frightened servant had not at that moment appeared crying: "Monsieur--Monsieur le Baron! a commissary of police is downstairs. He is coming up. He has a warrant!"

The marquis's frenzied assurance deserted him. He turned even paler than he already was if that were possible, and reeled like an ox but partially stunned by the butcher's hammer. Suddenly a desperate resolution could be read in his eyes, the resolution of the condemned criminal, who, knowing that he cannot escape the scaffold, ascends it with a firm step.

He hastily approached Baron Trigault, and asked in a husky voice: "Will you allow me to be arrested in your house, baron? me--a Valorsay!"

It might have been supposed that the baron had expected this reproach, for without a word he led the marquis and M. de Coralth to a little room at the end of the hall, pushed them inside, and closed the door again.

It was time he did so, for the commissary of police was already upon the threshold. "Which of you gentlemen is the Marquis de Valorsay?" he asked. "Which of you is Paul Violaine, alias the Viscount de----"

The sharp report of firearms suddenly interrupted him. Every one at once rushed to the little room, where the wretched men had been conducted. There extended, face upward, on the floor, lay the Marquis de Valorsay, with his brains oozing from his fractured skull, and his right hand still clutching a revolver. He was dead. "And the other!" cried the throng; "the other!"

The open window, and a curtain rudely torn from its fastenings and secured to the balustrade, told how M. de Coralth had made his escape. It was not till later that people learned what precautions the baron had taken. On the table in that room he had laid two revolvers, and two packages containing ten thousand francs each. The viscount had not hesitated.

* * * * *

Pascal Ferailleur and Mademoiselle Marguerite de Chalusse were married at the church of Saint Etienne du Mont, only a few steps from the Rue d'Ulm. Those who knew the mystery connected with the bride's parentage were greatly astonished when they saw Baron Trigault act as a witness on this occasion, in company with the venerable justice of the peace. But such was the fact, nevertheless. Treated more and more outrageously by his daughter and her husband, separated from his wife, who had nearly lost her reason, although her letters were saved, the baron has nowadays found affection and a home with Pascal and his wife. He plays cards but seldom now--only an occasional game of piquet with Madame Ferailleur, and he amuses himself by making her start when she is too long in discarding, by ejaculating, in a stentorian voice: "We are wasting precious time!" Sometimes they go out together, to the great astonishment of such as chance to meet the puritanical old lady leaning on the baron's arm. She often goes to visit and console the widow Gordon, formerly known as Lia d'Argeles, who now keeps an establishment near Montrouge, where she provides poor, betrayed and forsaken girls with a home and employment. She has yet to receive any token of remembrance from her son. As for her husband, she supposes he is dead or incarcerated in some prison.

It is to Madame Gordon that the Fondeges are often indebted for bread. Obliged to disgorge their plunder, and left with no resources save the fifty francs a month allowed them by their son, who has been promoted to the rank of captain, their poverty is necessarily extreme. Oh! those Fondeges! M. Fortunat only speaks of them with horror. But he is loud in his praises of Madame Marguerite, who repaid him the forty thousand francs he had advanced to M. de Valorsay. He speaks in the highest terms of Chupin also; but in this, he is scarcely sincere, for Victor, who has been set up in business by Pascal, told him very plainly that he was determined not to put his hand to any more dirty work, and that expression, "dirty work," rankles in M. Fortunat's heart.

Chupin's resolution did not, however, prevent him from attending the trial of Vantrasson and Madame Leon--the former of whom was sentenced to hard labor for life, and the latter to ten years' imprisonment. Nothing is known concerning M. de Coralth; but his wife has disappeared, to the great disappointment of M. Mouchon. As a dentist, Dr. Jodon is successful. As for M. Wilkie, you can learn anything you wish to know concerning him in the newspapers, for his sayings, doings, and movements, are constantly being chronicled. The reporters exhaust all the resources of their vocabulary in describing his horses, carriages, and stables, and the gorgeous liveries of his servants. His changes of residence are always mentioned; his brilliant sayings are quoted. He is a social success; he is admired, fondled, and flattered. He makes a great stir in the fashionable world--in fact, he reigns over it like a king. After all, assurance is the winning card in the game of life!