Baron Trigault's Vengeance by Emile Gaboriau
It was as if he had seen an apparition, and he was vainly striving to drive away a terrible, mysterious fear, when a heavy footfall made the floor of the dining-room creak anew. The noise restored him to consciousness of his position. "It is the baron!" he thought; "he is coming this way! If he finds me here I am lost; he will never consent to help me. A man would never forgive another man for hearing what I have just heard."
Why should he not try to make his escape? The card, bearing the name of Maumejan, would be no proof of his visit. He could see the baron somewhere else some other day--elsewhere than at his own house, so that he need not fear the recognition of the servants. These thoughts flashed through his mind, and he was about to fly, when a harsh cry held him spell-bound. Baron Trigault was standing on the threshold. His emotion, as is almost always the case with corpulent people, was evinced by a frightful distortion of his features. His face was transformed, his lips had become perfectly white, and his eyes seemed to be starting from their sockets. "How came you here?" he asked, in a husky voice.
"Your servants ushered me into this room."
"Who are you?"
"What! monsieur, don't you recognize me?" rejoined Pascal, who in his agitation forgot that the baron had seen him only twice before. He forgot the absence of his beard, his almost ragged clothing, and all the precautions he had taken to render recognition impossible.
"I have never met any person named Maumejan," said the baron.
"Ah! monsieur, that's not my name. Have you forgotten the innocent man who was caught in that infamous snare set for him by the Viscount de Coralth?"
"Yes, yes," replied the baron, "I remember you now." And then recollecting the terrible scene that had just taken place in the adjoining room: "How long have you been here?" he asked.
Should Pascal tell a falsehood, or confess the truth? He hesitated, but his hesitation lasted scarcely the tenth part of a second. "I have been here about half an hour," he replied.
The baron's livid cheeks suddenly became purple, his eyes glittered, and it seemed by his threatening gesture as if he were strongly tempted to murder this man, who had discovered the terrible, disgraceful secrets of his domestic life. But it was a mere flash of energy. The terrible ordeal which he had just passed through had exhausted him mentally and physically, and it was in a faltering voice that he resumed: "Then you have not lost a word--a word of what was said in the other room?"
"Not a word."
The baron sank on to the divan. "So the knowledge of my disgrace is no longer confined to myself!" he exclaimed. "A stranger's eye has penetrated the depths of misery I have fallen into! The secret of my wretchedness and shame is mine no longer!"
"Oh, monsieur, monsieur!" interrupted Pascal. "Before I recross the threshold of your home, all shall have been forgotten. I swear it by all that is most sacred!"
He had raised his hand as if to take a solemn oath, when the baron caught hold of it, and, pressing it with sorrowful gratitude, exclaimed: "I believe you! You are a man of honor--I only needed to see your home to be convinced of that. You will not laugh at my misfortunes or my misery!" He must have been suffering frightfully, for big tears rolled slowly down his cheeks. "What have I done, my God! that I should be so cruelly punished?" he continued. "I have always been generous and charitable, and ready to help all who applied to me. I am utterly alone! I have a wife and a daughter--but they hate me. They long for my death, which would give them possession of my wealth. What torture! For months together I dared not eat a morsel of food, either in my own house, or in the house of my son-in-law. I feared poison; and I never partook of a dish until I had seen my daughter or my wife do so. To prevent a crime, I was obliged to resort to the strangest expedients. I made a will, and left my property in such a way that if I die, my family will not receive one penny. So, they now have an interest in prolonging my life." As he spoke he sprang up with an almost frenzied air, and, seizing Pascal by the arm, again continued. "Nor is this all! This woman--my wife--you know--you have heard the extent of her shame and degradation. Ah, well! I-- love her!"
Pascal recoiled with an exclamation of mingled horror and consternation.
"This amazes you, eh?" rejoined the baron. "It is indeed incomprehensible, monstrous--but it is the truth. It is to gratify her desire for luxury that I have toiled to amass millions. If I purchased a title, which is absurd and ridiculous, it was only because I wished to satisfy her vanity. Do what she may, I can only see in her the chaste and beautiful wife of our early married life. It is cowardly, absurd, ridiculous--I realize it; but my love is stronger than my reason or my will. I love her madly, passionately; I cannot tear her from my heart!"
So speaking, he sank sobbing on to the divan again. Was this, indeed, the frivolous and jovial Baron Trigault whom Pascal had seen at Madame d'Argeles's house--the man of self-satisfied mien and superb assurance, the good-natured cynic, the frequenter of gambling-dens? Alas, yes! But the baron whom the world knew was only a comedian; this was the real man.
After a little while he succeeded in controlling his emotion, and in a comparatively calm voice he exclaimed: "But it is useless to distract one's mind with an incurable evil. Let us speak of yourself, M. Ferailleur. To what do I owe the honor of this visit?"
"To your own kind offer, monsieur, and the hope that you will help me in refuting this slander, and wreaking vengeance upon those who have ruined me."
"Oh! yes, I will help you in that to the full extent of my power," exclaimed the baron. But experience reminded him that confidential disclosures ought not to be made with the doors open, so he rose, shut them, and returning to Pascal, said: "Explain in what way I can be of service to you, monsieur."
It was not without many misgivings that Pascal had presented himself at the baron's house, but after what he had heard he felt no further hesitation; he could speak with perfect freedom. "It is quite unnecessary for me to tell you, Monsieur le Baron," he began, "that the cards which made me win were inserted in the pack by M. de Coralth--that is proven beyond question, and whatever the consequences may be, I shall have my revenge. But before striking him, I wish to reach the man whose instrument he was."
"What! you suppose----"
"I don't suppose--I am sure that M. de Coralth acted in obedience to the instructions of some other scoundrel whose courage does not equal his meanness."
"Perhaps so! I think he would shrink from nothing in the way of rascality. But who could have employed him in this vile work of dishonoring an honest man?"
"The Marquis de Valorsay."
On hearing this name, the baron bounded to his feet. "Impossible!" he exclaimed; "absolutely impossible! M. de Valorsay is incapable of the villainy you ascribe to him. What do I say?-- he is even above suspicion. I have known him for years, and I have never met a more loyal, more honorable, or more courageous man. He is one of my few trusted friends; we see each other almost every day. I am expecting a visit from him even now."
"Still it was he who incited M. de Coralth to do the deed."
"But why? What could have been his object?"
"To win a young girl whom I love. She--loved me, and he saw that I was an obstacle. He put me out of the way more surely than if he had murdered me. If I died, she might mourn for me-- dishonored, she would spurn me----"
"Is Valorsay so madly in love with the girl, then?"
"I think he cares but very little for her."
"She is the heiress of several millions."
It was evident that this explanation did not shake Baron Trigault's faith in his friend. "But the marquis has an income of a hundred and fifty or two hundred thousand francs," said he; "that is an all-sufficient justification. With his fortune and his name, he is in a position to choose his wife from among all the heiresses of France. Why should he address his attentions in particular to the woman you love? Ah! if he were poor--if his fortune were impaired--if he felt the need of regilding his escutcheon, like my son-in-law----"
He paused; there was a rap at the door. The baron called out: "Come in," and a valet appeared, and informed his master that the Marquis de Valorsay wished to speak with him.
It was the enemy! Pascal's features were distorted with rage; but he did not stir--he did not utter a word. "Ask the marquis into the next room," said the baron. "I will join him there at once." Then as the servant retired, the baron turned to Pascal and said: "Well, M. Ferailleur, do you divine my intentions?"
"I think so, monsieur. You probably intend me to hear the conversation you are going to have with M. de Valorsay."
"Exactly. I shall leave the door open, and you can listen."
This word, "listen," was uttered without bitterness, or even reproach; and yet Pascal could not help blushing and hanging his head. "I wish to prove to you that your suspicions are without foundation," pursued the baron. "Rest assured that I shall prove this conclusively. I will conduct the conversation in the form of a cross-examination, and after the marquis's departure, you will be obliged to confess that you were wrong."
"Or you, that I am right?"
"So be it. Any one is liable to be mistaken, and I am not obstinate."
He was about to leave the room, when Pascal detained him. "I scarcely know how to testify my gratitude even now, monsieur, and yet--if I dared--if I did not fear to abuse your kindness, I should ask one more favor."
"Speak, Monsieur Ferailleur."
"It is this, I do not know the Marquis de Valorsay; and if, instead of leaving the door wide open, you would partially close it, I should hear as distinctly, and I could also see him."
"Agreed," replied the baron. And, opening the door, he passed into the dining-room, with his right hand cordially extended, and saying, in his most genial tones: "Excuse me, my dear friend, for keeping you waiting. I received your letter this morning, and I was expecting you, but some unexpected business required my attention just now. Are you quite well?"
As the baron entered the room, the marquis had stepped quickly forward to meet him. Either he was inspired with fresh hope, or else he had wonderful powers of self-control, for never had he looked more calm--never had his face evinced haughtier indifference, more complete satisfaction with himself, and greater contempt for others. He was dressed with even more than usual care, and in perfect taste as well; moreover, his valet had surpassed himself in dressing his hair--for one would have sworn that his locks were still luxuriant. If he experienced any secret anxiety, it only showed itself in a slightly increased stiffness of his right leg--the limb broken in hunting. "I ought rather to inquire concerning your own health," he remarked. "You seem greatly disturbed; your cravat is untied." And, pointing to the broken china scattered about the floor, he added: "On seeing this, I asked myself if an accident had not happened."
"The baroness was taken suddenly ill at the breakfast table. Her fainting fit startled me a little. But it was a mere trifle. She has quite recovered already, and you may rely upon her applauding your victory at Vincennes to-day. She has I don't know how many hundred louis staked upon your horses."
The marquis's countenance assumed an expression of cordial regret. "I am very sorry, upon my word!" he exclaimed. "But I sha'n't take part in the races at Vincennes. I have withdrawn my horses. And, in future, I shall have nothing to do with racing."
"It is the truth, however. I have been led to this determination by the infamous slander which has been circulated respecting me."
This answer was a mere trifle, but it somewhat shook Baron Trigault's confidence. "You have been slandered!" he muttered.
"Abominably. Last Sunday the best horse in my stables, Domingo, came in third. He was the favorite in the ring. You can understand the rest. I have been accused of manoeuvering to have my own horse beaten. People have declared that it was my interest he should be beaten, and that I had an understanding with my jockey to that effect. This is an every-day occurrence, I know very well; but, as regards myself, it is none the less an infamous lie!"
"Who has dared to circulate such a report?"
"Oh, how can I tell? It is a fact, however, that the story has been circulated everywhere, but in such a cautious manner that there is no way of calling the authors to account. They have even gone so far as to say that this piece of knavery brought me in an enormous sum, and that I used Rochecotte's, Kervaulieu's, and Coralth's names in betting against my own horse."
The baron's agitation was so great that M. de Valorsay observed it, though he did not understand the cause. Living in the same society with the Baroness Trigault, and knowing her story, he thought that Coralth's name might, perhaps, have irritated the baron. "And so," he quickly continued, "don't be surprised if, during the coming week, you see the sale of my horses announced."
"What! you are going to sell----"
"All my horses--yes, baron. I have nineteen; and it will be very strange if I don't get eight or ten thousand louis for the lot. Domingo alone is worth more than forty thousand francs."
To talk of selling--of realizing something you possess--rings ominously in people's ears. The person who talks of selling proclaims his need of money--and often his approaching ruin. "It will save you at least a hundred and fifty or sixty thousand francs a year," observed the baron.
"Double it and you won't come up to the mark. Ah! my dear baron, you have yet to learn that there is nothing so ruinous as a racing stable. It's worse than gambling; and women, in comparison, are a real economy. Ninette costs me less than Domingo, with his jockey, his trainer, and his grooms. My manager declares that the twenty-three thousand francs I won last year, cost me at least fifty thousand."
Was he boasting, or was he speaking the truth? The baron was engaged in a rapid calculation. "What does Valorsay spend a year?" he was saying to himself. "Let us say two hundred and fifty thousand francs for his stable; forty thousand francs for Ninette Simplon; eighty thousand for his household expenses, and at least thirty thousand for personal matters, travelling, and play. All this amounts to something like four hundred and thirty thousand francs a year. Does his income equal that sum? Certainly not. Then he must have been living on the principal--he is ruined."
Meanwhile the marquis gayly continued: "You see, I'm going to make a change in my mode of life. Ah! it surprises you! But one must make an end of it, sooner or later. I begin to find a bachelor life not so very pleasant after all; there is rheumatism in prospect, and my digestion is becoming impaired--in short, I feel that it is time for marriage, baron; and--I am about to marry."
"Yes, I. What, haven't you heard of it, yet? It has been talked of at the club for three days or more."
"No, this is the first intimation I have received of it. It is true, however, that I have not been to the club for three days. I have made a wager with Kami-Bey, you know--that rich Turk--and as our sittings are eight or ten hours long, we play in his apartments at the Grand Hotel. And so you are to be married," the baron continued, after a slight pause. "Ah, well! I know one person who won't be pleased."
M. de Valorsay laughed heartily. "As if that would make any difference to me!" he exclaimed. And then in a most confidential manner he resumed: "She will soon be consoled. Ninette Simplon is a shrewd girl--a girl whom I have always suspected of having an account book in place of a heart. I know she has at least three hundred thousand francs safely invested; her furniture and diamonds are worth as much more. Why should she regret me? Add to this that I have promised her fifty thousand francs to dry her tears with on my wedding-day, and you will understand that she really longs to see me married."
"I understand," replied the baron; "Ninette Simplon won't trouble you. But I can't understand why you should talk of economy on the eve of a marriage which will no doubt double your fortune; for I'm sure you won't surrender your liberty without good and substantial reasons."
"You are mistaken."
"Well, I won't hesitate to confess to you, my dear baron, that the girl I am about to marry hasn't a penny of her own. My future wife has no dowry save her black eyes--but they are certainly superb ones."
This assertion seemed to disprove Pascal's statements. "Can it really be you who are talking in this strain?" cried the baron. "You, a practical, worldly man, give way to such a burst of sentiment?"
The baron opened his eyes in astonishment. "Ah! then you adore your future bride!"
"Adore only feebly expresses my feelings."
"I must be dreaming."
Valorsay shrugged his shoulders with the air of a man who has made up his mind to accept the banter of his friends; and in a tone of mingled sentimentality and irony, he said: "I know that it's absurd, and that I shall be the laughing-stock of my acquaintances. Still it doesn't matter; I have never been coward enough to hide my feelings. I'm in love, my dear baron, as madly in love as a young collegian--sufficiently in love to watch my lady's house at night even when I have no possible hope of seeing her. I thought myself blase, I boasted of being invulnerable. Well, one fine morning I woke up with the heart of a youth of twenty beating in my breast--a heart which trembled at the slightest glance from the girl I love, and sent purple flushes to my face. Naturally I tried to reason with myself. I was ashamed of my weakness; but the more clearly I showed myself my folly, the more obstinate my heart became. And perhaps my folly is not such a great one after all. Such perfect beauty united with such modesty, grace, and nobility of soul, such passion, candor and talent, cannot be met twice in a lifetime. I intend to leave Paris. We shall first of all go to Italy, my wife and I. After a while we shall return and install ourselves at Valorsay, like two turtle-doves. Upon my word, my imagination paints a charming picture of the calm and happy life we shall lead there! I don't deserve such good fortune. I must have been born under a lucky star!"
Had he been less engrossed in his narrative, he would have heard the sound of a stifled oath in the adjoining room; and had he been less absorbed in the part he was playing, he would have observed a cloud on his companion's brow. The baron was a keen observer, and he had detected a false ring in this apparently vehement outburst of passion. "I understand it now, my dear marquis," said he; "you have met the descendant of some illustrious but impoverished family."
"You are wrong. My future bride has no other name than her Christian name of Marguerite."
"It is a regular romance then!"
"You are quite right; it is a romance. Were you acquainted with the Count de Chalusse, who died a few days ago?"
"No; but I have often heard him spoken of."
"Well, it is his daughter whom I am about to marry--his illegitimate daughter."
The baron started. "Excuse me," said he; "M. de Chalusse was immensely rich, and he was a bachelor. How does it happen then that his daughter, even though she be his illegitimate child, should find herself penniless?"
"A mere chance--a fatality. M. de Chalusse died very suddenly; he had no time to make a will or to acknowledge his daughter."
"But why had he not taken some precautions?"
"A formal recognition of his daughter was attended by too many difficulties, and even dangers. Mademoiselle Marguerite had been abandoned by her mother when only five or six months old; it is only a few years since M. de Chalusse, after a thousand vain attempts, at last succeeded in finding her."
It was no longer on Pascal's account, but on his own, that Baron Trigault listened with breathless attention. "How very strange," he exclaimed, in default of something better to say. "How very strange!"
"Isn't it? It is as good as a novel."
"Would it be--indiscreet----"
"To inquire? Certainly not. The count told me the whole story, without entering into particulars--you understand. When he was quite young, M. de Chalusse became enamoured of a charming young lady, whose husband had gone to tempt fortune in America. Being an honest woman, she resisted the count's advances for awhile--a very little while; but in less than a year after her husband's departure, she gave birth to a pretty little daughter, Mademoiselle Marguerite. But then why had the husband gone to America?"
"Yes," faltered the baron; "why--why, indeed?"
"Everything was progressing finely, when M. de Chalusse was in his turn obliged to start for Germany, having been informed that a sister of his, who had fled from the paternal roof with nobody knows who, had been seen there. He had been absent some four months or so, when one morning the post brought him a letter from his pretty mistress, who wrote: 'We are lost! My husband is at Marseilles: he will be here to-morrow. Never attempt to see me again. Fear everything from him. Farewell.' On receiving this letter, M. de Chalusse flung himself into a postchaise, and returned to Paris. He was determined, absolutely determined, to have his daughter. But he arrived too late. On hearing of her husband's return, the young wife had lost her head. She had but one thought--to conceal her fault, at any cost; and one night, being completely disguised, she left her child on a doorstep in the vicinity of the central markets----"
The marquis suddenly paused in his story to exclaim: "Why, what is the matter with you, my dear baron? What is the matter? Are you ill? Shall I ring?"
The baron was as pale as if the last drop of blood had been drawn from his veins, and there were dark purple circles about his eyes. Still, on being questioned, he managed to answer in a choked voice, but not without a terrible effort: "Nothing! It is nothing. A mere trifle! It will be over in a moment. It is over!" Still his limbs trembled so much that he could not stand, and he sank on to a chair, murmuring: "I entreat you, marquis--continue. It is very interesting--very interesting indeed."
M. de Valorsay resumed his narrative. "The husband was incontestably an artless fellow: but he was also, it appears, a man of remarkable energy and determination. Having somehow ascertained that his wife had given birth to a child in his absence, he moved heaven and earth not only to discover the child, but its father also. He had sworn to kill them both; and he was a man to keep his vow unmoved by a thought of the guillotine. And if you require a proof of his strength of character, here it is: He said nothing to his wife on the subject, he did not utter a single reproach; he treated her exactly as he had done before his absence. But he watched her, or employed others to watch her, both and night, convinced that she would finally commit some act of imprudence which would give him the clue he wanted. Fortunately, she was very shrewd. She soon discovered that her husband knew everything, and she warned M. de Chalusse, thus saving his life."
It is not at all remarkable that the Marquis de Valorsay should have failed to see any connection between his narrative and the baron's agitation. What possible connection could there be between opulent Baron Trigault and the poor devil who went to seek his fortune in America? What imaginable connection could there be between the confirmed gambler, who was Kami-Bey's companion, Lia d'Argeles's friend, and the husband who for ten long years had pursued the man who, by seducing his wife, had robbed him of all the happiness of life? Another point that would have dispelled any suspicions on the marquis's part was that he had found the baron greatly agitated on arriving, and that he now seemed to be gradually regaining his composure. So he continued his story in his customary light, mocking tone. It is the perfection of good taste and high breeding--"proper form," indeed, not to be astonished or moved by anything, in fact to sneer at everything, and hold one's self quite above the emotions which disturb the minds of plebeians.
Thus the marquis continued: "I am necessarily compelled to omit many particulars, my dear baron. The count was not very explicit when he reached this part of his story; but, in spite of his reticence, I learned that he had been tricked in his turn, that certain papers had been stolen from him, and that he had been defrauded in many ways by his inamorata. I also know that M. de Chalusse's whole life was haunted by the thought of the husband he had wronged. He felt a presentiment that he would die by this man's hand. He saw danger on every side. If he went out alone in the evening, which was an exceedingly rare occurrence, he turned the street corners with infinite caution; it seemed to him that he could always see the gleam of a poniard or a pistol in the shade. I should never have believed in this constant terror on the part of a really brave man, if he had not confessed it to me with his own lips. Ten or twelve years passed before he dared to make the slightest attempt to find his daughter, so much did he fear to arouse his enemy's attention. It was not until he had discovered that the husband had become discouraged and had discontinued his search, that the count began his. It was a long and arduous one, but at last it succeeded, thanks to the assistance of a clever scoundrel named Fortunat."
The baron with difficulty repressed a movement of eager curiosity, and remarked: "What a peculiar name!"
"And his first name is Isidore. Ah! he's a smooth-tongued scoundrel, a rascal of the most dangerous kind, who richly deserves to be in jail. How it is that he is allowed to prosecute his dishonorable calling I can't understand; but it is none the less true that he does follow it, and without the slightest attempt at concealment, at an office he has on the Place de la Bourse."
This name and address were engraved upon the baron's memory, never to be effaced.
"However," resumed M. de Valorsay, "the poor count was fated to have no peace. The husband had scarcely ceased to torment him, he had scarcely begun to breathe freely, when the wife attacked him in her turn. She must have been one of those vile and despicable women who make a man hate the entire sex. Pretending that the count had turned her from the path of duty, and destroyed her life and happiness, she lost no opportunity of tormenting him. She would not allow M. de Chalusse to keep the child with him, nor would she consent to his adopting the girl. She declared it an act of imprudence, which would surely set her husband upon the track, sooner or later. And when the count announced his intention of legally adopting the child, in spite of her protests, she declared that, rather than allow it, she would confess everything to her husband."
"The count was a patient man," sneered the baron.
"Not so patient as you may suppose. His submission was due to some secret cause which he never confided to me. There must have been some great crime under all this. In any case, the poor count found it impossible to escape this terrible woman. He took refuge at Cannes; but she followed him. He travelled through Italy, for I don't know how many months under an assumed name, but all in vain. He was at last compelled to conceal his daughter in some provincial convent. During the last few months of his life he obtained peace--that is to say, he bought it. This lady's husband must either be very poor or exceedingly stingy; and as she was exceedingly fond of luxury, M. de Chalusse effected a compromise by giving her a large sum monthly, and also by paying her dress- maker's bills."
The baron sprang to his feet with a passionate exclamation. "The vile wretch!" he said.
But he quickly reseated himself, and the exclamation astonished M. de Valorsay so little that he quietly concluded by saying: "And this is the reason, baron, why my beloved Marguerite, the future Marquise de Valorsay, has no dowry."
The baron cast a look of positive anguish at the door of the smoking-room. He had heard a slight movement there; and he trembled with fear lest Pascal, maddened with anger and jealousy, should rush in and throw himself upon the marquis. Plainly enough, this perilous situation could not last much longer. The baron's own powers of self-control and dissimulation were almost exhausted, and so postponing until another time the many questions he still wished to ask M. de Valorsay, he made haste to check these confidential disclosures. "Upon my word," he exclaimed, with a forced laugh, "I was expecting something quite different. This affair begins like a genuine romance, and ends, as everything ends nowadays, in money!"