Baron Trigault's Vengeance by Emile Gaboriau
How was it that a clever man like M. Fortunat made such a blunder as to choose a Sunday, and a racing Sunday too, to call on M. Wilkie. His anxiety might explain the mistake, but it did not justify it. He felt certain, that under any other circumstances he would not have been dismissed so cavalierly. He would at least have been allowed to develop his proposals, and then who knows what might have happened?
But the races had interfered with his plans. M. Wilkie had been compelled to attend to Pompier de Nanterre, that famous steeplechaser, of which he owned one-third part, and he had, moreover, to give orders to the jockey, whose lord and master he was to an equal extent. These were sacred duties, since Wilkie's share in a race-horse constituted his only claim to a footing in fashionable society. But it was a strong claim--a claim that justified the display of whips and spurs that decorated his apartments in the Rue du Helder, and allowed him to aspire to the character of a sporting man. Wilkie really imagined that folks were waiting for him at Vincennes; and that the fete would not be complete without his presence.
Still, when he presented himself inside the enclosure, a cigar in his mouth, and his racing card dangling from his button-hole, he was obliged to confess that his entrance did not create much of a sensation. An astonishing bit of news had imparted unusual excitement to the ring. People were eagerly discussing the Marquis de Valorsay's sudden determination to pay forfeit and withdraw his horses from the contest; and the best informed declared that in the betting-rooms the evening before he had openly announced his intention of selling his racing stable. If the marquis had hoped that by adopting this course he would silence the suspicions which had been aroused, he was doomed to grievous disappointment. The rumor that he had secretly bet against his own horse, Domingo, on the previous Sunday, and that he had given orders not to let the animal win the race, was steadily gaining credence.
Large sums had been staked on Domingo's success. He had been the favorite in the betting ring and the losers were by no means pleased. Some declared that they had seen the jockey hold Domingo back; and they insisted that it was necessary to make an example, and disqualify both the marquis and his jockey. Still one weighty circumstance pleaded in M. de Valorsay's favor--his fortune, or, at least, the fortune he was supposed to possess. "Why should such a rich man stoop to cheat?" asked his defenders. "To put money into one's pocket in this way is even worse than to cheat at cards! Besides, it's impossible! Valorsay is above such contemptible charges. He is a perfect gentleman."
"Perhaps so," replied the skeptical bystanders. "But people said exactly the same of Croisenois, of the Duc de H., and Baron P., who were finally convicted of the same rascality that Valorsay is accused of."
"It's an infamous slander! If he had been inclined to cheat, he could have easily diverted suspicion. He would have let Domingo come in second, not third!"
"If he were not guilty, and afraid of detection, he wouldn't pay forfeit to-day nor sell his horses."
"He only retires from the turf because he's going to marry----"
"Nonsense! That's no reason whatever."
Like all gamblers, the frequenters of the turf are distrustful and inclined to be quarrelsome. No one is above their suspicions when they lose nor above their wrath when they are duped. And this Domingo affair united all the losers against Valorsay; they formed a little battalion of enemies who were no doubt powerless for the time being, but who were ready to take a startling revenge whenever a good opportunity presented itself. Naturally enough, M. Wilkie sided with the marquis, whom he had heard his friend, M. de Coralth, speak of on several occasions. "Accuse the dear marquis!" he exclaimed. "It's contemptible, outrageous. Why, only last evening he said to me, 'My good friend, Domingo's defeat cost me two thousand louis!'" M. de Valorsay had said nothing of the kind, for the very good reason that he did not even know Wilkie by sight; still, no one paid much heed to the assertion, whereat Wilkie felt vexed, and resolved to turn his attention to his jockey.
The latter was a lazy, worthless fellow, who had been dismissed from every stable he had previously served in, and who swindled and robbed the young gentlemen who employed him without either limit or shame. Although he made them pay him a very high salary-- something like eight thousand francs a year--on the plea that it was most repugnant to his feelings to act as a groom, trainer, and jockey at the same time, he regularly every month presented them with fabulous bills from the grain merchant, the veterinary surgeon, and the harness-maker. In addition, he regularly sold Pompier's oats in order to obtain liquor, and in fact the poor animal was so nearly starved that he could scarcely stand on his legs. The jockey ascribed the horse's extreme thinness to a system of rigorous training; and the owners did not question the statement in the least. He had made them believe, and they in turn had made many others believe, that Pompier de Nanterre would certainly win such and such a race; and, trusting in this fallacious promise, they risked their money on the poor animal-- and lost it.
In point of fact, this jockey would have been the happiest mortal in the world if such things as steeple-chases had never existed. In the first place, he judged, with no little reason, that it was dangerous to leap hurdles on such an animal as Pompier; and, secondly, nothing irritated him so much as to be obliged to promenade with his three employers in turn. But how could he refuse, since he knew that if these young men hired him, it was chiefly, or only in view of, displaying themselves in his company. It afforded them untold satisfaction to walk to and fro along the course in front of the grand stand, with their jockey in his orange jacket with green sleeves. They were firmly convinced that he reflected enormous credit upon them, and their hearts swelled with joy at the thought of the envy they no doubt inspired. This conviction gave rise indeed to terrible quarrels, in which each of the three owners was wont to accuse the others of monopolizing the jockey.
On this occasion, M. Wilkie--being fortunate enough to arrive the first--immediately repaired to Pompier de Nanterre's stall. Never had circumstances been more favorable for a display of the animal's speed. The day was magnificent; the stands were crowded, and thousands of eager spectators were pushing and jostling one another beyond the ropes which limited the course. M. Wilkie seemed to be everywhere; he showed himself in a dozen different places at once, always followed by his jockey, whom he ordered about in a loud voice, with many excited gesticulations. And how great his delight was when, as he passed through the crowd, he heard people exclaim: "That gentleman has a racing stable. His horses are going to compete!" What bliss thrilled his heart when he overheard the admiring exclamation of some worthy shopkeeper who was greatly impressed by the gay silk jacket and the top- boots!
But, unfortunately, this happiness could not last forever. His partners arrived, and claimed the jockey in their turn. So M. Wilkie left the course and strolled about among the carriages, until at last he found an equipage which was occupied by the young ladies who had accepted his invitation to supper the evening before, and who were now making a profuse display of the very yellowest hair they possessed. This afforded him another opportunity of attracting public attention, and to giving proofs of his "form," for he had not filled the box of his carriage with champagne for nothing. At last the decisive moment came, and he made himself conspicuous by shouting. "Now! Now! Here he is! Look! Bravo, Pompier! One hundred on Pompier!"
But, alas! poor Pompier de Nanterre fell exhausted before half the distance was accomplished; and that evening Wilkie described his defeat, with a profusion of technical terms that inspired the uninitiated with the deepest awe. "What a disaster, my friends," he exclaimed. "Pompier de Nanterre, an incomparable steeplechaser, to break down in such a fashion! And beaten by whom? My Mustapha, an outsider, without any record whatever! The ring was intensely excited--and I was simply crazed."
However, his defeat did not affect him very deeply. It was forgotten at thought of the inheritance which his friend Coralth had spoken to him about. And to-morrow M. de Coralth would tell him the secret. He had only twenty hours longer to wait!" To- morrow! to-morrow!" he said to himself again and again, with a thrill of mingled joy and impatience. And what bright visions of future glory haunted him! He saw himself the possessor of a magnificent stud, of sufficient wealth to gratify every fancy; he would splash mud upon all the passers-by, and especially upon his former acquaintances, as he dashed past them in his superb equipage; the best tailor should invent astonishing garments for him; he would make himself conspicuous at all the first performances in a stage-box, with the most notorious women in Paris; his fetes would be described in the papers; he would be the continual subject of comment; he would be credited with splendid, perfect "form."
It is true that M. de Coralth had promised him all this, without a word of explanation; but what did that matter? Should he doubt his friend's word? Never! The viscount was not merely his model, but his oracle as well. By the way in which he spoke of him, it might have been supposed that they had been friends from their childhood, or, at least, that they had known each other for years. Such was not the case, however. Their acquaintance dated only seven or eight months back, and their first meeting had apparently been the result of chance; though it is needless to say, perhaps, that this chance had been carefully prepared by M. de Coralth. Having discovered Madame Lia d'Argeles's secret, the viscount watched Wilkie, ascertained where he spent his evenings, contrived a way of introducing himself into his society, and on their third meeting was skilful enough to render him a service--in other words, to lend him some money. From that moment the conquest was assured; for M. de Coralth possessed in an eminent degree all the attributes that were likely to dazzle and charm the gifted owner of Pompier de Nanterre. First of all, there was his title, then his impudent assurance and his apparent wealth, and last, but by no means least, his numerous and fashionable acquaintances. He was not long in discovering his advantage, and in profiting by it. And without giving M. Wilkie an inkling of the truth, he succeeded in obtaining from him as accurate a knowledge of his past career as the young fellow himself possessed.
M. Wilkie did not know much concerning his origin or his early life; and his history, so far as he was acquainted with it, could be told in a few words. His earliest recollection was of the ocean. He was sure, perfectly sure, that he had made a very long sea voyage when only a little child, and he looked upon America as his birthplace. The French language was certainly not the first he had learned, for he still remembered a limited number of English phrases. The English word "father" was among those that lingered in his memory; and now, after a lapse of twenty years, he pronounced it without the least foreign accent. But while he remembered the word perfectly well, no recollection remained to him of the person he had called by that name. His first sensations were those of hunger, weariness, and cold. He recollected, and very distinctly too, how on one long winter night, a woman had dragged him after her through the streets of Paris, in an icy rain. He could still see himself as he wandered on, crying with weariness, and begging for something to eat. And then the poor woman who held him by the hand lifted him in her arms and carried him on--on, until her own strength failed, and she was obliged to set him on the ground again. A vague portrait of this woman, who was most probably his mother, still lingered in his memory. According to his description, she was extremely handsome, tall, and very fair. He had been particularly impressed with the pale tint and profusion of her beautiful hair.
Their poverty had not lasted long. He remembered being installed with his mother in a very handsome suite of rooms. A man, who was still young, and whom he called "Monsieur Jacques," came every day, and brought him sweetmeats and playthings. He thought he must have been about four years old at that time. However, he had enjoyed this comfortable state of things scarcely a month, when one morning a stranger presented himself. The visitor held a long conference with his mother, or, at least, with the person whom he called by that name. He did not understand what they were talking about, but he was none the less very uneasy. The result of the interview must have justified his instinctive fear, for his mother took him on her lap, and embraced him with convulsive tenderness. She sobbed violently, and repeated again and again in a faltering voice: "Poor child! my beloved Wilkie! I shall never kiss you again--never, never! 'Alas! It must be so! Give me courage, my God!"
Those were the exact words; Wilkie was sure on that point. It seemed to him he could still hear that despairing farewell. For it was indeed a farewell. The stranger took him in his arms and carried him away, in spite of his cries and struggles to escape. This person to whose care he was confined was the master of a small boarding-school, and his wife was the kindest and most patient of women. However, this did not prevent Wilkie from crying and begging for his mother at first; but gradually he forgot her. He was not unhappy, for he was petted and indulged more than any of the other pupils, and he spent most of his time playing on the terrace or wandering about the garden. But this charming life could not last for ever. According to his calculation, he was just ten years old when, one Sunday, toward the end of October, a grave-looking, red-whiskered gentleman, clad in solemn black with a white necktie, presented himself at the school, and declared that he had been instructed by Wilkie's relatives to place him in a college to continue his education.
Young Wilkie's lamentations were long and loud; but they did not prevent M. Patterson--for that was the gentleman's name--from taking him to the college of Louis-the-Great, where he was entered as a boarder. As he did not study, and as he was only endowed with a small amount of intelligence, he learned scarcely anything during the years he remained there. Every Sunday and every fete day, M. Patterson made his appearance at ten o'clock precisely, took Wilkie for a walk in Paris or the environs, gave him his breakfast and dinner at some of the best restaurants, bought everything he expressed a desire to have, and at nine o'clock precisely took him back to the college again. During the holidays M. Patterson kept the boy with him, refusing him nothing in the way of pleasure, granting all his wishes, but never losing sight of him for a moment. And if Wilkie complained of this constant watchfulness, M. Patterson always replied, "I must obey orders;" and this answer invariably put an end to the discussion.
So things went on until it became time for Wilkie to take his degree. He presented himself for examination; and, of course, he failed. Fortunately, however, M. Patterson was not at a loss for an expedient. He placed his charge in a private school; and the following year, at a cost of five thousand francs, he beguiled a poor devil into running the risk of three years' imprisonment, by assuming M. Wilkie's name, and passing the examination in his place. In possession of the precious diploma which opens the door of every career, M. Wilkie now hoped that his pockets would be filled, and that he would then be set at liberty. But the hope was vain! M. Patterson placed him in the hands of an old tutor who had been engaged to travel with him through Europe; and as this tutor held the purse-strings, Wilkie was obliged to follow him through Germany, England, and Italy.
When he returned to Paris he was just twenty years old, and the very next day M. Patterson conducted him to the suite of rooms which he still occupied in the Rue du Helder. "You are now in your own home, M. Wilkie," said M. Patterson in his most impressive manner. "You are now old enough to be responsible for your own actions, and I hope you will conduct yourself like an honest man. From this moment you are your own master. Those who gave you your education desire you to study law. If I were in your place, I should obey them. If you wish to be somebody, and to acquire a fortune, work, for you have no property, nor anything to expect from any one. The allowance which is granted you, a far too liberal one in my opinion, may be cut off at any moment. I don't think it right to conceal this fact from you. But at all events until then. I am instructed to pay you five thousand francs quarterly. Here is the amount for the first quarter, and in three months' time I shall send you a similar amount. I say 'shall send,' because my business compels me to return to England, and take up my abode there. Here is my London address; and if any serious trouble befalls you, write to me. Now, my duty being fulfilled, farewell."
"Go to the devil, you old preacher!" growled Wilkie, as he saw the door close on the retreating figure of M. Patterson, who had acted as his guardian for ten years. None of M. Patterson's wise advice lingered in the young fellow's mind. To use a familiar expression, "It went in through one ear and came out through the other." Only two facts had made an impression upon him: that he was to be his own master henceforth, and that he had a fortune at his command. There it lay upon the table, five thousand francs in glittering gold.
If M. Wilkie had taken the trouble to attentively examine the rooms which had suddenly become his own, he would perhaps have recognized the fact that a loving hand had prepared them for his reception. Countless details revealed the delicate taste of a woman, and the thoughtful tenderness of a mother. None of those little superfluities which delight a young man had been forgotten. There was a box of choice cigars upon the table, and a jar of tobacco on the mantel-shelf. But Wilkie did not take time to discover this. He hastily slipped five hundred francs into his pocket, locked the rest of his money in a drawer, and went out with as lofty an air as if all Paris belonged to him, or as if he had enough money to purchase it.
He had resolved to give a fete in honor of his deliverance, and so he hurried off in search of some of his old college chums. He found two of them; and, although it was very wounding to his self- love, M. Wilkie was obliged to confess to them that this was his first taste of liberty, and that he scarcely knew what to do with himself. Of course his friends assured him that they could quickly make him acquainted with the only life that it was worth while living; and, to prove it, they accepted the invitation to dinner which he immediately offered them. It was a remarkable repast. Other acquaintances dropped in, the wine flowed in rivers; and after dinner they danced. And at day-break, having served his apprenticeship at baccarat, M. Wilkie found himself without a penny in his pocket, and face to face with a bill of four hundred francs, for which amount he was obliged to go to his rooms, under the escort of one of the waiters. This first experiment ought to have disgusted him, or at least have made him reflect. But no. He felt quite in his element in the society of dissipated young men and enamelled women. He swore that he would win a place in their midst, and an influential place too. But it was easier to form this plan than to carry it into execution, as he discovered when, at the end of the month, he counted his money to see what remained of the five thousand francs that had been given him for his quarterly allowance. He had just three hundred francs left.
Twenty thousand francs a year is what one chooses to make it-- wealth or poverty. Twenty thousand francs a year represents about sixty francs a day; but what are sixty francs to a high liver, who breakfasts and dines at the best restaurants, whose clothes are designed by an illustrious tailor, who declines to make a pair of trousers for less than a hundred francs? What are three louis a day to a man who hires a box for first performances at the opera, to a man who gambles and gives expensive suppers, to a man who drives out with yellow-haired demoiselles, and who owns a race- horse? Measuring his purse and his ambition, M. Wilkie discovered that he should never succeed in making both ends meet. "How do other people manage?" he wondered. A puzzling question! Every evening a thousand gorgeously apparelled gentlemen, with a cigar in their mouth and a flower in their button-hole, may be seen promenading between the Chaussee d'Antin and the Faubourg Montmartre. Everybody knows them, and they know everybody, but how they exist is a problem which it is impossible to solve. How do they live, and what do they live on? Everybody knows that they have no property; they do nothing, and yet they are reckless in their expenditures, and rail at work and jeer at economy. What source do they derive their money from? What vile business are they engaged in?
However, M. Wilkie did not devote much time to solving this question. "My relatives must wish me to starve," he said to himself. "Not I--I'm not that sort of a person, as I'll soon let them know." And thereupon he wrote to M. Patterson. By return of post that gentleman sent him a cheque for one thousand francs--a mere drop in the bucket. M. Wilkie felt indignant and so he wrote again. This time he was obliged to wait for a reply. Still at last it came. M. Patterson sent him two thousand francs, and an interminable epistle full of reproaches. The interesting young man threw the letter into the fire, and went out to hire a carriage by the month and a servant.
From that day forward, his life was spent in demanding money and waiting for it. He employed in quick succession every pretext that could soften the hearts of obdurate relatives, or find the way to the most closely guarded cash-box. He was ill--he had contracted a debt of honor--he had imprudently lent money to an unscrupulous friend--he was about to be arrested for debt. And in accordance with the favorable or unfavorable character of the replies his manner became humble or impertinent, so that his friends soon learned to judge very accurately of the condition of his purse by the way he wore his mustaches. He became wise with experience, however; and on adding all the sums he had received together, he decided that his family must be very rich to allow him so much money. And this thought made him anxious to fathom the mystery of his birth and his infancy. He finally persuaded himself that he was the son of a great English nobleman--a member of the House of Lords, who was twenty times a millionaire. And he more than half believed it when he told his creditors that his lordship, his father, would some day or other come to Paris and pay all his debts. Unfortunately it was not M. Wilkie's noble father that arrived, but a letter from M. Patterson, which was couched as follows:
"MY DEAR SIR, a considerable sum was placed in my hands to meet your unexpected requirements; and in compliance with your repeated appeals, I have remitted the entire amount to you. Not a penny remains in my possession--so that my instructions have been fulfilled. Spare yourself the trouble of making any fresh demands; they will meet with no reply. In future you will not receive a penny above your allowance, which in my opinion is already too large a one for a young man of your age."
This letter proved a terrible blow to Wilkie. What should he do? He felt that M. Patterson would not revoke his decision; and indeed he wrote him several imploring letters, in vain. Yet never had his need of money been so urgent. His creditors were becoming uneasy; bills actually rained in upon his concierge; his next quarterly allowance was not due for some time to come, and it was only through the pawnbroker that he could obtain money for his more pressing requirements. He had begun to consider himself ruined. He saw himself reduced to dismissing his carriage, to selling his third share of Pompier de Nanterre and losing the esteem of all his witty friends.
He was in the depths of despair, when one morning his servant woke him up with the announcement that the Viscount de Coralth was in the sitting-room and wished to speak with him on very important business. It was not usually an easy task to entice M. Wilkie from his bed, but the name his servant mentioned seemed to have a prodigious effect upon him. He bounded on to the floor, and as he hastily dressed himself, he muttered: "The viscount here, at this hour! It's astonishing! What if he's going to fight a duel and wishes me to be his second? That would be a piece of grand good luck and no mistake. It would assure my position at once. Certainly something must have happened!"
This last remark was by no means a proof of any remarkable perspicuity on M. Wilkie's part. As M. de Coralth never went to bed until two or three o'clock in the morning, he was by no means an early riser, and only some very powerful reason could explain the presence of his blue-lined brougham in the street before nine o'clock A.M. And the influence that had made him rise betimes in the present case had indeed been extremely powerful. Although the brilliant viscount had discovered Madame d'Argeles's secret, several months previously, he had so far disclosed it to no one. It was certainly not from any delicacy of feeling that he had held his peace; but only because it had not been for his interest to speak. Now, however, the sudden death of the Count de Chalusse changed the situation. He heard of the catastrophe at his club on the evening after the count's death, and his emotion was so great that he actually declined to take part in a game of baccarat that was just beginning. "The devil!" he exclaimed. "Let me think a moment. Madame d'Argeles is the heiress of all these millions-- will she come forward and claim them? From what I know of her, I am inclined to think that she won't. Will she ever go to Wilkie and confess that she, Lia d'Argeles, is a Chalusse, and that he is her illegitimate son? Never! She would rather relinquish her millions, both for herself and for him, than take such a step. She is so ridiculously antiquated in her notions." And then he began to study what advantages he might derive from his knowledge of the situation.
M. de Coralth, like all persons whose present is more or less uncertain, had great misgivings concerning his future. Just now he was cunning enough to find a means of procuring the thirty or forty thousand francs a year that were indispensable to his comfort; but he had not a farthing laid by, and the vein of silver he was now working might fail him at any moment. The slightest indiscretion, the least blunder, might hurl him from his splendor into the mire. The perspiration started out on his forehead when he thought of his peril. He passionately longed for a more assured position--for a little capital that would insure him his bread until the end of his days, and rid him of the grim phantom of poverty forever. And it was this desire which inspired him with the same plan that M. Fortunat had formed. "Why shouldn't I inform Wilkie?" he said to himself. "If I present him with a fortune, the simpleton ought certainly to give me some reward." But to carry this plan into execution it would be necessary to brave Madame d'Argeles's anger; and that was attended by no little danger. If he knew something about her, she on her side knew everything connected with his past life. She had only to speak to ruin him forever. Still, after weighing all the advantages and all the dangers, he decided to act, convinced that Madame d'Argeles might be kept ignorant of his treason, providing he only played his cards skilfully. And his matutinal visit to M. Wilkie was caused by a fear that he might not be the only person knowing the truth, and that some one else might forestall him.
"You here, at sunrise, my friend!" exclaimed Wilkie, as he entered the room where the viscount was seated. "What has happened?"
"To me?--nothing," replied the viscount. "It was solely on your account that I deviated from my usual habits."
"What is it? You frighten me."
"Oh! don't be alarmed. I have only some good news to communicate," and in a careless tone which cleverly concealed his anxiety, the viscount added: "I have come, my dear Wilkie, to ask you what you would be willing to give the man who put you in possession of a fortune of several millions?"
M. Wilkie's face turned from white to purple at least three times in ten seconds; and it was in a strangely altered voice that he replied: "Ah! that's good--very good--excellent!" He tried his best to laugh, but he was completely overcome; and, in fact, he had cherished so many extravagant hopes that nothing seemed impossible to him.
"Never in all my life have I spoken more seriously," insisted the viscount.
His companion at first made no reply. It was easy to divine the conflict that was raging in his mind, between the hope that the news was true and the fear of being made the victim of a practical joke. "Come, my friend," he said at last, "do you want to poke fun at me? That wouldn't be polite. A debtor is always sacred, and I owe you twenty-five louis. This is scarcely the time to talk of millions. My relatives have cut off my supplies; and my creditors are overwhelming me with their bills----"
But M. de Coralth checked him, saying gravely: "Upon my honor, I am not jesting. What would you give a man who--"
"I would give him half of the fortune he gave me."
"That's too much!"
He was in earnest, certainly. What wouldn't a man promise in all sincerity of soul to a fellow mortal who gave him money when he had none--when he needed it urgently and must have it to save himself from ruin?
At such a moment no commission, however large, seems exorbitant. It is afterward, when the day of settlement comes, that people begin to find fault with the rate of interest.
"If I tell you that one-half is too much, it is because such is really the case. And I am the best judge of the matter, since I am the man who can put you in possession of this enormous fortune."
M. Wilkie started back in speechless amazement.
"This astonishes you!" said the viscount; "and why, pray? Is it because I ask for a commission?"
"Oh! not at all!"
"It is not perhaps a very gentlemanly proceeding, but it is a sensible one. Business is business. In the afternoon, when I am in a restaurant, at the club, or in a lady's boudoir, I am merely the viscount and the grand seigneur. All money questions sicken me. I am careless, liberal, and obliging to a fault. But in the morning I am simply Coralth, a man of the middle classes who doesn't pay his bills without examining them, and who watches his money, because he doesn't wish to be ruined and end his brilliant career as a common soldier in some foreign legion."
M. Wilkie did not allow him to continue. He believed, and his joy was wild--delirious. "Enough, enough!" he interrupted. "A difficulty between us! Never! I am yours without reserve! Do you understand me? How much must you have? Do you wish for it all?"
But the viscount was unmoved. "It is not fitting that I should fix upon the indemnity which is due to me. I will consult a man of business; and I will decide upon this point on the day after to-morrow, when I shall explain everything to you."
"On the day after to-morrow! You won't leave me in suspense for forty-eight hours?"
"It is unavoidable. I have still some important information to procure. I lost no time in coming to you, so that I might put you on your guard. If any scoundrel comes to you with proposals, be extremely careful. Some agents, when they obtain a hold on an estate, leave nothing for the rightful owner. So don't treat with any one."
"Oh, no! You may rest assured I won't."
"I should be quieter in mind if I had your promise in writing."
Without a word, Wilkie darted to a table, and wrote a short contract by which he bound himself to give M. Ferdinand de Coralth one-half of the inheritance which the aforesaid Coralth might prove him to be entitled to. The viscount read the document, placed it in his pocket, and then said, as he took up his hat:
"Very well. I will see you again on Monday."
But M. Wilkie's doubts were beginning to return. "Monday, so be it!" said he; "but swear that you are not deceiving me."
"What, do you still doubt me?"
M. Wilkie reflected for a moment; and suddenly a brilliant inspiration darted through his brain. "If you are speaking the truth, I shall soon be rich," said he. "But, in the meantime, life is hard. I haven't a penny, and it isn't a pleasant situation. I have a horse entered for the race to-morrow, Pompier de Nanterre. You know the animal very well. The chances are enormously in his favor. So, if it wouldn't inconvenience you to lend me fifty louis "
"Certainly," interrupted the viscount, cordially. "Certainly; with the greatest pleasure."
And drawing a beautiful little notebook from his pocket he took from it not one, but two bank-notes of a thousand francs, and handed them to M. Wilkie, saying: "Monsieur believes me now, does he not?"
As will be readily believed, it was not for his own pleasure that M. de Coralth postponed his confidential disclosures for a couple of days. He knew Wilkie perfectly well, and felt that it was dangerous to let him roam about Paris with half of an important secret. Postponement generally furnishes fate with weapons against oneself. But it was impossible for the viscount to act otherwise. He had not seen the Marquis de Valorsay since the Count de Chalusse's death and he dared not conclude the contract with Wilkie before he had conferred with him, for he was completely in the marquis's power. At the least suspicion of treason, M. de Valorsay would close his hand, and he, Coralth, would be crushed like an egg-shell. It was to the house of his formidable associate that he repaired on leaving M. Wilkie; and in a single breath he told the marquis all that he knew, and the plans that he had formed.
M. de Valorsay's astonishment must have been intense when he heard that Lia d'Argeles was a Chalusse, but he knew how to maintain his composure. He listened quietly, and when the viscount had completed his story, he asked: "Why did you wait so long before telling me all this?"
"I didn't see how it could interest you in the least."
The marquis looked at him keenly, and then calmly said: "In other words, you were waiting to see whether it would be most advantageous to you to be with me or against me."
"How can you think----"
"I don't think, I'm sure of it. As long as I was strong support for you, you were devoted to me. But now I am tottering, and you are ready to betray me."
"Excuse me! The step I am about to take----"
"What, haven't you taken it already?" interrupted the marquis, quickly. And shrugging his shoulders, he added: "Observe that I don't reproach you in the least. Only remember this: we survive or we perish together."
By the angry gleam in M. de Coralth's eyes, the marquis must have realized that his companion was disposed to rebel; still this knowledge did not seem to disquiet him, for it was in the same icy tone that he continued: "Besides, your plans, far from conflicting with mine, will be of service to me. Yes, Madame d'Argeles must lay claim to the count's estate. If she hesitates, her son will compel her to urge her claims, will he not?"
"Oh, you may rest assured of that."
"And when he becomes rich, will you be able to retain your influence over him?"
"Rich or poor, I can mould him like wax."
"Very good. Marguerite was escaping me, but I shall soon have her in my power. I have a plan. The Fondeges think they can outwit me, but we shall soon see about that." The viscount was watching his companion stealthily; as the latter perceived, and so in a tone of brusque cordiality, he resumed: "Excuse me for not keeping you to breakfast, but I must go out immediately--Baron Trigault is waiting for me at his house. Let us part friends--au revoir--and, above all, keep me well posted about matters in general."
M. de Coralth's temper was already somewhat ruffled when he entered Valorsay's house; and he was in a furious passion when he left it. "So we are to survive or perish together," he growled. "Thanks for the preference you display for my society. Is it my fault that the fool has squandered his fortune? I fancy I've had enough of his threats and airs."
Still his wrath was not so violent as to make him forget his own interests. He at once went to inquire if the agreement which M. Wilkie had just signed would be binding. The lawyer whom he consulted replied that, at all events, a reasonable compensation would most probably be granted by the courts, in case of any difficulty; and he suggested a little plan which was a chef d'oeuvre in its way, at the same time advising his client to strike the iron while it was hot.
It was not yet noon, and the viscount determined to act upon the suggestion at once; he now bitterly regretted the delay he had specified. "I must find Wilkie at once," he said to himself. But he did not succeed in meeting him until the evening, when he found him at the Cafe Riche--and in what a condition too! The two bottles of wine which the young fool had drank at dinner had gone to his head, and he was enumerating, in a loud voice, the desires he meant to gratify as soon as he came into possession of his millions. "What a brute!" thought the enraged viscount. "If I leave him to himself, no one knows what foolish thing he may do or say. I must remain with him until he becomes sober again."
So he followed him to the theatre, and thence to Brebant's, where he was sitting feeling terribly bored, when M. Wilkie conceived the unfortunate idea of inviting Victor Chupin to come up and take some refreshment. The scene which followed greatly alarmed the viscount. Who could this young man be? He did not remember having ever seen him before, and yet the young scamp was evidently well acquainted with his past life, for he had cast the name of Paul in his face, as a deadly insult. Surely this was enough to make the viscount shudder! How did it happen that this young man had been just on the spot ready to pick up Wilkie's hat? Was it mere chance? Certainly not. He could not believe it. Then why was the fellow there? Evidently to watch somebody. And whom? Why, him-- Coralth--undoubtedly.
In going through life as he had done, a man makes enemies at every step; and he had an imposing number of foes, whom he only held in check by his unbounded impudence and his renown as a duellist. Thus it was not strange if some one had set a snare for him; it was rather a miracle that he had not fallen into one before. The dangers that threatened him were so formidable that he was almost tempted to relinquish his attack on Madame d'Argeles. Was it prudent to incur the risk of making this woman an enemy? All Sunday he hesitated. It would be very easy to get out of the scrape. He could concoct some story for Wilkie's benefit, and that would be the end of it. But on the other hand, there was the prospect of netting at least five hundred thousand francs--a fortune--a competency, and the idea was too tempting to be relinquished.
So on Monday morning, at about ten o'clock, he presented himself at Wilkie's house, looking pale with anxiety, and far more solemn in manner than usual. "Let us say but little, and that to the point," he remarked on entering. "The secret I am about to reveal to you will make you rich; but it might ruin me if it were known that you obtained this information through me. You will therefore swear, upon your honor as a gentleman, never to betray me, under any circumstances, or for any reason."
M. Wilkie extended his hand and solemnly exclaimed: "I swear!"
"Very well, then. Now my mind is at rest. It is scarcely necessary for me to add that if you break your faith you are a dead man. You know me. You know how I handle a sword; and don't forget it." His manner was so threatening that Wilkie shuddered. "You will certainly be questioned," continued M. de Coralth; "but you must reply that you received the information through one of Mr. Patterson's friends. Now let us sign our formal contract in lieu of the temporary one you gave me the other day."
It is needless to say that Wilkie signed it eagerly. Not so the viscount; he read the document through carefully, before appending his signature, and then exclaimed: "The estate that belongs to you is that of the Count de Chalusse, your uncle. He leaves, I am informed, at least eight or ten millions of property."
By M. Wilkie's excited gestures, by the glitter in his eyes, it might have been supposed that this wonderful good fortune was too much for him, and that he was going mad. "I knew that I belonged to a noble family," he began. "The Count de Chalusse my uncle! I shall have a coronet on the corner of my visiting cards."
But with a gesture M. de Coralth silenced him. "Wait a little before you rejoice," said he. "Yes, your mother is the sister of the Count de Chalusse, and it is through her that you are an heir to the estate. But--don't grieve too much--there are similar misfortunes in many of our most distinguished families-- circumstances--the obstinacy of parents--a love more powerful than reason----" The viscount paused, certainly he had no prejudices; but at the moment of telling this interesting young man who his mother really was, he hesitated.
"Go on," insisted M. Wilkie.
"Well--when your mother was a young girl, about twenty, she fled from her paternal home with a man she loved. Forsaken afterward, she found herself in the depths of poverty. She was obliged to live. You were starving. So she changed her name, and now she is known as Lia d'Argeles."
M. Wilkie sprang to his feet. "Lia d'Argeles!" he exclaimed. Then, with a burst of laughter, he added: "Nevertheless, I think it a piece of grand good luck!"