Baron Trigault's Vengeance by Emile Gaboriau
It was not enough to tell M. Wilkie the secret of his birth. He must be taught how to utilize the knowledge. The Viscount de Coralth devoted himself to this task, and burdened Wilkie with such a host of injunctions, that it was quite evident he had but a poor opinion of his pupil's sagacity. "That woman d'Argeles," he thought, "is as sharp as steel. She will deceive this young idiot completely, if I don't warn him."
So he did warn him; and Wilkie was instructed exactly what to do and say, how to answer any questions, and what position to take up according to circumstances. Moreover, he was especially enjoined to distrust tears, and not to let himself be put out of countenance by haughty airs. The Viscount spent at least an hour in giving explanations and advice, to the great disgust of M. Wilkie, who, feeling that he was being treated like a child, somewhat testily declared that he was no fool, and that he knew how to take care of himself as well as any one else. Still, this did not prevent M. de Coralth from persisting in his instructions until he was persuaded that he had prepared his pupil for all possible emergencies. He then rose to depart. "That's all, I think," he remarked, with a shade of uneasiness. "I've traced the plan--you must execute it, and keep cool, or the game's lost."
His companion rose proudly. "If it fails, it won't be from any fault of mine," he answered with unmistakable petulance.
"Lose no time."
"There's no danger of that."
"And understand, that whatever happens, my name is not to be mentioned."
"If there should be any new revelations, I will inform you."
"At the club?"
"Yes, but don't be uneasy; the affair is as good as concluded."
"I hope so, indeed."
Wilkie gave a sigh of relief as he saw his visitor depart. He wished to be alone, so as to brood over the delights that the future had in store for him. He was no longer to be limited to a paltry allowance of twenty thousand francs! No more debts, no more ungratified longings. He would have millions at his disposal! He seemed to see them, to hold them, to feel them gliding in golden waves between his fingers! What horses he would have! what carriages! what mistresses! And a gleam of envy that he had detected in M. de Coralth's eyes put the finishing touch to his bliss. To be envied by this brilliant viscount, his model and his ideal, what happiness it was!
The reputation that Madame d'Argeles bore had at first cast a shadow over his joy; but this shadow had soon vanished. He was troubled by no foolish prejudices, and personally he cared little or nothing for his mother's reputation. The prejudices of society must, of course, be considered. But nonsense! society has no prejudices nowadays when millionaires are concerned, and asks no questions respecting their parents. Society only requires passports of the indigent. Besides, no matter what Madame d'Argeles might have done, she was none the less a Chalusse, the descendant of one of the most aristocratic families in France.
Such were Wilkie's meditations while he was engaged in dressing himself with more than usual care. He had been quite shocked by the suggestion that Madame d'Argeles might try to deny him, and he wished to appear before her in the most advantageous light. His toilette was consequently a lengthy operation. However, shortly after twelve o'clock he was ready. He cast a last admiring glance at himself in the mirror, twirled his mustaches, and departed on his mission. He even went on foot, which was a concession to what he considered M. de Coralth's absurd ideas. The aspect of the Hotel d'Argeles, in the Rue de Berry, impressed him favorably, but, at the same time, it somewhat disturbed his superb assurance. "Everything is very stylish here," he muttered.
A couple of servants--the concierge and Job--were standing at the door engaged in conversation. M. Wilkie approached them, and in his most imposing manner, but not without a slight tremble in his voice, requested to see Madame d'Argeles. "Madame is in the country," replied the concierge; "she will not return before this evening. If monsieur will leave his card "
"Oh! that's quite unnecessary. I shall be passing again."
This, too, was in obedience to the instructions of M. de Coralth, who had advised him not to send in his name, but to gain admission into Madame d'Argeles's presence as speedily as possible, without giving her time to prepare herself for the interview; and Wilkie had ultimately decided that these precautions might not prove as superfluous as he had at first supposed. But this first mishap annoyed him extremely. What should he do? how should he kill time till the evening? A cab was passing. He hired it for a drive to the Bois, whence he returned to the boulevards, played a game of billiards with one of the co-proprietors of Pompier de Nanterre, and finally dined at the Cafe Riche, devoting as much time as possible to the operation. He was finishing his coffee when the clock struck eight. He caught up his hat, drew on his gloves, and hastened to the Hotel d'Argeles again.
"Madame has not yet returned," said the concierge, who knew that his mistress had only just risen from her bed, "but I don't think it will be long. And if monsieur wishes--"
"No," replied M. Wilkie brusquely, and he was going off in a furious passion, when, on crossing the street, he chanced to turn his head and notice that the reception rooms were brilliantly lighted up. "Ah! I think that a very shabby trick!" grumbled the intelligent youth. "They won't succeed in playing that game on me again. Why, she's there now!"
It occurred to him that Madame d'Argeles had perhaps described him to her servants, and had given them strict orders not to admit him. "I'll find out if that is the case, even if I have to wait here until to-morrow morning," he thought, angrily. However, he had not been on guard very long, when he saw a brougham stop in front of the mansion, whereupon the gate opened, as if by enchantment. The vehicle entered the courtyard, deposited its occupants, and drove away. A second carriage soon appeared, then a third, and then five or six in quick succession. "And does she think I'll wear out my shoe-leather here, while everybody else is allowed to enter?" he grumbled. "Never!--I've an idea." And, without giving himself time for further deliberation, he returned to his rooms, arrayed himself in evening-dress, and sent for his carriage. "You will drive to No.--in the Rue de Berry," he said. "There is a soiree there, and you can drive directly into the courtyard." The coachman obeyed, and M. Wilkie realized that his idea was really an excellent one.
As soon as he alighted, the doors were thrown open, and he ascended a handsome staircase, heavily carpeted, and adorned with flowers. Two liveried footmen were standing at the door of the drawing-room, and one of them advanced to relieve Wilkie of his overcoat, but his services were declined. "I don't wish to go in," said the young man roughly. "I wish to speak with Madame d'Argeles in private. She is expecting me--inform her. Here is my card."
The servant was hesitating, when Job, suspecting some mystery perhaps, approached. "Take in the gentleman's card," he said, with an air of authority; and, opening the door of a small room on the left-hand side of the staircase, he invited Wilkie to enter, saying, "If monsieur will be kind enough to take a seat, I will summon madame at once."
M. Wilkie sank into an arm-chair, considerably overcome. The air of luxury that pervaded the entire establishment, the liveried servants, the lights and flowers, all impressed him much more deeply than he would have been willing to confess. And in spite of his affected arrogance, he felt that the superb assurance which was the dominant trait in his character was deserting him. In his breast, moreover, in the place where physiologists locate the heart, he felt certain extraordinary movements which strongly resembled palpitations. For the first time it occurred to him that this woman, whose peace he had come to destroy, was not only the heiress of the Count de Chalusse's millions, but also his mother, that is to say, the good fairy whose protection had followed him everywhere since he entered the world. The thought that he was about to commit an atrocious act entered his mind, but he drove it away. It was too late now to draw back, or even to reflect.
Suddenly a door opposite the one by which he had entered opened, and Madame d'Argeles appeared on the threshold. She was no longer the woman whose anguish and terror had alarmed her guests. During the brief moment of respite which fate had granted her, she had summoned all her energy and courage, and had mastered her despair. She felt that her salvation depended upon her calmness, and she had succeeded in appearing calm, haughty, and disdainful--as impassive as if she had been a statue. "Was it you, sir, who sent me this card?" she inquired.
Greatly disconcerted, M. Wilkie could only bow and stammer out an almost unintelligible answer. "Excuse me! I am much grieved, upon my word! I disturb you, perhaps----"
"You are Monsieur Wilkie!" interrupted Madame d'Argeles, in a tone of mingled irony and disdain.
"Yes," he replied, drawling out the name affectedly, "I am M. Wilkie."
"Did you desire to speak with me?" inquired Madame d'Argeles, dryly.
"In fact--yes. I should like----"
"Very well. I will listen to you, although your visit is most inopportune, for I have eighty guests or more in my drawing-room. Still, speak!"
It was very easy to say "speak," but unfortunately for M. Wilkie he could not articulate a syllable. His tongue was as stiff, and as dry, as if it had been paralyzed. He nervously passed and repassed his fingers between his neck and his collar, but although this gave full play to his cravat, his words did not leave his throat any more readily. For he had imagined that Madame d'Argeles would be like other women he had known, but not at all. He found her to be an extremely proud and awe-inspiring creature, who, to use his own vocabulary, squelched him completely. "I wished to say to you," he repeated, "I wished to say to you----" But the words he was seeking would not come; and, so at last, angry with himself, he exclaimed: "Ah! you know as well as I, why I have come. Do you dare to pretend that you don't know?"
She looked at him with admirably feigned astonishment, glanced despairingly at the ceiling, shrugged her shoulders, and replied: "Most certainly I don't know--unless indeed it be a wager."
"A wager!" M. Wilkie wondered if he were not the victim of some practical joke, and if there were not a crowd of listeners hidden somewhere, who, after enjoying his discomfiture, would suddenly make their appearance, holding their sides. This fear restored his presence of mind. "Well, then," he replied, huskily, "this is my reason. I know nothing respecting my parents. This morning, a man with whom you are well acquainted, assured me that I was--your son. I was completely stunned at first, but after a while I recovered sufficiently to call here, and found that you had gone out."
He was interrupted by a nervous laugh from Madame d'Argeles. For she was heroic enough to laugh, although death was in her heart, and although the nails of her clinched hands were embedded deep in her quivering flesh. "And you believed him, monsieur?" she exclaimed. "Really, this is too absurd! I--your mother! Why, look at me----"
He was doing nothing else, he was watching her with all the powers of penetration he possessed. Madame d'Argeles's laugh had an unnatural ring that awakened his suspicions. All Coralth's recommendations buzzed confusedly in his ears, and he judged that the moment had come "to do the sentimental," as he would have expressed it. So he lowered his head, and in an aggrieved tone, exclaimed: "Ah! you think it very amusing, I don't. Do you realize how wretched it makes one to live as utterly alone as a leper, without a soul to love or care for you? Other young men have a mother, sisters, relatives. I have no one! Ah! if---- But I only have friends while my money lasts." He wiped his eyes, dry as they were, with his handkerchief, and in a still more pathetic tone, resumed: "Not that I want for anything; I receive a very handsome allowance. But when my relatives have given me the wherewithal to keep me from starving, they imagine their duty is fulfilled. I think this very hard. I didn't come into the world at my own request, did I? I didn't ask to be born. If I was such an annoyance to them when I came into existence, why didn't they throw me into the river? Then they would have been well rid of me, and I should be out of my misery!"
He stopped short, struck dumb with amazement, for Madame d'Argeles had thrown herself on her knees at his feet. "Have mercy!" she faltered; "Wilkie; my son, forgive me!" Alas! the unfortunate woman had failed in playing a part which was too difficult for a mother's heart. "You have suffered cruelly, my son," she continued; "but I--I--Ah! you can't conceive the frightful agony it costs a mother to separate from her child! But you were not deserted, Wilkie; don't say that. Have you not felt my love in the air around you? YOU forgotten? Know, then, that for years and years I have seen you every day, and that all my thoughts and all my hopes are centered in you alone! Wilkie!"
She dragged herself toward him with her hands clasped in an agony of supplication, while he recoiled, frightened by this outburst of passion, and utterly amazed by his easily won victory. The poor woman misunderstood this movement. "Great God!" she exclaimed, "he spurns me; he loathes me. Ah! I knew it would be so. Oh! why did you come? What infamous wretch sent you here? Name him, Wilkie! Do you understand, now, why I concealed myself from you? I dreaded the day when I should blush before you, before my own son. And yet it was for your sake. Death would have been a rest, a welcome release for me. But your breath was ebbing away, your poor little arms no longer had strength to clasp me round the neck. And then I cried: 'Perish my soul and body, if only my child can be saved!' I believed such a sacrifice permissible in a mother. I am punished for it as if it were a crime. I thought you would be happy, my Wilkie. I said to myself that you, my pride and joy, would move freely and proudly far above me and my shame. I accepted ignominy, so that your honor might be preserved intact. I knew the horrors of abject poverty, and I wished to save my son from it. I would have licked up the very mire in your pathway to save you from a stain. I renounced all hope for myself, and I consecrated all that was noble and generous in my nature to you. Oh! I will discover the vile coward who sent you here, who betrayed my secret. I will discover him and I will have my revenge! You were never to know this, Wilkie. In parting from you, I took a solemn oath never to see you again, and to die without the supreme consolation of feeling your lips upon my forehead."
She could not continue; sobs choked her utterance. And for more than a minute the silence was so profound that one could hear the sound of low conversation in the hall outside, the exclamations of the players as they greeted each unexpected turn of luck, and occasionally a cry of "Banco!" or "I stake one hundred louis!" Standing silent and motionless near the window, Wilkie gazed with consternation at Madame d'Argeles, his mother, who was crouching in the middle of the room with her face hidden in her hands, and sobbing as if her heart would break. He would willingly have given his third share in Pompier de Nanterre to have made his escape. The strangeness of the scene appalled him. It was not emotion that he felt, but an instinctive fear mingled with commiseration. And he was not only ill at ease, but he was angry with himself for what he secretly styled his weakness. "Women are incomprehensible," he thought. "It would be so easy to explain things quietly and properly, but they must always cry and have a sort of melodrama."
Suddenly the sound of footsteps near the door roused him from his stupor. He shuddered at the thought that some one might come in. He hated the very idea of ridicule. So summoning all his courage he went toward Madame d'Argeles, and, raising her from the floor, he exclaimed: "Don't cry so. You grieve me, upon my word! Pray get up. Some one is coming. Do you hear me? Some one is coming." Thereupon, as she offered no resistance, he half led, half carried her to an arm-chair, into which she sank heavily. "Now she is going to faint!" thought Wilkie, in despair. What should he do? Call for help? He dared not. However, necessity inspired him. He knelt at Madame d'Argeles's feet, and gently said: "Come, come, be reasonable! Why do you give way like this? I don't reproach you!"
Slowly, with an air of humility which was indescribably touching, she took her hands from her face, and for the first time raised her tear-stained eyes to her son's. "Wilkie," she murmured.
She heaved a deep sigh, and in a half-stifled voice:
"Madame!" she repeated. "Will you not call me mother?"
"Yes, of course--certainly. But--only you know it will take me some time to acquire the habit. I shall do so, of course; but I shall have to get used to it, you know."
"True, very true!--but tell me it is not mere pity that leads you to make this promise? If you should hate me--if you should curse me--how should I bear it! Ah! when a woman reaches the years of understanding one should never cease repeating to her: 'Take care! Your son will be twenty some day, and you will have to meet his searching gaze. You will have to render an account of your honor to him!' My God! If women thought of this, they would never sin. To be reduced to such a state of abject misery that one dares not lift one's head before one's own son! Alas! Wilkie, I know only too well that you cannot help despising me."
"No, indeed. Not at all! What an idea!"
"Tell me that you forgive me!"
"I do, upon my word I do."
Poor woman, her face brightened. She so longed to believe him! And her son was beside her, so near that she felt his breath upon her cheek. It was he indeed. Had they ever been separated? She almost doubted it, she had lived so near him in thought. It was with a sort of ecstasy that she looked at him. There was a world of entreaty in her eyes; they seemed to be begging a caress; she raised her quivering lips to his, but he did not observe it. For a long time she hesitated, fearing he might spurn her; but at last, yielding to a supreme impulse, she threw her arms around his neck, drew him toward her, and pressed him to her heart in a close embrace. "My son! my son!" she repeated; "to have you with me again, after all these years!"
Unfortunately, no whirlwind of passion was capable of carrying M. Wilkie beyond himself. His emotion was now spent and his mind had regained its usual indifference. He flattered himself that he was a man of mettle--and he remained as cold as ice beneath his mother's kisses. Indeed, he barely tolerated them; and if he did allow her to embrace him, it was only because he did not know how to refuse. "Will she never have done?" he thought. "This is a pretty state of things! I must be very attractive. How Costard and Serpillon would laugh if they saw me now." Costard and Serpillon were his intimate friends, the co-proprietors of the famous steeplechaser.
In her rapture, however, Madame d'Argeles did not observe the peculiar expression on her son's face. She had compelled him to take a chair opposite her, and, with nervous volubility, she continued: "If I don't deny myself the happiness of embracing you again, it is because I have not broken the vow I took never to make myself known to you. When I entered this room, I was firmly resolved to convince you, no matter how, that you had been deceived. God knows that it was not my fault if I did not succeed. There are some sacrifices that are above human strength."
M. Wilkie deigned to smile. "Oh! yes, I saw your little game," he said, with a knowing air. "But I had been well posted, and besides, it is not very easy to fool me."
Madame d'Argeles did not even hear him. "Perhaps destiny is weary of afflicting us," she continued; "perhaps a new life is about to begin. Through you, Wilkie. I can again be happy. I, who for years have lived without even hope. But will you have courage to forget?"
She hung her head, and in an almost inaudible voice replied, "The past, Wilkie."
But with an air of the greatest indifference, he snapped his fingers, and exclaimed: "Nonsense! What is past is past. Such things are soon forgotten. Paris has known many such cases. You are my mother; I care very little for public opinion. I begin by pleasing myself, and I consult other people afterward; and when they are dissatisfied, I tell them to mind their own business."
The poor woman listened to these words with a joy bordering on rapture. One might have supposed that the strangeness of her son's expressions would have surprised her--have enlightened her in regard to his true character--but no. She only saw and understood one thing--that he had no intention of casting her off, but was indeed ready to devote himself to her. "My God!" she faltered, "is this really true? Will you allow me to remain with you? Oh, don't reply rashly! Consider well, before you promise to make such a sacrifice. Think how much sorrow and pain it will cost you."
"I have considered. It is decided--mother."
She sprang up, wild with hope and enthusiasm. "Then we are saved!" she cried. "Blessed be he who betrayed my secret! And I doubted your courage, my Wilkie! At last I can escape from this hell! This very night we will fly from this house, without one backward glance. I will never set foot in these rooms again--the detested gamblers who are sitting here shall never see me again. From this moment Lia d'Argeles is dead."
M. Wilkie positively felt like a man who had just fallen from the clouds. "What, fly?" he stammered. "Where shall we go, then?"
"To a country where we are unknown, Wilkie--to a land where you will not have to blush for your mother."
"Trust yourself to me, my son. I know a pleasant village near London where we can find a refuge. My connections in England are such that you need not fear the obstacles one generally meets with among foreigners. M. Patterson, who manages a large manufacturing establishment, will, I know, be happy to be of service to us--but we shall not be indebted to any one for long, now that you have resolved to work."
On hearing these words, M. Wilkie sprang up in dismay. "Excuse me," he said, "I don't understand you. You propose to set me to work in M. Patterson's factory? Well, to tell the truth, that doesn't suit me at all."
It was impossible to mistake M. Wilkie's manner, his tone, or gesture. They revealed him in his true character. Madame d'Argeles saw her terrible mistake at once. The bandage fell from her eyes. She had taken her dreams for realities, and the desires of her own heart for those of her son. She rose, trembling with sorrow and with indignation. "Wilkie!" she exclaimed, "Wilkie, wretched boy! what did you dare to hope?"
And, without giving him time to reply, she continued: "Then it was only idle curiosity that brought you here. You wished to know the source of the money which you spend like water. Very well, you may see for yourself. This is a gambling house; one of those establishments frequented by distinguished personages, which the police ignore, or which they cannot suppress. The hubbub you hear is made by the players. Men are ruined here. Some poor wretches have blown their brains out on leaving the house; others have parted with the last vestige of honor here. And the business pays me well. One louis out of every hundred that change hands falls to my share. This is the source of your wealth, my son."
This anger, which succeeded such deep grief--this outburst of disdain, following such abject humility--considerably astonished M. Wilkie. "Allow me to ask----" he began.
But he was not allowed a hearing. "Fool!" continued Madame d'Argeles, "did nothing warn you that in coming here you would deprive yourself forever of the income you received? Did no inward voice tell you that all would be changed when you compelled me, Lia d'Argeles, to say, 'Well, yes, it is true; you are my son? ' So long as you did not know who and what I was, I had a mother's right to watch over you. I could help you without disgracing you, without despising you. But now that you know me, and know what I am, I can do nothing more for you--nothing! I would rather let you starve than succor you, for I would rather see you dead than dishonored by my money."
"What! would you still consent to receive the allowance I have made you, even if I consented to continue it?"
Had a viper raised its head in M. Wilkie's path he would not have recoiled more quickly. "Never!" he exclaimed. "Ah, no! What do you take me for?"
This repugnance was sincere; there could be no doubt of that, and it seemed to give Madame d'Argeles a ray of hope. "I have misjudged him," she thought. "Poor Wilkie! Evil advice has led him astray; but he is not bad at heart. In that case, my poor child," she said aloud, "you must see that a new life is about to commence for you. What do you intend to do? How will you gain a livelihood? People must have food, and clothes, and a roof to shelter them. These things cost money. And where will you obtain it--you who rebel at the very word work? Ah! if I had only listened to M. Patterson. He was not blind like myself. He was always telling me that I was spoiling you, and ruining your future by giving you so much money. Do you know that you have spent more than fifty thousand francs during the past two years? How have you squandered them? Have you been to the law-school a dozen times? No. But you can be seen at the races, at the opera, in the fashionable restaurants, and at every place of amusement where a young man can squander money. And who are your associates? Dissipated and heartless idlers, grooms, gamblers, and abandoned women."
A sneer from M. Wilkie interrupted her. To think that any one should dare to attack his friends, his tastes, and his pleasures. Such a thing was not to be tolerated. "This is astonishing-- astonishing, upon my word!" said he. "You moralizing! that's really too good! I should like a few minutes to laugh; it is too ridiculous!"
Was he really conscious of the cruelty of his ironical words? The blow was so terrible that Madame d'Argeles staggered beneath it. She was prepared for anything and everything except this insult from her son. Still, she accepted it without rebellion, although it was in a tone of heart-broken anguish that she replied: "Perhaps I have no right to tell you the truth. I hope the future will prove that I am wrong. However, you are without resources, and you have no profession. Pray Heaven that you may never know what it is to be hungry and to have no bread."
For some time already the ingenious young man had shown unmistakable signs of impatience. This gloomy prediction irritated him beyond endurance.
"All this is empty talk," he interrupted. "I don't mean to work, for it's not at all in my line. Still, I don't expect to want for anything! That's plain enough, I hope."
Madame d'Argeles did not wince. "What do you mean to do then?" she asked, coldly. "I don't understand you."
He shrugged his shoulders impatiently. "Are we to keep up this farce for ever?" he petulantly exclaimed. "It doesn't take with me. You know what I mean as well as I do. Why do you talk to me about dying of starvation? What about the fortune?"
"Eh? why, my uncle's, of course! Your brother's, the Count de Chalusse."
Now M. Wilkie's visit, manner, assurance, wheedling, and contradictions were all explained. That maternal confidence which is so strong in the hearts of mothers vanished from Madame d'Argeles's for ever. The depths of selfishness and cunning she discerned in Wilkie's mind appalled her. She now understood why he had declared himself ready to brave public opinion--why he had proved willing to accept his share of the past ignominy. It was not his mother's, but the Count de Chalusse's estate that he claimed. "Ah! so you've heard of that," she said, in a tone of bitter irony. And then, remembering M. Isidore Fortunat, she asked: "Some one has sold you this valuable secret. How much have you promised to pay him in case of success?"
Although Wilkie prided himself on being very clever, he did not pretend to be a diplomatist, and, indeed, he was greatly disconcerted by this question; still, recovering himself, he replied: "It doesn't matter how I obtained the information-- whether I paid for it, or whether it cost me nothing--but I know that you are a Chalusse, and that you are the heiress of the count's property, which is valued at eight or ten millions of francs. Do you deny it?"
Madame d'Argeles sadly shook her head. "I deny nothing," she replied, "but I am about to tell you something which will destroy all your plans and extinguish your hopes. I am resolved, understand, and my resolution is irrevocable, never to assert my rights. To receive this fortune, I should be obliged to confess that Lia d'Argeles is a Chalusse--and that is a confession which no consideration whatever will wring from me."
She imagined that this declaration would silence and discomfit Wilkie, but she was mistaken. If he had been obliged to depend upon himself he would perhaps have been conquered by it; but he was armed with weapons which had been furnished by the cunning viscount. So he shrugged his shoulders, and coolly replied: "In that case we should remain poor, and the government would take possession of our millions. One moment. I have something to say in this matter. You may renounce your claim, but I shall not renounce mine. I am your son, and I shall claim the property."
"Even if I entreated you on my knees not to do so?"
Madame d'Argeles's eyes flashed. "Very well. I will show you that this estate can never be yours. By what right will you lay claim to it? Because you are my son? But I will deny that you are. I will declare upon oath that you are nothing to me, and that I don't even know you."
But even this did not daunt Wilkie. He drew from his pocket a scrap of paper, and flourishing it triumphantly, he exclaimed: "It would be extremely cruel on your part to deny me, but I foresaw such a contingency, and here is my answer, copied from the civil code: 'Article 341. Inquiry as to maternity allowed, etc., etc.'"
What the exact bearing of Wilkie's threat might be Madame d'Argeles did not know. But she felt that this Article 341 would no doubt destroy her last hope; for the person who had chosen this weapon from the code to place it in Wilkie's hand must have chosen it carefully. She understood the situation perfectly. With her experience of life, she could not fail to understand the despicable part Wilkie was playing. And though it was not her son who had conceived this odious plot, it was more than enough to know that he had consented to carry it into execution. Should she try to persuade Wilkie to abandon this shameful scheme? She might have done so if she had not been so horrified by the utter want of principle which she had discovered in his character. But, under the circumstances, she realized that any effort in this direction would prove unavailing. So it was purely from a sense of duty and to prevent her conscience from reproaching her that she exclaimed: "So you will apply to the courts in order to constrain me to acknowledge you as my son?"
"If you are not reasonable----"
"That is to say, you care nothing for the scandal that will be created by such a course. In order to prove yourself a member of the Chalusse family you will begin by disgracing the name and dragging it through the mire."
Wilkie had no wish to prolong this discussion. So much talk about an affair, which, in his opinion, at least, was an extremely simple one, seemed to him utterly ridiculous, and irritated him beyond endurance. "It strikes me this is much ado about nothing," he remarked. "One would suppose, to hear you talk, that you were the greatest criminal in the world. Goodness is all very well in its way, but there is such a thing as having too much of it! Break loose from this life to-morrow, assume your rightful name, install yourself at the Hotel de Chalusse, and in a week from now no one will remember that you were once known as Lia d'Argeles. I wager one hundred louis on it. Why, if people attempted to rake up the past life of their acquaintances, they should have far too much to do. Folks do not trouble themselves as to whether a person has done this or that; the essential thing is to have plenty of money. And if any fool speaks slightingly of you, you can reply: 'I have an income of five hundred thousand francs,' and he'll say no more."
Madame d'Argeles listened, speechless with horror and disgust. Was it really her son who was speaking in this style, and to her of all people in the world? M. Wilkie misunderstood her silence. He had an excellent opinion of himself, but he was rather surprised at the effect of his eloquence. "Besides, I'm tired of vegetating, and having only one name," he continued. "I want to be on the move. Even with the small allowance I've had, I have gained a very good position in society; and if I had plenty of money I should be the most stylish man in Paris. The count's estate belongs to me, and so I must have it--in fact, I will have it. So believe me when I tell you that it will be much better for you if you acknowledge me without any fuss! Now, will you do so? No? Once, twice, three times? Is it still no? Very well then; to- morrow, then, you may expect an official notice. I wish you good- evening."
He bowed; he was really going, for his hand was already on the door-knob. But Madame d'Argeles detained him with a gesture. "One word more," she said, in a voice hoarse with emotion.
He scarcely deigned to come back, and he made no attempt to conceal his impatience. "Well, what is it?" he asked, hastily.
"I wish to give you a bit of parting advice. The court will undoubtedly decide in your favor; I shall be placed in possession of my brother's estate; but neither you nor I will have the disposal of these millions."
"Because, though this fortune belongs to me, the control of it belongs to your father."
M. Wilkie was thunderstruck. "To my father?" he exclaimed. "Impossible!"
"It is so, however; and you would not have been ignorant of the fact, if your greed for money had not made you forget to question me. You believe yourself an illegitimate child. Wilkie, you are mistaken. You are my legitimate child. I am a married woman----"
"And my husband--your father--is not dead. If he is not here now, threatening our safety, it is because I have succeeded in eluding him. He lost all trace of us eighteen years ago. Since then he has been constantly striving to discover us, but in vain. He is still watching, you may be sure of that; and as soon as there is any talk of a law-suit respecting the Chalusse property, you will see him appear, armed with his rights. He is the head of the family--your master and mine. Ah! this seems to disturb you. You will find him full of insatiable greed for wealth, a greed which has been whetted by twenty years' waiting. You may yet see the day when you will regret the paltry twenty thousand francs a year formerly given you by your poor mother."
Wilkie's face was whiter than his shirt. "You are deceiving me," he stammered.
"To-morrow I will show you my marriage certificate."
"Why not this evening?"
"Because it is locked up in a room which is now full of people."
"And what was my father's name?"
"Arthur Gordon--he is an American."
"Then my name is Wilkie Gordon?"
"And---is my father rich?" he inquired.
"What does he do?"
"Everything that a man can do when he has a taste for luxury and a horror for work."
This reply was so explicit in its brevity, and implied so many terrible accusations, that Wilkie was dismayed. "The devil!" he exclaimed, "and where does he live!"
"He lives at Baden or Homburg in the summer; in Paris or at Monaco in the winter."
"Oh! oh! oh!" ejaculated Wilkie, in three different tones. He knew what he had to expect from such a father as that. Anger now followed stupor--one of those terrible, white rages which stir the bile and not the blood. He saw his hopes and his cherished visions fade. Luxury and notoriety, high-stepping horses, yellow- haired mistresses, all vanished. He pictured himself reduced to a mere pittance, and held in check and domineered over by a brutal father. "Ah! I understand your game," he hissed through his set teeth. "If you would only quietly assert your rights, everything could be arranged privately, and I should have time to put the property out of my father's reach before he could claim it. Instead of doing that--as you hate me--you compel me to make the affair public, so that my father will hear of it and defraud me of everything. But you won't play this trick on me. You are going to write at once, and make known your claim to your brother's estate."
"Ah! you won't? You refuse----" He approached threateningly, and caught hold of her arm. "Take care!" he vociferated; "take care! Do not infuriate me beyond endurance----"
As cold and rigid as marble, Madame d'Argeles faced him with the undaunted glance of a martyr whose spirit no violence can subdue. "You will obtain nothing from me," she said, firmly; "nothing, nothing, nothing!"
Maddened with rage and disappointment, M. Wilkie dared to lift his hand as if about to strike her. But at this moment the door was flung open, and a man sprang upon him. It was Baron Trigault.
Like the other guests, the baron had seen the terrible effect produced upon Madame d'Argeles by a simple visiting card. But he had this advantage over the others: he thought he could divine and explain the reason of this sudden, seemingly incomprehensible terror. "The poor woman has been betrayed," he thought; "her son is here!" Still, while the other players crowded around their hostess, he did not leave the card-table. He was sitting opposite M. de Coralth, and he had seen the dashing viscount start and change color. His suspicions were instantly aroused, and he wished to verify them. He therefore pretended to be more than ever absorbed in the cards, and swore lustily at the deserters who had broken up the game. "Come back, gentleman, come back," he cried, angrily. "We are wasting precious time. While you have been trifling there, I might have gained--or lost--a hundred louis."
He was nevertheless greatly alarmed, and the prolonged absence of Madame d'Argeles increased his fears each moment. At the end of an hour he could restrain himself no longer. So taking advantage of a heavy loss, he rose from the table, swearing that the beastly turmoil of a few moments before had changed the luck. Then passing into the adjoining drawing-room, he managed to make his escape unobserved. "Where is madame?" he inquired of the first servant he met.
"In the little sitting-room."
"No; a young gentleman is with her."
The baron no longer doubted the correctness of his conjectures, and his disquietude increased. Quickly, and as if he had been in his own house, he hastened to the door of the little sitting-room and listened. At that moment rage was imparting a truly frightful intonation to M. Wilkie's voice. The baron really felt alarmed. He stooped, applied his eye to the keyhole, and seeing M. Wilkie with his hand uplifted, he burst open the door and went in. He arrived only just in time to fell Wilkie to the floor, and save Madame d'Argeles from that most terrible of humiliations: the degradation of being struck by her own son. "Ah, you rascal!" cried the worthy baron, transported with indignation, "you beggarly rascal! you brigand! Is this the way you treat an unfortunate woman who has sacrificed herself for you--your mother? You try to strike your mother, when you ought to kiss her very footprints!"
As livid as if his blood had been suddenly turned to gall--with quivering lips and eyes starting from their sockets--M. Wilkie rose, with difficulty, to his feet, at the same time rubbing his left elbow which had struck against the corner of a piece of furniture, in his fall. "Scoundrel! You brutal scoundrel!" he growled, ferociously. And then, retreating a step: "Who gave you permission to come in here?" he added. "Who are you? By what right do you meddle with my affairs?"
"By the right that every honest man possesses to chastise a cowardly rascal."
M. Wilkie shook his fist at the baron. "You are a coward yourself," he retorted. "You had better learn who you are talking to! You must mend your manners a little, you old----"
The word he uttered was so vile that no man could fail to resent it, much less the baron, who was already frantic with passion. His faced turned as purple as if he were stricken with apoplexy, and such furious rage gleamed in his eyes that Madame d'Argeles was frightened. She feared she should see her son butchered before her very eyes, and she extended her arms as if to protect him. "Jacques," she said beseechingly, "Jacques!"
This was the name which was indelibly impressed upon Wilkie's memory--the name he had heard when he was but a child. Jacques-- that was the name of the man who had brought him cakes and toys in the comfortable rooms where he had remained only a few days. He understood, or at least he thought he understood, everything. "Ah, ha!" he exclaimed, with a laugh that was at once both ferocious and idiotic. "This is very fine--monsieur is the lover. He has the say here--he--"
He did not have time to finish his sentence, for quick as thought the baron caught him by the collar, lifted him from the ground with irresistible strength, and flung him on his knees at Madame d'Argeles's feet, exclaiming: "Ask her pardon, you vile wretch! Ask her pardon, or----" "Or" meant the baron's clinched fist descending like a sledge-hammer on M. Wilkie's head.
The worthy youth was frightened--so terribly frightened that his teeth chattered. "Pardon!" he faltered.
"Louder--speak up better than that. Your mother must answer you!"
Alas! the poor woman could no longer hear. She had endured so much during the past hour that her strength was exhausted, and she had fallen back in her arm-chair in a deep swoon. The baron waited for a moment, and seeing that her eyes remained obstinately closed, he exclaimed: "This is your work, wretch!"
And lifting him again, as easily as if he had been a child, he set him on his feet, saying in a calmer tone, but in one that admitted of no reply: "Arrange your clothes and go."
This advice was not unnecessary. Baron Trigault had a powerful hand; and M. Wilkie's attire was decidedly the worse for the encounter. He had lost his cravat, his shirt-front was crumpled and torn, and his waistcoat--one of those that open to the waist and are fastened by a single button--hung down in the most dejected manner. He obeyed the baron's order without a word, but not without considerable difficulty, for his hands trembled like a leaf. When he had finished, the baron exclaimed: "Now be off; and never set foot here again--understand me--never set foot here again, never!"
M. Wilkie made no reply until he reached the door leading into the hall. But when he had opened it, he suddenly regained his powers of speech. "I'm not afraid of you," he cried, with frantic violence. "You have taken advantage of your superior strength-- you are a coward. But this shall not end here. No!--you shall answer for it. I shall find your address, and to-morrow you will receive a visit from my friends M. Costard and M. Serpillon. I am the insulted party--and I choose swords!"
A frightful oath from the baron somewhat hastened M. Wilkie's exit. He went out into the hall, and holding the door open, in a way that would enable him to close it at the shortest notice, he shouted back, so as to be heard by all the servants: "Yes; I will have satisfaction. I will not stand such treatment. Is it any fault of mine that Madame d'Argeles is a Chalusse, and that she wishes to defraud me of my fortune. To-morrow, I call you all to witness, there will be a lawyer here. You don't frighten me. Here is my card!" And actually, before he closed the door, he threw one of his cards into the middle of the room.
The baron did not trouble himself to pick it up; his attention was devoted to Madame d'Argeles. She was lying back in her arm-chair, white, motionless and rigid, to all appearance dead. What should the baron do? He did not wish to call the servants; they had heard too much already--but he had almost decided to do so, when his eyes fell upon a tiny aquarium, in a corner of the room. He dipped his handkerchief in it; and alternately bathed Madame d'Argeles's temples and chafed her hands. It was not long before the cold water revived her. She trembled, a convulsive shudder shook her from head to foot, and at last she opened her eyes, murmuring: "Wilkie!"
"I have sent him away," replied the baron.
Poor woman! with returning life came the consciousness of the terrible reality. "He is my son!" she moaned, "my son, my Wilkie!" Then with a despairing gesture she pressed her hands to her forehead as if to calm its throbbings. "And I believed that my sin was expiated," she pursued. "I thought I had been sufficiently punished. Fool that I was! This is my chastisement, Jacques. Ah! women like me have no right to be mothers!"
A burning tear coursed down the baron's cheek; but he concealed his emotion as well as he could, and said, in a tone of assumed gayety: "Nonsense! Wilkie is young--he will mend his ways! We were all ridiculous when we were twenty. We have all caused our mothers many anxious nights. Time will set everything to rights, and put some ballast in this young madcap's brains. Besides, your friend Patterson doesn't seem to me quite free from blame. In knowledge of books, he may have been unequalled; but as a guardian for youth, he must have been the worst of fools. After keeping your son on a short allowance for years, he suddenly gorges him with oats--or I should say, money--lets him loose; and then seems surprised because the boy is guilty of acts of folly. It would be a miracle if he were not. So take courage, and hope for the best, my dear Lia."
She shook her head despondingly. "Do you suppose that my heart hasn't pleaded for him?" she said. "I am his mother; I can never cease to love him, whatever he may do. Even now I am ready to give a drop of blood for each tear I can save him. But I am not blind; I have read his nature. Wilkie has no heart."
"Ah! my dear friend, how do you know what shameful advice he may have received before coming to you?"
Madame d'Argeles half rose, and said, in an agitated voice: "What! you try to make me believe that? 'Advice!' Then he must have found a man who said to him: 'Go to the house of this unfortunate woman who gave you birth, and order her to publish her dishonor and yours. If she refuses, insult and beat her! 'You know, even better than I, baron, that this is impossible. In the vilest natures, and when every other honorable feeling has been lost, love for one's mother survives. Even convicts deprive themselves of their wine, and sell their rations, in order to send a trifle now and then to their mothers--while he----"
She paused, not because she shrunk from what she was about to say, but because she was exhausted and out of breath. She rested for a moment, and then resumed in a calmer tone: "Besides, the person who sent him here had counselled coolness and prudence. I discovered this at once. It was only toward the close of the interview, and after an unexpected revelation from me, that he lost all control over himself. The thought that he would lose my brother's millions crazed him. Oh! that fatal and accursed money! Wilkie's adviser wished him to employ legal means to obtain an acknowledgment of his parentage; and he had copied from the Code a clause which is applicable to this case. By this one circumstance I am convinced that his adviser is a man of experience in such matters--in other words, the business agent----"
"What business agent?" inquired the baron.
"The person who called here the other day, M. Isidore Fortunat. Ah! why didn't I not bribe him to hold his peace?"
The baron had entirely forgotten the existence of Victor Chupin's honorable employer. "You are mistaken, Lia," he replied. "M. Fortunat has had no hand in this."
"Then who could have betrayed my secret?"
"Why, your former ally, the rascal for whose sake you allowed Pascal Ferailleur to be sacrificed--the Viscount de Coralth!"
The bare supposition of such treachery on the viscount's part brought a flush of indignant anger to Madame d'Argeles's cheek. "Ah! if I thought that!" she exclaimed. And then, remembering what reasons the baron had for hating M. de Coralth, she murmured: "No! Your animosity misleads you--he wouldn't dare!"
The baron read her thoughts. "So you are persuaded that it is personal vengeance that I am pursuing?" said he. "You think that fear of ridicule and public odium prevents me from striking M. de Coralth in my own name, and that I am endeavoring to find some other excuse to crush him. This might have been so once; but it is not the case now. When I promised M. Ferailleur to do all in my power to save the young girl he loves, Mademoiselle Marguerite, my wife's daughter, I renounced all thought of self, all my former plans. And why should you doubt Coralth's treachery? You, yourself, promised me to unmask him. If he has betrayed you, my poor Lia, he has only been a little in advance of you."
She hung her head and made no reply. She had forgotten this.
"Besides," continued the baron, "you ought to know that when I make such a statement I have some better foundation for it than mere conjecture. It was to some purpose that I watched M. de Coralth during your absence. When the servant handed you that card he turned extremely pale. Why? Because he knew whose card it was. After you left the room his hands trembled like leaves, and his mind was no longer occupied with the game. He--who is usually such a cautious player--risked his money recklessly. When the cards came to him he did still worse; and though luck favored him, he made the strangest blunders, and lost. His agitation and preoccupation were so marked as to attract attention; and one acquaintance laughingly inquired if he were ill, while another jestingly remarked that he had dined and wined a little too much. The traitor was evidently on coals of fire. I could see the perspiration on his forehead, and each time the door opened or shut, he changed color, as if he expected to see you and Wilkie enter. A dozen times I surprised him listening eagerly, as if by dint of attention, or by the magnetic force of his will, he hoped to hear what you and your son were saying. With a single word I could have wrung a confession from him."
This explanation was so plausible that Madame d'Argeles felt half convinced. "Ah! if you had only spoken that word!" she murmured. The baron smiled a crafty and malicious smile, which would have chilled M. de Coralth's very blood if he had chanced to see it. "I am not so stupid!" he replied. "We mustn't frighten the fish till we are quite ready. Our net is the Chalusse estate, and Coralth and Valorsay will enter it of their own accord. It is not my plan, but M. Ferailleur's. There's a man for you! and if Mademoiselle Marguerite is worthy of him they will make a noble pair. Without suspecting it, your son has perhaps rendered us an important service this evening--"
"Alas!" faltered Madame d'Argeles, "I am none the less ruined--the name of Chalusse is none the less dishonored!"
She wanted to return to the drawing-room; but she was compelled to relinquish this idea. The expression of her face betrayed too plainly the terrible ordeal she had passed through. The servants had heard M. Wilkie's parting words; and news of this sort flies about with the rapidity of lightning. That very night, indeed, it was currently reported at the clubs that there would be no more card-playing at the d'Argeles establishment, as that lady was a Chalusse, and consequently the aunt of the beautiful young girl whom M. and Madame de Fondege had taken under their protection.