Baron Trigault's Vengeance by Emile Gaboriau
On this side, at least, Mademoiselle Marguerite had no very wide field of investigation to explore. Her common sense told her that her task would merely consist in carefully watching the behavior of the General and his wife, in noting their expenditure, and so on. It was a matter of close attention, and of infinitesimal trifles. Nor was she much encouraged by her first success. It was, perhaps, important; and yet it might be nothing. For she felt that the real difficulties would not begin until she became morally certain that the General had stolen the millions that were missing from the count's escritoire. Even then it would remain for her to discover how he had obtained possession of this money. And when she had succeeded in doing this, would her task be ended? Certainly not. She must obtain sufficient evidence to give her the right of accusing the General openly, and in the face of every one. She must have material and indisputable proofs before she could say: "A robbery has been committed. I was accused of it. I was innocent. Here is the culprit!"
What a long journey must be made before this goal was reached! No matter! Now that she had a positive and fixed point of departure, she felt that she possessed enough energy to sustain her in her endeavors for years, if need be. What troubled her most was that she could not logically explain the conduct of her enemies from the time M. de Fondege had asked her hand for his son up to the present moment. And first, why had they been so audacious or so imprudent as to bring her to their own home if they had really stolen one of those immense amounts that are sure to betray their possessors?" They are mad," she thought, "or else they must deem me blind, deaf, and more stupid than mortal ever was!" Secondly, why should they be so anxious to marry her to their son, Lieutenant Gustave? This also was a puzzling question. However, she was fully decided on one point: the suspicions of the Fondege family must not be aroused. If they were on their guard, it would be the easiest thing in the world for them to pay their debts quietly, and increase their expenditure so imperceptibly that she would not be able to prove a sudden acquisition of wealth.
But the events of the next few days dispelled these apprehensions. That very afternoon, although it was Sunday, it became evident that a shower of gold had fallen on the General's abode. The door-bell rang incessantly for several hours, and an interminable procession of tradesmen entered. It looked very much as if M. de Fondege had called a meeting of his creditors. They came in haughty and arrogant, with their hats upon their heads, and surly of speech, like people who have made up their minds to accept their loss, but who intend to pay themselves in rudeness. They were ushered into the drawing-room where the General was holding his levee; they remained there from five to ten minutes, and then, bowing low with hat in hand, they retired with radiant countenances, and an obsequious smile on their lips. So they had been paid. And as if to prove to Mademoiselle Marguerite that her suspicions were correct, she chanced to be present when the livery stable-keeper presented his bill.
Madame de Fondege received him very haughtily. "Ah! here you are!" she exclaimed, rudely, as soon as he appeared. "So you are the man who teaches his drivers to insult his customers? That is an excellent way to gain patronage. What! I hire a one-horse carriage from you by the month, and because I happen to wish for a two-horse vehicle for a single day, you make me pay the difference. You should demand payment in advance if you are so suspicious."
The stable-keeper, who had a bill for nearly four thousand francs in his pocket, stood listening with the air of a man who is meditating some crushing reply; but she did not give him time to deliver it. "When I have cause to complain of the people I employ, I dismiss them and replace them by others. Insolence is one of those things that I never forgive. Give me your bill."
The man, in whose face doubt, fear, and hope had succeeded each other in swift succession, thereupon drew an interminable bill from his pocket. And when he saw the bank-notes, when he saw the bill paid without dispute or even examination, he was seized with a wondering respect, and his voice became sweeter than honey. They say the payment of a bad debt delights a merchant a thousand times more than the settlement of fifty good ones. The truth of this assertion became apparent in the present case. Mademoiselle Marguerite thought the man was going to beg "Madame la Comtesse to do him the favor to withhold a portion of the small amount." For the Parisian tradesman is so constituted that very frequently it is not necessary to pay him money, but only to show it.
However, this creditor's abnegation did not extend so far; still he did entreat Madame la Comtesse not to leave him on account of a blunder--for it was a blunder--he swore it on his children's heads. His coachman was only a fool and a drunkard, who had misunderstood him entirely, and whom he should ignominiously dismiss on returning to his establishment. But "Madame la Comtesse" was inflexible. She sent the man about his business, saying, "I never place myself in a position to be treated with disrespect a second time."
This probably accounted for the fact that Evariste, the footman, who had been so wanting in respect the previous evening, had been sent away that very morning. Mademoiselle Marguerite did not see him again. Dinner was served by a new servant, who had been sent by an Employment Office, and engaged without a question, no doubt because Evariste's livery fitted him like a glove. Had the cook also been replaced? Mademoiselle Marguerite thought so, though she had no means of convincing herself on this point. It was certain, however, that the Sunday dinner was utterly unlike that of the evening before. Quality had replaced quantity, and care, profusion. It was not necessary to send to the cellar for a bottle of Chateau-Laroze; it made its appearance at the proper moment, warmed to the precise degree of temperature, and seemed quite to the taste of excellent Madame Leon.
In twenty-four hours the Fondege family had been raised to such affluence that they must have asked themselves if it were possible they had ever known the agonies of that life of false appearances and sham luxury which is a thousand times worse than an existence of abject poverty. "Is it possible that I am deceived?" Marguerite said to herself, on retiring to her room that evening. For it surprised her that a keen-sighted person like Madame Leon should not have remarked this revolution; but the worthy companion merely declared the General and his wife to be charming people, and did not cease to congratulate her dear young lady upon having accepted their hospitality. "I feel quite at home here," said she; "and though my room is a trifle small, I shall have nothing to wish for when it has been refurnished."
Mademoiselle Marguerite spent a restless and uncomfortable night. In spite of her reason, in spite of the convincing proofs she had seen, the most disturbing doubts returned. Might she not have judged the situation with a prejudiced mind? Had the Fondeges really been as reduced in circumstances as she supposed? Like every one who has been unfortunate, she feared illusions, and was extremely distrustful of everything that seemed to favor her hopes and wishes. The only thing that really encouraged her was the thought that she could consult the old magistrate, and that M. de Chalusse's former agent might succeed in finding Pascal Ferailleur. M. Fortunat must have received her letter by this time: he would undoubtedly expect her on Tuesday, and it only remained for her to invent some excuse which would give her a couple of hours' liberty without awakening suspicion.
She rose early the next morning, and had almost completed her toilette, when she heard some one in the passage outside rapping at the door of Madame Leon's room. "Who's there?" inquired that worthy lady.
It was Justine, Madame de Fondege's maid, who answered in a pert voice, "Here is a letter, madame, which has just been sent up by the concierge. It is addressed to Madame Leon. That is your name, is it not?"
Marguerite staggered as if she had received a heavy blow. "My God! a letter from the Marquis de Valorsay!" she thought.
It was evident that the estimable lady was expecting this missive by the eagerness with which she sprang out of bed and opened the door. And Marguerite heard her say to the servant in her sweetest voice: "A thousand thanks, my child! Ah! this is a great relief, I have heard from my brother-in-law at last. I recognize his hand- writing." And then the door closed again.
Standing silent and motionless in the middle of her room, Marguerite listened with that feverish anxiety that excites the perceptive faculties to the utmost degree. An inward voice, stronger than reason, told her that this letter threatened her happiness, her future, perhaps her life! But how could she convince herself of the truth of this presentiment? If she had followed her first impulse, she would have rushed into Madame Leon's room and have snatched the letter from her hands. But if she did this, she would betray herself, and prove that she was not the dupe they supposed her to be, and this supposition on the part of her enemies constituted her only chance of salvation.
If she could only watch Madame Leon as she read the letter, and gain some information from the expression of her face; but this seemed impossible, for the keyhole was blocked up by the key, which had been left in the lock on the other side. Suddenly a crack in the partition attracted her attention, and finding that it extended through the wall, she realized she might watch what was passing in the adjoining room. So she approached the spot on tiptoe, and, with bated breath, stooped and looked in.
In her impatience to learn the contents of her letter, Madame Leon had not gone back to bed. She had broken the seal, and was reading the missive, standing barefooted in her night-dress, directly opposite the little crevice. She read line after line, and word after word, and her knitted brows and compressed lips suggested deep concentration of thought mingled with discontent. At last she shrugged her shoulders, muttered a few inaudible words, and laid the open letter upon the rickety chest of drawers, which, with two chairs and a bed, constituted the entire furniture of her apartment.
"My God!" exclaimed Marguerite, with bated breath, "if she would only forget it!"
But she did not forget it. She began to dress, and when she had finished she read the letter again, and then placed it carefully in one of the drawers, which she locked, putting the key in her pocket.
"I shall never know, then," thought Marguerite; "no, I shall never know. But I must know--and I will!" she added vehemently.
From that moment a firm determination to obtain that letter took possession of her mind; and so deeply was she occupied in seeking for some means to surmount the difficulties which stood in her way that she did not say a dozen words during breakfast. "I must be a fool if I can't find some way of gaining possession of that letter," she said to herself again and again. "I'm sure I could find in it the explanation of the abominable intrigue which Pascal and I are the victims of."
Happily, her preoccupation was not remarked. Each person present was too deeply engrossed in his or her own concerns to notice the behavior of the others. Madame Leon's mind was occupied with the news she had just received; and, besides, her attention was considerably attracted by some partridges garnished with truffles, and a bottle of Chateau-Laroze. For she was rather fond of good living, the dear lady, as she confessed herself, adding that no one is perfect. The General talked of nothing but a certain pair of horses which he was to look at that afternoon, and which he thought of buying--being quite disgusted with job-masters, so he declared. Besides, he expected to get the animals at a bargain, as they were the property of a young gentleman who had been led to commit certain misdemeanors by his love of gambling and his passion for a notorious woman who was addicted with an insatiable desire for jewelry.
As for Madame de Fondege, her head seemed to have been completely turned by the prospect of the approaching fete at the Countess de Commarin's. She had only a fortnight left to make her preparations. All the evening before, through part of the night, and ever since she had been awake that morning, she had been racking her brain to arrive at an effective combination of colors and materials. And at the cost of a terrible headache, she had at last conceived one of those toilettes which are sure to make a sensation, and which the newspaper reporters will mention as noticeable for its "chic." "Picture to yourself," she said, all ablaze with enthusiasm, "picture to yourself a robe of tea-flower silk, trimmed with bands of heavy holland-tinted satin, thickly embroidered with flowers. A wide flounce of Valenciennes at the bottom of the skirt. Over this, I shall wear a tunic of pearl- gray crepe, edged with a fringe of the various shades in the dress, and forming a panier behind."
But how much trouble, time and labor must be expended before such an elaborate chef-d'oeuvre could be completed! How many conferences with the dressmaker, with the florist, and the embroiderer! How many doubts, how many inevitable mistakes! Ah! there was not a moment to lose! Madame de Fondege, who was dressed to go out, and who had already sent for a carriage, insisted that Mademoiselle Marguerite should accompany her. And certainly, the General's wife deemed the proposal a seductive one. It is a very fashionable amusement to run from one shop to another, even when one cannot, or will not, buy. It is a custom, which some noble ladies have imported from America, to the despair of the poor shopkeepers. And thus every fine afternoon, the swell shops are filled to overflowing with richly-attired dames and damsels, who ask to see all the new goods. It is far more amusing than remaining at home. And when they return to dinner in the evening, after inspecting hundreds of yards of silk and satin, they are very well pleased with themselves, for they have not lost the day. Nor do the shrewdest always return from these expeditions empty- handed. A dozen gloves or a piece of lace can be hidden so easily in the folds of a mantle!
And yet, to Madame de Fondege's great surprise, Marguerite declined the invitation. "I have so many things to put in order," she added, feeling that an excuse was indispensable.
But Madame Leon, who had not the same reasons as her dear child for wishing to remain at home, kindly offered her services. She was acquainted with several of the best shops, she declared, particularly with the establishment of a dealer in laces, in the Rue de Mulhouse, and thanks to an introduction from her, Madame de Fondege could not fail to conclude a very advantageous bargain there. "Very well," replied Madame de Fondege, "I will take you with me, then; but make haste and dress while I put on my bonnet."
They left the breakfast-room at the same time, closely followed by Mademoiselle Marguerite, who was disturbed by a hope which she scarcely dared confess to herself. With her forehead resting against the wall, and her eye peering through the tiny crack, she watched her governess change her dress, throw a shawl over her shoulders, put on her best bonnet, and, after a glance at the looking-glass, rush from the room, exclaiming: "Here I am, my dear countess. I'm ready."
And a few moments afterward they left the house together.
As the outer door closed after them, Marguerite's brain whirled. If she were not deceived, Madame Leon had left the key of the drawers in the pocket of the dress she had just taken off. So it was with a wildly throbbing heart that she opened the communicating door and entered her "companion's" room. She hastily approached the bed on which the dress was lying, and, with a trembling hand, she began to search for the pocket. Fortune favored her! The key was there. The letter was within her reach. But she was about to do a deed against which her whole nature revolted. To steal a key, to force an article of furniture open, and violate the secret of a private correspondence, these were actions so repugnant to her sense of honor, and her pride, that for some time she stood irresolute. At last the instinct of self- preservation overpowered her scruples. Was not her honor, and Pascal's honor also, at stake--as well as their mutual love and happiness?" It would be folly to hesitate." she murmured. And with a firm hand she placed the key in the lock.
The latter was out of order and the drawer was only opened with difficulty. But there, on some clothes which Madame Leon had not yet found time to arrange, Marguerite saw the letter. She eagerly snatched it up, unfolded it, and read: "Dear Madame Leon--" "Dear me," she muttered, "here is the name in full. This is an indiscretion which will render denial difficult." And she resumed her perusal: "Your letter, which I have just received, confirms what my servants had already told me: that twice during my absence--on Saturday evening and Sunday morning--you called at my house to see me." So Mademoiselle Marguerite's penetration had served her well. All this talk about anxious relatives had only been an excuse invented by Madame Leon to enable her to absent herself whenever occasion required. "I regret," continued the letter, "that you did not find me at home, for I have instructions of the greatest importance to give you. We are approaching the decisive moment. I have formed a plan which will completely, and forever, efface all remembrance of that cursed P. F., in case any one condescended to think of him after the disgrace we fastened upon him the other evening at the house of Madame d'Argeles." P. F.--these initials of course meant Pascal Ferailleur. Then he was innocent, and she held an undeniable, irrefutable proof of his innocence in her hands. How coolly and impudently Valorsay confessed his atrocious crime!" A bold stroke is in contemplation which, if no unfortunate and well-nigh impossible accident occur, will throw the girl into my arms." Marguerite shuddered. "The girl" referred to her, of course. "Thanks to the assistance of one of my friends," added the letter "I can place this proud damsel in a perilous, terribly perilous position, from which she cannot possibly extricate herself unaided. But, just as she gives herself up for lost, I shall interpose. I shall save her; and it will be strange if gratitude does not work the necessary miracle in my favor. The plan is certain to succeed. Still, it will be all the better if the physician who attended M. de C---- in his last moments, and whom you spoke to me about (Dr. Jodon, if I remember rightly), will consent to lend us a helping hand. What kind of a man is he? If he is accessible to the seductive influence of a few thousand francs, I shall consider the business as good as concluded. Your conduct up to the present time has been a chef-d'oeuvre, for which you shall be amply compensated. You have cause to know that I am not ungrateful. Let the F's continue their intrigues, and even pretend to favor them. I am not afraid of these people. I understand their game perfectly, and know why they wish my little one to marry their son. But when they become troublesome, I shall crush them like glass. In spite of these explanations, which I have just given you for your guidance, it is very necessary that I should see you. I shall look for you on Tuesday afternoon, between three and four o'clock. Above all, don't fail to bring me the desired information respecting Dr. Jodon. I am, my dear madame, devotedly yours--V." Below ran a postscript which read as follows: "When you come on Tuesday bring this letter with you. We will burn it together. Don't imagine that I distrust you--but there is nothing so dangerous as letters."
For some time Marguerite stood, stunned and appalled by the Marquis de Valorsay's audacity, and by the language of this letter, which was at once so obscure and so clear, every line of it threatening her future. The reality surpassed her worst apprehensions, but realizing the gravity of the situation, she shook off the torpor stealing over her. She felt that every second was precious, and that she must act, and act at once. But what should she do? Simply return the letter to its place, and continue to act the role of a dupe, as if nothing had happened? No; that must not be. It would be madness not to seize this flagrant proof of the Marquis de Valorsay's infamy. But on the other hand, if she kept the letter, Madame Leon would immediately discover its loss, and an explanation would be unavoidable. M. de Valorsay would be worsted, but not annihilated, and the plans which made the physician's intervention a necessity would never be revealed. She thought of hastening to her friend the old magistrate; but he lived a long way off, and time was pressing. Besides she might not find him at home. Then she thought of going to a notary, to a judge. She would show them the letter, and they could take a copy of it. But no--this would do no good--the marquis could still deny it. She was becoming desperate, and was accusing herself of stupidity, when a sudden inspiration illumined her mind, turning night into day, as it were. "Oh, Pascal, we are saved!" she exclaimed. And without pausing to deliberate any longer, she threw a mantle over her shoulders, hastily tied on her bonnet, and hurried from the house, without saying a word to any one.
Unfortunately she was not acquainted with this part of Paris, and on reaching the Rue Pigalle she was at a loss for her way. Unwilling to waste any more time, she hastily entered a grocer's shop at the corner of the Rue Pigalle and the Rue Notre Dame de Lorette, and anxiously inquired: "Do you know any photographer in this neighborhood, monsieur?"
Her agitation made this question seem so singular that the grocer looked at her closely for a moment, as if to make sure that she was not jesting. "You have only to go down the Rue Notre Dame de Lorette," he replied, "and on the left-hand side, at the foot of the hill, you will find the photographer Carjat."
The grocer stepped to the door to watch her. "That girl's certainly light-headed," he thought.
Her demeanor was really so extraordinary that it attracted the attention of the passers-by. She saw this, and slackening her pace, tried to become more composed. At the spot the grocer had indicated, she perceived several show frames filled with photographs hanging on either side of a broad, open gateway, above which ran the name, "E. Carjat." She went in, and seeing a man standing at the door of an elegant pavilion on the right-hand side of a large courtyard, she approached him, and asked for his employer.
"He is here," replied the man. "Does madame come for a photograph?"
"Then will madame be so kind as to pass in. She will not be obliged to wait long. There are only four or five persons before her."
Four or five persons! How long would she be obliged to wait?--half an hour--two hours? She had not the slightest idea. But she did know that she had not a second to lose, that Madame Leon might return at any moment, and find the letter missing; and, to crown all, she remembered now that she had not even locked the drawer again. "I cannot wait," she said, imperiously. "I must speak to M. Carjat at once."
"At once, I tell you. Go and tell him that he must come."
Her tone was so commanding, and there was so much authority in her glance, that the servant hesitated no longer. He ushered her into a little sitting-room, and said, "If madame will take a seat, I will call monsieur."
She sank on to a chair, for her limbs were failing her. She was beginning to realize the strangeness of the step she had taken--to fear the result it might lead to--and to be astonished at her own boldness. But she had no time to prepare what she wished to say, for a man of five-and-thirty, wearing a mustache and imperial, and clad in a velvet coat, entered the room, and bowing with an air of surprise, exclaimed: "You desire to speak with me, madame?"
"I have a great favor to ask of you, monsieur."
She drew M. de Valorsay's letter from her pocket, and, showing it to the photographer, she said, "I have come to you, monsieur, to ask you to photograph this letter--but at once--before me--and quickly--very quickly. The honor of two persons is imperilled by each moment I lose here."
Mademoiselle Marguerite's embarrassment was extreme. Her cheeks were crimson, and she trembled like a leaf. Still her attitude was proud, generous enthusiasm glowed in her dark eyes, and her tone of voice revealed the serenity of a lofty soul ready to dare anything for a just and noble cause. This striking contrast--this struggle between girlish timidity and a lover's virgil energy, endowed her with a strange and powerful charm, which the photographer made no attempt to resist. Unusual as was the request, he did not hesitate. "I am ready to do what you desire, madame," he replied, bowing again.
"Oh! monsieur, how can I ever thank you?"
He did not stop to listen to her thanks. Not wishing to return to the reception-room, where five or six clients were impatiently awaiting their turn, he called one of his subordinates, and ordered him to bring the necessary apparatus at once. While he was speaking, Mademoiselle Marguerite paused; but, as soon as his instructions were concluded, she remarked: "Perhaps you are too hasty, sir. You have not allowed me to explain; and perhaps what I desire is impossible. I came on the impulse of the moment, without any knowledge on the subject. Before you set to work, I must know if what you can do will answer my purpose."
"Will the copy you obtain be precisely like the original in every particular?"
"In every particular."
"The writing will be the same--exactly the same?"
"Absolutely the same."
"So like, that if one of your photographs should be presented to the person who wrote this letter----"
"He could no more deny his handwriting than he could if some one handed him the letter itself."
"And the operation will leave no trace on the original?"
A smile of triumph played upon Mademoiselle Marguerite's lips. It was as she had thought; the defensive plan which she had suddenly conceived was a good one. "One more question, sir," she resumed. "I am only a poor, ignorant girl: excuse me, and give me the benefit of your knowledge. This letter will be returned to its author to-morrow, and he will burn it. But afterward, in case of any difficulty--in case of a law-suit--or in case it should be necessary for me to prove certain things which one might establish by means of this letter, would one of your photographs be admitted as evidence?"
The photographer did not answer for a moment. Now he understood Mademoiselle Marguerite's motive, and the importance she attached to a facsimile. But this imparted an unexpected gravity to the service he was called upon to perform. He therefore wished some time for reflection, and he scrutinized Mademoiselle Marguerite as if he were trying to read her very soul. Was it possible that this young girl, with such a pure and noble brow, and with such frank, honest eyes, could be meditating any cowardly, dishonorable act? No, he could not believe it. In whom, or in what, could he trust if such a countenance deceived him?" My facsimile would certainly be admitted as evidence," he replied at last; "and this would not be the first time that the decision of a court has depended on proofs which have been photographed by me."
Meanwhile, his assistant had returned, bringing the necessary apparatus with him. When all was ready, the photographer asked her, "Will you give me the letter, madame?"
She hesitated for a second--only for a second. The man's honest, kindly face told her that he would not betray her, that he would rather give her assistance. So she handed him the Marquis de Valorsay's letter, saying, with melancholy dignity, "It is my happiness and my future that I place in your hands--and I have no fears."
He read her thoughts, and understood that she either dared not ask for a pledge of secrecy, or else that she thought it unnecessary. He took pity on her, and his last doubt fled. "I shall read this letter, madame," said he, "but I am the only person who will read it. I give you my word on that! No one but myself will see the proofs."
Greatly moved, she offered him her hand, and simply said, "Thanks; I am more than repaid."
To obtain an absolutely perfect facsimile of a letter is a delicate and sometimes lengthy operation. However, at the end of about twenty minutes, the photographer possessed two negatives that promised him perfect proofs. He looked at them with a satisfied air; and then returning the letter to Mademoiselle Marguerite, he said, "In less than three days the facsimiles will be ready, madame; and if you will tell me to what address I ought to send them----"
She trembled on hearing these words, and quickly answered, "Don't send them, sir--keep them carefully. Great heavens! all would be lost if it came to the knowledge of any one. I will send for them, or come myself." And, feeling the extent of her obligation, she added, "But I will not go without introducing myself--I am Mademoiselle Marguerite de Chalusse." And, thereupon, she went off, leaving the photographer surprised at the adventure and dazzled by his strange visitor's beauty.
Rather more than an hour had elapsed since Marguerite left M. de Fondege's house. "How time flies!" she murmured, quickening her pace as much as she could without exciting remark--"how time flies!" But, hurried as she was, she stopped and spent five minutes at a shop in the Rue Notre Dame de Lorette where she purchased some black ribbon and a few other trifles. How else could she explain and justify her absence, if the servants, who had probably discovered she had gone out, chanced to speak of it?
But her heart throbbed as if it would burst as she ascended the General's staircase, and anxiety checked her breathing as she rang the bell. "What if Madame de Fondege and Madame Leon had returned, and the abstraction of the letter been discovered!" Fortunately, Madame de Fondege required more than an hour to purchase the materials for the elaborate toilette she had dreamt of. The ladies were still out, and Mademoiselle Marguerite found everything in the same condition as she had left it. She carefully placed the letter in the drawer again, locked it, and put the key in the pocket of Madame Leon's dress. Then she breathed freely once more; and, for the first time in six days, she felt something very like joy in her heart. Now she had no fear of the Marquis de Valorsay. She had him in her power. He would destroy his letter the next day, and think that he was annihilating all proofs of his infamy. Not so. At the decisive moment, at the very moment of his triumph, she would produce the photograph of this letter, and crush him. And she--only a young girl--had outwitted this consummate scoundrel!" I have not been unworthy of Pascal," she said to herself, with a flash of pride.
However, her nature was not one of those weak ones which are become intoxicated by the first symptom of success, and then relax in their efforts. When her excitement had abated a little, she was inclined to disparage rather than to exaggerate the advantage she had gained. What she desired was a complete, startling, incontestable victory. It was not enough to prove Valorsay's guilt--she was resolved to penetrate his designs, to discover why he pursued her so desperately. And, though she felt that she possessed a formidable weapon of defence, she could not drive away her gloomy forebodings when she thought of the threats contained in the marquis's letter. "Thanks to the assistance of one of my friends," he wrote, "I can place this proud girl in a perilous, terribly perilous, position, from which she cannot possibly extricate herself unaided."
These words persistently lingered in Mademoiselle Marguerite's mind. What was the danger hanging over her? whence would it come? and in what form? What abominable machination might she not expect from the villain who had deliberately dishonored Pascal? How would he attack her? Would he strive to ruin her reputation, or did he intend to forcibly abduct her? Would he attempt to decoy her into a trap where she would be subjected to the insults of the vilest wretches? A thousand frightful memories of the time when she was an apprentice drove her nearly frantic. "I will never go out unarmed," she thought, "and woe to the man who raises his hand against me!"
The vagueness of the threat increased her fears. No one is courageous enough to confront an unknown, mysterious, and always imminent danger without sometimes faltering. Nor was this all. The marquis was not her only enemy. She had the Fondege family to dread--these dangerous hypocrites, who had taken her to their home so that they might ruin her the more surely. M. de Valorsay wrote that he had no fears of the Fondeges--that he understood their little game. What was their little game? No doubt they were resolved that she should become their son's wife, even if they were obliged to use force to win her consent. At this thought a sudden terror seized her soul, so full of peace and hope an instant before. When she was attacked, would she have time to produce and use the facsimile of Valorsay's letter?" I must reveal my secret to a friend--to a trusty friend--who will avenge me!" she muttered.
Fortunately she had a friend in whom she could safely confide--the old magistrate who had given her such proofs of sympathy. She felt that she needed the advice of a riper experience than her own, and the thought of consulting him at once occurred to her. She was alone; she had no spy to fear; and it would be folly not to profit by the few moments of liberty that remained. So she drew her writing-case from her trunk, and, after barricading her door to prevent a surprise, she wrote her friend an account of the events which had taken place since their last interview. She told him everything with rare precision and accuracy of detail, sending him a copy of Valorsay's letter, and informing him that, in case any misfortune befell her, he could obtain the facsimiles from Carjat. She finished her letter, but did not seal it. "If anything should happen before I have an opportunity to post it, I will add a postscript," she said to herself.
She had made all possible haste, fearing that Madame de Fondege and Madame Leon might return at any moment. But this was truly a chimerical apprehension. It was nearly six o'clock when the two shoppers made their appearance, wearied with the labors of the day, but in fine spirits. Besides purchasing every requisite for that wonderful costume of hers, the General's wife had found some laces of rare beauty, which she had secured for the mere trifle of four thousand francs. "It was one of those opportunities one ought always to profit by," she said, as she displayed her purchase. "Besides, it is the same with lace as with diamonds, you should purchase them when you can--then you have them. It isn't an outlay--it's an investment." Subtle reasoning that has cost many a husband dear!
On her side, Madame Leon proudly showed her dear young lady a very pretty present which Madame de Fondege had given her. "So money is no longer lacking in this household," thought Mademoiselle Marguerite, all the more confirmed in her suspicions.
The General came in a little later, accompanied by a friend, and Marguerite soon discovered that the worthy man had spent the day as profitably as his wife. He too was quite tired out; and he had reason to be fatigued. First, he had purchased the horses belonging to the ruined spendthrift, and he had paid five thousand francs for them, a mere trifle for such animals. Less than an hour after the purchase he had refused almost double that amount from a celebrated connoisseur in horse-flesh, M. de Breulh- Faverlay. This excellent speculation had put him in such good humor that he had been unable to resist the temptation of purchasing a beautiful saddle-horse, which they let him have for a hundred louis. He had not been foolish, for he was sure that he could sell the animal again at an advance of a thousand francs whenever he wished to do so. "So," remarked his friend, "if you bought such a horse every day, you would make three hundred and sixty-five thousand francs a year."
Was this only a jest--one of those witticisms which people who boast of wonderful bargains must expect to parry, or had the remark a more serious meaning? Marguerite could not determine. One thing is certain, the General did not lose his temper, but gayly continued his account of the way in which he had spent his time. Having purchased the horses, his next task was to find a carriage, and he had heard of a barouche which a Russian prince had ordered but didn't take, so that the builder was willing to sell it at less than cost price; and to recoup this worthy man, the General had purchased a brougham as well. He had, moreover, hired stabling in the Rue Pigalle, only a few steps from the house, and he expected a coachman and a groom the following morning.
"And all this will cost us less than the miserable vehicle we have been hiring by the year," observed Madame de Fondege, gravely. "Oh, I know what I say. I've counted the cost. What with gratuities and extras, it costs us now fully a thousand francs a month, and three horses and a coachman won't cost you more. And what a difference! I shall no longer be obliged to blush for the skinny horses the stable-keeper sends me, nor to endure the insolence of his men. The first outlay frightened me a little; but that is made now, and I am delighted. We will save it in something else."
"In laces, no doubt," thought Mademoiselle Marguerite. She was intensely exasperated, and on regaining her chamber she said to herself, for the tenth time, "What do they take me for? Do they think me an idiot to flaunt the millions they have stolen from my father--that they have stolen from me--before my eyes in this fashion? A common thief would take care not to excite suspicion by a foolish expenditure of the fruits of his knavery, but they--they have lost their senses."
Madame Leon was already in bed, and when Mademoiselle Marguerite was satisfied that she was asleep, she took her letter from her trunk, and added this post-script: "P. S.--It is impossible to retain the shadow of a doubt, M. and Madame de Fondege have spent certainly twenty thousand francs to-day. This audacity must arise from a conviction that no proofs of the crime they have committed exist. Still they continue to talk to me about their son, Lieutenant Gustave. He will be presented to me to-morrow. To- morrow, also, between three and four, I shall be at the house of a man who can perhaps discover Pascal's hiding-place for me,--the house of M. Isidore Fortunat. I hope to make my escape easily enough, for at that same hour, Madame Leon has an appointment with the Marquis de Valorsay."