Castles in the Air by Baroness Orczy - HTML preview
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III. On The Brink1.
You would have thought that after the shameful way in which Theodore treated me in the matter of the secret treaty that I would then and there have turned him out of doors, sent him back to grub for scraps out of the gutter, and hardened my heart once and for all against that snake in the grass whom I had nurtured in my bosom.
But, as no doubt you have remarked ere this, I have been burdened by Nature with an over-sensitive heart. It is a burden, my dear Sir, and though I have suffered inexpressibly under it, I nevertheless agree with the English poet, George Crabbe, whose works I have read with a great deal of pleasure and profit in the original tongue, and who avers in one of his inimitable "Tales" that it is "better to love amiss than nothing to have loved."
Not that I loved Theodore, you understand? But he and I had shared so many ups and downs together of late that I was loath to think of him as reduced to begging his bread in the streets. Then I kept him by me, for I thought that he might at times be useful to me in my business.I kept him to my hurt, as you will presently see.
In those days--I am now speaking of the time immediately following the Restoration of our beloved King Louis XVIII to the throne of his forbears--Parisian society was, as it were, divided into two distinct categories: those who had become impoverished by the revolution and the wars of the Empire, and those who had made their fortunes thereby. Among the former was M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour, a handsome young officer of cavalry; and among the latter was one Mauruss Mosenstein, a usurer of the Jewish persuasion, whose wealth was reputed in millions, and who had a handsome daughter biblically named Rachel, who a year ago had become Madame la Marquise de Firmin-Latour.
From the first moment that this brilliant young couple appeared upon the firmament of Parisian society I took a keen interest in all their doings. In those days, you understand, it was in the essence of my business to know as much as possible of the private affairs of people in their position, and instinct had at once told me that in the case of M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour such knowledge might prove very remunerative.
Thus I very soon found out that M. le Marquis had not a single louis of his own to bless himself with, and that it was Papa Mosenstein's millions that kept up the young people's magnificent establishment in the Rue de Grammont. I also found out that Mme. la Marquise was some dozen years older than Monsieur, and that she had been a widow when she married him. There were rumours that her first marriage had not been a happy one. The husband, M. le Compte de Naquet, had been a gambler and a spendthrift, and had dissipated as much of his wife's fortune as he could lay his hands on, until one day he went off on a voyage to America, or goodness knows where, and was never heard of again. Mme. la Comtesse, as she then was, did not grieve over her loss; indeed, she returned to the bosom of her family, and her father--a shrewd usurer, who had amassed an enormous fortune during the wars--succeeded, with the aid of his apparently bottomless moneybags, in having his first son-in-law declared deceased by Royal decree, so as to enable the beautiful Rachel to contract another, yet more brilliant alliance, as far as name and lineage were concerned, with the Marquis de Firmin-Latour.
Indeed, I learned that the worthy Israelite's one passion was the social advancement of his daughter, whom he worshipped. So, as soon as the marriage was consummated and the young people were home from their honeymoon, he fitted up for their use the most extravagantly sumptuous apartment Paris had ever seen. Nothing seemed too good or too luxurious for Mme. la Marquise de Firmin-Latour. He desired her to cut a brilliant figure in Paris society--nay, to be the Ville Lumiere's brightest and most particular star. After the town house he bought a chateau in the country, horses and carriages, which he placed at the disposal of the young couple; he kept up an army of servants for them, and replenished their cellars with the choicest wines. He threw money about for diamonds and pearls which his daughter wore, and paid all his son-in-law's tailors' and shirt-makers' bills. But always the money was his, you understand? The house in Paris was his, so was the chateau on the Loire; he lent them to his daughter. He lent her the diamonds, and the carriages, and the boxes at the opera and the Français. But here his generosity ended. He had been deceived in his daughter's first husband; some of the money which he had given her had gone to pay the gambling debts of an unscrupulous spendthrift. He was determined that this should not occur again. A man might spend his wife's money--indeed, the law placed most of it at his disposal in those days--but he could not touch or mortgage one sou that belonged to his father-in-law. And, strangely enough, Mme. la Marquise de Firmin-Latour acquiesced and aided her father in his determination. Whether it was the Jewish blood in her, or merely obedience to old Mosenstein's whim, it were impossible to say. Certain it is that out of the lavish pin-money which her father gave her as a free gift from time to time, she only doled out a meagre allowance to her husband, and although she had everything she wanted, M. le Marquis on his side had often less than twenty francs in his pocket.
A very humiliating position, you will admit, Sir, for a dashing young cavalry officer. Often have I seen him gnawing his finger-nails with rage when, at the end of a copious dinner in one of the fashionable restaurants--where I myself was engaged in a business capacity to keep an eye on possibly light-fingered customers--it would be Mme. la Marquise who paid the bill, even gave the pourboire to the waiter. At such times my heart would be filled with pity for his misfortunes, and, in my own proud and lofty independence, I felt that I did not envy him his wife's millions.
Of course, he borrowed from every usurer in the city for as long as they would lend him any money; but now he was up to his eyes in debt, and there was not a Jew inside France who would have lent him one hundred francs.You see, his precarious position was as well known as were his extravagant tastes and the obstinate parsimoniousness of M. Mosenstein.
But such men as M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour, you understand, Sir, are destined by Nature first and by fortuitous circumstances afterwards to become the clients of men of ability like myself. I knew that sooner or later the elegant young soldier would be forced to seek the advice of someone wiser than himself, for indeed his present situation could not last much longer. It would soon be "sink" with him, for he could no longer "swim."And I was determined that when that time came he should turn to me as the drowning man turns to the straw. So where M. le Marquis went in public I went, when possible. I was biding my time, and wisely too, as you will judge. 2.
Then one day our eyes met: not in a fashionable restaurant, I may tell you, but in a discreet one situated on the slopes of Montmartre. I was there alone, sipping a cup of coffee after a frugal dinner. I had drifted in there chiefly because I had quite accidentally caught sight of M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour walking arm-inarm up the Rue Lepic with a lady who was both youthful and charming--a wellknown dancer at the opera. Presently I saw him turn into that discreet little restaurant, where, in very truth, it was not likely that Mme. la Marquise would follow him. But I did. What made me do it, I cannot say; but for some time now it had been my wish to make the personal acquaintance of M. de Firmin-Latour, and I lost no opportunity which might help me to attain this desire.
Somehow the man interested me. His social and financial position was peculiar, you will admit, and here, methought, was the beginning of an adventure which might prove the turning-point in his career and . . . my opportunity. I was not wrong, as you will presently see. Whilst silently eating my simple dinner, I watched M. de Firmin-Latour.
He had started the evening by being very gay; he had ordered champagne and a succulent meal, and chatted light-heartedly with his companion, until presently three young women, flashily dressed, made noisy irruption into the restaurant.
M. de Firmin-Latour's friend hailed them, introduced them to him, and soon he was host, not to one lady, but to four, and instead of two dinners he had to order five, and more champagne, and then dessert--peaches, strawberries, bonbons, liqueurs, flowers, and what not, until I could see that the bill which presently he would be called upon to pay would amount to far more than his quarterly allowance from Mme. la Marquise, far more, presumably, than he had in his pocket at the present moment.
My brain works with marvellous rapidity, as you know. Already I had made up my mind to see the little comedy through to the end, and I watched with a good deal of interest and some pity the clouds of anxiety gathering over M. de FirminLatour's brow.
The dinner party lasted some considerable time; then the inevitable cataclysm occurred. The ladies were busy chattering and rouging their lips when the bill was presented. They affected to see and hear nothing: it is a way ladies have when dinner has to be paid for; but I saw and heard everything. The waiter stood by, silent and obsequious at first, whilst M. le Marquis hunted through all his pockets. Then there was some whispered colloquy, and the waiter's attitude lost something of its correct dignity. After that the proprietor was called, and the whispered colloquy degenerated into altercation, whilst the ladies--not at all unaware of the situation--giggled amongst themselves. Finally, M. le Marquis offered a promissory note, which was refused.
Then it was that our eyes met. M. de Firmin-Latour had flushed to the roots of his hair. His situation was indeed desperate, and my opportunity had come. With consummate sang-froid, I advanced towards the agitated group composed of M. le Marquis, the proprietor, and the head waiter. I glanced at the bill, the cause of all this turmoil, which reposed on a metal salver in the head waiter's hand, and with a brief:"If M. le Marquis will allow me . . ." I produced my pocket-book. The bill was for nine hundred francs.
At first M. le Marquis thought that I was about to pay it--and so did the proprietor of the establishment, who made a movement as if he would lie down on the floor and lick my boots. But not so. To begin with, I did not happen to possess nine hundred francs, and if I did, I should not Have been fool enough to lend them to this young scapegrace. No! What I did was to extract from my notebook a card, one of a series which I always keep by me in case of an emergency like the present one. It bore the legend: "Comte Hercule de Montjoie, secrétaire particulier de M. le Duc d'Otrante," and below it the address, "Palais du Commissariat de Police, 12 Quai d'Orsay." This card I presented with a graceful flourish of the arm to the proprietor of the establishment, whilst I said with that lofty self-assurance which is one of my finest attributes and which I have never seen equalled:"M. le Marquis is my friend. I will be guarantee for this trifling amount."
The proprietor and head waiter stammered excuses. Private secretary of M. le Duc d'Otrante! Think of it! It is not often that such personages deign to frequent the .restaurants of Montmartre. M. le Marquis, on the other hand, looked completely bewildered, whilst I, taking advantage of the situation, seized him familiarly by the arm, and leading him toward the door, I said with condescending urbanity:"One word with you, my dear Marquis. It is so long since we have met." I bowed to the ladies.
"Mesdames," I said, and was gratified to see that they followed my dramatic exit with eyes of appreciation and of wonder. The proprietor himself offered me my hat, and a moment or two later M. de Firmin-Latour and I were out together in the Rue Lepic."My dear Comte," he said as soon as he had recovered his breath, "how can I think you? . . ."
"Not now, Monsieur, not now," I replied. "You have only just time to make your way as quickly as you can back to your palace in the Rue de Grammont before our friend the proprietor discovers the several mistakes which he has made in the past few minutes and vents his wrath upon your fair guests.""You are right," he rejoined lightly. "But I will have the pleasure to call on you tomorrow at the Palais du Commissariat." "Do no such thing, Monsieur le Marquis," I retorted with a pleasant laugh. "You would not find me there." "But--" he stammered.
"But," I broke in with my wonted business-like and persuasive manner, "if you think that I have conducted this delicate affair for you with tact and discretion, then, in your own interest I should advise you to call on me at my private office, No. 96 Rue Daunou. Hector Ratichon, at your service."He appeared more bewildered than ever. "Rue Daunou," he murmured. "Ratichon!"
"Private inquiry and confidential agent," I rejoined. "My brains are at your service should you desire to extricate yourself from the humiliating financial position in which it has been my good luck to find you, and yours to meet with me."
With that I left him, Sir, to walk away or stay as he pleased. As for me, I went quickly down the street. I felt that the situation was absolutely perfect; to have spoken another word might have spoilt it. Moreover, there was no knowing how soon the proprietor of that humble hostelry would begin to have doubts as to the identity of the private secretary of M. le Duc d'Otrante. So I was best out of the way.3.
The very next day M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour called upon me at my office in the Rue Daunou. Theodore let him in, and the first thing that struck me about him was his curt, haughty manner and the look of disdain wherewith he regarded the humble appointments of my business premises. He himself was magnificently dressed, I may tell you. His bottle-green coat was of the finest cloth and the most perfect cut I had ever seen. His kerseymere pantaloons fitted him without a wrinkle. He wore gloves, he carried a muff of priceless zibeline, and in his cravat there was a diamond the size of a broad bean.
He also carried a malacca cane, which he deposited upon my desk, and a goldrimmed spy-glass which, with a gesture of supreme affectation, he raised to his eye."Now, M. Hector Ratichon," he said abruptly, "perhaps you will be good enough to explain." I had risen when he entered. But now I sat down again and coolly pointed to the best chair in the room. "Will you give yourself the trouble to sit down, M. le Marquis?" I riposted blandly. He called me names--rude names! but I took no notice of that . . . and he sat down. "Now!" he said once more. "What is it you desire to know, M. le Marquis?" I queried. "Why you interfered in my affairs last night?" "Do you complain?" I asked. "No," he admitted reluctantly, "but I don't understand your object." "My object was to serve you then," I rejoined quietly, "and later." "What do you mean by 'later'?" "To-day," I replied, "to-morrow; whenever your present position becomes absolutely unendurable." "It is that now," he said with a savage oath. "I thought as much," was my curt comment. "And do you mean to assert," he went on more earnestly, "that you can find a way out of it?" "If you desire it--yes!" I said. "How?" He drew his chair nearer to my desk, and I leaned forward, with my elbows on the table, the finger-tips of one hand in contact with those of the other. "Let us begin by reviewing the situation, shall we, Monsieur?" I began. "If you wish," he said curtly. "You are a gentleman of refined, not to say luxurious tastes, who finds himself absolutely without means to gratify them. Is that so?" He nodded. "You have a wife and a father-in-law who, whilst lavishing costly treasures upon you, leave you in a humiliating dependence on them for actual money." Again he nodded approvingly.
"Human nature," I continued with gentle indulgence, "being what it is, you pine after what you do not possess--namely, money. Houses, equipages, servants, even good food and wine, are nothing to you beside that earnest desire for money that you can call your own, and which, if only you had it, you could spend at your pleasure."
"To the point, man, to the point!" he broke in impatiently. "One moment, M. le Marquis, and I have done. But first of all, with your permission, shall we also review the assets in your life which we will have to use in order to arrive at the gratification of your earnest wish?""Assets? What do you mean?" "The means to our end. You want money; we must find the means to get it for you." "I begin to understand," he said, and drew his chair another inch or two closer to me.
"Firstly, M. le Marquis," I resumed, and now my voice had become earnest and incisive, "firstly you have a wife, then you have a father-in-law whose wealth is beyond the dreams of humble people like myself, and whose one great passion in life is the social position of the daughter whom he worships. Now," I added, and with the tip of my little finger I touched the sleeve of my aristocratic client, "here at once is your first asset. Get at the money-bags of papa by threatening the social position of his daughter."
Whereupon my young gentleman jumped to his feet and swore and abused me for a mudlark and a muckworm and I don't know what. He seized his malacca cane and threatened me with it, and asked me how the devil I dared thus to speak of Mme. la Marquise de Firmin-Latour. He cursed, and he stormed and he raved of his sixteen quarterings and of my loutishness. He did everything in fact except walk out of the room.
I let him go on quite quietly. It was part of his programme, and we had to go through the performance. As soon as he gave me the chance of putting in a word edgeways I rejoined quietly:"We are not going to hurt Madame la Marquise, Monsieur; and if you do not want the money, let us say no more about it." Whereupon he calmed down; after a while he sat down again, this time with his cane between his knees and its ivory knob between his teeth. "Go on," he said curtly.
Nor did he interrupt me again whilst I expounded my scheme to him--one that, mind you, I had evolved during the night, knowing well that I should receive his visit during the day; and I flatter myself that no finer scheme for the bleeding of a parsimonious usurer was ever devised by any man.
If it succeeded--and there was no reason why it should not--M. de Firmin-Latour would pocket a cool half-million, whilst I, sir, the brain that had devised the whole scheme, pronounced myself satisfied with the paltry emolument of one hundred thousand francs, out of which, remember, I should have to give Theodore a considerable sum.
We talked it all over, M. le Marquis and I, the whole afternoon. I may tell you at once that he was positively delighted with the plan, and then and there gave me one hundred francs out of his own meagre purse for my preliminary expenses.The next morning we began work.
I had begged M. le Marquis to find the means of bringing me a few scraps of the late M. le Comte de Naquet's--Madame la Marquise's first husband--handwriting. This, fortunately, he was able to do. They were a few valueless notes penned at different times by the deceased gentleman and which, luckily for us all, Madame had not thought it worth while to keep under lock and key.
I think I told you before, did I not? what a marvellous expert I am in every kind of calligraphy, and soon I had a letter ready which was to represent the first fire in the exciting war which we were about to wage against an obstinate lady and a parsimonious usurer.
My identity securely hidden under the disguise of a commissionnaire, I took that letter to Mme. la Marquise de Firmin-Latour's sumptuous abode in the Rue de Grammont.
M. le Marquis, you understand, had in the meanwhile been thoroughly primed in the rôle which he was to play; as for Theodore, I thought it best for the moment to dispense with his aid.The success of our first skirmish surpassed our expectations.
Ten minutes after the letter had been taken upstairs to Mme. la Marquise, one of the maids, on going past her mistress's door, was startled to hear cries and moans proceeding from Madame's room. She entered and found Madame lying on the sofa, her face buried in the cushions, and sobbing and screaming in a truly terrifying manner. The maid applied the usual restoratives, and after a while Madame became more calm and at once very curtly ordered the maid out of the room.
M. le Marquis, on being apprised of this mysterious happening, was much distressed; he hurried to his wife's apartments, and was as gentle and loving with her as he had been in the early days of their honeymoon. But throughout the whole of that evening, and, indeed, for the next two days, all the explanation that he could get from Madame herself was that she had a headache and that the letter which she had received that afternoon was of no consequence and had nothing to do with her migraine.
But clearly the beautiful Rachel was extraordinarily agitated. At night she did not sleep, but would pace up and down her apartments in a state bordering on frenzy, which of course caused M. le Marquis a great deal of anxiety and of sorrow.
Finally, on the Friday morning it seemed as if Madame could contain herself no longer. She threw herself into her husband's arms and blurted out the whole truth. M. le Comte de Naquet, her first husband, who had been declared drowned at sea, and therefore officially deceased by Royal decree, was not dead at all. Madame had received a letter from him wherein he told her that he had indeed suffered shipwreck, then untold misery on a desert island for three years, until he had been rescued by a passing vessel, and finally been able, since he was destitute, to work his way back to France and to Paris. Here he had lived for the past few months as best he could, trying to collect together a little money so as to render himself presentable before his wife, whom he had never ceased to love.
Inquiries discreetly conducted had revealed the terrible truth, that Madame had been faithless to him, had light-heartedly assumed the death of her husband, and had contracted what was nothing less than a bigamous marriage. Now he, M. de Naquet, standing on his rights as Rachel Mosenstein's only lawful husband, demanded that she should return to him, and as a prelude to a permanent and amicable understanding, she was to call at three o'clock precisely on the following Friday at No. 96 Rue Daunou, where their reconciliation and reunion was to take place.
The letter announcing this terrible news and making this preposterous demand she now placed in the hands of M. le Marquis, who at first was horrified and thunderstruck, and appeared quite unable to deal with the situation or to tender advice. For Madame it meant complete social ruin, of course, and she herself declared that she would never survive such a scandal. Her tears and her misery made the loving heart of M. le Marquis bleed in sympathy. He did all he could to console and comfort the lady, whom, alas! he could no longer look upon as his wife. Then, gradually, both he and she became more composed. It was necessary above all things to make sure that Madame was not being victimized by an impostor, and for this purpose M. le Marquis generously offered himself as a disinterested friend and adviser. He offered to go himself to the Rue Daunou at the hour appointed and to do his best to induce M. le Comte de Naquet--if indeed he existed--to forgo his rights on the lady who had so innocently taken on the name and hand of M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour. Somewhat more calm, but still unconsoled, the beautiful Rachel accepted this generous offer. I believe that she even found five thousand francs in her privy purse which was to be offered to M. de Naquet in exchange for a promise never to worry Mme. la Marquise again with his presence. But this I have never been able to ascertain with any finality. Certain it is that when at three o'clock on that same afternoon M. de FirminLatour presented himself at my office, he did not offer me a share in any five thousand francs, though he spoke to me about the money, adding that he thought it would look well if he were to give it back to Madame, and to tell her that M. de Naquet had rejected so paltry a sum with disdain.
I thought such a move unnecessary, and we argued about it rather warmly, and in the end he went away, as I say, without offering me any share in the emolument. Whether he did put his project into execution or not I never knew. He told me that he did. After that there followed for me, Sir, many days, nay, weeks, of anxiety and of strenuous work. Mme. la Marquise received several more letters from the supposititious M. de Naquet, any one of which would have landed me, Sir, in a vessel bound for New Caledonia. The discarded husband became more and more insistent as time went on, and finally sent an ultimatum to Madame saying that he was tired of perpetual interviews with M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour, whose right to interfere in the matter he now wholly denied, and that he was quite determined to claim his lawful wife before the whole world.
Madame la Marquise, in the meanwhile, had passed from one fit of hysterics into another. She denied her door to everyone and lived in the strictest seclusion in her beautiful apartment of the Rue de Grammont. Fortunately this all occurred in the early autumn, when the absence of such a society star from fashionable gatherings was not as noticeable as it otherwise would have been. But clearly we were working up for the climax, which occurred in the way I am about to relate.4.
Ah, my dear Sir, when after all these years I think of my adventure with that abominable Marquis, righteous and noble indignation almost strikes me dumb. To think that with my own hands and brains I literally put half a million into that man's pocket, and that he repaid me with the basest ingratitude, almost makes me lose my faith in human nature. Theodore, of course, I could punish, and did so adequately; and where my chastisement failed, Fate herself put the finishing touch.But M. de Firmin-Latour . . .! However, you shall judge for yourself.
As I told you, we now made ready for the climax; and that climax, Sir, I can only describe as positively gorgeous. We began by presuming that Mme. la Marquise had now grown tired of incessant demands for interviews and small doles of money, and that she would be willing to offer a considerable sum to her first and only lawful husband in exchange for a firm guarantee that he would never trouble her again as long as she lived.
We fixed the sum at half a million francs, and the guarantee was to take the form of a deed duly executed by a notary of repute and signed by the supposititious Comte de Naquet. A letter embodying the demand and offering the guarantee was thereupon duly sent to Mme. la Marquise, and she, after the usual attack of hysterics, duly confided the matter to M. de Firmin-Latour.
The consultation between husband and wife on the deplorable subject was touching in the extreme; and I will give that abominable Marquis credit for playing his rôle in a masterly manner. At first he declared to his dear Rachel that he did not know what to suggest, for in truth she had nothing like half a million on which she could lay her hands. To speak of this awful pending scandal to Papa Mosenstein was not to be thought of. He was capable of repudiating the daughter altogether who was bringing such obloquy upon herself and would henceforth be of no use to him as a society star.
As for himself in this terrible emergency, he, of course, had less than nothing, or his entire fortune would be placed--if he had one--at the feet of his beloved Rachel. To think that he was on the point of losing her was more than he could bear, and the idea that she would soon become the talk of every gossip-monger in society, and mayhap be put in prison for bigamy, wellnigh drove him crazy.
What could be done in this awful perplexity he for one could not think, unless indeed his dear Rachel were willing to part with some of her jewellery; but no! he could not think of allowing her to make such a sacrifice.
Whereupon Madame, like a drowning man, or rather woman, catching at a straw, bethought her of her emeralds. They were historic gems, once the property of the Empress Marie-Thérèse, and had been given to her on her second marriage by her adoring father. No, no! she would never miss them; she seldom wore them, for they were heavy and more valuable than elegant, and she was quite sure that at the Mont de Piété they would lend her five hundred thousand francs on them. Then gradually they could be redeemed before papa had become aware of their temporary disappearance. Madame would save the money out of the liberal allowance she received from him for pin-money. Anything, anything was preferable to this awful doom which hung over her head.
But even so M. le Marquis demurred. The thought of his proud and fashionable Rachel going to the Mont de Piété to pawn her own jewels was not to be thought of. She would be seen, recognized, and the scandal would be as bad and worse than anything that loomed on the black horizon of her fate at this hour.What was to be done? What was to be done?
Then M. le Marquis had a brilliant idea. He knew of a man, a very reliable, trustworthy man, attorney-at-law by profession, and therefore a man of repute, who was often obliged in the exercise of his profession to don various disguises when tracking criminals in the outlying quarters of Paris. M. le Marquis, putting all pride and dignity nobly aside in the interests of his adored Rachel, would borrow one of these disguises and himself go to the Mont de Piété with the emeralds, obtain the five hundred thousand francs, and remit them to the man whom he hated most in all the world, in exchange for the aforementioned guarantee.
Madame la Marquise, overcome with gratitude, threw herself, in the midst of a flood of tears, into the arms of the man whom she no longer dared to call her husband, and so the matter was settled for the moment. M. le Marquis undertook to have the deed of guarantee drafted by the same notary of repute whom he knew, and, if Madame approved of it, the emeralds would then be converted into money, and the interview with M. le Comte de Naquet fixed for Wednesday, October 10th, at some convenient place, subsequently to be determined on--in all probability at the bureau of that same ubiquitous attorney-at-law, M. Hector Ratichon, at 96 Rue Daunon.
All was going on excellently well, as you observe. I duly drafted the deed, and M. de Firmin-Latour showed it to Madame for her approval. It was so simply and so comprehensively worded that she expressed herself thoroughly satisfied with it, whereupon M. le Marquis asked her to write to her shameful persecutor in order to fix the date and hour for the exchange of the money against the deed duly signed and witnessed. M. le Marquis had always been the intermediary for her letters, you understand, and for the small sums of money which she had sent from time to time to the factitious M. de Naquet; now he was to be entrusted with the final negotiations which, though at a heavy cost, would bring security and happiness once more in the sumptuous palace of the Rue de Grammont.
Then it was that the first little hitch occurred. Mme. la Marquise--whether prompted thereto by a faint breath of suspicion, or merely by natural curiosity-altered her mind about the appointment. She decided that M. le Marquis, having pledged the emeralds, should bring the money to her, and she herself would go to the bureau of M. Hector Ratichon in the Rue Daunou, there to meet M. de Naquet, whom she had not seen for seven years, but who had once been very dear to her, and herself fling in his face the five hundred thousand francs, the price of his silence and of her peace of mind.
At once, as you perceive, the situation became delicate. To have demurred, or uttered more than a casual word of objection, would in the case of M. le Marquis have been highly impolitic. He felt that at once, the moment he raised his voice in protest: and when Madame declared herself determined he immediately gave up arguing the point.
The trouble was that we had so very little time wherein to formulate new plans. Monsieur was to go the very next morning to the Mont de Piété to negotiate the emeralds, and the interview with the fabulous M. de Naquet was to take place a couple of hours later; and it was now three o'clock in the afternoon. As soon as M. de Firmin-Latour was able to leave his wife, he came round to my office. He appeared completely at his wits' end, not knowing what to do.
"If my wife," he said, "insists on a personal interview with de Naquet, who does not exist, our entire scheme falls to the ground. Nay, worse! for I shall be driven to concoct some impossible explanation for the non-appearance of that worthy, and heaven only knows if I shall succeed in wholly allaying my wife's suspicions.
"Ah!" he added with a sigh, "it is doubly hard to have seen fortune so near one's reach and then to see it dashed away at one fell swoop by the relentless hand of Fate."Not one word, you observe, of gratitude to me or of recognition of the subtle mind that had planned and devised the whole scheme.
But, Sir, it is at the hour of supreme crises like the present one that Hector Ratichon's genius soars up to the empyrean. It became great, Sir; nothing short of great; and even the marvellous schemes of the Italian Macchiavelli paled before the ingenuity which I now displayed.
Half an hour's reflection had sufficed. I had made my plans, and I had measured the full length of the terrible risks which I ran. Among these New Caledonia was the least. But I chose to take the risks, Sir; my genius could not stoop to measuring the costs of its flight. While M. de Firmin-Latour alternately raved and lamented I had already planned and contrived. As I say, we had very little time: a few hours wherein to render ourselves worthy of Fortune's smiles. And this is what I planned.
You tell me that you were not in Paris during the year 1816 of which I speak. If you had been, you would surely recollect the sensation caused throughout the entire city by the disappearance of M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour, one of the most dashing young officers in society and one of its acknowledged leaders. It was the 10th day of October. M. le Marquis had breakfasted in the company of Madame at nine o'clock. A couple of hours later he went out, saying he would be home for déjeuner. Madame clearly expected him, for his place was laid, and she ordered the déjeuner to be kept back over an hour in anticipation of his return. But he did not come. The afternoon wore on and he did not come. Madame sat down at two o'clock to déjeuner alone. She told the major-domo that M. le Marquis was detained in town and might not be home for some time. But the major-domo declared that Madame's voice, as she told him this, sounded tearful and forced, and that she ate practically nothing, refusing one succulent dish after another.
The staff of servants was thus kept on tenterhooks all day, and when the shadows of evening began to draw in, the theory was started in the kitchen that M. le Marquis had either met with an accident or been foully murdered. No one, however, dared speak of this to Madame la Marquise, who had locked herself up in her room in the early part of the afternoon, and since then had refused to see anyone. The major-domo was now at his wits' end. He felt that in a measure the responsibility of the household rested upon his shoulders. Indeed he would have taken it upon himself to apprise M. Mauruss Mosenstein of the terrible happenings, only that the worthy gentleman was absent from Paris just then.
Mme. la Marquise remained shut up in her room until past eight o'clock. Then she ordered dinner to be served and made pretence of sitting down to it; but again the major-domo declared that she ate nothing, whilst subsequently the confidential maid who had undressed her vowed that Madame had spent the whole night walking up and down the room.
Thus two agonizing days went by; agonizing they were to everybody. Madame la Marquise became more and more agitated, more and more hysterical as time went on, and the servants could not help but notice this, even though she made light of the whole affair, and desperate efforts to control herself. The heads of her household, the major-domo, the confidential maid, the chef de cuisine, did venture to drop a hint or two as to the possibility of an accident or of foul play, and the desirability of consulting the police; but Madame would not hear a word of it; she became very angry at the suggestion, and declared that she was perfectly well aware of M. le Marquis's whereabouts, that he was well and would return home almost immediately.
As was only natural, tongues presently began to wag. Soon it was common talk in Paris that M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour had disappeared from his home and that Madame was trying to put a bold face upon the occurrence. There were surmises and there was gossip-- oh! interminable and long-winded gossip! Minute circumstances in connexion with M. le Marquis's private life and Mme. la Marquise's affairs were freely discussed in the cafés, the clubs and restaurants, and as no one knew the facts of the case, surmises soon became very wild.
On the third day of M. le Marquis's disappearance Papa Mosenstein returned to Paris from Vichy, where he had just completed his annual cure. He arrived at Rue de Grammont at three o'clock in the afternoon, demanded to see Mme. la Marquise at once, and then remained closeted with her in her apartment for over an hour. After which he sent for the inspector of police of the section, with the result that that very same evening M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour was found locked up in an humble apartment on the top floor of a house in the Rue Daunou, not ten minutes' walk from his own house. When the police--acting on information supplied to them by M. Mauruss Mosenstein--forced their way into that apartment, they were horrified to find M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour there, tied hand and foot with cords to a chair, his likely calls for help smothered by a woollen shawl wound loosely round the lower part of his face.
He was half dead with inanition, and was conveyed speechless and helpless to his home in the Rue de Grammont, there, presumably, to be nursed back to health by Madame his wife.
Now in all this matter, I ask you, Sir, who ran the greatest risk? Why, I--Hector Ratichon, of course--Hector Ratichon, in whose apartment M. de Firmin-Latour was discovered in a position bordering on absolute inanition. And the proof of this is, that that selfsame night I was arrested at my lodgings at Passy, and charged with robbery and attempted murder.
It was a terrible predicament for a respectable citizen, a man of integrity and reputation, in which to find himself; but Papa Mosenstein was both tenacious and vindictive. His daughter, driven to desperation at last, and terrified that M. le Marquis had indeed been foully murdered by M. de Naquet, had made a clean breast of the whole affair to her father, and he in his turn had put the minions of the law in full possession of all the facts; and since M. le Comte de Naquet had vanished, leaving no manner of trace or clue of his person behind him, the police, needing a victim, fell back on an innocent man. Fortunately, Sir, that innocence clear as crystal soon shines through every calumny. But this was not before I had suffered terrible indignities and all the tortures which base ingratitude can inflict upon a sensitive heart.
Such ingratitude as I am about to relate to you has never been equalled on this earth, and even after all these years, Sir, you see me overcome with emotion at the remembrance of it all. I was under arrest, remember, on a terribly serious charge, but, conscious of mine own innocence and of my unanswerable system of defence, I bore the preliminary examination by the juge d'instruc-tion with exemplary dignity and patience. I knew, you see, that at my very first confrontation with my supposed victim the latter would at once say:"Ah! but no! This is not the man who assaulted me." Our plan, which so far had been overwhelmingly successful, had been this.
On the morning of the tenth, M. de Firmin-Latour having pawned the emeralds, and obtained the money for them, was to deposit that money in his own name at the bank of Raynal Frères and then at once go to the office in the Rue Daunou.
There he would be met by Theodore, who would bind him comfortably but securely to a chair, put a shawl around his mouth and finally lock the door on him. Theodore would then go to his mother's and there remain quietly until I needed his services again.
It had been thought inadvisable for me to be seen that morning anywhere in the neighbourhood of the Rue Daunou, but that perfidious reptile Theodore ran no risks in doing what he was told. To begin with he is a past master in the art of worming himself in and out of a house without being seen, and in this case it was his business to exercise a double measure of caution. And secondly, if by some unlucky chance the police did subsequently connect him with the crime, there was I, his employer, a man of integrity and repute, prepared to swear that the man had been in my company at the other end of Paris all the while that M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour was, by special arrangement, making use of my office in the Rue Daunou, which I had lent him for purposes of business.
Finally it was agreed between us that when M. le Marquis would presently be questioned by the police as to the appearance of the man who had assaulted and robbed him, he would describe him as tall and blond, almost like an Angliche in countenance. Now I possess--as you see, Sir--all the finest characteristics of the Latin race, whilst Theodore looks like nothing on earth, save perhaps a cross between a rat and a monkey.
I wish you to realize, therefore, that no one ran any risks in this affair excepting myself. I, as the proprietor of the apartment where the assault was actually supposed to have taken place, did run a very grave risk, because I could never have proved an alibi. Theodore was such a disreputable mudlark that his testimony on my behalf would have been valueless. But with sublime sacrifice I accepted these risks, and you will presently see, Sir, how I was repaid for my selflessness. I pined in a lonely prison-cell while these two limbs of Satan concocted a plot to rob me of my share in our mutual undertaking.
Well, Sir, the day came when I was taken from my prison-cell for the purpose of being confronted with the man whom I was accused of having assaulted. As you will imagine, I was perfectly calm. According to our plan the confrontation would be the means of setting me free at once. I was conveyed to the house in the Rue de Grammont, and here I was kept waiting for some little time while the juge d'instruction went in to prepare M. le Marquis, who was still far from well. Then I was introduced into the sick-room. I looked about me with the perfect composure of an innocent man about to be vindicated, and calmly gazed on the face of the sick man who was sitting up in his magnificent bed, propped up with pillows.I met his glance firmly whilst M. le Juge d'instruction placed the question to him in a solemn and earnest tone: "M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour, will you look at the prisoner before you and tell us whether you recognize in him the man who assaulted you?" And that perfidious Marquis, Sir, raised his eyes and looked me squarely--yes! squarely--in the face and said with incredible assurance: "Yes, Monsieur le Juge, that is the man! I recognize him."
To me it seemed then as if a thunderbolt had crashed through the ceiling and exploded at my feet. I was like one stunned and dazed; the black ingratitude, the abominable treachery, completely deprived me of speech. I felt choked, as if some poisonous effluvia--the poison, Sir, of that man's infamy--had got into my throat. That state of inertia lasted, I believe, less than a second; the next I had uttered a hoarse cry of noble indignation."You vampire, you!" I exclaimed. "You viper! You . . ."
I would have thrown myself on him and strangled him with glee, but that the minions of the law had me by the arms and dragged me away out of the hateful presence of that traitor, despite my objurgations and my protestations of innocence. Imagine my feelings when I found myself once more in a prison-cell, my heart filled with unspeakable bitterness against that perfidious Judas. Can you wonder that it took me some time before I could collect my thoughts sufficiently to review my situation, which no doubt to the villain himself who had just played me this abominable trick must have seemed desperate indeed? Ah! I could see it all, of course! He wanted to> see me sent to New Caledonia, whilst he enjoyed the fruits of his unpardonable backsliding. In order to retain the miserable hundred thousand francs which he had promised me he did not hesitate to plunge up to the neck in this heinous conspiracy.
Yes, conspiracy! for the very next day, when I was once more hailed before the juge d'instruction, another confrontation awaited me: this time with that scurvy rogue Theodore. He had been suborned by M. le Marquis to turn against the hand that fed him. What price he was paid for this Judas trick I shall never know, and all that I do know is that he actually swore before the juge d'instruction that M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour called at my office in the late forenoon of the tenth of October; that I then ordered him--Theodore--to go out to get his dinner first, and then to go all the way over to Neuilly with a message to someone who turned out to be non-existent. He went on to assert that when he returned at six o'clock in the afternoon he found the office door locked, and I--his employer-presumably gone. This at first greatly upset him, because he was supposed to sleep on the premises, but seeing that there was nothing for it but to accept the inevitable, he went round to his mother's rooms at the back of the fish-market and remained there ever since, waiting to hear from me.
That, Sir, was the tissue of lies which that jailbird had concocted for my undoing, knowing well that I could not disprove them because it had been my task on that eventful morning to keep an eye on M. le Marquis whilst he went to the Mont de Piété first, and then to MM. Raynal Frères, the bankers where he deposited the money. For this purpose I had been obliged to don a disguise, which I had not discarded till later in the day, and thus was unable to disprove satisfactorily the monstrous lies told by that perjurer.
Ah! I can see that sympathy for my unmerited misfortunes has filled your eyes with tears. No doubt in your heart you feel that my situation at that hour was indeed desperate, and that I--Hector Ratichon, the confidant of kings, the benefactor of the oppressed--did spend the next few years of my life in a penal settlement, where those arch-malefactors themselves should have been. But no, Sir! Fate may be a fickle jade, rogues may appear triumphant, but not for long, Sir, not for long! It is brains that conquer in the end . . . brains backed by righteousness and by justice.
Whether I had actually foreseen the treachery of those two rattlesnakes, or whether my habitual caution and acumen alone prompted me to take those measures of precaution of which I am about to tell you, I cannot truthfully remember. Certain it is that I did take those precautions which ultimately proved to be the means of compensating me for most that I had suffered.
It had been a part of the original plan that, on the day immediately following the tenth of October, I, in my own capacity as Hector Ratichon, who had been absent from my office for twenty-four hours, would arrive there in the morning, find the place locked, force an entrance into the apartment, and there find M. le Marquis in his pitiable plight. After which I would, of course, immediately notify the police of the mysterious occurrence.
That had been the rôle which I had intended to play. M. le Marquis approved of it and had professed himself quite willing to endure a twenty-four-hours' martyrdom for the sake of half a million francs. But, as I have just had the honour to tell you, something which I will not attempt to explain prompted me at the last moment to modify my plan in one little respect. I thought it too soon to go back to the Rue Daunou within twenty-four hours of our well-contrived coup, and I did not altogether care for the idea of going myself to the police in order to explain to them that I had found a man gagged and bound in my office. The less one has to do with these minions of the law the better. Mind you, I had envisaged the possibility of being accused of assault and robbery, but I did not wish to take, as it were, the very first steps myself in that direction. You might call this a matter of sentiment or of prudence, as you wish.
So I waited until the evening of the second day before I got the key from Theodore. Then before the concierge at 96 Rue Daunou had closed the portecochere for the night, I slipped into the house unobserved, ran up the stairs to my office and entered the apartment. I struck a light and made my way to the inner room where the wretched Marquis hung in the chair like a bundle of rags. I called to him, but he made no movement. As I had anticipated, he had fainted for want of food. Of course, I was very sorry for him, for his plight was pitiable, but he was playing for high stakes, and a little starvation does no man any harm. In his case there was half a million at the end of his brief martyrdom, which could, at worst, only last another twenty-four hours. I reckoned that Mme. la Marquise could not keep the secret of her husband's possible whereabouts longer than that, and in any event I was determined that, despite all risks, I would go myself to the police on the following day.
In the meanwhile, since I was here and since M. le Marquis was unconscious, I proceeded then and there to take the precaution which prudence had dictated, and without which, seeing this man's treachery and Theodore's villainy, I should undoubtedly have ended my days as a convict. What I did was to search M. le Marquis's pockets for anything that might subsequently prove useful to me.I had no definite idea in the matter, you understand; but I had vague notions of finding the bankers' receipt for the half-million francs.
Well, I did not find that, but I did find the receipt from the Mont de Piété for a parure of emeralds on which half a million francs had been lent. This I carefully put away in my waistcoat pocket, but as there was nothing else I wished to do just then I extinguished the light and made my way cautiously out of the apartment and out of the house. No one had seen me enter or go out, and M. le Marquis had not stirred while I went through his pockets.6.
That, Sir, was the precaution which I had taken in order to safeguard myself against the machinations of traitors. And see how right I was; see how hopeless would have been my plight at this hour when Theodore, too, turned against me like the veritable viper that he was. I never really knew when and under what conditions the infamous bargain was struck which was intended to deprive me of my honour and of my liberty, nor do I know what emolument Theodore was to receive for his treachery. Presumably the two miscreants arranged it all some time during that memorable morning of the tenth even whilst I was risking my life in their service.
As for M. de Firmin-Latour, that worker of iniquity who, in order to save a paltry hundred thousand francs from the hoard which I had helped him to acquire, did not hesitate to commit such an abominable crime, he did not long remain in the enjoyment of his wealth or of his peace of mind.
The very next day I made certain statements before M. le Juge d'instruction with regard to M. Mauruss Mosenstein, which caused the former to summon the worthy Israelite to his bureau, there to be confronted with me. I had nothing more to lose, since those execrable rogues had already, as it were, tightened the rope about my neck, but I had a great deal to gain--revenge above all, and perhaps the gratitude of M. Mosenstein for opening his eyes to the rascality of his son-inlaw.
In a stream of eloquent words which could not fail to carry conviction, I gave then and there in the bureau of the juge d'instruction my version of the events of the past few weeks, from the moment when M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour came to consult me on the subject of his wife's first husband, until the hour when he tried to fasten an abominable crime upon me. I told how I had been deceived by my own employé, Theodore, a man whom I had rescued out of the gutter and loaded with gifts, how by dint of a clever disguise which would have deceived his own mother he had assumed the appearance and personality of M. le Comte de Naquet, first and only lawful lord of the beautiful Rachel Mosenstein. I told of the interviews in my office, my earnest desire to put an end to this abominable blackmailing by informing the police of the whole affair. I told of the false M. de Naquet's threats to create a gigantic scandal which would forever ruin the social position of the so-called Marquis de Firmin-Latour. I told of M. le Marquis's agonized entreaties, his prayers, supplications, that I would do nothing in the matter for the sake of an innocent lady who had already grievously suffered. I spoke of my doubts, my scruples, my desire to do what was just and what was right.
A noble expose of the situation, Sir, you will admit. It left me hot and breathless. I mopped my head with a handkerchief and sank back, gasping, in the arms of the minions of the law. The juge d'instruction ordered my removal, not back to my prison-cell but into his own ante-room, where I presently collapsed upon a very uncomfortable bench and endured the additional humiliation of having a glass of water held to my lips. Water! when I had asked for a drink of wine as my throat felt parched after that lengthy effort at oratory.
However, there I sat and waited patiently whilst, no doubt, M. le Juge d'Instruction and the noble Israelite were comparing notes as to their impression of my marvellous speech. I had not long to wait. Less than ten minutes later I was once more summoned into the presence of M. le Juge; and this time the minions of the law were ordered to remain in the antechamber. I thought this was of good augury; and I waited to hear M. le Juge give forth the order that would at once set me free. But it was M. Mosenstein who first addressed me, and in very truth surprise rendered me momentarily dumb when he did it thus:
"Now then, you consummate rascal, when you have given up the receipt of the Mont de Piété which you stole out of M. le Marquis's pocket you may go and carry on your rogueries elsewhere and call yourself mightily lucky to have escaped so lightly."
I assure you, Sir, that a feather would have knocked me down. The coarse insult, the wanton injustice, had deprived me of the use of my limbs and of my speech. Then the juge d'instruction proceeded dryly:
"Now then, Ratichon, you have heard what M. Mauruss Mosenstein has been good enough to say to you. He did it with my approval and consent. I am prepared to give an ordonnance de non-lieu in your favour which will have the effect of at once setting you free if you will restore to this gentleman here the Mont de Piété receipt which you appear to have stolen.""Sir," I said with consummate dignity in the face of this reiterated taunt, "I have stolen nothing--" M. le Juge's hand was already on the bell-pull. "Then," he said coolly, "I can ring for the gendarmes to take you back to the cells, and you will stand your trial for blackmail, theft, assault and robbery." I put up my hand with an elegant and perfectly calm gesture.
"Your pardon, M. le Juge," I said with the gentle resignation of undeserved martyrdom, "I was about to say that when I re-visited my rooms in the Rue Daunou after a three days' absence, and found the police in possession, I picked up on the floor of my private room a white paper which on subsequent examination proved to be a receipt from the Mont de Piété for some valuable gems, and made out in the name of M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour."
"What have you done with it, you abominable knave?" the irascible old usurer rejoined roughly, and I regret to say that he grasped his malacca cane with ominous violence.But I was not to be thus easily intimidated. "Ah! voilà, M. le Juge," I said with a shrug of the shoulders. "I have mislaid it. I do not know where it is." "If you do not find it," Mosenstein went on savagely, "you will find yourself on a convict ship before long."
"In which case, no doubt," I retorted with suave urbanity, "the police will search my rooms where I lodge, and they will find the receipt from the Mont de Piété, which I had mislaid. And then the gossip will be all over Paris that Mme. la Marquise de Firmin-Latour had to pawn her jewels in order to satisfy the exigencies of her first and only lawful husband who has since mysteriously disappeared; and some people will vow that he never came back from the Antipodes, whilst others--by far the most numerous--will shrug their shoulders and sigh: 'One never knows!' which will be exceedingly unpleasant for Mme. la Marquise."
Both M. Mauruss Mosenstein and the juge d'instruc-tion said a great deal more that afternoon. I may say that their attitude towards me and the language that they used were positively scandalous. But I had become now the master of the situation and I could afford to ignore their insults. In the end everything was settled quite amicably. I agreed to dispose of the receipt from the Mont de Piété to M. Mauruss Mosenstein for the sum of two hundred francs, and for another hundred I would indicate to him the banking house where his precious son-in-law had deposited the half-million francs obtained for the emeralds. This latter information I would indeed have offered him gratuitously had he but known with what immense pleasure I thus put a spoke in that knavish Marquis's wheel of fortune.
The worthy Israelite further agreed to pay me an annuity of two hundred francs so long as I kept silent upon the entire subject of Mme. la Marquise's first husband and of M. le Marquis's rôle in the mysterious affair of the Rue Daunou. For thus was the affair classed amongst the police records. No one outside the chief actors of the drama and M. le Juge d'Instruction ever knew the true history of how a dashing young cavalry officer came to be assaulted and left to starve for three days in the humble apartment of an attorney-at-law of undisputed repute. And no one outside the private bureau of M. le Juge d'Instruction ever knew what it cost the wealthy M. Mosenstein to have the whole affair "classed" and hushed up.
As for me, I had three hundred francs as payment for work which I had risked my neck and my reputation to accomplish. Three hundred instead of the hundred thousand which I had so richly deserved: that, and a paltry two hundred francs a year, which was to cease the moment that as much as a rumour of the whole affair was breathed in public. As if I could help people talking!
But M. le Marquis did not enjoy the fruits of his villainy, and I had again the satisfaction of seeing him gnaw his finger-nails with rage whenever the lovely Rachel paid for his dinner at fashionable restaurants. Indeed Papa Mosenstein tightened the strings of his money-bags even more securely than he had done in the past. Under threats of prosecution for theft and I know not what, he forced his son-in-law to disgorge that half-million which he had so pleasantly tucked away in the banking house of Raynal Frères, and I was indeed thankful that prudence had, on that memorable morning, suggested to me the advisability of dogging the Marquis's footsteps. I doubt not but what he knew whence had come the thunderbolt which had crushed his last hopes of an independent fortune, and no doubt too he does not cherish feelings of good will towards me.
But this eventuality leaves me cold. He has only himself to thank for his misfortune. Everything would have gone well but for his treachery. We would have become affluent, he and I and Theodore. Theodore has gone to live with his mother, who has a fish-stall in the Halles; she gives him three sous a day for washing down the stall and selling the fish when it has become too odorous for the ordinary customers.And he might have had five hundred francs for himself and remained my confidential clerk.
You must not think for a moment, my dear Sir, that I was ever actually deceived in Theodore. Was it likely that I, who am by temperament and habit accustomed to read human visages like a book, was it likely, I say, that I would fail to see craftiness in those pale, shifty eyes, deceit in the weak, slobbering mouth, intemperance in the whole aspect of the shrunken, slouchy figure which I had, for my subsequent sorrow, so generously rescued from starvation?
Generous? I was more than generous to him. They say that the poor are the friends of the poor, and I told you how poor we were in those days! Ah! but poor! my dear Sir, you have no conception! Meat in Paris in the autumn of 1816 was 24 francs the kilo, and milk 1 franc the quarter litre, not to mention eggs and butter, which were delicacies far beyond the reach of cultured, well-born people like myself.
And yet throughout that trying year I fed Theodore--yes, I fed him. He used to share onion pie with me whenever I partook of it, and he had haricot soup every day, into which I allowed him to boil the skins of all the sausages and the luscious bones of all the cutlets of which I happened to partake. Then think what he cost me in drink! Never could I leave a half or quarter bottle of wine but he would finish it; his impudent fingers made light of every lock and key. I dared not allow as much as a sou to rest in the pocket of my coat but he would ferret it out the moment I hung the coat up in the outer room and my back was turned for a few seconds. After a while I was forced--yes, I, Sir, who have spoken on terms of equality with kings--I was forced to go out and make my own purchases in the neighbouring provision shops. And why? Because if I sent Theodore and gave him a few sous wherewith to make these purchases, he would spend the money at the nearest cabaret in getting drunk on absinthe.
He robbed me, Sir, shamefully, despite the fact that he had ten per cent, commission on all the profits of the firm. I gave him twenty francs out of the money which I had earned at the sweat of my brow in the service of Estelle Bachelier. Twenty francs, Sir! Reckoning two hundred francs as business profit on the affair, a generous provision you will admit! And yet he taunted me with having received a thousand. This was mere guesswork, of course, and I took no notice of his taunts: did the brains that conceived the business deserve no payment? Was my labour to be counted as dross?--the humiliation, the blows which I had to endure while he sat in hoggish content, eating and sleeping without thought for the morrow? After which he calmly pocketed the twenty francs to earn which he had not raised one finger, and then demanded more. No, no, my dear Sir, you will believe me or not, that man could not go straight. Times out of count he would try and deceive me, despite the fact that, once or twice, he very nearly came hopelessly to grief in the attempt.
Now, just to give you an instance. About this time Paris was in the grip of a gang of dog-thieves as unscrupulous and heartless as they were daring. Can you wonder at it? with that awful penury about and a number of expensive "tou-tous" running about the streets under the very noses of the indigent proletariat? The ladies of the aristocracy and of the wealthy bourgeoisie had imbibed this craze for lap-dogs during their sojourn in England at the time of the emigration, and being women of the Latin race and of undisciplined temperament, they were just then carrying their craze to excess.
As I was saying, this indulgence led to wholesale thieving. Tou-tous were abstracted from their adoring mistresses with marvellous adroitness; whereupon two or three days would elapse while the adoring mistress wept buckets full of tears and set the police of M. Fouché, Duc d'Otrante, by the ears in search of her pet. The next act in the tragi-comedy would be an anonymous demand for money--varying in amount in accordance with the known or supposed wealth of the lady--and an equally anonymous threat of dire vengeance upon the tou-tou if the police were put upon the track of the thieves.You will ask me, no doubt, what all this had to do with Theodore. Well! I will tell you.
You must know that of late he had become extraordinarily haughty and independent. I could not keep him to his work. His duties were to sweep the office--he did not do it; to light the fires--I had to light them myself every morning; to remain in the anteroom and show clients in--he was never at his post. In fact he was never there when I did want him: morning, noon and night he was out-gadding about and coming home, Sir, only to eat and sleep. I was seriously thinking of giving him the sack. And then one day he disappeared! Yes, Sir, disappeared completely as if the earth had swallowed him up. One morning--it was in the beginning of December and the cold was biting--I arrived at the office and found that his chair-bed which stood in the antechamber had not been slept in; in fact that it had not been made up overnight. In the cupboard I found the remnants of an onion pie, half a sausage, and a quarter of a litre of wine, which proved conclusively that he had not been in to supper.
At first I was not greatly disturbed in my mind. I had found out quite recently that Theodore had some sort of a squalid home of his own somewhere behind the fish-market, together with an old and wholly disreputable mother who plied him with drink whenever he spent an evening with her and either he or she had a franc in their pocket. Still, after these bouts spent in the bosom of his family he usually returned to sleep them off at my expense in my office.
I had unfortunately very little to do that day, so in the late afternoon, not having seen anything of Theodore all day, I turned my steps toward the house behind the fish-market where lived the mother of that ungrateful wretch.
The woman's surprise when I inquired after her precious son was undoubtedly genuine. Her lamentations and crocodile tears certainly were not. She reeked of alcohol, and the one room which she inhabited was indescribably filthy. I offered her half a franc if she gave me authentic news of Theodore, knowing well that for that sum she would have sold him to the devil. But very obviously she knew nothing of his whereabouts, and I soon made haste to shake the dirt of her abode from my heels.I had become vaguely anxious. I wondered if he had been murdered somewhere down a back street, and if I should miss him very much. I did not think that I would.
Moreover, no one could have any object in murdering Theodore. In his own stupid way he was harmless enough, and he certainly was not possessed of anything worth stealing. I myself was not over-fond of the man--but I should not have bothered to murder him.
Still, I was undoubtedly anxious, and slept but little that night thinking of the wretch. When the following morning I arrived at my office and still could see no trace of him, I had serious thoughts of putting the law in motion on his behalf.Just then, however, an incident occurred which drove all thoughts of such an insignificant personage as Theodore from my mind.
I had just finished tidying up the office when there came a peremptory ring at the outer door, repeated at intervals of twenty seconds or so. It meant giving a hasty glance all round to see that no fragments of onion pie or of cheap claret lingered in unsuspected places, and it meant my going, myself, to open the door to my impatient visitor.
I did it, Sir, and then at the door I stood transfixed. I had seen many beautiful women in my day--great ladies of the Court, brilliant ladies of the Consulate, the Directorate and the Empire--but never in my life had I seen such an exquisite and resplendent apparition as the one which now sailed through the antechamber of my humble abode.
Sir, Hector Ratichon's heart has ever been susceptible to the charms of beauty in distress. This lovely being, Sir, who now at my invitation entered my office and sank with perfect grace into the arm-chair, was in obvious distress. Tears hung on the fringe of her dark lashes, and the gossamer-like handkerchief which she held in her dainty hand was nothing but a wet rag. She gave herself exactly two minutes wherein to compose herself, after which she dried her eyes and turned the full artillery of her bewitching glance upon me.
"Monsieur Ratichon," she began, even before I had taken my accustomed place at my desk and assumed that engaging smile which inspires confidence even in the most timorous; "Monsieur Ratichon, they tell me that you are so clever, and-oh! I am in such trouble.""Madame," I rejoined with noble simplicity, "you may trust me to do the impossible in order to be of service to you."
Admirably put, you will admit. I have always been counted a master of appropriate diction, and I had been quick enough to note the plain band of gold which encircled the third finger of her dainty left hand, flanked though it was by a multiplicity of diamond, pearl and other jewelled rings.
"You are kind, Monsieur Ratichon," resumed the beauteous creature more calmly. "But indeed you will require all the ingenuity of your resourceful brain in order to help me in this matter. I am struggling in the grip of a relentless fate which, if you do not help me, will leave me broken-hearted.""Command me, Madame," I riposted quietly.
From out the daintiest of reticules the fair lady now extracted a very greasy and very dirty bit of paper, and handed it to me with the brief request: "Read this, I pray you, my good M. Ratichon." I took the paper. It was a clumsily worded, illwritten, ill-spelt demand for five thousand francs, failing which sum the thing which Madame had lost would forthwith be destroyed.I looked up, puzzled, at my fair client. "My darling Carissimo, my dear M. Ratichon," she said in reply to my mute query. "Carissimo?" I stammered, yet further intrigued.
"My darling pet, a valuable creature, the companion of my lonely hours," she rejoined, once more bursting into tears. "If I lose him, my heart will inevitably break."I understood at last. "Madame has lost her dog?" I asked.
She nodded. "It has been stolen by one of those expert dog thieves, who then levy blackmail on the unfortunate owner?"Again she nodded in assent.
I read the dirty, almost illegible scrawl through more carefully this time. It was a clumsy notification addressed to Mme. la Comtesse de Nolé de St. Pris to the effect that her tou-tou was for the moment safe, and would be restored to the arms of his fond mistress provided the sum of five thousand francs was deposited in the hands of the bearer of the missive.
Minute directions were then given as to where and how the money was to be deposited. Mme. la Comtesse de Nolé was, on the third day from this at six o'clock in the evening precisely, to go in person and alone to the angle of the Rue Guénégaud and the Rue Mazarine, at the rear of the Institut.
There two men would meet her, one of whom would have Carissimo in his arms; to the other she must hand over the money, whereupon the pet would at once be handed back to her. But if she failed to keep this appointment, or if in the meanwhile she made the slightest attempt to trace the writer of the missive or to lay a trap for his capture by the police, Carissimo would at once meet with a summary death.
These were the usual tactics of experienced dog thieves, only that in this case the demand was certainly exorbitant. Five thousand francs! But even so . . . I cast a rapid and comprehensive glance on the brilliant apparition before me--the jewelled rings, the diamonds in the shell-like ears, the priceless fur coat--and with an expressive shrug of the shoulders I handed the dirty scrap of paper back to its fair recipient.
"Alas, Madame," I said, taking care that she should not guess how much it cost me to give her such advice, "I am afraid that in such cases there is nothing to be done. If you wish to save your pet you will have to pay. . ."
"Ah! but, Monsieur," she exclaimed tearfully, "you don't understand. Carissimo is all the world to me, and this is not the first time, nor yet the second, that he has been stolen from me. Three times, my good M. Ratichon, three times has he been stolen, and three times have I received such peremptory demands for money for his safe return; and every time the demand has been more and more exorbitant. Less than a month ago M. le Comte paid three thousand francs for his recovery.""Monsieur le Comte?" I queried. "My husband, Sir," she replied, with an exquisite air of hauteur. "M. le Comte de
Nolé de St. Pris."
"Ah, then," I continued calmly, "I fear me that Monsieur de Nolé de St. Pris will have to pay again."
"Oh! if I had money of my own," she continued, with an adorable gesture of impatience, "I would not worry. Mais voilà: I have not a silver franc of my own to bless myself with. M. le Comte is over generous. He pays all my bills without a murmur--he pays my dressmaker, my furrier; he loads me with gifts and dispenses charity on a lavish scale in my name. I have horses, carriages, servants--everything I can possibly want and more, but I never have more than a few hundred francs to dispose of. Up to now I have never for a moment felt the want of money. To-day, when Carissimo is being lost to me, I feel the entire horror of my position.""But surely, Madame," I urged, "M. le Comte . . ."
"No, Monsieur," she replied. "M. le Comte has flatly refused this time to pay these abominable thieves for the recovery of Carissimo. He upbraids himself for having yielded to their demands on the three previous occasions. He calls these demands blackmailing, and vows that to give them money again is to encourage them in their nefarious practices. Oh! he has been cruel to me, cruel!--for the first time in my life, Monsieur, my husband has made me unhappy, and if I lose my darling now I shall indeed be broken-hearted."
I was silent for a moment or two. I was beginning to wonder what part I should be expected to play in the tragedy which was being unfolded before me by this lovely and impecunious creature.
"Madame la Comtesse," I suggested tentatively, after a while, "your jewellery . . . you must have a vast number which you seldom wear . . . five thousand francs is soon made up. . . ."
You see, Sir, my hopes of a really good remunerative business had by now dwindled down to vanishing point. All that was left of them was a vague idea that the beautiful Comtesse would perhaps employ me as an intermediary for the sale of some of her jewellery, in which case . . . But already her next words disillusioned me even on that point.
"No, Monsieur," she said; "what would be the use? Through one of the usual perverse tricks of fate, M. le Comte would be sure to inquire after the very piece of jewellery of which I had so disposed, and moreover . . .""Moreover--yes, Mme. la Comtesse?"
"Moreover, my husband is right," she concluded decisively. "If I give in to those thieves to-day and pay them five thousand francs, they would only set to work to steal Carissimo again and demand ten thousand francs from me another time."I was silent. What could I say? Her argument was indeed unanswerable.
"No, my good M. Ratichon," she said very determinedly after a while. "I have quite decided that you must confound those thieves. They have given me three days' grace, as you see in their abominable letter. If after three days the money is not forthcoming, and if in the meanwhile I dare to set a trap for them or in any way communicate with the police, my darling Carissimo will be killed and my heart be broken.""Madame la Comtesse," I entreated, for of a truth I could not bear to see her cry again. "You must bring Carissimo back to me, M. Ratichon," she continued peremptorily, "before those awful three days have elapsed."
"I swear that I will," I rejoined solemnly; but I must admit that I did it entirely on the spur of the moment, for of a truth I saw no prospect whatever of being able to accomplish what she desired."Without my paying a single louis to those execrable thieves," the exquisite creature went on peremptorily, "It shall be done, Madame la Comtesse."
"And let me tell you," she now added, with the sweetest and archest of smiles, "that if you succeed in this, M. le Comte de Nolé de St. Pris will gladly pay you the five thousand francs which he refuses to give to those miscreants."Five thousand francs! A mist swam before my eyes,
"Mais, Madame la Comtesse . . ." I stammered. "Oh!" she added, with an adorable uptilting of her little chin, "I am not promising what I cannot fulfil. M. le Comte de Nolé only said this morning, apropos of dog thieves, that he would gladly give ten thousand francs to anyone who succeeded in ridding society of such pests."I could have knelt down on the hard floor, Sir, and . . . "Well then, Madame," was my ready rejoinder, "why not ten thousand francs to me?" She bit her coral lips . . . but she also smiled. I could see that my personality and my manners had greatly impressed her.
"I will only be responsible for the first five thousand," she said lightly. "But, for the rest, I can confidently assure you that you will not find a miser in M. le Comte de Nolé de St. Pris."
I could have knelt down on the hard floor, Sir, and kissed her exquisitely shod feet. Five thousand francs certain! Perhaps ten! A fortune, Sir, in those days! One that would keep me in comfort--nay, affluence, until something else turned up. I was swimming in the empyrean and only came rudely to earth when I recollected that I should have to give Theodore something for his share of the business. Ah! fortunately that for the moment he was comfortably out of the way! Thoughts that perhaps he had been murdered after all once more coursed through my brain: not unpleasantly, I'll admit. I would not have raised a finger to hurt the fellow, even though he had treated me with the basest ingratitude and treachery; but if someone else took the trouble to remove him, why indeed should I quarrel with fate?
Back I came swiftly to the happy present. The lovely creature was showing me a beautifully painted miniature of Carissimo, a King Charles spaniel of no common type. This she suggested that I should keep by me for the present for purposes of identification. After this we had to go into the details of the circumstances under which she had lost her pet. She had been for a walk with him, it seems, along the Quai Voltaire, and was returning home by the side of the river, when suddenly a number of workmen in blouses and peaked caps came trooping out of a side street and obstructed her progress. She had Carissimo on the lead, and she at once admitted to me that at first she never thought of connecting this pushing and jostling rabble with any possible theft. She held her ground for awhile, facing the crowd: for a few moments she was right in the midst of it, and just then she felt the dog straining at the lead. She turned round at once with the intention of picking him up, when to her horror she saw that there was only a bundle of something weighty at the end of the lead, and that the dog had disappeared.
The whole incident occurred, the lovely creature declared, within the space of thirty seconds; the next instant the crowd had scattered in several directions, the men running and laughing as they went. Mme. la Comtesse was left standing alone on the quay. Not a passer-by in sight, and the only gendarme visible, a long way down the Quai, had his back turned toward her. Nevertheless she ran and hied him, and presently he turned and, realizing that something was amiss, he too ran to meet her. He listened to her story, swore lustily, but shrugged his shoulders in token that the tale did not surprise him and that but little could be done. Nevertheless he at once summoned those of his colleagues who were on duty in the neighbourhood, and one of them went off immediately to notify the theft at the nearest commissariat of police. After which they all proceeded to a comprehensive scouring of the many tortuous sidestreets of the quartier; but, needless to say, there was no sign of Carissimo or of his abductors.That night my lovely client went home distracted.
The following evening, when, broken-hearted, she wandered down the quays living over again the agonizing moments during which she lost her pet, a workman in a blue blouse, with a peaked cap pulled well over his eyes, lurched up against her and thrust into her hand the missive which she had just shown me. He then disappeared into the night, and she had only the vaguest possible recollection of his appearance.
That, Sir, was the substance of the story which the lovely creature told me in a voice oft choked with tears. I questioned her very closely and in my most impressive professional manner as to the identity of any one man among the crowd who might have attracted her attention, but all that she could tell me was that she had a vague impression of a wizened hunchback with evil face, shaggy red beard and hair, and a black patch covering the left eye.2.
Not much data to go on, you will, I think, admit, and I Can assure you, Sir, that had I not possessed that unbounded belief in myself which is the true hall-mark of genius, I would at the outset have felt profoundly discouraged.
As it was, I found just the right words of consolation and of hope wherewith to bow my brilliant client out of my humble apartments, and then to settle down to deep and considered meditation. Nothing, Sir, is so conducive to thought as a long, brisk walk through the crowded streets of Paris. So I brushed my coat, put on my hat at a becoming angle, and started on my way.
I walked as far as Suresnes, and I thought. After that, feeling fatigued, I sat on the terrace of the Café Bourbon, overlooking the river. There I sipped my coffee and thought. I walked back into Paris in the evening, and still thought, and thought, and thought. After that I had some dinner, washed down by an agreeable bottle of wine--did I mention that the lovely creature had given me a hundred francs on account?--then I went for a stroll along the Quai Voltaire, and I may safely say that there is not a single side and tortuous street in its vicinity that I did not explore from end to end during the course of that never to be forgotten evening.
But still my mind remained in a chaotic condition. I had not succeeded in forming any plan. What a quandary, Sir! Oh! what a quandary! Here was I, Hector Ratichon, the confidant of kings, the right hand of two emperors, set to the task of stealing a dog--for that is what I should have to do--from an unscrupulous gang of thieves whose identity, abode and methods were alike unknown to me. Truly, Sir, you will own that this was a herculean task.
Vaguely my thoughts reverted to Theodore. He might have been of good counsel, for he knew more about thieves than I did, but the ungrateful wretch was out of the way on the one occasion when he might have been of use to me who had done so much for him. Indeed, my reason told me that I need not trouble my head about Theodore. He had vanished; that he would come back presently was, of course, an indubitable fact; people like Theodore never vanish completely. He would come back and demand I know not what, his share, perhaps, in a business which was so promising even if it was still so vague.
Five thousand francs! A round sum! If I gave Theodore five hundred the sum would at once appear meagre, unimportant. Four thousand five hundred francs!-it did not even sound well to my mind.
So I took care that Theodore vanished from my mental vision as completely as he had done for the last two days from my ken, and as there was nothing more that could be done that evening, I turned my weary footsteps toward my lodgings at Passy.
All that night, Sir, I lay wakeful and tossing in my bed, alternately fuming and rejecting plans for the attainment of that golden goal--the recovery of Mme. de Nolé's pet dog. And the whole of the next day I spent in vain quest. I visited every haunt of ill-fame known to me within the city. I walked about with a pistol in my belt, a hunk of bread and cheese in my pocket, and slowly growing despair in my heart.
In the evening Mme. la Comtesse de Nolé called for news of Carissimo, and I could give her none. She cried, Sir, and implored, and her tears and entreaties got on to my nerves until I felt ready to fall into hysterics. One more day and all my chances of a bright and wealthy future would have vanished. Unless the money was forthcoming on the morrow, the dog would be destroyed, and with him my every hope of that five thousand francs. And though she still irradiated charm and luxury from her entire lovely person, I begged her not to come to the office again, and promised that as soon as I had any news to impart I would at once present myself at her house in the Faubourg St. Germain.
That night I never slept one wink. Think of it, Sir! The next few hours were destined to see me either a prosperous man for many days to come, or a miserable, helpless, disappointed wretch. At eight o'clock I was at my office. Still no news of Theodore. I could now no longer dismiss him from my mind. Something had happened to him, I could have no doubt. This anxiety, added to the other more serious one, drove me to a state bordering on frenzy. I hardly knew what I was doing. I wandered all day up and down the Quai Voltaire, and the Quai des Grands Augustins, and in and around the tortuous streets till I was dog-tired, distracted, half crazy.
I went to the Morgue, thinking to find there Theodore's dead body, and found myself vaguely looking for the mutilated corpse of Carissimo. Indeed, after a while Theodore and Carissimo became so inextricably mixed up in my mind that I could not have told you if I was seeking for the one or for the other and if Mme. la Comtesse de Nolé was now waiting to clasp her pet dog or my man-of-all-work to her exquisite bosom.
She in the meanwhile had received a second, yet more peremptory, missive through the same channel as the previous one. A grimy deformed man, with ginger-coloured hair, and wearing a black patch over one eye, had been seen by one of the servants lolling down the street where Madame lived, and subsequently the concierge discovered that an exceedingly dirty scrap of paper had been thrust under the door of his lodge. The writer of the epistle demanded that Mme. la Comtesse should stand in person at six o'clock that same evening at the corner of the Rue Guénégaud, behind the Institut de France. Two men, each wearing a blue blouse and peaked cap, would meet her there. She must hand over the money to one of them, whilst the other would have Carissimo in his arms. The missive closed with the usual threats that if the police were mixed up in the affair, or the money not forthcoming, Carissimo would be destroyed.
Six o'clock was the hour fixed by these abominable thieves for the final doom of Carissimo. It was now close on five. In a little more than an hour my last hope of five or ten thousand francs and a smile of gratitude from a pair of lovely lips would have gone, never again to return. A great access of righteous rage seized upon me. I determined that those miserable thieves, whoever they were, should suffer for the disappointment which I was now enduring. If I was to lose five thousand francs, they at least should not be left free to pursue their evil ways. I would communicate with the police; the police should meet the miscreants at the corner of the Rue Guénégaud. Carissimo would die; his lovely mistress would be brokenhearted. I would be left to mourn yet another illusion of a possible fortune, but they would suffer in gaol or in New Caledonia the consequences of all their misdeeds.
Fortified by this resolution, I turned my weary footsteps in the direction of the gendarmerie where I intended to lodge my denunciation of those abominable thieves and blackmailers. The night was dark, the streets ill-lighted, the air bitterly cold. A thin drizzle, half rain, half snow, was descending, chilling me to the bone.
I was walking rapidly along the river bank with my coat collar pulled up to my ears, and still instinctively peering up every narrow street which debouches on the quay. Then suddenly I spied Theodore. He was coming down the Rue Beaune, slouching along with head bent in his usual way. He appeared to be carrying something, not exactly heavy, but cumbersome, under his left arm. Within the next few minutes he would have been face to face with me, for I had come to a halt at the angle of the street, determined to have it out with the rascal then and there in spite of the cold and in spite of my anxiety about Carissimo.
All of a sudden he raised his head and saw me, and in a second he turned on his heel and began to run up the street in the direction whence he had come. At once I gave chase. I ran after him--and then, Sir, he came for a second within the circle of light projected by a street lanthorn. But in that one second I had seen that which turned my frozen blood into liquid lava--a tail, Sir!--a dog's tail, fluffy and curly, projecting from beneath that recreant's left arm.
A dog, Sir! a dog! Carissimo! the darling of Mme. la Comtesse de Nolé's heart! Carissimo, the recovery of whom would mean five thousand francs into my pocket! Carissimo! I knew it! For me there existed but one dog in all the world; one dog and one spawn of the devil, one arch-traitor, one limb of Satan! Theodore!
How he had come by Carissimo I had not time to con-conjecture. I called to him. I called his accursed name, using appellations which fell far short of those which he deserved. But the louder I called the faster he ran, and I, breathless, panting, ran after him, determined to run him to earth, fearful lest I should lose him in the darkness of the night. All down the Rue Beaune we ran, and already I could hear behind me the heavy and more leisured tramp of a couple of gendarmes who in their turn had started to give chase.
I tell you, Sir, the sound lent wings to my feet. A chance--a last chance--was being offered me by a benevolent Fate to earn that five thousand francs, the keystone to my future fortune. If I had the strength to seize and hold Theodore until the gendarmes came up, and before he had time to do away with the dog, the five thousand francs could still be mine.So I ran, Sir, as I had never run before; the beads of perspiration poured down from my forehead; the breath came stertorous and hot from my heaving breast. Then suddenly Theodore disappeared!
Disappeared, Sir, as if the earth had swallowed him up! A second ago I had seen him dimly, yet distinctly through the veil of snow and rain ahead of me, running with that unmistakable shuffling gait of his, hugging the dog closely under his arm. I had seen him--another effort and I might have touched him!--now the long and deserted street lay dark and mysterious before me, and behind me I could hear the measured tramp of the gendarmes and their peremptory call of "Halt, in the name of the King!"
But not in vain, Sir, am I called Hector Ratichon; not in vain have kings and emperors reposed confidence in my valour and my presence of mind. In less time than it takes to relate I had already marked with my eye the very spot--down the street--where I had last seen Theodore. I hurried forward and saw at once that my surmise had been correct. At that very spot, Sir, there was a low doorway which gave on a dark and dank passage. The door itself was open. I did not hesitate. My life stood in the balance but I did not falter. I might be affronting within the next second or two a gang of desperate thieves, but I did not quake.
I turned into that doorway, Sir; the next moment I felt a stunning blow between my eyes. I just remember calling out with all the strength of my lungs: "Police! Gendarmes! A moi!" Then nothing more.3.
I woke with the consciousness of violent wordy warfare carried on around me. I was lying on the ground, and the first things I saw were three or four pairs of feet standing close together. Gradually out of the confused hubbub a few sentences struck my reawakened senses."The man is drunk." "I won't have him inside the house." "I tell you this is a respectable house." This from a shrill feminine voice. "We've never had the law inside our doors before."
By this time I had succeeded in raising myself on my elbow, and, by the dim light of a hanging lamp somewhere down the passage, I was pretty well able to take stock of my surroundings.
The half-dozen bedroom candlesticks on a table up against the wall, the row of keys hanging on hooks fixed to a board above, the glass partition with the words "Concierge" and "Réception" painted across it, all told me that this was one of those small, mostly squalid and disreputable lodging houses or hotels in which this quarter of Paris still abounds.
The two gendarmes who had been running after me were arguing the matter of my presence here with the proprietor of the place and with the concierge. I struggled to my feet. Whereupon for the space of a solid two minutes I had to bear as calmly as I could the abuse and vituperation which the feminine proprietor of this "respectable house" chose to hurl at my unfortunate head. After which I obtained a hearing from the bewildered minions of the law. To them I gave as brief and succinct a narrative as I could of the events of the past three days. The theft of Carissimo--the disappearance of Theodore--my meeting him a while ago, with the dog under his arm--his second disappearance, this time within the doorway of this "respectable abode," and finally the blow which alone had prevented me from running the abominable thief to earth.
The gendarmes at first were incredulous. I could see that they were still under the belief that my excitement was due to over-indulgence in alcoholic liquor, whilst Madame the proprietress called me an abominable liar for daring to suggest that she harboured thieves within her doors. Then suddenly, as if in vindication of my character, there came from a floor above the sound of a loud, shrill bark."Carissimo!" I cried triumphantly. Then I added in a rapid whisper, "Mme. la Comtesse de Nolé is rich. She spoke of a big reward for the recovery of her pet."
These happy words had the effect of stimulating the zeal of the gendarmes. Madame the proprietress grew somewhat confused and incoherent, and finally blurted it out that one of her lodgers--a highly respectable gentleman--did keep a dog, but that there was no crime in that surely."One of your lodgers?" queried the representative of the law. "When did he come?" "About three days ago," she replied sullenly. "What room does he occupy?" "Number twenty-five on the third floor." "He came with his dog?" I interposed quickly, "a spaniel?" "Yes." "And your lodger, is he an ugly, slouchy creature--with hooked nose, bleary eyes and shaggy yellow hair?" But to this she vouchsafed no reply.
Already the matter had passed out of my hands. One of the gendarmes prepared to go upstairs and bade me follow him, whilst he ordered his comrade to remain below and on no account to allow anyone to enter or leave the house. The proprietress and concierge were warned that if they interfered with the due execution of the law they would be severely dealt with; after which we went upstairs.
For a while, as we ascended, we could hear the dog barking furiously, then, presently, just as we reached the upper landing, we heard a loud curse, a scramble, and then a piteous whine quickly smothered.
My very heart stood still. The next moment, however, the gendarme had kicked open the door of No. 25, and I followed him into the room. The place looked dirty and squalid in the extreme--just the sort of place I should have expected Theodore to haunt. It was almost bare save for a table in the centre, a couple of rickety chairs, a broken-down bedstead and an iron stove in the corner. On the table a tallow candle was spluttering and throwing a very feeble circle of light around.
At first glance I thought that the room was empty, then suddenly I heard another violent expletive and became aware of a man sitting close beside the iron stove. He turned to stare at us as we entered, but to my surprise it was not Theodore's ugly face which confronted us. The man sitting there alone in the room where I had expected to see Theodore and Carissimo had a shaggy beard of an undoubted ginger hue. He had on a blue blouse and a peaked cap; beneath his cap his lank hair protruded more decided in colour even than his beard. His head was sunk between his shoulders, and right across his face, from the left eyebrow over the cheek and as far as his ear, he had a hideous crimson scar, which told up vividly against the ghastly pallor of his face.But there was no sign of Theodore!
At first my friend the gendarme was quite urbane. He asked very politely to see Monsieur's pet dog. Monsieur denied all knowledge of a dog, which denial only tended to establish his own guilt and the veracity of mine own narrative. The gendarme thereupon became more peremptory and the man promptly lost his temper.
I, in the meanwhile, was glancing round the room and soon spied a wall cupboard which had obviously been deliberately screened by the bedstead. While my companion was bringing the whole majesty of the law to bear upon the miscreant's denegations I calmly dragged the bedstead aside and opened the cupboard door.
An ejaculation from my quivering throat brought the gendarme to my side. Crouching in the dark recess of the wall cupboard was Carissimo--not dead, thank goodness! but literally shaking with terror. I pulled him out as gently as I could, for he was so frightened that he growled and snapped viciously at me. I handed him to the gendarme, for by the side of Carissimo I had seen something which literally froze my blood within my veins. It was Theodore's hat and coat, which he had been wearing when I chased him to this house of mystery and of illfame, and wrapped together with it was a rag all smeared with blood, whilst the same hideous stains were now distinctly visible on the door of the cupboard itself.
I turned to the gendarme, who at once confronted the abominable malefactor with the obvious proofs of a horrible crime. But the depraved wretch stood by, Sir, perfectly calm and with a cynicism in his whole bearing which I had never before seen equalled!"I know nothing about that coat," he asserted with a shrug of the shoulders, "nor about the dog." The gendarme by this time was purple with fury. "Not know anything about the dog?" he exclaimed in a voice choked with righteous indignation. "Why, he . . . he barked!" But this indisputable fact in no way disconcerted the miscreant.
"I heard a dog yapping," he said with consummate impudence, "but I thought he was in the next room. No wonder," he added coolly, "since he was in a wall cupboard.""A wall cupboard," the gendarme rejoined triumphantly, "situated in the very room which you occupy at this moment." "That is a mistake, my friend," the cynical wretch retorted, undaunted. "I do not occupy this room. I do not lodge in this hotel at all." "Then how came you to be here?"
"I came on a visit to a friend who happened to be out when I arrived. I found a pleasant fire here, and I sat down to warm myself. Your noisy and unwarranted irruption into this room has so bewildered me that I no longer know whether I am standing on my head or on my heels.""We'll show you soon enough what you are standing on, my fine fellow," the gendarme riposted with breezy, cheerfulness. "Allons!"
I must say that the pampered minion of the law arose splendidly to the occasion. He seized the miscreant by the arm and took him downstairs, there to confront him with the proprietress of the establishment, while I--with marvellous presence of mind--took possession of Carissimo and hid him as best I could beneath my coat.
In the hall below a surprise and a disappointment were in store for me. I had reached the bottom of the stairs when the shrill feminine accents of Mme. the proprietress struck unpleasantly on my ear.
"No! no! I tell you!" she was saying. "This man is not my lodger. He never came here with a dog. There," she added volubly, and pointing an unwashed finger at Carissimo who was struggling and growling in my arms, "there is the dog. A gentleman brought him with him last Wednesday, when he inquired if he could have a room here for a few nights. Number twenty-five happened to be vacant, and I have no objection to dogs. I let the gentleman have the room, and he paid me twenty sous in advance when he took possession and told me he would keep the room three nights.""The gentleman? What gentleman?" the gendarme queried, rather inanely I thought. "My lodger," the woman replied. "He is out for the moment, but he will be back presently I make no doubt. The dog is his. . . ." "What is he like?" the minion of the law queried abruptly. "Who? the dog?" she retorted impudently. "No, no! Your lodger." Once more the unwashed finger went up and pointed straight at me.
"He described him well enough just now; thin and slouchy in his ways. He has lank, yellow hair, a nose perpetually crimson--with the cold no doubt--and pale, watery eyes. . . .""Theodore," I exclaimed mentally. Bewildered, the gendarme pointed to his prisoner. "But this man . . . ?" he queried. "Why," the proprietress replied. "I have seen Monsieur twice, or was it three times? He would visit number twenty-five now and then."
I will not weary you with further accounts of the close examination to which the representative of the law subjected the personnel of the squalid hotel. The concierge and the man of all work did indeed confirm what the proprietress said, and whilst my friend the gendarme --puzzled and floundering--was scratching his head in complete bewilderment, I thought that the opportunity had come for me to slip quietly out by the still open door and make my way as fast as I could to the sumptuous abode in the Faubourg St. Germain, where the gratitude of Mme. de Nolé, together with five thousand francs, were even now awaiting me.
After Madame the proprietress had identified Carissimo, I had once more carefully concealed him under my coat. I was ready to seize my opportunity, after which I would be free to deal with the matter of Theodore's amazing disappearance. Unfortunately just at this moment the little brute gave a yap, and the minion of the law at once interposed and took possession of him."The dog belongs to the police now, Sir," he said sternly. The fatuous jobbernowl wanted his share of the reward, you see. 4.
Having been forced thus to give up Carissimo, and with him all my hopes of a really substantial fortune, I was determined to make the red-polled miscreant suffer for my disappointment, and the minions of the law sweat in the exercise of their duty.
I demanded Theodore! My friend, my comrade, my right hand! I had seen him not ten minutes ago, carrying in his arms this very dog, whom I had subsequently found inside a wall cupboard beside a blood-stained coat. Where was Theodore? Pointing an avenging finger at the red-headed reprobate, I boldly accused him of having murdered my friend with a view to robbing him of the reward offered for the recovery of the dog.
This brought a new train of thought into the wooden pates of the gendarmes. A quartet of them had by this time assembled within the respectable precincts of the Hôtel des Cadets. One of them--senior to the others--at once dispatched a younger comrade to the nearest commissary of police for advice and assistance.
Then he ordered us all into the room pompously labelled "Réception," and there proceeded once more to interrogate us all, making copious notes in his leatherbound book all the time, whilst I, moaning and lamenting the loss of my faithful friend and man of all work, loudly demanded the punishment of his assassin.
Theodore's coat, his hat, the blood-stained rag, had all been brought down from No. 25 and laid out upon the table ready for the inspection of M. the Commissary of Police.
That gentleman arrived with two private agents, armed with full powers and wrapped in the magnificent imperturbability of the law. The gendarme had already put him au fait of the events, and as soon as he was seated behind the table upon which reposed the "pièces de conviction," he in his turn proceeded to interrogate the ginger-pated miscreant.
But strive how he might, M. the Commissary elicited no further information from him than that which we all already possessed. The man gave his name as Aristide Nicolet. He had no fixed abode. He had come to visit his friend who lodged in No. 25 in the Hôtel des Cadets. Not finding him at home he had sat by the fire and had waited for him. He knew absolutely nothing of the dog and absolutely nothing of the whereabouts of Theodore.
He ordered a perquisition of every room and every corner of the hotel, Madame the proprietress loudly lamenting that she and her respectable house would henceforth be disgraced for ever. But the thieves--whoever they were--were clever. Not a trace of any illicit practice was found on the premises--and not a trace of Theodore.
Had he indeed been murdered? The thought now had taken root in my mind. For the moment I had even forgotten Carissimo and my vanished five thousand francs.
Well, Sir! Aristide Nicolet was marched off to the depot--still protesting his innocence. The next day he was confronted with Mme. la Comtesse de Nolé, who could not say more than that he might have formed part of the gang who had jostled her on the Quai Voltaire, whilst the servant who had taken the missive from him failed to recognize him.
Carissimo was restored to the arms of his loving mistress, but the reward for his recovery had to be shared between the police and myself: three thousand francs going to the police who apprehended the thief, and two thousand to me who had put them on the track.
It was not a fortune, Sir, but I had to be satisfied. But in the meanwhile the disappearance of Theodore had remained an unfathomable mystery. No amount of questionings and cross-questionings, no amount of confrontations and perquisitions, had brought any new matter to light. Aristide Nicolet persisted in his statements, as did the proprietress and the concierge of the Hôtel des Cadets in theirs. Theodore had undoubtedly occupied room No. 25 in the hotel during the three days while I was racking my brain as to what had become of him. I equally undoubtedly saw him for a few moments running up the Rue Beaune with Carissimo's tail projecting beneath his coat. Then he entered the open doorway of the hotel, and henceforth his whereabouts remained a baffling mystery.
Beyond his coat and hat, the stained rag and the dog himself, there was not the faintest indication of what became of him after that. The concierge vowed that he did not enter the hotel--Aristide Nicolet vowed that he did not enter No. 25. But then the dog was in the cupboard, and so were the hat and coat; and even the police were bound to admit that in the short space of time between my last glimpse of Theodore and the gendarme's entry into room 25 it would be impossible for the most experienced criminal on earth to murder a man, conceal every trace of the crime, and so to dispose of the body as to baffle the most minute inquiry and the most exhaustive search.Sometimes when I thought the whole matter out I felt that I was growing crazy. 5.
Thus about a week or ten days went by and I had just come reluctantly to the conclusion that there must be some truth in the old mediaeval legends which tell us that the devil runs away with his elect from time to time, when I received a summons from M. the Commissary of Police to present myself at his bureau.He was pleasant and urbane as usual, but to my anxious query after Theodore he only gave me the old reply: "No trace of him can be found."
Then he added: "We must therefore take it for granted, my good M. Ratichon, that your man of all work is--of his own free will--keeping out of the way. The murder theory is untenable; we have had to abandon it. The total disappearance of the body is an unanswerable argument against it. Would you care to offer a reward for information leading to the recovery of your missing friend?"I hesitated. I certainly was not prepared to pay anyone for finding Theodore.
"Think it over, my good M. Ratichon," rejoined M. le Commissaire pleasantly. "But in the meanwhile I must tell you that we have decided to set Aristide Nicolet free. There is not a particle of evidence against him either in the matter of the dog or of that of your friend. Mme. de Nolé's servants cannot swear to his identity, whilst you have sworn that you last saw the dog in your man's arms. That being so, I feel that we have no right to detain an innocent man."
Well, Sir, what could I say? I knew well enough that there was not a tittle of solid evidence against the man Nicolet, nor had I the power to move the police of His Majesty the King from their decision. In my heart of hearts I had the firm conviction that the ginger-polled ruffian knew all about Carissimo and all about the present whereabouts of that rascal Theodore. But what could I say, Sir? What could I do?I went home that night to my lodgings at Passy more perplexed than ever I had been in my life before.
The next morning I arrived at my office soon after nine. The problem had presented itself to me during the night of finding a new man of all work who would serve me on the same terms as that ungrateful wretch Theodore. I mounted the stairs with a heavy step and opened the outer door of my apartment with my private key; and then, Sir, I assure you that for one brief moment I felt that my knees were giving way under me and that I should presently measure my full length on the floor.
There, sitting at the table in my private room, was Theodore. He had donned one of the many suits of clothes which I always kept at the office for purposes of my business, and he was calmly consuming a luscious sausage which was to have been part of my dinner today, and finishing a half-bottle of my best Bordeaux.
He appeared wholly unconscious of his enormities, and when I taxed him with his villainies and plied him with peremptory questions he met me with a dogged silence and a sulky attitude which I have never seen equalled in all my life. He flatly denied that he had ever walked the streets of Paris with a dog under his arm, or that I had ever chased him up the Rue Beaune. He denied ever having lodged in the Hôtel des Cadets, or been acquainted with its proprietress, or with a red-polled, hunchback miscreant named Aristide Nicolet. He denied that the coat and hat found in room No. 25 were his; in fact, he denied everything, and with an impudence, Sir, which was past belief.
But he put the crown to his insolence when he finally demanded two hundred francs from me: his share in the sum paid to me by Mme. de Nolé for the recovery of her dog. He demanded this, Sir, in the name of justice and of equity, and even brandished our partnership contract in my face.
I was so irate at his audacity, so disgusted that presently I felt that I could not bear the sight of him any longer. I turned my back on him and walked out of my own private room, leaving him there still munching my sausage and drinking my Bordeaux.
I was going through the antechamber with a view to going out into the street for a little fresh air when something in the aspect of the chair-bedstead on which that abominable brute Theodore had apparently spent the night attracted my attention. I turned over one of the cushions, and with a cry of rage which I took no pains to suppress I seized upon what I found lying beneath: a blue linen blouse, Sir, a peaked cap, a ginger-coloured wig and beard!The villain! The abominable mountebank! The wretch! The . . . I was wellnigh choking with wrath.
With the damning pieces of conviction in my hand, I rushed back into the inner room. Already my cry of indignation had aroused the vampire from his orgy. He stood before me sheepish, grinning, and taunted me, Sir--taunted me for my blindness in not recognizing him under the disguise of the so-called Aristide Nicolet.
It was a disguise which he had kept by him in case of an emergency when first he decided to start business as a dog thief. Carissimo had been his first serious venture and but for my interference it would have been a wholly successful one. He had worked the whole thing out with marvellous cleverness, being greatly assisted by Madame Sand, the proprietress of the Hôtel des Cadets, who was a friend of his mother's. The lady, it seems, carried on a lucrative business of the same sort herself, and she undertook to furnish him with the necessary confederates for the carrying out of his plan. The proceeds of the affair were to be shared equally between himself and Madame; the confederates, who helped to jostle Mme. de Nolé whilst her dog was being stolen, were to receive five francs each for their trouble.
When he met me at the corner of the Rue Beaune he was on his way to the Rue Guénégaud, hoping to exchange Carissimo for five thousand francs. When he met me, however, he felt that the best thing to do for the moment was to seek safety in flight. He had only just time to run back to the hotel to warn Mme. Sand of my approach and beg her to detain me at any cost. Then he flew up the stairs, changed into his disguise, Carissimo barking all the time furiously. Whilst he was trying to pacify the dog, the latter bit him severely in the arm, drawing a good deal of blood--the crimson scar across his face was a last happy inspiration which put the finishing touch to his disguise and to the hoodwinking of the police and of me. He had only just time to staunch the blood from his arm and to thrust his own clothes and Carissimo into the wall cupboard when the gendarme and I burst in upon him.I could only gasp. For one brief moment the thought rushed through my mind that I would denounce him to the police for . . . for . . .
But that was just the trouble. Of what could I accuse him? Of murdering himself or of stealing Mme. de Nolé's dog? The commissary would hardly listen to such a tale . . . and it would make me seem ridiculous. . . .So I gave Theodore the soundest thrashing he ever had in his life, and fifty francs to keep his mouth shut. But did I not tell you that he was a monster of ingratitude?
V. The Toys1.
You are right, Sir, I very seldom speak of my halcyon days--those days when the greatest monarch the world has ever known honoured me with his intimacy and confidence. I had my office in the Rue St. Roch then, at the top of a house just by the church, and not a stone's throw from the palace, and I can tell you, Sir, that in those days ministers of state, foreign ambassadors, aye! and members of His Majesty's household, were up and down my staircase at all hours of the day. I had not yet met Theodore then, and fate was wont to smile on me.
As for M. le Duc d'Otrante, Minister of Police, he would send to me or for me whenever an intricate case required special acumen, resourcefulness and secrecy. Thus in the matter of the English files--have I told you of it before? No? Well, then, you shall hear.
Those were the days, Sir, when the Emperor's Berlin Decrees were going to sweep the world clear of English commerce and of English enterprise. It was not a case of paying heavy duty on English goods, or a still heavier fine if you smuggled; it was total prohibition, and hanging if you were caught bringing so much as a metre of Bradford cloth or half a dozen Sheffield files into the country. But you know how it is, Sir: the more strict the law the more ready are certain lawless human creatures to break it. Never was smuggling so rife as it was in those days--I am speaking now of 1810 or 11--never was it so daring or smugglers so reckless.
M. le Duc d'Otrante had his hands full, I can tell you. It had become a matter for the secret police; the coastguard or customs officials were no longer able to deal with it.
Then one day Hypolite Leroux came to see me. I knew the man well--a keen sleuthhound if ever there was one--and well did he deserve his name, for he was as red as a fox.
"Ratichon," he said to me, without preamble, as soon as he had seated himself opposite to me, and I had placed half a bottle of good Bordeaux and a couple of glasses on the table. "I want your help in the matter of these English files. We have done all that we can in our department. M. le Duc has doubled the customs personnel on the Swiss frontier, the coastguard is both keen and efficient, and yet we know that at the present moment there are thousands of English files used in this country, even inside His Majesty's own armament works. M. le Duc d'Otrante is determined to put an end to the scandal. He has offered a big reward for information which will lead to the conviction of one or more of the chief culprits, and I am determined to get that reward--with your help, if you will give it.""What is the reward?" I asked simply. "Five thousand francs," he replied. "Your knowledge of English and Italian is what caused me to offer you a share in this splendid enterprise--" "It's no good lying to me, Leroux," I broke in quietly, "if we are going to work amicably together." He swore. "The reward is ten thousand francs." I made the shot at a venture, knowing my man well. "I swear that it is not," he asserted hotly. "Swear again," I retorted, "for I'll not deal with you for less than five thousand." He did swear again and protested loudly. But I was firm. "Have another glass of wine," I said. After which he gave in.
The affair was bound to be risky. Smugglers of English goods were determined and desperate men who were playing for high stakes and risking their necks on the board. In all matters of smuggling a knowledge of foreign languages was an invaluable asset. I spoke Italian well and knew some English. I knew my worth. We both drank a glass of cognac and sealed our bond then and there.After which Leroux drew his chair closer to my desk. "Listen, then," he said. "You know the firm of Fournier Frères, in the Rue Colbert?" "By name, of course. Cutlers and surgical instrument makers by appointment to His Majesty. What about them?" "M. le Duc has had his eyes on them for some time."
"Fournier Frères!" I ejaculated. "Impossible! A more reputable firm does not exist in France."
"I know, I know," he rejoined impatiently. "And yet it is a curious fact that M. Aristide Fournier, the junior partner, has lately bought for himself a house at St. Claude."
Do you know Gex, my dear Sir? Ah, it is a curious and romantic spot. It has possibilities, both natural and political, which appear to have been expressly devised for the benefit of the smuggling fraternity. Nestling in the midst of the Jura mountains, it is outside the customs zone of the Empire. So you see the possibilities, do you not? Gex soon became the picturesque warehouse of every conceivable kind of contraband goods. On one side of it there was the Swiss frontier, and the Swiss Government was always willing to close one eye in the matter of customs provided its palm was sufficiently greased by the light-fingered gentry. No difficulty, therefore, as you see, in getting contraband goods--even English ones--as far as Gex.
Here they could be kept hidden until a fitting opportunity occurred for smuggling them into France, opportunities for which the Jura, with their narrow defiles and difficult mountain paths, afforded magnificent scope. St. Claude, of which Leroux had just spoken as the place where M. Aristide Fournier had recently bought himself a house, is in France, only a few kilometres from the neutral zone of Gex. It seemed a strange spot to choose for a wealthy and fashionable member of Parisian bourgeois society, I was bound to admit."But," I mused, "one cannot go to Gex without a permit from the police."
"Not by road," Leroux assented. "But you will own that there are means available to men who are young and vigorous like M. Fournier, who moreover, I understand, is an accomplished mountaineer. You know Gex, of course?"
I had crossed the Jura once, in my youth, but was not very intimately familiar with the district. Leroux had a carefully drawn-out map of it in his pocket; this he laid out before me.
"These two roads," he began, tracing the windings of a couple of thin red lines on the map with the point of his finger, "are the only two made ones that lead in and out of the district. Here is the Valserine," he went on, pointing to a blue line, "which flows from north to south, and both the roads wind over bridges that span the river close to our frontier. The French customs stations are on our side of those bridges. But, besides those two roads, the frontier can, of course, be crossed by one or other of the innumerable mountain tracks which are only accessible to pedestrians or mules. That is where our customs officials are powerless, for the tracks are precipitous and offer unlimited cover to those who know every inch of the ground. Several of them lead directly into St. Claude, at some considerable distance from the customs stations, and it is these tracks which are being used by M. Aristide Fournier for the felonious purpose of trading with the enemy--on this I would stake my life. But I mean to be even with him, and if I get the help which I require from you, I am convinced that I can lay him by the heels.""I am your man," I concluded simply. "Very well," he resumed. "Are you prepared to journey with me to Gex?" "When do you start?" "To-day." "I shall be ready." He gave a deep sigh of satisfaction.
"Then listen to my plan," he said. "We'll journey together as far as St. Claude; from there you will push on to Gex, and take up your abode in the city, styling yourself an interpreter. This will give you the opportunity of mixing with some of the smuggling fraternity, and it will be your duty to keep both your eyes and ears open. I, on the other hand, will take up my quarters at Mijoux, the French customs station, which is on the frontier, about half a dozen kilometres from Gex. Every day I'll arrange to meet you, either at the latter place or somewhere halfway, and hear what news you may have to tell me. And mind, Ratichon," he added sternly, "it means running straight, or the reward will slip through our fingers."I chose to ignore the coarse insinuation, and only riposted quietly:
"I must have money on account. I am a poor man, and will be out of pocket by the transaction from the hour I start for Gex to that when you pay me my fair share of the reward."
By way of a reply he took out a case from his pocket. I saw that it was bulging over with banknotes, which confirmed me in my conviction both that he was actually an emissary of the Minister of Police and that I could have demanded an additional thousand francs without fear of losing the business."I'll give you five hundred on account," he said as he licked his ugly thumb preparatory to counting out the money before me. "Make it a thousand," I retorted; "and call it 'additional,' not 'on account.'" He tried to argue. "I am not keen on the business," I said with calm dignity, "so if you think that I am asking too much--there are others, no doubt, who would do the work for less."
It was a bold move. But it succeeded. Leroux laughed and shrugged his shoulders. Then he counted out ten hundred-franc notes and laid them out upon the desk. But before I could touch them he laid his large bony hands over the lot and, looking me straight between the eyes, he said with earnest significance:"English files are worth as much as twenty francs apiece in the market." "I know." "Fournier Frères would not take the risks which they are doing for a consignment of less than ten thousand." "I doubt if they would," I rejoined blandly. "It will be your business to find out how and when the smugglers propose to get their next consignment over the frontier." "Exactly." "And to communicate any information you may have obtained to me." "And to keep an eye on the valuable cargo, of course?" I concluded. "Yes," he said roughly, "an eye. But hands off, understand, my good Ratichon, or there'll be trouble." He did not wait to hear my indignant protest. He had risen to his feet, and had already turned to go. Now he stretched his great coarse hand out to me. "All in good part, eh?" I took his hand. He meant no harm, did old Leroux. He was just a common, vulgar fellow who did not know a gentleman when he saw one. And we parted the best of friends.
2. A week later I was at Gex. At St. Claude I had parted from Leroux, and then hired a chaise to take me to my destination. It was a matter of fifteen kilometres by road over the frontier of the customs zone and through the most superb scenery I had ever seen in my life. We drove through narrow gorges, on each side of which the mountain heights rose rugged and precipitous to incalculable altitudes above. From time to time only did I get peeps of almost imperceptible tracks along the declivities, tracks on which it seemed as if goats alone could obtain a footing. Once--hundreds of feet above me--I spied a couple of mules descending what seemed like a sheer perpendicular path down the mountain side. The animals appeared to be heavily laden, and I marvelled what forbidden goods lay hidden within their packs and whether in the days that were to come I too should be called upon to risk my life on those declivities following in the footsteps of the reckless and desperate criminals whom it was my duty to pursue.I confess that at the thought, and with those pictures of grim nature before me, I felt an unpleasant shiver coursing down my spine.
Nothing of importance occurred during the first fortnight of my sojourn at Gex. I was installed in moderately comfortable, furnished rooms in the heart of the city, close to the church and market square. In one of my front windows, situated on the ground floor, I had placed a card bearing the inscription: "Aristide Barrot, Interpreter," and below, "Anglais, Allemand, Italien." I had even had a few clients
-conversations between the local police and some poor wretches caught in the act of smuggling a few yards of Swiss silk or a couple of cream cheeses over the French frontier, and sent back to Gex to be dealt with by the local authorities.
Leroux had found lodgings at Mijoux, and twice daily he walked over to Gex to consult with me. We met, mornings and evenings, at the café restaurant of the Crâne Chauve, an obscure little tavern situated on the outskirts of the city. He was waxing impatient at what he called my supineness, for indeed so far I had had nothing to report.
There was no sign of M. Aristide Fournier. No one in Gex appeared to know anything about him, though the proprietor of the principal hotel in the town did recollect having had a visitor of that name once or twice during the past year. But, of course, during this early stage of my stay in the town it was impossible for me to believe anything that I was told. I had not yet succeeded in winning the confidence of the inhabitants, and it was soon pretty evident to me that the whole countryside was engaged in the perilous industry of smuggling. Everyone from the mayor downwards did a bit of a deal now and again in contraband goods. In ordinary cases it only meant fines if one was caught, or perhaps imprisonment for repeated offenses.
But four or five days after my arrival at Gex I saw three fellows handed over to the police of the department. They had been caught in the act of trying to ford the Valserine with half a dozen pack-mules laden with English cloth. They were hanged at St. Claude two days later.
I can assure you, Sir, that the news of this summary administration of justice sent another cold shiver down my spine, and I marvelled if indeed Leroux's surmises were correct and if a respectable tradesman like Aristide Fournier would take such terrible risks even for the sake of heavy gains.
I had been in Gex just a fortnight when the weather, which hitherto had been splendid, turned to squalls and storms. We were then in the second week of September. A torrential rain had fallen the whole of one day, during which I had only been out in order to meet Leroux, as usual, at the Café du Crâne Chauve. I had just come home from our evening meeting--it was then ten o'clock--and I was preparing to go comfortably to bed, when I was startled by a violent ring at the front-door bell.
I had only just time to wonder if this belated visitor desired to see me or my worthy landlady, Mme. Bournon, when her heavy footsteps resounded along the passage. The next moment I heard my name spoken peremptorily by a harsh voice, and Mme. Bournon's reply that M. Aristide Barrot was indeed within. A few seconds later she ushered my nocturnal visitor into my room.
He was wrapped in a dark mantle from head to foot, and he wore a widebrimmed hat pulled right over his eyes. He did not remove either as he addressed me without further preamble."You are an interpreter, Sir?" he queried, speaking very rapidly and in sharp commanding tones. "At your service," I replied.
"My name is Ernest Berty. I want you to come with me at once to my house. I require your services as intermediary between myself and some men who have come to see me on business. These men whom I wish you to see are Russians," he added, I fancied as an afterthought, "but they speak English fluently."
I suppose that I looked just as I felt--somewhat dubious owing to the lateness of the hour and the darkness of the night, not to speak of the abominable weather, for he continued with marked impatience:
"It is imperative that you should come at once. Though my house is at some little distance from here, I have a chaise outside which will also bring you back, and," he added significantly, "I will pay you whatever you demand.""It is very late," I demurred, "the weather--" "Your fee, man!" he broke in roughly, "and let's get on!" "Five hundred francs," I said at a venture. "Come!" was his curt reply. "I will give you the money as we drive along."
I wished I had made it a thousand; apparently my services were worth a great deal to him. However, I picked up my mantle and my hat, and within a few seconds was ready to go. I shouted up to Mme. Bournon that I would not be home for a couple of hours, but that as I had my key I need not disturb her when I returned.
Once outside the door I almost regretted my ready acquiescence in this nocturnal adventure. The rain was beating down unmercifully, and at first I saw no sign of a vehicle; but in answer to my visitor's sharp command I followed him down the street as far as the market square, at the corner of which I spied the dim outline of a carriage and a couple of horses.
Without wasting too many words, M. Ernest Berty bundled me into the carriage, and very soon we were on the way. The night was impenetrably dark and the chaise more than ordinarily rickety. I had but little opportunity to ascertain which way we were going. A small lanthorn fixed opposite to me in the interior of the carriage, and flickering incessantly before my eyes, made it still more impossible for me to see anything outside the narrow window. My companion sat beside me, silent and absorbed. After a while I ventured to ask him which way we were driving."Through the town," he replied curtly. "My house is just outside Divonne."
Now, Divonne is, as I knew, quite close to the Swiss frontier. It is a matter of seven or eight kilometres--an hour's drive at the very least in this supremely uncomfortable vehicle. I tried to induce further conversation, but made no headway against my companion's taciturnity. However, I had little cause for complaint in another direction. After the first quarter of an hour, and when we had left the cobblestones of the city behind us, he drew a bundle of notes from his pocket, and by the flickering light of the lanthorn he counted out ten fifty-franc notes and handed them without another word to me.
The drive was unspeakably wearisome; but after a while I suppose that the monotonous rumbling of the wheels and the incessant patter of the rain against the window-panes lulled me into a kind of torpor. Certain it is that presently-much sooner than I had anticipated--the chaise drew up with a jerk, and I was roused to full consciousness by hearing M. Berty's voice saying curtly:
"Here we are! Come with me!" I was stiff, Sir, and I was shivering--not so much with cold as with excitement. You will readily understand that all my faculties were now on the qui vive. Somehow or other during the wearisome drive by the side of my close-tongued companion my mind had fastened on the certitude that my adventure of this night bore a close connexion to the firm of Fournier Frères and to the English files which were causing so many sleepless nights to M. le Duc d'Otrante, Minister of Police.
But nothing in my manner, as I stepped out of the carriage under the porch of the house which loomed dark and massive out of the surrounding gloom, betrayed anything of what I felt. Outwardly I was just a worthy bourgeois, an interpreter by profession, and delighted at the remunerative work so opportunely put in my way.
The house itself appeared lonely as well as dark. M. Berty led the way across a narrow passage, at the end of which there was a door which he pushed open, saying in his usual abrupt manner: "Go in there and wait. I'll send for you directly."
Then he closed the door on me, and I heard his footsteps recrossing the corridor and presently ascending some stairs. I was left alone in a small, sparsely furnished room, dimly lighted by an oil lamp which hung down from the ceiling. There was a table in the middle of the room, a square of carpet on the floor, and a couple of chairs beside a small iron stove. I noticed that the single window was closely shuttered and barred. I sat down and waited. At first the silence around me was only broken by the pattering of the rain against the shutters and the soughing of the wind down the iron chimney pipe, but after a little while my senses, which by this time had become super-acute, were conscious of various noises within the house itself: footsteps overhead, a confused murmur of voices, and anon the unmistakable sound of a female voice raised as if in entreaty or in complaint.
Somehow a vague feeling of alarm possessed itself of my nervous system. I began to realise my position--alone, a stranger in a house as to whose situation I had not the remotest idea, and among a set of men who, if my surmises were correct, were nothing less than a gang of determined and dangerous criminals. The voices, especially the female one, were now sounding more clear. I tiptoed to the door, and very gently opened it. There was indeed no mistaking the tone of desperate pleading which came from some room above and through & woman's lips. I even caught the words: "Oh, don't! Oh, don't! Not again!" repeated at intervals with pitiable insistence.
Mastering my not unnatural anxiety, I opened the door a little farther and slipped out into the passage, all my instincts of chivalry towards beauty in distress aroused by those piteous cries. Forgetful of every possible danger and of all prudence, I had already darted down the corridor, determined to do my duty as a gentleman as soon as I had ascertained whence had come those cries of anguish, when I heard the frou-frou of skirts and a rapid patter of small feet down the stairs. The next moment a radiant vision, all white muslin, fair curls and the scent of violets, descended on me from above, a soft hand closed over mine and drew me, unresisting, back into the room from whence I had just come.
Bewildered, I gazed on the winsome apparition before me, and beheld a young girl, slender as a lily, dressed in a soft, clinging gown which made her appear more slender still, her fair hair arranged in a tangle of unruly curls round the dainty oval of her face.
She was exquisite, Sir! And the slenderness of her! You cannot imagine it! She looked like a young sapling bending to the gale. But what cut me to the heart was the look of terror and of misery in her face. She clasped her hands together and the tears gathered in her eyes."Go, Sir, go at once!" she murmured under her breath, speaking very rapidly. "Do not waste a minute, I beg of you! As you value your life, go before it is too late!"
"But, Mademoiselle," I stammered; for indeed her words and appearance had roused all my worst fears, but also all my instincts of the sleuth-hound scenting his quarry.
"Don't argue, I beg of you," continued the lovely creature, who indeed seemed the prey of overwhelming emotions--fear, horror, pity. "When he comes back do not let him find you here. I'll explain, I'll know what to say, only I entreat you--go!"
Sir, I have many faults, but cowardice does not happen to be one of them, and the more the angel pleaded the more determined was I to see this business through. I was, of course, quite convinced by now that I was on the track of M. Aristide Fournier and the English files, and I was not going to let five thousand francs and the gratitude of the Minister of Police slip through my fingers so easily.
"Mademoiselle," I rejoined as calmly as I could, "let me assure you that though your anxiety for me is like manna to a starving man, I have no fears for my own safety. I have come here in the capacity of a humble interpreter; I certainly am not worth putting out of the way. Moreover, I have been paid for my services, and these I will render to my employer to the best of my capabilities."
"Ah, but you don't know," she retorted, not departing one jot from her attitude of terror and of entreaty, "you don't understand. This house, Monsieur," she added in a hoarse whisper, "is nothing but a den of criminals wherein no honest man or woman is safe."
"Pardon, Mademoiselle," I riposted as lightly and as gallantly as I could, "I see before me the living proof that angels, at any rate, dwell therein."
"Alas! Sir," she rejoined, with a heart-rending sigh, "if you mean me, I am only to be pitied. My dear mother and I are naught but slaves to the will of my brother, who uses us as tools for his nefarious ends."
"My mother, Sir," she said simply, "is old and ailing; she is dying of anguish at sight of her son's misdeeds. I would not, could not leave her, yet I would give my life to see her free from that miscreant's clutches!"
My whole soul was stirred to its depths by the intensity of passion which rang through this delicate creature's words. What weird and awesome mystery of iniquity and of crime lay hid, I wondered, between these walls? In what tragedy had I thus accidentally become involved while fulfilling my prosaic duty in the interest of His Majesty's exchequer? As in a flash it suddenly came to me that perhaps I could serve both this lovely creature and the Emperor better by going out of the house now, and lying hidden all the night through somewhere in its vicinity until in daylight I could locate its exact situation. Then I could communicate with Leroux at once and procure the apprehension of this Berty--or Fournier--who apparently was a desperate criminal. Already a bold plan was taking shape in my brain, and with my mind's eye I had measured the distance which separated me from the front door and safety when, in the distance, I heard heavy footsteps slowly descending the stairs. I looked at my lovely companion, and saw her eyes gradually dilating with increased horror. She gave a smothered cry, pressed her handkerchief to her lips, then she murmured hoarsely, "Too late!" and fled precipitately from the room, leaving me a prey to mingled emotions such as I had never experienced before.3.
A moment or two later M. Ernest Berty, or whatever his real name may have been, entered the room. Whether he had encountered his exquisite sister on the corridor or the stairs, I could not tell; his face, in the dim light of the hanging lamp, looked impenetrable and sinister."This way, M. Barrot," he said curtly.
Just for one brief moment the thought occurred to me to throw myself upon him with my whole weight--which was considerable--and make a wild dash for the front door. But it was more than probable that I should be intercepted and brought back, after which no doubt I would be an object of suspicion to these rascals and my life would not be worth an hour's purchase. With the young girl's warnings ringing in my ears, I felt that my one chance of safety and of circumventing these criminals lay in my seeming ingenuousness and complete guileless-ness.
I assumed a perfect professional manner and followed my companion up the stairs. He ushered me into a room just above the one where I had been waiting up to now. Three men dressed in rough clothes were sitting at a table on which stood a couple of tankards and four empty pewter mugs. My employer offered me a glass of ale, which I declined. Then we got to work.
At the first words which M. Berty uttered I knew that all my surmises had been correct. Whether he himself was M. Aristide Fournier, or another partner of that firm, or some other rascal engaged in nefarious doings, I could not know; certain it was that through the medium of cipher words and phrases which he thought were unintelligible to me, and which he ordered me to interpret into English, he was giving directions to the three men with regard to the convoying of contraband cargo over the frontier.
There was much talk of "toys" and "babies"--the latter were to take a walk in the mountains and to avoid the "thorns"; the "toys" were to be securely fastened and well protected against water. It was obviously a case of mules and of the goods, the "thorns" being the customs officials. By the time that we had finished I was absolutely convinced in my mind that the cargo was one of English files or razors, for it was evidently extraordinarily valuable and not at all bulky, seeing that two "babies" were to carry all the "toys" for a considerable distance. The men, too, were obviously English. I tried the few words of Russian that I knew on them, and their faces remained perfectly blank.
Yes, indeed, I was on the track of M. Aristide Fournier, and of one of the most important hauls of enemy goods which had ever been made in France. Not only that. I had also before me one of the most brutish criminals it had ever been my misfortune to come across. A bully, a fiend of cruelty. In very truth my fertile brain was seething with plans for eventually laying that abominable ruffian by the heels: hanging would be a merciful punishment for such a miscreant. Yes, indeed, five thousand francs--a goodly sum in those days, Sir--was practically assured me. But over and above mere lucre there was the certainty that in a few days' time I should see the light of gratitude shining out of a pair of lustrous blue eyes, and a winning smile chasing away the look of fear and of sorrow from the sweetest face I had seen for many a day.
Despite the turmoil that was raging in my brain, however, I flatter myself that my manner with the rascals remained consistently calm, businesslike, indifferent to all save to the work in hand. The soi-disant Ernest Berty spoke invariably in French, either dictating his orders or seeking information, and I made verbal translation into English of all that he said. The séance lasted close upon an hour, and presently I gathered that the affair was terminated and that I could consider myself dismissed.I was about to take my leave, having apparently completed my work, when M. Ernest Berty called me back with a curt command. "One moment, M. Barrot," he said. "At Monsieur's service," I responded blandly.
"As you see," he continued, "these fellows do not know a word of French. All along the way which they will have to traverse they will meet friendly outposts, who will report to them on the condition of the roads and warn them of any danger that might be ahead. Their ignorance of our language may be a source of infinite peril to them. They need an interpreter to accompany them over the mountains."He paused for a moment or two, then added abruptly:
"Would you care to go? The matter is important," he went on quietly, "and I am willing to pay you. It means a couple of nights' journey--a halt in the mountains during the day--and there will be ten thousand francs for you if the 'toys' reach St. Claude safely."
I suppose that something in my face betrayed the eagerness which I felt. Here was indeed the finger of Providence pointing to the best means of undoing this abominable criminal. Not that I intended to risk my neck for any ten thousand francs he chose to offer me, but as the trusted guide of his ingenuous "babies" I could convoy them--not to St. Claude, as he blandly believed, but straight into the arms of Leroux and the customs officials.
"Then that is understood," he said in his usual dictatorial manner, taking my consent for granted. "Ten thousand francs. And you will accompany these gentlemen and their 'babies' as far as St. Claude?""I am a poor man, Sir," I responded meekly. "Of course you are," he broke in roughly. Then from a number of papers which lay upon the table, he selected one which he held out to me. "Do you know St. Cergues?" he asked. "Yes," I replied. "It is a short walk from Gex."
"This," he added, pointing to a paper which I had taken from him, "is a plan of the village and of the Pass of Cergues close by. Study it carefully. At some point some way up the pass, which I have marked with a cross, I and my men with the 'babies' will be waiting for you to-morrow evening at eight o'clock. You cannot possibly fail to find the spot, for the plan is very accurate and very minute, and it is less than five hundred metres from the last house at the entrance of the pass. I shall escort the men until then, and hand them over into your charge for the mountain journey. Is that clear?""Perfectly." "Very well, then; you may go. The carriage is outside the door. You know your way."
He dismissed me with a curt nod, and the next two minutes saw me outside this house of mystery and installed inside the ramshackle vehicle on my way back to my lodgings.
I was worn out with fatigue and excitement, and I imagine that I slept most of the way. Certain it is that the journey home was not nearly so long as the outward one had been. The rain was still coming down heavily, but I cared nothing about the weather, nothing about fatigue. My path to fame and fortune had been made easier for me than in my wildest dreams I would have dared to hope. In the morning I would see Leroux and make final arrangements for the capture of those impudent smugglers, and I thought the best way would be for him to meet me and the "babies" and the "toys" at the very outset of our journey, as I did not greatly relish the idea of crossing lonely and dangerous mountain paths in the company of these ruffians.
I reached home without adventure. The vehicle drew up just outside my lodgings, and I was about to alight when my eyes were attracted by something white which lay on the front seat of the carriage, conspicuously placed so that the light from the inside lanthorn fell full upon it. I had been too tired and too dazed, I suppose, to notice the thing before, but now, on closer inspection, I saw that it was a note, and that it was addressed to me: "M. Aristide Barrot, Interpreter," and below my name were the words: "Very urgent."
I took the note feeling a thrill of excitement running through my veins at its touch. I alighted, and the vehicle immediately disappeared into the night. I had only caught one glimpse of the horses, and none at all of the coachman. Then I went straight into my room, and by the light of the table lamp I unfolded and read the mysterious note. It bore no signature, but at the first words I knew that the writer was none other than the lovely young creature who had appeared to me like an angel of innocence in the midst of that den of thieves.* * * * *
"Monsieur," she had written in a hand which had clearly been trembling with agitation, "you are good, you are kind; I entreat you to be merciful. My dear mother, whom I worship, is sick with terror and misery. She will die if she remains any longer under the sway of that inhuman monster who, alas! is my own brother. And if I lose her I shall die, too, for I should no longer have anyone to stand between me and his cruelties.
"My dear mother has some relations living at St. Claude. She would have gone to them before now, but my brother keeps us both virtual prisoners here, and we have no means of arranging for such a perilous journey for ourselves. Now, by the most extraordinary stroke of good fortune, my brother will be absent all day to-morrow and the following night. My dear mother and I feel that God Himself is showing us the way to our release.
"Will you, can you help us, dear M. Barrot? Mother and I will be at Gex to-morrow at one hour after sundown. We will lie perdu in the little Taverne du Roi de Rome, where, if you come to us, you will find us waiting anxiously. If you can do nothing to help us, we must return broken-hearted to our hated prison; but something in my heart tells me that you can help us. All that we want is a vehicle of some sort and the escort of a brave man like yourself as far as St. Claude, where our relatives will thank you on their knees for your kindness and generosity to two helpless, miserable, unprotected women, and I will kiss your hands in unbounded gratitude and devotion."* * * * *
It were impossible, Monsieur, to tell you of the varied emotions which filled my heart when I had perused that heart-rending appeal. All my instincts of chivalry were aroused. I was determined to do my duty to these helpless ladies as a man and as a gallant knight. Even before I finally went to bed I had settled in my mind what I meant to do. Fortunately it was quite possible for me to reconcile my duties to my Emperor and those which I owed to myself in the matter of the reward for the apprehension of the smugglers, with my burning desire to be the saviour and protector of the lovely creature whose beauty had inflamed my impressionable heart, and to have my hands kissed by her in gratitude and devotion.
The next morning Leroux and I were deep in our plans, whilst we sipped our coffee outside the Crâne Chauve. He was beside himself with joy and excitement at the prospective haul, which would, of course, redound enormously to his credit, even though the success of the whole undertaking would be due to my acumen, my resourcefulness and my pluck. Fortunately I found him not only ready but eager to render me what assistance he could in the matter of the two ladies who had thrown themselves so entirely on my protection.
"We might get valuable information out of them," he remarked. "In the excess of their gratitude they may betray many more secrets and nefarious doings of the firm of Fournier Frères."
"Which further proves," I remarked, "how deeply you and Monsieur le Ministre of Police are indebted to me over this affair."
He did not argue the point. Indeed, we were both of us far too much excited to waste words in useless bickerings. Our plans for the evening were fairly simple. We both pored over the map which Fournier-Berty had given me, until we felt that we could reach blindfolded the spot which had been marked with a cross. We then arranged that Leroux should betake himself thither with a strong posse of gendarmes during the day, and lie hidden in the vicinity until such time as I myself appeared upon the scene, identified my friends of the night before, parleyed with them for a minute or two, and finally retired, leaving the law in all its majesty, as represented by Leroux, to deal with the rascals.
In the meantime I also mapped out for myself my own share in this night's adventurous work. I had hired a vehicle to take me as far as St. Cergues; here I intended to leave it at the local inn, and then proceed on foot up the mountain pass to the appointed spot. As soon as I had seen the smugglers safely in the hands of Leroux and the gendarmes, I would make my way back to St. Cergues as rapidly as I could, step into my vehicle, drive like the wind back to Gex, and place myself at the disposal of my fair angel and her afflicted mother.
Leroux promised me that at the customs station on the French frontier the officials would look after me and the ladies, and that a pair of fresh horses would be ready to take us straight on to St. Claude, which, if all was well, we could then reach by daybreak.
Having settled all these matters we parted company, he to arrange his own affairs with the Commissary of Police and the customs officials, and I to await with as much patience as I could the hour when I could start for St. Cergues.4.
The night--just as I anticipated--promised to be very dark. A thin drizzle, which wetted the unfortunate pedestrian to the marrow, had replaced the torrential rain of the previous day.
Twilight was closing in very fast. In the late autumn afternoon I drove to St. Cergues, after which I left the chaise in the village and boldly started to walk up the mountain pass. I had studied the map so carefully that I was quite sure of my way, but though my appointment with the rascals was for eight o'clock, I wished to reach the appointed spot before the last flicker of grey light had disappeared from the sky.
Soon I had left the last house well behind me. Boldly I plunged into the narrow path. The loneliness of the place was indescribable. Every step which I took on the stony track seemed to rouse the echoes of the grim heights which rose precipitously on either side of me, and in my mind I felt aghast at the extraordinary courage of those men who--like Aristide Fournier and his gang-chose to affront such obvious and manifold dangers as these frowning mountain regions held for them for the sake of paltry lucre.
I had walked, according to my reckoning, just upon five hundred metres through the gorge, when on ahead I perceived the flicker of lights which appeared to be moving to and fro. The silence and loneliness no longer seemed to be absolute. A few metres from where I was men were living and breathing, plotting and planning, unconscious of the net which the unerring hand of a skilful fowler had drawn round them and their misdeeds.
The next moment I was challenged by a peremptory "Halt!" Recognition followed. M. Ernest Berty, or Aristide Fournier, whichever he was, acknowledged with a few words my punctuality, whilst through the gloom I took rapid stock of his little party. I saw the vague outline of three men and a couple of mules which appeared to be heavily laden. They were assembled on a flat piece of ground which appeared like a roofless cavern carved out of the mountain side. The walls of rock around them afforded them both cover and refuge. They seemed in no hurry to start. They had the long night before them, so one of them remarked in English.
However, presently M. Fournier-Berty gave the signal for the start to be made, he himself preparing to take leave of his men. Just at that moment my ears caught the welcome sound of the tramping of feet, and before any of the rascals there could realise what was happening, their way was barred by Leroux and his gendarmes, who loudly gave the order, "Hands up, in the name of the Emperor!"
I was only conscious of a confused murmur of voices, of the click of firearms, of words of command passing to and fro, and of several violent oaths uttered in the not unfamiliar voice of M. Aristide Fournier. But already I had spied Leroux. I only exchanged a few words with him, for indeed my share of the evening's work was done as far as he was concerned, and I made haste to retrace my steps through the darkness and the rain along the lonely mountain path toward the goal where chivalry and manly ardour beckoned to me from afar.
I found my vehicle waiting for me at St. Cergues, and by the promise of an additional pourboire, I succeeded in making the driver whip up his horses to some purpose. Less than an hour later we drew up at Gex outside the little inn, pretentiously called Le Roi de Rome. On alighting I was met by the proprietress who, in answer to my inquiry after two ladies who had arrived that afternoon, at once conducted me upstairs.
Already my mind was busy conjuring up visions of the fair lady of yester-eve. The landlady threw open a door and ushered me into a small room which reeked of stale food and damp clothes. I stepped in and found myself face to face with a large and exceedingly ugly old woman who rose with difficulty from the sofa as I entered."M. Aristide Barrot," she said as soon as the landlady had closed the door behind me. "At your service, Madame," I stammered. "But--"
I was indeed almost aghast. Never in my life had I seen anything so grotesque as this woman. To begin with she was more than ordinarily stout and unwieldy-indeed, she appeared like a veritable mountain of flesh; but what was so disturbing to my mind was that she was nothing but a hideous caricature of her lovely daughter, whose dainty features she grotesquely recalled. Her face was seamed and wrinkled, her white hair was plastered down above her yellow forehead. She wore an old-fashioned bonnet tied under her chin, and her huge bulk was draped in a large-patterned cashmere shawl."You expected to see my dear daughter beside me, my good M. Barrot," she said after a while speaking with remarkable gentleness and dignity. "I confess, Madame--" I murmured.
"Ah! the darling has sacrificed herself for my sake. We found to-day that though my son was out of the way, he had set his abominable servants to watch over us. Soon we realized that we could not both get away. It meant one of us staying behind to act the part of unconcern and to throw dust in the eyes of our jailers. My daughter--ah! she is an angel, Monsieur--feared that the disappointment and my son's cruelty, when he returned on the morrow and found that he had been tricked, would seriously endanger my life. She decided that I must go and that she would remain.""But, Madame--" I protested.
"I know, Monsieur," she rejoined with the same calm dignity which already had commanded my respect, "I know that you think me a selfish old woman; but my Angèle--she is an angel, of a truth!--made all the arrangements, and I could not help but obey her. But have no fears for her safety, Monsieur. My son would not dare lay hands on her as often as he has done on me. Angèle will be brave, and our relations at St. Claude will, directly we arrive, make arrangements to go and fetch her and bring her back to me. My brother is an influential man; he would never have allowed my son to martyrize me and Angèle had he known what we have had to endure."
Of course I could not then tell her that all her fears for herself and the lovely Angèle could now be laid to rest. Her ruffianly son was even now being conveyed by Leroux and his gendarmes to the frontier, where the law would take its course. I was indeed not sorry for him. I was not sorry to think that he would end his evil life upon the guillotine or the gallows. I was only grieved for Angèle who would spend a night and a day, perhaps more, in agonized suspense, knowing nothing of the events which at one great swoop would free her and her beloved mother from the tyranny of a hated brother and send him to expiate his crimes. Not only did I grieve, Sir, for the tender victim of that man's brutality, but I trembled for her safety. I did not know what minions or confederates Fournier-Berty had left in the lonely house yonder, or under what orders they were in case he did not return from his nocturnal expedition.
Indeed for the moment I felt so agitated at thought of that beautiful angel's peril that I looked down with anger and scorn at the fat old woman who ought to have remained beside her daughter to comfort and to shield her.
I was on the point of telling her everything, and dragging her back to her post of duty which she should never have relinquished. Fortunately my sense of what I owed to my own professional dignity prevented my taking such a step. It was clearly not for me to argue. My first duty was to stand by this helpless woman in distress, who had been committed to my charge, and to convey her safely to St. Claude. After which I could see to it that Mademoiselle Angèle was brought along too as quickly as influential relatives could contrive.
In the meanwhile I derived some consolation from the thought that at any rate for the next four and twenty hours the lovely creature would be safe. No news of the arrest of Aristide Fournier could possibly reach the lonely house until I myself could return thither and take her under my protection.
So I said nothing; but with perfect gallantry, just as if fat Mme. Fournier had been a young and beautiful woman, I begged her to give herself the trouble of mounting into the carriage which was waiting for her.
It took time and trouble, Sir, to hoist that mass of solid flesh into the vehicle, and the driver grumbled not a little at the unexpected weight. However, his horses were powerful, wiry, mountain ponies, and we made headway through the darkness and along the smooth, departmental road at moderate speed. I may say that it was a miserably uncomfortable journey for me, sitting, as I was forced to do, on the narrow front seat of the carriage, without support for my head or room for my legs. But Madame's bulk filled the whole of the back seat, and it never seemed to enter her head that I too might like the use of a cushion. However, even the worst moments and the weariest journeys must come to an end, and we reached the frontier in the small hours of the morning. Here we found the customs officials ready to render us any service we might require. Leroux had not failed to order the fresh relay of horses, and whilst these were being put to, the polite officers of the station gave Madame and myself some excellent coffee. Beyond the formal: "Madame has nothing to declare for His Majesty's customs?" and my companion's equally formal: "Nothing, Monsieur, except my personal belongings," they did not ply us with questions, and after half an hour's halt we again proceeded on our way.
We reached St. Claude at daybreak, and following Madame's directions, the driver pulled up in front of a large house in the Avenue du Jura. Again there was the same difficulty in hoisting the unwieldy lady out of the vehicle, but this time, in response to my vigorous pull at the outside bell, the concierge and another man came out of the house, and very respectfully they approached Madame and conveyed her into the house.
While they did so she apparently gave them some directions about myself, for anon the concierge returned, and with extreme politeness told me that Madame Fournier greatly hoped that I would stay in St. Claude a day or two as she had the desire to see me again very soon. She also honoured me with an invitation to dine with her that same evening at seven of the clock. This was the first time, I noticed, that the name Fournier was actually used in connexion with any of the people with whom I had become so dramatically involved. Not that I had ever doubted the identity of the ruffianly Ernest Berty; still it was very satisfactory to have my surmises confirmed. I concluded that the fine house in the Avenue du Jura belonged to Mme. Fournier's brother, and I vaguely wondered who he was. The invitation to dinner had certainly been given in her name, and the servants had received her with a show of respect which suggested that she was more than a guest in her brother's house.
Be that as it may, I betook myself for the nonce to the Hôtel des Moines in the centre of the town and killed time for the rest of the day as best I could. For one thing I needed rest after the emotions and the fatigue of the past forty-eight hours. Remember, Sir, I had not slept for two nights and had spent the last eight hours on the narrow front seat of a jolting chaise. So I had a good rest in the afternoon, and at seven o'clock I presented myself once more at the house in the Avenue du Jura.
My intention was to retire early to bed after spending an agreeable evening with the family, who would no doubt overwhelm me with their gratitude, and at daybreak I would drive back to Gex after I had heard all the latest news from Leroux.
I confess that it was with a pardonable feeling of agitation that I tugged at the wrought-iron bell-pull on the perron of the magnificent mansion in the Avenue du Jura. To begin with I felt somewhat rueful at having to appear before ladies at this hour in my travelling clothes, and then, you will admit, Sir, that it was a somewhat awkward predicament for a man of highly sensitive temperament to meet on terms of equality a refined if stout lady whose son he had just helped to send to the gallows. Fortunately there was no likelihood of Mme. Fournier being as yet aware of this unpleasant fact: even if she did know at this hour that her son's illicit adventure had come to grief, she could not possibly in her mind connect me with his ill-fortune. So I allowed the sumptuous valet to take my hat and coat and I followed him with as calm a demeanour as I could assume up the richly carpeted stairs. Obviously the relatives of Mme. Fournier were more than well to do. Everything in the house showed evidences of luxury, not to say wealth. I was ushered into an elegant salon wherein every corner showed traces of dainty feminine hands. There were embroidered silk cushions upon the sofa, lace covers upon the tables, whilst a work basket, filled with a riot of many coloured silks, stood invitingly open. And through the apartment, Sir, a scent of violets lingered and caressed my nostrils, reminding me of a beauteous creature in distress whom it had been my good fortune to succour.
I had waited less than five minutes when I heard a swift, elastic step approaching through the next room, and a second or so later, before I had time to take up an appropriate posture, the door was thrown open and the exquisite vision of my waking dreams--the beautiful Angèle-- stood smiling before me.
"Mademoiselle," I stammered somewhat clumsily, for of a truth I was hardly able to recover my breath, and surprise had well nigh robbed me of speech, "how comes it that you are here?"
She only smiled in reply, the most adorable smile I had ever seen on any human face, so full of joy, of mischief--aye, of triumph, was it. I asked after Madame. Again she smiled, and said Madame was in her room, resting from the fatigues of her journey. I had scarce recovered from my initial surprise when another--more complete still--confronted me. This was the appearance of Monsieur Aristide Fournier, whom I had fondly imagined already expiating his crimes in a frontier prison, but who now entered, also smiling, also extremely pleasant, who greeted me as if we were lifelong friends, and who then--I scarce could believe my eyes-placed his arm affectionately round his sister's waist, while she turned her sweet face up to his and gave him a fond--nay, a loving look. A loving look to him who was a brute and a bully and a miscreant amenable to the gallows! True his appearance was completely changed: his eyes were bright and kindly, his mouth continued to smile, his manner was urbane in the extreme when he finally introduced himself to me as: "Aristide Fournier, my dear Monsieur Ratichon, at your service."
He knew my name, he knew who I was! whilst I . . . I had to pass my hand once or twice over my forehead and to close and reopen my eyes several times, for, of a truth, it all seemed like a dream. I tried to stammer out a question or two, but I could only gasp, and the lovely Angèle appeared highly amused at my distress."Let us dine," she said gaily, "after which you may ask as many questions as you like."
In very truth I was in no mood for dinner. Puzzlement and anxiety appeared to grip me by the throat and to choke me. It was all very well for the beautiful creature to laugh and to make merry. She had cruelly deceived me, played upon the chords of my sensitive heart for purposes which no doubt would presently be made clear, but in the meanwhile since the smuggling of the English files had been successful--as it apparently was--what had become of Leroux and his gendarmes?
What tragedy had been enacted in the narrow gorge of St. Cergues, and what, oh! what had become of my hopes of that five thousand francs for the apprehension of the smugglers, promised me by Leroux? Can you wonder that for the moment the very thought of dinner was abhorrent to me? But only for the moment. The next a sumptuous valet had thrown open the folding-doors, and down the vista of the stately apartment I perceived a table richly laden with china and glass and silver, whilst a distinctly savoury odour was wafted to my nostrils."We will not answer a single question," the fair Angèle reiterated with adorable determination, "until after we have dined."
What, Sir, would you have done in my place? I believe that never until this hour had Hector Ratichon reached to such a sublimity of manner. I bowed with perfect dignity in token of obedience to the fair creature, Sir; then without a word I offered her my arm. She placed her hand upon it, and I conducted her to the dining-room, whilst Aristide Fournier, who at this hour should have been on a fair way to being hanged, followed in our wake.
Ah! it seemed indeed a lovely dream: one that lasted through an excellent and copious dinner, and which turned to delightful reality when, over a final glass of succulent Madeira, Monsieur Aristide Fournier slowly counted out one hundred notes, worth one hundred francs each, and presented these to me with a gracious nod."Your fee, Monsieur," he said, "and allow me to say that never have I paid out so large a sum with such a willing hand." "But I have done nothing," I murmured from out the depths of my bewilderment.
Mademoiselle Angèle and Monsieur Fournier looked at one another, and, no doubt, I presented a very comical spectacle; for both of them burst into an uncontrollable fit of laughter.
"Indeed, Monsieur," quoth Monsieur Fournier as soon as he could speak coherently, "you have done everything that you set out to do and done it with perfect chivalry. You conveyed 'the toys' safely over the frontier as far as St. Claude."
"But how?" I stammered, "how?" Again Mademoiselle Angèle laughed, and through the ripples of her laughter came her merry words:"Maman was very fat, was she not, my good Monsieur Ratichon? Did you not think she was extraordinarily like me?"
I caught the glance in her eyes, and they were literally glowing with mischief. Then all of a sudden I understood. She had impersonated a fat mother, covered her lovely face with lines, worn a disfiguring wig and an antiquated bonnet, and round her slender figure she had tucked away thousands of packages of English files. I could only gasp. Astonishment, not to say admiration, at her pluck literally took my breath away."But, Monsieur Berty?" I murmured, my mind in a turmoil, my thoughts running riot through my brain. "The Englishmen, the mules, the packs?"
"Monsieur Berty, as you see, stands before you now in the person of Monsieur Fournier," she replied. "The Englishmen were three faithful servants who threw dust not only in your eyes, my dear M. Ratichon, but in those of the customs officials, while the packs contained harmless personal luggage which was taken by your friend and his gendarmes to the customs station at Mijoux, and there, after much swearing, equally solemnly released with many apologies to M. Fournier, who was allowed to proceed unmolested on his way, and who arrived here safely this afternoon, whilst Maman divested herself of her fat and once more became the slender Mme. Aristide Fournier, at your service."
She bobbed me a dainty curtsy, and I could only try and hide the pain which this last cruel stab had inflicted on my heart. So she was not "Mademoiselle" after all, and henceforth it would even be wrong to indulge in dreams of her.
But the ten thousand francs crackled pleasantly in my breast pocket, and when I finally took leave of Monsieur Aristide Fournier and his charming wife, I was an exceedingly happy man.
But Leroux never forgave me. Of what he suspected me I do not know, or if he suspected me at all. He certainly must have known about fat Maman from the customs officials who had given us coffee at Mijoux.
But he never mentioned the subject to me at all, nor has he spoken to me since that memorable night. To one of his colleagues he once said that no words in his vocabulary could possibly be adequate to express his feelings.