Castles in the Air by Baroness Orczy - HTML preview
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VI. Honour Among ------1.
Ah, my dear Sir, it is easy enough to despise our profession, but believe me that all the finer qualities--those of loyalty and of truth--are essential, not only to us, but to our subordinates, if we are to succeed in making even a small competence out of it.
Now let me give you an instance. Here was I, Hector Ratichon, settled in Paris in that eventful year 1816 which saw the new order of things finally swept aside and the old order resume its triumphant sway, which saw us all, including our Godgiven King Louis XVIII, as poor as the proverbial church mice and as eager for a bit of comfort and luxury as a hungry dog is for a bone; the year which saw the army disbanded and hordes of unemployed and unemployable men wandering disconsolate and half starved through the country seeking in vain for some means of livelihood, while the Allied troops, well fed and well clothed, stalked about as if the sacred soil of France was so much dirt under their feet; the year, my dear Sir, during which more intrigues were hatched and more plots concocted than in any previous century in the whole history of France. We were all trying to make money, since there was so precious little of it about. Those of us who had brains succeeded, and then not always.
Now, I had brains--I do not boast of them; they are a gift from Heaven--but I had them, and good looks, too, and a general air of strength, coupled with refinement, which was bound to appeal to anyone needing help and advice, and willing to pay for both, and yet--but you shall judge.
You know my office in the Rue Daunou, you have been in it--plainly furnished; but, as I said, these were not days of luxury. There was an antechamber, too, where that traitor, blackmailer and thief, Theodore, my confidential clerk in those days, lodged at my expense and kept importunate clients at bay for what was undoubtedly a liberal salary--ten per cent, on all the profits of the business--and yet he was always complaining, the ungrateful, avaricious brute!
Well, Sir, on that day in September--it was the tenth, I remember--1816, I must confess that I was feeling exceedingly dejected. Not one client for the last three weeks, half a franc in my pocket, and nothing but a small quarter of Strasburg patty in the larder. Theodore had eaten most of it, and I had just sent him out to buy two sous' worth of stale bread wherewith to finish the remainder. But after that? You will admit, Sir, that a less buoyant spirit would not have remained so long undaunted.
I was just cursing that lout Theodore inwardly, for he had been gone half an hour, and I strongly suspected him of having spent my two sous on a glass of absinthe, when there was a ring at the door, and I, Hector Ratichon, the confidant of kings and intimate counsellor of half the aristocracy in the kingdom, was forced to go and open the door just like a common lackey.
But here the sight which greeted my eyes fully compensated me for the temporary humiliation, for on the threshold stood a gentleman who had wealth written plainly upon his fine clothes, upon the dainty linen at his throat and wrists, upon the quality of his rich satin necktie and the perfect set of his fine cloth pantaloons, which were of an exquisite shade of dove-grey. When, then, the apparition spoke, inquiring with just a sufficiency of aristocratic hauteur whether M. Hector Ratichon were in, you cannot be surprised, my dear Sir, that my dejection fell from me like a cast-off mantle and that all my usual urbanity of manner returned to me as I informed the elegant gentleman that M. Ratichon was even now standing before him, and begged him to take the trouble to pass through into my office.
This he did, and I placed a chair in position for him. He sat down, having previously dusted the chair with a graceful sweep of his lace-edged handkerchief. Then he raised a gold-rimmed eyeglass to his right eye with a superlatively elegant gesture, and surveyed me critically for a moment or two ere he said:"I am told, my good M. Ratichon, that you are a trustworthy fellow, and one who is willing to undertake a delicate piece of business for a moderate honorarium." Except for the fact that I did not like the word "moderate," I was enchanted with him. "Rumour for once has not lied, Monsieur," I replied in my most attractive manner.
"Well," he rejoined--I won't say curtly, but with businesslike brevity, "for all purposes connected with the affair which I desire to treat with you my name, as far as you are concerned, shall be Jean Duval. Understand?""Perfectly, Monsieur le Marquis," I replied with a bland smile. It was a wild guess, but I don't think that I underestimated my new client's rank, for he did not wince. "You know Mlle. Mars?" he queried. "The actress?" I replied. "Perfectly." "She is playing in Le Rêve at the Theatre Royal just now."
"She is." "In the first and third acts of the play she wears a gold bracelet set with large green stones.""I noticed it the other night. I had a seat in the parterre, I may say."
"I want that bracelet," broke in the soi-disant Jean Duval unceremoniously. "The stones are false, the gold strass. I admire Mlle. Mars immensely. I dislike seeing her wearing false jewellery. I wish to have the bracelet copied in real stones, and to present it to her as a surprise on the occasion of the twenty-fifth performance of Le Rêve. It will cost me a king's ransom, and her, for the time being, an infinite amount of anxiety. She sets great store by the valueless trinket solely because of the merit of its design, and I want its disappearance to have every semblance of a theft. All the greater will be the lovely creature's pleasure when, at my hands, she will receive an infinitely precious jewel the exact counterpart in all save its intrinsic value of the trifle which she had thought lost."
It all sounded deliciously romantic. A flavour of the past century--before the endless war and abysmal poverty had killed all chivalry in us--clung to this proposed transaction. There was nothing of the roturier, nothing of a Jean Duval, in this polished man of the world who had thought out this subtle scheme for ingratiating himself in the eyes of his lady fair.
I murmured an appropriate phrase, placing my services entirely at M. le Marquis's disposal, and once more he broke in on my polished diction with that brusquerie which betrayed the man accustomed to be silently obeyed.
"Mlle. Mars wears the bracelet," he said, "during the third act of Le Rêve. At the end of the act she enters her dressing-room, and her maid helps her to change her dress. During this entr'acte Mademoiselle with her own hands puts by all the jewellery which she has to wear during the more gorgeous scenes of the play. In the last act--the finale of the tragedy--she appears in a plain stuff gown, whilst all her jewellery reposes in the small iron safe in her dressing-room. It is while Mademoiselle is on the stage during the last act that I want you to enter her dressing-room and to extract the bracelet out of the safe for me.""I, M. le Marquis?" I stammered. "I, to steal a--"
"Firstly, M.--er--er--Ratichon, or whatever your confounded name may be," interposed my client with inimitable hauteur, "understand that my name is Jean Duval, and if you forget this again I shall be under the necessity of laying my cane across your shoulders and incidentally to take my business elsewhere. Secondly, let me tell you that your affectations of outraged probity are lost on me, seeing that I know all about the stolen treaty which--"
"Enough, M. Jean Duval," I said with a dignity equal, if not greater, than his own; "do not, I pray you, misunderstand me. I am ready to do you service. But if you will deign to explain how I am to break open an iron safe inside a crowded building and extract therefrom a trinket, without being caught in the act and locked up for house-breaking and theft, I shall be eternally your debtor.""The extracting of the trinket is your affair," he rejoined dryly. "I will give you five hundred francs if you bring the bracelet to me within fourteen days." "But--" I stammered again. "Your task will not be such a difficult one after all. I will give you the duplicate key of the safe." He dived into the breast pocket of his coat, and drew from it a somewhat large and clumsy key, which he placed upon my desk.
"I managed to get that easily enough," he said nonchalantly, "a couple of nights ago, when I had the honour of visiting Mademoiselle in her dressing-room. A piece of wax in my hand, Mademoiselle's momentary absorption in her reflection while her maid was doing her hair, and the impression of the original key was in my possession. But between taking a model of the key and the actual theft of the bracelet out of the safe there is a wide gulf which a gentleman cannot bridge over. Therefore, I choose to employ you, M.--er--er--Ratichon, to complete the transaction for me.""For five hundred francs?" I queried blandly. "It is a fair sum," he argued. "Make it a thousand," I rejoined firmly, "and you shall have the bracelet within fourteen days."
He paused a moment in order to reflect; his steel-grey eyes, cool and disdainful, were fixed searchingly on my face. I pride myself on the way that I bear that kind of scrutiny, so even now I looked bland and withal purposeful and capable.
"Very well," he said, after a few moments, and he rose from his chair as he spoke; "it shall be a thousand francs, M.--er--er--Ratichon, and I will hand over the money to you in exchange for the bracelet--but it must be done within fourteen days, remember."
I tried to induce him to give me a small sum on account. I was about to take terrible risks, remember; housebreaking, larceny, theft--call it what you will, it meant the police correctionelle and a couple of years in New Orleans for sure. He finally gave me fifty francs, and once more threatened to take his business elsewhere, so I had to accept and to look as urbane and dignified as I could. He was out of the office and about to descend the stairs when a thought struck me."Where and how can I communicate with M. Jean Duval," I asked, "when my work is done?"
"I will call here," he replied, "at ten o'clock of every morning that follows a performance of Le Rêve. We can complete our transaction then across your office desk."
The next moment he was gone. Theodore passed him on the stairs and asked me, with one of his impertinent leers, whether we had a new client and what we might expect from him. I shrugged my shoulders. "A new client!" I said disdainfully. "Bah! Vague promises of a couple of louis for finding out if Madame his wife sees more of a certain captain of the guards than Monsieur the husband cares about."Theodore sniffed. He always sniffs when financial matters are on the tapis. "Anything on account?" he queried. "A paltry ten francs," I replied, "and I may as well give you your share of it now."
I tossed a franc to him across the desk. By the terms of my contract with him, you understand, he was entitled to ten per cent, of every profit accruing from the business in lieu of wages, but in this instance do you not think that I was justified in looking on one franc now, and perhaps twenty when the transaction was completed, as a more than just honorarium for his share in it? Was I not taking all the risks in this delicate business? Would it be fair for me to give him a hundred francs for sitting quietly in the office or sipping absinthe at a neighbouring bar whilst I risked New Orleans--not to speak of the gallows?
He gave me a strange look as he picked up the silver franc, spat on it for luck, bit it with his great yellow teeth to ascertain if it were counterfeit or genuine, and finally slipped it into his pocket, and shuffled out of the office whistling through his teeth.An abominably low, deceitful creature, that Theodore, you will see anon. But I won't anticipate. 2.
The next performance of Le Rêve was announced for the following evening, and I started on my campaign. As you may imagine, it did not prove an easy matter. To obtain access through the stage-door to the back of the theatre was one thing--a franc to the doorkeeper had done the trick--to mingle with the sceneshifters, to talk with the supers, to take off my hat with every form of deep respect to the principals had been equally simple.
I had even succeeded in placing a bouquet on the dressing-table of the great tragedienne on my second visit to the theatre. Her dressing-room door had been left ajar during that memorable fourth act which was to see the consummation of my labours. I had the bouquet in my hand, having brought it expressly for that purpose. I pushed open the door, and found myself face to face with a young though somewhat forbidding damsel, who peremptorily demanded what my business might be.
In order to minimise the risk of subsequent trouble, I had assumed the disguise of a middle-aged Angliche--red side-whiskers, florid complexion, a gingercoloured wig plastered rigidly over the ears towards the temples, high stock collar, nankeen pantaloons, a patch over one eye and an eyeglass fixed in the other. My own sainted mother would never have known me.
With becoming diffidence I explained in broken French that my deep though respectful admiration of Mlle. Mars had prompted me to lay a floral tribute at her feet. I desired nothing more.
The damsel eyed me coldly, though at the moment I was looking quite my best, diffident yet courteous, a perfect gentleman of the old regime. Then she took the bouquet from me and put it down on the dressing-table.
I fancied that she smiled, not unkindly, and I ventured to pass the time of day. She replied not altogether disapprovingly. She sat down by the dressing-table and took up some needlework which she had obviously thrown aside on my arrival. Close by, on the floor, was a solid iron chest with huge ornamental hinges and a large escutcheon over the lock. It stood about a foot high and perhaps a couple of feet long.
There was nothing else in the room that suggested a receptacle for jewellery; this, therefore, was obviously the safe which contained the bracelet. At the selfsame second my eyes alighted on a large and clumsy-looking key which lay upon the dressing-table, and my hand at once wandered instinctively to the pocket of my coat and closed convulsively on the duplicate one which the soidisant Jean Duval had given me.
I talked eloquently for a while. The damsel answered in monosyllables, but she sat unmoved at needlework, and after ten minutes or so I was forced to beat a retreat.
I returned to the charge at the next performance of Le Rêve, this time with a box of bonbons for the maid instead of the bouquet for the mistress. The damsel was quite amenable to a little conversation, quite willing that I should dally in her company. She munched the bonbons and coquetted a little with me. But she went on stolidly with her needlework, and I could see that nothing would move her out of that room, where she had obviously been left in charge.
Then I bethought me of Theodore. I realised that I could not carry this affair through successfully without his help. So I gave him a further five francs--as I said to him it was out of my own savings--and I assured him that a certain M. Jean Duval had promised me a couple of hundred francs when the business which he had entrusted to me was satisfactorily concluded. It was for this business--so I explained--that I required his help, and he seemed quite satisfied.
His task was, of course, a very easy one. What a contrast to the risk I was about to run! Twenty-five francs, my dear Sir, just for knocking at the door of Mlle. Mars' dressing-room during the fourth act, whilst I was engaged in conversation with the attractive guardian of the iron safe, and to say in well-assumed, breathless tones:"Mademoiselle Mars has been taken suddenly unwell on the stage. Will her maid go to her at once?"
It was some little distance from the dressing-room to the wings--down a flight of ill-lighted stone stairs which demanded cautious ascent and descent. Theodore had orders to obstruct the maid during her progress as much as he could without rousing her suspicions.
I reckoned that she would be fully three minutes going, questioning, finding out that the whole thing was a hoax, and running back to the dressing-room--three minutes in which to open the chest, extract the bracelet and, incidentally, anything else of value there might be close to my hand. Well, I had thought of that eventuality, too; one must think of everything, you know--that is where genius comes in. Then, if possible, relock the safe, so that the maid, on her return, would find everything apparently in order and would not, perhaps, raise the alarm until I was safely out of the theatre.
It could be done--oh, yes, it could be done--with a minute to spare! And tomorrow at ten o'clock M. Jean Duval would appear, and I would not part with the bracelet until a thousand francs had passed from his pocket into mine. I must get Theodore out of the house, by the way, before the arrival of M. Duval.
A thousand francs! I had not seen a thousand francs all at once for years. What a dinner I would have tomorrow! There was a certain little restaurant in the Rue des Pipots where they concocted a cassolette of goose liver and pork chops with haricot beans which . . . ! I only tell you that.
How I got through the rest of that day I cannot tell you. The evening found me-quite an habitué now--behind the stage of the Theatre Royal, nodding to one or two acquaintances, most of the people looking on me with grave respect and talking of me as the eccentric milor. I was supposed to be pining for an introduction to the great tragedienne, who, very exclusive as usual, had so far given me the cold shoulder.
Ten minutes after the rise of the curtain on the fourth act I was in the dressingroom, presenting the maid with a gold locket which I had bought from a cheapjack's barrow for five and twenty francs--almost the last of the fifty which I had received from M. Duval on account. The damsel was eyeing the locket somewhat disdainfully and giving me grudging thanks for it when there came a hurried knock at the door. The next moment Theodore poked his ugly face into the room. He, too, had taken the precaution of assuming an excellent disguise-peaked cap set aslant over one eye, grimy face, the blouse of a scene-shifter."Mlle. Mars," he gasped breathlessly; "she has been taken ill--on the stage--very suddenly. She is in the wings--asking for her maid. They think she will faint." The damsel rose, visibly frightened.
"I'll come at once," she said, and without the slightest flurry she picked up the key of the safe and slipped it into her pocket. I fancied that she gave me a look as she did this. Oh, she was a pearl among Abigails! Then she pointed unceremoniously to the door.
"Milor!" was all she said, but of course I understood. I had no idea that English milors could be thus treated by pert maidens. But what cared I for social amenities just then? My hand had closed over the duplicate key of the safe, and I walked out of the room in the wake of the damsel. Theodore had disappeared.
Once in the passage, the girl started to run. A second or two later I heard the patter of her high-heeled shoes down the stone stairs. I had not a moment to lose.
To slip back into the dressing-room was but an instant's work. The next I was kneeling in front of the chest. The key fitted the lock accurately; one turn, and the lid flew open.
The chest was filled with a miscellaneous collection of theatrical properties all lying loose--showy necklaces, chains, pendants, all of them obviously false; but lying beneath them, and partially hidden by the meretricious ornaments, were one or two boxes covered with velvet such as jewellers use. My keen eyes noted these at once. I was indeed in luck! For the moment, however, my hand fastened on a leather case which reposed on the top in one corner, and which very obviously, from its shape, contained a bracelet. My hands did not tremble, though I was quivering with excitement. I opened the case. There, indeed, was the bracelet--the large green stones, the magnificent gold setting, the whole jewel dazzlingly beautiful. If it were real--the thought flashed through my mind--it would be indeed priceless. I closed the case and put it on the dressing-table beside me. I had at least another minute to spare--sixty seconds wherein to dive for those velvet-covered boxes which-- My hand was on one of them when a slight noise caused me suddenly to turn and to look behind me. It all happened as quickly as a flash of lightning. I just saw a man disappearing through the door. One glance at the dressing-table showed me the whole extent of my misfortune. The case containing the bracelet had gone, and at that precise moment I heard a commotion from the direction of the stairs and a woman screaming at the top of her voice: "Thief! Stop thief!"
Then, Sir, I brought upon the perilous situation that presence of mind for which the name of Hector Ratichon will for ever remain famous. Without a single flurried movement, I slipped one of the velvet-covered cases which I still had in my hand into the breast pocket of my coat, I closed down the lid of the iron chest and locked it with the duplicate key, and I went out of the room, closing the door behind me.
The passage was dark. The damsel was running up the stairs with a couple of stage hands behind her. She was explaining to them volubly, and to the accompaniment of sundry half-hysterical little cries, the infamous hoax to which she had fallen a victim. You might think, Sir, that here was I caught like a rat in a trap, and with that velvet-covered case in my breast pocket by way of damning evidence against me!
Not at all, Sir! Not at all! Not so is Hector Ratichon, the keenest secret agent France has ever known, the confidant of kings, brought to earth by an untoward move of fate. Even before the damsel and the stage hands had reached the top of the stairs and turned into the corridor, which was on my left, I had slipped round noiselessly to my right and found shelter in a narrow doorway, where I was screened by the surrounding darkness and by a projection of the frame. While the three of them made straight for Mademoiselle's dressing-room, and spent some considerable time there in uttering varied ejaculations when they found the place and the chest to all appearances untouched, I slipped out of my hidingplace, sped rapidly along the corridor, and was soon half-way down the stairs.
Here my habitual composure in the face of danger stood me in good stead. It enabled me to walk composedly and not too hurriedly through the crowd behind the scenes--supers, scene-shifters, principals, none of whom seemed to be aware as yet of the hoax practised on Mademoiselle Mars' maid; and I reckon that I was out of the stage door exactly five minutes after Theodore had called the damsel away.
But I was minus the bracelet, and in my mind there was the firm conviction that that traitor Theodore had played me one of his abominable tricks. As I said, the whole thing had occurred as quickly as a flash of lightning, but even so my keen, experienced eyes had retained the impression of a peaked cap and the corner of a blue blouse as they disappeared through the dressing-room door.3.
Tact, wariness and strength were all required, you must admit, in order to deal with the present delicate situation. I was speeding along the Rue de Richelieu on my way to my office. My intention was to spend the night there, where I had a chair-bedstead on which I had oft before slept soundly after a day's hard work, and anyhow it was too late to go to my lodgings at Passy at this hour.
Moreover, Theodore slept in the antechamber of the office, and I was more firmly convinced than ever that it was he who had stolen the bracelet. "Blackleg! Thief! Traitor!" I mused. "But thou hast not done with Hector Ratichon yet."
In the meanwhile I bethought me of the velvet-covered box in my breast pocket, and of the ginger-coloured hair and whiskers that I was still wearing, and which might prove an unpleasant "piece de conviction" in case the police were after the stolen bracelet.
With a view to examining the one and getting rid of the other, I turned into the Square Louvois, which, as usual, was very dark and wholly deserted. Here I took off my wig and whiskers and threw them over the railings into the garden. Then I drew the velvet-covered box from my pocket, opened it, and groped for its contents. Imagine my feelings, my dear Sir, when I realised that the case was empty! Fate was indeed against me that night. I had been fooled and cheated by a traitor, and had risked New Orleans and worse for an empty box.
For a moment I must confess that I lost that imperturbable sang-froid which is the admiration of all my friends, and with a genuine oath I flung the case over the railings in the wake of the milor's hair and whiskers. Then I hurried home.
Theodore had not returned. He did not come in until the small hours of the morning, and then he was in a state that I can only describe, with your permission, as hoggish. He could hardly speak. I had him at my mercy. Neither tact nor wariness was required for the moment. I stripped him to his skin; he only laughed like an imbecile. His eyes had a horrid squint in them; he was hideous. I found five francs in one of his pockets, but neither in his clothes nor on his person did I find the bracelet."What have you done with it?" I cried, for by this time I was maddened with rage.
"I don't know what you are talking about!" he stammered thickly, as he tottered towards his bed. "Give me back my five francs, you thief!" the brutish creature finally blurted out ere he fell into a hog-like sleep.
Desperate evils need desperate remedies. I spent the rest of the night thinking hard. By the time that dawn was breaking my mind was made up. Theodore's stertorous breathing assured me that he was still insentient. I was muscular in those days, and he a meagre, attenuated, drink-sodden creature. I lifted him out of his bed in the antechamber and carried him into mine in the office. I found a coil of rope, and strapped him tightly in the chair-bedstead so that he could not move. I tied a scarf round his mouth so that he could not scream. Then, at six o'clock, when the humbler eating-houses begin to take down their shutters, I went out.
I had Theodore's five francs in my pocket, and I was desperately hungry. I spent ten sous on a cup of coffee and a plate of fried onions and haricot beans, and three francs on a savoury pie, highly flavoured with garlic, and a quarter-bottle of excellent cognac. I drank the coffee and ate the onions and the beans, and I took the pie and cognac home.
I placed a table close to the chair-bedstead and on it I disposed the pie and the cognac in such a manner that the moment Theodore woke his eyes were bound to alight on them. Then I waited. I absolutely ached to have a taste of that pie myself, it smelt so good, but I waited.
Theodore woke at nine o'clock. He struggled like a fool, but he still appeared half dazed. No doubt he thought that he was dreaming. Then I sat down on the edge of the bed and cut myself off a large piece of the pie. I ate it with marked relish in front of Theodore, whose eyes nearly started out of their sockets. Then I brewed myself a cup of coffee. The mingled odour of coffee and garlic filled the room. It was delicious. I thought that Theodore would have a fit. The veins stood out on his forehead and a kind of gurgle came from behind the scarf round his mouth. Then I told him he could partake of the pie and coffee if he told me what he had done with the bracelet. He shook his head furiously, and I left the pie, the cognac and the coffee on the table before him and went into the antechamber, closing the office door behind me, and leaving him to meditate on his treachery.
What I wanted to avoid above everything was the traitor meeting M. Jean Duval. He had the bracelet--of that I was as convinced as that I was alive. But what could he do with a piece of false jewellery? He could not dispose of it, save to a vendor of theatrical properties, who no doubt was well acquainted with the trinket and would not give more than a couple of francs for what was obviously stolen property. After all, I had promised Theodore twenty francs; he would not be such a fool as to sell that birthright for a mess of pottage and the sole pleasure of doing me a bad turn.
There was no doubt in my mind that he had put the thing away somewhere in what he considered a safe place pending a reward being offered by Mlle. Mars for the recovery of the bracelet. The more I thought of this the more convinced I was that that was, indeed, his proposed plan of action--oh, how I loathed the blackleg!--and mine henceforth would be to dog his every footstep and never let him out of my sight until I forced him to disgorge his ill-gotten booty.
At ten o'clock M. Jean Duval arrived, as was his wont, supercilious and brusque as usual. I was just explaining to him that I hoped to have excellent news for him after the next performance of Le Rêve when there was a peremptory ring at the bell. I went to open the door, and there stood a police inspector in uniform with a sheaf of papers in his hand.
Now, I am not over-fond of our Paris police; they poke their noses in where they are least wanted. Their incompetence favours the machinations of rogues and frustrates the innocent ambitions of the just. However, in this instance the inspector looked amiable enough, though his manner, I must say, was, as usual, unpleasantly curt.
"Here, Ratichon," he said, "there has been an impudent theft of a valuable bracelet out of Mademoiselle Mars' dressing-room at the Theatre Royal last night. You and your mate frequent all sorts of places of ill-fame; you may hear something of the affair."I chose to ignore the insult, and the inspector detached a paper from the sheaf which he held and threw it across the table to me.
"There is a reward of two thousand five hundred francs," he said, "for the recovery of the bracelet. You will find on that paper an accurate description of the jewel. It contains the celebrated Maroni emerald, presented to the ex-Emperor by the Sultan, and given by him to Mlle. Mars."
Whereupon he turned unceremoniously on his heel and went, leaving me face to face with the man who had so shamefully tried to swindle me. I turned, and resting my elbow on the table and my chin in my hand, I looked mutely on the soi-disant Jean Duval and equally mutely pointed with an accusing finger to the description of the famous bracelet which he had declared to me was merely strass and base metal.But he had the impudence to turn on me before I could utter a syllable. "Where is the bracelet?" he demanded. "You consummate liar, you! Where is it? You stole it last night! What have you done with it?"
"I extracted, at your request," I replied with as much dignity as I could command, "a piece of theatrical jewellery, which you stated to me to be worthless, out of an iron chest, the key of which you placed in my hands. I . . ."
"Enough of this rubbish!" he broke in roughly. "You have the bracelet. Give it me now, or . . ."
He broke off and looked somewhat alarmed in the direction of the office door, from the other side of which there had just come a loud crash, followed by loud, if unintelligible, vituperation. What had happened I could not guess; all that I could do was to carry off the situation as boldly as I dared.
"You shall have the bracelet, Sir," I said in my most suave manner. "You shall have it, but not unless you will pay me three thousand francs for it. I can get two thousand five hundred by taking it straight to Mlle. Mars.""And be taken up by the police for stealing it," he retorted. "How will you explain its being in your possession?" I did not blanch. "That is my affair," I replied. "Will you give me three thousand francs for it? It is worth sixty thousand francs to a clever thief like you." "You hound!" he cried, livid with rage, and raised his cane as if he would strike me.
"Aye, it was cleverly done, M. Jean Duval, whoever you may be. I know that the gentleman-thief is a modern product of the old regime, but I did not know that the fraternity could show such a fine specimen as yourself. Pay Hector Ratichon a thousand francs for stealing a bracelet for you worth sixty! Indeed, M. Jean Duval, you deserved to succeed!"Again he shook his cane at me. "If you touch me," I declared boldly, "I shall take the bracelet at once to Mlle. Mars." He bit his lip and made a great effort to pull himself together. "I haven't three thousand francs by me," he said. "Go, fetch the money," I retorted, "and I'll fetch the bracelet."
He demurred for a while, but I was firm, and after he had threatened to thrash me, to knock me down, and to denounce me to the police, he gave in and went to fetch the money.
5. When I remembered Theodore--Theodore, whom only a thin partition wall had separated from the full knowledge of the value of his ill-gotten treasure!--I could have torn my hair out by the roots with the magnitude of my rage. He, the traitor, the blackleg, was about to triumph, where I, Hector Ratichon, had failed! He had but to take the bracelet to Mlle. Mars himself and obtain the munificent reward whilst I, after I had taken so many risks and used all the brains and tact wherewith Nature had endowed me, would be left with the meagre remnants of the fifty francs which M. Jean Duval had so grudgingly thrown to me. Twenty-five francs for a gold locket, ten francs for a bouquet, another ten for bonbons, and five for gratuities to the stage-doorkeeper! Make the calculation, my good Sir, and see what I had left. If it had not been for the five francs which I had found in Theodore's pocket last night, I would at this moment not only have been breakfastless, but also absolutely penniless.
As it was, my final hope--and that a meagre one--was to arouse one spark of honesty in the breast of the arch-traitor, and either by cajolery or threats, to induce him to share his ill-gotten spoils with me.
I had left him snoring and strapped to the chair-bedstead, and when I opened the office door I was marvelling in my mind whether I could really bear to see him dying slowly of starvation with that savoury pie tantalizingly under his nose. The crash which I had heard a few minutes ago prepared me for a change of scene. Even so, I confess that the sight which I beheld glued me to the threshold. There sat Theodore at the table, finishing the last morsel of pie, whilst the chairbedstead lay in a tangled heap upon the floor.
I cannot tell you how nasty he was to me about the whole thing, although I showed myself at once ready to forgive him all his lies and his treachery, and was at great pains to explain to him how I had given up my own bed and strapped him into it solely for the benefit of his health, seeing that at the moment he was threatened with delirium tremens.
He would not listen to reason or to the most elementary dictates of friendship. Having poured the vials of his bilious temper over my devoted head, he became as perverse and as obstinate as a mule. With the most consummate impudence I ever beheld in any human being, he flatly denied all knowledge of the bracelet.
Whilst I talked he stalked past me into the ante-chamber, where he at once busied himself in collecting all his goods and chattels. These he stuffed into his pockets until he appeared to be bulging all over his ugly-body; then he went to the door ready to go out. On the threshold he turned and gave me a supercilious glance over his shoulder."Take note, my good Ratichon," he said, "that our partnership is dissolved as from to-morrow, the twentieth day of September." "As from this moment, you infernal scoundrel!" I cried. But he did not pause to listen, and slammed the door in my face.
For two or three minutes I remained quite still, whilst I heard the shuffling footsteps slowly descending the corridor. Then I followed him, quietly, surreptitiously, as a fox will follow its prey. He never turned round once, but obviously he knew that he was being followed.
I will not weary you, my dear Sir, with the details of the dance which he led me in and about Paris during the whole of that memorable day. Never a morsel passed my lips from breakfast to long after sundown. He tried every trick known to the profession to throw me off the scent. But I stuck to him like a leech. When he sauntered I sauntered; when he ran I ran; when he glued his nose to the window of an eating house I halted under a doorway close by; when he went to sleep on a bench in the Luxembourg Gardens I watched over him as a mother over a babe.
Towards evening--it was an hour after sunset and the street-lamps were just being lighted--he must have thought that he had at last got rid of me; for, after looking carefully behind him, he suddenly started to walk much faster and with an amount of determination which he had lacked hitherto. I marvelled if he was not making for the Rue Daunou, where was situated the squalid tavern of ill-fame which he was wont to frequent. I was not mistaken.
I tracked the traitor to the corner of the street, and saw him disappear beneath the doorway of the Taverne des Trois Tigres. I resolved to follow. I had money in my pocket--about twenty-five sous--and I was mightily thirsty. I started to run down the street, when suddenly Theodore came rushing back out of the tavern, hatless and breathless, and before I succeeded in dodging him he fell into my arms."My money!" he said hoarsely. "I must have my money at once! You thief! You . . ." Once again my presence of mind stood me in good stead. "Pull yourself together, Theodore," I said with much dignity, "and do not make a scene in the open street." But Theodore was not at all prepared to pull himself together. He was livid with rage.
"I had five francs in my pocket last night!" he cried. "You have stolen them, you abominable rascal!"
"And you stole from me a bracelet worth three thousand francs to the firm," I retorted. "Give me that bracelet and you shall have your money back."
I shook him violently. I bellowed in his ear, and suddenly, after that one moment of apparent unconsciousness, he became, not only wide awake, but as strong as a lion and as furious as a bull. We closed in on one another. He hammered at me with his fists, calling me every kind of injurious name he could think of, and I had need of all my strength to ward off his attacks.
For a few moments no one took much notice of us. Fracas and quarrels outside the drinking-houses in the mean streets of Paris were so frequent these days that the police did not trouble much about them. But after a while Theodore became so violent that I was forced to call vigorously for help. I thought he meant to murder me. People came rushing out of the tavern, and someone very officiously started whistling for the gendarmes. This had the effect of bringing Theodore to his senses. He calmed down visibly, and before the crowd had had time to collect round us we had both sauntered off, walking in apparent amity side by side down the street.
But at the first corner Theodore halted, and this time he confined himself to gripping me by the arm with one hand whilst with the other he grasped one of the buttons of my coat.
"That five francs," he said in a hoarse, half-choked voice. "I must have that five francs! Can't you see that I can't have that bracelet till I have my five francs wherewith to redeem it?"
"To redeem it!" I gasped. I was indeed glad then that he held me by the arm, for it seemed to me as if I was falling down a yawning abyss which had opened at my feet."Yes," said Theodore, and his voice sounded as if it came from a great distance and through cotton-wool,
"I knew that you would be after that bracelet like a famished hyena after a bone, so I tied it securely inside the pocket of the blouse I was wearing, and left this with Legros, the landlord of the Trois Tigres. It was a good blouse; he lent me five francs on it. Of course, he knew nothing about the bracelet then. But he only lends money to clients in this manner on the condition that it is repaid within twenty-four hours. I have got to pay him back before eight o'clock this evening or he will dispose of the blouse as he thinks best. It is close on eight o'clock now. Give me back my five francs, you confounded thief, before Legros has time to discover the bracelet! We'll share the reward, I promise you. Faith of an honest man. You liar, you cheat, you--"
What was the use of talking? I had not got five francs. I had spent ten sous in getting myself some breakfast, and three francs in a savoury pie flavoured with garlic and in a quarter of a bottle of cognac. I groaned aloud. I had exactly twenty-five sous left.
We went back to the tavern hoping against hope that Legros had not yet turned out the pockets of the blouse, and that we might induce him, by threat or cajolery or the usurious interest of twenty-five sous, to grant his client a further twentyfour hours wherein to redeem the pledge.
One glance at the interior of the tavern, however, told us that all our hopes were in vain. Legros, the landlord, was even then turning the blouse over and over, whilst his hideous hag of a wife was talking to the police inspector, who was showing her the paper that announced the offer of two thousand five hundred francs for the recovery of a valuable bracelet, the property of Mlle. Mars, the distinguished tragedienne.
We only waited one minute with our noses glued against the windows of the Trois Tigres, just long enough to see Legros extracting the leather case from the pocket of the blouse, just long enough to hear the police inspector saying peremptorily:"You, Legros, ought to be able to let the police know who stole the bracelet. You must know who left that blouse with you last night." Then we both fled incontinently down the street.
Now, Sir, was I not right when I said that honour and loyalty are the essential qualities in our profession? If Theodore had not been such a liar and such a traitor, he and I, between us, would have been richer by three thousand francs that day.
VII. An Over-Sensitive Heart1.
No doubt, Sir, that you have noticed during the course of our conversations that Nature has endowed me with an over-sensitive heart. I feel keenly, Sir, very keenly. Blows dealt me by Fate, or, as has been more often the case, by the cruel and treacherous hand of man, touch me on the raw. I suffer acutely. I am highly strung. I am one of those rare beings whom Nature pre-ordained for love and for happiness. I am an ideal family man.
What? You did not know that I was married? Indeed, Sir, I am. And though Madame Ratichon does not perhaps fulfil all my ideals of exquisite womanhood, nevertheless she has been an able and willing helpmate during these last years of comparative prosperity. Yes, you see me fairly prosperous now. My industry, my genius--if I may so express myself--found their reward at last. You will be the first to acknowledge--you, the confidant of my life's history--that that reward was fully deserved. I worked for it, toiled and thought and struggled, up to the last; and had Fate been just, rather than grudging, I should have attained that ideal which would have filled my cup of happiness to the brim.
But, anyway, the episode connected with my marriage did mark the close of my professional career, and is therefore worthy of record. Since that day, Sir--a happy one for me, a blissful one for Mme. Ratichon--I have been able, thanks to the foresight of an all-wise Providence, to gratify my bucolic tastes. I live now, Sir, amidst my flowers, with my dog and my canary and Mme. Ratichon, smiling with kindly indulgence on the struggles and the blunders of my younger colleagues, oft consulted by them in matters that require special tact and discretion. I sit and dream now beneath the shade of a vine-clad arbour of those glorious days of long ago, when kings and emperors placed the destiny of their inheritance in my hands, when autocrats and dictators came to me for assistance and advice, and the name of Hector Ratichon stood for everything that was most astute and most discreet. And if at times a gentle sigh of regret escapes my lips, Mme. Ratichon--whose thinness is ever my despair, for I admire comeliness, Sir, as being more womanly--Mme. Ratichon, I say, comes to me with the gladsome news that dinner is served; and though she is not all that I could wish in the matter of the culinary arts, yet she can fry a cutlet passably, and one of her brothers is a wholesale wine merchant of excellent reputation.
It was soon after my connexion with that abominable Marquis de Firmin-Latour that I first made the acquaintance of the present Mme. Ratichon, under somewhat peculiar circumstances.
I remember it was on the first day of April in the year 1817 that M. Rochez-Fernand Rochez was his exact name--came to see me at my office in the Rue Daunou, and the date proved propitious, as you will presently see. How M. Rochez came to know of my gifts and powers, I cannot tell you. He never would say. He had heard of me through a friend, was all that he vouchsafed to say.
Theodore had shown him in. Ah! have I not mentioned the fact that I had forgiven Theodore his lies and his treachery, and taken him back to my bosom and to my board? My sensitive heart had again got the better of my prudence, and Theodore was installed once more in the antechamber of my apartments in the Rue Daunou, and was, as heretofore, sharing with me all the good things that I could afford. So there he was on duty on that fateful first of April which was destined to be the turning-point of my destiny. And he showed M. de Rochez in.
At once I knew my man--the type, I mean. Immaculately dressed, scented and befrilled, haughty of manner and nonchalant of speech, M. Rochez had the word "adventurer" writ all over his well-groomed person. He was young, good-looking, his nails were beautifully polished, his pantaloons fitted him without a wrinkle. These were of a soft putty shade; his coat was bottle-green, and his hat of the latest modish shape. A perfect exquisite, in fact.And he came to the point without much preamble. "M.--er--Ratichon," he said, "I have heard of you through a friend, who tells me that you are the most unscrupulous scoundrel he has ever come across." "Sir--!" I began, rising from my seat in indignant protest at the coarse insult. But with an authoritative gesture he checked the flow of my indignation.
"No comedy, I pray you, Sir," he said. "We are not at the Theatre Molière, but, I presume, in an office where business is transacted both briefly and with discretion.""At your service, Monsieur," I replied. "Then listen, will you?" he went on curtly, "and pray do not interrupt. Only speak in answer to a question from me." I bowed my head in silence. Thus must the proud suffer when they happen to be sparsely endowed with riches.
"You have no doubt heard of Mlle. Goldberg," M. Rochez continued after a moment's pause, "the lovely daughter of the rich usurer in the Rue des Médecins."
I had heard of Mlle. Goldberg. Her beauty and her father's wealth were reported to be fabulous. I indicated my knowledge of the beautiful lady by a mute inclination of the head.
"I love Mlle. Goldberg," my client resumed, "and I have reason for the belief that I am not altogether indifferent to her. Glances, you understand, from eyes as expressive as those of the exquisite Jewess speak more eloquently than words."He had forbidden me to speak, so I could only express concurrence in the sentiments which he expressed by a slight elevation of my left eyebrow. "I am determined to win the affections of Mlle. Goldberg," M. Rochez went on glibly, "and equally am I determined to make her my wife." "A very natural determination," I remarked involuntarily.
"My only trouble with regard to pressing my court is the fact that my lovely Leah is never allowed outside her father's house, save in his company or that of his sister--an old maid of dour mien and sour disposition, who acts the part of a duenna with dog-like tenacity. Over and over again have I tried to approach the lady of my heart, only to be repelled or roughly rebuked for my insolence by her irascible old aunt.""You are not the first lover, Sir," I remarked drily, "who hath seen obstacles thus thrown in his way, and--"
"One moment, M.--er--Ratichon," he broke in sharply. "I have not finished. I will not attempt to describe my feelings to you. I have been writhing--yes, writhing!--in face of those obstacles of which you speak so lightly, and for a long time I have been cudgelling my brains as to the possible means whereby I might approach my divinity unchecked. Then one day I bethought me of you--""Of me, Sir?" I ejaculated, sorely puzzled. "Why of me?" "None of my friends," he replied nonchalantly, "would care to undertake so scrubby a task as I would assign to you." "I pray you to be more explicit," I retorted with unimpaired dignity. Once more he paused. Obviously he was a born mountebank, and he calculated all his effects to a nicety.
"You, M.--er--Ratichon," he said curtly at last, "will have to take the duenna off my hands."
I was beginning to understand. So I let him prattle on the while my busy brain was already at work evolving the means to render this man service, which in its turn I expected to be amply repaid. Thus I cannot repeat exactly all that he said, for I was only listening with half an ear. But the substance of it all was this: I was to pose as the friend of M. Fernand Rochez, and engage the attention of Mlle. Goldberg senior the while he paid his court to the lovely Leah. It was not a repellent task altogether, because M. Rochez's suggestion opened a vista of pleasant parties at open-air cafés, with foaming tankards of beer, on warm afternoons the while the young people sipped sirops and fed on love. My newly found friend was pleased to admit that my personality and appearance would render my courtship of the elderly duenna a comparatively easy one. She would soon, he declared, fall a victim to my charms.
After which the question of remuneration came in, and over this we did not altogether agree. Ultimately I decided to accept an advance of two hundred francs and a new suit of clothes, which I at once declared was indispensable under the circumstances, seeing that in my well-worn coat I might have the appearance of a fortune-hunter in the eyes of the suspicious old dame.Within my mind I envisaged the possibility of touching M. Rochez for a further two hundred francs if and when opportunity arose. 2.
The formal introduction took place on the boulevards one fine afternoon shortly after that. Mlle. Leah was walking under the trees with her duenna when we--M. Rochez and I--came face to face with them. My friend raised his hat, and I did likewise. Mademoiselle Leah blushed and the ogre frowned. Sir, she was an ogre!--bony and angular and hook-nosed, with thin lips that closed with a snap, and cold grey eyes that sent a shiver down your spine! Rochez introduced me to her, and I made myself exceedingly agreeable to her, while my friend succeeded in exchanging two or three whispered words with his inamorata.But we did not get very far that day. Mlle. Goldberg senior soon marched her lovely charge away.
Ah, Sir, she was lovely indeed! And in my heart I not only envied Rochez his good fortune but I also felt how entirely unworthy he was of it. Nor did the beautiful Leah give me the impression of being quite so deeply struck with his charms as he would have had me believe. Indeed, it struck me during those few minutes that I stood dutifully talking to her duenna that the fair young Jewess cast more than one approving glance in my direction.
Be that as it may, the progress of our respective courtships, now that the ice was broken, took on a more decided turn. At first it only amounted to meetings on the boulevards and a cursory greeting, but soon Mlle. Goldberg senior, delighted with my conversation, would deliberately turn to walk with me under the trees the while Fernand Rochez followed by the side of his adored. A week later the ladies accepted my friend's offer to sit under the awning of the Café Bourbon and to sip sirops, whilst we indulged in tankards of foaming "blondes."
Within a fortnight, Sir--I may say it without boasting--I had Mlle. Goldberg senior in the hollow of my hand. On the boulevards, as soon as she caught sight of me, her dour face would be wreathed in smiles, a row of large yellow teeth would appear between her thin lips, and her cold, grey eyes would soften with a glance of welcome which more than ever sent a cold shudder down my spine. While we four were together, either promenading or sitting at open-air cafés in the cool of the evening, the old duenna had eyes and ears only for me, and if my friend Rochez did not get on with his own courtship as fast as he would have wished the fault rested entirely with him.
For he did not get on with his courtship, and that was a fact. The fair Leah was very sweet, very coy, greatly amused, I fancy, at her aunt's obvious infatuation for me, and not a little flattered at the handsome M. Rochez's attentions to herself. But there it all ended. And whenever I questioned Rochez on the subject, he flew into a temper and consigned all middle-aged Jewesses to perdition, and all the lovely and young ones to a comfortable kind of Hades to which he alone amongst the male sex would have access. From which I gathered that I was not wrong in my surmises, that the fair Leah had been smitten by my personality and my appearance rather than by those of my friend, and that he was suffering the pangs of an insane jealousy.
This, of course, he never would admit. All that he told me one day was that Leah, with the characteristic timidity of her race, refused to marry him unless she could obtain her father's consent to the union. Old Goldberg, duly approached on the matter, flatly forbade his daughter to have anything further to do with that fortunehunter, that parasite, that beggarly pick-thank--such, Sir, were but a few complimentary epithets which he hurled with great volubility at his daughter's absent suitor.
It was from Mlle. Goldberg, senior, that my friend and I had the details of that stormy interview between father and daughter; after which, she declared that interviews between the lovers would necessarily become very difficult of arrangement. From which you will gather that the worthy soul, though she was as ugly as sin, was by this time on the side of the angels. Indeed, she was more than that. She professed herself willing to aid and abet them in every way she could. This Rochez confided to me, together with his assurance that he was determined to take his Fate into his own hands and, since the beautiful Leah would not come to him of her own accord, to carry her off by force.
Ah, my dear Sir, those were romantic days, you must remember! Days when men placed the possession of the woman they loved above every treasure, every consideration upon earth. Ah, romance! Romance, Sir, was the breath of our nostrils, the blood in our veins! Imagine how readily we all fell in with my friend's plans. I, of course, was the moving spirit in it all; mine was the genius which was destined to turn gilded romance into grim reality. Yes, grim! For you shall see! . . .Mlle. Goldberg, senior, who appropriately enough was named Sarah, gave us the clue how to proceed, after which my genius worked alone.
You must know that old Goldberg's house in the Rue des Médecins--a large apartment house in which he occupied a few rooms on the ground floor behind his shop--backed on to a small uncultivated garden which ended in a tall brick wall, the meeting-place of all the felines in the neighbourhood, and in which there was a small postern gate, now disused. This gate gave on a narrow cul-de-sac-grandiloquently named Passage Corneille--which was flanked on the opposite side by the tall boundary wall of an adjacent convent.
That cul-de-sac was marked out from the very first in my mind as our objective. Around and about it, as it were, did I build the edifice of my schemes, aided by the ever-willing Sarah. The old maid threw herself into the affair with zest, planning and contriving like a veritable strategist; and I must admit that she was full of resource and invention. We were now in mid-May and enjoying a spell of hot summer weather. This gave the inventive Sarah the excuse for using the back garden as a place wherein to sit in the cool of the evening in the company of her niece.
Ah, you see the whole thing now at a glance, do you not? The postern gate, the murky night, the daring lover, the struggling maiden, the willing accomplices. The actors were all there, ready for the curtain to be rung up on the palpitating drama.
Then it was that a brilliant idea came into my brain. It was born on the very day that I realized with indisputable certainty that the lovely Leah was not in reality in love with Rochez. He fatuously believed that she was ready to fall into his arms, that only maidenly timidity held her back, and that the moment she had been snatched from her father's house and found herself in the arms of her adoring lover, she would turn to him in the very fullness of love and confidence.
But I knew better. I had caught a look now and again--an undefinable glance, which told me the whole pitiable tale. She did not love Rochez; and in the drama which we were preparing to enact the curtain would fall on his rapture and her unhappiness.
Ah, Sir! imagine what my feelings were when I realized this! This fair girl, against whom we were all conspiring like so many traitors, was still ignorant of the fatal brink on which she stood. She chatted and coquetted and smiled, little dreaming that in a very few days her happiness would be wrecked and she would be linked for life to a man whom she could never love. Rochez's idea, of course, was primarily to get hold of her fortune. I had already ascertained for him, through the ever-willing Sarah, that this fortune came from Leah's grandfather, who had left a sum of two hundred thousand francs on trust for her children, she to enjoy the income for her life. There certainly was a clause in the will whereby the girl would forfeit that fortune if she married without her father's consent; but according to Rochez's plans this could scarcely be withheld once she had been taken forcibly away from home, held in durance, and with her reputation hopelessly compromised. She could then pose as an injured victim, throw herself at her father's feet, and beg him to give that consent without which she would for ever remain an outcast of society, a pariah amongst her kind.
A pretty piece of villainous combination, you will own! And I, Sir, was to lend a hand in this abomination!--nay, I was to be the chief villain in the drama! It was I who, even now, was spending the hours of the night, when I might have been dreaming sentimental dreams, in oiling the lock of the postern gate which was to give us access into papa Goldberg's garden. It was I who, under cover of darkness and guided by that old jade Sarah, was to sneak into that garden on the appointed night and forcibly seize the unsuspecting maiden and carry her to the carriage which Rochez would have in readiness for her.
You see what a coward he was! It was a criminal offence in those days, punishable with deportation to New Caledonia, to abduct a young lady from her parents' house; and Rochez left me the dirty work to do in case the girl screamed and attracted the police. Now you will tell me if I was not justified in doing what I did, and I will abide by your judgment.
I was to take all the risks, remember!--New Caledonia, the police, the odium attached to so foul a deed; and do you know for what? For a paltry thousand francs, which with much difficulty I had induced Rochez--nay, forced him!--to hand over to me in anticipation of what I was about to accomplish for his sake. A thousand francs! Did this miserliness not characterize the man? Was it to such a scrubby knave that I, at risk of my life and of my honour, would hand over that jewel amongst women, that pearl above price?--a lady with a personal fortune amounting to two hundred thousand francs?
No, Sir; I would not! Then and there I vowed that I would not! Mine were to be all the risks; then mine should be the reward! What Rochez meant to do, that I could too, and with far greater reason. The lovely Leah did at times frown on Fernand; but she invariably smiled on me. She would fall into my arms far more readily than into his, and papa Goldberg would be equally forced to give his consent to her marriage with me as with that self-seeking carpet-knight whom he abhorred.
Needless to say, I kept my own counsel, and did not speak of my project even to Sarah. To all appearances I was to be the mere tool in this affair, the unfortunate cat employed to snatch the roast chestnuts out of the fire for the gratification of a mealy-mouthed monkey.
The appointed day and hour were at hand. Fernand Rochez had engaged a barouche which was to take him and his lovely victim to a little house at Auteuil, which he had rented for the purpose. There the lovers were to lie perdu until such time as papa Goldberg had relented and the marriage could be duly solemnized in the synagogue of the Rue des Halles. Sarah had offered in the meanwhile to do all that in her power lay to soften the old man's heart and to bring about the happy conclusion of the romantic adventure.
For the latter we had chosen the night of May 23rd. It was a moonless night, and the Passage Corneille, from whence I was to operate, was most usefully dark. Sarah Goldberg had, according to convention, left the postern gate on the latch, and at ten o'clock precisely I made my way up the cul-de-sac and cautiously turned the handle of the door. I confess that my heart beat somewhat uncomfortably in my bosom.
I had left Rochez and his barouche in the Rue des Pipots, about a hundred metres from the angle of the Passage Corneille, and it was along those hundred metres of a not altogether unfrequented street that he expected me presently to carry a possibly screaming and struggling burden in the very teeth of a gendarmerie always on the look-out for exciting captures.
No, Sir; that was not to be! And it was with a resolute if beating heart that I presently felt the postern gate yielding to the pressure of my hand. The neighbouring church clock of St. Sulpice had just finished striking ten. I pushed open the gate and tip-toed across the threshold.
In the garden the boughs of a dilapidated old ash tree were soughing in the wind above my head, whilst from the top of the boundary wall the yarring and yowling of beasts of the feline species grated unpleasantly on my ear. I could not see my hand before my eyes, and had just stretched it out in order to guide my footsteps when it was seized with a kindly yet firm pressure, whilst a voice murmured softly:"Hush!" "Who is it?" I whispered in response.
"It is I--Sarah!" the voice replied. "Everything is all right, but Leah is unsuspecting. I am sure that if she suspected anything she would not set foot outside the door."
"What shall we do?" I asked. "Wait here a moment quietly," Sarah rejoined, speaking in a rapid whisper, "under cover of this wall. Within the next few minutes Leah will come out of the house. I have left my knitting upon a garden chair, and I will ask her to run out and fetch it. That will be your opportunity. The chair is in the angle of the wall, there," she added, pointing to her right, "not three paces from where you are standing now. Leah has a white dress on. She will have to stoop in order to pick up the knitting. I have taken the precaution to entangle the wool in the leg of the chair, so she will be some few seconds entirely at your mercy. Have you a shawl?"
I had, of course, provided myself with one. A shawl is always a necessary adjunct to such adventures. Breathlessly, silently, I intimated to my kind accomplice that I would obey her behests and that I was prepared for every eventuality. The next moment her hold upon my hand relaxed, she gave another quickly-whispered "Hush!" and disappeared into the night.
For a second or two after that my ear caught the soft sound of her retreating footsteps, then nothing more. To say that I felt anxious and ill at ease was but to put it mildly. I was face to face with an adventure which might cost me at least five years' acute discomfort in New Caledonia, but which might also bring me as rich a reward as could befall any man of modest ambitions: a lovely wife and a comfortable fortune. My whole life seemed to be hanging on a thread, and my overwrought senses seemed almost to catch the sound of the spinning-wheel of Fate weaving the web of my destiny.
A moment or two later I again caught the distinct sound of a gentle footfall upon the soft earth. My eyes by now were somewhat accustomed to the gloom. It was very dark, you understand; but through the darkness I saw something white moving slowly toward me. Then my heart thumped more furiously than ever before. I dared not breathe. I saw the lovely Leah approaching, or, rather, I felt her approach, for it was too dark to see. She moved in the direction which Sarah had indicated to me as being the place where stood the garden chair with the knitting upon it. I grasped the shawl. I was ready.
Another few seconds of agonising suspense went by. The fair Leah had ceased to move. Undoubtedly she was engaged in disentangling the wool from the leg of the chair. That was my opportunity. More stealthy than any cat, I tiptoed toward the chair--and, indeed, at that moment I blessed the sudden yowl set up by some feline in its wrath which rent the still night air and effectually drowned any sound which I might make.
There, not three paces away from me, was the dim outline of the young girl's form vaguely discernible in the gloom--a white mass, almost motionless, against a background of inky blackness. With a quick intaking of my breath I sprang forward, the shawl outspread in my hand, and with a quick dexterous gesture I threw it over her head, and the next second had her, faintly struggling, in my arms. She was as light as a feather, and I was as strong as a giant. Think of it, Sir! There was I, alone in the darkness, holding in my arms, together with a lovely form, a fortune of two hundred thousand francs!
Of that fool Fernand Rochez I did not trouble to think. He had a barouche waiting up the Rue des Pipots, a hundred metres from the corner of the Passage Corneille, but I had a chaise and pair of horses waiting down that same street, and that now was my objective. Yes, Sir! I had arranged the whole thing! But I had done it for mine own advantage, not for that of the miserly friend who had been too great a coward to risk his own skin for the sake of his beloved.
The guerdon was mine, and I was determined this time that no traitor or ingrate should filch from me the reward of my labours. With the thousand francs which Rochez had given me for my services I had engaged the chaise and horses, paid the coachman lavishly, and secured a cosy little apartment for my future wife in a pleasant hostelry I knew of at Suresnes.
I had taken the precaution to leave the wicket-gate on the latch. With my foot I pushed it open, and, keeping well under the cover of the tall convent wall, I ran swiftly to the corner of the Rue des Pipots. Here I paused a moment. Through the silence of the night my ear caught the faint sound of horses snorting and harness jingling in the distance, both sides from where I stood; but of gendarmes or passers-by there was no sign. Gathering up the full measure of my courage and holding my precious burden closer to my heart, I ran quickly down the street.
Within the next few seconds I had the seemingly inanimate maiden safely deposited in the inside of the barouche and myself sitting by her side. The driver cracked his whip, and whilst I, happy but exhausted, was mopping my streaming forehead the chaise rattled gaily along the uneven pavements of the great city in the direction of Suresnes.
What that fool Rochez was doing I could not definitely ascertain. I looked through the vasistas of the coach, but could see nothing in pursuit of us. Then I turned my full attention to my lovely companion. It was pitch dark inside the carriage, you understand; only from time to time, as we drove past an overhanging street lanthorn, I caught a glimpse of that priceless bundle beside me, which lay there so still and so snug, still wrapped up in the shawl.
With cautious, loving fingers I undid its folds. Under cover of the darkness the sweet and modest creature, released of her bonds, turned for an instant to me, and for a few, very few, happy seconds I held her in my arms.
"Have no fear, fair one," I murmured in her ear. "It is I, Hector Ratichon, who adores you and who cannot live without you! Forgive me for this seeming violence, which was prompted by an undying passion, and remember that to me you are as sacred as a divinity until the happy hour when I can proclaim you to the world as my beloved wife!"
I pressed her against my heart, and my lips imprinted a delicate kiss upon her forehead. After which, with chaste decorum, she once more turned away from me, covered her face and head with the shawl, and drew back into the remote corner of the carriage, where she remained, silent and absorbed, no doubt, in the contemplation of her happiness.
I respected her silence, and I, too, fell to meditating upon my good fortune. Here was I, Sir, within sight of a haven wherein I could live through the twilight of my days in comfort and in peace, a beautiful young wife, a modest fortune! I had never in my wildest dreams envisaged a Fate more fair. The little house at Chantilly which I coveted, the plot of garden, the espalier peaches--all, all would be mine now! It seemed indeed too good to be true!
The very next moment I was rudely awakened from those golden dreams by a loud clatter, and stern voices shouting the ominous word, "Halt!" The carriage drew up with such a jerk that I was flung off my seat against the front window and my nose seriously bruised. A faint cry of terror came from the precious bundle beside me."Have no fear, my beloved," I whispered hurriedly. "Your own Hector will protect you!" Already the door of the carriage had been violently torn open; the next moment a gruff voice called out peremptorily: "By order of the Chief Commissary of Police!"
I was dumbfounded. In what manner had the Chief Commissary of Police been already apprised of this affair? The whole thing was, of course, a swift and vengeful blow dealt to me by that cowardly Rochez. But how, in the name of thunder, had he got to work so quickly? But, of course, there was no time now for reflection. The gruff voice was going on more peremptorily and more insistently:"Is Hector Ratichon here?" I was dumb. My throat had closed up, and I could not have uttered a sound to save my life. The police had even got my name quite straight!
"Now then, Ratichon," that same irascible voice continued, "get out of there! In the name of the law I charge you with the abduction of a defenceless female, and my orders are to bring you forthwith before the Chief Commissary of Police." Then it was, Sir, that bliss once more re-entered my soul. I had just felt a small hand pressing something crisp into mine, whilst a soft voice whispered in my ear:"Give him this, and tell him to let you go in peace. Say that I am Mademoiselle Goldberg, your promised wife."
The feel of that crackling note in my hand at once restored my courage. Covering the lovely creature beside me with a protecting arm, I replied boldly to the minion of the law."This lady," I said, "is my affianced wife. You, Sir Gendarme, are overstepping your powers. I demand that you let us proceed in peace."
"My orders are--" the gendarme resumed; but already my sensitive ear had detected a faint wavering in the gruffness of his voice. The hectoring tone had gone out of it. I could not see him, of course, but somehow I felt that his attitude had become less arrogant and his glance more shifty.
"This gentleman has spoken the truth," now came in soft, dulcet tones from under the shawl that wrapped the head of my beloved. "I am Mlle. Goldberg, M. le Gendarme, and I am travelling with M. Hector Ratichon entirely of my own free will, since I have promised him that I would be his wife.""Ah!" the gendarme ejaculated, obviously mollified. "If Mademoiselle is the fiancée of Monsieur, and is acting of her own free will--"
"It is not for you to interfere, eh, my friend?" I broke in jocosely. "You will now let us proceed in peace, and for your trouble you will no doubt accept this token of my consideration." And, groping in the darkness, I found the rough hand of the gendarme, and speedily pressed into it the crisp note which my adored one had given to me.
"Ah!" he said, with very obvious gratification. "If Monsieur Ratichon will assure me that Mademoiselle here is indeed his affianced wife, then indeed it is not a case of abduction, and--"
"Abduction!" I retorted, flaring up in righteous indignation. "Who dares to use the word in connexion with this lovely lady? Mademoiselle Goldberg, I swear, will be Madame Ratichon within the next four and twenty hours. And the sooner you, Sir Gendarme, allow us to proceed on our way the less pain will you cause to this distressed and virtuous damsel."
This settled the whole affair quite comfortably. The gendarme shut the carriage door with a bang, and at my request gave the order to the driver to proceed. The latter once again cracked his whip, and once again the cumbrous vehicle, after an awkward lurch, rattled on its way along the cobblestones of the sleeping city.
Once more I was alone with the priceless treasure by my side--alone and happy-more happy, I might say, than I had been before. Had not my adored one openly acknowledged her love for me and her desire to stand with me at the hymeneal altar? To put it vulgarly--though vulgarity in every form is repellent to me--she had burnt her boats. She had allowed her name to be coupled with mine in the presence of the minions of the law. What, after that, could her father do but give his consent to a union which alone would save his only child's reputation from the cruelty of waggish tongues?
No doubt, Sir, that I was happy. True, that when the uncouth gendarme finally slammed to the door of our carriage and we restarted on our way, my ears had been unpleasantly tickled by the sound of prolonged and ribald laughter--laughter which sounded strangely and unpleasantly familiar. But after a few seconds' serious reflection I dismissed the matter from my thoughts. If, as indeed I gravely suspected, it was Fernand Rochez who had striven thus to put a spoke in the wheel of my good fortune, he would certainly not have laughed when I drove triumphantly away with my conquered bride by my side. And, of course, my ears must have deceived me when they caught the sound of a girl's merry laugh mingling with the more ribald one of the man.4. I have paused purposely, Sir, ere I embark upon the narration of the final stage of this, my life's adventure.
The chaise was bowling along the banks of the river toward Suresnes. Presently the driver struck to his right and plunged into the fastnesses of the Bois de Boulogne. For a while, therefore, we were in utter darkness. My lovely companion neither moved nor spoke. Somewhere in the far distance a church clock struck eleven. One whole hour had gone by since first I had embarked on this great undertaking.
I was excited, feverish. The beautiful Leah's silence and tranquillity grated upon my nerves. I could not understand how she could remain there so placid when her whole life's happiness had so suddenly, so unexpectedly, been assured. I became more and more fidgety as time went on. Soon I felt that I could no longer hold myself in proper control. Being of an impulsive disposition, this tranquil acceptance of so great a joy became presently intolerable, and, unable to restrain my ardour any longer, I seized that passive bundle of loveliness in my arms.
"Have no fear," I murmured once again, as I pressed her to my heart. But my admonition was obviously unnecessary. The beautiful Leah showed not the slightest sign of fear. She rested her head against my shoulder and put one arm around my neck. I was in raptures.
Just then the vehicle swung out of the Bois and once more rattled upon the cobblestones. This time we were nearing Suresnes. A vague light, emanating from the lanthorns at the bridge-head, was already faintly visible ahead of us. Soon it grew brighter. The next moment we passed immediately beneath the lanthorns. The interior of the carriage was flooded with light . . . and, Sir, I gave a gasp of unadulterated dismay! The being whom I held in my arms, whose face was even at that moment raised up to my own, was not the lovely Leah! It was Sarah, Sir! Sarah Goldberg, the dour, angular aunt, whose yellow teeth gleamed for one brief moment through her thin lips as she threw me one of those glances of amorous welcome which invariably sent a cold shiver down my spine. Sarah Goldberg! I scarce could believe my eyes, and for a moment did indeed think that the elusive, swiftly-vanished light of the bridge-head lanthorns had played my excited senses a weird and cruel trick. But no! The very next second proved my disillusionment. Sarah spoke to me!
She spoke to me and laughed! Ah, she was happy, Sir! Happy in that she had completely and irrevocably tricked me! That traitor Fernand Rochez was up to the neck in the plot which had saddled me for ever with an ugly, elderly wife of dour mien and no fortune, while he and the lovely Leah were spinning the threads of perfect love at the other end of Paris and laughing their fill at my discomfiture. Think, Sir, what I suffered during those few brief minutes while the coach lurched through the narrow streets of Suresnes, and I had perforce to listen to the protestations of undying love from this unprepossessing female!
That love, she vowed, was her excuse, and everything, she asserted, was fair in love and war. She knew that after Rochez had attained his heart's desire and carried off the lady of his choice--which he had successfully done half an hour before I myself made my way up the Passage Corneille--I would pass out of her life for ever. This she could not endure. Life at once would become intolerable. And, aided and abetted by Rochez and Leah, she had planned and contrived my mystification and won me by foul means, since she could not do so by fair; and it seemed as if her volubility then was the forecast of what my life with her would be in the future. Talk! Talk! Talk! She never ceased!
She told me the whole story of the abominable conspiracy against my liberty. Her brother, M. Goldberg, she explained, had determined upon remarriage. She, Sarah, felt that henceforth she would be in the way of everybody; she would have no home. Leah married to Rochez; a new and young Mme. Goldberg ruling in the old house of the Rue des Médecins! Ah, it was unthinkable!
And I, Sir--I, Hector Ratichon--had, it appears, by my polite manners and prepossessing ways, induced this dour old maid to believe that she was not altogether indifferent to me. Ah, how I cursed my own charms, when I realised whither they had led me! It seems that it was that fickle jade Leah who first imagined the whole execrable plot. Rochez was to entrust me with the task of carrying off his beloved, and thus I would be tricked in the darkness into abducting Mlle. Goldberg senior from her home. Then some friends of Rochez arranged to play the comedy of false gendarmes, and again I was tricked into acknowledging Sarah as my affianced wife before independent witnesses. After that I could no longer repudiate mine honourable intentions, for if I did, then I should be arraigned before the law on a criminal charge of abduction. In this comedy of false gendarmes Rochez himself and the heartless Leah had joined with zest and laughed over my discomfiture, whilst the friends who played their rôles to such perfection had a paltry hundred francs each as the price of this infamous trick. Now my doom was sealed, and all that was left for me to do was to think disconsolately over my future.
I did bitterly reproach Sarah for her treachery and tried to still her protestations of love by pointing out to her that I had absolutely no fortune, and could only offer her a life of squalor, not to say of what. But this she knew, and vowed that penury by my side would make her happier than luxury beside any other man. Ah, Sir, 'tis given to few men to arouse such selfless passion in a woman's heart, and it hath oft been my dream in the past one day thus to be adored for myself alone!
But for the moment I was too deeply angered to listen placidly to Sarah's vows of undying affection. My nerves were irritated by her fulsome adulation; indeed, I could not bear the sight of her nor yet the sound of her voice. You may imagine how thankful I was when the chaise came at last to a halt outside the humble little hostelry where I had engaged the room which I had so fondly hoped would have been occupied by the lovely and fickle Leah.
I bundled Mlle. Goldberg senior into the house, and here again I had to endure galling mortification in the shape of sidelong glances cast at me and my future bride by the landlord of the hostelry and his ill-bred daughter. When I engaged the room I had very foolishly told them that it would be occupied by a lovely lady who had consented to be my wife, and that she would remain here in happy seclusion until such time as all arrangements for our wedding were complete. The humiliation of these vulgar people's irony seemed like the last straw which overweighed my forbearance. The room and pension I had already paid two days in advance, so I had nothing more to say either to the ribald landlord or to Mlle. Goldberg senior. I was bitterly angered against her, and refused her the solace of a kindly look or of an encouraging pressure from my hand, even though she waited for both with the pathetic patience of an old spaniel.
I re-entered the coach, which was to take me back to mine own humble lodgings in Passy. Here at least I was alone--alone with my gloomy thoughts. My heart was full of wrath against the woman who had so basely tricked me, and I viewed with dismay amounting almost to despair the prospect of spending the rest of my life in her company. That night I slept but little, nor yet the following night, or the night after that. Those days I spent in seclusion, thankful for my solitude.
Twice each day did Mlle. Goldberg come to my lodgings. In the foolish past I had somewhat injudiciously acquainted her of where I lived. Now she came and asked to be allowed to see me, but invariably did I refuse thus to gratify her. I felt that time alone would perhaps soften my feelings a little towards her. In the meanwhile I must commend her discretion and delicacy of procedure. She did not in any way attempt to molest me. When she was told by Theodore--whom I employed during the day to guard me against unwelcome visitors--that I refused to see her, she invariably went away without demur, nor did she refer in any way, either with adjurations or threats, to the impending wedding. Indeed, Sir, she was a lady of vast discretion.
On the third day, however, I received a visit from M. Goldberg himself. I could not refuse to see him. Indeed, he would not be denied, but roughly pushed Theodore aside, who tried to hinder him. He had come armed with a riding-whip, and nothing but mine own innate dignity saved me from outrage. He came, Sir, with a marriage licence for his sister and me in one pocket and with a denunciation to the police against me for abduction in another. He gave me the choice. What could I do, Sir? I was like a helpless babe in the hands of unscrupulous brigands!
The marriage licence was for the following day--at the mairie of the eighth arrondissement first, and in the synagogue of the Rue des Halles afterwards. I chose the marriage licence. What could I do, Sir? I was helpless!
Of my wedding day I have but a dim recollection. It was all hustle and bustle; from the mairie to the synagogue, and thence to the house of M. Goldberg in the Rue des Médecins. I must say that the old usurer received me and my bride with marked amiability. He was, I gathered, genuinely pleased that his sister had found happiness and a home by the side of an honourable man, seeing that he himself was on the point of contracting a fresh alliance with a Jewish lady of unsurpassed loveliness.
Of Rochez and Leah we saw nothing that day, and from one or two words which M. Goldberg let fall I concluded that he was greatly angered against his daughter because of her marriage with a fortune-hunting adventurer, who, he weirdly hinted, had already found quick and exemplary punishment for his crime. I was sincerely glad to hear this, even though I could not get M. Goldberg to explain in what that exemplary punishment consisted.
The climax came at six o'clock of that eventful afternoon, at the hour when I, with the newly-enthroned Mme. Ratichon on my arm, was about to take leave of M. Goldberg. I must admit that at that moment my heart was overflowing with bitterness. I had been led like a lamb to the slaughter; I had been made to look foolish and absurd in the midst of this Israelite community which I despised; I was saddled for the rest of my life with an unprepossessing elderly wife, who could do naught for me but share the penury, the hard crusts, the onion pies with me and Theodore. The only advantage I might ever derive from her was that she would darn my stockings, sew the buttons on my vests, and goffer the frills of my shirts!
Was this not enough to turn any man's naturally sweet disposition to gall? No doubt my mobile face betrayed something of the bitterness of my thoughts, for M. Goldberg at one moment slapped me vigorously on the back and bade me be of good cheer, as things were not so bad as I imagined. I was on the point of asking him what he meant when I saw another gentleman advancing toward me. His face, which was sallow and oily, bore a kind of obsequious smile; his clothes were of rusty black, and his features were markedly Jewish in character. He had some law papers under his arm, and he was perpetually rubbing his thin, bony hands together as if he were for ever washing them."Monsieur Hector Ratichon," he said unctuously, "it is with much gratification that I bring you the joyful news."
Joyful news!--to me! Ah, Sir, the words struck at first with cruel irony upon mine ear. But not so a second later, for the Jewish gentleman went on speaking, and what he said appeared to my reeling senses like songs of angels from paradise.
At first I could not grasp his full meaning. A moment ago I had been in the depths of despair, and now--now--a whole vista of beatitude opened out before me! What the worthy Israelite said was that, by the terms of Grandpapa Goldberg's will, if Leah married without her father's consent, one-half of the fortune destined for her would revert to her aunt, Sarah Goldberg, now Madame Hector Ratichon.
Can you wonder that I could scarce believe my ears? One-half that fortune meant that a hundred thousand francs would now become mine! M. Goldberg had already made it very clear to his daughter and to Rochez that he would never give his consent to their marriage, and, as this was now consummated, they had already forfeited one-half of the grandfather's fortune in favour of my Sarah. That was the exemplary punishment which they were to suffer for their folly.
But their folly--aye! and their treachery--had become my joy. In this moment of heavenly rapture I was speechless, but I turned to Sarah with loving arms outstretched, and the next instant she nestled against my heart like a joyful if elderly bird.
What is said of a people, Sir, is also true of the individual. Happy he who hath no history. Since that never-to-be-forgotten hour my life has run its simple, uneventful course here in this quiet corner of our beautiful France, with my pony and my dog and my chickens, and Mme. Ratichon to minister to my creature comforts.
I bought this little property, Sir, soon after my marriage, and my office in the Rue Daunou knows me no more. You like the house, Sir? Ah, yes! And the garden? . . . After déjeuner you must see my prize chickens. Theodore will show them to you. You did not know Theodore was here? Well, yes! He lives with us. Madame Ratichon finds him useful about the house, and, not being used to luxuries, he is on the whole pleasantly contented.Ah, here comes Madame Ratichon to tell us that the déjeuner is served! This way, Sir, under the porch. . . . After you! THE END