Other People's Money by Emile Gaboriau - HTML preview

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Chapter I.15

 

It was done: Gilberte Favoral had just irrevocably disposed of herself. Prosperous or wretched, her destiny henceforth was linked with another. She had set the wheel in motion; and she could no longer hope to control its direction, any more than the will can pretend to alter the course of the ivory ball upon the surface of the roulette-table. At the outset of this great storm of passion which had suddenly surrounded her, she felt an immense surprise, mingled with unexplained apprehensions and vague terrors.

Around her, apparently, nothing was changed. Father, mother, brother, friends, gravitated mechanically in their accustomed orbits. The same daily facts repeated themselves monotonous and regular as the tick-tack of the clock.

And yet an event had occurred more prodigious for her than the moving of a mountain.

Often during the weeks that followed, she would repeat to herself, "Is it true, is it possible even?"

Or else she would run to a mirror to make sure once more that nothing upon her face or in her eyes betrayed the secret that palpitated within her.

The singularity of the situation was, moreover, well calculated to trouble and confound her mind.

Mastered by circumstances, she had in utter disregard of all accepted ideas, and of the commonest propriety, listened to the passionate promises of a stranger, and pledged her life to him. And, the pact concluded and solemnly sworn, they had parted without knowing when propitious circumstances might bring them together again.

"Certainly," thought she, "before God, M. de Tregars is my betrothed husband; and yet we have never exchanged a word. Were we to meet in society, we should be compelled to meet as strangers: if he passes by me in the street, he has no right to bow to me. I know not where he is, what becomes of him, nor what he is doing."

And in fact she had not seen him again: he had given no sign of life, so faithfully did he conform to her expressed wish. And perhaps secretly, and without acknowledging it to herself, had she wished him less scrupulous. Perhaps she would not have been very angry to see him sometimes gliding along at her passage under the old Arcades of the Rue des Vosges.

But, whilst suffering from this separation, she conceived for the character of Marius the highest esteem; for she felt sure that he must suffer as much and more than she from the restraint which he imposed upon himself.

Thus he was ever present to her thoughts. She never tired of turning over in her mind all he had said of his past life: she tried to remember his words, and the very tone of his voice.

And by living constantly thus with the memory of Marius de Tregars, she made herself familiar with him, deceived to that extent, by the illusion of absence, that she actually persuaded herself that she knew him better and better every day.

Already nearly a month had elapsed, when one afternoon, as she arrived on the Place Royal; she recognized him, standing near that same bench where they had so strangely exchanged their pledges.

He saw her coming too: she knew it by his looks. But, when she had arrived within a few steps of him, he walked off rapidly, leaving on the bench a folded newspaper.

Mme. Favoral wished to call him back and return it; but Mlle. Gilberte persuaded her not to.

"Never mind, mother," said she, "it isn't worth while; and, besides, the gentleman is too far now."

But while getting out her embroidery, with that dexterity which never fails even the most naive girls, she slipped the newspaper in her work-basket.

Was she not certain that it had been left there for her?

As soon as she had returned home, she locked herself up in her own room, and, after searching for some time through the columns, she read at last:

"One of the richest and most intelligent manufacturers in Paris, M. Marcolet, has just purchased in Grenelle the vast grounds belonging to the Lacoche estate. He proposes to build upon them a manufacture of chemical products, the management of which is to be placed in the hands of M. de T--.

"Although still quite young, M. de T-- is already well known in connection with his remarkable studies on electricity. He was, perhaps, on the eve of solving the much controverted problem of electricity as a motive-power, when his father's ruin compelled him to suspend his labors. He now seeks to earn by his personal industry the means of prosecuting his costly experiments.

"He is not the first to tread this path. Is it not to the invention of the machine bearing his name, that the engineer Giffard owes the fortune which enables him to continue to seek the means of steering balloons? Why should not M. de T--, who has as much skill and energy, have as much luck?"

"Ah! he does not forget me," thought Mlle. Gilberte, moved to tears by this article, which, after all, was but a mere puff, written by Marcolet himself, without the knowledge of M. de Tregars.

She was still under that impression, thinking that Marius was already at work, when her father announced to her that he had discovered a husband, and enjoined her to find him to her liking, as he, the master, thought it proper that she should.

Hence the energy of her refusal.

But hence also, the imprudent vivacity which had enlightened Mme. Favoral, and which made her say:

"You hide something from me, Gilberte?"

Never had the young girl been so cruelly embarrassed as she was at this moment by this sudden and unforeseen perspicacity.

Would she confide to her mother?

She felt, indeed, no repugnance to do so, certain as she was, in advance, of the inexhaustible indulgence of the poor woman; and, besides, she would have been delighted to have some one at last with whom she could speak of Marius.

But she knew that her father was not the man to give up a project conceived by himself. She knew that he would return to the charge obstinately, without peace, and without truce. Now, as she was determined to resist with a no less implacable obstinacy, she foresaw terrible struggles, all sorts of violence and persecutions.

Informed of the truth, would Mme. Favoral have strength enough to resist these daily storms? Would not a time come, when, called upon by her husband to explain the refusals of her daughter, threatened, terrified, she would confess all?

At one glance Mlle. Gilberte estimated the danger; and, drawing from necessity an audacity which was very foreign to her nature:

"You are mistaken, dear mother," said she, "I have concealed nothing from you." Not quite convinced, Mme. Favoral shook her head.

"Then," said she, "you will yield."

"Never!"

"Then there must be some reason you do not tell me."

"None, except that I do not wish to leave you. Have you ever thought what would be your existence if I were no longer here? Have you ever asked yourself what would become of you, between my father, whose despotism will grow heavier with age, and my brother?"

Always prompt to defend her son:

"Maxence is not bad," she interrupted: "he will know how to compensate me for the sorrows he has inflicted upon me."

The young girl made a gesture of doubt:

"I wish it, dear mother," said she, "with all my heart; but I dare not hope for it. His repentance to-night was great and sincere; but will he remember it to-morrow? Besides, don't you know that father has fully resolved to separate himself from Maxence? Think of yourself alone here with father."

Mme. Favoral shuddered at the mere idea.

"I would not suffer very long," she murmured. Mlle. Gilberte kissed her.

"It is because I wish you to live to be happy that I refuse to marry," she exclaimed. "Must you not have your share of happiness in this world? Let me manage. Who knows what compensations the future may have in store for you? Besides, this person whom father has selected for me does not suit me. A stock- jobber, who would think of nothing but money,--who would examine my house- accounts as papa does yours, or else who would load me with cashmeres and diamonds, like Mme. de Thaller, to make of me a sign for his shop? No, no! I want no such man. So, mother dear, be brave, take sides boldly with your daughter, and we shall soon be rid of this would-be husband."

"Your father will bring him to you: he said he would."

"Well, he is a man of courage, if he returns three times." At this moment the parlor-door opened suddenly.

"What are you plotting here again?" cried the irritated voice of the master. "And you, Mme. Favoral, why don't you go to bed?"

The poor slave obeyed, without saying a word. And, whilst making her way to her room:

"There is trouble ahead," thought Mlle. Gilberte. "But bash! If I do have to suffer some, it won't be great harm, after all. Surely Marius does not complain, though he gives up for me his dearest hopes, becomes the salaried employe of M. Marcolet, and thinks of nothing but making money,--he so proud and so disinterested!"

Mlle. Gilberte's anticipations were but too soon realized. When M. Favoral made his appearance the next morning, he had the sombre brow and contracted lips of a man who has spent the night ruminating a plan from which he does not mean to swerve.

Instead of going to his office, as usual, without saying a word to any one, he called his wife and children to the parlor; and, after having carefully bolted all the doors, he turned to Maxence.

"I want you," he commenced, "to give me a list of your creditors. See that you forget none; and let it be ready as soon as possible."

But Maxence was no longer the same man. After the terrible and well-deserved reproaches of his sister, a salutary revolution had taken place in him. During the preceding night, he had reflected over his conduct for the past four years; and he had been dismayed and terrified. His impression was like that of the drunkard, who, having become sober, remembers the ridiculous or degrading acts which he has committed under the influence of alcohol, and, confused and humiliated, swears never more to drink.

Thus Maxence had sworn to himself to change his mode of life, promising that it would be no drunkard's oath, either. And his attitude and his looks showed the pride of great resolutions.

Instead of lowering his eyes before the irritated glance of M. Favoral, and stammering excuses and vague promises:

"It is useless, father," he replied, "to give you the list you ask for. I am old enough to bear the responsibility of my acts. I shall repair my follies: what I owe, I shall pay. This very day I shall see my creditors, and make arrangements with them."

"Very well, Maxence," exclaimed Mme. Favoral, delighted. But there was no pacifying the cashier of the Mutual Credit.

"Those are fine-sounding words," he said with a sneer; "but I doubt if the tailors and the shirt-makers will take them in payment. That's why I want that list."

"Still--"

"It's I who shall pay. I do not mean to have another such scene as that of yesterday in my office. It must not be said that my son is a sharper and a cheat at the very moment when I find for my daughter a most unhoped-for match."

And, turning to Mlle. Gilberte:

"For I suppose you have got over your foolish ideas," he uttered. The young girl shook her head.

"My ideas are the same as they were last night."

"Ah, ah!"

"And so, father, I beg of you, do not insist. Why wrangle and quarrel? You must know me well enough to know, that, whatever may happen, I shall never yield."

Indeed, M. Favoral was well aware of his daughter's firmness; for he had already been compelled on several occasions, as he expressed it himself, "to strike his flag" before her. But he could not believe that she would resist when he took certain means of enforcing his will.

"I have pledged my word," he said. "But I have not pledged mine, father."

He was becoming excited: his cheeks were flushed; and his little eyes sparkled.

"And suppose I were to tell you," he resumed, doing at least to his daughter the honor of controlling his anger: "suppose I were to tell you that I would derive from this marriage immense, positive, and immediate advantages?"

"Oh!" she interrupted with a look of disgust, "oh, for mercy's sake!"

"Suppose I were to tell you that I have a powerful interest in it; that it is indispensable to the success of vast combinations?"

Mlle. Gilberte looked straight at him.

"I would answer you," she exclaimed, "that it does not suit me to be made use of as an earnest to your combinations. Ah! it's an operation, is it? an enterprise, a big speculation? and you throw in your daughter in the bargain as a bonus. Well, no! You can tell your partner that the thing has fallen through."

M. Favoral's anger was growing with each word.

"I'll see if I can't make you yield," he said.

"You may crush me, perhaps. Make me yield, never!"

"Well, we shall see. You will see--Maxence and you--whether there are no means by which a father can compel his rebellious children to submit to his authority."

And, feeling that he was no longer master of himself, he left, swearing loud enough to shake the plaster from the stair-walls.

Maxence shook with indignation.

"Never," he uttered, "never until now, had I understood the infamy of my conduct. With a father such as ours, Gilberte, I should be your protector. And now I am debarred even of the right to interfere. But never mind, I have the will; and all will soon be repaired."

Left alone, a few moments after, Mlle. Gilberte was congratulating herself upon her firmness.

"I am sure," she thought, "Marius would approve, if he knew."

She had not long to wait for her reward. The bell rang: it was her old professor, the Signor Gismondo Pulei, who came to give her his daily lesson.

The liveliest joy beamed upon his face, more shriveled than an apple at Easter; and the most magnificent anticipations sparkled in his eyes.

"I knew it, signora!" he exclaimed from the threshold: "I knew that angels bring good luck. As every thing succeeds to you, so must every thing succeed to those who come near you."

She could not help smiling at the appropriateness of the compliment. "Something fortunate has happened to you, dear master?" she asked.

"That is to say, I am on the high-road to fortune and glory," he replied. "My fame is extending; pupils dispute the privilege of my lesson."

Mlle. Gilberte knew too well the thoroughly Italian exaggeration of the worthy maestro to be surprised.

"This morning," he went on, "visited by inspiration, I had risen early, and I was working with marvelous facility, when there was a knock at my door. I do not remember such an occurrence since the blessed day when your worthy father called for me. Surprised, I nevertheless said, 'Come in;' when there appeared a tall and robust young man, proud and intelligent-looking."

The young girl started.

"Marius!" cried a voice within her.

"This young man," continued the old Italian, "had heard me spoken of, and came to apply for lessons. I questioned him; and from the first words I discovered that his education had been frightfully neglected, that he was ignorant of the most vulgar notions of the divine art, and that he scarcely knew the difference between a sharp and a quaver. It was really the A, B, C, which he wished me to teach him. Laborious task, ungrateful labor! But he manifested so much shame at his ignorance, and so much desire to be instructed, that I felt moved in his favor. Then his countenance was most winning, his voice of a superior tone; and finally he offered me sixty francs a month. In short, he is now my pupil."

As well as she could, Mlle. Gilberte was hiding her blushes behind a music-book. "We remained over two hours talking," said the good and simple maestro, "and I believe that he has excellent dispositions. Unfortunately, he can only take two lessons a week. Although a nobleman, he works; and, when he took off his glove to hand me a month in advance, I noticed that one of his hands was blackened, as if burnt by some acid. But never mind, signora, sixty francs, together with what your father gives me, it's a fortune. The end of my career will be spared the privations of its beginning. This young man will help making me known. The morning has been dark; but the sunset will be glorious."

The young girl could no longer have any doubts: M. de Tregars had found the means of hearing from her, and letting her hear from him.

The impression she felt contributed no little to give her the patience to endure the obstinate persecution of her father, who, twice a day, never failed to repeat to her:

"Get ready to properly receive my protege on Saturday. I have not invited him to dinner: he will only spend the evening with us."

And he mistook for a disposition to yield the cold tone in which she answered: "I beg you to believe that this introduction is wholly unnecessary."

Thus, the famous day having come, he told his usual Saturday guests, M. and Mme. Desclavettes, M. Chapelain, and old man Desormeaux: "Eh, eh! I guess you are going to see a future son-in-law!"

At nine o'clock, just as they had passed into the parlor, the sound of carriage- wheels startled the Rue St. Gilles.

"There he is!" exclaimed the cashier of the Mutual Credit. And, throwing open a window:

"Come, Gilberte," he added, "come and see his carriage and horses."

She never stirred; but M. Desclavettes and M. Chapelain ran. It was night, unfortunately; and of the whole equipage nothing was visible but the two lanterns that shone like stars. Almost at the same time the parlor-door flew open; and the servant, who had been properly trained in advance, announced:

"Monsieur Costeclar."

Leaning toward Mme. Favoral, who was seated by her side on the sofa, "A nice-looking man, isn't he? a really nice-looking man," whispered Mme. Desclavettes.

And indeed he really thought so himself. Gesture, attitude, smile, every thing in M. Costeclar, betrayed the satisfaction of self, and the assurance of a man accustomed to success. His head, which was very small, had but little hair left; but it was artistically drawn towards the temples, parted in the middle, and cut short around the forehead. His leaden complexion, his pale lips, and his dull eye, did not certainly betray a very rich blood; he had a great long nose, sharp and curved like a sickle; and his beard, of undecided color, trimmed in the Victor Emmanuel style, did the greatest honor to the barber who cultivated it. Even when seen for the first time, one might fancy that he recognized him, so exactly was he like three or four hundred others who are seen daily in the neighborhood of the Cafe Riche, who are met everywhere where people run who pretend to amuse themselves,--at the bourse or in the bois; at the first representations, where they are just enough hidden to be perfectly well seen at the back of boxes filled with young ladies with astonishing chignons; at the races; in carriages, where they drink champagne to the health of the winner.

He had on this occasion hoisted his best looks, and the full dress _de rigueur_-- dress-coat with wide sleeves, shirt cut low in the neck, and open vest, fastened below the waist by a single button.

"Quite the man of the world," again remarked Mme. Desclavettes.

M. Favoral rushed toward him; and the latter, hastening, met him half way, and, taking both his hands into his--"I cannot tell you, dear friend," he commenced, "how deeply I feel the honor you do me in receiving me in the midst of your charming family and your respectable friends."

And he bowed all around during this speech, which he delivered in the condescending tone of a lord visiting his inferiors.

"Let me introduce you to my wife," interrupted the cashier. And, leading him towards Mme. Favoral--"Monsieur Costeclar, my dear," said he: "the friend of whom we have spoken so often."

M. Costeclar bowed, rounding his shoulders, bending his lean form in a half- circle, and letting his arms hang forward.

"I am too much the friend of our dear Favoral, madame," he uttered, "not to have heard of you long since, nor to know your merits, and the fact that he owes to you that peaceful happiness which he enjoys, and which we all envy him."

Standing by the mantel-piece, the usual Saturday evening guests followed with the liveliest interest the evolutions of the pretender. Two of them, M. Chapelain and old Desormeaux, were perfectly able to appreciate him at his just value; but, in affirming that he made half a million a year, M. Favoral had, as it were, thrown over his shoulders that famous ducal cloak which concealed all deformities.

Without waiting for his wife's answer, M. Favoral brought his protege in front of Mlle. Gilberte.

"Dear daughter," said he, "Monsieur Costeclar, the friend of whom I have spoken."

M. Costeclar bowed still lower, and rounded off his shoulders again; but the young lady looked at him from head to foot with such a freezing glance, that his tongue remained as if paralyzed in his mouth, and he could only stammer out:

"Mademoiselle! the honor, the humblest of your admirers."

Fortunately Maxence was standing three steps off--he fell back in good order upon him, and seizing his hand, which he shook vigorously:

"I hope, my dear sir, that we shall soon be quite intimate friends. Your excellent father, whose special concern you are, has often spoken to me of you. Events, so he has confided to me, have not hitherto responded to your expectations. At your age, this is not a very grave matter. People, now-a-days, do not always find at the first attempt the road that leads to fortune. You will find yours. From this time forth I place at your command my influence and my experience; and, if you will consent to take me for your guide--"

Maxence had withdrawn his hand.

"I am very much obliged to you, sir," he answered coldly; "but I am content with my lot, and I believe myself old enough to walk alone."

Almost any one would have lost countenance. But M. Costeclar was so little put out, that it seemed as though he had expected just such a reception. He turned upon his heels, and advanced towards M. Favoral's friends with a smile so engaging as to make it evident that he was anxious to conquer their suffrages.

This was at the beginning of the month of June, 1870. No one as yet could foresee the frightful disasters which were to mark the end of that fatal year. And yet there was everywhere in France that indefinable anxiety which precedes great social convulsions. The plebiscitum had not succeeded in restoring confidence. Every day the most alarming rumors were put in circulation and it was with a sort of passion that people went in quest of news.

Now, M. Costeclar was a wonderfully well-posted man. He had, doubtless, on his way, stopped on the Boulevard des Italiens, that blessed ground where nightly the street-brokers labor for the financial prosperity of the country. He had gone through the Passage de l'Opera, which is, as is well known, the best market for the most correct and the most reliable news. Therefore he might safely be believed.

Placing his back to the chimney, he had taken the lead in the conversation; and he was talking, talking, talking. Being a "bull," he took a favorable view of every thing. He believed in the eternity of the second empire. He sang the praise of the new cabinet: he was ready to pour out his blood for Emile Ollivier. True, some people complained that business was dull and slow; but those people, he thought, were merely "bears." Business had never been so brilliant. At no time had prosperity been greater. Capital was abundant. The institutions of credit were flourishing. Securities were rising. Everybody's pockets were full to bursting. And the others listened in astonishment to this inexhaustible prattle, this "gab," more filled with gold spangles than Dantzig cordial, with which the commercial travelers of the bourse catch their customers.

Suddenly:

"But you must excuse me," he said, rushing towards the other end of the parlor. Mme. Favoral had just left the room to order tea to be brought in; and, the seat by Mlle. Gilberte being vacant, M. Costeclar occupied it promptly. "He understands his business," growled M. Desormeaux.

"Surely," said M. Desclavettes, "if I had some funds to dispose of just now."

"I would be most happy to have him for my son-in-law," declared M. Favoral.

He was doing his best. Somewhat intimidated by Mlle. Gilberte's first look, he had now fully recovered his wits.

He commenced by sketching his own portrait.

He had just turned thirty, and had experienced the strong and the weak side of life. He had had "successes," but had tired of them. Having gauged the emptiness of what is called pleasure, he only wished now to find a partner for life, whose graces and virtues would secure his domestic happiness.

He could not help noticing the absent look of the young girl; but he had, thought he, other means of compelling her attention. And he went on, saying that he felt himself cast of the metal of which model husbands are made. His plans were all made in advance. His wife would be free to do as she pleased. She would have her own carriage and horses, her box at the Italiens and at the Opera, and an open account at Worth's and Van Klopen's. As to diamonds, he would take care of that. He meant that his wife's display of wealth should be noticed; and even spoken of in the newspapers.

Was this the terms of a bargain that he was offering?

If so, it was so coarsely, that Mlle. Gilberte, ignorant of life as she was, wondered in what world it might be that he had met with so many "successes." And, somewhat indignantly:

"Unfortunately," she said, "the bourse is perfidious; and the man who drives his own carriage to-day, to-morrow may have no shoes to wear."

M. Costeclar nodded with a smile.

"Exactly so," said he. "A marriage protects one against such reverses.

"Every man in active business, when he marries, settles upon his wife reasonable fortune. I expect to settle six hundred thousand francs upon mine."

"So that, if you were to meet with an--accident?"

"We should enjoy our thirty thousand a year under the very nose of the creditors."

Blushing with shame, Mlle. Gilberte rose.

"But then," said she, "it isn't a wife that you are looking for: it is an accomplice."

He was spared the embarrassment of an answer, by the servant, who came in, bringing in tea. He accepted a cup; and after two or three anecdotes, judging that he had done enough for a first visit, he withdrew, and a moment later they heard his carriage driving off at full gallop.