Other People's Money by Emile Gaboriau - HTML preview

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Chapter I.21

 

Mlle. Gilberte was soon far away; and Marius de Tregars remained motionless at the corner of the street, following her with his eyes through the darkness.

She was walking fast, staggering over the rough pavement. Leaving Marius, she fell back upon the earth from the height of her dreams. The deceiving illusion had vanished, and, returned to the world of sad reality, she was seized with anxiety.

How long had she been out? She knew not, and found it impossible to reckon. But it was evidently getting late; for some of the shops were already closing.

Meantime, she had reached the house. Stepping back, and looking up, she saw that there was light in the parlor.

"Mother has returned," she thought, trembling with apprehension.

She hurried up, nevertheless; and, just as she reached the landing, Mme. Favoral opened the door, preparing to go down.

"At last you are restored to me!" exclaimed the poor mother, whose sinister apprehensions were revealed by that single exclamation. "I was going out to look for you at random,--in the streets, anywhere."

And, drawing her daughter within the parlor, she clasped her in her arms with convulsive tenderness, exclaiming, "Where were you? Where do you come from? Do you know that it is after nine o'clock?"

Such had been Mlle. Gilberte's state of mind during the whole of that evening, that she had not even thought of finding a pretext to justify her absence. Now it was too late. Besides, what explanation would have been plausible? Instead, therefore, of answering, "Why, dear mother," she said with a forced smile, "has it not happened to me twenty times to go out in the neighborhood?"

But Mme. Favoral's confiding credulity existed no longer.

"I have been blind, Gilberte," she interrupted; "but this time my eyes must open to evidence. There is in your life a mystery, something extraordinary, which I dare not try to guess."

Mlle. Gilberte drew herself up, and, looking her mother straight in the eyes, with her beautiful, clear glance, "Would you suspect me of something wrong, then?" she exclaimed. Mme. Favoral stopped her with a gesture.

"A young girl who conceals something from her mother always does wrong," she uttered. "It is a long while since I have had for the first time the presentiment that you were hiding something from me. But, when I questioned you, you succeeded in quieting my suspicions. You have abused my confidence and my weakness."

This reproach was the most cruel that could be addressed to Mlle. Gilberte. The blood rushed to her face, and, in a firm voice,

"Well, yes," said she: "I have a secret."

"Dear me!"

"And, if I did not confide it to you, it is because it is also the secret of another. Yes, I confess it, I have been imprudent in the extreme; I have stepped beyond all the limits of propriety and social custom; I have exposed myself to the worst calumnies. But never,--I swear it,--never have I done any thing of which my conscience can reproach me, nothing that I have to blush for, nothing that I regret, nothing that I am not ready to do again to-morrow."

"I said nothing, 'tis true; but it was my duty. Alone I had to suffer the responsibility of my acts. Having alone freely engaged my future, I wished to bear alone the weight of my anxiety. I should never have forgiven myself for having added this new care to all your other sorrows."

Mme. Favoral stood dismayed. Big tears rolled down her withered cheeks.

"Don't you see, then," she stammered, "that all my past suffering is as nothing compared to what I endure to-day? Good heavens! what have I ever done to deserve so many trials? Am I to be spared none of the troubles of this world? And it is through my own daughter that I am the most cruelly stricken!"

This was more than Mlle. Gilberte could bear. Her heart was breaking at the sight of her mother's tears, that angel of meekness and resignation. Throwing her arms around her neck, and kissing her on the eyes,

"Mother," she murmured, "adored mother, I beg of you do not weep thus! Speak to me! What do you wish me to do?"

Gently the poor woman drew back. "Tell me the truth," she answered.

Was it not certain that this was the very thing she would ask; in fact, the only thing she could ask? Ah! how much would the young girl have preferred one of her father's violent scenes, and brutalities which would have exalted her energy, instead of crushing it!

Attempting to gain time, "Well, yes," she answered, "I'll tell you every thing, mother, but not now, to- morrow, later."

She was about to yield, however, when her father's arrival cut short their conversation.

The cashier of the Mutual Credit was quite lively that night. He was humming a tune, a thing which did not happen to him four times a year, and which was indicative of the most extreme satisfaction. But he stopped short at the sight of the disturbed countenance of his wife and daughter.

"What is the matter?" he inquired.

"Nothing," hastily answered Mlle. Gilberte,--"nothing at all, father."

"Then you are crying for your amusement," he said. "Come, be candid for once, and confess that Maxence has been at his tricks again!"

"You are mistaken, father: I swear it!"

He asked no further questions, being in his nature not very curious, whether because family matters were of so little consequence to him, or because he had a vague idea that his general behavior deprived him of all right to their confidence.

"Very well, then," he said in a gruff tone, "let us all go to bed. I have worked so hard to-day, that I am quite exhausted. People who pretend that business is dull make me laugh. Never has M. de Thaller been in the way of making so much money as now."

When he spoke, they obeyed. So that Mlle. Gilberte was thus going to have the whole night before her to resume possession of herself, to pass over in her mind the events of the evening, and deliberate coolly upon the decision she must come to; for, she could not doubt it, Mme. Favoral would, the very next day, renew her questions.

What should she say? All? Mlle. Gilberte felt disposed to do so by all the aspirations of her heart, by the certainty of indulgent complicity, by the thought of finding in a sympathetic soul the echo of her joys, of her troubles, and of her hopes.

Yes. But Mme. Favoral was still the same woman, whose firmest resolutions vanished under the gaze of her husband. Let a pretender come; let a struggle begin, as in the case of M. Costeclar,--would she have strength enough to remain silent? No!

Then it would be a fearful scene with M. Favoral. He might, perhaps, even go to M. de Tregars. What scandal! For he was a man who spared no one; and then a new obstacle would rise between them, more insurmountable still than the others.

Mlle. Gilberte was thinking, too, of Marius's projects; of that terrible game he was about to play, the issue of which was to decide their fate. He had said enough to make her understand all its perils, and that a single indiscretion might suffice to set at nought the result of many months' labor and patience. Besides, to speak, was it not to abuse Marius's confidence. How could she expect another to keep a secret she had been unable to keep herself?

At last, after protracted and painful hesitation, she decided that she was bound to silence, and that she would only vouchsafe the vaguest explanations.

It was in vain, then, that, on the next and the following days, Mme. Favoral tried to obtain that confession which she had seen, as it were, rise to her daughter's lips. To her passionate adjurations, to her tears, to her ruses even, Mlle. Gilberte invariably opposed equivocal answers, a story through which nothing could be guessed, save one of those childish romances which stop at the preface,--a schoolgirl love for a chimerical hero.

There was nothing in this very reassuring to a mother; but Mme. Favoral knew her daughter too well to hope to conquer her invincible obstinacy. She insisted no more, appeared convinced, but resolved to exercise the utmost vigilance. In vain, however, did she display all the penetration of which she was capable. The severest attention did not reveal to her a single suspicious fact, not a circumstance from which she could draw an induction, until, at last, she thought that she must have been mistaken.

The fact is, that Mlle. Gilberte had not been long in feeling herself watched; and she observed herself with a tenacious circumspection that could hardly have been expected of her resolute and impatient nature. She had trained herself to a sort of cheerful carelessness, to which she strictly adhered, watching every expression of her countenance, and avoiding carefully those hours of vague revery in which she formerly indulged.

For two successive weeks, fearing to be betrayed by her looks, she had the courage not to show herself at the window at the hour when she knew Marius would pass. Moreover, she was very minutely informed of the alternatives of the campaign undertaken by M. de Tregars.

More enthusiastic than ever about his pupil, the Signor Gismondo Pulei never tired of singing his praise, and with such pomp of expression, and so curious an exuberance of gesticulation, that Mme. Favoral was much amused; and, on the days when she was present at her daughter's lesson, she was the first to inquire, "Well, how is that famous pupil?"

And, according to what Marius had told him,

"He is swimming in the purest satisfaction," answered the candid maestro. "Every thing succeeds miraculously well, and much beyond his hopes."

Or else, knitting his brows--

"He was sad yesterday," he said, "owing to an unexpected disappointment; but he does not lose courage. We shall succeed."

The young girl could not help smiling to see her mother assisting thus the unconscious complicity of the Signor Gismondo. Then she reproached herself for having smiled, and for having thus come, through a gradual and fatal descent, to laugh at a duplicity at which she would have blushed in former times. In spite of herself, however, she took a passionate interest in the game that was being played between her mother and herself, and of which her secret was the stake. It was an ever-palpitating interest in her hitherto monotonous life, and a source of constantly-renewed emotions.

The days became weeks, and the weeks months; and Mme. Favoral relaxed her useless surveillance, and, little by little, gave it up almost entirely. She still thought, that, at a certain moment, something unusual had occurred to her daughter; but she felt persuaded, that, whatever that was, it had been forgotten.

So that, on the stated days, Mlle. Gilberte could go and lean upon the window, without fear of being called to account for the emotion which she felt when M. de Tregars appeared. At the expected hour, invariably, and with a punctuality to shame M. Favoral himself, he turned the corner of the Rue Turenne, exchanged a rapid glance with the young girl, and passed on.

His health was completely restored; and with it he had recovered that graceful virility which results from the perfect blending of suppleness and strength. But he no longer wore the plain garments of former days. He was dressed now with that elegant simplicity which reveals at first sight that rarest of objects,--a "perfect gentleman." And, whilst she accompanied him with her eyes as he walked towards the Boulevard, she felt thoughts of joy and pride rising from the bottom of her soul.

"Who would ever imagine," thought she, "that this young gentleman walking away yonder is my affianced husband, and that the day is perhaps not far, when, having become his wife, I shall lean upon his arm? Who would think that all my thoughts belong to him, that it is for my sake that he has given up the ambition of his life, and is now prosecuting another object? Who would suspect that it is for Gilberte Favoral's sake that the Marquis de Tregars is walking in the Rue St. Gilles?"

And, indeed, Marius did deserve some credit for these walks; for winter had come, spreading a thick coat of mud over the pavement of all those little streets which are always forgotten by the street-cleaners.

The cashier's home had resumed its habits of before the war, its drowsy monotony scarcely disturbed by the Saturday dinner, by M. Desclavettes' naivetes or old Desormeaux's puns.

Maxence, in the mean time, had ceased to live with his parents. He had returned to Paris immediately after the Commune; and, feeling no longer in the humor to submit to the paternal despotism, he had taken a small apartment on the Boulevard du Temple; but, at the pressing instance of his mother, he had consented to come every night to dine at the Rue St. Gilles.

Faithful to his oath, he was working hard, though without getting on very fast. The moment was far from propitious; and the occasion, which he had so often allowed to escape, did not offer itself again. For lack of any thing better, he had kept his clerkship at the railway; and, as two hundred francs a month were not quite sufficient for his wants, he spent a portion of his nights copying documents for M. Chapelain's successor.

"What do you need so much money for?" his mother said to him when she noticed his eyes a little red.

"Every thing is so dear!" he answered with a smile, which was equivalent to a confidence, and yet which Mme. Favoral did not understand.

He had, nevertheless, managed to pay all his debts, little by little. The day when, at last, he held in his hand the last receipted bill, he showed it proudly to his father, begging him to find him a place at the Mutual Credit, where, with infinitely less trouble, he could earn so much more.

M. Favoral commenced to giggle.

"Do you take me for a fool, like your mother?" he exclaimed. "And do you think I don't know what life you lead?"

"My life is that of a poor devil who works as hard as he can."

"Indeed! How is it, then, that women are constantly seen at your house, whose dresses and manners are a scandal in the neighborhood?"

"You have been deceived, father."

"I have seen."

"It is impossible. Let me explain."

"No, you would have your trouble for nothing. You are, and you will ever remain, the same; and it would be folly on my part to introduce into an office where I enjoy the esteem of all, a fellow, who, some day or other, will be fatally dragged into the mud by some lost creature."

Such discussions were not calculated to make the relations between father and son more cordial. Several times M. Favoral had insinuated, that, since Maxence lodged away from home, he might as well dine away too. And he would evidently have notified him to do so, had he not been prevented by a remnant of human respect, and the fear of gossip.

On the other hand, the bitter regret of having, perhaps, spoiled his life, the uncertainty of the future, the penury of the moment, all the unsatisfied desires of youth, kept Maxence in a state of perpetual irritation.

The excellent Mme. Favoral exhausted all her arguments to quiet him.

"Your father is harsh for us," she said; "but is he less harsh for himself? He forgives nothing; but he has never needed to be forgiven himself. He does not understand youth, but he has never been young himself; and at twenty he was as grave and as cold as you see him now. How could he know what pleasure is?-he to whom the idea has never come to take an hour's enjoyment."

"Have I, then, been guilty of any crimes, to be thus treated by my father?" exclaimed Maxence, flushed with anger. "Our existence here is an unheard-of thing. You, poor, dear mother!--you have never had the free disposition of a five- franc-piece. Gilberte spends her days turning her dresses, after having had them dyed. I am driven to a petty clerkship. And my father has fifty thousand francs a year!"

Such, indeed, was the figure at which the most moderate estimated M. Favoral's fortune. M. Chapelain, who was supposed to be well informed, insinuated freely that his friend Vincent, besides being the cashier of the Mutual Credit, must also be one of its principal stock-holders. Now, judging from the dividend which had just been paid, the Mutual Credit must, since the war, have realized enormous profits. All its enterprises were successful; and it was on the point of negotiating a foreign loan which would infallibly fill its exchequer to overflowing.

M. Favoral, moreover, defended himself feebly from these accusations of concealed opulence. When M. Desormeaux told him, "Come, now, between us, candidly, how many millions have you?" he had such a strange way of affirming that people were very much mistaken, that his friends' convictions became only the more settled. And, as soon as they had a few thousand francs of savings, they promptly brought them to him, imitated in this by a goodly number of the small capitalists of the neighborhood, who were wont to remark among themselves, "That man is safer than the bank!"

Millionaire or otherwise, the cashier of the Mutual Credit became daily more difficult to live with. If strangers, those who had with him but a superficial intercourse, if the Saturday guests themselves, discovered in him no appreciable change, his wife and his children followed with anxious surprise the modifications of his humor.

If outwardly he still appeared the same impassible, precise, and grave man, he showed himself at home more fretful than an old maid, --nervous, agitated, and subject to the oddest whims. After remaining three or four days without opening his lips, he would begin to speak upon all sorts of subjects with amazing volubility. Instead of watering his wine freely, as formerly, he had begun to drink it pure; and he often took two bottles at his meal, excusing himself upon the necessity that he felt the need of stimulating himself a little after his excessive labors.

Then he would be taken with fits of coarse gayety; and he related singular anecdotes, intermingled with slang expressions, which Maxence alone could understand.

On the morning of the first day of January, 1872, as he sat down to breakfast, he threw upon the table a roll of fifty napoleons, saying to his children, "Here is your New Year's gift! Divide, and buy anything you like." And as they were looking at him, staring, stupid with astonishment, "Well, what of it?" he added with an oath. "Isn't it well, once in a while, to scatter the coins a little?"

Those unexpected thousand francs Maxence and Mlle. Gilberte applied to the purchase of a shawl, which their mother had wished for ten years.

She laughed and she cried with pleasure and emotion, the poor woman; and, whilst draping it over her shoulders, "Well, well, my dear children," she said: "your father, after all, is not such a bad man."

Of which they did not seem very well convinced. "One thing is sure," remarked Mlle. Gilberte: "to permit himself such liberality, papa must be awfully rich."

M. Favoral was not present at this scene. The yearly accounts kept him so closely confined to his office, that he remained forty-eight hours without coming home. A journey which he was compelled to undertake for M. de Thaller consumed the balance of the week.

But on his return he seemed satisfied and quiet. Without giving up his situation at the Mutual Credit, he was about, he stated, to associate himself with the Messrs. Jottras, M. Saint Pavin of "The Financial Pilot," and M. Costeclar, to undertake the construction of a foreign railway.

M. Costeclar was at the head of this enterprise, the enormous profits of which were so certain and so clear; that they could be figured in advance.

And whilst on this same subject, "You were very wrong," he said to Mlle. Gilberte, "not to make haste and marry Costeclar when he was willing to have you. You will never find another such match,--a man who, before ten years, will be a financial power."

The very name of M. Costeclar had the effect of irritating the young girl. "I thought you had fallen out?" she said to her father.

"So we had," he replied with some embarrassment, "because he has never been willing to tell me why he had withdrawn; but people always make up again when they have interests in common."

Formerly, before the war, M. Favoral would certainly never have condescended to enter into all these details. But he was becoming almost communicative. Mlle. Gilberte, who was observing him with interested attention, fancied she could see that he was yielding to that necessity of expansion, more powerful than the will itself, which besets the man who carries within him a weighty secret.

Whilst for twenty years he had, so to speak, never breathed a word on the subject of the Thaller family, now he was continually speaking of them. He told his Saturday friends all about the princely style of the baron, the number of his servants and horses, the color of his liveries, the parties that he gave, what he spent for pictures and objects of art, and even the very names of his mistresses; for the baron had too much respect for himself not to lay every year a few thousand napoleons at the feet of some young lady sufficiently conspicuous to be mentioned in the society newspapers.

M. Favoral confessed that he did not approve the baron; but it was with a sort of bitter hatred that he spoke of the baroness. It was impossible, he affirmed to his guests, to estimate even approximately the fabulous sums squandered by her, scattered, thrown to the four winds. For she was not prodigal, she was prodigality itself,--that idiotic, absurd, unconscious prodigality which melts a fortune in a turn of the hand; which cannot even obtain from money the satisfaction of a want, a wish, or a fancy.

He said incredible things of her,--things which made Mme. Desclavettes jump upon her seat, explaining that he learned all these details from M. de Thaller, who had often commissioned him to pay his wife's debts, and also from the baroness herself, who did not hesitate to call sometimes at the office for twenty francs; for such was her want of order, that, after borrowing all the savings of her servants, she frequently had not two cents to throw to a beggar.

Neither did the cashier of the Mutual Credit seem to have a very good opinion of Mademoiselle de Thaller.

Brought up at hap-hazard, in the kitchen much more than in the parlor, until she was twelve, and, later, dragged by her mother anywhere,--to the races, to the first representations, to the watering-places, always escorted by a squadron of the young men of the bourse, Mlle. de Thaller had adopted a style which would have been deemed detestable in a man. As soon as some questionable fashion appeared, she appropriated it at once, never finding any thing eccentric enough to make herself conspicuous. She rode on horseback, fenced, frequented pigeon-shooting matches, spoke slang, sang Theresa's songs, emptied neatly her glass of champagne, and smoked her cigarette.

The guests were struck dumb with astonishment.

"But those people must spend millions!" interrupted M. Chapelain. M. Favoral started as if he had been slapped on the back.

"Bash!" he answered. "They are so rich, so awfully rich!"

He changed the conversation that evening; but on the following Saturday, from the very beginning of the dinner, "I believe," he said, "that M. de Thaller has just discovered a husband for his daughter."

"My compliments!" exclaimed M. Desormeaux. "And who may this bold fellow be?"

"A nobleman, of course," he replied. "Isn't that the tradition? As soon as a financier has made his little million, he starts in quest of a nobleman to give him his daughter."

One of those painful presentiments, such as arise in the inmost recesses of the soul, made Mlle. Gilberte turn pale. This presentiment suggested to her an absurd, ridiculous, unlikely thing; and yet she was sure that it would not deceive her,--so sure, indeed, that she rose under the pretext of looking for something in the side-board, but in reality to conceal the terrible emotion which she anticipated.

"And this gentleman?" inquired M. Chapelain.

"Is a marquis, if you please,--the Marquis de Tregars."

Well, yes, it was this very name that Mlle. Gilberte was expecting, and well that she did; for she was thus able to command enough control over herself to check the cry that rose to her throat.

"But this marriage is not made yet," pursued M. Favoral. "This marquis is not yet so completely ruined, that he can be made to do any thing they please. Sure, the baroness has set her heart upon it, oh! but with all her might!"

A discussion which now arose prevented Gilberte from learning any more; and as soon as the dinner, which seemed eternal to her, was over, she complained of a violent headache, and withdrew to her room.

She shook with fever; her teeth chattered. And yet she could not believe that Marius was betraying her, nor that he could have the thought of marrying such a girl as M. Favoral had described, and for money too! Poor, ah! No, that was not admissible. Although she remembered well that Marius had made her swear to believe nothing that might be said of him, she spent a horrible Sunday, and she felt like throwing herself in the Signor Gismondo's arms, when, in giving her his lesson the following Monday, "My poor pupil," he said, "feels miserable. A marriage has been spoken of for him, for which he has a perfect horror; and he trembles lest the rumor may reach his intended, whom he loves exclusively."

Mlle. Gilberte felt re-assured after that. And yet there remained in her heart an invincible sadness. She could hardly doubt that this matrimonial scheme was a part of the plan planned by Marius to recover his fortune. But why, then, had he applied to M. de Thaller? Who could be the man who had despoiled the Marquis de Tregars?

Such were the thoughts which occupied her mind on that Saturday evening when the commissary of police presented himself in the Rue St. Gilles to arrest M. Favoral, charged with embezzling ten or twelve millions.