Other People's Money by Emile Gaboriau - HTML preview

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Chapter II.2

 

We have every species of courage in France, and to a superior degree, except that of braving public opinion. Few men would have dared, like Marius de Tregars, to offer their name to the daughter of a wretch charged with embezzlement and forgery, and that at the very moment when the scandal of the crime was at its height. But, when Marius judged a thing good and just, he did it without troubling himself in the least about what others would think. And so his mere presence in the Rue. St. Gilles had brought back hope to its inmates. Of his designs he had said but a word,--"I have the means of helping you: I mean, by marrying Gilberte, to acquire the right of doing so."

But that word had been enough. Mme. Favoral and Maxence had understood that the man who spoke thus was one of those cool and resolute men whom nothing disconcerts or discourages, and who knows how to make the best of the most perilous situations.

And, when he had retired with the Count de Villegre, "I don't know what he will do," said Mlle. Gilberte to her mother and her brother: "but he will certainly do something; and, if it is humanly possible to succeed, he will succeed."

And how proudly she spoke thus! The assistance of Marius was the justification of her conduct. She trembled with joy at the thought that it would, perhaps, be to the man whom she had alone and boldly selected, that her family would owe their salvation. Shaking his head, and making allusion to events of which he kept the secret, "I really believe," approved Maxence, "that, to reach the enemies of our father, M. de Tregars possesses some powerful means; and what they are we will doubtless soon know, since I have an appointment with him for to-morrow morning."

It came at last, that morrow, which he had awaited with an impatience that neither his mother nor his sister could suspect. And towards half-past nine he was ready to go out, when M. Chapelain came in. Still irritated by the scenes he had just witnessed at the Mutual Credit office, the old lawyer had a most lugubrious countenance.

"I bring bad news," he began. "I have just seen the Baron de Thaller."

He had said so much the day before about having nothing more to do with it, that Maxence could not repress a gesture of surprise.

"Oh! it isn't alone that I saw him," added M. Chapelain, "but together with at least a hundred stockholders of the Mutual Credit."

"They are going to do something, then?"

"No: they only came near doing something. You should have seen them this morning! They were furious; they threatened to break every thing; they wanted M. de Thaller's blood. It was terrible. But M. de Thaller condescended to receive them; and they became at once as meek as lambs. It is perfectly simple. What do you suppose stockholders can do, no matter how exasperated they may be, when their manager tells them?

"'Well, yes, it's a fact you have been robbed, and your money is in great jeopardy; but if you make any fuss, if you complain thus, all is sure to be lost.' Of course, the stockholders keep quiet. It is a well-known fact that a business which has to be liquidated through the courts is gone; and swindled stockholders fear the law almost as much as the swindling manager. A single fact will make the situation clearer to you. Less than an hour ago, M. de Thaller's stockholders, offered him money to make up the loss."

And, after a moment of silence, "But this is not all. Justice has interfered; and M. de Thaller spent the morning with an examining-magistrate."

"Well?"

"Well, I have enough experience to affirm that you must not rely any more upon justice than upon the stockholders. Unless there are proofs so evident that they are not likely to exist, M. de Thaller will not be disturbed."

"Oh!"

"Why? Because, my dear, in all those big financial operations, justice, as much as possible, remains blind. Not through corruption or any guilty connivance, but through considerations of public interest. If the manager was prosecuted he would be condemned to a few years' imprisonment; but his stockholders would at the same time be condemned to lose what they have left; so that the victims would be more severely punished than the swindler. And so, powerless, justice does not interfere. And that's what accounts for the impudence and impunity of all these high-flown rascals who go about with their heads high, their pockets filled with other people's money, and half a dozen decorations at their button- hole."

"And what then?" asked Maxence.

"Then it is evident that your father is lost. Whether or not he did have accomplices, he will be alone sacrificed. A scapegoat is needed to be slaughtered on the altar of credit. Well, they will give that much satisfaction to the swindled stockholders. The twelve millions will be lost; but the shares of the Mutual Credit will go up, and public morality will be safe."

Somewhat moved by the old lawyer's tone,

"What do you advise me to do, then?" inquired Maxence.

"The very reverse of what, on the first impulse, I advised you to do. That's why I have come. I told you yesterday, 'Make a row, act, scream. It is impossible that your father be alone guilty; attack M. de Thaller.' To-day, after mature deliberation, I say, 'Keep quiet, hide yourself, let the scandal drop.'"

A bitter smile contracted Maxence's lips.

"It is not very brave advice you are giving me there," he said.

"It is a friend's advice,--the advice of a man who knows life better than yourself. Poor young man, you are not aware of the peril of certain struggles. All knaves are in league and sustain each other. To attack one is to attack them all. You have no idea of the occult influences of which a man can dispose who handles millions, and who, in exchange for a favor, has always a bonus to offer, or a good operation to propose. If at least I could see any chance of success! But you have not one. You never can reach M. de Thaller, henceforth backed by his stockholders. You will only succeed in making an enemy whose hostility will weigh upon your whole life."

"What does it matter?"

M. Chapelain shrugged his shoulders.

"If you were alone," he went on, "I would say as you do, 'What does it matter?' But you are no longer alone: you have your mother and sister to take care of. You must think of food before thinking of vengeance. How much a month do you earn? Two hundred francs! It is not much for three persons. I would never suggest that you should solicit M. de Thaller's protection; but it would be well, perhaps, to let him know that he has nothing to fear from you. Why shouldn't you do so when you take his fifteen thousand francs back to him? If, as every thing indicates, he has been your father's accomplice, he will certainly be touched by the distress of your family, and, if he has any heart left, he will manage to make you find, without appearing to have any thing to do with it, a situation better suited to your wants. I know that such a step must be very painful; but I repeat it, my dear child, you can no longer think of yourself alone; and what one would not do for himself, one does for a mother and a sister."

Maxence said nothing. Not that he was in any way affected by the worthy old lawyer's speech; but he was asking himself whether or not he should confide to him the events which in the past twenty-four hours had so suddenly modified the situation. He did not feel authorized to do so.

Marius de Tregars had not bound him to secrecy; but an indiscretion might have fatal consequences. And, after a moment of thought, "I am obliged to you, sir," he replied evasively, "for the interest you have manifested in our welfare; and we shall always greatly prize your advice. But for the present you must allow me to leave you with my mother and sister. I have an appointment with--a friend."

And, without waiting for an answer, he slipped M. de Thaller's fifteen thousand francs in his pocket, and hurried out. It was not to M. de Tregars that he went first, however, but to the Hotel des Folies.

"Mlle. Lucienne has just come home with a big bundle," said Mme. Fortin to Maxence, with her pleasantest smile, as soon as she had seen him emerge from the shades of the corridor.

For the past twenty-four hours, the worthy hostess had been watching for her guest, in the hopes of obtaining some information which she might communicate to the neighbors. Without even condescending to answer, a piece of rudeness at which she felt much hurt, he crossed the narrow court of the hotel at a bound, and started up stairs.

Mlle. Lucienne's room was open. He walked in, and, still out of breath from his rapid ascension, "I am glad to find you in," he exclaimed. The young girl was busy, arranging upon her bed a dress of very light colored silk, trimmed with ruches and lace, an overdress to match, and a bonnet of wonderful shape, loaded with the most brilliant feathers and flowers.

"You see what brings me here," she replied. "I came home to dress. At two o'clock the carriage is coming to take me to the bois, where I am to exhibit this costume, certainly the most ridiculous that Van Klopen has yet made me wear."

A smile flitted upon Maxence's lips.

"Who knows," said he, "if this is not the last time you will have to perform this odious task? Ah, my friend! what events have taken place since I last saw you!"

"Fortunate ones?"

"You will judge for yourself."

He closed the door carefully, and, returning to Mlle. Lucienne, "Do you know the Marquis de Tregars?" he asked.

"No more than you do. It was yesterday, at the commissary of police, that I first heard his name."

"Well, before a month, M. de Tregars will be Mlle. Gilberte Favoral's husband."

"Is it possible?" exclaimed Mlle. Lucienne with a look of extreme surprise.

But, instead of answering, "You told me," resumed Maxence, "that once, in a day of supreme distress, you had applied to Mme. de Thaller for assistance, whereas you were actually entitled to an indemnity for having been run over and seriously hurt by her carriage."

"That is true."

"Whilst you were in the vestibule, waiting for an answer to your letter, which a servant had taken up stairs, M. de Thaller came in; and, when he saw you, he could not repress a gesture of surprise, almost of terror."

"That is true too."

"This behavior of M. de Thaller always remained an enigma to you."

"An inexplicable one."

"Well, I think that I can explain it to you now."

"You?"

Lowering his voice; for he knew that at the Hotel des Folies there was always to fear some indiscreet ear.

"Yes, I," he answered; "and for the reason that yesterday, when M. de Tregars appeared in my mother's parlor, I could not suppress an exclamation of surprise, for the reason, Lucienne, that, between Marius de Tregars and yourself, there is a resemblance with which it is impossible not to be struck."

Mlle. Lucienne had become very pale. "What do you suppose, then?" she asked.

"I believe, my friend, that we are very near penetrating at once the mystery of your birth and the secret of the hatred that has pursued you since the day when you first set your foot in M. de Thaller's house."

Admirably self-possessed as Mlle. Lucienne usually was, the quivering of her lips betrayed at this moment the intensity of her emotion.

After more than a minute of profound meditation, "The commissary of police," she said, "has never told me his hopes, except in vague terms. He has told me enough, however, to make me think that he has already had suspicions similar to yours."

"Of course! Would he otherwise have questioned me on the subject of M. de Tregars?"

Mlle. Lucienne shook her head.

"And yet," she said, "even after your explanation, it is in vain that I seek why and how I can so far disturb M. de Thaller's security that he wishes to do away with me."

Maxence made a gesture of superb indifference. "I confess," he said, "that I don't see it either. But what matters it? Without being able to explain why, I feel that the Baron de Thaller is the common enemy, yours, mine, my father's, and M. de Tregars'. And something tells me, that, with M. de Tregars' help, we shall triumph. You would share my confidence, Lucienne, if you knew him. There is a man! and my sister has made no vulgar choice. If he has told my mother that he has the means of serving her, it is because he certainly has."

He stopped, and, after a moment of silence, "Perhaps," he went on, "the commissary of police might readily understand what I only dimly suspect; but, until further orders, we are forbidden to have recourse to him. It is not my own secret that I have just told you; and, if I have confided it to you, it is because I feel that it is a great piece of good fortune for us; and there is no joy for me, that you do not share."

Mlle. Lucienne wanted to ask many more particulars. But, looking at his watch, "Half-past ten!" he exclaimed, "and M. de Tregars waiting for me."

And he started off, repeating once more to the young girl,  "I will see you to-night: until then, good hope and good courage."

In the court, two ill-looking men were talking with the Fortins. But it happened often to the Fortins to talk with ill-looking men: so he took no notice of them, ran out to the Boulevard, and jumping into a cab, "Rue Lafitte 70," he cried to the driver, "I pay the trip,--three francs."

When Marius de Tregars had finally determined to compel the bold rascals who had swindled his father to disgorge, he had taken in the Rue Lafitte a small, plainly-furnished apartment on the entresol, a fit dwelling for the man of action, the tent in which he takes shelter on the eve of battle; and he had to wait upon him an old family servant, whom he had found out of place, and who had for him that unquestioning and obstinate devotion peculiar to Breton servants.

It was this excellent man who came at the first stroke of the bell to open the door. And, as soon as Maxence had told him his name, "Ah!" he exclaimed, "my master has been expecting you with a terrible impatience."

It was so true, that M. de Tregars himself appeared at the same moment, and, leading Maxence into the little room which he used as a study, "Do you know," he said whilst shaking him cordially by the hand, "that you are almost an hour behind time?"

Maxence had, among others the detestable fault, sure indication of a weak nature, of being never willing to be in the wrong, and of having always an excuse ready. On this occasion, the excuse was too tempting to allow it to escape; and quick he began telling how he had been detained by M. Chapelain, and how he had heard from the old lawyer what had taken place at the Mutual Credit office.

"I know the scene already," said M. de Tregars. And, fixing upon Maxence a look of friendly raillery, "Only," he added, "I attributed your want of punctuality to another reason, a very pretty one this time, a brunette."

A purple cloud spread over Maxence's cheeks. "What!" he stammered, "you know?"

"I thought you must have been in haste to go and tell a person of your acquaintance why, when you saw me yesterday, you uttered an exclamation of surprise."

This time Maxence lost all countenance. "What," he said, "you know too?"

M. de Tregars smiled.

"I know a great many things, my dear M. Maxence," he replied; "and yet, as I do not wish to be suspected of witchcraft, I will tell you where all my science comes from. At the time when your house was closed to me, after seeking for a long time some means of hearing from your sister, I discovered at last that she had for her music-teacher an old Italian, the Signor Gismondo Pulei. I applied to him for lessons, and became his pupil. But, in the beginning, he kept looking at me with singular persistence. I inquired the reason; and he told me that he had once had for a neighbor, at the Batignolles, a young working-girl, who resembled me prodigiously. I paid no attention to this circumstance, and had, in fact, completely forgotten it; when, quite lately, Gismondo told me that he had just seen his former neighbor again, and, what's more, arm in arm with you, and that you both entered together the Hotel des Folies. As he insisted again upon that famous resemblance, I determined to see for myself. I watched, and I stated, _de visa_, that my old Italian was not quite wrong, and that I had, perhaps, just found the weapon I was looking for."

His eyes staring, and his mouth gaping, Maxence looked like a man fallen from the clouds.

"Ah, you did watch!" he said.

M. de Tregars snapped his fingers with a gesture of indifference.

"It is certain," he replied, "that, for a month past, I have been doing a singular business. But it is not by remaining on my chair, preaching against the corruption of the age, that I can attain my object. The end justifies the means. Honest men are very silly, I think, to allow the rascals to get the better of them under the sentimental pretext that they cannot condescend to make use of their weapons."

But an honorable scruple was tormenting Maxence.

"And you think yourself well-informed, sir?" he inquired. "You know Lucienne?"

"Enough to know that she is not what she seems to be, and what almost any other would have been in her place; enough to be certain, that, if she shows herself two or three times a week riding around the lake, it is not for her pleasure; enough, also, to be persuaded, that, despite appearances, she is not your mistress, and that, far from having disturbed your life, and compromised your prospects, she set you back into the right road, at the moment, perhaps, when you were about to branch off into the wrong path."

Marius de Tregars was assuming fantastic proportions in the mind of Maxence. "How did you manage," he stammered, "thus to find out the truth?"

"With time and money, every thing is possible."

"But you must have had grave reasons to take so much trouble about Lucienne."

"Very grave ones, indeed."

"You know that she was basely forsaken when quite a child?"

"Perfectly."

"And that she was brought up through charity?"

"By some poor gardeners at Louveciennes: yes, I know all that."

Maxence was trembling with joy. It seemed to him that his most dazzling hopes were about to be realized. Seizing the hands of Marius de Tregars, "Ah, you know Lucienne's family!" he exclaimed. But M. de Tregars shook his head.

"I have suspicions," he answered; "but, up to this time, I have suspicions only, I assure you."

"But that family does exist; since they have already, at three different times, attempted to get rid of the poor girl."

"I think as you do; but we must have proofs: and we shall find some. You may rest assured of that."

Here he was interrupted by the noise of the opening door.

The old servant came in, and advancing to the centre of the room with a mysterious look, "Madame la Baronne de Thaller," he said in a low voice. Marius de Tregars started violently.

"Where?" he asked.

"She is down stairs in her carriage," replied the servant. "Her footman is here, asking whether monsieur is at home, and whether she can come up."

"Can she possibly have heard any thing?" murmured M. de Tregars with a deep frown. And, after a moment of reflection,

"So much the more reason to see her," he added quickly. "Let her come. Request her to do me the honor of coming up stairs."

This last incident completely upset all Maxence's ideas. He no longer knew what to imagine.

"Quick," said M. de Tregars to him: "quick, disappear; and, whatever you may hear, not a word!"

And he pushed him into his bedroom, which was divided from the study by a mere tapestry curtain. It was time; for already in the next room could be heard a great rustling of silk and starched petticoats. Mme. de Thaller appeared.

She was still the same coarsely beautiful woman, who, sixteen years before, had sat at Mme. Favoral's table. Time had passed without scarcely touching her with the tip of his wing. Her flesh had retained its dazzling whiteness; her hair, of a bluish black, its marvelous opulence; her lips, their carmine hue; her eyes, their lustre. Her figure only had become heavier, her features less delicate; and her neck and throat had lost their undulations, and the purity of their outlines.

But neither the years, nor the millions, nor the intimacy of the most fashionable women, had been able to give her those qualities which cannot be acquired,-- grace, distinction, and taste.

If there was a woman accustomed to dress, it was she: a splendid dry-goods store could have been set up with the silks and the velvets, the satins and cashmeres, the muslins, the laces, and all the known tissues, that had passed over her shoulders.

Her elegance was quoted and copied. And yet there was about her always and under all circumstances, an indescribable flavor of the _parvenue_. Her gestures had remained trivial; her voice, common and vulgar.

Throwing herself into an arm-chair, and bursting into a loud laugh, "Confess, my dear marquis," she said, "that you are terribly astonished to see me thus drop upon you, without warning, at eleven o'clock in the morning."

"I feel, above all, terribly flattered," replied M. de Tregars, smiling.

With a rapid glance she was surveying the little study, the modest furniture, the papers piled on the desk, as if she had hoped that the dwelling would reveal to her something of the master's ideas and projects.

"I was just coming from Van Klopen's," she resumed; "and passing before your house, I took a fancy to come in and stir you up; and here I am."

M. de Tregars was too much a man of the world, and of the best world, to allow his features to betray the secret of his impressions; and yet, to any one who had known him well, a certain contraction of the eyelids would have revealed a serious annoyance and an intense anxiety.

"How is the baron?" he inquired.

"As sound as an oak," answered Mme. de Thaller, "notwithstanding all the cares and the troubles, which you can well imagine. By the way, you know what has happened to us?"

"I read in the papers that the cashier of the Mutual Credit had disappeared."

"And it is but too true. That wretch Favoral has gone off with an enormous amount of money."

"Twelve millions, I heard."

"Something like it. A man who had the reputation of a saint too; a puritan. Trust people's faces after that! I never liked him, I confess. But M. de Thaller had a perfect fancy for him; and, when he had spoken of his Favoral, there was nothing more to say. Any way, he has cleared out, leaving his family without means. A very interesting family, it seems, too,--a wife who is goodness itself, and a charming daughter: at least, so says Costeclar, who is very much in love with her."

M. de Tregars' countenance remained perfectly indifferent, like that of a man who is hearing about persons and things in which he does not take the slightest interest.

Mme. de Thaller noticed this.

"But it isn't to tell you all this," she went on, "that I came up. It is an interested motive brought me. We have, some of my friends and myself, organized a lottery--a work of charity, my dear marquis, and quite patriotic--for the benefit of the Alsatians, I have lots of tickets to dispose of; and I've thought of you to help me out."

More smiling than ever, "I am at your orders, madame," answered Marius, "but, in mercy, spare me." She took out some tickets from a small shell pocket-book.

"Twenty, at ten francs," she said. "It isn't too much, is it?"

"It is a great deal for my modest resources."

She pocketed the ten napoleons which he handed her, and, in a tone of ironical compassion, "Are you so very poor, then?" she asked.

"Why, I am neither banker nor broker, you know."

She had risen, and was smoothing the folds of her dress.

"Well, my dear marquis," she resumed, "it is certainly not me who will pity you. When a man of your age, and with your name, remains poor, it is his own fault. Are there no rich heiresses?"

"I confess that I haven't tried to find one yet." She looked at him straight in the eyes, and then suddenly bursting out laughing, "Look around you," she said, "and I am sure you'll not be long discovering a beautiful young girl, very blonde, who would be delighted to become Marquise de Tregars, and who would bring in her apron a dowry of twelve or fifteen hundred thousand francs in good securities,--securities which the Favorals can't carry off. Think well, and then come to see us. You know that M. de Thaller is very fond of you; and, after all the trouble we have been having, you owe us a visit."

Whereupon she went out, M. de Tregars going down to escort her to her carriage. But as he came up, "Attention!" he cried to Maxence; "for it's very evident that the Thallers have wind of something."