Other People's Money by Emile Gaboriau - HTML preview
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According to the time and place where they are uttered, there are words which acquire a terrible significance. In this disordered room, in the midst of these excited people, that word, the "police," sounded like a thunderclap.
"Do not open," Maxence ordered; "do not open, however they may ring or knock. Let them burst the door first."
The very excess of her fright restored to Mme. Favoral a portion of her energy. Throwing herself before her husband as if to protect him, as if to defend him, "They are coming to arrest you, Vincent," she exclaimed. "They are coming; don't you hear them?"
He remained motionless, his feet seemingly riveted to the floor. "That is as I expected," he said.
And with the accent of the wretch who sees all hope vanish, and who utterly gives up all struggle, "Be it so," he said. "Let them arrest me, and let all be over at once. I have had enough anxiety, enough unbearable alternatives. I am tired always to feign, to deceive, and to lie. Let them arrest me! Any misfortune will be smaller in reality than the horrors of uncertainty. I have nothing more to fear now. For the first time in many years I shall sleep to-night."
He did not notice the sinister expression of his guests. "You think I am a thief," he added: "well, be satisfied, justice shall be done."
But he attributed to them sentiments which were no longer theirs. They had forgotten their anger, and their bitter resentment for their lost money.
The imminence of the peril awoke suddenly in their souls the memories of the past, and that strong affection which comes from long habit, and a constant exchange of services rendered. Whatever M. Favoral might have done, they only saw in him now the friend, the host whose bread they had broken together more than a hundred times, the man whose probity, up to this fatal night, had remained far above suspicion.
Pale, excited, they crowded around him.
"Have you lost your mind?" spoke M. Desormeaux. "Are you going to wait to be arrested, thrown into prison, dragged into a criminal court?"
He shook his head, and in a tone of idiotic obstinacy, "Have I not told you," he repeated, "that every thing is against me? Let them come; let them do what they please with me."
"And your wife," insisted M. Chapelain, the old lawyer, "and your children!"
"Will they be any the less dishonored if I am condemned by default?"
Wild with grief, Mme. Favoral was wringing her hands.
"Vincent," she murmured, "in the name of Heaven spare us the harrowing agony to have you in prison."
Obstinately he remained silent. His daughter, Mlle. Gilberte, dropped upon her knees before him, and, joining her hands:
"I beseech you, father," she begged.
He shuddered all over. An unspeakable expression of suffering and anguish contracted his features; and, speaking in a scarcely intelligible voice:
"Ah! you are cruelly protracting my agony," he stammered. "What do you ask of me?"
"You must fly," declared M. Desclavettes.
"Which way? How? Do you not think that every precaution has been taken, that every issue is closely watched?"
Maxence interrupted him with a gesture:
"The windows in sister's room, father," said he, "open upon the courtyard of the adjoining house."
"Yes; but here we are up two pairs of stairs."
"No matter: I have a way."
And turning towards his sister:
"Come, Gilberte," went on the young man, "give me a light, and let me have some sheets."
They went out hurriedly. Mme. Favoral felt a gleam of hope. "We are saved!" she said.
"Saved!" repeated the cashier mechanically. "Yes; for I guess Maxence's idea. But we must have an understanding. Where will you take refuge?"
"How can I tell?"
"There is a train at five minutes past eleven," remarked M. Desormeaux. "Don't let us forget that."
"But money will be required to leave by that train," interrupted the old lawyer. "Fortunately, I have some."
And, forgetting his hundred and sixty thousand francs lost, he took out his pocket-book. Mme. Favoral stopped him. "We have more than we need," said she.
She took from the table, and held out to her husband, the roll of bank notes which the director of the Mutual Credit Society had thrown down before going.
He refused them with a gesture of rage.
"Rather starve to death!" he exclaimed. "'Tis he, 'tis that wretch--" But he interrupted himself, and more gently:
"Put away those bank-bills," said he to his wife, "and let Maxence take them back to M. de Thaller to-morrow."
The bell rang violently.
"The police!" groaned Mme. Desclavettes, who seemed on the point of fainting away.
"I am going to negotiate," said M. Desormeaux. "Fly, Vincent: do not lose a minute."
And he ran to the front-door, whilst Mme. Favoral was hurrying her husband towards Mlle. Gilberte's room.
Rapidly and stoutly Maxence had fastened four sheets together by the ends, which gave a more than sufficient length. Then, opening the window, he examined carefully the courtyard of the adjoining house.
"No one," said he: "everybody is at dinner. We'll succeed."
M. Favoral was tottering like a drunken man. A terrible emotion convulsed his features. Casting a long look upon his wife and children:
"O Lord!" he murmured, "what will become of you?"
"Fear nothing, father," uttered Maxence. "I am here. Neither my mother nor my sister will want for any thing."
"My son!" resumed the cashier, "my children!" Then, with a choking voice:
"I am worthy neither of your love nor your devotion, wretch that I am! I made you lead a miserable existence, spend a joyless youth. I imposed upon you every trial of poverty, whilst I-- And now I leave you nothing but ruin and a dishonored name."
"Make haste, father," interrupted Mlle. Gilberte. It seemed as if he could not make up his mind.
"It is horrible to abandon you thus. What a parting! Ah! death would indeed be far preferable. What will you think of me? I am very guilty, certainly, but not as you think. I have been betrayed, and I must suffer for all. If at least you knew the whole truth. But will you ever know it? We will never see each other again."
Desperately his wife clung to him.
"Do not speak thus," she said. "Wherever you may find an asylum, I will join you. Death alone can separate us. What do I care what you may have done, or what the world will say? I am your wife. Our children will come with me. If necessary, we will emigrate to America; we'll change our name; we will work."
The knocks on the outer door were becoming louder and louder; and M. Desormeaux' voice could be heard, endeavoring to gain a few moments more.
"Come," said Maxence, "you cannot hesitate any longer."
And, overcoming his father's reluctance, he fastened one end of the sheets around his waist.
"I am going to let you down, father," said he; "and, as soon as you touch the ground, you must undo the knot. Take care of the first-story windows; beware of the concierge; and, once in the street, don't walk too fast. Make for the Boulevard, where you will be sooner lost in the crowd."
The knocks had now become violent blows; and it was evident that the door would soon be broken in, if M. Desormeaux did not make up his mind to open it.
The light was put out. With the assistance of his daughter, M. Favoral lifted himself upon the window-sill, whilst Maxence held the sheets with both hands.
"I beseech you, Vincent," repeated Mme. Favoral, "write to us. We shall be in mortal anxiety until we hear of your safety."
Maxence let the sheets slip slowly: in two seconds M. Favoral stood on the pavement below.
"All right," he said.
The young man drew the sheets back rapidly, and threw them under the bed. But Mlle. Gilberte remained long enough at the window to recognize her father's voice asking the concierge to open the door, and to hear the heavy gate of the adjoining house closing behind him.
"Saved!" she said.
It was none too soon. M. Desormeaux had just been compelled to yield; and the commissary of police was walking in.