The Champdoce Mystery by Emile Gaboriau - HTML preview
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As Verminet swaggered down the street he had the air of a successful man, of a capitalist, in short, and the Managing Director of a highly lucrative concern. Andre had no difficulty in following his man, though detective's business was quite new to him, which is no such easy matter, although every one thinks that he can become one. Andre kept his man in sight, and was astonished at the numerous acquaintances that Verminet seemed to have. Occasionally he said to himself, "Perhaps I am mistaken after all, for fancy is a bad pair of spectacles to see through. This man may be honest, and I have let my imagination lead me astray."
Meanwhile, Verminet who had reached the Boulevard Poisonniere, assumed a totally different air, throwing off his old manner as he cast away his cigar. When he had reached the Rue Montorgueil he turned underneath a large archway. Verminet had gone into the office of M. B. Mascarin, and that person simply kept a Servants' Registry Office for domestics of both sexes. In spite of his surprise, however, he determined to wait for Verminet to come out; and, not to give himself the air of loitering about the place, he crossed the road and appeared to be interested in watching three workmen who were engaged in fixing the revolving shutters to a new shop window. Luckily for the young painter he had not to wait a very long while, for in less than a quarter of an hour Verminet came out, accompanied by two men. The one was tall and thin, and wore a pair of spectacles with colored glasses, while the other was stout and ruddy, with the unmistakable air of a man of the world about him. Andre would have given the twenty thousand francs which he still had in his pocket if he could have heard a single word of their conversation. He was moving skilfully forward so as to place himself within earshot, when not two feet from him he heard a shrill whistle twice repeated. There was something so strange and curious in the sound of this whistle that Andre looked round and noticed that the three men whom he was watching had been also attracted by it. The tall man with the colored glasses glanced suspiciously around him, and then after a nod to his companions turned and re-entered the office, while Verminet and the other walked away arm in arm. Andre was undecided; should he try and discover who these two men were? Near the entrance he saw a lad selling hot chestnuts. "Ah!" said he, "the little chestnut seller will always be there; but I may lose the others if I stay here." He followed the two men as quickly as possible. They did not go very far, and speedily entered a fine house in the Rue Montmartre. Here Andre was for a moment puzzled, as he did not know to whom they were paying a visit, but noticing an inscription on the wall of "Cashier's Office on the first floor," he exclaimed,-
"Ah! it is to the banker's they have gone!"
He questioned a man coming downstairs and heard that M. Martin Rigal, the banker, had his offices and residence there.
"I have struck a vein of good luck to-day," thought he; "and now if my little friend the chestnut seller can only tell me the names of these men, I have done a good day's work. I do hope that he has not gone."
The boy was still there, and he had two customers standing by the chafing-dish which contained the glowing charcoal, and a working lad in cap and blouse was arguing so hotly with the lad that they did not notice Andre's appearance.
"You can stow that chat," said the boy; "I have told your father the price I would take. You want my station and stock-in-trade. Hand over two hundred and fifty francs, and they are yours."
"But my dad will only give two hundred," returned the other.
"Then he don't need give nothing, for he won't get 'em," answered the chestnut vender sharply. "Two hundred francs for a pitch like this! Why, I have sometimes taken ten francs and more, and that ain't a lie, on the word of Toto Chupin."
Andre was tickled with this strange designation, and addressed himself to the lad who bore it.
"My good boy," said he, "I think you were here an hour ago. Did you see anything of three gentlemen who came out of the house and stood talking together for a short time?"
The lad turned sharply round and examined his questioner from tip to toe with an air of the most supreme impertinence; and then, in a tone which matched his look, replied,--
"What does it signify to you who they are? Mind your own business, and be off!"
Andre had had some little experience of this delightful class of street arab, of which Toto Chupin was so favorable a specimen, and knew their habits, customs, and language.
"Come, my chicken," said he, "spit it out, it won't blister your tongue, to answer a man who asks a civil question."
"Well, then, I saw 'em, sharp enough, and what then?"
"Why, that I should like to have their names if they have such an article belonging to 'em!"
Toto raised his cap and scratched his head, as if to stimulate his brains, and as he brushed up his thick head of dirty yellow hair, he eyed Andre cunningly. "And suppose I know the blokes' names and tells 'em out to you, what will you stand?" asked he.
The delightful youth puffed out his cheeks, then expelled the pent-up wind by a sudden slap, as a mark of his disgust at the meanness of the offer.
"Pull up your braces, my lord," said he sarcastically, "or you'll be losing the contents of your breeches pockets. Ten sous, indeed! Perhaps you'd like me to lend 'em to yer?"
Andre smiled pleasantly.
"Did you think, my little man, that I was going to offer you twenty thousand shiners?" asked he.
"Won again!" cried Toto; "I laid myself a new hat that you weren't a fool, and I have collared the stakes."
"Why do you think I am not a fool?"
"Because a fool would have begun by offering me five francs and gone up slick to ten, while you began at a modest figure."
The painter smiled.
"But you were too old a bird to be caught like that," continued the lad; and as he spoke, he stopped, and contracted his brow as if in deep perplexity. Of course he was acquainted with the names, but ought he to give them? Instantly he scented an enemy. Harmless people did not usually ask questions of itinerant chestnut venders, and to open his mouth might be to injure Mascarin, Beaumarchef, or the guileless Tantaine.
This last thought determined the lad.
"Keep your ten sous, my pippin," said the boy; "I'll tell you what you want to know all gratis and for nothing, because I've taken a real fancy to the cut of your mug. The tall chap was Mascarin, the fat un Doctor Hortebise, and t'other--stop, let me think it out in my knowledge box; ah! I have it, he was Verminet."
Andre was so delighted that, drawing from his pocket a five-franc piece, he tossed it to the boy.
"Thanks, my noble lord," said Chupin, and was about to add something more in a similar vein, when he glanced down the street. His look changed in an instant, and he fixed his eyes upon the painter's face with a very strange expression. "What is the matter, my lad?" asked Andre, surprised at this sudden change.
"Nothing," answered Chupin; "nothing at all; only as you seem a decentish sort of chap, I should recommend you to keep your wits about you, and to look out for squalls."
"Eh, what do you mean?"
"I mean--why--be careful, of course. Hang me if I exactly know what I do mean. It is just an idea that came to me all of a jump. But there, be off; I ain't going to say another word."
With much difficulty Andre repressed his astonishment. He saw that this young scamp was the possessor of many secrets which might be of inestimable value to him; but he also saw that he was determined to hold his tongue, and that it would at present be a waste of time to try and get anything out of him; and an empty cab passing at this moment, Andre hailed it, and told the coachman to drive fast to the Champs Elysees. In obedience to the warning that he had just received from Toto, he did not give the name of the café where he was to meet De Breulh, for he made up his mind to be careful, yes, extremely careful. He recollected the two odd whistles which had seemed to make Mascarin wince, and which certainly broke off the conference of the three men, and he remembered that it was after a glance down the street that Toto had become less communicative and had given him that curt warning. "By heaven," said he, as the recollection of a story he had read not long ago dawned on him, "I am being followed." He lowered the front glass of the cab, and attracted the coachman's attention by pulling him by the sleeve.
"Listen to me," said he, as the man turned, "and do not slacken your speed. Here, take your five francs in advance."
"But look here----"
"Listen to me. Go as sharp as you can to the Rue de Matignon; turn down it, and, as you do, go a bit slower; then drive on like lightning, and when you are in the Champs Elysees do what you like, for your cab will be empty."
The driver chuckled.
"Aha," said he; "I see you are being followed, and you want to give 'em leg bail."
"Yes, yes; you are right."
"Then listen to me. Take care when you jump, and don't do it on the pavement, for t'other is the safest."
Andre succeeded in alighting safely, and turned down a narrow court before his pursuer had entered the street; but it was vain for the young painter to lurk in a doorway, for after five minutes had elapsed there was nothing to be seen, and no spy had made his appearance.
"I have been over-cautious," muttered he.
More than a quarter of an hour had elapsed, and Andre felt that he might leave his hiding-place, and go in quest of De Breulh; and as he approached the spot chosen for their meeting-place, he saw his friend's carriage, and near it was the owner, smoking a cigar. The two men caught sight of each other almost at the same moment. De Breulh advanced to greet the young man with extended hand.
"I have been waiting for you for the last twenty minutes," said he.
Andre commenced to apologize, but his friend checked him.
"Never mind," returned he; "I know that you must have had some excellent reasons; but, to tell you the honest truth, I had become rather nervous about you."
"Nervous! and why, pray?"
"Do you not recollect what I said the other evening? De Croisenois is a doubledyed scoundrel."
Andre remained silent, and his friend, putting his arm affectionately through his, continued,-
"Let us walk," said he; "it is better than sitting down in the café. I believe De Croisenois capable of anything. He had the prospect before him of a large fortune,--that of his brother George; but this he has already anticipated. A man in a position like this is not to be trifled with."
"I do not fear him."
"But I do. I am, however, a little relieved by the fact that he has never seen you."
The painter shook his head.
"Not only has he seen me, but I half believe that he suspects my designs."
"But I am sure that I have been followed to-day. I have no actual proof, but still I am fully convinced that it was so."
And Andre recounted all that had occurred during the day.
"You are certainly being watched," answered De Breulh, "and every step that you take will be known to your enemies, and at this very moment perhaps eyes are upon us."
As he spoke he glanced uneasily around; but it was quite dark, and he could see no one.
"We will give the spies a little gentle exercise," said he, "and if we dine together they will find it hard to discover the place."
De Breulh's coachman was dozing on the driving-seat. His master aroused him, and whispered some order in his ear. The two young men then got in, and the carriage started at a quick pace.
"What do you think of this expedient?" asked De Breulh. "We shall go at this pace for the next hour. We will then alight at the corner of the Chaussee d'Autin, and be free for the rest of the night, and those who wish to follow us to-night must have good eyes and legs."
All came to pass as De Breulh had arranged; but as he jumped out he saw a dark form slip from behind the carriage and mingle with the crowd on the Boulevard.
"By heavens," said he; "that was a man. I thought that I was throwing a spy off the track, and I was in reality only treating him to a drive."
To make sure, he took off his glove and felt the springs of the carriage.
"See," said he, "they are still warm from the contact with a human body."
The young painter was silent, but all was now explained: while he jumped from the cab, his tracker had been carried away upon it. This discovery saddened the dinner, and a little after ten Andre left his friend and returned home.