Part 2 out of 7
before, and who were now making a profuse display of the very
yellowest hair they possessed. This afforded him another
opportunity of attracting public attention, and to giving proofs
of his "form," for he had not filled the box of his carriage with
champagne for nothing. At last the decisive moment came, and he
made himself conspicuous by shouting. "Now! Now! Here he is!
Look! Bravo, Pompier! One hundred on Pompier!"
But, alas! poor Pompier de Nanterre fell exhausted before half the
distance was accomplished; and that evening Wilkie described his
defeat, with a profusion of technical terms that inspired the
uninitiated with the deepest awe. "What a disaster, my friends,"
he exclaimed. "Pompier de Nanterre, an incomparable
steeplechaser, to break down in such a fashion! And beaten by
whom? My Mustapha, an outsider, without any record whatever! The
ring was intensely excited--and I was simply crazed."
However, his defeat did not affect him very deeply. It was
forgotten at thought of the inheritance which his friend Coralth
had spoken to him about. And to-morrow M. de Coralth would tell
him the secret. He had only twenty hours longer to wait!" To-
morrow! to-morrow!" he said to himself again and again, with a
thrill of mingled joy and impatience. And what bright visions of
future glory haunted him! He saw himself the possessor of a
magnificent stud, of sufficient wealth to gratify every fancy; he
would splash mud upon all the passers-by, and especially upon his
former acquaintances, as he dashed past them in his superb
equipage; the best tailor should invent astonishing garments for
him; he would make himself conspicuous at all the first
performances in a stage-box, with the most notorious women in
Paris; his fetes would be described in the papers; he would be the
continual subject of comment; he would be credited with splendid,
It is true that M. de Coralth had promised him all this, without a
word of explanation; but what did that matter? Should he doubt his
friend's word? Never! The viscount was not merely his model, but
his oracle as well. By the way in which he spoke of him, it might
have been supposed that they had been friends from their
childhood, or, at least, that they had known each other for years.
Such was not the case, however. Their acquaintance dated only
seven or eight months back, and their first meeting had apparently
been the result of chance; though it is needless to say, perhaps,
that this chance had been carefully prepared by M. de Coralth.
Having discovered Madame Lia d'Argeles's secret, the viscount
watched Wilkie, ascertained where he spent his evenings, contrived
a way of introducing himself into his society, and on their third
meeting was skilful enough to render him a service--in other
words, to lend him some money. From that moment the conquest was
assured; for M. de Coralth possessed in an eminent degree all the
attributes that were likely to dazzle and charm the gifted owner
of Pompier de Nanterre. First of all, there was his title, then
his impudent assurance and his apparent wealth, and last, but by
no means least, his numerous and fashionable acquaintances. He
was not long in discovering his advantage, and in profiting by it.
And without giving M. Wilkie an inkling of the truth, he succeeded
in obtaining from him as accurate a knowledge of his past career
as the young fellow himself possessed.
M. Wilkie did not know much concerning his origin or his early
life; and his history, so far as he was acquainted with it, could
be told in a few words. His earliest recollection was of the
ocean. He was sure, perfectly sure, that he had made a very long
sea voyage when only a little child, and he looked upon America as
his birthplace. The French language was certainly not the first
he had learned, for he still remembered a limited number of
English phrases. The English word "father" was among those that
lingered in his memory; and now, after a lapse of twenty years, he
pronounced it without the least foreign accent. But while he
remembered the word perfectly well, no recollection remained to
him of the person he had called by that name. His first
sensations were those of hunger, weariness, and cold. He
recollected, and very distinctly too, how on one long winter
night, a woman had dragged him after her through the streets of
Paris, in an icy rain. He could still see himself as he wandered
on, crying with weariness, and begging for something to eat. And
then the poor woman who held him by the hand lifted him in her
arms and carried him on--on, until her own strength failed, and
she was obliged to set him on the ground again. A vague portrait
of this woman, who was most probably his mother, still lingered in
his memory. According to his description, she was extremely
handsome, tall, and very fair. He had been particularly impressed
with the pale tint and profusion of her beautiful hair.
Their poverty had not lasted long. He remembered being installed
with his mother in a very handsome suite of rooms. A man, who was
still young, and whom he called "Monsieur Jacques," came every
day, and brought him sweetmeats and playthings. He thought he
must have been about four years old at that time. However, he had
enjoyed this comfortable state of things scarcely a month, when
one morning a stranger presented himself. The visitor held a long
conference with his mother, or, at least, with the person whom he
called by that name. He did not understand what they were talking
about, but he was none the less very uneasy. The result of the
interview must have justified his instinctive fear, for his mother
took him on her lap, and embraced him with convulsive tenderness.
She sobbed violently, and repeated again and again in a faltering
voice: "Poor child! my beloved Wilkie! I shall never kiss you
again--never, never! 'Alas! It must be so! Give me courage, my
Those were the exact words; Wilkie was sure on that point. It
seemed to him he could still hear that despairing farewell. For
it was indeed a farewell. The stranger took him in his arms and
carried him away, in spite of his cries and struggles to escape.
This person to whose care he was confined was the master of a
small boarding-school, and his wife was the kindest and most
patient of women. However, this did not prevent Wilkie from
crying and begging for his mother at first; but gradually he
forgot her. He was not unhappy, for he was petted and indulged
more than any of the other pupils, and he spent most of his time
playing on the terrace or wandering about the garden. But this
charming life could not last for ever. According to his
calculation, he was just ten years old when, one Sunday, toward
the end of October, a grave-looking, red-whiskered gentleman, clad
in solemn black with a white necktie, presented himself at the
school, and declared that he had been instructed by Wilkie's
relatives to place him in a college to continue his education.
Young Wilkie's lamentations were long and loud; but they did not
prevent M. Patterson--for that was the gentleman's name--from
taking him to the college of Louis-the-Great, where he was entered
as a boarder. As he did not study, and as he was only endowed
with a small amount of intelligence, he learned scarcely anything
during the years he remained there. Every Sunday and every fete
day, M. Patterson made his appearance at ten o'clock precisely,
took Wilkie for a walk in Paris or the environs, gave him his
breakfast and dinner at some of the best restaurants, bought
everything he expressed a desire to have, and at nine o'clock
precisely took him back to the college again. During the holidays
M. Patterson kept the boy with him, refusing him nothing in the
way of pleasure, granting all his wishes, but never losing sight
of him for a moment. And if Wilkie complained of this constant
watchfulness, M. Patterson always replied, "I must obey orders;"
and this answer invariably put an end to the discussion.
So things went on until it became time for Wilkie to take his
degree. He presented himself for examination; and, of course, he
failed. Fortunately, however, M. Patterson was not at a loss for
an expedient. He placed his charge in a private school; and the
following year, at a cost of five thousand francs, he beguiled a
poor devil into running the risk of three years' imprisonment, by
assuming M. Wilkie's name, and passing the examination in his
place. In possession of the precious diploma which opens the door
of every career, M. Wilkie now hoped that his pockets would be
filled, and that he would then be set at liberty. But the hope
was vain! M. Patterson placed him in the hands of an old tutor who
had been engaged to travel with him through Europe; and as this
tutor held the purse-strings, Wilkie was obliged to follow him
through Germany, England, and Italy.
When he returned to Paris he was just twenty years old, and the
very next day M. Patterson conducted him to the suite of rooms
which he still occupied in the Rue du Helder. "You are now in
your own home, M. Wilkie," said M. Patterson in his most
impressive manner. "You are now old enough to be responsible for
your own actions, and I hope you will conduct yourself like an
honest man. From this moment you are your own master. Those who
gave you your education desire you to study law. If I were in
your place, I should obey them. If you wish to be somebody, and
to acquire a fortune, work, for you have no property, nor anything
to expect from any one. The allowance which is granted you, a far
too liberal one in my opinion, may be cut off at any moment. I
don't think it right to conceal this fact from you. But at all
events until then. I am instructed to pay you five thousand
francs quarterly. Here is the amount for the first quarter, and
in three months' time I shall send you a similar amount. I say
'shall SEND,' because my business compels me to return to England,
and take up my abode there. Here is my London address; and if any
serious trouble befalls you, write to me. Now, my duty being
"Go to the devil, you old preacher!" growled Wilkie, as he saw the
door close on the retreating figure of M. Patterson, who had acted
as his guardian for ten years. None of M. Patterson's wise advice
lingered in the young fellow's mind. To use a familiar
expression, "It went in through one ear and came out through the
other." Only two facts had made an impression upon him: that he
was to be his own master henceforth, and that he had a fortune at
his command. There it lay upon the table, five thousand francs in
If M. Wilkie had taken the trouble to attentively examine the
rooms which had suddenly become his own, he would perhaps have
recognized the fact that a loving hand had prepared them for his
reception. Countless details revealed the delicate taste of a
woman, and the thoughtful tenderness of a mother. None of those
little superfluities which delight a young man had been forgotten.
There was a box of choice cigars upon the table, and a jar of
tobacco on the mantel-shelf. But Wilkie did not take time to
discover this. He hastily slipped five hundred francs into his
pocket, locked the rest of his money in a drawer, and went out
with as lofty an air as if all Paris belonged to him, or as if he
had enough money to purchase it.
He had resolved to give a fete in honor of his deliverance, and so
he hurried off in search of some of his old college chums. He
found two of them; and, although it was very wounding to his self-
love, M. Wilkie was obliged to confess to them that this was his
first taste of liberty, and that he scarcely knew what to do with
himself. Of course his friends assured him that they could
quickly make him acquainted with the only life that it was worth
while living; and, to prove it, they accepted the invitation to
dinner which he immediately offered them. It was a remarkable
repast. Other acquaintances dropped in, the wine flowed in
rivers; and after dinner they danced. And at day-break, having
served his apprenticeship at baccarat, M. Wilkie found himself
without a penny in his pocket, and face to face with a bill of
four hundred francs, for which amount he was obliged to go to his
rooms, under the escort of one of the waiters. This first
experiment ought to have disgusted him, or at least have made him
reflect. But no. He felt quite in his element in the society of
dissipated young men and enamelled women. He swore that he would
win a place in their midst, and an influential place too. But it
was easier to form this plan than to carry it into execution, as
he discovered when, at the end of the month, he counted his money
to see what remained of the five thousand francs that had been
given him for his quarterly allowance. He had just three hundred
Twenty thousand francs a year is what one chooses to make it--
wealth or poverty. Twenty thousand francs a year represents about
sixty francs a day; but what are sixty francs to a high liver, who
breakfasts and dines at the best restaurants, whose clothes are
designed by an illustrious tailor, who declines to make a pair of
trousers for less than a hundred francs? What are three louis a
day to a man who hires a box for first performances at the opera,
to a man who gambles and gives expensive suppers, to a man who
drives out with yellow-haired demoiselles, and who owns a race-
horse? Measuring his purse and his ambition, M. Wilkie discovered
that he should never succeed in making both ends meet. "How do
other people manage?" he wondered. A puzzling question! Every
evening a thousand gorgeously apparelled gentlemen, with a cigar
in their mouth and a flower in their button-hole, may be seen
promenading between the Chaussee d'Antin and the Faubourg
Montmartre. Everybody knows them, and they know everybody, but
how they exist is a problem which it is impossible to solve. How
do they live, and what do they live on? Everybody knows that they
have no property; they do nothing, and yet they are reckless in
their expenditures, and rail at work and jeer at economy. What
source do they derive their money from? What vile business are
they engaged in?
However, M. Wilkie did not devote much time to solving this
question. "My relatives must wish me to starve," he said to
himself. "Not I--I'm not that sort of a person, as I'll soon let
them know." And thereupon he wrote to M. Patterson. By return of
post that gentleman sent him a cheque for one thousand francs--a
mere drop in the bucket. M. Wilkie felt indignant and so he wrote
again. This time he was obliged to wait for a reply. Still at
last it came. M. Patterson sent him two thousand francs, and an
interminable epistle full of reproaches. The interesting young
man threw the letter into the fire, and went out to hire a
carriage by the month and a servant.
From that day forward, his life was spent in demanding money and
waiting for it. He employed in quick succession every pretext
that could soften the hearts of obdurate relatives, or find the
way to the most closely guarded cash-box. He was ill--he had
contracted a debt of honor--he had imprudently lent money to an
unscrupulous friend--he was about to be arrested for debt. And in
accordance with the favorable or unfavorable character of the
replies his manner became humble or impertinent, so that his
friends soon learned to judge very accurately of the condition of
his purse by the way he wore his mustaches. He became wise with
experience, however; and on adding all the sums he had received
together, he decided that his family must be very rich to allow
him so much money. And this thought made him anxious to fathom
the mystery of his birth and his infancy. He finally persuaded
himself that he was the son of a great English nobleman--a member
of the House of Lords, who was twenty times a millionaire. And he
more than half believed it when he told his creditors that his
lordship, his father, would some day or other come to Paris and
pay all his debts. Unfortunately it was not M. Wilkie's noble
father that arrived, but a letter from M. Patterson, which was
couched as follows:
"MY DEAR SIR, a considerable sum was placed in my hands to meet
your unexpected requirements; and in compliance with your repeated
appeals, I have remitted the entire amount to you. Not a penny
remains in my possession--so that my instructions have been
fulfilled. Spare yourself the trouble of making any fresh
demands; they will meet with no reply. In future you will not
receive a penny above your allowance, which in my opinion is
already too large a one for a young man of your age."
This letter proved a terrible blow to Wilkie. What should he do?
He felt that M. Patterson would not revoke his decision; and
indeed he wrote him several imploring letters, in vain. Yet never
had his need of money been so urgent. His creditors were becoming
uneasy; bills actually rained in upon his concierge; his next
quarterly allowance was not due for some time to come, and it was
only through the pawnbroker that he could obtain money for his
more pressing requirements. He had begun to consider himself
ruined. He saw himself reduced to dismissing his carriage, to
selling his third share of Pompier de Nanterre and losing the
esteem of all his witty friends.
He was in the depths of despair, when one morning his servant woke
him up with the announcement that the Viscount de Coralth was in
the sitting-room and wished to speak with him on very important
business. It was not usually an easy task to entice M. Wilkie
from his bed, but the name his servant mentioned seemed to have a
prodigious effect upon him. He bounded on to the floor, and as he
hastily dressed himself, he muttered: "The viscount here, at this
hour! It's astonishing! What if he's going to fight a duel and
wishes me to be his second? That would be a piece of grand good
luck and no mistake. It would assure my position at once.
Certainly something must have happened!"
This last remark was by no means a proof of any remarkable
perspicuity on M. Wilkie's part. As M. de Coralth never went to
bed until two or three o'clock in the morning, he was by no means
an early riser, and only some very powerful reason could explain
the presence of his blue-lined brougham in the street before nine
o'clock A.M. And the influence that had made him rise betimes in
the present case had indeed been extremely powerful. Although the
brilliant viscount had discovered Madame d'Argeles's secret,
several months previously, he had so far disclosed it to no one.
It was certainly not from any delicacy of feeling that he had held
his peace; but only because it had not been for his interest to
speak. Now, however, the sudden death of the Count de Chalusse
changed the situation. He heard of the catastrophe at his club on
the evening after the count's death, and his emotion was so great
that he actually declined to take part in a game of baccarat that
was just beginning. "The devil!" he exclaimed. "Let me think a
moment. Madame d'Argeles is the heiress of all these millions--
will she come forward and claim them? From what I know of her, I
am inclined to think that she won't. Will she ever go to Wilkie
and confess that she, Lia d'Argeles, is a Chalusse, and that he is
her illegitimate son? Never! She would rather relinquish her
millions, both for herself and for him, than take such a step.
She is so ridiculously antiquated in her notions." And then he
began to study what advantages he might derive from his knowledge
of the situation.
M. de Coralth, like all persons whose present is more or less
uncertain, had great misgivings concerning his future. Just now
he was cunning enough to find a means of procuring the thirty or
forty thousand francs a year that were indispensable to his
comfort; but he had not a farthing laid by, and the vein of silver
he was now working might fail him at any moment. The slightest
indiscretion, the least blunder, might hurl him from his splendor
into the mire. The perspiration started out on his forehead when
he thought of his peril. He passionately longed for a more
assured position--for a little capital that would insure him his
bread until the end of his days, and rid him of the grim phantom
of poverty forever. And it was this desire which inspired him
with the same plan that M. Fortunat had formed. "Why shouldn't I
inform Wilkie?" he said to himself. "If I present him with a
fortune, the simpleton ought certainly to give me some reward."
But to carry this plan into execution it would be necessary to
brave Madame d'Argeles's anger; and that was attended by no little
danger. If he knew something about her, she on her side knew
everything connected with his past life. She had only to speak to
ruin him forever. Still, after weighing all the advantages and
all the dangers, he decided to act, convinced that Madame
d'Argeles might be kept ignorant of his treason, providing he only
played his cards skilfully. And his matutinal visit to M. Wilkie
was caused by a fear that he might not be the only person knowing
the truth, and that some one else might forestall him.
"You here, at sunrise, my friend!" exclaimed Wilkie, as he entered
the room where the viscount was seated. "What has happened?"
"To me?--nothing," replied the viscount. "It was solely on your
account that I deviated from my usual habits."
"What is it? You frighten me."
"Oh! don't be alarmed. I have only some good news to
communicate," and in a careless tone which cleverly concealed his
anxiety, the viscount added: "I have come, my dear Wilkie, to ask
you what you would be willing to give the man who put you in
possession of a fortune of several millions?"
M. Wilkie's face turned from white to purple at least three times
in ten seconds; and it was in a strangely altered voice that he
replied: "Ah! that's good--very good--excellent!" He tried his
best to laugh, but he was completely overcome; and, in fact, he
had cherished so many extravagant hopes that nothing seemed
impossible to him.
"Never in all my life have I spoken more seriously," insisted the
His companion at first made no reply. It was easy to divine the
conflict that was raging in his mind, between the hope that the
news was true and the fear of being made the victim of a practical
joke. "Come, my friend," he said at last, "do you want to poke
fun at me? That wouldn't be polite. A debtor is always sacred,
and I owe you twenty-five louis. This is scarcely the time to
talk of millions. My relatives have cut off my supplies; and my
creditors are overwhelming me with their bills----"
But M. de Coralth checked him, saying gravely: "Upon my honor, I
am not jesting. What would you give a man who--"
"I would give him half of the fortune he gave me."
"That's too much!"
He was in earnest, certainly. What wouldn't a man promise in all
sincerity of soul to a fellow mortal who gave him money when he
had none--when he needed it urgently and must have it to save
himself from ruin?
At such a moment no commission, however large, seems exorbitant.
It is afterward, when the day of settlement comes, that people
begin to find fault with the rate of interest.
"If I tell you that one-half is too much, it is because such is
really the case. And I am the best judge of the matter, since I
am the man who can put you in possession of this enormous
M. Wilkie started back in speechless amazement.
"This astonishes you!" said the viscount; "and why, pray? Is it
because I ask for a commission?"
"Oh! not at all!"
"It is not perhaps a very gentlemanly proceeding, but it is a
sensible one. Business is business. In the afternoon, when I am
in a restaurant, at the club, or in a lady's boudoir, I am merely
the viscount and the grand seigneur. All money questions sicken
me. I am careless, liberal, and obliging to a fault. But in the
morning I am simply Coralth, a man of the middle classes who
doesn't pay his bills without examining them, and who watches his
money, because he doesn't wish to be ruined and end his brilliant
career as a common soldier in some foreign legion."
M. Wilkie did not allow him to continue. He believed, and his joy
was wild--delirious. "Enough, enough!" he interrupted. "A
difficulty between us! Never! I am yours without reserve! Do you
understand me? How much must you have? Do you wish for it all?"
But the viscount was unmoved. "It is not fitting that I should
fix upon the indemnity which is due to me. I will consult a man
of business; and I will decide upon this point on the day after
to-morrow, when I shall explain everything to you."
"On the day after to-morrow! You won't leave me in suspense for
"It is unavoidable. I have still some important information to
procure. I lost no time in coming to you, so that I might put you
on your guard. If any scoundrel comes to you with proposals, be
extremely careful. Some agents, when they obtain a hold on an
estate, leave nothing for the rightful owner. So don't treat with
"Oh, no! You may rest assured I won't."
"I should be quieter in mind if I had your promise in writing."
Without a word, Wilkie darted to a table, and wrote a short
contract by which he bound himself to give M. Ferdinand de Coralth
one-half of the inheritance which the aforesaid Coralth might
prove him to be entitled to. The viscount read the document,
placed it in his pocket, and then said, as he took up his hat:
"Very well. I will see you again on Monday."
But M. Wilkie's doubts were beginning to return. "Monday, so be
it!" said he; "but swear that you are not deceiving me."
"What, do you still doubt me?"
M. Wilkie reflected for a moment; and suddenly a brilliant
inspiration darted through his brain. "If you are speaking the
truth, I shall soon be rich," said he. "But, in the meantime,
life is hard. I haven't a penny, and it isn't a pleasant
situation. I have a horse entered for the race to-morrow, Pompier
de Nanterre. You know the animal very well. The chances are
enormously in his favor. So, if it wouldn't inconvenience you to
lend me fifty louis "
"Certainly," interrupted the viscount, cordially. "Certainly;
with the greatest pleasure."
And drawing a beautiful little notebook from his pocket he took
from it not one, but two bank-notes of a thousand francs, and
handed them to M. Wilkie, saying: "Monsieur believes me now, does
As will be readily believed, it was not for his own pleasure that
M. de Coralth postponed his confidential disclosures for a couple
of days. He knew Wilkie perfectly well, and felt that it was
dangerous to let him roam about Paris with half of an important
secret. Postponement generally furnishes fate with weapons against
oneself. But it was impossible for the viscount to act otherwise.
He had not seen the Marquis de Valorsay since the Count de
Chalusse's death and he dared not conclude the contract with
Wilkie before he had conferred with him, for he was completely in
the marquis's power. At the least suspicion of treason, M. de
Valorsay would close his hand, and he, Coralth, would be crushed
like an egg-shell. It was to the house of his formidable
associate that he repaired on leaving M. Wilkie; and in a single
breath he told the marquis all that he knew, and the plans that he
M. de Valorsay's astonishment must have been intense when he heard
that Lia d'Argeles was a Chalusse, but he knew how to maintain his
composure. He listened quietly, and when the viscount had
completed his story, he asked: "Why did you wait so long before
telling me all this?"
"I didn't see how it could interest you in the least."
The marquis looked at him keenly, and then calmly said: "In other
words, you were waiting to see whether it would be most
advantageous to you to be with me or against me."
"How can you think----"
"I don't think, I'm sure of it. As long as I was strong support
for you, you were devoted to me. But now I am tottering, and you
are ready to betray me."
"Excuse me! The step I am about to take----"
"What, haven't you taken it already?" interrupted the marquis,
quickly. And shrugging his shoulders, he added: "Observe that I
don't reproach you in the least. Only remember this: we survive
or we perish together."
By the angry gleam in M. de Coralth's eyes, the marquis must have
realized that his companion was disposed to rebel; still this
knowledge did not seem to disquiet him, for it was in the same icy
tone that he continued: "Besides, your plans, far from conflicting
with mine, will be of service to me. Yes, Madame d'Argeles must
lay claim to the count's estate. If she hesitates, her son will
compel her to urge her claims, will he not?"
"Oh, you may rest assured of that."
"And when he becomes rich, will you be able to retain your
influence over him?"
"Rich or poor, I can mould him like wax."
"Very good. Marguerite was escaping me, but I shall soon have her
in my power. I have a plan. The Fondeges think they can outwit
me, but we shall soon see about that." The viscount was watching
his companion stealthily; as the latter perceived, and so in a
tone of brusque cordiality, he resumed: "Excuse me for not keeping
you to breakfast, but I must go out immediately--Baron Trigault is
waiting for me at his house. Let us part friends--au revoir--and,
above all, keep me well posted about matters in general."
M. de Coralth's temper was already somewhat ruffled when he
entered Valorsay's house; and he was in a furious passion when he
left it. "So we are to survive or perish together," he growled.
"Thanks for the preference you display for my society. Is it my
fault that the fool has squandered his fortune? I fancy I've had
enough of his threats and airs."
Still his wrath was not so violent as to make him forget his own
interests. He at once went to inquire if the agreement which M.
Wilkie had just signed would be binding. The lawyer whom he
consulted replied that, at all events, a reasonable compensation
would most probably be granted by the courts, in case of any
difficulty; and he suggested a little plan which was a chef
d'oeuvre in its way, at the same time advising his client to
strike the iron while it was hot.
It was not yet noon, and the viscount determined to act upon the
suggestion at once; he now bitterly regretted the delay he had
specified. "I must find Wilkie at once," he said to himself. But
he did not succeed in meeting him until the evening, when he found
him at the Cafe Riche--and in what a condition too! The two
bottles of wine which the young fool had drank at dinner had gone
to his head, and he was enumerating, in a loud voice, the desires
he meant to gratify as soon as he came into possession of his
millions. "What a brute!" thought the enraged viscount. "If I
leave him to himself, no one knows what foolish thing he may do or
say. I must remain with him until he becomes sober again."
So he followed him to the theatre, and thence to Brebant's, where
he was sitting feeling terribly bored, when M. Wilkie conceived
the unfortunate idea of inviting Victor Chupin to come up and take
some refreshment. The scene which followed greatly alarmed the
viscount. Who could this young man be? He did not remember having
ever seen him before, and yet the young scamp was evidently well
acquainted with his past life, for he had cast the name of Paul in
his face, as a deadly insult. Surely this was enough to make the
viscount shudder! How did it happen that this young man had been
just on the spot ready to pick up Wilkie's hat? Was it mere
chance? Certainly not. He could not believe it. Then why was the
fellow there? Evidently to watch somebody. And whom? Why, him--
In going through life as he had done, a man makes enemies at every
step; and he had an imposing number of foes, whom he only held in
check by his unbounded impudence and his renown as a duellist.
Thus it was not strange if some one had set a snare for him; it
was rather a miracle that he had not fallen into one before. The
dangers that threatened him were so formidable that he was almost
tempted to relinquish his attack on Madame d'Argeles. Was it
prudent to incur the risk of making this woman an enemy? All
Sunday he hesitated. It would be very easy to get out of the
scrape. He could concoct some story for Wilkie's benefit, and
that would be the end of it. But on the other hand, there was the
prospect of netting at least five hundred thousand francs--a
fortune--a competency, and the idea was too tempting to be
So on Monday morning, at about ten o'clock, he presented himself
at Wilkie's house, looking pale with anxiety, and far more solemn
in manner than usual. "Let us say but little, and that to the
point," he remarked on entering. "The secret I am about to reveal
to you will make you rich; but it might ruin me if it were known
that you obtained this information through me. You will therefore
swear, upon your honor as a gentleman, never to betray me, under
any circumstances, or for any reason."
M. Wilkie extended his hand and solemnly exclaimed: "I swear!"
"Very well, then. Now my mind is at rest. It is scarcely
necessary for me to add that if you break your faith you are a
dead man. You know me. You know how I handle a sword; and don't
forget it." His manner was so threatening that Wilkie shuddered.
"You will certainly be questioned," continued M. de Coralth; "but
you must reply that you received the information through one of
Mr. Patterson's friends. Now let us sign our formal contract in
lieu of the temporary one you gave me the other day."
It is needless to say that Wilkie signed it eagerly. Not so the
viscount; he read the document through carefully, before appending
his signature, and then exclaimed: "The estate that belongs to you
is that of the Count de Chalusse, your uncle. He leaves, I am
informed, at least eight or ten millions of property."
By M. Wilkie's excited gestures, by the glitter in his eyes, it
might have been supposed that this wonderful good fortune was too
much for him, and that he was going mad. "I knew that I belonged
to a noble family," he began. "The Count de Chalusse my uncle! I
shall have a coronet on the corner of my visiting cards."
But with a gesture M. de Coralth silenced him. "Wait a little
before you rejoice," said he. "Yes, your mother is the sister of
the Count de Chalusse, and it is through her that you are an heir
to the estate. But--don't grieve too much--there are similar
misfortunes in many of our most distinguished families--
circumstances--the obstinacy of parents--a love more powerful than
reason----" The viscount paused, certainly he had no prejudices;
but at the moment of telling this interesting young man who his
mother really was, he hesitated.
"Go on," insisted M. Wilkie.
"Well--when your mother was a young girl, about twenty, she fled
from her paternal home with a man she loved. Forsaken afterward,
she found herself in the depths of poverty. She was obliged to
live. You were starving. So she changed her name, and now she is
known as Lia d'Argeles."
M. Wilkie sprang to his feet. "Lia d'Argeles!" he exclaimed.
Then, with a burst of laughter, he added: "Nevertheless, I think
it a piece of grand good luck!"
"This man carries away your secret; you are lost." A sinister
voice whispered these words in Madame Lia d'Argeles's heart when
M. Isidore Fortunat, after being rudely dismissed, closed the door
of her drawing-room behind him. This man had addressed her by the
ancient and illustrious name of Chalusse which she had not heard
for twenty years, and which she had forbidden her own lips to
pronounce. This man knew that she, Lia d'Argeles, was really a
Durtal de Chalusse.
This frightful certainty overwhelmed her. It is true this man
Fortunat had declared that his visit was entirely disinterested.
He had pretended that his regard for the Chalusse family, and the
compassion aroused in his heart by the unfortunate plight of
Mademoiselle Marguerite, were the only motives that has influenced
him in taking this step. However, Madame d'Argeles's experience
in life had left her but limited faith in apparent or pretended
disinterestedness. This is a practical age; chivalrous sentiments
are expensive--as she had learned conclusively. "If the man came
here," she murmured, "it was only because he thought he might
derive some benefit from the prosecution of my claim to my poor
brother's estate. In refusing to listen to his entreaties, I have
deprived him of this expected profit and so I have made him my
enemy. Ah! I was foolish to send him away like that! I ought to
have pretended to listen--I ought to have bound him by all sorts
She suddenly paused. It occurred to her that M. Fortunat could
not have gone very far; so that, if she sent for him to come back,
she might perhaps be able to repair her blunder. Without losing a
second, she rushed downstairs, and ordered her concierge and a
servant to run after the gentleman who had just left the house,
and ask him to return; to tell him that she had reflected, and
wished to speak to him again. They rushed out in pursuit, and she
remained in the courtyard, her heart heavy with anxiety. Too
late! About a quarter of an hour afterward her emissaries
returned. They had made all possible haste in contrary
directions, but they had seen no one in the street who at all
resembled the person they were looking for. They had questioned
the shopkeepers, but no one had seen him pass. "It doesn't
matter," faltered Madame d'Argeles, in a tone that belied her
words. And, anxious to escape the evident curiosity of her
servants, she hastened back to the little boudoir where she
usually spent her mornings.
M. Fortunat had left his card--that is to say, his address--and it
would have been an easy matter to send a servant to his house.
She was strongly tempted to do so; but she ultimately decided that
it would be better to wait--that an hour more or less would make
but little difference. She had sent her trusty servant, Job, for
Baron Trigault; he would probably return with the baron at any
moment; and the baron would advise her. He would know at once
what was the best course for her to pursue. And so she waited for
his coming in breathless anxiety; and the more she reflected, the
more imminent her peril seemed, for she realized that M. Fortunat
must be a very dangerous and cunning man. He had set a trap for
her, and she had allowed herself to be caught. Perhaps he had
only suspected the truth when he presented himself at the house.
He had suddenly announced the death of the Count de Chalusse; she
had betrayed herself; and any doubts he might have entertained
were dispelled. "If I had only had sufficient presence of mind to
deny it," she murmured. "If I had only been courageous enough to
reply that I knew absolutely nothing about the person he spoke of.
Ah! then he would have gone away convinced that he was mistaken."
But would the smooth-spoken visitor have declared that he knew
everything, if he had not really penetrated the mystery of her
life? It was scarcely probable. He had implored her to accept the
property, if not for her own sake at least for the sake of
another. And when she asked him whom he meant he had answered,
"Mademoiselle Marguerite," but he was undoubtedly thinking of
Wilkie. So this man, this Isidore Fortunat, knew that she had a
son. Perhaps he was even acquainted with him personally. In his
anger he would very likely hasten to Wilkie's rooms and tell him
everything. This thought filled the wretched woman's heart with
despair. What! Had she not yet expiated her fault? Must she
For the first time a terrible doubt came over her. What she had
formerly regarded as a most sublime effort of maternal love, was,
perhaps, even a greater crime than the first she had committed.
She had given her honor as the price of her son's happiness and
prosperity. Had she a right to do so? Did not the money she had
lavished upon him contain every germ of corruption, misfortune,
and shame? How terrible Wilkie's grief and rage would be if he
chanced to hear the truth!
Alas! he would certainly pay no heed to the extenuating
circumstances; he would close his ears to all attempts at
justification. He would be pitiless. He would have naught but
hatred and scorn to bestow upon a mother who had fallen from the
highest rank in society down to everlasting infamy. She fancied
she heard him saying in an indignant voice, "It would have been
better to have allowed me to die of starvation than to have given
me bread purchased at such a price! Why have you dishonored me by
your ill-gotten wealth? Fallen, you might have raised yourself by
honest toil. You ought to have made me a laborer, and not a
spoiled idler, incapable of earning an honest livelihood. As the
son of a poor, betrayed, and deserted woman, with whom I could
have shared my scanty earnings, I might have looked the world
proudly in the face. But where can the son of Lia d'Argeles hide
his disgrace after playing the gentleman for twenty years with Lia
d'Argeles's money?" Yes, Wilkie would certainly say this if he
ever learned the truth; and he would learn it--she felt sure of
it. How could she hope to keep a secret which was known to Baron
Trigault, M. Patterson, the Viscount de Coralth, and M. Fortunat--
four persons! She had confidence in the first two; she believed
she had a hold on the third, but the fourth--Fortunat!
The hours went by; and still Job did not return. What was the
meaning of this delay? Had he failed to find the baron? At last
the sound of carriage-wheels in the courtyard made her start.
"That's Job!" she said to herself. "He brings the baron."
Alas! no. Job returned alone. And yet the honest fellow had
spared neither pains nor horseflesh. He had visited every place
where there was the least probability of finding the baron, and he
was everywhere told that Baron Trigault had not been seen for
several days. "In that case, you ought to have gone to his house.
Perhaps he is there," remarked Madame d'Argeles.
"Madame knows that the baron is never at home. I did go there,
however, but in vain."
This chanced to be one of three consecutive days which Baron
Trigault had spent with Kami-Bey, the Turkish ambassador. It had
been agreed between them that they should play until one or the
other had lost five hundred thousand francs; and, in order to
prevent any waste of "precious time," as the baron was wont to
remark, they neither of them stirred from the Grand Hotel, where
Kami-Bey had a suite of rooms. They ate and slept there. By some
strange chance, Madame d'Argeles had not heard of this duel with
bank-notes, although nothing else was talked of at the clubs;
indeed, the Figaro had already published a minute description of
the apartment where the contest was going on; and every evening it
gave the results. According to the latest accounts, the baron had
the advantage; he had won about two hundred and eighty thousand
"I only returned to inform madame that I had so far been
unsuccessful," said Job. "But I will recommence the search at
"That is unnecessary," replied Madame d'Argeles. "The baron will
undoubtedly drop in this evening, after dinner, as usual."
She said this, and tried her best to believe it; but in her secret
heart she felt that she could no longer depend upon the baron's
assistance. "I wounded him this morning," she thought. "He went
away more angry than I had ever seen him before. He is incensed
with me; and who knows how long it will be before he comes again?"
Still she waited, with feverish anxiety, listening breathlessly to
every sound in the street, and trembling each time she heard or
fancied she heard a carriage stop at the door. However, at two
o'clock in the morning the baron had not made his appearance. "It
is too late--he won't come!" she murmured.
But now her sufferings were less intolerable, for excess of
wretchedness had deadened her sensibility. Utter prostration
paralyzed her energies and benumbed her mind. Ruin seemed so
inevitable that she no longer thought of avoiding it; she awaited
it with that blind resignation displayed by Spanish women, who,
when they hear the roll of thunder, fall upon their knees,
convinced that lightning is about to strike their defenceless
heads. She tottered to her room, flung herself on the bed, and
instantly fell asleep. Yes, she slept the heavy, leaden slumber
which always follows a great mental crisis, and which falls like
God's blessing upon a tortured mind. On waking up, her first act
was to ring for her maid, in order to send a message to Job, to go
out again in search of the baron. But the faithful servant had
divined his mistress's wishes, and had already started off of his
own accord. It was past mid-day when he returned, but his face
was radiant; and it was in a triumphant voice that he announced:
"Monsieur le Baron Trigault."
Madame d'Argeles sprang up, and greeted the baron with a joyful
exclamation. "Ah! how kind of you to come!" she exclaimed. "You
are most welcome. If you knew how anxiously I have been waiting
for you!" He made no reply. "If you knew," continued Madame
d'Argeles, "if you only knew "
But she paused, for in spite of her own agitation, she was
suddenly struck by the peculiar expression on her visitor's face.
He was standing silent and motionless in the centre of the room,
and his eyes were fixed upon her with a strange, persistent stare
in which she could read all the contradictory feelings which were
battling for mastery in his mind--anger, hatred, pity, and
forgiveness. Madame d'Argeles shuddered. So her cup of sorrow
was not yet full. A new misfortune was about to fall upon her.
She had hoped that the baron would be able to alleviate her
wretchedness, but it seemed as if he were fated to increase it.
"Why do you look at me like that?" she asked, anxiously. "What
have I done?"
"You, my poor Lia--nothing!"
"Then--what is it? Oh, my God! you frighten me."
"What is it? Well, I am going to tell you," he said, as he stepped
forward and took her hand in his own. "You know that I have been
infamously duped and deceived, that the happiness of my life has
been destroyed by a scoundrel who tempted the wife I so fondly
loved to forget her duty, and trample her honor under foot. You
have heard my vows of vengeance if I ever succeeded in discovering
him. Ah, well, Lia, I have discovered him. The man who stole my
share of earthly happiness was the Count de Chalusse, your
With a sudden gesture Madame d'Argeles freed her hand from the
baron's grasp, and recoiled as terrified as if she had seen a
spectre rise up before her. Then with her hands extended as if to
ward off the horrible apparition, she exclaimed: "O, my God!"
A bitter smile curved the baron's lips. "What do you fear?" he
asked. "Isn't your brother dead? He has defrauded me alike of
happiness and vengeance!"
If her son's life had depended on a single word, Madame d'Argeles
could not have uttered it. She knew what mental agony had urged
the baron to a sort of moral suicide, and led him to contract the
vice in which he wasted his life and squandered, or, at least
risk, his millions.
"Nor is this all," he continued. "Listen. As I have often told
you, I was sure that my wife became a mother in my absence. I
sought the child for years, hoping that through the offspring I
might discover the father. Ah, well! I've found what I sought, at
last. The child is now a beautiful young girl. She lives at the
Hotel de Chalusse as your brother's daughter. She is known as
Madame d'Argeles listened, leaning against the wall for support,
and trembling like a leaf. Her reason was shaken by so many
repeated blows, and her son, her brother, Marguerite, Pascal
Ferailleur, Coralth, Valorsay--all those whom she loved or feared,
or hated--rose like spectres before her troubled brain. The
horror of the truth exceeded her most frightful apprehensions.
The strangeness of the reality surpassed every flight of fancy.
And, moreover, the baron's calmness increased her stupor. She so
often had heard him give vent to his rage and despair in terrible
threats, that she could not believe he would be thus resigned.
But was his calmness real? Was it not a mask, would not his fury
suddenly break forth?
However, he continued, "It is thus that destiny makes us its
sport--it is thus that it laughs at our plans. Do you remember,
Lia, the day when I met you wandering through the streets of
Paris--with your child in your arms--pale and half dead with
fatigue, faint for want of food, homeless and penniless? You saw
no refuge but in death, as you have since told me. How could I
imagine when I rescued you that I was saving my greatest enemy's
sister from suicide--the sister of the man whom I was vainly
pursuing? And yet this might not be the end, if I chose to have it
otherwise. The count is dead, but I can still return him disgrace
for disgrace. He dishonored me. What prevents me from casting
ineffaceable opprobrium upon the great name of Chalusse, of which
he was so proud? He seduced my wife. To-day I can tell all Paris
what his sister has been and what she is to-day."
Ah! it was this--yes, it was this that Madame d'Argeles had
dreaded. She fell upon her knees, and, with clasped hands she
entreated: "Pity!--oh! have pity--forgive me! Have mercy! Have I
not always been a faithful and devoted friend to you? Think of the
past you have just invoked! Who helped you then to bear your
intolerable sufferings? Don't you remember the day when you,
yourself, had determined to die by your own hand? There was a
woman who persuaded you to abandon the thought of suicide. It was
He looked at her for a moment with a softer expression, tears came
to his eyes, and rolled down his cheeks. Then suddenly he raised
her, and placed her in an arm-chair, exclaiming: "Ah! you know
very well that I shall not do what I said. Don't you know me
better than that? Are you not sure of my affection, are you not
aware that you are sacred in my eyes?" He was evidently striving
hard to master his emotion. "Besides," he added, "I had already
pardoned before coming here. It was foolish on my part, perhaps,
and for nothing in the world would I confess it to my
acquaintances, but it is none the less true. I shall have my
revenge in a certain fashion, however. I need only hold my peace,
and the daughter of M. de Chalusse and Madame Trigault would
become a lost woman. Is this not so? Very well, I shall offer her
my assistance. It may, or may not, be another absurd and
ridiculous fancy added to the many I have been guilty of. But no
matter. I have promised. And why, indeed, should this poor girl
be held responsible for the sins of her parents? I--I declare
myself on her side against the world!"
Madame d'Argeles rose, her face radiant with joy and hope. "Then
perhaps we are saved!" she exclaimed. "Ah! I knew when I sent for
you that I should not appeal to your heart in vain!"
She took hold of his hand as if to raise it to her lips; but he
gently withdrew it, and inquired, with an air of astonishment:
"What do you mean?"
"That I have been cruelly punished for not wishing you to assist
that unfortunate man who was dishonored here the other evening."
"Yes, he is innocent. The Viscount de Coralth is a scoundrel. It
was he who slipped the cards which made M. Ferailleur win, into
the pack, and he did it at the Marquis de Valorsay's instigation."
The baron looked at Madame d'Argeles with pro-found amazement.
"What!" said he; "you knew this and you allowed it? You were cruel
enough to remain silent when that innocent man entreated you to
testify on his behalf! You allowed this atrocious crime to be
executed under your own roof, and under your very eyes?"
"I was then ignorant of Mademoiselle Marguerite's existence. I
did not know that the young man was beloved by my brother's
daughter--I did not know--"
The baron interrupted her, and exclaimed, indignantly: "Ah! what
does that matter? It was none the less an abominable action."
She hung her head, and in a scarcely audible voice replied: "I was
not free. I submitted to a will that was stronger than my own.
If you had heard M. de Coralth's threats you would not censure me
so severely. He has discovered my secret; he knows Wilkie--I am
in his power. Don't frown--I make no attempt to excuse myself--I
am only explaining the position in which I was placed. My peril
is imminent; I have only confidence in you--you alone can aid me;
Thereupon she hastily explained M. de Coralth's position
respecting herself, what she had been able to ascertain concerning
the Marquis de Valorsay's plans, the alarming visit she had
received from M. Fortunat, his advice and insinuations, the
dangers she apprehended, and her firm determination to deliver
Mademoiselle Marguerite from the machinations of her enemies.
Madame d'Argeles's disclosures formed, as it were, a sequel to the
confidential revelations of Pascal Ferailleur, and the involuntary
confession of the Marquis de Valorsay; and the baron could no
longer doubt the existence of the shameful intrigue which had been
planned in view of obtaining possession of the count's millions.
And if he did not, at first, understand the motives, he at least
began to discern what means had been employed. He now understood
why Valorsay persisted in his plan of marrying Mademoiselle
Marguerite, even without a fortune. "The wretch knows through
Coralth that Madame d'Argeles is a Chalusse," he said to himself;
"and when Mademoiselle Marguerite has become his wife, he intends
to oblige Madame d'Argeles to accept her brother's estate and
share it with him."
At that same moment Madame d'Argeles finished her narrative. "And
now, what shall I do?" she added.
The baron was stroking his chin, as was his usual habit when his
mind was deeply exercised. "The first thing to be done," he
replied, "is to show Coralth in his real colors, and prove M.
Ferailleur's innocence. It will probably cost me a hundred
thousand francs to do so, but I shall not grudge the money. I
should probably spend as much or even more in play next summer;
and the amount had better be spent in a good cause than in
swelling the dividends of my friend Blanc, at Baden."
"But M. de Coralth will speak out as soon as he finds that I have
revealed his shameful past."
"Let him speak."
Madame d'Argeles shuddered. "Then the name of Chalusse will be
disgraced," said she; "and Wilkie will know who his mother is."
"Ah! allow me to finish, my dear friend. I have my plan, and it
is as plain as daylight. This evening you will write to your
London correspondent. Request M. Patterson to summon your son to
England, under any pretext whatever; let him pretend that he
wishes to give him some money, for instance. He will go there, of
course, and then we will keep him there. Coralth certainly won't
run after him, and we shall have nothing more to fear on that
"Great heavens!" murmured Madame d'Argeles, "why did this idea
never occur to me?"
The baron had now completely recovered his composure. "As regards
yourself," said he, "the plan you ought to adopt is still more
simple. What is your furniture worth? About a hundred thousand
francs, isn't it? Very well, then. You will sign me notes, dated
some time back, to the amount of a hundred thousand francs. On
the day these notes fall due, on Monday, for instance, they will
be presented for payment. You will refuse to pay them. A writ
will be served, and an attachment placed upon your furniture; but
you will offer no resistance. I don't know if I explain my
meaning very clearly."
"Oh, very clearly!"
"So your property is seized. You make no opposition, and next
week we shall have flaming posters on all the walls, telling Paris
that the furniture, wardrobe, cashmeres, laces, and diamonds of
Madame Lia d'Argeles will be sold without reserve, at public
auction, in the Rue Drouot, with the view of satisfying the claims
of her creditors. You can imagine the sensation this announcement
will create. I can see your friends and the frequenters of your
drawing-room meeting one another in the street, and saying: 'Ah,
well! what's this about poor d'Argeles?' 'Pshaw!--no doubt it's a
voluntary sale.' 'Not at all; she's really ruined. Everything is
mortgaged above its value.' 'Indeed, I'm very sorry to hear it.
She was a good creature.' 'Oh, excellent; a deal of amusement
could be found at her house,--only between you and me----' 'Well?'
'Well, she was no longer young.' 'That's true. However, I shall
attend the sale, and I think I shall bid.' And, in fact, your
acquaintances won't fail to repair to the Hotel Drouot, and maybe
your most intimate friends will yield to their generous impulses
sufficiently to offer twenty sous for one of the dainty trifles on
Overcome with shame, Madame d'Argeles hung her head. She had
never before so keenly felt the disgrace of her situation. She
had never so clearly realized what a deep abyss she had fallen
into. And this crushing humiliation came from whom? From the only
friend she possessed--from the man who was her only hope, Baron
And what made it all the more frightful was, that he did not seem
to be in the least degree conscious of the cruelty of his words.
Indeed, he continued, in a tone of bitter irony: "Of course, you
will have an exhibition before the sale, and you will see all the
dolls that hairdressers, milliners and fools call great ladies,
come running to the show. They will come to see how a notorious
woman lives, and to ascertain if there are any good bargains to be
had. This is the right form. These great ladies would be
delighted to display diamonds purchased at the sale of a woman of
the demi monde. Oh! don't fear--your exhibition will be visited
by my wife and daughter, by the Viscountess de Bois d'Ardon, by
Madame de Rochecote, her five daughters, and a great many more.
Then the papers will take up the refrain; they will give an
account of your financial difficulties, and tell the public what
you paid for your pictures."
It was with a sort of terror-stricken curiosity that Madame
d'Argeles watched the baron. It had been many years since she had
seen him in such a frame of mind--since she had heard him talk in
such a cynical fashion. "I am ready to follow your advice," said
she, "but afterward?"
"What, don't you understand the object I have in view? Afterward
you will disappear. I know five or six journalists; and it would
be very strange if I could not convince one of them that you had
died upon an hospital pallet. It will furnish the subject of a
touching, and what is better, a moral article. The papers will
say, 'Another star has disappeared. This is the miserable end of
all the poor wretches whose passing luxury scandalizes honest
"And what will become of me?"
"A respected woman, Lia. You will go to England, install yourself
in some pretty cottage near London, and create a new identity for
yourself. The proceeds of your sale will supply your wants and
Wilkie's for more than a year. Before that time has elapsed you
will have succeeded in accumulating the necessary proofs of your
identity, and then you can assert your claims and take possession
of your brother's estate."
Madame d'Argeles sprang to her feet. "Never never!" she
The baron evidently thought he must have misunderstood her.
"What!" he stammered; "you will relinquish the millions that are
legally yours, to the government?"
"Yes--I am resolved--it must be so."
"Will you sacrifice your son's future in this style?"
"No, it isn't in my power to do that; but Wilkie will do so,
later, on, I'm sure of it."
"But this is simply folly."
A feverish agitation had now succeeded Madame d'Argeles's torpor;
there was an expression of scorn and anger on her rigid features,
and her eyes, usually so dull and lifeless, fairly blazed. "It is
not folly," she exclaimed, "but vengeance!" And as the astonished
baron opened his lips to question her: "Let me finish," she said
imperiously, "and then you shall judge me. I have told you with
perfect frankness everything concerning my past life, save this--
this--that I am married, Monsieur le Baron, legally married. I am
bound by a chain that nothing can break, and my husband is a
scoundrel. You would be frightened if you knew half the extent of
his villainy. Oh! do not shake your head. I ought not to be
suspected of exaggeration when I speak in this style of a man whom
I once loved so devotedly. For I loved him, alas!--even to
madness--loved him so much that I forgot self, family, honor, and
all the most sacred duties. I loved him so madly that I was
willing to follow him, while his hands were still wet with my
brother's blood. Ah! chastisement could not fail to come, and it
was terrible, like the sin. This man for whom I had abandoned
everything--whom I had made my idol--do you know what he said to
me the third day after my flight from home? 'You must be more
stupid than an owl to have forgotten to take your jewels.' Yes,
those were the very words he said to me, with a furious air. And
then I could measure the depths of the abyss into which I had
plunged. This man, with whom I had been so infatuated, did not
love me at all, he had never loved me. It had only been cold
calculation on his part. He had devoted months to the task of
winning my heart, just as he would have devoted them to some
business transaction. He only saw in me the fortune that I was to
inherit. Oh! he didn't conceal it from me. 'If your parents are
not monsters,' he was always saying, 'they will finally become
reconciled to our marriage. They will give you a handsome fortune
and we will divide it. I will give you back your liberty, and
then we can each of us be happy in our own way.' It was for this
reason that he wished to marry me. I consented on account of my
unborn child. My father and mother had died, and he hoped to
prevail upon me to claim my share of the paternal fortune. As for
claiming it himself, he dared not. He was a coward, and he was
afraid of my brother. But I took a solemn oath that he should
never have a farthing of the wealth he coveted, and neither
threats nor BLOWS could compel me to assert my claim. God only
knows how much I had suffered from his brutality when I at last
succeeded in making my escape with Wilkie. He has sought us
everywhere for fifteen years, but he has not yet succeeded in
finding a trace of us. Still he has not ceased to watch my
brother. I am sure of that, my presentiments never deceive me.
So, if I followed your advice--if I claimed possession of my
brother's fortune--my husband would instantly appear with our
marriage contract in his hands, and demand everything. Shall I
enrich him? No, never, never! I would rather die of want! I would
rather see Wilkie die of starvation before my very eyes!"
Madame d'Argeles spoke in that tone of concentrated rage which
betrays years of repressed passion and unflinching resolution.
One could scarcely hope to modify her views even by the wisest and
most practical advice. The baron did not even think of attempting
to do so. He had known Madame d'Argeles for years; he had seen so
many proofs of her invincible energy and determination. She
possessed the distinguishing characteristic of her family in a
remarkable degree--that proverbial Chalusse obstinacy which Madame
Vantrasson had alluded to in her conversation with M. Fortunat.
She was silent for a moment, and then, in a firm tone she said:
"Still, I will follow your advice in part, baron. This evening I
will write to M. Patterson and request him to send for Wilkie. In
less than a fortnight I shall have sold my furniture and
disappeared. I shall remain poor. My fortune is not so large as
people suppose. No matter. My son is a man; he must learn to
earn his own living."
"My banking account is always at your disposal, Lia."
"Thanks, my friend, thanks a thousand times; but it will not be
necessary for me to accept your kind offer. When Wilkie was a
child I did not refuse. But now I would dig the ground with my
own hands, rather than give him a louis that came from you. You
think me full of contradictions! Perhaps I am. It is certain that
I am no longer what I was yesterday. This trouble has torn away
the bandage that covered my eyes. I can see my conduct clearly
now, and I condemn it. I sinned for my son's sake, more than for
my own. But I might have rehabilitated myself through him, and
now he will perhaps be dishonored through me." Her breathing came
short and hard, and it was in a choked voice that she continued:
"Wilkie shall work for me and for himself. If he is strong, he
will save us. If he is weak--ah, well! we shall perish. But
there has been cowardice and shame enough! It shall never be said
that I sacrificed the honor of a noble name and the happiness of
my brother's child to my son. I see what my duty is, and I shall
The baron nodded approvingly. "That's no doubt right," said he.
"Only allow me to tell you that all is not lost yet. The code has
a weapon for every just cause. Perhaps there will be a way for
you to obtain and hold your fortune independent of your husband."
"Alas! I made inquiries on the subject years ago, and I was told
that it would be impossible. Still, you might investigate the
matter. I have confidence in you. I know that you would not
advise me rashly;--but don't delay. The worst misfortune would be
less intolerable than this suspense."
"I will lose no time. M. Ferailleur is a very clever lawyer, I am
told. I will consult him."
"And what shall I do about this man Fortunat, who called upon me?"
The baron reflected for a moment. "The safest thing would be to
take no action whatever at present," he replied. "If he has any
evil designs, a visit or a letter from you would only hasten
By the way Madame d'Argeles shook her head, it was easy to see
that she had very little hope. "All this will end badly," she
The baron shared her opinion, but he did not think it wise or kind
to discourage her. "Nonsense!" he said lightly, "luck is going to
change; it is always changing."
Then as he heard the clock strike, he sprang from his arm-chair in
dismay. "Two o'clock," he exclaimed, "and Kami-Bey is waiting for
me. I certainly haven't been wasting time here, but I ought to
have been at the Grand Hotel at noon. Kami is quite capable of
suspecting a man of any knavery. These Turks are strange
creatures. It's true that I am now a winner to the tune of two
hundred and eighty thousand francs." He settled his hat firmly on
his head, and opening the door, he added: "Good-by, my dear
madame, I will soon see you again, and in the meantime don't
deviate in the least from your usual habits. Our success depends,
in a great measure, upon the fancied security of our enemies!"
Madame d'Argeles considered this advice so sensible that half an
hour later she went out for her daily drive in the Bois, little
suspecting that M. Fortunat's spy, Victor Chupin, was dogging her
carriage. It was most imprudent on her part to have gone to
Wilkie's house on her return. She incurred such a risk of
awakening suspicion by wandering about near her son's home that
she seldom allowed herself that pleasure, but sometimes her
anxiety overpowered her reason. So, on this occasion, she ordered
the coachman to stop near the Rue du Helder, and she reached the
street just in time to betray her secret to Victor Chupin, and
receive a foul insult from M. Wilkie. The latter's cruel words
stabbed her to the heart, and yet she tried to construe them as
mere proofs of her son's honesty of feeling--as proof of his scorn
for the depraved creatures who haunt the boulevards each evening.
But though her energy was indomitable, her physical strength was
not equal to her will. On returning home, she felt so ill that
she was obliged to go to bed. She shivered with cold, and yet the
blood that flowed in her veins seemed to her like molten lead.
The physician who was summoned declared that her illness was a
mere trifle, but prescribed rest and quiet. And as he was a very
discerning man, he added, not without a malicious smile, that any
excess is injurious--excess of pleasure as well as any other. As
it was Sunday, Madame d'Argeles was able to obey the physician,
and so she closed her doors against every one, the baron excepted.
Still, fearing that this seclusion might seem a little strange,
she ordered her concierge to tell any visitors that she had gone
into the country, and would not return until her usual reception-
day. She would then be compelled to open her doors as usual. For
what would the habitues of the house, who had played there every
Monday for years, say if they found the doors closed? She was less
her own mistress than an actress--she had no right to weep or
suffer in solitude.
So, at about seven o'clock on Monday evening, although still
grievously suffering both in mind and body, she arranged herself
to receive her guests. From among all her dresses, she chose the
same dark robe she had worn on the night when Pascal Ferailleur
was ruined at her house; and as she was even paler than usual, she
tried to conceal the fact by a prodigal use of rouge. At ten
o'clock, when the first arrivals entered the brilliantly lighted
rooms, they found her seated as usual on the sofa, near the fire,
with the same eternal, unchangeable smile upon her lips. There
were at least forty persons in the room, and the gambling had
become quite animated when the baron entered. Madame d'Argeles
read in his eyes that he was the bearer of good news. "Everything
is going on well," he whispered, as he shook hands with her. "I
have seen M. Ferailleur--I wouldn't give ten sous for Valorsay's
and Coralth's chances."
This intelligence revived Madame d'Argeles's drooping spirits, and
she received M. de Coralth with perfect composure when he came to
pay his respects to her soon afterward. For he had the impudence
to come, in order to dispel any suspicions that might have been
aroused anent his complicity in the card-cheating affair. The
hostess's calmness amazed him. Was she still ignorant of her
brother's death and the complications arising from it, or was she
only acting a part? He was so anxious and undecided, that instead
of mingling with the groups of talkers, he at once took a seat at
the card-table, whence he could watch the poor woman's every
Both rooms were full, and almost everybody was engaged in play,
when, shortly after midnight, a servant entered the room,
whispered a few words in his mistress's ear, and handed her a
card. She took it, glanced at it, and uttered so harsh, so
terrible, so heart-broken a cry, that several of the guests sprang
to their feet. "What is it? What is it?" they asked. She tried
to reply, but could not. Her lips parted, she opened her mouth,
but no sound came forth. She turned ghastly white under her
rouge, and a wild, unnatural light gleamed in her eyes. One
curious guest, without a thought of harm, tried to take the card,
which she still held in her clinched hand; but she repulsed him
with such an imperious gesture that he recoiled in terror. "What
is it? What is the matter with her?" was the astonished query on
At last, with a terrible effort, she managed to reply, "Nothing."
And then, after clinging for a moment to the mantel-shelf, in
order to steady herself, she tottered out of the room.
It was not enough to tell M. Wilkie the secret of his birth. He
must be taught how to utilize the knowledge. The Viscount de
Coralth devoted himself to this task, and burdened Wilkie with
such a host of injunctions, that it was quite evident he had but a
poor opinion of his pupil's sagacity. "That woman d'Argeles," he
thought, "is as sharp as steel. She will deceive this young idiot
completely, if I don't warn him."
So he did warn him; and Wilkie was instructed exactly what to do
and say, how to answer any questions, and what position to take up
according to circumstances. Moreover, he was especially enjoined
to distrust tears, and not to let himself be put out of
countenance by haughty airs. The Viscount spent at least an hour
in giving explanations and advice, to the great disgust of M.
Wilkie, who, feeling that he was being treated like a child,
somewhat testily declared that he was no fool, and that he knew
how to take care of himself as well as any one else. Still, this
did not prevent M. de Coralth from persisting in his instructions
until he was persuaded that he had prepared his pupil for all
possible emergencies. He then rose to depart. "That's all, I
think," he remarked, with a shade of uneasiness. "I've traced the
plan--you must execute it, and keep cool, or the game's lost."
His companion rose proudly. "If it fails, it won't be from any
fault of mine," he answered with unmistakable petulance.
"Lose no time."
"There's no danger of that."
"And understand, that whatever happens, my name is not to be
"If there should be any new revelations, I will inform you."
"At the club?"
"Yes, but don't be uneasy; the affair is as good as concluded."
"I hope so, indeed."
Wilkie gave a sigh of relief as he saw his visitor depart. He
wished to be alone, so as to brood over the delights that the
future had in store for him. He was no longer to be limited to a
paltry allowance of twenty thousand francs! No more debts, no more
ungratified longings. He would have millions at his disposal! He
seemed to see them, to hold them, to feel them gliding in golden
waves between his fingers! What horses he would have! what
carriages! what mistresses! And a gleam of envy that he had
detected in M. de Coralth's eyes put the finishing touch to his
bliss. To be envied by this brilliant viscount, his model and his
ideal, what happiness it was!
The reputation that Madame d'Argeles bore had at first cast a
shadow over his joy; but this shadow had soon vanished. He was
troubled by no foolish prejudices, and personally he cared little
or nothing for his mother's reputation. The prejudices of society
must, of course, be considered. But nonsense! society has no
prejudices nowadays when millionaires are concerned, and asks no
questions respecting their parents. Society only requires
passports of the indigent. Besides, no matter what Madame
d'Argeles might have done, she was none the less a Chalusse, the
descendant of one of the most aristocratic families in France.
Such were Wilkie's meditations while he was engaged in dressing
himself with more than usual care. He had been quite shocked by
the suggestion that Madame d'Argeles might try to deny him, and he
wished to appear before her in the most advantageous light. His
toilette was consequently a lengthy operation. However, shortly
after twelve o'clock he was ready. He cast a last admiring glance
at himself in the mirror, twirled his mustaches, and departed on
his mission. He even went on foot, which was a concession to what
he considered M. de Coralth's absurd ideas. The aspect of the
Hotel d'Argeles, in the Rue de Berry, impressed him favorably,
but, at the same time, it somewhat disturbed his superb assurance.
"Everything is very stylish here," he muttered.
A couple of servants--the concierge and Job--were standing at the
door engaged in conversation. M. Wilkie approached them, and in
his most imposing manner, but not without a slight tremble in his
voice, requested to see Madame d'Argeles. "Madame is in the
country," replied the concierge; "she will not return before this
evening. If monsieur will leave his card "
"Oh! that's quite unnecessary. I shall be passing again."
This, too, was in obedience to the instructions of M. de Coralth,
who had advised him not to send in his name, but to gain admission
into Madame d'Argeles's presence as speedily as possible, without
giving her time to prepare herself for the interview; and Wilkie
had ultimately decided that these precautions might not prove as
superfluous as he had at first supposed. But this first mishap
annoyed him extremely. What should he do? how should he kill time
till the evening? A cab was passing. He hired it for a drive to
the Bois, whence he returned to the boulevards, played a game of
billiards with one of the co-proprietors of Pompier de Nanterre,
and finally dined at the Cafe Riche, devoting as much time as
possible to the operation. He was finishing his coffee when the
clock struck eight. He caught up his hat, drew on his gloves, and
hastened to the Hotel d'Argeles again.
"Madame has not yet returned," said the concierge, who knew that
his mistress had only just risen from her bed, "but I don't think
it will be long. And if monsieur wishes--"
"No," replied M. Wilkie brusquely, and he was going off in a
furious passion, when, on crossing the street, he chanced to turn
his head and notice that the reception rooms were brilliantly
lighted up. "Ah! I think that a very shabby trick!" grumbled the
intelligent youth. "They won't succeed in playing that game on me
again. Why, she's there now!"
It occurred to him that Madame d'Argeles had perhaps described him
to her servants, and had given them strict orders not to admit
him. "I'll find out if that is the case, even if I have to wait
here until to-morrow morning," he thought, angrily. However, he
had not been on guard very long, when he saw a brougham stop in
front of the mansion, whereupon the gate opened, as if by
enchantment. The vehicle entered the courtyard, deposited its
occupants, and drove away. A second carriage soon appeared, then
a third, and then five or six in quick succession. "And does she
think I'll wear out my shoe-leather here, while everybody else is
allowed to enter?" he grumbled. "Never!--I've an idea." And,
without giving himself time for further deliberation, he returned
to his rooms, arrayed himself in evening-dress, and sent for his
carriage. "You will drive to No.--in the Rue de Berry," he said.
"There is a soiree there, and you can drive directly into the
courtyard." The coachman obeyed, and M. Wilkie realized that his
idea was really an excellent one.
As soon as he alighted, the doors were thrown open, and he
ascended a handsome staircase, heavily carpeted, and adorned with
flowers. Two liveried footmen were standing at the door of the
drawing-room, and one of them advanced to relieve Wilkie of his
overcoat, but his services were declined. "I don't wish to go
in," said the young man roughly. "I wish to speak with Madame
d'Argeles in private. She is expecting me--inform her. Here is
The servant was hesitating, when Job, suspecting some mystery
perhaps, approached. "Take in the gentleman's card," he said,
with an air of authority; and, opening the door of a small room on
the left-hand side of the staircase, he invited Wilkie to enter,
saying, "If monsieur will be kind enough to take a seat, I will
summon madame at once."
M. Wilkie sank into an arm-chair, considerably overcome. The air
of luxury that pervaded the entire establishment, the liveried
servants, the lights and flowers, all impressed him much more
deeply than he would have been willing to confess. And in spite
of his affected arrogance, he felt that the superb assurance which
was the dominant trait in his character was deserting him. In his
breast, moreover, in the place where physiologists locate the
heart, he felt certain extraordinary movements which strongly
resembled palpitations. For the first time it occurred to him
that this woman, whose peace he had come to destroy, was not only
the heiress of the Count de Chalusse's millions, but also his
mother, that is to say, the good fairy whose protection had
followed him everywhere since he entered the world. The thought
that he was about to commit an atrocious act entered his mind, but
he drove it away. It was too late now to draw back, or even to
Suddenly a door opposite the one by which he had entered opened,
and Madame d'Argeles appeared on the threshold. She was no longer
the woman whose anguish and terror had alarmed her guests. During
the brief moment of respite which fate had granted her, she had
summoned all her energy and courage, and had mastered her despair.
She felt that her salvation depended upon her calmness, and she
had succeeded in appearing calm, haughty, and disdainful--as
impassive as if she had been a statue. "Was it you, sir, who sent
me this card?" she inquired.
Greatly disconcerted, M. Wilkie could only bow and stammer out an
almost unintelligible answer. "Excuse me! I am much grieved, upon
my word! I disturb you, perhaps----"
"You are Monsieur Wilkie!" interrupted Madame d'Argeles, in a tone
of mingled irony and disdain.
"Yes," he replied, drawling out the name affectedly, "I am M.
"Did you desire to speak with me?" inquired Madame d'Argeles,
"In fact--yes. I should like----"
"Very well. I will listen to you, although your visit is most
inopportune, for I have eighty guests or more in my drawing-room.
It was very easy to say "speak," but unfortunately for M. Wilkie
he could not articulate a syllable. His tongue was as stiff, and
as dry, as if it had been paralyzed. He nervously passed and
repassed his fingers between his neck and his collar, but although
this gave full play to his cravat, his words did not leave his
throat any more readily. For he had imagined that Madame
d'Argeles would be like other women he had known, but not at all.
He found her to be an extremely proud and awe-inspiring creature,
who, to use his own vocabulary, SQUELCHED him completely. "I
wished to say to you," he repeated, "I wished to say to you----"
But the words he was seeking would not come; and, so at last,
angry with himself, he exclaimed: "Ah! you know as well as I, why
I have come. Do you dare to pretend that you don't know?"
She looked at him with admirably feigned astonishment, glanced
despairingly at the ceiling, shrugged her shoulders, and replied:
"Most certainly I don't know--unless indeed it be a wager."
"A wager!" M. Wilkie wondered if he were not the victim of some
practical joke, and if there were not a crowd of listeners hidden
somewhere, who, after enjoying his discomfiture, would suddenly
make their appearance, holding their sides. This fear restored
his presence of mind. "Well, then," he replied, huskily, "this is
my reason. I know nothing respecting my parents. This morning, a
man with whom you are well acquainted, assured me that I was--your
son. I was completely stunned at first, but after a while I
recovered sufficiently to call here, and found that you had gone
He was interrupted by a nervous laugh from Madame d'Argeles. For
she was heroic enough to laugh, although death was in her heart,
and although the nails of her clinched hands were embedded deep in
her quivering flesh. "And you believed him, monsieur?" she
exclaimed. "Really, this is too absurd! I--your mother! Why, look
He was doing nothing else, he was watching her with all the powers
of penetration he possessed. Madame d'Argeles's laugh had an
unnatural ring that awakened his suspicions. All Coralth's
recommendations buzzed confusedly in his ears, and he judged that
the moment had come "to do the sentimental," as he would have
expressed it. So he lowered his head, and in an aggrieved tone,
exclaimed: "Ah! you think it very amusing, I don't. Do you
realize how wretched it makes one to live as utterly alone as a
leper, without a soul to love or care for you? Other young men
have a mother, sisters, relatives. I have no one! Ah! if---- But
I only have friends while my money lasts." He wiped his eyes, dry
as they were, with his handkerchief, and in a still more pathetic
tone, resumed: "Not that I want for anything; I receive a very
handsome allowance. But when my relatives have given me the
wherewithal to keep me from starving, they imagine their duty is
fulfilled. I think this very hard. I didn't come into the world
at my own request, did I? I didn't ask to be born. If I was such
an annoyance to them when I came into existence, why didn't they
throw me into the river? Then they would have been well rid of me,
and I should be out of my misery!"
He stopped short, struck dumb with amazement, for Madame d'Argeles
had thrown herself on her knees at his feet. "Have mercy!" she
faltered; "Wilkie; my son, forgive me!" Alas! the unfortunate
woman had failed in playing a part which was too difficult for a
mother's heart. "You have suffered cruelly, my son," she
continued; "but I--I--Ah! you can't conceive the frightful agony
it costs a mother to separate from her child! But you were not
deserted, Wilkie; don't say that. Have you not felt my love in
the air around you? YOU forgotten? Know, then, that for years and
years I have seen you every day, and that all my thoughts and all
my hopes are centered in you alone! Wilkie!"
She dragged herself toward him with her hands clasped in an agony
of supplication, while he recoiled, frightened by this outburst of
passion, and utterly amazed by his easily won victory. The poor
woman misunderstood this movement. "Great God!" she exclaimed,
"he spurns me; he loathes me. Ah! I knew it would be so. Oh! why
did you come? What infamous wretch sent you here? Name him,
Wilkie! Do you understand, now, why I concealed myself from you? I
dreaded the day when I should blush before you, before my own son.
And yet it was for your sake. Death would have been a rest, a
welcome release for me. But your breath was ebbing away, your
poor little arms no longer had strength to clasp me round the
neck. And then I cried: 'Perish my soul and body, if only my
child can be saved!' I believed such a sacrifice permissible in a
mother. I am punished for it as if it were a crime. I thought
you would be happy, my Wilkie. I said to myself that you, my
pride and joy, would move freely and proudly far above me and my
shame. I accepted ignominy, so that your honor might be preserved
intact. I knew the horrors of abject poverty, and I wished to
save my son from it. I would have licked up the very mire in your
pathway to save you from a stain. I renounced all hope for
myself, and I consecrated all that was noble and generous in my
nature to you. Oh! I will discover the vile coward who sent you
here, who betrayed my secret. I will discover him and I will have
my revenge! You were never to know this, Wilkie. In parting from
you, I took a solemn oath never to see you again, and to die
without the supreme consolation of feeling your lips upon my
She could not continue; sobs choked her utterance. And for more
than a minute the silence was so profound that one could hear the
sound of low conversation in the hall outside, the exclamations of
the players as they greeted each unexpected turn of luck, and
occasionally a cry of "Banco!" or "I stake one hundred louis!"
Standing silent and motionless near the window, Wilkie gazed with
consternation at Madame d'Argeles, his mother, who was crouching
in the middle of the room with her face hidden in her hands, and
sobbing as if her heart would break. He would willingly have
given his third share in Pompier de Nanterre to have made his
escape. The strangeness of the scene appalled him. It was not
emotion that he felt, but an instinctive fear mingled with
commiseration. And he was not only ill at ease, but he was angry
with himself for what he secretly styled his weakness. "Women are
incomprehensible," he thought. "It would be so easy to explain
things quietly and properly, but they must always cry and have a
sort of melodrama."
Suddenly the sound of footsteps near the door roused him from his
stupor. He shuddered at the thought that some one might come in.
He hated the very idea of ridicule. So summoning all his courage
he went toward Madame d'Argeles, and, raising her from the floor,
he exclaimed: "Don't cry so. You grieve me, upon my word! Pray
get up. Some one is coming. Do you hear me? Some one is coming."
Thereupon, as she offered no resistance, he half led, half carried
her to an arm-chair, into which she sank heavily. "Now she is
going to faint!" thought Wilkie, in despair. What should he do?
Call for help? He dared not. However, necessity inspired him. He
knelt at Madame d'Argeles's feet, and gently said: "Come, come, be
reasonable! Why do you give way like this? I don't reproach you!"
Slowly, with an air of humility which was indescribably touching,
she took her hands from her face, and for the first time raised
her tear-stained eyes to her son's. "Wilkie," she murmured.
She heaved a deep sigh, and in a half-stifled voice:
"MADAME!" she repeated. "Will you not call me mother?"
"Yes, of course--certainly. But--only you know it will take me
some time to acquire the habit. I shall do so, of course; but I
shall have to get used to it, you know."
"True, very true!--but tell me it is not mere pity that leads you
to make this promise? If you should hate me--if you should curse
me--how should I bear it! Ah! when a woman reaches the years of
understanding one should never cease repeating to her: 'Take care!
Your son will be twenty some day, and you will have to meet his
searching gaze. You will have to render an account of your honor
to him!' My God! If women thought of this, they would never sin.
To be reduced to such a state of abject misery that one dares not
lift one's head before one's own son! Alas! Wilkie, I know only
too well that you cannot help despising me."
"No, indeed. Not at all! What an idea!"
"Tell me that you forgive me!"
"I do, upon my word I do."
Poor woman, her face brightened. She so longed to believe him!
And her son was beside her, so near that she felt his breath upon
her cheek. It was he indeed. Had they ever been separated? She
almost doubted it, she had lived so near him in thought. It was
with a sort of ecstasy that she looked at him. There was a world
of entreaty in her eyes; they seemed to be begging a caress; she
raised her quivering lips to his, but he did not observe it. For
a long time she hesitated, fearing he might spurn her; but at
last, yielding to a supreme impulse, she threw her arms around his
neck, drew him toward her, and pressed him to her heart in a close
embrace. "My son! my son!" she repeated; "to have you with me
again, after all these years!"
Unfortunately, no whirlwind of passion was capable of carrying M.
Wilkie beyond himself. His emotion was now spent and his mind had
regained its usual indifference. He flattered himself that he was
a man of mettle--and he remained as cold as ice beneath his
mother's kisses. Indeed, he barely tolerated them; and if he did
allow her to embrace him, it was only because he did not know how
to refuse. "Will she never have done?" he thought. "This is a
pretty state of things! I must be very attractive. How Costard
and Serpillon would laugh if they saw me now." Costard and
Serpillon were his intimate friends, the co-proprietors of the
In her rapture, however, Madame d'Argeles did not observe the
peculiar expression on her son's face. She had compelled him to
take a chair opposite her, and, with nervous volubility, she
continued: "If I don't deny myself the happiness of embracing you
again, it is because I have not broken the vow I took never to
make myself known to you. When I entered this room, I was firmly
resolved to convince you, no matter how, that you had been
deceived. God knows that it was not my fault if I did not
succeed. There are some sacrifices that are above human
M. Wilkie deigned to smile. "Oh! yes, I saw your little game," he
said, with a knowing air. "But I had been well posted, and
besides, it is not very easy to fool me."
Madame d'Argeles did not even hear him. "Perhaps destiny is weary
of afflicting us," she continued; "perhaps a new life is about to
begin. Through you, Wilkie. I can again be happy. I, who for
years have lived without even hope. But will you have courage to
She hung her head, and in an almost inaudible voice replied, "The
But with an air of the greatest indifference, he snapped his
fingers, and exclaimed: "Nonsense! What is past is past. Such
things are soon forgotten. Paris has known many such cases. You
are my mother; I care very little for public opinion. I begin by
pleasing myself, and I consult other people afterward; and when
they are dissatisfied, I tell them to mind their own business."
The poor woman listened to these words with a joy bordering on
rapture. One might have supposed that the strangeness of her
son's expressions would have surprised her--have enlightened her
in regard to his true character--but no. She only saw and
understood one thing--that he had no intention of casting her off,
but was indeed ready to devote himself to her. "My God!" she
faltered, "is this really true? Will you allow me to remain with
you? Oh, don't reply rashly! Consider well, before you promise to
make such a sacrifice. Think how much sorrow and pain it will
"I have considered. It is decided--mother."
She sprang up, wild with hope and enthusiasm. "Then we are
saved!" she cried. "Blessed be he who betrayed my secret! And I
doubted your courage, my Wilkie! At last I can escape from this
hell! This very night we will fly from this house, without one
backward glance. I will never set foot in these rooms again--the
detested gamblers who are sitting here shall never see me again.
From this moment Lia d'Argeles is dead."
M. Wilkie positively felt like a man who had just fallen from the
clouds. "What, fly?" he stammered. "Where shall we go, then?"
"To a country where we are unknown, Wilkie--to a land where you
will not have to blush for your mother."
"Trust yourself to me, my son. I know a pleasant village near
London where we can find a refuge. My connections in England are
such that you need not fear the obstacles one generally meets with
among foreigners. M. Patterson, who manages a large manufacturing
establishment, will, I know, be happy to be of service to us--but
we shall not be indebted to any one for long, now that you have
resolved to work."
On hearing these words, M. Wilkie sprang up in dismay. "Excuse
me," he said, "I don't understand you. You propose to set me to
work in M. Patterson's factory? Well, to tell the truth, that
doesn't suit me at all."
It was impossible to mistake M. Wilkie's manner, his tone, or
gesture. They revealed him in his true character. Madame
d'Argeles saw her terrible mistake at once. The bandage fell from
her eyes. She had taken her dreams for realities, and the desires
of her own heart for those of her son. She rose, trembling with
sorrow and with indignation. "Wilkie!" she exclaimed, "Wilkie,
wretched boy! what did you dare to hope?"
And, without giving him time to reply, she continued: "Then it was
only idle curiosity that brought you here. You wished to know the
source of the money which you spend like water. Very well, you
may see for yourself. This is a gambling house; one of those
establishments frequented by distinguished personages, which the
police ignore, or which they cannot suppress. The hubbub you hear
is made by the players. Men are ruined here. Some poor wretches
have blown their brains out on leaving the house; others have
parted with the last vestige of honor here. And the business pays
me well. One louis out of every hundred that change hands falls
to my share. This is the source of your wealth, my son."
This anger, which succeeded such deep grief--this outburst of
disdain, following such abject humility--considerably astonished
M. Wilkie. "Allow me to ask----" he began.
But he was not allowed a hearing. "Fool!" continued Madame
d'Argeles, "did nothing warn you that in coming here you would
deprive yourself forever of the income you received? Did no inward
voice tell you that all would be changed when you compelled me,
Lia d'Argeles, to say, 'Well, yes, it is true; you are my son? '
So long as you did not know who and what I was, I had a mother's
right to watch over you. I could help you without disgracing you,
without despising you. But now that you know me, and know what I
am, I can do nothing more for you--nothing! I would rather let you
starve than succor you, for I would rather see you dead than
dishonored by my money."
"What! would you still consent to receive the allowance I have
made you, even if I consented to continue it?"
Had a viper raised its head in M. Wilkie's path he would not have
recoiled more quickly. "Never!" he exclaimed. "Ah, no! What do
you take me for?"
This repugnance was sincere; there could be no doubt of that, and
it seemed to give Madame d'Argeles a ray of hope. "I have
misjudged him," she thought. "Poor Wilkie! Evil advice has led
him astray; but he is not bad at heart. In that case, my poor
child," she said aloud, "you must see that a new life is about to
commence for you. What do you intend to do? How will you gain a
livelihood? People must have food, and clothes, and a roof to
shelter them. These things cost money. And where will you obtain
it--you who rebel at the very word work? Ah! if I had only
listened to M. Patterson. He was not blind like myself. He was
always telling me that I was spoiling you, and ruining your future
by giving you so much money. Do you know that you have spent more
than fifty thousand francs during the past two years? How have you
squandered them? Have you been to the law-school a dozen times?
No. But you can be seen at the races, at the opera, in the
fashionable restaurants, and at every place of amusement where a
young man can squander money. And who are your associates?
Dissipated and heartless idlers, grooms, gamblers, and abandoned
A sneer from M. Wilkie interrupted her. To think that any one
should dare to attack his friends, his tastes, and his pleasures.
Such a thing was not to be tolerated. "This is astonishing--
astonishing, upon my word!" said he. "You moralizing! that's
really too good! I should like a few minutes to laugh; it is too
Was he really conscious of the cruelty of his ironical words? The
blow was so terrible that Madame d'Argeles staggered beneath it.
She was prepared for anything and everything except this insult
from her son. Still, she accepted it without rebellion, although
it was in a tone of heart-broken anguish that she replied:
"Perhaps I have no right to tell you the truth. I hope the future
will prove that I am wrong. However, you are without resources,
and you have no profession. Pray Heaven that you may never know
what it is to be hungry and to have no bread."
For some time already the ingenious young man had shown
unmistakable signs of impatience. This gloomy prediction
irritated him beyond endurance.
"All this is empty talk," he interrupted. "I don't mean to work,
for it's not at all in my line. Still, I don't expect to want for
anything! That's plain enough, I hope."
Madame d'Argeles did not wince. "What do you mean to do then?"
she asked, coldly. "I don't understand you."
He shrugged his shoulders impatiently. "Are we to keep up this
farce for ever?" he petulantly exclaimed. "It doesn't take with
me. You know what I mean as well as I do. Why do you talk to me
about dying of starvation? What about the fortune?"
"Eh? why, my uncle's, of course! Your brother's, the Count de
Now M. Wilkie's visit, manner, assurance, wheedling, and
contradictions were all explained. That maternal confidence which
is so strong in the hearts of mothers vanished from Madame
d'Argeles's for ever. The depths of selfishness and cunning she
discerned in Wilkie's mind appalled her. She now understood why
he had declared himself ready to brave public opinion--why he had
proved willing to accept his share of the past ignominy. It was
not his mother's, but the Count de Chalusse's estate that he
claimed. "Ah! so you've heard of that," she said, in a tone of
bitter irony. And then, remembering M. Isidore Fortunat, she
asked: "Some one has sold you this valuable secret. How much have
you promised to pay him in case of success?"
Although Wilkie prided himself on being very clever, he did not
pretend to be a diplomatist, and, indeed, he was greatly
disconcerted by this question; still, recovering himself, he
replied: "It doesn't matter how I obtained the information--
whether I paid for it, or whether it cost me nothing--but I know
that you are a Chalusse, and that you are the heiress of the
count's property, which is valued at eight or ten millions of
francs. Do you deny it?"
Madame d'Argeles sadly shook her head. "I deny nothing," she
replied, "but I am about to tell you something which will destroy
all your plans and extinguish your hopes. I am resolved,
understand, and my resolution is irrevocable, never to assert my
rights. To receive this fortune, I should be obliged to confess
that Lia d'Argeles is a Chalusse--and that is a confession which
no consideration whatever will wring from me."
She imagined that this declaration would silence and discomfit
Wilkie, but she was mistaken. If he had been obliged to depend
upon himself he would perhaps have been conquered by it; but he
was armed with weapons which had been furnished by the cunning
viscount. So he shrugged his shoulders, and coolly replied: "In
that case we should remain poor, and the government would take
possession of our millions. One moment. I have something to say
in this matter. You may renounce your claim, but I shall not
renounce mine. I am your son, and I shall claim the property."
"Even if I entreated you on my knees not to do so?"
Madame d'Argeles's eyes flashed. "Very well. I will show you
that this estate can never be yours. By what right will you lay
claim to it? Because you are my son? But I will deny that you are.
I will declare upon oath that you are nothing to me, and that I
don't even know you."
But even this did not daunt Wilkie. He drew from his pocket a
scrap of paper, and flourishing it triumphantly, he exclaimed: "It
would be extremely cruel on your part to deny me, but I foresaw
such a contingency, and here is my answer, copied from the civil
code: 'Article 341. Inquiry as to maternity allowed, etc., etc.'"
What the exact bearing of Wilkie's threat might be Madame
d'Argeles did not know. But she felt that this Article 341 would
no doubt destroy her last hope; for the person who had chosen this
weapon from the code to place it in Wilkie's hand must have chosen
it carefully. She understood the situation perfectly. With her
experience of life, she could not fail to understand the
despicable part Wilkie was playing. And though it was not her son
who had conceived this odious plot, it was more than enough to
know that he had consented to carry it into execution. Should she
try to persuade Wilkie to abandon this shameful scheme? She might
have done so if she had not been so horrified by the utter want of
principle which she had discovered in his character. But, under
the circumstances, she realized that any effort in this direction
would prove unavailing. So it was purely from a sense of duty and
to prevent her conscience from reproaching her that she exclaimed:
"So you will apply to the courts in order to constrain me to
acknowledge you as my son?"
"If you are not reasonable----"
"That is to say, you care nothing for the scandal that will be