Part 3 out of 7
created by such a course. In order to prove yourself a member of
the Chalusse family you will begin by disgracing the name and
dragging it through the mire."
Wilkie had no wish to prolong this discussion. So much talk about
an affair, which, in his opinion, at least, was an extremely
simple one, seemed to him utterly ridiculous, and irritated him
beyond endurance. "It strikes me this is much ado about nothing,"
he remarked. "One would suppose, to hear you talk, that you were
the greatest criminal in the world. Goodness is all very well in
its way, but there is such a thing as having too much of it! Break
loose from this life to-morrow, assume your rightful name, install
yourself at the Hotel de Chalusse, and in a week from now no one
will remember that you were once known as Lia d'Argeles. I wager
one hundred louis on it. Why, if people attempted to rake up the
past life of their acquaintances, they should have far too much to
do. Folks do not trouble themselves as to whether a person has
done this or that; the essential thing is to have plenty of money.
And if any fool speaks slightingly of you, you can reply: 'I have
an income of five hundred thousand francs,' and he'll say no
Madame d'Argeles listened, speechless with horror and disgust.
Was it really her son who was speaking in this style, and to her
of all people in the world? M. Wilkie misunderstood her silence.
He had an excellent opinion of himself, but he was rather
surprised at the effect of his eloquence. "Besides, I'm tired of
vegetating, and having only one name," he continued. "I want to
be on the move. Even with the small allowance I've had, I have
gained a very good position in society; and if I had plenty of
money I should be the most stylish man in Paris. The count's
estate belongs to me, and so I must have it--in fact, I will have
it. So believe me when I tell you that it will be much better for
you if you acknowledge me without any fuss! Now, will you do so?
No? Once, twice, three times? Is it still no? Very well then; to-
morrow, then, you may expect an official notice. I wish you good-
He bowed; he was really going, for his hand was already on the
door-knob. But Madame d'Argeles detained him with a gesture.
"One word more," she said, in a voice hoarse with emotion.
He scarcely deigned to come back, and he made no attempt to
conceal his impatience. "Well, what is it?" he asked, hastily.
"I wish to give you a bit of parting advice. The court will
undoubtedly decide in your favor; I shall be placed in possession
of my brother's estate; but neither you nor I will have the
disposal of these millions."
"Because, though this fortune belongs to me, the control of it
belongs to your father."
M. Wilkie was thunderstruck. "To my father?" he exclaimed.
"It is so, however; and you would not have been ignorant of the
fact, if your greed for money had not made you forget to question
me. You believe yourself an illegitimate child. Wilkie, you are
mistaken. You are my legitimate child. I am a married woman----"
"And my husband--your father--is not dead. If he is not here now,
threatening our safety, it is because I have succeeded in eluding
him. He lost all trace of us eighteen years ago. Since then he
has been constantly striving to discover us, but in vain. He is
still watching, you may be sure of that; and as soon as there is
any talk of a law-suit respecting the Chalusse property, you will
see him appear, armed with his rights. He is the head of the
family--your master and mine. Ah! this seems to disturb you. You
will find him full of insatiable greed for wealth, a greed which
has been whetted by twenty years' waiting. You may yet see the
day when you will regret the paltry twenty thousand francs a year
formerly given you by your poor mother."
Wilkie's face was whiter than his shirt. "You are deceiving me,"
"To-morrow I will show you my marriage certificate."
"Why not this evening?"
"Because it is locked up in a room which is now full of people."
"And what was my father's name?"
"Arthur Gordon--he is an American."
"Then my name is Wilkie Gordon?"
"And---is my father rich?" he inquired.
"What does he do?"
"Everything that a man can do when he has a taste for luxury and a
horror for work."
This reply was so explicit in its brevity, and implied so many
terrible accusations, that Wilkie was dismayed. "The devil!" he
exclaimed, "and where does he live!"
"He lives at Baden or Homburg in the summer; in Paris or at Monaco
in the winter."
"Oh! oh! oh!" ejaculated Wilkie, in three different tones. He
knew what he had to expect from such a father as that. Anger now
followed stupor--one of those terrible, white rages which stir the
bile and not the blood. He saw his hopes and his cherished
visions fade. Luxury and notoriety, high-stepping horses, yellow-
haired mistresses, all vanished. He pictured himself reduced to a
mere pittance, and held in check and domineered over by a brutal
father. "Ah! I understand your game," he hissed through his set
teeth. "If you would only quietly assert your rights, everything
could be arranged privately, and I should have time to put the
property out of my father's reach before he could claim it.
Instead of doing that--as you hate me--you compel me to make the
affair public, so that my father will hear of it and defraud me of
everything. But you won't play this trick on me. You are going
to write at once, and make known your claim to your brother's
"Ah! you won't? You refuse----" He approached threateningly, and
caught hold of her arm. "Take care!" he vociferated; "take care!
Do not infuriate me beyond endurance----"
As cold and rigid as marble, Madame d'Argeles faced him with the
undaunted glance of a martyr whose spirit no violence can subdue.
"You will obtain nothing from me," she said, firmly; "nothing,
Maddened with rage and disappointment, M. Wilkie dared to lift his
hand as if about to strike her. But at this moment the door was
flung open, and a man sprang upon him. It was Baron Trigault.
Like the other guests, the baron had seen the terrible effect
produced upon Madame d'Argeles by a simple visiting card. But he
had this advantage over the others: he thought he could divine and
explain the reason of this sudden, seemingly incomprehensible
terror. "The poor woman has been betrayed," he thought; "her son
is here!" Still, while the other players crowded around their
hostess, he did not leave the card-table. He was sitting opposite
M. de Coralth, and he had seen the dashing viscount start and
change color. His suspicions were instantly aroused, and he
wished to verify them. He therefore pretended to be more than
ever absorbed in the cards, and swore lustily at the deserters who
had broken up the game. "Come back, gentleman, come back," he
cried, angrily. "We are wasting precious time. While you have
been trifling there, I might have gained--or lost--a hundred
He was nevertheless greatly alarmed, and the prolonged absence of
Madame d'Argeles increased his fears each moment. At the end of
an hour he could restrain himself no longer. So taking advantage
of a heavy loss, he rose from the table, swearing that the beastly
turmoil of a few moments before had changed the luck. Then
passing into the adjoining drawing-room, he managed to make his
escape unobserved. "Where is madame?" he inquired of the first
servant he met.
"In the little sitting-room."
"No; a young gentleman is with her."
The baron no longer doubted the correctness of his conjectures,
and his disquietude increased. Quickly, and as if he had been in
his own house, he hastened to the door of the little sitting-room
and listened. At that moment rage was imparting a truly frightful
intonation to M. Wilkie's voice. The baron really felt alarmed.
He stooped, applied his eye to the keyhole, and seeing M. Wilkie
with his hand uplifted, he burst open the door and went in. He
arrived only just in time to fell Wilkie to the floor, and save
Madame d'Argeles from that most terrible of humiliations: the
degradation of being struck by her own son. "Ah, you rascal!"
cried the worthy baron, transported with indignation, "you
beggarly rascal! you brigand! Is this the way you treat an
unfortunate woman who has sacrificed herself for you--your mother?
You try to strike your mother, when you ought to kiss her very
As livid as if his blood had been suddenly turned to gall--with
quivering lips and eyes starting from their sockets--M. Wilkie
rose, with difficulty, to his feet, at the same time rubbing his
left elbow which had struck against the corner of a piece of
furniture, in his fall. "Scoundrel! You brutal scoundrel!" he
growled, ferociously. And then, retreating a step: "Who gave you
permission to come in here?" he added. "Who are you? By what
right do you meddle with my affairs?"
"By the right that every honest man possesses to chastise a
M. Wilkie shook his fist at the baron. "You are a coward
yourself," he retorted. "You had better learn who you are talking
to! You must mend your manners a little, you old----"
The word he uttered was so vile that no man could fail to resent
it, much less the baron, who was already frantic with passion.
His faced turned as purple as if he were stricken with apoplexy,
and such furious rage gleamed in his eyes that Madame d'Argeles
was frightened. She feared she should see her son butchered
before her very eyes, and she extended her arms as if to protect
him. "Jacques," she said beseechingly, "Jacques!"
This was the name which was indelibly impressed upon Wilkie's
memory--the name he had heard when he was but a child. Jacques--
that was the name of the man who had brought him cakes and toys in
the comfortable rooms where he had remained only a few days. He
understood, or at least he thought he understood, everything.
"Ah, ha!" he exclaimed, with a laugh that was at once both
ferocious and idiotic. "This is very fine--monsieur is the lover.
He has the say here--he--"
He did not have time to finish his sentence, for quick as thought
the baron caught him by the collar, lifted him from the ground
with irresistible strength, and flung him on his knees at Madame
d'Argeles's feet, exclaiming: "Ask her pardon, you vile wretch!
Ask her pardon, or----" "Or" meant the baron's clinched fist
descending like a sledge-hammer on M. Wilkie's head.
The worthy youth was frightened--so terribly frightened that his
teeth chattered. "Pardon!" he faltered.
"Louder--speak up better than that. Your mother must answer you!"
Alas! the poor woman could no longer hear. She had endured so
much during the past hour that her strength was exhausted, and she
had fallen back in her arm-chair in a deep swoon. The baron
waited for a moment, and seeing that her eyes remained obstinately
closed, he exclaimed: "This is your work, wretch!"
And lifting him again, as easily as if he had been a child, he set
him on his feet, saying in a calmer tone, but in one that admitted
of no reply: "Arrange your clothes and go."
This advice was not unnecessary. Baron Trigault had a powerful
hand; and M. Wilkie's attire was decidedly the worse for the
encounter. He had lost his cravat, his shirt-front was crumpled
and torn, and his waistcoat--one of those that open to the waist
and are fastened by a single button--hung down in the most
dejected manner. He obeyed the baron's order without a word, but
not without considerable difficulty, for his hands trembled like a
leaf. When he had finished, the baron exclaimed: "Now be off; and
never set foot here again--understand me--never set foot here
M. Wilkie made no reply until he reached the door leading into the
hall. But when he had opened it, he suddenly regained his powers
of speech. "I'm not afraid of you," he cried, with frantic
violence. "You have taken advantage of your superior strength--
you are a coward. But this shall not end here. No!--you shall
answer for it. I shall find your address, and to-morrow you will
receive a visit from my friends M. Costard and M. Serpillon. I am
the insulted party--and I choose swords!"
A frightful oath from the baron somewhat hastened M. Wilkie's
exit. He went out into the hall, and holding the door open, in a
way that would enable him to close it at the shortest notice, he
shouted back, so as to be heard by all the servants: "Yes; I will
have satisfaction. I will not stand such treatment. Is it any
fault of mine that Madame d'Argeles is a Chalusse, and that she
wishes to defraud me of my fortune. To-morrow, I call you all to
witness, there will be a lawyer here. You don't frighten me.
Here is my card!" And actually, before he closed the door, he
threw one of his cards into the middle of the room.
The baron did not trouble himself to pick it up; his attention was
devoted to Madame d'Argeles. She was lying back in her arm-chair,
white, motionless and rigid, to all appearance dead. What should
the baron do? He did not wish to call the servants; they had heard
too much already--but he had almost decided to do so, when his
eyes fell upon a tiny aquarium, in a corner of the room. He
dipped his handkerchief in it; and alternately bathed Madame
d'Argeles's temples and chafed her hands. It was not long before
the cold water revived her. She trembled, a convulsive shudder
shook her from head to foot, and at last she opened her eyes,
"I have sent him away," replied the baron.
Poor woman! with returning life came the consciousness of the
terrible reality. "He is my son!" she moaned, "my son, my
Wilkie!" Then with a despairing gesture she pressed her hands to
her forehead as if to calm its throbbings. "And I believed that
my sin was expiated," she pursued. "I thought I had been
sufficiently punished. Fool that I was! This is my chastisement,
Jacques. Ah! women like me have no right to be mothers!"
A burning tear coursed down the baron's cheek; but he concealed
his emotion as well as he could, and said, in a tone of assumed
gayety: "Nonsense! Wilkie is young--he will mend his ways! We were
all ridiculous when we were twenty. We have all caused our
mothers many anxious nights. Time will set everything to rights,
and put some ballast in this young madcap's brains. Besides, your
friend Patterson doesn't seem to me quite free from blame. In
knowledge of books, he may have been unequalled; but as a guardian
for youth, he must have been the worst of fools. After keeping
your son on a short allowance for years, he suddenly gorges him
with oats--or I should say, money--lets him loose; and then seems
surprised because the boy is guilty of acts of folly. It would be
a miracle if he were not. So take courage, and hope for the best,
my dear Lia."
She shook her head despondingly. "Do you suppose that my heart
hasn't pleaded for him?" she said. "I am his mother; I can never
cease to love him, whatever he may do. Even now I am ready to
give a drop of blood for each tear I can save him. But I am not
blind; I have read his nature. Wilkie has no heart."
"Ah! my dear friend, how do you know what shameful advice he may
have received before coming to you?"
Madame d'Argeles half rose, and said, in an agitated voice: "What!
you try to make me believe that? 'Advice!' Then he must have found
a man who said to him: 'Go to the house of this unfortunate woman
who gave you birth, and order her to publish her dishonor and
yours. If she refuses, insult and beat her! 'You know, even
better than I, baron, that this is impossible. In the vilest
natures, and when every other honorable feeling has been lost,
love for one's mother survives. Even convicts deprive themselves
of their wine, and sell their rations, in order to send a trifle
now and then to their mothers--while he----"
She paused, not because she shrunk from what she was about to say,
but because she was exhausted and out of breath. She rested for a
moment, and then resumed in a calmer tone: "Besides, the person
who sent him here had counselled coolness and prudence. I
discovered this at once. It was only toward the close of the
interview, and after an unexpected revelation from me, that he
lost all control over himself. The thought that he would lose my
brother's millions crazed him. Oh! that fatal and accursed money!
Wilkie's adviser wished him to employ legal means to obtain an
acknowledgment of his parentage; and he had copied from the Code a
clause which is applicable to this case. By this one circumstance
I am convinced that his adviser is a man of experience in such
matters--in other words, the business agent----"
"What business agent?" inquired the baron.
"The person who called here the other day, M. Isidore Fortunat.
Ah! why didn't I not bribe him to hold his peace?"
The baron had entirely forgotten the existence of Victor Chupin's
honorable employer. "You are mistaken, Lia," he replied. "M.
Fortunat has had no hand in this."
"Then who could have betrayed my secret?"
"Why, your former ally, the rascal for whose sake you allowed
Pascal Ferailleur to be sacrificed--the Viscount de Coralth!"
The bare supposition of such treachery on the viscount's part
brought a flush of indignant anger to Madame d'Argeles's cheek.
"Ah! if I thought that!" she exclaimed. And then, remembering
what reasons the baron had for hating M. de Coralth, she murmured:
"No! Your animosity misleads you--he wouldn't dare!"
The baron read her thoughts. "So you are persuaded that it is
personal vengeance that I am pursuing?" said he. "You think that
fear of ridicule and public odium prevents me from striking M. de
Coralth in my own name, and that I am endeavoring to find some
other excuse to crush him. This might have been so once; but it
is not the case now. When I promised M. Ferailleur to do all in
my power to save the young girl he loves, Mademoiselle Marguerite,
my wife's daughter, I renounced all thought of self, all my former
plans. And why should you doubt Coralth's treachery? You,
yourself, promised me to unmask HIM. If he has betrayed YOU, my
poor Lia, he has only been a little in advance of you."
She hung her head and made no reply. She had forgotten this.
"Besides," continued the baron, "you ought to know that when I
make such a statement I have some better foundation for it than
mere conjecture. It was to some purpose that I watched M. de
Coralth during your absence. When the servant handed you that
card he turned extremely pale. Why? Because he knew whose card it
was. After you left the room his hands trembled like leaves, and
his mind was no longer occupied with the game. He--who is usually
such a cautious player--risked his money recklessly. When the
cards came to him he did still worse; and though luck favored him,
he made the strangest blunders, and lost. His agitation and
preoccupation were so marked as to attract attention; and one
acquaintance laughingly inquired if he were ill, while another
jestingly remarked that he had dined and wined a little too much.
The traitor was evidently on coals of fire. I could see the
perspiration on his forehead, and each time the door opened or
shut, he changed color, as if he expected to see you and Wilkie
enter. A dozen times I surprised him listening eagerly, as if by
dint of attention, or by the magnetic force of his will, he hoped
to hear what you and your son were saying. With a single word I
could have wrung a confession from him."
This explanation was so plausible that Madame d'Argeles felt half
convinced. "Ah! if you had only spoken that word!" she murmured.
The baron smiled a crafty and malicious smile, which would have
chilled M. de Coralth's very blood if he had chanced to see it.
"I am not so stupid!" he replied. "We mustn't frighten the fish
till we are quite ready. Our net is the Chalusse estate, and
Coralth and Valorsay will enter it of their own accord. It is not
my plan, but M. Ferailleur's. There's a man for you! and if
Mademoiselle Marguerite is worthy of him they will make a noble
pair. Without suspecting it, your son has perhaps rendered us an
important service this evening--"
"Alas!" faltered Madame d'Argeles, "I am none the less ruined--the
name of Chalusse is none the less dishonored!"
She wanted to return to the drawing-room; but she was compelled to
relinquish this idea. The expression of her face betrayed too
plainly the terrible ordeal she had passed through. The servants
had heard M. Wilkie's parting words; and news of this sort flies
about with the rapidity of lightning. That very night, indeed, it
was currently reported at the clubs that there would be no more
card-playing at the d'Argeles establishment, as that lady was a
Chalusse, and consequently the aunt of the beautiful young girl
whom M. and Madame de Fondege had taken under their protection.
Unusual strength of character, unbounded confidence in one's own
energy, with thorough contempt of danger, and an invincible
determination to triumph or perish, are all required of the person
who, like Mademoiselle Marguerite, intrusts herself to the care of
strangers--worse yet, to the care of actual enemies. It is no
small matter to place yourself in the power of smooth-tongued
hypocrites and impostors, who are anxious for your ruin, and whom
you know to be capable of anything. And the task is a mighty one--
to brave unknown dangers, perilous seductions, perfidious
counsels, and perhaps even violence, at the same time retaining a
calm eye and smiling lips. Yet such was the heroism that
Marguerite, although scarcely twenty, displayed when she left the
Hotel de Chalusse to accept the hospitality of the Fondege family.
And, to crown all, she took Madame Leon with her--Madame Leon,
whom she knew to be the Marquis de Valorsay's spy.
But, brave as she was, when the moment of departure came her heart
almost failed her. There was despair in the parting glance she
cast upon the princely mansion and the familiar faces of the
servants. And there was no one to encourage or sustain her. Ah,
yes! standing at a window on the second floor, with his forehead
pressed close against the pane of glass, she saw the only friend
she had in the world--the old magistrate who had defended,
encouraged, and sustained her--the man who had promised her his
assistance and advice, and prophesied ultimate success.
"Shall I be a coward?" she thought; "shall I be unworthy of
Pascal?" And she resolutely entered the carriage, mentally
exclaiming: "The die is cast!"
The General insisted that she should take a place beside Madame de
Fondege on the back seat; while he found a place next to Madame
Leon on the seat facing them. The drive was a silent and tedious
one. The night was coming on; it was a time when all Paris was on
the move, and the carriage was delayed at each street corner by a
crowd of passing vehicles. The conversation was solely kept alive
by the exertions of Madame de Fondege, whose shrill voice rose
above the rumble of the wheels, as she chronicled the virtues of
the late Count de Chalusse, and congratulated Mademoiselle
Marguerite on the wisdom of her decision. Her remarks were of a
commonplace description, and yet each word she uttered evinced
intense satisfaction, almost delight, as if she had won some
unexpected victory. Occasionally, the General leaned from the
carriage window to see if the vehicle laden with Mademoiselle
Marguerite's trunks was following them, but he said nothing.
At last they reached his residence in the Rue Pigalle. He
alighted first, offered his hand successively to his wife,
Mademoiselle Marguerite, and Madame Leon, and motioned the
coachman to drive away.
But the man did not stir. "Pardon--excuse me, monsieur," he said,
"but my employers bade--requested me----"
"To ask you--you know, for the fare--thirty-five francs--not
counting the little gratuity."
"Very well!--I will pay you to-morrow."
"Excuse me, monsieur; but if it is all the same to you, would you
do so this evening? My employer said that the bill had been
standing a long time already."
But Madame de Fondege, who was on the point of entering the house,
suddenly stepped back, and drawing out her pocketbook, exclaimed:
"That's enough! Here are thirty-five francs."
The man went to his carriage lamp to count the money, and seeing
that he had the exact amount--"And my gratuity?" he asked.
"I give none to insolent people," replied the General.
"You should take a cab if you haven't money enough to pay for
coaches," replied the driver with an oath. "I'll be even with you
Marguerite heard no more, for Madame de Fondege caught her by the
arm and hurried her up the staircase, saying: "Quick! we must make
haste. Your baggage is here already, and we must see if the rooms
I intended for you--for you and your companion--suit you."
When Marguerite reached the second floor, Madame de Fondege hunted
in her pocket for her latch-key. Not finding it, she rang. A
tall man-servant of impudent appearance and arrayed in a glaring
livery opened the door, carrying an old battered iron candlestick,
in which a tiny scrap of candle was glaring and flickering.
"What!" exclaimed Madame de Fondege, "the reception-room not
lighted yet? This is scandalous! What have you been doing in my
absence? Come, make haste. Light the lamp. Tell the cook that I
have some guests to dine with me. Call my maid. See that M.
Gustave's room is in order. Go down and see if the General
doesn't need your assistance about the baggage."
Finding it difficult to choose between so many contradictory
orders, the servant did not choose at all. He placed his rusty
candlestick on one of the side-tables in the reception-room, and
gravely, without saying a single word, went out into the passage
leading to the kitchen. "Evariste!" cried Madame de Fondege,
crimson with anger, "Evariste, you insolent fellow!"
As he deigned no reply, she rushed out in pursuit of him. And
soon the sound of a violent altercation arose; the servant
lavishing insults upon his mistress, and she unable to find any
response, save, "I dismiss you; you are an insolent scamp--I
Madame Leon, who was standing near Mademoiselle Marguerite in the
reception-room, seemed greatly amused. "This is a strange
household," said she. "A fine beginning, upon my word."
But the worthy housekeeper was the last person on earth to whom
Mademoiselle Marguerite wished to reveal her thoughts. "Hush,
Leon," she replied. "We are the cause of all this disturbance,
and I am very sorry for it."
The retort that rose to the housekeeper's lips was checked by the
return of Madame de Fondege, followed by a servant-girl with a
turn-up nose, a pert manner, and who carried a lighted candle in
"How can I apologize, madame," began Mademoiselle Marguerite, "for
all the trouble I am giving you?"
"Ah! my dear child, I've never been so happy. Come, come, and see
your room." And while they crossed several scantily-furnished
apartments, Madame de Fondege continued: "It is I who ought to
apologize to you. I fear you will pine for the splendors of the
Hotel de Chalusse. We are not millionaires like your poor father.
We have only a modest competence, no more. But here we are!"
The maid had opened a door, and Mademoiselle Marguerite entered a
good-sized room lighted by two windows, hung with soiled wall
paper, and adorned with chintz curtains, from which the sun had
extracted most of the coloring. Everything was in disorder here,
and in fact, the whole room was extremely dirty. The bed was not
made, the washstand was dirty, some woollen stockings were hanging
over the side of the rumpled bed, and on the mantel-shelf stood an
ancient clock, an empty beer bottle, and some glasses. On the
floor, on the furniture, in the corners, everywhere in fact,
stumps of cigars were scattered in profusion, as if they had
positively rained down.
"What!" gasped Madame de Fondege, "you haven't put this room in
"Indeed, madame, I haven't had time."
"But it's more than a month since M. Gustave slept here?"
"I know it; but madame must remember that I have been very much
hurried this last month, having to do all the washing and ironing
since the laundress----"
"That's sufficient," interrupted Madame de Fondege. And turning
to Marguerite, she said: "You will, I am sure, excuse this
disorder, my dear child. By this time to-morrow the room shall be
transformed into one of those dainty nests of muslin and flowers
which young girls delight in."
Connected with this apartment, which was known to the household as
the lieutenant's room, there was a much smaller chamber lighted
only by a single window, and originally intended for a dressing-
room. It had two doors, one of them communicating with
Marguerite's room, and the other with the passage; and it was now
offered to Madame Leon, who on comparing these quarters with the
spacious suite of rooms she had occupied at the Hotel de Chalusse,
had considerable difficulty in repressing a grimace. Still she
did not hesitate nor even murmur. M. de Valorsay's orders bound
her to Marguerite, and she deemed it fortunate that she was
allowed to follow her. And whether the marquis succeeded or not,
he had promised her a sufficiently liberal reward to compensate
for all personal discomfort. So, in the sweetest of voices, and
with a feigned humility of manner, she declared this little room
to be even much too good for a poor widow whose misfortunes had
compelled her to abdicate her position in society.
The attentions which M. and Madame de Fondege showed her
contributed not a little to her resignation. Without knowing
exactly what the General and his wife expected from Mademoiselle
Marguerite, she was shrewd enough to divine that they hoped to
gain some important advantage. Now her "dear child" had declared
her to be a trusted friend, who was indispensable to her existence
and comfort. "So these people will pay assiduous court to me,"
she thought. And being quite ready to play a double part as the
spy of the Marquis de Valorsay, and the Fondege family, and quite
willing to espouse the latter's cause should that prove to be the
more remunerative course, she saw a long series of polite
attentions and gifts before her.
That very evening her prophecies were realized; and she received a
proof of consideration which positively delighted her. It was
decided that she should take her meals at the family table, a
thing which had never happened at the Hotel de Chalusse.
Mademoiselle Marguerite raised a few objections, which Madame Leon
answered with a venomous look, but Madame de Fondege insisted upon
the arrangement, not understanding, she said, graciously, why they
need deprive themselves of the society of such an agreeable and
distinguished person. Madame Leon in no wise doubted but this
favor was due to her merit alone, but Mademoiselle Marguerite, who
was more discerning, saw that their hostess was really furious at
the idea, but was compelled to submit to it by the imperious
necessity of preventing Madame Leon from coming in contact with
the servants, who might make some decidedly compromising
disclosures. For there were evidently many little mysteries and
make-shifts to be concealed in this household. For instance,
while the servants were carrying the luggage upstairs, Marguerite
discovered Madame de Fondege and her maid in close consultation,
whispering with that volubility which betrays an unexpected and
pressing perplexity. What were they talking about? She listened
without any compunctions of conscience, and the words "a pair of
sheets," repeated again and again, furnished her with abundant
food for reflection. "Is it possible," she thought, "that they
have no sheets to give us?"
It did not take her long to discover the maid's opinion of the
establishment in which she served; for while she brandished her
broom and duster, this girl, exasperated undoubtedly by the
increase of work she saw in store for her, growled and cursed the
old barrack where one was worked to death, where one never had
enough to eat, and where the wages were always in arrears.
Mademoiselle Marguerite was doing her best to aid the maid, who
was greatly surprised to find this handsome, queenly young lady so
obliging, when Evariste, the same who had received warning an hour
before, made his appearance, and announced in an insolent tone
that "Madame la Comtesse was served."
For Madame de Fondege exacted this title. She had improvised it,
as her husband had improvised his title of General, and without
much more difficulty. By a search in the family archives she had
discovered--so she declared to her intimate friends--that she was
the descendant of a noble family, and that one of her ancestors
had held a most important position at the court of Francis I. or
of Louis XII. Indeed, she sometimes confounded them. However,
people who had not known her father, the wood merchant, saw
nothing impossible in the statements.
Evariste was dressed as a butler should be dressed when he
announces dinner to a person of rank. In the daytime when he
discharged the duties of footman, he was gorgeous in gold lace;
but in the evening, he arrayed himself in severe black, such as is
appropriate to the butler of an aristocratic household.
Immediately after his announcement everybody repaired to the
sumptuous dining-room which, with its huge side-boards, loaded
with silver and rare china, looked not unlike a museum. Such was
the display, indeed, that when Mademoiselle Marguerite took a seat
at the table, between the General and his wife, and opposite
Madame Leon, she asked herself if she had not been the victim of
that dangerous optical delusion known as prejudice. She noticed
that the supply of knives and forks was rather scanty; but many
economical housewives keep most of their silver under lock and
key; besides the china was very handsome and marked with the
General's monogram, surmounted by his wife's coronet.
However, the dinner was badly cooked and poorly served. One might
have supposed it to be a scullery maid's first attempt. Still the
General devoured it with delight. He partook ravenously of every
dish, a flush rose to his cheeks, and an expression of profound
satisfaction was visible upon his countenance. "From this,"
thought Mademoiselle Marguerite, "I must infer that he usually
goes hungry, and that this seems a positive feast to him." In
fact, he seemed bubbling over with contentment. He twirled his
mustaches a la Victor Emmanuel, and rolled his "r," as he said,
"Sacr-r-r-r-r-e bleu!" even more ferociously than usual. It was
only by a powerful effort that he restrained himself from
indulging in various witticisms which would have been most
unseemly in the presence of a poor girl who had just lost her
father and all her hopes of fortune. But he did forget himself so
much as to say that the drive to the cemetery had whetted his
appetite, and to address his wife as Madame Range-a-bord, a title
which had been bestowed upon her by a sailor brother.
Crimson with anger to the very roots of her coarse, sandy hair--
amazed to see her husband deport himself in this style, and almost
suffocated by the necessity of restraining her wrath, Madame de
Fondege was heroic enough to smile, though her eyes flashed
ominously. But the General was not at all dismayed. On the
contrary, he cared so little for his wife's displeasure that, when
the dessert was served, he turned to the servant, and, with a wink
that Mademoiselle Marguerite noticed, "Evariste," he ordered, "go
to the wine-cellar, and bring me a bottle of old Bordeaux."
The valet, who had just received a week's notice, was only too
glad of an opportunity for revenge. So with a malicious smile,
and in a drawling tone, he replied: "Then monsieur must give me
the money. Monsieur knows very well that neither the grocer nor
the wine-merchant will trust him any longer."
M. de Fondege rose from the table, looking very pale; but before
he had time to utter a word, his wife came to the rescue. "You
know, my dear, that I don't trust the key of my cellar to this
lad. Evariste, call Justine."
The pert-looking chambermaid appeared, and her mistress told her
where she would find the key of the famous cellar. About a
quarter of an hour afterward, one of those bottles which grocers
and wine-merchants prepare for the benefit of credulous customers
was brought in--a bottle duly covered with dust and mould to give
it a venerable appearance, and festooned with cobwebs, such as the
urchins of Paris collect and sell at from fifteen sous to two
francs a pound, according to quality. But the Bordeaux did not
restore the General's equanimity. He was silent and subdued; and
his relief was evident when, after the coffee had been served, his
wife exclaimed: "We won't keep you from your club, my dear. I
want a chat with our dear child."
Since she dismissed the General so unceremoniously, Madame de
Fondege evidently wished for a tete-a-tete with Mademoiselle
Marguerite. At least Madame Leon thought so, or feigned to think
so, and addressing the young girl, she said: "I shall be obliged
to leave you for a couple of hours, my dear young lady. My
relatives would never forgive me if I did not inform them of my
change of residence."
This was the first time since she had been engaged by the Count de
Chalusse, that the estimable "companion" had ever made any direct
allusion to her relatives, and what is more, to relatives residing
in Paris. She had previously only spoken of them in general
terms, giving people to understand that her relatives had not been
unfortunate like herself--that they still retained their exalted
rank, though she had fallen, and that she found it difficult to
decline the favors they longed to heap upon her.
However, Mademoiselle Marguerite evinced no surprise. "Go at once
and inform your relatives, my dear Leon," she said, without a
shade of sarcasm in her manner. "I hope they won't be offended by
your devotion to me." But in her secret heart, she thought: "This
hypocrite is going to report to the Marquis de Valorsay, and these
relatives of hers will furnish her with excuses for future visits
The General went off, the servants began to clear the table, and
Mademoiselle Marguerite followed her hostess to the drawing-room.
It was a lofty and spacious apartment, lighted by three windows,
and even more sumptuous in its appointments than the dining-room.
Furniture, carpets, and hangings, were all in rather poor taste,
perhaps, but costly, very costly. As the evening was a cold one,
Madame de Fondege ordered the fire to be lighted. She seated
herself on a sofa near the mantelpiece, and when Mademoiselle
Marguerite had taken a chair opposite her, she began, "Now, my
dear child, let us have a quiet talk."
Mademoiselle Marguerite expected some important communication, so
that she was not a little surprised when Madame de Fondege
resumed: "Have you thought about your mourning?"
"About my mourning, madame?"
"Yes. I mean, have you decided what dresses you will purchase? It
is an important matter, my dear--more important than you suppose.
They are making costumes entirely of crepe now, puffed and
plaited, and extremely stylish. I saw one that would suit you
well. You may think that a costume for deep mourning made with
puffs would be a trifle LOUD, but that depends upon tastes. The
Duchess de Veljo wore one only eleven days after her husband's
death; and she allowed some of her hair, which is superb, to fall
over her shoulders, a la pleureuse, and the effect was extremely
touching." Was Madame de Fondege speaking sincerely? There could
be no doubt of it. Her features, which had been distorted with
anger when the General took it into his head to order the bottle
of Bordeaux, had regained their usual placidity of expression, and
had even brightened a little. "I am entirely at your service, my
dear, if you wish any shopping done," she continued. "And if you
are not quite pleased with your dressmaker, I will take you to
mine, who works like an angel. But how absurd I am. You will of
course employ Van Klopen. I go to him occasionally myself, but
only on great occasions. Between you and me, I think him a trifle
too high in his charges."
Mademoiselle Marguerite could scarcely repress a smile. "I must
confess, madame, that from my infancy I have been in the habit of
making almost all my dresses myself."
The General's wife raised her eyes to Heaven in real or feigned
astonishment. "Yourself!" she repeated four or five times, as if
to make sure that she had heard aright. "Yourself! That is
incomprehensible! You, the daughter of a man who possessed an
income of five or six hundred thousand francs a year! Still I know
that poor M. de Chalusse, though unquestionably a very worthy and
excellent man, was peculiar in some of his ideas."
"Excuse me, madame. What I did, I did for my own pleasure."
But this assertion exceeded Madame de Fondege's powers of
comprehension. "Impossible!" she murmured, "impossible! But, my
poor child, what did you do for fashions--for patterns?"
The immense importance she attached to the matter was so manifest
that Marguerite could not refrain from smiling. "I was probably
not a very close follower of the fashions," she replied. "The
dress that I am wearing now----."
"Is very pretty, my child, and it becomes you extremely; that's
the truth. Only, to be frank, I must confess that this style is
no longer worn--no--not at all. You must have your new dresses
made in quite a different way."
"But I already have more dresses than I need, madame."
"What! black dresses?"
"I seldom wear anything but black."
Evidently her hostess had never heard anything like this before.
"Oh! all right," said she, "these dresses will doubtless do very
well for your first months of mourning--but afterward? Do you
suppose, my poor dear, that I'm going to allow you to shut
yourself up as you did at the Hotel de Chalusse? Good heavens! how
dull it must have been for you, alone in that big house, without
society or friends."
A tear fell from Marguerite's long lashes. "I was very happy
there, madame," she murmured.
"You think so; but you will change your mind. When one has never
tasted real pleasure, one cannot realize how gloomy one's life
really is. No doubt, you were very unhappy alone with M. de
"Tut! tut! my dear, I know what I am talking about. Wait until
you have been introduced into society before you boast of the
charms of solitude. Poor dear! I doubt if you have ever attended
a ball in your whole life. No! I was sure of it, and you are
twenty! Fortunately, I am here. I will take your mother's place,
and we will make up for lost time! Beautiful as you are, my child--
for you are divinely beautiful--you will reign as a queen
wherever you appear. Doesn't that thought make that cold little
heart of yours throb more quickly? Ah! fetes and music, wonderful
toilettes and the flashing of diamonds, the admiration of
gentlemen, the envy of rivals, the consciousness of one's own
beauty, are these delights not enough to fill any woman's life? It
is intoxication, perhaps, but an intoxication which is happiness."
Was she sincere, or did she hope to dazzle this lonely girl, and
then rule her through the tastes she might succeed in giving her?
As is not unfrequently the case with callous natures, Madame de
Fondege was a compound of frankness and cunning. What she was
saying now she really meant; and as it was to her interest to say
it, she urged her opinions boldly and even eloquently. Twenty-
four hours earlier, proud and truthful Marguerite would have
silenced her at once. She would have told her that such pleasures
could never have any charm for her, and that she felt only scorn
and disgust for such worthless aims and sordid desires. But
having resolved to appear a dupe, she concealed her real feelings
under an air of surprise, and was astonished and even ashamed to
find that she could dissemble so well.
"Besides," continued Madame de Fondege, "a marriageable young girl
should never shut herself up like a nun. She will never find a
husband if she remains at home--and she must marry. Indeed,
marriage is a sensible woman's only object in life, since it is
Was Madame de Fondege going to plead her son's cause? Mademoiselle
Marguerite almost believed it--but the lady was too shrewd for
that. She took good care not to mention as much as Lieutenant
"The season will certainly be unusually brilliant," she said, "and
it will begin very early. On the fifth of November, the Countess
de Commarin will give a superb fete; all Paris will be there. On
the seventh, there will be a ball at the house of the Viscountess
de Bois d'Ardon. On the eleventh, there will be a concert,
followed by a ball, at the superb mansion of the Baroness
Trigault--you know--the wife of that strange man who spends all
his time in playing cards."
"This is the first time I ever heard the name mentioned."
"Really! and you have been living in Paris for years. It seems
incomprehensible. You must know then, my dear little ignoramus,
that the Baroness Trigault is one of the most distinguished ladies
in Paris, and certainly the best dressed. I am sure her bill at
Van Klopen's is not less than a hundred thousand francs a year--
and that is saying enough, is it not?" And with genuine pride, she
added: "The baroness is my friend. I will introduce you to her."
Having once started on this theme, Madame de Fondege was not
easily silenced. It was evidently her ambition to be considered a
woman of the world, and to be acquainted with all the leaders of
fashionable society; and, in fact, if one listened to her
conversation for an hour one could learn all the gossip of the
day. Though she was unable to interest herself in this tittle-
tattle, Marguerite was pretending to listen to it with profound
attention when the drawing-room door suddenly opened and Evariste
appeared with an impudent smile on his face. "Madame Landoire,
the milliner, is here, and desires to speak with Madame la
Comtesse," he said.
On hearing this name, Madame de Fondege started as if she had been
stung by a viper. "Let her wait," she said quickly. "I will see
her in a moment."
The order was useless, for the visitor was already on the
threshold. She was a tall, dark-haired, ill-mannered woman. "Ah!
I've found you at last," she said, rudely, "and I'm not sorry.
This is the fourth time I've come here with my bill."
Madame de Fondege pointed to Mademoiselle Marguerite, and
exclaimed: "Wait, at least, until I am alone before you speak to
me on business."
Madame Landoire shrugged her shoulders. "As if you were ever
alone," she growled. "I wish to put an end to this."
"Step into my room then, and we will put an end to it, and at
This opportunity to escape from Madame de Fondege must not be
allowed to pass; so Marguerite asked permission to withdraw,
declaring, what was really the truth, that she felt completely
tired out. After receiving a maternal kiss from her hostess,
accompanied by a "sleep well, my dear child," she retired to her
own room. Thanks to Madame Leon's absence, she found herself
alone, and, drawing a blotting-pad from one of her trunks, she
hastily wrote a note to M. Isidore Fortunat, telling him that she
would call upon him on the following Tuesday. "I must be very
awkward," she thought, "if to-morrow, on going to mass, I can't
find an opportunity to throw this note into a letter-box without
It was fortunate that she had lost no time, for her writing-case
was scarcely in its place again before Madame Leon entered,
evidently out of sorts. "Well," asked Marguerite, "did you see
"Don't speak of it, my dear young lady; they were all of them away
from home--they had gone to the play."
"So I shall go again early to-morrow morning; you must realize how
important it is."
"Yes, I understand."
But Madame Leon, who was usually so loquacious, did not seem to be
in a talkative mood that evening, and, after kissing her dear
young lady, she went into her own room.
"She did not succeed in finding the Marquis de Valorsay," thought
Marguerite, "and being in doubt as to the part she is to play, she
The young girl tried to sum up the impressions of the evening, and
to decide upon a plan of conduct, but she felt sad and very weary.
She said to herself that rest would be more beneficial than
anything else, and that her mind would be clearer on the morrow;
so after a fervent prayer in which Pascal Ferailleur's name was
mentioned several times, she prepared for bed. But before she
fell asleep she was able to collect another bit of evidence. The
sheets on her bed were new.
If Marguerite had been born in the Hotel de Chalusse, if she had
known a father's and a mother's tender care from her infancy, if
she had always been protected by a large fortune from the stern
realities of life, there would have been no hope for her now that
she was left poor and alone--for how can a girl avoid dangers she
is ignorant of? But from her earliest childhood Marguerite had
studied the difficult science of real life under the best of
teachers--misfortune. Cast upon her own resources at the age of
thirteen, she had learned to look upon everybody and everything
with distrust; and by relying only on herself, she had become
strangely cautious and clear-sighted. She knew how to watch and
how to listen, how to deliberate and how to act. Two men, the
Marquis de Valorsay and M. de Fondege's son, coveted her hand; and
one of the two, the marquis, so she believed, was capable of any
crime. Still she felt no fears. She had been in danger once
before when she was little more than a child, when the brother of
her employer insulted her with his attentions, but she had escaped
Deceit was certainly most repugnant to her truth-loving nature;
but it was the only weapon of defence she possessed. And so on
the following day she carefully studied the abode of her
entertainers. And certainly the study was instructive. The
General's household was truly Parisian in character; or, at least,
it was what a Parisian household inevitably becomes when its
inmates fall a prey to the constantly increasing passion for
luxury and display, to the furore for aping the habits and
expenditure of millionaires, and to the noble and elevated desire
of humiliating and outshining their neighbors. Ease, health, and
comfort had been unscrupulously sacrificed to show. The dining-
room was magnificent, the drawing-room superb; but these were the
only comfortably furnished apartments in the establishment. The
other rooms were bare and desolate. It is true that Madame de
Fondege had a handsome wardrobe with glass doors in her own room,
but this was an article which the friend of the fashionable
Baroness Trigault could not possibly dispense with. On the other
hand, her bed had no curtains.
The aspect of the place fittingly explained the habits and manners
of the inmates. What sinister fears must have haunted them! for
how could this extreme destitution in one part of the
establishment be reconciled with the luxury noticeable in the
other, except by the fact that a desperate struggle to keep up
appearances was constantly going on? And this constant anxiety
made out-door noise, excitement, and gayety a necessity of their
existence, and caused them to welcome anything that took them from
the home where they had barely sufficient to deceive society, and
not enough to impose upon their creditors. "And they keep three
servants," thought Mademoiselle Marguerite--"three enemies who
spend their time in ridiculing them, and torturing their vanity."
Thus, on the very first day after her arrival, she realized the
real situation of the General and his wife. They were certainly
on the verge of ruin when Mademoiselle Marguerite accepted their
hospitality. Everything went to prove this: the coachman's
insolent demand, the servants' impudence, the grocer's refusal to
furnish a single bottle of wine on credit, the milliner's
persistence, and, lastly, the new sheets on the visitors' beds.
"Yes," thought Mademoiselle Marguerite to herself, "the Fondeges
were ruined when I came here. They would never have sunk so low
if they had not been utterly destitute of resources. So, if they
rise again, if money and credit come back again, then the old
magistrate is right--they have obtained possession of the Chalusse
On this side, at least, Mademoiselle Marguerite had no very wide
field of investigation to explore. Her common sense told her that
her task would merely consist in carefully watching the behavior
of the General and his wife, in noting their expenditure, and so
on. It was a matter of close attention, and of infinitesimal
trifles. Nor was she much encouraged by her first success. It
was, perhaps, important; and yet it might be nothing. For she
felt that the real difficulties would not begin until she became
morally certain that the General had stolen the millions that were
missing from the count's escritoire. Even then it would remain
for her to discover how he had obtained possession of this money.
And when she had succeeded in doing this, would her task be ended?
Certainly not. She must obtain sufficient evidence to give her
the right of accusing the General openly, and in the face of every
one. She must have material and indisputable proofs before she
could say: "A robbery has been committed. I was accused of it. I
was innocent. Here is the culprit!"
What a long journey must be made before this goal was reached! No
matter! Now that she had a positive and fixed point of departure,
she felt that she possessed enough energy to sustain her in her
endeavors for years, if need be. What troubled her most was that
she could not logically explain the conduct of her enemies from
the time M. de Fondege had asked her hand for his son up to the
present moment. And first, why had they been so audacious or so
imprudent as to bring her to their own home if they had really
stolen one of those immense amounts that are sure to betray their
possessors?" They are mad," she thought, "or else they must deem
me blind, deaf, and more stupid than mortal ever was!" Secondly,
why should they be so anxious to marry her to their son,
Lieutenant Gustave? This also was a puzzling question. However,
she was fully decided on one point: the suspicions of the Fondege
family must not be aroused. If they were on their guard, it would
be the easiest thing in the world for them to pay their debts
quietly, and increase their expenditure so imperceptibly that she
would not be able to prove a sudden acquisition of wealth.
But the events of the next few days dispelled these apprehensions.
That very afternoon, although it was Sunday, it became evident
that a shower of gold had fallen on the General's abode. The
door-bell rang incessantly for several hours, and an interminable
procession of tradesmen entered. It looked very much as if M. de
Fondege had called a meeting of his creditors. They came in
haughty and arrogant, with their hats upon their heads, and surly
of speech, like people who have made up their minds to accept
their loss, but who intend to pay themselves in rudeness. They
were ushered into the drawing-room where the General was holding
his levee; they remained there from five to ten minutes, and then,
bowing low with hat in hand, they retired with radiant
countenances, and an obsequious smile on their lips. So they had
been paid. And as if to prove to Mademoiselle Marguerite that her
suspicions were correct, she chanced to be present when the livery
stable-keeper presented his bill.
Madame de Fondege received him very haughtily. "Ah! here you
are!" she exclaimed, rudely, as soon as he appeared. "So you are
the man who teaches his drivers to insult his customers? That is
an excellent way to gain patronage. What! I hire a one-horse
carriage from you by the month, and because I happen to wish for a
two-horse vehicle for a single day, you make me pay the
difference. You should demand payment in advance if you are so
The stable-keeper, who had a bill for nearly four thousand francs
in his pocket, stood listening with the air of a man who is
meditating some crushing reply; but she did not give him time to
deliver it. "When I have cause to complain of the people I
employ, I dismiss them and replace them by others. Insolence is
one of those things that I never forgive. Give me your bill."
The man, in whose face doubt, fear, and hope had succeeded each
other in swift succession, thereupon drew an interminable bill
from his pocket. And when he saw the bank-notes, when he saw the
bill paid without dispute or even examination, he was seized with
a wondering respect, and his voice became sweeter than honey.
They say the payment of a bad debt delights a merchant a thousand
times more than the settlement of fifty good ones. The truth of
this assertion became apparent in the present case. Mademoiselle
Marguerite thought the man was going to beg "Madame la Comtesse to
do him the favor to withhold a portion of the small amount." For
the Parisian tradesman is so constituted that very frequently it
is not necessary to pay him money, but only to show it.
However, this creditor's abnegation did not extend so far; still
he did entreat Madame la Comtesse not to leave him on account of a
blunder--for it was a blunder--he swore it on his children's
heads. His coachman was only a fool and a drunkard, who had
misunderstood him entirely, and whom he should ignominiously
dismiss on returning to his establishment. But "Madame la
Comtesse" was inflexible. She sent the man about his business,
saying, "I never place myself in a position to be treated with
disrespect a second time."
This probably accounted for the fact that Evariste, the footman,
who had been so wanting in respect the previous evening, had been
sent away that very morning. Mademoiselle Marguerite did not see
him again. Dinner was served by a new servant, who had been sent
by an Employment Office, and engaged without a question, no doubt
because Evariste's livery fitted him like a glove. Had the cook
also been replaced? Mademoiselle Marguerite thought so, though she
had no means of convincing herself on this point. It was certain,
however, that the Sunday dinner was utterly unlike that of the
evening before. Quality had replaced quantity, and care,
profusion. It was not necessary to send to the cellar for a
bottle of Chateau-Laroze; it made its appearance at the proper
moment, warmed to the precise degree of temperature, and seemed
quite to the taste of excellent Madame Leon.
In twenty-four hours the Fondege family had been raised to such
affluence that they must have asked themselves if it were possible
they had ever known the agonies of that life of false appearances
and sham luxury which is a thousand times worse than an existence
of abject poverty. "Is it possible that I am deceived?"
Marguerite said to herself, on retiring to her room that evening.
For it surprised her that a keen-sighted person like Madame Leon
should not have remarked this revolution; but the worthy companion
merely declared the General and his wife to be charming people,
and did not cease to congratulate her dear young lady upon having
accepted their hospitality. "I feel quite at home here," said
she; "and though my room is a trifle small, I shall have nothing
to wish for when it has been refurnished."
Mademoiselle Marguerite spent a restless and uncomfortable night.
In spite of her reason, in spite of the convincing proofs she had
seen, the most disturbing doubts returned. Might she not have
judged the situation with a prejudiced mind? Had the Fondeges
really been as reduced in circumstances as she supposed? Like
every one who has been unfortunate, she feared illusions, and was
extremely distrustful of everything that seemed to favor her hopes
and wishes. The only thing that really encouraged her was the
thought that she could consult the old magistrate, and that M. de
Chalusse's former agent might succeed in finding Pascal
Ferailleur. M. Fortunat must have received her letter by this
time: he would undoubtedly expect her on Tuesday, and it only
remained for her to invent some excuse which would give her a
couple of hours' liberty without awakening suspicion.
She rose early the next morning, and had almost completed her
toilette, when she heard some one in the passage outside rapping
at the door of Madame Leon's room. "Who's there?" inquired that
It was Justine, Madame de Fondege's maid, who answered in a pert
voice, "Here is a letter, madame, which has just been sent up by
the concierge. It is addressed to Madame Leon. That is your
name, is it not?"
Marguerite staggered as if she had received a heavy blow. "My
God! a letter from the Marquis de Valorsay!" she thought.
It was evident that the estimable lady was expecting this missive
by the eagerness with which she sprang out of bed and opened the
door. And Marguerite heard her say to the servant in her sweetest
voice: "A thousand thanks, my child! Ah! this is a great relief, I
have heard from my brother-in-law at last. I recognize his hand-
writing." And then the door closed again.
Standing silent and motionless in the middle of her room,
Marguerite listened with that feverish anxiety that excites the
perceptive faculties to the utmost degree. An inward voice,
stronger than reason, told her that this letter threatened her
happiness, her future, perhaps her life! But how could she
convince herself of the truth of this presentiment? If she had
followed her first impulse, she would have rushed into Madame
Leon's room and have snatched the letter from her hands. But if
she did this, she would betray herself, and prove that she was not
the dupe they supposed her to be, and this supposition on the part
of her enemies constituted her only chance of salvation.
If she could only watch Madame Leon as she read the letter, and
gain some information from the expression of her face; but this
seemed impossible, for the keyhole was blocked up by the key,
which had been left in the lock on the other side. Suddenly a
crack in the partition attracted her attention, and finding that
it extended through the wall, she realized she might watch what
was passing in the adjoining room. So she approached the spot on
tiptoe, and, with bated breath, stooped and looked in.
In her impatience to learn the contents of her letter, Madame Leon
had not gone back to bed. She had broken the seal, and was
reading the missive, standing barefooted in her night-dress,
directly opposite the little crevice. She read line after line,
and word after word, and her knitted brows and compressed lips
suggested deep concentration of thought mingled with discontent.
At last she shrugged her shoulders, muttered a few inaudible
words, and laid the open letter upon the rickety chest of drawers,
which, with two chairs and a bed, constituted the entire furniture
of her apartment.
"My God!" exclaimed Marguerite, with bated breath, "if she would
only forget it!"
But she did not forget it. She began to dress, and when she had
finished she read the letter again, and then placed it carefully
in one of the drawers, which she locked, putting the key in her
"I shall never know, then," thought Marguerite; "no, I shall never
know. But I must know--and I will!" she added vehemently.
From that moment a firm determination to obtain that letter took
possession of her mind; and so deeply was she occupied in seeking
for some means to surmount the difficulties which stood in her way
that she did not say a dozen words during breakfast. "I must be a
fool if I can't find some way of gaining possession of that
letter," she said to herself again and again. "I'm sure I could
find in it the explanation of the abominable intrigue which Pascal
and I are the victims of."
Happily, her preoccupation was not remarked. Each person present
was too deeply engrossed in his or her own concerns to notice the
behavior of the others. Madame Leon's mind was occupied with the
news she had just received; and, besides, her attention was
considerably attracted by some partridges garnished with truffles,
and a bottle of Chateau-Laroze. For she was rather fond of good
living, the dear lady, as she confessed herself, adding that no
one is perfect. The General talked of nothing but a certain pair
of horses which he was to look at that afternoon, and which he
thought of buying--being quite disgusted with job-masters, so he
declared. Besides, he expected to get the animals at a bargain,
as they were the property of a young gentleman who had been led to
commit certain misdemeanors by his love of gambling and his
passion for a notorious woman who was addicted with an insatiable
desire for jewelry.
As for Madame de Fondege, her head seemed to have been completely
turned by the prospect of the approaching fete at the Countess de
Commarin's. She had only a fortnight left to make her
preparations. All the evening before, through part of the night,
and ever since she had been awake that morning, she had been
racking her brain to arrive at an effective combination of colors
and materials. And at the cost of a terrible headache, she had at
last conceived one of those toilettes which are sure to make a
sensation, and which the newspaper reporters will mention as
noticeable for its "chic." "Picture to yourself," she said, all
ablaze with enthusiasm, "picture to yourself a robe of tea-flower
silk, trimmed with bands of heavy holland-tinted satin, thickly
embroidered with flowers. A wide flounce of Valenciennes at the
bottom of the skirt. Over this, I shall wear a tunic of pearl-
gray crepe, edged with a fringe of the various shades in the
dress, and forming a panier behind."
But how much trouble, time and labor must be expended before such
an elaborate chef-d'oeuvre could be completed! How many
conferences with the dressmaker, with the florist, and the
embroiderer! How many doubts, how many inevitable mistakes! Ah!
there was not a moment to lose! Madame de Fondege, who was dressed
to go out, and who had already sent for a carriage, insisted that
Mademoiselle Marguerite should accompany her. And certainly, the
General's wife deemed the proposal a seductive one. It is a very
fashionable amusement to run from one shop to another, even when
one cannot, or will not, buy. It is a custom, which some noble
ladies have imported from America, to the despair of the poor
shopkeepers. And thus every fine afternoon, the swell shops are
filled to overflowing with richly-attired dames and damsels, who
ask to see all the new goods. It is far more amusing than
remaining at home. And when they return to dinner in the evening,
after inspecting hundreds of yards of silk and satin, they are
very well pleased with themselves, for they have not lost the day.
Nor do the shrewdest always return from these expeditions empty-
handed. A dozen gloves or a piece of lace can be hidden so easily
in the folds of a mantle!
And yet, to Madame de Fondege's great surprise, Marguerite
declined the invitation. "I have so many things to put in order,"
she added, feeling that an excuse was indispensable.
But Madame Leon, who had not the same reasons as her dear child
for wishing to remain at home, kindly offered her services. She
was acquainted with several of the best shops, she declared,
particularly with the establishment of a dealer in laces, in the
Rue de Mulhouse, and thanks to an introduction from her, Madame de
Fondege could not fail to conclude a very advantageous bargain
there. "Very well," replied Madame de Fondege, "I will take you
with me, then; but make haste and dress while I put on my bonnet."
They left the breakfast-room at the same time, closely followed by
Mademoiselle Marguerite, who was disturbed by a hope which she
scarcely dared confess to herself. With her forehead resting
against the wall, and her eye peering through the tiny crack, she
watched her governess change her dress, throw a shawl over her
shoulders, put on her best bonnet, and, after a glance at the
looking-glass, rush from the room, exclaiming: "Here I am, my dear
countess. I'm ready."
And a few moments afterward they left the house together.
As the outer door closed after them, Marguerite's brain whirled.
If she were not deceived, Madame Leon had left the key of the
drawers in the pocket of the dress she had just taken off. So it
was with a wildly throbbing heart that she opened the
communicating door and entered her "companion's" room. She
hastily approached the bed on which the dress was lying, and, with
a trembling hand, she began to search for the pocket. Fortune
favored her! The key was there. The letter was within her reach.
But she was about to do a deed against which her whole nature
revolted. To steal a key, to force an article of furniture open,
and violate the secret of a private correspondence, these were
actions so repugnant to her sense of honor, and her pride, that
for some time she stood irresolute. At last the instinct of self-
preservation overpowered her scruples. Was not her honor, and
Pascal's honor also, at stake--as well as their mutual love and
happiness?" It would be folly to hesitate." she murmured. And
with a firm hand she placed the key in the lock.
The latter was out of order and the drawer was only opened with
difficulty. But there, on some clothes which Madame Leon had not
yet found time to arrange, Marguerite saw the letter. She eagerly
snatched it up, unfolded it, and read: "Dear Madame Leon--" "Dear
me," she muttered, "here is the name in full. This is an
indiscretion which will render denial difficult." And she resumed
her perusal: "Your letter, which I have just received, confirms
what my servants had already told me: that twice during my
absence--on Saturday evening and Sunday morning--you called at my
house to see me." So Mademoiselle Marguerite's penetration had
served her well. All this talk about anxious relatives had only
been an excuse invented by Madame Leon to enable her to absent
herself whenever occasion required. "I regret," continued the
letter, "that you did not find me at home, for I have instructions
of the greatest importance to give you. We are approaching the
decisive moment. I have formed a plan which will completely, and
forever, efface all remembrance of that cursed P. F., in case any
one condescended to think of him after the disgrace we fastened
upon him the other evening at the house of Madame d'Argeles." P.
F.--these initials of course meant Pascal Ferailleur. Then he was
innocent, and she held an undeniable, irrefutable proof of his
innocence in her hands. How coolly and impudently Valorsay
confessed his atrocious crime!" A bold stroke is in contemplation
which, if no unfortunate and well-nigh impossible accident occur,
will throw the girl into my arms." Marguerite shuddered. "The
girl" referred to her, of course. "Thanks to the assistance of
one of my friends," added the letter "I can place this proud
damsel in a perilous, terribly perilous position, from which she
cannot possibly extricate herself unaided. But, just as she gives
herself up for lost, I shall interpose. I shall save her; and it
will be strange if gratitude does not work the necessary miracle
in my favor. The plan is certain to succeed. Still, it will be
all the better if the physician who attended M. de C---- in his
last moments, and whom you spoke to me about (Dr. Jodon, if I
remember rightly), will consent to lend us a helping hand. What
kind of a man is he? If he is accessible to the seductive
influence of a few thousand francs, I shall consider the business
as good as concluded. Your conduct up to the present time has
been a chef-d'oeuvre, for which you shall be amply compensated.
You have cause to know that I am not ungrateful. Let the F's
continue their intrigues, and even pretend to favor them. I am
not afraid of these people. I understand their game perfectly,
and know why they wish my little one to marry their son. But when
they become troublesome, I shall crush them like glass. In spite
of these explanations, which I have just given you for your
guidance, it is very necessary that I should see you. I shall
look for you on Tuesday afternoon, between three and four o'clock.
Above all, don't fail to bring me the desired information
respecting Dr. Jodon. I am, my dear madame, devotedly yours--V."
Below ran a postscript which read as follows: "When you come on
Tuesday bring this letter with you. We will burn it together.
Don't imagine that I distrust you--but there is nothing so
dangerous as letters."
For some time Marguerite stood, stunned and appalled by the
Marquis de Valorsay's audacity, and by the language of this
letter, which was at once so obscure and so clear, every line of
it threatening her future. The reality surpassed her worst
apprehensions, but realizing the gravity of the situation, she
shook off the torpor stealing over her. She felt that every
second was precious, and that she must act, and act at once. But
what should she do? Simply return the letter to its place, and
continue to act the role of a dupe, as if nothing had happened?
No; that must not be. It would be madness not to seize this
flagrant proof of the Marquis de Valorsay's infamy. But on the
other hand, if she kept the letter, Madame Leon would immediately
discover its loss, and an explanation would be unavoidable. M. de
Valorsay would be worsted, but not annihilated, and the plans
which made the physician's intervention a necessity would never be
revealed. She thought of hastening to her friend the old
magistrate; but he lived a long way off, and time was pressing.
Besides she might not find him at home. Then she thought of going
to a notary, to a judge. She would show them the letter, and they
could take a copy of it. But no--this would do no good--the
marquis could still deny it. She was becoming desperate, and was
accusing herself of stupidity, when a sudden inspiration illumined
her mind, turning night into day, as it were. "Oh, Pascal, we are
saved!" she exclaimed. And without pausing to deliberate any
longer, she threw a mantle over her shoulders, hastily tied on her
bonnet, and hurried from the house, without saying a word to any
Unfortunately she was not acquainted with this part of Paris, and
on reaching the Rue Pigalle she was at a loss for her way.
Unwilling to waste any more time, she hastily entered a grocer's
shop at the corner of the Rue Pigalle and the Rue Notre Dame de
Lorette, and anxiously inquired: "Do you know any photographer in
this neighborhood, monsieur?"
Her agitation made this question seem so singular that the grocer
looked at her closely for a moment, as if to make sure that she
was not jesting. "You have only to go down the Rue Notre Dame de
Lorette," he replied, "and on the left-hand side, at the foot of
the hill, you will find the photographer Carjat."
The grocer stepped to the door to watch her. "That girl's
certainly light-headed," he thought.
Her demeanor was really so extraordinary that it attracted the
attention of the passers-by. She saw this, and slackening her
pace, tried to become more composed. At the spot the grocer had
indicated, she perceived several show frames filled with
photographs hanging on either side of a broad, open gateway, above
which ran the name, "E. Carjat." She went in, and seeing a man
standing at the door of an elegant pavilion on the right-hand side
of a large courtyard, she approached him, and asked for his
"He is here," replied the man. "Does madame come for a
"Then will madame be so kind as to pass in. She will not be
obliged to wait long. There are only four or five persons before
Four or five persons! How long would she be obliged to wait?--half
an hour--two hours? She had not the slightest idea. But she DID
know that she had not a second to lose, that Madame Leon might
return at any moment, and find the letter missing; and, to crown
all, she remembered now that she had not even locked the drawer
again. "I cannot wait," she said, imperiously. "I must speak to
M. Carjat at once."
"At once, I tell you. Go and tell him that he must come."
Her tone was so commanding, and there was so much authority in her
glance, that the servant hesitated no longer. He ushered her into
a little sitting-room, and said, "If madame will take a seat, I
will call monsieur."
She sank on to a chair, for her limbs were failing her. She was
beginning to realize the strangeness of the step she had taken--to
fear the result it might lead to--and to be astonished at her own
boldness. But she had no time to prepare what she wished to say,
for a man of five-and-thirty, wearing a mustache and imperial, and
clad in a velvet coat, entered the room, and bowing with an air of
surprise, exclaimed: "You desire to speak with me, madame?"
"I have a great favor to ask of you, monsieur."
She drew M. de Valorsay's letter from her pocket, and, showing it
to the photographer, she said, "I have come to you, monsieur, to
ask you to photograph this letter--but at once--before me--and
quickly--very quickly. The honor of two persons is imperilled by
each moment I lose here."
Mademoiselle Marguerite's embarrassment was extreme. Her cheeks
were crimson, and she trembled like a leaf. Still her attitude
was proud, generous enthusiasm glowed in her dark eyes, and her
tone of voice revealed the serenity of a lofty soul ready to dare
anything for a just and noble cause. This striking contrast--this
struggle between girlish timidity and a lover's virgil energy,
endowed her with a strange and powerful charm, which the
photographer made no attempt to resist. Unusual as was the
request, he did not hesitate. "I am ready to do what you desire,
madame," he replied, bowing again.
"Oh! monsieur, how can I ever thank you?"
He did not stop to listen to her thanks. Not wishing to return to
the reception-room, where five or six clients were impatiently
awaiting their turn, he called one of his subordinates, and
ordered him to bring the necessary apparatus at once. While he
was speaking, Mademoiselle Marguerite paused; but, as soon as his
instructions were concluded, she remarked: "Perhaps you are too
hasty, sir. You have not allowed me to explain; and perhaps what
I desire is impossible. I came on the impulse of the moment,
without any knowledge on the subject. Before you set to work, I
must know if what you can do will answer my purpose."
"Will the copy you obtain be precisely like the original in every
"In every particular."
"The writing will be the same--exactly the same?"
"Absolutely the same."
"So like, that if one of your photographs should be presented to
the person who wrote this letter----"
"He could no more deny his handwriting than he could if some one
handed him the letter itself."
"And the operation will leave no trace on the original?"
A smile of triumph played upon Mademoiselle Marguerite's lips. It
was as she had thought; the defensive plan which she had suddenly
conceived was a good one. "One more question, sir," she resumed.
"I am only a poor, ignorant girl: excuse me, and give me the
benefit of your knowledge. This letter will be returned to its
author to-morrow, and he will burn it. But afterward, in case of
any difficulty--in case of a law-suit--or in case it should be
necessary for me to prove certain things which one might establish
by means of this letter, would one of your photographs be admitted
The photographer did not answer for a moment. Now he understood
Mademoiselle Marguerite's motive, and the importance she attached
to a facsimile. But this imparted an unexpected gravity to the
service he was called upon to perform. He therefore wished some
time for reflection, and he scrutinized Mademoiselle Marguerite as
if he were trying to read her very soul. Was it possible that
this young girl, with such a pure and noble brow, and with such
frank, honest eyes, could be meditating any cowardly, dishonorable
act? No, he could not believe it. In whom, or in what, could he
trust if such a countenance deceived him?" My facsimile would
certainly be admitted as evidence," he replied at last; "and this
would not be the first time that the decision of a court has
depended on proofs which have been photographed by me."
Meanwhile, his assistant had returned, bringing the necessary
apparatus with him. When all was ready, the photographer asked
her, "Will you give me the letter, madame?"
She hesitated for a second--only for a second. The man's honest,
kindly face told her that he would not betray her, that he would
rather give her assistance. So she handed him the Marquis de
Valorsay's letter, saying, with melancholy dignity, "It is my
happiness and my future that I place in your hands--and I have no
He read her thoughts, and understood that she either dared not ask
for a pledge of secrecy, or else that she thought it unnecessary.
He took pity on her, and his last doubt fled. "I shall read this
letter, madame," said he, "but I am the only person who will read
it. I give you my word on that! No one but myself will see the
Greatly moved, she offered him her hand, and simply said, "Thanks;
I am more than repaid."
To obtain an absolutely perfect facsimile of a letter is a
delicate and sometimes lengthy operation. However, at the end of
about twenty minutes, the photographer possessed two negatives
that promised him perfect proofs. He looked at them with a
satisfied air; and then returning the letter to Mademoiselle
Marguerite, he said, "In less than three days the facsimiles will
be ready, madame; and if you will tell me to what address I ought
to send them----"
She trembled on hearing these words, and quickly answered, "Don't
send them, sir--keep them carefully. Great heavens! all would be
lost if it came to the knowledge of any one. I will send for
them, or come myself." And, feeling the extent of her obligation,
she added, "But I will not go without introducing myself--I am
Mademoiselle Marguerite de Chalusse." And, thereupon, she went
off, leaving the photographer surprised at the adventure and
dazzled by his strange visitor's beauty.
Rather more than an hour had elapsed since Marguerite left M. de
Fondege's house. "How time flies!" she murmured, quickening her
pace as much as she could without exciting remark--"how time
flies!" But, hurried as she was, she stopped and spent five
minutes at a shop in the Rue Notre Dame de Lorette where she
purchased some black ribbon and a few other trifles. How else
could she explain and justify her absence, if the servants, who
had probably discovered she had gone out, chanced to speak of it?
But her heart throbbed as if it would burst as she ascended the
General's staircase, and anxiety checked her breathing as she rang
the bell. "What if Madame de Fondege and Madame Leon had
returned, and the abstraction of the letter been discovered!"
Fortunately, Madame de Fondege required more than an hour to
purchase the materials for the elaborate toilette she had dreamt
of. The ladies were still out, and Mademoiselle Marguerite found
everything in the same condition as she had left it. She
carefully placed the letter in the drawer again, locked it, and
put the key in the pocket of Madame Leon's dress. Then she
breathed freely once more; and, for the first time in six days,
she felt something very like joy in her heart. Now she had no
fear of the Marquis de Valorsay. She had him in her power. He
would destroy his letter the next day, and think that he was
annihilating all proofs of his infamy. Not so. At the decisive
moment, at the very moment of his triumph, she would produce the
photograph of this letter, and crush him. And she--only a young
girl--had outwitted this consummate scoundrel!" I have not been
unworthy of Pascal," she said to herself, with a flash of pride.
However, her nature was not one of those weak ones which are
become intoxicated by the first symptom of success, and then relax
in their efforts. When her excitement had abated a little, she
was inclined to disparage rather than to exaggerate the advantage
she had gained. What she desired was a complete, startling,
incontestable victory. It was not enough to prove Valorsay's
GUILT--she was resolved to penetrate his designs, to discover why
he pursued her so desperately. And, though she felt that she
possessed a formidable weapon of defence, she could not drive away
her gloomy forebodings when she thought of the threats contained
in the marquis's letter. "Thanks to the assistance of one of my
friends," he wrote, "I can place this proud girl in a perilous,
terribly perilous, position, from which she cannot possibly
extricate herself unaided."
These words persistently lingered in Mademoiselle Marguerite's
mind. What was the danger hanging over her? whence would it come?
and in what form? What abominable machination might she not expect
from the villain who had deliberately dishonored Pascal? How would
he attack her? Would he strive to ruin her reputation, or did he
intend to forcibly abduct her? Would he attempt to decoy her into
a trap where she would be subjected to the insults of the vilest
wretches? A thousand frightful memories of the time when she was
an apprentice drove her nearly frantic. "I will never go out
unarmed," she thought, "and woe to the man who raises his hand
The vagueness of the threat increased her fears. No one is
courageous enough to confront an unknown, mysterious, and always
imminent danger without sometimes faltering. Nor was this all.
The marquis was not her only enemy. She had the Fondege family to
dread--these dangerous hypocrites, who had taken her to their home
so that they might ruin her the more surely. M. de Valorsay wrote
that he had no fears of the Fondeges--that he understood their
little game. What was their little game? No doubt they were
resolved that she should become their son's wife, even if they
were obliged to use force to win her consent. At this thought a
sudden terror seized her soul, so full of peace and hope an
instant before. When she was attacked, would she have time to
produce and use the facsimile of Valorsay's letter?" I must reveal
my secret to a friend--to a trusty friend--who will avenge me!"
Fortunately she had a friend in whom she could safely confide--the
old magistrate who had given her such proofs of sympathy. She
felt that she needed the advice of a riper experience than her
own, and the thought of consulting him at once occurred to her.
She was alone; she had no spy to fear; and it would be folly not
to profit by the few moments of liberty that remained. So she
drew her writing-case from her trunk, and, after barricading her
door to prevent a surprise, she wrote her friend an account of the
events which had taken place since their last interview. She told
him everything with rare precision and accuracy of detail, sending
him a copy of Valorsay's letter, and informing him that, in case
any misfortune befell her, he could obtain the facsimiles from
Carjat. She finished her letter, but did not seal it. "If
anything should happen before I have an opportunity to post it, I
will add a postscript," she said to herself.
She had made all possible haste, fearing that Madame de Fondege
and Madame Leon might return at any moment. But this was truly a
chimerical apprehension. It was nearly six o'clock when the two
shoppers made their appearance, wearied with the labors of the
day, but in fine spirits. Besides purchasing every requisite for
that wonderful costume of hers, the General's wife had found some
laces of rare beauty, which she had secured for the mere trifle of
four thousand francs. "It was one of those opportunities one
ought always to profit by," she said, as she displayed her
purchase. "Besides, it is the same with lace as with diamonds,
you should purchase them when you can--then you have them. It
isn't an outlay--it's an investment." Subtle reasoning that has
cost many a husband dear!
On her side, Madame Leon proudly showed her dear young lady a very
pretty present which Madame de Fondege had given her. "So money
is no longer lacking in this household," thought Mademoiselle
Marguerite, all the more confirmed in her suspicions.
The General came in a little later, accompanied by a friend, and
Marguerite soon discovered that the worthy man had spent the day
as profitably as his wife. He too was quite tired out; and he had
reason to be fatigued. First, he had purchased the horses
belonging to the ruined spendthrift, and he had paid five thousand
francs for them, a mere trifle for such animals. Less than an
hour after the purchase he had refused almost double that amount
from a celebrated connoisseur in horse-flesh, M. de Breulh-
Faverlay. This excellent speculation had put him in such good
humor that he had been unable to resist the temptation of
purchasing a beautiful saddle-horse, which they let him have for a
hundred louis. He had not been foolish, for he was sure that he
could sell the animal again at an advance of a thousand francs
whenever he wished to do so. "So," remarked his friend, "if you
bought such a horse every day, you would make three hundred and
sixty-five thousand francs a year."
Was this only a jest--one of those witticisms which people who
boast of wonderful bargains must expect to parry, or had the
remark a more serious meaning? Marguerite could not determine.
One thing is certain, the General did not lose his temper, but
gayly continued his account of the way in which he had spent his
time. Having purchased the horses, his next task was to find a
carriage, and he had heard of a barouche which a Russian prince
had ordered but didn't take, so that the builder was willing to
sell it at less than cost price; and to recoup this worthy man,
the General had purchased a brougham as well. He had, moreover,
hired stabling in the Rue Pigalle, only a few steps from the
house, and he expected a coachman and a groom the following
"And all this will cost us less than the miserable vehicle we have
been hiring by the year," observed Madame de Fondege, gravely.
"Oh, I know what I say. I've counted the cost. What with
gratuities and extras, it costs us now fully a thousand francs a
month, and three horses and a coachman won't cost you more. And
what a difference! I shall no longer be obliged to blush for the
skinny horses the stable-keeper sends me, nor to endure the
insolence of his men. The first outlay frightened me a little;
but that is made now, and I am delighted. We will save it in
"In laces, no doubt," thought Mademoiselle Marguerite. She was
intensely exasperated, and on regaining her chamber she said to
herself, for the tenth time, "What do they take me for? Do they
think me an idiot to flaunt the millions they have stolen from my
father--that they have stolen from me--before my eyes in this
fashion? A common thief would take care not to excite suspicion by
a foolish expenditure of the fruits of his knavery, but they--they
have lost their senses."
Madame Leon was already in bed, and when Mademoiselle Marguerite
was satisfied that she was asleep, she took her letter from her
trunk, and added this post-script: "P. S.--It is impossible to
retain the shadow of a doubt, M. and Madame de Fondege have spent
certainly twenty thousand francs to-day. This audacity must arise
from a conviction that no proofs of the crime they have committed
exist. Still they continue to talk to me about their son,
Lieutenant Gustave. He will be presented to me to-morrow. To-
morrow, also, between three and four, I shall be at the house of a
man who can perhaps discover Pascal's hiding-place for me,--the
house of M. Isidore Fortunat. I hope to make my escape easily
enough, for at that same hour, Madame Leon has an appointment with
the Marquis de Valorsay."
The old legend of Achilles's heel will be eternally true. A man
may be humble or powerful, feeble or strong, but there are none of
us without some weak spot in our armor, a spot vulnerable beyond
all others, a certain place where wounds prove most dangerous and
painful. M. Isidore Fortunat's weak place was his cash-box. To
attack him there was to endanger his life--to wound him at a point
where all his sensibility centred. For it was in this cash-box
and not in his breast that his heart really throbbed. His safe
made him happy or dejected. Happy when it was filled to
overflowing by some brilliant operation, and dejected when he saw
it become empty as some imprudent transaction failed.
This then explains his frenzy on that ill-fated Sunday, when,
after being brutally dismissed by M. Wilkie, he returned to his
rooms in the company of his clerk, Victor Chupin. This explains,
too, the intensity of the hatred he now felt for the Marquis de
Valorsay and the Viscount de Coralth. The former, the marquis,
had defrauded him of forty thousand francs in glittering gold.
The other, the viscount, had suddenly sprung up out of the ground,
and carried off from under his very nose that magnificent prize,
the Chalusse inheritance, which he had considered as good as won.
And he had not only been defrauded and swindled--such were his own
expressions--but he had been tricked, deceived, duped, and
outwitted, and by whom? By people who did not make it their
profession to be shrewd, like he did himself. Just fancy, his
business was to outwit others, and a couple of mere amateurs had
outgeneraled him. He had not only suffered in pocket, he had been
humiliated as well, and so he indulged in threats of such terrible
However, at the very moment when he was dreaming of wreaking
vengeance on the Marquis de Valorsay and the Viscount de Coralth,
his housekeeper, austere Madame Dodelin, handed him Mademoiselle
Marguerite's letter. He read it with intense astonishment,
rubbing his eyes as if to assure himself that he were really
awake. "Tuesday," he repeated, "the day after to-morrow--at your
house--between three and four o'clock--I must speak with you."
His manner was so strange, and his usually impassive face so
disturbed by conflicting feelings, that Madame Dodelin's curiosity
overcame her prudence, and she remained standing in front of him
with open mouth, staring with all her eyes and listening with all
her ears. He perceived this, and angrily exclaimed: "What are you
doing here? You are watching me, I do believe. Get back to your
She fled in alarm, and he then entered his private office. His
heart was leaping with joy, and he laughed wickedly at the hope of
a speedy revenge. "She's on the scent," he muttered; "and she has
luck in her favor. She has chanced to apply to me on the very day
that I had resolved to defend and rehabilitate her lover, the
honest fool who allowed himself to be dishonored by those
unscrupulous blackguards. Just as I was thinking of going in
search of her, she comes to me. As I was about to write to her,
she writes to me. Who can deny the existence of Providence after
this?" Like many other people, M. Fortunat piously believed in
Providence when things went to his liking, but it is sad to add
that in the contrary case he denied its existence. "If she has
any courage," he resumed, "and she seems to have plenty of it,
Valorsay and Coralth will be in a tight place soon. And if it
takes ten thousand francs to put them there, and if neither
Mademoiselle Marguerite nor M. Ferailleur has the amount--ah,
well! I'll advance--well, at least five thousand--without charging
them any commission. I'll even pay the expenses out of my own
pocket, if necessary. Ah, my fine fellows, you've laughed too
soon. In a week's time we'll see who laughs last."
He paused, for Victor Chupin, who had lingered behind to pay the
driver, had just entered the room. "You gave me twenty francs,
m'sieur," he remarked to his employer. "I paid the driver four
francs and five sous, here's the change."
"Keep it yourself, Victor," said M. Fortunat.
What! keep fifteen francs and fifteen sous? Under any other
circumstances such unusual generosity would have drawn a grimace
of satisfaction from young Chupin. But to-day he did not even
smile; he slipped the money carelessly into his pocket, and
scarcely deigned to say "thanks," in the coldest possible tone.
Absorbed in thought, M. Fortunat did not remark this little
circumstance. "We have them, Victor," he resumed. "I told you
that Valorsay and Coralth should pay me for their treason.
Vengeance is near. Read this letter." Victor read it slowly, and
as soon as he had finished his employer ejaculated, "Well?"
But Chupin was not a person to give advice lightly. "Excuse me,
m'sieur," said he, "but in order to answer you, I must have some
knowledge of the affair. I only know what you've told me--which
is little enough--and what I've guessed. In fact, I know nothing
M. Fortunat reflected for a moment. "You are right, Victor," he
said, at last. "So far the explanation I gave you was all that
was necessary; but now that I expect more important services from
you, I ought to tell you the whole truth, or at least all I know
about the affair. This will prove my great confidence in you."
Whereupon, he acquainted Chupin with everything he knew concerning
the history of M. de Chalusse, the Marquis de Valorsay, and
However, if he expected these disclosures to elevate him in his
subordinate's estimation he was greatly mistaken. Chupin had
sufficient experience and common sense to read his master's
character and discern his motives. He saw plainly enough that
this honest impulse on M. Fortunat's part came from disappointed
avarice and wounded vanity, and that the agent would have allowed
the Marquis de Valorsay to carry out his infamous scheme without
any compunctions of conscience, providing he, himself, had not
been injured by it. Still, the young fellow did not allow his
real feelings to appear on his face. First, it was not his
business to tell M. Fortunat his opinion of him; and in the second
place, he did not deem it an opportune moment for a declaration of
his sentiments. So, when his employer paused, he exclaimed:
"Well, we must outwit these scoundrels--for I'll join you,
m'sieur; and I flatter myself that I can be very useful to you.
Do you want the particulars of the viscount's past life? If so, I
can furnish them. I know the brigand. He's married, as I told
you before, and I'll find his wife for you in a few days. I don't
know exactly where she lives, but she keeps a tobacco store,
somewhere, and that's enough. She'll tell you how much he's a
viscount. Ha! ha! Viscount just as much as I am--and no more. I
can tell you the scrapes he has been in."
"No doubt; but the most important thing is to know how he's living
now, and on what!"
"Not by honest work, I can tell you. But give me a little time,
and I'll find out for sure. As soon as I can go home, change my
clothes, and disguise myself, I'll start after him; and may I be
hung, if I don't return with a complete report before Tuesday."
A smile of satisfaction appeared on M. Fortunat's face. "Good,
Victor!" he said, approvingly, "very good! I see that you will
serve me with your usual zeal and intelligence. Rest assured that
you will be rewarded as you have never been rewarded before. As
long as you are engaged in this affair, you shall have ten francs
a day; and I'll pay your board, your cab-hire, and all your
This was a most liberal offer, and yet, far from seeming
delighted, Chupin gravely shook his head. "You know how I value
money, m'sieur," he began.
"Too much, Victor, my boy, too much----"
"Excuse me, it's because I have responsibilities, m'sieur. You
know my establishment"--he spoke this word with a grandiloquent
air--"you have seen my good mother--my expenses are heavy----"
"In short, you don't think I offer you enough?"
"On the contrary, sir--but you don't allow me to finish. I love
money, don't I? But no matter, I don't want to be paid for this
business. I don't want either my board or my expenses, not a
penny--nothing. I'll serve you, but for my own sake, for my own
M. Fortunat could not restrain an exclamation of astonishment.
Chupin, who was as eager for gain as an old usurer--Chupin, as
grasping as avarice itself, refuse money! This was something which
he had never seen before, and which he would no doubt never see
Victor had become very much excited; his usually pale cheeks were
crimson, and in a harsh voice, he continued: "It's a fancy of
mine--that's all. I have eight hundred francs hidden in my room,
the fruit of years of work. I'll spend the last penny of it if
need be; and if I can see Coralth in the mire, I shall say, 'My
money has been well expended.' I'd rather see that day dawn than
be the possessor of a hundred thousand francs. If a horrible
vision haunted you every night, and prevented you from sleeping,
wouldn't you give something to get rid of it? Very well! that
brigand's my nightmare. There must be an end to it."
M. de Coralth, who was a man of wide experience, would certainly
have felt alarmed if he had seen his unknown enemy at the present
moment, for Victor's eyes, usually a pale and undecided blue, were
glittering like steel, and his hands were clinched most
threateningly. "For he was the cause of all my trouble," he
continued, gloomily. "I've told you, sir, that I was guilty of an
infamous deed once upon a time. If it hadn't been for a miracle I
should have killed a man--the king of men. Ah, well! if Monsieur
Andre had broken his back by falling from a fifth-floor window, my
Coralth would be the Duc de Champdoce to-day. And shall he be
allowed to ride about in his carriage, and deceive and ruin honest
people? No--there are too many such villains at large for public
safety. Wait a little, Coralth--I owe you something, and I always
pay my debts. When M. Andre saved me, though I richly deserved to
have my throat cut, he made no conditions. He only said, 'If you
are not irredeemably bad you will be honest after this.' And he
said these words as he was lying there as pale as death with his
shoulder broken, and his body mangled from his fall. Great
heavens! I felt smaller than--than nothing before him. But I