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proposal.

“Not I,” said he; “do not try and persuade me. If you have come to this decision, let me know at once, and I will go home and finish it all with a pistol bullet.”

He was just the sort of nervous, timorous man to do exactly as he said, and would sooner have killed himself than endure all kinds of annoyance, which might impair his digestion.

“Very well,” answered his friend, with sullen resignation, “then I will give in.”

De Clinchain heaved a deep sigh of relief, for he, not knowing what had passed before, had expected to have had a much more difficult task in persuading his friend.

“You are acting like a reasonable man for once in your life,” said he.

“You think so, because I give ear to your timorous advice. A thousand curses on that idiotic habit of yours of putting on paper not only your own secrets, but those of others.”

But at this remark Clinchain mounted his hobby.

“Do not talk like that,” said he. “Had you not committed the act, it would not have appeared in my diary.”

Chilled to the very bone, and quivering like an aspen leaf, Sabine had listened to every word. The reality was even more dreadful than she had dreamed of. There was a hidden sorrow, a crime in her father’s past life.

Again the Count spoke. “There is no use in recrimination. We cannot wipe out the past, and must, therefore, submit. I promise you, on my honor, that this day I will write to De Breulh, and tell him this marriage must be given up.”

These words threw the balm of peace and safety into De Clinchain’s soul, but the excess of joy was too much for him, and murmuring, “Too much breakfast, and the shock of too violent an emotion,” he sank back, fainting, on a couch.

The Count de Mussidan was terrified, he pulled the bell furiously, and the domestics rushed in, followed by the Countess. Restoratives were applied, and in ten minutes the Baron opened one eye, and raised himself on his elbow.

“I am better now,” said he, with a faint smile. “It is weakness and dizziness. I know what I ought to take–two spoonfuls of /eau des carmes/ in a glass of sugar and water, with perfect repose of both mind and body. Fortunately, my carriage is here. Pray, be prudent, Mussidan.” And, leaning upon the arm of one of the lackeys, he staggered feebly out, leaving the Count and Countess alone, and Sabine still listening from her post of espial in the card-room.

CHAPTER XIII.

HUSBAND AND WIFE.

Ever since Mascarin’s visit, the Count de Mussidan had been in a deplorable state of mind. Forgetting the injury to his foot, he passed the night pacing up and down the library, cudgelling his brains for some means of breaking the meshes of the net in which he was entangled. He knew the necessity for immediate action, for he felt sure that this demand would only be the forerunner of numerous others of a similar character. He thought over and dismissed many schemes. Sometimes he had almost decided to go to the police authorities and make a clean breast; then the idea of placing the affair in the hands of a private detective occurred to him; but the more he deliberated, the more he realized the strength of the cord that bound him, and the scandal which exposure would cause. This long course of thought had in some measure softened the bitterness of his wrath, and he was able to receive his old friend M. de Clinchain with some degree of calmness. He was not at all surprised at the receipt of the anonymous letter,– indeed, he had expected that a blow would be struck in that direction. Still immersed in thought, M. de Mussidan hardly took heed of his wife’s presence, and he still paced the room, uttering a string of broken phrases. This excited the attention of the Countess, for her own threatened position caused her to be on the alert.

“What is annoying you, Octave?” asked she. “Surely, not M. de Clinchain’s attack of indigestion?”

For many years the Count had been accustomed to that taunting and sarcastic voice, but this feeble joke at such a moment was more than he could endure.

“Don’t address me in that manner,” said he angrily.

“What is the matter–are you not well?”

“Madame!”

“Will you have the kindness to tell me what has taken place?”

The color suffused the Count’s face, and his rage burst forth the more furiously from his having had to suppress it so long; and coming to a halt before the chair in which the Countess was lounging, his eyes blazing with hate and anger, he exclaimed,–

“All I wish to tell you is, that De Breulh-Faverlay shall not marry our daughter.”

Madame de Mussidan was secretly delighted at this reply, for it showed her that half the task required of her by Dr. Hortebise had been accomplished without her interference; but in order to act cautiously, she began at once to object, for a woman’s way is always at first to oppose what she most desires.

“You are laughing at me, Count!” said she. “Where can we hope to find so good a match again?”

“You need not be afraid,” returned the Count, with a sneer; “you shall have another son-in-law.”

These words sent a pang through the heart of the Countess. Was it an allusion to the past? or had the phrase dropped from her husband’s lips accidentally? or had he any suspicion of the influence that had been brought to bear upon her? She, however, had plenty of courage, and would rather meet misfortune fact to face than await its coming in dread.

“Of what other son-in-law are you speaking?” asked she negligently. “Has any other suitor presented himself? May I ask his name? Do you intend to settle my child’s future without consulting me?”

“I do, madame.”

A contemptuous smile crossed the face of the Countess, which goaded the Count to fury.

“Am I not the master here?” exclaimed he in accents of intense rage. “Am I not driven to the exercise of my power by the menaces of a pack of villains who have wormed out the hidden secrets which have overshadowed my life from my youth upward? They can, if they desire, drag my name through the mire of infamy.”

Madame de Mussidan bounded to her feet, asking herself whether her husband’s intellect had not given way.

“You commit a crime!” gasped she.

“I, madame, I myself! Does that surprise you? Have you never had any suspicion? Perhaps you have not forgotten a fatal accident which took place out shooting, and darkened the earlier years of our married life? Well, the thing was not an accident, but a deliberate murder committed by me. Yes, I murdered him, and this fact is known, and can be proved.”

The Countess grew deadly pale, and extended her hand, as though to guard herself from some coming danger.

“You are horrified, are you?” continued the Count, with a sneer. “Perhaps I inspire you with horror; but do not fear; the blood is no longer on my hands, but it is here, and is choking me.” And as he spoke he pressed his fingers upon his heart. “For twenty-three years I have endured this hideous recollection and even now when I wake in the night I am bathed in cold sweat, for I fancy I can hear the last gasps of the unhappy man.”

“This is horrible, too horrible!” murmured Madame de Mussidan faintly.

“Ah, but you do not know why I killed him,–it was because the dead man had dared to tell me that the wife I adored with all the passion of my soul was unfaithful to me.”

Words of eager denial rose to the lips of the Countess; but her husband went on coldly, “And it was all true, for I heard all later on.

“Poor Montlouis! /he/ was really loved. There was a little shop-girl, who toiled hard for daily bread, but she was a thousand times more honorable than the haughty woman of noble race that I had just married.”

“Have mercy, Octave.”

“Yes, and she fell a victim to her love for Montlouis. Had he lived, he would have made her his wife. After his death, she could no longer conceal her fault. In small towns the people are without mercy; and when she left the hospital with her baby at her breast, the women pelted her with mud. But for me,” continued the Count, “she would have died of hunger. Poor girl! I did not allow her much, but with it she managed to give her son a decent education. He has now grown up, and whatever happens, his future is safe.”

Had M. de Mussidan and his wife been less deeply engaged in this hideous recital, they would have heard the stifled sobs that came from the adjoining room.

The Count felt a certain kind of savage pleasure in venting the rage, that had for years been suppressed, upon the shrinking woman before him. “Would it not be a cruel injustice, madame, to draw a comparison between you and this unhappy girl? Have you always been deaf to the whisperings of conscience? and have you never thought of the future punishment which most certainly awaits you? for you have failed in the duties of daughter, wife, and mother.”

Generally the Countess cared little for her husband’s reproaches, well deserved as they might be, but to-day she quailed before him.

“With your entrance into my life,” continued the Count, “came shame and misfortune. When people saw you so gay and careless under the oak- trees of your ancestral home, who could have suspected that your heart contained a dark secret? When my only wish was to win you for my wife, how did I know that you were weaving a hideous conspiracy against me? Even when so young, you were a monster of dissimulation and hypocrisy. Guilt never overshadowed your brow, nor did falsehood dim the frankness of your eyes. On the day of our marriage I mentally reproached myself for any unworthiness. Wretched fool that I was, I was happy beyond all power of expression, when you, madame, completed the measure of your guilt by adding infidelity to it.”

“It is false,” murmured the Countess. “You have been deceived.”

M. de Mussidan laughed a grim and terrible laugh.

“Not so,” answered he; “I have every proof. This seems strange to you, does it? You have always looked upon me as one of those foolish husbands that may be duped without suspicion on their parts. You thought that you had placed a veil over my eyes, but I could see through it when you little suspected that I could do so. Why did I not tell you this before? Because I had not ceased to love you, and this fatal love was stronger than all honor, pride, and even self-respect.” He poured out this tirade with inconceivable rapidity, and the Countess listened to it in awe-struck silence. “I kept silence,” continued the Count, “because I knew that on the day I uttered the truth you would be entirely lost to me. I might have killed you; I had every right to do so, but I could not live apart from you. You will never know how near the shadow of death has been to you. When I have kissed you, I have fancied that your lips were soiled with the kisses of others, and I could hardly keep my hands from clutching your ivory neck until life was extinct, and failed utterly to decide whether I loved you or hated you the most.”

“Have mercy, Octave! have mercy!” pleaded the unhappy woman.

“You are surprised, I can see,” answered he, with a dark smile; “yet I could give you further food for wonder if I pleased, but I have said enough now.”

A tremor passed over the frame of the Countess. Was her husband acquainted with the existence of the letters? All hinged upon this. He could not have read them, or he would have spoken in very different terms, had he known the mystery contained in them.

“Let me speak,” began she.

“Not a word,” replied her husband.

“On my honor–“

“All is ended; but I must not forget to tell you of one of my youthful follies. You may laugh at it, but that signifies nothing. I actually believed that I could gain your affection. I said to myself that one day you would be moved by my deep passion for you. I was a fool. As if love or affection could ever penetrate the icy barriers that guarded your heart.”

“You have no pity,” wailed she.

He gazed upon her with eyes in which the pent-up anger of twenty years blazed and consumed slowly. “And you, what are you? I drained to the bottom the poisoned cup held out to a deceived husband by an unfaithful wife. Each day widened the breach between us, until at last we sank into this miserable existence which is wearing out my life. I kept no watch on you; I was not made for a jailer. What I wanted was your soul and heart. To imprison the body was easy, but your soul would still have been free to wander in imagination to the meeting- place where your lover expected you. I know not how I had the courage to remain by your side. It was not to save an honor that had already gone, but merely to keep up appearances; for as long as we were nominally together the tongue of scandal was forced to remain silent.”

Again the unhappy woman attempted to protest her innocence, and again the Count paid no heed to her. “I wished too,” resumed he, “to save some portion of our property, for your insatiable extravagance swallowed up all like a bottomless abyss. At last your trades-people, believing me to be ruined, refused you credit, and this saved me. I had my daughter to think of, and have gathered together a rich dowry for her, and yet—-” he hesitated, and ceased speaking for a moment.

“And yet,” repeated Madame de Mussidan.

“I have never kissed her,” he burst forth with a fresh and terrible explosion of wrath, “without feeling a hideous doubt as to whether she was really my child.”

This was more than the Countess could endure.

“Enough,” she cried, “enough! I have been guilty, Octave; but not so guilty as you imagine.”

“Why do you venture to defend yourself?”

“Because it is my duty to guard Sabine.”

“You should have thought of this earlier,” answered the Count with a sneer. “You should have moulded her mind–have taught her what was noble and good, and have perused the unsullied pages of the book of her young heart.”

In the deepest agitation the Countess answered,–

“Ah, Octave, why did you not speak of this sooner, if you knew all; but I will now tell you everything.”

By an inconceivable error of judgment the Count corrected her speech. “Spare us both,” said he. “If I have broken through the silence that I have maintained for many a year, it is because I knew that no word you could utter would touch my heart.”

Feeling that all hope had fled, Madame de Mussidan fell backward upon the couch, while Sabine, unable to listen to any more terrible revelations, had crept into her own chamber. The Count was about to leave the drawing-room, when a servant entered, bearing a letter on a silver salver. De Mussidan tore it open; it was from M. de Breulh- Faverlay, asking to be released from his engagement to Sabine de Mussidan. This last stroke was almost too much for the Count’s nerves, for in this act he saw the hand of the man who had come to him with such deadly threats, and terror filled his soul as he thought of the far-stretching arm of him whose bondslave he found himself to be; but before he could collect his thoughts, his daughter’s maid went into the room crying with all her might, “Help, help; my poor mistress is dying!”

CHAPTER XIV.

FATHER AND DAUGHTER.

Van Klopen, the man-milliner, knew Paris and its people thoroughly like all tradesmen who are in the habit of giving large credit. He knew all about the business of his customers, and never forgot an item of information when he received one. Thus, when Mascarin spoke to him about the father of the lovely Flavia, whose charms had set the susceptible heart of Paul Violaine in a blaze, the arbiter of fashion had replied,–

“Martin Rigal; yes, I know him; he is a banker.” And a banker, indeed, Martin Rigal was, dwelling in a magnificent house in the Rue Montmartre. The bank was on the ground floor, while his private rooms were in the story above. Though he did not do business in a very large way, yet he was a most respectable man, and his connection was chiefly with the smaller trades-people, who seem to live a strange kind of hand-to-mouth existence, and who might be happy were it not for the constant reappearance of that grim phantom–bills to be met. Nearly all these persons were in the banker’s hands entirely. Martin Rigal used his power despotically and permitted no arguments, and speedily quelled rebellion on the part of any new customer who ventured to object to his arbitrary rules. In the morning the banker was never to be seen, being engaged in his private office, and not a clerk would venture to knock at his door. Even had one done so, no reply would have been returned; for the experiment had been tried, and it was believed that nothing short of an alarm of fire would have brought him out.

The banker was a big man, quite bald, his face was clean shaved, and his little gray eyes twinkled incessantly. His manner was charmingly courteous, and he said the most cruel things in the most honied accents, and invariably escorted to the door the man whom he would sell up the next day. In his dress he affected a fashionable style, much used by the modern school of Shylocks. When not in business, he was a pleasant, and, as some say, a witty companion. He was not looked on as an ascetic, and did not despise those little pleasures which enable us to sustain life’s tortuous journey. He liked a good dinner, and had always a smile ready for a young and attractive face. He was a widower, and all his love was concentrated on his daughter. He did not keep a very extravagant establishment, but the report in the neighborhood was that Mademoiselle Flavia, the daughter of the eminent banker, would one day come into millions. The banker always did his business on foot, for the sake of his health, as he said; but Flavia had a sweet little Victoria, drawn by two thoroughbred horses, to drive in the Bois de Boulogne, under the protection of an old woman, half companion and half servant, who was driven half mad by her charge’s caprices. As yet her father has never denied her anything. He worked harder than all his clerks put together, for, after having spent the morning in his counting house over his papers, he received all business clients.

On the day after Flavia and Paul Violaine had met at Van Klopen’s, M. Martin Rigal was, at about half-past five, closeted with one of his female clients. She was young, very pretty, and dressed with simple elegance, but the expression of her face was profoundly melancholy. Her eyes were overflowing with tears, which she made vain efforts to restrain.

“If you refuse to renew our bill, sir, we are ruined,” said she. “I could meet it in January. I have sold all my trinkets, and we are existing on credit.”

“Poor little thing!” interrupted the banker.

Her hopes grew under these words of pity.

“And yet,” continued she, “business has never been so brisk. New customers are constantly coming in, and though our profits are small, the returns are rapid.”

As Martin Rigal heard her exposition of the state of affairs, he nodded gravely.

“That is all very well,” said he at last, “but this does not make the security you offer me of any more value. I have more confidence in you.”

“But remember, sir, that we have thirty thousand francs’ worth of stock.”

“That is not what I was alluding to,” and the banker accompanied these words with so meaning a look, that the poor woman blushed scarlet and almost lost her nerve. “Your stock,” said he, “is of no more value in my eyes than the bill you offer me. Suppose, for instance, you were to become bankrupt, the landlord might come down upon everything, for he has great power.”

He broke off abruptly, for Flavia’s maid, as a privileged person, entered the room without knocking.

“Sir,” said she, “my mistress wishes to see you at once.”

The banker got up directly. “I am coming,” said he; then, taking the hand of his client, he led her to the door, repeating: “Do not worry yourself; all the difficulties shall be got through. Come again, and we will talk them over;” and before she could thank him he was half way to his daughter’s apartment. Flavia had summoned her father to show him a new costume which had just been sent home by Van Klopen, and which pleased her greatly. Flavia’s costume was a masterpiece of fashionable bad taste, which makes women look all alike and destroys all appearance of individuality. It was a mass of frills, furbelows, fringes, and flutings of rare hue and form, making a series of wonderful contrasts. Standing in the middle of the room, with every available candle alight, for the day was fading away, she was so dainty and pretty that even the /bizarre/ dress of Van Klopen’s was unable to spoil her appearance. As she turned round, she caught sight of her father in a mirror, panting with the haste he had made in running upstairs.

“What a time you have been!” said she pettishly.

“I was with a client,” returned he apologetically.

“You ought to have got rid of him at once. But never mind that; look at me and tell me plainly what you think of me.”

She had no need to put the question, for the most intense admiration beamed in his face.

“Exquisite, delicious, heavenly!” answered he.

Flavia, accustomed as she was to her father’s compliments, was highly delighted. “Then you think that he will like me?” asked she.

She alluded to Paul Violaine, and the banker heaved a deep sigh as he replied,–

“Is it possible that any human being exists that you cannot please?”

“Ah!” mused she, “if it were any one but he, I should have no doubts or misgivings.”

Martin Rigal took a seat near the fire, and, drawing his daughter to him, pressed a fond kiss upon her brow, while she with the grace and activity of a cat, nestled upon his knee. “Suppose, after all, that he should not like me,” murmured she; “I should die of grief.”

The banker turned away his face to hide the gloom that overspread it. “Do you love him, then, even now?” asked he.

She paused for a moment, and he added, “More than you do me?”

Flavia pressed her father’s hand between both her palms and answered with a musical laugh, “How silly you are, papa! Why, of course I love you. Are you not my father? I love you too because you are kind and do all I wish, and because you are always telling me that you love me. Because you are like the cupids in the fairy stories–dear old people who give their children all their heart’s desire; I love you for my carriage, my horses, and my lovely dresses; for my purse filled with gold, for my beautiful jewelry, and for all the lovely presents you make me.”

Every word she spoke betrayed the utter selfishness of her soul, and yet her father listened with a fixed smile of delight on his face.

“And why do you love him?” asked he.

“Because–because,” stammered the girl, “first, because he is himself; and then,–well, I can’t say, but I /do/ love him.”

Her accents betrayed such depth of passion that the father uttered a groan of anguish.

Flavia caught the expression of his features, and burst into a fit of laughter.

“I really believe that you are jealous,” said she, as if she were speaking to a spoiled child. “That is very naughty of you; you ought to be ashamed of yourself. I tell you that the first time I set eyes upon him at Van Klopen’s, I felt a thrill of love pierce through my heart, such love as I never felt for a human being before. Since then, I have known no rest. I cannot sleep, and instead of blood, liquid fire seems to come through my veins.”

Martin Rigal raised his eyes to the ceiling in mute surprise at this outburst of feeling.

“You do not understand me,” went on Flavia. “You are the best of fathers, but, after all, you are but a man. Had I a mother, she would comprehend me better.”

“What could your mother have done for you more than I? Have I neglected anything for your happiness?” asked the banker, with a sigh.

“Perhaps nothing; for there are times when I hardly understand my own feelings.”

In gloomy silence the banker listened to the narrative of his daughter’s state of mind; then he said,–

“All shall be as you desire, and the man you love shall be your husband.”

The girl was almost beside herself with joy, and, throwing her arms around his neck, pressed kiss upon kiss on his cheeks and forehead.

“Darling,” said she, “I love you for this more than for anything that you have given me in my life.”

The banker sighed again; and Flavia, shaking her pretty little fist at him, exclaimed, “What is the meaning of that sigh, sir? Do you by any chance regret your promise? But never mind that. How do you mean to bring him here without causing any suspicion?”

A benevolent smile passed over her father’s face, as he answered,–

“That, my pet, is my secret.”

“Very well, keep it; I do not care what means you use, as long as I see him soon, very soon,–to-night perhaps, in an hour, or even in a few minutes. You say Dr. Hortebise will bring him here; he will sit at our table. I can look at him without trouble, I shall hear his voice–“

“Silly little puss!” broke in the banker; “or, rather, I should say, unhappy child.”

“Silly, perhaps; but why should you say unhappy?”

“You love him too fondly, and he will take advantage of your feeling for him.”

“Never; I do not believe it,” answered the girl.

“I hope to heaven, darling, that my fears may never be realized. But he is not the sort of husband that I intended for you; he is a composer.”

“And is that anything against him!” exclaimed Flavia in angry tones; “one would think from your sneers that this was a crime. Not only is he a composer, but he is a genius. I can read that in his face. He may be poor, but I am rich enough for both, and he will owe all to me; so much the better, for then he will not be compelled to give lessons for his livelihood, and he will have leisure to compose an opera more beautiful than any that Gounod has ever written, and I shall share all his glory. Why, perhaps, he may even sing his own songs to me alone.”

Her father noticed her state of feverish excitement and gazed upon her sadly. Flavia’s mother had been removed from this world at the early age of twenty-four by that insidious malady, consumption, which defies modern medical science, and in a brief space changes a beautiful girl into a livid corpse, and the father viewed her excited manner, flushed cheeks, and sparkling eyes with tears and dismay.

“By heavens!” cried he, bursting into a sudden fit of passion; “if ever he ill treats you, he is a dead man.”

The girl was startled at the sudden ferocity of his manner.

“What have I done to make you angry?” asked she; “and why do you have such evil thoughts of him?”

“I tremble for you, in whom my whole soul is wrapped up,” answered the banker. “This man has robbed me of my child’s heart, and you will be happier with him than you are with your poor old father. I tremble because of your inexperience and his weakness, which may prove a source of trouble to you.”

“If he is weak, all the better; my will can guide him.”

“You are wrong,” replied her father, “as many other women have been before you. You believe that weak and vacillating dispositions are easily controlled, but I tell you that this is an error. Only determined characters can be influenced, and it is on substantial foundations that we find support.”

Flavia made no reply, and her father drew her closer to him.

“Listen to me, my child,” said he. “You will never have a better friend than I am. You know that I would shed every drop of blood in my veins for you. He is coming, so search your heart to discover if this is not some mere passing fancy.”

“Father!” cried she.

“Remember that your happiness is in your own hands now, so be careful and conceal your feelings, and do not let him discover how deep your love is for him. Men’s minds are so formed that while they blame a woman for duplicity, they complain far more if she acts openly and allows her feelings to be seen—-“

He paused, for the door-bell rang. Flavia’s heart gave a bound of intense joy.

“He has come!” gasped she, and, with a strong effort to retain her composure, she added, “I will obey you, my dear father; I will not come here again until I have entirely regained my composure. Do not fear, and I will show you that your daughter can act a part as well as any other woman.”

She fled from the room as the door opened, but it was not Paul who made his appearance, but some other guests–a stout manufacturer and his wife, the latter gorgeously dressed, but with scarcely a word to say for herself. For this evening the banker had issued invitations to twenty of his friends, and among this number Paul would scarcely be noticed. He in due time made his appearance with Dr. Hortebise, who had volunteered to introduce him into good society. Paul felt ill at ease; he had just come from the hands of a fashionable tailor, who, thanks to Mascarin’s influence, had in forty-eight hours prepared an evening suit of such superior cut that the young man hardly knew himself in it. Paul had suffered a good deal from conflicting emotions after the visit to Van Klopen’s, and more than once regretted the adhesion that he had given to Mascarin’s scheme; but a visit the next day from Hortebise, and the knowledge that the fashionable physician was one of the confederates, had reconciled him to the position he had promised to assume.

He was moreover struck with Flavia’s charms, and dazzled with the accounts of her vast prospective fortune. To him, Hortebise, gay, rich, and careless, seemed the incarnation of happiness, and contributed greatly to stifle the voice of Paul’s conscience. He would, however, perhaps have hesitated had he known what the locket contained that dangled so ostentatiously from the doctor’s chain.

Before they reached the banker’s door, driven in the doctor’s elegant brougham, a similar one to which Paul mentally declared he would have, as soon as circumstances would permit, the young man’s mentor spoke.

“Let me say a few words to you. You have before you a chance which is seldom afforded to any young man, whatever his rank and social standing. Mind that you profit by it.”

“You may be sure I will,” said Paul, with a smile of self-complacency.

“Good, dear boy; but let me fortify your courage with a little of my experience. Do you know what an heiress really is?”

“Well, really—-“

“Permit me to continue. An heiress and more so if she is an only child, is generally a very disagreeable person, headstrong, capricious, and puffed up with her own importance. She is utterly spoiled by the flattery to which she has been accustomed from her earliest years, and thinks that all the world is made to bend before her.”

“Ah!” answered Paul, a little discomfited. “I hope it is not Mademoiselle Flavia’s portrait that you have been sketching?”

“Not exactly,” answered the doctor, with a laugh. “But I must warn you that even she has certain whims and fancies. For instance, I am quite sure that she would give a suitor every encouragement, and then repulse him without rhyme or reason.”

Paul, who up to this time had only seen the bright side of affairs, was a good deal disconcerted.

“Buy why should you introduce me to her then?”

“In order that you may win her. Have you not everything to insure success? She will most likely receive you with the utmost cordiality; but beware of being too sanguine. Even if she makes desperate love to you, I say, take care; it may be only a trap; for, between ourselves, a girl who has a million stitched to her petticoats is to be excused if she endeavors to find out whether the suitor is after her or her money.”

Just then the brougham stopped, and Dr. Hortebise and his young friend entered the house in the Rue Montmartre, where they were cordially greeted by the banker.

Paul glanced round, but there were no signs of Flavia, nor did she make her appearance until five minutes before the dinner hour, when the guests flocked round her. She had subdued all her emotions, and not a quiver of the eyelids disclosed the excitement under which she was laboring. Her eye rested on Paul, and he bowed ceremoniously. The banker was delighted, for he had not believed much in her self- command. But Flavia had taken his advice to heart, and when seated at table abstained from casting a glance in Paul’s direction. When dinner was over and many of the guests had sat down to whist; Flavia ventured to approach Paul, and in a low voice, which shook a little in spite of her efforts, said,–

“Will you not play me one of your own compositions, M. Violaine?”

Paul was but a medium performer, but Flavia seemed in the seventh heaven, while her father and Dr. Hortebise, who had taken their seats not far away, watched the young couple with much anxiety.

“How she adores him!” whispered the banker. “And yet I cannot judge of the effect that she has produced upon him.”

“Surely Mascarin will worm it all out of him to-morrow,” returned the doctor. “To-morrow the poor fellow will have his hands full, for there is to be a general meeting, when we shall hear all about Catenac’s ideas, and I shall be glad to know what Croisenois’s conduct will be when he knows what he is wanted for.”

It was growing late, and the guests began to drop off. Dr. Hortebise signalled to Paul, and they left the house together. According to the promise to her father, Flavia had acted her part so well, that Paul did not know whether he had made an impression or not.

CHAPTER XV.

MASTER CHUPIN.

Beaumarchef, when Mascarin called a general meeting of his associates, was in the habit of assuming his very best attire; for as he was often called into the inner office to answer questions, he was much impressed with the importance of the occasion. This time, however, the subordinate, although he had received due notice of the meeting, was still in his every-day dress. This discomposed him a good deal, though he kept muttering to himself that he meant no disrespect by it. Early in the morning he had been compelled to make up the accounts of two cooks, who, having obtained situations, were leaving the servants’ lodging-house. When this matter was completed, he had hoped for half an hour’s leisure. As he was crossing the courtyard, however, he fell in with Toto Chupin bringing in his daily report, which Beaumarchef thought would be what it usually was–a mere matter of form. He was, however, much mistaken; for though outwardly Toto was the same, yet his ideas had taken an entirely new direction; and when Beaumarchef urged him to look sharp, the request was received with a great deal of sullenness.

“I ain’t lost no time,” said he, “and have fished up a thing or two fresh; but before saying a word–“

He stopped, and seemed a little confused.

“Well, go on.”

“I want a fresh arrangement.”

Beaumarchef was staggered.

“Arrangement!” he echoed.

“Of course you can lump it if yer don’t like it,” said the boy. “Do you think as how I’m going to work like a horse, and not get a wink of sleep, just for a ‘thank ye, Chupin?’ No fear. I’m worth a sight more nor that.”

Beaumarchef flew into a rage.

“Then you are not worth a pinch of salt,” said he.

“All right, my cove.”

“And you are an ungrateful young villain to talk like this after all the kindness your master has shown you.”

Chupin gave a sarcastic laugh.

“Goodness!” cried he. “To hear you go on, one would think that the boss had ruined himself for my sake.”

“He took you out of the streets, and has given you a room ever since.”

“A room, do you say? I call it a dog kennel.”

“You have your breakfast and dinner every day regularly.”

“I know that, and half a bottle of wine at each meal, which has so much water in it that it cannot even stain the tablecloth.”

“You are an ungrateful young hound,” exclaimed Beaumarchef, “and forget that, in addition to this, he has set you up in business as a hot chestnut seller.”

“Good old business! I am allowed to stand all day under the gateway, roasted on one side, and frozen on the other, and gain, perhaps twenty sous.”

“You know that in summer he has promised to set you up in the fried potato line.”

“Thank ye for nothing; I don’t like the smell of grease.”

“What is it you want, then?”

“Nothing. I feels that I ought to be a gentleman at large.”

Beaumarchef cast a furious glance at the shameless youth, and told him that he would report everything to his master. The boy, however, did not seem to care a pin.

“I intends to see Master Mascarin myself presently,” remarked Chupin.

“You are an idiot.”

“Why so? Do you think I didn’t live better before I had anything to do with this blooming old cove? I never worked then. I used to sing in front of the pubs, and easily made my three francs a day. My pal and I soon check ’em though, and then off we went to the theatre. Sometimes we’d make tracks for Ivry, and take our doss in a deserted factory, into which the crushers never put their noses. In the winter we used to go to the glass houses and sleep in the warm ashes. All these were good times, while now–“

“Well, what have you to grumble at now? Don’t I hand you a five-franc piece every day that you are at work?”

“But that ain’t good enough. Come, don’t get shirty; all I asks is a rise of salary. Only say either Yes or No; and if you say No, why, I sends in my resignation.”

Beaumarchef would have given a five-franc piece out of his own pocket for Mascarin to have heard the boy’s impertinence.

“You are a young rascal!” said he, “and keep the worst of company. There is no use in denying it, for a hang-dog fellow, calling himself Polyte, has been here asking after you.”

“My company ain’t any business of yours.”

“Well, I give you warning, you will come to grief.”

“How?” returned Toto Chupin sulkily. “How can I come to grief? If old Mascarin interferes, I’ll shut up his mouth pretty sharp. I wish you and your master wouldn’t poke their noses into my affairs. I’m sick of you both. Don’t you think I’m up to you? When you make me follow some one for a week at a time, it isn’t to do ’em a kindness, I reckon. If things turn out badly, I’ve only to go before a beak and speak up; I should get off easily enough then; and if I do so, you will be sorry for not having given me more than my five francs a day.”

Beaumarchef was an old soldier and a bold man, but he was easily upset, for the lad’s insolence made him believe that he was uttering words that had been put in his mouth by some wily adviser; and not knowing how to act, the ex-soldier thought it best to adopt a more conciliating demeanor.

“How much do you want?” asked he.

“Well, seven francs to start with.”

“The deuce you do! Seven francs a day is a sum. Well, I’ll give it you myself to-day and will speak about you to the master.”

“You won’t get me to loosen my tongue for that amount to-day; you may bet your boots on that,” answered the lad insolently. “I wants one hundred francs down on the nail.”

“One hundred francs,” echoed Beaumarchef, scandalized at such a demand.

“Yes, my cove, that and no less.”

“And what will you give in return? No, no, my lad; your demand is a preposterous one; besides, you wouldn’t know how to spend such a sum.”

“Don’t you flurry yourself about that; but of one thing you may be sure, I sha’n’t spend my wages as you do–in wax for your mustache.”

Beaumarchef could not endure an insult to his mustache, and Chupin was about to receive the kick he had so richly earned, when Daddy Tantaine suddenly made his appearance, looking exactly as he did when he visited Paul in his garret.

“Tut, tut; never quarrel with the door open.”

Beaumarchef thanked Providence for sending this sudden reinforcement to his aid, and began in a tone of indignation,–

“Toto Chupin–“

“Stop! I have heard every word,” broke in Tantaine.

On hearing this, Toto felt that he had better make himself scarce; for though he hardly knew Mascarin, and utterly despised Beaumarchef, he trembled before the oily Tantaine, for in him he recognized a being who would stand no nonsense. He therefore began in an apologetic tone,–

“Just let me speak, sir; I only wanted–“

“Money, of course, and very natural too. Come, Beaumarchef, hand this worthy lad the hundred francs that he has so politely asked for.”

Beaumarchef was utterly stupefied, and was about to make some objection when he was struck by a signal which Toto did not perceive, and, drawing out his pocketbook, extracted a note which he offered to the lad. Toto glanced at the note, then at the faces of the two men, but was evidently afraid to take the money.

“Take the money,” said Tantaine. “If your information is not worth the money, I will have it back from you; come into the office, where we shall not be disturbed.”

Tantaine took a chair, and glancing at Toto, who stood before him twirling his cap leisurely, said,–

“I heard you.”

The lad had by this time recovered his customary audacity.

“Five days ago,” he began, “I was put on to Caroline Schimmel; I have found out all about her by this time. She is as regular as clockwork in her duties at least. She wakes at ten and takes her absinthe. Then she goes to a little restaurant she knows, and has her breakfast and a game at cards with any one that will play with her. At six in the evening she goes to the Grand Turk, a restaurant and dancing-shop in the Rue des Poisonnieres. Ain’t it a swell ken just! You can eat; drink, dance, or sing, just as you like; but you must have decent togs on, or they won’t let you in.”

“Wouldn’t they let you through then?”

Toto pointed significantly to his rags as he replied,–

“This rig out wouldn’t pass muster, but I have a scheme in hand.”

Tantaine took down the address of the dancing-saloon, and then, addressing Toto with the utmost severity,–

“Do you think,” said he, “that this report is worth a hundred francs?”

Toto made a quaint grimace.

“Do you think,” asked he, “that Caroline can lead the life she does without money? No fear. Well, I have found out where the coin comes from.”

The dim light in the office enabled Tantaine to hide the pleasure he felt on hearing these words.

“Ah,” answered he carelessly, as if it was a matter of but little moment, “and so you have found out all that, have you?

“Yes, and a heap besides. Just you listen. After her breakfast, my sweet Carry began to play cards with some chaps who had been grubbing at the next table. ‘Regular right down card sharpers and macemen,’ said I to myself, as I watched the way in which they faked the pasteboards. ‘They’ll get everything out of you, old gal.’ I was in the right, for in less than an hour she had to go up to the counter and leave one of her rings as security for the breakfast. He said he knew her, and would give her credit. ‘You are a trump,’ said she. ‘I’ll just trot off to my own crib and get the money.’ “

“Did she go home?”

“Not she; she went to a real swell house in a bang up part of Paris, the Rue de Varennes. She knocked at the door, and in she went, while I lounged about outside.”

“Do you know who lives there?”

“Of course I do. The grocer round the corner told me that it was inhabited by the Duke–what was his blessed name? Oh, the Duke—-“

“Was it the Duke de Champdoce?”

“That is the right one, a chap they say as has his cellars chock full of gold and silver.”

“You are rather slow, my lad,” said Tantaine, with his assumed air of indifference. “Get on a bit, do.”

Toto was much put out; for he had expected that his intelligence would have created an immense sensation.

“Give a cove time to breathe in. Well, in half an hour out comes my Carry as lively as a flea. She got into a passing cab and away she went. Fortunately I can run a bit, and reached the Palais Royal in time to see Caroline change two notes of two hundred francs each at the money-changers.”

“How did you find out that?”

“By looking at ’em. The paper was yellow.”

Tantaine smiled kindly. “You know a banknote then?”

“Yes, but I have precious few chances of handling them. Once I went into a money-changer’s shop and asked them just to let me feel one, and they said, ‘Get out sharp.’ “

“Is that all?” demanded Tantaine.

“No; I have kept the best bit for a finish. I want to tell you that there are others on the lookout after Caroline.”

Toto had no reason this time to grumble at the effect he had produced, for the old man gave such a jump that his hat fell off.

“What are you saying?” said he.

“Simply that for the last three days a big chap with a harp on his back has been keeping her in view. I twigged him at once, and he too saw her go into the swell crib that you say belongs to that Duke.”

Tantaine pondered a little.

“A street musician,” muttered he. “I must find out all about this. Now, Toto, listen to me; chuck Caroline over, and stick to the fellow with the harp; be off with you, for you have earned your money well.”

As Chupin went off, the old man shook his head.

“Too sharp by a good bit,” said he; “he won’t have a long lease of life.”

Beaumarchef was about to ask Tantaine to remain in the office while he went off to put on his best clothes, but the old man stopped this request by saying,–

“As M. Mascarin does not like to be disturbed, I will just go in without knocking. When the other gentlemen arrive, show them in; for look you here, my good friend, the pear is so ripe that if it is not plucked, it will fall to the ground.”

CHAPTER XVI.

A TURN OF THE SCREW.

Dr. Hortebise was the first to arrive. It was a terrible thing for him to get up so early; but for Mascarin’s sake he consented even to this inconvenience. When he passed through the office, the room was full of clients; but this did not prevent the doctor from noticing the negligence of Beaumarchef’s costume.

“Aha!” remarked the doctor, “on the drunk again, I am afraid.”

“M. Mascarin is within,” answered the badgered clerk, endeavoring to put on an air of dignity; “and M. Tantaine is with him.”

A brilliant idea flashed across the doctor’s mind, but it was with an air of gravity that he said,–

“I shall be charmed to meet that most worthy old gentleman.”

When, however, he entered the inner sanctum, he found Mascarin alone, occupied in sorting the eternal pieces of pasteboard.

“Well, what news?” asked he.

“There is none that I know of.”

“What, have you not seen Paul?”

“No.”

“Will he be here?”

“Certainly.”

Mascarin was often laconic, but he seldom gave such short answers as this.

“What is the matter?” asked the doctor. “Your greeting is quite funereal. Are you not well?”

“I am merely preoccupied, and that is excusable on the eve of the battle we are about to fight,” returned Mascarin.

He only, however, told a portion of the truth; for there was more in the background, which he did not wish to confide to his friend. Toto Chupin’s revolt had disquieted him. Let there be but a single flaw in the axletree, and one day it will snap in twain; and Mascarin wanted to eliminate this flaw.

“Pooh!” remarked the doctor, playing with his locket, “we shall succeed. What have we to fear, after all,–opposition on Paul’s part?”

“Paul may resent a little,” answered Mascarin disdainfully; “but I have decided that he shall be present at our meeting of to-day. It will be a stormy one, so be prepared. We might give him his medicine in minims, but I prefer the whole dose at once.”

“The deuce you do! Suppose he should be frightened, and make off with our secret.”

“He won’t make off,” replied Mascarin in a tone which froze his listener’s blood. “He can’t escape from us any more than the cockchafer can from the string that a child has fastened to it. Do you not understand weak natures like his? He is the glove, I the strong hand beneath it.”

The doctor did not argue this point, but merely murmured,–

“Let us hope that it is so.”

“Should we have any opposition,” resumed Mascarin, “it will come from Catenac. I may be able to force him into co-operation with us, but his heart will not be in the enterprise.”

“Do you propose to bring Catenac into this affair?” asked Hortebise in great surprise.

“Assuredly.”

“Why have you changed your plan?”

“Simply because I have recognized the fact that, if we dispensed with his services, we should be entirely at the mercy of a shrewd man of business, because—-“

He broke off, listened for a moment, and then said,–

“Hush! I can hear his footstep.”

A dry cough was heard outside, and in another moment Catenac entered the room.

Nature, or profound dissimulation, had gifted Catenac with an exterior which made every one, when first introduced to him, exclaim, “This is an honest and trustworthy man.” Catenac always looked his clients boldly in the face. His voice was pleasant, and had a certain ring of joviality in it, and his manner was one of those easy ones which always insure popularity. He was looked upon as a shrewd lawyer; but yet he did not shine in court. He must therefore, to make those thirty thousand francs a year which he was credited with doing, have some special line of business. He assayed rather risky matters, which might bring both parties into the clutches of the criminal law, or, at any rate, leave them with a taint upon both their names. A sensational lawsuit is begun, and the public eagerly await the result; suddenly the whole thing collapses, for Catenac has acted as mediator. He has even settled the disputes of murderers quarreling over their booty. But he has even gone farther than this. More than once he has said of himself, “I have passed through the vilest masses of corruption.” In his office in the Rue Jacob he has heard whispered conferences which were enough to bring down the roof above his head. Of course this was the most lucrative business that passed into Catenac’s hands. The client conceals nothing from his attorney, and he belongs to him as absolutely as the sick man belongs to his physician or the penitent to his confessor.

“Well, my dear Baptiste,” said he, “here I am; you summoned me, and I am obedient to the call.”

“Sit down,” replied Mascarin gravely.

“Thanks, my friend, many thanks, a thousand thanks; but I am much hurried; indeed I have not a moment to spare. I have matters on my hands of life and death.”

“But for all that,” remarked Hortebise, “you can sit down for a moment. Baptiste has something to say to you which is as important as any of your matters can be.”

With a frank and genial smile Catenac obeyed; but in his heart were anger and an abject feeling of alarm.

“What is it that is so important?” asked he.

Mascarin had risen and locked the door. When he had resumed his seat he said,–

“The facts are very simple. Hortebise and I have decided to put our great plan into execution, which we have as yet only discussed generally with you. We have the Marquis de Croisenois with us.”

“My dear sir,” broke in the lawyer.

“Wait a little; we must have your assistance, and—-“

Catenac rose from his seat. “That is enough,” said he. “You have made a very great mistake if it is on this matter that you have sent for me; I told you this before.”

He was turning away, and looking for his hat, proposed to beat a retreat; but Dr. Hortebise stood between him and the door, gazing upon him with no friendly expression of countenance. Catenac was not a man to be easily alarmed, but the doctor’s appearance was so threatening, and the smile upon Mascarin’s lips was of so deadly a character, that he stood still, positively frightened into immobility.

“What do you mean?” stammered he; “what is it you say now?”

“First,” replied the doctor, speaking slowly and distinctly,–“first, we wish that you should listen to us when we speak to you.”

“I am listening.”

“Then sit down again, and hear what Baptiste has to say.”

The command Catenac had over his countenance was so great that it was impossible to see to what conclusion he had arrived from the words and manner of his confederates.

“Then let Baptiste explain himself,” said he.

“Before entering into matters completely,” said he coolly, “I first want to ask our dear friend and associate if he is prepared to act with us?”

“Why should there be any doubt on that point?” asked the lawyer. “Do all my repeated assurances count as nothing?”

“We do not want promises now; what we do want is good faith and real co-operation.”

“Can it be that you–“

“I ought to inform you,” continued Mascarin, unheeding the interruption, “that we have every prospect of success; and, if we carry the matter through, we shall certainly have a million apiece.”

Hortebise had not the calm patience of his confederate, and exclaimed,–

“You understand it well enough. Say Yes or No.”

Catenac was in the agonies of indecision, and for fully a minute made no reply.

“/No/, then!” he broke out in a manner which betrayed his intense agitation. “After due consideration, and having carefully weighed the chances for and against, I answer you decidedly, No.”

Mascarin and Hortebise evidently expected this reply, and exchanged glances.

“Permit me to explain,” said Catenac, “what you consider as a cowardly withdrawal upon my part–“

“Call it treachery.”

“I will not quibble about words. I wish to be perfectly straightforward with you.”

“I am glad to hear it,” sneered the doctor, “though that is not your usual form.”

“And yet I do not think that I have ever concealed my real opinion from you. It is fully ten years ago since I spoke to you of the necessity of breaking up this association. Can you recall what I said? I said only our extreme need and griping poverty justified our acts. They are now inexcusable.”

“You talked very freely of your scruples,” observed Mascarin.

“You remember my words then?”

“Yes, and I remember too that those inner scruples never hindered you from drawing your share of the profits.”

“That is to say,” burst in the doctor, “you repudiated the work, but shared the booty. You wished to play the game without staking anything.”

Catenac was in no way disconcerted at this trenchant argument.

“Quite true,” said he, “I always received my share; but I have done quite as much as you in putting the agency in its present prosperous condition. Does it not work smoothly like a perfect piece of mechanism? Have we not succeeded in nearly all our schemes? The income comes in monthly with extreme regularity, and I, according to my rights, have received one-third. If you desire to throw up this perilous means of livelihood, say so, and I will not oppose it.”

“You are really too good,” sneered the doctor, with a look of menace in his glance.

“Nor,” continued Catenac, “will I oppose you if you prefer to let matters stand as they are; but if you start on fresh enterprises, and embark on the tempestuous sea of danger, then I put down my foot and very boldly ‘halt.’ I will not take another step with you. I can see by the looks of both of you that you think me a fool and a coward. Heaven grant that the future may not show you only too plainly that I have been in the right. Think over this. For twenty years fortune has favored us, but, believe me, it is never wise to tempt her too far, for it is well known that at some time or other she always turns.”

“Your imagery is really charming,” remarked Hortebise sarcastically.

“Good, I have nothing else to say but to repeat my warning: /reflect/. Grand as your hopes and expectations may be, they are as nothing to the perils that you will encounter.”

This cold flood of eloquence was more than the doctor could bear.

“It is all very well for you,” exclaimed he, “to reason like this, for you are a rich man.”

“I have enough to live on, I allow; for in addition to the income derived from my profession, I have saved two hundred thousand francs; and if you can be induced to renounce your projects, I will divide this sum with you. You have only to think.”

Mascarin, who had taken no part in the dispute, now judged it time to interfere.

“And so,” said he, turning to Catenac, “you have only two hundred thousand francs?”

“That or thereabouts.”

“And you offer to divide this sum with us. Really we ought to be deeply grateful to you, but—-“

Mascarin paused for a moment; then settling his spectacles more firmly, he went on,–

“But even if you were to give us what you propose, you would still have eleven hundred thousand francs remaining!”

Catenac burst into a pleasant laugh. “You are jesting,” said he.

“I can prove the correctness of my assertion;” and as he spoke, Mascarin unlocked a drawer, and taking a small notebook from it, turned over the pages, and leaving it open at a certain place, handed it to the lawyer.

“There,” said he, “that is made up to December last, and shows precisely how you stand financially. Twice, then, you have increased your funds. These deposits you will find in an addenda at the end of the book.”

Catenac started to his feet; all his calmness had now disappeared.

“Yes,” he said, “I have just the sum you name; and I, for that very reason, refuse to have anything further to do with your schemes. I have an income of sixty thousand francs; that is to say, sixty thousand good reasons for receiving no further risks. You envy me my good fortune, but did we not all start penniless? I have taken care of my money, while you have squandered yours. Hortebise has lost his patients, while I have increased the number of my clients; and now you want me to tread the dangerous road again. Not I; go your way, and leave me to go home.”

Again he took up his hat, but a wave of the hand from Mascarin detained him.

“Suppose,” said he coldly, “that I told you that your assistance was necessary to me.”

“I should say so much the worse for you.”

“But suppose I insist?”

“And how can you insist? We are both in the same boat, and sink or swim together.”

“Are you certain of that?”

“So certain that I repeat from this day I wash my hands of you.”

“I am afraid you are in error.”

“How so?”

“Because for twelve months past; I have given food and shelter to a girl of the name of Clarisse. Do you by any chance know her?”

At the mention of this name, the lawyer started, as a man starts who, walking peacefully along, suddenly sees a deadly serpent coiled across his path.

“Clarisse,” stammered he, “how did you know of her? who told you?”

But the sarcastic sneer upon the lips of his two confederates wounded his pride so deeply, that in an instant he recovered his self- possession.

“I am getting foolish,” said he, “to ask these men how they learned my secret. Do they not always work by infamous and underhand means?”

“You see I know all,” remarked Mascarin, “for I foresaw the day would come when you would wish to sever our connection, and even give us up to justice, if you could do so with safety to yourself. I therefore took my precautions. One thing, however, I was not prepared for, and that was, that a man of your intelligence should have played so paltry a game, and even twelve months back thought of betraying us. It is almost incredible. Do you ever read the /Gazette des Tribunaux/? I saw in its pages yesterday a story nearly similar to your own. Shall I tell it to you? A lawyer who concealed his vices beneath a mantle of joviality and candor, brought up from the country a pretty, innocent girl to act as servant in his house. This lawyer occupied his leisure time in leading the poor child astray, and the moment at last came when the consequences of her weakness were too apparent. The lawyer was half beside himself at the approaching scandal. What would the neighbors say? Well, to cut the story short, the infant was suppressed,–you understand, suppressed, and the mother turned into the street.”

“Baptiste, have mercy!”

“It was a most imprudent act, for such things always leak out somehow. You have a gardener at your house at Champigny, and suppose the idea seized upon this worthy man to dig up the ground round the wall at the end of the garden.”

“That is enough,” said Catenac, piteously. “I give in.”

Mascarin adjusted his spectacles, as he always did in important moments.

“You give in, do you? Not a bit. Even now you are endeavoring to find a means of parrying my home thrusts.”

“But I declare to you—-“

“Do not be alarmed; dig as deeply as he might, your gardener would discover nothing.”

The lawyer uttered a stifled exclamation of rage as he perceived the pit into which he had fallen.

“He would find nothing,” resumed Mascarin, “and yet the story is all true. Last January, on a bitterly cold night, you dug a hole, and in it deposited the body of a new-born infant wrapped in a shawl. And what shawl? Why the very one that you purchased at the /Bon Marche/, when you were making yourself agreeable to Clarisse. The shopman who sold it to you has identified it, and is ready to give evidence when called upon. You may look for that shawl, Catenac, but you will not find it.”

“Have you got that shawl?” asked Catenac hoarsely.

“Am I a fool?” asked Mascarin contemptuously. “Tantaine has it; but /I/ know where the body is, and will keep the information to myself. Do not be alarmed; act fairly, and you are safe; but make one treacherous move, and you will read in the next day’s papers a paragraph something to this effect: ‘Yesterday some workmen, engaged in excavations near so-and-so, discovered the body of a new-born infant. Every effort is being made to discover the author of the crime.’ You know me, and that I work promptly. To the shawl I have added a handkerchief and a few other articles belonging to Clarisse, which will render it an easy matter to fix the guilt on you.”

Catenac was absolutely stunned, and had lost all power of defending himself. The few incoherent words that he uttered showed his state of utter despair.

“You have killed me,” gasped he, “just as the prize, that I have been looking for for twenty years, was in my grasp.”

“Work does a man no harm,” remarked the doctor sententiously.

There was, however, little time to lose; the Marquis de Croisenois and Paul might be expected to arrive at any moment, and Mascarin hastened to restore a certain amount of calmness to his prostrate antagonist.

“You make as much noise as if we were going to hand you over to the executioner on the spot. Do you think that we are such a pair of fools as to risk all these hazards without some almost certain chance of success? Hortebise was as much startled as yourself when I first spoke to him of this affair, but I explained everything fully to him, and now he is quite enthusiastic in the matter. Of course you can lay aside all fear, and, as a man of the world, will bear no malice against those who have simply played a better game than yourself.”

“Go on,” said Catenac, forcing a smile, “I am listening.”

Mascarin made a short pause.

“What we want of you,” answered he, “will not compromise you in the slightest degree. I wish you to draw up a document, the particulars of which I will give you presently, and you will outwardly have no connection with the matter.”

“Very good.”

“But there is more yet. The Duke of Champdoce has placed a difficult task in your hands. You are engaged in a secret on his behalf.”

“You know that also?”

“I know everything that may be made subservient to our ends. I also know that instead of coming direct to me you went to the very man that we have every reason to dread, that fellow Perpignan, who is nearly as sharp as we are.”

“Go on,” returned Catenac impatiently. “What do you expect from me on this point?”

“Not much; you must only come to me first, and report any discovery you may have made, and never give any information to the Duke without first consulting us.”

“I agree.”

The contending parties seemed to have arrived at an amicable termination, and Dr. Hortebise smiled complacently.

“Now,” said he, “shall we not confess, after all, that there was no use in making such a fuss?”

“I allow that I was in the wrong,” answered Catenac meekly; and, extending his hands to his two associates with an oily smile, he said: “Let us forget and forgive.”

Was he to be trusted? Mascarin and the doctor exchanged glances of suspicion. A moment afterward a knock came to the door, and Paul entered, making a timid bow to his two patrons.

“My dear boy,” said Mascarin, “let me present you to one of my oldest and best friends.” Then, turning to Catenac, he added: “I wish to ask you to help and assist my young friend here. Paul Violaine is a good fellow, who has neither father nor mother, and whom we are trying to help on in his journey through life.”

The lawyer started as he caught the strange, meaning smile which accompanied these words.

“Great heavens!” said he, “why did you not speak sooner?”

Catenac at once divined Mascarin’s project, and understood the allusion to the Duke de Champdoce.

CHAPTER XVII.

SOME SCRAPS OF PAPER.

The Marquis de Croisenois was never punctual. He had received a note asking him to call on Mascarin at eleven o’clock, and twelve had struck some time before he made his appearance. Faultlessly gloved, his glass firmly fixed in his eye, and a light walking cane in his hand, and with that air of half-veiled insolence that is sometimes affected by certain persons who wish the world to believe that they are of great importance, the Marquis de Croisenois entered the room.

At the age of twenty-five Henry de Croisenois affected the airs and manners of a lad of twenty, and so found many who looked upon his escapades with lenient eyes, ascribing them to the follies of youth. Under this youthful mask, however he concealed a most astute and cunning intellect, and had more than once got the better of the women with whom he had had dealings. His fortune was terribly involved, because he had insisted on living at the same rate as men who had ten times his income. Forming one of the recklessly extravagant band of which the Duke de Saumeine was the head, Croisenois, too, kept his racehorses, which was certainly the quickest way to wreck the most princely fortune. The Marquis had found out this, and was utterly involved, when Mascarin extended a helping hand to him, to which he clung with all the energy of a drowning man.

Whatever Henry de Croisenois’ anxieties may have been on the day in question, he did not allow a symptom of them to appear, and on his entrance negligently drawled, “I have kept you waiting, I fear; but really my time is not my own. I am quite at your service now, and will wait until these gentlemen have finished their business with you.” And as he concluded, he again placed the cigar which he had removed while saying these words, to his lips.

His manner was very insolent, and yet the amiable Mascarin did not seem offended, although he loathed the scent of tobacco.

“We had begun to despair of seeing you, Marquis,” answered he politely. “I say so, because these gentlemen are here to meet you. Permit me to introduce to you, Dr. Hortebise, M. Catenac of the Parisian bar, and our secretary,” pointing as he spoke, to Paul.

As soon as Croisenois had taken his seat, Mascarin went straight to the point, as a bullet to the target. “I do not intend,” began he, “to leave you in doubt for a moment. Beatings about the bush would be absurd among persons like ourselves.”

At finding himself thus classed with the other persons present, the Marquis gave a little start, and then drawled out, “You flatter me, really.”

“I may tell you, Marquis,” resumed Mascarin, “that your marriage has been definitely arranged by myself and my associates. All you have to do is to get the young lady’s consent; for that of the Count and Countess has already been secured.”

“There will be no difficulty in that,” lisped the Marquis. “I will promise her the best horsed carriage in the Bois, a box at the opera, unlimited credit at Van Klopen’s, and perfect freedom. There will be no difficulty, I assure you. Of course, however, I must be presented by some one who holds a good position in society.”

“Would the Viscountess de Bois Arden suit you?”

“No one better; she is a relation of the Count de Mussidan.”

“Good; then when you wish, Madame de Bois Arden will introduce you as a suitor for the young lady’s hand, and praise you up to the skies.”

The Marquis looked very jubilant at hearing this. “All right,” cried he; “then that decides the matter.”

Paul wondered whether he was awake or dreaming. He too had been promised a rich wife, and here was another man who was being provided for in the same manner. “These people,” muttered he, “seem to keep a matrimonial agency as well as a servants’ registry office!”

“All that is left, then,” said the Marquis, “is to arrange the–shall I call it the commission?”

“I was about to come to that,” returned Mascarin.

“Well, I will give you a fourth of the dowry, and on the day of my marriage will hand you a cheque for that amount.”

Paul now imagined that he saw how matters worked. “If I marry Flavia,” thought he, “I shall have to share her dowry with these highly respectable gentlemen.”

The offer made by the Marquis did not, however, seem to please Mascarin. “That is not what we want,” said he.

“No,–well, must I give you more? Say how much.”

Mascarin shook his head.

“Well then, I will give you a third; it is not worth while to give you more.”

“No, no; I would not take half, nor even the whole of the dowry. You may keep that as well as what you owe us.”

“Well, but tell me what you /do/ want.”

“I will do so,” answered Mascarin, adjusting his spectacles carefully; “but before doing so, I feel that I must give you a short account of the rise and progress of this association.”

At this statement Hortebise and Catenac sprang to their feet in surprise and terror. “Are you mad?” said they at length, with one voice.

Mascarin shrugged his shoulders.

“Not yet,” answered he gently, “and I beg that you will permit me to go on.”

“But surely we have some voice in the matter,” faltered Catenac.

“That is enough,” exclaimed Mascarin angrily, “Am not I the head of this association? Do you think,” he continued in tones of deep sarcasm, “that we cannot speak openly before the Marquis?”

Hortebise and the lawyer resignedly resumed their seats. Croisenois thought that a word from him might reassure them.

“Among honest men–” began he.

“We are not honest men,” interrupted Mascarin. “Sir,” added he in a severe tone, “nor are you either.”

This plain speaking brought a bright flush to the face of the Marquis, who had half a mind to be angry, but policy restrained him, and he affected to look on the matter as a joke. “Your joke is a little personal,” said he.

But Mascarin took no heed of his remark. “Listen to me,” said he, “for we have no time to waste, and do you,” he added, turning to Paul, “pay the greatest attention.”

A moment of perfect silence ensued, broken only by the hum of voices in the outer office.

“Marquis,” said Mascarin, whose whole face blazed with a gleam of conscious power, “twenty-five years ago I and my associates were young and in a very different position. We were honest then, and all the illusions of youth were in full force; we had faith and hope. We all then tenanted a wretched garret in the Rue de la Harpe, and loved each other like brothers.”

“That was long, long ago,” murmured Hortebise.

“Yes,” rejoined Mascarin; “and yet the effluxion of times does not hinder me from seeing things as they then were, and my heart aches as I compare the hopes of those days with the realities of the present. Then, Marquis, we were poor, miserably poor, and yet we all had vague hopes of future greatness.”

Croisenois endeavored to conceal a sneer; the story was not a very interesting one.

“As I said before, each one of us anticipated a brilliant career. Catenac had gained a prize by his ‘Treatise on the Transfer of Real Estate,’ and Hortebise had written a pamphlet regarding which the great Orfila had testified approval. Nor was I without my successes. Hortebise had unluckily quarrelled with his family. Catenac’s relatives were poor, and I, well, I had no family. I stood alone. We were literally starving, and I was the only one earning money. I prepared pupils for the military colleges, but as I only earned twenty-five sous a day by cramming a dull boy’s brain with algebra and geometry, that was not enough to feed us all. Well, to cut a long story short, the day came when we had not a coin among us. I forgot to tell you that I was devotedly attached to a young girl who was dying of consumption, and who had neither food nor fuel. What could I do? I knew not. Half mad, I rushed from the house, asking myself if I had better plead for charity or take the money I required by force from the first passer-by. I wandered along the quays, half inclined to confide my sorrow to the Seine, when suddenly I remembered it was a holiday at the Polytechnic School, and that if I went to the /Café Semblon/ or the Palais Royal, I should most likely meet with some of my old pupils, who could perhaps lend me a few sous. Five francs perhaps, Marquis,–that is a very small sum, but in that day it meant the life of my dear Marie and of my two friends. Have you ever been hungry, M. de Croisenois?”

De Croisenois started; he had never suffered from hunger, but how could he tell what the future might bring? for his resources were so nearly exhausted, that even to-morrow he might be compelled to discard his fictitious splendor and sink into the abyss of poverty.

“When I reached the /Café Semblon/,” continued Mascarin, “I could not see a single pupil, and the waiter to whom I addressed my inquiries looked at me with the utmost contempt, for my clothes were in tatters; but at length he condescended to inform me that the young gentlemen had been and gone, but that they would return. I said that I would wait for them. The man asked me if I would take anything, and when I replied in the negative, contemptuously pointed to a chair in a distant corner, where I patiently took my seat. I had sat for some time, when suddenly a young man entered the /café/, whose face, were I to live for a century, I shall never forget. He was perfectly livid, his features rigid, and his eyes wild and full of anguish. He was evidently in intense agony of mind or body. Evidently, however, it was not poverty that was oppressing him, for as he cast himself upon a sofa, all the waiters rushed forward to receive his orders. In a voice that was almost unintelligible, he asked for a bottle of brandy, and pen, ink, and paper. In some mysterious manner, the sight of this suffering brought balm to my aching heart. The order of the young man was soon executed, and pouring out a tumbler of brandy, he took a deep draught. The effect was instantaneous, he turned crimson, and for a moment almost fell back insensible. I kept my eyes on him, for a voice within me kept crying out that there was some mysterious link connecting this man and myself, and that his life was in some manner interwoven with mine, and that the influence he would exercise over me would be for evil. So strongly did this idea become rooted, that I should have left the /café/, had not my curiosity been so great. In the meantime the stranger had recovered himself, and seizing a pen, scrawled a few lines on a sheet of paper. Evidently he was not satisfied with his composition, for after reading it over, he lit a match and burnt the paper. He drank more brandy, and wrote a second letter, which, too, proved a failure, for he tore it to fragments, which he thrust into his waistcoat pocket. Again he commenced, using greater care. It was plain that he had forgotten where he was, for he gesticulated, uttered a broken sentence or two and evidently believed that he was in his own house. His last letter seemed to satisfy him, and he recopied it with care. He closed and directed it; then, tearing the original into pieces, he flung it under the table; then calling the waiter, he said, ‘Here are twenty francs; take this letter to the address on the envelope. Bring the answer to my house; here is my card.’ The man ran out of the room, and the nobleman, only waiting to pay his bill, followed almost immediately. The morsels of white paper beneath the table had a strange fascination for me; I longed to gather them up, to put them together, and to learn the secret of the strange drama that had been acted before me. But, as I have told you, then I was honest and virtuous, and the meanness of such an act revolted all my instincts; and I should have overcome this temptation, had it not been for one of those trifling incidents which too often form the turning-point of a life. A draught from a suddenly opened door caught one of these morsels of paper, and wafted it to my feet. I stooped and picked it up, and read on it the ominous words, ‘blow out my brains!’ I had not been mistaken, then, and was face to face with some coming tragedy. Having once yielded, I made no further efforts at self- control. The waiters were running about; no one paid any attention to me; and creeping to the place that the unknown had occupied, I obtained possession of two more scraps of paper. Upon one I read, ‘shame and horror!’ upon the other, ‘one hundred thousand francs by to-night.’ The meaning of these few words were as clear as daylight to me; but for all that, I managed to collect every atom of the torn paper, and piecing them together, read this:–

” ‘CHARLES,– ‘I must have one hundred thousand francs to-night, and you are the only one to whom I can apply. The shame and horror of my position are too much for me. Can you send it me in two hours? As you act, so I regulate my conduct. I am either saved, or I blow out my brains.’

“You are probably surprised, Marquis, at the accuracy of my memory, and even now I can see this scrawl as distinctly as if it were before me. At the end of this scrawl was a signature, one of the best known commercial names, which, in common with other financial houses, was struggling against a panic on the Bourse. My discovery disturbed me very much. I forgot all my miseries, and thought only of his. Were not our positions entirely similar? But by degrees a hideous temptation began to creep into my heart, and, as the minutes passed by, assume more vivid color and more tangible reality. Why should I not profit by this stolen secret? I went to the desk and asked for some wafers and a Directory. Then, returning, I fastened the torn fragments upon a clean sheet of paper, discovered the address of the writer, and then left the /café/. The house was situated in the Rue Chaussee d’Autin. For fully half an hour I paced up and down before his magnificent dwelling-place. Was he alive? Had the reply of Charles been in the affirmative? I decided at last to venture, and rang the bell. A liveried domestic appeared at my summons, and said that his master did not receive visitors at that hour; besides, he was at dinner. I was exasperated at the man’s insolence, and replied hotly, ‘If you want to save your master from a terrible misfortune, go and tell him that a man has brought him the rough draft of the letter he wrote a little time back at the /Café Semblon/.’ The man obeyed me without a word, no doubt impressed by the earnestness of my manner. My message must have caused intense consternation, for in a moment the footman reappeared, and, in an obsequious manner, said, ‘Follow at once, sir; my master is waiting for you.’ He led me into a large room, magnificently furnished as a library, and in the centre of this room stood the man of the /Café Semblon/. His face was deadly pale, and his eyes blazed with fury. I was so agitated that I could hardly speak.

” ‘You have picked up the scraps of paper I threw away?’ exclaimed he.

“I nodded, and showed him the fragments fastened on to the sheet of note-paper.

” ‘How much do you want for that?’ asked he. ‘I will give you a thousand francs.’

“I declare to you, gentlemen, that up to this time I had no intention of making money by the secret. My intention in going had been simply to say, ‘I bring you this paper, of which some one else might have taken an undue advantage. I have done you a service; lend me a hundred francs.’ This is what I meant to say, but his behavior irritated me, and I answered,–

” ‘No, I want two thousand francs.’

“He opened a drawer, drew out a bundle of banknotes, and threw them in my face.

” ‘Pay yourself, you villain!’ said he.

“I can, I fear, never make you understand what I felt at this undeserved insult. I was not myself, and Heaven knows that I was not responsible for any crime that I might have committed in the frenzy of the moment, and I was nearly doing so. That man will, perhaps, never see death so near him, save at his last hour. On his writing table lay one of those Catalan daggers, which he evidently used as a paper- cutter. I snatched it up, and was about to strike, when the recollection of Marie dying of cold and starvation occurred to me. I dashed the knife to the ground, and rushed from the house in a state bordering on insanity. I went into that house an honest man, and left it a degraded scoundrel. But I must finish. When I reached the street, the two banknotes which I had taken from the packet seemed to burn me like coals of fire. I hastened to a money-changer, and got coin for them. I think, from my demeanor, he must have thought that I was insane. With my plunder weighing me down, I regained our wretched garret in the Rue de la Harpe. Catenac and Hortebise were waiting for me with the utmost anxiety. You remember that day, my friends. Marquis, my story is especially intended for you. As soon as I entered the room, my friends ran up to me, delighted at seeing me return in safety, but I thrust them aside.

” ‘Let me alone!’ cried I; ‘I am no longer fit to take an honest man’s hand; but we have money, money!’ And I threw the bags upon the table. One of them burst, and a flood of silver coins rolled to every part of the room.

“Marie started from her chair with upraised hands. ‘Money!’ she repeated, ‘money! we shall have food, and I won’t die.’

“My friends, Marquis, were not as they are now, and they started back in horror, fearing that I had committed some crime.

” ‘No,’ said I, ‘I have committed no crime, not one, at least, that will bring me within the reach of the strong arm of the law. This money is the price of our honor, but no one will know that fact but ourselves.’

“Marquis, there was no sleeping in the garret all that night; but when daylight peered through the broken windows, it beamed on a table covered with empty bottles, and round it were seated three men, who, having cast aside all honorable scruples, had sworn that they would arrive at wealth and prosperity by any means, no matter how foul and treacherous they might be. That is all.”

CHAPTER XVIII.

AN INFAMOUS TRADE.

Mascarin, who was anxious to make as deep an impression as possible upon Croisenois and Paul, broke off his story abruptly, and paced up and down the room. Had his intention been to startle his audience, he had most certainly succeeded. Paul was breathless with interest, and Croisenois broke down in attempting to make one of his usual trivial remarks. He was not particularly intelligent, except as regarded his self-interests, and though, of course, he knew that there must be some connection between his interests and the recital that Mascarin had just made, he could not for the life of him make out what it was. Mascarin seemed utterly careless of the effect that he had produced. But the next time that his walk brought him to his desk he stopped, and, adjusting his glasses, said, “I trust, Marquis, that you will forgive this long preliminary address, which would really make a good sensational novel; but we have now arrived at the really practical part of the business.” As he said these words, he took up an imposing attitude, with his elbow resting on the mantelpiece.

“On the night of which I have spoken, I and my friends released ourselves from all the bonds of virtue and honor, and freed ourselves from all the fetters of duty to our fellow-men. The plan emanated from my brain complete in all its details in the will I made twenty years ago to my friends. Marquis, as the summer goes on, you know that the ripest and reddest cherries are the fullest flavored, just so, in the noblest and wealthiest of families in Paris there is not one that has not some terrible and ghostly secret which is sedulously concealed. Now, suppose that one man should gain possession of all of them, would he not be sole and absolute master? Would he not be more powerful than a despot on his throne? Would he not be able to sway society in any manner he might think fit? Well, I said to myself, I will be that man!”

Ever since the Marquis had been in relation with Mascarin, he had shrewdly suspected that his business was not conducted on really fair principles.

“What you mention,” said he, “is nothing but an elaborate and extended system of blackmail.”

Mascarin bowed low, with an ironical smile on his face. “Just so, Marquis, just so; you have hit on the very name. The word is modern, but the operation doubtless dates from the earliest ages. The day upon which one man began to trade upon the guilty secret of another was the date of the institution of this line of business. If antiquity makes a thing respectable, then blackmailing is worthy of great respect.”

“But, sir,” said the Marquis, with a flush upon his face, “but, sir–“

“Pshaw!” broke in Mascarin, “does a mere word frighten you? Who has not done some of it in his time? Why, look at yourself. Do you not recollect this winter that you detected a young man cheating at cards? You said nothing to him at the time, but you found out that he was rich, and, calling upon him the next day, borrowed ten thousand francs. When do you intend to repay that loan?”

Croisenois sank back in his chair, overcome with surprise at this display of knowledge on Mascarin’s part. “This is too terrible,” muttered he, but Mascarin went on,–

“I know, at least, two thousand persons in Paris who only exist by the exercise of this profession; for I have studied them all, from the convict who screws money out of his former companions, in penal servitude, to the titled villain, who, having discovered the frailty of some unhappy woman, forces her to give him her daughter as his wife. I know a mere messenger in the Rue Douai, who in five years amassed a comfortable fortune. Can you guess how? When he was intrusted with a letter, he invariably opened it, and made himself master of its contents, and if there was a compromising word in it, he pounced down upon either the writer or the person to whom it was addressed. I also know of one large limited company which pays an annual income to a scoundrel with half a dozen foreign orders, who has found out that they have broken their statues of association, and holds proofs of their having done so. But the police are on the alert, and our courts deal very severely with blackmailers.”

Mascarin went on: “The English, however, are our masters, for in London a compromising servant is as easily negotiable as a sound bill of exchange. There is in the city a respectable jeweller, who will advance money on any compromising letter with a good name at the foot. His shop is a regular pawnshop of infamy. In the States it has been elevated to the dignity of a profession, and the citizen at New York dreads the blackmailers more than the police, if he is meditating some dishonorable action. Our first operations did not bring in any quick returns, and the harvest promised to be a late one; but you have come upon us just as we are about to reap our harvest. The professions of Hortebise and Catenac–the one a doctor and the other a lawyer– facilitated our operations greatly. One administered to the diseases of the body, and the other to that of the purse, and, of course, thus they became professors of many secrets. As for me, the head and chief, it would not do to remain an idle looker-on. Our funds had dwindled down a good deal, and, after mature consideration, I decided to hire this house, and open a Servants’ Registry Office. Such an occupation would not attract any attention, and in the end it turned out a perfect success, as my friends can testify.”

Catenac and Hortebise both nodded assent.

“By the system which I have adopted,” resumed Mascarin, “the wealthy and respectable man is as strictly watched in his own house as is the condemned wretch in his cell; for no act of his escapes the eyes of the servants whom we have placed around him. He can hardly even conceal his thoughts from us. Even the very secret that he has murmured to his wife with closed doors reaches our ears.”

The Marquis gave a supercilious smile.

“You must have had some inkling of this,” observed Mascarin, “for you have never taken a servant from our establishment; but for all that, I am as well posted up in your affairs as yourself. You have even now about you a valet of whom you know nothing.”

“Morel was recommended to me by one of my most intimate friends–Sir Richard Wakefield.”