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“But for all that I have had my suspicions of him; but we will talk of this later, and we will now return to the subject upon which we have met. As I told you, I conceal the immense power I had attained through our agency, and use it as occasion presents itself, and after twenty years’ patient labor, I am about to reap a stupendous harvest. The police pay enormous sums to their secret agents, while I, without opening my purse, have an army of devoted adherents. I see perhaps fifty servants of both sexes daily; calculate what this will amount to in a year.”

There was an air of complacency about the man as he explained the working of his system, and a ring of triumph in his voice.

“You must not think that all my agents are in my secrets, for the greater part of them are quite unaware of what they are doing, and in this lies my strength. Each of them brings me a slender thread, which I twine into the mighty cord by which I hold my slaves. These unsuspecting agents remind me of those strange Brazilian birds, whose presence is a sure sign that water is to be found near at hand. When one of them utters a note, I dig, and I find. And now, Marquis, do you understand the aim and end of our association?”

“It has,” remarked Hortebise quietly, “brought us in some years two hundred and fifty thousand francs apiece.”

If M. de Croisenois disliked prosy tales, he by no means underrated the eloquence of figures. He knew quite enough of Paris to understand that if Mascarin threw his net regularly, he would infallibly catch many fish. With this conviction firmly implanted in his mind, he did not require much urging to look with favor on the scheme, and, putting on a gracious smile, he now asked, “And what must I do to deserve admission into this association?”

Paul had listened in wonder and terror, but by degrees all feelings of disgust at the criminality of these men faded away before the power that they unquestionably possessed.

“If,” resumed Mascarin, “we have up to this met with no serious obstacles, it is because, though apparently acting rashly, we are in reality most prudent and cautious. We have managed our slaves well, and have not driven any one to desperation. But we are beginning to weary of our profession; we are getting old, and we have need of repose. We intend, therefore, to retire, but before that we wish to have all matters securely settled. I have an immense mass of documentary evidence, but it is not always easy to realize the value they represent, and I wait upon your assistance to enable me to do so.”

Croisenois’ face fell. Was he to take compromising letters round to his acquaintances and boldly say, “Your purse or your honor?” He had no objection to share the profits of this ignoble trade, but he objected strongly to showing his connection with it openly. “No, no,” cried he hastily, “you must not depend upon me.”

He seemed so much in earnest that Hortebise and Catenac exchanged glances of dismay.

“Let us have no nonsense,” returned Mascarin sternly, “and wait a little before you display so much fierceness. I told you that my documentary evidence was of a peculiar kind. We very often had among our fish married people who cannot deal with their personal property. A husband, for instance, will say, ‘I can’t take ten thousand francs without my wife, knowing of it.’ Women say, ‘Why, I get all my money through my husband,’ and both are telling the truth. They kneel at my feet and entreat me to have mercy, saying, ‘Find me some excuse for using a portion of my funds and you shall have more than you ask.’ For a long time I have sought for this means, and at last I have found it in the Limited Company, which you, Marquis, will float next month.”

“Really!” returned the Marquis. “I do not see–“

“I beg your pardon; you see it all clearly. A husband who cannot, without fear of disturbing his domestic peace, put in five thousand francs, can put in ten thousand if he tells his wife, ‘It is an investment;’ and many a wife who has not any money of her own will persuade her husband to bring in the money we require by the proposal to take shares. Now, what do you say to the idea?”

“I think that it is an excellent one, but what part am I to play in it?”

“In taking the part of Chairman of the Company. I could not do so, being merely the proprietor of a Servant’s Registry Office. Hortebise, as a doctor, and more than all a homeopath, would inspire no confidence, and Catenac’s legal profession prevents him appearing in the matter openly. He will act as our legal adviser.”

“But really I do not see anything about me that would induce people to invest,” remarked De Croisenois.

“You are too modest; you have your name and rank, which, however we may look upon them, have a great effect upon the general public. There are many Companies who pay directors of rank and credible connection very largely. Before starting this enterprise you can settle all your debts, and the world will then conclude that you are possessed of great wealth, while, at the same time, the news of your approaching marriage with Mademoiselle du Mussidan will be the general talk of society. What better position could you be in?”

“But I have the reputation of being a reckless spendthrift.”

“All the better. The day the prospectus comes out with your name at the head of it, there will be a universal burst of laughter. Men will say, ‘Do you see what Croisenois is at now? What on earth possessed him to go into Company work?’ But as this proceeding on your part will have paid your debts and given you Mademoiselle Sabine’s dowry, I think that the laugh will be on your side.”

The prospect dazzled Des Croisenois.

“And suppose I accept,” asked he, “what will be the end of the farce?”

“Very simple. When all the shares are taken up, you will close the office and let the Company look after itself.”

Croisenois started to his feet angrily. “Why,” cried he, “you intend to make a catspaw of me! Such a proceeding would send me to penal servitude.”

“What an ungrateful man he is!” said Mascarin, appealing to his audience, “when I am doing all I can to prevent his going there.”

“Sir!”

But Catenac now felt it time to interfere. “You do not understand,” remarked he, addressing Croisenois. “You will start a Company for the development of some native product, let us say Pyrenean marble, for instance, issue a prospectus, and the shares will be at once taken up by Mascarin’s clients.”

“Well, what happens then?”

“Why, out of the funds thus obtained we will take care when the crash comes to reimburse any outsiders who may have taken shares in the concern, telling them that the thing has been a failure, and that we are ruined; while Mascarin will take care to obtain from all his clients a discharge in full, so the Company will quietly collapse.”

“But,” objected the Marquis, “all the shareholders will know that I am a rogue.”

“Naturally.”

“They would hold me in utter contempt.”

“Perhaps so, but they would never venture to let you see it. I never thought that you would make objections; and whose character, however deep, will bear investigation?”

“Are you sure that you hold your people securely?” asked he; “and that none of them will turn surly?”

Mascarin was waiting for this question, and taking from his desk the pieces of cardboard which he took so much pains to arrange, he replied, “I have here the names of three hundred and fifty people who will each invest ten thousand francs in the Company. Listen to me, and judge for yourself.”

He put all three pieces of cardboard together, and then drawing out one he read,–

” ‘N—, civil engineer. Five letters written by him to the gentleman who procured his appointment for him: worth fifteen thousand francs.’

” ‘P—, merchant. Absolute proof that his last bankruptcy was a fraudulent one, and that he kept back from his creditors two hundred thousand francs. Good for twenty thousand francs.’

” ‘Madame V—. A photograph taken in very light and airy costume. Poor, but can pay three thousand francs.’

” ‘M. H—. Three letters from her mother, proving that the daughter had compromised herself before marriage. Letter from a monthly nurse appended. Can be made to pay ten thousand francs.’

” ‘X—, a portion of his correspondence with L— in 1848. Three thousand francs.’

” ‘Madame M. de M—. A true history of her adventure with M. J—.’ “

This sample was quite sufficient to satisfy M. de Croisenois. “Enough,” cried he, “I yield. I bow before your gigantic power, which utterly surpasses that of the police. Give me your orders.”

Before this Mascarin had conquered Hortebise and Paul Violaine, and now he had the Marquis at his feet. Many times during this conversation the Marquis had more than once endeavored to make up his mind to withdraw entirely from the business, but he had been unable to resist the strange fascination of that mysterious person who had been laying bare his scheme with such extraordinary audacity. The few vestiges of honesty that were still left in his corrupted soul revolted at the thought of the shameful compact into which he was about to enter, but the dazzling prospect held out before his eyes silenced his scruples, and he felt a certain pride in being the associate of men who possessed such seemingly illimitable power. Mascarin saw that there was no longer any necessity for the extreme firmness with which he had before spoken, and it was with the most studied courtesy that he replied: “I have no orders to give you, Marquis, our interests are identical, and we must all have a voice in the deliberations as to the best means of carrying them out.”

This change from /hauteur/ to suavity gratified Croisenois’ pride immensely.

“Now,” continued Mascarin, “let us speak of your own circumstances. You wrote to me recently that you had nothing, and I am aware that you have no expectations for the future.”

“Excuse me, but there is the fortune of my poor brother George, who disappeared so mysteriously.”

“Let me assure you,” answered Mascarin, “that we had better be perfectly frank with each other.”

“And am I not so?” answered the Marquis.

“Why, in talking of this imaginary fortune?”

“It is not imaginary; it is real, and a very large one, too, about twelve or fourteen hundred thousand francs, and I can obtain it, for, by Articles 127 and 129 of the Code Napoleon—“

He interrupted himself, as he saw an expression of hardly-restrained laughter upon the features of Dr. Hortebise.

“Do not talk nonsense,” answered Mascarin. “You could at first have filed an affidavit regarding your brother’s disappearance, and applied to the Court to appoint you trustee, but this is now exactly what you wish to avoid.”

“Why not, pray? Do you think—-“

“Pooh, pooh, but you have raised so much money on this inheritance that there is nothing of it left hardly, certainly not sufficient to pay your debts. It is the bait you used to allure your tradespeople into giving you credit.”

At finding himself so easily fathomed, Croisenois burst into a peel of laughter. Mascarin had by this time thrown himself into an armchair, as though utterly worn out by fatigue.

“There is no necessity, Marquis,” said he, “to detain you here longer. We shall meet again shortly, and settle matters. Meanwhile Catenac will draw up the prospectus and Articles of Association of the proposed Company, and post you up in the financial slang of which you must occasionally make use.”

The Marquis and the lawyer at once rose and took their leave. As soon as the door had closed behind them, Mascarin seemed to recover his energy.

“Well, Paul,” said he, “what do you think of all this?”

Like all men with weak and ductile natures, Paul, after being almost prostrated by the first discovery of his master’s villainy, had now succeeded in smothering the dictates of his conscience, and adopted a cynical tone quite worthy of his companions.

“I see,” said he, “that you have need of me. Well, I am not a Marquis, but you will find me quite as trustworthy and obedient.”

Paul’s reply did not seem to surprise Mascarin, but it is doubtful whether he was pleased by it, for his countenance showed traces of a struggle between extreme satisfaction and intense annoyance, while the doctor was surprised at the cool audacity of the young man whose mind he had undertaken to form.

Paul was a little disturbed by the long and continued silence of his patron, and at last he ventured to say timidly,–

“Well, sir, I am anxious to know under what conditions I am to be shown the way to make my fortune and marry Mademoiselle Flavia Rigal, whom I love.”

Mascarin gave a diabolical smile.

“Whose dowry you love,” he observed. “Let us speak plainly.”

“Pardon me, sir, I said just what I meant.”

The doctor, who had not Mascarin’s reasons for gravity, now burst into a jovial laugh.

“And that pretty Rose,” said he, “what of her?”

“Rose is a creature of the past,” answered Paul. “I can now see what an idiot I was, and I have entirely effaced her from my memory, and I am half inclined to deplore that Mademoiselle Rigal is an heiress, the more so if it is to form a barrier between us.”

This declaration seemed to make Mascarin more easy.

“Reassure yourself, my boy,” said he, “we will remove that barrier; but I will not conceal from you that the part you have to play is much more difficult than that assigned to the Marquis de Croisenois; but if it is harder and more perilous, the reward will be proportionately greater.”

“With your aid and advice I feel capable of doing everything necessary,” returned Paul.

“You will need great self-confidence, the utmost self-possession, and as a commencement you must utterly destroy your present identity.”

“That I will do with the utmost willingness.”

“You must become another person entirely; you must adopt his name, his gait, his behavior, his virtues, and even his failings. You must forget all that you have either said or done. You must always think that you are in reality the person you represent yourself to be, for this is the only way in which you can lead others into a similar belief. Your task will be a heavy one.”

“Ah, sir,” cried the young man, enthusiastically, “can you doubt me?”

“The glorious beam of success that shines ahead of you will take your attention from the difficulties and dangers of the road that you are treading.”

The genial Dr. Hortebise rubbed his hands.

“You are right,” cried he, “quite right.”

“When you have done this,” resumed Mascarin, “we shall not hesitate to acquaint you with the secret of the lofty destiny that awaits you. Do you understand me fully?”

Here the speaker was interrupted by the entrance of Beaumarchef, who had signified his desire to come in by three distinct raps upon the door. He was now gorgeous to look upon, for having taken advantage of a spare half hour, he had donned his best clothes.

“What is it?” demanded Mascarin.

“Here are two letters, sir.”

“Thank you; hand them to me, and leave us.”

As soon as they were once more alone, Mascarin examined the letters.

“Ah,” cried he, “one from Van Klopen, and the other from the Hotel de Mussidan. Let us first see what our friend the man-milliner has to say.

“DEAR SIR,–

“You may be at ease. Our mutual friend Verminet has executed your orders most adroitly. At his instigation Gaston de Gandelu has forged the banker Martin Rigal’s signature on five different bills. I hold them, and awaiting your further orders regarding them, and also with respect to Madame de Bois Arden,

“I remain your obedient servant,
“VAN KLOPEN.”

Tossing it on the table, Mascarin opened the other letter, which he also read aloud.

“SIR,–

“I have to report to you the breaking off of the marriage between Mademoiselle Sabine and M. de Breulh-Faverlay. Mademoiselle is very ill, and I heard the medical man say that she might not survive the next twenty-four hours.

“FLORESTAN.”

Mascarin was so filled with rage on learning this piece of news, which seemed likely to interfere with his plans, that he struck his hand down heavily on the table.

“Damnation!” cried he. “If this little fool should die now, all our work will have to be recommenced.”

He thrust aside his chair, and paced hurriedly up and down the room.

“Florestan is right,” said he; “this illness of the girl comes on at the date of the rupture of the engagement. There is some secret that we must learn, for we dare not work in the dark.”

“Shall I go to the Hotel de Mussidan?” asked Hortebise.

“Not a bad idea. Your carriage is waiting, is it not? You can go in your capacity as a medical man.”

The doctor was preparing to go, when Mascarin arrested his progress.

“No,” said he, “I have changed my mind. We must neither of us be seen near the place. I expect that one of our mines has exploded; that the Count and Countess have exchanged confidences, and that between the two the daughter has been struck down.”

“How shall we find this out?”

“I will see Florestan and try and find out.”

In an instant he vanished into his inner room, and as he changed his dress, continued to converse with the doctor.

“This blow would be comparatively trifling, if I had not so much on hand, but I have Paul to look after. The Champdoce affair must be pressed on, for Catenac, the traitor, has put the Duke and Perpignan into communication. I must see Perpignan and discover how much has been told him, and how much he has guessed. I will also see Caroline Schimmel, and extract something from her. I wish to heaven that there were thirty-six hours in the day instead of only twenty-four.”

By this time he had completed his change of costume and called the doctor into his room.

“I am off, now,” whispered he; “do not lose sight of Paul for a single instant, for we are not sufficiently sure of him to let him go about alone with our secret in his possession. Take him to dine at Martin Rigal’s, and then make some excuse for keeping him all night at your rooms. See me to-morrow.”

And he went out so hurriedly that he did not hear the cheery voice of the doctor calling after him,–

“Good luck; I wish you all good luck.”

CHAPTER XIX.

A FRIENDLY RIVAL.

On leaving the Hotel de Mussidan, M. de Breulh-Faverlay dismissed his carriage, for he felt as a man often does after experiencing some violent emotion, the absolute necessity for exercise, and to be alone with his thoughts, and by so doing recover his self-possession. His friends would have been surprised if they had seen him pacing hurriedly along the Champs Elysees. The usual calm of his manner had vanished, and the generally calm expression of his features was entirely absent. As he walked, he talked to himself, and gesticulated.

“And this is what we call being a man of the world. We think ourselves true philosophers, and a look from a pair of beautiful, pleading eyes scatters all our theories to the winds.”

He had loved Sabine upon the day on which he had asked for her hand, but not so fondly as upon this day when he had learned that she could no longer be his wife, for, from the moment he had made this discovery, she seemed to him more gifted and fascinating than ever. No one could have believed that he, the idol of society, the petted darling of the women, and the successful rival of the men, could have been refused by the young girl to whom he had offered his hand.

“Yes,” murmured he with a sigh, “for she is just the companion for life that I longed for. Where could I find so intelligent an intellect and so pure a mind, united with such radiant beauty, so different from the women of society, who live but for dress and gossip. Has Sabine anything in common with those giddy girls who look upon life as a perpetual value, and who take a husband as they do a partner, because they cannot dance without one? How her face lighted up as she spoke of him, and how thoroughly she puts faith in him! The end of it all is that I shall die a bachelor. In my old age I will take to the pleasures of the table, for an excellent authority declares that a man can enjoy his four meals a day with comfort. Well, that is something to look forward to certainly, and it will not impair my digestion if my heirs and expectants come and squabble round my armchair. Ah,” he added, with a deep sigh, “my life has been a failure.”

M. de Breulh-Faverlay was a very different type of man to that which both his friends and his enemies popularly supposed him to be. Upon the death of his uncle, he had plunged into the frivolous vortex of Parisian dissipation, but of this he had soon wearied.

All that he had cared for was to see the doings of his racehorse chronicled in the sporting journals, and occasionally to expend a few thousand francs in presents of jewelry to some fashionable actress. But he had secretly longed for some more honorable manner of fulfilling his duties in life, and he had determined that before his marriage he would sell his stud and break with his old associates entirely; and now this wished-for marriage would never take place.

When he entered his club, the traces of his agitation were so visible upon his face, that some of the card-players stopped their game to inquire if Chambertin, the favorite for the Chantilly cup, had broken down.

“No, no,” replied he, as he hurriedly made his way to the writing- room, “Chambertin is as sound as a bell.”

“What the deuce has happened to De Breulh?” asked one of the members.

“Goodness gracious!” remarked the man to whom the question was addressed, “he seems in a hurry to write a letter.”

The gentleman was right. M. de Breulh was writing a withdrawal from his demand for Sabine’s hand to M. de Mussidan, and he found the task by no means an easy one, for on reading it over he found that there was a valid strain of bitterness throughout it, which would surely attract attention and perhaps cause embarrassing questions to be put to him.

“No,” murmured he, “this letter is quite unworthy of me.” And tearing it up, he began another, in which he strung together several conventional excuses, alleging the difficulty of breaking off his former habits and of an awkward entanglement which he had been unable to break with, as he had anticipated. When this little masterpiece of diplomacy was completed, he rang the bell, and, handing it to one of the club servants, told him to take it to the Count de Mussidan’s house. When this unpleasant duty was over, M. de Breulh had hoped to experience some feeling of relief, but in this he was mistaken. He tried cards, but rose from the table in a quarter of an hour; he ordered dinner, but appetite was wanting; he went to the opera, but then he did nothing but yawn, and the music grated on his nerves. At length he returned home. The day had seemed interminable, and he could not sleep, for Sabine’s face was ever before him. Who could this man be whom she so fondly loved and preferred before all others? He respected her too much not to feel assured that her choice was a worthy one, but his experience had taught him that when so many men of the world fell into strange entanglements, a poor girl without knowledge of the dangers around her might easily be entrapped. “If he is worthy of her,” thought he, “I will do my best to aid her; but if not, I will open her eyes.”

At four o’clock in the morning he was still seated musing before the expiring embers of his fire; he had made up his mind to see Andre– there was no difficulty in this, for a man of taste and wealth can find a ready excuse for visiting the studio of a struggling artist. He had no fixed plan as to what he would say or do, he left all to chance, and with this decision he went to bed, and by two in the afternoon he drove straight to the Rue de la Tour d’Auvergne.

Andre’s discreet portress was as usual leaning on her broom in the gallery as M. de Breulh’s magnificent equipage drew up.

“Gracious me!” exclaimed the worthy woman, dazzled by the gorgeousness of the whole turnout; “he can’t be coming here, he must have mistaken the house.”

But her amazement reached its height when M. de Breulh, on alighting, asked for Andre.

“Fourth story, first door to the right,” answered the woman; “but I will show you the way.”

“Don’t trouble yourself;” and with these words M. de Breulh ascended the staircase that led to the painter’s studio and knocked on the door. As he did so, he heard a quick, light step upon the stairs, and a young and very dark man, dressed in a weaver’s blouse and carrying a tin pail which he had evidently just filled with water from the cistern, came up.

“Are you M. Andre?” asked De Breulh.

“That is my name, sir.”

“I wish to say a few words to you.”

“Pray come in,” replied the young artist, opening the door of his studio and ushering his visitor in. Andre’s voice and expression had made a favorable impression upon his visitor; but he was, in spite of his having thrown aside nearly all foolish prejudices, a little startled at his costume. He did not, however, allow his surprise to be visible.

“I ought to apologize for receiving you like this,” remarked Andre quickly, “but a poor man must wait upon himself.” As he spoke, he threw off his blouse and set down the pail in a corner of the room.

“I rather should offer my excuse for my intrusion,” returned M. de Breulh. “I came here by the advice of one of my friends;” he stopped for an instant, endeavoring to think of a name.

“By Prince Crescensi, perhaps,” suggested Andre.

“Yes, yes,” continued M. de Breulh, eagerly snatching at the rope the artist held out to him. “The Prince sings your praises everywhere, and speaks of your talents with the utmost enthusiasm. I am, on his recommendation, desirous of commissioning you to paint a picture for me, and I can assure you that in my gallery it will have no need to be ashamed of its companions.”

Andre bowed, coloring deeply at the compliment.

“I am obliged to you,” said he, “and I trust that you will not be disappointed in taking the Prince’s opinion of my talent.”

“Why should I be so?”

“Because, for the last four months I have been so busy that I have really nothing to show you.”

“That is of no importance. I have every confidence in you.”

“Then,” returned Andre, “all that we have to do is to choose a subject.”

Andre’s manner had by this time so captivated De Breulh that he muttered to himself, “I really ought to hate this fellow, but on my word I like him better than any one I have met for a long time.”

Andre had by this time placed a large portfolio on the table. “Here,” said he, “are some twenty or thirty sketches; if any of them took your fancy, you could make your choice.”

“Let me see them,” returned De Breulh politely, for having made an estimate of the young man’s character, he now wished to see what his artistic talents were like. With this object in view he examined all the sketches in the portfolio minutely, and then turned to those on the walls. Andre said nothing, but he somehow felt that this visit would prove the turning-point of his misfortunes. But for all that the young man’s heart was very sad, for it was two days since Sabine had left him, promising to write to him the next morning regarding M. de Breulh-Faverlay, but as yet he had received no communication, and he was on the tenterhooks of expectation, not because he had any doubt of Sabine, but for the reason that he had no means of obtaining any information of what went on in the interior of the Hotel de Mussidan. M. de Breulh had now finished his survey, and had come to the conclusion that though many of Andre’s productions were crude and lacking in finish, yet that he had the true artistic metal in him. He extended his hand to the young man and said forcibly, “I am no longer influenced by the opinion of a friend. I have seen and judged for myself, and am more desirous than ever of possessing one of your pictures. I have made my choice of a subject, and now let us discuss the details.”

As he spoke he handed a little sketch to Andre. It was a view of everyday life, which the painter had entitled, “Outside the Barrier.” Two men with torn garments and wine-flushed faces were struggling in tipsy combat, while on the right hand side of the picture lay a woman, bleeding profusely from a cut on the forehead, and two of her terrified companions were bending over her, endeavoring to restore her to consciousness. In the background were some flying figures, who were hastening up to separate the combatants. The sketch was one of real life, denuded of any sham element of romance, and this was the one that M. de Breulh had chosen. The two men discussed the size of the picture, and not a single detail was omitted.

“I am sure that you will do all that is right,” remarked De Breulh. “Let your own inspiration guide you, and all will be well.” In reality he was dying to get away, for he felt in what a false position he was, and with a violent effort he approached the money part of the matter.

“Monsieur,” said Andre, “it is impossible to fix a price; when completed, a picture may only be worth the canvas that it is painted on, or else beyond all price. Let us wait.”

“Well,” broke in M. de Breulh, “what do you say to ten thousand francs?”

“Too much,” returned Andre with a deprecatory wave of his hand; “far too much. If I succeed in it, as I hope to do, I will ask six thousand francs for it.”

“Agreed!” answered De Breulh, taking from his pocket an elegant note- case with his crest and monogram upon it and extracting from it three thousand francs. “I will, as is usual, deposit half the price in advance.”

Andre blushed scarlet. “You are joking,” said he.

“Not at all,” answered De Breulh quietly; “I have my own way of doing business, from which I never deviate.”

In spite of this answer Andre’s pride was hurt.

“But,” remarked he, “this picture will not be ready for perhaps six or seven months. I have entered into a contract with a wealthy builder, named Candele, to execute the outside decorations of his house.”

“Never mind that,” answered M. de Breulh; “take as long as you like.”

Of course, after this, Andre could offer no further opposition; he therefore took the money without another word.

“And now,” said De Breulh, as he paused for a moment at the open doorway, “let me wish you my good luck, and if you will come and breakfast with me one day, I think I can show you some pictures which you will really appreciate.” And handing his card to the artist, he went downstairs.

At first Andre did not glance at the card, but when he did so, the letters seemed to sear his eyeballs like a red-hot iron. For a moment he could hardly breathe, and then a feeling of intense anger took possession of him, for he felt that he had been trifled with and deceived.

Hardly knowing what he was doing, he rushed out on the landing, and, leaning over the banister, called out loudly, “Sir, stop a moment!”

De Breulh, who had by this time reached the bottom of the staircase, turned round.

“Come back, if you please,” said Andre.

After a moment’s hesitation, De Breulh obeyed; and when he was again in the studio, Andre addressed him in a voice that quivered with indignation.

“Take back these notes, sir; I will not accept them.”

“What do you mean?”

“Only that I have thought the matter over, and that I will not accept your commission.”

“And why this sudden change?”

“You know perfectly well, M. de Breulh-Faverlay.”

The gentleman at once saw that Sabine had mentioned his name to the young artist, and with a slight lacking of generous feeling said,–

“Let me hear your reasons, sir.”

“Because, because—-” stammered the young man.

“Because is not an answer.”

Andre’s confusion became greater. He would not tell the whole truth, for he would have died sooner than bring Sabine’s name into the discussion; and he could only see one way out of his difficulty.

“Suppose I say that I do not like your manner or appearance,” returned he disdainfully.

“Is it your wish to insult me, M. Andre?”

“As you choose to take it.”

M. de Breulh was not gifted with an immense stock of patience. He turned livid, and made a step forward; but his generous impulses restrained him, and it was in a voice broken by agitation that he said,–

“Accept my apologies, M. Andre; I fear that I have played a part unworthy of you and of myself. I ought to have given you my name at once. I know everything.”

“I do not comprehend you,” answered Andre in a glacial voice.

“Why doubt, then, if you do not understand? However, I have given you cause to do so. But, let me reassure you, Mademoiselle Sabine has spoken to me with the utmost frankness; and, if you still distrust me, let me tell you that this veiled picture is her portrait. I will say more,” continued De Breulh gravely, as the artist still kept silent; “yesterday, at Mademoiselle de Mussidan’s request, I withdrew from my position as a suitor for her hand.”

Andre had already been touched by De Breulh’s frank and open manner, and these last words entirely conquered him.

“I can never thank you enough,” began he.

But De Breulh interrupted him.

“A man should not be thanked for performing his duty. I should lie to you if I said that I am not painfully surprised at her communication; but tell me, had you been in my place, would you not have acted in the same manner?”

“I think that I should.”

“And now we are friends, are we not?” and again De Breulh held out his hand, which Andre clasped with enthusiasm.

“Yes, yes,” faltered he.

“And now,” continued De Breulh, with a forced smile, “let us say no more about the picture, which was, after all, merely a pretext. As I came here I said to myself, ‘If the man to whom Mademoiselle de Mussidan has given her heart is worthy of her, I will do all I can to advance his suit with her family!’ I came here to see what you were like; and now I say to you, do me a great honor, and permit me to place myself, my fortune, and the influence of my friends, at your disposal.”

The offer was made in perfect good faith, but Andre shook his head.

“I shall never forget your kindness in making this offer, but—-“; he paused for a moment, and then went on: “I will be as open as you have been, and will tell you the whole truth. You may think me foolish; but remember, though I am poor, I have still my self-respect to maintain. I love Sabine, and would give my life for her. Do not be offended at what I am about to say. I would, however, sooner give up her hand than be indebted for it to you.”

“But this is mere madness.”

“No, sir, it is the purest wisdom; for were I to accede to your wishes, I should feel deeply humiliated by the thought of your self- denial; for I should be madly jealous of the part you were playing. You are of high birth and princely fortune, while I am utterly friendless and unknown; all that I am deficient in you possess.”

“But I have been poor myself,” interposed De Breulh, “and perhaps endured even greater miseries than ever you have done. Do you know what I was doing at your age? I was slowly starving to death at Sonora, and had to take the humblest position in a cattle ranch. Do you think that those days taught me nothing?”

“You will be able to judge me all the more clearly then,” returned Andre. “If I raise myself up to Sabine’s level, as she begged me to, then I shall feel that I am your equal; but if I accept your aid, I am your dependent; and I will obey her wishes or perish in the effort.”

Up to this moment the passion which stirred Andre’s inmost soul had breathed in every word he uttered; but, checking himself by a mighty effort, he resumed in a tone of greater calmness,–

“But I ought to remember how much we already owe you, and I hope that you will allow me to call myself your friend?”

M. de Breulh’s noble nature enabled him to understand Andre’s scruples; his feelings, however, would not for the instant enable him to speak. He slowly put the notes back in their receptacle, and then said in a low voice,–

“Your conduct is that of an honorable man; and remember this, at all times and seasons you may rely upon De Breulh-Faverlay. Farewell!”

As soon as he was alone, Andre threw himself into an armchair, and mused over this unexpected interview, which had proved a source of such solace to his feelings. All that he now longed for was a letter from Sabine. At this moment the portress entered with a letter. Andre was so occupied with his thoughts that he hardly noticed this act of condescension on the part of the worthy woman.

“A letter!” exclaimed he; and, tearing it open, he glanced at the signature. But Sabine’s name was not there; it was signed Modeste. What could Sabine’s maid have to say to him? He felt that some great misfortune was impending, and, trembling with excitement, he read the letter.

“SIR,–

“I write to tell you that my mistress has succeeded in the matter she spoke of to you; but I am sorry to say that I have bad news to give you, for she is seriously ill.”

“Ill!” exclaimed Andre, crushing up the letter in his hands, and dashing it upon the floor. “Ill! ill!” he repeated, not heeding the presence of the portress; “why, she may be dead;” and, snatching up his hat, he dashed downstairs into the street.

As soon as the portress was left alone, she picked up the letter, smoothed it out, and read it.

“And so,” murmured she, “the little lady’s name was Sabine–a pretty name; and she is ill, is she? I expect that the old gent who called this morning, and asked so many questions about M. Andre, would give a good deal for this note; but no, that would not be fair.”

CHAPTER XX.

A COUNCIL OF WAR.

Mad with his terrible forebodings, Andre hurried through the streets in the direction of the Hotel de Mussidan, caring little for the attention that his excited looks and gestures caused. He had no fixed plan as to what to do when he arrived there, and it was only on reaching the Rue de Matignon that he recovered sufficient coolness to deliberate and reflect.

He had arrived at the desired spot; how should he set to work to obtain the information that he required? The evening was a dark one, and the gas-lamps showed a feeble light through the dull February fog. There were no signs of life in the Rue de Matignon, and the silence was only broken by the continuous surge of carriage wheels in the Faubourg Saint Honore. This gloom, and the inclemency of the weather, added to the young painter’s depression. He saw his utter helplessness, and felt that he could not move a step without compromising the woman he so madly adored. He walked to the gate of the house, hoping to gain some information even from the exterior aspect of the house; for it seemed to him that if Sabine were dying, the very stones in the street would utter sounds of woe and lamentation; but the fog had closely enwrapped the house, and he could hardly see which of the windows were lighted. His reasoning faculties told him that there was no use in waiting, but an inner voice warned him to stay. Would Modeste, who had written to him, divine, by some means that he was there, in an agony of suspense, and come out to give him information and solace? All at once a thought darted across his mind, vivid as a flash of lightning.

“M. de Breulh will help me,” cried he; “for though I cannot go to the house, he will have no difficulty in doing so.”

By good luck, he had M. de Breulh’s card in his pocket, and hurried off to his address. M. de Breulh had a fine house in the Avenue de l’Imperatrice, which he had taken more for the commodiousness of the stables than for his own convenience.

“I wish to see M. de Breulh,” said Andre, as he stopped breathless at the door, where a couple of footmen were chatting.

The men looked at him with supreme contempt. “He is out,” one of them at last condescended to reply.

Andre had by this time recovered his coolness, and taking out De Breulh’s card, wrote these words on it in pencil: “One moment’s interview. ANDRE.”

“Give this to your master as soon as he comes in,” said he.

Then he descended the steps slowly. He was certain that M. de Breulh was in the house, and that he would send out after the person who had left the card almost at once. His conclusion proved right; in five minutes he was overtaken by the panting lackey, who, conducting him back to the house, showed him into a magnificently furnished library. De Breulh feared that some terrible event had taken place.

“What has happened?” said he.

“Sabine is dying;” and Andre at once proceeded to inform De Breulh of what had happened since his departure.

“But how can I help you?”

“You can go and make inquiries at the house.”

“Reflect; yesterday I wrote to the Count, and broke off a marriage, the preliminaries of which had been completely settled; and within twenty-four hours to send and inquire after his daughter’s health would be to be guilty of an act of inexcusable insolence; for it would look as if I fancied that Mademoiselle de Mussidan had been struck down by my rupture of the engagement.”

“You are right,” murmured Andre dejectedly.

“But,” continued De Breulh, after a moment’s reflection, “I have a distant relative, a lady who is also a connection of the Mussidan family, the Viscountess de Bois Arden, and she will be glad to be of service to me. She is young and giddy, but as true as steel. Come with me to her; my carriage is ready.”

The footman were surprised at seeing their master on such terms of intimacy with the shabbily dressed young man, but ventured, of course, on no remarks.

Not a word was exchanged during the brief drive to Madame de Bois Arden’s house.

“Wait for me,” exclaimed De Breulh, springing from the vehicle as soon as it drew up; “I will be back directly.”

Madame de Bois Arden is justly called one of the handsomest women in Paris. Very fair, with masses of black hair, and a complexion to which art has united itself to the gifts of nature, she is a woman who has been everywhere, knows everything, talks incessantly, and generally very well. She spends forty thousand francs per annum on dress. She is always committing all sorts of imprudent acts, and scandal is ever busy with her name. Half a dozen of the opposite sex have been talked of in connection with her, while in reality she is a true and faithful wife, for, in spite of all her frivolity, she adores her husband, and is in great awe of him. Such was the character of the lady into whose apartment M. de Breulh was introduced. Madame de Bois Arden was engaged in admiring a very pretty fancy costume of the reign of Louis XV., one of Van Klopen’s masterpieces, when M. de Breulh was announced, which she was going to wear, on her return from the opera, at a masquerade ball at the Austrian Ambassador’s. Madame de Bois Arden greeted her visitor with effusion, for they had been acquaintances from childhood, and always addressed each other by their Christian names.

“What, you here at this hour, Gontran!” said the lady. “Is it a vision, or only a miracle?” But the smile died away upon her lips, as she caught a glimpse of her visitor’s pale and harassed face. “Is there anything the matter?” asked she.

“Not yet,” answered he, “but there may be, for I hear that Mademoiselle de Mussidan is dangerously ill.”

“Is she really? Poor Sabine! what is the matter with her?”

“I do not know; and I want you, Clotilde, to send one of your people to inquire into the truth of what we have heard.”

Madame de Bois Arden opened her eyes very wide.

“Are you joking?” said she. “Why do you not send yourself?”

“It is impossible for me to do so; and if you have any kindness of heart, you do as I ask you; and I want you also to promise me not to say a word of this to any one.”

Excited as she was by this mystery, Madame de Bois Arden did not ask another question.

“I will do exactly what you want,” replied she, “and respect your secret. I would go at once, were it not that Bois Arden will never sit down to dinner without me; but the moment we have finished I will go.”

“Thanks, a thousand times; and now I will go home and wait for news from you.”

“Not at all,–you will remain here to dinner.”

“I must,–I have a friend waiting for me.”

“Do as you please, then,” returned the Viscountess, laughing. “I will send round a note this evening.”

De Breulh pressed her hand, and hurried down, and was met by Andre at the door, for he had been unable to sit still in the carriage.

“Keep up your courage. Madame de Bois Arden had not heard of Mademoiselle Sabine’s illness, and this looks as if it was not a very serious matter. We shall have the real facts in three hours.”

“Three hours!” groaned Andre, “what a lapse of time!”

“It is rather long, I admit; but we will talk of her while we wait, for you must stay and dine with me.”

Andre yielded, for he had no longer the energy to contest anything. The dinner was exquisite, but the two men were not in a condition of mind to enjoy it, and scarcely consumed anything. Vainly did they endeavor to speak on indifferent subjects, and when the coffee had been served in the library, they relapsed into utter silence. As the clock struck ten, however, a knock was heard at the door, then whisperings, and the rustle of female attire, and lastly Madame de Bois Arden burst upon them like a tornado.

“Here I am,” cried she.

It was certainly rather a hazardous step to pay such a late visit to a bachelor’s house, but then the Viscountess de Bois Arden did exactly as she pleased.

“I have come here, Gontran,” exclaimed she, with extreme vehemence, “to tell you that I think your conduct is abominable and ungentlemanly.”

“Clotilde!”

“Hold your tongue! you are a wretch! Ah! now I can see why you did not wish to write and inquire about poor Sabine. You well knew the effect that your message would have on her.”

M. de Breulh smiled as he turned to Andre and said,–

“You see that I was right in what I told you.”

This remark for the first time attracted Madame de Bois Arden’s attention to the fact that a stranger was present, and she trembled lest she had committed some grave indiscretion.

“Gracious heavens!” exclaimed she, with a start, “why, I thought that we were alone!”

“This gentleman has all my confidence,” replied M. de Breulh seriously; and as he spoke he laid his hand upon Andre’s shoulder. “Permit me to introduce M. Andre to you, my dear Clotilde; he may not be known to-day, but in a short time his reputation will be European.”

Andre bowed, but for once in her life the Viscountess felt embarrassed, for she was surprised at the extremely shabby attire of this confidential friend, and then there seemed something wanting to the name.

“Then,” resumed De Breulh, “Mademoiselle de Mussidan is really ill, and our information is correct.”

“She is.”

“Did you see her?”

“I did, Gontran; and had you seen her, your heart would have been filled with pity, and you would have repented your conduct toward her. The poor girl did not even know me. She lay in her bed, whiter than the very sheets, cold and inanimate as a figure of marble. Her large black eyes were staring wildly, and the only sign of life she exhibited was when the great tears coursed down her cheeks.”

Andre had determined to restrain every token of emotion in the presence of the Viscountess, but her recital was too much for him.

“Ah!” said he, “she will die; I know it.”

There was such intense anguish in his tone that even the practised woman of the world was softened.

“I assure you, sir,” said she, “that you go too far; there is no present danger; the doctors say it is catalepsy, which often attacks persons of a nervous temperament upon the receipt of a sudden mental shock.”

“But what shock has she received?” asked Andre.

“No one told me,” answered she after a short pause, “that Sabine’s illness was caused by the breaking off of her engagement; but, of course, I supposed that it was.”

“That was not the reason, Clotilde; but you have told us nothing; pray, go on,” interposed De Breulh.

The extreme calmness of her cousin, and a glance which she observed passing between him and Andre, enlightened the Viscountess somewhat.

“I asked as much as I dared,” she replied, “but I could only get the vaguest answers. Sabine looked as if she were dead, and her father and mother hovered around her couch like two spectres. Had they slain her with their own hands, they could not have looked more guilty; their faces frightened me.”

“Tell me precisely what answers were given to your questions,” broke in he impatiently.

“Sabine had seemed so agitated all day, that her mother asked her if she was suffering any pain.”

“We know that already.”

“Indeed!” replied the Viscountess, with a look of surprise. “It seems, cousin, that you saw Sabine that afternoon, but what became of her afterward no one appears to know; but there is positive proof that she did not leave the house, and received no letters. At all events, it was more than an hour after her maid saw her enter her own room. Sabine said a few unintelligible words to the girl, who, seeing the pallor upon her mistress’s face, ran up to her. Just as she did so, Sabine uttered a wild shriek, and fell to the ground. She was raised up and laid upon the bed, but since then she has neither moved nor spoken.”

“That is not all,” said De Breulh, who had watched his cousin keenly.

The Viscountess started, and avoided meeting her cousin’s eye.

“I do not understand,” she faltered. “Why do you look at me like that?”

De Breulh, who had been pacing up and down the room, suddenly halted in front of the Viscountess.

“My dear Clotilde,” said he, “I am sure when I tell you that the tongue of scandal has often been busy with your name, I am telling you nothing new.”

“Pooh!” answered the Viscountess. “What do I care for that?”

“But I always defended you. You are indiscreet–your presence here tonight shows this; but you are, after all, a true woman,–brave and true as steel.”

“What do you mean by this exordium, Gontran?”

“This, Clotilde,–I want to know if I dare venture to intrust to you a secret which involves the honor of two persons, and, perhaps, the lives of more.”

“Thank you, Gontran,” answered she calmly. “You have formed a correct judgment of me.”

But here Andre felt that he must interpose, and, taking a step forward, said, “Have you the right to speak?”

“My dear Andre,” said De Breulh, “this is a matter in which my honor is as much concerned as yours. Will you not trust me?” Then turning to the Viscountess, he added, “Tell us all you heard.”

“It is only something I heard from Modeste. You had hardly left the house, when the Baron de Clinchain made his appearance.”

“An eccentric old fellow, a friend of the Count de Mussidan’s. I know him.”

“Just so; well, they had a stormy interview, and at the end of it, the Baron was taken ill, and it was with difficulty that he regained his carriage.”

“That seems curious.”

“Wait a bit. After that Octave and his wife had a terrible scene together, and Modeste thinks that her mistress must have heard something, for the Count’s voice rang through the house like thunder.”

Every word that the Viscountess uttered strengthened De Breulh’s suspicions. “There is something mysterious in all this, Clotilde,” said he, “as you will say when you know the whole truth,” and, without omitting a single detail, he related the whole of Sabine and Andre’s love story.

Madame de Bois Arden listened attentively, sometimes thrilled with horror, and at others pleased with this tale of innocent love.

“Forgive me,” said she, when her cousin had concluded; “my reproaches and accusations were equally unfounded.”

“Yes, yes; never mind that; but I am afraid that there is some hidden mystery which will place a fresh stumbling-block in our friend Andre’s path.”

“Do not say that,” cried Andre, in terror. “What is it?”

“That I cannot tell; for Mademoiselle de Mussidan’s sake, I have withdrawn all my pretensions to her hand,–not to leave the field open to any other intruder, but in order that she may be your wife.”

“How are we to learn what has really happened?” asked the Viscountess.

“In some way or other we shall find out, if you will be our ally.”

Most women are pleased to busy themselves about a marriage, and the Viscountess was cheered to find herself mixed up in so romantic a drama.

“I am entirely at your beck and call,” answered she. “Have you any plan?”

“Not yet, but I will soon. As far as Mademoiselle de Mussidan is concerned, we must act quite openly. Andre will write to her, asking for an explanation, and you shall see her to-morrow, and if she is well enough, give her his note.”

The proposal was a startling one, and the Viscountess did not entertain it favorably.

“No,” said she, “I think that would not do at all.”

“Why not? However, let us leave it to Andre.”

Andre, thus addressed, stepped forward, and said,–

“I do not think that it would be delicate to let Mademoiselle de Mussidan know that her secret is known to any one else than ourselves.”

The Viscountess nodded assent.

“If,” continued Andre, “the Viscountess will be good enough to ask Modeste to meet me at the corner of the Avenue de Matignon; I shall be there.”

“A capital idea, sir,” said the lady, “and I will give your message to Modeste.” She broke off her speech suddenly, and uttered a pretty little shriek, as she noticed that the hands of the clock on the mantelpiece pointed to twenty to twelve. “Great heavens!” cried she, “and I am going to a ball at the Austrian Embassy, and now not even dressed.” And, with a coquettish gesture, she drew her shawl around her, and ran out of the room, exclaiming as she descended the stairs, “I will call here to-morrow, Gontran, on my way to the Bois,” and disappeared like lightning.

Andre and his host sat over the fire, and conversed for a long time. It seemed strange that two men who had met that morning for the first time should now be on such intimate terms of friendship; but such was the case, for a mutual feeling of admiration and respect had sprung up in their hearts.

M. de Breulh wished to send Andre home in his carriage, but this the young man declined, and merely borrowed an overcoat to protect him from the inclemency of the weather.

“To-morrow,” said he, as he made his way home, “Modeste shall tell all she knows, provided always that that charming society dame does not forget all about our existence before then.”

Madame de Bois Arden, however, could sometimes be really in earnest. Upon her return from the ball she would not even go to bed, lest she should oversleep herself, and the next day Andre found Modeste waiting at the appointed spot, and learnt, to his great grief, that Sabine had not yet regained consciousness.

The family doctor betrayed no uneasiness, but expressed a wish for a consultation with another medical man. Meanwhile, the girl promised to meet Andre morning and evening in the same place, and give him such scraps of information as she had been able to pick up. For two whole days Mademoiselle de Mussidan’s condition remained unchanged, and Andre spent his whole time between his own studio, the Avenue de Matignon, and M. de Breulh’s, where he frequently met Madame de Bois Arden.

But on the third day Modest informed him, with tears in her eyes, that though the cataleptic fit had passed away, Sabine was struggling with a severe attack of fever. Modeste and Andre were so interested in their conversation, that they did not perceive Florestan, who had gone out to post a letter to Mascarin.

“Listen, Modeste,” whispered Andre, “you tell me that she is in danger,–very great danger.”

“The doctor said that the crisis would take place to-day; be here at five this evening.”

Andre staggered like a madman to De Breulh’s house; and so excited was he that his friend insisted upon his taking some repose, and would not, when five o’clock arrived, permit Andre to go to the appointment alone. As they turned the corner, they saw Modeste hurrying toward them.

“She is saved, she is saved!” said she, “for she has fallen into a tranquil sleep, and the doctor says that she will recover.”

Andre and De Breulh were transported by this news; but they did not know that they were watched by two men, Mascarin and Florestan, who did not let one of their movements escape them. Warned by a brief note from Florestan, Mascarin had driven swiftly to Father Canon’s public- house, where he thought he was certain to find the domestic, but the man was not there, and Mascarin, unable to endure further suspense, sent for him to the Hotel de Mussidan. When the servant informed Mascarin that the crisis was safely passed, he drew a deep breath of relief; for he no longer feared that the frail structure that he had built up with such patient care for twenty long years would be shattered at a blow by the chill hand of death. He bent his brow, however, when he heard of Modeste’s daily interviews with the young man whom Florestan termed “Mademoiselle’s lover.”

“Ah,” muttered he, “if I could only be present at one of those interviews!”

“And, as you say,” returned Florestan, drawing out, as he spoke, a neat-looking watch, “it is just the hour of their meeting; and as the place is always the same, you–“

“Come, then,” broke in his patron. They went out accordingly, and reached the Champs Elysees by a circuitous route. The place was admirably suited to their purpose, for close by were several of those little wooden huts, occupied in summer by the vendors of cakes and playthings.

“Let us get behind one of these,” said Florestan. Night was drawing in, but objects could still be distinguished, and in about five minutes Florestan whispered, “Look, there comes Modeste, and there is the lover, but he has a pal with him to-night. Why, what can she be telling him? He seems quite overcome.”

Mascarin divined the truth at once, and found that it would be a difficult task to interfere with the love of a man who displayed so much intensity of feeling.

“Then,” remarked Mascarin, savagely, “that great booby, staggering about on his friend’s arm, is your young lady’s lover?”

“Just so, sir.”

“Then we must find out who he is.”

Florestan put on a crafty air, and replied in gentle accents.

“The day before yesterday, as I was smoking my pipe outside, I saw this young bantam swaggering down the street–not but what he seemed rather crestfallen; but I knew the reason for that, and should look just as much in the dumps if my young woman was laid up. I thought, as I had nothing to do, I might as well see who he was and where he lived; so, sticking my hands in my pockets, after him I sloped. He walked such a long way, that I got precious sick of my job, but at last I ran him to earth in a house. I went straight up to the lodge, and showed the portress my tobacco pouch, and said, ‘I picked up this; I think that the gentleman who has just gone in dropped it. Do you know him?’ ‘Of course I do,’ said she. ‘He is a painter; lives on the fourth floor; and his name is M. Andre.’ “

“Was the house in the Rue de la Tour d’Auvergne?” broke in Mascarin.

“You are right, sir,” returned the man, taken a little aback. “It seems, sir, that you are better informed than I am.”

Mascarin did not notice the man’s surprise, but he was struck with the strange persistency with which this young man seemed to cross his plans, for he found that the acquaintance of Rose and the lover of Mademoiselle de Mussidan were one and the same person, and he had a presentiment that he would in some way prove a hindrance to his plans.

The astute Mascarin concentrated all his attention upon Andre.

The latter said something to Modeste, which caused that young woman to raise her hands to heaven, as though in alarm.

“But who is the other?” asked he,–“the fellow that looks like an Englishman?”

“Do you not know?” returned the lackey. “Why, that is M. de Breulh- Faverlay.”

“What, the man who was to marry Sabine?”

“Certainly.”

Mascarin was not easily disconcerted, but this time a blasphemous oath burst from his lips.

“Do you mean,” said he, “that De Breulh and this painter are friends?”

“That is more than I can tell. You seem to want to know a lot,” answered Florestan, sulkily.

Modeste had now left the young men, who walked arm in arm in the direction of the Avenue de l’Imperatrice.

“M. de Breulh takes his dismissal easily enough,” observed Mascarin.

“He was not dismissed; it was he that wrote and broke off the engagement.”

This time Mascarin contrived to conceal the terrible blow that this information caused to him, and even made some jesting remark as he took leave of Florestan; but he was in truth completely staggered, for after thoroughly believing that the game was won, he saw that, though perhaps not lost, his victory was postponed for an indefinite period.

“What!” said he, as he clenched his hand firmly, “shall the headstrong passion of this foolish boy mar my plans? Let him take care of himself; for if he walks in my path, he will find it a road that leads to his own destruction.”

CHAPTER XXI.

AN ACADEMY OF MUSIC.

Dr. Hortebise had for some time back given up arguing with Mascarin as to the advice the latter gave him. He had been ordered not to let Paul out of his sight, and he obeyed this command literally. He had taken him to dine at M. Martin Rigal’s, though the host himself was absent; from there he took Paul to his club, and finally wound up by forcing the young man to accept a bed at his house. They both slept late, and were sitting down to a luxurious breakfast, when the servant announced M. Tantaine, and that worthy man made his appearance with the same smile upon his face which Paul remembered so well in the Hotel de Perou. The sight of him threw the young man into a state of fury. “At last we meet,” cried he. “I have an account to settle with you.”

“You have an account to settle with me?” asked Daddy Tantaine with a puzzled smile.

“Yes; was it not through you that I was accused of theft by that old hag, Madame Loupins?”

Tantaine shrugged his shoulders.

“Dear me,” said he; “I thought that M. Mascarin had explained everything, and that you were anxious to marry Mademoiselle Flavia, and that, above all, you were a young man of intelligence and tact.”

Hortebise roared with laughter, and Paul, seeing his folly, blushed deeply and remained silent.

“I regret having disturbed you, doctor,” resumed Tantaine, “but I had strict orders to see you.”

“Is there anything new then?”

“Yes; Mademoiselle de Mussidan is out of danger, and M. de Croisenois can commence proceedings at once.”

The doctor drank off a glass of wine. “To the speedy marriage of our dear friend the Marquis and Mademoiselle Sabine,” said he gayly.

“So be it,” said Tantaine; “I am also directed to beg M. Paul not to leave this house, but to send for his luggage and remain here.”

Hortebise looked so much annoyed that Tantaine hastened to add: “Only as a temporary measure, for I am on the lookout for rooms for him now.”

Paul looked delighted at the idea of having a home of his own.

“Good!” exclaimed the doctor merrily. “And now, my dear Tantaine, as you have executed all your commissions, you can stay and breakfast with us.”

“Thanks for the honor; but I am very busy with affairs of the Duke de Champdoce and must see Perpignan at once.” As he spoke he rose, making a little sign which Paul did not catch, and Hortebise accompanied him to the door of the vestibule. “Don’t leave that lad alone,” said Tantaine; “I will see about him to-morrow; meanwhile prepare him a little.”

“I comprehend,” answered Hortebise; “my kind regards to that dear fellow, Perpignan.”

This Perpignan was well known–some people said too well known–in Paris. His real name was Isidore Crocheteau, and he had started life as a cook in a Palais Royal restaurant. Unfortunately a breach of the Eighth Commandment had caused him to suffer incarceration for a period of three years, and on his release he bloomed out into a private inquiry agent. His chief customers were jealous husbands, but as surely as one of these placed an affair in his hands, he would go to the erring wife and obtain a handsome price from her for his silence.

Mascarin and Perpignan had met in an affair of this kind; and as they mutually feared each other, they had tacitly agreed not to cross each other’s path in that great wilderness of crime–Paris. But while Perpignan knew nothing of Mascarin’s schemes and operations, the former was very well acquainted with the ex-cook’s doings. He knew, for instance, that the income from the Inquiry Office would not cover Perpignan’s expenses, who dressed extravagantly, kept a carriage, affected artistic tastes, played cards, betted on races, and liked good dinners at the most expensive restaurants. “Where can he get his money from?” asked Mascarin of himself; and, after a long search, he succeeded in solving the riddle.

Daddy Tantaine, after leaving the doctor’s, soon arrived at the residence of M. Perpignan, and rang the bell.

A fat woman answered the door. “M. Perpignan is out,” said she.

“When will he be back?”

“Some time this evening.”

“Can you tell me where I can find him, as it is of the utmost importance to both of us that I should see him at once?”

“He did not say where he was going to.”

“Perhaps he is at the factory,” said Tantaine blandly.

The fat woman was utterly taken aback by this suggestion. “What do you know about that?” faltered she.

“You see I /do/ know, and that is sufficient for you. Come, is he there?”

“I think so.”

“Thank you, I will call on him then. An awfully long journey,” muttered Tantaine, as he turned away; “but, perhaps, if I catch the worthy man in the midst of all his little business affairs, he will be more free in his language, and not so guarded in his actual admissions.”

The old man went to his task with a will. He passed down the Rue Toumenon, skirted the Luxemburg, and made his way into the Rue Guy Lussac; from thence he walked down the Rue Mouffetard, and thence direct into one of those crooked lanes which run between the Gobelins Factory and the Hopital de l’Oursine. This is a portion of the city utterly unknown to the greater number of Parisians. The streets are narrow and hardly afford room for vehicles. A valley forms the centre of the place, down which runs a muddy, sluggish stream, the banks of which are densely crowded with tanyards and iron works. On the one side of this valley is the busy Rue Mouffetard, and on the other one of the outer boulevards, while a long line of sickly-looking poplars mark the course of the semi-stagnant stream. Tantaine seemed to know the quarter well, and went on until he reached the Champs des Alouettes. Then, with a sigh of satisfaction, he halted before a large, three-storied house, standing on a piece of ground surrounded by a mouldering wooden fence. The aspect of the house had something sinister and gloomy about it, and for a moment Tantaine paused as if he could not make up his mind to enter it; but at last he did so. The interior was as dingy and dilapidated as the outside. There were two rooms on the ground floor, one of which was strewn with straw, with a few filthy-looking quilts and blankets spread over it. The next room was fitted up as a kitchen; in the centre was a long table composed of boards placed on trestles, and a dirty-looking woman with her head enveloped in a coarse red handkerchief, and grasping a big wooden spoon, was stirring the contents of a large pot in which some terrible-looking ingredients were cooking. On a small bed in a corner lay a little boy. Every now and then a shiver convulsed his frame, his face was deadly pale, and his hands almost transparent, while his great black eyes glittered with the wild delirium of fever. Sometimes he would give a deep groan, and then the old beldame would turn angrily and threaten to strike him with her wooden spoon.

“But I am so ill,” pleaded the boy.

“If you had brought home what you were told, you would not have been beaten, and then you would have had no fever,” returned the woman harshly.

“Ah, me! I am sick and cold, and want to go away,” wailed the child; “I want to see mammy.”

Even Tantaine felt uneasy at this scene, and gave a gentle cough to announce his presence. The old woman turned round on him with an angry snarl. “Who do you want here?” growled she.

“Your master.”

“He has not yet arrived, and may not come at all, for it is not his day; but you can see Poluche.”

“And who may he be?”

“He is the professor,” answered the hag contemptuously.

“And where is he?”

“In the music-room.”

Tantaine went to the stairs, which were so dingy and dilapidated as to make an ascent a work of danger and difficulty. As he ascended higher, he became aware of a strange sound, something between the grinding of scissors and the snarling of cats. Then a moment’s silence, a loud execration, and a cry of pain. Tantaine passed on, and coming to a rickety door, he opened it, and in another moment found himself in what the old hag downstairs had called the music-room. The partitions of all the rooms on the floor had been roughly torn down to form this apartment; hardly a pane of glass remained intact in the windows; the dingy, whitewashed walls were covered with scrawls and drawings in charcoal. A suffocating, nauseous odor rose up, absolutely overpowering the smell from the neighboring tanyards. There was no furniture except a broken chair, upon which lay a dog whip with plaited leather lash. Round the room, against the wall, stood some twenty children, dirty, and in tattered clothes. Some had violins in their hands, and others stood behind harps as tall as themselves. Upon the violins Tantaine noticed there were chalk marks at various distances. In the middle of the room was a man, tall and erect as a dart, with flat, ugly features and lank, greasy hair hanging down on his shoulders. He, too, had a violin, and was evidently giving the children a lesson. Tantaine at once guessed that this was Professor Poluche.

“Listen,” said he; “here, you Ascanie, play the chorus from the /Chateau de Marguerite/.” As he spoke he drew his bow across his instrument, while the little Savoyard did his best to imitate him, and in a squeaking voice, in nasal tone, he sang:

“Ah! great heavens, how fine and grand Is the palace!”

“You young rascal!” cried Poluche. “Have I not bid you fifty times that at the word ‘palace’ you are to place your bow on the fourth chalkmark and draw it across? Begin again.”

Once again the boy commenced, but Poluche stopped him.

“I believe, you young villain, that you are doing it on purpose. Now, go through the whole chorus again; and if you do not do it right, look out for squalls.”

Poor Ascanie was so muddled that he forgot all his instructions. Without any appearance of anger, the professor took up the whip and administered half a dozen severe cuts across the bare legs of the child, whose shouts soon filled the room.

“When you are done howling,” remarked Poluche, “you can try again; and if you do not succeed, no supper for you to-night, my lad. Now, Giuseppe, it is your turn.”

Giuseppe, though younger than Ascanie, was a greater proficient on the instrument, and went through his task without a single mistake.

“Good!” said Poluche; “if you get on like that, you will soon be fit to go out. You would like that, I suppose?”

“Yes,” replied the delighted boy, “and I should like to bring in a few coppers too.”

But the Professor did not waste too much time in idle converse.

“It is your turn now, Fabio,” said he.

Fabio, a little mite of seven, with eyes black and sparkling as those of a dormouse, had just seen Tantaine in the doorway and pointed him out to the professor.

Poluche turned quickly round and found himself face to face with Tantaine, who had come quickly forward, his hat in his hand.

Had the professor seen an apparition, he could not have started more violently, for he did not like strangers.

“What do you want?” asked he.

“Reassure yourself, sir,” said Tantaine, after having for a few seconds enjoyed his evident terror; “I am the intimate friend of the gentleman who employs you, and have come here to discuss an important matter of business with him.”

Poluche breathed more freely.

“Take a chair, sir,” said he, offering the only one in the room. “My master will soon be here.”

But Daddy Tantaine refused the offer, saying that he did not wish to intrude, but would wait until the lesson was over.

“I have nearly finished,” remarked Poluche; “it is almost time to let these scamps have their soup.”

Then turning to his pupils, who had not dared to stir a limb, he said,–

“There, that is enough for to-day; you can go.”

The children did not hesitate for a moment, but tumbled over each other in their eagerness to get away, hoping, perhaps, that he might omit to execute certain threats that he had held out during the lesson. The hope was a vain one, for the equitable Poluche went to the head of the stairs and called out in a loud voice,–

“Mother Butor, you will give no soup to Monte and put Ravillet on half allowance.”

Tantaine was much interested, for the scene was an entirely new one.

The professor raised his eyes to heaven.

“Would,” said he, “that I might teach them the divine science as I would wish; but the master would not allow me; indeed, he would dismiss me if I attempted to do so.”

“I do not understand you.”

“Let me explain to you. You know that there are certain old women who, for a consideration, will train a linnet or a bullfinch to whistle any air?”

Tantaine, with all humility, confessed his ignorance of these matters.

“Well,” said the professor, “the only difference between those old women and myself is, that they teach birds and I boys; and I know which I had rather do.”

Tantaine pointed to the whip.

“And how about this?” asked he.

Poluche shrugged his shoulders.

“Put yourself in my place for a little while,” remarked he. “You see my master brings me all sorts of boys, and I have to cram music into them in the briefest period possible. Of course the child revolts, and I thrash him; but do not think he cares for this; the young imps thrive on blows. The only way that I can touch them is through their stomachs. I stop a quarter, a half, and sometimes the whole of their dinner. That fetches them, and you have no idea how a little starvation brings them on in music.”

Daddy Tantaine felt a cold shiver creep over him as he listened to this frank exposition of the professor’s mode of action.

“You can now understand,” remarked the professor, “how some airs become popular in Paris. I have forty pupils all trying the same thing. I am drilling them now in the /Marguerite/, and in a little time you will have nothing else in the streets.”

Poluche was proceeding to give Tantaine some further information, when a step was heard upon the stairs, and the professor remarked,–

“Here is the master; he never comes up here, because he is afraid of the stairs. You had better go down to him.”

CHAPTER XXII.

DIAMOND CUT DIAMOND.

The ex-cook appeared before Tantaine in all his appalling vulgarity as the latter descended the stairs. The proprietor of the musical academy was a stout, red-faced man, with an insolent mouth and a cynical eye. He was gorgeously dressed, and wore a profusion of jewelry. He was much startled at seeing Tantaine, whom he knew to be the redoubtable Mascarin’s right-hand man. “A thousand thunders!” muttered he. “If these people have sent him here for me, I must take care what I am about,” and with a friendly smile he extended his hand to Tantaine.

“Glad to see you,” said he. “Now, what can I do for you, for I hope you have come to ask me to do something?”

“The veriest trifle,” returned Tantaine.

“I am sorry that it is not something of importance, for I have the greatest respect for M. Mascarin.”

This conversation had taken place in the window, and was interrupted every moment by the shouts and laughter of the children; but beneath these sounds of merriment came an occasional bitter wail of lamentation.

“What is that?” inquired Perpignan, in a voice of thunder. “Who presumes to be unhappy in this establishment?”

“It is two of the lads that I have put on half rations,” returned Poluche. “I’ll make them learn somehow or—-“

A dark frown on the master’s face arrested his further speech. “What do I hear?” roared Perpignan. “Do you dare, under my roof, to deprive those poor children of an ounce of food? It is scandalous, I may say, infamous on your part, M. Poluche.”

“But, sir,” faltered the professor, “have you not told me hundreds of times–“

“That you were an idiot, and would never be anything better. Go and tell Mother Butor to give these poor children their dinner.”

Repressing further manifestations of rage, Perpignan took Tantaine by the arm and led him into a little side-room, which he dignified by the name of his office. There was nothing in it but three chairs, a common deal table, and a few shelves containing ledgers. “You have come on business, I presume,” remarked Perpignan.

Tantaine nodded, and the two men seated themselves at the table, gazing keenly into each other’s eyes, as though to read the thoughts that moved in the busy brain.

“How did you find out my little establishment down here?” asked Perpignan.

“By a mere chance,” remarked Tantaine carelessly. “I go about a good deal, and hear many things. For instance, you have taken every precaution here, and though you are really the proprietor, yet the husband of your cook and housekeeper, Butor, is supposed to be the owner of the house–at least it stands in his name. Now, if anything untoward happened, you would vanish, and only Butor would remain a prey for the police.”

Tantaine paused for a moment, and then slowly added, “Such tactics usually succeed unless a man has some secret enemy, who would take advantage of his knowledge, to do him an injury by obtaining irrefragable proofs of his complicity.”

The ex-cook easily perceived the threat that was hidden under these words. “They know something,” muttered he, “and I must find out what it is.”

“If a man has a clear conscience,” said he aloud, “he is all right. I have nothing to conceal, and therefore nothing to fear. You have now seen my establishment; what do you think of it?”

“It seems to me a very well-conducted one.”

“It may have occurred to you that a factory at Roubaix might have been a better investment, but I had not the capital to begin with.”

Tantaine nodded. “It is not half a bad trade,” said he.

“I agree with you. In the Rue St. Marguerite you will find more than one similar establishment; but I never cared for the situation of the Faubourg St. Antoine. My little angels find this spot more salubrious.”

“Yes, yes,” answered Tantaine amicably, “and if they howl too much when they are corrected, there are not too many neighbors to hear them.”

Perpignan thought it best to take no notice of this observation. “The papers are always pitching into us,” continued he. “They had much better stick to politics. The fact is, that the profits of our business are tremendously exaggerated.”

“Well, you manage to make a living out of it?”

“I don’t lose, I confess, but I have six little cherubs in hospital, besides the one in the kitchen, and these, of course, are a dead loss to me.”

“That is a sad thing for you,” answered Tantaine gravely.

Perpignan began to be amazed at his visitor’s coolness.

“Damn it all,” said he, “if you and Mascarin think the business such a profitable one, why don’t you go in for it. You may perhaps think it easy to procure the kids; just try it. You have to go to Italy for most of them, then you have to smuggle them across the frontier like bales of contraband goods.”

Perpignan paused to take a breath, and Tantaine asked,–

“What sum do you make each of the lads bring in daily?”

“That depends,” answered Perpignan hesitatingly.

“Well, you can give an average?”

“Say three francs then.”

“Three francs!” repeated Tantaine with a genial smile, “and you have forty little cherubs, so that makes one hundred and twenty francs per day.”

“Absurd!” retorted Perpignan; “do you think each of the lads bring in such a sum as that?”

“Ah! you know the way to make them do so.”

“I don’t understand you,” answered Perpignan, in whose voice a shade of anxiety now began to appear.

“No offence, no offence,” answered Tantaine; “but the fact is, the newspapers are doing you a great deal of harm, by retailing some of the means adopted by your colleague to make the boys do a good day’s work. Do you recollect the sentence on that master who tied one of his lads down on a bed, and left him without food for two days at a stretch?”

“I don’t care about such matters; no one can bring a charge of cruelty against me,” retorted Perpignan angrily.

“A man with the kindest heart in the world may be the victim of circumstances.”

Perpignan felt that the decisive moment was at hand.

“What do you mean?” asked he.

“Well, suppose, to punish one of your refractory lads, you were to shut him in the cellar. A storm comes on during the night, the gutter gets choked up, the cellar fills with water, and next morning you find the little cherub drowned like a rat in his hole?”

Perpignan’s face was livid.

“Well, and what then?” asked he.

“Ah! now the awkward part of the matter comes. You would not care to send for the police, that might excite suspicion; the easiest thing is to dig a hole and shove the body into it.”

Perpignan got up and placed his back against the door.

“You know too much, M. Tantaine,–a great deal too much,” said he.

Perpignan’s manner was most threatening; but Tantaine still smiled pleasantly, like a child who had just committed some simply mischievous act, the results of which it cannot foresee.

“The sentence isn’t heavy,” he continued; “five years’ penal servitude, if evidence of previous good conduct could be put in; but if former antecedents were disclosed, such as a journey to Nancy—-“

This was the last straw, and Perpignan broke out,–

“What do you mean?” said he; “and what do you want me to do?”

“Only a trifling service, as I told you before. My dear sir, do not put yourself in a rage,” he added, as Perpignan seemed disposed to speak again. “Was it not you who first began to talk of your, ’em– well, let us say business?”

“Then you wanted to make yourself agreeable by talking all this rot to me. Well, shall I tell you in my turn what I think?”

“By all means, if it will not be giving you too much trouble.”

“Then I tell you that you have come here on an errand which no man should venture to do alone. You are not of the age and build for business like this. It is a misfortune–a fatal one perhaps–to put yourself in my power, in such a house as this.”

“But, my dear sir, what is likely to happen to me?”

The features of the ex-cook were convulsed with fury; he was in that mad state of rage in which a man has no control over himself. Mechanically his hand slipped into his pocket; but before he could draw it out again, Tantaine who had not lost one of his movements, sprang upon him and grasped him so tightly by the throat that he was powerless to adopt any offensive measures, in spite of his great strength and robust build. The struggle was not a long one; the old man hurled his adversary to the ground, and placed his foot on his chest, and held him down, his whole face and figure seemingly transfigured with the glories of strength and success.

“And so you wished to stab me,–to murder a poor and inoffensive old man. Do you think that I was fool enough to enter your cut-throat door without taking proper precautions?” And as he spoke he drew a revolver from his bosom. “Throw away your knife,” added he sternly.

In obedience to this mandate, Perpignan, who was now entirely demoralized, threw the sharp-pointed weapon which he had contrived to open in his pocket into a corner of the room.

“Good,” said Tantaine. “You are growing more reasonable now. Of course I came alone, but do you think that plenty of people did not know where I was going to? Had I not returned to-night, do you think that my master, M. Mascarin, would have been satisfied? and how long do you think it would have been before he and the police would have been here. If you do not do all that I wish for the rest of your life, you will be the most ungrateful fellow in the world.”

Perpignan was deeply mortified; he had been worsted in single combat, and now he was being found out, and these things had never happened to him before.

“Well, I suppose that I must give in,” answered he sulkily.

“Quite so; it is a pity that you did not think of that before.”

“You vexed me and made me angry.”

“Just so; well, now, get up, take that chair, and let us talk reasonably.”

Perpignan obeyed without a word.

“Now,” said Tantaine, “I came here with a really magnificent proposal. But I adopted the course I pursued because I wished to prove to you that /you/ belonged more absolutely to Mascarin than did your wretched foreign slaves to you. You are absolutely at his mercy, and he can crush you to powder whenever he likes.”

“Your Mascarin is Satan himself,” muttered the discomfited man. “Who can resist him?”

“Come, as you think thus, we can talk sensibly at last.”

“Well,” answered Perpignan ruefully, as he adjusted his disordered necktie, “say what you like, I have no answer to make.”

“Let us begin at the commencement,” said Tantaine. “For some days past your people have been following a certain Caroline Schimmel. A fellow of sixteen called Ambrose, a lad with a harp, was told off for this duty. He is not to be trusted. Only a night or two ago one of my men made him drunk; and fearing lest his absence might create surprise, drove him here in a cab, and left him at the corner.”

The ex-cook uttered an oath.