Etext prepared by Dagny, email@example.com and John Bickers, firstname.lastname@example.org
FILE NO. 113
by EMILE GABORIAU
In the Paris evening papers of Tuesday, February 28, 1866, under the head of /Local Items/, the following announcement appeared:
“A daring robbery, committed against one of our most eminent bankers, M. Andre Fauvel, caused great excitement this morning throughout the neighborhood of Rue de Provence.
“The thieves, who were as skilful as they were bold, succeeded in making an entrance to the bank, in forcing the lock of a safe that has heretofore been considered impregnable, and in possessing themselves of the enormous sum of three hundred and fifty thousand francs in bank-notes.
“The police, immediately informed of the robbery, displayed their accustomed zeal, and their efforts have been crowned with success. Already, it is said, P. B., a clerk in the bank, has been arrested, and there is every reason to hope that his accomplices will be speedily overtaken by the hand of justice.”
For four days this robbery was the town talk of Paris.
Then public attention was absorbed by later and equally interesting events: an acrobat broke his leg at the circus; an actress made her debut at a small theatre: and the /item/ of the 28th was soon forgotten.
But for once the newspapers were–perhaps intentionally–wrong, or at least inaccurate in their information.
The sum of three hundred and fifty thousand francs certainly had been stolen from M. Andre Fauvel’s bank, but not in the manner described.
A clerk had also been arrested on suspicion, but no decisive proof had been found against him. This robbery of unusual importance remained, if not inexplicable, at least unexplained.
The following are the facts as they were related with scrupulous exactness at the preliminary examination.
The banking-house of Andre Fauvel, No. 87 Rue de Provence, is an important establishment, and, owing to its large force of clerks, presents very much the appearance of a government department.
On the ground-floor are the offices, with windows opening on the street, fortified by strong iron bars sufficiently large and close together to discourage all burglarious attempts.
A large glass door opens into a spacious vestibule where three or four office-boys are always in waiting.
On the right are the rooms to which the public is admitted, and from which a narrow passage leads to the principal cash-room.
The offices of the corresponding clerk, book-keeper, and general accounts are on the left.
At the farther end is a small court on which open seven or eight little wicket doors. These are kept closed, except on certain days when notes are due; and then they are indispensable.
M. Fauvel’s private office is on the first floor over the offices, and leads into his elegant private apartments.
This private office communicates directly with the bank by means of a narrow staircase, which opens into the room occupied by the head cashier.
This room, which in the bank goes by the name of the “cash-office,” is proof against all attacks, no matter how skilfully planned; indeed, it could almost withstand a regular siege, sheeted as it is like a monitor.
The doors, and the partition where the wicket door is cut, are covered with thick sheets of iron; and a heavy grating protects the fireplace.
Fastened in the wall by enormous iron clamps is a safe, a formidable and fantastic piece of furniture, calculated to fill with envy the poor devil who easily carries his fortune in a pocket-book.
This safe, which is considered the masterpiece of the firm of Becquet, is six feet in height and four and a half in width, made entirely of wrought iron, with triple sides, and divided into isolated compartments in case of fire.
The safe is opened by an odd little key, which is, however, the least important part of the mechanism. Five movable steel buttons, upon which are engraved all the letters of the alphabet, constitute the real power of this ingenious safe.
Before inserting the key into the lock, the letters on the buttons must be in the exact position in which they were placed when the safe was locked.
In M. Fauvel’s bank, as everywhere, the safe was always closed with a word that was changed from time to time.
This word was known only to the head of the bank and the cashier, each of whom had also a key to the safe.
In a fortress like this, a person could deposit more diamonds than the Duke of Brunswick’s, and sleep well assured of their safety.
But one danger seemed to threaten, that of forgetting the secret word which was the “Open sesame” of the safe.
On the morning of the 28th of February, the bank-clerks were all busy at their various desks, about half-past nine o’clock, when a middle- aged man of dark complexion and military air, clad in deep mourning, appeared in the office adjoining the “safe,” and announced to the five or six employees present his desire to see the cashier.
He was told that the cashier had not yet come, and his attention was called to a placard in the entry, which stated that the “cash-room” was opened at ten o’clock.
This reply seemed to disconcert and annoy the newcomer.
“I expected,” he said, in a tone of cool impertinence, “to find someone here ready to attend to my business. I explained the matter to M. Fauvel yesterday. I am Count Louis de Clameran, an iron- manufacturer at Oloron, and have come to draw three hundred thousand francs deposited in this bank by my late brother, whose heir I am. It is surprising that no direction was given about it.”
Neither the title of the noble manufacturer, nor his explanations, appeared to have the slightest effect upon the clerks.
“The cashier has not yet arrived,” they repeated, “and we can do nothing for you.”
“Then conduct me to M. Fauvel.”
There was a moment’s hesitation; then a clerk named Cavaillon, who was writing near a window, said:
“The chief is always out at this hour.”
“Then I will call again,” replied M. de Clameran.
And he walked out, as he had entered, without saying “Good-morning,” or even touching his hat.
“Not very polite, that customer,” said little Cavaillon, “but he will soon be settled, for here comes Prosper.”
Prosper Bertomy, head cashier of Fauvel’s banking-house, was a tall, handsome man, of about thirty, with fair hair and large dark-blue eyes, fastidiously neat, and dressed in the height of fashion.
He would have been very prepossessing but for a cold, reserved English-like manner, and a certain air of self-sufficiency which spoiled his naturally bright, open countenance.
“Ah, here you are!” cried Cavaillon. “someone has just been asking for you.”
“Who? An iron-manufacturer, was it not?”
“Well, he will come back again. Knowing that I would get here late this morning, I made all my arrangements yesterday.”
Prosper had unlocked his office-door, and, as he finished speaking, entered, and closed it behind him.
“Good!” exclaimed one of the clerks, “there is a man who never lets anything disturb him. The chief has quarrelled with him twenty times for always coming too late, and his remonstrances have no more effect upon him than a breath of wind.”
“And very right, too; he knows he can get anything he wants out of the chief.”
“Besides, how could he come any sooner? a man who sits up all night, and leads a fast life, doesn’t feel like going to work early in the morning. Did you notice how very pale he looked when he came in?”
“He must have been playing heavily again. Couturier says he lost fifteen thousand francs at a sitting last week.”
“His work is none the worse done for all that,” interrupted Cavaillon. “If you were in his place–“
He stopped short. The cash-room door suddenly opened, and the cashier appeared before them with tottering step, and a wild, haggard look on his ashy face.
“Robbed!” he gasped out: “I have been robbed!”
Prosper’s horrified expression, his hollow voice and trembling limbs, betrayed such fearful suffering that the clerks jumped up from their desks, and ran toward him. He almost dropped into their arms; he was sick and faint, and fell into a chair.
His companions surrounded him, and begged him to explain himself.
“Robbed?” they said; “where, how, by whom?”
Gradually, Prosper recovered himself.
“All the money I had in the safe,” he said, “has been stolen.”
“Yes, all; three packages, each containing one hundred notes of a thousand francs, and one package of fifty thousand. The four packages were wrapped in a sheet of paper, and tied together.”
With the rapidity of lightning, the news of the robbery spread throughout the banking-house, and the room was soon filled with curious listeners.
“Tell us, Prosper,” said young Cavaillon, “did you find the safe broken open?”
“No; it is just as I left it.”
“Well then, how, why—-“
“Yesterday I put three hundred and fifty thousand francs in the safe; and this morning they are gone.”
All were silent except one old clerk, who did not seem to share the general consternation.
“Don’t distress yourself, M. Bertomy,” he said: “perhaps the chief disposed of the money.”
The unhappy cashier started up with a look of relief; he eagerly caught at the idea.
“Yes!” he exclaimed, “you are right: the chief must have taken it.”
But, after thinking a few minutes, he said in a tone of deep discouragement:
“No, that is impossible. During the five years that I have had charge of the safe, M. Fauvel has never opened it except in my presence. Several times he has needed money, and has either waited until I came, or sent for me, rather than touch it in my absence.”
“Well,” said Cavaillon, “before despairing, let us ascertain.”
But a messenger had already informed M. Fauvel of the disaster.
As Cavaillon was about to go in quest of him, he entered the room.
M. Andre Fauvel appeared to be a man of fifty, inclined to corpulency, of medium height, with iron-gray hair; and, like all hard workers, he had a slight stoop.
Never did he by a single action belie the kindly expression of his face.
He had a frank air, a lively, intelligent eye, and large, red lips.
Born in the neighborhood of Aix, he betrayed, when animated, a slight Provencal accent that gave a peculiar flavor to his genial humor.
The news of the robbery had extremely agitated him, for his usually florid face was now quite pale.
“What is this I hear? what has happened?” he said to the clerks, who respectfully stood aside when he entered the room.
The sound of M. Fauvel’s voice inspired the cashier with the factitious energy of a great crisis. The dreaded and decisive moment had come; he arose, and advanced toward his chief.
“Monsieur,” he began, “having, as you know, a payment to make this morning, I yesterday drew from the Bank of France three hundred and fifty thousand francs.”
“Why yesterday, monsieur?” interrupted the banker. “I think I have a hundred times ordered you to wait until the day of the payment.”
“I know it, monsieur, and I did wrong to disobey you. But the evil is done. Yesterday evening I locked the money up: it has disappeared, and yet the safe has not been broken open.”
“You must be mad!” exclaimed M. Fauvel: “you are dreaming!”
These few words destroyed all hope; but the very horror of the situation gave Prosper, not the coolness of a matured resolution, but that sort of stupid, stolid indifference which often results from unexpected catastrophes.
It was with apparent calmness that he replied:
“I am not mad; neither, unfortunately, am I dreaming: I am simply telling the truth.”
This tranquillity at such a moment appeared to exasperate M. Fauvel. He seized Prosper by the arm, and shook him roughly.
“Speak!” he cried out. “Speak! who do you pretend to say opened the safe? Answer me!”
“I cannot say.”
“No one but you and I knew the secret word. No one but you and myself had keys.”
This was a formal accusation; at least, all the auditors present so understood it.
Yet Prosper’s strange calmness never left him for an instant. He quietly released himself from M. Fauvel’s grasp, and very slowly said:
“In other words, monsieur, I am the only person who could have taken this money.”
Prosper drew himself to his full height, and, looking M. Fauvel full in the face, added:
The banker made a threatening gesture; and there is no knowing what would have happened if they had not been interrupted by loud and angry voices at the entry-door.
A man insisted upon entering in spite of the protestations of the errand-boys, and succeeded in forcing his way in. It was M. de Clameran.
The clerks stood looking on, bewildered and motionless. The silence was profound, solemn.
It was easy to see that some terrible question, a question of life or death, was being weighed by all these men.
The iron-founder did not appear to observe anything unusual. He advanced, and without lifting his hat said, in the same impertinent tone:
“It is after ten o’clock, gentlemen.”
No one answered; and M. de Clameran was about to continue, when, turning around, he for the first time saw the banker, and walking up to him said:
“Well, monsieur, I congratulate myself upon finding you in at last. I have been here once before this morning, and found the cash-room not opened, the cashier not arrived, and you absent.”
“You are mistaken, monsieur, I was in my office.”
“At any rate, I was told you were out; that gentleman over there assured me of the fact.”
And the iron-founder pointed out Cavaillon.
“However, that is of little importance,” he went on to say. “I return, and this time not only the cash-room is closed, but I am refused admittance to the banking-house, and find myself compelled to force my way in. Be so good as to tell me whether I can have my money.”
M. Fauvel’s flushed face turned pale with anger as he listened to this insolence; yet he controlled himself.
“I would be obliged to you monsieur, for a short delay.”
“I thought you told me–“
“Yes, yesterday. But this morning, this very instant, I find I have been robbed of three hundred and fifty thousand francs.”
M. de Clameran bowed ironically, and said:
“Shall I have to wait long?”
“Long enough for me to send to the bank.”
Then turning his back on the iron-founder, M. Fauvel said to his cashier:
“Write and send as quickly as possible to the bank an order for three hundred thousand francs. Let the messenger take a carriage.”
Prosper remained motionless.
“Do you hear me?” said the banker angrily.
The cashier trembled; he seemed as if trying to shake off a terrible nightmare.
“It is useless to send,” he said in a measured tone; “we owe this gentleman three hundred thousand francs, and we have less than one hundred thousand in the bank.”
M. de Clameran evidently expected this answer, for he muttered:
Although he pronounced this word, his voice, his manner, his face clearly said:
“This comedy is well acted; but nevertheless it is a comedy, and I don’t intend to be duped by it.”
Alas! After Prosper’s answer, and the iron-founder’s coarsely expressed opinion, the clerks knew not what to think.
The fact was, that Paris had just been startled by several financial crashes. The thirst for speculation caused the oldest and most reliable houses to totter. Men of the most unimpeachable honor had to sacrifice their pride, and go from door to door imploring aid.
Credit, that rare bird of security and peace, rested with none, but stood with upraised wings, ready to fly off at the first rumor of suspicion.
Therefore this idea of a comedy arranged beforehand between the banker and his cashier might readily occur to the minds of people who, if not suspicious, were at least aware of all the expedients resorted to by speculators in order to gain time, which with them often meant salvation.
M. Fauvel had had too much experience not to instantly divine the impression produced by Prosper’s answer; he read the most mortifying doubt on the faces around him.
“Oh! don’t be alarmed, monsieur,” said he to M. de Clameran, “this house has other resources. Be kind enough to await my return.”
He left the room, went up the narrow steps leading to his study, and in a few minutes returned, holding in his hand a letter and a bundle of securities.
“Here, quick, Couturier!” he said to one of his clerks, “take my carriage, which is waiting at the door, and go with monsieur to M. de Rothschild’s. Hand him this letter and these securities; in exchange, you will receive three hundred thousand francs, which you will hand to this gentleman.”
The iron-founder was visibly disappointed; he seemed desirous of apologizing for his impertinence.
“I assure you, monsieur, that I had no intention of giving offence. Our relations, for some years, have been such that I hope–“
“Enough, monsieur,” interrupted the banker, “I desire no apologies. In business, friendship counts for nothing. I owe you money: I am not ready to pay: you are pressing: you have a perfect right to demand what is your own. Follow my clerk: he will pay you your money.”
Then he turned to his clerks who stood curiously gazing on, and said:
“As for you, gentlemen, be kind enough to resume your desks.”
In an instant the room was cleared of everyone except the clerks who belonged there; and they sat at their desks with their noses almost touching the paper before them, as if too absorbed in their work to think of anything else.
Still excited by the events so rapidly succeeding each other, M. Andre Fauvel walked up and down the room with quick, nervous steps, occasionally uttering some low exclamation.
Prosper remained leaning against the door, with pale face and fixed eyes, looking as if he had lost the faculty of thinking.
Finally the banker, after a long silence, stopped short before Prosper; he had determined upon the line of conduct he would pursue.
“We must have an explanation,” he said. “Let us go into your office.”
The cashier mechanically obeyed without a word; and his chief followed him, taking the precaution to close the door after him.
The cash-room bore no evidences of a successful burglary. Everything was in perfect order; not even a paper was misplaced.
The safe was open, and on the top shelf lay several rouleaus of gold, overlooked or disdained by the thieves.
M. Fauvel, without troubling himself to examine anything, took a seat, and ordered his cashier to do the same. He had entirely recovered his equanimity, and his countenance wore its usual kind expression.
“Now that we are alone, Prosper,” he said, “have you nothing to tell me?”
The cashier started, as if surprised at the question. “Nothing, monsieur, that I have not already told you.”
“What, nothing? Do you persist in asserting a fable so absurd and ridiculous that no one can possibly believe it? It is folly! Confide in me: it is your only chance of salvation. I am your employer, it is true; but I am before and above all your friend, your best and truest friend. I cannot forget that in this very room, fifteen years ago, you were intrusted to me by your father; and ever since that day have I had cause to congratulate myself on possessing so faithful and efficient a clerk. Yes, it is fifteen years since you came to me. I was then just commencing the foundation of my fortune. You have seen it gradually grow, step by step, from almost nothing to its present height. As my wealth increased, I endeavored to better your condition; you, who, although so young, are the oldest of my clerks. At each inventory of my fortune, I increased your salary.”
Never had Prosper heard him express himself in so feeling and paternal a manner. Prosper was silent with astonishment.
“Answer,” pursued M. Fauvel: “have I not always been like a father to you? From the first day, my house has been open to you; you were treated as a member of my family; Madeleine and my sons looked upon you as a brother. But you grew weary of this peaceful life. One day, a year ago, you suddenly began to shun us; and since then—-“
The memories of the past thus evoked by the banker seemed too much for the unhappy cashier; he buried his face in his hands, and wept bitterly.
“A man can confide everything to his father without fear of being harshly judged,” resumed M. Fauvel. “A father not only pardons, he forgets. Do I not know the terrible temptations that beset a young man in a city like Paris? There are some inordinate desires before which the firmest principles must give way, and which so pervert our moral sense as to render us incapable of judging between right and wrong. Speak, Prosper, Speak!”
“What do you wish me to say?”
“The truth. When an honorable man yields, in an hour of weakness, to temptation, his first step toward atonement is confession. Say to me, Yes, I have been tempted, dazzled: the sight of these piles of gold turned my brain. I am young: I have passions.”
“I?” murmured Prosper. “I?”
“Poor boy,” said the banker, sadly; “do you think I am ignorant of the life you have been leading since you left my roof a year ago? Can you not understand that all your fellow-clerks are jealous of you? that they do not forgive you for earning twelve thousand francs a year? Never have you committed a piece of folly without my being immediately informed of it by an anonymous letter. I could tell the exact number of nights you have spent at the gaming-table, and the amount of money you have squandered. Oh, envy has good eyes and a quick ear! I have great contempt for these cowardly denunciations, but was forced not only to heed them, but to make inquiries myself. It is only right that I should know what sort of a life is led by the man to whom I intrust my fortune and my honor.”
Prosper seemed about to protest against this last speech.
“Yes, my honor,” insisted M. Fauvel, in a voice that a sense of humiliation rendered still more vibrating: “yes, my credit might have been compromised to-day by this M. de Clameran. Do you know how much I shall lose by paying him this money? And suppose I had not had the securities which I have sacrificed? you did not know I possessed them.”
The banker paused, as if hoping for a confession, which, however, did not come.
“Come, Prosper, have courage, be frank. I will go upstairs. You will look again in the safe: I am sure that in your agitation you did not search thoroughly. This evening I will return; and I am confident that, during the day, you will have found, if not the three hundred and fifty thousand francs, at least the greater portion of it; and to-morrow neither you nor I will remember anything about this false alarm.”
M. Fauvel had risen, and was about to leave the room, when Prosper arose, and seized him by the arm.
“Your generosity is useless, monsieur,” he said, bitterly; “having taken nothing, I can restore nothing. I have searched carefully; the bank-notes have been stolen.”
“But by whom, poor fool? By whom?”
“By all that is sacred, I swear that it was not by me.”
The banker’s face turned crimson. “Miserable wretch!” cried he, “do you mean to say that I took the money?”
Prosper bowed his head, and did not answer.
“Ah! it is thus, then,” said M. Fauvel, unable to contain himself any longer. “And you dare–. Then, between you and me, M. Prosper Bertomy, justice shall decide. God is my witness that I have done all I could to save you. You will have yourself to thank for what follows. I have sent for the commissary of police: he must be waiting in my study. Shall I call him down?”
Prosper, with the fearful resignation of a man who abandons himself, replied, in a stifled voice:
“Do as you will.”
The banker was near the door, which he opened, and, after giving the cashier a last searching look, said to an office-boy:
“Anselme, ask the commissary of police to step down.”
If there is one man in the world whom no event can move or surprise, who is always on his guard against deceptive appearances, and is capable of admitting everything and explaining everything, it certainly is a Parisian commissary of police.
While the judge, from his lofty place, applies the code to the facts submitted to him, the commissary of police observes and watches all the odious circumstances that the law cannot reach. He is perforce the confidant of disgraceful details, domestic crimes, and tolerated vices.
If, when he entered upon his office, he had any illusions, before the end of a year they were all dissipated.
If he does not absolutely despise the human race, it is because often, side by side with abominations indulged in with impunity, he discovers sublime generosities which remain unrewarded.
He sees impudent scoundrels filching public respect; and he consoles himself by thinking of the modest, obscure heroes whom he has also encountered.
So often have his previsions been deceived, that he has reached a state of complete scepticism. He believes in nothing, neither in evil nor in absolute good; not more in virtue than in vice.
His experience has forced him to come to the sad conclusion that not men, but events, are worth considering.
The commissary sent for by M. Fauvel soon made his appearance.
It was with a calm air, if not one of perfect indifference, that he entered the office.
He was followed by a short man dressed in a full suit of black, which was slightly relieved by a crumpled collar.
The banker, scarcely bowing to him, said:
“Doubtless, monsieur, you have been apprised of the painful circumstance which compels me to have recourse to your assistance?”
“It is about a robbery, I believe.”
“Yes; an infamous and mysterious robbery committed in this office, from the safe you see open there, of which my cashier” (he pointed to Prosper) “alone possesses the key and the word.”
This declaration seemed to arouse the unfortunate cashier from his dull stupor.
“Excuse me, monsieur,” he said to the commissary in a low tone. “My chief also has the word and the key.”
“Of course, that is understood.”
The commissary at once drew his own conclusions.
Evidently these two men accused each other.
From their own statements, one or the other was guilty.
One was the head of an important bank: the other was a simple cashier.
One was the chief: the other was the clerk.
But the commissary of police was too well skilled in concealing his impressions to betray his thoughts by any outward sign. Not a muscle of his face moved.
But he became more grave, and alternately watched the cashier and M. Fauvel, as if trying to draw some profitable conclusion from their behavior.
Prosper was very pale and dejected. He had dropped into a seat, and his arms hung inert on either side of the chair.
The banker, on the contrary, remained standing with flashing eyes and crimson face, expressing himself with extraordinary violence.
“And the importance of the theft is immense,” continued M. Fauvel; “they have taken a fortune, three hundred and fifty thousand francs. This robbery might have had the most disastrous consequences. In times like these, the want of this sum might compromise the credit of the wealthiest banking-house in Paris.”
“I believe so, if notes fall due.”
“Well, monsieur, I had this very day a heavy payment to make.”
There was no mistaking the commissary’s tone; a suspicion, the first, had evidently entered his mind.
The banker understood it; he started, and said, quickly:
“I met the demand, but at the cost of a disagreeable sacrifice. I ought to add further that, if my orders had been obeyed, the three hundred and fifty thousand francs would not have been in.”
“How is that?”
“I never desire to have large sums of money in my house over-night. My cashier had positive orders to wait always until the last moment before drawing money from the Bank of France. I above all forbade him to leave money in the safe over-night.”
“You hear this?” said the commissary to Prosper.
“Yes, monsieur,” replied the cashier, “M. Fauvel’s statement is quite correct.”
After this explanation, the suspicions of the commissary, instead of being strengthened, were dissipated.
“Well,” he said, “a robbery has been perpetrated, but by whom? Did the robber enter from without?”
The banker hesitated a moment.
“I think not,” he said at last.
“And I am certain he did not,” said Prosper.
The commissary expected and was prepared for those answers; but it did not suit his purpose to follow them up immediately.
“However,” said he, “we must make ourselves sure of it.” Turning toward his companion:
“M. Fanferlot,” he said, “go and see if you cannot discover some traces that may have escaped the attention of these gentlemen.”
M. Fanferlot, nicknamed the Squirrel, was indebted to his prodigious agility for this title, of which he was not a little proud. Slim and insignificant in appearance he might, in spite of his iron muscles, be taken for a bailiff’s under clerk, as he walked along buttoned up to the chin in his thin black overcoat. He had one of those faces that impress us disagreeably–an odiously turned-up nose, thin lips, and little, restless black eyes.
Fanferlot, who had been on the police force for five years, burned to distinguish himself, to make for himself a name. He was ambitious. Alas! he was unsuccessful, lacking opportunity–or genius.
Already, before the commissary spoke to him, he had ferreted everywhere; studied the doors, sounded the partitions, examined the wicket, and stirred up the ashes in the fireplace.
“I cannot imagine,” said he, “how a stranger could have effected an entrance here.”
He walked around the office.
“Is this door closed at night?” he inquired.
“It is always locked.”
“And who keeps the key?”
“The office-boy, to whom I always give it in charge before leaving the bank,” said Prosper.
“This boy,” said M. Fauvel, “sleeps in the outer room on a sofa- bedstead, which he unfolds at night, and folds up in the morning.”
“Is he here now?” inquired the commissary.
“Yes, monsieur,” answered the banker.
He opened the door and called:
This boy was the favorite servant of M. Fauvel, and had lived with him for ten years. He knew that he would not be suspected; but the idea of being connected in any way with a robbery is terrible, and he entered the room trembling like a leaf.
“Did you sleep in the next room last night?” asked the commissary.
“Yes, monsieur, as usual.”
“At what hour did you go to bed?”
“About half-past ten; I had spent the evening at a cafe near by, with monsieur’s valet.”
“Did you hear no noise during the night?”
“Not a sound; and still I sleep so lightly, that, if monsieur comes down to the cash-room when I am asleep, I am instantly awakened by the sound of his footsteps.”
“Monsieur Fauvel often comes to the cash-room at night, does he?”
“No, monsieur; very seldom.”
“Did he come last night?”
“No, monsieur, I am very certain he did not; for I was kept awake nearly all night by the strong coffee I had drunk with the valet.”
“That will do; you can retire,” said the commissary.
When Anselme had left the room, Fanferlot resumed his search. He opened the door of the private staircase.
“Where do these stairs lead to?” he asked.
“To my private office,” replied M. Fauvel.
“Is not that the room whither I was conducted when I first came?” inquired the commissary.
“I would like to see it,” said Fanferlot, “and examine the entrances to it.”
“Nothing is more easy,” said M. Fauvel, eagerly; “follow me, gentlemen, and you come too, Prosper.”
M. Fauvel’s private office consisted of two rooms; the waiting-room, sumptuously furnished and beautifully decorated, and the study where he transacted business. The furniture in this room was composed of a large office-desk, several leather-covered chairs, and, on either side of the fireplace, a secretary and a book-shelf.
These two rooms had only three doors; one opened on the private stairway, another into the banker’s bedroom, and the third into the main vestibule. It was through this last door that the banker’s clients and visitors were admitted.
M. Fanferlot examined the study at a glance. He seemed puzzled, like a man who had flattered himself with the hope of discovering some indication, and had found nothing.
“Let us see the adjoining room,” he said.
He passed into the waiting-room, followed by the banker and the commissary of police.
Prosper remained alone in the study.
Despite the disordered state of his mind, he could not but perceive that his situation was momentarily becoming more serious.
He had demanded and accepted the contest with his chief; the struggle had commenced; and now it no longer depended upon his own will to arrest the consequences of his action.
They were about to engage in a bitter conflict, utilizing all weapons, until one of the two should succumb, the loss of honor being the cost of defeat.
In the eyes of justice, who would be the innocent man?
Alas! the unfortunate cashier saw only too clearly that the chances were terribly unequal, and was overwhelmed with the sense of his own inferiority.
Never had he thought that his chief would carry out his threats; for, in a contest of this nature, M. Fauvel would have as much to risk as his cashier, and more to lose.
He was sitting near the fireplace, absorbed in the most gloomy forebodings, when the banker’s chamber-door suddenly opened, and a beautiful girl appeared on the threshold.
She was tall and slender; a loose morning gown, confined at the waist by a simple black ribbon, betrayed to advantage the graceful elegance of her figure. Her black eyes were large and soft; her complexion had the creamy pallor of a white camellia; and her beautiful dark hair, carelessly held together by a tortoise-shell comb, fell in a profusion of soft curls upon her exquisite neck. She was Madeleine, M. Fauvel’s niece, of whom he had spoken not long before.
Seeing Prosper in the study, where probably she expected to find her uncle alone, she could not refrain from an exclamation of surprise.
Prosper started up as if he had received an electric shock. His eyes, a moment before so dull and heavy, now sparkled with joy as if he had caught a glimpse of a messenger of hope.
“Madeleine,” he gasped, “Madeleine!”
The young girl was blushing crimson. She seemed about to hastily retreat, and stepped back; but, Prosper having advanced toward her, she was overcome by a sentiment stronger than her will, and extended her hand, which he seized and pressed with much agitation.
They stood thus face to face, but with averted looks, as if they dared not let their eyes meet for fear of betraying their feelings; having much to say, and not knowing how to begin, they stood silent.
Finally Madeleine murmured, in a scarcely audible voice:
These words broke the spell. The cashier dropped the white hand which he held, and answered bitterly:
“Yes, this is Prosper, the companion of your childhood, suspected, accused of the most disgraceful theft; Prosper, whom your uncle has just delivered up to justice, and who, before the day is over, will be arrested, and thrown into prison.”
Madeleine, with a terrified gesture, cried in a tone of anguish:
“Good heavens! Prosper, what are you saying?”
“What, mademoiselle! do you not know what has happened? Have not your aunt and cousins told you?”
“They have told me nothing. I have scarcely seen my cousins this morning; and my aunt is so ill that I felt uneasy, and came to tell uncle. But for Heaven’s sake speak: tell me the cause of your distress.”
Prosper hesitated. Perhaps it occurred to him to open his heart to Madeleine, of revealing to her his most secret thoughts. A remembrance of the past chilled his confidence. He sadly shook his head, and replied:
“Thanks, mademoiselle, for this proof of interest, the last, doubtless, that I shall ever receive from you; but allow me, by being silent, to spare you distress, and myself the mortification of blushing before you.”
Madeleine interrupted him imperiously:
“I insist upon knowing.”
“Alas, mademoiselle!” answered Prosper, “you will only too soon learn my misfortune and disgrace; then, yes, then you will applaud yourself for what you have done.”
She became more urgent; instead of commanding, she entreated; but Prosper was inflexible.
“Your uncle is in the adjoining room, mademoiselle, with the commissary of police and a detective. They will soon return. I entreat you to retire that they may not find you here.”
As he spoke he gently pushed her through the door, and closed it upon her.
It was time, for the next moment the commissary and Monsieur Fauvel entered. They had visited the main entrance and waiting-room, and had heard nothing of what had passed in the study.
But Fanferlot had heard for them.
This excellent bloodhound had not lost sight of the cashier. He said to himself, “Now that my young gentleman believes himself to be alone, his face will betray him. I shall detect a smile or a wink that will enlighten me.”
Leaving M. Fauvel and the commissary to pursue their investigations, he posted himself to watch. He saw the door open, and Madeleine appear upon the threshold; he lost not a single word or gesture of the rapid scene which had passed.
It mattered little that every word of this scene was an enigma. M. Fanferlot was skilful enough to complete the sentences he did not understand.
As yet he only had a suspicion; but a mere suspicion is better than nothing; it is a point to start from. So prompt was he in building a plan upon the slightest incident that he thought he saw in the past of these people, who were utter strangers to him, glimpses of a domestic drama.
If the commissary of police is a sceptic, the detective has faith; he believes in evil.
“I understand the case now,” said he to himself. “This man loves the young lady, who is really very pretty; and, as he is quite handsome, I suppose his love is reciprocated. This love-affair vexes the banker, who, not knowing how to get rid of the importunate lover by fair means, has to resort to foul, and plans this imaginary robbery, which is very ingenious.”
Thus to M. Fanferlot’s mind, the banker had simply robbed himself, and the innocent cashier was the victim of an odious machination.
But this conviction was, at present, of little service to Prosper.
Fanferlot, the ambitious, who had determined to obtain renown in his profession, decided to keep his conjectures to himself.
“I will let the others go their way, and I’ll go mine,” he said. “When, by dint of close watching and patient investigation I shall have collected proof sufficient to insure certain conviction, I will unmask the scoundrel.”
He was radiant. He had at last found the crime, so long looked for, which would make him celebrated. Nothing was wanting, neither the odious circumstances, nor the mystery, nor even the romantic and sentimental element represented by Prosper and Madeleine.
Success seemed difficult, almost impossible; but Fanferlot, the Squirrel, had great confidence in his own genius for investigation.
Meanwhile, the search upstairs completed, M. Fauvel and the commissary returned to the room where Prosper was waiting for them.
The commissary, who had seemed so calm when he first came, now looked grave and perplexed. The moment for taking a decisive part had come, yet it was evident that he hesitated.
“You see, gentlemen,” he began, “our search has only confirmed our first suspicion.”
M. Fauvel and Prosper bowed assentingly.
“And what do you think, M. Fanferlot?” continued the commissary.
Fanferlot did not answer.
Occupied in studying the safe-lock, he manifested signs of a lively surprise. Evidently he had just made an important discovery.
M. Fauvel, Prosper, and the commissary rose, and surrounded him.
“Have you discovered any trace?” said the banker, eagerly.
Fanferlot turned around with a vexed air. He reproached himself for not having concealed his impressions.
“Oh!” said he, carelessly, “I have discovered nothing of importance.”
“But we should like to know,” said Prosper.
“I have merely convinced myself that this safe has been recently opened or shut, I know not which, with great violence and haste.”
“Why so?” asked the commissary, becoming attentive.
“Look, monsieur, at this scratch near the lock.”
The commissary stooped down, and carefully examined the safe; he saw a light scratch several inches long that had removed the outer coat of varnish.
“I see the scratch,” said he, “but what does that prove?”
“Oh, nothing at all!” said Fanferlot. “I just now told you it was of no importance.”
Fanferlot said this, but it was not his real opinion.
This scratch, undeniably fresh, had for him a signification that escaped the others. He said to himself, “This confirms my suspicions. If the cashier had stolen millions, there was no occasion for his being in a hurry; whereas the banker, creeping down in the dead of night with cat-like footsteps, for fear of awakening the boy in the ante-room, in order to rifle his own money-safe, had every reason to tremble, to hurry, to hastily withdraw the key, which, slipping along the lock, scratched off the varnish.”
Resolved to unravel by himself the tangled thread of this mystery, the detective determined to keep his conjectures to himself; for the same reason he was silent as to the interview which he had overheard between Madeleine and Prosper.
He hastened to withdraw attention from the scratch upon the lock.
“To conclude,” he said, addressing the commissary, “I am convinced that no one outside of the bank could have obtained access to this room. The safe, moreover, is intact. No suspicious pressure has been used on the movable buttons. I can assert that the lock has not been tampered with by burglar’s tools or false keys. Those who opened the safe knew the word, and possessed the key.”
This formal affirmation of a man whom he knew to be skilful ended the hesitation of the commissary.
“That being the case, he replied, “I must request a few moments’ conversation with M. Fauvel.”
“I am at your service,” said the banker.
Prosper foresaw the result of this conversation. He quietly placed his hat on the table, to show that he had no intention of attempting to escape, and passed into the adjoining room.
Fanferlot also went out, but not before the commissary had made him a sign, and received one in return.
This sign signified, “You are responsible for this man.”
The detective needed no admonition to make him keep a strict watch. His suspicions were too vague, his desire for success was too ardent, for him to lose sight of Prosper an instant.
Closely following the cashier, he seated himself in a dark corner of the room, and, pretending to be sleepy, he fixed himself in a comfortable position for taking a nap, gaped until his jaw-bone seemed about to be dislocated, then closed his eyes, and kept perfectly quiet.
Prosper took a seat at the desk of an absent clerk. The others were burning to know the result of the investigation; their eyes shone with curiosity, but they dared not ask a question.
Unable to refrain himself any longer, little Cavaillon, Prosper’s defender, ventured to say:
“Well, who stole the money?”
Prosper shrugged his shoulders.
“Nobody knows,” he replied.
Was this conscious innocence or hardened recklessness? The clerks observed with bewildered surprise that Prosper had resumed his usual manner, that sort of icy haughtiness that kept people at a distance, and made him so unpopular in the bank.
Save the death-like pallor of his face, and the dark circles around his swollen eyes, he bore no traces of the pitiable agitation he had exhibited a short time before.
Never would a stranger entering the room have supposed that this young man idly lounging in a chair, and toying with a pencil, was resting under an accusation of robbery, and was about to be arrested.
He soon stopped playing with the pencil, and drew toward him a sheet of paper upon which he hastily wrote a few lines.
“Ah, ha!” thought Fanferlot the Squirrel, whose hearing and sight were wonderfully good in spite of his profound sleep, “eh! eh! he makes his little confidential communication on paper, I see; now we will discover something positive.”
His note written, Prosper folded it carefully into the smallest possible size, and after furtively glancing toward the detective, who remained motionless in his corner, threw it across the desk to little Cavaillon with this one word:
All this was so quickly and skilfully done that Fanferlot was confounded, and began to feel a little uneasy.
“The devil take him!” said he to himself; “for a suffering innocent this young dandy has more pluck and nerve than many of my oldest customers. This, however, shows the result of education!”
Yes: innocent or guilty, Prosper must have been endowed with great self-control and power of dissimulation to affect this presence of mind at a time when his honor, his future happiness, all that he held dear in life, were at stake. And he was only thirty years old.
Either from natural deference, or from the hope of gaining some ray of light by a private conversation, the commissary determined to speak to the banker before acting decisively.
“There is not a shadow of doubt, monsieur,” he said, as soon as they were alone, “this young man has robbed you. It would be a gross neglect of duty if I did not secure his person. The law will decide whether he shall be released, or sent to prison.”
The declaration seemed to distress the banker.
He sank into a chair, and murmured:
Seeing the astonished look of his listener, he added:
“Until to-day, monsieur, I have always had the most implicit faith in his honesty, and would have unhesitatingly confided my fortune to his keeping. Almost on my knees have I besought and implored him to confess that in a moment of desperation he had taken the money, promising him pardon and forgetfulness; but I could not move him. I have loved him; and even now, in spite of the trouble and humiliation that he is bringing upon me, I cannot bring myself to feel harshly toward him.”
The commissary looked as if he did not understand.
“What do you mean by humiliation, monsieur?”
“What!” said M. Fauvel, excitedly; “is not justice the same for all? Because I am the head of a bank, and he only a clerk, does it follow that my word is more to be relied upon than his? Why could I not have robbed myself? Such things have been done. They will ask me for facts; and I shall be compelled to expose the exact situation of my house, explain my affairs, disclose the secret and method of my operations.”
“It is true, monsieur, that you will be called upon for some explanation; but your well-known integrity–“
“Alas! He was honest, too. His integrity has never been doubted. Who would have been suspected this morning if I had not been able to instantly produce a hundred thousand crowns? Who would be suspected if I could not prove that my assets exceed my liabilities by more than three millions?”
To a strictly honorable man, the thought, the possibility of suspicion tarnishing his fair name, is cruel suffering. The banker suffered, and the commissary of police saw it, and felt for him.
“Be calm, monsieur,” said he; “before the end of a week justice will have collected sufficient proof to establish the guilt of this unfortunate man, whom we may now recall.”
Prosper entered with Fanferlot, whom they had much trouble to awaken, and with the most stolid indifference listened to the announcement of his arrest.
In response, he calmly said:
“I swear that I am innocent.”
M. Fauvel, much more disturbed and excited than his cashier, made a last attempt.
“It is not too late yet, poor boy,” he said: “for Heaven’s sake reflect—-“
Prosper did not appear to hear him. He drew from his pocket a small key, which he laid on the table, and said:
“Here is the key of your safe, monsieur. I hope for my sake that you will some day be convinced of my innocence; and I hope for your sake that the conviction will not come too late.”
Then, as everyone was silent, he resumed:
“Before leaving I hand over to you the books, papers, and accounts necessary for my successor. I must at the same time inform you that, without speaking of the stolen three hundred and fifty thousand francs, I leave a deficit in cash.”
“A deficit!” This ominous word from the lips of a cashier fell like a bombshell upon the ears of Prosper’s hearers.
His declaration was interpreted in divers ways.
“A deficit!” thought the commissary: “how, after this, can his guilt be doubted? Before stealing this whole contents of the safe, he has kept his hand in by occasional small thefts.”
“A deficit!” said the detective to himself, “now, no doubt, the very innocence of this poor devil gives his conduct an appearance of great depravity; were he guilty, he would have replaced the first money by a portion of the second.”
The grave importance of Prosper’s statement was considerably diminished by the explanation he proceeded to make.
“There is a deficit of three thousand five hundred francs on my cash account, which has been disposed of in the following manner: two thousand taken by myself in advance on my salary; fifteen hundred advanced to several of my fellow-clerks. This is the last day of the month; to-morrow the salaries will be paid, consequently–“
The commissary interrupted him:
“Were you authorized to draw money whenever you wished to advance the clerks’ pay?”
“No; but I knew that M. Fauvel would not have refused me permission to oblige my friends in the bank. What I did is done everywhere; I have simply followed my predecessor’s example.”
The banker made a sign of assent.
“As regards that spent by myself,” continued the cashier, “I had a sort of right to it, all of my savings being deposited in this bank; about fifteen thousand francs.”
“That is true,” said M. Fauvel; “M. Bertomy has at least that amount on deposit.”
This last question settled, the commissary’s errand was over, and his report might now be made. He announced his intention of leaving, and ordered to cashier to prepare to follow him.
Usually, this moment when stern reality stares us in the face, when our individuality is lost and we feel that we are being deprived of our liberty, this moment is terrible.
At this fatal command, “Follow me,” which brings before our eyes the yawning prison gates, the most hardened sinner feels his courage fail, and abjectly begs for mercy.
But Prosper lost none of that studied phlegm which the commissary of police secretly pronounced consummate impudence.
Slowly, with as much careless ease as if going to breakfast with a friend, he smoothed his hair, drew on his overcoat and gloves, and said, politely:
“I am ready to accompany you, monsieur.”
The commissary folded up his pocket-book, and bowed to M. Fauvel, saying to Prosper:
They left the room, and with a distressed face, and eyes filled with tears that he could not restrain, the banker stood watching their retreating forms.
“Good Heaven!” he exclaimed: “gladly would I give twice that sum to regain my old confidence in poor Prosper, and be able to keep him with me!”
The quick-eared Fanferlot overheard these words, and prompted to suspicion, and ever disposed to impute to others the deep astuteness peculiar to himself, was convinced they had been uttered for his benefit.
He had remained behind the others under pretext of looking for an imaginary umbrella, and, as he reluctantly departed, said he would call in again to see if it had been found.
It was Fanferlot’s task to escort Prosper to prison; but, as they were about starting, he asked the commissary to leave him at liberty to pursue another course, a request which his superior granted.
Fanferlot had resolved to obtain possession of Prosper’s note, which he knew to be in Cavaillon’s pocket.
To obtain this written proof, which must be an important one, appeared the easiest thing in the world. He had simply to arrest Cavaillon, frighten him, demand the letter, and, if necessary, take it by force.
But to what would this disturbance lead? To nothing unless it were an incomplete and doubtful result.
Fanferlot was convinced that the note was intended, not for the young clerk, but for a third person.
If exasperated, Cavaillon might refuse to divulge who this person was, who after all might not bear the name “Gypsy” given by the cashier. And, even if he did answer his questions, would he not lie?
After a mature reflection, Fanferlot decided that it would be superfluous to ask for a secret when it could be surprised. To quietly follow Cavaillon, and keep close watch on him until he caught him in the very act of handing over the letter, was but play for the detective.
This method of proceeding, moreover, was much more in keeping with the character of Fanferlot, who, being naturally soft and stealthy, deemed it due to his profession to avoid all disturbance or anything resembling evidence.
Fanferlot’s plan was settled when he reached the vestibule.
He began talking with an office-boy, and, after a few apparently idle questions, had discovered that the Fauvel bank had no outlet on the Rue de la Victoire, and that consequently all the clerks were obliged to pass in and out through the main entrance on the Rue de Provence.
From this moment the task he had undertaken no longer presented a shadow of difficulty. He rapidly crossed the street, and took up his position under a gateway.
His post of observation was admirably chosen; not only could he see everyone who entered and came out of the bank, but also commanded a view of all the windows, and by standing on tiptoe could look through the grating, and see Cavaillon bending over his desk.
Fanferlot waited a long time, but did not wax impatient, for he had often had to remain on watch entire days and nights at a time, with much less important objects in view than the present one. Besides, his mind was busily occupied in estimating the value of his discoveries, weighing his chances, and, like Perrette with her pot of milk, building the foundation of his fortune upon present success.
Finally, about one o’clock, he saw Cavaillon rise from his desk, change his coat, and take down his hat.
“Very good!” he exclaimed, “my man is coming out; I must keep my eyes open.”
The next moment Cavaillon appeared at the door of the bank; but before stepping on the pavement he looked up and down the street in an undecided manner.
“Can he suspect anything?” thought Fanferlot.
No, the young clerk suspected nothing; only having a commission to execute, and fearing his absence would be observed, he was debating with himself which would be the shortest road for him to take.
He soon decided, entered the Faubourg Montmartre, and walked up the Rue Notre Dame de Lorette so rapidly, utterly regardless of the grumbling passers-by whom he elbowed out of his way, that Fanferlot found it difficult to keep him in sight.
Reaching the Rue Chaptal, Cavaillon suddenly stopped, and entered the house numbered 39.
He had scarcely taken three steps in the narrow corridor when he felt a touch on his shoulder, and turning abruptly, found himself face to face with Fanferlot.
He recognized him at once, and turning very pale he shrank back, and looked around for means of escape.
But the detective, anticipating the attempt, barred the passage-way. Cavaillon saw that he was fairly caught.
“What do you want with me?” he asked in a voice tremulous with fright.
Fanferlot was distinguished among his confreres for his exquisite suavity and unequalled urbanity. Even with his prisoners he was the perfection of courtesy, and never was known to handcuff a man without first obsequiously apologizing for being compelled to do so.
“You will be kind enough, my dear monsieur,” he said, “to excuse the great liberty I take; but I really am under the necessity of asking you for a little information.”
“Information! From me, monsieur?”
“From you, my dear monsieur; from M. Eugene Cavaillon.”
“But I do not know you.”
“Ah, yes; you remember seeing me this morning. It is only about a trifling matter, and you will overwhelm me with obligations if you will do me the honor to accept my arm, and step outside for a moment.”
What could Cavaillon do? He took Fanferlot’s arm, and went out with him.
The Rue Chaptal is not one of those noisy thoroughfares where foot- passengers are in perpetual danger of being run over by numberless vehicles dashing to and fro; there were but two or three shops, and from the corner of Rue Fontaine occupied by an apothecary, to the entrance of the Rue Leonie, extended a high, gloomy wall, broken here and there by a small window which lighted the carpenters’ shops behind.
It was one of those streets where you could talk at your ease, without having to step from the sidewalk every moment. So Fanferlot and Cavaillon were in no danger of being disturbed by passers-by.
“What I wished to say is, my dear monsieur,” began the detective, “that M. Prosper Bertomy threw you a note this morning.”
Cavaillon vaguely foresaw that he was to be questioned about this note, and instantly put himself on his guard.
“You are mistaken,” he said, blushing to his ears.
“Excuse me, monsieur, for presuming to contradict you, but I am quite certain of what I say.”
“I assure you that Prosper never gave me anything.”
“Pray, monsieur, do not persist in a denial; you will compel me to prove that four clerks saw him throw you a note written in pencil and closely folded.”
Cavaillon saw the folly of further contradicting a man so well informed; so he changed his tactics, and said:
“It is true Prosper gave me a note this morning; but it was intended for me alone, and after reading it I tore it up, and threw the pieces in the fire.”
This might be the truth. Fanferlot feared so; but how could he assure himself of the fact? He remembered that the most palpable tricks often succeed the best, and trusting to his star, he said at hazard:
“Permit me to observe that this statement is not correct; the note was intrusted to you to give to Gypsy.”
A despairing gesture from Cavaillon apprised the detective that he was not mistaken; he breathed again.
“I swear to you, monsieur,” began the young man.
“Do not swear, monsieur,” interrupted Fanferlot; “all the oaths in the world would be useless. You not only preserved the note, but you came to this house for the purpose of giving it to Gypsy, and it is in your pocket now.”
“No, monsieur, no!”
Fanferlot paid no attention to this denial, but continued in his gentlest tone:
“And I am sure you will be kind enough to give it to me; believe me, nothing but the most absolute necessity–“
“Never!” exclaimed Cavaillon; and, believing the moment favorable, he suddenly attempted to jerk his arm from under Fanferlot’s, and escape.
But his efforts were vain; the detective’s strength was equal to his suavity.
“Don’t hurt yourself, young man,” he said, “but take my advice, and quietly give up the letter.”
“I have not got it.”
“Very well; see, you reduce me to painful extremities. If you persist in being so obstinate, I shall call two policemen, who will take you by each arm, and escort you to the commissary of police; and, once there, I shall be under the painful necessity of searching your pockets, whether you will or not.”
Cavaillon was devoted to Prosper, and willing to make any sacrifice in his behalf; but he clearly saw that it was worse than useless to struggle any longer, as he would have no time to destroy the note. To deliver it under force was no betrayal; but he cursed his powerlessness, and almost wept with rage.
“I am in your power,” he said, and then suddenly drew from his pocket- book the unlucky note, and gave it to the detective.
Fanferlot trembled with pleasure as he unfolded the paper; yet, faithful to his habits of fastidious politeness, before reading it, he bowed to Cavaillon, and said:
“You will permit me, will you not, monsieur?” Then he read as follows:
“DEAR NINA–If you love me, follow my instructions instantly, without a moment’s hesitation, without asking any questions. On the receipt of this note, take everything you have in the house, absolutely everything, and establish yourself in furnished rooms at the other end of Paris. Do not appear in public, but conceal yourself as much as possible. My life may depend on your obedience.
“I am accused of an immense robbery, and am about to be arrested. Take with you five hundred francs which you will find in the secretary.
“Leave your address with Cavaillon, who will explain what I have not time to tell. Be hopeful, whatever happens. Good-by. PROSPER.”
Had Cavaillon been less bewildered, he would have seen blank disappointment depicted on the detective’s face after the perusal of the note.
Fanferlot had cherished the hope that he was about to possess a very important document, which would clearly prove the guilt or innocence of Prosper; whereas he had only seized a love-letter written by a man who was evidently more anxious about the welfare of the woman he loved than about his own.
Vainly did he puzzle over the letter, hoping to discover some hidden meaning; twist the words as he would, they proved nothing for or against the writer.
The two words “absolutely everything” were underscored, it is true; but they could be interpreted in so many ways.
The detective, however, determined not to drop the matter here.
“This Mme. Nina Gypsy is doubtless a friend of M. Prosper Bertomy?”
“She is his particular friend.”
“Ah, I understand; and she lives here at No. 39?”
“You know it well enough, as you saw me go in there.”
“I suspected it to be the house, monsieur; now tell me whether the apartments she occupies are rented in her name.”
“No. Prosper rents them.”
“Exactly; and on which floor, if you please?”
“On the first.”
During this colloquy, Fanferlot had folded up the note, and slipped it into his pocket.
“A thousand thanks, monsieur, for the information; and, in return, I will relieve you of the trouble of executing your commission.”
“Yes: with your permission, I will myself take this note to Mme. Nina Gypsy.”
Cavaillon began to remonstrate; but Fanferlot cut him short by saying:
“I will also venture to give you a piece of advice. Return quietly to your business, and have nothing more to do with this affair.”
“But Prosper is a good friend of mine, and has saved me from ruin more than once.”
“Only the more reason for your keeping quiet. You cannot be of the slightest assistance to him, and I can tell you that you may be of great injury. As you are known to be his devoted friend, of course your absence at this time will be remarked upon. Any steps that you take in this matter will receive the worst interpretation.”
“Prosper is innocent, I am sure.”
Fanferlot was of the same opinion, but he had no idea of betraying his private thoughts; and yet for the success of his investigations it was necessary to impress the importance of prudence and discretion upon the young man. He would have told him to keep silent concerning what had passed between them, but he dared not.
“What you say may be true,” he said. “I hope it is, for the sake of M. Bertomy, and on your own account too; for, if he is guilty, you will certainly be very much annoyed, and perhaps suspected of complicity, as you are well known to be intimate with him.”
Cavaillon was overcome.
“Now you had best take my advice, monsieur, and return to your business, and–. Good-morning, monsieur.”
The poor fellow obeyed. Slowly and with swelling heart he returned to the Rue Notre Dame de Lorette. He asked himself how he could serve Prosper, warn Mme. Gypsy, and, above all, have his revenge upon this odious detective, who had just made him suffer cruel humiliation.
He had no sooner turned the corner of the street, than Fanferlot entered No. 39, gave his name to the porter as Prosper Bertomy, went upstairs, and knocked at the first door he came to.
It was opened by a youthful footman, dressed in the most fanciful livery.
“Is Mme. Gypsy at home?”
The groom hesitated; seeing this, Fanferlot showed his note, and said:
“M. Prosper told me to hand this note to madame, and wait for an answer.”
“Walk in, and I will let madame know you are here.”
The name of Prosper produced its effect. Fanferlot was ushered into a little room furnished in blue and gold silk damask. Heavy curtains darkened the windows, and hung in front of the doors. The floor was covered with a blue velvet carpet.
“Our cashier was certainly well lodged,” murmured the detective.
But he had no time to purse his inventory. One of the door-curtains was pushed aside, and Mme. Nina Gypsy stood before him.
Mme. Gypsy was quite young, small, and graceful, with a brown or rather gold-colored quadroon complexion, with the hands and feet of a child.
Long curling silk lashes softened the piercing brilliancy of her large black eyes; her lips were full, and her teeth were very white.
She had not yet made her toilet, but wore a velvet dressing-wrapper, which did not conceal the lace ruffles beneath. But she had already been under the hands of a hairdresser.
Her hair was curled and frizzed high on her forehead, and confined by narrow bands of red velvet; her back hair was rolled in an immense coil, and held by a beautiful gold comb.
She was ravishing. Her beauty was so startling that the dazzled detective was speechless with admiration.
“Well,” he said to himself, as he remembered the noble, severe beauty of Madeleine, whom he had seen a few hours previous, “our young gentleman certainly has good taste–very good taste–two perfect beauties!”
While he thus reflected, perfectly bewildered, and wondering how he could begin the conversation, Mme. Gypsy eyed him with the most disdainful surprise; she was waiting for this shabby little man in a threadbare coat and greasy hat to explain his presence in her dainty parlor.
She had many creditors, and was recalling them, and wondering which one had dared send this man to wipe his dusty boots on her velvet carpets.
After scrutinizing him from head to foot with undisguised contempt, she said, haughtily:
“What do you want?”
Anyone but Fanferlot would have been offended at her insolent manner; but he only noticed it to gain some notion of the young woman’s disposition.
“She is bad-tempered,” he thought, “and is uneducated.”
While he was speculating upon her merits, Mme. Nina impatiently tapped her little foot, and waited for an answer; finally she said:
“Why don’t you speak? What do you want here?”
“I am charged, my dear madame,” he answered in his softest tone, “by M. Bertomy, to give you this note.”
“From Prosper! You know him, then?”
“I have that honor, madame; indeed, I may be so bold as to claim him as a friend.”
“Monsieur! /You/ a friend of Prosper!” exclaimed Mme. Gypsy in a scornful tone, as if her pride were wounded.
Fanferlot did not condescend to notice this offensive exclamation. He was ambitious, and contempt failed to irritate him.
“I said a friend of his, madame, and there are few people who would have the courage to claim friendship for him now.”
Mme. Gypsy was struck by the words and manner of Fanferlot.
“I never could guess riddles,” she said, tartly: “will you be kind enough to explain what you mean?”
The detective slowly drew Prosper’s note from his pocket, and, with a bow, presented it to Mme. Gypsy.
“Read, madame,” he said.
She certainly anticipated no misfortune; although her sight was excellent, she stopped to fasten a tiny gold eyeglass on her nose, then carelessly opened the note.
At a glance she read its contents.
She turned very red, then very pale; she trembled as if with a nervous chill; her limbs seemed to give way, and she tottered so that Fanferlot, thinking she was about to fall, extended his arms to catch her.
Useless precaution! Mme. Gypsy was one of those women whose inert listlessness conceals indomitable energy; fragile-looking creatures whose powers of endurance and resistance are unlimited; cat-like in their soft grace and delicacy, especially cat-like in their nerves and muscles of steel.
The dizziness caused by the shock she had received quickly passed off. She tottered, but did not fall, and stood up looking stronger than ever; seizing the wrist of the detective, she held it as if her delicate little hand were a vice, and cried out:
“Explain yourself! what does all this mean? Do you know anything about the contents of this note?”
Although Fanferlot betrayed courage in daily contending with the most dangerous rascals, he was positively terrified by Mme. Gypsy.
“Alas!” he murmured.
“Prosper is to be arrested, accused of being a thief?”
“Yes, madame, he is accused of taking three hundred and fifty thousand francs from the bank-safe.”
“It is false, infamous, absurd!” she cried. She had dropped Fanferlot’s hand; and her fury, like that of a spoiled child, found vent in violent actions. She tore her web-like handkerchief, and the magnificent lace on her gown, to shreds.
“Prosper steal!” she cried; “what a stupid idea! Why should he steal? Is he not rich?”
“M. Bertomy is not rich, madame; he has nothing but his salary.”
The answer seemed to confound Mme. Gypsy.
“But,” she insisted, “I have always seen him have plenty of money; not rich–then—-“
She dared not finish; but her eye met Fanferlot’s, and they understood each other.
Mme. Nina’s look meant:
“He committed this robbery in order to gratify my extravagant whims.”
Fanferlot’s glance answered:
“Very likely, madame.”
A few minutes’ reflection convinced Nina that her first impression was the correct one. Doubt fled after hovering for an instant over her agitated mind.
“No!” she cried, “I regret to say that Prosper would never have stolen one cent for me. One can understand a man robbing a bank to obtain means of bestowing pleasure and luxury upon the woman he loves; but Prosper does not love me, he never has loved me.”
“Oh, fair lady!” protested the gallant and insinuating Fanferlot, “you surely cannot mean what you say.”
Her beautiful eyes filled with tears, as she sadly shook her head, and said:
“I mean exactly what I say. It is only too true. He is ready to gratify my every wish, you may say; what does that prove? Nothing. I am too well convinced that he does not love me. I know what love is. Once I was beloved by an affectionate, true-hearted man; and my own sufferings of the last year make me know how miserable I must have made him by my cold return. Alas! we must suffer ourselves before we can feel for others. No, I am nothing to Prosper; he would not care if–“
“But then, madame, why–“
“Ah, yes,” interrupted Nina, “why? you will be very wise if you can answer me. For a year have I vainly sought an answer to this question, so sad to me. I, a woman, cannot answer it; and I defy you to do so. You cannot discover the thoughts of a man so thoroughly master of himself that never is a single thought passing in his mind to be detected upon his countenance. I have watched him as only a woman can watch the man upon whom her fate depends, but it has always been in vain. He is kind and indulgent; but he does not betray himself, never will he commit himself. Ignorant people call him weak, yielding: I tell you that fair-haired man is a rod of iron painted like a reed!”
Carried away by the violence of her feelings, Mme. Nina betrayed her inmost thoughts. She was without distrust, never suspecting that the stranger listening to her was other than a friend of Prosper.
As for Fanferlot, he congratulated himself upon his success. No one but a woman could have drawn him so excellent a portrait; in a moment of excitement she had given him the most valuable information; he now knew the nature of the man with whom he had to deal, which in an investigation like that he was pursuing is the principal point.
“You know that M. Bertomy gambles,” he ventured to say, “and gambling is apt to lead a man–“
Mme. Gypsy shrugged her shoulders, and interrupted him:
“Yes, he plays,” she said, “but he is not a gambler. I have seen him lose and gain large sums without betraying the slightest agitation. He plays as he drinks, as he sups, as he falls in love–without passion, without enthusiasm, without pleasure. Sometimes he frightens me; he seems to drag about a body without a soul. Ah, I am not happy! Never have I been able to overcome his indifference, and indifference so great, so reckless, that I often think it must be despair; nothing will convince me that he has not some terrible secret, some great misfortune weighing upon his mind, and making life a burden.”
“Then he has never spoken to you of his past?”
“Why should he tell me? Did you not hear me? I tell you he does not love me!”
Mme. Nina was overcome by thoughts of the past, and tears silently coursed down her cheeks.
But her despair was only momentary. She started up, and, her eyes sparkling with generous resolution, she cried out:
“But I love him, and I will save him! I will see his chief, the miserable wretch who dares to accuse him. I will haunt the judges, and I will prove that he is innocent. Come, monsieur, let us start, and I promise you that before sunset he shall be free, or I shall be in prison with him.”
Mme. Gypsy’s project was certainly laudable, and prompted by the noblest sentiments; but unfortunately it was impracticable.
Moreover, it would be going counter to the plans of the detective.
Although he had resolved to reserve to himself all the difficulties as well as the benefits of this inquiry, Fanferlot saw clearly that he could not conceal the existence of Mme. Nina from the judge of instruction. She would necessarily be brought into the case, and sought for. But he did not wish her to take any steps of her own accord. He proposed to have her appear when and how he judged proper, so that he might gain for himself the merit of having discovered her.
His first step was to endeavor to calm the young woman’s excitement. He thought it easy to prove to her that the least interference in favor of Prosper would be a piece of folly.
“What will you gain by acting thus, my dear madame?” he asked. “Nothing. I can assure you that you have not the least chance of success. Remember that you will seriously compromise yourself. Who knows if you will not be suspected as M. Bertomy’s accomplice?”
But this alarming perspective, which had frightened Cavaillon into foolishly giving up a letter which he might so easily have retained, only stimulated Gypsy’s enthusiasm. Man calculates, while woman follows the inspirations of her heart. Our most devoted friend, if a man, hesitates and draws back: if a woman, rushes undauntedly forward, regardless of the danger.
“What matters the risk?” she exclaimed. “I don’t believe any danger exists; but, if it does, so much the better: it will be all the more to my credit. I am sure Prosper is innocent; but, if he should be guilty, I wish to share the punishment which awaits him.”
Mme. Gypsy’s persistence was becoming alarming. She hastily drew around her a cashmere shawl, and, putting on her hat, declared that she was ready to walk from one end of Paris to the other, in search of the judge.
“Come, monsieur,” she said with feverish impatience. “Are you not coming with me?”
Fanferlot was perplexed. Happily he always had several strings to his bow.
Personal considerations having no hold upon this impulsive nature, he resolved to appeal to her interest in Prosper.
“I am at your command, fair lady,” he said; “let us go if you desire it; only permit me, while there is yet time, to say that we are very probably going to do great injury to M. Bertomy.”
“In what way, if you please?”
“Because we are taking a step that he expressly forbade in his letter; we are surprising him–giving him no warning.”
Nina scornfully tossed her head, and replied:
“There are some people who must be saved without warning, and against their will. I know Prosper: he is just the man to let himself be murdered without a struggle, without speaking a word–to give himself up through sheer recklessness and despair.”
“Excuse me, madame,” interrupted the detective: “M. Bertomy has by no means the appearance of a man who has given up in despair. On the contrary, I think he has already laid his plan of defence. By showing yourself, when he advised you to remain in concealment, you will be very likely to make vain his most careful precautions.”
Mme. Gypsy was silently weighing the value of Fanferlot’s objections. Finally she said:
“I cannot remain here inactive, without attempting to contribute in some way to his safety. Can you not understand that this floor burns my feet?”
Evidently, if she was not absolutely convinced, her resolution was shaken. Fanferlot saw that he was gaining ground, and this certainty, making him more at ease, gave weight to his eloquence.
“You have it in your power, madame,” he said, “to render a great service to the man you love.”
“In what way, monsieur, in what way?”
“Obey him, my child,” said Fanferlot, in a paternal manner.
Mme. Gypsy evidently expected very different advice.
“Obey,” she murmured, “obey!”
“It is your duty,” said Fanferlot with grave dignity, “it is your sacred duty.”
She still hesitated; and he took from the table Prosper’s note, which