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The clock on the mantel-shelf struck half-past four. The magistrate and Mademoiselle Marguerite could hear stealthy footsteps in the hall, and a rustling near the door. The servants were prowling round about the study, wondering what was the reason of this prolonged conference. "I must see how the clerk is progressing with the inventory." said the magistrate. "Excuse me if I absent myself for a moment; I will soon return." And so saying he rose and left the room.
But it was only a pretext. He really wished to conceal his emotion and regain his composure, for he had been deeply affected by the young girl's narrative. He also needed time for reflection, for the situation had become extremely complicated since Mademoiselle Marguerite had informed him of the existence of heirs--of those mysterious enemies who had poisoned the count's peace. These persons would, of course, require to know what had become of the millions deposited in the escritoire, and who would be held accountable for the missing treasure? Mademoiselle Marguerite, unquestionably. Such were the thoughts that flitted through the magistrate's mind as he listened to his clerk's report. Nor was this all; for having solicited Mademoiselle Marguerite's confidence, he must now advise her. And this was a matter of some difficulty.
However, when he returned to the study he was quite self-possessed and impassive again, and he was pleased to see that on her side the unfortunate girl had, to some extent, at least, recovered her wonted composure. "Let us now discuss the situation calmly," he began. "I shall convince you that your prospects are not so frightful as you imagine. But before speaking of the future, will you allow me to refer to the past?" The girl bowed her consent. "Let us first of all consider the subject of the missing millions. They were certainly in the escritoire when M. de Chalusse replaced the vial; but now they are not to be found, so that the count must have taken them away with him."
"That thought occurred to me also."
"Did the treasure form a large package?"
"Yes, it was large; but it could have been easily concealed under the cloak which M. de Chalusse wore."
"Very good! What was the time when he left the house?"
"About five o'clock."
"When was he brought back?"
"At about half-past six."
"Where did the cabman pick him up?"
"Near the church of Notre Dame de Lorette, so he told me."
"Do you know the driver's number?"
"Casimir asked him for it, I believe."
Had any one inquired the reason of this semi-official examination, the magistrate would have replied that Mademoiselle Marguerite's interests alone influenced him in the course he was taking. This was quite true; and yet, without being altogether conscious of the fact, he was also impelled by another motive. This affair interested, almost fascinated, him on account of its mysterious surroundings, and influenced by the desire for arriving at the truth which is inherent in every human heart, he was anxious to solve the riddle. After a few moments' thoughtful silence, he remarked: "So the point of departure in our investigation, if there is an investigation, will be this: M. de Chalusse left the house with two millions in his possession; and while he was absent, he either disposed of that enormous sum--or else it was stolen from him."
Mademoiselle Marguerite shuddered. "Oh! stolen," she faltered.
"Yes, my child--anything is possible. We must consider the situation in every possible light. But to continue. Where was M. de Chalusse going?"
"To the house of a gentleman who would, he thought, be able to furnish the address given in the letter he had torn up."
"What was this gentleman's name?"
The magistrate wrote the name down on his tablets, and then, resuming his examination, he said: "Now, in reference to this unfortunate letter which, in your opinion, was the cause of the count's death, what did it say?"
"I don't know, monsieur. It is true that I helped the count in collecting the fragments, but I did not read what was written on them."
"That is of little account. The main thing is to ascertain who wrote the letter. You told me that it could only have come from the sister who disappeared thirty years ago, or else from your mother."
"That was, and still is, my opinion."
The magistrate toyed with his ring; and a smile of satisfaction stole over his face. "Very well!" he exclaimed, "in less than five minutes I shall be able to tell you whether the letter was from your mother or not. My method is perfectly simple. I have only to compare the handwriting with that of the letters found in the escritoire."
Mademoiselle Marguerite sprang up, exclaiming: "What a happy idea!"
But without seeming to notice the girl's surprise, he added: "Where are the remnants of this letter which you and the count picked up in the garden?"
"M. de Chalusse placed them in his pocket."
"They must be found. Tell the count's valet to look for them."
The girl rang; but M. Casimir, who was supposed to be engaged in making preparations for the funeral, was not in the house. However, another servant and Madame Leon offered their services, and certainly displayed the most laudable zeal, but their search was fruitless; the fragments of the letter could not be found. "How unfortunate!" muttered the magistrate, as he watched them turn the pockets of the count's clothes inside out. "What a fatality! That letter would probably have solved the mystery."
Compelled to submit to this disappointment, he returned to the study; but he was evidently discouraged. Although he did not consider the mystery insoluble, far from it, he realized that time and research would be required to arrive at a solution, and that the affair was quite beyond his province. One hope alone remained.
By carefully studying the last words which M. de Chalusse had written and spoken he might arrive at the intention which had dictated them. Experience had wonderfully sharpened his penetration, and perhaps he might discover a hidden meaning which would throw light upon all this doubt and uncertainty. Accordingly, he asked Mademoiselle Marguerite for the paper upon which the count had endeavored to pen his last wishes; and in addition he requested her to write on a card the dying man's last words in the order they had been uttered. But on combining the written and the spoken words the only result obtained was as follows:--"My entire fortune--give--friends--against--Marguerite-- despoiled--your mother--take care." These twelve incoherent words revealed the count's absorbing and poignant anxiety concerning his fortune and Marguerite's future, and also the fear and aversion with which Marguerite's mother inspired him. But that was all; the sense was not precise enough for any practical purpose. Certainly the word "give" needed no explanation. It was plain that the count had endeavored to write, "I give my entire fortune." The meaning of the word "despoiled" was also clear. It had evidently been wrung from the half-unconscious man by the horrible thought that Marguerite--his own daughter, unquestionably--would not have a penny of all the millions he had intended for her. "Take care" also explained itself. But there were two words which seemed absolutely incomprehensible to the magistrate, and which he vainly strove to connect with the others in an intelligible manner. These were the words "friends" and "against," and they were the most legibly written of all. For the thirtieth time the magistrate was repeating them in an undertone, when a rap came at the door, and almost immediately Madame Leon entered the room.
"What is it?" inquired Mademoiselle Marguerite.
Laying a package of letters, addressed to M. de Chalusse, on the desk, the housekeeper replied: "These have just come by the post for the poor count. Heaven rest his soul!" And then handing a newspaper to Mademoiselle Marguerite, she added, in an unctuous tone: "And some one left this paper for mademoiselle at the same time."
"This paper--for me? You must be mistaken."
"Not at all. I was in the concierge's lodge when the messenger brought it; and he said it was for Mademoiselle Marguerite, from one of her friends." And with these words she made one of her very best courtesies, and withdrew.
The girl had taken the newspaper, and now, with an air of astonishment and apprehension, she slowly unfolded it. What first attracted her attention was a paragraph on the first page marked round with red chalk. The paper had evidently been sent in order that she might read this particular passage, and accordingly she began to peruse it. "There was a great sensation and a terrible scandal last evening at the residence of Madame d'A----, a well known star of the first magnitude----"
It was the shameful article which described the events that had robbed Pascal of his honor. And to make assurance doubly sure, to prevent the least mistake concerning the printed initials, the coward who sent the paper had appended the names of the persons mixed up in the affair, at full length, in pencil. He had written d'Argeles, Pascal Ferailleur, Ferdinand de Coralth, Rochecote. And yet, in spite of these precautions, the girl did not at first seize the full meaning of the article; and she was obliged to read it over again. But when she finally understood it--when the horrible truth burst upon her--the paper fell from her nerveless hands, she turned as pale as death, and, gasping for breath, leaned heavily against the wall for support.
Her features expressed such terrible suffering that the magistrate sprang from his chair with a bound. "What has happened?" he eagerly asked.
She tried to reply, but finding herself unable to do so, she pointed to the paper lying upon the floor, and gasped: "There! there!"
The magistrate understood everything at the first glance; and this man, who had witnessed so much misery--who had been the confidant of so many martyrs--was filled with consternation at thought of the misfortunes which destiny was heaping upon this defenceless girl. He approached her, and led her gently to an arm-chair, upon which she sank, half fainting. "Poor child!" he murmured. "The man you had chosen--the man whom you would have sacrificed everything for--is Pascal Ferailleur, is he not?"
"Yes, it is he."
"He is an advocate?"
"As I have already told you, monsieur."
"Does he live in the Rue d'Ulm?"
The magistrate shook his head sadly. "It is the same," said he. "I also know him, my poor child; and I loved and honored him. Yesterday I should have told you that he was worthy of you. He was above slander. But now, see what depths love of play has brought him to. He is a thief!"
Mademoiselle Marguerite's weakness vanished. She sprang from her chair, and indignantly faced the magistrate. "It is false!" she cried, vehemently; "and what that paper says is false as well!"
Had her reason been affected by so many successive blows? It seemed likely; for, livid a moment before, her face had now turned scarlet. She trembled nervously from head to foot, and there was a gleam of insanity in her big black eyes.
"If she doesn't weep, she is lost," thought the magistrate. And, instead of encouraging her to hope, he deemed it best to try and destroy what he considered a dangerous illusion. "Alas! my poor child," he said sadly, "you must not deceive yourself. The newspapers are often hasty in their judgment; but an article like that is only published when proof of its truth is furnished by witnesses of unimpeachable veracity."
She shrugged her shoulders as if she were listening to some monstrous absurdities, and then thoughtfully muttered: "Ah! now Pascal's silence is explained: now I understand why he has not yet replied to the letter I wrote him last night."
The magistrate persevered, however, and added: "So, after the article you have just read, no one can entertain the shadow of a doubt."
Mademoiselle Marguerite hastily interrupted him. "But I have not doubted him for a second!" she exclaimed. "Doubt Pascal! I doubt Pascal! I would sooner doubt myself. I might commit a dishonorable act; I am only a poor, weak, ignorant girl, while he-- he---- You don't know, then, that he was my conscience? Before undertaking anything, before deciding upon anything, if ever I felt any doubt, I asked myself, 'What would he do? ' And the mere thought of him is sufficient to banish any unworthy idea from my heart." Her tone and manner betokened complete and unwavering confidence; and her faith imparted an almost sublime expression to her face. "If I was overcome, monsieur," she continued, "it was only because I was appalled by the audacity of the accusation. How was it possible to make Pascal even seem to be guilty of a dishonorable act? This is beyond my powers of comprehension. I am only certain of one thing--that he is innocent. If the whole world rose to testify against him, it would not shake my faith in him, and even if he confessed that he was guilty I should be more likely to believe that he was crazed than culpable!"
A bitter smile curved her lips, she was beginning to judge the situation more correctly, and in a calmer tone she resumed: "Moreover, what does circumstantial evidence prove? Did you not this morning hear all our servants declaring that I was accountable for M. de Chalusse's millions? Who knows what might have happened if it had not been for your intervention? Perhaps, by this time, I should have been in prison."
"This is not a parallel case, my child."
"It is a parallel case, monsieur. Suppose, for one moment, that I had been formally accused--what do you think Pascal would have replied if people had gone to him, and said, 'Marguerite is a thief?' He would have laughed them to scorn, and have exclaimed, 'Impossible!"'
The magistrate's mind was made up. In his opinion, Pascal Ferailleur was guilty. Still it was useless to argue with the girl, for he felt that he should not be able to convince her. However, he determined, if possible, to ascertain her plans in order to oppose them, if they seemed to him at all dangerous. "Perhaps you are right, my child," he conceded, "still, this unfortunate affair must change all your arrangements."
"Rather, it modifies them." Surprised by her calmness, he looked at her inquiringly. "An hour ago," she added, "I had resolved to go to Pascal and claim his aid and protection as one claims an undeniable right or the fulfilment of a solemn promise; but now--"
"Well?" eagerly asked the magistrate.
"I am still resolved to go to him--but as an humble suppliant. And I shall say to him, 'You are suffering, but no sorrow is intolerable when there are two to bear the burden; and so, here I am. Everything else may fail you--your dearest friends may basely desert you; but here am I. Whatever your plans may be--whether you have decided to leave Europe or to remain in Paris to watch for your hour of vengeance, you will need a faithful, trusty companion--a confidant--and here I am! Wife, friend, sister--I will be which ever you desire. I am yours--yours unconditionally.'" And as if in reply to a gesture of surprise which escaped the magistrate, she added: "He is unhappy--I am free--I love him!"
The magistrate was struck dumb with astonishment. He knew that she would surely do what she said; he had realized that she was one of those generous, heroic women who are capable of any sacrifice for the man they love--a woman who would never shrink from what she considered to be her duty, who was utterly incapable of weak hesitancy or selfish calculation.
"Fortunately, my dear young lady, your devotion will no doubt be useless," he said at last.
"Because M. Ferailleur owes it to you, and, what is more, he owes it to himself, not to accept such a sacrifice." Failing to understand his meaning, she looked at him inquiringly. "You will forgive me, I trust," he continued, "if I warn you to prepare for a disappointment. Innocent or guilty, M. Ferailleur is-- disgraced. Unless something little short of a miracle comes to help him, his career is ended. This is one of those charges--one of those slanders, if you prefer that term, which a man can never shake off. So how can you hope that he will consent to link your destiny to his?"
She had not thought of this objection, and it seemed to her a terrible one. Tears came to her dark eyes, and in a despondent voice she murmured: "God grant that he will not evince such cruel generosity. The only great and true misfortune that could strike me now would be to have him repel me. M. de Chalusse's death leaves me without means--without bread; but now I can almost bless my poverty since it enables me to ask him what would become of me if he abandoned me, and who would protect me if he refused to do so. The brilliant career he dreamed of is ended, you say. Ah, well! I will console him, and though we are unfortunate, we may yet be happy. Our enemies are triumphant--so be it: we should only tarnish our honor by stooping to contend against such villainy. But in some new land, in America, perhaps, we shall be able to find some quiet spot where we can begin a new and better career." It was almost impossible to believe that it was Mademoiselle Marguerite, usually so haughtily reserved, who was now speaking with such passionate vehemence. And to whom was she talking in this fashion? To a stranger, whom she saw for the first time. But she was urged on by circumstances, the influence of which was stronger than her own will. They had led her to reveal her dearest and most sacred feelings and to display her real nature free from any kind of disguise.
However, the magistrate concealed the emotion and sympathy which filled his heart and refused to admit that the girl's hopes were likely to be realized. "And if M. Ferailleur refused to accept your sacrifice?" he asked.
"It is not a sacrifice, monsieur."
"No matter; but supposing he refused it, what should you do?"
"What should I do?" she muttered. "I don't know. Still I should have no difficulty in earning a livelihood. I have been told that I have a remarkable voice. I might, perhaps, go upon the stage."
The magistrate sprang from his arm-chair. "You become an actress, you?"
"Under such circumstances it would little matter what became of me!"
"But you don't suspect--you cannot imagine----"
He was at a loss for words to explain the nature of his objections to such a career; and it was Mademoiselle Marguerite who found them for him. "I suspect that theatrical life is an abominable life for a woman," she said, gravely; "but I know that there are many noble and chaste women who have adopted the profession. That is enough for me. My pride is a sufficient protection. It preserved me as an apprentice; it would preserve me as an actress. I might be slandered; but that is not an irremediable misfortune. I despise the world too much to be troubled by its opinion so long as I have the approval of my own conscience. And why should I not become a great artiste if I consecrated all the intelligence, passion, energy, and will I might possess, to my art?"
Hearing a knock at the door she paused; and a moment later a footman entered with lights, for night was falling. He was closely followed by another servant, who said: "Mademoiselle, the Marquis de Valorsay is below, and wishes to know if mademoiselle will grant him the honor of an interview."
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