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M. Isidore Fortunat was not the man to go to sleep over a plan when it was once formed. Whenever he said to himself, "I'll do this, or that," he did it as soon as possible--that very evening, rather than the next day. Having sworn that he would find out Madame d'Argeles's son, the heir to the Count de Chalusse's millions, it did not take him long to decide which of his agents he would select to assist him in this difficult task. Thus his first care, on returning home, was to ask his bookkeeper for Victor Chupin's address.
"He lives in the Faubourg Saint-Denis," replied the bookkeeper, "at No.--."
"Very well," muttered M. Fortunat; "I'll go there as soon as I have eaten my dinner." And, indeed, as soon as he had swallowed his coffee, he requested Madame Dodelin to bring him his overcoat, and half an hour later he reached the door of the house where his clerk resided.
The house was one of those huge, ungainly structures, large enough to shelter the population of a small village, with three or four courtyards, as many staircases as there are letters in the alphabet, and a concierge who seldom remembers the names of the tenants except on quarter-days when he goes to collect the rent, and at New Year, when he expects a gratuity. But, by one of those lucky chances made expressly for M. Fortunat, the porter did recollect Chupin, knew him and was kindly disposed toward him, and so he told the visitor exactly how and where to find him. It was very simple. He had only to cross the first courtyard, take staircase D, on the left-hand side, ascend to the sixth floor, go straight ahead, etc., etc.
Thanks to this unusual civility, M. Fortunat did not lose his way more than five times before reaching the door upon which was fastened a bit of pasteboard bearing Victor Chupin's name. Noticing that a bell-rope hung beside the door, M. Fortunat pulled it, whereupon there was a tinkling, and a voice called out, "Come in!" He complied, and found himself in a small and cheaply furnished room, which was, however, radiant with the cleanliness which is in itself a luxury. The waxed floor shone like a mirror; the furniture was brilliantly polished, and the counterpane and curtains of the bed were as white as snow. What first attracted the agent's attention was the number of superfluous articles scattered about the apartment--some plaster statuettes on either side of a gilt clock, an etagere crowded with knickknacks, and five or six passable engravings. When he entered, Victor Chupin was sitting, in his shirt-sleeves, at a little table, where, by the light of a small lamp, and with a zeal that brought a flush to his cheeks, he was copying, in a very fair hand a page from a French dictionary. Near the bed, in the shade, sat a poorly but neatly clad woman about forty years of age, who was knitting industriously with some long wooden needles.
"M. Victor Chupin?" inquired M. Fortunat.
The sound of his voice made the young man spring to his feet. He quickly lifted the shade from his lamp, and, without attempting to conceal his astonishment, exclaimed: "M'sieur Fortunat!--at this hour! Where's the fire?" Then, in a grave manner that contrasted strangely with his accustomed levity: "Mother," said he, "this is one of my patrons, M'sieur Fortunat--you know--the gentleman whom I collect for."
The knitter rose, bowed respectfully, and said: "I hope, sir, that you are pleased with my son, and that he's honest."
"Certainly, madame," replied the agent; "certainly. Victor is one of my best and most reliable clerks."
"Then I'm content," said the woman, reseating herself.
Chupin also seemed delighted "This is my good mother, sir," said he. "She's almost blind now; but, in less than six months she will be able to stand at her window and see a pin in the middle of the street, so the physician who is treating her eyes promised me; then we shall be all right again. But take a seat, sir. May we venture to offer you anything?"
Although his clerk had more than once alluded to his responsibilities, M. Fortunat was amazed. He marvelled at the perfume of honesty which exhaled from these poor people, at the dignity of this humble woman, and at the protecting and respectful affection evinced by her son--a young man, whose usual tone of voice and general behavior had seemed to indicate that he was decidedly a scapegrace. "Thanks, Victor," he replied, "I won't take any refreshment. I've just left the dinner-table. I've come to give you my instructions respecting a very important and very urgent matter."
Chupin at once understood that his employer wished for a private interview. Accordingly, he took up the lamp, opened a door, and, in the pompous tone of a rich banker who is inviting some important personage to enter his private room, he said: "Will you be kind enough to step into my chamber, m'sieur?"
The room which Chupin so emphatically denominated his "chamber" was a tiny nook, extraordinarily clean, it is true, but scantily furnished with a small iron bedstead, a trunk, and a chair. He offered the chair to his visitor, placed the lamp on the trunk, and seated himself on the bed, saying as he did so: "This is scarcely on so grand a scale as your establishment, m'sieur; but I am going to ask the landlord to gild the window of my snuff-box."
M. Fortunat was positively touched. He held out his hand to his clerk and exclaimed: "You're a worthy fellow, Chupin."
"Nonsense, m'sieur, one does what one can; but, zounds! how hard it is to make money honestly! If my good mother could only see, she would help me famously, for there is no one like her for work! But you see one can't become a millionaire by knitting!"
"Doesn't your father live with you?"
Chupin's eyes gleamed angrily. "Ah! don't speak of that man to me, m'sieur!" he exclaimed, "or I shall hurt somebody." And then, as if he felt it necessary to explain and excuse his vindictive exclamation, he added: "My father, Polyte Chupin, is a good-for- nothing scamp. And yet he's had his opportunities. First, he was fortunate enough to find a wife like my mother, who is honesty itself--so much so that she was called Toinon the Virtuous when she was young. She idolized him, and nearly killed herself by working to earn money for him. And yet he abused her so much, and made her weep so much, that she has become blind. But that's not all. One morning there came to him--I don't know whence or how-- enough money for him to have lived like a gentleman. I believe it was a munificent reward for some service he had rendered a great nobleman at the time when my grandmother, who is now dead, kept a dramshop called the Poivriere. Any other man would have treasured that money, but not he. What he did was to carouse day and night, and all the while my poor mother was working her fingers to the bone to earn food for me. She never saw a penny of all his money; and, indeed, once when she asked him to pay the rent, he beat her so cruelly that she was laid up in bed for a week. However, monsieur, you can very readily understand that when a man leads that kind of life, he speedily comes to the end of his banking account. So my father was soon without a penny in his purse, and then he was obliged to work in order to get something to eat, and this didn't suit him at all. But when he didn't know where to find a crust he remembered us; he sought us out, and found us. Once I lent him a hundred sous; the next day he came for forty more, and the next for three francs; then for five francs again. And so it was every day: 'Give me this, or give me that!' At last I said, 'Enough of this, the bank's closed!' Then, what do you think he did? He watched the house until he saw me go out; then he came in with a second-hand furniture-dealer, and tried to sell everything, pretending that he was the master. And my poor, dear mother would have allowed him to do it. Fortunately, I happened to come in again. Let him sell my furniture? Not I. I would sooner have been chopped in pieces! I went and complained to the commissary of police, who made my father leave the house, and since then we've lived in peace."
Certainly this was more than sufficient to explain and excuse Victor Chupin's indignation. And yet he had prudently withheld the most serious and important cause of his dislike. What he refrained from telling was that years before, when he was still a mere child, without will or discernment, his father had taken him from his mother, and had started him down that terrible descent, which inevitably leads one to prison or the gallows, unless there be an almost miraculous interposition on one's behalf. This miracle had occurred in Chupin's case; but he did not boast of it.
"Come, come!" said M. Fortunat, "don't worry too much about it. A father's a father after all, and yours will undoubtedly reform by and by."
He said this as he would have said anything else, out of politeness and for the sake of testifying a friendly interest; but he really cared no more for this information concerning the Chupin family than the grand Turk. His first emotion had quickly vanished; and he was beginning to find these confidential disclosures rather wearisome. "Let us get back to business," he remarked; "that is to say, to Casimir. What did you do with the fool after my departure?"
"First, monsieur, I sobered him; which was no easy task. The greedy idiot had converted himself into a wine-cask! At last, however, when he could talk as well as you and I, and walk straight, I took him back to the Hotel de Chalusse."
"That was right. But didn't you have some business to transact with him?"
"That's been arranged, monsieur; the agreement has been signed. The count will have the best of funerals--the finest hearse out, with six horses, twenty-four mourning coaches--a grand display, in fact. It will be worth seeing."
M. Fortunat smiled graciously. "That ought to bring you a handsome commission," he said, benignly.
Employed by the job, Chupin was the master of his own time, free to utilize his intelligence and industry as he chose, but M. Fortunat did not like his subordinates to make any money except through him. Hence his approval, in the present instance, was so remarkable that it awakened Chupin's suspicions. "I shall make a few sous, probably," he modestly replied, "a trifle to aid my good mother in keeping the pot boiling."
"So much the better, my boy," said M. Fortunat. "I like to see money gained by those who make a good use of it. And to prove this, I'm about to employ you in an affair which will pay you handsomely if you prosecute it successfully."
Chupin's eyes brightened at first but grew dark a moment afterward, for delight had been quickly followed by a feeling of distrust. He thought it exceedingly strange that an employer should take the trouble to climb to a sixth floor merely for the purpose of conferring a favor on his clerk. There must be something behind all this; and so it behove him to keep his eyes open. However, he knew how to conceal his real feelings; and it was with a joyous air that he exclaimed: "Eh! What? Money? Now? What must I do to earn it?"
"Oh! a mere trifle," replied the agent; "almost nothing, indeed." And drawing his chair nearer to the bed on which his employee was seated, he added: "But first, one question, Victor. By the way in which a woman looks at a young man in the street, at the theatre or anywhere--would you know if she were watching her son?"
Chupin shrugged his shoulders. "What a question!" he retorted. "Nonsense! monsieur, it would be impossible to deceive me. I should only have to remember my mother's eyes when I return home in the evening. Poor woman! although she's half blind, she sees me--and if you wish to make her happy, you've only to tell her I'm the handsomest and most amiable youth in Paris."
M. Fortunat could not refrain from rubbing his hands, so delighted was he to see his idea so perfectly understood and so admirably expressed. "Good!" he declared; "very good! That's intelligence, if I am any judge. I have not been deceived in you, Victor."
Victor was on fire with curiosity. "What am I to do, monsieur?" he asked eagerly.
"This: you must follow a woman whom I shall point out to you, follow her everywhere without once losing sight of her, and so skilfully as not to let her suspect it. You must watch her every glance, and when her eyes tell you that she is looking at her son, your task will be nearly over. You will then only have to follow this son, and find out his name and address, what he does, and how he lives. I don't know if I explain what I mean very clearly."
This doubt was awakened in M. Fortunat's mind by Chupin's features, which were expressive of lively astonishment and discontent. "Excuse me, monsieur," he said, at last, "I do not understand at all."
"It's very simple, however. The lady in question has a son about twenty. I know it--I'm sure of it. But she denies it; she conceals the fact, and he doesn't even know her. She secretly watches over him, however--she provides him with money, and every day she finds some way of seeing him. Now, it is to my interest to find this son."
Chupin's mobile face became actually threatening in its expression; he frowned darkly, and his lips quivered. Still this did not prevent M. Fortunat from adding, with the assurance of a man who does not even suspect the possibility of a refusal: "Now, when shall we set about our task?"
"Never!" cried Chupin, violently; and, rising, he continued: "No! I wouldn't let my good mother eat bread earned in that way--it would strangle her! Turn spy! I? Thanks--some one else may have the job!" He had become as red as a turkey-cock, and such was his indignation that he forgot his accustomed reserve and the caution with which he had so far concealed his antecedents. "I know this game--I've tried it!" he went on, vehemently. "One might as well take one's ticket to prison by a direct road. I should be there now if it hadn't been for Monsieur Andre. I was thirsting for gold, and, like the brigand that I was, I should have killed the man; but in revenge he drew me from the mire and placed my feet on solid ground once more. And now, shall I go back to my vile tricks again? Why, I'd rather cut my leg off! I'm to hunt down this poor woman--I'm to discover her secret so that you may extort money from her, am I? No, not I! I should like to be rich, and I shall be rich; but I'll make my money honestly. I hope to touch my hundred-franc pieces without being obliged to wash my hands afterward. So, a very good evening to your establishment."
M. Fortunat was amazed, and at the same time much annoyed, to find himself forsaken on account of such a trifle. He feared, too, that Chupin might let his tongue wag if he left his employment. So, since he had confided this project to Chupin, he was determined that Chupin alone should carry it into execution. Assuming his most severe and injured manner, he sternly exclaimed: "I think you have lost your senses." His demeanor and intonation were so perfectly cool that Chupin seemed slightly abashed. "It seems that you think me capable of urging you to commit some dangerous and dishonorable act," continued M. Fortunat.
"Why--no--m'sieur--I assure you "
There was such evident hesitation in the utterance of this "no" that the agent at once resumed: "Come, you are not ignorant of the fact that in addition to my business as a collector, I give my attention to the discovery of the heirs of unclaimed estates? You are aware of this? Very well then: pray tell me how I am to find them without searching for them? If I wish this lady to be watched, it is only in view of reaching a poor lad who is likely to be defrauded of the wealth that rightfully belongs to him. And when I give you a chance to make forty or fifty francs in a couple of days, you receive my proposition in this style! You are an ingrate and a fool, Victor!"
Chupin's nature combined, in a remarkable degree, the vices and peculiarities of the dweller in the Paris faubourgs, who is born old, but who, when aged in years, still remains a gamin. In his youth he had seen many strange things, and acquired a knowledge of life that would have put the experience of a philosopher to shame. But he was not fit to cope with M. Fortunat, who had an immense advantage over him, by reason of his position of employer, as well as by his fortune and education. So Chupin was both bewildered and disconcerted by the cool arguments his patron brought forward; and what most effectually allayed his suspicions was the small compensation offered for the work--merely forty or fifty francs. "Small potatoes, upon my word!" he thought. "Just the price of an honest service; he would have offered more for a piece of rascality." So, after considering a moment, he said, aloud: "Very well; I'm your man, m'sieur."
M. Fortunat was secretly laughing at the success of his ruse. Having come with the intention of offering his agent a handsome sum, he was agreeably surprised to find that Chupin's scruples would enable him to save his money. "If I hadn't found you engaged in study, Victor," he said, "I should have thought you had been drinking. What venomous insect stung you so suddenly? Haven't I confided similar undertakings to you twenty times since you have been in my employment? Who ransacked Paris to find certain debtors who were concealing themselves? Who discovered the Vantrassons for me? Victor Chupin. Very well. Then allow me to say that I see nothing in this case in any way differing from the others, nor can I understand why this should be wrong, if the others were not."
Chupin could only have answered this remark by saying that there had been no mystery about the previous affairs, that they had not been proposed to him late at night at his own home, and that he had acted openly, as a person who represents a creditor has a recognized right to act. But, though he felt that there was a difference in the present case, it would have been very difficult for him to explain in what this difference consisted. Hence, in his most resolute tone: "I'm only a fool, m'sieur," he declared; "but I shall know how to make amends for my folly."
"That means you have recovered your senses," said M. Fortunat, ironically. "Really, that's fortunate. But let me give you one bit of advice: watch yourself, and learn to bridle your tongue. You won't always find me in such a good humor as I am this evening."
So saying, he rose, passed out into the adjoining room, bowed civilly to his clerk's mother, and went off. His last words, as he crossed the threshold, were, "So I shall rely upon you. Be at the office to-morrow a little before noon."
"It's agreed m'sieur."
The blind woman had risen, and had bowed respectfully; but, as soon as she was alone with her son, she asked: "What is this business he bids you undertake in such a high and mighty tone?"
"Oh! an every-day matter, mother."
The old woman shook her head. "Why were you talking so loud then?" she inquired. "Weren't you quarrelling? It must be something very grave when it's necessary to conceal it from me. I couldn't see your employer's face, my son; but I heard his voice, and it didn't please me. It isn't the voice of an honest, straightforward man. Take care, Toto, and don't allow yourself to be cajoled--be prudent."
However, it was quite unnecessary to recommend prudence to Victor Chupin. He had promised his assistance, but not without a mental reservation. "No need to see danger till it comes," he had said to himself. "If the thing proves to be of questionable propriety after all, then good-evening; I desert."
It remains to know what he meant by questionable propriety; the meaning of the expression is rather vague. He had returned in all honesty and sincerity of purpose to an honest life, and nothing in the world would have induced him, avaricious though he was, to commit an act that was positively wrong. Only the line that separates good from evil was not very clearly defined in his mind. This was due in a great measure to his education, and to the fact that it had been long before he realized that police regulations do not constitute the highest moral law. It was due also to chance, and, since he had no decided calling, to the necessity of depending for a livelihood upon the many strange professions which impecunious and untrained individuals, both of the higher and lower classes, adopt in Paris.
However, on the following morning he arrayed himself in his best apparel, and at exactly half-past eleven o'clock he rang at his employer's door. M. Fortunat had made quick work with his clients that morning, and was ready, dressed to go out. He took up his hat and said only the one word, "Come." The place where the agent conducted his clerk was the wine-shop in the Rue de Berry, where he had made inquiries respecting Madame d'Argeles the evening before; and on arriving there, he generously offered him a breakfast. Before entering, however, he pointed out Madame d'Argeles's pretty house on the opposite side of the street, and said to him: "The woman whom you are to follow, and whose son you are to discover, will emerge from that house "
At that moment, after a night passed in meditating upon his mother's prophetic warnings, Chupin was again beset by the same scruples which had so greatly disturbed him on the previous evening. However, they soon vanished when he heard the wine- vendor, in reply to M. Fortunat's skilful questions, begin to relate all he knew concerning Madame Lia d'Argeles, and the scandalous doings at her house. The seeker after lost heirs and his clerk were served at a little table near the door; and while they partook of the classical beef-steak and; potatoes--M. Fortunat eating daintily, and Chupin bolting his food with the appetite of a ship-wrecked mariner--they watched the house opposite.
Madame d'Argeles received on Saturdays, and, as Chupin remarked, "there was a regular procession of visitors."
Standing beside M. Fortunat, and flattered by the attention which such a well-dressed gentleman paid to his chatter, the landlord of the house mentioned the names of all the visitors he knew. And he knew a good number of them, for the coachmen came to his shop for refreshments when their masters were spending the night in play at Madame d'Argeles's house. So he was able to name the Viscount de Coralth, who dashed up to the door in a two-horse phaeton, as well as Baron Trigault, who came on foot, for exercise, puffing and blowing like a seal. The wine-vendor, moreover, told his customers that Madame d'Argeles never went out before half-past two or three o'clock, and then always in a carriage--a piece of information which must have troubled Chupin; for, as soon as the landlord had left them to serve some other customers, he leant forward and said to M. Fortunat: "Did you hear that? How is it possible to track a person who's in a carriage?"
"By following in another vehicle, of course."
"Certainly, m'sieur; that's as clear as daylight. But that isn't the question. The point is this: How can one watch the face of a person who turns her back to you? I must see this woman's face to know whom she looks at, and how."
This objection, grave as it appeared, did not seem to disturb M. Fortunat. "Don't worry about that, Victor," he replied. "Under such circumstances, a mother wouldn't try to see her son from a rapidly moving carriage. She will undoubtedly alight, and contrive some means of passing and repassing him--of touching him, if possible. Your task will only consist in following her closely enough to be on the ground as soon as she is. Confine your efforts to that; and if you fail to-day, you'll succeed to-morrow or the day after--the essential thing is to be patient."
He did better than to preach patience--he practised it. The hours wore away, and yet he did not stir from his post, though nothing could have been more disagreeable to him than to remain on exhibition, as it were, at the door of a wine-shop. At last, at a little before three o'clock, the gates over the way turned upon their hinges, and a dark-blue victoria, in which a woman was seated, rolled forth into the street. "Look!" said M. Fortunat, eagerly. "There she is!"
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