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"Ah! this is a bad job!" growled Chupin. "Go, go, and never stop!"
What exasperated him even more than his want of sleep was the thought that his good mother must be waiting for him at home in an agony of anxiety; for since his reformation he had become remarkably regular in his habits. What should he do? "Go home," said Reason; "it will be easy enough to find this Wilkie again. There can be little doubt that he lives at No. 48, in the Rue du Helder." "Remain," whispered Avarice; "and, since you have accomplished so much, finish your work. M. Fortunat won't pay for conjectures, but for a certainty."
Love of money carried the day; so, weaving an interminable chaplet of oaths, he followed the party until they entered Brebant's restaurant, one of the best known establishments which remain open at night-time. It was nearly two o'clock in the morning now; the boulevard was silent and deserted, and yet this restaurant was brilliantly lighted from top to bottom, and snatches of song and shouts of laughter, with the clatter of knives and forks and the clink of glasses, could be heard through the half opened windows.
"Eight dozen Marennes for No. 6," shouted a waiter to the man who opened oysters near the restaurant door.
On hearing this order, Chupin shook his clenched fist at the stars. "The wretches!" he muttered through his set teeth; "bad luck to them! Those oysters are for their mouths, plainly enough, for there are eight of them in all, counting those yellow-haired women. They will, no doubt, remain at table until six o'clock in the morning. And they call this enjoying themselves. And meanwhile, poor little Chupin must wear out his shoe-leather on the pavement. Ah! they shall pay for this!"
It ought to have been some consolation to him to see that he was not alone in his misery, for in front of the restaurant stood a dozen cabs with sleepy drivers, who were waiting for chance to send them one of those half-intoxicated passengers who refuse to pay more than fifteen sous for their fare, but give their Jehu a gratuity of a louis. All these vehicles belonged to the peculiar category known as "night cabs"--dilapidated conveyances with soiled, ragged linings, and drawn by half-starved, jaded horses.
However, Chupin neither thought of these vehicles, nor of the poor horses, nor, indeed, of the drivers themselves. His wrath had been succeeded by philosophical resignation; he accepted with good grace what he could not avoid. As the night air had become very cool, he turned up the collar of his overcoat, and began to pace to and fro on the pavement in front of the restaurant. He had made a hundred turns perhaps, passing the events of the day in review, when suddenly such a strange and startling idea flashed across his mind that he stood motionless, lost in astonishment. Reflecting on the manner in which M. Wilkie and the Viscount de Coralth had behaved during the evening, a singular suspicion assailed him. While M. Wilkie gradually lost his wits, M. de Coralth had become remarkably cold and reserved. He had seemed to oppose all M. Wilkie's propositions; but he had agreed to them at last, so that his objections had produced much the same effect as a stimulant. It seemed then as if M. de Coralth had some strange interest in wishing to gain ascendency over his friend. At least such was Chupin's opinion. "Oh, oh!" he murmured. "What if he should be working up the same little scheme? What if he were acquainted with Madame Lia d'Argeles? What if he knew that there's a fortune waiting for a claimant? I shouldn't at all be surprised if I found that he wanted to cook his bread in our oven. But father Fortunat wouldn't be pleased with the news. Ah! no--he wouldn't even smile----"
While carrying on this little conversation with himself, he stood just in front of the restaurant, looking up into the air, when all of a sudden a window was thrown noisily open, and the figures of two men became plainly visible. They were engaged in a friendly struggle; one of them seemed to be trying to seize hold of something which the other had in his hand, and which he refused to part with. One of these men was M. Wilkie as Chupin at once perceived. "Good!" he said to himself; "this is the beginning of the end!"
As he spoke, M. Wilkie's hat fell on the window-sill, slipped off, and dropped on to the pavement below. With a natural impulse Chupin picked it up, and he was turning it over and over in his hands, when M. Wilkie leant out of the window and shouted in a voice that was thick with wine: "Halloo! Eh, there! Who picked up my hat? Honesty shall be rewarded. A glass of champagne and a cigar for the fellow who'll bring it me in room No. 6."
Chupin hesitated. By going up, he might, perhaps, compromise the success of his mission. But on the other hand his curiosity was aroused, and he very much wished to see, with his own eyes, how these young men were amusing themselves. Besides, he would have an opportunity of examining this handsome viscount, whom he was certain he had met before, though he could not tell when or where. In the meantime, M. Wilkie had perceived him.
"Come, you simpleton!" he cried; "make haste. You can't be very thirsty."
The thought of the viscount decided Chupin. Entering the restaurant and climbing the staircase, he had just reached the landing when a pale-looking man, who had a smoothly-shaven face and was dressed in black, barred his way and asked: "What do you want?"
"M'sieur, here's a hat which fell from one of your windows and----"
"All right, hand it here."
But Chupin did not seem to hear this order. He was beginning a long explanation, when a curtain near by was pushed aside, and M. Wilkie called out: "Philippe! eh, Philippe!--bring me the man who picked up my hat."
"Ah!" said Chupin, "you see, m'sieur, that he asks for me."
"Very well," said Philippe. "Go on, then." And raising the portiere he pushed Chupin into room No. 6.
It was a small, square apartment, with a very low ceiling. The temperature was like that of a furnace, and the glare of the gaslights almost blinded one. The supper was over, but the table had not yet been cleared, and plates full of leavings showed that the guests had fairly exhausted their appetites. Still, with the exception of M. Wilkie, every one present seemed to be terribly bored. In one corner, with her head resting on a piano, sat one of the yellow-haired damsels, fast asleep, while, beside the window, M. de Coralth was smoking with his elbows propped upon the table. The four other young men were looking on phlegmatically. "Ah! here's my hat," exclaimed M. Wilkie, as soon as Chupin appeared. "Wait and receive your promised reward." And thereupon he rang the bell, crying at the top of his voice: "Henry, you sleepy-head--a clean glass and some more of the widow Cliquot's champagne!"
Several bottles were standing upon the table, only half empty, and one of M. Wilkie's friends called his attention to this fact, but he shrugged his shoulders disdainfully. "You must take me for a fool," he said, contemptuously. "A man doesn't drink stale wine when he has the prospect of such an inheritance as is coming to me"
"Wilkie!" interrupted M. de Coralth, quickly; "Wilkie!"
But he was too late; Chupin had heard and understood everything. His conjectures had proved correct. M. Wilkie knew his right to the estate; M. Fortunat had been forestalled by the viscount, and would merely have his labor for his pains. "No chance for the guv'nor!" thought the agent's emissary. "And what a blow after the De Valorsay affair! It's enough to give him the jaundice!"
For a youth of his age, Chupin controlled his feelings admirably; but the revelation came so suddenly that he had started despite himself, and changed color a trifle. M. de Coralth saw this; and, though he was far from suspecting the truth, his long repressed anger burst forth. He rose abruptly, took up a bottle, and filling the nearest glass, he rudely exclaimed: "Come, drink that-- make haste--and clear out!"
Victor Chupin must have become very sensitive since his conversion. In former times he was not wont to be so susceptible as to lose his temper when some one chanced to address him in a rather peremptory manner, or to offer him wine out of the first available glass. But M. de Coralth inspired him with one of those inexplicable aversions which cannot be restrained "Eh! tell me if it's because we've drank champagne together before that you talk to me like that?" the young fellow retorted, savagely.
It was only a random shot, but it reached home. The viscount seemed touched to the quick. "You hear that, Wilkie," said he. "This will teach you that the time of your compatriot, Lord Seymour, has passed by. The good-humored race of plebeians who respectfully submitted to the blows with which noblemen honored them after drinking, has died out. This ought to cure you of your unfortunate habit of placing yourself on terms of equality with all the vagabonds you meet."
Chupin's hair fairly bristled with anger. "What! what!" he exclaimed; "I'll teach you to call me a vagabond, you scoundrel!"
His gesture, his attitude, and his eyes were so expressive of defiance and menace that two of the guests sprang up and caught him by the arm. "Go, go," they said.
But he freed himself from their grasp. "Go!" he replied. "Never! He called me a vagabond. Am I to pocket the insult quietly and walk off with it? You can scarcely expect that. First, I demand an apology."
This was asking too much of the Viscount de Coralth. "Let the fool alone," he remarked, with affected coolness, "and ring for the waiters to kick him out."
It did not require this new insult to put Chupin in a furious passion. "Come on!" he exclaimed. "Ah, ha! Where's the fellow who'll turn me out? Let him come. I'll teach him a lesson!" And as he spoke he squared his shoulders, inflated his chest, and threw the weight of his entire body on his left leg, after the most approved method of sparring-masters.
"Go, go!" insisted Wilkie's friends.
"Yes, I'll go with pleasure, but your friend must go, too. Is he a man? Then let him come, and we'll settle this outside." And seeing that they were again trying to seize him: "Hands off!" he thundered, "or I'll strike. You were not obliged to invite me here. It isn't my business to furnish amusement to parties who've drunk too much wine. And why should you despise me? It's true I haven't any money while you have plenty--that I work and you carouse. Still that's no reason why you should scorn me. Besides, those who are poor in the morning are sometimes rich in the evening. Every dog has his day. I have an idea that I shall have some coin when yours is all gone. Then it will be my turn to laugh; and as I'm a good-natured fellow, I will give you my half- smoked cigars."
M. Wilkie seemed delighted. He had climbed on to the piano and seated himself, with his feet on the keyboard; and there, as on a judgment seat, he listened and applauded, alternately taking Chupin's part, and then the viscount's. "Bravo, gamin!" or, "Give it to him, Coralth!" he shouted in turn.
This irritated the viscount exceedingly. "I see that we shall be obliged to call in the police to settle the affair," he said, sneeringly.
"The police!" roared Chupin. "Ah! that won't do, you scamp--" But his voice died away in his throat, and he stood motionless, speechless, with his arm raised as if he were about to strike, and his eyes dilated with astonishment.
For a change of expression in M. de Coralth's face had enlightened him; and he suddenly recollected when and under what circumstances he had known this so-called viscount. He remembered, too, the name he had borne when he first met him. "Oh!" he stammered; "oh! oh!"
However, the effect of this discovery was to dispel his anger, or rather to restore his calmness, and, addressing M. de Coralth, he exclaimed: "Don't be angry at what I've said, m'sieur; it was only a jest--I know that there's a wide difference between a poor devil like me and a viscount like you--I haven't a sou, you see, and that maddens me. But I'm not so very bad-looking, fortunately, and I'm always hoping that the daughter of some rich banker will fall in love with me and marry me. Some people have such luck, you know. If I meet with any you may be sure I shall pass myself off as the lost child of some great personage--of a duke, for instance--and if the real son exists, and troubles me, why I'll quietly put him out of the way, if possible."
With but one exception the persons present did not understand a single word of this apparent nonsense; and indeed the yellow- haired damsels stared at the speaker in amazement. Still it was evident that each of these words had a meaning, and a terrible meaning for M. de Coralth. Accustomed for years to control his features, he remained apparently unmoved--he even smiled; but a close observer could have detected anguish in his eyes, and he had become very pale. At last, unable to endure the scene any longer, he drew a hundred-franc bank-note from his pocketbook, crumpled it in his hand and threw it at Chupin, saying: "That's a very pretty story you are telling, my boy; but we've had enough of it. Take your pay and leave us."
Unfortunately, the note struck Chupin full in the face. He uttered a hoarse cry of rage, and, by the way in which he seized and brandished an empty bottle, it might have been imagined that M. de Coralth was about to have his head broken. But no. Thanks to a supreme effort of will, Chupin conquered this mad fury; and, dropping the bottle, he remarked to the young women who were uttering panic-stricken shrieks: "Be quiet; don't you see that I was only in fun."
But even M. Wilkie had found the fun a little rough, and even dangerous. Several of the young fellows present sprang up, with the evident intention of pushing Chupin out of the room, but he checked them with a gesture. "Don't disturb yourselves, gentlemen," he said. "I'm going, only let me find the bank-note which this gentleman threw at me."
"That's quite proper," replied M. Wilkie, approvingly; "look for it."
Chupin did so, and at last found it lying almost under the piano. "Now," he remarked, "I should like a cigar."
A score or so were lying in a dish. He gravely selected one of them and coolly cut off the end of it before placing it in his mouth. Those around watched him with an air of profound astonishment, not understanding this ironical calmness following so closely upon such a storm of passion. Then he, Victor Chupin, who had, it seems to me, but one aim in life--to become rich-- Victor Chupin, who loved money above anything else, and had stifled all other passions in his soul--he who often worked two whole days to earn five francs--he who did not disdain to claim his five sous when he went to hire a cab for his employer--he, Chupin, twisted the bank-note in his fingers, lit it at the gas, and used it to light his cigar.
"Ah! he's crazy!" murmured the yellow-haired damsels, with despair in their voices.
But M. Wilkie was enthusiastic. "There's form!" said he. "Fine form and no mistake!"
But Chupin did not even deign to turn his head. He opened the door, and standing on the threshold, he bowed to M. de Coralth with an ironical smile. "Until we meet again, Monsieur Paul," said he. "And kindly remember me to Madame Paul, if you please."
If the others had been less astonished, they would have no doubt have remarked the prodigious effect of this name upon their brilliant friend. He became ghastly pale and fell back in his chair. Then, suddenly, he bounded up as if he wished to attack his enemy. But pursuit seemed likely to yield no result, for Chupin was already on the boulevard.
It was daybreak. Paris was waking up; the bakers were standing at their doors, and boys in their shirt-sleeves, with their eyes swollen with sleep, were taking down the shutters of the wine- shops. A cloud of dust, raised by the street-sweepers, hung in the distance; the rag-pickers wandered about, peering among the rubbish; the noisy milk-carts jolted along at a gallop, and workmen were proceeding to their daily toil, with hunches of bread in their hands. The morning air was very chilly; nevertheless, Chupin seated himself on a bench across the boulevard, at a spot where he could watch the entrance of the restaurant without being seen. He had just experienced one of those sudden shocks which so disturb the mind, that one becomes insensible to outward circumstances, whatever they may be. He had recognized in the so- called Viscount de Coralth, the man whom he had hated above all others in the world, or, rather, the only man whom he hated, for his was not a bad heart. Impressionable to excess like a true child of the faubourgs, he had the Parisian's strange mobility of feeling. If his anger was kindled by a trifle, the merest nothing usually sufficed to extinguish it. But matters were different respecting this handsome viscount! God! how I hate him!" he hissed through his set teeth. "God! how I hate him!"
For once, years before, as he had confessed to M. Fortunat, Chupin had been guilty of a cowardly and abominable act, which had nearly cost a man his life. And this crime, if it had been successful, would have benefited the very fellow who concealed his sinful, shameful past under the high-sounding name of Coralth. How was it that Chupin had not recognized him at once? Because he had worked for this fellow without knowing him, receiving his orders through the miserable wretches who pandered to his vices. He had only seen him personally once or twice, and had never spoken to him. Later--too late--he discovered what vile intrigue it was that he had served. And when he became sincerely repentant he loathed this Coralth who had caused his crime.
Nor was this all. The recognition of Coralth had inspired him with remorse. It had aroused in the recesses of his conscience a threatening voice which cried: "What are you doing here? You are acting as a spy for a man you distrust, and whose real designs you are ignorant of. It was in this way you began before. Have you forgotten what it led to? Have you not sin enough already upon your conscience? Blood enough upon your hands? It is folly to pretend that one may serve as a tool for villains, and still remain an honest man!"
It was this voice which had given Chupin the courage to light his cigar with the bank-note. And this voice still tortured him, as seated on the bench he now tried to review the situation. Where, indeed, was he? With rare good luck he had discovered the son whom Madame Lia d'Argeles had so long and successfully concealed. But contrary to all expectations, this young fellow already knew of the inheritance which he was entitled to. M. de Coralth had already achieved what M. Fortunat had meant to do; and so the plan was a failure, and it was useless to persist in it.
This would have ended the matter if Chupin had not chanced to know the Viscount de Coralth's shameful past. And this knowledge changed everything, for it gave him the power to interfere in a most effectual manner. Armed with this secret, he could bestow the victory on M. Fortunat, and force M. de Coralth to capitulate. And he could do this all the more easily, as he was sure that Coralth had not recognized him, and that he was perhaps ignorant of his very existence. Chupin had allowed himself to be carried away by a sudden impulse of anger which he regretted; he had made an ironical illusion to his enemy's past life, but after all this had done no particular harm. So nothing prevented him from lending M. Fortunat his assistance, and thus killing two birds with one stone. He could have his revenge on Coralth, and at the same time insure his patron a large fee, of which he could claim a considerable share for himself. But no! The idea of deriving any profit whatever from this affair inspired him with a feeling of disgust--honor triumphed over his naturally crafty and avaricious nature. It seemed to him that any money made in this way would soil his fingers; for he realized there must be some deep villainy under all this plotting and planning; he was sure of it, since Coralth was mixed up in the affair. "I will serve my guv'nor for nothing," he decided. "When a man is avenged, he's well paid."
Chupin decided upon this course because he could think of no better plan. Still, if he had been master of events he would have acted otherwise. He would have quietly presented the government with this inheritance which he found M. Wilkie so unworthy of. "The devil only knows what he'll do with it," he thought. "He'll squander it as my father squandered the fortune that was given him. It is only fools who meet with such luck as that."
However, his meditations did not prevent him from keeping a close watch over the restaurant, for it was of the utmost importance that M. Wilkie should not escape him. It was now broad daylight, and customers were leaving the establishment; for, after passing what is generally conceded to be a joyous night, they felt the need of returning home to rest and sleep. Chupin watched them as they emerged. There were some who came out with drooping heads, mumbling incoherent phrases; while others who were equally intoxicated, but more nervous, evinced considerable animation, and sang snatches of songs, or jested loudly with the street-sweepers as they passed on. The more sober, surprised by the sunlight, and blushing at themselves, slunk hastily and quietly away. There was one man, moreover, whom the waiters were obliged to carry to his cab, for he could no longer stand on his feet.
At last Chupin saw the individual clad in black whom Wilkie had addressed as Philippe, and who had endeavored to prevent him from entering the restaurant, come out, and walk rapidly away. He was warmly clad in a thick overcoat, but he shivered, and his pale, wan face betrayed the man who is a martyr to the pleasures of others--the man who is condemned to be up all night and sleep only in the daytime--the man who can tell you how much folly and beastliness lurk in the depths of the wine-cup, and who knows exactly how many yawns are expressed by the verb "to amuse one's self." Chupin was beginning to feel uneasy. "Can M. Wilkie and his friends have made their escape?" he wondered.
But at that very moment they made their appearance. They lingered awhile on the pavement to chat, and Chupin had an opportunity of observing the effect of their night's dissipation on their faces. The brilliant sunlight made their eyes blink, and the cold sent purple blotches to their bloated cheeks. As for the young women with yellow hair, they appeared as they really were--hideous. They entered the only cab that remained, the most dilapidated one of all, and the driver of which had no little difficulty in setting his horse in motion; whereupon the gentlemen went off on foot.
Many persons would have been vexed and even humiliated by the necessity of appearing at this hour on the boulevard in disorderly attire, which plainly indicated that they had spent the night in debauchery. But with the exception of the Viscount de Coralth, who was evidently out of humor, the party seemed delighted with themselves, as it was easy to see by the way they met the glances of the passers-by. They considered themselves first-class form-- they were producing an effect--they were astonishing people. And what more could they desire?
One thing is certain--they were irritating Chupin terribly. He was following them on the opposite side of the boulevard, at some little distance in the rear, for he was afraid of being recognized. "The wretches!" he growled. "One couldn't draw a pint of manly blood from the veins of all six of them. Ah, if they knew how I hate them!"
But he had not long to nurse his wrath. On reaching the Rue Drouot, two of the gentlemen left the party, and two more went down the Rue Lepelletier. M. Wilkie and the viscount were left to walk down the boulevard alone. They linked their arms and carried on an animated conversation until they reached the Rue du Helder, where they shook hands and separated. What had they said at parting? What agreement had been made between them? Chupin would willingly have given a hundred sous from his private purse to have known. He would have given as much more to have been able to double himself, in order to pursue the viscount, who had started off in the direction of the Madeleine, without having to give up watching and following his friend. But the days of miracles are over. So Chupin sighed, and, following Wilkie, he soon saw him enter No. 48 of the Rue du Helder. The concierge, who was at the door busily engaged in polishing the bell-handle, bowed respectfully. "So there it is!" grumbled Chupin. "I knew he lived there--I knew it by the way that Madame d'Argeles looked at the windows yesterday evening. Poor woman! Ah! her son's a fine fellow and no mistake!"
His compassion for the unhappy mother seemed to recall him to a sense of duty. "Scoundrel that I am!" he exclaimed, striking his forehead with his clenched fist. "Why, I'm forgetting my own good mother!" And as his task was now ended, he started off on the run, taking the shortest cut to the Faubourg Saint-Denis. "Poor mother!" he said to himself as he tore along, "what a night she must have had! She must have cried her eyes out!"
He spoke the truth. The poor woman had passed a night of agony-- counting the hours, and trembling each time the door of the house opened, announcing some tenant's return. And as morning approached, her anxiety increased. "For her son would not have allowed her to remain in such suspense," she said to herself, "unless he had met with some accident or encountered some of his former friends--those detestable scamps who had tried to make him as vile as themselves." Perhaps he had met his father, Polyte Chupin, the man whom she still loved in spite of everything, because he was her husband, but whom she judged, and whom indeed she knew, to be capable of any crime. And of all misfortunes, it was an accident, even a fatal accident, that she dreaded least. In her heroic soul the voice of honor spoke even more loudly than the imperious instinct of maternity; and she would rather have found her son lying dead on the marble slabs of the Morgue than seated in the dock at the Assize Court.
Her poor eyes were weary of weeping when she at last recognized Victor's familiar step approaching down the passage. She hastily opened the door, and as soon as she felt that he was near her, for she could not see him, she asked: "Where have you spent the night? Where have you come from? What has happened?"
His only answer was to fling his arms round her neck, following alike the impulse of his heart and the advice of experience, which told him that this would be the best explanation he could give. Still it did not prevent him from trying to justify himself, although he was careful not to confess the truth, for he dreaded his mother's censure, knowing well enough that she would be less indulgent than his own conscience.
"I believe you, my son," said the good woman, gravely; "you wouldn't deceive me, I'm sure." And she added: "What reassured me, when you kissed me, was that you hadn't been drinking."
Chupin did not speak a word; this confidence made him strangely uneasy. "May I be hung," he thought, "if after this I ever do anything that I can't confess to this poor good woman!"
But he hadn't time for sentimental reflections. He had gone too far to draw back, and it was necessary for him to report the result of his researches as soon as possible. Accordingly, he hastily ate a morsel, for he was faint with hunger, and started out again, promising to return to dinner. He was in all the greater haste as it was Sunday. M. Fortunat was in the habit of passing these days in the country, and Chupin feared he might fail to see him if he was not expeditious in his movements. And while running to the Place de la Bourse, he carefully prepared the story he meant to relate, deeply impressed by the wisdom of the popular maxim which says: "It is not always well to tell the whole truth." Ought he to describe the scene at the restaurant, mention Coralth, and say that there was nothing more to be done respecting M. Wilkie? After mature deliberation he decided in the negative. If he revealed everything, M. Fortunat might become discouraged and abandon the affair. It would be better to let him discover the truth himself, and profit by his anger to indicate a means of vengeance.
It happened that M. Fortunat had decided not to go to the country that Sunday. He had slept later than usual, and was still in his dressing-gown when Chupin made his appearance. He uttered a joyful cry on seeing his emissary, feeling assured that he must be the bearer of good news, since he came so early. "You have succeeded, then?" he exclaimed.
"You have discovered Madame d'Argeles's son?"
"I have him."
"Ah! I knew that you were a clever fellow. Quick, tell me everything. But no, wait a moment."
He rang the bell, and Madame Dodelin at once made her appearance. "Put another plate on the table," said the agent. "M. Chupin will breakfast with me--and serve us at once. You agree, don't you, Victor? It's ten o'clock; I'm hungry; and we can talk better over a bottle of wine."
This was a great honor; and it gave Chupin a fitting idea of the value of the service he had rendered. He was not too much elated, however; though he felt very sorry that he had eaten before he came. On his side, M. Fortunat by no means regretted having conferred this favor on his clerk, for the story which the latter related, caused him intense delight. "Very good!--well done," he exclaimed every other minute. "I could not have done better myself. You shall be abundantly rewarded, Victor, if this affair is successful." And at this thought his satisfaction overflowed in a complacent monologue: "Why shouldn't it succeed?" he asked himself. "Could anything be more simple and certain? I can make any demand I please--one, two, three hundred thousand francs. Ah, it was a good thing that the Count de Chalusse died! Now, I can forgive Valorsay. Let him keep my forty thousand francs; he's quite welcome to them! Let him marry Mademoiselle Marguerite; I wish them a large and flourishing family! And Madame d'Argeles, too, has my benediction!"
He was so confident his fortune was made that at noon he could restrain himself no longer. He hired a cab and accompanied by Chupin he set out for M. Wilkie's abode, declaring that he would wake that young gentleman up if needs be, but at all events he must see him without delay. When he reached the Rue du Helder, he told Chupin to wait in the cab, and then entering the house, he asked: "Monsieur Wilkie?"
"On the second floor, the door to the right," replied the concierge.
M. Fortunat ascended the stairs very slowly, for he felt the necessity of regaining all his composure, and it was not until he had brought himself to a proper frame of mind that he rang the bell. A small servant, M. Wilkie's fag, who took his revenge in robbing his employer most outrageously, came to the door, and began by declaring that his master was out of town. But M. Fortunat understood how to force doors open, and his manoeuvres succeeded so well that he was finally allowed to enter a small sitting-room, while the servant went off, saying: "I will go and inform monsieur."
Instead of wasting time in congratulating himself on this first achievement the agent began to inspect the room in which he found himself, as well as another apartment, the door of which stood open. For he was of the opinion that a dwelling-place indicates the character of its inmate, as surely as a shell indicates the form of the creature that inhabits it. M. Wilkie was comfortably lodged; but his rooms were most pretentiously ornamented. They were indeed decorated in more than doubtful taste. There were very few books lying about, but costly riding-whips, spurs, rifles, cartridge-boxes, and all the paraphernalia of a fashionable sporting man, were here in abundance.
The only pictures on the wall were a few portraits of celebrated horses, which foreshadowed the fact that M. Wilkie must have, at least, an eighth share in some well-known racer. After this inspection, M. Fortunat smiled complacently. "This young fellow has expensive tastes," he thought. "It will be very easy to manage him."
However his reflections were interrupted by the return of the servant, who exclaimed: "My master is in the dining-room, and if monsieur will enter----"
The heir-hunter did enter, and found himself face to face with M. Wilkie, who was partaking of a cup of chocolate. He was not only up, but he was dressed to go out--dressed in such a style that he would have been taken for a respectable groom. A couple of hours' sleep had made him himself again; and he had regained the arrogance of manner which was the distinguishing trait of his character, and a sure sign that he was in prosperous circumstances. As his unknown visitor entered he looked up, and bruskly asked: "What do you want?"
"I called on business, monsieur."
"Ah, well! this isn't a favorable moment. I must be at Vincennes for the races. I'm interested in a horse. So, you understand----"
M. Fortunat was secretly amused by M. Wilkie's nonchalance. "The young fellow won't be in so much of a hurry when he learns my business," he thought. And he replied aloud: "I can explain what brings me in a few words, monsieur."
M. Fortunat began by closing the door which had been intentionally left open by the servant; and then, returning to M. Wilkie's side, he began with an air of the greatest mystery: "What would you give a shrewd man if he suddenly placed you in undisputed possession of an immense fortune--of a million--two millions, perhaps?"
He had prepared this little effect most carefully, and he fully expected to see Wilkie fall on his knees before him. But not at all; the young gentleman's face never moved a muscle; and it was in the calmest possible tone, and with his mouth half full that he replied: "I know the rest. You come, don't you, to sell me the secret of an unclaimed inheritance, which belongs to me? Very well, you have come too late."
If the ceiling had fallen and crushed M. Fortunat there and then he would, mentally at least, have not been in a more pitiable condition. He stood silent, motionless, utterly confounded, with his mouth wide open, and such an expression of consternation in his eyes that M. Wilkie burst into a hearty laugh. Still the agent struggled against fate, and ultimately faltered: "Let me explain--permit me----"
"Oh, it would be useless. I know my rights. I have already arranged with a party to prosecute my claims; the agreement will be signed on the day after to-morrow."
"Ah, excuse me; that's my affair."
He had finished his chocolate, and he now poured out a glass of ice-water, drank it, wiped his mouth, and rose from the table. "You will excuse me, my dear sir, if I leave you," he remarked. "As I said before, I am going to Vincennes. I have staked a thousand louis on 'Pompier de Nanterre,' my horse, and my friends have ventured ten times as much. Who knows what may happen if I'm not there at the start?" And then, ignoring M. Fortunat as completely as if he had not existed, M. Wilkie exclaimed: "Toby, you fool! where are you? Is my carriage below? Quick, bring me my cane, my gloves, and my glasses. Take down that basket of champagne. Run and put on your new livery. Make haste, you little beast, I shall be too late."
M. Fortunat left the room. The frightful anger that had followed his idiotic stupor sent his blood rushing madly to his brain. A purple mist swam before his eyes; there was a loud ringing in his ears, and with each pulsation of his heart his head seemed to receive a blow from a heavy hammer. His feelings were so terrible that he was really frightened. "Am I about to have an attack of apoplexy?" he wondered. And, as every surrounding object seemed to whirl around him, the very floor itself apparently rising and falling under his feet, he remained on the landing waiting for this horrible vertigo to subside and doing his best to reason with himself. It was fully five minutes before he dared to risk the descent; and even when he reached the street, his features were so frightfully distorted that Chupin trembled.
He sprang out, assisted his employer into the cab, and bade the driver return to the Place de la Bourse. It was really pitiful to see the despair which had succeeded M. Fortunat's joyful confidence. "This is the end of everything," he groaned. "I'm robbed, despoiled, ruined! And such a sure thing as it seemed. These misfortunes happen to no one but me! Some one in advance of me! Some one else will capture the prize! Oh, if I knew the wretch, if I only knew him!"
"One moment," interrupted Chupin; "I think know the man."
M. Fortunat gave a violent start. "Impossible!" he exclaimed.
"Excuse me, monsieur--it must be a vile rascal named Coralth."
It was a bellow rather than a cry of rage that escaped M. Fortunat's lips. To a man of his experience, only a glimmer of light was required to reveal the whole situation. "Ah! I understand!--I see!" he exclaimed. "Yes, you are right, Victor; it's he--Coralth--Valorsay's tool! Coralth was the traitor who, in obedience to Valorsay's orders, ruined the man who loved Mademoiselle Marguerite. The deed was done at Madame d'Argeles's house. So Coralth knows her, and knows her secret. It's he who has outwitted me." He reflected for a moment, and then, in a very different tone, he said: "I shall never see a penny of the count's millions, and my forty thousand francs are gone forever; but, as Heaven hears me, I will have some satisfaction for my money. Ah!-- so Coralth and Valorsay combine to ruin me! Very well!--since this is the case, I shall espouse the cause of Mademoiselle Marguerite and of the unfortunate man they've ruined. Ah, my cherubs, you don't know Fortunat yet! Now well see if the innocent don't get the best of you, and if they don't unmask you. I shall do my best, since you have forced me to do it--and gratis too!"
Chupin was radiant; his vengeance was assured. "And I, monsieur," said he, "will give you some information about this Coralth. First of all, the scoundrel's married and his wife keeps a tobacco-shop somewhere near the Route d'Asnieres. I'll find her for you--see if I don't"
The sudden stopping of the vehicle which had reached the Place de la Bourse, cut his words short. M. Fortunat ordered him to pay the driver, while he himself rushed upstairs, eager to arrange his plan of campaign--to use his own expression. In his absence a commissionaire had brought a letter for him which Madame Dodelin now produced. He broke the seal, and read to his intense surprise: "Monsieur--I am the ward of the late Count de Chalusse. I must speak to you. Will you grant me an interview on Wednesday next, at a quarter-past three o'clock? Yours respectfully,
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