M. Isidore Fortunat resided at No. 27 Place de la Bourse, on the third floor. He had a handsome suite of apartments: a drawing- room, a dining-room, a bed-room, a large outer office where his clerks worked, and a private one, which was the sanctuary of his thoughts and meditations. The whole cost him only six thousand francs a year, a mere trifle as rents go nowadays. His lease entitled him, moreover, to the use of a room ten feet square, up under the eaves, where he lodged his servant, Madame Dodelin, a woman of forty-six or thereabouts, who had met with reverses of fortune, and who now took such good charge of his establishment, that his table--for he ate at home--was truly fit for a sybarite.
Having been established here for five years or more, M. Fortunat was very well known in the neighborhood, and, as he paid his rent promptly, and met all his obligations without demur, he was generally respected. Besides, people knew very well from what source M. Fortunat derived his income. He gave his attention to contested claims, liquidations, the recovery of legacies, and so on, as was shown by the inscription in large letters which figured on the elegant brass plate adorning his door. He must have had a prosperous business, for he employed six collectors in addition to the clerks who wrote all day long in his office; and his clients were so numerous that the concierge was often heard to complain of the way they ran up and down the stairs, declaring that it was worse than a procession.
To be just, we must add that M. Fortunat's appearance, manners and conduct were of a nature to quiet all suspicions. He was some thirty-eight years of age, extremely methodical in his habits, gentle and refined in his manner, intelligent, very good-looking, and always dressed in perfect taste. He was accused of being, in business matters, as cold, as polished, and as hard as one of the marble slabs of the Morgue; but then, no one was obliged to employ him unless they chose to do so. This much is certain: he did not frequent cafes or places of amusement. If he went out at all after dinner, it was only to pass the evening at the house of some rich client in the neighborhood. He detested the smell of tobacco, and was inclined to be devout--never failing to attend eight o'clock mass on Sunday mornings. His housekeeper suspected him of matrimonial designs, and perhaps she was right.
On the evening that the Count de Chalusse was struck with apoplexy M. Isidore Fortunat had been dining alone and was sipping a cup of tea when the door-bell rang, announcing the arrival of a visitor. Madame Dodelin hastened to open the door, and in walked Victor Chupin, breathless from his hurried walk. It had not taken him twenty-five minutes to cover the distance which separates the Rue de Courcelles from the Place de la Bourse.
"You are late, Victor," said M. Fortunat, quietly.
"That's true, monsieur, but it isn't my fault. Everything was in confusion down there, and I was obliged to wait "
"How is that? Why?"
"The Count de Chalusse was stricken with apoplexy this evening, and he is probably dead by this time."
M. Fortunat sprang from his chair with a livid face and trembling lips. "Stricken with apoplexy!" he exclaimed in a husky voice. "I am ruined!"
Then, fearing Madame Dodelin's curiosity, he seized the lamp and rushed into his office, crying to Chupin: "Follow me."
Chupin obeyed without a word, for he was a shrewd fellow, and knew how to make the best of a trying situation. He was not usually allowed to enter this private room, the floor of which was covered with a magnificent carpet; and so, after carefully closing the door, he remained standing, hat in hand, and looking somewhat intimidated. But M. Fortunat seemed to have forgotten his presence. After depositing the lamp on the mantel-shelf, he walked several times round and round the room like a hunted beast seeking for some means of egress.
"If the count is dead," he muttered, "the Marquis de Valorsay is lost! Farewell to the millions!"
The blow was so cruel, and so entirely unexpected, that he could not, would not believe in its reality. He walked straight to Chupin, and caught him by the collar, as if the young fellow had been the cause of this misfortune. "It isn't possible," said he; "the count cannot be dead. You are deceiving me, or they deceived you. You must have misunderstood--you only wished to give some excuse for your delay perhaps. Speak, say something!"
As a rule, Chupin was not easily impressed, but he felt almost frightened by his employer's agitation. "I only repeated what M. Casimir told me, monsieur," was his reply.
He then wished to furnish some particulars, but M. Fortunat had already resumed his furious tramp to and fro, giving vent to his wrath and despair in incoherent exclamations. "Forty thousand francs lost!" he exclaimed. "Forty thousand francs, counted out there on my desk! I see them yet, counted and placed in the hand of the Marquis de Valorsay in exchange for his signature. My savings for a number of years, and I have only a worthless scrap of paper to show for them. That cursed marquis! And he was to come here this evening, and I was to give him ten thousand francs more. They are lying there in that drawer. Let him come, the wretch, let him come!"
Anger had positively brought foam to M. Fortunat's lips, and any one seeing him then would subsequently have had but little confidence in his customary good-natured air and unctuous politeness. "And yet the marquis is as much to be pitied as I am," he continued. "He loses as much, even more! And such a sure thing it seemed, too! What speculation can a fellow engage in after this? And a man must put his money somewhere; he can't bury it in the ground!"
Chupin listened with an air of profound commiseration; but it was only assumed. He was inwardly jubilant, for his interest in the affair was in direct opposition to that of his employer. Indeed, if M. Fortunat lost forty thousand francs by the Count de Chalusse's death, Chupin expected to make a hundred francs commission on the funeral.
"Still, he may have made a will!" pursued M. Fortunat. "But no, I'm sure he hasn't. A poor devil who has only a few sous to leave behind him always takes this precaution. He thinks he may be run over by an omnibus and suddenly killed, and he always writes and signs his last wishes. But millionaires don't think of such things; they believe themselves immortal!" He paused to reflect for a moment, for power of reflection had returned to him. His excitement had quickly spent itself by reason of its very violence. "This much is certain," he resumed, slowly, and in a more composed voice, "whether the count has made a will or not, Valorsay will lose the millions he expected from Chalusse. If there is no will, Mademoiselle Marguerite won't have a sou, and then, good evening! If there is one, this devil of a girl, suddenly becoming her own mistress, and wealthy into the bargain, will send Monsieur de Valorsay about his business, especially if she loves another, as he himself admits--and in that case, again good evening!"
M. Fortunat drew out his handkerchief, and, pausing in front of the looking-glass, wiped the perspiration from his brow, and arranged his disordered hair. He was one of those men who may be stunned, but never crushed, by a catastrophe. "In conclusion," he muttered, "I must enter my forty thousand francs as an item in the profit and loss account. It only remains to be seen if it would not be possible to regain them in the same affair." He was again master of himself, and never had his mind been more clear. He seated himself at his desk, leant his elbows upon it, rested his head on his hands, and remained for some time perfectly motionless; but there was triumph in his gesture when he at last looked up again.
"I am safe," he muttered, so low that Chupin could not hear him. "What a fool I was! If there is no will a fourth of the millions shall be mine! Ah, when a man knows his ground, he never need lose the battle! But I must act quickly," he added, "very quickly." And so speaking, he rose and glanced at the clock. "Nine o'clock," said he. "I must open the campaign this very evening."
Motionless in his dark corner, Chupin still retained his commiserating attitude; but he was so oppressed with curiosity that he could scarcely breathe. He opened his eyes and ears to the utmost, and watched his employer's slightest movements with intense interest.
Prompt to act when he had once decided upon his course, M. Fortunat now drew from his desk a large portfolio, crammed full of letters, receipts, bills, deeds of property, and old parchments. "I can certainly discover the necessary pretext here," he murmured, rummaging through the mass of papers. But he did not at once find what he sought, and he was growing impatient, as could be seen by his feverish haste, when all at once he paused with a sigh of relief. "At last!"
He held in his hand a soiled and crumpled note of hand, affixed by a pin to a huissier's protest, thus proving conclusively that it had been dishonored. M. Fortunat waved these strips of paper triumphantly, and with a satisfied air exclaimed: "It is here that I must strike; it is here--if Casimir hasn't deceived me-- that I shall find the indispensable information I need."
He was in such haste that he did not wait to put his portfolio in order. He threw it with the papers it had contained into the drawer of his desk again, and, approaching Chupin, he asked, "It was you, was it not, Victor, who obtained that information respecting the solvency of the Vantrassons, husband and wife, who let out furnished rooms?"
"Yes, monsieur, and I gave you the answer: nothing to hope for----"
"I know; but that doesn't matter. Do you remember their address?"
"Perfectly. They are now living on the Asnieres Road, beyond the fortifications, on the right hand side."
"What is the number?"
Chupin hesitated, reflected for a moment, and then began to scratch his head furiously, as he was in the habit of doing whenever his memory failed him and he wished to recall it to duty. "I'm not sure whether the number is eighteen or forty-six," he said, at last; "that is----"
"Never mind," interrupted M. Fortunat. "If I sent you to the house could you find it?"
"Oh--yes, m'sieur--at once- with my eyes shut. I can see the place perfectly--a rickety old barrack. There is a tract of unoccupied land on one side, and a kitchen-garden in the rear."
"Very well; you shall accompany me there."
Chupin seemed astonished by this strange proposal. "What, m'sieur," said he, "do you think of going there at this time of night?"
"Why not? Shall we find the establishment closed?"
"No; certainly not. Vantrasson doesn't merely keep furnished rooms; he's a grocer, and sells liquor too. His place is open until eleven o'clock at least. But if you are going there to present a bill, it's perhaps a little late. If I were in your place, m'sieur, I should wait till to-morrow. It's raining, and the streets are deserted. It's an out-of-the-way place too; and in such cases, a man has been known to settle his account with whatever came handiest--with a cudgel, or a bullet, for instance."
"Are you afraid?"
This question seemed so utterly absurd to Chupin that he was not in the least offended by it; his only answer was a disdainful shrug of the shoulders.
"Then we will go," remarked M. Fortunat. "While I'm getting ready, go and hire a cab, and see that you get a good horse."
Chupin was off in an instant, tearing down the staircase like a tempest. There was a cab-stand only a few steps from the house, but he preferred to run to the jobmaster's stables in the Rue Feydeau.
"Cab, sir!" shouted several men, as they saw him approaching.
He made no reply, but began to examine the horses with the air of a connoisseur, until at last he found an animal that suited him. Thereupon he beckoned to the driver, and going to the little office where a woman sat reading: "My five sous, if you please," he said, authoritatively.
The woman looked at him. Most jobmasters are in the habit of giving five sous to any servant who comes in search of a cab for his master; and this was the custom here. But the keeper of the office, who felt sure that Chupin was not a servant, hesitated; and this made the young fellow angry. "Make haste," he cried, imperiously. "If you don't, I shall run to the nearest stand."
The woman at once threw him five sous, which he pocketed with a satisfied grin. They were his--rightfully his--since he had taken the trouble to gain them. He then hastily returned to the office to inform his employer that the cab was waiting at the door, and found himself face to face with a sight which made him open his eyes to their widest extent.
M. Fortunat had profited by his clerk's absence, not to disguise himself--that would be saying too much--but to make some changes in his appearance. He had arrayed himself in a long overcoat, shiny with grease and wear, and falling below his knees; in place of his elegant satin cravat he had knotted a gaudy silk neckerchief about his throat; his boots were worn, and out of shape; and his hat would have been treated with contempt even by a dealer in old clothes. Of the prosperous Fortunat, so favorably known round about the Place de la Bourse, naught remained save his face and his hands. Another Fortunat had taken his place, more than needy in aspect--wretched, famished, gaunt with hunger, ready for any desperate deed. And, yet, he seemed at ease in this garb; it yielded to his every movement, as if he had worn it for a long time. The butterfly had become a chrysalis again. Chupin's admiring smile must have repaid him for his trouble. Since the young clerk evinced approval, M. Fortunat felt sure that Vantrasson would take him for what he wished to appear--a poor devil of an agent, who was acting on some other person's behalf. "Let us start at once," said he.
But just as he was leaving the ante-room, he remembered an order of great importance which he wished to give. He called Madame Dodelin, and without paying the slightest heed to her astonishment at seeing him thus attired: "If the Marquis de Valorsay comes, in my absence," said he--" and he will come--ask him to wait for me. I shall return before midnight. Don't take him into my office--he can wait in the drawing-room."
This last order was certainly unnecessary, since M. Fortunat had closed and double-locked his office door and placed the key carefully in his own pocket. But perhaps he had forgotten this circumstance. There were now no traces of his recent anger and disappointment. He was in excellent humor; and you might have supposed that he was starting on an enterprise from which he expected to derive both pleasure and profit.
Chupin was climbing to a place on the box beside the driver when his employer bade him take a seat inside the vehicle. They were not long in reaching their destination, for the horse was really a good one, and the driver had been stimulated by the promise of a magnificent gratuity. In fact, M. Fortunat and his companion reached the Asnieres Road in less than forty minutes.
In obedience to the orders he had received before starting, the cabman drew up on the right hand side of the road, at about a hundred paces from the city gate, beyond the fortifications. "Well, sir, here you are! Are you satisfied?" he inquired, as he opened the door.
"Perfectly satisfied," replied M. Fortunat. "Here is your promised gratuity. Now, you have only to wait for us. Don't stir from this place. Do you understand?"
But the driver shook his head. "Excuse me," he said, "but if it's all the same to you, I will station myself over there near the gate. Here, you see, I should be afraid to go to sleep, while over there----"
"Very well; suit yourself," M. Fortunat replied.
This precaution on the driver's part convinced him that Chupin had not exaggerated the evil reputation of this quarter of the Parisian suburbs. And, indeed, there was little of a reassuring character in the aspect of this broad road, quite deserted at this hour, and shrouded in the darkness of a tempestuous night. The rain had ceased falling, but the wind blew with increased violence, twisting the branches off the trees, tearing slates from the roofs, and shaking the street-lamps so furiously as to extinguish the gas. They could not see a step before them; the mud was ankle-deep, and not a person, not a solitary soul was visible.
"Are we almost there?" M. Fortunat asked every ten paces.
"Almost there, m'sieur."
Chupin said this; but to tell the truth, he knew nothing about it. He tried to discover where he was, but did not succeed. Houses were becoming scanty, and vacant plots of building ground more numerous; it was only with the greatest difficulty that one could occasionally discern a light. At last, however, after a quarter of an hour's hard struggling, Chupin uttered a joyful cry. "Here we are, m'sieur--look!" said he.
A large building, five stories high, sinister of aspect, and standing quite alone, could just be distinguished in the darkness. It was already falling to pieces, and yet it was not entirely completed. Plainly enough, the speculator who had undertaken the enterprise had not been rich enough to complete it. On seeing the many closely pierced windows of the facade, a passer-by could not fail to divine for what purpose the building had been erected; and in order that no one should remain in ignorance of it, this inscription: "Furnished Rooms," figured in letters three feet high, between the third and fourth floors. The inside arrangements could be easily divined: innumerable rooms, all small and inconvenient, and let out at exorbitant rentals.
However, Victor Chupin's memory had misled him. This establishment was not on the right, but on the left-hand side of the road, a perfect mire through which M. Fortunat and his companion were obliged to cross. Their eyes having become accustomed to the darkness, they could discern sundry details as they approached the building. The ground floor comprised two shops, one of which was closed, but the other was still open, and a faint light gleamed through the soiled red curtains. Over the frontage appeared the shop-keeper's name, Vantrasson, while on either side, in smaller letters, were the words: "Groceries and Provisions--Foreign and French Wines." Everything about this den denoted abject poverty and low debauchery.
M. Fortunat certainly did not recoil, but before entering the shop he was not sorry to have an opportunity to reconnoitre. He approached cautiously, and peered through the window at a place where a rent in the curtain allowed him some view of the interior. Behind the counter a woman who looked some fifty years of age was seated, mending a soiled dress by the light of a smoking lamp. She was short and very stout. She seemed literally weighed down, and puffed out by an unwholesome and unnatural mass of superfluous flesh; and she was as white as if her veins had been filled with water, instead of blood. Her hanging cheeks, her receding forehead, and her thin lips, imparted an alarming expression of wickedness and cunning to her countenance. At the farther end of the store Fortunat could vaguely discern the figure of a man seated on a stool. He seemed to be asleep, for his crossed arms rested on a table, with his head leaning on them.
"Good luck!" whispered Chupin in his employer's ear; "there is not a customer in the place. Vantrasson and his wife are alone." This circumstance was by no means displeasing to M. Fortunat, as could be seen by his expression of face. "So, m'sieur," continued Chupin, "you need have no fears. I'll remain here and watch, while you go in."
M. Fortunat did so. On hearing the door open and shut, the woman laid down her work. "What can I do for monsieur?" she asked, in a wheedling voice.
M. Fortunat did not reply at once; but he drew the note with which he had provided himself from his pocket, and displayed it. "I am a huissier's clerk," he then exclaimed; "and I called in reference to this little matter--a note of hand for five hundred and eighty- three francs, value received in goods, signed Vantrasson, and made payable to the order of a person named Barutin."
"An execution!" said the woman, whose voice suddenly soured. "Vantrasson, wake up, and come and see about this."
This summons was unnecessary. On hearing the words "note of hand," the man had lifted his head; and at the name of Barutin, he rose and approached with a heavy, uncertain step, as if he had not yet slept off his intoxication. He was younger than his wife, tall, with a well-proportioned and athletic form. His features were regular, but the abuse of alcohol and all sorts of excesses had greatly marred them, and their present expression was one of ferocious brutishness. "What's that you are talking about?" he asked in a harsh, grating voice. "Is it to mock people that you come and ask for money on the 15th of October--rent day? Where have you seen any money left after the landlord has made his round? Besides, what is this bill? Give it me to look at."
M. Fortunat was not guilty of such folly; he did not intrust the paper to Vantrasson's hand, but held it a little distance from him, and then read it aloud.
When he had finished: "That note fell due eighteen months ago," declared Vantrasson. "It is worth nothing now "
"You are mistaken--a note of this kind is of value any time within five years after the day it goes to protest."
"Possibly; but as Barutin has failed, and gone no one knows where, I am released----"
"Another mistake on your part. You owe these five hundred and eighty-three francs to the person who bought this note at Barutin's sale, and who has given my employer orders to prosecute----"
The blood had risen to Vantrasson's face. "And what of that? Do you suppose I've never been sued for debts before? Even the king can't take anything from a person who possesses nothing; and I own nothing. My furniture is all pawned or mortgaged, and my stock is not worth a hundred francs. When your employer finds it useless to waste money in worrying me, he'll let me alone. You can't injure a man like me."
"Do you really think so?"
"I'm sure of it."
"Unfortunately you are again mistaken, for although the holder of the note doesn't care so very much about obtaining his dues, he'll spend his own money like water to make trouble for you." And thereupon M. Fortunat began to draw a vivid and frightful picture of a poor debtor pursued by a rich creditor who harassed him, and tortured him, and hounded him everywhere, until not even a change of clothing was left him.
Vantrasson rolled his eyes and brandished his formidable fist in the most defiant manner; but his wife was evidently much alarmed. At last she could bear it no longer, and rising hastily she led her husband to the rear of the shop, saying: "Come, I must speak with you."
He followed her, and they remained for some little time conversing together in a low tone, but with excited gestures. When they returned, the woman opened the conversation. "Alas! sir," she said to M. Fortunat, "we have no money just now; business is so very bad, and if you prosecute us, we are lost. What can be done? You look like an honest man; give us your advice."
M. Fortunat did not reply at once; he was apparently absorbed in thought, but suddenly he exclaimed: "One owes a duty to unfortunate folks, and I'm going to tell you the exact truth. My employer, who isn't a bad man at heart, hasn't the slightest desire for revenge. He said to me: 'Go and see these Vantrassons, and if they seem to be worthy people, propose a compromise. If they choose to accept it, I shall be quite satisfied.'"
"And what is this compromise?"
"It is this: you must write an acknowledgment of the debt on a sheet of stamped paper, together with a promise to pay a little on account each month. In exchange I will give you this note of hand."
The husband and wife exchanged glances, and it was the woman who said: "We accept."
But to carry out this arrangement it was necessary to have a sheet of stamped paper, and the spurious clerk had neglected to provide himself with some. This circumstance seemed to annoy him greatly, and you might almost have sworn that he regretted the concession he had promised. Did he think of going? Madame Vantrasson feared so, and turning eagerly to her husband, she exclaimed: "Run to the tobacco shop in the Rue de Levis; you will find some paper there!"
He started off at once, and M. Fortunat breathed freely again. He had certainly retained his composure admirably during the interview, but more than once he had fancied that Vantrasson was about to spring on him, crush him with his brawny hands, tear the note from him, burn it, and then throw him, Fortunat, out into the street, helpless and nearly dead. But now that danger had passed and Madame Vantrasson, fearing he might tire of waiting, was prodigal in her attentions. She brought him the only unbroken chair in the establishment, and insisted that he should partake of some refreshment--a glass of wine at the very least. While rummaging among the bottles, she alternately thanked him and complained, declaring she had a right to repine, since she had known better days--but fate had been against her ever since her marriage, though she had little thought she would end her days in such misery, after having been so happy in the Count de Chalusse's household many years before.
To all appearance, M. Fortunat listened with the mere superficial interest which ordinary politeness requires one to show, but in reality his heart was filled with intense delight. Coming here without any clearly-defined plan, circumstances had served him a thousand times better than he could reasonably have hoped. He had preserved his power over the Vantrassons, had won their confidence, had succeeded in obtaining a tete-a-tete with the wife, and to crown all, this woman alluded, of her own accord, to the very subject upon which he was longing to question her.
"Ah! if I were only back in the Count's household again," she exclaimed. "Six hundred francs a year, and gifts worth double that amount. Those were good times for me. But you know how it is--one is never content with one's lot, and then the heart is weak----"
She had not succeeded in finding the sweet wine which she proposed to her guest; so in its place she substituted a mixture of ratafia and brandy in two large glasses which she placed upon the counter. "One evening, to my sorrow," she resumed, "I met Vantrasson at a ball. It was the 13th day of the month. I might have known no good would come of it. Ah, you should have seen him at that time, in full uniform. He belonged to the Paris Guards then. All the women were crazy about soldiers, and my head was turned, too----" Her tone, her gestures, and the compression of her thin lips, revealed the bitterness of her disappointment and her unavailing regret. "Ah, these handsome men!" she continued; "don't talk to me about them! This one had heard of my savings. I had nineteen thousand francs, so he begged me to marry him, and I was fool enough to consent. Yes, fool--for I was forty, and he was only thirty. I might have known it was my money that he wanted, and not me. However, I gave up my situation, and even purchased a substitute for him, in order that I might have him all to myself."
She had gradually warmed with her theme, as she described her confidence and blind credulity, and then, with a tragic gesture, as if she desired to drive away these cruel memories, she suddenly seized her glass and emptied it at a draught.
Chupin, who was still at his post outside, experienced a thrill of envy, and involuntarily licked his lips. "A mixed ratafia," he said, longingly. "I shouldn't object to one myself."
However, this choice compound seemed to inspire Madame Vantrasson with renewed energy, for, with still greater earnestness, she resumed: "At first, all went well. We employed my savings in purchasing the Hotel des Espagnes, in the Rue Notre Dame des Victoires, and business prospered; there was never a vacant room. But any person who has drank, sir, will drink again. Vantrasson kept sober for a few months, but gradually he fell into his old habits. He was in such a condition most of the time that he was scarcely able to ask for food. And if that had been all! But, unfortunately, he was too handsome a man to be a good husband. One night he didn't come home, and the next day, when I ventured to reproach him--very gently, I assure you--he answered me with an oath and a blow. All our happiness was over! Monsieur declared that he was master, and would do as he liked. He drank and carried away all the wine from the cellar--he took all the money-- he remained away for weeks together; and if I complained--more blows!"
Her voice trembled, and a tear gathered in her eye; but, wiping it away with the back of her hand, she resumed: "Vantrasson was always drunk, and I spent my time in crying my very eyes out. Business became very bad, and soon everybody left the house. We were obliged to sell it. We did so, and bought a small cafe. But by the end of the year we lost that. Fortunately, I still had a little money left, and so I bought a stock of groceries in my own name; but in less than six months the stock was eaten up, and we were cast into the street. What was to be done? Vantrasson drank worse than ever; he demanded money when he knew that I had none to give him, and he treated me even more cruelly than before. I lost courage--and yet one must live! Oh, you wouldn't believe it if I told you how we have lived for the past four years." She did not tell him, but contented herself with adding, "When you begin to go down hill, there is no such thing as stopping; you roll lower and lower, until you reach the bottom, as we have done. Here we live, no one knows how; we have to pay our rent each week, and if we are driven from this place, I see no refuge but the river."
"If I had been in your position, I should have left my husband," M. Fortunat ventured to remark.
"Yes--it would have been better, no doubt. People advised me to do so, and I tried. Three or four times I went away, and yet I always returned--it was stronger than myself. Besides, I'm his wife; I've paid dearly for him; he's mine--I won't yield him to any one else. He beats me, no doubt; I despise him, I hate him, and yet I----" She poured out part of a glass of brandy, and swallowed it; then, with a gesture of rage, she added: "I can't give him up! It's fate! As it is now, it will be until the end, until he starves, or I----"
M. Fortunat's countenance wore an expression of profound commiseration. A looker-on would have supposed him interested and sympathetic to the last degree; but in reality, he was furious. Time was passing, and the conversation was wandering farther and farther from the object of his visit. "I am surprised, madame," said he, "that you never applied to your former employer, the Count de Chalusse."
"Alas! I did apply to him for assistance several times----"
"With what result?"
"The first time I went to him he received me; I told him my troubles, and he gave me bank-notes to the amount of five thousand francs."
M. Fortunat raised his hands to the ceiling. "Five thousand francs!" he repeated, in a tone of astonishment; "this count must be very rich----"
"So rich, monsieur, that he doesn't know how much he's worth. He owns, nobody knows how many houses in Paris, chateaux in every part of the country, entire villages, forests--his gold comes in by the shovelful."
The spurious clerk closed his eyes, as if he were dazzled by this vision of wealth.
"The second time I went to the count's house," resumed Madame Vantrasson, "I didn't see him, but he sent me a thousand francs. The third and last time they gave me twenty francs at the door, and told me that the count had gone on a journey. I understood that I could hope for no further help from him. Besides, all the servants had been changed. One morning, without any apparent reason, M. de Chalusse dismissed all the old servants, so they told me. He even sent away the concierge and the housekeeper."
"Why didn't you apply to his wife?"
"M. de Chalusse isn't married. He never has been married."
From the expression of solicitude upon her guest's features, Madame Vantrasson supposed he was racking his brain to discover some mode of escape from her present difficulties. "If I were in your place," he said, "I should try to interest his relatives and family in my case----"
"The count has no relatives."
"He hasn't, indeed. During the ten years I was in his service, I heard him say more than a dozen times that he alone was left of all his family--that all the others were dead. People pretend that this is the reason why he is so immensely rich."
M. Fortunat's interest was no longer assumed; he was rapidly approaching the real object of his visit. "No relatives!" he muttered. "Who, then, will inherit his millions when he dies?"
Madame Vantrasson jerked her head. "Who can say?" she replied. "Everything will go to the government, probably, unless---- But no, that's impossible."
"Nothing. I was thinking of the count's sister, Mademoiselle Hermine."
"His sister! Why, you said just now that he had no relatives."
"It's the same as if he hadn't; no one knows what has become of her, poor creature! Some say that she married; others declare that she died. It's quite a romance."
M. Isidore Fortunat was literally upon the rack; and to make his sufferings still more horrible, he dared not ask any direct question, nor allow his curiosity to become manifest, for fear of alarming the woman. "Let me see," said he; "I think--I am sure that I have heard--or that I have read--I cannot say which--some story about a Mademoiselle de Chalusse. It was something terrible, wasn't it?"
"Terrible, indeed. But what I was speaking of happened a long time ago--twenty-five or twenty-six years ago, at the very least. I was still in my own part of the country--at Besancon. No one knows the exact truth about the affair."
"What! not even you?"
"Oh! I--that's an entirely different thing. When I entered the count's service, six years later, there was still an old gardener who knew the whole story, and who told it to me, making me swear that I would never betray his confidence."
Lavish of details as she had been in telling her own story, it was evident that she was determined to exercise a prudent reserve in everything connected with the De Chalusse family; and M. Fortunat inwardly cursed this, to him, most unseasonable discretion. But he was experienced in these examinations, and he had at his command little tricks for loosening tongues, which even an investigating magistrate might have envied. Without seeming to attach the slightest importance to Madame Vantrasson's narrative, he rose with a startled air, like a man who suddenly realizes that he has forgotten himself. "Zounds!" he exclaimed, "we sit here gossiping, and it's growing late. I really can't wait for your husband. If I remain here any longer, I shall miss the last omnibus; and I live on the other side of the river, near the Luxembourg."
"But our agreement, monsieur?"
"We will draw that up at some future time. I shall be passing again, or I will send one of my colleagues to see you."
It was Madame Vantrasson's turn to tremble now. She feared, if she allowed this supposed clerk to go without signing the agreement, that the person who came in his stead might not prove so accommodating; and even if he called again himself, he might not be so kindly disposed. "Wait just a moment longer, monsieur," she pleaded; "my husband will soon be back, and the last omnibus doesn't leave the Rue de Levis until midnight."
"I wouldn't refuse, but this part of the suburbs is so lonely."
"Vantrasson will see you on your way." And, resolved to detain him at any cost, she poured out a fresh glass of liquor for him, and said: "Where were we? Oh, yes! I was about to tell you Mademoiselle Hermine's story."
Concealing his delight with an assumed air of resignation, M. Fortunat reseated himself, to the intense disgust of Chupin, who was thoroughly tired of waiting outside in the cold.
"I must tell you," began Madame Vantrasson, "that when this happened--at least twenty-five years ago--the De Chalusse family lived in the Rue Saint-Dominique. They occupied a superb mansion, with extensive grounds, full of splendid trees like those in the Tuileries gardens. Mademoiselle Hermine, who was then about eighteen or nineteen years old, was, according to all accounts, the prettiest young creature ever seen. Her skin was as white as milk, she had a profusion of golden hair, and her eyes were as blue as forget-me-nots. She was very kind and generous, they say, only, like all the rest of the family, she was very haughty and obstinate--oh, obstinate enough to allow herself to be roasted alive over a slow fire rather than yield an inch. That's the count's nature exactly. Having served him, I know something about it, to be sure, and----"
"Excuse me," interrupted M. Fortunat, who was determined to prevent these digressions, "and Mademoiselle Hermine?"
"I was coming to her. Although she was very beautiful and immensely rich, she had no suitors--for it was generally understood that she was to marry a marquis, whose father was a particular friend of the family. The parents had arranged the matter between them years before, and nothing was wanting but the young lady's consent; but Mademoiselle Hermine absolutely refused to hear the marquis's name mentioned.
They did everything to persuade her to consent to this marriage; they employed prayers and threats alike, but they might as well have talked to a stone. When they asked her why she refused to marry the marquis, she replied, 'Because'--and that was all. In fact, at last she declared she would leave home and take refuge in a convent, if they didn't cease to torment her. Her relatives were certain there must be some reason for her refusal. It isn't natural for a girl to reject a suitor who is young, handsome, rich, and a marquis besides. Her friends suspected there was something she wouldn't confess; and M. Raymond swore that he would watch his sister, and discover her secret."
"M. Raymond is the present Count de Chalusse, suppose?" inquired M. Fortunat.
"Yes, monsieur. Such was the state of matters when, one night, the gardener thought he heard a noise in the pavilion, at the end of the garden. This pavilion was very large. I have seen it. It contained a sitting-room, a billiard-room, and a large fencing- hall. Naturally enough, the gardener got up to go and see what was the matter. As he left the house, he fancied he saw two persons moving about among the trees. He ran after them, but could find nothing. They had made their escape through a small gate leading from the garden into the street. When the gardener was telling me this story, he declared again and again that he had fancied the noise he had heard was made by some of the servants trying to leave the house secretly, and for this reason he didn't give the alarm. However, he hurried to the pavilion, but on seeing no light there, he went back to bed with an easy mind."
"And it was Mademoiselle Hermine eloping with a lover?" asked M. Fortunat.
Madame Vantrasson seemed as disappointed as an actor who has been deprived of an opportunity of producing a grand effect. "Wait a moment," she replied, "and you'll see. The night passed, morning came, and then the breakfast hour. But Mademoiselle Hermine did not make her appearance. Some one was sent to rap at her door-- there was no answer. The door was opened--the young lady was not in her room, and the bed had not even been disturbed. In a few moments the whole household was in the wildest commotion; the mother weeping, and the father half wild with rage and sorrow. Of course, the next thought was of Mademoiselle Hermine's brother, and he was sent for. But, he, too, was not in his room, and his bed had not been touched. The excitement was becoming frenzy, when it occurred to the gardener to mention what he had heard and seen on the previous night. They hastened to the pavilion, and discovered what? Why, M. Raymond stretched upon the ground, stiff, cold, and motionless, weltering in his own blood. One of his rigid hands still grasped a sword. They lifted him up, carried him to the house, laid him upon his bed, and sent for a physician. He had received two dangerous wounds; one in the throat, the other in the breast. For more than a month he hung between life and death, and six weeks elapsed before he had strength to relate what had happened. He was lighting a cigar at his window when he thought he saw a woman's form flit through the garden. A suspicion that it might be his sister flashed through his mind; so he hastened down, stole noiselessly into the pavilion, and there he found his sister and a young man who was absolutely unknown to him. He might have killed the intruder, but instead of doing so, he told him they would fight then and there. Weapons were within reach, and they fought, with the result that Raymond was wounded twice, in quick succession, and fell. His adversary, supposing him dead, thereupon fled from the spot, taking Mademoiselle Hermine with him."
At this point in her narrative Madame Vantrasson evinced a desire to pause and draw a breath, and perhaps partake of some slight refreshment; but M. Fortunat was impatient. The woman's husband might return at any moment. "And, after that?" he inquired.
"After that--well--M. Raymond recovered, and in about three months' time he was out again; but the parents, who were old folks, had received their death-blow. They never rallied from the shock. Perhaps they felt that it was their own hard-heartedness and obstinacy that had caused their daughter's ruin--and remorse is hard to bear. They waned perceptibly from day to day, and during the following year they were borne to the cemetery within two months of each other."
From the spurious clerk's demeanor it was easy to see that he had ceased thinking about his omnibus, and his hostess felt both reassured and flattered. "And Mademoiselle Hermine?" he inquired, eagerly.
"Alas! monsieur, no one ever knew where she went, or what became of her."
"Didn't they try to find her?"
"They searched for her everywhere, for I don't know how long; all the ablest detectives in France and in foreign countries tried to find her, but not one of them succeeded in discovering the slightest trace of her whereabouts. M. Raymond promised an enormous sum to the man who would find his sister's betrayer. He wished to kill him, and he sought for him for years; but all in vain."
"And did they never receive any tidings of this unfortunate girl?"
"I was told that they heard from her twice. On the morning following her flight her parents received a letter, in which she implored their forgiveness. Five or six months later, she wrote again to say that she knew her brother was not dead. She confessed that she was a wicked, ungrateful girl--that she had been mad; but she said that her punishment had come, and it was terrible. She added that every link was severed between herself and her friends, and she hoped they would forget her as completely as if she had never existed. She went so far as to say that her children should never know who their mother was, and that never in her life again would she utter the name which she had so disgraced."
It was the old, sad story of a ruined girl paying for a moment's madness with her happiness and all her after life. A terrible drama, no doubt; but one that is of such frequent occurrence that it seems as commonplace as life itself. Thus any one who was acquainted with M. Isidore Fortunat would have been surprised to see how greatly he was moved by such a trifle. "Poor girl!" said he, in view of saying something. And then, in a tone of assumed carelessness, he inquired: "Did they never discover what scoundrel carried Mademoiselle de Chalusse away?"
"Never. Who he was, whence he came, whether he was young or old, how he became acquainted with Mademoiselle Hermine--these questions were never answered. It was rumored at one time that he was an American, a captain in the navy; but that was only a rumor. To tell the truth, they never even discovered his name."
"What, not even his name?"
"Not even his name."
Unable to master his emotion, M. Fortunat had at least the presence of mind to rise and step back into the darker part of the shop. But his gesture of disappointment and the muttered oath that fell from his lips did not escape Madame Vantrasson. She was startled, and from that moment she looked upon the supposed clerk with evident distrust. It was not long before he again resumed his seat nearer the counter, still a trifle pale, perhaps, but apparently calm. Two questions more seemed indispensable to him, and yet either one of them would be sure to arouse suspicion. Nevertheless, he resolved to incur the risk of betraying himself. And, after all, what would it matter now? Did he not possess the information he had wished for, at least as much of it as it was in this woman's power to impart?" I can scarcely tell you, my dear madame, how much your narrative has interested me," he began. "I can confess now that I am slightly acquainted with the Count de Chalusse, and that I have frequently visited the house in the Rue de Courcelles, where he now resides."
"You!" exclaimed the woman, taking a hasty inventory of M. Fortunat's toilette.
"Yes, I--on the part of my employer, understand. Each time I've been to visit M. de Chalusse's I've seen a young lady whom I took for his daughter there. I was wrong, no doubt, since he isn't a married man--"
He paused. Astonishment and anger seemed to be almost suffocating his hostess. Without understanding how or why, she felt convinced that she had been duped; and if she had obeyed her first impulse she would have attacked M. Isidore then and there. If she restrained this impulse, if she made an effort to control herself, it was only because she thought she held a better revenge in reserve.
"A young lady in the count's house!" she said, thoughtfully. "That's scarcely possible. I've never seen her; I've never heard her spoken of. How long has she been there?"
"For six or seven months?"
"In that case, I can't absolutely deny it. It's two years since I set foot in the count's house."
"I fancied this young lady might be the count's niece Mademoiselle Hermine's daughter."
Madame Vantrasson shook her head. "Put that fancy out of your head," she remarked. "The count said that his sister was dead to him from the evening of her flight."
"Who can this young girl be, then?"
"Bless me! I don't know. What sort of a looking person is she?"
"Very tall; a brunette."
"How old is she?"
"Eighteen or nineteen."
The woman made a rapid calculation on her fingers. "Nine and four are thirteen," she muttered, "and five are eighteen. Ah, ha!--why not? I must look into this."
"What did you say?"
"Nothing; a little reflection I was making to myself. Do you know this young lady's name?"
The woman's face clouded. "No; it can't be then," she muttered, in a scarcely audible voice.
M. Fortunat was on coals of fire. It was evident that this frightful creature, even if she knew nothing definite, had some idea, some vague suspicion of the truth. How could he compel her to speak now that she was on her guard? He had not time to ascertain, for the door suddenly opened, and Vantrasson appeared on the threshold. He was scarcely sober when he left the shop, but now he was fairly drunk; his heavy shamble had become a stagger. "Oh, you wretch, you brigand!" howled his wife; "you've been drinking again!"
He succeeded in maintaining his equilibrium, and, gazing at her with the phlegmatic stare peculiar to intoxicated men, he replied: "Well, what of that! Can't I have a little pleasure with my friends? I came across a couple of men who were just taking their fifteenth glass; why should I refuse a compliment?"
"You can't hold yourself up."
"That's true." And to prove it he tumbled on to a chair.
A torrent of abuse now flowed from Madame Vantrasson's lips! M. Fortunat only imperfectly distinguished the words "thief," "spy," and "detective;" but he could not mistake the meaning of the looks which she alternately gave her husband and himself. "It's a fortunate thing for you that my husband is in this condition," her glances plainly implied, "otherwise there would be an explanation, and then we should see--"
"I've had a lucky escape," thought the spurious clerk. But as matters stood there was nothing to fear. It was a case where one could show a brave front to the enemy without incurring the slightest danger. "Let your husband alone," said he. "If he has only brought the paper that he was sent to fetch, I sha'n't have lost my evening to oblige you."
Vantrasson had brought not one sheet of stamped paper, but two. A bad pen and some muddy ink were produced, and M. Fortunat began to draw up an acknowledgment according to the established formula. However, it was necessary to mention the name of the creditor of whom he had spoken, and not wishing to state his own, he used that of poor Victor Chupin, who was at that very moment shivering at the door, little suspecting what liberty was being taken with his cognomen.
"Chupin!" repeated the vixen, as if to engrave the name on her memory; "Victor Chupin! I should just like to see him," she added, viciously.
When the document was finished, it became necessary to wake Vantrasson, so that he might sign it. He did so with very good grace, and his wife appended her signature beside her husband's. Thereupon M. Fortunat gave them in exchange the note which had served as a pretext for his visit. "And above all," he remarked, as he opened the door to go, "don't forget that you are to pay something on account each month."
"Go to the devil, and your account with you!" growled Madame Vantrasson.
But Fortunat did not hear this. He was already walking down the road by the side of Chupin, who was saying: "Well, here you are, at last, m'sieur! I thought you had taken a lease of that old barrack. If ever I come here again, I'll bring a foot-warmer with me."
But one of those fits of profound abstraction to which determined seekers after truth are subject had taken possession of M. Fortunat, and made him oblivious of all surrounding circumstances. His heart had been full of hope when he reached the Asnieres Road, but he went away gloomy and despondent; and quite unconscious of the darkness, the mud, and the rain, which was again falling, he silently plodded along in the middle of the highway. Chupin was obliged to stop him at the city gate, and remind him that the cab was waiting.
"That's true," was M. Fortunat's only answer. He entered the vehicle, certainly without knowing it; and as they rolled homeward, the thoughts that filled his brain to overflowing found vent in a sort of monologue, of which Chupin now and then caught a few words. "What a piece of business!" he muttered--"what a piece of business! I've had seven years' experience in such matters, and yet I've never met with an affair so shrouded in mystery. My forty thousand francs are in a precarious condition. Certainly I've lost money before through heirs whose existence I hadn't even suspected; but by reinstating these same heirs in their rights, I've regained my lost money, and received a handsome reward in addition; but in this case all is darkness; there isn't a single gleam of light--not the slightest clew. If I could only find them! But how can I search for people whose names I don't even know--for people who have escaped all the inquiries of the police? And where shall I look for them--in Europe, in America? It would be sheer madness! To whom, then, will the count's millions go?"
It was only the sudden stoppage of the cab in front of his own door that recalled M. Fortunat to the realities of life. "Here are twenty francs, Victor," he said to Chupin. "Pay the driver, and keep the rest yourself."
As he spoke, he sprang nimbly to the ground. A handsome brougham, drawn by two horses, was standing before the house. "The Marquis de Valorsay's carriage," muttered M. Fortunat. "He has been very patient; he has waited for me--or, rather, he has waited for my ten thousand francs. Well, we shall see."