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M. Fortunat had scarcely started off on his visit to the Vantrassons when the Marquis de Valorsay reached the Place de la Bourse.
"Monsieur has gone out," said Madame Dodelin, as she opened the door.
"You must be mistaken, my good woman."
"No, no; my master said you would, perhaps, wait for him."
"Very well; I will do so."
Faithful to the orders she had received, the servant conducted the visitor to the drawing-room, lit the tapers in the candelabra, and retired. "This is very strange!" growled the marquis. "Monsieur Fortunat makes an appointment, Monsieur Fortunat expects me to wait for him! What will happen next?" However, he drew a newspaper from his pocket, threw himself into an arm-chair, and waited.
By his habits and tastes, the Marquis de Valorsay belonged to that section of the aristocracy which has coined the term "high life" in view of describing its own manners and customs. The matters that engrossed the marquis's frivolous mind were club-life and first performances at the opera and the leading theatres, social duties and visits to the fashionable watering-places, racing and the shooting and hunting seasons, together with his mistress and his tailor.
He considered that to ride in a steeple-chase was an act of prowess worthy of his ancestors; and when he galloped past the stand, clad as a jockey, in top-boots and a violet silk jacket, he believed he read admiration in every eye. This was his every-day life, which had been enlivened by a few salient episodes: two duels, an elopement with a married woman, a twenty-six hours' seance at the gaming table, and a fall from his horse, while hunting, which nearly cost him his life. These acts of valor had raised him considerably in the estimation of his friends, and procured him a celebrity of which he was not a little proud. The newspaper reporters were constantly mentioning his name, and the sporting journals never failed to chronicle his departure from Paris or his arrival in the city.
Unfortunately, such a life of busy idleness has its trials and its vicissitudes, and M. de Valorsay was a living proof of this. He was only thirty-three, but in spite of the care he expended upon his toilette, he looked at least forty. Wrinkles were beginning to show themselves; it required all the skill of his valet to conceal the bald spots on his cranium; and since his fall from his horse, he had been troubled by a slight stiffness in his right leg, which stiffness became perfect lameness in threatening weather. Premature lassitude pervaded his entire person, and when he relaxed in vigilance even his eyes betrayed a distaste for everything--weariness, satiety as it were. All the same, however, he bore himself with an undeniable air of distinction, albeit the haughtiness of his manner indicated an exaggerated idea of his own importance. He was indeed in the habit of treating all those whom he considered his inferiors with supercilious sufficiency.
The clock on M. Fortunat's mantel-shelf struck eleven at last and the marquis rose to his feet with a muttered oath. "This is too much!" he growled, angrily.
He looked about for a bell, and seeing none, he was reduced to the dire necessity of opening the door himself, and calling some one. Madame Dodelin answered the summons. "Monsieur said he would return before midnight," she replied; "so he will certainly be here. There is no one like him for punctuality. Won't monsieur have patience a little longer?"
"Well, I will wait a few moments; but, my good woman, light the fire; my feet are frozen!"
M. Fortunat's drawing-room being used but seldom, was really as frigid as an iceberg; and to make matters still worse, M. de Valorsay was in evening dress, with only a light overcoat. The servant hesitated for an instant, thinking this visitor difficult to please, and inclined to make himself very much at home, still she obeyed.
"I think I ought to go," muttered the marquis. "I really think I ought to go." And yet he remained. Necessity, it should be remembered, effectually quiets the revolts of pride.
Left an orphan in his early childhood, placed in possession of an immense fortune at the age of twenty-three, M. de Valorsay had entered life like a famished man enters a dining-room. His name entitled him to a high position in the social world; and he installed himself at table without asking how much the banquet might cost him. It cost him dear, as he discovered at the end of the first year, on noting that his disbursements had considerably exceeded his large income. It was very evident that if he went on in this way, each twelvemonth would deepen an abyss where in the one hundred and sixty thousand francs a year, left him by his father, would finally be swallowed up. But he had plenty of time to reflect upon this unpleasant possibility ere it could come to pass! And, besides, he found his present life so delightful, and he obtained so much gratification for his money, that he was unwilling to make any change. He possessed several fine estates, and he found plenty of men who were only too glad to lend him money on such excellent security. He borrowed timidly at first, but more boldly when he discovered what a mere trifle a mortgage is. Moreover, his wants increased in proportion to his vanity. Occupying a certain position in the opinion of his acquaintances, he did not wish to descend from the heights to which they had exalted him; and the very fact that he had been foolishly extravagant one year made it necessary for him to be guilty of similar folly during the succeeding twelvemonth. He failed to pay his creditors the interest that was due on his loans. They did not ask him for it; and perhaps he forgot that it was slowly but surely accumulating, and that at the end of a certain number of years the amount of his indebtedness would be doubled. He never thought what the end would be. He became absolutely ignorant of the condition of his affairs, and really arrived at the conclusion that his resources were inexhaustible. He believed this until one day when on going to his lawyer for some money, that gentleman coldly said: "You requested me to obtain one hundred thousand francs for you, Monsieur le Marquis--but I have only been able to procure fifty thousand--here they are. And do not hope for more. All your real estate is encumbered beyond its value. Your creditors will probably leave you in undisturbed possession for another year--it will be to their interest--but when it has elapsed they will take possession of their own, as they have a perfect right to do." Then, with a meaning smile, the smile of a wily prime minister, he added: "If I were in your place, Monsieur le Marquis, I would profit by this year of grace. You undoubtedly understand what I mean. I have the honor to wish you good- morning."
What an awakening--after a glorious dream that had lasted for ten years. M. de Valorsay was stunned--crushed. For three days he remained immured in his own room, obstinately refusing to receive any one. "The marquis is ill," was his valet's answer to every visitor.
M. de Valorsay felt that he must have time to regain his mental equilibrium--to look his situation calmly in the face. It was a frightful one, for his ruin was complete, absolute. He could save nothing from the wreck. What was to become of him? What could he do? He set his wits to work; but he found that he was incapable of plying any kind of avocation. All the energy he had been endowed with by nature had been squandered--exhausted in pandering to his self-conceit. If he had been younger he might have turned soldier; but at his age he had not even this resource. Then it was that his notary's smile recurred to his mind. "His advice was decidedly good," he muttered. "All is not yet lost; one way of escape still remains--marriage."
And why, indeed, shouldn't he marry, and marry a rich wife too? No one knew anything about his misfortune; for a year at least, he would retain all the advantages that wealth bestows upon its possessor. His name alone was a great advantage. It would be very strange if he could not find some manufacturer's or banker's daughter who would be only too delighted to have a marquisial coronet emblazoned on her carriage panels.
Having arrived at this conclusion, M. de Valorsay began his search, and it was not long before he thought he had found what he was seeking. But something was still necessary. The bestowers of large dowers are inclined to be suspicious; they like to have a clear understanding as to the financial position of the suitors who present themselves, and they not unfrequently ask for information. Accordingly, before committing himself, M. de Valorsay understood that it was necessary he should provide himself with an intelligent and devoted adviser. There must be some one to hold his creditors in check, to silence them, and obtain sundry concessions from them--in a word, some one to interest them in his success. With this object in view, M. de Valorsay applied to his notary; but the latter utterly refused to mix himself up in any such affair, and declared that the marquis's suggestion was almost an insult. Then touched, perhaps, by his client's apparent despair, he said, "But I can mention a person who might be of service to you. Go to M. Isidore Fortunat, No. 27 Place de la Bourse. If you succeed in interesting him in your marriage, it is an accomplished fact."
It was under these circumstances that the marquis became acquainted with M. Fortunat. M. de Valorsay was a man of no little penetration, and on his first visit he carefully weighed his new acquaintance. He found him to be the very counsellor he desired--prudent, and at the same time courageous; fertile in expedients; a thorough master of the art of evading the law, and not at all troubled by scruples. With such an adviser, it would be mere child's play to conceal his financial embarrassments and deceive the most suspicious father-in-law. So M. de Valorsay did not hesitate a moment. He frankly disclosed his pecuniary condition and his matrimonial hopes, and concluded by promising M. Fortunat a certain percentage on the bride's dowry, to be paid on the day following the marriage.
After a prolonged conference, the agreement was drawn up and signed, and that very day M. Fortunat took the nobleman's interests in hand. How heartily, and with what confidence in his success, is shown by the fact that he had advanced forty thousand francs for his client's use, out of his own private purse. After such a proof of confidence the marquis could hardly have been dissatisfied with his adviser; in point of fact, he was delighted with him, and all the more so, as this invaluable man always treated him with extreme deference, verging on servility. And in M. de Valorsay's eyes this was a great consideration; for he was becoming more arrogant and more irascible in proportion as his right to be so diminished. Secretly disgusted with himself, and deeply humiliated by the shameful intrigue to which he had stooped, he took a secret satisfaction in crushing his accomplice with his imaginary superiority and lordly disdain. According as his humor was good or bad, he called him "my dear extortioner," "Mons. Fortunat," or "Master Twenty-per-cent." But though these sneers and insults drove the obsequious smile from M. Fortunat's lips, he was quite capable of including them in the bill under the head of sundries.
The unvarying deference and submission which M. de Valorsay's adviser displayed made his failure to keep the present appointment all the more remarkable. Such neglect of the commonest rules of courtesy was inconceivable on the part of so polite a man; and the marquis's anger gradually changed to anxiety. "What can have happened?" he thought.
He was trying to decide whether he should leave or stay, when he heard a key grate in the lock of the outer door, and then some quick steps along the ante-room. "At last--here he is!" he muttered, with a sigh of relief.
He expected to see M. Fortunat enter the room at once, but he was disappointed. The agent had no desire to show himself in the garb which he had assumed for his excursion with Chupin; and so he had hastened to his room to don his wonted habiliments. He also desired a few moments for deliberation.
If--as was most probably the case--M. de Valorsay were ignorant of the Count de Chalusse's critical condition, was it advisable to tell him of it? M. Fortunat thought not, judging with reason that this would lead to a discussion and very possibly to a rupture, and he wished to avoid anything of the kind until he was quite certain of the count's death.
Meanwhile the marquis was thinking--he was a trifle late about it-- that he had done wrong to wait in that drawing-room for three mortal hours. Was such conduct worthy of him? Had he shown himself proper respect? Would not M. Fortunat construe this as an acknowledgment of the importance of his services and his client's urgent need? Would he not become more exacting, more exorbitant in his demands? If the marquis could have made his escape unheard, he would, no doubt, have done so; but this was out of the question. So he resorted to a stratagem which seemed to him likely to save his compromised dignity. He stretched himself out in his arm-chair, closed his eyes, and pretended to doze. Then, when M. Fortunat at last entered the drawing-room he sprang up as if he were suddenly aroused from slumber, rubbed his eyes, and exclaimed: "Eh! what's that? Upon my word I must have been asleep!"
But M. Fortunat was not deceived. He noticed, on the floor, a torn and crumpled newspaper, which betrayed the impatience and anger his client had experienced during his long waiting. "Well," resumed the marquis, "what time is it? Half-past twelve? This is a pretty time to keep an appointment fixed for ten o'clock. This is presuming on my good-nature, M. Fortunat! Do you know that my carriage has been waiting below ever since half-past nine, and that my horses have, perhaps, taken cold? A pair of horses worth six hundred louis!"
M. Fortunat listened to these reproaches with the deepest humility. "You must excuse me, Monsieur le Marquis," said he. "If I remained out so much later than usual, it was only because your business interests detained me."
"Zounds! that is about the same as if it had been your own business that detained you!" And well pleased with this joke, he added, "Ah well! How are affairs progressing?"
"On my side as well as could be desired."
The marquis had resumed his seat in the chimney-corner, and was poking the fire with a haughty, but poorly assumed air of indifference. "I am listening," he said carelessly.
"In that case, Monsieur le Marquis, I will state the facts in a few words, without going into particulars. Thanks to an expedient devised by me, we shall obtain for twenty hours a release from all the mortgages that now encumber your estates. On that very day we will request a certificate from the recorder. This certificate will declare that your estates are free from all encumbrances; you will show this statement to M. de Chalusse, and all his doubts-- that is, if he has any--will vanish. The plan was very simple; the only difficulty was about raising the money, but I have succeeded in doing so. All your creditors but two lent themselves very readily to the arrangement. I have now won the consent of the two who at first refused, but we shall have to pay dearly for it. It will cost you about twenty-six thousand francs."
M. de Valorsay was so delighted that he could not refrain from clapping his hands. "Then the affair is virtually concluded," he exclaimed. "In less than a month Mademoiselle Marguerite will be the Marquise de Valorsay, and I shall have a hundred thousand francs a year again." Then, noting how gravely M. Fortunat shook his head: "Ah! so you doubt it!" he cried. "Very well; now it is your turn to listen. Yesterday I had a long conference with the Count de Chalusse, and everything has been settled. We exchanged our word of honor, Master Twenty-per-cent. The count does things in a princely fashion; he gives Mademoiselle Marguerite two millions."
"Two millions!" the other repeated like an echo.
"Yes, my dear miser, neither more nor less. Only for private reasons, which he did not explain, the count stipulates that only two hundred thousand francs shall appear in the marriage contract. The remaining eighteen hundred thousand francs, he gives to me unreservedly and unconditionally. Upon my word, I think this very charming. How does it strike you?"
M. Fortunat made no reply. M. de Valorsay's gayety, instead of cheering, saddened him. "Ah! my fine fellow," he thought, "you would sing a different song if you knew that by this time M. de Chalusse is probably dead, and that most likely Mademoiselle Marguerite has only her beautiful eyes left her, and will dim them in weeping for her vanished millions."
But this brilliant scion of the aristocracy had no suspicion of the real state of affairs, for he continued: "You will say, perhaps, it is strange, that I, Ange-Marie Robert Dalbou, Marquis de Valorsay, should marry a girl whose father and mother no one knows, and whose only name is Marguerite. In this respect it is true that the match is not exactly a brilliant one. Still, as it will appear that she merely has a fortune of two hundred thousand francs, no one will accuse me of marrying for money on the strength of my name. On the contrary, it will seem to be a love- match, and people will suppose that I have grown young again." He paused, incensed by M. Fortunat's lack of enthusiasm. "Judging from your long face, Master Twenty-per-cent, one would fancy you doubted my success," he said.
"It is always best to doubt," replied his adviser, philosophically.
The marquis shrugged his shoulders. "Even when one has triumphed over all obstacles?" he asked sneeringly.
"Then, tell me, if you please, what prevents this marriage from being a foregone conclusion?"
"Mademoiselle Marguerite's consent, Monsieur le Marquis."
It was as if a glass of ice-water had been thrown in M. de Valorsay's face. He started, turned as pale as death, and then exclaimed: "I shall have that; I am sure of it."
You could not say that M. Fortunat was angry. Such a man, as cold and as smooth as a hundred franc piece, has no useless passions. But he was intensely irritated to hear his client foolishly chanting the paeons of victory, while he was compelled to conceal his grief at the loss of his forty thousand francs, deep in the recesses of his heart. So, far from being touched by the marquis's evident alarm, it pleased him to be able to turn the dagger in the wound he had just inflicted. "You must excuse my incredulity," said he. "It comes entirely from something you, yourself, told me about a week ago."
"What did I tell you?"
"That you suspected Mademoiselle Marguerite of a--how shall I express it?--of a secret preference for some other person."
The gloomiest despondency had now followed the marquis's enthusiasm and exultation. He was evidently in torture. "I more than suspected it," said he.
"I was certain of it, thanks to the count's house-keeper, Madame Leon, a miserable old woman whom I have hired to look after my interests. She has been watching Mademoiselle Marguerite, and saw a letter written by her----"
"Certainly nothing has passed that Mademoiselle Marguerite has any cause to blush for. The letter, which is now in my possession, contains unmistakable proofs of that. She might proudly avow the love she has inspired, and which she undoubtedly returns. Yet----"
M. Fortunat's gaze was so intent that it became unbearable. "You see, then," he began, "that I had good cause to fear "
Exasperated beyond endurance, M. de Valorsay sprang up so violently that he overturned his chair. "No!" he exclaimed, "no, a thousand times no! You are wrong--for the man who loves Mademoiselle Marguerite is now ruined. Yes, such is really the case. While we are sitting here, at this very moment, he is lost-- irredeemably lost. Between him and the woman whom I wish to marry--whom I shall marry--I have dug so broad and deep an abyss that the strongest love cannot overleap it. It is better and worse than if I had killed him. Dead, he would have been mourned, perhaps; while now, the lowest and most degraded woman would turn from him in disgust, or, even if she loved him, she would not dare to confess it."
M. Fortunat seemed greatly disturbed. "Have you then put into execution the project--the plan you spoke of?" he faltered. "I thought you were only jesting."
The marquis lowered his head. "Yes," he answered.
His companion stood for a moment as if petrified, and then suddenly exclaimed: "What! You have done that--you--a gentleman?"
M. de Valorsay paced the floor in a state of intense agitation. Had he caught a glimpse of his own face in the looking-glass, it would have frightened him. "A gentleman!" he repeated, in a tone of suppressed rage; "a gentleman! That word is in everybody's mouth, nowadays. Pray, what do you understand by a gentleman, Mons. Fortunat? No doubt, you mean a heroic idiot who passed through life with a lofty mien, clad in all the virtues, as stoical as Job, and as resigned as a martyr--a sort of moral Don Quixote, preaching the austerest virtue, and practising it? But, unfortunately, nobility of soul and of purpose are expensive luxuries, and I am a ruined man. I am no saint! I love life and all that makes life beautiful and desirable--and to procure its pleasures I must fight with the weapons of the age. No doubt, it is grand to be honest; but in my case it is so impossible, that I prefer to be dishonest--to commit an act of shameful infamy which will yield a hundred thousand francs a year. This man is in my way--I suppress him--so much the worse for him--he has no business to be in my way. If I could have met him openly, I would have dispatched him according to the accepted code of honor; but, then, I should have had to renounce all idea of marrying Mademoiselle Marguerite, so I was obliged to find some other way. I could not choose my means. The drowning man does not reject the plank, which is his only chance of salvation, because it chances to be dirty."
His gestures were even more forcible than his words; and when he concluded, he threw himself on to the sofa, holding his head tightly between his hands, as if he felt that it was bursting. Anger choked his utterance--not anger so much as something he would not confess, the quickening of his own conscience and the revolt of every honorable instinct; for, in spite of his sins of omission, and of commission, never, until this day, had he actually violated any clause of the code acknowledged by men of honor.
"You have been guilty of a most infamous act, Monsieur le Marquis," said M. Fortunat, coldly.
"Oh! no moralizing, if you please."
"Only evil will come of it."
The marquis shrugged his shoulders, and in a tone of bitter scorn, retorted: "Come, Mons. Fortunat, if you wish to lose the forty thousand francs you advanced to me, it's easy enough to do so. Run to Madame d'Argeles's house, ask for M. de Coralth, and tell him I countermand my order. My rival will be saved, and will marry Mademoiselle Marguerite and her millions."
M. Fortunat remained silent. He could not tell the marquis: "My forty thousand francs are lost already. I know that only too well. Mademoiselle Marguerite is no longer the possessor of millions, and you have committed a useless crime." However, it was this conviction which imparted such an accent of eagerness to his words as he continued to plead the cause of virtue and of honesty. Would he have said as much if he had entertained any great hope of the success of the marquis's matrimonial enterprise? It is doubtful, still we must do M. Fortunat the justice to admit that he was really and sincerely horrified by what he had unhesitatingly styled an "infamous act."
The marquis listened to his agent for a few moments in silence, and then rose to his feet again. "All this is very true," he interrupted; "but I am, nevertheless, anxious to learn the result of my little plot. For this reason, Monsieur Fortunat, give me at once the five hundred louis you promised me, and I will then bid you good-evening."
The agent had been preparing himself for this moment, and yet he trembled. "I am deeply grieved, monsieur," he replied, with a doleful smile; "it was this matter that kept me out so much later than usual this evening. I hoped to have obtained the money from a banker, who has always accommodated me before--M. Prosper Bertomy, you know him: he married M. Andre Fauvel's niece----"
"Yes, I know; proceed, if you please."
"Ah, well! it was impossible for me to procure the money."
The marquis had hitherto been pale, but now his face flushed crimson. "This is a jest, I suppose," said he.
There was a moment's silence, which the marquis probably spent in reflecting upon the probable consequences of this disappointment, for it was in an almost threatening tone that he eventually exclaimed: "You know that I must have this money at once--that I must have it."
M. Fortunat would certainly have preferred to lose a good pound of flesh rather than the sum of money mentioned; but, on the other hand, he felt that it would not do for him to sever his connection with his client until the death of the Count de Chalusse was certain; and being anxious to save his money and to keep his client, his embarrassment was extreme. "It was the most unfortunate thing in the world," he stammered; "I apprehended no difficulty whatever--" Then, suddenly clapping his hand to his forehead, he exclaimed: "But, Monsieur le Marquis, couldn't you borrow this amount from one of your friends, the Duke de Champdoce or the Count de Commarin?--that would be a good idea."
M. de Valorsay was anything but unsophisticated, and his natural shrewdness had been rendered much more acute by the difficulties with which he had recently been obliged to contend. M. Fortunat's confusion had not escaped his keen glance; and this last suggestion aroused his suspicions at once. "What!" he said, slowly, and with an air of evident distrust. "You give me this advice, Master Twenty-per-cent. This is wonderful! How long is it since your opinions have undergone such a change?"
"Yes. Didn't you say to me during our first interview; 'The thing that will save you, is that you have never in your while life borrowed a louis from a friend. An ordinary creditor only thinks of a large interest; and if that is paid him he holds his peace. A friend is never satisfied until everybody knows that he has generously obliged you. It is far better to apply to a usurer.' I thought all that very sensible, and I quite agreed with you when you added: 'So, Monsieur le Marquis, no borrowing of this kind until after your marriage--not on any pretext whatever. Go without eating rather than do it. Your credit is still good; but it is being slowly undermined--and the indiscretion of a friend who chanced to say: "I think Valorsay is hard up," might fire the train, and then you'd explode.'"
M. Fortunat's embarrassment was really painful to witness. He was not usually wanting in courage, but the events of the evening had shaken his confidence and his composure. The hope of gain and the fear of loss had deprived him of his wonted clearness of mind. Feeling that he had just committed a terrible blunder, he racked his brain to find some way of repairing it, and finding none, his confusion increased.
"Did you, or didn't you, use that language?" insisted M. de Valorsay. "What have you to say in reply?"
"Urgent need--necessity. There is no rule without its exceptions. I did not imagine you would be so rash. I have advanced you forty thousand francs in less than five months--it is outrageous. If I were in your place, I would be more reasonable--I would economize----"
He paused! in fact, he was compelled to pause by the piercing glance which M. de Valorsay turned upon him. He was furious with himself. "I am losing my wits," he thought.
"Still more wise counsel," remarked the ruined nobleman ironically. "While you are about it, why don't you advise me to sell my horses and carriages, and establish myself in a garret in the Rue Amelot? Such a course would seem very natural, wouldn't it? and, of course, it would inspire M. de Chalusse with boundless confidence!"
"But without going to such extremes----"
"Hold your tongue!" interrupted the marquis, violently. "Better than any one else you know that I cannot retrench, although the reality no longer exists. I am condemned, cost what it may, to keep up appearances. That is my only hope of salvation. I have gambled, given expensive suppers, indulged in dissipation of every kind, and I must continue to do so. I have come to hate Ninette Simplon, for whom I have committed so many acts of folly, and yet I still keep her--to show that I am rolling in wealth. I have thrown thousand-franc notes out of the window, and I mustn't stop throwing them. Indeed, what would people say if I stopped! Why, 'Valorsay is a ruined man!' Then, farewell to my hopes of marrying an heiress. And so I am always gay and smiling; that is part of my role. What would my servants--the twenty spies that I pay-- what would they think if they saw me thoughtful or disturbed? You would scarcely believe it, M. Fortunat, but I have positively been reduced to dining on credit at my club, because I had paid, that morning, for a month's provender for my horses! It is true I have many valuable articles in my house, but I cannot dispose of them. People would recognize them at once; besides, they form a part of my stock-in-trade. An actor doesn't sell his costumes because he's hungry--he goes without food--and when it's time for the curtain to rise, he dons his satin and velvet garments, and, despite his empty stomach, he chants the praises of a bountiful table and rare old wine. That is what I am doing--I, Robert Dalbou, Marquis de Valorsay! At the races at Vincennes, about a fortnight ago, I was bowling along the boulevard behind my four- in-hand, when I heard a laborer say, 'How happy those rich people must be!' Happy, indeed! Why, I envied him his lot. He was sure that the morrow would be like the day that preceded it. On that occasion my entire fortune consisted of a single louis, which I had won at baccarat the evening before. As I entered the enclosure, Isabelle, the flower-girl, handed me a rose for my button-hole. I gave her my louis--but I longed to strangle her!"
He paused for a moment, and then, in a frenzy of passion, he advanced toward M. Fortunat, who instinctively retreated into the protecting embrasure of a window. "And for eight months I have lived this horrible life!" he resumed. "For eight months each moment has been so much torture. Ah! better poverty, prison, and shame! And now, when the prize is almost won, actuated either by treason or caprice, you try to make all my toil and all my suffering unavailing. You try to thwart me on the very threshold of success! No! I swear, by God's sacred name, it shall not be! I will rather crush you, you miserable scoundrel--crush you like a venomous reptile!"
There was such a ring of fury in his voice that the crystals of the candelabra vibrated; and Madame Dodelin, in her kitchen, heard it, and shuddered. "Some one will certainly do M. Fortunat an injury one of these days," she thought.
It was not by any means the first time that M. Fortunat had found himself at variance with clients of a sanguine temperament; but he had always escaped safe and sound, so that, after all, he was not particularly alarmed in the present instance, as was proved by the fact that he was still calm enough to reflect and plan. "In forty-eight hours I shall be certain of the count's fate," he thought; "he will be dead, or he will be in a fair way to recovery--so by promising to give this frenzied man what he desires on the day after to-morrow, I shall incur no risk."
Taking advantage of an opportunity which M. de Valorsay furnished, on pausing to draw breath, he hastily exclaimed, "Really, Monsieur le Marquis, I cannot understand your anger."
"Excuse me. Before insulting me, permit me to explain----"
"No explanation--five hundred louis!"
"Have the kindness to allow me to finish. Yes, I know that you are in urgent need of money--not by-and-by, but now. To-day I was unable to procure it, nor can I promise it to-morrow; but on the day after to-morrow, Saturday, I shall certainly have it ready for you."
The marquis seemed to be trying to read his agent's very soul. "Are you in earnest?" he asked. "Show your hand. If you don't intend to help me out of my embarrassment, say so."
"Ah, Monsieur le Marquis, am I not as much interested in your success as you yourself can be? Have you not received abundant proofs of my devotion?"
"Then I can rely upon you."
"Absolutely." And seeing a lingering doubt in his client's eyes, M. Fortunat added, "You have my word of honor!"
The clock struck three. The marquis took his hat and started toward the door. But M. Fortunat, in whose heart the word scoundrel was still rankling, stopped him. "Are you going to that lady's house now? What is she called? I've forgotten her name. Ah, yes, I remember now. Madame d'Argeles, isn't she called? It's at her place, I believe, that the reputation of Mademoiselle Marguerite's favored lover is to be ruined."
The marquis turned angrily. "What do you take me for, Master Twenty-per-cent?" he rudely asked. "That is one of those things no well-bred gentleman will do himself. But in Paris people can be found to do any kind of dirty work, if you are willing to pay them for it."
"Then how will you know the result?"
"Why, twenty minutes after the affair is over, M. de Coralth will be at my house. He is there even now, perhaps." And as this subject was anything but pleasant, he hastened away, exclaiming, "Get to bed, my dear extortioner. Au revoir. And, above all, remember your promise."
"My respects, Monsieur le Marquis."
But when the door closed, M. Fortunat's expression immediately changed. "Ah! you insult me!" he muttered sullenly. "You rob me, and you call me a scoundrel into the bargain. You shall pay dearly for it, my fine fellow, no matter what may happen!"
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