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It is in vain that the law has endeavored to shield private life from prying eyes. The scribes who pander to Parisian curiosity surmount all obstacles and brave every danger. Thanks to the "High Life" reporters, every newspaper reader is aware that twice a week--Mondays and Thursdays--Madame Lia d'Argeles holds a reception at her charming mansion in the Rue de Berry. Her guests find plenty of amusement there. They seldom dance; but card- playing begins at midnight, and a dainty supper is served before the departure of the guests.
It was on leaving one of these little entertainments that that unfortunate young man, Jules Chazel, a cashier in a large banking- house, committed suicide by blowing out his brains. The brilliant frequenters of Madame d'Argeles's entertainments considered this act proof of exceeding bad taste and deplorable weakness on his part. "The fellow was a coward," they declared. "Why, he had lost hardly a thousand louis!"
He had lost only that, it is true--a mere trifle as times go. Only the money was not his; he had taken it from the safe which was confided to his keeping, expecting, probably, to double the amount in a single night. In the morning, when he found himself alone, without a penny, and the deficit staring him in the face, the voice of conscience cried, "You are a thief!" and he lost his reason.
The event created a great sensation at the time, and the Petit Journal published a curious story concerning this unfortunate young man's mother. The poor woman--she was a widow--sold all she possessed, even the bed on which she slept, and when she had succeeded in gathering together twenty thousand francs--the ransom of her son's honor--she carried them to the banker by whom her boy had been employed. He took them, without even asking the mother if she had enough left to purchase her dinner that evening; and the fine gentleman, who had won and pocketed Jules Chazel's stolen gold, thought the banker's conduct perfectly natural and just. It is true that Madame d'Argeles was in despair during forty-eight hours or so; for the police had begun a sort of investigation, and she feared this might frighten her visitors and empty her drawing- rooms. Not at all, however; on the contrary, she had good cause to congratulate herself upon the notoriety she gained through this suicide. For five days she was the talk of Paris, and Alfred d'Aunay even published her portrait in the Illustrated Chronicle.
Still, no one was able to say exactly who Madame Lia d'Argeles was. Who was she, and whence did she come? How had she lived until she sprang up, full grown, in the sunshine of the fashionable world? Did the splendid mansion in the Rue de Berry really belong to her? Was she as rich as she was supposed to be? Where had she acquired such manners, the manners of a thorough woman of the world, with her many accomplishments, as well as her remarkable skill as a musician? Everything connected with her was a subject of conjecture, even to the name inscribed upon her visiting cards--"Lia d'Argeles."
But no matter. Her house was always filled to over-flowing; and at the very moment when the Marquis de Valorsay and M. Fortunat were speaking of her, a dozen coroneted carriages stood before her door, and her rooms were thronged with guests. It was a little past midnight, and the bi-weekly card party had just been made up, when a footman announced, "Monsieur le Vicomte de Coralth! Monsieur Pascal Ferailleur!"
Few of the players deigned to raise their heads. But one man growled, "Good--two more players!" And four or five young men exclaimed, "Ah! here's Ferdinand! Good evening, my dear fellow!"
M. de Coralth was very young and remarkably good-looking, almost too good-looking, indeed; for his handsomeness was somewhat startling and unnatural. He had an exceedingly fair complexion, and large, melting black eyes, while a woman might have envied him his wavy brown hair and the exquisite delicacy of his skin. He dressed with great care and taste, and even coquettishly; his turn-down collar left his firm white throat uncovered, and his rose-tinted gloves fitted as perfectly as the skin upon his soft, delicate hands. He bowed familiarly on entering, and with a rather complacent smile on his lips, he approached Madame d'Argeles, who, half reclining in an easy chair near the fire- place, was conversing with two elderly gentlemen of grave and distinguished bearing. "How late you are, viscount," she remarked carelessly. "What have you been doing to-day? I fancied I saw you in the Bois, in the Marquis de Valorsay's dog-cart."
A slight flush suffused M. de Coralth's cheeks, and to hide it, perhaps, he turned toward the visitor who had entered with him, and drew him toward Madame d'Argeles, saying, "Allow me, madame, to present to you one of my great friends, M. Pascal Ferailleur, an advocate whose name will be known to fame some day."
"Your friends are always welcome at my house, my dear viscount," replied Madame d'Argeles. And before Pascal had concluded his bow, she averted her head, and resumed her interrupted conversation.
The new-comer, however, was worthy of more than that cursory notice. He was a young man of five or six-and-twenty, dark- complexioned and tall; each movement of his person was imbued with that natural grace which is the result of perfect harmony of the muscles, and of more than common vigor. His features were irregular, but they gave evidence of energy, kindness of heart, and honesty of purpose. A man possessing such a proud, intelligent, and open brow, such a clear, straightforward gaze, and such finely-cut lips, could be no ordinary one. Deserted by his sponsor, who was shaking hands right and left, he seated himself on a sofa a little in the background; not because he was embarrassed, but because he felt that instinctive distrust of self which frequently seizes hold of a person on entering a crowd of strangers. He did his best to conceal his curiosity, but nevertheless he looked and listened with all his might.
The salon, was an immense apartment, divided into two rooms by sliding doors and hangings. When Madame d'Argeles gave a ball, the rooms were thrown into one; but, as a general rule, one room was occupied by the card-players, and the other served as a refuge for those who wished to chat. The card-room, into which Pascal had been ushered, was an apartment of noble proportions, furnished in a style of tasteful magnificence. The tints of the carpet were subdued; there was not too much gilding on the cornices; the clock upon the mantel-shelf was chaste and elegant in design. The only thing at all peculiar about the room and its appointments was a reflector, ingeniously arranged above the chandelier in such a way as to throw the full glare of the candles upon the card-table which stood directly beneath it. The table itself was adorned with a rich tapestry cover, but this was visible only at the corners, for it was covered, in turn, with a green baize cloth considerably the worse for wear. Madame d'Argeles's guests were probably not over fifty in number, but they all seemed to belong to the very best society. The majority of them were men of forty or thereabouts; several wore decorations, and two or three of the eldest were treated with marked deference. Certain well-known names which Pascal overheard surprised him greatly. "What! these men here?" he said to himself; "and I--I regarded my visit as a sort of clandestine frolic."
There were only seven or eight ladies present, none of them being especially attractive. Their toilettes were very costly, but in rather doubtful taste, and they wore a profusion of diamonds. Pascal noticed that these ladies were treated with perfect indifference, and that, whenever the gentlemen spoke to them, they assumed an air of politeness which was too exaggerated not to be ironical.
A score of persons were seated at the card-table, and the guests who had retired into the adjoining salon were silently watching the progress of the game, or quietly chatting in the corners of the room. It surprised him to note that every one spoke in very low tones; there was something very like respect, even awe, in this subdued murmur. One might have supposed that those present were celebrating the rites of some mysterious worship. And is not gaming a species of idolatry, symbolized by cards, and which has its images, its fetishes, its miracles, its fanatics, and its martyrs?
Occasionally, above the accompaniment of whispers, rose the strange and incoherent exclamations of the players: "Here are twenty louis! I take it--I pass! The play is made! Banco!"
"What a strange gathering!" thought Pascal Ferailleur. "What singular people!" And he turned his attention to the mistress of the house, as if he hoped to decipher the solution of the enigma on her face.
But Madame Lia d'Argeles defied all analysis. She was one of those women whose uncertain age varies according to their mood, between the thirties and the fifties; one who did not look over thirty in the evening, but who would have been charged with being more than fifty the next morning. In her youth she must have been very beautiful, and she was still good-looking, though she had grown somewhat stout, and her face had become a trifle heavy, thus marring the symmetry of her very delicate features. A perfect blonde, she had eyes of so clear a blue that they seemed almost faded. The whiteness of her skin was so unnatural that it almost startled one. It was the dull, lifeless white which suggests an excessive use of cosmetics and rice powder, and long baths, late hours, and sleep at day-time, in a darkened room. Her face was utterly devoid of expression. One might have fancied that its muscles had become relaxed after terrible efforts to feign or to conceal some violent emotions; and there was something melancholy, almost terrifying in the eternal, and perhaps involuntary smile, which curved her lips. She wore a dress of black velvet, with slashed sleeves and bodice, a new design of the famous man- milliner, Van Klopen.
Pascal was engaged in these observations when M. de Coralth, having made his round, came and sat down on the sofa beside him. "Well, what do you think of it?" he inquired.
"Upon my word!" replied the young advocate, "I am infinitely obliged to you for inviting me to accompany you here. I am intensely amused."
"Good! My philosopher is captivated."
"Not captivated, but interested, I confess." Then, in the tone of good-humor which was habitual to him, he added: "As for being the sage you call me, that's all nonsense. And to prove it, I'm going to risk my louis with the rest."
M. de Coralth seemed amazed, but a close observer might have detected a gleam of triumph in his eyes. "You are going to play-- you?"
"Yes. Why not?"
"Of what, pray? The worst I can do is to lose what I have in my pocket--something over two hundred francs."
The viscount shook his head thoughtfully. "It isn't that which one has cause to fear. The devil always has a hand in this business, and the first time a man plays he's sure to win."
"And is that a misfortune?"
"Yes, because the recollection of these first winnings is sure to lure you back to the gaming-table again. You go back, you lose, you try to recover your money, and that's the end of it--you become a gambler."
Pascal Ferailleur's smile was the smile of a man who has full confidence in himself. "My brain is not so easily turned, I hope," said he. "I have the thought of my name, and the fortune I must make, as ballast for it."
"I beseech you not to play," insisted the viscount. "Listen to me; you don't know what this passion for play is; the strongest and the coldest natures succumb--don't play."
He had raised his voice, as if he intended to be overheard by two guests who had just approached the sofa. They did indeed hear him. "Can I believe my own eyes and ears!" exclaimed one of them, an elderly man. "Can this really be Ferdinand who is trying to shake the allegiance of the votaries of our noble lady--the Queen of Spades?"
M. de Coralth turned quickly round: "Yes, it is indeed I," he answered. "I have purchased with my patrimony the right of saying: 'Distrust yourself, and don't do as I've done,' to an inexperienced friend."
The wisest counsels, given in a certain fashion, never fail to produce an effect diametrically opposed to that which they seemingly aim at. M. de Coralth's persistence, and the importance he attached to a mere trifle, could not fail to annoy the most patient man in the world, and in fact his patronizing tone really irritated Pascal. "You are free, my friend, to do as you please," said he; "but I----"
"Are you resolved?" interrupted the viscount.
"So be it, then. You are no longer a child, and I have warned you. Let us play, then." Thereupon they approached the table; room was made for them, and they seated themselves, Pascal being on M. Ferdinand de Coralth's right-hand side.
The guests were playing "Baccarat tournant," a game of terrible and infantile simplicity. There are no such things as skill or combination possible in it; science and calculation are useless. Chance alone decides, and decides with the rapidity of lightning. Amateurs certainly assert that, with great coolness and long practice, one can, in a measure at least, avert prolonged ill- luck. Maybe they are right, but it is not conclusively proved. Each person takes the cards in his turn, risks what he chooses, and when his stakes are covered, deals. If he wins, he is free to follow up his vein of good-luck, or to pass the deal. When he loses, the deal passes at once to the next player on the right.
A moment sufficed for Pascal Ferailleur to learn the rules of the game. It was already Ferdinand's deal. M. de Coralth staked a hundred francs; the bet was taken; he dealt, lost, and handed the cards to Pascal.
The play, which had been rather timid at first--since it was necessary, as they say, to try the luck--had now become bolder. Several players had large piles of gold before them, and the heavy artillery--that is to say, bank-notes--were beginning to put in appearance. But Pascal had no false pride. "I stake a louis!" said he
The smallness of the sum attracted instant attention, and two or three voices replied: "Taken!"
He dealt, and won. "Two louis!" he said again. this wager was also taken; he won, and his run of luck was so remarkable that, in a wonderfully short space of time, he won six hundred francs.
"Pass the deal," whispered Ferdinand, and Pascal followed this advice. "Not because I desire to keep my winnings," he whispered in M. de Coralth's ear, "but because I wish to have enough to play until the end of the evening without risking anything."
But such prudence was unnecessary so far as he was concerned. When the deal came to him again, fortune favored him even more than before. He started with a hundred francs, and doubling them each time in six successive deals, he won more than three thousand francs.
"The devil! Monsieur is in luck."--"Zounds! And he is playing for the first time."--"That accounts for it. The inexperienced always win."
Pascal could not fail to hear these comments. The blood mantled over his cheeks, and, conscious that he was flushing, he, as usually happens, flushed still more. His good fortune embarrassed him, as was evident, and he played most recklessly. Still his good luck did not desert him; and do what he would he won--won continually. In fact, by four o'clock in the morning he had thirty-five thousand francs before him.
For some time he had been the object of close attention. "Do you know this gentleman?" inquired one of the guests.
"No. He came with Coralth."
"He is an advocate, I understand."
And all these whispered doubts and suspicions, these questions fraught with an evil significance, these uncharitable replies, grew into a malevolent murmur, which resounded in Pascal's ears and bewildered him. He was really becoming most uncomfortable, when Madame d'Argeles approached the card-table and exclaimed: "This is the third time, gentlemen, that you have been told that supper is ready. What gentleman will offer me his arm?"
There was an evident unwillingness to leave the table, but an old gentleman who had been losing heavily rose to his feet. "Yes, let us go to supper!" he exclaimed; "perhaps that will change the luck."
This was a decisive consideration. The room emptied as if by magic; and no one was left at the table but Pascal, who scarcely knew what to do with all the gold piled up before him. He succeeded, however, in distributing it in his pockets, and was about to join the other guests in the dining-room, when Madame d'Argeles abruptly barred his passage.
"I desire a word with you, monsieur," she said. Her face still retained its strange immobility, and the same stereotyped smile played about her lips. And yet her agitation was so evident that Pascal, in spite of his own uneasiness, noticed it, and was astonished by it.
"I am at your service, madame," he stammered, bowing.
She at once took his arm, and led him to the embrasure of a window. "I am a stranger to you, monsieur," she said, very hurriedly, and in very low tones, "and yet I must ask, and you must grant me, a great favor."
She hesitated, as if at a loss for words, and then all of a sudden she said, eagerly: "You will leave this house at once, without warning any one, and while the other guests are at supper."
Pascal's astonishment changed into stupor.
"Why am I to go?" he asked.
"Because--but, no; I cannot tell you. Consider it only a caprice on my part--it is so; but I entreat you, don't refuse me. Do me this favor, and I shall be eternally grateful."
There was such an agony of supplication in her voice and her attitude, that Pascal was touched. A vague presentiment of some terrible, irreparable misfortune disturbed his own heart. Nevertheless, he sadly shook his head, and bitterly exclaimed: "You are, perhaps, not aware that I have just won over thirty thousand francs."
"Yes, I am aware of it. And this is only another, and still stronger reason why you should protect yourself against possible loss. It is well to pattern after Charlemagne* in this house. The other night, the Count d'Antas quietly made his escape bareheaded. He took a thousand louis away with him, and left his hat in exchange. The count is a brave man; and far from indulging in blame, every one applauded him the next day. Come, you have decided, I see--you will go; and to be still more safe, I will show you out through the servants' hall, then no one can possibly see you."
* French gamblers use this expression which they explain by the fact that Charlemagne departed this life with all his possessions intact, having always added to his dominions without ever experiencing a loss. Historically this is no doubt incorrect, hut none the less, the expression prevails in France.--[Trans.]
Pascal had almost decided to yield to her entreaties; but this proposed retreat through the back-door was too revolting to his pride to be thought of for a moment. "I will never consent to such a thing," he declared. "What would they think of me? Besides I owe them their revenge and I shall give it to them."
Neither Madame d'Argeles nor Pascal had noticed M. de Coralth, who in the meantime had stolen into the room on tiptoe, and had been listening to their conversation, concealed behind the folds of a heavy curtain. He now suddenly revealed his presence. "Ah! my dear friend," he exclaimed, in a winning tone. "While I honor your scruples, I must say that I think madame is a hundred times right. If I were in your place, if I had won what you have won, I shouldn't hesitate. Others might think what they pleased; you have the money, that is the main thing."
For the second time, the viscount's intervention decided Pascal. "I shall remain," he said, resolutely.
But Madame d'Argeles laid her hand imploringly on his arm. "I entreat you, monsieur," said she. "Go now, there is still time "
"Yes, go," said the viscount, approvingly, "it would be a most excellent move. Retreat and save the cash."
These words were like the drop which makes the cup overflow. Crimson with anger and assailed by the strangest suspicions, Pascal turned from Madame d'Argeles and hastened into the dining- room. The conversation ceased entirely on his arrival there. He could not fail to understand that he had been the subject of it. A secret instinct warned him that all the men around him were his enemies--though he knew not why--and that they were plotting against him. He also perceived that his slightest movements were watched and commented upon. However he was a brave man; his conscience did not reproach him in the least, and he was one of those persons who, rather than wait for danger, provoke it.
So, with an almost defiant air, he seated himself beside a young lady dressed in pink tulle, and began to laugh and chat with her. He possessed a ready wit, and what is even better, tact; and for a quarter of an hour astonished those around him by his brilliant sallies. Champagne was flowing freely; and he drank four or five glasses in quick succession. Was he really conscious of what he was doing and saying? He subsequently declared that he was not, that he acted under the influence of a sort of hallucination similar to that produced by the inhalation of carbonic gas.
However, the guests did not linger long at the supper-table. "Let us go back!" cried the old gentleman, who had insisted upon the suspension of the game; "we are wasting a deal of precious time here!"
Pascal rose with the others, and in his haste to enter the adjoining room he jostled two men who were talking together near the door. "So it is understood," said one of them.
"Yes, yes, leave it to me; I will act as executioner."
This word sent all Pascal's blood bounding to his heart. "Who is to be executed?" he thought? "I am evidently to be the victim. But what does it all mean?"
Meanwhile the players at the green table had changed places, and Pascal found himself seated not on Ferdinand's right, but directly opposite him, and between two men about his own age--one of them being the person who had announced his intention of acting as executioner. All eyes were fixed upon the unfortunate advocate when it came his turn to deal. He staked two hundred louis, and lost them. There was a slight commotion round the table; and one of the players who had lost most heavily, remarked in an undertone: "Don't look so hard at the gentleman--he won't have any more luck."
As Pascal heard this ironical remark, uttered in a tone which made it as insulting as a blow, a gleam of light darted through his puzzled brain. He suspected at last, what any person less honest than himself would have long before understood. He thought of rising and demanding an apology; but he was stunned, almost overcome by the horrors of his situation. His ears tingled, and it seemed to him as if the beating of his heart were suspended.
However the game proceeded; but no one paid any attention to it. The stakes were insignificant, and loss or gain drew no exclamation from any one. The attention of the entire party was concentrated on Pascal; and he, with despair in his heart, followed the movements of the cards, which were passing from hand to hand, and fast approaching him again. When they reached him the silence became breathless, menacing, even sinister. The ladies, and the guests who were not playing, approached and leaned over the table in evident anxiety. "My God!" thought Pascal, "my God, if I can only lose!"
He was as pale as death; the perspiration trickled down from his hair upon his temples, and his hands trembled so much that he could scarcely hold the cards. "I will stake four thousand francs," he faltered.
"I take your bet," answered a voice.
Alas! the unfortunate fellow's wish was not gratified; he won. Then in the midst of the wildest confusion, he exclaimed: "Here are eight thousand francs!"
But as he began to deal the cards, his neighbor sprang up, seized him roughly by the hands and cried: "This time I'm sure of it-- you are a thief!"
With a bound, Pascal was on his feet. While his peril had been vague and undetermined, his energy had been paralyzed. But it was restored to him intact when his danger declared itself in all its horror. He pushed away the man who had caught his hands, with such violence that he sent him reeling under a sofa; then he stepped back and surveyed the excited throng with an air of menace and defiance. Useless! Seven or eight players sprang upon him and overpowered him, as if he had been the vilest criminal.
Meanwhile, the executioner, as he had styled himself, had risen to his feet with his cravat untied, and his clothes in wild disorder. "Yes," he said, addressing Pascal, "you are a thief! I saw you slip other cards among those which were handed to you."
"Wretch!" gasped Pascal.
"I saw you--and I am going to prove it." So saying he turned to the mistress of the house, who had dropped into an arm-chair, and imperiously asked, "How many packs have we used?"
"Then there ought to be two hundred and sixty cards upon the table."
Thereupon he counted them slowly and with particular care, and he found no fewer than three hundred and seven. "Well, scoundrel!" he cried; "are you still bold enough to deny it?"
Pascal had no desire to deny it. He knew that words would weigh as nothing against this material, tangible, incontrovertible proof. Forty-seven cards had been fraudulently inserted among the others. Certainly not by him! But by whom? Still he, alone, had been the gainer through the deception.
"You see that the coward will not even defend himself!" exclaimed one of the women.
He did not deign to turn his head. What did the insult matter to him? He knew himself to be innocent, and yet he felt that he was sinking to the lowest depths of infamy--he beheld himself disgraced, branded, ruined. And realizing that he must meet facts with facts, he besought God to grant him an idea, an inspiration, that would unmask the real culprit.
But another person came to his aid. With a boldness which no one would have expected on his part, M. de Coralth placed himself in front of Pascal, and in a voice which betokened more indignation than sorrow, he exclaimed: "This is a terrible mistake, gentlemen. Pascal Ferailleur is my friend; and his past vouches for his present. Go to the Palais de Justice, and make inquiries respecting his character there. They will tell you how utterly impossible it is that this man can be guilty of the ignoble act he is accused of."
No one made any reply. In the opinion of all his listeners, Ferdinand was simply fulfilling a duty which it would have been difficult for him to escape. The old gentleman who had decided the suspension and the resumption of the game, gave audible expression to the prevailing sentiment of the party. He was a portly man, who puffed like a porpoise when he talked, and whom his companions called the baron. "Your words do you honor--really do you honor," he said, addressing Ferdinand--"and no possible blame can attach to you. That your friend is not an honest man is no fault of yours. There is no outward sign to distinguish scoundrels."
Pascal had so far not opened his lips. After struggling for a moment in the hands of his captors, he now stood perfectly motionless, glancing furiously around him as if hoping to discover the coward who had prepared the trap into which he had fallen. For he felt certain that he was the victim of some atrocious conspiracy, though it was impossible for him to divine what motive had actuated his enemies. Suddenly those who were holding him felt him tremble. He raised his head; he fancied he could detect a ray of hope. "Shall I be allowed to speak in my own defence?" he asked.
He tried to free himself; but those beside him would not relax their hold, so he desisted, and then, in a voice husky with emotion, he exclaimed: "I am innocent! I am the victim of an infamous plot. Who the author of it is I do not know. But there is some one here who must know." Angry exclamations and sneering laughs interrupted him. "Would you condemn me unheard?" he resumed, raising his voice. "Listen to me. About an hour ago, while you were at supper, Madame d'Argeles almost threw herself at my feet as she entreated me to leave this house. Her agitation astonished me. Now I understand it."
The gentleman known as the baron turned toward Madame d'Argeles: "Is what this man says true?"
She was greatly agitated, but she answered: "Yes."
"Why were you so anxious for him to go?"
"I don't know--a presentiment--it seemed to me that something was going to happen."
The least observant of the party could not fail to notice Madame d'Argeles's hesitation and confusion; but even the shrewdest were deceived. They supposed that she had seen the act committed, and had tried to induce the culprit to make his escape, in order to avoid a scandal.
Pascal saw he could expect no assistance from this source. "M. de Coralth could assure you," he began.
"Oh, enough of that," interrupted a player. "I myself heard M. de Coralth do his best to persuade you not to play."
So the unfortunate fellow's last and only hope had vanished. Still he made a supreme effort, and addressing Madame d'Argeles: "Madame," he said, in a voice trembling with anguish?" I entreat you, tell what you know. Will you allow an honorable man to be ruined before your very eyes? Will you abandon an innocent man whom you could save by a single word?" But she remained silent; and Pascal staggered as if some one had dealt him a terrible blow. "It is all over!" he muttered.
No one heard him; everybody was listening to the baron, who seemed to be very much put out. "We are wasting precious time with all this," said he. "We should have made at least five rounds while this absurd scene has been going on. We must put an end to it. What are you going to do with this fellow? I am in favor of sending for a commissary of police."
Such was not at all the opinion of the majority of the guests. Four or five of the ladies took flight at the bare suggestion and several men--the most aristocratic of the company--became angry at once. "Are you mad?" said one of them. "Do you want to see us all summoned as witnesses? You have probably forgotten that Garcia affair, and that rumpus at Jenny Fancy's house. A fine thing it would be to see, no one knows how many great names mixed up with those of sharpers and notorious women!"
Naturally of a florid complexion, the baron's face now became scarlet. "So it's fear of scandal that deters you! Zounds, sir! a man's courage should equal his vices. Look at me."
Celebrated for his income of eight hundred thousand francs a year, for his estates in Burgundy, for his passion for gaming, his horses, and his cook, the baron wielded a mighty influence. Still, on this occasion he did not carry the day, for it was decided that the "sharper " should be allowed to depart unmolested. "Make him at least return the money," growled a loser; "compel him to disgorge."
"His winnings are there upon the table."
"Don't believe it," cried the baron. "All these scoundrels have secret pockets in which they stow away their plunder. Search him by all means."
"That's it--search him!"
Crushed by this unexpected, undeserved and incomprehensible misfortune, Pascal had almost yielded to his fate. But the shameful cry: "Search him!" kindled terrible wrath in his brain. He shook off his assailants as a lion shakes off the hounds that have attacked him, and, reaching the fireplace with a single bound, he snatched up a heavy bronze candelabrum and brandished it in the air, crying: "The first who approaches is a dead man!"
He was ready to strike, there was no doubt about it; and such a weapon in the hands of a determined man, becomes positively terrible. The danger seemed so great and so certain that his enemies paused--each encouraging his neighbor with his glance; but no one was inclined to engage in this struggle, by which the victor would merely gain a few bank-notes. "Stand back, and allow me to retire?" said Pascal, imperiously. They still hesitated; but finally made way. And, formidable in his indignation and audacity, he reached the door of the room unmolested, and disappeared.
This superb outburst of outraged honor, this marvellous energy-- succeeding, as it did, the most complete mental prostration--and these terrible threats, had proved so prompt and awe-inspiring that no one had thought of cutting off Pascal's retreat. The guests had not recovered from their stupor, but were still standing silent and intimidated when they heard the outer door close after him.
It was a woman who at last broke the spell. "Ah, well!" she exclaimed, in a tone of intense admiration, "that handsome fellow is level-headed!"
"He naturally desired to save his plunder!"
It was the same expression that M. de Coralth had employed; and which had, perhaps, prevented Pascal from yielding to Madame d'Argeles's entreaties. Everybody applauded the sentiment-- everybody, the baron excepted. This rich man, whose passions had dragged him into the vilest dens of Europe, was thoroughly acquainted with sharpers and scoundrels of every type, from those who ride in their carriages down to the bare-footed vagabond. He knew the thief who grovels at his victim's feet, humbly confessing his crime, the desperate knave who swallows the notes he has stolen, the abject wretch who bares his back to receive the blows he deserves, and the rascal who boldly confronts his accusers and protests his innocence with the indignation of an honest man. But never, in any of these scoundrels, had the baron seen the proud, steadfast glance with which this man had awed his accusers.
With this thought uppermost in his mind he drew the person who had seized Pascal's hands at the card-table a little aside. "Tell me," said he, "did you actually see that young man slip the cards into the pack?"
"No, not exactly. But you know what we agreed at supper? We were sure that he was cheating; and it was necessary to find some pretext for counting the cards."
"What if he shouldn't be guilty, after all?"
"Who else could be guilty then? He was the only winner."
To this terrible argument--the same which had silenced Pascal--the baron made no reply. Indeed his intervention became necessary elsewhere, for the other guests were beginning to talk loudly and excitedly around the pile of gold and bank-notes which Pascal had left on the table. They had counted it, and found it to amount to the sum of thirty-six thousand three hundred and twenty francs; and it was the question of dividing it properly among the losers which was causing all this uproar. Among these guests, who belonged to the highest society--among these judges who had so summarily convicted an innocent man, and suggested the searching of a supposed sharper only a moment before--there were several who unblushingly misrepresented their losses. This was undeniable; for on adding the various amounts that were claimed together a grand total of ninety-one thousand francs was reached. Had this man who had just fled taken the difference between the two sums away with him? A difference amounting almost to fifty-five thousand francs? No, this was impossible; the supposition could not be entertained for a moment. However, the discussion might have taken an unfortunate turn, had it not been for the baron. In all matters relating to cards, his word was law. He quietly said, "It is all right;" and they submitted.
Nevertheless, he absolutely refused to take his share of the money; and after the division, rubbing his hands as if he were delighted to see this disagreeable affair concluded, he exclaimed: "It is only six o'clock; we have still time for a few rounds."
But the other guests, pale, disturbed, and secretly ashamed of themselves, were eager to depart, and in fact they were already hastening to the cloak-room. "At least play a game of ecarte," cried the baron, "a simple game of ecarte, at twenty louis a point."
But no one listened, and he reluctantly prepared to follow his departing friends, who bowed to Madame d'Argeles on the landing, as they filed by, M. de Coralth, who was among the last to retire, had already reached the staircase, and descended two or three steps, when Madame d'Argeles called to him. "Remain," said she; "I want to speak with you."
"You will excuse me," he began; "I----"
But she again bade him "remain" in such an imperious tone that he dared not resist. He reascended the stairs, very much after the manner of a man who is being dragged into a dentist's office, and followed Madame d'Argeles into a small boudoir at the end of the gambling-room. As soon as the door was closed and locked, the mistress of the house turned to her prisoner. "Now you will explain," said she. "It was you who brought M. Pascal Ferailleur here."
"Alas! I know only too well that I ought to beg your forgiveness. However, this affair will cost me dear myself. It has already embroiled me in a difficulty with that fool of a Rochecote, with whom I shall have to fight in less than a couple of hours."
"Where did you make his acquaintance?"
Madame d'Argeles's sempiternal smile had altogether disappeared. "I am speaking seriously," said she, with a threatening ring in her voice. "How did you happen to become acquainted with M. Ferailleur?"
"That can be very easily explained. Seven or eight months ago I had need of an advocate's services, and he was recommended to me. He managed my case very cleverly, and we kept up the acquaintance."
"What is his position?"
M. de Coralth's features wore an expression of exceeding weariness as if he greatly longed to go to sleep. He had indeed installed himself in a large arm-chair, in a semi-recumbent position. "Upon my word, I don't know," he replied. "Pascal had always seemed to be the most irreproachable man in the world--a man you might call a philosopher! He lives in a retired part of the city, near the Pantheon, with his mother, who is a widow, a very respectable woman, always dressed in black. When she opened the door for me, on the occasion of my first visit, I thought some old family portrait had stepped down from its frame to receive me. I judge them to be in comfortable circumstances. Pascal has the reputation of being a remarkable man, and people supposed he would rise very high in his profession."
"But now he is ruined; his career is finished."
"Certainly! You can be quite sure that by this evening all Paris will know what occurred here last night."
He paused, meeting Madame Argeles's look of withering scorn with a cleverly assumed air of astonishment. "You are a villain! Monsieur de Coralth," she said, indignantly.
"Because it was you who slipped those cards, which made M. Ferailleur win, into the pack; I saw you do it! And yielding to my entreaties, the young fellow was about to leave the house when you, intentionally, prevented him from saving himself. Oh! don't deny it."
M. de Coralth rose in the coolest possible manner. "I deny nothing, my dear lady," he replied, "absolutely nothing. You and I understand each other."
Confounded by his unblushing impudence, Madame d'Argeles remained speechless for a moment. "You confess it!" she cried, at last. "You dare to confess it! Were you not afraid that I might speak and state what I had seen?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "No one would have believed you," he exclaimed.
"Yes, I should have been believed, Monsieur de Coralth, for I could have given proofs. You must have forgotten that I know you, that your past life is no secret to me, that I know who you are, and what dishonored name you hide beneath your borrowed title! I could have told my guests that you are married--that you have abandoned your wife and child, leaving them to perish in want and misery--I could have told them where you obtain the thirty or forty thousand francs you spend each year. You must have forgotten that Rose told me everything, Monsieur--Paul!"
She had struck the right place this time, and with such precision that M. de Coralth turned livid, and made a furious gesture, as if he were about to fell her to the ground. "Ah, take care!" he exclaimed; "take care!"
But his rage speedily subsided, and with his usual indifferent manner, and in a bantering tone, he said: "Well, what of that? Do you fancy that the world doesn't already suspect what you could reveal? People have suspected me of being even worse than I am. When you proclaim on the housetops that I am an adventurer, folks will only laugh at you, and I shall be none the worse for it. A matter that would crush a dozen men like Pascal Ferailleur would not injure me in the least. I am accustomed to it. I must have luxury and enjoyment, everything that is pleasant and beautiful-- and to procure all this, I do my very best. It is true that I don't derive my income from my estate in Brie; but I have plenty of money, and that is the essential thing. Besides, it is so difficult to earn a livelihood nowadays, and the love of luxury is so intense that no one knows at night what he may do--or, rather, what he won't do--the next day. And last, but not least, the people who ought to be despised are so numerous that contempt is an impossibility. A Parisian who happened to be so absurdly pretentious as to refuse to shake hands with such of his acquaintances as were not irreproachable characters, might walk for hours on the Boulevards without finding an occasion to take his hands out of his pockets."
M. de Coralth talked well enough, and yet, in point of fact, all this was sheer bravado on his part. He knew better than any one else, on what a frail and uncertain basis his brilliant existence was established. Certainly, society does show great indulgence to people of doubtful reputation. It shuts its eyes and refuses to look or listen. But this is all the more reason why it should be pitiless when a person's guilt is positively established. Thus, although he assumed an air of insolent security, the "viscount" anxiously watched the effect of his words upon Madame d'Argeles. Fortunately for himself, he saw that she was abashed by his cynicism; and so he resumed: "Besides, as our friend, the baron, would say, we are wasting precious time in discussing improbable, and even impossible, suppositions. I was sufficiently well acquainted with your heart and your intelligence, my dear madame, to be sure that you would not speak a word to my disparagement."
"Indeed! What prevented me from doing so?"
"I did; or perhaps I ought rather to say, your own good sense, which closed your mouth when Monsieur Pascal entreated you to speak in his defence. I am entitled to considerable indulgence, madame, and a great deal ought to be forgiven me. My mother, unfortunately, was an honest woman, who did not furnish me with the means of gratifying every whim."
Madame d'Argeles recoiled as if a serpent had suddenly crossed her path.
"What do you mean?" she faltered.
"You know as well as I do."
"I don't understand you--explain yourself."
With the impatient gesture of a man who finds himself compelled to answer an idle question, and assuming an air of hypocritical commiseration, he replied: "Well, since you insist upon it, I know, in Paris--in the Rue de Helder, to be more exact--a nice young fellow, whose lot I have often envied. He has wanted for nothing since the day he came into the world. At school, he had three times as much money as his richest playfellow. When his studies were finished, a tutor was provided--with his pockets full of gold--to conduct this favored youth to Italy, Egypt, and Greece. He is now studying law; and four times a year, with unvarying punctuality, he receives a letter from London containing five thousand francs. This is all the more remarkable, as this young man has neither a father nor a mother. He is alone in the world with his income of twenty thousand francs. I have heard him say, jestingly. that some good fairy must be watching over him; but I know that he believes himself to be the illegitimate son of some great English nobleman. Sometimes, when he has drunk a little too much, he talks of going in search of my lord, his father."
The effect M. de Coralth had created by these words must have been extremely gratifying to him, for Madame d'Argeles had fallen back in her chair, almost fainting. "So, my dear madame," he continued, "if I ever had any reason to fancy that you intended causing me any trouble, I should go to this charming youth and say: 'My good fellow, you are strangely deceived. Your money doesn't come from the treasure-box of an English peer, but from a small gambling den with which I am very well acquainted, having often had occasion to swell its revenues with my franc-pieces.' And if he mourned his vanished dreams, I should tell him: 'You are wrong; for, if the great nobleman is lost, the good fairy remains. She is none other than your mother, a very worthy person, whose only object in life is your comfort and advancement.' And if he doubted my word, I should bring him to his mother's house some baccarat night; and there would be a scene of recognition worthy of Fargueil's genius."
Any man but M. de Coralth would have had some compassion, for Madame d'Argeles was evidently suffering agony. "It is as I feared!" she moaned, in a scarcely audible voice.
However, he heard her. "What!" he exclaimed in a tone of intense astonishment; "did you really doubt it? No; I can't believe it; it would be doing injustice to your intelligence and experience. Are people like ourselves obliged to talk in order to understand each other? Should I ever have ventured to do what I have done, in your house, if I had not known the secret of your maternal tenderness, delicacy of feeling, and devotion?"
She was weeping; big tears were rolling down her face, tracing a broad furrow through the powder on her cheeks. "He knows everything!" she murmured; "he knows everything!"
"By the merest chance, I assure you. As I don't like folks to meddle with my affairs, I never meddle with theirs. As I have just said, it was entirely the work of chance. One April afternoon I came to invite you to a drive in the Bois. I was ushered into this very room where we are sitting now, and found you writing. I said I would wait until you finished your letter; but some one called you, and you hastily left the room. How it was that I happened to approach your writing-table I cannot explain; but I did approach it, and read your unfinished letter. Upon my word it touched me deeply. I can give no better proof of the truth of my assertion than the fact that I can repeat it, almost word for word, even now. 'DEAR SIR,'--you wrote to your London correspondent--'I send you three thousand francs, in addition to the five thousand for the regular quarterly payment. Forward the money without delay. I fear the poor boy is greatly annoyed by his creditors. Yesterday I had the happiness of seeing him in the Rue de Helder, and I found him looking pale and careworn. When you send him this money, forward at the same time a letter of fatherly advice. It is true, he ought to work and win an honorable position for himself; but think of the dangers and temptation that beset him, alone and friendless, in this corrupt city.' There, my dear lady, your letter ended; but the name and address were given, and it was easy enough to understand it. You remember, perhaps, a little incident that occurred after your return. On perceiving that you had forgotten your letter, you turned pale and glanced at me. 'Have you read it, and do you understand it?' your eyes asked; while mine replied: 'Yes, but I shall be silent.'"
"And I shall be silent too," said Madame d'Argeles.
M. de Coralth took her hand and raised it to his lips. "I knew we should understand each other," he remarked, gravely. "I am not bad at heart, believe me; and if I had possessed money of my own, or a mother like you----"
She averted her face, fearing perhaps that M. de Coralth might read her opinion of him in her eyes; but after a short pause she exclaimed beseechingly: "Now that I am your accomplice, let me entreat you to do all you possibly can to prevent last night's affair from being noised abroad."
"If not for M. Ferailleur's sake, for the sake of his poor widowed mother."
"Pascal must be put out of the way!"
"Why do you say that? Do you hate him so much then? What has he done to you?"
"To me, personally? Nothing--I even feel actual sympathy for him."
Madame d'Argeles was confounded. "What!" she stammered; "it wasn't on your own account that you did this?"
She sprang to her feet, and quivering with scorn and indignation, cried: "Ah! then the deed is even more infamous--even more cowardly!" But alarmed by the threatening gleam in M. de Coralth's eyes, she went no further.
"A truce to these disagreeable truths," said he, coldly. "If we expressed our opinions of each other without reserve, in this world, we should soon come to hard words. Do you think I acted for my own pleasure? Suppose some one had seen me when I slipped the cards into the pack. If that had happened, I should have been ruined."
"And you think that no one suspects you?"
"No one. I lost more than a hundred louis myself. If Pascal belonged to our set, people might investigate the matter, perhaps; but to-morrow it will be forgotten."
"And will he have no suspicions?"
"He will have no proofs to offer, in any case."
Madame d'Argeles seemed to resign herself to the inevitable. "I hope you will, at least, tell me on whose behalf you acted," she remarked.
"Impossible," replied M. de Coralth. And, consulting his watch, he added, "But I am forgetting myself; I am forgetting that that idiot of a Rochecote is waiting for a sword-thrust. So go to sleep, my dear lady, and--till we meet again."
She accompanied him so far as the landing. "It is quite certain that he is hastening to the house of M. Ferailleur's enemy," she thought. And, calling her confidential servant, "Quick, Job," she said; "follow M. de Coralth. I want to know where he is going. And, above all, take care that he doesn't see you."
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