BARON TRIGAULT'S VENGEANCE
by Emile Gaboriau
A Sequel to "The Count's Millions"
Vengeance! that is the first, the only thought, when a man finds himself victimized, when his honor and fortune, his present and future, are wrecked by a vile conspiracy! The torment he endures under such circumstances can only be alleviated by the prospect of inflicting them a hundredfold upon his persecutors. And nothing seems impossible at the first moment, when hatred surges in the brain, and the foam of anger rises to the lips; no obstacle seems insurmountable, or, rather, none are perceived. But later, when the faculties have regained their equilibrium, one can measure the distance which separates the dream from reality, the project from execution. And on setting to work, how many discouragements arise! The fever of revolt passes by, and the victim wavers. He still breathes bitter vengeance, but he does not act. He despairs, and asks himself what would be the good of it? And in this way the success of villainy is once more assured.
Similar despondency attacked Pascal Ferailleur when he awoke for the first time in the abode where he had hidden himself under the name of Maumejan. A frightful slander had crushed him to the earth—he could kill his slanderer, but afterward—? How was he to reach and stifle the slander itself? As well try to hold a handful of water; as well try to stay with extended arms the progress of the poisonous breeze which wafts an epidemic on its wings. So the hope that had momentarily lightened his heart faded away again. Since he had received that fatal letter from Madame Leon the evening before, he believed that Marguerite was lost to him forever, and in this case, it was useless to struggle against fate. What would be the use of victory even if he conquered? Marguerite lost to him—what did the rest matter? Ah! if he had been alone in the world. But he had his mother to think of;—he belonged to this brave-hearted woman, who had saved him from suicide already. "I will not yield, then; I will struggle on for her sake," he muttered, like a man who foresees the futility of his efforts.
He rose, and had nearly finished dressing, when he heard a rap at his chamber door. "It is I, my son," said Madame Ferailleur outside.
Pascal hastened to admit her. "I have come for you because the woman you spoke about last evening is already here, and before employing her, I want your advice."
"Then the woman doesn't please you, mother?"
"I want you to see her."
On entering the little parlor with his mother, Pascal found himself in the presence of a portly, pale-faced woman, with thin lips and restless eyes, who bowed obsequiously. It was indeed Madame Vantrasson, the landlady of the model lodging-house, who was seeking employment for the three or four hours which were at her disposal in the morning, she said. It certainly was not for pleasure that she had decided to go out to service again; her dignity suffered terribly by this fall—but then the stomach has to be cared for. Tenants were not numerous at the model lodging-house, in spite of its seductive title; and those who slept there occasionally, almost invariably succeeded in stealing something. Nor did the grocery store pay; the few half-pence which were left there occasionally in exchange for a glass of liquor were pocketed by Vantrasson, who spent them at some neighboring establishment; for it is a well-known fact that the wine a man drinks in his own shop is always bitter in flavor. So, having no credit at the butcher's or the baker's, Madame Vantrasson was sometimes reduced to living for days together upon the contents of the shop—mouldy figs or dry raisins—which she washed down with torrents of ratafia, her only consolation here below.
But this was not a satisfying diet, as she was forced to confess; so she decided to find some work, that would furnish her with food and a little money, which she vowed she would never allow her worthy husband to see.
"What would you charge per month?" inquired Pascal.
She seemed to reflect, and after a great deal of counting on her fingers, she finally declared that she would be content with breakfast and fifteen francs a month, on condition she was allowed to do the marketing. The first question of French cooks, on presenting themselves for a situation, is almost invariably, "Shall I do the marketing?" which of course means, "Shall I have any opportunities for stealing?" Everybody knows this, and nobody is astonished at it.
"I shall do the marketing myself," declared Madame Ferailleur, boldly.
"Then I shall want thirty francs a month," replied Madame Vantrasson, promptly.
Pascal and his mother exchanged glances. They were both unfavorably impressed by this woman, and were equally determined to rid themselves of her, which it was easy enough to do. "Too dear!" said Madame Ferailleur; "I have never given over fifteen francs."
But Madame Vantrasson was not the woman to be easily discouraged, especially as she knew that if she failed to obtain this situation, she might have considerable difficulty in finding another one. She could only hope to obtain employment from strangers and newcomers, who were ignorant of the reputation of the model lodging-house. So in view of softening the hearts of Pascal and his mother, she began to relate the history of her life, skilfully mingling the false with the true, and representing herself as an unfortunate victim of circumstances, and the inhuman cruelty of relatives. For she belonged, like her husband, to a very respectable family, as the Maumejans might easily ascertain by inquiry. Vantrasson's sister was the wife of a man named Greloux, who had once been a bookbinder in the Rue Saint-Denis, but who had now retired from business with a competency. "Why had this Greloux refused to save them from bankruptcy? Because one could never hope for a favor from relatives," she groaned; "they are jealous if you succeed; and if you are unfortunate, they cast you off."
However, these doleful complaints, far from rendering Madame Vantrasson interesting, imparted a deceitful and most disagreeable expression to her countenance. "I told you that I could only give fifteen francs," interrupted Madame Ferailleur—"take it or leave it."
Madame Vantrasson protested. She expressed her willingness to deduct five francs from the sum she had named, but more—it was impossible! Would they haggle over ten francs to secure such a treasure as herself, an honest, settled woman, who was entirely devoted to her employers? "Besides, I have been a grand cook in my time," she added, "and I have not lost all my skill. Monsieur and madame would be delighted with my cooking, for I have seen more than one fine gentleman smack his lips over my sauces when was in the employment of the Count de Chalusse."
Pascal and his mother could not repress a start on hearing this name; but it was in a tone of well-assumed indifference that Madame Ferailleur repeated, "M. de Chalusse?"
"Yes, madame—a count—and so rich that he didn't know how much he was worth. If he were still alive I shouldn't be compelled to go out to service again. But he's dead and he's to be buried this very day." And with an air of profound secrecy, she added: "On going yesterday to the Hotel de Chalusse to ask for a little help, I heard of the great misfortune. Vantrasson, my husband, accompanied me, and while we were talking with the concierge, a young woman passed through the hall, and he recognized her as a person who some time ago was—well—no better than she should be. Now, however, she's a young lady as lofty as the clouds, and the deceased count has been passing her off as his daughter. Ah! this is a strange world."
Pascal had become whiter than the ceiling. His eyes blazed; and Madame Ferailleur trembled. "Very well," she said, "I will give you twenty-five francs—but on condition you come without complaining if I sometimes require your services of an evening. On these occasions I will give you your dinner." And taking five francs from her pocket she placed them in Madame Vantrasson's hand, adding: "Here is your earnest money."
The other quickly pocketed the coin, not a little surprised by this sudden decision which she had scarcely hoped for, and which she by no means understood. Still she was so delighted with this denouement that she expressed her willingness to enter upon her duties at once; and to get rid of her Madame Ferailleur was obliged to send her out to purchase the necessary supplies for breakfast. Then, as soon as she was alone with her son, she turned to him and asked: "Well, Pascal?"
But the wretched man seemed turned to stone, and seeing that he neither spoke nor moved, she continued in a severe tone: "Is this the way you keep your resolutions and your oaths! You express your intention of accomplishing a task which requires inexhaustible patience and dissimulation, and at the very first unforeseen circumstance your coolness deserts you, and you lose your head completely. If it had not been for me you would have betrayed yourself in that woman's presence. You must renounce your revenge, and tamely submit to be conquered by the Marquis de Valorsay if your face is to be an open book in which any one may read your secret plans and thoughts."
Pascal shook his head dejectedly. "Didn't you hear, mother?" he faltered.
"What that vile woman said? This young lady whom she spoke of, whom her husband recognized, can be none other than Marguerite."
"I am sure of it."
He recoiled in horror. "You are sure of it!" he repeated; "and you can tell me this unmoved—coldly, as if it were a natural, a possible thing. Didn't you understand the shameful meaning of her insinuations? Didn't you see her hypocritical smile and the malice gleaming in her eyes?" He pressed his hands to his burning brow, and groaned "And I did not crush the infamous wretch! I did not fell her to the ground!"
Ah! if she had obeyed the impulse of her heart. Madame Ferailleur would have thrown her arms round her son's neck, and have mingled her tears with his, but reason prevailed. The worthy woman's heart was pervaded with that lofty sentiment of duty which sustains the humble heroines of the fireside, and lends them even more courage than the reckless adventurers whose names are recorded by history could boast of. She felt that Pascal must not be consoled, but spurred on to fresh efforts; and so mustering all her courage, she said: "Are you acquainted with Mademoiselle Marguerite's past life? No. You only know that hers has been a life of great vicissitudes—and so it is not strange that she should be slandered."
"In that case, mother," said Pascal, "you were wrong to interrupt Madame Vantrasson. She would probably have told us many things."
"I interrupted her, it is true, and sent her away—and you know why. But she is in our service now; and when you are calm, when you have regained your senses, nothing will prevent you from questioning her. It may be useful for you to know who this man Vantrasson is, and how and where he met Mademoiselle Marguerite."
Shame, sorrow, and rage, brought tears to Pascal's eyes. "My God!" he exclaimed, "to be reduced to the unspeakable misery of hearing my mother doubt Marguerite!" He did not doubt her. HE could have listened to the most infamous accusations against her without feeling a single doubt. However, Madame Ferailleur had sufficient self-control to shrug her shoulders. "Ah, well! silence this slander," she exclaimed. "I wish for nothing better; but don't forget that we have ourselves to rehabilitate. To crush your enemies will be far more profitable to Mademoiselle Marguerite than vain threats and weak lamentations. It seemed to me that you had sworn to act, not to complain."
This ironical thrust touched Pascal's sensitive mind to the quick; he rose at once to his feet, and coldly said, "That's true. I thank you for having recalled me to myself."
She made no rejoinder, but mentally thanked God. She had read her son's heart, and perceiving his hesitation and weakness she had supplied the stimulus he needed. Now she saw him as she wished to see him. Now he was ready to reproach himself for his lack of courage and his weakness in displaying his feelings. And as a test of his powers of endurance, he decided not to question Madame Vantrasson till four or five days had elapsed. If her suspicions had been aroused, this delay would suffice to dispel them.
He said but little during breakfast; for he was now eager to commence the struggle. He longed to act, and yet he scarcely knew how to begin the campaign. First of all, he must study the enemy's position—gain some knowledge of the men he had to deal with, find out exactly who the Marquis de Valorsay and the Viscount de Coralth were. Where could he obtain information respecting these two men? Should he be compelled to follow them and to gather up here and there such scraps of intelligence as came in his way? This method of proceeding would be slow and inconvenient in the extreme. He was revolving the subject in his mind when he suddenly remembered the man who, on the morning that followed the scene at Madame d'Argeles's house, had come to him in the Rue d'Ulm to give him a proof of his confidence. He remembered that this strange man had said: "If you ever need a helping hand, come to me." And at the recollection he made up his mind. "I am going to Baron Trigault's," he remarked to his mother; "if my presentiments don't deceive me, he will be of service to us."
In less than half an hour he was on his way. He had dressed himself in the oldest clothes he possessed; and this, with the change he had made by cutting off his hair and beard, had so altered his appearance that it was necessary to look at him several times, and most attentively, to recognize him. The visiting cards which he carried in his pocket bore the inscription: "P. Maumejan, Business Agent, Route de la Revolte." His knowledge of Parisian life had induced him to choose the same profession as M. Fortunat followed—a profession which opens almost every door. "I will enter the nearest cafe and ask for a directory," he said to himself. "I shall certainly find Baron Trigault's address in it."
The baron lived in the Rue de la Ville-l'Eveque. His mansion was one of the largest and most magnificent in the opulent district of the Madeleine, and its aspect was perfectly in keeping with its owner's character as an expert financier, and a shrewd manufacturer, the possessor of valuable mines. The marvellous luxury so surprised Pascal, that he asked himself how the owner of this princely abode could find any pleasure at the gaming table of the Hotel d'Argeles. Five or six footmen were lounging about the courtyard when he entered it. He walked straight up to one of them, and with his hat in his hand, asked: "Baron Trigault, if you please?"
If he had asked for the Grand Turk the valet would not have looked at him with greater astonishment. His surprise, indeed, seemed so profound that Pascal feared he had made some mistake and added: "Doesn't he live here?"
The servant laughed heartily. "This is certainly his house," he replied, "and strange to say, by some fortunate chance, he's here."
"I wish to speak with him on business."
The servant called one of his colleagues. "Eh! Florestan—is the baron receiving?"
"The baroness hasn't forbidden it."
This seemed to satisfy the footman; for, turning to Pascal he said: "In that case, you can follow me."
The sumptuous interior of the Trigault mansion was on a par with its external magnificence. Even the entrance bespoke the lavish millionaire, eager to conquer difficulties, jealous of achieving the impossible, and never haggling when his fancies were concerned. The spacious hall, paved with costly mosaics, had been transformed into a conservatory full of flowers, which were renewed every morning. Rare plants climbed the walls up gilded trellis work, or hung from the ceiling in vases of rare old china, while from among the depths of verdure peered forth exquisite statues, the work of sculptors of renown. On a rustic bench sat a couple of tall footmen, as bright in their gorgeous liveries as gold coins fresh from the mint; still, despite their splendor, they were stretching and yawning to such a degree, that it seemed as if they would ultimately dislocate their jaws and arms.
"Tell me," inquired the servant who was escorting Pascal, "can any one speak to the baron?"
"This gentleman has something to say to him."
The two valets eyed the unknown visitor, plainly considering him to be one of those persons who have no existence for the menials of fashionable establishments, and finally burst into a hearty laugh. "Upon my word!" exclaimed the eldest, "he's just in time. Announce him, and madame will be greatly obliged to you. She and monsieur have been quarrelling for a good half-hour. And, heavenly powers, isn't he tantalizing!"
The most intense curiosity gleamed in the eyes of Pascal's conductor, and with an airy of secrecy, he asked: "What is the cause of the rumpus? That Fernand, no doubt—or some one else?"
"No; this morning it's about M. Van Klopen."
"The same. Monsieur and madame were breakfasting together—a most unusual thing—when M. Van Klopen made his appearance. I thought to myself, when I admitted him: 'Look out for storms!' I scented one in the air, and in fact the dressmaker hadn't been in the room five minutes before we heard the baron's voice rising higher and higher. I said to myself: 'Whew! the mantua-maker is presenting his bill!' Madame cried and went on like mad; but, pshaw! when the master really begins, there's no one like him. There isn't a cab-driver in Paris who's his equal for swearing."
"And M. Van Klopen?"
"Oh, he's used to such scenes! When gentlemen abuse him he does the same as dogs do when they come up out of the water; he just shakes his head and troubles himself no more about it. He has decidedly the best of the row. He has furnished the goods, and he'll have to be paid sooner or later——"
"What! hasn't he been paid then?"
"I don't know; he's still here."
A terrible crash of breaking china interrupted this edifying conversation. "There!" exclaimed one of the footmen, "that's monsieur; he has smashed two or three hundred francs' worth of dishes. He MUST be rich to pay such a price for his angry fits."
"Well," observed the other, "if I were in monsieur's place I should be angry too. Would you let your wife have her dresses fitted on by a man? I says that it's indecent. I'm only a servant, but——"
"Nonsense, it's the fashion. Besides, monsieur does not care about that. A man who——"
He stopped short; in fact, the others had motioned him to be silent. The baron was surrounded by exceptional servants, and the presence of a stranger acted as a restraint upon them. For this reason, one of them, after asking Pascal for his card, opened a door and ushered him into a small room, saying: "I will go and inform the baron. Please wait here."
"Here," as he called it, was a sort of smoking-room hung with cashmere of fantastic design and gorgeous hues, and encircled by a low, cushioned divan, covered with the same material. A profusion of rare and costly objects was to be seen on all sides, armor, statuary, pictures, and richly ornamented weapons. But Pascal, already amazed by the conversation of the servants, did not think of examining these objects of virtu. Through a partially open doorway, directly opposite the one he had entered by, came the sound of loud voices in excited conversation. Baron Trigault, the baroness, and the famous Van Klopen were evidently in the adjoining room. It was a woman, the baroness, who was speaking, and the quivering of her clear and somewhat shrill voice betrayed a violent irritation, which was only restrained with the greatest difficulty. "It is hard for the wife of one of the richest men in Paris to see a bill for absolute necessities disputed in this style," she was saying.
A man's voice, with a strong Teutonic accent, the voice of Van Klopen, the Hollander, caught up the refrain. "Yes, strict necessities, one can swear to that. And if, before flying into a passion, Monsieur le Baron had taken the trouble to glance over my little bill, he would have seen——"
"No more! You bore me to death. Besides I haven't time to listen to your nonsense; they are waiting for me to play a game of whist at the club."
This time it was the master of the house, Baron Trigault, who spoke, and Pascal recognized his voice instantly.
"If monsieur would only allow me to read the items. It will take but a moment," rejoined Van Klopen. And as if he had construed the oath that answered him as an exclamation of assent, he began: "In June, a Hungarian costume with jacket and sash, two train dresses with upper skirts and trimmings of lace, a Medicis polonaise, a jockey costume, a walking costume, a riding-habit, two morning-dresses, a Velleda costume, an evening dress."
"I was obliged to attend the races very frequently during the month of June," remarked the baroness.
But the illustrious adorner of female loveliness had already resumed his reading. "In July we have: two morning-jackets, one promenade costume, one sailor suit, one Watteau shepherdess costume, one ordinary bathing-suit, with material for parasol and shoes to match, one Pompadour bathing-suit, one dressing-gown, one close-fitting Medicis mantle, two opera cloaks——"
"And I was certainly not the most elegantly attired of the ladies at Trouville, where I spent the month of July," interrupted the baroness.
"There are but few entries in the month of August," continued Van Klopen. "We have: a morning-dress, a travelling-dress, with trimmings——" And he went on and on, gasping for breath, rattling off the ridiculous names which he gave to his "creations," and interrupted every now and then by the blow of a clinched fist on the table, or by a savage oath.
Pascal stood in the smoking-room, motionless with astonishment. He did not know what surprised him the most, Van Klopen's impudence in daring to read such a bill, the foolishness of the woman who had ordered all these things, or the patience of the husband who was undoubtedly going to pay for them. At last, after what seemed an interminable enumeration, Van Klopen exclaimed: "And that's all!"
"Yes, that's all," repeated the baroness, like an echo.
"That's all!" exclaimed the baron—"that's all! That is to say, in four months, at least seven hundred yards of silk, velvet, satin, and muslin, have been put on this woman's back!"
"The dresses of the present day require a great deal of material. Monsieur le Baron will understand that flounces, puffs, and ruches——"
"Naturally! Total, twenty-seven thousand francs!"
"Excuse me! Twenty-seven thousand nine hundred and thirty-three francs, ninety centimes."
"Call it twenty-eight thousand francs then. Ah, well, M. Van Klopen, if you are ever paid for this rubbish it won't be by me."
If Van Klopen was expecting this denouement, Pascal wasn't; in fact, he was so startled, that an exclamation escaped him which would have betrayed his presence under almost any other circumstances. What amazed him most was the baron's perfect calmness, following, as it did, such a fit of furious passion, violent enough even to be heard in the vestibule. "Either he has extraordinary control over himself or this scene conceals some mystery," thought Pascal.
Meanwhile, the man-milliner continued to urge his claims—but the baron, instead of replying, only whistled; and wounded by this breach of good manners, Van Klopen at last exclaimed: "I have had dealings with all the distinguished men in Europe, and never before did one of them refuse to pay me for his wife's toilettes."
"Very well—I don't pay for them—there's the difference. Do you suppose that I, Baron Trigault, that I've worked like a negro for twenty years merely for the purpose of aiding your charming and useful branch of industry? Gather up your papers, Mr. Ladies' Tailor. There may be husbands who believe themselves responsible for their wives' follies—it's quite possible there are—but I'm not made of that kind of stuff. I allow Madame Trigault eight thousand francs a month for her toilette—that is sufficient—and it is a matter for you and her to arrange together. What did I tell you last year when I paid a bill of forty thousand francs? That I would not be responsible for any more of my wife's debts. And I not only said it, I formally notified you through my private secretary."
"I remember, indeed——"
"Then why do you come to me with your bill? It is with my wife that you have opened an account. Apply to her, and leave me in peace."
"Madame promised me——"
"Teach her to keep her promises."
"It costs a great deal to retain one's position as a leader of fashion; and many of the most distinguished ladies are obliged to run into debt," urged Van Klopen.
"That's their business. But my wife is not a fine lady. She is simply Madame Trigault, a baroness, thanks to her husband's gold and the condescension of a worthy German prince, who was in want of money. SHE is not a person of consequence—she has no rank to keep up."
The baroness must have attached immense importance to the satisfying of Van Klopen's demands, for concealing the anger this humiliating scene undoubtedly caused her, she condescended to try and explain, and even to entreat. "I have been a little extravagant, perhaps," she said; "but I will be more prudent in future. Pay, monsieur—pay just once more."
"If not for my sake, for your own."
"Not a farthing."
By the baron's tone, Pascal realized that his wife would never shake his fixed determination. Such must also have been the opinion of the illustrious ruler of fashion, for he returned to the charge with an argument he had held in reserve. "If this is the case, I shall, to my great regret, be obliged to fail in the respect I owe to Monsieur le Baron, and to place this bill in the hands of a solicitor."
"Send him along—send him along."
"I cannot believe that monsieur wishes a law-suit."
"In that you are greatly mistaken. Nothing would please me better. It would at last give me an opportunity to say what I think about your dealings. Do you think that wives are to turn their husbands into machines for supplying money? You draw the bow-string too tightly, my dear fellow—it will break. I'll proclaim on the house-top what others dare not say, and we'll see if I don't succeed in organizing a little crusade against you." And animated by the sound of his own words, his anger came back to him, and in a louder and ever louder voice he continued: "Ah! you prate of the scandal that would be created by my resistance to your demands. That's your system; but, with me, it won't succeed. You threaten me with a law-suit; very good. I'll take it upon myself to enlighten Paris, for I know your secrets, Mr. Dressmaker. I know the goings on in your establishment. It isn't always to talk about dress that ladies stop at your place on returning from the Bois. You sell silks and satins no doubt; but you sell Madeira, and excellent cigarettes as well, and there are some who don't walk very straight on leaving your establishment, but smell suspiciously of tobacco and absinthe. Oh, yes, let us go to law, by all means! I shall have an advocate who will know how to explain the parts your customers pay, and who will reveal how, with your assistance, they obtain money from other sources than their husband's cash-box."
When M. Van Klopen was addressed in this style, he was not at all pleased. "And I!" he exclaimed, "I will tell people that Baron Trigault, after losing all his money at play, repays his creditors with curses."
The noise of an overturned chair told Pascal that the baron had sprung up in a furious passion "You may say what you like, you rascally fool! but not in my house," he shouted. "Leave—leave, or I will ring——"
"Leave, leave, I tell you, or I sha'n't have the patience to wait for a servant!"
He must have joined action to word, and have seized Van Klopen by the collar to thrust him into the hall, for Pascal heard a sound of scuffling, a series of oaths worthy of a coal-heaver, two or three frightened cries from the baroness, and several guttural exclamations in German. Then a door closed with such violence that the whole house shook, and a magnificent clock, fixed to the wall of the smoking-room, fell on to the floor.
If Pascal had not heard this scene, he would have deemed it incredible. How could one suppose that a creditor would leave this princely mansion with his bill unpaid? But more and more clearly he understood that there must be some greater cause of difference between husband and wife than this bill of twenty-eight thousand francs. For what was this amount to a confirmed gambler who, without as much as a frown, gained or lost a fortune every evening of his life. Evidently there was some skeleton in this household—one of those terrible secrets which make a man and his wife enemies, and all the more bitter enemies as they are bound together by a chain which it is impossible to break. And undoubtedly, a good many of the insults which the baron had heaped upon Van Klopen must have been intended for the baroness. These thoughts darted through Pascal's mind with the rapidity of lightning, and showed him the horrible position in which he was placed. The baron, who had been so favorably disposed toward him, and from whom he was expecting a great service, would undoubtedly hate him, undoubtedly become his enemy, when he learned that he had been a listener, although an involuntary one, to this conversation with Van Klopen. How did it happen that he had been placed in this dangerous position? What had become of the footman who had taken his card? These were questions which he was unable to answer. And what was he to do? If he could have retired noiselessly, if he could have reached the courtyard and have made his escape without being observed he would not have hesitated. But was this plan practicable? And would not his card betray him? Would it not be discovered sooner or later that he had been in the smoking-room while M. Van Klopen was in the dining-room? In any case, delicacy of feeling as well as his own interest forbade him to remain any longer a listener to the private conversation of the baron and his wife.
He therefore noisily moved a chair, and coughed in that affected style which means in every country: "Take care—I'm here!" But he did not succeed in attracting attention. And yet the silence was profound; he could distinctly hear the creaking of the baron's boots, as he paced to and fro, and the sound of fingers nervously beating a tattoo on the table. If he desired to avoid hearing the confidential conversation, which would no doubt ensue between the baron and his wife, there was but one course for him to pursue, and that was to reveal his presence at once. He was about to do so, when some one opened a door which must have led from the hall into the dining-room. He listened attentively, but only heard a few confused words, to which the baron replied: "Very well. That's sufficient. I will see him in a moment."
Pascal breathed freely once more. "They have just given him my card," he thought. "I can remain now; he will come here in a moment."
The baron must really have started to leave the room, for his wife exclaimed: "One word more: have you quite decided?"
"You are resolved to leave me exposed to the persecutions of my dressmaker?"
"Van Klopen is too charming and polite to cause you the least worry."
"You will brave the disgrace of a law-suit?"
"Nonsense! You know very well that he won't bring any action against me—unfortunately. And, besides, pray tell me where the disgrace would be? I have a foolish wife—is that my fault? I oppose her absurd extravagance—haven't I a right to do so? If all husbands were as courageous, we should soon close the establishments of these artful men, who minister to your vanity, and use you ladies as puppets, or living advertisements, to display the absurd fashions which enrich them."
The baron took two or three more steps forward, as if about to leave the room, but his wife interposed: "The Baroness Trigault, whose husband has an income of seven or eight hundred thousand francs a year, can't go about clad like a simple woman of the middle classes."
"I should see nothing so very improper in that."
"Oh, I know. Only your ideas don't coincide with mine. I shall never consent to make myself ridiculous among the ladies of my set—among my friends."
"It would indeed be a pity to arouse the disapproval of your friends."
This sneering remark certainly irritated the baroness, for it was with the greatest vehemence that she replied: "All my friends are ladies of the highest rank in society—noble ladies!"
The baron no doubt shrugged his shoulders, for in a tone of crushing irony and scorn, he exclaimed: "Noble ladies! whom do you call noble ladies, pray? The brainless fools who only think of displaying themselves and making themselves notorious?—the senseless idiots who pique themselves on surpassing lewd women in audacity, extravagance, and effrontery, who fleece their husbands as cleverly as courtesans fleece their lovers? Noble ladies! who drink, and smoke, and carouse, who attend masked balls, and talk slang! Noble ladies! the idiots who long for the applause of the crowd, and consider notoriety to be desirable and flattering. A woman is only noble by her virtues—and the chief of all virtues, modesty, is entirely wanting in your illustrious friends——"
"Monsieur," interrupted the baroness, in a voice husky with anger, "you forget yourself—you——"
But the baron was well under way. "If it is scandal that crowns one a great lady, you ARE one—and one of the greatest; for you are notorious—almost as notorious as Jenny Fancy. Can't I learn from the newspapers all your sayings and gestures, your amusements, your occupations, and the toilettes you wear? It is impossible to read of a first performance at a theatre, or of a horse-race, without finding your name coupled with that of Jenny Fancy, or Cora Pearl, or Ninette Simplon. I should be a very strange husband indeed, if I wasn't proud and delighted. Ah! you are a treasure to the reporters. On the day before yesterday the Baroness Trigault skated in the Bois. Yesterday she was driving in her pony-carriage. To-day she distinguished herself by her skill at pigeon-shooting. To-morrow she will display herself half nude in some tableaux vivants. On the day after to-morrow she will inaugurate a new style of hair-dressing, and take part in a comedy. It is always the Baroness Trigault who is the observed of all observers at Vincennes. The Baroness Trigault has lost five hundred louis in betting. The Baroness Trigault uses her lorgnette with charming impertinence. It is she who has declared it proper form to take a 'drop' on returning from the Bois. No one is so famed for 'form,' as the baroness—and silk merchants have bestowed her name upon a color. People rave of the Trigault blue—what glory! There are also costumes Trigault, for the witty, elegant baroness has a host of admirers who follow her everywhere, and loudly sing her praises. This is what I, a plain, honest man, read every day in the newspapers. The whole world not only knows how my wife dresses, but how she looks en dishabille, and how she is formed; folks are aware that she has an exquisite foot, a divinely-shaped leg, and a perfect hand. No one is ignorant of the fact that my wife's shoulders are of dazzling whiteness, and that high on the left shoulder there is a most enticing little mole. I had the satisfaction of reading this particular last evening. It is charming, upon my word! and I am truly a fortunate man!"
In the smoking-room, Pascal could hear the baroness angrily stamp her foot, as she exclaimed: "It is an outrageous insult—your journalists are most impertinent."
"Why? Do they ever trouble honest women?"
"They wouldn't trouble me if I had a husband who knew how to make them treat me with respect!"
The baron laughed a strident, nervous laugh, which it was not pleasant to hear, and which revealed the fact that intense suffering was hidden beneath all this banter. "Would you like me to fight a duel then? After twenty years has the idea of ridding yourself of me occurred to you again? I can scarcely believe it. You know too well that you would receive none of my money, that I have guarded against that. Besides, you would be inconsolable if the newspapers ceased talking about you for a single day. Respect yourself, and you will be respected. The publicity you complain of is the last anchor which prevents society from drifting one knows not where. Those who would not listen to the warning voice of honor and conscience are restrained by the fear of a little paragraph which might disclose their shame. Now that a woman no longer has a conscience, the newspapers act in place of it. And I think it quite right, for it is our only hope of salvation."
By the stir in the adjoining room, Pascal felt sure that the baroness had stationed herself before the door to prevent her husband from leaving her. "Ah! well, monsieur," she exclaimed, "I declare to you that I must have Van Klopen's twenty-eight thousand francs before this evening. I will have them, too; I am resolved to have them, and you will give them to me."
"Oh!" thundered the baron, "you WILL have them—you will——" He paused, and then, after a moment's reflection, he said: "Very well. So be it! I will give you this amount, but not just now. Still if, as you say, it is absolutely necessary that you should have it to-day, there is a means of procuring it. Pawn your diamonds for thirty thousand francs—I authorize you to do so; and I give you my word of honor that I will redeem them within a week. Say, will you do this?" And, as the baroness made no reply, he continued: "You don't answer! shall I tell you why? It is because your diamonds were long since sold and replaced by imitation ones; it is because you are head over heels in debt; it is because you have stooped so low as to borrow your maid's savings; it is because you already owe three thousand francs to one of my coachmen; it is because our steward lends you money at the rate of thirty or forty per cent."
"It is false!"
The baron sneered. "You certainly must think me a much greater fool than I really am!" he replied. "I'm not often at home, it's true—the sight of you exasperates me; but I know what's going on. You believe me your dupe, but you are altogether mistaken. It is not twenty-seven thousand francs you owe Van Klopen, but fifty or sixty thousand. However, he is careful not to demand payment. If he brought me a bill this morning, it was only because you had begged him to do so, and because it had been agreed he should give you the money back if I paid him. In short, if you require twenty-eight thousand francs before to-night, it is because M. Fernand de Coralth has demanded that sum, and because you have promised to give it to him!"
Leaning against the wall of the smoking-room, speechless and motionless, holding his breath, with his hands pressed upon his heart, as if to stop its throbbings, Pascal Ferailleur listened. He no longer thought of flying; he no longer thought of reproaching himself for his enforced indiscretion. He had lost all consciousness of his position. The name of the Viscount de Coralth, thus mentioned in the course of this frightful scene, came as a revelation to him. He now understood the meaning of the baron's conduct. His visit to the Rue d'Ulm, and his promises of help were all explained. "My mother was right," he thought; "the baron hates that miserable viscount mortally. He will do all in his power to assist me."
Meanwhile, the baroness energetically denied her husband's charges. She swore that she did not know what he meant. What had M. de Coralth to do with all this? She commanded her husband to speak more plainly—to explain his odious insinuations.
He allowed her to speak for a moment, and then suddenly, in a harsh, sarcastic voice, he interrupted her by saying: "Oh! enough! No more hypocrisy! Why do you try to defend yourself? What matters one crime more? I know only too well that what I say is true; and if you desire proofs, they shall be in your hands in less than half an hour. It is a long time since I was blind—full twenty years! Nothing concerning you has escaped my knowledge and observation since the cursed day when I discovered the depths of your disgrace and infamy—since the terrible evening when I heard you plan to murder me in cold blood. You had grown accustomed to freedom of action; while I, who had gone off with the first gold-seekers, was braving a thousand dangers in California, so as to win wealth and luxury for you more quickly. Fool that I was! No task seemed too hard or too distasteful when I thought of you—and I was always thinking of you. My mind was at peace—I had perfect faith in you. We had a daughter; and if a fear or a doubt entered my mind, I told myself that the sight of her cradle would drive all evil thoughts from your heart. The adultery of a childless wife may be forgiven or explained; but that of a mother, never! Fool! idiot! that I was! With what joyous pride, on my return after an absence of eighteen months, I showed you the treasures I had brought back with me! I had two hundred thousand francs! I said to you as I embraced you: 'It is yours, my well-beloved, the source of all my happiness!' But you did not care for me—I wearied you! You loved another! And while you were deceiving me with your caresses, you were, with fiendish skill, preparing a conspiracy which, if it had succeeded, would have resulted in my death! I should consider myself amply revenged if I could make you suffer for a single day all the torments that I endured for long months. For this was not all! You had not even the excuse, if excuse it be, of a powerful, all-absorbing passion. Convinced of your treachery, I resolved to ascertain everything, and I discovered that in my absence you had become a mother. Why didn't I kill you? How did I have the courage to remain silent and conceal what I knew? Ah! it was because, by watching you, I hoped to discover the cursed bastard and your accomplice. It was because I dreamed of a vengeance as terrible as the offence. I said to myself that the day would come when, at any risk, you would try to see your child again, to embrace her, and provide for her future. Fool! fool that I was! You had already forgotten her! When you received news of my intended return, she was sent to some foundling asylum, or left to die upon some door-step. Have you ever thought of her? Have you ever asked what has become of her? ever asked yourself if she had needed bread while you have been living in almost regal luxury? ever asked yourself into what depths of vice she may have fallen?"
"Always the same ridiculous accusation!" exclaimed the baroness.
"You must know, however, that this story of a child is only a vile slander. I told you so when you spoke of it to me a dozen years afterward. I have repeated it a thousand times since."
The baron uttered a sigh that was very like a sob, and without paying any heed to his wife's words, he continued: "If I consented to allow you to remain under my roof, it was only for the sake of our daughter. I trembled lest the scandal of a separation should fall upon her. But it was useless suffering on my part. She was as surely lost as you yourself were; and it was your work, too!"
"What! you blame me for that?"
"Whom ought I to blame, then? Who took her to balls, and theatres and races—to every place where a young girl ought NOT to be taken? Who initiated her into what you call high life? and who used her as a discreet and easy chaperon? Who married her to a wretch who is a disgrace to the title he bears, and who has completed the work of demoralization you began? And what is your daughter to-day? Her extravagance has made her notorious even among the shameless women who pretend to be leaders of society. She is scarcely twenty-two, and there is not a single prejudice left for her to brave! Her husband is the companion of actresses and courtesans; her own companions are no better—and in less than two years the million of francs which I bestowed on her as a dowry has been squandered, recklessly squandered—for there isn't a penny of it left. And, at this very hour, my daughter and my son-in-law are plotting to extort money from me. On the day before yesterday—listen carefully to this—my son-in-law came to ask me for a hundred thousand francs, and when I refused them, he threatened if I did not give them to him that he would publish some letters written by my daughter—by his wife—to some low scoundrel. I was horrified and gave him what he asked. But that same evening I learned that the husband and wife, my daughter and my son-in-law, had concocted this vile conspiracy together. Yes, I have positive proofs of it. Leaving here, and not wishing to return home that day, he telegraphed the good news to his wife. But in his delight he made a mistake in the address, and the telegram was brought here. I opened it, and read: 'Papa has fallen into the trap, my darling. I beat my drum, and he surrendered at once.' Yes, that is what he dared to write, and sign with his own name, and then send to his wife—my daughter!"
Pascal was absolutely terrified. He wondered if he were not the victim of some absurd nightmare—if his senses were not playing him false. He had little conception of the terrible dramas which are constantly enacted in these superb mansions, so admired and envied by the passing crowd. He thought that the baroness would be crushed—that she would fall on her knees before her husband. What a mistake! The tone of her voice told him that, instead of yielding, she was only bent on retaliation.
"Does your son-in-law do anything worse than you?" she exclaimed. "How dare you censure him—you who drag your name through all the gambling dens of Europe?"
"Wretch!" interrupted the baron, "wretch!" But quickly mastering himself, he remarked: "Yes, it's true that I gamble. People say, 'That great Baron Trigault is never without cards in his hands!' But you know very well that I really hold gambling in horror—that I loathe it. But when I play, I sometimes forget—for I must forget. I tried drink, but it wouldn't drown thought, so I had recourse to cards; and when the stakes are large, and my fortune is imperilled, I sometimes lose consciousness of my misery!"
The baroness gave vent to a cold, sneering laugh, and, in a tone of mocking commiseration, she said: "Poor baron! It is no doubt in the hope of forgetting your sorrows that you spend all your time—when you are not gambling—with a woman named Lia d'Argeles. She's rather pretty. I have seen her several times in the Bois——"
"Be silent!" exclaimed the baron, "be silent! Don't insult an unfortunate woman who is a thousand times better than yourself." And, feeling that he could endure no more—that he could no longer restrain his passion, he cried: "Out of my sight! Go! or I sha'n't be responsible for my acts!"
Pascal heard a chair move, the floor creak, and a moment afterward a lady passed quickly through the smoking-room. How was it that she did not perceive him? No doubt, because she was greatly agitated, in spite of her bravado. And, besides, he was standing a little back in the shade. But he saw her, and his brain reeled. "Good Lord! what a likeness!" he murmured.
It was as if he had seen an apparition, and he was vainly striving to drive away a terrible, mysterious fear, when a heavy footfall made the floor of the dining-room creak anew. The noise restored him to consciousness of his position. "It is the baron!" he thought; "he is coming this way! If he finds me here I am lost; he will never consent to help me. A man would never forgive another man for hearing what I have just heard."
Why should he not try to make his escape? The card, bearing the name of Maumejan, would be no proof of his visit. He could see the baron somewhere else some other day—elsewhere than at his own house, so that he need not fear the recognition of the servants. These thoughts flashed through his mind, and he was about to fly, when a harsh cry held him spell-bound. Baron Trigault was standing on the threshold. His emotion, as is almost always the case with corpulent people, was evinced by a frightful distortion of his features. His face was transformed, his lips had become perfectly white, and his eyes seemed to be starting from their sockets. "How came you here?" he asked, in a husky voice.
"Your servants ushered me into this room."
"Who are you?"
"What! monsieur, don't you recognize me?" rejoined Pascal, who in his agitation forgot that the baron had seen him only twice before. He forgot the absence of his beard, his almost ragged clothing, and all the precautions he had taken to render recognition impossible.
"I have never met any person named Maumejan," said the baron.
"Ah! monsieur, that's not my name. Have you forgotten the innocent man who was caught in that infamous snare set for him by the Viscount de Coralth?"
"Yes, yes," replied the baron, "I remember you now." And then recollecting the terrible scene that had just taken place in the adjoining room: "How long have you been here?" he asked.
Should Pascal tell a falsehood, or confess the truth? He hesitated, but his hesitation lasted scarcely the tenth part of a second. "I have been here about half an hour," he replied.
The baron's livid cheeks suddenly became purple, his eyes glittered, and it seemed by his threatening gesture as if he were strongly tempted to murder this man, who had discovered the terrible, disgraceful secrets of his domestic life. But it was a mere flash of energy. The terrible ordeal which he had just passed through had exhausted him mentally and physically, and it was in a faltering voice that he resumed: "Then you have not lost a word—a word of what was said in the other room?"
"Not a word."
The baron sank on to the divan. "So the knowledge of my disgrace is no longer confined to myself!" he exclaimed. "A stranger's eye has penetrated the depths of misery I have fallen into! The secret of my wretchedness and shame is mine no longer!"
"Oh, monsieur, monsieur!" interrupted Pascal. "Before I recross the threshold of your home, all shall have been forgotten. I swear it by all that is most sacred!"
He had raised his hand as if to take a solemn oath, when the baron caught hold of it, and, pressing it with sorrowful gratitude, exclaimed: "I believe you! You are a man of honor—I only needed to see your home to be convinced of that. You will not laugh at my misfortunes or my misery!" He must have been suffering frightfully, for big tears rolled slowly down his cheeks. "What have I done, my God! that I should be so cruelly punished?" he continued. "I have always been generous and charitable, and ready to help all who applied to me. I am utterly alone! I have a wife and a daughter—but they hate me. They long for my death, which would give them possession of my wealth. What torture! For months together I dared not eat a morsel of food, either in my own house, or in the house of my son-in-law. I feared poison; and I never partook of a dish until I had seen my daughter or my wife do so. To prevent a crime, I was obliged to resort to the strangest expedients. I made a will, and left my property in such a way that if I die, my family will not receive one penny. So, they now have an interest in prolonging my life." As he spoke he sprang up with an almost frenzied air, and, seizing Pascal by the arm, again continued. "Nor is this all! This woman—my wife—you know—you have heard the extent of her shame and degradation. Ah, well! I—love her!"
Pascal recoiled with an exclamation of mingled horror and consternation.
"This amazes you, eh?" rejoined the baron. "It is indeed incomprehensible, monstrous—but it is the truth. It is to gratify her desire for luxury that I have toiled to amass millions. If I purchased a title, which is absurd and ridiculous, it was only because I wished to satisfy her vanity. Do what she may, I can only see in her the chaste and beautiful wife of our early married life. It is cowardly, absurd, ridiculous—I realize it; but my love is stronger than my reason or my will. I love her madly, passionately; I cannot tear her from my heart!"
So speaking, he sank sobbing on to the divan again. Was this, indeed, the frivolous and jovial Baron Trigault whom Pascal had seen at Madame d'Argeles's house—the man of self-satisfied mien and superb assurance, the good-natured cynic, the frequenter of gambling-dens? Alas, yes! But the baron whom the world knew was only a comedian; this was the real man.
After a little while he succeeded in controlling his emotion, and in a comparatively calm voice he exclaimed: "But it is useless to distract one's mind with an incurable evil. Let us speak of yourself, M. Ferailleur. To what do I owe the honor of this visit?"
"To your own kind offer, monsieur, and the hope that you will help me in refuting this slander, and wreaking vengeance upon those who have ruined me."
"Oh! yes, I will help you in that to the full extent of my power," exclaimed the baron. But experience reminded him that confidential disclosures ought not to be made with the doors open, so he rose, shut them, and returning to Pascal, said: "Explain in what way I can be of service to you, monsieur."
It was not without many misgivings that Pascal had presented himself at the baron's house, but after what he had heard he felt no further hesitation; he could speak with perfect freedom. "It is quite unnecessary for me to tell you, Monsieur le Baron," he began, "that the cards which made me win were inserted in the pack by M. de Coralth—that is proven beyond question, and whatever the consequences may be, I shall have my revenge. But before striking him, I wish to reach the man whose instrument he was."
"What! you suppose——"
"I don't suppose—I am sure that M. de Coralth acted in obedience to the instructions of some other scoundrel whose courage does not equal his meanness."
"Perhaps so! I think he would shrink from nothing in the way of rascality. But who could have employed him in this vile work of dishonoring an honest man?"
"The Marquis de Valorsay."
On hearing this name, the baron bounded to his feet. "Impossible!" he exclaimed; "absolutely impossible! M. de Valorsay is incapable of the villainy you ascribe to him. What do I say?—he is even above suspicion. I have known him for years, and I have never met a more loyal, more honorable, or more courageous man. He is one of my few trusted friends; we see each other almost every day. I am expecting a visit from him even now."
"Still it was he who incited M. de Coralth to do the deed."
"But why? What could have been his object?"
"To win a young girl whom I love. She—loved me, and he saw that I was an obstacle. He put me out of the way more surely than if he had murdered me. If I died, she might mourn for me—dishonored, she would spurn me——"
"Is Valorsay so madly in love with the girl, then?"
"I think he cares but very little for her."
"She is the heiress of several millions."
It was evident that this explanation did not shake Baron Trigault's faith in his friend. "But the marquis has an income of a hundred and fifty or two hundred thousand francs," said he; "that is an all-sufficient justification. With his fortune and his name, he is in a position to choose his wife from among all the heiresses of France. Why should he address his attentions in particular to the woman you love? Ah! if he were poor—if his fortune were impaired—if he felt the need of regilding his escutcheon, like my son-in-law——"
He paused; there was a rap at the door. The baron called out: "Come in," and a valet appeared, and informed his master that the Marquis de Valorsay wished to speak with him.
It was the enemy! Pascal's features were distorted with rage; but he did not stir—he did not utter a word. "Ask the marquis into the next room," said the baron. "I will join him there at once." Then as the servant retired, the baron turned to Pascal and said: "Well, M. Ferailleur, do you divine my intentions?"
"I think so, monsieur. You probably intend me to hear the conversation you are going to have with M. de Valorsay."
"Exactly. I shall leave the door open, and you can listen."
This word, "listen," was uttered without bitterness, or even reproach; and yet Pascal could not help blushing and hanging his head. "I wish to prove to you that your suspicions are without foundation," pursued the baron. "Rest assured that I shall prove this conclusively. I will conduct the conversation in the form of a cross-examination, and after the marquis's departure, you will be obliged to confess that you were wrong."
"Or you, that I am right?"
"So be it. Any one is liable to be mistaken, and I am not obstinate."
He was about to leave the room, when Pascal detained him. "I scarcely know how to testify my gratitude even now, monsieur, and yet—if I dared—if I did not fear to abuse your kindness, I should ask one more favor."
"Speak, Monsieur Ferailleur."
"It is this, I do not know the Marquis de Valorsay; and if, instead of leaving the door wide open, you would partially close it, I should hear as distinctly, and I could also see him."
"Agreed," replied the baron. And, opening the door, he passed into the dining-room, with his right hand cordially extended, and saying, in his most genial tones: "Excuse me, my dear friend, for keeping you waiting. I received your letter this morning, and I was expecting you, but some unexpected business required my attention just now. Are you quite well?"
As the baron entered the room, the marquis had stepped quickly forward to meet him. Either he was inspired with fresh hope, or else he had wonderful powers of self-control, for never had he looked more calm—never had his face evinced haughtier indifference, more complete satisfaction with himself, and greater contempt for others. He was dressed with even more than usual care, and in perfect taste as well; moreover, his valet had surpassed himself in dressing his hair—for one would have sworn that his locks were still luxuriant. If he experienced any secret anxiety, it only showed itself in a slightly increased stiffness of his right leg—the limb broken in hunting. "I ought rather to inquire concerning your own health," he remarked. "You seem greatly disturbed; your cravat is untied." And, pointing to the broken china scattered about the floor, he added: "On seeing this, I asked myself if an accident had not happened."
"The baroness was taken suddenly ill at the breakfast table. Her fainting fit startled me a little. But it was a mere trifle. She has quite recovered already, and you may rely upon her applauding your victory at Vincennes to-day. She has I don't know how many hundred louis staked upon your horses."
The marquis's countenance assumed an expression of cordial regret. "I am very sorry, upon my word!" he exclaimed. "But I sha'n't take part in the races at Vincennes. I have withdrawn my horses. And, in future, I shall have nothing to do with racing."
"It is the truth, however. I have been led to this determination by the infamous slander which has been circulated respecting me."
This answer was a mere trifle, but it somewhat shook Baron Trigault's confidence. "You have been slandered!" he muttered.
"Abominably. Last Sunday the best horse in my stables, Domingo, came in third. He was the favorite in the ring. You can understand the rest. I have been accused of manoeuvering to have my own horse beaten. People have declared that it was my interest he should be beaten, and that I had an understanding with my jockey to that effect. This is an every-day occurrence, I know very well; but, as regards myself, it is none the less an infamous lie!"
"Who has dared to circulate such a report?"
"Oh, how can I tell? It is a fact, however, that the story has been circulated everywhere, but in such a cautious manner that there is no way of calling the authors to account. They have even gone so far as to say that this piece of knavery brought me in an enormous sum, and that I used Rochecotte's, Kervaulieu's, and Coralth's names in betting against my own horse."
The baron's agitation was so great that M. de Valorsay observed it, though he did not understand the cause. Living in the same society with the Baroness Trigault, and knowing her story, he thought that Coralth's name might, perhaps, have irritated the baron. "And so," he quickly continued, "don't be surprised if, during the coming week, you see the sale of my horses announced."
"What! you are going to sell——"
"All my horses—yes, baron. I have nineteen; and it will be very strange if I don't get eight or ten thousand louis for the lot. Domingo alone is worth more than forty thousand francs."
To talk of selling—of realizing something you possess—rings ominously in people's ears. The person who talks of selling proclaims his need of money—and often his approaching ruin. "It will save you at least a hundred and fifty or sixty thousand francs a year," observed the baron.
"Double it and you won't come up to the mark. Ah! my dear baron, you have yet to learn that there is nothing so ruinous as a racing stable. It's worse than gambling; and women, in comparison, are a real economy. Ninette costs me less than Domingo, with his jockey, his trainer, and his grooms. My manager declares that the twenty-three thousand francs I won last year, cost me at least fifty thousand."
Was he boasting, or was he speaking the truth? The baron was engaged in a rapid calculation. "What does Valorsay spend a year?" he was saying to himself. "Let us say two hundred and fifty thousand francs for his stable; forty thousand francs for Ninette Simplon; eighty thousand for his household expenses, and at least thirty thousand for personal matters, travelling, and play. All this amounts to something like four hundred and thirty thousand francs a year. Does his income equal that sum? Certainly not. Then he must have been living on the principal—he is ruined."
Meanwhile the marquis gayly continued: "You see, I'm going to make a change in my mode of life. Ah! it surprises you! But one must make an end of it, sooner or later. I begin to find a bachelor life not so very pleasant after all; there is rheumatism in prospect, and my digestion is becoming impaired—in short, I feel that it is time for marriage, baron; and—I am about to marry."
"Yes, I. What, haven't you heard of it, yet? It has been talked of at the club for three days or more."
"No, this is the first intimation I have received of it. It is true, however, that I have not been to the club for three days. I have made a wager with Kami-Bey, you know—that rich Turk—and as our sittings are eight or ten hours long, we play in his apartments at the Grand Hotel. And so you are to be married," the baron continued, after a slight pause. "Ah, well! I know one person who won't be pleased."
M. de Valorsay laughed heartily. "As if that would make any difference to me!" he exclaimed. And then in a most confidential manner he resumed: "She will soon be consoled. Ninette Simplon is a shrewd girl—a girl whom I have always suspected of having an account book in place of a heart. I know she has at least three hundred thousand francs safely invested; her furniture and diamonds are worth as much more. Why should she regret me? Add to this that I have promised her fifty thousand francs to dry her tears with on my wedding-day, and you will understand that she really longs to see me married."
"I understand," replied the baron; "Ninette Simplon won't trouble you. But I can't understand why you should talk of economy on the eve of a marriage which will no doubt double your fortune; for I'm sure you won't surrender your liberty without good and substantial reasons."
"You are mistaken."
"Well, I won't hesitate to confess to you, my dear baron, that the girl I am about to marry hasn't a penny of her own. My future wife has no dowry save her black eyes—but they are certainly superb ones."
This assertion seemed to disprove Pascal's statements. "Can it really be you who are talking in this strain?" cried the baron. "You, a practical, worldly man, give way to such a burst of sentiment?"
The baron opened his eyes in astonishment. "Ah! then you adore your future bride!"
"Adore only feebly expresses my feelings."
"I must be dreaming."
Valorsay shrugged his shoulders with the air of a man who has made up his mind to accept the banter of his friends; and in a tone of mingled sentimentality and irony, he said: "I know that it's absurd, and that I shall be the laughing-stock of my acquaintances. Still it doesn't matter; I have never been coward enough to hide my feelings. I'm in love, my dear baron, as madly in love as a young collegian—sufficiently in love to watch my lady's house at night even when I have no possible hope of seeing her. I thought myself blase, I boasted of being invulnerable. Well, one fine morning I woke up with the heart of a youth of twenty beating in my breast—a heart which trembled at the slightest glance from the girl I love, and sent purple flushes to my face. Naturally I tried to reason with myself. I was ashamed of my weakness; but the more clearly I showed myself my folly, the more obstinate my heart became. And perhaps my folly is not such a great one after all. Such perfect beauty united with such modesty, grace, and nobility of soul, such passion, candor and talent, cannot be met twice in a lifetime. I intend to leave Paris. We shall first of all go to Italy, my wife and I. After a while we shall return and install ourselves at Valorsay, like two turtle-doves. Upon my word, my imagination paints a charming picture of the calm and happy life we shall lead there! I don't deserve such good fortune. I must have been born under a lucky star!"
Had he been less engrossed in his narrative, he would have heard the sound of a stifled oath in the adjoining room; and had he been less absorbed in the part he was playing, he would have observed a cloud on his companion's brow. The baron was a keen observer, and he had detected a false ring in this apparently vehement outburst of passion. "I understand it now, my dear marquis," said he; "you have met the descendant of some illustrious but impoverished family."
"You are wrong. My future bride has no other name than her Christian name of Marguerite."
"It is a regular romance then!"
"You are quite right; it is a romance. Were you acquainted with the Count de Chalusse, who died a few days ago?"
"No; but I have often heard him spoken of."
"Well, it is his daughter whom I am about to marry—his illegitimate daughter."
The baron started. "Excuse me," said he; "M. de Chalusse was immensely rich, and he was a bachelor. How does it happen then that his daughter, even though she be his illegitimate child, should find herself penniless?"
"A mere chance—a fatality. M. de Chalusse died very suddenly; he had no time to make a will or to acknowledge his daughter."
"But why had he not taken some precautions?"
"A formal recognition of his daughter was attended by too many difficulties, and even dangers. Mademoiselle Marguerite had been abandoned by her mother when only five or six months old; it is only a few years since M. de Chalusse, after a thousand vain attempts, at last succeeded in finding her."
It was no longer on Pascal's account, but on his own, that Baron Trigault listened with breathless attention. "How very strange," he exclaimed, in default of something better to say. "How very strange!"
"Isn't it? It is as good as a novel."
"Would it be—indiscreet——"
"To inquire? Certainly not. The count told me the whole story, without entering into particulars—you understand. When he was quite young, M. de Chalusse became enamoured of a charming young lady, whose husband had gone to tempt fortune in America. Being an honest woman, she resisted the count's advances for awhile—a very little while; but in less than a year after her husband's departure, she gave birth to a pretty little daughter, Mademoiselle Marguerite. But then why had the husband gone to America?"
"Yes," faltered the baron; "why—why, indeed?"
"Everything was progressing finely, when M. de Chalusse was in his turn obliged to start for Germany, having been informed that a sister of his, who had fled from the paternal roof with nobody knows who, had been seen there. He had been absent some four months or so, when one morning the post brought him a letter from his pretty mistress, who wrote: 'We are lost! My husband is at Marseilles: he will be here to-morrow. Never attempt to see me again. Fear everything from him. Farewell.' On receiving this letter, M. de Chalusse flung himself into a postchaise, and returned to Paris. He was determined, absolutely determined, to have his daughter. But he arrived too late. On hearing of her husband's return, the young wife had lost her head. She had but one thought—to conceal her fault, at any cost; and one night, being completely disguised, she left her child on a doorstep in the vicinity of the central markets——"
The marquis suddenly paused in his story to exclaim: "Why, what is the matter with you, my dear baron? What is the matter? Are you ill? Shall I ring?"
The baron was as pale as if the last drop of blood had been drawn from his veins, and there were dark purple circles about his eyes. Still, on being questioned, he managed to answer in a choked voice, but not without a terrible effort: "Nothing! It is nothing. A mere trifle! It will be over in a moment. It IS over!" Still his limbs trembled so much that he could not stand, and he sank on to a chair, murmuring: "I entreat you, marquis—continue. It is very interesting—very interesting indeed."
M. de Valorsay resumed his narrative. "The husband was incontestably an artless fellow: but he was also, it appears, a man of remarkable energy and determination. Having somehow ascertained that his wife had given birth to a child in his absence, he moved heaven and earth not only to discover the child, but its father also. He had sworn to kill them both; and he was a man to keep his vow unmoved by a thought of the guillotine. And if you require a proof of his strength of character, here it is: He said nothing to his wife on the subject, he did not utter a single reproach; he treated her exactly as he had done before his absence. But he watched her, or employed others to watch her, both day and night, convinced that she would finally commit some act of imprudence which would give him the clue he wanted. Fortunately, she was very shrewd. She soon discovered that her husband knew everything, and she warned M. de Chalusse, thus saving his life."
It is not at all remarkable that the Marquis de Valorsay should have failed to see any connection between his narrative and the baron's agitation. What possible connection could there be between opulent Baron Trigault and the poor devil who went to seek his fortune in America? What imaginable connection could there be between the confirmed gambler, who was Kami-Bey's companion, Lia d'Argeles's friend, and the husband who for ten long years had pursued the man who, by seducing his wife, had robbed him of all the happiness of life? Another point that would have dispelled any suspicions on the marquis's part was that he had found the baron greatly agitated on arriving, and that he now seemed to be gradually regaining his composure. So he continued his story in his customary light, mocking tone. It is the perfection of good taste and high breeding—"proper form," indeed, not to be astonished or moved by anything, in fact to sneer at everything, and hold one's self quite above the emotions which disturb the minds of plebeians.
Thus the marquis continued: "I am necessarily compelled to omit many particulars, my dear baron. The count was not very explicit when he reached this part of his story; but, in spite of his reticence, I learned that he had been tricked in his turn, that certain papers had been stolen from him, and that he had been defrauded in many ways by his inamorata. I also know that M. de Chalusse's whole life was haunted by the thought of the husband he had wronged. He felt a presentiment that he would die by this man's hand. He saw danger on every side. If he went out alone in the evening, which was an exceedingly rare occurrence, he turned the street corners with infinite caution; it seemed to him that he could always see the gleam of a poniard or a pistol in the shade. I should never have believed in this constant terror on the part of a really brave man, if he had not confessed it to me with his own lips. Ten or twelve years passed before he dared to make the slightest attempt to find his daughter, so much did he fear to arouse his enemy's attention. It was not until he had discovered that the husband had become discouraged and had discontinued his search, that the count began his. It was a long and arduous one, but at last it succeeded, thanks to the assistance of a clever scoundrel named Fortunat."
The baron with difficulty repressed a movement of eager curiosity, and remarked: "What a peculiar name!"
"And his first name is Isidore. Ah! he's a smooth-tongued scoundrel, a rascal of the most dangerous kind, who richly deserves to be in jail. How it is that he is allowed to prosecute his dishonorable calling I can't understand; but it is none the less true that he does follow it, and without the slightest attempt at concealment, at an office he has on the Place de la Bourse."
This name and address were engraved upon the baron's memory, never to be effaced.
"However," resumed M. de Valorsay, "the poor count was fated to have no peace. The husband had scarcely ceased to torment him, he had scarcely begun to breathe freely, when the wife attacked him in her turn. She must have been one of those vile and despicable women who make a man hate the entire sex. Pretending that the count had turned her from the path of duty, and destroyed her life and happiness, she lost no opportunity of tormenting him. She would not allow M. de Chalusse to keep the child with him, nor would she consent to his adopting the girl. She declared it an act of imprudence, which would surely set her husband upon the track, sooner or later. And when the count announced his intention of legally adopting the child, in spite of her protests, she declared that, rather than allow it, she would confess everything to her husband."
"The count was a patient man," sneered the baron.
"Not so patient as you may suppose. His submission was due to some secret cause which he never confided to me. There must have been some great crime under all this. In any case, the poor count found it impossible to escape this terrible woman. He took refuge at Cannes; but she followed him. He travelled through Italy, for I don't know how many months under an assumed name, but all in vain. He was at last compelled to conceal his daughter in some provincial convent. During the last few months of his life he obtained peace—that is to say, he bought it. This lady's husband must either be very poor or exceedingly stingy; and as she was exceedingly fond of luxury, M. de Chalusse effected a compromise by giving her a large sum monthly, and also by paying her dress-maker's bills."
The baron sprang to his feet with a passionate exclamation. "The vile wretch!" he said.
But he quickly reseated himself, and the exclamation astonished M. de Valorsay so little that he quietly concluded by saying: "And this is the reason, baron, why my beloved Marguerite, the future Marquise de Valorsay, has no dowry."
The baron cast a look of positive anguish at the door of the smoking-room. He had heard a slight movement there; and he trembled with fear lest Pascal, maddened with anger and jealousy, should rush in and throw himself upon the marquis. Plainly enough, this perilous situation could not last much longer. The baron's own powers of self-control and dissimulation were almost exhausted, and so postponing until another time the many questions he still wished to ask M. de Valorsay, he made haste to check these confidential disclosures. "Upon my word," he exclaimed, with a forced laugh, "I was expecting something quite different. This affair begins like a genuine romance, and ends, as everything ends nowadays, in money!"
As a millionaire and a gambler, Baron Trigault enjoyed all sorts of privileges. He assumed the right to be brutal, ill-bred, cynical and bold; to be one of those persons who declare that folks must take them as they find them. But his rudeness now was so thoroughly offensive that under any other circumstances the marquis would have resented it. However, he had special reasons for preserving his temper, so he decided to laugh.
"Yes, these stories always end in the same way, baron," said he. "You haven't touched a card this morning, and I know your hands are itching. Excuse me for making you waste precious time, as you say; but what you have just heard was only a necessary preface."
"Only a preface?"
"Yes; but don't be discouraged. I have arrived at the object of my visit now."
As Baron Trigault was supposed to enjoy an income of at least eight hundred thousand francs a year, he received in the course of a twelvemonth at least a million applications for money or help, and for this reason he had not an equal for detecting a coming appeal. "Good heavens!" he thought, "Valorsay is going to ask me for money." In fact, he felt certain that the marquis's pretended carelessness concealed real embarrassment, and that it was difficult for him to find the words he wanted.
"So I am about to marry," M. de Valorsay resumed—"I wish to break off my former life, to turn over a new leaf. And now the wedding gifts, the two fetes that I propose giving, the repairs at Valorsay, and the honeymoon with my wife—all these things will cost a nice little sum."
"A nice little sum, indeed!"
"Ah, well! as I'm not going to wed an heiress, I fear I shall run a trifle short. The matter was worrying me a little, when I thought of you. I said to myself: 'The baron, who always has money at his disposal, will no doubt let me have the use of five thousand louis for a year.'"
The baron's eyes were fixed upon his companion's face. "Zounds!" he exclaimed in a half-grieved, half-petulant tone; "I haven't the amount!"
It was not disappointment that showed itself on the marquis's face; it was absolute despair, quickly concealed.
But the baron had detected it; and he realized his applicant's urgent need. He felt certain that M. de Valorsay was financially ruined—and yet, as it did not suit his plans to refuse, he hastily added: "When I say I haven't that amount, I mean that I haven't got it on hand just at this moment. But I shall have it within forty-eight hours; and if you are at home at this time on the day after to-morrow, I will send you one of my agents, who will arrange the matter with you."
A moment before, the marquis had allowed his consternation to show itself; but this time he knew how to conceal the joy that filled his soul. So it was in the most indifferent manner, as if the affair were one of trivial importance, that he thanked the baron for being so obliging. Plainly enough, he now longed to make his escape, and indeed, after rattling off a few commonplace remarks, he rose to his feet and took his leave, exclaiming: "Till the day after to-morrow, then!"
The baron sank into an arm-chair, completely overcome. A martyr to a passion that was stronger than reason itself, the victim of a fatal love which he had not been able to drive from his heart, Baron Trigault had passed many terrible hours, but never had he been so completely crushed as at this moment when chance revealed the secret which he had vainly pursued for years. The old wounds in his heart opened afresh, and his sufferings were poignant beyond description. All his efforts to save this woman whom he at once loved and hated from the depths of degradation, had proved unavailing. "And she has extorted money from the Count de Chalusse," he thought; "she sold him the right to adopt their own daughter." And so strange are the workings of the human heart, that this circumstance, trivial in comparison with many others, drove the unfortunate baron almost frantic with rage. What did it avail him that he had become one of the richest men in Paris? He allowed his wife eight thousand francs a month, almost one hundred thousand francs a year, merely for her dresses and fancies. Not a quarter-day passed, but what he paid her debts to a large amount, and in spite of all this, she had sunk so low as to extort money from a man who had once loved her. "What can she do with it all?" muttered the baron, overcome with sorrow and indignation. "How can she succeed in spending the income of several millions?"
A name, the name of Ferdinand de Coralth, rose to his lips; but he did not pronounce it. He saw Pascal emerging from the smoking-room; and though he had forgotten the young advocate's very existence, his appearance now restored him to a consciousness of reality. "Ah, well! M. Ferailleur?" he said, like a man suddenly aroused from some terrible nightmare. Pascal tried to make some reply, but he was unable to do so—such a flood of incoherent thoughts was seething and foaming in his brain. "Did you hear, M. de Valorsay?" continued the baron. "Now we know, beyond the possibility of doubt, who Mademoiselle Marguerite's mother is. What is to be done? What would you do in my place?"
"Ah, monsieur! how can I tell?"
"Wouldn't your first thought be of vengeance! It is mine. But upon whom can I wreak my vengeance? Upon the Count de Chalusse? He is dead. Upon my wife? Yes, I might do so; but I lack the courage—Mademoiselle Marguerite remains."
"But she is innocent, monsieur; she has never wronged you."
The baron did not seem to hear this exclamation. "And to make Mademoiselle Marguerite's life one long misery," said he, "I need only favor her marriage with the marquis. Ah, he would make her cruelly expiate the crime of her birth."
"But you won't do so!" cried Pascal, in a transport, "it would be shameful; I won't allow it. Never, I swear before high Heaven! never, while I live, shall Valorsay marry Marguerite. He may perhaps vanquish me in the coming struggle; he may lead her to the threshold of the church, but there he will find me—armed—and I will have justice—human justice in default of legal satisfaction. And, afterward, the law may take its course!"
The baron looked at him with deep emotion. "Ah, you know what it is to love!" he exclaimed; and in a hollow voice, he added: "and thus it was that I loved Marguerite's mother."
The breakfast-table had not been cleared, and a large decanter of water was still standing on it. The baron poured out two large glasses, which he drained with feverish avidity, and then he began to walk aimlessly about the room.
Pascal held his peace. It seemed to him that his own destiny was being decided in this man's mind, that his whole future depended upon the determination he arrived at. A prisoner awaiting the verdict of the jury could not have suffered more intense anxiety. At last, when a minute, which seemed a century, had elapsed, the baron paused. "Now as before, M. Ferailleur," he said, roughly, "I'm for you and with you. Give me your hand—that's right. Honest people ought to protect and assist one another when scoundrels assail them. We will reinstate you in public esteem, monsieur. We will unmask Coralth, and we will crush Valorsay if we find that he is really the instigator of the infamous plot that ruined you."
"What, monsieur! Can you doubt it after your conversation with him?"
The baron shook his head. "I've no doubt but what Valorsay is ruined financially," said he. "I am certain that my hundred thousand francs will be lost forever if I lend them to him. I would be willing to swear that he bet against his own horse and prevented the animal from winning, as he is accused of doing."
"You must see, then—"
"Excuse me—all this does NOT explain the great discrepancy between your allegations and his story. You assure me that he cares nothing whatever for Mademoiselle Marguerite; he pretends that he adores her."
"Yes, monsieur, yes—the scoundrel dared to say so. Ah! if I had not been deterred by a fear of losing my revenge!"
"I understand; but allow me to conclude. According to you, Mademoiselle Marguerite possesses several millions. According to him, she hasn't a penny of her own. Which is right? I believe he is. His desire to borrow a hundred thousand francs of me proves it; and, besides, he wouldn't have come this morning to tell me a falsehood, which would be discovered to-morrow. Still, if he is telling the truth, it is impossible to explain the foul conspiracy you have suffered by."