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XXII

The hour had now come for the denouement of that home tragedy which
was being enacted in the Rue St. Gilles.

The reader will remember the incidents narrated at the beginning of
this story, - M. de Thaller's visit and angry words with M. Favoral,
his departure after leaving a package of bank-notes in Mlle.
Gilberte's hands, the advent of the commissary of police, M.
Favoral's escape, and finally the departure of the Saturday evening
guests.

The disaster which struck Mme. Favoral and her children had been so
sudden and so crushing, that they had been, on the moment, too
stupefied to realize it. What had happened went so far beyond the
limits of the probable, of the possible even, that they could not
believe it. The too cruel scenes which had just taken place were
to them like the absurd incidents of a horrible nightmare.

But when their guests had retired after a few commonplace
protestations, when they found themselves alone, all three, in that
house whose master had just fled, tracked by the police, - then
only, as the disturbed equilibrium of their minds became somewhat
restored, did they fully realize the extent of the disaster, and
the horror of the situation.

Whilst Mme. Favoral lay apparently lifeless on an arm-chair,
Gilberte kneeling at her feet, Maxence was walking up and down the
parlor with furious steps. He was whiter than the plaster on the
halls; and a cold perspiration glued his tangled hair to his temples.

His eyes glistening, and his fists clinched,

"Our father a thief!" he kept repeating in a hoarse voice, "a forger!"

And in fact never had the slightest suspicion arisen in his mind.
In these days of doubtful reputations, he had been proud indeed of
M. Favoral's reputation of austere integrity. And he had endured
many a cruel reproach, saying to himself that his father had, by his
own spotless conduct, acquired the right to be harsh and exacting.

"And he has stolen twelve millions!" he exclaimed.

And he went on, trying to calculate all the luxury and splendor
which such a sum represents, all the cravings gratified, all the
dreams realized, all it can procure of things that may be bought.
And what things are not for sale for twelve millions!

Then he examined the gloomy home in the Rue St. Gilles, - the
contracted dwelling, the faded furniture the prodigies of a
parsimonious industry, his mother's privations, his sister's penury,
and his own distress. And he exclaimed again,

"It is a monstrous infamy!"

The words of the commissary of police had opened his eyes; and he
now fancied the most wonderful things. M. Favoral, in his mind,
assumed fabulous proportions. By what miracles of hypocrisy and
dissimulation had he succeeded in making himself ubiquitous as it
were, and, without awaking a suspicion, living two lives so distinct
and so different, - here, in the midst of his family, parsimonious,
methodic, and severe; elsewhere, in some illicit household,
doubtless facile, smiling, and generous, like a successful thief.

For Maxence considered the bills found in the secretary as a
flagrant, irrefutable and material proof.

Upon the brink of that abyss of shame into which his father had just
tumbled, he thought he could see, not the inevitable woman, that
incentive of all human actions, but the entire legion of those
bewitching courtesans who possess unknown crucibles wherein to swell
fortunes, and who have secret filters to stupefy their dupes, and
strip them of their honor, after robbing them of their last cent.

"And I," said Maxence, - " I, because at twenty I was fond of
pleasure, I was called a bad son! Because I had made some three
hundred francs of debts, I was deemed a swindler! Because I love
a poor girl who has for me the most disinterested affection, I am
one of those rascals whom their family disown, and from whom nothing
can be expected but shame and disgrace!"

He filled the parlor with the sound of his voice, which rose like
his wrath.

And at the thought of all the bitter reproaches which had been
addressed to him by his father, and of all the humiliations that
had been heaped upon him,

"Ah, the wretch!" he fairly shrieked, " - the coward!"

As pale as her brother, her face bathed in tears, and her beautiful
hair hanging undone, Mlle. Gilberte drew herself up.

"He is our father, Maxence," she said gently.

But he interrupted her with a wild burst of laughter. "True," he
answered; "and, by virtue of the law which is written in the code,
we owe him affection and respect."

"Maxence! "murmured the girl in a beseeching tone. But he went on,
nevertheless,

"Yes, he is our father, unfortunately. But I should like to know
his titles to our respect and our affection. After making our
mother the most miserable of creatures, he has embittered our
existence, withered our youth, ruined my future, and done his best
to spoil yours by compelling you to marry Costeclar. And, to crown
all these deeds of kindness, he runs away now, after stealing twelve
millions, leaving us nothing but misery and a disgraced name.

"And yet," he added, "is it possible that a cashier should take
twelve millions, and his employer know nothing of it? And is our
father really the only man who benefitted by these millions?"

Then came back to the mind of Maxence and Mlle. Gilberte the last
words of their father at the moment of his flight,

" I have been betrayed; and I must suffer for all!"

And his sincerity could hardly be called in question; for he was
then in one of those moments of decisive crisis in which the truth
forces itself out in spite of all calculation.

"He must have accomplices then," murmured Maxence.

Although he had spoken very low, Mme. Favoral overheard him. To
defend her husband, she found a remnant of energy, and, straightening
herself on her seat,

"Ah! do not doubt it," she stammered out. "Of his own inspiration,
Vincent could never have committed an evil act. He has been
circumvented, led away, duped!"

"Very well; but by whom?"

"By Costeclar," affirmed Mlle. Gilberte.

"By the Messrs. Jottras, the bankers," said Mme. Favoral, "and also
by M. Saint Pavin, the editor of 'the Financial Pilot.'"

"By all of them, evidently," interrupted Maxence, "even by his
manager, M. de Thaller."

When a man is at the bottom of a precipice, what is the use of
finding out how he has got there, - whether by stumbling over a
stone, or slipping on a tuft of grass! And yet it is always our
foremost thought. It was with an eager obstinacy that Mme. Favoral
and her children ascended the course of their existence, seeking in
the past the incidents and the merest words which might throw some
light upon their disaster; for it was quite manifest that it was
not in one day and at the same time that twelve millions had been
subtracted from the Mutual Credit. This enormous deficit must have
been, as usual, made gradually, with infinite caution at first,
whilst there was a desire, and some hope, to make it good again,
then with mad recklessness towards the end when the catastrophe had
become inevitable.

"Alas!" murmured Mme. Favoral, "why did not Vincent listen to my
presentiments on that ever fatal day when he brought M. de Thaller,
M. Jottras, and M. Saint Pavin to dine here? They promised him a
fortune."

Maxence and Mlle. Gilberte were too young at the time of that dinner
to have preserved any remembrance of it; but they remembered many
other circumstances, which, at the time they had taken place, had
not struck them. They understood now the temper of their father,
his perpetual irritation, and the spasms of his humor. When his
friends were heaping insults upon him, he had exclaimed,

"Be it so! let them arrest me; and to-night, for the first time in
many years, I shall sleep in peace."

There were years, then, that he lived, as it were upon burning coals,
trembling at the fear of discovery, and wondering, as he went to
sleep each night, whether he would not be awakened by the rude hand
of the police tapping him on the shoulder. No one better than Mme.
Favoral could affirm it.

"Your father, my children," she said, "had long since lost his sleep.
There was hardly ever a night that he did not get up and walk the
room for hours."

They understood, now, his efforts to compel Mlle. Gilberte to marry
M. Costeclar.

"He thought that Costeclar would help him out of the scrape,"
suggested Maxence to his sister.

The poor girl shuddered at the thought, and she could not help
feeling thankful to her father for not having told her his situation;
for would she have had the sublime courage to refuse the sacrifice,
if her father had told her?.

"I have stolen! I am lost! Costeclar alone can save me; and he
will save me if you become his wife."

M. Favoral's pleasant behavior during the siege was quite natural.
Then he had no fears; and one could understand how in the most
critical hours of the Commune, when Paris was in flames, he could
have exclaimed almost cheerfully,

"Ah! this time it is indeed the final liquidation."

Doubtless, in the bottom of his heart, he wished that Paris might
be destroyed, and, with it, the evidences of his crime. And
perhaps he was not the only one to form that impious wish.

"That's why, then," exclaimed Maxence, - "that's why my father
treated me so rudely: that's why he so obstinately persisted in
closing the offices of the Mutual Credit against me."

He was interrupted by a violent ringing of the door-bell. He looked
at the clock: ten o'clock was about to strike.

"Who can call so late?" said Mme. Favoral.

Something like a discussion was heard in the hall, - a voice hoarse
with anger, and the servant's voice.

"Go and see who's there," said Gilberte to her brother.

It was useless; the servant appeared.

"It's M. Bertan," she commenced, "the baker - He had followed her,
and, pushing her aside with his robust arm, he appeared himself.
He was a man about forty years of age, tall, thin, already bald,
and wearing his beard trimmed close.

"M. Favoral?" he inquired.

"My father is not at home," replied Maxence.

"It's true, then, what I have just been told?"

"What?"

"That the police came to arrest him, and he escaped through a
window."

"It's true," replied Maxence gently.

The baker seemed prostrated.

"And my money?" he asked.

"What money?"

"Why, my ten thousand francs! Ten thousand francs which I brought
to M. Favoral, in gold, you hear? in ten rolls, which I placed
there, on that very table, and for which he gave me a receipt. Here
it is, - his receipt."

He held out a paper; but Maxence did not take it.

"I do not doubt your word, sir," he replied; "but my father's
business is not ours."

"You refuse to give me back my money?"

"Neither my mother, my sister, nor myself, have any thing."

The blood rushed to the man's face, and, with a tongue made thick
by anger,

"And you think you are going to pay me off in that way?" he
exclaimed. "You have nothing! Poor little fellow! And will you
tell me, then, what has become of the twenty millions your father
has stolen? for he has stolen twenty millions. I know it: I have
been told so. Where are they?"

"The police, sir, has placed the seals over my fathers papers."

"The police?" interrupted the baker, "the seals? What do I care
for that? It's my money I want: do you hear? Justice is going to
take a hand in it, is it? Arrest your father, try him? What good
will that do me? He will be condemned to two or three years'
imprisonment. Will that give me a cent? He will serve out his time
quietly; and, when he gets out of prison, he'll get hold of the pile
that he's got hidden somewhere; and while I starve, he'll spend my
money under my very nose. No, no! Things won't 'suit me that way.
It's at once that I want to be paid."

And throwing himself upon a chair his head back, and his legs
stretched forward-

"And what's more," he declared, "I am not going out of here until
I am paid."

It was not without the greatest efforts that Maxence managed to
keep his temper.

"Your insults are useless, sir," he commenced.

The man jumped up from his seat.

"Insults!" he cried in a voice that could have been heard all
through the house. "Do you call it an insult when a man claims his
own? If you think you can make me hush, you are mistaken in your
man, M. Favoral, Jun. I am not rich myself: my father has not
stolen to leave me an income. It is not in gambling at the bourse
that I made these ten thousand francs. It is by the sweat of my
body, by working hard night and day for years, by depriving myself
of a glass of wine when I was thirsty. And I am to lose them? By
the holy name of heaven, we'll have to see about that! If everybody
was like me, there would not be so many scoundrels going about,
their pockets filled with other people's money, and from the top of
their carriage laughing at the poor fools they have ruined. Come,
my ten thousand francs, canaille, or I take my pay on your back."

Maxence, enraged, was about to throw himself upon the man, and a
disgusting struggle was about to begin, when Mlle. Gilberte stepped
between them.

"Your threats are as cowardly as your insults, Monsieur Bertan,"
she uttered in a quivering voice. "You have known us long enough
to be aware that we know nothing of our father's business, and that
we have nothing ourselves. All we can do is to give up to our
creditors our very last crumb. Thus it shall be done. And now,
sir, please retire."

There was so much dignity in her sorrow, and so imposing was her
attitude, that the baker stood abashed.

"Ah! if that's the way," he stammered awkwardly; "and since you
meddle with it, mademoiselle" - And he retreated precipitately,
growling at the same time threats and excuses, and slamming the
doors after him hard enough to break the partitions.

"What a disgrace!" murmured Mme. Favoral. Crushed by this last
scene, she was choking; and her children had to carry her to the
open window. She recovered almost at once; but thus, through the
darkness, bleak and cold, she had like a vision of her husband; and,
throwing herself back,

"0 great heavens!" she uttered, "where did he go when he left us?
Where is he now? What is he doing? What has become of him?"

Her married life had been for Mme. Favoral but a slow torture. It
was in vain that she would have looked back through her past life
for some of those happy days which leave their luminous track in
life, and towards which the mind turns in the hours of grief.
Vincent Favoral had never been aught but a brutal despot, abusing
the resignation of his victim. And yet, had he died, she would have
wept bitterly over him in all the sincerity of her honest and simple
soul. Habit! Prisoners have been known to shed tears over the
grave of their jailer. Then he was her husband, after all, the
father of her children, the only man who existed for her. For
twenty-six years they had never been separated: they had sat at the
same table: they had slept side by side.

Yes, she would have wept over him. But how much less poignant would
her grief have been than at this moment, when it was complicated by
all the torments of uncertainty, and by the most frightful
apprehensions!

Fearing lest she might take cold, her children had removed her to
the sofa, and there, all shivering,

"Isn't it horrible," she said, "not to know any thing of your father?
- to think that at this very moment, perhaps, pursued by the police,
he is wandering in despair through the streets, without daring to
ask anywhere for shelter."

Her children had no time to answer and comfort her; for at this
moment the door-be11 rang again.

"Who can it be now?" said Mme. Favoral with a start.

This time there was no discussion in the hall. Steps sounded on the
floor of the dining-room; the door opened; and M. Desclavettes, the
old bronze-merchant, walked, or rather slipped into the parlor.

Hope, fear, anger, all the sentiments which agitated his soul, could
be read on his pale and cat-like face.

"It is I," he commenced.

Maxence stepped forward.

"Have you heard any thing from my father, sir?"

"No," answered the old merchant, "I confess I have not; and I was
just coming to see if you had yourselves. Oh, I know very well that
this is not exactly the hour to call at a house; but I thought,
that, after what took place this evening, you would not be in bed
yet. I could not sleep myself. You understand a friendship of
twenty years' standing! So I took Mme. Desclavettes home, and here
I am."

"We feel very thankful for your kindness," murmured Mme. Favoral.

"I am glad you do. The fact is, you see, I take a good deal of
interest in the misfortune that strikes you, - a greater interest
than any one else. For, after all, I, too, am a victim. I had
intrusted one hundred and twenty thousand francs to our dear Vincent."

"Alas, sir!" said Mlle. Gilberte.

But the worthy man did not allow her to proceed. "I have no fault
to find with him," he went on- "absolutely none. Why, dear me!
haven't I been in business myself? and don't I know what it is?
First, we borrow a thousand francs or so from the cash account,
then ten thousand, then a hundred thousand. Oh! without any bad
intention, to be sure, and with the firm resolution to return them.
But we don't always do what we wish to do. Circumstances sometimes
work against us, if we operate at the bourse to make up the deficit
we lose. Then we must borrow again, draw from Peter to pay Paul.
We are afraid of being caught: we are compelled, reluctantly of
course, to alter the books. At last a day comes when we find that
millions are gone, and the bomb-shell bursts. Does it follow from
this that a man is dishonest? Not the least in the world: he is
simply unlucky."

He stopped, as if awaiting an answer; but, as none came, he resumed,

"I repeat, I have no fault to find with Favoral. Only then, now,
between us, to lose these hundred and twenty thousand francs would
simply be a disaster for me. I know very well that both Chapelain
and Desormeaux had also deposited funds with Favoral. But they are
rich: one of them owns three houses in Paris, and the other has a
good situation; whereas I, these hundred and twenty thousand francs
gone, I'd have nothing left but my eyes to weep with. My wife is
dying about it. I assure you our position is a terrible one."

To M. Desciavettes, - as to the baker a few moments before,

"We have nothing," said Maxence.

"I know it," exclaimed the old merchant. "I know it as well as you
do yourself. And so I have come to beg a little favor of you, which
will cost you nothing. When you see Favoral, remember me to him,
explain my situation to him, and try to make him give me back my
money. He is a hard one to fetch, that's a fact. But if you go
right about it, above all, if our dear Gilberte will take the matter
in hand "

"Sir!"

"Oh! I swear I sha'n't say a word about it, either to Desormeaux
or Chapelain, nor to any one else. Although reimbursed, I'll make
as much noise as the rest, - more noise, even. Come, now, my dear
friends, what do you say?"

He was almost crying.

"And where the deuse," exclaimed Maxence, "do you expect my father
to take a hundred and twenty thousand francs? Didn't you see him go
without even taking the money that M. de Thaller had brought?"

A smile appeared upon M. Desclavettes' pale lips.

"That will do very well to say, my dear Maxence;" he said, "and
some people may believe it. But don't say it to your old friend,
who knows too much about business for that. When a man, puts off,
after borrowing twelve millions from his employers, he would be a
great fool if he had not put away two or three in safety. Now,
Favoral is not a fool."

Tears of shame and anger started from Mlle. Gilberte's eyes.

"What you are saying is abominable, sir!" she exclaimed.

He seemed much surprised at this outburst of violence.

"Why so?" he answered. "In Vincent's place, I should not have
hesitated to do what he has certainly done. And I am an honest man
too. I was in business for twenty years; and I dare any one to
prove that a note signed Desclavettes ever went to protest. And
so, my dear friends, I beseech you, consent to serve your old
friend, and, when you see your father "

The old man's tone of voice exasperated even Mme. Favoral herself.

"We never expect to see my husband again," she uttered.

He shrugged his shoulders, and, in a tone of paternal reproach,

"You just give up all such ugly ideas," he said. "You will see him
again, that dear Vincent; for he is much too sharp to allow himself
to be caught. Of course, he'll stay away as long as it may be
necessary; but, as soon as he can return without danger, he will
do so. The Statute of Limitations has not been invented for the
Grand Turk. Why, the Boulevard is crowded with people who have all
had their little difficulty, and who have spent five or ten years
abroad for their health. Does any one think any thing of it? Not
in the least; and no one hesitates to shake hands with them.
Besides, those things are so soon forgotten."

He kept on as if he never intended to stop; and it was not without
trouble that Maxence and Gilberte succeeded in sending him off, very
much dissatisfied to see his request so ill received. It was after
twelve o'clock. Maxence was anxious to return to his own home; but,
at the pressing instances of his mother, he consented to remain,
and threw himself, without undressing, on the bed in his old room.

"What will the morrow bring forth?" he thought.





Other People's Money by Emile Gaboriau
Category:
General Fiction
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