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XXX

Two o'clock struck as Mlle. Lucienne and Maxence left the office
of the commissary of police, she pensive and agitated, he gloomy and
irritated. They reached the Hotel des Folies without exchanging a
word. Mme. Fortin was again at the door, speechifying in the midst
of a group with indefatigable volubility. Indeed, it was a perfect
godsend for her, the fact of lodging the son of that cashier who
had stolen twelve millions, and had thus suddenly become a celebrity.
Seeing Maxence and Mlle. Lucienne coming, she stepped toward them,
and, with her most obsequious smile,

"Back already?" she said.

But they made no answer; and, entering the narrow corridor, they
hurried to their fourth story. As he entered his room, Maxence
threw his hat upon his bed with a gesture of impatience; and, after
walking up and down for a moment, he returned to plant himself in
front of Mlle. Lucienne.

"Well," he said, "are you satisfied now?"

She looked at him with an air of profound commiseration, knowing
his weakness too well to be angry at his injustice.

"Of what should I be satisfied?" she asked gently.

"I have done what you wished me to."

"You did what reason dictated, my friend."

"Very well: we won't quarrel about words. I have seen your friend
the commissary. Am I any better off?"

She shrugged her shoulders almost imperceptibly.

"What did you expect of him, then?" she asked. "Did you think that
he could undo what is done? Did you suppose, that, by the sole
power of his will, he would make up the deficit in the Mutual
Credit's cash, and rehabilitate your father?"

"No, I am not quite mad yet."

"Well, then, could he do more than promise you his most ardent and
devoted co-operation?"

But he did not allow her to proceed.

"And how do I know," he exclaimed, "that he is not trifling with me?
If he was sincere, why his reticence and his enigmas? He pretends
that I may rely on him, because to serve me is to serve you. What
does that mean? What connection is there between your situation and
mine, between your enemies and those of my father? And I - I replied
to all his questions like a simpleton. Poor fool! But the man who
drowns catches at straws; and I am drowning, I am sinking, I am
foundering."

He sank upon a chair, and, hiding his face in his hands,

"Ah, how I do suffer!" he groaned.

Mlle. Lucienne approached him, and in a severe tone, despite her
emotion,

"Are you, then, such a coward?" she uttered. "What! at the first
misfortune that strikes you, - and this is the first real misfortune
of your life, Maxence, - you despair. An obstacle rises, and,
instead of gathering all your energy to overcome it, you sit down
and weep like a woman. Who, then, is to inspire courage in your
mother and in your sister, if you give up so?"

At the sound of these words, uttered by that voice which was
all-powerful over his soul, Maxence looked up.

"I thank you, my friend," he said. "I thank you for reminding me
of what I owe to my mother and sister. Poor women! They are
wondering, doubtless, what has become of me."

"You must return to them," interrupted the girl.

He got up resolutely.

"I will," he replied. "I should be unworthy of you if I could not
raise my own energy to the level of yours."

And, having pressed her hand, he left. But it was not by the usual
route that he reached the Rue St. Gilles. He made a long detour, so
as not to meet any of his acquaintances.

"Here you are at last," said the servant as she opened the door.
"Madame was getting very uneasy, I can tell you. She is in the
parlor, with Mlle. Gilberte and M. Chapelain."

It was so. After his fruitless attempt to reach M. de Thaller, M.
Chapelain had breakfasted there, and had remained, wishing, he said,
to see Maxence. And so, as soon as the young man appeared, availing
himself of the privileges of his age and his old intimacy,

"How," said he, "dare you leave your mother and sister alone in a
house where some brutal creditor may come in at any moment?"

"I was wrong," said Maxence, who preferred to plead guilty rather
than attempt an explanation.

"Don't do it again then," resumed M. Chapelain. "I was waiting for
you to say that I was unable to see M. de Thaller, and that I do not
care to face once more the impudence of his valets. You will,
therefore, have to take back the fifteen thousand francs he had
brought to your father. Place them in his own hands; and don't
give them up without a receipt."

After some further recommendations, he went off, leaving Mme. Favoral
alone at last with her children. She was about to call Maxence to
account for his absence, when Mlle. Gilberte interrupted her.

"I have to speak to you, mother," she said with a singular
precipitation, "and to you also, brother."

And at once she began telling them of M. Costeclar's strange visit,
his inconceivable audacity, and his offensive declarations.

Maxence was fairly stamping with rage.

"And I was not here," he exclaimed, "to put him out of the house!"

But another was there; and this was just what Mlle. Gilberte wished
to come to. But the avowal was difficult, painful even; and it was
not without some degree of confusion that she resumed at last,

"You have suspected for a long time, mother, that I was hiding
something from you. When you questioned me, I lied; not that I had
any thing to blush for, but because I feared for you my father's
anger."

Her mother and her brother were gazing at her with a look of blank
amazement.

"Yes, I had a secret," she continued. "Boldly, without consulting
any one, trusting the sole inspirations of my heart, I had engaged
my life to a stranger: I had selected the man whose wife I wished
to be."

Mme. Favoral raised her hands to heaven.

"But this is sheer madness!" she said.

"Unfortunately," went on the girl, "between that man, my affianced
husband before God, and myself, rose a terrible obstacle. He was
poor: he thought my father very rich; and he had asked me a delay
of three years to conquer a fortune which might enable him to aspire
to my hand."

She stopped: all the blood in her veins was rushing to her face.

"This morning," she said, "at the news of our disaster, he came...

"Here?" interrupted Maxence.

"Yes, brother, here. He arrived at the very moment, when, basely
insulted by M. Costeclar, I commanded him to withdraw, and, instead
of going, he was walking towards me with outstretched arms."

"He dared to penetrate here!" murmured Mme. Favoral.

"Yes, mother: he came in just in time to seize M. Costeclar by his
coat-collar, and to throw him at my feet, livid with fear, and
begging for mercy. He came, notwithstanding the terrible calamity
that has befallen us. Notwithstanding ruin, and notwithstanding
shame, he came to offer me his name, and to tell me, that, in the
course of the day, he would send a friend of his family to apprise
you of his intentions."

Here she was interrupted by the servant, who, throwing open the
parlor-door, announced,

"The Count de Villegre."

If it had occurred to the mind of Mme. Favoral or Maxence that Mlle.
Gilberte might have been the victim of some base intrigue, the mere
appearance of the man who now walked in must have been enough to
disabuse them.

He was of a rather formidable aspect, with his military bearing, his
bluff manners, his huge white mustache, and the deep scar across
his forehead.

But in order to be re-assured, and to feel confident, it was enough
to look at his broad face, at once energetic and debonair, his clear
eye, in which shone the loyalty of his soul, and his thick red lips,
which had never opened to utter an untruth.

At this moment, however, he was hardly in possession of all his
faculties.

That valiant man, that old soldier, was timid; and he would have
felt much more at ease under the fire of a battery than in that
humble parlor in the Rue St. Gilles, under the uneasy glance of
Maxence and Mme. Favoral.

Having bowed, having made a little friendly sign to Mlle. Gilberte,
he had stopped short, two steps from the door, his hat in his hand.

Eloquence was not his forte. He had prepared himself well in
advance; but though he kept coughing: hum! broum! though he kept
running his finger around his shirt-collar to facilitate his
delivery, the beginning of his speech stuck in his throat.

Seeing how urgent it was to come to his assistance,

"I was expecting you, sir," said Mlle. Gilberte. With this
encouragement, he advanced towards Mme. Favoral, and, bowing low,

"I see that my presence surprises you, madame," he began; "and I
must confess that - hum! - it does not surprise me less than it does
you. But extraordinary circumstances require exceptional action.
On any other occasion, I would not fall upon you like a bombshell.
But we had no time to waste in ceremonious formalities. I will,
therefore, ask your leave to introduce myself: I am General Count
de Villegre."

Maxence had brought him a chair.

"I am ready to hear you, sir," said Mme. Favoral. He sat down, and,
with a further effort,

"I suppose, madame," he resumed, " that your daughter has explained
to you our singular situation, which, as I had the honor of telling
you - hum! - is not strictly in accordance with social usage."

Mlle. Gilberte interrupted him.

"When you came in, general, I was only just beginning to explain
the facts to my mother and brother."

The old soldier made a gesture, and a face which showed plainly that
he did not much relish the prospect of a somewhat difficult
explanation - broum! Nevertheless, making up his mind bravely,

"It is very simple," he said: "I come in behalf of M. de Tregars."

Maxence fairly bounced upon his chair. That was the very name which
he had just heard mentioned by the commissary of police.

"Tregars!" he repeated in a tone of immense surprise.

"Yes," said M. de Villegre. "Do you know him, by chance?"

No, sir, no!"

"Marius de Tregars is the son of the most honest man I ever knew, of
the best friend I ever had, - of the Marquis de Tregars, in a word,
who died of grief a few years ago, after - hum! - some quite
inexplicable - broum! - reverses of fortune. Marius could not be
dearer to me, if he were my own son. He has lost his parents: I
have no relatives; and I have transferred to him all the feelings
of affection which still remained at the bottom of my old heart.

"And I can say that never was a man more worthy of affection. I
know him. To the most legitimate pride and the most scrupulous
integrity, he unites a keen and supple mind, and wit enough to get
the better of the toughest rascal. He has no fortune for the reason
that - hum! - he gave up all he had to certain pretended creditors
of his father. But whenever he wishes to be rich, he shall be; and
- broum! - he may be so before long. I know his projects, his hopes,
his resources.

But, as if feeling that he was treading on dangerous ground, the
Count de Villegre stopped short, and, after taking breath for a
moment,

"In short," he went on, "Marius has been unable to see Mlle.
Gilberte, and to appreciate the rare qualities of her heart,
without falling desperately in love with her."

Mme. Favoral made a gesture of protest,

"Allow me, sir," she began.

But he interrupted her.

"I understand you, madame," he resumed. "You wonder how M. de
Tregars can have seen your daughter, have known her, and have
appreciated her, without your seeing or hearing any thing of it.
Nothing is more simple, and, if I may venture to say - hum! - more
natural."

And the worthy old soldier began to explain to Mme. Favoral the
meetings in the Place-Royale, his conversations with Marius,
intended really for Mlle. Gilberte, and the part he had consented
to play in this little comedy. But he became embarrassed in his
sentences, he multiplied his hum! and his broum! in the most
alarming manner; and his explanations explained nothing.

Mlle. Gilberte took pity on him; and, kindly interrupting him, she
herself told her story, and that of Marius.

She told the pledge they had exchanged, how they had seen each other
twice, and how they constantly heard of each other through the very
innocent and very unconscious Signor Gismondo Pulei.

Maxence and Mme. Favoral were dumbfounded. They would have
absolutely refused to believe such a story, had it not been told by
Mlle. Gilberte herself.

"Ah, my dear sister!" thought Maxence, "who could have suspected
such a thing, seeing you always so calm and so meek!"

"Is it possible," Mme. Favoral was saying to herself; "that I can
have been so blind and so deaf?"

As to the Count de Villegre, he would have tried in vain to express
the gratitude he felt towards Mlle. Gilberte for having spared him
these difficult explanations.

"I could not have done half as well myself, by the eternal!" he
thought, like a man who has no illusions on his own account.

But, as soon as she had done, addressing himself to Mme. Favoral,

"Now, madame," he said, "you know all; and you will understand
that the irreparable disaster that strikes you has removed the
only obstacle which had hitherto stood in the way of Marius."

He rose, and in a solemn tone, without any hum or broum, this time,

"I have the honor, madame," he uttered, "to solicit the hand of Mlle.
Gilberte, your daughter, for my friend Yves-Marius de Genost, Marquis
de Tregars."

A profound silence followed this speech. But this silence the Count
de Villegre doubtless interpreted in his own favor; for, stepping to
the parlor-door, he opened it, and called, "Marius!"

Marius de Tregars had foreseen all that had just taken place, and
had so informed the Count de Villegre in advance.

Being given Mme. Favoral's disposition, he knew what could be
expected of her; and he had his own reasons to fear nothing from
Maxence. And, if he mistrusted somewhat the diplomatic talents
of his ambassador, he relied absolutely upon Mlle. Gilberte's energy.

And so confident was he of the correctness of his calculations, that
he had insisted upon accompanying his old friend, so as to be on
hand at the critical moment.

When the servant had opened the door to them, he had ordered her to
introduce M. de Villegre, stating that he would himself wait in the
dining-room. This arrangement had not seemed entirely natural to
the girl; but so many strange things had happened in the house for
the past twenty-four hours, that she was prepared for any thing.

Besides recognizing Marius as the gentleman who had had a violent
altercation in the morning with M. Costeclar, she did as he
requested, and, leaving him alone in the dining-room, went to
attend to her duties.

He had taken a seat, impassive in appearance, but in reality
agitated by that internal trepidation of which the strongest men
cannot free themselves in the decisive moments of their life.

To a certain extent, the prospects of his whole life were to be
decided on the other side of that door which had just closed behind
the Count de Villegre. To the success of his love, other interests
were united, which required immediate success.

And, counting the seconds by the beatings of his heart,

"How very slow they are!" he thought.

And so, when the door opened at last, and his old friend called him,
he jumped to his feet, and collecting all his coolness and
self-possession, he walked in.

Maxence had risen to receive him; but, when he saw him, he stepped
back, his eyes glaring in utter surprise.

"Ah, great heavens!" he muttered in a smothered voice.

But M. de Tregars seemed not to notice his stupor. Quite
self-possessed, notwithstanding his emotion, he cast a rapid glance
over the Count de Villegre, Mme. Favoral and Mlle. Gilberte. At
their attitude, and at the expression of their countenance, he
easily guessed the point to which things had come.

And, advancing towards Mme. Favoral, he bowed with an amount of
respect which was certainly not put on.

"You have heard the Count de Villegre, madame," he said in a
slightly altered tone of voice. " I am awaiting my fate."

The poor woman had never before in all her life been so fearfully
perplexed. All these events, which succeeded each other so rapidly,
had broken the feeble springs of her soul. She was utterly incapable
of collecting her thoughts, or of taking a determination.

"At this moment, sir," she stammered, taken unawares, " it would be
impossible for me to answer you. Grant me a few days for reflection.
We have some old friends whom I ought to consult."

But Maxence, who had got over his stupor, interrupted her.

"Friends mother!" he exclaimed. "And who are they? People in our
position have no friends. What! when we are perishing, a man of
heart holds out his hand to us, and you ask to reflect? To my
sister, who bears a name henceforth disgraced, the Marquis de
Tregar offers his name, and you think of consulting "

The poor woman was shaking her head.

"I am not the mistress, my son," she murmured; "and your father - "

My father! interrupted the young man, - "my father! What rights
can he have over us hereafter?" And without further discussion,
without awaiting an answer, he took his sister's hand, and,
placing it in M. de Tregar's hand,

"Ah! take her, sir," he uttered. "Never, whatever she may do, will
she acquit the debt of eternal gratitude which we this day contract
towards you."

A tremor that shook their frames, a long look which they exchanged,
betrayed alone the feelings of Marius and Mlle. Gilberte. They had
of life a too cruel experience not to mistrust their joy.

Returning to Mme. Favoral,

"You do not understand, madame," he went on, "why I should have
selected for such a step the very moment when an irreparable calamity
befalls you. One word will explain all. Being in a position to
serve you, I wished to acquire the right of doing so."

Fixing upon him a look in which the gloomiest despair could be read,

"Alas!" stammered the poor woman, "what can you do for me, sir? My
life is ended. I have but one wish left, - that of knowing where
my husband is hid. It is not for me to judge him. He has not given
me the happiness which I had, perhaps, the right to expect; but he
is my husband, he is unhappy: my duty is to join him wherever he may
be, and to share his sufferings."

She was interrupted by the servant, who was calling her at the
parlor-door, "Madame, madame!"

"What is the matter?" inquired Maxence.

"I must speak to madame at once.

Making an effort to rise and walk, Mme. Favoral went out. She was
gone but a minute; and, when she returned, her agitation had further
increased. "It is the hand of Providence, perhaps," she said. The
others were all looking at her anxiously. She took a seat, and,
addressing herself more especially to M. de Tregars,

"This is what happens," she said in a feeble voice. "M. Favoral
was in the habit of always changing his coat as soon as he came home.
As usual, he did so last evening. When they came to arrest him, he
forgot to change again, and went off with the coat he had on. The
other remained hanging in the room, where the girl took it just now
to brush it, and put it away; and this portfolio, which my husband
always carries with him, fell from its pocket."

It was an old Russia leather portfolio, which had once been red, but
which time and use had turned black. It was full of papers.

"Perhaps, indeed," exclaimed Maxence, "we may find some information
there."

He opened it, and had already taken out three-fourths of its contents
without finding any thing of any consequence, when suddenly he
uttered an exclamation. He had just opened an anonymous note,
evidently written in a disguised hand, and at one glance had read,

"I cannot understand your negligence. You should get through that
Van Klopen matter. There is the danger."

"What is that note?" inquired M. de Tregars.

Maxence handed it to him.

"See!" said he, "but you will not understand the immense interest
it has for me."

But having read it,

"You are mistaken," said Marius. "I understand perfectly; and I'll
prove it to you."

The next moment, Maxence took out of the portfolio, and read aloud,
the following bill, dated two days before.

"Sold to - - two leather trunks with safety locks at 220 francs each;
say, francs 440."

M.de Tregars started.

"At last," he said, "here is doubtless one end of the thread which
will guide us to the truth through this labyrinth of iniquities."

And, tapping gently on Maxence's shoulders,

"We must talk," he said, "and at length. To-morrow, before you go
to M. de Thaller's with his fifteen thousand francs, call and see
me: I shall expect you. We are now engaged upon a common work; and
something tells me, that, before long, we shall know what has become
of the Mutual Credit's millions."






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