The Count's Millions by Emile Gaboriau
Part 1 out of 7
THE COUNT'S MILLIONS
Translated from the French of
A novel in two parts. Part Two of this novel is found in the volume:
Baron Trigault's Vengeance
PASCAL AND MARGUERITE.
It was a Thursday evening, the fifteenth of October; and although
only half-past six o'clock, it had been dark for some time
already. The weather was cold, and the sky was as black as ink,
while the wind blew tempestuously, and the rain fell in torrents.
The servants at the Hotel de Chalusse, one of the most magnificent
mansions in the Rue de Courcelles in Paris, were assembled in the
porter's lodge, a little building comprising a couple of rooms
standing on the right hand side of the great gateway. Here, as in
all large mansions, the "concierge" or porter, M. Bourigeau, was a
person of immense importance, always able and disposed to make any
one who was inclined to doubt his authority, feel it in cruel
fashion. As could be easily seen, he held all the other servants
in his power. He could let them absent themselves without leave,
if he chose, and conceal all returns late at night after the
closing of public balls and wine-shops. Thus, it is needless to
say that M. Bourigeau and his wife were treated by their fellow-
servants with the most servile adulation.
The owner of the house was not at home that evening, so that M.
Casimir, the count's head valet, was serving coffee for the
benefit of all the retainers. And while the company sipped the
fragrant beverage which had been generously tinctured with cognac,
provided by the butler, they all united in abusing their common
enemy, the master of the house. For the time being, a pert little
waiting-maid, with an odious turn-up nose, had the floor. She was
addressing her remarks to a big, burly, and rather insolent-
looking fellow, who had been added only the evening before to the
corps of footmen. "The place is really intolerable," she was
saying. "The wages are high, the food of the very best, the
livery just such as would show off a good-looking man to the best
advantage, and Madame Leon, the housekeeper, who has entire charge
of everything, is not too lynx-eyed."
"And the work?"
"A mere nothing. Think, there are eighteen of us to serve only
two persons, the count and Mademoiselle Marguerite. But then
there is never any pleasure, never any amusement here."
"What! is one bored then?"
"Bored to death. This grand house is worse than a tomb. No
receptions, no dinners--nothing. Would you believe it, I have
never seen the reception-rooms! They are always closed; and the
furniture is dropping to pieces under its coverings. There are
not three visitors in the course of a month."
She was evidently incensed, and the new footman seemed to share
her indignation. "Why, how is it?" he exclaimed. "Is the count
an owl? A man who's not yet fifty years old, and who's said to be
worth several millions."
"Yes, millions; you may safely say it--and perhaps ten, perhaps
twenty millions too."
"Then all the more reason why there should be something going on
here. What does he do with himself alone, all the blessed day?"
"Nothing. He reads in the library, or wanders about the garden.
Sometimes, in the evening, he drives with Mademoiselle Marguerite
to the Bois de Boulogne in a closed carriage; but that seldom
happens. Besides, there is no such thing as teasing the poor man.
I've been in the house for six months, and I've never heard him
say anything but: 'yes'; 'no'; 'do this'; 'very well'; 'retire.'
You would think these are the only words he knows. Ask M. Casimir
if I'm not right."
"Our guv'nor isn't very gay, that's a fact," responded the valet.
The footman was listening with a serious air, as if greatly
interested in the character of the people whom he was to serve.
"And mademoiselle," he asked, "what does she say to such an
"Bless me! during the six months she has been here, she has never
"If she is bored," added M. Casimir, "she conceals it bravely."
"Naturally enough," sneered the waiting-maid, with an ironical
gesture; "each month that mademoiselle remains here, brings her
too much money for her to complain."
By the laugh that greeted this reply, and by the looks the older
servants exchanged, the new-comer must have realized that he had
discovered the secret skeleton hidden in every house. "What!
what!" he exclaimed, on fire with curiosity; "is there really
anything in that? To tell the truth, I was inclined to doubt it."
His companions were evidently about to tell him all they knew, or
rather all they thought they knew, when the front-door bell rang
"There he comes!" exclaimed the concierge; "but he's in too much
of a hurry; hell have to wait awhile."
He sullenly pulled the cord, however; the heavy door swayed on its
hinges, and a cab-driver, breathless and hatless, burst into the
room, crying, "Help! help!"
The servants sprang to their feet.
"Make haste!" continued the driver. "I was bringing a gentleman
here--you must know him. He's outside, in my vehicle----"
Without pausing to listen any longer, the servants rushed out, and
the driver's incoherent explanation at once became intelligible.
At the bottom of the cab, a roomy four-wheeler, a man was lying
all of a heap, speechless and motionless. He must have fallen
forward, face downward, and owing to the jolting of the vehicle
his head had slipped under the front seat.
"Poor devil!" muttered M. Casimir, "he must have had a stroke of
apoplexy." The valet was peering into the vehicle as he spoke, and
his comrades were approaching, when suddenly he drew back,
uttering a cry of horror. "Ah, my God! it is the count!"
Whenever there is an accident in Paris, a throng of inquisitive
spectators seems to spring up from the very pavement, and indeed
more than fifty persons had already congregated round about the
vehicle. This circumstance restored M. Casimir's composure; or,
at least, some portion of it. "You must drive into the
courtyard," he said, addressing the cabman. "M. Bourigeau, open
the gate, if you please." And then, turning to another servant, he
"And you must make haste and fetch a physician--no matter who.
Run to the nearest doctor, and don't return until you bring one
The concierge had opened the gate, but the driver had disappeared;
they called him, and on receiving no reply the valet seized the
reins and skilfully guided the cab through the gateway.
Having escaped the scrutiny of the crowd, it now remained to
remove the count from the vehicle, and this was a difficult task,
on account of the singular position of his body; still, they
succeeded at last, by opening both doors of the cab, the three
strongest men uniting in their efforts. Then they placed him in a
large arm-chair, carried him to his own room, and speedily had him
undressed and in bed.
He had so far given no sign of life; and as he lay there with his
head weighing heavily on the pillow, you might have thought that
all was over. His most intimate friend would scarcely have
recognized him. His features were swollen and discolored; his eyes
were closed, and a dark purple circle, looking almost like a
terrible bruise, extended round them. A spasm had twisted his
lips, and his distorted mouth, which was drawn on one side and
hung half open imparted a most sinister expression to his face.
In spite of every precaution, he had been wounded as he was
removed from the cab. His forehead had been grazed by a piece of
iron, and a tiny stream of blood was trickling down upon his face.
However, he still breathed; and by listening attentively, one
could distinguish a faint rattling in his throat.
The servants, who had been so garrulous a few moments before, were
silent now. They lingered in the room, exchanging glances of mute
consternation. Their faces were pale and sad, and there were
tears in the eyes of some of them. What was passing in their
minds? Perhaps they were overcome by that unconquerable fear
which sudden and unexpected death always provokes. Perhaps they
unconsciously loved this master, whose bread they ate. Perhaps
their grief was only selfishness, and they were merely wondering
what would become of them, where they should find another
situation, and if it would prove a good one. Not knowing what to
do, they talked together in subdued voices, each suggesting some
remedy he had heard spoken of for such cases. The more sensible
among them were proposing to go and inform mademoiselle or Madame
Leon, whose rooms were on the floor above, when the rustling of a
skirt against the door suddenly made them turn. The person whom
they called "mademoiselle" was standing on the threshold.
Mademoiselle Marguerite was a beautiful young girl, about twenty
years of age. She was a brunette of medium height, with big
gloomy eyes shaded by thick eyebrows. Heavy masses of jet-black
hair wreathed her lofty but rather sad and thoughtful forehead.
There was something peculiar in her face--an expression of
concentrated suffering, and a sort of proud resignation, mingled
"What has happened?" she asked, gently. "What is the cause of all
the noise I have heard? I have rung three times and the bell was
No one ventured to reply, and in her surprise she cast a hasty
glance around. From where she stood, she could not see the bed
stationed in an alcove; but she instantly noted the dejected
attitude of the servants, the clothing scattered about the floor,
and the disorder that pervaded this magnificent but severely
furnished chamber, which was only lighted by the lamp which M.
Bourigeau, the concierge, carried. A sudden dread seized her; she
shuddered, and in a faltering voice she added: "Why are you all
here? Speak, tell me what has happened."
M. Casimir stepped forward. "A great misfortune, mademoiselle, a
terrible misfortune. The count----"
And he paused, frightened by what he was about to say.
But Mademoiselle Marguerite had understood him. She clasped both
hands to her heart, as if she had received a fatal wound, and
uttered the single word: "Lost!"
The next moment she turned as pale as death, her head drooped, her
eyes closed, and she staggered as if about to fall. Two maids
sprang forward to support her, but she gently repulsed them,
murmuring, "Thanks! thanks! I am strong now."
She was, in fact, sufficiently strong to conquer her weakness.
She summoned all her resolution, and, paler than a statue, with
set teeth and dry, glittering eyes, she approached the alcove.
She stood there for a moment perfectly motionless, murmuring a few
unintelligible words; but at last, crushed by her sorrow, she sank
upon her knees beside the bed, buried her face in the counterpane
Deeply moved by the sight of this despair, the servants held their
breath, wondering how it would all end. It ended suddenly. The
girl sprang from her knees, as if a gleam of hope had darted
through her heart. "A physician!" she said, eagerly.
"I have sent for one, mademoiselle," replied M. Casimir. And
hearing a voice and a sound of footsteps on the staircase, he
added: "And fortunately, here he comes."
The doctor entered. He was a young man, although his head was
almost quite bald. He was short, very thin, clean-shaven, and
clad in black from head to foot. Without a word, without a bow,
he walked straight to the bedside, lifted the unconscious man's
eyelids, felt his pulse, and uncovered his chest, applying his ear
to it. "This is a serious case," he said at the close of his
Mademoiselle Marguerite, who had followed his movements with the
most poignant anxiety, could not repress a sob. "But all hope is
not lost, is it, monsieur?" she asked in a beseeching voice, with
hands clasped in passionate entreaty. "You will save him, will
you not--you will save him?"
"One may always hope for the best."
This was the doctor's only answer. He had drawn his case of
instruments from his pocket, and was testing the points of his
lancets on the tip of his finger. When he had found one to his
liking: "I must ask you, mademoiselle," said he, "to order these
women to retire, and to retire yourself. The men will remain to
assist me, if I require help."
She obeyed submissively, but instead of returning to her own room,
she remained in the hall, seating herself upon the lower step of
the staircase near the door, counting the seconds, and drawing a
thousand conjectures from the slightest sound.
Meanwhile, inside the room, the physician was proceeding slowly,
not from temperament however, but from principle. Dr. Jodon--for
such was his name--was an ambitious man who played a part.
Educated by a "prince of science," more celebrated for the money
he gained than for the cures he effected, he copied his master's
method, his gestures, and even the inflections of his voice. By
casting in people's eyes the same powder as his teacher had
employed, he hoped to obtain the same results: a large practice
and an immense fortune. In his secret heart he was by no means
disconcerted by his patient's condition; on the contrary, he did
not consider the count's state nearly as precarious as it really
But bleeding and cupping alike failed to bring the sick man to
consciousness. He remained speechless and motionless; the only
result obtained, was that his breathing became a trifle easier.
Finding his endeavors fruitless, the doctor at last declared that
all immediate remedies were exhausted, that "the women" might be
allowed to return, and that nothing now remained but to wait for
the effect of the remedies he was about to prescribe, and which
they must procure from the nearest chemist.
Any other man would have been touched by the agony of entreaty
contained in the glance that Mademoiselle Marguerite cast upon the
physician as she returned into the room; but it did not affect him
in the least. He calmly said, "I cannot give my decision as yet."
"My God!" murmured the unhappy girl; "oh, my God, have mercy upon
But the doctor, copying his model, had stationed himself near the
fireplace, with his elbow leaning on the mantel-shelf, in a
graceful, though rather pompous attitude. "Now," he said,
addressing his remarks to M. Casimir, "I desire to make a few
inquiries. Is this the first time the Count de Chalusse has had
such an attack?"
"Yes, sir--at least since I have been in attendance upon him."
"Very good. That is a chance in our favor. Tell me--have you
ever heard him complain of vertigo, or of a buzzing in his ears?"
Mademoiselle Marguerite seemed inclined to volunteer some remark,
but the doctor imposed silence upon her by a gesture, and
continued his examination. "Is the count a great eater?" he
inquired. "Does he drink heavily?"
"The count is moderation itself, monsieur, and he always takes a
great deal of water with his wine."
The doctor listened with an air of intent thoughtfulness, his head
slightly inclined forward, his brow contracted, and his under lip
puffed out, while from time to time he stroked his beardless chin.
He was copying his master. "The devil!" he said, sotto voce.
"There must be some cause for such an attack, however. Nothing in
the count's constitution predisposes him to such an accident----"
Then, suddenly turning toward Mademoiselle Marguerite: "Do you
know, mademoiselle, whether the count has experienced any very
violent emotion during the past few days?"
"Something occurred this very morning, which seemed to annoy him
"Ah! now we have it," said the doctor, with the air of an oracle.
"Why did you not tell me all this at first? It will be necessary
for you to give me the particulars, mademoiselle."
The young girl hesitated. The servants were dazed by the doctor's
manner; but Mademoiselle Marguerite was far from sharing their awe
and admiration. She would have given anything to have had the
regular physician of the household there instead of him! As for
this coarse examination in the presence of all these servants, and
by the bedside of a man who, in spite of his apparent
unconsciousness, was, perhaps, able to hear and to comprehend, she
looked upon it as a breach of delicacy, even of propriety.
"It is of the most urgent importance that I should be fully
informed of these particulars," repeated the physician
After such an assertion, further hesitation was out of the
question. Mademoiselle Marguerite seemed to collect her thoughts,
and then she sadly said: "Just as we sat down to breakfast this
morning, a letter was handed to the count. No sooner had his eyes
fallen upon it, than he turned as white as his napkin. He rose
from his seat and began to walk hastily up and down the dining-
room, uttering exclamations of anger and sorrow. I spoke to him,
but he did not seem to hear me. However, after a few moments, he
resumed his seat at the table, and began to eat----"
"He ate more than usual, monsieur. Only I must tell you that it
seemed to me he was scarcely conscious of what he was doing. Four
or five times he left the table, and then came back again. At
last, after quite a struggle, he seemed to come to some decision.
He tore the letter to pieces, and threw the pieces out of the
window that opens upon the garden."
Mademoiselle Marguerite expressed herself with the utmost
simplicity, and there was certainly nothing particularly
extraordinary in her story. Still, those around her listened with
breathless curiosity, as though they were expecting some startling
revelation, so much does the human mind abhor that which is
natural and incline to that which is mysterious.
Without seeming to notice the effect she had produced, and
addressing herself to the physician alone, the girl continued:
"After the letter was destroyed, M. de Chalusse seemed himself
again. Coffee was served, and he afterward lighted a cigar as
usual. However, he soon let it go out. I dared not disturb him
by any remarks; but suddenly he said to me: 'It's strange, but I
feel very uncomfortable.' A moment passed, without either of us
speaking, and then he added: 'I am certainly not well. Will you
do me the favor to go to my room for me? Here is the key of my
escritoire; open it, and on the upper shelf you will find a small
bottle which please bring to me.' I noticed with some surprise
that M. de Chalusse, who usually speaks very distinctly, stammered
and hesitated considerably in making this request, but,
unfortunately, I did not think much about it at the time. I did
as he requested, and he poured eight or ten drops of the contents
of the vial into a glass of water, and swallowed it."
So intense was Dr. Jodon's interest that he became himself again.
He forgot to attitudinize. "And after that?" he asked, eagerly.
"After that, M. de Chalusse seemed to feel much better, and
retired to his study as usual. I fancied that any annoyance the
letter had caused him was forgotten; but I was wrong, for in the
afternoon he sent a message, through Madame Leon, requesting me to
join him in the garden. I hastened there, very much surprised,
for the weather was extremely disagreeable. 'Dear Marguerite,' he
said, on seeing me, 'help me to find the fragments of that letter
which I flung from the window this morning. I would give half my
fortune for an address which it must certainly have contained, but
which I quite overlooked in my anger.' I helped him as he asked.
He might have reasonably hoped to succeed, for it was raining when
the scraps of paper were thrown out, and instead of flying through
the air, they fell directly on to the ground. We succeeded in
finding a large number of the scraps, but what M. de Chalusse so
particularly wanted was not to be read on any one of them. Several
times he spoke of his regret, and cursed his precipitation."
M. Bourigeau, the concierge, and M. Casimir exchanged a
significant smile. They had seen the count searching for the
remnants of this letter, and had thought him little better than an
idiot. But now everything was explained.
"I was much grieved at the count's disappointment," continued
Mademoiselle Marguerite, "but suddenly he exclaimed, joyfully:
'That address--why, such a person will give it to me--what a fool
The physician evinced such absorbing interest in this narrative
that he forgot to retain his usual impassive attitude. "Such a
person! Who--who was this person?" he inquired eagerly, without
apparently realizing the impropriety of his question.
But the girl felt indignant. She silenced her indiscreet
questioner with a haughty glance, and in the driest possible tone,
replied: "I have forgotten the name."
Cut to the quick, the doctor suddenly resumed his master's pose;
but all the same his imperturbable sang-froid was sensibly
impaired. "Believe me, mademoiselle, that interest alone--a most
She did not even seem to hear his excuse, but resumed: "I know,
however, monsieur, that M. de Chalusse intended applying to the
police if he failed to obtain this address from the person in
question. After this he appeared to be entirely at ease. At
three o'clock he rang for his valet, and ordered dinner two hours
earlier than usual. We sat down to table at about half-past four.
At five he rose, kissed me gayly, and left the house on foot,
telling me that he was confident of success, and that he did not
expect to return before midnight." The poor child's firmness now
gave way; her eyes filled with tears, and it was in a voice choked
with sobs that she added, pointing to M. de Chalusse: "But at
half-past six they brought him back as you see him now----"
An interval of silence ensued, so deep that one could hear the
faint breathing of the unconscious man still lying motionless on
his bed. However, the particulars of the attack were yet to be
learned; and it was M. Casimir whom the physician next addressed.
"What did the driver who brought your master home say to you?"
"Oh! almost nothing, sir; not ten words."
"You must find this man and bring him to me."
Two servants rushed out in search of him. He could not be far
away, for his vehicle was still standing in the courtyard. They
found him in a wine-shop near by. Some of the inquisitive
spectators who had been disappointed in their curiosity by
Casimir's thoughtfulness had treated him to some liquor, and in
exchange he had told them all he knew about the affair. He had
quite recovered from his fright, and was cheerful, even gay.
"Come make haste, you are wanted," said the servants.
He emptied his glass and followed them with very bad grace,
muttering and swearing between his set teeth. The doctor, strange
to say, was considerate enough to go out into the hall to question
him; but no information of value was gained by the man's answers.
He declared that the gentleman had hired him at twelve o'clock,
hoping by this means to extort pay for five hours' driving, which,
joined to the liberal gratuity he could not fail to obtain, would
remunerate him handsomely for his day's work. Living is dear, it
should be remembered, and a fellow makes as much as he can.
When the cabby had gone off, still growling, although a couple of
louis had been placed in his hand, the doctor returned to his
patient. He involuntarily assumed his accustomed attitude, with
crossed arms, a gloomy expression of countenance, and his forehead
furrowed as if with thought and anxiety. But this time he was not
acting a part. In spite, or rather by reason of, the full
explanation that had been given him, he found something suspicious
and mysterious in the whole affair. A thousand vague and
undefinable suspicions crossed his mind. Was he in presence of a
crime? Certainly, evidently not. But what was the cause then of
the mystery and reticence he detected? Was he upon the track of
some lamentable family secret--one of those terrible scandals,
concealed for a long time, but which at last burst forth with
startling effect? The prospect of being mixed up in such an
affair caused him infinite pleasure. It would bring him into
notice; he would be mentioned in the papers; and his increased
practice would fill his hands with gold.
But what could he do to ingratiate himself with these people,
impose himself upon them if needs be? He reflected for some time,
and finally what he thought an excellent plan occurred to him. He
approached Mademoiselle Marguerite, who was weeping in an arm-
chair, and touched her gently on the shoulder. She sprang to her
feet at once. "One more question, mademoiselle," said he,
imparting as much solemnity to his tone as he could. "Do you know
what liquid it was that M. de Chalusse took this morning?"
"Alas! no, monsieur."
"It is very important that I should know. The accuracy of my
diagnosis is dependent upon it. What has become of the vial?"
"I think M. de Chalusse replaced it in his escritoire."
The physician pointed to an article of furniture to the left of
the fireplace: "There?" he asked.
He deliberated, but at last conquering his hesitation, he said:
"Could we not obtain this vial?"
Mademoiselle Marguerite blushed. "I haven't the key," she
faltered, in evident embarrassment.
M. Casimir approached: "It must be in the count's pocket, and if
mademoiselle will allow me----"
But she stepped back with outstretched arms as if to protect the
escritoire. "No," she exclaimed, "no--the escritoire shall not be
touched. I will not permit it----"
"But, mademoiselle," insisted the doctor, "your father----"
"The Count de Chalusse is not my father!"
Dr. Jodon was greatly disconcerted by Mademoiselle Marguerite's
vehemence. "Ah!" said he, in three different tones, "ah! ah!"
In less than a second, a thousand strange and contradictory
suppositions darted through his brain. Who, then, could this girl
be, if she were not Mademoiselle de Chalusse? What right had she
in that house? How was it that she reigned as a sovereign there?
Above all, why this angry outburst for no other apparent cause
than a very natural and exceedingly insignificant request on his
However, she had regained her self-possession, and it was easy to
see by her manner that she was seeking some means of escape from
threatened danger. At last she found it. "Casimir," she said,
authoritatively, "search M. de Chalusse's pocket for the key of
Astonished by what he regarded as a new caprice, the valet obeyed.
He gathered up the garments strewn over the floor, and eventually
drew a key from one of the waistcoat pockets. Mademoiselle
Marguerite took it from him, and then in a determined tone,
exclaimed: "A hammer."
It was brought; whereupon, to the profound amazement of the
physician, she knelt down beside the fireplace, laid the key upon
one of the andirons, and with a heavy blow of the hammer, broke it
into fragments. "Now," said she, quietly, "my mind will be at
rest. I am certain," she added, turning toward the servants,
"that M. de Chalusse would approve what I have done. When he
recovers, he will have another key made."
The explanation was superfluous. All the servants understood the
motive that had influenced her, and were saying to themselves,
"Mademoiselle is right. It would not do to touch the escritoire
of a dying man. Who knows but what there are millions in it? If
anything were missed, why any of us might be accused. But if the
key is destroyed, it will be impossible to suspect any one."
However, the physician's conjectures were of an entirely different
nature. "What can there be in that escritoire which she desires
to conceal?" he thought.
But there was no excuse for prolonging his visit. Once more he
examined the sick man, whose condition remained unchanged; and
then, after explaining what was to be done in his absence, he
declared that he must leave at once, as he had a number of
important visits to make; he added, however, that he would return
"Madame Leon and I will watch over M. de Chalusse," replied
Mademoiselle Marguerite; "that is sufficient assurance, monsieur,
that your orders will be obeyed to the letter. Only--you will not
take offence, I trust, if I ask the count's regular physician to
meet you in consultation."
Such a proposal was anything but pleasing to M. Jodon, who had met
with the same misfortune in this aristocratic neighborhood several
times before. When an accident happened, he was summoned because
he chanced to be close at hand, but just as he was flattering
himself that he had gained a desirable patient, he found himself
in presence of some celebrated physician, who had come from a
distance in his carriage. Accustomed to such disappointments, he
knew how to conceal his dissatisfaction.
"Were I in your place, mademoiselle, I should do precisely what
you suggest," he answered, "and should you think it unnecessary
for me to call, I----"
"Oh! monsieur, on the contrary, I shall certainly expect you."
"In that case, very well." Thereupon he bowed and left the room.
But Mademoiselle Marguerite followed him on to the landing. "You
know, monsieur," she said, speaking rapidly in an undertone, "that
I am not M. de Chalusse's daughter. You may, therefore, tell me
the truth. Is his condition hopeless?"
"But, monsieur, this terrible unconsciousness----"
"It usually follows such an attack as he has been the victim of.
Still we may hope that the paralysis will gradually disappear, and
the power of motion return after a time."
Mademoiselle Marguerite was listening, pale, agitated, and
embarrassed. It was evident that she had a question on her lips
which she scarcely dared to ask. At last, however, summoning all
her courage, she exclaimed: "And if M. de Chalusse should not
recover, will he die without regaining consciousness--without
being able to speak?"
"I am unable to say, mademoiselle--the count's malady is one of
those which set at naught all the hypotheses of science."
She thanked him sadly, sent a servant to summon Madame Leon, and
returned to the count's room.
As for the doctor, he said to himself as he went downstairs, "What
a strange girl! Is she afraid that the count will regain
consciousness? or, on the contrary, does she wish him to speak?
Is there any question of a will under all this? What else can it
be? What is at stake?" His preoccupation was so intense that he
almost forgot where he was going, and he paused on every step. It
was not until the fresh air of the courtyard blew upon his face,
reminding him of the realities of life, that the charlatanesque
element in his nature regained the ascendency. "My friend," he
said, addressing M. Casimir, who was lighting him out, "you must
at once have some straw spread over the street so as to deaden the
sound of the vehicles. And to-morrow, you must inform the
commissary of police."
Ten minutes later a thick bed of straw had been strewed across the
thoroughfare, and the drivers of passing vehicles involuntarily
slackened their speed, for every one in Paris knows what this
signifies. M. Casimir personally superintended the work which was
intrusted to the grooms, and he was about to return indoors again,
when a young man, who had been walking up and down in front of the
mansion for more than an hour, hastily approached him. He was a
beardless fellow with a strangely wrinkled face, as leaden-tinted
as that of a confirmed absinthe-drinker. His general expression
was shrewd, and at the same time impudent, and surprising audacity
gleamed in his eyes. "What do you want?" asked M. Casimir.
The young fellow bowed humbly, and replied, "Ah, don't you
recognize me, monsieur? I'm Toto--excuse me--Victor Chupin,
employed by M. Isidore Fortunat."
"Oh, yes. I recollect."
"I came, in obedience to my employer's orders, to inquire if you
had obtained the information you promised him; but seeing that
something had happened at your house, I didn't dare go in, but
decided to watch for you----"
"And you did quite right, my lad. I have no information to give
you--ah, yes! stop! The Marquis de Valorsay was closeted with the
count for two hours yesterday. But what good will that do? The
count has been taken suddenly ill, and he will scarcely live
through the night."
Victor Chupin was thunderstruck. "Impossible!" he cried. "Is it
for him that the straw has been strewed in the street?"
"It's for him."
"What a lucky fellow! No one would go to such expense for me! But
I have an idea that my guv'nor will hardly laugh when I tell him
this. Still, thank you all the same, m'sieur, and au revoir." He
was darting off when a sudden thought detained him. "Excuse me,"
said he, with conjuror like volubility; "I was so horrified that I
forgot business. Tell me, m'sieur, if the count dies, you'll take
charge of the funeral arrangements, won't you? Very well; a word
of advice then. Don't go to the regular undertakers, but come to
me: here's my address"--proffering a card--"I will treat with the
undertakers for you, and take charge of everything. It will be
much better and far cheaper for you, on account of certain
arrangements I've made with these parties. Everything, to the
very last plume, is warranted to give perfect satisfaction. Each
item will be specified in the bill, and can be verified during the
ceremony, no payment exacted until after delivery. Well, is it
The valet shrugged his shoulders. "Nonsense!" said he,
carelessly; "what is all that to me?"
"Ah! I forgot to mention that there would be a commission of two
hundred francs to divide between us."
"That's consideration. Give me your card, and rely on me. My
compliments to M. Fortunat, please." And so saying, he re-entered
Victor Chupin drew a huge silver watch from his pocket and
consulted it. "Five minutes to eight," he growled, "and the
guv'nor expects me at eight precisely. I shall have to stretch
out my legs."
M. Isidore Fortunat resided at No. 27 Place de la Bourse, on the
third floor. He had a handsome suite of apartments: a drawing-
room, a dining-room, a bed-room, a large outer office where his
clerks worked, and a private one, which was the sanctuary of his
thoughts and meditations. The whole cost him only six thousand
francs a year, a mere trifle as rents go nowadays. His lease
entitled him, moreover, to the use of a room ten feet square, up
under the eaves, where he lodged his servant, Madame Dodelin, a
woman of forty-six or thereabouts, who had met with reverses of
fortune, and who now took such good charge of his establishment,
that his table--for he ate at home--was truly fit for a sybarite.
Having been established here for five years or more, M. Fortunat
was very well known in the neighborhood, and, as he paid his rent
promptly, and met all his obligations without demur, he was
generally respected. Besides, people knew very well from what
source M. Fortunat derived his income. He gave his attention to
contested claims, liquidations, the recovery of legacies, and so
on, as was shown by the inscription in large letters which figured
on the elegant brass plate adorning his door. He must have had a
prosperous business, for he employed six collectors in addition to
the clerks who wrote all day long in his office; and his clients
were so numerous that the concierge was often heard to complain of
the way they ran up and down the stairs, declaring that it was
worse than a procession.
To be just, we must add that M. Fortunat's appearance, manners and
conduct were of a nature to quiet all suspicions. He was some
thirty-eight years of age, extremely methodical in his habits,
gentle and refined in his manner, intelligent, very good-looking,
and always dressed in perfect taste. He was accused of being, in
business matters, as cold, as polished, and as hard as one of the
marble slabs of the Morgue; but then, no one was obliged to employ
him unless they chose to do so. This much is certain: he did not
frequent cafes or places of amusement. If he went out at all
after dinner, it was only to pass the evening at the house of some
rich client in the neighborhood. He detested the smell of
tobacco, and was inclined to be devout--never failing to attend
eight o'clock mass on Sunday mornings. His housekeeper suspected
him of matrimonial designs, and perhaps she was right.
On the evening that the Count de Chalusse was struck with apoplexy
M. Isidore Fortunat had been dining alone and was sipping a cup of
tea when the door-bell rang, announcing the arrival of a visitor.
Madame Dodelin hastened to open the door, and in walked Victor
Chupin, breathless from his hurried walk. It had not taken him
twenty-five minutes to cover the distance which separates the Rue
de Courcelles from the Place de la Bourse.
"You are late, Victor," said M. Fortunat, quietly.
"That's true, monsieur, but it isn't my fault. Everything was in
confusion down there, and I was obliged to wait "
"How is that? Why?"
"The Count de Chalusse was stricken with apoplexy this evening,
and he is probably dead by this time."
M. Fortunat sprang from his chair with a livid face and trembling
lips. "Stricken with apoplexy!" he exclaimed in a husky voice.
"I am ruined!"
Then, fearing Madame Dodelin's curiosity, he seized the lamp and
rushed into his office, crying to Chupin: "Follow me."
Chupin obeyed without a word, for he was a shrewd fellow, and knew
how to make the best of a trying situation. He was not usually
allowed to enter this private room, the floor of which was covered
with a magnificent carpet; and so, after carefully closing the
door, he remained standing, hat in hand, and looking somewhat
intimidated. But M. Fortunat seemed to have forgotten his
presence. After depositing the lamp on the mantel-shelf, he
walked several times round and round the room like a hunted beast
seeking for some means of egress.
"If the count is dead," he muttered, "the Marquis de Valorsay is
lost! Farewell to the millions!"
The blow was so cruel, and so entirely unexpected, that he could
not, would not believe in its reality. He walked straight to
Chupin, and caught him by the collar, as if the young fellow had
been the cause of this misfortune. "It isn't possible," said he;
"the count CANNOT be dead. You are deceiving me, or they deceived
you. You must have misunderstood--you only wished to give some
excuse for your delay perhaps. Speak, say something!"
As a rule, Chupin was not easily impressed, but he felt almost
frightened by his employer's agitation. "I only repeated what M.
Casimir told me, monsieur," was his reply.
He then wished to furnish some particulars, but M. Fortunat had
already resumed his furious tramp to and fro, giving vent to his
wrath and despair in incoherent exclamations. "Forty thousand
francs lost!" he exclaimed. "Forty thousand francs, counted out
there on my desk! I see them yet, counted and placed in the hand
of the Marquis de Valorsay in exchange for his signature. My
savings for a number of years, and I have only a worthless scrap
of paper to show for them. That cursed marquis! And he was to
come here this evening, and I was to give him ten thousand francs
more. They are lying there in that drawer. Let him come, the
wretch, let him come!"
Anger had positively brought foam to M. Fortunat's lips, and any
one seeing him then would subsequently have had but little
confidence in his customary good-natured air and unctuous
politeness. "And yet the marquis is as much to be pitied as I
am," he continued. "He loses as much, even more! And such a sure
thing it seemed, too! What speculation can a fellow engage in
after this? And a man must put his money somewhere; he can't bury
it in the ground!"
Chupin listened with an air of profound commiseration; but it was
only assumed. He was inwardly jubilant, for his interest in the
affair was in direct opposition to that of his employer. Indeed,
if M. Fortunat lost forty thousand francs by the Count de
Chalusse's death, Chupin expected to make a hundred francs
commission on the funeral.
"Still, he may have made a will!" pursued M. Fortunat. "But no,
I'm sure he hasn't. A poor devil who has only a few sous to leave
behind him always takes this precaution. He thinks he may be run
over by an omnibus and suddenly killed, and he always writes and
signs his last wishes. But millionaires don't think of such
things; they believe themselves immortal!" He paused to reflect
for a moment, for power of reflection had returned to him. His
excitement had quickly spent itself by reason of its very
violence. "This much is certain," he resumed, slowly, and in a
more composed voice, "whether the count has made a will or not,
Valorsay will lose the millions he expected from Chalusse. If
there is no will, Mademoiselle Marguerite won't have a sou, and
then, good evening! If there is one, this devil of a girl,
suddenly becoming her own mistress, and wealthy into the bargain,
will send Monsieur de Valorsay about his business, especially if
she loves another, as he himself admits--and in that case, again
M. Fortunat drew out his handkerchief, and, pausing in front of
the looking-glass, wiped the perspiration from his brow, and
arranged his disordered hair. He was one of those men who may be
stunned, but never crushed, by a catastrophe. "In conclusion," he
muttered, "I must enter my forty thousand francs as an item in the
profit and loss account. It only remains to be seen if it would
not be possible to regain them in the same affair." He was again
master of himself, and never had his mind been more clear. He
seated himself at his desk, leant his elbows upon it, rested his
head on his hands, and remained for some time perfectly
motionless; but there was triumph in his gesture when he at last
looked up again.
"I am safe," he muttered, so low that Chupin could not hear him.
"What a fool I was! If there is no will a fourth of the millions
shall be mine! Ah, when a man knows his ground, he never need lose
the battle! But I must act quickly," he added, "very quickly." And
so speaking, he rose and glanced at the clock. "Nine o'clock,"
said he. "I must open the campaign this very evening."
Motionless in his dark corner, Chupin still retained his
commiserating attitude; but he was so oppressed with curiosity
that he could scarcely breathe. He opened his eyes and ears to
the utmost, and watched his employer's slightest movements with
Prompt to act when he had once decided upon his course, M.
Fortunat now drew from his desk a large portfolio, crammed full of
letters, receipts, bills, deeds of property, and old parchments.
"I can certainly discover the necessary pretext here," he
murmured, rummaging through the mass of papers. But he did not at
once find what he sought, and he was growing impatient, as could
be seen by his feverish haste, when all at once he paused with a
sigh of relief. "At last!"
He held in his hand a soiled and crumpled note of hand, affixed by
a pin to a huissier's protest, thus proving conclusively that it
had been dishonored. M. Fortunat waved these strips of paper
triumphantly, and with a satisfied air exclaimed: "It is here
that I must strike; it is here--if Casimir hasn't deceived me--
that I shall find the indispensable information I need."
He was in such haste that he did not wait to put his portfolio in
order. He threw it with the papers it had contained into the
drawer of his desk again, and, approaching Chupin, he asked, "It
was you, was it not, Victor, who obtained that information
respecting the solvency of the Vantrassons, husband and wife, who
let out furnished rooms?"
"Yes, monsieur, and I gave you the answer: nothing to hope for----"
"I know; but that doesn't matter. Do you remember their address?"
"Perfectly. They are now living on the Asnieres Road, beyond the
fortifications, on the right hand side."
"What is the number?"
Chupin hesitated, reflected for a moment, and then began to
scratch his head furiously, as he was in the habit of doing
whenever his memory failed him and he wished to recall it to duty.
"I'm not sure whether the number is eighteen or forty-six," he
said, at last; "that is----"
"Never mind," interrupted M. Fortunat. "If I sent you to the
house could you find it?"
"Oh--yes, m'sieur--at once- with my eyes shut. I can see the
place perfectly--a rickety old barrack. There is a tract of
unoccupied land on one side, and a kitchen-garden in the rear."
"Very well; you shall accompany me there."
Chupin seemed astonished by this strange proposal. "What,
m'sieur," said he, "do you think of going there at this time of
"Why not? Shall we find the establishment closed?"
"No; certainly not. Vantrasson doesn't merely keep furnished
rooms; he's a grocer, and sells liquor too. His place is open
until eleven o'clock at least. But if you are going there to
present a bill, it's perhaps a little late. If I were in your
place, m'sieur, I should wait till to-morrow. It's raining, and
the streets are deserted. It's an out-of-the-way place too; and
in such cases, a man has been known to settle his account with
whatever came handiest--with a cudgel, or a bullet, for instance."
"Are you afraid?"
This question seemed so utterly absurd to Chupin that he was not
in the least offended by it; his only answer was a disdainful
shrug of the shoulders.
"Then we will go," remarked M. Fortunat. "While I'm getting
ready, go and hire a cab, and see that you get a good horse."
Chupin was off in an instant, tearing down the staircase like a
tempest. There was a cab-stand only a few steps from the house,
but he preferred to run to the jobmaster's stables in the Rue
"Cab, sir!" shouted several men, as they saw him approaching.
He made no reply, but began to examine the horses with the air of
a connoisseur, until at last he found an animal that suited him.
Thereupon he beckoned to the driver, and going to the little
office where a woman sat reading: "My five sous, if you please,"
he said, authoritatively.
The woman looked at him. Most jobmasters are in the habit of
giving five sous to any servant who comes in search of a cab for
his master; and this was the custom here. But the keeper of the
office, who felt sure that Chupin was not a servant, hesitated;
and this made the young fellow angry. "Make haste," he cried,
imperiously. "If you don't, I shall run to the nearest stand."
The woman at once threw him five sous, which he pocketed with a
satisfied grin. They were his--rightfully his--since he had taken
the trouble to gain them. He then hastily returned to the office
to inform his employer that the cab was waiting at the door, and
found himself face to face with a sight which made him open his
eyes to their widest extent.
M. Fortunat had profited by his clerk's absence, not to disguise
himself--that would be saying too much--but to make some changes
in his appearance. He had arrayed himself in a long overcoat,
shiny with grease and wear, and falling below his knees; in place
of his elegant satin cravat he had knotted a gaudy silk
neckerchief about his throat; his boots were worn, and out of
shape; and his hat would have been treated with contempt even by a
dealer in old clothes. Of the prosperous Fortunat, so favorably
known round about the Place de la Bourse, naught remained save his
face and his hands. Another Fortunat had taken his place, more
than needy in aspect--wretched, famished, gaunt with hunger, ready
for any desperate deed. And, yet, he seemed at ease in this garb;
it yielded to his every movement, as if he had worn it for a long
time. The butterfly had become a chrysalis again. Chupin's
admiring smile must have repaid him for his trouble. Since the
young clerk evinced approval, M. Fortunat felt sure that
Vantrasson would take him for what he wished to appear--a poor
devil of an agent, who was acting on some other person's behalf.
"Let us start at once," said he.
But just as he was leaving the ante-room, he remembered an order
of great importance which he wished to give. He called Madame
Dodelin, and without paying the slightest heed to her astonishment
at seeing him thus attired: "If the Marquis de Valorsay comes, in
my absence," said he--" and he WILL come--ask him to wait for me.
I shall return before midnight. Don't take him into my office--he
can wait in the drawing-room."
This last order was certainly unnecessary, since M. Fortunat had
closed and double-locked his office door and placed the key
carefully in his own pocket. But perhaps he had forgotten this
circumstance. There were now no traces of his recent anger and
disappointment. He was in excellent humor; and you might have
supposed that he was starting on an enterprise from which he
expected to derive both pleasure and profit.
Chupin was climbing to a place on the box beside the driver when
his employer bade him take a seat inside the vehicle. They were
not long in reaching their destination, for the horse was really a
good one, and the driver had been stimulated by the promise of a
magnificent gratuity. In fact, M. Fortunat and his companion
reached the Asnieres Road in less than forty minutes.
In obedience to the orders he had received before starting, the
cabman drew up on the right hand side of the road, at about a
hundred paces from the city gate, beyond the fortifications.
"Well, sir, here you are! Are you satisfied?" he inquired, as he
opened the door.
"Perfectly satisfied," replied M. Fortunat. "Here is your
promised gratuity. Now, you have only to wait for us. Don't stir
from this place. Do you understand?"
But the driver shook his head. "Excuse me," he said, "but if it's
all the same to you, I will station myself over there near the
gate. Here, you see, I should be afraid to go to sleep, while
"Very well; suit yourself," M. Fortunat replied.
This precaution on the driver's part convinced him that Chupin had
not exaggerated the evil reputation of this quarter of the
Parisian suburbs. And, indeed, there was little of a reassuring
character in the aspect of this broad road, quite deserted at this
hour, and shrouded in the darkness of a tempestuous night. The
rain had ceased falling, but the wind blew with increased
violence, twisting the branches off the trees, tearing slates from
the roofs, and shaking the street-lamps so furiously as to
extinguish the gas. They could not see a step before them; the
mud was ankle-deep, and not a person, not a solitary soul was
"Are we almost there?" M. Fortunat asked every ten paces.
"Almost there, m'sieur."
Chupin said this; but to tell the truth, he knew nothing about it.
He tried to discover where he was, but did not succeed. Houses
were becoming scanty, and vacant plots of building ground more
numerous; it was only with the greatest difficulty that one could
occasionally discern a light. At last, however, after a quarter
of an hour's hard struggling, Chupin uttered a joyful cry. "Here
we are, m'sieur--look!" said he.
A large building, five stories high, sinister of aspect, and
standing quite alone, could just be distinguished in the darkness.
It was already falling to pieces, and yet it was not entirely
completed. Plainly enough, the speculator who had undertaken the
enterprise had not been rich enough to complete it. On seeing the
many closely pierced windows of the facade, a passer-by could not
fail to divine for what purpose the building had been erected; and
in order that no one should remain in ignorance of it, this
inscription: "Furnished Rooms," figured in letters three feet
high, between the third and fourth floors. The inside
arrangements could be easily divined: innumerable rooms, all small
and inconvenient, and let out at exorbitant rentals.
However, Victor Chupin's memory had misled him. This establishment
was not on the right, but on the left-hand side of the road, a
perfect mire through which M. Fortunat and his companion were
obliged to cross. Their eyes having become accustomed to the
darkness, they could discern sundry details as they approached the
building. The ground floor comprised two shops, one of which was
closed, but the other was still open, and a faint light gleamed
through the soiled red curtains. Over the frontage appeared the
shop-keeper's name, Vantrasson, while on either side, in smaller
letters, were the words: "Groceries and Provisions--Foreign and
French Wines." Everything about this den denoted abject poverty
and low debauchery.
M. Fortunat certainly did not recoil, but before entering the shop
he was not sorry to have an opportunity to reconnoitre. He
approached cautiously, and peered through the window at a place
where a rent in the curtain allowed him some view of the interior.
Behind the counter a woman who looked some fifty years of age was
seated, mending a soiled dress by the light of a smoking lamp.
She was short and very stout. She seemed literally weighed down,
and puffed out by an unwholesome and unnatural mass of superfluous
flesh; and she was as white as if her veins had been filled with
water, instead of blood. Her hanging cheeks, her receding
forehead, and her thin lips, imparted an alarming expression of
wickedness and cunning to her countenance. At the farther end of
the store Fortunat could vaguely discern the figure of a man
seated on a stool. He seemed to be asleep, for his crossed arms
rested on a table, with his head leaning on them.
"Good luck!" whispered Chupin in his employer's ear; "there is not
a customer in the place. Vantrasson and his wife are alone." This
circumstance was by no means displeasing to M. Fortunat, as could
be seen by his expression of face. "So, m'sieur," continued
Chupin, "you need have no fears. I'll remain here and watch,
while you go in."
M. Fortunat did so. On hearing the door open and shut, the woman
laid down her work. "What can I do for monsieur?" she asked, in a
M. Fortunat did not reply at once; but he drew the note with which
he had provided himself from his pocket, and displayed it. "I am
a huissier's clerk," he then exclaimed; "and I called in reference
to this little matter--a note of hand for five hundred and eighty-
three francs, value received in goods, signed Vantrasson, and made
payable to the order of a person named Barutin."
"An execution!" said the woman, whose voice suddenly soured.
"Vantrasson, wake up, and come and see about this."
This summons was unnecessary. On hearing the words "note of
hand," the man had lifted his head; and at the name of Barutin, he
rose and approached with a heavy, uncertain step, as if he had not
yet slept off his intoxication. He was younger than his wife,
tall, with a well-proportioned and athletic form. His features
were regular, but the abuse of alcohol and all sorts of excesses
had greatly marred them, and their present expression was one of
ferocious brutishness. "What's that you are talking about?" he
asked in a harsh, grating voice. "Is it to mock people that you
come and ask for money on the 15th of October--rent day? Where
have you seen any money left after the landlord has made his
round? Besides, what is this bill? Give it me to look at."
M. Fortunat was not guilty of such folly; he did not intrust the
paper to Vantrasson's hand, but held it a little distance from
him, and then read it aloud.
When he had finished: "That note fell due eighteen months ago,"
declared Vantrasson. "It is worth nothing now "
"You are mistaken--a note of this kind is of value any time within
five years after the day it goes to protest."
"Possibly; but as Barutin has failed, and gone no one knows where,
I am released----"
"Another mistake on your part. You owe these five hundred and
eighty-three francs to the person who bought this note at
Barutin's sale, and who has given my employer orders to prosecute----"
The blood had risen to Vantrasson's face. "And what of that? Do
you suppose I've never been sued for debts before? Even the king
can't take anything from a person who possesses nothing; and I own
nothing. My furniture is all pawned or mortgaged, and my stock is
not worth a hundred francs. When your employer finds it useless
to waste money in worrying me, he'll let me alone. You can't
injure a man like me."
"Do you really think so?"
"I'm sure of it."
"Unfortunately you are again mistaken, for although the holder of
the note doesn't care so very much about obtaining his dues, he'll
spend his own money like water to make trouble for you." And
thereupon M. Fortunat began to draw a vivid and frightful picture
of a poor debtor pursued by a rich creditor who harassed him, and
tortured him, and hounded him everywhere, until not even a change
of clothing was left him.
Vantrasson rolled his eyes and brandished his formidable fist in
the most defiant manner; but his wife was evidently much alarmed.
At last she could bear it no longer, and rising hastily she led
her husband to the rear of the shop, saying: "Come, I must speak
He followed her, and they remained for some little time conversing
together in a low tone, but with excited gestures. When they
returned, the woman opened the conversation. "Alas! sir," she
said to M. Fortunat, "we have no money just now; business is so
very bad, and if you prosecute us, we are lost. What can be done?
You look like an honest man; give us your advice."
M. Fortunat did not reply at once; he was apparently absorbed in
thought, but suddenly he exclaimed: "One owes a duty to
unfortunate folks, and I'm going to tell you the exact truth. My
employer, who isn't a bad man at heart, hasn't the slightest
desire for revenge. He said to me: 'Go and see these Vantrassons,
and if they seem to be worthy people, propose a compromise. If
they choose to accept it, I shall be quite satisfied.'"
"And what is this compromise?"
"It is this: you must write an acknowledgment of the debt on a
sheet of stamped paper, together with a promise to pay a little on
account each month. In exchange I will give you this note of
The husband and wife exchanged glances, and it was the woman who
said: "We accept."
But to carry out this arrangement it was necessary to have a sheet
of stamped paper, and the spurious clerk had neglected to provide
himself with some. This circumstance seemed to annoy him greatly,
and you might almost have sworn that he regretted the concession
he had promised. Did he think of going? Madame Vantrasson feared
so, and turning eagerly to her husband, she exclaimed: "Run to
the tobacco shop in the Rue de Levis; you will find some paper
He started off at once, and M. Fortunat breathed freely again. He
had certainly retained his composure admirably during the
interview, but more than once he had fancied that Vantrasson was
about to spring on him, crush him with his brawny hands, tear the
note from him, burn it, and then throw him, Fortunat, out into the
street, helpless and nearly dead. But now that danger had passed
and Madame Vantrasson, fearing he might tire of waiting, was
prodigal in her attentions. She brought him the only unbroken
chair in the establishment, and insisted that he should partake of
some refreshment--a glass of wine at the very least. While
rummaging among the bottles, she alternately thanked him and
complained, declaring she had a right to repine, since she had
known better days--but fate had been against her ever since her
marriage, though she had little thought she would end her days in
such misery, after having been so happy in the Count de Chalusse's
household many years before.
To all appearance, M. Fortunat listened with the mere superficial
interest which ordinary politeness requires one to show, but in
reality his heart was filled with intense delight. Coming here
without any clearly-defined plan, circumstances had served him a
thousand times better than he could reasonably have hoped. He had
preserved his power over the Vantrassons, had won their
confidence, had succeeded in obtaining a tete-a-tete with the
wife, and to crown all, this woman alluded, of her own accord, to
the very subject upon which he was longing to question her.
"Ah! if I were only back in the Count's household again," she
exclaimed. "Six hundred francs a year, and gifts worth double
that amount. Those were good times for me. But you know how it
is--one is never content with one's lot, and then the heart is
She had not succeeded in finding the sweet wine which she proposed
to her guest; so in its place she substituted a mixture of ratafia
and brandy in two large glasses which she placed upon the counter.
"One evening, to my sorrow," she resumed, "I met Vantrasson at a
ball. It was the 13th day of the month. I might have known no
good would come of it. Ah, you should have seen him at that time,
in full uniform. He belonged to the Paris Guards then. All the
women were crazy about soldiers, and my head was turned, too----"
Her tone, her gestures, and the compression of her thin lips,
revealed the bitterness of her disappointment and her unavailing
regret. "Ah, these handsome men!" she continued; "don't talk to
me about them! This one had heard of my savings. I had nineteen
thousand francs, so he begged me to marry him, and I was fool
enough to consent. Yes, fool--for I was forty, and he was only
thirty. I might have known it was my money that he wanted, and
not me. However, I gave up my situation, and even purchased a
substitute for him, in order that I might have him all to myself."
She had gradually warmed with her theme, as she described her
confidence and blind credulity, and then, with a tragic gesture,
as if she desired to drive away these cruel memories, she suddenly
seized her glass and emptied it at a draught.
Chupin, who was still at his post outside, experienced a thrill of
envy, and involuntarily licked his lips. "A mixed ratafia," he
said, longingly. "I shouldn't object to one myself."
However, this choice compound seemed to inspire Madame Vantrasson
with renewed energy, for, with still greater earnestness, she
resumed: "At first, all went well. We employed my savings in
purchasing the Hotel des Espagnes, in the Rue Notre Dame des
Victoires, and business prospered; there was never a vacant room.
But any person who has drank, sir, will drink again. Vantrasson
kept sober for a few months, but gradually he fell into his old
habits. He was in such a condition most of the time that he was
scarcely able to ask for food. And if that had been all! But,
unfortunately, he was too handsome a man to be a good husband.
One night he didn't come home, and the next day, when I ventured
to reproach him--very gently, I assure you--he answered me with an
oath and a blow. All our happiness was over! Monsieur declared
that he was master, and would do as he liked. He drank and
carried away all the wine from the cellar--he took all the money--
he remained away for weeks together; and if I complained--more
Her voice trembled, and a tear gathered in her eye; but, wiping it
away with the back of her hand, she resumed: "Vantrasson was
always drunk, and I spent my time in crying my very eyes out.
Business became very bad, and soon everybody left the house. We
were obliged to sell it. We did so, and bought a small cafe. But
by the end of the year we lost that. Fortunately, I still had a
little money left, and so I bought a stock of groceries in my own
name; but in less than six months the stock was eaten up, and we
were cast into the street. What was to be done? Vantrasson drank
worse than ever; he demanded money when he knew that I had none to
give him, and he treated me even more cruelly than before. I lost
courage--and yet one must live! Oh, you wouldn't believe it if I
told you how we have lived for the past four years." She did not
tell him, but contented herself with adding, "When you begin to go
down hill, there is no such thing as stopping; you roll lower and
lower, until you reach the bottom, as we have done. Here we live,
no one knows how; we have to pay our rent each week, and if we are
driven from this place, I see no refuge but the river."
"If I had been in your position, I should have left my husband,"
M. Fortunat ventured to remark.
"Yes--it would have been better, no doubt. People advised me to
do so, and I tried. Three or four times I went away, and yet I
always returned--it was stronger than myself. Besides, I'm his
wife; I've paid dearly for him; he's mine--I won't yield him to
any one else. He beats me, no doubt; I despise him, I hate him,
and yet I----" She poured out part of a glass of brandy, and
swallowed it; then, with a gesture of rage, she added: "I can't
give him up! It's fate! As it is now, it will be until the end,
until he starves, or I----"
M. Fortunat's countenance wore an expression of profound
commiseration. A looker-on would have supposed him interested and
sympathetic to the last degree; but in reality, he was furious.
Time was passing, and the conversation was wandering farther and
farther from the object of his visit. "I am surprised, madame,"
said he, "that you never applied to your former employer, the
Count de Chalusse."
"Alas! I did apply to him for assistance several times----"
"With what result?"
"The first time I went to him he received me; I told him my
troubles, and he gave me bank-notes to the amount of five thousand
M. Fortunat raised his hands to the ceiling. "Five thousand
francs!" he repeated, in a tone of astonishment; "this count must
be very rich----"
"So rich, monsieur, that he doesn't know how much he's worth. He
owns, nobody knows how many houses in Paris, chateaux in every
part of the country, entire villages, forests--his gold comes in
by the shovelful."
The spurious clerk closed his eyes, as if he were dazzled by this
vision of wealth.
"The second time I went to the count's house," resumed Madame
Vantrasson, "I didn't see him, but he sent me a thousand francs.
The third and last time they gave me twenty francs at the door,
and told me that the count had gone on a journey. I understood
that I could hope for no further help from him. Besides, all the
servants had been changed. One morning, without any apparent
reason, M. de Chalusse dismissed all the old servants, so they
told me. He even sent away the concierge and the housekeeper."
"Why didn't you apply to his wife?"
"M. de Chalusse isn't married. He never has been married."
From the expression of solicitude upon her guest's features,
Madame Vantrasson supposed he was racking his brain to discover
some mode of escape from her present difficulties. "If I were in
your place," he said, "I should try to interest his relatives and
family in my case----"
"The count has no relatives."
"He hasn't, indeed. During the ten years I was in his service, I
heard him say more than a dozen times that he alone was left of
all his family--that all the others were dead. People pretend
that this is the reason why he is so immensely rich."
M. Fortunat's interest was no longer assumed; he was rapidly
approaching the real object of his visit. "No relatives!" he
muttered. "Who, then, will inherit his millions when he dies?"
Madame Vantrasson jerked her head. "Who can say?" she replied.
"Everything will go to the government, probably, unless---- But
no, that's impossible."
"Nothing. I was thinking of the count's sister, Mademoiselle
"His sister! Why, you said just now that he had no relatives."
"It's the same as if he hadn't; no one knows what has become of
her, poor creature! Some say that she married; others declare that
she died. It's quite a romance."
M. Isidore Fortunat was literally upon the rack; and to make his
sufferings still more horrible, he dared not ask any direct
question, nor allow his curiosity to become manifest, for fear of
alarming the woman. "Let me see," said he; "I think--I am sure
that I have heard--or that I have read--I cannot say which--some
story about a Mademoiselle de Chalusse. It was something
terrible, wasn't it?"
"Terrible, indeed. But what I was speaking of happened a long
time ago--twenty-five or twenty-six years ago, at the very least.
I was still in my own part of the country--at Besancon. No one
knows the exact truth about the affair."
"What! not even you?"
"Oh! I--that's an entirely different thing. When I entered the
count's service, six years later, there was still an old gardener
who knew the whole story, and who told it to me, making me swear
that I would never betray his confidence."
Lavish of details as she had been in telling her own story, it was
evident that she was determined to exercise a prudent reserve in
everything connected with the De Chalusse family; and M. Fortunat
inwardly cursed this, to him, most unseasonable discretion. But
he was experienced in these examinations, and he had at his
command little tricks for loosening tongues, which even an
investigating magistrate might have envied. Without seeming to
attach the slightest importance to Madame Vantrasson's narrative,
he rose with a startled air, like a man who suddenly realizes that
he has forgotten himself. "Zounds!" he exclaimed, "we sit here
gossiping, and it's growing late. I really can't wait for your
husband. If I remain here any longer, I shall miss the last
omnibus; and I live on the other side of the river, near the
"But our agreement, monsieur?"
"We will draw that up at some future time. I shall be passing
again, or I will send one of my colleagues to see you."
It was Madame Vantrasson's turn to tremble now. She feared, if
she allowed this supposed clerk to go without signing the
agreement, that the person who came in his stead might not prove
so accommodating; and even if he called again himself, he might
not be so kindly disposed. "Wait just a moment longer, monsieur,"
she pleaded; "my husband will soon be back, and the last omnibus
doesn't leave the Rue de Levis until midnight."
"I wouldn't refuse, but this part of the suburbs is so lonely."
"Vantrasson will see you on your way." And, resolved to detain him
at any cost, she poured out a fresh glass of liquor for him, and
said: "Where were we? Oh, yes! I was about to tell you
Mademoiselle Hermine's story."
Concealing his delight with an assumed air of resignation, M.
Fortunat reseated himself, to the intense disgust of Chupin, who
was thoroughly tired of waiting outside in the cold.
"I must tell you," began Madame Vantrasson, "that when this
happened--at least twenty-five years ago--the De Chalusse family
lived in the Rue Saint-Dominique. They occupied a superb mansion,
with extensive grounds, full of splendid trees like those in the
Tuileries gardens. Mademoiselle Hermine, who was then about
eighteen or nineteen years old, was, according to all accounts,
the prettiest young creature ever seen. Her skin was as white as
milk, she had a profusion of golden hair, and her eyes were as
blue as forget-me-nots. She was very kind and generous, they say,
only, like all the rest of the family, she was very haughty and
obstinate--oh, obstinate enough to allow herself to be roasted
alive over a slow fire rather than yield an inch. That's the
count's nature exactly. Having served him, I know something about
it, to be sure, and----"
"Excuse me," interrupted M. Fortunat, who was determined to
prevent these digressions, "and Mademoiselle Hermine?"
"I was coming to her. Although she was very beautiful and
immensely rich, she had no suitors--for it was generally
understood that she was to marry a marquis, whose father was a
particular friend of the family. The parents had arranged the
matter between them years before, and nothing was wanting but the
young lady's consent; but Mademoiselle Hermine absolutely refused
to hear the marquis's name mentioned.
They did everything to persuade her to consent to this marriage;
they employed prayers and threats alike, but they might as well
have talked to a stone. When they asked her why she refused to
marry the marquis, she replied, 'Because'--and that was all. In
fact, at last she declared she would leave home and take refuge in
a convent, if they didn't cease to torment her. Her relatives
were certain there must be some reason for her refusal. It isn't
natural for a girl to reject a suitor who is young, handsome,
rich, and a marquis besides. Her friends suspected there was
something she wouldn't confess; and M. Raymond swore that he would
watch his sister, and discover her secret."
"M. Raymond is the present Count de Chalusse, suppose?" inquired
"Yes, monsieur. Such was the state of matters when, one night,
the gardener thought he heard a noise in the pavilion, at the end
of the garden. This pavilion was very large. I have seen it. It
contained a sitting-room, a billiard-room, and a large fencing-
hall. Naturally enough, the gardener got up to go and see what
was the matter. As he left the house, he fancied he saw two
persons moving about among the trees. He ran after them, but
could find nothing. They had made their escape through a small
gate leading from the garden into the street. When the gardener
was telling me this story, he declared again and again that he had
fancied the noise he had heard was made by some of the servants
trying to leave the house secretly, and for this reason he didn't
give the alarm. However, he hurried to the pavilion, but on seeing
no light there, he went back to bed with an easy mind."
"And it was Mademoiselle Hermine eloping with a lover?" asked M.
Madame Vantrasson seemed as disappointed as an actor who has been
deprived of an opportunity of producing a grand effect. "Wait a
moment," she replied, "and you'll see. The night passed, morning
came, and then the breakfast hour. But Mademoiselle Hermine did
not make her appearance. Some one was sent to rap at her door--
there was no answer. The door was opened--the young lady was not
in her room, and the bed had not even been disturbed. In a few
moments the whole household was in the wildest commotion; the
mother weeping, and the father half wild with rage and sorrow. Of
course, the next thought was of Mademoiselle Hermine's brother,
and he was sent for. But, he, too, was not in his room, and his
bed had not been touched. The excitement was becoming frenzy,
when it occurred to the gardener to mention what he had heard and
seen on the previous night. They hastened to the pavilion, and
discovered what? Why, M. Raymond stretched upon the ground,
stiff, cold, and motionless, weltering in his own blood. One of
his rigid hands still grasped a sword. They lifted him up,
carried him to the house, laid him upon his bed, and sent for a
physician. He had received two dangerous wounds; one in the
throat, the other in the breast. For more than a month he hung
between life and death, and six weeks elapsed before he had
strength to relate what had happened. He was lighting a cigar at
his window when he thought he saw a woman's form flit through the
garden. A suspicion that it might be his sister flashed through
his mind; so he hastened down, stole noiselessly into the
pavilion, and there he found his sister and a young man who was
absolutely unknown to him. He might have killed the intruder, but
instead of doing so, he told him they would fight then and there.
Weapons were within reach, and they fought, with the result that
Raymond was wounded twice, in quick succession, and fell. His
adversary, supposing him dead, thereupon fled from the spot,
taking Mademoiselle Hermine with him."
At this point in her narrative Madame Vantrasson evinced a desire
to pause and draw a breath, and perhaps partake of some slight
refreshment; but M. Fortunat was impatient. The woman's husband
might return at any moment. "And, after that?" he inquired.
"After that--well--M. Raymond recovered, and in about three
months' time he was out again; but the parents, who were old
folks, had received their death-blow. They never rallied from the
shock. Perhaps they felt that it was their own hard-heartedness
and obstinacy that had caused their daughter's ruin--and remorse
is hard to bear. They waned perceptibly from day to day, and
during the following year they were borne to the cemetery within
two months of each other."
From the spurious clerk's demeanor it was easy to see that he had
ceased thinking about his omnibus, and his hostess felt both
reassured and flattered. "And Mademoiselle Hermine?" he inquired,
"Alas! monsieur, no one ever knew where she went, or what became
"Didn't they try to find her?"
"They searched for her everywhere, for I don't know how long; all
the ablest detectives in France and in foreign countries tried to
find her, but not one of them succeeded in discovering the
slightest trace of her whereabouts. M. Raymond promised an
enormous sum to the man who would find his sister's betrayer. He
wished to kill him, and he sought for him for years; but all in
"And did they never receive any tidings of this unfortunate girl?"
"I was told that they heard from her twice. On the morning
following her flight her parents received a letter, in which she
implored their forgiveness. Five or six months later, she wrote
again to say that she knew her brother was not dead. She
confessed that she was a wicked, ungrateful girl--that she had
been mad; but she said that her punishment had come, and it was
terrible. She added that every link was severed between herself
and her friends, and she hoped they would forget her as completely
as if she had never existed. She went so far as to say that her
children should never know who their mother was, and that never in
her life again would she utter the name which she had so
It was the old, sad story of a ruined girl paying for a moment's
madness with her happiness and all her after life. A terrible
drama, no doubt; but one that is of such frequent occurrence that
it seems as commonplace as life itself. Thus any one who was
acquainted with M. Isidore Fortunat would have been surprised to
see how greatly he was moved by such a trifle. "Poor girl!" said
he, in view of saying something. And then, in a tone of assumed
carelessness, he inquired: "Did they never discover what
scoundrel carried Mademoiselle de Chalusse away?"
"Never. Who he was, whence he came, whether he was young or old,
how he became acquainted with Mademoiselle Hermine--these
questions were never answered. It was rumored at one time that he
was an American, a captain in the navy; but that was only a rumor.
To tell the truth, they never even discovered his name."
"What, not even his name?"
"Not even his name."
Unable to master his emotion, M. Fortunat had at least the
presence of mind to rise and step back into the darker part of the
shop. But his gesture of disappointment and the muttered oath
that fell from his lips did not escape Madame Vantrasson. She was
startled, and from that moment she looked upon the supposed clerk
with evident distrust. It was not long before he again resumed
his seat nearer the counter, still a trifle pale, perhaps, but
apparently calm. Two questions more seemed indispensable to him,
and yet either one of them would be sure to arouse suspicion.
Nevertheless, he resolved to incur the risk of betraying himself.
And, after all, what would it matter now? Did he not possess the
information he had wished for, at least as much of it as it was in
this woman's power to impart?" I can scarcely tell you, my dear
madame, how much your narrative has interested me," he began. "I
can confess now that I am slightly acquainted with the Count de
Chalusse, and that I have frequently visited the house in the Rue
de Courcelles, where he now resides."
"You!" exclaimed the woman, taking a hasty inventory of M.
"Yes, I--on the part of my employer, understand. Each time I've
been to visit M. de Chalusse's I've seen a young lady whom I took
for his daughter there. I was wrong, no doubt, since he isn't a
He paused. Astonishment and anger seemed to be almost suffocating
his hostess. Without understanding how or why, she felt convinced
that she had been duped; and if she had obeyed her first impulse
she would have attacked M. Isidore then and there. If she
restrained this impulse, if she made an effort to control herself,
it was only because she thought she held a better revenge in
"A young lady in the count's house!" she said, thoughtfully.
"That's scarcely possible. I've never seen her; I've never heard
her spoken of. How long has she been there?"
"For six or seven months?"
"In that case, I can't absolutely deny it. It's two years since I
set foot in the count's house."
"I fancied this young lady might be the count's niece Mademoiselle
Madame Vantrasson shook her head. "Put that fancy out of your
head," she remarked. "The count said that his sister was dead to
him from the evening of her flight."
"Who CAN this young girl be, then?"
"Bless me! I don't know. What sort of a looking person is she?"
"Very tall; a brunette."
"How old is she?"
"Eighteen or nineteen."
The woman made a rapid calculation on her fingers. "Nine and four
are thirteen," she muttered, "and five are eighteen. Ah, ha!--why
not? I must look into this."
"What did you say?"
"Nothing; a little reflection I was making to myself. Do you know
this young lady's name?"
The woman's face clouded. "No; it can't be then," she muttered,
in a scarcely audible voice.
M. Fortunat was on coals of fire. It was evident that this
frightful creature, even if she knew nothing definite, had some
idea, some vague suspicion of the truth. How could he compel her
to speak now that she was on her guard? He had not time to
ascertain, for the door suddenly opened, and Vantrasson appeared
on the threshold. He was scarcely sober when he left the shop,
but now he was fairly drunk; his heavy shamble had become a
stagger. "Oh, you wretch, you brigand!" howled his wife; "you've
been drinking again!"
He succeeded in maintaining his equilibrium, and, gazing at her
with the phlegmatic stare peculiar to intoxicated men, he replied:
"Well, what of that! Can't I have a little pleasure with my
friends? I came across a couple of men who were just taking their
fifteenth glass; why should I refuse a compliment?"
"You can't hold yourself up."
"That's true." And to prove it he tumbled on to a chair.
A torrent of abuse now flowed from Madame Vantrasson's lips! M.
Fortunat only imperfectly distinguished the words "thief," "spy,"
and "detective;" but he could not mistake the meaning of the looks
which she alternately gave her husband and himself. "It's a
fortunate thing for you that my husband is in this condition," her
glances plainly implied, "otherwise there would be an explanation,
and then we should see--"
"I've had a lucky escape," thought the spurious clerk. But as
matters stood there was nothing to fear. It was a case where one
could show a brave front to the enemy without incurring the
slightest danger. "Let your husband alone," said he. "If he has
only brought the paper that he was sent to fetch, I sha'n't have
lost my evening to oblige you."
Vantrasson had brought not one sheet of stamped paper, but two. A
bad pen and some muddy ink were produced, and M. Fortunat began to
draw up an acknowledgment according to the established formula.
However, it was necessary to mention the name of the creditor of
whom he had spoken, and not wishing to state his own, he used that
of poor Victor Chupin, who was at that very moment shivering at
the door, little suspecting what liberty was being taken with his
"Chupin!" repeated the vixen, as if to engrave the name on her
memory; "Victor Chupin! I should just like to see him," she added,
When the document was finished, it became necessary to wake
Vantrasson, so that he might sign it. He did so with very good
grace, and his wife appended her signature beside her husband's.
Thereupon M. Fortunat gave them in exchange the note which had
served as a pretext for his visit. "And above all," he remarked,
as he opened the door to go, "don't forget that you are to pay
something on account each month."
"Go to the devil, and your account with you!" growled Madame
But Fortunat did not hear this. He was already walking down the
road by the side of Chupin, who was saying: "Well, here you are,
at last, m'sieur! I thought you had taken a lease of that old
barrack. If ever I come here again, I'll bring a foot-warmer with
But one of those fits of profound abstraction to which determined
seekers after truth are subject had taken possession of M.
Fortunat, and made him oblivious of all surrounding circumstances.
His heart had been full of hope when he reached the Asnieres Road,
but he went away gloomy and despondent; and quite unconscious of
the darkness, the mud, and the rain, which was again falling, he
silently plodded along in the middle of the highway. Chupin was
obliged to stop him at the city gate, and remind him that the cab
"That's true," was M. Fortunat's only answer. He entered the
vehicle, certainly without knowing it; and as they rolled
homeward, the thoughts that filled his brain to overflowing found
vent in a sort of monologue, of which Chupin now and then caught a
few words. "What a piece of business!" he muttered--"what a piece
of business! I've had seven years' experience in such matters, and
yet I've never met with an affair so shrouded in mystery. My
forty thousand francs are in a precarious condition. Certainly
I've lost money before through heirs whose existence I hadn't even
suspected; but by reinstating these same heirs in their rights,
I've regained my lost money, and received a handsome reward in
addition; but in this case all is darkness; there isn't a single
gleam of light--not the slightest clew. If I could only find
them! But how can I search for people whose names I don't even
know--for people who have escaped all the inquiries of the police?
And where shall I look for them--in Europe, in America? It would
be sheer madness! To whom, then, will the count's millions go?"
It was only the sudden stoppage of the cab in front of his own
door that recalled M. Fortunat to the realities of life. "Here
are twenty francs, Victor," he said to Chupin. "Pay the driver,
and keep the rest yourself."
As he spoke, he sprang nimbly to the ground. A handsome brougham,
drawn by two horses, was standing before the house. "The Marquis
de Valorsay's carriage," muttered M. Fortunat. "He has been very
patient; he has waited for me--or, rather, he has waited for my
ten thousand francs. Well, we shall see."
M. Fortunat had scarcely started off on his visit to the
Vantrassons when the Marquis de Valorsay reached the Place de la
"Monsieur has gone out," said Madame Dodelin, as she opened the
"You must be mistaken, my good woman."
"No, no; my master said you would, perhaps, wait for him."
"Very well; I will do so."
Faithful to the orders she had received, the servant conducted the
visitor to the drawing-room, lit the tapers in the candelabra, and
retired. "This is very strange!" growled the marquis. "Monsieur
Fortunat makes an appointment, Monsieur Fortunat expects me to
wait for him! What will happen next?" However, he drew a newspaper
from his pocket, threw himself into an arm-chair, and waited.
By his habits and tastes, the Marquis de Valorsay belonged to that
section of the aristocracy which has coined the term "high life"
in view of describing its own manners and customs. The matters
that engrossed the marquis's frivolous mind were club-life and
first performances at the opera and the leading theatres, social
duties and visits to the fashionable watering-places, racing and
the shooting and hunting seasons, together with his mistress and
He considered that to ride in a steeple-chase was an act of
prowess worthy of his ancestors; and when he galloped past the
stand, clad as a jockey, in top-boots and a violet silk jacket, he
believed he read admiration in every eye. This was his every-day
life, which had been enlivened by a few salient episodes: two
duels, an elopement with a married woman, a twenty-six hours'
seance at the gaming table, and a fall from his horse, while
hunting, which nearly cost him his life. These acts of valor had
raised him considerably in the estimation of his friends, and
procured him a celebrity of which he was not a little proud. The
newspaper reporters were constantly mentioning his name, and the
sporting journals never failed to chronicle his departure from
Paris or his arrival in the city.
Unfortunately, such a life of busy idleness has its trials and its
vicissitudes, and M. de Valorsay was a living proof of this. He
was only thirty-three, but in spite of the care he expended upon
his toilette, he looked at least forty. Wrinkles were beginning
to show themselves; it required all the skill of his valet to
conceal the bald spots on his cranium; and since his fall from his
horse, he had been troubled by a slight stiffness in his right
leg, which stiffness became perfect lameness in threatening
weather. Premature lassitude pervaded his entire person, and when
he relaxed in vigilance even his eyes betrayed a distaste for
everything--weariness, satiety as it were. All the same, however,
he bore himself with an undeniable air of distinction, albeit the
haughtiness of his manner indicated an exaggerated idea of his own
importance. He was indeed in the habit of treating all those whom
he considered his inferiors with supercilious sufficiency.
The clock on M. Fortunat's mantel-shelf struck eleven at last and
the marquis rose to his feet with a muttered oath. "This is too
much!" he growled, angrily.
He looked about for a bell, and seeing none, he was reduced to the
dire necessity of opening the door himself, and calling some one.
Madame Dodelin answered the summons. "Monsieur said he would
return before midnight," she replied; "so he will certainly be
here. There is no one like him for punctuality. Won't monsieur
have patience a little longer?"
"Well, I will wait a few moments; but, my good woman, light the
fire; my feet are frozen!"
M. Fortunat's drawing-room being used but seldom, was really as
frigid as an iceberg; and to make matters still worse, M. de
Valorsay was in evening dress, with only a light overcoat. The
servant hesitated for an instant, thinking this visitor difficult
to please, and inclined to make himself very much at home, still
"I think I ought to go," muttered the marquis. "I really think I
ought to go." And yet he remained. Necessity, it should be
remembered, effectually quiets the revolts of pride.
Left an orphan in his early childhood, placed in possession of an
immense fortune at the age of twenty-three, M. de Valorsay had
entered life like a famished man enters a dining-room. His name
entitled him to a high position in the social world; and he
installed himself at table without asking how much the banquet
might cost him. It cost him dear, as he discovered at the end of
the first year, on noting that his disbursements had considerably
exceeded his large income. It was very evident that if he went on
in this way, each twelvemonth would deepen an abyss where in the
one hundred and sixty thousand francs a year, left him by his
father, would finally be swallowed up. But he had plenty of time
to reflect upon this unpleasant possibility ere it could come to
pass! And, besides, he found his present life so delightful, and
he obtained so much gratification for his money, that he was
unwilling to make any change. He possessed several fine estates,
and he found plenty of men who were only too glad to lend him
money on such excellent security. He borrowed timidly at first,
but more boldly when he discovered what a mere trifle a mortgage
is. Moreover, his wants increased in proportion to his vanity.
Occupying a certain position in the opinion of his acquaintances,
he did not wish to descend from the heights to which they had
exalted him; and the very fact that he had been foolishly
extravagant one year made it necessary for him to be guilty of
similar folly during the succeeding twelvemonth. He failed to pay
his creditors the interest that was due on his loans. They did
not ask him for it; and perhaps he forgot that it was slowly but
surely accumulating, and that at the end of a certain number of
years the amount of his indebtedness would be doubled. He never
thought what the end would be. He became absolutely ignorant of
the condition of his affairs, and really arrived at the conclusion
that his resources were inexhaustible. He believed this until one
day when on going to his lawyer for some money, that gentleman
coldly said: "You requested me to obtain one hundred thousand
francs for you, Monsieur le Marquis--but I have only been able to
procure fifty thousand--here they are. And do not hope for more.
All your real estate is encumbered beyond its value. Your
creditors will probably leave you in undisturbed possession for
another year--it will be to their interest--but when it has
elapsed they will take possession of their own, as they have a
perfect right to do." Then, with a meaning smile, the smile of a
wily prime minister, he added: "If I were in your place, Monsieur
le Marquis, I would profit by this year of grace. You undoubtedly
understand what I mean. I have the honor to wish you good-
What an awakening--after a glorious dream that had lasted for ten
years. M. de Valorsay was stunned--crushed. For three days he
remained immured in his own room, obstinately refusing to receive
any one. "The marquis is ill," was his valet's answer to every
M. de Valorsay felt that he must have time to regain his mental
equilibrium--to look his situation calmly in the face. It was a
frightful one, for his ruin was complete, absolute. He could save
nothing from the wreck. What was to become of him? What could he
do? He set his wits to work; but he found that he was incapable
of plying any kind of avocation. All the energy he had been
endowed with by nature had been squandered--exhausted in pandering
to his self-conceit. If he had been younger he might have turned
soldier; but at his age he had not even this resource. Then it
was that his notary's smile recurred to his mind. "His advice was
decidedly good," he muttered. "All is not yet lost; one way of
escape still remains--marriage."
And why, indeed, shouldn't he marry, and marry a rich wife too?
No one knew anything about his misfortune; for a year at least, he
would retain all the advantages that wealth bestows upon its
possessor. His name alone was a great advantage. It would be
very strange if he could not find some manufacturer's or banker's
daughter who would be only too delighted to have a marquisial
coronet emblazoned on her carriage panels.
Having arrived at this conclusion, M. de Valorsay began his
search, and it was not long before he thought he had found what he
was seeking. But something was still necessary. The bestowers of
large dowers are inclined to be suspicious; they like to have a
clear understanding as to the financial position of the suitors
who present themselves, and they not unfrequently ask for
information. Accordingly, before committing himself, M. de
Valorsay understood that it was necessary he should provide
himself with an intelligent and devoted adviser. There must be
some one to hold his creditors in check, to silence them, and
obtain sundry concessions from them--in a word, some one to
interest them in his success. With this object in view, M. de
Valorsay applied to his notary; but the latter utterly refused to
mix himself up in any such affair, and declared that the marquis's
suggestion was almost an insult. Then touched, perhaps, by his
client's apparent despair, he said, "But I can mention a person
who might be of service to you. Go to M. Isidore Fortunat, No. 27
Place de la Bourse. If you succeed in interesting him in your
marriage, it is an accomplished fact."
It was under these circumstances that the marquis became
acquainted with M. Fortunat. M. de Valorsay was a man of no
little penetration, and on his first visit he carefully weighed
his new acquaintance. He found him to be the very counsellor he
desired--prudent, and at the same time courageous; fertile in
expedients; a thorough master of the art of evading the law, and
not at all troubled by scruples. With such an adviser, it would
be mere child's play to conceal his financial embarrassments and
deceive the most suspicious father-in-law. So M. de Valorsay did
not hesitate a moment. He frankly disclosed his pecuniary
condition and his matrimonial hopes, and concluded by promising M.
Fortunat a certain percentage on the bride's dowry, to be paid on
the day following the marriage.
After a prolonged conference, the agreement was drawn up and
signed, and that very day M. Fortunat took the nobleman's
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