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The novel begins with the description of the boring and restrained life of a middle manager at a brokerage firm, then quite unexpectedly the police come to his home to arrest him for helping embezzle 12 million francs. He eludes the police, then the narrative has no less than four separate flashbacks that explore the lives of the man's wife, their daughter, their son, and their son's mistress.
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Copyright © 2016 by Emile Gaboriau
Interior design by Pronoun
Distribution by Pronoun
THERE IS NOT, PERHAPS, IN all Paris, a quieter street than the Rue St. Gilles in the Marais, within a step of the Place Royale. No carriages there; never a crowd. Hardly is the silence broken by the regulation drums of the Minims Barracks near by, by the chimes of the Church of St. Louis, or by the joyous clamors of the pupils of the Massin School during the hours of recreation.
At night, long before ten o’clock, and when the Boulevard Beaumarchais is still full of life, activity, and noise, every thing begins to close. One by one the lights go out, and the great windows with diminutive panes become dark. And if, after midnight, some belated citizen passes on his way home, he quickens his step, feeling lonely and uneasy, and apprehensive of the reproaches of his concierge, who is likely to ask him whence he may be coming at so late an hour.
In such a street, every one knows each other: houses have no mystery; families, no secrets,—a small town, where idle curiosity has always a corner of the veil slyly raised, where gossip flourishes as rankly as the grass on the street.
Thus on the afternoon of the 27th of April, 1872 (a Saturday), a fact which anywhere else might have passed unnoticed was attracting particular attention.
A man some thirty years of age, wearing the working livery of servants of the upper class,—the long striped waistcoat with sleeves, and the white linen apron,—was going from door to door.
“Who can the man be looking for?” wondered the idle neighbors, closely watching his evolutions.
He was not looking for any one. To such as he spoke to, he stated that he had been sent by a cousin of his, an excellent cook, who, before taking a place in the neighborhood, was anxious to have all possible information on the subject of her prospective masters. And then, “Do you know M. Vincent Favoral?” he would ask.
Concierges and shop-keepers knew no one better; for it was more than a quarter of a century before, that M. Vincent Favoral, the day after his wedding, had come to settle in the Rue St. Gilles; and there his two children were born,—his son M. Maxence, his daughter Mlle. Gilberte.
He occupied the second story of the house. No. 38,—one of those old-fashioned dwellings, such as they build no more, since ground is sold at twelve hundred francs the square metre; in which there is no stinting of space. The stairs, with wrought iron balusters, are wide and easy, and the ceilings twelve feet high.
“Of course, we know M. Favoral,” answered every one to the servant’s questions; “and, if there ever was an honest man, why, he is certainly the one. There is a man whom you could trust with your funds, if you had any, without fear of his ever running off to Belgium with them.” And it was further explained, that M. Favoral was chief cashier, and probably, also, one of the principal stockholders, of the Mutual Credit Society, one of those admirable financial institutions which have sprung up with the second empire, and which had won at the bourse the first installment of their capital, the very day that the game of the Coup d’Etat was being played in the street.
“I know well enough the gentleman’s business,” remarked the servant; “but what sort of a man is he? That’s what my cousin would like to know.”
The wine-man at No. 43, the oldest shop-keeper in the street, could best answer. A couple of petits-verres politely offered soon started his tongue; and, whilst sipping his Cognac:
“M. Vincent Favoral,” he began, “is a man some fifty-two or three years old, but who looks younger, not having a single gray hair. He is tall and thin, with neatly-trimmed whiskers, thin lips, and small yellow eyes; not talkative. It takes more ceremony to get a word from his throat than a dollar from his pocket. ‘Yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘good-morning,’ ‘good-evening;’ that’s about the extent of his conversation. Summer and winter, he wears gray pantaloons, a long frock-coat, laced shoes, and lisle-thread gloves. ‘Pon my word, I should say that he is still wearing the very same clothes I saw upon his back for the first time in 1845, did I not know that he has two full suits made every year by the concierge at No. 29, who is also a tailor.”
“Why, he must be an old miser,” muttered the servant.
“He is above all peculiar,” continued the shop-keeper, “like most men of figures, it seems. His own life is ruled and regulated like the pages of his ledger. In the neighborhood they call him Old Punctuality; and, when he passes through the Rue Turenne, the merchants set their watches by him. Rain or shine, every morning of the year, on the stroke of nine, he appears at the door on the way to his office. When he returns, you may be sure it is between twenty and twenty-five minutes past five. At six he dines; at seven he goes to play a game of dominoes at the Café Turc; at ten he comes home and goes to bed; and, at the first stroke of eleven at the Church of St. Louis, out goes his candle.”
“Hem!” grumbled the servant with a look of contempt, “the question is, will my cousin be willing to live with a man who is a sort of walking clock?”
“It isn’t always pleasant,” remarked the wine-man; “and the best evidence is, that the son, M. Maxence, got tired of it.”
“He does not live with his parents any more?”
“He dines with them; but he has his own lodgings on the Boulevard du Temple. The falling-out made talk enough at the time; and some people do say that M. Maxence is a worthless scamp, who leads a very dissipated life; but I say that his father kept him too close. The boy is twenty-five, quite good looking, and has a very stylish mistress: I have seen her. . . . I would have done just as he did.”
“And what about the daughter, Mlle. Gilberte?”
“She is not married yet, although she is past twenty, and pretty as a rosebud. After the war, her father tried to make her marry a stock-broker, a stylish man who always came in a two-horse carriage; but she refused him outright. I should not be a bit surprised to hear that she has some love-affair of her own. I have noticed lately a young gentleman about here who looks up quite suspiciously when he goes by No. 38.” The servant did not seem to find these particulars very interesting.
“It’s the lady,” he said, “that my cousin would like to know most about.”
“Naturally. Well, you can safely tell her that she never will have had a better mistress. Poor Madame Favoral! She must have had a sweet time of it with her maniac of a husband! But she is not young any more; and people get accustomed to every thing, you know. The days when the weather is fine, I see her going by with her daughter to the Place Royale for a walk. That’s about their only amusement.”
“The mischief!” said the servant, laughing. “If that is all, she won’t ruin her husband, will she?”
“That is all,” continued the shop-keeper, “or rather, excuse me, no: every Saturday, for many years, M. and Mme. Favoral receive a few of their friends: M. and Mme. Desclavettes, retired dealers in bronzes, Rue Turenne; M. Chapelain, the old lawyer from the Rue St. Antoine, whose daughter is Mlle. Gilberte’s particular friend; M. Desormeaux, head clerk in the Department of Justice; and three or four others; and as this just happens to be Saturday—”
But here he stopped short, and pointing towards the street:
“Quick,” said he, “look! Speaking of the—you know—It is twenty minutes past five, there is M. Favoral coming home.”
It was, in fact, the cashier of the Mutual Credit Society, looking very much indeed as the shop-keeper had described him. Walking with his head down, he seemed to be seeking upon the pavement the very spot upon which he had set his foot in the morning, that he might set it back again there in the evening.
With the same methodical step, he reached his house, walked up the two pairs of stairs, and, taking out his pass-key, opened the door of his apartment.
The dwelling was fit for the man; and every thing from the very hall, betrayed his peculiarities. There, evidently, every piece of furniture must have its invariable place, every object its irrevocable shelf or hook. All around were evidences, if not exactly of poverty, at least of small means, and of the artifices of a respectable economy. Cleanliness was carried to its utmost limits: every thing shone. Not a detail but betrayed the industrious hand of the housekeeper, struggling to defend her furniture against the ravages of time. The velvet on the chairs was darned at the angles as with the needle of a fairy. Stitches of new worsted showed through the faded designs on the hearth-rugs. The curtains had been turned so as to display their least worn side.
All the guests enumerated by the shop-keeper, and a few others besides, were in the parlor when M. Favoral came in. But, instead of returning their greeting:
“Where is Maxence?” he inquired.
“I am expecting him, my dear,” said Mme. Favoral gently.
“Always behind time,” he scolded. “It is too trifling.”
His daughter, Mlle. Gilberte, interrupted him:
“Where is my bouquet, father?” she asked.
M. Favoral stopped short, struck his forehead, and with the accent of a man who reveals something incredible, prodigious, unheard of,
“Forgotten,” he answered, scanning the syllables: “I have for-got-ten it.”
It was a fact. Every Saturday, on his way home, he was in the habit of stopping at the old woman’s shop in front of the Church of St. Louis, and buying a bouquet for Mlle. Gilberte. And to-day . . .
“Ah! I catch you this time, father!” exclaimed the girl.
Meantime, Mme. Favoral, whispering to Mme. Desclavettes:
“Positively,” she said in a troubled voice, “something serious must have happened to—my husband. He to forget! He to fail in one of his habits! It is the first time in twenty-six years.”
The appearance of Maxence at this moment prevented her from going on. M. Favoral was about to administer a sound reprimand to his son, when dinner was announced.
“Come,” exclaimed M. Chapelain, the old lawyer, the conciliating man par excellence,—“come, let us to the table.”
They sat down. But Mme. Favoral had scarcely helped the soup, when the bell rang violently. Almost at the same moment the servant appeared, and announced:
“The Baron de Thaller!”
More pale than his napkin, the cashier stood up. “The manager,” he stammered, “the director of the Mutual Credit Society.”
Close upon the heels of the servant M. de Thaller came.
Tall, thin, stiff, he had a very small head, a flat face, pointed nose, and long reddish whiskers, slightly shaded with silvery threads, falling half-way down his chest. Dressed in the latest style, he wore a loose overcoat of rough material, pantaloons that spread nearly to the tip of his boots, a wide shirt-collar turned over a light cravat, on the bow of which shone a large diamond, and a tall hat with rolled brims. With a blinking glance, he made a rapid estimate of the dining-room, the shabby furniture, and the guests seated around the table. Then, without even condescending to touch his hat, with his large hand tightly fitted into a lavender glove, in a brief and imperious tone, and with a slight accent which he affirmed was the Alsatian accent:
“I must speak with you, Vincent,” said he to his cashier, “alone and at once.”
M. Favoral made visible efforts to conceal his anxiety. “You see,” he commenced, “we are dining with a few friends, and—”
“Do you wish me to speak in presence of everybody?” interrupted harshly the manager of the Mutual Credit.
The cashier hesitated no longer. Taking up a candle from the table, he opened the door leading to the parlor, and, standing respectfully to one side:
“Be kind enough to pass on, sir,” said he: “I follow you.”
And, at the moment of disappearing himself,
“Continue to dine without me,” said he to his guests, with a last effort at self-control. “I shall soon catch up with you. This will take but a moment. Do not be uneasy in the least.”
They were not uneasy, but surprised, and, above all, shocked at the manners of M. de Thaller.
“What a brute!” muttered Mme. Desclavettes.
M. Desormeaux, the head clerk at the Department of Justice, was an old legitimist, much imbued with reactionary ideas.
“Such are our masters,” said he with a sneer, “the high barons of financial feudality. Ah! you are indignant at the arrogance of the old aristocracy; well, on your knees, by Jupiter! on your face, rather, before the golden crown on field of gules.”
No one replied: every one was trying his best to hear.
In the parlor, between M. Favoral and M. de Thaller, a discussion of the utmost violence was evidently going on. To seize the meaning of it was not possible; and yet through the door, the upper panels of which were of glass, fragments could be heard; and from time to time such words distinctly reached the ear as dividend, stockholders, deficit, millions, etc.
“What can it all mean? great heaven!” moaned Mme. Favoral.
Doubtless the two interlocutors, the director and the cashier, had drawn nearer to the door of communication; for their voices, which rose more and more, had now become quite distinct.
“It is an infamous trap!” M. Favoral was saying. “I should have been notified—”
“Come, come,” interrupted the other. “Were you not fully warned? did I ever conceal any thing from you?”
Fear, a fear vague still, and unexplained, was slowly taking possession of the guests; and they remained motionless, their forks in suspense, holding their breath.
“Never,” M. Favoral was repeating, stamping his foot so violently that the partition shook,—“never, never!”
“And yet it must be,” declared M. de Thaller. “It is the only, the last resource.”
“And suppose I will not!”
“Your will has nothing to do with it now. It is twenty years ago that you might have willed, or not willed. But listen to me, and let us reason a little.”
Here M. de Thaller dropped his voice; and for some minutes nothing was heard in the dining-room, except confused words, and incomprehensible exclamations, until suddenly,
“That is ruin,” he resumed in a furious tone: “it is bankruptcy on the last of the month.”
“Sir,” the cashier was replying,—“sir!”
“You are a forger, M. Vincent Favoral; you are a thief!”
Maxence leaped from his seat.
“I shall not permit my father to be thus insulted in his own house,” he exclaimed.
“Maxence,” begged Mme. Favoral, “my son!”
The old lawyer, M. Chapelain, held him by the arm; but he struggled hard, and was about to burst into the parlor, when the door opened, and the director of the Mutual Credit stepped out.
With a coolness quite remarkable after such a scene, he advanced towards Mlle. Gilberte, and, in a tone of offensive protection,
“Your father is a wretch, mademoiselle,” he said; “and my duty should be to surrender him at once into the hands of justice. On account of your worthy mother, however, of your father himself, above all, on your own account, mademoiselle, I shall forbear doing so. But let him fly, let him disappear, and never more be heard from.”
He drew from his pocket a roll of bank-notes, and, throwing them upon the table,
“Hand him this,” he added. “Let him leave this very night. The police may have been notified. There is a train for Brussels at five minutes past eleven.”
And, having bowed, he withdrew, no one addressing him a single word, so great was the astonishment of all the guests of this house, heretofore so peaceful.
Overcome with stupor, Maxence had dropped upon his chair. Mlle. Gilberte alone retained some presence of mind.
“It is a shame,” she exclaimed, “for us to give up thus! That man is an impostor, a wretch; he lies! Father, father!”
M. Favoral had not waited to be called, and was standing up against the parlor-door, pale as death, and yet calm.
“Why attempt any explanations?” he said. “The money is gone; and appearances are against me.”
His wife had drawn near to him, and taken his hand. “The misfortune is immense,” she said, “but not irreparable. We will sell everything we have.”
“Have you not friends? Are we not here,” insisted the others,—M. Desclavettes, M. Desormeaux, and M. Chapelain.
Gently he pushed his wife aside, and coldly.
“All we had,” he said, “would be as a grain of sand in an ocean. But we have no longer anything; we are ruined.”
“Ruined!” exclaimed M. Desormeaux,—“ruined! And where are the forty-five thousand francs I placed into your hands?”
He made no reply.
“And our hundred and twenty thousand francs?” groaned M. and Mme. Desclavettes.
“And my sixty thousand francs?” shouted M. Chapelain, with a blasphemous oath.
The cashier shrugged his shoulders. “Lost,” he said, “irrevocably lost!”
Then their rage exceeded all bounds. Then they forgot that this unfortunate man had been their friend for twenty years, that they were his guests; and they commenced heaping upon him threats and insults without name.
He did not even deign to defend himself.
“Go on,” he uttered, “go on. When a poor dog, carried away by the current, is drowning, men of heart cast stones at him from the bank. Go on!”
“You should have told us that you speculated,” screamed M. Desclavettes.
On hearing these words, he straightened himself up, and with a gesture so terrible that the others stepped back frightened.
“What!” said he, in a tone of crushing irony, “it is this evening only, that you discover that I speculated? Kind friends! Where, then, and in whose pockets, did you suppose I was getting the enormous interests I have been paying you for years? Where have you ever seen honest money, the money of labor, yield twelve or fourteen per cent? The money that yields thus is the money of the gaming table, the money of the bourse. Why did you bring me your funds? Because you were fully satisfied that I knew how to handle the cards. Ah! If I was to tell you that I had doubled your capital, you would not ask how I did it, nor whether I had stocked the cards. You would virtuously pocket the money. But I have lost: I am a thief. Well, so be it. But, then, you are all my accomplices. It is the avidity of the dupes which induces the trickery of the sharpers.”
Here he was interrupted by the servant coming in. “Sir,” she exclaimed excitedly, “O sir! the courtyard is full of police agents. They are speaking to the concierge. They are coming up stairs: I hear them!”
According to the time and place where they are uttered, there are words which acquire a terrible significance. In this disordered room, in the midst of these excited people, that word, the “police,” sounded like a thunderclap.
“Do not open,” Maxence ordered; “do not open, however they may ring or knock. Let them burst the door first.”
The very excess of her fright restored to Mme. Favoral a portion of her energy. Throwing herself before her husband as if to protect him, as if to defend him,
“They are coming to arrest you, Vincent,” she exclaimed. “They are coming; don’t you hear them?”
He remained motionless, his feet seemingly riveted to the floor.
“That is as I expected,” he said.
And with the accent of the wretch who sees all hope vanish, and who utterly gives up all struggle,
“Be it so,” he said. “Let them arrest me, and let all be over at once. I have had enough anxiety, enough unbearable alternatives. I am tired always to feign, to deceive, and to lie. Let them arrest me! Any misfortune will be smaller in reality than the horrors of uncertainty. I have nothing more to fear now. For the first time in many years I shall sleep to-night.”
He did not notice the sinister expression of his guests. “You think I am a thief,” he added: “well, be satisfied, justice shall be done.”
But he attributed to them sentiments which were no longer theirs. They had forgotten their anger, and their bitter resentment for their lost money.
The imminence of the peril awoke suddenly in their souls the memories of the past, and that strong affection which comes from long habit, and a constant exchange of services rendered. Whatever M. Favoral might have done, they only saw in him now the friend, the host whose bread they had broken together more than a hundred times, the man whose probity, up to this fatal night, had remained far above suspicion.
Pale, excited, they crowded around him.
“Have you lost your mind?” spoke M. Desormeaux. “Are you going to wait to be arrested, thrown into prison, dragged into a criminal court?”
He shook his head, and in a tone of idiotic obstinacy,
“Have I not told you,” he repeated, “that every thing is against me? Let them come; let them do what they please with me.”
“And your wife,” insisted M. Chapelain, the old lawyer, “and your children!”
“Will they be any the less dishonored if I am condemned by default?”
Wild with grief, Mme. Favoral was wringing her hands.
“Vincent,” she murmured, “in the name of Heaven spare us the harrowing agony to have you in prison.”
Obstinately he remained silent. His daughter, Mlle. Gilberte, dropped upon her knees before him, and, joining her hands:
“I beseech you, father,” she begged.
He shuddered all over. An unspeakable expression of suffering and anguish contracted his features; and, speaking in a scarcely intelligible voice:
“Ah! you are cruelly protracting my agony,” he stammered. “What do you ask of me?”
“You must fly,” declared M. Desclavettes.
“Which way? How? Do you not think that every precaution has been taken, that every issue is closely watched?”
Maxence interrupted him with a gesture:
“The windows in sister’s room, father,” said he, “open upon the courtyard of the adjoining house.”
“Yes; but here we are up two pairs of stairs.”
“No matter: I have a way.”
And turning towards his sister:
“Come, Gilberte,” went on the young man, “give me a light, and let me have some sheets.”
They went out hurriedly. Mme. Favoral felt a gleam of hope.
“We are saved!” she said.
“Saved!” repeated the cashier mechanically. “Yes; for I guess Maxence’s idea. But we must have an understanding. Where will you take refuge?”
“How can I tell?”
“There is a train at five minutes past eleven,” remarked M. Desormeaux. “Don’t let us forget that.”
“But money will be required to leave by that train,” interrupted the old lawyer. “Fortunately, I have some.”
And, forgetting his hundred and sixty thousand francs lost, he took out his pocket-book. Mme. Favoral stopped him. “We have more than we need,” said she.
She took from the table, and held out to her husband, the roll of bank notes which the director of the Mutual Credit Society had thrown down before going.
He refused them with a gesture of rage.
“Rather starve to death!” he exclaimed. “’Tis he, ‘tis that wretch—” But he interrupted himself, and more gently:
“Put away those bank-bills,” said he to his wife, “and let Maxence take them back to M. de Thaller to-morrow.”
The bell rang violently.
“The police!” groaned Mme. Desclavettes, who seemed on the point of fainting away.
“I am going to negotiate,” said M. Desormeaux. “Fly, Vincent: do not lose a minute.”
And he ran to the front-door, whilst Mme. Favoral was hurrying her husband towards Mlle. Gilberte’s room.
Rapidly and stoutly Maxence had fastened four sheets together by the ends, which gave a more than sufficient length. Then, opening the window, he examined carefully the courtyard of the adjoining house.
“No one,” said he: “everybody is at dinner. We’ll succeed.”
M. Favoral was tottering like a drunken man. A terrible emotion convulsed his features. Casting a long look upon his wife and children:
“O Lord!” he murmured, “what will become of you?”
“Fear nothing, father,” uttered Maxence. “I am here. Neither my mother nor my sister will want for any thing.”
“My son!” resumed the cashier, “my children!”
Then, with a choking voice:
“I am worthy neither of your love nor your devotion, wretch that I am! I made you lead a miserable existence, spend a joyless youth. I imposed upon you every trial of poverty, whilst I—And now I leave you nothing but ruin and a dishonored name.”
“Make haste, father,” interrupted Mlle. Gilberte. It seemed as if he could not make up his mind.
“It is horrible to abandon you thus. What a parting! Ah! death would indeed be far preferable. What will you think of me? I am very guilty, certainly, but not as you think. I have been betrayed, and I must suffer for all. If at least you knew the whole truth. But will you ever know it? We will never see each other again.”
Desperately his wife clung to him.
“Do not speak thus,” she said. “Wherever you may find an asylum, I will join you. Death alone can separate us. What do I care what you may have done, or what the world will say? I am your wife. Our children will come with me. If necessary, we will emigrate to America; we’ll change our name; we will work.”
The knocks on the outer door were becoming louder and louder; and M. Desormeaux’ voice could be heard, endeavoring to gain a few moments more.
“Come,” said Maxence, “you cannot hesitate any longer.”
And, overcoming his father’s reluctance, he fastened one end of the sheets around his waist.
“I am going to let you down, father,” said he; “and, as soon as you touch the ground, you must undo the knot. Take care of the first-story windows; beware of the concierge; and, once in the street, don’t walk too fast. Make for the Boulevard, where you will be sooner lost in the crowd.”
The knocks had now become violent blows; and it was evident that the door would soon be broken in, if M. Desormeaux did not make up his mind to open it.
The light was put out. With the assistance of his daughter, M. Favoral lifted himself upon the window-sill, whilst Maxence held the sheets with both hands.
“I beseech you, Vincent,” repeated Mme. Favoral, “write to us. We shall be in mortal anxiety until we hear of your safety.”
Maxence let the sheets slip slowly: in two seconds M. Favoral stood on the pavement below.
“All right,” he said.
The young man drew the sheets back rapidly, and threw them under the bed. But Mlle. Gilberte remained long enough at the window to recognize her father’s voice asking the concierge to open the door, and to hear the heavy gate of the adjoining house closing behind him.
“Saved!” she said.
It was none too soon. M. Desormeaux had just been compelled to yield; and the commissary of police was walking in.
The commissaries of police of Paris, as a general thing, are no simpletons; and, if they are ever taken in, it is because it has suited them to be taken in.
Their modest title covers the most important, perhaps, of magistracies, almost the only one known to the lower classes; an enormous power, and an influence so decisive, that the most sensible statesman of the reign of Louis Philippe ventured once to say, “Give me twenty good commissaries of police in Paris, and I’ll undertake to suppress any government: net profit, one hundred millions.”
Parisian above all, the commissary has had ample time to study his ground when he was yet only a peace-officer. The dark side of the most brilliant lives has no mysteries for him. He has received the strangest confidences: he has listened to the most astounding confessions. He knows how low humanity can stoop, and what aberrations there are in brains apparently the soundest. The work woman whom her husband beats, and the great lady whom her husband cheats, have both come to him. He has been sent for by the shop-keeper whom his wife deceives, and by the millionaire who has been blackmailed. To his office, as to a lay confessional, all passions fatally lead. In his presence the dirty linen of two millions of people is washed en famille.
A Paris commissary of police, who after ten years’ practice, could retain an illusion, believe in something, or be astonished at any thing in the world, would be but a fool. If he is still capable of some emotion, he is a good man.
The one who had just walked into M. Favoral’s apartment was already past middle age, colder than ice, and yet kindly, but of that commonplace kindliness which frightens like the executioner’s politeness at the scaffold.
He required but a single glance of his small but clear eyes to decipher the physiognomies of all these worthy people standing around the disordered table. And beckoning to the agents who accompanied him to stop at the door,—“Monsieur Vincent Favoral?” he inquired. The cashier’s guests, M. Desormeaux excepted, seemed stricken with stupor. Each one felt as if he had a share of the disgrace of this police invasion. The dupes who are sometimes caught in clandestine “hells” have the same humiliated attitudes.
At last, and not without an effort,
“M. Favoral is no longer here,” replied M. Chapelain, the old lawyer.
The commissary of police started. Whilst they were discussing with him through the door, he had perfectly well understood that they were only trying to gain time; and, if he had not at once burst in the door, it was solely owing to his respect for M. Desormeaux himself, whom he knew personally, and still more for his title of head clerk at the Department of Justice. But his suspicions did not extend beyond the destruction of a few compromising papers. Whereas, in fact:
“You have helped M. Favoral to escape, gentlemen?” said he.
No one replied.
“Silence means assent,” he added. “Very well: which way did he get off?”
Still no answer. M. Desclavettes would have been glad to add something to the forty-five thousand francs he had just lost, to be, together with Mme. Desclavettes, a hundred miles away.
“Where is Mme. Favoral?” resumed the commissary, evidently well informed. “Where are Mlle. Gilberte and M. Maxence Favoral?”
They continued silent. No one in the dining-room knew what might have taken place in the other room; and a single word might be treason.
The commissary then became impatient.
“Take up a light,” said he to one of the agents who had remained at the door, “and follow me. We shall see.”
And without a shadow of hesitation, for it seems to be the privilege of police-agents to be at home everywhere, he crossed the parlor, and reached Mlle. Gilberte’s room just as she was withdrawing from the window.
“Ah, it is that way he escaped!” he exclaimed.
He rushed to the window, and remained long enough leaning on his elbows to thoroughly examine the ground, and understand the situation of the apartment.
“It’s evident,” he said at last, “this window opens on the courtyard of the next house.”
This was said to one of his agents, who bore an unmistakable resemblance to the servant who had been asking so many questions in the afternoon.
“Instead of gathering so much useless information,” he added, “why did you not post yourself as to the outlets of the house?”
He was “sold”; and yet he manifested neither spite nor anger. He seemed in no wise anxious to run after the fugitive. Upon the features of Maxence and of Mlle. Gilberte, and more still in Mme. Favoral’s eyes, he had read that it would be useless for the present.
“Let us examine the papers, then,” said he.
“My husband’s papers are all in his study,” replied Mme. Favoral.
“Please lead me to it, madame.”
The room which M. Favoral called loftily his study was a small room with a tile floor, white-washed walls, and meanly lighted through a narrow transom.
It was furnished with an old desk, a small wardrobe with grated door, a few shelves upon which were piled some bandboxes and bundles of old newspapers, and two or three deal chairs.
“Where are the keys?” inquired the commissary of police.
“My father always carries them in his pocket, sir,” replied Maxence.
“Then let some one go for a locksmith.” Stronger than fear, curiosity had drawn all the guests of the cashier of the Mutual Credit Society, M. Desormeaux, M. Chapelain, M. Desclavettes himself; and, standing within the door-frame, they followed eagerly every motion of the commissary, who, pending the arrival of the locksmith, was making a flying examination of the bundles of papers left exposed upon the desk.
After a while, and unable to hold in any longer:
“Would it be indiscreet,” timidly inquired the old bronze-merchant, “to ask the nature of the charges against that poor Favoral?”
“And is the amount large?”
“Had it been small, I should have said theft. Embezzling commences only when the sum has reached a round figure.”
Annoyed at the sardonic tone of the commissary:
“The fact is,” resumed M. Chapelain, “Favoral was our friend; and, if we could get him out of the scrape, we would all willingly contribute.”
“It’s a matter of ten or twelve millions, gentlemen.” Was it possible? Was it even likely? Could any one imagine so many millions slipping through the fingers of M. de Thaller’s methodic cashier?
“Ah, sir!” exclaimed Mme. Favoral, “if any thing could relieve my feelings, the enormity of that sum would. My husband was a man of simple and modest tastes.”
The commissary shook his head.
“There are certain passions,” he interrupted, “which nothing betrays externally. Gambling is more terrible than fire. After a fire, some charred remnants are found. What is there left after a lost game? Fortunes may be thrown into the vortex of the bourse, without a trace of them being left.”
The unfortunate woman was not convinced.
“I could swear, sir,” she protested, “that I knew how my husband spent every hour of his life.”
“Do not swear, madame.”
“All our friends will tell you how parsimonious my husband was.”
“Here, madame, towards yourself and your children, I have no doubt; for seeing is believing: but elsewhere—”
He was interrupted by the arrival of the locksmith, who, in less than five minutes, had picked all the locks of the old desk.
But in vain did the commissary search all the drawers. He found only those useless papers which are made relics of by people who have made order their religious faith,—uninteresting letters, grocers’ and butchers’ bills running back twenty years.
“It is a waste of time to look for any thing here,” he growled.
And in fact he was about to give up his perquisitions, when a bundle thinner than the rest attracted his attention. He cut the thread that bound it; and almost at once:
“I knew I was right,” he said. And holding out a paper to Mme. Favoral:
“Read, madame, if you please.”
It was a bill. She read thus:
“Sold to M. Favoral an India Cashmere, fr. 8,500.
Received payment, FORBE & Towler.”
“Is it for you, madame,” asked the commissary, “that this magnificent shawl was bought?”
Stupefied with astonishment, the poor woman still refused to admit the evidence.
“Madame de Thaller spends a great deal,” she stammered. “My husband often made important purchases for her account.”
“Often, indeed!” interrupted the commissary of police; “for here are many other receipted bills,—earrings, sixteen thousand francs; a bracelet, three thousand francs; a parlor set, a horse, two velvet dresses. Here is a part, at least, if not the whole, of the ten millions.”
Had the commissary received any information in advance? or was he guided only by the scent peculiar to men of his profession, and the habit of suspecting every thing, even that which seems most unlikely?
At any rate he expressed himself in a tone of absolute certainty.
The agents who had accompanied and assisted him in his researches were winking at each other, and giggling stupidly. The situation struck them as rather pleasant.
The others, M. Desclavettes, M. Chapelain, and the worthy M. Desormeaux himself, could have racked their brains in vain to find terms wherein to express the immensity of their astonishments. Vincent Favoral, their old friend, paying for cashmeres, diamonds, and parlor sets! Such an idea could not enter in their minds. For whom could such princely gifts be intended? For a mistress, for one of those redoubtable creatures whom fancy represents crouching in the depths of love, like monsters at the bottom of their caves!
But how could any one imagine the methodic cashier of the Mutual Credit Society carried away by one of those insane passions which knew no reason? Ruined by gambling, perhaps, but by a woman!
Could any one picture him, so homely and so plain here, Rue St. Gilles, at the head of another establishment, and leading elsewhere in one of the brilliant quarters of Paris, a reckless life, such as strike terror in the bosom of quiet families?
Could any one understand the same man at once miserly-economical and madly-prodigal, storming when his wife spent a few cents, and robbing to supply the expenses of an adventuress, and collecting in the same drawer the jeweler’s accounts and the butcher’s bills?
“It is the climax of absurdity,” murmured good M. Desormeaux.
Maxence fairly shook with wrath. Mlle. Gilberte was weeping.
Mme. Favoral alone, usually so timid, boldly defended, and with her utmost energy, the man whose name she bore. That he might have embezzled millions, she admitted: that he had deceived and betrayed her so shamefully, that he had made a wretched dupe of her for so many years, seemed to her insensate, monstrous, impossible.
And purple with shame:
“Your suspicions would vanish at once, sir,” she said to the commissary, “if I could but explain to you our mode of life.”
Encouraged by his first discovery, he was proceeding more minutely with his perquisitions, undoing the strings of every bundle.
“It is useless, madame,” he answered in that brief tone which made so much impression upon M. Desclavettes. “You can only tell me what you know; and you know nothing.”
“Never, sir, did a man lead a more regular life than M. Favoral.”
“In appearance, you are right. Besides, to regulate one’s disorder is one of the peculiarities of our time. We open credits to our passions, and we keep account of our infamies by double entry. We operate with method. We embezzle millions that we may hang diamonds to the ears of an adventuress; but we are careful, and we keep the receipted bills.”
“But, sir, I have already told you that I never lost sight of my husband.”
“Every morning, precisely at nine o’clock, he left home to go to M. de Thaller’s office.”
“The whole neighborhood knows that, madame.”
“At half-past five he came home.”
“That, also, is a well-known fact.”
“After dinner he went out to play a game, but it was his only amusement; and at eleven o’clock he was always in bed.”
“Well, then, sir, where could M. Favoral have found time to abandon himself to the excesses of which you accuse him?”
Imperceptibly the commissary of police shrugged his shoulders.
“Far from me, madame,” he uttered, “to doubt your good faith. What matters it, moreover, whether your husband spent in this way or in that way the sums which he is charged with having appropriated? But what do your objections prove? Simply that M. Favoral was very skillful, and very much self-possessed. Had he breakfasted when he left you at nine? No. Pray, then, where did he breakfast? In a restaurant? Which? Why did he come home only at half-past five, when his office actually closed at three o’clock? Are you quite sure that it was to the Café Turc that he went every evening? Finally, why do not you say anything of the extra work which he always had to attend to, as he pretended, once or twice a month? Sometimes it was a loan, sometimes a liquidation, or a settlement of dividends, which devolved upon him. Did he come home then? No. He told you that he would dine out, and that it would be more convenient for him to have a cot put up in his office; and thus you were twenty-four or forty-eight hours without seeing him. Surely this double existence must have weighed heavily upon him; but he was forbidden from breaking off with you, under penalty of being caught the very next day with his hand in the till. It is the respectability of his official life here which made the other possible,—that which has absorbed such enormous sums. The harsher and the closer he were here, the more magnificent he could show himself elsewhere. His household in the Rue St. Gilles was for him a certificate of impunity. Seeing him so economical, every one thought him rich. People who seem to spend nothing are always trusted. Every privation which he imposed upon you increased his reputation of austere probity, and raised him farther above suspicion.”
Big tears were rolling down Mme. Favoral’s cheeks.
“Why not tell me the whole truth?” she stammered.
“Because I do not know it,” replied the commissary; “because these are all mere presumptions. I have seen so many instances of similar calculations!”
Then regretting, perhaps, to have said so much,
“But I may be mistaken,” he added: “I do not pretend to be infallible.” He was just then completing a brief inventory of all the papers found in the old desk. There was nothing left but to examine the drawer which was used for a cash drawer. He found in it in gold, notes, and small change, seven hundred and eighteen francs.
Having counted this sum, the commissary offered it to Mme. Favoral, saying,
“This belongs to you madame.”
But instinctively she withdrew her hand.
“Never!” she said.
The commissary went on with a gesture of kindness,—“I understand your scruples, madame, and yet I must insist. You may believe me when I tell you that this little sum is fairly and legitimately yours. You have no personal fortune.”
The efforts of the poor woman to keep from bursting into loud sobs were but too visible.
“I possess nothing in the world, sir,” she said in a broken voice. “My husband alone attended to our business-affairs. He never spoke to me about them; and I would not have dared to question him. Alone he disposed of our money. Every Sunday he handed me the amount which he thought necessary for the expenses of the week, and I rendered him an account of it. When my children or myself were in need of any thing, I told him so, and he gave me what he thought proper. This is Saturday: of what I received last Sunday I have five francs left: that, is our whole fortune.”
Positively the commissary was moved.
“You see, then, madame,” he said, “that you cannot hesitate: you must live.”
Maxence stepped forward.
“Am I not here, sir?” he said.
The commissary looked at him keenly, and in a grave tone,
“I believe indeed, sir,” he replied, “that you will not suffer your mother and sister to want for any thing. But resources are not created in a day. Yours, if I have not been deceived, are more than limited just now.”
And as the young man blushed, and did not answer, he handed the seven hundred francs to Mlle. Gilberte, saying,
“Take this, mademoiselle: your mother permits it.” His work was done. To place his seals upon M. Favoral’s study was the work of a moment.
Beckoning, then, to his agents to withdraw, and being ready to leave himself,
“Let not the seals cause you any uneasiness, madame,” said the commissary of police to Mme. Favoral. “Before forty-eight hours, some one will come to remove these papers, and restore to you the free use of that room.”
He went out; and, as soon as the door had closed behind him,
“Well?” exclaimed M. Desormeaux;
But no one had any thing to say. The guests of that house where misfortune had just entered were making haste to leave. The catastrophe was certainly terrible and unforeseen; but did it not reach them too? Did they not lose among them more than three hundred thousand francs?
Thus, after a few commonplace protestations, and some of those promises which mean nothing, they withdrew; and, as they were going down the stairs,
“The commissary took Vincent’s escape too easy,” remarked M. Desormeaux. “He must know some way to catch him again.”
At last Mme. Favoral found herself alone with her children and free to give herself up to the most frightful despair.
She dropped heavily upon a seat; and, drawing to her bosom Maxence and Gilberte,
“O my children!” she sobbed, covering them with her kisses and her tears,—“my children, we are most unfortunate.”
Not less distressed than herself, they strove, nevertheless, to mitigate her anguish, to inspire her with sufficient courage to bear this crushing trial; and kneeling at her feet, and kissing her hands,
“Are we not with you still, mother?” they kept repeating.
But she seemed not to hear them.
“It is not for myself that I weep,” she went on. “I! what had I still to wait or hope for in life? Whilst you, Maxence, you, my poor Gilberte!—If, at least, I could feel myself free from blame! But no. It is my weakness and my want of courage that have brought on this catastrophe. I shrank from the struggle. I purchased my domestic peace at the cost of your future in the world. I forgot that a mother has sacred duties towards her children.”
Mme. Favoral was at this time a woman of some forty-three years, with delicate and mild features, a countenance overflowing with kindness, and whose whole being exhaled, as it were, an exquisite perfume of noblesse and distinction.
Happy, she might have been beautiful still,—of that autumnal beauty whose maturity has the splendors of the luscious fruits of the later season.
But she had suffered so much! The livid paleness of her complexion, the rigid fold of her lips, the nervous shudders that shook her frame, revealed a whole existence of bitter deceptions, of exhausting struggles, and of proudly concealed humiliations.
And yet every thing seemed to smile upon her at the outset of life.
She was an only daughter; and her parents, wealthy silk-merchants, had brought her up like the daughter of an archduchess desired to marry some sovereign prince.
But at fifteen she had lost her mother. Her father, soon tired of his lonely fireside, commenced to seek away from home some diversion from his sorrow.
He was a man of weak mind,—one of those marked in advance to play the part of eternal dupes. Having money, he found many friends. Having once tasted the cup of facile pleasures, he yielded readily to its intoxication. Suppers, cards, amusements, absorbed his time, to the utter detriment of his business. And, eighteen months after his wife’s death, he had already spent a large portion of his fortune, when he fell into the hands of an adventuress, whom, without regard for his daughter, he audaciously brought beneath his own roof.
In provincial cities, where everybody knows everybody else, such infamies are almost impossible. They are not quite so rare in Paris, where one is, so to speak, lost in the crowd, and where the restraining power of the neighbor’s opinion is lacking.
For two years the poor girl, condemned to bear this illegitimate stepmother, endured nameless sufferings.
She had just completed her eighteenth year, when, one evening, her father took her aside.
“I have made up my mind to marry again,” he said; “but I wish first to provide you with a husband. I have looked for one, and found him. He is not very brilliant perhaps; but he is, it seems, a good, hard-working, economical fellow, who’ll make his way in the world. I had dreamed of something better for you; but times are hard, trade is dull: in short, having only a dowry of twenty thousand francs to give you, I have no right to be very particular. To-morrow I’ll bring you my candidate.”
And, sure enough, the next day that excellent father introduced M. Vincent Favoral to his daughter.
She was not pleased with him; but she could hardly have said that she was displeased.
He was, at the age of twenty-five, which he had just reached, a man so utterly lacking in individuality, that he could scarcely have excited any feeling either of sympathy or affection.
Suitably dressed, he seemed timid and awkward, reserved, quite diffident, and of mediocre intelligence. He confessed to have received a most imperfect education, and declared himself quite ignorant of life. He had scarcely any means outside his profession. He was at this time chief accountant in a large factory of the Faubourg St. Antoine, with a salary of four thousand Francs a year.
The young girl did not hesitate a moment. Any thing appeared to her preferable to the contact of a woman whom she abhorred and despised.
She gave her consent; and, twenty days after the first interview, she had become Mme. Favoral.
Alas! six weeks had not elapsed, before she knew that she had but exchanged her wretched fate for a more wretched one still.
Not that her husband was in any way unkind to her (he dared not, as yet); but he had revealed himself enough to enable her to judge him. He was one of those formidably selfish men who wither every thing around them, like those trees within the shadow of which nothing can grow. His coldness concealed a stupid obstinacy; his mildness, an iron will.
If he had married, ‘twas because he thought a wife a necessary adjunct, because he desired a home wherein to command, because, above all, he had been seduced by the dowry of twenty thousand francs.
For the man had one passion,—money. Under his placid countenance revolved thoughts of the most burning covetousness. He wished to be rich.
Now, as he had no illusion whatever upon his own merits, as he knew himself to be perfectly incapable of any of those daring conceptions which lead to rapid fortune, as he was in no wise enterprising, he conceived but one means to achieve wealth, that is, to save, to economize, to stint himself, to pile penny upon penny.
His profession of accountant had furnished him with a number of instances of the financial power of the penny daily saved, and invested so as to yield its maximum of interest.
If ever his blue eye became animated, it was when he calculated what would be at the present time the capital produced by a simple penny placed at five per cent interest the year of the birth of our Saviour.
For him this was sublime. He conceived nothing beyond. One penny! He wished, he said, he could have lived eighteen hundred years, to follow the evolutions of that penny, to see it grow tenfold, a hundred-fold, produce, swell, enlarge, and become, after centuries, millions and hundreds of millions.
In spite of all, he had, during the early months of his marriage, allowed his wife to have a young servant. He gave her from time to time, a five-franc-piece, and took her to the country on Sundays.
This was the honeymoon; and, as he declared himself, this life of prodigalities could not last.
Under a futile pretext, the little servant was dismissed. He tightened the strings of his purse. The Sunday excursions were suppressed.
To mere economy succeeded the niggardly parsimony which counts the grains of salt in the pot-au-feu, which weighs the soap for the washing, and measures the evening’s allowance of candle.
Gradually the accountant took the habit of treating his young wife like a servant, whose honesty is suspected; or like a child, whose thoughtlessness is to be feared. Every morning he handed her the money for the expenses of the day; and every evening he expressed his surprise that she had not made better use of it. He accused her of allowing herself to be grossly cheated, or even to be in collusion with the dealers. He charged her with being foolishly extravagant; which fact, however, he added, did not surprise him much on the part of the daughter of a man who had dissipated a large fortune.
To cap the climax, Vincent Favoral was on the worst possible terms with his father-in-law. Of the twenty thousand francs of his wife’s dowry, twelve thousand only had been paid, and it was in vain that he clamored for the balance. The silk-merchant’s business had become unprofitable; he was on the verge of bankruptcy. The eight thousand francs seemed in imminent danger.
His wife alone he held responsible for this deception. He repeated to her constantly that she had connived with her father to “take him in,” to fleece him, to ruin him.
What an existence! Certainly, had the unhappy woman known where to find a refuge, she would have fled from that home where each of her days was but a protracted torture. But where could she go? Of whom could she beg a shelter?
She had terrible temptations at this time, when she was not yet twenty, and they called her the beautiful Mme. Favoral.
Perhaps she would have succumbed, when she discovered that she was about to become a mother. One year, day for day, after her marriage, she gave birth to a son, who received the name of Maxence.
The accountant was but indifferently pleased at the coming of this son. It was, above all, a cause of expense. He had been compelled to give some thirty francs to a nurse, and almost twice as much for the baby’s clothes. Then a child breaks up the regularity of one’s habits; and he, as he affirmed, was attached to his as much as to life itself. And now he saw his household disturbed, the hours of his meals altered, his own importance reduced, his authority even ignored.
But what mattered now to his young wife the ill-humor which he no longer took the trouble to conceal? Mother, she defied her tyrant.
Now, at least, she had in this world a being upon whom she could lavish all her caresses so brutally repelled. There existed a soul within which she reigned supreme. What troubles would not a smile of her son have made her forget?
With the admirable instinct of an egotist, M. Favoral understood so well what passed in the mind of his wife, that he dared not complain too much of what the little fellow cost. He made up his mind bravely; and when four years later, his daughter Gilberte was born, instead of lamenting:
“Bash!” said he: “God blesses large families.”
But already, at this time, M. Vincent Favoral’s situation had been singularly modified.
The revolution of 1848 had just taken place. The factory in the Faubourg St. Antoine, where he was employed, had been compelled to close its doors.
One evening, as he came home at the usual hour, he announced that he had been discharged.
Mme. Favoral shuddered at the thought of what her husband might be, without work, and deprived of his salary.
“What is to become of us?” she murmured.
He shrugged his shoulders. Visibly he was much excited. His cheeks were flushed; his eyes sparkled.
“Bash!” he said: “we shan’t starve for all that.” And, as his wife was gazing at him in astonishment:
“Well,” he went on, “what are you looking at? It is so: I know many a one who affects to live on his income, and who are not as well off as we are.”
It was, for over six years since he was married, the first time that he spoke of his business otherwise than to groan and complain, to accuse fate, and curse the high price of living. The very day before, he had declared himself ruined by the purchase of a pair of shoes for Maxence. The change was so sudden and so great, that she hardly knew what to think, and wondered if grief at the loss of his situation had not somewhat disturbed his mind.
“Such are women,” he went on with a giggle. “Results astonish them, because they know nothing of the means used to bring them about. Am I a fool, then? Would I impose upon myself privations of all sorts, if it were to accomplish nothing? Parbleu! I love fine living too, I do, and good dinners at the restaurant, and the theatre, and the nice little excursions in the country. But I want to be rich. At the price of all the comforts which I have not had, I have saved a capital, the income of which will support us all. Eh, eh! That’s the power of the little penny put out to fatten!”
As she went to bed that night, Mme. Favoral felt more happy than she had done since her mother’s death. She almost forgave her husband his sordid parsimony, and the humiliations he had heaped upon her.
“Well, be it so,” she thought. “I shall have lived miserably, I shall have endured nameless sufferings; but my children shall be rich, their life shall be easy and pleasant.”
The next day M. Favoral’s excitement had completely abated. Manifestly he regretted his confidences.
“You must not think on that account that you can waste and pillage every thing,” he declared rudely. “Besides, I have greatly exaggerated.”
And he started in search of a situation.
To find one was likely to be difficult. Times of revolution are not exactly propitious to industry. Whilst the parties discussed in the Chamber, there were on the street twenty thousand clerks, who, every morning as they rose, wondered where they would dine that day.
For want of any thing better, Vincent Favoral undertook to keep books in various places,—an hour here, an hour there, twice a week in one house, four times in another.
In this way he earned as much and more than he did at the factory; but the business did not suit him.
What he liked was the office from which one does not stir, the stove-heated atmosphere, the elbow-worn desk, the leather-cushioned chair, the black alpaca sleeves over the coat. The idea that he should on one and the same day have to do with five or six different houses, and be compelled to walk an hour, to go and work another hour at the other end of Paris, fairly irritated him. He found himself out of his reckoning, like a horse who has turned a mill for ten years; if he is made to trot straight before him.
So, one morning, he gave up the whole thing, swearing that he would rather remain idle until he could find a place suited to his taste and his convenience; and, in the mean time, all they would have to do would be to put a little less butter in the soup, and a little more water in the wine.
He went out, nevertheless, and remained until dinner-time. And he did the same the next and the following days.
He started off the moment he had swallowed the last mouthful of his breakfast, came home at six o’clock, dined in haste, and disappeared again, not to return until about midnight. He had hours of delirious joy, and moments of frightful discouragement. Sometimes he seemed horribly uneasy.
“What can he be doing?” thought Mme. Favoral.
She ventured to ask him the question one morning, when he was in fine humor.
“Well,” he answered, “am I not the master? I am operating at the bourse, that’s all!”
He could hardly have owned to any thing that would have frightened the poor woman as much.
“Are you not afraid,” she objected, “to lose all we have so painfully accumulated? We have children—”
He did not allow her to proceed.
“Do you take me for a child?” he exclaimed; “or do I look to you like a man so easy to be duped? Mind to economize in your household expenses, and don’t meddle with my business.”
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