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Title: Castles in the Air
Author: Baroness Emmuska Orczy




FOREWORD

In presenting this engaging rogue to my readers, I feel that I owe
them, if not an apology, at least an explanation for this attempt at
enlisting sympathy in favour of a man who has little to recommend him
save his own unconscious humour. In very truth my good friend Ratichon
is an unblushing liar, thief, a forger--anything you will; his vanity
is past belief, his scruples are non-existent. How he escaped a
convict settlement it is difficult to imagine, and hard to realize
that he died--presumably some years after the event recorded in the
last chapter of his autobiography--a respected member of the
community, honoured by that same society which should have raised a
punitive hand against him. Yet this I believe to be the case. At any
rate, in spite of close research in the police records of the period,
I can find no mention of Hector Ratichon. "Heureux le peuple qui n'a
pas d'histoire" applies, therefore, to him, and we must take it that
Fate and his own sorely troubled country dealt lightly with him.

Which brings me back to my attempt at an explanation. If Fate dealt
kindly, why not we? Since time immemorial there have been worse
scoundrels unhung than Hector Ratichon, and he has the saving grace--
which few possess--of unruffled geniality. Buffeted by Fate, sometimes
starving, always thirsty, he never complains; and there is all through
his autobiography what we might call an "Ah, well!" attitude about his
outlook on life. Because of this, and because his very fatuity makes
us smile, I feel that he deserves forgiveness and even a certain
amount of recognition.

The fragmentary notes, which I have only very slightly modified, came
into my hands by a happy chance one dull post-war November morning in
Paris, when rain, sleet and the north wind drove me for shelter under
the arcades of the Odéon, and a kindly vendor of miscellaneous printed
matter and mouldy MSS. allowed me to rummage amongst a load of old
papers which he was about to consign to the rubbish heap. I imagine
that the notes were set down by the actual person to whom the genial
Hector Ratichon recounted the most conspicuous events of his chequered
career, and as I turned over the torn and musty pages, which hung
together by scraps of mouldy thread, I could not help feeling the
humour--aye! and the pathos--of that drabby side of old Paris which
was being revealed to me through the medium of this rogue's
adventures. And even as, holding the fragments in my hand, I walked
home that morning through the rain something of that same quaint
personality seemed once more to haunt the dank and dreary streets of
the once dazzling Ville Lumière. I seemed to see the shabby
bottle-green coat, the nankeen pantaloons, the down-at-heel shoes of
this "confidant of Kings"; I could hear his unctuous, self-satisfied
laugh, and sensed his furtive footstep whene'er a gendarme came into
view. I saw his ruddy, shiny face beaming at me through the sleet and
the rain as, like a veritable squire of dames, he minced his steps
upon the boulevard, or, like a reckless smuggler, affronted the grave
dangers of mountain fastnesses upon the Juras; and I was quite glad to
think that a life so full of unconscious humour had not been cut short
upon the gallows. And I thought kindly of him, for he had made me
smile.

There is nothing fine about him, nothing romantic; nothing in his
actions to cause a single thrill to the nerves of the most
unsophisticated reader. Therefore, I apologize in that I have not held
him up to a just obloquy because of his crimes, and I ask indulgence
for his turpitudes because of the laughter which they provoke.

EMMUSKA ORCZY. _Paris, 1921_.


* * * * *


CHAPTER I

A ROLAND FOR HIS OLIVER



1.

My name is Ratichon--Hector Ratichon, at your service, and I make so
bold as to say that not even my worst enemy would think of minimizing
the value of my services to the State. For twenty years now have I
placed my powers at the disposal of my country: I have served the
Republic, and was confidential agent to Citizen Robespierre; I have
served the Empire, and was secret factotum to our great Napoléon; I
have served King Louis--with a brief interval of one hundred days--
for the past two years, and I can only repeat that no one, in the
whole of France, has been so useful or so zealous in tracking
criminals, nosing out conspiracies, or denouncing traitors as I have
been.

And yet you see me a poor man to this day: there has been a
persistently malignant Fate which has worked against me all these
years, and would--but for a happy circumstance of which I hope anon to
tell you--have left me just as I was, in the matter of fortune, when I
first came to Paris and set up in business as a volunteer police agent
at No, 96 Rue Daunou.

My apartment in those days consisted of an antechamber, an outer
office where, if need be, a dozen clients might sit, waiting their
turn to place their troubles, difficulties, anxieties before the
acutest brain in France, and an inner room wherein that same acute
brain--mine, my dear Sir--was wont to ponder and scheme. That
apartment was not luxuriously furnished--furniture being very dear in
those days--but there were a couple of chairs and a table in the outer
office, and a cupboard wherein I kept the frugal repast which served
me during the course of a long and laborious day. In the inner office
there were more chairs and another table, littered with papers:
letters and packets all tied up with pink tape (which cost three sous
the metre), and bundles of letters from hundreds of clients, from the
highest and the lowest in the land, you understand, people who wrote
to me and confided in me to-day as kings and emperors had done in the
past. In the antechamber there was a chair-bedstead for Theodore to
sleep on when I required him to remain in town, and a chair on which
he could sit.

And, of course, there was Theodore!

Ah! my dear Sir, of him I can hardly speak without feeling choked with
the magnitude of my emotion. A noble indignation makes me dumb.
Theodore, sir, has ever been the cruel thorn that times out of number
hath wounded my over-sensitive heart. Think of it! I had picked him
out of the gutter! No! no! I do not mean this figuratively! I mean
that, actually and in the flesh, I took him up by the collar of his
tattered coat and dragged him out of the gutter in the Rue Blanche,
where he was grubbing for trifles out of the slime and mud. He was
frozen, Sir, and starved--yes, starved! In the intervals of picking
filth up out of the mud he held out a hand blue with cold to the
passers-by and occasionally picked up a sou. When I found him in that
pitiable condition he had exactly twenty centimes between him and
absolute starvation.

And I, Sir Hector Ratichon, the confidant of two kings, three
autocrats and an emperor, took that man to my bosom--fed him, clothed
him, housed him, gave him the post of secretary in my intricate,
delicate, immensely important business--and I did this, Sir, at a
salary which, in comparison with his twenty centimes, must have seemed
a princely one to him.

His duties were light. He was under no obligation to serve me or to be
at his post before seven o'clock in the morning, and all that he had
to do then was to sweep out the three rooms, fetch water from the well
in the courtyard below, light the fire in the iron stove which stood
in my inner office, shell the haricots for his own mess of pottage,
and put them to boil. During the day his duties were lighter still. He
had to run errands for me, open the door to prospective clients, show
them into the outer office, explain to them that his master was
engaged on affairs relating to the kingdom of France, and generally
prove himself efficient, useful and loyal--all of which qualities he
assured me, my dear Sir, he possessed to the fullest degree. And I
believed him, Sir; I nurtured the scorpion in my over-sensitive bosom!
I promised him ten per cent. on all the profits of my business, and
all the remnants from my own humble repasts--bread, the skins of
luscious sausages, the bones from savoury cutlets, the gravy from the
tasty carrots and onions. You would have thought that his gratitude
would become boundless, that he would almost worship the benefactor
who had poured at his feet the full cornucopia of comfort and luxury.
Not so! That man, Sir, was a snake in the grass--a serpent--a
crocodile! Even now that I have entirely severed my connexion with
that ingrate, I seem to feel the wounds, like dagger-thrusts, which he
dealt me with so callous a hand. But I have done with him--done, I
tell you! How could I do otherwise than to send him back to the gutter
from whence I should never have dragged him? My goodness, he repaid
with an ingratitude so black that you, Sir, when you hear the full
story of his treachery, will exclaim aghast.

Ah, you shall judge! His perfidy commenced less than a week after I
had given him my third best pantaloons and three sous to get his hair
cut, thus making a man of him. And yet, you would scarcely believe it,
in the matter of the secret documents he behaved toward me like a
veritable Judas!

Listen, my dear Sir.

I told you, I believe, that I had my office in the Rue Daunou. You
understand that I had to receive my clients--many of whom were of
exalted rank---in a fashionable quarter of Paris. But I actually lodged
in Passy--being fond of country pursuits and addicted to fresh air--in a
humble hostelry under the sign of the "Grey Cat"; and here, too,
Theodore had a bed. He would walk to the office a couple of hours before
I myself started on the way, and I was wont to arrive as soon after ten
o'clock of a morning as I could do conveniently.

On this memorable occasion of which I am about to tell you--it was
during the autumn of 1815--I had come to the office unusually early,
and had just hung my hat and coat in the outer room, and taken my seat
at my desk in the inner office, there to collect my thoughts in
preparation for the grave events which the day might bring forth,
when, suddenly, an ill-dressed, dour-looking individual entered the
room without so much as saying, "By your leave," and after having
pushed Theodore--who stood by like a lout--most unceremoniously to one
side. Before I had time to recover from my surprise at this unseemly
intrusion, the uncouth individual thrust Theodore roughly out of the
room, slammed the door in his face, and having satisfied himself that
he was alone with, me and that the door was too solid to allow of
successful eavesdropping, he dragged the best chair forward--the one,
sir, which I reserve for lady visitors.

He threw his leg across it, and, sitting astride, he leaned his elbows
over the back and glowered at me as if he meant to frighten me.

"My name is Charles Saurez," he said abruptly, "and I want your
assistance in a matter which requires discretion, ingenuity and
alertness. Can I have it?"

I was about to make a dignified reply when he literally threw the next
words at me: "Name your price, and I will pay it!" he said.

What could I do, save to raise my shoulders in token that the matter
of money was one of supreme indifference to me, and my eyebrows in a
manner of doubt that M. Charles Saurez had the means wherewith to
repay my valuable services? By way of a rejoinder he took out from the
inner pocket of his coat a greasy letter-case, and with his
exceedingly grimy fingers extracted therefrom some twenty banknotes,
which a hasty glance on my part revealed as representing a couple of
hundred francs.

"I will give you this as a retaining fee," he said, "if you will
undertake the work I want you to do; and I will double the amount
when you have carried the work out success fully."

Four hundred francs! It was not lavish, it was perhaps not altogether
the price I would have named, but it was vary good, these hard times.
You understand? We were all very poor in France in that year 1815 of
which I speak.

I am always quite straightforward when I am dealing with a client who
means business. I pushed aside the litter of papers in front of me,
leaned my elbows upon my desk, rested my chin in my hands, and said
briefly:

"M. Charles Saurez, I listen!"

He drew his chair a little closer and dropped his voice almost to a
whisper.

"You know the Chancellerie of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs?" he
asked.

"Perfectly," I replied.

"You know M. de Marsan's private office? He is chief secretary to M.
de Talleyrand."

"No," I said, "but I can find out."

"It is on the first floor, immediately facing the service staircase,
and at the end of the long passage which leads to the main staircase."

"Easy to find, then," I remarked.

"Quite. At this hour and until twelve o'clock, M. de Marsan will be
occupied in copying a document which I desire to possess. At eleven
o'clock precisely there will be a noisy disturbance in the corridor
which leads to the main staircase. M. de Marsan, in all probability,
will come out of his room to see what the disturbance is about. Will
you undertake to be ready at that precise moment to make a dash from
the service staircase into the room to seize the document, which no
doubt will be lying on the top of the desk, and bring it to an address
which I am about to give you?"

"It is risky," I mused.

"Very," he retorted drily, "or I'd do it myself, and not pay you four
hundred francs for your trouble."

"Trouble!" I exclaimed, with withering sarcasm.

"Trouble, you call it? If I am caught, it means penal
servitude--New Caledonia, perhaps--"

"Exactly," he said, with the same irritating calmness; "and if you
succeed it means four hundred francs. Take it or leave it, as you
please, but be quick about it. I have no time to waste; it is past
nine o'clock already, and if you won't do the work, someone else
will."

For a few seconds longer I hesitated. Schemes, both varied and
wild, rushed through my active brain: refuse to take this risk, and
denounce the plot to the police; refuse it, and run to warn M. de
Marsan; refuse it, and-- I had little time for reflection. My uncouth
client was standing, as it were, with a pistol to my throat--with a
pistol and four hundred francs! The police might perhaps give me half
a louis for my pains, or they might possibly remember an unpleasant
little incident in connexion with the forgery of some Treasury bonds
which they have never succeeded in bringing home to me--one never
knows! M. de Marsan might throw me a franc, and think himself generous
at that!

All things considered, then, when M. Charles Saurez suddenly said,
"Well?" with marked impatience, I replied, "Agreed," and within five
minutes I had two hundred francs in my pocket, with the prospect of
two hundred more during the next four and twenty hours. I was to have
a free hand in conducting my own share of the business, and M. Charles
Saurez was to call for the document at my lodgings at Passy on the
following morning at nine o'clock.



2.

I flatter myself that I conducted the business with remarkable skill.
At precisely ten minutes to eleven I rang at the Chancellerie of the
Ministry for Foreign Affairs. I was dressed as a respectable
commissionnaire, and I carried a letter and a small parcel addressed
to M. de Marsan. "First floor," said the concierge curtly, as soon as
he had glanced at the superscription on the letter. "Door faces top of
the service stairs."

I mounted and took my stand some ten steps below the landing, keeping
the door of M. de Marsan's room well in sight. Just as the bells of
Notre Dame boomed the hour I heard what sounded like a furious
altercation somewhere in the corridor just above me. There was much
shouting, then one or two cries of "Murder!" followed by others of
"What is it?" and "What in the name of ----- is all this infernal row
about?" Doors were opened and banged, there was a general running and
rushing along that corridor, and the next minute the door in front of
me was opened also, and a young man came out, pen in hand, and
shouting just like everybody else:

"What the ------ is all this infernal row about?"

"Murder, help!" came from the distant end of the corridor, and M. de
Marsan--undoubtedly it was he--did what any other young man under the
like circumstances would have done: he ran to see what was happening
and to lend a hand in it, if need be. I saw his slim figure
disappearing down the corridor at the very moment that I slipped into
his room. One glance upon the desk sufficed: there lay the large
official-looking document, with the royal signature affixed thereto,
and close beside it the copy which M. de Marsan had only half
finished--the ink on it was still wet. Hesitation, Sir, would have
been fatal. I did not hesitate; not one instant. Three seconds had
scarcely elapsed before I picked up the document, together with M. de
Marsan's half-finished copy of the same, and a few loose sheets of
Chancellerie paper which I thought might be useful. Then I slipped the
lot inside my blouse. The bogus letter and parcel I left behind me, and
within two minutes of my entry into the room I was descending the
service staircase quite unconcernedly, and had gone past the concierge's
lodge without being challenged. How thankful I was to breathe once more
the pure air of heaven. I had spent an exceedingly agitated five
minutes, and even now my anxiety was not altogether at rest. I dared not
walk too fast lest I attracted attention, and yet I wanted to put the
river, the Pont Neuf, and a half dozen streets between me and the
Chancellerie of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. No one who has not gone
through such an exciting adventure as I have just recorded can conceive
what were my feelings of relief and of satisfaction when I at last found
myself quietly mounting the stairs which led to my office on the top
floor of No. 96 Rue Daunou.



3.

Now, I had not said anything to Theodore about this affair. It was
certainly arranged between us when he entered my service as
confidential clerk and doorkeeper that in lieu of wages, which I could
not afford to pay him, he would share my meals with me and have a bed
at my expense in the same house at Passy where I lodged; moreover, I
would always give him a fair percentage on the profits which I derived
from my business. The arrangement suited him very well. I told you
that I picked him out of the gutter, and I heard subsequently that he
had gone through many an unpleasant skirmish with the police in his
day, and if I did not employ him no one else would.

After all, he did earn a more or less honest living by serving me. But
in this instance, since I had not even asked for his assistance, I
felt that, considering the risks of New Caledonia and a convict ship
which I had taken, a paltry four hundred francs could not by any
stretch of the imagination rank as a "profit" in a business--and
Theodore was not really entitled to a percentage, was he?

So when I returned I crossed the ante-chamber and walked past him with
my accustomed dignity; nor did he offer any comment on my get-up. I
often affected a disguise in those days, even when I was not engaged
in business, and the dress and get-up of a respectable commissionnaire
was a favourite one with me. As soon as I had changed I sent him out
to make purchases for our luncheon--five sous' worth of stale bread,
and ten sous' worth of liver sausage, of which he was inordinately
fond. He would take the opportunity on the way of getting moderately
drunk on as many glasses of absinthe as he could afford. I saw him go
out of the outer door, and then I set to work to examine the precious
document.

Well, one glance was sufficient for me to realize its incalculable
value! Nothing more or less than a Treaty of Alliance between King
Louis XVIII of France and the King of Prussia in connexion with
certain schemes of naval construction. I did not understand the whole
diplomatic verbiage, but it was pretty clear to my unsophisticated
mind that this treaty had been entered into in secret by the two
monarchs, and that it was intended to prejudice the interests both of
Denmark and of Russia in the Baltic Sea.

I also realized that both the Governments of Denmark and Russia would
no doubt pay a very considerable sum for the merest glance at this
document, and that my client of this morning was certainly a secret
service agent--otherwise a spy--of one of those two countries, who
did not choose to take the very severe risks which I had taken this
morning, but who would, on the other hand, reap the full reward of the
daring coup, whilst I was to be content with four hundred francs!

Now, I am a man of deliberation as well as of action, and at this
juncture--feeling that Theodore was still safely out of the way--I
thought the whole matter over quietly, and then took what precautions
I thought fit for the furthering of my own interests.

To begin with, I set to work to make a copy of the treaty on my own
account. I have brought the study of calligraphy to a magnificent
degree of perfection, and the writing on the document was easy enough
to imitate, as was also the signature of our gracious King Louis and
of M. de Talleyrand, who had countersigned it.

If you remember, I had picked up two or three loose sheets of paper
off M. de Marsan's desk; these bore the arms of the Chancellerie of
Foreign Affairs stamped upon them, and were in every way identical
with that on which the original document had been drafted. When I had
finished my work I flattered myself that not the greatest calligraphic
expert could have detected the slightest difference between the
original and the copy which I had made.

The work took me a long time. When at last I folded up the papers and
slipped them once more inside my blouse it was close upon two. I
wondered why Theodore had not returned with our luncheon, but on going
to the little anteroom which divides my office from the outer door,
great was my astonishment to see him lolling there on the rickety
chair which he affectioned, and half asleep. I had some difficulty in
rousing him. Apparently he had got rather drunk while he was out, and
had then returned and slept some of his booze off, without thinking
that I might be hungry and needing my luncheon.

"Why didn't you let me know you had come back?" I asked curtly, for
indeed I was very cross with him.

"I thought you were busy," he replied, with what I thought looked like
a leer.

I have never really cared for Theodore, you understand.

However, I partook of our modest luncheon with him in perfect amity
and brotherly love, but my mind was busy all the time. I began to
wonder if Theodore suspected something; if so, I knew that I could not
trust him. He would try and ferret things out, and then demand a share
in my hard-earned emoluments to which he was really not entitled. I
did not feel safe with that bulky packet of papers on me, and I felt
that Theodore's bleary eyes were perpetually fixed upon the bulge in
the left-hand side of my coat. At one moment he looked so strange that
I thought he meant to knock me down.

So my mind was quickly made up.

After luncheon I would go down to my lodgings at Passy, and I knew of
a snug little hiding-place in my room there where the precious
documents would be quite safe until such time as I was to hand
them--or one of them--to M. Charles Saurez.

This plan I put into execution, and with remarkable ingenuity too.

While Theodore was busy clearing up the debris of our luncheon, I not
only gave him the slip, but as I went out I took the precaution of
locking the outer door after me, and taking the key away in my pocket.
I thus made sure that Theodore could not follow me. I then walked to
Passy--a matter of two kilometres--and by four o'clock I had the
satisfaction of stowing the papers safely away under one of the tiles
in the flooring of my room, and then pulling the strip of carpet in
front of my bed snugly over the hiding-place.

Theodore's attic, where he slept, was at the top of the house, whilst
my room was on the ground floor, and so I felt that I could now go
back quite comfortably to my office in the hope that more remunerative
work and more lavish clients would come my way before nightfall.



4.

It was a little after five o'clock when I once more turned the key in
the outer door of my rooms in the Rue Daunou.

Theodore did not seem in the least to resent having been locked in for
two hours. I think he must have been asleep most of the time.
Certainly I heard a good deal of shuffling when first I reached the
landing outside the door; but when I actually walked into the
apartment with an air of quiet unconcern Theodore was sprawling on the
chair-bedstead, with eyes closed, a nose the colour of beetroot, and
emitting sounds through his thin, cracked lips which I could not, Sir,
describe graphically in your presence.

I took no notice of him, however, even though, as I walked past him, I
saw that he opened one bleary eye and watched my every movement. I
went straight into my private room and shut the door after me. And
here, I assure you, my dear Sir, I literally fell into my favourite
chair, overcome with emotion and excitement. Think what I had gone
through! The events of the last few hours would have turned any brain
less keen, less daring than that of Hector Ratichon. And here was I,
alone at last, face to face with the future. What a future, my dear
Sir! Fate was smiling on me at last. At last I was destined to reap a
rich reward for all the skill, the energy, the devotion, which up to
this hour I had placed at the service of my country and my King--or my
Emperor, as the case might be--without thought of my own advantage.
Here was I now in possession of a document--two documents--each one
of which was worth at least a thousand francs to persons whom I could
easily approach. One thousand francs! Was I dreaming? Five thousand
would certainly be paid by the Government whose agent M. Charles
Saurez admittedly was for one glance at that secret treaty which would
be so prejudicial to their political interests; whilst M. de Marsan
himself would gladly pay another five thousand for the satisfaction of
placing the precious document intact before his powerful and irascible
uncle.

Ten thousand francs! How few were possessed of such a sum in these
days! How much could be done with it! I would not give up business
altogether, of course, but with my new capital I would extend it and,
there was a certain little house, close to Chantilly, a house with a
few acres of kitchen garden and some fruit trees, the possession of
which would render me happier than any king. . . . I would marry! Oh,
yes! I would certainly marry--found a family. I was still young, my
dear Sir, and passably good looking. In fact there was a certain young
widow, comely and amiable, who lived not far from Passy, who had on
more than one occasion given me to understand that I was more than
passably good looking. I had always been susceptible where the fair sex
was concerned, and now . . . oh, now! I could pick and choose! The comely
widow had a small fortune of her own, and there were others! . . .

Thus I dreamed on for the better part of an hour, until, soon after
six o'clock, there was a knock at the outer door and I heard
Theodore's shuffling footsteps crossing the small anteroom. There was
some muttered conversation, and presently my door was opened and
Theodore's ugly face was thrust into the room.

"A lady to see you," he said curtly.

Then, he dropped his voice, smacked his lips, and winked with one eye.
"Very pretty," he whispered, "but has a young man with her whom she
calls Arthur. Shall I send them in?"

I then and there made up my mind that I would get rid of Theodore now
that I could afford to get a proper servant. My business would in
future be greatly extended; it would become very important, and I was
beginning to detest Theodore. But I said "Show the lady in!" with
becoming dignity, and a few moments later a beautiful woman entered my
room.

I was vaguely conscious that a creature of my own sex walked in behind
her, but of him I took no notice. I rose to greet the lady and invited
her to sit down, but I had the annoyance of seeing the personage whom
deliberately she called "Arthur" coming familiarly forward and leaning
over the back of her chair.

I hated him. He was short and stout and florid, with an
impertinent-looking moustache, and hair that was very smooth and oily
save for two tight curls, which looked like the horns of a young goat,
on each side of the centre parting. I hated him cordially, and had to
control my feelings not to show him the contempt which I felt for his
fatuousness and his air of self-complacency. Fortunately the beautiful
being was the first to address me, and thus I was able to ignore the
very presence of the detestable man.

"You are M. Ratichon, I believe," she said in a voice that was dulcet
and adorably tremulous, like the voice of some sweet, shy young thing
in the presence of genius and power.

"Hector Ratichon," I replied calmly. "Entirely at your service,
Mademoiselle." Then I added, with gentle, encouraging kindliness,
"Mademoiselle . . . ?"

"My name is Geoffroy," she replied, "Madeleine Geoffroy."

She raised her eyes--such eyes, my dear Sir!--of a tender, luscious
grey, fringed with lashes and dewy with tears. I met her glance.
Something in my own eyes must have spoken with mute eloquence of my
distress, for she went on quickly and with a sweet smile. "And this,"
she said, pointing to her companion, "is my brother, Arthur Geoffroy."

An exclamation of joyful surprise broke from my lips, and I beamed and
smiled on M. Arthur, begged him to be seated, which he refused, and
finally I myself sat down behind my desk. I now looked with unmixed
benevolence on both my clients, and then perceived that the lady's
exquisite face bore unmistakable signs of recent sorrow.

"And now, Mademoiselle," I said, as soon as I had taken up a position
indicative of attention and of encouragement, "will you deign to tell
me how I can have the honour to serve you?"

"Monsieur," she began in a voice that trembled with emotion, "I have
come to you in the midst of the greatest distress that any human being
has ever been called upon to bear. It was by the merest accident that
I heard of you. I have been to the police; they cannot--will not--act
without I furnish them with certain information which it is not in my
power to give them. Then when I was half distraught with despair, a
kindly agent there spoke to me of you. He said that you were attached
to the police as a voluntary agent, and that they sometimes put work
in your way which did not happen to be within their own scope. He also
said that sometimes you were successful."

"Nearly always, Mademoiselle," I broke in firmly and with much
dignity. "Once more I beg of you to tell me in what way I may have the
honour to serve you."

"It is not for herself, Monsieur," here interposed M. Arthur, whilst a
blush suffused Mlle. Geoffroy's lovely face, "that my sister desires
to consult you, but for her fiancé M. de Marsan, who is very ill
indeed, hovering, in fact, between life and death. He could not come
in person. The matter is one that demands the most profound secrecy."

"You may rely on my discretion, Monsieur," I murmured, without
showing, I flatter myself, the slightest trace of that astonishment
which, at mention of M. de Marsan's name, had nearly rendered me
speechless.

"M. de Marsan came to see me in utmost distress, Monsieur," resumed
the lovely creature. "He had no one in whom he could--or rather
dared--confide. He is in the Chancellerie for Foreign Affairs. His
uncle M. de Talleyrand thinks a great deal of him and often entrusts
him with very delicate work. This morning he gave M. de Marsan a
valuable paper to copy--a paper, Monsieur, the importance of which it
were impossible to overestimate. The very safety of this country, the
honour of our King, are involved in it. I cannot tell you its exact
contents, and it is because I would not tell more about it to the
police that they would not help me in any way, and referred me to you.
How could they, said the chief Commissary to me, run after a document
the contents of which they did not even know? But you will be
satisfied with what I have told you, will you not, my dear M.
Ratichon?" she continued, with a pathetic quiver in her voice and a
look of appeal in her eyes which St. Anthony himself could not have
resisted, "and help me to regain possession of that paper, the final
loss of which would cost M. de Marsan his life."

To say that my feeling of elation of a while ago had turned to one of
supreme beatitude would be to put it very mildly indeed. To think that
here was this lovely being in tears before me, and that it lay in my
power to dry those tears with a word and to bring a smile round those
perfect lips, literally made my mouth water in anticipation--for I am
sure that you will have guessed, just as I did in a moment, that the
valuable document of which this adorable being was speaking, was
snugly hidden away under the flooring of my room in Passy. I hated
that unknown de Marsan. I hated this Arthur who leaned so familiarly
over her chair, but I had the power to render her a service beside
which their lesser claims on her regard would pale.

However, I am not the man to act on impulse, even at a moment like
this. I wanted to think the whole matter over first, and . . .
well . . . I had made up my mind to demand five thousand francs when
I handed the document over to my first client to-morrow morning. At
any rate, for the moment I acted--if I may say so--with great
circumspection and dignity.

"I must presume, Mademoiselle," I said in my most business-like
manner, "that the document you speak of has been stolen."

"Stolen, Monsieur," she assented whilst the tears once more gathered
in her eyes, "and M. de Marsan now lies at death's door with a
terrible attack of brain fever, brought on by shock when he discovered
the loss."

"How and when was it stolen?" I asked.

"Some time during the morning," she replied. "M. de Talleyrand gave
the document to M. de Marsan at nine o'clock, telling him that he
wanted the copy by midday. M. de Marsan set to work at once, laboured
uninterruptedly until about eleven o'clock, when a loud altercation,
followed by cries of 'Murder!' and of 'Help!' and proceeding from the
corridor outside his door, caused him to run out of the room in order
to see what was happening. The altercation turned out to be between
two men who had pushed their way into the building by the main
staircase, and who became very abusive to the gendarme who ordered
them out. The men were not hurt; nevertheless they screamed as if they
were being murdered. They took to their heels quickly enough, and I
don't know what has become of them, but . . ."

"But," I concluded blandly, "whilst M. de Marsan was out of the room
the precious document was stolen."

"It was, Monsieur," exclaimed Mlle. Geoffroy piteously. "You will
find it for us . . . will you not?"

Then she added more calmly: "My brother and I are offering ten
thousand francs reward for the recovery of the document."

I did not fall off my chair, but I closed my eyes. The vision which
the lovely lady's words had conjured up dazzled me.

"Mademoiselle," I said with solemn dignity, "I pledge you my word of
honour that I will find the document for you and lay it at your feet
or die in your service. Give me twenty hours, during which I will move
heaven and earth to discover the thief. I will go at once to the
Chancellerie and collect what evidence I can. I have worked under M.
de Robespierre, Mademoiselle, under the great Napoléon, and under the
illustrious Fouché! I have never been known to fail, once I have set
my mind upon a task."

"In that case you will earn your ten thousand francs, my friend," said
the odious Arthur drily, "and my sister and M. de Marsan will still be
your debtors. Are there any questions you would like to ask before we
go?"

"None," I said loftily, choosing to ignore his sneering manner. "If
Mademoiselle deigns to present herself here to-morrow at two o'clock I
will have news to communicate to her."

You will admit that I carried off the situation in a becoming manner.
Both Mademoiselle and Arthur Geoffroy gave me a few more details in
connexion with the affair. To these details I listened with well
simulated interest. Of course, they did not know that there were no
details in connexion with this affair that I did not know already. My
heart was actually dancing within my bosom. The future was so
entrancing that the present appeared like a dream; the lovely being
before me seemed like an angel, an emissary from above come to tell me
of the happiness which was in store for me. The house near
Chantilly--the little widow--the kitchen garden--the magic words went
on hammering in my brain. I longed now to be rid of my visitors, to be
alone once more, so as to think out the epilogue of this glorious
adventure. Ten thousand francs was the reward offered me by this
adorable creature! Well, then, why should not M. Charles Saurez, on
his side, pay me another ten thousand for the same document, which was
absolutely undistinguishable from the first?

Ten thousand, instead of two hundred which he had the audacity to
offer me!

Seven o'clock had struck before I finally bowed my clients out of the
room. Theodore had gone. The lazy lout would never stay as much as
five minutes after his appointed time, so I had to show the adorable
creature and her fat brother out of the premises myself. But I did not
mind that. I flatter myself that I can always carry off an awkward
situation in a dignified manner. A brief allusion to the inefficiency
of present-day servants, a jocose comment on my own simplicity of
habits, and the deed was done. M. Arthur Geoffroy and Mademoiselle
Madeleine his sister were half-way down the stairs. A quarter of an
hour later I was once more out in the streets of Paris. It was a
beautiful, balmy night. I had two hundred francs in my pocket and
there was a magnificent prospect of twenty thousand francs before me!
I could afford some slight extravagance. I had dinner at one of the
fashionable restaurants on the quay, and I remained some time out on
the terrace sipping my coffee and liqueur, dreaming dreams such as I
had never dreamed before. At ten o'clock I was once more on my way to
Passy.



5.

When I turned the corner of the street and came is sight of the
squalid house where I lodged, I felt like a being from another world.
Twenty thousand francs--a fortune!--was waiting for me inside those
dingy walls. Yes, twenty thousand, for by now I had fully made up my
mind. I had two documents concealed beneath the floor of my
bedroom--one so like the other that none could tell them apart. One of
these I would restore to the lovely being who had offered me ten
thousand francs for it, and the other I would sell to my first and
uncouth client for another ten thousand francs!

Four hundred! Bah! Ten thousand shall you pay for the treaty, my
friend of the Danish or Russian Secret Service! Ten thousand!--it is
worth that to you!

In that happy frame of mind I reached the front door of my dingy
abode. Imagine my surprise on being confronted with two agents of
police, each with fixed bayonet, who refused to let me pass.

"But I lodge here," I said.

"Your name?" queried one of the men. "Hector Ratichon," I
replied. Whereupon they gave me leave to enter.

It was very mysterious. My heart beat furiously. Fear for the safety
of my precious papers held me in a death-like grip. I ran straight to
my room, locked the door after me, and pulled the curtains together in
front of the window. Then, with hands that trembled as if with ague, I
pulled aside the strip of carpet which concealed the hiding-place of
what meant a fortune to me.

I nearly fainted with joy; the papers were there--quite safely. I took
them out and replaced them inside my coat.

Then I ran up to see if Theodore was in. I found him in bed. He told
me that he had left the office whilst my visitors were still with me,
as he felt terribly sick. He had been greatly upset when, about an
hour ago, the maid-of-all-work had informed him that the police were
in the house, that they would allow no one--except the persons lodging
in the house--to enter it, and no one, once in, would be allowed to
leave. How long these orders would hold good Theodore did not know.

I left him moaning and groaning and declaring that he felt very ill,
and I went in quest of information. The corporal in command of the
gendarmes was exceedingly curt with me at first, but after a time he
unbent and condescended to tell me that my landlord had been denounced
for permitting a Bonapartiste club to hold its sittings in his house.
So far so good. Such denunciations were very frequent these days, and
often ended unpleasantly for those concerned, but the affair had
obviously nothing to do with me. I felt that I could breathe again.
But there was still the matter of the consigne. If no one, save the
persons who lodged in the house, would be allowed to enter it, how
would M. Charles Saurez contrive to call for the stolen document and,
incidentally, to hand me over the ten thousand francs I was hoping for?
And if no one, once inside the house, would be allowed to leave it,
how could I meet Mlle. Geoffroy to-morrow at two o'clock in my office
and receive ten thousand francs from her in exchange for the precious
paper?

Moreover the longer the police stayed in this house and poked their
noses about in affairs that concerned hardworking citizens like
myself--why--the greater the risk would be of the matter of the stolen
document coming to light.

It was positively maddening.

I never undressed that night, but just lay down on my bed, thinking.
The house was very still at times, but at others I could hear the
tramp of the police agents up and down the stairs and also outside my
window. The latter gave on a small, dilapidated back garden which had
a wooden fence at the end of it. Beyond it were some market gardens
belonging to a M. Lorraine. It did not take me very long to realize
that that way lay my fortune of twenty thousand francs. But for the
moment I remained very still. My plan was already made. At about
midnight I went to the window and opened it cautiously. I had heard no
noise from that direction for some time, and I bent my ear to listen.

Not a sound! Either the sentry was asleep, or he had gone on his
round, and for a few moments the way was free. Without a moment's
hesitation I swung my leg over the sill.

Still no sound. My heart beat so fast that I could almost hear it. The
night was very dark. A thin mist-like drizzle was falling; in fact the
weather conditions were absolutely perfect for my purpose. With utmost
wariness I allowed myself to drop from the window-ledge on to the soft
ground below.

If I was caught by the sentry I had my answer ready: I was going to
meet my sweetheart at the end of the garden. It is an excuse which
always meets with the sympathy of every true-hearted Frenchman. The
sentry would, of course, order me back to my room, but I doubt if he
would ill-use me; the denunciation was against the landlord, not
against me.

Still not a sound. I could have danced with joy. Five minutes more and
I would be across the garden and over that wooden fence, and once more
on my way to fortune. My fall from the window had been light, as my
room was on the ground floor; but I had fallen on my knees, and now,
as I picked myself up, I looked up, and it seemed to me as if I saw
Theodore's ugly face at his attic window. Certainly there was a light
there, and I may have been mistaken as to Theodore's face being
visible. The very next second the light was extinguished and I was
left in doubt.

But I did not pause to think. In a moment I was across the garden, my
hands gripped the top of the wooden fence, I hoisted myself up--with
some difficulty, I confess--but at last I succeeded. I threw my leg
over and gently dropped down on the other side.

Then suddenly two rough arms encircled my waist, and before I could
attempt to free myself a cloth was thrown over my head, and I was
lifted up and carried away, half suffocated and like an insentient
bundle.

When the cloth was removed from my face I was half sitting, half
lying, in an arm-chair in a strange room which was lighted by an oil
lamp that hung from the ceiling above. In front of me stood M. Arthur
Geoffroy and that beast Theodore.

M. Arthur Geoffroy was coolly folding up the two valuable papers for
the possession of which I had risked a convict ship and New Caledonia,
and which would have meant affluence for me for many days to come.

It was Theodore who had removed the cloth from my face. As soon as I
had recovered my breath I made a rush for him, for I wanted to
strangle him. But M. Arthur Geoffroy was too quick and too strong for
me. He pushed me back into the chair.

"Easy, easy, M. Ratichon," he said pleasantly; "do not vent your wrath
upon this good fellow. Believe me, though his actions may have
deprived you of a few thousand francs, they have also saved you from
lasting and biting remorse. This document, which you stole from M. de
Marsan and so ingeniously duplicated, involved the honour of our King
and our country, as well as the life of an innocent man. My sister's
fiancé would never have survived the loss of the document which had
been entrusted to his honour."

"I would have returned it to Mademoiselle to-morrow," I murmured.

"Only one copy of it, I think," he retorted; "the other you would have
sold to whichever spy of the Danish or Russian Governments happened to
have employed you in this discreditable business."

"How did you know?" I said involuntarily.

"Through a very simple process of reasoning, my good M. Ratichon," he
replied blandly. "You are a very clever man, no doubt, but the
cleverest of us is at times apt to make a mistake. You made two, and I
profited by them. Firstly, after my sister and I left you this
afternoon, you never made the slightest pretence of making inquiries
or collecting information about the mysterious theft of the document.
I kept an eye on you throughout the evening. You left your office and
strolled for a while on the quays; you had an excellent dinner at the
Restaurant des Anglais; then you settled down to your coffee and
liqueur. Well, my good M. Ratichon, obviously you would have been more
active in the matter if you had not known exactly where and when and
how to lay your hands upon the document, for the recovery of which my
sister had offered you ten thousand francs."

I groaned. I had not been quite so circumspect as I ought to have
been, but who would have thought--

"I have had something to do with police work in my day," continued M.
Geoffroy blandly, "though not of late years; but my knowledge of their
methods is not altogether rusty and my powers of observation are not
yet dulled. During my sister's visit to you this afternoon I noticed
the blouse and cap of a commissionnaire lying in a bundle in a corner
of your room. Now, though M. de Marsan has been in a burning fever
since he discovered his loss, he kept just sufficient presence of mind
at the moment to say nothing about that loss to any of the
Chancellerie officials, but to go straight home to his apartments in
the Rue Royale and to send for my sister and for me. When we came to
him he was already partly delirious, but he pointed to a parcel and a
letter which he had brought away from his office. The parcel proved to
be an empty box and the letter a blank sheet of paper; but the most
casual inquiry of the concierge at the Chancellerie elicited the fact
that a commissionaire had brought these things in the course of the
morning. That was your second mistake, my good M. Ratichon; not a very
grave one, perhaps, but I have been in the police, and somehow, the
moment I caught sight of that blouse and cap in your office, I could
not help connecting it with the commissionnaire who had brought a
bogus parcel and letter to my future brother-in-law a few minutes
before that mysterious and unexplained altercation took place in the
corridor."

Again I groaned. I felt as a child in the hands of that horrid
creature who seemed to be dissecting all the thoughts which had run
riot through my mind these past twenty hours.

"It was all very simple, my good M. Ratichon," now concluded my
tormentor still quite amiably. "Another time you will have to be more
careful, will you not? You will also have to bestow more confidence upon
your partner or servant. Directly I had seen that commissionnaire's
blouse and cap, I set to work to make friends with M. Theodore. When my
sister and I left your office in the Rue Daunou, we found him waiting
for us at the bottom of the stairs. Five francs loosened his tongue: he
suspected that you were up to some game in which you did not mean him to
have a share; he also told us that you had spent two hours in laborious
writing, and that you and he both lodged at a dilapidated little inn,
called the 'Grey Cat,' in Passy. I think he was rather disappointed that
we did not shower more questions, and therefore more emoluments, upon
him. Well, after I had denounced this house to the police as a
Bonapartiste club, and saw it put under the usual consigne, I bribed the
corporal of the gendarmerie in charge of it to let me have Theodore's
company for the little job I had in hand, and also to clear the back
garden of sentries so as to give you a chance and the desire to escape.
All the rest you know. Money will do many things, my good M. Ratichon,
and you see how simple it all was. It would have been still more simple
if the stolen document had not been such an important one that the very
existence of it must be kept a secret even from the police. So I could
not have you shadowed and arrested as a thief in the usual manner!
However, I have the document and its ingenious copy, which is all that
matters. Would to God," he added with a suppressed curse, "that I could
get hold equally easily of the Secret Service agent to whom you, a
Frenchman, were going to sell the honour of your country!"

Then it was that--though broken in spirit and burning with thoughts of
the punishment I would mete out to Theodore--my full faculties
returned to me, and I queried abruptly:

"What would you give to get him?"

"Five hundred francs," he replied without hesitation. "Can you find
him?"

"Make it a thousand," I retorted, "and you shall have him."

"How?"

"Will you give me five hundred francs now," I insisted, "and another
five hundred when you have the man, and I will tell you?"

"Agreed," he said impatiently.

But I was not to be played with by him again. I waited in silence
until he had taken a pocket-book from the inside of his coat and
counted out five hundred francs, which he kept in his hand.

"Now--" he commanded.

"The man," I then announced calmly, "will call on me for the document
at my lodgings at the hostelry of the 'Grey Cat' to-morrow morning at
nine o'clock."

"Good," rejoined M. Geoffroy. "We shall be there."

He made no demur about giving me the five hundred francs, but half my
pleasure in receiving them vanished when I saw Theodore's bleary eyes
fixed ravenously upon them.

"Another five hundred francs," M. Geoffroy went on quietly, "will be
yours as soon as the spy is in our hands."

I did get that further five hundred of course, for M. Charles Saurez
was punctual to the minute, and M. Geoffroy was there with the police
to apprehend him. But to think that I might have had twenty
thousand--!

And I had to give Theodore fifty francs on the transaction, as he
threatened me with the police when I talked of giving him the sack.

But we were quite good friends again after that until-- But you
shall judge.




CHAPTER II

A FOOL'S PARADISE



1.

Ah! my dear Sir, I cannot tell you how poor we all were in France in
that year of grace 1816--so poor, indeed, that a dish of roast pork
was looked upon as a feast, and a new gown for the wife an unheard-of
luxury.

The war had ruined everyone. Twenty-two years! and hopeless
humiliation and defeat at the end of it. The Emperor handed over to
the English; a Bourbon sitting on the throne of France; crowds of
foreign soldiers still lording it all over the country--until the
country had paid its debts to her foreign invaders, and thousands of
our own men still straggling home through Germany and Belgium--the
remnants of Napoléon's Grand Army--ex-prisoners of war, or scattered
units who had found their weary way home at last, shoeless, coatless,
half starved and perished from cold and privations, unfit for
housework, for agriculture, or for industry, fit only to follow their
fallen hero, as they had done through a quarter of a century, to
victory and to death.

With me, Sir, business in Paris was almost at a standstill. I, who had
been the confidential agent of two kings, three democrats and one
emperor; I, who had held diplomatic threads in my hands which had
caused thrones to totter and tyrants to quake, and who had brought
more criminals and intriguers to book than any other man alive--I now
sat in my office in the Rue Daunou day after day with never a client
to darken my doors, even whilst crime and political intrigue were more
rife in Paris than they had been in the most corrupt days of the
Revolution and the Consulate.

I told you, I think, that I had forgiven Theodore his abominable
treachery in connexion with the secret naval treaty, and we were the
best of friends--that is, outwardly, of course. Within my inmost heart
I felt, Sir, that I could never again trust that shameless
traitor--that I had in very truth nurtured a serpent in my bosom. But
I am proverbially tender-hearted. You will believe me or not, I simply
could not turn that vermin out into the street. He deserved it! Oh,
even he would have admitted when he was quite sober, which was not
often, that I had every right to give him the sack, to send him back
to the gutter whence he had come, there to grub once more for scraps
of filth and to stretch a half-frozen hand to the charity of the
passers by.

But I did not do it, Sir. No, I did not do it. I kept him on at the
office as my confidential servant; I gave him all the crumbs that fell
from mine own table, and he helped himself to the rest. I made as
little difference as I could in my intercourse with him. I continued
to treat him almost as an equal. The only difference I did make in our
mode of life was that I no longer gave him bed and board at the
hostelry where I lodged in Passy, but placed the chair-bedstead in the
anteroom of the office permanently at his disposal, and allowed him
five sous a day for his breakfast.

But owing to the scarcity of business that now came my way, Theodore
had little or nothing to do, and he was in very truth eating his head
off, and with that, grumble, grumble all the time, threatening to
leave me, if you please, to leave my service for more remunerative
occupation. As if anyone else would dream of employing such an
out-at-elbows mudlark--a jail-bird, Sir, if you'll believe me.

Thus the Spring of 1816 came along. Spring, Sir, with its beauty and
its promises, and the thoughts of love which come eternally in the
minds of those who have not yet wholly done with youth. Love, Sir! I
dreamed of it on those long, weary afternoons in April, after I had
consumed my scanty repast, and whilst Theodore in the anteroom was
snoring like a hog. At even, when tired out and thirsty, I would sit
for a while outside a humble café on the outer boulevards, I watched
the amorous couples wander past me on their way to happiness. At night
I could not sleep, and bitter were my thoughts, my revilings against a
cruel fate that had condemned me--a man with so sensitive a heart and
so generous a nature--to the sorrows of perpetual solitude.

That, Sir, was my mood, when on a never-to-be-forgotten afternoon
toward the end of April, I sat mooning disconsolately in my private
room and a timid rat-tat at the outer door of the apartment roused
Theodore from his brutish slumbers. I heard him shuffling up to the
door, and I hurriedly put my necktie straight and smoothed my hair,
which had become disordered despite the fact that I had only indulged
in a very abstemious déjeuner.

When I said that the knock at my door was in the nature of a timid
rat-rat I did not perhaps describe it quite accurately. It was timid,
if you will understand me, and yet bold, as coming from one who might
hesitate to enter and nevertheless feels assured of welcome. Obviously
a client, I thought.

Effectively, Sir, the next moment my eyes were gladdened by the sight
of a lovely woman, beautifully dressed, young, charming, smiling but
to hide her anxiety, trustful, and certainly wealthy.

The moment she stepped into the room I knew that she was wealthy;
there was an air of assurance about her which only those are able to
assume who are not pestered with creditors. She wore two beautiful
diamond rings upon her hands outside her perfectly fitting glove, and
her bonnet was adorned with flowers so exquisitely fashioned that a
butterfly would have been deceived and would have perched on it with
delight.

Her shoes were of the finest kid, shiny at the toes like tiny mirrors,
whilst her dainty ankles were framed in the filmy lace frills of her
pantalets.

Within the wide brim of her bonnet her exquisite face appeared like a
rosebud nestling in a basket. She smiled when I rose to greet her,
gave me a look that sent my susceptible heart a-flutter and caused me
to wish that I had not taken that bottle-green coat of mine to the
Mont de Piété only last week. I offered her a seat, which she took,
arranging her skirts about her with inimitable grace.

"One moment," I added, as soon as she was seated, "and I am entirely
at your service."

I took up pen and paper--an unfinished letter which I always keep
handy for the purpose--and wrote rapidly. It always looks well for a
lawyer or an _agent confidentiel_ to keep a client waiting for a moment
or two while he attends to the enormous pressure of correspondence
which, if allowed to accumulate for five minutes, would immediately
overwhelm him. I signed and folded the letter, threw it with a
nonchalant air into a basket filled to the brim with others of equal
importance, buried my face in my hands for a few seconds as if to
collect my thoughts, and finally said:

"And now, Mademoiselle, will you deign to tell me what procures me the
honour of your visit?"

The lovely creature had watched my movements with obvious impatience,
a frown upon her exquisite brow. But now she plunged straightway into
her story.

"Monsieur," she said with that pretty, determined air which became her
so well, "my name is Estelle Bachelier. I am an orphan, an heiress,
and have need of help and advice. I did not know to whom to apply.
Until three months ago I was poor and had to earn my living by working
in a milliner's shop in the Rue St. Honoré. The concierge in the house
where I used to lodge is my only friend, but she cannot help me for
reasons which will presently be made clear to you. She told me,
however, that she had a nephew named Theodore, who was clerk to M.
Ratichon, advocate and confidential agent. She gave me your address;
and as I knew no one else I determined to come and consult you."

I flatter myself, that though my countenance is exceptionally mobile,
I possess marvellous powers for keeping it impassive when necessity
arises. In this instance, at mention of Theodore's name, I showed
neither surprise nor indignation. Yet you will readily understand that
I felt both. Here was that man, once more revealed as a traitor.
Theodore had an aunt of whom he had never as much as breathed a word.
He had an aunt, and that aunt a concierge--_ipso facto_, if I may so
express it, a woman of some substance, who, no doubt, would often have
been only too pleased to extend hospitality to the man who had so
signally befriended her nephew; a woman, Sir, who was undoubtedly
possessed of savings which both reason and gratitude would cause her
to invest in an old-established and substantial business run by a
trustworthy and capable man, such, for instance, as the bureau of a
confidential agent in a good quarter of Paris, which, with the help of
a little capital, could be rendered highly lucrative and beneficial to
all those, concerned.

I determined then and there to give Theodore a piece of my mind and to
insist upon an introduction to his aunt. After which I begged the
beautiful creature to proceed.

"My father, Monsieur," she continued, "died three months ago, in
England, whither he had emigrated when I was a mere child, leaving my
poor mother to struggle along for a livelihood as best she could. My
mother died last year, Monsieur, and I have hard a hard life; and now
it seems that my father made a fortune in England and left it all to
me."

I was greatly interested in her story.

"The first intimation I had of it, Monsieur, was three months ago,
when I had a letter from an English lawyer in London telling me that
my father, Jean Paul Bachelier--that was his name, Monsieur--had died
out there and made a will leaving all his money, about one hundred
thousand francs, to me."

"Yes, yes!" I murmured, for my throat felt parched and my eyes dim.

Hundred thousand francs! Ye gods!

"It seems," she proceeded demurely, "that my father put it in his will
that the English lawyers were to pay me the interest on the money
until I married or reached the age of twenty-one. Then the whole of
the money was to be handed over to me."

I had to steady myself against the table or I would have fallen over
backwards! This godlike creature, to whom the sum of one hundred
thousand francs was to be paid over when she married, had come to me
for help and advice! The thought sent my brain reeling! I am so
imaginative!

"Proceed, Mademoiselle, I pray you," I contrived to say with dignified
calm.

"Well, Monsieur, as I don't know a word of English, I took the letter
to Mr. Farewell, who is the English traveller for Madame Cécile, the
milliner for whom I worked. He is a kind, affable gentleman and was
most helpful to me. He was, as a matter of fact, just going over to
England the very next day. He offered to go and see the English
lawyers for me, and to bring me back all particulars of my dear
father's death and of my unexpected fortune."

"And," said I, for she had paused a moment, "did Mr. Farewell go to
England on your behalf?"

"Yes, Monsieur. He went and returned about a fortnight later. He had
seen the English lawyers, who confirmed all the good news which was
contained in their letter. They took, it seems, a great fancy to Mr.
Farewell, and told him that since I was obviously too young to live
alone and needed a guardian to look after my interests, they would
appoint him my guardian, and suggested that I should make my home with
him until I was married or had attained the age of twenty-one. Mr.
Farewell told me that though this arrangement might be somewhat
inconvenient in his bachelor establishment, he had been unable to
resist the entreaties of the English lawyers, who felt that no one was
more fitted for such onerous duties than himself, seeing that he was
English and so obviously my friend."

"The scoundrel! The blackguard!" I exclaimed in an unguarded outburst
of fury. . . .

"Your pardon, Mademoiselle," I added more calmly, seeing that the
lovely creature was gazing at me with eyes full of astonishment not
unmixed with distrust, "I am anticipating. Am I to understand, then,
that you have made your home with this Mr. Farewell?"

"Yes, Monsieur, at number sixty-five Rue des Pyramides."

"Is he a married man?" I asked casually.

"He is a widower, Monsieur."

"Middle-aged?"

"Quite elderly, Monsieur."

I could have screamed with joy. I was not yet forty myself.

"Why!" she added gaily, "he is thinking of retiring from business--he
is, as I said, a commercial traveller--in favour of his nephew, M.
Adrien Cazalès."

Once more I had to steady myself against the table. The room swam
round me. One hundred thousand francs!--a lovely creature!--an
unscrupulous widower!--an equally dangerous young nephew. I rose and
tottered to the window. I flung it wide open--a thing I never do save
at moments of acute crises.

The breath of fresh air did me good. I returned to my desk, and was
able once more to assume my habitual dignity and presence of mind.

"In all this, Mademoiselle," I said in my best professional manner, "I
do not gather how I can be of service to you."

"I am coming to that, Monsieur," she resumed after a slight moment of
hesitation, even as an exquisite blush suffused her damask cheeks.
"You must know that at first I was very happy in the house of my new
guardian. He was exceedingly kind to me, though there were times
already when I fancied . . ."

She hesitated--more markedly this time--and the blush became deeper on
her cheeks. I groaned aloud.

"Surely he is too old," I suggested.

"Much too old," she assented emphatically.

Once more I would have screamed with joy had not a sharp pang, like a
dagger-thrust, shot through my heart.

"But the nephew, eh?" I said as jocosely, as indifferently as I could.
"Young M. Cazalès? What?"

"Oh!" she replied with perfect indifference. "I hardly ever see him."

Unfortunately it were not seemly for an avocat and the _agent
confidentiel_ of half the Courts of Europe to execute the measures of
a polka in the presence of a client, or I would indeed have jumped up
and danced with glee. The happy thoughts were hammering away in my
mind: "The old one is much too old--the young one she never sees!" and
I could have knelt down and kissed the hem of her gown for the
exquisite indifference with which she had uttered those magic words:
"Oh! I hardly ever see him!"--words which converted my brightest hopes
into glowing possibilities.

But, as it was, I held my emotions marvellously in check, and with
perfect sang-froid once more asked the beauteous creature how I could
be of service to her in her need.

"Of late, Monsieur," she said, as she raised a pair of limpid, candid
blue eyes to mine, "my position in Mr. Farewell's house has become
intolerable. He pursues me with his attentions, and he has become
insanely jealous. He will not allow me to speak to anyone, and has
even forbidden M. Cazalès, his own nephew, the house. Not that I care
about that," she added with an expressive shrug of the shoulders.

"He has forbidden M. Cazalès the house," rang like a paean in my ear.
"Not that she cares about that! Tra la, la, la, la, la!" What I
actually contrived to say with a measured and judicial air was:

"If you deign to entrust me with the conduct of your affairs, I would
at once communicate with the English lawyers in your name and suggest
to them the advisability of appointing another guardian. . . . I would
suggest, for instance . . . er . . . that I . . ."

"How can you do that, Monsieur?" she broke in somewhat impatiently,
"seeing that I cannot possibly tell you who these lawyers are?"

"Eh?" I queried, gasping.

"I neither know their names nor their residence in England."

Once more I gasped. "Will you explain?" I murmured.

"It seems, Monsieur, that while my dear mother lived she always
refused to take a single sou from my father, who had so basely
deserted her. Of course, she did not know that he was making a fortune
over in England, nor that he was making diligent inquiries as to her
whereabouts when he felt that he was going to die. Thus, he discovered
that she had died the previous year and that I was working in the
atelier of Madame Cécile, the well-known milliner. When the English
lawyers wrote to me at that address they, of course, said that they
would require all my papers of identification before they paid any
money over to me, and so, when Mr. Farewell went over to England, he
took all my papers with him and . . ."

She burst into tears and exclaimed piteously:

"Oh! I have nothing now, Monsieur--nothing to prove who I am! Mr.
Farewell took everything, even the original letter which the English
lawyers wrote to me."

"Farewell," I urged, "can be forced by the law to give all your papers
up to you."

"Oh! I have nothing now, Monsieur--he threatened to destroy all my
papers unless I promised to become his wife! And I haven't the least
idea how and where to find the English lawyers. I don't remember
either their name or their address; and if I did, how could I prove my
identity to their satisfaction? I don't know a soul in Paris save a
few irresponsible millinery apprentices and Madame Cécile, who, no
doubt, is hand in glove with Mr. Farewell. I am all alone in the world
and friendless. . . . I have come to you, Monsieur, in my distress . . .
and you will help me, will you not?"

She looked more adorable in grief than she had ever done before.

To tell you that at this moment visions floated in my mind, before
which Dante's visions of Paradise would seem pale and tame, were but
to put it mildly. I was literally soaring in heaven. For you see I am
a man of intellect and of action. No sooner do I see possibilities
before me than my brain soars in an empyrean whilst conceiving daring
plans for my body's permanent abode in elysium. At this present
moment, for instance--to name but a few of the beatific visions which
literally dazzled me with their radiance--I could see my fair client
as a lovely and blushing bride by my side, even whilst Messieurs X.
and X., the two still unknown English lawyers, handed me a heavy bag
which bore the legend "One hundred thousand francs." I could see . . .
But I had not the time now to dwell on these ravishing dreams. The
beauteous creature was waiting for my decision. She had placed her
fate in my hands; I placed my hand on my heart.

"Mademoiselle," I said solemnly, "I will be your adviser and your
friend. Give me but a few days' grace, every hour, every minute of
which I will spend in your service. At the end of that time I will not
only have learned the name and address of the English lawyers, but I
will have communicated with them on your behalf, and all your papers
proving your identity will be in your hands. Then we can come to a
decision with regard to a happier and more comfortable home for you.
In the meanwhile I entreat you to do nothing that may precipitate Mr.
Farewell's actions. Do not encourage his advances, but do not repulse
them, and above all keep me well informed of everything that goes on
in his house."

She spoke a few words of touching gratitude, then she rose, and with a
gesture of exquisite grace she extracted a hundred-franc note from her
reticule and placed it upon my desk.

"Mademoiselle," I protested with splendid dignity, "I have done
nothing as yet."

"Ah! but you will, Monsieur," she entreated in accents that completed
my subjugation to her charms. "Besides, you do not know me! How could
I expect you to work for me and not to know if, in the end, I should
repay you for all your trouble? I pray you to take this small sum
without demur. Mr. Farewell keeps me well supplied with pocket money.
There will be another hundred for you when you place the papers in my
hands."

I bowed to her, and, having once more assured her of my unswerving
loyalty to her interests, I accompanied her to the door, and anon saw
her graceful figure slowly descend the stairs and then disappear along
the corridor.

Then I went back to my room, and was only just in time to catch
Theodore calmly pocketing the hundred-franc note which my fair client
had left on the table. I secured the note and I didn't give him a
black eye, for it was no use putting him in a bad temper when there
was so much to do.



2.

That very same evening I interviewed the concierge at No. 65 Rue des
Pyramides. From him I learned that Mr. Farewell lived on a very small
income on the top floor of the house, that his household consisted of
a housekeeper who cooked and did the work of the apartment for him,
and an odd-job man who came every morning to clean boots, knives, draw
water and carry up fuel from below. I also learned that there was a
good deal of gossip in the house anent the presence in Mr. Farewell's
bachelor establishment of a young and beautiful girl, whom he tried to
keep a virtual prisoner under his eye.

The next morning, dressed in a shabby blouse, alpaca cap, and trousers
frayed out round the ankles, I--Hector Ratichon, the confidant of
kings--was lounging under the porte-cochere of No. 65 Rue des
Pyramides. I was watching the movements of a man, similarly attired to
myself, as he crossed and recrossed the courtyard to draw water from
the well or to fetch wood from one of the sheds, and then disappeared
up the main staircase.

A casual, tactful inquiry of the concierge assured me that that man
was indeed in the employ of Mr. Farewell.

I waited as patiently and inconspicuously as I could, and at ten
o'clock I saw that my man had obviously finished his work for the
morning and had finally come down the stairs ready to go home. I
followed him.

I will not speak of the long halt in the cabaret du Chien Noir, where
he spent an hour and a half in the company of his friends, playing
dominoes and drinking eau-de-vie whilst I had perforce to cool my
heels outside. Suffice it to say that I did follow him to his house
just behind the fish-market, and that half an hour later, tired out
but triumphant, having knocked at his door, I was admitted into the
squalid room which he occupied.

He surveyed me with obvious mistrust, but I soon reassured him.

"My friend Mr. Farewell has recommended you to me," I said with my
usual affability. "I was telling him just awhile ago that I needed a
man to look after my office in the Rue Daunou of a morning, and he
told me that in you I would find just the man I wanted."

"Hm!" grunted the fellow, very sullenly I thought. "I work for
Farewell in the mornings. Why should he recommend me to you? Am I not
giving satisfaction?"

"Perfect satisfaction," I rejoined urbanely; "that is just the point.
Mr. Farewell desires to do you a good turn seeing that I offered to
pay you twenty sous for your morning's work instead of the ten which
you are getting from him."

I saw his eyes glisten at mention of the twenty sous.

"I'd best go and tell him then that I am taking on your work," he
said; and his tone was no longer sullen now.

"Quite unnecessary," I rejoined. "I arranged everything with Mr.
Farewell before I came to you. He has already found someone else to do
his work, and I shall want you to be at my office by seven o'clock
to-morrow morning. And," I added, for I am always cautious and
judicious, and I now placed a piece of silver in his hand, "here are
the first twenty sous on account."

He took the money and promptly became very civil, even obsequious. He
not only accompanied me to the door, but all the way down the stairs,
and assured me all the time that he would do his best to give me
entire satisfaction.

I left my address with him, and sure enough, he turned up at the
office the next morning at seven o'clock precisely.

Theodore had had my orders to direct him in his work, and I was left
free to enact the second scene of the moving drama in which I was
determined to play the hero and to ring down the curtain to the sound
of the wedding bells.



3.

I took on the work of odd-job man at 65 Rue des Pyramides. Yes, I!
Even I, who had sat in the private room of an emperor discussing the
destinies of Europe.

But with a beautiful bride and one hundred thousand francs as my goal
I would have worked in a coal mine or on the galleys for such a
guerdon.

The task, I must tell you, was terribly irksome to a man of my
sensibilities, endowed with an active mind and a vivid imagination.
The dreary monotony of fetching water and fuel from below and
polishing the boots of that arch-scoundrel Farewell would have made a
less stout spirit quail. I had, of course, seen through the
scoundrel's game at once. He had rendered Estelle quite helpless by
keeping all her papers of identification and by withholding from her
all the letters which, no doubt, the English lawyers wrote to her from
time to time. Thus she was entirely in his power. But, thank heaven!
only momentarily, for I, Hector Ratichon, argus-eyed, was on the
watch. Now and then the monotony of my existence and the hardship of
my task were relieved by a brief glimpse of Estelle or a smile of
understanding from her lips; now and then she would contrive to murmur
as she brushed past me while I was polishing the scoundrel's study
floor, "Any luck yet?" And this quiet understanding between us gave me
courage to go on with my task.

After three days I had conclusively made up my mind that Mr. Farewell
kept his valuable papers in the drawer of the bureau in the study.
After that I always kept a lump of wax ready for use in my pocket. On
the fifth day I was very nearly caught trying to take an impression of
the lock of the bureau drawer. On the seventh I succeeded, and took
the impression over to a locksmith I knew of, and gave him an order to
have a key made to fit it immediately. On the ninth day I had the key.

Then commenced a series of disappointments and of unprofitable days
which would have daunted one less bold and less determined. I don't
think that Farewell ever suspected me, but it is a fact that never
once did he leave me alone in his study whilst I was at work there
polishing the oak floor. And in the meanwhile I could see how he was
pursuing my beautiful Estelle with his unwelcome attentions. At times
I feared that he meant to abduct her; his was a powerful personality
and she seemed like a little bird fighting against the fascination of
a serpent. Latterly, too, an air of discouragement seemed to dwell
upon her lovely face. I was half distraught with anxiety, and once or
twice, whilst I knelt upon the hard floor, scrubbing and polishing as
if my life depended on it, whilst he--the unscrupulous scoundrel--sat
calmly at his desk, reading or writing, I used to feel as if the next
moment I must attack him with my scrubbing-brush and knock him down
senseless whilst I ransacked his drawers. My horror of anything
approaching violence saved me from so foolish a step.

Then it was that in the hour of my blackest despair a flash of genius
pierced through the darkness of my misery. For some days now Madame
Dupont, Farewell's housekeeper, had been exceedingly affable to me.
Every morning now, when I came to work, there was a cup of hot coffee
waiting for me, and, when I left, a small parcel of something
appetizing for me to take away.

"Hallo!" I said to myself one day, when, over a cup of coffee, I
caught sight of her small, piggy eyes leering at me with an
unmistakable expression of admiration. "Does salvation lie where I
least expected it?"

For the moment I did nothing more than wink at the fat old thing, but
the next morning I had my arm round her waist--a metre and a quarter,
Sir, where it was tied in the middle--and had imprinted a kiss upon
her glossy cheek. What that love-making cost me I cannot attempt to
describe. Once Estelle came into the kitchen when I was staggering
under a load of a hundred kilos sitting on my knee. The reproachful
glance which she cast at me filled my soul with unspeakable sorrow.

But I was working for her dear sake; working that I might win her in
the end.

A week later Mr. Farewell was absent from home for the evening.
Estelle had retired to her room, and I was a welcome visitor in the
kitchen, where Madame Dupont had laid out a regular feast for me. I
had brought a couple of bottles of champagne with me and, what with
the unaccustomed drink and the ogling and love-making to which I
treated her, a hundred kilos of foolish womanhood was soon hopelessly
addled and incapable. I managed to drag her to the sofa, where she
remained quite still, with a beatific smile upon her podgy face, her
eyes swimming in happy tears.

I had not a moment to lose. The very next minute I was in the study
and with a steady hand was opening the drawers of the bureau and
turning over the letters and papers which I found therein.

Suddenly an exclamation of triumph escaped my lips.

I held a packet in my hand on which was written in a clear hand: "The
papers of Mlle. Estelle Bachelier." A brief examination of the packet
sufficed. It consisted of a number of letters written in English,
which language I only partially understand, but they all bore the same
signature, "John Pike and Sons, solicitors," and the address was at
the top, "168 Cornhill, London." It also contained my Estelle's birth
certificate, her mother's marriage certificate, and her police
registration card.

I was rapt in the contemplation of my own ingenuity in having thus
brilliantly attained my goal, when a stealthy noise in the next room
roused me from my trance and brought up vividly to my mind the awful
risks which I was running at this moment. I turned like an animal at
bay to see Estelle's beautiful face peeping at me through the
half-open door.

"Hist!" she whispered. "Have you got the papers?"

I waved the packet triumphantly. She, excited and adorable, stepped
briskly into the room.

"Let me see," she murmured excitedly.

But I, emboldened by success, cried gaily:

"Not till I have received compensation for all that I have done and
endured."

"Compensation?"

"In the shape of a kiss."

Oh! I won't say that she threw herself in my arms then and there. No,
no! She demurred. All young girls, it seems, demur under the
circumstances; but she was adorable, coy and tender in turns, pouting
and coaxing, and playing like a kitten till she had taken the papers
from me and, with a woman's natural curiosity, had turned the English
letters over and over, even though she could not read a word of them.

Then, Sir, in the midst of her innocent frolic and at the very moment
when I was on the point of snatching the kiss which she had so
tantalizingly denied me, we heard the opening and closing of the front
door.

Mr. Farewell had come home, and there was no other egress from the
study save the sitting-room, which in its turn had no other egress but
the door leading into the very passage where even now Mr. Farewell was
standing, hanging up his hat and cloak on the rack.



4.

We stood hand in hand--Estelle and I--fronting the door through which
Mr. Farewell would presently appear.

"To-night we fly together," I declared.

"Where to?" she whispered.

"Can you go to the woman at your former lodgings?"

"Yes!"

"Then I will take you there to-night. To-morrow we will be married
before the Procureur du Roi; in the evening we leave for England."

"Yes, yes!" she murmured.

"When he comes in I'll engage him in conversation," I continued
hurriedly. "You make a dash for the door and run downstairs as fast as
you can. I'll follow as quickly as may be and meet you under the
porte-cochere."

She had only just time to nod assent when the door which gave on the
sitting-room was pushed open, and Farewell, unconscious at first of
our presence, stepped quietly into the room.

"Estelle," he cried, more puzzled than angry when he suddenly caught
sight of us both, "what are you doing here with that lout?"

I was trembling with excitement--not fear, of course, though Farewell
was a powerful-looking man, a head taller than I was. I stepped boldly
forward, covering the adored one with my body.

"The lout," I said with calm dignity, "has frustrated the machinations
of a knave. To-morrow I go to England in order to place Mademoiselle
Estelle Bachelier under the protection of her legal guardians,
Messieurs Pike and Sons, solicitors, of London."

He gave a cry of rage, and before I could retire to some safe
entrenchment behind the table or the sofa, he was upon me like a mad
dog. He had me by the throat, and I had rolled backwards down on to
the floor, with him on the top of me, squeezing the breath out of me
till I verily thought that my last hour had come. Estelle had run out
of the room like a startled hare. This, of course, was in accordance
with my instructions to her, but I could not help wishing then that
she had been less obedient and somewhat more helpful.

As it was, I was beginning to feel a mere worm in the grip of that
savage scoundrel, whose face I could perceive just above me, distorted
with passion, whilst hoarse ejaculations escaped his trembling lips:

"You meddlesome fool! You oaf! You toad! This for your
interference!" he added as he gave me a vigorous punch on the head.

I felt my senses reeling. My head was swimming, my eyes no longer
could see distinctly. It seemed as if an unbearable pressure upon my
chest would finally squeeze the last breath out of my body.

I was trying to remember the prayers I used to murmur at my mother's
knee, for verily I thought that I was dying, when suddenly, through my
fading senses, came the sound of a long, hoarse cry, whilst the floor
was shaken as with an earthquake. The next moment the pressure on my
chest seemed to relax. I could hear Farewell's voice uttering language
such as it would be impossible for me to put on record; and through it
all hoarse and convulsive cries of: "You shan't hurt him--you limb of
Satan, you!"

Gradually strength returned to me. I could see as well as hear, and
what I saw filled me with wonder and with pride. Wonder at Ma'ame
Dupont's pluck! Pride in that her love for me had given such power to
her mighty arms! Aroused from her slumbers by the sound of the
scuffle, she had run to the study, only to find me in deadly peril of
my life. Without a second's hesitation she had rushed on Farewell,
seized him by the collar, pulled him away from me, and then thrown the
whole weight of her hundred kilos upon him, rendering him helpless.

Ah, woman! lovely, selfless woman! My heart a prey to remorse, in that
I could not remain in order to thank my plucky deliverer, I
nevertheless finally struggled to my feet and fled from the apartment
and down the stairs, never drawing breath till I felt Estelle's hand
resting confidingly upon my arm.



5.

I took her to the house where she used to lodge, and placed her under
the care of the kind concierge who was Theodore's aunt. Then I, too,
went home, determined to get a good night's rest. The morning would be
a busy one for me. There would be the special licence to get, the cure
of St. Jacques to interview, the religious ceremony to arrange for,
and the places to book on the stagecoach for Boulogne _en route_ for
England--and fortune.

I was supremely happy and slept the sleep of the just. I was up
betimes and started on my round of business at eight o'clock the next
morning. I was a little troubled about money, because when I had paid
for the licence and given to the cure the required fee for the
religious service and ceremony, I had only five francs left out of the
hundred which the adored one had given me. However, I booked the seats
on the stage-coach and determined to trust to luck. Once Estelle was
my wife, all money care would be at an end, since no power on earth
could stand between me and the hundred thousand francs, the happy goal
for which I had so ably striven.

The marriage ceremony was fixed for eleven o'clock, and it was just
upon ten when, at last, with a light heart and springy step, I ran up
the dingy staircase which led to the adored one's apartments. I
knocked at the door. It was opened by a young man, who with a smile
courteously bade me enter. I felt a little bewildered--and slightly
annoyed. My Estelle should not receive visits from young men at this
hour. I pushed past the intruder in the passage and walked boldly into
the room beyond.

Estelle was sitting upon the sofa, her eyes bright, her mouth smiling,
a dimple in each cheek. I approached her with outstretched arms, but
she paid no heed to me, and turned to the young man, who had followed
me into the room.

"Adrien," she said, "this is kind M. Ratichon, who at risk of his life
obtained for us all my papers of identification and also the valuable
name and address of the English lawyers."

"Monsieur," added the young man as he extended his hand to me,
"Estelle and I will remain eternally your debtors."

I struck at the hand which he had so impudently held out to me and
turned to Estelle with my usual dignified calm, but with wrath
expressed in every line of my face.

"Estelle," I said, "what is the meaning of this?"

"Oh," she retorted with one of her provoking smiles, "you must not
call me Estelle, you know, or Adrien will smack your face. We are
indeed grateful to you, my good M. Ratichon," she continued more
seriously, "and though I only promised you another hundred francs when
your work for me was completed, my husband and I have decided to give
you a thousand francs in view of the risks which you ran on our
behalf."

"Your husband!" I stammered.

"I was married to M. Adrien Cazalès a month ago," she said, "but we
had perforce to keep our marriage a secret, because Mr. Farewell once
vowed to me that unless I became his wife he would destroy all my
papers of identification, and then--even if I ever succeeded in
discovering who were the English lawyers who had charge of my father's
money--I could never prove it to them that I and no one else was
entitled to it. But for you, dear M. Ratichon," added the cruel and
shameless one, "I should indeed never have succeeded."

In the midst of this overwhelming cataclysm I am proud to say that I
retained mastery over my rage and contrived to say with perfect calm:

"But why have deceived me, Mademoiselle? Why have kept your marriage a
secret from me? Was I not toiling and working and risking my life for
you?"

"And would you have worked quite so enthusiastically for me," queried
the false one archly, "if I had told you everything?"

I groaned. Perhaps she was right. I don't know.

I took the thousand francs and never saw M. and Mme. Cazalès again.

But I met Ma'ame Dupont by accident soon after. She has left Mr.
Farewell's service.

She still weighs one hundred kilos.

I often call on her of an evening.

Ah, well!





CHAPTER III

ON THE BRINK



1.

You would have thought that after the shameful way in which Theodore
treated me in the matter of the secret treaty that I would then and
there have turned him out of doors, sent him back to grub for scraps
out of the gutter, and hardened my heart once and for all against that
snake in the grass whom I had nurtured in my bosom.

But, as no doubt you have remarked ere this, I have been burdened by
Nature with an over-sensitive heart. It is a burden, my dear Sir, and
though I have suffered inexpressibly under it, I nevertheless agree
with the English poet, George Crabbe, whose works I have read with a
great deal of pleasure and profit in the original tongue, and who
avers in one of his inimitable "Tales" that it is "better to love
amiss than nothing to have loved."

Not that I loved Theodore, you understand? But he and I had shared so
many ups and downs together of late that I was loath to think of him
as reduced to begging his bread in the streets. Then I kept him by me,
for I thought that he might at times be useful to me in my business.

I kept him to my hurt, as you will presently see.

In those days--I am now speaking of the time immediately following the
Restoration of our beloved King Louis XVIII to the throne of his
forbears--Parisian society was, as it were, divided into two distinct
categories: those who had become impoverished by the revolution and
the wars of the Empire, and those who had made their fortunes thereby.
Among the former was M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour, a handsome young
officer of cavalry; and among the latter was one Mauruss Mosenstein, a
usurer of the Jewish persuasion, whose wealth was reputed in millions,
and who had a handsome daughter biblically named Rachel, who a year
ago had become Madame la Marquise de Firmin-Latour.

From the first moment that this brilliant young couple appeared upon
the firmament of Parisian society I took a keen interest in all their
doings. In those days, you understand, it was in the essence of my
business to know as much as possible of the private affairs of people
in their position, and instinct had at once told me that in the case
of M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour such knowledge might prove very
remunerative.

Thus I very soon found out that M. le Marquis had not a single louis
of his own to bless himself with, and that it was Papa Mosenstein's
millions that kept up the young people's magnificent establishment in
the Rue de Grammont.

I also found out that Mme. la Marquise was some dozen years older than
Monsieur, and that she had been a widow when she married him. There
were rumours that her first marriage had not been a happy one. The
husband, M. le Compte de Naquet, had been a gambler and a spendthrift,
and had dissipated as much of his wife's fortune as he could lay his
hands on, until one day he went off on a voyage to America, or
goodness knows where, and was never heard of again. Mme. la Comtesse,
as she then was, did not grieve over her loss; indeed, she returned to
the bosom of her family, and her father--a shrewd usurer, who had
amassed an enormous fortune during the wars--succeeded, with the aid
of his apparently bottomless moneybags, in having his first son-in-law
declared deceased by Royal decree, so as to enable the beautiful
Rachel to contract another, yet more brilliant alliance, as far as
name and lineage were concerned, with the Marquis de Firmin-Latour.

Indeed, I learned that the worthy Israelite's one passion was the
social advancement of his daughter, whom he worshipped. So, as soon as
the marriage was consummated and the young people were home from their
honeymoon, he fitted up for their use the most extravagantly sumptuous
apartment Paris had ever seen. Nothing seemed too good or too
luxurious for Mme. la Marquise de Firmin-Latour. He desired her to cut
a brilliant figure in Paris society--nay, to be the Ville Lumiere's
brightest and most particular star. After the town house he bought a
chateau in the country, horses and carriages, which he placed at the
disposal of the young couple; he kept up an army of servants for them,
and replenished their cellars with the choicest wines. He threw money
about for diamonds and pearls which his daughter wore, and paid all
his son-in-law's tailors' and shirt-makers' bills. But always the
money was his, you understand? The house in Paris was his, so was the
chateau on the Loire; he lent them to his daughter. He lent her the
diamonds, and the carriages, and the boxes at the opera and the
Français. But here his generosity ended. He had been deceived in his
daughter's first husband; some of the money which he had given her had
gone to pay the gambling debts of an unscrupulous spendthrift. He was
determined that this should not occur again. A man might spend his
wife's money--indeed, the law placed most of it at his disposal in
those days--but he could not touch or mortgage one sou that belonged
to his father-in-law. And, strangely enough, Mme. la Marquise de
Firmin-Latour acquiesced and aided her father in his determination.
Whether it was the Jewish blood in her, or merely obedience to old
Mosenstein's whim, it were impossible to say. Certain it is that out
of the lavish pin-money which her father gave her as a free gift from
time to time, she only doled out a meagre allowance to her husband,
and although she had everything she wanted, M. le Marquis on his side
had often less than twenty francs in his pocket.

A very humiliating position, you will admit, Sir, for a dashing young
cavalry officer. Often have I seen him gnawing his finger-nails with
rage when, at the end of a copious dinner in one of the fashionable
restaurants--where I myself was engaged in a business capacity to
keep an eye on possibly light-fingered customers--it would be Mme. la
Marquise who paid the bill, even gave the pourboire to the waiter. At
such times my heart would be filled with pity for his misfortunes,
and, in my own proud and lofty independence, I felt that I did not
envy him his wife's millions.

Of course, he borrowed from every usurer in the city for as long as
they would lend him any money; but now he was up to his eyes in debt,
and there was not a Jew inside France who would have lent him one
hundred francs.

You see, his precarious position was as well known as were his
extravagant tastes and the obstinate parsimoniousness of M.
Mosenstein.

But such men as M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour, you understand, Sir,
are destined by Nature first and by fortuitous circumstances
afterwards to become the clients of men of ability like myself. I knew
that sooner or later the elegant young soldier would be forced to seek
the advice of someone wiser than himself, for indeed his present
situation could not last much longer. It would soon be "sink" with
him, for he could no longer "swim."

And I was determined that when that time came he should turn to me as
the drowning man turns to the straw.

So where M. le Marquis went in public I went, when possible. I was
biding my time, and wisely too, as you will judge.



2.

Then one day our eyes met: not in a fashionable restaurant, I may tell
you, but in a discreet one situated on the slopes of Montmartre. I was
there alone, sipping a cup of coffee after a frugal dinner. I had
drifted in there chiefly because I had quite accidentally caught sight
of M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour walking arm-in-arm up the Rue Lepic
with a lady who was both youthful and charming--a well-known dancer at
the opera. Presently I saw him turn into that discreet little
restaurant, where, in very truth, it was not likely that Mme. la
Marquise would follow him. But I did. What made me do it, I cannot
say; but for some time now it had been my wish to make the personal
acquaintance of M. de Firmin-Latour, and I lost no opportunity which
might help me to attain this desire.

Somehow the man interested me. His social and financial position was
peculiar, you will admit, and here, methought, was the beginning of an
adventure which might prove the turning-point in his career and . . .
my opportunity. I was not wrong, as you will presently see. Whilst
silently eating my simple dinner, I watched M. de Firmin-Latour.

He had started the evening by being very gay; he had ordered champagne
and a succulent meal, and chatted light-heartedly with his companion,
until presently three young women, flashily dressed, made noisy
irruption into the restaurant.

M. de Firmin-Latour's friend hailed them, introduced them to him, and
soon he was host, not to one lady, but to four, and instead of two
dinners he had to order five, and more champagne, and then
dessert--peaches, strawberries, bonbons, liqueurs, flowers, and what
not, until I could see that the bill which presently he would be
called upon to pay would amount to far more than his quarterly
allowance from Mme. la Marquise, far more, presumably, than he had in
his pocket at the present moment.

My brain works with marvellous rapidity, as you know. Already I had
made up my mind to see the little comedy through to the end, and I
watched with a good deal of interest and some pity the clouds of
anxiety gathering over M. de Firmin-Latour's brow.

The dinner party lasted some considerable time; then the inevitable
cataclysm occurred. The ladies were busy chattering and rouging their
lips when the bill was presented. They affected to see and hear
nothing: it is a way ladies have when dinner has to be paid for; but I
saw and heard everything. The waiter stood by, silent and obsequious
at first, whilst M. le Marquis hunted through all his pockets. Then
there was some whispered colloquy, and the waiter's attitude lost
something of its correct dignity. After that the proprietor was
called, and the whispered colloquy degenerated into altercation,
whilst the ladies--not at all unaware of the situation--giggled
amongst themselves. Finally, M. le Marquis offered a promissory note,
which was refused.

Then it was that our eyes met. M. de Firmin-Latour had flushed to the
roots of his hair. His situation was indeed desperate, and my
opportunity had come. With consummate sang-froid, I advanced towards
the agitated group composed of M. le Marquis, the proprietor, and the
head waiter. I glanced at the bill, the cause of all this turmoil,
which reposed on a metal salver in the head waiter's hand, and with a
brief:

"If M. le Marquis will allow me . . ." I produced my pocket-book.

The bill was for nine hundred francs.

At first M. le Marquis thought that I was about to pay it--and so did
the proprietor of the establishment, who made a movement as if he
would lie down on the floor and lick my boots. But not so. To begin
with, I did not happen to possess nine hundred francs, and if I did, I
should not Have been fool enough to lend them to this young
scapegrace. No! What I did was to extract from my notebook a card, one
of a series which I always keep by me in case of an emergency like the
present one. It bore the legend: "Comte Hercule de Montjoie,
secrétaire particulier de M. le Duc d'Otrante," and below it the
address, "Palais du Commissariat de Police, 12 Quai d'Orsay." This
card I presented with a graceful flourish of the arm to the proprietor
of the establishment, whilst I said with that lofty self-assurance
which is one of my finest attributes and which I have never seen
equalled:

"M. le Marquis is my friend. I will be guarantee for this trifling
amount."

The proprietor and head waiter stammered excuses. Private secretary of
M. le Duc d'Otrante! Think of it! It is not often that such personages
deign to frequent the .restaurants of Montmartre. M. le Marquis, on
the other hand, looked completely bewildered, whilst I, taking
advantage of the situation, seized him familiarly by the arm, and
leading him toward the door, I said with condescending urbanity:

"One word with you, my dear Marquis. It is so long since we have met."

I bowed to the ladies.

"Mesdames," I said, and was gratified to see that they followed my
dramatic exit with eyes of appreciation and of wonder. The proprietor
himself offered me my hat, and a moment or two later M. de
Firmin-Latour and I were out together in the Rue Lepic.

"My dear Comte," he said as soon as he had recovered his breath, "how
can I think you? . . ."

"Not now, Monsieur, not now," I replied. "You have only just time to
make your way as quickly as you can back to your palace in the Rue de
Grammont before our friend the proprietor discovers the several
mistakes which he has made in the past few minutes and vents his wrath
upon your fair guests."

"You are right," he rejoined lightly. "But I will have the pleasure to
call on you to-morrow at the Palais du Commissariat."

"Do no such thing, Monsieur le Marquis," I retorted with a pleasant
laugh. "You would not find me there."

"But--" he stammered.

"But," I broke in with my wonted business-like and persuasive manner,
"if you think that I have conducted this delicate affair for you with
tact and discretion, then, in your own interest I should advise you to
call on me at my private office, No. 96 Rue Daunou. Hector Ratichon,
at your service."

He appeared more bewildered than ever.

"Rue Daunou," he murmured. "Ratichon!"

"Private inquiry and confidential agent," I rejoined. "My brains are
at your service should you desire to extricate yourself from the
humiliating financial position in which it has been my good luck to
find you, and yours to meet with me."

With that I left him, Sir, to walk away or stay as he pleased. As for
me, I went quickly down the street. I felt that the situation was
absolutely perfect; to have spoken another word might have spoilt it.
Moreover, there was no knowing how soon the proprietor of that humble
hostelry would begin to have doubts as to the identity of the private
secretary of M. le Duc d'Otrante. So I was best out of the way.



3.

The very next day M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour called upon me at my
office in the Rue Daunou. Theodore let him in, and the first thing
that struck me about him was his curt, haughty manner and the look of
disdain wherewith he regarded the humble appointments of my business
premises. He himself was magnificently dressed, I may tell you. His
bottle-green coat was of the finest cloth and the most perfect cut I
had ever seen. His kerseymere pantaloons fitted him without a wrinkle.
He wore gloves, he carried a muff of priceless zibeline, and in his
cravat there was a diamond the size of a broad bean.

He also carried a malacca cane, which he deposited upon my desk, and a
gold-rimmed spy-glass which, with a gesture of supreme affectation, he
raised to his eye.

"Now, M. Hector Ratichon," he said abruptly, "perhaps you will be good
enough to explain."

I had risen when he entered. But now I sat down again and coolly
pointed to the best chair in the room.

"Will you give yourself the trouble to sit down, M. le Marquis?" I
riposted blandly.

He called me names--rude names! but I took no notice of that . . . and
he sat down.

"Now!" he said once more.

"What is it you desire to know, M. le Marquis?" I queried.

"Why you interfered in my affairs last night?"

"Do you complain?" I asked.

"No," he admitted reluctantly, "but I don't understand your object."

"My object was to serve you then," I rejoined quietly, "and later."

"What do you mean by 'later'?"

"To-day," I replied, "to-morrow; whenever your present position
becomes absolutely unendurable."

"It is that now," he said with a savage oath.

"I thought as much," was my curt comment.

"And do you mean to assert," he went on more earnestly, "that you can
find a way out of it?"

"If you desire it--yes!" I said.

"How?"

He drew his chair nearer to my desk, and I leaned forward, with my
elbows on the table, the finger-tips of one hand in contact with those
of the other.

"Let us begin by reviewing the situation, shall we, Monsieur?" I
began.

"If you wish," he said curtly.

"You are a gentleman of refined, not to say luxurious tastes, who
finds himself absolutely without means to gratify them. Is that so?"

He nodded.

"You have a wife and a father-in-law who, whilst lavishing costly
treasures upon you, leave you in a humiliating dependence on them for
actual money."

Again he nodded approvingly.

"Human nature," I continued with gentle indulgence, "being what it is,
you pine after what you do not possess--namely, money. Houses,
equipages, servants, even good food and wine, are nothing to you
beside that earnest desire for money that you can call your own, and
which, if only you had it, you could spend at your pleasure."

"To the point, man, to the point!" he broke in impatiently.

"One moment, M. le Marquis, and I have done. But first of all, with
your permission, shall we also review the assets in your life which we
will have to use in order to arrive at the gratification of your
earnest wish?"

"Assets? What do you mean?"

"The means to our end. You want money; we must find the means to get
it for you."

"I begin to understand," he said, and drew his chair another inch or
two closer to me.

"Firstly, M. le Marquis," I resumed, and now my voice had become
earnest and incisive, "firstly you have a wife, then you have a
father-in-law whose wealth is beyond the dreams of humble people like
myself, and whose one great passion in life is the social position of
the daughter whom he worships. Now," I added, and with the tip of my
little finger I touched the sleeve of my aristocratic client, "here at
once is your first asset. Get at the money-bags of papa by threatening
the social position of his daughter."

Whereupon my young gentleman jumped to his feet and swore and abused
me for a mudlark and a muckworm and I don't know what. He seized his
malacca cane and threatened me with it, and asked me how the devil I
dared thus to speak of Mme. la Marquise de Firmin-Latour. He cursed,
and he stormed and he raved of his sixteen quarterings and of my
loutishness. He did everything in fact except walk out of the room.

I let him go on quite quietly. It was part of his programme, and we
had to go through the performance. As soon as he gave me the chance of
putting in a word edgeways I rejoined quietly:

"We are not going to hurt Madame la Marquise, Monsieur; and if you do
not want the money, let us say no more about it."

Whereupon he calmed down; after a while he sat down again, this time
with his cane between his knees and its ivory knob between his teeth.

"Go on," he said curtly.

Nor did he interrupt me again whilst I expounded my scheme to him--one
that, mind you, I had evolved during the night, knowing well that I
should receive his visit during the day; and I flatter myself that no
finer scheme for the bleeding of a parsimonious usurer was ever
devised by any man.

If it succeeded--and there was no reason why it should not--M. de
Firmin-Latour would pocket a cool half-million, whilst I, sir, the
brain that had devised the whole scheme, pronounced myself satisfied
with the paltry emolument of one hundred thousand francs, out of
which, remember, I should have to give Theodore a considerable sum.

We talked it all over, M. le Marquis and I, the whole afternoon. I may
tell you at once that he was positively delighted with the plan, and
then and there gave me one hundred francs out of his own meagre purse
for my preliminary expenses.

The next morning we began work.

I had begged M. le Marquis to find the means of bringing me a few
scraps of the late M. le Comte de Naquet's--Madame la Marquise's
first husband--handwriting. This, fortunately, he was able to do. They
were a few valueless notes penned at different times by the deceased
gentleman and which, luckily for us all, Madame had not thought it
worth while to keep under lock and key.

I think I told you before, did I not? what a marvellous expert I am in
every kind of calligraphy, and soon I had a letter ready which was to
represent the first fire in the exciting war which we were about to
wage against an obstinate lady and a parsimonious usurer.

My identity securely hidden under the disguise of a commissionnaire, I
took that letter to Mme. la Marquise de Firmin-Latour's sumptuous
abode in the Rue de Grammont.

M. le Marquis, you understand, had in the meanwhile been thoroughly
primed in the rôle which he was to play; as for Theodore, I thought it
best for the moment to dispense with his aid.

The success of our first skirmish surpassed our expectations.

Ten minutes after the letter had been taken upstairs to Mme. la
Marquise, one of the maids, on going past her mistress's door, was
startled to hear cries and moans proceeding from Madame's room. She
entered and found Madame lying on the sofa, her face buried in the
cushions, and sobbing and screaming in a truly terrifying manner. The
maid applied the usual restoratives, and after a while Madame became
more calm and at once very curtly ordered the maid out of the room.

M. le Marquis, on being apprised of this mysterious happening, was
much distressed; he hurried to his wife's apartments, and was as
gentle and loving with her as he had been in the early days of their
honeymoon. But throughout the whole of that evening, and, indeed, for
the next two days, all the explanation that he could get from Madame
herself was that she had a headache and that the letter which she had
received that afternoon was of no consequence and had nothing to do
with her migraine.

But clearly the beautiful Rachel was extraordinarily agitated. At
night she did not sleep, but would pace up and down her apartments in
a state bordering on frenzy, which of course caused M. le Marquis a
great deal of anxiety and of sorrow.

Finally, on the Friday morning it seemed as if Madame could contain
herself no longer. She threw herself into her husband's arms and
blurted out the whole truth. M. le Comte de Naquet, her first husband,
who had been declared drowned at sea, and therefore officially
deceased by Royal decree, was not dead at all. Madame had received a
letter from him wherein he told her that he had indeed suffered
shipwreck, then untold misery on a desert island for three years,
until he had been rescued by a passing vessel, and finally been able,
since he was destitute, to work his way back to France and to Paris.
Here he had lived for the past few months as best he could, trying to
collect together a little money so as to render himself presentable
before his wife, whom he had never ceased to love.

Inquiries discreetly conducted had revealed the terrible truth, that
Madame had been faithless to him, had light-heartedly assumed the
death of her husband, and had contracted what was nothing less than a
bigamous marriage. Now he, M. de Naquet, standing on his rights as
Rachel Mosenstein's only lawful husband, demanded that she should
return to him, and as a prelude to a permanent and amicable
understanding, she was to call at three o'clock precisely on the
following Friday at No. 96 Rue Daunou, where their reconciliation and
reunion was to take place.

The letter announcing this terrible news and making this preposterous
demand she now placed in the hands of M. le Marquis, who at first was
horrified and thunderstruck, and appeared quite unable to deal with
the situation or to tender advice. For Madame it meant complete social
ruin, of course, and she herself declared that she would never survive
such a scandal. Her tears and her misery made the loving heart of M.
le Marquis bleed in sympathy. He did all he could to console and
comfort the lady, whom, alas! he could no longer look upon as his
wife. Then, gradually, both he and she became more composed. It was
necessary above all things to make sure that Madame was not being
victimized by an impostor, and for this purpose M. le Marquis
generously offered himself as a disinterested friend and adviser. He
offered to go himself to the Rue Daunou at the hour appointed and to
do his best to induce M. le Comte de Naquet--if indeed he existed--to
forgo his rights on the lady who had so innocently taken on the name
and hand of M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour. Somewhat more calm, but
still unconsoled, the beautiful Rachel accepted this generous offer. I
believe that she even found five thousand francs in her privy purse
which was to be offered to M. de Naquet in exchange for a promise
never to worry Mme. la Marquise again with his presence. But this I
have never been able to ascertain with any finality. Certain it is
that when at three o'clock on that same afternoon M. de Firmin-Latour
presented himself at my office, he did not offer me a share in any
five thousand francs, though he spoke to me about the money, adding
that he thought it would look well if he were to give it back to
Madame, and to tell her that M. de Naquet had rejected so paltry a sum
with disdain.

I thought such a move unnecessary, and we argued about it rather
warmly, and in the end he went away, as I say, without offering me any
share in the emolument. Whether he did put his project into execution
or not I never knew. He told me that he did. After that there followed
for me, Sir, many days, nay, weeks, of anxiety and of strenuous work.
Mme. la Marquise received several more letters from the supposititious
M. de Naquet, any one of which would have landed me, Sir, in a vessel
bound for New Caledonia. The discarded husband became more and more
insistent as time went on, and finally sent an ultimatum to Madame
saying that he was tired of perpetual interviews with M. le Marquis de
Firmin-Latour, whose right to interfere in the matter he now wholly
denied, and that he was quite determined to claim his lawful wife
before the whole world.

Madame la Marquise, in the meanwhile, had passed from one fit of
hysterics into another. She denied her door to everyone and lived in
the strictest seclusion in her beautiful apartment of the Rue de
Grammont. Fortunately this all occurred in the early autumn, when the
absence of such a society star from fashionable gatherings was not as
noticeable as it otherwise would have been. But clearly we were
working up for the climax, which occurred in the way I am about to
relate.



4.

Ah, my dear Sir, when after all these years I think of my adventure
with that abominable Marquis, righteous and noble indignation almost
strikes me dumb. To think that with my own hands and brains I
literally put half a million into that man's pocket, and that he
repaid me with the basest ingratitude, almost makes me lose my faith
in human nature. Theodore, of course, I could punish, and did so
adequately; and where my chastisement failed, Fate herself put the
finishing touch.

But M. de Firmin-Latour . . .!

However, you shall judge for yourself.

As I told you, we now made ready for the climax; and that climax, Sir,
I can only describe as positively gorgeous. We began by presuming that
Mme. la Marquise had now grown tired of incessant demands for
interviews and small doles of money, and that she would be willing to
offer a considerable sum to her first and only lawful husband in
exchange for a firm guarantee that he would never trouble her again as
long as she lived.

We fixed the sum at half a million francs, and the guarantee was to
take the form of a deed duly executed by a notary of repute and signed
by the supposititious Comte de Naquet. A letter embodying the demand
and offering the guarantee was thereupon duly sent to Mme. la
Marquise, and she, after the usual attack of hysterics, duly confided
the matter to M. de Firmin-Latour.

The consultation between husband and wife on the deplorable subject
was touching in the extreme; and I will give that abominable Marquis
credit for playing his rôle in a masterly manner. At first he declared
to his dear Rachel that he did not know what to suggest, for in truth
she had nothing like half a million on which she could lay her hands.
To speak of this awful pending scandal to Papa Mosenstein was not to
be thought of. He was capable of repudiating the daughter altogether
who was bringing such obloquy upon herself and would henceforth be of
no use to him as a society star.

As for himself in this terrible emergency, he, of course, had less
than nothing, or his entire fortune would be placed--if he had one--at
the feet of his beloved Rachel. To think that he was on the point of
losing her was more than he could bear, and the idea that she would
soon become the talk of every gossip-monger in society, and mayhap be
put in prison for bigamy, wellnigh drove him crazy.

What could be done in this awful perplexity he for one could not
think, unless indeed his dear Rachel were willing to part with some of
her jewellery; but no! he could not think of allowing her to make such
a sacrifice.

Whereupon Madame, like a drowning man, or rather woman, catching at a
straw, bethought her of her emeralds. They were historic gems, once
the property of the Empress Marie-Thérèse, and had been given to her
on her second marriage by her adoring father. No, no! she would never
miss them; she seldom wore them, for they were heavy and more valuable
than elegant, and she was quite sure that at the Mont de Piété they
would lend her five hundred thousand francs on them. Then gradually
they could be redeemed before papa had become aware of their temporary
disappearance. Madame would save the money out of the liberal
allowance she received from him for pin-money. Anything, anything was
preferable to this awful doom which hung over her head.

But even so M. le Marquis demurred. The thought of his proud and
fashionable Rachel going to the Mont de Piété to pawn her own jewels was
not to be thought of. She would be seen, recognized, and the scandal
would be as bad and worse than anything that loomed on the black horizon
of her fate at this hour.

What was to be done? What was to be done?

Then M. le Marquis had a brilliant idea. He knew of a man, a very
reliable, trustworthy man, attorney-at-law by profession, and
therefore a man of repute, who was often obliged in the exercise of
his profession to don various disguises when tracking criminals in the
outlying quarters of Paris. M. le Marquis, putting all pride and
dignity nobly aside in the interests of his adored Rachel, would
borrow one of these disguises and himself go to the Mont de Piété with
the emeralds, obtain the five hundred thousand francs, and remit them
to the man whom he hated most in all the world, in exchange for the
aforementioned guarantee.

Madame la Marquise, overcome with gratitude, threw herself, in the
midst of a flood of tears, into the arms of the man whom she no longer
dared to call her husband, and so the matter was settled for the
moment. M. le Marquis undertook to have the deed of guarantee drafted
by the same notary of repute whom he knew, and, if Madame approved of
it, the emeralds would then be converted into money, and the interview
with M. le Comte de Naquet fixed for Wednesday, October 10th, at some
convenient place, subsequently to be determined on--in all
probability at the bureau of that same ubiquitous attorney-at-law, M.
Hector Ratichon, at 96 Rue Daunon.

All was going on excellently well, as you observe. I duly drafted the
deed, and M. de Firmin-Latour showed it to Madame for her approval. It
was so simply and so comprehensively worded that she expressed herself
thoroughly satisfied with it, whereupon M. le Marquis asked her to
write to her shameful persecutor in order to fix the date and hour for
the exchange of the money against the deed duly signed and witnessed.
M. le Marquis had always been the intermediary for her letters, you
understand, and for the small sums of money which she had sent from
time to time to the factitious M. de Naquet; now he was to be
entrusted with the final negotiations which, though at a heavy cost,
would bring security and happiness once more in the sumptuous palace
of the Rue de Grammont.

Then it was that the first little hitch occurred. Mme. la
Marquise--whether prompted thereto by a faint breath of suspicion, or
merely by natural curiosity--altered her mind about the appointment.
She decided that M. le Marquis, having pledged the emeralds, should
bring the money to her, and she herself would go to the bureau of M.
Hector Ratichon in the Rue Daunou, there to meet M. de Naquet, whom
she had not seen for seven years, but who had once been very dear to
her, and herself fling in his face the five hundred thousand francs,
the price of his silence and of her peace of mind.

At once, as you perceive, the situation became delicate. To have
demurred, or uttered more than a casual word of objection, would in
the case of M. le Marquis have been highly impolitic. He felt that at
once, the moment he raised his voice in protest: and when Madame
declared herself determined he immediately gave up arguing the point.

The trouble was that we had so very little time wherein to formulate
new plans. Monsieur was to go the very next morning to the Mont de
Piété to negotiate the emeralds, and the interview with the fabulous
M. de Naquet was to take place a couple of hours later; and it was now
three o'clock in the afternoon.

As soon as M. de Firmin-Latour was able to leave his wife, he came
round to my office. He appeared completely at his wits' end, not
knowing what to do.

"If my wife," he said, "insists on a personal interview with de
Naquet, who does not exist, our entire scheme falls to the ground.
Nay, worse! for I shall be driven to concoct some impossible
explanation for the non-appearance of that worthy, and heaven only
knows if I shall succeed in wholly allaying my wife's suspicions.

"Ah!" he added with a sigh, "it is doubly hard to have seen fortune so
near one's reach and then to see it dashed away at one fell swoop by
the relentless hand of Fate."

Not one word, you observe, of gratitude to me or of recognition of the
subtle mind that had planned and devised the whole scheme.

But, Sir, it is at the hour of supreme crises like the present one
that Hector Ratichon's genius soars up to the empyrean. It became
great, Sir; nothing short of great; and even the marvellous schemes of
the Italian Macchiavelli paled before the ingenuity which I now
displayed.

Half an hour's reflection had sufficed. I had made my plans, and I had
measured the full length of the terrible risks which I ran. Among
these New Caledonia was the least. But I chose to take the risks, Sir;
my genius could not stoop to measuring the costs of its flight. While
M. de Firmin-Latour alternately raved and lamented I had already
planned and contrived. As I say, we had very little time: a few hours
wherein to render ourselves worthy of Fortune's smiles. And this is
what I planned.

You tell me that you were not in Paris during the year 1816 of which I
speak. If you had been, you would surely recollect the sensation
caused throughout the entire city by the disappearance of M. le
Marquis de Firmin-Latour, one of the most dashing young officers in
society and one of its acknowledged leaders. It was the 10th day of
October. M. le Marquis had breakfasted in the company of Madame at
nine o'clock. A couple of hours later he went out, saying he would be
home for déjeuner. Madame clearly expected him, for his place was
laid, and she ordered the déjeuner to be kept back over an hour in
anticipation of his return. But he did not come. The afternoon wore on
and he did not come. Madame sat down at two o'clock to déjeuner alone.
She told the major-domo that M. le Marquis was detained in town and
might not be home for some time. But the major-domo declared that
Madame's voice, as she told him this, sounded tearful and forced, and
that she ate practically nothing, refusing one succulent dish after
another.

The staff of servants was thus kept on tenterhooks all day, and when
the shadows of evening began to draw in, the theory was started in the
kitchen that M. le Marquis had either met with an accident or been
foully murdered. No one, however, dared speak of this to Madame la
Marquise, who had locked herself up in her room in the early part of
the afternoon, and since then had refused to see anyone. The
major-domo was now at his wits' end. He felt that in a measure the
responsibility of the household rested upon his shoulders. Indeed he
would have taken it upon himself to apprise M. Mauruss Mosenstein of
the terrible happenings, only that the worthy gentleman was absent
from Paris just then.

Mme. la Marquise remained shut up in her room until past eight
o'clock. Then she ordered dinner to be served and made pretence of
sitting down to it; but again the major-domo declared that she ate
nothing, whilst subsequently the confidential maid who had undressed
her vowed that Madame had spent the whole night walking up and down
the room.

Thus two agonizing days went by; agonizing they were to everybody.
Madame la Marquise became more and more agitated, more and more
hysterical as time went on, and the servants could not help but notice
this, even though she made light of the whole affair, and desperate
efforts to control herself. The heads of her household, the
major-domo, the confidential maid, the chef de cuisine, did venture to
drop a hint or two as to the possibility of an accident or of foul
play, and the desirability of consulting the police; but Madame would
not hear a word of it; she became very angry at the suggestion, and
declared that she was perfectly well aware of M. le Marquis's
whereabouts, that he was well and would return home almost
immediately.

As was only natural, tongues presently began to wag. Soon it was
common talk in Paris that M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour had
disappeared from his home and that Madame was trying to put a bold
face upon the occurrence. There were surmises and there was gossip--
oh! interminable and long-winded gossip! Minute circumstances in
connexion with M. le Marquis's private life and Mme. la Marquise's
affairs were freely discussed in the cafés, the clubs and restaurants,
and as no one knew the facts of the case, surmises soon became very
wild.

On the third day of M. le Marquis's disappearance Papa Mosenstein
returned to Paris from Vichy, where he had just completed his annual
cure. He arrived at Rue de Grammont at three o'clock in the afternoon,
demanded to see Mme. la Marquise at once, and then remained closeted
with her in her apartment for over an hour. After which he sent for
the inspector of police of the section, with the result that that very
same evening M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour was found locked up in an
humble apartment on the top floor of a house in the Rue Daunou, not
ten minutes' walk from his own house. When the police--acting on
information supplied to them by M. Mauruss Mosenstein--forced their
way into that apartment, they were horrified to find M. le Marquis de
Firmin-Latour there, tied hand and foot with cords to a chair, his
likely calls for help smothered by a woollen shawl wound loosely round
the lower part of his face.

He was half dead with inanition, and was conveyed speechless and
helpless to his home in the Rue de Grammont, there, presumably, to be
nursed back to health by Madame his wife.



5.

Now in all this matter, I ask you, Sir, who ran the greatest risk?
Why, I--Hector Ratichon, of course--Hector Ratichon, in whose
apartment M. de Firmin-Latour was discovered in a position bordering
on absolute inanition. And the proof of this is, that that selfsame
night I was arrested at my lodgings at Passy, and charged with robbery
and attempted murder.

It was a terrible predicament for a respectable citizen, a man of
integrity and reputation, in which to find himself; but Papa
Mosenstein was both tenacious and vindictive. His daughter, driven to
desperation at last, and terrified that M. le Marquis had indeed been
foully murdered by M. de Naquet, had made a clean breast of the whole
affair to her father, and he in his turn had put the minions of the
law in full possession of all the facts; and since M. le Comte de
Naquet had vanished, leaving no manner of trace or clue of his person
behind him, the police, needing a victim, fell back on an innocent
man. Fortunately, Sir, that innocence clear as crystal soon shines
through every calumny. But this was not before I had suffered terrible
indignities and all the tortures which base ingratitude can inflict
upon a sensitive heart.

Such ingratitude as I am about to relate to you has never been
equalled on this earth, and even after all these years, Sir, you see
me overcome with emotion at the remembrance of it all. I was under
arrest, remember, on a terribly serious charge, but, conscious of mine
own innocence and of my unanswerable system of defence, I bore the
preliminary examination by the juge d'instruc-tion with exemplary
dignity and patience. I knew, you see, that at my very first
confrontation with my supposed victim the latter would at once say:

"Ah! but no! This is not the man who assaulted me."

Our plan, which so far had been overwhelmingly successful, had been
this.

On the morning of the tenth, M. de Firmin-Latour having pawned the
emeralds, and obtained the money for them, was to deposit that money
in his own name at the bank of Raynal Frères and then at once go to
the office in the Rue Daunou.

There he would be met by Theodore, who would bind him comfortably but
securely to a chair, put a shawl around his mouth and finally lock the
door on him. Theodore would then go to his mother's and there remain
quietly until I needed his services again.

It had been thought inadvisable for me to be seen that morning
anywhere in the neighbourhood of the Rue Daunou, but that perfidious
reptile Theodore ran no risks in doing what he was told. To begin with
he is a past master in the art of worming himself in and out of a
house without being seen, and in this case it was his business to
exercise a double measure of caution. And secondly, if by some unlucky
chance the police did subsequently connect him with the crime, there
was I, his employer, a man of integrity and repute, prepared to swear
that the man had been in my company at the other end of Paris all the
while that M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour was, by special arrangement,
making use of my office in the Rue Daunou, which I had lent him for
purposes of business.

Finally it was agreed between us that when M. le Marquis would
presently be questioned by the police as to the appearance of the man
who had assaulted and robbed him, he would describe him as tall and
blond, almost like an Angliche in countenance. Now I possess--as you
see, Sir--all the finest characteristics of the Latin race, whilst
Theodore looks like nothing on earth, save perhaps a cross between a
rat and a monkey.

I wish you to realize, therefore, that no one ran any risks in this
affair excepting myself. I, as the proprietor of the apartment where
the assault was actually supposed to have taken place, did run a very
grave risk, because I could never have proved an alibi. Theodore was
such a disreputable mudlark that his testimony on my behalf would have
been valueless. But with sublime sacrifice I accepted these risks, and
you will presently see, Sir, how I was repaid for my selflessness. I
pined in a lonely prison-cell while these two limbs of Satan concocted
a plot to rob me of my share in our mutual undertaking.

Well, Sir, the day came when I was taken from my prison-cell for the
purpose of being confronted with the man whom I was accused of having
assaulted. As you will imagine, I was perfectly calm. According to our
plan the confrontation would be the means of setting me free at once.
I was conveyed to the house in the Rue de Grammont, and here I was
kept waiting for some little time while the juge d'instruction went in
to prepare M. le Marquis, who was still far from well. Then I was
introduced into the sick-room. I looked about me with the perfect
composure of an innocent man about to be vindicated, and calmly gazed
on the face of the sick man who was sitting up in his magnificent bed,
propped up with pillows.

I met his glance firmly whilst M. le Juge d'instruction placed the
question to him in a solemn and earnest tone:

"M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour, will you look at the prisoner before
you and tell us whether you recognize in him the man who assaulted
you?"

And that perfidious Marquis, Sir, raised his eyes and looked me
squarely--yes! squarely--in the face and said with incredible
assurance:

"Yes, Monsieur le Juge, that is the man! I recognize him."

To me it seemed then as if a thunderbolt had crashed through the
ceiling and exploded at my feet. I was like one stunned and dazed; the
black ingratitude, the abominable treachery, completely deprived me of
speech. I felt choked, as if some poisonous effluvia--the poison, Sir,
of that man's infamy--had got into my throat. That state of inertia
lasted, I believe, less than a second; the next I had uttered a hoarse
cry of noble indignation.

"You vampire, you!" I exclaimed. "You viper! You . . ."

I would have thrown myself on him and strangled him with glee, but
that the minions of the law had me by the arms and dragged me away out
of the hateful presence of that traitor, despite my objurgations and
my protestations of innocence. Imagine my feelings when I found myself
once more in a prison-cell, my heart filled with unspeakable
bitterness against that perfidious Judas. Can you wonder that it took
me some time before I could collect my thoughts sufficiently to review
my situation, which no doubt to the villain himself who had just
played me this abominable trick must have seemed desperate indeed? Ah!
I could see it all, of course! He wanted to> see me sent to New
Caledonia, whilst he enjoyed the fruits of his unpardonable
backsliding. In order to retain the miserable hundred thousand francs
which he had promised me he did not hesitate to plunge up to the neck
in this heinous conspiracy.

Yes, conspiracy! for the very next day, when I was once more hailed
before the juge d'instruction, another confrontation awaited me: this
time with that scurvy rogue Theodore. He had been suborned by M. le
Marquis to turn against the hand that fed him. What price he was paid
for this Judas trick I shall never know, and all that I do know is
that he actually swore before the juge d'instruction that M. le
Marquis de Firmin-Latour called at my office in the late forenoon of
the tenth of October; that I then ordered him--Theodore--to go out to
get his dinner first, and then to go all the way over to Neuilly with
a message to someone who turned out to be non-existent. He went on to
assert that when he returned at six o'clock in the afternoon he found
the office door locked, and I--his employer--presumably gone. This at
first greatly upset him, because he was supposed to sleep on the
premises, but seeing that there was nothing for it but to accept the
inevitable, he went round to his mother's rooms at the back of the
fish-market and remained there ever since, waiting to hear from me.

That, Sir, was the tissue of lies which that jailbird had concocted
for my undoing, knowing well that I could not disprove them because it
had been my task on that eventful morning to keep an eye on M. le
Marquis whilst he went to the Mont de Piété first, and then to MM.
Raynal Frères, the bankers where he deposited the money. For this
purpose I had been obliged to don a disguise, which I had not
discarded till later in the day, and thus was unable to disprove
satisfactorily the monstrous lies told by that perjurer.

Ah! I can see that sympathy for my unmerited misfortunes has filled
your eyes with tears. No doubt in your heart you feel that my
situation at that hour was indeed desperate, and that I--Hector
Ratichon, the confidant of kings, the benefactor of the oppressed--did
spend the next few years of my life in a penal settlement, where those
arch-malefactors themselves should have been. But no, Sir! Fate may be
a fickle jade, rogues may appear triumphant, but not for long, Sir,
not for long! It is brains that conquer in the end . . . brains backed
by righteousness and by justice.

Whether I had actually foreseen the treachery of those two
rattlesnakes, or whether my habitual caution and acumen alone prompted
me to take those measures of precaution of which I am about to tell
you, I cannot truthfully remember. Certain it is that I did take those
precautions which ultimately proved to be the means of compensating me
for most that I had suffered.

It had been a part of the original plan that, on the day immediately
following the tenth of October, I, in my own capacity as Hector
Ratichon, who had been absent from my office for twenty-four hours,
would arrive there in the morning, find the place locked, force an
entrance into the apartment, and there find M. le Marquis in his
pitiable plight. After which I would, of course, immediately notify
the police of the mysterious occurrence.

That had been the rôle which I had intended to play. M. le Marquis
approved of it and had professed himself quite willing to endure a
twenty-four-hours' martyrdom for the sake of half a million francs. But,
as I have just had the honour to tell you, something which I will not
attempt to explain prompted me at the last moment to modify my plan in
one little respect. I thought it too soon to go back to the Rue Daunou
within twenty-four hours of our well-contrived coup, and I did not
altogether care for the idea of going myself to the police in order to
explain to them that I had found a man gagged and bound in my office.
The less one has to do with these minions of the law the better. Mind
you, I had envisaged the possibility of being accused of assault and
robbery, but I did not wish to take, as it were, the very first steps
myself in that direction. You might call this a matter of sentiment or
of prudence, as you wish.

So I waited until the evening of the second day before I got the key
from Theodore. Then before the concierge at 96 Rue Daunou had closed
the porte-cochere for the night, I slipped into the house unobserved,
ran up the stairs to my office and entered the apartment. I struck a
light and made my way to the inner room where the wretched Marquis
hung in the chair like a bundle of rags. I called to him, but he made
no movement. As I had anticipated, he had fainted for want of food. Of
course, I was very sorry for him, for his plight was pitiable, but he
was playing for high stakes, and a little starvation does no man any
harm. In his case there was half a million at the end of his brief
martyrdom, which could, at worst, only last another twenty-four hours.
I reckoned that Mme. la Marquise could not keep the secret of her
husband's possible whereabouts longer than that, and in any event I was
determined that, despite all risks, I would go myself to the police on
the following day.

In the meanwhile, since I was here and since M. le Marquis was
unconscious, I proceeded then and there to take the precaution which
prudence had dictated, and without which, seeing this man's treachery
and Theodore's villainy, I should undoubtedly have ended my days as a
convict. What I did was to search M. le Marquis's pockets for anything
that might subsequently prove useful to me.

I had no definite idea in the matter, you understand; but I had vague
notions of finding the bankers' receipt for the half-million francs.

Well, I did not find that, but I did find the receipt from the Mont de
Piété for a parure of emeralds on which half a million francs had been
lent. This I carefully put away in my waistcoat pocket, but as there
was nothing else I wished to do just then I extinguished the light and
made my way cautiously out of the apartment and out of the house. No
one had seen me enter or go out, and M. le Marquis had not stirred
while I went through his pockets.


6.

That, Sir, was the precaution which I had taken in order to safeguard
myself against the machinations of traitors. And see how right I was;
see how hopeless would have been my plight at this hour when Theodore,
too, turned against me like the veritable viper that he was. I never
really knew when and under what conditions the infamous bargain was
struck which was intended to deprive me of my honour and of my
liberty, nor do I know what emolument Theodore was to receive for his
treachery. Presumably the two miscreants arranged it all some time
during that memorable morning of the tenth even whilst I was risking
my life in their service.

As for M. de Firmin-Latour, that worker of iniquity who, in order to
save a paltry hundred thousand francs from the hoard which I had
helped him to acquire, did not hesitate to commit such an abominable
crime, he did not long remain in the enjoyment of his wealth or of his
peace of mind.

The very next day I made certain statements before M. le Juge
d'instruction with regard to M. Mauruss Mosenstein, which caused the
former to summon the worthy Israelite to his bureau, there to be
confronted with me. I had nothing more to lose, since those execrable
rogues had already, as it were, tightened the rope about my neck, but
I had a great deal to gain--revenge above all, and perhaps the
gratitude of M. Mosenstein for opening his eyes to the rascality of
his son-in-law.

In a stream of eloquent words which could not fail to carry
conviction, I gave then and there in the bureau of the juge
d'instruction my version of the events of the past few weeks, from the
moment when M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour came to consult me on the
subject of his wife's first husband, until the hour when he tried to
fasten an abominable crime upon me. I told how I had been deceived by
my own employé, Theodore, a man whom I had rescued out of the gutter
and loaded with gifts, how by dint of a clever disguise which would
have deceived his own mother he had assumed the appearance and
personality of M. le Comte de Naquet, first and only lawful lord of
the beautiful Rachel Mosenstein. I told of the interviews in my
office, my earnest desire to put an end to this abominable
blackmailing by informing the police of the whole affair. I told of
the false M. de Naquet's threats to create a gigantic scandal which
would forever ruin the social position of the so-called Marquis de
Firmin-Latour. I told of M. le Marquis's agonized entreaties, his
prayers, supplications, that I would do nothing in the matter for the
sake of an innocent lady who had already grievously suffered. I spoke
of my doubts, my scruples, my desire to do what was just and what was
right.

A noble expose of the situation, Sir, you will admit. It left me hot
and breathless. I mopped my head with a handkerchief and sank back,
gasping, in the arms of the minions of the law. The juge d'instruction
ordered my removal, not back to my prison-cell but into his own
ante-room, where I presently collapsed upon a very uncomfortable bench
and endured the additional humiliation of having a glass of water held
to my lips. Water! when I had asked for a drink of wine as my throat
felt parched after that lengthy effort at oratory.

However, there I sat and waited patiently whilst, no doubt, M. le Juge
d'Instruction and the noble Israelite were comparing notes as to their
impression of my marvellous speech. I had not long to wait. Less than
ten minutes later I was once more summoned into the presence of M. le
Juge; and this time the minions of the law were ordered to remain in
the antechamber. I thought this was of good augury; and I waited to
hear M. le Juge give forth the order that would at once set me free.
But it was M. Mosenstein who first addressed me, and in very truth
surprise rendered me momentarily dumb when he did it thus:

"Now then, you consummate rascal, when you have given up the receipt
of the Mont de Piété which you stole out of M. le Marquis's pocket you
may go and carry on your rogueries elsewhere and call yourself
mightily lucky to have escaped so lightly."

I assure you, Sir, that a feather would have knocked me down. The
coarse insult, the wanton injustice, had deprived me of the use of my
limbs and of my speech. Then the juge d'instruction proceeded dryly:

"Now then, Ratichon, you have heard what M. Mauruss Mosenstein has
been good enough to say to you. He did it with my approval and
consent. I am prepared to give an _ordonnance de non-lieu_ in your
favour which will have the effect of at once setting you free if you
will restore to this gentleman here the Mont de Piété receipt which
you appear to have stolen."

"Sir," I said with consummate dignity in the face of this reiterated
taunt, "I have stolen nothing--"

M. le Juge's hand was already on the bell-pull.

"Then," he said coolly, "I can ring for the gendarmes to take you back
to the cells, and you will stand your trial for blackmail, theft,
assault and robbery."

I put up my hand with an elegant and perfectly calm gesture.

"Your pardon, M. le Juge," I said with the gentle resignation of
undeserved martyrdom, "I was about to say that when I re-visited my
rooms in the Rue Daunou after a three days' absence, and found the
police in possession, I picked up on the floor of my private room a
white paper which on subsequent examination proved to be a receipt
from the Mont de Piété for some valuable gems, and made out in the
name of M. le Marquis de Firmin-Latour."

"What have you done with it, you abominable knave?" the irascible old
usurer rejoined roughly, and I regret to say that he grasped his
malacca cane with ominous violence.

But I was not to be thus easily intimidated.

"Ah! voilà, M. le Juge," I said with a shrug of the shoulders. "I have
mislaid it. I do not know where it is."

"If you do not find it," Mosenstein went on savagely, "you will find
yourself on a convict ship before long."

"In which case, no doubt," I retorted with suave urbanity, "the police
will search my rooms where I lodge, and they will find the receipt
from the Mont de Piété, which I had mislaid. And then the gossip will
be all over Paris that Mme. la Marquise de Firmin-Latour had to pawn
her jewels in order to satisfy the exigencies of her first and only
lawful husband who has since mysteriously disappeared; and some people
will vow that he never came back from the Antipodes, whilst others--by
far the most numerous--will shrug their shoulders and sigh: 'One never
knows!' which will be exceedingly unpleasant for Mme. la Marquise."

Both M. Mauruss Mosenstein and the juge d'instruc-tion said a great
deal more that afternoon. I may say that their attitude towards me and
the language that they used were positively scandalous. But I had
become now the master of the situation and I could afford to ignore
their insults. In the end everything was settled quite amicably. I
agreed to dispose of the receipt from the Mont de Piété to M. Mauruss
Mosenstein for the sum of two hundred francs, and for another hundred
I would indicate to him the banking house where his precious
son-in-law had deposited the half-million francs obtained for the
emeralds. This latter information I would indeed have offered him
gratuitously had he but known with what immense pleasure I thus put a
spoke in that knavish Marquis's wheel of fortune.

The worthy Israelite further agreed to pay me an annuity of two
hundred francs so long as I kept silent upon the entire subject of
Mme. la Marquise's first husband and of M. le Marquis's rôle in the
mysterious affair of the Rue Daunou. For thus was the affair classed
amongst the police records. No one outside the chief actors of the
drama and M. le Juge d'Instruction ever knew the true history of how a
dashing young cavalry officer came to be assaulted and left to starve
for three days in the humble apartment of an attorney-at-law of
undisputed repute. And no one outside the private bureau of M. le Juge
d'Instruction ever knew what it cost the wealthy M. Mosenstein to have
the whole affair "classed" and hushed up.

As for me, I had three hundred francs as payment for work which I had
risked my neck and my reputation to accomplish. Three hundred instead
of the hundred thousand which I had so richly deserved: that, and a
paltry two hundred francs a year, which was to cease the moment that
as much as a rumour of the whole affair was breathed in public. As if
I could help people talking!

But M. le Marquis did not enjoy the fruits of his villainy, and I had
again the satisfaction of seeing him gnaw his finger-nails with rage
whenever the lovely Rachel paid for his dinner at fashionable
restaurants. Indeed Papa Mosenstein tightened the strings of his
money-bags even more securely than he had done in the past. Under
threats of prosecution for theft and I know not what, he forced his
son-in-law to disgorge that half-million which he had so pleasantly
tucked away in the banking house of Raynal Frères, and I was indeed
thankful that prudence had, on that memorable morning, suggested to me
the advisability of dogging the Marquis's footsteps. I doubt not but
what he knew whence had come the thunderbolt which had crushed his
last hopes of an independent fortune, and no doubt too he does not
cherish feelings of good will towards me.

But this eventuality leaves me cold. He has only himself to thank for
his misfortune. Everything would have gone well but for his treachery.
We would have become affluent, he and I and Theodore. Theodore has
gone to live with his mother, who has a fish-stall in the Halles; she
gives him three sous a day for washing down the stall and selling the
fish when it has become too odorous for the ordinary customers.

And he might have had five hundred francs for himself and remained my
confidential clerk.




CHAPTER IV

CARISSIMO



1.

You must not think for a moment, my dear Sir, that I was ever actually
deceived in Theodore. Was it likely that I, who am by temperament and
habit accustomed to read human visages like a book, was it likely, I
say, that I would fail to see craftiness in those pale, shifty eyes,
deceit in the weak, slobbering mouth, intemperance in the whole aspect
of the shrunken, slouchy figure which I had, for my subsequent sorrow,
so generously rescued from starvation?

Generous? I was more than generous to him. They say that the poor are
the friends of the poor, and I told you how poor we were in those
days! Ah! but poor! my dear Sir, you have no conception! Meat in Paris
in the autumn of 1816 was 24 francs the kilo, and milk 1 franc the
quarter litre, not to mention eggs and butter, which were delicacies
far beyond the reach of cultured, well-born people like myself.

And yet throughout that trying year I fed Theodore--yes, I fed him.
He used to share onion pie with me whenever I partook of it, and he
had haricot soup every day, into which I allowed him to boil the skins
of all the sausages and the luscious bones of all the cutlets of which
I happened to partake. Then think what he cost me in drink! Never
could I leave a half or quarter bottle of wine but he would finish it;
his impudent fingers made light of every lock and key. I dared not
allow as much as a sou to rest in the pocket of my coat but he would
ferret it out the moment I hung the coat up in the outer room and my
back was turned for a few seconds. After a while I was forced--yes, I,
Sir, who have spoken on terms of equality with kings--I was forced to
go out and make my own purchases in the neighbouring provision shops.
And why? Because if I sent Theodore and gave him a few sous wherewith
to make these purchases, he would spend the money at the nearest
cabaret in getting drunk on absinthe.

He robbed me, Sir, shamefully, despite the fact that he had ten per
cent, commission on all the profits of the firm. I gave him twenty
francs out of the money which I had earned at the sweat of my brow in
the service of Estelle Bachelier. Twenty francs, Sir! Reckoning two
hundred francs as business profit on the affair, a generous provision
you will admit! And yet he taunted me with having received a thousand.
This was mere guesswork, of course, and I took no notice of his
taunts: did the brains that conceived the business deserve no payment?
Was my labour to be counted as dross?--the humiliation, the blows
which I had to endure while he sat in hoggish content, eating and
sleeping without thought for the morrow? After which he calmly
pocketed the twenty francs to earn which he had not raised one finger,
and then demanded more.

No, no, my dear Sir, you will believe me or not, that man could not go
straight. Times out of count he would try and deceive me, despite the
fact that, once or twice, he very nearly came hopelessly to grief in
the attempt.

Now, just to give you an instance. About this time Paris was in the
grip of a gang of dog-thieves as unscrupulous and heartless as they
were daring. Can you wonder at it? with that awful penury about and a
number of expensive "tou-tous" running about the streets under the
very noses of the indigent proletariat? The ladies of the aristocracy
and of the wealthy bourgeoisie had imbibed this craze for lap-dogs
during their sojourn in England at the time of the emigration, and
being women of the Latin race and of undisciplined temperament, they
were just then carrying their craze to excess.

As I was saying, this indulgence led to wholesale thieving. Tou-tous
were abstracted from their adoring mistresses with marvellous
adroitness; whereupon two or three days would elapse while the adoring
mistress wept buckets full of tears and set the police of M. Fouché,
Duc d'Otrante, by the ears in search of her pet. The next act in the
tragi-comedy would be an anonymous demand for money--varying in amount
in accordance with the known or supposed wealth of the lady--and an
equally anonymous threat of dire vengeance upon the tou-tou if the
police were put upon the track of the thieves.

You will ask me, no doubt, what all this had to do with Theodore.
Well! I will tell you.

You must know that of late he had become extraordinarily haughty and
independent. I could not keep him to his work. His duties were to
sweep the office--he did not do it; to light the fires--I had to light
them myself every morning; to remain in the anteroom and show clients
in--he was never at his post. In fact he was never there when I did
want him: morning, noon and night he was out--gadding about and coming
home, Sir, only to eat and sleep. I was seriously thinking of giving
him the sack. And then one day he disappeared! Yes, Sir, disappeared
completely as if the earth had swallowed him up. One morning--it was
in the beginning of December and the cold was biting--I arrived at the
office and found that his chair-bed which stood in the antechamber had
not been slept in; in fact that it had not been made up overnight. In
the cupboard I found the remnants of an onion pie, half a sausage, and
a quarter of a litre of wine, which proved conclusively that he had
not been in to supper.

At first I was not greatly disturbed in my mind. I had found out quite
recently that Theodore had some sort of a squalid home of his own
somewhere behind the fish-market, together with an old and wholly
disreputable mother who plied him with drink whenever he spent an
evening with her and either he or she had a franc in their pocket.
Still, after these bouts spent in the bosom of his family he usually
returned to sleep them off at my expense in my office.

I had unfortunately very little to do that day, so in the late
afternoon, not having seen anything of Theodore all day, I turned my
steps toward the house behind the fish-market where lived the mother
of that ungrateful wretch.

The woman's surprise when I inquired after her precious son was
undoubtedly genuine. Her lamentations and crocodile tears certainly
were not. She reeked of alcohol, and the one room which she inhabited
was indescribably filthy. I offered her half a franc if she gave me
authentic news of Theodore, knowing well that for that sum she would
have sold him to the devil. But very obviously she knew nothing of his
whereabouts, and I soon made haste to shake the dirt of her abode from
my heels.

I had become vaguely anxious.

I wondered if he had been murdered somewhere down a back street, and
if I should miss him very much.

I did not think that I would.

Moreover, no one could have any object in murdering Theodore. In his
own stupid way he was harmless enough, and he certainly was not
possessed of anything worth stealing. I myself was not over-fond of
the man--but I should not have bothered to murder him.

Still, I was undoubtedly anxious, and slept but little that night
thinking of the wretch. When the following morning I arrived at my
office and still could see no trace of him, I had serious thoughts of
putting the law in motion on his behalf.

Just then, however, an incident occurred which drove all thoughts of
such an insignificant personage as Theodore from my mind.

I had just finished tidying up the office when there came a peremptory
ring at the outer door, repeated at intervals of twenty seconds or so.
It meant giving a hasty glance all round to see that no fragments of
onion pie or of cheap claret lingered in unsuspected places, and it
meant my going, myself, to open the door to my impatient visitor.

I did it, Sir, and then at the door I stood transfixed. I had seen
many beautiful women in my day--great ladies of the Court, brilliant
ladies of the Consulate, the Directorate and the Empire--but never in
my life had I seen such an exquisite and resplendent apparition as the
one which now sailed through the antechamber of my humble abode.

Sir, Hector Ratichon's heart has ever been susceptible to the charms
of beauty in distress. This lovely being, Sir, who now at my
invitation entered my office and sank with perfect grace into the
arm-chair, was in obvious distress. Tears hung on the fringe of her
dark lashes, and the gossamer-like handkerchief which she held in her
dainty hand was nothing but a wet rag. She gave herself exactly two
minutes wherein to compose herself, after which she dried her eyes and
turned the full artillery of her bewitching glance upon me.

"Monsieur Ratichon," she began, even before I had taken my accustomed
place at my desk and assumed that engaging smile which inspires
confidence even in the most timorous; "Monsieur Ratichon, they tell me
that you are so clever, and--oh! I am in such trouble."

"Madame," I rejoined with noble simplicity, "you may trust me
to do the impossible in order to be of service to you."

Admirably put, you will admit. I have always been counted a master of
appropriate diction, and I had been quick enough to note the plain
band of gold which encircled the third finger of her dainty left hand,
flanked though it was by a multiplicity of diamond, pearl and other
jewelled rings.

"You are kind, Monsieur Ratichon," resumed the beauteous creature more
calmly. "But indeed you will require all the ingenuity of your
resourceful brain in order to help me in this matter. I am struggling
in the grip of a relentless fate which, if you do not help me, will
leave me broken-hearted."

"Command me, Madame," I riposted quietly.

From out the daintiest of reticules the fair lady now extracted a very
greasy and very dirty bit of paper, and handed it to me with the brief
request: "Read this, I pray you, my good M. Ratichon." I took the
paper. It was a clumsily worded, ill-written, ill-spelt demand for
five thousand francs, failing which sum the thing which Madame had
lost would forthwith be destroyed.

I looked up, puzzled, at my fair client.

"My darling Carissimo, my dear M. Ratichon," she said in reply to my
mute query.

"Carissimo?" I stammered, yet further intrigued.

"My darling pet, a valuable creature, the companion of my lonely
hours," she rejoined, once more bursting into tears. "If I lose him,
my heart will inevitably break."

I understood at last.

"Madame has lost her dog?" I asked.

She nodded.

"It has been stolen by one of those expert dog thieves, who then levy
blackmail on the unfortunate owner?"

Again she nodded in assent.

I read the dirty, almost illegible scrawl through more carefully this
time. It was a clumsy notification addressed to Mme. la Comtesse de
Nolé de St. Pris to the effect that her tou-tou was for the moment
safe, and would be restored to the arms of his fond mistress provided
the sum of five thousand francs was deposited in the hands of the
bearer of the missive.

Minute directions were then given as to where and how the money was to
be deposited. Mme. la Comtesse de Nolé was, on the third day from this
at six o'clock in the evening precisely, to go in person and alone to
the angle of the Rue Guénégaud and the Rue Mazarine, at the rear of
the Institut.

There two men would meet her, one of whom would have Carissimo in his
arms; to the other she must hand over the money, whereupon the pet
would at once be handed back to her. But if she failed to keep this
appointment, or if in the meanwhile she made the slightest attempt to
trace the writer of the missive or to lay a trap for his capture by
the police, Carissimo would at once meet with a summary death.

These were the usual tactics of experienced dog thieves, only that in
this case the demand was certainly exorbitant. Five thousand francs!
But even so . . . I cast a rapid and comprehensive glance on the
brilliant apparition before me--the jewelled rings, the diamonds in
the shell-like ears, the priceless fur coat--and with an expressive
shrug of the shoulders I handed the dirty scrap of paper back to its
fair recipient.

"Alas, Madame," I said, taking care that she should not guess how much
it cost me to give her such advice, "I am afraid that in such cases
there is nothing to be done. If you wish to save your pet you will
have to pay. . ."

"Ah! but, Monsieur," she exclaimed tearfully, "you don't understand.
Carissimo is all the world to me, and this is not the first time, nor
yet the second, that he has been stolen from me. Three times, my good
M. Ratichon, three times has he been stolen, and three times have I
received such peremptory demands for money for his safe return; and
every time the demand has been more and more exorbitant. Less than a
month ago M. le Comte paid three thousand francs for his recovery."

"Monsieur le Comte?" I queried.

"My husband, Sir," she replied, with an exquisite air of hauteur.
"M. le Comte de Nolé de St. Pris."

"Ah, then," I continued calmly, "I fear me that Monsieur de Nolé de
St. Pris will have to pay again."

"But he won't!" she now cried out in a voice broken with sobs, and
incontinently once more saturated her gossamer handkerchief with her
tears.

"Then I see nothing for it, Madame," I rejoined, much against my will
with a slight touch of impatience, "I see nothing for it but that
yourself . . ."

"Ah! but, Monsieur," she retorted, with a sigh that would have melted
a heart of stone, "that is just my difficulty. I cannot pay . . ."

"Madame," I protested.

"Oh! if I had money of my own," she continued, with an adorable
gesture of impatience, "I would not worry. Mais voilà: I have not a
silver franc of my own to bless myself with. M. le Comte is over
generous. He pays all my bills without a murmur--he pays my
dressmaker, my furrier; he loads me with gifts and dispenses charity
on a lavish scale in my name. I have horses, carriages,
servants--everything I can possibly want and more, but I never have
more than a few hundred francs to dispose of. Up to now I have never
for a moment felt the want of money. To-day, when Carissimo is being
lost to me, I feel the entire horror of my position."

"But surely, Madame," I urged, "M. le Comte . . ."

"No, Monsieur," she replied. "M. le Comte has flatly refused this time
to pay these abominable thieves for the recovery of Carissimo. He
upbraids himself for having yielded to their demands on the three
previous occasions. He calls these demands blackmailing, and vows that
to give them money again is to encourage them in their nefarious
practices. Oh! he has been cruel to me, cruel!--for the first time in
my life, Monsieur, my husband has made me unhappy, and if I lose my
darling now I shall indeed be broken-hearted."

I was silent for a moment or two. I was beginning to wonder what part
I should be expected to play in the tragedy which was being unfolded
before me by this lovely and impecunious creature.

"Madame la Comtesse," I suggested tentatively, after a while, "your
jewellery . . . you must have a vast number which you seldom wear
. . . five thousand francs is soon made up. . . ."

You see, Sir, my hopes of a really good remunerative business had by
now dwindled down to vanishing point. All that was left of them was a
vague idea that the beautiful Comtesse would perhaps employ me as an
intermediary for the sale of some of her jewellery, in which case . . .
But already her next words disillusioned me even on that point.

"No, Monsieur," she said; "what would be the use? Through one of the
usual perverse tricks of fate, M. le Comte would be sure to inquire
after the very piece of jewellery of which I had so disposed, and
moreover . . ."

"Moreover--yes, Mme. la Comtesse?"

"Moreover, my husband is right," she concluded decisively. "If I give
in to those thieves to-day and pay them five thousand francs, they
would only set to work to steal Carissimo again and demand ten
thousand francs from me another time."

I was silent. What could I say? Her argument was indeed unanswerable.

"No, my good M. Ratichon," she said very determinedly after a while.
"I have quite decided that you must confound those thieves. They have
given me three days' grace, as you see in their abominable letter. If
after three days the money is not forthcoming, and if in the meanwhile
I dare to set a trap for them or in any way communicate with the
police, my darling Carissimo will be killed and my heart be broken."

"Madame la Comtesse," I entreated, for of a truth I could not bear to
see her cry again.

"You must bring Carissimo back to me, M. Ratichon," she continued
peremptorily, "before those awful three days have elapsed."

"I swear that I will," I rejoined solemnly; but I must admit that I
did it entirely on the spur of the moment, for of a truth I saw no
prospect whatever of being able to accomplish what she desired.

"Without my paying a single louis to those execrable thieves," the
exquisite creature went on peremptorily,

"It shall be done, Madame la Comtesse."

"And let me tell you," she now added, with the sweetest and archest of
smiles, "that if you succeed in this, M. le Comte de Nolé de St. Pris
will gladly pay you the five thousand francs which he refuses to give
to those miscreants."

Five thousand francs! A mist swam before my eyes,

"Mais, Madame la Comtesse . . ." I stammered.

"Oh!" she added, with an adorable uptilting of her little chin, "I am
not promising what I cannot fulfil. M. le Comte de Nolé only said
this morning, apropos of dog thieves, that he would gladly give ten
thousand francs to anyone who succeeded in ridding society of such
pests."

I could have knelt down on the hard floor, Sir, and . . .

"Well then, Madame," was my ready rejoinder, "why not ten thousand
francs to me?"

She bit her coral lips . . . but she also smiled. I could see that
my personality and my manners had greatly impressed her.

"I will only be responsible for the first five thousand," she said
lightly. "But, for the rest, I can confidently assure you that you
will not find a miser in M. le Comte de Nolé de St. Pris."

I could have knelt down on the hard floor, Sir, and kissed her
exquisitely shod feet. Five thousand francs certain! Perhaps ten! A
fortune, Sir, in those days! One that would keep me in comfort--nay,
affluence, until something else turned up. I was swimming in the
empyrean and only came rudely to earth when I recollected that I
should have to give Theodore something for his share of the business.
Ah! fortunately that for the moment he was comfortably out of the way!
Thoughts that perhaps he had been murdered after all once more coursed
through my brain: not unpleasantly, I'll admit. I would not have
raised a finger to hurt the fellow, even though he had treated me with
the basest ingratitude and treachery; but if someone else took the
trouble to remove him, why indeed should I quarrel with fate?

Back I came swiftly to the happy present. The lovely creature was
showing me a beautifully painted miniature of Carissimo, a King
Charles spaniel of no common type. This she suggested that I should
keep by me for the present for purposes of identification. After this
we had to go into the details of the circumstances under which she had
lost her pet. She had been for a walk with him, it seems, along the
Quai Voltaire, and was returning home by the side of the river, when
suddenly a number of workmen in blouses and peaked caps came trooping
out of a side street and obstructed her progress. She had Carissimo on
the lead, and she at once admitted to me that at first she never
thought of connecting this pushing and jostling rabble with any
possible theft. She held her ground for awhile, facing the crowd: for
a few moments she was right in the midst of it, and just then she felt
the dog straining at the lead. She turned round at once with the
intention of picking him up, when to her horror she saw that there was
only a bundle of something weighty at the end of the lead, and that
the dog had disappeared.

The whole incident occurred, the lovely creature declared, within the
space of thirty seconds; the next instant the crowd had scattered in
several directions, the men running and laughing as they went. Mme. la
Comtesse was left standing alone on the quay. Not a passer-by in
sight, and the only gendarme visible, a long way down the Quai, had
his back turned toward her. Nevertheless she ran and hied him, and
presently he turned and, realizing that something was amiss, he too
ran to meet her. He listened to her story, swore lustily, but shrugged
his shoulders in token that the tale did not surprise him and that but
little could be done. Nevertheless he at once summoned those of his
colleagues who were on duty in the neighbourhood, and one of them went
off immediately to notify the theft at the nearest commissariat of
police. After which they all proceeded to a comprehensive scouring of
the many tortuous sidestreets of the quartier; but, needless to say,
there was no sign of Carissimo or of his abductors.

That night my lovely client went home distracted.

The following evening, when, broken-hearted, she wandered down the
quays living over again the agonizing moments during which she lost
her pet, a workman in a blue blouse, with a peaked cap pulled well
over his eyes, lurched up against her and thrust into her hand the
missive which she had just shown me. He then disappeared into the
night, and she had only the vaguest possible recollection of his
appearance.

That, Sir, was the substance of the story which the lovely creature
told me in a voice oft choked with tears. I questioned her very
closely and in my most impressive professional manner as to the
identity of any one man among the crowd who might have attracted her
attention, but all that she could tell me was that she had a vague
impression of a wizened hunchback with evil face, shaggy red beard
and hair, and a black patch covering the left eye.



2.

Not much data to go on, you will, I think, admit, and I Can assure
you, Sir, that had I not possessed that unbounded belief in myself
which is the true hall-mark of genius, I would at the outset have felt
profoundly discouraged.

As it was, I found just the right words of consolation and of hope
wherewith to bow my brilliant client out of my humble apartments, and
then to settle down to deep and considered meditation. Nothing, Sir,
is so conducive to thought as a long, brisk walk through the crowded
streets of Paris. So I brushed my coat, put on my hat at a becoming
angle, and started on my way.

I walked as far as Suresnes, and I thought. After that, feeling
fatigued, I sat on the terrace of the Café Bourbon, overlooking the
river. There I sipped my coffee and thought. I walked back into Paris
in the evening, and still thought, and thought, and thought. After
that I had some dinner, washed down by an agreeable bottle of
wine--did I mention that the lovely creature had given me a hundred
francs on account?--then I went for a stroll along the Quai Voltaire,
and I may safely say that there is not a single side and tortuous
street in its vicinity that I did not explore from end to end during
the course of that never to be forgotten evening.

But still my mind remained in a chaotic condition. I had not succeeded
in forming any plan. What a quandary, Sir! Oh! what a quandary! Here
was I, Hector Ratichon, the confidant of kings, the right hand of two
emperors, set to the task of stealing a dog--for that is what I should
have to do--from an unscrupulous gang of thieves whose identity, abode
and methods were alike unknown to me. Truly, Sir, you will own that
this was a herculean task.

Vaguely my thoughts reverted to Theodore. He might have been of good
counsel, for he knew more about thieves than I did, but the ungrateful
wretch was out of the way on the one occasion when he might have been
of use to me who had done so much for him. Indeed, my reason told me
that I need not trouble my head about Theodore. He had vanished; that
he would come back presently was, of course, an indubitable fact;
people like Theodore never vanish completely. He would come back and
demand I know not what, his share, perhaps, in a business which was so
promising even if it was still so vague.

Five thousand francs! A round sum! If I gave Theodore five hundred
the sum would at once appear meagre, unimportant. Four thousand five
hundred francs!--it did not even _sound_ well to my mind.

So I took care that Theodore vanished from my mental vision as
completely as he had done for the last two days from my ken, and as
there was nothing more that could be done that evening, I turned my
weary footsteps toward my lodgings at Passy.

All that night, Sir, I lay wakeful and tossing in my bed, alternately
fuming and rejecting plans for the attainment of that golden goal--the
recovery of Mme. de Nolé's pet dog. And the whole of the next day I
spent in vain quest. I visited every haunt of ill-fame known to me
within the city. I walked about with a pistol in my belt, a hunk of
bread and cheese in my pocket, and slowly growing despair in my heart.

In the evening Mme. la Comtesse de Nolé called for news of Carissimo,
and I could give her none. She cried, Sir, and implored, and her tears
and entreaties got on to my nerves until I felt ready to fall into
hysterics. One more day and all my chances of a bright and wealthy
future would have vanished. Unless the money was forthcoming on the
morrow, the dog would be destroyed, and with him my every hope of that
five thousand francs. And though she still irradiated charm and luxury
from her entire lovely person, I begged her not to come to the office
again, and promised that as soon as I had any news to impart I would
at once present myself at her house in the Faubourg St. Germain.

That night I never slept one wink. Think of it, Sir! The next few
hours were destined to see me either a prosperous man for many days to
come, or a miserable, helpless, disappointed wretch. At eight o'clock
I was at my office. Still no news of Theodore. I could now no longer
dismiss him from my mind. Something had happened to him, I could have
no doubt. This anxiety, added to the other more serious one, drove me
to a state bordering on frenzy. I hardly knew what I was doing. I
wandered all day up and down the Quai Voltaire, and the Quai des
Grands Augustins, and in and around the tortuous streets till I was
dog-tired, distracted, half crazy.

I went to the Morgue, thinking to find there Theodore's dead body, and
found myself vaguely looking for the mutilated corpse of Carissimo.
Indeed, after a while Theodore and Carissimo became so inextricably
mixed up in my mind that I could not have told you if I was seeking
for the one or for the other and if Mme. la Comtesse de Nolé was now
waiting to clasp her pet dog or my man-of-all-work to her exquisite
bosom.

She in the meanwhile had received a second, yet more peremptory,
missive through the same channel as the previous one. A grimy deformed
man, with ginger-coloured hair, and wearing a black patch over one
eye, had been seen by one of the servants lolling down the street
where Madame lived, and subsequently the concierge discovered that an
exceedingly dirty scrap of paper had been thrust under the door of his
lodge. The writer of the epistle demanded that Mme. la Comtesse should
stand in person at six o'clock that same evening at the corner of the
Rue Guénégaud, behind the Institut de France. Two men, each wearing a
blue blouse and peaked cap, would meet her there. She must hand over
the money to one of them, whilst the other would have Carissimo in his
arms. The missive closed with the usual threats that if the police
were mixed up in the affair, or the money not forthcoming, Carissimo
would be destroyed.

Six o'clock was the hour fixed by these abominable thieves for the
final doom of Carissimo. It was now close on five. In a little more
than an hour my last hope of five or ten thousand francs and a smile
of gratitude from a pair of lovely lips would have gone, never again
to return. A great access of righteous rage seized upon me. I
determined that those miserable thieves, whoever they were, should
suffer for the disappointment which I was now enduring. If I was to
lose five thousand francs, they at least should not be left free to
pursue their evil ways. I would communicate with the police; the
police should meet the miscreants at the corner of the Rue Guénégaud.
Carissimo would die; his lovely mistress would be brokenhearted. I
would be left to mourn yet another illusion of a possible fortune, but
they would suffer in gaol or in New Caledonia the consequences of all
their misdeeds.

Fortified by this resolution, I turned my weary footsteps in the
direction of the gendarmerie where I intended to lodge my denunciation
of those abominable thieves and blackmailers. The night was dark, the
streets ill-lighted, the air bitterly cold. A thin drizzle, half rain,
half snow, was descending, chilling me to the bone.

I was walking rapidly along the river bank with my coat collar pulled
up to my ears, and still instinctively peering up every narrow street
which debouches on the quay. Then suddenly I spied Theodore. He was
coming down the Rue Beaune, slouching along with head bent in his
usual way. He appeared to be carrying something, not exactly heavy,
but cumbersome, under his left arm. Within the next few minutes he
would have been face to face with me, for I had come to a halt at the
angle of the street, determined to have it out with the rascal then
and there in spite of the cold and in spite of my anxiety about
Carissimo.

All of a sudden he raised his head and saw me, and in a second he
turned on his heel and began to run up the street in the direction
whence he had come. At once I gave chase. I ran after him--and then,
Sir, he came for a second within the circle of light projected by a
street lanthorn. But in that one second I had seen that which turned
my frozen blood into liquid lava--a tail, Sir!--a dog's tail, fluffy
and curly, projecting from beneath that recreant's left arm.

A dog, Sir! a dog! Carissimo! the darling of Mme. la Comtesse de
Nolé's heart! Carissimo, the recovery of whom would mean five thousand
francs into my pocket! Carissimo! I knew it! For me there existed but
one dog in all the world; one dog and one spawn of the devil, one
arch-traitor, one limb of Satan! Theodore!

How he had come by Carissimo I had not time to con-conjecture. I
called to him. I called his accursed name, using appellations which
fell far short of those which he deserved. But the louder I called the
faster he ran, and I, breathless, panting, ran after him, determined
to run him to earth, fearful lest I should lose him in the darkness of
the night. All down the Rue Beaune we ran, and already I could hear
behind me the heavy and more leisured tramp of a couple of gendarmes
who in their turn had started to give chase.

I tell you, Sir, the sound lent wings to my feet. A chance--a last
chance--was being offered me by a benevolent Fate to earn that five
thousand francs, the keystone to my future fortune. If I had the
strength to seize and hold Theodore until the gendarmes came up, and
before he had time to do away with the dog, the five thousand francs
could still be mine.

So I ran, Sir, as I had never run before; the beads of perspiration
poured down from my forehead; the breath came stertorous and hot from
my heaving breast.

Then suddenly Theodore disappeared!

Disappeared, Sir, as if the earth had swallowed him up! A second ago I
had seen him dimly, yet distinctly through the veil of snow and rain
ahead of me, running with that unmistakable shuffling gait of his,
hugging the dog closely under his arm. I had seen him--another effort
and I might have touched him!--now the long and deserted street lay
dark and mysterious before me, and behind me I could hear the measured
tramp of the gendarmes and their peremptory call of "Halt, in the name
of the King!"

But not in vain, Sir, am I called Hector Ratichon; not in vain have
kings and emperors reposed confidence in my valour and my presence of
mind. In less time than it takes to relate I had already marked with
my eye the very spot--down the street--where I had last seen Theodore.
I hurried forward and saw at once that my surmise had been correct. At
that very spot, Sir, there was a low doorway which gave on a dark and
dank passage. The door itself was open. I did not hesitate. My life
stood in the balance but I did not falter. I might be affronting
within the next second or two a gang of desperate thieves, but I did
not quake.

I turned into that doorway, Sir; the next moment I felt a stunning
blow between my eyes. I just remember calling out with all the
strength of my lungs: "Police! Gendarmes! A moi!" Then nothing more.



3.

I woke with the consciousness of violent wordy warfare carried on
around me. I was lying on the ground, and the first things I saw were
three or four pairs of feet standing close together. Gradually out of
the confused hubbub a few sentences struck my reawakened senses.

"The man is drunk."

"I won't have him inside the house."

"I tell you this is a respectable house." This from a shrill feminine
voice. "We've never had the law inside our doors before."

By this time I had succeeded in raising myself on my elbow, and, by
the dim light of a hanging lamp somewhere down the passage, I was
pretty well able to take stock of my surroundings.

The half-dozen bedroom candlesticks on a table up against the wall,
the row of keys hanging on hooks fixed to a board above, the glass
partition with the words "Concierge" and "Réception" painted across
it, all told me that this was one of those small, mostly squalid and
disreputable lodging houses or hotels in which this quarter of Paris
still abounds.

The two gendarmes who had been running after me were arguing the
matter of my presence here with the proprietor of the place and with
the concierge.

I struggled to my feet. Whereupon for the space of a solid two minutes
I had to bear as calmly as I could the abuse and vituperation which
the feminine proprietor of this "respectable house" chose to hurl at
my unfortunate head. After which I obtained a hearing from the
bewildered minions of the law. To them I gave as brief and succinct a
narrative as I could of the events of the past three days. The theft
of Carissimo--the disappearance of Theodore--my meeting him a while
ago, with the dog under his arm--his second disappearance, this time
within the doorway of this "respectable abode," and finally the blow
which alone had prevented me from running the abominable thief to
earth.

The gendarmes at first were incredulous. I could see that they were
still under the belief that my excitement was due to over-indulgence
in alcoholic liquor, whilst Madame the proprietress called me an
abominable liar for daring to suggest that she harboured thieves
within her doors. Then suddenly, as if in vindication of my character,
there came from a floor above the sound of a loud, shrill bark.

"Carissimo!" I cried triumphantly. Then I added in a rapid whisper,
"Mme. la Comtesse de Nolé is rich. She spoke of a big reward for the
recovery of her pet."

These happy words had the effect of stimulating the zeal of the
gendarmes. Madame the proprietress grew somewhat confused and
incoherent, and finally blurted it out that one of her lodgers--a
highly respectable gentleman--did keep a dog, but that there was no
crime in that surely.

"One of your lodgers?" queried the representative of the law. "When
did he come?"

"About three days ago," she replied sullenly.

"What room does he occupy?"

"Number twenty-five on the third floor."

"He came with his dog?" I interposed quickly, "a spaniel?"

"Yes."

"And your lodger, is he an ugly, slouchy creature--with hooked nose,
bleary eyes and shaggy yellow hair?"

But to this she vouchsafed no reply.

Already the matter had passed out of my hands. One of the gendarmes
prepared to go upstairs and bade me follow him, whilst he ordered his
comrade to remain below and on no account to allow anyone to enter or
leave the house. The proprietress and concierge were warned that if
they interfered with the due execution of the law they would be
severely dealt with; after which we went upstairs.

For a while, as we ascended, we could hear the dog barking furiously,
then, presently, just as we reached the upper landing, we heard a loud
curse, a scramble, and then a piteous whine quickly smothered.

My very heart stood still. The next moment, however, the gendarme had
kicked open the door of No. 25, and I followed him into the room. The
place looked dirty and squalid in the extreme--just the sort of place
I should have expected Theodore to haunt. It was almost bare save for
a table in the centre, a couple of rickety chairs, a broken-down
bedstead and an iron stove in the corner. On the table a tallow candle
was spluttering and throwing a very feeble circle of light around.

At first glance I thought that the room was empty, then suddenly I
heard another violent expletive and became aware of a man sitting
close beside the iron stove. He turned to stare at us as we entered,
but to my surprise it was not Theodore's ugly face which confronted
us. The man sitting there alone in the room where I had expected to
see Theodore and Carissimo had a shaggy beard of an undoubted ginger
hue. He had on a blue blouse and a peaked cap; beneath his cap his
lank hair protruded more decided in colour even than his beard. His
head was sunk between his shoulders, and right across his face, from
the left eyebrow over the cheek and as far as his ear, he had a
hideous crimson scar, which told up vividly against the ghastly pallor
of his face.

But there was no sign of Theodore!

At first my friend the gendarme was quite urbane. He asked very
politely to see Monsieur's pet dog. Monsieur denied all knowledge of a
dog, which denial only tended to establish his own guilt and the
veracity of mine own narrative. The gendarme thereupon became more
peremptory and the man promptly lost his temper.

I, in the meanwhile, was glancing round the room and soon spied a wall
cupboard which had obviously been deliberately screened by the
bedstead. While my companion was bringing the whole majesty of the law
to bear upon the miscreant's denegations I calmly dragged the bedstead
aside and opened the cupboard door.

An ejaculation from my quivering throat brought the gendarme to my
side. Crouching in the dark recess of the wall cupboard was
Carissimo--not dead, thank goodness! but literally shaking with
terror. I pulled him out as gently as I could, for he was so
frightened that he growled and snapped viciously at me. I handed him
to the gendarme, for by the side of Carissimo I had seen something
which literally froze my blood within my veins. It was Theodore's hat
and coat, which he had been wearing when I chased him to this house of
mystery and of ill-fame, and wrapped together with it was a rag all
smeared with blood, whilst the same hideous stains were now distinctly
visible on the door of the cupboard itself.

I turned to the gendarme, who at once confronted the abominable
malefactor with the obvious proofs of a horrible crime. But the
depraved wretch stood by, Sir, perfectly calm and with a cynicism in
his whole bearing which I had never before seen equalled!

"I know nothing about that coat," he asserted with a shrug of the
shoulders, "nor about the dog."

The gendarme by this time was purple with fury.

"Not know anything about the dog?" he exclaimed in a voice choked with
righteous indignation. "Why, he . . . he barked!"

But this indisputable fact in no way disconcerted the miscreant.

"I heard a dog yapping," he said with consummate impudence, "but I
thought he was in the next room. No wonder," he added coolly, "since
he was in a wall cupboard."

"A wall cupboard," the gendarme rejoined triumphantly, "situated in
the very room which you occupy at this moment."

"That is a mistake, my friend," the cynical wretch retorted,
undaunted. "I do not occupy this room. I do not lodge in this hotel at
all."

"Then how came you to be here?"

"I came on a visit to a friend who happened to be out when I arrived.
I found a pleasant fire here, and I sat down to warm myself. Your
noisy and unwarranted irruption into this room has so bewildered me
that I no longer know whether I am standing on my head or on my
heels."

"We'll show you soon enough what you are standing on, my fine fellow,"
the gendarme riposted with breezy, cheerfulness. "Allons!"

I must say that the pampered minion of the law arose splendidly to the
occasion. He seized the miscreant by the arm and took him downstairs,
there to confront him with the proprietress of the establishment,
while I--with marvellous presence of mind--took possession of
Carissimo and hid him as best I could beneath my coat.

In the hall below a surprise and a disappointment were in store for
me. I had reached the bottom of the stairs when the shrill feminine
accents of Mme. the proprietress struck unpleasantly on my ear.

"No! no! I tell you!" she was saying. "This man is not my lodger. He
never came here with a dog. There," she added volubly, and pointing an
unwashed finger at Carissimo who was struggling and growling in my
arms, "there is the dog. A gentleman brought him with him last
Wednesday, when he inquired if he could have a room here for a few
nights. Number twenty-five happened to be vacant, and I have no
objection to dogs. I let the gentleman have the room, and he paid me
twenty sous in advance when he took possession and told me he would
keep the room three nights."

"The gentleman? What gentleman?" the gendarme queried, rather inanely
I thought.

"My lodger," the woman replied. "He is out for the moment, but he
will be back presently I make no doubt. The dog is his. . . ."

"What is he like?" the minion of the law queried abruptly.

"Who? the dog?" she retorted impudently.

"No, no! Your lodger."

Once more the unwashed finger went up and pointed straight at me.

"He described him well enough just now; thin and slouchy in his ways.
He has lank, yellow hair, a nose perpetually crimson--with the cold no
doubt--and pale, watery eyes. . . ."

"Theodore," I exclaimed mentally.

Bewildered, the gendarme pointed to his prisoner.

"But this man . . . ?" he queried.

"Why," the proprietress replied. "I have seen Monsieur twice, or was
it three times? He would visit number twenty-five now and then."

I will not weary you with further accounts of the close examination to
which the representative of the law subjected the personnel of the
squalid hotel. The concierge and the man of all work did indeed
confirm what the proprietress said, and whilst my friend the gendarme
--puzzled and floundering--was scratching his head in complete
bewilderment, I thought that the opportunity had come for me to slip
quietly out by the still open door and make my way as fast as I could
to the sumptuous abode in the Faubourg St. Germain, where the
gratitude of Mme. de Nolé, together with five thousand francs, were
even now awaiting me.

After Madame the proprietress had identified Carissimo, I had once
more carefully concealed him under my coat. I was ready to seize my
opportunity, after which I would be free to deal with the matter of
Theodore's amazing disappearance. Unfortunately just at this moment
the little brute gave a yap, and the minion of the law at once
interposed and took possession of him.

"The dog belongs to the police now, Sir," he said sternly.

The fatuous jobbernowl wanted his share of the reward, you see.



4.

Having been forced thus to give up Carissimo, and with him all my
hopes of a really substantial fortune, I was determined to make the
red-polled miscreant suffer for my disappointment, and the minions of
the law sweat in the exercise of their duty.

I demanded Theodore! My friend, my comrade, my right hand! I had seen
him not ten minutes ago, carrying in his arms this very dog, whom I
had subsequently found inside a wall cupboard beside a blood-stained
coat. Where was Theodore? Pointing an avenging finger at the
red-headed reprobate, I boldly accused him of having murdered my
friend with a view to robbing him of the reward offered for the
recovery of the dog.

This brought a new train of thought into the wooden pates of the
gendarmes. A quartet of them had by this time assembled within the
respectable precincts of the Hôtel des Cadets. One of them--senior to
the others--at once dispatched a younger comrade to the nearest
commissary of police for advice and assistance.

Then he ordered us all into the room pompously labelled "Réception,"
and there proceeded once more to interrogate us all, making copious
notes in his leather-bound book all the time, whilst I, moaning and
lamenting the loss of my faithful friend and man of all work, loudly
demanded the punishment of his assassin.

Theodore's coat, his hat, the blood-stained rag, had all been brought
down from No. 25 and laid out upon the table ready for the inspection
of M. the Commissary of Police.

That gentleman arrived with two private agents, armed with full powers
and wrapped in the magnificent imperturbability of the law. The
gendarme had already put him _au fait_ of the events, and as soon as
he was seated behind the table upon which reposed the "pièces de
conviction," he in his turn proceeded to interrogate the ginger-pated
miscreant.

But strive how he might, M. the Commissary elicited no further
information from him than that which we all already possessed. The man
gave his name as Aristide Nicolet. He had no fixed abode. He had come
to visit his friend who lodged in No. 25 in the Hôtel des Cadets. Not
finding him at home he had sat by the fire and had waited for him. He
knew absolutely nothing of the dog and absolutely nothing of the
whereabouts of Theodore.

"We'll soon see about that!" asserted M. the Commissary.

He ordered a perquisition of every room and every corner of the hotel,
Madame the proprietress loudly lamenting that she and her respectable
house would henceforth be disgraced for ever. But the thieves--whoever
they were--were clever. Not a trace of any illicit practice was found
on the premises--and not a trace of Theodore.

Had he indeed been murdered? The thought now had taken root in my
mind. For the moment I had even forgotten Carissimo and my vanished
five thousand francs.

Well, Sir! Aristide Nicolet was marched off to the depot--still
protesting his innocence. The next day he was confronted with Mme. la
Comtesse de Nolé, who could not say more than that he might have
formed part of the gang who had jostled her on the Quai Voltaire,
whilst the servant who had taken the missive from him failed to
recognize him.

Carissimo was restored to the arms of his loving mistress, but the
reward for his recovery had to be shared between the police and
myself: three thousand francs going to the police who apprehended the
thief, and two thousand to me who had put them on the track.

It was not a fortune, Sir, but I had to be satisfied. But in the
meanwhile the disappearance of Theodore had remained an unfathomable
mystery. No amount of questionings and cross-questionings, no amount
of confrontations and perquisitions, had brought any new matter to
light. Aristide Nicolet persisted in his statements, as did the
proprietress and the concierge of the Hôtel des Cadets in theirs.
Theodore had undoubtedly occupied room No. 25 in the hotel during the
three days while I was racking my brain as to what had become of him.
I equally undoubtedly saw him for a few moments running up the Rue
Beaune with Carissimo's tail projecting beneath his coat. Then he
entered the open doorway of the hotel, and henceforth his whereabouts
remained a baffling mystery.

Beyond his coat and hat, the stained rag and the dog himself, there
was not the faintest indication of what became of him after that. The
concierge vowed that he did not enter the hotel--Aristide Nicolet
vowed that he did not enter No. 25. But then the dog was in the
cupboard, and so were the hat and coat; and even the police were bound
to admit that in the short space of time between my last glimpse of
Theodore and the gendarme's entry into room 25 it would be impossible
for the most experienced criminal on earth to murder a man, conceal
every trace of the crime, and so to dispose of the body as to baffle
the most minute inquiry and the most exhaustive search.

Sometimes when I thought the whole matter out I felt that I was
growing crazy.



5.

Thus about a week or ten days went by and I had just come reluctantly
to the conclusion that there must be some truth in the old mediaeval
legends which tell us that the devil runs away with his elect from
time to time, when I received a summons from M. the Commissary of
Police to present myself at his bureau.

He was pleasant and urbane as usual, but to my anxious query after
Theodore he only gave me the old reply: "No trace of him can be
found."

Then he added: "We must therefore take it for granted, my good M.
Ratichon, that your man of all work is--of his own free will--keeping
out of the way. The murder theory is untenable; we have had to abandon
it. The total disappearance of the body is an unanswerable argument
against it. Would you care to offer a reward for information leading
to the recovery of your missing friend?"

I hesitated. I certainly was not prepared to pay anyone for finding
Theodore.

"Think it over, my good M. Ratichon," rejoined M. le Commissaire
pleasantly. "But in the meanwhile I must tell you that we have decided
to set Aristide Nicolet free. There is not a particle of evidence
against him either in the matter of the dog or of that of your friend.
Mme. de Nolé's servants cannot swear to his identity, whilst you have
sworn that you last saw the dog in your man's arms. That being so, I
feel that we have no right to detain an innocent man."

Well, Sir, what could I say? I knew well enough that there was not a
tittle of solid evidence against the man Nicolet, nor had I the power
to move the police of His Majesty the King from their decision. In my
heart of hearts I had the firm conviction that the ginger-polled
ruffian knew all about Carissimo and all about the present whereabouts
of that rascal Theodore. But what could I say, Sir? What could I do?

I went home that night to my lodgings at Passy more perplexed than
ever I had been in my life before.

The next morning I arrived at my office soon after nine. The problem
had presented itself to me during the night of finding a new man of
all work who would serve me on the same terms as that ungrateful
wretch Theodore.

I mounted the stairs with a heavy step and opened the outer door of my
apartment with my private key; and then, Sir, I assure you that for
one brief moment I felt that my knees were giving way under me and
that I should presently measure my full length on the floor.

There, sitting at the table in my private room, was Theodore. He had
donned one of the many suits of clothes which I always kept at the
office for purposes of my business, and he was calmly consuming a
luscious sausage which was to have been part of my dinner today, and
finishing a half-bottle of my best Bordeaux.

He appeared wholly unconscious of his enormities, and when I taxed him
with his villainies and plied him with peremptory questions he met me
with a dogged silence and a sulky attitude which I have never seen
equalled in all my life. He flatly denied that he had ever walked the
streets of Paris with a dog under his arm, or that I had ever chased
him up the Rue Beaune. He denied ever having lodged in the Hôtel des
Cadets, or been acquainted with its proprietress, or with a
red-polled, hunchback miscreant named Aristide Nicolet. He denied that
the coat and hat found in room No. 25 were his; in fact, he denied
everything, and with an impudence, Sir, which was past belief.

But he put the crown to his insolence when he finally demanded two
hundred francs from me: his share in the sum paid to me by Mme. de
Nolé for the recovery of her dog. He demanded this, Sir, in the name
of justice and of equity, and even brandished our partnership contract
in my face.

I was so irate at his audacity, so disgusted that presently I felt
that I could not bear the sight of him any longer. I turned my back on
him and walked out of my own private room, leaving him there still
munching my sausage and drinking my Bordeaux.

I was going through the antechamber with a view to going out into the
street for a little fresh air when something in the aspect of the
chair-bedstead on which that abominable brute Theodore had apparently
spent the night attracted my attention. I turned over one of the
cushions, and with a cry of rage which I took no pains to suppress I
seized upon what I found lying beneath: a blue linen blouse, Sir, a
peaked cap, a ginger-coloured wig and beard!

The villain! The abominable mountebank! The wretch! The . . . I was
wellnigh choking with wrath.

With the damning pieces of conviction in my hand, I rushed back into
the inner room. Already my cry of indignation had aroused the vampire
from his orgy. He stood before me sheepish, grinning, and taunted me,
Sir--taunted me for my blindness in not recognizing him under the
disguise of the so-called Aristide Nicolet.

It was a disguise which he had kept by him in case of an emergency
when first he decided to start business as a dog thief. Carissimo had
been his first serious venture and but for my interference it would
have been a wholly successful one. He had worked the whole thing out
with marvellous cleverness, being greatly assisted by Madame Sand, the
proprietress of the Hôtel des Cadets, who was a friend of his
mother's. The lady, it seems, carried on a lucrative business of the
same sort herself, and she undertook to furnish him with the necessary
confederates for the carrying out of his plan. The proceeds of the
affair were to be shared equally between himself and Madame; the
confederates, who helped to jostle Mme. de Nolé whilst her dog was
being stolen, were to receive five francs each for their trouble.

When he met me at the corner of the Rue Beaune he was on his way to
the Rue Guénégaud, hoping to exchange Carissimo for five thousand
francs. When he met me, however, he felt that the best thing to do for
the moment was to seek safety in flight. He had only just time to run
back to the hotel to warn Mme. Sand of my approach and beg her to
detain me at any cost. Then he flew up the stairs, changed into his
disguise, Carissimo barking all the time furiously. Whilst he was
trying to pacify the dog, the latter bit him severely in the arm,
drawing a good deal of blood--the crimson scar across his face was a
last happy inspiration which put the finishing touch to his disguise
and to the hoodwinking of the police and of me. He had only just time
to staunch the blood from his arm and to thrust his own clothes and
Carissimo into the wall cupboard when the gendarme and I burst in upon
him.

I could only gasp. For one brief moment the thought rushed through my
mind that I would denounce him to the police for . . . for . . .

But that was just the trouble. Of what could I accuse him? Of
murdering himself or of stealing Mme. de Nolé's dog? The commissary
would hardly listen to such a tale . . . and it would make me seem
ridiculous. . . .

So I gave Theodore the soundest thrashing he ever had in his life, and
fifty francs to keep his mouth shut.

But did I not tell you that he was a monster of ingratitude?





CHAPTER V

THE TOYS



1.

You are right, Sir, I very seldom speak of my halcyon days--those days
when the greatest monarch the world has ever known honoured me with
his intimacy and confidence. I had my office in the Rue St. Roch then,
at the top of a house just by the church, and not a stone's throw from
the palace, and I can tell you, Sir, that in those days ministers of
state, foreign ambassadors, aye! and members of His Majesty's
household, were up and down my staircase at all hours of the day. I
had not yet met Theodore then, and fate was wont to smile on me.

As for M. le Duc d'Otrante, Minister of Police, he would send to me or
for me whenever an intricate case required special acumen,
resourcefulness and secrecy. Thus in the matter of the English
files--have I told you of it before? No? Well, then, you shall hear.

Those were the days, Sir, when the Emperor's Berlin Decrees were going
to sweep the world clear of English commerce and of English
enterprise. It was not a case of paying heavy duty on English goods,
or a still heavier fine if you smuggled; it was total prohibition, and
hanging if you were caught bringing so much as a metre of Bradford
cloth or half a dozen Sheffield files into the country. But you know
how it is, Sir: the more strict the law the more ready are certain
lawless human creatures to break it. Never was smuggling so rife as it
was in those days--I am speaking now of 1810 or 11--never was it so
daring or smugglers so reckless.

M. le Duc d'Otrante had his hands full, I can tell you. It had become
a matter for the secret police; the coastguard or customs officials
were no longer able to deal with it.

Then one day Hypolite Leroux came to see me. I knew the man well--a
keen sleuthhound if ever there was one--and well did he deserve his
name, for he was as red as a fox.

"Ratichon," he said to me, without preamble, as soon as he had seated
himself opposite to me, and I had placed half a bottle of good
Bordeaux and a couple of glasses on the table. "I want your help in
the matter of these English files. We have done all that we can in our
department. M. le Duc has doubled the customs personnel on the Swiss
frontier, the coastguard is both keen and efficient, and yet we know
that at the present moment there are thousands of English files used
in this country, even inside His Majesty's own armament works. M. le
Duc d'Otrante is determined to put an end to the scandal. He has
offered a big reward for information which will lead to the conviction
of one or more of the chief culprits, and I am determined to get that
reward--with your help, if you will give it."

"What is the reward?" I asked simply.

"Five thousand francs," he replied. "Your knowledge of English and
Italian is what caused me to offer you a share in this splendid
enterprise--"

"It's no good lying to me, Leroux," I broke in quietly, "if we are
going to work amicably together."

He swore.

"The reward is ten thousand francs." I made the shot at a venture,
knowing my man well.

"I swear that it is not," he asserted hotly.

"Swear again," I retorted, "for I'll not deal with you for less than
five thousand."

He did swear again and protested loudly. But I was firm.

"Have another glass of wine," I said.

After which he gave in.

The affair was bound to be risky. Smugglers of English goods were
determined and desperate men who were playing for high stakes and
risking their necks on the board. In all matters of smuggling a
knowledge of foreign languages was an invaluable asset. I spoke
Italian well and knew some English. I knew my worth. We both drank a
glass of cognac and sealed our bond then and there.

After which Leroux drew his chair closer to my desk.

"Listen, then," he said. "You know the firm of Fournier Frères, in
the Rue Colbert?"

"By name, of course. Cutlers and surgical instrument makers by
appointment to His Majesty. What about them?"

"M. le Duc has had his eyes on them for some time."

"Fournier Frères!" I ejaculated. "Impossible! A more reputable firm
does not exist in France."

"I know, I know," he rejoined impatiently. "And yet it is a curious
fact that M. Aristide Fournier, the junior partner, has lately bought
for himself a house at St. Claude."

"At St. Claude?" I ejaculated.

"Yes," he responded dryly. "Very near to Gex, what?"

I shrugged my shoulders, for indeed the circumstances did appear
somewhat strange.

Do you know Gex, my dear Sir? Ah, it is a curious and romantic spot.
It has possibilities, both natural and political, which appear to have
been expressly devised for the benefit of the smuggling fraternity.
Nestling in the midst of the Jura mountains, it is outside the customs
zone of the Empire. So you see the possibilities, do you not? Gex soon
became the picturesque warehouse of every conceivable kind of
contraband goods. On one side of it there was the Swiss frontier, and
the Swiss Government was always willing to close one eye in the matter
of customs provided its palm was sufficiently greased by the
light-fingered gentry. No difficulty, therefore, as you see, in
getting contraband goods--even English ones--as far as Gex.

Here they could be kept hidden until a fitting opportunity occurred
for smuggling them into France, opportunities for which the Jura, with
their narrow defiles and difficult mountain paths, afforded
magnificent scope. St. Claude, of which Leroux had just spoken as the
place where M. Aristide Fournier had recently bought himself a house,
is in France, only a few kilometres from the neutral zone of Gex. It
seemed a strange spot to choose for a wealthy and fashionable member
of Parisian bourgeois society, I was bound to admit.

"But," I mused, "one cannot go to Gex without a permit from the
police."

"Not by road," Leroux assented. "But you will own that there are means
available to men who are young and vigorous like M. Fournier, who
moreover, I understand, is an accomplished mountaineer. You know Gex,
of course?"

I had crossed the Jura once, in my youth, but was not very intimately
familiar with the district. Leroux had a carefully drawn-out map of it
in his pocket; this he laid out before me.

"These two roads," he began, tracing the windings of a couple of thin
red lines on the map with the point of his finger, "are the only two
made ones that lead in and out of the district. Here is the
Valserine," he went on, pointing to a blue line, "which flows from
north to south, and both the roads wind over bridges that span the
river close to our frontier. The French customs stations are on our
side of those bridges. But, besides those two roads, the frontier can,
of course, be crossed by one or other of the innumerable mountain
tracks which are only accessible to pedestrians or mules. That is
where our customs officials are powerless, for the tracks are
precipitous and offer unlimited cover to those who know every inch of
the ground. Several of them lead directly into St. Claude, at some
considerable distance from the customs stations, and it is these
tracks which are being used by M. Aristide Fournier for the felonious
purpose of trading with the enemy--on this I would stake my life. But
I mean to be even with him, and if I get the help which I require from
you, I am convinced that I can lay him by the heels."

"I am your man," I concluded simply.

"Very well," he resumed. "Are you prepared to journey with me to Gex?"

"When do you start?"

"To-day."

"I shall be ready."

He gave a deep sigh of satisfaction.

"Then listen to my plan," he said. "We'll journey together as far as
St. Claude; from there you will push on to Gex, and take up your abode
in the city, styling yourself an interpreter. This will give you the
opportunity of mixing with some of the smuggling fraternity, and it
will be your duty to keep both your eyes and ears open. I, on the
other hand, will take up my quarters at Mijoux, the French customs
station, which is on the frontier, about half a dozen kilometres from
Gex. Every day I'll arrange to meet you, either at the latter place or
somewhere half-way, and hear what news you may have to tell me. And
mind, Ratichon," he added sternly, "it means running straight, or the
reward will slip through our fingers."

I chose to ignore the coarse insinuation, and only riposted quietly:

"I must have money on account. I am a poor man, and will be out of
pocket by the transaction from the hour I start for Gex to that when
you pay me my fair share of the reward."

By way of a reply he took out a case from his pocket. I saw that it
was bulging over with banknotes, which confirmed me in my conviction
both that he was actually an emissary of the Minister of Police and
that I could have demanded an additional thousand francs without fear
of losing the business.

"I'll give you five hundred on account," he said as he licked his ugly
thumb preparatory to counting out the money before me.

"Make it a thousand," I retorted; "and call it 'additional,' not 'on
account.'"

He tried to argue.

"I am not keen on the business," I said with calm dignity, "so if you
think that I am asking too much--there are others, no doubt, who would
do the work for less."

It was a bold move. But it succeeded. Leroux laughed and shrugged his
shoulders. Then he counted out ten hundred-franc notes and laid them
out upon the desk. But before I could touch them he laid his large
bony hands over the lot and, looking me straight between the eyes, he
said with earnest significance:

"English files are worth as much as twenty francs apiece in the
market."

"I know."

"Fournier Frères would not take the risks which they are doing for a
consignment of less than ten thousand."

"I doubt if they would," I rejoined blandly.

"It will be your business to find out how and when the smugglers
propose to get their next consignment over the frontier."

"Exactly."

"And to communicate any information you may have obtained to me."

"And to keep an eye on the valuable cargo, of course?" I concluded.

"Yes," he said roughly, "an eye. But hands off, understand, my good
Ratichon, or there'll be trouble."

He did not wait to hear my indignant protest. He had risen to his
feet, and had already turned to go. Now he stretched his great coarse
hand out to me.

"All in good part, eh?"

I took his hand. He meant no harm, did old Leroux. He was just a
common, vulgar fellow who did not know a gentleman when he saw one.

And we parted the best of friends.



2.

A week later I was at Gex. At St. Claude I had parted from Leroux, and
then hired a chaise to take me to my destination. It was a matter of
fifteen kilometres by road over the frontier of the customs zone and
through the most superb scenery I had ever seen in my life. We drove
through narrow gorges, on each side of which the mountain heights rose
rugged and precipitous to incalculable altitudes above. From time to
time only did I get peeps of almost imperceptible tracks along the
declivities, tracks on which it seemed as if goats alone could obtain
a footing. Once--hundreds of feet above me--I spied a couple of mules
descending what seemed like a sheer perpendicular path down the
mountain side. The animals appeared to be heavily laden, and I
marvelled what forbidden goods lay hidden within their packs and
whether in the days that were to come I too should be called upon to
risk my life on those declivities following in the footsteps of the
reckless and desperate criminals whom it was my duty to pursue.

I confess that at the thought, and with those pictures of grim nature
before me, I felt an unpleasant shiver coursing down my spine.

Nothing of importance occurred during the first fortnight of my
sojourn at Gex. I was installed in moderately comfortable, furnished
rooms in the heart of the city, close to the church and market square.
In one of my front windows, situated on the ground floor, I had placed
a card bearing the inscription: "Aristide Barrot, Interpreter," and
below, "Anglais, Allemand, Italien." I had even had a few
clients--conversations between the local police and some poor wretches
caught in the act of smuggling a few yards of Swiss silk or a couple
of cream cheeses over the French frontier, and sent back to Gex to be
dealt with by the local authorities.

Leroux had found lodgings at Mijoux, and twice daily he walked over to
Gex to consult with me. We met, mornings and evenings, at the café
restaurant of the Crâne Chauve, an obscure little tavern situated on
the outskirts of the city. He was waxing impatient at what he called
my supineness, for indeed so far I had had nothing to report.

There was no sign of M. Aristide Fournier. No one in Gex appeared to
know anything about him, though the proprietor of the principal hotel
in the town did recollect having had a visitor of that name once or
twice during the past year. But, of course, during this early stage of
my stay in the town it was impossible for me to believe anything that
I was told. I had not yet succeeded in winning the confidence of the
inhabitants, and it was soon pretty evident to me that the whole
countryside was engaged in the perilous industry of smuggling.
Everyone from the mayor downwards did a bit of a deal now and again in
contraband goods. In ordinary cases it only meant fines if one was
caught, or perhaps imprisonment for repeated offenses.

But four or five days after my arrival at Gex I saw three fellows
handed over to the police of the department. They had been caught in
the act of trying to ford the Valserine with half a dozen pack-mules
laden with English cloth. They were hanged at St. Claude two days
later.

I can assure you, Sir, that the news of this summary administration of
justice sent another cold shiver down my spine, and I marvelled if
indeed Leroux's surmises were correct and if a respectable tradesman
like Aristide Fournier would take such terrible risks even for the
sake of heavy gains.

I had been in Gex just a fortnight when the weather, which hitherto
had been splendid, turned to squalls and storms. We were then in the
second week of September. A torrential rain had fallen the whole of
one day, during which I had only been out in order to meet Leroux, as
usual, at the Café du Crâne Chauve. I had just come home from our
evening meeting--it was then ten o'clock--and I was preparing to go
comfortably to bed, when I was startled by a violent ring at the
front-door bell.

I had only just time to wonder if this belated visitor desired to see
me or my worthy landlady, Mme. Bournon, when her heavy footsteps
resounded along the passage. The next moment I heard my name spoken
peremptorily by a harsh voice, and Mme. Bournon's reply that M.
Aristide Barrot was indeed within. A few seconds later she ushered my
nocturnal visitor into my room.

He was wrapped in a dark mantle from head to foot, and he wore a
wide-brimmed hat pulled right over his eyes. He did not remove either
as he addressed me without further preamble.

"You are an interpreter, Sir?" he queried, speaking very rapidly and
in sharp commanding tones.

"At your service," I replied.

"My name is Ernest Berty. I want you to come with me at once to my
house. I require your services as intermediary between myself and some
men who have come to see me on business. These men whom I wish you to
see are Russians," he added, I fancied as an afterthought, "but they
speak English fluently."

I suppose that I looked just as I felt--somewhat dubious owing to the
lateness of the hour and the darkness of the night, not to speak of
the abominable weather, for he continued with marked impatience:

"It is imperative that you should come at once. Though my house is at
some little distance from here, I have a chaise outside which will
also bring you back, and," he added significantly, "I will pay you
whatever you demand."

"It is very late," I demurred, "the weather--"

"Your fee, man!" he broke in roughly, "and let's get on!"

"Five hundred francs," I said at a venture.

"Come!" was his curt reply. "I will give you the money as we drive
along."

I wished I had made it a thousand; apparently my services were worth a
great deal to him. However, I picked up my mantle and my hat, and
within a few seconds was ready to go. I shouted up to Mme. Bournon
that I would not be home for a couple of hours, but that as I had my
key I need not disturb her when I returned.

Once outside the door I almost regretted my ready acquiescence in this
nocturnal adventure. The rain was beating down unmercifully, and at
first I saw no sign of a vehicle; but in answer to my visitor's sharp
command I followed him down the street as far as the market square, at
the corner of which I spied the dim outline of a carriage and a couple
of horses.

Without wasting too many words, M. Ernest Berty bundled me into the
carriage, and very soon we were on the way. The night was impenetrably
dark and the chaise more than ordinarily rickety. I had but little
opportunity to ascertain which way we were going. A small lanthorn
fixed opposite to me in the interior of the carriage, and flickering
incessantly before my eyes, made it still more impossible for me to
see anything outside the narrow window. My companion sat beside me,
silent and absorbed. After a while I ventured to ask him which way we
were driving.

"Through the town," he replied curtly. "My house is just outside
Divonne."

Now, Divonne is, as I knew, quite close to the Swiss frontier. It is a
matter of seven or eight kilometres--an hour's drive at the very
least in this supremely uncomfortable vehicle. I tried to induce
further conversation, but made no headway against my companion's
taciturnity. However, I had little cause for complaint in another
direction. After the first quarter of an hour, and when we had left
the cobblestones of the city behind us, he drew a bundle of notes from
his pocket, and by the flickering light of the lanthorn he counted out
ten fifty-franc notes and handed them without another word to me.

The drive was unspeakably wearisome; but after a while I suppose that
the monotonous rumbling of the wheels and the incessant patter of the
rain against the window-panes lulled me into a kind of torpor. Certain
it is that presently--much sooner than I had anticipated--the chaise
drew up with a jerk, and I was roused to full consciousness by hearing
M. Berty's voice saying curtly:

"Here we are! Come with me!"

I was stiff, Sir, and I was shivering--not so much with cold as with
excitement. You will readily understand that all my faculties were now
on the qui vive. Somehow or other during the wearisome drive by the
side of my close-tongued companion my mind had fastened on the
certitude that my adventure of this night bore a close connexion to
the firm of Fournier Frères and to the English files which were
causing so many sleepless nights to M. le Duc d'Otrante, Minister of
Police.

But nothing in my manner, as I stepped out of the carriage under the
porch of the house which loomed dark and massive out of the
surrounding gloom, betrayed anything of what I felt. Outwardly I was
just a worthy bourgeois, an interpreter by profession, and delighted
at the remunerative work so opportunely put in my way.

The house itself appeared lonely as well as dark. M. Berty led the way
across a narrow passage, at the end of which there was a door which he
pushed open, saying in his usual abrupt manner: "Go in there and wait.
I'll send for you directly."

Then he closed the door on me, and I heard his footsteps recrossing
the corridor and presently ascending some stairs. I was left alone in
a small, sparsely furnished room, dimly lighted by an oil lamp which
hung down from the ceiling. There was a table in the middle of the
room, a square of carpet on the floor, and a couple of chairs beside a
small iron stove. I noticed that the single window was closely
shuttered and barred. I sat down and waited. At first the silence
around me was only broken by the pattering of the rain against the
shutters and the soughing of the wind down the iron chimney pipe, but
after a little while my senses, which by this time had become
super-acute, were conscious of various noises within the house itself:
footsteps overhead, a confused murmur of voices, and anon the
unmistakable sound of a female voice raised as if in entreaty or in
complaint.

Somehow a vague feeling of alarm possessed itself of my nervous
system. I began to realise my position--alone, a stranger in a house
as to whose situation I had not the remotest idea, and among a set of
men who, if my surmises were correct, were nothing less than a gang of
determined and dangerous criminals. The voices, especially the female
one, were now sounding more clear. I tiptoed to the door, and very
gently opened it. There was indeed no mistaking the tone of desperate
pleading which came from some room above and through & woman's lips. I
even caught the words: "Oh, don't! Oh, don't! Not again!" repeated at
intervals with pitiable insistence.

Mastering my not unnatural anxiety, I opened the door a little farther
and slipped out into the passage, all my instincts of chivalry towards
beauty in distress aroused by those piteous cries. Forgetful of every
possible danger and of all prudence, I had already darted down the
corridor, determined to do my duty as a gentleman as soon as I had
ascertained whence had come those cries of anguish, when I heard the
frou-frou of skirts and a rapid patter of small feet down the stairs.
The next moment a radiant vision, all white muslin, fair curls and the
scent of violets, descended on me from above, a soft hand closed over
mine and drew me, unresisting, back into the room from whence I had
just come.

Bewildered, I gazed on the winsome apparition before me, and beheld a
young girl, slender as a lily, dressed in a soft, clinging gown which
made her appear more slender still, her fair hair arranged in a tangle
of unruly curls round the dainty oval of her face.

She was exquisite, Sir! And the slenderness of her! You cannot imagine
it! She looked like a young sapling bending to the gale. But what cut
me to the heart was the look of terror and of misery in her face. She
clasped her hands together and the tears gathered in her eyes.

"Go, Sir, go at once!" she murmured under her breath, speaking very
rapidly. "Do not waste a minute, I beg of you! As you value your life,
go before it is too late!"

"But, Mademoiselle," I stammered; for indeed her words and appearance
had roused all my worst fears, but also all my instincts of the
sleuth-hound scenting his quarry.

"Don't argue, I beg of you," continued the lovely creature, who indeed
seemed the prey of overwhelming emotions--fear, horror, pity. "When he
comes back do not let him find you here. I'll explain, I'll know what
to say, only I entreat you--go!"

Sir, I have many faults, but cowardice does not happen to be one of
them, and the more the angel pleaded the more determined was I to see
this business through. I was, of course, quite convinced by now that I
was on the track of M. Aristide Fournier and the English files, and I
was not going to let five thousand francs and the gratitude of the
Minister of Police slip through my fingers so easily.

"Mademoiselle," I rejoined as calmly as I could, "let me assure you
that though your anxiety for me is like manna to a starving man, I
have no fears for my own safety. I have come here in the capacity of a
humble interpreter; I certainly am not worth putting out of the way.
Moreover, I have been paid for my services, and these I will render to
my employer to the best of my capabilities."

"Ah, but you don't know," she retorted, not departing one jot from her
attitude of terror and of entreaty, "you don't understand. This house,
Monsieur," she added in a hoarse whisper, "is nothing but a den of
criminals wherein no honest man or woman is safe."

"Pardon, Mademoiselle," I riposted as lightly and as gallantly as I
could, "I see before me the living proof that angels, at any rate,
dwell therein."

"Alas! Sir," she rejoined, with a heart-rending sigh, "if you mean me,
I am only to be pitied. My dear mother and I are naught but slaves to
the will of my brother, who uses us as tools for his nefarious ends."

"But . . ." I stammered, horrified beyond speech at the vista of
villainy which her words had opened up before me.

"My mother, Sir," she said simply, "is old and ailing; she is dying of
anguish at sight of her son's misdeeds. I would not, could not leave
her, yet I would give my life to see her free from that miscreant's
clutches!"

My whole soul was stirred to its depths by the intensity of passion
which rang through this delicate creature's words. What weird and
awesome mystery of iniquity and of crime lay hid, I wondered, between
these walls? In what tragedy had I thus accidentally become involved
while fulfilling my prosaic duty in the interest of His Majesty's
exchequer? As in a flash it suddenly came to me that perhaps I could
serve both this lovely creature and the Emperor better by going out of
the house now, and lying hidden all the night through somewhere in its
vicinity until in daylight I could locate its exact situation. Then I
could communicate with Leroux at once and procure the apprehension of
this Berty--or Fournier--who apparently was a desperate criminal.
Already a bold plan was taking shape in my brain, and with my mind's
eye I had measured the distance which separated me from the front door
and safety when, in the distance, I heard heavy footsteps slowly
descending the stairs. I looked at my lovely companion, and saw her
eyes gradually dilating with increased horror. She gave a smothered
cry, pressed her handkerchief to her lips, then she murmured hoarsely,
"Too late!" and fled precipitately from the room, leaving me a prey to
mingled emotions such as I had never experienced before.



3.

A moment or two later M. Ernest Berty, or whatever his real name may
have been, entered the room. Whether he had encountered his exquisite
sister on the corridor or the stairs, I could not tell; his face, in
the dim light of the hanging lamp, looked impenetrable and sinister.

"This way, M. Barrot," he said curtly.

Just for one brief moment the thought occurred to me to throw myself
upon him with my whole weight--which was considerable--and make a wild
dash for the front door. But it was more than probable that I should
be intercepted and brought back, after which no doubt I would be an
object of suspicion to these rascals and my life would not be worth an
hour's purchase. With the young girl's warnings ringing in my ears, I
felt that my one chance of safety and of circumventing these criminals
lay in my seeming ingenuousness and complete guileless-ness.

I assumed a perfect professional manner and followed my companion up
the stairs. He ushered me into a room just above the one where I had
been waiting up to now. Three men dressed in rough clothes were
sitting at a table on which stood a couple of tankards and four empty
pewter mugs. My employer offered me a glass of ale, which I declined.
Then we got to work.

At the first words which M. Berty uttered I knew that all my surmises
had been correct. Whether he himself was M. Aristide Fournier, or
another partner of that firm, or some other rascal engaged in
nefarious doings, I could not know; certain it was that through the
medium of cipher words and phrases which he thought were
unintelligible to me, and which he ordered me to interpret into
English, he was giving directions to the three men with regard to the
convoying of contraband cargo over the frontier.

There was much talk of "toys" and "babies"--the latter were to take a
walk in the mountains and to avoid the "thorns"; the "toys" were to be
securely fastened and well protected against water. It was obviously a
case of mules and of the goods, the "thorns" being the customs
officials. By the time that we had finished I was absolutely convinced
in my mind that the cargo was one of English files or razors, for it
was evidently extraordinarily valuable and not at all bulky, seeing
that two "babies" were to carry all the "toys" for a considerable
distance. The men, too, were obviously English. I tried the few words
of Russian that I knew on them, and their faces remained perfectly
blank.

Yes, indeed, I was on the track of M. Aristide Fournier, and of one of
the most important hauls of enemy goods which had ever been made in
France. Not only that. I had also before me one of the most brutish
criminals it had ever been my misfortune to come across. A bully, a
fiend of cruelty. In very truth my fertile brain was seething with
plans for eventually laying that abominable ruffian by the heels:
hanging would be a merciful punishment for such a miscreant. Yes,
indeed, five thousand francs--a goodly sum in those days, Sir--was
practically assured me. But over and above mere lucre there was the
certainty that in a few days' time I should see the light of gratitude
shining out of a pair of lustrous blue eyes, and a winning smile
chasing away the look of fear and of sorrow from the sweetest face I
had seen for many a day.

Despite the turmoil that was raging in my brain, however, I flatter
myself that my manner with the rascals remained consistently calm,
businesslike, indifferent to all save to the work in hand. The
soi-disant Ernest Berty spoke invariably in French, either dictating
his orders or seeking information, and I made verbal translation into
English of all that he said. The séance lasted close upon an hour, and
presently I gathered that the affair was terminated and that I could
consider myself dismissed.

I was about to take my leave, having apparently completed my work,
when M. Ernest Berty called me back with a curt command.

"One moment, M. Barrot," he said.

"At Monsieur's service," I responded blandly.

"As you see," he continued, "these fellows do not know a word of
French. All along the way which they will have to traverse they will
meet friendly outposts, who will report to them on the condition of
the roads and warn them of any danger that might be ahead. Their
ignorance of our language may be a source of infinite peril to them.
They need an interpreter to accompany them over the mountains."

He paused for a moment or two, then added abruptly:

"Would you care to go? The matter is important," he went on quietly,
"and I am willing to pay you. It means a couple of nights' journey--a
halt in the mountains during the day--and there will be ten thousand
francs for you if the 'toys' reach St. Claude safely."

I suppose that something in my face betrayed the eagerness which I
felt. Here was indeed the finger of Providence pointing to the best
means of undoing this abominable criminal. Not that I intended to risk
my neck for any ten thousand francs he chose to offer me, but as the
trusted guide of his ingenuous "babies" I could convoy them--not to
St. Claude, as he blandly believed, but straight into the arms of
Leroux and the customs officials.

"Then that is understood," he said in his usual dictatorial manner,
taking my consent for granted. "Ten thousand francs. And you will
accompany these gentlemen and their 'babies' as far as St. Claude?"

"I am a poor man, Sir," I responded meekly.

"Of course you are," he broke in roughly.

Then from a number of papers which lay upon the table, he selected one
which he held out to me.

"Do you know St. Cergues?" he asked.

"Yes," I replied. "It is a short walk from Gex."

"This," he added, pointing to a paper which I had taken from him, "is
a plan of the village and of the Pass of Cergues close by. Study it
carefully. At some point some way up the pass, which I have marked
with a cross, I and my men with the 'babies' will be waiting for you
to-morrow evening at eight o'clock. You cannot possibly fail to find
the spot, for the plan is very accurate and very minute, and it is
less than five hundred metres from the last house at the entrance of
the pass. I shall escort the men until then, and hand them over into
your charge for the mountain journey. Is that clear?"

"Perfectly."

"Very well, then; you may go. The carriage is outside the door. You
know your way."

He dismissed me with a curt nod, and the next two minutes saw me
outside this house of mystery and installed inside the ramshackle
vehicle on my way back to my lodgings.

I was worn out with fatigue and excitement, and I imagine that I slept
most of the way. Certain it is that the journey home was not nearly so
long as the outward one had been. The rain was still coming down
heavily, but I cared nothing about the weather, nothing about fatigue.
My path to fame and fortune had been made easier for me than in my
wildest dreams I would have dared to hope. In the morning I would see
Leroux and make final arrangements for the capture of those impudent
smugglers, and I thought the best way would be for him to meet me and
the "babies" and the "toys" at the very outset of our journey, as I
did not greatly relish the idea of crossing lonely and dangerous
mountain paths in the company of these ruffians.

I reached home without adventure. The vehicle drew up just outside my
lodgings, and I was about to alight when my eyes were attracted by
something white which lay on the front seat of the carriage,
conspicuously placed so that the light from the inside lanthorn fell
full upon it. I had been too tired and too dazed, I suppose, to notice
the thing before, but now, on closer inspection, I saw that it was a
note, and that it was addressed to me: "M. Aristide Barrot,
Interpreter," and below my name were the words: "Very urgent."

I took the note feeling a thrill of excitement running through my
veins at its touch. I alighted, and the vehicle immediately
disappeared into the night. I had only caught one glimpse of the
horses, and none at all of the coachman. Then I went straight into my
room, and by the light of the table lamp I unfolded and read the
mysterious note. It bore no signature, but at the first words I knew
that the writer was none other than the lovely young creature who had
appeared to me like an angel of innocence in the midst of that den of
thieves.


            *       *       *       *       *


"Monsieur," she had written in a hand which had clearly been trembling
with agitation, "you are good, you are kind; I entreat you to be
merciful. My dear mother, whom I worship, is sick with terror and
misery. She will die if she remains any longer under the sway of that
inhuman monster who, alas! is my own brother. And if I lose her I
shall die, too, for I should no longer have anyone to stand between me
and his cruelties.

"My dear mother has some relations living at St. Claude. She would
have gone to them before now, but my brother keeps us both virtual
prisoners here, and we have no means of arranging for such a perilous
journey for ourselves. Now, by the most extraordinary stroke of good
fortune, my brother will be absent all day to-morrow and the following
night. My dear mother and I feel that God Himself is showing us the
way to our release.

"Will you, can you help us, dear M. Barrot? Mother and I will be at
Gex to-morrow at one hour after sundown. We will lie perdu in the
little Taverne du Roi de Rome, where, if you come to us, you will find
us waiting anxiously. If you can do nothing to help us, we must return
broken-hearted to our hated prison; but something in my heart tells me
that you can help us. All that we want is a vehicle of some sort and
the escort of a brave man like yourself as far as St. Claude, where
our relatives will thank you on their knees for your kindness and
generosity to two helpless, miserable, unprotected women, and I will
kiss your hands in unbounded gratitude and devotion."


            *       *       *       *       *


It were impossible, Monsieur, to tell you of the varied emotions which
filled my heart when I had perused that heart-rending appeal. All my
instincts of chivalry were aroused. I was determined to do my duty to
these helpless ladies as a man and as a gallant knight. Even before I
finally went to bed I had settled in my mind what I meant to do.
Fortunately it was quite possible for me to reconcile my duties to my
Emperor and those which I owed to myself in the matter of the reward
for the apprehension of the smugglers, with my burning desire to be
the saviour and protector of the lovely creature whose beauty had
inflamed my impressionable heart, and to have my hands kissed by her
in gratitude and devotion.

The next morning Leroux and I were deep in our plans, whilst we sipped
our coffee outside the Crâne Chauve. He was beside himself with joy
and excitement at the prospective haul, which would, of course,
redound enormously to his credit, even though the success of the whole
undertaking would be due to my acumen, my resourcefulness and my
pluck. Fortunately I found him not only ready but eager to render me
what assistance he could in the matter of the two ladies who had
thrown themselves so entirely on my protection.

"We might get valuable information out of them," he remarked. "In the
excess of their gratitude they may betray many more secrets and
nefarious doings of the firm of Fournier Frères."

"Which further proves," I remarked, "how deeply you and Monsieur le
Ministre of Police are indebted to me over this affair."

He did not argue the point. Indeed, we were both of us far too much
excited to waste words in useless bickerings. Our plans for the
evening were fairly simple. We both pored over the map which
Fournier-Berty had given me, until we felt that we could reach
blindfolded the spot which had been marked with a cross. We then
arranged that Leroux should betake himself thither with a strong posse
of gendarmes during the day, and lie hidden in the vicinity until such
time as I myself appeared upon the scene, identified my friends of the
night before, parleyed with them for a minute or two, and finally
retired, leaving the law in all its majesty, as represented by Leroux,
to deal with the rascals.

In the meantime I also mapped out for myself my own share in this
night's adventurous work. I had hired a vehicle to take me as far as
St. Cergues; here I intended to leave it at the local inn, and then
proceed on foot up the mountain pass to the appointed spot. As soon as
I had seen the smugglers safely in the hands of Leroux and the
gendarmes, I would make my way back to St. Cergues as rapidly as I
could, step into my vehicle, drive like the wind back to Gex, and
place myself at the disposal of my fair angel and her afflicted
mother.

Leroux promised me that at the customs station on the French frontier
the officials would look after me and the ladies, and that a pair of
fresh horses would be ready to take us straight on to St. Claude,
which, if all was well, we could then reach by daybreak.

Having settled all these matters we parted company, he to arrange his
own affairs with the Commissary of Police and the customs officials,
and I to await with as much patience as I could the hour when I could
start for St. Cergues.



4.

The night--just as I anticipated--promised to be very dark. A thin
drizzle, which wetted the unfortunate pedestrian to the marrow, had
replaced the torrential rain of the previous day.

Twilight was closing in very fast. In the late autumn afternoon I
drove to St. Cergues, after which I left the chaise in the village and
boldly started to walk up the mountain pass. I had studied the map so
carefully that I was quite sure of my way, but though my appointment
with the rascals was for eight o'clock, I wished to reach the
appointed spot before the last flicker of grey light had disappeared
from the sky.

Soon I had left the last house well behind me. Boldly I plunged into
the narrow path. The loneliness of the place was indescribable. Every
step which I took on the stony track seemed to rouse the echoes of the
grim heights which rose precipitously on either side of me, and in my
mind I felt aghast at the extraordinary courage of those men who--like
Aristide Fournier and his gang--chose to affront such obvious and
manifold dangers as these frowning mountain regions held for them for
the sake of paltry lucre.

I had walked, according to my reckoning, just upon five hundred metres
through the gorge, when on ahead I perceived the flicker of lights
which appeared to be moving to and fro. The silence and loneliness no
longer seemed to be absolute. A few metres from where I was men were
living and breathing, plotting and planning, unconscious of the net
which the unerring hand of a skilful fowler had drawn round them and
their misdeeds.

The next moment I was challenged by a peremptory "Halt!" Recognition
followed. M. Ernest Berty, or Aristide Fournier, whichever he was,
acknowledged with a few words my punctuality, whilst through the gloom
I took rapid stock of his little party. I saw the vague outline of
three men and a couple of mules which appeared to be heavily laden.
They were assembled on a flat piece of ground which appeared like a
roofless cavern carved out of the mountain side. The walls of rock
around them afforded them both cover and refuge. They seemed in no
hurry to start. They had the long night before them, so one of them
remarked in English.

However, presently M. Fournier-Berty gave the signal for the start to
be made, he himself preparing to take leave of his men. Just at that
moment my ears caught the welcome sound of the tramping of feet, and
before any of the rascals there could realise what was happening,
their way was barred by Leroux and his gendarmes, who loudly gave the
order, "Hands up, in the name of the Emperor!"

I was only conscious of a confused murmur of voices, of the click of
firearms, of words of command passing to and fro, and of several
violent oaths uttered in the not unfamiliar voice of M. Aristide
Fournier. But already I had spied Leroux. I only exchanged a few words
with him, for indeed my share of the evening's work was done as far as
he was concerned, and I made haste to retrace my steps through the
darkness and the rain along the lonely mountain path toward the goal
where chivalry and manly ardour beckoned to me from afar.

I found my vehicle waiting for me at St. Cergues, and by the promise
of an additional pourboire, I succeeded in making the driver whip up
his horses to some purpose. Less than an hour later we drew up at Gex
outside the little inn, pretentiously called Le Roi de Rome. On
alighting I was met by the proprietress who, in answer to my inquiry
after two ladies who had arrived that afternoon, at once conducted me
upstairs.

Already my mind was busy conjuring up visions of the fair lady of
yester-eve. The landlady threw open a door and ushered me into a small
room which reeked of stale food and damp clothes. I stepped in and
found myself face to face with a large and exceedingly ugly old woman
who rose with difficulty from the sofa as I entered.

"M. Aristide Barrot," she said as soon as the landlady had closed the
door behind me.

"At your service, Madame," I stammered. "But--"

I was indeed almost aghast. Never in my life had I seen anything so
grotesque as this woman. To begin with she was more than ordinarily
stout and unwieldy--indeed, she appeared like a veritable mountain of
flesh; but what was so disturbing to my mind was that she was nothing
but a hideous caricature of her lovely daughter, whose dainty features
she grotesquely recalled. Her face was seamed and wrinkled, her white
hair was plastered down above her yellow forehead. She wore an
old-fashioned bonnet tied under her chin, and her huge bulk was draped
in a large-patterned cashmere shawl.

"You expected to see my dear daughter beside me, my good M. Barrot,"
she said after a while speaking with remarkable gentleness and
dignity.

"I confess, Madame--" I murmured.

"Ah! the darling has sacrificed herself for my sake. We found to-day
that though my son was out of the way, he had set his abominable
servants to watch over us. Soon we realized that we could not both get
away. It meant one of us staying behind to act the part of unconcern
and to throw dust in the eyes of our jailers. My daughter--ah! she is
an angel, Monsieur--feared that the disappointment and my son's
cruelty, when he returned on the morrow and found that he had been
tricked, would seriously endanger my life. She decided that I must go
and that she would remain."

"But, Madame--" I protested.

"I know, Monsieur," she rejoined with the same calm dignity which
already had commanded my respect, "I know that you think me a selfish
old woman; but my Angèle--she is an angel, of a truth!--made all the
arrangements, and I could not help but obey her. But have no fears for
her safety, Monsieur. My son would not dare lay hands on her as often
as he has done on me. Angèle will be brave, and our relations at St.
Claude will, directly we arrive, make arrangements to go and fetch her
and bring her back to me. My brother is an influential man; he would
never have allowed my son to martyrize me and Angèle had he known what
we have had to endure."

Of course I could not then tell her that all her fears for herself and
the lovely Angèle could now be laid to rest. Her ruffianly son was
even now being conveyed by Leroux and his gendarmes to the frontier,
where the law would take its course. I was indeed not sorry for him. I
was not sorry to think that he would end his evil life upon the
guillotine or the gallows. I was only grieved for Angèle who would
spend a night and a day, perhaps more, in agonized suspense, knowing
nothing of the events which at one great swoop would free her and her
beloved mother from the tyranny of a hated brother and send him to
expiate his crimes. Not only did I grieve, Sir, for the tender victim
of that man's brutality, but I trembled for her safety. I did not know
what minions or confederates Fournier-Berty had left in the lonely
house yonder, or under what orders they were in case he did not return
from his nocturnal expedition.

Indeed for the moment I felt so agitated at thought of that beautiful
angel's peril that I looked down with anger and scorn at the fat old
woman who ought to have remained beside her daughter to comfort and to
shield her.

I was on the point of telling her everything, and dragging her back to
her post of duty which she should never have relinquished. Fortunately
my sense of what I owed to my own professional dignity prevented my
taking such a step. It was clearly not for me to argue. My first duty
was to stand by this helpless woman in distress, who had been
committed to my charge, and to convey her safely to St. Claude. After
which I could see to it that Mademoiselle Angèle was brought along too
as quickly as influential relatives could contrive.

In the meanwhile I derived some consolation from the thought that at
any rate for the next four and twenty hours the lovely creature would
be safe. No news of the arrest of Aristide Fournier could possibly
reach the lonely house until I myself could return thither and take
her under my protection.

So I said nothing; but with perfect gallantry, just as if fat Mme.
Fournier had been a young and beautiful woman, I begged her to give
herself the trouble of mounting into the carriage which was waiting
for her.

It took time and trouble, Sir, to hoist that mass of solid flesh into
the vehicle, and the driver grumbled not a little at the unexpected
weight. However, his horses were powerful, wiry, mountain ponies, and
we made headway through the darkness and along the smooth,
departmental road at moderate speed. I may say that it was a miserably
uncomfortable journey for me, sitting, as I was forced to do, on the
narrow front seat of the carriage, without support for my head or room
for my legs. But Madame's bulk filled the whole of the back seat, and
it never seemed to enter her head that I too might like the use of a
cushion. However, even the worst moments and the weariest journeys
must come to an end, and we reached the frontier in the small hours of
the morning. Here we found the customs officials ready to render us
any service we might require. Leroux had not failed to order the fresh
relay of horses, and whilst these were being put to, the polite
officers of the station gave Madame and myself some excellent coffee.
Beyond the formal: "Madame has nothing to declare for His Majesty's
customs?" and my companion's equally formal: "Nothing, Monsieur,
except my personal belongings," they did not ply us with questions,
and after half an hour's halt we again proceeded on our way.

We reached St. Claude at daybreak, and following Madame's directions,
the driver pulled up in front of a large house in the Avenue du Jura.
Again there was the same difficulty in hoisting the unwieldy lady out
of the vehicle, but this time, in response to my vigorous pull at the
outside bell, the concierge and another man came out of the house, and
very respectfully they approached Madame and conveyed her into the
house.

While they did so she apparently gave them some directions about
myself, for anon the concierge returned, and with extreme politeness
told me that Madame Fournier greatly hoped that I would stay in St.
Claude a day or two as she had the desire to see me again very soon.
She also honoured me with an invitation to dine with her that same
evening at seven of the clock. This was the first time, I noticed,
that the name Fournier was actually used in connexion with any of the
people with whom I had become so dramatically involved. Not that I had
ever doubted the identity of the ruffianly Ernest Berty; still it was
very satisfactory to have my surmises confirmed. I concluded that the
fine house in the Avenue du Jura belonged to Mme. Fournier's brother,
and I vaguely wondered who he was. The invitation to dinner had
certainly been given in her name, and the servants had received her
with a show of respect which suggested that she was more than a guest
in her brother's house.

Be that as it may, I betook myself for the nonce to the Hôtel des
Moines in the centre of the town and killed time for the rest of the
day as best I could. For one thing I needed rest after the emotions
and the fatigue of the past forty-eight hours. Remember, Sir, I had
not slept for two nights and had spent the last eight hours on the
narrow front seat of a jolting chaise. So I had a good rest in the
afternoon, and at seven o'clock I presented myself once more at the
house in the Avenue du Jura.

My intention was to retire early to bed after spending an agreeable
evening with the family, who would no doubt overwhelm me with their
gratitude, and at daybreak I would drive back to Gex after I had heard
all the latest news from Leroux.

I confess that it was with a pardonable feeling of agitation that I
tugged at the wrought-iron bell-pull on the perron of the magnificent
mansion in the Avenue du Jura. To begin with I felt somewhat rueful at
having to appear before ladies at this hour in my travelling clothes,
and then, you will admit, Sir, that it was a somewhat awkward
predicament for a man of highly sensitive temperament to meet on terms
of equality a refined if stout lady whose son he had just helped to
send to the gallows. Fortunately there was no likelihood of Mme.
Fournier being as yet aware of this unpleasant fact: even if she did
know at this hour that her son's illicit adventure had come to grief,
she could not possibly in her mind connect me with his ill-fortune. So
I allowed the sumptuous valet to take my hat and coat and I followed
him with as calm a demeanour as I could assume up the richly carpeted
stairs. Obviously the relatives of Mme. Fournier were more than well
to do. Everything in the house showed evidences of luxury, not to say
wealth. I was ushered into an elegant salon wherein every corner
showed traces of dainty feminine hands. There were embroidered silk
cushions upon the sofa, lace covers upon the tables, whilst a work
basket, filled with a riot of many coloured silks, stood invitingly
open. And through the apartment, Sir, a scent of violets lingered and
caressed my nostrils, reminding me of a beauteous creature in distress
whom it had been my good fortune to succour.

I had waited less than five minutes when I heard a swift, elastic step
approaching through the next room, and a second or so later, before I
had time to take up an appropriate posture, the door was thrown open
and the exquisite vision of my waking dreams--the beautiful Angèle--
stood smiling before me.

"Mademoiselle," I stammered somewhat clumsily, for of a truth I was
hardly able to recover my breath, and surprise had well nigh robbed me
of speech, "how comes it that you are here?"

She only smiled in reply, the most adorable smile I had ever seen on
any human face, so full of joy, of mischief--aye, of triumph, was it.
I asked after Madame. Again she smiled, and said Madame was in her
room, resting from the fatigues of her journey. I had scarce recovered
from my initial surprise when another--more complete still--confronted
me. This was the appearance of Monsieur Aristide Fournier, whom I had
fondly imagined already expiating his crimes in a frontier prison, but
who now entered, also smiling, also extremely pleasant, who greeted me
as if we were lifelong friends, and who then--I scarce could believe
my eyes--placed his arm affectionately round his sister's waist, while
she turned her sweet face up to his and gave him a fond--nay, a loving
look. A loving look to him who was a brute and a bully and a miscreant
amenable to the gallows! True his appearance was completely changed:
his eyes were bright and kindly, his mouth continued to smile, his
manner was urbane in the extreme when he finally introduced himself to
me as: "Aristide Fournier, my dear Monsieur Ratichon, at your
service."

He knew my name, he knew who I was! whilst I . . . I had to pass my hand
once or twice over my forehead and to close and reopen my eyes several
times, for, of a truth, it all seemed like a dream. I tried to stammer
out a question or two, but I could only gasp, and the lovely Angèle
appeared highly amused at my distress.

"Let us dine," she said gaily, "after which you may ask as many
questions as you like."

In very truth I was in no mood for dinner. Puzzlement and anxiety
appeared to grip me by the throat and to choke me. It was all very
well for the beautiful creature to laugh and to make merry. She had
cruelly deceived me, played upon the chords of my sensitive heart for
purposes which no doubt would presently be made clear, but in the
meanwhile since the smuggling of the English files had been
successful--as it apparently was--what had become of Leroux and his
gendarmes?

What tragedy had been enacted in the narrow gorge of St. Cergues, and
what, oh! what had become of my hopes of that five thousand francs for
the apprehension of the smugglers, promised me by Leroux? Can you
wonder that for the moment the very thought of dinner was abhorrent to
me? But only for the moment. The next a sumptuous valet had thrown
open the folding-doors, and down the vista of the stately apartment I
perceived a table richly laden with china and glass and silver, whilst
a distinctly savoury odour was wafted to my nostrils.

"We will not answer a single question," the fair Angèle reiterated
with adorable determination, "until after we have dined."

What, Sir, would you have done in my place? I believe that never until
this hour had Hector Ratichon reached to such a sublimity of manner. I
bowed with perfect dignity in token of obedience to the fair creature,
Sir; then without a word I offered her my arm. She placed her hand
upon it, and I conducted her to the dining-room, whilst Aristide
Fournier, who at this hour should have been on a fair way to being
hanged, followed in our wake.

Ah! it seemed indeed a lovely dream: one that lasted through an
excellent and copious dinner, and which turned to delightful reality
when, over a final glass of succulent Madeira, Monsieur Aristide
Fournier slowly counted out one hundred notes, worth one hundred
francs each, and presented these to me with a gracious nod.

"Your fee, Monsieur," he said, "and allow me to say that never have I
paid out so large a sum with such a willing hand."

"But I have done nothing," I murmured from out the depths of my
bewilderment.

Mademoiselle Angèle and Monsieur Fournier looked at one another, and,
no doubt, I presented a very comical spectacle; for both of them burst
into an uncontrollable fit of laughter.

"Indeed, Monsieur," quoth Monsieur Fournier as soon as he could speak
coherently, "you have done everything that you set out to do and done
it with perfect chivalry. You conveyed 'the toys' safely over the
frontier as far as St. Claude."

"But how?" I stammered, "how?"

Again Mademoiselle Angèle laughed, and through the ripples of her
laughter came her merry words:

"Maman was very fat, was she not, my good Monsieur Ratichon? Did you
not think she was extraordinarily like me?"

I caught the glance in her eyes, and they were literally glowing with
mischief. Then all of a sudden I understood. She had impersonated a
fat mother, covered her lovely face with lines, worn a disfiguring wig
and an antiquated bonnet, and round her slender figure she had tucked
away thousands of packages of English files. I could only gasp.
Astonishment, not to say admiration, at her pluck literally took my
breath away.

"But, Monsieur Berty?" I murmured, my mind in a turmoil, my thoughts
running riot through my brain. "The Englishmen, the mules, the packs?"

"Monsieur Berty, as you see, stands before you now in the person of
Monsieur Fournier," she replied. "The Englishmen were three faithful
servants who threw dust not only in your eyes, my dear M. Ratichon,
but in those of the customs officials, while the packs contained
harmless personal luggage which was taken by your friend and his
gendarmes to the customs station at Mijoux, and there, after much
swearing, equally solemnly released with many apologies to M.
Fournier, who was allowed to proceed unmolested on his way, and who
arrived here safely this afternoon, whilst Maman divested herself of
her fat and once more became the slender Mme. Aristide Fournier, at
your service."

She bobbed me a dainty curtsy, and I could only try and hide the pain
which this last cruel stab had inflicted on my heart. So she was not
"Mademoiselle" after all, and henceforth it would even be wrong to
indulge in dreams of her.

But the ten thousand francs crackled pleasantly in my breast pocket,
and when I finally took leave of Monsieur Aristide Fournier and his
charming wife, I was an exceedingly happy man.

But Leroux never forgave me. Of what he suspected me I do not know, or
if he suspected me at all. He certainly must have known about fat
Maman from the customs officials who had given us coffee at Mijoux.

But he never mentioned the subject to me at all, nor has he spoken to
me since that memorable night. To one of his colleagues he once said
that no words in his vocabulary could possibly be adequate to express
his feelings.






CHAPTER VI

HONOUR AMONG ------



1.

Ah, my dear Sir, it is easy enough to despise our profession, but
believe me that all the finer qualities--those of loyalty and of
truth--are essential, not only to us, but to our subordinates, if we
are to succeed in making even a small competence out of it.

Now let me give you an instance. Here was I, Hector Ratichon, settled
in Paris in that eventful year 1816 which saw the new order of things
finally swept aside and the old order resume its triumphant sway,
which saw us all, including our God-given King Louis XVIII, as poor as
the proverbial church mice and as eager for a bit of comfort and
luxury as a hungry dog is for a bone; the year which saw the army
disbanded and hordes of unemployed and unemployable men wandering
disconsolate and half starved through the country seeking in vain for
some means of livelihood, while the Allied troops, well fed and well
clothed, stalked about as if the sacred soil of France was so much
dirt under their feet; the year, my dear Sir, during which more
intrigues were hatched and more plots concocted than in any previous
century in the whole history of France. We were all trying to make
money, since there was so precious little of it about. Those of us who
had brains succeeded, and then not always.

Now, I had brains--I do not boast of them; they are a gift from
Heaven--but I had them, and good looks, too, and a general air of
strength, coupled with refinement, which was bound to appeal to anyone
needing help and advice, and willing to pay for both, and yet--but you
shall judge.

You know my office in the Rue Daunou, you have been in it--plainly
furnished; but, as I said, these were not days of luxury. There was an
antechamber, too, where that traitor, blackmailer and thief, Theodore,
my confidential clerk in those days, lodged at my expense and kept
importunate clients at bay for what was undoubtedly a liberal
salary--ten per cent, on all the profits of the business--and yet he
was always complaining, the ungrateful, avaricious brute!

Well, Sir, on that day in September--it was the tenth, I
remember--1816, I must confess that I was feeling exceedingly
dejected. Not one client for the last three weeks, half a franc in my
pocket, and nothing but a small quarter of Strasburg patty in the
larder. Theodore had eaten most of it, and I had just sent him out to
buy two sous' worth of stale bread wherewith to finish the remainder.
But after that? You will admit, Sir, that a less buoyant spirit would
not have remained so long undaunted.

I was just cursing that lout Theodore inwardly, for he had been gone
half an hour, and I strongly suspected him of having spent my two sous
on a glass of absinthe, when there was a ring at the door, and I,
Hector Ratichon, the confidant of kings and intimate counsellor of
half the aristocracy in the kingdom, was forced to go and open the
door just like a common lackey.

But here the sight which greeted my eyes fully compensated me for the
temporary humiliation, for on the threshold stood a gentleman who had
wealth written plainly upon his fine clothes, upon the dainty linen at
his throat and wrists, upon the quality of his rich satin necktie and
the perfect set of his fine cloth pantaloons, which were of an
exquisite shade of dove-grey. When, then, the apparition spoke,
inquiring with just a sufficiency of aristocratic hauteur whether M.
Hector Ratichon were in, you cannot be surprised, my dear Sir, that my
dejection fell from me like a cast-off mantle and that all my usual
urbanity of manner returned to me as I informed the elegant gentleman
that M. Ratichon was even now standing before him, and begged him to
take the trouble to pass through into my office.

This he did, and I placed a chair in position for him. He sat down,
having previously dusted the chair with a graceful sweep of his
lace-edged handkerchief. Then he raised a gold-rimmed eyeglass to his
right eye with a superlatively elegant gesture, and surveyed me
critically for a moment or two ere he said:

"I am told, my good M. Ratichon, that you are a trustworthy fellow,
and one who is willing to undertake a delicate piece of business for a
moderate honorarium."

Except for the fact that I did not like the word "moderate," I was
enchanted with him.

"Rumour for once has not lied, Monsieur," I replied in my most
attractive manner.

"Well," he rejoined--I won't say curtly, but with businesslike
brevity, "for all purposes connected with the affair which I desire to
treat with you my name, as far as you are concerned, shall be Jean
Duval. Understand?"

"Perfectly, Monsieur le Marquis," I replied with a bland smile.

It was a wild guess, but I don't think that I underestimated my new
client's rank, for he did not wince.

"You know Mlle. Mars?" he queried.

"The actress?" I replied. "Perfectly."

"She is playing in _Le Rêve_ at the Theatre Royal just now."

"She is."

"In the first and third acts of the play she wears a gold bracelet set
with large green stones."

"I noticed it the other night. I had a seat in the parterre, I may
say."

"I want that bracelet," broke in the soi-disant Jean Duval
unceremoniously. "The stones are false, the gold strass. I admire
Mlle. Mars immensely. I dislike seeing her wearing false jewellery. I
wish to have the bracelet copied in real stones, and to present it to
her as a surprise on the occasion of the twenty-fifth performance of
_Le Rêve_. It will cost me a king's ransom, and her, for the time
being, an infinite amount of anxiety. She sets great store by the
valueless trinket solely because of the merit of its design, and I
want its disappearance to have every semblance of a theft. All the
greater will be the lovely creature's pleasure when, at my hands, she
will receive an infinitely precious jewel the exact counterpart in all
save its intrinsic value of the trifle which she had thought lost."

It all sounded deliciously romantic. A flavour of the past
century--before the endless war and abysmal poverty had killed all
chivalry in us--clung to this proposed transaction. There was nothing
of the roturier, nothing of a Jean Duval, in this polished man of the
world who had thought out this subtle scheme for ingratiating himself
in the eyes of his lady fair.

I murmured an appropriate phrase, placing my services entirely at M.
le Marquis's disposal, and once more he broke in on my polished
diction with that brusquerie which betrayed the man accustomed to be
silently obeyed.

"Mlle. Mars wears the bracelet," he said, "during the third act of _Le
Rêve_. At the end of the act she enters her dressing-room, and her
maid helps her to change her dress. During this entr'acte Mademoiselle
with her own hands puts by all the jewellery which she has to wear
during the more gorgeous scenes of the play. In the last act--the
finale of the tragedy--she appears in a plain stuff gown, whilst all
her jewellery reposes in the small iron safe in her dressing-room. It
is while Mademoiselle is on the stage during the last act that I want
you to enter her dressing-room and to extract the bracelet out of the
safe for me."

"I, M. le Marquis?" I stammered. "I, to steal a--"

"Firstly, M.--er--er--Ratichon, or whatever your confounded name may
be," interposed my client with inimitable hauteur, "understand that my
name is Jean Duval, and if you forget this again I shall be under the
necessity of laying my cane across your shoulders and incidentally to
take my business elsewhere. Secondly, let me tell you that your
affectations of outraged probity are lost on me, seeing that I know
all about the stolen treaty which--"

"Enough, M. Jean Duval," I said with a dignity equal, if not greater,
than his own; "do not, I pray you, misunderstand me. I am ready to do
you service. But if you will deign to explain how I am to break open
an iron safe inside a crowded building and extract therefrom a
trinket, without being caught in the act and locked up for
house-breaking and theft, I shall be eternally your debtor."

"The extracting of the trinket is your affair," he rejoined dryly. "I
will give you five hundred francs if you bring the bracelet to me
within fourteen days."

"But--" I stammered again.

"Your task will not be such a difficult one after all. I will give you
the duplicate key of the safe."

He dived into the breast pocket of his coat, and drew from it a
somewhat large and clumsy key, which he placed upon my desk.

"I managed to get that easily enough," he said nonchalantly, "a couple
of nights ago, when I had the honour of visiting Mademoiselle in her
dressing-room. A piece of wax in my hand, Mademoiselle's momentary
absorption in her reflection while her maid was doing her hair, and
the impression of the original key was in my possession. But between
taking a model of the key and the actual theft of the bracelet out of
the safe there is a wide gulf which a gentleman cannot bridge over.
Therefore, I choose to employ you, M.--er--er--Ratichon, to complete
the transaction for me."

"For five hundred francs?" I queried blandly.

"It is a fair sum," he argued.

"Make it a thousand," I rejoined firmly, "and you shall have the
bracelet within fourteen days."

He paused a moment in order to reflect; his steel-grey eyes, cool and
disdainful, were fixed searchingly on my face. I pride myself on the
way that I bear that kind of scrutiny, so even now I looked bland and
withal purposeful and capable.

"Very well," he said, after a few moments, and he rose from his chair
as he spoke; "it shall be a thousand francs, M.--er--er--Ratichon, and
I will hand over the money to you in exchange for the bracelet--but it
must be done within fourteen days, remember."

I tried to induce him to give me a small sum on account. I was about
to take terrible risks, remember; housebreaking, larceny, theft--call
it what you will, it meant the _police correctionelle_ and a couple of
years in New Orleans for sure. He finally gave me fifty francs, and
once more threatened to take his business elsewhere, so I had to
accept and to look as urbane and dignified as I could.

He was out of the office and about to descend the stairs when a
thought struck me.

"Where and how can I communicate with M. Jean Duval," I asked, "when
my work is done?"

"I will call here," he replied, "at ten o'clock of every morning that
follows a performance of _Le Rêve_. We can complete our transaction
then across your office desk."

The next moment he was gone. Theodore passed him on the stairs and
asked me, with one of his impertinent leers, whether we had a new
client and what we might expect from him. I shrugged my shoulders. "A
new client!" I said disdainfully. "Bah! Vague promises of a couple of
louis for finding out if Madame his wife sees more of a certain
captain of the guards than Monsieur the husband cares about."

Theodore sniffed. He always sniffs when financial matters are on the
tapis.

"Anything on account?" he queried.

"A paltry ten francs," I replied, "and I may as well give you your
share of it now."

I tossed a franc to him across the desk. By the terms of my contract
with him, you understand, he was entitled to ten per cent, of every
profit accruing from the business in lieu of wages, but in this
instance do you not think that I was justified in looking on one franc
now, and perhaps twenty when the transaction was completed, as a more
than just honorarium for his share in it? Was I not taking all the
risks in this delicate business? Would it be fair for me to give him a
hundred francs for sitting quietly in the office or sipping absinthe
at a neighbouring bar whilst I risked New Orleans--not to speak of the
gallows?

He gave me a strange look as he picked up the silver franc, spat on it
for luck, bit it with his great yellow teeth to ascertain if it were
counterfeit or genuine, and finally slipped it into his pocket, and
shuffled out of the office whistling through his teeth.

An abominably low, deceitful creature, that Theodore, you will see
anon. But I won't anticipate.



2.

The next performance of _Le Rêve_ was announced for the following
evening, and I started on my campaign. As you may imagine, it did not
prove an easy matter. To obtain access through the stage-door to the
back of the theatre was one thing--a franc to the doorkeeper had done
the trick--to mingle with the scene-shifters, to talk with the supers,
to take off my hat with every form of deep respect to the principals
had been equally simple.

I had even succeeded in placing a bouquet on the dressing-table of the
great tragedienne on my second visit to the theatre. Her dressing-room
door had been left ajar during that memorable fourth act which was to
see the consummation of my labours. I had the bouquet in my hand,
having brought it expressly for that purpose. I pushed open the door,
and found myself face to face with a young though somewhat forbidding
damsel, who peremptorily demanded what my business might be.

In order to minimise the risk of subsequent trouble, I had assumed the
disguise of a middle-aged Angliche--red side-whiskers, florid
complexion, a ginger-coloured wig plastered rigidly over the ears
towards the temples, high stock collar, nankeen pantaloons, a patch
over one eye and an eyeglass fixed in the other. My own sainted mother
would never have known me.

With becoming diffidence I explained in broken French that my deep
though respectful admiration of Mlle. Mars had prompted me to lay a
floral tribute at her feet. I desired nothing more.

The damsel eyed me coldly, though at the moment I was looking quite my
best, diffident yet courteous, a perfect gentleman of the old regime.
Then she took the bouquet from me and put it down on the
dressing-table.

I fancied that she smiled, not unkindly, and I ventured to pass the
time of day. She replied not altogether disapprovingly. She sat down
by the dressing-table and took up some needlework which she had
obviously thrown aside on my arrival. Close by, on the floor, was a
solid iron chest with huge ornamental hinges and a large escutcheon
over the lock. It stood about a foot high and perhaps a couple of feet
long.

There was nothing else in the room that suggested a receptacle for
jewellery; this, therefore, was obviously the safe which contained the
bracelet. At the self-same second my eyes alighted on a large and
clumsy-looking key which lay upon the dressing-table, and my hand at
once wandered instinctively to the pocket of my coat and closed
convulsively on the duplicate one which the soi-disant Jean Duval had
given me.

I talked eloquently for a while. The damsel answered in monosyllables,
but she sat unmoved at needlework, and after ten minutes or so I was
forced to beat a retreat.

I returned to the charge at the next performance of _Le Rêve_, this
time with a box of bonbons for the maid instead of the bouquet for the
mistress. The damsel was quite amenable to a little conversation,
quite willing that I should dally in her company. She munched the
bonbons and coquetted a little with me. But she went on stolidly with
her needlework, and I could see that nothing would move her out of
that room, where she had obviously been left in charge.

Then I bethought me of Theodore. I realised that I could not carry
this affair through successfully without his help. So I gave him a
further five francs--as I said to him it was out of my own
savings--and I assured him that a certain M. Jean Duval had promised
me a couple of hundred francs when the business which he had entrusted
to me was satisfactorily concluded. It was for this business--so I
explained--that I required his help, and he seemed quite satisfied.

His task was, of course, a very easy one. What a contrast to the risk
I was about to run! Twenty-five francs, my dear Sir, just for knocking
at the door of Mlle. Mars' dressing-room during the fourth act, whilst
I was engaged in conversation with the attractive guardian of the iron
safe, and to say in well-assumed, breathless tones:

"Mademoiselle Mars has been taken suddenly unwell on the stage.
Will her maid go to her at once?"

It was some little distance from the dressing-room to the wings--down
a flight of ill-lighted stone stairs which demanded cautious ascent
and descent. Theodore had orders to obstruct the maid during her
progress as much as he could without rousing her suspicions.

I reckoned that she would be fully three minutes going, questioning,
finding out that the whole thing was a hoax, and running back to the
dressing-room--three minutes in which to open the chest, extract the
bracelet and, incidentally, anything else of value there might be
close to my hand. Well, I had thought of that eventuality, too; one
must think of everything, you know--that is where genius comes in.
Then, if possible, relock the safe, so that the maid, on her return,
would find everything apparently in order and would not, perhaps,
raise the alarm until I was safely out of the theatre.

It could be done--oh, yes, it could be done--with a minute to spare!
And to-morrow at ten o'clock M. Jean Duval would appear, and I would
not part with the bracelet until a thousand francs had passed from his
pocket into mine. I must get Theodore out of the house, by the way,
before the arrival of M. Duval.

A thousand francs! I had not seen a thousand francs all at once for
years. What a dinner I would have tomorrow! There was a certain little
restaurant in the Rue des Pipots where they concocted a cassolette of
goose liver and pork chops with haricot beans which . . . ! I only
tell you that.

How I got through the rest of that day I cannot tell you. The evening
found me--quite an habitué now--behind the stage of the Theatre
Royal, nodding to one or two acquaintances, most of the people looking
on me with grave respect and talking of me as the eccentric milor. I
was supposed to be pining for an introduction to the great
tragedienne, who, very exclusive as usual, had so far given me the
cold shoulder.

Ten minutes after the rise of the curtain on the fourth act I was in
the dressing-room, presenting the maid with a gold locket which I had
bought from a cheapjack's barrow for five and twenty francs--almost
the last of the fifty which I had received from M. Duval on account.
The damsel was eyeing the locket somewhat disdainfully and giving me
grudging thanks for it when there came a hurried knock at the door.
The next moment Theodore poked his ugly face into the room. He, too,
had taken the precaution of assuming an excellent disguise--peaked cap
set aslant over one eye, grimy face, the blouse of a scene-shifter.

"Mlle. Mars," he gasped breathlessly; "she has been taken ill--on the
stage--very suddenly. She is in the wings--asking for her maid. They
think she will faint."

The damsel rose, visibly frightened.

"I'll come at once," she said, and without the slightest flurry she
picked up the key of the safe and slipped it into her pocket. I
fancied that she gave me a look as she did this. Oh, she was a pearl
among Abigails! Then she pointed unceremoniously to the door.

"Milor!" was all she said, but of course I understood. I had no idea
that English milors could be thus treated by pert maidens. But what
cared I for social amenities just then? My hand had closed over the
duplicate key of the safe, and I walked out of the room in the wake of
the damsel. Theodore had disappeared.

Once in the passage, the girl started to run. A second or two later
I heard the patter of her high-heeled shoes down the stone stairs. I
had not a moment to lose.

To slip back into the dressing-room was but an instant's work. The
next I was kneeling in front of the chest. The key fitted the lock
accurately; one turn, and the lid flew open.

The chest was filled with a miscellaneous collection of theatrical
properties all lying loose--showy necklaces, chains, pendants, all of
them obviously false; but lying beneath them, and partially hidden by
the meretricious ornaments, were one or two boxes covered with velvet
such as jewellers use. My keen eyes noted these at once. I was indeed
in luck! For the moment, however, my hand fastened on a leather case
which reposed on the top in one corner, and which very obviously, from
its shape, contained a bracelet. My hands did not tremble, though I
was quivering with excitement. I opened the case. There, indeed, was
the bracelet--the large green stones, the magnificent gold setting,
the whole jewel dazzlingly beautiful. If it were real--the thought
flashed through my mind--it would be indeed priceless. I closed the
case and put it on the dressing-table beside me. I had at least
another minute to spare--sixty seconds wherein to dive for those
velvet-covered boxes which-- My hand was on one of them when a slight
noise caused me suddenly to turn and to look behind me. It all happened
as quickly as a flash of lightning. I just saw a man disappearing
through the door. One glance at the dressing-table showed me the whole
extent of my misfortune. The case containing the bracelet had gone, and
at that precise moment I heard a commotion from the direction of the
stairs and a woman screaming at the top of her voice: "Thief! Stop
thief!"

Then, Sir, I brought upon the perilous situation that presence of mind
for which the name of Hector Ratichon will for ever remain famous.
Without a single flurried movement, I slipped one of the
velvet-covered cases which I still had in my hand into the breast
pocket of my coat, I closed down the lid of the iron chest and locked
it with the duplicate key, and I went out of the room, closing the
door behind me.

The passage was dark. The damsel was running up the stairs with a
couple of stage hands behind her. She was explaining to them volubly,
and to the accompaniment of sundry half-hysterical little cries, the
infamous hoax to which she had fallen a victim. You might think, Sir,
that here was I caught like a rat in a trap, and with that
velvet-covered case in my breast pocket by way of damning evidence
against me!

Not at all, Sir! Not at all! Not so is Hector Ratichon, the keenest
secret agent France has ever known, the confidant of kings, brought to
earth by an untoward move of fate. Even before the damsel and the
stage hands had reached the top of the stairs and turned into the
corridor, which was on my left, I had slipped round noiselessly to my
right and found shelter in a narrow doorway, where I was screened by
the surrounding darkness and by a projection of the frame. While the
three of them made straight for Mademoiselle's dressing-room, and
spent some considerable time there in uttering varied ejaculations
when they found the place and the chest to all appearances untouched,
I slipped out of my hiding-place, sped rapidly along the corridor, and
was soon half-way down the stairs.

Here my habitual composure in the face of danger stood me in good
stead. It enabled me to walk composedly and not too hurriedly through
the crowd behind the scenes--supers, scene-shifters, principals, none
of whom seemed to be aware as yet of the hoax practised on
Mademoiselle Mars' maid; and I reckon that I was out of the stage door
exactly five minutes after Theodore had called the damsel away.

But I was minus the bracelet, and in my mind there was the firm
conviction that that traitor Theodore had played me one of his
abominable tricks. As I said, the whole thing had occurred as quickly
as a flash of lightning, but even so my keen, experienced eyes had
retained the impression of a peaked cap and the corner of a blue
blouse as they disappeared through the dressing-room door.



3.

Tact, wariness and strength were all required, you must admit, in
order to deal with the present delicate situation. I was speeding
along the Rue de Richelieu on my way to my office. My intention was to
spend the night there, where I had a chair-bedstead on which I had oft
before slept soundly after a day's hard work, and anyhow it was too
late to go to my lodgings at Passy at this hour.

Moreover, Theodore slept in the antechamber of the office, and I was
more firmly convinced than ever that it was he who had stolen the
bracelet. "Blackleg! Thief! Traitor!" I mused. "But thou hast not done
with Hector Ratichon yet."

In the meanwhile I bethought me of the velvet-covered box in my breast
pocket, and of the ginger-coloured hair and whiskers that I was still
wearing, and which might prove an unpleasant "piece de conviction" in
case the police were after the stolen bracelet.

With a view to examining the one and getting rid of the other, I
turned into the Square Louvois, which, as usual, was very dark and
wholly deserted. Here I took off my wig and whiskers and threw them
over the railings into the garden. Then I drew the velvet-covered box
from my pocket, opened it, and groped for its contents. Imagine my
feelings, my dear Sir, when I realised that the case was empty! Fate
was indeed against me that night. I had been fooled and cheated by a
traitor, and had risked New Orleans and worse for an empty box.

For a moment I must confess that I lost that imperturbable sang-froid
which is the admiration of all my friends, and with a genuine oath I
flung the case over the railings in the wake of the milor's hair and
whiskers. Then I hurried home.

Theodore had not returned. He did not come in until the small hours of
the morning, and then he was in a state that I can only describe, with
your permission, as hoggish. He could hardly speak. I had him at my
mercy. Neither tact nor wariness was required for the moment. I
stripped him to his skin; he only laughed like an imbecile. His eyes
had a horrid squint in them; he was hideous. I found five francs in
one of his pockets, but neither in his clothes nor on his person did I
find the bracelet.

"What have you done with it?" I cried, for by this time I was maddened
with rage.

"I don't know what you are talking about!" he stammered thickly, as he
tottered towards his bed. "Give me back my five francs, you thief!"
the brutish creature finally blurted out ere he fell into a hog-like
sleep.



4.

Desperate evils need desperate remedies. I spent the rest of the night
thinking hard. By the time that dawn was breaking my mind was made up.
Theodore's stertorous breathing assured me that he was still
insentient. I was muscular in those days, and he a meagre, attenuated,
drink-sodden creature. I lifted him out of his bed in the antechamber
and carried him into mine in the office. I found a coil of rope, and
strapped him tightly in the chair-bedstead so that he could not move.
I tied a scarf round his mouth so that he could not scream. Then, at
six o'clock, when the humbler eating-houses begin to take down their
shutters, I went out.

I had Theodore's five francs in my pocket, and I was desperately
hungry. I spent ten sous on a cup of coffee and a plate of fried
onions and haricot beans, and three francs on a savoury pie, highly
flavoured with garlic, and a quarter-bottle of excellent cognac. I
drank the coffee and ate the onions and the beans, and I took the pie
and cognac home.

I placed a table close to the chair-bedstead and on it I disposed the
pie and the cognac in such a manner that the moment Theodore woke his
eyes were bound to alight on them. Then I waited. I absolutely ached
to have a taste of that pie myself, it smelt so good, but I waited.

Theodore woke at nine o'clock. He struggled like a fool, but he still
appeared half dazed. No doubt he thought that he was dreaming. Then I
sat down on the edge of the bed and cut myself off a large piece of
the pie. I ate it with marked relish in front of Theodore, whose eyes
nearly started out of their sockets. Then I brewed myself a cup of
coffee. The mingled odour of coffee and garlic filled the room. It was
delicious. I thought that Theodore would have a fit. The veins stood
out on his forehead and a kind of gurgle came from behind the scarf
round his mouth. Then I told him he could partake of the pie and
coffee if he told me what he had done with the bracelet. He shook his
head furiously, and I left the pie, the cognac and the coffee on the
table before him and went into the antechamber, closing the office
door behind me, and leaving him to meditate on his treachery.

What I wanted to avoid above everything was the traitor meeting M.
Jean Duval. He had the bracelet--of that I was as convinced as that I
was alive. But what could he do with a piece of false jewellery? He
could not dispose of it, save to a vendor of theatrical properties,
who no doubt was well acquainted with the trinket and would not give
more than a couple of francs for what was obviously stolen property.
After all, I had promised Theodore twenty francs; he would not be such
a fool as to sell that birthright for a mess of pottage and the sole
pleasure of doing me a bad turn.

There was no doubt in my mind that he had put the thing away somewhere
in what he considered a safe place pending a reward being offered by
Mlle. Mars for the recovery of the bracelet. The more I thought of
this the more convinced I was that that was, indeed, his proposed plan
of action--oh, how I loathed the blackleg!--and mine henceforth would
be to dog his every footstep and never let him out of my sight until I
forced him to disgorge his ill-gotten booty.

At ten o'clock M. Jean Duval arrived, as was his wont, supercilious
and brusque as usual. I was just explaining to him that I hoped to
have excellent news for him after the next performance of _Le Rêve_
when there was a peremptory ring at the bell. I went to open the door,
and there stood a police inspector in uniform with a sheaf of papers
in his hand.

Now, I am not over-fond of our Paris police; they poke their noses in
where they are least wanted. Their incompetence favours the
machinations of rogues and frustrates the innocent ambitions of the
just. However, in this instance the inspector looked amiable enough,
though his manner, I must say, was, as usual, unpleasantly curt.

"Here, Ratichon," he said, "there has been an impudent theft of a
valuable bracelet out of Mademoiselle Mars' dressing-room at the
Theatre Royal last night. You and your mate frequent all sorts of
places of ill-fame; you may hear something of the affair."

I chose to ignore the insult, and the inspector detached a paper from
the sheaf which he held and threw it across the table to me.

"There is a reward of two thousand five hundred francs," he said, "for
the recovery of the bracelet. You will find on that paper an accurate
description of the jewel. It contains the celebrated Maroni emerald,
presented to the ex-Emperor by the Sultan, and given by him to Mlle.
Mars."

Whereupon he turned unceremoniously on his heel and went, leaving me
face to face with the man who had so shamefully tried to swindle me. I
turned, and resting my elbow on the table and my chin in my hand, I
looked mutely on the soi-disant Jean Duval and equally mutely pointed
with an accusing finger to the description of the famous bracelet
which he had declared to me was merely strass and base metal.

But he had the impudence to turn on me before I could utter a
syllable.

"Where is the bracelet?" he demanded. "You consummate liar, you! Where
is it? You stole it last night! What have you done with it?"

"I extracted, at your request," I replied with as much dignity as I
could command, "a piece of theatrical jewellery, which you stated to
me to be worthless, out of an iron chest, the key of which you placed
in my hands. I . . ."

"Enough of this rubbish!" he broke in roughly. "You have the bracelet.
Give it me now, or . . ."

He broke off and looked somewhat alarmed in the direction of the
office door, from the other side of which there had just come a loud
crash, followed by loud, if unintelligible, vituperation. What had
happened I could not guess; all that I could do was to carry off the
situation as boldly as I dared.

"You shall have the bracelet, Sir," I said in my most suave manner.
"You shall have it, but not unless you will pay me three thousand
francs for it. I can get two thousand five hundred by taking it
straight to Mlle. Mars."

"And be taken up by the police for stealing it," he retorted. "How
will you explain its being in your possession?"

I did not blanch.

"That is my affair," I replied. "Will you give me three thousand
francs for it? It is worth sixty thousand francs to a clever thief
like you."

"You hound!" he cried, livid with rage, and raised his cane as if he
would strike me.

"Aye, it was cleverly done, M. Jean Duval, whoever you may be. I know
that the gentleman-thief is a modern product of the old regime, but I
did not know that the fraternity could show such a fine specimen as
yourself. Pay Hector Ratichon a thousand francs for stealing a
bracelet for you worth sixty! Indeed, M. Jean Duval, you deserved to
succeed!"

Again he shook his cane at me.

"If you touch me," I declared boldly, "I shall take the bracelet at
once to Mlle. Mars."

He bit his lip and made a great effort to pull himself together.

"I haven't three thousand francs by me," he said.

"Go, fetch the money," I retorted, "and I'll fetch the bracelet."

He demurred for a while, but I was firm, and after he had threatened
to thrash me, to knock me down, and to denounce me to the police, he
gave in and went to fetch the money.



5.

When I remembered Theodore--Theodore, whom only a thin partition wall
had separated from the full knowledge of the value of his ill-gotten
treasure!--I could have torn my hair out by the roots with the
magnitude of my rage. He, the traitor, the blackleg, was about to
triumph, where I, Hector Ratichon, had failed! He had but to take the
bracelet to Mlle. Mars himself and obtain the munificent reward whilst
I, after I had taken so many risks and used all the brains and tact
wherewith Nature had endowed me, would be left with the meagre
remnants of the fifty francs which M. Jean Duval had so grudgingly
thrown to me. Twenty-five francs for a gold locket, ten francs for a
bouquet, another ten for bonbons, and five for gratuities to the
stage-doorkeeper! Make the calculation, my good Sir, and see what I
had left. If it had not been for the five francs which I had found in
Theodore's pocket last night, I would at this moment not only have
been breakfastless, but also absolutely penniless.

As it was, my final hope--and that a meagre one--was to arouse one
spark of honesty in the breast of the arch-traitor, and either by
cajolery or threats, to induce him to share his ill-gotten spoils with
me.

I had left him snoring and strapped to the chair-bedstead, and when I
opened the office door I was marvelling in my mind whether I could
really bear to see him dying slowly of starvation with that savoury
pie tantalizingly under his nose. The crash which I had heard a few
minutes ago prepared me for a change of scene. Even so, I confess that
the sight which I beheld glued me to the threshold. There sat Theodore
at the table, finishing the last morsel of pie, whilst the
chair-bedstead lay in a tangled heap upon the floor.

I cannot tell you how nasty he was to me about the whole thing,
although I showed myself at once ready to forgive him all his lies and
his treachery, and was at great pains to explain to him how I had
given up my own bed and strapped him into it solely for the benefit of
his health, seeing that at the moment he was threatened with delirium
tremens.

He would not listen to reason or to the most elementary dictates of
friendship. Having poured the vials of his bilious temper over my
devoted head, he became as perverse and as obstinate as a mule. With
the most consummate impudence I ever beheld in any human being, he
flatly denied all knowledge of the bracelet.

Whilst I talked he stalked past me into the ante-chamber, where
he at once busied himself in collecting all his goods and chattels.
These he stuffed into his pockets until he appeared to be bulging all
over his ugly-body; then he went to the door ready to go out. On the
threshold he turned and gave me a supercilious glance over his
shoulder.

"Take note, my good Ratichon," he said, "that our partnership is
dissolved as from to-morrow, the twentieth day of September."

"As from this moment, you infernal scoundrel!" I cried.

But he did not pause to listen, and slammed the door in my face.

For two or three minutes I remained quite still, whilst I heard the
shuffling footsteps slowly descending the corridor. Then I followed
him, quietly, surreptitiously, as a fox will follow its prey. He never
turned round once, but obviously he knew that he was being followed.

I will not weary you, my dear Sir, with the details of the dance which
he led me in and about Paris during the whole of that memorable day.
Never a morsel passed my lips from breakfast to long after sundown. He
tried every trick known to the profession to throw me off the scent.
But I stuck to him like a leech. When he sauntered I sauntered; when
he ran I ran; when he glued his nose to the window of an eating house
I halted under a doorway close by; when he went to sleep on a bench in
the Luxembourg Gardens I watched over him as a mother over a babe.

Towards evening--it was an hour after sunset and the street-lamps were
just being lighted--he must have thought that he had at last got rid
of me; for, after looking carefully behind him, he suddenly started to
walk much faster and with an amount of determination which he had
lacked hitherto. I marvelled if he was not making for the Rue Daunou,
where was situated the squalid tavern of ill-fame which he was wont to
frequent. I was not mistaken.

I tracked the traitor to the corner of the street, and saw him
disappear beneath the doorway of the Taverne des Trois Tigres. I
resolved to follow. I had money in my pocket--about twenty-five
sous--and I was mightily thirsty. I started to run down the street,
when suddenly Theodore came rushing back out of the tavern, hatless
and breathless, and before I succeeded in dodging him he fell into my
arms.

"My money!" he said hoarsely. "I must have my money at once! You
thief! You . . ."

Once again my presence of mind stood me in good stead.

"Pull yourself together, Theodore," I said with much dignity, "and do
not make a scene in the open street."

But Theodore was not at all prepared to pull himself together. He
was livid with rage.

"I had five francs in my pocket last night!" he cried. "You have
stolen them, you abominable rascal!"

"And you stole from me a bracelet worth three thousand francs to the
firm," I retorted. "Give me that bracelet and you shall have your
money back."

"I can't," he blurted out desperately.

"How do you mean, you can't?" I exclaimed, whilst a horrible fear like
an icy claw suddenly gripped at my heart. "You haven't lost it, have
you?"

"Worse!" he cried, and fell up against me in semi-unconsciousness.

I shook him violently. I bellowed in his ear, and suddenly, after that
one moment of apparent unconsciousness, he became, not only wide
awake, but as strong as a lion and as furious as a bull. We closed in
on one another. He hammered at me with his fists, calling me every
kind of injurious name he could think of, and I had need of all my
strength to ward off his attacks.

For a few moments no one took much notice of us. Fracas and quarrels
outside the drinking-houses in the mean streets of Paris were so
frequent these days that the police did not trouble much about them.
But after a while Theodore became so violent that I was forced to call
vigorously for help. I thought he meant to murder me. People came
rushing out of the tavern, and someone very officiously started
whistling for the gendarmes. This had the effect of bringing Theodore
to his senses. He calmed down visibly, and before the crowd had had
time to collect round us we had both sauntered off, walking in
apparent amity side by side down the street.

But at the first corner Theodore halted, and this time he confined
himself to gripping me by the arm with one hand whilst with the other
he grasped one of the buttons of my coat.

"That five francs," he said in a hoarse, half-choked voice. "I must
have that five francs! Can't you see that I can't have that bracelet
till I have my five francs wherewith to redeem it?"

"To redeem it!" I gasped. I was indeed glad then that he held me by
the arm, for it seemed to me as if I was falling down a yawning abyss
which had opened at my feet.

"Yes," said Theodore, and his voice sounded as if it came from a great
distance and through cotton-wool,

"I knew that you would be after that bracelet like a famished hyena
after a bone, so I tied it securely inside the pocket of the blouse I
was wearing, and left this with Legros, the landlord of the Trois
Tigres. It was a good blouse; he lent me five francs on it. Of course,
he knew nothing about the bracelet then. But he only lends money to
clients in this manner on the condition that it is repaid within
twenty-four hours. I have got to pay him back before eight o'clock
this evening or he will dispose of the blouse as he thinks best. It is
close on eight o'clock now. Give me back my five francs, you
confounded thief, before Legros has time to discover the bracelet!
We'll share the reward, I promise you. Faith of an honest man. You
liar, you cheat, you--"

What was the use of talking? I had not got five francs. I had spent
ten sous in getting myself some breakfast, and three francs in a
savoury pie flavoured with garlic and in a quarter of a bottle of
cognac. I groaned aloud. I had exactly twenty-five sous left.

We went back to the tavern hoping against hope that Legros had not yet
turned out the pockets of the blouse, and that we might induce him, by
threat or cajolery or the usurious interest of twenty-five sous, to
grant his client a further twenty-four hours wherein to redeem the
pledge.

One glance at the interior of the tavern, however, told us that all
our hopes were in vain. Legros, the landlord, was even then turning
the blouse over and over, whilst his hideous hag of a wife was talking
to the police inspector, who was showing her the paper that announced
the offer of two thousand five hundred francs for the recovery of a
valuable bracelet, the property of Mlle. Mars, the distinguished
tragedienne.

We only waited one minute with our noses glued against the windows of
the Trois Tigres, just long enough to see Legros extracting the
leather case from the pocket of the blouse, just long enough to hear
the police inspector saying peremptorily:

"You, Legros, ought to be able to let the police know who stole the
bracelet. You must know who left that blouse with you last night."

Then we both fled incontinently down the street.

Now, Sir, was I not right when I said that honour and loyalty are the
essential qualities in our profession? If Theodore had not been such a
liar and such a traitor, he and I, between us, would have been richer
by three thousand francs that day.





CHAPTER VII

AN OVER-SENSITIVE HEART



1.

No doubt, Sir, that you have noticed during the course of our
conversations that Nature has endowed me with an over-sensitive heart.
I feel keenly, Sir, very keenly. Blows dealt me by Fate, or, as has
been more often the case, by the cruel and treacherous hand of man,
touch me on the raw. I suffer acutely. I am highly strung. I am one of
those rare beings whom Nature pre-ordained for love and for happiness.
I am an ideal family man.

What? You did not know that I was married? Indeed, Sir, I am. And
though Madame Ratichon does not perhaps fulfil all my ideals of
exquisite womanhood, nevertheless she has been an able and willing
helpmate during these last years of comparative prosperity. Yes, you
see me fairly prosperous now. My industry, my genius--if I may so
express myself--found their reward at last. You will be the first to
acknowledge--you, the confidant of my life's history--that that reward
was fully deserved. I worked for it, toiled and thought and struggled,
up to the last; and had Fate been just, rather than grudging, I should
have attained that ideal which would have filled my cup of happiness
to the brim.

But, anyway, the episode connected with my marriage did mark the close
of my professional career, and is therefore worthy of record. Since
that day, Sir--a happy one for me, a blissful one for Mme. Ratichon--I
have been able, thanks to the foresight of an all-wise Providence, to
gratify my bucolic tastes. I live now, Sir, amidst my flowers, with my
dog and my canary and Mme. Ratichon, smiling with kindly indulgence on
the struggles and the blunders of my younger colleagues, oft consulted
by them in matters that require special tact and discretion. I sit and
dream now beneath the shade of a vine-clad arbour of those glorious
days of long ago, when kings and emperors placed the destiny of their
inheritance in my hands, when autocrats and dictators came to me for
assistance and advice, and the name of Hector Ratichon stood for
everything that was most astute and most discreet. And if at times a
gentle sigh of regret escapes my lips, Mme. Ratichon--whose thinness
is ever my despair, for I admire comeliness, Sir, as being more
womanly--Mme. Ratichon, I say, comes to me with the gladsome news that
dinner is served; and though she is not all that I could wish in the
matter of the culinary arts, yet she can fry a cutlet passably, and
one of her brothers is a wholesale wine merchant of excellent
reputation.

It was soon after my connexion with that abominable Marquis de
Firmin-Latour that I first made the acquaintance of the present Mme.
Ratichon, under somewhat peculiar circumstances.

I remember it was on the first day of April in the year 1817 that M.
Rochez--Fernand Rochez was his exact name--came to see me at my office
in the Rue Daunou, and the date proved propitious, as you will
presently see. How M. Rochez came to know of my gifts and powers, I
cannot tell you. He never would say. He had heard of me through a
friend, was all that he vouchsafed to say.

Theodore had shown him in. Ah! have I not mentioned the fact that I
had forgiven Theodore his lies and his treachery, and taken him back
to my bosom and to my board? My sensitive heart had again got the
better of my prudence, and Theodore was installed once more in the
antechamber of my apartments in the Rue Daunou, and was, as
heretofore, sharing with me all the good things that I could afford.
So there he was on duty on that fateful first of April which was
destined to be the turning-point of my destiny. And he showed M. de
Rochez in.

At once I knew my man--the type, I mean. Immaculately dressed, scented
and befrilled, haughty of manner and nonchalant of speech, M. Rochez
had the word "adventurer" writ all over his well-groomed person. He
was young, good-looking, his nails were beautifully polished, his
pantaloons fitted him without a wrinkle. These were of a soft putty
shade; his coat was bottle-green, and his hat of the latest modish
shape. A perfect exquisite, in fact.

And he came to the point without much preamble.

"M.--er--Ratichon," he said, "I have heard of you through a friend,
who tells me that you are the most unscrupulous scoundrel he has ever
come across."

"Sir--!" I began, rising from my seat in indignant protest at the
coarse insult. But with an authoritative gesture he checked the flow
of my indignation.

"No comedy, I pray you, Sir," he said. "We are not at the Theatre
Molière, but, I presume, in an office where business is transacted
both briefly and with discretion."

"At your service, Monsieur," I replied.

"Then listen, will you?" he went on curtly, "and pray do not
interrupt. Only speak in answer to a question from me."

I bowed my head in silence. Thus must the proud suffer when they
happen to be sparsely endowed with riches.

"You have no doubt heard of Mlle. Goldberg," M. Rochez continued after
a moment's pause, "the lovely daughter of the rich usurer in the Rue
des Médecins."

I had heard of Mlle. Goldberg. Her beauty and her father's wealth were
reported to be fabulous. I indicated my knowledge of the beautiful
lady by a mute inclination of the head.

"I love Mlle. Goldberg," my client resumed, "and I have reason for the
belief that I am not altogether indifferent to her. Glances, you
understand, from eyes as expressive as those of the exquisite Jewess
speak more eloquently than words."

He had forbidden me to speak, so I could only express concurrence in
the sentiments which he expressed by a slight elevation of my left
eyebrow.

"I am determined to win the affections of Mlle. Goldberg," M. Rochez
went on glibly, "and equally am I determined to make her my wife."

"A very natural determination," I remarked involuntarily.

"My only trouble with regard to pressing my court is the fact that my
lovely Leah is never allowed outside her father's house, save in his
company or that of his sister--an old maid of dour mien and sour
disposition, who acts the part of a duenna with dog-like tenacity.
Over and over again have I tried to approach the lady of my heart,
only to be repelled or roughly rebuked for my insolence by her
irascible old aunt."

"You are not the first lover, Sir," I remarked drily, "who hath seen
obstacles thus thrown in his way, and--"

"One moment, M.--er--Ratichon," he broke in sharply. "I have not
finished. I will not attempt to describe my feelings to you. I have
been writhing--yes, writhing!--in face of those obstacles of which
you speak so lightly, and for a long time I have been cudgelling my
brains as to the possible means whereby I might approach my divinity
unchecked. Then one day I bethought me of you--"

"Of me, Sir?" I ejaculated, sorely puzzled. "Why of me?"

"None of my friends," he replied nonchalantly, "would care to
undertake so scrubby a task as I would assign to you."

"I pray you to be more explicit," I retorted with unimpaired dignity.

Once more he paused. Obviously he was a born mountebank, and he
calculated all his effects to a nicety.

"You, M.--er--Ratichon," he said curtly at last, "will have to take
the duenna off my hands."

I was beginning to understand. So I let him prattle on the while my
busy brain was already at work evolving the means to render this man
service, which in its turn I expected to be amply repaid. Thus I
cannot repeat exactly all that he said, for I was only listening with
half an ear. But the substance of it all was this: I was to pose as
the friend of M. Fernand Rochez, and engage the attention of Mlle.
Goldberg senior the while he paid his court to the lovely Leah. It was
not a repellent task altogether, because M. Rochez's suggestion opened
a vista of pleasant parties at open-air cafés, with foaming tankards
of beer, on warm afternoons the while the young people sipped sirops
and fed on love. My newly found friend was pleased to admit that my
personality and appearance would render my courtship of the elderly
duenna a comparatively easy one. She would soon, he declared, fall a
victim to my charms.

After which the question of remuneration came in, and over this we did
not altogether agree. Ultimately I decided to accept an advance of two
hundred francs and a new suit of clothes, which I at once declared was
indispensable under the circumstances, seeing that in my well-worn
coat I might have the appearance of a fortune-hunter in the eyes of
the suspicious old dame.

Within my mind I envisaged the possibility of touching M. Rochez for a
further two hundred francs if and when opportunity arose.



2.

The formal introduction took place on the boulevards one fine
afternoon shortly after that. Mlle. Leah was walking under the trees
with her duenna when we--M. Rochez and I--came face to face with them.
My friend raised his hat, and I did likewise. Mademoiselle Leah
blushed and the ogre frowned. Sir, she was an ogre!--bony and angular
and hook-nosed, with thin lips that closed with a snap, and cold grey
eyes that sent a shiver down your spine! Rochez introduced me to her,
and I made myself exceedingly agreeable to her, while my friend
succeeded in exchanging two or three whispered words with his
inamorata.

But we did not get very far that day. Mlle. Goldberg senior soon
marched her lovely charge away.

Ah, Sir, she was lovely indeed! And in my heart I not only envied
Rochez his good fortune but I also felt how entirely unworthy he was
of it. Nor did the beautiful Leah give me the impression of being
quite so deeply struck with his charms as he would have had me
believe. Indeed, it struck me during those few minutes that I stood
dutifully talking to her duenna that the fair young Jewess cast more
than one approving glance in my direction.

Be that as it may, the progress of our respective courtships, now that
the ice was broken, took on a more decided turn. At first it only
amounted to meetings on the boulevards and a cursory greeting, but
soon Mlle. Goldberg senior, delighted with my conversation, would
deliberately turn to walk with me under the trees the while Fernand
Rochez followed by the side of his adored. A week later the ladies
accepted my friend's offer to sit under the awning of the Café
Bourbon and to sip sirops, whilst we indulged in tankards of
foaming "blondes."

Within a fortnight, Sir--I may say it without boasting--I had Mlle.
Goldberg senior in the hollow of my hand. On the boulevards, as soon
as she caught sight of me, her dour face would be wreathed in smiles,
a row of large yellow teeth would appear between her thin lips, and
her cold, grey eyes would soften with a glance of welcome which more
than ever sent a cold shudder down my spine. While we four were
together, either promenading or sitting at open-air cafés in the cool
of the evening, the old duenna had eyes and ears only for me, and if
my friend Rochez did not get on with his own courtship as fast as he
would have wished the fault rested entirely with him.

For he did _not_ get on with his courtship, and that was a fact. The
fair Leah was very sweet, very coy, greatly amused, I fancy, at her
aunt's obvious infatuation for me, and not a little flattered at the
handsome M. Rochez's attentions to herself. But there it all ended.
And whenever I questioned Rochez on the subject, he flew into a temper
and consigned all middle-aged Jewesses to perdition, and all the
lovely and young ones to a comfortable kind of Hades to which he alone
amongst the male sex would have access. From which I gathered that I
was not wrong in my surmises, that the fair Leah had been smitten by
my personality and my appearance rather than by those of my friend,
and that he was suffering the pangs of an insane jealousy.

This, of course, he never would admit. All that he told me one day was
that Leah, with the characteristic timidity of her race, refused to
marry him unless she could obtain her father's consent to the union.
Old Goldberg, duly approached on the matter, flatly forbade his
daughter to have anything further to do with that fortune-hunter, that
parasite, that beggarly pick-thank--such, Sir, were but a few
complimentary epithets which he hurled with great volubility at his
daughter's absent suitor.

It was from Mlle. Goldberg, senior, that my friend and I had the
details of that stormy interview between father and daughter; after
which, she declared that interviews between the lovers would
necessarily become very difficult of arrangement. From which you will
gather that the worthy soul, though she was as ugly as sin, was by
this time on the side of the angels. Indeed, she was more than that.
She professed herself willing to aid and abet them in every way she
could. This Rochez confided to me, together with his assurance that he
was determined to take his Fate into his own hands and, since the
beautiful Leah would not come to him of her own accord, to carry her
off by force.

Ah, my dear Sir, those were romantic days, you must remember! Days
when men placed the possession of the woman they loved above every
treasure, every consideration upon earth. Ah, romance! Romance, Sir,
was the breath of our nostrils, the blood in our veins! Imagine how
readily we all fell in with my friend's plans. I, of course, was the
moving spirit in it all; mine was the genius which was destined to
turn gilded romance into grim reality. Yes, grim! For you shall see! . . .

Mlle. Goldberg, senior, who appropriately enough was named Sarah, gave
us the clue how to proceed, after which my genius worked alone.

You must know that old Goldberg's house in the Rue des Médecins--a
large apartment house in which he occupied a few rooms on the ground
floor behind his shop--backed on to a small uncultivated garden which
ended in a tall brick wall, the meeting-place of all the felines in
the neighbourhood, and in which there was a small postern gate, now
disused. This gate gave on a narrow cul-de-sac--grandiloquently named
Passage Corneille--which was flanked on the opposite side by the tall
boundary wall of an adjacent convent.

That cul-de-sac was marked out from the very first in my mind as our
objective. Around and about it, as it were, did I build the edifice of
my schemes, aided by the ever-willing Sarah. The old maid threw
herself into the affair with zest, planning and contriving like a
veritable strategist; and I must admit that she was full of resource
and invention. We were now in mid-May and enjoying a spell of hot
summer weather. This gave the inventive Sarah the excuse for using the
back garden as a place wherein to sit in the cool of the evening in
the company of her niece.

Ah, you see the whole thing now at a glance, do you not? The postern
gate, the murky night, the daring lover, the struggling maiden, the
willing accomplices. The actors were all there, ready for the curtain
to be rung up on the palpitating drama.

Then it was that a brilliant idea came into my brain. It was born on
the very day that I realized with indisputable certainty that the
lovely Leah was not in reality in love with Rochez. He fatuously
believed that she was ready to fall into his arms, that only maidenly
timidity held her back, and that the moment she had been snatched from
her father's house and found herself in the arms of her adoring lover,
she would turn to him in the very fullness of love and confidence.

But I knew better. I had caught a look now and again--an undefinable
glance, which told me the whole pitiable tale. She did not love
Rochez; and in the drama which we were preparing to enact the curtain
would fall on his rapture and her unhappiness.

Ah, Sir! imagine what my feelings were when I realized this! This fair
girl, against whom we were all conspiring like so many traitors, was
still ignorant of the fatal brink on which she stood. She chatted and
coquetted and smiled, little dreaming that in a very few days her
happiness would be wrecked and she would be linked for life to a man
whom she could never love. Rochez's idea, of course, was primarily to
get hold of her fortune. I had already ascertained for him, through
the ever-willing Sarah, that this fortune came from Leah's
grandfather, who had left a sum of two hundred thousand francs on
trust for her children, she to enjoy the income for her life. There
certainly was a clause in the will whereby the girl would forfeit that
fortune if she married without her father's consent; but according to
Rochez's plans this could scarcely be withheld once she had been taken
forcibly away from home, held in durance, and with her reputation
hopelessly compromised. She could then pose as an injured victim,
throw herself at her father's feet, and beg him to give that consent
without which she would for ever remain an outcast of society, a
pariah amongst her kind.

A pretty piece of villainous combination, you will own! And I, Sir,
was to lend a hand in this abomination!--nay, I was to be the chief
villain in the drama! It was I who, even now, was spending the hours
of the night, when I might have been dreaming sentimental dreams, in
oiling the lock of the postern gate which was to give us access into
papa Goldberg's garden. It was I who, under cover of darkness and
guided by that old jade Sarah, was to sneak into that garden on the
appointed night and forcibly seize the unsuspecting maiden and carry
her to the carriage which Rochez would have in readiness for her.

You see what a coward he was! It was a criminal offence in those days,
punishable with deportation to New Caledonia, to abduct a young lady
from her parents' house; and Rochez left me the dirty work to do in
case the girl screamed and attracted the police. Now you will tell me
if I was not justified in doing what I did, and I will abide by your
judgment.

I was to take all the risks, remember!--New Caledonia, the police, the
odium attached to so foul a deed; and do you know for what? For a
paltry thousand francs, which with much difficulty I had induced
Rochez--nay, forced him!--to hand over to me in anticipation of what I
was about to accomplish for his sake. A thousand francs! Did this
miserliness not characterize the man? Was it to such a scrubby knave
that I, at risk of my life and of my honour, would hand over that
jewel amongst women, that pearl above price?--a lady with a personal
fortune amounting to two hundred thousand francs?

No, Sir; I would not! Then and there I vowed that I would not! Mine
were to be all the risks; then mine should be the reward! What Rochez
meant to do, that I could too, and with far greater reason. The lovely
Leah did at times frown on Fernand; but she invariably smiled on me.
She would fall into my arms far more readily than into his, and papa
Goldberg would be equally forced to give his consent to her marriage
with me as with that self-seeking carpet-knight whom he abhorred.

Needless to say, I kept my own counsel, and did not speak of my
project even to Sarah. To all appearances I was to be the mere tool in
this affair, the unfortunate cat employed to snatch the roast
chestnuts out of the fire for the gratification of a mealy-mouthed
monkey.



3.

The appointed day and hour were at hand. Fernand Rochez had engaged a
barouche which was to take him and his lovely victim to a little house
at Auteuil, which he had rented for the purpose. There the lovers were
to lie perdu until such time as papa Goldberg had relented and the
marriage could be duly solemnized in the synagogue of the Rue des
Halles. Sarah had offered in the meanwhile to do all that in her power
lay to soften the old man's heart and to bring about the happy
conclusion of the romantic adventure.

For the latter we had chosen the night of May 23rd. It was a moonless
night, and the Passage Corneille, from whence I was to operate, was
most usefully dark. Sarah Goldberg had, according to convention, left
the postern gate on the latch, and at ten o'clock precisely I made my
way up the cul-de-sac and cautiously turned the handle of the door. I
confess that my heart beat somewhat uncomfortably in my bosom.

I had left Rochez and his barouche in the Rue des Pipots, about a
hundred metres from the angle of the Passage Corneille, and it was
along those hundred metres of a not altogether unfrequented street
that he expected me presently to carry a possibly screaming and
struggling burden in the very teeth of a gendarmerie always on the
look-out for exciting captures.

No, Sir; that was not to be! And it was with a resolute if beating
heart that I presently felt the postern gate yielding to the pressure
of my hand. The neighbouring church clock of St. Sulpice had just
finished striking ten. I pushed open the gate and tip-toed across the
threshold.

In the garden the boughs of a dilapidated old ash tree were soughing
in the wind above my head, whilst from the top of the boundary wall
the yarring and yowling of beasts of the feline species grated
unpleasantly on my ear. I could not see my hand before my eyes, and
had just stretched it out in order to guide my footsteps when it was
seized with a kindly yet firm pressure, whilst a voice murmured
softly:

"Hush!"

"Who is it?" I whispered in response.

"It is I--Sarah!" the voice replied. "Everything is all right, but
Leah is unsuspecting. I am sure that if she suspected anything she
would not set foot outside the door."

"What shall we do?" I asked.

"Wait here a moment quietly," Sarah rejoined, speaking in a rapid
whisper, "under cover of this wall. Within the next few minutes Leah
will come out of the house. I have left my knitting upon a garden
chair, and I will ask her to run out and fetch it. That will be your
opportunity. The chair is in the angle of the wall, there," she added,
pointing to her right, "not three paces from where you are standing
now. Leah has a white dress on. She will have to stoop in order to
pick up the knitting. I have taken the precaution to entangle the wool
in the leg of the chair, so she will be some few seconds entirely at
your mercy. Have you a shawl?"

I had, of course, provided myself with one. A shawl is always a
necessary adjunct to such adventures. Breathlessly, silently, I
intimated to my kind accomplice that I would obey her behests and that
I was prepared for every eventuality. The next moment her hold upon my
hand relaxed, she gave another quickly-whispered "Hush!" and
disappeared into the night.

For a second or two after that my ear caught the soft sound of her
retreating footsteps, then nothing more. To say that I felt anxious
and ill at ease was but to put it mildly. I was face to face with an
adventure which might cost me at least five years' acute discomfort in
New Caledonia, but which might also bring me as rich a reward as could
befall any man of modest ambitions: a lovely wife and a comfortable
fortune. My whole life seemed to be hanging on a thread, and my
overwrought senses seemed almost to catch the sound of the
spinning-wheel of Fate weaving the web of my destiny.

A moment or two later I again caught the distinct sound of a gentle
footfall upon the soft earth. My eyes by now were somewhat accustomed
to the gloom. It was very dark, you understand; but through the
darkness I saw something white moving slowly toward me. Then my heart
thumped more furiously than ever before. I dared not breathe. I saw
the lovely Leah approaching, or, rather, I felt her approach, for it
was too dark to see. She moved in the direction which Sarah had
indicated to me as being the place where stood the garden chair with
the knitting upon it. I grasped the shawl. I was ready.

Another few seconds of agonising suspense went by. The fair Leah had
ceased to move. Undoubtedly she was engaged in disentangling the wool
from the leg of the chair. That was my opportunity. More stealthy than
any cat, I tiptoed toward the chair--and, indeed, at that moment I
blessed the sudden yowl set up by some feline in its wrath which rent
the still night air and effectually drowned any sound which I might
make.

There, not three paces away from me, was the dim outline of the young
girl's form vaguely discernible in the gloom--a white mass, almost
motionless, against a background of inky blackness. With a quick
intaking of my breath I sprang forward, the shawl outspread in my
hand, and with a quick dexterous gesture I threw it over her head, and
the next second had her, faintly struggling, in my arms. She was as
light as a feather, and I was as strong as a giant. Think of it, Sir!
There was I, alone in the darkness, holding in my arms, together with
a lovely form, a fortune of two hundred thousand francs!

Of that fool Fernand Rochez I did not trouble to think. He had a
barouche waiting _up_ the Rue des Pipots, a hundred metres from the
corner of the Passage Corneille, but I had a chaise and pair of horses
waiting _down_ that same street, and that now was my objective. Yes,
Sir! I had arranged the whole thing! But I had done it for mine own
advantage, not for that of the miserly friend who had been too great a
coward to risk his own skin for the sake of his beloved.

The guerdon was mine, and I was determined this time that no traitor
or ingrate should filch from me the reward of my labours. With the
thousand francs which Rochez had given me for my services I had
engaged the chaise and horses, paid the coachman lavishly, and secured
a cosy little apartment for my future wife in a pleasant hostelry I
knew of at Suresnes.

I had taken the precaution to leave the wicket-gate on the latch. With
my foot I pushed it open, and, keeping well under the cover of the
tall convent wall, I ran swiftly to the corner of the Rue des Pipots.
Here I paused a moment. Through the silence of the night my ear caught
the faint sound of horses snorting and harness jingling in the
distance, both sides from where I stood; but of gendarmes or
passers-by there was no sign. Gathering up the full measure of my
courage and holding my precious burden closer to my heart, I ran
quickly down the street.

Within the next few seconds I had the seemingly inanimate maiden
safely deposited in the inside of the barouche and myself sitting by
her side. The driver cracked his whip, and whilst I, happy but
exhausted, was mopping my streaming forehead the chaise rattled gaily
along the uneven pavements of the great city in the direction of
Suresnes.

What that fool Rochez was doing I could not definitely ascertain. I
looked through the vasistas of the coach, but could see nothing in
pursuit of us. Then I turned my full attention to my lovely companion.
It was pitch dark inside the carriage, you understand; only from time
to time, as we drove past an overhanging street lanthorn, I caught a
glimpse of that priceless bundle beside me, which lay there so still
and so snug, still wrapped up in the shawl.

With cautious, loving fingers I undid its folds. Under cover of the
darkness the sweet and modest creature, released of her bonds, turned
for an instant to me, and for a few, very few, happy seconds I held
her in my arms.

"Have no fear, fair one," I murmured in her ear. "It is I, Hector
Ratichon, who adores you and who cannot live without you! Forgive me
for this seeming violence, which was prompted by an undying passion,
and remember that to me you are as sacred as a divinity until the
happy hour when I can proclaim you to the world as my beloved wife!"

I pressed her against my heart, and my lips imprinted a delicate kiss
upon her forehead. After which, with chaste decorum, she once more
turned away from me, covered her face and head with the shawl, and
drew back into the remote corner of the carriage, where she remained,
silent and absorbed, no doubt, in the contemplation of her happiness.

I respected her silence, and I, too, fell to meditating upon my good
fortune. Here was I, Sir, within sight of a haven wherein I could live
through the twilight of my days in comfort and in peace, a beautiful
young wife, a modest fortune! I had never in my wildest dreams
envisaged a Fate more fair. The little house at Chantilly which I
coveted, the plot of garden, the espalier peaches--all, all would be
mine now! It seemed indeed too good to be true!

The very next moment I was rudely awakened from those golden dreams by
a loud clatter, and stern voices shouting the ominous word, "Halt!"
The carriage drew up with such a jerk that I was flung off my seat
against the front window and my nose seriously bruised. A faint cry of
terror came from the precious bundle beside me.

"Have no fear, my beloved," I whispered hurriedly. "Your own Hector
will protect you!"

Already the door of the carriage had been violently torn open;
the next moment a gruff voice called out peremptorily:

"By order of the Chief Commissary of Police!"

I was dumbfounded. In what manner had the Chief Commissary of Police
been already apprised of this affair? The whole thing was, of course,
a swift and vengeful blow dealt to me by that cowardly Rochez. But
how, in the name of thunder, had he got to work so quickly? But, of
course, there was no time now for reflection. The gruff voice was
going on more peremptorily and more insistently:

"Is Hector Ratichon here?"

I was dumb. My throat had closed up, and I could not have uttered a
sound to save my life. The police had even got my name quite straight!

"Now then, Ratichon," that same irascible voice continued, "get out of
there! In the name of the law I charge you with the abduction of a
defenceless female, and my orders are to bring you forthwith before
the Chief Commissary of Police."

Then it was, Sir, that bliss once more re-entered my soul. I had just
felt a small hand pressing something crisp into mine, whilst a soft
voice whispered in my ear:

"Give him this, and tell him to let you go in peace. Say that I am
Mademoiselle Goldberg, your promised wife."

The feel of that crackling note in my hand at once restored my
courage. Covering the lovely creature beside me with a protecting arm,
I replied boldly to the minion of the law.

"This lady," I said, "is my affianced wife. You, Sir Gendarme, are
overstepping your powers. I demand that you let us proceed in peace."

"My orders are--" the gendarme resumed; but already my sensitive
ear had detected a faint wavering in the gruffness of his voice. The
hectoring tone had gone out of it. I could not see him, of course, but
somehow I felt that his attitude had become less arrogant and his
glance more shifty.

"This gentleman has spoken the truth," now came in soft, dulcet tones
from under the shawl that wrapped the head of my beloved. "I am Mlle.
Goldberg, M. le Gendarme, and I am travelling with M. Hector Ratichon
entirely of my own free will, since I have promised him that I would
be his wife."

"Ah!" the gendarme ejaculated, obviously mollified.

"If Mademoiselle is the fiancée of Monsieur, and is acting of her own
free will--"

"It is not for you to interfere, eh, my friend?" I broke in jocosely.
"You will now let us proceed in peace, and for your trouble you will
no doubt accept this token of my consideration." And, groping in the
darkness, I found the rough hand of the gendarme, and speedily pressed
into it the crisp note which my adored one had given to me.

"Ah!" he said, with very obvious gratification. "If Monsieur Ratichon
will assure me that Mademoiselle here is indeed his affianced wife, then
indeed it is not a case of abduction, and--"

"Abduction!" I retorted, flaring up in righteous indignation. "Who
dares to use the word in connexion with this lovely lady? Mademoiselle
Goldberg, I swear, will be Madame Ratichon within the next four and
twenty hours. And the sooner you, Sir Gendarme, allow us to proceed on
our way the less pain will you cause to this distressed and virtuous
damsel."

This settled the whole affair quite comfortably. The gendarme shut the
carriage door with a bang, and at my request gave the order to the
driver to proceed. The latter once again cracked his whip, and once
again the cumbrous vehicle, after an awkward lurch, rattled on its way
along the cobblestones of the sleeping city.

Once more I was alone with the priceless treasure by my side--alone
and happy--more happy, I might say, than I had been before. Had not my
adored one openly acknowledged her love for me and her desire to stand
with me at the hymeneal altar? To put it vulgarly--though vulgarity
in every form is repellent to me--she had burnt her boats. She had
allowed her name to be coupled with mine in the presence of the
minions of the law. What, after that, could her father do but give his
consent to a union which alone would save his only child's reputation
from the cruelty of waggish tongues?

No doubt, Sir, that I was happy. True, that when the uncouth gendarme
finally slammed to the door of our carriage and we restarted on our
way, my ears had been unpleasantly tickled by the sound of prolonged
and ribald laughter--laughter which sounded strangely and unpleasantly
familiar. But after a few seconds' serious reflection I dismissed the
matter from my thoughts. If, as indeed I gravely suspected, it was
Fernand Rochez who had striven thus to put a spoke in the wheel of my
good fortune, he would certainly not have laughed when I drove
triumphantly away with my conquered bride by my side. And, of course,
my ears _must_ have deceived me when they caught the sound of a girl's
merry laugh mingling with the more ribald one of the man.



4.

I have paused purposely, Sir, ere I embark upon the narration of the
final stage of this, my life's adventure.

The chaise was bowling along the banks of the river toward Suresnes.
Presently the driver struck to his right and plunged into the
fastnesses of the Bois de Boulogne. For a while, therefore, we were in
utter darkness. My lovely companion neither moved nor spoke. Somewhere
in the far distance a church clock struck eleven. One whole hour had
gone by since first I had embarked on this great undertaking.

I was excited, feverish. The beautiful Leah's silence and tranquillity
grated upon my nerves. I could not understand how she could remain
there so placid when her whole life's happiness had so suddenly, so
unexpectedly, been assured. I became more and more fidgety as time
went on. Soon I felt that I could no longer hold myself in proper
control. Being of an impulsive disposition, this tranquil acceptance
of so great a joy became presently intolerable, and, unable to
restrain my ardour any longer, I seized that passive bundle of
loveliness in my arms.

"Have no fear," I murmured once again, as I pressed her to my heart.

But my admonition was obviously unnecessary. The beautiful Leah showed
not the slightest sign of fear. She rested her head against my
shoulder and put one arm around my neck. I was in raptures.

Just then the vehicle swung out of the Bois and once more rattled upon
the cobblestones. This time we were nearing Suresnes. A vague light,
emanating from the lanthorns at the bridge-head, was already faintly
visible ahead of us. Soon it grew brighter. The next moment we passed
immediately beneath the lanthorns. The interior of the carriage was
flooded with light . . . and, Sir, I gave a gasp of unadulterated
dismay! The being whom I held in my arms, whose face was even at that
moment raised up to my own, was not the lovely Leah! It was Sarah,
Sir! Sarah Goldberg, the dour, angular aunt, whose yellow teeth
gleamed for one brief moment through her thin lips as she threw me one
of those glances of amorous welcome which invariably sent a cold
shiver down my spine. Sarah Goldberg! I scarce could believe my eyes,
and for a moment did indeed think that the elusive, swiftly-vanished
light of the bridge-head lanthorns had played my excited senses a
weird and cruel trick. But no! The very next second proved my
disillusionment. Sarah spoke to me!

She spoke to me and laughed! Ah, she was happy, Sir! Happy in that she
had completely and irrevocably tricked me! That traitor Fernand Rochez
was up to the neck in the plot which had saddled me for ever with an
ugly, elderly wife of dour mien and no fortune, while he and the
lovely Leah were spinning the threads of perfect love at the other end
of Paris and laughing their fill at my discomfiture. Think, Sir, what
I suffered during those few brief minutes while the coach lurched
through the narrow streets of Suresnes, and I had perforce to listen
to the protestations of undying love from this unprepossessing female!

That love, she vowed, was her excuse, and everything, she asserted,
was fair in love and war. She knew that after Rochez had attained his
heart's desire and carried off the lady of his choice--which he had
successfully done half an hour before I myself made my way up the
Passage Corneille--I would pass out of her life for ever. This she
could not endure. Life at once would become intolerable. And, aided
and abetted by Rochez and Leah, she had planned and contrived my
mystification and won me by foul means, since she could not do so by
fair; and it seemed as if her volubility then was the forecast of what
my life with her would be in the future. Talk! Talk! Talk! She never
ceased!

She told me the whole story of the abominable conspiracy against my
liberty. Her brother, M. Goldberg, she explained, had determined upon
remarriage. She, Sarah, felt that henceforth she would be in the way
of everybody; she would have no home. Leah married to Rochez; a new
and young Mme. Goldberg ruling in the old house of the Rue des
Médecins! Ah, it was unthinkable!

And I, Sir--I, Hector Ratichon--had, it appears, by my polite manners
and prepossessing ways, induced this dour old maid to believe that she
was not altogether indifferent to me. Ah, how I cursed my own charms,
when I realised whither they had led me! It seems that it was that
fickle jade Leah who first imagined the whole execrable plot. Rochez
was to entrust me with the task of carrying off his beloved, and thus
I would be tricked in the darkness into abducting Mlle. Goldberg
senior from her home. Then some friends of Rochez arranged to play the
comedy of false gendarmes, and again I was tricked into acknowledging
Sarah as my affianced wife before independent witnesses. After that I
could no longer repudiate mine honourable intentions, for if I did,
then I should be arraigned before the law on a criminal charge of
abduction. In this comedy of false gendarmes Rochez himself and the
heartless Leah had joined with zest and laughed over my discomfiture,
whilst the friends who played their rôles to such perfection had a
paltry hundred francs each as the price of this infamous trick. Now my
doom was sealed, and all that was left for me to do was to think
disconsolately over my future.

I did bitterly reproach Sarah for her treachery and tried to still her
protestations of love by pointing out to her that I had absolutely no
fortune, and could only offer her a life of squalor, not to say of
what. But this she knew, and vowed that penury by my side would make
her happier than luxury beside any other man. Ah, Sir, 'tis given to
few men to arouse such selfless passion in a woman's heart, and it
hath oft been my dream in the past one day thus to be adored for
myself alone!

But for the moment I was too deeply angered to listen placidly to
Sarah's vows of undying affection. My nerves were irritated by her
fulsome adulation; indeed, I could not bear the sight of her nor yet
the sound of her voice. You may imagine how thankful I was when the
chaise came at last to a halt outside the humble little hostelry where
I had engaged the room which I had so fondly hoped would have been
occupied by the lovely and fickle Leah.

I bundled Mlle. Goldberg senior into the house, and here again I had
to endure galling mortification in the shape of sidelong glances cast
at me and my future bride by the landlord of the hostelry and his
ill-bred daughter. When I engaged the room I had very foolishly told
them that it would be occupied by a lovely lady who had consented to
be my wife, and that she would remain here in happy seclusion until
such time as all arrangements for our wedding were complete. The
humiliation of these vulgar people's irony seemed like the last straw
which overweighed my forbearance. The room and pension I had already
paid two days in advance, so I had nothing more to say either to the
ribald landlord or to Mlle. Goldberg senior. I was bitterly angered
against her, and refused her the solace of a kindly look or of an
encouraging pressure from my hand, even though she waited for both
with the pathetic patience of an old spaniel.

I re-entered the coach, which was to take me back to mine own humble
lodgings in Passy. Here at least I was alone--alone with my gloomy
thoughts. My heart was full of wrath against the woman who had so
basely tricked me, and I viewed with dismay amounting almost to
despair the prospect of spending the rest of my life in her company.
That night I slept but little, nor yet the following night, or the
night after that. Those days I spent in seclusion, thankful for my
solitude.

Twice each day did Mlle. Goldberg come to my lodgings. In the foolish
past I had somewhat injudiciously acquainted her of where I lived. Now
she came and asked to be allowed to see me, but invariably did I
refuse thus to gratify her. I felt that time alone would perhaps
soften my feelings a little towards her. In the meanwhile I must
commend her discretion and delicacy of procedure. She did not in any
way attempt to molest me. When she was told by Theodore--whom I
employed during the day to guard me against unwelcome visitors--that I
refused to see her, she invariably went away without demur, nor did
she refer in any way, either with adjurations or threats, to the
impending wedding. Indeed, Sir, she was a lady of vast discretion.

On the third day, however, I received a visit from M. Goldberg
himself. I could not refuse to see him. Indeed, he would not be
denied, but roughly pushed Theodore aside, who tried to hinder him. He
had come armed with a riding-whip, and nothing but mine own innate
dignity saved me from outrage. He came, Sir, with a marriage licence
for his sister and me in one pocket and with a denunciation to the
police against me for abduction in another. He gave me the choice.
What could I do, Sir? I was like a helpless babe in the hands of
unscrupulous brigands!

The marriage licence was for the following day--at the mairie of the
eighth arrondissement first, and in the synagogue of the Rue des
Halles afterwards. I chose the marriage licence. What could I do, Sir?
I was helpless!

Of my wedding day I have but a dim recollection. It was all hustle and
bustle; from the mairie to the synagogue, and thence to the house of
M. Goldberg in the Rue des Médecins. I must say that the old usurer
received me and my bride with marked amiability. He was, I gathered,
genuinely pleased that his sister had found happiness and a home by
the side of an honourable man, seeing that he himself was on the point
of contracting a fresh alliance with a Jewish lady of unsurpassed
loveliness.

Of Rochez and Leah we saw nothing that day, and from one or two words
which M. Goldberg let fall I concluded that he was greatly angered
against his daughter because of her marriage with a fortune-hunting
adventurer, who, he weirdly hinted, had already found quick and
exemplary punishment for his crime. I was sincerely glad to hear this,
even though I could not get M. Goldberg to explain in what that
exemplary punishment consisted.

The climax came at six o'clock of that eventful afternoon, at the hour
when I, with the newly-enthroned Mme. Ratichon on my arm, was about to
take leave of M. Goldberg. I must admit that at that moment my heart
was overflowing with bitterness. I had been led like a lamb to the
slaughter; I had been made to look foolish and absurd in the midst of
this Israelite community which I despised; I was saddled for the rest
of my life with an unprepossessing elderly wife, who could do naught
for me but share the penury, the hard crusts, the onion pies with me
and Theodore. The only advantage I might ever derive from her was that
she would darn my stockings, sew the buttons on my vests, and goffer
the frills of my shirts!

Was this not enough to turn any man's naturally sweet disposition to
gall? No doubt my mobile face betrayed something of the bitterness of
my thoughts, for M. Goldberg at one moment slapped me vigorously on
the back and bade me be of good cheer, as things were not so bad as I
imagined. I was on the point of asking him what he meant when I saw
another gentleman advancing toward me. His face, which was sallow and
oily, bore a kind of obsequious smile; his clothes were of rusty
black, and his features were markedly Jewish in character. He had some
law papers under his arm, and he was perpetually rubbing his thin,
bony hands together as if he were for ever washing them.

"Monsieur Hector Ratichon," he said unctuously, "it is with much
gratification that I bring you the joyful news."

Joyful news!--to me! Ah, Sir, the words struck at first with cruel
irony upon mine ear. But not so a second later, for the Jewish
gentleman went on speaking, and what he said appeared to my reeling
senses like songs of angels from paradise.

At first I could not grasp his full meaning. A moment ago I had been
in the depths of despair, and now--now--a whole vista of beatitude
opened out before me! What the worthy Israelite said was that, by the
terms of Grandpapa Goldberg's will, if Leah married without her
father's consent, one-half of the fortune destined for her would
revert to her aunt, Sarah Goldberg, now Madame Hector Ratichon.

Can you wonder that I could scarce believe my ears? One-half that
fortune meant that a hundred thousand francs would now become mine! M.
Goldberg had already made it very clear to his daughter and to Rochez
that he would never give his consent to their marriage, and, as this
was now consummated, they had already forfeited one-half of the
grandfather's fortune in favour of my Sarah. That was the exemplary
punishment which they were to suffer for their folly.

But their folly--aye! and their treachery--had become my joy. In this
moment of heavenly rapture I was speechless, but I turned to Sarah
with loving arms outstretched, and the next instant she nestled
against my heart like a joyful if elderly bird.

What is said of a people, Sir, is also true of the individual. Happy
he who hath no history. Since that never-to-be-forgotten hour my life
has run its simple, uneventful course here in this quiet corner of our
beautiful France, with my pony and my dog and my chickens, and Mme.
Ratichon to minister to my creature comforts.

I bought this little property, Sir, soon after my marriage, and my
office in the Rue Daunou knows me no more. You like the house, Sir?
Ah, yes! And the garden? . . . After déjeuner you must see my prize
chickens. Theodore will show them to you. You did not know Theodore
was here? Well, yes! He lives with us. Madame Ratichon finds him
useful about the house, and, not being used to luxuries, he is on the
whole pleasantly contented.

Ah, here comes Madame Ratichon to tell us that the déjeuner is served!
This way, Sir, under the porch. . . . After you!



THE END





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