Read CHAPTER XVI of Baron Trigault Vengeance, Volume 2, free online book, by Emile Gaboriau, on ReadCentral.com.

Stupefied with astonishment, M. Wilkie stood for a moment silent and motionless.  “Allow me,” he faltered at last; “Allow me — I wish to explain.”  But Madame d’Argeles did not even turn her head; the door closed behind her and he was left alone.

However strong a man’s nature may be, he always has certain moments of weakness.  For instance, at the present moment Wilkie was completely at a loss what to do.  Not that he repented, he was incapable of that; but there are hours when the most hardened conscience is touched, and when long dormant instincts at last assert their rights.  If he had obeyed his first impulse, he would have darted after his mother and thrown himself on his knees before her.  But reflection, remembrance of the Viscount de Coralth, and the Marquis de Valorsay, made him silent the noblest voice that had spoken in his soul for many a long day.  So, with his head proudly erect, he went off, twirling his mustaches and followed by the whispers of the servants — whispers which were ready to change into hisses at any moment.

But what did he care for the opinion of these plebeians!  Before he was a hundred paces from the house his emotion had vanished, and he was thinking how he could most agreeably spend the time until the hour appointed for his second interview with M. de Valorsay.  He had not breakfasted, but “his stomach was out of sorts,” as he said to himself, and it would really have been impossible for him to swallow a morsel.  Thus not caring to return home, he started in quest of one of his former intimates, with the generous intention of overpowering him with the great news.  Unfortunately he failed to find this friend, and eager to vent the pride that was suffocating him, in some way or other, he entered the shop of an engraver, whom he crushed by his importance, and ordered some visiting cards bearing the inscription W. de Gordon-Chalusse, with a count’s coronet in one of the corners.

Thus occupied, time flew by so quickly that he was a trifle late in keeping his appointment with his dear friend the marquis.  Wilkie found M. de Valorsay as he had left him — in his smoking-room, talking with the Viscount de Coralth.  Not that the marquis had been idle, but it had barely taken him an hour to set in motion the machinery which he had had in complete readiness since the evening before.  “Victory!” cried Wilkie, as he appeared on the threshold.  “It was a hard battle, but I asserted my rights.  I am the acknowledged heir! the millions are mine!” And without giving his friends time to congratulate him, he began to describe his interview with Madame d’Argeles, presenting his conduct in the most odious light possible, pretending he had indulged in all sorts of harsh rejoinders, and making himself out to be “a man of bronze,” or “a block of marble,” as he said.

“You are certainly more courageous than I fancied,” said M. de Valorsay gravely, when the narrative was ended.

“Is that really so?”

“It is, indeed.  Now the world is before you.  Let your story be noised abroad — and it will be noised abroad — and you will become a hero.  Imagine the amazement of Paris when it learns that Lia d’Argeles was a virtuous woman, who sacrificed her reputation for the sake of her son — a martyr, whose disgrace was only a shameful falsehood invented by two men of rank to increase the attractions of their gambling-den!  It will take the newspapers a month to digest this strange romance.  And whom will all this notoriety fall upon?  Upon you, my dear sir; and as your millions will lend an additional charm to the romance, you will become the lion of the season.”

M. Wilkie was really too much overwhelmed to feel elated.  “Upon my word, you overpower me, my dear marquis — you quite overpower me,” he stammered.

“I too have been at work,” resumed the marquis.  “And I have made numerous inquiries, in accordance with my promise.  I almost regret it, for what I have discovered is — very singular, to say the least.  I was just saying so to Coralth when you came in.  What I have learned makes it extremely unpleasant for me, to find myself mixed up in the affair; accordingly, I have requested the persons who gave me this information to call here.  You shall hear their story, and then you must decide for yourself.”  So saying, he rang the bell, and as soon as a servant answered the summons, he exclaimed:  “Show M. Casimir in.”

When the lackey had retired to carry out this order, the marquis remarked:  “Casimir was the deceased count’s valet.  He is a clever fellow, honest, intelligent, and well up in his business — such a man as you will need, in fact, and I won’t try to conceal the fact that the hope of entering your service has aided considerably in unloosening his tongue.”

M. Casimir, who was irreproachably clad in black, with a white cambric tie round his neck, entered the room at this very moment, smiling and bowing obsequiously.  “This gentleman, my good fellow,” said M. de Valorsay, pointing to Wilkie, “is your former master’s only heir.  A proof of devotion might induce him to keep you with him.  What you told me a little while ago is of great importance to him; see if you can repeat it now for his benefit.”

In his anxiety to secure a good situation, M. Casimir had ventured to apply to the Marquis de Valorsay; he had talked a good deal, and the marquis had conceived the plan of making him an unsuspecting accomplice.  “I never deny my words,” replied the valet, “and since monsieur is the heir to the property, I won’t hesitate to tell him that immense sums have been stolen from the late count’s estate.”

M. Wilkie bounded from his chair.  “Immense sums!” he exclaimed.  “Is it possible!”

“Monsieur shall judge.  On the morning preceding his death, the count had more than two millions in bank-notes and bonds stowed away in his escritoire, but when the justice of the peace came to take the inventory, the money could not be found.  We servants were terribly alarmed, for we feared that suspicion would fall upon us.”

Ah! if Wilkie had only been alone he would have given vent to his true feelings.  But here, under the eyes of the marquis and M. de Coralth, he felt that he must maintain an air of stoical indifference.  He almost succeeded in doing so, and in a tolerably firm voice he remarked:  “This is not very pleasant news.  Two millions! that’s a good haul.  Tell me, my friend, have you any clue to the thief?”

The valet’s troubled glance betrayed an uneasy conscience, but he had gone too far to draw back.  “I shouldn’t like to accuse an innocent person,” he replied, “but there was some one who constantly had access to that escritoire.”

“And who was that?”

“Mademoiselle Marguerite.”

“I don’t know the lady.”

“She’s a young girl who is — at least people say — the count’s illegitimate daughter.  Her word was law in the house.”

“What has become of her?”

“She has gone to live with General de Fondege, one of the count’s friends.  She wouldn’t take her jewels and diamonds away with her, which seemed very strange, for they are worth more than a hundred thousand francs.  Even Bourigeau said to me:  ‘That’s unnatural, M. Casimir.’  Borigeau is the concierge of the house, a very worthy man.  Monsieur will not find his equal.”

Unfortunately, this tribute to the merits of the valet’s friend was interrupted by the arrival of a footman, who, after tapping respectfully at the door, entered the room and exclaimed:  “The doctor is here, and desires to speak with Monsieur Marquis.”

“Very well,” replied M. de Valorsay, “ask him to wait.  When I ring, you can usher him in.”  Then addressing M. Casimir, he added: 

“You may retire for the present, but don’t leave the house.  M. Wilkie will acquaint you with his intentions by and by.”

The valet thereupon backed out of the room, bowing profoundly.

“There is a story for you!” exclaimed M. Wilkie as soon as the door was closed.  “A robbery of two millions!”

The marquis shook his head, and remarked, gravely:  “That’s a mere nothing.  I suspect something far more terrible.”

“What, pray?  Upon my word! you frighten me.”

“Wait!  I may be mistaken.  Even the doctor may lie deceived.  But you shall judge for yourself.”  As he spoke, he pulled the bell-rope, and an instant after, the servant announced:  “Dr. Jodon.”

It was, indeed, the same physician who had annoyed Mademoiselle Marguerite by his persistent curiosity and impertinent questions, at the Count de Chalusse’s bedside; the same crafty and ambitious man, constantly tormented by covetousness, and ready to do anything to gratify it — the man of the period, in short, who sacrificed everything to the display by which he hoped to deceive other people, and who was almost starving in the midst of his mock splendor.

M. Casimir was an innocent accomplice, but the doctor knew what he was doing.  Interviewed on behalf of the Marquis de Valorsay by Madame Leon, he had fathomed the whole mystery at once.  These two crafty natures had read and understood each other.  No definite words had passed between them — they were both too shrewd for that; and yet, a compact had been concluded by which each had tacitly agreed to serve the other according to his need.

As soon as the physician appeared, M. de Valorsay rose and shook hands with him; then, offering him an arm-chair, he remarked:  “I will not conceal from you, doctor, that I have in some measure prepared this gentleman” — designating M. Wilkie — “for your terrible revelation.”

By the doctor’s attitude, a keen observer might have divined the secret trepidation that always precedes a bad action which has been conceived and decided upon in cold blood.

“To tell the truth,” he began, speaking slowly, and with some difficulty, “now that the moment for speaking has come, I almost hesitate.  Our profession has painful exigencies.  Perhaps it is now too late.  If there had been any of the count’s relatives in the house, or even an heir at the time, I should have insisted upon an autopsy.  But now — ”

On hearing the word “autopsy,” M. Wilkie looked round with startled eyes.  He opened his lips to interrupt the speaker, but the physician had already resumed his narrative.  “Besides, I had only suspicions,” he said, “suspicions based, it is true, upon strange and alarming circumstances.  I am a man, that is to say, I am liable to error.  In the kingdom of science it would be unpardonable temerity on my part to affirm — ”

“To affirm what?” interrupted M. Wilkie.

The physician did not seem to hear him, but continued in the same dogmatic tone.  “The count apparently died from an attack of apoplexy, but certain poisons produce similar and even identical symptoms which are apt to deceive the most experienced medical men.  The persistent efforts of the count’s intellect, his muscular rigidity alternating with utter relaxation, the dilation of the pupils of his eyes, and more than aught else the violence of his last convulsions, have led me to ask myself if some criminal had not hastened his end.”

Whiter than his shirt, and trembling like a leaf, M. Wilkie sprang from his chair.  “I understand!” he exclaimed.  “The count was murdered — poisoned.”

But the physician replied with an energetic protest.  “Oh, not so fast!” said he.  “Don’t mistake my conjectures for assertions.  Still, I ought not to conceal the circumstances which awakened my suspicions.  On the morning preceding his attack, the count took two spoonfuls of the contents of a vial which the people in charge could not or would not produce.  When I asked what this vial contained, the answer was:  ’A medicine to prevent apoplexy.’  I don’t say that this is false, but prove it.  As for the motive that led to the crime, it is apparent at once.  The escritoire contained two millions of francs, and the money has disappeared.  Show me the vial, find the money, and I will admit that I am wrong.  But until then, I shall have my suspicions.”

He did not speak like a physician but like an examining magistrate, and his alarming deductions found their way even to M. Wilkie’s dull brain.  “Who could have committed the crime?” he asked.

“It could only have been the person likely to profit by it; and only one person besides the count knew that the money was in the house, and had possession of the key of this escritoire.”

“And this person?”

“Is the count’s illegitimate daughter, who lived in the house with him — Mademoiselle Marguerite.”

M. Wilkie sank into his chair again, completely overwhelmed.  The coincidence between the doctor’s deposition and M. Casimir’s testimony was too remarkable to pass unnoticed.  Further doubt seemed impossible.  “Ah! this is most unfortunate!” faltered Wilkie.  “What a pity!  Such difficulties never assail any one but me!  What am I to do?” And in his distress he glanced from the doctor to the Marquis de Valorsay, and then at M. de Coralth, as if seeking inspiration from each of them.

“My profession forbids my acting as an adviser in such cases,” replied the physician, “but these gentlemen have not the same reasons for keeping silent.”

“Excuse me,” interrupted the marquis quickly; “but this is one of those cases in which a man must be left to his own inspirations.  The most I can do, is to say what course I should pursue if I were one of the deceased count’s relatives or heirs.”

“Pray tell me, my dear marquis,” sighed Wilkie.  “You would render me an immense service by doing so.”

M. de Valorsay seemed to reflect for a moment; and then he solemnly exclaimed:  “I should feel that my honor required me to investigate every circumstance connected with this mysterious affair.  Before receiving a man’s estate, one must know the cause of his death, so as to avenge him if he has been foully murdered.”

For M. Wilkie the oracle had spoken.  “Such is my opinion exactly,” he declared.  “But what course would you pursue, my dear marquis?  How would you set about solving this mystery?”

“I should appeal to the authorities.”

“Ah!”

“And this very day, this very hour, without losing a second, I should address a communication to the public prosecutor, informing him of the robbery which is patent to any one, and referring to the possibility of foul play.”

“Yes, that would be an excellent idea; but there is one slight drawback — I don’t know how to draw up such a communication.”

“I know no more about it than you do yourself; but any lawyer or notary will give you the necessary information.  Are you acquainted with any such person?  Would you like me to give you the address of my business man?  He is a very clever fellow, who has almost all the members of my club as his clients.”

This last reason was more than sufficient to fix M. Wilkie’s choice.  “Where can I find him?” he inquired.

“At his house — he is always there at this hour.  Come! here is a scrap of paper and a pencil.  You had better make a note of his address.  Write:  ‘Maumejan, Route de la Revolte.’  Tell him that I sent you, and he will treat you with the same consideration as he would show to me.  He lives a long way off, but my brougham is standing in the courtyard; so take it, and when your consultation is over, come back and dine with me.”

“Ah! you are too kind!” exclaimed M. Wilkie.  “You overpower me, my dear marquis, you do, upon my word!  I shall fly and be back in a moment.”

He went off looking radiant; and a moment later the carriage which was to take him to M. Maumejan’s was heard rolling out of the courtyard.

The doctor had already taken up his hat and cane.

“You will excuse me for leaving you so abruptly, Monsieur Marquis,” said he, “but I have an engagement to discuss a business matter.”

“Indeed!”

“I am negotiating for the purchase of a dentist’s establishment.”

“What, you?”

“Yes, I. You may tell me that this is a downfall, but I will answer, ‘It will give me a living.’  Medicine is becoming a more and more unremunerative profession.  However hard a physician may work, he can scarcely pay for the water he uses in washing his hands.  I have an opportunity of purchasing the business of a well-established and well-known dentist, in an excellent neighborhood.  Why not avail myself of it?  Only one thing worries me — the lack of funds.”

The marquis had expected the doctor would require remuneration for his services.  Before compromising himself any further, M. Jodon wished to knew what compensation he was to receive.  The marquis was so sure of this, that he quickly exclaimed:  “Ah, my dear doctor, if you have need of twenty thousand francs, I shall be only too happy to offer them to you.”

“Really?”

“Upon my honor!”

“And when can you let me have the money?”

“In three or four days’ time.”

The bargain was concluded.  The doctor was now ready to find traces of any poison whatsoever in the Count de Chalusse’s exhumed remains.  He pressed the marquis’s hand and then went off, exclaiming:  “Whatever happens you can count upon me.”

Left alone with the Viscount de Coralth, and consequently freed from all restraint, M. de Valorsay rose with a long-drawn sigh of relief.  “What an interminable séance!” he growled.  And, approaching his acolyte, who was sitting silent and motionless in an arm-chair, he slapped him on the shoulder, exclaiming:  “Are you ill that you sit there like that, as still as a mummy?”

The viscount turned as if he had been suddenly aroused from slumber.  “I’m well enough,” he answered somewhat roughly.  “I was only thinking.”

“Your thoughts are not very pleasant, to judge from the look on your face.”

“No.  I was thinking of the fate that you are preparing for us.”

“Oh!  A truce to disagreeable prophecies, please!  Besides, it’s too late to draw back, or to even think of retreat.  The Rubicon is passed.”

“Alas! that is the cause of my anxiety.  If it hadn’t been for my wretched past, which you have threatened me with like a dagger, I should long ago have left you to incur this danger alone.  You were useful to me in times past, I admit.  You presented me to the Baroness Trigault, to whose patronage I owe my present means, but I am paying too dearly for your services in allowing myself to be made the instrument of your dangerous schemes.  Who aided you in defrauding Kami-Bey?  Who bet for you against your own horse Domingo?  Who risked his life in slipping those cards in the pack which Pascal Ferailleur held?  It was Coralth, always Coralth.”

A gesture of anger escaped the marquis, but resolving to restrain himself, he made no rejoinder.  It was not until after he had walked five or six times round the smoking-room and grown more calm that he returned to the viscount’s side.  “Really, I don’t recognize you,” he began.  “Is it really you who have turned coward?  And at what a moment, pray?  Why, on the very eve of success.”

“I wish I could believe you.”

“Facts shall convince you.  This morning I might have doubted, but now, thanks to that vain idiot who goes by the name of Wilkie, I am sure, perfectly, mathematically sure of success.  Maumejan, who is entirely devoted to me, and who is the greediest, most avaricious scoundrel alive, will draw up such a complaint that Marguerite will sleep in prison.  Moreover, other witnesses will be summoned.  By what Casimir has said, you can judge what the other servants will say.  This testimony will be sufficient to convict her of the robbery.  As for the poisoning, you heard Dr. Jodon.  Can I depend upon him?  Evidently, if I pay without haggling.  Very well; I shall pay.”

But all this did not reassure M. de Coralth.  “The accusation will fall to the ground,” said he, “as soon as the famous vial from which M. de Chalusse took two spoonfuls is found.”

“Excuse me; it won’t be found.”

“But why?”

“Because I know where it is, my dear friend.  It is in the count’s escritoire, but it won’t be there any longer on the day after to-morrow.”

“Who will remove it?”

“A skilful fellow whom Madame Leon has found for me.  Everything has been carefully arranged.  To-morrow night at the latest Madame Leon will let this man into the Hotel de Chalusse by the garden gate, which she has kept the key of.  Vantrasson, as the man is called, knows the management of the house, and he will break open the escritoire and take the vial away.  You may say that there are seals upon the furniture, placed there by the justice of the peace.  That’s true, but this man tells me that he can remove and replace them in such a way as to defy detection; and as the lock has been forced once already — the day after the count’s death — a second attempt to break the escritoire open will not be detected.”

The viscount remarked, with an ironical air:  “All that is perfect; but the autopsy will reveal the falseness of the accusation.”

“Naturally — but an autopsy will require time, and that will suit my plans admirably.  After eight or ten days’ solitary confinement and several rigid examinations, Mademoiselle Marguerite’s energy and courage will flag.  What do you think she will reply to the man who says to her:  ’I love you, and for your sake I will attempt the impossible.  Swear to become my wife and I will establish your innocence?’”

“I think she will say:  ‘Save me and I will marry you!’”

M. de Valorsay clapped his hands.  “Bravo!” he exclaimed; “you have spoken the truth.  Remember, now, that your dark forebodings are only chimeras!  Yes, she will swear it, and I know she is the woman to keep her vow, even if she died of sorrow.  And the very next day I will go to the examining magistrate and say to him:  ’Marguerite a thief!  Ah, what a frightful mistake.  A robbery has been committed, it’s true; but I know the real culprit — a scoundrel who fancied that by destroying a single letter he would annihilate all traces of the breach of fidelity he had committed.  Fortunately, the Count de Chalusse distrusted this man, and proof of his breach of trust is in existence.  I have this proof in my hands.’  And I will show a letter establishing the truth of my assertion.”

No forebodings clouded the marquis’s joy; he saw no obstacles; it seemed to him as if he had already triumphed.  “And the day following,” he resumed, “when Marguerite becomes my wife, I shall take from a certain drawer a certain document, given to me by M. de Chalusse when I was on the point of becoming his son-in-law, and in which he recognizes Marguerite as his daughter, and makes her his sole legatee.  And this document is perfectly en règle, and unattackable.  Maumejan, who has examined it, guarantees that the value of the count’s estate cannot be less than ten millions.  Five will go to Madame d’Argeles, or her son Wilkie, as their share of the property.  The remaining five will be mine.  Come, confess that the plan is admirable!”

“Admirable, undoubtedly; but terribly complicated.  When there are so many wheels within wheels, one of them is always sure to get out of order.”

“Nonsense!”

“Besides, you have I don’t know how many accomplices — Maumejan, the doctor, Madame Leon, and Vantrasson, not counting myself.  Will all these people perform their duties satisfactorily?”

“Each of them is as much interested in my success as I am myself.”

“But we have enemies — Madame d’Argeles, Fortunat — ”

“Madame d’Argeles is about to leave Paris.  If Fortunat is troublesome I will purchase his silence; Maumejan has promised me money.”

But M. de Coralth had kept his strongest argument until the last.  “And Pascal Ferailleur?” said he.  “You have forgotten him.”

No; M. de Valorsay had not forgotten him.  You do not forget the man you have ruined and dishonored.  Still, it was in a careless tone that ill accorded with his state of mind that the marquis replied:  “The poor devil must be en route for America by this time.”

The viscount shook his head.  “That’s what I’ve in vain been trying to convince myself of,” said he.  “Do you know that Pascal was virtually expelled from the Palais de Justice, and that his name has been struck off the list of advocates?  If he hasn’t blown his brains out, it is only because he hopes to prove his innocence.  Ah! if you knew him as well as I do, you wouldn’t be so tranquil in mind!”

He stopped short for the door had suddenly opened.  The interruption made the marquis frown, but anger gave way to anxiety when he perceived Madame Leon, who entered the room out of breath and extremely red in the face.

“There wasn’t a cab to be had!” she groaned.  “Just my luck.  I came on foot, and ran the whole way.  I’m utterly exhausted;” and so saying, she sank into an arm-chair.

M. de Valorsay had turned very pale.  “Defer your complaints until another time,” he said, harshly.  “What has happened?  Tell me.”

The estimable woman raised her hands to heaven, as she plaintively replied:  “There is so much to tell?  First, Mademoiselle Marguerite has written two letters, but I have failed to discover to whom they were sent.  Secondly, she remained for more than an hour yesterday evening in the drawing-room with the General’s son, Lieutenant Gustave, and, on parting, they shook hands like a couple of friends, and said, ’It is agreed.’”

“And is that all?”

“One moment and you’ll see.  This morning Mademoiselle went out with Madame de Fondege to call on the Baroness Trigault.  I do not know what took place there, but there must have been a terrible scene; for they brought Mademoiselle Marguerite back unconscious, in one of the baron’s carriages.”

“Do you hear that, viscount?” exclaimed M. de Valorsay.

“Yes!  You shall have the explanation to-morrow,” answered M. de Coralth.

“And last, but not least,” resumed Madame Leon, “on returning home this evening at about five o’clock, I fancied I saw Mademoiselle Marguerite leave the house and go up the Rue Pigalle.  I had thought she was ill and in bed, and I said to myself, ‘This is very strange.’  So I hastened after her.  It was indeed she.  Of course, I followed her.  And what did I see?  Why, Mademoiselle paused to talk with a vagabond, clad in a blouse.  They exchanged notes, and Mademoiselle Marguerite returned home.  And here I am.  She must certainly suspect something.  What is to be done?”

If M. de Valorsay were frightened, he did not show it.  “Many thanks for your zeal, my dear lady,” he replied, “but all this is a mere nothing.  Return home at once; you will receive my instructions to-morrow.”