Read CHAPTER VI - HONOUR AMONG of Castles in the Air, free online book, by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, on ReadCentral.com.

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 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. 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. 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 habitue 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.