Read CHAPTER XX - A SUDDEN CHECK of The Champdoce Mystery , free online book, by Emile Gaboriau, on ReadCentral.com.

Catenac seated himself at the writing-table without a word, concealing his anger and jealousy beneath a careless smile.  Mascarin was no longer the plotter consulting with his confederates; he was the master issuing his orders to his subordinates.  He had now taken from a box some of those square pieces of pasteboard, which he spent his time in reading over.

“Try and not miss one word of what I am saying,” remarked he, bending his keen glance upon Paul; then, turning to Catenac, he continued, “Can you persuade the Duke de Champdoce and Perpignan to start for Vendome on Saturday?”

“Perhaps I may be able to do so.”

“I want a Yes or No.  Can you or can you not make these people go there?”

“Well, yes, then.”

“Very well.  Then, on going to Vendome, you will stop at the Hotel de Porte.”

“Hotel de Porte,” repeated Catenac, as he made a note of the name.

“Upon the day of your arrival at Vendome,” continued Mascarin, “you could do very little.  Your time would be taken up in resting after your journey, and perhaps you may make a few preliminary inquiries.  It will be on Sunday that you will go to the hospital together, and make the same inquires which the Duke formerly made by himself.  The lady superior is a woman of excellent taste and education, and she will do all that she can to be useful to you.  Through her you will be able to obtain the boy’s description, and the date on which he left the hospital to be apprenticed to a tanner.  She will tell you that, disliking the employment, he ran away from them at the age of twelve and a half years, and that since then no trace of him has been found.  You will hear from her that he was a tall, well-built lad, looking two years older than he really was, with an intelligent cast of feature, and keen, bright eyes, full of health and good looks.  He had on, on the day of his disappearance, blue and white striped trousers, a gray blouse, a cap with no peak, and a spotted silk cravat.  Then to assist you still further in your researches she will add that he carried in a bundle, enveloped in a red plaid cotton handkerchief, a white blouse, a pair of gray cloth trousers, and a pair of new shoes.”

Catenac watched Mascarin as he was speaking with an expression of ill-concealed enmity.

“You are well informed, on my word,” muttered he.

“I think I am,” returned Mascarin.  “After this you will go back to the hotel, and not until then — do you understand? — and you will consult as to the first steps to be taken.  The plan proposed by Perpignan is an excellent one.”

“What! you know it then?”

“Of course I do.  He proposed to divide Vendome and its suburbs into a certain number of circles, and to make a house-to-house visitation in each of them.  Let him go to work in this manner.  Of course, to do so, you will require a guide.”

“Of course we should require such a person.”

“Here, Catenac, I must leave a little to chance, for I am not quite omnipotent.  But there are nine chances out of ten that your host will advise you to avail yourself of the services of a man called Frejot, who acts as commissioner to the hotel.  It may be, however, that he may designate some one else; but in that case you must, by some means or other, manage to employ the services of one other man.”

“What am I to say to him?”

“He understands what he is to do completely.  Well, these preliminaries being settled, you will commence on Monday morning to search the suburb called Areines, under the guidance of Frejot.  Leave all the responsibility to Perpignan, but make sure that the Duke comes with you.  Ask the denizens a series of questions which you have prepared beforehand, such as ’My friends, we are in search of a boy.  A reward of ten thousand francs is offered to any one who will put us on his track.  He must have left these parts in August, 1856, and some of you may have seen him.’”

Here Catenac stopped Mascarin.

“Wait a moment.  Your own words are excellent; I will write them down.”

“All Monday,” continued Mascarin, “you will not make much progress, and for the next few days it will be the same, but on Saturday prepare yourself for a great surprise; for on that day Frejot will take you to a large, lonely farmhouse, on the shores of a lake.  This farm is held by a man named Lorgelin, who cultivates it with the assistance of his wife and his two sons.  You will find these worthy people at dinner.  They will offer you some refreshment, and you will accept.  At the next word you utter you will find that they will glance at each other in a meaning manner, and the wife will exclaim, ’Blessed Virgin!  Surely the gentleman is speaking of the poor lad we have so often talked about.’”

As Mascarin went on describing his arrangements, his whole form seemed to dilate, and his face shone with the knowledge of mastery and power.  His voice was so clear and his manner so full of authority and command, that it carried conviction to the minds of all those who were seated listening to him.  He spoke of what would happen as if he was dealing with an absolute certainty, and went on with such wonderful lucidity and force of reasoning that they seemed to be absolutely real.

“Oh! the farmer’s wife will say this, will she?” demanded Catenac, in a tone of the utmost surprise.

“Yes, this, and nothing more.  Then the husband will explain that they found the poor lad half dead in a ditch by the side of the road, and that they took him home, and did what they could for him; and will add, this was in the beginning of September, 1856.  You will offer to read him your description of the lad, but he will volunteer his own, which you will find exactly to tally with the one you have.  Then Lorgelin will tell you what an excellent lad he was, and how the farm seemed quite another place as long as he remained there.  All the family will join in singing his praises — he was so good-tempered, so obliging, and at thirteen he could write like a lawyer’s clerk.  And then they will produce some of his writing in an old copy book.  But after all the old woman, with a tear in her eye, will say that she found the lad had not much gratitude in his composition, for at the end of the following September he left the farm where he had received so much kindness.  Yes, he left them to go away with some strolling performers.  You will be absolutely affected by the words of these worthy people, and before you leave they will show you the clothes the lad left behind him.”

Catenac was waiting for the conclusion, and then exclaimed, in rather a disappointed tone, —

“But I do not see what we have gained when Lorgelin’s story has been repeated to us.”

Mascarin raised his hand, as though to deprecate immediate criticism, and to ask for further patience on the part of his audience.

“Permit me to go on,” said he.  “You would now not know what to do, but Perpignan will not hesitate for a moment.  He will tell you that he holds the end of the clue, and that all that remains to be done is to follow it up carefully.”

“I think that you overrate Perpignan’s talents.”

“Not a bit; each man to his own line of business.  Besides, if he wanders off the course, you must get him back to it.  In this you must act diplomatically.  His first move will naturally be to take you to the office of the mayor of the township, where a register of licenses is kept.  There you will find that in September, 1857, there passed through the place a troupe of travelling performers, consisting of nine persons, with the caravans, under the management of a man known as Vigoureux, nicknamed the Grasshopper.”

Catenac rapidly jotted down these items.  “Not so fast,” said he; “I cannot follow you.”

After a short pause, Mascarin continued.

“An attentive examination of the book will prove to you that no other troupe of itinerant performers passed through the place during that month; and it is clear that it must have been the Grasshopper with whom the lad went away.  You will then peruse the man’s description.  Vigoureux, born at Bourgogne, Vosges.  Age, forty-seven.  Height, six feet two inches.  Eyes, small and gray, rather near-sighted.  Complexion dark.  Third finger of left hand cut off at first joint.  If you confound him, after reading this, with any other man of his profession, you must certainly be rather foolish.”

“I shall now be able to find him,” muttered Catenac.

“But that is Perpignan’s business.  You will see him put on an air of the greatest importance, and appear quite overjoyed at the news he has obtained at the office of the mayor.  He will say that the inquiry at Vendome is over, and that it will be best to return to Paris at once.  Of course, you will make no objection.  You will permit the Duke to make a handsome present to Lorgelin and Frejot; but take care not to leave him behind you.  I advise you to regain Paris without a moment’s delay.  The wily Perpignan, on your return, will at once take you to the head police office, where Vigoureux will have left his papers, like other men of his profession.  If there is any difficulty in obtaining a sight of them, the Duke de Champdoce will act as a talisman.  You will then discover that in 1864, the man Vigoureux was sentenced to a term of imprisonment for disorderly conduct, and that he now keeps a wine-shop at the corner of the Rue Depleux.”

“Stop a bit,” said Catenac, “and let me take down the address.”

“When you go there, you will recognize Vigoureux by the loss of his finger.  He will at once admit that the lad followed him, and remained in the troupe for ten months.  He was a good enough lad, but as grand as a peacock, and as lazy as a dormouse.  He made great friends with an old Alsatian, called Fritz, who was the conductor of the orchestra, and by-and-by both were so fond of each other, that one day they went off in each other’s company.  Now you want to know what has become of Fritz?  I know Vigoureux will get tired of this prolonged string of questions, and behave violently; then you will threaten him for having carried off a youth of tender years, and he will calm down, and become as mild as mother’s milk, and will promise to gain information for you.  In a week he will give the information that Fritz is to be found at the Hospital Magloire.”

Absolutely dumb with surprise, the audience listened to these strange assertions, which dovetailed so exactly into each other, and seemed to have been the work of years of research.

“Fritz,” continued Mascarin, “is a sly old dog.  You will find an old, rickety, blue-eyed man at the hospital, and remember to tell the Duke de Champdoce that he must not put too much faith in him.  This wily old Alsatian will tell you of all the sacrifices he made for the dear lad.  He will tell you that he often went without his beer and tobacco in order to pay for the music lessons that he forced the boy to take.  He will tell you that he wanted to get him into the Government School of Music, for that he possessed great vocal and instrumental talent, and he cherished the hope of one day seeing him a great composer, like Weber or Mozart.  I expect that this flow of self-praise will melt the heart of your client, for he will see that his son had made an effort to rise out of the mire by his own exertions, and will, in this energy, recognize one of the characteristics of the Champdoce family; and on the strength of this testimony he will almost be ready to accept the young man as his son.”

Catenac had for some time past been striving to decipher the meaning hidden behind the inscrutable countenance of Mascarin, but in vain.

“Let us get on,” said the lawyer impatiently.  “All that you have told me I shall hear later on in the course of the inquiry.”

“If your sagacity requires no further explanation from me,” rejoined Mascarin, “you will, I trust, permit me to continue them for the benefit of our young friend, Paul Violaine.  You will feel compassion when the Alsatian tells you of his sufferings, at the boys’ description of him, and his subsequent prosperity in the Rue d’Arras.  You had better listen to the old man as long as he continues to grumble on, the more so as you will detect in the rancor and bitterness of his remarks all the vexation of a disappointed speculator.  He will confess to you besides that he subsists entirely on the bounty of the lad, whom he had stigmatized as an ungrateful villain.  Of course, the Duke will have to leave behind him some testimonial of his pleasure, and you will hurry off to the Rue d’Arras.  The proprietor of the house will tell you that some four years ago he got rid of his musician, the only one of his class who had dared to establish himself there, and a small present and a few adroit questions will obtain for you the address of one of the young man’s pupils, Madame Grandorge, a widow lady, residing in the Rue St. Louis.  This lady will tell you that she does not know the address of her former master, but that he used to live at 57, Rue de la Harpe.  From the Rue de la Harpe you will be sent to the Rue Jacob, and from thence to the Rue Montmartre, at the corner of the Rue Joquelet.”

Mascarin paused, drew a long breath, and chuckled inwardly, as though at some excellent joke.

“Be comforted, Catenac,” said he.  “You have nearly reached the end of your journey.  The portress at the house in the Rue Montmartre is the most obliging woman in the world.  She will tell you that the musician still retains his rooms in the house, but that he resides there no longer, for he has made a lucky hit, and last month he married the daughter of a wealthy banker living close by.  The young lady, Mademoiselle Rigal, saw him, and fell in love with him.”

A clever man like Catenac should have foreseen what was coming, but he had not, and at this conclusion he uttered a loud exclamation of surprise.

“Yes, just so,” said Mascarin, with an air of bland triumph.  “The Duke de Champdoce will then drag you off to our mutual friend Martin Rigal, and there you will find our young protege, the happy husband of the beautiful Flavia.”

Mascarin drew himself up, and adjusted his glasses firmly on his nose.

“Now, my dear Catenac, show the liberality and amiability of your disposition by congratulating our friend Paul as Gontran, Marquis de Champdoce.”

Hortebise, of course, knew what was coming; he knew the lines of the plot of the play as if he had been a joint author of it, and was as much excited as if he were assisting at a first rehearsal.

“Bravo!” he exclaimed, clapping his hands together.  “Bravo, my dear Mascarin, you have excelled yourself to-day!”

Worried and perplexed as Paul had been, as Mascarin concluded he sank back in his chair, sick and giddy with emotion.

“Yes,” said Mascarin in a clear and ringing voice, “I accept your praise without any affectation of false modesty.  We have no reason to fear the intervention of that grain of sand which sometimes stops the working of the machine.  Perpignan, poor fool though he is, will be our best friend, and will do our work quite unconsciously.  Can the Duke retain any atom of suspicion after these minute investigations?  Impossible.  But to remove the slightest element of doubt, I have another and an additional plan.  I will make him retrace the path upon which he has started.  He shall take Paul to all these various places, and at all of them the statements will be even more fully confirmed.  Paul, the son-in-law of Martin Rigal, the husband of Flavia, will be recognized in the Rue Montmartre, the Rue Jacob, and the Rue de la Harpe.  He will be joyfully welcomed in the Rue d’Arras; Fritz will embrace his ungrateful pupil; Vigoureux will remind him of his skillful feats on the trapeze; the Lorgelin family will press the lad whom they gave shelter to, to their hearts, and this will happen, Catenac, because I will it, and because all the people from the portress in the Rue Montmartre to the Lorgelins are my slaves, and dare not disobey one single command which I may issue.”

Catenac rose slowly and solemnly from his seat.

“I recognize your patience and ingenuity thoroughly, only I am going with one word to crush the fabric of hope that you have so carefully erected.”

Catenac might be a coward, he might also be a traitor but he was a clever and clear-sighted man too.  Consequently Hortebise shivered as he heard these words, but Mascarin smiled disdainfully, basking in his dream of success.

“Go on then,” said he.

“Well, then, let me tell you that you will not overreach and deceive the Duke.”

“And why not, pray?” asked Mascarin.  “But are you sure that I wish to deceive him?  You have not been open with me, why should I be frank with you?  Am I in the habit of confiding in those who do not repose confidence in me?  Does Perpignan for a moment suspect the part that he is to play?  Why may I not have judged it best to keep from you the fact that Paul is really the child you are seeking?”

Mascarin spoke so confidently that Catenac gazed upon him, hardly knowing to what conclusion to come, for his conscience was by no means clear.  His intellect quickly dived into the depths of all probabilities, and yet he could not see in all these combinations any possible peril to himself.

“I only hope,” said he, “that Paul is all that you represent him to be; but why all these precautions?  Only, mark my words, the Duke has an infallible way of detecting, or rather of preventing, any attempt at imposition.  It is ever thus, the most trivial circumstance will overset the best laid plans, and the inevitable destroy the combinations of the most astute intellect.”

Mascarin interrupted his associate.

“Paul is the son of the Duke de Champdoce,” said he decisively.

What was the meaning of this?  Catenac felt that he was being played with, and grew angry.

“As you please; but you will, I presume, permit me to convince myself of the truth of this assertion.”

Then, advancing towards Paul, the lawyer said, —

“Have the goodness to remove your coat.”

Paul took it off, and threw it upon the back of a chair.

“Now,” added Catenac, “roll up your right shirt sleeve to the shoulder.”

Scarcely had the young man obeyed, and the lawyer cast a rapid glance at the bare flesh, than he turned to his associates and observed, —

“No, he is not the right man.”

To his extreme surprise, Mascarin and Hortebise burst into a fit of unrestrained laughter.

“No,” pursued the lawyer, “this is not the child who was sent to the Hospital of Vendome, and the Duke will recognize this better than I can.  You laugh, but it is because you do not know all.”

“Enough,” returned Mascarin, and then, turning to the doctor, he remarked, “Tell him, my friends, that we know more than he thinks.”

“And so,” said Hortebise, taking Paul’s hand, “you are certain that this is not the lost child because he has not certain marks about him; but these will be seen upon the day on which Paul is introduced to the Duke, and legibly enough to satisfy the most unbelieving.”

“What do you mean?”

“Let me explain in my own way.  If in early childhood Paul had been scalded on his shoulder by boiling water, he would have a scar whose appearance would denote its origin?”

Catenac nodded, “You are quite accurate,” said he.

“Well, then listen.  Paul is coming home with me.  I shall take him into my consulting-room; he will lie on a couch.  I shall give him chloroform, for I do not wish him to suffer any pain.  Mascarin will help me.  Then I shall apply, on the proper part, a piece of flannel steeped in a certain liquid which is an invention of my own.  I am not a fool, as you may have discovered before this; and in a drawer at home is a piece of flannel cut so as exactly to resemble the irregular outline of a scar of the kind you describe, and a few little bits here and there will do the rest of the work artistically.  When the liquid has effected its work, which will be in ten minutes, I shall remove it, and apply an ointment, another invention of my own, to the wound; then I shall restore Paul to his senses, and go to dinner.”

Mascarin rubbed his hands with delight.

“But you forget that a certain space of time is required to give a scar the appearance of not having been recent,” objected Catenac.

“Let me speak,” broke in the doctor.  “If we only needed time — six months, say, or a year — we should postpone our concluding act until then; but I, Hortebise, assure you that in two months, thanks to another discovery of my own — will show you a scar that will pass muster, not perhaps before a fellow-practitioner, but certainly before the Duke.”

Catenac’s sunken eyes blazed as he thought of the prospective millions.

“May the devil fly away with all scruples!” cried he.  “My friends, I am yours soul and body; you may rely on your devoted Catenac.”

The doctor and Mascarin exchanged a look of triumph.

“Of course we share and share alike,” observed the lawyer.  “It is true that I come in rather late; but the part I play is a delicate and an important one, and you can do nothing without me.”

“You shall have your share,” answered Mascarin evasively.

“One word more,” said the lawyer.  “Do you think that the Duke has kept nothing back?  The infant was hardly seen by him or the Duchess; but Jean saw it, and he, though very old and infirm, would come forward at any moment to defend the name and honor of the Champdoce family.”

“Well, and what then?”

“Jean, you know, was against the substitution of another child.  May he not have foreseen the chance of such a case as this arising?”

Mascarin looked grave.  “I have thought of that before,” returned he; “but what can be done?”

“I will find out,” said Catenac.  “Jean has the most implicit confidence in me, and I will question him.”

The cold calmness of the lawyer had vanished, and Catenac only displayed the zealous eagerness of the man who, admitted at a late hour into an enterprise which he imagines will be lucrative, burns to do as much as he can to further it.

“But,” added he, as an after-thought, “how can we be certain that there is no one to recognize Paul?”

“I can answer for that; his poverty had isolated him from all but a woman named Rose, and I took care that she should be sent to the prison of St. Lazare.  At one time I was a little anxious, as I heard that Paul had a patron; but he, as I have found out, was the Count de Mussidan, the murderer of Montlouis, who, as you may have guessed, was Paul’s father.”

“We have nothing, then, to fear from that quarter,” said the doctor.

“Nothing; and while you get on with your work, I will hurry on Paul’s marriage with Rigal’s daughter.  But this will not prevent my busying myself in another quarter; for before a month Henri de Croisenois will have floated his Company, and become the husband of Sabine de Mussidan.”

“I think that it is about time for dinner,” remarked Hortebise, and, turning to the protege of the association, he added, “Come, Paul.”

But Paul made no movement, and then for the first time it was seen that the poor boy had fainted, and they had to sprinkle cold water upon him before he regained consciousness.

“Surely,” remarked the doctor, “it is not the idea of a trifling operation that you will not feel which has so frightened you?”

Paul shook his head.  “It is not that,” said he.

“What, then, is it?”

“Simply that the real man exists; I know him, and know where he lives.”

“What do you mean?” they cried.

“I know him, I tell you — the son of the Duke de Champdoce.”

“Let us hear all!” cried Mascarin, who was the first to come to his senses.  “Explain yourself.”

“Simply this.  I know such a young man, and it was the thought of this that made me feel so ill.  He is thirty-three.  He was at the Foundling Hospital; he left it at the age of twelve and a half years; and he has just such a scald on his shoulder, which he got when he was apprenticed to a tanner.”

“And where,” asked Mascarin quickly, “is this same young man?  What is his name, and what does he do for a living?”

“He is a painter; his name is Andre, and he lives — ”

A blasphemous oath from Mascarin interrupted him.  “This is the third time,” said he fiercely, “that this cursed fellow has crossed our path; but I swear that it shall be the last.”

Hortebise and Catenac were livid with alarm.

“What do you intend to do?” asked they.

“I shall do nothing,” answered he; “but you know that this Andre, in addition to being a painter, is an ornamental sculptor and house decorator, and so is often on lofty scaffolds.  Have you never heard that accidents frequently happen to that class of people?”