Read CHAPTER XXIV - THE VANISHING BILLS of The Champdoce Mystery , free online book, by Emile Gaboriau, on ReadCentral.com.

Had Andre known a little more of the man he had to deal with, he would have learned that no one could fall like an earthquake upon Van Klopen.  Shut up in the sanctum where he composed the numberless costumes that were the wonder and delight of Paris, Van Klopen made as careful arrangements to secure himself from the interview as the Turk does to guard the approaches to his seraglio; and so Andre and Gandelu were accosted in the entrance hall by his stately footmen, clad in gorgeous liveries, glittering with gold.

“M. van Klopen is of the utmost importance,” asserted Andre.

“Our master is composing.”

Entreaties, threats, and even a bribe of one hundred francs were alike useless; and Andre, seeing that he was about to be checkmated, was half tempted to take the men by the collar and hurl them on one side, but he calmed himself, and, already repenting of his violence at Verminet’s, he determined on a course of submission, and so meekly followed the footmen into the famous waiting-room, styled by Van Klopen his purgatory.  The footmen, however, had spoken the truth, for several ladies of the highest rank and standing were awaiting the return of this arbiter elegantiarum.  All of them turned as the young men entered — all save one, who was gazing out of the window, drawing with her pretty fingers on the window panes.  Andre recognized her in an instant as Madame de Bois Arden.

“Is it possible?” thought he.  “Can the Countess have returned here after what has occurred?”

Gaston felt that five charming pairs of eyes were fixed upon him, and studied to assume his most graceful posture.

After a brief time given to arrangement, Andre grew disgusted.

“I wish that she would look round,” said he to himself.  “I think she would feel rather ashamed.  I will say a word to her.”

He rose from his chair, and, without thinking how terribly he might compromise the lady, he took up a position at her side.  She was, however, intently watching something that was going on in the street, and did not turn her head.

“Madame,” said he.

She started, and, as she turned and recognized Andre, she uttered a little cry of surprise.

“Great heavens! is that you?”

“Yes, it is I.”

“And here?  I dare say that my presence in this place surprises you,” she went on, “and that I have a short memory, and no feelings of pride.”

Andre made no reply, and his silence was a sufficient rejoinder to the question.

“You do me a great injustice,” muttered the Countess.  “I am here because De Breulh told me that in your interests I ought to pardon Van Klopen, and go to him again as I used to do; so you see, M. Andre, that it is never safe to judge by appearance, and a woman more than anything else.”

“Will you forgive me?” asked Andre earnestly.

The lady interrupted him by a little wave of her hand, invisible to all save to him, which clearly said, —

“Take care; we are not alone.”

She once more turned her eyes towards the street, and he mechanically did the same.  By this means their faces were hidden from observation.

“De Breulh,” went on the lady, “has heard a good deal about De Croisenois, and, as no doubt you can guess, but very little to his credit, and quite enough to justify any father in refusing him his daughter’s hand; but in this case it is evident to me that De Mussidan is yielding to a secret pressure.  We must ferret out some hidden crime in De Croisenois’ past which will force him to withdraw his proposal.”

“I shall find one,” muttered Andre.

“But remember there is no time to be lost.  According to our agreement, I treat him in the most charming manner, and he thinks that I am entirely devoted to his interests, and to-morrow I have arranged to introduce him to the Count and Countess at the Hotel de Mussidan, where the Count and Countess have agreed to receive him.”

Andre started at this news.

“I saw,” continued the lady, “that you were quite right in the opinion you had formed, for in the first place the common danger has almost reconciled the Count and Countess affectionately to each other, though it is notorious that they have always lived in the most unhappy manner.  Their faces are careworn and full of anxiety, and they watch every movement of Sabine with eager eyes.  I think that they look upon her as a means of safety, but shudder at the sacrifice she is making on their account.”

“And Sabine?”

“Her conduct is perfectly sublime, and she is ready to consummate the sacrifice without a murmur.  Her self-sacrificing devotion is perfectly admirable; but what is more admirable still is the way in which she conceals the suffering that she endures from her parents.  Noble-hearted girl! she is calm and silent, but she has always been so.  She has grown thinner, and perhaps her cheek is a trifle paler, but her forehead was burning and seemed to scorch my lips as I kissed her.  With this exception, however, there was nothing else about her that would betray her tortures.  Modeste, her maid, told me, moreover, that when night came she seemed utterly worn out, and the poor girl, with tears in her eyes, declared ‘that her dear mistress was killing herself.’”

Andre’s eyes overflowed with tears.

“What have I done to deserve such love?” asked he.

A door suddenly opened, and Andre and the Viscountess turned hastily at the sound.  It was Van Klopen who came in, crying, according to his usual custom, —

“Well, and whose turn is it next?”

When, however, he saw Gaston, his face grew white, and it was with a smile that he stepped towards him, motioning back the lady whose turn it was, and who protested loudly against this injustice.

“Ah, M. de Gandelu,” said he, “you have come, I suppose, to bespeak some fresh toilettes for that exquisite creature, Zora de Chantemille?”

“Not to-day,” returned Gaston.  “Zora is a little indisposed.”

Andre, however, who had arranged the narrative that he was about to pour into the ears of the famous Van Klopen, was in too much haste to permit of any unnecessary delay.

“We have come here,” said he hurriedly, “upon a matter of some moment.  My friend, M. Gaston de Gandelu, is about to leave Paris for some months, and, before doing so, is anxious to settle all outstanding accounts, and retire all his bills, which may not yet have fallen due.”

“Have I any bills of M. de Gandelu?” said Van Klopen slowly.  “Ah, yes, I remember that I had some now.  Yes, five bills of one thousand francs each, drawn by Gandelu, and accepted by Martin Rigal.  I received them from the Mutual Loan Society, but they are no longer in my hands.”

“Is that the case?” murmured Gaston, growing sick with apprehension.

“Yes, I sent them to my cloth merchants at St. Etienne, Rollón and Company.”

Van Klopen was a clever scoundrel, but he sometimes lacked the necessary perception of when he had said enough; and this was proved to-day, for, agitated by the steady gaze that Andre kept upon him, he added, —

“If you do not believe my word, I can show you the acknowledgment that I received from that firm.”

“It is unnecessary,” replied Andre.  “Your statement is quite sufficient.”

“I should prefer to let you see the letter.”

“No, thank you,” replied Andre, not for a moment duped by the game that was being played.  “Pray take no more trouble.  We shall, I presume, find that the bills are at St. Etienne.  There is no use in taking any more trouble about them, and we will wait until they arrive at maturity.  I have the honor to wish you good morning.”

And with these words he dragged away Gaston, who was actually about to consult Van Klopen as to the most becoming costume for Zora to appear in on leaving the prison of St. Lazare.  When they were a few doors from the man-milliner’s, Andre stopped and wrote down the names of Van Klopen’s cloth merchants.  Gaston was now quite at his ease.

“I think,” remarked he, “that Van Klopen is a sharp fellow; he knows that I am to be relied on.”

“Where do you think your bills are?”

“At St. Etienne’s, of course.”

The perfect innocence of the boy elicited from Andre a gesture of impatient commiseration.

“Listen to me,” said he, “and see if you can comprehend the awful position in which you have placed yourself.”

“I am listening, my dear fellow; pray go on.”

“You drew these bills through Verminet because Van Klopen would not give you credit.”

“Exactly so.”

“How, then, do you account for the fact that this man, who was at first disinclined to trust you, should without rhyme or reason, offer to supply you now as he did to-day?”

“The deuce!  That never struck me.  It does seem queer.  Does he want to play me a nasty trick?  But which of them is it — Verminet or Van Klopen?”

“It is plain to me that the pair of them have entered into a pleasant little plot to blackmail you.”

Young Gandelu did not at all like this turn, and he exclaimed, —

“Blackmail me, indeed! why, I know my way about better than that.  They won’t get much out of me, I can tell you.”

Andre shrugged his shoulders.

“Then,” said he, “just tell me what you intend to say to Verminet when he comes to you upon the day your bills fall due, and says to you, ’Give me one hundred thousand francs for these five little bits of paper, or I go straight to your father with them’?”

“I should say, of course — ah, well, I really do not know what I should say.”

“You could say nothing, except that you had been imposed on in the most infamous way.  You would plead for time, and Verminet would give it to you if you would execute a deed insuring him one hundred thousand francs on the day you came of age.”

“A hundred thousand devils are all the rogue would get from me.  That’s the way I do things, do you see?  If people try and ride roughshod over me, I merely hit out, and then just look out for broken bones.  Pay this chap?  Not I!  I know the governor would make an almighty shine, but I’ll choose that sooner than be had like that.”

He was quite serious but could only put his feelings into the language he usually spoke.

“I think,” answered Andre, “that your father would forgive this imprudence, but that it will be even harder for him to do so than it was to send a doctor to number the hours he had to live.  He will forgive you because he is your father, and because he loves you; but Verminet, when he finds that the threat to go to your father does not appall you, will menace you with criminal proceedings.”

“Hulloo!” said Gandelu, stopping short.  “I say, that is very poor fun,” gasped he.

“There is no fun in it, for such fun, when brought to the notice of a court of justice, goes by the ugly name of forgery, and forgery means a swinging heavy sentence.”

Gaston turned pale, and trembled from head to foot.

“Tried and sentenced,” faltered he.  “No, I don’t believe you, but I hold no honors and will turn up my cards.”  He quite forgot that he was in the public street, and was talking at the top of his shrill falsetto voice, and gesticulating violently.

“The poor old governor, I might have made him so happy, and, after all, I have only been a torment to him.  Ah, could I but begin once more; but then the cards are dealt, and I must go on with the game, and I have made a nice muddle of the whole thing before I am twenty years of age; but no criminal courts for me, no, the easiest way out of it is a pistol shot, for I am an honest man’s son, and I will not bring more disgrace on him than I have already done.”

“Do you really mean what you say?” asked Andre.

“Of course I do.  I can be firm enough sometimes.”

“Then we will not despair yet,” answered the young painter.  “I think that we shall be able to settle this ugly business, but you cannot be too cautious.  Keep indoors, and remember that I may have urgent need of you at almost any time of day or night.”

“I agree, but remember this, Zora is not to be forgotten.”

“Don’t fret over that; I will call and see her to-morrow.  And now, farewell for to-day, as I have not an instant to lose,” and with these words Andre hurried off.

Andre’s reason for haste was that he had caught a few words addressed by Verminet to Croisenois — “I shall see Mascarin at four o’clock.”  And he determined to loiter about the Rue St. Anne, and watch the Managing Director when he came out, and so find out who this Mascarin was, who he was certain was mixed up in the plot.  He darted down the Rue de Grammont like an arrow from a bow, and as the clock in a neighboring belfry chimed half-past three, he was in the Rue St. Anne.  There was a small wine-shop almost opposite to the office of the Mutual Loan Society, and there Andre ensconced himself and made a frugal meal, while he was waiting for Verminet’s appearance, and just as he had finished his light refreshment he saw the man he wanted come out of the office, and crept cautiously after him like a Red Indian on the trail of his enemy.