Read CHAPTER XXVII - A CRUEL SLUR of The Champdoce Mystery , free online book, by Emile Gaboriau, on

Florestan had conducted Tantaine to the sumptuous library, in which the Count had received Mascarin’s visit; and, to pass away the time, the old man took a mental inventory of the contents of the room.  He tried the texture of the curtains, looked at the handsome bindings of the books, and admired the magnificent bronzes on the mantelpiece.

“Aha,” muttered he, as he tried the springs of a luxurious armchair, “everything is of the best, and when matters are settled, I half think that I should like a resting-place just like this — ”

He checked himself, for the door opened, and the Count made his appearance, calm and dignified, but very pale.  Tantaine made a low bow, pressing his greasy hat against his breast.

“Your humble servant to command,” said he.

The Count had come to a sudden halt.

“Excuse me,” said he, “but did you send up a card asking for an interview?”

“I am not Mascarin certainly, but I used that highly respectable gentleman’s name, because I knew that my own was totally unknown to you.  I am Tantaine, Adrien Tantaine.”

M. de Mussidan gazed with extreme surprise upon the squalid individual before him.  His mild and benevolent face inspired confidence, and yet he doubted him.

“I have come on the same business,” pursued the old man.  “I have been ordered to tell you that it must be hurried on.”

The Count hastily closed the door and locked it; the manner of this man made him feel even too plainly the ignominy of his position.

“I understand,” answered he.  “But how is it that you have come, and not the other one?”

“He intended to come; but at the last moment he drew back; Mascarin, you see, has a great deal to lose, while I — ” He paused, and holding up the tattered tails of his coat, turned round, as though to exhibit his shabby attire.  “All my property is on my back,” continued he.

“Then I can treat with you?” asked the Count.

Tantaine nodded his head.  “Yes, Count, I have the missing leaves from the Baron’s journal, and also, well — I suppose you know everything, all of your wife’s correspondence.”

“Enough,” answered the Count, unable to hide his disgust.  “Sit down.”

“Now, Count, I will go to the point — are you going to put the police on us?”

“I have said that I would do nothing of the kind.”

“Then we can get to business.”

“Yes, if — ”

The old man shrugged his shoulders.

“There is no ‘if’ in the case,” returned he.  “We state our conditions, for acceptance or rejection.”

These words were uttered in a tone of such extreme insolence that the Count was strongly tempted to hurl the extortionate scoundrel from the window, but he contrived to restrain his passion.

“Let us hear the conditions then,” said he impatiently.

Tantaine extracted from some hidden recess of his coat a much-worn pocketbook, and drew from it a paper.

“Here are our conditions,” returned he slowly.  “The Count de Mussidan promises to give the hand of his daughter to Henri Marquis de Croisenois.  He will give his daughter a wedding portion of six hundred thousand francs, and promises that the marriage shall take place without delay.  The Marquis de Croisenois will be formally introduced at your house, and he must be cordially received.  Four days afterwards he must be asked to dinner.  On the fifteenth day from that M. de Mussidan will give a grand ball in honor of the signing of the marriage contract.  The leaves from the diary and the whole of the correspondence will be handed to M. de Mussidan as soon as the civil ceremony is completed.”

With firmly compressed lips and clenched hands, the Count sat listening to these conditions.

“And who can tell me,” said he, “that you will keep your engagements, and that these papers will be restored to me at all?”

Tantaine looked at him with a air of pity.

“Your own good sense,” answered he.  “What more could we expect to get out of you than your daughter and your money?”

The Count did not answer, but paced up and down the room, eyeing the ambassador keenly, and endeavoring to detect some weak point in his manner of cynicism and audacity.  Then speaking in the calm tone of a man who had made up his mind, he said, —

“You hold me as in a vice, and I admit myself vanquished.  Stringent as your conditions are, I accept them.”

“That is the right style of way to talk in,” remarked Tantaine cheerfully.

“Then,” continued the Count, with a ray of hope gleaming in his face, “why should I give my daughter to De Croisenois at all? — surely this is utterly unnecessary.  What you want is simply six hundred thousand francs; well, you can have them, and leave me Sabine.”

He paused and waited for the reply, believing that the day was his; but he was wrong.

“That would not be the same thing at all,” answered Tantaine.  “We should not gain our ends by such means.”

“I can do more,” said the Count.  “Give me six months, and I will add a million to the sum I have already offered.”

Tantaine did not appear impressed by the magnitude of this offer.  “I think,” remarked he, “that it will be better to close this interview, which, I confess, is becoming a little annoying.  You agreed to accept the conditions.  Are you still in that mind?”

The Count bowed.  He could not trust himself to speak.

“Then,” went on Tantaine, “I will take my leave.  Remember, that as you fulfil your engagement, so we will keep to ours.”

He had laid his hand on the handle of the door, when the Count said, —

“Another word, if you please.  I can answer for myself and Madame de Mussidan, but how about my daughter?”

Tantaine’s face changed.  “What do you mean?” asked he.

“My daughter may refuse to accept M. de Croisenois.”

“Why should she?  He is good-looking, pleasant, and agreeable.”

“Still she may refuse him.”

“If mademoiselle makes any objection,” said the old man in peremptory accents, “you must let me see her for a few minutes, and after that you will have no further difficulty with her.”

“Why, what could you have to say to my daughter?”

“I should say — ”

“Well, what would you say?”

“I should say that if she loves any one, it is not M. de Breulh.”  He endeavored to pass through the half-opened door, but the Count closed it violently.

“You shall not leave this room,” cried he, “until you have explained this insulting remark.”

“I had no intention of offending you,” answered Tantaine humbly.  “I only — ” He paused, and then, with an air of sarcasm which sat strangely upon a person of his appearance, went on, “I am aware that the heiress of a noble family may do many things without having her reputation compromised, when girls in a lower social grade would be forever lost by the commission of any one of them; and I am sure if the family of M. de Breulh knew that the young lady to whom he was engaged had been in the habit of passing her afternoons alone with a young man in his studio — ”

He paused, and hastily drew a revolver, for it seemed to him as if the Count were about to throw himself upon him.  “Softly, softly, if you please,” cried he.  “Blows and insults are fatal mistakes.  I have better information than yourself, that is all.  I have more than ten times seen your daughter enter a house in the Rue Tour d’Auvergne, and asking for M. Andre, creep silently up the staircase.”

The Count felt that he was choking.  He tore off his cravat, and cried wildly, “Proofs!  Give me proofs!”

During the last five minutes Tantaine had shifted his ground so skilfully that the heavy library table now stood between himself and the Count, and he was comparatively safe behind this extemporized defence.

“Proofs?” answered he.  “Do you think that I carry them about with me?  In a week I could give you the lovers’ correspondence.  That, you will say, is too long to wait; but you can set your doubts at rest at once.  If you go to the address I will give you before eight to-morrow morning, and enter the rooms occupied by M. Andre, you will find the portrait of Mademoiselle Sabine carefully concealed from view behind a green curtain, and a very good portrait it is.  I presume you will admit that it could not have been executed without a sitting.”

“Leave this,” cried the Count, “without a moment’s delay.”

Tantaine did not wait for a repetition of these words.  He passed through the doorway, and as soon as he was outside he called out in cheerful accents.  “Do not forget the address, Number 45, Rue Tour d’Auvergne, name of Andre, and mind and be there before eight a.m.”

The Count made a rush at him on hearing this last insult, but he was too late, for Tantaine slammed the door, and was in the hall before the infuriated master of the house could open it.  Tantaine had resumed all his airs of humility, and took off his hat to the footmen as he descended the steps.  “Yes,” muttered he, as he walked along, “the idea was a happy one.  Andre knows that he is watched, and will be careful; and now that M. de Mussidan is aware that his sweet, pure daughter has had a lover, he will be only too happy to accept the Marquis de Croisenois as his son-in-law.”  Tantaine believed that Sabine was more culpable than she really had been, for the idea of pure and honorable love had never entered his brain.