Read CHAPTER XXXIV - THE DAY OF RECKONING of The Champdoce Mystery , free online book, by Emile Gaboriau, on ReadCentral.com.

M. Lecoq enjoined prudence and caution on Andre, and the utmost care on the part of his agents, because he was fully aware of the skill and cunning of the adversary with whom he had to cope.

“You should not talk or make a noise,” he would say, “when you are fighting.”

He could now prove that the head of this association, the man who concealed his identity under a threefold personality, was the instigator of a murder.  But he did not intend to make use of this discovery at once, for he had sworn that he would take the whole gang, and his proceedings had been so carefully conducted that his victims did not for a moment suspect the net that was closing around them.  The day after the accident to Andre, Mascarin sent an anonymous communication to the head of the police, giving up Toto as the author of the crime, and saying where he could be found.

“Of course,” thought this wily plotter, “Toto will denounce Tantaine, but that worthy man is dead and buried, and I think that even the sharpest agents of the police will be unable to effect his resurrection.”

Mascarin had carefully consumed in a large fire every particle of the tattered garments that Tantaine had been in the habit of wearing, and laughed merrily as he watched the columns of sombre smoke roll upwards.

“Look for him as much as you please,” laughed he.  “Old Daddy Tantaine has flown up the chimney.”

The next business was to suppress Mascarin; this was a more difficult operation.  Few would care to inquire about Tantaine, but Mascarin was well known as the head of a prosperous business; his disappearance would create a sensation, and the police would take up the matter.  His best course would be to conduct matters openly, and sell his business on the plea of family affairs causing him to retire.  He easily found a purchaser, and in twenty-four hours the matter had been arranged.

The night before handing over the business to his successor Mascarin had much to do.  Assisted by Beaumarchef, he carried into Martin Rigal’s private office the papers with which the Registry Office was crammed.  This removal was effected by means of a door marked by a panel between Mascarin’s office and the banker’s private room; and when the last scrap of paper had been removed, Mascarin pointed out a heap of bricks and a supply of mortar to his faithful adherent.

“Wall up this door,” said he.

It was a long and wearisome task, but it was at length completed, and by rubbing soot and dust over the new work it lost its appearance of freshness.  The evening before Beaumarchef had received twelve thousand francs on the express condition that he would start at once for America, and the leave-taking between him and the master he had so faithfully served was a most affecting one.  He knew hardly anything of the diabolical plots going on around him, and was the only innocent person in that house of crime.

Mascarin was in haste to depart; he had annihilated Tantaine in order to free himself from Toto.  Mascarin was about to disappear, and he contemplated retaining his third personality, and in it to pass away the remainder of his life honored and respected; but he must first induct his successor into his business; and he went through the books with him, and explained all the practical working of the machinery.  This took him nearly all day, and it was getting late when his luggage was put on a cab which he had in waiting.  A new plate had already been placed on the door:  “J.  Robinet, late B. Mascarin.”

Knowing that he must carry out the deception completely, Mascarin drove to the western railway station, and took a ticket for Rouen.  He felt rather uncomfortable, for he feared that he was being watched, and he made up his mind not to leave a single trace behind him.  At Rouen he abandoned his luggage, which he had taken care should afford no clue as to ownership, he also relinquished his beard and spectacles, and returned to Paris as the well-known banker, Martin Rigal, the pretty Flavia’s father, having, as he thought, obliterated Mascarin as completely as he had done Tantaine; but he had not noticed in the train with him a very dark young man with piercing eyes, who looked like the traveller of some respectable commercial firm.  As soon as he reached his home, and had tenderly embraced his daughter, he went to the private room of Martin Rigal, and opened it with the key that never left his person, and then gazed at a large rough mass of brickwork which disfigured one side of the room, and which was the remains of the wall that erewhile had been so hastily erected in the Office of the Servants’ Registry.

“This won’t do,” muttered he; “it must be plastered, and then repapered.”

He picked up the bits of brick and plaster that lay on the floor, and threw them into the fire, and then pushed a large screen in front of the rough brickwork.  He had just finished his work when Hortebise entered the room, with his perpetually smiling face.

“Now, you unbeliever,” cried Mascarin gaily, “is not fortune within our grasp?  Tantaine and Mascarin are dead, or rather, they never existed.  Beaumarchef is on his way to America, La Candele will be in London in a week, and now we may enjoy our millions.”

“Heaven grant it,” said the doctor piously.

“Pooh, pooh! we have nothing more to fear, as you would have known had you gone into the case as thoroughly as I have done.  Who was the enemy whom we had most need to dread?  Why, Andre.  He certainly is not dead, but he is laid up for some weeks, and that is enough.  Besides, he has given up the game, for one of my men who managed to get into the hospital says that he has not received a visitor or dispatched a letter for the last fifteen days.”

“But he had friends.”

“Pshaw! friends always forget you!  Why, where was M. de
Breulh-Faverlay?”

“It is the racing season, and he is a fixture in his stables.”

“Madame de Bois Arden?”

“The new fashions are sufficient for her giddy head.”

“M.  Gandelu?”

“He has his son’s affairs to look after and there is no one else of any consequence.”

“And how about young Gandelu?”

“Oh! he has yielded to Tantaine’s winning power, and has made it up with Rose, and the turtle doves have taken wing for Florence.”

But the doctor was still dissatisfied.  “I am uneasy about the Mussidans,” said he.

“And pray why?  De Croisenois has been very well received.  I don’t say that Mademoiselle Sabine has exactly jumped into his arms, but she thanks him every evening for the flowers he sends in the morning, and you can’t expect more than that.”

“I wish the Count had not put off the marriage.  Why did he do so?”

“It annoys me, too; but we can’t have everything; set your mind at rest.”

By this time the banker had contrived to reassure the doctor.

“Besides,” he added, “everything is going on well, even our Tafila mines.  I have taxed our people, according to their means, from one to twenty thousand francs, and we are certain of a million.”

The doctor rubbed his hands, and a delicious prospect of enjoyments stretched out before him.

“I have seen Catenac,” continued Martin Rigal.  “He has returned from Vendome, and the Duke de Champdoce is wild with hope and expectation, and is on the path which he thinks will take him to his son.”

“And how about Perpignan?”

Mascarin laughed.

“Perpignan is just as much a dupe as the Duke is; he thinks absolutely that he has discovered all the clues that I myself placed on his road.  Before, however, they have quite concluded their investigations, Paul will be my daughter’s husband and Flavia the future Duchess of Champdoce, with an income that a monarch might envy.”

He paused, for there was a light tap on the door, and Flavia entered.  She bowed to the doctor, and, with the graceful movement of a bird, perched herself upon her father’s knee, and, throwing her arms round his neck, kissed him again and again.

“This is a very nice little preface,” said the banker with a forced smile.  “The favor is granted in advance, for, of course, this means that you have come to ask one.”

The girl shook her head, and returned in the tone of one addressing a naughty child, —

“Oh, you bad papa!  Am I in the habit of selling my kisses?  I am sure that I have only to ask and to have.”

“Of course not, only — ”

“I came to tell you that dinner was ready, and that Paul and I are both very hungry; and I only kissed you because I loved you; and if I had to choose a father again, out of the whole it would be you.”

He smiled fondly.

“But for the last six weeks,” said he, “you have not loved me so well.”

“No,” returned she with charming simplicity, “not for so long — nearly for fifteen days perhaps.”

“And yet it is more than a month since the good doctor brought a certain young man to dinner.”

Flavia uttered a frank, girlish laugh.

“I love you dearly,” said she, “but especially for one thing.”

“And what is that, pray?”

“Ah! that is the secret; but I will tell it you for all that.  It is only within the last fortnight that I have found out how really good you have been, and how much trouble you took in bringing Paul to me; but to think that you should have to put on those ugly old clothes, that nasty beard and those spectacles.”

At these words the banker started so abruptly to his feet that Flavia nearly fell to the ground.

“What do you mean by this?” said he.

“Do you suppose a daughter does not know her father?  You might deceive others, but I — ”

“Flavia, I do not comprehend your meaning.”

“Do you mean to tell me,” asked she, “that you did not come to Paul’s rooms the day I was there?”

“Are you crazy?  Listen to me.”

“No, I will not; you must not tell me fibs.  I am not a fool; and when you went out with the doctor, I listened at the door, and I heard a few words you said; and that isn’t all, for when I got here, I hid myself and I saw you come into this room.”

“But you said nothing to any one, Flavia?”

“No, certainly not.”

Rigal breathed a sigh of relief.

“Of course I do not count Paul,” continued the girl, “for he is the same as myself.”

“Unhappy child!” exclaimed the banker in so furious a voice, and with such a threatening gesture of the hand, that for the first time in her life Flavia was afraid of her father.

“What have I done?” asked she, the tears springing to her eyes.  “I only said to Paul that we should be terribly ungrateful if we did not worship him; for you don’t know what he does for us.  Why, he even dresses up in rags, and goes to see you.”

Hortebise, who up to this time had not said a word, now interfered.

“And what did Paul say?” asked he.

“Paul?  Oh, nothing for a moment.  Then he cried out, ‘I see it all now,’ and laughed as if he would have gone into a fit.”

“Did you not understand, my poor child, what this laugh means?  Paul thinks that you have been my accomplice, and believes that it was in obedience to your orders that I went to look for him.”

“Well, and suppose he does?”

“A man like Paul never loves a woman who has run after him; and no matter how great her beauty may be, will always consider that she has thrown herself in his path.  He will accept all her devotion, and make no more return than a stone or a wooden idol would do.  You cannot see this, and God grant that it may be long before the bandage is removed from your eyes.  Can you not read the quality of this foolish boy, who has not a manly instinct in him?”

“Enough!” she cried, “enough!  I am not such a coward as to allow you to insult my husband.”

He shuddered at the thought that his words might cost him his daughter’s love, but Hortebise interposed by putting his arm round Flavia’s waist and leading her from the room.  When he returned, he observed, —

“I cannot understand your anger.  It seems to me that all recrimination is most indiscreet, for you can at any moment break off this marriage.”

“Do you think it is nothing for me to be at the mercy of that cowardly wretch, Paul?”

“Not more so than you are by the foolish weakness of your daughter.  Is not Paul our accomplice?  And are we any more compromised because he has discovered the secret of your triple personality?”

“Ah! you have not a father’s feelings.  Up till now Paul did not know that I was Mascarin, and believed me to be the victim of blackmailers.  As a dupe he respected me, as an accomplice he will scorn me.  This disastrous marriage must be hastened.”

Paul and Flavia’s marriage took place at the end of the next week, and Paul left his simple bachelor abode to take possession of the magnificent suite of rooms prepared for him by the banker in his house in the Rue Montmartre.  The change was great, but Paul was no longer surprised at anything.  He did not feel the faintest tinge of remorse; he only feared one thing, and that was that by some blunder he might compromise his future, when the eventful day arrived which would give him the social position and standing of heir to a dukedom.

When, however, the Duke de Champdoce came, accompanied by Perpignan, the young imposter rose to the level of his masters, and played his part with most consummate skill.  The Duke, whose life had been one long scene of misery, and who had so cruelly expiated the sins of his youth, seemed to have become suddenly lenient; and had Paul obeyed him, he would at once have established himself with his young wife at the Hotel de Champdoce, but Martin Rigal put a veto upon this, for he was not quite satisfied that his son-in-law was really the heir to the Champdoce dukedom; and finally it was agreed that the Duke should come to breakfast the next morning and take away Paul.  Eleven was the hour fixed, but the Duke appeared at the banker’s house at ten, where he, Catenac, Hortebise, and Paul were assembled together in solemn conclave.

“Now, papa,” said Flavia, who kept her father on thorns by her gay and frolicsome criticisms, “you will no longer blame me for falling in love with a poor Bohemian, for you see that he is a Champdoce, and that his father possesses millions.”

The Duke was now seated on the sofa, holding the hand of the young man whom he believed to be his son tightly in his.  The Duchess, to whom he had given a hint of what was going on, had been taken seriously ill from over-excitement, but had recovered herself a little, and the Duke was describing this when he was suddenly interrupted by a series of full and heavy blows struck upon the other side of the wall of the room.  A pickaxe was evidently at work.  The whole house was shaken by the violence of the attack, and a screen, which stood near the spot, was thrown down.

The plotters gazed upon each other with pale and terror-stricken faces, for it was evident that the fresh brick wall, the work of Mascarin and Beaumarchef, was being destroyed.  The Duke sat in perfect amazement, for the alarm of his host and his friends was plainly evident.  He could feel Paul’s hand tremble in his, but could not understand why work evidently going on in the next house could cause such feelings of alarm.  Flavia was the only one who had no suspicion, and she remarked, “Dear me!  I should like to know the meaning of this disturbance.”

“I will send and inquire,” said her father; but scarcely had he opened the door than he retreated with a wild expression of terror in his face, and his arms stretched out in front of him, as though to bar the approach of some terrible spectre.  In the doorway stood an eminently respectable-looking gentleman, wearing a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles, and behind him a commissary of police, girt with his official scarf, while farther back still were half a dozen police officers.

“M.  Lecoq,” cried the three confederates in one breath, while through their minds flashed the same terrible idea — “We are lost.”

The celebrated detective advanced slowly into the room, curiously watching the group collected there.  There was an air of entire satisfaction visible on his countenance.

“Aha!” he said, “I was right, it seems.  I was sure that I was making no mistake in rapping at the other side of the wall.  I knew that it would be heard in here.”

By this time, however, the banker had, to all outward appearance, regained his self-command.

“What do you want here?” asked he insolently.  “What is the meaning of this intrusion?”

“This gentleman will explain,” returned Lecoq, stepping aside to make way for the commissary of police to come forward.  “But, to shorten matters, I may tell you that I have obtained a warrant for your arrest, Martin Rigal, alias Tantaine, alias Mascarin.”

“I don’t understand you!”

“Indeed.  Do you think that Tantaine has cleaned his hands so completely that not a drop of Andre’s blood clings to the fingers of Martin Rigal?”

“On my word, you are speaking in riddles.”

A bland smile passed over Lecoq’s face as, drawing a folded letter from his pocket, he answered, —

“Perhaps you are acquainted with the handwriting of your daughter.  Well, then, listen to what she wrote not so very long ago to the very Paul who is sitting on the sofa there.

“’MY DEAREST PAUL, —

“‘We should be guilty of the deepest ingratitude if — ’”

“Enough!  Enough!” cried the banker in a hoarse voice.  “Lost, lost, lost!  My own child has been my ruin!”

The calmest of the conspirators was now the one who was generally the first to take alarm, and this was the genial Doctor Hortebise.  When he recognized Lecoq, he had gently opened his locket and taken from it a small pellet of grayish-colored paste, and, holding it between his fingers, had waited until his leader should declare that all hope was gone.

In the meantime Lecoq turned towards Catenac.

“And you too are included in this warrant,” said he.

Catenac, perhaps owing to his legal training, made no reply to Lecoq, but addressing the commissary, observed, —

“I am the victim of a most unpleasant mistake, but my position — ”

“The warrant is quite regular,” returned the commissary.  “You can see it if you desire.”

“No, it is not necessary.  I will only ask you to conduct me to the magistrate who issued it, and in five minutes all will be explained.”

“Do you think so?” asked Lecoq in a quiet tone of sarcasm.  “You have not heard, I can see, of what took place yesterday.  A laborer, in the course of his work, discovers the remains of a newly-born infant, wrapped in a silk handkerchief and a shawl.  The police soon set inquiries on foot, and have found the mother — a girl named Clarisse.”

Had not Lecoq suddenly grasped Catenac’s arm, the lawyer would have flown at Martin Rigal’s throat.

“Villain, traitor!” panted he, “you have sold me!”

“My papers have been stolen,” faltered the banker.

He now saw that the blows struck upon the other side of the wall were merely a trick, for Lecoq had thought that a little preliminary fright would render them more amenable to reason.

Hortebise still looked on calmly; he knew that the game was lost.

“I belong to a respectable family,” thought he, “and I will not bring dishonor upon it.  I have no time to lose.”

As he spoke he placed the contents of the locket between his lips and swallowed them.

“Ah,” murmured he, as he did so, “with my constitution and digestion, it is really hard to end thus.”

No one had noticed the doctor’s movements, for Lecoq had moved the screen, and was showing the commissary a hole which had been made in the wall large enough for the body of a man to pass through.  But a sudden sound cut these investigations short, for Hortebise had fallen to the ground, and was struggling in a series of terrible convulsions.

“How stupid of me not to have foreseen this,” exclaimed Lecoq.  “He has poisoned himself; let some one run for a doctor.  Take him into another room and lay him on a bed.”

While these orders were being carried out, Catenac was removed to a cab which was in waiting, and Martin Rigal seemed to have lapsed into a state of moody imbecility.  Suddenly he started to his feet, crying, —

“My daughter Flavia! yes, her name is Flavia, what is to become of her?  She has no fortune, and she is married to a man who can never provide for her.  My child will perhaps starve.  Oh, horrible thought!”

The man’s strong mind had evidently given way, and his love for his child and the hideous future that lay before her had broken down the barrier that divides reason from insanity.  He was secured by the officers, raving and struggling.  When Lecoq was left alone with the Duke, Paul and Flavia, he cast a glimpse of pity at the young girl, who had crouched down in a corner, and evidently hardly understood the terrible scene that had just passed.

“Your Grace,” said he, turning to the Duke, “you have been the victim of a foul conspiracy; this young man is not your son; he is Paul Violaine, and is the son of a poor woman who kept a petty haberdashery shop in the provinces.”

The miserable young fool began to bluster, and attempted to deny this statement; but Lecoq opened the door, and Rose appeared in a most becoming costume.  Paul now made no effort to continue his protestations, but throwing himself on his knees, in whining accents confessed the whole fraud and pleaded for mercy, promising to give evidence against his accomplices.

“Do not despair, your Grace,” said Lecoq, as he conducted the Duke to his carriage; “this certainly is not your son; but I have found him, and to-morrow, if you like, you shall be introduced to him.”