When Noel and old Tabaret were seated face to face in Noel’s study, and the door had been carefully shut, the old fellow felt uneasy, and said: “What if your mother should require anything.”
“If Madame Gerdy rings,” replied the young man drily, “the servant will attend to her.”
This indifference, this cold disdain, amazed old Tabaret, accustomed as he was to the affectionate relations always existing between mother and son.
“For heaven’s sake, Noel,” said he, “calm yourself. Do not allow yourself to be overcome by a feeling of irritation. You have, I see, some little pique against your mother, which you will have forgotten tomorrow. Don’t speak of her in this icy tone; but tell me what you mean by calling her Madame Gerdy?”
“What I mean?” rejoined the advocate in a hollow tone — “what I mean?”
Then rising from his arm-chair, he took several strides about the room, and, returning to his place near the old fellow, said —
“Because, M. Tabaret, Madame Gerdy is not my mother!”
This sentence fell like a heavy blow on the head of the amateur detective.
“Oh!” he said, in the tone one assumes when rejecting an absurd proposition, “do you really know what you are saying, Noel? Is it credible? Is it probable?”
“It is improbable,” replied Noel with a peculiar emphasis which was habitual to him: “it is incredible, if you will; but yet it is true. That is to say, for thirty-three years, ever since my birth, this woman has played a most marvellous and unworthy comedy, to ennoble and enrich her son — for she has a son — at my expense!”
“My friend,” commenced old Tabaret, who in the background of the picture presented by this singular revelation saw again the phantom of the murdered Widow Lerouge.
But Noel heard not, and seemed hardly in a state to hear. The young man, usually so cold, so self-contained, could no longer control his anger. At the sound of his own voice, he became more and more animated, as a good horse might at the jingling of his harness.
“Was ever man,” continued he, “more cruelly deceived, more miserably duped, than I have been! I, who loved this woman, who knew not how to show my affection for her, who, for her sake, sacrificed my youth! How she must have laughed at me! Her infamy dates from the moment when for the first time she took me on her knees; and, until these few days past, she has sustained without faltering her execrable role. Her love for me was nothing but hypocrisy! her devotion, falsehood! her caresses, lies! And I adored her! Ah! why can I not take back all the embraces I bestowed on her in exchange for her Judas kisses? And for what was all this heroism of deception, this caution, this duplicity? To betray me more securely, to despoil me, to rob me, to give to her bastard all that lawfully appertained to me; my name, a noble name, my fortune, a princely inheritance!”
“We are getting near it!” thought old Tabaret, who was fast relapsing into the colleague of M. Gevrol; then aloud he said, “This is very serious, all that you have been saying, my dear Noel, terribly serious. We must believe Madame Gerdy possessed of an amount of audacity and ability rarely to be met with in a woman. She must have been assisted, advised, compelled perhaps. Who have been her accomplices? She could never have managed this unaided; perhaps her husband himself.”
“Her husband!” interrupted the advocate, with a laugh. “Ah! you too have believed her a widow. Pshaw! She never had a husband, the defunct Gerdy never existed. I was a bastard, dear M. Tabaret, very much a bastard; Noel, son of the girl Gerdy and an unknown father!”
“Ah!” cried the old fellow; “that then was the reason why your marriage with Mademoiselle Levernois was broken off four years ago?”
“Yes, my friend, that was the reason. And what misfortunes might have been averted by this marriage with a young girl whom I loved! However I did not complain to her whom I then called my mother. She wept, she accused herself, she seemed ready to die of grief: and I, poor fool! I consoled her as best I could, I dried her tears, and excused her in her own eyes. No, there was no husband. Do such women as she have husbands? She was my father’s mistress; and, on the day when he had had enough of her, he took up his hat and threw her three hundred thousand francs, the price of the pleasures she had given him.”
Noel would probably have continued much longer to pour forth his furious denunciations; but M. Tabaret stopped him. The old fellow felt he was on the point of learning a history in every way similar to that which he had imagined; and his impatience to know whether he had guessed aright, almost caused him to forget to express any sympathy for his friend’s misfortunes.
“My dear boy,” said he, “do not let us digress. You ask me for advice; and I am perhaps the best adviser you could have chosen. Come, then, to the point. How have you learned this? Have you any proofs? where are they?”
The decided tone in which the old fellow spoke, should no doubt, have awakened Noel’s attention; but he did not notice it. He had not leisure to reflect. He therefore answered —
“I have known the truth for three weeks past. I made the discovery by chance. I have important moral proofs; but they are mere presumptive evidence. A word from Widow Lerouge, one single word, would have rendered them decisive. This word she cannot now pronounce, since they have killed her; but she had said it to me. Now, Madame Gerdy will deny all. I know her; with her head on the block, she will deny it. My father doubtless will turn against me. I am certain, and I possess proofs; now this crime makes my certitude but a vain boast, and renders my proofs null and void!”
“Explain it all to me,” said old Tabaret after a pause —“all, you understand. We old ones are sometimes able to give good advice. We will decide what’s to be done afterwards.”
“Three weeks ago,” commenced Noel, “searching for some old documents, I opened Madame Gerdy’s secretary. Accidentally I displaced one of the small shelves: some papers tumbled out, and a packet of letters fell in front of my eyes. A mechanical impulse, which I cannot explain, prompted me to untie the string, and, impelled by an invincible curiosity, I read the first letter which came to my hand.”
“You did wrong,” remarked M. Tabaret.
“Be it so; anyhow I read. At the end of ten lines, I was convinced that these letters were from my father, whose name, Madame Gerdy, in spite of my prayers, had always hidden from me. You can understand my emotion. I carried off the packet, shut myself up in this room, and devoured the correspondence from beginning to end.”
“And you have been cruelly punished my poor boy!”
“It is true; but who in my position could have resisted? These letters have given me great pain; but they afford the proof of what I just now told you.”
“You have at least preserved these letters?”
“I have them here, M. Tabaret,” replied Noel, “and, that you may understand the case in which I have requested your advice, I am going to read them to you.”
The advocate opened one of the drawers of his bureau, pressed an invisible spring, and from a hidden receptacle constructed in the thick upper shelf, he drew out a bundle of letters. “You understand, my friend,” he resumed, “that I will spare you all insignificant details, which, however, add their own weight to the rest. I am only going to deal with the more important facts, treating directly of the affair.”
Old Tabaret nestled in his arm-chair, burning with curiosity; his face and his eyes expressing the most anxious attention. After a selection, which he was some time in making, the advocate opened a letter, and commenced reading in a voice which trembled at times, in spite of his efforts to render it calm.
“‘My dearly loved Valerie,’—
“Valerie,” said he, “is Madame Gerdy.”
“I know, I know. Do not interrupt yourself.”
Noel then resumed.
“‘My dearly loved Valerie,
“‘This is a happy day. This morning I received your darling letter, I have covered it with kisses, I have re-read it a hundred times; and now it has gone to join the others here upon my heart. This letter, oh, my love! has nearly killed me with joy. You were not deceived, then; it was true! Heaven has blessed our love. We shall have a son.
“‘I shall have a son, the living image of my adored Valerie! Oh! why are we separated by such an immense distance? Why have I not wings that I might fly to your feet and fall into your arms, full of the sweetest voluptuousness! No! never as at this moment have I cursed the fatal union imposed upon me by an inexorable family, whom my tears could not move. I cannot help hating this woman, who, in spite of me bears my name, innocent victim though she is of the barbarity of our parents. And, to complete my misery, she too will soon render me a father. Who can describe my sorrow when I compare the fortunes of these two children?
“‘The one, the son of the object of my tenderest love, will have neither father nor family, nor even a name, since a law framed to make lovers unhappy prevents my acknowledging him. While the other, the son of my detested wife, by the sole fact of his birth, will be rich, noble, surrounded by devotion and homage, with a great position in the world. I cannot bear the thought of this terrible injustice! How it is to be prevented, I do not know: but rest assured I shall find a way. It is to him who is the most desired, the most cherished, the most beloved, that the greater fortune should come; and come to him it shall, for I so will it.’”
“From where is that letter dated?” asked old Tabaret. The style in which it was written had already settled one point in his mind.
“See,” replied Noel. He handed the letter to the old fellow, who read —
“Venice, December, 1828.”
“You perceive,” resumed the advocate, “all the importance of this first letter. It is like a brief statement of the facts. My father, married in spite of himself, adores his mistress, and detests his wife. Both find themselves enceinte at the same time, and his feelings towards the two infants about to be born, are not at all concealed. Towards the end one almost sees peeping forth the germ of the idea which later on he will not be afraid to put into execution, in defiance of all law human or divine!”
He was speaking as though pleading the cause, when old Tabaret interrupted him.
“It is not necessary to explain it,” said he. “Thank goodness, what you have just read is explicit enough. I am not an adept in such matters, I am as simple as a juryman; however I understand it admirably so far.”
“I pass over several letters,” continued Noel, “and I come to this one dated Jan. 23, 1829. It is very long, and filled with matters altogether foreign to the subject which now occupies us. However, it contains two passages, which attest the slow but steady growth of my father’s project. ‘A destiny, more powerful than my will, chains me to this country; but my soul is with you, my Valerie! Without ceasing, my thoughts rest upon the adored pledge of our love which moves within you. Take care, my darling, take care of yourself, now doubly precious. It is the lover, the father, who implores you. The last part of your letter wounds my heart. Is it not an insult to me, for you to express anxiety as to the future of our child! Oh heaven! she loves me, she knows me, and yet she doubts!’
“I skip,” said Noel, “two pages of passionate rhapsody, and stop at these few lines at the end. ‘The countess’s condition causes her to suffer very much! Unfortunate wife! I hate and at the same time pity her. She seems to divine the reason of my sadness and my coldness. By her timid submission and unalterable sweetness, one would think she sought pardon for our unhappy union. Poor sacrificed creature! She also may have given her heart to another, before being dragged to the altar. Our fates would then be the same. Your good heart will pardon my pitying her.’
“That one was my mother,” cried the advocate in a trembling voice. “A saint! And he asks pardon for the pity she inspires! Poor woman.”
He passed his hands over his eyes, as if to force back his tears, and added —
“She is dead!”
In spite of his impatience, old Tabaret dared not utter a word. Besides he felt keenly the profound sorrow of his young friend, and respected it. After a rather long silence, Noel raised his head, and returned to the correspondence.
“All the letters which follow,” said he, “carry traces of the preoccupation of my father’s mind on the subject of his bastard son. I lay them, however, aside. But this is what strikes me in the one written from Rome, on March 5, 1829. ‘My son, our son, that is my great, my only anxiety. How to secure for him the future position of which I dream? The nobles of former times were not worried in this way. In those days I would have gone to the king, who, with a word, would have assured the child’s position in the world. To-day, the king who governs with difficulty his disaffected subjects can do nothing. The nobility has lost its rights, and the highest in the land are treated the same as the meanest peasants!’ Lower down I find — ‘My heart loves to picture to itself the likeness of our son. He will have the spirit, the mind, the beauty, the grace, all the fascinations of his mother. He will inherit from his father, pride, valour, and the sentiments of a noble race. And the other, what will he be like? I tremble to think of it. Hatred can only engender a monster. Heaven reserves strength and beauty for the children of love!’ The monster, that is I!” said the advocate, with intense rage. “Whilst the other — But let us ignore these preliminaries to an outrageous action. I only desired up to the present to show you the aberration of my father’s reason under the influence of his passion. We shall soon come to the point.”
M. Tabaret was astonished at the strength of this passion, of which Noel was disturbing the ashes. Perhaps, he felt it all the more keenly on account of those expressions which recalled his own youth. He understood how irresistible must have been the strength of such a love and he trembled to speculate as to the result.
“Here is,” resumed Noel, holding up a sheet of paper, “not one of those interminable epistles from which I have read you short extracts, but a simple billet. It is dated from Venice at the beginning of May; it is short but nevertheless decisive; ‘Dear Valerie — Tell me, as near as possible, the probable date of your confinement. I await your reply with an anxiety you would imagine, could you but guess my projects with regard to our child.’
“I do not know,” said Noel, “whether Madame Gerdy understood; anyhow she must have answered at once, for this is what my father wrote on the 14th: ‘Your reply, my darling, is what I did not dare expect it to be. The project I had conceived is now practicable. I begin to feel more calm and secure. Our son shall bear my name; I shall not be obliged to separate myself from him. He shall be reared by my side, in my mansion, under my eyes, on my knees, in my arms. Shall I have strength enough to bear this excess of happiness? I have a soul for grief, shall I have one for joy? Oh! my adored one, oh! my precious child, fear nothing, my heart is vast, enough to love you both! I set out tomorrow for Naples, from whence I shall write to you at length. Happen what may, however, though I should have to sacrifice the important interests confided to me, I shall be in Paris for the critical hour. My presence will double your courage; the strength of my love will diminish your sufferings.’”
“I beg your pardon for interrupting you, Noel,” said old Tabaret, “do you know what important affairs detained your father abroad?”
“My father, my old friend,” replied the advocate, “was, in spite of his youth, one of the friends, one of the confidants, of Charles X.; and he had been entrusted by him with a secret mission to Italy. My father is Count Rheteau de Commarin.”
“Whew!” exclaimed the old fellow; and the better to engrave the name upon his memory, he repeated several times, between his teeth, “Rheteau de Commarin.”
For a few minutes Noel remained silent. After having appeared to do everything to control his resentment, he seemed utterly dejected, as though he had formed the determination to attempt nothing to repair the injury he had sustained.
“In the middle of the month of May, then,” he continued, “my father is at Naples. It is whilst there, that he, a man of prudence and sense, a dignified diplomatist, a nobleman, prompted by an insensate passion, dares to confide to paper this most monstrous of projects. Listen!
“‘My adored one —
“‘It is Germain, my old valet, who will hand you this letter. I am sending him to Normandy, charged with a commission of the most delicate nature. He is one of those servitors who may be trusted implicitly.
“‘The time has come for me to explain to you my projects respecting my son. In three weeks, at the latest, I shall be in Paris.
“‘If my previsions are not deceited, the countess and you will be confined at the same time. An interval of three or four days will not alter my plan. This is what I have resolved.
“‘My two children will be entrusted to two nurses of Normandy, where my estates are nearly all situated. One of these women, known to Germain, and to whom I am sending him, will be in our interests. It is to this person, Valerie, that our son will be confided. These two women will leave Paris the same day, Germain accompanying her who will have charge of the son of the countess.
“‘An accident, devised beforehand, will compel these two women to pass one night on the road. Germain will arrange so they will have to sleep in the same inn, and in the same chamber! During the night, our nurse will change the infants in their cradles.
“‘I have foreseen everything, as I will explain to you, and every precaution has been taken to prevent our secret from escaping. Germain has instructions to procure, while in Paris, two sets of baby linen exactly similar. Assist him with your advice.
“‘Your maternal heart, my sweet Valerie, may perhaps bleed at the thought of being deprived of the innocent caresses of your child. You will console yourself by thinking of the position secured to him by your sacrifice. What excess of tenderness can serve him as powerfully as this separation? As to the other, I know your fond heart, you will cherish him. Will it not be another proof of your love for me? Besides, he will have nothing to complain of. Knowing nothing he will have nothing to regret; and all that money can secure in this world he shall have.
“‘Do not tell me that this attempt is criminal. No, my well beloved, no. The success of our plan depends upon so many unlikely circumstances, so many coincidences, independent of our will, that, without the evident protection of Providence, we cannot succeed. If, then, success crowns our efforts, it will be because heaven decreed it.
“‘Meanwhile I hope.’”
“Just what I expected,” murmured old Tabaret.
“And the wretched man,” cried Noel, “dares to invoke the aid of Providence! He would make heaven his accomplice!”
“But,” asked the old fellow, “how did your mother — pardon me, I would say, how did Madame Gerdy receive this proposition?”
“She would appear to have rejected it, at first, for here are twenty pages of eloquent persuasion from the count, urging her to agree to it, trying to convince her. Oh, that woman!”
“Come my child,” said M. Tabaret, softly, “try not to be too unjust. You seem to direct all your resentment against Madame Gerdy? Really, in my opinion, the count is far more deserving of your anger than she is.”
“True,” interrupted Noel, with a certain degree of violence — “true, the count is guilty, very guilty. He is the author of the infamous conspiracy, and yet I feel no hatred against him. He has committed a crime, but he has an excuse, his passion. Moreover, my father has not deceived me, like this miserable woman, every hour of my life, during thirty years. Besides, M. de Commarin has been so cruelly punished, that, at this present moment, I can only pardon and pity him.”
“Ah! so he has been punished?” interrogated the old fellow.
“Yes, fearfully, as you will admit. But allow me to continue. Towards the end of May, or, rather, during the first days of June, the count must have arrived in Paris, for the correspondence ceases. He saw Madame Gerdy, and the final arrangements of the conspiracy were decided on. Here is a note which removes all uncertainty on that point. On the day it was written, the count was on service at the Tuileries, and unable to leave his post. He has written it even in the king’s study, on the king’s paper; see the royal arms! The bargain has been concluded, and the woman who has consented to become the instrument of my father’s projects is in Paris. He informs his mistress of the fact.”
“‘Dear Valerie — Germain informs me of the arrival of your son’s, our son’s nurse. She will call at your house during the day. She is to be depended upon; a magnificent recompense ensures her discretion. Do not, however, mention our plans to her; for she has been given to understand that you know nothing. I wish to charge myself with the sole responsibility of the deed; it is more prudent. This woman is a native of Normandy. She was born on our estate, almost in our house. Her husband is a brave and honest sailor. Her name is Claudine Lerouge.
“‘Be of good courage, my dear love I am exacting from you the greatest sacrifice that a lover can hope for from a mother. Heaven, you can no longer doubt it, protects us. Everything depends now upon our skill and our prudence, so that we are sure to succeed!’”
On one point, at least, M. Tabaret was sufficiently enlightened. The researches into the past life of widow Lerouge were no longer difficult. He could not restrain an exclamation of satisfaction, which passed unnoticed by Noel.
“This note,” resumed the advocate, “closes the count’s correspondence with Madame Gerdy.”
“What!” exclaimed the old fellow, “you are in possession of nothing more?”
“I have also ten lines, written many years later, which certainly have some weight, but after all are only a moral proof.”
“What a misfortune!” murmured M. Tabaret. Noel laid on the bureau the letters he had held in his hand, and, turning towards his old friend, he looked at him steadily.
“Suppose,” said he slowly and emphasising every syllable — “suppose that all my information ends here. We will admit, for a moment, that I know nothing more than you do now. What is your opinion?”
Old Tabaret remained some minutes without answering; he was estimating the probabilities resulting from M. de Commarin’s letters.
“For my own part,” said he at length, “I believe on my conscience that you are not Madame Gerdy’s son.”
“And you are right!” answered the advocate forcibly. “You will easily believe, will you not, that I went and saw Claudine. She loved me, this poor woman who had given me her milk, she suffered from the knowledge of the injustice that had been done me. Must I say it, her complicity in the matter weighed upon her conscience; it was a remorse too great for her old age. I saw her, I interrogated her, and she told me all. The count’s scheme, simply and yet ingeniously conceived, succeeded without any effort. Three days after my birth, the crime was committed, and I, poor, helpless infant, was betrayed, despoiled and disinherited by my natural protector, by my own father! Poor Claudine! She promised me her testimony for the day on which I should reclaim my rights!”
“And she is gone, carrying her secret with her!” murmured the old fellow in a tone of regret.
“Perhaps!” replied Noel, “for I have yet one hope. Claudine had in her possession several letters which had been written to her a long time ago, some by the count, some by Madame Gerdy, letters both imprudent and explicit. They will be found, no doubt, and their evidence will be decisive. I have held these letters in my hands, I have read them; Claudine particularly wished me to keep them, why did I not do so?”
No! there was no hope on that side, and old Tabaret knew so better than any one. It was these very letters, no doubt, that the assassin of La Jonchere wanted. He had found them and had burnt them with the other papers, in the little stove. The old amateur detective was beginning to understand.
“All the same,” said he, “from what I know of your affairs, which I think I know as well as my own, it appears to me that the count has not overwell kept the dazzling promises of fortune he made Madame Gerdy on your behalf.”
“He never even kept them in the least degree, my old friend.”
“That now,” cried the old fellow indignantly, “is even more infamous than all the rest.”
“Do not accuse my father,” answered Noel gravely; “his connection with Madame Gerdy lasted a long time. I remember a haughty-looking man who used sometimes to come and see me at school, and who could be no other than the count. But the rupture came.”
“Naturally,” sneered M. Tabaret, “a great nobleman —”
“Wait before judging,” interrupted the advocate. “M. de Commarin had his reasons. His mistress was false to him, he learnt it, and cast her off with just indignation. The ten lines which I mentioned to you were written then.”
Noel searched a considerable time among the papers scattered upon the table, and at length selected a letter more faded and creased than the others. Judging from the number of folds in the paper one could guess that it had been read and re-read many times. The writing even was here and there partly obliterated.
“In this,” said he in a bitter tone, “Madame Gerdy is no longer the adored Valerie: ‘A friend, cruel as all true friends, has opened my eyes. I doubted. You have been watched, and today, unhappily, I can doubt no more. You, Valerie, you to whom I have given more than my life, you deceive me and have been deceiving me for a long time past. Unhappy man that I am! I am no longer certain that I am the father of your child.’”
“But this note is a proof,” cried old Tabaret, “an overwhelming proof. Of what importance to the count would be a doubt of his paternity, had he not sacrificed his legitimate son to his bastard? Yes, you have said truly, his punishment has been severe.”
“Madame Gerdy,” resumed Noel, “wished to justify herself. She wrote to the count; but he returned her letters unopened. She called on him, but he would not receive her. At length she grew tired of her useless attempts to see him. She knew that all was well over when the count’s steward brought her for me a legal settlement of fifteen thousand francs a year. The son had taken my place, and the mother had ruined me!”
Three or four light knocks at the door of the study interrupted Noel.
“Who is there?” he asked, without stirring.
“Sir,” answered the servant from the other side of the door, “madame wishes to speak to you.”
The advocate appeared to hesitate.
“Go, my son,” advised M. Tabaret; “do not be merciless, only bigots have that right.”
Noel arose with visible reluctance, and passed into Madame Gerdy’s sleeping apartment.
“Poor boy!” thought M. Tabaret when left alone. “What a fatal discovery! and how he must feel it. Such a noble young man! such a brave heart! In his candid honesty he does not even suspect from whence the blow has fallen. Fortunately I am shrewd enough for two, and it is just when he despairs of justice, I am confident of obtaining it for him. Thanks to his information, I am now on the track. A child might now divine whose hand struck the blow. But how has it happened? He will tell me without knowing it. Ah! if I had one of those letters for four and twenty hours. He has probably counted them. If I ask for one, I must acknowledge my connection with the police. I had better take one, no matter which, just to verify the handwriting.”
Old Tabaret had just thrust one of the letters into the depths of his capacious pocket, when the advocate returned.
He was one of those men of strongly formed character, who never lose their self-control. He was very cunning and had long accustomed himself to dissimulation, that indispensable armour of the ambitious.
As he entered the room nothing in his manner betrayed what had taken place between Madame Gerdy and himself. He was absolutely as calm as, when seated in his arm-chair, he listened to the interminable stories of his clients.
“Well,” asked old Tabaret, “how is she now?”
“Worse,” answered Noel. “She is now delirious, and no longer knows what she says. She has just assailed me with the most atrocious abuse, upbraiding me as the vilest of mankind! I really believe she is going out of her mind.”
“One might do so with less cause,” murmured M. Tabaret; “and I think you ought to send for the doctor.”
“I have just done so.”
The advocate had resumed his seat before his bureau, and was rearranging the scattered letters according to their dates. He seemed to have forgotten that he had asked his old friend’s advice; nor did he appear in any way desirous of renewing the interrupted conversation. This was not at all what old Tabaret wanted.
“The more I ponder over your history, my dear Noel,” he observed, “the more I am bewildered. I really do not know what resolution I should adopt, were I in your situation.”
“Yes, my old friend,” replied the advocate sadly, “it is a situation that might well perplex even more profound experiences than yours.”
The old amateur detective repressed with difficulty the sly smile, which for an instant hovered about his lips.
“I confess it humbly,” he said, taking pleasure in assuming an air of intense simplicity, “but you, what have you done? Your first impulse must have been to ask Madame Gerdy for an explanation.”
Noel made a startled movement, which passed unnoticed by old Tabaret, preoccupied as he was in trying to give the turn he desired to the conversation.
“It was by that,” answered Noel, “that I began.”
“And what did she say?”
“What could she say! Was she not overwhelmed by the discovery?”
“What! did she not attempt to exculpate herself?” inquired the detective greatly surprised.
“Yes! she attempted the impossible. She pretended she could explain the correspondence. She told me . . . But can I remember what she said? Lies, absurd, infamous lies.”
The advocate had finished gathering up his letters, without noticing the abstraction. He tied them together carefully, and replaced them in the secret drawer of his bureau.
“Yes,” continued he, rising and walking backwards and forward across his study, as if the constant movement could calm his anger, “yes, she pretended she could show me I was wrong. It was easy, was it not, with the proofs I held against her? The fact is she adores her son, and her heart is breaking at the idea that he may be obliged to restitute what he has stolen from me. And I, idiot, fool, coward, almost wished not to mention the matter to her. I said to myself, I will forgive, for after all she has loved me! Loved? no. She would see me suffer the most horrible tortures, without shedding a tear, to prevent a single hair falling from her son’s head.”
“She has probably warned the count,” observed old Tabaret, still pursuing his idea.
“She may have tried, but cannot have succeeded, for the count has been absent from Paris for more than a month and is not expected to return until the end of the week.”
“How do you know that?”
“I wished to see the count my father, to speak with him.”
“Yes, I. Do you think that I shall not reclaim my own? Do you imagine that I shall not raise my voice. On what account should I keep silent, who have I to consider? I have rights, and I will make them good. What do you find surprising in that?”
“Nothing, certainly, my friend. So then you called at M. de Commarin’s house?”
“Oh! I did not decide on doing so all at once,” continued Noel. “At first my discovery almost drove me mad. Then I required time to reflect. A thousand opposing sentiments agitated me. At one moment, my fury blinded me; the next, my courage deserted me. I would, and I would not. I was undecided, uncertain, wild. The scandal that must arise from the publicity of such an affair terrified me. I desired, I still desire to recover my name, that much is certain. But on the eve of recovering it, I wish to preserve it from stain. I was seeking a means of arranging everything, without noise, without scandal.”
“At length, however, you made up your mind?”
“Yes, after a struggle of fifteen days, fifteen days of torture, of anguish! Ah! what I suffered in that time! I neglected my business, being totally unfit for work. During the day, I tried by incessant action to fatigue my body, that at night I might find forgetfulness in sleep. Vain hope! since I found these letters, I have not slept an hour.”
From time to time, old Tabaret slyly consulted his watch. “M. Daburon will be in bed,” thought he.
“At last one morning,” continued Noel, “after a night of rage, I determined to end all uncertainty. I was in that desperate state of mind, in which the gambler, after successive losses, stakes upon a card his last remaining coin. I plucked up courage, sent for a cab, and was driven to the de Commarin mansion.”
The old amateur detective here allowed a sigh of satisfaction to escape him.
“It is one of the most magnificent houses, in the Faubourg St. Germain, my friend, a princely dwelling, worthy a great noble twenty times millionaire; almost a palace in fact. One enters at first a vast courtyard, to the right and left of which are the stables, containing twenty most valuable horses, and the coach-houses. At the end rises the grand facade of the main building, majestic and severe, with its immense windows, and its double flight of marble steps. Behind the house is a magnificent garden, I should say a park, shaded by the oldest trees which perhaps exist in all Paris.”
This enthusiastic description was not at all what M. Tabaret wanted. But what could he do, how could he press Noel for the result of his visit! An indiscreet word might awaken the advocate’s suspicions, and reveal to him that he was speaking not to a friend, but to a detective.
“Were you then shown over the house and grounds?” asked the old fellow.
“No, but I have examined them alone. Since I discovered that I was the only heir of the Rheteau de Commarin, I have found out the antecedents of my new family.
“Standing before the dwelling of my ancestors,” continued Noel, “you cannot comprehend the excess of my emotion. Here, said I, is the house in which I was born. This is the house in which I should have been reared; and, above all, this is the spot where I should reign today, whereon I stand an outcast and a stranger, devoured by the sad and bitter memories, of which banished men have died. I compared my brother’s brilliant destinies with my sad and labourious career; and my indignation well nigh overmastered reason. The mad impulse stirred me to force the doors, to rush into the grand salon, and drive out the intruder — the son of Madame Gerdy — who had taken the place of the son of the Countess de Commarin! Out, usurper, out of this. I am master here. The propriety of legal means at once recurred to my distracted mind, however, and restrained me. Once more I stood before the habitation of my fathers. How I love its old sculptures, its grand old trees, its shaded walls, worn by the feet of my poor mother! I love all, even to the proud escutcheon, frowning above the principal doorway, flinging its defiance to the theories of this age of levellers.”
This last phrase conflicted so directly with the code of opinions habitual to Noel, that old Tabaret was obliged to turn aside, to conceal his amusement.
“Poor humanity!” thought he; “he is already the grand seigneur.”
“On presenting myself,” continued the advocate, “I demanded to see the Count de Commarin. A Swiss porter, in grand livery, answered, the count was travelling, but that the viscount was at home. This ran counter to my designs; but I was embarked; so I insisted on speaking to the son in default of the father. The Swiss porter stared at me with astonishment. He had evidently seen me alight from a hired carriage, and so deliberated for some moments as to whether I was not too insignificant a person to have the honour of being admitted to visit the viscount.”
“But tell me, have you seen him?” asked old Tabaret, unable to restrain his impatience.
“Of course, immediately,” replied the advocate in a tone of bitter raillery. “Could the examination, think you, result otherwise than in my favour? No. My white cravat and black costume produced their natural effect. The Swiss porter entrusted me to the guidance of a chasseur with a plumed hat, who, led me across the yard to a superb vestibule, where five or six footmen were lolling and gaping on their seats. One of these gentlemen asked me to follow him. He led me up a spacious staircase, wide enough for a carriage to ascend, preceded me along an extensive picture gallery, guided me across vast apartments, the furniture of which was fading under its coverings, and finally delivered me into the hands of M. Albert’s valet. That is the name by which Madame Gerdy’s son is known, that is to say, my name.”
“I understand, I understand.”
“I had passed an inspection; now I had to undergo an examination. The valet desired to be informed who I was, whence I came, what was my profession, what I wanted and all the rest. I answered simply, that, quite unknown to the viscount, I desired five minutes’ conversation with him on a matter of importance. He left me, requesting me to sit down and wait. I had waited more than a quarter of an hour, when he reappeared. His master graciously deigned to receive me.”
It was easy to perceive that the advocate’s reception rankled in his breast, and that he considered it an insult. He could not forgive Albert his lackeys and his valet. He forgot the words of the illustrious duke, who said, “I pay my lackeys to be insolent, to save myself the trouble and ridicule of being so.” Old Tabaret was surprised at his young friend’s display of bitterness, in speaking of these trivial details.
“What narrow-mindedness,” thought he, “for a man of such intelligence! Can it be true that the arrogance of lackeys is the secret of the people’s hatred of an amiable and polite aristocracy?”
“I was ushered into a small apartment,” continued Noel, “simply furnished, the only ornaments of which were weapons. These, ranged against the walls, were of all times and countries. Never have I seen in so small a space so many muskets, pistols, swords, sabres, and foils. One might have imagined himself in a fencing master’s arsenal.”
The weapon used by Widow Lerouge’s assassin naturally recurred to the old fellow’s memory.
“The viscount,” said Noel, speaking slowly, “was half lying on a divan when I entered. He was dressed in a velvet jacket and loose trousers of the same material, and had around his neck an immense white silk scarf. I do not cherish any resentment against this young man; he has never to his knowledge injured me: he was in ignorance of our father’s crime; I am therefore able to speak of him with justice. He is handsome, bears himself well, and nobly carries the name which does not belong to him. He is about my height, of the same dark complexion, and would resemble me, perhaps, if he did not wear a beard. Only he looks five or six years younger; but this is readily explained, he has neither worked, struggled, nor suffered. He is one of the fortunate ones who arrive without having to start, or who traverse life’s road on such soft cushions that they are never injured by the jolting of their carriage. On seeing me, he arose and saluted me graciously.”
“You must have been dreadfully excited,” remarked old Tabaret.
“Less than I am at this moment. Fifteen preparatory days of mental torture exhausts one’s emotions. I answered the question I saw upon his lips. ‘Sir,’ said I, ‘you do not know me; but that is of little consequence. I come to you, charged with a very grave, a very sad mission, which touches the honour of the name you bear.’ Without doubt he did not believe me, for, in an impertinent tone, he asked me, ‘Shall you be long?’ I answered simply, ‘Yes.’”
“Pray,” interrupted old Tabaret, now become very attentive, “do not omit a single detail; it may be very important, you understand.”
“The viscount,” continued Noel, “appeared very much put out. ‘The fact is,’ he explained, ‘I had already disposed of my time. This is the hour at which I call on the young lady to whom I am engaged, Mademoiselle d’Arlange. Can we not postpone this conversation?’”
“Good! another woman!” said the old fellow to himself.
“I answered the viscount, that an explanation would admit of no delay; and, as I saw him prepare to dismiss me, I drew from my pocket the count’s correspondence, and presented one of the letters to him. On recognizing his father’s handwriting, he became more tractable, declared himself at my service, and asked permission to write a word of apology to the lady by whom he was expected. Having hastily written the note he handed it to his valet, and ordered him to send at once to Madame d’Arlange, He then asked me to pass into the next room, which was his library.”
“One word,” interrupted the old fellow; “was he troubled on seeing the letters?”
“Not the least in the world. After carefully closing the door, he pointed to a chair, seated himself, and said, ‘Now, sir, explain yourself.’ I had had time to prepare myself for this interview whilst waiting in the ante-room. I had decided to go straight to the point. ‘Sir,’ said I, ‘my mission is painful. The facts I am about to reveal to you are incredible. I beg you, do not answer me until you have read the letters I have here. I beseech you, above all, to keep calm.’ He looked at me with an air of extreme surprise, and answered, ‘Speak! I can hear all.’ I stood up, and said, ‘Sir, I must inform you that you are not the legitimate son of M. de Commarin, as this correspondence will prove to you. The legitimate son exists; and he it is who sends me.’ I kept my eyes on his while speaking, and I saw there a passing gleam of fury. For a moment I thought he was about to spring at my throat. He soon recovered himself. ‘The letters,’ said he in a short tone. I handed them to him.”
“How!” cried old Tabaret, “these letters — the true ones? How imprudent!”
“If he had — I don’t know; but —” the old fellow hesitated.
The advocate laid his hand upon his friend’s shoulder. “I was there,” said he in a hollow tone; “and I promise you the letters were in no danger.”
Noel’s features assumed such an expression of ferocity that the old fellow was almost afraid, and recoiled instinctively. “He would have killed him,” thought he.
“That which I have done for you this evening, my friend,” resumed the advocate, “I did for the viscount. I obviated, at least for the moment, the necessity of reading all of these hundred and fifty-six letters. I told him only to stop at those marked with a cross, and to carefully read the passages indicated with a red pencil.”
“It was an abridgment of his penance,” remarked old Tabaret.
“He was seated,” continued Noel, “before a little table, too fragile even to lean upon. I was standing with my back to the fireplace in which a fire was burning. I followed his slightest movements; and I scanned his features closely. Never in my life have I seen so sad a spectacle, nor shall I forget it, if I live for a thousand years. In less than five minutes his face changed to such an extent that his own valet would not have recognized him. He held his handkerchief in his hand, with which from time to time he mechanically wiped his lips. He grew paler and paler, and his lips became as white as his handkerchief. Large drops of sweat stood upon his forehead, and his eyes became dull and clouded, as if a film had covered them; but not an exclamation, not a sigh, not a groan, not even a gesture, escaped him. At one moment, I felt such pity for him that I was almost on the point of snatching the letters from his hands, throwing them into the fire and taking him in my arms, crying, ‘No, you are my brother! Forget all; let us remain as we are and love one another!’”
M. Tabaret took Noel’s hand, and pressed it. “Ah!” he said, “I recognise my generous boy.”
“If I have not done this, my friend, it is because I thought to myself, ‘Once these letters destroyed, would he recognise me as his brother?’”
“Ah! very true.”
“In about half an hour, he had finished reading; he arose, and facing me directly, said, ‘You are right, sir. If these letters are really written by my father, as I believe them to be, they distinctly prove that I am not the son of the Countess de Commarin.’ I did not answer. ‘Meanwhile,’ continued he, ‘these are only presumptions. Are you possessed of other proofs?’ I expected, of course, a great many other objections. ‘Germain,’ said I, ‘can speak.’ He told me that Germain had been dead for several years. Then I spoke of the nurse, Widow Lerouge — I explained how easily she could be found and questioned, adding that she lived at La Jonchere.”
“And what said he, Noel, to this?” asked old Tabaret anxiously.
“He remained silent at first, and appeared to reflect. All on a sudden he struck his forehead, and said, ‘I remember; I know her. I have accompanied my father to her house three times, and in my presence he gave her a considerable sum of money.’ I remarked to him that this was yet another proof. He made no answer, but walked up and down the room. At length he turned towards me, saying, ‘Sir, you know M. de Commarin’s legitimate son?’ I answered: ‘I am he.’ He bowed his head and murmured ‘I thought so.’ He then took my hand and added, ‘Brother, I bear you no ill will for this.’”
“It seems to me,” remarked old Tabaret, “that he might have left that to you to say, and with more reason and justice.”
“No, my friend, for he is more ill-used than I. I have not been lowered, for I did not know, whilst he! . . . .”
The old police agent nodded his head, he had to hide his thoughts, and they were stifling him.
“At length,” resumed Noel, after a rather long pause, “I asked him what he proposed doing. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘I expect my father in about eight or ten days. You will allow me this delay. As soon as he returns I will have an explanation with him, and justice shall be done. I give you my word of honour. Take back your letters and leave me to myself. This news has utterly overwhelmed me. In a moment I lose everything: a great name that I have always borne as worthily as possible, a magnificent position, an immense fortune, and, more than all that, perhaps, the woman who is dearer to me than life. In exchange, it is true, I shall find a mother. We will console each other. And I will try, sir, to make her forget you, for she must love you, and will miss you.’”
“Did he really say that?”
“Almost word for word.”
“Hypocrite!” growled the old fellow between his teeth.
“What did you say?” asked Noel.
“I say that he is a fine young man; and I shall be delighted to make his acquaintance.”
“I did not show him the letter referring to the rupture,” added Noel; “it is best that he should ignore Madame Gerdy’s misconduct. I voluntarily deprived myself of this proof, rather than give him further pain.”
“What am I to do? I am waiting the count’s return. I shall act more freely after hearing what he has to say. Tomorrow I shall ask permission to examine the papers belonging to Claudine. If I find the letters, I am saved; if not — but, as I have told you, I have formed no plan since I heard of the assassination. Now, what do you advise?”
“The briefest counsel demands long reflection,” replied the old fellow, who was in haste to depart. “Alas! my poor boy, what worry you have had!”
“Terrible! and, in addition, I have pecuniary embarrassments.”
“How! you who spend nothing?”
“I have entered into various engagements. Can I now make use of Madame Gerdy’s fortune, which I have hitherto used as my own? I think not.”
“You certainly ought not to. But listen! I am glad you have spoken of this; you can render me a service.
“Very willingly. What is it?”
“I have, locked up in my secretary, twelve or fifteen thousand francs, which trouble me exceedingly. You see, I am old, and not very brave, if any one heard I had this money —”
“I fear I cannot —” commenced the advocate.
“Nonsense!” said the old fellow. “To-morrow I will give them to you to take care of.” But remembering he was about to put himself at M. Daburon’s disposal, and that perhaps he might not be free on the morrow, he quickly added, “No, not tomorrow; but this very evening. This infernal money shall not remain another night in my keeping.”
He hurried out, and presently reappeared, holding in his hand fifteen notes of a thousand francs each. “If that is not sufficient,” said he, handing them to Noel, “you can have more.”
“Anyhow,” replied the advocate, “I will give you a receipt for these.”
“Oh! never mind. Time enough tomorrow.”
“And if I die to-night?”
“Then,” said the old fellow to himself, thinking of his will, “I shall still be your debtor. Good-night!” added he aloud. “You have asked my advice, I shall require the night for reflection. At present my brain is whirling; I must go into the air. If I go to bed now, I am sure to have a horrible nightmare. Come, my boy; patience and courage. Who knows whether at this very hour Providence is not working for you?”
He went out, and Noel, leaving his door open, listened to the sound of his footsteps as he descended the stairs. Almost immediately the cry of, “Open, if you please,” and the banging of the door apprised him that M. Tabaret had gone out. He waited a few minutes and refilled his lamp. Then he took a small packet from one of his bureau drawers, slipped into his pocket the bank notes lent him by his old friend, and left his study, the door of which he double-locked. On reaching the landing, he paused. He listened intently as though the sound of Madame Gerdy’s moans could reach him where he stood. Hearing nothing, he descended the stairs on tiptoe. A minute later, he was in the street.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50