Baron Trigault still held Madame de Fondege a prisoner in the hall. What did he say to her in justification of the expedient he had improvised? His own agitation was so great that he scarcely knew, and it mattered but little after all, for the good lady did not even pretend to listen to his apologies. Although by no means overshrewd, she suspected some great mystery, some bit of scandal, perhaps, and her eyes never once wandered from the door leading to the boudoir. At last this door opened and Mademoiselle Marguerite reappeared. "Great heavens!" exclaimed Madame de Fondege; "what has happened to my poor child?"
For the unfortunate girl advanced with an automatic tread, her eyes fixed on vacancy, and her hands outstretched, as if feeling her way. It indeed seemed to her as if the floor swayed to and fro under her feet, as if the walls tottered, as if the ceiling were about to fall and crush her.
Madame de Fondege sprang forward. "What is the matter, my dearest?"
Alas! the poor girl was utterly overcome. "It is but a trifle," she faltered. But her eyes closed, her hands clutched wildly for some support, and she would have fallen to the ground if the baron had not caught her in his arms and carried her to a sofa. "Help!" cried Madame de Fondege, "help, she is dying!--a physician!"
But there was no need of a physician. One of the maids came with some fresh water and a bottle of smelling salts, and Marguerite soon recovered sufficiently to sit up, and cast a frightened glance around her, while she mechanically passed her hand again and again over her cold forehead. "Do you feel better my darling?" inquired Madame de Fondege at last.
"Ah! you gave me a terrible fright; see how I tremble." But the worthy lady's fright was as nothing in comparison with the curiosity that tortured her. It was so powerful, indeed, that she could not control it. "What has happened?" she asked.
"Nothing, madame, nothing."
"I am subject to such attacks. I was very cold, and the heat of the room made me feel faint."
Although she could only speak with the greatest difficulty, the baron realized by her tone that she would never reveal what had taken place, and his attitude and relief knew no bounds. "Don't tire the poor child," he said to Madame de Fondege. "The best thing you can do would be to take her home and put her to bed."
I agree with you; but unfortunately, I have sent away my brougham with orders not to return for me until one o'clock."
"Is that the only difficulty? If so, you shall have a carriage at once, my dear madame." So saying, the baron made a sign to one of the servants, and the man started on his mission at once.
Madame de Fondege was silent but furious. "He is actually putting me out of doors," she thought. "This is a little too much! And why doesn't the baroness make her appearance--she must certainly have heard my voice? What does it all mean? However, I'm sure Marguerite will tell me when we are alone."
But Madame de Fondege was wrong, for she vainly plied the girl with questions all the way from the Rue de la Ville l'Eveque to the Rue Pigalle. She could only obtain this unvarying and obstinate reply: "Nothing has happened. What do you suppose could have happened?"
Never in her whole life had Madame de Fondege been so incensed. "The blockhead!" she mentally exclaimed. "Who ever saw such obstinacy! Hateful creature!--I could beat her!"
She did not beat her, but on reaching the house she eagerly asked: "Do you feel strong enough to go up stairs alone?"
"Then I will leave you. You know Van Klopen expects me again at one o'clock precisely; and I have not breakfasted yet. Remember that my servants are at your disposal, and don't hesitate to call them. You are at home, recollect."
It was not without considerable difficulty--not without being compelled to stop and rest several times on her way up stairs-- that Mademoiselle Marguerite succeeded in reaching the apartments of the Fondege family. "Where is madame?" inquired the servant who opened the door.
"She is still out."
"Will she return to dinner?"
"I don't know."
"M. Gustave has been here three times already; he was very angry when he found that there was no one at home--he went on terribly. Besides, the workmen have turned everything topsy-turvy."
However, Marguerite had already reached her own room, and thrown herself on the bed. She was suffering terribly. Her brave spirit still retained its energy; but the flesh had succumbed. Every vein and artery throbbed with violence, and while a chill seemed to come to her heart, her head burned as if it had been on fire. "My Lord," she thought, "am I going to fall ill at the last moment, just when I have most need of all my strength?"
She tried to sleep, but was unable to do so. How could she free herself from the thought that haunted her? Her mother! To think that such a woman was her mother! Was it not enough to make her die of sorrow and shame? And yet this woman must be saved--the proofs of her crime must be annihilated with her letters. Marguerite asked herself whether the old magistrate would have it in his power to help her in this respect. Perhaps not, and then what could she do? She asked herself if she had not been too cruel, too severe. Guilty or not, the baroness was still her mother. Had she the right to be pitiless, when by stretching out her hand she might, perhaps, have rescued the wretched woman from her terrible life.
Thus thinking, the young girl sat alone and forgotten in her little room. The hours went by, and daylight had begun to wane, when suddenly a shrill whistle resounded in the street, under her windows. "Pi-ouit." It came upon her like an electric shock, and with a bound she sprang to her feet. For this cry was the signal that had been agreed upon between herself and the young man who had so abruptly offered to help her on the occasion of her visit to M. Fortunat's office. Was she mistaken? No--for on listening she heard the cry resound a second time, even more shrill and prolonged than before.
This was no time for hesitation, and so she went down-stairs at once. Hope sent new blood coursing through her veins and endowed her with invincible energy. On reaching the street-door, she paused and looked around her. At a short distance off she perceived a young fellow clad in a blouse, who was apparently engaged in examining the goods displayed in a shop window. Despite his position, he hurriedly exclaimed: "Follow me at a little; distance in the rear until I stop."
Marguerite, obeyed him in breathless suspense. The young fellow was our friend Victor Chupin, now somewhat the worse for his encounter with Vantrasson that same morning. His face was considerably disfigured, and one of his eyes was black and swollen; nevertheless he was in a state of ecstatic happiness. Happy, and yet anxious; for, as he preceded Mademoiselle Marguerite, he said to himself: "How shall I tell her that I have succeeded? There must be no folly. If I tell her the news suddenly, she will most likely faint, so I must break the news gently."
On reaching the Rue Boursault, he turned the corner, and paused, waiting for Mademoiselle Marguerite to join him. "What is the news?" she anxiously asked.
"Everything is progressing finely--slowly, but finely."
"You know something, monsieur! Speak! Don't you see how anxious I am?"
He did see it only too well; and his embarrassment increased to such a pitch that he began to scratch his head furiously. At last he decided on a plan. "First of all, mademoiselle, brace yourself against the wall, and now stand firm. Yes, like that. Now, are you all right? Well, I have found M. Ferailleur!"
Chupin's precaution was a wise one, for Marguerite tottered. Such a success, so quickly gained, was indeed astounding. "Is it possible?" she murmured.
"So possible that I have a letter for you from M. Ferailleur in my pocket mademoiselle. Here it is--I am to wait for an answer."
She took the note he handed her, broke the seal with trembling hand, and read as follows:
"We are approaching the end, my dearest. One step more and we shall triumph. But I must see you to-day at any risk. Leave the house this evening at eight o'clock. My mother will be waiting for you in a cab, at the corner of the Rue Pigalle and the Rue Boursault. Come, and let no fear of arousing suspicions of the Fondeges deter you. They are henceforth powerless to injure you. PASCAL
"I will go!" replied Marguerite at once, careless of the obstacles that might impede the fulfilment of her promise. For it was quite possible that serious difficulties might arise. Madame Leon, who had been invisible since the morning, might suddenly reappear, or the General and his wife might return to dinner. And what could Marguerite answer if they asked her where she wanted to go alone, and at such an hour of the evening? And if they attempted to prevent her from keeping her appointment, how could she resist? All these were weighty questions and yet she did not hesitate. Pascal had spoken, that sufficed, and she was determined to obey him implicitly, cost what it might. If he advised such a step, it was because he deemed it best and necessary; and she willingly submitted to the instructions of the man in whom she felt such unbounded confidence.
Having told Chupin that she might be relied upon for the evening, she was retracing her way home, when suddenly the thought occurred to her that she ought not to neglect this opportunity to place a decisive weapon in Pascal's hands. She was close to the Rue Notre Dame de Lorette and so without more ado she hurried to the establishment of Carjat the photographer. He was fortunately disengaged, and she at once obtained from him a proof of the compromising letter written by the Marquis de Valorsay to Madame Leon. She placed it carefully in her pocket, thanked the photographer, and then hurried back to the Rue Pigalle to wait for the hour appointed in Pascal's letter. Fortunately none of her unpleasant apprehensions were realized. The dinner-hour came and passed, and still the house remained deserted. The workmen had gone off and the laughter and chatter of the servants in the kitchen were the only sounds that broke the stillness. Faint for want of food--for she had taken no nourishment during the day-- Marguerite had considerable difficulty in obtaining something to eat from the servants. At last, however, they gave her some soup and cold meat, served on a corner of the bare table in the dining- room. It was half-past seven when she finished this frugal meal. She waited a moment, and then fearing she might keep Madame Ferailleur waiting, she went down into the street.
A cab was waiting at the corner of the Rue Boursault, as indicated. Its windows were lowered, and in the shade one could discern the face and white hair of an elderly lady. Glancing behind her to assure herself that she had not been followed, Marguerite eagerly approached the vehicle, whereupon a kindly voice exclaimed: "Jump in quickly, mademoiselle "
Marguerite obeyed, and the door was scarcely closed behind her before the driver had urged his horse into a gallop. He had evidently received his instructions in advance, as well as the promise of a magnificent gratuity.
Sitting side by side on the back seat, the old lady and the young girl remained silent, but this did not prevent them from casting stealthy glances at each other, and striving to distinguish one another's features whenever the vehicle passed in front of some brilliantly lighted shop. They had never met before, and their anxiety to become acquainted was intense, for they each felt that the other would exert a decisive influence upon her life. All of Madame Ferailleur's friends would undoubtedly have been surprised at the step she had taken, and yet it was quite in accordance with her character. As long as she had entertained any hope of preventing this marriage she had not hesitated to express and even exaggerate her objections and repugnance. But her point of view was entirely changed when conquered by the strength of her son's passion, she at last yielded a reluctant consent. The young girl who was destined to be her daughter-in-law at once became sacred in her eyes; and it seemed to her an act of duty to watch over Marguerite, and shield her reputation. Having considered the subject, she had decided that it was not proper for her son's betrothed to run about the streets alone in the evening. Might it not compromise her honor? and later on might it not furnish venomous Madame de Fondege with an opportunity to exercise her slanderous tongue? Thus the puritanical old lady had come to fetch Marguerite, so that whenever occasion required she might be able to say: "I was there!"
As for Marguerite, after the trials of the day, she yielded without reserve to the feeling of rest and happiness that now filled her heart. Again and again had Pascal spoken of his mother's prejudices and the inflexibility of her principles. But he had also spoken of her dauntless energy, the nobility of her nature, and of her love and devotion to him. With Marguerite, moreover, one consideration--one which she would scarcely have admitted, perhaps--outweighed all others: Madame Ferailleur was Pascal's mother. For that reason alone, if for no other, she was prepared to worship her. How fervently she blessed this noble woman, who, a widow. and ruined in fortune by an unprincipled scoundrel, had bravely toiled to educate her son, making him the man whom Marguerite had freely chosen from among all others. She would have knelt before this grand but simple-hearted mother had she dared; she would have kissed her hands. And a poignant regret came to her heart when she remembered her own mother, Baroness Trigault, and compared her with this matchless woman.
Meanwhile the cab had passed the outer boulevards, and was now whirling along the Route d'Asnieres, as fast as the horse could drag it. "We are almost there," remarked Madame Ferailleur, speaking for the first time.
Marguerite's response was inaudible, she was so overcome with emotion. The driver had just turned the corner of the Route de la Revolte; and it was not long before he checked his panting horse. "Look, mademoiselle," said Madame Ferailleur again, "this is our home."
Upon the threshold, bareheaded, and breathless with impatience and hope, stood a man who was counting the seconds with the violent throbbings of his heart. He did not wait for the cab to stop, but springing to the door, he opened it; and then, catching Marguerite in his arms, he carried her into the house with a cry of joy. She had not even time to look around her, ere he had placed her in an arm-chair, and fallen on his knees before her. "At last I see you again, my beloved Marguerite," he exclaimed. "You are mine-- nothing shall part us again!"
They sobbed in each other's arms. They could bear adversity unmoved; but their composure deserted them in this excess of happiness; and standing in the door-way, Madame Ferailleur felt the tears come to her eyes as she stood watching them.
"How can I tell you all that I have suffered!" said Pascal, whose voice was hoarse with feeling. "The papers have told you all the details, I suppose. How I was accused of cheating at cards; how the vile epithet 'thief' was cast in my face; how they tried to search me; how my most intimate friends deserted me; how I was virtually expelled from the Palais de Justice. All this is terrible, is it not? Ah, well! it is nothing in comparison with the intense, unendurable anguish I experienced in thinking that you believed the infamous calumny which disgraced me."
Marguerite rose to her feet. "You thought that!" she exclaimed. "You believed that I doubted you? I! Like you, I have been accused of robbery myself. Do you believe me guilty?"
"Good God! I suspect you!"
"I was mad, Marguerite, my only love, I was mad! But who would not have lost his senses under such circumstances? It was the very day after this atrocious conspiracy. I had seen Madame Leon, and had trusted her with a letter for you in which I entreated you to grant me five minutes' Conversation."
"Alas! I never received it."
"I know that now; but then I was deceived. I went to the little garden gate to await your coming, but it was Madame Leon who appeared. She brought me a note written in pencil and signed with your name, bidding me an eternal farewell. And, fool that I was, I did not see that the note was a forgery!"
Mademoiselle Marguerite was amazed. The veil was now torn aside, and the truth revealed to her. Now she remembered Madame Leon's embarrassment when she met her returning from the garden on the night following the count's death. "Ah, well! Pascal," she said, "do you know what I was doing at almost the same moment? Alarmed at having received no news from you, I hastened to the Rue d'Ulm, where I learned that you had sold your furniture and started for America. Any other woman might have believed herself deserted under such circumstances, but not I. I felt sure that you had not fled in ignominious fashion. I was convinced that you had only concealed yourself for a time in order to strike your enemies more surely."
"Do not shame me, Marguerite. It is true that of us two I showed myself the weaker."
Lost in the rapture of the present moment, they had forgotten the past and the future, the agony they had endured, the dangers that still threatened them, and even the existence of their enemies.
But Madame Ferailleur was watching. She pointed to the clock, and earnestly exclaimed: "Time is passing, my son. Each moment that is wasted endangers our success. Should any suspicion bring Madame Vantrasson here, all would be lost."
"She cannot come upon us unawares, my dear mother. Chupin has promised not to lose sight of her. If she stirs from her shop, he will hasten here and throw a stone against the shutters to warn us."
But even this did not satisfy Madame Ferailleur.
"You forget, Pascal." she insisted, "that Mademoiselle Marguerite must be at home again by ten o'clock, if she consents to the ordeal you feel obliged to impose upon her."
This was the voice of duty recalling Pascal to the stern realities of life. He slowly rose, conquered his emotion, and, after reflecting for a moment, said: "First of all, Marguerite, I owe you the truth and an exact statement of our situation. Circumstances have compelled me to act without consulting you. Have I done right or wrong? You shall judge." And without stopping to listen to the girl's protestations, he rapidly explained how he had managed to win M. de Valorsay's confidence, discover his plans, and become his trusted accomplice. "This scoundrel's plan is very simple," he continued. "He is determined to marry you. Why? Because, though you are not aware of it, you are rich, and the sole heiress to the fortune of the Count de Chalusse, your father. This surprises you, does it not? Very well! listen to me. Deceived by the Marquis de Valorsay, the Count de Chalusse had promised him your hand. These arrangements were nearly completed, though you had not been informed of them. In fact, everything had been decided. At the outset, however, a grave difficulty had presented itself. The marquis wished your father to acknowledge you before your marriage, but this he refused to do. 'It would expose me to the most frightful dangers,' he declared. 'However, I will recognize Marguerite as my daughter in my will, and, at the same time, leave all my property to her.' But the marquis would not listen to this proposal. 'I don't doubt your good intentions, my dear count,' said he,' but suppose this will should be contested, your property might pass into other hands.' This difficulty put a stop to the proceedings for some time. The marquis asked for guarantees; the other refused to give them-- until, at last, M. de Chalusse discovered an expedient which would satisfy both parties. He confided to M. de Valorsay's keeping a will in which he recognized you as his daughter, and bequeathed you his entire fortune. This document, the validity of which is unquestionable, has been carefully preserved by the marquis. He has not spoken of its existence; and he would destroy it rather than restore it to you at present. But as soon as you became his wife, he intended to produce it and thus obtain possession of the count's millions."
"Ah! the old justice of the peace was not mistaken," murmured Mademoiselle Marguerite.
Pascal did not hear her. All his faculties were absorbed in the attempt he was making to give a clear and concise explanation, for he had much to say, and it was growing late. "As for the enormous sum you have been accused of taking," he continued, "I know what has become of it; it is in the hands of M. de Fondege."
"I know that, Pascal--I'm sure of it; but the proof, the proof!"
"The proof exists, and, like the will, it is in the hands of the Marquis de Valorsay."
"Is it possible! Great Heavens! You are sure you are not deceived?"
"I have seen the proof, and it is overpowering, irrefutable! I have touched it--I have held it in my hands. And it explains everything which may have seemed strange and incomprehensible to you. The letter which M. de Chalusse received on the day of his death was written by his sister. She asked in it for her share of the family estate, threatening him with a terrible scandal if he refused to comply with her request. Had the count decided to brave this scandal rather than yield? We have good reason to suppose so. However, this much is certain: he had a terrible hatred, not so much for his sister, perhaps, as for the man who had seduced her, and afterward married her, actuated by avaricious motives alone. He had sworn thousands of times that neither husband nor wife should ever have a penny of the large fortune which really belonged to them. Believing that a lawsuit was now inevitable, and wishing to conceal his wealth, he was greatly embarrassed by the large amount of money he had on hand. What should he do with it? Where could he hide it? He finally decided to intrust it to the keeping of M. de Fondege, who was known as an eccentric man, but whose honesty seemed to be above suspicion. So, when he left home, on the afternoon of his illness, he took the package of bank-notes and bonds, which you had noticed in the escritoire that morning, away with him. We shall never know what passed between your father and the General--we can only surmise. But what I do know, and what I shall be able to prove, is that M. de Fondege accepted the trust, and that he gave an acknowledgment of it in the form of a letter, which read as follows:
"'MY DEAR COUNT DE CHALUSSE--I hereby acknowledge the receipt, on Thursday, October 15, 186-, of the sum of two millions, two hundred and fifty thousand francs, which I shall deposit, in my name, at the Bank of France, subject to the orders of Mademoiselle Marguerite, your daughter, on the day she presents this letter. And believe, my dear count, in the absolute devotion of your old comrade,
"GENERAL DE FONDEGE.'"
Mademoiselle Marguerite was thunderstruck. "Who can have furnished you with these particulars?" she inquired.
"The Marquis de Valorsay, my dearest; and I will explain how he was enabled to do so. M. de Fondege wrote the address of his 'old comrade' on this letter, which was folded and sealed, but not enclosed in an envelope. M. de Chalusse proposed to post it himself, so that the official stamp might authenticate its date. But on reflection, he became uneasy. He felt that this tiny, perishable scrap of paper would be the only proof of the deposit which he had confided to M. de Fondege's honor. This scrap might be lost, burned, or stolen. Then what would happen? He had so often seen trustees betray the confidence of which they had seemed worthy. So M. de Chalusse racked his brains to discover a means of protection from an improbable but possible misfortune. He found it. Passing a stationer's shop, he went in, purchased one of those letter-presses which merchants use in their correspondence, and, under pretext of trying it, took a copy of M. de Fondege's letter. Having done this, he placed the copy in an envelope addressed to the Marquis de Valorsay, and, with his heart relieved of all anxiety, posted it at the same time as the original letter. A few moments later he got into the cab in which he was stricken down with apoplexy."
Extraordinary as Pascal's explanations must have seemed to her, Marguerite did not doubt their accuracy in the least. "Then it is the copy of this letter which you saw in the possession of the Marquis de Valorsay?"
"And the original?"
"M. de Fondege alone can tell what has become of that. It is evident that he has somehow succeeded in obtaining possession of it. Would he have dared to squander money as he has done if he had not been convinced that there was no proof of his guilt in existence? Perhaps on hearing of the count's sudden death he bribed the concierge at the Hotel de Chalusse to watch for this letter and return it to him. But on this subject I have only conjectures to offer. If they wish you to marry their son, it is probably because it seems too hard that you should be left in abject poverty while they are enjoying the fortune they have stolen from you. The vilest scoundrels have their scruples. Besides, a marriage with their son would protect them against any possible mischance in the future."
He was silent for a moment, and then more slowly resumed: "You see, Marguerite, we have clear, palpable, and irrefutable proofs of YOUR innocence; but in my efforts to clear my own name of disgrace, I have been far less fortunate. I have tried in vain to collect material proofs of the conspiracy against me. It is only by proving the guilt of the Marquis de Valorsay and the Viscount de Coralth that I can establish my innocence, and so far I am powerless to do so."
Mademoiselle Marguerite's face brightened with supreme joy. "Then I can serve you, in my turn, my only love," she exclaimed. "Ah! blessed be God who inspired me, and who thus rewards me for an hour of courage. My poor father's plan also occurred to me, Pascal. Was it not strange? The material proof of your innocence which you have sought for in vain, is in my possession, written and signed by the Marquis de Valorsay. Like M. de Fondege, he believes that the letter which proves his guilt is annihilated. He burned it himself, and yet it exists." So saying, she drew from her bosom one of the copies which she had received from Carjat the photographer, and handed it to Pascal, adding, "Look!"
Pascal eagerly perused the marvellous facsimile of the letter which the marquis had written to Madame Leon. "Ah! this is the scoundrel's death warrant." he exclaimed, exultantly. And approaching Madame Ferailleur, who still stood leaning against the door, silent and motionless: "Look, mother," he repeated, "look!"
And he pointed to this paragraph which was so convincing and so explicit, that the most exacting jury would have asked for no further evidence. "I have formed a plan which will completely efface all remembrance of that cursed P. F., in case any one could condescend to think of him, after the disgrace we fastened upon him the other evening at the house of Madame d'A----."
"Nor is this all," resumed Mademoiselle Marguerite. "There are other letters which will prove that this plot was the marquis's work and which give the name of his accomplice, Coralth. And these letters are in the possession of a man of dubious integrity, who was once the marquis's ally, but who has now become his enemy. He is known as Isidore Fortunat, and lives in the Place de la Bourse."
Marguerite felt that Madame Ferailleur's keen glance was riveted upon her. She intuitively divined what was passing in the mind of the puritanical old lady, and realized that her whole future, and the happiness of her entire wedded life, depended upon her conduct at that moment. So, desirous of making a full confession, she hastily exclaimed: "My conduct may have seemed strange in a young girl, Pascal. A timid, inexperienced girl, who had been carefully kept from all knowledge of life and evil, would have been crushed by such a burden of disgrace, and could only have wept and prayed. I did weep and pray; but I also struggled and fought. In the hour of peril I found myself endowed with some of the courage and energy which distinguished the poor women of the people among whom I formerly earned my bread. The teachings and miseries of the past were not lost to me!" And as simply as if she were telling the most natural thing in the world, she described the struggle she had undertaken against the world, strong in her faith in Pascal and in his love.
"Ah, you are a noble and courageous girl!" exclaimed Madame Ferailleur. "You are worthy of my son, and you will proudly guard our honest name!"
For some little time already the obstinate old lady had been struggling against the sympathetic emotion that filled her heart, and big tears were coursing down her wrinkled cheeks.
Unable to restrain herself any longer, she now threw both arms around Marguerite's neck, and drew her toward her in a long embrace, murmuring: "Marguerite, my daughter! Ah! how unjust my prejudices were!"
It might be thought that Pascal was transported with joy on hearing this, but no: the lines of care on his forehead deepened, as he said: "Happiness is so near! Why must a final test, another humiliation, separate us from it?"
But Marguerite now felt strong enough to meet even martyrdom with a smile. "Speak, Pascal!" said she, "don't you see that it is almost ten o'clock?"
He hesitated; there was grief in his eyes and his breath came quick and hard, as he resumed: "For your sake and mine, we must conquer, at any price. This is the only reason that can justify the horrible expedient I have to suggest. M. de Valorsay, as you know, has boasted of his power to overcome your resistance, and he really believes that he possesses this power. Why I have not killed him again and again when he has been at my mercy, I can scarcely understand. The only thing that gave me power to restrain myself was my desire for as sure, as terrible, and as public a revenge as the humiliation he inflicted on me. His plan for your ruin is such as only a scoundrel like himself could conceive. With the assistance of his vile tool, Coralth, he has formed a league, offensive and defensive, with the son of the Count de Chalusse's sister, who is the only acknowledged heir at this moment--a young man destitute of heart and intelligence, and inordinately vain, but neither better nor worse than many others who figure respectably in society. His name is Wilkie Gordon. The marquis has acquired great influence over him, and has persuaded him that it is his duty to denounce you to the authorities. He has, in short, accused you of defrauding the heirs of the Chalusse estate of two millions of francs and also of poisoning the count."
The girl shrugged her shoulders disdainfully. "As for the robbery, we have an answer to that," she answered, "and as regards the poisoning--really the accusation is too absurd!"
But Pascal still looked gloomy. "The matter is more serious than you suppose," he replied. "They have found a physician--a vile, cowardly scoundrel--who for a certain sum has consented to appear in support of the accusation."
"Dr. Jodon, I presume!"
"Yes; and this is not all. The count's escritoire contains the vial of medicine of which he drank a portion on the day of his death. Well, to-morrow night, Madame Leon will open the garden gate of the Hotel de Chalusse and admit a rascal who will abstract the vial."
Marguerite shuddered. Now she understood the fiendish cunning of the plot. "It might ruin me!" she murmured.
Pascal nodded affirmatively. "M. de Valorsay wishes you to consider yourself as irretrievably lost, and then he intends to offer to save you on condition that you consent to marry him. I should say, however, that M. Wilkie is ignorant of the atrocious projects he is abetting. They are known only to the marquis and M. de Coralth; and it is I who, under the name of Maumejan, act as their adviser. It was to me that the marquis sent M. Wilkie for assistance in drawing up this accusation. I myself wrote out the denunciation, which was as terrible and as formidable as our bitterest enemy could possibly desire, combining, as it did, with perfidious art, the reports of the valets and the suspicions of the physician, and establishing the connection between the robbery and the murder. It finished by demanding a thorough investigation. And M. Wilkie copied and signed this document, and carried it to the prosecution office himself."
Mademoiselle Marguerite sank half-fainting into an arm-chair. "You have done this!" she faltered.
"It was necessary, my daughter," whispered Madame Ferailleur.
"Yes, it was necessary, absolutely necessary," repeated Pascal, "as you will see. Justice, which is a human institution, and limited in its powers, cannot fathom motives, read thoughts, or interfere with plans, however abominable they may be, or however near realization. Before it can interfere, the law must have material, tangible proof, convincing to the senses. Until you are arrested, the crimes committed by M. de Valorsay, and those associated with him, do not come within the reach of human justice; but as soon as you are in prison, I can hasten to our friend the justice of the peace, and we shall go at once to the investigating magistrate and explain everything. Now, when your innocence and the guilt of your accusers have been established, what do you fancy the authorities will do? They will wait until your enemies declare themselves, in order to capture them all at once, and prevent the escape of a single one. To-morrow night some clever detectives will watch the Hotel de Chalusse, and just as Madame Leon and the wretch with her think themselves sure of success, they will be caught in the very act and arrested. When they are examined by a magistrate, who is conversant with the whole affair, can they deny their guilt? No; certainly not. Acting upon their confession, the authorities will force an entrance into Valorsay's house, where they will find your father's will and the receipt given by M. de Fondege--in a word, all the proofs of their guilt. And while this search is going on, all your enemies, reassured by your arrest, will be at a grand soiree given by Baron Trigault. I shall be there as well."
Mademoiselle Marguerite had mastered her momentary weakness. She rose to her feet, and in a firm voice exclaimed: "You have acted rightly."
"Ah! there was no other way. And yet I wished to see you, to learn if this course were too repugnant to you."
She interrupted him with a gesture. "When shall I be arrested?" she asked, quietly.
"This evening or to-morrow." was his answer.
"Very well! I have only one request to make. The Fondeges have a son who has no hand in the affair, but who will be more severely punished than his parents, if we do not spare them. Could you not----"
"I can do nothing, Marguerite. I am powerless now."
Everything was soon arranged. Marguerite raised her forehead to Pascal for his parting kiss, and went away accompanied by Madame Ferailleur, who escorted her to the corner of the Rue Boursault. The General and his wife had returned home in advance of Marguerite. She found them sitting in the drawing-room, with distorted faces and teeth chattering with fear. With them was a bearded man who, as soon as she appeared, exclaimed:
"You are Mademoiselle Marguerite, are you not? I arrest you in the name of the law. There is my warrant." And without more ado he led her away.