Émile Gaboriau.

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Produced by David Moynihan; Dagny; John Bickers






There is not in all Paris a house better kept or more inviting-looking
than No. 23 in Grange Street. As soon as you enter, you are struck by a
minute, extreme neatness, which reminds you of Holland, and almost sets
you a-laughing. The neighbors might use the brass plate on the door as a
mirror to shave in; the stone floor is polished till it shines; and the
woodwork of the staircase is varnished to perfection.

In the entrance-hall a number of notices, written in the peculiar
style which owners of houses affect, request the tenants to respect the
property of others, without regard to the high price they pay for their
share. "Clean your feet, if you please," they say to all who come in or
go out. "No spitting allowed on the stairs." "Dogs are not allowed in
the house."

Nevertheless, this admirably-kept house "enjoyed" but a sorry reputation
in the neighborhood. Was it worse than other houses, - No. 21, for
instance, or No. 25? Probably not; but there is a fate for houses as
well as for men.

The first story was occupied by the families of two independent
gentlemen, whose simplicity of mind was only equalled by that of their
mode of life. A collector, who occasionally acted as broker, lived in
the second story, and had his offices there. The third story was rented
to a very rich man, a baron as people said, who only appeared there at
long intervals, preferring, according to his own account, to live on
his estates near Saintonge. The whole fourth story was occupied by a
man familiarly known as Papa Ravinet, although he was barely fifty years
old. He dealt in second-hand merchandise, furniture, curiosities, and
toilet articles; and his rooms were filled to overflowing with a medley
collection of things which he was in the habit of buying at auctions.
The fifth story, finally, was cut up in numerous small rooms and
closets, which were occupied by poor families or clerks, who, almost
without exception, disappeared early in the morning, and returned only
as late as possible at night.

An addition to the house in the rear had its own staircase, and was
probably in the hands of still humbler tenants; but then it is so
difficult to rent out small lodgings!

However this may have been, the house had a bad reputation; and the
lodgers had to bear the consequences. Not one of them would have been
trusted with a dollar's worth of goods in any of the neighboring shops.
No one, however, stood, rightly or wrongly, in as bad repute as the
doorkeeper, or concierge, who lived in a little hole near the great
double entrance-door, and watched over the safety of the whole house.
Master Chevassat and his wife were severely "cut" by their colleagues
of adjoining houses; and the most atrocious stories were told of both
husband and wife.

Master Chevassat was reputed to be well off; but the story went that
he lent out money, and did not hesitate to charge a hundred per cent
a month. He acted, besides, it was said, as agent for two of his
tenants, - the broker, and the dealer in second-hand goods, and undertook
the executions, when poor debtors were unable to pay. Mrs. Chevassat,
however, had even graver charges to bear. People said she would do
anything for money, and had aided and encouraged many a poor girl in the
house in her evil career.

It was also asserted that the estimable couple had formerly lived in the
fashionable Faubourg St. Honore, but had been compelled to leave there
on account of several ugly occurrences. They were, finally, reported to
have a son called Justin, a handsome fellow, thirty-five years old, who
lived in the best society, and whom they nearly worshipped; while he was
ashamed of them, and despised them, although he came often at night to
ask them for money. No one, it must, however, be confessed, had ever
seen this son; and no one knew him.

The two Chevassats shrugged their shoulders, and said it would be absurd
if they should trouble themselves about public opinion, as long as their
consciences were clear, and they owed nobody anything.

Towards the end of last December, however, on a Saturday afternoon,
towards five o'clock, husband and wife were just sitting down to dinner,
when the dealer in old clothes, Papa Ravinet, rushed like a tempest into
their room.

He was a man of middle size, clean shaven, with small, bright, yellowish
eyes, which shone with restless eagerness from under thick, bushy brows.
Although he had lived for years in Paris, he was dressed like a man from
the country, wearing a flowered silk vest, and a long frock-coat with an
immense collar.

"Quick, Chevassat!" he cried, with a voice full of trouble. "Take your
lamp, and follow me; an accident has happened upstairs."

He was so seriously disturbed, although generally very calm and cool,
that the two Chevassats were thoroughly frightened.

"An accident!" exclaimed the woman; "that was all that was wanting. But
pray, what has happened, dear M. Ravinet?"

"How do I know? This very moment, as I was just coming out of my room, I
thought I heard the death-rattle of a dying person. It was in the fifth
story. Of course I ran up a few steps, I listened. All was silent. I
went down again, thinking I had been mistaken; and at once I heard again
a sighing, a sobbing - I can't tell you exactly what; but it sounded
exactly like the last sigh of a person in agony, and at the point of

"And then?"

"Then I ran down to tell you, and ask you to come up. I am not sure,
you understand; but I think I could swear it was the voice of Miss
Henrietta, - that pretty young girl who lives up there. Well, are you

But they did not stir.

"Miss Henrietta is not in her room," said Mrs. Chevassat coldly. "She
went out just now, and told me she would not be back till nine o'clock.
My dear M. Ravinet, you must have been mistaken; you had a ringing in
your ears, or" -

"No, I am sure I was not mistaken! But never mind; we must see what it

During this conversation, the door of the room had been open; and
several of the lodgers, hearing the voice of the merchant and the
exclamations of the woman as they crossed the hall, had stopped and

"Yes, we must see what it is," they repeated.

Master Chevassat dared no longer oppose the general desire so
peremptorily expressed, -

"Let us go then, since you will have it _so_," he sighed.

And, taking up his lamp, he began to ascend the stairs, followed by the
merchant, his wife, and five or six other persons.

The steps of all these people were heard all over the house; and from
story to story the lodgers opened their doors to see what was going on.
And, when they heard that something was likely to happen, they almost
all left their rooms, and followed the others.

So that Master Chevassat had nearly a dozen curious persons behind him,
when he stopped on the fifth floor to take breath.

The door to Miss Henrietta's room was the first on the left in the
passage. He knocked at first gently, then harder, and at last with all
his energy, till his heavy fists shook the thin partition-walls of all
the rooms.

Between each blow he cried, -

"Miss Henrietta, Miss Henrietta, they want you!"

No reply came.

"Well!" he said triumphantly, "you see!"

But, whilst the man was knocking at the door, M. Ravinet had knelt down,
and tried to open the door a little, putting now his eye, and now his
ear, to the keyhole and to the slight opening between the door and the

Suddenly he rose deadly pale.

"It is all over; we are too late!"

And, as the neighbors expressed some doubts, he cried furiously, -

"Have you no noses? Don't you smell that abominable charcoal?"

Everybody tried to perceive the odor; and soon all agreed that he was
right. As the door had given way a little, the passage had gradually
become filled with a sickening vapor.

The people shuddered; and a woman's voice exclaimed, -

"She has killed herself!"

As it happens strangely enough, but too frequently, in such cases, all

"I am going for the police," said at last Master Chevassat.

"That's right!" replied the merchant. "Now there is, perhaps, a chance
yet to save the poor girl; and, when you come back, it will of course be
too late."

"What's to be done, then?"

"Break in the door."

"I dare not."

"Well, I will."

The kind-hearted man put his shoulder to the worm-eaten door, and in a
moment the lock gave way. The bystanders shrank instinctively back; they
were frightened. The door was wide open, and masses of vapors rolled
out. Soon, however, curiosity triumphed over fear. No one doubted any
longer that the poor girl was lying in there dead; and each one tried
his best to see where she was.

In vain. The feeble light of the lamp had gone out in the foul air; and
the darkness was frightful.

Nothing could be seen but the reddish glow of the charcoal, which was
slowly going out under a little heap of white ashes in two small stoves.
No one ventured to enter.

But Papa Ravinet had not gone so far to stop now, and remain in the

"Where is the window?" he asked the concierge.

"On the right there."

"Very well; I'll open it."

And boldly the strange man plunged into the dark room; and almost
instantly the noise of breaking glass was heard. A moment later, and the
air in the room had become once more fit for breathing, and everybody
rushed in.

Alas! it was the death-rattle which M. Ravinet had heard.

On the bed, on a thin mattress, without blankets or bedclothes, lay a
young girl about twenty years old, dressed in a wretched black merino
dress, stretched out at full-length, stiff, lifeless.

The women sobbed aloud.

"To die so young!" they said over and over again, "and to die thus."

In the meantime the merchant had gone up to the bed, and examined the
poor girl.

"She is not dead yet!" he cried. "No, she cannot be dead! Come, ladies,
come here and help the poor child, till the doctor comes."

And then, with strange self-possession, he told them what to do for the
purpose of recalling her to life.

"Give her air," he said, "plenty of air; try to get some air into her
lungs. Cut open her dress; pour some vinegar on her face; rub her with
some woollen stuff."

He issued his orders, and they obeyed him readily, although they had no
hope of success.

"Poor child!" said one of the women. "No doubt she was crossed in love."

"Or she was starving," whispered another.

There was no doubt that poverty, extreme poverty, had ruled in that
miserable chamber: the traces were easily seen all around. The whole
furniture consisted of a bed, a chest of drawers, and two chairs. There
were no curtains at the window, no dresses in the trunk, not a ribbon
in the drawers. Evidently everything that could be sold had been sold,
piece by piece, little by little. The mattresses had followed the
dresses, - first the wool, handful by handful, then the covering.

Too proud to complain, and cut off from society by bashfulness, the poor
girl who was lying there had evidently gone through all the stages of
suffering which the shipwrecked mariner endures, who floats, resting on
a stray spar in the great ocean.

Papa Ravinet was thinking of all this, when a paper lying on the bureau
attracted his eye. He took it up. It was the last will of the poor girl,
and ran thus: -

"Let no one be accused; I die voluntarily. I beg Mrs. Chevassat will
carry the two letters which I enclose to their addresses. She will be
paid whatever I may owe her. Henrietta."

There were the two letters. On the first he read, -

Count Ville-Handry, Rue de Varennest 115. And, on the other, -

M. Maxime de Brevan, 62 Rue Laffitte.

A sudden light seemed to brighten up the small yellowish eye of the
dealer in old clothes; a wicked smile played on his lips; and he uttered
a very peculiar, "Ah!"

But all this passed away in a moment.

His brow grew as dark as ever; and he looked around anxiously and
suspiciously to see if anybody had caught the impression produced upon
him by the letters.

No, nobody had noticed him, nobody was thinking of him; for everybody
was occupied with Miss Henrietta.

Thereupon he slipped the paper and the two letters into the vast pocket
of his huge frock-coat with a dexterity and a rapidity which would have
excited the envy of an accomplished pickpocket. It was high time;
for the women who were bending over the bed of the young girl were
exhibiting signs of intense excitement. One of them said she was sure
the body had trembled under her hand, and the others insisted upon it
that she was mistaken. The matter was soon to be decided, however.

After, perhaps, twenty seconds of unspeakable anguish, during which all
held their breath, and solemn stillness reigned in the room, a cry of
hope and joy broke forth suddenly.

"_She_ has trembled, she has moved!"

This time there was no doubt, no denial possible. The unfortunate girl
had certainly moved, very faintly and feebly; but still she had stirred.

A slight color returned to her pallid cheeks; her bosom rose painfully,
and sank again; her teeth, closely shut, opened; and with parted
lips she stretched forth her neck as if to draw in the fresh air

"She is alive!" exclaimed the women, almost frightened, and as if they
had seen a miracle performed, - "she is alive!"

In an instant, M. Ravinet was by her side.

One of the women, the wife of the gentleman in the first story, held the
head of the girl on her arm, and the poor child looked around with that
blank, unmeaning eye which we see in mad-houses. They spoke to her; but
she did not answer; evidently she did not hear.

"Never mind!" said the merchant, "she is saved; and, _when_ the doctor
comes, he will have little else to do. But she must be attended to, the
poor child, and we cannot leave her here alone."

The bystanders knew very well what that meant; and yet hardly any one
ventured timidly to assent, and say, "Oh, of course!"

This reluctance did not deter the good man.

"We must put her to bed," he went on; "and, of course, she must have a
mattress, bedclothes and blankets. We want wood also (for it is terribly
cold here), and sugar for her tea, and a candle."

He did not mention all that was needed, but nearly so, and a great deal
too much for the people who stood by. As a proof of this, the wife
of the broker put grandly a five-franc piece on the mantlepiece, and
quietly slipped out. Some of the others followed her example; but they
left nothing. When Papa Ravinet had finished his little speech, there
was nobody left but the two ladies who lived on the first floor, and the
concierge and his wife. The two ladies, moreover, looked at each other
in great embarrassment, as if they did not know what their curiosity
might cost them. Had the shrewd man foreseen this noble abandonment of
the poor girl? One would have fancied so; for he smiled bitterly, and
said, -

"Excellent hearts - pshaw!"

Then, shrugging his shoulders, he added, -

"Luckily, I deal in all possible things. Wait a minute. I'll run down
stairs, and I'll be back in a moment with all that is needed. After
that, we shall see what can be done."

The face of the concierge's wife was a picture. Never in her life had
she been so much astonished.

"They have changed Papa Ravinet, or I am mad."

The fact is, that the man was not exactly considered a benevolent and
generous mortal. They told stories of him that would have made Harpagon
envious, and touched the heart of a constable.

Nevertheless, he re-appeared soon after, almost succumbing under the
weight of two excellent mattresses; and, when he came back a second
time, he brought much more than he had mentioned.

Miss Henrietta was breathing more freely, but her face was still
painfully rigid. Life had come back before the mind had recovered; and
it was evident that she was utterly unconscious of her situation, and of
what was going on around her. This troubled the two ladies not a little,
although they felt very much relieved, and disposed to do everything,
now that they were no longer expected to open their purses.

"Well, that is always the way," said Papa Ravinet boldly. "However, the
doctor will bleed her, if there is any necessity."

And, turning to Master Chevassat, he added, -

"But we are in the way of these ladies; suppose we go down and take
something? We can come back when the child is comfortably put to bed."

The good man lived, to tell the truth, in the same rooms in which the
thousand and one things he was continually buying were piled up in vast
heaps. There was no fixed place for his bed even. He slept where he
could, or, rather, wherever an accidental sale had cleared a space for
the time, - one night in a costly bed of the days of Louis XIV., and the
next night on a lounge that he would have sold for a few francs. Just
now he occupied a little closet not more than three-quarters full; and
here he asked the concierge to enter.

He poured some brandy into two small wineglasses, put a teakettle on the
fire, and sank into an arm-chair; then he said, -

"Well, M. Chevassat, what a terrible thing this is!"

His visitor had been well drilled by his wife, and said neither yes nor
no; but the old merchant was a man of experience, and knew how to loosen
his tongue.

"The most disagreeable thing about it," he said with an absent air, "is,
that the doctor will report the matter to the police, and there will be
an investigation."

Master Chevassat nearly dropped his glass.

"What? The police in the house? Well, good-by, then, to our lodgers; we
are lost. Why did that stupid girl want to die, I wonder! But no doubt
you are mistaken, my dear sir."

"No, I am not. But you go too fast. They will simply ask you who that
girl is, how she supports herself, and where she lived before she came

"That is exactly what I cannot tell."

The dealer in old clothes seemed to be amazed; he frowned and said, -

"Halloo! that makes matters worse. How came it about that Miss Henrietta
had rooms in your house?"

The concierge was evidently ill at ease; something was troubling him

"Oh! that is as clear as sunlight," he replied; "and, if you wish it,
I'll tell you the story; you will see there is no harm done."

"Well, let us hear."

"Well, then, it was about a year ago this very day, when a gentleman
came in, well dressed, an eyeglass stuck in his eye, impudent like a
hangman's assistant, in fact a thoroughly fashionable young man. He said
he had seen the notice that there was a room for rent up stairs, and
wanted to see it. Of course I told him it was a wretched garret, unfit
for people like him; but he insisted, and _I_ took him up."

"To the room in which Miss Henrietta is now staying?"

"Exactly. I thought he would be disgusted; but no. He looked out of the
window, tried the door if it would shut, examined the partition-wall,
and at last he said, 'This suits me; I take the room.' And thereupon he
hands me a twenty-franc piece to make it a bargain. I was amazed."

If M. Ravinet felt any interest in the story, he took pains not to show
it; for his eyes wandered to and fro as if his thoughts were elsewhere,
and he was heartily tired of the tedious account.

"And who is that fashionable young man?" he asked.

"Ah! that is more than I know, except that his name is Maxime."

That name made the old merchant jump as if a shower-bath had suddenly
fallen upon his head. He changed color; and his small yellowish eyes had
a strange look in them.

But he recovered promptly, so promptly, that his visitor saw nothing;
and then he said in a tone of indifference, -

"The young man did not give you his family name?"


"But ought you not to have inquired?"

"Ah, there is the trouble! I did not do it."

Gradually, and by a great effort, Master Chevassat began to master
his embarrassment. It looked as if he were preparing himself for the
assault, and to get ready for the police-officer.

"I know it was wrong," he continued; "but you would not have acted
differently in my place, my dear sir, I am sure. Just think! My room
belonged to M. Maxime, for I had his money in my pocket. I asked him
politely where he lived, and if there was any furniture to come. I
caught it nicely. He laughed me in the face, and did not even let me
finish my question. 'Do I look,' he said, 'like a man who lives in a
place like this?' And when he saw I was puzzled, he went on to tell me
that he took the room for a young person from the country, in whom he
took an interest, and that the contract and the receipts for rent must
all be made out in the name of Miss Henrietta. That was clear enough,
wasn't it? Still it was my duty to know who Miss Henrietta was; so I
asked him civilly. But he got angry, and told me that was none of my
business, and that some furniture would be sent presently."

He stopped, waiting for his host to express his approbation by a word or
a sign; but, as nothing came, he went on, -

"In fine, I did not dare to insist, and all was done as he wanted it
done. That very day a dealer in second-hand furniture brought the pieces
you have seen up stairs; and the day after, about eleven o'clock, Miss
Henrietta herself appeared. She had not much baggage, I tell you; she
brought every thing she owned in a little carpet-bag in her hand."

The old merchant was stooping over the fire as if his whole attention
was given to the teakettle, in which the water was beginning to boil.

"It seems to me, my good friend," he said, "that you did not act very
wisely. Still, if that is really all, I don't think they are likely to
trouble you."

"What else could there be?"

"How do I know? But if that young damsel had been carried off by M.
Maxime, if you were lending a hand in an elopement, I think you would
be in a bad box. The law is pretty strict about it, in the case of a

The concierge protested with a solemn air.

"I have told you the whole truth," he declared.

But Papa Ravinet did not by any means seem so sure of that.

"That is your lookout," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "Still, you
may be sure they will ask you how it could happen that one of your
tenants should fall into such a state of abject poverty without your
giving notice to anybody."

"Why, in the first place, I do not wait upon my lodgers. They are free
to do what they choose in their rooms."

"Quite right, Master Chevassat! quite right! So you did not know that M.
Maxime no longer came to see Miss Henrietta?"

"He still came to see her."

In the most natural manner in the world, Papa Ravinet raised his arms to
heaven, and exclaimed as if horror-struck, -

"What! is it possible? That handsome young man knew how the poor girl
suffered? he knew that she was dying of hunger?"

Master Chevassat became more and more troubled. He began to see what the
old merchant meant by his questions, and how unsatisfactory his answers

"Ah! you ask too many questions," he said at last. "It was not my duty
to watch over M. Maxime. As for Miss Henrietta, as soon as she is able
to move, the serpent! I tell you I'll send her off pretty quickly!"

The old merchant shook his head, and said in his softest voice, -

"My dear sir, you won't do that, because from today I'll pay the rent
for her room. And, more than that, if you wish to oblige me, you will
be very kind to the poor girl, you hear, and even respectful, if you

There was no misunderstanding the meaning of the word "oblige," from the
manner in which he pronounced it; and yet he was about to enforce the
recommendation, when a fretting voice exclaimed on the stairs, -

"Chevassat! where are you, Chevassat?"

"It's my wife," said the concierge.

And, delighted to get away, he said to Papa Ravinet -

"I understand; she shall be treated as politely as if she were the
daughter of the owner of the house. But excuse me, I must attend to the
door; they call me, and I must go down stairs."

He slipped out without waiting for an answer, and utterly unable to
guess why the old merchant should take such a sudden interest in the
lodger on the fifth floor.

"The rascal!" said Papa Ravinet to himself, - "the rascal!"

But he had found out what he wanted to know. He was alone, and he knew
he had no time to lose.

Quickly he drew the teakettle from the fire; and, pulling out Miss
Henrietta's two letters, he held the one that was addressed to M. Maxime
de Brevan over the steam of the boiling water. In a moment the mucilage

Online LibraryÉmile GaboriauThe Clique of Gold → online text (page 1 of 39)