Émile Gaboriau.

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"He told them coolly that he would think it over, but that he must have
his two hundred dollars. And he got them. His father and mother had
still a watch and some jewelry; they pawned everything and brought him
the proceeds.

"Still he saw that the till he had considered inexhaustible was really
empty, and that henceforth his pockets also would be empty, unless he
could devise some means to fill them. He went, therefore, in search of
some employment; and his godfather, the valet, found one for him at the
house of a banker, who was in want of a reliable young man to be trained
for his business, and hereafter to be intrusted with the management of
his funds."

Papa Ravinet's voice changed so perceptibly as he uttered these last
words, that Daniel and Henrietta, with one impulse, asked him, -

"Is anything the matter, sir?"

He did not make any reply; but his sister, Mrs. Bertolle, said, -

"No, there is nothing the matter with my brother;" and she looked at him
with a nod of encouragement.

"I am all right," he said, like an echo. Then, making a great effort, he
continued, -

"Justin Chevassat was at twenty precisely what you know him to be as
Maxime de Brevan, - a profound dissembler, a fierce egotist devoured by
vanity, in fine, a man of ardent passions, and capable of anything to
satisfy his desires.

"The hope of getting rich at once by some great stroke was already so
deeply rooted in his mind, that it gave him the strength to change his
habits and manner of life from one day to another, and to keep up the
deceit with a perseverance unheard of at his age. This lazy, profligate
gambler rose with the day, worked ten hours a day, and became the model
of all clerks. He had resolved to win the favor of his patron, and to be
trusted. He succeeded in doing it by the most consummate hypocrisy. So
that, only two years after he had first been admitted into the house,
he had already been promoted to a place which conferred upon him the
keeping of all the valuables of the firm.

"This occurred before those accidents which have, since that time,
procured for the keepers of other people's money such a sad reputation.
Nowadays it seems almost an ordinary event to hear of some cashier's
running away with the funds intrusted to his keeping; and no one is
astonished. To create a sensation by such an occurrence, the sum must be
almost fabulous, say, two or three millions. And, even in that case, the
loser is by no means the man in whom the world is most interested.

"At the time of which I am now speaking, defalcations were quite rare as
yet. Financial companies and brokers did not contemplate being robbed by
their own clerks as one of the ordinary risks. When they knew the keys
of their safe to be in the hands of an honest man, whose family and mode
of life were well known, they slept soundly. Justin Chevassat's patron
was thus sleeping soundly for ten months, when one Sunday he was
specially in need of certain bonds which Justin used to keep in one of
the drawers of his desk. He did not like to have his clerk hunted up on
such a day; so he simply sent for a locksmith to open the drawer.

"The first thing he saw was a draft signed by himself; and yet he had
never put his name to such a paper. Still, most assuredly, it was his
signature; he would have sworn to it in court. And yet he was as sure as
he was standing there, that it was not he who had put his name, and the
somewhat complicated ornament belonging to it, where he saw it written.

"His first amazement was succeeded by grievous apprehension. He had the
other drawers opened likewise, searched them, and soon discovered all
the details of a formidable and most ingenious plan, by which he was to
be robbed at a single blow of more than a million.

"If he had slept soundly one month longer, he would have been ruined.
His favorite clerk was a wretch, a forger of matchless skill. He
instantly sent for a detective; and the next morning, when Justin
Chevassat came as usual, he was arrested. It was then thought that
his crime was confined to this abortive attempt. Not so. A minute and
careful examination of all the papers soon revealed other misdeeds.
Evidence was found, that, on the very next day after the day on which he
had been appointed confidential clerk, he had stolen a thousand dollars,
concealing his theft by a false entry. Since that time not a week had
passed without his laying hands on a more or less considerable sum;
and all these thefts had been most ingeniously covered by such skilful
imitations of other people's signatures, that he had once been sick for
a fortnight, and yet his substitute had never become aware of anything.
In fine, it appeared that the sum total of his defalcations amounted to
some eighty thousand dollars.

"What had he done with all that money? The magistrate before whom he was
brought at once asked that question. He replied that he had not a cent
left. His explanations and his excuses were the old story pleaded by all
who put their hands into their neighbors' pockets.

"To hear him, no one could be more innocent than he was, however guilty
he might appear at first sight. He was like one of those men who allow
their little finger to be caught in a machine. His only fault was the
desire to speculate on 'Change. Did not his employer speculate himself?
Having lost some money, and fearing to lose his place if he did not pay,
the fatal thought had occurred to him to borrow from the strong box.
From that moment he had only cherished one thought, - to restore what
he had taken. If he speculated anew, it was from extreme honesty, and
because he constantly hoped to gain enough to make restitution. But
most extraordinary ill luck had pursued him; so that, seeing the deficit
growing larger and larger, and overcome with remorse and terror, he had
almost gone mad, and ceased to put any restraint upon himself.

"He laid great stress upon the fact that his whole eighty thousand
dollars had been lost on 'Change, and that he would have looked upon
himself as the meanest of rascals, if he had spent any part of it on his
personal enjoyments. Unfortunately the forged checks and drafts in his
drawer destroyed the force of this plea. Convinced that the sums he had
thus obtained were not lost, the investigating magistrate suspected
the parents of the accused. He questioned them, and obtained sufficient
evidence against them to justify their arrest. But they could not
be convicted at the trial, and had to be released. Justin Chevassat,
however, appeared at the assizes.

"Matters looked very serious for him; but he had the good luck of
falling in with a young lawyer who initiated in his case a system of
pleading which has since become very popular. He made no effort to
exculpate his client: he boldly accused the banker. 'Was it the act of
a sensible man,' he said, 'to trust so young a man with such important
sums? Was it not tempting him beyond his powers of resistance, and
almost provoking him to become dishonest? What, this banker never
examined his books for so many months? What kind of a business was it,
where a cashier could so easily take eighty thousand dollars, and remain
undiscovered? And then, what immorality in a banker to speculate on
'Change, and thus to set so bad an example to his young, inexperienced
clerks!'

"Justin Chevassat escaped with twenty years' penal servitude.

"What he was at the galleys, you may imagine from what you know of him.
He played the 'repentant criminal,' overflowing with professions of
sorrow for the past, and amendment in future, and cringing and crouching
at the feet of the officials of the prison. He carried on this comedy so
successfully, that, after three years and a half, he was pardoned.
But he had not lost his time in prison. The contact with the vilest
of criminals had sharpened his wits, and completed his education in
rascality. He came out of prison an accomplished felon. And even while
he still dragged the chain and ball along with him, he was already
planning and maturing new plots for the future, which he afterwards
executed with success. He conceived the idea of bursting forth in a new
shape, under which no one would ever suspect his former identity.

"How he went about to do this, I am enabled to tell you accurately.
Through his godfather, the valet, who had died before his trial, Justin
Chevassat knew the history of the Brevan family in its minutest details.
It was a very sad story. The old marquis had died insolvent, after
having lost his five sons, who had gone abroad to make their fortunes.
The noble family had thus become extinct; but Justin proposed to
continue its lineage. He knew that the Brevans were originally from
Maine; that they had formerly owned immense estates in the neighborhood
of Mans; and that they had not been there for more than twenty years.
Would they still be remembered in a land where they had once been all
powerful? Most assuredly they would. Would people take the trouble to
inquire minutely what had become of the marquis and his five sons? As
assuredly not.

"Chevassat's plot was based upon these calculations.

"As soon as he was free once more, he devoted all his energies to the
destruction of every trace of his identity; and, when he thought he had
accomplished this, he went to Mans, assuming the name of one of the sons
of the marquis, who had been nearly of his own age. No one doubted for a
moment that he was Maxime de Brevan. Who could have doubted it, when
he purchased the old family mansion for a considerable sum, although
it only consisted of a ruinous castle, and a small farm adjoining the
house? He paid cash, moreover, proving thus the correctness of the
magistrate's suspicions as to his story about losses on 'Change, and as
to the complicity of his parents. He even took the precaution of
living on his little estate for four years, practising the life of
a country-gentleman, received with open arms by the nobility of the
neighborhood, forming friendships, gaining supporters, and becoming more
and more identified with Maxime de Brevan.

"What was his aim at that time? I always thought he was looking out
for a wealthy wife, so as to consolidate his position; and he came near
realizing his hopes.

"He was on the point of marrying a young lady from Mans, who would have
brought him half a million in money, and the banns had already been
published, when, all of a sudden, the marriage was broken off, no one
knew why.

"This only is certain: he was so bitterly disappointed by his failure,
that he sold his property, and left the country. For the next three
years, he lived in Paris, more completely Maxime de Brevan than ever;
and then he met Sarah Brandon."

Papa Ravinet had been speaking now for nearly three hours, and he was
beginning to feel exhausted. He showed his weariness in his face;
and his voice very nearly gave out. Still it was in vain for Daniel,
Henrietta, and Mrs. Bertolle herself to unite in begging him to go and
lie down for a few moments.

"No," he replied, "I will go to the end. You do not know how important
it is that M. Champcey should be in a position to act to-morrow, or
rather to-day.

"It was at a fancy ball," he went on, "given by M. Planix, that Sarah
Brandon, at that time still known as Ernestine Bergot, and Justin
Chevassat, now Maxime de Brevan, met for the first time. He was
completely overpowered by her marvellous beauty, and she - she was
strangely impressed by the peculiar expression in Maxime's face. Perhaps
they divined each other's character, perhaps they had an intuitive
perception of who they were. At all events, they soon became acquainted,
drawn as they were to each other by an instinctive and irresistible
attraction. They danced several times together; they sat side by side;
they talked long and intimately; and, when the ball came to an end, they
were friends already.

"They met frequently; and, if it were not profanation, I would say they
loved each other. They seemed to be made on purpose to understand,
and, so to say, compliment, each other, equally corrupt as they were,
devoured by the same sinful desires, and alike free from all the
old-fashioned prejudices, as they called it, about justice, morals, and
honor. They could hardly help coming soon to some understanding by which
they agreed to associate their ambitions and their plans for the future.

"For in those early days, when their feelings were still undented, they
had no secrets for each other. Love had torn the mask from their faces;
and each one vied with the other in letting the foulness of their past
days be seen clearly. This, no doubt, secured, first the constancy of
their passion, and the continuation of their intimacy long after they
had ceased loving each other.

"For now they hate each other; but they are also afraid of each other.
Ten times they have tried to break off their intimacy; and as often they
have been compelled to renew it, bound as they feel they are to each
other by a chain far more oppressive and solid than the one Justin
Chevassat wore at the galleys.

"At first, however, they had to conceal their intimacy; for they had no
money. By joining what she had stolen from her benefactor, to what she
had obtained from M. Planix, Sarah could not make up more than some
forty thousand francs. 'That was not enough,' she said, 'to "set up" the
most modest establishment.' As to M. de Brevan, however economical he
had been, he had come to an end of the sums stolen from his employer.
For eight or ten months now, he had been reduced to all kinds of
dangerous expedients in order to live. He rode in his carriage; but
he had been more than once very happy when he could extort a
twenty-franc-piece from his parents. He visited them, of course only
in secret; for they had in the meantime exchanged their shop, for the
modest little box assigned to the concierge of No. 23 Water Street.

"Far, therefore, from being able to be useful to Sarah, he was perfectly
delighted when she brought him one fine day ten thousand francs to
alleviate his distress.

"'Ah!' she said to him on this occasion, and often thereafter, 'why
can't we have that fool's money?' meaning her friend and lover, M.
Planix.

"The next step was naturally an attempt at obtaining this much coveted
treasure. To begin, Sarah induced him to make a last will, in which he
made her his residuary legatee. One would be at a loss to guess how she
could obtain this from a young, healthy man, full of life and happiness,
if it were not that love will explain everything. When this success
had been achieved, M. de Brevan undertook to introduce in the
society frequented by Sarah and M. Planix one of his friends, who was
considered, and who really was, the best swordsman in Paris, a good
fellow otherwise, honor itself, and rather patient in temper than given
to quarrelling.

"Without compromising herself, and with that abominable skill which is
peculiarly her own, Sarah, coquetted just enough with this young man,
M. de Font-Avar, to tempt him to pay her some attentions. But that
very night she complained to M. Planix of his persecution, and knew so
skilfully how to excite his jealousy, and to wound his vanity, that,
three days later, he allowed himself to be carried away by passion, and
struck M. de Font-Avar in the presence of a dozen friends.

"A duel became inevitable; and M. de Brevan, pretending to try and
reconcile the two young men, secretly fanned the flame. The duel came
off one Saturday morning, in the woods near Vincennes. They fought with
small-swords; and, after little more than a minute, M. Planix received
a stab in his breast, fell, and was dead in an instant. He was not yet
twenty-seven years old.

"Sarah's joy was almost delirious. Accomplished actress as she was, she
could hardly manage to shed a few tears for the benefit of the public,
when the body, still warm, was brought to the house. And still she had
once loved the man, whom she had now assassinated.

"Even as she knelt by the bedside, hiding her face in her handkerchief,
she was thinking only of the testament, lying safe and snug, as she
knew, in one of the drawers of that bureau, enclosed in a large official
envelope with a huge red wax seal.

"It was opened and read the same day by the justice of the peace, who
had been sent for to put the seals on the deceased man's property. And
then Sarah began to cry in good earnest. Her tears were tears of rage.
For seized by a kind of remorse, and at a moment when Sarah's absence
had rendered him very angry, M. Planix had added two lines as a codicil.

"He still said, 'I appoint Miss Ernestine Bergot my residuary legatee';
but he had written underneath, 'on condition that she shall pay to each
of my sisters the sum of a hundred and fifty thousand francs.' This was
more than three-fourths of his whole fortune.

"When she arrived, therefore, that night, at Brevan's rooms, her first
words were, -

"'We have been robbed! Planix was a wretch! We won't have a hundred
thousand francs left.'

"Maxime, however, recovered his equanimity pretty soon; for the sum
appeared to him quite large enough to pay for a crime in which they had
run no risk, and he was quite as willing as before to marry Sarah; but
she refused to listen to him, saying that a hundred thousand francs were
barely enough for a year's income, and that they must wait. It was then
that M. de Brevan became a gambler. The wretch actually believed in
the cards; he believed that fortunes could be made by playing. He had
systems of his own which could not fail, and which he was bent upon
trying.

"He proposed to Sarah to risk the hundred thousand francs, promising
to make a million out of them; and she yielded, tempted by the very
boldness of his proposition.

"They resolved they would not stop playing till they had won a million,
or lost everything. And so they went to Homburg. There they led a
mad life for a whole month, spending ten hours every day at the
gaming-table, feverish, breathless, fighting the bank with marvellous
skill and almost incredible coolness. I have met an old croupier who
recollects them even now. Twice they were on the point of staking their
last thousand-franc-note; and one lucky day they won as much as four
hundred thousand francs. That day, Maxime proposed they should leave
Homburg. Sarah, who kept the money, refused, repeating her favorite
motto, 'All, or nothing.'

"It was nothing. Victory remained, as usual, with, the 'big battalions;'
and one evening the two partners returned to their lodgings, ruined,
penniless, having not even a watch left, and owing the hotel-keeper a
considerable sum of money.

"That evening Maxime spoke of blowing his brains out. Never, on the
contrary, had Sarah been merrier.

"The next morning she dressed very early and went out, saying she had a
plan in her head, and would soon be back.

"But she did not come back; and all that day M. de Brevan, devoured
by anxiety, waited in vain for her return. At five o'clock, however, a
messenger brought him a letter. He opened it; there were three thousand
francs in it, and these words: -

"'When you receive these lines, I shall be far from Homburg. Do not wait
for me. Enclosed is enough to enable you to return to Paris. You shall
see me again when our fortune is made.

"'Sarah.'"


"Maxime was at first overcome with amazement. To be abandoned in this
way! To be thus unceremoniously dismissed, and by Sarah! He could not
recover from it. But anger soon roused him to fury; and at the same time
he was filled with an intense desire to avenge himself. But, in order to
avenge himself, he must first know how to find his faithless ally. What
had become of her? Where had she gone?

"By dint of meditating, and recollecting all he could gather in his
memory, M. de Brevan remembered having seen Sarah two or three times,
since fortune had forsaken them, in close conversation with a tall,
thin gentleman of about forty years, who was in the habit of wandering
through the rooms, and attracted much attention by his huge whiskers,
his stiff carriage, and his wearied expression. No doubt Sarah, being
ruined, had fallen an easy prey to this gentleman, who looked as if he
might be a millionaire.

"Where did he stay? At the Hotel of the Three Kings. Maxime went there
at once. Unfortunately, he was too late. The gentleman had left that
morning for Frankfort, by the 10.45 train, with an elderly lady, and a
remarkably pretty girl.

"Sure of his game now, M. de Brevan left immediately for Frankfort,
convinced that Sarah's brilliant beauty would guide him like a star. But
he hunted in vain all over town, inquiring at the hotels, and bothering
everybody with his questions. He found no trace of the fugitives.

"When he returned to his lodgings that night, he wept.

"Never in his life had he fancied himself half so unhappy. In losing
Sarah, he thought he had lost everything. During the five months of
their intimacy, she had gained such complete ascendency over him, that
now, when he was left to his own strength, he felt like a lost child,
having no thought and no resolution.

"What was to become of him, now that this woman was no longer there
to sustain and inspire him, - that woman with the marvellous talent for
intrigue, the matchless courage that shrank from nothing, and the
energy which sufficed for everything? Sarah had, besides, filled his
imagination with such magnificent hopes, and opened before his covetous
eyes such a vast horizon of enjoyment, that he had come to look upon
things as pitiful, which would formerly have satisfied his highest
wishes. Should he, after having dreamed of those glorious achievements
by which millions are won in a day, sink back again into the meanness
of petty thefts? His heart turned from that prospect with unspeakable
loathing; and yet what was he to do?

"He knew, that, if he returned to Paris, matters would not be very
pleasant for him there. His creditors, made restless by his prolonged
absence, would fall upon him instantly. How could he induce them to
wait? Where could he get the money to pay them, at least, a percentage
of his dues? How would he support himself? Were all of his dark works to
be useless? Was he to be shipwrecked before ever seeing even the distant
port?

"Nevertheless, he returned to Paris, faced the storm, passed through
the crisis, and resumed his miserable life, associating with another
adventurer like himself, and succeeding thus, by immensely hard work,
in maintaining his existence and his assumed name. Ah! if our honest
friends could but know what misery, what humiliations and anxieties are
hid beneath that false splendor of high life, which they often envy,
they would think themselves fully avenged.

"It is certain that Maxime de Brevan found times hard in those days,
and actually more than once regretted that he had not remained a stupid,
honest man. He thought that was so simple, and so clever.

"Thus it came about, that, two years later, he had not yet been
reconciled to Sarah's absence. Often and often, in his hours of
distress, he recalled her parting promise, 'You shall see me again
when our fortune is made.' He knew she was quite capable of amassing
millions; but, when she had them, would she still think of him? Where
was she? What could have become of her?

"Sarah was at that time in America.

"That tall, light-haired gentleman, that eminently respectable lady, who
had carried her off, were M. Thomas Elgin and Mrs. Brian. Who were these
people? I have had no time to trace out their antecedents. All I know
is, that they belonged to that class of adventurers whom one sees at
all the watering-places and gambling-resorts, - at Nice, at Monaco, and
during the winter in Italy; swindlers of the highest class, who unite
consummate skill with excessive caution; who are occasionally suspected,
but never found out; and who are frequently indebted to their art
of making themselves agreeable, and even useful to others, to the
carelessness of travellers, and their thorough knowledge of life, for
the acquaintance, or even friendship, of people whom one is astonished
to find in such company.

"Sir Thorn and Mrs. Brian were both English, and, so far, they had
managed to live very pleasantly. But old age was approaching; and they
began to be fearful about the future, when they fell in with Sarah. They
divined her, as she had divined Maxime; and they saw in her an admirable
means to secure a fortune. They did not hesitate, therefore, to offer
her a compact by which she was to be a full partner, although they
themselves had to risk all they possessed, - a capital of some twenty



Online LibraryÉmile GaboriauThe Clique of Gold → online text (page 36 of 39)