Émile Gaboriau.

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thousand dollars. You have seen what these respectable people proposed
to make of her, - a snare and a pitfall. They knew very well that her
matchless beauty would catch fools innumerable, and bring in a rich
harvest of thousand-franc-notes.

"The idea was by no means new, M. Champcey, as you seem to think; nor is
the case a rare one.

"In almost all the capitals of Europe, you will find even now some of
these almost sublimely beautiful creatures, who are exhibited in
the great world by cosmopolitan adventurers. They have six or seven
years, - eighteen to twenty-five, - during which, their beauty and their
tact may secure an immense fortune to themselves and their comrades; and
according to chance, to their skill, or the whims or the folly of men,
they end by marrying some great personage in high life, or by keeping
a wretched gambling hell in the suburbs. They may fall upon the velvet
cushions of a princely carriage, or sink, step by step, to the lowest
depths of society.

"M. Elgin and Mrs. Brian had agreed that they would exhibit Sarah in
Paris; that she was to marry a duke with any number of millions; and
that they should be paid for their trouble by receiving an annual
allowance of some ten thousand dollars. But, in order to undertake the
adventure with a good chance of success, it was indispensable that Sarah
should lose her nationality as a Parisian; that she should rise anew, as
an unknown star; and, above all, that she should be trained and schooled
for the profession she was to practise.

"Hence the trip to America, and her long residence there.

"Chance had helped the wretches. They had hardly landed, when they
found that they could easily introduce the girl as the daughter of
Gen. Brandon, just as Justin Chevassat had managed to become Maxime
de Brevan. In this way, Ernestine Bergot appeared at once in the best
society of Philadelphia as Sarah Brandon. Not less prudent than Maxime,
M. Elgin also purchased, in spite of his limited means, for a thousand
dollars, vast tracts of land in the western part of the State, where
there was no trace of oil-wells, but where there might very well be a
good many, and had them entered upon the name of his ward.

"Of all these measures, I have the evidence in hand, and can produce it
at any moment."

For some time already, Daniel and Henrietta had looked at each other
with utter amazement. They were almost dumfounded by the prodigious
sagacity, the cunning, patience, and labor which the old dealer
must have employed to collect this vast mass of information. But he
continued, after a short pause, -

"Sir Thorn and Mrs. Brian found out in a few days how well they had
been served by their instincts in taking hold of Sarah. In less than six
months, this wonderful girl, whose education they had undertaken, spoke
English as well as they did, and had become their master, controlling
them by the very superiority of her wickedness. From the day on which
Mrs. Brian explained to her the part she was expected to play, she
had assumed it so naturally and so perfectly, that all traces of art
disappeared at once. She had instinctively appreciated the immense
advantage she would derive from personifying a young American girl,
and the irresistible effect she might easily produce by her freedom of
movement and her bold ingenuousness. Finally, at the end of eighteen
months' residence in America, M. Elgin declared that the moment had come
when Sarah might appear on the stage.

"It was, therefore, twenty-eight months after their parting in Homburg,
that M. de Brevan received, one morning, the following note: -

"'Come to-night, at nine o'clock, to M. Thomas Elgin's house in Circus
Street, and be prepared for a surprise.'

"He went there. A tall man opened the door of the sitting-room; and,
at the sight of a young lady who sat before the fire, he could not help
exclaiming, 'Ernestine, is that you?'

"But she interrupted him at once, saying, 'You are mistaken: Ernestine
Bergot is dead, and buried by the side of Justin Chevassat, my dear
M. de Brevan. Come, lay aside that amazed air, and kiss Miss Sarah
Brandon's hand.'

"It was heaven opening for Maxime. She had at last come back to
him, - this woman, who had come across his life like a tempest, and whose
memory he had retained in his heart, as a dagger remains in the wound it
has made. She had come back, more beautiful than ever, irresistible in
her matchless charms; and he fancied it was love which had brought her
back.

"His vanity led him astray. Sarah Brandon had long since ceased to
admire him. Familiar as she was with the life of adventurers in high
life, she had soon learned to appreciate M. de Brevan at his just value.
She saw him now as he really was, - timid, overcautious, petty, incapable
of conceiving bold combinations, scarcely good enough for the smallest
of plots, ridiculous, in fine, as all needy scamps are.

"Nevertheless, Sarah wanted him, although she despised him. On the point
of entering upon a most dangerous game, she felt the necessity of having
one accomplice, at least, in whom she could trust blindly. She had, to
be sure, Mrs. Brian and Sir Thorn, as he began to be called now; but
she mistrusted them. They held her, and she had no hold on them. On
the other hand, Maxime de Brevan was entirely hers, dependent on her
pleasure, as the lump of clay in the hands of the sculptor.

"It is true that Maxime appeared almost distressed when he heard that
that immense fortune which he coveted with all his might was still to be
made, and that Sarah was no farther advanced now than she was on the day
of their separation. She might even have said that she was less so; for
the two years and more which had just elapsed had made a large inroad
upon the savings of M. Elgin and Mrs. Brian. When they had paid for
their establishment in Circus Street, when they had advanced the hire
of a _coupe_, a landau, and two saddle-horses, they had hardly four
thousand dollars left in all.

"They knew, therefore, that they must succeed or sink in the coming
year. And, thus driven to bay, they were doubly to be feared. They were
determined to fall furiously upon the first victim that should pass
within reach, when chance brought to them the unlucky cashier of the
Mutual Discount Society, Malgat."




XXXI.

For a few moments the fatigue of the old dealer seemed to have
disappeared. He was sitting up straight, with tremulous lips, with
flashing eyes, and continued in a strangely strident voice, -

"Fools alone attach no weight to trifling occurrences. And still it
is those that appear most insignificant which we ought to fear most,
because they alone determine our fate, precisely as an atom of sand
dismembers the most powerful engine.

"It was on a fine afternoon in the month of October when Sarah Brandon
appeared for the first time before the eyes of Malgat. He was at that
time a man of forty, sprung from an old and respectable though modest
family, content with his lot in life, and rather simple, as most men
are who have always lived far from the intrigues of society. He had
one passion, however, - he filled the five rooms of his lodgings
with curiosities of every kind, happy for a week to come, if he had
discovered a piece of old china, or a curious piece of furniture, which
he could purchase cheap. He was not rich, his whole patrimony having
been long since spent on his collections; but he had a place that
brought him some three thousand dollars; and he was sure of an ample
pension in his old age.

"He was honest in the highest sense of the word; his honesty being
instinctive, so to say, never reasoning, never hesitating. For fifteen
years now, he had been cashier; and hundreds of millions had passed
through his hands without arousing in him a shadow of covetousness. He
handled the gold in the bags, and the notes in the portfolios, with
as much indifference as if they had been pebbles and dry leaves. His
employers, besides, felt for him more than ordinary esteem: it was true
and devoted friendship. Their confidence in him was so great, that they
would have laughed in the face of any one who should have come and told
them, 'Malgat is a thief!'

"Such he was, when, that morning, he was standing near his safe, and saw
a gentleman come to his window who had just cashed a check drawn by
the Central Bank of Philadelphia upon the Mutual Discount Bank. This
gentleman, who was M. Elgin, spoke such imperfect French, that Malgat
asked him, for convenience sake, to step inside the railing. He came in,
and behind him Sarah Brandon.

"How can I describe to you the sensations of the poor cashier as he
beheld this amazing beauty! He could hardly stammer out a few incoherent
words; and the gentleman and the young lady had long since left, when
he was still lost in a kind of idiotic delight. He had been overtaken by
one of those overwhelming passions which sometimes felled to the ground
the strongest and simplest of men at the age of forty.

"Alas! Sarah had but too keenly noticed the impression she had produced.
To be sure, Malgat was very far from that ideal of a millionaire husband
of whom these adventurers dreamed; but, after all, he held the keys of
a safe in which lay millions. One might always get something out of him
wherewith to wait for better things to come. Their plan was soon formed.

"The very next day M. Elgin presented himself alone at the office to ask
for some information. He returned three days after with another draft.
By the end of the week, he had furnished Malgat with an opportunity to
render him some trifling service. Thus relations began to exist
between them; and, at the end of a fortnight, Sir Thorn could, with all
propriety, ask the cashier to dine with him in Circus Street. A voice
from within - one of those presentiments to which we ought always to
listen - warned Malgat not to accept the invitation; but he was already
no longer his own master.

"He went to dinner in Circus Street, and he left it madly in love.

"He had felt as if Sarah Brandon's eyes had been all the time upon
him, - those strange, sublimely beautiful eyes, which upset our very
being within us, weakening the most powerful energy, troubling the
senses, and leading reason astray - eyes which dazzle, enchant, and
bewitch.

"The commonest politeness required that Malgat should call upon Mrs.
Brian and M. Elgin. This call was followed by many others. A man less
blinded by passion might have become suspicious at the eagerness with
which these wretches, driven by necessity, carried on their intrigue.
Six weeks after their first meeting, Malgat fancied that Sarah was
wildly in love with him. It was absurd, most assuredly; it was foolish,
insane. Nevertheless, he believed it. He thought those rapturous glances
were genuine; he believed in the truthfulness of that intoxicating
sweetness of her voice, and those enchanting blushes, which his coming
never failed to call forth.

"Now began the second act of the hideous comedy. Mrs. Brian appeared one
day, all of a sudden, to notice something, and promptly requested Malgat
never to put foot again within that house. She accused him of an attempt
to seduce Sarah Brandon. I dare say, you can imagine, the fool! how he
protested, affirming the purity of his intentions, and swearing that he
would be the happiest of mortals if they would condescend to grant him
the hand of her niece. But Sir Thorn, in the haughtiest tone possible,
asked him how he could dare think of such a thing, and presume that
he could ever be a fit match for a young lady who had a dower of two
hundred thousand dollars.

"Malgat left with tottering steps, despair in his heart, and resolved to
kill himself. When he returned home, he actually went to look among his
curiosities for an old flint-lock pistol, and began to load it.

"Ah! why did he not kill himself then? He would have carried his
deceptive illusions and his unstained honor with him to the grave.

"He was just about to make his will when they brought him a letter from
Sarah. She wrote thus: -

"'When a girl like myself loves, she loves for life, and she is his
whom she loves, or she is nobody's. If your love is true, if dangers and
difficulties terrify you no more than they terrify me, knock to-morrow
night, at ten o'clock, at the gate of the court. I will open.'

"Mad with joy and hope, Malgat went to the fatal meeting. Do you know
what happened? Sarah fell around his neck, and said, -

"'I love you. Let us run away.'

"Ah! if he had taken her at her word, and answered her, offering her his
arm, -

"'Yes, let us flee,' the plot might have been defeated, and he might
have been saved; for she would certainly not have gone with him.

"But with that clear perception which was a perfect marvel in her, and
looked like the gift of second sight, she had taken the measure of the
cashier, and exposed herself to the danger, well-knowing that he would
shrink from doing what she asked.

"He did shrink, the idiot! he was afraid. He said to himself that it
would be a mean thing to abuse the attachment of this pure and trustful
girl, to separate her from her family, and to ruin her forever.

"He did have this wonderful power of self-denial to dissuade her from
taking such a step, and to induce her to be patient, giving time an
opportunity of coming to their assistance, while he would do all he
could to overcome the obstacles in the way.

"For hours after he had left Sarah Brandon, Malgat had not recovered
from the excitement; and he would have thought the whole a dream, but
for the penetrating perfume which his clothes still retained where she
had rested her beautiful head. But, when he at last began to examine
his position, he came to the conclusion that he had indulged in childish
illusions, and that he could never hope to satisfy the demands made by
M. Elgin and Mrs. Brian. There _was_ but one way, a single way, by
which he could ever hope to obtain possession of this woman whom
he worshipped; and that was the one she had herself proposed, - an
abduction. To determine upon such a step, however, was for Malgat to end
his peaceful life forever, to lose his place, to abandon the past, and
to venture upon an unknown future. But how could he reason at a moment
when his whole mind was filled with thoughts of the most amazing
happiness that ever was enjoyed by mortal being?

"Whenever he thought of flight, there arose before him one obstacle
which he could not overcome. He had no money. How could he expose this
rich heiress, who left all for his sake, this beautiful girl, who was
accustomed to every imaginable luxury, to want and humiliation? No; that
he could never dare. And yet his whole available capital did not amount
to three thousand dollars. His fortune was invested in those curiosities
that were piled up all over his rooms, - beautiful objects to his eyes
in former days, but now hateful, and annoying to behold. He knew
they represented a large sum, quite a respectable fortune; but such
collections cannot be sold overnight; and time was pressing.

"He had seen Sarah several times secretly; and each time she had
appeared to him more mournful and dejected. She could bring him nothing
but most distressing news. Mrs. Brian spoke of giving her in marriage to
a friend of hers. M. Elgin proposed to take her abroad. And, with such
troubles filling his head, the poor cashier had to attend to his
daily duties, and from morning till night receive tens and hundreds of
thousands; and never yet, I swear it, the thought occurred to him of
taking a small fraction of these treasures.

"He had determined to sell all his collections as a whole, at any price
he could get, when one day, a few moments before the office closed, a
lady appeared, whose ample dress concealed her figure, while a thick
veil completely shrouded her features.

"This lady raised her veil. It was she. It was Sarah Brandon.

"Malgat begged her to enter. He was overcome. What new misfortune had
happened to induce her to take such a step? She told him in a few words.

"Sir Thorn had found out their secret meetings: he had told her to be
ready to start for Philadelphia the next morning.

"The crisis had come. They must choose now between two things, - either
to flee that very day, or be separated forever.

"Ah! never had Sarah been so beautiful as at this moment, when she
seemed to be maddened by grief; never had her whole personal beauty
exhaled such powerful, such irresistible charms. Her breath went and
came, causing her almost to sob at every respiration; and big tears,
like scattered beads from a chaplet of pearls, rolled down her pale
cheeks.

"Malgat stood a moment before her, stunned by the blow; and the
imminence of the danger extorted from him a confession of the reasons
that had made him hesitate so long. He told her, cruelly humiliated by
the avowal, that he had no money.

"But she rose when she heard it, as if she had been stung by an insult,
and repeated with crushing irony, -

"'No money? No money?'

"And when Malgat, more heartily ashamed of his poverty than he could
have been of a crime, blushed to the roots of his hair, she pointed at
the immense safe, which overflowed with gold and bank-notes, and said, -

"'And what is all that?'

"Malgat jumped up, and stood before the safe, his arms far outstretched,
as if to defend it, and said in an accent of ineffable terror, -

"'What are you thinking of? And my honor?'

"This was to be his last effort to preserve his honor. Sarah looked him
straight in the face, and said slowly, -

"'And my honor! My honor is nothing to you? Do I not give myself? Do you
mean to drive a bargain?'

"Great God! She said this with an accent and with a look which would
have tempted an angel. Malgat fell helpless into a chair.

"Then she came close up to him, and, casting upon him those burning
glances which blazed with superhuman audacity, she sighed, -

"'If you loved me really! Ah, if you really loved me!'

"And she bent over him, tremulous with passion, watching his features so
closely, that their lips nearly touched.

"'If you loved me as I love you,' she whispered again.

"It was all over; Malgat was lost. He drew Sarah towards him, and said,
kissing her, -

"'Very well then. Yes!'

"She immediately disengaged herself, and with eager hands seized one
parcel of bank-notes after another, pushing them into a little morocco
bag which she held in her hand. And, when the bag was full, she said, -

"'Now we are safe. To-night at ten o'clock, at the gate of the court-
yard, with a carriage. To-morrow, at daybreak, we shall be out of
France, and free. Now we are bound to each other forever, - and I love
you!'

"And she went away. And he let her go away."

The old gentleman had become ghastly white, his few hairs seemed to
stand on end, and large drops of perspiration inundated his face as he
swallowed at a gulp a cup of tea, and then went on, laughing bitterly, -

"You suppose, no doubt, that, _when_ Sarah had left him, Malgat came to
himself? By no means. It seemed as if, with that kiss, with which she
had paid him for his crime, the infamous creature had inspired him with
the same genius for evil that was in her.

"Far from repenting, he rejoiced at what had been done; and when he
learned, that, on the following day, the board of directors were to meet
to examine the books, he laughed at the faces they would make; for
I told you he was mad. With all the coolness of a hardened thief, he
calculated the total amount of what had been abstracted: it was four
hundred thousand francs. Immediately, in order to conceal the true state
of things, he took his books, and, with almost diabolic skill, altered
the figures, and changed the entries, so as to make it appear that the
defalcation was of long date, and that various sums had been abstracted
for several months. When he had finished his fearful task, he wrote to
the board a hypocritical letter, in which he stated that he had robbed
the safe in order to pay his differences on 'Change, and that now, when
he could no longer conceal his crime, he was going to commit suicide.
When this was done, he left his office, as if nothing had happened.

"The proof that he acted under the incomprehensible influence of a kind
of hallucination is this, that he felt neither remorse nor fear. As he
was resolved not to return to his house, nor to encumber himself with
luggage, he dined at a restaurant, spent a few minutes at a theatre, and
then posted his letter to the board of directors, so that it might reach
them early in the morning.

"At ten o'clock he knocked at the gate of the house in Circus Street. A
servant came and opened, saying in a mysterious manner, -

"'Please go up. The young lady is waiting.'

"A terrible presentiment seized him at that moment, and chilled him to
the marrow in his bones. In the parlor Sarah was sitting on a sofa, and
Maxime de Brevan by her side. They were laughing so loud, that he heard
them in the anteroom. When Malgat entered, she raised her head with a
dissatisfied air, and said rudely, -

"'Ah! It is you. What do you want now?'

"Surely, such a reception ought to have disabused the unfortunate man.
But no! When he began to stammer some explanations, she interrupted him,
saying, -

"'Let us speak frankly. You come to run away with me, don't you? Well,
that is simply nonsense. Look at yourself, my good friend, and tell me
if a girl such as I am can be in love with a man like you. As to that
small loan, it does not pay me, I assure you, by half, for the sublime
little comedy which I have had to play. Believe me, at all events, when
I tell you that I have taken all my precautions so as not to be troubled
by anything you may say or do. And now, sir, I wish you good-evening;
or must I go?'

"Ah! she might have spoken a long time yet, and Malgat would not have
thought of interrupting her. The fearful truth broke all of a sudden
upon him; and he felt as if the whole world were going to pieces.
He understood the enormity of the crime; he discerned the fatal
consequences, and knew he was ruined. A thousand voices arose from his
conscience, telling him, 'You are a thief! You are a forger! You are
dishonored!'

"But, when he saw Sarah Brandon get up to leave the room, he was seized
with an attack of furious rage, and threw himself upon her, crying, -

"'Yes, I am lost; but you shall die, Sarah Brandon!'

"Poor fool! who did not know that these wretches had, of course,
foreseen his wrath, and prepared for the emergency. Supple, like one of
those lost children of the gutter among whom she had lived once upon a
time, Sarah Brandon escaped from Malgat's grasp, and by a clever trick
threw him upon an arm-chair. Before he could rise again, he was held
fast by Maxime de Brevan, and by M. Elgin, who had heard the noise, and
rushed in from the adjoining room.

"The poor man did not attempt to resist. Why should he? Within him,
moreover, a faint hope began to rise. It seemed to him impossible that
such a monstrous wrong could be carried out, and that he would have only
to proclaim the wickedness of these wretches to have them in his power.

"'Let me go!' he said. 'I must go!'

"But they did not allow him to go as yet. They guessed what was going on
in his mind. Sir Thorn asked him coolly, -

"'Where do you think of going? Do you mean to denounce us? Have a care!
You would only sacrifice yourself, without doing us any harm. If you
think you can use Sarah's letter, in which she appoints a meeting, as a
weapon against us, you are mistaken. She did not write that letter; and,
moreover, she can prove an alibi. You see we have prepared everything
for this business during the last three months; and nothing has been
left to chance. Do not forget that I have commissioned you twenty times
to buy or sell for me on 'Change, and that it was always done in your
name, at my request. How can you say you did not speculate on 'Change?'

"The poor cashier's heart sank within him. Had he not himself, for
fear lest a suspicion should fall upon Sarah Brandon, told the board
of directors in his letter that he had been tempted by unlucky
speculations? Had he not altered the entries in the books in order to
prove this assertion? Would they believe him if he were to tell the
truth? Whom could he ever hope to persuade that what was probable was
false, and that the improbable was true? Sir Thorn continued with his
horrid sneers, -

"'Have you forgotten the letters which you wrote me for the purpose of
borrowing money from me, and in which you confess your defalcations?
Here they are. You can read them.'



Online LibraryÉmile GaboriauThe Clique of Gold → online text (page 37 of 39)